Jan. to June 2011.
The year 2011 has – so far – been so full of incident that I have been forced to write up the first six months before I forget it all. So read on – it's all happening.
I started mixing the album on the 21st January and Mike Pelanconi's attention to detail is astonishing. Nick (one of Mike's engineers) and I went to Brighton Marina to record breakers crashing against the pier. I have never seen the sea so calm and smooth – a splash around in a bath would have been more impressive and what we needed was breakers slapping into the sea wall and spattering across the promenade to replicate the seafront (the Malecon) in Havana for the title track of the album. In the end we were forced to source the sound from a vintage BBC Sound Effects record from the sixties. Mike cleaned it up aurally on the computer and this seemed to work well ; still - not like the real thing.
I had to dash back to London for Jury Service at Southwark Crown Court but didn't get any fiddling M.P.'s which would have been entertaining. A fascinating experience all the same.
On the 27th I dashed back from Court to submit some calls to 'Gary Bellamy' the 'Award winning DJ' fronting Radio 4's Down the Line from some scribbled ideas I had during the lunch break. Didn't even have time to get nervous.
Mixing continued on the 28th and 29th leaving just three tracks left to do and in the meantime returned to London to put some ideas down for an album cover with Mark Bedford at his office in Brick Lane. Meanwhile, Peter Kavanagh, BBC Radio director, contacted me and we agreed terms for him to use a track from my first album Pianophernalia on a radio comedy he is currently directing. Then was compelled to practice Fur Elise for Lucia Jaffa's wedding on the 12th of February. This has to be my least favourite piano piece of all time, however I was uncomfortably aware that it is so well known that any slip as Lucia walked up the aisle of Finsbury Town Hall would not only be noticeable but horribly embarrassing. All went well however and I dashed off from there to Liverpool Street Station to catch the Cambridge train to see an old school friend, Gavin Hughes, at his farm, where I met old friends from Castle County Secondary School for fantastic food, wine, beer etc. Stayed there and in the morning went to look at his milking operation: the cows are milked automatically by computerised laser beam. Fascinating but, standing in the slurry avoiding jets of misdirected milk wasn't the best place to be in my smartest three piece suit.
Before getting the train I decided to have a quick look at Cambridge which I had vivid memories of from 1976 when I went for an interview there at Downing College (I was – I recall – completely nonplussed to be offered 'a sherry' at nine in the morning in the book lined study of one of the professors) I went for a drink and was greeted by a Texan with a Tommy Lee Jones accent; his name: Bret Clayton.
'Wow … what a name!'
'And you look like a proper Englishman. Just like the movies. Can I take a photo for the folks back home?'
I asked him about Texas.
'Oh we shoot, sure. Not people though. Not often anyways. Ride horses? Sure. You should come. South Texas. You know you're in a different place in South Texas'.
He looked at my diary:
'We don't write that script like you do. That sure is pretty writing. We do the letters individual – one at a time.'
Meanwhile the barmaids were swooning – a real twenty-two year old Texan Cowboy. Yeah … just like the movies.
The day after my birthday (which I spent with Melody who is turning into a beautiful person and seems to be leaving the nightmare teens behind) I returned to Brighton to continue mixing. At around seven-o-clock Mike turned to me and we punched fists:
'Congratulations, Louis. You have an album!'
With hardly time to breathe, the first rehearsal with the Ska Orchestra (featuring Lee Thompson and Mark Bedford from Madness, Terry Edwards, Seamus Beaghen and many other stellar talents) had been arranged at the Premises in Hackney. Fantastic fun and sounded great even at that early stage. And in the same week was summoned by Nick Edwards and Jeff Baynes to film ten acts for the 'Talent Agent' film project (I am a baffled agent looking in a bemused fashion at the acts) The idea is that the background be animated and created artificially so we were all filmed against blue screen. This was fun and it is a project that, I think, has legs. I will be placed in a surreal, scruffy office and much of my 'acting' will be more like reaction shots. We will see.
Then – on Sunday 27 March – out of the blue … Mike Pelanconi rang me:
'Sorry to be the one to tell you this … but Graham Fox killed himself yesterday'
I was deeply shocked. If there is one thing I boast about on the album it is Graham's astonishing drumming – particularly on Manrique: a tour de force. I had spoken to him just two weeks before. I had intended to add percussion to the track but had decided not to because:
'Well, Graham, that would be a complete waste of a brilliant drum take'
'That's the kind of call I like, Louis'
It is small comfort to recall how positive our last call was. He was quite simply the beating heart behind every band he was ever in. I intend to dedicate the album to him.
Find rest, Foxy. Bless you.
