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Biography (part 15)

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1st JULY 2015 TO 31st DECEMBER 2015

Wednesday July the 1st 2015 was the hottest July day on record in the United Kingdom which was nice or worrying depending on your point of view. However I have no idea if this record was subsequently smashed by the July days that followed - I had things to do. Two days later I was at Charlie Higson’s birthday party which - apart from the delicious food Charlie and Vicki serve up - is a fantastic opportunity to catch up with old friends. At one point, vis-a-vis the filming of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ I asked Charlie if I looked foolish in any way. He took a long breath and said “Yes - wherever possible we’ve tried to make you look like an absolute idiot.” I laughed and thanked him . . . none the wiser really.
The following Sunday I took the train to Coventry to play with Rhoda Dakar at the annual Ska Festival there. As we were about to start the set I had the (always) disconcerting thought that I had no idea what I was doing - I couldn’t recall the riff that started the first song at all. I started to play in panic because - in those circumstances - thinking is of absolutely no use. Happily the right riff emerged from my fingers and the gig went down well with the crowd. However the fish and chips that we were provided with were terrible. Rhoda pointed out that it made absolutely no difference whether they were hot or cold. I said it badly needed some condiments - especially salt; “- or anything!” was Rhoda’s response. On the walk back to the station I had a look at the grand buildings that make up the Henry V111 school - former pupils including Jerry Dammers and Philip Larkin so it must have something! I narrowly missed a thunderstorm but this cleared quickly and it was a pleasure to watch from the train window a Sunday-tranquil England with lengthening shadows cast by a slow setting sun.
On Friday 10th July I fulfilled a long standing commitment to play a wedding in Muswell Hill. Steve Somerset’s Blues Ghosts were headlining and we set up at the bottom of the brides garden. If July 1st was hot this was a furnace. I played solo for an hour and a quarter and then joined the band for an excellent evening of Blues and Boogie until about midnight. I was puzzled that no neighbours had complained until the bride - grinning broadly as she arranged my taxi - explained: “They’re all here!”.
The following day was the third anniversary of my transplant and I took Melody out for lunch at The Mango Rooms in Camden which serves the best Jerk Chicken outside Brixton followed by a bicycle trip to the Curzon cinema to see an eccentric Western called ‘Slow West’; a pricey celebration but - hey - I’m alive and that’s worth celebrating every now and again. The following day I pursued the theme of extraordinary lives by cycling to the BFI to see a documentary about the life of Orson Welles and - cycling home through the deserted streets of Hatton Garden and Farringdon - experienced with some joy the kind of tranquility that always seems to follow a long hot day. As I did so I pondered an excellent quip from Orson: ‘All our songs are silenced in the end’. Life eh?
Friday 17th July saw the first ever gig at the Kino Teatr in St Leonards - a gallery, restaurant, Art Deco cinema and (now) venue run by my old friend Russell Baker who was in my class (1F2) at Castle County Secondary School in Lancaster some eons ago. I was playing a solo set supporting The Near Jazz Experience and - before playing - retired to a nearby pub to plan the set. My nerves weren’t helped by the posters on display there and I walked onto the stage in the manner the condemned must have mounted the scaffold. However the gig went well and the audience seemed ecstatic at the discovery of a fantastic new venue in their midst - I received quite a few hugs from various people I’d never met; it’s nice to see people enjoying a drink or two - in certain circumstances it seems to make them extraordinarily happy and affectionate.
