More thoughts and connections suggested themselves after I finished the previous entry. My own fault, I suppose, for picking up Spencer Leigh's book (below) again. But it is a very enjoyable read. Drawing on interviews with over a hundred musicians for a radio series, the story of the early days of British pop is told almost entirely through the words of the musicicans involved, and there is a mass of detail which I haven't read elsewhere. Apart from a few chapters in individual artists it's arranged by theme - US stars on tour, novelty records, early British idols (including Anthony Newley), skiffle, TV programmes, the trad boom, etc.
In between each chapter there are a few pages of archive music paper cuttings, allowing you to see less than overwhelmed initial responses to records - did you know, for example, that Love Me Do "tends to drag about mid-way, especially when the harmonica takes over for a spell"? Glad I wasn't within Lennon's orbit when that little pronouncement appeared.
Another cutting announces that Stanley "Scruffy" Dale (a devious character known to me from Graham McCann's biography of Frankie Howerd) is the new manager of Johnny Kidd and that "this should get the 'Kidd' really going places."; in the main text one of Leigh's interviewees angrily laments the way the trusting Kidd was duped by his management.
Quotations are numbered, so it's very easy to use the index of contributors to focus in on individuals such as Newley (the book was first published in 1996) and Ken Pitt. You can buy it directly from the author's website, here, rather more cheaply than through a well-known shopping website. It's not a lavish volume but it is packed with fascinating comments from a whole herd of horses' mouths.
I've already mentioned my surprise on learning from the book that Ken Pitt, Bowie's early manager, was involved in Anthony Newley's management. Going systematically through all the the contributions from Pitt and Newley has yielded further information. The difference between Anthony Newley (above, on location for Jazz Boat, 1960) and performers who "came out of that rock'n'roll chain" is spelt out by the man himself.
For Newley, his acting background meant
I could afford to be silly and they couldn't. The whole rock'n'roll thing was so desperately serious and it all came from America but I sounded like a Cockney kid who was having a good time.
Re his reheated hit Why?, Newley's own attitude, as expressed to Spencer Leigh, seems a mix of pride in craftsmanship and a kind of contempt, further explaining that sense of distance which makes his recordings interesting:
I thought Why? was charming. We worked very hard to get me sounding as innocuous as the original American performance. Frankie Avalon was one of those watered-down teenagers who sang as if he'd only had lessons in potty training. The trick was to get Newley as simple as that and I think, to my credit, we succeeded.Note the reference to himself - persona? product? - in the third person.
No Young Americans-type ambiguity, however, about another song covered because of "company policy." And the Heavens Cried: "was by a black singer," Newley tells Leigh, "and I've never been able to cover black music effectively, and I think the most generous of my fans would agree with me."
You can hear what I presume is the original version, by Ronnie Savoy, here. Not exactly what I'd call soulful - or only in the sense that the 50s Platters were soulful - even if the vocal does seem carry rather more conviction than Newley's.
In fairness, it sounds a pig of a song to pull off, what with that gimmicky petulant crying sound seemingly built in to both the vocal and instrumental arrangement. It wasn't written by Savoy, apparently a "quite prolific songster" himself. Find info about him and his brother here; they were associated with a Detroit record label called Golden World and a doo wop group called the Nitecaps. There are also a handful of later, more soulful, sides findable on youtube. Oh, and Newley's version of And the Heavens Cried is here.
Even if it many not have been a characteristic song for the English star, I couldn't resist a bit of a search for the composers, Gwynn Elias and Irving Reid. I haven't been able to find out much, though the fact that Reid's name comes up linked to various other writers for several fifties songs suggests Tin Pan Alley or Brill Building origins. Another composition on which Reid is credited (along with Vic Abrams) also bears the name of "Moishe", otherwise, according to this site, the notorious Morris Levy ... but that is a whole 'nother story which would defeat compression here.
The 1962 number below, which Newley cowrote with Leslie Bricusse, sounds much more like something the young Bowie might have cottoned onto. Like The Laughing Gnome, this could become extremely tiresome; luckily I only heard it for the first time a few weeks ago. He and Bricusse even find time to send up their own hit:
Incidentally, Newley makes no mention in the Spencer Leigh book of his ever being sent a copy of Bowie's first LP. He does claim, however, that at some point he wrote and thanked Bowie for crediting him in the press as an influence "but I never got an answer!" so who knows the truth of it?
It's a while since I've read The Pitt Report, Ken Pitt's account of Bowie's early days, but it's definitely worth investigating. There is a strong sense of Pitt caring as much as Brian Epstein did about his charges, taking each setback as a personal defeat. Did Pitt actively encourage Bowie towards those comic songs? It does seem difficult to imagine someone with roots in fifties showbiz readily embracing the darker humour of a song like We Are Hungry Men, with its references to "legalising mass abortion" and turning "a blind eye to infanticide."
Against that, Pitt had also been the manager of Alan Klein, someone who might well have been another influence on Bowie's early writing. No, not the Tony de Fries of his day but a quirky English songwriter who wrote What a Crazy World for Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, later made into a film with pop stars Marty Wilde, Joe Brown and Susan Maughan (below) and who later released a solo album entitled Well At Least Its British [sic]. I haven't yet heard the album, but it seems "His style of delivery was very distinctive, not unlike contemporary Anthony Newley."
I am familiar with the film, which I last saw a couple of years ago. Coming across the above poster for its original 1963 release seemed to confirm the impression I retained that the the stage production had been watered down for the screen with pop hits of the day, but looking through the sleevenotes for a CD release the only outside material seems to have been Freddie and the Dreamers' cover of Short Shorts - complete with multiple debaggings - and a twistified Camptown Races, both in the context of a concert, so not interfering with the rest of the action.
Four new songs were penned by Klein himself for the picture - though of course it's possible they may have replaced less acceptable theatre material. Sally Ann, sung by Freddie and the Dreamers in the film, and later recorded by Brown, is certainly innocuous.
Make me happyEven though Eric Morecambe once opined that "Life isn't Hollywood, it's Cricklewood," the Earl would, I trust, have made a discreet exit long before then: certainly his wikipedia page suggests he was recording solo again by 1969. As far as I know he is still alive and he contributed, as I said, to the notes for the CD release of What a Crazy World in 2001.
Through the years -
Never bring me
Let's end with an example of Klein-as-Tristram's louche performing style in this 1966 TV clip, selling a version of Englishness to the Americans - unfortunately there are no Top of the Pops clips, which is how I remember him. It's Klein who sings - or rather lipsynchs, throwing a further set of inverted commas around the whole enterprise - the first number, Peek-a-boo.
The US chart placings of follow-ups to Winchester Cathedral, viewable here, suggests that British audiences were ultimately more partial - for at least a little longer - to the parochial subject matter of those songs: Green Street Green was a bit of a stretch from Carnaby Street, despite Klein (or Stephens') assurance that "everything is kinda groovy here."
In fact, I had no real idea where it was until I happened upon The London Nobody Sings, here, a blog dedicated to songs about London, which tells me that Green Street Green is technically part of the London Borough of Bromley ...
... where one David Robert Jones (middle row, far left) spent his early years. And spookily, it's as though the song conjures up then offers advice to the young, suburb-bound Bowie, if part of the lyric is considered alongside a quotation from David Buckley's Strange Fascination:
Green Street Green,Belted earl and a beltin' prophet? Now that's jazz.
Get yourself a little scene ...
To live in the suburbs convyed [...] an element of being the outsider looking in, and Bowie's whole career is a macrocosm of this search to be other, married to this desire to be part of a scene
Guide to Gnome Thoughts series