The following day, Chrissy-Boy Foreman rang, wondering if I could play accordion on a waltz version of 'Baggy Trousers' for a Kronenberg advert. The roller coaster rolls on. So on the 31st March – finding that my accordion was slightly out of tune - I bit the bullet and went to Adoni Accordions in Lewisham to buy a new one with the three-reed French sound. Thank God I took a trolley; I struggled back with it to Moloko Studios in Hoxton and joined Madness to record the track. At one point as we played, Clive Langer producing at the helm, the original band line-up, I had to pinch myself. This is a band I was a fan of in 1979; I remember bouncing up and down on the sofa with Ray Vaughan to the track 'Bed and Breakfast Man'. I don't think – in my wildest imagination – I could have foreseen this. Returned the following day and added three chords and it sounded very good. Lovely strings too!
The following week the Ska Orchestra did a final rehearsal before our first gigs in Brighton (14th April) and Oxford (16th April). Graham Fox's funeral was also on the 14th so I arranged to meet Mike Pelanconi there and he said he could get us a lift back to Brighton for the gig. The Ashford church was full of musicians. A jazz trio played at the front of the church as we found our places and this mingled beautifully with the church organ during the hymns. Of course a very moving occasion but fitting, and then there was a lot of live music in the church hall. We were asked to choose a CD or two from Graham's collection as a remembrance of him which was a nice idea.
The gig in Brighton was a sweaty, rocking affair. A good debut even if we did keep looking at each other between songs saying 'Which one's this?' A day of extreme emotional contrast.
Between this gig and Oxford I went to the open-mic session of the Charity, Upbeat (I am a Board Member) which helps people with mental health issues by involving them in music workshops and projects. I was very impressed with some of the performances, particularly the standard of the song writing. This is the first open-mic I have been able to attend and it was good to see that this Charity actually works. Should any reader like to contribute in any way please feel free to contact me.
I had booked the Youth Hostel at Oxford and got a call from them before I set off asking if I minded sharing my room with two Korean girls to which my response was 'Shouldn't you be asking them?' Apparently I booked first so it was down to me. I said of course but was fearful of snoring etc. but what can you do? I checked in and wandered down to the Regal in gorgeous sunshine. The place is vast – an ex cinema – and there was a worrying absence of eager crowds. There is nothing like empty, redundant barriers around the exterior of a venue for making a place look sad and forlorn. Most of the band were taken by Lee and Debs Thompson to a Beefeater next to the motorway … what are you like, Lee Thompson? You're in a beautiful, history drenched place full of picturesque local eateries and you walk into this? I returned to the town and had a fine real ale accompanied by fish and chips at a low ceilinged pub called the White Swan in Broad Street. That's more like it.
As we feared the audience, though enthusiastic, was small. Jenny Belle Star, who was supporting, came up to us afterwards and with foreboding laughter said 'I wonder what excuses they'll give you'. Sure enough they pleaded poverty. After much drama we managed to get £30.00 each out of them leaving us all out of pocket. They have yet to pay the difference and need hauling over hot coals! Just another day in the life of a musician.
And as if lightening couldn't strike twice the Clapham Grand pleaded poverty at the next gig on the 24th April so we all went to the pub across the road and refused to play. The promoters kept approaching us saying they had just 'found' some money. We stuck it out until they offered half the fee promising they would pay the rest within the week (which they did, bless them). We learned three songs in the dressing room in the half an hour before going on stage in order to back the 73 year old Ska veteran Owen Grey who put on a fantastic display of shimmying across the stage. Talking to him afterwards I noted that his speech is conducted almost entirely in rhyming couplets. They don't make them like that any more!
On May 2nd Ray Vaughan sent a car to take me to his local pub in Berkshire to play for orphan children of Russia; a lavish dinner and auction he had organised. Ray handed me the sheet music of 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square' saying that Kenny Lynch would probably want to sing it. Bloody Hell! I learnt it in the car, drumming my fingers on an imaginary keyboard on my knee. Kenny (as usual) in full flow when it came time for his performance:
'I'm always a tone below the published key; mind you I'm fucking pissed so I can do anything.' Our version of that, 'My Funny Valentine' and 'When I Fall in Love' rapturously received (the old pro!) Outside, for a cigarette, he regaled me with stories about falling out with Sammy (Davis Junior) over a 'bird' and how Brucie (Forsyth) left him stranded in a police cell with his golf clubs just off the M5. He's a walking encyclopedia of bonkers celebrity stories.
