JANUARY - JUNE 2015
I woke on New Years Day and was followed around the house - to the bath, the kitchen, the living room - by the epic Radio 4 adaption of ‘War and Peace’. This got pretty exciting by the early evening as Napoleon finally made it to Moscow to find that the Russians - as they say - had left him to it. Thus my ‘engage with Culture’ resolution was fulfilled in one fell swoop.
The year 2015 has, so far, been extraordinary but things got off to a gentle start with a private 70th birthday party at ‘Ay Caramba’ on Camden High Street. Though gratifying, the enthusiastic dancing to the ‘Hokey Cokey’, by several guests of an advanced age, had me worrying that there might be a heart attack or two before the end, (there wasn’t).
Then on the 16th January, The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra, played their first gig of the year to a convention of lawyers at a very posh hotel opposite St. Paul’s Cathedral. I knew it was posh when I noticed that a tea cost £5.80 but happily we weren’t buying. We were given two bedrooms as dressing rooms so could relax in style as we waited to go on. When Lee himself arrived he lined up 12 Rolex’s on the bed and said ‘There you go: a present from Cambodia.’ A lovely gesture but there was something gloriously appropriate in the sight of Thommo in coat and hat with twelve dodgy Rolex’s. A relatively quiet month, January ended with a performance - at The Building Centre in Store Street - by the clients of our Charity, Upbeat (Music for Mental Health) on the theme of Dylan Thomas which was a great success with singer/songwriter, Steve Somerset rounding everything off with a Doors/Dylan Thomas mash-up.
By February however the year hotted up quite dramatically and I’ve had little chance to stop and take stock ever since. On the 12th February I was driven by one of my pupils, Eddie, in his 1962 Mercedes convertible to rehearsal rooms in Kings Cross to join the resurrected Champion Doug Veitch who was (and possibly is) the only person to get three ‘Singles of the Week’ in a row in the NME in the early 1980’s. Doug, as well as being a great songwriter and bandleader, was responsible for bringing the great Bhundu Boys to this country. Well: he is back and we had one rehearsal before launching the new band line-up (including Horace Panter of The Specials and Martin Bell who I had worked with before with Hackney Five-O), at the 100 Club in London’s Oxford Street. Doug’s music is a unique blend of Country, Cajun, African, Scottish, Jamaican and New Orleans styles which makes playing with him a particular challenge and joy. The gig went superbly despite some of our arrangements going out of the window. The smallness of the world hit home as a girl approached me and said, “Did you know an Australian girl called Robyn about twenty years ago?” I said I did and she replied that she had seen my photograph, “ . . . at her place in Adelaide.” Then Horace introduced me to his son who said that he had been given my first album ‘Pianophernalia’ when he was a boy and recognised me from the cover. “Wow” was my (not very inspired) response in both cases. Well - it’s good to have you back Doug!
Speaking with Charlie Higson the following day he said that he was working on a new script for ITV - a series of stories set around Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ and wondered if I would be interested in playing a Music Hall piano player in it. You bet! He gave me contact details for the composer David Arnold who is the Music Supervisor for the series and asked me to start thinking of suitable standards to play for it. But I had to set that to one side for the moment as I had a Radio 4 programme to record with Piers Plowright about one of my favourite pianists, James Booker, on Friday 20th February. I had been worrying about this for at least a month practicing his extraordinary performance of a song called ‘True’ which Piers wanted me to both play and talk about. This is to be part of a series of programmes in which Piers investigates ‘sounds that have entered my soul.’ Other programmes in the series will focus on - for example - the sound of open air bathing and the sound of a Morris Minor. I turned up at the recording studio to find the piano incredibly out of tune. The piano itself was Piers’s mothers, bought in 1945, and a crucial part of the whole story. I noticed, whilst warming up, that its condition was deteriorating as I played so I suggested to Piers and Alan Hall, the Producer, that we had better get on with it before the whole thing fell apart. I am told that there were ‘moments of magic’ in both the performance and the interview and we will find this out when it is broadcast on the August 14th. We repaired, after the recording, to a sandwich bar that had a nice line in nostalgic fifties artefacts and furniture for sale where Alan mentioned his admiration for ‘The Fast Show’ and said, “Wasn’t Charlie Higson in that terrible 80’s band, The Higsons?” I replied that, for their first two gigs, I was their ‘legendary stylophone player and raconteur’. Of course much laughter ensued and I cycled home both pleased with how it appeared to have gone and much relieved.
The following Friday I had arranged to go up to David Arnold’s studio to record some Music Hall piano for my character to ‘play’ on set for the ‘Jekyll’ series. Two days prior to this I had been told that existing ‘Standards’ were proving too expensive so I would have to come up with some of my own. I cobbled together some ideas for tunes that would fit the period (my scenes would take place in the 1930’s.) using Fats Waller and Hoagy Carmichael as inspiration. I was a little nervous, particularly as I was about to play them to one of our most successful screen composers, responsible for some fantastic scores including those he has done for the James Bond franchise. Air Studios in Hampstead is a beautiful and exciting place. When I arrived members of a symphony orchestra were milling around about to record a movie soundtrack. David himself put me at ease immediately by chatting about cat sitting for the neighbours: “. . . very uncharacteristically it [the cat] has decided to shit everywhere. I’ve tidied it up here and there in their house but I was just leaving when I saw some more and I thought: ‘you know what? I’ll leave that.’” I played my pieces and he recorded them saying of one, “That sounds like something . . . but it isn’t; which is handy!” Great! He asked me to give each a name so that I would be sure of some royalties: “This business is full of sharks; it won’t be your pension but it all adds up”.
On the 2nd March I turned up at Three Mills Studios near Bromley-by-Bow for the first of three days filming for the series. I was fitted up in scruffy 1930’s ‘piano player garb’ and my face dotted with subtle red blotches by the make-up department to indicate a liking for whisky (which I haven’t tasted for some years). The magnificent set was like a slightly smaller Wilton’s (Music Hall in Whitechapel) and the series stars Tom Bateman as Jekyll, and, in my scenes, Donald Sumpter, and Natalie Gumede all of whom were on set that first day. My character’s name is Willie Plumb and I had to forgive Charlie for that as he had found it on a genuine 1930’s poster. All day we shot a fight scene with various stunts and of course my instructions were to ‘just carry on playing’. I now know what it must have been like to be in those bar room brawls that featured so heavily in old John Wayne movies. After one of the stunts (according to the stunt choreographer: “If this goes wrong, it’s a broken back”) the cameraman announced as he looked at the shot, “I think we’ve just opened a can of quality”. My first stint of filming lasted three exhausting days - fun though.
On Friday 6th I boarded Eurostar for a weekend in Paris where I intended to sketch some landmarks I had set to music for a possible piano solo book. My Airbnb flat was very close to the Canal St Martin and after dropping my bags off there I joined Steve Hackett, my old university compadre, at Chez Prune for lunch after which I did the first of my sketches of the canal. I walked down the route of the canal passing masses of wreaths laid near the offices of ‘Je Suis Charlie’ and in the evening went to a restaurant - L’Auberge Pyrenees - that Steve had suggested which was family run and served massive portions of traditional French cooking; I enjoyed a massive Casoullet and noticed a sign above my table: ‘Un dejeuner sans vin c’est une journee sans soleil’ (‘A dinner without wine is like a day without sunshine’) and when the waitress asked me what I would like to drink I looked at her mournfully and said, “Pas de soleil pour moi’ (‘No sunshine for me’). This restaurant is where the novelist, George Simenon used to eat - apparently they kept a table laid for him at all times.
The following day I had a lovely time sketching both Place des Batignolles and Montmartre Cemetery which I noticed had a vast population of stray cats and crows. I found the grave of a certain Vincent Auffret (1986 -2012) a young blond man whose photograph on the gravestone depicted him toasting us with a glass of champagne and exclaiming (in speech bubbles) that ‘It’s fine here on the other side’ and nearby the grave of a composer I had never heard of Jean Ledrut- who had worked with both Orson Welles and Abel Gance. In the evening I found another fantastic restaurant on the banks of the canal - Le Marine - after which, in the warm dusk crossing the canal bridge, I had a sense of profound exhilaration at the mere fact of being alive. The following day I had brunch at Chez Prune and revelled in the first proper sunshine of the year before catching the Eurostar back home later in the afternoon. Mon Dieu - I love Paris.
