Saturday 26 September 2015

John McDonnell: a portrait

Following my profiles of Jeremy Corbyn and the other candidates in Labour's leadership and deputy leadership elections, I thought I should do the same for the new shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. It's now available on the Lion & Unicorn site. Do have a look.

Wednesday 23 September 2015

Harry Greene

Yesterday was the sixtieth anniversary of the launch of ITV. Which means that it was also the sixtieth anniversary of Round at the Redways, the first ITV soap, starring real-life married couple Harry Greene (billed as Howard Greene) and Marjie Lawrence.

I never met Marjie, but Harry was one of the nicest men I've ever known. He was a friend of the great Welsh writer John Summers, which is enough to recommend him for a start, and - apart from his TV and film work - he was also the stage designer for Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in its early days.

And he knew Terry Nation, when Nation was a young comedian in Cardiff, which proved invaluable when I wrote a book on Nation's career. So much so that I dedicated the book to him and to the memory of John Summers.

Harry died in 2013 at the age of eighty-nine. This is him and Marjie in Round at the Redways:

Tuesday 22 September 2015

Leonine writing

While I'm unavoidably detained elsewhere on my duties, I'd like to take the opportunity to direct your feet to the sunny side of the street, to the website Lion & Unicorn. I sometimes write for this myself but, more importantly, so too do some other, very fine writers. It's good stuff, I promise.

Monday 21 September 2015

An interlude

I'm slightly surprised to see that it's only been just over a week since I last posted here. It feels like longer. I've been busy, trying to fit in my usual jobs with the recording of a radio documentary (on which, more later). But normal service will be resumed shortly, I hope.

Saturday 12 September 2015

American music - Mitch Ryder

Back in 1979, when I was living in Germany, the TV show Rockpalast put on a fine late-night gig, featuring Nils Lofgren, who was good, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes, who were very good, and then finally Mitch Ryder. At the time I didn't know Ryder's work, beyond a couple of the Detroit Wheels hits from the mid-1960s, and had no image of him. But he was a revelation that night.

We first saw him in a live interview with presenter Alan Bangs, when he was clearly drunk and/or stoned already. Amongst his most coherent responses was to ask his own question: 'Have you ever seen two dogs fucking in the street?' Bangs decided it probably wasn't necessary to translate all his comments for the German audience.

By the time Ryder actually staggered on stage in the early hours of the morning - considerably later than scheduled, to the annoyance of the audience - he was even less together and had (we later learnt) just had a fist-fight with his band backstage. Despite that, the band was on good form, which was just as well since there were long, long passages to be filled with noodling, while Ryder stumbled around with a beatific look on his face as though he had no idea where he was. When he did sing, though, it was with the most beautiful voice: croaky and hoarse, ravaged and ruined, every word was slurred, but the phasing and feel was still impressive. If you want to see the gig, most of it is on YouTube, including the concluding 10-minute version of 'Soul Kitchen'.

Following the broadcast, I immediately went out and bought Ryder's newly released album, How I Spent My Vacation, which I learned was his first record for the best part of a decade. Unfortunately, it was a bit disappointing. There were a couple of interesting lyrics ('Cherry Poppin'', 'The Jon'), in which he discussed gay sex far more explicitly than - as far as I'm aware - any rock singer had done previously, but mostly the songwriting was unexceptional, and the music was pedestrian rock. And the cover art (see below) was simply dreadful.

This song, 'Passion's Wheel', however, was the standout, an uptempo acoustic number that I've loved now for over thirty-five years. Again, I don't think much of the arrangement, but Ryder's vocal performance is one of my favourite ever. From the opening line ('How much suffering must I endure?'), he sounds both defiant and desperate, like he's been to hell and still has hopes of getting back one day. Few have ever managed to get such anguish into their work. And what I particularly like is that somehow he imprisons this ragged howl of pain in such a confined and rigid little melody. For a man with one of the best white soul voices ever, there's a surprising absence of emoting.

Wrong, wrong, wrong

What a buffoon I am! All these weeks and months I've been saying that Jeremy Corbyn wouldn't be elected leader of the Labour Party. And now he has been. I was wrong, completely and hopelessly wrong.

In my defence, I did from the outset say that Corbyn should be taken seriously, that he wasn't a joke candidate. But it was my conviction was that when it actually came to the crunch, the party would decide that the example of Iain Duncan Smith was not one that it wished to follow. And I was wrong. As I so often am.

But, despite my poor track record on predictions, I can at least confidently predict that it's going to be entertaining. God bless the party and all who sail in her.

Friday 11 September 2015

American music - The Rainmakers

By the mid-1980s there was very little coming out of American rock that brought me any pleasure. The Paisley Underground had run out of steam, and there seemed little joy to be found anywhere.

But the Rainmakers' one hit single, 'Let My People Go-Go' (1986) was fantastic: a witty conflation of Bible stories, rock 'n' roll mythology and sheer exuberance that I couldn't resist. I love the idea of Jesus reviving the Coasters' complaint: 'Why's everybody always picking on me?' And the singer wore a top hat, which is always A Good Thing.

Wikipedia claims that this is based on the old spiritual 'Go Down Moses', but that's just silly. The Rainmakers had none of the political dimension of that song at all. If anything, it's David Bowie's 'Starman' as filtered through the slang of Bob Dylan's 'Highway 61 Revisited'.

Sadly, the rest of the band's work, while okay, again reached the heights of this debut. But it's still one classic more than most ever achieve.

Thursday 10 September 2015

As voting closes...

Voting on the leadership and deputy-leadership of the Labour Party has just closed. And, as an interim guide to form, I've checked up on the traffic generated on this blog by the portraits I wrote of the various candidates. There are, it has to be said, no surprises.

The share of the total number of page views achieved by each candidate is as follows:

Jeremy Corbyn    58%
Andy Burnham    15%
Yvette Cooper     14%
Liz Kendall           13%

Deputy leader:
Angela Eagle        28%
Stella Creasy        26%
Caroline Flint        18%
Tom Watson        16%
Ben Bradshaw     13%

The order in the leadership category reflects the result that pretty much everyone expects, though I want to put on record one last time my dissenting view: I still think Yvette Cooper is going to win. I'm not sure what conventional wisdom says about the deputy leadership, but I believe Tom Watson is still favourite.

If it goes to form, then, by this time on Saturday, the Labour Party will be led by Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson, two white men with an average age of 57, who both came into politics as unelected advisers to trade unions. Let no one say that the party hasn't embraced modern Britain in all its wondrous diversity.

American music - Southside Johnny

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes weren't very big in Britain, always struggling to be seen in the shadow of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, whose guitarist, Miami Steve Van Zandt, produced their early work. It's worth looking up their debut album I Don't Want to Go Home (1976), though, if you like some horn-driven good-time music.

One of the tracks on that album was a fine version of Henry Glover's song 'It Ain't the Meat (It's the Motion)', with guest vocals by drummer Kenny 'Popeye' Pentifallo. And this is an even better live version from a New Year's Eve gig in 1977, simultaneously sleazy and joyous. Lord knows what's wrong with the visuals, but the sound quality is unimpeachable.

Wednesday 9 September 2015

American music - Dion

In commercial terms, the 1970s weren't good years for the great Dion DiMucci, who'd already relaunched his career several times and would do so again. He released some great records in the decade, but even the magnificent Phil Spector-produced album Born to Be With You (1975) failed to sell many copies. Nor did The Return of the Wanderer (1978), from which this track comes.

The song will be familiar. '(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night' was one of Tom Waits's early classics, an atmospheric tale of riding downtown at the end of the working week, though - as ever with Waits - it's suffused with a tinge of sadness: the 'magic of the melancholy tear in your eye'.

Dion transforms the piece entirely, turning it into his own anthem so that it sounds like an effortless updating of his early 1960s work. He speeds it up and changes the lyrics from third-person to first-person. Most significantly, where Waits sounds like the loner, the outsider, trying to find romance in neon-lit loneliness, Dion is cruising in the company of his own gang. He may have his 'arm around my baby', but the backing vocals suggest that they're not alone: they own Saturday night.

This is celebratory rather than melancholy, and it's fantastic. I like Tom Waits, but I love Dion.

