Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: A little colour drains as the Reaper takes more greats

Martin Newell

Martin Newell - Credit: Archant

THE Grim Reaper’s dance card was rather full last month. I bring my own memories of two of his choices, to include a few snippets which their obituaries mightn’t have mentioned.

Firstly, George “Shadow” Morton, the American record producer, died last week, aged 72. Shadow Morton was chiefly famous for producing and writing 1960s Shangri-Las hits such as Leader of the Pack, Remember (Walking in the Sand) and others.

Leader of the Pack was actually banned by the BBC when it was released. A BBC ban, of course, has long been accepted as a hallmark, almost an acknowledgement, of a great record. So far as pop music is concerned, the BBC continues to specialise in staying two steps behind the times. The week before last, for instance, they held a slightly odd celebration of the release of the first Beatles debut album, Please Please Me, recorded some 50 years ago in one bracing 12-hour session.

The Beeb thought it might be a wizard wheeze to get some current music stars to attempt to recreate the feat. The musicians involved managed to turn out surprisingly mediocre versions, considering the long drum-roll which preceded their efforts.

Two obvious faults ruined the hang of this particular collarless jacket. The first was that at the time of making Please Please Me, the Beatles were all in their feisty early 20s and still ravenous for a fame which was not yet theirs. This factor endowed their music with a raw edge. Such verve was impossible to reproduce by the luminaries selected for the job, many now well into the embonpoint of their own middle-age.

The chief problem, however, was an almost total absence of those chewy original harmonies which had set the Beatles so far ahead of the rest of the pack. The result was that the Beeb’s Beatles “tribute” was unsalvageably naff, which left your man here in Essex, once again, to sigh only “Why-oh-why?”

Shadow Morton, meanwhile, in his own way a record producer every bit as good as Phil Spector, is now another scratch on the Great Celestial Run-out Groove.

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George wasn’t afraid to push a mad idea when he found one. Quite apart from this, he reportedly stalked around the studio in a cape, keeping his young charges suitably in awe of him. He also understood exactly how epic a teenage heartache ought to sound. Listen again to Remember, Walking In The Sand or the heart-weary Past, Present and Future.

Early British beat-boom records were absolutely fine, of course, but their American counterparts always sounded so huge by comparison. If George Morton felt that a flock of seagulls needed to be heard on a song in order to press a point home, then on they went.

In Essex, with England’s third-longest coastline, those seagulls must have resonated with every teenager. The record was a massive UK hit. Perhaps George Morton didn’t invent the seed drill or discover Penicillin, but I reckon that dubbing loads of echoey seagulls onto a Shangri-las disc has to come a close third. The two main things I learned from Morton, once I was let loose in a recording studio unsupervised, were:

a) If it’s a stupid idea, at least try it

b) If there’s an echo button, use it.

This brings me neatly to the Reaper’s next dance partner. If you liked your pop music sung with an English accent and a psychedelic twist, then Kevin Ayers was your man. The founder member of Soft Machine, friend of the late Syd Barrett and the man who gave a 16-year-old Mike Oldfield his first job as a guitarist, died last week, aged 68.

Kevin Ayers was a charmed man from a charmed time. A pop singer of flaxen-haired pouting loveliness, he sang in a well-spoken, crushed velvet baritone. He was, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, everyone’s favourite art-rocker. Women of artistic inclinations, now of a certain age, would sigh and fasten their hands upon their Biba blouses at the very mention of his name.

Ayers made some brilliant records which, though largely ignored by the mainstream, were loved by sufficient pop dissidents to support his bohemian lifestyle.

In 1974, he, along with Brian Eno, Nico and John Cale of the Velvet Underground, recorded a never-to-be-repeated live concert at the Albert Hall. One of the songs was the achingly lovely May I? This became the soundtrack for a foolish dalliance during my 21st summer with a French-Corsican femme fatale, who used your poor correspondent cruelly before leaving him for an American pilot.

Anyway, never mind my old war wounds, back to Kevin Ayers, who, having deserted his music fame some years ago, died in France last week. I thought someone on the East Anglian old enough to remember him ought to mention it, because I know there are readers out there who will feel as wistful about it as I do.

As if the losses of George Shadow Morton and Kevin Ayers were not enough, the actor Richard Briers left the company too. My colleague Andrew Clarke paid a perfect tribute to him last Friday. There’s nothing really I can add, but to say I don’t know of anyone who didn’t give a genuinely heartfelt sigh upon hearing the news. Bad week, all in all.

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