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Biography (part 12)

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JAN 2014 TO JUNE 2014

I started the New Year as I hoped to go on - playing music.
On the 14th January my band played a live session on The Robert Elms show, BBC Radio London. Though the fear of performance on live radio (in this case roughly 50,000 listeners) has lessened with the years I still find these events an ordeal. But as Jack Lemmon, the actor, said 'the only fear to overcome is fear itself - succumb to that and you are finished'. I have found that the anticipation is always worse than the event itself and sure enough the performance and interview went well (though the thought afterwards persists: ‘I have played that better’). All valuable experience nevertheless and it is always exciting going to Broadcasting House; you feel a small part of history.
The following weekend I finished the two paintings I am donating to the Upbeat Music Art in a Box project for our mental health charity, Upbeat. The final list of contributors was as follows: Graham Coxon, Suggs, Charlie Higson, Paul Whitehouse, Robyn Hitchcock, Joanna Lumley, Grace Slick, Bernie Taupin, Jordan Stephens (The Rizzle Kicks), Chris Martin (Coldplay), Leigh Francis (aka Keith Lemon), Sir Ian Botham and Ricky Wilson (The Kaiser Chiefs). As the completed works arrived - all based on the theme of ‘Upbeat’ - it was fascinating to see each artist’s individual take on that. I did a phoned interview with Garry Scurfield of Koast Radio about ‘Midnight in Havana’ and The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra. When he asked listeners to submit any questions they had via Facebook I wondered fleetingly whether there would be any. I had one in the end - from Lee Swandale who I know anyway - and, curious, after the interview I checked Facebook to see how many questions had been submitted. Answer: one! (from Lee Swandale). Is there anybody out there!? Garry seemed to enjoy it anyway. I could tell. After each of my pronouncements and stories he was bellowing the word “Mint!” (Geordie speak for ‘Great’) choking with laughter.
And to move on to real celebrity I had sent an email to Graham Coxon to remind him that the deadline for his painting was upon us. He emailed back: ‘Dear Louis, Aaargh!’ You have to love Graham.
In February I received a four star review from Paul McGuiness of The Record Mirror. He summed up thus: “If he lives to make another record this utterly delightful we should all chip in” I might just act on that some time in the future.
Throughout February I depped for Pete Saunders at a Mayfair bar called ‘The Exchange’. This tipped the scales financially and finally enabled me to come off Housing Benefit. From the transplant it has taken me a year and a half to get back to something like I was . . . only more so! A weird feeling.
My birthday brought a glorious, giant red pepper grinder from my daughter, Melody and we both went to the BFI for lunch followed by the film, ‘Lift To The Scaffold’, made in 1958 - the year of my birth. What the French call a ‘policier’ it is a minor masterpiece with an improvised score by Miles Davies. As we watched I sneaked a look at Melody and her face shone, enraptured, a blissful grin on her face. It is one of the privileges and pleasures of parenthood to introduce our children to the things we love.
My band played The Riverside Barn at Walton on Thames on the 22nd February which seemed to have somehow survived the floods though on our journey there we noticed how remarkably high the river was. This is a beautiful venue - a converted barn in which the sound has an incredible clarity and richness. Paul Shanti was depping for John Eacott on trumpet and brought an interesting new dimension to our sound with his made-to-order slide trumpet; the first time any of us had seen such an instrument. As I took the stage I found three roses left on the piano stool and at one point a lady stood up and declaimed, ‘You’re charismatic and brilliant’. I was dumbstruck for some seconds. Ray Vaughan - a leading ‘Old Codger’ from UEA came and said he had booked a whole table. ‘Oh - who have you brought?’ I asked. ‘Just me,’ he replied ‘you’re getting the money aren’t you?’ Good old Ray!
The following week we did another gig at ‘Aces and Eights’ in Tuffnel Park which also had a wonderful response. I need to find bigger (and more remunerative) gigs for this wonderful band - Simon Charterton (Suitcase drums), Alan McCulloch (Percussion), Gareth Huw Davies (Double bass), Patmo Sheeran (Guitar), Louise Elliott (Tenor Saxophone) and John Eacott (Trumpet and Flugel Horn). They blend beautifully - I love the sound they make.
I played a sparsely attended solo spot in support of the Near Jazz Experience at the Indo Bar in Whitechapel (there was a crucial Arsenal match on TV). I find a small, intimate gathering far more challenging than a crowd and I was unhappy with my performance. However I made up for it playing with the excellent NJE (Mark Bedford, Terry Edwards and Simon Charterton) on a couple of numbers.
Then The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra did their first gig of the year at Dingwalls in Camden which - though a little rusty in parts - was a blinder. The audience was redolent of the crowd Ian Dury and the Blockheads used to pull and Debs (Lee’s wife) approached me afterwards and said ‘Fantastic - just like the old days!’
On the 19th March I completed the horn arrangements for two new tracks which we debuted the same night at a further gig at ‘Aces and Eights’. Titled ‘Citrus Groove’ (co-written by Simon and Patmo), and ‘Balkan Travel Agent’, these were a joy to play until we got to the end - we hadn’t quite decided how either should finish. This is what we want - an element of danger (or is it?) Can’t wait to play these again. Both tunes utterly life affirming.
Lying in the bath on the morning of Saturday March 22nd I was listening to CD Review on Radio 3 when I realised it was being broadcast live from the Festival Hall. On a whim I decided to take my album and accompanying press notices and present them to Andrew McGregor in person. Once there I stationed myself outside the glass cubicle from which he was broadcasting and, as he left, I accosted him thus: ‘I’m a big fan of the programme and I’ve had the brass neck to come down and give you this,’ and presented him with the package. I wonder sometimes if I looked too earnest and intense - like some kind of mad professor. He said he would certainly give it a listen and asked - like the excellent professional he is - how to pronounce my name. I remembered the jokes amongst the band about what we should be called and told him ‘As in Clause; my band thought a reasonable name might be: “Louis Vause and the Subordinate Clause”. I’m not sure whether they were being entirely serious.’ Nothing yet has happened but all of these things are worth a try. I cycled up through Covent Garden enjoying the first glimmerings of Spring and sketched Lambs Conduit Street over a pot of tea. The following day a band formed by Darren Fordham (Backing Vocals with LTSO) met to record the Madness track, ‘Burning the Boats’ for an album in aid of The Teenage Cancer Trust. Consisting of Darren (Vcl's), Mez Clough (Drums and vcl’s), Paul Tadman (Bass), Andy Neal (Gtr), Bob Dowell (Trombone), Chalky White (Trumpet) and myself on piano, we had this in the bag in three hours. Joking with Tad I inadvertently christened the band UpforitNESS. This was based on my utterance as we entered the recording studio: ‘I think we’ve got . . . [I couldn’t think of a word] . . . Upforitness’. Well - I can think of worse names. This will be released later in the year on a compilation of Madness covers entitled ‘Specialised 3. Mad Not Cancer’.
Friday the 4th April found me at the grand headquarters of the RSA just off the Strand to meet Paul Aspell of Eazl who are helping us at Upbeat with the Art in a Box project. The rooms, which are being donated, proved to be perfect for the Auction and Dinner we are planning and Schrodinger’s Strings who will play in the vestibule as guests arrive also attended. As the idea slowly becomes a reality you feel the kind of nervousness you get when throwing any party - merely magnified by a thousand!
On the 8th April Melody and I went to see ‘Hancock - The Lost Scripts’ being recorded at the beautiful Art Deco BBC Theatre at Broadcasting House. Ray Galton and Alan Simpson were there and took a well deserved bow for this and a formidable body of work including of course ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’, and ‘Steptoe and Son’. The actor who played Hancock had every inflection perfectly and I look forward to the whole series of six programmes being broadcast later in the year. Of course the correction of minor fluffs at the end of the recording were almost as funny as the show itself and Melody’s comment as we left? ‘Looks like a fun job.’ I’ll say!
One of the last paintings we received for the auction was that of Sir Ian Botham. Titled ‘Upbeat - Three Pleasure in Life: Wine, Fishing and Golf’. Melody thought the picture represented wine, a pair of Y-fronts and a pen. Sir Ian (bless him) is a better cricketer than artist but his efforts I sincerely applaud.
