Saturday, 9 October 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 13 (Alan Klein interview)


More information about Alan Klein, thanks to Spencer Leigh, author of Halfway to Paradise, who very kindly sent me a 2008 interview from his On the Beat show on Radio Merseyside. 


This post also makes reference to sleevenotes by Kieron Tyler and a 1962 press release I assume was written by Ken Pitt, Klein's publicist (not manager, as I thought) at the time, but Spencer's interview is the backbone of this piece so I'm indebted to him for allowing me to transcribe it here.

According to wikipedia, Alan Charles Klein was born in Clerkenwell, London, on 29th June 1940. Ken Pitt (if it is he) takes up the story:
After leaving Grammar School, and being interested in Commercial Art, he studied at St Martin's School of Art. He bought a ukele, learned to play, and started composing. His father then bought him a guitar, and Alan worked hard at it, playing in pubs, clubs and anywhere they would let him.

Spencer Leigh (italicised in bold throughout) begins his interview with Alan Klein by asking:
Rock'n'roll came along in 1956, so is that what turned you on?


Oh yeah, that was the moment. Listening to Radio Luxembourg and hearing Chuck Berry doing Roll Over Beethoven, it's - oh yeah, fantastic. Nobody can ever have those moments again because it's all been done, if you know what I mean. It's like an explosion: all of a sudden it just happened and it was great to be there at that time. Buddy holly was great and the Everly Brothers, Carl Perkins - Eddie Cochran as well, and again he wrote his own material.

 As Harold Pinter's Lennie - the Herbie of his day - would say, "That's not equivocal, it's unequivocal." It finally gives the lie to Allmusic Guide critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine's assertion that "Klein had nothing but contempt for rock & roll." (Cochran is pictured with Joe Brown on Boy Meets Girls, January 1960; note Brown's Johnny Cash boots.)


Asked to choose a rock'n'roll track for the interview, Klein goes for a comparatively obscure Buddy Holly B side, Looking For Someone to Love (also on the Chirping Crickets album). This has the quirky line which was a saying of Buddy's mother, apparently suggested by brother Larry when Buddy was stuck:
Drunk man, street car, foot slipped, there you are 
Leigh quotes it, to Klein's delight: 
Sure, that's the one! It's lovely, that line, weren't it?




Did that encourage you to want to be a songwriter yourself?

Oh I guess so, it must have done, yeah. I used to like writing compositions at school, essays and stuff, and I think this became a sort of way of being able to do it and maybe make some money out of it.
Ken Pitt's biog takes up the story with what may be a reference to the country and western duo formed with future Tornado George Bellamy: 
With a friend he then went to the Continent, (and as they had no money) sang for food and lodging in cabaret and hotels from the Coast to Paris, Luxembourg and back home, where he worked as a cook, labourer, record salesman and accounts clerk to make ends meet. He appeared as a Carrol Levis discovery on stage and radio then formed his own group "THE AL KLINE FIVE." [sic]

This led to his first professional gig: a season at Butlins, Skegness in 1960:

You just had to do covers of what was the latest songs - you couldn't put anything new in, really.
Back home again, he had an epiphany:
I thought, we can't just go on singing about "Kansas City here I come" and stuff like that, which I'd never been to. I've got to start writng about what we know. And so I thought, well, I'll write songs of what I see around me
This wasn't a rejection of rock'n'roll so much as a realisation the form wouldn't suit a new kind of specifically English content:
I had to find a way of doing it, and I thought it won't work using twelve bar blues sequence which most of the rock songs were based on. So I thought well, the way to do an English song is maybe I should think in terms of ukele chords, George Formby-type chord sequences, and that's what I did with that one: tried to make it a bit more up to date.
"That one" - What a Crazy World - was born
on a District Line tube train on the journey between Charing Cross and East Ham after another fruitless day of trudging around Tin Pan Alley trying to sell other songs. The next day the words and music were on tape.
Klein had had "a spell as a bookies runner" (could that have been what Ken Pitt meant by "accounts clerk"?) but was unemployed by this point (late 1961). In what seems like a scene from the film, 
I took it to all the publishers and no one wanted to know until Pan Music. I went in all naive and played it like George Formby.