A week later the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra had a gig in Llangollen in Wales. A couple met us at Chester station who I thought were our drivers; my request as to where the van was, was met with blank stares. It turned out they had won a prize of free tickets to the gig and the ‘exciting opportunity to spend time with the band, stay at the Hotel’ etc. (‘Wow . . . good luck’ I thought). Sure enough we were exactly two beds short at the hotel, but the organisers were very helpful so no problem there. Llangollen is set in the valley of the River Dee amongst beautiful wooded hills and, as we investigated the town, I could see the smoke of a steam locomotive billowing above the trees as it crept up the valley. Beautiful. Our Landlord enthusiastically told us that the water at our hotel was responsible for killing half the population of the town in the Eighteenth century due to cholera; it’s difficult to work out the correct response to that. I think we said things like ‘Wow!’ and ‘Really?’. At the sound check Darren - our backing vocalist and percussionist - found that he had lost his bag. However he had been celebrating his arrival for a couple of hours in one of the beautiful local hostelries so this wasn’t taken too seriously by the rest of the band. But Darren was winding himself up into an incoherent fury: ‘That’s it! I can’t go on! Who’s done it! I might as well go home now!’ In the middle of this the Director and crew of a forthcoming film called ‘Womble’ turned up. They had asked our permission to film the gig and some backstage scenes for inclusion in the film. I quietly left the building and had a cigarette and let them all get on with it. Happily Darren’s bag turned up (it was under a coat) and the gig was tremendous with a wonderful and enthusiastic audience. Afterwards Seamus Beaghen - our Hammond player - and I took a midnight stroll down to the railway station which was a heritage museum and base for the steam locomotive we had seen earlier. The platform was a living exhibit: 1940’s suitcases and advertising placards gave the impression of sauntering into a scene from ‘Brief Encounter’. A photographer was there kneeling next to a stack of cases appearing to take extreme close-ups of the locks whilst his girlfriend watched from a nearby bench (at Midnight!). Seamus and I looked at each other: very strange. The whole station would be locked up if it were it in London, but it was great to look around such a place in the early hours of the morning. We had been told that there was an after show party at ‘Gail’s Wine Bar’ which resembled some dark smugglers den. Poor Darren was suffering the consequences of his earlier celebrations. We watched as his features, pulled down by gravity, seemed to slide off his skull altogether. When he left we asked him to remember to leave the Hotel door on the snib: ‘Yeah! Course I will. I’m not fuckin’ stupid!’ We got back some time later and - guess what, Darren - you are! The following day I got up early and in the chill of the early morning walked down to Dee-side and sketched the pub by the river and then back for a really good full English breakfast. Happily our prize winners seemed to have had a good time and, by 11-o-clock, we were on the train back to London.
The following day I returned to the Fish Market to record a piano solo version of my ‘Paris Suite’; good to see our engineer and producer, Ben, again. I gave him £40.00 for the session and added a bottle of Rioja as a good will gesture to the studio. We were done in one and a half hours, the only fly in the ointment being ‘engineering work’ on the tube which necessitated a lengthy two-bus journey each way.
And on Saturday the 1st August the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra played their final gig of the summer at The Garage in Islington in which we rejuvenated the set with many of the new songs we have recorded for the next album which had a galvanising effect on us all - a superb gig!
Then it was time for Melody and I to go on holiday to Crete but before we left for the airport I had time to process an order for my album, ‘Midnight in Havana’, from someone at the Red Bus Estate Agency in Camden which meant I could deliver it by hand. My customer was delighted and insisted on us having our photo taken together and he commented that he had really enjoyed my video for ‘Velvet and Absinthe’: “I could tell where you filmed it.” he said. I wonder if - with their exhaustive knowledge of London’s streets - Estate Agents watch films and say to themselves, ‘There you go - that’s the corner of Hawley Crescent and Kentish Town Road.’
In Crete we stayed in a little village called Koutoulafari on the northern coast and had a wonderful time. The sea was inviting and warm, the food magnificent, the locals friendly. In the ten days we spent there we had just the one ‘adventure’. We had booked a day trip to a deserted island called Krissi and waited at a bus stop at the appointed time but no bus stopped for us. The stop was just across the road from the agency who had organised the trip and, on seeing the organiser arrive on his moped, I crossed the road to ask him what was happening. As I sat at his desk he got on to the phone to find out. Before long he was on two phones - one to each ear - haranguing whoever was on each line and giving me looks that combined re-assuring smiles with despair. He finally threw his hands up in frustration: ‘They have gone to the wrong stop for you! This has never happened before. What are we to do?!” I said I didn’t know. “Another trip?” he asked brightening, “Water world?” When I declined he slumped onto his desk again. Then: “Ah - Spinalonga” he said, “we can get you there. Another beautiful Island; same price . . .” his eyes betrayed some desperation until he found the clincher: “And the barbecue lunch is bigger!” I love the Greek way of becoming the best friend you’ve ever had in order to sell you something. I accepted to his evident delight. We were sped in a private car around the coast until we caught up with the coach and continued to Spinalonga on that. It was a fascinating day - what he didn’t tell us was that Spinalonga had been a leper colony until 1958 and was one of the only places in Greece that Hitler failed to conquer because of the fear of leprosy amongst the German troops. An extraordinary place of despair and suffering in a paradise of sun and sea. An astonishingly biblical scene to confront in such a recent past.
We returned on the 14th August and I had one Euro in my left pocket and one pound in my right so the budget just made it. We got home just in time to hear the lunchtime broadcast of ‘Stepping Stones’ on Radio 4, the series written by Piers Plowright and the specific episode I recorded with him in February focusing on the life and work of the great New Orleans pianist James Booker. As we gathered around the radio at home the bloody radio broke and I had to dash into the front room to get it on TalkTalk on the television set. So: a radio programme I am proud of irrevocably broke my own radio; a radio that had worked perfectly well for the last ten years. Why? However I am told that amongst the people who contacted the BBC to say how much they had enjoyed the programme were Michael Palin, and the actress Janet Suzman. Marvellous! The radio however is in the hall waiting to be despatched to Radio Heaven.
Before Melody returned to university I took her to see a recording of ‘Hancock - The Lost Scripts’ at the BBC Radio Theatre. There I glimpsed Paul Whitehouse but couldn’t reach him to have a chat so rang him when I got home. “Paul, you should have taken the Kenneth Williams parts,” (he does a fantastic KW). “Ah no, Lou. Mine’s a comedy one really.” Surely that’s the point I thought. A great evening nevertheless.
On the 20th September I went to see John Walters introduce possibly ‘the most laughably awful film ever made - Trog’; one of the last films made by Joan Crawford about a man/ape discovered in caves in the south of England. What made this an especial delight was that Joan Crawford was acting her head off throughout. After the screening (which was godawful in the best possible way) John Walters introduced a special guest: Joe Cornelius, a wrestler who had donned the caveman/missing link outfit for the film. Unfortunately he was quite frail and deaf which resulted in an equally funny interview. For instance Walters was asking about the ‘Primeer’ of the film. “Primeer?” asked Joe Cornelius. “Primeer” shouted Walters a little louder. It took a while before the true meaning dawned: “Premiere?” asked Joe. Everyone left the screening grinning broadly which is something I haven’t seen since the Live Stiffs Tour in 1977! Try and see ‘Trog’ - it’s glorious.
I had to get to Bristol on the 25th September for a gig with Rhoda supporting John Lydon at the O2 there so took the opportunity of taking Melody’s bicycle to her on the train. What with it being a ladies bike with gorgeous flowery panniers and my checked jacket, and trilby, Tad, our bass player, was in near hysterics as I freewheeled up to the venue: “You look like something out of an Ealing Comedy, mate. Honestly!”: “Margaret Rutherford?” I asked.
Although it seemed a bizarre line up - Rhoda Dakar and Public Image Ltd - it worked really well and we were all very impressed with how friendly and helpful the Public Image team were. It was an early stage time for us so I was back on the train by nine-o-clock gig done and bicycle delivered.
On Sunday morning, the 27th September, there was a preview of episode 1 of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ at BAFTA in Piccadilly for the cast and crew. It felt thrilling being there eating croissants and chatting to the stars before and after the screening. Had a chat with Christian McKay (Jekyll’s lawyer in the series) about the Leeds Piano Competition (he was prior to being an actor a concert pianist). We agreed that many of the performances were very ‘samey’ but then he gave me a real nugget of information: “You do know that, when Ashkenazy won the Tchaikovsky Competition in the early 60’s the Russian authorities kept him under house arrest to ensure that he practiced.” Then I told Donald Sumpter (Playing the Landlord of The Empire) that - despite knowing that I would only be appearing for mere seconds on screen - I was weirdly nervous. “That’s hard,” he said “If you are given a conversation you can get into that. But one line is even harder. A nightmare.” The main impression I got from the first viewing was that the huge budget was clear to be seen on the screen and it seemed like a good old fashioned Hollywood adventure film. Paul Whitehouse sat next to me and said of these events (with tongue in cheek) “It’s all about ME isn’t it. ME, ME, ME” and roared with laughter. What’s great about Paul is that he has never really gone for all this celebrity stuff. The whole event was great fun and I was proud to be involved - albeit in a humble capacity.
