Suzi Quatro is ready to Can the Can, The Rubettes are in their (washable) berets, and Alvin Stardust is Coo-ca-Chooing to anyone who will listen ... Richard Johnson hits the road with Glitz, Blitz & 70s Hitz. Photographs by Philip Sinden
Saturday 20 February 1999
"I had this leather catsuit," says Alvin, "it went down to my ankles and wrists, and right up to my neck. At the time I was wearing 14in platforms and a big wig. The only place for the heat to escape was from my face, so three-quarters of the way through the show I just collapsed. They had to cut off my catsuit in the ambulance. My manager was saying, `Not the suit!' They packed me in ice. Then I stopped breathing, so they put me on a drip and fed a pipe down my throat. All my manager could say was, `You know he's got to sing tomorrow, don't you?'"
He saved himself for the people of Hemel Hempstead. The Dacorum Pavilion is a slab of municipal architecture - all modernist seating and strip-lit concrete. A set designer couldn't have created a better setting for tonight's Seventies revival. There's an older crowd in. "You'll see Zimmer frames," says Derek Nicol of the promoters, Flying Music. "It's part of our care in the community programme." Nicol knows his market. That's why Hemel Hempstead has hosted so many Flying Music shows - from In The Mood (a tribute to the music of Glenn Miller) to Hollywood And Broadway.
Towns such as Hemel Hempstead have made Nicol, and his business partner Paul Walden, a lot of money. "We give people in Skegness, Aberystwyth and Margate great value," says Walden. "Tickets are usually pounds 15 for three or four named artists. If you went to see those artists in the West End it would cost you pounds 30. Plus you'd have to pay for a babysitter, a taxi and a train." Flying Music profits certainly aren't frittered away on hospitality. Just two bowls of crisps (plain, or cheese and onion), a tray of mixed sandwiches and an apple pie. And The Rubettes have eaten most of the pie.
The band that brought us "Sugar Baby Love" and "Juke Box Jive" (although, they keep reminding me, they're currently number eight in the French album charts) are looking good - like white suits with red trim never went out of fashion. They still wear their trademark hats. "They're exclusive to us," says Alan Williams, the lead singer. "Others don't have the bobble." Mercifully, they go in the wash. Just as well, on a 58-date tour. Nicol pops in to the dressing room to check preparations. "Looking good!" he says. "Been on holiday?" "No," says Williams. "It's high blood pressure."
Suzi is down the corridor, playing cribbage with her keyboard player. For pounds 5. Not that she needs the money. She fills 20,000-seater stadiums in Germany (where they also love David Hasselhoff). Her last LP went platinum in Denmark. And she still makes them cry in Japan. "When you walk out to the car, after a gig, they cry," she says. "Don't know what it means, I'm afraid to ask." It's taken Flying Music six years to convince her to tour the UK on one of their infamous revival packages. But they got her in the end. And, thank God, her leather hasn't perished.
Suzi had a small "freedom butterfly" tattooed on to her ankle when she got divorced. I expected it to have stretched and discoloured with the passage of time. But no. She looks every bit as good as when she sang "Can The Can", back in 1973. Since then she's sold more than 40 million records. Her Leather Tuscadero in Happy Days, opposite Henry Winkler's Fonzie ("Hey!"), was a triumph. And she has just recorded a self-awareness CD. "At dinner parties, I'm able to pull people out of themselves. Everyone feels cleansed. I've just always been a communicator."
Sylvia and Lance Saunders agree. But then they're her biggest fans. In jeans, T-shirts and leather waistcoats they look like bad-ass bikers, but they drove the two hours from Nottingham in their Cavalier Estate. It means they can listen to Suzi on the eight-track. The pair (both unemployed) are going to 24 of the Glitz, Blitz & 70s Hitz gigs. Their favourites are the gigs at Pontins holiday camps. You get more dancing there. "We are mad," says Sylvia. "We're fanatics. It's going to cost us pounds 290 in petrol money to drive round, but we've been starving ourselves for three months."
Like most of the crowd tonight, Sylvia and Lance are "of an age". Men with maximising hairspray and women with American tan tights, they're not the sort you imagine go to live gigs. But that's the thing about Flying Music. "We don't always manage to pitch it just right," says Nicol. "Magic Of The Musicals went well with Marti Webb. So did Hollywood And Broadway with Lorna Luft and Wayne Sleep. But Golden Songs Of The Silver Screen with Sacha Distel and [TV presenter] Rosemarie Ford? Disaster. The 150 people that were there had a wonderful time, but it didn't capture the public's imagination."
Not so, Glitz, Blitz & 70s Hitz. It's a sell-out. Right at the front, pressed against the stage, are two well-built women positively aching to go down Suzi's "Devil Gate Drive". Then there's Louise Quinn and Sharron ("that's with two Rs") Gurney from Potten End, who are "up for a laugh". They're known as The Village Girls, and sing karaoke every Saturday at The Plough. "We've done `My Coo-Ca-Choo' before now. We come to all these sorts of gigs. We saw Sweet here. And all those tribute bands. We used to like Gary Glitter, but we abandoned him since, well, you know."
The gig is a massive success. Hemel Hempstead has never seen anything like it. Apart from when Alvin starts to sing the wrong song. But when he suggests laying down and grooving on his mat, he's not short of offers. "The media aren't interested in what we promote," says Nicol. "If they had their way, everyone over 40 would have to stay at home and watch Coronation Street. These people are ashamed to go out because they don't look as glamorous as the TV adverts starring the slim young chicks. We just put shows on that people want to see."
At the Flying Music HQ in Holland Park in west London, the receptionist refuses to sign for the seven-gallon tea urn. The 30 dancers from Argentina currently out on tour with Tango Passion ("like a fire that sizzles!" according to the poster) will just have to stay thirsty until she gets approval from her Nicol and Walden. Ever since that fiasco at the Crawley Leisure Centre (where the tea urn's thermostat caused a loud clicking in the sound system all night), tea has been a sore point around here. The delivery man waits in reception, amid the mess of signed photographs and Flying Music gold discs.
Nicol and Walden are too busy discussing Hemel Hempstead, and the rest of the tour, to worry about a tea urn. In their office there's a 1993 Sasco Year Planner on the wall. For a business that's made its money from nostalgia, it's heavily ironic. "Actually, I just can't reach to get it down," says Walden. "But we couldn't use a Year Planner any more - we've got too many shows. We've got 372 shows on sale right now. That's a lot of public that we're entertaining," says Nicol. "Look at the 26th September. In 1993 we had one show on that day. Now we might have eight." Flying Music has really taken off.
It all started at the Stardust Club - a room above the Co-operative Hall in Rossyth. It was the happening place to be in Fife. And where Derek Nicol first learnt the art of music management. "Every so often we would print off some posters announcing that a guest group was coming `all the way from Glasgow'," says Nicol. "Or `Direct from Birmingham'. Wow. The best way to really pull in the punters was to put `Decca recording artist'. Everyone thought they must be a good act if they had a recording contract."
Paul Walden was the Mr Big of the soft rock scene in Worthing. The social secretary at the local college of further education, his speciality was "triples" - booking bands to play an 8pm in Brighton, an 11pm in Bognor Regis and a 2am in Portsmouth.
He graduated to managing Voyager, a mid-Atlantic pop act, just as punk was starting to happen. Nicol was managing rock groups Nazareth and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Both needed a new challenge. The two met, and decided to form the promotions company Flying Music in 1982.
The commercial radio network was starting to develop. In 1983 Southern Sound approached Flying Music to arrange a "community event" to meet the terms of its broadcasting licence. The result was Stevie Wonder at the Brighton Centre. Other commercial radio stations soon wanted Flying Music to arrange gigs for them. "But it was a closed shop," says Nicol. "Harvey Goldsmith had Genesis, The Who and The Rolling Stones. Barry Clayvern had Neil Diamond and Madonna. What could we present at these particular venues to draw the public? We decided to work on themes."
"We did the odd swinging Sixties night and saw that there was a market," says Nicol. "So we started the Solid Silver Sixties Show - a whole tour. Like a lot of the people we promote, the artists didn't have a record deal at the time - but we were confident that they had a market. I remember we opened at the London Palladium, and the tour did practically 100 per cent business. It still goes out every February - and this will be its 14th year. We know we're desperately uncool, but we don't care." Besides, Bryan Ferry came to see Tango Passion in High Wycombe last week. `Cool' is just a state of mind
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