It's a great lyric - I presume it's the type of song where you probably had about twenty verses and whittled them down?

Thats right, yeah -  you just went on and on and on, basically. I did a demo of it and I think Joe just picked out what was on [his recording] from the demo.

When Joe did it as a single he did it live, didn't he?

I'm not sure I was mad about that idea, y'know, cause live singles don't usually sell, do they? It did okay - it  wasn't a big smash hit but it certainly got a lot of publicity: that was the point.


(The song is about 4.20 into the above clip from a couple of years later.) 

What a Crazy World was a self-contained number, not a means of drumming up business for a  musical. But the publicity generated by the single extended far and wide including an Archers episode where it was discussed "as a biting satire of living conditions as they exist today, with particular emphasis on the housing problem."  


More significantly for Klein's career,  it was also performed on BBC TV's popular magazine programme Tonight, as he tells Spencer Leigh:
The BBC got Joe to sing Crazy world because it was a current song that was different from  the sort of songs that were going on at the time: there was a social content in it. 

Joe did it on the show and it was watched by Gerry Raffles who ran Theatre Royal, Stratford East in conjunction with Joan Littlewood [above]. He liked it so much that he got in touch with the publishers and asked to meet me, to see if I was interested in writing a musical. So that's what I did. He commissioned me to write a rough draft: I wrote about ten pages of stuff and took it into him - [he] loved it and said "Go ahead and do it."


The stage production premiered on October 30th, 1962; it was not a hit with the critics. Kieron Tyler:
The Daily Express said it was "inept, clumsy, amateur, boring, and vulgar." According to the Evening News "it is very much an apprentice work by Alan Klein ... and its plot is sheer fantasy." The Daily Herald, The Daily Telegraph and [perhaps more surprisingly] The New Musical Express were just as sniffy. The Times said: " this musical appears a crude and amateurish echo of Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be and Sparrers Can't Sing." Obviously the press wanted something to fit their idea of what the Theatre Workshop ought to be doing


But the paying punters liked it, and the month-long run was extended to February 1923. As early as November 1962 there were plans to make a film. 
I had two offers. One from Robert Stigwood to put it on in the West End with Mike Sarne. He became popular with Come Outside, if you remember, cause everyone now was starting doing Cockney songs. You had Bernard Cribbins doing Hole in the Ground, Mike Sarne doing Come Outside, that suddenly became the in thing, you know?

[Then]  Michael Carreras of Hammer Films came along and I thought "Oh, a film'd be great because a film's gonna be there forever," so I thought to myself, "Yeah, I'll go for the film."
Not having seen an original script I can't tell just how far the film differs from the stage version, apart from the fact that "all the swearing was taken out" but while the spirit may be the same it's clearly not a straight record of the production:

[Michael Carreras had] written a film script and gave it to me and said change what you want. I just copied the sort of thing he did.
As mentioned in an earlier post, there were four new numbers: Independence, Just You Wait and See, Things We Never Had (a great vehicle for Theatre Workshop stalwart Harry H Corbett) and Sally Ann. Barry Bethel, who had played the lead onstage, Joe Brown being committed elsewhere at the time, was downgraded to a supporting role, although Avis Bunnage was retained as the mother.


  
While Klein thinks pop star Susan Maughan wasn't right for the part of the girlfriend, he talks warmly about Marty Wilde as lead layabout Herbie Shadbolt:
Marty came in it because Joe asked for him to be in it. Michael Carreras wasn't sure about that, but Marty had done a bit of acitng before that, and he was excellent in it [...] very good, very natural. The Herbie character was the best part, he thinks he's the wheeler-dealer. It was a better part to play than Alf [Joe Brown]. 

One telling difference between stage and screen is noted by Kieron Tyler:
Alf Hitchens was originally a layabout who got a job at a solicitors because he thought they employed girls who solicited. In the film, Alf was a layabout who got a job at a music publishers. How sensitive both the cinema audience and Brown's image must have been. 