On Friday 2nd October Rhoda had her second support slot with Public Image Ltd., this time closer to home at the 02 Shepherds Bush. I was able to watch John for the first time (I was going to go and see the Sex Pistols in the Spring of 1977 at Lancaster University but they were banned for being sexist!) He is an astonishingly committed performer - I’ve always had a lot of time for him; I think he is a good human being apart from anything else.
Denis Healey died in the first week of October and I remembered meeting him some time back at a party I was playing for a publishers in Islington. I was chatting with an old lady during a break and she said, “My husband will be arriving shortly and if he asks you to play ‘Ilkly Moor bar T’at’ tell him you don’t know it. He’ll be boring us to tears with all 26 verses if you’re not careful.” I was playing the piano a little time later when Denis Healey bound up to me full of enthusiasm: ‘Marvellous!” he said, “You’re a better player than me. You don’t happen to know ‘Ilkly Moor Bar T’at’ do you?”. All 26 verses, I am sure, will now be accompanied by sundry harps. He was probably (as obituaries constantly reminded us) the best Prime Minister we never had.
On Sunday 11th October the backbone of the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra met with Dave Robinson at Seamus’s house in Blackheath to consider tracks to release as a Christmas single. We all took something to eat - this was a kind of social rehearsal. We finally settled on ‘It May Be Winter Outside’ and between choosing keys to suit Lee’s pitch Dave regaled us with stories of his extraordinary life in music. Amongst many gems I didn’t realise that it was his job at one point to wake Jimi Hendrix each day to get him to the studio: “He would probably have only got to sleep a couple of hours earlier. So I would knock and enter and there he would be with a couple of gorgeous Swedish twins. He was a gentleman - not the brightest tool in the box but obviously a great performer . . .” Dave Robinson (we all agreed loudly) needs to write an autobiography.

The following day Crunch! (formerly The Nutty Boys) convened at Storm Studios in Holloway to rehearse for the House of Fun Madness Weekender in November. Fantastic to be playing with Chrissy-Boy Foreman again. And a miracle happened. Despite not playing the songs for a number of years we played the entire set in just two hours; it was as if the songs were imprinted on our DNA. I quipped “Well - that tour of France we did in 1992 when nobody came was NOT in vain!”
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the 20th and 21st October the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra put down the backing track (minus horns, vocals and percussion) for ‘Winter Outside’. T Bone Bob our trombonist was getting married in New Orleans so Lee had ‘got someone in’ to replace him. Unfortunately , nice chap and everything, he wasn’t up to the job. Meanwhile Dave Robinson, who was producing, was waving his arms around a lot and saying things like “The horns have to be like this! Christmassy! Big chords! Rising in the end”. I had a day to try and fulfil his demands. Seamus came up with a horn lines for the funky part of the song and I took the intro and coda and wrote the parts as a choral (as you would for a carol or hymn). We were able to get a trombonist who doubled on euphonium which made the part even more Christmas-Salvation-Army-in-a-shopping-centre-ish. I was still writing the parts out as the train pulled into Forest Hill Station (where we were recording) and - great relief - everyone was happy with the results. I had taken a break the night before to take my Mum and Melody to see the official premiere of ‘Jekyll’ at the BFI which was eventful. In the Q & A after the showing Charlie (Higson) the writer was asked if he didn’t think the show was too violent and scary to be shown at that time in the evening. In my opinion it is no scarier than ‘Harry Potter’ and many points were made along those lines. However at one point - as he was being pressed yet again on the point - he quipped ‘Fuck ‘em’. On the night this got a laugh - it was clearly a joke not to be taken seriously however the Daily Mail duly took note and attempted to make a headline out of it. Unfortunately this seemed to set an agenda on how it was received. ‘Jekyll’ was off to a difficult start.
