THE MADNESS OF GENIUS

Owning up to loving the creative output of someone whose personality has been revealed as distinctly unlovable shouldn’t require a disclaimer; after all, artists in any field should always be judged on that creative output above their flaws as human beings. But perhaps a consequence of the faux-intimate nature of modern celebrity and the way in which its stars insist on sharing every innermost thought with the public – a practice that makes the selling of the star as a person as important as their art – is that artist and art have become inseparable in recent times. Therefore, any revelation of character traits or activities that suggest the star isn’t as nice a guy as the public have been led to believe can trigger a backlash that ultimately ruins the reputation of the art; the public feel betrayed and the art is held as responsible as the artist. However, expecting the artist to live by the same standards as the consumer can often be an unfair demand; it is often the artist’s failure to adhere to these standards that has led to them turning to art as a means of self-expression in the first place.

Overnight blacklisting in the wake of a scandal is nothing new. It happened with Oscar Wilde in the 1890s, whereby his plays suddenly disappeared from the London stage following his trial and imprisonment, almost as though the audience risked being infected by homosexual urges if they attended a performance of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. Of course, Wilde today is fully (and rightly) rehabilitated, but the practice of blacklisting has never gone away; and it undoubtedly has its hierarchy. Despite being one of the UK’s biggest chart stars of the 1970s, Gary Glitter has been written out of pop history, his hits removed from oldies station playlists and his name only permitted to be mentioned in the context of his convictions. At the same time, it’s still okay to play Michael Jackson without being outed as a ‘Paedo apologist’, maybe because Jacko continues to generate generous income for the music industry and therefore a universal expulsion of his recorded legacy would create a far more severe dent in streaming profits than the censure of ‘Leader of the Gang’.

And then there’s Phil Spector. How much has the art been damaged by the artist in his case? A controversial character more or less from the off, his deranged genius in the recording studio was carried over into his private life and escalated way beyond providing pop biographers with a string of memorably mad anecdotes. After dramatically quitting the business following the inexplicable US chart flop of his peerless production on Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ in 1966, it took being made an offer he couldn’t refuse to coax Spector out of retirement. That offer came in 1970, when he was persuaded to salvage The Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ project; Paul McCartney may not have been overjoyed with the results, but Spector’s magic touch made what became ‘Let it Be’ sound considerably more than the scrappy demos he was presented with. John Lennon was impressed enough to hire Spector as the producer of his first post-Beatles solo recordings, and George Harrison followed suit. It’s probably fair to say that the best stuff either ex-Beatle did in the aftermath of the split was done with Spector at the helm.

John Lennon’s patience with Spector’s increasingly erratic eccentricities finally broke during the recording of the ‘Rock n Roll’ album in 1973, a project that was abandoned until Lennon eventually decided to finish it off on his own; the two never worked together again. Spector’s casual attitude towards firearms – even in a country where attitudes towards firearms can be alarmingly casual – appeared to have been the main cause for concern; but Spector’s appalling treatment of his ex-wife Ronnie during their marriage would be enough to condemn him with or without the recurring spectre (sorry) of guns. Again, however, what about the art? After another bout of inactivity, Spector returned as the unlikely producer of pioneering New York punk band, The Ramones; the band themselves may have found the experience something of a nightmare, but Spector’s magic touch did the trick once more by giving them their only proper hit single via their cover of ‘Baby I Love You’. Tackling one of Spector’s own early smashes was an inspired move by The Ramones to pacify the producer, but it is those early smashes upon which the creative reputation of Phil Spector still stands.

Spector’s first brush with fame came as a member of pop trio The Teddy Bears, whose 1958 No.1 ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ was written, arranged and produced by the then-19 year-old; the title was inspired by the inscription on his father’s headstone, ‘To Know Him Was To Love Him’. Spector Senior had committed suicide a decade earlier. His son was clearly something of a prodigious talent, setting up his own independent record label at 21 and rapidly bringing an epic Wagnerian scale to music that had previously been regarded as a disposable adolescent fad. Nobody had treated teen-based rock ‘n’ roll-fused pop as Art before Spector, but he imbued it with a heightened drama that expertly mirrored the heightened drama of how it feels to fall in love as a teenager. With his uniquely meticulous work ethic, innovative (and influential) ‘Wall of Sound’ production, and a dependable core of session musicians nicknamed The Wrecking Crew, Spector attracted the finest songwriters in the business to collaborate with and unleashed what he called his ‘little symphonies for the kids’.

Spector gradually found that the female voice best articulated the sensations the songs encapsulated, and session singer Darlene Love was the voice he favoured; she sang lead on the 1962 No.1 ‘He’s A Rebel’, though the record was credited to The Crystals. By contrast, The Ronettes were a girl group in possession of a strong lead singer in the dynamic shape of Veronica Bennett, whose voice dominated such cinematic classics as the original ‘Baby I Love You’ and ‘Be My Baby’, two of the definitive Wall of Sound recordings. Spector could seemingly do no wrong in the studio – his immortal production of The Righteous Brothers’ ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ was eventually certified as the most played song on American radio in the 20th century. But the shock flop of arguably the finest Wall of Sound production of all, ‘River Deep, Mountain High’, provoked the retirement that left his temperamental behaviour without a fitting context. When he married Veronica Bennett and she took the name Ronnie Spector in 1968, this unchecked side of his personality was manifested as psychological abuse that left her under virtual house arrest for four years.

With his strange character defects tolerated and encouraged to an extent by virtue of the uninhibited, larger-than-life parallel universe he inhabited, Phil Spector’s inability to distinguish between the legendary evil genius of the recording studio and the man he was outside of it eventually proved to be his undoing. Producing a gun to prevent female visitors leaving his home was a favourite seduction routine, but it was viewed as an unnerving – if dangerous – bluff on his part; perhaps it was destined to end in tragedy one day, and that day came in 2003 when actress Lana Clarkson was shot dead in his home. Spector claimed her death was an accidental suicide; the resulting trial led to a hung jury, with the judge declaring a mistrial. With events in court televised, the sight of the reclusive Spector as a withered old man bearing a bizarre fright-wig leant a comic element to proceedings; but there was nothing comic about the crime that led to a retrial in 2008. Second time round, Spector was found guilty of murder in the second degree, sentenced to a minimum 19 years behind bars. He died in prison on Saturday at the age of 81, the artist permanently disgraced despite the eternal magnificence of the art.

© The Editor

A DAY IN THE (AFTER) LIFE

You’re probably going to hear the expression ‘I can’t believe it’s forty years since…’ a lot today, though only from those who were actually around forty years ago; for those who weren’t, forty years ago occupies the same time-stream as D-Day or Waterloo; events before our time exist outside of time, whereas events of which we have a memory are firmly rooted in our own personal tree of life. I myself rarely say that any pivotal event to have occurred within my lifetime feels like yesterday; it never does. Sure, I can remember exactly where I was, who I was with and what I was doing when I heard the planes had flown into the twin towers or when I was told Princess Di had died in a car crash; but they all feel like a very long time ago – and felt like a very long time ago almost straight away. Often, it seems any major news story of magnitude serves as a full-stop on how life was lived the second before it happened, acting as an instant dividing line between two different worlds. I could apply the same principle to personal events in my life; they always feel like decades ago once they’re gone.

No, eating my Ricicles at the breakfast table on 9 December 1980, maybe half-an-hour before having to set off for school, certainly doesn’t feel like forty years ago; it feels more like 400. I had no notion that John Lennon had been murdered in New York around four hours earlier (which was still the 8th Stateside on account of the UK/US time difference); I was going through the usual weekday motions that morning. I wondered why ‘Love Me Do’ was playing on the radio instead of a contemporary hit, but it was only when a news update followed the track that I was made aware of what had happened; and I don’t think I thought about anything else for the rest of the day. Once reluctantly shoved in the direction of school, I rightly guessed the subject would be on the lips of friends, for they all knew I was a Beatles fan. It was even referenced in the school assembly; I couldn’t remember anything like that ever happening before. Yes, Elvis’s death three years earlier had been a big story, but I think it was the brutal manner of Lennon’s death that seemed so shocking – even to a generation raised on the routine violence of US TV cop shows. They no longer seemed so far-fetched.

I came home for dinner and recorded Radio 1’s extended ‘Newsbeat’ onto an audio cassette (featuring an early outing for Paul Gambaccini as the unofficial executor of every pop icon’s last will and testament), and as soon as I was back home for good there was no shortage of further coverage on TV, which was abundant in ‘programme changes’ that evening. ‘Help!’ was shown, as was the Bob Harris ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ interview with Lennon from five years earlier. As by this stage the obligatory B&W portable set had made household viewing choices a tad more democratic, I had free rein to change channels and seek out as much on the subject as I could catch. That night was the first time in my life I actively sought out news programmes to watch instead of greeting them with the archetypal childish cry of ‘boring!’; in fact, childish things suddenly seemed very childish indeed. If ever a day could be singled out as the day my childhood was officially given notice, it was 9 December 1980.

Although I’d had a ‘Yellow Submarine’ colouring book as an infant and was familiar with the sleeves of the Beatles LPs my parents owned, I hadn’t properly ‘discovered’ the Fab Four for myself until the previous Christmas, when BBC2 screened all their movies. A few months later I acquired the famous ‘blue’ compilation – ‘1967-’70’ – which is as good an introduction as it’s possible for a novice to receive. Music now mattered more than what had traditionally captured my attention. I was fortunate the music scene in 1980 was pretty bloody good as well; with 99p singles at Woolies beginning to edge out comics when it came to the spending of pocket money, I was spoilt for choice, with the likes of Blondie, The Police, The Jam and others. But the advantage of The Beatles was that their entire career from start to finish was ready and waiting to be devoured, a task I spent a good deal of 1980 engaged in. Paul McCartney was the most visible ex-Beatle to anyone growing up in the 70s, for Wings were always in the charts and on TOTP; Ringo would surface periodically, whilst George was relatively anonymous. Instinctively drawn to Lennon from the moment I fell in love with the back catalogue, I couldn’t understand why he was absent and acting all ‘Howard Hughes’ when he was the one I wanted to hear from out of all four; then, in the autumn of 1980, it was announced he was back.

Rock stars reaching the age of 40 was uncharted territory at the time; 30 had been seen as the ultimate cut-off point when Lennon’s generation was in its prime, yet when they all got to 30 they didn’t abruptly slip into slippers; they kept going – and this despite the peasants’ revolt of Punk and all its numerous offshoots that were making waves at the dawn of the decade. Therefore, John Lennon re-entering the arena with a new album was still big news and he played the PR game, giving several major interviews; one of them was with Radio 1’s Andy Peebles, segments of which had been aired in the hours before Lennon’s murder; I remember my dad informing me of this, which I’d naturally missed, what with bloody school and all that. Lennon’s new music disappointingly didn’t appear to be along the lines of ‘Instant Karma’, ‘Cold Turkey’ or ‘Working Class Hero’; but I was too green to realise that wasn’t going to happen. I wished the kids at school who ribbed me for being a fan were more familiar with that stuff than ‘Woman’.

At least I knew I wasn’t alone when the charts over the Christmas period were swamped in Lennon material. By the second chart of 1981, Lennon had three singles in the top five, holding both the No.1 and No.2 spot as well as No.5. He’d even managed to swap places with himself at No.1 by the beginning of February. It was a strange couple of months, but the renewed interest in his music, along with the deluge of tribute magazines and books that flowed off the presses in the wake of the events of 8 December, suggested death was something of an inspired career move. Not that this was entirely new, of course; everyone from Buddy Holly to Jimi Hendrix to Elvis and Sid Vicious had experienced an upsurge of sales following their demises, and Bob Marley would shortly receive a similar boost. But the way in which a media that had regularly ridiculed and mocked Lennon suddenly venerated his memory did stick in the throat a little. George Harrison picked up on this when he emerged from his own hibernation with a Lennon tribute in the spring of 1981: ‘You were the one that they said was so weird/all those years ago.’

Mind you, Lennon’s posthumous life was only just beginning. Yoko Ono honed in on one element of her late husband’s oeuvre and repackaged him as Gandhi with a guitar; a fascinatingly complex individual was reduced to the official, somewhat trite slogan of the Lennon brand, AKA ‘All he was saying/was give peace a chance’. He also said ‘Boy, you been a naughty girl/you let your knickers down’ and ‘Curse Sir Walter Raleigh/he was such a stupid get’; but they rarely make the merchandise. Perhaps the grotesque drama of being shot dead by a twisted stalker – a possibility every star was made aware of thereafter – inevitably triggered the path to faux-sainthood that followed; but at the same time, an unconventional character like Lennon was probably never going to quietly conk-out at 80, the age he would now be had Mark Chapman been committed to the institution he evidently belonged in far earlier than he was. So, to echo the previous post on the subject of endings, something definitely ended forty years ago today. For my parents’ generation, it was their youth; for me, it was my childhood. And that does feel like 400 years ago.

© The Editor

A SITE FOR SORE EYES

An incumbent US President loses office and goes down in history as a one-termer. No, I don’t mean Donald Trump; I mean Jimmy Carter. The same fate that has just befallen the Donald befell the Georgian peanut farmer exactly 40 years ago; and though, on the surface, the two Presidents have little in common, both swept to power as populist outsiders challenging a Washington orthodoxy in which the American electorate had lost faith – Carter in the wake of Watergate and Ford’s pardoning of Nixon, Trump appealing to the ‘deplorables’ left behind by the metropolitan political class and its queen regnant, Hillary Clinton. November 1980 came too soon for the personable Carter; the botched, aborted rescue of the US hostages in Tehran had damaged his popularity and reputation just a few months before and Ronald Reagan exploited it on a wave of patriotic, God-fearing fervour. Had Carter received an additional year’s breathing space, he may well have recovered; but unpredictable events can unsettle a political career right at the very moment when sailing appears plain; just ask Boris Johnson.

In November 1980, Americans and the rest of the West may have found the contest between the man in the White House and his born-again, movie star opponent intriguing, but many were more fixated on what was happening in the US city of Dallas rather than Washington. Wealthy oil magnate JR Ewing had just been gunned down by an unknown wannabe assassin and the world asked the question ‘Who Shot JR?’ Weirdly enough, the shots turned out to have been fired by Bing Crosby’s daughter, and that’s the point when we remember we’re talking about an entirely fictitious crime that nevertheless proved to be an early example of global water-cooler television. Less than 20 years earlier, a far more successful assassin had changed the course of American history in Dallas, but the imaginary shots fired in the city that November ricocheted around the world with a speed that suggested an appetite for violence was fine as long as nobody got hurt.

Just a matter of weeks later, a pop cultural giant who had emerged from self-imposed exile was on the receiving end of real gun crime; but there was precious little hint of the tragedy around the corner for John Lennon in November 1980 as he released and began to promote his first new recordings in five years. A decade less than twelve months old was still at that fascinating stage new decades stand at when their character has yet to form and there remain several optional routes to choose from; if the world of 1980 belonged anywhere, it was the late 1970s, with a hangover of stories from that era retaining their relevance. A murderous spree that had served to cast the North of England in a chillingly dark light, one which undoubtedly feels characteristically ‘1970s’, had spilled over into the 80s as the odious spectre of the Yorkshire Ripper continued to haunt women of that sprawling county – and 1980 saw a barbaric last hurrah for this hideous reign of terror.

The man behind the insidious myth seemed to taunt the police in the same way his Victorian namesake had a century earlier simply by evading capture and carrying on killing. His twelfth known victim, 47-year-old Marguerite Walls, was killed on 20 August; he then tried – and failed – to kill three other women: Uphadya Bandara in Leeds on 24 September, Maureen Lea in Leeds on 25 October, and Theresa Sykes in Huddersfield on 5 November. Peter Sutcliffe’s final grisly addition to a roll-call of 13 known murders came on 17 November when he killed Leeds University student Jacqueline Hill, leaving her body on waste ground behind a shopping parade in Headingley. The initial narrative perpetuated by West Yorkshire Police that this grotesque urban bogeyman primarily targeted prostitutes had already been contradicted by the 1977 murder of 16-year-old Jayne MacDonald in Chapeltown, Leeds – a girl who was a shop-worker rather than a sex-worker; the fact that what turned out to be his final victim was the second student he had attacked within the space of a month confirmed every woman in the region was a potential victim – though every woman in the region already knew it.

It took just over a month after the murder of Jacqueline Hill before Sutcliffe was finally caught. Arrested in January 1981 when the car he was driving was found to be bearing false number plates, he was taken to Dewsbury Police Station and was questioned – not for the first time, it turned out – about the Ripper murders simply because he fitted the profile. The discovery of murder weapons discarded at the scene of the arrest when Sutcliffe had been allowed to go for a pee by the arresting officers implied this was more than just another cruising punter; two days later, he confessed he was indeed the Yorkshire Ripper and he was charged within 24 hours. An appalling catalogue of killings spanning five years had been extended into the new decade not only by the blinkered ineptitude and prejudice of the police, but by the inadequate systems for storing and collating information as well as the undeniably damaging red herring of the ‘Wearside Jack’ tape.

It seems hard to believe now that Sutcliffe could have killed as many as he did and got away with it for so long; but one could say the same of Harold Shipman, Fred West or Dennis Nilsen, his contemporaneous serial killers. Along with their equally awful predecessors Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, all are now deceased, with Peter Sutcliffe joining them in that rather hot location reserved for the worst mankind has to offer as of – perhaps fittingly – Friday 13th. We have Covid-19 to thank for the killer blow, by all accounts. His death also comes just four days short of the 40th anniversary of Jacqueline Hill’s murder. Sutcliffe lived the 40 years he robbed her of, 40 years in which she could have enjoyed a dozen wonderful life experiences whilst he was shuttled from prison to prison and a gory industry sprouted around him. To be fair, though, the media generated that industry when he was busy killing by giving him such a salacious nickname; it was no great surprise it thrived during his lengthy incarceration, but the region he terrorised for five years didn’t buy into it. His name remains one spat out rather than spoken and he is just as loathed there now as he was when finally nicked for his crimes. The sense of disgust and hatred towards him there is no less vociferous than in January 1981. Time doesn’t heal everything.

I pass the site of Jacqueline Hill’s grim resting place most days; without knowledge of what happened there, few would give this undistinguished plot of land a second glance. Up until around a decade ago, it still looked the same as it did on the day Jacqueline Hill’s body was discovered, no different from the film footage that turns up in the endless documentaries, the overgrown and untendered spot packed with police furtively looking for clues. Then it was eventually converted into a private car-park for employees of the various businesses lining the shopping parade it stands behind; as befits lockdown, there are no vehicles parked on it today, and I fully expect someone to anonymously leave a bouquet of flowers at the gates next Tuesday; they often do periodically, though next Tuesday has a particular poignancy. That Peter Sutcliffe should exit a mere four days beforehand perhaps gives it an additional emotional punch. But if doesn’t really need one. The accompanying photograph I took this morning on the surface says nothing, but knowing a gruesome chapter in the history of the region drew to a bloody close there says something. After all, the fields where some of the nation’s most brutal battles took place centuries ago are similarly placid places today, giving no hint of the terrible tales they could tell. But there remains something in the air there, for sure.

© The Editor

A WOMAN SPURNED

When John Lennon returned his MBE to Her Majesty in 1969, he penned an accompanying (and characteristically flippant) note that defused the potential melodrama of the grand gesture. ‘I am returning this MBE in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing,’ he wrote, ‘against our support of America in Vietnam; and against Cold Turkey slipping down the charts’. Brenda’s reaction was not recorded, though Lennon himself later admitted being a Member of the British Empire was something of an embarrassment re his counter-cultural credentials, even if sending the medal back provoked the ire of his Aunt Mimi, who had proudly displayed it on her mantelpiece for the previous four years.

The award was conferred in 1965, officially as recognition of The Beatles as a Great British Export, though prompted by a canny PM (Harold Wilson) with one eye on a forthcoming General Election he hoped would increase his slender majority. Released from the shackles of the ‘mop-top’ straitjacket in 1969, Lennon’s peace campaigning with Yoko Ono and consequent resurgence of the lifelong anti-establishment sentiments that the Fab Four machine had suppressed earned him the enmity of the ruling class. Mocked and reviled in a manner that may come as a surprise to those who only know the posthumous Lennon as a latter-day Saint (successfully promoted by Yoko herself), Lennon’s gesture was the final act of impertinence from the perspective of the set who had enjoyed patting John, Paul, George and Ringo on the head during the Beatlemania era.