Modern sensitivities are perhaps more likely to be offended at the song Layabout's Lament (discussed in post 2  here, complete with  youtube clip). Spencer Leigh brings up the subject:
There's a song in that, that actually was a Joe Brown B side as well, Layabout's Lament, that actually nowadays would be regarded as so politically incorrect you couldn't do it.

I know - it's on youtube, actually, where someone said "Here's a very strange song." You look at it now and it just shows you, Spencer, how times have changed!

And you can tell when you hear that song that you must have been laughing away while you wrote it.

That was written from personal experience, because at that time I actually was on the dole: when I was writing What a Crazy World I was out of work and I was geting thirty bob a week down at East Ham on the dole. I put across the attitude of the people who were signing on - so it was completely truthful of that time. 

Six months after the film of What a Crazy World came the seismic shift of A Hard Day's Night:
It was changing fast from when I started writing the stage show in 1962. The Beatles had a big impact, they swamped the business. By the time the film came out, it was probably starting to age already. It was a document of its time, even though it's dated. All I was doing was saying what people felt.

Before even the stage production had opened, however, Joe Brown's success with the single had encouraged Klein to start a solo recording career. Ken Pitt's promo material, dated May 1962, may inform us that "he is at present working on a very 'down-to-earth' musical" but it was actually written to accompany the Australian release of Striped Purple Shirt on W&G Records (Oriole Records in the UK). Spencer talks about these early recordings, produced by Joe Meek.

In 1962 you started making your own records and you were signed to Oriole, which to a degree was a kiss of death label, wasn't it? They didn't promote things.

Yeah, but you see I never saw myself as a singer. The publishers said there's this guy called Joe Meek who's got this recording studio up in Holloway Road, I had an audition and he said fine, we'll record these songs, and we did - ended up in Oriole, which was hardly the fashionable label of the time.

[Ken Pitt] told me that with Three Coins in the Sewer you had a lot of fun with the sound effects on that.

Joe Meek did, yeah. He didn't talk to me for ages after that, cause he said it gave him a cold - he was in the bathroom, dropping pennies in the bath to get the sound effects on it.

And I saw Ivor Raymonde, who was an arranger [above], one day in the pub, and he said "Funnily enough I've just been putting strings on the backing of one of your songs from Joe Meek," and the joke was Joe Meek's studio was so small you couldn't get more than about three people in there you know (cracking up) you'd get strings and backing singers down the stairs with mikes!

It was well worth it on this occasion: Three Coins in the Sewer is a perfectly realised comedy record, the really rather beautiful strings in counterpoint to the unfolding of the poor unfortunate's tale:
Now me friends won't come near me,
Oh, ain't it a shame
Since that day in the sewer
I ain't been the same
There is also a great spoken outro by Klein but the record's masterstroke has to be a violin solo which can only be described as - well, airy: The Sparrer Ascending.



And then in 1964 came Klein's one and only solo album, Well At Least Its British:

A few years back Blur bring out the album Modern Life Is Rubbish and Damon Albarn is saying Alan Klein is great.
Yeah, took forty years for someone to appreciate my album! That was lovely, it was a big boost because I thought to myself, oh then it was all worthwhile, really, because it wasn't successful at the time. Decca put the album out but they didn't get behind it, and then suddenly he found it in a charity shop, obviously could understand what I was all about at that time and thought it was appropriate to just get that idea of Britpop association. 
(Read more about the album and its bonus tracks in post 11 here.)


A later single on Parlophone, the merciless protest spoof Age of Corruption (discussed more fully here), makes playful reference to writing a song so controversial that it's taken off the air:
 And then when we hear that the radio has banned it
And the record reviewers on the papers have panned it
We'll laugh all the way to the bank like we've planned it
 Ironically, that was pretty much what happened in this case, scuppering McGuire-Klein's chance of a hit:

You made a parody of Eve of Destruction, and until this album came out I'd not heard that before.
No, cause it was withdrawn (laughs) They took it out because the publishers objected to it. It came out and it got quite a bit of radio play, funnily enough, and I thought, "Hello - this is going to be a hit!" and then suddenly the publishers jumped up and said "Oi, this is too close to Eve of Destruction!"

