“You can go onto that stage every night, and it’s always the equivalent of going onto the topmost diving board, and you don’t know if there’s any water in the pool” – Glenda Jackson
Stage fright occurs when a knowledge of the work being performed is replaced with a self-conscious awareness of the staring crowd and their expectations. Once it supersedes a performer’s confidence, it is difficult if not impossible for them to perform live again. Then the crippling flight response we’re all aware of comes into play.
Many celebrities suffer from it. After forgetting the lyrics to a song during a 1967 performance in Central Park, Barbara Streisand didn’t perform to a paying crowd for 27 years.
Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac said this:
Abba’s Agnetha Faltskog also had a tough time with the dreaded performance anxiety.
Even Adele, the biggest star in the world, has had her problems with it.
“I’m scared of audiences,” Adele revealed to Rolling Stone magazine. “One show in Amsterdam I was so nervous, I escaped out the fire exit. I’ve thrown up a couple of times. Once in Brussels, I projectile vomited on someone. I just gotta bear it. But I don’t like touring. I have anxiety attacks a lot.”
So what causes stage fright?
The infographic above begins with “inadequate preparation”, so it’s blaming the performer from the off. That’s unfair, even the most meticulously-prepared performer can forget lines and seize up in the glare of the spotlight. The mind goes blank and recall disappears through no fault of their own.
What the list really misses out on is the prime cause, I believe: a lapse in concentration. That’s all it takes, it may just be for a split-second. That’s when the displacement of focus takes place from the internal memorised words to the external presence and demands of the audience. Essentially, the performer has become a mountaineer who is suddenly aware of how high up they are and, crucially, how far they are capable of falling at that moment.
So, while the fear begins in a rational fear of failure and embarrassing yourself in public, the fear itself can become the irrational focus which can lead to panic attacks, sleepless nights and the problem becomes a clinical condition.
Perhaps we should leave the final word to William Shakespeare, himself an actor:
I’ve come up with some parody lyrics for Queen’s classic song (and soon to be movie of the same name) “Bohemian Rhapsody.” See what you think.
Bohemian Bap-seedy by Stewart Stafford
Is this just food hype?
Is this a granary?
Come on this snack ride,
No escape from the culinary
Open your eyes,
Look at what’s baked with me,
I should avoid carbs, this is what’s wrong with me,
My weight is easy come, easy go,
Blood sugar high, blood sugar low,
Non-food sales at Waitrose, don’t really matter to me, to me.
Mama, bought a sliced pan,
Got the knife just like she said,
Put the butter on the bread.
Mama, you had one cream bun,
But now I’ve gone and scoffed it all away.
Didn’t mean to be so sly,
I’ll get you another one by this time tomorrow,
And if not, and if not, well I guess it doesn’t matter.
Too late, my hunger has come,
Was going to order food online,
Stomach’s rumbling all the time.
Goodbye, everybody, I’ve got some dough,
Gotta leave you all behind and bake some bread.
Mama, ooh (anywhere your wind blows),
I don’t want diabetes,
I sometimes wish I had a gastric band and all.
I see a little cornetto/choc-au-pain,
Swiss rolls, Swiss rolls, will you get me Focaccia?
Vienna rolls with piping,
Very, very frightening me.
(Petit Gateau) Petit Gateau,
(Petit Gateau) Petit Gateau,
Petit Gateau and Fig rolls
I’m just a foodie, nobody loves me.
He’s just a foodie from a foodie family,
Spare him his life from this pomposity.
Tell me yes, tell me no, who made the dough?
The miller! No, he did not make the dough. (Make the dough!)
The miller! He crushed the wheat like so. (Crushed it so!)
Vanilla! We love that flavoured dough. (Flavoured dough!)
Love that flavoured dough. (Flavoured dough!)
Never eat that dough (Never, never, never, never eat that dough!)
No, no, no, no, no, no, no
Oh, Ciabatta, Ciabatta (Ciabatta’s running low.)
The baker man has some goodies set aside for me, for free, for free.
So you think you can bribe me with slices of Rye?
So you think I’ll forsake bread and eat up some pie?
Oh, baby, this is never a maybe,
Just go and get out, just go and get right outta here.
(Ooooh, ooh yeah, ooh yeah)
The oven needs some batter,
That’s all I can see,
The oven needs some batter,
The oven needs some batter for me.
