Monday, 11 February 2013

Wild Thing DJ Set List 6 February 2013

/ 1960s beefcake model Rock Granger demonstrating How to Stuff a Mesh Posing Pouch: I also love his old school tattoos (check out the classic Sailor Jerry-style one of the hula girl on his forearm) /

Joe Pop (the main man behind weekly queer rock’n’roll club night Wild Thing, every Wednesday night at The Retro Bar in Charing Cross) is currently holidaying in San Francisco, so for this Wild Thing Phil Clark and I were drafted to fill in behind the decks.

/ The flyer the fabulously talented Joe Pop designed for this Wild Thing night /

I had been looking forward to DJ'ing at this Wild Thing for ages, but unfortunately it turned out to be a messy night bedeviled by some catastrophic technical glitches! Phil DJs at The Retro Bar regularly and as he put it, the geriatric PA is pretty much glued together by dirt! Thank Christ Phil has technical expertise about these things otherwise there might not have been any music at all (I’m not of much assistance in these circumstances. I'm more of a sensitive artiste who just turns up and hopes the decks work). I was playing CDs and he was using vinyl; Phil was getting no audio at all from one of the turntables and had to pry open the back of the decks to locate loose wires and attempt to reconnect them (I stood there holding a flash light and watching the sweat beads pop out on his head. It was like an action movie where someone has to defuse a bomb). Then, once he got that working, we realised the speakers were well and truly BLOWN on one side of the room: no matter how loud we cranked up the volume, people were comfortably talking over the music without even having to raise their voices (while we in the DJ booth could barely hear what we were playing). Meanwhile, on the other side of the room by the bar, the audio was blisteringly loud, muddy and fuzzy! I compensated by playing a mostly noisy punk set.  If The Retro Bar wants to hold club nights with DJs, the management should consider getting the basics right first and invest in a decent sound system.

Anyway, Phil and I soldiered on (the complimentary beers certainly helped) and perversely, it turned out to be a good night in spite of everything. My friends Paul and Dez were there (once I realised the sound wasn't working I texted another friend not to come!), and we had one garrulous eager beaver coming up with multiple song requests (I wouldn't normally play Vince Taylor's "Brand New Cadillac" unprompted), who at least danced around enthusiastically. (He also asked for The Cramps: I compromised by playing the original version of "Goo Goo Muck" by Ronnie Cook and The Gaylads, which he seemed to dig. I'm not a people pleaser!).
I’m actually really happy with my set (I wanted it to be confrontational, aggressive and punk-y, which I think it was), even if only punters on one side of the bar got to hear it! (The emphasis was on Los Angeles punk in particular, one of my favourite schools of punk: the mighty X, The Germs, The Alley Cats. I remember someone pointing out years ago, New York and London had hip, credible lineages to draw on: New York punks could reference the Velvet Underground and the Warhol scene, whereas London punks had the likes of Roxy Music and Bowie. In their recent past, Los Angeles punks had howlingly naff soft rockers Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt – no wonder they were so nihilistic and angry! They had a lot to rebel against. If you're interested in exploring the original Los Angeles punk subculture, I highly recommend the awesome CD Jon Savage Presents Black Hole: Californian Punk 1977-1980, compiled by the author of England's Dreaming).

/A tender love song via Turbonegro /

 / Did anyone ever have better hair than Billy Fury? /

From the book Rock’n’Roll Confidential by Penny Stallings:
“In the years that preceded the beat explosion of the sixties, the British rock scene consisted mostly of Elvis imitators – pretty boys like Adam Faith, Tommy Steele and Billy Fury, with vaselined pomps, pink socks and guitars they couldn't play ...”
What an unfair assessment of Billy Fury! Stallings’ book came out in 1984, and fortunately Fury (born Ronald Wycherley, 17 April 1940 – 28 January 1983) has been more generously reappraised since his premature death as perhaps the greatest British rockabilly singer. But hey, I am a lurid sensationalism freak so rather than argue about Fury’s musical merits, this time I’m going to ask: was Billy Fury gay? Let’s have a heated debate! To  paraphrase that great thinker Homer Simpson, “If celebrities didn’t want us picking through their garbage and spreading rumours that they’re gay, they shouldn’t have expressed themselves creatively.”

Fury has been dead for so long (and his heyday even longer ago), he’s remembered today primarily by rockabilly enthusiasts. The rockabilly contingent particularly reveres Fury for his vicious 1960 debut The Sound of Fury, widely regarded as the most authentic and unvarnished rock’n’roll album to emerge from the UK in that era (it still sounds brooding, frantic and sexy today). The combination of Fury’s snarling delivery and the cover image of the sullen blond Liverpudlian rocker in a sparkly lamé suit (deliberately referencing Elvis Presley’s famous Nudie gold lamé suit from the cover of his 50,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong album) is timelessly irresistible and (much as I hate the word) iconic.  

The quality ain't great -- but explosive, grainy fragment of a raw Billy Fury tearing his way through "Don't Knock Upon My Door from The Sound of Fury on TV in 1958. 

The Sound of Fury peaked at number 18 -- apparently not a big enough hit to please the suits. Afterwards Fury was discouraged from recording his own original material, and steered towards a more commercial teen idol / romantic balladeer direction. While it’s an undeniable shame Fury wasn’t permitted to record more of his own rockabilly material and had to compromise his artistic ideals (and it did him no favours with tiresome rock purists), his subsequent lush pop ballads like “Last Night Was Made for Love” and “Halfway to Paradise”, packed with drama and yearning, are actually pretty great and were chart successes.

/ A far smoother, more show biz Billy Fury by the early 1960s in variety performer / crooner mode /

In 1962 Fury made his film debut in Play It Cool (directed by a very young Michael Winner, the notorious celluloid hack who died recently and was responsible for some of the worst films ever made). I haven’t seen Play it Cool since the 1990s, but I recall it as barely serviceable drive-in / B-movie schlock. (Imagine the worst Elvis vehicle, relocated to London and with a bargain basement budget). Fury was no actor, and looked tangibly uncomfortable onscreen – and yet still managed to exude heavy-lidded erotic magnetism even while lip-synching to his corniest songs.

You can watch the whole film above. Be warned: it's no great shakes!
Offstage, there certainly were romances with women, which were publicised in the press – but did Fury have a secret life? People who encountered Fury often described him as shy, remote, sensitive and depressed (and an enthusiastic pot smoker). With the game-changing arrival of fellow Scousers The Beatles and the ensuing turbulent youth quake as the 1960s progressed, popular tastes changed dramatically and Fury was suddenly yesterday’s man. It didn’t help that health problems forced Fury to stop touring. His heart had been weakened by a childhood bout with rheumatic fever: it left him with delicate health, and he apparently knew he was destined to die young. Like Brigitte Bardot and Doris Day, once he was out of the limelight Fury focused his attention on animal rights (he was particularly keen on horses and birds).  At a particularly low point in the late 1970s Fury was forced to declare bankruptcy. 

By the early 80s a broke and ailing Fury hit the comeback trail. Photos and Youtube clips depict him as still handsome, but with a deep orange fake tan (perhaps to make him look healthier than he really was) and unbecoming blow-dried  hairdo (he should have stuck with his impeccable quiff). Towards the end, Fury re-recorded his classic 1960s hits for the tacky K-tel label. I once bought this version by mistake (the CD cover misleadingly had a photo of the young Billy Fury). Late-period Fury’s voice was still beautiful, but weakened and drained of energy -- almost eerie, a ghost of his former self. Billy Fury died of a heart attack at the tragically early age of 42.

The gay theory could certainly be linked to Fury’s connection to manager Larry Parnes, one of the first great pop impresarios in British music -- who happened to be unapologetically gay. It was Parnes who discovered the teenaged Wycherley, re-christened him and groomed him for stardom. Famously, Parnes built his own star system of early British rock’n’roll idols, giving his cute protégées what now sound like outrageously campy and suggestive names (Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, Dickie Pride and Lance Fortune). Parnes also set the template for Brian Epstein with The Beatles and Kit Lambert with The Who later on, creating the enduringly popular theory that gay managers have an innate insight into what appeals to teenage girls.
Fury never managed to crack the international market. I only became aware of his existence once I moved to London in the early 1990s and was instantly attracted to Fury’s soaring voice and dreamy heartthrob looks. For kitsch reasons, I valued Fury as the British Elvis manqué , the male equivalent of pouting platinum blonde sex bomb Diana Dors (the British Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield).

/ Eddie Cochran and Billy Fury backstage in 1960 (I played tracks by both of them at this Wild Thing) /
In those pre-internet days I was able to earn extra money writing for music and men’s print magazines. The journalist John Gill and I were both contributors to the now-defunct Vox magazine. Gill kindly referenced and acknowledged my MAXIMUMROCKNROLL interview with maverick British queercore musician Tongueman (RIP, Spud Jones) in his 1995 book Queer Noises: Male and Female Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Music. When I was sent a complimentary copy, I was surprised to read:

“Another pop figure from the 1960s who is now known to have been gay is Billy Fury, one of the many Elvis Presley clones that were factory farmed by the British music industry in the wake of rock’n’roll. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Fury did write a number of his remarkable nineteen chart hits. At this remove, however, Fury is probably more memorable for the fact that he was managed by queer entrepreneur Larry Parnes than for his impact on the history of rock’n’roll."

He’s “now known ...?” Is he? I would have loved for Gill to pursue this further, because Fury’s homosexuality (or bisexuality) is far from common knowledge and still feels un-documented. 

As well as rockabillies, Fury is also lovingly remembered by Morrissey fans. Always a connoisseur of homo-erotic images and firm male flesh, Morrissey’s infatuation with Billy Fury is perhaps inevitable. “He’s virtually the same as James Dean,” Morrissey told Sounds in June 1984. “He too was entirely doomed, which I find quite affectionate ....”

