A day at the 'Ivors'

John Walsh spends a day with Lou Reed, meets Pete Doherty, and learns that Sting's lyrics are all about drugs (allegedly). He managed some canapés and champagne too, of course.
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The Independent Culture

Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones, Queen, Duran Duran, The Streets and Sir John Tavener were all honoured at the 50th Ivor Novello Awards, held in glittery style yesterday at the Grosvenor House in Park Lane. The eclectic mix of transatlantic Sixties wrinklies, shiny glam rockers, Thatcher-era New Romantics, contemporary chav hero and saintly devotional classicist was typical of an award which is devoted to musical craft rather than to pop genre.

Behind "the Ivors," as the awards are known, is the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters in cahoots with the Performing Rights Society. The Ivor judges are themselves songwriters and composers, assessing the work of their peers. Winning an Ivor is consequently a big compliment, and brings a tear to the eye of the most street-hardened rock desperado.

"I'm very, very proud," said Reed, writer of "Heroin" and "Waiting for My Man," looking extraordinarily upset as he received his Special International Award from the Academy chairman, David Ferguson. Reed was full of praise for London producers - it was here, rather than in America, that "Walk on the Wild Side" was released as a single, that "Perfect Day" became the BBC's birthday anthem, and that his "Satellite of Love" was remixed by the enterprising Dab Hands. "And all the time I couldn't get arrested in New York," he growled, before recollecting, "Well actually I did get arrested in New York ..." "I can't thank you enough," he concluded, to a standing ovation from the 1,500-strong crush of composers and lyricists.

Arrivals at Grosvenor House were faced with a barrage of cameras, flashbulbs, hot lights and sound booms, which bobbed over the heads of stars and nonentities alike. The cream of British popular music wandered past the importuning lenses and microphones: Tom Jones, tanned the shade of Sardinian leather, a silver-chrome crucifix dangling in his chest hairs, Rolf Harris the new royal-artist-by-appointment, in a red-black smoking jacket, Bruce Welch, one of the original Shadows, "Whisperin'" Bob Harris, sotto voce presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test in the 1970s. There were plenty of dignified old faces - including a real-life old Face, Kenny Jones, former drummer with The Faces before he joined The Who - processing down the stairs to luncheon, like dignitaries at an EU summit.

Brian May from Queen turned up with a long red drape-coat and a short pink wife, the actress Anita Dobson. His drummer, Roger Taylor, with whom he has embarked on a new live tour for the first time in 17 years, was clad in the ageing rocker's uniform - smartly tailored suit, T-shirt and trainers. Sting arrived by a side-door and stood on the balcony surveying the scene. "I should be on that table down there," he mused. "But I think I owe all of them money, so I'll stay up here." Was he a fan of the Novellos? "It's the only award worth having as a piece of art," he said. "It's very well crafted." He has eight Ivors, displayed on his sideboard and polished every morning.

Duran Duran won the PRS (Performing Rights Society) award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music and turned up en masse - well, four out of five - to collect it. Simon Le Bon advised aspiring rockers to "Write - write songs, write instrumentals in between songs, write to leave something behind" before confiding that the band co-wrote their material in blissful harmony "as a bunch of mates". A hundred male heads turned with an audible creak as Nick Rhodes, the keyboards player, arrived with a freakishly tall and graceful lady companion in a red jersey dress several feet smaller than herself.

Reporters and photographers strove to interview the charismatic musos, with limited success. Robert Smith of The Cure, the possessor of the most unruly hair since they switched the current on the bride of Frankenstein, chatted genially to anyone who would listen to his views. When Lou Reed entered, an intrepid team of cameraman and girl reporter tried to attract him, calling him "Lou" and asking if this was a "perfect day" for him. He directed upon them a look of contempt that could start a nuclear winter and turned away to his partner, Laurie Anderson, the avant-garde performer.

The darling of the paparazzi, however, was Pete Doherty, whose song "For Lovers" was up against Franz Ferdinand and The Streets for the Best Contemporary Song award. Looking relaxed, if slightly dazed, in a white T-shirt, jeans and a bashed-up straw hat, accessorised by an irregular slash of biro-ink on his cheek, he adopted his now-familiar routine of feigning innocent vulnerability as microphones and sound booms were thrust at him like spears, while working the crowd like a seasoned professional. He's very tall, his hands are as large and rough as a horse-wrangler's, and he will happily answer questions from complete strangers about his drug regimen.

I watched him on the balcony as the nominations for Best Contemporary song were read out and performed. On the stage monitor screens, Doherty's curious baby face appeared, ravaged and sweaty; on the balcony he looked on unconcerned, as if watching Top of the Pops. When Tom Jones revealed that the award had gone to Franz Ferdinand, Doherty politely clapped.

Weren't you disappointed? I asked him. About not winning?

"Oh, didn't we?" he asked, sleepily, as if finding it hard to care.

Did he like the song "Take me Out"?

"It's Ringo Starr isn't it? 'Back off Boogaloo'? It's exactly the same riff."

Did he mean Franz Ferdinand pinched the tune?

