Let Luck be Lady Madonna
There’s a photo on my wall of me playing Lady Madonna on an upright piano. Standing next to me, playing along on a specially made double bass with frets, is Jeff Lynne from ELO. We are in his house on Mulholland Drive in LA.
We had just spent an interesting evening talking in depth about Livin’ Thing for a BBC series about classic songs. The series never got aired – a BBC finance executive screwed up the paperwork – but the experience of travelling around Europe and the USA garnering interviews for it, was one of those great life experiences few get.
That evening at Jeff’s especially, is one of my all-time favourite memories. Everyone in my family is a huge ELO fan. Last year when they finally toured, I watched the show with my mum, my brothers and sisters.
So I was nervous about meeting him. But Jeff turned out to be a great host, offering us beer and pizza. Our shooting schedule was so manic we had to turn down his offer of staying with him for the evening for the football on satellite TV as we still had to visit Steve Miller in his hotel and talk about The Joker.
But the time we did spend together in Jeff’s studio was magical for me. There’s another photo of Jeff and I playing Livin’ Thing together on guitars as we cooed over the pretty Fminor to Eminor chord drop that Jeff correctly described as the song’s “saucy” bit.
And as the wildly-bearded one and the baldly-wild one strummed together, it came to pass that one of my childhood dreams came true. The kind of dream that made me write to Jimmy Saville in the hope I’d get selected for Jim’ll Fix It.
When I was a child growing up on a rough council estate in Luton, 5 kids being brought up by their Dad, recipients of occasional food parcels, my escape was wasting hours daydreaming about a) girls b) playing for Leeds United but mostly, c) playing music with my heroes. Just as many children believe in Santa up till 10 years of age, I thought it was only a matter of time before I got to play with one of the Beatles, join ELO or 10cc. I had a recurring daydream that Paul Weller would see me outside a guitar shop and buy me a Rickenbacker.
But then reality bites as the zits start sprouting and you realise that rockstars don’t buy their fans guitars and council estate kids never get to play with the likes of McCartney, 10cc or ELO. Hell, the only guitar I had was a cricket-bat Egmond that you needed a degree in weightlifting to be able to barre a chord on. In my first band, I kept telling the others I had an amp on order but in reality we were too poor for me to afford one in 1982. My mum eventually bought me one long after that band was defunct – though all its members, Steve Wallace, Ross Lardner and Kevin Barford are still Facebook friends.
This should all be a case for sadness, but fast forward 30 years and journalism and TV had brought me to LA and Jeff’s house after all. After the main business of the evening had been concluded and the film gear packed up, Jeff started telling me about producing Free as a Bird for the Beatles. As any fule kno, if you put any two Beatles fans in a room together, the conversation is about to get anal and cliquey.
We began swapping stories. I remember Jeff telling me how the atmosphere changed, charged with electricity, the first time he was in a room with all 3 surviving Beatles. “I had worked with all of them individually, but when all 3 were together, it was like magic. No other word for it.”
We discussed how our poor, working class fathers had bought both of us our first proper guitars and how we still had them. Jeff had taken his to a luthier to make it playable. Inspired, a couple of years later, Shazna took mine to be souped up too, and my little brown Hondo 335 copy, sits proudly alongside all my “proper” guitars on the rack. It’s in good company. One of the guitars on the rack is a 1958 yellow Stratocaster, a rare, valuable and highly gorgeous instrument that I am privileged to own.
I love to play that old guitar my Dad bought me and remember the gigs I did at VI Form with it. Jeff was the same. His father was dead too and he treasured that particular guitar more than any other. During the making of the unseen BBC series, I had many touching experiences like this with various world famous musicians.
For example, I also got to interview all four members of 10cc about the making of I’m Not in Love (my favourite production of all time and second favourite childhood band behind the Beatles) and am still in touch with all four 15 years later.
Again, we talked extensively about the Beatles and their impact on us. All four members of 10cc had also worked with various members of the Beatles. During the Ebony and Ivory period Eric Stewart was Paul’s co-writer and, with Linda, the only permanent member of Paul’s band.
We swapped stories about how the Beatles had changed our way of thinking, made us less parochial and inspired us to be creative. Because of the generation gap, I could rightly call the Beatles surrogate parents. 10cc were roughly the same age as the Beatles, but also thought of them as parents/teachers.
I told Eric how I had once applied to Paul’s fan club when they put out a call for video extras for the video to Take it Away. I had been devastated when I didn’t get invited. There’s a scene in it where Paul, Linda, Ringo, George Martin and Eric are performing the song. Every time I saw it on TV I used to wince at the painful memory.
It lead me to tell Eric another painful story about how I had broken my first electric guitar – a £5 secondhand Strat copy – playing his guitar part from I’m Mandy Fly Me. The damn neck just rotted off and came away in my hand. He laughed.
It was these interactions with my heroes which gave me a thrill but also an inner strength in the early days of my career when I was more easily daunted. I often used to think back to that boy with the rotten guitar when I found myself sitting down to jam with people like Brian Wilson, Roy Wood, Larry Adler or Steve Miller.
Jeff Lynne was a good example of why this strategy of learning up songs paid dividends. I found that learning a few songs meant their interviews went with a breeze. Though many famous musicians have many examples of people being able to play their songs, many TV/journalists aren’t musicians, so I think I always stood out a bit. Just talking about a chord sequence could be flattering and jams often followed. The interviewees nearly always took it as a compliment and would offer tips on how to play or comment on my performance. Then join in. Those jams are always an emotional and exhilarating experience for me. I remain a fan first and foremost.
Jeff was unusual because we played someone else’s material too. The Beatles of course.
I mentioned a story about Lady Madonna and Jeff jumped at the chance. “It’s my favourite bass line to play on the double bass I had made. Come and look. It’s got frets like a guitar.” So we went into the hall and Jeff got me to play so he could jam along. His girlfriend took a picture and a few weeks later called me for my address so she could send it to me.
This is the great privilege of being a journalist/film maker. You get to do for real, the things that most people only dream about. The story about Lady Madonna I told Jeff Lynne was about the day I spent jamming with Paul McCartney’ at his studio in Sussex.
Thanks to Paul’s brilliant long-term PR Geoff Baker, I had interviewed McCartney for The Times for the first full length interview he gave to promote his Flaming Pie album.
The day after the interview was published I got a call at the ITV Chart Show where I spent half my time. Before I begin, I should say that I wrote the following exchanges down the very next day and is a pretty accurate account of what followed including all swear words.
“Hi it’s Paul.”
“Paul? Paul who?”
“Oh hi Paul.” WTF.
“I hope you don’t mind me calling but I read your article. I don’t agree with you that the single is the worst thing on the album. When Hello Goodbye came out the critics said it was no good, but it still went to number one. But that’s ok, it’s your opinion. The reason I’m calling is to ask, did you write the caption under the picture?”
Ah. That had stuck in my craw too. We had been supplied with a picture taken by Linda. The sub had written underneath it “That’s nice dear says snapper Linda McCartney.”
Truthfully, I answered no.
“Good cos you didn’t strike me a cunt. Who did?”
“That would be the sub. I’m not happy about it either. Do you want me to say something?”
“No tell me who it is so I can call them. I’m not having them have a go at Linda. She’s a great photographer and they always do this. I was out riding with her this morning and said ‘he (ie me) didn’t strike me as a shithead so I’m going to call him.’”
I told him I didn’t know who subbed it but he could call Richard Morrison the toffish arts editor who commissioned it.
But never let an opportunity go.
“While you’re here Paul did you know the Chart Show is produced by Keith Macmillan and Phil Davey who directed all your videos from Pipes of Peace to Take it Away? I’d love to do a video interview with you for the show. And they’d love to see you again for sure.”
Paul said he’d be delighted and I put him through to Phil.
A few days later, chasing up my payment for The Times article, I called Richard Morrison.
“By the way, did you get a call from Paul McCartney?”
Richard shouted to the rest of his office, “It WAS Paul McCartney!”
What the hell happened?
“Some guy rang in complaining about the picture caption on your article. He was ranting away. I thought it was someone winding me up so I put the phone down on him.”
So it was that 2 weeks later Phil and I set off for Sussex to do a filmed interview with Paul and me bursting to find out how Paul had taken this snub.
First thing I did was to ask Paul “Did you speak to The Times?” I knew the answer of course but was keen to hear Paul’s take. I was still impressed at the trouble he’d gone to to defend his wife.
“I did. I got some public schoolboy wanker who kept laughing. I said ‘does The Times employ the Laughing Policeman now?’ And he told me to go away and put the phone down.”
As the day wore on, it followed a similar pattern to my other muso interviews. Paul was making us sandwiches – rocket, beetroot and mayonnaise, since you ask – while I sat down at his grand piano playing various bits and bobs.
