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Paying their dues

July 29, 2011

Most of this piece was written before the recent death of Amy Winehouse. Though the points it makes may seem to have some relevance to her career, their suggestions are as a result of a sad coincidence of timing. I wasn’t a fan of Amy Winehouse, and apart from what I caught sight of in tabloid headlines, I know nothing about her. As the writing makes clear, this piece is in relation to three documentaries recently viewed on Nilsson and the two Davies brothers. Folk will have their own views on the premature deaths of individual stars, but that’s not the focus of this piece.

In the past few months I’ve been lucky enough to catch three television documentaries on leading figures in rock music: two on the Kinks – one on Ray Davies, the other on little brother Dave, and this week’s excellent review of the life and career of Harry Nilsson, one of rock’s lost boys.

They have been uniformly excellent in production, all employing a clever mix of home movies and archive footage to recreate the times and places that influenced these musical heroes. They’ve also given the impression at least of getting near to discovering what made these folk tick – particularly in the case of the Davies brothers who were fully involved in the making of the films.

I suppose if we carry music in our heads for a lifetime – Waterloo Sunset and Everybody’s Talking would be good examples – there’s every chance that we will be fascinated to find out more about those who wrote and performed those tunes. That in itself is a strange discovery for my generation to make, because we were brought up to celebrate the ephemeral nature of ‘pop’ music: the three minute single that would enjoy its ten weeks of chart fame and then disappear forever. It hasn’t quite worked out like that.

There are, of course, those who fell that the longevity of popular music is in fact a bad thing, that when it gains to much responsibility for our dreams it groans a little under the weight; that short riff ridden jingles don’t really bear up to much close scrutiny.

However, these documentaries remind us that, though the songs largely came to us on 7 inch pieces of plastic, behind the music lay real lives and stories to be told. With the wonderful hindsight of nearly half a century, it can be a little humbling to recognize our original naivety but also the power of the emotions still evoked by a few chords on a guitar and a fill on a snare drum.

Watching these carefully crafted films I’ve started to realize things that passed me by in the sixties. One concerns management of the bands.

I suppose the line we were originally fed was the oft repeated tale of musically committed lads practising hard, getting a few youth club gigs and then finally winning a recording contract – in those days the holy grail. With the exception of Brian Epstein, for those of us outside the Curzon Street buzz, the managers didn’t really signify. We could have told you about Chris Lambert and Kit Stamp, Andrew Loog Oldham and Peter Grant, but we never really knew who they were. For instance, it was only comparatively recently that I discovered that Kit Stamp was actor Terry Stamp’s brother.

However, while watching the Dave Davies’ documentary, I heard him make repeated reference to Grenville Collins and Robert Wace: ‘the two posh lads who managed us’ and it suddenly struck me that there was a kind of pattern to that choice of manager. Far from the sixties ‘beat boom’ being an empowerment of working class lads making good, it was actually anything but a street led revolution. Granted it was a departure form the previously closed shop, Tin Pan Alley- led approach to popular music, the boundaries were extended, the rules all changed, but the explosion was driven not by angry young men but rather by rather louche young men, by and large surviving on family money who, in the absence of national service, found themselves with time on their hands and no officer’s mess or colonial service in which to spend it. Even pirate Radio Caroline, as anti-establishment as you could get, you would think, had the backing of posh advertisers, Jocelyn Stevens and his Queen magazine, and DJs like Roger Gale who went on to become right wing Tory MPs.

Anyone who is familiar with the Beatles story can see that, on their arrival in London, they were taken up by the rich young things – John Dunbar and Marianne Faithfull and their art gallery set, the Chelsea and Kensington wannabes, various minor Lords and Baronets, even the Ashers of Wimpole Street. We wanted them to be working class heroes, but they wanted to ‘get on’ and climb socially. It’s what the working class did in those days and it’s interesting to see poor old Ringo still getting grief for honestly assessing his two up two down home in the Dingle as somewhere he was glad to escape. Similarly, ‘threat to the establishment’ Mick Jagger, is nowadays more thoroughly revealed as MCC member, art schooler suburbanite.

None of this is to denigrate the music or the stars; white boys playing R&B was always ersatz and none of us really cared, but the differences between what we were getting and what we thought we knew are quite wide.

The same applies to the stars themselves – and this is perhaps more worthy of our consideration. There was a melancholia hanging over all three of these films All three subjects had achieved greatly, had carved for themselves huge spaces in the psyche of many of their generation and could be fairly sure that their work would be appreciated long into the future – surely the final accolade for any artist. But it would be stretching things to say they cam over as happy or content.

Nilsson’s case is perhaps the most obviously tragic. You could define his life and career as follows, if you wanted to be brutally accurate and brief:
Brooklyn boy falls in love with music, his talent and marvelous voice is discovered and brings some comfort in to a life that was scarred by his dad’s desertion; a collaboration with ace producer Richard Perry brings discipline and direction and ends up with the album of the year Nilsson Schmilsson. Overawed by the Beatles’s approbation, he starts to hang out with the stars whence booze and alcohol boost his low self confidence. Famously hooking up with John Lennon for the ‘lost weekend’ he loses self respect, motivation, self awareness and, finally, his glorious voice. The rest of his life is spent recovering from debts and nursing a health made fragile by his excesses.

Well, of course, it’s easy to say it was all his fault, or even to blame his decline on an addictive personality or personal blemishes. Some would argue that the brief taste of fame he enjoyed was better than none at all, and that the adulation of millions is something that very few ever savour. It’s equally true to say his life might have taken a tragic turn if he’s never been a rock star – but I can’t help thinking that there is a sense in that he paid a high price for the enjoyment that we received.

There is a point to be made about Lennon’s influence also. As a Beatle, his magic is assured, and his early violent death has given him a kind of sainthood, but his carousing with Nilsson, and the effect it had on the American, might serve as a paradigm for what happens when someone damaged in childhood, as Lennon was, achieves universal fame and is allowed freedom to behave in a self absorbed, egotistical and insensitive manner to all around him. It’s clear that Nilsson revelled in John’s company, and that the former Beatle was delighted to have such an enthralled camp follower. What is specific in this case might also serve as a commentary on the effect of rock and roll fame on a whole generation of musicians who were ill equipped to cope for whatever reason.

The two Kinks’ documentaries were more nuanced than that on Nilsson, probably because of the involvement of both Dave and Ray Davies. The fascination for one who had been moved by many of their songs was to see quite clearly the genesis of who they are and what they wrote.

The youngest of a family of older girls, the brothers seem to reflect the common idea that to be brought up in a predominantly female household powers creativity. Both of them cite the Saturday night ‘knees up’ in their north London front room as being crucial to their musical development, and its not hard to spot that influence running through their more music hall based songs.

Ray told a crushing tale of one of his sisters giving him his first guitar, going off to the dancing and then suffering a fatal collapse in the arms of a stranger on the dancefloor. Psychologically a hugely formative moment one would have thought. The sibling rivalry between the two has never really been promoted as a driving force behind their music, in the way the John v Paul relationship has been painted, and the disconnection between Ray and Dave seems a more emotionally deep rooted thing, far more fragile than the idea of male rivalry to produce the best music. Dave suggested in his film that he never was aware of the rivalry till it was painted out to him late in their career.

Perhaps most telling was the feel of the two films, both directed by Julien Temple

Ray’s had the feeling of formal storytelling: the return to the family home, songs half sung, live, sitting at a broken down piano on the stage of a near derelict Hornsey Town Hall. He wandered across north London recapturing his past and his influences and came across exactly as you would have wanted: whimsical, a little melancholic, and probably quite guarded. The overall impression was that of a man whose huge creativity had perhaps brought him as much pain as joy. The title: ‘Imaginary Man’ perhaps said it all.

Dave’s in a sense was more reflective and more painful to watch: it was the melancholy of revelation rather than reflection. Though there was reference to his childhood places and influences, Dave’s film was made largely on Bodmin Moor where he currently lives, and contained much allusion to the mystical aspects of Dave’s current philosophy. It seemed he was distancing himself physically as well as mentally and spiritually. After his solo hit ‘Death of a Clown’, Dave famously reckoned he ‘wasn’t good enough’ to be a solo star, and some of this film reflected the traditional inferiority complex felt by performers as against writers of music. For all that, the fascinating explanation of the original fuzz guitar on ‘You really got me’, invented when Dave took a razor blade to an old speaker cone, suggested a higher level of input to the success of the Kinks form the wee brother than he, or Ray, seem prepared to admit. After a stroke some years ago, Dave’s speech is slower than before and its impossible to avoid the thought that he has paid for his admitted ‘rock and roll’ excesses.

I’m not sure anyone viewing these films would have been totally envious of the brothers, for all their talent and success; the overall impression in their different ways, was of a kind of Byronesque flirtation with near madness in the pursuit of creative genius. Neither, though, played the victim. Ray has always seemed to have espoused the ‘paying for my art’ approach to his success, whilst Dave is less intense and more wry in his reflections; perhaps the classic difference between the introverted writer and the extrovert performer.

The third part of the triangle – with performer and writer – is, of course, the listener. The public took Nilsson, and the Davies brothers, to their hearts, made them successful and famous, heaped praise and affection on them, and then, as is nearly always the case, walked away when fashions changed or when their behaviour became overtly embarrassing or confusing.

It is perhaps one of the truly positive things about the baby boomer generation that, in our dotage, we have retained the perspective to look back on the performers of our youth and recognize what they brought to the soundtrack of our growing up.

Pop was meant to be fleeting in its existence, but it hardly seems fair that the same would be true of its providers.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man
Dave Davies: Kinkdom Come
Harry Nilsson: The Missing Beatle

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