The career of the brilliant, tragic English singer-songwriter. From Keep On Rockin No. 11, Winter 1995
Clifford T. Ward was born on 10 February 1944 in Kidderminster. He began his musical career as lead vocalist and pianist with The Secrets, a Midlands band specialising in Motown covers. One single, the Holland-Dozier-Holland composition 'Candy To Me' was issued on Columbia and sank without trace. But there was no shortage of live work at home or in France and Germany. At length they called it a day, partly as Clifford found life on the road too much of a strain on the family, and partly through artistic frustration.
"I got fed up with our material and began to write my own songs. I sent off some tapes to Jimmy Page, who was then working for Immediate Records. He was very enthusiastic and helped me on some sessions at IBC Studios. But then he left to join the Yardbirds, and the record company went into liquidation. I did get a cheque with Andrew Oldham's signature on it for £15 though - which I kept. "
After a few weeks on the dole, he enrolled on a three-year course at teachers' training college. "It tumed out to be very good for me. I always had academic inclinations at school and going back to college enabled me to read again. I kept up my writing and signed as a songwriter with Island, writing some material for Bronco. "
A post teaching English and Drama at North Bromsgrove Comprehensive did not blunt his appetite for a career as a singer-songwriter, which combined his love of English literature with the influences of Randy Newman and Jim Webb. “It’s been put to me that I've got the best of both worlds - the security of teaching and the creativity of music. I love teaching, there are aspects of it which I like very much but I've really got great ambitions in pop music and I would love to be able to sell records."
With the encouragement of Ken Wright, who had been The Secrets' drummer and also worked with him on the solo recordings, he booked into a studio at Birmingham, at the cost of £4 an hour, and sent the results to John Peel. “John was sufficiently impressed to put me on his Dandelion label and I was so overwhelmed at getting a chance to do something for myself that I produced, arranged and recorded the whole thing in about five days."
The debut album, 'Singer Songwriter', was released on Dandelion in the autumn of 1972. Among the other musicians featured were Ken Wright and keyboard player Dave Skinner, formerly of duo Twice As Much (who had a hit in 1966 with the Rolling Stones' song 'Sittin' On A Fence') and later briefly a member of Roxy Music. It ran the gamut of his personal styles and influences, from literature ('A Dream', inspired by John Bunyan's 'Pilgrim's Progress'), and the situation in Northern Ireland ('Leader'). Two singles were released from it. The first, 'Carrie', was based on a novel by early 20th-century American writer Theodore Dreiser, 'Sister Carrie'; the second was 'Coathanger', an early example of his whimsical metaphor - ’If you share my coathanger, I'll be hung on you’ - to say nothing of the novel use of cello in the musical arrangement. A few plays on Radio 1 brought the latter to the edges of the chart.
By the end of 1972 Dandelion was poised to follow Immediate down the tubes. Thankfully, label boss Clive Selwood worked hard to place as many acts on the label as possible with other record companies. Enter Tony Stratton-Smith of Charisma, who took a batch of albums home with him one weekend and decided Clifford was the artist he wanted most. Self-deprecatingly, Clifford told Tony that he had made the wrong choice in commercial terms and should have plumped for Medicine Head, whose 1971 single 'Pictures In The Sky' was the only Dandelion record, 45 or album, to make the UK charts, instead. Fortunately for him, Tony overruled him and promptly signed him up. (Med Head didn't suffer, by the way - they went to Polydor and their next single 'One And One Is One' made the top three).
“I started doing 'Home Thoughts' immediately after the first album, having suddenly awoken to the shattering realisation of what might be done. I got back into the studio and worked like the devil paying much more attention to the production. It's still not a very good album in my estimation."
Steve Clarke of 'NME' (23 June 1973), and many others, thought otherwise:
"Obviously this guy can't maintain the standard of 'Gaye' throughout one whole long playing record, thought I. But look how wrong you can be. With few exceptions the same standard is repeated over and over again on 'Home Thoughts' -surely one of the year's best albums. His voice is haunting, frail and yet clear, only just avoiding cracking...His delivery is totally convincing, all but bringing a tear to the most hardened of cheeks."
The first single, 'Gaye', a poignant song about a girl he had an affair with in France who later committed suicide, was already climbing the charts and gave him a Top 10 hit in July. 'Home Thoughts From Abroad', which Clarke called "possibly the best ballad since 'Eleanor Rigby"', was written in a wry, conversational style. Inspired partly by Browning's poem of the same title, and partly by a visit abroad, it spoke of his yearning to be back in Worcestershire -"do you still use television to send you fast asleep - does the cistern still leak - oh and by the way, how's your broken heart?" 'Wherewithal', the subsequent single, was faster with an infectious hook, while the foot-tapping 'The Dubious Circus Company' used a marching band and sound effects, including elephant - and still worked a treat.
