Nothing wrong with jukebox musicals says Million Dollar Quartet’s Martin Kemp, in Ipswich this week
PUBLISHED: 12:30 20 November 2017 | UPDATED: 15:52 25 November 2017
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Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley’s impromptu jam session at Sun Records in 1956 was a seminal moment for rock and roll. It inspired the Tony award-winning Broadway and West End smash Million Dollar Quartet, in Ipswich this week. We spoke to its star Martin Kemp.
Q: You didn’t hesitate when asked to return to the role of legendary record producer Sam Phillips...
For a lot of people, that period was the highlight of their life. I did the show in London’s Royal Festival Hall and people were dancing in the aisles, every song meant something to them. It wasn’t just an older crowd, it was kids who were, maybe for the first time, listening to the songs.
That’s why you do these shows, that’s why you become an actor. You don’t do it for your own ego, well, I don’t anymore, maybe I did when I was younger (laughs). When you look out to the audience and everyone is smiling, that’s the real payback you look for.
I jumped at the chance. I knew the story from when I was 17-18... that moment Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis all bumped into each other and had this amazing jam session. It was recorded by the engineer but they lost those tapes soon after and it wasn’t until Sun Records was sold and the new owner did an inventory that they found some of it.
I’ve always wanted to be a fly on the wall during that session. For me, this is like living out a fantasy,
Q: Philips - who’s been played in the show by Jason Donovan and Peter Duncan was a musical powerhouse...
Oh my goodness, absolutely... It was a moment in time when everything came together. He’s very similar to Malcolm Mclaren in the way he was right at that pinnicle when he drew all the strings to create punk. All the ingredients were there, it just needed pulling together. I remember seeing bands like AC/DC that were punk rock at one point, Eddie and the Hotrods (from Essex), the early Buzzcocks; bands like that were one step away from being punk but it was Malcolm who pushed the whole sound over the edge with the Sex Pistols.
That’s what Sam did. Rock and roll was almost there with blues, electric guitars coming in... he pushed it that one stage further.
Sun Records was the place you’d go and cut a record for your mum and dad, it was almost like a giant recording booth. You remember those things in the 1970s at the train stations? You’d go in, make a record and it would come out as this slim disc? It wasn’t until one day when Elvis came in the world and changed for Sam - but he was clever enough to recognise it straight away.
Q: People need inspiring...
What you’re talking about is pop culture. I’m really proud of being part of that with Spandau Ballet. Kids have always had to have something to rebel against, until now that is, which I think is a real shame. At the moment there’s no real new pop culture on the horizon. Pop culture for kids today is sadly sitting behind a computer screen looking at Facebook and YouTube.
The 1950s had that rebellious edge to it. Kids were dressing to shock their mums and dads. Then you went into mods, rockers and even teddy boys doing the same thing. For me, the last of the great pop culture (periods) was of the new romantics.
Q: I grew up with the music of the 1980s...
It was the last decade of the great pop song, the pop band. As soon as the 1980s turned into the 1990s it became DJ culture and put an end to it all. That was the sell-by date on Spandau. It was only later on, in retrospect, when people started to look at it again, enjoy it again because it was part of their growing up.
Sometimes I think some of the best sounding music I’ve heard, that I’ve heard for a long time, is old 1980s songs when new techniques were coming in, synthesisers were being used differently. It was the last decade of the great big studio and big mixing desks we used to use.
I remember the last time Spandau were in the studio. We were in Sarm West, where we recorded Do They Know It’s Christmas, but instead of using all the giant desks it was streamed to somebody’s laptop. Things have moved on.
Q: Jukebox musicals have become big business...
There’s this dirty phrase aura around ‘jukebox musicals’ and there shouldn’t be. Things have to be taken for what they are. When you go to something do you get fun out of it? if you do - people like Jersey Boys, the first of the jukebox musicals, it’s run for years - there’s nothing wrong with that.
Million Dollar Quartet sits somewhere in the middle. You get all of this great music, but you also get a great story. That night Elvis took lead on the piano... he knew Jerry Lee Lewis was a much better pianist than him so he stayed put.
Q: What do you enjoy most...
I look forward to the character of Sam. He’s so confident and charismatic; he’s that southern gentlemen who’s got this soft edge but really hard interior. He’s great fun. The whole thing is a buzz. I love a bit of acting and I get to stand in front of a live band every night playing those great songs - that’s two of my favourite things on one stage.