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Month: December 2007

I’m deeply saddened by the news of Kevin Greening’s premature demise. When he turned up on Radio 1 in the early 1990s, his bone-dry wit was a welcome counterpoint to the wacky but ultimately humourless cack that had gone before (Gary Davies’ Sloppy Bit, Willy on the Plonker, etc). I was a student at the time, and it took a lot to wake me before midday (no change there, then), but I regularly made the effort to catch at least the last half-hour of his weekend breakfast show, as a prelude to Danny Baker.
He wasn’t just a funny man, though. Years later, I found myself sitting in a cubicle at BBC Norwich, being interviewed down the line by Greening for a World Service programme on the state of the record industry. He had either read my book thoroughly or been provided with an excellent precis, and the ensuing interview was one of the best and most perceptive I’ve ever been involved with. Before the recording started, I took the liberty to thank him for all the great radio he’d funnelled my way. All the Raymond Sinclair stuff, etc. I felt a bit of a gushing pillock at the time, but I’m glad I did it now. He’ll be missed.

When it comes to the German people, one of the most enduring stereotypes is that they have no sense of humour. This is unfair and untrue. If nothing else, they are connoisseurs of slapstick, which explains the enduring popularity of Dinner for One, an old British music-hall sketch that the German television networks show every New Year’s Eve.

The setting for the piece is the 90th birthday party of an aristocratic female called Miss Sophie. Her table is set for a group of friends, all of whom have predeceased her. Not daunted, it falls to her butler, James, to pour the guests’ drinks. As he does so, he asks Miss Sophie if she wants him to follow “the same procedure as last year”, to which she replies “the same procedure as every year”. The same procedure being that he has to drink the drinks himself, supplying a brief impersonation of each guest. Unsurprisingly, with a different booze being specified for each course, he becomes thoroughly Rowley Birkin-ed, and a rich vein of comedy ensues as he tries to dish up the dinner while utterly paralytic. His attempts to negotiate a path round, over or past a tigerskin rug are particularly joyous. In short, it’s a masterclass in physical comedy. Finally, Miss Sophie declares that she is ready to retire to bed. “Same procedure as last year?” asks James. “Same procedure as every year,” replies Miss Sophie, and they disappear upstairs together.

The piece, which is believed to have been written in the 1920s, was the star turn of the comedian Freddie Frinton. Despite being the star of the BBC sitcom Meet the Wife (very few episodes of which survive, despite being enough of a smash hit to be namechecked in a Beatles song), it appears that Frinton never performed his most famous sketch on British television. Certainly, if he did, no recording has survived. The German recording resulted from a visit to Blackpool in 1962 by German entertainer Peter Frankenfeld and his producer Heinz Dunkhase. Frankenfeld persuaded Frinton to come to Germany and perform it in his live show, and at one performance in March 1963, an outside broadcast unit from the Norddeutscher Rundfunk network captured it. Frinton had served in World War II and had the hatred of Germans that many of his generation and experience shared, but he overcame that to accept the offer. That Frinton’s greatest fame should be in a country he disliked so intensely is as noteworthy as the fact that, despite being a superb comedy drunk, he was, like Jimmy James, a teetotaller. The broadcast went down well, but it wasn’t until it was shown on New Year’s Eve in 1972 that it began to acquire its ritualistic status. Since then, it’s been shown every year, at various times of the day by the regional German broadcasting networks. The German recording has never been shown on British television, but it’s been part of my own New Year’s Eve ritual – along with Rikki Fulton, Still Game, the Edinburgh Castle gun, a bottle of single malt and not even thinking about leaving the house – ever since my friend Gavin Sutherland gave me a tape years ago. We can rest assured that if the BBC had ever screened it, the tape would now be wiped or misfiled. Or, even worse, only ever dragged out for clip shows where a nanosecond would be shown as a prelude to five minutes of Barry Shitpeas passing a judgment along the lines of “Yeah, right, and they’re going to have sex. They’re really old. Gross. What’s all that about? Can I have my money now, please?” despite not being able to display one iota of Frinton’s comic craftsmanship in his own work.

