THE ROAD TO NOWHERE
In an exclusive extract from his forthcoming pop memoir, Giles Smith recalls the highs and the lows, but mainly the lows, of life as Colchester's answer to Sting
Sunday 03 September 1995
You may not have read about this at the time; there were disappointingly few angry headlines in the press, not many shocked editorials in the trade magazines. None at all, actually. But the Cleaners from Venus was the band I was in, and for three and a half years this band had served as the very nerve-centre of my pop-stardom operation, my Become Sting campaign. There had been other bands before, but this was the one I really lavished my chips on, the one I really rode hard - all the way from our ignominious beginnings in an Essex industrial village, to our triumphant recording deal with RCA Germany (Why Germany? Because nobody else would have us), right up until about 11.30am on this disconsolate day, when someone important in Hamburg contacted our manager in London and said whatever the German is for "You're fired".
To be fair to RCA, things had gone slightly awry. Sales of the Cleaners from Venus's first album, Going to England, had been negligible. Yet, astonishingly, they had been undercut by sales of our second, Town & Country. The last time we had appeared live in Hamburg (on the Town & Country Tour, 1988), the chairman of the record company had walked out after three numbers, shaking his head despondently. Furthermore, our manager was about to run away, our drummer was about to be deported to Japan and the singer, who wrote all the songs and whose band it was anyway, had stomped off ages ago to become a gardener.
Leaving me, just off the London train at Colchester's North Station, waiting for a Number 5 to take me up the hill to town, round the one-way system to Crouch Street and then out west down Lexden Road, left at the lights by MFI, and home to my mum's.
It was a shame because I really fancied Sting's job. Great pay: the best pay. Superb hours, too (What does Sting actually do in the long months between albums and tours? He mucks about, I reckon). Homes in Hampstead and New York and Miami and Los Angeles (Barbra Streisand's old place, in fact). Not that I wanted to make records which sounded like his, but I was certainly on for the lifestyle. Concerts, fans. Pop music, pop stardom.
These are the kind of delusions which can get into people when pop gets hold of them. And, boy, can pop get a hold. It's pushy like that. You've really got to watch it. You invite pop into your house on a fairly casual basis and the next thing you know it's telling you what to wear and picking your friends. And very soon after that, you're forming bands in order to play pop and coming to believe, really on no grounds whatsoever and at the expense of vast quantities of time and effort, that an occupation awaits you as Sting.
Growing up in the 1970s, you were often told by your elders that pop's tyrannical rule over your life would not last. Pop, they said, was just a phase you were going through, a kind of teenage mood. It would clear, like spots, as you entered your twenties, to be smoothly replaced by an adult taste for classical music - orchestras, operas, the real thing, music which demanded more of you than a three-minute spasm of helpless assent and (the rumour was) gave you so much more in return.
But I've reached 32 and it still hasn't happened. Now it looks as though youth was just a phase pop went through. I've grown up with pop and pop has grown up with me; and both of us are very different now from the way we were in 1970. And from time to time, a slight uneasiness creeps into our relationship which I would like to get to the bottom of.
IN 1977, when my brother Jeremy returned from teacher-training college, it was all over for his band, Relic. But out of the ashes of Relic came Pony.
Pony was Jeremy on guitar and lead vocals, Simon (another brother) on drums and Jeremy "Fitch" Meade on bass. And, later, me on keyboards. They had cooked up the name in a pub. Staring desperately across the bar, one of them had caught sight of a bottle of Pony, "the little drink with the big kick", to use the old advertising slogan. It could have been worse, I suppose: we could have been called Babycham. Or Gents.
Then again, at least Babycham or Gents would have had no unfortunate Cockney rhyming-slang resonance. No one much uses Cockney rhyming-slang in Colchester and I remained ignorant of the alternative meaning of the word "pony" until some six years later during a stay in hospital. I was two beds down the ward from a cheery middle-aged Londoner, who bounced to his feet one evening, clapped his hands together in a business-like way and announced, as he headed for the bathroom, "Just time for a pony before The Professionals." Took me a couple of minutes, but I got there: pony and trap - crap. This little semantic detail may explain why, at the peak of our career, though we could secure bookings as far east as Chelmsford, Pony were unable to break into the Metropolitan region.
