Monday, 28 May 2007

My Heroine

A not very well kept secret, at least amongst my acquaintances (Hi, you two!), is that my heroine is Jean Millington. Ok, ok, wait a second and I’ll explain. Jean is a bass player of exceptional talent and used to play in a pioneering but largely forgotten band; Fanny, during those oh-god-did-I-really-wear-those years of the early 1970s and indeed still plays today under the banner of the Slammin Babes.

A little background. Jean was born in Manila, Philippines and moved to California, USA with older sister, June and the rest of the Millington clan in 1961. By the time the sisters were teenagers they were both guitar veterans, had together formed a band and were already fighting over who would play lead guitar. As is customary in family disputes of this type, age wins out and June bagged the guitar spot, relegating Jean to that forgotten outpost that nobody wants – bass. In fact, this is the best thing that could’ve happened as it turned out because Jean took to the instrument like the proverbial duck.

As luck would have it, this was also a time when I was becoming fascinated with bass players and bass playing generally. Chris Squire, Peter Cetera, Jack Bruce and their ilk were my gods and guitars were for wimps. Why is bass always assumed to be the least talent-requiring occupation in a band? Phil Collins famously said that the best gig in a band is drumming. But he’s wrong – It’s bass playing.

By the time Fanny had convened in 1969 comprising, in addition, sister June, ace drummer Alice deBuhr and keyboards wizard Nickey Barclay, Jean had mastered bass playing to a quite eye-popping degree. Basing her style on a cross between Paul McCartney’s pugnacious melodies and James Jameson’s skittering harmony, she had it nailed. And all this before her 20th birthday.

Assuming you have your copy of Fanny’s long deleted ‘Charity Ball’ with you, just have a listen to Jean’s playing on ‘Place in the Country’ especially during sister June’s solo. The melodic structure of her bass line just builds and builds using chromatic runs and octave skips to fabulous effect. But don’t stop there, have a listen to the play out of ‘Lady’s Choice’, the whole of ‘Cat Fever’….I could go on.

But that’s not all – she is also possessed of a fine singing voice capable of handling the whole gamut from the soulful pop of her own ‘Wonderful Feeling’ to the murderously tough R&B of Ike & Tina Turner’s ‘Young and Dumb’. There are more than enough attributes here to fulfil ‘heroine’ status, so she’s mine.

Postscript: Fanny were recently honoured by ROCKRGRL at Berklee College of Music in Boston and played a short set, the first for over 30 years. I should have been there, if only to hear that bass playing once more.

Congratulations Jean, June, Alice and Nickey – you deserve it.
To find out more, visit their website at

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

At the Forefront of Cool?

If ever there was a band that defied pigeonholing it was the Seekers. In mid-1960s swinging London, Carnaby Street fashion was king and style was everything. The Beatles were pushing the boundaries of popular music into uncharted territory and summer of love psychedelia was just over the horizon. Yet amongst all this hipness were a bunch of Australian folk singers who seemed completely oblivious to the cultural revolution raging around them. In their unconscious isolation, they are forever represented by George, Martin Clunes’s work colleague in ‘Men Behaving Badly’ with his traditionally staid middle class, middle-aged demeanour and comfy cardigans, constantly playing Seekers’ songs on a portable cassette player.

Recently, I had a peek at their performance of ‘The Carnival is Over’ from a 1965 edition of the UK’s Top of the Pops on and marvelled at their oddness. OK, even the Beatles wore suits, but to see band member, Athol Guy sporting, as well as the suit, thick framed National Health glasses and a stand up double bass amongst the hip young things in the audience is nothing short of bizarre.

Then there is Judith Durham, an established traditional jazz singer slumming it in popular music looking like the ultimate girl next door dressed like your mother in a strangely unflattering cocktail dress. She never moves but appears superglued to her mark, toes pointing, arms by her side during the whole performance. No dance routine, no backing troupe, nothing.

Everything points to disaster. And yet…and yet, it is riveting. Written by Tom Springfield, Dusty’s brother, the song has a sort of military bearing, all stiff upper lip in the face of adversity and wartime Vera Lynn overtones but it suits their traditional no-nonsense style perfectly. But ultimately it is that voice that saves the day. It’s the sort of delivery that cuts through mixes like a knife and gives even the most weak-kneed production a toughened edge. Whilst the boys beaver away with complex harmonies, it is Judith’s pure soprano that rises from the mayhem like a phoenix to grab your attention. Agnetha Fältskog did the same job for Abba and saved them from unbearable tweeness. There is an inherent toughness about these voices that defies you not to take them seriously.

Whatever you think of the Seekers and I’m still on the fence, there is no doubt that ‘The Carnival is Over’ is a triumph for non-conformity and in the hip fashion conscious mid-1960s, how brave was that?

Monday, 7 May 2007

And Speaking of Aliens...

Doncha just love science fiction? Especially when there’s an element of time travel. And it’s got Joanna Lumley in it.

Back around 1980, that’s exactly what we had with the once broadcast and never repeated TV series, Sapphire and Steel. The thing about Sapphire and Steel was that it never really felt like it had to explain itself, so no spoon fed back story, no real explanation of the plots, just great mystery scripts brilliantly acted by the main protagonists, Steel, played by David McCallum and Sapphire, played by Joanna Lumley.

As with most UK TV productions the budget was paper-thin and most of the action took place on a single set, a bit like a stage play. But it was sensational and it was sensational for two reasons.

1) The writing (by P J Hammond) was exceptional, creating tense and in many ways coldly callous drama using minimal effects (this is sci-fi remember). Few happy endings and many unexplained happenings only added to the appeal of this show.
2) The acting of David McCallum as the logical, impatient and thoroughly ruthless Steel and Joanna Lumley as the more empathetic but still alien Sapphire.

This, in my view was Joanna’s finest hour. Forget the irritating Patsy from Ad-Fab and Purdy from the New Avengers, Joanna was born to play the alien, but outwardly human Sapphire. She uses her model catwalk training to glide around the set, straight backed and head held high in an almost otherworldly way. Her diction and staring blue eyes add to the strangeness she manages to invoke. Make no mistake, McCallum is equally good as the petulant Steel but Lumley was an inspirational bit of casting.

Luckily the entire series (only 6 ‘assignments’ ever made) are out on DVD. I recommend assignment 2 as the must watch story, you’ll never look at railway stations in the same way again.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Who's the Alien now?

Once upon a time, when Top of the Pops was a weekly must-watch programme on UK television, that is, during most of its forty-year reign, it fell to the nation’s parents to rubbish all pop stars who dared to be different. Whilst this could translate to be different in attitude, musical ability or singing prowess, it generally meant different in appearance. Think Arthur Brown, Roy Wood, Toyah or Boy George. Let’s face it, what was great fun to us kids was the subject of stern disapproval from our elders.

But hindsight is a funny thing and here’s an example of why this is so. Remember watching David Bowie doing ‘Starman’ in 1972? Don’t worry, it’ll be along in a moment if you don’t. All the usual factors that were to provoke older generation outrage are present and correct in this scenario. Bowie is virtually unrecognisable dressed up to the hilt in his gender unspecific ‘Ziggy Stardust’ costume with orange spiked hair and complete facial make-up over Harlequin clothes and stacked boots. He even puts his arm around Mick Ronson in a manner guaranteed to raise blood pressures the length and breadth of Britain.

Now have a look at the area just behind Bowie. There, captured on video for all time is a creature more terrible than any Bowie reincarnation – a member of the studio audience. Only this member of the studio audience, an adolescent boy, is sporting an array of colour un-coordinated clothing including a gruesome rainbow hooped tank top and maroon wide collared shirt. He also has one of those trying-to-grow-a-sensible-haircut-a-bit-longer hairstyles and is involved in trying to dance in rhythm without the necessary coordination.

But let’s not be too hard on the boy, it could have been me at that age, because it is now that the awful realisation dawns – everyone in the audience looks equally dreadful. And this applies to any period from 1964 to 2004 you care to name – not just the early 1970s. Music programme audiences are almost universally comprised of fashion victims of the first order. Dreadful hairstyles, pinafore dresses, padded shoulders, afros, you name it and there they are.

What hindsight shows us is that Bowie just looks like Bowie and his look, being outside of conventional fashion, now looks strangely timeless despite being regarded as worryingly avant-garde at the time. Looking back from the comfort of today, it is the members comprising the studio audience that look horribly dated and embarrassingly anachronistic. In other words, the roles have been reversed and it is now the pop stars who look normal and the rest of us that deserve derision. Now, is that a girl or a boy?