Frinton died in 1968, just before he was due to return to Germany to remake the sketch in colour. In recent years, the original tape has been colourised fairly sympathetically, and this is the version I present here for download. It’s a 200MB AVI file, suitable for viewing on Xvid/Divx-compatible DVD players. May it bring as much joy to your Hogmanay celebrations as it does to mine.

I’m not sure whether this qualifies as a Christmas song, but it’s easily my favourite piece of music with ‘Christmas’ in the title. And what a title, too. Ladies and gentlemen, get festive with the Sensational Alex Harvey Band and their pub singalong from the Planet Zanussi, ‘There’s No Lights on the Christmas Tree, Mother, They’re Burning Big Louie Tonight’.

Another beauty from Wikipedia, this time from the entry for Pope Benedict XVI:

Pope Benedict XVI
(Latin: Benedictus PP. XVI; Italian: Benedetto XVI, born Joseph Alois Ratzinger on 16 April 1927) is the 265th and reigning Pope, the spiritual head of the Catholic Church, and as such, Sovereign of the Vatican City State.[1] He was elected on 19 April 2005 in a papal conclave, celebrated his Papal Inauguration Mass on 24 April 2005, and took possession of his cathedral, the Basilica of St. John Lateran, on 7 May 2005. Pope Benedict XVI has both German and Vatican citizenship. He succeeded Pope John Paul II, who died on 2 April 2005 (and with whom he had worked before the interregnum). Benedict XVI is also the Bishop of Rome.


In response to the Andrew Gold cover in this post on The Urban Woo’s blog, here’s Gold and Graham Gouldman (Say what you like about 10CC – I ruddy love ’em – but he wrote Bus Stop, and that’s enough to warrant the keys to heaven as far as I’m concerned) on TOTP in 1987, miming to the majestic ‘Bridge to Your Heart’.

What didn’t strike me fully at the time was how much the man who wrote ‘Bus Stop’ (etc.) looked like someone in my year at school who went on to become head boy. Wherever he is now, I hope he’s well and prosperous. If not, he could always form a 10CC tribute act, although I seem to recall his main field of musical expertise was playing bassoon, and I don’t recall there being a rocking bassoon solo on ‘Good Morning, Judge’.

This morning, while putting the bins out, I was rewarded with the most startling sight. Paul Rutherford from Frankie Goes to Hollywood tarmacing the pavement. Well, you’ve got to have some rough trade to fall back on.

While I’m in a YouTube jazz kind of mood, here are some other clips that have caught my eyes and ears. We’ll kick off with Ella Fitzgerald in London in 1965, with the Johnny Spence orchestra and the much-missed Tubby Hayes on tenor saxophone. I’m happy to report that you can see the whole show from which this performance comes on BBC4 on Christmas Eve at 9.30pm, following a documentary about Ella.

That Ella Fitzgerald Sings special was a Terry Henebery production, as was the 1987 edition of Parkinson One to One from which this next clip comes: a blistering Buddy Rich Orchestra tearing into Matt Harris’ killer-diller arrangement of ‘Just in Time’. Not sure who the trombonist is, but the trumpet solo is by Greg Gisberg. As good as the solos are, it’s the Clarke-Boland Band-style unison ensemble work from 2:02 onwards that gets the hairs on the back of my neck standing up.

Talking of Kenny Clarke and Francy Boland, here’s one of my own uploads – ‘Sax No End’ from a 1968 German TV special. I think that, if I could go back in time to see any past jazz ensemble in concert, it would be this one. As it is, I shall just have to settle for a memorable evening in a Wigan hotel bar with Johnny Griffin. Again, solos great, ensemble playing (from 2:30 onwards) greater. Just so dextrous, powerful and tight.

Here’s another swinger, and one that doesn’t quite come off, but it’s an fun and interesting experiment, nonetheless: John MacLaughlin with the Tonight Show orchestra in 1985, ripping into ‘Cherokee’. It sounds ever so slightly as though JMacL’s fighting the band while he’s stating the theme, but when he takes off into his solo from 1:12 onwards, I find it hard not to be rendered breathless by the gusto of his playing. Some accuse him of playing too many notes, and they may have a point, but the notes he does play are always impeccably placed and pitched. Sometimes I think less is more, sometimes I’m ready for the works.

Moving into the fusion arena, I had a major thing for Weather Report in my teens – RIP Joe Zawinul. I still love their work dearly, but don’t listen quite as obsessively to them as I did 20 years ago. Around that time, Channel 4 had a music strand called The Late Shift, in which Charlie Gillett and Vivien Goldman – both commendably knowledgable and broad-minded – introduced bought-in concert footage. One night, they showed Jaco Pastorius live at the Montreal Jazz Festival, a show that opened with a ferociously groovy number called ‘The Chicken’. Weather Report’s music was given to odd squawks and warbles, and that was a large part of its charm, but on his own, Jaco liked to dig deep into the pocket, and ‘The Chicken’ is a perfect example. Yes, there’s some flashy playing from Bob Mintzer on tenor and Randy Brecker on electronically-treated trumpet, but the groove – to which the great Pete Erskine’s drumming makes no small contribution – is rock solid. Here’s the Montreal version that blew me away, with a link after that to a big band version recorded in Japan. Both are just jaw-dropping.

Back to the 1960s, and around the same time that Ella visited the UK, we were graced by a visit from saxophonist, composer and arranger Benny Golson. Terry Henebery (that man again – jazz history owes him a great debt) got Golson into the BBC Television Theatre with an orchestra of the best British musicians, including Tubby Hayes, guitarist Dave Goldberg and multi-instrumentalist Alan Branscombe, all of whom died far too young.

Another of my own uploads, but what the hell. This is the Victor Feldman Trio rattling through ‘Swinging on a Star’, and it just makes me smile every time I hear it. That’s Rick Laird from the Mahavishnu Orchestra on bass, and it’s Ronnie Stephenson on drums, a great, underrated British player (for my money, one of the best and most musical jazz drummers there’s ever been – he was very fond of playing the tune in his breaks and fills), whose best-known work is the excellent Drum Spectacular album he made in 1966 with Kenny Clare and a host of names like Stan Tracey and Tubbs. When not playing jazz, Ronnie was a session giant, providing the drums for tracks like Dusty’s ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’.

More will follow.

Jazz appeals to a niche audience, and this is why legendary figures can be found playing regularly in pubs and clubs with no need for giant video screens or opera glasses. I’ve lost count of the happy hours spent at the Bull’s Head in Barnes listening to Stan Tracey and Bobby Wellins, with Andy Cleyndert on bass and Stan’s son Clark on drums, and a host of special guests including Guy Barker, Don Weller and Ben Castle (son of Roy, and a superb tenor player). In particular, I remember Weller and Wellins raising the roof with a stunning version of ‘Comme d’Habitude’ a few years back. For the uninitiated, that’s the original title of the song that Paul Anka ruined by turning it into ‘My Way’, so to hear Stan and the chaps attacking it as a ferocious samba is always a delight.

I’ve been to Dublin only a couple of times, but my first act on arrival has always been to find where and when Irish jazz guitarist Louis Stewart’s playing that week. The quietest and most unassuming of men (I don’t think he realises how good he is, or, if he does, it’s still not good enough for him – no matter, the big name American players like Pat Martino all hold him in the highest esteem), Louis is nothing less than a god. His gorgeous, rounded tone is matched by a lightning speed and, most crucially, a great sensitivity and an unrivalled sense of when to hold back and when to let rip. Here he is, letting rip on ‘Four’.

I first became aware of him on a Stephane Grappelli concert shown by BBC2 when I was 11. On that occasion, he was playing rhythm guitar to Martin Taylor’s lead role, and for most of the show was blocking out chords. However, on the last number, ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, he got to solo and I realised that – immense as my love of Martin Taylor is – this was no second banana. Over the years, I became more aware of Louis’ work with Benny Goodman, Tubby Hayes and many, many others, and my respect for his playing just grew and grew. Recently, when I found this clip of him and Peter Ind (whose Tenor Clef club in Hoxton was a very important part of my late teens) performing on Q7, introduced by another hero of mine (a man who knew his jazz, too), I couldn’t believe my luck.

I’ve met and spoken to Louis on a number of occasions, most memorably after the 60th birthday concert mounted in his honour by RTE in 2004. Shortly after that, I was asked by Crescendo magazine to interview Louis when he was in London. I travelled to Southend to see him play and set up the interview, and all was agreed over a drink in the interval. The next day I turned up at the agreed spot and Louis was nowhere to be seen. It became clear that he had ‘gone shy’. If I’d had the recorder with me the previous night, he’d probably have talked, but given time to think about it, he had reconsidered and done a vanishing act. I’d have been angry with almost anyone else in the same situation, no matter how legendary, but knowing Louis a little, I realised I had to respect his decision and return to my editor empty-handed. And, no matter what stories he could have told me, sometimes, the music is all that matters. This version of ‘Scrapple from the Apple’ just takes flight.

These clips are only the tip of the iceberg. If you have even the slightest liking of jazz, I urge you to go to YouTube, put his name in the search box and watch everything that comes up. He’s very special.

Recent spurious revelations about the harmlessness of binge drinking while pregnant apart, we all know that the best policy for a modern, expectant mother is to retire to bed for the whole nine months, padding the abdomen well with cotton wool. How different it was in 1968, according to the British Medical Association’s You and Your Baby part 1.

According to modern advice, liver is a no-no, because of the high concentration of vitamin A. In 1968, mothers-to-be were advised to get as much vitamin A down them as they possibly could, and it was considered that “Foods such as liver and pork contain excellent amounts of vitamins, and also iron, as well as protein, so do try to eat them once or twice a week”.

As for drinking, Guinness have a full-page colour advertisement, stressing the medical benefits of stout. Quite right too. I’m guessing that the mothers of most people over 30 drank in moderation through their pregnancies, with no obvious harmful effects on their offspring.

I keep looking for a section advising mothers to cut down to 40 fags a day, or 20 if they’re untipped, but I might have to locate a copy of the 1958 edition for that sort of advice.

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Last night, viewers in the Anglia region were treated to a programme called Bygones, in which presenter Eddie Anderson met a man who collected ceramic railway telegraph insulators. The chap was allowed to explain his obsession in some detail, while Anderson appeared genuinely interested in what he had to say.

Although ceramic railway telegraph insulators aren’t my bag, it was refreshing and heart-warming to see an out-and-proud anorak presented on TV without masses of ironic detachment and ‘ha, look at this sad wanker’-type sneering. The modern media has a ‘too cool for school’ wariness when it comes to enthusiasts, but all too often relies on them to do its research for free. In a recent survey, it was discovered that 98.7% of all modern TV documentary makers regard Wikipedia (which, apart from the libellous bits about Bryan McFadden, is the province of altruistic anoraks) as a primary source. Meanwhile, I’ve lost count of the number of times that friends in the archive TV collecting world have been contacted by ‘we’re so good at telly’ pisspots who expect them to reveal all they know in exchange for a pat on the head, a complete and utter lack of understanding of any material thus supplied and a credit that’s going to be squeezed to oblivion and talked over anyway.

It’s not just the media. In general, modern Britain seems to have a bias against knowledge. Anyone who actually knows anything is instantly categorised as Rain Man. All too often, when someone asks an arcane question about cultural ephemera in my presence, I find myself feigning vagueness and replying with another question: “Wasn’t it Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies? He’s coming to mind for some reason”. The reason being that I know it’s the right bleeding answer, but to come out with it in an authoritative and unequivocal manner would make me look unacceptably smug and twatty.

Well, bollocks to it all. I know about a lot of esoteric things and I like knowing about a lot of esoteric things. Anyone who thinks I’m a bit of a spanner for doing so can work it up their arse. Better something useful like a spanner than a dildo made of blancmange. It’s hip to be square. So there.