He poked his head around the kitchen door and said, as if he had known me for years, “I didn’t know you played?”
“Yes. I write and play guitar, piano, bass and drums. I learned off your records really.”
“That’s what we all do isn’t it? I learned off Little Richard. Let’s hear something then!”
I looked up and realising this was the same piano and room used on Free As a Bird, I started playing that lovely A F#m7 Fmaj7 E7 piano riff that forms the backbone of the song.
“That’s great. Exactly right. Come on, budge up.”
And so, in direct contradiction to my earlier statement that you don’t get to have your childhood dreams come true, side by side on his piano stool, I started jamming with Paul. I even got to play him one of my tunes.
My cameraman neglected to film any of this but there is a tiny bit of video of Paul and I playing Lady Madonna and then Paul saying, after I had made a mistake, “Now you can see why I play on my own?! No, he’s really good actually.” A compliment from my biggest hero. On tape. Even now, that’s hard to beat.
But on the day it was just one gift of many. I had leant on the piano while he played me some of his own favourites like You Never Give Me Your Money. He liked to improvise as well. This was very cheering as I had once interviewed the lovely Sheryl Crow at her house in LA. Looking around I said, “where are your instruments?” She said something that stunned me. “That’s work. They’re in the studio.”
Paul was the opposite of that. He was clearly enjoying noodling and had that far-off distant noodling gaze recognised by all musicians. Some of it was gorgeous. Eric Stewart told me the trouble with writing with Paul was that he was full of ideas and when asked to develop one – “what was that you just played?” – he would just carry on noodling in a “they’ll be another one along in a minute” vein.
Paul asked me if I needed lessons on anything.
“Am I playing Lady Madonna right?” Turns out I was which impressed him as he then told me a funny story. When the Beatles were filming Anthology with Jools Holland, Jools started playing Lady Madonna too. The opening piano notes require you to slur from a C to C# which, as the song is in A, means you are playing a Blues third. Jools skipped the Blues third and just hit the C#. “So you played the blues bit better than Jools,” he said.
A few years later when I was working with Jools I brought this up and he gamely admitted “yes, that’s right.” Last year I saw an interview with Jools about Paul and he told the same story about ballsing it up.
I played guitar with Paul that day, he showed me around his instruments (“Yeah that’s the harpsichord from Fixing a Hole.”) And he got his Hofner violin bass out without me asking. But it was the Jools-Madonna story that prompted the Lady Madonna jam with Jeff Lynne.
I often find that one surprising thing leads to another surprising thing.
One day, my great friend and Eric Stewart’s manager Gilly Hewer said: “I have a present for you in the car. Eric and I call it the vomit guitar because of its colour.” I took it as a present for breaking my first guitar playing one of his songs. The vomit guitar – a beautiful cream coloured beauty with one volume knob a slightly different colour to the other two – turned out to be the 1958 Stratocaster I mentioned earlier. I have said that learning the artists’ songs often paid surprising dividends. The guitar present was just another dividend. Eric and I had spent a lovely day together with a Rhodes and Steinway at Maida Vale once and jammed I’m Not in Love, Wall St Shuffle and the Things We Do for Love. Eric sniffily said “I’m not sure that’s how you play it Des” when I attempted the Rhodes part. A bit harsh but I was to get my own back 10 years later.
Two years ago I interviewed him again at Lol Crème’s house and this time we all jammed on guitars and he told me I was in the wrong key for Wall St Shuffle. “No Eric, it’s definitely in Dminor, not Cminor,” I said. He tried that suggestion out. “Oh yes, you’re right.” Well he hadn’t played live for many years.
So now when you look back on my impossible dreams as a child, things look very different. I got to play with one of the Beatles, members of 10cc and Jeff Lynne. And a rock star gave me a guitar after all.
A couple of years ago, Eric sent me an email saying that McCartney had put out a DVD of all his videos and had sent Eric a copy.
“You need to put the video of Take it Away on,” said Eric.
I called up YouTube and watched the video for the first time in 20 years. I still winced to think I could have been in the audience. My old boss Keith Macmillan’s crane swooped over the crowd I should have been in to zoom in on Ringo, Paul, George Martin, Linda and Eric miming to the song.
Eric was playing an old yellow Strat with one of the volume knobs a different colour to the other two. I glanced from my computer to the guitar rack. And there it was – the same Strat leaning against the Hondo my Dad bought me. My actual childhood and my childhood dream, still right next to each other after all these years.