Whatever happened to the teenage dream?
Two years had passed since we’d signed our first record deal. However, the experience was nothing like the dreams I’d had for so many years. I’d fantasised about playing a gig in front of a packed, enthusiastic crowd, cheering each intro and dancing manically to every song. At the end of the gig, in a scene reminiscent of Moses parting the Red Sea, a sharp-suited A&R man in a pair of dark RayBans would emerge from the middle of the room, a single spotlight following in his wake, holding aloft a sealed scroll that contained every musician’s Holy Grail – a record contract. Naturally, we’d agree terms there and then, with the promise of being put in a recording studio the very next day, to start work on our first number one hit single and multi-award winning debut album.
I’d further imagined signing the contract in a smart, major record company office, surrounded by a gaggle of press photographers. Champagne corks would pop and hands would be shaken all round, with pony-tailed, sharp-suited, overweight record company bosses chewing on fat cigars, rubbing their sweaty hands in glee. ‘My boy’, they’d say, slapping me hard on the back. ‘We’ll get you the best producer, the top session musicians, the most luxurious studio in the countryside, or even in the Bahamas, and we’ll give you one million pounds as an advance against future sales.’
Maybe I’d watched too many Elvis or Cliff Richard films – the ones where they take menial jobs as bus drivers, pineapple pickers or carnival hands, singing part-time for a laugh, and are then discovered by a Mr Big from Big Records. On the other hand, I’d also read of the struggle that groups like The Beatles had endured – years of grotty clubs and seedy pits, travelling to gigs on the bus, facing constant rejection by every major label. But I, just like every adolescent with dreams of pop superstardom, was afflicted by a naive condition that allowed myself to be convinced that I would somehow take the Elvis and Cliff route to fame and fortune.
Marc Bolan once sang ‘Whatever happened to the teenage dream?’ Well Marc, in my case, it disappeared that fateful July day when I put pen to paper on my first deal. Not in a plush, Soho or West End office. Oh no. In a back-street pub called The Spotted Dog just off Tottenham Court Road, surrounded by elderly men sipping warm pints of Guinness while Tab Hunter crooned ‘Young Love’ on the jukebox. There were no cigars, only nauseous, rolled up dog ends being sucked dry by the locals. There were no gold discs on the wall, merely a framed parched notice from 1846 announcing Prime Minister Peel’s abolition of the Corn Laws next to an autographed portrait of Russ Abbott. There was no champagne either, just four pints of watery lager, a large Jack Daniels and Coke and a bottle of Britvic Orange. As we earnestly passed around the biro, scratching our signatures onto the paper, Tab Hunter’s song gracefully faded. The introduction of ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ as the next song on the jukebox couldn’t have been more appropriate.
Radio Days are calling …
Earlier in the day Millie and I had gone to watch the recording of a BBC radio programme at Langham Street studio, just up from Oxford Circus. We had woken early, being dazzled by the piercing sunlight radiating through our flimsy bedroom blinds. Added to the excitement of signing later that evening, we couldn’t get back to sleep. We decided to kill the best part of the day by wandering off to the recording of Radio Four’s ‘That’s News To Me’. During our time at college, particularly in winter when the streets of London were cold and wet and we had little or no money in our pockets, we would drop into the BBC Radio Theatre, for a bit of warmth and a comfy seat for a couple of hours. We weren’t the only ones. The shows were more often than not packed out with old people, popping in to catch up with old friends, have a quick snooze or catch a glimpse of ‘that lovely young Dennis Norden’.
On the day of our contract signing, ‘That’s News To Me’ was recording show eight of its fourteenth series. It was essentially a contemporary news quiz, featuring two teams of personalities, of the calibre usually found on Call My Bluff or Through The Keyhole, engaged in topical banter based on the week’s political or cultural events.
Millie and I had grown accustomed to the routine. We clapped on cue from the director, we laughed heartily in all the right places, and we endured endless, longwinded and mind-numbingly tedious jokes to an increasingly weary audience. We were in awe of the apparent infinite knowledge of certain guests, such as the Daily Telegraph sketch writer or the retired Labour politician. We also yawned at the pre-scripted anecdotes of C-list celebrities from seventies sit-coms who were long since forgotten, even by the old ladies snoring contentedly in their seats behind us.
