Friday, January 23, 2009

Larks' Tongues In Aspic

A cold morning mist rests uncomfortably above this tree-lined Buckinghamshire backwater, an opaque shroud laying in wait of the warming sun’s translucence.

Directly outside the iconic gates, there is a silver 4x4 parked up; its orange hazard-lights flashing on and off in unison, lighting up its smoke-darkened passenger windows once every couple of seconds.

I get the concept of darkened car windows in the full-blaze of summer but, in the bleak mid-winter… so, who, I wonder, craves that level of anonymity at this hour? Maybe its an errant partner half-way back from the school run; dropped off little Johnny into teacher’s care and now parked up and waiting for the arms of Mary?

In any event, the doors to both of the dual gate-houses are shuttered; there is not even a whisper of smoke from the chimney-pots or their fires down-below that once would have warmed uniformed lackeys – ready in a moment to pull-on greatcoats to ward of any unseasonal chill before hauling open the massive wrought-iron gates at the gathering sound of hoof-beats, announcing the arrival of yet another coach and four.

The days when Heatherden Hall – a Georgian mansion with the dimensions of a decent sized hotel – that boasted additions from the Edwardian era of an enormous ballroom, a Turkish bath complex, squash courts, a gun room as well as the table upon which the Irish Free State Treaty was signed, ornately fitted marble bathrooms together with (at the time) the largest indoor swimming pool in Britain all surrounded by acres of perfectly manicured lawns and hectares of wood-land and fields – echoed to week-long house-parties and hosted weekend shooting parties are long gone.

In fact, those days disappeared for good in the 1930’s during the inter-war economic meltdown. The 100+ acre estate was bought at a knock-down price by the building tycoon, Charles Boot who, within a year or so, embarked on a new venture in tandem with a nonconformist Methodist millionaire mill-owner – and the legend that has become Pinewood Studios was born.

From then ‘til now, pretty much every single film-star one can think of would have (been) driven through its gates; had their security pass checked by uniformed guards who’d then have stood back and politely saluted – just like AA motor-cycle out-riders of a bygone age would acknowledge the driver of an oncoming vehicle displaying their organisation’s yellow and black badge – and gone to work.

Lights, camera, action.

From the earliest days of Wilfred Hyde-White and Margaret Lockwood came the likes of Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker; Norman Wisdom to Diana Dors; Patrick McGoohan to Donald Sinden; Virginia McKenna to Kenneth More, a young Anthony Hopkins and an already portly Robert Morley, Donald Pleasance, Gordon Jackson, Eric Sykes, the slowly going mad Tony Hancock, Tony Curtis, Richard Burton … and hundreds more.

John Mills starred in Great Expectations, an early Oscar winner alongside Black Narcissus; over 30 of the Carry On series were filmed there as were British classics such as Reach For The Sky; A Tale of Two Cities, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, The Heroes of Telemark; Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, When Eight Bells Toll and hundreds of others… before… along came Bond, James Bond – of whom Sean Connery once s(ch)aid of the role, It’s a cross, a privilege, a joke, a challenge. Every single Bond movie has been at least part-filmed at Pinewood.

Topol starred in Fiddler on the Roof; Ken Russell directed The Devils there starring (now MP) Glenda Jackson; and, more than 30 years after having made his first film there, Alfred Hitchcock returned to make Frenzy; Sleuth with Laurence Olivier & Michael Caine; Francis Ford Coppola’s The Great Gatsby with Robert Redford & Mia Farrow; Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone; Bryan Forbes’ The Slipper and the Rose before Christopher Reeve and Superman arrived on the scene; The Mummy Returns and – of course – more recently Dame Judi Dench and Daniel Craig in Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace.

Nowadays Pinewood is more, much more than a pure film-studio complex; the blockbusters still occupy their vast aircraft-hangar-sized stages but much of the complex is given over to so-named light-entertainment, made-for-television productions that dwell in smaller, more compact studios. So light, in some cases, that they’re positively weightless in terms of content and imagination.

However – for today, its all about meeting up with just one amongst the hundred-plus independent production companies that are housed in amongst the special effects houses and prosthetics makers, lawyers and accountants offices. .

