From ‘Pinball’ to ‘Desert Road’: Brian Protheroe talks

We speak to the veteran musician and actor about his 70s albums, First Dates and the new album.

“One morning I didn’t have many interviews lined up so the record rep hired a limousine and took me on a tour of LA. As we were driving around Beverly Hills, Pinball came on the car radio. It felt completely surreal while going past Jerry Lewis’s house, I thought “what the fuck is going on here?””

Brian Protheroe is first and foremost an actor. He was born in Salisbury in 1944 and joined the city’s repertory theatre, Salisbury Playhouse, in 1966. By the early 1970s, he’d made strides as an actor and composer in stage productions. In 1973, his life took an unlikely turn while he was appearing in William Fairchild’s play Death on Demand. “I wrote the music to a lyric my character Johnny Tomorrow sang during the course of the play called For Tomorrow” Protheroe explains. “It was a very simple pop song – “Tomorrow will be my day, the day that dreams come true / tomorrow, flying high day, something something with you”. It couldn’t have been more basic really but the author absolutely loved what I did with his lyrics. We made a demo recording of it and he took it round to various record companies – Decca, Chrysalis and one other.” Protheroe was signed by Chrysalis on the strength of For Tomorrow, and embarked on an unlikely second career as a pop star.

Protheroe’s first single, the hypnotic Pinball, was released in August 1974. It was a hit, and has endured as a cult classic. His sparkling debut album of the same name, with its multifarious mix of styles and moods, bears comparisons to the contemporary work of 10cc and Roy Wood. Two more albums for Chrysalis, 1975’s Pick-Up and 1976’s I/You, failed to yield hits but furthered Brian’s slippery art rock-cum-cabaret sound. However, Protheroe’s musical dalliances have always played second fiddle to his love of acting. His impressive 50-year CV includes RSC productions, television institutions like Holby City, Spooks and Midsomer Murders and an appearance in Richard Donner’s Superman (1978). Only a few weeks ago he was seen on BBC One in the second series of His Dark Materials.

2020 has been a fruitful year for fans of Protheroe’s music. In July, Cherry Red issued Brian Protheroe: The Albums 1974-76, an excellent 3CD set making his classic Chrysalis LPs widely available again. At the end of November, Brian released Desert Road, a new album mixing fresh songs with demos, remixes and a live track. “I’m working more than ever,” he declares. “During lockdown, I’ve felt more like a musician than an actor”.

Like many of his generation, Brian Protheroe’s earliest musical memories are tied with family tradition. “I’m sort of three-quarters Welsh. My dad was born in South Wales and used to have musical evenings in the parlour around the piano” he says. “When I was very young, I remember him teaching me a song called I Love to Go A-Wandering. He would sing the tune in his rich baritone and get me to harmonise. As a teenager, I was into skiffle. Lonnie Donegan had such energy with that driving rhythm guitar. Move It by Cliff Richard was, I would say, one of the first English rock and roll records but nothing really caught me as much as the Beatles did.”

Brian Protheroe, 1974 (Photo by Gems/Redferns).

Brian Protheroe began performing music in 1963 when he joined Roger Hicks and Bill Thacker in a folk trio named Folk Blues Incorporated (FBI), just one outlet for a diverse talent. “When I was in my twenties, I was inspired by a lot of different kinds of music” he explains. “I was into jazz like Dave Brubeck but I also loved singing St Matthew Passion in the choir. I was in a folk group, I was in a folk-rock group, I was in a rock group. I had many different influences and it’s lovely to mix them up, but I don’t think I’d really have thought of it without the Beatles. They changed everything. What really fired me up about making an album in the beginning was putting songs together that, like the Beatles, were very eclectic. You never knew what you what was coming next.”

Listening to Brian’s debut album Pinball now, it’s difficult to pin down the commercial ambitions Chrysalis had for him. Another Leo Sayer? A Gilbert O’Sullivan even? “Probably nearer to Gilbert.” says Brian. “I think they wanted a solo artist who would tour with a band. I wasn’t really a multi-instrumentalist, but I did play guitar, piano and percussion on all the records. They wanted to expand that and they suggested I do a college tour in the States in 1976. It didn’t happen, we couldn’t agree on the terms and conditions.” Pinball, the song that began Brian’s pop career and remains his best known, was written at a low ebb; “When I wrote it, I was basically depressed. I’d just split up with a girlfriend, I’d moved to Convent Garden and I occupied the first floor one-bedroom flat of a friend of mine. I had no job and no prospective work. I used to go along to the Cross Keys Pub and play the pinball. It was like a diary entry from that particular time, with this sort of surreal touch to it as well.”

