Caroline or Change: one mother’s life 16ft beneath the sea

Caroline or Change, West End , London, Playhouse Theatre, musical, Sharon D Clarke, reviews,
Caroline or Change: Sharon D Clarke at left, with Mesha Bryan, Tshan Williams and Sharon-Rose as The Radio, with Carole-Stennett as the washing machine. Photo Alastair Muir

Tony Kushner’s Caroline or Change has transferred to the West End after glowing reviews and an Olivier-Award winning start at Chichester and a successful stint at the Hampstead Theatre. With music by Jeanine Tesori, the show was first performed in NYC in 2003 and in London in 2006 and is set in America during the 1960s, a time of significant social upheaval. Michael Longhurst’s revival comes hot on the heels of another acclaimed run for the writer’s best-known work ‘Angels in America’ which ran at the National Theatre in the summer…

Caroline or Change, West End , London, Playhouse Theatre, musical, Sharon D Clarke, reviews,
Caroline or Change: Sharon D. Clark, maid to to a Jewish family in Louisiana. Noah the son of her employer stands at rear

This is no way a feel-good musical – hardly surprising when the subject matter is domestic servitude and racial dynamics in civil-rights era America. It also purposely has songs and structures which reflect the dark tonal themes so you won’t find yourself humming them on the way home. They are however delivered with gusto from the professional cast in which the child actors match the adults in strong performances, especially 8-year-old Noah who has a lot of stage time. Through the southern soul sounds and heartfelt gospel we are also regaled with the clarinet and celebratory traditional Jewish music as a contrasting cultural soundtrack.

The musical opens in Lake Charles Louisiana in 1963. The African-American maid Caroline Thibodeaux (played by theatre legend Sharon D Clarke) contemplates her life of domestic drudgery doing laundry for a white Jewish family for $30 a week. We find her in a humid, windowless basement she describes in song as ’16ft Beneath The Sea’, with just a radio and her youngest charge, their only child the friendly Noah, who revels in their secret lighting of her cigarettes (‘The Cigarette’).  She sees her life as hopeless and unchanged in the 22 years she has worked in the same house and the appliances – a washing machine and dryer – are centre stage in her solitude as living characters spinning around like some corny American game show prize (‘Laundry Quintet”). The radio also is portrayed as a Greek chorus of Radios 1, 2 and 3 by a trio of black female vocalists whose Motown-style songs illustrate her plight with sweet harmonies. Way up above we have the beautiful glimmering singing Moon (Angela Caesar) who oversees the action.

The main focus is the relationship between Caroline, her employers and her own young family: a feisty daughter and her three sons (one serving in Vietnam). Her employer, the rather neurotic second wife Rose, seems unwilling to offer Caroline a raise so instead offers leftover food or the opportunity to keep Noah’s loose pocket change to teach him a life lesson ironically in looking after money. Noah deliberately leaves change in his trousers which Caroline puts into a  cup (‘Quarter In A Bleach Cup’) on the machine and which she eventually puts in her purse, humiliated but out of necessity, for rare treats for her children (‘I’ve Got Four Children’). This bitterness makes her tetchy and finally she lashes out at Noah when he clings to her because he’s unable to bond with his stepmother and is missing his deceased mother (‘Noah Has A Problem’).

By day, Caroline is effectively isolated from her own community which is at the centre of current affairs. On leaving work she meets up with a friend Dotty who innocently asks her how are things while mentioning her boyfriend and attending night school. Caroline is irked by her questions and ambitions and starts an argument about their different lifestyles. Dotty remarks about the strange beheading of a confederate statue in the town (‘Moon Change’) in an uncanny prediction of the real-life American national drama in the South and conviction of a  Charlottesville racist killer recently.  The women are shocked that the bus delay is due to the news of JFK’s assassination (‘The President Is Dead’). When she tells her daughter of his passing Emmie is unmoved, frustrated that his promises for the black community didn’t materialise.

Caroline or Change, West End , London, Playhouse Theatre, musical, Sharon D Clarke, reviews,
Caroline or Change: Angela Caesar as Moon. Photo Alastair Muir

Inter-racial differences come into focus when Rose’s Jewish family come visiting from NY for Hannukah and Caroline and her daughter find themselves preparing a celebratory meal. A lively discussion around the festive table ensues between the patriarch and Caroline’s daughter about the fate of minorities. Caroline is vexed and a little afraid of her daughter’s vocal protestations, knowing that a raised black voice to a white person could lead to a beating or much worse. She also doesn’t want to lose her job.

Things come to a head when Noah accidentally leaves a $20 bill in his pocket after being given to him by his grandfather and which Caroline keeps. Their row provokes an exchange of racial slurs that elicit an audible gasp from the audience.  Caroline disappears from her basement workplace, causing consternation in a household which has taken her for granted, and mistakenly believed they shared a friendship in which there is no equality or choice. Caroline chooses this time to bond with her daughter who explains that she wants something better for her future. In a standout song (‘Lot’s Wife’) Caroline wrings out the emotion dealing with her inner turmoil and faith, the church  being the sanctuary that offered hope to the harsh lives black people led. The finale leads to a less than surprising reveal of the generational attitudes of the mother and daughter and a new awareness to the fragile household.

There has a been a decades-long history of Hollywood’s troublesome affair with black maids, from the Oscar winning Hattie McDaniels in the 1940 ‘Gone With the Wind’, to Oscar-winning Viola Davis in ‘The Help’ in 2012. In that period, Oscar-nominated Juanita Moore in ‘Imitation Of Life’ and Whoopi Goldberg in ‘Corrina Corrina’ joined these portrayals addressing America’s complex issues with race and the South. One of the first depictions I can remember as a child is Mammy Two Shoes, the faceless black maid who frequently appeared as one of the only humans regularly featured in the popular long-running cartoon ‘Tom and Jerry’. Like a lot of comic stereotypes of negroes in entertainment at that time she would be roundly scorned right now.

The writer of this musical has said he doesn’t believe there’s such a thing as a non-political play. This one is based on Tony Kushner’s life and it offers a window into literally a nanny state of mind for him and a vast generation of rich American white children growing up where black maids were a constant in their lives and perhaps also a confidante and surrogate mother. What impact did this have on their view of race as adults we can’t glean as Noah is only seen as a young child, and the adults here don’t appear to form any long-lasting alliances outside of employee/employer. The show is to be recommended for depicting a slice of pivotal American social history where black women were the backbone of rich white families in a divided country, and skin colour determined your social status. We are eventually beginning to hear the voices of the women in this hidden world where recent studies show 1 in 25 female workers worldwide is a domestic worker.

Caroline or Change, West End , London, Playhouse Theatre, musical, Sharon D Clarke, reviews,
Caroline or Change: Carole Stennett, TShan Williams and Sharon Rose as The Radio. Photo Marc Brenner

Afterwards, a backstage tour and
talk with the cast

Caroline or Change, West End , London, Playhouse Theatre, talk, Mike Longhurst, Sharon D Clarke, critics, Matt Trueman, backstage, Tony Kushner
Public talk at the Playhouse Theatre following Caroline or Change: director Mike Longhurst, actress Sharon D Clarke who plays the title role and theatre critic Matt Trueman chairing the event.

We were fortunate to join an after-show interview and brief Q&A with the actors and director who discussed the genesis of the play and how they came to be involved. We also enjoyed an interesting backstage tour, along with dressing rooms and of course I was interested in the props which included a Servis washing machine and a table setting that included plastic and real cooked vegetables.

Caroline or Change runs at the Playhouse Theatre
from 20 November 2018 to 9 February 2019


Featured post

In the musical Hadestown the devil has all the best tunes

Amber Gray,Hadestown, National Theatre, London, musical, theatre, Nathaniel Cross ,
Hadestown: Amber Gray as Persephone and Nathaniel Cross on trombone. (Photo Helen Maybanks)

poster, Hadestown, National Theatre, London, musical, theatre,A new musical has arrived at the NT from NY. Celebrated singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin have transformed Mitchell’s album into a genre-defying new musical that mixes modern American folk music with vintage New Orleans jazz to reimagine the sweeping Ancient Greek tale of Orpheus and his muse Eurydice. Andy Polaris visits London’s National Theatre to review Hadestown…

Hadestown, National Theatre, London, musical, theatre, Orpheus, Euridice, Eva Noblezada, Reeve Carney,
Hadestown: Reeve Carney as Orpheus and Eva Noblezada as Euridice. (Photo Helen Maybanks)

Hadestown opens in what appears to be a southern blues venue you may expect to find on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a split-level space with musicians overlooking the dancefloor and wooden tables and chairs for the drinkers. A spiral staircase leads to an ornate balcony overhead with a hidden back room where the management can view all the salacious proceedings that are associated with liquor and raucous revellers.

It opens with mature dapper Hermes (Andre de Shields) as the narrator who sets the stage and introduces us to young, footloose and hungry Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) who comes across another free spirit, musician Orpheus (Reeve Carney). He is quickly smitten with Eurydice and feels that their fate is entwined. Despite having little material wealth, he has the gift of music and song, so persuades her in ‘Come Home With Me’ that he will change her life.

They are joined by a talented company of singers/dancers who act as revellers in the club and work up a sweat as factory workers enslaved by the relentless hardships of the underworld. Especially in the factory scenes, the robust choreography by David Neumann is in parts sexy and solemn and it made me think of Madonna’s classic industrial ‘Express Yourself’ video, itself heavily influenced by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The revolving stage that hollowed out and dropped down to evoke Hadestown was impressive, as were the dancers’ chain-gang moves in several of the physical songs such as ‘Way Down Hadestown’.

Andre de Shields , Hadestown, National Theatre, London, musical, theatre,
Hadestown: Andre de Shields as Hermes with the company. (Photo Helen Maybanks)

Eurydice falls under the commanding spell of Hades (Patrick Page), the power behind the curtain like the Mighty Oz, whose terrific bass voice intones the rules of engagement. With his promise of no more hunger and uncertainty during ‘Hey Little Songbird’, she grasps the nettle in desperation. Throughout, the vampy female Fates (Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher, Gloria Onitiri) sing and play accordion and violin to offer their judgement on the hapless lovers. The shimmying and sashaying trio deliver ‘When The Chips Are Down’ with beautiful harmonies and so much sass that I found myself humming this vocal highlight on the way home (and will I’m sure become a burlesque/cabaret favourite).

Hades’ lover Persephone (Amber Gray) belts outs  ‘Livin It Up On Top’ in a voice familiar with gin and weary with eternity. When Hades and Eurydice explain ‘Why We Build the Wall’ it chimes with the current climate in the US in an effective call-and-response with the chorus. As the lovers’ separation and reunion follows the Ancient Greek myth, the action dips a little before the finale, yet the joy of this show is the beauty and clarity of the diverse ensemble who are both attractive and accomplished. Eva Nobledaze (who starred previously in Miss Saigon) has a mesmerising voice that showcases the vulnerablity of Eurydice. The boyish charm and passion of guitar-slinging Orpheus is embodied in Reeve Carney, whose sweet vocal range is reminiscent of Jeff Buckley, and together their chemistry brought conviction to this romantic tragedy.

Hadestown is a musician’s and singer’s musical with everyone on that crowded stage getting down with the funk, jazz, and blues to an exceptional high standard. I’m sure its success is inevitable on Broadway and we’re lucky to catch this American cast in London, that’s why I would urge you to invest in this fatalistic and familiar tale.

Carly Mercedes Dyer, Gloria Onitiri, Rosie Fletcher ,Hadestown, National Theatre, London, musical, theatre,
Hadestown: Carly Mercedes Dyer, Gloria Onitiri and Rosie Fletcher as the Fates. (Photo Helen Maybanks)

* Though the London run at the NT is sold out until 26 Jan 2019, every Friday at 1pm an allocation of £20 tickets for Hadestown is released by the National Theatre to buy online, for the following week’s performances.

* Read more about Hadestown at the National Theatre website. The show comes to the UK following record-breaking runs at New York Theatre Workshop and Canada’s Citadel Theatre, before opening on Broadway.

* Follow the show’s progress at its own Hadestown website

Hadestown, National Theatre, London, musical, theatre, Orpheus, Euridice,
Hadestown: The exceptionally talented and muscular company. (Photo Helen Maybanks)


David Byrne triumphantly rewrites the rules for a rock concert

David Byrne, live concert, 'American Utopia', rock music, musicians,choreography
Live on-stage: David Byrne playing guitar at the centre of his barefoot ‘American Utopia’ musicians. Photographed by Ben Stas

Last time that I saw the legendary Talking Heads was over thirty years ago at London’s Hammersmith Palais. It was the ‘Remain In Light’ tour, a landmark album for the band with the creative production of Brian Eno and live with Bernie Worrell from Funkadelic augmenting the line-up.  So the glowing five-star international reviews for David Byrne’s ‘American Utopia’ tour 2018 meant there was genuine and palpable anticipation surging through the 4,000-strong audience packed into the Brighton Centre this week.

The set opened with a vast empty stage, only a small table and chair with a grey-haired casually suited Byrne seated and singing to a plastic brain which he held aloft. He looked like the coolest science teacher explaining its merits, albeit barefoot and to a much more appreciative adult education class. He was joined onstage by similarly attired backing vocalists Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba who we quickly realised, along with the rest of the 11-piece band, were agile in their dual role as musicians and dancers. It was the realisation that with Annie-B Parson’s sophisticated and at times elaborate choreography (especially for the backing vocalists) this was far from standard fare.  I then remembered the work Byrne did with dancer Twyla Tharp in the eighties, and realised this show has become a logical next step in the imaginative presentation of his eclectic catalogue.

We moved uptempo with ‘Lazy’, the breezy solo club hit that resulted when Byrne guested as vocalist with X Press 2, and this buoyed the crowd with its almost aerobic glee. This was followed by the first Talking Heads gem ‘I Zimbra’ (Fear of Music) when we saw everyone – especially the impressive six-piece percussion section – play and dance a combination of street carnival panache and those joyous college brass bands in the US.

David Byrne, live concert, tour, 'American Utopia' ,poster
David Byrne’s ‘American Utopia’ 2018 tour poster

From here on we were treated to almost two hours of frenetic then thoughtful funky reworkings of Talking Heads material and cuts from David Byrne’s prodigious solo material including the current release ‘American Utopia’ which reflects on the dire current US political climate with a sense of hope. The standouts were many but the surreal when released ‘Once In A Lifetime’ crackled with almost evangelical zeal as Byrne flung himself around on-stage… Against giant dancing shadows like a Busby Berkeley musical number, ‘Blind’ was given brassy punch and brought energetic solos from its talented percussionist pool… The opening guitar chords of ‘Burning Down the House’ did exactly what it said on the label… ‘Everybody’s Coming To My House’ exuded an inclusive party feel which Byrne explained was also matched by his band’s origins from all around the world. Personally I loved  ‘Born Under Punches’ and ‘The Great Curve’ because ‘Remain in Light’ is one of my favourite albums.

The incredibly talented and tight band were unencumbered by cables and the usual stage furniture so were free to inhabit the space and relish their obvious camaraderie. Their sense of fun was immediately reflected in the audience enthusiasm which elevated this evening to an experience more aligned with modern theatre than Brighton’s bland conference venue.

The show didn’t end with the classic ‘Psycho Killer’ but a more unexpected cover of Janelle Monae’s ‘Hell You Talmbout’, a song whose communally chanted names of people are the grim list of victims who inspired Black Lives Matter, killed in the most dreadful circumstances, and including Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray amongst others. Before the song Byrne suggested the audience google their names if they were unaware who they were. It echoed the themes of ‘American Utopia’ and his involvement in voter registration for the mid-term elections and possibility of change.

This was a triumphant show and one that will be remembered for setting a new benchmark in creativity. I can think of ‘Wire’ at London’s Jeanette Cochrane theatre and Grace Jones’s ‘One Man Show’ at Drury Lane among the few that I can remember that successfully pulled off originality with such aplomb. Now who, I wonder, made those two-piece grey suits?

David Byrne, live concert, 'American Utopia' ,musicians,choreography
Look, no wires: David Byrne amid his eleven musicians all playing live yet free to roam the stage

David Byrne’s year-long ‘American Utopia’ tour 2018 continues via Europe to Australia

All about David Byrne

Taylor Mac One drag star’s view of the American revolution

cabaret, LIFTfestival, American history, 24-Decade History of Popular Music ,Taylor Mac
A History of Popular Music in Taylor Mac style

The Californian playwright and performance artist Taylor Mac last night coaxed, cajoled, called out and soothed a captive audience who revelled in the interactive carnivalesque chaos of cabaret. His epic 24-Decade History of Popular Music – first mounted in the States – was truncated into a three-hour slab of sparkling drag and musical theatre that incorporates Lindsay Kemp, Sally Bowles, Ziggy Stardust, Bjork and Bea Arthur in its delivery, glamorous costumes (by Machine Dazzle) and vocal prowess. Assisted by a wonderful orchestra, po-faced temperance choir and guest appearance by Le Gateau Chocolat, he interprets through the prism of queer outsider experience popular songs of the decades 1776-1806. So there aren’t any Taylor Swift songs or many others that are familiar. This is the third time I’ve seen one his shows in London and he is on for two more nights. The link explains more about this show.

“One of the greatest experiences of my life” – New York Times

Taylor Mac – A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: The First Act, runs 28-30 June 2018 at the Barbican Theatre, London


Prince’s purple reign still exerts its pulling power

The electricity generated at the first retrospective examination of Prince’s life is both erotically charged and dazzlingly inventive. Andy Polaris reviews his possessions very much as signs of his times


Prince Rogers Nelson, The O2, My Name is Prince, exhibition, London
Prince in 1981: sporting the black bikini briefs and thigh-high leggings that got him booed when he opened for The Rolling Stones at the Los Angeles Coliseum

This week London celebrated Prince Rogers Nelson’s musical career with the first official exhibition recording his dynamic influence in the worlds of music and pop culture. Overseen by surviving relatives, the curators of My Name Is Prince have amassed a collection of 200 items, from costumes, high-heeled shoes, video footage, guitars, artwork and immaculately hand-written lyrics to personal ephemera spanning his long career.

The first time Prince triggered my radar was a review in the music press of his concert at the Lyceum in London 1981, part of his Dirty Mind tour. He was featured in the accompanying review wearing a trench coat covering a lithe brown body and wearing black briefs and leggings, topped by his mop of black hair and pretty face. I was miffed to have missed his only show but before the internet niche events could slip by easily without social media to flag them up.

It was obvious from the start that this was a black artist who, despite the flamboyance of disco/funk stage-wear and album covers, was taking it a little bit extra with some sexual ambiguity. The lyrics of the funky album track Controversy (a bass-driven early dance-floor favourite) set the tone:

I just can’t believe all the things people say
Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?

The sex and sensuality was a theme in a lot of Prince’s work with titles like Head, Jack You Off, Erotic City, Kiss and Nasty Girl (for Vanity 6). His entourage and band were always showcasing his female musicians, collaborators and dancers from Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman to Sheila E, Vanity 6, Cat Glover, Jill Jones and Taja Seville, some of whose own output he wrote and produced at his Paisley Park Studios in Minnesota.

He appeared to embrace all this female energy especially in stage performances and videos from Sheena Easton in You Got The Look and ex-wife Mayte Garcia, one of his former backing dancers, and Sheila E on the Lovesexy tour.

Click any pic below to launch slideshow

I was fascinated to see the parade of Prince’s petite outfits complete with matching coloured heeled boots that covered Purple Rain, his purple metallic frock coat through to a crystal encrusted cane and Balmain waistcoat he wore for W magazine. The materials are colourful, sheer and shimmering and in some cases boldly designed. The cutaway ass trousers for You Sexy MF showed he wasn’t interested in the toxic masculinity that permeates so many black artistes, one of the reasons he flew the freak flag for those who were not interested in paying £50 to see artists dressed in denim and T-shirts.

Just as David Bowie had dominated with his ever changing styles in the seventies, Prince dominated the eighties for me personally with a string of ground-breaking albums – 1999 (in 1982), Purple Rain (1984), Parade (1986), while probably his 1987 masterpiece Sign ‘o’ the Times sealed his place as an iconic star. He was at the apex of his career yet there was still more to come.

Walking around the exhibition, even as a fan who is aware of his prolific output – 39 studio albums, four live albums, an Oscar-nominated soundtrack, eight Grammy awards out of numerous other nominations, plus sales of 100 million records during a 40-year career – the  list of achievements captured here remains mind-boggling. A multi-instrumentalist who wrote, sang and produced, Prince earned the respect of serious music lovers who had followed musical heroes like Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield. Prince’s popularity expanded because his mixture of rock, pop, funk and soul had a crossover edge that rock fans could also admire. A 2004 Hall of Fame induction performance with Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Stevie Winwood covering George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps is a landmark that still leaves rock fans in awe. (Catch the video below)

In the exhibition a collection of Prince’s guitars customised with leopard-skin décor, for example, or a space-age design for Tim Burton’s Batman, are displayed along with his more classic Les Paul L65 and a humble $30 Hohner Telecaster from which he extracted Prince magic.

It is the live performances that really transform the Prince experience and I was lucky to have seen him several times on UK visits, starting with the Parade tour and ending with the 3121 dates in the venue alongside this exhibition. His virtuoso guitar playing, his dazzling dance moves and evocative voice propelled his songs into a different almost religious dimension that left the audience wanting more. You were always aware you were witnessing musical genius at work and an artist who really rewarded his fans for their loyalty often by playing long sets and, if you were lucky, again at after-shows where the party would continue.

I was lucky (thanks to Pet Shop Boy Chris Lowe) to attend one at the Camden Palace where he handed Mica Paris the microphone for Smokey Robinson’s Just My Imagination in that night’s set. Stepping out of stadiums and into the more intimate settings of a nightclub was something he continued to do up to his recent collaboration with Third Eye that saw him again playing in a small Camden club.

At the O2 exhibition, among banks of video displays showing music videos and film clips, there are striking live performances and the one that choked me up was Prince’s triumphant Super Bowl XLI Halftime Show ten years ago in 2007 (view it below). It reawakened, I think especially in North America, appreciation of the extraordinary stage presence and cultural impact he had created. Playing Purple Rain in the pouring rain with a percussive marching band and the adoration of a crowd was a reminder of that totemic anthem and what he achieved with that autobiographical movie. He is legend and there will never be another like him in my lifetime.

The official exhibition My Name Is Prince runs from
October 27 until January 7, 2018 at London’s O2


Prince Rogers Nelson, The O2, My Name is Prince, exhibition, London
Above: Click on the pic to witness the Music Hall of Fame rock giants admire Prince’s exquisite virtuosity on guitar at 3m30s into While My Guitar Gently Weeps (with Dhani Harrison in the back line)



1984, George Orwell and the BBC Top of the Pops

BBC4, Top of the Pops, 1980s, Animal Nightlife, jazz, soul, pop music, Andy Polaris,
June 2017: Me, Andy P as talking head on the Top of the Pops Story of 1984 (Pic: BBC)

Catch up with me talking about the exuberant pop scene of 1984
on the latest TV documentary analysing the hits of that year as aired on Top of the Pops, the BBC’s flagship weekly music show

Add your own comments at Twitter . . . And at Instagram

I remember vividly reading George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 as a teenager at school, not under duress as part of English literature but because I had a fascination for sci fiction and future worlds.

George Orwell, 1984, books literature, To me the book is a masterpiece and has received a recent surge of interest when it reached the number one spot on the online retailer Amazon best-sellers list in January. This was due to Donald Trump’s press star discussing “alternative facts” and the curious new world of American politics. I had daydreamed what the world would be like both in 2001 which seemed light years away and the closer 1984. The world was changing fast and my path had taken me from London, the suburbs, the countryside and back to the city again.

The year of 1984 had found me fronting the MK II version of Animal Nightlife, slimmed-down to a six-piece. We had released three singles. Love is Just The Great Pretender, Mighty Hands of Love and Native Boy. That year we released our fourth, the uptempo Mr Solitaire on Island Records which gave us our debut on the BBC’s legendary Top of The Pops, its weekly review of the UK charts. This was a teenage fantasy realised, although I will admit it was daydream. I never really thought it was possible while living in Essex and enjoying the show through my early teens. I had more mundane things to think about like racism, dealing with a care order and trying to concentrate at school.

Top of the Pops, 1980s, Animal Nightlife, jazz, soul, pop music, Andy Polaris,
September 1984: Animal Nightlife’s Top of the Pops debut with Mr Solitaire (Pic: BBC)

Top of the Pops, along with the chart rundown on a Sunday, actually forged musical tastes and purchases especially in the decade of T.Rex, The Sweet, Cockney Rebel, Sparks and Roxy Music all becoming bands whose singles I would devour. Their alternative brand of male glamour swanned across a rather clunky (by today’s standards) television set and into my teenage consciousness. Everything was about escaping.

By 1984, thanks to our fans, live shows and the support of our radio cheerleaders Tony Blackburn (Radio London) and Gary Crowley (Capital), Mr Solitaire had slowly clambered into the top 40.