On Monday 14th April I was again in a recording studio this time in Islington, adding accordion to a track - written by Collette Cooper a singer (whose band this was) and Patmo Sheeran that is to be used on an independent film. When the trumpeter arrived he held out his hand and said, ‘Remember me?’ and - thank goodness - I did: Kevin Davey who had been so complimentary of my playing a couple of years ago at The Premises birthday celebration. A good session the hardest work being the lugging of that damned accordion in hot sunshine. Hard labour does exist in the life of a musician.
The following week I did the first of three sessions with the singer/songwriter J. Maizlish Mole at his producer, Ben’s, house near Blackheath. A beautiful place to work. Ben’s parents are musicians so the piano was a top quality Beckstein Grand with a wonderful view of the sun dappled garden. I worked steadily through a bunch of songs that were catchy, quirky, and quite wonderful. At the end of each day’s recording it was difficult to remember everything that I had done and the work is so intense anyway that you have no idea whether what you have done is any good. And then you hear it after a lapse of time . . . and - wow! All I can say is that I am vastly encouraged by my apparent talent and I am proud of what I have done here (and feel no shame in admitting it.)
I was booked to play another solo spot; at an event called Scaledown upstairs at The King and Queen in Newman Street. There was the usual eclectic mix of acts from avant-garde (or - as George Harrison would have had it - “Avant garde a clue.”) to poetry reading. I was first on and this time I was on great form. The icing on the cake was the sale of six cd’s which is extraordinary in an audience of just thirty souls. Then came the sad - and shocking - news that one of my consultants at The Royal Free, Dr. Burroughs, had died of liver cancer - a cruel irony. I was asked if I would be willing to sing in a choir of transplantees that was being organised for his Memorial Service in Muswell Hill. Of course I was happy to and we, his patients, reflected that, were it not for the ground-breaking and brilliant work by the ‘Prof’ and his team at The Royal Free the choir simply wouldn’t exist.
In much need of a holiday I took Eurostar for a three day break in Lille. I had found, through AirBNB, a place on a small island, Isle Bois Blancs, on the outskirts of town between two tributaries of a river. My host, Yves, was a photographer and I intended to do nothing but walk, eat, sketch and sleep. On the first day a girl stopped me outside Yves’ house and asked for a ‘clop’ (French slang for a ‘fag’) I obliged but I could see that she was curious about something and had guessed from my accent that I was a ‘touriste’. She lit up and said ‘Ici? Pourquoi?’ Of course she could see no reason why a tourist would be in that area. I thought through my French vocabulary to try and find the right response and then had it: ‘J’aime la verite’ (‘I love the truth’), and that seemed to satisfy her. She smiled, saluted me and walked off down the street. Though the centre of Lille is staggeringly beautiful and I enjoyed it I didn’t enjoy it as much as the bustling multi-cultural, local market at Gambetta with its scruffy bars playing a fine selection of ska and roots music. Oui! La Verite! However even in Lille I couldn’t quite escape this crazy world of show business.
I received an email from the BBC asking if I would like to be interviewed about Art in a Box on the following Monday - the same day as the Private View at the Store Street Gallery off Tottenham Court Road. I accepted. So I was back in Broadcasting House for an interview with Robert Elms on Monday 19th May. During the interview I was explaining that we had managed to find fourteen celebrities to paint a picture when he interrupted me and said ‘You mean thirteen celebrities and you!’ Ha! - that’s me told! Then Robert received an email in which a listener said that he liked my track ‘Velvet and Absinthe’ so much he had arranged to have it played at his funeral. I replied that the second track ‘The Long Goodbye’, I had written for my funeral. Blimey, I thought, this is a barrel of laughs! He then asked me to play the piano, adding that Alain Toussaint had played it the week before. I said ‘Thanks for telling me that’ and improvised a New Orleans Blues and hoped it came somewhere close to the great Toussaint.
