Friday, 6 June 2008

The valley of the shadow of de’Ath

Everyone thought he’d been dead for decades until he showed up at his former boss’s memorial service, with only one eye but otherwise more or less in one piece.

Rod de’Ath was Rory Gallagher’s drummer during his Seventies heyday. As a musician he was a bit crap, to be honest — or, as Roger Glover, who produced him on Calling Card, more diplomatically put it, he “wasn’t the best drummer in the world” — a proud alumnus of the wardrobe-falls-downstairs school of the percussive arts.

If he's remembered at all it's probably for his rather silly (but in fact real) name and the notorious foot-powder scene in Tony Palmer's documentary Irish Tour ’74. But he was an experienced, enthusiastic basheur des skins and certainly didn’t deserve to slip into total obscurity when Rory suddenly gave him and his mate Lou Martin, the band's Muppet-like keyboard player, the boot in 1978.

After trying in vain to get back into the rock mainstream for a few years, including a spell with Lou Martin in a going-nowhere-fast band called Ramrod (left), de’Ath emigrated to America, got married and had a baby. At some point in the Eighties he got a call from a British band called Road Erect (yes, that Road Erect), inviting him to produce them, so he came back to London to do it, crashing on a series of sofas while he was there.

And then his “accident” happened.

The details are murky (I’ve been unable to confirm whether any gardening was involved at all, although substances of various kinds may well have been), but the upshot was that he lost an eye, spent a long time in a coma and suffered severe brain damage with total memory loss. His wife and child flew over from the States to be with him, but he was in hospital for so long that his apartment back in New York was assumed by the local hyenas to be unoccupied and everything in it was looted.

He emerged from his coma to discover that he was not only an out-of-work has-been drummer — no changes there — but also homeless, penniless, one-eyed and unable to remember a thing. Quite how he managed to get by, like most of the rest of this peculiar story, is a complete mystery.

Fast forward another decade of lost weekends to 1995, when Rory Gallagher died. Although back living in the UK by then, de’Ath stayed away from the funeral — probably wisely, given the very real risk that he'd spook most of the mourners — preferring to shuffle into Brompton Oratory unannounced and pay his respects at the memorial service a couple of months later. And that's where Rod de'Ath came back from the “dead” and where we came in.

In 1996 he was still in London (although doing exactly what I have no idea) with 95% of his memory back, but since then — 12 years ago now — he’s been AWOL again. Is he still hanging in there somewhere or, after one false alarm already, has Rod de’Ath's surname finally caught up with him?

For old time's sake, here he is at his (and Rory's) peak, playing "Cradle Rock" at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1975.

Update - 25 August 2008

A repost of this piece at the Word website has just received a welcome (if oddly defensive) response from Rod de'Ath's cousin. The upshot: yes, he is indeed still hanging in there. Phew.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Come On. Dive In!

If you say those four words to anyone who was a kid in the UK in the Eighties, the chances are you’ll only have to wait a nanosecond before they'll come right back at you with “Ha! Chambourcy Hippopotamousse!”

But where did it come from and where did it go?

A wealth of information is available online about many other products and ads from the era — the old commercial for Um Bongo even gets a spiffy website all its own — but Hippopotamousse is one that slipped through the Net.

Apart from the occasional passing mention on the odd telly-nostalgia forum, the only reference is a brief note that the advert was screened at some animation-awards show way back when. No Wikipedia entries, no pics, no frantic bidding on eBay for mint-condition four-packs, no nuffin’.

Even YouTube draws a blank for a standalone video — all I could find is this commercial break recorded in 1988, where it starts at 1:40. (Warning: It's a shockingly blurry VHS transfer, I’m afraid, but it should be just about enough to jog your memory.)


The idea of a Busby Berkeley schtick starring hippos in flouncy swimsuits, the script and that four-word strap line were the work of a notoriously flaky copywriter at NestlĂ©’s ad agency, who apparently not only left advertising but also fled the country not long after this commercial was aired, whereupon his name seems to have been redacted from all the records.

The visuals (skilfully tiptoeing around the idea's all-too-obvious plagiari. . . er, I mean loving tribute to the hippo ballerinas in Fantasia) were painstakingly crafted by the now-legendary American animator Eric Goldberg. He must have really needed the work back then, though, because the budget he was given was, quite frankly, a disgrace.

Still, his self-sacrifice seems to have paid off. A couple of years after adding Hippopotamousse to his showreel he was snapped up by Disney and went back to the States to animate the Robin Williams–voiced Genie character in Aladdin, co-direct Pocahontas and turn in the two most critically acclaimed sequences in Fantasia 2000. He then nipped over to Warners for every animator's ultimate dream gig, getting to bring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote and Tweety Pie back to life for Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

He's now back at the House of Mouse acting as an “all-purpose animation guru” and supervising the animation on Disney’s return to old-school hand-drawn features, The Princess and The Frog, which is due for release this summer.

The music for the Hippopotamousse commercial was old-school as well — composed and arranged by Tony and Gaynor Sadler and played by a small chamber group at Metropolitan Studios (then still in Soho). Ah, and that hang-on-don't-tell-me voice-over? Yes, it was indeed Don Warrington, still best known as Leonard Rossiter's foil in Rising Damp.

A follow-up commercial continuing the Thirties-musical theme was made a year later — with our hero begoggled and leather-helmeted, piloting a bi-plane, while female hippo wing-walkers did some appropriately hefty hoofing — but the sequel, being a sequel, lacked the warmth and uncluttered charm of the original somehow.

As for the mousse itself, it was known in the trade as “Notalottamousse” (think three spoonfuls of sweet pink air and you've dived in, basically) and it disappeared quietly from the shelves after only a few years.

But for some reason the TV ad that launched it seared an indelible mark on the memories of a lot of the then-kids who saw it. So when’s the digitally remastered THX/Dolby 5.1 Surround Blu-Ray boxset coming out, then, eh? Eh?