Articles/Interviews

Children of the Ghetto; the Story of the Real Thing (Autumn 2002)

Article

‘Children of the Ghetto; the Story of the Real Thing’ originally appeared in the North West Labour History Journal (Autumn 2002)

I’m not a statistician, I’m a music fan, but it’s undeniable that the most successful Liverpool band of the 1960′s was the Beatles, and I would hazard a guess that the 1980′s belonged to Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The most successful Liverpool-based band of the 1970′s, meanwhile, were probably the Real Thing.

Black British bands are probably the least well documented part of 70′s music and the Real Thing seem to have dropped off Liverpool’s music map. Eddy Amoo from the Real Thing was recently down at the Albert Dock; “I was invited to an unveiling of a plaque they had put up for all the number one artists in Liverpool. I went down and I was totally ignored by the Liverpool media; the only people they were interested in were Atomic Kitten and Paul McCartney’s brother!”

The Real Thing have earned their plaque, but deserve more. Back in June 1976 they were number one with ‘You To Me Are Everything’ (the follow-up, ‘Can’t Get By Without You’ reached number 2); their records have been in the top 20 seven times (including the single ‘Can You Feel the Force’ from 1979); a cover version of a song they recorded back in 1977 was included by Spike Lee in the soundtrack to his 1995 film Clockers; and Eddy Amoo from the band was praised by the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid in October 1983. And, thirty years since their first release, they are still playing and recording; when I interviewed Eddy Amoo in July 2002, the band were just about to head off to a gig in Amsterdam. My intention was to uncover as much of the story of the Real Thing as I could. It seems unjust that they should languish in the forgotten pages of Liverpool music history.

Significantly, unlike bands like Beatles and Oasis, the Real Thing never moved from their hometown to taste the joys, or otherwise, of London. Eddy now lives barely a mile from the house he grew up in Toxteth; and in our interview we were to return a number of times to his memories of the city and Toxteth (or Liverpool 8 as the district was known back in the 1970s, then, as now, home to many people from the city’s black community).

Prior to the Real Thing, Eddy Amoo was a member of vocal act the Chants who played gigs with the Beatles during the frozen winter of 1962/3. One of the group, Joe Ankrah, had met Paul McCartney at a Little Richard concert In Birkenhead and told him about their group. McCartney gave Joe a note to produce down at the Cavern, remembers Eddy; “We went down to one of the lunchtime sessions and got up onstage and sang for them and they went ape-shit. They invited us down to the Cavern later and they rehearsed three or four songs with us and we came on halfway through the show that night. It was the moment that got us into the business; we’d never thought about it seriously until then.”

Beatlemania was just taking off. Beatles manager Brian Epstein helped get them more gigs and took them under his wing; “He didn’t give us a proper contract, but what we used to do is that he’d book us for all the Beatles’s shows and we’d do the same thing; they used to bring us on halfway through the show and we’d do some songs with them.”

As the Beatles triggered the Merseybeat explosion, so record companies began hanging round Liverpool signing everything that moved; “We took the first offer that came our way because we thought that was going to lead us to fame and fortune. And we were wrong!”

The Chants signed to Pye, and released four singles on the label, starting with ‘I Don’t Care’ in 1963. By the end of the 1960′s the Merseybeat boom was long gone, although the Chants had survived The band’s last release was in 1969, for RCA; a version of ‘I Get the Sweetest Feeling’; “You’ve got to remember the Chants were never part of the Merseybeat scene”, says Eddy, “We were a group apart really, because we had moved on from that and we’d graduated into being an r&b and soul band.”

The Chants had run its course by the beginning of the 1970′s. Meanwhile, Eddy’s younger brother, Chris, had declared his desire to form band; the Real Thing were born. The first four members of the Real Thing – Chris Amoo, Ray Lake, Kenny Davis and Dave Smith – all grew up together in Liverpool 8, hung out in some of the street gangs of the time, but bit by bit became more interested in singing than fighting. They began making music together in 1970.

Eddy was still in the Chants, but gave Chris every encouragement, sitting in on rehearsals, coaching the group; “I liked the idea because I was into something that would keep them off the streets, so I was really up for it.”