Then it was off to The Private View which was a great success; plenty of people laughing, drinking wine, examining the paintings and enjoying the general atmosphere of a balmy night in Bohemian London. Two days later I attended another private view, this time the work of the novelist, Beryl Bainbridge who I had met in the mid eighties when I worked for Quartet Books. Everyone there had memories of her that attested to her uniqueness. I recalled that my first meeting with her we - myself, Richard Ingrams and his daughter Jubby - were walking in the direction of the Groucho Club where she was to do a book signing when she seized my arm, pointed to an alleyway and said, ‘I had a wonderful, passionate kiss down there.’ and she turned to me with a look of mischief, adding, ‘Oh . . . the memory!’. The exhibition was fantastic, her whole approach very quirky, often funny and always honest. I laughed out loud at her painting of Napoleon dancing in her kitchen. When she was researching historical figures for her novels - in her imagination - he probably was. A wonderful lady and the world is poorer without her.
On Sunday 25th May The Ska Orchestra convened at Lee’s house in High Barnet to board the van Lee had hired to take us to the Strummer Camp Festival in Manchester. However there was no van. Lee had gone to a family barbecue the night before and - no fault of Lee’s - there had been some rough house stuff that had culminated in the police being called. Result: Lee sporting a minor scratch or two and he had missed picking up the van by ‘three minutes’. Mark Bedford took this news with such serenity that I questioned him and he replied, ‘After thirty years nothing surprises me. It’s the wonderful world of Lee Thompson!’ We got there somehow in various cars and the gig was great though it was in a tent on a sodden minor league rugby club in the middle of nowhere. The contrast between a warm Lancashire crowd and the more withdrawn reaction you get in London is still striking. We got back to London utterly exhausted and I crawled into bed at 4 am grateful that the following day was a Bank Holiday.
The last day of the month - May 31st - was similarly eventful. The day started in the Mill Hill rehearsal studio with the first get-together of Crunch! which Lee has decided to reform for a one off gig at The Boomtown Festival in August. Original members, Spider Johnson and Paul Tadman (Drums and Bass) were augmented by Kevin Burdett on guitar (Chrissy Boy opting to concentrate on Madness duties) and - happily - many of the songs seemed to be written in our DNA from the many gigs we did in the Nineties. I returned home to rest for a couple of hours before setting off again to join Lee at High Barnet to play in his son, Daley’s, covers band for a charity event in Totteridge. I got a message from Lee as my tube was leaving East Finchley with ‘a change of plan’. Could I now meet him at Totteridge tube at 6.30 pm? This left me with an hour to fill in which I sketched the locals in a Totteridge pub, The Griffen, over a lemonade. However 6.30 came and went and still no Lee. I knew only that the venue was somewhere on Totteridge Common at a Cricket or Football club so set off in search walking fruitless miles before giving up and repairing to a country pub in the middle of the common for a coca cola. Finally Lee rang and had the nerve to say ‘what happened to you?’ There was some spluttering of cola from me! He picked me up and on arriving at the venue (I had searched the wrong side of the common) found that the power amp of the PA had not been delivered so by the time the band took the stage two and a half hours late the audience resembled the bedraggled remnants of a particularly gruelling wedding. I managed to get the last tube back and narrowly avoided being vomited on by a sozzled party goer on the escalator who just managed to aim his regurgitations into a Sainsburys carrier bag. Marvellous!
The following morning I re-traced my steps to High Barnet to join The Ska Orchestra for the journey to Cheltenham for the Wychwood Festival. Would there be a car? a gig? . . . Happily everything ran smoothly. Headlining the Sunday line up were The Boomtown Rats and as we watched them from the side of the stage, Andy Neal - one of our guitarists - turned to me and said, ‘I’ve always believed in karma but something’s badly wrong there . . .’ and we turned to look at Bob Geldolf who was putting in a hell of a show, ‘. . . the amount of good he’s done. Well - he doesn’t deserve this.’ He was of course talking about the recent death of his daughter, Peaches. I suppose you have to carry on somehow. Driven back to High Barnet I was - again - on the last tube to Camden however it only went as far as East Finchley. So waiting for a night bus I became aware of a towering, dark presence standing next to me at the bus stop - it was Kevin Davey returning from a gig in Totteridge (of all places!) ‘It’s a nocturnal life, Man’ he ruminated, ‘musicians live when everyone else is asleep.’
