I remember as a kid seeing greatness in people and it really inspired me. I would see George Best on ‘Match of the Day’ and the following morning I would be out kicking a ball on our front lawn, dropping my shoulder past the rose bushes, before hammering a shot into the top corner of the Rhododendrons. I remember listening to Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens and Elton John and then spending hours on the guitar and the piano trying to work out their songs and then trying to write my own. One day, I would say to myself, one day, I will create my own masterpiece.
The days of wanting to be George Best (Spot the 8 year old Maldwyn)
It won’t be for the want of trying as I’m giving it my best shot but a couple of things this week have made me stop and ask myself, who are you trying to kid? One was a young 18 year old singer, the other, a performer described as the UK’s funniest red head. It made me question how I respond to greatness and talent in others. Do I still feel inspired or defeated?
I started mixing looking like this… and weeks later…
For some context, at the moment I’m spending most of my time, alone in my studio, with only the Czech Symphony Orchestra and my band ‘The Jacks’ to keep me company. In case you were wondering, it’s not that big a studio; everyone else is ‘on tape’. Having drawn on my inner Scott Walker, Elton John and John Barry to write the songs, now I’m looking to other heroes to try to make it sound good.
Elton John, Gus Dudgeon, Bernie Taupin
I often talk about my time working with Elton John but from a record making point of view I served my real apprenticeship under one of the most successful record producers of all time, Gus Dudgeon. In the 1960’s Gus started as a tea boy in Decca studios before becoming a studio engineer and finally a record producer. The job of the producer is a bit like a film director. They take the original idea and they bring in different skills to make the record, guiding the musicians and then pulling all of the elements together to make the final record.
Before working with me, Gus had a pretty formidable track record. He produced David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ before becoming the man who created the Elton John sound of the 70’s with hits including Your Song and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
Working with Gus came after I had recorded my first album, which never saw the light of day. The trouble was that in between recording it at 13 years of age, by the time it was finished my voice had broken. As Gus was one of the director’s of Rocket Records it was decided that he would take charge from then onwards.
We had to wait for the final bits of wiring to be completed before we started our first session. This was a monumental moment even for Gus as the Marquee Studios in Wardour Street was getting a new 24 track tape recorder and we were getting to use it first. Gus had put together an amazing studio band made up of a couple of musicians from Elton’s bands of the past, and some I think Gus was auditioning for the next Elton project.
The sessions were always fun. Gus had a million stories and would create a great atmosphere before sending the musicians into the studio to record. The recordings sounded incredible. Well they should. On guitar there was Davey Johnstone who is still playing for Elton these days. I remember he turned up with his own mini articulated truck full of all sorts of stringed instruments.
When the backing tracks were finished Gus would work out which tracks needed strings, brass and backing vocals. Then he would call on the best in the business. Our backing vocals were performed by a band called First Class who had a hit with Beach Baby. The strings and brass were arranged by Richard Hewson who had arranged one of my favourite Beatles songs ‘The Long and Winding Road’ as well as tracks for James Taylor, Diana Ross and the Bee Gees.
The only time my session was interrupted was when the tapes arrived from Madison Square Garden of Elton performing with John Lennon. As crazy as it sounds now, they arrived really late. We had had a long day so while Gus started to mix the tracks I actually fell asleep on the sofa at the back of the studio.
Since those days I’ve worked with lots of great musicians and producers, but Gus has been in my mind these past few weeks as I’ve tried my best to get the warmth and depth and clarity and power that his recordings created. Gus never sat me down and taught me how to make a record, but it was impossible not to be influenced by someone so skilled at their craft.
Then yesterday morning, first thing I went on social media and noticed that the new Bond theme by Billie Eilish had been released overnight. I pressed the button on my phone to start the video and it blew me away. The sound the song, the space on the record and also the fact that she is 18 and she records with her brother in a small studio in his house. And I thought to myself, so you’re trying to make a great album, who are you trying to kid, give up now.
It came at a bad time for self-confidence. The night before I’d been to the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff to see Lavoix. I’d been invited to the show by the designer David Emanuel. David has been a friend for years and has designed costumes for some of my musicals. He had designed the finale dress for Lavoix and wanted me to see ‘her’. To call Lavoix a drag act would be an injustice. She sings, dances, wears wonderful frocks and was very funny.
It wasn’t just the gags she had prepared; she was able to work the audience and banter with hecklers and fans. She sang like Judy Garland and Bassey and then had the whole audience on their feet for the second half dancing to Tina Turner and Whitney Houston. And I thought to myself, so you’re planning a tour of theatres on your own with a piano and guitar, who are you trying to kid, give up now.
I’ve had some time to reflect since and I’m feeling a bit better. I can’t sing or write like Billie Eilish and I’d never be able to dress like Lavoix. All I can do is try to be the best me I can be. As a broadcaster I soon found out that there’s no point in trying to broadcast like anyone else. You get influenced and inspired but you have to find your own voice. The best way to be authentic is to be yourself. If they like you terrific, if not, well there’s nothing much you can do about that.
I will take inspiration from every great performer I see and hear. I will probably steal a bit from them all but in the end we all find out we have to be ourselves. As someone told me lately be yourself, everyone else is taken.