Archive | True Tale RSS feed for this section

MGate. The rebranding of a classic, English seaside holiday resort. By Steve Swindells.

4 Aug

IMG_5888

Suggested listening to accompany this travelblogue is The Enigma Elevations by yours truly.

July the 19th, 2015

On a recent warm, sunny Sunday, I spontaneously decided  to visit a Kentish seaside resort with a bit of a dodgy reputation, both from the past and the present.  I’d heard, however, that the town’s future, if not orange, is probably bright, due to the relatively recent opening of that guaranteed saviour of any run-down town or urban area – an art gallery.

The Turner Contemporary turned-out to be simply magnificent.

Brilliantly cool architecture and judicious curation meld this inspired addition to the cultural cannon of Kent into a massive draw for this surprisingly alluring and aesthetically-pleasing resort.

It was formerly renowned as a tacky ‘kiss-me-quick’ resort for mostly working-class Londoners who were attracted to its golden sands and, later, for its proto-Coney Island, pre-theme-park attraction – the recently restored and re-opened Dreamland.

Then latterly it was on the cultural map as the stomping ground of alleged artistic icon Tracy Emin (sorry, I just don’t get her, beyond the hype) and the late, bipolar genius Hawkwind/Hawklords singer Robert Calvert (I was a member of the band in the late 70s). Margate’s most famous son, however, is indisputably the great English artist Turner. I’m sure he’d be thrilled to have a gallery named after him.

This was to be my first-ever visit to Margate.

MGate. Charing Cross Train to Margate

My journey… no, I really can’t use that reality-TV cliche to describe my excursion (that’s better) from the urban wilds of Willesden Junction, five minutes from where I live (in a dreamy loft apartment gifted by the gods in Central Harlesden), to Margate, by train from Charing Cross (changing at Gillingham), not realising initially that I could have travelled there direct from St Pancras on the UK’s only high-speed train.

Heaven Night Club, now a populist shadow of its former ground-breaking self (owned by supposed gay-culture-spokesperson Jeremy Joseph), still lurks in the arches beneath the station and is, regardless, a great venue that resonates with its long history of innovative and inspirational club nights in the 80s, a couple of which – Bad and Babylon – I instigated and promoted.  Happy daze.

MGate. Shard And Guys Hospital

IMG_5841

The train rattled past South London’s landmarks and emerging neighbourhoods and new architecture, the views from the tracks always offering a unique visual insight into the exponential rewards (monstrous carbuncles n’ all) of London being newly-annointed ‘best city in the world’.

Architecture trackside

The train trundled through Lewisham (now there’s a property hotspot, I imagined, with its DLR terminus, fine Victorian housing stock and new-build blocks sprouting like genetically-modified concrete crops), Blackheath and Charlton (memories of living in some old queen’s little terraced house with a bunch of gay hippies in the early 70s invaded my brain) and then, after Dartford and the great arc of its crossing, at last, the big skies and verdant pastures, hop fields and salt marshes of Kent, along with its power stations, docks, gravel pits, industrial estates, caravan-common parks, Travellers’ camps, mega-shopping centre at Bluewater, and a seemingly randomly moored prison ship, offering no chance of escape, other than a freezing swim to freedom. Or perhaps it’s designated to be converted into a floating Travel Lodge for illegal immigrants (this being the county closest to our often xenophobic French cousins).

IMG_5853

I caught a glimpse of the sea, a silvery sliver in the sunshine, as the train approached Whitstable, already established as Notting Hill-On-Sea, with it’s seafood restaurants and rustic, perhaps now trusticarian, half-timbered housing stock.

MGate. Kent from train

I was reminded of a strange period in my life in the early noughties, when X, my long-term fuck-buddy and muse (he was the nearest thing I had to a lover for many years) revealed that he was in love with someone who shared the same birthday as me (weird), who’d invited him for a day out to Whitstable with some friends.  Great – thanks for sharing. He then revealed that he’d attacked this obsession of his, whom he told me looked like a well-known TV news-reader, in a gay bar in Clapham, because this guy was ‘with someone else’. I advised him to go and seek help at The Maudesley Hospital, South London’s premier mental health destination, whilst wondering why he felt it necessary to burden me with all these strangely disturbing details.  Was he testing my jealousy threshold, or just being a bastard? The latter, I suspect.

IMG_5845

I cut X from my life last year, after realising that he was draining the lifeblood out of me and was a waste of space; someone whom I’d wrongly thought was special to me, by default, in the absence of anyone more substantial or less disturbed. What really ‘did it’ was when he wound-up JJ, my now fifteen year-old ginger tom, by pretending to threaten him with violence. JJ had always hated him, and now this was compounded and X was duly excommunicated.

IMG_5850

As the vistas of Kent sped by like an alt-tourist video on YouTube, I sighed and wondered why I’d been beguiled by X and his wonderful bum for nearly twenty years. Oh yes, it was nothing more than his beautiful bottom, wasn’t it?

IMG_5851

Then the train pulled-in to Herne Bay Station, and I was mentally transported back to a sunny afternoon in said seaside town back in September 2008, when I’d joined several mutual, former members of Hawkwind and The Hawklords at The Kings Hall to commemorate the 20th anniversary of former frontman Robert Calvert’s death with a rather ramshackle, unrehearsed benefit for his last wife Jill, who was very ill.

I recall it being a beautiful day, weather-wise, and ‘a jolly good time’ as erstwhile Hawkwind leader Dave Brock might have said in his favourite cod-colonel voice, had he bothered to attend.

IMG_2165

When I’d played keyboards and sung backing vocals on The Hawklords’ seminal, classic album 25 Years On, and played with them on a huge, sold-out UK tour in 1978, Calvert and I had become very close, so I felt it important to attend and perform, unrehearsed, with a host of other ex-members (apart from main-men Dave Brock and Lemmy) for this anniversary gig. The venue was terrific, there was a great turn-out and the atmosphere was rocking.  I immediately dubbed it ‘Hernia Bay’, which was possibly a bad thing to do Karmically: I got my very own umbilical hernia about five years ago, whilst having particularly vigorous sex.

On stage with former members of Hawkwind and Hawklords at 'Hernia Bay'

On stage with former members of Hawkwind and Hawklords at ‘Hernia Bay’

IMG_5856

I love travelling alone on a train as it evokes memories. which can be something of an emotional roller coaster ride.

IMG_5861

The train arrived at Margate, but no memory buttons were pushed, as this was my first time. I was, I suppose, a Margate virgin.

IMG_5864

I emerged from the architecturally impressive station (the facade seemed vaguely art deco and somewhat reminiscent of all those Fascistectural –  I just invented that –  railway stations in Italy) into glorious sunshine and immediately noted that I was a stone’s throw (not a pebble, as the beach is famously sandy, so na na na Brighton) from the seafront.

As I surveyed the scene, my eyes were immediately drawn to the right, where the town’s only tall building, the iconic (if you’re into ‘brutalist’ architecture – which I am) Arlington House, erected in 1964, dominates the town’s skyline, along with the newly-opened Turner Contemporary Gallery and the harbour’s clock tower. I realised immediately that Margate was extremely photogenic – especially on that Sunday, with dramatic cloud formations immediately evoking Turner’s vigorous and vibrant brushstrokes.

IMG_5866

Arlington House

Arlington House

Arlington House could be described as Margate’s answer to Notting Hill’s Trellick Tower, but unfortunately minus the outside spaces. Later research revealed that a small, two bed flat with a sea view (they all have sea views, although one facing West would be best) and needing total refurbishment, could be had for a mere £80K.  Although, apparently the service charge is quite steep.

MGate. Arlington House

Facing Arlington house across a small park is a rundown terrace of houses and shabby hotels diagonal to the seafront – with views across the bay. Ripe for redevelopment, obviously. How great would it be if the terrace could be gradually bought by a housing association, with a good percentage devoted to social housing (funded by the other percentage of better-off buyers).  Don’t hold your breath.

Mgate, Rundown houses with sea views

Then,  heading down to the promenade and looking a few hundred yards to the right, you’ll see the iconic, retro, vertical  signage of Dreamland on its brick tower, which gave me a bit of a photographer’s hard-on, sorry, thrill.

IMG_5871

Next – to the promenade, to take pics of the parading passers-by and the beach and its immediate surrounds. First-up, A nicely-restored pavilion on the prom’. A shelter, I guess you might call it? But it’s rather beautiful.

Mgate. Pavilion on the prom

Then the deliciously retro-tacky-cool delights of the still-faded facades of the newly-reopened Dreamland (which immediately transported me to my youthful memories of seaside, family camping holidays in the 60s) which I didn’t visit this time, as I was more interested in the Turner Contemporary Gallery as my first objective. The exterior visuals of Dreamland made me almost salivate – so who knows what visual joys will captured on my next visit when I take a ride through this vintage amusement park’s living history?

Mgate 7. Dreamland 1

Why can’t I live in a duplex apartment in the tower which hosts the vertical sign? Come on fate – gimme a break! It would be vaguely redolent of a young Woody Allen growing-up in a shack beneath the Coney Island roller-coaster in – what was it? – Annie Hall? Yes.

Mgate 8. Dreamland 2

Apparently, the big wheel and the retro-roller-coaster aren’t open yet, but I love this Instagram shot of a family passing by the still semi-derelict vibe of Dreamland.  Fun for all the family! Kiss me quick! Saucy seaside postcards! Hot dogs, warm cider and unrequited teenaged love and…

Mgate 9. Dreamland big wheel

Now for some random peeps-on-the-prom shots – mostly taken using my Canon EOS 30D. The other shots (can you work out which are which?) were taken on my iPhone 4S using the Camera Plus Pro App – highly recommended.

MGate, Statue on beach

IMG_5874

IMG_5875

IMG_5876

IMG_5877

IMG_5880

Now here’s a pic (taken on the Canon) of what appears to be the continuation of another deliciously retro 50s/60s throwback – a bikers’ cafe on the seafront, as I continue my walk along the prom’ towards the Turner Contemporary Gallery.

IMG_5881

Soon after, I came across some serious gentrification on the seafront as I headed for the gallery, whist musing about what fun it would be to set up The Tina Turner Contemporary Gallery as an alternative pop-up, in some derelict art deco lido, or something. Imagine if there actually was one? 😉

Mgate 9. Rickus Cocktail bar

Mgate 10. The Sands Hotel

The view from The Sands Hotel (which is pretty cool, I see from the website, although I didn’t go inside).

IMG_5883

Then next door…

Mgate 11. Retro cool

Retro-modern Beach Reflection

Retro-modern Beach Reflection

Bring on the gallery!

IMG_5888

I really liked the building immediately. It looked totally ‘right’ and beautifully clean and simple with more than a nod towards a maritime, local-fishing-industrial vernacular.

Mgate 13. Turner Contemp

Mgate 14. Turner Contrast

IMG_5889

The next pic looks almost like a Canaletto transported to 2015.

The view from The Turner Contemporary Gallery.

The view from The Turner Contemporary Gallery.

The kinetic installation – or is it a sculpture? – in the foyer features a whole lot of cymbals.  Does that make then cymbolic? The backdrop is real though, that’s a huge window overlooking the sea.  Cool huh?

IMG_5891

I was thrilled to observe that the featured exhibition was by Grayson Perry, a supremely talented and out-there potter and artist – and Turner Prize winner. He’s a very confident cross-dresser, or transexual, with a great deal of style and intellectual panache, coupled with an almost Hogarthian observation of our social mores, laced with satire and affectionate humour.

Mgate14. Provincial Punk stairs

It was called Provincial Punk, which raised an inner smile. Unfortunately, photography wasn’t allowed in this free exhibition, so I bought a postcard of one of his punky pots (featuring Kurt Kobain and Janet Jackson) and a really funny/cool postcard collection entitled ‘Playing To the Gallery’.

IMG_5892

IMG_5893

IMG_5906

As I left the gallery I mused about the award-winning British film Mr Turner, starring the consistently excellent actor Timothy Spall and directed by the uniquely talented Mike Leigh, whose clever, improvised films I’ve always enjoyed (he doesn’t do scripts).

There’s a Swindells family link to both the movie and the location; as Margate in Turner’s time was recreated in the Cornish village of Kingsand where my family are lucky enough to own an idyllic holiday cottage (which is available for rent) overlooking the beach. And our cottage was one of those transformed for the few weeks of filming, before being returned to exactly how it looked before. Here’s my elder bro Rob looking distinctly un-19th century posing on ‘the set’.

Norcott Starring as Margate

Here’s the cottage returned to normal.

IMG_4227

IMG_5912

I walked past the gallery and along the sea shore, wondering what I might discover around the corner. I was not to be disappointed.

MGate. Red boat, white cliff, blue sky

IMG_5914

Mgate 16. Breakwater

IMG_5915

IMG_5917

I came across  the crumbling, strangely beguiling facade of a Victorian or Regency building (with art-deco additions), which seemed to me to be hiding an architectural mystery secreted in the stubby chalk cliffs.  I wondered what it might be.

IMG_5918

I noticed that an exit door was open – it would appear that some sort of matinee performance had just ended. Was it a theatre? I wandered in unchallenged to investigate.

Mgate17. Winter gdns

Welcome to The Margate Winter Gardens. An absolute gem, both culturally and architecturally.

