Brett Smiley – Va Va Voom (September 25, 1955 – January 7, 2016)

12_10_74Russell Harty: “Are you aware…”

Brett: “Aware?  Sure.”

Russell Harty: “Are you aware of the weight…”

Brett: “I’m not that heavy.”

Russell Harty: “Are you aware of the weight Andrew Oldham places on your young shoulders?

Brett: “I don’t think he’s ever been on my shoulders.”

He was beautiful – the most beautiful boy in the world, according to a Disc headline in October 1974.  Pouting, blonde, and so pretty in pink, everything about the boy screamed “pay attention!” – including the fact that Brett Smiley really is his own name.

Radio Luxembourg took a shine to the effervescent “Va Va Va Voom,” Smiley’s breathtaking first single, and played it half to death.  Disc splashed Smiley across its 12 October, 1974, front cover in vivid, living colour (headline: “BEAUTIFUL BRETT”).  And he made his UK television debut on Russell Harty, a pink gabardine suited vision who didn’t even flinch when the tape operator played the wrong backing track, and he found himself miming to his latest b-side.

What really caught the eye, though, was the expression of absolutely exquisite detachment with which Smiley regarded the entire proceedings.  When Harty asked Smiley to sit quietly for a moment, while he talked to manager Andrew Oldham, Smiley asked if he could put his sunglasses on.  When Harty questioned that, Brett offered them to him.

Rival teen idols shuddered at his audacity.  “I thought he was a bit pathetic,” complained Simon Turner.  “He kept putting his glasses on and off.”  And later, Brett confessed that he was out of his head on the show, thanks to a thoughtless cocktail of sleeping pills and tranquillisers.

But it was studied languor, not stupefied lethargy, that shone through his performance: that, and a Noel Cowardesque air of decadence which, for even the most casual viewer, made the act of watching television almost painfully raw and personal, like gatecrashing the inaugural meeting of Narcissists And Social Butterflies Anonymous, just as they realise that anonymity is the last thing they crave.  Russell Harty thought he was interviewing just another would-be pop star.  In fact, he was greeting a Greek God.

Smiley had only been in London for week when the call came through to appear on Russell Harty, and it didn’t phase him in the slightest.  Why should it?  He was seventeen and sexy, he was an American in England, he had an enormous deal with Anchor Records, the UK wing of ABC, and he had been discovered by Andrew Loog Oldham, the greatest star maker/image creator in British pop history.

Harty was hostile from the start.  He opened by complaining how his show was constantly being deluged by requests to give young talent a step up the ladder, and admitted that tonight was an experiment, to discover whether it was actually worth doing.  There were enough other shows dedicated to preening pop wannabes, he seemed to be saying; did his programme really need to descend into the same mire?

So he started rough and got rougher.

Unfortunately, Smiley and, seated beside him, Oldham were in mood to be manhandled.

Harty mentioned the fact that $100,000 had already been spent on Smiley’s career.

Oldham agreed.  “Mainly in airfares.”

It was Detroit promoter Russ Gibbs who introduced the pair, and Oldham recalls, “one glimpse of Smiley set my mind train rolling in the same directions that Marianne Faithfull had.  The boy was beautiful, and beauty doesn’t simply sell, it flies off the shelves.  So everyone’s into Glam Rock, are they?  Brett was Glam with a capital hard-on.”

The Indiana born Smiley’s credentials were already impressive: a four year stint in the Broadway production of Oliver which saw him rise from the chorus to the lead role (and only just lose out to Mark Lester in the race for the movie), and a clutch of television ads, had long since groomed him for stardom.

But a handful of recordings with future Knack supremo Doug Fieger’s band Sky, proved insufficient to land him a deal, and Smiley returned to the US, first to the family home in Seattle, doors away from what would later become famous as the Kurt Cobain residence, and then to Hollywood, where he leaped headlong into the Glitter scene revolving around Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco.

