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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


I'm no great fan of Nickelback but their song "Rockstar" is a guilty pleasure that perfectly sums up how all music fans really feel with their noses presses up against their favourite artists' respective windows. A life of glamour, excess and fame awaits and who wouldn't want that.

Of course, history is littered with many salutary lessons of why that lifestyle is not all it's cracked up to be. Exhibit A - the 27 Club...

In truth, very few of our heroes were overnight successes. Most worked their way through various bands, playing gigs night after night and performing endless auditions. It's a difficult and not particularly lucrative world. Youtube is filled with early incarnations of your favourite stars with dodgy haircuts and questionable wardrobes desperately seeking acclaim.

Of course, for many, their musical careers could barely sustain even the most basic lifestyle and they would need to turn to the kind of jobs real people actually did. Joe Strummer (like Rod Stewart) was a gravedigger; Jarvis Cocker was a fishmonger; and Ozzy Osbourne (unsurprisingly) worked in an abattoir. Everyone has to pay their bills.

So if you crawl the internet, you can see stage-schooled Emma Bunton as a (unlikely) teenage thug in "Eastenders" or her Spice Girl partner Geri Halliwell as a Game Show hostess on a Turkish quiz show. But I was more interested in those who had turned their musical talents into wage slips.

Jimmy Page was a remarkably successful teenage guitar prodigy and you can hear him playing acoustic on such unlikely records as Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger" and Petula Clark's "Downtown". It was while carrying out this session work that he met and first worked with John Paul Jones as they became Mickie Most's go-to guys especially for Donovan's recordings.

Similarly, in the US Glen Campbell was part of "The Wrecking Crew" - the legendary band of LA session musicians who played on hundred of hits in the 60s - before he broke out as a successful star in his own right. You can hear his work on hits by the Monkees, the Beach Boys (including some of "Pet Sounds") and the Righteous Brothers "You've Lost That Loving Feeling". He also plays on Frank Sinatra's "Strangers In The Night" where the then-hip young guitar slinger caught the rather angry eye of Ol' Blue Eyes who had been used to seeing his band more formally attired. Apparently, in the end he was so pleased with his playing that he gave him an extra tip - probably hoping he would get a haircut.

However, one of the most interesting session stories is probably that of Elton John who for a time was one of the go-to players for the sound-alike chart albums "Top Of The Pops" that came out periodically throughout the late 60s and into the early 80s. They always had a "dolly-bird" female model on the cover for some inexplicable reason but remained hugely frustrating as you bought them hoping for all your favourite chart hits only to find that they were pretty poor imitations knocked out in an afternoon by a bunch of session men.

Just such one of these was Elton John who you can hear performing many of the hits of the day in his own distinctive style. There is even an album reissue of them. Imagine that Elton John singing a cover of Dave Dee Dozy Beaky Mick and Tich's "Snake In The Grass" or Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit In The Sky"- that's a couple of corkers for the collectors, surely.

And he's on many of these also as a session pianist or doing harmony vocals on tracks such as "Lola" but it wasn't always as dreadful as it might sound - especially when what you were left with was really just one man with a terrific voice, his piano and a great song. It might not be a great imitation of the original but this "Bridge Over Troubled Water" though admittedly lo-fi, is a treat nevertheless.

What is perhaps most surprising about all of this is that Elton was still going in to take part in some of these sessions when he had started to have minor breakthrough hits in the USA. In the weeks just before, his breakthrough hit "Your Song" bulleted up the chart all over the world, there he was knocking out a quick fire cover of "Neanderthal Man" originally released by Hotlegs (who morphed into 10cc).

David Bowie also embarked on a peripatetic career before his breakthrough. He had been trying to get a hit from 1964 onwards with a variety of bands with no success and had also attempted to get work as an actor - he is an extra in "The Virgin Soldiers" though blink and you miss him. He released his first album in 1968 - "The Laughing Gnome" one - and again he seemed to fail to ignite the interest of the record buying public.

In keeping the wolf from the door, Bowie appears in an advertisement for Lyons Maids "Luv" ice-lolly, a rival to FAB, and appeared as part of a pop group (though he didn't actually play). You can just make him out climbing the stairs of the bus. This is only a matter of weeks before recording "Space Oddity"

Incidentally, this commercial was directed by Ridley Scott who would go on to direct "Alien", "Bladerunner" and "Gladiator" as well as more recently "The Martian" where he used Bowie's "Starman" on the soundtrack to great effect.

The final tale is of another commercial - this time for a new Hoover upright vacuum cleaner from around 1980 which, rather idiosyncratically chose to use a hard rock-style jingle to promote the benefits of sweeping right to the edge.

The voice now is almost instantly recognisable as then jobbing session vocalist and former lead singer of Geordie, Brian Johnson. He remembers the session particularly well because not only did he get £350 for his trouble (a considerable amount for a now freelance singer) but the session occurred on the very same day he auditioned to replace the late Bon Scott in AC/DC. Within five months, they would have written and recorded "Back In Black" one of the world's best selling albums ever.

Living proof, should it be needed, that it's not how you start but how you finish.

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Jun 14, 2020

Elton provided the piano sweep on Get It On but that was the only bit of his performance they used. He still got paid though.


Jun 13, 2020

Fascinating. Never heard that Elton version of BOTW. It's pretty good, bar the cheesy string synth (budget restraints!). A couple of things. Firstly, poor Jarvis wasn't even a proper fishmonger: he just used to clean the shellfish on a Sheffield market stall! Secondly, there is an extremely tenuous link between the first Bowie album you reference and the band Geordie, who you also reference. Any idea? Here's a clue: Focus, Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall and Peter Cook & Dudley Moore. Answers on a postcard please....

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