IMG_5921

The original Edwardian building (later research revealed that it was constructed in 1911) was obviously re-styled in the 30s.

IMG_5924

As I wandered around taking pics on both my iPhone4s and my Canon, I noticed a kind-of pantomime throne with a cheap cardboard ‘crown’ on its seat cushion sitting randomly on the edge of the auditorium. So I couldn’t resist taking a deliberately silly ‘royal selfie’ of ‘King Stephen’.

MGate. King Stephen

Sometimes, I wonder how many people actually get ‘double irony’. Then again, having probably invented the term myself, I guess it’s in its cultural infancy.

To me, as I wandered lonely as a kiss-me-quick postcard along the nether regions of Margate’s enchanting seafront, I felt I was acknowledging not only the genius of Grayson Perry, but also all those faded, end-of-the-pier stars of British variety and comedy that had been part of my youth.

I was mentally transported back to my childhood holidays with three maiden aunts who shared a tasteless little modern bungalow in Polegate near Eastbourne in Sussex.

The lovely, subtle scent of sweet peas, geraniums and pinks in the outside space of my loft apartment in North West London immediately transports me back to those halcyon days spent in their little garden (I recall making a puppet theatre out of a stool), when I used to travel unaccompanied on the train (it was still STEAM – and I remember my train once being powered by that awesome, blue, iconic modernist loco the Mallard) from Bath Spa, aged 7 and 8, to London Paddington.

The ‘Aunties’ as we called them (I wonder if they might have been lesbians?  Nah. No way) used to meet me there, then we would travel on the wondrous and magical (to little me) tube across to Victoria, to get the train to Sussex. They used to spoil me rotten, and special treats included going for afternoon tea at a wonderfully glamourous (to me ) Italian cafe called BonDolfi’s (which, with hindsight, was an art deco delight) in Eastbourne, where my favourite indulgence was a Marron Glace – a delicious confection of meringue, chestnut puree and whipped cream.

Then they would take me to shows at the end-of-the-pier theatre, where the big star was a tame, but rather charming old drag queen called Sandy Powell, or a variety revue called The Fol-De-Rols, which inspired me to dance along the promenade afterwards and jump-up and swing around lamp posts, like a wannabe Gene Kelly.

Then I wandered into the delightfully tasteless bar, with its plastic plants and awesome views.

IMG_5926

As I left the Winter Gardens and continued my walk, I was reminded how blessed I was with good weather and great views.  Margate was being rebranded in my mind into MGate. I began to wonder if I might live here one day.

IMG_5928

OMG – what the hell was this wonderfully evocative, semi-derelict building? All my entrepreneurial instincts started to automatically kick-in as wondered why such an apparent gem had been allowed to go rack and ruin.

IMG_5930

IMG_5932

Mgate19. Abandoned Lido

As I turned the corner I realised what the fascinating derelict building was – the bar, restaurant and nightclub attached to what had been Margate’s (now abandoned) art deco Lido, which had originally been a Victorian sea-bathing resort.

IMG_5934

Later research revealed that the local Council, Thanet, have indeed mooted redevelopment of the Lido, but I didn’t see any evidence of regeneration.

The sound of raucous, youthful laughter echoed from the remains of the walls. So I shot a suitably ironic mini-art movie to try and capture the elusive MGate zeitgeist *add pinch of irony to taste*.

 It turned out to be a bunch of Spanish students hangin’ out in the ruined Lido, who, noticing my camera, asked if I’d take their pics. I was happy to oblige.

IMG_5937

Then I took one on my iPhone and gave them my name on Instagram, so they could check it out.

Mgate20. Spanish Studentsjpg

Mgate23. Lido bar

This is MGate’s second iconic ‘vertical logo’, after Dreamland, and it’s damn beautiful – and still so well-preserved, unlike the derelict buildings and mysteriously beguiling subterranean aquatic facilities beneath it.

Mgate21. Lido sign

I crossed the road to check out the run-down-yet-charming Cliftonville area, where it soon became evident that this was a bit of an ‘immigrant ghetto’ and obviously somewhere where seaside bargains might be had, if one was in a position to invest.

I reminded myself that the local UKIP candidate for Thanet had been a favourite to win a seat in Parliament at the last election, but, thankfully didn’t.

So fuck you Farage!

I only wish I’d been able to see inside Frank’s club, but there was no sign of life.  Then I imagined the tacky, 60s flats above, with their direct sea views could be bought and refurbished very cheaply and turned into something rather special.  I would relish such a challenge.

Mgate24. Frank's Nightclub

I reluctantly turned my back on the sea to check out the Victorian and Regency terraces (along with some modern ones copying the vernacular) of Cliftonville and entered a square with a kid’s play area in the middle, where I captured this lovely moment.

MGate. Immigrant football

IMG_5945

The area was scruffy and run-down, but had a certain charm and some interesting architecture, along with great views of the sea as the shadows lengthened on this gloriously sunny, late afternoon. Then I turned the corner into what seemed to be the High Street, which was parallel with the seafront a couple of blocks away – lots of fast-food outlets and Asian corner shops – I could almost have been in somewhere like Bradford if it weren’t for the bracing fresh air. Then my inner gaspomoter went off the scale as I spotted a beautiful Victorian Warehouse behind a Car Wash and wondered if it was empty and, naturally, er… when I might move in!

Mgate25. Carwash and warehouse

I turned the corner, back towards the seafront, and was astonished by the facade of this magnificent building, obviously a former storage facility for a removals company. I saw a man about my age coming out of the main entrance and asked him what went on inside and he replied that the building’s spacious rooms were let out to local artists.  ‘Are the rents cheap?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘very cheap really.’

‘Lucky local artists!’ I responded and he smiled enigmatically.

Mgate26. Depository

As I walked down the hill I saw a group of young girls coming towards me, dressed in colourful, ethnic clothes, which seemed to be a cross between Romany and Middle-Eastern.  They had rosy cheeks and olive skin and were laughing a lot. One of them pointed at my camera and they giggled as she asked in broken English ‘Can take picture of we?’ I was excited to smilingly agree but forgot to click the auto-focus; so, unfortunately, what could have been a great photo later turned-out to be all blurred.

When I’d asked where they were from, they’d all happily chorused ‘Slovenia’.

Now I was in a very attractive square surrounded by gorgeous Georgian, Regency and Victorian terraces – I was obviously in MGate’s renowned Old Town – but it was far more appealing than I could have imagined.

I saw a ‘For Sale’ sign at the end of an alley that widened into a little square and saw a very strange little house that seemed to have been designed in the sixties in a cod-Tyrolean vernacular – overlooking the Morrison’s supermarket car park. A friendly-looking woman got out of her car to go into her adjacent cottage and she said hello with a smile. I grinned-back and said ‘Hi,’ then pointed towards the little house: ‘I saw the For Sale sign and just wondered what it was…’

‘Oh it’s been for sale for ages.’

‘It looks tiny – maybe just one bedroom.’

‘Yes, minuscule.

‘This is my first visit to Margate – what’s it like living here?’ I asked.

‘Oh, I love it.’ She replied. ‘Quite a lot of locals moan about the immigrant population but I like the cultural diversity that they bring to what would otherwise be a rather dull, sleepy little provincial, seaside town.’

‘Has the Turner Contemporary gallery made a big difference?’

‘It’s been a total game changer,’ she enthused, ‘now there are lots of artists moving here and independent galleries are springing-up in disused spaces. It’s breathed new life into the town – and it’s made property a good investment too, although it’s still pretty cheap…’

‘Compared to somewhere like already-gentrified Whitstable?’

‘Absolutely – and a lot less pretentious!’

Mgate 27. Retro Shop

Now I was in retro-vintage heaven!  This was the third such shop I’d seen. I was drooling over both sideboards in the window.  I made a mental note to come and visit again on a weekday, when the shops would be open, but I did notice that the fabulous Seventies one sitting on top of the Sixties (?) one below was priced at £150 and looked to be in very good nick.  If that had been in a shop in Shoreditch, Islington or Clerkenwell, it would have been about £600 at least.

Then I came into the main Market Square and noted that there were several art galleries and bistros housed in various beautiful old buildings.

Mgate 28. Mkt square

Mgate29. Mkt square 2

I headed back towards the seafront, intent on getting some fish and chips, which I would accompany with the decent bottle of Chilean Merlot I’d bought with me (half-price at Tesco), along with a plastic glass, before reluctantly getting the train home. This being a Sunday, I didn’t want to get stranded. On my way, I noticed some cool development opportunities. Ah – if only I was in a position to implement them.

Mgate 30. Blue boarded-up

I later found out that these two beautiful houses with direct, Westerly sea views, one comprising four flats; the other a three-bedroomed house, were priced at £475 (which is what my two-bedroomed, London loft apartment might cost if I could buy it) and £450 respectively.  Drool.

Mgate32. Albert Terrace

I found a fish and chip shop that was just about to close (at dinner time?), but this meant that the affable owner gave me a huge piece of cod and loads of chips for just £3, as, he said: ‘That’s me last bit of fish mate!’

Mgate. Alfresco dinner

I ate my dinner on a park bench in the West-facing square overlooking the beach in front of Albert Terrace, where the two aforementioned houses were for sale (the fag-ends were not mine!). I was trying to work out how I was about to see the sun going down, when I was on the North-Eastern tip of Kent. The mystery was solved when I got home and found that MGate is actually situated on a promontory and faces West. I screwed the cap back on my half-consumed bottle of wine so that I could finish it on the train home, then ambled back to the station taking pictures of the sunset and it’s reflections, both on my iPhone and my Canon.  The next Instagram photo looks like it could have been taken in St Tropez!

Mgate31. St Tropez sunset

Mgate33. sunset Beach

That was another Instagram – now for some taken on my Canon EOS 30D (with its 50mm lens).

That’s the setting sun ‘illuminating’ the big wheel.

IMG_5968

Turner would have liked this cloud formation.

IMG_5969

IMG_5970

IMG_5974

IMG_5975

IMG_5977

IMG_5984

IMG_5989

When I reached the station and checked the departure board, I was delighted to discover that I could get a high-speed ‘Javelin’ train direct to St Pancras  – and would only have to wait ten minutes. Excellent!  That meant I could sit at a table on the train and charge my phone, which was nearly dead, despite me having brought an extra battery (because of the scores of pics I’d taken), then process my Instagrams via the Camera Plus Pro app that I use, whilst finishing the rest of my Merlot.  Happy daze again!

IMG_5988

Mgate34. Hi-speed train home

And finally, Rochester Castle silhouetted against the sunset, taken from the train.

IMG_6003

All photos © Steve Swindells.

BTW – the etched-glass sleeping pod for two people in my live-work loft apartment is available to rent via airbnb for just £49 a night. I’ve had eight five-star reviews so far!

Advertisements

Barcelona. October 2014.

2 Nov

On October the 22nd, my mother Audrey, my brother Mike and his wife Sylvie treated me to a five day holiday in Barcelona, which I hadn’t visited since 1988.  My mum, now a sprightly 86, had always loved my song Barcelona (now part of my alter-ego Thom Topham’s Multimedia eBook ‘My Unplanned Obsolescence’) and had never visited this magical city.

Following the recent death of my adoptive father Harold (her partner and soul-mate for over 55 years) in July, Audrey felt that her first holiday without him would possibly help to ease the pain of his passing and hopefully prove to be cathartic in enabling her to get over her loss. Also coming along for the ride were Mike and Sylvie’s son Thibault and my sister Josie and her husband Kae Bahar’s youngest, Leon.

Sylvie had booked a fantastic house via http://www.airbnb.co.uk for us to stay in in the very central CLOT area of Barcelona. This turned out to be an un-touristy, funky, largely working-class neighbourhood with a pedestrianised main street, a covered food market, great cafes and unpretentious restaurants and Parc Del Clot, a fabulous art/sports park which features ancient stoneworks, a wonderfully creative water feature, an outdoor squash court, a large paved area for people to play sports in and a long, pedestrian bridge overlooking it all.  It’s particularly attractive at night, when it is beautifully lit. Sylvie also booked our visits to Gaudi’s famous La Sagrada Familia (now virtually complete interior-wise) Casa Batllo and Parc Guell  online in advance, which proved to be a wise move.

We also took a day trip – only €8 return on the train – to the lovely seaside resort of Sitges, which is also famous as the gay holiday capital of Spain.

By some excellent synchronicity, the week before I left I discovered on Facebook that my old French friend Serge, whom I hadn’t seen for 27 years (as he’d been living in Fiji and Morocco) was also going to be in Barcelona at exactly the same time.

I  suggest that you might like to listen to the song ‘Barcelona’, the lyric of which was written in the city in 1988, as you look at my pictures.  These were taken on my iPhone4 using the Camera Plus Pro app (which I’d thoroughly recommend), before being processed via Instagram.

All photos © Steve Swindells. 2014.

 

Just landed.  Barcelona.

Just landed. Barcelona.

 

 

 

Clot Station. Barcelona.

Clot Station. Barcelona.

 

Clot-Arago (the overground) Station Escalator.

Clot-Arago (the overground) Station Escalator.

 

Our House In Clot - For Five Days.

Our House In Clot – For Five Days. L-R; Sylvie, Thibault, Audrey and Mike.

 

Family Selfie - on Career Meridional.