The following day, as I walked down Greek Street, I took a call from Dave Robinson (he of Stiff Records!). He asked if I would be willing to back Bitty McClean on piano for an interview with Robert Elms the following day. ‘It’s only three chords’ he said cheerily. On getting home and receiving the recording I found it was four chords but said I could just about fit the BBC in. So we did it - 50,000 listeners and no run through - all good experience. I received a cartoon of me done by Dennis Loren, for the poster for the Art in a Box event in June. Dennis Loren was responsible for many of the posters for legendary sixties acts such as Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane and he has turned me into some kind of Marvel comic figure - I fancied I looked a little like Batman’s adversary, The Penguin. What a thrill!
Again in need of a break I spent the weekend of the 13th and 14th of June in St. Leonards at the home of Simon Charterton and his partner Helen. We sipped home vintage lemonade at a Victorian themed fate, rummaged through excellent junk shops and enjoyed (if that is the word) the start of England’s hapless attempt to progress in the World Cup. Only in St Leonards would you find at an indoor market stall a display of wedding dresses festooned with the flag of St. George - there is something gloriously inappropriate in that. On the Sunday we were treated to breakfast by my old school mate, Russell Baker, who founded the Baker- Manova Art Gallery there and we chatted about the possibility of my band playing there in the Autumn at the cinema he is refurbishing. I still have mild regrets not buying the tin shoes that, according to the tattered box, enabled you to ‘walk on air’. Three springs were affixed to the soles of each shoe and I was tickled at the thought of staggering onto stage in them only to bounce inadvertently into the stalls. Probably best I didn’t get them.
Another mammoth day was in prospect on Friday 20th June. Robert Elms was celebrating the twentieth anniversary of his BBC Radio London show at Ronnie Scott’s and the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra were booked to play. Other guests included Gilbert & George and Nick Lowe who gave an impromptu performance of ‘Alison’ on solo acoustic guitar. He had the audience in the palm of his hands and I told him afterwards that it was the best performance of that song I had every heard, adding ‘Seriously!’ This was a joyous occasion and I managed to get both my mother and Clifford Slapper, the pianist, in to watch our last song, ‘Hello Josephine’. The show over Robert invited me upstairs for the after show party which looked like it could well last the rest of the afternoon and into the evening but - regrettably - I had to dash off to the RSA for the dinner and auction for Art in a Box and Upbeat. This has occasioned a few sleepless nights but the event surpassed even our wildest dreams. The auction, hosted by Mark Stacey, raised nearly £15000.00 for our charity, Upbeat. I was particularly nervous when it came to the auctioning of my two pictures what with me being just a humble ‘Honorary Celebrity’ but to my astonishment they raised £885.00. The evening ended in The Royal Society’s vaults with music from The Pat Crilley Band and myself alternating in two different rooms. As midnight chimed we had an impromptu jam; myself with Gareth Huw Davies on Acoustic Bass, Steve Somerset on Guitar, and the guitarist and two harpists from Schrodinger Strings who had played both in the reception room and throughout the dinner. A lady approached me as we were packing up and said she thought that was the most amazing thing she had ever heard in her ENTIRE LIFE! I don’t know if she had been drinking.
With perfect timing to cap a truly extraordinary six months, The Ska Orchestra were booked to play Glastonbury’s West Holts Stage which was to be broadcast by BBC Television and would remain on the iPlayer for four weeks. This was a wonderful experience and whilst playing we watched the audience expand as Dolly Parton’s performance finished on the Pyramid Stage. Glastonbury, resembled a mediaeval walled city of 200,000 or so people, enjoying themselves in a way your average mediaeval person would possibly have found astonishing.
Simultaneously our new single, ‘Bangarang’ was promoted from the C to the B Playlist on Radio 2. The following morning - the last day of June - I said farewell to my daughter, Melody who set off for St Lucia with her boyfriend, Adil and realised that this was the end of an era as she is going to go to university in September. Or is that a beginning? We’ll see...


(part1) : (part2) : (part3) : (part4) : (part5) : (part6) : (part7) : (part8) : (part9) : (part10) : (part11) : (part13) : (part14) : (part15) : (part16) : (part17) : (part18)

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