Pop Stars in My Pantry

By Paul Simper

A memoir of pop folk and clubbing in the 1980s (Formerly known as Just Got Lucky: My Life in Pop)

Chapter 7. Enjoy What You Do

There’s an episode of The Phil Silver’s Show, ‘Bilko’s Perfect Day’, where from the second Sgt Bilko gets up everything he wishes for comes true.

His lighter that hasn’t worked in six years lights. The shower which is freezing for the rest of the platoon is for him hot and steamy. He gets crossword answers without hearing the clue. He picks seven racehorse winners without a second thought. He even tells Doberman the number of jellybeans in a jar in the window of MacGregor’s hardware store to the very last bean. The only catch is that by the time he realises it’s his perfect day it’s over.

There’s a little of that about my days at No.1 Magazine - a dream job without really knowing it. On any given day one might be required to fly a reader to the other side of the world to hang out with Spandau Ballet, accompany Bananarama’s Keren and Wham!’s George on a blind date, help Frankie Goes to Hollywood chuck assorted items of furniture out of TV studios windows in Rome, watch Boy George styling and flirting with Paul Weller in fake furs or come up with a photo story which has you walking off into the sunset with some newbie called Madonna.

All of which seemed like exactly the sort of thing the 20 year-old me should be doing when I wasn’t too busy clubbing. In fact it was principally down to two fellow Beat Route habitues that I got the job in the first place.

It was October ’82 in a tiny first floor office at the bottom of South Molton Street that I first met George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. They had not yet had a hit but their second single Young Guns, which flatmate Graham had been sent an advanced white label DJ copy, was about to give them one. So off we went to The Hog in the Pound, a once popular, now long gone, watering hole by Bond Street tube, to discuss rival bands, bad American dancing and a couple of surprising things that never made it into the Melody Maker piece but certainly raise a smile now.

George and Andrew had been going to Le Beat Route even longer than I had, though sometimes it was another school mate, David Austin, who accompanied George. George and David used to busk at Green Park station when they were 16/17, covering Elton favourites (George loved Elton’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy).

“Only it was a bit useless our busking because you were moved on the whole time if you didn't actually have a pitch," George told me later. "There are certain places that the police leave you alone. If you get there early enough you write your name down on a piece of paper for the time you're supposed to play. But we were never up early enough to do that. So we just got moved on all day. We never really made any money. We'd make on average a fiver each on Friday afternoon. I'd bunk off school and then I'd go back to David's house to change before the club.

“I loved dancing at Le Beat Route. Nobody gave a fuck who I was so you could throw yourself around. If Shirlie was with me we'd really do that pair dancing. It was cool. We'd always make a bit of space and really show off.”

There’s footage from a BBC Nationwide report on the club which appears in Spandau’s Soul Boys of the Western World movie showing a bearded, curly haired George in an alarmingly orange suit slap bang in the middle of the dance floor from a time when he was still in a ska band called The Executive before Le Beat Route’s playlist helped transform them into Wham!

“Andrew and I were at Le Beat Route when Andrew started going 'Wham!Bam! I am a man!' and doing this terrible rap,” said George. “It was supposed to be funny. But that's where he had the idea."

By that October club-wise we had all - regretfully in my case - moved on. George and Andrew deemed Le Beat Route now “too packed” and had started frequenting Ollie’s new Saturday night with Chris Sullivan at the revamped Whisky-A-Go-Go on Wardour Street, now The Wag. There was also talk of an even more chaotic club venture, The Dirt Box, the work of Phil Gray and Rob Milton, which had recently opened above a chemist’s in Earls Court, which took the new Hard Times ethos to the nth degree.

It’d be wrong to say that George did all the talking at our first encounter. Andy also had plenty to say but as they had helpfully pointed out when we were first ordering our grub my microphone (attached to a massive, cumbersome boogie box) might not have been quite up to competing with the pub jukebox’s lively selection of current floor fillers like Evelyn King’s Love Come Down and such new Top 10 hits as Culture Club’s Do You Really Want To Hurt Me and Spandau’s Lifeline.

If Andrew is a bit muffled, George at any rate is loud, clear and competitive, especially on the merits of Lifeline.

“I’m amazed this is number seven,” he said with a shake of the head. “This is the type of record that if you were two rooms away you wouldn’t really notice it, would you?”

Sometimes the charts confound us all. Martin Kemp told me that two years later George played him Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go on his mum and dad’s stereo before anyone else had heard it. Being the gracious man that he is Martin made all the right noises but back in the car his verdict for wife Shirlie was a little more unvarnished.

“I thought it was awful, absolutely awful,” said Martin. “I sat in the car with Shirlie and said, 'They're over'.”

