Paul McCartney at 70

The perfectionist in Paul McCartney won’t have enjoyed it, but, with his voice scratchy and strained, he sounded and looked exhausted as he closed the show at the Diamond Jubilee Concert a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps, though, his tiredness was to be expected. His short performance at Buckingham Palace was his thirty second in the past year with all the others having lasted for two and half hours each.

In rock music terms that’s more than marathon length in giving value for money. And, though he’s long been known for his boyishness, Paul McCartney is getting on. He’s 70 today.

He’s also, as one of the two surviving Beatles, one of the few individuals who can justifiably be referred to as a British national treasure – and not just for the treasure that as a major exporter of music, and never a tax exile like some of his peers, he’s brought to this country.

Of far greater importance has been his contribution to the cultural wealth of our nation where playgroup children sing Yellow Submarine believing it to be a nursery rhyme, and residents of old folks homes join in to When I’m Sixty Four, and wish they still were.

Then there are his evocations of British suburban life in Penny Lane and She’s Leaving Home, and his timeless classics, Yesterday, recorded by over 2,500 other artists, Let It Be and Hey Jude – all songs which defy musical fashion and have leapt across the generations since he wrote them in his twenties.

You might wonder why a man now well past retirement age, with a fortune reckoned to be getting on for £500 million pounds, who has written or co-written something like eighty other hit songs and played time and again in all the world’s major cities keeps on going. His place in history has been assured for forty years.

But that would be to overlook what pushes Paul McCartney. Because, not only is he a man who just has to keep busy, he is also a born entertainer. It isn’t enough for him to simply write and record his songs and then go on holiday. He needs to get out there, face the crowds and sing to them, as he did when he wasn’t much more than a boy at Liverpool’s tiny Cavern Club and again a few weeks ago before an audience of over 200,000 in Mexico City.

Nor is it sufficient for him to limit his abilities to popular songs. He’s also written film scores and three major works of serious music as well as a ballet, while for the past fifteen years he’s enjoyed a separate, virtually anonymous, occasional identity with the Fireman, a progressive electronic rock band. Then there was his book of poems and his exhibitions of paintings.

These side interests might not equal the degree of brilliance he demonstrated in his classic songs, Eleanor Rigby, Blackbird and Here There And Everywhere, but they are evidence of a man who just has to keep stretching himself.

As a star he can be friendly, cautious and diplomatic, and, it is said, as a colleague or employer, both understanding and helpful. But he can also be critical, preachy and bossy. He knows how good he is and he knows how he wants things. What he’s never been is lazy.

That’s the way he always was, since, with the other Beatles, he first entered EMI Records’ Abbey Road studios exactly fifty years ago this month to make their first hit record, Love Me Do.

That day changed all their lives, and ours, too, but with two big hits before he was 21, Please Please Me and From Me To You, it also means that Paul McCartney has been impossibly famous all his adult life.

It’s unlikely he realised it when he won a Liverpool schools essay writing competition at the age of 11 (he chose a book on modern art as his prize – telling in one so young), but his sights were set early on making a name for himself.

His future partner in song, John Lennon, whom he met when he was 15, once joked to me that he’d ruined McCartney’s life – that Paul could have become a teacher or a doctor if it hadn’t been for him. But, in truth, music was always going to be Paul’s future. He instinctively understood melodic composition.

Back in the Twenties his father, Jim McCartney, had had his own trad jazz band, but rock and roll was the style, as Paul, John and George Harrison evolved the Beatles’ sound. Even so Paul was quick to point out in his flush of fame that the songs he and Lennon wrote just happened to be to a contemporary rock beat, and might equally have been played to other rhythms had they been fashionable.

His partnership with John Lennon was obviously the making of his career – sharing the composing credits, as Lennon and McCartney, even when one or the other had been the sole writer.  It was a perfect union of equals, as either Paul or John would suggest chords, lyrics and harmony to the other’s idea.

“The collaboration with John made everything twice as easy,” he once explained to me, “and I think I’m right in saying it made it twice as easy for John, too. We’d do three-hour sessions and never once did we come out of them empty-handed. All those songs, such as Eleanor Rigby, Help!, Norwegian Wood, came directly out of the collaboration. We were both good. If he got stuck, I could always help him. Always. I never failed to help him. And, if I was stuck, he never failed to help me. Never.

“I remember turning up at his house one day with Paperback Writer, which I’d been making up in the car on the way down to Weybridge where he lived then. I showed him how it went and the lyrics, and all he said was, ‘Yes…yes…yes’.

“All he did that day was confirm what I was doing. But that was amazingly important. Without him, I would have sat and worried for ever over it. That was John’s great strength. He was like a good editor. He could make decisions quickly.”

Lennon’s quick decision to disband the Beatles in 1969 at the very height of their fame, however, left McCartney in an abyss of despair. Although he and Lennon had given up writing jointly by then, largely because of the unsettling presence of Lennon’s second wife Yoko Ono while they were working, he couldn’t imagine a life for himself outside the Beatles.

He was, he said, just as much a Beatle fan as anyone else and went slightly off the rails, drinking too much at his croft in Scotland. Neither did it help that Lennon, in a confessional mood at the time, put barbs into both songs and magazine interviews about his former best friend. To his credit, I can’t recall a single occasion when Paul bit back in print, though I know how hurt he was.

The Beatles, and the organisation built around them, had been like a family to him, so as internal Beatle rows moved to court proceedings, his solution was to create a family of his own, a real one, with his wife, American Linda Eastman, whom he’d married in 1969.

It was a complete change of life and proved to be a spectacularly successful marriage where another side of McCartney quickly emerged. That was a deeply conservative desire to live, despite his fame and wealth, as ordinary a family life as possible, with the McCartneys’ four children going to state schools near the country house they built in the Sussex woods he’d bought.

A master of half a dozen instruments which had led him to occasionally play drums, piano or lead guitar as well as his usual bass on various Beatle sessions, his first work outside the group was a solo album, McCartney, on which he played all the instruments himself.

But a one man band couldn’t have toured and soon he had a new group, Wings, and the hits and tours began again. Some of the songs were brilliant, Another Day, Band On The Run, Jet and Live And Let Die, while Mull Of Kintyre became the  biggest selling UK single of the Seventies. Others weren’t so good.

What McCartney probably lacked was Lennon’s blunt criticisms. It’s been said that he never knows which are his best songs until someone else tells him. But without the other Beatles, who was there to tell the man who many consider a genius of melody that some of his songs weren’t up to scratch? It would have been a brave employee or musician. It still would.

While Lennon was alive, there was always the possibility that the two might find a way of working together again. Then in 1980 Lennon was murdered, and that chance was gone. So, Paul worked with other artists, Michael Jackson and Elvis Costello, and more hits inevitably came.

Seemingly whatever he did found success, be it the children’s favourite We All Stand Together from the Rupert Bear animated film he produced or his number one Ebony and Ivory with Stevie Wonder.

Middle age, a growing family and domesticity suited him. He had a studio built a few miles from his Sussex home where he collected old instruments used on Beatles record, and the stand-up bass used on Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, a song which had been a turning point in his life, and he and Linda rode their appaloosa horses across his every growing estate.

While for work he first composed his first extended piece or serious music, Liverpool Oratorio with Carl Davis (who described him as the most disciplined person he has ever known) backed his wife Linda’s vegetarian foods, and built a very large music publishing company which includes songs by Buddy Holly and Hoagy Carmichael, as well as the musicals Grease, A Chorus Line and Guys And Dolls. Then there was his commitment as a major sponsor establishing the Liverpool Institute For Performing Arts.

Unlike other Beatles, his close ties with Liverpool have never left him. He still owns a house across the Mersey on the Wirral and gives privately to Liverpool charities, including Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. While known as an animal rights supporter and anti-land mines campaigner, other charitable work has been kept secret.

His knighthood in 1997 came surprisingly late in his career (a decision thought to be not unconnected with his several arrests for possession of marijuana), and he was proud of it. Sadly, though, a year later, just as Stella, his and Linda’s second daughter, was beginning to make headway in the fashion world, Linda died from breast cancer, the illness that had taken his mother when he’d been 14.

The centre of his family was gone. His children were growing up. For months he just stayed at home.

He was forced to change his life again, but his second marriage in 2002 to former model Heather Mills was to prove an expensive and acrimonious, on the bride’s side, mistake. After the birth of their daughter, Beatrice, the couple were divorced in 2008.

