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.”