Main Me: Elton John Official Autobiography

Me: Elton John Official Autobiography

In his first and only official autobiography, music icon Elton John reveals the truth about his extraordinary life, from his rollercoaster lifestyle as shown in the film Rocketman, to becoming a living legend.

Christened Reginald Dwight, he was a shy boy with Buddy Holly glasses who grew up in the London suburb of Pinner and dreamed of becoming a pop star. By the age of twenty-three he was performing his first gig in America, facing an astonished audience in his bright yellow dungarees, a star-spangled T-shirt, and boots with wings. Elton John had arrived and the music world would never be the same again.

His life has been full of drama, from the early rejection of his work with song-writing partner Bernie Taupin to spinning out of control as a chart-topping superstar; from half-heartedly trying to drown himself in his LA swimming pool to disco-dancing with Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth; from friendships with John Lennon, Freddie Mercury, and George Michael to setting up his AIDS Foundation to conquering Broadway with Aida, The Lion King, and Billy Elliot the Musical. All the while Elton was hiding a drug addiction that would grip him for over a decade.

In Me, Elton also writes powerfully about getting clean and changing his life, about finding love with David Furnish and becoming a father. In a voice that is warm, humble, and open, this is Elton on his music and his relationships, his passions and his mistakes. This is a story that will stay with you by a living legend.
Year: 2019
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co
Language: english
Pages: 384
File: EPUB, 44.04 MB
Download (epub, 44.04 MB)

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glo
Looking forward to reading this. Loved the movie
23 October 2019 (05:31) 
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2

La dittatura delle abitudini

Year: 2012
Language: italian
File: EPUB, 1.49 MB
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Table of Contents

About the Author

Copyright Page



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This book is dedicated to my husband, David,

and to our beautiful sons Zachary and Elijah.

Special thanks to Alexis Petridis, without

whom this book would not have been possible.





prologue



I was onstage at the Latino club in South Shields when I realized I couldn’t take it anymore. It was one of those supper clubs that were all over Britain in the sixties and seventies, all virtually identical: people dressed in suits, seated at tables, eating chicken in a basket and drinking wine out of bottles covered in wicker; fringed lampshades and flock wallpaper; cabaret and a compère in a bow tie. It felt like a throwback to another era. Outside, it was the winter of 1967, and rock music was shifting and changing so fast that it made my head spin just thinking about it: The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and The Mothers of Invention, The Who Sell Out and Axis: Bold As Love, Dr John and John Wesley Harding. Inside the Latino, the only way you could tell the Swinging Sixties had happened at all was because I was wearing a kaftan and some bells on a chain around my neck. They didn’t really suit me. I looked like a finalist in a competition to find Britain’s least convincing flower child.

The kaftan and the bells were Long John Baldry’s idea. I was the organ player in his backing band, Bluesology. John had spotted all the other r’n’b bands going psychedelic: one week you’d go and see Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band playing James Brown songs, the next you’d find they were calling themselves Dantalian’s Chariot, wearing white robes onstage and singing about how World War Three was going to kill all the flowers. He’d decided we should follow suit, sartorially at least. So we all got kaftans. Cheaper ones for the backing musicians, while John’s were specially made at Take Six in Carnaby Street. Or at least, he thought they were specially made, until we played a gig and he saw someone in the audience wearing exactly the same kaftan as him. He stopped in the middle of a song and started shouting angrily at him – ‘Where did you get that shirt? That’s my shirt!’ This, I felt, rather ran contrary to the kaftan’s associations with peace and love and universal brotherhood.

I adored Long John Baldry. He was absolutely hilarious, deeply eccentric, outrageously gay and a fabulous musician, maybe the greatest 12-string guitarist the UK has ever produced. He’d been one of the major figures in the British blues boom of the early sixties, playing with Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies and The Rolling Stones. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the blues. Just being around him was an education: he introduced me to so much music I’d never heard before.

But more than that, he was an incredibly kind, generous man. He had a knack of spotting something in musicians before anybody else could see it, then nurturing them, taking the time to build their confidence. He did it with me, and before that he’d done it with Rod Stewart, who’d been one of the singers in Steampacket, John’s previous band: Rod, John, Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger. They were incredible, but then they split up. The story I heard was that one night after a gig in St-Tropez, Rod and Julie had an argument, Julie threw red wine over Rod’s white suit–I’m sure you can imagine how well that went down – and that was the end of Steampacket. So Bluesology had got the gig as John’s backing band instead, playing hip soul clubs and blues cellars all over the country.

It was great fun, even if John had some peculiar ideas about music. We played the most bizarre sets. We’d start out doing really hard-driving blues: ‘Times Getting Tougher Than Tough’, ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’. The audience would be in the palm of our hand, but then John would insist we played ‘The Threshing Machine’, a sort of smutty West Country novelty song, the kind of thing rugby players sing when they’re pissed, like ‘’Twas On The Good Ship Venus’ or ‘Eskimo Nell’. John would even sing it in an ooh-arr accent. And after that, he’d want us to perform something from the Great American Songbook – ‘It Was A Very Good Year’ or ‘Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye’ – which enabled him to do his impersonation of Della Reese, the American jazz singer. I don’t know where he got the idea that people wanted to hear him playing ‘The Threshing Machine’ or doing an impersonation of Della Reese, but, bless him, he remained absolutely convinced that they did, in the face of some pretty compelling evidence to the contrary. You’d look out at the front row, people who’d come to hear blues legend Long John Baldry, and just see a line of mods, all chewing gum and staring at us in complete horror: What the fuck is this guy doing? It was hilarious, even if I was asking myself the same question.

And then, catastrophe struck: Long John Baldry had a huge hit single. Obviously, this would usually have been the cause of great rejoicing, but ‘Let The Heartaches Begin’ was an appalling record, a syrupy, middle-of-the-road, Housewives’ Choice ballad. It was a million miles from the kind of music John should have been making, and it was Number One for weeks, never off the radio. I’d say I didn’t know what he was thinking, but I knew exactly what he was thinking, and I couldn’t really blame him. He’d been slogging around for years and this was the first time he’d made any money. The blues cellars stopped booking us and we started playing the supper clubs, which paid better. Often we’d play two a night. They weren’t interested in John’s pivotal role in the British blues boom or his mastery of the 12-string guitar. They just wanted to see someone who’d been on television. Occasionally, I got the feeling they weren’t that interested in music, full stop. In some clubs, if you played over your allotted time, they’d simply close the curtains on you, mid-song. On the plus side, at least the supper club audiences enjoyed ‘The Threshing Machine’ more than the mods did.

There was one other major problem with ‘Let The Heartaches Begin’: Bluesology couldn’t play it live. I don’t mean we refused to play it. I mean we literally couldn’t play it. The single had an orchestra and a female chorus on it: it sounded like Mantovani. We were an eight-piece rhythm and blues band with a horn section. There was no way we could reproduce the sound. So John came up with the idea of putting the backing track on tape. When the big moment came, he’d drag a huge Revox tape machine onstage, press play and sing along to that. The rest of us would just have to stand there, doing nothing. In our kaftans and bells. While people ate chicken and chips. It was excruciating.

In fact, the only entertaining thing about the live performance of ‘Let The Heartaches Begin’ was that, whenever John sang it, women started screaming. Apparently overwhelmed by desire, they’d temporarily abandon their chicken and chips and run to the front of the stage. Then they’d start grabbing at the cord of John’s microphone, trying to pull him towards them. I’m sure this kind of thing happened to Tom Jones every night and he took it in his stride, but Long John Baldry wasn’t Tom Jones. Rather than bask in the adulation, he’d get absolutely furious. He’d stop singing and bellow at them like a schoolmaster: ‘IF YOU BREAK MY MICROPHONE, YOU’LL PAY ME FIFTY POUNDS!’ One night, this dire warning went unheeded. As they kept pulling at the cord, I saw John raise his arm. Then a terrible thud shook the speakers. I realized, with a sinking feeling, that it was the sound of a lust-racked fan being smacked over her head with a microphone. In retrospect, it was a miracle he didn’t get arrested or sued for assault. So that was the main source of amusement for the rest of us during ‘Let The Heartaches Begin’: wondering if tonight would be the night John clobbered one of his screaming admirers again.

It was the song that was playing when I had my sudden moment of clarity in South Shields. Ever since I was a kid, I’d dreamed of being a musician. Those dreams had taken many forms: sometimes I was Little Richard, sometimes Jerry Lee Lewis, sometimes Ray Charles. But whatever form they had taken, none of them had involved standing onstage in a supper club outside of Newcastle, not playing a Vox Continental organ, while Long John Baldry alternately crooned to the accompaniment of a tape recorder and angrily threatened to fine members of the audience fifty pounds. And yet, here I was. Much as I loved John, I had to do something else.

The thing was, I wasn’t exactly swimming in other options. I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do, or even what I could do. I knew I could sing and play piano, but I clearly wasn’t pop star material. For one thing, I didn’t look like a pop star, as evidenced by my inability to carry off a kaftan. For another, I was called Reg Dwight. That’s not a pop star’s name. ‘Tonight on Top of the Pops, the new single by … Reg Dwight!’ It obviously wasn’t going to happen. The other members of Bluesology, they had the kind of names you could imagine being announced on Top of the Pops. Stuart Brown. Pete Gavin. Elton Dean. Elton Dean! Even the sax player sounded more like a pop star than me, and he had absolutely no desire to be one: he was a serious jazz buff, killing time with Bluesology until he could start honking away in some free improvisational quintet.

Of course I could change my name, but what was the point? After all, not only did I think I wasn’t pop star material, I’d literally been told I wasn’t pop star material. A few months before, I’d auditioned for Liberty Records. They had put an advert in the New Musical Express: LIBERTY RECORDS WANTS TALENT. But, as it turned out, not my talent. I’d gone to see a guy there called Ray Williams, played for him, even recorded a couple of songs in a little studio. Ray thought I had potential, but no one else at the label did: thanks but no thanks. So that was that.

In fact, I had precisely one other option. When I’d auditioned for Liberty, I’d told Ray that I could write songs, or at least half write songs. I could write music and melodies, but not lyrics. I’d tried in Bluesology and the results could still cause me to wake up at night in a cold sweat: ‘We could be such a happy pair, and I promise to do my share’. Almost as an afterthought, or a consolation prize after rejecting me, Ray had handed me an envelope. Someone responding to the same advert had sent in some lyrics. I had a feeling Ray hadn’t actually read any of them before he passed them on to me.