Family Selfie – on Carrer Meridional.  Thibault, Audrey, myself and Leon.

 

My Room.

My bedroom.

 

Mike in the main bedroom, with its balcony overlooking the street.

Mike in the main bedroom, with its balcony overlooking the street.

 

The terrace from the balcony of Audrey's bedroom.

The terrace from the balcony of Audrey’s bedroom.

 

The view from the balcony of the main bedroom.

The view from the balcony of the main bedroom.

 

 

We're walking through Clot in the direction the sea.

We’re walking through Clot in the direction of the sea – which we were to find took about 25 minutes.  Audrey wisely headed back to the house after we’d come across the beautiful Parc Del Clot.

 

 

The covered market in Clot.

The covered market in Clot.

 

 

 

Then later on after dark...

Then later on after dark…

 

Barca. Archi-tower:modern:clot

 

 

 

How does this cantilevered skyscraper defy gravity?

How does this cantilevered skyscraper defy gravity?

 

 

Nearly at the beach...

Nearly at the beach…

 

 

Leon tries to move the goalposts.

Leon tries to move the goalposts.

 

 

Shadows.

Shadows.

 

 

Sun Going Down On The Beach.

Sun Going Down On The Beach.

 

 

 

Barca Street Furniture.

Barca Street Furniture.

 

 

Selfie Reflection.

Selfie Reflection.

 

 

Urban walls as viewed from the terrace.  9am.

Urban walls as viewed from the terrace of ‘our house’.

 

 

 

The view from the terrace at night.

The view from the terrace at night.

 

 

The Stairs.

The Stairs.

 

 

Mother and son after tapas.

Mother and son after eating tapas at a local eatery in Clot.

 

 

Eureka! The house has a dressing-up box!

Eureka! The house has a dressing-up box!

 

 

Thibault & Leon Go Go.

Thibault & Leon Go Go.

 

 

Serge has arrived for dinner.

Serge has arrived for dinner.

 

 

 

The Family Ham It Up!

The Family Ham It Up!

 

 

Serge, SS and Audrey,

Serge, SS and Audrey,

 

 

Thibault Camps It Up.

The Boys Are Back In Town

 

 

Barca. Dress-up. Thib.

 

 

Serge is an old pro!

Serge is an old pro!

 

 

Leon is cool.

Leon is cool.

 

 

Audrey in her fave cafe by the market.

Audrey in her fave cafe by the market, before we head for La Sagrada Familia.

 

La Sagrada Familia is a total must-see for people visiting Barca. The interior is virtually complete and the exterior will be  – but I have no idea how long it will take.

It certainly is one of the most awe-inspiring buildings I’ve ever seen – especially internally (as a lot of the exterior is wrapped in scaffolding).  The music that they pipe into the building is quite magical too – like new-age, spiritual music from another world.  I’ve never heard anything like it.  I’m not religious at all – just naturally spiritual, but visiting this incredible basilica was an inspiring and moving experience.  Apart from when I stepped-out of the lift at the top of one of the towers.  I’m afraid to admit that I suffer from extreme vertigo, and this made me fall onto my knees and I had to literally crawl back in to the lobby of the lift.  My legs hurt like hell (no pun intended) just thinking about it.

La Sagrada Familia - a detail of one of the facades.

La Sagrada Familia – a detail of one of the facades.

 

 

Part of the main roof.  Astonishing.

Part of the ceiling and the soaring columns supporting it. Astonishing.

 

 

Audrey in the brilliant sunlight by the main doors.

Audrey in the brilliant sunlight in front of one of the awesome main doors.

 

 

God IS A DJ.

God Is A DJ.

 

 

 

Pillars lit by the sun pouring through the stunning stained-glass windows.

Pillars lit by the sun pouring through the stunning stained-glass windows.

 

 

Blue.

Blue.

 

 

Under The Blue Windows.

Under The Blue Windows.

 

The incredible ceiling above the nave.

The incredible ceiling above the nave.

Golden.

Golden.

 

 

One Of The Main Doors.

One Of The Main Doors.

 

 

 

Organ pipes coloured by the afternoon sunlight through the enormous stained glass windows.

Organ pipes coloured by the afternoon sunlight through the enormous stained glass windows.

 

 

The Ornate Ceiling From Below.

The Ornate Ceiling From Another Angle .

 

The following day, we took the train to the gorgeously funky seaside resort of Sitges and had a picnic on the beach before the boys (and men) braved the icy waters of the mediteranean (joking: it was lovely). It was a perfectly cloudless day and the temperature was 26 degrees.

A perfectly-formed roof terrace catches my eye as we walk towards the beach through the old town of Sitges.

A perfectly-formed roof terrace catches my eye as we walk towards the beach through the old town of Sitges.

 

 

Sitges. Art-Nouveau House

Sitges. beach

Sitges.  Audrey on beach

Leon and SS catching waves.

Leon and SS catching waves.

 

 

Thibault gets buried alive.

Thibault gets buried alive.

 

 

Sitges. Breakwater

Sitges from breakwater

This is my house, of course, I'm just renting it out at the moment… honest...

I’ve owned this house for years but of course I’m just renting it out at the moment… honest…

 

 

Sitges. Bendy medieval tower

Silhouettes on the breakwater.

Silhouettes on the breakwater.

 

Sitges. Silhuettes 2

The following day, we headed for the Gothic Quarter and The nearby Marina, before visiting Gaudi’s incredible Parc Guell.

A huge, metal sculpture dominates one of the main squares in The Gothic Quarter  - where we sat in the sunshine outside one of many cafes.

A huge, metal sculpture dominates one of the main squares in The Gothic Quarter – where we sat in the sunshine outside one of many cafes.

 

Barca.  Trina napkins

Audrey and I ambled through the gothic quarter down to the harbour.

Audrey and I ambled through the gothic quarter down to the harbour.

 

 

Streetlights designed by - yes, you guessed it - Gaudi.

Streetlights designed by – yes, you guessed it – Gaudi.

 

 

 

Barca, Goth Q street sunshine

 

Columbus Curve.

Columbus Curve.

 

 

Barca.  SS & Aud Marina Selfie

Barca Marina by Columbus

Floating Subuteo Sculpture in the harbour.

Floating Subuteo Sculpture in the harbour.

 

 

On The Metro Heading For Parc Guell - a Parallel Universe.

On The Metro Heading For Parc Guell – a Parallel Universe.

 

 

Barca, Parc Guell. View from abovejpg

‘The heat spreads like a blanket, on a hazy afternoon…’

Gaudi's mashed-up ceramic curves.

Gaudi’s mashed-up ceramic curves.

 

 

That's the cranes above La Sagrada Familia in the far distance.

That’s the cranes above La Sagrada Familia in the middle distance.

 

 

One of the two fantastical gatehouses.

One of the two fantastical gatehouses.

 

 

Barca. Parc Guell. Temple pillars

Audrey takes a well-earned, contemplative rest while the rest of us explore the gatehouse.

Audrey takes a well-earned, contemplative rest while the rest of us explore the gatehouse.

 

I wanted to show Serge our local Parc Del Clot at night.  He, like all of us, found it quite beguiling.  Then we heard loud music coming from the direction of Barelona’s answer to (or copy of) London’s ‘Gherkin’ and found ourselves at the opening of an exhibition of photos of reggae artists in Jamaica in the 70s and 80s, which was a coincidence, as Serge lived there for  seven years back then and had known quite a few of the subjects.  There was a free, outdoor reggae rave with cheap beer as well.  Our Saturday night’s entertainment was sorted!

After dinner...

After dinner…

SS in 'Graffiti Square' taken by Serge.

SS in ‘Plaza Graffita’ (as I dubbed it) taken by Serge.

 

 

Barca. ParcElClot. Woman:Dog2.

Sylvie and Mike dance in Parc Del Clot.

Sylvie and Mike dance in Parc Del Clot.

 

 

Barca. Parc El Clot & Akbar Tower

Serge enjoying Parc Del Clot.

Serge enjoying Parc Del Clot.

 

 

Serge at the reggae photo exhibition.

Serge at the reggae photo exhibition.

 

 

Barca. SS @ reggae exhib

People at the reggae rave.

People at the reggae rave.

 

 

Was it Sunday that we visited another of Gaudi’s masterpieces, Casa Batllo?  We packed so much in (and all that Rioja) that I’ve probably got the timelines wrong. Who cares?

Incredible stained glass in extraordinary windows of the main living room of Casa Batllo.

Incredible stained glass in the extraordinary windows of the main living room of Casa Batllo.

 

 

 

The same windows from outside.

The same windows from outside.

 

 

Bet you've never seen chimneys like this before?

Bet you’ve never seen chimneys like this before?

 

 

The massive wall of smashed ceramics at the back of the huge terrace.

The massive wall of smashed ceramics at the back of the huge terrace.

 

 

Then we went to the beach at Barcelonetta, at the Marina end, near to the Olympic Park.

Barca. Jetskis marina

Looks like Audrey's in goal!

Looks like Audrey’s in goal!

 

Barca.  Skate park

 

 

Barca Sag Fam facade across lake

Barca. Playa. S +T

Ancient and modern.

Ancient and modern.

 

Then it was time for me to leave, as mine was a separate flight to Gatwick, and the rest of the family flew back to Bristol a little later. What a wonderful five days!

Goodbye! X

Goodbye! X

 

 

Getting ready to take-off as the sun goes down.

Getting ready to take-off as the sun goes down.

 

 

Barca. EasyJet Clouds over France

Club-running, Concerts, Chords, Conundrums, Conceptions, Creativity, Coercion, Comfort, Cognac and Cocaine.

29 Aug

In the very early eighties I was living in a post-war prefab just off the Old Kent Road – opposite the imposing, wrought-iron gates of Burgess Park. There were about 20 prefabs packed close together in what was known as University Village, as they were mostly rented to students. My little house had three tiny bedrooms, a minuscule kitchen, a small living room and a minute bathroom. I payed £40 a week in rent, which was pretty reasonable in those days.

I took-off the kitchen door and the one that led from the living room into one of the bedrooms (which became my office/studio) to create the feeling of more space – which was a bit of a long-shot. These doors were then put to use as an L-shaped desk – set on trestles.

Me in the prefab - complete with some of my first retro-modern pieces.

Me in the prefab – complete with some of my first retro-modern pieces.

But at least I had a whole house – which had the feel of a cosy, urban log cabin – all to myself; complete with the hitherto unthinkable luxury of a micro guest room.

Having been simultaneously and unceremoniously ‘dropped’ by Atco Records and Trinifold (The management of The Who) in 1981, I’d decided it was time for a career change  – whilst continuing with my songwriting and recording.

My first venture into club promotion had been with The Lift in 1982 (see ‘All Human Beings Welcome‘ for the story on that) and in ’83 I was soon to start expanding my burgeoning club-running and party-organising business by forming The Pure Organisation with Kevin Millins, who was the promotions director of Heaven, Europe’s largest and most successful Gay club. He hosted Asylum at the club on Wednesdays (Wednesdays!), and it was a huge success, appealing to the more alternative demimonde – both gay, straight and all things in between.

The Lift was also packed every week – largely with a gay/mixed, people-of-colour crowd. Before its Thursday night slot at the late-lamented Gargoyle Club on Meard Street in Soho was terminated (due to the lease ending), I launched Lift 2 on Fridays at Stallions, which was a wonderfully authentic 70s, gay night club at the end of an alley behind Busby’s (later Mean Fiddler two) on Charing Cross Road – knowing that it would soon become the main night.

Lift II Stallions Fridays

With Vicki Edwards @ The Lift.

With Vicki Edwards @ The Lift.

Kevin and I were promoting London’s two, hippest, coolest polysexual club nights, so it would later make perfect sense for us to team-up.

Kevin and me celebrating.

Celebrating with Kevin Millins.

Kevin In the Pure Organisation Office in Craven St, Charing Cross.

Kevin in the Pure Organisation Office in Craven St, Charing Cross.

Mondays at Busby’s had been home to BANG! for many years. This was an old-school gay/mixed night that featured campy, trash-disco DJS who talked on the mic (no!) and go-go boys. It had been massively successful back in the day, but now it was very much past its sell-by date.  So, as I had a very successful Friday night which was all over both the gay and style press (I’d done a two-page interview in The Face magazine, for instance), I decided to approach Busby’s manager Vic Sparrow with a view to offering my services to the promoters of BANG! as a consultant – to drag it kicking and screaming into the 80s. My offer was declined by the promoters. So I had another meeting with Vic whereby I suggested that The Lift and Asylum could combine their ‘crowds’ and create a new night on Mondays (Mondays!) at Busby’s. Vic liked the idea a lot. It was, I explained, just a formality to present Kevin Millins with this ready-made proposal. I’d already dreamed-up a name: Jungle.

Posing with new backdrop - in 1984?

Posing with new backdrop – in 1984?