On Friday 13th March I was back at the studio for a half day of filming and on the 14th and 15th The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra rehearsed new material for an album; what is promising about this is that there seems to be no shortage of material, virtually everyone in the band contributing ideas to the mix.
The following weekend - the 21st and 22nd - I took a break courtesy of Maria Tuck and her husband Malcolm in their converted barn on the grounds of Helmingham Hall near Ipswich. What a lovely weekend with walks across the grounds of the Hall surrounded by long haired Highland cattle and deer. A little target practice with Malcolm’s air rifle (which I have never done before) revealed that I am a marksman! Nobody could believe it - least of all me. I simply remembered the Charles Bronson character in The Magnificent Seven instructing the Mexican peasants (in increasing frustration) on how to pull the trigger: “Relax. Squeeze gently! . . . Gently!”
The following week I learnt a set of songs for Rhoda Dakar who was due to appear at The Jazz Cafe as part of The London International Ska Festival. We rehearsed at The Music Room in New Cross. Rhoda was an absolute joy as, apart from singing, she executed pirouettes across the room between verses; and this was a rehearsal! The day before the Sunday afternoon gig (on the 5th April) Melody and I went to the BFI to see Brad Klein’s film, ‘Legends of Ska: Cool and Coptastic’, a history of Jamaican Ska which was followed by a discussion between the director, Derek Harriet and Rico Rodriguez who were on fine and very funny form. The audience were at least 50% Jamaican and, as the film ran, you could hear mutterings of approval (and disapproval) from them. Derek and Rico sometimes lapsed into impenetrable (to me) patois and often laughed helplessly at some in joke and the best exchange ran as follows: Rico: “I didn’t know that [song] was a hit - not ‘till I see this film”; Derek: “Man - I bought you a car!” A wonderful film and afternoon. The following day was sunny and it was Easter so I was astonished at how crowded the Jazz Cafe was. We played a blinder and Rhoda threw sweets and chocolate eggs to the crowd. The bill also included Horace Panter’s Ska Collective and Horace, giving me a big hug, said he had rarely had so much fun on stage as playing with Doug at the 100 Club.
On the 10th, 11th and 12th of April the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra did final writing sessions for the forthcoming album. Lee, in a supreme gesture of organised generosity, brought a kettle, biscuits, sugar, cake and . . . forgot the milk. Nearly Lee! I had the idea of running the album live at The Dublin Castle on the afternoon of Sunday 19th as one live gig is worth any number of rehearsals. We knew it wouldn’t be perfect but it proved to be a galvanising thing to do in that we learnt the songs far more thoroughly than we might have otherwise and we were entering the recording studio the following day. The gig was hugely enjoyable, and we learned a lot that would come in useful for the recording. As an extra bonus for our (very understanding) audience we also held a raffle and as the winners were called out I instigated what I thought might be easy-listening-type raffle music which I realised later was the chord sequence to ‘Shaddapayaface’ which had penetrated my subconscious the previous Friday night in a BBC4 programme on ‘One Hit Wonders’.
So we entered The Fish Factory in Dollis Hill the following morning. On the way we saw a shop that bought clothing for ‘£5.00 a kilo’ and outside the shop was a gentleman in a dressing gown and slippers presumably selling the remainder of his clothes. So Austerity has come to this: the poorest are reduced to selling the shirt off their backs to eat. I sincerely believe that many in this Government have no idea of the reality that faces so many in our society. Wake up people!
The recording itself was focused, intense, exhausting and - when we heard playback - fantastically rewarding. This band were on fire. As we played we had the mixed blessing of Lee doing ‘guide vocals’ through our ear phones in which he not only sang but regaled us with horror laughs, admonishments to himself that he was ‘lost’, swearing, weird animal noises, flights of mumbled fancy in French and sudden deafening bellows at the top of his voice. Great stuff! Just difficult to concentrate. In three days we had thirteen tracks recorded with just overdubs to do (vocals, percussion, that kind of thing).
