Still, it’s when I’m doing ‘A Boy from Nowhere’ for Saturday Night at the London Palladium that a bloke called Jonathan Ross comes to see me, along with a TV producer, Graham Smith.
Ross is a young guy, in his twenties, in a glossy suit. He’s where chatshow television is going at this point. Ironic. Getting it from Letterman in America. Sense of organized chaos. Not playing anything too straight. His show is called The Last Resort, in keeping with all that. It goes out late on a Friday night on Channel 4.
Ross has a running gag, apparently: ‘Next week on the show: Tom Jones and Michael Caine.’ And then we’re never on. But what if one week I was actually there and I sang on the show?
‘But they don’t want you to do “A Boy from Nowhere”,’ Mark says. ‘They don’t want it to be a record plug.’
‘Well, what’s the point, then?’
Mark says the show has a sh*t-hot house-band, led by Steve Nieve, who had been the keyboard player with Elvis Costello. I could pick a song, have fun with it, maybe show another side. It could be good.
I’m thinking: OK, I’ll give them ‘Great Balls of Fire’. When in doubt, ‘Great Balls of Fire’ – that’s always been my policy. But Ross’s people don’t sound made up about that.
Some things Prince has done, like ‘Purple Rain’, you think, forget it. There’s nothing more you can do with that. But ‘Kiss’ was so open, it left room for interpretation
‘What else are you doing in your live show, Tom?’
I think about it for a bit.
‘Well, I’m doing “Kiss”.’
‘What? Prince’s “Kiss”?’
‘Is there anybody else’s “Kiss”?’
It’s true. Mark had suggested sticking Prince’s ‘Kiss’ in my live show, not long after the song was a hit in 1986. When I heard ‘Kiss’, I was hearing an R&B song, but done in a Prince way – sparse instrumentation, falsetto. Some things Prince has done, like ‘Purple Rain’, you think, forget it. There’s nothing more you can do with that. But ‘Kiss’ was so open, it left room for interpretation – taking it out of falsetto and hitting it full on, for starters. I was doing it live, and people were digging it.
So I play it on The Last Resort. Leather jacket and loose-fit leather trousers over a red t-shirt. (‘You don’t always have to wear trousers that show everything, you know,’ Mark says. He’s right. I don’t.) Even as Ross is introducing me, it’s still on a knife-edge. Am I someone it’s OK to like? Or am I an old twat – back from the dead but not quite? How much is irony operating here? Where is irony drawing the line?
Steve Nieve’s house-band, who are just as sh*t-hot as Mark suggested, pile into the number hard, and I sing and dance in front of some giant, cheesy silver letters spelling ‘TOM JONES’, taller than I am. Ironic again, I guess. Ross, on the side with enlarged hair and a grey designer suit, comes in to mop my brow at one point.
And then I leave the studio and fly home to LA and don’t think much more about it.
Except that something in that performance gets through. People talk about it. ‘Did you see Tom Jones the other night, doing “Kiss”?’ There’s a bit of a stir. It seems to have taken a few people by surprise. That guy, of all people, doing that song, of all songs – yet it was all right, wasn’t it? It kind of worked. There are a couple of reviews in the papers – the gist of which is, basically, that rumours of my death during this last decade might have been exaggerated. I’d be pleased to find out they were right.
And then a letter comes from Clive Calder and Ralph Simon. Calder and Simon are a couple of South African guys who have founded the Zomba Music Group, a major management and publishing concern, and who then started their own label, Jive Records. Come 2002, by which time the roster has expanded to include Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys, they will sell this label to Bertelsmann in Germany for £2.74 billion, which will no doubt be enough to keep them going for a while. At this point, though, Jive is mostly famous for picking up New York hip hop acts and for having a massive international hit with Billy Ocean’s ‘Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run)’. I’m not sure exactly where I fit in, in the Jive scheme of things, but I’m not sure I care that much either. The key fact is, Calder and Simon have noticed the success I had with ‘A Boy from Nowhere’, they’ve seen me do ‘Kiss’ on The Last Resort and they’re willing to take a punt on a Tom Jones album from a standing start.
‘Where are they based?’ I ask Mark.
‘Willesden,’ he says.
Hard not to reflect on the distance of all this from the polished splendour of MAM House, off Bond Street. But that was then and this is now. And what have fancy offices got to do with anything, anyway? We sign the deal in Jive’s graffiti-strewn concrete building in north-west London, and at last I have a new album deal.
