“I hate magic, about 99% of it I can’t stand.” Wait, wait, hang on… I’m curled up in the drawing room of The House Of Magic, one of the most unique and spectacular venues ever, and home to Simon Drake, the UK’s leading cult illusionist and magician with a career spanning over four decades, and he says this? It’s clear that this is going to be an intriguing conversation – and it really is.
Words: Liz Medhurst
Simon came to prominence in the UK in the 1990s via the innovative Channel 4 programme ‘The Secret Cabaret’ which was essential post-pub viewing. He is also the magician featured in Iron Maiden’s ‘Raising Hell’. There is a whole lot more to his story though and it’s all fascinating.
I’m here to find out more about the creative process and how his distinctive approach to music visuals developed, and it turns out that ‘Raising Hell’ ended up being the reason he chose to leave TV behind for good, finding fulfillment on his own terms.
Pour yourself a tall one (we are drinking Shapeshifter beer which is the most appropriately-themed interview beverage I have ever had), and settle down to a tale of the madness of the music industry and artistic integrity – it’s a good one.
Simon Drake at The House Of Magic
Our story starts with the God Of Hell Fire himself, Heavy Metal’s founding father Arthur Brown, who can claim responsibility for starting Simon’s career path. Aged twelve in 1968 and adjusting to life following his father’s recent death, the innate maverick streak came into being with the release of ‘Fire’.
“It was the first single I bought and I remember colouring in the white paper sleeve, and when I saw him on ‘Top Of The Pops’, on the old black and white TV as it was then, prancing around with his helmet, I just went ‘That’s It!’
“I was at that age when my school friends all wanted to be pop stars, but it was Beatles and Cliff bloody Richard, and there’s this fucking man with his head on fire and that’s what I wanted to do – ‘That’s it, I want to be a monster!’
“I was no good at any instrument and I’m not a singer and I wasn’t prepared to do something crap. When I was a little boy I had some hearing problems and I got into a lot of visual things, mime and clowning and stunt falling over was my big thing; falling downstairs, loved to freak people out with that.”
Arthur was to be way more than just a catalyst – he ended up being pretty much a surrogate dad, albeit by an interesting route. Simon experienced the dark side of the music industry right from the start:
“I’m a teenager in the music industry, office boy at Decca records, and I got assaulted by my boss in the toilet and I turned round and gave him a right hook and it knocked him out – not ‘cos of the punch, he slipped back and hit the back of his head on the sink and he sacked me. He called me in his office and fired me – and I went ‘fine, I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ll go to Music Week, NME, Melody Maker, and just tell them why I’ve been sacked – because someone tried to interfere with me against the urinal’.
“So he said ‘what do you want, how much?’ I didn’t want money, I said ‘just give me a chance with a single’. I’d been an office boy for eight months carrying the fucking mail and emptying people’s rubbish and I was monitoring the scene.
“It was a ridiculous thing the record industry then, just one huge party. The money flying round was obscene, and the exploitation was even worse. Decca were releasing thirty singles a week at that time, throwing so much shit against the wall and occasionally something stuck.
“So I’d been listening to all these bands, these singles that come up – one box to the head of promotion, one to the pluggers, and I had these huge metal cupboards that I had to keep stocked with current so-called hits. There was this one single that had got three tens in my little book – I had three columns, one for hooks, one for structure and the other one was appeal or something nebulous – and this particular single got three tens, very rare, but it had been ignored as it was another of Jonathan King’s UK records – he put out a lot of gimmicky records and the pluggers ignored them.
“Anyway, I was given a chance with this record, and it was the first hit for 10CC called ‘Donna’. It was a number one, and I got to be a record plugger.
