A Tribute to Alvin Stardust
It would have been the late summer of 1974. I turned on the TV. BBC 1. And it turned out I turned on “Top of the Pops”. I’d really not got into watching Top of the Pops yet. My music listening mostly came from plugging in my cassette player in, in the corner of my Mum’s bedroom and recording the Sunday night Top 40 rundown from the BBC in the cassette player’s built-in radio. I didn’t record the whole thing – just the songs I didn’t already have and that I liked.
Anyway back to Top of the Pops. Solo performer, black leather. Singing, barely moving, slowly removing a black leather glove. Great song, riveting performance. Glam rock meets some kind of rock ‘n’ roll revival. I swear I learnt more in 3 minutes about image and the colour black than I did in the whole of the rest of my life so far. It was and remains a hugely influential performance for me, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen it again. It appears to be one of those editions of Top of the Pops which was wiped and has not been found in a private collection. Perhaps gone forever.
I got to thinking about it this week when I heard that Alvin Stardust had died.
My daughter rang me when I was on my way to Stratford-Upon-Avon to review a play. She knew I’d want to know. She’d met Alvin when she was much younger and he’d made quite an impression on her. I spent the rest of the weekend, when my wife and I weren’t talking about Shakespeare and the play, talking about Mr Stardust, his music and the impact it had upon my life.
Alvin was born Bernard Jewry in September of 1942. Born in London but raised in Mansfield, his mother, Margaret would open her home to lodgers, most of whom were theatrical types and so young Bernard grew up surrounded by musicians and actors.
In his teens, Bernard befriended young Johnny Theakston who had renamed himself Shane Fenton and led a group called the Fentones. Bernard got into the habit of travelling to the concerts with Johnny. Shane Fenton and the Fentones had submitted a tape of their recordings to the BBC.
The BBC responded positively and invited the group to appear on a radio show. Unbeknownst to the BBC, Johnny had passed away from rheumatic fever between the time of the tape and the reply. After the funeral and knowing of the interest, both the Fentones and Johnny’s mother asked Bernard to step up and perform for the BBC in place of Johnny – to become Shane Fenton – in memory of their lost loved one.
The rest became a footnote in the history of 1960s rock “n” roll. Shane Fenton and The Fentones were never hugely popular but they made a mark. They were signed by Parlophone and enjoyed four minor hits. The first of these was far and away the best. “I’m a Moody Guy” made it to number 22 on the UK charts in the Autumn of 1961. 1962 was to bring the other 3 hits: “Walk Away” (peak position 38); “It’s All Over Now” (29); and “Cindy’s Birthday” (19). Parlophone also tried to make a Shadows-style outfit of the Fentones without Shane and they had hits with “The Mexican” and “The Breeze and I”. These troubled the charts either side of Cindy’s birthday but narrowly missed out on the Top 40.
The band were not popular enough to be offered opportunity to make a LP record – although a compilation of the singles would eventually fill that gap over a decade later when Bernard who had become Shane became Alvin.
There were a number of other singles that didn’t trouble the hit parade – “Two young for Sad Memories”; “I Ain’t Got Nobody”; “Don’t Do That” and “Hey Lulu” – all perfectly presentable pop but all sounding a little dated as the Beatles developed and presented their self-composed hits.
Shane continued on the cabaret circuit but it would be 8 years after “Hey Lulu” that Shane would return to the recording studio. Hal Carter who was Billy Fury’s agent and manager at various times in his career, offered Shane the opportunity to record for “Fury Records” but another – less well-highlighted – name change was thought to be in order. “The Fly” was released under the name of Jo Jo Ellis with both sides of the record written by Shane Fenton. It sank without a trace and by the time of the second and final release on Fury, Shane’s name was the one back on the performer’s space on the label but “Eastern Seaboard” was just as unsuccessful as its predecessor.
Hal continued to take an interest in Shane’s career and was one of those who recommended him to Magnet records when a young writer called Peter Shelley had a song called “My Coo Ca Choo” which seemed like a possible novelty hit but needed a much stronger presence than Shelley was able to provide if it was to stand alongside the glam rock stars of 1973.
Various rock ‘n’ rollers of the past decade were considered before Shane was offered the opportunity to become Alvin Stardust. Just like with Shane Fenton, Bernard Jewry wasn’t the first to be given the opportunity to grab the role – just the one who had the charisma to make a success of it. Legend has it that once an image of all-black was decided upon, Alvin had a disaster with hair dye which left stains to his hands and face. This led to his first Top of the Pops performance requiring him to wear black leather gloves and stick-on sideburns. By the time of the second appearance, the image was set in stone and Alvin had to start growing sideburns of his own. The image had stuck in the public consciousness. “My Coo Ca Choo” stayed on the chart for almost half-a-year peaking at no. 2 and by the time it finished its journey Alvin was both the antithesis of glam and one of the biggest glam stars in Europe. Quite an achievement.
It is debatable whether Shane / Alvin created the wave of rock’n’roll revival that swamped the UK charts next or simply rode it. Chinn / Chapman who were the key songwriters of the popular level glam movement certainly heard it coming and gave Mud “Tiger Feet” to take to number one. Showaddywaddy started to appear on the release schedules. Bill Haley and the Comets were at number 12. Alvin and songwriter Shelley came up with “Jealous Mind”. If “My Coo Ca Choo” was good then “Jealous Mind” was great. If “My Coo Ca Choo” developed a listenership slowly, “Jealous Mind” was on the radio playlists immediately. “My Coo Ca Choo” had peaked at number 2, “Jealous Mind” went all the way to number one. If you want to see Mr Stardust at the peak of his powers then watch his performance on the Christmas day “Top of the Pops” which celebrated the year’s biggest hits. He was at the top of his game.
An album “The Untouchable” was hurriedly put together for March release and whilst a strong set which included the two hit singles, it shows the poorly thought out approach that was to hamper Alvin’s career over the next couple of years. Some of the songs – “Guitar Star”, “The Bump” being examples – were filler which didn’t play to Stardust’s strengths and it was clear that Magnet didn’t think they had an artist for the long-term but wanted to milk the cow whilst they could. The album did well, hitting no.4 and staying around the top sellers for three months which when compared with some of the album flops of the other “glam” artists should have given Magnet time to reconsider what they had here.
Next up was “Red Dress” which was electric and again shot into the top ten. This time it settled at number 7. In the summer came “You, You, You” which is where my Top of the Pops revelation occurred. It was Stardust’s 4th Shelley composition and 4th Top 10 hit, this time reaching no. 6. Alvin’s management had now decided it was time to broaden his audience by bringing colour into the visual image. Alternatives to black were used for some TV appearances for “You, You, You” but this was to be nothing compared to the new image unveiled for the rock’n’roll ballad next single “Tell Me Why”. Colourful jump suits were the order of the day and that air of mystery was somewhat broken. Perhaps the record company put the lack of sales down to that but there was also the factor that the record was much less guitar driven than its predecessors and more like the material that Shelley would utilise in his own brief solo career.
Either way, the next album cover art was ready to go and featured Alvin in a bright shirt, cuddling a kitten. With only three weeks on the chart and rushed out immediately prior to Christmas of 1974, the album reached only number 37 on the chart. All of this despite it being a more consistent album than the debut and the fact it contained three singles. The reality was that Magnet and Alvin’s management were moving too quickly and saturating the marketplace. Whatever you judged to be the missteps, they were being taken too quickly and a young audience were losing interest.
Another single was rushed out in January of 1975. “Good Love Can Never Die”. In my own personal opinion, this might have been Alvin’s best single to date or certainly vie for that position with “Jealous Mind”. It has a kind of Everly Brothers feel to it which would be a significant factor considering the direction that Alvin’s third album would take. It was also significant that it was the first Stardust single that was only co-written by Shelley with Barry Mason taking the co-writing credit. It did better than “Tell Me Why” but stalled outside the Top 10 at number 11. Alvin’s career for the next two or three years would be aided by the launch of “Supersonic”, a new pop and rock show which understood the glam mindset well and kept the ailing music style alive into 1977 and the time of Marc Bolan’s death. Alvin’s performance of “Good Love Can Never Die” on that show was one of many memorable ones which no doubt aided the single’s success. Black leather was once more the image of the day and Alvin gave interviews where he was required to say how uncomfortable the coloured clothing had made him feel!
A further six months elapsed before the next single “Sweet Cheatin’ Rita” which was not Alvin’s finest moment and tried to re-create “My Coo Ca Choo” with a clumsy lyric which sounded a little too ’50s as did the girl’s name in the title of the song. It was a very minor hit, making no. 37 and was to herald a number of years of struggle for chart success.
Roger Greenaway who was co-composer of “Sweet Cheatin’ Rita” replaced Peter Shelley as songwriter and producer at the helm of Alvin’s career for the next year or so. He shared Alvin’s love of 1950/60s rock and together they crafted an attempt to use this music to relaunch his career. First was an arrangement of Ian Samwell’s “Move It”, originally a hit for Cliff Richard and the Shadows, now redone with a flavour that was not a million miles away from Peggy Lee’s “Fever”. It garnered a lot of airplay and TV coverage but didn’t sell.
An album was issued to follow and continue the theme. “Rock With Alvin” featured re-arrangements of Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” and “C’mon Everybody”, Larry Williams’ “Bony Maronie” and the Everly Brothers “Bye, Bye Love” and partnered them with “Move It” and “Good Love Can Never Die” and several new songs by Greenaway and one composition by Stardust. It perfectly paired the glam stomp with the rock’n’roll revivalism which had been at the heart of Stardust’s music since day one and which Greenaway seemed to understand better than Shelley and certainly better than the record label. The album was released to good reviews and garnered Alvin a more varied audience, appealing to those who had admired him as Shane Fenton and those who simply like the music of the late 50s and early 60s. However, sales were no stronger than its predecessor and it stayed on the charts for a mere two weeks.
Magnet had contractural obligations to Stardust and so “Angel From Hamburger Heaven” was released as a single the following month and the ballad “It’s Better to Be Cruel than Be Kind” appeared in April 1976. Neither was really promoted by the label and neither sold. Indeed, most of his fans wouldn’t have even been aware that they were singles. “Angel…..” was given the obligatory performance on “Supersonic” but since Alvin had performed other non-singles on there, it wouldn’t have sent you to your local record store to search the racks even if it was a good performance. After all, you’d probably owned the album it came from for six months.
Three months later, a new single appeared coupling two new recordings, the glam feel “The Word is Out” and a departure from the norm “No Parking Space”. It was sent as a double-A side promo to some radio stations and when “The Word is Out” became the one that was picked up at radio that became the official “A” side for the full release. Again, it didn’t sell despite good airplay at Radio one and a little TV. A cassette-only album release “No Parking Space” included the new songs and a smorgasbord of material from the first three albums. No-one noticed and the track listing on the sleeve didn’t match what the cassette played. A final single “Sweet Little Rock’n’Roller” rounded out the year but was limited to a release in Germany.
1977. Alvin’s partnership with Roger Greenaway came to an end and Magnet handed him to another experienced producer, Jonathan King, whose fall from grace was still to lie several years in the future. He had a cool idea and paired the strong rock vocal of Stardust with a song from Bruce Springsteen’s debut album, “Growin’ Up”. Springsteen was starting to establish himself but his first album had really gone under the radar and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band had gained some popularity mining it for diamonds. The Stardust track was a goodie but Magnet just didn’t know what to do with it. They got Stardust to appear on “Supersonic” and a children’s programme “Get it Together” but it really didn’t fit their format (especially “Get it Together” where Basil Brush’s former right-hand man, Roy North clearly wasn’t expecting that at all) and the Springsteen fans didn’t want to know about the “My Coo Ca Choo” man singing a song they already thought they had the definitive version of.
Magnet put out a second compilation, “Greatest Hits”, which gathered all the hits and the new single and drew a line under his time on the label. it didn’t chart and became the second album in a row to garner no public interest (and you could even buy this one on vinyl).
But the story wasn’t over yet. Not by a long way, even though the period between Alvin/Shane’s first and last hits was now something like 15 years – more than your average glam rock star.
In 1979, ITV decided to re-create Jack Good’s Oh Boy show for peaktime broadcasting. Rock’n’roll and doo wop revival was still sparking interest with Darts, Showaddywaddy and Rocky Sharpe and the Replays all hitting the charts. Most of those bands were a little sniffy about the show so ITV turned to what would be seen as second division players and faded oldies. Alvin Stardust, Joe Brown, Lulu, Les Gray who had been lead singer with Mud and some guy with a take on Elvis, called Shakin’ Stevens who used to be front man with a group called the Sunsets that had a reputation of being willing to play everywhere and anywhere but had never managed to have a hit record.
