This article is from The New Musical Express - April 10, 1976 Many thanks to Simon for sending this to me.
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NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS - April 10, 1976
Follow the grizzled old campaigner as, with the indefinable panache that comes only with years of experience, he briskly and stoically hies him forth with only his faithful Indian companion JOE ("I take pictures, lady") STEVENS at his side, to fearlessly confront Messrs. SCHUMAN and MACKAY in the dank, eerie realm of the....
THE HELL WITH objectivity. I hated "Rock Follies". I found the plot
cumbersome and the script foolish. I disliked the fundamental inaccuracy of the "real
bits", remained unentranced by the "Surreal" bits, grew increasingly
irritated at the predictability of the crises and downright contemptuous of the constant
attitudinizing. As the series moved towards its most definately execrable climax, i found
myself almost shaking with fury at the callowness of the whole operation, at its
condescention, its effete agonizing and above all at the colossal waste of a glorious
opportunity that it represented.
It's been a hit series. It's generated a hit album. It's been critically acclaimed right across the board, even by the majority of the rock press, and it's boosted a lot of careers.
Whose? Well, Roxy sax object Andy Mackay's for a start. Then there's ITV produceuse Verity Lambert, who backed an outside chance and watched it become yea-even-as-solid-plutonium under her doubtless discriminated-against hands. There's graphics designer Rob Page, who did the cedits for both TV show and album, and who is now set for a glamarous future in the graphics business, whatever that may entail.
And there's actress Julie Covington, who's without doubt all plugged in to a Big Future in the acting business - has she not been interviewed in the papers more than anyboby else from the series, and do you doubt that when Howard Schuman writes the followup, young Dee will be even more articulate - and warmly, fallibly human than ever before?
Clive James loved "Rock Follies", said so. So long, Clive. Peter Dunn in the Sunday Times said it "sliced through" the rock business. Allan Jones of Melody Maker also said something or other not uncomplimentary. I've occationally tended to share his opinion in the past but this time ... I want you out of the flat by mid-day tomorrow, Jones.
Luckily, the entire NME staff (as far as I know) hated "Rock Follies" with a fine and consuming passion - which will either add fuel to the "editorial Knock Policy" legend or confirm our individual infallability, whichever myth you subscribe to. But as the series wore on, and nobody numbered the show in any other paper (we were hlding our fire until the last episode), I - we - began to wonder if we'd altogether lost our critical marbles. What the hell was going on? Couldn't anybody spot a can of worms any more?
Then a lone reviewer in Time Out (whose name I most unfortunately don't have to hand) expressed these very wonderments in print and in the same week a snide Teazer appeared in NME (which if you don't mind me saying so, boys, resounds more to Time Out's credit than NME's) Then shortly after that a lady from EG Management came on the phone to ask us if we'd like to interview Andy Mackay about the "Rock Follies" LP.
Well, to make a dichotomy between a show and music written especiallt for that show is usually speciou. But I've known Mackay for some years - and he is the reedman of one of Britain's most cultiveted groups, after all - and the more I considered the forthcoming interview the more I began to suspect that Mackay was all set to deliver a "Rock Follies" put-down - that the handsome saxophonist with the engaging nom de hornog Eddie Riff was in fact going to express my feeling for me, with the consequent adding of weight to any opinion expressed in the final article.
But that night I must confess that me worst nightmares hadn't inclused the spectacle of the "Rock Follies" album cannoning into the Loopy Listings at the top of the column - in every chart, even NME's, which (take it from me) is purely coincidental. And it hadn't even occured to me that Andy Mackay stood to gain any credit or bread from the album - or if it did occur, I'd forgotten.
But itr is written: he who hath been rowed out of composers credits shall noise his anger abroad and be outspoken in the condemnation of the product thereof; but he who watches the same product ascend into Heaven - and who retains composer credits yea, even tenfold, shall let sound the trumpets and proclaim, so that people may know and aclaim him.
In other words, you don't disavow tha nag when it's already shot past the winning post. It was fatuous of me to expect anything else.
BUT I DIDN'T interview just Andy Mackay: I thought I was going to - and I
thought I'd accordingly cleared my skull of all but strictly musical questions -
but, when I got to Chez Riff I found Andy plus his wife Jane, plus another quiet guy
identified as Rob Page, who did the graphics. I liked the graphics and told him so.
"And this is Howard," said Jane Mackay.
"Howard? Howard Schuman?