What few mentioned at the time of the mortification that greeted Lennon’s rebuttal of the State’s ultimate Kinder Surprise bestowed upon a ‘commoner’ was that the initial award of the MBE to The Beatles in 1965 had been received with equal outrage from the same people. Numerous war veterans and distinguished gentlemen who had spent most of their adult lives expecting such an award would come their way themselves returned their precious MBEs in protest at long-haired young men devaluing the honour. Four years later, the politicised youth culture that had superseded Swinging London demanded Lennon nail his colours to the mast; Lennon momentarily appeased them, though the Radical Left continued to be critical of him unless they received an invite to his Ascot mansion. He eventually realised it was impossible to please all of the people all of the time and stopped trying.

Forty-eight years on, another grand gesture has been made by another former pop star, albeit one whose days as such are but a distant memory only upheld by the minority tuning in to BBC4’s ‘Top of the Pops’ reruns. Bob Geldof has announced he will be returning his Freedom of the City of Dublin award in protest over the perceived failure of Aung San Suu Kyi to condemn and prevent what has been labelled ethnic cleansing in her native Burma (or Myanmar, if you prefer). The de facto Burmese PM had the same Irish honour conferred upon her, along with similar pats on the head bestowed by the likes of London, Oxford, Sheffield and Glasgow – three of which she has subsequently been stripped of. A portrait of her has been removed from the Oxford University College she read politics at and there are now calls for the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded in 1997 to be revoked.

During the long years of her house arrest by the Burmese military (1989 to 2010, on and off), Aung San Suu Kyi was adopted as the poster-girl for political imprisonment and became a beacon around which western virtue signallers rallied in the same way a previous generation had rallied round Nelson Mandela. But the problem with such beacons is that the symbolic halo they acquire blocks out the uncomfortable truth of a warts-and-all human being; she was always a human being, even though the interchangeable nature of such cult figures (from Guevara onwards) means when their feet are exposed as having clay-like qualities, those who turned them into a symbol are as distraught as pubescent girls when they discover their pop idol has got married.

Upon her release, when Aung San Suu Kyi was being feted in the west and the usual suspects were falling over themselves to sing her praises and shower her in awards, the one person from these islands she really wanted to meet was Dave Lee Travis, whose radio shows being broadcast on the World Service had made a difference to her during her house arrest. Yes, DLT – not David Cameron or Theresa May, not even Bob Geldof or bloody Bono or any of the other glorified chuggers emotionally blackmailing the have-nots to donate to endless causes whilst they themselves squirrel their considerable assets away in overseas tax-havens. And now their darling has disappointed them by behaving like the actual politician she is (and in a country where the same military that imprisoned her still carries clout), they’ve suddenly decided she’s up there with Mugabe.

The Mayor of Dublin has responded to Geldof’s stunt by pointing out Sir Bob hasn’t mentioned dispensing with his honorary knighthood from Britain, a nation whose reputation in Ireland as an imperial power of old doesn’t really complement Geldof’s principles. Geldof’s reason for giving back his honour is Aung San Suu Kyi’s indifference to the plight of the persecuted Rohingya people of Myanmar and her failure to act on the refugee crisis as thousands of Rohingya people flee predominantly Buddhist Burma for neighbouring Muslim Bangladesh, even if this isn’t the first time it has happened.

For an incredibly complex situation with an extremely long and winding history in the region, the likes of Geldof and others simplifying and reducing it to basic black & white terms of heroes and villains is both condescending to those involved and betrays an ignorance of the far-from straightforward scenario playing out there. Yes, current events in Burma are not remotely pleasant; but Aung San Suu Kyi never asked to be the human rights sweetheart the west manufactured and her actions of late (or lack of them) demonstrate the dangers in projecting western values onto different cultures as much as Dubya imagining American notions of democracy could be imposed upon Iraq.

© The Editor

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