The guy who wrote them came from Owmby-by-Spital in Lincolnshire, hardly the pulsating rock and roll capital of the world. He apparently worked on a chicken farm, carting dead birds around in a wheelbarrow. But his lyrics were pretty good. Esoteric, a bit Tolkien-influenced, not unlike ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ by Procol Harum. Crucially, none of them made me want to rip my own head off with embarrassment, which meant they were a vast improvement on anything I’d come up with.

What’s more, I found I could write music to them, and I could write it really fast. Something about them just seemed to click with me. And something about him just seemed to click with me, too. He came down to London, we went for a coffee and we hit it off straight away. It turned out that Bernie Taupin wasn’t a country bumpkin at all. He was extremely sophisticated for a seventeen-year-old: long-haired, very handsome, very well read, a huge Bob Dylan fan. So we’d started writing songs together, or rather, not together. He would send me the lyrics from Lincolnshire, I’d write the music at home, in my mum and stepdad’s flat in Northwood Hills. We’d come up with dozens of songs that way. Admittedly, we hadn’t actually managed to get any other artists to buy the bloody things yet, and if we committed to it full-time, we’d be broke. But other than money, what did we have to lose? A wheelbarrow full of dead chickens and ‘Let The Heartaches Begin’ twice a night, respectively.

I told John and Bluesology I was leaving after a gig in Scotland, in December. It was fine, no hard feelings: like I said, John was an incredibly generous man. On the flight home, I decided I should change my name after all. For some reason, I remember thinking I had to come up with something else really quickly. I suppose it was all symbolic of a clean break and a fresh start: no more Bluesology, no more Reg Dwight. As I was in a hurry, I settled for pinching other people’s names. Elton from Elton Dean, John from Long John Baldry. Elton John. Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Songwriting duo Elton John and Bernie Taupin. I thought it sounded good. Unusual. Striking. I announced my decision to my now ex-bandmates on the bus back from Heathrow. They all fell about laughing, then wished me the best of luck.





one


It was my mum who introduced me to Elvis Presley. Every Friday, after work, she would pick up her wages, stop off on the way home at Siever’s, an electrical store that also sold records, and buy a new 78. It was my favourite time of the week, waiting at home to see what she would bring back. She loved going out dancing, so she liked big band music – Billy May and His Orchestra, Ted Heath – and she loved American vocalists: Johnnie Ray, Frankie Laine, Nat King Cole, Guy Mitchell singing ‘she wears red feathers and a huly-huly skirt’. But one Friday she came home with something else. She told me she’d never heard anything like it before, but it was so fantastic she had to buy it. As soon as she said the words Elvis Presley, I recognized them. The previous weekend I’d been looking through the magazines in the local barber shop while I was waiting to have my hair cut, when I came across a photo of the most bizarre-looking man I’d ever seen. Everything about him looked extraordinary: his clothes, his hair, even the way he was standing. Compared to the people you could see outside the barber shop window in the north-west London suburb of Pinner, he might as well have been bright green with antennae sticking out of his forehead. I’d been so transfixed I hadn’t even bothered to read the accompanying article, and by the time I got home I’d forgotten his name. But that was it: Elvis Presley.

As soon as Mum put the record on, it became apparent that Elvis Presley sounded the way he looked, like he came from another planet. Compared to the stuff my parents normally listened to, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ barely qualified as music at all, an opinion my father would continue to expound upon at great length over the coming years. I’d already heard rock and roll – ‘Rock Around The Clock’ had been a big hit earlier in 1956 – but ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ didn’t sound anything like that either. It was raw and sparse and slow and eerie. Everything was drenched in this weird echo. You could barely understand a word he was singing: I got that his baby had left him, after that I completely lost the thread. What was a ‘dess clurk’? Who was this ‘Bidder Sir Lonely’ he kept mentioning?

It didn’t matter what he was saying, because something almost physical happened while he was singing. You could literally feel this strange energy he was giving off, like it was contagious, like it was coming out of the radiogram speaker straight into your body. I already thought of myself as music mad – I even had a little collection of my own 78s, paid for with record tokens and postal orders I got on birthdays and at Christmas. Until that moment, my hero had been Winifred Atwell, a big, immensely jolly Trinidadian lady who performed onstage with two pianos – a baby grand on which she played light classical and a battered old upright for ragtime and pub songs. I loved her sense of glee, the slightly camp way she would announce, ‘And now, I’m going to my other piano’; the way she would lean back and look at the audience with a huge grin on her face while she was playing, like she was having the best time in the world. I thought Winifred Atwell was fabulous, but I’d never experienced anything like this while listening to her. I’d never experienced anything like this in my life. As ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ played, it felt like something had changed, that nothing could really be the same again. As it turned out, something had, and nothing was.

And thank God, because the world needed changing. I grew up in fifties Britain and, before Elvis, before rock and roll, fifties Britain was a pretty grim place. I didn’t mind living in Pinner – I’ve never been one of those rock stars who was motivated by a burning desire to escape the suburbs, I quite liked it there – but the whole country was in a bad place. It was furtive and fearful and judgemental. It was a world of people peeping around their curtains with sour expressions, of girls being sent away because they’d Got Into Trouble. When I think of fifties Britain, I think of sitting on the stairs of our house, listening to my mum’s brother, Uncle Reg, trying to talk her out of getting divorced from my dad: ‘You can’t get divorced! What will people think?’ At one point, I distinctly remember him using the phrase ‘what will the neighbours say?’ It wasn’t Uncle Reg’s fault. That was just the mindset of the times: that happiness was somehow less important than keeping up appearances.

The truth is that my parents should never have got married in the first place. I was born in 1947, but I was effectively a war baby. I must have been conceived while my father was on leave from the RAF – he had joined up in 1942 at the height of World War Two and elected to stay on after the war ended. And my parents were definitely a war couple. Their story sounds romantic. They met the same year my dad joined up. He was seventeen, and had worked in a boatbuilding yard in Rickmansworth that specialized in making narrowboats for canals. Mum was sixteen, her maiden name was Harris, and she delivered milk for United Dairies on a horse and cart, the kind of job a woman would never have done before the war. My dad was a keen amateur trumpet player, and while he was on leave, he apparently spotted my mum in the audience while he was sitting in with a band playing at a North Harrow hotel.

But the reality of Stanley and Sheila Dwight’s marriage wasn’t romantic at all. They just didn’t get on. They were both stubborn and short-tempered, two delightful characteristics that it’s been my huge good fortune to inherit. I’m not sure if they ever really loved each other. People rushed into marriage during the war – the future was uncertain, even by the time of my parents’ wedding in January 1945, and you had to seize the moment – so maybe that had something to do with it. Perhaps they had loved each other once, or at least thought they had, in the time they snatched together. Now they didn’t even seem to like each other. The rows were endless.

At least they subsided when my dad was away, which he often was. He was promoted to flight lieutenant, and was regularly posted abroad, to Iraq and Aden, so I grew up in a house that seemed to be filled with women. We lived with my maternal grandmother, Ivy, at 55 Pinner Hill Road – the same house I was born in. It was the kind of council house that had sprung up all over Britain in the twenties and thirties: three bedrooms, semi-detached, red brick on the ground floor and white-painted render on the top floor. The house actually had another male occupant, although you wouldn’t really have noticed. My grandfather had died very young, of cancer, and Nan had remarried, to a guy called Horace Sewell, who’d lost a leg in World War One. Horace had a heart of gold, but he wasn’t what you would call one of life’s big talkers. He seemed to spend most of his time outside. He worked at the local nursery, Woodman’s, and when he wasn’t there, he was in the garden, where he grew all our vegetables and cut flowers.

Perhaps he was just in the garden to avoid my mother, in which case I couldn’t really blame him. Even when Dad wasn’t around, Mum had a terrible temper. When I think back to my childhood, I think of Mum’s moods: awful, glowering, miserable silences that descended on the house without warning, during which you walked on eggshells and picked your words very carefully, in case you set her off and got thumped as a result. When she was happy she could be warm and charming and vivacious, but she always seemed to be looking for a reason not to be happy, always seemed to be in search of a fight, always had to have the last word; Uncle Reg famously said she could start an argument in an empty room. I thought for years that it was somehow my fault, that maybe she never really wanted to be a mother: she was only twenty-one when I was born, stuck in a marriage that clearly wasn’t working, forced to live with her mum because money was so tight. But her sister, my auntie Win, told me she was always like that – that when they were kids it was as if a dark cloud used to follow Sheila Harris around, that other children were scared of her and that she seemed to like that.

She definitely had some deeply weird ideas about parenting. It was an era when you kept your kids in line by clobbering them, when it was generally held that there was nothing wrong with children that couldn’t be cured by thumping the living daylights out of them. This was a philosophy to which my mother was passionately wedded, which was petrifying and humiliating if it happened in public: there’s nothing like getting a hiding outside Pinner Sainsbury’s, in front of a visibly intrigued crowd of onlookers, for playing havoc with your self-esteem. But some of Mum’s behaviour would have been considered disturbing even by the standards of the time. I found out years later that when I was two, she’d toilet-trained me by hitting me with a wire brush until I bled if I didn’t use the potty. My nan had, understandably, gone berserk when she found out what was going on: they didn’t speak for weeks as a result. Nan had gone berserk again when she saw my mother’s remedy for constipation. She laid me on the draining board in the kitchen and stuck carbolic soap up my arse. If she liked to scare people, she must have been overjoyed by me, because I was fucking terrified of her. I loved her – she was my mum – but I spent my childhood in a state of high alert, always trying to ensure that I never did anything that might set her off: if she was happy, I was happy, albeit temporarily.

There were no problems like that with my nan. She was the person I trusted the most. It felt like she was the centre of the family, the only one who didn’t go out to work – my mum had graduated from driving a milk cart during the war to working in a succession of shops. Nan was one of those incredible old working-class matriarchs: no nonsense, hard-working, kind, funny. I idolized her. She was the greatest cook, had the greenest fingers, loved a drink and a game of cards. She’d had an incredibly hard life – her father had abandoned her mother when she was pregnant, so Nan was born in a workhouse. She never talked about it, but it seemed to have left her as someone nothing could faze, not even the time I came howling down the stairs with my foreskin caught in my trouser zip and asked her to get it out. She just sighed and got on with it, as though extracting a small boy’s penis from a zip was the kind of thing she did every day.