Nothing, however, could stop the McCartney work rate as for over a decade world tours have followed each other almost annually. For years after the Beatles broke up he’d refused to sing any of his hits written with John Lennon. Now, with the wounds healed, his shows contain so many, his latest group has jokingly been referred to as the “Best Beatles Tribute Band in the World”.

He writes theme songs for films, too, if the right person asks him nicely, one for the Tom Cruise film Vanilla Sky another for Robert de Niro’s Everybody’s Fine, a movie about a man whose wife dies and who wants to get his children home for Christmas. Children remain a large part of his life, with his son James now following in his footsteps as a singer- songwriter.

Paul’s detractors will tell you that it’s well over a decade since he had a really big single, suggesting perhaps that his gift for melody has left him. Certainly writing hits isn’t as seemingly effortless as once it was – he woke up, he says, in 1964, with Yesterday fully formed in his mind as if he’d dreamt it.

But an alternative interpretation might be that, although there’s a massive market for his Beatles’ and Wings’ material, styles have changed and much less attention is paid to his recent work. If he were to write a song as good as Yesterday today would it get the attention it deserved?

Maybe not. His latest single, My Valentine, written for his new wife, old friend New Yorker, Nancy Shevell, whom he married last October, had Eric Clapton on guitar and promo films starring Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman, but it still didn’t do well in the charts. Disc jockeys would rather play his earlier stuff, while sales of his album of standards, Kisses On The Bottom, with its Thirties and Forties songs, were disappointing.

Quite why he’s never turned his attention to writing a full scale musical for the West End, when he’s tried virtually everything else in music, and his companies publish the music to several American shows, is hard to fathom.

Producers put on shows based around old Beatle hits, with a new one, Let It Be, due to open in September. But there must be at least a dozen overlooked McCartney gems in his back catalogue which, with the right story, could be refashioned for the stage in the way Cole Porter or George Gershwin gave songs that hadn’t made it another lease of life in a new show.

Or is it too late for him to take on Andrew Lloyd Webber?

Whatever he does next, as, with Nancy his life changes again and he spends more time at their US homes in New York and on Long Island, and he slips between his UK homes by helicopter, he’s sure to find something new to keep him bust. His very nature insists on it.

In the meantime, Paul McCartney, honorary fellow of the Royal College of Music, who still claims jokily and slightly ingenuously that he can’t read music, will go on being festooned with honours, like the Gershwin prize that President Obama  recently bestowed on him at the White House, and, no doubt, touring.

And if you missed him at Buckingham Palace you only have a few weeks to wait until you can see him again as he closes the opening ceremony of the London Olympics on July 27.  It had to be him. With no disrespect to Ringo, no performer in Britain, or even in the world, comes bigger than the still singing, still playing, living representative of the Beatles – Paul McCartney.

The Ray Connolly Beatles Archive, a collection of Ray Connolly’s newspaper articles about the Beatles, and ‘Sorry, Boys, You Failed The Audition’, Ray Connolly’s short story about the group, are now both available as eBooks on Amazon.

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Looking At History Through The Top Ten

History can be studied in many ways. While last weekend’s Diamond Jubilee flotilla was a traditional Royal spectacle, another quite different way of looking at the recent past could be seen at Monday night’s Buckingham Palace concert. Then music drew hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets of London and seventeen million to their televisions.

And what did the performers, from Tom Jones at 72 to Ed Sheeren at 21, have in common? Basically huge popularity as shown in the record charts over the six decades of the Queen’s reign. And there lies a coincidence, because this year is also the sixtieth anniversary of the British pop charts.

Just five months after the Queen succeeded to the throne in 1952 the pop newspaper the New Musical Express began publishing a modest list of the twelve top selling, ten inch shellac records in the country. At around five shillings each and easily broken, they were relatively expensive at the time, and the weekly codifying of their sales would, if considered at all, have been seen as quite the least of the foundation stones in the building of modern Britain.

But that weekly barometer of musical taste has mesmerised teenagers, radio and TV producers, and, not least, performers ever since, as the records have gone from being 78s to 45s, then CDs and are now downloads on iTunes.

Success in the charts can obviously make or break a star career. But looked at more broadly, we can see that fashions in popular music tell us quite a lot about ourselves, how we, as a people, are now, and how we used to be.

Consider the very first pop chart of November 1952.  It contained Bing Crosby pining for the Isle of Innisfree and Guy Mitchell patting a baby’s bottom in the song Feet Up. Not exactly stuff that rapper Diddy or even Justin Bieber might record today. Then there was wartime stalwart Vera Lynn, tenor Mario Lanza and comedian Max Bygraves with his Cowpuncher’s Cantata.

Even with Johnnie Ray and Frankie Laine listed, that first chart looks in pop terms not only totally white, as was most of the population then, but overwhelmingly middle aged. But that was an age of real austerity when middle age virtually began when you left school.

Change wasn’t far away and it came almost totally from America. By the mid-Fifties Madison Avenue had identified the hormonally turbulent years of adolescence as a rapidly developing market, and as young actors like James Dean played fashionably “misunderstood” youths on the cinema screen, rock and roll echoed, literally, from the radio stations.

Correspondingly by June 1956 the charts looked very different, with songs sung by and aimed at young people, led by Elvis Presley, then just 21, with Heartbreak Hotel and Blue Suede Shoes. And as songwriters struggled to get the words “teen” or “teenager” into as many lyrics as possible, the charts filled with American puppy love songs.

There was even a group called the Teenagers, who sang what is now the classic Why Do Fools Fall In Love? The lead singer, Frankie Lymon, was just 14. He was also black. Very quickly, apart from making it possible for any group of ambitious boys with a couple of electric guitars and a set of drums to become a band, rock and roll began helping puncture holes in ingrained racial attitudes – especially in America. Young people liked the music. They cared less about colour than their parents did.

Not that many British youths could have afforded electric guitars and amplifiers in the mid-Fifties. What they could buy were cheap acoustic ones, and everyone’s mum had an old washboard. So, as Lonnie Donegan prospered with Rock Island Line and Stewball, skiffle groups sprang up all over the country. John Lennon started one before he’d even taken his O’levels.

Those were the days of National Service, so, unsurprisingly, one of the most popular records of the Fifties was Pat Boone’s I’ll Be Home, a ballad in the form of a letter being written by a young soldier to his girl friend. In the charts for almost six months, it was a regular on radio’s Two Way Family Favourites (one of the few record programmes on the BBC) when requests would be played for British servicemen serving in Germany.

Of course, young love, also tends to include passion and, for some, a word rarely mentioned in the Fifties – sex.  The message in the Elvis song, Don’t, which now sounds rather like an entreaty for a bit of light teenage petting (‘Baby, don’t say don’t”), passed unnoticed in 1958. But by 1961 the age old question, would a boy “respect” a girl if she went “all the way” was put to music by the Shirelles in Will You Love Me Tomorrow?

The very fact that anyone dared ask that question in song signalled that a change in attitudes was approaching. The Sixties had arrived. The permissive society wouldn’t be far behind.

But first something peculiarly British was on its way. As Cliff Richard reminded us on Monday, he had his first hits in the Fifties, along with Marty Wilde and Billy Fury. All three artists were good, but rock’s musical references as seen through them were all second hand American. Kids here didn’t meet at the drugstore, go to high school proms or fall asleep at drive-in movies. They went to the youth club, on their bikes, in the rain.

But then came the Beatles with their melding of British references and wit into rock, and the national musical backbone stiffened as almost overnight they and other groups led the world. A totally unanticipated result of the 1944 Education Act, which created so many art colleges and provided free grammar school and university education for the lucky, could be found in little bands forming all around the country. Here was successful social engineering being played out musically.

The Beatles bleak story of Eleanor Rigby with the surrealistic line “wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door” could never have been written a generation earlier by boys from the background of Lennon and McCartney; while Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale sounded as though the lyricist had swallowed his A-level Shelley and Keats texts. At the same time Ray Davies and the Kinks were producing a romantic vignette of a working class London teenage couple’s life in Waterloo Sunset.

From America the howl of anger over Civil Rights turned some music into a political weapon, as protest songs like We Shall Overcome and Bob Dylan’s Blowing In The Wind united young and well educated college students with the politically dispossessed. Then came the peace movement and anti-Vietnam war songs like Give Peace A Chance. It was an intense time.

