25th May 1985. The ‘Godfather of Soul’ is coming to town, which would be exciting enough, were it not for the fact that, through deft management or someone doing their job at the record company (I cannot remember which) we are also ‘supporting’ him. Three gigs are planned at the HMV Hammersmith Apollo. This will take some beating. There are ground rules though. Mr Brown will approve the set list and personally scrutinise the first nights performance. If we are deemed worthy, we get to play the remaining two gigs. If not, we go home.
The Hammersmith Odeon is a truly great venue and as our crew set up the gear for sound-check, in front of Browns rather amateur looking ‘New York skyline’ set, we are unaware that over the next few years we will revisit this hallowed ground several times, but in the future, as head liners. Strangely though, nothing would compare to what was about to come. James Brown had not played the UK for some time and with ‘Living in America’ still commanding the airwaves, the buzz was palpable.
Our sound check was brief, but, somewhere in the middle of it, an eerie presence descended from behind. He was on stage. With a fairly large entourage and wearing what must have been his ‘everyday’ cape, he had come to say hello. I stayed well away, but our singer, not known for being backwards in coming forwards, approached with uncharacteristic caution. With reverence, like one might reserve for the Queen, (after shoulders have been touched by her sword) the two front men exchanged words. There was nothing ‘new bezzy mates’ about this and almost instantly, it was over. Swiftly, we shuffled back to our dressing room to digest. Nobody was allowed to watch the James Brown sound-check. Despite the closed set, open only to his crew and minders, it was still possible to hear, emanating from beneath our dressing room, a muffled soundscape of pure legend. A medley of hit after hit, with slick stops and starts, all segued beautifully together.
After a while though, everything became quiet. As the crowds gathered outside, the building filled with anticipation. All gathered in our dressing room, contemplating, in near silence, two faint taps on our dressing room door were clearly heard. There, in the doorway standing somewhat nervously were two of Browns band. After introductions and pleasantries were exchanged, it became clear that they hadn’t come to just say hello. They had their sights (and noses) set on a particular kind of combustible form of contraband we had become rather partial to. Both men were duly gifted, and retreated gratefully to there own quarters. It was well documented that Brown ruled his band with a rod of iron. Wrong notes were rewarded with fines, and drugs of any kind, before, during, and after gigs were strictly forbidden. Ironic, considering his own ‘alleged’ weakness for ‘Angel Dust’ and a partiality for ‘Class A’ specialities.
Everyone who was anyone was at this gig and the press especially would be ready to slate us if we bombed. But we played well and somewhere in the middle of it all, Brown appeared in the wings, wearing only a pink dressing gown, with rollers to match (the kind Bet Lynch would have killed for) Satisfied, he disappeared to complete his look.
With the Millennium safely behind me, and still enjoying the novelty of living in a new, very rural part of the Peak District, I must face up to the task of trying to earn some cash to float my burgeoning and costly lifestyle. I am often heard moaning about the artist’s inexplicable reluctance to traipse four hours north to work with me, and instead choosing to hop, skip and jump on the nearest tube to a hit maker just down the road in London. And so, to quash this problem, I have lavishly renovated a barn next to my house to entice the unwilling. I say I, it is my wife who has effortlessly styled the operation, with me standing by, trying not to open my wallet too widely. It is a very lovely space, with the idea being that when I disappear home, the ‘artists’, will be left behind in a sumptuous country pile they can call their own. (until, that is, I’ve had enough, and take them back to the station)
Today I am the victim of a young lady who frankly has very little talent to speak of (let alone sing of) She is not signed and doesn’t have a publishing deal, and is unlikely to achieve either in the near future. Why then, you rightly enquire, would I waste my time?
My publisher has explained to me that the girl’s manager is a ‘big noise’ and also has on his roster a hugely talented and successful writer that I could possibly collaborate with. Ah now I get it. Go through the motions with this one and it may lead to gold.
Confidence is, of course, one of the main ingredients in the singer-songwriter’s check list of things to bring to a session and when she offers to play me one of her recent demo’s, with inner dread concealed, I willingly oblige and listen, in the hope that her ambition matches her talent. I am missing ‘Woman’s Hour’ for this, a programme I particularly love.
“I’m thinking it could be my first single” she says
“yeah, it’s called ‘My Aura’”
Oh my God.
Needless to say, it is worthless and the first day’s writing spawns nothing but rage and anger in me. I am committed to making her comfortable though, and take her through the contents of the fridge, not just out of politeness, you understand, but also to affirm the notion that breakfast can be eaten at anytime, as long as it’s made by her. All seems well, and with a large glass of red, winking at me from my house, I hear a sentence I never thought I’d witness at the end of a days writing. (or, at anytime for that matter)
“I’ll need to ‘Feng Shui’ the bedroom” “would you help me?”
With incredulousness and bulging eye I go upstairs to assess if the bed can be moved. It is heavy and made of oak and if pulled would scratch the floor. I’m a little anal about floors (a subject I will have to return to) If I were living and working in LA a request like this would be ‘de rigueur’, indeed I would have fitted castors to the heavier furniture to ease the re-positioning. Couldn’t she just sleep facing the wrong way for one night? I persuade her to sleep in the living room on a ‘Futon’ that can be easily manoeuvred into the optimum position. Several other pieces of furniture are lugged into place and the mood lifts. With my aura in tatters, I leave.
When her manager hears of this ridiculous charade, he is, to be fair, very embarrassed and promptly offers me a session with his super-star writer. Lovely. I like it when a plan comes together. To date, I still haven’t heard from him. A lesson learned.
Back at the Hammersmith Apollo and with gig number two under our belts we stand near the mixing desk to take in the James Brown show. (Always stand near the mixing desk if you can, to get the best sound, as I have yet to come across a sound guy with removable ears)
It is a spectacle I will always remember. With fifteen plus people onstage, the percussionist perched high up on the tallest skyscraper, being periodically and bizarrely acknowledged by Brown and the band.
The musicians are tight. Maceo Parker shines like a jewel and a personal MC fusses round Brown, mopping his brow when things get too emotional.
There is something different though. One sax player is missing.
An older player with ‘salt and pepper’ Afro has been sent home for playing too many wrong notes.
As we leave the venue and head for our hotel, my heart bleeds for him.