Meanwhile I had been booked by Kronenberg to fly to Prague to film the advert with Madness. So here we have a French beer with a German name being filmed in a bar (that is supposed to be in Paris) in the Czeck Republic. Sound economics apparently. Thrilled to be flown Business Class for the first time in my life. And the Hotel? … Bloody Hell. My room alone was bigger than my entire flat and came with complementary Kronenberg, Heinekin, Wine and Kafka chocolates. Two maids appeared after we had done costume fittings. I said I hadn't ordered any maids but they said they had to 'prepare my bed'. They laid slippers and gown next to the bed, plumped up my pillows and left. I had two wide screen televisions to choose from, a marble bath, living room, three walk-in wardrobes and a shower that was like standing under a warm waterfall. Marvellous. We were filming in a deserted railway station on the outskirts of Prague. In fact we only really saw Prague after dark because we filmed the rest of the time. And Madness lived up to their name …. like a dis-functional family that functions when it matters. We filmed for two days
and the wrap party was in a little cave-like club called The Blue Light just across the Charles Bridge. Witnessed some glorious inebriation (Suggs: 'You have to hug the planet now and again, Louis') and before we knew it we were on the return flight home (Champagne, Sir?).
On the 21st May it was Paul Whitehouse's birthday which was celebrated at the Wilmington Arms in Clerkenwell. Charlie Higson, Dave Cummings, Simon Charterton and I had rehearsed some of Paul's favourites (such as 'Maggie May', 'Tiptoe Through the Tulips' (?)) and the idea was we would purposely make a mistake and Charlie would call for help and Paul would (hopefully) take over. However Charlie kept getting it right – sometimes it's hard getting things completely wrong. However we did finally manage it. Paul had a field day … eat your heart out, Rod Stewart (and Tiny Tim).
At the end of May I took Melody to Lancaster for some work experience at the excellent Mackie's of Lancaster, an interior design company run by James Mackie. Melody loved it and we had a great time with James and his wife, Christine. At the end of the week I took Melody on a long walk to Galgate along the canal to show her the various mooring spots of the boat, Spahi, on which I grew up.
It was Saturday 4th June and I knew there was a good possibility that the Kronenberg advert would premiere at half time in the England match against Switzerland. We went to the Plough and watched the first half with baited breath. England were dismal and we pretended to be casual as the adverts appeared. Just when we had given up hope on it came. As my face appeared for the first time the four blokes at the bar started to look in my direction, arguing in whispers amongst themselves. Then I appeared again and one of them nodded triumphantly:
'It is … hey … we've got someone famous in't bar'
'Can 'ave yer autograph?'
Good job I didn't dash to them with a pen – they were being ironic. Melody and I left the pub grinning.
'Well that was weird' I said
'High five, Dad!'
Then it was back to Brighton to do three days of recording at the Ironworks with the Ska Orchestra. Mike gave us a fantastic sound almost immediately and we laid down five tracks in one day. On the second day overdubbed guitars, brass and vocals and mixed on the third. That is half an album! Mike got the legendary Horseman in to do some percussion which was icing on the cake.
On the following Wednesday I had the final exam for my Bachelor of Humanities degree. When I left the exam room I felt like laughing: four and a half years of study. I would heartily recommend it to anyone. I went to the Punch Tavern and had a glass of red wine, then another. Then a few more pubs in Fleet Street, including the Seven Stars behind the High Court. Got home frankly inebriated but grinning my head off and flopped into bed. Results due in August.
On the 21st June I went to Paris for a night (and two days) for my (now) traditional celebration of the end of a course. I had never heard of Fete de la Musique. Apparently, about thirty years ago the President (Mitterand I think) declared that there should be music every year on the 21st on every street corner in France. Brilliant idea. I finally went to bed in the extraordinary Hotel de Nesle (run by the redoubtable Madame Renee who dubbed me, Monsieur Louis, Le Musicien) at two o clock in the morning listening to the sound of revelry on the street below through the open window. Woke up in the morning to the sound of pouring rain, visited La Musee Delacroix, and went to Rue Guissard for a delicious lunch. Rue Guissard is renowned as a place of many bars and much carousing which is nicknamed Rue de Soif – Thirsty Street. Suited me fine and I can recommend the Fish Soup and Steak at the 'L'enfance du Lard'. On my way back to the Gare Du Nord I met a photographer in a bar who introduced himself. He said he worked in films and we started to play the 'favourite film', 'favourite actor' game. When I said I had a lot of time for Gerard Depardieu at the moment for his unapologetic hugeness he suddenly perked up:
'I photographed him last week. I could take you to his restaurant. He is there most nights'
'Quelle domage' I said 'I am on my way home.
Well, Gerard ... perhaps...