Her house smelt of roast dinners and coal fires. There was always someone at the door: either Auntie Win or Uncle Reg, or my cousins John and Cathryn, or else the rent man, or the man from Watford Steam Laundry, or the man who delivered the coal. And there was always music playing. The radio was almost permanently on: Two-Way Family Favourites, Housewives’ Choice, Music While You Work, The Billy Cotton Band Show. If it wasn’t, there were records playing on the radiogram – mostly jazz, but sometimes classical.

I could spend hours just looking at those records, studying the different labels. Blue Deccas, red Parlophones, bright yellow MGMs, HMVs and RCAs, both of which, for reasons I could never figure out, had that picture of the dog looking at the gramophone on them. They seemed like magical objects; the fact that you put a needle on them and sound mysteriously came out amazed me. After a while, the only presents I wanted were records and books. I can remember the disappointment of coming downstairs and seeing a big box wrapped up. Oh God, they’ve got me Meccano.

And we had a piano, which belonged to my nan. Auntie Win used to play it, and eventually so did I. There were a lot of family myths about my prodigious talent at the instrument, the most oft-repeated being that Win sat me on her lap when I was three, and I immediately picked out the melody of ‘The Skaters’ Waltz’ by ear. I’ve no idea whether that’s actually true or not, but I was definitely playing piano at a very young age, around the time I started at my first school, Reddiford. I’d play stuff like ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, hymns I’d heard in assembly. I was just born with a good ear, the way some people are born with a photographic memory. If I heard something once, I could go to the piano and, more or less, play it perfectly. I was seven when I started lessons, with a lady called Mrs Jones. Not long after that, my parents began wheeling me out to play ‘My Old Man Said Follow The Van’ and ‘Roll Out The Barrel’ at family gatherings and weddings. For all the records in the house and on the radio, I think an old-fashioned sing-song was the form of music my family loved the most.

The piano came in useful when my dad was home on leave. He was a typical British man of the fifties in that he seemed to regard any display of emotion, other than anger, as evidence of a fatal weakness of character. So he wasn’t tactile, he never told you he loved you. But he liked music, and if he heard me playing the piano, I’d get a ‘well done’, maybe an arm around the shoulder, a sense of pride and approval. I was temporarily in his good books. And keeping in his good books was vitally important to me. If I was marginally less terrified of him than I was of my mother, it was only because he wasn’t around as much. At one point, when I was six, my mum had made the decision to move us away from Pinner and all her family, and go with my dad to Wiltshire – he had been posted to RAF Lyneham, near Swindon. I can’t remember much about it. I know I enjoyed playing in the countryside, but I also recall feeling quite disorientated and confused by the change, and falling behind at school as a result. We weren’t there for long – Mum must have realized she had made a mistake very quickly – and after we came back to Pinner, it felt like Dad was someone who visited rather than lived with us.

But when he did visit, things changed. Suddenly, there were all these new rules about everything. I would get into trouble if I kicked my football off the lawn into the flower bed, but I would also get in trouble if I ate celery in what was deemed to be The Wrong Way. The Right Way to eat celery, in the unlikely event that you’re interested, was apparently not to make too loud a crunching sound when you bit into it. Once, he hit me because I was supposedly taking my school blazer off incorrectly; sadly, I seem to have forgotten The Right Way to take off a school blazer, vital though this knowledge obviously was. The scene upset Auntie Win so much that she rushed off in tears to tell my nan what was going on. Presumably worn down by the rows over potty training and constipation, Nan told her not to get involved.

What was going on? I haven’t got a clue. I’ve no more idea of what my father’s problem was than I have about my mother’s. Maybe it had something to do with him being in the forces, where there were rules about everything as well. Maybe he felt a bit of jealousy, like he was shut out of the family because he was away so much: all these rules were his way of imposing himself as the head of the household. Maybe that was the way he had been brought up, although his parents – my grandad Edwin and grandma Ellen – didn’t seem particularly fierce. Or maybe both my parents just found dealing with a child difficult because they’d never done it before. I don’t know. I do know that my dad had an incredibly short fuse and that he didn’t seem to understand how to use words. There was no calm response, no ‘now come on, sit down’. He would just explode. The Dwight Family Temper. It was the bane of my life as a kid, and it remained the bane of my life when it became apparent it was hereditary. Either I was genetically predisposed to losing my rag, or I unconsciously learned by example. Whichever it was, it has proved a catastrophic pain in the arse for me and everyone around me for most of my adult life.

Had it not been for Mum and Dad, I would have had a perfectly normal, even boring fifties childhood: Muffin the Mule on TV and Saturday morning children’s matinees at the Embassy in North Harrow; the Goons on the radio and bread and dripping for tea on a Sunday night. Away from home, I was perfectly happy. At eleven, I moved up to Pinner County Grammar School, where I was conspicuously ordinary. I wasn’t bullied, nor was I a bully. I wasn’t a swot, but I wasn’t a tearaway either; I left that to my friend John Gates, who was one of those kids that seemed to spend their entire childhood in detention or outside the headmaster’s office, without the range of punishments inflicted on him making any difference at all to the way he behaved. I was a bit overweight, but I was all right at sport without any danger of being a star athlete. I played football and tennis – everything except rugby. Because of my size, they put me in the scrum, where my main role involved being repeatedly kicked in the balls by the opposing team’s prop. No thanks.

My best mate was Keith Francis, but he was part of a big circle of friends, girls as well as boys, people I still see now. I occasionally have class reunions at my house. The first time, I was really nervous beforehand: it’s been fifty years, I’m famous, I live in a big house, what are they going to think of me? But they couldn’t have cared less. When they arrived, it might as well have been 1959. No one seemed to have changed that much. John Gates still had a twinkle in his eye that suggested he could be a bit of a handful.

For years, I lived a life in which nothing really happened. The height of excitement was a school trip to Annecy, where we stayed with our French pen pals and gawped at the sight of Citroën 2CVs, which were like no car I’d ever seen on a British road – the seats in them looked like deckchairs. Or the day during the Easter holidays when, for reasons lost in the mists of time, Barry Walden, Keith and I elected to cycle from Pinner to Bournemouth, an idea I began to question the wisdom of when I realized that their bikes had gears and mine did not: there was a lot of frantic pedalling up hills on my part, trying to keep up. The only danger any of us faced was that one of my friends might be bored to death when I started talking about records. It wasn’t enough for me to collect them. Every time I bought one, I kept a note of it in a book. I wrote down the titles of the A and B sides and all the other information off the label: writer, publisher, producer. I then memorized the lot, until I became a walking musical encyclopedia. An innocent enquiry as to why the needle skipped when you tried to play ‘Little Darlin” by The Diamonds would lead to me informing everyone within earshot that it was because ‘Little Darlin” by The Diamonds was on Mercury Records, who were distributed by Pye in the UK, and that Pye were the only label that released 78s made from new-fangled vinyl, rather than old-fashioned shellac, and needles made from shellac responded differently to vinyl.

But I’m not complaining at all about life being dull – I liked it that way. Things were so exhausting at home that a dull life outside the front door seemed oddly welcome, particularly when my parents decided to try living together full-time again. It was just after I started at Pinner County. My dad had been posted to RAF Medmenham in Buckinghamshire and we all moved into a house in Northwood, about ten minutes away from Pinner, 111 Potter Street. We were there for three years, long enough to prove beyond any doubt that the marriage wasn’t working. God, it was miserable: constant fighting, occasionally punctuated by icy silences. You couldn’t relax for a minute. If you spend your life waiting for the next eruption of anger from your mum, or your dad announcing another rule that you’d broken, you end up not knowing what to do: the uncertainty of what’s going to happen next fills you with fear. So I was incredibly insecure, scared of my own shadow. On top of that, I thought I was somehow responsible for the state of my parents’ marriage, because a lot of their rows would be about me. My father would tell me off, my mother would intervene, and there would be a huge argument about how I was being brought up. It didn’t make me feel very good about myself, which manifested in a lack of confidence in my appearance that lasted well into adulthood. For years and years, I couldn’t bear to look at myself in the mirror. I really hated what I saw: I was too fat, I was too short, my face just looked weird, my hair would never do what I wanted it to, including not prematurely fall out. The other lasting effect was a fear of confrontation. That went on for decades. I stayed in bad business relationships and bad personal relationships because I didn’t want to rock the boat.

My response when things got too much was always to run upstairs and lock the door, which is exactly what I used to do when my parents fought. I would go to my bedroom, where I kept everything perfectly neat and ordered. It wasn’t just records I collected, it was comics, books, magazines. I was meticulous about everything. If I wasn’t writing down the details of a new single in my notebook, I was copying all the different singles charts out of Melody Maker, the New Musical Express, Record Mirror and Disc, then compiling the results, averaging them out into a personal chart of charts. I’ve always been a statistics freak. Even now, I get sent the charts every day, the radio chart positions in America, the box office charts for films and Broadway plays. Most artists don’t do that; they’re not interested. When I’m talking to them, I know more about how their single’s doing than they do, which is crazy. The official excuse is that I need to know what’s going on because, these days, I own a company that makes films and manages artists. The truth is that I’d be doing it if I was working in a bank. I’m just an anorak.

A psychologist would probably say that, as a kid, I was trying to create a sense of order in a chaotic life, with my dad coming and going and all the reprimands and rows. I didn’t have any control over that, or over my mother’s moods, but I had control over the stuff in my room. Objects couldn’t do me any harm. I found them comforting. I talked to them, I behaved as if they had feelings. If something got broken, I’d feel really upset, as if I’d killed something. During one particularly bad row, my mother threw a record at my father and it smashed into God knows how many pieces. It was ‘The Robin’s Return’ by Dolores Ventura, an Australian ragtime pianist. I remember thinking, ‘How can you do that? How can you break this beautiful thing?’

My record collection exploded when rock ’n’ roll arrived. There were other exciting changes afoot, things that suggested life might be moving on, out of the grey post-war world, even in suburban north-west London: the arrival in our house of a TV and a washing machine, and the arrival in Pinner High Street of a coffee bar, which seemed unimaginably exotic – until a restaurant that served Chinese food opened in nearby Harrow. But they happened slowly and gradually, a few years between them. Rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t like that. It seemed to come out of nowhere, so fast that it was hard to take in how completely it had altered everything. One minute, pop music meant good old Guy Mitchell and ‘Where Will The Dimple Be?’ and Max Bygraves singing about toothbrushes. It was polite and schmaltzy and aimed at parents, who didn’t want to hear anything too exciting or shocking: they’d had enough of that to last them a lifetime living through a war. The next, it meant Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, these guys who sounded unintelligible, like they were foaming at the mouth when they sang and who your parents hated. Even my mum, the Elvis aficionado, bailed out when Little Richard showed up. She thought ‘Tutti Frutti’ was just a terrible noise.