“A little while later Derek Everett and David Howells of Gull Records called me into their office. I was a young guy on the scene, got to see all the bands, all the clubs, and they were old guys – they were at least thirty – and asked who should we sign. They were picking my brain to see who they could make money out of and I went ‘oh, there’s no doubt I know who you should sign – Arthur Brown’. They went ‘what, you mean the God of Hellfire from 1968?’ I explained he’s not really a hit single guy (although ‘Fire’ was number one), and ‘if you’ve not heard ‘Galactic Zoo Dossier’ then you’ve gotta hear ‘Sunrise”. They said ‘we’re listening’ so I brought it in to them the next day and they were blown away. I said ‘I can make this a number one’, lying through my teeth – I just wanted to meet Arthur Brown, and they signed him – they licensed the Polydor stuff and put together a double album called ‘The Lost Ears’ and a new record, ‘Dance’.”
So Simon’s chutzpah got Arthur a record deal, and they spent a lot of time together on the scene. Arthur may not have had another hit single but the stagecraft and visuals continued to evolve and have a major influence:
“Kingdom Come became so weird, they had a giant brain that used to waddle along the stage, and Arthur with full size traffic lights on his head. He was an absolute master of showmanship and still is, but then it was super theatrical.
“They toured with a lot of kit in a truck, they’d come on to this song ‘Space Captains’ with these long tubes all black – like Lord Buckethead, that new guy trying to get into Parliament, big black tube on his head – and they all walked on real slowly and this tone built up, this beat, very grand – Arthur was the first guy to use a drum machine live, I think on an album too, the Bentley drum machine on ‘Journey’, and within twenty minutes he’s sitting on the side of the stage, wearing dirty long johns and the band have walked off in disgust – that’s a showman.
“It was remarkable – he’s literally wearing old fashioned underwear, tight, too short for him with holes in it and dirty and being degraded. It was amazing; he was the absolute consummate performer. Like a collage of LSD weirdness, the whole thing was unexplainable but it was fascinating.
“At one point in that show they had a fifteen or eighteen foot plastic syringe at the side of the stage and Arthur was inside it being the smack – this is so crucial to my work, this is almost a religion to me, the music visuals.”
Arthur Brown in 2017 – still the ultimate showman
One night Arthur witnessed Simon practising the now celebrated dancing cane routine in his West Hampstead flat, and told him that he was going to be his opening act in two weeks time at the Bennett Centre, and subsequently became the regular opening act at the weekly residency at The Speakeasy.
Moonlighting from his day job record plugging, he performed with a white face, purely for reasons of disguise, not in the mime tradition. He received a massive confidence boost with an unexpected positive review from Charles Shaar Murray:
“He called me Simon Grey, which was fine and it was really important he did because I still had a day job and I didn’t want anyone recognising me. And he said:
“‘Support act Simon Grey is like New Faces on acid. I predict big things for this boy, he’s got class coming out of his arse. Anyone who uses Steely Dan’s ‘East St Louis Toodle Oo’ as background music just has to be hip, right?’
“Years later he reviewed me in Kate Bush’s show where he also called me Simon Grey again but he said I was the real star of the show, which got me in trouble with Kate’s management – they suddenly started not talking to me. It wasn’t my fault…”
By the dawn of the 80s Simon was able to give up the day job and become a full time music visualist/jobbing magician. His first major job was on Kate Bush’s ‘Tour Of Life’ in 1979, where he played seven characters, but the only official release is heavily edited and thus he can only be seen as the violinist. Ironically that one time it was professionally filmed was the only time the smoke bomb attached to the instrument didn’t work on the whole tour.
Simon on stage with Kate Bush, 1979
This led to many gigs and tours, constantly developing his act and learning to deal with hecklers and other tribulations of being a support act. It reads like a crazy all-star film, far too many to list here; a who’s who of the music landscape at the time, with endless madcap adventures – he even levitated Meat Loaf in the offices of the Daily Mirror for John Blake’s column, a weighty task indeed.
“The first tour I did was with Peter Barden’s Camel; they were bloody good. I still had a day job and I took a couple of weeks of holiday and I opened for them touring Germany and Europe and we were doing German military bases. I was doing an act with a fucking catsuit on and a white face doing mime and magic to 3,000 American army personnel, and I was getting heckled, people trying to attack me in the show which was very amusing ‘cos I was very young, fast and fit. I’ve never been a particularly fighty person, but fast, really fast. I was skinny as hell and I moved like lightning.
“I remember one time some guy was shouting out ‘you fucking hobo’ and I’m doing a bit of mime and beckoned him up. It’s a very high stage and you could just reach it and as he came up I gave him a hand and I just kicked him right under the chin and he flew back in the front row and the whole audience loved it. They went ape, I mean that wasn’t something you wanna do on stage. It was dangerous.
“My whole act opening for Madness was based on things going wrong to me, in front of 3,000 skinheads in the provinces. I wasn’t in their show although I brought them on, made them appear in various ways, and I had long hair then and a denim waistcoat with lots of patches on it with where I’d been on tour.
“It was all Buster Keaton stuff from my very early childhood so I’d test the mikes, testing one two, one two, and had a cigarette going, and then I’d go to the next one and yo, yo, then the third one had a charge of nitrocellulose on it and I’d go y- and then touch it and it would make this flash and I’d do a back flip and land badly and the audience went nuts; they loved it cos the hippy was dead.
“I loved doing it, and the cane came out of the mike stand and it all fell apart and I did all the dancing and it was doo, doo, doo, diddle, doo-doo to Prince Buster so it was that kind of Ska stuff – no film or photos that I know of – no-one had iPhones then.
“I toured in America opening for Julian Lennon, and I was the opening act with me and Kiran Shah – he’s a stuntman, lovely bloke, four foot high, same age as me and a terrific guy. We toured opening for Julian at huge venues, three nights at Universal Amphitheatre, 8,000 seats sold out. Julian was great, he had a good album with ‘Valotte’. There were a couple of good hits off it and he’s a lovely fella.
“And he had a good band – Carmine Rojas, Justin Clayton, Frank Elmo – really good people. I got heckled to shit on that too; they’d go ‘we want Julian’. There’s lots of young girls and I had signs on the stage ready and I’d pick them up and they’d say ‘Julian is getting dressed’ and they’d go mad.
“Me and Kiran did the stuff that I’ve always done, the cane and the tricks and the illusions – we did a whole piss-take of movies – we did ET and ‘Daft’ Vader, and with ET, this was when Ronald Reagan was in, and the phone would ring and I’d pick up the phone and I’d got Chris Barrie who later became a big impressionist on ‘Spitting Image’, to say ‘is that Maggie Thatcher? It’s Ronnie here, we’re going to drop the bomb’ – it was actually something he really said, ‘we’re going to nuke them’. It was like a joke thing – and the ET theme started and ET walks on to save the day cos it’s Kiran with all the kit and the three fingered thing and he held the phone and it levitated in front of him.
“He had a fake arm, his hand came out in front of him and people in the front thought it was his dick – and his finger lit up and I had a can of Bud float out of my hand and I lit a fag off the end of his finger for real as the finger had a real element on it. The beer can floated out over like twenty, thirty rows and came slowly up and back to my hand and people loved it.”
There was plenty of off the wall stuff going here, but kicking US Army hecklers aside, no sign of the violence and gore which became his trademark. As he says:
“I don’t do boxes, I don’t do cliches, I don’t like magic tricks, they bore the shit out of me, most of them. 99% of magic I have no interest in and 1% I can use so I’ve had to develop a lot of my own stuff.”
He explains that this is why he will always have cult status, and he has only ever won two awards in his life:
“One was the most violent magician of all time and the other was at the House of Harlots Christmas party, Best Male Bum of the Year and I think I told everyone about that for a year when that happened, even people in the street…”
These awards are justified as Simon really found his niche with the violence of ‘The Secret Cabaret’, and let’s not be coy here, that award-winning arse looks fantastic in the leather costumes he donned for the show. I asked how all that came about.
“I came back to England and I was fed up with seeing Paul Daniels on television. ‘Mad Max’ the movie had just come out, and I thought wouldn’t it be great to write something that’s like that, take sawing a woman in half to the absolute nth degree and make it kinky and ‘Mad Max’ and violent.
“So I wrote a format to what became ‘Secret Cabaret’ and the working title was ‘Not The Paul Daniels Show’. It was fast paced, it was rocky, it was violent, it was sexy but not in an orthodox way. It wasn’t like Vegas sexy, it was dirty, it was a bit loose round the edges and it was challenging.
