Brian Protheroe's "Pinball" and a Revisionist History of Popular Music in the Seventies

Mercredi 8 Juin 2011

Interview. Actor and musician, Brian Protheroe was one of the more original artists of the 70's, and his hit single "Pinball" is a classic song of that period. This article recounts the career of Brian Proetheroe who has kindly agreed to share his memories of that time with us.

Brian Protheroe's "Pinball" and a Revisionist History of Popular Music in the Seventies
Okay, before we begin, for the readers of Rock Highway under forty, and thus ignorant of the golden age of group sounds, I've provided a remedial history of pop music from the mid to late seventies. And I oughta know, 'cause I was there.

First off, The Eagles weren't especially popular. Well, they were with people who didn't like music, but hated silence more, and needed something they could holler over while they drove around in their cars. Some thought "Hotel California" was profound, only it was really drivel. No one listened to any Rolling Stone album released after "Exile on Main Street" except maybe Andy Warhol. Pink Floyd recorded a sound affects record perfect for accompanying the smoking of very low quality herb. Bob Marley was for those who smoked lots of low quality herb and needed something they could shout over incoherently. Lou Reed spent the mid to late seventies comatose. Ditto John Lennon and, I'm not making this up, two Swedish couples pretty much ruled the charts for the rest of the decade. Oh, and there was a short lived dance craze that had little to do with popular music but everything to do with big shirt collars. 'Round about '76, half the world's population threw away their loon pants, cut up the rest of their clothes and safety pinned them back together again. The major labels panicked and signed anyone who pulled a scary face. Finally, everything calmed down in the 90's when they invented Oasis, a George Harrison tribute band. Loon pants came back in style.

End of story.

Okay, maybe I've simplified things a bit much. 1974, for example.

1974 saw the release of more than a few innovative, groundbreaking albums. Kraftwerk's "Autobahn" and Eno's "Here Come the Warm Jets" are just two that belong in your collection. And in the period 1973 to '76, Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople and Sparks all produced what is arguably their best work.

Brian Protheroe concurs, but with some reservations.

"Hated Bryan Ferry's voice. Loved Sparks, especially 'This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us'. David Bowie, Queen, Christopher Rainbow, Gilbert O'Sullivan.."

Actor, playwright and composer, Brian Protheroe completed an innovative album of his own in 1974, "Pinball", released on Chrysalis, a label whose roster at the time was filled with innovative artists. Its title track was culled to open the influential "Guilty Pleasures" 70's comp. But with its gorgeous chord progressions, lush production, vocal harmonies and lyrics that touch on film noir, Warhol and Walt Disney, to hear Pinball now for the first time is to discover something fresh, vital and very, very good.

Born in Salisbury, Wiltshire, Brian joined a local church choir and started piano lessons in 1956 when he was twelve years old. Inspired by Cliff Richard and The Shadows he picked up a guitar and by 1961 was fronting a band calling themselves The Coasters. Not that music was the end all. He also found time to join The Studio Theater. Protheroe's first job, a year spent working as a library assistant was followed by three more as a student technician in a hospital pathology laboratory. And while absorbing the music of Elvis Presley, Everly Brothers, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, he also took an interest in the piano led jazz of Dave Brubeck and the choral church music of Bach. Then along came Lennon and McCartney.

"Mainly and overwhelmingly The Beatles, everything! Their eclecticism I found hugely attractive."

There is no better reflection of Protheroe's love of the Fabs than "Monkey" written around the most blatant of Beatle-isms, a jazzed up steal of the "Come Together" riff. In 1974, years before bands could fuel entire careers on the outro of "Hey Jude", to pull off something like this would still have been considered rather cheeky.

As a member of Folk Blues Incorporated in 1965, Brian played folk music clubs in and around London, but by 1966, he'd joined a local repertory theatre in his native Salisbury. The next seven years were spent learning his craft in theatre companies around England, as well as writing songs and working in other bands.

"I played Hohner clavinet in the Albion Band and had various parts in Dispatches and Larkrise and Candleford at the National Theatre late in 1970 where they were the house band. Also toured a bit with them."

While in a theatre company based in Lincoln, he met musician, writer, actor and collaborator Martin Duncan.

"Martin certainly influenced me enormously! Especially in his anarchic approach to lyric writing. I became much more lose in my approach to song structure working with him."

Martin Duncan's lyrics for many of Protheroe's songs border on stream of consciousness scat singing, "Viva Che/Chase Viva round the Coca Cola course." Songs written with Duncan and by Brian alone are filled with references to the art world, noir cinema, and stage, loaded with wordplay, puns and spoonerisms. Martin's original lyric manuscripts look more like hastily drawn maps with swatches of color pencil and words spiraling into every corner of the page.

Over the next few years they collaborated on various musical and artistic projects. Many of songs that would appear on Pinball (and on later releases "Pick-up" and "I/You") were written for stage and would be retooled as pop numbers once Brian entered the studio.

"There are several songs from "Kino Tata" which was an avant garde cabaret and "Lotte's Elektrik Opera Film" written by Martin Duncan with music by me, which pop up on all three albums. The band in the cabaret was piano, double bass and drums, plus various toys and whistles. Other things were added in the studio - brass, electric guitar.."

In 1973, Protheroe was signed by Chrysalis Records on the strength of song he'd written for "Death on Demand", a play in which he acted the part of a pop singer.
His first single was "Pinball", a wry, woozy acoustic stumble through the wreckage of the previous decade's heady confidence.

"I've been on the pinball/And I no longer know it all/And they say that you never know when you're insane"

Working with Del Newman (responsible for the dark, slashing string arrangements on Elton John's early records), producer and artist crafted the first in a series of extraordinary albums that would mine pop, folk, funk, Mills Brothers-style harmonizing, lengthy medleys and bursts of avant noise.

"Great working relationships with Del and Richard. Long vocal sessions with my medicinal bottle of port. The thrill of hearing a finished track on big speakers. It would have been a lot easier to accomplish some effects if we'd had digital recording then. On the other hand, it made certain tracks epic little adventures, requiring a great deal of imaginative problem solving. Richard Dodd, the engineer, was at the forefront there."

The Pinball lp leads off with the skittering "Clog Dancer" an appreciation/put down of a "hormone Hannah making love with a spanner", inspired by Dave Brubeck's "Bossa Nova USA" and a beautiful follow spot operator on the crew of the musical "Leave Him To Heaven".

As all embracing as the record was, perhaps understandably, Chrysalis wasn't thrilled with the result, and early promotion was based soley around the single.

"I'm pretty sure the label were thrown by the first album. They wanted more Pinball. I did a handful of live gigs. None in the States. A couple in London at the Mermaid Theatre and Theatre Royal, Stratford East. A couple in Amsterdam."

Brian was packed off on a radio station tour of the States, and I recall listening to an interview on KSAN in which he wondered whether anyone would in America would be interested in his album at all. Still, Pinball managed to climb to number 22 on the U.K. charts. Did he ever seriously contemplate giving up his acting career?

"Never occurred to me to give up acting. My career path was clear to me after I'd played Hamlet in 1970. But songwriting had also been a passion for some time - although I didn't think of it in terms of 'a career' - or long or short term - just something I loved to do."

On all of his three early albums, the theater is prominent in Protheroe's delivery, at times the sly come-on of the sideshow barker and at others, the mocking pronouncements of an Elizabethan jester. And he never stopped acting during the seventies. In 1976, Brian was starring in a fifties rock musical, "Leave Him to Heaven" at the New London Theatre. The production featured classic rock chestnuts like Chantilly Lace and The Great Pretender. A cast album was recorded and released, and a film version was produced for television in 1979. But few heard the album, and those who did were puzzled at the lack of Protheroe originals.

"The record was Chrysalis's idea I think. It was done in too much of a hurry and sloppily produced."

Two more albums of eclectic, knowing pop were to follow the release of "Pinball", with one track from "I/You" featuring the instantly recognizable playing of Jethro Tull mainstay Ian Anderson. But by 1976, with the dawn of punk about to break, Brian decided a long sabbatical from the music business was in order.

"Chrysalis ended my contract in '76. The final straw for them was me refusing to go on a college tour of the States. And no more hit singles. Frustrating record company discussions. I just never spoke the language."

Instead, he focused on theatre, television, and film appearing in "Reilly, Ace of Spies", "Superman" and in 2002, the role of Gower in Adrian Noble's production of "Pericles, Prince of Tyre". Not that he ever abandoned music. With David Cragen, Brian composed songs for Christmas pantomimes including stagings of Alladin, Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast. He also worked on new material in his home studio. The internet triggered new interest in his albums, and in 1997, Basta Records re-released Brian's first three records from the 1970s as "Brian's Big Box" with an additional disc of unreleased material including the excellent "Cold Harbour". A collection of new material, "City Song", followed in 2005, described by Brian as a "new single with seventeen bonus tracks and two movies". One of the newer songs written for the project is "Holyoke Hotel" a beautiful, autumnal tramp through the New England landscape name checking Paul Simon and the film Deliverance along the way.

In 2006, Brian was summoned to Abbey Road to participate in the remastering of original tapes at Abbey Road Studios, EMI for a greatest hits collection called "Pinball and Other Stories".

"I loved hearing the songs again! The sound quality through the Abbey Road equipment was astonishing! Lovely to hear pre-roll chat and count ins!
Some stuff feels dated - very much 'of the time'. Some still fresh. Hard to be objective."

Brian's latest effort, "No Snow Blues", is a Christmas offering with lyrics written by World War II poet Sidney Keyes. He recently performed this song and the evergreen "Pinball" live at a charity gig for the Cranleigh Arts Centre organized by legendary harmonica man Paul Jones. And he promises more music in the near future.

"I'm Working on 3 or 4 new tracks. But having to wait for availability of genius muso/producer/friend Julian Littman. Probably nothing available until summer."

Brian Protheroe is appearing in "Moonlight and Marigolds" at the Watermill in West Berkshire until June 11.

© Vincent Merkhajeb