The show ran for a couple of series and didn’t seem to have a huge impact. Alvin released a single of “Shakin’ All Over” on an indie label, Gale records, but it went unnoticed. His performances on the show ran a wide gamut, debuting with “Hard-Headed Woman” and going as far as “Mack the Knife” with lots of Rock’n’roll classics in between and the album of the show included some of his performances. And then came 1981, Showaddywaddy and the Darts were nowhere to be seen but Shakin’ Stevens and Alvin Stardust were hanging around the top of the singles chart.
And so it came to pass that in September of 1981. Alvin 6 years after his last hit single reached no.4 with “Pretend” on Stiff Records, a label that was the darling of the New Wave set. He told the story that he first fancied re-arranging “Marie Marie” but Shakin’ Stevens beat him to the punch and so he hit upon the song “Pretend” which had previously been a hit for Nat ‘King’ Cole and Carl Mann amongst others. Alvin’s version veered more towards Mann’s version and once again pressed the 50’s revivalist note – this time with big success. The follow-up single was “A Wonderful Time Up There”, best known when recorded by Pat Boone. For Alvin, it only made no.56 in the charts but remained on the listing for two months. 1981 saw him appear on the Royal Variety Performance and the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show. Quite a comeback year but he was now squarely in the middle-of-the-road in terms of the songs he was choosing and there seemed to be no particular plan to develop past this.
There were four more singles in the UK over the next two years, all on Stiff Records but none were successful. The first of these was a contemporary take on Eddie Cochran’s “Weekend” which was driven by synthesisers and deserved to do bettter. Then there was a new song “I Want You Back in Life Again” which was a presentable recording but nothing remarkable. After that came two more covers. The first of these was a song made famous by Joe Brown, “A Picture of You” which wasn’t as fresh-sounding as “Weekend” but was a solid track. And then there was a version of the Four Tops’ “Walk Away, Renee” which was very good but the moment had passed and it couldn’t get radio airplay.
“Walk Away, Renee” came out in April of 1983. An album titled after the previous year’s single “A Picture of You” was to come out before it but was withdrawn from UK release schedules when the hits stopped coming. It was released in Germany but went largely unnoticed.
Alvin had two more singles on the continent – “Corina Can” and “Candy” – but neither made any impact.
The following year saw songwriter Mike Batt (he of the Wombles and “Bright Eyes”) looking for the right voice for a song he’d composed based on old song titles from the ’50s and ’60s called “I Feel Like Buddy Holly”. Alvin was the right man for all kinds of reasons and the record was soon storming into the top ten on his new label, Chrysalis. It peaked at no.7 in the UK and was a huge hit all over Europe.
If the Stiff era had seen Alvin a little too much in Shakin’ Stevens shadow for comfort then his time on Chrysalis saw him aiming at the same territory as Cliff Richard. Another no. 7 hit followed with “I Won’t Run Away” which saw Alvin cutting loose from the old time rock ‘n’ roll associations in favour of a much more straightforward pop. If the time on Stiff had seen him lose his edginess, the time on Chrysalis saw him lose some of his identity. He had a minor hit with a seasonal track, “So Near to Christmas” and then less success in the New Year of 1985 with “Got A Little Heartache”. The next single was “Sleepless Nights” which was the first on Chrysalis not to chart.
The end of 1984 had also seen an album released “I Feel Like…. Alvin Stardust” which had some great material and the hit singles but was very uneven and needed a host of producers and songwriters.
There was a feeling that Alvin and his management were now clutching at straws and the next step was to enter “A Song For Europe” with a song called “Clock on the Wall” which failed to qualify for the Eurovision song contest. The song was made commercially available in a singles pack which was led by last Christmas’ hit, “So Near to Christmas” but the whole thing passed without notice.
In an interesting twist and a nod towards his birth name Alvin was to record a single in 1986 as “The Jury” entitled “Just Like Lovers” but this time the record created no interest and nobody much cared about who the guy behind the monicker was.
The same, Stardust moved more into TV work and became the co-host of the “Rock Gospel Show” with Sheila Walsh. They recorded a single together which wasn’t a gospel song but at least had the word “Pray” in the title. Despite being performed on the show, “I Hope and I Pray” wasn’t well-received and failed to re-spark interest in his music. The Christian music press were unkind to him for being on a “gospel” show, seeing it as an insincere attempt to revive his flagging career. The secular music press were unkind to him for becoming “religious”. There were domestic problems and rumours of a sincere interest in Christianity. It all began to detract from the music.
