GET HIP TO MY CONFLAGRATION:
Photo from PJ Proby site
A comment made in passing by Lester Bangs, during what became his last interview. A song title found on the latest Van Morrison album. Funny how random associations can trigger an obsession, however minor, if one is a diehard music fan. Also funny how, within the context of rock's rich tapestry, some of its composite threads can be as galvanizing as the totality itself. Also funny how some threads can catch the light at the weirdest angles and points in time. So it is for this writer, finding himself charmed, mesmerized - and a little taken aback - by the four decades and counting's worth of threads that compose the wholly unique pop music career of one James Marcus Smith, better known as P.J. Proby.
The Hyperpop Life and Irregular Times of P.J. Proby
by Michael Layne Heath (June 2002)
How to describe someone like Proby to the uninitiated? At the risk of sounding like that King Daddy titan of Tartan lit Irvine Welsh, take the most outrageous, profligate, American loud-hearted-unto-operatic attitude, pour it into the hip-swing shing-a-ling of a Presley-shaped vessel, dress it up in Errol Flynn/Captain Blood pony-tailed pirate drag, multiply it by a thousand... and you still don't approach the maximum velocity of P.J. Proby.
He was brash, bold, utterly unapologetic, and even at his lowest personal ebb, all of Proby's records reflect these qualities like the brightest lights at every gala premiere ever held. Never any doubt of soul, transcending being black or white; in fact, it's always amusing to check yourself when listening to him and realize Proby's a white bastard mongrel from Texas. And, unlike fellow Texans Holly and Janis, he is, against all odds, a survivor.
Still with us, crazy like a fox, having found himself financially blessed, then bankrupt and on the bum, yet lucky for the occasional spot of redemption at the hands of benefactors, music biz insider and outsider alike. Whether it's the members of Led Zeppelin - his backup band on an attempted comeback (one of many throughout his career) album in 1968, the proprietors of Manchester's Savoy Records and Books who masterminded his gloriously over-the-top Eighties recordings or Marc Almond and the brain-trust of St. Etienne, who did likewise for his 1997 major label return P.J. Proby: Legend. Whether presenting a dramatic reading of The Waste Land, giving his all in a rock musical version of Othello, or treating the songs of Ian Curtis, Bowie and Phil Collins to a kick up the backside... and still possessed with a set of pipes the equal of any classic Soul shouter or immigrant Neopolitan crooner, even if such talent is offset by a bravado indicative of his home state and the bragging-rights ego of a Muhammad Ali. No, make that Cassius Clay - Jim Proby has never been famous for his political correctness.
I am not going to attempt to be as expansive or effusive as the definitive take on the man at his Sixties height, namely that found in Nik Cohn's classic tome Rock From The Beginning. Consider this to be "what happened next", basically, though still a worthwhile subject for observation and overview. After all, Scott Walker has been well and truly rehabbed among the post-everything hipoisie; it seems only logical that Proby get his due as well.
PART ONE: From Sixties...
To set the scene, a bit of Cliff Notes-style back-story: what set Jim Proby off on his improbable rise to stardom was being discovered in Los Angeles, by British pop television impresario Jack Good, in 1964. Good was the God-head media genius behind the scenes that made it possible for impressionable British youth of the Fifties and subsequently, the Sixties (when he expanded his empire to include the States) to experience rock in the milieu of primetime TV. He was the man who took Gene Vincent out from under blue cloth caps and put him in Richard III leather-boy garb, thus insuring Vincent's Rocker immortality. Good was also savvy enough to acquiesce to the Rolling Stones' demand for a specific guest before agreeing to perform on his Shindig series, further insuring an unprecedented exposure in millions of homes to The Real Deal Blues, in the fearsome form of Howlin' Wolf. Without Good, Proby would have surely not had a fraction of the impact he made upon the British pop scene.
Up till then, Proby had been hacking away at the coal face of the Hollywood music establishment for some time. Doing song demos for Elvis movie soundtracks and the odd Top 40 flop, under the name 'Jett Powers.' Working as a staff songwriter for Liberty Records, in collaboration with early mentor/paramour Sharon Sheeley (who would also provide him the handle he was to become famous under). Plying his trade with session cats like Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, as well as another aspiring song plugger, Randy Newman (Proby would later claim a role in writing Newman's "Mama Told Me Not To Come"). Painting the town with the not-yet-notorious Kim Fowley, and some of the guys who later became the Walker Brothers.
Sheeley engineered the meeting of Proby with Good, who made him a Corleone-sized offer to come to London and be the token representative of the Colonies on the Beatles' first TV spectacular. Good had evidently been taken with Proby's Presleyesque singing style; to his thinking, if he couldn't get the genuine article, he'd get what he thought was the next best thing. Proby accepted, though, as the story goes, not before raiding the Warner Brothers costume department for castoffs from old Westerns and swashbuckler epics.
Proby's subsequent appearance on Around The Beatles - a singular vision in Lord Fauntleroy shoes, matching blue velvet tunic and trousers, and page-boy hair ribboned back in a pony tail - all but stole the show. He hit the ground running, with a slew of Top 10 hits and a white-hot live show the likes of which had not been seen in Britain, even in the wake of the Beatles and Stones. Proby's stage act was basically an updated, ratcheted-up version of primo-period Elvis, shot through with the grit and polish of James Brown's and Jackie Wilson's respective acts. The Proby live experience was, by all accounts, camp, lusty, dramatic, physically draining to both performer and audience: thoroughly outrageous by contemporary British community standards. Moreover, Proby knew it. He had, early on, cultivated a talent for shooting his mouth and pelvis off, of being able to deftly mash the outrage buttons of the press (and, thus, the public): a talent that, through feast and famine, has never deserted him.
In this way, Proby exploited being American, young, flamboyant and blessed with a malleable set of vocal cords that could shift from an exultant pop Caruso to a whispered Elvis, in zero to sixty and back again. Proby used his thoroughgoing personality as currency at a time when that mattered in pop music and translated into tangible fortune, yet he also had the artistic goods to back up the bluster. Right place, right time, baby.
What was also special about Proby was his knack for putting songs across in a manner that was true to their emotional core, while simultaneously exaggerated for effect. Therefore, a standard like West Side Story's "Somewhere", in Proby's grasp, becomes both soulful epiphany and burlesque of Vegas lounge sap 'n' smarm (he later claimed that he was aiming for a vocal blend of Billy Eckstine and Dinah Washington). It's interesting to note that Tom Waits' rationale for turning his sights on "Somewhere" - on 1978's Blue Valentines LP - was that he thought no one had done the song justice since Proby's version. Put simply: if those in the aesthetic-know had been prone to using terms like 'post-modern' in 1965, they would have certainly used it to describe Proby.
Proby's L.A. apprenticeship, combined with his intuitive ease in working both the rockin' and dreamin' sides of the pop thoroughfare, would indeed serve him well in the recordings he made during those years ('64-'67). His first pair of U.K. hits, "Hold Me" and "Together," were rote 1964 British Invasion fodder on the surface - all Fab Four harmonica and mop-shaking wails - elevated by Proby's innate gift for selling a song. That his studio band included then-veteran session itinerants like Ginger Baker, Jimmy Page and the legendary Big Jim Sullivan (unleashing guitar solos so warped and distorted that they were later mistaken for Page's handiwork) didn't exactly hurt his cause either.
Another great uptempo turn for Proby was his take on Doris Day's "Que Sera Sera": as unique as Sly Stone's treatment a decade later, and every bit as soulful to boot. In fact, Sly's version is almost too reverent compared to Proby's derangement, that uses the Isley Brothers' "Twist And Shout" as a jump-off point and gets exponentially wilder.
He was also no slouch in the ballad department; in addition to "Somewhere", one of his signature tunes, he performed a similar pyro job on another Sondheim/Bernstein chestnut, "Maria." Another slow burner, "That Means A Lot" (which arose from a dare directed at drinking buddy John Lennon), was liberated by Proby from its meager Merseybeat trappings and draped in nosebleed-seat drama and Martin Denny-style percussion, thanks to the skills of guest arranger George Martin. Still another torchy triumph for Proby was his handling of a tune from the in-demand duo of Goffin and King, "I Can't Make It Alone." It transformed Proby into a one-man Righteous Brothers, dutifully and lovingly enclosed in a spectral, Spectorized cathedral of sound.
