Sunday, May 17, 2020

"O, For A Muse Of Fire"

Astrid Kirchherr, the photographer whose shots of the savage young Be-Atles (a popular beat combo of the 1960s, you might've heard of them) helped to turn them into WorldClassSuperFabs and all that, has died at the age of eighty one. The Be-Atles chronicler and biographer Mark Lewisohn confirmed the news on Twitter, posting: 'Intelligent, inspirational, innovative, daring, artistic, awake, aware, beautiful, smart, loving and uplifting friend to many. Her gift to The Be-Atles was immeasurable.'
Astrid was born in Hamburg in 1938 and spent the war evacuated to the Baltic coast where she remembered seeing dead bodies on the shore after the ships Cap Arcona and the SS Deutschland had been bombed and sunk. Back in Hamburg following the war, Kirchherr enrolled in the Meisterschule für Mode, Textil, Grafik und Werbung as she wished to study fashion design. But, she demonstrated a remarkable talent for photography and Reinhard Wolf, the school's photographic tutor, convinced her to switch courses, promising that he would hire her as his assistant when she graduated. Kirchherr worked for Wolf as his assistant from 1959 until 1963. She stumbled across her most famous muses on a visit to the Hamburg club where they were performing in a residency. 'My whole life changed in a couple of minutes,' she later said.
In the late 1950s, Kirchherr and her art school friends were involved in the European existentialist movement whose followers were later nicknamed 'Exis' by The Be-Atles. In 1995, she told BBC Radio Merseyside: 'Our philosophy then, because we were only kids, was wearing black clothes and going around looking moody. We got inspired by all the French artists and writers because that was the closest we could get. England was so far away and America was out of the question. So France was the nearest. We got all the information from France and we tried to dress like the French existentialists. We wanted to be free, to be different and tried to be cool, as we call it now.'
Kirchherr, along with her friends Klaus Voormann and Jürgen Vollmer had all attended the Meisterschule and shared the same ideas about fashion, culture and music. Voormann became Astrid's boyfriend for a time and moved into the Kirchherr home. In 1960, after Kirchherr had had an argument with Voormann, he wandered down to The Reeperbahn and heard music coming from the Kaiserkeller club. Entering the joint, Voormann watched a mesmerising performance by a five-piece English rock and/or roll group and later asked Kirchherr and Vollmer to come with him for a return visit. The trio had never been particularly interested in rock and/or roll previously, preferring jazz. Kirchherr later said: 'It was like a merry-go-round in my head, they looked absolutely astonishing. My whole life changed in a couple of minutes. All I wanted was to be with them and to know them.' The Exis became The Be-Atles first hardcore fans.
Kirchherr said that she and her friends felt guilty about being German given the country's recent history. Meeting The Be-Atles was something special for them. Kirchherr took the first  - subsequently famous - photographs of The Be-Atles as a group at the city's fairground in 1960, when the bassist, Stuart Sutcliffe and the drummer, Pete Best, were still members. She dated Sutcliffe and cut his hair into the 'moptop' style which became a key look for the early Be-Atles. Kirchherr is often credited with 'inventing' The Be-Atles' hairstyle although she disagreed, saying: 'All that rubbish people said, that I created [it]. Lots of German boys had that hairstyle. Stuart had it for a long while and the others copied it. I suppose the most important thing I contributed to them was friendship.'
She and Sutcliffe soon became engaged, but he died in April 1962 from a brain haemorrhage aged just twenty one, alongside her in an ambulance. She and The Be-Atles remained friends - she went on holiday with them to Tenerife and Paris in 1963 just after their first UK number one single - and took further acclaimed photographs of the band behind the scenes on the film A Hard Day’s Night. The Be-Atles met Kirchherr again in Hamburg in 1966 when they were touring Germany and Kirchherr gave Lennon the letters he had written to Sutcliffe during 1961 and 1962. Lennon said it was 'the best present I've had in years.' She also photographed George Harrison for the back cover of his 1968 solo LP, Wonderwall Music.
Her half-in-shadow portraits of the band would, subsequently, be copied by Robert Freeman - at The Be-Atles insistence - for the cover of With The Be-Atles.
Although, for many years she lost control of the copyright to many of her most celebrated photos, Astrid's best work can now be seen in the book When We Was Fab.
