Freddie Starr – reaching for the heavens
Insane hamster-eating comedian Freddie Starr never quite gave up his youthful dreams of pop stardom. On this 1982 record he reminds the world precisely what they are missing by only enjoying his work as a comic.
Towerbell Records TOWLP 1,
Born in Liverpool in 1943 Freddie Starr isn’t a typical Scouse comedian in the Jimmy Tarbuck or Stan Boardman mould. Not for him the parochial provincial comic routines, reliance on a grating Liverpudlian accent and cheeky toothy grins to make it through a show. Starr’s act has always thrived on unpredictability and anarchy. In many respects he seems like an ‘alternative’ comedian born a decade or two too early. By the time Freddie Starr made it big in the early 1970s his repertoire of impressions included the usual reliable staples such as Norman Wisdom but his genius could be glimpsed in his inspired and energetic physical impressions of Mick Jagger and Elvis Presley. Oh and Hitler of course. Let’s not forget him…
Frederick Fowell, as he was born, always seemed destined for great things but initially his ambitions and talents were musical rather comical. Born in absolutely the right time and most definitely at the right place for a glittering 60s pop career, the young Freddie Starr (as he wisely re-named himself) was a jobbing musician from an early age. After playing in a succession of local bands and gigging around Liverpool, he soon formed his own band, The Midniters. Everything seemed to be going according to plan. He played the Cavern, gigged in Hamburg, was managed by Brian Epstein and landed a recording contract with Decca. Freddie Starr was alas, not destined to match the Beatles in appeal. Only three Joe Meek produced singles were released, and despite the competent period beat sounds he managed to commit to vinyl, Freddie Starr the pop star soon faded from view along with many other aspiring hopefuls.
That may well have been the end of the story, a few rare collectable singles as sole testimony to what might have been. But then of course, unlike many of those failed hopefuls, Starr came back, only not as a pop singer. This time he was Freddie Starr the slightly unhinged impressionist, impressing initially on Opportunity Knocks in the late 1960s with a succession of comedy musical numbers. Freddie’s true originality and manic intensity garnered much public acclaim and lit up many subsequent shows such as Who Do You Do? His talents were obvious amongst the more mundane acts choosing to play everything safe, and ensured that a long comedy career would follow. Of course, things are rarely that simple and I think it’s fair to say that Freddie Starr has been his own worse enemy for many years. His initially refreshing, anarchic, spontaneous, nature has worn out the patience of many a TV producer and his odd, often insane behaviour, has won him more newspapers headlines than his comedy ever has. The less said about the hamster eating episode the better!
After working long and hard to establish a career as a comedian, Freddie Starr has often tried to turn back time and make it once more as a straight musical act. It seems that the young rock and roller who spent all those years struggling in Liverpool to prove himself is still keen to make it as a crooner and balladeer. So like many comedians before and since, he has released record after record over the years, all without a discernible joke on them and all designed to prove how wonderfully versatile and able Freddie Starr is as a singer.
This eponymously titled 1982 release kicks off with the haunting Geoff Stephens song The Crying Game. Chosen by Starr as a single release, it is a track that is instantly at odds with his mad stage demeanour. Starr’s oddly high falsetto tones convey the same other-worldly wistfulness of the 1964 Dave Berry original, and the track is an odd laid back choice as a single with which to launch a new career. The b-side of that subdued single was the far from subdued track Spacerama, also to be found on this album. It is odd galactic nonsense with the sort of demented alien spaceship ramblings that George Clinton built his entire career around. A dogged string section follows Freddie’s inter-stellar musings around like an angry flesh-eating refrain, escaped from an old ELO album and bent on carnage. I have precious little idea what is meant to be going on with Spacerama, perhaps it doesn’t matter, but it is an odd b-side to an equally odd single release.
Freddie is allowed to showcase all of his talents on this album. On tracks such as Some Other Guy, Such a Night and Roll Over Beethoven he is every inch the aspiring rock and roller, belting away the lyrics while his backing band pound out the rhythm with energetic drumming that would not have disgraced an early Adam Ant track. There are hints of Freddie’s famous Elvis impression in these tracks, and also more than a hint of his Hitler impression, the exhortations to groove on down often sounding like the fevered instructions of a mad dictator set to a rock ‘n’ roll beat.
Elsewhere there are many opportunities for crooning. Don’t Cry Daddy is a crushingly maudlin song about an oddly insensitive child urging his grieving father to forsake mourning and find a new mummy as soon as he can. The song certainly made me cry, though perhaps for the wrong reasons. Something in the Song and The Great Pretender are two more slowed down numbers. Imagine a dimly lit nightclub with a sparse piano refrain and Freddie in sentimental mode and you have the mood he is trying to capture. Leading the crooning tracks though is Hollywood, a nostalgic wail about the heady golden era days of movie-making. Even the least cynical person would acknowledge that the song exists solely as an excuse for Freddie to trot out some interminably ancient impressions of celebrated gangsters Edward G Robinson, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.
The album’s final two tracks are Move It, a funked up version of the Cliff Richard standard, supplemented with some up-tempo manic drumming and some strangely ethereal keyboards, and Polk Salad Annie, yet another odd choice of song. Polk Salad Annie is by the Louisiana–born musician Tony Joe White. It makes perfect sense when sung by him or anyone else with a working knowledge of Cajun food, swamps or alligators, but its redneck rockabilly blues leanings sound odd coming from Freddie Starr of all people.
So, all in all, an odd album, but then what did you expect from the ever unpredictable Mr Starr? As if this was ever going to be an easy listening classic, or a simple run through of some unexceptional songs. At times the album is like a stage school kid showing off by showcasing different singing styles and trying too hard to impress with their versatility. It’s hard to say what exactly is Freddie’s musical forte. He clearly likes the slow ballads where he can croon and warble, but he also seems to come alive for the heavier rock numbers. I don’t think Freddie Starr will rest until he is acknowledged for his singing as much as his comedy, and for those of us who haven’t yet begun to make up our minds or care very much either way, this record is a good place to start forming an opinion.
To finish then, here is Move It, a song which falls between the two camps of the rock and the croon. Move it Mr Starr: