January to June 2013.
Before I - and the year - had properly woken I found myself in a Chancery Lane coffee house with Lee and Kev, leader and guitarist respectively of The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra, there to meet Dave Robinson - founder of Stiff Records - and proceed to the offices of Premier Talent to plan the future of the band. As often happens, many of the schemes hatched that morning came to nothing as schemes often do, being moulded by circumstances into something completely different but just as good. That done and fired by new year ambition and enthusiasm I enrolled at the CityLit on a Portraits Course and spent the week learning some new material for a birthday party I was to do at Browns Hotel, just off Piccadilly on the 11th January. At Brown's after setting up the piano I took a cigarette break outside and found myself standing next to a respectable old gent who - it turned out - was one of the guests. We started chatting and, full of new year optimism I introduced myself as the pianist for the night. 'Hope you enjoy it', I said and he regarded me balefully through a cloud of smoke and replied:
'I suppose so - probably not.'
It is sometimes daunting to play to such a lack of enthusiasm but I was pleased when he later approached me and whispered, 'Good whore house music. Is that all you play?' and left me wickedly chuckling to himself as he weaved his way back to his seat. I took a stroll down Dover Street on my break and a friday reveller outside a pub down the road said, 'Hey it's Bruno Mars!' indicating me. I gave him a knowing smile and said 'Close' then rang Melody on my mobile and said 'Who's Bruno Mars?' This caused a lot of unaccountable mirth on her part. I later found out who Bruno Mars was . . . no - I am not a 27 year old dreamboat entertainer from Honolulu . . . not even close!
I continued work with Mark Bedford on the design of my forthcoming album, Midnight in Havana, through February. On the way back from his office in Brick Lane I was taking in the sights of the East End when I stumbled on Wilton's Music Hall in Shadwell. What a place! The only remaining Music Hall in the world. Apparently both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton played there. I sat in the wonderful Mahogany Bar and sketched it. As I did so a square yard of ceiling fell in behind the bar filling the room with dust and narrowly missing the barmaid. 'Nothing to do with me' I said, 'I'm just drawing it.' It's a strange thing to dwell on: that piece of ceiling was 150 years old (or so) and it chose that particular moment - just the moment I happened to be there actually sketching that bit of the room - to fall in. Amazing really! I left pondering the vagaries of life, with a half formed ambition to shoot a video for the album there; the crumbling, ornate and neglected nature of the place reminded me of Havana.
On the 22nd February Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse rang asking me if I would like to contribute to the new series of 'Down The Line' for Radio 4. Prompted to talk about wildlife and 'what it's for' I told of my experience with wasps (pretty bad) and wondered what they were for apart from spitefully attacking innocent people like myself for no reason at all. This seemed to go down well but apropos of nothing I also wondered why Popes were so old. Entertaining though these ruminations were they were off topic and now lie in a vault of useless rubbish from the proverbial cutting room floor at Broadcasting House.
I was sorry to learn of the death of Jim Godbolt, aged 90, who was a jazz agent in the forties and fifties and author of 'A History of Jazz in Britain' which I worked on when I was at Quartet Books in the Eighties. Here was a man who sensed conspiracy in the unlikeliest places. For instance in a pub on Goodge Street he absented himself to go to the toilet. A guy at the bar approached me and asked me for a light. Jim had reemerged and noticed him leaving me to go back to the bar. Jim sat down and whispered 'What did he want?' I told him he wanted a light and Jim relaxed visibly: 'That's alright then.' as if I had been planning some dastardly scheme at his expense. On a book promotional tour to Norwich his train broke down in sight of the City. Panicked that he would miss his radio interview he left the train and tried to get to Norwich across the fields turning up at BBC Norwich with mud up to his knees as the fields had been waterlogged. The joy of Jim was that his gloomy predictions about life generally came true in spectacular fashion. He loved his Jazz and his Cricket. A good innings then and I can heartily recommend his autobiography "All This and Many A Dog" about his life post jazz agent as an electricity meter reader - a mordant, comic masterpiece.