In September 1990, George Michael released “Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1”, the follow-up to the global monster that was his debut solo album “Faith.” My brother, a devoted George Michael fan for many years by that stage, bought the vinyl LP with its black-and-white cover shot of a crowd of immigrants. Brave move number one, where was that famous face?
I had bought the album “Faith” as a Christmas present for my brother several years previously and I decided to check out the new one. The needle dropped down on the record, the crackling began and I sat back to hear what I assumed was going to be Faith 2.
The first track was his single release of the previous month, the anthemic “Praying for Time.” It was a good if unexpected song, but he didn’t appear in the video for it which hurt its sales. It has this sixty-ish horn section on it that indicates that this first single and first track on the album are going in a very different direction to “Faith.”
In a new documentary both Elton John and Liam Gallagher agree (yes, George Michael’s music reaches and unites such disparate musical figures as those) that “Praying for Time” sounds like John Lennon’s “Imagine.” George admitted listening to Beatles albums at the time like “Revolver” and “Abbey Road.” Lyrically, the song echoes Phil Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise” and its socially-conscious struggle with rich white guilt. George was a very generous man during his lifetime, donating sometimes astronomical fees to charities in private which is true altruism. He clearly felt guilty about the immense wealth he attained and tried to do something to redress the balance. “And the wounded skies above” George sings in a beautiful poetic flourish that Sting would counterpoint in “Fields of Gold” with the line “we’ll forget the sun in his jealous sky.”
On to track two and straight into the superbly catchy “Freedom ’90.” Freedom was a constant theme in George Michael’s work and he’d already had a number one hit titled “Freedom” with Wham! in 1984. Freedom ’90 reevaluates what fame means to a more mature pop icon. It’s a seven-minute epic slab of funk that lays the ethos of the album bare for all to see:”Today the way I play the game is not the same, no way/Think I’m gonna get myself happy.” Once again, George would not the play media game by appearing in the video for this song. It instead featured the new wave of “supermodels” (the Kardashians of their day) – Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, etc. Directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac, Fight Club, Alien 3), it is difficult to hear this song now without seeing that iconic 1990 video in your head.
In the video for Freedom ’90, George continues the violent deconstruction of his “Faith” image by blowing up his guitar, jukebox and setting fire to the BSA leather jacket he wore in the “Faith” video. It was reminiscent of the way David Bowie created the persona of Ziggy Stardust, it reached a crescendo of popularity and hysteria with fans and then Bowie bravely abandoned the image and created another one. Great artists do that though. They don’t want to become stale by pumping out the same stuff. They force audiences to grow and change with them by trying new things. The Beatles were the masters of that, of course.
“They Won’t Go When I Go”, a live recording of a Stevie Wonder song, is the third song on the album. If you want to hear a singer totally in control of his gift, then this is it. I had never heard the original tune, so I was literally listening without prejudice and I was blown away by it. It has the feel of an old spiritual song from the southern United States with that hymnal weariness seeping out of every groove in the vinyl. George’s voice goes crazily deep into bass territory and then right up to the top of his range and it is startling to hear it. It’s got a kind of Old Testament warning on the dangers of moral decay in the lyrics: “Unclean minds mislead the pure.” George covered many Stevie Wonder songs in his career and always made them his own. Stevie was like his spiritual and musical godfather. George had that quality that Elvis possessed of being a supreme interpreter of other people’s songs. Like The King, I thought every cover version he ever did was superior to the original and that’s a rare gift.
There’s some inevitable filler on the album like “Something to Save” and “Soul Free” but even they’re not bad. “Mother’s Pride” is an anti-war song that has its moments. George heard Don McLean’s achingly elegiac anti-war song “The Grave” as a child and it stuck with him (he recorded it in 2003 as war in Iraq loomed.)
“Mother’s Pride” has the line “his country’s eyes” and it made me wonder if he’d based it on the poster for “Born on the Fourth of July”, also from 1990.
“Heal the Pain” is a gorgeous folky ballad that George claimed was influenced by Paul McCartney. Paul doesn’t feature on the 1990 version of the song but he did record a duet version of it with George in 2005.
