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All the Moves
(But None of the Licks)
By Clive Selwood
Peter Owen PublishersCopyright © 2003 Cive Selwood
All rights reserved.
Let's face it, for the majority of the population life can be pretty boring. Apart from those fortunate few prancing about in the 'meeja', life is a dreary progress from cradle to grave, punctuated by the odd holiday, affair or minor achievement. It's no wonder that so many get out of their heads on drink or drugs or look wistfully at the antics of people in show business who apparently lead a glamorous life of adulation, achievement, parties and luxury travel. And they do!
Having worked with many of the world's top entertainers I can tell you that at the top of the heap life can be wonderful. Naturally, almost none of them sees it like that. They see it as just deserts for their monumental talent. It is a constant struggle to remain at the top, which involves fights with all the people who aided their progress: the record company, which still expects to make a profit; the manager, who tries to retain a home life; the promoter, who hopes to stay in business; the publisher, late with royalties from far-flung places; the tour manager; the publicist; the producer; the video director; every member of the band; the accountants; the lawyers; and, of course, the taxman.
It sure is tough at the top, but it's a thousand per cent tougher for thousands of hopefuls with a toehold on the bottom rung and even tougher still for the millions of hopefuls who can only dream.
Actually getting into the music business as a performer has become relatively easy over the past few years and even easier yet with the arrival of the internet, though it remains to be seen if this route can provide the rewards. Even achieving a modest degree of success is now possible for anybody with a hint of talent, a few hundred pounds and the determination to succeed against all odds. If you don't already know, I'll lay out a few ground rules as we go. It's a lot cheaper than a drug habit or even spending your leisure hours in a pub or taking exotic holidays – and you never know!
Getting started in the administrative side of music is rather more difficult but still possible for anybody reasonably intelligent, presentable, prepared to start at the bottom and claw their way viciously up the corporate ladder.
I was fortunate enough to get an early foot in the door and go on to work with some of the most creative, inspirational, stimulating, weird, ruthless, amusing and infuriating people outside of a novel. Stay with me and you'll meet some of them. All too many, unfortunately, are dead, but that, too, is part of the glamour of the music biz. Jimi, Janis, Jim and John went to early graves simply because of who they were and how they lived. Like Marilyn and James Dean, they had to go, and, for that reason alone, they will always be with us.
Every year tens of thousands of young people leave schools, colleges and universities all over the world trained as academics, scientists, computer programmers or whatever and sharing a burning ambition to get into the music business. Why? It may be that they know, or at least sense, that the music business offers virtually unlimited opportunities to do your own thing and, for the successful few, it can be an exhilarating life in which creativity can combine with commercial ability to produce fulfilment, riches, excitement, glamour, travel and even a place in history. It can also guarantee early burn-out, life without sleep, massive disappointments and, all too often, a dependence on drugs or liquor.
The artists probably have the toughest task. With over a hundred records released every week, only one or two achieve any measure of success. For the others it usually means the end of the road. A road that involved years of trekking around the country, packed into smelly, unreliable vans, turning up and laying out your heart for people who neither know nor care, walking off stage to the sound of your own footsteps and then packing up the equipment for yet another drive to yet another town where, with luck, you might be paid enough to cover the cost of your petrol. For every overnight sensation there are thousands of crushed former hopefuls. It's hardly surprising that a high proportion of those precious few who eventually make it indulge in the kind of excesses that so often lead to a swift return to obscurity and poverty.
Some good friends of mine began their professional careers in a group called Band of Joy, whose line-up in those early days included two members who later went on to form Led Zeppelin. The original group split up, and the two who went on to form Zep earned millions, with adoring fans throughout the world. My chums formed another band, signed a recording contract and were taken to America where, halfway through a tour, they were dumped, penniless. They tried to continue playing, but with no backing, money or American reputation they ended up living for weeks on a daily handful of dry porridge oats and a glass of water. They were eventually forced to sell their instruments to raise the cash for the return fare. Are they bitter? Not really. It takes a special kind of madness even to start down that road – but to have come so close! It's never – repeat – never simply a question of talent. To achieve any success as a performer requires dedication, a huge amount of luck, excellent timing and, almost invariably, the commitment of a responsible and knowledgeable manager. The support and deep pockets of an aggressive and well-staffed record company helps. Without all that backing the talent is just a curse.
And what of those who make it to the top before disappearing almost immediately back into unfulfilled obscurity? Those one-hit wonders who have to go back to operating a lathe or stacking supermarket shelves. Those few months of fame and seeming prosperity are very seductive. Launching Strange Fruit Records brought me into contact with literally hundreds of musicians and artists who'd had a taste of fame but, for whatever reason, found it impossible to sustain. Character, luck, judgement or simply an unwillingness to continue to grow all played their part.
Clifford T. Ward and Sting were both schoolteachers with a talent for writing and performing wonderful songs. Cliff refused to tour and just wanted to stay home and write. Sting took his talents around the world, honing his craft, first with the Police and later as a solo act. Sting is a fantastically wealthy man, who can afford to 'mislay' the odd few million, while Cliff, before his death in 2001, lived on a fast-diminishing income of royalties from over a quarter of a century ago and battled daily with a wasting disease. In terms of pure talent it is too close to call, but in terms of character the answer is clear.
At a sales conference in Ontario I had a conversation with a young man on the brink of making a fresh start. He had enjoyed enormous success with a song called 'Mister Piano Man', about which he complained he had not received the rewards he felt he was due. Rather than sitting back bemoaning his fate and the fickleness of the public, he was back on the trail with all guns blazing – albeit as an unheralded addition to an entertainment menu featuring Paul Simon, who was himself launching his second solo career. That was several million albums and singles ago for Paul but also for Billy Joel, for it was he, and they both continue to flourish and entertain.CHAPTER 2
ALL I EVER WANTED TO BE WAS THE SINGER IN THE BAND
ALL I EVER WANTED TO BE ...
Even after four decades in the music business, working at the highest levels, selling millions of records and dealing at close quarters with superstars, there is nothing to compare with the sheer joy and elation of performing in public.
The early days at primary school were promising. I had a good voice and, while evacuated to Reading during the Second World War, sang solo with the school orchestra and even broadcast on the BBC Home Service. Returning to London during the Blitz I was forced to entertain relatives with my soprano rendition of 'The Minstrel Boy' to my huge embarrassment. Eventually a posse of experts arrived at the school to assess my potential. Can you imagine a small, scruffy ten-year-old boy singing unaccompanied to a group of middle-aged experts? They concluded that I tried too hard and should have performed in a more relaxed fashion. The story of my life.
The Blitz must have been hell for adults, but kids quickly adapt to almost anything. We played in the streets while the dreaded doodle-bugs zoomed overhead, pausing only when the engines stopped to dash through quickly opened front doors to the comparative safety of the Anderson Shelters buried in the backyards. As soon as the explosion came we would resume our street games, unless, of course, the explosion had been very close, in which case we would go along to investigate the carnage. Occasionally a second bomb would land only minutes later on the same spot in an effort to kill off or maim the rescue services. That caused a few narrow escapes.
Sailing through the eleven-plus exam I was awarded a scholarship to Christ's Hospital School, which was, so I believe, one of the best in the country. Unfortunately it was for boarders and required the wearing of a very strange uniform consisting of breeches and white stockings. This was obviously out of the question for a working-class lad, so I applied to, and was accepted by, another very good school. Latymer Upper School had very high standards and a magnificent record for sending students to Oxford and Cambridge. The entrance exam was not a problem but, on arrival at the school, I was the proverbial fish out of water and very much intimidated by the upper-class accents and smart clothes of the other boys, many of whom had already spent a couple of years there as fee-payers.
Knowing nothing of Latin or even proper English grammar – so no change there – I quickly sank from being a star entrant to languishing at the back of the D form. The staff were a motley crew. One master in particular, a badly disfigured war veteran with a tin leg, soon got our attention by leaping up on to the front desk and proceeding to march around the classroom on our desktops giving each pupil a smart crack around the ear with his swagger stick. Today he would probably be arrested. Another master loathed me with a passion and, having spotted me flicking a chum with my soft rubber book strap, beat me with it in front of the class until he was soaked in perspiration and was forced to remove his jacket and tie. In fact it didn't hurt at all, but he was not to know that, and it must have been a dreadful thing to watch. The Divinity master carried a collection of several canes, each of which he named and, upon being chosen for punishment, we were expected to select a cane by name. God moves in mysterious ways. The French master administered punishment with the sharp edge of a large ruler on the back of the culprit's hand. Boy, that still smarts. The headmaster enjoyed fondling small boys in short trousers and, if sent to his room for detention, he would insist that they stood on their heads. One quickly learned to avoid such situations.
My poor father attended countless meetings at the request of the various masters and must have wondered why he ever bothered. I don't recall the precise reason for my eventual expulsion, but it had something to do with smoking and a couple of ladies occupying a houseboat on the nearby Thames. I didn't inform my parents and left home at the usual time, spending the days catching up on schoolwork in the local library. I did manage four O-levels, which was rather more than I deserved, and the headmaster predicted that I would end up 'working in an amusement arcade' – which turned out to be a pretty good guess.