Proby was riding high and living large when, in the spring of 1965, it all came to an abrupt and messy halt. While on a U.K. tour with Brian Epstein teen-pop protege Cilla Black, P.J. succeeded in splitting his dubiously stitched velvet pants from knee to crotch mid-performance. At first it was shrugged off as coincidence, only to happen again at the following night's show. This was all the opportunity the famously rabid and duplicitous British tabloid press needed. They had a field day, screaming for Proby's head and other appendages, until he was thrown off the tour in disgrace. He was replaced by another singer with a propensity for belting out a song, and who would come to fashion a career out of a watered-down rendering of the live Proby persona: Tom Jones.
Banned from the BBC and the high-prestige British concert theatre circuit, Proby set about regrouping and recouping. He still toured, still made records, but his momentum had been dealt a crippling blow by the Cilla Black debacle from which he would never completely recover. Proby was temporarily deported from Britain in 1966, and declared bankruptcy in '68, the year he also made the blues-based Three Week Hero album with what became Led Zeppelin. The year previous, Proby had made his last stand on the international pop charts with the Cajun swamp rocker "Niki Hoeky," penned by Native American brothers Pat and Lolly Vegas, who had their own Top 40 success as Redbone in the '70's. Even with his star in descent, Proby couldn't leave well enough alone; his insistence on pantomiming the Nawlins marijuana slang of the song lyric resulted in his ejection from a Dick Clark showcase tour of the States.
PART TWO: ...to (Two Triple) Zero
The Seventies were P.J. Proby's wilderness years. His most prominent public appearances were in British theater, first with Jack Good's contemporary revamp of Shakespeare, Catch My Soul, and then in the Vegas-era guise of his old song-demo client, in 1977's West End smash Elvis: The Musical.
His sole recording of note from this fallow period was an improbable liaison with Dutch prog-rockers Focus, Focus Con Proby. Mostly, he found himself performing in drastically reduced and increasingly booze-sodden circumstances, trotting out the oldies for audiences in provincial cabarets and working men's clubs across the U.K. When not taking the occasional gig, or milking the nostalgia angle on TV variety shows, he drew Social Security, worked as a farmhand and other odd jobs.
This state of personal affairs continued until the early Eighties, when Proby made the acquaintance of David Britton and Michael Butterworth. As proprietors of Manchester's Savoy Books, the pair had gotten a reputation for being the city's prime purveyors of alternative and outlaw literature, though not without the occasional run-in with local authorities. Their original intention was to collaborate on Proby's autobiography, but this plan of action fell through.
Sussing that the printed page was in this case not the best medium to work with, Britton and Butterworth then boldly took on the duty of reaming the voice of P.J. Proby back into the ears of the general public. No matter that neither of them had any experience making records, nor that Proby's awareness of modern pop was vague at best. Britton and Butterworth thus became a Janus-headed Ed Wood, with the dissolute Proby as their Bela Lugosi. Proby's debut record for Savoy was a version of Gloria Jones/Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" in 1985. This is how he made his return to the arena: a keening, besotted falsetto, bathed in reverb, careens out of the silence, name-checking Little Richard and Hank Williams' "Kaw-Liga" (ours is not to question why) before finally declaiming: "It's a tasty world!" Then the band crashes in, drums and guitars colliding like bumper cars, as Proby hunkers down into an insinuating leer of a vocal that's more Bon Scott than Marc Almond. Things would get progressively weirder from here.
Proby was now Britton and Butterworth's point man, tilting at the windmills of existing music celebrity - both mainstream and so-called alternative alike - in a quixotic demi-quest to save rock and roll from itself. The debatably successful results would make for some of the most audacious and oddly appealing records to ever darken the doors of the pop music marketplace.
To be fair, a few of the Savoy records indicate that Proby could still play it relatively straight when properly motivated (it's said that Britton and Butterworth would only schedule sessions for laying down vocals between 2 and 4 PM, i.e., before Happy Hour). There were surprisingly restrained, credible takes on "I'm On Fire" - Proby carjacks Springsteen's pink Cadillac, driving through a timewarp to Memphis '69 - and "Sign O' The Times", replete with a feline vocal approximation of His Royal Badness. Even "In The Air Tonight" is palatable, with Proby warbling, Sam Cooke-like, over Sheik of Araby strings and percolating congas. These were tastefully arranged showcases, with a backdrop of contemporary pop production values: synthesized orchestral flourishes and stabs, state-of-80's electro-percussion and samplemania that called to mind a less financially flush Trevor Horn, of Art of Noise fame. With a bigger budget and the right nudges directed towards radio play, any one could have easily resurrected Proby's career.
Primarily though, Britton and Butterworth's mission was met with mixed, occasionally appalled response. Established London music critic Richard Williams, in a past life responsible for hooking up Richard Hell-era Television with Brian Eno and an abortive Island Records demo session, went so far as to write Savoy, begging them not to send him any more product.
Judging from these discs' failure to even remotely trouble the charts, it was all too clear that the public wanted the old, wild Proby, if they wanted him at all. This is what those hip enough to listen, got - in spades and pushed to ludicrous extremes - on Proby's remaining Savoy 'escapes' (as opposed to 'releases'). Listening to them, one wonders why the esteemed crew at Re/Search failed to pick up on them, if no one else. For if there was ever such a thing as Incredibly Strange (and sick, and twisted, occasionally moving and wholly unforgettable) Music, then Proby's Savoy output is surely the ne plus ultra.
First there were the Spoken Word pieces, beginning with an appendix to the "In The Air Tonight" single. "Pools of Thought" heralds Proby's arrival with a recording of the theme to Gone With The Wind. Safely at center stage, he then recites an original poem about (I think) the relative nature of artistic merit, a plummy, mock-Shakespearean oration that not even the late Vivian Stanshall would have dared attempt. Then there was the gamy attempt to further turn Proby into Ken Nordine, via the unlikely source material of Iggy Pop's "The Passenger", complete with 'la-la-la's.
There was also Savoy Digital Angst, an EP of traditional folk songs linked by a pro-IRA, anti-British military bent. It featured still another Proby recitation, "The Old Fenian Gun," a nostalgic remembrance of Ireland's Black and Tan conflicts accompanied by a lone fuzz bass plucking out riffs from New Order's "Blue Monday" (again, ours is not to question why).
Savoy's dynamic duo continued this anti-Monarchist theme by then pointing Proby's dissipated sights towards what may have been an obvious choice, or not, "Anarchy In The U.K." The record label credits as composers not the Pistols, but three real life, early 20th century European anarchists. Even so, Proby rambles and rants through, under and around the original Lydon lyric, adding tasteful adlibs about being "the father of the KKK," while a fractious industrial-dance backing, seasoned with samples of Burroughs and Harlan Ellison, thunders behind him.
The acknowledged nadir of Proby's Savoy incarnation was the 1987 12-inch "Hardcore:M97002." It was released in a sleeve featuring a vintage press clipping of a typically frenzied 60's-era Proby gig, and a cover snap of Proby posing with his recently wed, teenaged bride. As one might imagine, this disclosure sparked yet another tabloid bonanza, further fueled by "Hardcore"'s preposterous credit of Madonna as being Proby's duet partner. Said single is nothing more or less than fifteen minutes of relentless, unbridled and uncensored alcoholic braggadocio, certainly a milestone in the well-fertilized field of Uneasy Listening. And, yes, it does sorta-kinda sound like the Material One singing and swearing along with our well-oiled hero, provided one does whatever the equivalent of squinting is with one's ears.
The sole redeeming instances where P.J. and the Savoy crew were able to pull together the man's polar-opposite performing instincts - the soul man and the balladeer, the sublime as well as the ridiculous - are two in number, an absolutely classic fantasy 45. On one side is his rendition of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart": with faultless timing, Proby makes a SCREAMING Pagliacci entrance as if he's just parachuted into the studio, then proceeds to deliver a performance as serious as cancer with a Joe Tex/Wicked Pickett accent. A definitive interp that makes future listens to its dour blueprint difficult, if not impossible. On the flipside would be his equally definitive take on David Bowie's "Heroes." Slowed to a misty-morning, Gothic caisson crawl, Proby pulls out all the stops, from a whisper to a testifying Baptist scream of romantic supplication, wringing the lyric and the listener dry.
Miraculously, the P.J. Proby story does have a happy ending of a sort. He managed to hang up the booze jacket once and for all in the early Nineties, after several close calls in hospital. He has also persevered in his theatrical pursuits, among them a reunion with his Sixties mentor Jack Good in a West End revue called Good Rockin' Tonight. Proby also worked with the remaining members of the Who in a tour showcasing the Quadrophenia album, guesting nightly as 'the Godfather' (a role he took over from Gary Glitter!). He continued to work with Savoy as well, expanding on those early haphazard spoken-word experiments, for a pair of albums in 1994.
The first was of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, which in Proby's hands became not so much spoken-word as a one-man dramatization, playing everyone from the gravely-toned narrator to a ditsy Southern matron ("please, it's tahm!"). He took the same approach with his other dramatic reading for Savoy, that of excerpts from David Britton's controversy-riddled Lord Horror. It remains the only publicly available document of Britton's macabre study of the fictional Lord, described by one reviewer as being to Nazism what Hannibal Lecter is to serial killers. Its graphic depictions of anti-Semitic torture, in particular, earned Lord Horror the distinction of becoming the first work of fiction to be banned in the U.K. since Hubert Selby Jr.'s Last Exit To Brooklyn a quarter-century previous.
Proby even found the time to get back into the good graces of a major record label, long enough to cut P.J.Proby:Legend for EMI in 1997. Regrettably, the mostly synth-pop flavored vehicle didn't quite make the desired splash intended, and has reportedly gone out of print. In the meantime, Proby is still out there performing, as a mainstay on the British Invasion revival circuit throughout the U.K. and the Continent.
In these dire post-millennial times, when the most provocative act the Music Biz can muster up is the inelegant, dubiously talented likes of Eminem; it's strangely comforting to know that, once upon, there were folks like P.J. Proby whose example provided a way for future generations to walk the stride of rock-star pride with impunity. As another venerable gent, Ian Hunter, observed back in 1972, P.J. Proby is, was, and shall forever be "a fucking pirate in this world of drudge."
All of Proby's albums are unavailable domestically; the best place I have found to dip into his 60's musical mystique is The P.J. Proby EP Collection CD, on Britain's See For Miles label. It has most of the hits from the era, including "Hold Me," "Together," and "Somewhere" in addition to cuts of equal quality, and special curios like an EP of Christmas songs.
Proby's Savoy works are all available on CD, foremost being The Savoy Sessions, though those brave enough to want to check out "Hardcore:M97002" are instead directed to the Savoy Wars collection. As mentioned, P.J.Proby:Legend is also ostensibly unavailable; I have not heard it myself, though its roster of folks who provided input (Stanley and Wiggs from St. Etienne, Marc Almond, Neal X from '80's glamsters Sigue Sigue Sputnik) and some of the song choices - Arthur Alexander's "Rainbow Road," Jimmie "Honeycomb" Rodgers' social-awareness anthem "Child Of Clay" - make it sound too good to go forever unheard. One can also find Proby in Cyberspace at various sites: on the fan side, a good starting point is http://home.kpn.nl/kilkens/proby.htm. The official website can be found at www.PJProby.net
Special thanks to: my aunt, Edelgard (Danni) Asbury, for playing me "Somewhere" all those years ago. To the gents at Savoy, for invaluable research materials. To Julie Burchill, Toby Young and London's late, great Modern Review for belated literary inspiration. Lastly, to Richard M. for everything else.
ED NOTE: If you can't get enough of PJ,
check out this very loving tribute to the master: Bear Groves' PJ Proby site
Also see some of the interesting response we've received from the above article.
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|