To earn a little money I researched toothpaste in March. We had to sample fifteen toothpastes in as many days and I turned up as requested at a fresh and modern office on Tottenham Court Road. My favourite toothpaste was liked by none of the other participants - they all agreed that it was far too 'hot'. I liked that aspect and said that the strength of the taste made you feel that you'd really experienced something effective to which my neighbour joked 'What - like torture?' I replied without thinking:
'Well it's that fine line between torture and pleasure' and the room went very silent. Goodness knows what the observers behind the two way mirror thought.
April got increasingly busy. On learning that one of the episodes of 'Down the Line' would concern fracking I wrote a song in collaboration with Jim Reilly about it in about ten minutes. I rang as a busker from Morecambe called 'Spud' but on trying to perform the song on the accordion I couldn't find the right buttons. After the recording I asked Charlie if it had been funny and he replied 'Not in the way you might think'. Sure enough they utilised the silence whilst I struggled with the accordion to have 'Gary Bellamy' (the fictional DJ) repeat the word 'Spud? . . . Spud?' whilst the accordion made occasional wheezing sounds in the background. Such is the way with classic comedy. It's not always as planned - any more than life is really.
On Sunday 21st April we shot a video with Bitty McClean for The Ska Orchestra's first single 'Fu Manchu'. On May 3rd we appeared on BBC Radio London with Robert Elms to perform a kind of folk version of 'Napoleon Solo' mainly because most of the orchestra were unavailable at such short notice. However this went well.
Then, on the May Bank Holiday, I got up at the crack of dawn to shoot the first of the videos for 'Havana' which entailed me applying make up as a Harlequin Clown and going down to a near deserted central London to get shots of me in character wondering where everyone was. This was directed by Melody and shot by her friend Kat Etchart. Then we shot me - still in make-up - as the clown heading to work in the rush hour. We decided a few days later during the editing process, that we needed two or three shots of landmarks of London devoid of people. I dutifully got up on the following Sunday at five in the morning only to find 18,000 women marching in one endless procession promoting breast cancer awareness. Finding deserted landmarks was a challenge as this endless snake of ladies in pink caps seemed to wend its way through every conceivable landmark. Managed to get eight seconds of Leicester Square and four of Cambridge Circus. Slightly irritating at the time but I can now say - with equanimity - please remember: Be Aware - Breast Cancer Kills!
Later that day I went to see Ken Loach's first feature film, 'Poor Cow' starring Terrence Stamp (a great sixties period piece now) at the BFI. As I left I noticed crowds outside the Festival Hall; it turned out that the BAFTA awards were being held there. I watched celebrities I didn't recognise turn up in their finery for a few minutes before wandering off in the direction of Waterloo station. On turning a corner I walked straight into a casually dressed Terrence Stamp and nearly exclaimed 'I've just seen 'Poor Cow!' Happily he was busy thanking someone else for their compliments so I walked on by, dignity intact.
I had rung Wilton's offering £100.00 for their building fund and asking if I could shoot a video at a quiet time for them. To my surprise they consented; we had two hours between 10 and Midday on the morning of Wednesday 15th May. Jeff Baynes, the director had a shoot later with Jeff Beck about Jimi Hendrix so he thought he would make a day of it and brought three cameras, crew, tracks for tracking shots, lights - the whole works, whilst Ian McPherson took charge of sound. After setting up we shot the whole thing in little more than an hour and twenty minutes getting a live take into the bargain. Then I treated everyone to lunch as a gesture towards payment, all of us delighted at how easily the whole thing seemed to come together. I am forever grateful to all involved - the film will be released to coincide with the album release.
Then The LTSO did the first of a clutch of gigs to promote the single 'Fu Manchu - featuring Bitty McClean' and the album 'The Benevolence of Sister Mary Ignatius'. The first was 'Under The Bridge' at Chelsea FC. The day before, they had won the Europa Cup so after the gig they re-opened the club to celebrate. When I left I had to get past a lot of extremely young girls with too much make up, tottering on heels that were too high, and - due to the shortness of their skirts - legs that seemed far too long. How to bag a millionaire footballer in three lessons.
