Personal Stuff

A birthday present from my daughter Josephine, who knows me so well.

Confessions of a pianophile

There are many great singers.

Lots of outstanding musicians.

And songwriters whose lyrics can produce in the listener the desired effect - laughter, tears, righteous indignation - are not unusual.

(Eg. Tom Jones, for all his fame, can - arguably - only tick one of the above boxes. He's not unusual in any respect).

Desert Island Discs-style, we can all come up with a list of favourite songs (see mine below; far, far below).

More rare are the artists whose remarkable talents can be discerned across the entire range of their output: lyrics, melody, musicianship, voice, inspirational quality ... I'm sure you get the picture.

But to expand, take an enjoyable band like Queen, marked by Freddie Mercury's wonderful voice and showmanship. Competent musically, with hummable tunes and an occasional creation like Bohemian Rhapsody which was groundbreaking in its originality (if not in terms of having any meaning at all).  

But just to be picky: what about the lyrics of Queen songs?  With the odd exception, Queen's lyrics were just pants.


What induces awe in me are words: poetry set to music, serious purpose in prose, whether the intent is to make you laugh, cry or think. Good musical theatre does all this. And for a lone artist to display consistent lyrical cleverness and originality, amazing musical and instrumental skill, vocal talent, the ability to exploit a variety of genres - uniqueness, in fact - well, that's when words like 'genius' start creeping around.

Humour and lack of arrogance; looking cute; having an engaging personality  ....  these are really of secondary importance but they're all grist to the admiration mill. 

But what really does it for me, I've come to realise during moments of tortured self-analysis, is being transfixed by someone's piano-playing skills.

Please don't think I know anything about piano music other than how good it sounds. My reaction is more visceral than virtuoso.

To illustrate: you know that whizzy crescendo moment when a pianist runs his fingers along the length of the keys? Well, you'll find me moaning with excited wonder at such a masterly digital action. Then someone in the know tells me pityingly that it's just cheap theatrical effect and doing it is a cinch.

Well, so what if it does compare to a restaurant bringing you your pudding with a sparkler in it? It thrills me all the same.

Very likely, this pianophilia is not unrelated to a period in my formative teenage years when I dated a brilliant classical music student who was boyishly pretty and smelled of Pears soap. Most importantly, he tickled the ivories like no one I'd ever encountered before. 

I admit that most of the time this sweet boy was a shy, tongue-tied, clumsy dork: his initial chat-up line was to tell me that my doorbell played D and B-flat, which should have been a powerful nerdiness-clue, but it impressed me no end. 

Regardless of his anoracky gaucheness , a sort of love would burgeon within me when I watched him play. Tirelessly I would watch for hour after hour. At my behest, he would play rhapsodies and polkas all night long, his focus unwavering as his beautiful long brown fingers hovered and flew over the black and white notes. 

The keys to my heart. Piano porn.

I forget his name, now.

The Most Outstanding Songwriters on the Planet (according to me)

Taking the first few in the order they appear on the " Favourite Things" plaque at the top of this page, here we go with the musicians ......

Video sample from the incomparable Tim Minchin
My favourite Australian singer-satirist Tim Minchin is most definitely made of genius material.

Wise words, Minchin

A cock with a Minchin haircut.

Always verbally smart and musically complex, Minchin songs are entertainingly edgy, frequently using irony to address controversial topics which are side-stepped by other people out of fear.

That really appeals to the opinion-columnist in me - enhanced by the personal experience of being the only anti-hunting resident of my pro-hunting rural Worcestershire village. (I always wondered how everyone KNEW - until I realised they had seen me banging on about it in my newspaper columns. Duh.)

But back to Tim's marvellous compositions which can be risque, can draw shocked gasps (as with one of my fave songs, Lullaby) and are laced with scurrilous language. The more outrageous swear-fests lend impact to the seriousness of whatever moral point is being made: in the jaunty-sounding Pope Song - about the Catholic Church turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse of children by priests within its ranks - the swearing is the whole uncomfortable point, targeting hypocrites who may angrily huff and puff at its over-use of the f-word, but who turn aside when it comes to challenging child-abusing tyrants in positions of power.

I suspect that Tim gives Daily Mail readers the vapours: the easily-offended and terminally-unimaginative might be advised to give his shows a miss. This applies in particular to the religiously devout who might find his hard-hitting atheistic satire hard to swallow.  

But if you're moved by clever, subtle, lyrically complicated performances which are those of an actor and musician rather than a stand-up comic, then Tim's definitely your man.

Some years back, Tim's sentimental non-comedy songs like White Wine in the Sun appealed so much to an RSC director that he asked our hero to compose the music and lyrics for the stage musical version of Matilda, which became a monster award-winning hit across the planet, then in 2016 together they co-created and premiered Groundhog Day: The Musical, which won two Olivier awards and thence moved to Broadway. Tim also continues to gig in the USA, UK and Australia and act in film, TV and theatre.*

He's now 42 and if, in 30 years' time, he's not regarded as a major musical theatre influence of our age, then I'll eat a pair of the incontinence pants I'll undoubtedly need by then. Especially if Tim's still writing funny songs.