From the biography Morrissey: Scandal and Passion by David Bret:
“Liverpool-born Billy Fury was an ethereal-looking young man who had always wanted to be a rock star and enjoy the hedonistic lifestyle that went with it. Perhaps terrified of his sexuality becoming public knowledge, he had more or less taken over Johnnie Ray’s “tears on my pillow” mantle, and found fame with heartfelt ballads such as “Halfway to Paradise” and “I’d Never Find Another You.” Morrissey included Fury’s photograph on the sleeve of The Smiths’ “Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me” (but wisely refrained from etching “Eaten by Vince Eager” on the vinyl, a reference to one of Fury’s stable mates, when warned of the possible repercussions). He also championed Fury in “Paint A Vulgar Picture.” Both tracks were recorded in the spring of 1987 for Strangeways Here We Come.”

Ideally a thorough, warts-and-all biography will eventually emerge about Fury which sets the record straight. A true unsung pop hero, his life and career certainly warrant one. His surviving family seem to keep a tight grip on protecting Fury’s image, though, and this looks unlikely. Anything that deviates from the official line certainly would be unlikely to receive their authorisation.
Let’s give the last word to Jake Vegas. In December 2011 my friend Ms Mansfield and I went to Boz Boorer's Christmas party at a pub in West Hampstead. It’s not a neighbourhood I’m familiar with at all. As soon as we left the tube station and crossed the street, we were confronted with a huge and beautiful spray-painted mural of Billy Fury! I later learned the location was chosen because Fury recorded many of his biggest hits at the Decca studios, which used to be nearby. It prompted a quick photo session!

/ The glamorous Ms Mansfield in front of the Billy Fury mural in West Hampstead. Shame about the location of the black garbage bag. [Update as of 2017: I've passed the Billy Fury mural a few times this year and sad to report it's now hopelessly defaced by graffiti!] /
/ The original photo the mural is based on /

How to be timelessly cool: Ms Mansfield and Jake at the club night More Than Vegas circa 1995 ...

Ms Mansfield and Jake at Boz Boorer's Christmas party in December 2011

Afterwards at Boz’s party Ms Mansfield and I mentioned the Billy Fury mural to Soho habitué and sleazy blues shouter Jake Vegas. Without a trace of sentimentality he recalled, “I met Billy Fury once in the 1970s. He was as camp as Christmas.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Joe Pop has already used Billy Fury's image on a Wild Thing flyer
Further reading:

Nice, thorough documentary about Billy Fury on Youtube

Billy Fury's bio on Allmusic Guide

Little Girl - John and Jackie
Wiped-Out - The Escorts
Heartbreak Hotel - Buddy Love
Muleskinner Blues - The Fendermen
Little Queenie - The Bill Black Combo
You Give Me Worms - Turbonegro (for Eric)
Nothing Means Nothing Anymore - The Alley Cats
Pillowcase - The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black
Johnny Hit and Run Pauline - X
Boss - The Rumblers
What Do You Think I Am? Ike and Tina Turner
Brand New Cadillac - Vince Taylor
Handclappin' Time - The Fabulous Raiders
Gonna Type a Letter - Billy Fury
C'mon Everybody - Sid Vicious
Mean Muthafucking Man - Wayne County and The Electric Chairs
Punks Get off the Grass - Edith Massey
Goo Goo Muck - Ronnie Cook and The Gaylads
I Don't Care - The Ramones
Contact - Brigitte Bardot
Margaya - The Fender Four
Batman - Link Wray and The Raymen
Breathless - Arlie Neaville
Treat Me Right - Mae West
Rockin' Out the Blues - The Musical Linn Twins
Woo Hoo - The Rock-A-Teens
Forming - The Germs
Someone to Love - Les Ritas Mitsouko (for Gibran)
Tongue-Tied Jill - Charlie Feathers
Can't Stop Thinking About It - The Dirtbombs
Suey - Jayne Mansfield
Sweetie Pie - Eddie Cochran


  1. Is it just something on my end or are your two top Billy Fury videos coming up at the Eartha Kitt documentary? Something might be linked wrong?

    I am new to Billy and love that I always learn something new on your blog. And wow, that first photo of the mesh thong thing - "made me look!"

  2. Miss Eartha! There may have been something screw-y with the way I embedded those videos in the first place. It was like it was linking all "My Favourites" on Youtube and playing them in sequence! I've re-embedded those two clips and I think they should work now. They play OK when I try them.

    Re Mesh Posing Pouch Man: yeah, I'm keeping the blogosphere a raunchy, NSFW place! But every once in a while I check on my blog from work, and I work in an open plan office and then I regret it!

    Oh, welcome to the world of Billy Fury. He's great. If you get just one of his CDs I'd recommend you start with The Sound of Fury -- his most essential.