❉ The veteran singer/songwriter on Tomorrow, Teenage Opera, and his anecdote-packed biography.
“Andy Partridge sent me a tape once, and there was talks about us writing together at one stage. Everyone seems to agree that XTC should have been much bigger than they were – he’s a real quality songwriter. John Peel also liked our stuff. He was a great guy, laid back like Bob Harris… He only played what he wanted to play. And Pete Townshend credits me for putting together the first ‘Rock Opera’.”
Singer-songwriter Keith West is here to talk about his recently published official biography, Thinking About Tomorrow (Hawksmoor Publishing), writer Ian L. Clay’s sprawling compendium of anecdotes tipping its hat to the most revered decade in the countercultural world. In one of the book’s more ravishing endorsements, Paul McCartney pays due attention to how of the dazzling Excerpt from a Teenage Opera inspired his own sixties forays into narrative: “What I take the influence back to, was Excerpt from a Teenage Opera, a record in the late 60s, by Keith West that was episodic”, McCartney writes; “That was really the one that was the biggest influence, and then lots of people started doing it.”
“John Lennon liked Tomorrow’s version of Strawberry Fields Forever,” Keith West says. “It wasn’t bad for a three piece. I mean, there is an overdub, but it’s basically guitar, bass and drums: which, when you consider how much was on the original was pretty good… John Lennon would come and see us play at The Speakeasy. He’d ask for that one, and Paul McCartney liked Teenage Opera, which is why we have that quote in the book.”
Conjuring a spectacle through concrete, cinematic language, Excerpt from A Teenage Opera opened listeners up to a village thrust into a world where their grocer has died on their doorstep. His purpose, disregarded in life, has added pathos when mothers find themselves unable to explain to their toddlers what has become of their favourite visitor. Astonishingly intellectual for its time, the pop vignette opened up a world where psychedelia and parsnips shared a similar vocabulary.
Released in July 1967, the ‘Summer of Love’, Excerpt from ‘A Teenage Opera’ (Grocer Jack) awoke listeners to the possibilities of rock narration. The Beatles’ probing Sgt. Pepper had flirted with the idea, but Mark Wirtz had grander ideas, and spun a tale of an England changing to the beats set by a younger generation. It was audacious, but Wirtz’s idea to give listeners an insight into the world he was crafting was a canny one.
“Mark and I liked the Pet Sounds album,” West admits. “We liked production sides of things; people like Phil Spector. I don’t want to spoil things for people, but we just did things day by day, really. Mark gave me a tape, and asked me if I’d like to sing on it. He also told me that he had a few more, ha ha! It’s not a typical pop song; it’s not everyday you hear a song about a guy dying from a heart attack! EMI got the bill, even though Mark wanted it to be a bit quiet about what he was trying to write. So, we released that single and I worked with him on two or three others, but then I felt it had run its course. I heard Dear Old Weatherman, and I hated it! So, I walked away from the project. That said, I later found out from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber that they realised that they could write something based on the strength of the single. And that was for Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Lush in texture and ambition, the thundering trumpets recall an aesthetic comparable to The Beatles’ Penny Lane. Between the instrumental breaks, West lunges in to detail the troubled spiritual journey of a jobbing man bearing witness to his last breath. Apropos to form, Geoff Emerick stepped in to oversee the sonic structure.
“Geoff was a lovely guy: The Fifth Beatle as far as I was concerned. I grew up on a council estate, and Geoff had a similar background. He was a straight, streetwise kind of guy; and wasn’t a musical snob, either. There wasn’t a sound he couldn’t create, and of course everything was on four reel tape in those days. He’d cut up bits of tape, join them all together.. Geoff was young and we were young, and we couldn’t really explain what we wanted in technical terms. But he worked well with us. We all came up with ideas for the track. I suggested the children for the chorus. The reason was…Well, I wasn’t going to sing it. It was too cheesy for a man to sing it.”
As with the best of art, the song came from a place of truth, and now the veteran singer/songwriter commits his truth to print.
“I thought about writing it myself,” West says. “But putting together that kind of detail isn’t really my forté. In the end, Ian Clay did it. It was all pre-Covid, so I could meet him for a few hours at a time for an interview. It’s not easy remembering everything, and fans want that kind of information. Putting it this way, we were working every day, smoking hashish.. Ha ha! So, it’s not easy to remember everything. [fellow Tomorrow member] Steve Howe’s memory is quite sharp, funnily enough. He remembers many of the things that happened clearly.”
Transporting readers from the paradigms of a pandemic headfirst into the crisp, kaleidoscopic colours of sixties psychedelia, Ian Clay constructs a world where information, invention and inspiration fuelled the whims of a generation crafting an image based on comfort, colour and creativity. Amidst those searching for recognition came a series of bands eager to express an England distant from whims, woes and world wars. The guitars were louder, the shirts were flowerier, and anyone abstaining from sex was making a greater statement than those who partook. Clay expertly notes that “women play a major role in the story; they fill multiple roles: as influencers, as inspiration, and – not quite as elegantly – as short-term distractions.” Thankfully, the text espouses the virtues of the many women who sang in the sixties, such as West’s former paramour – and fellow Hawksmoor memoirist – Dana Gillespie, and any romantic intentions are written with a delicacy you wouldn’t find in, say, an episode of On The Buses.
“Dana and I didn’t make music together, because she was my girlfriend,” West laughs. “She really did that on her own. She was about sixteen, seventeen, and I was only a little bit older. And before she was a musician, she was the British Junior Water Ski-ing Champion! I knew all the bands: Syd Barrett, Traffic. We did some shows with Jimi at the Savile Theatre. Tomorrow actually played in Ireland. It happened after I’d had the hit [Teenage Opera], and the guy who put us up insisted that we play it. We said, ‘It’s not part of the set’, but he said that he wouldn’t pay us. So, the three other guys in Tomorrow had to come up with some arrangement for the stage [laughs]. I liked going out in Ireland, having a few drinks. I like Guinness, I still like to drink Guinness, and it always tastes better over there.”
A critical triumph from the moment it was released, Teenage Opera transformed West from jobbing frontman to rock and roll pin up. Much as it would be with The Faces and Rod Stewart, Tomorrow found themselves in the awkward situation where their vocalist was more successful outside of the band than he was in it. But if any resentment did indeed build up between Steve Howe and West, it doesn’t come up in the interview. “We were great friends,” West says. “Steve and I lived together. He was a great guitarist to have in the band. I’d write the songs, and I knew I could trust him to play them. He’d do these amazing guitar runs: rhythm and lead stuff. And he wasn’t a musical snob, he’d play anything we’d ask. White Bicycle is basically one chord, and I remember him saying, ‘When does it change?’ I had to say, ‘That’s it.’ But he played it well.”
Tomorrow weren’t without their fans: Listening to their debut now, the cascading riffs, buoyant drum work and melancholic verses serve as the blueprint for neo-psychedelia acts The Dukes of Stratosphear and The Stone Roses. And if you ask Andy Partridge, he’ll tell you that the band encapsulated the late sixties. “Andy Partridge sent me a tape once, and there was talks about us writing together at one stage. Everyone seems to agree that XTC should have been much bigger than they were – he’s a real quality songwriter. All very ‘Don’t bore us, Get to the chorus! John Peel liked our stuff. He was a great guy, laid back like Bob Harris. Maybe not as laid back as Bob, but he had scruples. He only played what he wanted to play. And Pete Townshend credits me for putting together the first ‘Rock Opera’.'”
The comparison is no mere window dressing: Lifehouse, like A Teenage Opera, proved to be one of the more elusive entries in the rock canon. Though neither project made it to their completed destination, the creativity that abounded within the writing and recording sessions produced some of the most indelible, and certainly some of the inventive, tunes in popular music. Time, as it didn’t then and won’t in a pandemic, hasn’t stopped, and neither will West.
“I’ve been asked if I’d like to write another book,” West admits. “But let’s see how this one goes first. I’m writing a lot of music these days: I’m using GarageBand to help. Some of it I’m programming, but other instruments -like the bass – I’m playing live. We’re all doing things online. Steve is working that way, and I recently sent him something to add to a song. Streaming is a good way, but otherwise this Covid thing is awful [laughs uproariously]. But I’m keeping busy.”
❉ ‘Thinking About Tomorrow: Excerpts from the Life of Keith West’ by Ian L. Clay was published 8 February 2021 by Hawksmoor Publishing. RRP £22.99. SKU: 978-1-8380990-1-5. Click here to order directly from the publisher.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Eoghan Lyng’s ‘U2: Every Album, Every Song’ is published by Sonicbond Publishing and available to buy from Burning Shed. Follow him on Twitter. Visit his homepage.