Friday 18 October 2019

Me. And Elton John

I’m mentioned in Elton John’s book:

One day I’d be perfectly happy at home, telling anyone who’d listen about how wonderful it was not being shackled to the old cycle of touring, delighting in the free time that allowed me to concentrate on being chairman of Watford FC. The next, I’d be on the phone to Stiff Records, a small independent label that was home to Ian Dury and Elvis Costello, offering my services on their upcoming package, tour, which they accepted. My sudden urge to get in front of an audience again was bolstered by the fact that I had a crush on one of their artists, Wreckless Eric - sadly, he was nowhere near wreckless enough to get involved with someone like me.

I don’t think I’ve ever publicly told the story of my brief liaison with Elton John though it’s a memory that remains dear to my heart. I’d always been a fan, and even though it might piss a few people off to hear me say it, I still am. I don’t like absolutely every record he's ever made in a fifty year career, and I wish he didn’t have a knighthood (though that’s really not my business and I have no idea what pressures or incentives were bought to bear). But I don’t care if he has millions, or that he likes shopping, or that he apparently owns a diamond encrusted cock ring, it's okay by me, and I’m sure that he’s done a lot of good stuff that no one ever gets to hear about. So before you start please shut the fuck up.

At this point I'm put in mind of a gnarly old English punk who said I'll never forgive you, you cunt - you made me like a Tom Petty song after Amy and I recorded his song Walls on out second album together.

I’d been an Elton devotee since I saw him doing Take Me To The Pilot on some TV show in 1970. That wonderful, blocky piano, and his voice like a big open landscape - soulful and unexpected, with an edge of loneliness and desperation. 

Take Me To The Pilot, Burn Down The Mission, Country Comfort, Your Song, Crocodile Rock, Honky Cat, Madman Across The Water, Candle In The Wind, Funeral For A Friend, Tiny Dancer, Rocket Man, Benny & The Jets, Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, Philadelphia Freedom, Sad Songs (Say So Much)... 

Come on now  - how could you not dig it?

One week in August 1977 Elton John reviewed the new singles for Record Mirror. He didn’t like any of them except mine: (I’d Go The) Whole Wide World. He loved it, said I sounded like The Troggs. I was thrilled to bits even through the numbness that was beginning to overtake me in the wake of sudden and unexpected success.

I went on tour, made an album, went on tour again and started planning a second album, though planning might be too grandiose a word for writing a few songs in between getting blind drunk and wondering who the fuck I was and what I was doing. 

There were rumblings in the Stiff Records office - Elton John was interested in producing me. He wanted to meet me for dinner. The general feeling was that I wouldn’t be able to handle a meeting in the sort of restaurant that someone like Elton John might frequent - there were suggestions that various members of the Stiff Records staff (groupies to a man) should accompany me to make sure that I didn’t fuck it up. I took the view that it was my business who I chose to dine with, but suggested that if Elton was serious about producing me he should come to my flat to discuss it in a place where there were musical instruments and a record player. I was told not to be ridiculous - someone like Elton John wouldn’t want to come round to my place, it just didn’t work like that.

I didn’t hear anything more and pretty much forgot about it. The whole idea seemed completely unreal to me anyway - after all Elton John was a huge pop star and I was just me, confused, vaguely terrified and doing the best I could.

I made another album, my second, with a less than sympathetic and not exactly ideal producer in an upmarket studio owned by the Pink Floyd. I didn’t enjoy the experience. I had to go on a tour with other Stiff Records artists, all of whom had albums released on the same day as mine. It was a package tour, the one that Elton talks about. I don’t remember him applying for a job as a keyboard player - maybe he did and they just didn’t tell anyone, on the basis that guarding rather than sharing information equals power, or some such bullshit.

There were something like thirty five dates on that tour. I had my own band, two guitars, bass and drums. Everyone else had a band too, so there were a lot of musicians cluttering the place up. One night we were at the Hemel Hempstead Pavilion. I was sitting in a corner of a large dressing room full of bands, trying not to let everything get on my nerves, when a woman I knew walked in. I knew her because she’d done some PR work for Stiff Records at some point and we’d got on well. She came straight over to me, said hello and addressed me in hushed voice:

‘I’m here with Elton John, he’s out in the corridor - he’d really like to meet you.’

I used to make a point of not being impressed by anything - some sort of self preservation thing I suppose, - I was in the middle of what was undoubtedly the most highly publicised tour of the year, I’d just been on the cover of the Observer Colour Supplement, I seemed to be in the NME every week, I was all over the radio and I got recognized everywhere I went. I’d been famous for little over a year and the only way I could handle it was by pretending to be very down to earth.

‘What’s he doing out there? Bring him in here!’