Considering they were still a couple of jittery weeks from securing their first Top of the Pops (the single wobbled dangerously before an independent plugger was hired by Innervision and their white espadrilles and immaculate, camera-aware, pair dancing delivered one of the show's most impressive debuts), Wham! weren’t short of confidence.

“Once we have a hit we’ll get more expensive budgets,” said George, like this was just a matter of time.

“This one is more of a compromise to make sure we get it onto the radio. Then Wham Rap is going to be re-released so our sound could get harder again. It's hard to know which way it'll go. Every time we've planned something we've ended up coming up with something different that we're just as pleased with. But we don't want to be a cult thing. For a while Wham Rap looked like it might just be a trendy record.”

They make no bones about also having their eyes on the prize in America, a prospect that was only that month starting to become a reality for this new generation of British pop groups. Led by Soft Cell’s Tainted Love and The Human League’s Don’t You Want Me, and buoyed by the rise of MTV and the music video, it was the first proper British invasion of the Billboard singles chart since The Beatles and The Stones in the mid-Sixties.

“We've got a few numbers that could apply to the American chart,” said George, matter of factly. “Very big. But we won't put them out till at least the middle of next year.”

“We don't mind having a totally different image for America and just releasing records that will sell in America,” Andrew concurred. “We don't really care about America except for the cash.”

“That’s what it’s for,” said George. “People over there have absolutely no taste anyway.”

He’d sensibly revise this opinion when Wham! went on to be the only pop group of their generation to have four successive US number ones.

This led us onto a recent trip they'd made to New York where they had hired one of the big name dance record producers of that period, Francois Kevorkian (responsible for the deconstruction of Sharon Redd’s Can You Handle It and the classic D-Train You’re The One For Me) to do a remix of Wham Rap. It hadn’t worked out - Kevorkian had thrown out most of the hit components and gone off on his own tangent - so they’d got rid of him. But it had given them - well, George as Andrew had bust his foot - a chance to check out the New York underground club scene.

“I was really pissed most of the time,” said George, who took in Danceteria, AM/PM and The Peppermint Lounge before arriving at the shocking conclusion that nobody he met over there could dance.

“It’s incredible,” he said. “They've had that black culture for so long. They must be so segregated not to have picked it up at all.”

It’s at this point that I chimed in with a few club-going suggestions of my own, based on my very first trip to New York a few weeks before them, which had proved to be a bit of an eye-opener.

“You should have gone to The Anvil and The Hellfire Club,” I enthused. “The Anvil is where they filmed Cruising (the Al Pacino leather movie where he goes undercover tracking a homophobic serial killer on St Christopher Street and gets more than he bargained for). The music is really good but it's really disgusting downstairs because there's piss all down the stairs. Still, it's really great. The Hellfire Club is even worse because there's people chained to the walls being whipped. And fat Mexicans saying: 'piss on me!'”

“Yes, we were told about those,” said George, brightly. “We saw Cruising last week, didn’t we? I thought I was going to be really horrified but I wasn't.”

That part of our lunchtime chat didn’t make it into the Maker. I’m not sure I thought it would be their sort of thing.

Thankfully even without my mini-dissertation on the more colourful side of downtown Lower West Side the piece was enough to catch the eye of former NME Deputy Editor, Phil McNeill. Phil was now on the look-out for writers for a new weekly IPC publication, No.1, their answer to the fortnightly Smash Hits.

Or as Paul Morley put it when he reviewed us for C4 magazine show, Loose Talk, when we launched the following April: “No.1, larked into life...packed with the inane poses that are the symbol of today's pop (cut to leather jacketed Wham Bad Boys pin-up back cover of our first issue). Smeared with nice colour, advertised during Crossroads and boasting a vocabulary of 27 words. That's 3 more than Smash Hits and 2 less than NME. No.1 is the latest, richest attempt to smash into the terrific Smash Hits market.

“Accepting Smash Hits' crazy simplification of super pop life was the commercially correct decision. No.1 won't disappear like Trax or New Music News. IPC Magazines, who NME live with or vice versa, are supporting it with the kind of money they only usually spend on Woman's Own. Enough money to hope that its arrival will lead to the very sad death of NME.

"The staff of No.1 has been ripped from the rotting black & whites. Karen Swayne from the dirty Sounds; Mark Cooper (cut to photo of me) from the deeply puzzling Record Mirror; Paul Simper (cut to photo of the future all powerful head of BBC music, most definitely not me) from the deeply crippled Melody Maker. Like me, editors Lynn Hanna and Phil McNeill leapt away from the NME just in time. That's a neat staff and they have a refreshing attitude."

