The Italian Job

I’m not one for celebrating milestone birthdays. I know that people like to use the reaching of certain decades as a way of self-congratulation as if they have personally done something to achieve this. I suppose I react more with a sigh of relief and gratitude that, despite the passing of years, I am grateful for every day, week and month that prolongs my ability to do what I love, with those that I love.

But that’s not to say I’m critical of those who do want to celebrate their substantial years. There was one occasion around the turn of this century when our famous friend and sometime mortgage-payer turned sixty. He decided that he would celebrate in style on a cruise around the Mediterranean on a liner stuffed with chums, celebrities, musicians, partners and other random acquaintances. Fortunately, and I genuinely mean that, we were not invited. Not being a great boat person, who could get seas-sick in the bath, I couldn’t think of anything worse. Alongside the ever-snapping lenses of OK magazine and being scrubbed up for twenty-four hours with the ‘over-the-shoulder’ gazing-game constantly being played, we were very happy to have been left off the list for whatever reason. We have our suspicions which could well have been a critical remark or two with one the gatekeepers at the time but I ‘d like to feel that it was a simple oversight which suited all parties perfectly.

Reports were that they hit several major storms during the celebrations which caused mass sickness on board which only seemed to confirm my relief.

So, a few months later I got a call. Would I like to do a couple of gigs in Italy, on a boat, unplugged, with the Birthday boy? Sounded intriguing and, especially as our names had been absent from the last boat trip, a little suspicious. But not holding any form of a grudge I accepted.

I flew into Naples, a first for me, with Mikey Saxmeister Haughton who was on assorted plumbing. We were the band and met up with the others over there to be taken to our accommodation nearby. Cliff and John McElynn with Bill Latham and Pia Hoffmann coming along for the ride, past Pompey and onwards towards Sorrento. What made this rather odd was that the gigs were sponsored by Allied Dunbar (Often referred to as Allied Crowbar) the financial services behemoth. We were to play as the surprise turn on a cruise ship moored off Sorrento harbour on two consecutive Saturdays.  As in, Saturday, then six days off and then another Saturday. Two shows in eight days? What a hoot. I started to realise that I had been given the better of the two showboats.

We started rehearsing. Two days before, some local fans had brought some old magazines that featured Cliff and wanted signatures. They left them with us to collect later. Inside were lists of hits and lyrics to songs that had been recorded by him. Our rehearsal schedule was not only to play through the songs we would perform at the gigs but go through other material we found in these magazines, some of which Cliff knew well, most of which we didn’t.  It was quite amazing and one of those one-off moments playing songs from the fifties and sixties with Cliff singing like it was the first time. For us it definitely was.

The two gigs were amazing. We were smuggled onto the ocean liner in various forms of disguise, silly hats and loose fitting binliners.

There were frantic rumours as to who the guest artist could be; Some mentioned Tina Turner or Madonna, and both Mike and I overheard conversations on board trying to guess or stealthily search the boat for clues.

When Cliff was introduced, the room went mental and we played for two hours, old and new songs, never straying from the two acoustic guitars, woodwind and piano. A very unplugged and accessible concert, we were all wondering why you needed all the paraphernalia, smoke and lights.

Cliff could easily have turned up solo with kazoo and a bass drum strapped to his back and he still would have got away with it. But what a treat to play a small part with this legend performing some great tunes and not throwing up on board. A serious result if ever there was one. And we didn’t even have to blow the bloody doors off!