George had received criticism from black artists like Gladys Knight and Public Enemy for winning prizes at black awards shows at the expense of black artists. It wasn’t his fault that these organisations deemed him worthy of inclusion and victory but George seemed to make a conscious effort with “Listen Without Prejudice” to veer towards the white influences of his youth. He even quotes The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on “Waiting For That Day”, which resulted in a co-writing credit for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
“Faith” displayed a wide variety of influences with urban RnB (“I Want Your Sex), Elvis-style 50’s rockabilly with a twist of country (the title track “Faith”) and even some Sinatra-style swing on “Kissing A Fool.” The production was super-slick and it became a monster George had created that he happily put to the sword on the follow-up. “Listen Without Prejudice” has a variety of influences too but the production isn’t geared towards the top 40 and multi-million album sales. George had gone up and up in that hot air balloon before and it terrified him. “Prejudice” is more mature and complex than “Faith.” It is more experimental and biographical. George has self-conscious things to say about fame and what it does to someone. He’s showing us the wizard behind the curtain that some of us might prefer to ignore and just hear the hits.
I didn’t like “Listen Without Prejudice” on first hearing it. A month later, after repeated listening, I thought and still think that it’s George Michael’s best album. It wasn’t the obvious sequel to “Faith” that I and a lot of other people were expecting. It challenged its audience to listen without prejudging what they assumed they were going to get. Now, in 2017, almost a year after George’s untimely and still shocking death, “Listen Without Prejudice” has a second coming in a deluxe remastered box set on October 20th. I will be getting it and reliving those shivery moments that George laid down so expertly for us. “”I believe I can leave songs that will mean something to other generations,” George said prophetically in the 80s . Indeed he did. The man was a true original and, yes, to use that overused word – a genius. We lost too many of those in 2016 – George, Bowie, Prince, etc.
I was lucky enough to see George Michael perform live in concert in Dublin twice on one of his last tours. He had one of the purest voices I’ve ever heard in my life. Like his idol Freddie Mercury, the songs George wrote were extremely high-pitched and difficult to sing live but he was note-perfect in the four hours in which I saw him. “I never heard him sing a bad note,” his pal Elton John said recently. I concur.
I worry for the future of music but it is a relief to know that no one can ever take away my memories of the great sounds of the past. “Listen Without Prejudice” happens to be one of them. Catch up with it now if you missed it the first time, kids. It’s a reminder of a time when albums were king, music meant something and creativity counted. Knock yourselves out.
“He was without doubt one of the greatest songwriters this country ever produced and certainly one of the best vocalists ever” – Elton John
If I ever have grandchildren, I’m sure I’ll tell them about the time a newspaper did an article about me. “What’s a newspaper, granddad?” they’ll ask with genuine wonder.
Traditional or “legacy” media (a term which already appears to have consigned television, radio and newspapers to history’s dustbin) forms are struggling to survive in the 21st century. Newspapers, in particular, are seeing sales drop at an alarming rate which, in turn, reduces advertising revenue and only older, die-hard brand loyalists are happy to pay to access content on newspaper websites. It tries to roll with the times to stay afloat by hiring bloggers and sourcing stories from hackers and activists (or “hacktivists”, if you will).
The problem is that the newspaper business model is dying and the purveyors of the new business model are not only deciding what crumbs to feed the press, they’re naming their price too.
There is now a timescale for the demise of newspapers in most countries. It is comparable to how self-publishing challenged the dominance of printed books. Reports of the end of hardback and paperback books have been prematurely announced many times in the last decade. Then sales of ebooks dropped and the electronic takeover didn’t happen. It turns out that people like the feel and smell of a real book. Technology has an annoying habit of losing power or breaking down. Recharging is not always possible but printed books never need that just a light source to read from.
The internet had a similar affect on music too. The mp3 file appeared to have trumped vinyl records which were in a similar decline. Now vinyl sections of record stores are growing as are sales. There’s life in the old analogue dog yet.
Could print media stage a similar comeback? It’s probably wishful thinking as news or rather the information itself is freely available from endless sources. If newspapers charge for content, people can get it somewhere else for free. Citizen journalists don’t have the resources of a major newspaper or that Pulitzer cachet, but they do have that most precious modern commodity in abundance – time. Printed newspapers report yesterday’s news, by which stage a newer story has broken online. Yes, the papers can update their websites but the loyalty is to the information and whoever breaks it first now and not the brand. Even if a newspaper gets a scoop, it can be repackaged by news aggregrator sites and the reader may not even know who originally broke it. In the frenzy to get likes and shares and the kudos of being first with news, the basic courtesy of a hat tip to the originator of a story also appears to be endangered.