*  There are a couple of great poems too: Storm and Angry (Feet).  

How to instil in your infant daughter a lifelong fear of dingos.

Dean Friedman: Star-crossed.

Dean with my grand-daughter, Florence.

The unusual nature of Dean's UK hit Lucky Stars made it stand apart from the mostly mediocre crowd of other pop-songs in the late 1970s.

It was a story-song - as are the majority of his compositions - about a couple having a ding-dong about the chap's secret meeting with an ex-girlfriend. It originally featured Denise Marsa as the partner who (quite rightly) suspects the nature of that euphemistic  "lunch" with Lisa, the girl who's "always stumbling off a cliff".

So different this song was that pundit opinion was divided. Some declared it their most hated song ever, while others said it was their all-time favourite. At least no one ignored it, especially the vast numbers who bought the single and drove it to the top of the UK charts.

It captivated me at the time, but then I'd always been a sucker for lyrics which conjured up pictures and told a tale. As a child, Old Shep could reduce me to tears. And to be embarrassingly honest, it still does.  Standout story-songs for me in adolescent years included Space Oddity, American Pie, The Ballad of Billy-Joe and humorous numbers like Jake Thackray's Sister Josephine, all of which I bought. And still like.

Not that I didn't like regular pop music too. But unlike the story-songs, it wasn't terribly memorable, that's all. Hence the appeal of Lucky Stars and Dean's other hit singles of that era, like Ariel, Lydia, Woman of Mine and McDonald's Girl, and, of course, the three albums he released contained compositions which were, without exception, gems of perfection.

Remarkable, really, when you consider that he was barely out of his teens - he wrote Woman of Mine when he was 16 and the other recordings tumbled out, one after the other, soon after he got his degree in music from university in New York. 

This contrasts starkly with Tim Minchin (above), who determinedly slogged away in front of sparse audiences in Australian clubs until, at nearly 30, his career took off just as he was thinking of packing it all in and becoming a teacher instead. 

But Dean's rise to fame at such a young age really was meteoric, although the stars turned out not to be so lucky in the long-term.

First of all, there was the trouble caused by that beguiling little track called (I am in love with a) McDonald’s Girl, a typical Friedman story-song which blended humour with perceptive tenderness, captivating lyrics with a catchy melody – the touching tale of a gauche, angst-ridden teenager haunting the burger store which employs the girl he adores and nervously rehearsing what he'll say to her, but failing to find the courage to speak.


There was some controversy in the States about the appearance of the word “virgin” in the lyrics. Much more crucially, in the UK this new song hit the buffers big-time when the BBC banned it for mentioning the name of a commercial company. (How ironic is that, when you look at the nakedly promotional plugs at the BBC these days, not least in chat-shows?)

Compounding this career calamity was Dean's discovery that the contract in which his record company had ensnared him years before, excluded all but a pittance from the profits of any records sold outside the USA. Lucky Stars, with a million sales internationally, had earned him next to nothing.

Outraged, he did what so many musicians had done before him: he sued the record company.

They, with their legions of lawyers, had little difficulty in squashing this upstart kid: they dropped him from their list of artists and proceeded to bankrupt him. On his wall at his New York home, the bankruptcy certificate hangs alongside his Lucky Stars gold disc.

Even worse, the record company retained the rights to all Dean's songs until that point - a situation which effectively put him out of the music business, with the record industry closing ranks and putting their wagons in an impenetrable  circle against him. 

Only in 2013 did a new copyright law in the States return the rights to his songs to him - 35 years after they were removed.  Immediately he released an album, Words and Music, which contains dozens of them, and he re-mastered a version of a successful early album, Well, Well, Said the Rocking Chair. In 2017 his latest album, 12 Songs, came out.

But back in the 80s, undefeated, Dean turned to other ways of earning money, writing a seminal book about synthesisers (a speciality at university), writing and recording theme music for film and TV (Boon being one series for which he penned music), developing digital and interactive games before even Apple did, and inventing giant musical instruments for children's theme parks. 

Only when the internet provided a platform for independent artists to reach their followers by by-passing the record labels was Dean able to start re-building his interrupted recording career. In a stroke of fin-de-siecle originality, he invented crowd-funding by asking his fan-base to contribute towards the $25,000 cost of financing his first new album for 20-odd years. In a matter of weeks, touchingly, he had all the money.

It's indicative of what a likable fellow Dean is and how dear he is to his fans' hearts.