When I joined - aged 15, for a gig on Silver Jubilee Day - the band came interestingly close to being an all-family affair, like the Osmonds, say, or the Jacksons. Jeremy was often on at my eldest brother Nick to join and complete the family set. He was, after all, a guitarist and as able a musician as any of us. But Nick was never interested in performing and in any case, was about to get married. He kept his distance. "You could call yourselves the Smiths," said my mother one mealtime, and we jeered derisively. As if anyone was ever going to be successful with a dumb name like the Smiths.
The Silver Jubilee Day gig took place in Boxford High Street. We performed from the trailer of a lorry, covered over with tarpaulin, parked opposite the pub. The band paid to hire me a bottom-of-the-range electric piano from a shop in Colchester. It didn't sound much like a piano; it sounded more like a musical box or some ghastly Austrian clock. I hadn't learnt many of the numbers at this time, so I was presented with the quandary of what to do during songs in which you're not playing. It occurred to me that you could clap in time and hop from foot to foot, exhorting, with hand gestures and winks, the audience to dance. I didn't have the nerve for that. Or you could lose yourself in some dance of your own to the band's music, eyes closed, head shaking. I didn't have the nerve for that either. I opted for sitting down on the stage, directly behind the keyboard and out of sight of the audience. Then I would stand up when it was time to play. From the street it must have looked as if I was on a piece of hydraulic flooring.
We gave them "Caroline" and "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock'n'Roll)" and "Let's Stick Together". The Silver Jubilee was where punk found a centre for its anti-institutional seething. I spent it on the back of a lorry in a village playing "Hi Ho Silver Lining".
Jeremy decided we should go commercial. There was money to be made from providing music for dinner dances and club socials, and there was no money in playing anarchic cover versions of "Paranoid" in deserted youth clubs. We rehearsed a set of foot-tappers for all ages: "Jailhouse Rock", "One of these Nights", "Annie's Song".
A friend took a photo of us, lined up along the side of Jeremy's Transit van, and sent it off to Walkerprint, the publicity-photograph people, who printed up copies with a white border round them and the word "PONY" in neat Letraset along the bottom.
We took out a small ad in the "Entertainers" section of the Classifieds in the Essex County Standard. It read:
BOOK "PONY" Colchester's
most reasonably priced,
versatile pop group.
We were listed along with Mr Magic from Frinton ("Children's Parties, delightfully different, jolly hour's entertainment"), Dick's Disco ("revived 45s and country and western, plus chart sounds") and "NELLY QUACK ventrilo duck also puppet shows, home/hall, brochures - Twinstead 449".
Jeremy bought four matching nylon shirts - light blue with navy blue collars and cuffs - from some discount boudoir in the town centre. We stencilled the name of the band on the sides of the van and on the rear door. We were one of the only bands in Colchester who had our name on our van. Simon still hadn't removed the black stickers on his bass drum reading "Sniff". He refused to. Now people would say, "Is the band called Sniff, then?" And he would have to say, "No, it's called Pony." So we introduced a giant cut-out hardboard pony, suspended above the stage, or propped up at the back, or however space would allow. It cost Jeremy about a fortnight of intensive labour with a hacksaw in the garage.
And the gigs flooded in. Clacton Town Football Club, Sainsbury's in Colchester, the Grenadier Guards Association, the Colchester Police Community Unit, the Halstead Motor Cycle Club and other brightly lit halls with stackable chairs and stackable tables where some local wag would want to take the microphone for "True Love Ways" straight after the raffle.
We were out most Saturdays and some weekends we were out on Friday too. And soon there was enough money in the kitty to buy me my own electric piano, a Crumar Compac. And we were charging pounds 50 and pocketing pounds 10 each after expenses.
We played "Una Paloma Blanca". Also, with me heavily featured at the keyboard, "The Birdie Song", at which point the floor would be thick with dancers in lines or circles, doing prearranged routines that differed from club to club - flapping their arms, slapping their thighs, tweaking each other's noses, etc - as if every town in Essex had evolved its own peculiar way to birdie on down.
We were a human jukebox. "Under the Moon of Love", "Write Myself a Letter", "There Goes My Everything". Also, "Happy Birthday to You", "The Hokey- Cokey", "Knees Up Mother Brown" and the National Anthem. During "Nights in White Satin", Simon, who was bored a lot of the time, would thrash hell out of the single snare beat just before the solo. Shaping up, he would take the stick back way behind his shoulder until it was poised like a loofah, somewhere near the small of his back. And then he would bring the thing down in his furious fist, so you would hear the bass guitar's gentle trip down the scale and then ...
Sometimes you would see couples' shoulders leap up around their ears in surprise.
"Goo'night," Jeremy would say at the end. "And if you're driving ... don't forget your car."
On New Year's Eve Jeremy would lead everyone in the countdown to midnight. Then there would be a balloon drop or a streamer shower and people would be jumping into each other's arms, whisking each other around, kissing and shouting. Up on the stage there would be this redundant minute or so before we launched into "Auld Lang Syne" or some spivved-up version of the Can-Can - a minute in which there was nothing to do but look out at this mayhem and wonder whether in the band was really the best place to be after all.
WHEN THE Cleaners collapsed in 1989, I tried to reconcile myself to the fact that a position in the rock aristocracy would lie for ever beyond me. I had to realise that Bob Geldof would not be a guest at my wedding, that Annie Lennox's daughter would not be a bridesmaid, that confetti would not be thrown by an elegantly morning-suited and broadly smiling David Bowie. I had to realise also that my grant was about to run out and I needed to earn some money. I started writing about pop music, which I suppose had the consolation that it was one of the few other occupations in which you might get to hang out with Bob and Annie and David.
The truth is, in the 1990s, "hanging out" is something pop journalists don't do a lot of. If you were Nick Kent in the 1970s, or Lester Bangs, or if you were a Rolling Stone staff-writer, hanging out was the centre of your craft; you would get to hang out until you could hang no further. Covering the Who, say, would have involved spending a couple of weeks with them in the studio, just sitting around, watching, gassing, taking notes and drugs in dangerously unequal quantities. Or maybe you would join them on tour, be on the bus with them and in the hotel and under the table. You had access all areas. You got to know how it looked, how it sounded, how it smelt.
But by the time I started interviewing pop stars, journalists were down to an hour (if you're lucky) in a London hotel room, rented specially for the occasion - probably the same London hotel room in which you interviewed some other rock star on the PR treadmill just the week before - outside which would be a queue of other journalists, all waiting to get their hour (if they were lucky) and all carefully marshalled by the record company press officer (who might just wish to sit in on the interview with you, just in case you asked the question about the little boys). In the 1980s, record companies learnt the meaning of Public Relations, and they learnt it principally from Hollywood, which taught the virtues of controlled exposure, of doing your utmost to obstruct and cajole and boil journalism down until you had it right where you wanted it, until it was little more than an extension of the industry's PR arm or marketing department, another selling tool.
Typical of the modern way of doing things would be the day I spent in Rome with Phil Collins. This was for a piece for Q magazine. I got two hours each way in a four-seater Lear jet from Gatwick (paid for by Atlantic Records, Phil's overseas label) with Phil, Phil's assistant and Ken the photographer. And in between, a hectic dash by limo round Italian TV and radio stations for Phil to plug his latest album. Spot the fish-with-its- tail-in-its-mouth aspect of that and win a Genesis boxed set. This is how self-contained the public relations machine has become. Record companies can now set up situations in which you watch the artist doing interviews which the record company has set up. This grants you the illusion of access, but really only makes you play the PR game at one remove - seeming to observe how Phil lives and works, but only observing how he lives and works while he's doing publicity.
Still, I had a high old time, especially the bit where we came out of the side-door of the TV studio surrounded by bouncers who had to manhandle us through the thronging fans (Italians have got a bit of a thing for Phil) and duck us down into the limo. I'd always wanted to do that.
Some eight months later, drifting stupidly round a record company party after the Grammy Awards in New York, I bumped into Phil on his way out. I know that pop stars meet many journalists in the course of their business. I knew that the odds on Phil recognising me were not great. I wasn't expecting any high-fiving, any mutual clapping of our suited shoulder-blades; I didn't think there would be a grateful hug from which he would pull back, still holding me firmly by the elbows, and saying, "Giles, boy! Long bloody time, my friend! Jesus, but I've missed you!"
And given that any other outcome would have been disappointing, the obvious thing to do was to walk on by. Who needs a stilted and embarrassing exchange of hellos with Phil Collins?
"Er, Phil? Giles Smith? I went with you to Rome?"
Collins gave me a suspicious squint. I could see his mental Rolodex spin and come up blank.
"And now you're here," he said.
Well, it was true. He couldn't say fairer than that. I was, indeed, there.
"Gotta go," he added. "Very tired."
You have, of course, to retain your perspective somehow. The interviewer/interviewee relationship is a temporary arrangement for business purposes. It will not lead to your being asked to join Simply Red on congas. But it doesn't help when the interviewee pretends to befriend you. My interview with Lionel Richie took place in his dressing room at the Top of the Pops studio. He was eating a King Cone, which had melted badly, forcing him to sit forward in his chair with a wastebin on the floor between his knees to catch the drips.
At the conclusion of the 45 minutes for which Lionel was prepared to share his thoughts, he and I shook hands - his was rather sticky by now - and suddenly he had an arm round my shoulder and was wagging a finger at his assistant. "I want you to make sure," he told her, "that this person becomes one of my special people."
But does he ever write? Does he ever call? Does he hell.
What dies hard is the conflict between your duties as a reporter and your instincts as a fan. It wasn't, for example, exactly professional of me, a minute and a half into an interview with Paul McCartney in 1989, to come over all faint. (I was a bit overexcited and I hadn't had any lunch.) He was extremely nice about it and covered for me during my confusion by chatting amiably until I'd recovered strength enough to ask him a question. But it was always going to be hard for me to conduct a deeply probing inquisition after that.
And what were the odds on me nailing Stevie Wonder to the wall? I met him in 1991 on the top floor of the Chelsea Harbour Hotel. I was more nervous than before any Cleaners from Venus gig: worried about not liking him, worried about him not liking me, which is perhaps not something an interviewer should care about, though how could I not?
The meeting took place in a cramped annex to his hotel suite and lasted for all of 20 minutes with, for the last five of these, an intrusive press woman from Motown America hovering behind him making wind-it-up signals at me, helping to render the experience about as intimate and unstressful as a prison visit.
Yet at the end, Stevie took me through to the room next door, where various members of his entourage were draped on the sofas, sat down at the set of keyboards which travel everywhere with him and played and sang me a new, speeded-up version of "All I Do", which made the hair on my arms stand up. These were precious and powerful moments. They were moments I will never forget. But it's not as if he's been pestering me at work ever since.
Say what you like about Lou Reed, at least he's honest. The second time I interviewed him, his assistant showed me in, saying: "Lou, you remember Giles Smith."
"No," said Lou, a block of ice in shades. "No, I do not."
So, pop journalism as vicarious star-mingling? It doesn't work out. You get closer to them than in your wildest dreams. And further away from them than you ever imagined you could be.
BACK IN Colchester for Christmas Eve in 1992, I went to a very civilised, early-evening drinks party at the house of a close-friend's family and was startled to find myself in the same room as Damon Albarn of Blur and his parents, Mr and Mrs Albarn. Incredible: you spend the best part of your childhood looking out for pop stars in Colchester and then, when it no longer matters quite so much, they start wandering into your friends' parents' homes. Damon was sporting a punky rug and had a bootlace knotted around his neck. Mr and Mrs Albarn were wearing casual Christmas evening wear and, just briefly, all four of us were involved in one of those parents-plus-son-combination Christmas conversations.
"Damon has had rather a good 12 months," Mr Albarn told me enthusiastically, as his son fidgeted with slight embarrassment beside him. "We're just hoping he can keep it up next year."
And, of course, he did keep it up, next year and the year after, going from strength to stength, recording the Parklife album and generally getting written about everywhere as a fine thing.
Later, when carols were sung around the piano, Albarn (all credit to him) joined in unashamedly and I found myself looking on at a unique Christmas tableau - an impromptu choir featuring the parents of some of my oldest schoolfriends, my mother and the lead singer of Blur.
Utterly predictable that when someone from my family finally got to duet with a chart-topping pop hero, it was my mother.
! 'Lost in Music' (Picador, hardback, pounds 12.99) is published on Friday.
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