Obviously not everything in the Sixties was good or even clever. A lot of what was espoused in hippy happy clouds of marijuana was nonsense, as a great many records of that time were totally banal – as they are at any other time. And the proselytising of drugs by some Sixties stars was almost suicidally stupid. I know. I wrote quite a few obituaries of the young and famous around that time.

But there were so many good things, too. During those years rock music at its best grew up, as Joni Mitchell showed when she backed the nascent ecology movement. “They paved Paradise, put up a parking lot, with a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot…” she sang sweetly but bitingly in Big Yellow Taxi. No future historian studying the period will find a pithier condemnation of the destruction of nature than those lines, which reached the charts in 1969.

This was the great age of space exploration, too, and while the world was staring at the moon, David Bowie was turning our fascination into Space Oddity and the most original of songs, “This is Major Tom to Ground Control…”

Since the  arrival of the Pill in the early Sixties attitudes to pre-marital sex had been quickly changing – and for sure the Rolling Stones wouldn’t have dared release Let’s Spend The Night Together before 1967 – but in 1969 came the first mock orgasm on record with Jane Birkin’s Je T’Aime.

Naturally it wasn’t played on the BBC, but it still went to number one, opening the way for Donna Summer and the eventual overt sexualisation of the performances of so many women singers. Think only of Madonna, Kylie Minogue and now Rihanna.

George Martin, the Beatles’ producer, once told me that he expected the quality of popular music to go on getting better after the Sixties, and had been disappointed when progress stopped and punk became the fashion.

But perhaps punk wasn’t as popular as he feared. What seems to have happened in the Seventies is that music began to divide. On one hand was the much written about but, I suspect, less listened to punk, with the purposely obnoxious Sex Pistols’ Anarchy In The UK, and the left wing Clash, who sang about social issues.

And for those who can remember the strike-ridden late Seventies, it’s easy to see that both groups would have touched a bare nerve, although I always thought the Sex Pistols were more self-publicists that nihilists.

At the very same time, however, the eccentrically glamorous Abba were producing tailor made songs for families watching Top Of the Pops – not least among their hits being Dancing Queen. Then by summer 1978 the nation was in love with dancing as the Bee Gees brought us Saturday Night Fever and threw in John Travolta to show us how to do it.

Obviously dance has always been with us, and some of us choose to forget Let’s Twist Again and Chubby Checker from 1961. But since disco in the late Seventies it’s just kept on getting bigger and bigger.

Feminism had been a growing movement since the late Sixties, but in the male dominated record industry it wasn’t until Gloria Gaynor sang I Will Survive in 1979 that it really found an anthem. Now no karaoke hen night is enjoyed without it, as no flight on one of the expanding Seventies package holidays was complete back then without a sly smile to Lorraine Chase and the Cats UK hit Luton Airport.

Ever since the Fifties, electronics had been improving our lives in all kinds of many ways, one of which was the recording of music to the point where the computer keyboard had become an additional instrument. Then something happened which changed the way we listened to records completely.

Short films had been shot to promote records since the Beatles, but Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody is now considered the first real pop video. Since its release in 1975, the pop video has become almost compulsory for any new release, leading to TV channels devoted to nothing else, and with hundreds of thousands available to watch on YouTube.

From that Bohemian Rhapsody moment it has been said that fans began to listen as much with their eyes as with their ears. That may be unfair, but, what Eighties songs do we remember mostly? Yes, those with the best videos, the coiffured Duran Duran on that beach and yacht singing Rio, Wham! in their little two-tone, pastel shorts with  Wake Me Up Before You Go Go and Bananarama in what looked like a flame licking hell as they sang Venus? Before the Eighties, MTV and YouTube, we put our own images to songs. They are now imposed upon us. I think that’s a pity.

For decades, many gay stars worried that their homosexuality would, if publicly known, ruin their careers and often put up elaborate smokescreens to disguise the fact.

By 1984, however, the gay rights movement had been around long enough for Frankie Goes To Hollywood to top the charts with Relax, a song about gay sex, despite being banned by the BBC.

And in 1985 music addressed the Aids issue when Dionne Warwick joined with Gladys Knight, Elton John and Stevie Wonder to sing That’s What Friends Are For to raise money for research into the disease — just one of many charitable causes supported through music.

Rock music has always gone in cycles, so when Oasis put guitar-led bands back to the top of the charts in 1995, they were tapping into the lad culture of the time.  Macho was becoming fashionable again, with the boom in lad magazines, leaving a space for an all-girl group. This the pushy and jokey Spice Girls filled for the rest of the decade with their ‘girl power’, as a generation of young women found themselves outstripping their male counterparts at school and in the job market.

And that, perhaps, is how it has largely been since then, as the country is awash with TV channels and radio stations and music, and image has relentlessly come to govern our lives – from politics to sport and current affairs, and even, to the TV celeb reporting of the Jubilee river pageant.

There is always musical talent around. Despite their detractors Gary Barlow and Take That are really good, as are Coldplay in their postgraduate coolness. The waste of talent was why the tragic Amy Winehouse was grieved so much, the celebration of it why so many love the no-nonsense Adele, with that extraordinary voice.

But as past emperors of rock tour the world, performing in vast stadiums for ever more millions, the current most popular music shows in the country are little more than television pantomimes of lighting effects, dry ice and audience manipulation.

Music isn’t about winners and losers, but dancing to the tune of the Pied Piper of TV pop-trash, Simon Cowell, Saturday nights are about little else, as tears and phoney tension are ratcheted up week in, week out.

Don’t blame the artists, they are as manipulated as the audiences of Britain’s Got Talent, The X Factor and The Voice, and its uplifting to see how colour blind music has now become in Britain.

But, looking again at the broader picture of what Noel Coward once jokingly referred to as the potency of “cheap music”, perhaps popular music is now telling us something deeper about ourselves that we should worry about.

That is, in today’s world image and presentation matter most of all.

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Robin Gibb 1949 – 2012

Robin Gibb  1949-2012

(I was away when Robin Gibb died and a shortened version of my obituary for him appeared in the Daily Mail on May 22. Here is the full version.)

He was the gaunt Bee Gee, the one with the tombstone teeth and extraordinary voice – a high, plaintive tenor which, when he was a boy, his parents would fondly describe as sounding like that of  “a quavering Arab”.

But Robin Gibb’s voice and song writing abilities, when allied with the musical talents of his twin Maurice and older brother Barry, were to sell over two hundred and twenty million Bee Gees records in a career that was to last for nearly half a century.

As a song writing partnership, the Gibb brothers were prolific. Second only to Lennon and McCartney in their success, not only did they write and produce numerous hits for themselves, they also created hits for many other artists.

And although, after the death of Maurice in 2003, Robin never recorded with Barry again as a Bee Gee, he never stopped writing and recording, his most recent work being a requiem is RqhisHISabout the sinking of the Titanic. Composed and produced with his son from his second marriage, RJ Gibb, it was first performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and RSVP Choir in April of this year.

A complex, eccentric, often contradictory character, Robin Gibb, who has died aged 62, was a staunch supporter of Britain’s soldiers. Recording a special charity version of Gotta Get A Message To You with Soldiers for the Poppy Appeal last year, he was also a major supporter and fund raiser for the Bomber Command Memorial which is now under in London’s Green Park..

Robin was born 35 minutes before his twin Maurice in 1949 in Douglas, Isle Of Man. Barry was already three years old, and though, he would always be perceived as the leader, the strength of the Bee Gees partnership lay in their musical equality and closeness. They edited and complemented each other perfectly.

Their father, Hugh, the leader of a small seaside hotel band, never had much success, and, when, in 1955, his contract in the Isle of Man wasn’t renewed he moved the family back to his home town of Manchester. Surprisingly, although he was said to be an excellent pianist and drummer, he didn’t immediately spot his sons’ talents.

“One day our parents had been out together,” Barry once told me, “and as they were coming into the house they heard us singing in harmony. They thought the sound must be coming from the radio.”

“Neither of our parents were aware that we could harmonise instinctively,” Robin would explain. “The only thing my brothers and I cared about was composing. It was our hobby. We didn’t have any friends, or many other interests except music. In a way we were like the Brontes, complete in ourselves. We didn’t need outsiders. My father once said that composing was for other people. But it was normal to us. Composing made us happy. We loved it. It was never about money, it was about being recognised and liked.”

Starting as small boys in their bedroom, holding three hairbrushes to their mouths as pretend microphones, they were soon looking for places with an echo effect – they sound that Manchester’s public toilets were best for that. And when they made their first public appearance at a children’s competition one Saturday morning at the Gaumont Cinema in that city in 1957, Robin and Maurice were only eight. They’d planned to mime to an Everly Brothers record, but having dropped and broken it on their way to the cinema, they decided to sing live instead.

Other children’s venues followed but in 1958, with father Hugh still seeking his big break, the family emigrated to Australia. His break never came, but within months his sons were singing regularly on a local radio station in Brisbane. A year later they were appearing on television. Records followed.

In 1963 both Robin and Maurice left school – having fibbed about their age, outrageously young. They were not quite fourteen. Already professional musicians they wrote, played and sang continually, but it wasn’t until they were working their passage (by singing) on a ship back to the UK in October 1966 that they had their first Australian hit, Spicks And Specks. It was too late to turn round.

In London they wrote to the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein. He passed their letter to his Australian colleague, Robert Stigwood, who listened to a demo record of their songs and immediately signed them. Barry was 20, Robin and Maurice were 17.

Within a few months the trio, aided by drummer Colin Petersen and guitar player Vince Melouney, had a worldwide top ten hit with New York Mining Disaster 1941. Perhaps more importantly, though, they’d written and recorded To Love Somebody, the first of what would become many standards.

The output of original Gibb brothers’ songs was both prodigious and astonishingly mature. “New York Mining Disaster was written sitting on the stairs at Polydor Records,” Robin recalled. “It was dark and echoey and we had this strange compulsion to write about miners being trapped in the dark underground.”

Always highly sensitive, fastidious and reclusive, Robin was to become even more withdrawn a year later, when he narrowly escaped death when the train he and his girl friend were travelling on became derailed at Hither Green in south east London. Forty nine passengers were killed. Years later he recalled the night: “People had to have limbs amputated on the railway line and I was talking to them as they were being injected. All I wanted to do was escape. I was covered in blood, and had glass in my eyes and mouth. Later I got delayed shock, and didn’t sleep for a long, long time.”

Barry would say that the train crash changed Robin. “It seemed to mark his character somewhat. He’s twice as serious now about everything…a very nervous person. But he writes better music.”

Some of the subjects Robin chose to write about were very dark for a teenager. Gotta Get A Message To You was inspired by a news story about a man about to be executed in the US for murdering his wife’s lover. And there was something bleakly introspective about I Started A Joke, on which he sounded like a romantically lamenting George Formby.

The Bee Gees first British number one, Massachusetts, was written on their first visit to New York. “Ninety per cent of it is mental telepathy,” Robin explained. “I’d had this line ‘The lights all went out in Massachusetts’ in my head all day, and I mentioned it to Barry. He said, ‘I’ve already got the tune for it’ so we wrote the rest together that night and Maurice did the arrangement.”

That was how they worked, the ever friendly, affable Maurice being musically competent on several instruments, but usually only singing harmony, Barry the handsome big brother always in the middle, and Robin the slightly odd, unbending one with the big, pure voice and, it was said, perfect pitch.

Instant fame was, however, to bring instant problems. Soon the workaholic Robin was taking amphetamines and beginning to resent that older brother Barry was being favoured as the front man by Bee Gees manager, Robert Stigwood.

But when he bitterly left the family group in 1969 the result was not good. Although he had a hit with Saved By The Bell, his father, Hugh, tried to make him, at 19, a ward of court – even though he was by now married (to Molly Hullis, a secretary in Stigwood’s office).

Soon his career was struggling, as were those of the remaining Bee Gees. The brothers needed each other. Years later Robin would say of himself at that stage of his life: “If I met him today I would grab him by the collar, belt him around the head and tell him to learn something.”

Even after the brothers had reunited in 1970 their singles, with the exception of Run To Me and Lonely Days, didn’t sell well. And when they were reduced to touring the northern working men’s clubs in 1974 they thought they were finished.

Then magic struck again. Recording in Florida with American producer Arif Mardin, they’d just come up with Jive Talkin’, an anthem for the Seventies disco craze, when Robert Stigwood decided to produce the film Saturday Night Fever.

Within a few weeks at France’s Château d’Hérouville studio in 1977 the three brothers wrote and recorded five classic new songs How Deep Is Your Love, Stayin’ Alive, Night Fever, If I Can’t Have You and More Than A Woman. They weren’t intended for the film, but when played behind John Travolta’s dancing they made one of the most popular movie soundtracks of all time, producing hit after hit as the songs were released as singles.

The result was the reinvented Bee Gees of legend, the Florida tanned boys, with the big hair, dazzling white teeth and suits, and Barry’s new, breathy, falsetto, Mickey Mouse voice. In what were jokingly called the “helium years”, their success couldn’t have been greater.

But it brought more problems, too. Maurice had a drink problem, and had been divorced from his first wife, singer Lulu; and in 1979 Robin and his wife Molly, who had insisted on staying in England with their two children, Spencer and Melissa, were also divorced, after years of living largely separate lives.

Seemingly though, nothing could stop the constant Gibb brothers’ hits. When disco fell out of fashion after Tragedy, they simply sat down to write Guilty, A Woman In Love and other songs for Barbra Streisand. Then came Heartbreaker for Dionne Warwick, Islands In The Stream for Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, Chain Reaction for Diana Ross and Grease for Frankie Valli and the movie.

They worked and travelled ceaselessly, and it was only when Robin married Dwina  (Edwina) Murphy, an Irish artist, in 1985 that his life finally began to settle down. Buying a medieval monastery in Oxfordshire the couple set about restoring it. Dwina’s interest in druidry, and the couple’s unconventional comments about their open marriage periodically attracted some bemused and racy newspaper headlines, but Robin, a lifelong nonconformist, appeared unconcerned.

Sadness, however, wasn’t far away. In 1988 a fourth Gibb son, Andy, the baby of the family, who had had great success as a solo singer with songs mainly written for him by his brothers, died from a heart attack after a long battle with drugs.

Then in 2003 Robin’s twin Maurice, the stabilising member of the group, died in Miami from complications for a twisted colon. He was 53.

Without him, Barry and Robin retired the name Bee Gees, although they would sing together again occasionally – but mainly at charity concerts. Robin, however, continued to make several solo appearances around the world, drawing headlines to his unorthodox marriage once again in 2009 when the Gibbs’ housekeeper, Claire Yang, gave birth to his baby – a little girl they called Snow Robin.

Then in 2010 he was diagnosed with colon cancer, which then spread to his liver. Although being treated with chemotherapy at the London Clinic, he was determined to be present for the premiere of his large orchestral piece, the Titanic Requiem on April 12. Sadly he was too ill to attend.

Robin Gibb was a singularly unusual pop star. Less attractive than his brothers, he was more serious and could be withdrawn. But as television appearances in the last few years of his life showed, he was political (a supporter of the Labour Party), intelligent, highly articulate, and an enthusiastic charity fund raiser, and generous giver.

Always absolutely his own man, the many songs he and his brothers created, will outlive him by generations.

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How Terribly Strange To Be Seventy

You don’t realise that you’re knocking on a bit until some delectable young woman on the Tube stands up and offers you her place. “What, me?” your smile tries to joke, as you pull yourself immediately more athletically upright. “No thank you. How strange that you should think I might be so old. It must be the white hair. A family trait. I’ve had it since…oh, just the other day when I was forty. And, besides, don’t you know that seventy is said to be the perfect age these days…”

Can that be true?  The perfect life at 70? Well, that’s what a British Airways survey of financial advisers has found. With our pensions, free local travel, valuable homes with mortgages paid off, those of us who are around the three score years and ten mark are apparently the most fortunate generation in the country.

From a purely financial perspective – and remembering that there will be many without generous pensions, a good bus service or a home of their own – there’s probably some truth in this But what about life in the round?

When in 1968 Simon and Garfunkel (now both 70) sang “How terribly strange to be seventy” in their song Old Friends, it struck a nerve with baby boomers everywhere. Yes, how odd it must be to be old, we all thought. Not “strange” so much as terrible and unimaginable.

Yet here we all are, and seventy isn’t strange at all. It isn’t old either, not any more, if we judge age by mental faculties and overall health. Actually, it’s terrific. I’m 71, but sometimes feel as though those numbers are back to front, in that the passions I enjoyed at 17 still guide and lighten my life. Indeed one obsession of my life back then, rock music, went on to become a major plank of my career.

I suppose, not having had a regular salary since I was 31, I probably haven’t stored up as much treasure for my dotage as one of those financial experts would have advised – so I still have a mortgage, although I’ve done all right. But, born absolutely at the right time, I’ve had, and still, have, like so many of my age mates, the luckiest of lives.

Nursed by the National Health Service, educated free of charge up to university level, with a student living grant included – this must sound like Utopia now to debt burdened undergraduates. And it only got better. With jobs available for the asking in the Sixties, I had my first Fleet Street column at 26 and was able to buy our first house at the same age. God couldn’t have been kinder.

I was even too young for National Service so I never had to fight any foreign wars, the only minor scars I’ve got being the easily fixed results of too much sun bathing on Mediterranean holidays. I remember my grandparents. They were old and worn at seventy. But they’d had hard lives, never been abroad, and, by the time I was aware of them, shuffling around, exhausted. This summer we’ll take our grandchildren once more on a bucket and spade holiday to France, where I will every day play football for hours on the beach with my grandson.

He’s eleven so he’ll always beat me, and I know my knee will ache a bit, but if this is my second childhood, bring it on, because I’m hardly a case of Shakespeare’s “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”.  Actually, for those interested, I’ve got all my gnashers, bar one tricky wisdom tooth – a benefit, no doubt, of the rationing of sweets during the war.

Obviously there are some things you can’t do after 70, and every year I regret never having run in the marathon. I was always too busy (or lazy) to train, and it’s probably a bit late to start now.  And I’m long used to being invisible when in the company of beautiful women – apart from the aforesaid occasional one on the Tube who takes pity on me.

But for every loss there’s also a gain. Youth can be hasty, all energy, instant decisions and quick judgements. It seems to me that age brings a greater tolerance, a wider perspective and maybe a rediscovered innocence.

As usual, for my generation, Bob Dylan (aged 70) summed this up best when he famously sang of a reflective maturity following his ever-protesting youthful days with his line: “For I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”.  Which is exactly how I feel – hopefully just a little bit wiser and more forgiving than once I was.

At 71 I’m not young, but certainly I don’t feel old, and, as I cross my fingers for continued good health, grateful that my generation have been the beneficiaries of the sacrifices of our parents, I hope to write every day until I drop.The pensions and free travel aren’t bad either.

Ray Connolly’s novel Shadows On A Wall is now available as an eBook on Amazon.

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Why The Pop Girls Top The Rich List

You only had to see the audience, predominantly female, swaying and singing together in their massed legions at Adele’s televised Royal Albert Hall concert last week, to know where the big money is in young British pop music these days. It’s in the bank accounts of the top half dozen girl singers in the country.

And why? Because more than at any time in the history of popular music the various factors which govern pop fame, and therefore wealth, are coming together to create glamorous, seemingly strong female stars with whom a generation nor two of confident, independent girls and young women can identify.

When Adele sings Rolling In The Deep, yet another song of hers about a relationship that went wrong, she’s touching a worldwide nerve – not the traditional one of the pleading, girl supplicant, but that of the tough, young survivor who’s knocked around a bit, and, sadder but wiser, knows the score.

An awful lot of girls recognise that feeling, and there’s Adele, up there on stage and screen, the friend, who, unlike a fella, won’t let them down.

Adele has, of course, a fantastic voice, which explains why, at 23, she’s already worth around twenty million pounds – making her far and away a wealthier lady than the five runners up in the latest Sunday Times Rich List of music stars under thirty.

But, with Cheryl Cole, Leona Lewis and Katie Melua each sitting on around twelve million, and with eleven of the top fifteen young earners in music being women, something as well as music must be happening.

A large part of that something, it seems to me, is television. Yes, I know that Adele, Jessie J and Leona Lewis are all alumnae of the BRIT School in Croydon that educates and brings on young artists. So, full marks to that establishment in spotting the talent and then shaping it.

But these days, more than at any other time, new talent has to be seen on television to take off – and it was on those Saturday evening Simon Cowell-type television shows, with, I suspect, their largely female viewers, that we all first got to know Jessie J and Leona Lewis; and where Cheryl Cole, formerly of Girls Aloud, continues to financially flourish.

Once upon a time people listened to music with their ears pressed to the radio or record player. Now, in this post-MTV age of the image, it would appear they listen equally with their eyes, and it can’t escape anyone’s notice that Jessie J, Leona Lewis, Katie Melua and Duffy are all lookers, packaged for their glamour as well as their singing.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Elvis, Cliff Richard and Paul McCartney weren’t exactly ugly, but back in pre-history girl pop fans saw male rock stars in terms of fantasy boy friends. Young Western women’s attitudes to life and its possibilities, have happily changed massively since then.

The Spice Girls tapped into this fifteen years ago with what they called “girl power”. But the Spice Girls were dressing up as, and behaving like, little girls who were pretending to be big girls. Today’s generation of performers suggest a sexual maturity, and perhaps a certain world weariness and self knowledge, that the Spice Girls never showed.

But, you may be wondering, what’s happened to all the young male stars who used to command such devotion? Where are the Mick Jaggers and David Bowies of today? The truth is, in an industry that is endlessly self replicating, it’s more difficult for them than at any time.

After the Sixties, male guitar groups, like gangs of outlaws, were dominant for decades, and you had thousands upon thousands of bands fighting it out with each another – here and in America, and nothing like so many girl singers.

Eventually solo singers like James Blunt emerged and for the next few years the charts were filled with blokes with distinctive voices, right up to Craig David and Paulo Nutini, who, though today’s top male earners, are relative paupers worth only eight million apiece.

But the impetus in the modern world was with the girls. Along came Beyonce in America, and Amy Winehouse and Adele in the UK, music fashions changed, and the scramble was on in the record business to find more retro-inspired female solo acts, in the tradition of Dusty Springfield. You only have to turn on television to see how successful that formula has been.

Will it continue? Will our musical boys continue to be eclipsed and pushed out of the spotlight by these talented young women, having to content themselves in the back room by being merely producers and co-writers for stars like Adele?

It depends. The locomotive of a new male sensation could change a lot. But for the time being the demographics are with the girls. They’ve changed. Their audience has changed. And it’s their time.

******

The Ray Connolly Beatles Archive, a collection of his journalism about the Beatles, is now available as an eBook from Amazon.

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Sons Of The Beatles – Don’t Do It, Boys

There are many advantages in having a supremely talented and successful parent. Money is rarely a problem, and family access to those who might be helpful in a career cuts a lot of corners. But, when Paul McCartney’s only son, James, let slip this week that he and some of the sons of the other three Beatles had discussed getting together to form a second generation Fab Four, it occurred that the gods of fortune might be playing games with them.

It’s easy to see why such a venture might appeal. Young McCartney, Sean Lennon, Dhani Harrison and Jason Starkey (the sons of John, George and Ringo) have all grown up watching from the wings of global fame, seeing their fathers as dads to them but worldwide icons to everybody else. And it can’t always have been easy.

Not surprisingly, like many children born into musically creative homes, they all learned instruments and became competent musicians. What could be more natural, therefore, that, finding themselves in the somewhat unique club of being always identified in relation to their four impossibly famous fathers, they should want to get together? They have so much in common. What could go wrong?

Actually, everything. Because no matter how talented these young men are, and James McCartney got encouraging reviews when he appeared solo at his dad’s old stomping ground of Liverpool’s Cavern on Tuesday night, as Second Generation Beatles they can only fail by comparison with their dads.

If they want to play together privately to entertain themselves and their friends, that would be terrific. Go for it, fellas.

But the public glare can be cruel. The brickbats could be vicious. The Beatles weren’t just common or garden rock stars. Forged by the accidental cross seeding of extraordinary talents in a post war environment of social change, their grip on the world’s imagination cannot be replicated. All the elements that came together then and helped create them and their myth cannot recur.

Wisely, after having been broken up by their founder John Lennon in 1969 at the very height of their fame, the Beatles were never tempted to reunite, despite a begging world and tens of millions of dollars being offered. They knew it wouldn’t, couldn’t, be the same – that only disappointment for the fans lay down that particular road.

What chance then that a late blooming by their sons, already in their thirties and older than the Beatles were when they broke up, would be anything more than a dynastic circus of warped nostalgia.

Simply by choosing careers as musicians the four have already sorely tempted fate. Sean Lennon has made several records, but can anyone hum just one of his songs? His elder half brother, Julian, who will be 50 in a few weeks time, had a couple of hits in the year after his father was murdered, but that was a long time ago. Actually, not seeing his name in the proposed line-up of the new Fabs, makes one wonder how left out he must, once again, be feeling today.

Success being passed from one generation to the next in rock music is not completely unknown, but it is rare. Ringo Starr’s eldest son, Zak, has made a successful, though rarely publicised, career, drumming with bands like the Who and Oasis. But he is the exception.

Lisa Marie Presley might have assumed that because she was a woman she wouldn’t be compared with her father. Some hope! When, by the grace of technology, she made a video singing a duet with dead Elvis, one reviewer wrote that unfortunately she had inherited her dad’s looks but her mother’s voice.

Of course wanting to follow in the profession of one’s parents happens in many homes. It makes sense. We all learn most from our parents, so there should be no surprise that careers in medicine, the law, theatre and even journalism seem to be in the DNA of some families, while Hollywood is stuffed with the sons and daughters of movie stars.

But, putting aside the Dimblebys in television, Michael Douglas, son of Kirk, in movies, and the acting Redgraves, few children have the popular success of the starriest parents. For example the sons of Tom Jones and Michael Parkinson prefer to manage their fathers’ careers than pursue the limelight themselves, taking background jobs that don’t reply on the ever fluctuating whim of public taste or that impossible to recreate flicker of charisma.

How wise, too, was Stella McCartney to go into fashion, David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones into movie making and Carrie Fisher, the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, into writing. She may have begun adult life acting as Princess Leia in Star Wars, but it’s for her books and screenplays that Carrie Fisher is best known and most admired.

The contacts with which all three grew up inevitably helped, but by choosing different careers they’ve all emerged from under the potentially suffocating blanket of comparison, and become successful in their own rights.

Sixty years ago Noel Coward told Mrs Worthington in song not to put her daughter on the stage. It was good advice, that others might heed. Some acts, the Beatles more than any other, are just impossible to follow.

The Ray Connolly Beatles Archive, a collection of his journalism about the Beatles, is now available as an eBook from Amazon.

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That Sgt Pepper Cover, 2012

When the Beatles’ album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was released in 1967 at the very height of their fame, it was a wonder of its age – and not only for its songs.

Almost as important was its packaging – that ornate, folding sleeve that showed the four Beatles in fancy dress at the centre of a flowery, hippy montage of characters from Karl Marx to Bob Dylan, Oscar Wilde and Laurel and Hardy.

The most expensive and famous cover ever designed, it was to change the art work on albums for ever, as well as bringing everlasting renown to its designer, pop artist Peter Blake. Unfortunately it didn’t also bring him commensurate remuneration, in that, as the agent who negotiated for him was high on pot at the time, Blake only received a £200 fee.

Oh, well, it was the Sixties!

In a few weeks time Blake will be 80, and to celebrate his birthday he’s designed a new Sgt Pepper cover, 2012 style, replacing the original images, including those of the Beatles, with old friends and people he admires and whom he believes celebrate British culture.

It’s a terrific idea, claiming back an idea that he so cheaply sold. But his choice of the people portrayed in his new montage is where he and I might not completely agree. In fact, some of his choices are decidedly rum. Understandably, being an artist, the visual arts, and especially fashion, figure prominently, so I’ve no particular grumble here.

It’s nice, if surprising, to see Justin de Villeneuve again, Twiggy’s forgotten former manager and boy friend, and, despite her Olympic team designs, Stella McCartney isn’t unwelcome. Nor are film directors Ridley Scott and Alfred Hitchcock.

Presumably, though, sculptor Anish Kapoor and the artist-in-the-frock Grayson Perry only made the cut because they are good mates with Peter Blake. Fair enough, I suppose.

What really puzzles me, though, is the plethora of restaurateurs and chefs. I know the entire nation has gone potty about food, with the endless succession of books and TV programmes (so cheap to make) about eating, but are the late Fanny Craddock, Mr Chow, Rick Stein and three other kitchen potentates all really icons of British culture. Or are they just cooks with big hats?

It’s all personal, of course. It has to be in any list that includes Tommy Steele and Shirley Bassey. But sometimes Blake’s choices seem just plain random.

How could he choose Mick Jagger without Keith Richards, when we all know that without those Richards’ guitar riffs Mick Jagger might well have stayed at university and ended up running a City bank?

Surprisingly, because I know Blake was interested in wrestling for a time, what is completely missing from the new montage are sporting heroes, although boxer Sonny Liston was in the original. There’s no David Beckham or my own favourite footballer, the ever reasonable John Barnes – and not even Bobby Moore who gifted the nation with the only World Cup we’ve ever won.

He might even have found a place here for comedian Eddie Izzard, if only for his heroic, long distance walking feat for charity, or Lewis Hamilton for his Formula One exploits.

And while the playwrights Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter and Terence Rattigan are all included, with the exception of children’s authors JK Rowling and Roald Dahl, there are few novelists.

What about David Nicholls, whose brilliant novel One Day became an admittedly unbrilliant movie, or Helen Fielding who tapped into the minds of a generation of women and invented Bridget Jones. Then there’s Robert Harris, Sue Townsend, the one-off and very brave Terry Pratchett, and the wonderful graphic artist Posy Simmonds. All these, and Michael Morpugno, the man who wrote War Horse, would have made my list.

The original Sgt Pepper included several comedians, but with the exception of Nick Park, whom everyone admires for his creation of Wallace And Gromit, and Richard Curtis, who gave us Black Adder, Four Weddings And A Funeral, and much else, there aren’t any intentionally funny people.

Which is surprising because one of the things we Brits particularly excel at it’s being funny. Thirty five years after Fawlty Towers we’re still laughing at John Cleese as Basil, while Jennifer Saunders’ Ab Fab creation of Edina Monsoon was wickedly inspirational. They should be there. Then there’s Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse  who’ve created whole casts of full, funny characters

To be honest, I rather like the idea that, as the Beatles company Apple have never offered to make reparation for the fact that Blake was, albeit accidentally, ripped off for his work on the original Sgt Pepper cover all those years ago, the artists puts himself and his family front and central in his new illustration. Good for him.

But, although Paul McCartney is there in the third row, surely there should have a been a place for all four Beatles, without whom Blake’s career would have been a little different. Equally, had I been doing it, I would have found a central spot for the Beatles’ producer George Martin, who did as much as almost anyone to create the Sgt Pepper album in the first place.

Obviously, as Peter Blake admits, it’s impossible to get everyone into a montage, and I suspect some of his friends might have been feeling a bit put-out when they woke up yesterday to discover that they hadn’t been included, but there are some significant gaps in his cultural spread.

I would like to have seen David Dimbleby for the way he tells loquacious Cabinet ministers to shut up on Question Time, Jeremy Paxman for his pantomime indignation when facing the froth of the mighty and powerful and Melvyn Bragg for his career long battle to bring culture to the masses.

Then there’s Gareth Malone who taught the Soldiers Wives and many children to sing, as well as Mary Portas whose Channel Four programme took a group of unemployed young people in Middleton and set up a company making lacy knickers and, in so doing, changed their lives. These people, like Camila Batmanghelidjh of Kids Company, are inspirational, as is the telegenic scientist Brian Cox who even managed to make physics sexy – not a phrase you will often hear.

Everyone would have a different list. As I could scarcely care less about fashion, there would be no room for Peter Blake’s favourites of Vivien Westwood, Mary Quant and Barbara Hulanicki in mine, but we would agree on including Sir David Attenborough – although I might add his film making brother Richard, too.

And I would insist on Russell T. Davies, who has reinvented Dr Who for a new generation, and Rob Brydon, if only for Marion and Geoff, while no mosaic that captured contemporary Britain would be complete without Julia Donaldson’s creation of the Gruffalo.

Last, though by no means least, and as delightful as the former Kate Middleton is, and I think she’s lovely, it seems to me that no pictorial account of Britain is complete without the Queen. Some of my more cynical friends will mock me, but I believe she bridges generations, class (in that she’s so far removed from everyone else she’s classless) and politics. Sixty years on from her coronation, still working and probably regarded with more affection now than at any time in her reign, she is totally remarkable. She should be on anyone’s list.

I can remember when Sgt Pepper first came out, rushing to buy one of the first copies, and then sitting by my Dansette record player listening to the songs – Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, She’s Leaving Home, When I’m Sixty Four and the rest, and studying the faces on the cover, trying to make out who they all were.

I never did identify all of them, and I’m sure millions of hours have been spent by others in the same pursuit. Which, when you consider it, was an enormous contribution that an artist called Peter Blake made to all our lives forty five years ago. I hope he has a very happy birthday.

****

The Ray Connolly Beatles Archive, a collection of his many interviews with the Beatles as well as articles about them, is now available as an eBook from Amazon.

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How To Make A Monster Flop

There’s something eerie about sitting perfectly alone in a large cinema. It’s as though something terrible has happened somewhere else and you are the only one who doesn’t know. That’s how it felt this week, anyway, as I bought my ticket and sat down to watch the new Disney epic John Carter.

I soon discovered why I was alone. John Carter is a terrible film with an incomprehensible story, ludicrous, mutton-headed characters and unspeakable dialogue, and already Disney have announced that it is likely to lose $200 million dollars so abject have been the first box office takings. From what I saw in my West London local, that figure may be an underestimation, with John Carter heading rapidly for the movie flops record book.

No amount of tall, four-armed, computer generated creatures, of gravity-less leaping, monster slaying savagery and visual homages to Star Wars and Gladiator could redeem such a complicated farrago of boring daftness.

But how did it get like this? Nobody sets out to make a flop. At the start of shooting of any film, everyone involved is filled with hope and expectation about the wonderful entertainment they are about to create, about the prizes they might win and the money they might make.

That would have been how it was when Disney gave the green light to invest a total of $350 million dollars in John Carter. Based on a character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who also brought us Tarzan, with writer/director Andrew Stanton riding high as a Hollywood power player after the success of his animated movies Finding Nemo and Wall-E, all it needed was astonishing special effects, which is pretty much a given these days in hi-tech Hollywood, and a popular star.  Step forward US TV favourite Taylor Kitsch playing the intrepid Carter on a nineteenth century trip to Mars, where he finds not just red dust but monsters galore.

With so much going for it, the movie should, on paper, have been a shoe-in for success. Unfortunately that success was absolutely not assured on the paper on which the screenplay was written.

Once again a vastly expensive movie fails because, in part at least, the ingredient which should be the cheapest in the whole blancmange, the screenplay, wasn’t good enough.

Once denigrated as “schmucks with Underwoods”, screenwriters have never been the most visible stars in the Hollywood firmament, although the best are extremely well paid these days as they sit at their computer screens with their dedicated screenwriting programmes.

But the rules still apply. If they don’t get the screenplay right and make a blueprint for the telling of an interesting story with believable characters and clever dialogue, no amount of money, beautiful stars, stunning special effects, brilliant cameramen or visionary directors will make the beast work.

Everyone in Hollywood knows this, yet, somehow, a lot of people continually manage to forget it, sometimes even the writer himself when, like Andrew Stanton, he also happens to be the director. How else do we explain Heaven’s Gate which was written and directed by Michael Cimino?

Having tasted financial and critical success with The Deer Hunter, Cimino set out in 1979 to make a modest $7.5 million Western starring Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken. Two years and around $45 million later he presented an unshowable five hours long movie to United Artists, the studio that had backed him.

In his book about the film, Final Cut, former United Artists executive Steven Bach explained how Cimino, who had once been a commercials director, fell in love with the sumptuous images he was shooting rather than the story he was telling. The result was, Bach says, that the “viewer became a victim sensory overload”.

But why did United Artists let Cimino keep on shooting when they could see the budget was out of control? Basically, because of some very fancy Hollywood-style contracts that protected Cimino, and, perhaps more importantly, because they couldn’t afford not to finish the movie.

There’s little as worthless as an unfinished film, and sometimes it seems, or at least it seemed to them, that the only solution is to keep throwing money at it in the desperate hope that something magical will finally emerge.

It didn’t. Heaven’s Gate sank at the box office, and, less than a month later, United Artists had to be sold to MGM. Cimino’s ambition had been too great. He could never bring himself to stop shooting.

Other movies (actually, lots of them) should perhaps never have started. Take Gigli, a tasteless comedy about a Mafia hit man (Ben Affleck), who is assigned to kidnap a mentally retarded brother of a California district attorney, and assisted by a presumed-to-be lesbian assassin played by Jennifer Lopez (she of the bottom before Pippa).

Worried about the unfunny scenes they were seeing in rushes, the studio executives apparently kept demanding script changes throughout shooting. It didn’t help.  The movie was withdrawn from the cinemas after a three week run, a big chunk of the $54 million budget never recouped, and Affleck and Lopez ended their engagement. Who says there are no sad endings in Hollywood?

The Hollywood habit of engaging one screenwriter after another (and many are never credited) to work on a project, while sometimes successful (as was the case with Gladiator, on which British writer William Nicholson made an important difference), can also indicate that something was wrong with the idea of the movie right from the beginning.

This may or may not have been the case with Battlefield Earth which starred John Travolta in an adaptation of the book by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and involved at least two writers. One American critic was unimpressed by their efforts. “A million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard-pressed in a million years to create anything as cretinous as Battlefield Earth,” he wrote of the screenplay which cost $42 million and recouped $22 million.

On Sahara, which starred Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz, it wasn’t just that too many cooks in the writing room may have spoiled the script, it was also that there was a plethora of producers, twenty being credited in all. Stuck in the sands of Morocco for endless months as the budget edged up to $241 million, one of them, a friend of mine, had to take a year off after shooting to get over her experience.

Of course it’s easy to be amused by the hubris of movie directors, the interference of executives, the overweening vanity and demands of some film stars and the eye-watering losses. But this is all in retrospect. It’s easy to be wise after the event.

If Ishtar had been a hit, no one would have criticised Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty for being too obviously in love with themselves on screen. But it wasn’t and they did. While, on a more modest level, if Swept Away in 2002 had been as successful as director Guy Ritchie’s later efforts, it wouldn’t have mattered that it looked rather like a vanity film for his then wife Madonna.

Now I don’t want to hold out too much hope for the makers of John Carter, they don’t deserve it, but it doesn’t always follow that all movies that do badly in their opening weeks are destined to be complete flops.

Blade Runner opened disappointingly in the US in 1982 – shortly after E.T. smashed all records and captured a different kind of public mood. But foreign sales, TV and video rights, and acclaim as one of the classic films of all time, have followed ever since. Whether that means it’s ever gone into profit, I rather doubt, however. Net profit can be a hazy concept in terms of Hollywood bookkeeping.

Surprisingly one film that, against all expectations, is said to have gone into profit was Cleopatra, the 1963 movie on which Elizabeth Taylor got off with Richard Burton. Dogged throughout by Taylor’s delicate health, with the director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz rewriting the screenplay every night to negotiate the vicissitudes of filming, it cost the equivalent of about $300 million in today’s money, but finally broke even in 1973 with sales to TV.

Back to John Carter. Although there were still only eight people in the cinema when the lights went up the other night, Disney isn’t about to go bankrupt because of its losses.  The movies the big studios put their hundreds of millions into these days, those aimed at hormone bubbling teenage boys, will still keep coming, and some will get it right.

And how is the best way to get it right? By making sure the screenplay works before filming starts and the hundreds of millions start flooding out.

***********

Ray Connolly’s black comedy novel Shadows On A Wall, about the making of a movie on which the budget is out of control and the stars and director are found dead, is now available as an eBook from Amazon.

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Regrets And Pipe Dreams

Show me the person who has no regrets and I’ll show you either a devil or a saint. But most probably I’ll show you someone with absolutely no imagination. Because having regrets, that ability to look back at our lives and reflect on choices made, actions taken and things said or unsaid, is part of what makes us human.

So when I read yesterday that, according to a survey, most of us spend almost three quarters of an hour a week pondering our missed chances and the wrong roads taken, my first thought was “only three quarters of an hour? What’s everyone doing for the rest of the week?”

We all share these ramblings of the mind, often in the sleepless wee small hours, when we latch on to some incident from decades ago, and then tie ourselves in knots re-evaluating it and wondering what might have happened if we’d done one thing instead of another.

For instance, Sunday was a lovely day in London, and, as I was sitting out in the unexpected sunshine, I remembered another sunny early spring day in 1961 when I’d been a student.

One lunchtime I’d got to talk to a beautiful French girl and when she told me she had nothing to do, I’d skipped lectures and spent an idyllic afternoon climbing the Monument in London with her. I was instantly in love, but, because I didn’t have the nerve to ask her out, I never saw her again. That day is as fresh in my mind as yesterday. And it’s always been a regret that I was so shy.

Then there was my night that never was with Maria Schneider. She was soon to become famous as the young star of the erotic Marlon Brando film Last Tango In Paris, but when I met her, she was just a very pretty French girl with a puppy dog face.

