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Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute

Wembley Stadium - 11th June, 1998

For those of you who’ve read my earlier blog about scoring a goal at Wembley [link] the idea of an incomprehensibly unfit ex-coal miner who couldn’t out-run a milk float, scoring a goal on the hallowed turf may seem improbable enough, but that was only the first in a series of bizarre happenings that afternoon at the world famous Wembley Stadium.

It was the 11th June, 1988 and we were there to entertain roughly a ⅓rd of the World population via live TV broadcast to celebrate the 70th birthday of Nelson Mandela who was, at this time, still incarcerated on Robben Island.

These multi-artist, charity-type events are always absolute chaos, with bands constantly coming and going which, bearing in mind most musicians at any given time are never sure if they’re coming or going, is always going to be interesting. However, the stage management desperately try to stage manage everything by allotting each artist a very tight slot and by wandering around shouting obscenities.

Now, the drill with this band was that we were sort of an all-star house band - and when I say all-star, I mean Phil Collins, Brian May, Eric Clapton, Mark King, Midge Ure etc. - not little Johnny in his optimistically-sized England strip. Our job was to fill an hour or so accompanying various artists who were wheeled on and off in pretty quick succession.

Our slot in the show was around 2.00pm and, as we were getting ready to go on stage, through the heady atmosphere of eagerness and anticipation I was vaguely aware of a guy, dressed entirely in black, loitering in the wings. It was only when I spotted the sax in his hand that I took any real notice.

And then I recognised him - It’s only David Sanborn!

Now. For those non-musicians among you who, probably quite reasonably, don’t know who David Sanborn is – I think it’s fair to say that he is one of the finest Saxophone players walking the planet. And the particular piece of planet that he happened to be walking on at that moment was the piece leading right to me and the other guys in the horn section.

After introducing himself we all tried that musician thing of feigning indifference whilst being secretly impressed. I’m sure he noticed, but was very dignified about it.

Turns out he was eager to join in with our merry little band - without rehearsal and with almost a billion people watching.


Ah what the hell! What could possibly go wrong?

And so it was that, with barely a nod, one of the finest sax players in the world (and one who we all respected enormously) came to play with us, without any rehearsal, in front of 90,000 people at Wembley, and a further 900 million people gathered around the television. Not the same one, obviously.

A recipe for disaster perhaps but, let me tell you, not from where I was standing.

With very little prompting from us he was able to lock neatly in with what we were doing and made it sound effortless. I’m still not 100% sure if that’s because he was so good, or because we were so bad?? In any event, it was another entry in my long ledger of “things that I will tell my grandchildren that they won’t give a shit about”

Ah, well. Ho-hum!

One of the guest artistes with us that day was Spandau Ballet – those paragons of new-romanticism whose foppish good looks had the girls all of a quiver and whose ranks included their very own sax player – the illustrious Steve Norman.

Now, I don’t really know Steve that well – I had previously done a couple of weeks of TV dates in Europe with Spandau Ballet but that’s about it – but from my experience he’s a really good bloke. Good for a laugh, always gets them in, and an all-round good egg – just not necessarily the greatest Sax player in the world. I’m sure even he wouldn’t disagree with that and, let’s be honest, the million and one girls who threw themselves at him every night weren’t doing it because of the really neat way he moved through the tritone substitute to leave himself perfectly placed for a clever turnaround into the chorus. No, they wanted to shag him! So.... fair play to the lad!

Anyway, back at Wembley Stadium. Just about every song that Spandau did had a sax solo of some sort and our hero Mr. Sanborn, with that uniquely American sense of caring, self confidence obviously felt that a change of sax player on one of these solos would make for a more interesting and rounded experience for the audience.

Cut to Stage……:

Really Nice Guy, who happens to be in the Top 10 Sax players in the world: “Should I take this next solo?:

Really Nice Guy, who happens to NOT be in the Top 10 Sax players in the world: “Fuck Off!”

(Sound of brass section chins hitting the floor.....)


Confidence is a wonderful thing.

Yes, folks this truly was a day to remember. Not only for the enormous, global outpouring of love & support for a old man incarcerated on the other side of the world – but also because a collection of the world’s most fêted stars had temporarily put aside their usually inflated egos and pulled together to demonstrate solidarity for a noble cause.


When Stevie Wonder somehow mislaid the memory disk for his keyboard rig which made it impossible for him to go on at his allotted time, the gap left in the show was filled by an incredulous Tracy Chapman who, having already been on once, went on again and promptly multiplied her record sales by 10.

Once the missing Synclavier disk had been found, the few Artists who were set to follow Stevie were asked if they would each pull 5 minutes from their sets to make up 20 minutes for him to go on later (this is Stevie Wonder, FFS!). In a show of touching harmony and unanimity, they all answered without hesitation: “In the name of Freedom & Democracy, fuck off, we’ve got albums to promote”

Brings a tear to the eye.

However, by far the most outrageous example of preening, self-importance came, perhaps not surprisingly, from Miss Whitney Houston. A more inflated, self-important being I have yet to share a Stadium with! May she rest in peace.

With dressing rooms at a premium at Wembley - I guess they normally only need two, right? - the backstage area had been filled with Portakabins – one for each Artist or Band. These weren’t the most luxurious rooms we had ever had but they were clean and, after all, we only needed them to get changed in. Which is precisely what we were doing after our set when who should arrive in the building but Ms Houston, herself.

Flanked by a team of Armani-clad gorillas, Ms Houston cut a swathe through the great and the good before disappearing, somewhat sniffily, into her own personal Portakabin (I believe the Portakabin is still living off this and is now starring as part of the Big Brother house).

A few minutes later I was in our cabin getting changed when a knock came at the door. A Security man had come to tell us that Whitters, bless her, was demanding that all the Portakabins surrounding hers be cleared in order that she might have the privacy she so richly deserved. Somewhat bemused, we all looked to Phil (Collins, our leader) for guidance. Phil, as it happens, was in the midst of getting changed and was standing with his trousers ‘round his ankles. There then followed a perfect illustration of opposite ends of the egotistical scale. Phil, being a totally down to earth, genuine guy and all-round good fella, shrugged his shoulders, pulled up his trousers and quietly moved out.

Yep, that’s right! Phil Collins - 112 million albums with Genesis plus 100 or so million of his own - left his own dressing room on the orders of Whitney Houston - a relative Joanie-come-lately. She was good. But........

Too strange!

All in all though, quite a day and one which, at the time set the record for the biggest global audience for a Live concert. Our set was followed by such luminaries as Miss Houston, UB40, Simple Minds, Peter Gabriel and of course that legendary performance by Dire Straits that did so much to burn them into the public consciousness.


And so, our bit was all done by half three and, rather than hang around like a spare part, I hit the road. By half four I was at home cutting the grass while the family watched the rest of it on the telly.

I'm not one for showbiz parties..........

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