“There was a whole crowd of us that sat around in velvet and boots and make-up.  We weren’t really from wealthy families, but you could always get by, and if you were cute you could get by real easy.”

A previous manager had already tried launching the teenager in England in 1972, at the height of the country’s fascination with the teenybop dreams of Cassidy and the Osmonds.  That failed, but Oldham wasn’t deterred.

A single was called for, a statement of intent, and Smiley delivered.  “Va Va Va Voom” was a manic amalgam of vintage Bolan and manic Mud, brought to a breathless three-minute climax by Steve Marriott’s guitar, and a characteristically dramatic Oldham production.  “Andrew’s favourite record was ‘River Deep Mountain High,’ by Ike and Tina Turner,”  Smiley reasons, but even that doesn’t explain it all.  Oldham may have learned his craft at the altar of Spector, but he was never content to remain a mere pupil.  “Va Va Va Voom” was more than a pop single.  It was a way of life.

Smiley recalls, “I wrote ‘Va Va Va Voom’ here in New York, and I thought it was just a throwaway.  But I was playing some songs for Andrew and he loved it. At the time, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why, but later I did.  He loved it because it’s simple, and it doesn’t say that much.”

“Va Va Va Voom” was only the beginning.  Armed with Anchor Records’ $100,000 recording advance (plus another $100,000 for publishing), they headed down to Nashville to record the basic tracks for a Smiley album.

“Then we took them to New York and added more, then Andrew would take the tapes to Olympic Studios in London, and come back with something totally different.”

And then it all went belly-up.  “Va Va Va Voom” barely registered a flicker on the sales-o-meter; Brett himself was just one more pretty face on a scene which, quite frankly, already had more pretty faces than it knew what to do with.  A projected US release on Sire fell through, despite the support of New York DJ Scott Muni’s English Hour, and to crown it all, says Oldham, Anchor got cold feet and pulled the plug on everything before the album had even been paid for.

Smiley returned to the States, back to New York, to continue writing and playing, but not, alas recording (at least for public consumption.  Even a reunion with Oldham in the late 1980s remains unreleased).  But almost thirty years after the fact, in 2003, the Breathlessly Brett album finally found a release and was, indeed, breathless, late night moonlight and absinthe for two; Judy Garland meets Jobriath, a teenaged T Rex with a Bryan Ferry bent, the Shangri-Las with stun guns bristling.

The songs were exquisite, the arrangements were heavenly, and Oldham’s production was astonishing, pulling out every sideways glance at Phil Spector he ever took, then taking one step further, a liquid wall of sound that melts around the teenaged Smiley’s every affected inflection.  And there’s an awful lot of them, for this is not an album of snarling rock and dyspeptic roll.

Rather, it’s late night moonlight and absinthe for two: a gorgeous Neil Sedaka cover (“Solitaire”) and an almost doomladen “Young At Heart”; a saunter through “I Can’t Help Myself” that turns into “Over The Rainbow”; and a clutch of Smiley originals that are every bit as memorable as the covers.  There’s even a dash of self-fulfilling prophesy, as “Queen Of Hearts” turns into a map of Smiley’s own immediate future, as the album was canned and the single was lost, and someone hid the key to the stardom that should have been his.

Hearing it for the first time in three decades, Oldham declared “it remains a beautifully recorded, exquisitely paced and deliciously organised record.”

In 2004, author Nina Antonia published the biography The Prettiest Star: Whatever Happened to Brett Smiley?, truly one of the finest ever examinations of a side of fame that we don’t often want to hear about; and while he would be dogged by health problems through the last years of his life, still Brett remained upbeat and effervescent, always willing to reminisce but always anxious, too, to be getting on with life.

Sadly, he ran out of time.  Sweet dreams, space ace.

Note: for reasons unknown, Wikipedia is reporting Brett’s death as January 8 – the day after Goldmine published this obituary.  Don’t worry, we haven’t gone psychic on you; best guess is, the Wiki date was provided by somebody on European time.  Thanks to everyone who e-mailed to point this out.

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