Then it was back to ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ duties with a rehearsal at home of ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ for Natalie Gumede to sing as her character Bella, the boss of The Music Hall’ and a further day of filming on April 30th. In a chat at lunchtime with an extra in his eighties he told me about his war time experiences. At the end of the ‘phoney war’ before the blitz had started he was visiting his Auntie in South London when the bombing started: “I was going back home in the tram - just a boy - and the bombs started to rain down and the driver said ‘All out - this is getting a bit too hairy for me’ and we had to dash down into the shelters. When I got back the next day there was my Mum at the end of the street; worried sick she was. In the war though - I dunno - we just got on with it.”
On the 8th May the Orchestra re-convened at the Fish Factory for overdubs and we noticed that each time there was a good take the studio cat would crawl through the open window and sit on the studio sofa so the word soon went around the band: ‘The Cat’s back; good take!’
I thought Tuesday, the 12th May would be a logistical nightmare. I knew I had to attend hospital for my six monthly check up at 2.00 p.m. The question was whether I could record the backing for ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ AND teach one of my pupils before then. I got to Air Studios and - whilst waiting for David Arnold - noticed a framed copy of the string quartet part, written by George Martin, for the song ‘Yesterday’. It was dashed off in pencil and a couple of alterations had been made but it was fascinating to see what was - at the time it was written (and it looked like it had been scribbled down in half an hour) - merely ‘work in progress’. And besides the names of the Beatles (bar Lennon interestingly) and George Martin himself was an annotation thanking Mozart! David arrived and as we climbed the stairs to the studio he said he thought he had an idea for the theme of ‘Jekyll’ (“A rhythmic thing; a bit like ‘Jaws’”) but the tone of the whole thing was worrying him. It’s early days yet however. In the event the recording went very well and the subsequent hectic schedule ran like clockwork.
On the 13 May the ‘Tar Baby’ EP by Mole was released on download only. This features two of the tracks I recorded with him last Summer and I think it is gorgeous. (All four tracks are outstanding so this judgement is not based simply on my contribution) All I can say is that this is a highly recommended listen. I’m looking forward to the next release in the series.
However the same week brought the distressing news that my Auntie Linda had died after a brave struggle with cancer. I had been intending to visit her in Lancaster in June as the amount I had on simply made it impossible to get away. Luckily I had two days free around the day of the funeral which was on the 21st May. I arranged to stay with my old friend, James Mackie, and got the train there on the evening of the 20th. My sister, Vanessa, was also able to make it and, on the day of the funeral we met at the Coach and Horses on the Quay front and walked to my Uncle Noel’s from there. For as long as I have known, it has alway been ‘Noel and Linda’ so I felt particularly for Noel. It was - of course - good to see family members I haven’t seen for a while, Noel himself, my cousin Melanie, and Noel and Linda’s sons, Stephen and Stuart. Rest In Peace Linda.
In the evening James took me to Morecambe to see the vintage cars and boat he is restoring. Morecambe is a shadow of what it once was and James showed me a three floored Victorian property with double-front-bay windows that was priced at just £40,000. We all know that you couldn’t buy a garage for that in the South. On returning we chatted at the kitchen table over tea about the past and the future with a nostalgic soundtrack of Roxy Music in the background re-appraising Bryan Ferry as one of the great lyricists. The following morning I decided to re-investigate Morecambe and visited the restored Art Deco Midland Hotel. The design of the toilets made me laugh out loud (striking and beautiful!) and there seemed to be an adequate amount of guests but on walking back down the promenade I was struck at how small the place was now that it has lost its pier; a little like it has lost a limb, there isn’t much left. I saw a ‘Fun Palace’ at the end of a scruffy alleyway caked in pigeon droppings without a soul in there. I found the Wimpy (now The Green Room) where I washed dishes as a teenager for £13.00 a week; I found some good fish and chips for lunch, bought a book and a couple of cd’s at one of the many charity shops that seem to be the predominant outlet there now and . . . that was it! Virtually everything there is to do there in three hours. However there is something magical about the place and you wander around amongst the ghosts of its former glory.
