Embassy Club 1979: The first Duff/Bowie meeting

Posted on 22nd January 2017
Bowie 1978

Interviewer: Did you ever meet David Bowie himself?
Jeff Duff: I did actually. I met him a few times in London, when I was living there; I lived there for ten years. And yeah, he was on the menu quite a few times.—ABC 612 Brisbane Afternoons (11 Aug 2010) [radio interview]

A particular Duff/Bowie meeting at the time of Duff’s Euro career (c. 1978-1987) occurred at the Embassy Club, London.

The Embassy Club, on Old Bond Street in London’s West End, was opened in 1978 by Jeremy Norman, and managed by New Zealander Stephen Hayter. It was actually a revival of a 1920s exclusive Bohemian club of the same name, in the same locale. But as recalled by Norman in an interview with The Spectator, his new Embassy Club was directly "inspired by a visit to the ground-breaking New York nightclub Le Jardin", becoming London’s answer to New York’s exclusive disco heartland Studio 54 "for three heady years". It was reliably "full of beautiful boys and model girls dancing and carrying on in a sexually charged environment to ecstatic disco music and revolutionary lighting effects". Keeping it afloat as disco sunk, for a time, it earned the investment in 1981 of Lady Edith Foxwell, then known (and still recalled) as the "Queen of London Society", and renowned, for one thing, for her naked pool parties with Helen Mirren and Princess Margaret, among others. The following reminiscence sums up the style of the club, from the inside.

 the Embassy club on Old Bond Street took London by storm when it opened in April 1978. … the Embassy was not about boy meets girl, but a place where sexual decadence reigned, underpinned by a homoerotic aesthetic … Instead of spending your Saturday night at a club where the people were a mundane extension of your everyday world with a bit of music thrown in, the Embassy was different. It catered to a cross-section, from transsexuals to European aristos … Once inside the club, you felt you were part of a privileged elitist group of people. … Cocaine spilled over the tables, young men in jock-straps and pillar-box hats danced on the bar, and drag queens simulated sex on the rostrum. … going to the Embassy was like being in a Hollywood movie with everyone wanting to be the star. Friendly it may have been, but everyone wanted to be the king or queen of glam. daily.redbullmusicacademy.com (May 2013)

Matching this quote in pictures, the cultural feel of the place has been copiously captured for posterity in the music-video for Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real). It was largely filmed on the dance-floor of the Embassy Club. The extended play version is here:

Other accounts of the Club’s history can be found in Luke Howard’s Brief history of London’s gay clubs, and in We made it feel mighty real in The Independent.

But what about Bowie visiting the Embassy? This was actually something of a regular occurrence—as recounted by Nina Hopkins Deerfield. She first visited the club with Pete Townsend for a bite to eat, then came to be responsible, during the late 70s and early 80s, for booking the Embassy’s musical acts. In this audio recording, Deerfield recalls meeting a "sparkly" Bowie at the Embassy. The year seems to have been 1979; Deerfield’s not specific, but she recalls that Bowie was still a regular visitor "a couple years later", around the time of his recording of Baal. That was filmed (for BBC TV) in September 1981 (and broadcast in March 1982), according to various Bowie biographies. Anyway, Deerfield tells how Bowie would help her out by introducing her to particular artists, including The Eurythmics. Among other tidbits, she relates that, at a birthday party for her at the club, Bowie and Freddie Mercury sang Happy Birthday; and that Bowie confessed to her that he didn’t like his "sharp and pointy" elbows.

To picture Bowie at this time, 1979 was also the year in which Bowie performed an intense, stripped-back version of Space Oddity for Kenny Everett’s New Year’s Eve Show (December 1979):

Apart from Bowie, Townsend and Mercury, the various histories also note that Mick Jagger, Marilyn, Boy George, Steve Strange and Rusty Egan came to be more or less regular visitors. Pix of Marvin Gaye, Pierce Brosnan, Bryan Ferry, Nick Haslam, Peter Cook and Midge Ure, among others, at the place are here, and one of Steve Strange is here. So it was at once exclusive, exhibitionistic, provocative, etc.. And it was experiences in clubs like the Embassy that Bowie seems to write about in his Scary Monsters songs, on his next album, with its allusions to "teenage wildlife" and "new wave boys", the "dance my life away" ethos, fashion left and right, and "love back to front". The club also seems to have had (according to the Evening Standard) a later history when it was "popular with celebrities including David Beckham, Russell Brand, Prince Harry and Kate Moss".

So what about Jeff Duff meeting Bowie at the Embassy? For a start, it wasn’t random. It was contingent on Duff’s celebrity, the fact of a performance he did at the club, and Bowie’s beckoning. Well, this is the context that Duff has himself given, in an ABC radio interview, for his first meeting with the Dame:

Duffo 1979 OGWT

 The time I met him in London was when I had a hit record for a moment … I was an A-list celebrity probably for an hour. It was incredible actually. … I had breakfast with Mohammed Ali. I was invited to all these A-list parties where I was on the arm of Britt Ekland, and Rod Stewart. Andy Warhol became a friend of mine during that period. It was just an amazing period. It was short. It was brief. But it was just spectacular. ABC Radio National Books and Arts 1 Aug 2015 [radio interview]

And what actually happened? This is how Duff recounted the episode for 9News

 When I went to live in London in the ’70s I met David Bowie after one of my performances at the Embassy Club on Old Bond St in the West End," he recalled. "I just finished one of my shows and the manager came up and asked me if I wanted to meet David who was waiting in his office. [Bowie] was great, he looked amazing, and it was such a fantastic experience. 9news.com.au (12 Jan 2016)

… and this is how Duff recounted it at the same time for the Daily Telegraph

 I was playing at an exclusive club called The Embassy and was invited by the manager to meet him [i.e., Bowie]. He looked amazing, very youthful. Although, it was 1979. Daily Telegraph (12 Jan 2016)

Somewhat clarifying what Duff meant by noting that "it was 1979", a journalist in the Sydney Morning Herald, without directly quoting Duff, noted that Bowie was "rather less sober" at this Embassy meeting than when Duff met Bowie at a later time (back in Sydney). In an interview with Wendy Harmer for ABC Radio National (30 May 2016), Duff himself noted that Bowie was a bit "wobbly" at this meeting. Here’s an excerpt:

… the same twist is told in the interview Duff did for Channel 10 TV’s Studio 10 show (18 May 2016):

Now when exactly did this meeting occur—in the context of what else Bowie was doing? Duff mentions 1979, the same year that Deerfield first met Bowie. Although Bowie’s album Lodger was still being recorded/mixed in Switzerland and New York up until March 1979, it was April 1979 when Bowie got that "notorious" slap-in-the-face from Lou Reed at the Chelsea Rendezvous, London. Come October, however, Bowie is said to have been recording with John Cale in New York, but also recommenced his Isolar tour in late 1979, taking it to Australia and Japan. That roughly puts this first Duff/Bowie meeting between April and September 1979, and probably earlier rather than later: The note about Bowie’s "wobbliness" shakes the tail of Doggett’s remark about what happened when, that April, Reed asked Bowie if he would produce his next album:

 the occasion ended in a fist-fight [sic] after Bowie insisted—rather hypocritically, one might feel—that Reed would first have to abandon his intake of alcohol and drugs —Peter Doggett (2011), The Man Who Sold the World (p. 308)

Being both "amazing" and not exactly compos mentis is, of course, how any chameleon would go given the club’s culture ("when in Rome …"), in a period that was as extraordinarily productive and creative for Bowie as any other; and, true to Bowie’s generally quixotic nature, Duff’s experience of the MainMan is similar to Adrian Belew’s during the earlier leg of the Isolar tour in 1978:

 Bowie was "somewhat troubled. Maybe he was still doing some drugs. I don’t know, maybe he was tired. I remember him overall as amazing to be around, but I did have a sense he was riding through it, not totally happy". —Adrian Belew, quoted in Trynka (2011), Starman (p. 287)