Leaving school with no money and few prospects, I was determined to be a singer and took a job at the Eldorado Ice Cream factory to earn enough to buy some clothes. It was a truly dreadful job, which entailed standing in several inches of hot, greasy water and lifting hundred-pound tins of lard from floor level to shoulder height all day and every day. The tins were ripped open by hand with a triangle of steel that left a sharp and jagged edge, which we gripped with a wet cloth to heave upwards. The trick was to try to keep your footing on the greasy floor, but I managed to spill plenty of blood and saw the occasional finger severed and dropped into the steaming cauldrons, which were only shut down at the end of the day. Before leaving at the end of the shift we were expected to climb into the vats to clean them out. A favourite game for the old hands was to wait until one of the new boys had dropped into one of the eight-foot-high stainless-steel cookers before turning the heating back on and removing the ladder. Our screams as we burned fingers on the scalding metal provided much merriment. Workers of the world, unite.
I also spent several weeks working with my father as a fitter's mate. At the time he was employed on a school site in Ruislip, which involved a journey of two bus rides and several stops on the Underground to arrive at eight in the morning. The work was relatively well paid but arduous. On one occasion we worked right through a complete weekend, without any sleep, stripping out the school heating system, which was, of course, packed with asbestos. No masks or protection were offered, but it was a lot of welcome overtime. On another occasion we were required to carry a bundle of lengths of copper tubing across the site: my father took the front end, hoisting it up on his shoulder, and I did likewise several yards behind. Copper tubing is very whippy and, pausing to light a cigarette, I dropped my end to the ground causing the tubing to vibrate at high speed, so almost decapitating my poor father. He murmured a few appreciative comments.
Another example of the unity of the workers occurred when we finished the job and returned to the factory where I was immediately banned by the union as a non-member. I offered to join the union but was refused and was effectively thrown out of the job by my workmates. It didn't matter to me – but suppose I had needed the work?
I applied to join the Merchant Navy but blew it at the first interview when ordered to stand to attention. If it was like that even before joining I had no chance. There followed a series of silly jobs such as working in a plant contractor's office and even as a clerk in a firm of solicitors, where I manned the switchboard and accidentally disconnected all the conversations, which resulted in an early dismissal. There was never any thought in my mind of a career other than as a singer, but meanwhile I was expected to earn my keep, and dole was non-existent if you refused any of the totally unsuitable jobs that were offered at the Labour Exchange.
It was still a great time to be young and single, however. I managed to get the odd job singing in pubs and attended all too many disastrous auditions. The weekends were spent at all-night parties. At one of these it snowed heavily, which prompted one of my chums to walk out of the house and about two miles up to Putney Common on his hands through the virgin snow just to leave tracks to confuse any early risers. He was a few years older than me and seemed very dashing and sophisticated. Sadly, he ended up doing time for indecent exposure. Perhaps a clue was, when leaving the house, he would ask his dear old mum to 'knit him some French letters'. I never thought my mum knew what they were until I arose one morning to find the contents of a packet that I had left in a shirt pocket laid out on the kitchen table. The matter was never referred to.
The mother of another pal owned and ran a very smart coffee bar close to the London Coliseum, which was frequented by actors and chorus boys. We were forbidden to visit but, of course, did when she was not there. One play at the theatre was Mister Roberts starring the screen legend Tyrone Power. The gossip was that the star was making such a nuisance of himself with the chorus boys that they were sabotaging the show. This seemed entirely possible when the gentleman came on to me in the coffee bar and I was forced to flee with one of my early heroes in hot pursuit. Another customer was Diana Dors, who would arrive in the company of a grotesque dwarf whom she would lift up on to the counter before engaging in bawdy banter with the other customers. Pretty dangerous and heady stuff for a teenager. That reminds me that I also managed the odd day as a film extra on a Diana Dors picture. It was excruciatingly boring just standing around for hours, but the money was good.
Excerpted from All the Moves by Clive Selwood. Copyright © 2003 Cive Selwood. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by John Peel,
List of Illustrations,
1. You Too?,
2. All I Ever Wanted to Be Was the Singer in the Band – I Still Do,
5. Philips Records,
7. On the Run,
9. Century 21,
10. Elektra Records,
11. The Doors,
12. John Peel,
13. Fine and Dandy,
14. Gene Vincent,
15. Life After Dandelion,
16. CBS Records,
18. Everyone's Gone to the Moon,
20. Pye Records,
22. Strange Fruit Records,
Afterword by Chet Selwood,