“It was chopping a woman in half and not putting her back together. It was leaving the audience going ‘what the hell happened there?’ and ‘why wasn’t there a ta-daa at the end when everyone’s fine?’ Yeah, fuck all that. I had good magic consultants that worked with me in the States and here. I started with the spike through the arm and I did this, that and the other and then it just got worse.
“I wrote it in ’85 and it was commissioned in ’89 for late night youth programming, and it did incredibly well in a kind of culty way. At that time there were about two-and-a-half million people watching it each week which went up to three-and-a-half million which is good for Channel 4. The channel had no money then, it was before these ghastly phone-in shows, before ‘Big Brother’, when it was still innovative under Jeremy Isaacs and then Michael Grade, and Andrew Wonfor who was the head of entertainment. It was bold and it was risky and it was something else. It’s still thought of as something with respect.
The Secret Cabaret, Channel 4
“I couldn’t handle more than two series ‘cos I have a rule that I don’t want to go to bed hating anyone but I got really fed up with them putting the music on the wrong timing or whatever. Lots of little things wound me up and made it unpleasurable.
“They really wanted a third series and I said ‘I don’t mind, I’ll do it, but you have to give me more say in the final edit. I don’t need complete Gloria Swanson editing, I just need a bit more respect and a bit more say. Don’t keep fobbing me off’, cos they didn’t know best and I’m not going to go into specifics other than I couldn’t fucking handle it and he said ‘no, artists are artists, producers are producers and that’s the way it is’.
“I said ‘have you never heard of United Artists, formed by fucking Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr in 1919?’ It was exactly for that reason. It wasn’t just for the money, it was for the edit, the final result because we wanted to see our little babies through to the end.
“And those routines, in a series doing visual stuff and not talking, it’s a lot of work and some of those babies came through really well and I didn’t expect them to, and some of them were really hard to do and they worked out okay. Some worked out way better than I thought, some didn’t, but you have to nurture them and fucking look after them and work hard on it and it was a horrible thing to see them fuck it up.
“Now look, in retrospect I look back and see that maybe I was a bit too perfectionist but I just wasn’t willing to bend over for anyone. I wasn’t willing to be famous and rich under any circumstances. I’m sorry – don’t fuck with my work!
“That was important to me and it still is, and actually no-one can fuck with me now ‘cos I own my own venue and I do what I want here, good or bad, and I do ask for people’s opinions ‘cos I don’t know everything but I’ve got no wanker fucking telling me [smarmy voice] ‘oh, I think that’s better in pink’ or ‘don’t worry, it’ll be fine’, but it’s not fine, the music’s like half a beat out and it’s all visual like a ballet – try putting the fucking music on to a ballet half a beat out and see how the Bolshoi react – you’re going to get some very strong ballet dancer very pissed off!”
So that was end of ‘Secret Cabaret’, but the issues were to be revisited in the 1993 Iron Maiden special, ‘Raising Hell’. The live performance, in conjunction with horror illusions, was filmed at Pinewood studios and broadcast live in the US on MTV and on pay-per-view in the UK, to mark the end of Bruce Dickinson’s decade long tenure as vocalist. Simon was billed as co-producer.
Raising Hell, 1993
“Ricky Jay, who was on ‘Secret Cabaret’, he was a very famous card magician and actor; he’s one of the finest card magicians alive, under Jerry Sadowitz. Some American TV producers talked to him and he recommended me for a show, the format being a party in Hell, and the house band was going to be Ministry. I got a call about that and I said ‘no – I’m not going to work with Ministry’. So they said ‘how about Ozzy Osbourne?’ and I knew Ozzy had just come out of rehab for the thirteenth time or something like that and he wasn’t really there. I mean it takes a while for the pink cloud to get see-through, and he’s a great character now, but I couldn’t see him as doing anything which would really be interesting because I had to relate closely to whoever the musicians were on it and collaborate with them. Although Ozzy would have been fun, it wouldn’t have been ‘Raising Hell’.
