The Real Ziggy Stardust

Hello again from Moscow, in good old Russia ! This month, welcome to the story of one of the most legendary and extreme performers in rock’n’roll history. What happened during the story of this man, is quite simply something you could not make up. He’s a man who rose to the heights and descended to the depths.

His name was Vince Taylor. At the famous Hard Rock Café in Moscow in 14th January of this year, we held a tribute concert to the great man. The band performing were the Great Pretenders, whom regular readers of this column will know well: A fantastic group, whose leader Sergey Kuteynikov like myself is fascinated by the story of Vince Taylor. The Pretenders put on their usual brilliant show. Some of the photos you can see were taken at the concert in January.

Vince Taylor was born in the UK and spent his early years in Isleworth, Middlesex. At the age of seven, his family emigrated and moved to New Jersey in America and subsequently to California. It was at the age of 18 that he became captivated by the music of Gene Vincent and Elvis Presley and made the decision that he would try and emulate their success. He began singing and got gigs in local clubs. In 1958 he travelled to London and went to the mecca of London rock’n’roll at that time i.e. the 2i’s Coffee Bar in Soho. He saw Tommy Steele performing, but more importantly he met up with some musicians. These became the genesis of his band the Playboys. 

His real name was Michael Holden. He wanted a rock’n’roll stage name and the story goes that his favourites cigarettes were Pall Mall. On the packets were the Latin logo, “In hoc signo vinces” and this is where he got the inspiration for “Vince”. He recorded his first single records in 1958. The most iconic of these was “Brand New Cadillac”. Although not recognised as such at the time, Brand New Cadillac became one of the greatest rock’n’roll songs of all time. It’s Brilliant.

In 1960 the British independent TV channel ABC launched a new rock’n’roll show, “Wham”. Vince appeared on the first show. His style on stage was wild and frantic; the adjective “dynamic” would be an under-statement. He pranced around on stage like a man obsessed. Needless to say he attracted instant attention. 

Vince was a strong and volatile personality and this led to big arguments with his band members. In 1961 the band decided they’d had enough and left to form their own band. They got a big booking to play at the Olympia Hall in Paris. Vince had remained in contact with the band and asked to come to Paris with them. This is where fate plays a hand. Their new singer never turned up for the gig. Vince was in Paris and available and asked to fill the vacancy, which they agreed to. His performance that night was a legendary one. He was dressed in his trademark black leather gear, with a huge Joan of Arc medallion which he bought when he arrived in Paris. He put on a wild, frantic act on stage, which amazed the French audience. The Olympia signed him up for more shows, putting him top of the bill. He was snapped up by a leading record company for a lucrative 6 year deal. Vince had finally made the big time.

In France he was a mega star. Those of you who may know something about French rock’n’roll, will know that the all-time rock’n’roll star in French history was Johnny Halliday. But when Vince was in his heyday, he rivalled Halliday in popularity. It was not surprising. Seeing clips of his performing in his prime, one can see his incredible style and charisma on stage. He may not have had the singing voice of Elvis or Gene Vincent, but his on-stage rock’n’roll style blew his audiences away. Here how one witness from the time describes it:

“Taylor adapted his stage act from Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. He added a biker boy image—black leather jacket, pants, gloves, and winkle-pickers. He wore makeup and mascara. What he lacked for in voice, he made up in performance. Taylor was a wild man. Utterly unrestrained. His body jerked as if he’d been hit by 100,000 volts of electricity. He wiggled his hips and thrust his pelvis at the hormonal teenyboppers who screamed his name. He was sex on legs. Vulgar. Nasty. Every parent’s nightmare, every teenage girl’s pinup.” 

The French audiences really did go wild. Some of his French concerts did end up with some disturbances, inspired by the frenzy the concerts had incited in the audience. Vincent modelled himself as the “Black Devil”, with his black leather attire and wild performances. 

His band members from that time testify to the fact he was often unpredictable and difficult to work with. For example, he had a habit of phoning his girl friend just before his concerts. If the girl friend didn’t answer the phone, he assumed she was cheating on him and would disappear for a while, trying to find her; not the most professional thing to do just before a gig and now and again the band had to perform without him because of it. 

Physically he started to feel the aches and pains caused by his wild stage performances. All that diving around on stage and extreme physical exertions were starting to take a toll on him. For relief, he took to drinking more and also took some amphetamines. Despite this, he still had things relatively well under control. During this period of success in France, Vince and his band also conducted tours of Europe, which were successful. And he was still topping the bill at the Olympia in Paris.

Here’s another quote from another witness from that time:

“A new record deal followed. Sell-out gigs in Paris and across the country. Mass hysteria. TV and movie offers followed. Vince Taylor was the essence of rock ‘n’ roll. He was punk. He was Iggy before Iggy Pop. At one concert, a support act dared to copy his image—this led to mass riot. Vince Taylor was notorious. For almost four years, Taylor was a King in France.”

What followed next is one of the most iconic and famous (and bizarre) true stories in rock’n’roll history. Maybe one should say “infamous”. And it was the seminal moment in Vince Taylor’s life. He had to return briefly to the UK from Paris, in order to collect some wages the band were owed from some UK gigs. He along with his band had a very important concert upcoming at the Olympia. It was an event which had the potential to launch him from not just a mega star in France, but world-wide. His sister Sheila had married into the Hanna Barbera family in America. Hanna Barbera was a huge entertainment company, one of the biggest in the World. His sister had arranged for a “big wheel” from the company to come and see Vince perform in Paris. If the concert turned out to be another success for Vince, the promise was that of concerts and promotion in the USA. It was a tremendous opportunity for him. 

As advised, Vince returned briefly to the UK prior the concert, to collect money owed to him and the Playboys. He was in London for a few days and during that time was invited to a party. Bob Dylan was there, as well as Joan Baez, plus lots of other big music celebrities. During the party, someone offered him some LSD, which as most of you know is a very powerful hallucinegic drug, which was very much in vogue in the 1960s; for example within some sections of the hippie culture, as well as the 1960s Mod scene. Vince enjoyed this first LSD experience hugely. He asked the person in question if he had any more. Whilst in London, Vince then proceeded to spend most of the money he had collected for the band on LSD. He took copious amounts of it, continuing to buy as much of it as he could. At the same time, he was drinking considerable amounts of Mateus red wine. Under this influence, he had what he believed to be a “vision” in London; it told him he was not Vince Taylor, but was in fact “Mateus, the Son of Jesus Christ.” Taylor believed he was on a mission from God and had to go back to France and tell his fans who he really was. Stay with me, Dear Readers, the story gets even more bizarre ! And I’ll tell you all about it – next month !