Pinball was a slow burner, really. It only got to number 22 in the chart, but it almost instantly made an impression. Kenny Everett played it a lot on Capital Radio. When I was on Top of the Pops, Carl Douglas was number 1 with Kung Fu Fighting. There was a lot of crap on it – god, Peter Shelley with Love Me Love My Dog. Pinball was very different. The joke was that I went on Top of the Pops when it was at 22, and the week after it went down! I didn’t know what I did wrong.”

Brian recently rediscovered his original demo of Pinball, and has included it on Desert Road. “The first couple of verses are virtually as the final recording turned out” he says. “There’s a build to it – I introduce an electric piano and that builds towards what was to become the sax solo. The interesting thing about this song is that it doesn’t have a middle or a chorus. It’s just a series of verses with a sax solo and a double-vocal ending. The producer Del Newman suggested we get a sax in. I suggested that the sax play a quote in the minor key from Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend after the line about Marilyn Monroe. I don’t think anyone’s picked up on that! Additions like that and the meow of the cat, which is just me, are sort of theatrical touches.”

Pinball received renewed attention in 2004 when it was included on Sean Rowley Presents Guilty Pleasures, an album compiling 70s favourites from Rowley’s BBC Radio London show and associated club night. How does Brian feel about being labelled a guilty pleasure? “That was great! That’s fine by me and it did very well – there was a Guilty Pleasures 2 and 3! Pinball is not rock and roll, I suppose that’s the banal reason it is considered a guilty pleasure.” More recently, Noel Gallagher has cited the song as the direct inspiration for Riverman, a single from his 2015 album Chasing Yesterday, having been introduced to it via a mix CD by another Mancunian. “I listened to the recording of him talking about it” says Brian. “He was in LA with Morrissey, and Morrissey got out a CD with his favourite songs. Noel didn’t know the song at the time. I like Noel, I just like the way he is.”

Brian’s second single was Fly Now, a catchy piano stomper that bears comparison to the homespun work of Paul McCartney. “I was influenced by his song Monkberry Moon Delight – it’s got that chug-chug-chug-chug thing about it” Brian admits. “I was in a rep company in Exeter and I had a piano in the place I was staying. I put metal tacks in the hammers to make it sound like an aggressive harpsichord sound, and we added a bit of that to the recording of Fly Now. You can hear the influence of McCartney and Lennon in the freedom to experiment. Chrysalis wanted to hear more songs like Pinball, which was completely at odds with what I what I wanted to do. I wanted to be very eclectic and I didn’t have the clout or the commercial potential for them to go with that. They wanted to hear songs they already knew would be commercial so they chose Fly Now as my second single.”

All three of Brian’s albums for Chrysalis feature writing collaborations with Martin Duncan. “Martin and I met in 1968 in Lincoln rep.” he recalls. “He was sort of the Lennon in the relationship. He took me into directions I wouldn’t have gone into otherwise, with surreal lyrics that paint a picture. A song that best represents that is Dancing on Black Ice. That’s a typical Martin lyric with jokes, irony, surrealism and a humorous juxtaposition of language.”

“Martin would write a lyric in different sections and I somehow had to find a way to bind them together, while giving each individual section the kind of musical choices the words suggested. There was a lot of criticism about Martin from the record company. They tried to take his name off the first album, so it would look like I was the only contributor. I threatened to stop working on the album if they did that so they relented. The producer Del Newman wasn’t sure about the songs Martin participated in either. He preferred the songs I wrote alone. My songs were varied, but they weren’t as mad as Martin’s! We used some songs Martin and I wrote for a musical called Lotte’s Electric Opera. They were totally out of context, so they were even weirder! But I like that. Martin’s a great friend so I always wanted him to be involved.”

One of my favourite Protheroe songs is Goodbye Surprise, an album track from his first LP. I’m not alone; “Harry Shearer is a big fan of Goodbye Surprise!” Brian reveals. “I heard him talking to Jools Holland, and the first track he played was Goodbye Surprise and they talked about it for a few minutes. I’m really proud! I think the brass arrangement on that is great. It’s simply about the breakup of a relationship. Before I was living in Covent Garden, I was living in West London in a flat with like my then-girlfriend, who was an actress as well. We’d decided that we were going to break up and I was still in the flat, she was away working. We had a piano in the flat, so I sat there and poured my heart out into that song. The lyric “I never thought it would last five minutes at the beginning” is a direct quote from a sceptical friend of ours who didn’t believe that our relationship would work.”

