On the Road: Hello Andy, are you Chris?: This week: that Birmingham feeling, and the drummer who found Sly Stone's bedroom

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The Independent Online
There are certain places that, no matter how many times you go there, you always associate with one event. The bar of the Holiday Inn in Birmingham is one for me. I walk into it and I am transported back six or seven years to a time when Squeeze were in the bar after a show and we met briefly with Billie Jo Spears. Jools Holland and myself were playing a few songs in the bar and had tried quiet persuasion in order to get Billie up to do a couple of numbers with us, but she had politely declined. So we went for the big bullying tactic - announcing her presence and asking for a round of applause. Works every time. Full credit to her for responding to such a shameful ploy. And, yes, she did do 'Blanket on the Ground'.

No excitement there this time, though, on our stop-off en route from Jersey to the Phoenix Festival - unless being mistaken for Andy Partridge from XTC qualifies. This at least made a change from being addressed as Chris Difford, which happens so often that I now answer to that name, too.

Chatting to the drummer Andy Newmark on the way up to the Phoenix the next day, I couldn't help but ask about some of the people he's worked with. It is a long and illustrious list - you name 'em, he's played with them. But the story that stuck out was about the time he went to audition for Sly Stone sometime in 1972. At that time, Sly was at the peak of his powers and also in something of a mess. Andy went round to his house in Los Angeles where he was let in by a minion and shown upstairs. Andy, a fresh-faced 22-year-old, walked in to be confronted by a scene which was part-Caligula, part-Scarface. Everything in Sly's bedroom - blinds, carpet, walls, fixtures and fittings - was black.

The two girls who had been sharing Sly's bed got up and left. Sly remained motionless for about half an hour, apparently oblivious to Andy's presence. But eventually he stirred, reaching out for a quick livener from what looked suspiciously like a pile of talcum powder beside the bed, and then crossing the room to sit down opposite Andy. 'Can you play?' he asked, by way of greeting. 'Yes,' said Andy. 'Can you play funky?' said Sly, moving his face closer and clearly enjoying Andy's discomfort. 'Why sure, Sly,' said Andy, 'I can play funky.' At which point Sly burst into hysterical laughter and pointed to a kit in the corner. 'Then play.' Andy, or course, got the gig and played drums on Fresh, one of the definitive albums of the 1970s. And damned funky he sounds.

I'm keen on the idea of festivals again since Glastonbury, but Phoenix reminded me why I stopped liking them in the first place. Call me old- fashioned, but it's about the 'vibe', and when I was there on Friday, Phoenix didn't have one. We played our standard festival mixture of 'this is what we used to do and this is what we do now'. And then we set the controls for the heart of London.

To the last gig of the Squeeze / Aimee Mann coupling at the Shepherd's Bush Empire. Rehearsals took care of most of the afternoon, after which I engaged in the ancient, possibly Druid-based, pre-show ritual of pacing around until showtime. We had such a good night that Paul burst into an unlisted song which, by chance, we all knew. It was a classic number which seemed to sum up the spirit not only of the previous couple of hours but, indeed, of the whole tour - the Morecambe and Wise standard, 'Bring Me Sunshine'.

In the back-stage bar afterwards, there were too many people to talk to, so you ended up having snatches of conversation, none of them concluded. Eventually a small group of us retired to Quintessence, in the heart of London's fabulous West End, to frug and watusi for a couple of hours until nothing made sense any more.

Next week: Squeeze go to Ireland

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