Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Fools on Primrose Hill

One foggy morning in November 1966, almost 40 years ago to the day, the Rolling Stones. manager Andrew Loog Oldham, and photographer Gered Mankowitz piled into 2 cars from Olympic Studios at dawn and drove to the top of Primrose Hill, the vast public park in Northwest London.

The Stones had been up all night putting the finishing touches on their new record, Between the Buttons, and the plan was to breathe the fresh air and take some photos for the cover.

Between the Buttons was a quirky departure from the usual R&B and Blues driven fare the Stones dished up; these tunes had a Kinkish, vaudevillean/music hall whimsy, sprinkled with some driving rockin rhythms with just a touch of Charlie Watts' subliminal offbeat jazz drumming that evoked the diaphanous pop-flash of moddish swinging London. "Connection", "Amanda Jones", "Yesterday's Papers", and "Backstreet Girl" were some of my favorites - now little heard on the radio by Stones fans generations removed, and forgotten by all but the hard-core fans from the era.

The record was notable for the almost complete disappearance of Brian Jones from half of the numbers; he was embarked on a more precipitous slide into the vapor of stonedom. However, here he surfaces as "colourist" on the tunes, adding marimba, recorders, flute, trumpet, piano, harmonica, organ, sax, and sitar in just the right places.

That morning when the gang arrived on Primrose Hill they chanced on a bearded hippie flute-player poised on one foot and oblivious to the celebrity status of the Stones. Mick Jagger offered him a joint and he accepted it offhandedly, with a mere "Ah, breakfast!".

Gered Mankowitz took a number of pictures that morning in the mist and added to the atmosphere by rubbing a bit of vaseline on the camera lens. He recalls Brian Jones as being a difficult subject; burying his head in a newspaper or mugging in the group photos. Nevertheless, the resultant photos carry on the distinct flavor of the Stones as five individuals; Watts and Wyman craggy, calm and indifferent, Jones cocooned in impenetrable mischief, Jagger (open-mouthed of course) and Richards off to the left somehow in motion towards the future- albeit Richards in a hazed motion, fully immersed in the the vaseline sector of the lens.

A few months after the Stones photo-shoot, Paul McCartney, along with pal Alisdair Taylor and his sheepdog Martha, drove up to Primrose Hill around sunrise. McCartney often brought Martha for walks up there and was delighted that other dog-walkers recognized him only as one of them and freely chatted on about their dogs.

That morning as the sun rose McCartney and Taylor were commenting on the beauty of the view, and even waxing philosophical about the existence of God when Paul noticed that Martha had gone missing. He turned around and there. as if out of nowhere, stood a middle-aged man in a stylish raincoat. They exchanged greetings and the man commented on how beautiful the view of London was. Paul, again, looked out but when he looked back seconds later the man was no longer there. Taylor was also witness to this and they were perplexed as to where the man went as they were in an open area and the nearest trees were too far to have been reached in a few seconds. (Of course Martha returned, lest we forget "Martha My Dear" on the White Album)

They continued to talk about this incident the rest of the day and were resigned to the fact that people would assume psychedelics were involved - not the case here.

That day McCartney began working on his song "Fool On the Hill". Some months later, when he and Lennon were working on "It's Getting Better" (a phrase that came to him on another Primrose Hill walk) McCartney played John a sketch of "Fool" on the guitar. John said it was a great song and encouraged him to write it down immediately.


Anonymous said...

I love the landscape of the hill... so calm. so dark... so ..... BLACK!


So was the hippie flute player the guy from Jethro Tull!?!?

Anonymous said...

The flute-player was named "Max" (no kiddin'!) apparently well-known on the street in Soho. ...kinda like Wild Man Fischer without a record contract....

Merritt Hewitt said...

What a lovely little piece. Not my favorite album, but the Stones are special. Vaseline on the lens: pure genius.

Only been to London once. Stayed at a friend's apt at the bottom of Primrose Hill. Always walked over the top on the way to the Tube station. Quite enjoyed it.