Article by courtesy of Phil Pickett - January 2000:
Getting into the spirit of the songwriter
Phil Pickett co-wrote Karma Chameleon for Culture Club and formed the 1970s band SAILOR. Here he talks to Fiona Tarrant about writing musicals and moving to Oxford
PHIL PICKETT is a great believer in fate.
"Success often comes from the door on your left, rather than
the one you're aiming for in front. You never know what's around
the corner," he says.
The successful songwriter, who penned the music for Culture Club's greatest hit Karma Chameleon in the 1980s, knows what he's talking about.
A gentle, softly-spoken man, Phil, 52, has mixed with the all-time greats in the music business, but remains refreshingly untouched by his years in music's fast lane.
But now his career is enjoying a new impetus and direction with the opening of his first-ever musical in the West End.
But 18 months ago, the thought of such a venture was nothing more than a pipedream for Phil, who has just moved to Oxford with his wife Ann and their three sons, from Gloucestershire.
"I did that classic musician thing - moved out of London, buy the country cottage in the Cotswolds to bring up the children in nice surroundings, and then found that living in the sticks wasn't for us," he explains.
Phil had sold his London studio to AC/DC in 1994 and started to wonder whether it was the right move.
With the children growing up - Jack is 23, Gus 19 and Harry eight - the Picketts start to wonder whether Gloucestershire wasn't a bit too far from London.
Apart from a number one in Ireland with Brian Kennedy and a reggae hit in Jamaica, the songwriting had reached a barren watershed. "Or at least in my case a shed in a very damp part of England," laughs Phil.
As a composer, Phil has worked with the best and, as a musician, he has been with some of the most successful bands over the years.
This is a man who used to be practically live on Top Of The Pops with the band he formed in the early 1970s, SAILOR.
But perhaps his most famous involvement was with Culture Club. He wrote the music for both Church Of The Poison Mind and the smash hit Karma Chameleon, and toured all over the world with the band.
He's worked with BA Robertson, Robbie Williams, Take That, Van Morrison, Sheena Easton, Phil Ramone ... the list goes on.
But that country move meant that apart from overseas tours with SAILOR (the band is still extremely popular in Europe), he wasn't in the front-line any more.
And then, when he very least expected it, a new career path came Phil's way.
"I was standing on the platform at Oxford Railway Station wondering where my writing was going," explains Phil. "Then this guy tapped me on the shoulder and I realised it was someone I'd met at a dinner party."
"The train was cancelled and he gave me a lift to London in his car. He knew I was in the music business and asked me if I knew anyone who could write three original musicals for the Rank Organisation as part of a £150 million revamp of the Butlin's resorts. Rank wanted to introduce top quality shows for its guests and he wondered if I knew someone who could help."
Never one to forego a chance, Phil said he did know someone - himself.
That night he enlisted one of his oldest pals, music collaborator and SAILOR co-founder Henry Marsh, and a meeting was arranged.
The pair contacted the multi-talented veteran director and lyricist David H. Bell in America, who had written many award-winning shows with Henry in Atlanta and he agreed to write the lyrics.
And so to the shows. Patrick Nally, the show's producer, acquired the musical rights to the comic characters Casper and Spiderman. He also secured the cream of West End's set and costume designers, plus special effects people and puppeteers while Phil, Henry and David they set about writing the first two musicals.
The third one, The Mask, came about after Phil spotted a poster for the film under "prehistoric layers of torn movie posters" and Patrick secured the rights.
It took a year to write the three and Phil enjoyed every minute of the collaboration. They were shown at Butlin's camps all over Britain - to a total audience of some 1.3 million and Casper the Musical went into the West End.
"I'd always wanted to write a musical. I was brought up to them. We lived in Birmingham but my mother would regularly take me to London to see the great musicals - West Side Story, Oklahoma and suchlike," explains Phil.
"She even took me backstage once and introduced me to Hal Prince!"
"I suppose all of those musicals had an impact on me and my musical career but writing a musical was like a dream come true. We've put our hearts and soul into it and it shows," he says.
Standing in the kitchen of the new home he and Ann have bought in Oxford, Phil grins as he explains the hassles and the joys of staging musicals and writing the kind of melodic music he's always wanted to write.
"BA Robertson, who's a great friend, sent me a bottle of champagne and a note when Casper had its premiere.
He wrote 'we never thought you'd have the ghost of a chance...!', but that chance meeting at the station came my way.
The old saying goes 'life's what happens when you're busy making plans' and I'd never planned it would work out that well."
"Spooky, isn't it?"
The texts under
Phil Pickett didn't
hold back. It was the fifth week he'd been waiting for Paul, the
plumber to turn up at his new recording studio to do some vital
work. When his mobile rang and he heard the name Paul, he let
"No, no," said the man on the phone, "you've got the wrong Paul. I'm Paul McCartney."
Phil's face reddens at the memory but it did him no harm. Instead, it set the pair up for a firm friendship. "It certainly broke the ice," laughs Phil.
"I was invited to play cricket at Richard Branson's home last year and I blowed him out! He came over as I was leaving and said 'thanks for writing that song Phil, I really set us up well'. I suppose he meant that the money they made helped finance the airline business!"
"I was with
Culture Club from their first tour. George said they were
thinking of asking me to go on tour but couldn't afford to pay
me. I said I'd go along because I knew they'd be huge and they
could pay me when they had a hit!
I didn't start writing songs for Culture Club until their second album Kissing To Be Clever. George wanted to write a song but the rest of the band didn't want to write with him. We knocked out Karma Chameleon in 20 minutes and it was their biggest-ever song."
"I formed SAILOR
in the early 1970s. We're still together but we see it more of a
hobby now. Our hobby is to play in front of 70.000 people at
The great thing is we can fly out at the start of the weekend and be back home in England in time for Sunday lunch.
I know it sound like a cliché, but there's nothing like the buzz you get in front of a live audience. We've given up touring about five times and always end up going back to it."
ABOVE: My mate Macca. Phil above, far left, with Sir Paul McCartney and Duane Eddy and the Memphis Horns, at Sir Paul's East Sussex recording studio in 1988.
glam-rock 1970s I'd worn sequins and sailor suits. In the
gender-bender 1980s I wrote and performed with Culture Club. Now
I'm writing for a ghost and a guy in a slimy green mask,"
laughs Phil, who's pictured left with his SAILOR buddies.
Their hits include Girls Girls Girls, A Glass Of Champagne and La Cumbia.