Rock and roll was like a bomb that wouldn’t stop going off: a series of explosions that came so thick and fast it was hard to work out what was happening. Suddenly, there seemed to be one incredible record after another. ‘Hound Dog’, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, ‘Long Tall Sally’, ‘That’ll Be The Day’, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Reet Petite’. I had to get a Saturday job to keep up. Luckily, Mr Megson at Victoria Wine was looking for someone to help out in the back of the shop, putting empty beer bottles in crates and stacking them up. I think there was a vague idea of my saving up some money, but I should have realized that idea was doomed to failure from the start: Victoria Wine was next door to another record shop. Mr Megson might as well have just put the ten bob he paid me straight into their till and cut out the middleman. It was an early example of what turned out to be a lifelong attitude to shopping: I’m just not very good at keeping money in my pocket if there’s something I want to buy.

Sixty years on, it’s hard to explain how revolutionary and shocking rock and roll seemed. Not just the music: the whole culture it represented, the clothes and the films and the attitude. It felt like the first thing that teenagers really owned, that was aimed exclusively at us, that made us feel different from our parents, that made us feel we could achieve something. It’s also hard to explain the extent to which the older generation despised it. Take every example of moral panic pop music has provoked since – punk and gangster rap, mods and rockers and heavy metal – then add them all together and double it: that’s how much outrage rock and roll caused. People fucking hated it. And no one hated it more than my father. He obviously disliked the music itself – he liked Frank Sinatra – but more than that, he hated its social impact, he thought the whole thing was morally wrong: ‘Look at the way they dress, the way they act, swivelling their hips, showing their dicks. You are not to get involved.’ If I did, I was going to turn into something called a wide boy. A wide boy, in case you don’t know, is an old British term for a kind of petty criminal – a confidence trickster, someone who does a bit of wheeler-dealing or runs the odd scam. Presumably already alive to the thought that I might go off the rails thanks to my inability to eat celery in the correct way, he resolutely believed that rock and roll was going to result in my utter degradation. The mere mention of Elvis or Little Richard would set him off on an angry lecture in which my inevitable transformation into a wide boy figured heavily: one minute I’d be happily listening to ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’, the next thing you knew, I was apparently going to be fencing stolen nylons or duping people into playing Find-the-Lady on the mean streets of Pinner.

There didn’t seem much danger of that happening to me – there are Benedictine monks wilder than I was as a teenager – but my father was taking no risks. By the time I started at Pinner County Grammar School in 1958, you could see the way people dressed was changing, but I was expressly forbidden from wearing anything that made me look like I had some connection to rock and roll. Keith Francis was cutting a dash in a pair of winkle-picker shoes that had pointed toes so long the ends of them seemed to arrive in class several minutes before he did. I was still dressed like a miniature version of my father. My shoes were, depressingly, the same length as my feet. The closest I got to sartorial rebellion was my prescription glasses, or rather, how much I wore my prescription glasses. They were only supposed to be used for looking at the blackboard. Labouring under the demented misapprehension that they made me look like Buddy Holly, I wore them all the time, completely ruining my eyesight in the process. Then I had to wear them all the time.

My failing eyesight also had unexpected consequences when it came to sexual exploration. I can’t remember the exact circumstances in which my dad caught me masturbating. I think I was attempting to dispose of the evidence rather than engaged in the act itself, but I do remember I wasn’t as mortified as I should have been, largely because I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was a real late developer when it came to sex. I wasn’t really interested in it at all until I was well into my twenties, although I made an impressively concerted effort to make up for lost time after that. But at school, I’d listen to my friends talking about it, and it would just leave me really bemused: ‘Yeah, I took her to the cinema, got a bit of tit.’ How? Why? What was that supposed to mean?

So I think what I was doing was more about experiencing a pleasant sensation rather than a frantic expression of my burgeoning sexuality. Either way, when my dad caught me, he came out with the well-worn line about how if I kept Doing That, I would go blind. Obviously, boys across the country were given exactly the same warning, realized it was a load of rubbish and blithely ignored it. I, on the other hand, found it preying on my mind. What if it was true? I’d already damaged my eyesight with my misguided attempt to look like Buddy Holly; maybe this would finish it off. I decided it was better not to take the risk. While plenty of musicians will tell you that Buddy Holly had a massive impact on their lives, I’m probably the only musician that can say he inadvertently stopped me wanking, unless Holly happened to walk in on The Big Bopper doing it while they were on tour or something.

But despite all the rules about clothes and warnings about my sure-fire descent into criminality, it was too late for my dad to tell me not to get involved in rock and roll. I was already in it up to my neck. I saw Loving You and The Girl Can’t Help It at the cinema. I started going to see live shows. A big crowd from school headed up to the Harrow Granada every week: me, Keith, Kaye Midlane, Barry Walden and Janet Richie were the most devoted, regular members, along with a guy called Michael Johnson, who was the only person I’d met who seemed just as obsessed as me about music. Sometimes, he even seemed to know things I didn’t. A couple of years later, it was he who came to school brandishing a copy of ‘Love Me Do’ by The Beatles, whoever they were, claiming that they were going to be the biggest thing since Elvis. I thought that was laying it on a bit thick until he played it to me, when I decided he might have a point: another musical obsession was sparked.

A ticket for the Granada was two and sixpence or five bob if you wanted the posh seats. Either felt like good value, because they packed the shows with singers and bands. You would see ten artists in a night: two songs from each until the headlining act, who would do four or five. Everybody seemed to play there, sooner or later. Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran, Johnny And The Hurricanes. If by any chance someone declined to grace the Harrow Granada with their presence, you could get the tube up to London: that’s where I saw Cliff Richard And The Drifters at the Palladium, before his backing band changed their name to The Shadows. Back in the suburbs, other, smaller venues started putting on bands: the South Harrow British Legion, the Kenton Conservative Club. You could easily see two or three gigs a week, as long as you had the money. The funny thing is, I can’t recall ever seeing a bad gig, or coming home disappointed, although some of the shows must have been terrible. The sound must have been dreadful. I’m pretty certain that the South Harrow British Legion in 1960 wasn’t in possession of a PA system capable of fully conveying the brutal, feral power of rock and roll.

And when my dad wasn’t around, I played Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis songs on the piano. They were my real idols. It wasn’t just their style of playing, although that was fabulous: they played with such aggression, like they were assaulting the keyboard. It was the way they stood up while they played, the way they kicked the stool and jumped on the piano. They made playing the piano seem as visually exciting and sexy and outrageous as playing the guitar or being a vocalist. I’d never realized it could be any of those things before.

I was inspired enough to play a few gigs at local youth clubs, with a band called The Corvettes. It was nothing serious; the other members were all still at school too – they went to Northwood, the local secondary modern – and it only lasted a few months: most of the gigs we played, we got paid in Coca-Cola. But suddenly, I had an idea what I wanted to do with my life and it didn’t involve my father’s plans for me, which centred around either joining the RAF or working in a bank. I would never have dared say it aloud, but I quietly decided he could stick both those plans up his arse. Maybe rock and roll had changed me in the rebellious way Dad feared after all.

Or maybe we never really had anything in common, except football. All the happy childhood memories of my dad are related to that: he came from a family of football fanatics. Two of his nephews were professional players, both for Fulham in south-west London – Roy Dwight and John Ashen. As a treat, he would take me to watch them from the touchline at Craven Cottage, in the days when Jimmy Hill was their inside right and Bedford Jezzard was their highest scorer. Even off the pitch, Roy and John seemed like incredibly glamorous figures to me; I was always slightly in awe when I met them. After his career ended, John became a very astute businessman with a thing for American cars – he’d turn up to visit us in Pinner with his wife, Bet, parking an unreal-looking Cadillac or a Chevrolet outside the house. And Roy was a fantastic player, a right-winger who transferred to Nottingham Forest. He played for them in the 1959 FA Cup Final. I watched it at home on TV, with a supply of chocolate eggs I’d saved from Easter in anticipation of this momentous event. I didn’t eat the chocolate so much as cram it in my mouth in a state of hysteria. I couldn’t believe what was happening on the screen. After ten minutes, Roy scored the opening goal. He was already on the verge of a call-up for England. Now he’d surely sealed his fate: my cousin – an actual relative of mine – was going to play for England. It seemed as unbelievable as John’s taste in cars. Fifteen minutes later, they were carrying him off on a stretcher. He’d broken his leg in a tackle and that was what sealed his fate. His football career was basically over. He tried, but he was never the same player again. He ended up becoming a PE teacher at a boys’ school in south London.

My dad’s team were the substantially less glamorous and awe-inducing Watford. I was six when he first took me to see them play. They were toiling away at the bottom of something called the Third Division South, which was as low as you could get in the football league without being thrown out entirely. In fact, not long before I started going to Watford games, they had played so badly that they actually had been thrown out of the football league; they were allowed to stay after applying for re-election. Their ground at Vicarage Road seemed to tell you all you needed to know about the team. It only had two very old, very rickety, very small covered stands. It doubled as a greyhound racing track. If I’d had any sense, I would have taken one look at it, considered Watford’s recent form, and opted to support a team that could actually play football. I could have saved myself twenty years of almost unmitigated misery. But football doesn’t work like that, or at least it shouldn’t. It’s in your blood: Watford were my dad’s team, therefore Watford were my team.

And besides, I didn’t care about the ground, or the hopelessness of the team, or the freezing cold. I loved it all straight away. The thrill of seeing live sport for the first time, the excitement of getting the train to Watford and walking through the town to the ground, the newspaper sellers that came round at half-time and told you the scores in other games, the ritual of always standing in the same spot on the terraces, an area by the Shrodells Stand called The Bend. It was like taking a drug to which you instantly became addicted. I was as obsessive about football as I was about music: when I wasn’t compiling my chart of charts in my bedroom, I was cutting football league ladders out of my comics, sticking them to my wall and making sure the scores on them were completely up to date. It’s one addiction I’ve never shaken, because I’ve never wanted to, and it was hereditary, passed on to me by my dad.

