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Music interview – Alan Hawkshaw: ‘I missed my chance to be a Beatle’

Composer Alan Hawkshaw at work in his studio.
Composer Alan Hawkshaw at work in his studio.
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His name may familiar to few but the most avid record collectors yet Leeds-born Alan Hawkshaw is a musician who has brushed shoulders with the likes of The Beatles, David Bowie and Serge Gainsbourg as well as composing some of the best-known theme tunes on television, including Grange Hill and Countdown.

Over more than 50 years in music he has won several awards while an instrumental track he wrote called The Champ has become one of the most sampled songs in pop music history.

Despite his considerable success, he remains close to his Leeds roots, and in particular the city’s College of Music, where his charitable foundation helps students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“I started off as a printer in Leeds,” says the 81-year-old, recalling his early years. “I used to work at Knight & Forster, which was a firm down on Water Lane, and I realised after serving an apprenticeship there’s got to be something better in life than that.

“During my teens I was working with semi-pro bands – it was all 50s music, dance bands and all this stuff. We were doing gigs round and about Leeds which was fantastic because it would earn an extra couple of quid a week if you got one a week. A couple of quid in those days would pay for your mortgage.”

Around 1959 one of the groups he was in, run by Bill Marsden, decided to turn professional – and invited Hawkshaw to join them as their piano player. The following year, when the band were booked for a summer season in Blackpool, Hawkshaw quit a secure day job and became a full-time musician. “By then I was working at Petty’s [on Whitehall Road] and told the foreman I was leaving. He immediately offered me another couple of quid a week, so I thought ‘Why didn’t I think of this before?’ But that was it.”

Alan Hawkshaw with students from Leeds College of Music, where his Foundation has strong links.

Alan Hawkshaw with students from Leeds College of Music, where his Foundation has strong links.

Not everything ran smoothly. Two-thirds of the way through the summer season Hawkshaw was fired when the band realised they could no longer afford his services, but fatefully the guitarist in another band playing in Blackpool spotted an advert in a music paper “from the Grade Organisation auditioning for a job with a well-known star as a piano player”. Hawkshaw passed with flying colours – “I’d been used to playing more jazzy stuff and the auditions were all three-chord stuff, which was a piece of cake,” he recalls – and became a member of Emile Ford’s band The Checkmates.

Ford was then a household name, on the back of hits such as What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes at Me For?, and the money was good – £25 a week – but after two years the whole band fell out with the singer and were left without a star.

They managed to find work in Hamburg – at the same time as a then-unknown Beatles. Hawkshaw remembers: “We started off there at the Top Ten Club and the Star Club, where The Beatles were appearing, was just down the street. They were resident there and we used to eat with The Beatles in the seamen’s mission in Hamburg. In fact John Lennon actually asked me what was it like to be on television because they’d never done anything like that – this was long before they’d made it. I can’t remember what I said to him but what I should have said was ‘If you want to be on television you should have a good keyboard player in your band – me’. So I missed my chance to be a Beatle.”

Although The Checkmates soldiered on with little success the 60s, Hawkshaw found himself in demand as a session musician. “Then I got married in ’68 and decided that I could exist on two or three sessions a week without all the schlepping around the country doing one-nighters,” he says.

Richard Whiteley used to say I wrote the theme to Countdown in the toilet – and he’s probably right, it’s not a musical challenge, let’s face it.

Alan Hawkshaw

That work would consume much of his time in London for the next 12 years. “I was one of the top five keyboard players so we were kept very busy. The only way you could make records on those days was to actually have musicians play them so I would play in various size bands and orchestras, on film work, TV work, recording work, in all the studios – EMI, Abbey Road, Decca, Phillips – they were crying out for musicians. We had a golden period from 1967 until 1981 where I was busy.”

One of those sessions was for John Peel’s Top Gear programme on Radio 1 with a young David Bowie. “One of the songs was an original called In The Heat of the Morning and it just said in the fade section ‘ad lib organ’. I started flying around the organ like I’d do in this very percussive way of playing and they just kept the tape rolling. If you listen to the original that fade is as long at least as the main body of the song.”

Around the same time Bowie was also making a jingle for Luv ice cream. “Ridley Scott was directing it and they picked a piece of music of mine called Luv, which I’d written for a group called Mint. Bowie’s miming to it and it’s very raucous.”

During that period Hawkshaw was busy writing library music. “Some of those library pieces were picked for various themes on TV – Grange Hill was one of them, that was originally a library piece of music [called Chicken Man]. Then Channel 4 News, that was much later in 1982.”

Alan Hawkshaw received an honorary doctorate from Hull University and Leeds College of Music.

Alan Hawkshaw received an honorary doctorate from Hull University and Leeds College of Music.

Yorkshire Television regularly commissioned music too – including, most famously, for the game show Countdown. “The Countdown theme was done under duress,” Hawkshaw says. “I was doing three series for Yorkshire – one of them was an Arthur C Clarke series which was all synthesised music, it took a long time to put together and they were turning them out one a week. Then they rang me and said ‘We’ve got this pilot we’re putting together for this quiz show, words and numbers, and calling it Countdown – could you give us a demo of some ideas?’ I said ‘What is it?’ They said ‘Thirty-second opening/closing and some clock music where they’re thinking. It has to build. Can you do it?’ I said ‘All right’ then put the phone down and completely forgot about it.

“About a week later the guy rang me and said ‘Have you got anything ready?’ I lied through my teeth and said ‘Yes, I have. I’ll send it as soon as I can’ then I went and wrote the Countdown theme in no time. The rumour is, as [Richard] Whiteley used to say, ‘he wrote it in the toilet’ – and he’s probably right, it’s not a musical challenge, let’s face it. The demo was pretty awful, to be honest, but they stuck it on the pilot. When I finally saw it, with Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman, who was very new to television, I thought ‘This show is not going to last five minutes, it really is bad’. It was the first show ever on Channel 4 in 1982 and it’s still on.

“I’ve re-recorded it two or three times over the years, so what you’re hearing now is a much posher version. If you heard the original version you’d laugh.”

In the 1970s Hawkshaw also toured with The Shadows. The arrangement came about via a friendship with Brian Bennett, who Hawkshaw first bonded a decade earlier with through a shared love of jazz. Bennett had replaced Tony Meehan as The Shadows’ drummer. “One thing led to another,” says Hawkshaw. “I did some arrangements for The Shadows and Cliff Richard and then Bruce [Welch] decided to hang up his shoes so they asked me to be the keyboard player. We did the Far East and Europe with Cliff and Olivia Newton-John.”

Hawkshaw’s arrangement for the Newton-John hit I Honestly Love You won an award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He says: “Oddly enough I only got paid the going rate for doing it, which was 30 quid. I’ve got a big certificate on the wall, it looks like it’s earned a fortune. It probably did for her but not for me.”

Between 1973 and 1976, Hawkshaw worked on a trilogy of albums with the French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg. The first, Vu de l’exterieur, was recorded with a group of British musicians at Phillips Studio in Marble Arch, London. Hawkshaw remembers; “Serge spoke very limited English and he was very laid back. He liked to make things up on the spot. We were all pretty well hardened session musicians but I realised he had nothing structured for us to do and that’s one thing that session men hate – they like to know what they’re doing, they don’t want to do it too many times, they want to get it done and get on, but this was the opposite.”

Alan Hawkshaw outside the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany in the early 1960s.

Alan Hawkshaw outside the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany in the early 1960s.

Hawkshaw suggested the band took a tea break while he spoke to Gainsbourg. “I said to Serge, ‘Give me some idea of what you want’ and he said ‘I have this feeling’ and he’s going into all this stuff. I said ‘What is the song?’ Everything he did was spoken-word, there was hardly anything sung, so he kind of gave me an idea of what he was looking for and I sketched out a part for one song. They boys came back, we did it, he loved it and we worked all day and finished up with two or three tracks. Normally you would do four or five easily, but this way was taking time. At least we finished up with something. From then on he wanted to work with me.”

The partnership led Hawkshaw to work on albums by Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani and Jane Birkin. “It was quite a lot of work over a longish period,” he notes.

Of Gainsbourg’s records, he says: “Most of the arrangements you hear, if I’d been of a mind I could have claimed some of that copyright. But they used to pay me well and I was happy to do it, so what the heck.”

Hawkshaw says he misses Gainsbourg “a lot”. “He was a great guy, we used to have some laughs as his English got a bit better and our French got a bit better.”

In the 1990s Hawkshaw’s vast repertoire of library music – that also included the theme to comedian Dave Allen’s TV show; he also played on the Grandstand theme, written by Keith Mansfield – began to be rediscovered and released on albums such as The Sound Gallery. Where once it had served a utilitarian purpose, now it’s “considered part of our culture in itself”.

“Producers and composers are using it just for the value of the music, because it was played live. The stuff that we wrote in that period was written for the day, it wasn’t meant to last a long time, but it’s now more popular than it was then.”

Hip-hop producers, in particular, began to plunder Hawkshaw’s work for samples. “People find it and give you a joint composition,” he says. “I’ve had Jay-Z used a piece called Pray on his Number One album American Gangster with Beyonce singing it.”

The composer has been interviewed for Shawn Lee’s documentary The Library Music Film. He also features in a programme about the Mohawks’ track The Champ – a piece sampled numerous times by the likes of Salt-N-Pepa, Eric B and Rakim, MC Hammer, Ice Cube and De La Soul – plus another documentary, called One More Time, about session musicians.

In September Hawkshaw and Bennett are due to release a new album on KPM Records, called Full Circle. “It coincides with KPM’s 75th anniversary and there’s going to be a concert by the KPM All-Stars and a documentary is being made.”

He’s also in talks with the Northern Film School, based in Leeds, about students making a short animated film featuring his music. “I am passionate about music and the arts, particularly if it’s in Leeds,” he says. “I’ve got this idea I want to do called The Dragonfly Suite which is about a little girl who gazes in a pool and she wants to be a dragonfly. I’ve got this idea for an animated ballet and I’ve written a 20-minute thing that’s all orchestral and uplifting and we’re talking about doing it. It’s a great chance to get out of the box and make something really special and enter it in a competition or sell it to television. It has no barriers, it has no borders, it’s all visual so it will go to any country. It’s aimed at kids under 10 but it would also be appealing to adults.”

There’s also a musical, called Across The Wall, co-written with David Soames, that they are trying to raise funds to stage in the West End. “If anybody asks me ‘what is the most fulfilling work you’ve ever done?’ that would be it,” he says. Set in 1988, it tells the story of a young East German woman whose ambition is to become an opera singer. The show is to be directed by stage and screen star Paul Nicholas. “It’s a big thing about a girl that wants to make it as a diva but she lives on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, so the only way she’s only ever going to get the freedom to do it is to escape.” It’s a theme that is close to Hawkshaw’s heart as wife, Christiane, is German.

Hawkshaw’s daughter Kirsty followed him into the music business, scoring a top five hit in the 1990s with the dance group Opus III. “She’s very good,” he says proudly. “She’s more into techno. She’s done some library music.”

Among the composer’s many accolades are an Ivor Novello award for his music for the documentary The Silent Witness, a Bafta nomination for his theme to the Adam Faith/Zoe Wanamaker comedy-drama Love Hurts, a Gold Badge for services to the music industry and a doctorate from Leeds College of Music and Hull University.

The Alan Hawkshaw Foundation has a longstanding association with the College of Music, helping “underprivileged talent to be given a chance – that’s what we concentrated on when I started it 40 years ago”.

“The basic thing about it was to concentrate on fringe instruments, the ones that are not as popular. People were all going for guitars and drums for courses and degrees but what about the bassoons and trombones and tubas, double basses – fringe instruments that are necessary for any orchestra, they were been neglected so we concentrated on that. Now it’s more varied, we have classical and jazz pianists, and it’s still ongoing. It’s been wonderful to see some of the great talent of these kids. They’ve got to prove that they can’t afford it and they have an audition and if they qualify they do degree courses.”

Since converting to Mormonism, Hawkshaw has become an active member of his local community in Hertfordshire and for the past 25 years, he has also donated 10 per cent of his income towards the welfare of people less well- off. “It’s a great way of paying back, the same way as the Foundation,” he says. “In fact I dedicated quite a portion of the Countdown royalties to go to [Leeds] College [of Music]. That’s where the money’s coming from for that.”

For more information visit www.alanhawkshaw.com.