I’m not sure how ‘refreshing’ my attitude was when it came to putting in the actual work hours but what Phil McNeill did appreciate in myself and the rest of the team was the fact that between us we appeared to be on speaking (or even better, drinking) terms with most of the current chart acts.

Or at least we had been. In fact my relationship with Spandau in the run up to No.1’s launch had gone just a tad awry. I blame it on Bournemouth. I possibly even blame it on Spandau. If my previous two Bank Holiday visits to the South coast had given me a taste of what merriment could be had, April ’83 was when I decided to properly get stuck in.

At least this time our accommodation was sorted. No more nights in freezing car parks. Myself and Bob Elms had secured a double room which would also be housing Graham, his new girlfriend Lorraine and anyone else who could bunk in through the first floor balcony windows, which from photographic evidence looks like Lee Barrett, Spandau’s fan club secretary Jacqui Quaife and a couple of her mates.

Steve Dagger loves his pop moments - those zeitgeist instances when a band locks perfectly into its time. Already Spandau had enjoyed two - To Cut A Long Story Short and the Blitz kids of 1980, then Chant No.1 and the sweaty summer of funk of ’81. Now as the charts became saturated with glossy pop they notched their third with True, an unabashed, going-for-the-jugular ballad, fittingly knocking their very own returning hero David Bowie’s Let Dance off the top of the singles charts.

In many ways it should have been the ultimate bank holiday weekend. Spandau were in their pomp with two sold out nights at the Pavillion and Animal Nightlife, the third trendy cab off the rank after Blue Rondo, now signed like Wham to Innervision, were playing the Thursday. There was even a Saturday night Dirt Box party thrown in for good measure. But as I had garnered from sharing a flat with Graham a parting of the ways was pretty much upon us.

Graham had been Spandau’s record sleeve designer right from the start, through the neo-classicism (or neo-Nazi as Melody Maker’s Lynden Barber would have it) of Journeys to Glory to the squirly Native American designs of Chant and Paint Me Down. We first met one Friday early evening up in the band’s Reformation offices on Mortimer Street where Dagger was heading that what already seemed a lifetime ago day when Gary Hurr and I spotted then lost him.

Graham was dropping off the artwork for She Loved Like Diamond, destined to be the band’s first Top 40 no show and already his enthusiasm for what his pals were doing was waning. Move another six months down the line and the look of despair on his face as he played me a cassette of their latest single, Lifeline with its radio friendly mop-top-flavoured “ooh ooh oohs” said it all. Spandau were no longer making records for the cool kids.

Though I could see that was disappointing for the likes of Bob and Graham, I actually wasn’t that fussed by this change of direction. Having the door opened for me on the funky Narnia that was Le Beat Route had been completely thrilling and life-changing but there was still plenty of lovely, cheap pop music held close to my heart.

It had only taken a blast of Trevor Horn’s turbo refit of Instinction and the band’s new gloves off attitude to fire me up again and though I wasn’t big on either Lifeline or Communication by the time they peeled the title track off as single number three I was on board with this breathy new Swain & Jolley (purveyors of Bananarama, Imagination and Alison Moyet) produced incarnation. Indeed I felt moved (pissed) enough to mark their reaching number one by drawing a little True dove on a toilet seat in the recently opened Camden Palace with the phrase: ‘This Much Is Poo’ inscribed beneath it, with the help of their press officer Julia Marcus.

All in all it's fair to say I was gagging for some mayhem in Bournemouth. Spandau unfortunately, less so.

I can only put this down to the events of earlier on the Friday of that Easter weekend when we’d finally checked into the band’s hotel after a post-Nightlife Thursday night unsatisfactorily half covered by a couple of tea towels on someone’s floor.

Bags deposited, we got smartly back into the swing of things. There was a well established order of play for daytime drinking in Bournemouth, honed over the years by dedicated legions of soul boys and girls from Widness to Wales.

With Graham the comparative old hand and Lol and I the new blood we picked up where we’d left off the previous day with the traditional tour of key bars and pubs. First the Palace Vaults and the Queen’s Vaults, just down from the Gaumont where I’d once queued anxiously in the rain with brother Geoffrey to see Live And Let Die for the first time. Then onto the sea front and up the hill to The Intrepid Fox which apart from Snakebites (lager, cider and black) and a new one concoction Lol and I had come up with Snake in the Bath (lager, cider and vodka) boasted a jukebox fit to busting with Evelyn Champagne King, Candi Staton, Luther and The O’Jays.

This took us to mid-afternoon and with no time or day yet fixed for my Spandau chat it was back to the hotel bar where we could greet the latest arrivals rolling in and generally make plans for the rest of the weekend.

One girl who I’d not met before was Chrysta Jones. Chrysta was Animal Nightlife’s latest vocal addition who had taken the lead on their just released second single, The Mighty Hands of Love. Funny and gorgeous in equal measure with golden curls, feline peepers and a Monroe-esque bee-stung pout we hit it off and the afternoon got better and better.

There comes a point though, however much fun you're having, when if you actually genuinely possess a hotel room it’s time to properly check that room out. As people started to drift off I judged that moment to have come. Having in front of me more pints than I could carry up I carefully placed one of the spare ones behind a hotel curtain to return to later. Pleased with my foresight I then headed up with Chrysta to spend some quality time in what I was now thinking might constitute a potential love nest.

I may have been a little overly presumptuous calling it that but the signs were good. So as Chrysta popped to the bathroom for a bit of a freshen up, I set our drinks down and began a quick bit of furniture rearranging to get the two single beds better acquainted.

The exact timing of the events that followed are a bit sketchy. All I remember is a key turning in the door lock just as I projectile vomited in a dark blackcurrant frothy coloured arc across both beds and Bob Elms appeared, looking distinctly non-plussed, as he stood in the doorway.

Whether Chrysta caught any of this on her return from the bathroom I have no idea. The next I saw of her was about two hours later when I finally awoke from my booze induced slumber. She was sitting in Graham and Lol’s adjoining room watching the Nightlife vid being premiered on Switch. I would waste the next six months trailing after her like a lovesick pup but in my heart of hearts I had spectacularly blown my big moment.

So how did all this come to bear on my intended chat with Spandau? Well, amongst her many attributes Chrysta was also the little sister of John Keeble’s girlfriend (now lovely wife) Flea. The disasters of our afternoon were I imagine too good a story to waste so by the time I was up and running again an executive decision had been reached between Dagger, the band and a not-unsympathetic to my plight Julia that at least for this Bournemouth I was someone too pissed to talk to.

It wasn’t over all Spandau’s best weekend for music press relations. The NME, in the shape of my former fellow MM colleague Paolo Hewitt, was also due to speak to Gary with pictures by the illustrious Anton Corbijn. Paolo was hardly a dye-in-the-wool Spandau fan (“I thought True was fucking terrible”) but he’d dug Chant No.1 and also knew them socially through playing footie in Regent’s Park for El Classico - a North London team of pop stars, journos and others - which included Keeble (“best goalkeeper I ever played with”), Tony, Martin and Steve with Gary sometimes videoing proceedings from the touchline.

Unfortunately when he wasn’t busy dealing with me and his recently redecorated hotel room, Bob had been busy giving Paolo the once over on behalf of Dagger and Gary and found his party credentials wonting. The upshot of which was that Paolo and Anton made the long drive back to London empty handed. Paolo then wrote a scathing piece titled To Cut A Long Story Very, Very Short Indeed, followed by Bob thumping Paolo at the Camden Palace, a spot of litigation and an out of court settlement that provided Bob with the down payment on his first Bloomsbury flat.

“We've all kissed and made up since then." says Paolo, "It's quite funny now, but at the time it was deadly serious Guns of Navarone shit. Music to me was life and death then. When you're young it's all black and white. This is wrong, this is right, fuck you.”

In fact my interview ban turned out not to be quite a decree absolute. Martin Kemp took pity on me on the final morning and gave me 15 mins, sitting in the bar somewhere close to where I’d left that last pint, talking StarWears. In our new weekly slot in No.1 he described the first two-tone mohair suit his dad, Frank, had bought him (“with a little buckle on the back and double vent”), dismissed the recent London clubbing trend for ripped jeans, mud clothes and potato sacks (“how can you really fancy a girl in a potato sack?”) and explained how shoes “dictate the way you walk.” Well, I knew what he meant.

Within a matter of weeks of No.1 launching I was fully back on track with the Spands who I think, particularly in Dagger’s case, were delighted that at least one person from their clubbing days would be accompanying them on this next leg of their journey. Until I boarded a plane to Manchester with them one Friday afternoon that May I’d not properly encountered the new phenomenon that was Spandaumania.

Of course Dagger had been laying the groundwork for me in dispatches from his traditional spot at the far end of The Wag Club bar. Glasgow had proved particularly lively. According to Steve the band’s coach had been chased all the way up Sauchiehall Street before their Holiday Inn was spectacularly stormed in a scene he described as akin to Zulu.

That first evening in Manchester Gary Kemp went to do a phone-in at Piccadilly Radio and had his car chased all the way back to The Britannia. With the band enjoying their third week at number one it was escalating by the day.