(chuckles) Shouldn't you have checked beforehand?

I thought someone would have done! I recorded it myself, paid for it myself and did it. I woud have thought the record company would have checked these things out, but they didn't. And they put it out. What I've never understood to this day is why they didn't say "Why don't we just do a deal on it?" And take the publishing or a percentage or what.

Cause it's not quite the tune of Eve of Destruction. 

No, I made sure it wasn't, but it's obviously what it was parodying, wasn't it, so I couldn't really say it was my idea.  

After that disappointment,  a chance meeting took Klein's career - and persona - in an entirely different direction:
Things went quiet for a while, then I suddenly bumped into Geoff Stephens walking along Charing Cross Road, and he said, "Oh, I was just looking for you." And I said, "Oh, why's that?" and he said, "I've got this hit, Winchester Cathedral - I need some songs to put on an album that I'm making, and I need 'em quick. Have you got anything?"

So I said, "I've got a silly song that I wrote the other day that might be on it, called Whatever Happened to Philys Puke?" And he said, "Oh I love that! I love that  title,  I'll have that song!" I said "Oh, fine," he said, "Come up to the office," went up to the office, got a contract out, said to me, "Would you like an advance on it?"  I said, "Yeah, lovely, Geoff" - you know, advances always come in handy - suddenly he's thought to himself, "Do you know what? It might not be a bad idea if I heard the song," so we went down to a studio and I recorded it, just with a guitar. 

Afterwards he said, "What are you doing generally?" I said, "Well, not a lot really," so he said "Would you be interested, or do you know anybody who'd like to sing with the band?" And I didn't realise he was offering me the job. I think said "No, I can't think of anyone, Geoff, actually, offhand," so he said,"Well what about yourself?" I said, "Well, I can't sing myself, never really saw meself as a singer," so he said,"Well, it sounds fine - would you be interested in the job, then?" So I said, "Well, I'll give it a shot, yeah" - a week later I was on the Ed Sullivan Show in New York!

And what was it like being on that show?

It was great - it went out live.  Recorded live on a Sunday evening at CBS studios. The Saturday was spent rehearsing and you went on, just did the sound check and whatever, and that was it.

And you never met Ed Sullivan: he just came out and said, (drawls) "Now there's a band from England - the New Vaudeville Band!" And off we went.

You'd only been used to performing for, say, a few hundred people before and all of a sudden you're performing for millions and millions!

Yeah. We did Sunday Night at the Palladium here which was another live gig which was great. From the Ed Sullivan the band was invited to Las Vegas, and I think we were the first English group to do Las Vegas. I thought meself we'll either die a death here or they'll like it And as it happened they liked it - we was a smash hit there.




The two images of the band, above, come from a magazine promotion for Coca-Cola. The one immediately above is captioned:"The New Vaudevilles find second home in closets of Brooks-Van Horn Costumers. They strike a pose for us. Far left, Tristram, Earl of Cricklewood, adds 'class' to band." The feature is headed:



And we are told that with "The 30s look, the 30s sound but definitely 1967 appeal" the band "romps through madcap adventures reminiscent of the old vaudeville days [...] through it all engaged in the modern tradition of drinking Coke after Coke after Coke."



As far as I know, Geoff Stephens wrote all the singles for the New Vaudeville Band, with the exception of Finchley Central, cowritten by Klein, who explains:

He gave me some songs to do for a session. And I was coming in on the tube and I suddenly thought: "Those words there don't seem to fit that song," so I wrote it coming in on the tube and I thought "What shall I put, what shall I do?" 

And I suddenly thought I'll go back to the Winchester Cathedral idea, but do it about a tube train. Had to get a station - at first it was going to be Hendon Central and I thought no, Finchley Central, that goes well with the tune. When I come into the studio I said to Geoff, "Hey Geoff, what do you think of this for the song?" and he said "Oh yeah, great - put that in." And so we did, and that's how that came about.
- a second happy instance, you might say, of Notes From Underground. 



The last UK single listed by the band on the 45rpm website, here, is The Bonnie and Clyde (presumably not the Mitch Murray-Peter Callander composition). I'm not sure whether Klein was on that but do recall him singing Green Street Green on Top of the Pops. He is seated, left, below:


According to wikipedia he resumed solo recording in 1969 with a cover of Macca's Honey Pie - which might have been tailormade for  his Tristam guise - backed with his own You Turned a Nightmare into a Dream. 


This may be a case of false memory syndrome but I do seem to recall a weekend TV show on the Beeb around that time, a mix of sketches and music with a title like "I'm Sorry, We're British," or something like that. And I seem to recall a performance of Honey Pie. Kieron Tyler's sleevenotes say that he tried to get a comedy series off the ground sometime between 1964 and 1966; could that be related?


Be that as it may, there are only a few online sightings of Alan Klein after 1970, all collaborations of some kind with Ken Hill (above).

Hill was artistic director at Theatre Royal, Stratford East between 1974-1976 so must have overseen the revival of What a Crazy World in 1975 (directed by Larry Dann) which I presume was a reworking of the stage original, as it incorporated three of the four new film songs.


A 1979 "musical play for television", All the Fun of the Fair, written by Hill, "based on the sensational career of Midlands showman Pat Colins [above] from 1914-1939" has music credited to Alan Klein (who also plays a vicar) and Kenny Salmon. 


Two 1981 Stratford East productions, Mrs Tucker's Pageant, a musical which starred Judith Bruce and Peggy Mount, and Sinbad the Sailor, are credited on Ken Hill's page on plays database doollee as being cowritten by Klein, and The Mummy's Tomb, produced at Stratford East the previous year (above, in a 2008 revival)  is credited to Ken Hill with songs by Klein and Hill. 

I have found mention elsewhere of an Arthurian musical or opera composed by Alasdair MacNeill, The Magic Sword, which premiered in Newcastle in 1982, with a libretto by Klein and Hill; MacNeill also wrote the score, based on well known operatic arias, for Hill's version of The Phantom of the Opera. Read more about Ken Hill here and here. Despite illness, he continued to "deluge" Stratford East with ideas for new productions. Mo Bhula writes:
At the time of his untimely death in 1995, Ken Hill was working on a production of Zorro at Stratford East. It went ahead as a tribute to the master of popular theatre.

Alan Klein doesn't mention those collaborations with Ken Hill or any other later work in the interview - understandable, given that the main aim is to promote a CD of his 60s music - but when pressed about future projects he makes it clear the door has already been firmly shut:
I know your daughters run a recording studio, so has that never tempted you back at all to - ?

No, I wouldn't do it, go back to it now, it's far too late.

And you wouldn't write any songs now - or do you?

No, I've not written any songs now for some time. Since about 1993 I became ill with arthritis - I get that on and off - it's called reactive arthritis, which flares up every so often so it sort of restricts me, you know?

Surely from time to time ideas come to you, titles, and you think oh, that'd make a nice song"?

I've got a few half-finished songs there, but I just don't have the enthusiasm. Once you lose the mental energy required for it there's no excitement in it anymore - if there's no excitement you become blase about it. 
As Spencer Leigh comments afterwards, "It's sad, that, really," but there's no denying that forty years is a long time to hold yourself in readiness for a little recognition. And I can only guess at what it must have felt like, after the huge popular success of What a Crazy World, to discover that Decca were not doing all they could to promote an album offering something genuinely different. 


The opening and closing lines of Ken Pitt's piece, above ("Details as at May 1962") could, were you so minded, seem poignant in retrospect:
 This young modern composer, who is also a guitarist and singer, has a varied and original style, both in writing and singing.

We foresee a great future for this 21 year old boy, who has a most inventive and original talent.
But with only the vaguest of information about the latter part of Alan Klein's careeer, speculation is pointless. I only hope he got fulfilment, and an audience, for the time in which he still cared to write.