The quizmaster was Dermot McDermott, a poor man’s Les Dennis. McDermott was the kind of presenter hauled in at the last minute to front a show once Eamon Holmes, Dale Winton and Philip Schofield had declined.
His finest hour had been when he’d been awarded the chair of a new, mid-day television quiz show aimed at the hard of thinking, with lots of coloured lights, pinging bells and farty buzzer sounds to disguise the fact that the quiz was, for all intents and purposes, shit.
‘Ooh isn’t he tall?’ exclaimed one of the old ladies behind us, no doubt pointing at McDermott, who was ambling across stage to his seat.
‘Oh yes. And all his own hair too,’ said her friend.
I looked hard at the dubiously thatched pile of straw, perched precariously on top of McDermott’s rather pointy head. I prodded Millie.
‘Yeah, and at night he keeps it in a box under his bed,’ I whispered.
‘Shhhhhhhh!’ she said, trying to control her laughter.
‘Oooh but I don’t like the language he uses though,’ complained old lady #1. ‘He’s so coarse.’
‘Mmmmmmm,’ agreed old lady #2. ‘And very paedophile in his ways.’
I’m sure she meant juvenile, but having read about some of McDermott’s antics in the Sunday press recently, perhaps she was right after all.
‘So ladies and gentlemen,’ announced McDermott. ‘Welcome to another edition of ‘That’s News To Me’, the show which takes a sideways look at the world of politics and everyday, popular events. And today’s teams are – on my left, representing Team A – Harry Lemming. Harry has spent thirty-three years as a Royal reporter on the Daily Mail, and once declared Prince Charles’ trousers to be some of the finest examples of modern architecture in the 20th Century.’
Clap clap clap.
‘Joining him, Den Stoddard, comedy actor, writer and songsmith. Most of you will recognise Den for the character Stupid Stuart in Lenny Henry’s 1980 TV series, ‘Laugh – That’d Make A Change’.’
Clap clap clap
‘On my right – Team B – captained by Sinclair Gordon, witty, handsome and debonair Sun columnist, cheese raconteur and the third husband of soap star Dorothy Guthrie.’
Clap clap clap.
‘Partnered by the colourful, finger-on-the-pulse showbiz reporter on ITV’s ‘What’s Going On?’ entertainment programme, Dom Penn.
Clap clap clap.
‘First question,’ said McDermott, warming to his role, ‘goes to Team A. Now, here’s a piece of popular music from the latest boy band to top the charts. They’re called ‘Aroma’, and their single is ‘I Couldn’t Fly For You Girl’. Listen carefully to the music and then I’ll need the answer to this question: What is the link between their lead singer Dex, the former Labour Parliamentary Undersecretary for the Environment and the current price of fish?’
Millie and I were soon immersed in the show, temporarily putting the excitement of signing out of our minds. We felt safe in the womb-like warmth of the BBC studio and relaxed by the relentless, hypnotic hum of the air-conditioning.
When the recording ended, we traipsed out of the building, following the old ladies blinking into the afternoon sunshine. As they scuttled off to the nearest café for tea and cake, Millie and I made a beeline for the nearest pub. Over two bottles of Becks we each hungrily devoured a bag of Salt and Vinegar crisps, reliving the quiz and looking forward to the evening ahead. Fully refreshed, we headed off to the HMV record shop on Oxford Street, our mission to discover which famous artists our imminent CD would be placed next to in the rack.
After we’d agreed on Millie’s proposition to call the group Detox Cute & The Beauty Junkies, we became conscious of the alphabetical positioning of albums in CD racks. An old folkie friend of ours had once landed a one-single deal, but soon regretted his band being called Jupiter Liar, when he found himself sat squeezed between John, Elton and someone called Jimmy Justice. We wanted to be near Blondie, but couldn’t agree on a name that didn’t have either Black or Blue in the title. We tried something that might draw us to St. Etienne, but figured that in some quarters we’d be sectioned with Stevens, Shakin’, Stewart, Rod or worst of all Sneddon, David. With Detox Cute, we knew that there were enough cool groups beginning with ‘D’, (Depeche Mode, Doors, Duran Duran), to outweigh the De Burghs, Chris, Dire Straits and Donovans, Jason we sought to avoid.
