“Everything – The Real Thing Story”

0

THERE AIN’T NOTHIN’ LIKE THE REAL THING, BABY

Now, I’m not much given to reviewing the telly; but on this case I’ll make an exception. The BBC 4 screening of ‘Everything – The Real Thing Story’ revealed an astonishing period piece and a real journey back to the most seminal year in my life, 1976.

I was an eighteen-year-old gigging jock working a balance of my own mobile gigs with Paul and agency gigs via New Junktion Discotheques, or NJD, probably the busiest and most prolific DJ agency in the East Midlands. We worked hard then; three gigs a day was not uncommon at the weekend, then lugging tons of vinyl around in clapped-out vehicles born in the sixties whilst wearing an evening suit in the middle of summer.

For me, it will always be the summer of an unloved sling-out single the other jocks didn’t want anything to do with but I loved; “Dancing Queen” by Abba – and a frantic charge to the top almost in spite of a total lack of cool. But it was also the summer of Jimmy James and the Vagabonds, Barry White, Billy Ocean, Philadelphia International…and in July, one single punched to the top on the dreadfully old-fashioned Pye Records, and stayed at number one for 3 weeks during that hottest of hot summers. Just like when Cliff finally got a handle on that authentic American rock ‘n’ roll sound with “Move It” back in the year I was born, finally, in 1976, a soul band emerged who sounded slick enough to be American and to this day I only think they made it to the top because nobody found them out until it was too late – apart from the fact it was a stonking tune, of course…and they were Scousers.

Scousers.

Let’s just give this some context here. This is a bona fide black British number 1 single during a year where singles sold in industry-defining numbers. And this at a time when casual racism of a different kind to that encountered today was absolutely endemic. If you were black British, it just wasn’t happening for you. And they did it. They got to number 1 in the UK and stayed there for three whole weeks.

The Real Thing. “You To Me Are Everything”.

Paul worked with these guys on a few occasions as did most of the working jocks I grew up with including the Legendary Barry Jarvis and many more besides. They will always remain fixed in our memories, though, for the time Paul and I were broadcasting from the Newark Festival site as Newark FM about 20 years ago, and they were on the bill and played an amazing set. But for me the follow – up, “Can’t Get By Without You” always sits within the piece of flint I call a heart because, at the time, me and the future Mrs J were parted for the first and so far only time in our lives so I could clear off and Get Clever Somewhere, and at the time we had no way of knowing if/when that would be coming to an end. (And the usual dribbling lust stuff about wanting to live together when you’re 18 and it is the mid-seventies and you both live miles apart, that sort of thing.)

They started life as The Chants and were spotted by Paul McCartney, who arranged for The Beatles to back them on a number of occasions. They became The VPs (Vocal Perfection; I know, not the best name you’ve ever heard) and were re-named The Real Thing after their long-time manager, Tony Hall, had an epiphany moment when looking at an old Coke advert strapline. They got on ‘Opportunity Knocks’ with the unlovely Hughie Greene, a sort of prehistoric ‘X-Factor’ for those too young to know, and won, and even had a minor hit, but the record business just didn’t know what to do with a black British act in 1972.

They dropped the covers, released another single, which scraped the top 40 and even got on ‘Top Of The Pops’ but Savile, ‘just for fun’, reversed the band and song name intentionally as a jolly jape and nobody clocked the name as a consequence and that was that. But the club scene was changing and so was music. They grafted away, making commercials and jingles for production hotshot Jeff Wayne who was working on a little album which did alright in the end…”War Of The Worlds”. Their voice parts were eventually dropped from the album but the meeting did lead to them being introduced by Wayne to teen heart-throb David Essex who was on a hot streak which started in 1972 with UK top ten ‘Rock On’. They backed him in the studio and on tour and were transformed by their American tour with Essex. They dropped the matching suits and dance routines schtick and started picking up credible column inches from magazines like Black Echoes and Blues and Soul Magazine.

But that don’t pay no bills.

A few more singles stiffed and they finally met producer / songwriting team Ken Gold and Mick Denne in the spring of ’76. They’d written this little tune called “You to Me Are Everything” in about ten minutes. Simple beyond belief, it just hits the spot as a song, written by a man, for a woman he just can’t do enough for and therefore knows he’s on the ‘vulnerable’ list.