Purged! part three

When I signed up as a registered supporter of the Labour Party, Iain McNicol, the party's general secretary, wrote to me, saying how 'thrilled' he was to have received my application and how 'delighted' the entire party were to have me aboard:

It was a little disconcerting to be addressed bluntly as 'Alwyn', rather than 'Dear Mr Turner'. But I assumed that he was a busy man and that he had a lot of these personal messages to send out. Also, he's younger than me - maybe he's more comfortable than I am in using first names with those who he's never met. In any event I forgave him, because I was, of course, equally thrilled and delighted 'to be part of this movement'.

Mr McNicol also thanked me for for my three quid 'administration fee' which, he assured me, 'means you'll be able to vote in our leadership elections'.

Sadly, all this camaraderie and bonhomie was not destined to last. When I came to cast the votes that I'd been promised, I discovered that, in the words of the late blues musician Roy Hawkins, 'The Thrill Is Gone'.

You'll note that Mr McNicol and I are no longer on first-name terms. Indeed we're not on any-name terms. I'm now 'Applicant' and he's 'The Labour Party'. A very definite frost has settled on our former friendship.

There are two grounds offered for this rejection. It may be, it is suggested, that I am 'a supporter of an organisation opposed to the Labour Party'.

Well, we can clear that up straight away. I'm not. I am not a member or supporter of any other political party. I've never tried to conceal, however, that I have voted for other parties at various points in the thirty-five years since I was first entered on the electoral register, sometimes for tactical reasons, sometimes because I preferred the alternative candidate.

In 1983, for example, I voted for Anne Sofer of the SDP because I (wrongly) thought she had a better chance of dislodging the sitting Conservative MP in my constituency. And in 2000 I voted for Ken Livingstone to become mayor of London, because I thought he'd be better at it than the Labour candidate, Frank Dobson. But voting is not the same as supporting.

So if that's not the reason for my exclusion, it must be the other argument: that I 'do not support the aims and values of the Labour Party'. I'm not, it's worth stressing, required to be a supporter of the party itself, but merely to support its 'aims and values'.

And what are these 'aims and values'? Well happily they're spelt out in Clause IV of the party's constitution, which opens:
The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.
So far, so good. The only bit of that that I might feel like questioning is the assertion that Labour is 'a democratic socialist party'. But I do support the idea that that's what it ought to be.

The clause goes on to specify four key ambitions: a dynamic economy, a just society, an open democracy, a healthy environment. Yep, that's all fine with me.

Then we get the commitment to working with international bodies 'to secure peace, freedom, democracy, economic security and environmental protection for all', and a commitment to working with British institutions as well. And it concludes: 'On the basis of these principles, Labour seeks the trust of the people to govern.'

I agree with all of that, as well. Even including the bit about needing 'the trust of the people to govern'. Indeed I made precisely that point in my piece about who I was intending to vote for.

The more I think about this, the more offended I am. Are the Labour Party seriously suggesting that I don't share their belief in 'peace, freedom, democracy, economic security and environmental protection'? If so, is this libellous? Because it feels very close to being defamation.

Maybe I should have a word with my local MP, Sir Keir Starmer. He's a lawyer, he'll know whether this is actionable or not.

Tuesday 8 September 2015

American music - Mink DeVille

American band Mink DeVille had a top 20 hit in Britain with 'Spanish Stroll' from their 1977 debut album and then largely disappeared from view over here. Which was a shame because their third album, Le Chat Bleu (1980) is a masterpiece, keeping all the swagger and style of the earlier work but now combining it with the braying backing vocals and saxes of Dion DiMucci. It also had a strong French influence in places, having been recorded in Paris.

Willy DeVille wasn't technically the world's greatest singer, but his voice was distinctive and warm and he had taste, style and attitude in abundance. To prove it, he co-wrote some of the songs on Le Chat Bleu with Doc Pomus, and if Doc Pomus endorses you, you know you're onto something good.

This is a live version of the album's opening track, 'This Must Be the Night' and it's fabulous, wrapping up the entire history of New York rock 'n' roll in a single song of bruised street-punk romance. In addition to which, the roses climbing up the mike-stand are a genius bit of theatre, and Willy's hairdo is at its magnificent best.

