In the concluding part of our exclusive interview Clive Franks recalls concert venues to George Matlock, and the times he nearly quit Elton John
Clive gave George Matlock a full 2 ½-hour interview on 12 July 2000:
George Matlock: The venues have tested you a bit haven’t they? Tell us about Wembley Stadium June 1998, when Billy Joel famously had to pull out.
Clive Franks: That was the worst show I have ever had to deal with in my life. I knew that (sound problem) was going to happen, and I told them before that. But they wanted to play across the stadium for a more intimate feel, than having the band at one end of the stadium and crowds far out. They thought there would be more people closer to the stage. Normally, bands play lengthways, as we’ve done many times before. The new format was done just before us by The Eagles at Wembley. They had countless problems too! So I don’t know why we didn’t learn from that. And there’s also the over-hanging metal roof. The sound gets trapped under there, bounces out, at about a half-second decay time, and is louder than the damn PA! So you hear two of everything, the second sound being louder and tinny and horrible. (I have delusions) of a line of people who came up to me, and my staff had to fight them off! It became very fish-eye lens to me! I saw Klu Klux Klan people, and people in black hoods with scythes and hatchets, screaming at me to do something about the sound. There was nothing I could do.
GM: The only other venue I can describe on a tinny dustbin Richter scale is Wembley Arena, especially in December 1997 with the band.
CF: It’s another tough room because, not a lot of people know, it’s built with a swimming pool underneath the floor. It’s hollow down there. And the sound just gets trapped in a huge hole. A nightmare. For a solo show I could get away with it, but for a band, impossible. But it was ten-times better than the Wembley Stadium! When you play a small club, the sound is pretty much uniform. But when you play such a vast area, different parts of the arena sound different. You can’t get it perfect everywhere.
Clive seems to agree with Hong Kong on how to improve personal sound, with his right Red revolutionary idea.
CF: I’ve been saying it for years. Not have a PA system at all, but give everyone wireless headphones. Everyone would get the same sound. Of course, it would cost you a fortune because you’d only get a quarter of the headphones back! That for me would be a wonderful solution, and then I would mix, wearing headphones. Maybe it would be weird though for people to really get into a rock concert with phones on.
GM: A bit like being at home in front of the Hi-fi! Wasn’t headphones for the crowd demanded by the municipal authorities in Hong Kong for the aborted Elton handover concert, July 1997. The Asian press reported Elton angered by the proposal and he quit.
CF: I remember that. I heard that comment on the radio myself. It’s amazing what you read on the internet. I don’t know the facts, only that the show was off because of all the rules and it was too loud. I think it was one of the things which came into it.
GM: Perhaps Beijing isn’t an Elton fan!
CF: I’ve played places like that before. In Australia, when we played with Billy Joel in 1998, in Sydney. We did three or four nights at the Cricket Ground, and we were following Michael Jackson who had been there a few weeks before. There had been massive complaints about his sound. Not that the sound was bad – as I know the guy who mixes Michael. But volume gets out. There’s a lot of low sounds in Michael Jackson’s show, synth bass stuff, and it’s not top end which travels but the bass. I had the Sydney council sitting with decibel meters with me, and the level they wanted me to go at…I tell you, if I’d sneezed I’d have sent their meters over the top. Such a low decibel level, so frustrating. The mix was good, but the energy wasn’t there because of the low permitted level. But you cannot go against the council because you are allowed x-minutes per hour exceeding the decibel limit which was about 94 DB at the console. When the audience applauded, it did go over 94! If you go over the number of minutes allowed, you get charged thousands of dollars per extra minute. So you try not to run up those costs.
As we publish this instalment, Elton is currently trying to overturn a court ruling on overseas tour expenses at which ex-manager John Reid gave evidence, having settled with Elton out of court. In an amusing anecdote, Clive in July 2000 talked about how some costs were wilfully made in that era:
CF: I remember John Reid once came out to me and said ‘why is the sound so soft?’ And I said ‘because I’m up against this DB limit and we’re gonna get fined.’ He said ‘sod it! Turn it up.’ This one show cost us US$10,000! He told me to turn it up! He felt it more important for people to have a good time.
Clive admits a solo tour eases his job to get a good sound, but with the band, he sometimes despairs.
CF: With the band it’s more of a challenge. I get very critical and go through bouts on tours when I get very depressed because of the sound. But my acceptance threshold is very high. Many people come up to me and say it was the best sound they have heard in this building, which is all very well, but it doesn’t always make me feel good. Nowadays we only do three or four shows a week, and so there’s a lot of sitting around. So for those three hour performances I want the sound to be great.
GM: So, if you’re a perfectionist, how close have you ever been to quitting?
CF: Once or twice. It’s hard when you’ve got family. Sadly, my marriage fell apart, after 19 years. It’s amazing how any relationship in this (showbusiness) can last, but we’re still very close, and have two wonderful kids. Sometimes everything gets on top of you. Even Elton sometimes suffers this ‘oh God, another gig tomorrow’. Yet, once you’re on stage you do it! People don’t see the other side. People think it’s all rock and roll and parties. Well, when we were younger there were the parties. Now with family commitments it’s harder…but it is like a drug. Many times I’ve said ‘Never again!’. I get home, three or four weeks, and I want to go on the road again. It’s strange, it has that power. I play several instruments, and always dreamt of being a rock star, and never made it. So I was very grateful when Elton asked me to work for him, where I could channel my musical energies. I suppose I also am a performer with my own audience! I am exhausted at the end of every show. Not because I’m getting older. I always was like that.
GM : Sounds like a Work-out.
CF: It really is! The only exercise I get, I’m a lazy bugger really, ha! Elton is a powerful character and when he’s in the positive mode, which, thank God, nowadays is nearly all the time, then it’s wonderful. He went through some bad times [drugs and drink] and it dragged down everyone else. It was hard to think positive. Now, Elton can walk in a room of people, and sway the mood in there. He’s funny, quick-witted, but sometimes gets uncomfortable if he can’t communicate with people on his level. As well as I think I know him, you might assume I can sit down with him for a chat, but I keep it more as a business relationship. We talk, but perhaps not as deeply as I might like to. I don’t feel comfortable with a one-to-one chat. Weird, but you will find among many people who work for him, that we respect him so much, that aura, that it almost inhibits you from relaxing and being yourself.
GM: It seems like the big tours, big venues, means the first thing you want to do is hang up your duties and relax – which means getting away from the work and its environment.
CF: I am looking forward to having six weeks at home soon, but I know that after a few weeks I will miss this, and want to do more. A strange mix!
Clive mixes the music, not the business and social life. Keeping the space between him and Elton has probably contributed to Elton’s and Clive’s mutual respect.
CF: It’s 95 percent a working relationship. We hardly socialise. I did go to his South of France house the other day, but only to fix Bob Halley’s computer, and then they asked me to stay for dinner. And on the way to the show in Hyde Park, London (July 9, 2001) I had to stop off at Elton’s central London home. I’d never even been there. It was interesting to see ‘yet another home’. Now that I live in New Zealand there’s even less chance of mixing with Elton. I was invited to his 50th birthday party in London (April 1997). Had I been here I would of course have gone, but I didn’t make the trek from NZ. It’s a very good working relationship. I will be here as long as I can hear, and as long as he can pound the ivories and sing.
GM: Were you at the (Tiara Ball, Windsor) party last week (July 2000)?
CF: No, I wasn’t invited but I’m glad I wasn’t asked, as I would have felt embarrassed saying no. I don’t feel comfortable in that situation. I love what I do, but I’m not overly comfortable with this industry. I like to be with more down to earth people. There are some at such events, but there’s also a lot of bullshit. I cannot make small-talk. I don’t have an ego at all. The only time I talk about myself is when people like you call me, which is hardly ever. I’ve done very few interviews . I prefer being a back-room boy.
Clive’s idea of socialising is meeting old friends. The following week he was off to Cornwall, south-west England, to meet up with Joe Partridge, guitarist in the Kiki Dee Band.
Clive doesn’t belong to the has-beens. We salute his work and wishe him many more years with Elton! Great thanks to Clive for this interview, and for supplying some of the photos we have used to illustrate this 4-part epic.
Three other parts or this interview:
Two Rooms At The End of the World – Sunday, July 30 2000 at 17:03:09
Make Strange Sounds, Strange Sounds It Seems – Saturday, July 29 2000 at 16:59:41
Marry A Music Man – Friday, July 28 2000 at 16:55:24