Monday, November 17, 2008

Ain't No Doubt Jimmy Can Act, But Can He Sing?

Over the last half century the line between career actor and career singer has at times become blurred, with regular cross-overs occurring between the two professions. As a general rule the transition from star singer/musician to credible actor has proven smoother than the vice-versa. Some of the biggest names in popular music have managed to establish themselves in film and on stage - think David Bowie, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Mick Jagger, even The Beatles - charisma is, generally speaking, universal, though I imagine thespians would argue acting ability isn’t. Those who have attempted the changeover from acting to singing have arguably been met with a stiffer challenge to convince the misanthropists among us that they can actually hold a tune, let alone sustain a worthwhile career in the music caper beyond the first wave of publicity driven hype.
Born to a working class background in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, James Bradford toyed with the idea of a career in music during the 70s when he fronted a Newcastle pub band called the King Crabs. But he would soon come to notice as an actor under the name Jimmy Nail. The moniker ‘Nail’ apparently came about when young Jim stepped on a large spike whilst working in a glass factory. He’d also done a four month stint in prison following a conviction on a charge of inflicting grievous bodily harm during a drunken brawl at a football match. The role that brought him to prominence as an actor was that of Jeffrey ‘Oz’ Osborne’ in the popular British TV series ‘Auf Wiedersehen Pet’ in 1983. Actually, prior to that role Nail was a complete unknown, with only a few gigs as an extra to his name.

On the back of two popular series of ‘Auf Wiedersehen Pet’, Jimmy Nail decided to try his hand at recording an album of some of his favourite music. Nail was a fan of R&B from his formative years, and released a cover of the former #1 hit for Rose Royce ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’. Nail’s version peaked at #3 on the British charts in mid 1985, and had been produced by Roger Taylor of Queen. The follow up single ‘That’s The Way Love Is’ didn’t repeat the dose in commercial terms, and by the time Nail released his debut album ‘Take It Or Leave It’ on Virgin Records in 1986, it was evident on the back of poor sales, that for now at least, Nail was going to stick to acting to earn a crust.

The acting caper continued to prove the wise choice, and Nail struck upon another popular character in the TV series ‘Spender’ (co-written by Nail), in which he starred as a Geordie policeman with unconventional ways. It once again propelled him to a prominent profile in the U.K. - time for another tilt at music.

In 1992 Nail made another attempt to challenge fellow Newcastle native Sting to the mantle of leading rock star. The song that shot Nail to the top of the pop charts in mid ‘92 was the funky, brass laden number ‘Ain’t No Doubt’. The song had been co-written by Nail, along with producers Guy Pratt (see Icehouse posts) and Danny Schogger, and singer Charlie Dore of ‘Pilot Of The Airwaves’ fame (see earlier post). ‘Ain’t No Doubt’ hit the #1 spot on the British charts just three weeks after its debut, and held off the competition for a further three weeks. Proof that the success of ‘Ain’t No Doubt’ wasn’t down to Nail’s profile as an actor in Britain, the song peaked at #5 here in Australia two months later. It was lifted from Nail’s sophomore album ‘Growing Up In Public’ (UK#2/OZ#80). Released on Warner Music, the album boasted an A-list of contributing musicians, with a support cast including George Harrison, Dave Gilmour and Gary Moore (see earlier post) backing Nail’s rough n’ ready vocals. The follow up single ‘Laura’ (UK#58) lacked the killer hook of ‘Ain’t No Doubt’, but with two British top five singles already in the bank, Nail had already answered the detractors. I recall seeing a repeat of an old ‘Minder’ episode around that time, and Jimmy Nail (circa 1984) cropped up in a guest part (maybe he and Denis Waterman should have considered a duet).

Following a wrap on the ‘Spender’ series, Nail played the role of struggling country singer Jed Shepperd in the equally popular TV show ‘Crocodile Shoes’. A soundtrack album was recorded for the BBC1 series which hit #2 on the British charts late in 1994. Nail hammered another top five hit with the title track (UK#4), followed by ‘Cowboy Dreams’ (UK#13) in early ‘95. A third single ‘Calling Out Your Name’ (UK#65) kept Nail’s name in the charts, and on the back of ‘Crocodile Shoes’ runaway success (triple platinum - selling over a million copies), Nail entered the studio to record another album.

In October 1995 the title track from Nail’s new album hit the British charts. ‘Big River’ cruised to #18 and featured guitar work from Mark Knopfler. The next single ‘Love’ hit the charts in time for Christmas ‘95 and peaked at #33, helping push the album to #8 on the British charts. Nail’s professional career was arguably at its peak during the 90s, and he was soon cast as Agustin Magaldi in the film version of the musical ‘Evita’, contributing tracks to the soundtrack album. A second series of BBC1’s ‘Crocodile Shoes’ resulted in another top 10 soundtrack album for Nail, and a UK#25 hit with ‘Country Boy’ in late ‘96. Nail then played the role of a roofer returning to his hard rock roots with a band of ageing rockers called Strange Fruit in the first rate film ‘Still Crazy’. Aside from being a great film, ‘Still Crazy’ featured some well crafted original songs, one of which ‘The Flame Still Burns’ (UK#47) garnered Jimmy Nail a Golden Globe nomination for ‘Best Original Song’ in 1998. Proof of Nail’s popularity in the U.K. was reiterated when his best of album ‘The Nail File’ bolted to #8.

Surprisingly Nail’s next album ‘Tadpoles In A Jar’ failed to leap into the British charts, with the single ‘Blue Beyond The Grey’ fizzling. In 2002 Jimmy Nail returned the favour to Mark Knopfler, when he sang backing vocals on the track ‘Why Aye Man’ from Knopfler’s album ‘The Ragpicker’s Dream’. The same year Nail reprised the role of Oz in a new series of ‘Auf Wiedersehen Pet’, with reference being made to Oz’s love of all things Dire Straits. Aside from his reprised role in ‘Auf Wiedersehen Pet’, Nail has maintained a relatively low profile in recent years, with his most recent major credit being as writer/producer for the TV special ‘Sunday for Sammy 2004’.

Jimmy Nail probably best summed up his own musical ability within the title of his most recent album, 2001’s ‘10 Great Songs And An OK Voice’ (which yielded a cover of The Police’s ‘Walking On The Moon’ as a single). Nail can boast a serviceable set of vocal chords, but more importantly the heart and soul to apply those vocal chords effectively to the material he’s attempted over the years. Whilst a very fine actor he may be, there ain’t no doubt this talented ‘Geordie’ lad has also established himself as a fine music artist in his own right.

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