Monday 7 September 2015

American music - The Blasters

There were some great debut albums in the 1980s, as acts as diverse as Dexys Midnight Runners, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Dwight Yoakum issued statements of intent that seemed almost designed to serve as manifestos. And then there were the Blasters with the title track of their 1980 debut American Music:
It's a howl from the desert,
a scream from the slums,
the Mississippi rollin' to the beat of the drums
The song appeared again on their second (major label) album The Blasters (1981), which is as magnificent a piece of work as The Ramones. It's got two fewer songs than that masterpiece and runs a minute longer, but the point is much the same: this is rock 'n' roll in its most beautiful and simple essence.

This version of 'American Music' comes from the 1985 Farm Aid gig and is faithful to the barnstorming original: just over two minutes, but still time for a couple of solos in there. Admire in particular, the way they leave the bridge passage till after the first solo and, above all else, marvel at the finest set of teeth in the history of rock 'n' roll. And remember: 'It's the greatest music that you ever knew'.

Sunday 6 September 2015

Purged! part two

When, in 2014, the Labour Party changed its rules to allow registered supporters, Andrew Rawnsley reported in The Observer: 'Mr Miliband has an ambition to get the number up to 100,000.' The idea of allowing people a vote in future leadership elections was to involve more people in the party, Rawnsley added:
What Mr Miliband is essentially proposing is what Americans call a "closed primary". You can't just walk in off the street to take part. You have to show some level of commitment to Labour. But you don't have to be a full-blown member to have a vote.
The proposal was passed by Labour's National Executive Committee in February last year by a vote of 28 votes to two. The dissenters were Dennis Skinner and Christine Shawcroft, probably the two most left-wing members of the NEC. Ed Miliband professed himself delighted with the result:
These changes will help bridge the gap between Westminster and the rest of Britain. They are about opening up the Labour Party so that more people from every walk of life can have more say on the issues which matter to them most.
At one point, in October, it seemed as though the price for being a registered supporter might be as high as £10, but that came in for a lot of criticism. Tessa Jowell - not then declared as a London mayoral candidate, but with that contest clearly in mind - said: '£10 sounds very high. In my view the charge should be set at the lowest level possible consistent with the proper administering of the primary.' So it came down to £3. And there it still is.

Which is why I signed up to it. I think a £10 charge would have deterred me, but I always liked the idea of primaries (of voting in anything, really) and I thought that seemed a reasonable level.

I also thought that I'm maybe sort of among the kind of people that they might want to participate: someone who's voted Labour in the past, but not consistently, i.e. a floating voter who could be won over, and therefore someone whose opinion on the leadership might be worth taking into consideration. And being a single, childless man with a natural inclination towards sloth, I thought I might offer a different perspective to all those hard-working families so beloved of politicians.

Evidently I was wrong, since I've been rejected. (No word yet, incidentally, on the return of my three quid.) Somewhere there is someone in the Holborn & St Pancras Labour Party who has checked up on me, taken against me, and put my name on a blacklist, so that as soon as I tried to cast a vote, I received a rejection email.

This doesn't leave me feeling bitter, in the way that some longstanding members and activists clearly - and justifiably - feel when they've been excluded. But it does tend to reinforce the impression that it's all a bit risible (hence the cheap sarcasm yesterday). And it does irritate me enough that I don't particularly wish the party well; surely it's a normal human reaction to respond, 'Well, if that's how you feel about it...'

Mostly, though, it leaves me genuinely baffled. If the 'opening up' of Labour doesn't include me, who does it include? Perhaps I misunderstood from the outset, and the intention was to attract solid Labour voters who'd never joined the party. In which case, Miliband was even more useless than I thought: they're not the ones you need to win over.

But maybe in writing that last sentence, I've answered my own question. I have been writing on this blog for several years that Miliband was useless and would never win a general election. I've also been very critical of Labour's policy and direction. That doesn't mean I don't support the 'aims and values' of the party - which is all I signed up to - but maybe they're feeling a bit sensitive right now.

I do like the bit in the rejection email that says I can appeal but only if I apply 'to join Labour as a full member'. Which obviously costs a lot more money. You'd have to be very cynical, however, to conclude that this was all a fund-raising exercise. I'm not sure the party's capable of thinking that far ahead.

Saturday 5 September 2015


This is, as Rupert Murdoch would say, the humblest day of my life. I just voted in the Labour leadership, deputy leadership and mayoral candidate elections. And by return of email, I got the following message, telling me that I simply wasn't wanted:

Woe! Woe is me. Woe, woe and thrice again woe. I've been debarred, expelled, banished, excluded. My voice has been silenced and I've been denied my democratic rights.

Maybe it was because I said that I didn't consider myself a Labour supporter. Maybe someone noted my claim that I voted for the Monster Raving Loony Party in the general election. Whatever the cause, the result is unequivocal and admits of no appeal: I've ended up on a blacklist. I am beyond the pale, an outcast from Eden. And now I truly know the meaning of shame. I have done those things I ought not to have done, and I have left undone those things that I ought to have done, and there is no health in me.

Obviously I've written back to ask how I go about reclaiming the thirty pieces of silver (well, the three quid) that I gave them when I registered. But that'll be scant compensation for the feeling of rejection I'm experiencing.

Just for the record my votes (spurned, spurned, all spurned) went to:

Leader: (1) Liz Kendall, (2) Yvette Cooper, (3) Jeremy Corbyn, (4) Andy Burnham

Deputy: (1) Stella Creasy, (2) Angela Eagle, (3) Ben Bradshaw, (4) Caroline Flint, (5) Tom Watson

Mayoralty: (1) Christian Wolmar, (2) Gareth Thomas, (3) David Lammy, (4) Tessa Jowell, (5) Diane Abbott, (6) Sadiq Khan

I do like that 'Kind Regards' sign-off, though. That's a nice touch, don't you think? Even if they are purging me.

Friday 4 September 2015

This just in...

I see Newsweek magazine is running what it calls an 'exclusive':

Reading down a bit further, however, it turns out that it's not quite an exclusive, since the writer, Barney Guiton, does credit this blog with having found the story in the first place, for which my thanks.

Postscript: Following the appearance of this article, the TimesArchive Twitter account tweeted the following:

Theatricals - David Bowie

David Bowie's appearance in the title role of Bertolt Brecht's play Baal, broadcast on BBC television in 1982, wasn't one of his greatest acing performances. It's not much of a play either, to be honest, but then it was Brecht's first and he was only twenty when he wrote it. Quite why the BBC thought it was a good idea to revive such a minor piece remains a mystery, though you can see why they cast Bowie.

To accompany the production, Bowie recorded a five-track EP of songs from the show, his final release for RCA Records and Cassettes. And last up in the running order was this very short but very good track, 'The Dirty Song'.

Thursday 3 September 2015

Theatricals - David Courtney

David Courtney is probably best known for discovering Leo Sayer and producing the first two albums (the good ones). I've written about this connection elsewhere. Courtney also co-wrote and co-produced Roger Daltrey's first album.

This song, though, comes from his own debut album, First Day (1975). According to the original sleeve-notes, written by Anne Nightingale, 'David Courtney's music is self-evident'. I'm not sure about that. This song in particular sounds to me like it belongs on a film soundtrack, a kind of easy-listening prog, as though the Walker Brothers were covering Pink Floyd. This impression is helped along, no doubt, by the fact that Barry Morgan (drums) and Alan Parker (acoustic guitar) both played on the Walkers' comeback album, No Regrets, the same year, while the lead guitar is by Dave Gilmour.

Who this was supposed to appeal to, I have no idea. But I like it. So this is the closing track from the album, 'When Your Life Is Your Own'.

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Brother, don't you walk away

Yvette Cooper's speech yesterday, in which she called on the government to respond more positively to the refugee crisis spilling over from the Arabic world, has rightly been acclaimed for its statement of basic humanity. But there's one bit that I think is a little misleading.

'Hungary and Sweden have had three times the number of asylum claims as Britain,' she pointed out, 'even though they are smaller countries.'

Well, yes, that's true, but is it relevant? Is land area the correct measure for the proper allocation of refugees? Other people have recently attempted to shame Britain by producing figures showing number of refugees accepted in relation to national population. And again, that doesn't necessarily seem relevant.

Personally, I don't think it's sensible or right to try to make such comparisons at all. Cooper's core argument is sufficient - that it's simply wrong to turn away from such a crisis: 'It's immoral, it's cowardly and it's not the British way.' This attempt to quantify our obligations is misguided.

Apart from anything else, if we are to draw up league tables, then neither area nor population is sufficient, since these don't confront the most commonly heard claim: that 'Britain is full'. If we're going to use a measure to compare countries, then surely the more appropriate method would be to factor in both area and population, by looking at density.

So I thought I'd post some graphs, to see if it helped at all. These are the population densities of the fifteen most populous countries in the European Union:

The UK is the third most densely populated of the major European nations, though it should be noted that there's a pretty steep fall-off after the top two. But you can see the pointlessness of Cooper's comment about Sweden: the geography of the place means it's not really comparable, so why compare?

If we then break down the constituent countries of the UK, you get this result:

To put that in the context of the first graph: Wales and Northern Ireland would come between Italy and the Czech Republic in the top half, while Scotland comes in just above Sweden at the bottom. England, meanwhile, has almost exactly the same population density as the Netherlands, despite having an area more than three times the size.

But that's not really enough information either, because of the vastly disproportionate size of England compared to the others. So, breaking it down further, we can separate out the English regions and include them along with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland:

Which would suggest that London is somewhat skewing the figures. London really is full, while Scotland's virtually empty.

Apart from that, I'm not sure we get very far. As I say, I'm not convinced that these things help any discussion of immigration or asylum. Better to stick with Cooper's moral message: 'How can we be proud of our history of helping those who fled conflict if our generation turns its back?'

Theatricals - Alan Price

The 1970s were an odd time for Alan Price. The previous decade he'd formed the Animals, who were terrific but (I always felt) a little tame on record, thanks to Mickie Most's production, as compared to their live act. And then he'd led the Alan Price Set who recorded a few good tracks and a whole lot more that were harmless.

So having done the pop star thing, Price began to branch out in the 1970s, and got into movies. Most famously he and his band appeared on screen repeatedly in Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man (1973), providing a musical counterpoint to the story. Less famously, and certainly less advisedly, he took on the role of Alfie Elkins in Alfie Darling (1976); his performance didn't exactly eclipse Michael Caine's interpretation of the character. By the end of the decade he was writing a musical based on Andy Capp.

His finest moment, though, was on the 1974 album Between Today and Yesterday, half of which was a stunning evocation of his childhood in the north east, accompanied by the superb arrangements of Derek Wadsworth. Contained here was the basis for a genuinely great musical, had he wished to pursue it.

This is 'Between Today and Yesterday' itself, in a version released on the 1976 live album Performing Price. If I'd been making the TV series Our Friends in the North (1996), this is the song I would have ended with, rather than Oasis's 'Don't Look Back in Anger'.

Tuesday 1 September 2015

Theatricals - Peter Straker

According to Wikipedia, Peter Straker is 'best known for appearances in Doctor Who and the 1985 ITV series Connie.' Is he? Round my way he's best known for being in the 1968 original London cast of the musical Hair, for his collaborations with Freddie Mercury, and for his fabulous androgynous role in the 1971 film Girl Stroke Boy (he's involved in 'a relationship that is as godless as it is fashionable').

Where we're all agreed, then, is that he's not best known for his 1972 debut album Private Parts. But he probably should be, because it's a fine album.

It was written and produced by Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley, who had earlier brought us Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich and the Herd. Now, despite having made their name with the simplistic stomp of 'Have I the Right' for the Honeycombs, Howard and Blaikley had pretensions and aspirations. Which is why some of their others hits referenced subjects such as Milton ('Paradise Lost'), Coleridge ('The Legend of Xanadu') and Orpheus ('From the Underworld').

And on Private Parts, they decided to go for arrangements that would match their imagination. The songs are surprisingly non-immediate, but they grow on you, they grow. And the main selling-point is Straker's fantastic voice.

This is 'When Love Was Hard to Come By'. Somewhere there's a West End musical missing its big show-stopping ballad.