And the 60s work is still there for the hearing, on CD and (dubious) DVD: the deleted Sanctuary CD of What a Crazy World can still be easily obtained, and in addition to RPM's CD of Well At Least Its British, the company has issued a collection containing all the New Vaudeville Band sides; I await delivery as we speak.

I'd like to know more about his later career, and I hope any readers who can provide further information will get in touch: pismotality2 at the mail which rhymes with "frugal" dot com. 

But - as may already have become obvious to those who have read earlier posts - I can't help thinking that the continuing freshness and verve of  What a Crazy World and Well At Least Its British would make them an impressive enough pair of monuments on their own. 

So all hail Tristram, Seventh Earl of Cricklewood - among others.





Related posts: 

Corrections and clarifications in the next post, here.

Discussion of What a Crazy World film including clip of Layabout's Lament, link to Susan Maughan clip, screengrabs of Independence and clip of New Vaudeville Band in post 2 here.

More discussion of film with screengrabs plus information about Beaconsfield Buildings in post 4 here.

Material from the 1975 Stratford East stage revival of What a Crazy World in post 5 here.

Well At Least Its British in post 11 here.

Damon Albarn talks about Alan Klein to Q magazine here

Doubleclicking on the press release above will bring it up to readable size.

Below is the uninterrupted text of Spencer Leigh's interview with Alan Klein, originally broadcast in September 2008 in On the Beat, Radio Merseyside. Many thanks to Spencer for allowing me to transcribe it and use it in this post.

Rock'n'roll came along in 1956, so is that what turned you on?

Oh yeah, that was the moment, you know. Listening to Radio Luxembourg and hearing Chuck Berry doing Roll Over Beethoven, it's - oh yeah, fantastic. Nobody can ever have those moments again because it's all been done, if you know what I mean. It's like an explosion: all of a sudden it just happened and it was great to be there at that time - I think. Buddy holly was great and the Everly Brothers ... Carl Perkins ... Eddie Cochran as well, he was another great one, and again he wrote his own material.

And if we say put a Buddy Holly record in here, which one would you pick?

Funnily enough, I  like Looking for Someone to Love. One of the more obscure songs which I happen to think was good

And "Drunk man, street car."


Sure, that's the one! It's lovely that line, that, warnit?

Did that encourage you to want to be a songwriter yourself?

Oh I guess so, it must have done, yeah. I used to like writing compositions at school, essays and stuff, and I think this became a sort of way of being able to do it and maybe make some money out of it.

You first of all started performing in holiday camps, didn't you?

First professional job was at Butlins Holiday Camp in 1960, and I had a group there called the Al Klein five. You just had to do covers of what was the latest songs - you couldn't put anything new in, really.

What was the first song that you actually had recorded by someone?

What a Crazy world We're Living In.

Good heavens!

That was my first song.

(laughing) You started at the top then, didn't you?

Yes, it was quite eventful, that song. When I came back from Butlins I thought, we can't just go on singing about "Kansas City Here I Come" and stuff like that, which I'd never been to. And I thought I've got to start wriitng about what we know. And so I thought, well, I'll write songs of what I see around ME. And then I had to find a way of doing it, and I thought it won't work using twelve bar blues sequence which most of the rock songs were based on. So I thought well, the way to do an English song is maybe I should think in terms of like, ukele chords, George Formby-type chord sequences, and that's what I did with that one: tried to make it a bit more up to date.

Its a great lyric - I presume it's the type of song where you probably had about twenty verses and whittled them down?

Thats right, yeah -  you just went on and on and on, basically.

You get in the groove with something like that, and off you -

I think when I - I did a demo of it and I think Joe just picked out what was on [his recording] from the demo.

And interestingly, when Joe did it as a single he did it live, didn't he?

I'm not sure I was mad about that idea, y'know, cause live singles don't usually sell, do they? It did okay - it  wasn't a big smash hit but it certainly got a lot of publicity: that was the point.

It then went on to be a stage musical didn't it? Was that your idea?