On 27/9/1984 the Top of the Pops line up was:
UB40 – If It Happens Again PA
Shakin Stevens – A Letter To You, promo
Sade – Smooth Operator PA
U2 – In the Name of Love, promo
Animal Nightlife – Mr Solitaire PA
Stephanie Mills – The Medicine Song, promo
Big Country – East of Eden
Prince – Purple Rain, promo
Stevie Wonder – I Just Called To Say I Love You

So not much competition really. Interesting that all four British bands performing were multi-racial line-ups. We were friends with Sade who went stratospheric and her guitarist-saxophonist Stuart Matthewman should be on the documentary tonight along with Chris Sullivan from Blue Rondo. And while this year represented a healthy musical mish-mash, tonight’s documentary lineup is virtually a definitive showcase of all the key new British bands of the early 1980s who were invading the US and world charts – Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Duran Duran, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Bananarama, Bronski Beat, Howard Jones, Scritti Politti, Matt Bianco, Depeche Mode, OMD, The Special AKA, Nik Kershaw, Wham! and the Band Aid Christmas Number One which for years held the record as the biggest-selling UK single ever.

We in Animal Nightlife may not have been part of that armada, just one of the myriad new artists who made a smaller splash which, like all music, continues to ripple out from its earliest impact.

The Story of 1984: 9pm, Friday 2 June 2017 on BBC4 (repeated at 00:30) – and then for a month on the iPlayer: “1984 sees Top of the Pops at the height of its 80s pomp – the year of big hair and big tunes.”

Followed at 10pm, 2 June 2017 by Top of the Pops: 1984 Big Hits (repeated at 01:30) – and then for a month on the iPlayer: includes stylish performances by The Smiths, Bananarama, Sade, Alison Moyet, Echo and the Bunnymen, Wham! and George Michael solo.

Heres a nice audio remix of our song:

Previously at A Polaris View, all about Animal Nightlife’s album Shangri-la

David Bowie: First anniversary of his death and my teenage love is undimmed

glam rock, David Bowie, ambiguous, man-dress, Marlene Dietrich,sexuality, kHunky Dory,
Bowie in his Hunky Dory phase, 1971: long hair à la Marlene Dietrich as he emphasised sexual ambiguity

We have now reached the first anniversary of the unexpected and shocking death of David Bowie and can expect solemn tributes from worldwide fans who still feel heartbroken. He has gone like we imagined him to join the immortals, thanks to his constant role in our lives, if not the world stage in recent years.

Andy Polaris, Bowie Night, Billy's Club, Soho
1978: “Within weeks, the Billy’s magic transformed me into an alternative me.” Andy Polaris photographed here with Sue by Derek Ridgers

The surprise announcement of a new Bowie album The Next Day on his birthday in 2013 astonished fans who thought that he had gone into retirement after an earlier reported heart attack. This album in fact proved a stunning return to form with the singles the poignant Where Are We Now? and the flashy The Stars Are Out Tonight, each with very contrasting videos pushing him back in the limelight to critical acclaim. Blackstar in 2016 was even more perplexing but offered some of the joy of deciphering both imagery, sound and lyrics like fans had done when pivotal soundscape albums such as Low and “Heroes” were originally released. This apparent renaissance  was particularly pleasing to long-standing fans, some of whom like myself had followed him since a teenager.

Living in Seventies suburbia as an ethnic sexually confused teenager, there were few role models you could look up to, who you felt understood your alienation. Being confined to a children’s home from an early age added to that feeling of isolation.

Click on pix to enlarge them:

T. Rex’s Telegram Sam and David Bowie’s Starman came out the same year, blazing a trail on Top of The Pops, while Roxy Music also released their first album that year. Much has been written about Bowie’s Starman performance in 1972. I had begun a fascination with his image a little earlier after the Melody Maker interview, thanks to an older teenager who also had the album, Hunky Dory.

I began to spend the little pocket money I had on buying all the magazines and music papers that featured him, especially on the cover. Fab 208, PopSwop, Music Star, Music Scene and Jackie thankfully were relatively cheap and I began my scrapbook collection. Ziggy Stardust with his bold make-up and glamorous wardrobe (courtesy of Freddie Burretti and Kansai Yamamoto) was unlike anything seen before and blurred the line between sexes. This beautiful creature offered a world of possibilities to this youth already bored with football and the teenybop fandom that dominated our era. Clothes, style, identity – normal teenage rites of passage – all took on a greater importance over the next few years but now helped define a more alternative journey.

Seeking out Bowie’s references in lyrics opened a new door to imagination. His creative output  eased my inner void of loneliness and probably kick-started my interest in science-fiction. Humdrum suburbia was replaced by the magical worlds of Alfred Bester, Philip K Dick, George Orwell and Robert Heinlein to a soundtrack of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs.

Bowie and a new look for 1976 when he became the Man Who Fell to Earth, here in a Haywain shirt. Photographed by Steve Schapiro and published on the cover of the Sunday Times Magazine

Scissors, Pritt Stick or Gloy Gum and a large desk were my 1970s iPad, and all that was needed, as I lovingly read and then pasted articles onto A4 note paper into a hard grey binder. This became a ritual that continued for my teenage life. I never liked to create collages because I hated cutting up articles too much and words were equally important. What Bowie was saying or what people were saying about him seemed as important as the visuals. That shape-shifting style (musically and visually) meant I never got bored and felt that I evolved along with him, my anticipation becoming almost tangible with news of a new release or a TV appearance.

His video clips were dazzling on ToTP for Life on Mars? and the Jean Genie, while for appearances on Russell Harty he sported Burretti’s creations plus diamante chandelier earrings! Two pivotal programmes were the 1975 BBC documentary Cracked Actor – the Radio Times did an interview showing pictures of him creating face masks. The second was a satellite linkup interview with a sleek, slicked-back, flame-haired Bowie showing him wearing a demob suit, performing the disco-rock of Golden Years on Soul Train in the States.

The following year after much subterfuge and negotiating I managed to see my hero live as part of his Station To Station tour 1976. Looking around outside Wembley Arena that warm summer evening and seeing kindred spirits and other freaks, I realized I was no longer alone.

Within a few years Bowie’s children found a home at the short-lived Billy’s club in Soho, his fan base galvanized by his art to inspire their own creative dreams. We were inventing nightclubbing to our own musical tastes and no middle-aged doorman was going to turn us away for being inappropriately dressed. This coterie of hard-core fans moved onto the Blitz Club in 1979 where the underground eventually emerged into the glare of the mainstream. A catherine wheel of future stars in fashion and music began spinning furiously, all inspired directly by David Bowie.

His influence then and now and in the future remains the one constant in my life.

Visit my review of the movie about Freddie Burretti,
Starman: The Man Who Sewed The World






Animal Nightlife releases hit 80s album Shangri-la on CD for the first time

I am pleased to announce that the Animal Nightlife album Shangri-la, published only on vinyl in 1985, has been released for the
first time as a deluxe double CD (with one disc of
inspired re-mixes) on Cherry Pop Records

Animal Nightlife, jazz, soul, pop music, Shangri-la, Andy Polaris, CD, Cherry Pop Records


+++Animal Nightlife, jazz, soul, pop music, Shangri-la, Andy Polaris, CD, Deluxe Edition, Cherry Pop Records, Leonardo Chignoli, Paul Waller, Steve Brown, Billy Chapman


The vinyl album has long been deleted and this year’s newly remastered digital Deluxe Edition consists of the album in its original form, plus a second CD containing other singles and extended remixes that were originally available only on 12-inch, including a favourite remix of Native Boy by reggae producer Dennis Bovell. Providing backing vocals on Mr Solitaire, which was recorded in London, is Paul Weller (ex-Jam and later leader of The Style Council), along with David Joseph (Hi Tension, one of the early Brit Soul bands to enjoy chart success). Sadly, a vocal arrangement by Whitney’s mother Cissy Houston on the track Preacher Preacher has not been included and was a joyous sound. (This appeared in its orginal mix only on the European vinyl release.) The Deluxe Edition CDs come with a 16-page booklet with exclusive early live photos and a perceptive biographical interview written by Lois Wilson from Mojo magazine.




2. MR SOLITAIRE (12″ version)
4. LOVE IS JUST THE GREAT PRETENDER ’85 (Undressing Remix)
6. BASIC INGREDIENTS (12″ version)
8. NATIVE BOY ’83 (Dennis Bovell Remix)
9. MR. SOLITAIRE (Panther Remix)

Animal Nightlife, jazz, soul, pop music, Shangri-la
Animal Nightlife’s Shangri-la lineup in 1985: Leonardo Chignoli (bass), Steve Brown (guitar), Andy Polaris (vocals), Billy Chapman (saxophone) and Paul Waller (drums)


Shapers of the 80s
Lois Wilson supplies some nicely informed sleeve notes identifying Animal Nightlife’s role as innovators when the UK’s thriving underground changed the face of nightclubbing. Animal Nightlife’s swing sound with an electronic twist enjoyed its moment as the hippest trend in music while Polaris penned his own brand of torch song.

Shangri-la in its entirety is possibly one of the easiest listens of the entire decade, sharing both a political and musical ethos with Paul Weller’s band of the time, The Style Council. Indeed, Weller himself was a fan, and even provided backing vocals on their biggest hit.

Three Amazon customers
* Most underrated band of the 80s.

* Three instrumental tracks give us full-on blasts of jazz… Kick off with Disc 2, Track 4: L-O-V-E. Swoon to Andy’s slinky voice, thrill to Billy’s sax and take lessons in syncopation from Paul, Leonardo and Steve. Then get down and dirty with stand-out Track 6, Basic Ingredients.

* With gems such as Preacher Preacher and Native Boy, this is a fantastic package with the music sounding great.


Buy Shangri-la direct from Cherry Pop Records in time for Christmas

Buy Shangri-la from a competitive selection of retailers via Amazon


Ground Control to Major Disappointment – Lazarus, the Bowie musical reviewed

The Man Who Fell to Earth, David Bowie , Candy Clark
In the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth: David Bowie as Thomas Newton and Candy Clark as Mary Lou
Lazarus, musical,Michael C Hall
Lazarus the musical, 2015-16: Michael C Hall plays Thomas Newton, here with Sophia Anne Caruso as the Girl

The early 70s had ushered in some great science-fiction cinema including The Omega Man, Westworld, Soylent Green, Planet of the Apes, Dark Star and Logan’s Run. Later we would get Demon Seed, Stepford Wives, Futureworld  and the blockbuster Star Wars.

Andy Polaris, Shangri-la, CD, singer,Animal Nightlife,

As a teenager I bought the paperback of Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell to Earth when it was the tie-in to its dazzling 1976 film adaptation directed by Nicolas Roeg that starred David Bowie. It turned out to have an original line compared with the well-worn “they came from outer space” clichés of science-fiction.

In the book the humanoid alien Thomas Jerome Newton arrives in a deserted American landscape in a quest to save his dying planet and family. Armed with his planet’s superior technology, he amasses a fortune with his patents and inventions. This includes a self-developing film that revolutionises photography and finances his own corporation, World Enterprises which crushes Kodak. His extraordinary rise however attracts suspicions from both government sources and rival conglomerates and soon his identity is revealed and his plans are thwarted, leaving him a wealthy recluse trapped on Earth.

Walter Tevis, books, Nicolas Roeg, films, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie
The Man Who Fell to Earth: book by Walter Tevis, film directed by Nicolas Roeg

A musical titled Lazarus was devised and written by David Bowie and the Irish playwright Enda Walsh and opened for a successful limited run at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2015. It was to be Bowie’s final completed project before his untimely passing this year and so that much eager anticipation awaited the American production when it started previewing in London last week at the King’s Cross Theatre South.

Although billed as a sequel to the film, the play does not indicate how many years have passed, and we do not see any identifiable technologies from the past four decades that might give us a clue, unless that giant screen at centre-stage is supposed to be plasma. Are we still in 1976 or in 2015?

Michael C Hall plays Mr Newton with world-weary resignation as he paces around his large apartment, frustrated at his doomed and isolated existence with only alcohol and television to pass the time. The plot however does not appear to have moved far. With Newton seemingly ageless and his only real human connection in the film, Mary Lou, long gone (presumed dead), his sadness is amplified by the prospect of returning home seeming no closer.

paperback, Walter Tevis,The Man Who Fell to EarthWe are left with the large minimal stage that features a bed, refrigerator and a huge television screen which serves also to project some of the characters’ inner machinations. The threadbare plot could have done with a contemporary upgrade to the pre-digital age and compared Newton’s lifestyle inventions with the likes of, say, Steve Jobs and his game-changing computers, iPods and iPhones which have transformed our lives and created a global behemoth out of Apple.

In the book Newton’s inventions and patents fuel a successful business empire. In Lazarus the musical, no real attempt is made to explore the dark side of fame – the almost impossible hope a rich man has for a private life, while the hunger of 24-hour news and social media put a bounty on his head to help expose his secrets. Conglomerates, business rivals and foreign governments would have courted, spied or stolen anything to gain access to his brilliant but frazzled mind. The alien rumours would have been splashed on covers of the National Enquirer and become internet click-bait. Gossip gawkers would have tracked down Mary Lou to see if she was alive and offered her vast sums to recollect her relationship since she was the only human he really connected with on Earth – almost a substitute for his abandoned wife and child we briefly glimpse in the film.

The other main characters appear to be his unhappy maid, her husband, a childlike female who may or not be Newton’s imagination and Valentine, a malevolent character who springs from Bowie’s 2013 album The Next Day. Newton interacts with these characters but the dialogue is less than thrilling and between the musical interludes driving us forward the play feels sluggish. The musicians are exemplary although the Bowie songs included are sometimes perplexing, and the vocal stage versions of Life On Mars and All The Young Dudes pale in comparison to the original Bowie performances.

Man Who Fell to Earth,Thomas newton, David Bowie, films, Michael Hall, lazarus, musicals
The Man Who: Newton as played by David Bowie in the 1976 film and Michael Hall onstage in Lazarus, 2015-16

In New York, the musical introduced four new Bowie songs: Lazarus, No Plan, Killing a Little Time and When I Met You. For his fans, the unique strength of David Bowie’s existing repertoire lies in its deeply etched memories, and to hear other people singing his songs often jars the listener. Michael C Hall (who also appeared in the vastly superior musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch) performs with aplomb especially on the poignant Where Are We Now, but also on It’s No Game and the duets of Absolute Beginners and When I Met You. The title track – in which Lazarus looks down in death on the unknowing listener – becomes one of Bowie’s personal gifts to his audience. The refreshed electronic arrangement of The Man Who Sold The World is also a definite highlight, adding a more contemporary sound to this classic. (Interestingly this is one song that has lent itself to some sympathetic versions, notably Lulu’s and Nirvana’s different approaches).

Almost by surprise, the show assumes an unsettling power. Thanks to the musicianship of the eight-man band, the legacy of this musical event is a growing realisation that we would never again hear David Bowie singing these songs live and it is this truth which elicits the greatest personal emotion of the evening.

The biggest criticism however must go to the theatre’s extremely poor seating which means that a good half of the audience has to crane our necks due to the poor slope, which means you spend the whole play avoiding the heads of the people in front of you. They were moving also and a lot of the action involves the actors on the floor where they are not visible unless you stand up, which is impossible. Ticket prices, which are very expensive to see such a restricted view, are a scandal and not something experienced in the New York debut. All this has a huge impact on attempting to enjoy the play and so be warned.

Loving the alien, yes. The play, not so much.

Lazarus runs at the King’s Cross Theatre South until 22 Jan 2017


The Lazarus (Original Cast) album, including the three new David Bowie compositions, made its debut in the UK top 10 album chart.

Trailer for this year’s 4K restoration to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Man Who Fell to Earth – at The Guardian.

Lazarus makes Time magazine top 10 plays of 2015

David Bowie’s Lazarus is surrealistic tour de force – Rolling Stone

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