So it appears the newspaper is terminal decline. It was a remarkable phenomenon while it lasted but, sadly, it seems to be going or have already gone the way of the Dodo.
Where do you start your story? A key question and one of hundreds if not thousands to be answered when writing and publishing a book. Do you start when your character is born or before? When they are a child? A teenager? An adult? When they get married? When they are old? Do you start at the point of death or after and tell the story in flashback?
If you were telling the story of your life, where would you choose to start and why? Looking at your characters in the same way and treating their lives as real can be hugely beneficial. When you start treating them seriously, they become more realistic to you and hopefully your readers.
When a potential reader opens your book, how do you pique their interest? Your first sentence is crucial. The point you choose to start the story will determine that first sentence. The whole structure is like a line of dominoes (no, not the pizza place); set the first one right and the rest should stand. Get it wrong and they all could topple.
It took me many years to publish my book The Vorbing and, during that time, I wrote many different versions of it. I went through a city map of blind alleys but it taught me what worked and didn’t work each time and sharpened the story. When the time came to pull all the strands together, I could use all the best bits from all the various drafts to come up with a kind of “greatest hits” version of the story. All those ideas gave the whole thing a fast pace and fresh perspective. I won’t have that luxury on book two, but such is the challenge of writing.
This is where a fresh pair of (preferably experienced) eyes on your work can pinpoint a loss of initial focus. Even if you need to lose earlier material, you can use it later in the story or in a sequel or even just as backstory to help you know your characters better. No piece of writing is ever really wasted. You can cannibalize it later or even combine bits to create a new story (Anne Rice was writing a book set in Atlantis and hit a dead end, so she put her vampire Lestat into the mix and, hey presto, got a new Vampire Chronicles book out of it – Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis.)
That old cliche “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” is doubly true for writers, especially in the internet age. If someone is viewing a preview of your book using the “Look Inside” option on Amazon, that mouse button is right at their fingertips and they are ready to click off if you fail to hook them. So think carefully about that first sentence. Be original. Be surprising, but be true to your characters, your story and yourself above all.
“I’m not just a boxer!” Muhammad Ali once said. He wasn’t. He was so much more than that. Apart from his fluid, balletic boxing skills in the ring, he was one of the first sportsmen to use psychology to wear down his opponents before a punch had been thrown. He was fighting some of the toughest, hardest-punching men in the world but he cleverly figured out that they had built up their bodies but neglected their minds. So he used words like weapons, chipping away at his rival’s psyche until they were beaten men and didn’t even know it. That tactic certainly worked with the brutish Sonny Liston in the 60s. Just watch the old black-and-white press conferences as Ali fires one verbal missile after another and world champion Liston can’t believe what he’s hearing from this cocky young pup.
Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay. He changed his name for this reason: “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God – and I insist people use it when people speak to me and of me.” He grew up in a time when black Americans were third-class citizens. He won the Light Heavyweight gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960, came back to America, and, when they refused to serve him in a restaurant because of his colour, he went outside and threw his gold medal in the river. Even after becoming Olympic champion for America, no one believed in him. So he believed in himself. He could use words to attack but he could also use words to pump himself up. He called himself The Greatest until he and the world believed it. It gave him the confidence, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, to make his dreams a reality against the tide of begrudgers who wished him ill.
He used words to taunt but he also wrote poems, told jokes and gave speeches to inspire. Some credit Ali with being the first rapper and creating hip-hop music.
In 1974, Ali had perhaps his most famous fight, The Rumble in The Jungle in Zaire, Africa against George Foreman. Nobody gave the ageing Ali a chance. If you watch the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings, you’ll see the extraordinary mental process Ali engaged in to psych himself up for the fight. He begins at the first press conference asking who thinks he can win the fight. Nobody does and he seems down. Then he goes on the attack against his critics. Then he starts working on himself: “Everybody’s scared…there’s nothing to be scared of!” You can see he doesn’t quite believe what he’s saying yet but he keeps going. He turned to his religion for reassurance: “All I need is a prayer because if that prayer reaches the right man, not only will George Foreman fall, mountains will fall!” Ali refused to watch Foreman training, even when they passed each other in the gym. He blocked out his fear. Then Ali tried a different form of psychology on Foreman, a similar brute to Sonny Liston. Ali was 32 then, his speed had left him and he needed a new tactic. He called it rope-a-dope in which he would go to the ropes and absorb punishment before launching a surprise counterattack when the other fighter was exhausted.
When fight night came, Ali started throwing right-hand leads at Foreman. As in any battle, doing the thing your opponent least expects usually ends favourably. A right-hand lead has to travel twice as far across the shoulder to land and it’s hugely disrespectful to any fighter especially the champion of the world to catch him with one let alone twelve as Ali did. Foreman, enraged, punched himself out in the blistering African heat and Ali shocked the world by winning back his world title at the past-it age of 32.
Ali was a political figure too. He became a black Muslim and changed his name, that was a political act. He was involved in the Civil Rights struggle with Malcolm X, that was a political act. And he refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army to go fight in Vietnam, there is no greater political act than that. He said: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people while so-called negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?” Ali was stripped of his titles, boxing licence and was out of the ring for four years in his prime. He didn’t sit around and mope but went on a tour of American colleges to get the young people on his side (and against the war) with his wit, charm and intelligence. Another political act.
Those four years out of boxing cost Ali huge sums of money. Financial pressure and his enormous pride made Ali continue fighting long past his prime. His last, disgraceful fight came three months before his 39th birthday. An ailing, flabby Ali was easily outclassed and hurt by his old sparring partner Larry Holmes. It was an undignified end to an incredible career.
Then began the next great fight of his life when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome and the verbose Ali was replaced with a trembling, whispering giant. He still managed to light the Olympic flame at the 1996 games, a highlight for anyone who remembers it. His condition worsened in recent years until he was unable to speak. For the last 30 years, this has been his frail public image. If any good comes from his death, it will be that all his classic clips will get aired again so today’s youth can see what the man was like in his dazzling pomp.
Ali had a dark side too. Fellow boxer Joe Frazier helped Ali out financially when he was banned from the ring. Ali later turned on Frazier, ruined his reputation by calling him an Uncle Tom and a bitter feud developed between them.
It resulted in Frazier breaking Ali’s jaw and knocking him out in their epic Madison Square Garden encounter in 1971 (that resulted in Ali being out of the ring again for a good while). Despite having a white Irish great-grandfather named Abe Grady who’d married a freed slave out of love (not slave rape as Ali conveniently claimed), Ali said some nasty, racist things about white people including: “The white man is The Devil!” He even compared the white race to poisonous snakes. Pretty distasteful stuff but typical of the hardline rhetoric he was absorbing from radicals around him at the time. In 1972, Ali went to Ireland and received a rapturous reception from a then all-white country. Jose Torres, journalist and former world light-heavyweight champion who accompanied Ali to Dublin, said: “I want to tell you something now: I think that it was his experience in Ireland that reminded him of the goodness of white people and he began easing his attacks on the white man after that. It was when he began to take out of his dictionary the talk about the white devils. How could he think bad of white people when every street he walked down in Ireland, he had all these white people loving him?” In 2009, Muhammad Ali journeyed to Ennis in Ireland (below) where his great-grandfather came from and everything came full circle.
Like Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ali is “a man more sinned against than sinning.” History will be kind to him.
When Elvis Presley died in 1977, the Soviet news agency Tass granted him American icon status along with Mickey Mouse and Coca Cola. Muhammad Ali has more than earned that status too. So long denied recognition, Ali forced the United States to overcome its prejudices and acknowledge him and his people. That is perhaps his greatest victory and a lasting legacy that will inspire people of every race, colour and creed for generations to come. May he rest in peace.
Writers in the 21st Century think they’re so sophisticated in the way they can store, transport and transmit stories. We worship at the altar of electronic technology. However, hard drives can fail. Memory sticks can get damaged, lost or stolen.
Take my case, for example. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my cat Ginger was going blind. He thought he was in his litter box but was actually squatting over my memory sticks which had fallen onto the ground. He peed on them and wiped 8 gigabytes of data on me, a huge amount for those who don’t know what that means. The acid in his urine corroded and rusted the metal tips of the memory sticks, making them unreadable. Although I had saved the contents of my prime memory stick to a back-up, the cat had managed to pee on both of them. Through that freak accident, I lost things I can never get back.