But I can't help seeing the tragedy of those lost years from the age of 24 when Dean's superb creativity was at its height. Who knows what other masterpieces might have been written if, during those 35 years when artists depended totally on their recording contracts, this world-class composer, lyricist and performer had not been locked out in the cold?

A look at the selection of Friedman videos on YouTube is a poignant illustration of the point.  Some show the dark-haired, liquid-eyed youth with a then-fashionable moustache which he's never lived down, and in the more recent set we see a greying man in his 50s and 60s. Nothing in between.

But the smile's unchanged and, more importantly, so is that distinctive soaring voice - Dean enjoys reminding people that the NME once described him as sounding like "Kermit the Frog on Quaaludes".  Which, for those not in the know, is a sedative hypnotic drug.

I know all this detailed stuff about Dean, of course, because since 2010 he has been running a Songwriting Course at the French House Party every summer.  He’s genial, generous of spirit, highly intelligent, good at rational debate, witty and with a sense of fairness and honesty. I admire him as a bloke and a friend, and sometimes that makes me forget that he’s also a master songwriter and musician (‘Oh look, here’s this iconic songsmith playing my piano and doing that impressive thing with his finger sweeping along all the keys - Wow!’)

If Dean feels bitter about what happened four decades ago, he keeps it hidden, although he certainly celebrates the liberation which the internet has provided to the independent artist, and I suspect he takes secret karmic pleasure in the record labels' current state of bowel-loosened panic.

 Dean tours the UK and Ireland every year and recently has added other gigs in France besides ours. He spends several weeks gigging at the Edinburgh Festival and has recently written  a clutch of children's musicals to add to his list of achievements.

Dean gets great reviews. Journalist Mike Atkinson described his style thus: “Alternating between lyrical, somewhat jazzy piano‐backed numbers and guitar‐based ditties which span from spiky satire to tender romance, Dean displays an impressive range as both composer and performer. You could imagine him wowing a sophisticated boho crowd in a Greenwich Village cabaret bar, whose patrons would lap up his nods to Porter, Sondheim and Lehrer.”

And in October 2015, after a standing-ovation gig in Liverpool, Ian Hall's review contained the great line: "Music may be subjective, but genius isn't" (

 Well, isn't that my point exactly?


* Some of my favorite songs appear below.  My thanks to Marc d'Entremont for his recording of Dean singing McDonald’s Girl (now used in the fast-food chain's TV advertising) during a gig at French House Party.

The Letter
I sent this sweet song to one of my daughters as she traipsed through foreign lands during her gap year.
"The Shopping Bag ladies live in the terminal waiting room, patiently whiling their hours away, desperately keeping their demons at bay. Making up lies about times that were good. Extolling the virtues of motherhood. Staunchly defending their sanity, clutching one last shred of vanity."
"Lightweight emotional refuse" ... a beautiful lyric.
McDonald's Girl at FHP

Rufus Wainwright - "The best composer on the planet" - Elton John

I discovered the wonder of Rufus Wainwright songs quite a while before he became a household name in the UK.  (Much the same happened when I first encountered Tim Minchin - it makes one swell with ridiculous pride at one's own predictive smartness as an early genius-spotter).

Oh, What A World was the first number I heard, and the clever incorporation of Ravel's Bolero into the tune was impressive to a parody-enthusiast like me.  Some years later, with Between My Legs, Wainwright offered a tribute to Andrew Lloyd Webber, blending into its crescendo the famous Phantom of the Opera riff.

An amazing lyricist and musician, I love the way he experiments with genres and creates songs of musical uniqueness.  Although truth be told, I wasn't that keen on his spectacular opera.  This is probably because it wasn't in English. Words, words, words - these are the things that do it for me....


Dinner At Eight
So many of Rufus's songs are self-referential: this stunner was written after an argument with his father Loudon Wainwright (also a respected singer-songwriter) who left the family when Rufus was very young. I love all the subtle sub-textual references, eg David and Goliath. Very literary.
Going to a Town.
I just love those hanging notes suspended at the end of the chorus lines! About the USA, this song is even more apposite since Trump's election.

Charles Aznavour

Work in progress!

Anne Haworth ceramics

Anne Haworth has been my dearest friend since we met as teenage trainee journalists on the NCTJ course at a college in Preston.

In those days her voluptuous beauty earned her the dubious nickname "Anne of Cleavage" and she liked beer, frequently demonstrating that she could drink any of the other youthful hacks under the table.

Since then she's given up journalism, the booze and the burgeoning breasts. She is now a successful ceramicist with lots of letters after her name. The three-dimensional pieces she creates are wonderful and are displayed in galleries both at home in the UK and abroad.

To see some of her work, click on this link:

A family member also happens to be a remarkable artist. Ash Hale paints in a variety of styles - some reverberate with echoes of Munch, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso and Van Gogh - but all his works are startlingly original. I love them. To see Ash's portfolio, follow this link to the Saatchi Gallery online: