Those with a taste for the history of Rock ‘n’ roll could do much worse than catch the show that I saw last night when it comes to their town. I don’t often do nights out in mainstream theatres on the outskirts of London but I’m very glad that I made the journey last night. Let me explain.
It begins with what will be a difficult proposition for some. Alvin Stardust is a very under-rated talent.
For those who don’t know, the man who was born Bernard William Jewry first made his breakthrough in the early sixties dressed in gold lame and fronting a band called the Fentones. He had become Shane Fenton, signed to Parlophone records and recorded a single called "I’m A Moody Guy" (a title which would be singularly appropriate for the persona he adopted a decade later). In the period 1961-1964, his singles continued to chart, albeit with decreasing returns. Consequently, he never made an album at the time and ended up on the cabaret circuit a few years later.
In 1974, a promising songwriter, Peter Shelley, came up with a song called "My Coo Ca Choo" which his label, Magnet, felt was a surefire hit but they didn’t thing Shelley could carry an image which would help the song maximise his potential. Shane Fenton was considered as the vocalist and the record company came up with idea of relaunching the rock ‘n’ roller with a new image and new name. In 1973, Fenton became Alvin Stardust and the budget was spent on black leather in which he was clad from head-to-foot for his first Top of the Pops appearances. Stardust became one of the key figures in the late-period of Glam rock; his black leather providing an ideal juxtaposition to the usual glitter and make-up.
"My Coo Ca Choo" stayed in the charts for six months, peaking at no. 2. Stardust had some better songs up his sleeve – but his first hit became his best remembered and because of its longevity, his highest seller. It was followed by "Jealous Mind" which reached no. 1 but stuck around for a shorter time and then "Red Dress", "You, You, You", "Tell Me Why" and "Good Love Can Never Die" which all reached the top 20.
As glam gave way to new wave and punk, Alvin’s singles and album didn’t sell so well. His first three albums all spent good time on the charts but he has not seen an album on that list since. His singles over the next four years were mainly covers but delving into rock n roll’s vaunted history with Cliff Richard’s "Move It" and Johnny Kidd’s "Shakin’ All Over" could not get him back into the top twenty. One final stab with a tense version of Bruce Springsteen’s "Growin’ Up" also failed and Magnet didn’t renew his contract.
He did a couple of seasons on ITV’s remake of the old rock ‘n’ roll show "Oh Boy" and working alongside the young Shakin’ Stevens and the older Joe Brown and Lulu kept him in the public eye.
New wave was in full swing by 1981 when one of its most iconic labels "Stiff" announced a new signing. Alvin Stardust. Stardust debuted on the label with another cover from the earlier days of rock ‘n’ roll and giving it a pop rockabilly lilt, he took "Pretend" into the top 10. He followed this with a version of Pat Boone’s "A Wonderful Time Up There" which did well on the continent but less well here in the UK, despite an appearance on the Morecambe and Wise show and the same guitar sound which had powered "Pretend". The lit fuse really didn’t ignite fireworks and Stardust was swept aside by the lesser talent of Mr. Stevens who would continue to work a similar formula for the next 6 years.
Alvin had a quiet time until 1985 when moving from Stiff to Chrysalis, he hit no. 7 with a Mike Batt composition "I Feel Like Buddy Holly" which played to Stardust’s rock ‘n’ roll roots but sounded more like a latter day Cliff Richard. This sound continued to dominate with a big hit on the maudlin "I Won’t Run Away" and a less than successful run as the host of BBC’s "Rock Gospel Show".
I’m one of those people who is interested in musicians of many different stripes and their careers and I have the blessing and the curse of an encyclopaedic knowledge on the subject. I’d been aware of Alvin Stardust from my youngest years so when his management invited me to interview him in the 1990s, I jumped at the chance. The interview came to naught but I was impressed with him as a person and I’ve kept up with his career since.
I’m always surprised (or maybe not) when he is disparaged in the press or on TV. As a performer, he is peculiarly aware of his strengths and despite one or two wrong turns in his career, he remains an engaging talent and probably the vocalist of his generation and genre whose chops remain the strongest.
His latest tour plays to those strengths – spelling out the history of rock ‘n’ roll, and his interest in it, through versions of his favourite songs from the era before the interval and revisiting his own place in its annals in the second half of the show. Big Mama Thornton, Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Bill Haley, – even Shane Fenton- their best known songs are all there. And the performer of the songs met most of them and played with some of them – quite a pedigree.
Weaknesses in the show? None that I can think of. The poster says a celebration of 50 years of rock ‘n’ roll and the show delivers exactly that. Inevitably, and quite rightly, Alvin’s hits are middle and centre – this is no tribute show – but it is the way that he understands and accurately places those songs in the flow of the music from the 50s and 60s which is so impressive.
His band is tight and inventive. He has Des Tong from Sad Cafe on bass and his long time guitarist Glyn Davies to handle the lead solos while Alvin himself handles the acoustic rhythms.
Choice of venue? A little too middle of the road for my tastes (The Beck Theatre, Hayes, for the record) with a slightly out-dated ban on cameras which means no pics from the show in this report.
After the show, I was able to catch up with Alvin (likeable as ever) and Des Tong. Sad Cafe were one of the very best live bands of their era and I could have traded stories with Mr Tong for a long time. Grateful thanks to him for chatting and answering my questions.
For me, as good as I’d expected perhaps better. For you, a surprisingly good night out if you can get past those preconceptions.