A Knight to Remember
So how does a millionaire ageing Christian pop star, as Sir Cliff puts it, keep himself busy now he’s 64? By recording an album in Nashville, letting Tony and Cherie use his Barbados home, and feeling the love of his fans. Harriet Lane is impressed.
Sunday November 14, 2004
Forty-six years, 119 single hits (and 52 international number ones), 59 bestselling albums. It’s not bad going, is it, Sir Cliff? During the last half-century, spent around the top end of the music industry, you must have met some incredible people, and seen – and even done – some crazy things, right? So: what’s your ultimate rock’n’rolly memory?
Sir Cliff Richard puts his cup of coffee back on its saucer. A small crease appears on his conker-smooth, conker-brown forehead. ‘Hmm. If you’re talking about meeting people, having a great time… well, I really enjoyed being with Neil Diamond. I loved his music a lot. We have a mutual friend in Gloria Hunniford and she arranged a dinner, oh, about six years ago, and we were in the Langham Hotel, in a big room, and after dinner we were all singing, and somebody complained that we were keeping them awake. Ha ha! I guess they never knew it was Neil and me.
‘And Gloria,’ he adds, just for accuracy’s sake. Naturally, Cliff and Neil (and Gloria) piped down as soon as the request came, though. Of course they did.
I hadn’t expected to warm to Cliff Richard. I had imagined he’d be a bit of a prig. But come on, this kind of thing is irresistible. In this most worldly of businesses, Sir Cliff (or ‘millionaire ageing Christian rock star Cliff Richard’ as he gamely refers to himself, spoofing his media handle) radiates a very convincing, and rather wonderful, unworldliness.
He has always been resolutely, haplessly uncool and now, finally, this is delivering its own rewards. Not for him the girlfriends four decades younger and two feet taller; not for him the rickety stage gyrations that remind you of oilfield derricks in need of a squirt of WD40. No: Sir Cliff’s famous chastity, now he’s 64, looks very much as if it has saved his dignity. It means his fans’ fantasies remain unsullied too. The ever-restrained knight of courtly love has never let them down, never betrayed them with a serious girlfriend or a speeding ticket, let alone a wife, an affair, an addiction to narcotics or booze, or incautious remarks about the royal family. If he splashes out, it’s on charity. ‘Some people want rock’n’roll to be “sex, drugs and…”. And I said, no. No! Rock’n’roll can manage without sex and drugs!’ Miraculously, uniquely, he is still as snowy-white as his lyrics.
Cliff knows how important this is to the people who buy his records, his Portuguese red wine, his handbag-sized scent atomisers, his concert tickets. According to some of his friends, certain artists spend 20 minutes of stage time using ‘the F word’. Cliff finds this truly baffling.
Why would anyone do that? he asks me. Why? ‘I’ve never embarrassed anybody – never embarrassed my fans,’ he says, proudly. ‘They can bring their grandmother, their daughter, their grandson to see a concert, knowing that they’ll get pure pop-rock music with no side to it.’ Sometimes, though, they don’t seem that bothered about the music. ‘Now, I sometimes get the feeling that my fans would be happy if I just stood and talked to them, really.’ He corrects himself, awkwardly. ‘I’m being extreme in presenting that case, but they like me. They like me.’
And, do you know, they like each other as well. He regularly gets letters that say, ‘We love coming to your performances because we met Josephine and Derek and Fred and Jane about four years ago, and we only ever see them at your concerts.’ Sometimes, he likes to sneak a peek at the audience as the house is filling, ‘and you’ll see knots of people, a couple up there, three or four there, a big bunch over there, people talking. It’s like a real club, and you’re the reason they’re all there. How fantastic that you’d be the reason why people keep in touch!’