This thing is jumping clean out of the speakers. It’s like being back at the Polya Glove factory and hearing ‘Rock Around the Clock’ come over the radio – that break thing again, the hair on the back of the neck going up.
Meanwhile Anne Dudley gets in touch with Mark. Anne Dudley is a musician and composer from the band Art of Noise – an experimental pop outfit, making dance tracks with synths and samplers. Mark plays me some of their stuff, and I’m really intrigued by it. ‘How do they make that sound?’ Anne has seen me on Jonathan Ross’s show, and she’s wondering if I’ve ever thought about recording ‘Kiss’ – and, if so, would I like to record it with Art of Noise, as a new track to go on a greatest hits compilation that they’re putting together?
Suddenly an avant-garde art-pop synth act wants to work with me. They’re the first in quite a long time.
We talk to Jive: would they mind me doing this track as a featured vocalist with Derek Green of China Records, Art of Noise’s label, before I put an album together for Jive? They don’t have a problem with it.
However, I do have a problem: my throat. I’m due at the hospital in LA to have a polyp cut off my vocal cords – the legacy of thrashing my voice through all those multi-night appearances in the first half of the decade. That’s going to take me out of action for a few weeks – or for good, if the surgeon’s had a heavy night and slips up. And even now, on account of the polyp, my range is coming apart. I’m struggling to get into my higher register. It’s clear that I’m going to have to say to the Art of Noise people, ‘Forget it. Bad timing, unfortunately. Don’t have the voice. Some other time, maybe.’ But Mark says, ‘The song’s in your mid-range. Just give it a go.’
What’s to lose, I guess.
JJ Jeczalik, is the Fairlight genius behind many of the early synth pop sounds, including the group YES and much of Trevor Horn’s work, and now he’s one of Anne Dudley’s partners in Art of Noise and responsible for their early avant-garde concepts. JJ sends a backing track over to LA, with almost nothing on it, really, apart from a drum machine and a guide keyboard, and I take the tape into a little studio in the valley and record a vocal track on to it. I have three stabs at it, and I know that, in each case, I’m impeded, vocally, while I’m singing it. But, actually, maybe, that’s a good thing. I’m not in a position to over-sing it and, in the end, maybe that keeps the performance clean and steady, firms it up. There are places I might have gone off to with the melody, if I could – but I couldn’t, so I didn’t. Instead, I end up hitting it hard, down the middle.
Whatever, this is the version they’re getting because I can’t do anything else.
The tape goes back to London. And then, a little while later, Mark comes up to the house on Copa de Oro Road with a finished version of the track that Anne Dudley has sent him.
We take it into the pool room, where I have a sound system with giant speakers attached to the walls at one end. I put the recording on and twist the volume up loud – and, oh my. A synthesized swooshing noise whips from one speaker to the other and then – bam! – the vocal hits, and the drum machine and the bass drop in, and I’m standing there and thinking, f*** me. This thing is jumping clean out of the speakers. It’s like being back at the Polya Glove factory and hearing ‘Rock Around the Clock’ come over the radio – that break thing again, the hair on the back of the neck going up.
I’m reckoning this is as powerful as I get. If this isn’t a hit, then I may as well pack up and leave. Seriously. Good night, God bless and thanks for everything. See you all on the other side.
I’ve been ensuring that my hair covered at least the top part of my ears since the seventies – thirty years with hair-covered ears (another potential title for this book). So this in itself is pretty revolutionary.
But first there needs to be a video to go with the single – another new world that has opened up during my extended holiday from the recording industry. Because it’s 1988, and MTV rules. No video on heavy rotation on music television, no international hit. So a production company gets involved – Propaganda Films. Some story-boards arrive in LA, which I’m excited to see – and less excited when I discover that they show me in a tuxedo, against a Las Vegas backdrop. Really? I’m singing Prince’s ‘Kiss’ on a track created by Art of Noise yet I’m still getting Caesars Palace hung around my neck like a giant glittering albatross. Still, they have another look at it when we ask them to, and the Vegas images go, replaced by an animated background of cartoon instruments and random figures and objects and words – busy, bright, fun. And I dance and sling a microphone around and fool about with a pair of shades, in a dark Issey Miyake suit over a black polo neck. Hair off the ears, too. I’ve been ensuring that my hair covered at least the top part of my ears since the seventies – thirty years with hair-covered ears (another potential title for this book). So this in itself is pretty revolutionary. And MTV seem to love this video – play it to death, opening up the global MTV network, inviting me into their studios in New York, Stockholm, Madrid.