On Hallowe’en I was again playing with Rhoda at The Jazz Cafe with Lynval Golding as a special guest. He sang Bunny Wailer’s ‘Dreamland’ with Rhoda which was very moving in that she had last sung it with Rico who had died the month previously - one of the original Sister Mary Ignatius’s boys! It being Hallowe’en I was wearing a wig and moustache (from my jar of moustaches: Rhoda’s reaction: “Who has a JAR of moustaches?”). At the end of the gig I took the moustache, hat and wig off to reveal myself and, as I fumbled with my glasses, plonked the hat and wig back on my head in the WRONG ORDER! It was as if I had done a conjuring trick. Very funny (but completely un-intentional).
On bonfire night I went up to Burgh House in Hampstead to see a talk hosted by Piers Plowright with Paul Morley entitled ‘Has Classical Music died’. Paul Morley is a massive enthusiast and I couldn’t resist making the point that, since the advent of recording, classical artists have grown wary of improvisation - even the bars left blank by composers in which the artist is meant to express him/herself they notate, more often recycling stuff they have heard recorded. The public too expects this adherence to previous performances. This has the result of preserving ‘classical’ music in amber; a sure way of killing it. I bought Paul’s book, ‘The North’ which he signed asking me where I was from so that he could annotate it correctly. We both agreed we could have chatted for hours more about music.
Things remained busy: on the 18th of November Crunch did their final rehearsal for The House of Fun Weekender; on the 19th I went to see the Pepys Exhibition at The National Maritime Museum which - though fascinating - didn’t have enough of Sam’s personal stuff, then dashed over to South Gate Studios to add some piano to the next EP to be released by Maizlish Mole. Cycling home across Islington at around 11 that night we were hit by gale force winds and rain. As I waited at traffic lights near The Hope and Anchor two fellow cyclists shouted above the noise of the wind, ‘Where the fuck did this weather come from!”. Bed was good that night.
Chrissy-Boy persuaded me to take an earlier train on Sunday the 22nd to Minehead - we were on stage at the House of Fun at 3.30pm. However the trains were surprisingly prompt and I was picked up by a Butlins driver at Totnes and driven the last twenty miles to the gig. For the first time at Minehead I had a chance to take a stroll on the beach - every previous time I have been there the rain has been torrential or it has been pitch dark. And a lovely - though dramatic beach it was: threatening clouds and wind making the pre gig experience bracing. Lee excelled himself arriving on stage on stilts wearing a long coat in white make up and eye patch. Jeff Baynes had come to film some of it and to do some more interviews - mainly with Suggs - about the film “Who is Lee Thompson?’. The pilot I have seen has a belly laugh at least every three minutes. I think the Madness fans out there are in for a treat! I believe Jeff would like to finish the film some time in the Spring. I returned on the crowded 6.30 train from Totnes to London and relaxed by watching a recording of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ before bed - an episode in which I was featured (as Willie Plumb the pianist) at least three times! Thrilling!
Dave Robinson’s conviction that the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra needs more ‘hits’ on the album saw the band back in the studio on Friday 27th and Saturday 28th November. We laid down ‘Cuss Cuss’, ‘Sweet and Low Down’, ‘Shaft’ and ‘You Never Know’. Lee arrived late and - frustratingly - said we had recorded the wrong version of ‘Cuss Cuss’. Aargh! As Dave says, ‘Lee is one of those people who believe in miracles.’ He quite liked my assessment: “It’s like dealing with mashed potatoes”. Lee - brilliant performer, fantastic and unique sax sound, excellent lyricist but the world and the way it works generally defeats him.
Mark Bedford and I had to leave the session on the 28th to get down to St. Leonards for a repeat performance at the Kino Teatr - me solo supporting The Near Jazz Experience and joining them for a couple of tunes. In the car on the way down chatting about the Saturday Morning Cinema we used to go to as children Mark revealed that he had had a complete Thunderbirds outfit - hat and all. It makes you want to go ‘Aah! - that’s really sweet’ - particularly if you know Mark. I intended to play the premiere of my ‘Paris Suite’ in its entirety so was more nervous than normal. I took down scans of my Paris paintings and sketches to be projected onto the screen behind me as I played. I got through it with just one error which was a huge relief and during the performance you could hear a pin drop. Afterwards someone who had been photographing the gig shouted “You’re a National Treasure . . . or you should be.” ; “What? like Ronnie Barker?” I responded (I meant Corbett - I got my Ronnie’s wrong). The first performance of a song(s) is always the hardest!