Similarly, I went away on holiday once. While I was gone, my sister decided to surprise me and clean up my place. She threw out a load of writing I had saved on disk, including about half a book’s worth of material. When I got back, I was shocked and not a little pissed off (we’re back to urine again, see a theme emerging here?). Luckily, she hadn’t thrown out a stack of hard copy printouts I’d done. I went through the pile, silently praying that my discarded work was there. It was and I breathed a massive sigh of relief. Now, I had to retype it all from scratch but the material wasn’t lost forever. I was able to retrieve it. You might think you can retype something verbatim from memory but every time you sit down to write, you make different choices. It’s never the same way twice. Retyping it all was actually a good way of revising what I’d done. I spotted some errors, fixed them and took the story in a different direction as result.
The point being, print out early drafts of your material as well as storing back-up copies separately from the primary source. If you’re blocked, reading what you’ve done so far gets you thinking. Even if the solution doesn’t present itself immediately, your mind is working on it. You may not find a way to progress the story ahead but, very often, you’ll see a way to link earlier sections of your book with new sequences. That all adds to the wordcount and gets you closer to completing your novel.
Yes, paper can be shredded or torn up but it’s far more difficult to do than wiping something electronically which can happen in an instant before you know it.
So there’s the writer’s life for you; sometimes we sabotage ourselves and sometimes it’s technology, those around us or even nature itself preventing us getting our work out there. (I wonder how many great books have been lost over the centuries in that way?) For all our perceived sophistication, you really can’t beat having that tangible paper copy in your hand. Some things never change.
“Of all the more theatrical rock performers, Freddie took it further than the rest. He took it over the edge. And of course, I always admired a man who wears tights. I only saw him in concert once and as they say, he was definitely a man who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand.”
David Bowie on Freddie Mercury
It is interesting how many times the lives and careers of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury intersected over the years. Bowie, struggling to make a name for himself in the late 60s, played a gig at Freddie’s college in London (Bowie never went to college but was self-taught and a voracious reader). Freddie was there to help out. As there was no stage, Bowie told Freddie and the others to help him push some desks together to create a makeshift one and the show went ahead.
Freddie had a desire to become a rock star himself but was struggling to write songs. The man, who in just a few short years would go on to write what is routinely cited as the best song of all-time, Bohemian Rhapsody, would bang his head in frustration on his piano and ask: “how do they do it?” It’s possible he took inspiration from Bowie, a man writing his own material and performing it before Freddie’s very eyes. Bowie’s visual element wasn’t yet there. There’s no doubt that Freddie took inspiration from it when it was. Freddie changed his name to Mercury, messenger of the Gods but also a planet, just as Bowie had christened his alter ego Stardust in a celestial fashion. It was the Dionysian god-like approach to rock music that Jim Morrison had taken earlier.
Freddie and Queen drummer Roger Taylor had a stall in Kensington Market selling exotic clothes and various bits of tat. Even then, Freddie had an eye for the visual. So did Bowie, once again their paths crossed. Freddie’s stall with Roger was going nowhere, so they decided to close it. Freddie got a job at another stall. One day, David Bowie showed up looking for a pair of boots. Freddie fitted him for a pair and sold them to him (did Bowie remember Freddie from Ealing College? It’s possible he didn’t, but Freddie almost certainly remembered him. It wasn’t the first time a star had come down and bought something at the stall where Freddie worked. Noddy Holder from Slade dropped by and bought his iconic mirrored top hat there: “I got the hat off a guy in Kensington market, called Freddie,” Noddy said. “He said: ‘One day I’m gonna be a big pop star like you.’ I said: ‘Fuck off, Freddie.’ He became Freddie Mercury.” So Freddie was playing an important backstage part in glam rock already, seeing their choices, helping them into them and watching their fans react.)
Roll on a few years and David Bowie has found his musical mojo in the character of alien rock god Ziggy Stardust. The 1970s were going to be about the visuals as much as the music.
Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor recalls: “Freddie and I saw the first Ziggy gig at Friar’s Aylesbury. We drove down in my Mini. We loved it. I’d seen him there about three weeks before in the long hair and the dress. Suddenly you saw this spiky head coming on stage. You thought, wha-a-at??? They looked like spacemen.” Once again, Bowie was taking chances on stage as Mercury took mental notes in the audience.
Queen soon joined Bowie in the ranks of rock stardom. Bowie and Mercury both worked seperately with photographer Mick Rock. Rock was particularly fond of an old shot of German actress Marlene Dietrich and asked David and Freddie if they wanted to recreate it. Both divas saw the visual possibilities and favourable comparisons with glamorous old Hollywood and responded.