The aura of Clifford's songs transcended any accusations of wimpery. His love songs were emotional, pleading, but couched in a rare, delicate beauty which made comparisons with other contemporary 'love song writers' pointless. If the Carpenters and John Denver were too sugary for some, Clifford was in a different class completely. While too many fellow British singer-songwriters aped or followed contemporary convention and pseudo-Americanisms as a matter of course, he wrote more personal songs about tea-cosies, love affairs interrupted by the Open University, and his handicapped daughter Debbie. Very un-rock'n'roll, and quite unique.
Holding down a teaching career while in the Top 10 inevitably brought problems. "I think I'm being watched closely by the education authorities, " he said at the time. "There is still a faction who regards anyone with anything to do with pop music as a subversive element, who would not have it in the classroom at any cost. Some nights I go home and feel that I've wasted a complete day. I really feel that much of what we are obliged to teach is a complete waste because the kids do not identify with the subjects. It's not the kids' fault - it's the system. The only thing I feel any satisfaction in teaching them is drama. "
Obviously some students were excited to discover an interesting side to one of their staff. "Most of the older kids seem to like the album. They are the ones who knock at the staff room door and ask me to sign it. It only embarrasses me when other teachers show disapproval. The younger kids are very honest about it. The third formers come up and tell me they think it's crap and they prefer Gary Glitter. I don't mind that either. I'd rather a positive reaction than no reaction at all. "
Shortly afterwards Clifford resigned his post in order to devote himself to music full- time. But 'Home Thoughts' was a masterpiece which he found difficult to follow. That winter he made the Top 40 for a second, and final, time with 'Scullery', a taster from the next album 'Mantle Pieces', another exquisite if less outstanding set which again touched the lower reaches of the album chart. A reluctance to take his music out on the road may have had some part in denying him further success. The more up-tempo 'Jigsaw Girl' from the fourth album 'Escalator' - which included another piece of social comment in the dramatic 'Miner' - was a Noel Edmonds record of the week on Radio 1 in April 1975, but failed to sell. So, despite a certain amount of radio exposure, did the next singles 'No More Rock'n'Roll' and the tender 'Ocean Of Love'.
A couple of years later, another Cliff - Mr Richard - who was an ardent fan covered 'Up In The World' on his 1977 album 'Every Face Tells A Story', but Philips' attempt to capitalise on it by slipping the original version out as a single did not have the required effect. Three years later, Michael Jackson had massive success with 'She's Out Of My Life', a thinly-veiled rewrite of Clifford's song, to put it politely. He could have done with a co-writer's credit -where were the lawyers and the royalties when he needed them?
Needing a change of direction, in June 1977 Clifford took a recently-written batch of songs to New England. Working with an outside producer, Bill Halverson, and arranger Jimmy Haskell - best remembered for his contributions to Simon and Garfunkel's 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' - produced the album 'New England Days', which included an excellent version of Tim Moore's 'I Got Lost Tonight'. Despite continued plaudits from the critics, it seemed that only a small minority were still buying the records.
Clifford continued to write, record, and occasionally work abroad during the 805, until a worse enemy than commercial failure struck. One day in 1986 he was mowing the lawn at home and kept on falling over. A trip to the doctor confirmed the worst; he was in the first stages of multiple sclerosis. It was a cruel blow to one of the most remarkable songwriting talents of all. One can hardly do better than quote from fellow singer-songwriter Dave Cartwright's notes to the 1992 compilation CD 'Gaye And Other Stories'; "When I think of the potential that has been lost here, I get mad. Clifford could have, should have been a huge star... The mind so creative, inventive, unique, is now trapped in a frame that cannot function."
That was not quite the end of the story. In 1992 a stage musical, 'Shattered World', was based on his life and fight with ill-health. Half of the score consisted of his own songs, and the rest of numbers written about him. Two years later he recorded a new album, 'Julia And Other New Stories' on the independent Midlands label Graduate. To do so must have been an amazing feat; apparently he crawled into his 8-track studio at home on all fours to put the songs down on tape. 'Julia' of the title track was Julia Somerville, the TV newscaster who had recovered from brain surgery. The opening track of the CD consisted of a short spoken endorsement by Cliff Richard.
"I have not and will not come to terms with this illness," he told the local press at about this time. "There are times - usually quite late at night -when I'm almost normal again. But unless they find a cure for this dreadful MS, then I don't see a future."
Other artists such as Justin Hayward, Judy Collins, Art Garfunkel and Jack Jones have followed Cliff in recording and performing his songs, and the royalties are naturally much appreciated by a man confined to a wheelchair, whose speech is often indistinct and who relies on a meagre invalidity benefit. Most of his albums are available again on CD, 'Singer Songwriter' having resurfaced as part of Beat Goes On's programme of Dandelion reissues, for example. And if ever there was a cast-iron case for doing the ethical thing by going out there and buying an artist's records -and NOT taping somebody else's copy -surely this is it.
UPDATE – Clifford passed away on 18 December 2001. His music lives on. The results of a BBC Radio 2 listeners’ poll, ‘Best of British’ (favourite British songs of the previous 50 years, to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee), were broadcast on 1 June 2002. ‘Home Thoughts From Abroad’ was No. 4 (behind the far better-known ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, and ‘Imagine’).