Black American music had always been revered in Britain, and white youth had devoured releases on the Chess, Stax and Motown labels from the mod era and beyond; bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had begun their careers in the early 1960′s doing cover versions of Chuck Berry and Motown. But by 1967 and 1968 the scene began to moved on, away from basement clubs playing black American dance records; to live rock music on the college circuit for example. But Eddy remembers how American soul music was still inspiring him and his brother; “Musically we’ve always hung around the clubs where they played soul and r&b and stuff so in those days it was like the Temptations, and then Sly & the Family Stone, and then along came bands like Earth, Wind & Fire.”

Liverpool in the early 1970′s was suffering tough times and the grim economics of the decade created poverty and conflict. Eddy Amoo remembers particular problems for the black community; “From my personal point of view, Liverpool was OK. It’s always been pretty racist – not racist so much in the people that you meet on the streets- but racist in the institutions in Liverpool. The institutions of Liverpool are racist; they were then and they still are. If you’re black in Liverpool it’s well nigh impossible to make any headway in any business; you’ve really got to fight and fight hard.”

The 1970′s saw the biggest rise in overt racial conflict since the 1930′s, with the National Front gaining electoral credibility in some pockets of the country and pressure building through the decade on the streets of Liverpool 8. He wasn’t surprised when the Toxteth riots erupted in 1981; “It was always leading up to that. OK, with the Chants we were able to step out of that and make a life for ourselves but a lot of people can’t, you know.”

Back in 1972 Eddy watched as his brother’s band won themselves a slot on the TV show ‘Opportunity Knocks’. The band made enough of an impact to release ‘Vicious Circle’ on Bell Records which unfortunately flopped. They moved to EMI and ‘Plastic Man’ got the band their first ‘Top of the Pops’ appearance (it was a song Eddy Amoo had originally written for the Chants).

Through 1973 and 1974 Eddy Amoo’s input in the band continued, but further releases on EMI failed to chart. Clubs had closed and the Real Thing struggled to find decent gigs. There was the Northern Soul scene (“We couldn’t relate to that,” says Eddy), but the Real Thing found themselves stuck on the chicken-in-a-basket cabaret circuit, performing a frustratingly narrow range of songs (Drifters medleys, old Motown classics). The natural progression for the Real Thing as Eddy’s involvement increased, was for him to formally join the band, which he did in 1975 (by this time Kenny Davis had left; with Eddy in the band they were back to four).

Things were improving, slowly. By 1975 the Real Thing had been signed to Pye records and had also gained a somewhat unlikely supporter; the heart-throb pop star David Essex who had been introduced to the band by Jeff Wayne. Impressed with their sound, Essex asked the band to work with him as his backing band but also one of the support acts at his shows.

In the studio, the Real Thing recorded some songs written and produced by David Essex, among them ‘Watch Out Carolina’ which is slightly too obviously indebted to ‘Rock On’. The single flopped, and Pye were still in search of that elusive hit. A songwriting and production team, Ken Gold and Mickey Denne, played the Real Thing, and their manager Tony Hall, some demos of five songs they’d written, and one song in particular impressed them; ‘You to Me Are Everything’.

Although soul music had lost its central place in music around 1967, Motown was still a strong label, and five or six years later soul was already making a comeback in the affections of the public (hearing songs by the Supremes and the Stylistics through the tannoy is a major part of my memory of standing terraces waiting for the teams to appear when I started to go to football in 1972). By 1973 and 1974 American soul records were again featuring high in the British pop charts; some were by old favourites like Stevie Wonder, but there was also a new generation like the O’Jays, and Barry White and his Love Unlimited Orchestra. There were numerous trios and quartets; vocal groups like the Stylistics, the Detroit Emeralds, and Gladys Knight’s Pips with silky harmonies, slickly choreographed dance moves, and brightly colourful suits which made the early colour TV’s throb with excitement. Ballads and love songs dominated, but dancefloors were seeing more action than at any time since the mod explosion in 1964. James Brown had one of his biggest ever British hits in 1976 with ‘Get Up Offa That Thing’. Such was the rush of records aimed at the discotheques, in one issue of ‘Black Music’ they introduced a new category on the singles reviews pages; ‘Funk, bump & boogie’.

The disco explosion was upon us, but the rising interest in black music was further fed by radio; radio crossed over soul ballads and funk, bump & boogie into the mainstream. The mid-1970′s saw the arrival of some strong independent local radio stations, with some legendary specialist soul shows; Greg Edwards on Capital Radio, the influential Andy Peebles on Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio and Mark Jones on Radio City in Liverpool. But Dave McAleer was an A&R man for Pye at the time, and for him it was Radio One which was the key; “The great radio victory for black music in Britain wasn’t getting specialist shows on the air, it was getting David Hamilton playing Barry White and Tony Blackburn playing the Commodores.”

