This month sees the return of iconoclastic composer, DJ and music industry commentator Big George to the pages of Sound On Sound – and you thought we'd sacked him for good...
It's been almost five years since I left my SOS comfort zone. When I went, I said I was off to have a hit record. Well, now I'm back, every month for the rest of eternity (or until the SOS bosses come to their senses). And before you demand a refund, the reason I'm back is this: I've just had a hit record! A Super Summer Soaraway Stunner! Five weeks in the top 30, peaking at number eight, my face on the Top Of The Pops chart run-down. I must point out at this point (so as to avoid the begging letters) that any and all profit I was due for this particular pop platter went to charidee.
"What was this hit?" I hear you ask. Well, it all started on the way to a football match. At the time, I was presenting an all-speech breakfast show for the BBC and part of my remit was supporting (or at the very least knowing a bit about) the football teams in the show's transmission region. To that end I asked the relevant sport monkey, a bright spark named Stringer, for a lift to see the glamour match of the season, Wycombe Wanderers vs Chester (which I'm sure everyone on the planet knows was a 2-2 thriller).
Taking the freeload trail, I got into Stringer's car for the hour and a half journey, all set to give him a masterclass in the World of Webley, when, to my horror, he said: "Right, Big George, here we go, the best of football songs on CD". Then he put the offending item into the car stereo and bosh! I was blasted in surround-sound by the likes of 'Vindaloo', 'On The Ball', 'We Are The Champions' and 'Three Lions'. Aaarghhh!!
Just at the point where the will to live was almost out of sight in the rear-view mirror, he stopped his approximation of chorus singing/shouting (which was infinitely preferable to his almost getting the lyrics of the verses right) and said "D'you know what?". "No," I said. "What?" Then, out of the blue, he posed the theory that "someone is going to have a hit record with a reworking of Tony Christie's 'Amarillo'". To which I replied "Why don't you do it?" Whereupon Stringer did a wonderful thing; he switched off the car stereo and inquired "What do you mean?". The silence was so golden that this was a conversation I was willing to continue as long as possible, so I replied "It's just a matter of rewriting the lyrics". Remember, at this point I was prepared to say anything in order to avoid hearing 'World In Motion' (which, by the way, was the first British Number One hit record featuring a black rapper, namely Watford and Liverpool winger John Barnes).
The rest of the journey was taken up with a discussion of the hows, whys and wherefores of the process of adapting a classic hit record ingrained in the psyche of the British public. After the match I thought no more about it, and the conversation home was about the missed opportunities in front of goal and the quality of the pies. A couple of weeks later I was doing my usual Sunday duties, avoiding anything that resembled work, when my sporty mate came round with some lyrics to the tune of 'Amarillo'. I read them and they were really good. So good, in fact, that I spent the whole night rewriting them. Now, perhaps the excitement of a two-all draw in the fourth division (oops, I mean the the second division of the Championship — jeez, doncha just hate rebranding?) had gone to my head, but we got together and recorded a quick demo there and then.
Then reality hit us like a free kick in the goolies, with the realisation that 'Big George sings soccer' isn't a marketing executive's dream. So who should we get to sing it? Well, as it happens, one of the jobs that I've done periodically over the past 14 years is jingles and parodies for a national breakfast DJ, so his name was the first, the last, and the only one that came up. Well, Tony Christie wouldn't give us the time of day... would he?
So the next day — Monday — at 10.30 in the morning, I took our demo down to my radio mate to see if he was interested. He wasn't, he's a very wise man. Although I couldn't help but notice he was mumbling our brand-spanking-new hook as we hugged goodbye...
The next morning (Tuesday), I realised that my mobile, which was on silent, hadn't stopped vibrating for about 20 minutes. Twenty-four messages and 18 texts later I 'listened again' to hear my radio mate doing a top-class impersonation of my accent — so good that I thought for a minute he'd bugged our meeting. He talked about my visit to see him the day before, and my haircut (or lack of it), and played bits and pieces of the demo. Now that was cool, and totally unexpected. At 2pm that day I got a call from Tony Christie's manager, Sean, asking if we could meet the following day at a Park Lane Hotel. So Wednesday saw Stringer and me meeting Tony Christie, his manager Sean (who is also a drummer and his son) and Neil Sedaka (the composer of 'Amarillo')! It seemed that we weren't the only people to have had the idea of reworking the song, but at this point in time we had the highest profile, so our plan got the green light and we were off like a top-fuel dragster at Santa Pod. The day after (Thursday), we were sitting with the head of the record company and by Friday there we were in Angel Studios, first thing, to watch the drums, bass, guitar and piano tracks being laid down. After that, I was asked to do a guide vocal of the new lyrics, in front of one of the most distinctive voices this country has ever produced (I felt like I was naked in the high street on a cold day). Then it was all hands on deck to arrange the chairs in an arc for the dozen horn players (four trumpets facing four trombones, with four tenor saxes blowing down the middle — what a powerful acoustic sound that was!). A swift re-arrangement of the chairs for the 10 string players followed, then, to end the day, we helped the percussionist up the stairs with his full-sized vibraphone. That was day one, and the track was down.
On day two (Saturday) we relocated to Olympic, the studio where Jimi Hendrix, The Stones, The Who and thousands of other timeless and not so timeless bands did their best work, although I'm sure from now on it'll be remembered for my tambourine shimmy-shackas and the two dozen yobbo choruses that I sang solo. Tony replaced my guide vox with a sparkling masterclass of lead singing. A long time ago I remember overhearing Kate Bush telling someone in the Abbey Road cafe that doing lead vocals is hard and can take days because "it's the ultimate performance of the song". At the time I was young and I thought she'd spent too much time with the fairies, but she was bang-on. Tony Christie has sung 'Amarillo' a million times, but the only version that counts is the one he recorded in Chappell Studio in Bond Street 35 years ago. He put the same care and attention into defining this version.