When I was eleven, my piano teacher had put me forward for the Royal Academy of Music in central London. I passed the exam, and for the next five years that was my Saturday: studying classical music in the morning, Watford in the afternoon. I preferred the latter to the former. At the time, the Royal Academy of Music seemed to smell of fear. Everything about it was intimidating: the huge, imposing Edwardian building on Marylebone Road, its august history of turning out composers and conductors, the fact that anything that wasn’t classical music was expressly forbidden. It’s completely different today – whenever I go there now, it’s a really joyful place; the students are encouraged to go off and do pop or jazz or their own writing as well as their classical training. But back then, even talking about rock and roll at the Royal Academy would have been sacrilege, like turning up to church and telling the vicar that you’re really interested in worshipping Satan.

Sometimes the Royal Academy was fun. I had a great teacher called Helen Piena, I loved singing in the choir and I really enjoyed playing Mozart and Bach and Beethoven and Chopin, the melodic stuff. Other times, it seemed like a real drag. I was a lazy student. Some weeks, if I’d forgotten to do my homework, I didn’t bother to turn up at all. I’d ring from home, putting on a voice and saying I was ill, and then – so my mum didn’t realize I was dodging – take the train up to Baker Street. Then I’d go and sit on the tube. I’d go round and round the Circle Line for three and a half hours, reading The Pan Book of Horror Stories instead of practising Bartók. I knew I didn’t want to be a classical musician. For one thing, I wasn’t good enough. I don’t have the hands for it. My fingers are short for a piano player. If you see a photo of a concert pianist, they’ve all got hands like tarantulas. And for another, it just wasn’t what I wanted out of music – having everything regimented, playing the right notes at the right time with the right feeling, no room for improvisation.

In a way, it’s ironic that I ended up being made a Doctor and an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy years later – I was never going to win an award for star pupil while I was there. But in another way, it isn’t ironic at all. I’d never, ever say the Royal Academy was a waste of time for me. I’m really proud to have gone there. I’ve done benefit gigs and raised money for a new pipe organ for them; I’ve toured with the Royal Academy Symphony Orchestra in Britain and America; I pay for eight scholarships there every year. The place was full of people I’d end up working with, years later, when I became Elton John: the producer Chris Thomas, the arranger Paul Buckmaster, harpist Skaila Kanga and percussionist Ray Cooper. And what I learned there seeped into my music: it taught me about collaboration, about chord structures and how to put a song together. It made me interested in writing with more than three or four chords. If you listen to the Elton John album, and virtually every album I made afterwards, you can hear the influence of classical music and of the Royal Academy on it somewhere.

It was while I was studying at the Royal Academy that my parents finally got divorced. In fairness to them, they had tried to make their marriage work, even though it was obvious they couldn’t bear each other; I suspect because they wanted to give me stability. It was completely the wrong thing to do, but they made an effort. Then, in 1960, my father was posted to Harrogate in Yorkshire, and while he was there, Mum met someone else. And that was the end of that.

My mum and I moved in with her new partner, Fred, who was a painter and decorator. It was a really hard time financially. Fred was a divorcee too; he had an ex-wife and four children, so money was really tight. We lived in a horrible flat in Croxley Green, with peeling wallpaper and damp. Fred worked really hard. He did window cleaning and odd jobs on top of his decorating: anything to make sure we had food on the table. It was tough on him and it was tough on my mum. Uncle Reg had been right – there really was a stigma around getting divorced in those days.

But I was so happy they’d got divorced. The daily friction of my mum and dad being together was gone. Mum had got what she wanted – rid of my father – and, for a while at least, it seemed to change her. She was happy, and that happiness trickled down to me. There were fewer moods, less criticism. And I really liked Fred. He was generous and big-hearted and easy-going. He saved up and got me a drop-handlebar bike. He thought it was funny when I started saying his name backwards and calling him Derf, a nickname that stuck. There weren’t any more restrictions on what I wore. I started calling Derf my stepdad years before he and Mum got married.

Best of all, Derf liked rock and roll. He and Mum were really supportive of my music career. I suppose there was an added incentive for my mum, because she knew that encouraging me would infuriate my father, but, for a while at least, she seemed to be my biggest fan. And Derf got me my first paying gig, as a pianist in the Northwood Hills Hotel, which wasn’t a hotel at all, it was a pub. Derf was having a pint there when he learned from the landlord that their regular pianist had quit, and suggested they give me a try. I would play everything I could think of. Jim Reeves songs, Johnnie Ray, Elvis Presley, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’. Al Jolson numbers: they loved Al Jolson. But not as much as they loved old British pub songs that everyone could sing along to: ‘Down At The Old Bull And Bush’, ‘Any Old Iron’, ‘My Old Man’, the same things my family liked to have a sing-song to after a couple of drinks. I made really good money. My pay was only a pound a night, three nights a week, but Derf would come with me and take a pint pot around and collect tips. Sometimes I could end up with £15 a week, which was a massive amount for a fifteen-year-old kid to be making in the early sixties. I saved up and bought an electric piano – a Hohner Pianette – and a microphone so I could make myself better heard over the noise of the pub.

As well as earning me money, the pub pianist’s job had another important function. It made me pretty fearless as a performer, because the Northwood Hills Hotel was by no stretch of the imagination Britain’s most salubrious venue. I played in the public bar, not the more upscale saloon next door, and virtually every night, when enough booze had been consumed, there would be a fight. I don’t mean a verbal altercation, I mean a proper fight: glasses flying, tables being pushed over. At first I’d try and keep playing, in the vain hope that music might soothe the situation. If a burst of ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ failed to work the intended magic, then I would have to turn to a group of travellers who regularly came to the pub for help. I’d become friendly with one of their daughters – she’d even asked me around to their caravan for dinner – and they would make sure I was all right when the pub kicked off. And if they weren’t in that night, I would have to deploy my last resort option. This involved climbing out of the window next to the piano and coming back later when things had calmed down. It was terrifying, but at least it made me mentally tough when it came to playing live. I know artists who’ve been completely destroyed by the experience of playing a bad gig to an unappreciative audience. I’ve played bad gigs to unappreciative audiences as well, but they’ve never impacted on me too deeply. If I don’t actually have to stop performing and climb out of a window in fear of my life, it’s still an improvement on how I started out.

Up in Yorkshire, my dad met a woman called Edna. They got married, moved to Essex and opened a paper shop. He must have been happier – they had four more sons, all of whom adored him – but he didn’t seem any different to me. It was like he didn’t know any other way to behave around me. He was still distant and strict, still moaning about the terrible influence of rock and roll, still consumed by the idea that I was going to turn into a wide boy and bring disgrace on the Dwight family name. Getting on the Green Line bus to Essex to visit him was the reliable low point of any week. I stopped going to Watford with him: I was old enough to stand on The Bend by myself.

Dad must have gone berserk when he found out I was planning on leaving school before sitting my A-levels, to take up a job in the music business. He really didn’t think it was a suitable career for a boy with a grammar school education. To make matters worse, it was his own nephew who got me the job: my cousin Roy, he of the goal in the FA Cup, who had stayed on good terms with my mum after the divorce. Footballers always seemed to have links with the music industry and he was friends with a guy called Tony Hiller, who was the general manager of the Mills Music publishing company in Denmark Street, Britain’s answer to Tin Pan Alley. Via Roy, I found out that there was a job going in the packing department – it wasn’t much, the pay was £4 a week, but it was a foot in the door. And I knew I had no chance of passing my A-levels anyway. Somewhere between the Royal Academy, practising playing the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis and climbing out of the window of the Northwood Hills Hotel on a regular basis, my schoolwork had started to slide.

I say he must have gone berserk, because I honestly can’t remember his reaction. I know he wrote to my mum demanding that she stop me, but you can imagine how that went down: she was absolutely delighted. Everyone else seemed pleased for me – Mum and Derf, even my school headmaster, which seemed almost miraculous. Mr Westgate-Smith was a very stern, strict man. I was absolutely terrified when I went to see him, to explain about the job. But he was really wonderful. He said he knew how much I loved music, he knew about the Royal Academy, and that he would let me leave if I promised to work hard and give everything I had to the project. I was amazed, but he meant it. He could easily have refused; I would have gone anyway, but I would have left school under a cloud. Instead he was really supportive. Years later, after I became successful, he used to write to me telling me how proud he was of what I’d done.

And in a perverse way, my dad’s attitude helped me, too. He never changed his mind about my career choice. He never said well done. Not long ago, his wife Edna wrote to me and told me that he was proud of me in his own way; it just wasn’t in his make-up to express it. But the fact that he never expressed it instilled in me a desire to show him that I’d made the right decision. It made me driven. I thought the more successful I got, the more it proved him wrong, whether he acknowledged it or not. Even today, I still sometimes think that I’m trying to show my father what I’m made of, and he’s been dead since 1991.





two


With perfect timing, I arrived at my first job in Denmark Street just as Denmark Street went into terminal decline. Ten years before, it had been the centre of the British music industry, where writers went to sell their songs to publishers, who’d in turn sell them to artists. Then The Beatles and Bob Dylan had come along and changed everything. They didn’t need the help of professional songwriters: it turned out they were professional songwriters. More bands started appearing with a songwriter in their ranks: The Kinks, The Who, The Rolling Stones. It was obvious that was how things were going to be from now on. There was still just about enough work to keep Denmark Street going – not every new band could write their own material and there was still an army of vocalists and easy-listening crooners who sourced their songs the old-fashioned way – but the writing was on the wall.

Even my new job at Mills Music seemed like a throwback to a bygone era. It had nothing to do with pop at all. My duties consisted of parcelling up sheet music for brass bands and taking the packages to the post office opposite the Shaftesbury Theatre. I wasn’t even in the main building: the packing department was round the back. That it couldn’t have been less glamorous was underlined when Chelsea’s star midfielder Terry Venables and a handful of his teammates unexpectedly turned up there one afternoon. They were being pursued by the press – there was a scandal at the time about them going out drinking after a game against the manager’s orders – and had opted to hide out in my new workplace. They knew Mills Music well – they were footballing friends, like my cousin Roy – and had clearly realized that the packing department was literally the last place in London you would look if you were searching for someone famous.

