January 20, 2003 - published in The Times second section

Billy was my hero

By Bob Stanley

Billy Fury, who died 20 years ago, was a perfect but vulnerable pop star, says this lifelong fan

IT’S BEST NEVER TO MEET your heroes, David Bowie once said, “that way they stay intact.” There’s little chance of me crossing paths with my all-time pop hero, Billy Fury, as he died 20 years ago this month. He was the first and greatest British rocker — only the Beatles, Elvis and Cliff scored more hits in the Sixties — yet he never had a No 1: his best-remembered song, appropriately, was Halfway To Paradise.

Fury records were all yearning, brooding, drenched in melancholy. Always, he was sad. Lost or unrequited love were recurring themes; When Will You Say I Love You, Jealousy, Margo Don’t Go. The desperately handsome singer was also desperately shy, and, like his songs, riddled with self-doubt. I discovered Billy Fury when I was 16. How could I not become obsessed?

As a kid he was a loner, writing poems, going out bird-watching after school. He would often fall into a river or pond and, rather than face his Mum’s wrath, stand outside in his wet clothes until they dried. At the age of seven he contracted rheumatic fever (the illness that was to bring about his early death, from heart failure, in 1983 at age 42) and doctors reckoned that his heart was so weak that he would die before he was 16.

When he did reach his teens, he joined a gang in Dingle, his Liverpool stamping ground, rewarded with cigarette burns on his cheeks. He bought a flick knife with his first pay cheque. Maybe all of this is true, maybe not, but it was a perfect exercise in myth-making. He may as well have had “outsider” tattooed on his arm.

The pop era into which he was launched in 1959 was gaudy and dimly lit, obsessed with novelty, but rooted in parochial, postwar austerity. Looking back, the British Fifties pop scene seems fantastically seedy, akin to pre-censorship Hollywood, with managers like Reg Calvert and Larry Parnes and their stables of boys. Parnes was a ration-token Warhol. He re-christened his superstars: Marty Wilde, Duffy Power, Johnny Gentle, Dickie Pride, Billy Fury. Most of them made reasonably good records but Billy had the gold lamé suit, the perfect golden quiff. Plus he had a voice to break your heart.

A perfect pop star, yet he always seemed so vulnerable. Herein lay his appeal. He was nervous around other singers. “Jet Harris (the Shadows guitarist) would walk into a room and he’d want to fight you,” remembers Kenny Lynch. “Billy walked into a room, the lights went out. He’d sit in a corner and hope someone would come and talk about rock’n’roll.” Billy Fury’s true contemporaries weren’t pop rivals Cliff Richard and Adam Faith, but fictional characters: Arthur Seaton, Billy Fisher, Jimmy Porter.

“He was strange.” says the pop writer Nik Cohn. “When he talked, he mumbled and stared at his hands. ‘I’m an introvert and an extrovert’ he said, ‘I’m an exhibitionist on stage but I can’t tell anyone about myself, I freeze up. I don’t want anyone to know.’ He was tense and, in some odd sense, genuinely innocent.”

Only one of Fury’s hits, the incongruously chipper In Summer, could really be described as upbeat. The Evening Standard’s Maureen Cleave cornered him in 1963 for a piece called Last of the Teenage Originals. Why didn’t he sing more cheerful songs, she wondered? “I never feel cheerful enough,” Billy replied. On stage he sang a maudlin ballad about an orphan called Nobody’s Child — when he got to the part that went “Sometimes I get so lonesome I wish that I could die”, girls screamed “Don’t die Billy!”. In the late Sixties he confessed to having a death wish, writing off cars, and, according to Kenny Everett, taking “LSD by the bucketful”.

Billy’s legend in rock history is ensured by The Sound of Fury, a ten-inch album recorded in 1960. It’s an extraordinary record, not least because it is entirely self-written — pre-Beatles this was unheard of. The producer Jack Good captured what he called “the soul of Billy Fury”. It was reviewed as a country album but later acknowledged for what it is — pure rockabilly. Sparse yet tough, it documents one broken love affair after another, with Joe Brown’s stinging guitar in counterpoint to Billy’s echo-laden vocals. A CD released this month on Castle Select documents The Sound of Fury as a work in progress, and it’s still riveting.

But it was just as his chart career was winding down, around 1965, that Billy Fury started to make what are arguably his greatest, most individual records. It is common for rock historians to claim that Billy loved to rock, and that he was coerced into recording ballads. Not true. He loved the ghostly Wondrous Place so much that he recorded at least three different versions, and in the late Sixties he wrote and recorded a ton of string-driven ballads, advancing the trademark Fury atmosphere. Paper Aeroplanes, Fascinating Candleflame, Communication — lonely, opulent and beautiful. A midpoint between Roy Orbison and Scott Walker. And most were never released. Billy’s estate seems to have become a tug-of-war between his girlfriend and his mother, the result being that anything beyond his hitmaking period with Decca is out of bounds.

Once the hits had dried up, Billy bought a farm in mid-Wales, where he had a bird sanctuary and raised horses. For a while he lived in a caravan in Cornwall where he helped to rescue birds caught up in an oil slick. People would bring him sick and injured animals — “foxes, badgers, birds of prey, anything”, he marvelled in the Seventies. “It’s my idea of heaven.”

Songs from this period have titles like Outside, No Trespassers, and Lazy Life. He also became an active hunt saboteur. Just for fun, he took a role in David Puttnam’s 1973 film That’ll Be The Day, as Stormy Tempest, a pin-thin rocker singing in a band with Keith Moon. It was a fine coda to his pop career.

Obviously he made mistakes, the odd bad record and a couple of poor films. It doesn’t matter.

 “In modern-day parlance this was bedsit music,” says the writer Mick Houghton, “and Fury, ever the pessimist, always insecure, was the first in a tradition that would later include Scott Walker, Neil Young, Tim Buckley and Morrissey.” 

There’s no box-set planned (yet) but a double CD of his Radio Luxembourg show is out in the summer. 

In a couple of weeks there’s a get-together in a church hall in Mill Hill where diehards will gather to reminisce.

I don’t think I’ll go. 

Other fans never quite get it the way you do. 

I’m glad none of my friends get Billy Fury the way I do. Heroes, after all, are very personal.