On Thursday 3rd December I returned to Pat Colliers studio and finished my piano parts for the Ska Orchestra, dashing back to teach at home. The band had been booked to do The Robert Elms show on Tuesday December 15th on Radio London, however I couldn’t do this as I will be in Paris on that day - just one of those things but very disappointing all the same.
The day before Melody, her boyfriend Adil and I were to embark on Eurostar, I got a call from John Eacott regarding his Annual Glogg party which I was going to go to anyway. His Jazz Trio had let him down and he wondered if I would be willing to play. I said of course I would. I arrived to find John vamping carols on the piano. At 6.30 people started to arrive and I took over on the piano. I don’t know what happened but I wish I could bottle it. I have rarely played so well. It was almost like being an observer, watching my hands fly around, taking enormous risks that all came off. Playing the piano was easy! I could almost socialise at the same time! Mindful of the early start in the morning I left around 9.30 and told John “Wow - I was on fire tonight” and John - who is a superb musician and trumpeter, smiled back at me and said simply “I know”. What a Christmas present!
Despite the terrible events in Paris just a few weeks before we found Paris almost defiant in its ‘business as normal’ attitude. In three days we shopped at the Canal St Martin, visited the museum, Les Art Decoratifs, Gare de l’Est, an illuminated Eiffel Tower after dark and had dinner with my friend, Steve Hackett in a cosy, open fire restaurant in the shadow of the Sorbonne called Le Coup Chou. Talking about the terrorists in general Steve and I find it difficult to understand the decision to bomb Syria (as if that is some kind of solution). We agreed that this is merely going to result in more terrorism. We didn’t bomb Belfast when the IRA were active! I quoted Gore Vidal’s quote vis-a-vis the ‘War on Terror’: “You may as well have a world-wide campaign against dandruff!”. On our final day I played a couple of tunes from The Paris Suite on the groaning piano upstairs at Shakespeare’s, The English Bookshop, and we took Adil to see Notre Dame where a beggar had hooked a plastic cup to a fishing line and was casting it out to potential donors, a huge grin on his face which seemed to have the required effect.
Back in London ‘The Old Codgers’ met at The Three Kings in Clerkenwell. Great to see old university friends and this time Jody - my closest friend - rang me to ask me to meet her at Farringdon tube and take her as she was a little nervous about seeing some people she may not have seen for years. Her fears were groundless - it was a great night and The Three Kings an excellent venue for it.
Now Christmas was upon us and Melody and I did our, now traditional, journey to Borough Market for veg, fruit, a smoked uncooked ham, cheese and a crown of turkey. I spent a day doing the ham the mediaeval way (Baked slowly in a salt dough, then basted in brown sugar, mustard and studded with cloves) So all we did for Christmas was cook and relax - great.
In the days between Christmas and the New Year it was announced that - first - Lemmy had died having been diagnosed with cancer just three days before. I encountered him from a distance just once: we were the only ones waiting on the platform of Chalk Farm tube station 35 years ago. Then John Bradbury, the drummer of The Specials, died quite unexpectedly (at least there had been no reports of his being ill). As we grow older this is something - amongst our near contemporaries - that is going to become more frequent; something we will have to endure.
And New Year? I have got tired of the Jools Hootenanny - the format seemed very tired last year (and Jools did not play well) and it seems to have lost a lot of atmosphere since its move from BBC Television Centre, so I joined the BFI Player and downloaded ‘The Drunken Angel’ (1947) an Akira Kurosawa film and a first role for the great Toshiru Mifune, which I have wanted to see for years. With beautiful black and white cinematography and an astonishing last fight scene this was the way to say farewell to 2015 . . . and - of course - say hello to 2016...


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