Tuesday 20 May 2014

The Boy About Motown

Motown is now a ghost town. It curled up and died along with my youth a long time ago when the days I could dance without feeling discomfited came to an end.

Not only was it the sound of my dancing youth, it was also, as Gary Kemp once succinctly put it, the sound of my soul. When the Four Tops descended from heaven in Tottenham Royal or Streatham Locarno or The Lyceum, well sugar pie honey bunch, I couldn’t help myself. I’d steam onto the dance floor fuelled by an ocean of Double Diamond – it really did work wonders – and start to groove in the hope of getting entangled in a web of sticky-sweet stares spun by creamy girls.

When they slowed things down, you were on cloud nine in dream time with your arms around a shapely stranger hoping upon hope she’d let you in… ‘I'm gonna use every trick in the book, I'll try my best to get you hooked. Oh baby…’

And while each slice of three minute Motown vinyl caressed the gleaming threads of my three piece mohair suit, everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

When the dancehalls closed for the night and the only sound was traffic and the second hand emotions of your mates as you walked home, your soul would still be dancing to that Detroit beat. Motown, mohair, magic.

The lyrics were as infectious as the melodies. Through a funky, speeded-up osmosis (with the emphasis on speed – the pills gave you room to move on the dance floor), they infiltrated your mind. I knew the words to I Heard It Through The Grapevine after just two hearings. Baby Love only required one spin on the turntable and I remembered all its cutie pie sentiments, word for word.

We danced to Motown, snogged to Motown, ate, drove, shagged and fell asleep to Motown. Above all we listened to Motown, and heard, really heard, every glorious, impassioned moment.

The melody lingers on in a new exhibition that’s just opened at the fabulous Proud Gallery in Camden – a unique photographic homage that chronicles the rise of Tamla Motown with rare and unseen photographs of the visit to these shores of artists in 1964 and in 1965 when they played their first British concert tour and when Stevie Wonder had a Little prefix.

It charts the UK history of the label throughout the 60s and 70s, the classic years, the Berry Gordy, Holland-Dozier Holland, Norman Whitfield years when artists like Smokey Robinson, Temptations, Martha Reeves, The Supremes and The Jacksons were never out of the UK charts. All the photos on display were taken by EMI photographers at the time.

These were the sweet days, when songs rolled off the production line like the cars once did in Detroit. When Stevie Wonder ditched his cherie amour for dreadlocks and the sublime sophistication of ‘Sunshine Of My Life’ and the Isley Brothers left the label to become hippies.

After Motown finally moved lock, stock and smokin’ barrel from Detroit to Los Angeles, the hot sun slowly dried out that fecund, motor city magic and things were never the same again, Lionel Richie or no Lionel Richie.

The ‘end’ wall of the exhibition is reserved for perhaps the brightest Motown star of them all. Just think of that gorgeous, searching sax intro leading you to the sweetest vocals this side of heaven… ‘Mother mother, there’s too many of you crying…’

Marvin Gaye was always the grown-up in the Motown stable, like a sexier, despairing Smokey Robinson – mad, bad and dangerous to know, the voice of an angel with a dark secret. The photos were taken in London during visits in 1980 and ’81 just a few years before he was shot dead by his father. It’s a fitting finale.

The Gallery did us Proud at the exhibition preview when Martha Reeves and The Vandellas hit the stage for a blistering set that included their three big hits, ‘Heatwave’, ‘Jimmy Mack’ and, of course, ‘Dancing In The Street’ which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. Scary.

Martha, at 72, ain’t no spring chicken but fuck me, she could’ve danced all night in that tight gold dress that certainly accentuated her positives, and still have begged for more. Rousing springs to mind, not just the performance but for the memories she brought back to life. It felt like this was the only place you could possibly want to be at that moment and that doesn’t happen very often.

When I got home, I dug out my old copy of Motown Chartbusters Volume 3, the one with the shiny silver cover released in November 1969. How’s this for a track listing:

1. I Heard It Through The Grapevine - Marvin Gaye

2. I'm Gonna Make You Love Me - Diana Ross & The Supremes And The Temptations

3. My Cherie Amour - Stevie Wonder

4. This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You) - The Isley Brothers

5. I'll Pick A Rose For My Rose - Marv Johnson

6. No Matter What Sign You Are - Diana Ross & The Supremes

7. I'm in a Different World - The Four Tops

8. Dancing In The Street - Martha Reeves & The Vandellas

9. For Once In My Life - Stevie Wonder

10. You're All I Need To Get By - Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

11. Get Ready - The Temptations

12. Stop Her On The Sight (S.O.S) - Edwin Starr

13. Love Child - Diana Ross & The Supremes

14. Behind a Painted Smile - The Isley Brothers

Hardly a dud amongst them. Yet there was only one song in that smorgasbord of classics that got to No. 1 in the UK. Any idea? Have to hurry you…’S’right, ‘Grapevine’.