Her first marriage, to the Liverpudlian musician Gibson Kemp, had a Be-Atles connection - he was the replacement for Ringo Starr in Rory Storm & The Hurricanes and, later, played with Voormann in the never-legendary Gibson, Paddy & Klaus. Later in life she worked as a stylist and interior designer and opened a photography store in Hamburg. Although Kirchherr shot very few photographs after 1968, her work has been exhibited in Hamburg, London, Liverpool, New York City, Washington, Tokyo, Vienna and at the Rock and/or Roll Hall of Fame. She published three limited-edition books of photographs. Sheryl Lee played Kirchherr in the 1994 film Backbeat, a biopic about The Be-Atles' Hamburg days on which Astrid was one of the movie's advisors. She was later married and divorced a second time.
Phil May, frontman of riotous R&B band The Pretty Things - acclaimed peers of The Rolling Stones - has died aged seventy five. He died in hospital in King's Lynn from complications following hip surgery after a cycling accident earlier in the week. The Pretty Things' 1968 LP SF Sorrow, based on a short story by May about the life of protagonist Sebastian Sorrow, is credited as one of the first rock operas. The band have been cited as an influence by a wide range of artists from Pete Townshend and David Bowie to Jimi Hendrix and Kasabian. Born in Dartford, May formed The Pretty Things in 1963 with guitarist Dick Taylor, who had recently left the nascent Rolling Stones whilst studying at Sidcup Art College. The band's line-up coalesced with John Stax, Brian Pendleton and Viv Andrews, with May as frontman.
The group became a key part of the London R&B scene who were in thrall to US blues players but were also bringing in new elements of pop and rock and/or roll. They had an early top ten hit in 1964's 'Don't Bring Me Down' and other moderately successful singles including 'Rosalyn', 'Honey I Need, 'Midnight To Six Man' and 'Cry To Me' and became known for their drug-taking and raucous on-stage behaviour. May was bisexual, wore his hair long and marked himself out as a countercultural figure. He remembered in a Gruniad Morning Star interview in 2018: 'By the time The Pretty Things hit the TV screens, I was used to being abused and spat at and getting into punch-ups, because it had happened when we were art students. We'd done our apprenticeship at being outsiders.' In 1969, the band appeared in What's Good for the Goose, a bizarre sex comedy starring Norman Wisdom. During the late 1960s, the group made extra money by recording for music library company DeWolfe. Some of these songs ended up in low-budget films including The Haunted House Of Horror (1969) and a couple of softcore porn films. Not intended for official release, these songs were later compiled on a number of records and released under the alias Electric Banana.
The band earned their most enduring fame for their 1968 LP SF Sorrow. Although not a huge seller at the time, it is regarded as the first rock opera LP ahead of similar experiments like The Who's Tommy. May later admitted that his usage of LSD had a major impact on the LP, saying 'It was like a sharpening of the imagination for me. I don't think SF Sorrow would have been impossible without it, but there's a lot of acid [in] the imagery.' The record was released in the US by Motown offshoot Rare Earth, making them the Motown organisation's first UK signing. It subsequently became an influential cult favourite. The band were revered by artists as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Aerosmith and The Ramones. David Bowie covered two of their songs on Pin Ups. The Pretty Things were one of the first acts signed by Swan Song Records, the label created by Led Zeppelin and Peter Grant became their manager. While there were spells of inactivity, the band never split up, enjoying a fifty five-year career. They played their final concert in 2018, with guest appearances by David Gilmour and Van Morrison. May also released a solo LP as Phil May & The Fallen Angels in 1976, which had a fraught gestation - half the LP was written and performed with band members from Fleetwood Mac and Humble Pie, who later quit, leaving May to finish it with a fresh set of personnel. In 2014, he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema and took a break from touring. He recovered and the following year the band released their most recent CD, The Sweet Pretty Things (Are in Bed Now, of Course ...).​ A CD of new material is slated for release this year. Phil is survived by his son Paris, daughter Sorrel and partner Colin Graham.
It is said, dear blog reader, that every picture tells a story (not-least by Rod Stewart if not anyone who has actually made a halfway decent record since the late 1970s). The following dozen-or-so images do tell the story of yer actual Keith Telly Topping's - entirely government-suggested - morning being 'A Lert' and getting both his weekly exercise quota and the Stately Telly Topping Manor Plague House shopping done on Friday 15 May. All of which was, in fact, done to a soundtrack on this blogger's MP3 player of The Be-Atles (a popular beat combo of the 1960s, you might've heard of them).
Number One: This blogger got a number twelve bus - paying contactless, as advised by Stagecoach - to the Shields Road Post Office to pay the rent. The staff are always dead friendly and there is seldom a queue (that morning being no different). A canny start to the day, then.