“The producers heard that I’d done a show for Iron Maiden who were big fans of ‘Secret Cabaret’, for the launch of their album ‘Fear Of The Dark’ so the American executives asked ‘is there any way you can get Maiden?’ So I asked and they were very keen. Their album sales were flagging in America and it was a special for America, an hour-and-a-half long, and it had quite a good bit of money behind it and so we made it.
“Tommy Vance was a good friend of mine, lovely fella, and he lent me seventy-five or so Heavy Metal CDs so I could immerse myself in it and just understand what I’m doing. Not Maiden so much, although they gave me all their stuff, but I didn’t really need that because they’re playing and then I’m doing other stuff so I wouldn’t necessarily use their backing tracks.
“I did a load of work, like nine months of rehearsing two bits of trial music. Found some fucking great Metallica stuff, and Cacophony, they had all that Louis Quinze hair but they’re very good. The rehearsal tapes – which are on camcorder tapes somewhere – are better than ‘Raising Hell’ ‘cos they’re all done to that music and it had guts, it really was sexy, something else.
“So we shot at Pinewood over a couple of days. We shot a couple of things earlier without an audience because it was really tricky to do and a bit dangerous, but they weren’t faked magic-wise. They were very gory, I mean I did some disgusting things in that.
“It was a natural idea obviously, killing Bruce at the end. That was based on a few things. We’d used that prop in ‘Secret Cabaret’. We’d rebuilt it from George Kovari, a lovely old magician who we borrowed it from – we rented it off him and rebuilt it so it was much better – but then it was too heavy to fit in his garage and he couldn’t get it in his van or anything afterwards. The guy who made all those severed heads is Neil Gorton, now one of the biggest effects guy in this country.
“The craziest thing of all was the sawing the woman in half in it – it was disgusting – to ‘Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter’. They didn’t have time to schedule a proper rehearsal for it ‘cos it was flying above the Maiden stage, so we literally did it once and that’s what you saw. It was fucking horrible and probably the most violent thing anyone’s done in magic ‘cos it went through her skin and then they towed the top half up and the intestines come down.
“She was good though, ooh she was good, she was going ‘uuurgggghhhh’ and shaking. I gave her a little bit of coaching but she was good. See, less is more but if you’re being that brutally treated then more is more, because you’d have been dead within a second but she has to live to go ‘oh shit’. So what would you do in your mind’s eye when someone’s that badly mutilated? I mean of course they’re dead, ghastly.
“Davey [Murray]’s amputation and guitar solo was a major coup to pull off. It was my idea based on a Kevin James idea so we had those silly choppers that I eventually sold as they weren’t really a magic trick, they just looked nice.
“I really liked the idea of kidnapping the guitarist, chopping off his arms so I’ve got his forearms to play a solo with Iron Maiden. I mean any Maiden fan would give up their dick for that really. I fortunately didn’t have to do that but it was good fun and silly.
“We took Davey behind the stack and chopped the arms off a double – as if the arm chopping was dangerous, it wasn’t even remotely dangerous. But that was part of getting them to agree, so one of my guys, the driver I think, stepped in as the double as he was a similar height.
“When I play with Maiden it looks really funny, ‘cos I’m doing all that legs apart business with Steve. It was timed very carefully by Rod standing with his stopwatch – twenty seconds max then ‘Right! Bloody gerrim’ off!’
“That was live so it had to be done to strict timing. I can understand Rod being worried that I was wanting to go on for ten minutes, but the gag was done by then anyway.”
Dave Murray lends Simon a hand…
This caution for the welfare of band members only extended to those staying on the payroll it seemed – that really was Bruce in the Iron Maiden in the iconic scene at the end – and he nearly died an ironic death.
Simon put him in the device and told him to keep still – and he didn’t. The mechanics caught in his hair and pulled a chunk out at the roots – if you look real closely you may be able to see the gap.
