SIXTIES SOMETHINGS - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

SIXTIES SOMETHINGS

If you can remember the 1960s, they say, you weren't there. But you might be at the Solid Silver Sixties Show

ON THE TRAIN to Croydon, I'm listening to the recently re-released album by The Who from 1970, Live at Leeds. Roger Daltrey introduces "Fortune Teller": "This one is a rock'n' roll song, done by a guy called Benny Spellman, if any of you have ever heard of him. But I'm sure you've heard of the Rolling Stones, 'cause they done it. And Wayne Fontana, 'e did it . . ." There's maybe just a hint of a sneer in his voice. Daltrey, as we know, did not die before he got old. And the Stones are still rolling, too. But what of Wayne Fontana? Tonight he is Live at Croydon in the Solid Silver Sixties Show '95.

Croydon's Fairfield Halls are the first stop on a 64-date tour. Outside the building there is a poster for the show: Peter Noone (Herman of Herman's Hermits) tops the bill; then the Troggs, Freddie and the Dreamers, and Fontana and the Mindbenders. Adjacent posters advertise the Hollies, the Ronettes, and a wrestling bout starring Dave "Fit" Finlay, the Battling Belfast Bruiser.

It doesn't seem very dignified, especially considering the participants' track records as listed in the tour's press release: "A total of over nine and a half years (503 weeks) in the charts . . . In America in 1965 Herman's Hermits outsold the Beatles . . . The Troggs have recently collaborated with REM and played at Sting's wedding . . . Wayne Fontana sold over 10 million records . . . " Mindbending stuff.

Inside, Noone, Fontana, Freddie Garrity of the Dreamers, and Reg Presley of the Troggs are in an auditorium with the acoustics of a school gym, running through the closing number, "I Saw Her Standing There". "I don't think I know it," laughs a very small man with very big glasses. "Sorry, Paul, John and Ringo. But I bet you don't know the words of my songs either." He sees me lurking in the wings, and comes over. He could pass for Ian McCaskill's Spitting Image puppet. "Are you the gentleman from the Independent? I'm Freddie. Are you taking photos now, only I haven't had a shave?"

Freddie Garrity takes me upstairs to his dressing room, which has his name spelt Freddy Garrety on the door. He is almost as chipper as his stage persona, and chatters merrily as he shows me the multi-coloured wig and feather duster he uses in his act, and a decades-old "I Love Freddie and the Dreamers" badge, which Noone bought for him in America.

Three years ago the Dreamers headlined the Sixties tour. What Garrity did then, and intends to do tonight, is to "go out and do what Freddie and the Dreamers are expected to do". But why run through the same act that he's been doing for 30 years? "Because that's what's expected," he replies instantly, in a tone that suggests that he wants to add "obviously". "It's a wonderful thing is nostalgia. I wallow in nostalgia because that's what I'm about." Doesn't he miss tussling with the Beatles in the Hit Parade? "Yes, of course I do. It's nice to have hit records, because from hit records come fame and fortune and everything else. But having said that, isn't it nice, 30 years on, to be doing a job you love, and travelling the world? Not many people can do that."

Garrity has always been a light entertainer. He would as soon be at the end of the pier as on Top of the Pops. He has presented a children's television show, he makes guest appearances in soap operas and sitcoms, and he is a regular in pantomimes and summer shows. He started on the Sixties revival circuit in 1976.

"In this business," he says, "when you've had hit records, the hardest thing is to come to terms with not making hits anymore. If you do come to terms with that, and if you live along those lines, it's a big help." Mention the career of a band like the Rolling Stones - who, he claims, once supported the Dreamers on a Scottish tour - and he dismisses any comparison. "Well, yes, but they're a supergroup aren't they? They're a one-off."

In a sense, is this tour any different from those of the Dreamers' heyday? "It's exactly the same," Garrity agrees. "It's like vaudeville. Vaudeville would've been wonderful. I wish I'd been born in them days. I'm 58, 59 this year. It's called the Solid Silver Sixties tour. I think that's because the Troggs are solid, Wayne and Peter are silver, and I'm 60."

By now, the Hall has filled with 1,800 people, few of them younger than Freddie. The sound system plays the Thunderbirds theme tune, chosen presumably for its association with the Sixties, kitsch and cult followings, and then Wayne Fontana takes the stage, in black waistcoat and trousers, white hat and hair. "Um Um Um Um Um" and "Game of Love" are very easy-listening and the audience is warm. "He was good, wasn't he?" says a woman sitting behind me. "Good voice. I bet he wears that hat because he's bald."

Next up are the Troggs, fronted by Reg Presley, a tidy, round-faced man with what he has accurately termed an "ooh-ee-arr" West Country accent. None of this fits with the sound made by the Troggs. The cocktail of Presley's American rasp and the band's thundering punk is positively satanic, particularly on the salacious "Strange Movies" which, Presley announces proudly, was banned on its release. "But we think you're old enough to hear it now . . ." Many of the pensioners in the audience, however, are not old enough, and shake their permed heads in distaste. They're won back by the inevitable "Love is All Around", Number One for most of last year.

In the interval, I speak to Peter Noone. Reports vary, but he was only 15 or 16 when Herman's Hermits went to Number One in 1964 with "I'm Into Something Good", and he still has the thick hair and huge pearly smile of a Paul Nicholas or a David Essex. Sitting in his dressing room with his wife and young daughter, he explains that he agreed to do the show only when the promoters agreed "to bill me as Peter Noone, not The One From Herman's Hermits Who Knew the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five". The tour poster does not mention the Hermits. Alongside the photos of the other acts, taken in the Sixties, is a photo of Noone, taken in the Nineties. But surely the people who have come to see the Sixties Show have come to hear Herman's Hermits songs. "I hope so, because we're doing those songs, but I'm not in Herman's Hermits anymore, I'm in another band. I do Herman's Hermits songs, because they're mine. They're great fun to sing . . . and we'll do a couple of new ones too."

Unlike Garrity, Noone is not ready to accept that he is a nostalgia act, although he presents a weekly nostalgia music show, My Generation, in America, where he has lived since 1971. In among Broadway stage roles and sitcom guest appearances, he has, for the past 10 years, been rebuilding his singing career in the US. He has completed five new songs for an album with producer Phil Ramone. In the meantime, there's no harm in doing a few Hermits tunes. "Frank Sinatra's still doing `Set 'em Up, Joe'. He was originally part of a band, too, but no one mentions that anymore."

Freddie and the Dreamers open the second half. "I'm Telling You Now" and "I Under-stand" reveal that Garrity has a sweet, powerful voice. But most of the set is, broadly speaking, comedy, the highlight being when he pulls down the trousers of his newly recruited Dreamers. The same ladies who frowned at the Troggs enjoy it immensely.

Peter Noone is on stage next. Reg Presley and Wayne Fontana sit in the artists' bar and watch his performance via a monitor. (Reg Ball, 51, changed his name in tribute to Elvis; Glyn Ellis, 49, changed his name in tribute to Elvis's drummer, DJ Fontana.) Presley hums along to "Silhouettes" and "No Milk Today". "I know all this stuff because we play in Germany with the Hermits," he explains. The Troggs are particularly big on the Continent. "There's a place in France where we play to more people than Michael Jackson. The French are weird." Presley is the most easy-going and content of tonight's stars. His band pack stadiums in Europe, and, he believes, with the right plan of attack, they could do the same in America. He loves Wet Wet Wet's version of his song, he has the respect of the biggest names in rock, and he has no objection to preceding Freddie and the Dreamers in the Solid Silver Sixties Show.

But as he said on stage, he could retire on the money he's made from "Love is All Around". "I could," he says now, "but I'd get so bored. This is fun. I'm pleasing a lot of people for an evening, and that's good. If I died tomorrow I'd think, I pleased a lot of people. How many people have you pleased?"

Fair point, but doesn't he tire of the hits? "People always say that. The thing is, the hits don't lose their magic. You don't get tired of them because you know the audience isn't tired of them either."

And nostalgia does not appeal to the audience alone. "It brings back memories for us too. The Sixties, Sandie Shaw, no shoes on, bloody brilliant. I think there was something about the Sixties. I'd listen to the radio and I'd hear 80 per cent good songs and 20 per cent shit. Now it's the other way round." He leans forward, suddenly perplexed. "I mean, I saw Blur on the Brits. I'd never heard of them. Which awards did they win?" Best group, best album, best single . . . "Best single? How can that be?" He is frowning with exasperation. "Wet Wet Wet were Number One for 15 weeks. Who decided on Blur?"

Wayne Fontana puts the same question about Blur, albeit in more colourful, indeed terms. He was not impressed by the Brits, but he has some time for PJ and Duncan, the teen sensations nominated for Best Newcomer. On the children's show Going Live, one of them said his favourite song was "Book of Love" by Wayne Fontana and the Stylistics. Not entirely accurate, Fontana admits, but "not bad for a young kid". The woman in the audience was right about the hat, incidentally.

Fontana is candid and unselfconscious: "I know I'm old because these days the record bosses are just kids. I say, how about doing a compilation of Wayne Fontana and the Mind-benders? And they're not interested. Reg here wrote last year's biggest-selling record, yet no one's saying, Reg, can you come in and write something for us? No one's saying, Let's get the fucking Sixties bands in to do some stuff. It just needs someone to stick their neck out."

By day, Fontana runs a talent agency in Manchester. The Dakotas and the Bay City Rollers are on his books. Because of his involvement in the business side of the music industry, he is particularly aware of its precariousness. He even traces the band's declining fortunes back to 1965 when he had to choose one of two songs as a follow-up to "Game of Love". He opted for "It's Just a Little Bit Too Late", which peaked at Number 28. The Hollies took his cast-off, "I'm Alive", to Number One. "We picked the wrong one," he says. "Those are the breaks."

Even now, he would rather be a pop star than a light entertainer. "I just don't know what it is that makes the Stones more popular than Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders," he says earnestly. "If you knew what it was, you could tap into it. I mean, who's popular now? Oasis - and what a bunch of arseholes they are. I don't know what makes them any different from other bands I've seen in Manchester. Remember the Happy Mondays? They went bankrupt last week and our bass player bought all their gear." So that's one band who would be happy to be advertised alongside a wrestling poster in 30 years' time.

Someone brings in a flier and asks if Fontana will sign it for a female fan in the audience. He does so, and when one of the Mindbenders cannot be found, Fontana forges his signature too. Then he stubs out his cigarette and joins Noone, Presley and Garrity on stage for "I Saw Her Standing There".

! The Solid Silver Sixties Roadshow '95: London Palladium, 0171 494 5058, tonight; Glasgow RCH, 0141 227 5511, Tues; Aberdeen Music Hall, 01224 641122, Wed; Edinburgh Usher Hall, 0131 228 1155, Thurs; Halifax Victoria, 01422 351158, Fri; and touring.

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