I'm beginning to suspect that English telephone operators get their jollies doling out bogus numbers to pesky Yanks who interrupt their tea and biscuit time.
After a few rather bizarre exchanges involving two operators and a secretary for a book publishing firm, I got through to the Apollo Victoria Theatre, one of London's grand old halls and the venue for what promised to be a very special benefit concert on June 1.
1981 has been designated the International Year of Disabled People. (Prince Charles is chairman.) And Ian Dury, Alan Price, Stephane GrapeIli, Elvis Costello, and Police-men Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers were just a few of the artists who contributed to "Fundamental Frolics" (fund-a-mental, get it?), a benefit for MENCAP, Britain's National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children and Adults. A worthy cause and a great line up as well — I just had to have a ticket.
"I'm sorry, the concert is sold out," whined the box-office receptionist.
"Oh, my God!" I screamed, but it was too late. She'd hung up. I immediately had visions of this pathetically drunk journalist, his first night in England spent slumped over a pint of Guinness, crying, "I mished one of the biggesht concherts of the shummer!"
No, that scenario would never do. The situation demanded drastic action. As soon as I arrived in London, I would race to the Apollo, grab the first person who looked remotely involved with the concert, and shamelessly plead for a ticket.
I grabbed one Richard Sparks who, to my surprise, turned out to be the producer of the show. Sparks not only arranged for a ticket, but also invited me to sit through rehearsals.
The theater was abuzz with activity as stage hands, electricians, lighting and sound technicians, and BBC-TV camera crews made last-minute adjustments as the artists ran through their sets.
As we cracked open a couple pints of lager, Sparks filled me in on the Frolics' fundamentals. Jane Tewson from MENCAP originated the benefit idea last year. Tewson contacted Sparks and, with the enthusiastic support of their friends, the Fundamental Frolics began to take shape.
The idea of producing a one-night charity show combining rock and comedy immediately appealed to the organizers. Neil Innes, songwriter for The Rutles/Beatles parody and a Monty Python alumnus, joined several members of the BBC's Not The Nine O'Clock News, (a program similar to NBC's Saturday Night Live) and another certified loony, Alexei Sayle, in providing the levity.
Roger Glossop, set designer for The Wiz, came up with an interesting stage design — sort of a cross between a Star Wars buggy and a Wright flyer.
BBC camera crews donated their time to film the event for the British telly. An unedited version of the Frolics is expected to surface in The States as a feature film sometime this year.
Recording crews taped the show for a record, also due later in the year.
As I watched a surprisingly nervous Elvis Costello finish his soundcheck less than an hour before the concert, Sparks muttered, "We're not gonna make it, we're not gonna make it."
But as the curtain rose on lovable little Ian Dury, Sparks could have laid his fears to rest. Dury, a spirited performer in spite of the obvious results of a childhood bout with polio, wowed the crowd with a new song, "Spasticus, Autisticus." Leave it to Dury to laugh in the face of his afflictions. It was a touching moment that helped set the tone for the evening.
Alexei Sayle, looking like the Three Stooges' Curly in his undersized sharkskin suit and pork pie hat, followed Dury. The humor was typically British, bone dry and dirty. With the Brits, ill-fitting clothes, funny-sounding words, and constant references to nasty bodily fungtions virtually guarantee big yucks. Sayle was hilarious as "the world's first Mod, Two-Tone poet." "'Ere's a little poem I wrote this mornin'. Feel free to join in. That is, if you're all bloody telepaths."
England's favorite music hall duo, Chas and Dave, followed with their cockney rhyme songs and the audience responded with a bit of a sing-along.
Former Animal Alan Price sang a gorgeous a capella rendition of "The Trimdon Grange Explosion," a traditional song about a Welsh mining disaster. Price braved a defective piano on "Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear" and finished with the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody."
SFX, a newly-formed group of London-area session musicians, provided the back-up for the guest artists and played a sizzling set of their own as well. The group's punchy funk may give Talking Heads a run for their money. Keep a look out for this group.
Yes frontman Jon Anderson was the only sore spot in the show, boring us with more of his high-pitched cosmic screeching.
Stéphane Grappelli's hot, slippery fiddling was a pleasant change of pace.
Neil "Cowboy" Innes, decked out in a purple cowboy suit and 20-gallon hat, lavender shirt, and canary yellow tie was "bang on" with his pot shot at the American country & western charts.
Mel Smith followed with a punk rendition of "Julie Andrews' Greatest Hits."
But it was a chunky Elvis Costello, looking like he was enjoying the fruits (and pies and cakes) of his labors, who strolled onstage with only an acoustic guitar and promptly stole the show. He followed a moody reading of "Gloomy Sunday," a ballad about suicide, with a distressingly sober remark. "Don't laugh," he said, "I may be next!" He finished with an old country lament, "You Think I'm Psycho, Don't You Mama," and sauntered off the stage as the audience literally screamed for more.