Incidentally Simon can also count himself among the list of great rock’n’roll injuries. During Kate Bush’s ‘Tour Of Life’ rehearsals there was a malfunction and he was fully knocked out by the moving central ramp, and came back round cradled in the entirety of Kate’s bosom. Every cloud and all that…
Anyway, back to ‘Raising Hell’. That closing image of Eddie standing over Simon’s impaled body, with the credits rolling in silence is still stunning to watch back today. It’s a great piece of work.
Simon describes Bruce as “an absolute sweetheart” and the band as “really easy going people, highly professional, good musicians, good news as people. Rod’s a tough manager sure, but he was fine.”
Simon wasn’t completely satisfied with how it all turned out however.
“I remember the moment when I punched out the girl’s heart after she cheated on me with the drummer, and I’m over the audience with this heart, and I’m squeezing it, and the blood’s dripping on them. They’re going [pulls bloodlust, tranced face] and I’m going ‘this is what you call tough love’ and I realised at that moment they weren’t laughing – cos it was meant to be funny – they were going ‘Oh yes, kill her’. Oh. That was a big penny drop for me and I went ‘shit… they’re not getting the send up’.
“I mean Bruce and the lads all understood it was a send up of the hormone monster, and that was a major moment for me. It was a problem, and it was too late, I’d already fucking done a lot of it. But that moment when I saw them, looking down it was ‘uuuugghhhhh… oh fuck’, anyway… whoops!”
Walking the fine line between success and failure is one thing, but there was much worse to come as the monster of lack of creative control reared its head in an ugly and egregious way.
“Now my experiences with the English TV producers ended for me unhappily because of the [lack of] creative control to do with the music that’s dubbed on or not or whatever. It was done well but it was ‘just give me a little bit more power, it is my idea you employ me to be in’. When I was starting work with these guys from the States I thought this is good, I’m the co-producer so I’ve got more say, this is fantastic.
“The main producer that I dealt with told me that they would probably be able to get the rights to about 80% of what I wanted, ok, it’s going to hurt but I know there’s a compromise. It was the opposite, they got the rights to about 20% of what I wanted.
“I went into the control suite – it’s a caravan-like massive thing – in costume with a knife down here [gestures to calf] which has got a blade that big and I was in character. I stay in character because it’s hard for me to flip in and out of it so I just stay in it. It’s not violence, it’s malevolence. People think acting’s pretending, it ain’t, it’s feeling and you have to have something to feel so I had a deep well of feelings to use.
“So I’d seen what they’d done overnight and that morning. The cremation was actually originally done to an instrumental, a really driving theme that was so good for it, and they dubbed this fucking awful AOR library rock over it. It was fucking horrific and they’d done that to 80% of my work and it killed me.
“I went into the control unit and I said ‘I don’t want any of you to spend any time alone with me ‘cos I will stab you. You are a bunch of fucking thieving lying cunts. I don’t want to have anything to do with any of you ever again. After today I don’t want to talk to you ever again; you’re fucking cunts doing that to my work. You’ve broken my heart’.
“Then I walked round Pinewood looking for somewhere to hang myself. I was a little emotional, let’s put it that way. I mean I literally was that bad, I was really in a bad way and I had one or two more things to do and then we were out of there. And that’s it. I won’t do any more television, ever. Ever.
“They can fuck off. You don’t change the music. If you do, please tell me carefully, gently. Don’t tell me you’re going to use 80% and then use 20% of it, just tell me from the beginning. We might be able to clear half of it, that’ll be a better cushion. Don’t lie to me like that. What’s going to happen?
“I really wanted to kill them, I mean really and I fucking could have done – they were big fellas too. I didn’t give a shit, I was just insanely angry and instead of doing that I just went out and got upset and walked round Pinewood ’til I’d cooled down. My manager came out and there was this fucking rowing and shouting with them – it was wrong. It saved them a few grand – I would have paid for it – they didn’t ask. It’s manipulative and it’s actually the worst side of that industry.”
The video is generally held to be a good piece of work, the illusions are striking and the performances are good – the most severe and frequent criticism you tend to hear is ‘cheesy’.
“Exactly – it was less cheesy with the right music, much less cheesy. It was super-cheesy ‘cos the music is ‘diddly-dum’, I completely agree. I can’t watch it, it’s horrible. The knife through arm’s ok, that’s to a bit of Robert Lockhart I believe, although they credited Cacophony for it or got it round the wrong way anyway. The girls from groin was Cacophony and that was the right music, that’s about it I think.
“The problem with the American producers is they didn’t have the taste or the same acumen as the English co-executives to know music, to understand what would work, so when they dubbed it over it was just anything that vaguely fitted and it didn’t fit entirely. You could see the cremation routine, it’s all done in half time and the music is double that time so it doesn’t fit, it just looks lame so the Maiden fans on the internet that have gone ‘this is shit’ were right.
“Yeah I agree with that, it hurt my feelings but I’m on their side. That’s why all the rehearsal tapes are much better, even though you can see how all the tricks are done and we’re only wearing half costumes. But it was heartbreaking ‘cos I’m not in it for fame and money, I’m in it to try and break the ice and do something fucking good and so ‘Raising Hell’ is shit because of that. I’d love to re-dub it with the proper music.”
Simon has been true to his word and has never put his name to another television production. He’s been far from idle though, continually honing his stagecraft skills and knowledge and finding satisfaction in the freedom to create his own works and also providing consultancy and coaching to film directors and movie stars, knowing that they can do what they want as it’s not his name on the finished product.
The list is prestigious, including Oliver Reed – “we didn’t end up doing any magic but he certainly taught me how to drink!” – John Gielgud, Pamela Stephenson, Terry Gilliam, Christopher Plummer, Andrew Garfield and Heath Ledger.
Of course his main gig absolutely does bear his name, and it’s a venue which he has built up over the last twenty years to something very special indeed. Simon Drake’s House Of Magic does exactly what it says on the tin, right down to the strapline of ‘specialists in the enchantingly macabre’.
Simon in The Enchanted Garden
Held in a converted derelict Victorian mansion in a secret London location it is a multi-sensory experience where you are enthralled, captivated, full of wonder, and on occasions feel quite nauseous too. It’s a complete joy from the moment you first enter The Enchanted Garden, taking in three floors stuffed full of curios, automatons and treasures among which are Arthur Brown’s original ‘Fire’ helmet and a couple of severed heads from ‘Raising Hell’.
There’s also dinner, spectacular comedy-horror tours of the Haunted Cellar, and wandering close-up magicians that will leave you speechless, even though we are all cynical know-it-alls these days and think we aren’t going to fall for it. Well you will.
And all this is before the main event of Simon’s show – no spoilers here but some of the set pieces may be somewhat familiar, and have even more of an impression for witnessing live. Simon doesn’t just appear for the show though, he’s a brilliant and charming host, spending time with all the guests, completely hands-on – don’t panic, he saves the violence for the show. It’s a complete ten-pint score experience from me, satisfying the very real human desire for both darkness and enchantment.
If you go soon (and you really should), you will also get an added bonus as ex-Enid members Joe Payne, Duncan McLaughlin, and Max Read are part of the brilliant team Simon has assembled. It’s way more than serving gin and tonics and providing sound engineering though as the collaboration started a few years earlier. It’s a meeting of minds where great art was made, and firm friendships formed.
“I’d known about The Enid since I was opening at the Marquee Club in the mid 70s and I couldn’t believe they were still going and I saw this video and I thought it was fucking awful and this young singer Joe, good looking boy, the song was very good but the fucking video, Jesus.
“I saw a little bit of live work and I went ‘oh God, ooh God, oh no, this could be so good’, so I fucking emailed them. I said ‘listen, I love what you’re doing but I think I might be able to help with some guidance visually’, and that started off an amazing thing with The Enid, where I got to be a proper music visualist and actually I have to say it was the most satisfying job I’ve never had – they didn’t have any money so I couldn’t bill ’em. I didn’t care.
“Some of their stuff’s really fantastic and then they do this ‘whoa, fancy going my way said the spider to the fly’, really awful shit as well so they are a cross between fab and terrible and really embarrassingly bad, and really sublimely good. I think someone described them as Ozric Tentacle meets Pink Floyd down a dark alley in the worst kind of gents toilets – there’s something odd going on, I added the last bits.
“But something really interesting about their work as a conglomerate, as a band over many years over different personnel. When this young guy Joe joined them I just thought there’s something here and I saw him making these fundamental mistakes, just a bit drama schooly and a little bit too much and I thought ‘I can really help this situation’ so I contacted them, and that began a good few years of something really special.”
This resulted in the striking Bridge and Dust shows, where a huge LED screen saw a marriage of music and visuals to spectacular and innovative effect. Simon raised some money from an art institute for the LED screen, gave them some initial ideas and the collaboration started in earnest. Each show was filmed on a single camera set up and sent over for scrutiny.
Joe Payne in ‘The Bridge Show’, January 2015
“I’d make loads of notes and go on Skype with them and I’d slag them off and work with their lighting person and it was very challenging but it was really interesting what happened because Joe Payne, fucking hell, I’ve never experienced anything like it.
“I was careful with my notes as I wasn’t going to teach him to do the wrong thing. I was really worried about that – everything I fucking suggested he did by the next show and this was ridiculous. This is talent. Now this boy really knows how to think, he knows how to prepare and he does the work. I was so impressed and he listened to me.
“I sat him down here like we’re sitting now and we went through a lot of stuff. We might spend two hours over a five second thing but I wouldn’t explain just what was wrong, I mean I explained why my thinking was going that way and I’d bring out books and things from here and show him references and show him the old Helpmann or Nijinsky all the old stuff.
Joe Payne in ‘Dust’, April 2016
“It wasn’t just a question of lecturing him saying ‘don’t stand like that’, it was a question of saying why you don’t walk on stage like that, why there’s a timing to it, why we really consider this and we do it slowly and deliberately and the essence of style is having all the time in the world without being self-indulgent. There’s modesty and ways of showing weakness on stage, and ways of showing strength on stage and it has to come from a real place and my God, with this guy I was just blown away.
“His gift, well it’s not a gift really, it’s an ability to apply himself to work. Genius is nothing to do with God-given, maybe a tiny bit, but it’s the fucking ability to be able to go through drudgery of the same thing, same thing, stubbornly until oh, now that’s starting to happen.”
To illustrate, Simon pulls a photobook on Nijinsky from the treasure-filled shelves. There is no film in existence of the famed ballet dancer, but as we pore over the book together, Simon’s eyes shining with the passion of his craft, these pictures are brought to life and the sensuality is spellbinding.
One part of the book is pictures of the infamous performance of ‘Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune’.
“This was a scandal in 1912 London where people stood up – ‘it’s disgusting!’. People walked out, it was all over the press, people dined out on it for months. It was banned, because of one thing because the faun, he shagged the costume. He shagged her garment.”
The connection to the er, climactic scene of ‘Dust’ when Joe ejaculates LED stars is all falling into place…
“All I showed him was the way that you can move and how you can do very much by doing very little. Refining his stage persona to do with his body language and his neck and he used it to great effect.
“What I didn’t know was that he was going to go off and actually nick that shagging routine. I had no idea. That was them. Unbelievable. It was him and Max having a right laugh.”
Nijinsky as the faun
Joe Payne making the earth move in ‘Dust’
Joe, Max and Simon have been good for each other, not just in collaboration at its most finest but being an amazing source of support to each other through turbulent times. Simon was going through a separation with his wife at the time of the Bridge shows and, in a story that is yet to be fully told, Joe Payne left The Enid a year ago “completely and utterly broken” in his own words.
They are continuing to work together and it’s mouth-watering to think what’s to come – in some ways they are only just getting started.
It’s time to leave and time has warped, just flown by. There’s a lot more to come from Simon Drake, over and above what we have now. Get yourself down to The House Of Magic and experience this for yourself. Tell him I sent you.
And if he ever incorporates an Iron Maiden into his act make sure you keep still should you ever have to get in it.
Simon Drake’s House of Magic
Arthur Brown photo – Robert Sutton. Joe Payne photos – Sean Cameron. All other photos provided by Simon Drake’s House Of Magic.