Read the first half of Michael’s annotations here, and subscribe to the Spotify playlist.
“You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” by Dusty Springfield
Simon Napier-Bell, a very amusing guy and the discoverer and manager to be of Wham! (Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael), was on holiday in Italy in the mid-sixties and heard a ballad there on the radio. He thought an English version maybe could be a hit, so he called his, and my, good friend, Vicki Wickham, who was a close friend of Dusty
Springfield. Simon suggested that he and Vicki collaborate on the lyrics and, if it worked out, it might be a good fit for Dusty.
Dusty performed it on my Ready Steady Go!. I was determined to do my best in shooting it and lighting it to get Dusty her first Number One in the charts. English TV in those days was still black and white and so, without the distraction of color, I could give it a very classy look. Dusty alone, a spotlight on her, on a dark stage with the background black behind her; this solitary figure, a small woman with a generous voice, who understood turmoil and tribulation, sang it like she’d never done before, as if, for the first time, encountering these feelings. When the charts were released the next day, there it was, at Number One.
“Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” by James Brown
We gave a whole RSG! over to James Brown. Our co-producer, Vicki Wickham, and I went to see him in his suite at the Dorchester Hotel. He was aloof, and pissed off.
The evening before he’d been on Top of the Pops, another TV rock show, but pedestrian, and he had been placed on a small round rostrum and so couldn’t be himself. He was not only “the Godfather of Soul” but also the King of stage movement and dancing. (Mick picked up a lot of moves from him when they did the TAMI show together in 1964.) “I don’t rehearse,” James Brown said, “I just show up.” And the next day, when he did show up, he was stunned to see that we’d built a 40-foot stage for him and his band, The Famous Flames. On the show, he tore the place apart, the audience giddy to be in the presence of a master of “It’s Show Time” Rn’R. We viewed a playback afterwards and, after looking at the way I’d shot him, he shook my hand and said, “You’ve got soul.” What better compliment could one ever wish for?
“Wild Horses” by The Rolling Stones
“Wild Horses” is my favorite song in their whole glorious catalogue, which includes such gems as “Satisfaction,” “Paint It Black” and a hundred others, many of which I did in the 15 years I directed their videos. The Rolling Stones, in their prime, when rock and roll had already changed music itself, fashion and culture, and, almost, in the revolutionary 1960s, society itself, were the most on fire, dangerous and seductive band in the world. Not that they’re still not terrific, but the context was different and context can be important.
“Heartbreak Hotel” by Elvis Presley
I was sent to a boarding school in Connecticut when I was 13. I was an unusually out-of-it kid, perhaps because I didn’t want to be one. I couldn’t wait till I was 16, because I thought 16 would be a semi-adult age, and to be an adult was all I wished. I found the problem with being a kid was that you were smaller and, in my case, fatter, than grown-ups, and you didn’t have all the facts. That’s what they had and they kept them close to the chest.
Anyway, by the time I was 15, and still in that school, I was getting nearer my goal, but there was no music for me. We weren’t allowed radios. I had an old copy of “Sh-Boom,” which I played only seldom, since I didn’t want to get tired of it. The other guys (boys only school) seemed to like Perry Como and, worse, Dixieland Jazz, and Mitch Miller’s sing-alongs. Who cares what other people like but it made me feel more isolated.
One day, I was talking to a boy whose room was near mine on the Corridor of the Incorrigibles, where I had ended up, which was policed by a martinet who taught Public Speaking, who had an oddly tight walk, as though he were wearing a girdle. A few months later, my friend was to be expelled after he was caught smoking off-campus. Smoking and using bad language were crimes at the school. “Any boy using bad language is expected to report himself to the Headmaster.”
Carter, his name was, had an old fashioned gramophone, with different settings for different sized records—the 33 ?, the 45 which required a plug to hold it steady, and for old fashioned singles, 78′. Out of a paper sleeve, he took a 45 which someone had sent him. He peered at the small disc and asked, as if for information, “Ever heard of someone called Elvis Presley?” Nope. Then “Heartbreak Hotel” started. And I felt like what Lord Carnarvon must have felt as the stone was pulled back from the Pharaoh’s tomb. He found treasures and relics from the ancient world. I was hearing the sounds of a new one. And, like the first time I attended a rehearsal of a play my mother was in, and felt maybe this could be my world too, so I now knew that I’d found music which would, in all its forms and through all its changes, be with me throughout my life. Thank you Elvis, and Carter.
