➤ He thinks he is Geronimo
but Chris Sullivan is turning
fantasy into fact
Blue Rondo a la Turk was among the first of the Blitzworld’s new image bands to change the musical gear of 1981 towards a tongue-in-cheek collage of carnival rhythms inspired by the Brubeck era of jazz. Fronted by future Wag club host Chris Sullivan, the eccentric seven-piece staged a series of invitation-only tease-dates through the summer of 1981, which included the soulboy bank-holiday Mecca of Bournemouth. As instigators of the trend towards Latin music, they were unveiled in the first issue of New Sounds New Styles in July. This profile followed in the August issue – plus a fashion spread on the East End tailor of their zoot suits – then a Virgin contract followed in October and the chart single Me and Mr Sanchez in November. Sullivan styled their discs with cubistic sleeve designs, and their vibrant album Chewing the Fat proved to be easily the most imaginative new sound of 1982…
❚ MIDSUMMER SUN STREAMS through the pub windows onto a stage the size of a snooker table where seven musicians are squeezed like reds on the baize. A cue ball strikes. With the screech of a parrot and the shriek of a baboon, two characters start conjuring up the Amazon jungle on an army of drums, birdwhistles and vocal chords. The bow-tied one with crazed eyes (a deadringer for Manuel from Fawlty Towers) has a mission to breathe new life into dead drumskins. The other, black face topped by black beret, is leaping between congas and timbalas like a demented Muppet.
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At front are two guys in beach shirts who in any other context would be called singers. “Oo-oo, aa-aa, mm-mm ah!” The big one tries to pulp his tambourine as the little one with the goatee shakes coffee beans in a beercan. He fancies himself rotten and flashes hot sauce eyes at some girl out front. “Hot days, cool nights, famous fiasco,” they both hiss knowingly.
Beside them, a snakecharmer is making mystic love to a saxophone. Evidently he is tuned into some superior power because his twitching left knee finally detaches itself and sets off round the stage with a will of its own.
On bass and guitar are two guys trussed in tight ties and braces, half swallowed by trousers that go right up to there. Bill Wyman has nothing on Señor Cool, rotating gently in his own space on bass. Over on lead, his friend’s fingers prance a light fandango along the frets while his feet strut a nonchalant mambo with Savoy Ballroom precision.
We hear tales of Manhattan junkies and of tropical passions and by the time we reach some wastrels, doowop, doowop, who “really don’t make it swing, nowhere, no time”, even Señor Cool has melted from the knees down and the audience are a-bopping. For 45 minutes every corner of that stage whips up a cyclone and carnival time has Chelmsford in its grip.
All that’s missing is Hollywood’s idea of Miss Latin America, Carmen Miranda, dancing her heels off beneath a basketful of ripe fruit. But we are in luck: for the finale she has sent a substitute, the six-foot singer with the spiccy shades. He’s already been injecting aviation fuel into his vaudeville funny walks and now, to a number called Intoxicating Rhythms, he decides to go into orbit.
“Ay ay ay!” he bellows as two yards of keychain make a lightning flash across another yard of trouser pleats until – lift off! Shoes, pleats and chain vanish in that blur of motion you see only in Roadrunner cartoons. Afterwards, a mosaic of scuffs on his two square feet of stage offers the only evidence that a magic carpet was not involved.
“It’s no good for my heart,” the illusionist says as he collapses offstage. “I’ll be 21 soon. But there’s my Wigan Casino training for you.” Wigan Casino? But surely this funked-up Latin combo were truly wafted here from Rio de Janeiro? “No, Kentish Town,” he says with telltale Welsh lilt.
For this is Chris Sullivan, son of a Hoover lineworker from Merthyr in south Wales, now resident in Kentish Town, north London, and if this is Chelmsford it must be an out-of-town try-out for his creation Blue Rondo a la Turk, the band whose zootsuit chic is being aped elsewhere even before they’ve been officially unveiled. Their sound, however, is inimitable.
“Call it Latin American jazz with funk and African leanings – plus a few others because all seven of us have adventurous musical tastes,” says Sullivan.
In fact, Blue Rondo represent a pocket delegation from the United Nations: there are two Brazilians, a Barbadian, a Greek, an Irish Jamaican, a Scot and their Welsh leader. They know, though, how to demolish an English pint of beer.
In a quiet corner sit the two newest recruits – Kito Poncioni, the ultimate imperturbable bassist, and his friend who really is from Rio, Geraldo D’Arbilly. As a drummer of long standing he explains the subtleties of street samba and rural samba and just how many familiar disco rhythms were derived from salsa. In his one year in Britain, Geraldo has played with ten bands. “You have to play, you can’t stop it man,” he intones with a heavy accent. “So I put an ad in Melody Maker, Brazilian drummer seeks work, and here I am.”
Kito says: “We’re still getting to know the others but we both feel this is the band we should have been with years ago.”
The black Muppet character, a Barbadian from Ealing called Mick Bynoe, is asking Sullivan whether his congas could be moved to stage front. “I need the space,” he insists, living up to a reputation won jumping around on tabletops at the Blitz before it became fashionable. “I’ve been studying African music,” he says as if you ought to take an interest, “reading up on how African history is passed down in three ways: through art, drums and dance, from one family to the next. I mean, you don’t play drums, you feel them.”
It becomes clear why seven individuals emerge so vividly on stage. “They constantly surprise me,” says Sullivan. “The other day I turned round and there’s old Moses doing the splits like nobody’s business, Kito’s off playing sidedrums and suddenly Mark puts down his guitar and is having a good old dance. Then last week Geraldo starts singing – in Brazilian, if you please.”
Just now Moses Mount Bassie, the mystic on sax, is applying his earthly charms to a blonde at the bar. A boxing son of a famous father, Moses is himself a small legend in Bournemouth where he met Sullivan one wild soulboy weekend. Moses in turn introduced a Scots guitarist with the unlikely name of Mark Reilly, a friend from misspent days on the northern soul circuit.
At 19, the baby of the band is Christos Tolera, a Camden Greek who is happy to reveal the secret of his neatly coiffed upper lip: Zwirbel paste, Hungarian moustache wax. He wrote another small legend as a schoolmate of Spandau Ballet’s Martin Kemp when they made a conspicuous duo chasing girls and falling down drunk together. “He’s written off more suits than most people ever see,” says Rondo manager Graham Ball, an economics graduate and the only true Englishman in sight.
“What’s nice is that everyone arranges his music around Chris’s lyrics. It’s astonishing what rhythms they come up with. Latin is ripe to become as important to white music as reggae was in the Seventies.”
Chris Sullivan is someone friends don’t disguise their admiration for. Steve Dagger, Spandau Ballet’s manager, says of his party hosting skills: “Put Sullivan outside a public lavatory and you’d have a queue paying £3 to get in.” And Perry Haines, frontman for i-D magazine, recalls: “When Spandau Ballet came along, Sullivan had the brilliant ability to connect the right people. He’s the one with contacts and good taste.”
Sullivan’s logic is simpler. “I’m a fiend for movies and it was that Forties film Down Argentine Way with Carmen Miranda that did my head in. What a film! From then on I was a fan of Latin music. I thought up Blue Rondo because I just wanted to get up on stage, do a dance and get away with it. All we are is a dance band – with a certain style.”
Upstairs in the flat Sullivan shares with American girlfriend Holly, his taste is displayed on clothes rails, in cupboards, trunks, drawers. “I must have 120 shirts, 23 suits, 50 pairs of shoes – of course lots are out on loan.” He finds a lime green pair of shoes and matching trousers. “Here’s a chortler: Let It Rock 1975,” meaning one of Vivienne Westwood’s creations from her legendary King’s Road shop.
“Most comes from jumble sales. Hampstead is good for Jermyn Street shirts and handmade shoes for 10p. But you have to go through a lot of shoving with women who have 50 years’ experience and very sharp elbows which come up just under the ribcage.”
We reminisce. “My earliest memory is of growing my hair long when I was nine. I thought I was Geronimo. I was Burt Lancaster running through the fields in a headband.
“When I was 15 in 1975 I went to Bournemouth for a holiday and I was hooked. Everyone from London used to converge there and I was knocked out because it was full of people in similar clothes: flat tops, razor partings, big suits, flared skirts. All perfectly dressed. I was sitting there in my mohair jumper and some Londoner said, ‘Oi, I had one of those, where’d you get it?’ And I had to say Wales. Then every weekend I started hitching up to London.
“Then in the spring of 1977 I was amused by this title the press had given everything, punk rock, so me and Mark Taylor who now runs a club in Cardiff, thought up Boys Weekly Rockers where we went round Ilford as comic book heroes: Biggles, Sinbad, Jeeves, Custer. And the concept unrolled … Even at the Blitz and St Moritz I couldn’t believe how quickly people picked things up … Chinese slippers, Eton collars, keychains, straw hats.
“But it was all very tongue in cheek. I can’t understand dressing up like Bowie or Ferry because you can’t be like them. I admire Coltrane, Parker, Camus, Sartre, but I haven’t any heroes. They take up too much time. First you’ve got to think of them. Then you have to think of yourself in relation to them. I’d rather think of myself first.
“It’s the way you put ideas together that can be original. When I dressed up it would never be exact. The zootsuits I’ve designed for Blue Rondo are historically accurate because they’re in pure, natural fibres and are made by an experienced tailor. But my mutation is that they’re higher, wider and bigger.
“When you start dressing up at 11 you make mistakes trying to be flash. It’s like doing an apprenticeship and I’ve developed an eye for detail and correctness. So when I arrived at St Martin’s to study fashion I was appalled, having been taught to draw properly, when the teacher said bodies were supposed to be long with no hips to make them look like fashion drawings. He was shocking me. After 18 months I didn’t go back.
“Unfortunately in Britain today, pop stars are what painters and novelists were at the turn of the century. One reason I’ve started Blue Rondo is as a springboard for my ideas about lyrics, about dress, about theatre. Too often I’ve talked over a good idea in a pub and the next minute seen somebody else doing it. I’ve been beaten to the gun too many times. I’m changed now.”
So Sullivan sets sail once more on his voyage of self-discovery, like some latterday Columbus seeing where wind and tide will lead. His first twenty years have beached him as Mexican waiter, DJ, nightclub host and fashion designer. A notorious TV film about so-called New Romantics immortalised his phrase “One look lasts a day”. And when Robert Elms mated the unlikely words Spandau and Ballet, it was Sullivan who said, “Why not use them for a band?”
Today’s adventure has led him into the world of lyricist and pop singer with the band he dreamed of 18 months ago, named Blue Rondo a la Turk after the Dave Brubeck number. But will this prove another chance landfall, Blue Rondo a la Quirk perhaps?
“We’ve had a track record of success over the past two years. We’ve seen an emancipation in music and clothes. When I opened St Moritz with two friends in 1980 as an offshoot of the Blitz, we said you don’t have to listen to what’s in the charts, you don’t have to be a slave to fashion. It was an experiment in our own tastes and things changed overnight. We would play Sinatra and Piaf and some people dressed as Errol Flynn or Rita Hayworth which had been unheard of.
“When the Blitz opened, its door vetting was extraordinary but now the age is passing of middle-aged club owners dictating rules for 21-year-olds.
“The major change is that we’ve done things on our own without cash or the help of 50-year-old businessmen. Spandau Ballet got off by their own efforts; so did Steve Strange and Rusty Egan. The whole of Kensington Market is going it alone – James Cuts, Emma Lynn shoes, Jon Baker’s Axiom.
“I went to New York with the Axiom/Spandau show. Since when did a pop group and eight designers produce a whole show in front of 1,500 people, not backed by any big money whatsoever?
“And we were only part of it all. Young people generally are no longer prepared to be sold clothes they don’t really like or go to clubs playing records they don’t want to hear. To someone who works eight hours a day, their best thrill is to buy a new set of clothes on a Saturday afternoon and have a good dance in them that night. Anything that stops them in their tracks to think about what they’re doing has got to be good. If anything, we’ve shown them there is more they can do.
“When I said that about moving on it was meant as a laugh, though it has come true. St Moritz was a reaction to electronics. Latin is a reaction to funk. Hopefully Blue Rondo will open other doors. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t try film directing in a few years. I may not know anything about it but there’s no reason why I can’t learn.”
Text © Shapersofthe80s
➢➢ VIEW ♫ Fine Northern Soul footwork from Rondo mentalists in this live TV performance of Klacto Vee Sedstein:
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