Back in London I was re-called to the set of ‘Jekyll’ to perform the song, ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ (i.e. mime) with Natalie. For this my costume entailed a very uncomfortable cardboard shirtfront which kept riding up under my chin. At one point Natalie inadvertently smashed a glass on the piano in fury which would have been fantastic had the camera caught it but the camera had panned to the left; “A bit of magic lost” we agreed. On the way out of the studio I ran into a jovial Irishman who greeted me warmly and asked how the music was going. I am blowed if I can remember where I met this man who turned out to be the great ‘Doctor Voice’ and he offered me singing lessons: “And if you’re worried about money we can make a trade . . . you give me a few riffs . . .” This is something I may well take up. It’s about time I sang again.
From June 2nd I spent three days in Leamington Spa, recording with Champion Doug Veitch at Woodbine Studios. Horace Panter and Rick Medlock had already laid down the rhythm tracks the day before so I set to immediately with recording piano parts on four tracks under the watchful eye of Martin Bell our MD and Fiddle player. On the second day our deputy horn section arrived (our regulars couldn’t make it) and though the results were passable they did give the impression that they were painters and decorators moonlighting as musicians for the afternoon. Meanwhile I spent some time exploring the town which is Jane-Austin beautiful and did a little bit of sketching. Doug himself completed all the vocals in an impressive one and a half hours and when I said I thought they were an improvement on his early 1980’s efforts he responded that this didn’t surprise him as he was “-off my head on cocaine and booze back then.” I added organ before returning to London on a train that seemed to follow a yellow moon all the way back to Marylebone.
The week of June 9th was set aside for the mixing of the Ska Orchestra album after a day of recording backing vocals in which Sumudu Jayatilaka did a superb job of layering harmonies. Then it was down to Mike Pelanconi at The Ironworks in Brighton for a sold three days of mixing. I remained throughout and various members of the band popped down to supervise their particular compositions and help out with fresh ears. Yet again Mike proved what a class act he is. Mark Bedford commented that he was almost telepathic: “I was just going to tell him that I thought there was too much percussion when he sorted that out before I’d had a chance to tell him. Mike came up with what I can only call a ‘Mike-ism’ when he commented about one of my compositions, ‘Acapulco’, “I like it, Man; it’s romantic and twisted at the same time”. It’s always great working with Mike - he’s definitely the man for the job. Chrissy Boy Foreman popped in to say hello though unfortunately I was too busy to join him for a drink; next time Chris!
I had to cut short my time in Brighton to join Rhoda Dakar in Deptford to record a solo piano version of one of her songs. Happily I ran into her on the bus on the way as I wonder if I would have found the recording studio otherwise. It is a long time since I have visited Deptford and it has a lot of charm (in a scruffy inner city type of way) and after recording, Rhoda and I spent a little time in the warm drizzle examining the weird and wonderful design of some of the new council blocks just off the High Street.
On Sunday 21st June I caught the train to Chichester to join Champion Doug Veitch at the Blues on the Farm festival. We rehearsed in Chichester beforehand but the horn section could only make the last half hour having got stuck in terrible traffic coming up from Plymouth. The gig itself was a ‘seat of the pants’ experience but the Horns (a different section to the ones we had recorded with) acquitted themselves brilliantly and though the festival was winding down from a climactic Saturday it was good experience. The food we were given in the bar-cum-farm kitchen tasted excellent but - unfortunately - I started to feel increasingly ill on the way home which was exacerbated by the crawling trains that make Sundays so often the worst day of the week in which to travel. A posh wedding party joined the train between Haywards Heath and Victoria - it wasn’t their fault that I was in no mood for a cacophonous party for the last hour of the journey. A bit of a nightmare end to the weekend really.
I had one last call from ITV for my final appearance (in Series 1 anyway) in ’Jekyll and Hyde’. I had to do one thing only: “Louis - on the line ‘Shall we kill her?’ could you replace Bella at the bar” This wasn’t acting so much as bitter experience re-enacted: I was a piano player desperate for a drink! I nailed that in one take! When I got home at about 9.30 the phone rang and - booming down the receiver - were the broad Geordie tones of Mark Dickinson: “Don’t swear, Louis, you’re on air. Just a little spontaneous interview for our listeners at Koast Radio!. . . now how is the Album going? . . .” So this unexpected call capped a six months that has been full of surprises and - right now - I’m a bit knackered....