The next morning they were booked to perform three numbers on BBC1’s Get Set For Summer, a Saturday morning kids show in the Multi-Coloured Swap Shop slot. A hundred or so lucky fans had actually been granted access to the studio and the mounting hysteria after each number was palpable.

A BBC floor manager told Dagger they had some roses for the band - “if you want to use them for anything, we’ve put one in a vase on the piano” - so after the second number Gary started chucking them out to the assembled throng. The fans though were intent on bagging themselves rather more than a red rose and as Gary continued to make like a florist they simply stormed him, the band and the stage.

Slightly shaken they regrouped in the dressing-room as their recently appointed head of security, Alf Weaver, an old hand from the days of shepherding Sinatra, warned them this was just an aperitif. He wasn’t wrong. Before the band had even reached the end of True the whole lot went hell for leather at them again. All except Steve Norman, who had to be dragged clear by the road crew, managed to dive through a hole in the back of the set.

The whole notion of teens and pre-teens going completely ape at their chart idols was nothing new. But this was the first time for a decade that it had happened across the board with Duran, Culture Cub and now Spandau (with the Wham! boys already snapping at their heels) setting off this feeding frenzy with chart topping singles.

“There were thousands of screaming girls in Liverpool, standing on cars, climbing up drain pipes and pushing the police around,” Tony told me on the flight up. “When we played the Royal Albert Hall the limo we were in got kicked in. They ripped the wing mirrors and the aerial off.”

Back in their dressing-room it was clear that the telly folk were as new to all this as the band. Get Set’s presenter Mark Curry and his wacky red spex came back all of a fluster asking if it would be alright if two particularly hysterical fans who were absolutely besides themselves in the corridor could just pop in and say hi “to calm them down.” A quick survey of the incredulous faces of the five sweaty, semi-naked objects of their desires told him this really wasn’t going to help.

It was both thrilling and funny to watch this whole new story playing out. Where once it had been long, earnest talks with Gary about club culture now it was Tony on fans’ mums knitting him jumpers and the burning question of what he liked for breakfast.

“We were doing TV-AM the other day,” said Tony, having successfully run the gauntlet from the studio and made it onto the flight back.

“Some kid popped up and said: ‘Tone, what do you like for breakfast?’ I said: ‘I don’t actually eat breakfast but I do like a cup of tea with chocolate chip cookies. Since then we’ve been getting cuddly toys, bangles and bloody chocolate chip cookies. No word of a lie, there’s been chocolate chip cookies thrown onstage. We had one beautifully wrapped box with a big bow on top and when we opened it, it was just filled with chocolate chip cookies. Three or four girls had put all their pocket money together and bought 20 or 30 packets.”

For the Wham! boys it took a little longer for them to experience this sea change first hand. They’d played Capital Radio’s Junior Best Disco in town, hosted by Gary Crowley, in the early part of ’83 but it wasn’t till the Autumn with their shuttlecocks-down-their-shorts Fantastic tour that the real fun began.

Watching the first night of that tour in Aberdeen there were delirious screams even at home videos of them as kids.

George told me the next day he’d had a tiny preview of what was to come at the end of the summer when David Austin, now Wham’s guitarist, had dragged him along to their local Kingsbury funfair (they’d been pupils at Kingsbury High) against his better judgement.

“David was going: ‘Come on Yog, just put your sunglasses on. If we get too much hassle we’ll come away.’ I used to go to Kingbury funfair every year when I was a kid. So we went down there and got on the waltzer. By the end of the first ride we were surrounded, people all round the edges of the ride peering at me and telling the guys who spun the cars round to get my autograph.

“You know what blokes at fairs are like, right? They’re going: ‘oi, mate. You something special?’ I’m like: ‘no, I don’t know what they’re on about.’ The next ride, I’m not joking we had four guys round our car. They were all whacking it round about three times the speed it’s supposed to go. This went on for nearly a quarter of an hour. This guy was shouting: ‘there’s no way you’re fucking pulling tonight, mate!’ They were so determined to make me throw up. It was so funny. I was actually really enjoying it cos I love the waltzer. The ride finished and we trotted off merrily but in all the other cars all these girls were throwing up. Still, at least it cost those bastards four rides worth of fares to do that to us. But after that we had to leave straight away. That was the first time since doing Capital Best Disco in Town that we’d done anything live for nearly six months. That’s when we realised we couldn’t just go out and do things like that anymore.”

If Wham! and Spandau were my first ports of call for No.1 there was another gang of chart regulars I was about to get better acquainted who would prove to be the most entertaining bunch yet.

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