A message arrived just now from my mate Alex asking if I’d heard that Johnny Griffin had died. I hadn’t. Back when I was assistant editor of Crescendo and Jazz Music, one of my most pleasurable assignments was an annual trip to the Wigan Jazz Festival. One of the magazine’s other writers did the bulk of the reviewing, so I was left to prop up the hotel bar with the musicians and generally have a nice time. When the Little Giant (as Griff was known) was in town, I had a blinder of a night just listening to him hold forth, as he laid waste to the bar’s supply of Bushmills. I think I might have helped a bit. There was a hairy moment when his female German manager – a delightful lady until crossed – passed the table and rumbled the contents of his tumbler. He was, she made quite clear, under doctor’s orders to avoid spirits. Johnny smiled sweetly and explained that one of the nice people at the table had bought it for him, and he’d felt it would be rude to refuse. I’m lucky that my work’s brought me into the presence of greatness on several occasions. That night was one such occasion. Remember him this way:
My Independent obituary of Hugh Mendl appears in today’s paper. The Times – Hugh’s own newspaper of choice – devoted its lead obit page to him a couple of weeks back (quite right too), and Music Week‘s Ben Cardew wrote a very nice piece in which people as elevated as Seymour Stein stressed Hugh’s importance and influence. Hopefully, the existence of these tributes will ensure that he’s remembered as the major figure he was.
Back at schloss Cheeseford after nearly a week sampling the qualities and quantities of ‘that London’. Reason 1 for the visit was the Lambeth Country Show in Brockwell Park, a gloriously incongruous combination of dub reggae, sheep-shearing and the Lambeth Horticultural Society‘s big annual show. To be frank, you can keep the dub reggae – the sub-bass emanating from some of the tents hurt my ears and loosened the soles on my walking boots – but the other stuff’s really rather life-affirming, particularly because it happens where it does. LHS veterans have told me with pride of the year when a certain amount of unpleasantness down Brixton way threatened to spread as far as the Country Show, and they all prepared to see off the rioters and riot police with nothing more than firm, polite Englishness, and possibly their dibbers if it got a bit heated.
Reason 2 was a friend’s birthday party, at which guests were encouraged to represent an elpee’s worth of toons in some way. Full marks to the host for coming as Animals by Pink Floyd, having crafted a scale model of Battersea Power Station out of cardboard, and added a tiny pink pig on a wire. Honourable mentions also to the chap who came as Hex Enduction Hour by the Fall, a Mr & Mrs who came as BBC Transcription Discs and the other husband and wife team who came as Derek and Clive (Live) (him – white shirt with accurately-scrawled lettering on it) and Songs in the Key of Life (her – 7 quid’s worth of orange cardboard and a pair of Sunnie Mann’s old sunglasses). Me? Ever keen to pursue the easy life, and not overly fond of schlepping a hundred-weight of props on the Tube, I wore the bottle-green corduroy suit I got married in and claimed to be this. At least a certain amount of malice aforethought went into it. One friend only realised on the way to the pub that his choice of shirt and trousers had inadvertently allowed him to attend as Black and Blue by the Stones.
Reason 3 was to head to North Greenwich to see Return to Forever at the IndigO2. When most of my school contemporaries were listening to Jesus Jones and the Wonder Stuff, I was scouring second-hand record shops for anything involving Chick Corea or Stanley Clarke. This, along with my complete and utter lack of interest in competitive games and, well, most other aspects of my personality, marked me out as a bit of an oddball. My love of a decent bit of ‘difficult jazz’ (a fondly-remembered section heading from one of the aforementioned diskeries) has remained intact to this day, but I resisted the temptation to spring for tickets for a long time after the reunion tour was announced. There were a couple of motivating factors behind my lack of motivation. Firstly, in recent years, the price of concert tickets has outstripped inflation at a rate that suggests that someone, somewhere is taking the piss something rotten. Yeah, yeah, reduced record sales mean that the talent has to make up the shortfall somewhere, but when the cheap seats are £50 – before you’ve even allowed for transport, nosh and a couple of throat oils – it makes one powerfully selective about which shows to attend. I don’t think it would be wildly inaccurate to suggest that Ticketmaster must shoulder some of the blame. Secondly, the thought that a certain proportion of my £50 (OK, it was really £49.50 – £45 plus £4.50 booking fee) would be heading straight for the coffers of the cult of Scientology (Chick’s a long-time member, Stanley Clarke left years ago and became a ‘suppressive person’ – as critics of the cult are known – I bet they have a laugh in the dressing room) was enough to make me sit on my credit card for a bit. However, one night, in a moment of weakness after digging out Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, I contacted a Corea-friendly mate and asked if he wanted in.