There was a lot of interest in that song. The BBC got Joe to sing Crazy world [on magazine programme Tonight] because it was a current song that was  different from  the sort of songs that were going on at the time: there was a social content in it. Joe did it on the show and it was watched by Gerry Raffles who ran Theatre Royal, Stratford East in conjunction with Joan Littlewood. He liked it so much that he got in touch with the publishers and asked to meet me, to see if I was interested in writing a musical. So that's what I did. He commissioned me to write a rough draft: I wrote about ten pages of stuff and took it into him. Loved it and said "Go ahead and do it."

And that was a success and led to the film.


I had two offers. One from Robert Stigwood to put it on in the West End with Mike Sarne. He became popular with Come Outside, if you remember, cause everyone now was starting doing Cockney songs you know? You had Bernard Cribbins doing Hole in the Ground, Mike Sarne doing Come Outside, that suddenly became the in thing, you know? He wanted to do that, put it on in the West End, Michael Carreras of Hammer Films came along and I thought "Oh, a film'd be great because a film's gonna be there forever," so I thought to myself, "Yeah, I'll go for the film."

And it was a good film, I thought. I thought Marty Wilde as an actor was particularly good.

Marty was very good. Marty came in it because Joe asked for him to be in it. Michael Carreras wasnt sure about that, but Marty had done a bit of acitng before that, and he was excellent in it, wasn't it?

There's a song in that, that actually was a Joe Brown B side as well, Layabout's Lament, that actually nowadays would be regarded as so politically incorrect you couldn't do it.

I know - it's on youtube, actually, where someone said "Here's a very strange song." You look at it now and it just shows you, Spencer, how times have changed.

And you can tell when you hear that song that you must have been laughing away while you wrote it.

That was written from personal experience, because at that time I actually was on the dole: when I was writing What a Crazy World I was out of work and I was geting thirty bob a week down at East Ham on the dole. I put across the attitude of the people who were signing on - so it was completely truthful of that time.

I've got a feeling  it was Joe who told me that he could never find you - that you were always someone who was living at a different address.

Yeah, I moved around a lot. I went into different things you see - made a few errors of judgement, I think. I wasn't always available.

In 1962 you started making your own records and you were signed to Oriole, which to a degree was a kiss of death label, wasn't it? They didn't promote things.

Yeah, but you see I never saw myself as a singer. The publishers said there's this guy called Joe Meek who's got this recording studio up in Holloway Road, and I met Joe Meek and had an audition and he said fine, we'll record these songs, and we did - ended up in Oriole, which was hardly the fashionable label of the time.

And your publicist was in fact Ken Pitt, wasn't it?

Ken Pitt, yeah.

He told me that with Three Coins in the Sewer you had a lot of fun with the sound effects on that.


Joe Meek did, yeah. He didn't talk to me for ages after that, cause he said it gave him a cold - he was in the bathroom, dropping pennies in the bath to get the sound effects on it. And I saw Ivor Raymonde, who was an arranger, one day in the pub, and he said "Funnily enough I've just been putting strings on the backing of one of your songs from Joe Meek," and the joke was Joe Meek's studio was so small you couldn't get more than about three people in there you know (cracking up) you'd get strings and backing singers down the stairs with mikes!

Now, you made a parody of Eve of Destruction, and until this album came out I'd not heard that before.


NO, cause it was withdrawn (laughs).

Right.

They took it out because the publishers objected to it. It came out and it got quite a bit of radio play, funnily enough, and I thought, "Hello - this is going to be a hit!" and then suddenly the publishers jumped up and said "Oi, this is too close to Eve of Destruction!"

Shouldn't you have checked beforehand?


I thought someone would have done! I recorded it myself, paid for it myself and did it. I woud have thought the record company would have checked these things out, but they didn't. And they put it out. What I've never understood to this day is why they didn't say "Why don't we just do a deal on it?" And take the publishing or a percentage or what.

Cause it's not quite the tune of Eve of Destruction. 

No, I made sure it wasn't, but it's obviously what it was parodying, wasn't it, so I couldn't really say it was my idea. 

Now, one thing Ive never been sure of with you over the years is your involvement with the New Vaudeville Band. When did you come into that?