Alright, alright, alright …
We’d agreed to meet bassist Greg and drummer Lucas in The Spotted Dog at six o’clock, with guitarist Elliott joining us later. By the time Millie and I arrived, Lucas and Greg were already having a beer in one of the darker recesses of the pub. They waved to us from behind their pints to acknowledge our arrival as I fought through the smog of cigarette smog to the bar and ordered a couple of bottles of Grolsch.
‘Not long now,’ said Greg, checking his retro 70’s digital watch. With his side-parting, light-brown hair, wide burgundy flares and brown leather pimp’s jacket from Camden Market, Greg looked every inch like The Six Million Dollar Man.
‘What time do we meet?’ asked Lucas, tapping away with his index fingers on the tabletop, the infuriating drummer’s habit.
‘Seven-thirty,’ said Millie. ‘What time is it now?’
‘Just gone Six,’ replied Lucas. ‘Where’ve you two guys been?’
‘Oh we just popped into to the Beeb up Langham Street to see ‘That’s News To Me’ being recorded.’
‘You lot are weird!’ said Greg, shaking his head in disbelief. ‘I mean, do you get some kind of cheap thrill watching a bunch of crumbly old farts telling badly scripted jokes extremely slowly?’
‘Yeah, well, it’s more interesting than your stupid Motor Racing!’ I retorted. ‘Ooh look, a big shiny penis extension whizzing round and round and round.’
I stifled a mock yawn. Greg was a big Formula One fan. A total petrol-head. We’d seen the posters of Jeremy Clarkson on his wall. He was the sort of person who sat up all night just to watch Damon Hill polishing his helmet and got really excited if Ferrari invented a new type of sparkplug.
‘Philistines!’ said Greg, taking the jibes good-naturedly.
He was used to our teasing and often gave as good as he got if we were ever waxing lyrically over some long-lost Morrissey demo or, in Millie’s case, some art-school disaster now taking the fashion world by storm.
‘Anyway,’ he continued. ‘Where’s Elliott?’
‘Have a guess,’ I said, raising my eyebrows.
‘Working?’ he shrugged.
‘Right,’ I sighed. He’s at the office until seven, but says he’ll meet us here once he’s finished.’
‘Typical,’ said Lucas. ‘He’s always late or has some excuse about missing meetings. Why the hell did the idiot have to go and get a full-time job? Couldn’t he have got part-time or flexible work like the rest of us?’
‘Who knows,’ I said in resignation. ‘It’s a pain in the ass having to work our schedule just to suit Elliott.’
‘Yeah, you’re right,’ said Greg. ‘It just doesn’t make sense, the four of us re-arranging everything around just one band member. Elliott having a proper, nine-to-five job dictates what the rest of us do.’
‘And what’s more,’ added Millie, pointing her finger aggressively at the other two, ‘I’m fed up with keeping it a secret from any potential record companies and managers, and spending half our time making up excuses as to why he can’t ever show up to meetings.’
‘What Elliott doesn’t appreciate,’ I intervened, ‘was that it isn’t just us who are being put out. If we have a photo-shoot, then not only the photographer has to organise their diary around his, but if anyone is booking a location or a studio, that would have to be taken into consideration too. We all have to rehearse when Elliott was free, arrange gigs when it suits Elliott’s social calendar, and cancel everything when Elliott decides to take a holiday.’
It wasn’t entirely fair to be indulging in a free-for-all, slag off Elliott session, especially when the boy wasn’t there to defend himself, but we were just warming up. It was Lucas’ turn to ram home another nail in Elliott’s coffin.
‘Remember when Elliott pissed Millie off over that studio time.’
‘Oh yeah!’ said Greg. ‘What did he say he was doing again?’
‘You remember,’ said Millie. ‘I had this demo session arranged. Two days of free studio down-time, blagged as a result of Bardot Beach finishing their album early. I’d managed to persuade that producer bloke Sam Donnington to stay on with us for a few quid, cash in hand.’
‘Right,’ interrupted Greg. ‘And that cretin Elliott goes and says, ‘Oh I can’t do those two days because my Mum is coming to my flat to clean my curtains, and I’m not sure which day she can make it.’
‘Yeah,’ said Millie, getting quite irate. ‘And then the fucker goes and asks if we can change the studio time to suit him!’
‘Well do you also recall that gig we got asked to do, the one that was being filmed for Channel Four?’ asked Lucas. ‘And he said he couldn’t do it ‘cos his sister’s boyfriend’s next door neighbour was having a barbeque and he had to be there to hand out drinks and trays of food.’
