Life was going along fairly smoothly. I had constructed a nursery in part
of my large studio and in July 1961 our baby son, Hugo, arrived to share it
with me. As both of us were working, Suzy had to get a nanny to help her
take care of him whilst she was working at the hotel. And as I worked from
home I could take a hand with the feeding bottle or change a nappy. (Just in
case anyone thought I stood back for others to do the dirty work.)
At the BBC’s orchestrations department, we were often made use of by
visiting music directors, one of which, Johnnie Pearson, had a series of
programmes with his group, “Sounds Orchestral”.
Johnnie had had a couple of hits with it and was a busy chap. I found him
a pleasant guy to work for; he was good fun and I liked him. A Londoner, he
came from simple family; his father was a crane driver in the docks, but his
talent as an excellent pianist got him success in radio and later in TV where
he composed music for The Ten o’Clock News, All Creatures Great and
Small, and other themes. I helped him sometimes, and when he was offered a
job as MD for a new TV show, he asked me if I would go with him as
arranger. I agreed, but cautiously.
This was a really new departure for me as hitherto I had been working in
the Light Entertainment department of radio. Here, at the new show, I would
be pitched in at the sharp end with the most modern popular music of the day.
This show was Top of the Pops.
I had jumped at the offer but after I’d given a bit of thought to what might
be involved I told Johnnie that I’d do the job for two or three weeks and if I
wasn’t satisfactory we could part company with no hard feelings. Eventually I
stayed with the show for four years.
We started at the old studios in Lime Grove where the artistes and the
band were in the same room. Later, as it became more popular, the whole
show was transferred to a huge studio at Television Centre. That first day I
don’t think I have ever been so nervous. Everything was new; music, band,
and, most of all, style. I had been working with “golden oldies”, like “Blue
Skies”, and “Begin the Beguine”; music by established composers with
established slightly dated reputations. Now, presented with just a record of
The Four Tops singing “I’ll Be There”, without any written music of any kind
to guide me, I had to listen to a recording machine over and over, trying to
capture on score paper the backing on the disc, which could be anything from
a couple of guitars and some congas to a full orchestra. At the same time I had
to keep the “feel” of the music, which could come from a dozen places –
London, Liverpool, Northern Ireland, Glasgow, California, Memphis,
Nashville or even some wild creature from up in the hills with a huge stetson
and a fiddle, singing and scraping “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”. They
all had to be accommodated so that the TV Performance resembled the record
(or even excelled it). When people talk about “a steep learning curve”, I know
what they mean .
For a while I just sort of hung on, taking hours and hours to get things
right. I made a few mistakes and the band, all top session players, quietly put them right for me.
The Hit Parade, or Top Twenty pop tunes, formed the basis of the show
I was meeting some of these players for the first time.
The world of the top session musician is quite exclusive, in that they tend to
move from televison studio to recording studio, places where music is made
but where ordinary musicians and the public are not admitted. So unless they
happen to do a TV show or a rock concert, where they actually get seen, they
move in their own privileged ambit with only other session musicians and
technicians for company. It‘s an odd life, but very well paid and rather envied
by those on the outside.. This was announced on Tuesday afternoon on Radio
1. On Wednesday, the show was recorded for broadcast on Thursday, which
meant only about 36 hours to prepare. If it was a busy week I could
sometimes get help from Johnnie, though he was often working on some
project of his own and didn’t relish my bothering him. I also had a colleague
who could help. But usually I just had to get on with it myself, and often, the
chaotic ways of the pop world mean that vital material was not available.
Pop artistes were usually very young, sometimes with their first hit and no
idea of what was required to make a pop show. Either way, Monday and
Tuesday nights were often sleepless ones. Coupled to problems with the
music, the producer and the technical staff who made the show had their
problems too. It made for a high degree of tension, sometimes relieved by a
huffy fit or two as someone’s patience clashed with someone else’s ego. But
the show always went on and lasted from the mid 60s through to 2006.
Looking back on those years, and the array of the famous and the
forgotten I listened to, I remember only a handful of names that set my mind
and emotions pondering on something that has worried many people; can pop
music ever be art?
It was Noel Coward who commented, “Funny, the power of cheap music”,
which would have been merely an interesting point to discuss had he not been
a songwriter himself.
Well, having listened to a lot of popular music, it’s fairly easy for me to
decide about most of it, though I know a lot of people would probably
disagree and think me a snob for even raising the point. Nevertheless my
question still bothers me, especially when discussing writers like the Beatles
or Bob Dylan about whom there might be a case. A lot of hits I listened to
could have such an effect when heard for the first time. Or the second or third.
But after an afternoon running the song back and forward, again and again,
what do you think of it now? Be honest; you’re tiring of it. It was something
with a talent to amuse, or even touch you. But only for a time. Now its time
has passed and you’re crazy about another great song. At any rate, that’s what
I thought about most of it. Pop is ephemeral, isn’t it?
After four years of listening to pop music (from the best period for pop
music in the latter half of the 20th century), I remember with something
approaching awe only a few moments.
One evening at the end of a long day’s rehearsing Esther Ofarim was
running a song through with the composer Donovan accompanying her on his
guitar. The studio was packing up, getting ready to leave as she began to sing
a sad little song with these words, “She fell in love with a swan…”. As the
song went on, all the bustle in the room was stilled by those lovely words, and
her interpretation. It was a moment of magic and we all knew it.
Another time, Dusty Springfield sang “The Look of Love”, one of Burt
Bacharach’s loveliest songs with such a quality of longing and sad
melancholy that I could feel my throat tightening as though to stifle a sob.
But in both these cases what was it that caused us to stop and listen? Was
it the singer? Was it the song? A combination of both? Or was it art that we
I’m still wondering .
Art or not, during those four marvellous years on Top of the Pops I came
across dozens of people connected with the pop industry who would later on
lead me into different areas of music.
One unforgettable figure, leading a retinue that surrounded the Righteous
Brothers and their big hit “You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling (woo, woo)”, was
Phil Spector. He had created his so called “Wall of Sound”, a studio effect
involving a lot off overdubbing and echo, which was as important as the song
itself and contributed to its success. For him, the expression éminence grise
might have been coined, though “Prince of Darkness” might be a closer
description. He carried around with him an awesome collection of complexes;
superiority, schizophrenia, hypersensitivity, egomania – all wrapped up in
Phil found the arrangement we provided “barely tolerable”. But the “wall
of sound” created by our resident sound engineer proved to be so dreadful that
he tore upstairs to the control room and burst into this holy of holies to unload
a torrent of execration and invective that left the sound staff rigid. He then
dragged the chief engineer (whose name, fortunately, I’ve forgotten) away
from the mixing desk and plonked himself down at it, attacking the desk
itself, sliding the faders and twisting the knobs in a frenzy.
Help was summoned and the producer was quickly on the spot with some
uniformed heavies, first to persuade, and then, if that failed, to frog march
Phil out of the control room. To what? He was like a wild animal.
But Johnny Stewart, the producer, was a skilled negotiator, which he
needed to be for that show, and was slowly able to calm both Phil and the
chief engineer, bringing them to some sort of collaboration. That day we
achieved a respectable wall of sound; good enough to pass Phil Spector’s
inspection, even with one or two bricks missing.
“Lovin’ Feeling” dominated the Hit Parade for weeks so the Righteous
Brothers were soon back again, though this time the BBC was careful not to
include Phil Spector in the invitation.
Les Reed began his rise to fame with two hits for Tom Jones, “It’s Not
Unusual” and “Delilah”, followed by Englebert Humperdinck’s “The Last
Waltz”. After that he was hardly ever out of the Top Twenty.
Les was a very capable bloke, writing both the songs and all his own
arrangements. Later he got into films for a while and found himself with the
age old problem that film composers encounter; how to write the music and
orchestrate it in the short time given you by the film company?
It was when this problem reared itself at Les, whom I had met several
times on TOTP, that he called me. I joined him at his home and we started
working together on a film, the name of which escapes me, followed by one
or two more, which I’ve also forgotten. A nice little side line, you might think,
which it was.