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John Barrow - A Musical Life

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John Barrow HOW NOT TO MAKE IT IN THE POP WORLD (diary of an almost has-been). Trafford Publishing

The misconceptions that surround the workings of the pop industry are many and varied - one misguided belief chief among them is that if you’ve strutted your stuff on Top Of The Pops you must be rolling in it! Nothing could be further from the truth, I am living proof of that. I am one of those unfortunate journeymen of pop, always on the periphery, never quite hitting the pay dirt. The industry exists by allowing gullible kids to believe the myth. A dream machine that feeds off its own legend. Throughout my misguided quest for unlimited world wide fame and fortune, I have strutted my stuff with two bands on Top Of The Pops.”

During thirty-five years in fairyland that is the pop world, I can point to over eighty record releases. I have worked and recorded for many major and independent record labels, signed megabucks recording and publishing deals, associating with world-name pop icons and producers…”

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So starts one of the most informative and honest books on the pop music industry. John Barrow’s book introduction may lead you to believe that this is an angst-ridden critique of an industry where economic and popular success are as rare as hens’ teeth. It is not. It is far more interesting than that for the reader and especially for anyone with musical ambitions (and talent!). I should state from the onset that the book is very easy to read with its larger font and (thankfully) short chapters. Barrow starts the story in the early 60s as a child of eight years listening to his dad’s 78 rpm records (just like me) and watching the Kinks perform ‘You Really Got Me’ on Top Of The Pops. “The sixties were good. The Brits were taking on the pop world and winning. England even won the football world cup…” In 1972 at the age of nineteen Barrow was “blown away” at a Roxy Music concert at the De Montfort Halls in Leicester. It was also the night when he was introduced to “the very wonderful saxophone playing of Andy Mackay. I was smitten…” Another stunning night came in 1973 at a Faces gig in Birmingham, “They were awesome. Surely, one of the best ever Good Time rock ‘n’ roll bands.”

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Barrow’s skill on the tenor sax grew over time during which he befriended a young man called Gaz Birtles (a fellow gas fitting apprentice) who would remain a friend and musical associate for many years. Barrow describes the arrival of musical trends such as the punk revolution, and the earliest gigs by young bands such as The Rolling Stones who usually played in front of a handful of punters for a pittance. In telling his fascinating story, Barrow also busts several myths (including income - ‘Hey I saw you on the telly; I bet you are rolling in it!’ - If only they knew.). Barrow describes his band’s support tour with Culture Club at their peak of popularity and to sell-out crowds: “The Swinging Laurels were paid fifty pounds a night. Not each, the whole band! This may shock many people, but support bands on major tours are routinely treated in this way. People assume that just because they graced the same stage as the star act they reap similar rewards. This is a complete fallacy. Many support acts actually pay for the privilege of playing on a major tour and five-figure ‘buy in’ fees are not unheard of.”

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Top Of The Pops Performance

In addition he explains the vital importance of finding the right management, generating interest among key record company A&R people, booking agents (for gigs), producers and securing a publishing deal: “Not many people understand what a publisher does. I have to hold my hand up and admit that this included me until I got directly involved. A publisher can be an invaluable asset at the outset of a career in music. Basically, a publisher takes original songs and promotes them in any reasonable way possible for the benefit of the writer. This can take many forms including getting other artists to cover your songs, film and television soundtracks and advertising jingles. Also they can be an ally in securing a long-term recording deal by paying for demos and publicity.”  Barrow recognised early in his career that covering the songs of others was not enough and that he should develop his own song-writing skills.

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As I read this entertaining narrative I wondered whether Barrow was one of the first musicians to work intimately with black vocalists and instrumentalists from the outset and over most of his career. The other thing that struck me was the importance of securing BBC radio and TV support which has grown to become an imperative today in establishing a lucrative or viable career. I have often criticised the BBC for its Playlist policy that favours the few rather than the many - it seems to have become a state-owned monopoly; way too powerful and influential; as the only truly nationwide broadcaster with almost unlimited public funding. And there are many examples of the BBC’s support for an act’s single song (through presenter bias, playlisting and resultant extensive airplay) leading to that act’s worldwide success…while others of superior talent struggled for recognition and survival without that support. While most BBC DJs were busy feathering their own nests, Barrow’s experience with John Peel was the most positive live BBC radio experience.

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It’s interesting to note that Barrow was a realist in that for many years of his musical career he tried to hold down a full-time job in order to guarantee an income to support his family. Barrow participated in several groups formed by him and was in great demand as a session player - both live and in the studio. He also played with other notable brass instrumentalists including Raphael ‘Raff’ Ravenscroft who as a session player played with The Foundations to finance his passage through Music College. Ravenscroft was the musician behind one of the most recognizable saxophone solos - on Gerry Rafferty’s hit ‘Baker Street’. Ravenscroft received a flat fee — often reported to be £27 — for his work on the song, which made Rafferty a fortune. But the hit kick-started Ravenscroft’s career, and he went on to work with big names including Pink Floyd, ABBA and Marvin Gaye. Ravenscroft died Sunday Oct 19, 2014 at a hospital in Exeter, southwest England. Ravenscroft was 60.

Following disappointing experiences with major record companies, Barrow’s band decided to run its own label: “…meant we would be able to control every aspect of the process, from writing and recording, to packaging and marketing. It was an exciting prospect; we felt that for too long that our careers had been dependent on external forces that often left us powerless and impotent. Setting up an indpendent label in 1984 was more difficult than it would be today...”

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I cannot recommend this book highly enough. His book is funny, moving, informative, enlightening and inspiring, while including many vintage images. Barrow’s memory for names, events and places is not only remarkable but points to his deep passion and interest in his art. Barrow has been through the personal mill and the most challenging music industry roller-coaster, and in 2016 was struck by the big C. But he is a notable survivor with no regrets:

If I had my time over again, there are a few things that I’d change. That lump of metal that I call my saxophone has been the passport to unforgettable experiences and capers. It helped me to achieve my childhood ambitions and for that I am very grateful.”

For music fans and budding musicians, this book is essential.

4.5/5

http://www.trafford.com/robots/03-1791.html
https://twitter.com/realjohnbarrow
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcb5dGpCyDs
https://fandalism.com/hownot/hdx
https://www.facebook.com/pg/TheSwingingLaurels/posts/
http://theswinginglaurels.co.uk/
https://open.spotify.com/artist/7LENFJFNauaPHCeiVoCsRr
https://theswinginglaurels.bandcamp.com/album/greatest-bits-volume-1
https://itunes.apple.com/gb/artist/the-swinging-laurels/1345147641

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Make-World-diary-almost-has-been/dp/1412014131/ref=sr_1_8?dchild=1&keywords=john+barrow&qid=1592300821&s=books&sr=1-8

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