Kevin readily agreed and so all we needed were two DJs. He was already friends with Colin Faver of Kiss FM (which was still a pirate station at the time) and we both knew Fat Tony from his outrageously silly, deliberately so-bad-they-were-good drag shows at Heaven. He’d also started DJing at various one-nighters – playing really good music (he’s still a very successful DJ – over thirty years later). Kevin and I agreed that Jungle’s music policy was to feature the best of contemporary black music, which essentially meant mostly New York-style garage, soul (‘Aint nothin’ goin’ on but the rent’), anything by Chakka Khan, and American funk like Parliament and Maze, the first rap hits (‘It’s like a jungle out there, sometimes I wonder how I keep from going under...’), along with Blondie, Talking Heads, The B-52s and Madonna, home-grown soul and jazz funk (‘You’ve got me hangin’ on a string…‘), and remixes from the cream of British electronic/indie/pop acts such Soft Cell, ABC, The Human league, Visage, New Order, Gary Numan, The Pet Shop Boys, Heaven 17, Bronski Beat, Culture Club, Erasure, Eurythmics and Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

DJFat Tony @ Jungle

DJFat Tony @ Jungle

DJ Colin Faver

DJ Colin Faver playing @ Jungle.

Many of the aforementioned groundbreaking bands also boasted (if that’s the right word) the first-ever ‘out’ gay pop stars – all of whom became regulars at Jungle – which was a massive hit from the outset – along with Sade, The Sex Pistols, Mica Paris, Neneh Cherry, Bananarama, Rifat Ozbek, Judy Blame, Jasper Conran, Leigh Bowery, David Holah, The Face Editor Sheryl Garrett, Ben and Andy Boilerhouse, Damon Rochefort (of Nomad), Andi Oliver, Eric Robinson, Stephen Linnard, Steve Strange, Germaine Stewart, crimpers Stephen Hamilton, Sam McKnight and Ronald Falloon, Princess Julia, Duggie Fields, John Maybury, John Galliano, ‘starchitect’ Nigel Coates (another ex from the 70s), Anthony Price, Ashley Lloyd-Jennings (of Hackett – we’d had a fling in the 70s) the milliners Stephen Jones and Phillip Treacy, the late Justin Fashanu (soccer’s first ‘out’- not to mention black – premier-league footballer) and many more luminaries from a decade which saw British achievements in fashion and the arts reach new heights – particularly from the gay and polysexual underground.

Jungle in '83. Behind me is Tony Wilkinson, who tragically drowned in Jamaica in 2014.

Jungle in ’83. Behind me is Tony Wilkinson, who tragically drowned in Jamaica in 2014.

One night, the ‘Red Indian’ from The Village People showed-up at Jungle – dressed in full ‘tribal’ mode, complete with enormous head dress – and tried to pick me up! Sorry dude, not my type. The Village People were just considered to be a camp joke by us London movers and shakers. I was far more interested in meeting John ‘Jellybean’ Benitez (he came to Jungle and we chatted at length) who’d produced ‘Holiday’, Madonna’s first hit single, which the DJs at both the Lift and Jungle had played to death. When it had come out as an import from the US, everyone had assumed that she was black.

Ashley Lloyd-Jennings (co-founder of Hackett) and friends at Jungle.

Ashley Lloyd-Jennings (with beard, co-founder of Hackett) and friends at Jungle.

And suddenly, there were black, gay men out clubbing in force – especially at The Lift and Jungle (where the legendary and sorely-missed Breeze was the ‘door whore’, before becoming a resident DJ, along with Vicki Edwards, at The Pure Organisation’s subsequently wildly successful club night BAD in the Soundshaft, which was part of Heaven, but had a separate entrance).

Breeze  door-whoring @ Jungle

Breeze door-whoring @ Jungle

The lesbians took a little longer to get on board, but the first-ever (and only) lesbian mega-club was Venus Rising on Thursdays at The Fridge in Brixton, where my good friend Vicki Edwards was the superstar DJ, but that didn’t open until the late 80s, as far as I recall.

DJ Vicki Edwards.

DJ Vicki Edwards in the 80s.

In 1985, Jungle had arguably became the first club in London to play a new kind of club music which had sprung from gay, black underground nights in Chicago.

It was called house music.

We certainly put on the first-ever PA by a house artist in London, which was ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’ by Farley Jackmaster Funk, in the larger-than-life form of featured vocalist, the late Darryl Pandy. I clearly remember him asking me in what passed as a dressing room (a glorified cupboard behind the stage), whether he should wear the sparkly turquoise kaftan or the orange one. I suggested the former. He went down a storm, with a gaggle of gay pop stars (do you remember that night Paul Rutherford?) dancing wildly at the front and being showered with Darryl’s sweat.

Ralph Chan and Ronald Falloon @ Jungle.

Ralph Chan and Ronald Falloon @ Jungle.

Kevin and my roles in The Pure Organisation (Pure… Organisation. I’d dreamed-up this neat bit of branding) were clearly defined from the outset. I was the creative and PR director, he was the financial and business director. Occasionally we crossed-over, but with little friction, until when he decided to try and take-over my natural, creative director role after Jungle moved to Paris (which is totally another story), which unfortunately resulted in the downfall of our little empire (along with the Heaven management’s racism, which later caused BAD to close) – and my departure from it.  It’s OK, we’re friends again these days (he’s running European Gay Ski Week). I guess you’ll just have to ask him why that  anomaly occurred.

The quieter, upstairs bar at Jungle.

The quieter, upstairs bar at Jungle.

In 1979, I’d been signed to Atco Records in New York by Doug Morris (whom, as I write, is the most powerful man in the music industry – the President of Sony Music) and the result was my second album ‘Fresh Blood’ (regarded as a classic by many and reissued on Cherry Red/Atomhenge in 2009. Check-out my sleeve notes elsewhere in this collection). I’d had terrific reviews (‘Boy can this guy write lyrics; a sparkling debut’: Rolling Stone) and it reached number 3 in the US airplay charts, two weeks after its release, with little or no promotion.

Then I made some great follow-up demos with terrific, all-star musicians before, much to my chagrin, as I mentioned earlier, I was subsequently summarily dropped by both Atco Records and Trinifold Management.

Why?

I’m happy to report that these high-quality demos were finally released as my double CD ‘The Lost Albums’ on Flicknife Records in 2012. This makes me believe in Good Karma – albeit delayed by over thirty years. My sleeve notes  are also featured in ‘Sex N’ Drugs N’ Sausage Rolls’.

TheLostAlbums_Mod3+

I’d withdrawn from trying to continue as a recording artist in the music industry as a result of this devastating roller-coaster ride and was licking my wounds when I decided to re-invent myself as club promoter and party organiser. I had to pull something out of the survival bag.

Stellar events which either The Pure Organisation or myself individually later organised included Prince’s ‘Love Sexy’ after-parties in 1988 (along with my good friend Thom Topham) and parties for Madonna, Warner Music, Time Out and The Face magazines, to name a few.

Suddenly I was a successful face, although I kept a relatively low profile – I was not one for air-kisses and calling everyone dahling.

The dark side of the 80s was the strangely back-to-the-fifties reign of La Thatcher, along the spectre of AIDS – the dark, frightening and oppressive cloud that was to invidiously create so much anti-gay propaganda and was infect or kill so many of my friends (including straight women) and lovers – as the decade became a strangely convoluted mish-mash of coping and surviving, good-will, bonding and charity (The Terence Higgins Trust), creativity, clashes (the trade unions, the miners) and sometimes consensus, covetousness (think Wall St and The City Of London) and, for me, successful club-running and party organising, along with the party peoples’ consumption of industrial quantities of cocaine. I was given copious amounts of it – simply for putting certain people on the guest list.

Naturally, not being greedy or possessing an addictive nature, I generously distributed these gifts amongst my more interesting and charming Junglers  by inviting them into the nearest thing we might have called a VIP room – our office.

I always saw myself as a facilitator and mentor to young people who were talented by introducing them to more well-known and successful people.  As a result, several flourishing, creative careers were virtually launched at The Lift and Jungle.

Jungle was VIP in its entirety, apart from our little office, or orifice, as I’d childishly dubbed it.

Perhaps I’d been inspired by my visits to the legendary orifice in Studio 54 in New York?

When Kevin and I first teamed-up to launch Jungle and formed The Pure Organisation, he’d suggested that the best way to guarantee a full club early in the night (thereby keeping the tills ringing behind the bars to keep the owner’s aligned drinks company – in Busby’s case Whitbread – happy) was to make it cheaper to get in the earlier you came. Then I came up with the idea of the first-ever see-through, acetate flyer, which I designed. The reason for using this material was not just its cool novelty (you had to hold it up to the light to read the print), but also the fact that you could easily have holes punched out of the flyers after printing several thousand.

The first Jungle flyer - designed by yours truly.

‘The hunter gets captured by the game’: the first Jungle flyer – designed by yours truly.

The key to our Jungle PR campaign was a word-of-mouth whisper that the flyers without the holes punched-out allowed the holders to get into the club for free before midnight. The ones with holes enabled people to get for £1 before midnight (after all, you can’t replace punched-out holes, can you?). Therefore – due to this gently deliberate confusion – on the opening night, the queue to get in stretched all the way around the block – which included The Astoria.

Sadly, both venues have now been demolished to facilitate the new Crossrail station at Tottenham Court Road.

Kevin had negotiated a clever deal with Vic Sparrow, the canny, avuncular and portly manager of Busby’s. He’d offered a bar guarantee of something like £2,000 or thereabouts (I don’t remember exactly, it was 31 years ago, after all) and, in return, we’d take 100% of the money on the door and pay the DJs, our door staff and our team that ‘dressed’ the venue before we opened. The club would pay the security and bar staff. This was all agreed and the arrangement suited all concerned for more than three, successful years. Rarely did the attendance dip below 1,000 people (often it was 1,300) and the atmosphere was always electric, with great vibes all round. And it was sexy. You should also remember – this was a weekly club night held on a Monday! And there was never, ever any trouble.

One day in 1985, I took an interesting call in The Pure Organisation’s wood-panelled, 1st floor suite of offices in a classic Georgian house in Craven street, behind Heaven (where Kevin Millins’ Asylum had transmuted into the massively successful Pyramid on Wednesdays). It was from a member of Janet Jackson’s management team. He wondered politely if we’d be able to let her in to Jungle through a back door as she wanted to hang out anonymously with a couple of friends. This was accomplished with minimum fuss, as she didn’t require any special treatment whatsoever. It was my pleasure to get her a drink – I seem to recall that it was a JD and Coke – and to have a good chat with her about her brilliant producers Jam and Lewis and that beautiful guy who’d starred in her video of ‘What Have You Done for Me Lately’. I asked her if he was gay. She simply replied: ‘What do you think?’ With a warmly-delivered wink.

On another occasion we managed to persuade DJ Fat Tony (who wasn’t actually fat at all) to perform a tribute to Dusty Springfield at the first Jungle Trash Ball – lip-synching in Dusty drag – which he pulled-off with his usual deliciously daft mix of insouciance, irony and panache. It was only years later that I read somewhere – perhaps after Dusty had died – that she used to joke about how she ‘looked like a drag queen’ in her shows in the late 60s.

I still think that she is one of the greatest female singers ever. Along with Aretha.

I was watching an excellent documentary about Dusty on BBC4, just the other day, and was suddenly transported back to 1974 when a picture of what was Phillips (Dusty’s record label) Recording Studio in the 60s and 70s came-up on screen.

Some amazing music had been recorded there: At least two albums by Dusty, The Walker Brothers and, later, The Electric Light Orchestra. It had a unique sound quality – it was BIG, basically. I recorded some of what was supposed to be my second album ‘Swallow’ there, and had been thrilled to drink-in that magical, aural atmosphere. I’d always thought it pleasantly quirky that you accessed the studio through a slightly formal little garden.

Phillips Studio in Stanhope Place, Marble Arch.

Phillips Studio in Stanhope Place, Marble Arch.

‘Swallow’ never saw the light of day, thanks to my evil, junky, alcoholic, Svengali-like manager/producer Mark Edwards sweeping everything off the managing director of RCA Records’ desk in a drunken rage. But Karma eventually kicked-in and the album finally came out as the ‘bonus CD’ with the reissue of Messages in 2009.

Messages

I have a broad taste in music: from soulful rock and singer-songwriter to soul and R&B and classical and jazz, but not really prog-rock generally (apart from perhaps some Supertramp, Caravan and selective early Yes and Genesis tracks).

I’d been classically trained on the piano from the age of Seven – just weekly lessons. In 1966, my elder brother Rob and I left the wonderfully-named Sexey’s School in Bruton in Somerset: a very good grammar school (where we were boarders). We departed because we were being bullied as a result of perceived favourtism by ‘Matron’; perhaps because we slept in a small ‘dorm’ with just one other boy called Willy (who was probably my first boyfriend). Both Rob and I had passed the entrance exam to The Bristol Cathedral School after taking and passing our Eleven-plus (as it was called back then) exam a few years earlier.  However, I wasn’t Eleven, I was ten, as I’d somehow jumped a year in primary school. I think it was something to do with my IQ, which was pretty high, but I don’t recall the exact figure (141 seems to ring a bell). Suffice to say, I was later invited to join Mensa, but didn’t bother. I’m not a fan of elite smugness.

Meanwhile, my new piano teacher at The Cathedral School had me playing pieces by my favourites like Eric Satie, Stravinsky, Delius and Debussy.

When I turned 15, he asked me one day what I was planning as a career, if anything. I answered immediately that I wanted to be a songwriter. A huge smile crossed his face as he replied enthusiastically: ‘then you must learn the basics of jazz and blues. These two genres are the basis of all modern songwriting, along, of course, with classical music. But, you must unlearn everything you learnt with classical music and start again from scratch by understanding complex chord structures and the power of improvisation.’

‘I’ve been improvising for years.’ I replied happily.

‘Excellent!’ He said. ‘Then let’s explore some jazz and blues magic.’

And so we did – for several months. He was the best teacher-ever and the only one I ever needed.

There’s more to this back story though.

In 1973, I was signed to RCA and my first album ‘Messages’ came out world-wide to generally excellent reviews in 1974.

There was a launch-party in the luxurious, penthouse hospitality suite of RCA’s headquarters in Curzon Street, Mayfair. It was a fairly dull corporate affair until a tall man walked in who seemed familiar. Wasn’t this Mr Whatever – my former piano piano teacher (obviously he wasn’t actually called Mr Whatever, but I don’t remember his name)?

Indeed it was. He came over and shook my hand and I naturally asked why he was at my album launch. He laughed and explained: ‘I now live in London and work for your publishers, Chappell Music.’

‘What an amazing coincidence!’ I exclaimed, and went on to thank him profusely for having introduced me to the core basics of songwriting back in the day.

‘All that classical training enabled your fingers to do complex things, and gifted you an innate appreciation of melody, form, harmony, timbres, dynamics and the very mathematics of composition.’

‘Indeed it did.’ I said, sipping champagne and trying to ignore the rictus grins (probably cocaine-induced) of the dreary, oleaginous RCA executives.

‘And the blues and jazz basics that I made you aware of allowed you to tap into your songwriting muse, with all those spirits flying around your head like soulful butterflies.’

‘That’s a lovely analogy, I can’t thank you enough for enlightening me as you did.’

‘Steve, it’s my pleasure,’ said Mr Whatever, clinking my glass. ‘I’m extremely proud of what you’ve achieved with your first album – how brilliant to have a full orchestra on many of the tracks – and you are now officially my highest-achieving and critically acclaimed pupil. Your songwriting is of the highest calibre.’

To say that I was humbled would be an understatement. I felt blessed.

‘Messages’ had been recorded when I was 21. It was all a bit glamourous and high-end with top musicians, including members  of Elton John’s band, Mike Giles, the drummer from King Crimson, and John Gustafson, Roxy Music’s bass player. Studios where it was recorded included AIR, Island, The Who’s Ramport studio in Battersea, and (yay!) Abbey Road. But my manager/producer Mark Edwards (who’d ‘discovered’ me playing with Squidd – the first proper band that I’d played with – at Fulham Town Hall at a Gay Liberation Front Benefit Gig in 1972) was an upper-class gay man who became obsessed with me. And I did not reciprocate. At all.  He looked like Gandalf. Therefore, he bitterly resented my rejection.

He was a mess. To his left on the mixing desk – a pile of cocaine. To his right, a bottle of Cognac. He was violent and abusive. He made my life hell.

Eventually, in 1975, I escaped, thanks to my great friends Caroline Guinness and Tim Clark, who literally kidnapped me, thereby releasing me from his evil clutches; and my extraordinary mother Audrey, who took my ‘management contract’ to a lawyer, who declared that it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

Audrey and Harold, my late, adoptive father, enthusiastically attended many of my club-opening nights as well!

My mind is suddenly drawn to a concert in 1979 at what was then the Hammersmith Odeon (now it’s the *insert sponsor* Apollo). It was a sold-out gig by Todd Rundgren’s Utopia – I had a standing-only ticket, so I naturally headed for the mixing desk – where the sound would be optimum –  and was able to stand right behind it without being challenged; in fact, the sound engineer turned around and smiled – a dazzling smile – at me. He was handsome, Latino-looking with longish curly black hair, stubble and a moustache and what looked like a fine athletic body. Obviously, he couldn’t be gay, could he..?

A few more songs into the show he turned around again and smiled and motioned for me to sit next to him on a drum stool which he’d produced with a flourish. His leg brushing against mine told me all I needed to know. My ‘gaydar’ had been on-point. He was an excellent sound engineer too – and the band were superb. After the encores and as the audience started to file out, he asked me my name and invited me back to the hotel where the band and crew were staying. I was happy to accept. A fleet of limos took us to Marble arch and the rather magnificent Georgian crescent that housed the Five-star Montcalm Hotel. ‘Let’s go straight to my room’ he whispered conspiratorially, ‘so we can party all night, just the two of us – ‘cos the band have a day off tomorrow.’

I tried to suppress a bit of a gasp as we entered his first floor room at the front of the hotel, with its huge sash windows. This was as a result of clocking the stylish luxury of what was actually a duplex suite. The massive double bed was on a mezzanine above a capacious lounge area which featured cool, Italian-looking, minimalist-chic furniture.

‘How about some Champagne?’ Suggested Ernesto with a grin, ‘and a big fat joint and a line of the finest Columbian marching powder…’

‘That would be totally spliffing!’ I replied, in a cod, upper-class English accent.

‘I think that the Krug is a good vintage’, he said brightly, uncorking a bottle of  it expertly, ‘then there’s a bottle of Remy Martin for us to enjoy later!’

This was my first experience of high-end Rock N’ Roll decadence (the most we got up to with The Hawklords was a joint or two after a gig with a few beers – and the odd line of coke here and there). Before long we were tearing off each other’s clothes and kissing passionately. Damn, he was a great kisser, a great everything, and he had the most athletically perfect posterior. The rest of the night is a complete blur of clouds of sensuality.

I would, however, suggest that sharing a bottle of brandy after a bottle of champagne, along with coke n’ smoke is likely to lead to a very bad case of the whirling pits. I just managed to make it to the marble-tiled bathroom to throw up. Then we both passed-out on the tangled sheets after an amazing night of hot passion.

In the 70s, gay people in rock culture were generally pretty thin on the ground; rare exceptions being Pete Shelley of The Buzzcocks, the wonderfully talented Billy McKenzie and Rob Halford, the singer from Judas Priest, although there were plenty of gay managers.

However, to come across, as it were, gay sound engineers, tour managers and road crew was totally unheard of. After all, I’d been a rock star myself in 1978, playing keyboards and recording the classic album ’25 Years On’ with The Hawklords (better-known as Hawkwind – the name-change was because of some Byzantine contractual obligations) and taking part in a massive UK tour – we’d also sold-out the Hammersmith Odeon, just the year before.

I met Pete Shelley at some hideous sub-Holiday-Inn in Bradford where both The Hawklords and The Buzzcocks were staying, having performed at different venues in the city. Pete and I were drinking beers, chatting and playing pool (how very gay) in the bar, where both bands and their crews were drinking and socialising – until an altercation suddenly occurred between two of our respective roadies; then all hell broke loose and the bar got completely trashed (how very Rock N’ Roll).  Pete and I escaped to my room and smoked a joint or three, as I recall.

I was avowedly out-gay in the band, but being a masculine man who just happened to be gay, I was determined not to be pigeon-holed or pressurised into tolerating ignorant provocation in the form of squealing voices or camp mannerisms from fellow band members or crew – as if I was supposed to relate to such fripperies?

Any such behaviour was met with a glacial stare and a short, sharp lecture from me.

Being out-gay in an all-male environment, however, can create some curious consequences, like guys almost surreptitiously asking for sexual advice and being emotionally forthcoming and confessional… but only ever in a one-to-one situation.

The tour had kicked-off on Oct 6th, 1978 at the New Theatre. Oxford. Backstage after this very successful first gig, some members of the 22-strong road crew (yes TWENTY TWO), invited me to join them for a game of poker and to drink beers. ‘But I’ve never played poker before!’ I protested. There was much laughter and head-nodding. ‘Yeah, sure, Steve,’ said Dave, the tour manager, ‘we’ve all heard that one before.’ Despite it being my poker debut, guess who won?

SS on stage with Hawklords

After a few gigs we soon ditched the rather silly, paint-spattered overalls that were part of the stage design by the otherwise extremely talented Barney Bubbles. The arty group of ineffective dancers were also swiftly dispatched and one of a group of Hells Angels who came to every gig, acting as our unofficial security posse, insisted that I wore his ‘Original’ (a customised, sleeveless American biker jacket) on stage, and I happily complied. Rockin’! If you check out  Hawklords Live ’78, (which was finally released on Atomhenge/Cherry Red in 2009), you’ll no doubt agree that this was the band at its peak… totally firing. The musical interaction between guitarist Dave Brock and myself was particularly noteworthy – an amazing energy. The rhythm section was powerfully in synch and singer Robert Calvert was on peak form. We’d bonded from the very start – he was an amazing man.

Hawklords Live 1978

Hawklords Live 1978

It’s a shame that it all went politically pear-shaped at the sold-out Hawkestra reunion concert (all the living ex-members, including Lemmy – apart from the great Simon King – showed-up,) at the Brixton Academy 22 years later in 2000. The gig itself was pretty good – I organised the recording and filming of it, under the impression that I was going to get paid what had been agreed, plus a percentage of the gate and the subsequent DVD and CD. After all, I was the only non-core member of Hawkwind who’d attended rehearsals for six weeks at Dave Brock’s farmhouse in Devon – in a roughly-converted pig house, staying in a tiny, cell-like room at some horrendous pub where the only food available was from a ‘carvery’, where (shudder!) joints of meat were kept warm for hours under large copper lamps. It was beyond vile.

Suffice to say – the audio and visual tapes are safe and maybe one day, the DVD might be released. But only if all the members get an equal share of the royalties. Period. The songwriters, however, would already be sorted in terms of publishing royalties as a matter of course.

A monitor mix of me singing ‘Shot Down In The Night’ at the concert is available to listen to on my Sound Cloud.

Back on tour in 1978, the day after my birthday, on November 22nd, The Hawklords were playing Wolverhampton Civic Hall, and I arrived at the soundcheck to find a very large birthday card in its box on top of my keyboards. All the band and crew had signed it, and quite a few of them joked that I was welcome to ‘share a room’ with them anytime!  Thanks guys, but I didn’t actually fancy any of you, although I enjoyed beating ya’ll at Poker.

Why do so many straight men assume that all gay people find them attractive? ‘You’re so vain – I bet you think this song is about you’.

The 42-date tour was mostly sold-out and critically lauded. Then, before long, within just a few months, all the money was gone and there was no record deal. Robert Calvert, the charismatic and talented singer who suffered from manic depression (now known as bipolar condition), had departed and I was surprised to be asked to take over his role, having demo’d two of my songs (‘Shot Down In the Night’ and ‘Turn It On Turn It Off’) with the now penniless band at the rather idyllic, riverside Mill House, Rockfield Studio’s residential rehearsal facility.

Me in the porch at The Mill House

Me in the porch at The Mill House in 1979.

So I left the band, made some demos with two of the most accomplished ex-members of Hawkwind (Simon King and Huw Lloyd-Langton on drums and guitar respectively) and Nic Potter from Van Der Graf Generator on bass, including the aforementioned songs that I’d originally demo’d with The Hawklords. These were paid for jointly by Pendulum Music, my new music publisher, and Francesco, a friend who was an Italian Count whose family apparently owned half of Rome.

He took me to New York in September 1979, and, largely thanks to my best girlfriend Caroline Guinness being the office manager for Trinifold (who managed The Who) and who’d introduced me to the boss, Bill Curbishley, I landed a record deal in NYC within three days, with metaphoric doors having been opened by me using Bill’s name – with his consent, of course. I was signed to ATCO (part of the WEA, now Warner Music) by its President Doug Morris for a deal worth £80K… on paper. The result was Fresh Blood. Now regarded as a classic, it was reissued on CD on Esoteric/Cherry Red in 2009.

Fresh Blood Album Cover

Having heard the demos, several major names including Jimmy Iovine and *gasp!* David Bowie  had offered to produce the album  – but I ended-up doing it myself. I imagine that the big names were simply too expensive. No-one at Trinifold ever told me the reason.

It was only much later, when I was writing the internet column for Time Out magazine throughout the second half of the 90s (under the pseudonym Spyder), that I had a form of contact with Bowie, when I wrote a piece about Bowie.net (now www.davidbowie.com) in which ‘Spyder’ mentioned his metaphorical brush with Bowie. So, through his publicist Alan Edwards, Bowie asked if I could get copies of my two albums to his publicist’s office. I only had one copy of each, so I had to go through the ironic rigmarole of buying them in the secondhand record shop which was conveniently located in Kingly Street in Fitzrovia, where I was living.

David Bowie's faxed response to getting my albums.

David Bowie’s faxed response to his finally listening to my albums .

In 1988 Kevin Millins and I were featured in the centre-page-spread of the 100th issue of The Face – along with 98 of what the most influential magazine of the decade perceived to be the UK’s top 100 ‘movers and shakers’ including Jazzy B, Norman Jay (both now honoured by her Maj with an OBE and an MBE respectively), Leigh Bowery, Patrick Lilley, Graham Ball, Fat Tony, Rusty Egan and Chris Sullivan, to name but a few.

Kevin and I are the only ones wearing shades. Must have been a heavy night before.

We’re both wearing shades.

I wonder if anyone has got a scan of the other half of The Face centre-page spread?

© Steve Swindells. All rights reserved. 2014.

Main photo – from the Fresh Blood cover photo session (1980) by the late, great Bob Carlos Clarke.

All other photos (apart from The Face 100th issue centre-spread) © Steve Swindells.

The Baron’s Court

16 Apr
1977.  St James's Park? Battersea?

London 1977

In the early-to-mid-70s, Earl’s Court could certainly lay claim to being London’s first ‘gay village’, but back then, the expression ’gay’ was in its relative cultural infancy – and the Red Tops were still putting-out clichéd stuff about paedophile vicars and teachers – some of which, unfortunately, was true, although the vast majority were evidently warped closet-cases.

Generally, however, gay men were perceived by the media as being some kind of low-life-ne’er-do-wells who apparently wore brown, suede hush-puppies, tight, white trousers and minced around like Larry Grayson (shut that door!), Liberace or Charles Hawtrey.

What forbidden planet were we allegedly on?

In 1974, RCA had released my first solo album Messages worldwide (see my sleeve notes to Messages – The Reissue, 2009 ) when I was just 22 and I mistakenly thought that my career was on an upward trajectory after receiving some excellent reviews and plenty of press attention – not to mention the absolute joy of having played a Steinway Concert Grand piano live with a full orchestra on my 11-minute piece-de resistance ‘Messages From Heaven’ at the old AIR Studios on the top floor of what is now Nike Town at Oxford Circus.

It still sounds pretty good today, although a touch over-elaborate, in my humble opinion. Perhaps that was something to do with me being 21 at the time of the recording and the fact that Mark Edwards, my erswhile manager and producer, was an upper-class gay, alcoholic junkie who looked just like Gandalf, as later portrayed in by Ian McKellen in the film cycle of Tolkien’s “Lord Of The Rings’.  Just to over-egg the traumatic pudding, he was also obsessed with me, but was firmly rebuffed (why on earth would I be attracted to someone who looked like that?). Then came the violent abuse. Physical and mental. Sometimes in public.  Fleeting, horrible memories linger in my brain like rancid leftovers in a broken-down fridge which was disposed of at the local dump a long time ago. I’m not in denial at all, but why should I invoke traumatic memories – what’s the point?  He was just a fucked-up, grade-A bastard who for some reason sported a ludicrously creepy beard featuring two 8-inch plaits.

Messages

Messages

One of the songs on ‘Messages’ is called ‘The Earl’s Court Case’ which was me imagining myself as a judge of the sleazier side of what was then a fairly run-down area populated by transients, back-packers (mostly Antipodean), junkies, hookers and rent boys and their punters who filled the cheap hotels. At night it became a mecca for gay males, who were, back in the day, almost exclusively caucasian. So, if you’re familiar with this slice of West London,  I guess that ‘The Baron’s Court’ (the title of this true tale that you’re perusing. Keep up!) could have been a sequel song to my Messages song ‘The Earl’s Court Case’, if I’d ever written it.

This makes me pause for thought: has anyone ever actually written a sequel song? I imagine that such a thing could have occurred in the crasser quarters of American country music – with all its tear-jerking bathos and commercially-led emotional arm-twisting. Not that I could steel myself to cynically write something so contrived. That’s not to say that there are not great songs in that genre – one of my favourites is ‘I Will Always Love You’ by Whitney Houston, albeit in its beautifully-sung Pop/R&B incarnation. It was written by Dolly Parton, and her original version proves what a great song it is. Willy Nelson and his tremulous stoner voice gives ‘good song’ though, as did Glen Campbell, via the fantastic songwriting talent of Jimmy Webb.

After falling into abject poverty in the second half of 1975,  I suddenly found myself becoming fairly successful in early ’76, having been recommended for the job of keyboard player in the top pop group Pilot by their former keyboard player Billy Lyall, who was a friend and a fellow gay man.

Billy had co-written their biggest hit ‘Magic’, which had been a top ten single on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as being the music for a Coca Cola advert. So it was not like he was going to be short of cash any time soon. Sadly, like so many of my friends and lovers, he was to die from an AIDS- related illness over a decade later, in 1989. R.I.P you sweet man. Thanks for the friendship and the props. I got the gig with Pilot on the spot and was soon recording all the keyboards on their album ‘Two’s A Crowd’ in Abbey Road’s legendary Studio Two (The Beatles’ second home, before their untimely demise) with the equally legendary Alan Parsons (who had famously been the sound engineer on Pink Floyd’s multimillion-selling Dark Side Of The Moon) in the production seat.

Suddenly, I was on a retainer, which was a bit of a first. As I recall, it was the princely sum of £60 a week (plus expenses and session fees), which was not bad for someone who was essentially broke, but it was hardly generous, coming from a very successful pop group.

If you put it into historical, economic perspective, the rent for my scummy basement ‘flat’ (I use the description loosely) at number 9, St Luke’s Road in Notting Hill – which basically comprised of one room and a very basic kitchen, with no bathroom and an outside toilet (outside!) – was £7 a week. Meanwhile, the members of Pilot swished around respectively in a Lotus Esprit, a Porsche and a vintage Rolls Royce. I didn’t drive – not that I could afford to. Still don’t.

Pilot with myself (top left) and my dog Sam.

Pilot in 1976 with myself (top left) and my dog Sam.

Pilot’s catchy little ditties frankly left me cold, although the musicianship was of a high standard. I’m a pretty proficient player myself. Alan Parsons was a big fan of the uber-producer-of-the-60s (and convicted murderer of the future) Phil Spector, who had famously multi-tracked many of the instruments on his recordings – especially the pianos. Alan made me play the keyboard parts over and over again – even solos (I had to duplicate every single note) – then multi-tracked them at ever-so-slightly different tape speeds (thereby putting them ever-so-slightly-out-of-tune) to create a big fat sound, using a new-fangled 16-track (16 track!) tape machine.

We also did a few TV shows – traveling only in vintage, black Daimler limo’s –  and then we had to run the gauntlet of hundreds of screaming girls, which was a whole new surreal experience for me.

My extraordinary dog Sam (rescued from the Battersea Dog’s Home in 1974) came with me everywhere, appearing on stage sitting next to my keyboards wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap.

He absolutely lapped-up all the attention and everyone fell in love with him – he was also a complete, polysexual doggy-slag – he’d shag anything that wagged its tail.

However, the ultimate ironic contrast was being dropped-off after a show by a big old Daimler limo outside my dingy home – and slamming the door loudly so that the neighbours would notice (although that was actually a bit of post-modern – or most-podern, as alter-ego and pretend-friend Thom Topham would say. I didn’t actually give a shit what the neighbours thought, apart from my dear friend Caroline Guinness, who lived in my old flat on the first floor upstairs. But we were so close and in-tune that everything was doubly ironic and therefore thrice most-podern.

Unfortunately ‘Two’s A Crowd’ was to prove to be Pilot’s swan song, so suddenly, at the beginning of 1977, I was out of a job. Ian Bairnson, the guitarist, and David Paton, the bassist and singer, got absorbed into what became the massively successful Alan Parsons Project. Needless to say, I didn’t. Not that I was a big fan of prog-rock anyway. That didn’t mean that I couldn’t perform it with aplomb, if required – I was really good at the twiddly-widdly bits – but my real love was soul music and soulful rock, and therefore, by default,  creating the soulful, singer-songwriter rock music that I was now starting to write in earnest.

By far the best gay hang-out in Earl’s Court at the time was called The Catacombs, where the DJ Chris Lucas would play the best American soul, funk and disco imports from the US.  Sometimes, the very talented and latterly legendary DJ Talulah would guest on the decks too.  This was a cramped, low-ceilinged basement which was essentially a glorified coffee bar. The only available seating was in the booths in the  the vaults under the pavements, as the building was on a corner. These were arrayed in an L-shape around the stone-flagged dancefloor, with its central pillar. It was kind-of crypt-like. After 11pm, when the pubs closed, it became a seething mass of gyrating, sweaty bodies, dancing their asses-off to the fabulous music, many sniffing poppers in the badly-ventilated (air-con – are you kidding?) smoke-filled gloom. It was also massively ‘cruisy’ and the atmosphere literally stank of man-sex. In those days, night clubs had to offer membership, or some form of ludicrous  food-with-temporary-membership deal (a bit of coleslaw and a cocktail sausage roll anyone?) in order to serve alcohol after 11pm, when the pubs had closed.

The Catacombs was not a licenced premises (how formal and 70s does that sound?), but I, like many others, would have often nipped into the off-licence around the corner earlier in the evening and bought a quarter bottle of vodka, or whatever, to smuggle-in later. Also, this was when the gay scene started discovering recreational drugs – and the main, cheap drugs of choice at the time were barbiturate pills which were branded as mandrax (or ‘mandies’ as they were better known) and purple or blue amphetamines – usually slimming pills aimed at women – which were known as uppers or blues, or simply ‘speed’.

In November 1975 I had been thrilled to find myself at Bruce Springsteen’s debut British gig at The Hammersmith Odeon – a friend of mine at his record label had blagged me a free ticket. There had been feverish interest in ‘The Boss’. I owned all his records and was already a massive fan. This was more than vindicated by his incredible performance with the magnificent E-Street Band, which left me elated and inspired. No more semi-prog-pretense for me – I felt that I was now confident enough to start writing and singing from the heart and soul, rather than the head – which was exemplified, I hope, in my 1980 album Fresh Blood (which was reissued on CD in 2009 and is on iTunes and all the usual online outlets). Reviews at the time compared me to Bowie, Costello and Springsteen and I was beyond thrilled.  Rolling Stone Magazine had described Fresh Blood as ‘a sparkling debut’ (not that it was – it was my second album) and the review concluded with the line: ‘And BOY can this guy write lyrics!’.

After Springsteen’s brilliant show, I headed for The Catacombs, feeling like I was walking on air with a metaphorical woolly THE BOSS hat on my head. My good mood must have been infectious, because within an hour I was heading back to my grungy basement with a beautiful, masculine Spanish painter. Now, this may well be an urban myth, but the next day, one of my friends called to say, somewhat breathlessly, that post-gig, Springsteen had been seen slipping into The Catacombs.

I had heard rumours that he was bisexual, and certainly his performance suggested, subtlety, that he was in touch with his homo-erotic-emotional side (porn in the USA perchance?). I guess I’ll never know if that was true (unless I come across him on Grindr).

After the Catacombs closed at around 1.30am, most of the people who’d been in the club would ‘cruise’ around the block – probably much to the annoyance of the local residents. There was also an endless stream of cars whose drivers were looking to pick someone up. I was a regular pavement-pounder, as it were.

On one occasion, in the summer of 1977, I became aware that the driver of a vintage racing-green, convertible Bristol (a beautiful, very expensive. hand-made British car that is no longer built) seemed to be shadowing me as I ambled along, probably singing to myself – no doubt slightly high on a mandie and what was left of my quarter bottle of vodka. The driver was a bearded, bespectacled and respectable-looking man of around 40 – not my type at all. He looked like something from central casting for an old-school movie about the English aristocracy – probably starring David Niven. Eventually he stopped the car and smiled, leant-over, opened the passenger door and indicated for me to get in. I was intrigued enough to do so, despite my better judgement.

‘Well, good morning you handsome fellow! Would you care to accompany me for a drive to somewhere wild and exotic, like the Essex coast? Asked the driver in a ludicrously upper-class, cut-glass voice; but with a twinkle in his eye.

“I don’t know about that,” I said, laughing, “mind you, it is a beautiful night. And I do fancy some bracing sea air.”

“Excellent!” Said the posh man, then added, “shall we drive around the corner and take the roof down, so as not to draw attention to ourselves?” We were already drawing curious looks from the cruisers promenading by like poorly-paid extras in a film noir, porn B-movie. “Sure, why not? I replied, taking a swig from my quarter bottle of vodka, then making a roll-up. I asked the driver his name as the car purred-off towards Old Brompton Road. “It’s Cuthbert, I’m afraid…” he said (I stifled a chuckle) as he turned into the uber-posh, residential enclave called The Boltons, “but everyone calls me Bertie.”

“I’m Stephen, but everyone calls me Steve.”

He pulled-up outside a huge, white, stucco-fronted mansion set in what was evidently a massive walled garden, and stopped the car. “This used to be Douglas Fairbanks’ London home.” He said, turning a handle above the windscreen.He then got out and folded the fabric roof down.

The wonderful scent of night jasmine assailed my nostrils as I turned and asked: “So Bertie, I know this fabulous motor is a Bristol, but how old is it?” “It’s a Type 407 from 1961. It was the first production Bristol to feature a Chrysler V8 engine.” He said enthusiastically as he got back in. “I’ll bet it’s fast.” I said, sinking deeper into the luxurious, soft, cream leather seat. “Indeed it is!” Said Bertie, as we headed off in an Easterly direction, the warm summer night’s air ruffling my  longish hair. “I’d have to drive you to Germany to really show you though!” I laughed and started to sing in a vaguely German accent: “Fun, fun, fun on ze autobahn…”

“What song is that?” He asked, as we passed the gaudily-lit Harrods on our right. “Or did you just make it up?” “No I didn’t make it up, although I do write songs… it was a big hit by a German electronic band called Kraftwerk a couple of years ago.”

“Electronic?” He looked puzzled. “I’m not familiar with such a thing. I’m more of an opera chap myself.”

At this point I was tempted to sing in a cod-operatic fashion: “Opera, oh ha ha ha, how are you-hoo-hoo?” But decided against it.

“So…tell me Stephen…”

“Steve!” I interjected, “no-one calls me Stephen… Bertie.”

“So, erm, Steve, is that what you do for a living – write songs?” He asked, as we swung around the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham place – the flag was flying, so her Maj’ was at home – then turned into Birdcage Walk. “I try,” I replied, “but my last, well my first, album came out nearly three years ago. Are you going to drive East along the embankment?” “Yes, the romantic route.” Said Bertie. “So what do you do in life? I asked him, building another roll-up. “I’m a surgeon.” He replied, matter-of-factly. “I see,” I said, wishing I had some grass to add to my smoke ‘that’s impressive.’

“And where do you live?” I asked. “Baron’s Court.” He answered, “My late uncle Peregrine bequeathed me one of those wonderful studio houses on the Talgarth Road.

“Wow!” I said, “with its vast, double-height studio room – that must be fantastic; lucky you, but what about the traffic noise?

“I installed a form of double glazing.” He replied, turning on Radio 3 on the car radio. Fortunately, we were regaled by some of my favourite composers (Debussy, Delius, Satie and Ravel – as opposed to some dreary, pompous operatic histrionics) as we headed through The City, then the wastelands of the East End, on our way to the Essex coast, which I’d never visited before, not least in a vintage Bristol convertible. Fun, fun, fun on the autobahn… or at least the A13.

Bertie was full of what appeared to be genuine curiosity about my creativity in songwriting. He was asking: did I write the lyrics or the music first?

A somewhat predictable question based on lack of knowledge. Answer: neither. But… mostly music first, then singing ‘nonsense’ words along with musical improvisation on the piano to form the bones of a song. Unlike Elton John – who always works with the words first, apparently. That’s not to say that I don’t do that either. Sometimes what I thought what was a mere poem becomes the basis, or the complete lyric to a song. “You write poetry?” He asked, as we skirted the grim industrial wastelands of  Dagenham and Tilbury, having turned-off the A13 and headed South-East. “Yes, I do,” I replied, “I have a potential collection which, perhaps ironically, is called Songs Without Tunes.” “Why ironic?” “The clue is in the title. Most of my poetry is too abstract in its meter to be a lyric, but sometimes poems do become lyrics, and on other occasions, they can inspire, or kick-start lyrics with a title, or a poetic fleeting memory or an emotional impulse…”

“I’d love to read some of your poetry.” Said Bertie, as we headed towards Leigh-On-Sea. The sky soon started to glow with a silvery pre-dawn light as the ever-widening Thames Estuary started to reveal itself in muddy reflections as we bowled along with the sea air in our hair listening to ‘The Walk To The Paradise Garden’ by Delius, which is one of my favourite-ever classical pieces.

Leigh-On-Sea seemed to have a certain, faded charm in its old town, despite the endless swathes of post-war chalet bungalows, mock-tudor semi-detached houses and ugly little sixties boxes with beyond-tacky, mock-Georgian’ features’ which threatened to strangle its almost soulful heart with their architectural mediocrity, like an oversized, cheap nylon scarf.

Now the salty sea air and the open-top breezes were becoming an ever-more sensual pleasure as we purred through Southend-On-Sea, with its kiss-me-quick, low-rent ambience and closed amusement arcades, fish and chip shops and ice cream parlours. There was not a soul to be seen on the streets.  Hardly surprising, as morning was only just beginning to break. Yes, I know. Cat Stephens’ ‘Morning Has Broken’ (a singer-songwriter that I always admired, before he found Allah and started to look like a member of the Taliban). He had been such a beautiful man.

After we passed the last of the ubiquitous caravan parks (“South African-style townships for the Cockney holiday makers”, I quipped) the endless mud flats and shabby industrial buildings near the shore were beginning to give way to sandy inlets and hidden coves as the rising sun started to glint on the calm waters. Colourful boats bobbed benignly as seagulls soared above us, squawking triumphantly, as if to challenge the supremacy of the serene and sensual music emanating from the car’s powerful sound system.

“Steve…eve…eve…” A disembodied voice was resonating and interrupting my dream of renovating an imagined art-deco beach house in Leigh-On-Sea. I blinked and opened my eyes to find Bertie gently shaking my shoulder and saying: “Stephen –  I mean Steve –  you fell asleep. We’re back home now, well, at my home, in Baron’s Court.” The pleasingly abstract fog started to clear.

Evidently, I had succumbed to the heady combination of sea air, vodka, a mandrax and the late night… to a soundtrack of classical, impressionistic music. Nice.

Bertie certainly hadn’t bored me to sleep.

“Come in for a while – have a drink,” said Bertie in his ridiculously posh voice, “then I’ll drive you home later if you like.” There was a slightly plaintive edge to his voice, I noticed, as my brain started to revive. “Sure, sure,” I mumbled, as he closed the convertible’s fabric roof, then opened the passenger door for me in a gentlemanly fashion.

The rush-hour traffic thundered by on Talgarth Road. I followed him up the stone steps into the imposing Arts and Craft house and asked him “When were these studios built?”. “1891.” Bertie replied, as he opened the front door, revealing a rather grand hallway, complete with an ornate terracotta-tiled floor, “and they were grade-two* listed just recently in 1970.” He added, checking his mail on an Art-Nouveau console table. I couldn’t help noticing that the letters were addressed to Sir Cuthbert Donaldson.

“So, you’re a sir!” I said. “Yes, I’m afraid I am, a life peer, or a Baron, if you prefer, courtesy of Her Majesty.”

“How come?’ I asked, as he led me into the wonderfully proportioned, North-facing (of course) studio room, furnished with relatively modern antiques, mostly by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. “For services rendered by cutting-up members of the royal family, apparently.” Said the Baron dryly, rather like John Cleese in a Monty Python Sketch.

“How deliciously apposite that you live in such chic splendour in Baron’s Court.” I said. He chuckled as he poured large – very large – measures of vintage Remy Martin into huge, crystal, balloon glasses for us: ” Yes, isn’t life grand sometimes? 1961 was a pretty good year,” he said as he swirled the brandy in the glass then inhaled the fumes as if they were from a pipe of the finest opium, then added: “and it also marked the birth of my beloved motorcar.” He clinked his glass against mine.  I was somewhat concerned that  the no-doubt, priceless Sevres Chrystal glasses might shatter if our mutual toast was over-enthusiastic. Luckily, they remained intact as the Baron continued to spoil me with vintage cognac for what was ostensibly… breakfast.

1977. Me on a borrowed bike by the river in Saltford, where I grew up.  Visiting the family.

1977. Me on a borrowed bike by the river in Saltford, where I grew up. Visiting the family.

‘Baron Bertie’ was true to his word and dutifully drove me home to Notting Hill (or Westbourne Park, to be more accurate). I asked him to drop me at the end of St Luke’s Road, as I would have been embarrassed for him to see the shabby basement that I inhabited.  Naturally, we exchanged numbers.

A couple of days later the phone rang, and Bertie rather shyly invited me to dinner the next evening, adding that cooking cordon bleu food was one of his passions – and that he would like us to sample a different glass of vintage wine with each course.  Mmmm – that would make a change from my home-made shepherd’s pie with half a bottle of plonk, I thought, as I accepted his invitation.

He asked me to bring along some of my poetry, so, the next day I photocopied a selection from ‘Songs Without Tunes’ at the local print shop for 5p a copy. I obviously wasn’t expected to bring any wine, so took the ten poems as a present for his Lordship, or whatever you call a Baron.

I arrived at the appointed hour of 7pm and Bertie greeted me at the door with a glass of champagne. “Barons De Rothschild 1952 – a very good year for this delicate blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noire and Pinot Meunier from their best terroirs!” Enthused Bertie as I followed him downstairs into a smallish, yet ornately decorated dining room (“Original William Morris Wallpaper above the oak panelling.” He told me later) which overlooked a charming, patio garden (“Gertrude Jeckyll designed it – she had an affair with my uncle Peregrine.”).

The evening sun poured into the room along with the heady scents of honeysuckle, jasmine and roses which wafted  through the open French Windows on what was a splendidly sultry summer night.

“1952? What a coincidence!” I exclaimed, between sips of the precious, effervescent nectar (how much was a bottle worth?), “The year I was born! A toast to the Barons De Rothschild and to the benevolence of Baron Bertie!”

We clinked our glasses and he smiled shyly and led me to an ancient stone bench outside. I then presented him with my selection of photocopied poems in a manilla envelope on which I’d inscribed: To Bertie, a selection of my humble verse, from Steve Swindells, with affection. “What a charming present! Thank you so much.” He said, obviously touched, as he opened the  envelope and pulled out a page. “Broken Roots – that’s an interesting title. Would you read it for me?” I took another sip of the exquisite champagne and answered: ‘I’d like you to read it, if you don’t mind. To see if you catch the meaning and the meter.’

‘Of course, I’d be delighted.’ I built a roll-up as he started to read aloud:

“I waited for my beverage,  the meter let me down. I sank into my silent room and tried to make some sounds.

But nothing would come easy on that misty, autumn night, I forced my hand, to make a stand but soon gave up the fight.

The consciousness of number one, my inspiration would not come, emaciated, like a tree, in barren autumn, fallen leaves.

The tree did not draw in its roots to show the world its fresh, green shoots. I wanted to forget my past and find myself some greener grass.

I pondered my organic dreams and tried suppressing primal screams whilst waiting for a fateful quirk, I tried to make my thesis work.

Confusion caught me in my prime, though I was guilty of no crime, I ‘kept thinking of the way I looked instead of hiding in my books.

Scientific abstract art is like an artificial fart. I wanted to combine extremes, but traumas break your roots, it seems.”

He paused and said: “The last line is very good, and the one before made me laugh –  at its irony, of course.” He coughed lightly and continued.

“I want to climb out of my brain and sing the world a sweet refrain. My old dilemma won’t sit down, my feet are firmly off the ground.

The summer of my discontent, I hope the winter might relent. I’ll make the autumn circumvent the barriers that heaven sent.

I want to plant a row of trees, to take my pleasure when I please. My bird in hand gives me a push; two hands are worth more than a bush.

My broken roots will surely mend, my season will come ’round again. I’m really longing for the spring, to find what fate, or nature brings.”

He  smiled at me, raising his nearly empty crystal flute.   “Does that indicate that you approve?” I asked brightly: “you did spontaneously pull out a rather appropriate poem.”

“Indeed I did, and I like it very much,” said Bertie, “particularly the seasonal and horticultural metaphors. Pleasingly adept, yet filled with allusions to frustration and loss. I see by the date you typed that it was written last winter. Evidently, you were somewhat depressed, yet…” “… looking forward to a fresh start… this year.”

“That’s the spirit!” Enthused Bertie, leading me to an antique, oval table, which was elaborately set for two. Several pieces of very formal-looking, antique silver cutlery – rather like what one might see at a royal banquet – were placed on each side of pale red leather place mats which were inscribed with Bertie’s monogram in gold – on a crisply starched, white linen tablecloth.

He lit the tall, red candles in a large silver candelabra, which looked Georgian.  Each table setting featured five (five!), crystal glasses of various shapes and sizes. “One for each course…” said the Baron, noticing my slightly raised eyebrows and hint of a smile, “I must adjourn to the kitchen.” “Can I come?” I asked, eager to see what level of culinary professionalism he might aspire to. “I’d rather you didn’t, as I’d prefer each course to be an – ahem –  epic… epicurean surprise for you.”

I was evidently about to be spoiled rotten with gourmet delights and fine wines , but couldn’t help wondering if he had secreted a culinary assistant in his kitchen who’d had to take an oath of silence, like a Trappist Monk.

“Firstly, knock back the last of your shampoo, and I will pour you a fine glass of South African Pinot Grigio from my aunt’s vineyard in Port Elizabeth. She bought it off that awful painter who was known as the King Of Kitsch and incredibly successful.” “Tretchikoff?” I asked, “I wish I owned one!”

Bertie looked slightly puzzled a he uncorked a half bottle then showed me the label (Trechtikoff Estate, Port Elizabeth, 1967), poured me a glass, then placed the bottle in a silver cooler.  I pondered what the first course might entail whilst I savoured the wine, until he returned two minutes later with two small plates – they looked like antique Royal Worcester – and placed one in front me saying: “Allow me to present an amuse bouche of a home-made blini with sour cream, Beluga caviar and a chopped, hard-boiled quail’s egg.”

I visualised an imaginary menu spinning around like the newspaper headlines in the  classic film Citizen Kane and dutifully slipped into an epic, epicurean dream which I only woke up from the next day, in Bertie’s bed, which he’d earlier revealed had once belonged to Napoleon.

Over dinner, he’d also imparted the rather juicy information that in the early sixties a certain European Royal’s sister – for whom he’d been appointed surgeon – had been having a lesbian affair with a chorus girl in the world of musical theatre.  In a curiously  misplaced form of noblesse oblige this particular Queen had banished her sister’s lover to a small, Caribbean island (with a generous allowance and a charming house)… for life.  And this, added The Baron, was why the Princess, who was still very much alive and notorious for her love of gin, was still such a regular visitor to said island.

As I prepared to leave, Bertie casually remarked that Dame Joan Sutherland, the famous Australian operatic diva, was coming to stay with him that very day. Perhaps I’d like to meet her? He continued to invite me intimate, gourmet dinners for a few weeks, until I felt obliged to rebut his amorous advances.