Should I have gone back to that flat with her and the other young actress for the little party they suggested? Obviously not, so it’s not quite a regret, but… Well, a fellow couldn’t help wondering when he saw so much of her in her famous film the following year.

Girls and boys. They’re what make the young world go round. So it isn’t surprising that 20 per cent of us are said to have regrets about our romances, which is clearly reflected in the high incidence of divorce. But family life can cause just as much, if not a great deal more, real heart searching.

When my children were small I was loaned a movie camera to take on holiday to Portugal, and, because I didn’t really know how to operate it, and was very busy when I got home, I never got around to having the film processed.

The reels have since been lost, meaning that although I have thousands of still photographs of the children, there are no home movies of them showing the way they were that summer, learning to swim and playing games on the beach. I’m sure the film wouldn’t have been very good, but it would have existed. It was my own stupid fault and nothing I can do will put it right. That’s a real regret.

As is the fact that although I spent years armed with a tape recorder interviewing very famous people, it never occurred to me to record my own mother’s voice. I don’t know why I didn’t. I just took her for granted. And now it’s too late.

When I was making my career she was, like all mothers, very proud of me, but, again, I was always busy, not realising that she would perhaps have liked to have spent more time with me…perhaps just with me alone.

When she got very old she lived alone on the South Coast, a two and a half hour drive away. I went to see her, obviously. But not as often as I could have done and wish I had done. She was lonely. I let her down. That’s my biggest regret.

But there are small regrets, too, that I can’t undo. I used to bump into an old and good friend from university from time to time when we would always plan to get together for a night out to reminisce. Then one day I got a phone call from his widow. He’d died unexpectedly from a heart attack.

Like many people of my generation I’ve had an incredibly lucky life. I don’t regret, as apparently many do, not working harder at school. I did just enough to get to university where I did just enough to get a degree, which always seemed to me to be the right balance. But it’s been a lifetime sadness that I never took the time to learn the guitar and play in a band – any band. That being said I could easily have started guitar lessons later in life but somehow never bothered, so whose fault is that?

When I finally realised I wasn’t as good a runner as I used be, I began to wish I’d taken part in at least one marathon, just to test myself. But, again, how honest am I being?  I’d had years to do it and could never be bothered to even start training.

I’ve always been hopeless with money, too, never paying enough attention, if you want to know, because the work I do always seemed so much more interesting. So I suppose I’m not as well off as I could have been, something, which, in the darkest hours can chide me. But that’s probably me just being greedy. Most people, I would imagine, would think I’ve done all right.

Like everybody, I’ve made some unwise career choices, though they didn’t seem foolish at the time. But then, isn’t that the problem with regretting anything. Only in retrospect can we see the mistakes we think we made and imagine the road not travelled. And even then how honest are we really being with ourselves?

For instance, let’s return to the French girl I took up the Monument. What if I had asked her out and she’d turned me down, as I probably thought she might? That would have been a dagger in my heart for ever.

Alternatively, what if she’d said “yes”, and we’d gone out together, and on better acquaintance I’d discovered that she wasn’t quite as perfect as I’d imagined. The result would have been that I’d have forgotten her, as I’ve forgotten other girls, and I’d have missed the bittersweet daydream of never knowing. And believe me I have enjoyed that daydream.

In the film It’s A Wonderful Life the James Stewart character is driven to the brink of suicide, thinking that all the life choices he made were a mistake. Then up pops his guardian angel, Clarence, to save his life and show him how things would have been if he’d never existed, and how all kinds of little decisions he’d made helped make his world a better place. Maybe we all need a guardian angel to point this out to us sometimes.

It’s often said that you don’t regret what you’ve done, only what you haven’t done. There’s much truth in this. But we have to be careful with some of those night-time self-reproaches, the ones that point to the other gloriously successful lives we might have had. Because, in truth, they’re often just pipe dreams that vanish with the morning.

We only ever know for certain the consequences of what we did. And although we like to paint for ourselves the rosiest of pictures of the road not travelled, we can never be sure. It might have led to disaster. And basically we did what we did because we are who we are, for good and bad.

Not that we don’t wonder. But that’s because we’re human.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Shadows-On-A-Wall-ebook/dp/B006XXX0IW/ref=pd_rhf_gw_p_t_1

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Boys On Bicycles and Lathom Hall

We had no idea when we clambered into Lathom Hall as fourteen year old schoolboys that we were trespassing in what was left of one of the “finest Palladian houses in the country”, as Catherine Ostler informed us in the Daily Mail last week.

We also didn’t know that the last Earl of Lathom had been a hopeless hedonist who held dodgy parties there, orgies, I suspect, where guests dressed up as babies and were wheeled about in prams. We wouldn’t have understood if we had known…and, to be honest, it still seems a pretty odd thing to do to me. And we had no idea that he’d had to sell the entire estate in 1925 to pay off his vast debts.

The only thing my friend John Rimmer and I knew when we cycled up the long drive to what remained of this grand country house in 1955 was that it represented a local Lancashire mystery that just had to be explored.

For two boys growing up in rural West Lancashire, the very name Lathom Hall was heavy with romance. This was where the Countess of Derby and her family had been besieged by Roundhead soldiers during the English Civil War in 1644, after which the original Lathom House, more of a castle really, had been torn down, stone by stone.

The house we crept into had been built on the same site in great Arcadian style eighty years later. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, the main building, along with the vast landscaped garden, a Gothic dairy and hunting lodge, had, once again, been flattened. Two large wings, however, still faced one another. One was already derelict and being used for storing farm equipment, but the other was probably in much the same state as when left by the money squandering earl.

I don’t remember how we got in. We wouldn’t have broken a window or anything, we weren’t delinquents, but somehow we found a way, possibly through the cellars. Then we nervously began to creep around this once elegant palace, with its high ceilings and elaborate cornices, each room leading on to the next.

It was the staircases that excited us most as we made our way, scared stiff, up the building through dusty, echoing bedrooms and on up through the attics to a little tower with a domed roof, that stood symmetrically identical to another on the facing wing.

And that was where we found our “treasure”, a couple of large, ornate copper fingers, bent and  twisted and lying in rubble, presumably all that was left of what had been a clock tower.

Technically, I suppose, we were stealing, but we didn’t think of that as we took the fingers home, polished them until they shone, and then put them in the museum I had in a room next to my bedroom.

This was how John and I spent our school holidays, one craze following another, as, the following year, we went digging for Roman coins in the banks of a stream not far from Lathom Hall.

There, knee deep in water, we’d spend days like gold prospectors, digging out the soil and silt before sieving it through a riddle all the time looking for the small, dull grey discs we knew to be denarii. Over several holidays, one freezing in the snow, we were rewarded with a haul of over thirty coins before we lost interest in that particular pursuit and took up caving.

We didn’t tell our parents much about that particular escapade, but, knowing that a network of tunnels had been dug in the sandstone rock a few miles away, we set out to explore. Attempts had been made over the years to block the entrance to the caves but by sliding on our stomachs into a crevice between the rocks we managed to get inside, and, with torches, scramble off into the pitch blackness.

I’d die of fear if asked to do that now, or if any of my children had been so foolish, and I was relieved to learn later that the entrance to the tunnels had been concreted over. But we were fifteen. It was exciting, more exciting than the chicken farm we attempted on another holiday, where most of the chickens died, or the mushroom business we tried which would probably have poisoned us had it worked.

I’m not one of those people who think that today’s teenagers are missing out on excitement, in that their lives are stuffed with computers and electronic toys, rather than the self generated adventures of my youth. John and I grew up in totally different times and circumstances, when there were an awful lot of bleak, rainy days, too, when we just didn’t know what to do. Teenagers will, in every age, find useful and exciting ways to spend their holidays if they want to.

I’m just grateful to have been young when two boys on bicycles could roam freely, in every sense of the word, through their holidays, following hobby after hobby. Those memories have never left me. In fact that day nervously creeping through the rooms of Lathom Hall turned up, slightly disguised, in a recent novel I wrote called Kill For Love, in which an investigative woman TV reporter breaks into a Palladian mansion, just as John and I did all those years ago.

As they say, memory is the best gallery of all, and jolly useful to a writer.

Footnote: Studying the area on Google Earth it looks to me as though the building John and I broke into is still standing, probably converted into swanky flats or offices now.

Kill For Love is available as an eBook on Amazon

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