And the rest, as they say…

It was released to no great fanfare on 14th May, 1976. The band, consisting of the Amoo brothers, Eddie and Chris, and their childhood friends Dave Smith and Ray Lake, were potless at the time. Chris Amoo was so broke that when the single broke into the top 40 a few weeks later, he couldn’t afford the bus fare to his manager’s office. The Jenner lads nipped down to Frank Sisson’s record shop in downtown Hucknall and invested in a copy. Chris Amoo now had his bus fare.

It climbed to number 22 on the UK chart, with a bullet, the next week.

My diary tells me that between us we played 8 gigs that week. That’s how it was. We played it every night. Clubs, restaurants, pubs, weddings, you name it.

Gathered round the radio on Thursday…it’s up to number 5.

Next week, it’s at Number 1. And it stayed there for three whole weeks in the face of huge competition. Should have been massive in the States but a truly horrible cover by Frankie Valli murdered the single’s sales potential there.

The follow-up, “Can’t Get By Without You”, was only prevented from going to the top by, you guessed it, Abba.

Home to Liverpool and here come ‘The Black Beatles’, which probably didn’t help much.

The first British Rock and Pop awards took place in November 1976. They won ‘Best New Group’.

Then they released their third single. It did OK enough to persuade them that writing their own stuff wasn’t a bad idea. But as American acts had learned over many years, just because you got to number 1 doesn’t make you exempt from ‘stop and search’.

Feeling increasingly straitjacketed by ‘the hits’, they produced “4 from 8”, as in Liverpool 8. And it was a whole bunch more funky and socially aware and less ‘poppy’ than ‘the hits’.

Pye spent a fortune promoting it and it stiffed. The gritty album sleeve was years ahead of its time for a UK album by a soul band and evoked the spirit of Marvin’s “What’s Going On”. The country would next hear from Liverpool 8 when Toxteth exploded in riots a couple of years later.

They admit they were a bit naïve. Radio playlisting is a binary choice. Play that. Don’t play that. That’s a hit. That isn’t. Programmers don’t spend ages losing sleep on the sociological implications of a song on popular music radio. Does it programme well? Is It A Hit?? Is pretty much the sum total of the consideration.

So, even though it didn’t do it at the time, “Children Of The Ghetto” became a slow burner, eventually getting the recognition it deserved and being covered by the likes of Courtney Pine and Mary J. Blige on the way to becoming accepted as the courageous ground-breaker it truly was.

“Whenever You Want My Love” got them back on the chart and on more familiar territory and that led to films like ‘The Stud’ with Joan Collins. This gave them a very dodgy disco hit with the truly awful “Let’s Go Disco” which to be the fair to the band they freely admit was just pish. I remember opening the envelope from the record company to find this in it, I played it once and binned it straight off. You’re better than that, lads.

A couple more minor hits and then another stonker, the stellar “Can You Feel the Force”. I’ve still got two 12 inch copies of this, one on horrible coloured vinyl and one being the exceedingly rare Jon Luongo remix version which would probably change hands for a few bobs given the right buyer. And then came the eighties, electro, new romanticism and suddenly they were yesterday’s news. And an astonishingly ill-advised tour of South Africa did their reputation No Good At All.

And then, a lifeline. One the likes of which has never been thrown to a band on this scale before or since.

Ten years after “You to Me Are Everything” was released, a ‘decade remix’ was issued. And, to the band’s astonishment, it went storming into the top ten.

The record company did the same with the band’s other old hits. Same thing happened. It was as if the summer of ’76 was being relived ten years later. Very weird. What wasn’t weird, though, was that by now, these lads were seasoned veterans who knew how it all worked and they weren’t about to make the same mistakes again. With the exception of original band member Ray Lake, who, struggling with inner demons which appeared to some to have roots in his early life in ‘care’, disappeared further into an abyss of drug-taking, eventually resorting to crime to feed his drug habit. He left the band in 1991, eventually succumbing to what some believe was an intentional heroin overdose nine years later. He was just 48.

The three remaining members, Chris and Eddie Amoo and Dave Smith continued gigging, gigging, gigging as The Real Thing; and as I’ve already mentioned, boy, did they play a blinder at the Newark Music festival when we were encamped there with Newark FM. It was also good to see fellow ‘Newarkee’, Leee John of Imagination, arguing their case during the documentary.

The film, directed and produced by Simon Sheridan, is played with a completely straight bat; it is an old school, unmessed – with documentary film with some cracking old footage and a melting pot of socio-musical wisdoms.

Sadly, older brother Eddie Amoo passed at the age of 73 shortly after the documentary was recorded. But Chris Amoo and Dave Smith are somewhere in the world right now being The Real Thing. Doing Everything. And That’s Not A Bad Thing, I would argue.