But I had a ball. It was a foot in the door of the music industry. And even if Denmark Street was on its last legs, it still held a magic for me. There was a kind of glamour there, albeit fading glamour. There were guitar shops and recording studios. You would get your lunch at the Gioconda coffee bar or the Lancaster Grill on Charing Cross Road. You wouldn’t see anybody famous in there – they were restaurants for people who couldn’t afford any better – but there was a buzz about them: they were full of hopefuls, would-bes, would-never-bes, people who wanted to be spotted. People, I suppose, like me.

Back in Pinner, my mum, Derf and I had moved out of the rented flat in Croxley Green, with the damp and the peeling wallpaper, into a new place, a few miles away in Northwood Hills, not far from the pub whose window I’d scrambled out of on a regular basis. Frome Court looked like an ordinary detached suburban house from the outside, but inside it was divided up into two-bedroom flats. Ours was 3A. It felt like a home, unlike our previous residence, which had felt like a punishment for Mum and Derf both getting divorced: you’ve done something wrong, so you have to live here. And I was playing the electric piano I’d bought with the proceeds from my pub gig in a new band, started by another ex-member of The Corvettes, Stuart A Brown. Bluesology were much more serious. We had ambition: Stuart was a really good-looking guy, convinced he was going to be a star. We had a saxophone player. We had a set full of obscure blues tracks by Jimmy Witherspoon and J. B. Lenoir that we rehearsed in a Northwood pub called the Gate. We even had a manager, a Soho jeweller called Arnold Tendler: our drummer, Mick Inkpen, worked for him. Arnold was a sweet little man who wanted to get into the music business, and had the terrible misfortune to pick Bluesology as his big investment opportunity after Mick convinced him to come and see a gig. He sank his money into equipment for us and stage outfits – identical polo neck jumpers, trousers and shoes – and got absolutely no return, unless you counted us constantly moaning at him when things went wrong.

We started playing gigs around London, and Arnold paid for us to record a demo at a studio in a prefabricated hut in Rickmansworth. By some miracle, Arnold managed to get the demo to Fontana Records. More miraculous still, they put out a single, a song I’d written – or rather, the only song I’d written – called ‘Come Back Baby’. It did absolutely nothing. It was played a couple of times on the radio, I suspect on the less salubrious pirate stations where they would play anything if the record label bunged them some dosh. There was a rumour it was going to be on Juke Box Jury one week, and we duly crowded round the television. It wasn’t on Juke Box Jury. Then we put out another single, also written by me, called ‘Mr Frantic’. This time, there wasn’t even a rumour it was going to be on Juke Box Jury. It just vanished.

Towards the end of 1965, we got a job with Roy Tempest, an agent who specialized in bringing black American artists over to Britain. He had a fish tank full of piranhas in his office, and his business practices were as sharp as their teeth. If he couldn’t get The Temptations or The Drifters to cross the Atlantic, he would find a handful of unknown black singers in London, put them in suits and book them on a nightclub tour, billed as The Temptin’ Temptations or The Fabulous Drifters. When anyone complained, he would feign ignorance: ‘Of course they’re not The Temptations! They’re The Temptin’ Temptations! Completely different band!’ So Roy Tempest effectively invented the tribute act.

In a sense, Bluesology got off lightly in their dealings with him. At least the artists for whom we were employed as a backing band were the real thing: Major Lance, Patti LaBelle And The Blue Belles, Fontella Bass, Lee Dorsey. And the work meant I could stop parcelling up brass band music for a living and become a professional musician. I didn’t really have a choice. There was no way I could hold down a day job and work to the schedule of gigs that Tempest set up. Unfortunately, the pay was terrible. Bluesology got fifteen quid a week, out of which we had to pay for petrol for the van and food and lodgings: if you played too far away from London to drive home after the gig, you would book into a B&B at five bob a night. I’m sure the stars we were backing weren’t getting much more. The workload was punishing. Up and down the motorway, night after night. We played the big regional clubs: the Oasis in Manchester, the Mojo in Sheffield, the Place in Hanley, Club A Go Go in Newcastle, Clouds in Derby. We played the cool London clubs: Sybilla’s, The Scotch of St James, where The Beatles and the Stones drank whisky and Coke, and the Cromwellian, with its remarkable barman, Harry Heart, a man almost as famous as the pop stars he served. Harry was very camp, talked in Polari and kept a mysterious vase full of clear liquid on the counter. The mystery was solved when you offered to buy him a drink: ‘Gin and tonic, please, and have one for yourself, Harry.’ He’d say, ‘Ooh, thank you, love, bona, bona, just one for the pot, then.’ And he’d pour out a measure of gin, throw it into the vase and drink out of it between serving people. The real mystery was how a man who apparently drank a large vase full of neat gin on a nightly basis remained vertical as the evening wore on.

And we played the most bizarre clubs. There was a place in Harlesden that was basically someone’s front room, and a place in Spitalfields where, for reasons I never quite established, they had a boxing ring instead of a stage. We played a lot of black clubs, which should have been intimidating – a bunch of white kids from the suburbs trying to play black music to a black audience – but somehow never was. For one thing, the audiences just seemed to love the music. And for another, if you’ve spent your teens trying to play ‘Roll Out The Barrel’ while the clientele of a Northwood Hills pub beat the living shit out of each other, you don’t scare that easily.

In fact, the only time I felt uneasy was in Balloch, just outside Glasgow. We arrived at the venue to discover the stage was about nine feet tall. This, it quickly transpired, was a security measure: it stopped the audience trying to climb onstage and kill the musicians. With that particular avenue of pleasure closed off to them, they settled instead for trying to kill each other. When they arrived, they lined up on either side of the club. The opening note of our set was clearly the agreed signal for the evening’s festivities to begin. Suddenly, there were pint glasses flying and punches being thrown. It wasn’t a gig so much as a small riot with accompaniment from an r’n’b band. It made Saturday night in the Northwood Hills look like the State Opening of Parliament.

We played two gigs a night, almost every night – more if we tried to supplement our income by playing our own shows. One Saturday, Roy booked us to play an American services club in Lancaster Gate at 2 p.m. Then we got in the van and drove to Birmingham, and played two shows he had booked us there – at the Ritz and then the Plaza. Then we got back in the van again, drove back to London and played a show he’d booked us at Count Suckle’s Cue club in Paddington. The Cue was a really cutting-edge black club that mixed soul and ska, one of the first places in London to book not just US artists but West Indian ones too. To be honest, my main memory of it isn’t its groundbreaking cocktail of American and Jamaican music, but the fact that it had a food counter that served fantastic Cornish pasties. Even the most obsessive music fan develops a slightly different sense of priorities when it’s six in the morning and they’re starving to death.

Sometimes Roy Tempest got the bookings catastrophically wrong. He brought The Ink Spots over, apparently in the belief that, if they were a black American vocal group, they must be a soul band. But they were a vocal harmony group from a completely different era, pre-rock ‘n’ roll. They’d start singing ‘Whispering Grass’ or ‘Back In Your Own Back Yard’ and the audiences would just dissipate – they were wonderful songs, but not what the kids in the soul clubs wanted to hear. It was heartbreaking – until we got to the Twisted Wheel in Manchester. The audience there were such music lovers, so knowledgeable about black music’s history, that they completely got it. They turned up with their parents’ 78s for The Ink Spots to sign. At the end of the set they literally lifted them off the stage and carried them around the club on their shoulders. People talk about Swinging London in the mid-sixties, but those kids in the Twisted Wheel were so clued-up, so switched-on, so much hipper than anyone else in the country.

In truth, I didn’t care about the money or the workload, or the occasional bad gig. The whole thing was a dream come true for me. I was playing with artists whose records I collected. My favourite was Billy Stewart, an absolutely enormous guy from Washington DC, signed to Chess Records. He was an amazing singer, who had turned his weight problem into a kind of gimmick. His songs kept alluding to it: ‘she said I was her pride and joy, that she was in love with a fat boy’. He had a legendary temper – it was rumoured that when a secretary at Chess took too long to buzz him into the building he had expressed his irritation by pulling a gun and shooting the door handle off – and, we quickly discovered, a legendary bladder. If Billy asked for the van to pull over on the motorway because he needed to pee, you had to cancel whatever plans you had for the rest of the evening. You were there for hours. The noise from the bushes was incredible: it sounded like someone filling a swimming pool with a fire hose.

Playing with these people was terrifying, and not merely because some of them were rumoured to shoot things when they lost their temper. Their sheer talent was scary. It was an incredible education. It wasn’t just the quality of their voices, it was that they were fantastic entertainers. The way they moved, the way they spoke between songs, the way they could manipulate an audience, the way they dressed. They had such style, such panache. Sometimes they displayed some peculiar quirks – for some reason, Patti Labelle insisted on favouring the audience with a version of ‘Danny Boy’ at every gig – but you could learn so much about artistry by watching them onstage for an hour. I couldn’t believe they were just cult figures over here. They’d had big American hits, but in Britain, white pop stars had seized on their songs, covered them and invariably been more successful. Wayne Fontana And The Mindbenders seemed to be the chief offenders: they’d re-recorded Major Lance’s ‘Um Um Um Um Um Um’ and Patti LaBelle’s ‘A Groovy Kind Of Love’ and vastly outsold the originals. Billy Stewart’s ‘Sitting In The Park’ had flopped while Georgie Fame had the hit. You could tell this rankled with them, and understandably so. In fact, I got a good idea just how much it rankled with them when a mod in the audience at the Ricky-Tick club in Windsor made the mistake of shouting out ‘We want Georgie Fame!’ in a sarcastic voice, as Billy Stewart sang ‘Sitting In The Park’. I’ve never seen a man that size move so fast. He jumped offstage, into the crowd, and went after him. The kid literally ran out of the club in fear for his life, as indeed you might if a trigger-happy twenty-four-stone soul singer had taken a sudden dislike to you.

In March 1966, Bluesology went to Hamburg – carrying our instruments on the ferry, then on a train – to play at the Top Ten Club on the Reeperbahn. It was legendary, because it was one of the places The Beatles had played before they were famous. They were living in the club’s attic when they made their first single with Tony Sheridan. The set-up hadn’t changed in the intervening five years. The accommodation for bands was still in the attic. There were still brothels with prostitutes sitting in the windows just down the street, and at the club you were still expected to play five hours a night, alternating with another band: an hour on, an hour off, while the clientele drifted in and out. It was easy to imagine The Beatles living the same life, not least because it looked suspiciously like the bed sheets in the attic hadn’t been changed since John and Paul had slept in them.

