The Wymer publication Perilous Journey, by Velvet Thunder writer Steve Pilkington, is the official biography of guitarist Gordon Giltrap, produced with the full involvement of Gordon himself. Presented here is a sample chapter from the book, to give a flavour of it, and hopefully entertain! We take up the story just after the Perilous Journey album itself, with the release of the Heartsong single and the following brush with mainstream stardom.
What follows is CHAPTER 11: TO THE HIGH THRONE
Emerging in the Autumn of 1977 – theoretically a difficult time for anything of this musical ilk, with the tidal wave of punk having broken over the charts, music press and public consciousness in spectacular fashion that Summer – Perilous Journey nevertheless caught the momentum which had been generated by Visionary and built on it, selling strongly as soon as it was released. The next step, said the record company, was to be a single, and Heartsong was the unanimous choice to release, albeit in a slightly edited form with a guitar section removed. Gordon himself was less than optimistic about its success, assuming quite naturally that it would merely sell a reasonable amount and act as a sort of ‘trailer’ for the album, but he was certainly in full agreement that it was the clear choice.
Backed with The Deserter on the B-Side, Heartsong emerged in the run-up to Christmas of 1977, and began selling steadily if unspectacularly, nudging its way into the Top 75 before things slowed up over the Christmas period. Sales continued to slowly climb over the next month or so – partly due to enthusiastic airplay from several Radio One DJs, and the use of the song as a trailer for the news bulletins – until, with the record hanging nervously around the lower reaches of the charts like an uncertain house-guest outside a raucous party, Gordon was invited to perform on BBC TV’s flagship chart-based music show Top Of The Pops, at the beginning of February, 1978. Things, after that point, would be about to get really interesting – as Gordon recalls today…
“One of the big things that I remember about that first Top Of The Pops appearance was when the band were getting our photograph taken for the chart rundown at the start of the show – if you were in the studio they used to take the photos backstage on the day of the show especially for it. Anyway, I was in make-up for this photo-shoot, and the make-up artist asked me where I was in the charts. I said we were hanging around the lower reaches, to which she replied ‘Oh, well by next week you’ll be much higher’. I was kind of surprised by this, and asked was she sure, to which she explained that it was just a given fact that if you appeared on Top Of The Pops, the record would go up. It was an acknowledged cause and effect. I’d never considered this, because I’d never taken the show very seriously, being more interested in the ‘trendy, serious’ shows like The Old Grey Whistle Test. But she was dead right, and sure enough that week it started selling in what, to me, were huge numbers! I’d get updates from Jeremy Thomas at the record company that it was doing up to 15-20,000 copies a day, which was extraordinary. I simply couldn’t conceive of that amount of people every day going to the record shop and buying one of my records, it was mind-boggling.”
The band which performed on the show that day was the band Gordon was touring with at the time, which comprised the new rhythm section of Dave Barfield on drums and Dave MacDonald on bass, with both Eddy Spence and Rod Edwards on keyboards. Roger Hand did go out on the road some time later with the band to fill in on rhythm guitar, but he didn’t appear on the show. Rod Edwards was resplendent in a pinstripe suit, Old Grey Whistle Test badge and a West Ham United football scarf, which he draped over his Yamaha electric grand piano; it was clear that the whole band were hugely enjoying themselves. Indeed Gordon confirms that, while they were miming, as was the norm on Top Of The Pops, they were able to pose to their hearts’ content and generally have a good time for the camera, without taking the whole situation very seriously. Indeed, Gordon admits that at this time he didn’t take the whole idea of singles as a whole particularly seriously, even including Heartsong, and Top Of The Pops was treated in a very throwaway fashion until the big sales and the chart climb started – then it suddenly became a little more significant to say the least!
One man who was far from amused when he saw the footage of the completed show was Eddy Spence, as he found to his considerable annoyance that throughout his keyboard solo, which he had of course played on the record, the cameras remained focused on Edwards instead! As Eddy says now, admittedly without any real rancour, “Yes, I remember doing the show, but it was only when I saw the footage years later on Youtube that I noticed that, not only did the cameras stay with Rod during that bit, but it looked like he was pretending to play my solo! I thought ‘What’s that about, you cheeky thing!’ I don’t mind too much really, because Rod really did some great work and he was invaluable to Gordon’s records. But having said that, he didn’t do that bit! It’s the only part I did, I’ve got to hang on to that…”
Gordon remembers the experience of actually filming their slot for the show as quite an eye-opener, after being used to the way it looked on the TV. “It was certainly a kick doing Top Of The Pops”, he admits, “and we gradually realised just how important it was. It might not have had the kudos of the Whistle Test, but in terms of generating interest, and therefore sales, it was easily its equal if not more so. But the studio itself is much smaller than it seems on television. There were something like three stages, and the audience members were shuffled about by the producers between them, sort of ‘right, go over here now, dance to this as if you’re enjoying it’ – and you could see them looking into the monitors because they were on the telly, without giving a toss about what you were playing! But it was great fun though.”