‘Listening to Marvin all night long
This is the sound of my soul…’

Proud Galleries, in collaboration with EMI, Bravado and Universal Music, present Classic Motown – The Invasion Begins
The exhibition runs from 14th May – 13th July 2014, Monday to Sunday: 11am – 5pm. Free entry.
Address: The Horse Hospital, Stables Market, Chalk Farm Road. London NW1 8AH

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



Sunday 11 May 2014

April 1979

Somewhere Over The Rainbow (Part 2)

As I walk home from the Rainbow that night it suddenly dawns on me that this could be my biggest break – switching from observer to controller. A pop promoter for the biggest band in the world. Power, dosh, fame. Everything I’d always wanted, well, since meeting Dina. This was my destiny and I was going to share it with someone who beat the shit out of me when I was five.

I ring Alan Edwards the next morning to try to arrange the meeting. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein would be arriving in London in a few weeks and he’d see what he could do. He sounds sceptical but eventually manages to set up a meeting at their hotel, the Montcalm in the West End. Alan always comes through: it’s the secret of his success.

It’s an unusually warm Sunday morning in April. The meeting is arranged for noon and Frank picks me up in a smart S-reg something.

This definitely feels right. I lean back in the leather seat and decide I’ve finally arrived.

Frank and I breeze into the foyer and glide up to the reception desk.

‘Room 221,’ I say, in a voice brimming with such confidence it even surprises me.

The clerk dials the room. ‘They’ll ring back in a few minutes,’ she says, as she replaces the receiver.

We turn to find a seat and bump into Frank Infante from the band.

‘Hi, Frank,’ I say, like he’s my long-lost brother.

He hesitates. ‘Oh, yeah, hi.’ I’m used to the pretty vacant look from new-wave bands. A flicker of recognition crosses his eyes. ‘Right, yeah. The other guys are in there having breakfast,’ he says, indicating the dining room.

‘Great, I’ll catch you after I’ve seen Debbie and Chris,’ I say, still confident, still surprised.

‘Okay.’ He shuffles off.

The phone on the desk rings. ‘You can go up now,’ says the clerk.

Frank is wearing a beige suit and brown tie. He looks the part. I’m in a jacket and jeans. I think we make a cool pair, like maybe Sinatra and Martin or Starsky and Hutch.

Chris Stein opens the door. He looks like he’s been up all night.

‘Come through. Debbie will be right in.’

He leads us into an impressive living room and Frank and I sit down on the couch. Debbie walks in. She’s wearing a plain white bathrobe and no makeup. She’s the biggest pop star in Britain and walks in loveliness like the night across pubescent souls starved of glamour in the aftermath of punk.

But at noon on that particular Sunday, she looks like death warmed-up.

‘So what’s this all about?’ Chris asks.

Frank hits the gas. ‘I want Blondie to top the bill at a massive one-day pop extravaganza I’m promoting at Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea Football Club. Here’s the deal. We’ll fly the band over on Concorde . . .’ I suddenly feel very cool when he says, ‘We’ll’. Chris and Debbie seem to like the supersonic words he’s speaking. They start to listen more intently. This is going well.

‘Then we’ll---’

The phone rings.

‘Excuse me just a moment,’ says Chris.

Frank starts to make small-talk with Debbie as Chris picks up the phone.

‘He’s the guy who did what?’ We all turn and look at Chris. He stares at me wide-eyed. After a few moments without saying another word he hangs up.

‘That was Clem.’ He’s talking only to me. ‘He says you’re the guy who interviewed them in New York a few months back. They didn’t like what you wrote about them, man. I haven’t read it but I know they were pretty pissed. They’re sending a couple of guys up to throw you out.’

He turns to Debbie. ‘Shit, I don’t know how these guys were allowed up here in the first place. Who arranged this?'

This Montcalm moment is a doozie. Why me?

‘Er, I’m sorry about this, Frank,’ I say, still in a state of apoplexy and frantically trying to remember what I’d actually written that had caused such consternation.

‘Don’t worry.’ He’s taking it nobly.

There’s a loud knock at the door.

I fear the worst. Frank and I had fought each other as kids − now we’re united against a common foe: Blondie bouncers.

Chris opens the door. There’s an exchange of words in the hallway.

He comes back into the room and says the guys outside want a word with me.

I go out. Frank, gratifyingly, watches my back.

A big guy in a black jacket, with the word `Security’ emblazoned across the back in large letters the colour of blood, is waiting. His colleague, similarly attired, stands a few feet away.

‘Is that guy you’re with Frank Warren?’ asks the first guy like it was Mick Jagger or Dustin Hoffman. Shit, Frank from my flats was a media celebrity. The boxing shows at the Rainbow were proving to be his stepping stones to fame. He really has caught the public’s imagination

I try to say, ‘Yes,’ like Al Pacino, but it comes out sounding more like John Inman.

‘I thought so,’ says the guy. ‘Look, we’ve just been asked by the band to throw you out but I don’t want any trouble with you or Mr Warren. I’ve seen you around at concerts and I know
you’re kosher. I don’t know what it was you wrote about those guys but they’re pretty fucked-off. I’ll leave it up to you but I think, honestly, it would be better if you left.’

He’s a straight-up guy and he’s marking my card. And then the two of them turn around and walk away, though I think they were tempted to ask for Frank’s autograph.

At that moment I realise I’d never be able to pin Frank’s arms to the ground ever again. He’s a well-respected man with more influence than I could ever have imagined. I, on the other hand, am a schmuck who still doesn’t know what I’d written that had got them all so pissed.

‘When we sort this shit out I’ll get in touch,’ says Chris. Frank and I both know we’d never set eyes on him again. Or each other come to that.

‘What the hell did you write?’ Frank asks, as we walk through the foyer and out into the spring sunshine. We both laugh about it on the way home but we know we’re never going make it as Barnum and Bailey. This was my last tango in Paris. From now on I have to set my sights lower.

Much lower.

(What the hell I wrote can be found on an earlier blog. Really sorry about that Frank. What can I say? I was a klutz with a vindictive streak. I actually did meet up with Frank over twenty years later. I heard that his mother had passed away. She was an absolute gem, always a smile on her face, always a kind word on her lips. I felt I had to write a letter of condolence to Frank and he replied with a wonderful handwritten letter awash with memories.

We met for lunch, two Finsbury boys with a boxful of chat, and he invited me and my sons Paul and Andrew, who were 16 at the time, to see Herbie Hide at the London Arena. He was fighting some relative unknown called Vitali Klitschko. My boys were well impressed when we were ushered into the up front and personal ringside seats and even more impressed by the Goliath proportions of the Ukrainian. The guy was a mountain and Herbie went down in the second round. It was a wonder he lasted that long.

After the show, I introduced the boys to Frank who chatted to them for a while.

‘I tell you something,’ he said to them as a parting shot, ‘your dad and I had better fights than that one tonight when we were kids…’

When I sent Frank this article, he invited me over the Arsenal as a guest in his box for the last home game of the season against West Bromwich Albion last Sunday. We reminisced about the old days and I asked him if the piece I wrote about him was okay to use. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It’s fine, except for one thing. It wasn’t Monopoly I tipped up. It was Buccaneer…’ What a true gent).

Next: Rush in Newcastle
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 10 May 2014

April 1979

Somewhere Over The Rainbow (Part 1)

My first, vivid, memory of Frank Warren – or Frankie, as he was known back in the day − was getting a right-hander from him outside my flat when we were both five years old. It was my first fight.

It felt more comfortable getting punched close to my front door: I figured if the fight was going against me my dad would come out and break it up and, if not, he’d let it roll for a while before stepping in. He came out double quick that day. I’d bloodied Frank’s nose but he kicked the shit out of me. My mum gave him a banana and we shook hands, but from then on we were always on opposite sides. He ran with the enemy.

I lived on the ground floor of Bevin Court near King’s Cross and he lived up in the sky on the seventh. He had a lovely mum but he was always such a little bastard – forgive me, Frank. He’d throw other kids’ toys down the rubbish chute, tip up and ruin games of Monopoly that we often played in the stairwells of the flats, and generally cause havoc. He always seemed to be itching for a fight.

He was of slight build, a little below average in those below-average days, but he could punch well above his weight. He was kinda dangerous and I kinda liked that. I had one more fight with Frank. It was in the street that led down to the flats. I guess we were about nine. He’d hardly grown out of his five-year-old shell but I was rapidly turning into a tall, tubby kid. I towered over him and it was a complete mismatch. I knew it but Frank didn’t, and he steamed in like a raging bull and really hurt me. After a fierce struggle, my blubber managed to pin him to the ground and I placed both my knees on his outstretched arms.

We stayed like that for seconds, minutes, who knows? My locker no longer contains such secrets. The older boys who had instigated the fight got bored and started wandering off. It must’ve been hurting Frank because my knees were really aching. I think we both wanted to cry but our hearts wouldn’t let us. It was the way we were. And then I started to feel deeply ashamed. I didn’t want to hurt this person, I grew up with him for fucksake. What was the point of this?
Whack! ‘You bully. Get off him.’

An old woman hit me with her umbrella and pushed me over. ‘You’re twice as big as him, you bully,’ and she whacked me again. I got up quick and ran as fast as my tubby body

would let me. I knew what Frank was capable of; I knew what all of us on that estate were capable of and, sure enough, a brick came heading my way. Luckily, his arms must’ve still been numb because I wasn’t caught by the shrapnel as it landed and for a big, fat kid that was a result.

‘You bully.’ I’ve been called a lot of things in my life but those words will always hurt the most. ‘You bully.’ Me?

That was the last ‘straightener’ I ever had. I didn’t like the look of someone’s face contorted with a pain that I was inflicting, someone that I actually, perversely, liked. I also hated getting hurt. But I hated most being goaded by older boys who wanted to see a fight. We were a pair of prize suckers. Neither of us fell for that again.

We were all beasts in baseball boots, but some of us were cleverer than others. Frank passed his eleven-plus – hardly anyone from our area did that − much to the surprise of one particular parent who actually stopped me in the street and said, ‘Can you believe it?’

I could.

By then Frank’s family had moved to another estate, Priory Green, but he was still a frequent visitor to our shores, organising football matches between neighbouring estates on concrete playgrounds with walls for goals. He didn’t play, he organised. He made it happen. When you can do that at ten, the eleven-plus is a stroll in the park.

It was patently clear that the guy had brains. He shed the ‘ie’ from the end of his name, ducked and dived like we all did and became very wise very quickly, like some of us did. I’d see Frank around and we’d chat and it was easy, comfortable. He was flash, but in that good, unintentional way. Natural flash. Organic flash. And every time I bumped into him he’d grown appreciably taller, nicer, genuinely interested in what I was doing. As his reputation grew, I felt a sense of pride that a bloke from my flats could achieve worldwide fame doing something that really did come naturally.

Our paths cross on several occasions in 1979, one of which involves probably the most embarrassing moment of my life …

Frank is starting to make a name for himself as an unlicensed boxing promoter of mainly overweight fighters who beat up each other at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park. It’s popular entertainment and the media love slagging it off

I bump into him in Chapel Market and he hands me a pair of tickets for one of the shows. I take Tim (Lott) and I think he’s surprised at the sheer number of spivs in suits that pack out the venue. The fights are more like boxing matches than I’d thought they’d be. Gloves, a ring, rounds, referee, shit, it’s boxing. There are a few decent contests but no one suffers any really bad injuries. It’s boxing, it’s local, it’s a good night out.

When I meet Frank after the show, he’s backstage sitting at a desk behind a mountain of cash because it’s tickets in advance or at the door and loads of people leave it until the last minute to go. It’s all legit and includes the fighters’ purses, security payments and other staff and receipts are issued. He’s now way out of my league. He’s about to embark on his first trip to the States and I try to impress him with a few feeble stories about my travels.

‘Do you know Blondie?’ he suddenly asks.

I’m delighted. Why, only a few weeks ago I’d spent the night on the town in Manhattan with Blondie, snorting and smoking and scheming. ‘Yeah, sure,’ I reply, and proceed to relate my chemical soirĂ©e − naturally leaving out the bit about the chemicals. I figure Frank wouldn’t appreciate that, him being a teetotaller an' all.

‘Look, I’ll be honest,’ he says after listening attentively. ‘I’ve got first refusal on Stamford Bridge for a one-day rock concert this summer and I fancy Blondie to headline. Do you reckon you could set up a meet?’

Blondie are the biggest band in town. Their single ‘Heart of Glass’, released in January, has sold more than they could ever imagine. The band’s PR is none other than Alan Edwards.

‘No sweat, Frankie.’ I instantly regret the ‘ie’ but he doesn’t seem to mind. I tell him I used to be their PR and that they know me really well.

‘Well, if this comes off we’ll all do well. By the way, do you know the Stranglers too?’

Do I know the Stranglers?

‘Well,’ Frank continues, ‘that Jean-Jacques Burnel would be a fantastic attraction if he stepped into the ring against, say, Lennie McLean. He’s got a bit of a reputation of being shit hot at karate, hasn’t he? It would be perfect.’

It’s true. Jean must have every Dan in the book, including Desperate. He was as hard as nails yet supremely intelligent – a beguiling combination.

A few weeks later I’m sitting having lunch in a burger bar in Hoxton with Frank, ex-middleweight champion of the world Vic Andretti and, yes, Jean Jacques. I originally introduced Frank to Jean at a gig to promote Jean’s debut solo album
Euroman Cometh and I’d driven JJ to the Ringside bar in Hoxton, which is owned by Vic. The unlicensed boxing shows at the Rainbow were making Frank rich and famous. He was becoming a celebrity and I loved it. Of course, JJ going one on one with Lennie McClean was never going to happen, but it’s good to talk and the idea did receive some media interest.
Besides, there are bigger fish to fry …

Next: Blondie bombshell

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



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