Number Two: This blogger usually saves his shopping at Morrisons till on the way back home. But, wonder-of-wonders there was no queue on Friday morning at around 9.30am (well, there was about three people in total waiitng for enter). Thus, twenty eight knicker was dropped into their coffers and much shopping was actioned therein. As the Godlike genius of Eddie Izzard once said: 'We will do well here.'
Number Three: A bus into town followed and thence to Lloyds to pay in some cash to cover next month's Stately Telly Topping Manor Plague House direct debits and standing orders. Yer actual Keith Telly Topping, please note, did manage to avoid going into Warhammer (despite it being 'open as usual', just in case you weren't aware of the fact). Mainly, he should stress, because he didn't want to be confronted by an angry Roy Hodgson. (This blogger's fine old mucker Mick The Mod Snowden at least will understand this last allusion. For everyone else, get thee to Bob Mortimer and Andy Dawson's Athletico Mince podcast. Instantly. If not sooner.)
Number Four: Round the corner to Poundland. And, there was a queue to get in here. This blogger. Keith Telly Topping firmly believes that the lad on the door was only doing it 'for a laugh' to brighten up his otherwise dull day.
Number Five: A short walk to Marks & Spencer. Because those M&S cocktail sausages are more addictive than crack. And, equally as expensive. They reckon.
Number Six: To the Haymarket Halifax. To get some of the money this blogger paid into Lloyds earlier in the day back out again. Because, takeaways which this blogger really deserve don't pay for themselves, you know.
Number Seven: So, this was Northumberland Street on a 'busy' Friday morning around 10.30am dear blog reader. There was, admittedly, a smallish queue to get into Barclay's, but everywhere else ...
Number Eight: McDonald's are still pure dead sorry that they're closed (one imagines Poor Ronald is in floods of clownish tears at the very thought of the lost billions). But, as noted some weeks ago on this blog, all of the lights inside the Northumberland Street store are still on full-blaze. Their electricity bill when all of this is over is going to be a sight to see, dear blog reader. Do not, therefore, be at all surprised if the price of a Big Mac goes up exponentially when they reopen after all of the lockdown malarkey is over.
Number Nine: Sometimes, dear blog reader, messages can get mixed. Case in point; Yeah ... but not very fast, you're not.
Number Ten: Proof that there is at least one Greggs open in the wide, wide world (well, on Welbeck Road if that counts as Planet Earth - debatable, this blogger is aware). Tragically, they had no stotties left in store by the time this blogger rocked up to the gaff (and, believe him, Keith Telly Topping did check).
Number Eleven: And so, back to the Stately Telly Topping Manor Plague House. Where, dear blog reader, this blogger really deserved these items - and lots of other stuff besides. But, especially the bottle of Malibu.
Now, you may be aware of the current 'Penguin Classics Cover Generator thing that's doing the rounds on social media, dear blog reader. Something which allows authors to reimagine their own works as though they were part of this august range. If you not, you can find it here. This blogger certainly enjoyed fiddling about with this for one or two of his own tomes. I don't know whether this one would have sold more if it had looked like this, but it would certainly have been a conversation-starter at dinner parties.
Or, on a similarly World ClassSuperFabbish theme ...
Early last week, this blogger had an out of the blue - and very pleasant - telephone call from a lady from the local housing office who had, seemingly, been tasked with ringing up everyone in social housing in the general North Tyneside area to make sure that they were, you know, all right. All whilst doing so, from her home, with her three year old daughter screaming her head off in the background. This blogger assured her that yer actual Keith Telly Topping was and, indeed, still is very much alive, currently working from home, very happy about his current daily commute and getting out to purchase the weekly shopping (and, pay the rent, importantly) when required. This blogger was also jolly happy to discover that he is actually in the third group of people to call (apparently, it goes, 'One: vulnerable and at risk,' "Two: over seventies,' 'Three: everybody else). That cheered this blogger up no end!
This blogger has, in fact, really struggled with work at times this week - for the first time since lockdown began. Keith Telly Topping doesn't normally mind grafting on the 11.30am to 8pm shift which he does about one week in four. But, for some reason, on a couple of days this week it felt like this blogger had simply hit a brick wall around lunch time and, the final three hours or so of each day were like wading through treacle ...
... Or, something even worse.
Still, that said, the day ended in a most satisfyingly worthwhile way ...
You all pretty much know how much this blogger deserved that, dear blog reader, yes?