I might well have immensely enjoyed the extravagant meals and vintage wines in his wonderful house in Baron’s Court, but I was unwilling to be caught in the Baron’s clutches like some sort of pet, bohemian poet by whom he wanted to be fucked rotten, or had even entertained fantasies of romantic involvement with. Baron’s Court was not for me.

Earl’s Court was more my thing.

© Steve Swindells. 2014. All rights reserved.

Sex N’ Drugs N’ Sausage Rolls

3 Mar

Image

Image

A multimedia collection of short stories and true tales by Steve Swindells 

https://steveswindells.wordpress.com/about

Image

When Whitney’s Band Jammed At The Wag.

12 Jan

Way back in 1986, I was well established as a successful club promoter and party organiser, having largely failed to make it as a singer-songwriter, despite having had two major record deals, great reviews and – in 1980 – lots of airplay in the US.

It was ironic that I was now well-known as ‘a face’ in club land. Myself and Kevin Millins, my co-director in The Pure Organisation, even appeared in the centre-spread of The Face magazine’s 100th issue which featured ‘100 of London’s Movers and Shakers’ in 1988.  Our fellow posers (or should that be poseurs?) included Jazzy B, Norman Jay, Leigh Bowery, DJ Fat Tony and Chris and Spike of The Wag Club, to name a few.

Image

One half of The Face magazine’s 100th issue centrefold – I’m in the Levi jacket, wearing sunglasses (must have been a heavy night before) behind Leigh Bowery.

The Pure Organisation didn’t have a ‘share’ in my open mic/jamming nights, however, as it was entirely my concept, being a musician who’d always loved to improvise. The first was called Downbeat and had started out at a little basement club called The Piano Bar (now The Arts Theatre Club) in Frith Street in Soho in 1986, as London’s first open-mic, club night – It was soon jam-packed every Thursday (people used to queue on the stairs when it was full – we had to operate a one-out-one-in door policy).  I would kick-off the night by improvising on the baby-grand piano on its tiny stage, as the club quickly filled-up. Then a gay, black American musician called Eric Robinson (who had a background in professional gospel music and had worked with some of the biggest US names in that field) would take over on the piano, as he knew hundreds of songs – which I didn’t. Then I would direct operations on the mic’, from a tiny mixer in front of the stage.

Image

Some very well-known singers performed spontaneously there, including the late, great Sharon Redd (sadly, she died of an AIDS-related illness in 1992); Afrodiziac (who famously sang the ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ chorus with The Special A.K.A), featuring Claudia Fontaine, Caron Wheeler and Carroll Thompson; Juliet Roberts, Mica Paris, Mary Pearce and Angie Brown – all great black, British female singers. American regulars at Downbeat included Kym Mazelle and Chaka Khan’s sister, Taka Boom.

One night, the crowd were mesmerised by a very tall, voluptuous woman sporting platinum-blonde dreadlocks piled high on her head sauntering into the club, swathed in designer clothes – she was like a galleon in full sail. She came straight over to me and asked – in a very LA accent – if I was Steve.  I replied affirmatively and she asked if she could sing. ‘I don’t know – can you?’ I replied jokingly and she laughed in an uproarious fashion then said, hands on hip: ‘Honey – aah caan SAAANG! And my name is Victoria Wilson James!’ She then sashayed over to Eric at the piano and whispered in his ear.  He smiled broadly and started to play the intro to ‘And I Am Telling You’, the show-stopping song from the stage musical ‘Dream Girls’.  All eyes were on her as she belted it out with highly proficient gusto, before receiving a well-deserved, standing ovation.

Image

Victoria Wilson James In The 90s

A few days later, after I’d invited her to dinner at my place in South London,  she explained that she’d told some globetrotting friends in LA that she was planning to fly to London to further her career in musical theatre and as a soul singer, and had asked where the ‘hottest place to go’ might be on a Thursday night (the day she would arrive) and they’d unanimously suggested Downbeat, which kind-of shocked –  and pleased me.

Then she told me how she’d tried, in advance of traveling to London, to find a cheap hotel in some directory-or-other (this was, of course, pre-internet) and had found somewhere in The Old Kent Road, of all places.  She’d turned-up in a taxi, with six pieces of matching Louis Vuitton luggage, only to find that it was, basically a hostel for the homeless which rented-out private ‘rooms’ (‘More like cells.’ She said derisively) to help fund their charitable work.

I immediately invited her to stay – I lived in Walworth, near Elephant And Castle, at the time. And she totally messed-up my front room for several months!  This was a while before she became one of the lead singers of Soul II Soul (she sang lead vocals on their hit ‘A Dream’s A Dream’ in 1990). She always thanked me for setting her on the road to success.  Soul II Soul’s founder Jazzie B was a fellow club promoter at the time – and I knew him and his co-producer Nellee Hooper reasonably well.

The Piano Bar was owned by a gay couple in their 60s, who were queens of the old school.  They also owned Stallions, which had hosted my streety, soulful gay-mixed club ‘The Lift’ every Friday from 1982 for over three years, until it got too successful and had to move to a larger venue, Fouberts, just off Carnaby Street (this was a wonderful club which was stylistically a genuine 60s time-warp, with red velvet booths arranged around a circular dancer floor that featured clusters of tin cans on the ceiling, with ordinary, coloured bulbs in them).  Then, after just a few months,  Fouberts was sold – or maybe the lease ran out, I can’t recall –  and The Lift was forced to move to the rather grand old Embassy Club on Bond Street. Thus Mark Fuller, the co-owner, kick-started his career as a club-and-restaurant tycoon.

Image

The photo of me taken at The Lift at Stallions that accompanied my two-page interview with The Face magazine in 1983

Bizarrely, regularly to be found playing the fruit machine in the basement bar was Lemmy of Motorhead. So… two ex-members of Hawkwind could be found on a Thursday night at a swishy venue in Mayfair at a largely black, gay club night promoted by one of them… me!

The Embassy Club was a wonderful venue but entirely unsuitable for The Lift crowd, despite me hiring Kiss FM’s Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson to DJ.  It was too posh – and sadly, The Lift slowly died.  But soon after, BAD was born in The Soundshaft in the back of Heaven on Fridays, featuring the brilliant DJs Vicki Edwards and (the late, lamented) Breeze.

Image

Vicki Edwards. Paris. 1988

Image

Breeze – 1985? 

In late 1986 ye olde, gaye couple sold The Piano Bar and ‘Downbeat’ temporarily moved to Tuesdays at The Dakota Bar at Heaven, where it was also very successful.  Minnie Driver used to regularly get on the mic and sing jazz and soul classics. I managed to resist to the temptation to ask if her middle name was ‘Cab’, as she was far too nice.

In 1987 Chris and Spike of The Wag Club in Soho offered me the whole club on Thursday nights.  This was undoubtably the coolest, most stylish club in London in the 80s and held around six-hundred people on two floors. I called the night ‘Upbeat’. The main dance floor was downstairs and featured my good friends Vicki Edwards and Raggy D playing soulful, vocal house and New York garage music.  Upstairs was perfect for the open mic night, but, by now I’d become tired of hearing wannabe vocalists singing ‘Summertime’ and ‘I’m Every Woman’ over and over again and decided to make it more of a jam session, with a full-blown band and singers (selected by me from a pool of performers, based on their availability), making up songs on the spot.

All musicians love jamming, regardless of whether they’re famous or not, and the roll call of the guys  (sadly, no female musicians) who regularly jammed with me at The Wag included Culture Club’s Jon Moss, Simple Minds’ Mel Gaynor and Prefab Sprout’s Neil Conti (on drums) and bass players Alan Dias of P.I.L, Winston Blissett (later to play with Massive Attack and Phil Collins) and Dale Davis (later to become Amy Winehouse’s musical director).

Jon, Winston and Dale all became part of my somewhat legendary DanMingo recording project in 2003. All twenty-one tracks that we recorded can be downloaded from my Reverb Nation page.

DanMingo

L-R: Me, Jerry Richards, Jon Moss and Winston Blissett

One night, Upbeat was packed, as usual, and we were jamming up a funky storm, when the manager came up to me on stage and whispered in my ear: ‘The Whitney Houston Band are here.’ I was pleasantly gobsmacked and stopped playing my keyboard momentarily (well, good dynamics were always one of my ‘house rules’), then he added: ‘and they’d like to jam!’

‘Wow!’ I enthused, motioned for the band to finish the number, grabbed the mic and announced: ‘Ladeez and gentlemen, we’re gonna take a break, but don’t go away…’

The band all looked surprised.  I smiled broadly and said ‘We have a very special surprise for you.  Will you please give a very warm, Upbeat-at-The-Wag Club welcome to some truly amazing musicians who were performing at Wembley Arena earlier…I give you The Whitney Houston Band!’ I saw a sea of jaws dropping simultaneously in front of me, then the audience  clapped and whooped and hollered as Whitney’s all-black band filed through the crowd and onto the rather cramped stage.  Me and my musicians were all smiles as we surrendered  our instruments to them, then gathered in front of the stage to take-in the surprise show.

As you would expect, these were amazing players of the highest calibre, and they performed a master class in effortlessly making-up the funkiest, soulful grooves for over an hour. It was pure magic.

As they were playing, the guy who appeared to be their leader, who was playing my keyboards (a Korg T2 and a Roland Juno for the musos amongst you) kept smiling at me and giving me what felt like suspiciously flirty vibes – or was I imagining it?

When they eventually, reluctantly finished (it was nearly closing time) the band leader came straight over to me and I shook his hand, then he hugged me.  I invited him into the little dressing room and he introduced himself as John Simmons, Whitney’s musical director.  I offered him a beer, we sat down and I asked him if he’d like a line of coke (someone had given me a gram, as so often happened if you were a successful club promoter in the heady 80s). He nodded affirmatively and asked him: ‘So is Whitney a dyke?’

‘Of course she is!’ Said John, laughing and touching my leg as I chopped-out a couple of lines.

‘Is Bobby gay?’ I asked.

‘He’s bi… or pretends that he is. Would you like to come to the show tomorrow?’

‘I’d love to, but I have a club night called BAD to run – it’s gay-mixed and in The Soundshaft, at the back of Heaven, every Friday. The music and the crowd are really cool.  Perhaps you’d like to come after the show?  Then I could I come to Wembley Arena on Saturday with a friend?’

‘I’ll be there’ Said John, getting up to leave. ‘I’m a bit tired now, but great to meet you Steve – there will be four, front row tickets for you on the door on Saturday.’

‘That’s amazing John, thanks so much,’ then added cheekily:  ‘will there be backstage passes as well?’

‘Of course! Nice to meet you – see you tomorrow.’  Said John, giving me a hug, then left.

It would have been great if I’d found Whitney’s musical director attractive – but, unfortunately, I didn’t.

He came to BAD the following evening – I’d put him on the guest list, of course – and he later told me how much he’d loved the club.  BAD was packed and had a great atmosphere, as usual, and the funky house music was pumping. I introduced John to The Pet Shop Boys and Jean-Paul Gautier, and they were soon all deep in conversation with each other. John looked across questioningly as I interacted physically with a beautiful young, mixed-race dancer/model by the bar. Well, better not to appear to lead John on, I figured.  After all, when people find you attractive, they always blame you – as if you’d come on to them.

The next evening found me and my fellow keyboardist Eric Robinson with our respective guests (I don’t recall who they were; perhaps they might read this and remind me) sitting in the front row at Wembley Arena, where the stage was ‘in the round’.  I explained to Eric that the last time that I’d been to a concert there, it had featured a proscenium stage and that this had also been a ‘freebie’ given to me by an American admirer: the difference being that I had slept with him the night before! This guy was the conductor of the full orchestra that magically appeared as huge curtains opened behind The Eagles in the second half of their show. I took my great friend Caroline Guinness and we were literally in tears with the emotion of it all.

The lights dimmed and Whitney’s band – all dressed in white suits – were soon playing up a soulful storm on the huge, circular, slowly revolving stage – John winked at me as he passed by – then Whitney’s unmistakable voice soared over them unseen, until she sauntered onto the stage to a huge roar from the crowd of over 12,000, looking fabulous in a tight, black pencil skirt and a crispy white blouse. What a beautiful woman she was! Once all the poppy hits were skillfully performed (this was about five years before ‘I Will Always Love You’, of course), she unexpectedly introduced a gospel section, reminding the crowd that her mother Cissy was a major gospel star and that (say it loud, proud and staccato) CHURCH was where she’d learnt to sing. Now her voice became huge and both her range and elaborate vocal licks were astonishing and emotionally charged. As she started the second song of this gospel section, Eric, sitting next to me, suddenly grabbed my arm, with a sharp intake of breath.  I turned  around questioningly to see his astonished face shaking in disbelief.  ‘What on earth is it?’ I asked, in a stage whisper.

Oh… my…God.  I don’t believe it!’

‘Don’t believe what?’ I hissed.

‘I wrote this goddamn song! I had no idea that it was in her repertoire!’

‘Wowee!’ Was all that I could whisper.

© Steve Swindells.  2014.

Footnote: my current all-star, ad-hoc jamming band is called The Plastic Sturgeons.  So far, my special guests have included Guy (Pink Floyd) Pratt and Dale (Amy Winehouse) Davis.

%d bloggers like this: