Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Whoo! Paying the price for being a good mimic, with help from Mick, Keef and the Stones
I bet your mama was a tent show queen,
And all her boyfriends were sweet sixteen,
I’m no schoolboy but I know what I like,
You should have heard me just around midnight.
Brown Sugar The Rolling Stones, 1971
The Stones have always made me feel a bit nervous. When I was a little boy in the 60s, The Rolling Stones were always talked about by adults as being sinister, ugly, bad role models and even ‘cacophonous’. I knew what ‘ugly’ meant, and was on the grown-ups’ side on that one. Bill Wyman sitting or standing motionless and gazing into space with his bass guitar pointing to the ceiling gave me the shudders. And Charlie Watts on drums was no oil painting (unless you’re thinking Lucien Freud). But Jagger- there was something disturbing but enticing about him. The Stones’ songs were all very sinister, and a far cry from the whimsy and slapstick of The Beatles.
By 1971 The Beatles had gone, and Mick Jagger was the number one British rock icon and target for ridicule and impersonation on TV. I was 13 going on 14, and a big pop fan. I’d started buying my copy of Disc and Music Echo every Thursday morning and devouring all the band and chart facts. I still couldn’t make any sense of the Stones, but being a keen mimic, I was always trying to perfect my Jagger impersonation. Then along came Brown Sugar, which was to get me into serious trouble.
Looking at the lyrics in the cold light of 2014, I can see that there is everything in that song that should have been banned at the time: flagellation, prostitution, heroin use, naughty sex, slavery, to name just a few subjects that made it past the BBC’s censor. They were even allowed to sing the song live on Top of the Pops! There was Mick, punching the air and doing that crazy thing with his left leg. What intrigued and fascinated me was his use of the mike stand (Rod Stewart, the ultimate mike stand artiste, had yet to fully burst onto the scene and eclipse Jagger).
Brown Sugar: naughty naughty
At this point I need to introduce my friend Henri. He was one of the handful of French boys at our school, and a big lover of the Stones. His way of learning English was to write down the lyrics of his favourite rock songs and try and boost his vocabulary and extrapolate the rules of English grammar from them. It wasn’t unheard of when asking Henri for a drag of his fag for him to tell you, in his delightful Parisian accent, “Hey Jonesy, where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?” Or my personal favourite when he wanted to help himself to some of your crisps, “Elementary penguins singing Hare Krishna, man you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe.” What Henri lacked in understanding, he made up for in accurate translation. To me, Mick Jagger singing ‘You should have heard me just around midnight’ sounded like, ‘You have a hernia joust a round bender.’
So we were sitting in the church during mass one day, and Henri slipped me a note. I wasn’t surprised to see the complete lyrics to Brown Sugar, because I knew that Henri had borrowed Sticky Fingers off an older boy and was madly intent on copying out the lyrics to all of his favourite tracks. What did surprise me was that even though I had the lyrics in front of me, the words still made no sense. Why was brown sugar something you ate and then changed into a black girl on her knees? Why should someone’s mother be a tent show queen (whatever that was) and why did she have boyfriends who were only three years older than me? It was all very mysterious and somehow very enticing. So we set about learning the lyrics off by heart, while I pondered where I was going to find a microphone and stand to strut about with.
The following day at mass Henri nudged me during a prefect’s reading from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: “Zere iz your shance to practice your Meek Shagger act. See ze new micropheun and ze stund.” Sure enough, the prefect had switched on a mike before he started his reading. He had no idea how to use this brand new addition to the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic Mass, as he mumbled all the way through, leaving us all none the wiser about Paul’s wishes to impart to his Roman readers the gift of encouragement and assurance in all that God had freely given them. He might as well have been talking about having a hernia and jousting with a round bender.