‘Ha!’ I laughed. ‘But the funniest thing was when we saw him again, he said he’d given one of our CDs to that bloke out of Mungo Jerry, who was a mate of this neighbour, who promised he could help us out.’
‘Oh right on!’ said Greg. ‘Cos like Mungo Jerry … they’re number one every week, aren’t they?’
The last of the famous, international playboys …
We laughed at Elliott’s utter naivety. We were all a bit green I suppose, but Elliott really had no idea what it took to make it. The trouble was he was the most talented musician in the group, a Grade 8 classical guitarist with a degree from the Guildhall School of Music. His parents were both wealthy and encouraging, and provided every means for their son to follow whichever career path took his fancy.
Unfortunately, never having to struggle with the usual rock ‘n’ roll upbringing of playing in grotty local pubs and Camden indie hell-holes meant Elliott failed to appreciate the dedication and application needed to succeed. He had talent in abundance, but he didn’t know how to make the best use of it. What’s more, he didn’t even possess his own equipment.
Mummy and Daddy had bought him thousands of pounds worth of classical instruments for his degree, but he couldn’t quite grasp the necessity of having the appropriate gear for playing in a rock band. On stage he used a combination of a crappy old Les Paul copy that used to belong to Millie’s Dad and one of Greg’s spare amps. He never seemed to have enough money to buy his own leads or shell out for rehearsal studio fees but was always first to dip his hand in his pocket for a round of beer at the pub.
What with that and his flamboyant social life, where he was constantly eating in West End brasseries, taking in a show or perpetually going on holiday, it made it very difficult for us to function as a working band. The trouble was, Elliott played wonderfully. His guitar runs were fluent and melodic, and never intruded on Millie’s singing, unlike former guitarists did, with their incessant Steve Vai widdling or Angus Young chord thrashing. Elliott’s deft licks and gorgeous arpeggios embellished our songs with a flavour all their own, which enabled us to stand head and shoulders above the normal indie-grungers, moaning and groaning their way around London.
Oh, and the bastard looked the part. Elliott was tall and as thin as a rake, like an underfed Dickensian waif. He had an elegant mane of dirty-blonde hair, and hollowed cheekbones that could have been chiselled out by Michelangelo himself. Elliott had a natural theatricality about him, which combined with a mischievous and roguish manner, made him seem like a modern day Artful Dodger. And this was part of his problem too. Aside from us, his fellow band-mates, who merely tolerated him, everyone loved Elliott.
Being born with a silver plectrum in his mouth meant he never suffered a lack of confidence, always able to rely on Mummy and Daddy whenever the need arose. With a relaxed, easygoing air he charmed everyone he met, never raising his voice, forever full of energy and equipped with a bag of anecdotes to tell of life back home in Shrewsbury, on Mummy and Daddy’s prosperous dairy farm. Elliott showed no interest in following in the family business, like his two older brothers, Gavin and Tim. Encouraged by his retired grandfather Des, he took up the guitar aged four, and via numerous prize-winning competitions and recitals ended up in London at Guildhall. We met him through Lucas’ girlfriend Janie, who was sharing a flat with Elliott and another girl. Elliott was in his final year, and was umming and ahhing as to whether to set off on a trek of the Himalayas or join a rock ‘n’ roll band. The rebel in him chose to stay in London, and when Lucas told him we’d just booted out our useless twat of a guitarist, he came along to the next rehearsal.
As the band struggled over the next few months to land a record deal, Elliott decided to get a job, primarily for the want of something better to do. The rest of us were either in college or living day by day on cash-in-hand work, but Elliott went and got a full-time, 9 to 5, office job, working as a cashier’s clerk for an insurance company based in Liverpool Street. Elliott’s social life rapidly took off, and he was always found propping up the bar of some trendy wine establishment in Covent Garden with his City boy mates, flashing their gold cards everywhere. Not only that, but our band finances suffered. All of a sudden we couldn’t afford to take the cheaper daytime rehearsal rooms, and that’s when Elliott began dictating our schedule, to fit around his own social diary. In his own mind, he was thoroughly enjoying himself, living the life of a playboy musician in a band going places with the security of an office salary and Mummy and Daddy’s fortune acting as a safety net. By the time we got offered the first deal it was too late to do anything about it. Elliott was part of the band whether we liked it or not.