Meanwhile, on American radio, a fella called Guy Zapoleon on KZZP in Pheonix, Arizona, has got hold of the record on import and won’t stop playing it, and the news seems to spread out from there. Even so there’s a debate in a few places about what, exactly, we’re looking at here. Tom Jones doing ‘Kiss’. Is it a novelty record? Not the first time this particular issue has surfaced in my career: it came up with ‘What’s New Pussycat?’, it came up with ‘Delilah’. And now, to a lesser but still noticeable extent, it’s coming up with ‘Kiss’. Musicians I meet don’t seem to feel this way about it, and young people, the MTV generation, who have never heard of Tom Jones until now, don’t appear to be taking it that way either. For them, the novelty question doesn’t really arise. But older people, in a position to bring some baggage with them, are wondering whether there’s some kind of comic element here that it would be a shame to miss. So I’m experiencing a certain amount of low-level anxiety as I do the promotional rounds of the American Top 40 radio stations, talking the single up. I’m sitting in the waiting room outside the studio of a morning radio show in Minneapolis, for example, and I can hear the broadcast going out over the speakers and the DJ announcing that I’m due up, and I’m clenching slightly, waiting for the gag – something about knickers, maybe, or Vegas. But it’s great, because the gag doesn’t come. And I realize that I don’t have to worry this time, that I can relax and let the shoulders go down as I’m finally ushered into the studio, ready to go live on air.
Where the DJ’s opening line is, ‘Tom Jones – congratulations! And we hear Engelbert Humperdinck’s going to do “Alphabet Street” next.’
Nothing to do but suck it up. And here’s the thing that makes sucking it up pretty easy – the thing that’s not open to dispute: ‘Kiss’ is a hit. A stonking great international hit – Top 10 in Australia and Norway and Spain and New Zealand and Holland and Sweden and Belgium and Austria. In the UK, it goes to number 5, higher than the Prince original. In addition to that, the Propaganda Films video wins the MTV Music Video Award for Breakthrough Video, beating the promo for Michael Jackson’s ‘Leave Me Alone’.
An MTV Award, a worldwide hit, a renewed presence on American Top 40 radio . . . there’s the shape of a second coming here that would have seemed impossible as little as six months previously.
Soon after ‘Kiss’ was a hit, I went to a party at Tramp, the club in Jermyn Street in London, and at the bottom of the stairs I ran into Prince. He was dressed like some kind of eighteenth-century fop – braided coat, teetering heels, huge frilled sleeves, silk handkerchief waving. I may have imagined the handkerchief.
I paused to shake his hand and said, ‘Thanks for the song.’
He replied, ‘Thanks for recording it’ – surprising me with his voice, which was by no means falsetto. It turns out the guy has a fathoms-deep speaking voice.
And then I excused myself and walked on into the party as rapidly as I possibly could – not having anything at all against the thought of hanging out with Prince, but having in my mind a scene which has always haunted me from that Bette Midler movie, The Rose. It’s the bit where Midler, playing Mary Rose Foster, a big rock star, takes a helicopter out to Long Island to see Billy Ray, played by Harry Dean Stanton, a humble country singer and songwriter, one of whose songs Mary Rose Foster has recorded. And Mary Rose Foster is clearly desperate to know what Billy Ray thought of her version of the song and yearning to discover that he liked it because to find out that he didn’t approve of it would be crushing to her. But Billy Ray isn’t saying anything until Mary Rose is on her way out the door, when he finally says: ‘Before you go: don’t you ever record one of my songs again.’ Utter humiliation for Mary Rose.
And that’s why I moved quickly past Prince at the bottom of the stairs in Tramp that night. It would have devastated me to hear that he didn’t like my version of ‘Kiss’. The best approach in the circumstances seemed to be: right-turn and into the room. Don’t give him the option.
Also around this time, in 1988, I make a trip back to Wales and land up in the Treforest Arms with Dai Perry, drinking and winding back the years. On the pub jukebox are both ‘A Boy from Nowhere’ and ‘Kiss’, my two recent singles, both of which get a bit of a spinning, in honour of the fact that I’m there in the pub.
And when ‘A Boy from Nowhere’, the big ballad, goes on, the older crowd in the pub start calling out to me, ‘Oh, yes. That’s you, Tommy, that is. That’s what you do best.’ And when ‘Kiss’ goes on, the younger crowd say, ‘No, this is you, Tommy. This is where you need to be.’
And time falls away, and it might as well be nearly thirty years ago, with the working men’s club crowd over here, and the YMCA kids over there, and me in the middle, looking from one to the other and trying to work out a way to please both.