We played as Bluesology and we also backed a Scottish singer called Isabel Bond, who’d relocated from Glasgow to Germany. She was hilarious, this sweet-looking dark-haired girl who turned out to be the most foul-mouthed woman I’ve ever met. She’d sing old standards and change the words so they were filthy. She’s the only singer I’ve ever heard who could work the phrase ‘give us a wank’ into ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart’.

But I was so innocent. I barely drank and I still wasn’t interested in sex, largely because I’d managed to get to the age of nineteen without gaining any real knowledge or understanding of what sex actually was. Aside from my father’s questionable assertion that masturbating made you go blind, nobody had furnished me with any information about what you did or were supposed to do. I had no idea about penetration, no idea what a blow job was. As a result, I’m probably the only British musician of the sixties who went to work on the Reeperbahn and came back still in possession of his virginity. There I was, in one of Europe’s most notorious fleshpots, every conceivable kink and persuasion catered for, and the raciest thing I did was buy a pair of flared trousers from a department store. All I cared about was playing and going to German record shops. I was totally absorbed by music. I was incredibly ambitious.

And, in my heart, I knew Bluesology weren’t going to make it. We weren’t good enough. It was obvious. We’d gone from playing obscure blues to playing the same soul songs that virtually every British r’n’b band played in the mid-sixties – ‘In The Midnight Hour’, ‘Hold On I’m Coming’. You could hear The Alan Bown Set or The Mike Cotton Sound playing them better than us. There were superior vocalists to Stuart out there, and there were certainly far superior organ players to me. I was a pianist, I wanted to hammer the keys like Little Richard, and if you try and do that on an organ, the sound it makes can ruin your whole day. I didn’t have any of the technical knowledge you need to play an organ properly. The worst instrument was the Hammond B-12 that was permanently installed on the stage of the Flamingo club in Wardour Street. It was an enormous wooden thing, like playing a chest of drawers. It was covered in switches and levers, draw bars and pedals. Stevie Winwood or Manfred Mann would deploy all of them to make the Hammond scream and sing and soar. I, on the other hand, didn’t dare touch them because I had literally no idea what any of them did. Even the little Vox Continental I usually played was a technical minefield. One key had a habit of sticking down. It happened midway through a set at The Scotch of St James. One minute I was playing ‘Land Of A Thousand Dances’, the next my organ was making a noise that sounded like the Luftwaffe had turned up over London to give the Blitz another go. The rest of the band gamely continued dancing in the alley with Long Tall Sally and twisting with Lucy doing the Watusi while I attempted to fix the situation by panicking wildly. I was contemplating calling 999 when Eric Burdon, the lead singer of The Animals, got onstage. A man clearly blessed with the complex technical expertise I lacked – The Animals’ keyboard player Alan Price was a genius on the Vox Continental – he thumped the organ with his fist and the key was released.

‘That happens to Alan all the time,’ he nodded, and walked off.

So we weren’t as good as the bands who were doing the same thing as us, and the bands who were doing the same thing as us weren’t as good as the bands who wrote their own material. When Bluesology were booked to play at the Cedar Club in Birmingham, we arrived early and found a rehearsal in progress. It was The Move, a local quintet who were obviously on the verge of big things. They had a wild stage act, a manager with the gift of the gab and a guitarist called Roy Wood who could write songs. We snuck in and watched them. Not only did they sound amazing, Roy Wood’s songs sounded better than the cover versions they played. Only someone who was clinically insane would have said that about the handful of tracks I’d written for Bluesology. To be honest, I’d only written them because I absolutely had to, because we had one of our very infrequent recording sessions coming up and needed at least some material of our own. I wasn’t exactly pouring my heart and soul into them, and you could tell. But I can remember watching The Move and having a kind of revelation. This is it, isn’t it? This is the way forward. This is what I should be doing.

In fact, I might have left Bluesology sooner had Long John Baldry not come into the picture. We got the job with him because we were in the right place at the right time. Bluesology just happened to be performing in the south of France when Long John Baldry found himself without a backing band to play the Papagayo club in St-Tropez. His original idea was to form another band like Steampacket with himself, Stuart Brown, a boy called Alan Walker – who I think got the job because Baldry fancied him – singing, and a girl who had just arrived in London from the US, Marsha Hunt, taking the female vocalist’s role. Bluesology were to be his backing band, at least after he’d revamped the line-up slightly: a couple of musicians he didn’t like got the push and were replaced with ones he thought were better suited. It wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I thought that line-up was a real step down for John. I knew how good Julie Driscoll and Rod were. I’d seen Rod playing with John at the Kenton Conservative Club when the band were still called The Hoochie Coochie Men and I was still at school, and he’d blown me away. And Brian Auger was a real musician’s musician: he didn’t seem like the kind of organist who’d ever require the lead singer of The Animals to climb onstage and offer a helpful thump in the middle of a show.

So I had my reservations. The line-up with Alan Walker and Marsha Hunt didn’t last long anyway: Marsha looked incredible, this gorgeous, tall black girl, but she wasn’t a great singer. Even so, I had to admit that, with Long John Baldry around, things suddenly got a lot more interesting. Indeed, if you ever feel your life is getting a little routine, a bit humdrum, I can wholeheartedly recommend going on tour in the company of a hugely eccentric six-foot-seven gay blues singer with a drink problem. You’ll find things liven up quite considerably.

I just loved John’s company. He’d pick me up outside Frome Court in his van, which came complete with its own record player, alerting me to his arrival by leaning out of the window and screaming ‘REGGIE!’ at the top of his voice. His life seemed packed with incident, often linked to his boozing, which I quickly worked out was self-destructive: the big clue came when we played the Links Pavilion in Cromer and he got so pissed after the show that he fell down a nearby cliff in his white suit. But I didn’t realize that he was gay. I know it seems incredible in retrospect. This was a man who called himself Ada, referred to other men as ‘she’ or ‘her’ and continually gave you in-depth reports on the state of his sex life: ‘I’ve got this new boyfriend called Ozzie – darling, he spins around on my dick.’ But again, I was so naive, I honestly had no real understanding of what being gay meant, and I certainly didn’t know that the term might have applied to me. I’d just sit there thinking, ‘What? He spins around on your dick? How? Why? What on earth are you talking about?’

It was hugely entertaining, but none of it changed the fact that I didn’t want to be an organist, I didn’t want to be a backing musician and I didn’t want to be in Bluesology. Which is why I ended up at Liberty Records’ new offices, just off Piccadilly, prefacing my audition for the label by pouring out my woes: the stasis of Bluesology’s career, the horror of the cabaret circuit, the tape machine and its role in our legendary non-performance of ‘Let The Heartaches Begin’.

On the other side of the desk, Ray Williams nodded sympathetically. He was very blond, very handsome, very well dressed and very young. As it turned out, he was so young that he didn’t have the power to give anyone a contract. The decision lay with his bosses. They might have signed me had I not chosen Jim Reeves’s ‘He’ll Have To Go’ as my audition piece. My logic was that everybody else would sing something like ‘My Girl’ or a Motown track, so I’d do something different and stand out. And I really love ‘He’ll Have To Go’. I felt confident singing it: it used to knock them dead in the Northwood Hills public bar. Had I thought twice, I might have realized that it wasn’t going to muster much enthusiasm among people who were trying to start a progressive rock label. Liberty signed The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, The Groundhogs and The Idle Race, a psychedelic band fronted by Jeff Lynne, who went on to form the Electric Light Orchestra. The last thing they wanted was Pinner’s answer to Jim Reeves.

Then again, maybe singing ‘He’ll Have To Go’ was exactly the right thing to do. If I’d passed the audition, Ray might not have handed me the envelope containing Bernie’s lyrics. And if he hadn’t handed me Bernie’s lyrics, I don’t really know what would have happened, although I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, because it seems like such an incredible twist of fate. I should point out that Ray’s office was chaos. There were piles of reel-to-reel tapes and hundreds of envelopes everywhere: he hadn’t just been contacted by every aspiring musician and writer in Britain, but by every nutcase who’d seen Liberty’s ‘talent wanted’ advert too. He seemed to pull the envelope out at random, just to give me something to take away, so the meeting didn’t feel like a dead loss – I can’t remember if he’d even opened it or not before he gave it to me. And yet that envelope had my future in it: everything that’s happened to me since happened because of what it contained. You try and figure that out without giving yourself a headache.

Who knows? Maybe I would have found another writing partner, or joined another band, or made my way as a musician without it. But I do know my life and my career would have been very different, most likely substantially worse – it’s hard to see how it could have turned out any better – and I suspect you wouldn’t be reading this now.



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Liberty Records weren’t interested in the first songs that Bernie and I wrote together, so Ray offered to sign us to a publishing company he had set up. There was no money in it unless we actually sold some songs, but for the moment that didn’t seem to matter: Ray really believed in me. He even tried to set me up with a couple of other lyricists, but it didn’t work out with them the way it did with Bernie. The others wanted us to work together, writing the music and the lyrics at the same time, and I couldn’t do that. I had to have the words written down in front of me before I could write a song. I needed that kick-start, that inspiration. And there was just a magic that happened when I saw Bernie’s lyrics, which made me want to write music. It happened the moment I first opened the envelope, on the tube train home from Baker Street, and it’s been happening ever since.

The songs were really flowing out of us. They were better than anything I’d written before, which admittedly wasn’t saying much. Actually, only some of them were better than anything I’d written before. We wrote two kinds of songs. The first were things we thought we could sell, to Cilla Black, say, or Engelbert Humperdinck: big weepy ballads, jaunty bubblegum pop. They were awful – sometimes I shuddered at the thought that the weepies weren’t that different from the dreaded ‘Let The Heartaches Begin’ – but that was how you made your money as a songwriting team for hire. Those big middle-of-the-road stars were your target market. It was a target we missed every time. The biggest name we managed to sell a song to was the actor Edward Woodward, who occasionally moonlighted as an easy-listening crooner. His album was called This Man Alone, a title that eerily predicted its audience.