"What was it Oscar Wilde said? Amateurs borrow, but geniuses steal."

What was the significance of the writing on his cheek? Was he making a statement about exploitation (like Prince inscribing "Slave" on his cheek at a ceremony to annoy his record company)?

"No, it's just my lucky lightning strike."

Had he liked meeting Sting for the first time?

"Carl likes Sting," said Pete nastily, referring to Carl Borat, his former buddy who threw him out of the Libertines for excessive behaviour. "And of course his songs are full of drug references."

Sting's songs? Really?

"Oh yeah. That song 'Fields of Gold', it's all about "fields of barley" which is rhyming slang for "charlie" which is of course cocaine..."

Mr Doherty is the most charming company in the world, but you suspect that an hour in his company would do your head in.

Back on stage, we'd had the reminiscence about the early days of the Ivors - in 1955, the year they were founded, the world was just waking up to Long Playing records, to stereos and, indeed, to rock'n'roll, and Elvis's first hit record was still a year off - and the climax of the awards for 2005 was reached with the prize for "Best-selling UK Single". Amazingly it was for a song written 20 years ago. Unamazingly, it was "Do They Know It's Christmas", re-released by the 2005 version of Band Aid. Bob Geldof and Midge Ure trooped on stage to receive their prize from Sting (who had sung on the original 1985 recording). "This is getting a bit Groundhog Day," observed Geldof. "But this is still our thing. What started 20 years ago is coming to a fine political point in the next four weeks or so, when the seven leaders of the world's richest nations get together [in Gleneagles in July]. This is the moment when the boys and girls with the guitars get to tilt the world on its axis, and I need you there with us." It was a moment of rock triumphalism, forgiveable in the circumstances when the biggest ballroom in London was bursting at the seams with half a century of song-writing talent, and the discovery - a far cry from 1955 - that music could apparently change the world. Whether Ivor Novello would have approved of Geldof's language, Robert Smith's hair and Pete Doherty's battered hat is another matter entirely.

The winners, 2005

Most performed work: 'Toxic' by Britney Spears

Best contemporary song: 'Take Me Out' by Franz Ferdinand

Best original film score: 'Enduring Love'

Classical music award: Sir John Tavener

Best-selling UK single: 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' by Band Aid 20

Best song, musically and lyrically: 'Dry Your Eyes' by the Streets

Best original music for television: 'Blackpool'

International hit of the year: 'Vertigo' by U2

International achievement: Robert Smith

Songwriters of the year: Keane

Album award: Snow Patrol

Outstanding contribution to British music: Duran Duran

Outstanding song collection: Queen

Special international award: Lou Reed

Special award for songwriting: Sir Mick Jagger/Keith Richards

Ups and downs of a matinee idol

For a man whose legacy would be defined by his love of music and song, it was doubtless an omen that Ivor Novello was born in a house called Grove of Nightingales.

With his matinee-idol looks and multiple talents for writing, producing, acting and singing, Novello was one of Britain's first global celebrities with an ability to wow audiences from Hollywood to the West End of London. As one director put it: "The problem was to find someone as beautiful as Ivor to play opposite him."

But during a 35-year career cut short by his sudden death from a heart attack, his fortunes waxed and waned. At one stage he was reduced to writing one-liners for Johnny Weissmuller, the American swimming champion, in his debut as Tarzan in 1932. Indeed, it is to Novello, son of a Cardiff tax collector and a singing teacher, that the world owes the line: "Me Tarzan, you Jane." The writer declared himself mortally embarrassed at its creation. He said: "I never wrote such rubbish in my life."

He had begun his career in the public eye in 1916, aged 23, by writing "Keep the Home Fires Burning", a patriotic ditty that outsold "Tipperary" as one of the most popular songs of the First World War.

Born in Cardiff in 1893 as David Davies (he changed his name to a more theatrical moniker using his middle name, Ivor, and his mother's maiden name, Novello), he had begun playing the piano at the age of three and won a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, before settling in London as a piano teacher. In 1918, while serving in the Royal Navy, he was sent to Stockholm to counter the popularity of German entertainers there by setting up his own troupe to provide British music and song.

Later, while working as a vaudeville songwriter, he was spotted by a French film director, Louis Mercanton, and offered a role as a philandering Englishman in The Call of the Blood, filmed in 1919. Despite having no training as a thespian, he was lauded for his performance, and became a Hollywood actor in the 1920s and 1930s. But he found himself described as "too English" for leading roles and pigeon-holed as a scriptwriter.

Upon returning to Britain, he returned to what he knew best: writing, producing and often acting in his own West End productions and appearing in British-made films.

Despite being typecast as "a ladies' darling", Novello was a homosexual whose lovers included the war poet Siegfried Sassoon, and for 35 years he had an on-off relationship with the actor Robert Andrews.

In 1942, he was jailed for the illegal use of rationed petrol in his Rolls Royce. Biographers have suggested that he was set up by enemies who wanted to see him disgraced.

He died in 1951. His funeral was broadcast live by the BBC, an honour normally reserved for politicians and royalty.

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