Duff has painted Bowie in song: a masterwork that seems to express the ultimate stuff of this meeting:

History repeats: Interestingly, there is a story by John Taylor, bass guitarist in Duran Duran, of a meeting he had with Bowie at the Embassy that is similar to Duff’s. This was a few years later, in 1982. The Duran boys were similarly impressed, to the point of awe. They seem to have found a more talkative Bowie, who even uttered the impressively sane and sober words "How is Colin?":

Duffo 1979 OGWT

 [T]he place I most frequently went for after-hours amusement was the Embassy Club on New [sic] Bond Street, owned and run by an ex-guardsman, Stephen Hayter … One night, Rob and I were hanging out in the Embassy restaurant when Stephen beckoned for us to join him in his inner sanctum. "You’re gonna like this. Follow me." In his office sat David Bowie with his friend Sabrina Guinness. I was almost struck dumb. … "Hello, boys," said David, across Stephen Hayter’s desk, turning to me, "I’ve heard about you." "Oh, thank you, yes. .. we, er, we covered Fame," I tell him, trying to find some common ground with the Thin White Duke. "And Colin Thurston is our producer." "Ah yes, dear old Colin," replies David, "How is Colin?" I hadn’t met many legends at this point in my career. Jimmy Saville? It would never get any better than this for a boy with my roots. He was the perfect gentleman, and Rob and I spent the rest of the evening in his and Sabrina’s company. When we finally de-clubbed, we were on cloud nine as we traipsed back home to our Kilburn flat. "I c-c-c-can’t believe it," Rob kept saying, in his stuttering south Londonese, "Us and David Bowie." John Taylor @ duranasty.com

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– rodg.
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Jeff Duff celebrates Bowie at Hope Estate Vines with Australian Symphony Orchestra

Posted on 17th October 2016

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Pre-show promo pic of Housden, Stace, Ellis, Balbi and Duff

Pre-show promo pic of Housden, Stace, Ellis, Balbi and Duff

Jeff Duff—together with Steve Balbi and Brydon Stace—performed 3 hours of David Bowie songs at the Hope Estate, Pokolbin this last Saturday (15 Oct 2016). While the Stones, Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles have played there before, this show surely topped the lot in having George Ellis conducting the Australian Symphony Orchestra as "back-up".

Set in New South Wales’ Hunter Valley wine region, it was a perfectly sunny, 360º cloud-free day, the show commencing at sun-down: circa 7:00 p.m., and not letting up by 10:30 p.m..

George Ellis is well-known for his conducting job at the opening of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and also his work in musical education. He comes with some rock sensibility as well, having been part of Sydney’s 1980s post-punk band-scene (Weekend Australian, 2010.04.10-11). Sporting the Aladdin Sane make-up, he also took the audience’s breath away from the start when, on first turning to face the orchestra to raise his baton, the iconic lightening flash was seen to adorn the back of his coat. So he set the stage ablaze! But then—we drew our breaths again—: by opening with the Bowie/Eno instrumental Warszawa (see youtube), we were offered an evocative sample from Bowie’s oeuvre, one that recalled how Bowie himself opened his “white light” shows of the late ’70s. So the show commenced by emphasising the art of the MainMan ahead of the party. So true to Ellis’ word ahead of the show, as reported in the Newcastle Herald (2016.06.30):

 The Thin White Duke’s music lends itself beautifully to the array of colours of the orchestra. Rich textures and harmonies weave in and out of his songs, making them perfect to decorate. George Ellis

Balbi opened the first song-set with Ziggy Stardust. He also took over most of the glam-era numbers, including Diamond Dogs, Rock-n-Roll Suicide and Jean Genie; as well as a stomping, über-funky, pleasantly mad Fame, coaxing it out in mind-splitting saxophonic treats from Ross Middleton. With Quicksand, Balbi reached back to Bowie as pre-funk, pre-icon poet-philosopher; and together with Life on Mars, had the orchestra making a particularly prominent and powerful contribution. Balbi’s stagework was as stunningly idiosyncratic as usual; the whole ecstatic messiah treatment (as also at, e.g., the 2012 Ziggy Show).

Stace offered his Olympian energy and polished vocals (a siren here, a tornado there) to a wide array of songs, from Ashes to Ashes to The Man Who Sold the World (see youtube) to Sorrow. Also as professional and breath-taking were the dazzling array of dance-figures that kept popping out from his every joint. Quite the stadium performer, commanding every possible precipice and pedestal of the huge stage with his muscular Freddie Mercurial stances.

And Jeff Duff. Doing the more emotive songs … an artful Lazarus (as previously seen at the Enmore and the Basement bio launch), and Wild is the Wind (as also seen at the Sydney Opera House). So He took to the stage with cool, meditative strides in the manner of Bowie himself, as he approached the Glastonbury stage. Also on board for the baritone singing; Let’s Dance, China Girl … Also a recall of his touching eulogy for Bowie. Of course there were doses of his "naughty" patter and moves, but the bulk of his challenges to the audience were to honour the MainMan who the "ten thousand peopleoids" or such had come to party in the spirit of.

The trio emerged to give a combined effort on Five Years, "Heroes" and (for encore) Rebel Rebel and Suffragette City, while Duff and Stace did their usual combo for Under Pressure (as also seen at the Enmore Theatre and the Sydney Opera House, and so Duff and Balbi on Space Oddity (as seen on Channel 10 TV). Costume-changes for every song, too; Duff, say, in his golden outfit for Golden Years (see youtube), then in red with top-hat (just his style) for Space Oddity, his new space-helmet with white Pierrot suit for Starman, and so on.

Jak Housden doing Moonage Daydream with a top-level voice of Bowie and guitar of Mick Ronson—as at the legendary Santa Monica gig. Interesting to see Jess Ciampa in his orchestral home, and to see more of the band’s newcomer Christo (Station to Station).

Lighting was exceptional, too. Working with a ring of lights about the huge disc above the stage—always projecting a close-up of the singers in song, or a deft selection of Bowie pics—the stage could be lit at times like the centre of a supernova, or the halls of Lang’s Metropolis. Sound was booming but bright; bringing out the aural delights of the orchestral strings to emotional splendour, as in Quicksand, or simply striking out the rhythms in body blows through, say, Fame. All radiating out from the huge, towering stage, the effect was of a constant tidal-wave of multi-sensory provocation.

Stage management was also interesting to watch; emergencies portended and avoided, mics arighted, and so on, with ardent precision.

And so it ended as Duff prophesied ahead of the show in the Maitland Mercury (2016.09.28):

 It’s going to be challenging, this eclectic rock band with acoustic strings. [But] Bowie used a lot of orchestral arrangements, it suits David Bowie more than most artists. It will be really exciting. … It does sort of build up to this raging climax and we do end up rocking out at the end. Even the violins and cellos will be rocking out. Jeff Duff

Harpist and singer-songwriter Anna Morgana opened the event. Blends of Keyes, Hagen, P. Smith, Bush, maybe, but certainly, as someone behind me said, "she sounds like some Australian singer". That was also a discovery to keep making.

Good to see an Artist Merchandise stall. Duff’s autobiography for sale (it’s always tempting to get yet another one!), and the DVD of Colin Hay‘s Ziggy/Unzipped live show videos (see the TUBES database; I got mine, to add to the TRACKS database).

For PIX of the gig, see Tania Smith’s album here, and Russell Cherry’s album here.

See the Bowie Unzipped site for more Duff/Bowie gigs—including his January 2017 tour including NSW, Vic, SA and WA.

~ And a thank you to the Zepher bus-blokes for getting me there and back to Central, and even championing me with a round of applause for topping their Bowie quiz! Did I get an extra point for getting Iman’s surname right? Or was it just that I didn’t confuse The man who fell to earth with The man who sold the world? We’ll never know. Meat-eaters aside, it was an easy and a glorious trip. Ta for stoking the flames with your Bowie Quiz—and for keeping a seat at the back for me!

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– rodg.

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