John Cameron Interview

❉ Composer and arranger John Cameron talks about his incredible career and remembers Alan Hawkshaw.

As an arranger, musician and composer John Cameron has been responsible for some awesome work during the last 50 years. Composing the music for the films Poor Cow, We Are Cult favourite Psychomania and A Touch of Class as well as Kes (whose soundtrack was released by Jonny Trunk a few years ago), his stage shows and film scores have been consistently good. He also worked as an arranger for Donovan, Hot Chocolate and Heatwave among many more as well as overseeing Once More With (Julie) Felix and The Bobbie Gentry Show for the Beeb.

As part of the KPM music label, John’s library music has cult status. His library track Liquid Sunshine appeared on Bob Stanley’s recent ’76 In the Shade compilation and was sampled by the rapper Logic. His work with C.C.S (Collective Consciousness Society) also resulted in the barnstorming take on Led Zeppelin track Whole Lotta Love that was familiar every Thursday night as the theme for Top of the Pops. I spoke to John about his life and work…

How did your career in music start, John?

I was up at Cambridge at the same time as Eric Idle, Jonathan Lynn, Germaine Greer and Clive James.  I actually went up as a historian on a History exhibition (My school didn’t do A-level music). About halfway through I’m playing twice a week, either on an American base or at a jazz club. Every summer I’m working as a professional musician somewhere –  Ronnie Rand’s Blue Rockets (1962/1963) and Colin Hulme’s orchestra (1964) – and I’m writing a whole load of stuff for Footlights. I think I’m a musician (laughs). I manage to swing it that I could do Part 2 of my degree in music. You could do that at Cambridge. I actually ended up with a History and Music degree… A strange hybrid but it’s been quite useful in a way because it kind of gave me an analytical thing. If a piece is set in a certain century, for example, we can research it and be genuine and authentic about stuff.

Footlights ’64. L-R: David Gooderson, John Cameron, Miriam Margolyes, Eric Idle, Susan Hanson and Graeme Garden. Credit: ITV/Shutterstock

With people like Eric Idle and (famous lyricist!) Clive James in the Footlights were the revues very musical?

Well, Eric and I used to write songs. When we came down we did a duo cabaret act. I really wanted to be a musician and he wanted to write so our ways kind of parted. In fact I was performing sort of jazz satire piano and I got a job at Take One -a sort of supper club- playing piano. The resident band there was the Ronnie Ross Quartet and I played with a whole load of people.  In London the rhythm section was  Spike (Heatley) on bass and Tony Carr was on drums.  When I went up to Cambridge, the house rhythm section was me and a couple of “town” players who’d been there for years, Colin Edwards on drums and Mike Payne on bass . So I was kind of comfortable with jazz musicians anyway. I was kind of putting lyrics to Blue Monk and doing piss takes of Ray Charles. It was an homage to my heroes. It was warm satire – it wasn’t nasty satire. Spike Heatley came and said he’d got this friend Ashley Kozak who was actually a bass player but became Donovan’s manager. He was looking for a new arranger “Do you fancy having a crack?”.  ‘Don’ one day played Sunshine Superman and Mickie Most (Donovan’s new producer) was there. It was all quite bizarre – Ashley’s flat was filled up with zodiac signs and everything was purple (this was before Psychedelia) and right in the middle of something Chas Chandler rushed in and said, “I’ve found this amazing guitar player.” We said, “All right yeah have a cup of tea” and of course it turned out to be Jimi Hendrix!

I read in a Mickie Most interview once that ‘Sunshine Superman’ was recorded in two hours on a Sunday afternoon. Is this true?

Well, Tony Carr was on percussion, Spike played bass, John Paul Jones played bass guitar, John himself played harpsichord and Jimmy Page added a guitar solo later. It was maybe a three-hour session which everyone worked in those days. I remember Mickie most going “I think we’ve got something here”.  It just all kind of worked well. The only bugbear about it was that because ‘Don’ was still not out of his contract there was still a certain dispute over here. Because of the dispute they couldn’t release it in this country so I couldn’t reap the benefits of it so I had to go back to the theatre and do pantomime! It didn’t take long though. Soon we were cracking on and that opened the door to doing things like the Julie Felix show at the Beeb. ‘Don’ was my way in. It was a shame Julie passed away last year. We actually did a concert for her 80th birthday with Madeline Bell and she was in great form.

Was your first film work on the Ken Loach film ‘Poor Cow’? You did that with Donovan didn’t you?

That’s quite a fun story in a way because I’d done quite a bit for ‘Don’ by then and he’d been asked to do the music for the film. Basically, in those days a few people had the idea of letting jazz musicians (such as Sonny Rollins on Alfie) sort of improvise in front of the screen. The producer, Teddy Joseph, was a bit old-school on it and we got as far as recording the titles. Christophe Logue wrote the poem “Be Not Too Hard” which ‘Don’ had set to music and I’d arranged it. Teddy Joseph turned around to ‘Don’ and said “Well, who is actually going to write it for the film?”  and ‘Don’ said “He is!” pointing to me. They said they needed it a week tomorrow and I said yes. The bullshit of youth. My dad was taught violin by Beatrice Lutyens and her niece was Elisabeth Lutyens. She did the music for Hammer horror films. Real screamy violins and I, with my Dad, had been down to the sessions to see how it all worked. So I thought, ‘To hell with it!’ and got on the phone and I asked Elisabeth about writing a film score. She gave me ten minutes on things about synchronisation and spotting. It must have been pretty good because it damn well worked! ‘Don’ had actually written all the songs but they all needed to be woven in and out. I got the timings on the Friday and looked at it with Ken Loach. I was playing rugby on the Saturday and so I wrote it on the Sunday. We recorded it Tuesday and of course everything went straight to film. They dubbed it Wednesday and after that I found out that film music was a little more complicated! I always say when mentoring the most important word in your armoury is yes. Whatever the question the answer is yes. Then worry about it later!