Things went quiet for a while, and I was writing songs, and then I suddenly bumped into Geoff Stephens walking along Charing Cross Road, and he said, "Oh, I was just looking for you." And I said, "Oh, why's that?" and he said, "I've got this hit, Winchester Cathedral - I need some songs to put on an album that I'm making, and I need em quick. Have you got anything?"

So I said, "I've got a silly song that I wrote the other day that might be on it, called Whatever Happened to Philys Puke?" And he said, "Oh I love that! I love that  title,  I'll have that song!" I said "Oh, fine," he said, "Come up to the office," went up to the office, got a contract out, said to me, "Would you like an advance on it?"  I said, "Yeah, lovely, Geoff" - you know, advances always come in handy - suddenly he's thought to himself, "Do you know what? It might not be a bad idea if I heard the song," so we went down to a studio and I recorded it, just with a guitar. 

Afterwards he said, "What are you doing generally?" I said, "Well, not a lot really," so he said "Would you be interested, or do you know anybody who'd like to sing with the band?" And I didn't realise he was offering me the job. I think said "No, I can't think of anyone, Geoff, actually, offhand," so he said,"Well what about yourself?" I said, "Well, I can't sing myself, never really saw meself as a singer," so he said,"Well, it sounds fine - would you be interested in the job, then?" So I said, "Well, I'll give it a shot, yeah" - a week later I was on the Ed Sullivan Show in New York!

And what was it like being on that show?

It was great - it went out live.  Recorded live on a Sunday evening at CBS studios. The Saturday was spent rehearsing and you went on, just did the sound check and whatever, and that was it. And you never met Ed Sullivan: he just came out and said, (drawls) "Now there's a band from England - the New Vaudeville Band!" And off we went.

You'd only been used to performing for, say, a few hundred people before and all of a sudden you're performing for millions and millions!

Yeah. We did Sunday Night at the Palladium here which was another live gig which was great. From the Ed Sullivan the band was invited to Las Vegas, and I think we were the first English group to do Las Vegas. I thought meself we'll either die a death here or they'll like it And as it happened they liked it - we was a smash hit there.

And you then cowrote with Geoff Finchley Central which was a big hit.

He gave me some songs to do for a session. And I was coming in on the tube and I suddenly thought: "Those words there don't seem to fit that song," so I wrote it coming in on the tube and I thought "What shall I put, what shall I do?" And I suddenly thought I'll go back to the Winchester Cathedral idea, but do it about a tube train. Had to get a station - at first it was going to be Hendon Central and I thought no, Finchley Central, that goes well with the tune. When I come into the studio I said to Geoff, "Hey Geoff, what do you think of this for the song?" and he said "Oh yeah, great - put that in." And so we did, and that's how that came about.

A few years back Blur bring out the album Modern Life Is Rubbish and Damon Albarn is saying Alan Klein is great.

Yeah, took forty years for someone to appreciate my album! That was lovely, it was a big boost because I thought to myself, oh then it was all worthwhile, really, because it wasn't successful at the time. Decca put the album out but they didn't get behind it, and then suddenly he found it in a charity shop, obviously could understand what I was all about at that time and thought it was appropriate to just get that idea of Britpop association.

I know your daughters run a recording studio so has that never tempted you back at all to - ?


No, I wouldn't do it, go back to it now, it's far too late.

And you wouldn't write any songs now - or do you?

Um no, I've not written any songs now for some time. Since about 1993 I became ill with arthritis - I get that on and off - it's called reactive arthritis, which flares up every so often so it sort of restricts me, you know?

Surely from time to time ideas come to you, titles, and you think oh, that'd make a nice song"?

I've got a few half-finished songs there, but I just don't have the enthusiasm. Once you lose the mental energy required for it there's no excitement in it anymore - if there's no excitement you become blase about it.

It's sad that, really, but I was talking there to Alan Klein, and his old solo recordigs including the whole of his solo album Well At Least Its British is available on the RPM label - great collectors label that - and it's all under the title of Well At Least Its British by Alan Klein.


BBC page about Spencer Leigh here







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