The guitar that Gordon was playing on this appearance was actually a significant choice, being a Fylde acoustic, made by his friend of some years Roger Bucknall, one of the most respected guitar makers in Britain. Gordon had first encountered him in 1972, and he made him a superb 12-string – pictured on the cover of the Giltrap album – which he actually put together in his garage in Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, which served as his workshop! From then on, with Gordon’s enthusiastic support, he went from strength to strength, with many of the biggest names in folk music going to him for instruments, and as demand grew he began using the Fylde name, after the Lancashire borough near to his base of operations. The Fylde instrument used on that Top Of The Pops appearance was also pictured on the inner sleeve of the Perilous Journey album, and Gordon still uses his guitars to this day.
It’s surprising to think now, with the extent to which people remember the piece, and associate it with Gordon still, that Heartsong actually only made it to number 21 in the charts, when a great many records which placed much higher are forgotten. A large amount of this is, of course, due to the fact that the BBC selected a further re-edited version of the track as the theme tune to their long-running Holiday television programme – beginning with that year’s Holiday ’78 right up to Holiday ’85, after which point a new producer came in, with the proverbial new broom, and replaced it with a track named Holiday Suite by Simon May, composer of many well-known TV themes including Eastenders and Howard’s Way. A somewhat frothy and insubstantial piece, it proved unpopular with viewers, and after a single year the programme went back to Gordon, using his composition Holiday Romance for some time afterward. Heartsong is still the piece most closely associated with the show, however, and was also used for several regional programmes and a Radio Four programme called Bookshelf, presented by the author Frank Delaney. The track is possibly unique in that it is associated both with Christmas and with Summer in people’s minds – stemming from the fact that while Holiday dealt with film footage of sunny climes, it was nevertheless broadcast at Christmas time.
Looking back, the success of Heartsong should have been followed up with another instrumental single in a similar vein, but this didn’t happen. There were no more singles released from the album, as it was felt that there wasn’t really another good candidate as single material, and Gordon did not at that time have anything else written in that mode which would have fit the bill. He could of course have written and recorded something to order but, instead, in a decision he now refers to as “a ridiculous mistake”, he recorded a version of the Fleetwood Mac classic Oh Well, complete with the first Giltrap lead vocals for several years. Needless to say, this ill-advised attempt at a follow-up hit bombed quite badly, and marked the end of the short Gordon Giltrap chart career, as well as the last time he would record something unsuitable both commercially and in terms of the artistic direction he was going in, as a result of what he calls now “arrogance and wilfulness”. Indeed, even had the single proved a hit, it is hard to imagine anything less representative of an instrumental musician and songwriter than a vocal-led cover version! As worthy as the record itself was in its own way, we will draw a veil over its contribution to his career…
With the success of Heartsong as a single, the almost inevitable boost to the album sales followed, with Perilous Journey making the UK album chart, achieving a highest position of number 29. While that may not sound like a huge success, it was an excellent placing for an instrumental album – even in the halcyon days of the 1970s, such albums were normally a long way from the success of Tubular Bells! The album had been selling reasonably steadily since its release, on the back of the success of Visionary, but it was without doubt the performance of Heartsong which allowed it to grace the Top 30.
Of course, such is the lot of a suddenly prominent ‘pop star’ that other programmes were starting to covet Gordon as a guest. In fact, one of his biggest regrets in this regard is that he turned down the opportunity to appear on the legendarily anarchic Saturday morning show Tiswas – but at the time all he knew about the show was that it was made for kids and that it would entail having a pie thrown in one’s face, so this decision can be understood! It was only later, when he saw people such as Iron Maiden, Robert Plant and Status Quo queuing up to appear that the penny dropped as to the show’s enduring cult appeal. He did, however, appear on the ‘other’ Saturday morning show of the time, Noel Edmonds’ Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, appearing with Keith Chegwin in an outside broadcast location, speaking to Edmonds in the studio. As such, no music was involved, but also he didn’t get to ‘swap’ anything, which viewers will remember was the loose premise of the show. As an example, Rick Wakeman appeared on the programme in a similar outside broadcast capacity around that same time, and swapped some white-label promo albums for copies of the Just William books (by Richmal Crompton), of which he was an avid collector, strangely enough!
One lesser-known, and certainly less celebrated, TV programme which Gordon was drafted in to appear on was something called Our Show, which was hosted by kids, asking questions to a panel of celebrities, which on this occasion consisted of Gordon, sitting in between Kate Bush and Joanna Lumley, along with Carry On film veteran Kenneth Connor. A strangely eclectic mix to be sure, and he recalls Connor as being a very soft spoken and pleasant man, and also a conversation with Kate Bush, swapping compliments about Heartsong and the recently-released Wuthering Heights. One very odd recollection he has is of his bass player Dave MacDonald having told him that Joanna Lumley was a friend of the family and would cut his hair for him, which he had always dismissed as a joke, but sure enough, when he asked Lumley about a band member making this claim, she replied ‘Oh yes, that will be Dave MacDonald, he’s a friend of the family. When I’m round at his house I do sometimes cut his hair’, which left him somewhat astonished! He recalls chatting to both her and Bush during breaks outside, as both women used to smoke – he can recall Lumley leaving a vibrant lipstick mark on the end of her cigarette, which oddly foreshadows her later Absolutely Fabulous role in a way. He remembers being quite entranced with Kate Bush, and her exuding an almost waif-like quality, despite being dressed in a greatcoat and smoking roll-up cigarettes! In particular he recalls complimenting her on a beautiful butterfly choker around her neck, and as he says now “it seems hard to believe now that she would end up as this towering genius so soon after that meeting, when she just appeared as a vulnerable young girl.”
An inevitable offshoot of this TV work was, of course, that, for the first time in his career, Gordon would begin to get recognised in public. Not on a daily basis, of course, as he still wasn’t exactly ‘a face on every billboard’, as one might say, but enough to become noticeable. Sometimes these occurrences were stranger than others, as he recounts today about one memorable incident:
“I remember I was on the tube, going from Charing Cross to Bayswater, for a rehearsal or a recording, and this very bedraggled, dishevelled woman got on – almost like a tramp in appearance – with two carrier bags in her hands. She was mumbling to herself, and she made her way to the seat opposite me, across the carriage, and sat down. She started fumbling through one of the bags, as if she was looking for something, and still mumbling to herself all the while. All of a sudden, she raised her head, looked straight at me, and said, very loudly, in a broad Scottish accent – I think Glaswegian – ‘Excuse me. I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you this, but you look just like Gordon Giltrap!’, and the whole carriage started looking over. Anyway, I was a bit taken aback, and I didn’t say anything; I just smiled. She continued ‘Oh, but I suppose you get told that all the time’, began rummaging in her bag again, so the moment had passed, but when I got up to leave the train I leant over her and said ‘Actually, I am Gordon Giltrap’. Whereupon she looked straight at me, waved her hand dismissively, and exclaimed ‘Och, you’re not!!’, and went back to fumbling in her bag. She didn’t believe me! That’s always stayed with me, not just because it was such a funny ending to the encounter, but because it seemed so improbable that someone who just looked like this shambolic ‘bag lady’ should comment that I looked like Gordon Giltrap. It was at that precise moment when I really thought for the first time that fame had arrived!”
Another knock-on effect of the Heartsong success was to change the touring line-up of the band. When the album first came out, before the single success, the band included, as we have seen, Dave MacDonald on bass and Dave Barfield on drums. After the chart action and the TV appearances, however, Gordon was starting to become a slightly ‘bigger noise’, if you like, and budgets began to increase a little. One day, John Miller took Gordon aside and said “there’s been a great opportunity that we can’t afford to miss out on”, and explained that Clive Bunker – the ex-Jethro Tull drummer – and John G Perry had become available on drums and bass respectively for the live work. Gordon was a little perplexed, protesting that he already had MacDonald and Barfield, who were doing a good job, and that he didn’t want to change them, but Miller was insistent that Bunker and Perry were on a higher level not only musically but also in terms of profile, and that it was a change which could not be turned down. Reluctantly, Gordon had to go along with it, and he says now that the outgoing rhythm section did seem to understand why the decision had been made, and that it had been taken out of his hands somewhat, but he still felt extremely uneasy about it. As he himself says to this day, if it had happened to him his nose would have been “seriously out of joint”. Such was the reality of his new position in the rock hierarchy, however, and things were inevitably changing.
One aspect of this change was that Gordon had attracted the attention of some more heavyweight management representation, in the shape of Harvey Lisberg, who had managed the likes of 10cc, Herman’s Hermits, Barclay James Harvest, Sad Cafe, Tony Christie and even, for a time in the 1960s, Everton and England footballer Fred Pickering. Lisberg had a shared stake in the Kennedy Street Enterprises company, and his was a significant reputation with which to be associated, so, with John Miller temporarily carrying out the management duties himself at this time, Gordon signed up to become a part of the Kennedy Street stable – in the process gaining access to the very best PR men, photographers and the like. He was, however, still deeply conflicted and confused in his view of his image and position in the business. He was being advised from all sides on the subject of his visual image, and also of how he projected himself personally, and the Gordon Giltrap which emerged from this process was, as he now readily admits, an unsuccessful amalgamation of everybody’s input, including his own. He was pushed into wearing fancy shirts and white suits on stage, and having his hair needlessly permed, while at the same time feeling uncomfortable with this because the people he had looked up to as his heroes in his folk club days – Jansch, Renbourn etc – were, as he puts it, “basically foregoing any such concession to image”, preferring a drink and a relaxed demeanour to put their music across. He was also advised by Miller in particular to affect an aloof persona on stage and not to talk to the audience, which went entirely against the grain of his naturally easy-going and open personality, and it was only some time later that he began to eventually free up this repressed ‘raconteur’ side of himself, and turn it into an integral part of his act. The result was that he got into an unsatisfactory ‘half-way’ position, and he now says that, in hindsight, he could have made a lot more of his image and the saleability of it, and injected far more into his career as a result.
Also contributing to this confused and confusing period was the inherent contradiction between his working life, in which he was surrounded by people who admired and respected him and his music, and his personal life, which he describes now as “a train wreck”. Things had been deteriorating slowly but surely in his relationship with his wife, and he now points to one particular incident as representing a significant moment in his life at the time. “Basically”, he says, “what I remember is one particular evening when I appeared on Top Of The Pops, and I was watching it with my young son on my knee. My wife had gone out – she didn’t want to be there, and she certainly had no interest in sharing something like this with me. I can still remember, very clearly, sitting there with my son, watching myself on the TV, and being unable to take any joy in it whatsoever. I knew that this was a moment that I should be sharing with the woman I loved, with my partner, and I had the feeling that this would be something I would come to look back on as a low point in my life. I was right.” They separated not long afterward, and finally parted for good a year later, in 1979, after nine years together.
If his personal life was going through a disastrously unhappy period, career-wise things continued to progress extremely well, at least for the moment. When touring recommenced with the new line-up, the Gordon Giltrap Band found themselves playing theatre venues which he could only have dreamed of a short time earlier – Manchester Free Trade Hall, Sheffield City Hall, Liverpool Empire, Leicester De Montford Hall, Glasgow Apollo and the like. He can remember seeing the itinerary from Kennedy Street for the first time and being astonished at the fact that he was now appearing at the very same venues where really big bands of the time were playing. He was supported on this particular Spring 1978 jaunt by a musician named John Glover and his band, who had just released an album on the same Electric record label as Gordon himself, entitled Midnight Over England, and he recalls their particular input to the tour as including “a fair amount of booze and substances”! Indeed, it was at one of the early shows on this particular outing when an experience happened to really hammer home to Gordon both his new position as a ‘star’, and the impact of Heartsong in particular, when he came to start the piece and immediately the audience rushed to the front of the stage. He remembers standing there playing, scarcely able to conceive of what was going on, and completely taken aback by the sheer power and appeal of the song. It was without doubt one of his pivotal career moments.
Soon after this came the aforementioned unsuccessful attempt at a follow-up with the cover of Oh Well, but an interesting aside to that recording was that there was a video filmed for the song by Hipgnosis, and directed by Storm Thorgerson. The company were attempting to branch out from sleeve design into video production, and the Oh Well video was the first one produced by them. Gordon looks back at the filming now with mixed feelings…
“It was an exciting thing to do, certainly; and especially with Storm filming it. As you would expect from Hipgnosis, it was a typically arty, surreal production, and I remember a shot where I had to knock a glass of red wine off a piano accidentally, as I turned, and as it fell they filmed it in slow motion, and it morphed into another scene, which was a sort of fantasy sequence where I was running away from a pack of schoolgirl fans! We filmed that sequence at the old St Pancras station, where there were a lot of corridors that I had to run along in this chase scene, but then there was another filming session in a pond on Hampstead Heath, would you believe, where I had to emerge from the water, wearing the same set of clothes that I had been running in. They insisted on filming me there at about six or seven in the morning, and I had to submerge myself under the water then burst forth – it was absolutely freezing, and when I got out they had to wrap me in blankets. At the end of the filming I remember I caught an enormous cold, from getting a chill in the freezing water, and I also had a twisted ankle. And on top of that I’ve never even seen it since! I don’t even know if the footage still exists.”
With the continuing success of the live performances accompanied by the lack of new material for a follow-up, it was time to start working on writing and recording new material. And that meant another album, which would appear the following year in the shape of Fear Of The Dark…