"Yes" says Schuman, who is American, about my age, and blessed with close cropped iron-grey hair, spectacles and a speedy manner. "I'm the mastermind behind 'Rock Follies'."
Christ, I'm surrounded!
What now? I'm unprepared for a debate on the show. I'm by no means ready for a confrontation with Schuman, because my immediate homework has been on the music and nothing but. And if I come clean and tell tham I though "Rock Follies" stunk there's going to be a lousy ambience and, quite possibly, severe embarrassment. On the other hand, I could pretend I likes the show, feed egos, milk quotes and judiciously select afterwards in order to perform a crushing but dishonestly aquired numbering job. It would be very easy.
My Mother's dear, dead face floates before my eyes.
Sorry. But I tell Schuman. He's ready for this, instantly produces the current NME (complete with offending Teazer) and quotes it. It's obvious that all present think I wrote it. "Fine, fine, fine," says Schuman who doesn't think it's fine at all. "That thing in Time Out and this in NME - it uses the word 'abysmal', look here - isn't constructive. It's not enough. Why do these guys dislike 'Rock Follies'? - they don't say so. They just call it 'abysmal'. But now you're here and you've told me you didn't like it and that's fine because now we can have dialogue."-
Well, okay -
"I say 'dialogue' because I'm anxious to hear what you feel, really. You've told us what you think and now I want to hear 'why'."
He is not on the defensive. Schuman is in fact flushed with the breathtaking success of his brainchild, pleasd beyond measure at the nice things that have been said by critics - the only weevils in the Apple of his Ectacy are that Time Out comment that Teazer, a throwaway jibe from Max Bell in a singles review, and me. 99 per cent is not enough.
So we start debating. Not very cleverly or even thoroughly. It would bore you for me to repeat it all. There's just a constant stream of argument, sometimes aabout "Rock Follies", sometimes about definitions, sometimes about NME. To make out I wond(sic) the debate would be a lie - I don't win. My thoughts aren't collected (I hadn't been expecting Schuman), I'm intimidated by the set-up (how would you like to sit in a guy's front room drinking his wine, when all the time he knows you hate his product?) And I'm outnumbered. In all fairness, Mackay does suggest separate interviews but I decline, which in retrospect is atactical(sic) error.
The row starts with Me giving Them an unorganised impromptu and sloppy version of the second paragraph above. Each point is greeted with restless stirrings, as if to say "I can't wait to blow that one out - but keep going, keep going", and before I'm halfway through Schuman is writhingh about on the couch and vehemently denying just about everything in sight.
It's not realistic. I finish. None of the scenes convince me.
"It's not intended to work on that level," says Schuman. "It's intended to be a representation of the rock world; I think dramatic realism has had it - people are sick of it on television."
But TV is a shrinking medium - it diminishes as it processes. Anything with any true stature - like rock at its best - invariably suffers by being relayed through a twenty-inch screen. And Rock composed specifically for TV has got to watch out - or it ends up seeming coy, juvenile, annoyingly inconsequential. Jesus, look at "Top of The Pops" or "Supersonic"! This is because most of the TV moguls have a view or of rock which is itself coy, juvenille etc., so to write a six-part play which panders to these attitudes - worse, to have such a huge sucess with such a play - banishes forever any hope any of us have ever had of seeing rock get some sane and exciting TV coverage.
"Both Andy and feel that television has a potential to energise", says Schuman energetically, "Most of the time it serves as soporific, turns people of. Now what ever you say about 'Rock Follies', it has more energy than anything else on television.
"It may be energy misspent, as you say, but it finds a direct equivalent in the energy in rock music. But don't you think that, even if 'Rock Follies' failed as you think, it now isn't a hell of a lot easier to get other rock things on television?"
Not really. Still, let's hear you did get this rock thing on television.
Basicall,(sic) I wrote a TV ply called 'Censored Scenes from King Kong' which the BBC taped and never showed."
"Because the Head of Drama thinks it's rubbish," says Schuman gallantly. "It's aplay that deals with, among other things, a guy who tries to manipulate two very unlikely womwn into becoming a pop group. I was interested in developing that style - which was kind of surrealism - which is directed towards a realistic view of life ... this is the birth of the style of 'Rock Follies', which on one level is a kind of pastiche of a Hollywood musical and then turns upside down to make some points about where we are in the 70's.
"It begins also in the fact that I was five years in the rock business myself."
"Writing words, songs. I've been here since 1968. Plus a lot of my friends were on the bottom end of rock, odsessed with the idea of making it as rock stars ... and I was interested in writing about failure, about the pull of rock as opposed to the potential joy of making music, the bullshit of business, the parasites that hang around - and also about the fact that a lot of people are vulnerable to the business, mainly because of the bread."
The NME does that every week.
"In other words rock stars have become what movie stars were to Depression kids."
An onoriginal but accurate observation.
"So when I talked about this to the guy who turned out to be the producer" (Andrew Bron) (sic), he said, 'Yeah, it's like a Depression movie brought up to date' - and that's where we finalised the idea.
"Verity Lambert (Brown's associate) wanted a six-part play - I've always likes that idea, like a six-hour play or a movie. I wanted this material, those characters, those experiments with style, I wanted to use music, and Verity said 'Go ahead and write the first one'."
His first draft was, Schuman says engagingly, "dismal. The best thing to come out of it was the first song I wrote - 'Little Ladies'"
Notwithstanding this setback, Verity Lambert approached Mackay (whom she knew socially) to collaborate with Schuman on a complete libretto.
ENTER THE Riff Man, horn in hand, with the promising solo career of
colleague Phil Manzanera presumably very much in mind.
Were you constrained in any way, Andy? Told to write a formula, huh?
"Not at all", say Mackay politely."In fact I asked for a totally free hand - to pick the musicians and so on. We held auctions and I picked them."
Come on, come on! Can't you see I'm trying to give you an Out?
"I enjoyed writing it very much - all of it. I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea - stand by it absolutely. At the begining I read the scripts and thought it stiood a good chance of not being disastrous - every other rock drama thing I've seen on television has been."
Ah, but wouldn't you perhaps agree that rock and TV drama basically don't mix? Because actors are by definition almost always required to be articulate, whereas (in my own experience) rock musicians very seldom are. And why should they be, after all? They're often articulate enough with their instruments - it's enough to be good at one thing.
"That's a cliche about rock people" says Schuman. "But 'Rock Follies' is not attempting to make a statement about 85% of rock people who exist, it's about individuals - three or four particular characters - unusual people. There's no reason why drama shouldn't be about unusual people."
They're unusual, all right. In seven years of involvement in thhe very business portrayed in your six-hour-lay I've never actually met anyone remotely like the characters in 'Rock Follies'
Wait a minute, yes I have - Howard Schuman!
He's exactly like one of his own characters! I tell him this. He is not displeased.
"As a matter of act (sic)," says Mackay to me. "Some people I was with one night when we were watching were convinced that Nigel" (the neurotic journalist)" was based on you."
Hell, I am very displeased! But then, I didn't write 'Rock Follies'. No-netherless (sic) I am so miffed I tell them that, not only do the actors talk too volubly and too cleverly for rock musicians, but also that the dramatics are overblown, that the attitudes are unbearably coy, that ... Jeez, you guys (I cry) the whole thing is just toomiddle-class for words!
"Define 'middle-class'," says Schuman.
Well, one way to tell is by a giveaway sentimantality concerning Working People (I'm too middle-class myself to say 'Lower Class' upfront).
I am battered to pieces in three-way disdain. Schuman and both Mackays leap on this admittedley incomplete definition and savage it (and me, its Onlie Begetter) with a fury unprecedented. And yet, like me, they're all middle-class themselves - Mackay would like to deny this but can't in his own house (which I must say is a very pleasantly furnished middle-class Restored Workers Cottage).
And Schuman, being (a) American and (b) in The Media - a playwright yet - is a prime example of the breed. But they go mad at the thought. Nothing, it seems, can be a deadlier insult. So we waste at least twenty minutes rabbiting about that. And as I'm unable to improve on my first definition while actually under fire, I am overcome.
BUT NOBODY involved with 'Rock Follies' believes in any way that the operation isn't
what the critics and the ratings and the album sales say it is. And why should they?
There's no mileage in it.
They tell me of the kids from Glasgow who wrote to say how fantastically realistic they thought the play was and how they really dug it etc. They tell me of the TV crews who voluntarily stayed behind after work to see how it all went; how the musicians all dug it - how every single mortal soul connected with the making of the programme believes in it, enjoyed making it and feels elated by its sucess.
And then NME photog Joe Stevens arrives to take pictures. And - suffering catfish! - he digs the show. He tells me so. Quiet triumph fills the room.
It's all over. K.O. Ears and tail.
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