We were booked to play 'Later With Jools Holland' on the 21st May but had a gig in Bristol the night before preceded by a radio appearance in the afternoon in which we sang 'Bangarang' a Capella because the BBC couldn't find an electrician to check my piano. I sang the piano part; T Bone Bob the Bass and Lee and Darren sang shaking various bits of percussion. Laura Rawlings, the girl interviewing us looked at us open mouthed and speechless. I think it might have been a first for her. After an excellent gig we piled into various cars to travel across the country to Maidstone where "Jools' is now filmed since the closure of BBC Television Centre in Shepherds Bush. I went down with Seamus Beaghen, my partner on organ. Narrowly avoiding a reindeer on the motorway, we were told at about 2.30 in the morning by the Satnav that we had arrived at our destination. We looked around to see a solitary house (which definitely wasn't a Premier Inn), a dark looking field and a bush. It took another hour or so to find the hotel, unload the gear and get our rooms. To bed at roughly four in the morning and the call for the BBC was for eight o clock. Bloody Hell! (I think most of the band had that kind of reaction - it had been a bit of a haul) Woken by the bugler from the Seventh Cavalry c. 1948 (Seamus's mobile alarm), spent the morning sound checking and, before and after lunch, rehearsing for cameras and lights whilst re-arranging 'Bangarang' to fit the time slot the show required. We shared the show with The Stereophonics (pedestrian), Cerys Mathews (likeable), John Grant (excellent), Melt Yourself Down (highly entertaining), Low (brilliant) and Yasmine Hamden (excellent). As the lead singer of 'Melt Yourself Down' threw himself about during their performance I caught Lee looking at him like a proud father no doubt thinking 'I used to be bonkers like that'. Still is if you ask me; just not as lithe (Mee-ow!). Jools himself seemed to rely heavily on reading announcements from a board held by the floor manager. I don't know . . . there didn't seem to be that much of a script ("The Stereophonics!) but it's amazing what live television does to you I suppose. The show went very well. The atmosphere there electric. Fantastic thing to do and we all signed their star studded 'Jools Guest Book' before we left at midnight. I stayed at a B&B run by an elderly couple who had recorded the show for me: "We saw you . . . didn't think much of that first band though" (The Stereophonics) After a fantastic nights sleep surrounded by china ornaments of ladies with parasols I was treated to a lovely breakfast and then walked down to the River Medway for a lovely walk back to Maidstone, sketching the boats on the way, and got a train back to London. A great way to wind down after the madness of the previous 48 hours.
The tour continued. Manchester on the 24th May at Band on The Wall after which I was woken in my hotel room by Steve Broughton getting to bed after a few drinks. I found myself analysing his snoring: an outboard motor chugging out on a moonlit lake followed by the sound of a very enthusiastic Latte frother. Roo turned up (he'd been clubbing with old friends and couldn't find his room) so the outboard motor and latte frother were soon joined by some kind of Typhoon coming from the direction of the sofa. Marvellous.
Then the train across the Pennines to Newcastle - a beautiful city! After the gig I was hugged by a lovely lady who said 'Come here, Louis. You're my little lamb chop'. I think this was a compliment. Lee - for some reason - had booked us into a Duncan Ballantyne (he of 'Dragons Den' fame) health farm after the gig in - well - Durham. Managed to get a lift and in the morning could enjoy a swim and spa before returning to Newcastle for the train back to London on which I was upgraded to first class for some reason. The first time British Rail have ever given me a cup of tea that tasted anything like delicious.
The climax of this activity was the album launch: two shows in one night at The Dublin Castle in Camden. Twelve of us cramped onto a tiny stage in this historic venue. I don't think we have ever played better - loose but tight; just the way any band should be. Dave Robinson darting round with lists of guests looking pleased as punch. If you were there thank you - it takes two to tango (as they say) and the audiences were spectacular.
On Saturday 1st June, Crunch (or The Nutty Boys) did a one off gig at The Premises, the rehearsal room in Hackney where the first rehearsal for the Ska Orchestra took place. In this I had to play organ and piano (a la Rick Wakeman - on a smaller scale), Tad on Bass, Kev on guitar, Spider on Drums and Lee on vocals and sax. After just one rehearsal in the afternoon this proved to be an unexpected delight. As payment they have offered some recording time so we will see what we can do with that.
I conclude this round up with the thrilling news that LTSO entered the charts! The album entered at number 78 (number 20 in the Indie Charts) so looking back to where this account started - that little coffee bar in Chancery Lane on January 4th - seems like peering across a vast swathe of time and experiences.
As life should be in fact...