“Baby, Please Don’t Go” by Them
Them was Van Morrison’s group of ruffians from Belfast in the North of Ireland. And “BPDG” was the song which played over the opening credits on Ready Steady Go! when I took it over. It was such a charged-up, take-no-prisoners version of the song originally recorded by Big Joe Williams in 1935. Perfect for its style of Rn’R – aggressive, surly and fists-up.
So, there I was in the control room on that Friday at 6:05, waiting to go on air, directing my first live TV show, and the Central Control Room said, “Coming to you, Studio Three, in 5-4-3-2 (seconds).” And then, “One.” I said, “Cue grams,” which is the way you instructed the sound man. And “BPDG” started to play for 30-40 seconds, before we went to our first camera shot in the studio. I had so much adrenaline surging through me; here I was where I always wanted to be, in the pulsing, beating heart of Rock n’ Roll. The stars on that show were an odd mixture of Petula Clark, The Pretty Things (Viv Prince one of my favorites), and the great Roy Orbison.
About a year later, Them were supposed to be on RSG! We tried to start camera rehearsal at one, all the bands and singers supposed to be present, in one way or another, or both. We’d barely get through one full camera rehearsal before our live 6:05 airtime, what with changes, complications, sound problems, especially since RSG! was not only live on air, but the first to have live sound, as opposed to miming. Them arrived that afternoon around 3 o’clock. Our producer was pissed off and when he greeted them, Them, in the corridor outside the studio, and smelled a scent of marijuana coming from their persons decided to “take a stand” (“RSG! has no place for musicians taking drugs”), and booted them, Them, off the show. They seemed surprised and went away reluctantly, shaking their heads. We had to arrange a quick round robin of performers to close the show, Them’s spot. ’50s pop idol (and good actor to be), Adam Faith, Lulu and the Hollies going back-to-back, with songs they hadn’t rehearsed, and it worked. But I’ve never forgotten the surge I felt when I was hearing “Baby, Please Don’t Go” all those Fridays ago. And, of course, Van Morrison has done pretty well on his own since then.
“The Twelfth of Never” by Johnnie Mathis
I was an apprentice actor for two summers at the Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford, Connecticut when I was 16 and 17. On a Sunday evening off, I went into the Duchess Diner for a hamburger and a Coke. This was the local hangout for the actors and was situated on the side of a highway. It was also frequented by truck drivers who, when anyone from the theatre came in, would mutter under their breaths about “long-hairs” and “fruits.”
I was going to sit at the counter, but saw at a Formica-topped table toward the back, one of the featured actors in the company, Earle Hyman. He was to play a thrilling Othello that season. He smiled at me and waved me over. We sat together and talked about our lives. He told me how, as a Negro—which is how African-Americans described themselves at the time, a better description, they thought, than other, meaner, words—he never thought he’d be chosen for anything and, to be chosen, because of talent, instead of being shunned, because of his race, was amazing to him. This was almost a decade before the attempts to integrate the South. As we drank our coffees, and I smoked a Viceroy cigarette, I looked at the jukebox on the table next to the salt and pepper shakers and idly flipped through the plastic panels naming the songs. And, maybe, because the time was what it was, I put my coin in to play “The Twelfth of Never.” I didn’t mean it to be a signifier to him, that I was playing a song by another black artist, but I did want him to know, to be sure, that I had no prejudice, and, in fact, had been honored that he, a real actor, had asked me to join him.
You ask how long
I’ll love you
I’ll tell you true
Until the twelfth of Never
I’ll still be loving you.
That song has always meant a lot to me, not only because Johnnie Mathis makes it so beautiful, but also because it reminds me of a hamburger supper I had with a man of talent over 50 years ago.
The above are songs which have a special meaning for me. And others do too. By Neil Young, Patsy Cline, The Miracles, Jerry Butler, Paul Simon. Jackie Wilson, The Walker Brothers, Bob Dylan, The Everly Brothers, Phil Spector (sure, he wasn’t a singer but everything else), Buddy Holly, Martha and the Vandellas and a hundred others. And you will have yours.
Read the first half of Michael’s annotations here, and subscribe to the Spotify playlist.