Then came ‘Kes’?

Kes is still very close to my heart. I was very green. Later on in life I got to work with technicians who taught me all kinds of sophistications. Fabulous line ups. But there is something about that early movie. It had some great players on it. Harold McNair, Ronnie Ross and Danny Moss. And (music legend) Danny Thompson was on it.

The music isn’t all the way through the film is it? It’s sparingly used.  It’s beautiful – particularly in the sort of pastoral bits. Most of those musicians were jazz-based weren’t they?

I heard Ken say on the radio recently that basically the music shouldn’t carry any more emotion than what’s on the screen. It has to blend in and it’s a really good standard we set for that. It’s weird – sometimes a happy coincidence. Harold McNair was really on fire. Yes, most of them were jazz based. Traditional musicians would be really good (sheet music) readers but often that was as far as it went. I felt I liked to work with musicians who worked towards that final result rather than playing it right first time. Maybe it takes a little while getting into it. Then they say, “How about doing it this way?” It’s more give and take. I’ve got a huge respect for the musicians I’ve used over the years because I do feel they give back to me as much as I give to them which is very gratifying.

So when did you start working with Hot Chocolate?  Was that quite early in their career?

The first one I did for them was Emma. I seemed to have become the King of the Folkies. Which was kind of ironic because after Cambridge I was listening to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Quincy Jones, Charlie Mingus, Thelonious Monk. I did a kind of acid-jazz album on Deram called Off Centre. I’d heard a band called the Don Ellis Band at Ronnie Scott’s and I loved the sheer extravagance of it. Huge brass section and drums et cetera. Meantime I’d done six arrangements for Mary Hopkin for Eurovision. Mickie Most produced it. Someone said, “So what’s new? What would you like to do?” and I said, “I’ve got this idea for a big barnstorming band.” I mentioned the Don Ellis band, and I’d been listening to bands like Blood Sweat and Tears, Sly and the Family Stone and Quincy Jones. I said, “I’d love to have brass and a crossover feel to it”. Mickie said he’d just signed Alexis Korner and Pete Thorup and asked, “Do you think they’d work with that concept?”. I said yes. We’d do it on condition that in the middle of it we’d use big Led Zeppelin-type riffs.

It was partly with working with Mickie on (CCS) that got me involved with Hot Chocolate. Errol was one of the nicest people so that was a really good vibe. They’d put down a track. Fairly basic. Now and again Harvey (Hinsley) would come up with a guitar riff. Mickie and I would get hold of it – people looking through a window would think we were barmy! He’d sing a brass line and I’d sing back, and then I’d go off and write it. Mickie was an incredibly no-nonsense, ‘get something done’ guy. Then later we got adventurous with the (Yamaha) GX1 Synth. A monster. It was fun. We also used an ARP Synth on Do You Believe In Miracles (sic) for example. We’d put brass in or strings.

Mickie Most obviously had an ear for a hit as well.

Mickie’s talent was putting the right artist with the right songs and the right rhythm section.

Were you also doing library music at this time?

Yeah eventually. In the ‘sixties I was a bit shirty about library music. After CCS I sat down with Robin Phillips (of KPM) and realised that the library music he was putting out with people like Keith Mansfield, Brian Bennett, Hawk (Alan Hawkshaw) etc. was not the kind of elevator music that often other libraries specialised in. he actually gave people a bit of leeway. I said, “I’ve just recorded this band CCS. If it is successful other people will rip us off, so why don’t we rip off our own sound?” So hence the jazz-rock album (KPM 1000 Series: Afro Rock) came from that. That Afro-rock sound for example really came from Harold McNair and Tony Carr. Even with the library music Robin didn’t mind how personal you made it. If I used my favourite musicians that was great. He was encouraging. We even did a spy album (Bruton Music BRJ 25: Espionage).

I wanted to ask you about ‘Heatwave’. Those were great songs.

That was an absolute joy. The great genius was Rod Temperton (who later wrote a lot of Michael Jackson’s songs on Off The Wall and Thriller). Rod wouldn’t give carte blanche. He would say, “I want it THIS way”. He had the whole concept in his head. Essentially it was his vision. It was so exact. I was dead pleased when he got “kidnapped” by Quincy Jones (to work on the Michael Jackson albums).

Do you have any projects on the go at the moment or coming up?

Yes, I’ve got about four projects. We’re working on a musical based on the life of Ruth Ellis – quite a noir subject. Also a musical/film based on the story Victor Hugo wrote after Les Miserables. We’re hoping to shoot in Guernsey. Also a project I’ve been working on for some time called In Another Century with some amazing women characters. One thing I like is the process. The great thing on any musical project of any kind is it has to be collaborative. It has to be dynamic.

Last week, the music world lost one the greats with the sad passing of Alan Hawkshaw; could you share with us a few words in memory of ‘Hawk’?  

Sad to see Hawk go. I knew him not only as a session player, but also as one of the group of young composers and musicians eager to break the mould of TV and film music that Robin Phillips gathered around him in the ’60s and ’70s, Keith Mansfield, Brian Bennett et al. A driving, flamboyant Hammond player but also a really individual writer, able to find the mood of a programme in a few notes. Shared many a stage with him especially on those great KPM Allstars nights. Farewell Hawk, or should we say Farewell Champ?

❉ Click here for John Cameron products available at Trunk Records:

 James Collingwood is based in West Yorkshire and has been writing for a number of years. He currently also writes for the Bradford Review magazine for which he has conducted more than 30 interviews and has covered music, film and theatre.  His Twitter is @JamesCollingwo1

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  1. Great interview – brought out a lot I didn’t know about John Cameron’s career.

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