So, off we toddled, and were both amazed and relieved not to find Tom Cruise Fan Club recruitment leaflets on the T-shirt stand, or e-meter personality tests on offer by the bass bins. However, not all was apples. Stanley Clarke had obviously got the Brockwell Park massive to EQ the electric bass that he used in the first half. It was thuddy and muddy, making his intricate playing painful to listen to. Watching his fingers, it was clear that he was playing some awesome licks, but they sounded like Campbell’s condensed cream of shit. Second observation: Why is it not standard practice to offset the rows of seating at venues, especially when – as in the case of the IndigO2 – they don’t have a raked floor? Just place every other row a couple of inches to the left or right of the one in front, meaning that you don’t spend the entire show looking at the back of someone’s head. Job done. Failing that, Ticketmaster can use some of their ill-gotten billions to develop software that allocates seats by height and/or head size of purchaser. Third observation: Why pay a fucking fortune to go to a concert if you’re going to watch it through your cameraphone, held up in front of your face and restricting the view of the poor schlub behind you? Save your money and wait until it all turns up on YouTube the next day – as ice-cool and very groovy drummer Lenny White acknowledged would be the case during his mini stand-up act between numbers. Fourth observation: the British like queuing for no apparent reason. Over half of the audience waited dutifully in line outside the venue for about an hour, while the other half stood outside the bar opposite, drinking and laughing at the silly sods who were queuing despite already having reserved seats. Fifth observation: The O2 is the restaurant at the end of the universe.
Thankfully, for the second half, Stan switched to double bass, and sounded proper lovely. Apart, that is, from when he slapped and punched the instrument. Unaccountably, these antics got huge cheers and ‘wooohs’ from some of the more cloth-eared members of the congregation. I love Stan the man, and think he’s too good a musician to be cheered loudest of all for bringing a clenched fist down on his beloved and very expensive instrument. These reservations apart, by the time I returned to the Jubilee line, I felt I’d got my half a ton’s worth. Despite his dubious beliefs, Chick Corea’s still one of my favourite pianists, and hearing him flit between a real, live Fender Rhodes and a concert grand was a thrill. Al Di Meola – whose 54th birthday it was, marked by his re-appearance for the encore in an Arsenal shirt, bearing his name and the number 54 – sounded just grrrrrrreat, whether on electric guitar or acoustic, and Lenny White sounded as effortlessly wonderful as he does on all those albums I’ve hoarded for the last 20-odd years. I wasn’t watching the clock, but I think ‘Romantic Warrior’ charged past the half-hour mark. Self-indulgent? Oh yes, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.
Another sad demise, this time in the form of my old employer Publishing News, which closes in a fortnight – full story here. My 4 years there weren’t a period of complete joy, due to personality clashes with a senior colleague and the fact that the chairman was one of the most unpleasant individuals it’s been my misfortune to encounter. However, on balance, it was fantastic experience, and, without it, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. Despite the chairman’s iron whim, which resulted in some pretty rum editorial decisions and a few ulcers from the poor bloody infantry forced to put them into action, it was a good paper.
One story from the PN days. In the run-up to a London Book Fair (or was it Frankfurt?), when reams of picture captions and “At stand E984, the Badger Press will be gassing live badgers to illustrate their new range of Christmas books…” were needed, I felt the aforementioned chairman’s breath on the back of my neck. “Kosovo” “Pardon, Fred?” “Kosovo” “Yeees, what about it?” “KOSOVO!” “Sorry, Fred, I have no idea what you’re on about”. At this he threw a paragraph of copy I’d written the previous week about a book on Kosovan refugees onto my desk, grunted “Picture’d be nice” and stalked off to make someone else’s day a misery.
I spent most of Wednesday working on an article for the Independent. Normally, such a commission would be cause for jubilation, but not when the article is the obituary of someone I knew personally and liked immensely. I made initial contact with Hugh Mendl when I was working on my first book, Where Have All the Good Times Gone? Ray Horricks, producer of many fine jazz records and former colleague of Hugh’s at Decca in the 1950s and 1960s, had given me his address with the instruction to go gently, as he was in his early 80s. As it transpired, Hugh outlived Ray by some margin. Hugh and I arranged to meet in Oxford, where he had studied before the Second World War, as he was up from Devon on a family visit. We talked, with a minidisc recorder running, about his 40 years as a record producer with Decca. Well, I say we talked. We talked, and talked, and talked. The transcript of the chat runs to 29 pages, and it’s a fascinating document. In lieu of his professional diaries, discarded without his knowledge or consent when PolyGram took Decca over, it’s probably the best front-row account of a remarkable company. When I get a chance, I’ll post edited highlights. If he’d done nothing else, the fact that he produced Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Rock Island Line’ would be enough to secure legendary status. However, he did a lot more. He also stepped aside from signing the Rolling Stones, allowing his colleague Dick Rowe to do so and rescue his reputation after carrying the can for Decca turning down the Beatles.
When I interview someone for my work, it’s rare that a friendship ensues. This is not because I manage to offend or annoy my interviewees. I’m just grateful for any time that they can spare me, and, in most cases, that’s the length of an interview. With Hugh and Ray, however, for some unknown reason, warm associations sprung up. Telephone conversations with Ray tended to be intense and serious, while calls to Hugh were marked by their hilarity. He was not merely a funny man, but also a very witty one, and his memory was pin-sharp to the end. A passing mention of the 1930s comedian Stanley Lupino, who recorded for Decca, caused Hugh to recall an old rhyme:
We know the Lupinos,
We go to their beanos.
We start off on cocktails,
And end up on Eno’s.