Those three 10.30am-2.30am days were intense. The next six weeks were a couple of emails, a phone call or three and.... er, that was about it! Then, out of the blue, there was a video shoot to be attended. Dozens of calls a day, itineraries to be filled in, changed, worked out, changed, confirmed, changed again... getting a couple of hundred people together in the same place at the same time, many of them expensive professionals, is no easy matter. I took part in video shoots a few times in the 1980s, which was a few years ago, and even though we're now a sixteenth of the way into the 21st century, nothing's changed. There's still a lot of hanging about while the key grip adjusts the focus endlessly and at 6.30pm it's panic stations, as it seems we're only halfway through the storyboard!
Right then, so who the f*ck is Tony Christie when he's at home? Well, apart from being a legend — boasting on his CV half a dozen classic hits from the golden '70s, including one of the best TV themes ever (from The Protectors), more gigs in the '80s than all the new romantics of the day played between them, a wild and groovy '90s Jarvis Cocker collaboration, and Peter Kay's 'Amarillo', one of the biggest-selling hits of the naughties (definitely the biggest charity fundraiser) — he's a bloody good bloke. He was in the studio from the moment the bass-drum mic was set up right through to the final mix. He never sang a note out of tune, he never lost his rag or came over all showbiz, and every time he lifted his head out of one (or all) of the broadsheet crosswords (and man, can he race through crosswords) another dynamite joke got us all laughing. Now then... 3 Down: A drama at school (5,3). 'C', something, 'A', 'S', 'S', something, 'C', 'T'.
Thus passed three days in a couple of the best studios in the land and a day sitting around on a video shoot at Barnet FC dressed as a linesman, with loads of Sunday league lads and lasses in football strips, wearing giant Tony Christie masks to spoil their moment of glory ("Look, Mum, see the Tony Christie on the left with the green-stained knees, that's me, that is!"). With hindsight, they couldn't have played any worse than the so-called elite of England football who, quite simply, let the nation down — and, more to the point, didn't help our chart position!
The track was played everywhere — radio stations, football grounds, my Mum's house — and the video was shown on Channel 4's T4 and on Top Of The Pops (a great musical casualty that I'll be having a go at quite soon) and rotated on every single 24-hour music station in Europe. I was interviewed by this radio station, that Saturday morning TV show, and newspapers of all circulations. But I think the best memory was the excitement, at 6.40pm on a sunny Sunday evening, of hearing the track going from number 11 to number eight in the national hit parade. Actually, that's not quite true: it may have been three days of studio time watching Steve Sidwell conduct 12 brass players and 10 string players and listening to a top-drawer vibraphone player doing his tubular wobble thang. You'll know Steve's work, although obviously he's not as noteworthy as whoever this week's cute arse is. He's the geezer who conducts the choir on that car advert where they make the sounds of a fast motor. He also did the brilliant arrangements for Robbie Williams' big band swingathon at the Albert Hall. (I doubt he'll want to be remembered as the sole trumpet player on the theme to 'Have I Got News For You' over 15 years ago, who heroically played the intro and outro tunes first take, before collapsing under the strain of my arrangement, all for a tenner and a bit!)
The whole recording came in at £28,000, on top of which was the licensing and pressing of an initial 35,000 copies, plus a large-scale, one-day video shoot and hundreds of interviews. Again, Tony Christie's professionalism shone through, as he did a dozen five-minute interviews across hundreds and hundreds of miles of A-roads and motorways every day for weeks, no easy schedule to contend with — especially when you factor in a week in Nashville to record an album's worth of songs with country music's finest, with no room for error, demoing a 007 theme-tune contender and arranging his schedule to take in an album with jazz-guitar giant Martin Taylor. That's between sorting out tour dates, rehearsing, doing the gigs and getting the next lot planned.
The Gut Records bosses Guy Holmes and Steve Tandy have balls of steel, not for putting up the dosh in the first place — in fact, they didn't know what was going on until it was too late. (They're top geezers, but there's nothing like getting one over on your boss. If it was down to them, £28,000 would pay for an entire album.) No, what they need to atone for is helping to introduce the Crazy Frog into our consciousness — one of our rivals, whom we squashed, along with every other unofficial World Cup record. We ended up selling not far off 50,000 copies, making us the biggest-selling unofficial football record of the year. In truth, the official World Cup record by Embrace sold a few thousand more than us. Maybe their track was better; I couldn't honestly say myself, as every time it came on the radio I nodded off after about 15 seconds, but the intro sounded like a start.
From the outset it was my intention to give all my royalties to Sport Aid, if only to save me from endless meetings with laywers and percentage merchants. I just wanted to enjoy the ride, and I did. The single may not have defined a generation, it may never even get played again — for that I blame the overpaid, under-motivated jessie boys who played with less passion than your average double-glazing call-centre operative — but it was a blast. If England had won the World Cup, we would have been Number One for months, but they didn't, and that's that, so here's to the next tickle!
This column will be a manifesto for turning the music industry into a more fun place to inhabit and a fairer place to do business. I'm going to raise the bar (or should that be go to the bar?), shed light on the grey areas and offer a few home truths — to everyone, including you! Whether it will reclaim the creative element back out of the cold or merely annoy a few people along the way, who can say? As someone once said, a long time ago (probably long enough for me to take credit for these paraphrased words of wisdom): I want to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
And to return to hit records, I've also got an album out on iTunes. It was released by an LA record label and so far it's earned me the equivalent of a quarterly phone bill, but hey, I'm out there in mainstream cyberspace, shaking my tail feathers next to the likes of Britney and Beyonce. And by the looks of their latest videos, they're shaking theirs too! See you next month.