Manchester-based band Sweet Sensation had hits eighteen months before the Real Thing; they were the first Black British soul act to get to number one in October 1974, with ‘Sad Sweet Dreamer’. But in 1976 the conditions were right for more British soul music to make an impact; in June 1976 it was the turn of the Real Thing to get to hit the top of the charts. Recorded with Ken Gold at the Roundhouse Studios, ‘You to Me Are Everything’ is a warm, catchy, stirring dance single with perfect soul strings and a singalong chorus. A classic.

The summer of 1976 is commonly celebrated as the Summer when punk broke, but the first stirrings of punk were no more than flea bites in the ear of the great pop monster. The world was unaware of punk until Bill Grundy introduced the Sex Pistols to teatime TV in December 1976. During the Summer even the ‘New Musical Express’ had barely registered punk’s existence. The big boys in our school were still drooling over Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’. In the charts, the first hit song of the long hot Summer of 1976 was Abba’s ‘ Fernando’, the next was the excruciating ‘Combine Harvester’ single by the Wurzels. The ‘Top of the Pops’ viewers in our household cheered wildly when the Real Thing knocked the Wurzels off the top of the charts; at last something with a bit of class, something half decent to dance to at the youth club disco. Our pleasure lasted all of three weeks, until mediocrity got its revenge and the Real Thing were toppled from the number one spot by Demis Roussos.

Nevertheless, the Real Thing had made their mark. Furthermore, in a small reversal of soul power, the British-made ‘You to Me Are Everything’ went into the top 30 in the American soul charts, and spawned three cover versions by American artists; none of them was as successful at the Real Thing’s record (one was a b-side by Frankie Valli). The Real Thing’s follow up was another Gold/Denne number; ‘Can’t Get By Without You’. They had arrived; four long years after ‘Opportunity Knocks’ the Real Thing picked up the Daily Mirror ‘Best New Group’ award.

On the the band’s debut LP, ‘Real Thing’, released in October 1976 there is clear tension between their instincts and commercial pressures, with a diversity of styles reflecting the variety of soul music at the time; there were three tracks recorded before the group’s first hit, the two successful Gold/Denne singles, and five new songs written by the Amoo brothers. The band’s own songs included a couple which had an element of some of soul’s social consciousness (‘Flash’ seems to owe something to Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Superfly), which sits a little uneasily with the influence elsewhere of some of the spangly-jacketed groups of the era, like the Stylistics.

By the end of 1976 the band were in a successful position, yearning to expand. For Eddy Amoo and the rest of the band these were heady days; “Obviously when you get your first big hit, it’s everything you dream of, but it’s only the beginning. We were sensible enough to realise that with any luck this is only the beginning and we’ve got to build on that and we’ve got to try now to get across with our own music; the usual naive thing young bands think when they have hits.”

The follow-up LP was a concept album entitled ’4 From 8′, containing only self-penned songs including an eleven minute track, ‘Liverpool 8 Medley’, a combination of three songs; ‘Children of the Ghetto’, ‘Liverpool 8′ and ‘Stanhope Street’; “The LP was totally where we were at and what we were into,” says Eddy.

The word ‘ghetto’ is quite a loaded term, but was common currency in the 70′s, right from the very start of the decade and the release of Donny Hathaway’s brilliant evocation of Harlem life, ‘In the Ghetto’, and even via television; ‘ghetto’ was also a word we’d got used to hearing on the news in an American context. But in ‘Children of the Ghetto’ the Real Thing were bringing the concept much closer to home; “In a way the word ‘ghetto’ had become really hip to people on the streets because of Donny Hathaway and people like that and I thought it suited Liverpool 8,” says Eddy, “A lot of people were a little bit upset about it but that’s what Liverpool 8 was and is; it’s a ghetto.”

Historically the word ‘ghetto’ can carry negative connotations, but in the 70′s the word, and the concept, could be used in a positive sense, even in a celebratory way, like War’s song ‘The World is a Ghetto’. Eddy agrees; “We used ‘ghetto’ as a togetherness term really; that was a part of it, it was poetic, in those terms. We all live in this cauldron of black, white, Chinese, African, Indian.”

The Beatles had sung about Penny Lane, the Real Thing wrote about Stanhope Street; “Stanhope Street was one of the main thoroughfares in Liverpool 8,” explains Eddy, “When I was a kid we’d always seemed to end up walking through the streets and then maybe at ten o’clock at night we’d all end up on some corner on Stanhope Street getting chips or something like that. It summed up the whole area for me.”

Communities are sensitive about how they are portrayed and putting all this down on disc inevitably changed the way the Real Thing were viewed locally, although they had mainly positive reactions from the people Eddy grew up with; “I think they were made up. But I think that when you have success – particularly if you come off the street – a lot of people expect different things and you find that you don’t change but a lot of people around you do. It’s a strange feeling and I bet bands like Sweet Sensation had the same experience as us.”

The ’4 From 8′ LP has a great gatefold sleeve featuring photographs of the band and Liverpool 8, and the city’s Anglican cathedral amid desolate streets. Pye put a sizeable marketing budget behind the release. Ironically, in retrospect, Eddy feels that as sole songwriters and producers, the band were given too much control over the record; “The record company should have made us use a producer. ’4 From 8′ is a good album – I’m not knocking it – it didn’t have that commercial edge you need. It was a naive album.”

At the time a track like ‘Children of the Ghetto’ seemed to be too ambitious for a pop group from Liverpool; “We did it in the wrong point in time in our career. You can’t just jump from songs like ‘Can’t Get By Without You’ – those type of songs – to songs like ‘Children of the Ghetto’. It should have been a more gradual process and Real Thing fans weren’t ready for it. So basically the album flopped, although out of it ‘Children of the Ghetto’ has become a bit of a classic.”

Real Thing fans were being sent confusing signals about the band. Eddy Amoo describes conflicts with their record company in 1978 when the Real Thing were persuaded to sing and then release a lightweight song called ‘Let’s Go Disco’ that had been written for the soundtrack to the Joan Collins / Oliver Tobias film ‘The Stud’. The film was a big hit, but Eddy still regrets ‘Let’s Go Disco’ was ever a single.

After a reasonable showing for song ‘Rainin’ Through My Sunshine’ (off the ‘Step Into Our World’ LP), the Real Thing hit gold again just as the 1970′s drew to a close, with their 1979 hit ‘Can You Feel the Force?’ (from the same LP, which was hastily repackaged as ‘Can You Feel the Force?’). A fantastic slice of sci-fi jazz-funk with an upbeat, idealistic message about unity and a new era of tolerance, and a gloriously catchy “whoop, whoop, whoop” chorus, it provided the band with their third top ten. ‘Can You Feel the Force’ had actually started out as a slightly different song (they called it ‘Get the Message’ when it was in a raw demo form), but then Eddy got inspired by the film ‘Star Wars’; “I remember going to watch it and being really impressed with ‘the force is with you’ and all that. I remember sitting there with Chris one day and I said ‘Can you feel the force?’ and it just dropped in. Some things just fall together, like magic.”

The record was a big success; “We thought that would put us where we wanted to be”, says Eddy, “At the time we were really being looked upon as a serious band and people were beginning to forget the pop thing, and we thought we’d got it together here, but we were wrong!”

Looking back, he now believes that they chose the wrong producer for the follow-up album ‘Saints or Sinners?’. They worked with Jean Phillippe Illiesco who had just worked on the ‘Magic Fly’ hit by Space which had emerged on the Casablanca label and been a genuine club hit in New York. The hope was that he would help break the band in America; “He just had a different sound in mind to what we had and I think the marriage didn’t work. We never got back to that pinnacle we reached creatively with ‘Can You Feel the Force’.”

In 1986 their three big hit records reached a new and enthusiastic audience in remixed formats and all went top 30 again. Since then they have continued to write and perform, including major arena shows alongside the likes of Rose Royce and Shalamar. They take the band where they can afford that budget, but otherwise they do a playback show, live vocals to a playback track; “It’s that playback show that’s kept us going actually,” Eddy admits.

Royalties on the songs they’ve written have also aided their income, notably from Eddy and Chris Amoo’s writing credit on the song ‘Children of the Ghetto’ which has been recorded by Courtney Pine and then by Philip Bailey from Earth, Wind & Fire. The Real Thing have recorded two different versions of ‘Children of the Ghetto’; Courtney Pine’s jazz version is based on the track on the ’4 From 8′ LP, but Eddy and Chris Amoo also re-wrote it in a different form which they distributed it as a demo version, and Philip Bailey picked up on it; it was his version that is featured on the soundtrack to the film ‘Clockers’.

A few days before I met up with Eddy in Liverpool I heard that the queen of nu-soul herself, Mary J Blige, was performing ‘Children of the Ghetto’ on her world tour. Endearingly, Eddy starts getting excited when I tell him, but then doubts my story; “Really? Is it definitely our ‘Children of the Ghetto’? I’d be made up if I knew Mary J Blige was doing it.”

That artistic recognition for the Real Thing, just out of reach for most of their career, has come via America, ‘Clockers’, and Mary J Blige is ironic given that from the outset the band had looked to America for inspiration. Once I persuade Eddy that it’s definitely their song, he reflects on how valuable the song is to the Real Thing’s career; “It’s brought us a lot of success. It’s never been a hit, but it’s earned us a lot of money but more importantly that song has most probably given us the credibility for me and Chris which our career with the Real Thing had never given us.”

We have little control over history and how our lives are remembered. Eddy recalls Liverpool 8 in the early 1970′s as a very tight-knit community; “It was from the early 70′s onwards that people started to realise that if they stuck together politically they could achieve a lot more than they had in the past. The youth then weren’t as willing as the youth in the early Sixties had been to just accept things and go along with it. They were more forceful. That’s another thing I think that led directly to the riots.”

There’s something poignant about having a career including singalong singles that filled dancefloors like ‘You to Me Are Everything’, irresistible feel good tunes like ‘Can You Feel the Force’, and classic ghetto medleys – all that idealism – but still being painfully aware of a harsher, depressing reality. Especially racism; “I don’t think things are as bad as they were in the early 70′s,” Eddy believes, “But the fact still remains that Liverpool is still a very institutionally racist city. We’re talking about the police, the Council, shops. Even now if you go into the town centre of Liverpool you can actually count the number of black people who actually work in the town centre on your hand and that’s even now.”

It’s clear the band has been undervalued in Liverpool, even though they made a conscious decision not to move to London; “We are a band and we’ve had about nineteen chart entries and I can’t think of one festival or function that we have been invited to do on Merseyside. We do them everywhere else in the country. To me that is totally bizarre.”

He still finds it hard to accept the way he was cold-shouldered when the number one artists were invited down to the Albert Dock; “I just got up and walked away. That, for me, is typical of Liverpool. I can’t think of anywhere else where that would happen.”

He thinks it tells us a lot about how the black community in Liverpool is perceived; “If that happened to us, and we’ve been a highly successful band, what must it be like for people who haven’t had the success that we’ve had or haven’t reached the position that we’ve reached? What must it be like for them if it’s like that for us? To my mind, that says it all.”

Eddy has had to answer the phone a number of times, and he’s given me an hour of us his time, despite being a busy man, and he draws the interview to a close by offering me a lift to the station. Despite the forceful things he has to say about racial issues in Liverpool, he seems a very centred, sweet-natured guy. He tells me that Ray Lake from the band died a couple of years ago, reportedly the victim of a drugs overdose. Dave Smith is still in the Real Thing, as is Chris Amoo, although Chris has also carved out a parallel career as an award-winning dog breeder. Eddy says he feels for the guys from the Chants; “I look back on it as my apprenticeship but for the guys in the Chants they came out with nothing and now it’s like we never existed.”

He’s aware that growing up in Liverpool 8 could have cut down his chances in life, but he’s made it. He’s led a charmed life in comparison to other children of the ghetto. Looking back, he finds it hard to imagine how things might have been for him if it wasn’t for that career in music; “It’s had to say, it’s difficult. When I joined the Chants I was working a paper warehouse in town somewhere, and it was just a Saturday job basically. I really don’t know; maybe I would have ended up working in a car factory or something like that. A lot of my mates ended up doing time and have come out and have got their lives together and maybe it would have been the same for me. Maybe the same thing would have happened to me; maybe I would have got into trouble with the police, the way you do; basically, that’s how it’s laid out for you.”

*Real Thing CD’s currently available include a budget ‘Very Best of…’ (all the hits and more) and a good value and virtually definitive thirty six track anthology ‘Children of the Ghetto’ released in 1999 by Sequel Records, complete with sleeve notes.