‘No’ she whispered, ‘there’s absolutely no way he’ll come in here, he’s really shy. You’ll have to come out there - I’ll introduce you.’

My bravado fell away and I suddenly felt very shy and nervous. This was all a bit real - I’d never met anyone really famous - spectacularly famous - before, and not only that, he was one of my heroes.

He was in a corner of the corridor looking as though he was trying to melt into the wall. There must have been other people around but I didn’t see them, just him, alone and exuding vulnerability. His face lit up when he saw me. He seemed at once other worldly and completely normal. He was wearing a black 1920s flapper suit and a floppy herringbone tweed cap. 

We said hello, and our awkwardness hung in the air between us. His eyes were soft and grey, and very kind. He had an Edwardian shirt buttoned to the neck with some sort of Art Deco, bakelite bow tie.

‘Um, er... does that light up?’

He laughed: ‘No, I’m off duty.’

I asked him what he was doing here - something dumb like that. He told me he’d come to see me play - he was looking forward to it. I don’t remember most of our conversation- I was practically levitating at this point. It wasn’t the famousness of it all, it was him. I don’t know how to explain it - he was lovely. Gorgeous - other-worldly and normal all at the same time. I remember asking him if he was still doing music - there was some doubt at the time, announcement of retirement and so on.

‘It was all getting a bit dizzy so I’m having a break. I’m managing Watford Football Club - it’s much more down to earth.’

It was time to get ready to go on so I excused myself and went back into the dressing room in a state of shock. I’d just met Elton John, we’d had a conversation and he’d actually wanted to meet me.

His PA burst through the door.

‘Well, that went well! You know he’d love to come up and play the piano with you.’

‘Great, yeah, there’s a piano onstage, tell him to get on there.’

‘, that won’t work - you have to go and ask him.’

‘What?!! I can’t ask him to play with us!’

‘You have to, he’d really love to play but he won’t unless you ask him. Now, come with me.’

We went back into the corridor where Elton was still busy melting into the wall. He lit up again and I started my pitch:

‘Ahh, er...I was um..., yeah, look, I was...’

He looked very eager, almost willing me to say the words. I stammered and stuttered, standing on one leg and vaguely miming playing the piano.

‘There’s er.... there’s a piano....’

‘Yes? Yes?!!?

‘And I was ahh.. wondering if, if....’ 

Deep breath: 


‘Could I? Can I really??!!

I thought one of us might burst with excitement and relief.

We discussed the details - he was going to play on Whole Wide World. I went back into the dressing room to prime the band. His PA came in again:

‘Well done! He’s thrilled to bits, he really is - he’s been practicing all day!’

As we went on he caught my eye from the side of the stage and assured me he’d be ready to come on. When it came to it I didn’t know how to introduce him because we hadn’t discussed that. I felt that something along the lines of Ladies and gentlemen Mr Elton John would have been preposterous coming from me so I said:

And now we’ve got a special guest - nothing to get too excited about, it’s just some bloke called Reg from the football club that asked if he could get up and play the piano.

Nothing happened so we just started the song. I was worried that he’d baled on us but a sudden and pregnant piano chord hung in the air and the crowd started cheering. We hit the chorus and all hell broke loose. With Elton’s piano in the mix we were the biggest thing in the world. He even sang a harmony with me. The applause just didn’t stop. We came off stage and Elton grabbed me and kissed me on the cheek.

‘Listen to that! You have to get back out there and do an encore!’

I tried to explain that we weren’t allowed to play encores but he wasn’t having it. ‘Rubbish! Get back out there right now!’

He grabbed hold of me and pulled me back onto the stage. We played a Mac Rebenack song called Lights Out. We played it twice, and so fast that it still came in at just over two minutes. Elton was with us all the way - I’d never played with anyone that good. I scurried off the stage preparing for the bollocking I was going to get for the forbidden encore. Elton was still out there, centre stage, making a speech.

The crowd were roaring. I’d seen quite a lot by now but nothing like this. I’d never seen anyone work a crowd like he did. He marched over to the side of the stage, picked me up and half dragged, half carried me across the stage. I was resistant because the tour was like a minor mobile police state - I had actually been forbidden to speak to a drummer from one of the other bands because we’d been overheard talking in negative terms about the tour by the assistant tour manager who had been eavesdropping from behind some large potted ferns in a hotel bar. There wasn’t much they could do to punish me but the drummer was under threat of dismissal. So I was pretty nervous about the encore transgression.

Then he was at the piano, playing and singing some weird slow blues that turned out to be a half speed version of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen. We were playing along and it was getting intense, and then there was one of those massive piano fills that goes from one end of the keyboard to the other, and we were up to full speed and rocking. The guitars were shrieking and I turned round in time to see Elton kick back the piano stool, take a backward run, then head forward like a raging bull and leap off the stool and on to the top of the piano where he stood for an instant like the rock god he most undoubtedly was. Then he jumped off the piano into the centre of the stage and cut the entire band with one gesture.

