Allow me to begin with an illustration.
Aside from the copious boxes of archived Top 40 shows that live under the bed, this is what is left of my cassette collection. I know a great many people who don’t actually have a cassette player any more and so have lost forever a great deal of the music they bought growing up. Mine is still going strong and was purchased only a few years ago, for the simple reason that I still have so many of them. Every so often when the urge takes me I will venture into town with a list in hand and upscale many of the old albums to CD, thus thinning their ranks a little more. Some however remain stubbornly unavailable even in the new medium – the mystery of why every Thomas Dolby album save his best (‘Astronauts And Heretics’) can be picked up on CD ranking alongside the sad knowledge that a digitally rendered version of the obscure import ‘Kylie’s 50+1 megamix’ is likely to cost far more than I would ever be willing to pay for it. Also I doubt that I’d ever really want to swap my cassette of the ‘Gladiators – Series One’ soundtrack from 1992 for its CD equivalent. Why do I even still have that?
Buried right at the very back of the rack are a few ancient gems, tapes that I was handed as presents over the years and which rarely get an airing. For some odd reason I was motivated to dig one out the other day and was reminded what a fun snapshot in time it was. Presenting then the tape gifted to me by my Godparents as a 14th birthday present and if I remember correctly, one of the first things ever to be played on the shiny new tabletop record player that was my main wish for the anniversary.
This is the story of the Prince’s Trust Concert – 1987.
The first such all-star charity ensemble had taken place a year earlier, a collection of the great and the good of the music business all gathered together by Midge Ure to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the charity. It was apparently such a success that they decided to do it all over again the following year, booking Wembley Arena for two nights over June 5th and 6th 1987.
The gimmick was that the concert wasn’t so much a stop-start parade of acts taking their turns on the stage. Instead the assembled galaxy of stars would perform together as a House Band, with various guest singers wheeled on to perform some of their greatest hits. So it was that the paying punters (plus those who bought the subsequent video and compilation album) were invited along to an extended jam session – the band featuring the likes of Mark King on bass, both Ringo Starr and Phil Collins on drums, Elton John on piano, and both George Harrison and Jeff Lynne on guitar alongside one man whose enthusiasm for it all meant that he inserted his unique style into just about every single song performed – as we shall see.
It should be noted that as a live album it is one of the most badly produced and abysmally mixed recordings you are ever likely to hear. There is no continuity to any of the performances, running orders having been chopped and changed to cram everything onto one album and naturally to highlight the best bits of the two different performances. The result can sometimes be a jarring mess, with stars appearing and vanishing at will and separate songs by the same singer scattered around the disc almost at random. Plus this was either the quietest concert audience ever, or someone forgot to mic up the arena as the cheering fans in attendance can be barely heard – something that kind of takes away from the atmosphere and on a couple of occasions ruins the songs where the performers invite them to participate.
Why is this recording remembered with such fondness then? Well as a snapshot of a moment in musical history and as a gathering of stars whom these days we would regard as rather superannuated and over the hill but who at the time were some of the biggest names around it is actually pretty hard to top.
With little fanfare the tape opens with ‘Running In The Family’ from what appears to be a near complete Level 42 lineup. An all too rare nod to current sounds, the song had only been a Top 10 hit a few months before, but the house band are clearly still finding their feet and struggle to stay in tune at times, as if in sympathy with King himself who bellows his way through one of his most famous hits as if he is hearing it for the first time. That is at least until the magic moment halfway through when King beckons a spotlight over and announces “ladies and gentlemen – Mr Eric Clapton”. For the first time that evening we hear the man in whose presence virtually none of the other participants can compete as he improvises a guitar solo on the spot and drags the pop song as close as he can to blues-rock territory. As the tape progresses this quickly becomes tedious, but the initial joy of hearing him appear from the shadows is one that is worth revisiting.
Just for a change there is no edit between the first two songs as Mark King acknowledges the cheers and introduces “our musical director Mr Midge Ure”. For the only time of the evening the man who has put the whole thing together takes to the floor and performs the song that he had taken to Number One two years earlier. With the band taking a back seat and allowing the song’s synthesised backing to do all the work, this is actually one of the best and most heartfelt performances of the night.
Time now for Clapton to have a turn behind the mic and he goes for the safe option with a perfunctory run through ‘Behind The Mask’, his unexpected cover of the Yellow Magic Orchestra song with which he’d had a huge hit earlier that year. It is a song he rarely if ever performs these days and I don’t recall it being part of the sets in the marathon runs he did at the Royal Albert Hall in the early 90s. Whether it is the appalling mixing or just the terrible acoustics in the arena, but here he just doesn’t seem to be interested.
Here the jarring continuity comes to the fore as Clapton now vanishes, only to reappear a few songs later and is instead replaced by a pair of singers who will reappear for a longer set later on the tape. For the moment though we welcome both Paul Young and Phil Collins who croon their way through ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ (with Young playing Bill Medley naturally) with no band in sight, just Elton (presumably) playing the melody on piano.
No sooner are the pair on however then they are off, replaced instead by an unannounced Ben E King who treats the crowd to ‘Stand By Me’, hot off his recording having been a surprise Number One earlier in the year thanks to a Levis TV commercial. He is replaced in short order by the token pop stars of the night, Curiosity Killed The Cat who sing misfit to what I suspect is a slightly nonplussed adult audience who in truth have all come to see the superstars and not a bunch of fly by night heartthrobs.
Superstar presence is restored with another Clapton performance edited in, this time the guitar legend treats us to ‘Wonderful Tonight’, a song he has performed a thousand times but still manages to sing with love and feeling and soul. In later years Clapton would allow his imagination to take flight even on this most simple of ballads and in live shows would swamp the song with a five minute solo halfway through. At this point however he was still staying faithful to the source material – or maybe he had promised not to confuse the house band by taking off on flights of fancy and leaving them stranded.
More contemporary pop gets a look in with Alison Moyet popping up for a token appearance and a run through ‘Invisible’. A hugely underrated live performer, even in her pop heyday, this somehow manages to be the best rendition of the song I’ve ever heard. I never really took to her music when a teenager but this one track alone is enough to make me realise what I missed.
Side One of the tape ends with “Spandau Ballet” although you suspect this is no more than Tony Hadley popping up to be one of the gang. His song of choice is the much maligned ‘Through The Barricades’ which was sneered at for being overblown and pompous when first released but which in the hands of the superstar house band (Clapton as well) suddenly becomes the soaring rock epic you knew it always had designs of being.
Side 2 opens with Labi Siffre, who in 1987 had come out of self imposed performing retirement and had landed himself a welcome smash hit with the anti-Apartheid song ‘(Something Inside) So Strong’. This would have worked wonderfully in the arena at the time, but sadly the poor production on the tape means that the crowd adding their own backing vocals and performing the African chants from the record are all but lost.
Now for another magical moment as Bryan Adams, at the time the owner of nothing more than a handful of mid-table hits in this country and a long way from the chart-dominating superstar he would become, steps forward to sing what was at the time his one and only Top 20 hit – ‘Run To You’. To make this just a little bit special, step forward Eric Clapton once again as he joyfully takes over the lead guitar part of the song and even restrains himself from improvising as he follows the original arrangement exactly and contributes the howling melody line for the second verse onwards. It is on tracks such as this that the true appeal of the evening becomes clear. Two stars who ordinary would never be on stage together, performing each others songs but in their own trademark style. A Bryan Adams/Eric Clapton duet is surely pretty much unique outside of this concert and that makes it a collectible in its own right for sure.
More star power takes to the floor next in the shape of Elton John. As the press clipping at the top indicates, the concert came at one of the lowest points of his professional and personal life after The Sun newspaper elected to try to destroy him with a series of lurid exposes accusing him of all manner of illegal and semi-illegal practices. History records that everything turned out well, with a million pound libel settlement and a front page apology plus his own personal rehabilitation as a national treasure, but at the time Elton could have been forgiven for thinking that everything he had worked for was in danger of turning to dust. Hence he takes to the stage with a wave of public sympathy for what was a rare public appearance at the time. He sings ‘Saturday’s Alright For Fighting’ as part of what was clearly a longer set, but once again the bizarre editing takes over and he is faded out at the end as soon as he arrived. He’ll return though in just a couple of songs time.
First we head back to Collins and Young (remember them?) who in a session that is either a continuation from the one on Side One or taken from a different night, treat us to a fun Four Tops medley. After a quick run through ‘It’s The Same Old Song’ they launch into ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ during which Phil decides it is time for the crowd to do some work. “It’s ordience participation toime” he breezes, “I sing, you sing. Get it?” The Wembley Arena crowd roar their approval, or at least we presume they did as once more we can barely hear them. Thus the call and response exchange that follows somehow never translates properly on tape and listening back at home you find yourself wanting them to move on and start singing themselves again. This they do, finishing with a rousing bout of ‘Reach Out (I’ll Be There)’. Paul Young is a better singer than Phil Collins by the way, but I guess you knew that.
Up next are Go West who were a curious addition to the bill given that their big hits had been a full two years earlier and they were about to enter a barren patch that meant it was a new decade before they started having hits again. Having been invited along though the pair make a good fist of ‘Don’t Look Down’ but I care about this even less than the crowd does.
Elton is back now (see how confusing it gets) and runs tenderly through ‘Your Song’, the most notable part of the performance being at the end when he acknowledges the applause with a heartfelt “Thank you for all your support”. The subtext is clear. The papers all seem to hate him, but he has just learned he still has the public on his side and that is all that matters.
There is one more surprise superstar collaboration to come as Dave Edmunds teams up with Bryan Adams for a romp through ‘The Wanderer’, but the casual listener will by now have noted the next items on the tracklisting and will be fast forwarding to what may well be the really good parts.
No less a figure than George Harrison takes to the stage. He was at this time preparing for the release of the ‘Cloud 9’ album which would go down in history as his big commercial comeback and take him back to the top of the American charts, but for this concert he digs out two particular Beatles classics. Yes, he had probably performed ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ many times over the years, but rarely had he done so not only with Ringo Starr thumping away just as he did on the record, but standing next to the very man whose weeping guitar famously featured on the original. Eric Clapton had originally resisted the invitation to perform on the original track but his uncredited solo is one of the more famous bits of Beatles trivia. For the Prince’s Trust concert it approaches it with gusto and the coda of the song features both Harrison and Clapton duelling back and forth in a manner which is nothing short of captivating.
Clapton and Harrison remain together on stage for the next song ‘Here Comes The Sun’. Clapton didn’t play on the original version, but the song originates from a songwriting session the pair had together at Clapton’s house in the summer of 1969, having grown out of the melody that would eventually also become the Cream song ‘Badge’. If you appreciate the significance of it, then it is a great moment. 18 years later the two men are stood side by side, rows over stolen wives behind them, and singing the song each had inspired the other to write.
For the finale the mini Beatles reunion continues as Ringo Starr himself steps out from behgind the drums and leads the assembled cast in a rendition of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. Once again the terrible mixing of the live recording comes to the fore as the assembled chorus can barely be heard and so what was meant to be a triumphant climax sounds like a drunk man wailing as loud as he can to hear the echoes coming back off the surrounding buildings.
The tape and the night finishes with a quick breeze through the National Anthem, in honour of the Prince and Princess Of Wales in attendance on at least one of the nights. The performers here are Buddy Curtis and the Grasshoppers, a name which even to this day prompts a “who?” from people looking back at old programmes and ticket stubs. The acapella group had a brief run of festival fame in the mid-80s, their presence on this particular bill explained by the presence in their ranks of a certain Jason Starkey whose Dad may or may not have been involved in proceedings along the way.
So that was the 1987 Prince’s Trust Concert, as lovingly captured on this dusty old cassette which sits in my collection nestled alongside Tape 2 of ‘Who’s Last’ (Grandma, Christmas 1985) and Billy Idol’s ‘Idol Songs – 11 Of The Best’ (birthday money, 1988). Historians of many of the acts involved do point to the event as the moment that inspired two more famous superstar projects. In Harrison and Lynne you had the germination of the idea that became the Travelling Wilbury’s, whilst the idea of assembling a team of mates for a superstar charity concert prompted Ringo Starr to set up the travelling All-Starr Band which went on to sell out arenas around the world.
The audio recording of the event appears long deleted and copies of the LP can only be found second hand. The film of the concert went on to win a Grammy award the following year and was re-released on DVD as recently as 2001. Amazon still appears to have copies for sale as well. As a result there are a handful of YouTube videos kicking around, so here are a couple for your entertainment.
First the performance that opens the tape, ‘Running In The Family’:
Then the climactic moment as the true superstar power takes the stage: