John Altman – Hidden Man: My Many Musical Lives
(Equinox. 290pp. Book Review by John Bungey)
Nope, me neither. Which is one reason why John Altman, prolific composer, conductor, arranger and player, felt the urge to write this autobiography. While less than a household name, Altman has worked with everybody: on hit records with Rod Stewart, George Michael, Tina Turner, Barry White, Diana Ross, Björk and Alison Moyet. He arranged, conducted and was one of the whistlers on Monty Python’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Life; he scored James Bond’s tank chase in Goldeneye and the music that plays as the liner slips under in Titanic. He’s been Van Morrison’s musical director and played with luminaries from Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck to Amy Winehouse and Joss Stone. Prince, Bowie, Bob Marley, even sad, doomed folkie Nick Drake … Altman has a part in their story. He has also run very decent big bands and declares jazz his greatest love.
Now 72, Altman has decided to stop being the Hidden Man, a name gifted to him by Terry Gilliam of Monty Python. Time to tootle his own trumpet, so to speak, or in fact saxophone – he’s an excellent player, and also a dab hand at clarinet and flute.
No surprise to learn that he comes from a deeply musical family – four uncles were band-leaders – and he seems to have led something of a charmed life growing up in London. In 1966 he has a football knockabout in Finsbury Park with the Brazilian soccer team visiting for the World Cup; he knows the teenage Twiggy; when he gets a medical note to skip rugby he nips off to spend afternoons hanging out with saxophonist Bud Freeman at Dobell’s record shop. The first gigs he sees include the debuts of Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, the Jeff Beck Group, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream. At university on a late train back to Brighton, where you or I might run into a snoring drunk, Altman chats with Laurence Olivier and Flora Robson. Muddy Waters plays at his 21st birthday party. As well as being a gifted musician, Altman is evidently a gifted networker.
Gigging around London he plays with Kevin Ayers, Peter Green, once with Hendrix, and in a front room with Nick Drake, whom he unsuccessfully urges to keep performing live. Soon he’s met the Monty Python gang and become a musical collaborator, he tours with Hot Chocolate and wins the Van Morrison gig. Word spreads and a first-call career unfolds – he masterminds “It’s So Quiet” for Björk, “Downtown Train” for Rod Stewart, and “Kissing a Fool” for George Michael. His awards shelf fills up (there’s an entire chapter on the glittering prizes).
It’s rare to read a musical autobiography that details such continuous success – even Miles Davis and Duke Ellington had their dark moments (in Miles’s case plenty). Altman’s anecdotes can be vivid: as when he attempts to play piano with an out-of-it Jimmy Page on guitar while a drunken female record company employee disrobes on the piano top. Others less so: Tina Turner fetches Altman a cup of tea from an urn. Er, that’s it. In another, Malcolm McLaren doesn’t turn up to a studio date. If you’re hoping for backstage gossip or tales of hotel hi-jinks Altman, a non-drinker, isn’t your man. In this age of Twitter spats and online trolls, Altman doesn’t have an unkind word for anyone. His associates are “iconic”, “legendary” or just plain old “famous”. Even the notoriously grumpy Sir Van gets a pass.
The author isn’t alone in writing a memoir that could do with a little judicious editing. Four times he tells us that his old chum Chaz Jankel wrote “Ai No Corrida” for Quincy Jones; three times we’re told that his cousin, Simon Phillips, drummed for Toto. Every chance celeb meeting – from Gloria Swanson in a veggie restaurant to Roger Moore in a pharmacy – seems to be included. By contrast, Altman’s wife and four children barely figure.
That said, this is a remarkable life chronicled. (Did he ever sleep? Somehow he also finds time to make 4,000 commercials.) The book reminded me of that 2013 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, about backing singers who spend their careers in the shadow of celebrities who may or may not have greater talent than them. Hidden Man is clearly designed to plonk Altman and his many gifts centre stage.
Hidden Man: My Many Musical Lives by John Altman is published by Equinox (£45 hardback; £27.95 paperback) today 21 February 2022 / LINK
Categories: Book review