Mercury’s Dietrich pose would form the basis of Queen’s cover of their second album “Queen II” and be recreated in the video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 1975.
In October 1977, Queen and Bowie released very similar anthems. Queen had “We Are The Champions” and Bowie had “Heroes.” They are both played regularly at sporting events.
Fast-forward to Montreux, Switzerland in 1981. Queen are recording their album Hot Space at Mountain Studios there. Bowie happens to be in town the same night at his apartment there. Engineer David Richards sees a chance at rock history and invites Bowie down to the studio. Bowie does backing vocals for Queen’s track “Cool Cat” (he later refuses permission for the song to be released and insists that his vocals are taken off the track. Some advance tapes had already been sent out with Bowie’s backing vocals on them and are worth quite a lot of money today. The song, minus Bowie’s vocals, was included on Hot Space) In the studio though, everyone seems happy and relaxed with Bowie’s minor contribution. Bowie wants more though and suggests that they write a song together. Roger Taylor already had a track called “Feel Like” which has many background elements of what would become “Under Pressure.” It would be rewritten, have Bowie’s vocals and that classic John Deacon bassline added.
Bowie and Queen could have written an obvious song about love but chose to write about pressure which is something both camps clearly understood. Fans only hear the joy in most music without considering the blood, sweat and tears that sometimes goes into the creation of it. Big stars that write their own material have to keep topping what they’ve done before. They become hostages to their own talent and fanbase in a way. So pressure was the common ground that Bowie and Queen chose to occupy and occupy it spectacularly they did.
Bowie took over the session which seems to have unnerved Brian May: “It was very hard, because you already had four precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us.” May said Bowie “took over the song lyrically” and demanded control of the last mixing session. (Roger Taylor didn’t seem to mind Bowie’s instructions and felt that Queen could have done more with him at a later date.)
There is a well-known story of the vocal sparring session that developed between Mercury and Bowie. They weren’t supposed to hear the other’s contribution so as to keep their improvisations fresh. However, Bowie was secretly listening to what Mercury was doing. When Mercury got suspicious as to how Bowie was perfectly counterpointing him, Queen’s German producer Mack revealed the deception. “The bastard,” Mercury swore. It wasn’t the only way these two titans were competing with quantities of wine and cocaine allegedly being consumed to jazz up proceedings in the 24-hour session.
As the line “People On Streets” is repeated in the song, that was its title until it became “Under Pressure” at the last minute. Bowie refused to film a video for it but, even so, it gave Queen their second number one when it was released in November 1981 just after the release of their first and best Greatest Hits album. Bowie had hit the top spot the previous year with “Ashes to Ashes” and he would have another chart-topper 18 months later in 1983 with “Let’s Dance.” So the experiment worked for all concerned and is now considered one of the best duets ever recorded (even better than Bowie’s duet with Bing Crosby, although that seems to grow in popularity every Christmas and will again, no doubt, with Bowie’s death.) With “Under Pressure,” David Bowie became a part of Queen history and vice versa.
Their paths crossed again at Live Aid in 1985, when Queen gave what is generally considered the greatest live performance of all-time . Bowie had the unenviable task of having to go on after them and he raised his game. Queen did him a favour in one way as the crowd were already fired up from their performance and Bowie didn’t have to do much to excite them even though he did with a rousing rendition of “Rebel Rebel” and a seminal performance of “Heroes.”
The bassline from “Under Pressure” was sampled in the 1990 Vanilla Ice song “Ice Ice Baby” which also reached number one and once again brought the combined careers of Bowie and Mercury to public attention.
Freddie Mercury knew he was dying for years before his actual passing (as Bowie did for the last 18 months of his life when diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer in 2014.) Freddie had only publicly announced his HIV status on Saturday, November 23rd 1991 when he died of AIDS the next day to worldwide shock. Bowie did something similar, bringing out a new album on his birthday with his death being announced just two days later. The impact of Bowie’s death seems greater, possibly because there was no internet when Freddie died. Anyone and everyone could say their piece online about Bowie’s passing and they have.
At Mercury’s funeral, a wreath from David Bowie was sent with the hastily-scribbled note: “Will be missed.” Bowie appeared at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 where he reunited with his old Ziggy Stardust bandmate Mick Ronson (Ronson died in 1993). Bowie performed “Heroes” and “Under Pressure” with Annie Lennox filling in for Freddie on the duet. (As no video exists showing Bowie and Mercury singing “Under Pressure” together, this duet with Lennox was recut in 1999 to make it appear as if Bowie and Mercury were performing it on stage simultaneously.)
Bowie surprised everyone by getting down on one knee on stage at the old Wembley Stadium and saying The Lord’s Prayer. He hadn’t told Queen or anyone else and only decided to do it five minutes before going on.
When Bowie himself died in January 2016, Brian May described Bowie as a “fearsome” talent (it appears May is still unnerved by the “Under Pressure” sessions 35 years on.)
Many internet memes appeared after Bowie’s death showing him reunited with Freddie Mercury in Heaven to sing “Under Pressure” again, reuniting them even in death. The show, as Freddie Mercury once sang, must go on.
“Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness” – Pablo Picasso
I have written a fantasy/horror novel about war with vampires called The Vorbing. It is hard to deal with either of those subjects without dealing with bloodshed. Yet, I have discovered, to my great surprise, that there is discrimination by book reviewers against books with “gore” (which they find “tacky” and on the same level as porn) and “extreme violence” (which they find “offensive.” That’s strange as fiction isn’t about real pain or suffering so there’s nothing to be offended by. It’s all make believe). They had better not read The Bible then or anything by Shakespeare.
In Act III, Scene VII of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the elderly Earl of Gloucester has his eyes gouged out by the Duke of Cornwall with the words: “Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?” Pretty graphic stuff but it perfectly illustrates the upside down nature of Lear’s kingdom once he mistakenly divides it up between his three daughters.
The crucifixion of Jesus in The Bible also has scenes of graphic torture followed by the slow death of Christ that follows. Again, this is deliberate to make the reader or the listener in church live every wound with Christ as he dies for our sins (or so The Bible says, believe or don’t believe what you want, dear readers).
Where did this ludicrous squeamishness appear from suddenly? Why are books being prejudged for their content without being given a fair chance?
“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” the old adage goes. Equally, don’t judge a book by its content until you’ve read it. If you dare to write extreme scenes, you are essentially barred from getting not just a fair review but ANY review. This is wrong on all levels. It is holding back writers that want to try new things and push boundaries. You don’t get great art by playing it safe but that is the message being sent out loud and clear by these reviewers. Conform and be unimaginative is their coda.
It is a form of censorship and all that entails (I always get images of Nazi book-burning in my head when I think of censorship) My old acting teacher told me never to censor myself as that’s when all the good stuff happens. She was and is right. I never have censored myself and I never will. Nor will I allow others to censor me either. The glorious freedom of writing is a beautiful thing that must never be stifled.
I am not saying be outrageous or controversial for the sake of it. That is petulant attention-seeking. Some writers are acutely aware that there are two ways to get your message out there – advertising (which costs money) and publicity (which is free). Being cynically controversial is the cheapest and fastest way to sell anything. The media and chattering classes see to that. I am saying take risks because your characters and their world take you there or demand that you do. Even if these lily-livered reviewers want you to water down your work, I say don’t. Why? I’ll give Shakespeare the final word: “To thine own self be true.” Amen.
“Oh, it’s very entertaining,” the film producer sniffily said as he looked at my screenplay on his big desk. He then looked up and peered at me over his glasses. He said “entertaining” as if the very thought of it was beneath him (this is a man who makes movies for a living!) His advertisement said he was looking for scripts but that was very vague. He was clearly looking for a specific type of script. He was an arty producer, probably looking for arty-farty scripts about old women talking about tea or something (I still don’t know what the guy was looking for). So he had wasted both my time and his by not stating clearly what he wanted.
Being entertaining or exhibiting showmanship is seen by some as being cheap crowd-pleasing that just gives Joe Public what he wants. A kind of shameless “roll up, roll up!” carnival huckstering. By that definition, the likes of Steven Spielberg would be branded “entertaining” and therefore not worthy of praise or even critical admiration. Utter nonsense, of course. Spielberg has made some of the most unforgettable, popular films in movie history and has a back catalogue most people would kill for. The ones who look down their noses at his movies can only dream of amassing the credits he has.
Some people are afraid to make the big gesture. I, as you have probably gathered by now, am not. You don’t make anything good without pushing it as far as you can. That’s not to say that being entertaining can’t be subtle (an assumption this arty producer appeared to be dismissing me with) or highly intelligent or deeply moving. Entertainment can be and is all of those things. You only have to be open-minded to see that.