And then there were the songs we wanted to write, influenced by The Beatles, The Moody Blues, Cat Stevens, Leonard Cohen, the kind of stuff we were buying from Musicland, a record shop in Soho that Bernie and I haunted so frequently that the staff would ask me to help out behind the counter when one of them wanted to get some lunch. It was the tail end of the psychedelic era, so we wrote a lot of whimsical stuff with lyrics about dandelions and teddy bears. We were really just trying on other people’s styles and finding none of them quite fitted us, but that’s how the process of discovering your own voice works, and the process was fun. Everything was fun. Bernie had moved to London and our friendship had really bloomed. We got on so well, it felt like he was the brother I’d never had, a state of affairs magnified by the fact that we were, at least temporarily, sleeping in bunk beds in my bedroom at Frome Court. We would spend the days writing – Bernie tapping out lyrics on a typewriter in the bedroom, bringing them to me at the upright piano in the living room, then scurrying back to the bedroom again as I started to set them to music. We couldn’t be in the same room if we were writing, but if we weren’t writing, we spent all our time together, in record shops, at the cinema. At night, we would go to gigs or hang around the musicians’ clubs, watching Harry Heart drink his vase full of gin, chatting to other young hopefuls. There was a funny little guy we knew who – in keeping with the flower-power mood of the times – had changed his name to Hans Christian Anderson. The aura of fairy tale otherworldliness conjured by this pseudonym was slightly punctured when he opened his mouth and a thick Lancashire accent came out. Eventually he changed his first name back to Jon and became the lead singer of Yes.

We recorded both our types of song in a tiny four-track studio in the New Oxford Street offices of Dick James Music, which administrated Ray’s own publishing company: it later became famous because it was where The Troggs were covertly recorded shouting and swearing at each other for eleven minutes while trying to write a song – ‘you’re talking out the back of your fuckin’ arses!’ ‘Fuckin’ drummer – I shit him!’ – a recording that later got released as the notorious Troggs Tape. Caleb Quaye was the in-house engineer, a multi-instrumentalist with a joint permanently smouldering between his fingers. Caleb was very hip and he didn’t let you forget it. He spent half his life guffawing at things Bernie or I had said or done or worn that indicated our desperate lack of cool. But, like Ray, he seemed to believe in what we were doing. When he wasn’t rolling on the floor in hysterics or wiping tears of helpless mirth from his eyes, he was lavishing more time and attention on our songs than he needed to. Strictly against the company rules, we worked on them late into the night, calling in favours from session musicians Caleb knew, trying out arrangements and production ideas in secret, after everyone else from DJM had gone home.

It was thrilling, until we got caught by the company’s office manager. I can’t remember how he found out we were there – I think someone might have driven past and seen a light on and thought the place was being burgled. Caleb thought he was going to lose his job and, possibly out of desperation, played Dick James himself what we’d been doing. Instead of firing Caleb and throwing us out, Dick James offered to publish our songs. He was going to give us a retainer of £25 a week: a tenner for Bernie and fifteen quid for me – I got an extra fiver because I had to play piano and sing on the demos. It meant I could quit Bluesology and concentrate on songwriting, which was exactly what I wanted to do. We walked out of his office in a daze, too dumbfounded to be excited.

The only downside of this new arrangement was that Dick thought our future lay with the ballads and bubblegum pop. He worked with The Beatles, administering their publishing company Northern Songs, but at heart he was an old-fashioned Tin Pan Alley publisher. DJM was a strange set-up. Half the company was like Dick himself: middle-aged, more from that old Jewish showbiz world than rock and roll. The other half was younger and more fashionable, like Caleb, and Dick’s son Stephen, or Tony King.

Tony King worked for a new company called AIR from a desk he rented on the second floor. AIR was an association of independent record producers that George Martin had started after he realized how badly EMI paid him for working on The Beatles’ records, and Tony dealt with their publishing and promotion. To say Tony stood out in the DJM offices was an understatement. Tony would have attracted attention in the middle of a Martian invasion. He wore suits from the hippest tailors in London: orange velvet trousers, things made out of satin. He had strings of love beads around his neck and one or more of his collection of antique silk scarves fluttered behind him. His hair was dyed with blond highlights. He was an obsessive music fan, who’d worked for The Rolling Stones and Roy Orbison. He was friends with The Beatles. Like Long John Baldry, he was openly gay and he couldn’t care less who knew it. He didn’t walk so much as waft through the office: ‘Sorry I’m late, dear, the telephone got tangled up in my necklaces.’ He was hilarious. I was completely fascinated by him. More than that: I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be that stylish and outrageous and exotic.

His dress sense started to influence my own, with some eyebrow-raising results. I grew a moustache. I bought an Afghan coat, but opted for the cheaper kind. The sheepskin wasn’t cured properly and the ensuing stench was so bad my mother wouldn’t let me in the flat if I was wearing it. Unable to stretch to the kind of boutiques Tony shopped at, I bought a length of curtain fabric with drawings of Noddy on it and got a seamstress friend of my mum’s to make me a shirt out of it. For the adverts for my first single, ‘I’ve Been Loving You’, I wore a fake fur coat and a mock-leopardskin trilby hat.

For some reason, the sight of me clad in this striking ensemble failed to galvanize record buyers into the shops when the single was released in March 1968. It was a total flop. I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t even disappointed. I didn’t particularly want to be a solo artist – I just wanted to write songs – and my record deal had come about more or less by accident. Dick’s son Stephen had been shopping demos of our songs around various labels in the hope that one of their artists would record them, someone at Philips had said they liked my voice and the next thing I knew, I had a deal to put out a few singles. I wasn’t sure at all, but I went along with it because I thought it might be one way of getting some exposure for the songs Bernie and I were writing. We were really improving as songwriters. We had been inspired by The Band’s rootsy Americana, and by a new wave of US singer-songwriters like Leonard Cohen, who we’d discovered in the imports section of Musicland. Something about their influence clicked with our writing. We’d started coming up with stuff that didn’t feel like pastiches of other people’s work. I’d listened to a song we’d written called ‘Skyline Pigeon’ over and over again and, thrillingly, I still couldn’t think of anyone else it sounded like – we’d finally made something that was our own.

But Dick James had picked out ‘I’ve Been Loving You’ as my debut single, apparently after a long but ultimately fruitful search to find the most boring song in my catalogue. He managed to unearth something completely nondescript that Bernie hadn’t even written the lyrics for, one that we’d earmarked for sale to a middle-of-the-road crooner. I suppose it was Dick’s old-fashioned Tin Pan Alley roots showing. I knew it was the wrong choice, but I didn’t feel like arguing. He was the Denmark Street legend who worked with The Beatles, and he’d given us a contract and got me a record deal when he should have thrown Bernie and me out on the street. The adverts claimed it was ‘the greatest performance on a “first” disc’, that I was ‘1968’s great new talent’ and concluded, ‘YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED’. The British public reacted as if they’d been warned every copy was contaminated with raw sewage; 1968’s great new talent went back to the drawing board.



* * *



There was one further, unexpected complication in my life at this point. I’d got engaged, to a woman called Linda Woodrow. We’d met in late 1967, at a gig Bluesology played at Sheffield’s Mojo club. Linda was friends with the club’s resident DJ, who was four foot eight and called himself the Mighty Atom. She was tall, blonde and three years older than me. She didn’t have a job. I don’t know where her money came from – I assumed her family were wealthy – but she was a woman of independent means. She was very sweet, interested in what I was doing. A post-gig conversation had turned into a meeting that felt suspiciously like a date, which had turned into another date, which had led to her coming down to visit Frome Court. It was an odd relationship. There wasn’t much in the way of physicality, and we certainly never had sex, which Linda took as evidence of old-fashioned chivalry and romance on my part, rather than a lack of interest or willingness: in 1968 it still wasn’t that unusual for couples not to sleep together before they were married.

But sexual or not, the relationship started to develop a momentum of its own. Linda decided to move to London and find a flat. Linda could afford one, and so we could move in together. Bernie could be our lodger.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a sense of unease at all this, not least because Linda had started expressing misgivings about the music I was making. She was a big fan of an American crooner called Buddy Greco, and made it fairly clear she thought I would be better off modelling myself on him. But my unease was surprisingly easy to drown out. I liked the idea of moving out of Frome Court. And I suppose I was doing what I thought I should be doing at twenty – settling down with someone.

And so we ended up in a flat in Furlong Road, Islington: me, Bernie, Linda and her pet Chihuahua, Caspar. She got a job as a secretary, and the conversation increasingly turned to getting engaged. By now, the sound of alarm bells was hard to ignore, because the people closest to me kept ringing them. My mother was dead set against the idea, and you can get a pretty good sense of what Bernie thought from the lyrics of the song he subsequently wrote about that period, ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’. It’s hardly a glowing appraisal of Linda’s multitude of good qualities: ‘a dominating queen’, ‘sitting like a princess perched in her electric chair’. Bernie didn’t like her at all. He thought she was going to screw up our music with all this stuff about Buddy Greco. He thought she was bossy – he was furious that, for some reason, she’d made him take down a Simon and Garfunkel poster he’d put up in his room.

A cocktail of stubbornness and my aversion to confrontation enabled me to blot the alarm bells out. We got engaged on my twenty-first birthday – I can’t remember who asked who. A wedding date was set. Arrangements were being made. I started to panic. The obvious course of action was simply to be honest. But the obvious course of action didn’t appeal – actually telling Linda how I felt was beyond me. So I decided to stage a suicide bid instead.

Bernie, who came to my rescue, has never let me forget the exact details of my supposed attempt to end it all by gassing myself. Someone who really wants to kill themselves will commit the act in solitude, so as not to be stopped; they’ll do it at the dead of night, or in a place where they’re alone. I, on the other hand, did it in the middle of the afternoon in a flat full of people: Bernie was in his bedroom, Linda was having a nap. I’d not only put a pillow in the bottom of the oven to rest my head on, I’d taken the precaution of turning the gas to low and opening all the windows in the kitchen. It momentarily seemed quite dramatic when Bernie hauled me out of the oven, but there wasn’t enough carbon monoxide in the room to kill a wasp. I’d expected the reaction to be one of terrible shock, followed by a sudden realization on Linda’s part that my suicidal despair was rooted in unhappiness at our impending marriage. Instead the reaction was mild bemusement. Worse, Linda seemed to think that if I was depressed, it was because of the failure of ‘I’ve Been Loving You’ to light up the charts. Clearly, this would have been an ideal moment to tell her the truth. Instead, I said nothing. The suicide bid was forgotten, and the wedding remained in the diary. We started looking for a flat together in Mill Hill.

It took Long John Baldry to spell out what I already knew. We’d stayed good friends after my departure