Scobo Queen, from Brian’s 1975 album Pick-Up, is one of his most cryptic tracks. I asked Brian what the song is about. “I’ve no idea! You better ask Martin Duncan! I think a ‘scobo queen’ is some sort of jazz shorthand from the 30s or 40s, but I’m really not sure. I never bothered to ask him! I just loved the sound of the words. I think it’s about the dangers of the Hollywood life for an actress, filtered through Martin’s fevered imagination”.

A more straightforward song is Running Through The City, a gentle account of weariness and jetlag. “Again, it’s a sort of literal diary about a trip to Los Angeles in 1975, doing radio interviews about Pinball” says Brian. “One morning I didn’t have many interviews lined up so the record rep hired a limousine and took me on a tour of LA. As we were driving around Beverly Hills, Pinball came on the car radio. It felt completely surreal while going past Jerry Lewis’s house, I thought, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’”

Over the years, Brian has largely resisted live performances. “It’s not really something I do,” he says. “I did a one-off gig at the Mermaid Theatre in London in about 74-75, which was okay. In 1983, I did one at the Theatre Royal Stratford East where I was working at the time. I’ve done a couple since. All through those years, acting was my main occupation. That’s why it didn’t work out with the record company, I was much more comfortable in the acting environment than in the record environment. I loved being in the studio, working with session musicians and the producer and engineer that we had. I didn’t get on so much with plugging the music and all the extraneous stuff which wasn’t about simply creating”.

One of Brian’s few concerts was at London’s Troubadour in 2012, with a band featuring Steeleye Span’s Julian Littman and Manfred Mann legend Paul Jones amongst others. “I wanted to do a small gig somewhere, and I knew Julian would support me” he explains. “I’d played at the Troubadour with my folk group in 1965, and I went to have a look at it and it was virtually exactly the same as it was then! I just loved the feel of the place, it held just over 100 and it seemed like the right thing to do” There’s some beguiling footage from this rare event on YouTube with pitch perfect renditions. Brian sounds like a seasoned touring musician, his voice unchanged by 40 years distance.

The release of Desert Road follows a series of digital singles – revisited versions of 1970s tracks like Fly Now and Enjoy It. “There’s a company called Blue Raincoat who look after the Chrysalis back catalogue and have access to the original master tapes. They’ve allowed me to borrow the original 2-inch multitracks. The first one that I did was Back Away, a B-side that was never on an album. I’d always thought it could do with a bit of updating with some brass and extra progression. I worked with Julian Littman, a multi-instrumentalist who has been a friend since the early 80s, and it turned out really well.”

“I always thought Enjoy It should have been a big hit in the 70s. It should have been my second single but Chrysalis were afraid because it was so utterly different to Pinball. I was determined to have another look at it, and it worked. It turned out really well. I was really pleased with what we did with it and it was relatively successful. I think I actually made money on it – almost no one makes much money from streaming!”

Brian’s new album Desert Road is something of a pot pourri. “It’s a collection of songs I’ve been working on with Julian Littman over the last 10 years or so” he explains. “There’s also a live version of a song called Monkey from the first album and some old demos – the original demo of Pinball I mentioned earlier and one from even earlier than that, a song called Sail. I’m really pleased with the collection. A feeling of sweet melancholy goes through the whole album. Julian and I are working on another single for the new year with a similar lyric to Scobo Queen, funnily enough. It’s based around sort of ’30s/’40s jazz shorthand. I’m working more than ever!”

Since 2013, Brian’s authoritative voice has been heard by millions as narrator of the Channel 4 reality show First Dates. How does he find being the voice of one of the most successful British television shows of recent years? “What a fantastic job, it’s like having another pension!” he enthuses. “It’s a proper dating service, they do genuinely try to match people up. It works really well. I’ve done a couple of other First Dates – Australia, Canada, Ireland – but I think the British one works particularly well because of the variety. There are gay and lesbian couples, there’s old and young and they really try and match them properly.” I tell Brian I couldn’t believe it was him when I found out. “Isn’t it a bizarre combination, that I should be doing that as well as making those records? It’s extraordinary. But I love that.” Eclecticism is still what drives Brian Protheroe.

❉ ‘Brian Protheroe: The Albums 1974-1976’ (GLAMT176) is out now from Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99. Click HERE to order directly from Cherry Red Records.

❉ Brian Protheroe – ‘Desert Road’ (12 track digipak CD with 8 page booklet) was released 27 November 2020. CLICK HERE to stream, download and buy from Bandcamp.

❉ Huw Thomas is a musician and writer from Radnorshire, Wales. His special interests include Northern Irish band Cruella De Ville, Cardiacs, Back to the Egg and Oh No It’s Selwyn Froggitt. He tweets as @huwareyou.

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1 Comment

  1. Have you got a link or something, To have and to old. I’d love to see it again, the book was amazing, the song so cute.

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