He stood in the spotlight and just for an instant the world stopped turning. He raised his arms above his head and started to clap his hands. The energy that was coming off him was almost physical. I’ve never again experienced such a thing. At that moment I fully understood why he was such a huge star.

I don’t remember quite what happened afterwards. Elton wanted me to come back to his place in Windsor but the tour bus was leaving and we all had to be on it. I don’t know how I felt about the invitation. I know at the time I was quietly questioning my sexual orientation but there was no way I was going to enter into a high profile experiment in that direction, even though I thought he was fabulous. And anyway, my long term girlfriend was the tour merchandising manager. I was bustled aboard the tour bus where everything was very laddish and much piss-taking ensued.

Elton left in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. I’ve never seen him again.


Friday 11 October 2019

A One Way Ticket To Amy Rigby

A couple of months ago, with too much to do and too little time to do it in, Amy dumped a large box of cassettes into the middle of the studio floor and asked me to go through them with her to see if we could find maybe ten or so tunes that we could make into a giveaway CD to go with pre-orders of her memoir, Girl To City.

They were four track Portastudio demos, hundreds of them it seemed. One of her brothers had been in the merchant navy, and sometime in the early eighties he found himself on shore leave in Japan where he bought a Tascam Portastudio, the very latest model of this new-tangled device, and sent it to Amy and her brother Michael to help them along with their new group, Last Roundup. For a decade or so it shuttled back and forth between their two apartments in the East Village and eventually found a permanent home in Amy’s flat in Brooklyn’s decidedly un-hip Greenpoint. And during this time she made literally hundreds of demos of songs she’d written.

The original Tascam had long ceased to function so I blew the dust off a lumpy beige Tascam 424 that I’d come by and stashed away wondering why I really needed to hang on to it. I patched the four channels through to the studio computer and set to work, wondering what I might find.

The recordings may have been rough but the execution and the sound, the atmosphere, was magical. She’d perhaps record an acoustic guitar on one track, a vocal on another, and fill the remaining two tracks with a vocal harmony and an electric guitar. Or it might have been all electric guitars and sometimes a complicated vocal harmony arrangement recorded complete with echo which apparently came from a cheap and long-lost delay pedal.

Every song was a gem - even ones that were quite blatantly aimed at the middle-of-the-road Nashville country market. I was transported into Amy’s life from long before I met her: the everyday noises of her various apartments, her daughter Hazel playing in the background and occasionally coming to the fore:


‘Wait!’ [Curt interjection from Amy]

‘Do you want to here Holiday For Strings?’ 

A toy keyboard starts up and is immediately obliterated by the guitar intro of the next song.
When it rains you can hear it splattering in the courtyard at the back of the building through the open window. The window was evidently always open, and you can hear the shouts of neighbours and kids at play, distant traffic, car horns and police sirens. At one point a pause in the middle of a song is augmented by a loud power tool in the building next door. It sounds like a sheet of plywood being sawn in half.

Sometimes what was on the four tracks didn’t immediately make sense. Amy worked for a while at Sony and acquired a lot of tapes that had already been recorded on. Portastudios run at double speed so there might be sudden backward snatches of The Very Best Of Christopher Cross or some such nonsense, roaring in at high speed and an octave higher than it normally would be. And then a song, started, abandoned and superseded by another song which finds its way to fruition accompanied by gorgeous harmonies on another of the four tracks shared with high speed blasts of a rough mix from Diary Of A Mod Housewife.

I wanted to do as little as possible but I was very much aware that if these recordings were to be heard and appreciated they needed a certain amount of help in order to turn them into a fully listenable experience - raw is great - but unlistenable is pointless.

There were pops and bumps and rumblings - no one tells anyone how to avoid these things happening in the macho world of recording - so every time Amy sang a word beginning with P or B there would be a massive explosion into the vocal mic, and words with the letter S in the middle of them could be especially sibilant. I spent a long time at the computer taming these down. There was evidently a faulty microphone cable too - in fact I think there may have been two mic cables, one of which was good, and it was a gamble as to which one would get used, so there was often a loud buzz or hum on some of the tracks. I did what I could to reduce these things without compromising the integrity, atmosphere and intent of the original recordings.

The nineteen tracks on this album are just the tip of the iceberg, all we had time to put together with a looming deadline. There be another volume or two coming soon. In the meantime I think anyone who fancies themselves as a songwriter should listen to this collection - you might find it, as I did, a humbling experience.

Order a copy along with her new memoir Girl To City from her website:

And while you're there check her tour dates!