Snapshots from many films with recognisable parts of Pinewood as part of the set – often in black and white – fizz through my mind as I navigate a bit of a u-turn past the silver 4x4 in the original forecourt.

I retrace my steps a couple of hundred yards back up the road to enter by the new, entirely unattractive yet fully functional, main gate where I am, of course, immediately halted by the expected security guard. A gigantic building marked with the trademark 007 symbol looms large in the background.

The uniformed one reluctantly steps out of his warm cubicle and consults his clip-board; it seems my arrival is anticipated – they’d told me that they’d let the people on the main gate know I’d be arriving. Tho’ unhappily, mister uniform doesn’t take a leaf out of Goldfinger’s book by saying, Ah Mister Bond, I’ve been expecting you.

Nope, he curtly nods me in the direction of the visitor’s car-park, from where I have to go and collect a security tag in an adjacent building that’ll allow me… on-site… not on-stage. Nor am I licensed to kill – drat.

Not so far away is the golf-course at Stoke Park upon which Goldfinger and Bond battled it out – mashie-niblick to putter, driver to spoon over the obligatory eighteen holes; the entrance to which featured in another Pinewood classic, Genevieve. Nowadays, Stoke Park is as much about wedding receptions as it is about elegantly-cut fairways and devious greens. Though the immaculate gravel drive – where Goldfinger’s Rolls Royce was parked up, right outside the Imperial-colonnaded club-house is exactly the same; in fact the gravel makes that self-same scrunching sound when driven over too.

Two second-time around friends got registry-office hitched one windswept November morning up North, partook of the wedding breakfast locally before driving south and gobbling an eight-course secondary breakfast that same evening in the spacious dining room there.

Vintage champagne flowed, much port was drunk and, late in the evening under the soft glare of the exterior lights, financial-John and I stood, somewhat unsteadily, by the edge of the eighteenth green, recreating the moment when Goldfinger realises he’s been duped by Bond before our respective (at the time) Odd-Job’s appeared brandishing their verbal variants on steel-rimmed bowler hats and we were hustled back inside.

The bloke with what looks suspiciously like a silver nail through the topmost part of his ear who’s come to collect me from the reception building and I walk across one car-park after another. He’s chastised by yet another security-bloke for not carrying his pass while mine isn’t even asked for.

Down steps, along pathways, past signs saying stage one carpentry and canteen, through doorways and along corridors – perhaps following in the footsteps of… oh, I dunno… Roger Moore or Cubby Broccoli… before a choice… lift or stairs. The former seems more appropriate and lets hope there’s coffee waiting at the top. There is; it’s offered the moment I step across the threshold.

Their office is L-shaped, lap-tops and full on computers laze around, luminescence of screens brightening the clutter; on the far wall Robin Denselow’s tribute to Rob has been clipped from that day’s edition of the Guardian and hangs, lopsided and slowly yellowing off of a cork-board. There are framed posters of other productions they’ve made; motor-cycle ace Barry Sheene is next to Paul Weller with Marc Bolan alongside the former.

There are white-boards on which a black-marker-pen has hastily scribbled a things to make and do list. Sideways-glancing at one, I see that I’ve been scheduled after PJ Harvey and before Yusef Islam and Dave Robinson while, against the names of Steve Winwood and Marianne Faithfull there are question marks.

The camera’s already been set up and, steaming mug of coffee in hand, I’m ushered into a smaller office in which is a desk on which reside a number of album covers, cds and hard-backed colour photo-copies of long out of print album jackets. There is a chair in front of the desk, a particularly uncomfortable chair as it turns out and that’s where I’m going to have to sit and face the camera.

The bloke who’s going to be asking the questions and I make idle – yet informed – chit-chat; within moments its apparent he knows his stuff and has done his home-work. As we talk, I start to peruse some of the album covers laying on the desk – one of the first Island albums I ever owned is there, Fairport’s seminal Liege & Lief tho’ not the sleeve as I recall it – this is but single sleeved and not the gate-fold as it was when originally released.

A long-time back Christmas present from my parents – and much requested (probably to the point of patience exhaustion) – it was happily all too obvious what was waiting for me that particular December 25th morning – after all, its not easy to disguise a 12” square album. That much-played copy now resides in the dungeon at Merle HQ along with all my other ‘stuff’ (for want of a better word); some would term the boxes and scrapbooks of everything I’ve squirreled away over the (many) years as memorabilia, I’d call it – aide-memoires.

Scrap-books filled with more or less every single ticket or pass from every concert I’ve ever attended; tour-schedules; letters; postcards, award ceremony menus and masses of other paraphernalia plus boxes of other ‘stuff’ that can’t be pasted into scrapbooks such as moment-defining magazine covers and attendant articles, the tour programmes I’ve written and designed, all of the various Island catalogues – one or two of which I know (now) that they don’t even have in their own archive – together with long-forgotten photographs, mis-printed album covers that were otherwise destroyed, up-front sales information sheets for when we were all traipsing around the record stores and more, much more desides.

And, along another wall in that same dungeon, a floor-to-ceiling rack that includes every Island album on vinyl I could ever find plus a very fair smattering of promotional 12” singles and picture-vinyl; a bit of a short-lived fashionable must-have for the serious collector – ie, train-spotter.

It is, dare I say, precisely the equivalent of standing at the end of the platform and writing down numbers off of in-bound steam-engines; by which I’m – finally – owning up being part of the anorak brigade. I’m jerked back into the here and now, realising I’ve been musing out loud.

How did you file everything… by artist or by..?

Numerically… and sad as this is, I can probably remember most of them. I’m absent-mindedly gazing at Liege & Lief and, almost without thinking say. This is ILPS 9116. I turn it over and search for the catalogue number on the top right corner, adjust my glasses and gasp out loud. I’m wrong, its 9115. Bugger, one out.

And the first you ever owned..?

Album or single? Single was Roy C’s Shotgun Wedding quickly followed by Traffic’s Paper Sun with Smiling Phases on the back – did you know that the first time that was played on radio, the dj played the b-side first? Album would have been ILP 961, Traffic’s Mr Fantasy, ILP meant it was the original mono copy and eventually I got the stereo version when that came out; that was ILPS 9061 and a bit of an eye-opener as most of the tracks sounded completely different. The great thing about working at EMI before I actually joined Island was that I’d be whizzing about all these record shops, do what I had to do and then spend ages trawling through their bargain bins – that’s where I found all the really early stuff. At home I’d made this book up with everything listed by catalogue number and I’d fill the blanks in when I’d found an album or single that I didn’t have. So I suppose I made my own first Island catalogue in that way – eventually I managed to get one record shop owner to part with the first official catalogue… I don’t think there are too many of them around now.

Are we ready to roll..? Asks the smiling, motor-cycle booted, voice in front of me who, although he’s courteous enough not to say it, will have realised by now that he’s about to interview a bloke who has a disposition to err on the anally retentative side of anorak.

We are, says the tall voice who, throughout this exchange and my inadvertent meander into my own memory lane has been fiddling about behind the camera… and the first question is asked.

Just under three hours later, we’re done. I’m awash with coffee and busting for a piss.

On camera interviews are weird in the extreme and there is a big difference between doing stuff live as live is as opposed to how this has been done.

Live means you’ve just a few moments to get your sound-bite comment across in as pithy and succinct way as possible; there is no going back, no room for verbal stumbles or hesitation. Pre-records are a different matter entirely since one knows that everything is going to be edited down and all the rambling, meandering stuff will land up on the cutting room floor.

That said, I fully expect this entire interview to end up in the bin – they’ve a ninety minute programme to make, have already conducted over sixty interviews with the real shakers and movers as well as the epoch-changing musicians who’ve been part of the fifty years of Island with more yet to be conducted.

Its an abundance of riches that begs a fundamental question – how the fxxk do you put fifty years of music and all related into a ninety minute-long documentary?

Answer #1 – impossible.

Answer #2 – you gloss over so much as to create a few – distinctive yes – essential snapshots that whatever programme you put together simply scratches the surface.

Answer #3 – you don’t – you hold out and turn it into a three-part series; that way properly telling the entire story. After all – the 25th anniversary (curiously celebrated just 23 years ago) gave way to a ten-part series broadcast on Radio One that took two weeks to transmit.

That 25th anniversary was something else again – and culminated in the party to end all parties; one that took place at… Pinewood… in one of the huge, hangar-like stages that became a night almost without end.

Like all great parties, large chunks are a complete blur – all of the obvious suspects were there and, given that it was for what most would describe as the most influential record label of all time, there was a very fair smattering of the truly important in situ.

Various bands played – don’t ask, that’s one of the really blurry bits – and within the entire main part of the night, random offices and sundry spaces were taken over in other buildings throughout the complex. In some, threes and fours and mores partied in near-darkness; in others music was played by people semi-hiding away from the masses elsewhere.

And, in one such, one of the truly surreal events in my own life occurred.

On my own – in that my, then, American girlfriend was Stateside – I’d gone with a musical mate who, at the time, ran the best record store in Brighton; a useful ally for the evening as we’d arrived – shall I say – pretty well prepared for the evening’s adventures.

I’d also become friendly with and been hanging out a bit with a couple of people who, in their own manner (in that they’ll remain nameless here) had associations with the label. They were there, I was too and so were seemingly zillions of other people; the entire place a teeming mass of humanity – the scent of spliff everywhere; drinks if you could physically get to a bar and music… music of all denominations absolutely everywhere.

Nameless #1 and I eventually run into each other on a set of stairs that led to… I dunno where. I’m informed that Nameless #2 is in a room somewhere over there and wondering where I am. I head off in direction X… opening one door after another before eventually entering what I can only describe as a musical sepulchre – a holy of holies.

I’m standing in the doorway and beckoned inward by Nameless #2; if I turn and run it’ll be deemed rude yet… oh, shit… thankfully there’s a couple of other people in there that I know… a drink is offered and I sit down, trying to appear relaxed which is, of course, precisely how I don’t feel.

Nameless #2 and I sit and natter away as various acoustic guitars are tuned; it appears as if some form of sing-song is about to occur. Nameless #2 then decides – possibly because of a gregarious nature or maybe because of simple politeness that introductions should occur – frankly, I was rather preferring the anonymity but… Neil, you know Eric I’m sure… Umm, no I don’t… so the bearded one idly tossing off acoustic arpeggios and I shake hands.

And George…? He leans forward over his gleaming Martin acoustic and proffers his hand as well… You ok? Yes, fine thank-you. Another glass of wine? He politely offers Nameless #2 and I a three-quarter full bottle of superior quality white. Nameless #2 looks around – who else might I not know… and Ringo… ummm, no, I don’t believe I do… how are you? His Liverpudlian darkened glasses and beard look at me, he puts down the tambourine he’s been fiddling with and similarly grips and grins. Good thanks mate…

And John – ahh, yes… John Martyn I do know each other… thank goodness; he smiles a greeting and casually passes over an economy-sized spliff that’s producing smoke like a small bonfire, the proximity of which is already making my eyes water. I pass it down the line to the first guitarist who inhales deeply, passes it on and starts to play the opening chords to Here Comes The Sun.

An hour or so later – time in a strange way became a bit timeless – I make my excuses and leave; the air in this small room is like a ganga-fog and eventually I find myself outside in a car park… and run into my mate who’s been wandering about looking for me. He is somewhat unsteady on his feet and using the bonnet of a car for support.

God, what an amazing night… Thank-you so much for inviting me. Fancy a little… ummm… refreshment..? I’ve just been at the bar, stood next to Keith Richards…What have you been up to..? Met anyone interesting..?

Ahh… bit strange actually, I met up with a few people I didn’t know and have been singing Beatles songs for the last hour.

This time around, what will be will, of course, be.

However, within my little Voltaire on the grassy knoll, it seems a little sad that such an incredible story will be desensitised into tiny bite sized chunks for a world now suffering from attention deficit disorder.

A world in which 21st Century Schizoid Man now lives.


Anonymous said...

Wow - I imagine those people are / were who I think they are.

Thats an amazing story - have you written a book, because if not, I think you should.

More please.

Fifi Dessein said...

I agree. this blog needs to be a book to be savioured