Peter Straker – A Man Of Many Parts

Peter Straker is someone many bosses of the recording industry just can’t make out. “They think I should be a soul singer or do reggae, just because of my ethnic background. They’re not prepared to accept that I’m into totally different music,” he said, when Gay News interviewed him.

He’s tall and languid. He’d been to a party the night before then gone straight on to the BBC radio programme Open House with Pete Murray as part of the promotion for his new album, Private Parts.

Dressed in black, he curls himself elegantly into an armchair in the darkest corner of the room. Until he switches the lamp on there are times in the failing November light off Holland Park when it seems we were talking into empty space – and that empty space is talking back to us.

He’s just woken up. He’s been sleeping most of the day, after that party and the radio show.

He says: “I came from Jamaica 17 years ago, but that’s history now. Before I went into Hair I was on the road with a band but it was nothing.

“I think I did nine auditions for Hair, it was just nerve-racking and farcical. I didn’t know anything about the musical, I was touring at the time and my manager phoned me and asked me to come back to London for the auditions. I’d done auditions for shows before, so I refused. In the end he came down and dragged me back to London and then the nine auditions started.

“I was in Hair for about 21 months, and I really liked it but I got fed up with it after about a year or so. I got fed up and I had to leave and find something fresh to do.”

Peter Straker is half-actor and half-singer. Hair used both those talents, and it made Peter Straker. Now he has released an amazingly honest album called Private Parts, baring his soul in a way that could never have been done in terms of pop music before Hair.

He says: “Hair, as a musical, has broken so many barriers entertainment-wise and in so many ways. It’s a very ingenuous musical.

“But it touched on every major topic of today – and that was three years ago. We were due to open in July, but that was held up until the Lord Chamberlain’s office (which censored the stage shows) was abolished.

“Apart from the flower-power aspect, it dealt with all the important subjects, like pollution, disarmament and so on. I reckon that’s why Hair has lasted so well, even after the flower-child culture has more or less died.

“Because the critics are so blank in their imaginations they always go back to Hair every time a new musical with rock music opens, like Godspell or Jesus Christ. They always say something like “It’s very nice, but it lacks the zest of Hair.’

“But they don’t go back to Rogers and Hart every time an ordinary musical opens. Critics can only talk about the forms they know, so they classify everything into one of those forms.

“A criticism is just the personal view of one man or one woman, and it forgets the thirty or so actors, umpteen technicians involved and all the money that has been put into a show, and even if it’s a bad show it’s still had a lot of money poured into it.

“In two hours a man is going to come in, and make up a lot of people’s minds about a show – and some of them don’t even sit all the way through a show. I think critics are very over-rated, and, generally, superficial.

“I was the victim of bad reviews with Girl Stroke Boy (Straker’s first movie, and certainly not his last. For G/B he dropped his first name) which wasn’t all bad, although it had many faults.”

Straker played a boy whose boyfriend takes him home. The boyfriend’s parents don’t seem to realise that their son’s girlfriend is a boy. What they object to is her/his being black.

By this time Peter Straker was warming up/waking up. He said: “The reviewers were just trying to make it into a vast racial transvestite mountain. It would have been alright if they had just stuck to the movie’s failings as a comedy. And there were many, which I think were the fault of the director.

“When I read the script it was just hysterical but it didn’t turn out as well as it should have. But it was the chance of a lifetime. A first movie with just three principles, and the others were Joan Greenwood and Michael Hordern.

“We were talking about the movie and they said that I was going to be labeled as one thing or the other because of the part, if I took it. So I said I didn’t mind. The moment I knew I was making the movie I was conscious of what was going to be said about it and me. We have been offered some things to do already, but they have been very strange and I haven’t wanted to do them.

“Girl Stroke Boy opened at the Prince Charles, which didn’t give it much of a chance but it had quite a good run for that cinema, then it turned up again this year as part of a double bill with something called School For Virgins. I thought that was ridiculous, the movies were so different.”

Girl Stroke Boy may have had a rough time with the critics but it has opened new avenues in Peter Straker’s career. “I’ve had quite a lot of other scripts to read, but they all seem to be the same part, and I don’t want to do the same thing twice. It gets boring. Most of the things I have done so far have been seen to be controversial, and I don’t expect anything to happen without a hassle.” Some time ago he released a single of Jacques Brel’s Carousel – which got precisely nowhere commercially. So he went on acting. And Private Parts is his first return to the recording studios since Carousel. It, too, is a spin-off from Girl Stroke Boy.

He says: “Ned Sherrin, who produced Girl Stroke Boy, has a wonderful talent for getting people together, and he introduced me to Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley, who were going to write a theme song for the movie for me to sing. But that fell through at the last moment, and we started to talk about the idea that became Private Parts.

“Almost every time I have been auditioned for any part the producers have said: ‘What bag do you see yourself in?’ I don’t. It’s the same with record producers in this country they think I’ve got to sing reggae or soul just because of my ethnic background.

“Private Parts happened this way really. When one is faced with making an album, one is faced with problems of what one is going to record. You can write all your own songs, like Leonard Cohen upwards or downwards, depending on how you see him. Or you can sing a selection of all the old songs everyone else does.

“The third option is to record an album of entirely new material. Ken and Alan said they wanted to do a ‘concept’ album and we started to talk about our ideas – it has taken nearly a year to talk about — about a ‘concept’ (their ideas and my ideas). They had to work very hard because they had to come up with all the material for the album.

“RCA were absolutely marvellous. They let an unknown singer get on with a work like this. And they put a lot of money into the project. And Ken and Alan just gave me the songs and let us get on with recording them. The sound was left up to us.

“Everything on the album has happened to me, but not necessarily in the order the events come up in on the album. We talked about so many things we didn’t have space to put on the album. We have tried to go through a whole pattern from childhood through the first sexual experiences and so on, through bum trips and the death of my father. It’s very personal to me.”

We asked him to expand on this, but all he’d say was that Denis Lemon had found the right word when he called the album ‘explicit’ in Gay News. “That’s the best word I can think of to describe the record.” he said, as the lady from the costumiers arrived to measure him up for the clothes he’s wear at his Queen Elizabeth Hall Concert.

He wanted it in black, he said, handing round the Harrods chocolates. He’d been thinking of having medieval trumpet-style sleeves. Velvet would be nice they agreed, for the coat he’d wear over the black shirt and trousers – trumpet sleeves on the shirt of course. He’d been thinking of having studs on the inside of the coat so that, if it ever came open, it would flash silver. The costumes lady thought this would make the coat too heavy. Why not have a nice beige lining and maybe a row of studs along the inside edge. All was agreed over another Harrods’chocolate.

Peter Straker was getting excited about the concert by now. They’d been having a little trouble with the sets. He’d wanted a big sweeping set, but the orchestra took up so much space,that idea had to go. They were still working on it. Whatever it was going to be, it was going to be dramatic.

He remembered a Dusty Springfield single he wanted to play. He said: “I’m sure it’s here somewhere – I play it almost every day” as he went through a pile of records, looked under the ornaments and moved the cushions.

He said: “Private Parts is just an expression of sexuality. It’s a personal expression of what has happened, although I couldn’t look at a specific thing andsay that it is something that happened at some particular time in some particular place.

“I don’t know whether we will ever come to terms with sex, because it is the most important part of our lives, no matter what form the sex takes.

“The normal thing is for people to grow up and for men and women to go out together and then procreate. Fortunately Hair broke down an awful lot of barriers for me. I tried not to get uptight about anything. The only thing I got all uptight about on the album was when we did the song about my first sexual experience.

“I think it’s on the third track, in the song about best friends in childhood. You know, the best friend you always have, but you can accept your sex with him or her, and don’t see it as anything odd.

“Children have a very different way of seeing things, It’s not innocent, they are aware. If you put a lot of children together they’ll notice that one’s black and another’s yellow and so on, but they don’t care.

“We moved through that and we moved through the first time one is conscious of the opposite sex – and that’s important, because we all go through that, whatever happens afterwards. I’m aware of gay people, but I’m not very aware of the gay organisations.

“The album is very personal because I discussed everything with Ken and Alan. We tried to be explicit – as explicit as Jacques Brel.

“They probably know more about me than anyone else. I welcomed their involvement, because I didn’t want the responsibility of sitting down and writing something for myself to do. Nothing that was written was presented to me as a fait accompli. We’d talk about what they’d written. For instance the track called While You Were Dying is an account of my feelings when my father was dying, and that was possibly the most personal thing to do on record.”

He can’t find that Dusty Springfield single but it was “divine. We’re booking a table for Dusty’s show at the Talk of the Town. Come along.”

Peter Straker is a Scorpio in this Age of Aquarius, and he says: “That’s important, very important.”

Tricky Dicky – The Gay Liberator

Less than two years ago Richard Scanes was a public health inspector with a reputation for pulling the girls. Now he’s Tricky Dicky, the gay dee-jay who’s given up the pretence of living a straight life, but puts all his energy every night of the week into getting gays to come out and into their home surroundings.

Tricky Dicky has a discotheque booking every night of the week in places well out of the usual gay areas. And that’s one of his aims, he told Gay News. He started at The Father Red Cap in Camberwell, now he has discos at The Kings Arms in Liverpool Street and the Arabian in Bethnal Green as well as monthly discos in Southend and the occasional shuffle up the Thames.

He told GN: “Usually a gay stays anonymous in his home area and only takes off his protective overcoat when he gets to Earls Court and the gay ghettoes, as they have beer called in Gay News.

“What’s happening now is that people are opening gay bars and gay discos in their areas and it’s possible for the gay to come out in the East End, and we’ve got to learn to do that.

“The places I work at are in the middle of nowhere, but then all the big discotheques are in the West End. Now DJs are taking discotheques to the people. I offer people a show of the same standard as they’ll get in a West End club but in the area they live in.

“And in the places I work gay people have the liberty they should have. You go to the Catacombs and try dancing together there. All these big names won’t let boys dance together, perhaps they are being leant on, but all that they have is something like a parade.

“At my discos the gay boys and gay girls can dance together and no-one is going to say a word. This time last year you wouldn’t have seen gay people dancing together.”

Now Tricky Dicky is playing sounds for gay girls and men to dance to every night of the week, thanks to his break at the Father Redcap.

He says: “About 18 months ago I had heard that the governor of the Father Redcap was gay and I phoned him and said ‘I am gay, I am a DJ’ and he gave me the chance to get started.

“Now it’s up to three nights a week disco there and one night of stage show, when I play records and do impressions. I might put on a wig or something like that, but I wouldn’t wear full drag. At present I’m formulating my act for Leader of the Pack.

“The Redcap would like me to do more evenings a week, but I want to get discos going in other areas, so I won’t increase the number of nights I spend there.”

He says he tries to make his evening’s work more entertaining than just someone putting on a record after another. He plans the evening’s show. But that’s not the only thing he plans. He says: “Gay discos can get bigger and better, and that’s what we’re working on now. In fact, we are something like six or eight years behind straight discotheques. There always have been gay places in the West End, but one day there’ll be strings of gay discotheques all over London and in the bigger provincial towns.

“Maybe it won’t be Tricky Dicky who’ll be running them, but, at least, I’ll have done something towards making them possible. I’m in this business to make money. I wouldn’t pretend otherwise, but my main aim is to entertain my fellow gays, and to play my favourite sort of music – soul music, which has a very strong following among gays.”

We spoke to him one Thursday night. The night before he’d done The Arabian in Bethnal Green. “Last night,” he said cheerfully, “I made £1.50. No-one can say I’m making a fortune at that rate. The Southend trips I’ve run have made a small profit. The Brighton trip made a small loss. And the riverboat shuffle – well, I thought I was going to be running the thing at a loss until the night when all the people turned up. By the Wednesday before I’d only sold about 60 tickets. It looked like being a disaster.”

But the prospect of a financial disaster doesn’t stop Tricky Dicky ploughing the money he makes back into equipment and other stunts. He insists that gay mobile discos must be the same high quality as you’d get in a major West End club and that gays must have a parallel of every event that the straight world organises for itself. If there are straight New Year’s parties, he says, there should be gay New Year’s parties. That’s why he’ll be featuring all the Christmassy tracks by soul singers later next month.

Of the 170 gays at his last disco at South-end, only 50 came with Tricky Dicky from London.

For the 32-year-old DJ that’s a success because “it’s something like treble the number we had at the one before, the first one. And it means that 120 gays from all round Southend got a chance to go to a gay disco, and they don’t get that chance very often.”

Tricky Dicky is trying to find new places to hold gay discos. He’d like to have a place in North London. At present, he’s south of the river at Camberwell and in East London. Being at two places in the East End pleases Dick no end. “There must be just as many gays per square mile in the East End as there are in Earls Court. And I’m an East Ender born and bred. Only about five years ago there were about four or five pubs you could single out as being gay. But they’ve changed now, I don’t know why, so someone has got to give the East End gays a social life.”

For someone who is working almost full-time for gays – apart from weddings on Saturday afternoons – Tricky Dicky is fairly recently come-out. He says: “When I was a public health inspector, until 18 months ago, I pretended to be straight, because there weren’t any other gay public health inspectors. At least, there weren’t as far as I could see.

“I really started to come out when I was 25, when I broke off my engagement. No-one could understand why. I was only three months off being married before I realised which path to take.

“When I told my mates I was gay most of them said ‘You’re kidding’. But then I had been going up to the Ilford Palais with them pulling the birds and trying to lay them in the back of cars. They couldn’t believe I was gay because I seemed so normal to them.

“One thing I’ve noticed about the way people behave through my discos is people coming up and saying ‘You’re camp up on stage,’ but they never thought that when I was pretending to be straight. I think it shows that a lot of people’s everyday behaviour can be interpreted as ‘camp’ if others want to see it that way.

“If we are going to have parallels between gay entertainment and straight entertainment, it means we have to have equality in the quality of the entertainment on offer, as well as equality in social life.

“If that’s what gay equality means then I’m doing what these GLF and CHE people are supposed to be working for. There are enough people worrying about the politics of equality, so I’m just giving the people equality in my way. I’ve never been very keen on GLF, but then I’ve only seen it from the outside.

“All I saw was the intense political side, which is what you see from the outside. But then, most people can only see it from the outside until they get into it. And if the outside appearances put them off they’re never going to get into the inside to see it from that way round.”

We suggested there was more toleration of gays in the East End then in the middle class areas of West London. As an East Ender, Tricky Dicky knew the answer: “The East End boy learns a lot more about sex from experience than from education. And in the East End brothers very often have to sleep together, so they get used to the idea of sleeping with boys. And as any healthy boy is going to start masturbating when he reaches puberty, sex between brothers is looked on as something very normal, and no-one thinks it’s odd or gay or at all out of the ordinary.

“I think gays find greater acceptance from the older people in the East End, but less tolerance from the younger people.”

With the US elections only a few weeks back, Tricky Dicky was at pains to explain that his name is nothing to do with Richard Millhouse Nixon. “It was a nickname a girl in my office gave me,” he says. “I was having a bit of a thing with her, nothing sexual, mind. And it was long before Nixon became president.”