There was a time, in the early-mid 1970s, when it seemed impossible to turn around without catching sight of David Courtney. Songwriter, producer and a performer in his own right, he headed up a musical empire built around three quite remarkable talents – one, Adam Faith, hailing from the pre-Beatles era of British pop; one, Roger Daltrey, of course needing no introduction; and one, Leo Sayer, a brand new name to many people, but demanding, with his very first solo single, that the world pay attention.
Albums by all three – Faith’s I Survive (reissued as Angel Air – SJPCD 314) Daltrey’s Daltrey solo debut and Sayer’s Silverbird, followed by Courtney’s own The First Day (Angel Air SJPCD 315) – still rank among their creators’ career bests, although all had plenty more in the tank for later; a point proven by the newly-released two CD David Courtney Anthology (Angel Air SJPCD 464).
Spread across an entire career, and released to coincide with the publication of Courtney’s autobiography Giving It All Away, Anthology’s focus is very much upon the Sayer/Faith/Daltry axis – Courtney has worked with other artists, of course, and many of them are represented here… Steve Ellis, Maggie Bell, Roger Chapman, Smokey, Dollar (their first two UK hits, “Shooting Star” and “Who were You With in the Moonlight”) Marina Kapura and Odyssey (thgeir smash “Magic Touch”.)
But thirty-seven tracks allow the set to really delve into the core trio’s output, not only serving up the hits (Sayer’s “The Show Must Go On,” Long Tall Glasses,” etc), but also the others’ versions of the hits… “Giving It All Away” is present via both Daltrey’s 1973 hit performance, and Sayers’s own take on the song; “One Man Band” in the shape of Sayer’s smash and Daltrey’s cover. There’s a fabulous take on the Who’s “Squeeze Box” that pairs Daltrey with Faith; and the same pairing’s rendition of Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the MIddle With You”… co-written by Joe Egan, whose own “Back on the Road” opens the Anthology’s disc two.
Sometimes, the whole thing feels less like a retrospective, and more like a family tree.
Courtney sat down with Spin Cycle to talk through some highlights of his career.
Spin Cycle: You crafted five classic albums (I Survive, Daltrey, First Day and the first two Leo Sayer, Silverbird and Just a Boy) in little more than a year, 1973-1974, using what feels like a very theatrical writing and production technique. Would you say you were influenced in any way by the Glam scene that was prevalent at that time? Or were you drawing from the kind of influences that they themselves used… Brecht, “Cabaret,” that lovely romantic decadence?
DC: “The theatrical style in my writing was not thought out it just evolved naturally. My earliest influences as a kid growing up came from listening to the likes of Danny Kaye, the classic children’s record ‘Sparky & his Magic Piano’ and great melodic pieces like Chaplin’s ‘Terry’s Theme’ from the film Limelight and a fascination for Circus, the classic movie The Greatest Show on Earth, and an early television program titled Circus Boy starring Mickey Dolenz.
“Later influences came from various, artists including David Bowie, Cat Stevens, Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, Neil Young, Harry Chapin, (the Troubadours) as well as Kurt Weill, Kander & Ebb (Cabaret) & Tchaikovsky.
“It has long been my ambition to stage a live show around those early songs. This may well come to pass as Leo and I are currently working on what would be a live ‘autobiographical music show performed by Leo with his band a string quartet with me narrating the story of our journey featuring songs from the Silverbird and Just a Boy albums. Watch this space!!”
SC: What were your thoughts about Glam – the good and the bad of it? Leo’s clown image for his first television appearances (and the back of the Silverbird album cover) certainly placed him within that catchment area, at least for a short time.
DC: “It was probably the worse fashion period of them all, but the magic was in the spirit. Without doubt the most musically prolific period. The clown image added to the mystique, but it would have only ever have been a gimmick if it had not been backed up with substance with Leo’s voice and the songs.”
SC: Were you conscious at the time that you were building a cohesive piece of work with those records, or did they just fall into place that way?
DC: “We were aware that we were producing something unique and original, Many times it came effortlessly, but I always knew the ones that would become hits. It is as though you are used as a channel by a greater force… who knows? You go with the flow and don’t question it.”
SC: There was talk in 1973 of Adam recording an album with David Bowie – I think Bowie was going to produce at one point, before promising to at least play some sax. Do you remember any of this, and can you tell us what happened?
DC: “Bowie was going to play sax on I Survive, but schedules did not work out at the time. I had the pleasure of spending a week with him and Iggy Pop when they came to stay at the Honky Chateau recording studio in France where I was recording my second album. Bowie is a fascinating, highly intelligent man who I greatly admire and respect musically. Iggy is a lovely guy and great value.”
DC: “No, in fact quite the opposite. The success of Roger’s album brought attention to Leo as an artist and us as writers.”
SC: Could you tell us about Leo’s breakthrough? And again, the clown image…. What was the thinking at your end?
DC: “Leo – Gerry as he was then – was always very animated, and reminded me of Al Jolson so I went out one day and bought him a pair of white gloves which he was bemused by.
“Photographer Graham Hughes, Daltrey’s cousin and the guy who did all the early Who album covers, came down to see me at my Brighton apartment to discuss the concept for the Silverbird album sleeve. He listened to some of the tracks we had recorded, and asked me how I envisaged Leo’s image. I told him about the white gloves and that sparked it off. Graham came up with the Marcel Marceau image, and later brought a real clown in to create the makeup. I remember Adam and I taking a 2-track recorder to record the ‘Entry of the Gladiators’ on an actual fairground organ, which we used as the intro for The Show Must Go On’. I guess it must have been those early Circus influences behind it….”
SC: First Day is such a fabulously lavish record – in a way, the kind of production that the others were “building up to.” Did you consciously go into the studio intending to … not “upstage,” but at least top the others?
DC: “It’s back to the stage show thing. First Day allowed me to express myself writing and recording in various styles from Bowie, Newman, Dylan. A good example was ‘Silverbird,’ which was originally written as a song but only ever recorded as an instrumental. I loved the idea of doing it as a full-on Busby Berkeley piece.
“Andrew included a cannon explosion in the arrangement (a la the 1812 overture) which only he and the percussionist Tristan Fry, who was hidden behind a screen, knew about at the time. Needless to say, it caused mayhem when it went off, the first two rows of the orchestra collapsed in a heap, the orchestra leader was furious and demanded that it be recorded as an overdub, or they would walk out of the session. Quiet understandable, as this was during the Northern Ireland problem. Anyway the ‘show went on’.
“ Another great memory was when Dave Gilmour came straight from Wembley after performing the Dark Side of the Moon concert to play on ‘When Your Life is Your Own’.”