Alvin needed to back away from recording for a while but before he did he made one more valiant attempt at returning to the singles chart with a great version of the Leiber & Stoller classic “Jailhouse Rock” which was released on his old stomping ground of Magnet Records. It didn’t give him the desired hit but it was better than 80% of what he had recorded in the last couple of years and more inkeeping with the kind of music that he felt at home with.
His next step was to move into stage musicals including a tour of “Godspell” which saw a 12″ EP available on the merchandising stall which was his only release of 1988. It was through treading the boards that he was to re-find a good home environment, meeting his wife Julie Paton with whom he would have his fourth child, Millie. One of the heights of his theatrical career in later years was playing the role of the Childcatcher in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”.
In 1989, he was offered the opportunity to record a musical version of poet John Betjeman’s “Christmas” poem by DJ and composer Mike Read. It wasn’t a hit but was a nice moment in that year’s seasonal release schedule.
I first met Alvin in the early 90s to do a group of interviews with him for the local and specialised press. He was a real gentleman, taking particular care of my daughter who had come along with me as Alvin was performing after the interview. We talked for close on two hours. He was rather nervous of the interview as one of the publications that I was working for was a religious publication. Most of the interview never saw the light of the day because of his management’s reservations but all I can say is that didn’t effect his demeanour one iota. We met briefly several times after that. He was always friendly, always amiable, always giving time to his fans.
During the last twenty years, touring was Alvin’s bread-and-butter but also a passion. Some of the tours were nostalgia based and put him on the same bill as the Rubettes, Showaddywaddy, Mungo Jerry and Suzi Quatro. He usually came out top of any comparisons and is live show never faltered in its quality.
There has been much talk in the build-up to Alvin’s 2014 album release that this would be his first studio album since 1984’s “I Feel Like Alvin Stardust”. As always, I can only think that promoters and agents and management have been using the wrong calculator. In reality there have been several in that period including many that were released in the UK.
The first of these was “Still Standing” which was released in 1995 in Germany and then in 1996 in the UK with an additional track. Five of the tracks were new, the rest were re-recordings of old hits and this was to become a formula that Stardust would use time and again with some musical success but no real commercial interest.
Also in 1996, there was an outstanding live album which saw Alvin performing many early rock’n’roll hits. It is an outstanding disc and is entitled “Live at Ronnie Scotts – The Birth of Rock’n’roll” This is what Alvin loved doing most and it shows. It is an essential recording for anyone who enjoys his music.
The 2001 album “The Story of Alvin Stardust” followed what was essentially the same formula as “Still Standing” but was a better album. 9 old songs, five new songs and two new covers. The five new songs were co-written by Alvin and Stuart Barbour who had become one of the guitarists in his band. The two new covers were “Torn” which had been a hit for Natalie Imbruglia and “What Can I Do” which had been a hit for The Corrs. Barbour was a sympathetic foil for Alvin and they proved a good partnership. A couple of years later, Stardust and Barbour would work together on a full length disc of traditional seasonal songs called “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”. It was Alvin’s best Christmas recording and included a new song “The Reason”. Alvin later returned the favour by appearing on Barbour’s album “The Journey”.
In 2007, Alvin was invited to perform with a German rockabilly outfit called the “Wild Black Jets”. The concert was recorded for DVD but more significantly the band enticed Stardust into the studio to record a single and an album. The single was his first new single for 18 years and the feature track was “Boppin’ on a Saturday Night” – a fairly straightforward slice of rockabilly. The album “Rockin’ Train” is a fine disc. Amongst its 17 tracks are 7 new tracks written by Stardust and Torsten Gluschke from the Wild Black Jets, one old Shane Fenton song, one old Alvin Stardust song and a clutch of rock’n’roll classics cooked to perfection.
Three years later, Alvin recorded “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” – another album blending new songs and re-recordings of the old. It had covers like “Mercy” which had been a hit for Duffy and the Arrows/Joan Jett classic “I Love Rock’n’roll” along with 7 new compositions one of which was co-written by his wife. There were also 9 re-treads. For my money, this was the weakest of the three albums of this kind with some of the new compositions not really being strong enough and some of the old hits (especially “Good Love Can Never Die”) comparatively weak when set alongside the original recordings.
A new album “Alvin” is complete and was schedule for release in November. He died before its release date and I haven’t heard it yet. I have it on order but it may be a while before I can sit and comfortably listen to it. Alvin’s career (like the music of so many others) has made a deep and real and lasting impression on me – and I’m not really ready to start seeing my heroes fall.
Thank you for all this music.