Now our Brother Principal fancied himself as a free-thinking liberal (within the confines of a broad interpretation of the Catholic dogma). So he insisted that the door to the church be left unlocked day and night, in case some Brothers, or even boys, might want to slip in for a quick bit of contemplation. What Henri and I were contemplating was how to slip in for a bit of Jaggerisation with the mike and stand. It was not unknown for naughty boys to climb into the organ loft and mess about with the knobs on the organ, or dash into the porch, give the bell rope a few hard tugs then rush out again. That was just simple high jinks, and the price you pay for being a free-thinking liberal. But what we had planned was much more daring, and needed a long-term strategy. So I offered to do a reading at Mass. I managed to get squeezed into the rota for reading at early morning Mass, which involved me spending time in church on my own, practicing all my pauses and dramatic emphasis and, crucially, how to use the mike so that the assembled throng of 20 Brothers, three stalwartly religious pupils and two altar boys could hear every word.
Of course Henri would get permission to help me, so that he could advise me on whether my voice was projecting enough. So far, so good. The next evening after tea and before homework, we strolled into the church and headed for the altar. There was the mike and stand. All we had to do was flick a switch and my voice boomed out. I skimmed through the piece, thinking, ’pause there, and there and there…’ Then I switched the mike off and got down to the serious business of practicing my Jagger moves.
Have you ever felt like throwing caution to the wind? Because what you are experiencing is so thrilling that you just have to keep going, and will deal with the consequences tomorrow? There I was in front of the altar, miming away, punching the air rhythmically and doing that funny thing with my left leg. I imagined a huge crowd in front of me. But there was only Henri laughing at me and egging me on. “Why not sweetch on ze mike? We can av ze very fanny laugh togezer.’ I flicked the switch and belted out all the verses of Brown Sugar, with Henri on backing vocals chanting ‘I say, yeah, yeah, yeah, whoo!’ at the top of his voice.
That was a very bad move. The first rule when doing something naughty is to plan an escape route. The second is to look around before you start, to check that no one is watching you. In our defence, we weren’t to know that the priest liked to sit quietly in the confessional between 5.30 and six every evening, but we should have checked in the shadows at the back of the church, because that’s where Brother Principal was standing. He had witnessed the entire performance, and as he walked down the aisle towards us I could see that were ‘Een ze sheet.’
It was traditional for Brother Principal to allow at least 12 hours to elapse between catching a boy doing something wrong and administering a punishment. He sent for me at 9.30 the next morning, during French. I knocked on the office door, and was greeted by Rita the school secretary. This was the first of many visits to get punished, and Rita’s look of pity was never reassuring. Brother Principal’s office was a small room off the main school office, and I was ushered in. Rita discreetly closed the door and looked at the floor, as you would if a condemned man tried to catch your eye as he was being led to the gallows.
BP was sitting behind his desk, which was covered in paperwork. Slap bang in the middle of his piles of admin was a copy of Sticky Fingers. Next to it was a thick leather belt.
After being belted six times very hard on my bare bottom, I was made to stand in front of BP, while he sat down in an armchair and gave me a grilling that went something like this:
BP: Jones, I’ve been doing some research. One of the prefects has told me all about The Rolling Stones. He’s even lent me this filth. (At this point he gingerly fingered the Andy Warhol-designed Sticky Fingers sleeve, complete with brass zipper. He even tugged the zipper for emphasis, revealing the Y Fronts within.) I asked him to transcribe some of the lyrics for me. Do you know what you were singing in the house of God yesterday evening? Do you know what, and I quote, ‘Get down on your knees Brown Sugar/Just like a black girl should’ might mean?
Me: No Brother. Might they be praying?
BP: Do you want six more? Don’t be so stupid. And what is a ‘tent show queen.’
Me: Might it be someone similar to Stromboli, the wicked puppeteer, who tricks Pinocchio into joining his travelling theatre?
He harangued me like this for another 15 minutes, while I could feel my cheeks burning (two with shame and guilt, and the other two in agony.) Finally it was over.
BP: Do you have anything to say Jones?
Me: No Brother.
BP: Don’t you have a question you want to ask?
Me: If I confess my sins will I be forgiven?
BP: I think the priest has already heard enough about your sinning. Get out of my sight and don’t let me catch you defiling the church again.
Me: (Thinking) He won’t catch me next time. Yeah, yeah, yeah, whoo!)
Take care out there
Clive Oliver Jones