Perhaps because he lacks emotional or familial ties, Cliff often says things like this. He likes to emphasise the importance of his role at the edge of strangers’ lives – emerging irrepressibly for feast days and celebrations like the Christmas-pudding sixpence. ‘Congratulations’, the tune which came second to Spain’s ‘La La La’ in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest and went on to top the charts in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Lebanon, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Thailand, as well as the UK, was not the song he himself would have chosen before the competition, but the public selected it from the short list, and ‘I would have been a fool not to record it’.
When he started out with the Shadows, he co-wrote quite a few hits, including ‘Bachelor Boy’, but as time passed and their success snowballed, he ended up handling the press – because he always quite liked having his picture taken – while the rest of the band went back to the hotel and wrote more songs. He has no particular regrets about this, no hang-ups about artistic creativity. A song like ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’ ‘is so much better than any of the songs I’ve written. You think I’d rather record one of my own songs? Excuse me – I’d rather have a number one. I’ve always been unashamed about that. I want a song that sells well.’
He’s not above a bit of strategic adjustment, though, if there’s a moral imperative. ‘Sometimes I’ve changed the odd lyric. I did that with “Devil Woman”, added a few little words here and there. I didn’t like the idea that it seemed to be about someone dabbling in the occult. So I added, “Beware, stay away, you’d better get out of there fast”. In other words, I used the song as a warning.’
In the run-up to Cliff’s almost annual assault on the Christmas top 10, we’re in an overheated suite in a Surrey hotel, the sort of place chiefly appreciated by golfers and conference organisers, not far from his home in Weybridge. Sitting very upright in a dining chair, Cliff is neat as a pin in black Levis and a spotted black-and-white tie-and-shirt combo, his feet in complex trainers placed tidily together at all times as if laid out by a butler, but his expression is sometimes difficult to read, not least because the lamps are eye-wateringly dim in here and he’s placed himself bang in front of the window. Even in this light, though, it’s plain that he is freakishly well-preserved. His unspeckled hair is thickly, boyishly tousled and the backs of his hands are barely lined.
He mentions his age before I do by volunteering the fact that finally, rather late in the day, he has learnt to trust his instincts. It was his idea to go to Nashville, for instance, where he and 19 writers spent a week closeted together, working on material for his new album, Something’s Goin’ On (his first for Decca after 45 years with EMI), which has just gone straight into the top 10. ‘I felt too comfortable here in the UK; you lose an edge. My instinct said I had to make a change, so I went to Nashville.’
Cliff likes the US for a rather strange reason: because he has never had much album success there, his anonymity is preserved. It’s possibly the only place in the world where he can walk down the street without being recognised. In 2000 he spent a few months in New York, joined a tennis club and, for the first time in his life, made friends with a group of people who had no idea who he was. ‘I got taken home, got to meet their families, went swimming with their children, and therefore I knew they liked me,’ he says, rather wistfully, in the curiously formal, stilted English that seems to be his default setting when he’s talking about emotional matters. ‘I really quite loved it.’
It’s at moments like this that you realise just how extraordinary Cliff’s life has been, and how extraordinary it is that he isn’t, well, more extraordinary. For starters, he doesn’t seem terribly grand, he laughs pretty easily at himself, and he doesn’t talk over you; and though he appears not to hear every single one of my questions, I think this is due to his hearing rather than a starry determination not to be sidetracked.
After a comfortable childhood in colonial India – where his father, Rodger Webb, worked on the railways – he and his sisters found the move to Cheshunt following independence very jarring. Money was very tight: his father got a job in a radio factory, his mother on a production line manufacturing paint brushes and, when he left school at 16, he worked as a clerk in the Atlas Lamp works. In 1958, a year later, Harry Webb hooked up with the Shadows and became Cliff Richard. Their debut single, ‘Move It’, was hailed as the first British rock’n’roll record and went to number two. And that was it. ‘You feel the adoration, don’t you? That’s the thing that gets you. You feel people loving what you’ve done and loving you.’
Cliff doesn’t seem terribly interested in contemporary music. In South Africa a while back, he walked into a Cape Town restaurant and heard a version of ‘Some People’ being played on the panpipes, and that was the last CD he bought. He bought two copies, actually: one for his place in Portugal (where he owns a successful vineyard: Vida Nova wines, available from Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, depending on stock availability), and the other for his home in Barbados.
Over the past few years, Sir Cliff’s faith has been reshaped by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. International politics have softened some of his own certainties. ‘I have taken a big step recently. I can’t bring myself to be judgmental. I just try to deal with my own life. We all have complications.’ He was in Barbados when the invasion of Iraq began. ‘I’ve been to Number 10 a couple of times and met Cherie three or four times, whereas I’ve only met Tony twice. And when the war was happening I was in Barbados, watching it all happening on the television, and Tony Blair, over the period of a month, started to shrivel, and I felt sorry for him. Now it turns out his decision to go to war was wrong, because of bad intelligence, but I saw him shrivel, and I thought to myself: this is a man who made a decision, and now he’s living with the consequences. I believe that he made the decision that he thought was right. So, anyway, I phoned Cherie and said, “Look, the house will be empty in August, if you want to use it, please feel free”. And then I got a message saying they could get away. And the next time I saw him, he looked far better.’
So he had no problem with lending it out again when the call came through earlier this year. (I fish around, asking if they’d left the place in a state – forgotten to take the rubbish out, left the sheets on the bed, or something – and he looks quite shocked. ‘Oh no! They were perfect house guests.’) But next time, if there is a next time, he’d really like to be out there to receive them himself. ‘It’s my home, it’s not just a holiday house. Maybe when everything has calmed down, I could invite them myself, and host them, which would be nice.’
It turns out that the frangipani, tuberose, jasmine and ylang-ylang notes in his new perfume line, Miss You Nights, are echoes of scents from his Bajan garden.’The candles will follow if it’s successful,’ he explains. ‘Then we can go through some other song titles which might lend themselves to perfumes.’
‘Devil Woman’, I say excitedly, would have to be really smoky and spicy.
‘Spicy, yeah. Or something that would keep you fresh-smelling. When I smell ladies’ perfume, I like a floral bouquet,’ says Sir Cliff. It is the gentlest, most chivalrous contradiction I have ever heard.
A FEW DAYS LATER, I’M IN BIRMINGHAM, for a signing session at HMV. Outside the shop, marshalled behind portable metal railings, his fans have been queuing all day, intent on catching Cliff’s autograph on old box sets, 1950s playbills and programmes from his two musicals, Time (1986) and Heathcliff (1996), as well as the newer album and concert DVD. In preparation for their three-second audience, people have folded the official 2005 calendar to the picture that means the most, so it’s ready for his marker pen: sometimes it’s Cliff on a baronial staircase, raising a glass; in an open-necked shirt and shades on the deck of a speedboat; stepping into a convertible in black tie; or gazing soulfully out of a rain-speckled window. The generational spread is flabbergasting. There are women accompanied by teenage sons, or by elderly mothers; young families, with babies in slings; grannies who’ve brought their grandchildren along in pushchairs. But mostly, it’s women in their forties and fifties who look very much as if they’ve had their hair done specially, holding home-made cakes, small soft toys and single roses in cellophane tubes, gifts which will later be passed on to local hospitals.
Before Sir Cliff makes his grand entrance into the heart of the store, we all congregate backstage in the HMV labyrinth, at the very end of a breezeblock corridor: Decca reps, HMV officials, security giants, and familiar faces from Cliff’s entourage such as his PA Roger and his long-term manager/mentor, Bill Latham, who looks like a geography teacher. On the other side of the door is a continuous soft roar, like surf, or the lowing of a vast dairy herd. There’s a brief hush as the MC makes an amplified introduction. Then Cliff finishes the point he was making to Bill, adjusts his jacket, and steps through the door. Below him on the shop floor, hundreds and hundreds of faces swivel up heavenwards, and every mouth is wide open in a scream.