Des de Moor
Press Cuttings: Darkness and Disgrace

Reeves Corner, London, March 2001
Photo: Theo Cohen

Such a Humble Man...

An interview with Des de Moor and Russell Churney

by Marcus Reeves © 2000

Way back in January, I met Des de Moor after seeing his brilliant cabaret show Darkness and Disgrace at the Rosemary Branch Theatre in Islington, London. A few days later, he granted me a backstage interview with himself and his accompanist, Russell Churney.

The show serves as a great taster of Bowieís music, with radical interpretations of songs spanning his whole career. It is also a superb introduction to the cabaret genre for the uninitiated. Knowing very little about it myself, I asked Des to explain the background to the tradition, which is an historic and international one.

"The word Ďcabaretí covers a multitude of sins... In the US, there is a tradition of supper-club cabaret, which is very much about Broadway standards, torch songs (passionate and often melancholy ballads) and show songs. In Europe, there is more of a political and satirical tradition of cabaret, the most famous manifestation people would know is the film of the musical Cabaret, set in Weimar Germany. Small clubs would put on a mixed bill of material, a lot of which was songs, often comic, satirical, political, commenting on things that were happening at the time. In France, they have more of a tradition of small-scale, very intense songs, often about quite emotional subjects. The cabaret tradition still continues in France, Germany and the Netherlands, in the Dutch language.

"In Britain, a lot of that has been lost, the closest thing we had to that was music hall, which didnít really survive the turn of the last century. There was a revue thing, with people like Noel Coward and a little explosion in the late fifties of satirical revue. What links all those different, disparate things is that they are theatrical, in the sense that they are about acting out the song and that they are very concerned with language and the word, so the words are always very clear, very important and often quite clever. I and a few other people have taken upon ourselves the rather thankless task of trying to create something like that in Britain."

Mentioning a mixture of songs and theatricality, any Bowie fan can see Dr. Jonesí head looming over the horizon.

"Bowie was influenced by a lot of that tradition as well as all the other things he was influenced by. In the sixties, there was a lot of very intense invention and creativity going on and in the kind of environment in which he grew up, there was an awareness of all these things and an awareness of theatre, which is why I think he got into people like Jacques Brel and Tony Newley."

Bowie himself has paid tribute to the genre by covering numerous cabaret standards, but what does Des make of them?

"Amsterdam is a great performance. The thing that lets it down is the translation. Itís the same with My Death. They are by Mort Shuman and although he obviously really likes Brel, I donít think the translations really render the originals as well as they could." (Des does all his own translations). One of the most well-known Brecht songs is Alabama Song, covered by Bowie, The Doors and many others. "I donít think Bowieís version works. I can see what he was trying to do, but it doesnít work very well. The song doesnít need it, but itís difficult as that song is so well covered. The Baal songs are excellent versions and thatís because he has a sensitivity to the tradition, a grasp of that theatrical presentation and a respect for the language. Bowieís strength lies as an interpreter of that material and his own."

Bowie is not the only mainstream artist to have delved into the smoky world of cabaret. Des highlighted other contemporary artists who he feels have added something to the tradition.

"Marianne Faithfull has been doing cabaret, singing a lot of the German repertoire, a lot of Kurt Weill. Marc Almond is someone else who is very influenced by that side of things. Both of them have a real understanding of where the material has come from and bring a really individual slant on it. Ute Lemper is someone who has broken through into the mainstream market." Another well-known cabaret artist currently keeping the torch aflame is Barb Jungr, who also directed Darkness and Disgrace.

"Barb is interesting as she relates to something else which is often associated with cabaret. In this country it is really associated with comedy. Barb had a lot of connections with the comedy circuit, she worked with Julian Clary and did a lot of touring in comedy clubs, in a duo with Michael Parker. I have known Barb for quite a while, we met at a gig in a folk club in North London. Then, she was doing more American material, blues and folky singer-songwriter material. We met again at the Lesbian and Gay Pride cabaret, which is something Iíve been doing for years. I asked her to perform at my club Pirate Jennyís and she became a regular fixture."

One of the very noticeable things about the show is itís theatricality (not in a camp way, but in the sense that the songs are seen as stories to be acted out). This is a definite feature of the cabaret tradition taken on by numerous practitioners and one that Des still uses.

"The cabaret tradition was picked up on by Bertholt Brecht when he started writing musicals. One of the things about Brecht is his theory of alienation, that youíre always aware that something is a theatre piece and that somebody is playing a role, you draw attention to the artificiality of the situation. When Iím on stage, Iím acting out a song and playing a role." In this sense, Des has found the Bowie repertoire a rich source for his creative talent to tap into. As there are often different ways to interpret the songs, he can really go on a journey and tell a tale, as he does with his version of The Bewlay Brothers, where he explores the numerous levels on which the song works.

"Part of the joy of doing the Bowie songs is that you have to reach into the song and find whatís being implied. Youíre constantly bringing your personal experience to bear. I happened to once spend a week in prison and when we do I Have Not Been to Oxford Town, I try and think myself into that and what it felt like. Iíve never found it very natural to sing, or perform, so I have to work at it. Iím aware that everything you do on-stage in front of an audience has to mean something."

Like most people, Des has always had an interest in music, but eventually came into it professionally through the technical side, a talent which was obviously in his blood.

"From the age of about eleven or twelve, I started making experimental tapes with a mono cassette recorder. I found ways of abusing it and over-dubbing things.

"I was in school bands and in my later teens I went to folk clubs and started writing my own songs. I ended up singing because itís one of those things a lot of people donít want to do. For ages I didnít really see myself as a singer, it was just something Iíd done by default (actually I wasnít a terribly good one until a few years back, I had to make quite a bit of an effort to improve it, because the sort of material I wanted to do was placing bigger demands on what I could do with my voice).

"When I left school, I was working with a guy as a synth duo in the early eighties. We did it all ourselves, with backing tapes of rhythm tracks. The music was rock / pop based, strange stuff, there wasnít a coherent direction to it. The guy I was working with was from a prog-type background, but was also very interested in writing quite minimal pieces. The first thing I consider having done on my own was in Ď82, when I did a tape called A Bloody Row, which was a combination of songs that were completely away from anything rock or pop; sound collages, some was poetry set to music and quirky little songs and folk pastiches, covers of Brel songs and Brecht and Weill songs. That music really entranced me. Iíd heard a recording of The Threepenny Opera from the late fifties / early sixties and remember being completely blown away by that, it was something that was not at all within the categories of the British musical scene. It wasnít rock or pop music and wasnít classical. I found the singing far much more accessible than classical singing.

"After that, I dropped out of doing any music for most of the mid-eighties, went to college, did a degree and became quite involved in Lesbian and Gay politics. I then met a guy called Morris, (who now calls himself Mix-Master Morris) and we stated working together in Ď87. My first taste of the professional music industry! He was really into Brecht, which was our connection, samples had just come out at the time and we put together a duo called The Irresistible Force." The pair did a number of remixes together for Lloyd Cole and the band Stump. "By the end of Ď89, he was pushing to move in a dance direction, which wasnít really the way I wanted to go. I was starting to do stuff that was moving more towards that cabaret-song direction and I wanted to pick up that trail again. Finally, in Ď92, I made an album called Photographs of Empty Houses. Iíve moved more in that direction and since the end of 1994, Iíve been doing a regular night at the Vortex in Stoke Newington, called Pirate Jennyís, which is a musical cabaret club."

Des first thought of the original concept for Darkness and Disgrace a few years ago.

"I first thought of doing Time in my set and broached the idea to Russell, who was accompanying me on some gigs and found that he was really into the material as well. I said that I had an idea for a whole show of Bowie songs and it was something we both really wanted to do. We wrote a shortlist, I did a tape with the Bowie versions, in more or less the order they are in now. Russell and I got together and did a demo. Barb gave us some comments and we all brain-stormed the linking and I went away and wrote a lot of it, some with my partner Ian. Itís the first time Iíve been directed and my decision was that I knew how I wanted to interpret the songs vocally and between Russell and I, we worked out the musical arrangements, but I had no idea how I wanted to stage it. I left it all in her hands." And very capable hands they were. Russell elaborated on his side of the collaboration and explained some of the challenges it offered.

"We did the arrangements together, but the main problem is that most, almost all of these songs were originally done with a full rock band, so you have to find a way of making them work with just voice and piano. Itís something that old school people tend to say, but it is true, that if a song doesnít work with just voice and piano, then itís not a good song. They are all very good songs. Itís a question of finding the right approach to making a song work. The Bewlay Brothers, for instance, was an obvious one to do just with guitars as the original is fairly spare and acoustic guitar-based. Itís a question of trial and error. You know when youíve found the right thing." Together the duo have found numerous moments that click, including a spell-binding version of We Are The Dead and a gentle and touching Sons of the Silent Age. Russell has his own magic moments. "For me, as a piano-playing show-off, I very much enjoy Time, when I get it right, itís deeply satisfying. Equally, I really enjoy Oxford Town, which is a very Zen thing to play, I play almost nothing; a very simple phrase all the way through, finding a stillness there and a sensitivity of touch is very satisfying. One of the strengths of the show is that everything is stripped down, but another fun bit is at the end of Life On Mars, where I am a one-man orchestra!"

When Bowie is mentioned to a modern audience, most might see him as a relic of a bygone era, or simply that dude in Labyrinth with the leggings and the mullet. But what many people nowadays may not appreciate is how controversial Bowie was in the seventies. Boy George, Marc Almond and many others have referred to Bowieís performance on Top of The Pops as a real landmark in popular culture; where one man touched another in unashamed affection, a real shocker in the rather more butch chicken-in-a-basket and a pint of bitter realm of rock ní roll than the one we know today, where Marilyn Manson and chums can flounce and prance in feather boas to their hearts content (or in his case, discontent). Des goes along with the other musicians who believe that he was very important as an icon to many people, in particular, young gay people.

"Certainly for people of my age, Bowie coming out in the way he did in the Ď70's was quite an affirming experience. I donít think Iíd formed an idea that I was actually gay at that stage, I was only eleven, but it was there, so that when all those jokes and name-calling at school started, it didnít seem so bad somehow, here was someone doing it on the telly and doing very well!"

Des seems like a very different person off-stage to his onstage persona. He is much quieter and seems quite shy in real life, in comparison to his cheery and confident stage presence. In contrast, Russell Churney is the opposite. He only has a few lines in the show (including a hilarious Bowie-on-coke impression) and stays behind the piano for most of it. Off-stage, he is a laid-back but confident man who puts himself across with a sharp and witty sense of humour. He seemed very ready to give me the low-down on his career.

"I got into music by accident. Iíd always played the piano, I started when I was about seven or eight, but it had never crossed my mind that I could do it for a living. I went to University and studied Law, because I couldnít think of anything else to do, so I ended up with a Law degree.

"But what I did mostly at University was act and by the time I came to the end of my degree, I had decided that acting was really what I wanted to do. I got into the Cambridge Footlights Tour, which at that time, was a very good deal, as it meant you could get your Equity card, which was a hard thing to come by. So, I had my card and thought ĎIím in! From here on itís plain sailing and five years from now Iíll be a movie star.í After six months of poverty stricken unemployment, I fell into the job of playing piano for Julian Clary, quite by chance, through a mutual acquaintance. Suddenly, seven years had gone by. I had worked with Julian Clary for a long time, it was a lovely gig, heís a lovely bloke and I earnt a lot of money and spent it all. Then I started working with Barb Jungr, who I met very soon after I started working with Julian as she had been working with him and they were friends. She had been working for a long time with a guitarist, Michael Parker, but he got married and moved to Scotland, so she was looking for something else to do and so she started working with me and we have been working together since, which has been great.

"Over the last couple of years, I have been doing work with Dillie Keane, of Fascinating Aida and Iím about to start another tour with her. About five years ago, I met Des when Barb and I played his club, Pirate Jennyís. Over the next couple of years I filled in for his regular pianist when he wasnít available, doing the odd gig here or there. About eighteen months ago, Des told me he wanted to put Time into his regular set and asked if I knew it, so we discovered a mutual long-term enthusiasm for Bowie. Des said to me casually that he had always thought it would be great to do a whole show of just Bowie songs. I thought ĎIíd be up for thatí and then lo and behold, a year later he asked me to do it and here we are."

Given Russellís very natural comic timing and confident stage presence, I asked him why he doesnít go further and perform as a front man or on his own.

"I do still act occasionally, I have had some training and I appear in plays about once every three years. I have so much music work now and it all gets booked up so far in advance that it makes it difficult to put myself forward for anything." However, like most actors, Russell has a role that he would love to play if he got the chance. "I did George in Whoís Afraid of Virginia Woolf when I was at college and when I get to the right age, if the opportunity arose to have a crack at that, then I would seize it with both hands!" Until then, itís probably best for Russell to keep those hands where they do their best, on the keys.

Although the duo have settled on Bowie songs as their current repertoire, they both have quite different musical tastes. In tried and tested Smash Hits style, I asked them both what records they had in their collection, including the first record they ever bought.

Russell: "Iíd like to say single or album ,but since both of my answers are exceptionally embarrassing, it makes little difference! The first single I ever bought was ĎRemember Youíre A Wombleí, when I was nine. I have a nasty feeling that the first album I bought was Supertrampís Breakfast in America (cue much laughter from Des). I really should have known better about that one, as I was about fourteen. Neither of them are much played on my stereo, I hasten to add! These days I like Miles Davis, post-war American Jazz, I love Blues stuff, early blues, and a lot of late forties rhythm and blues stuff I really like too; T-Bone Walker and a lot of dance-hall rhythm and blues.

"Someone gave me the Eminem album for Christmas and I have to say I donít like it, but I was very impressed by it. My sister is in a rock band and sends me rock albums every so often in an attempt to steer me down that road and keep me up to date." At this point Russellís eyes lit up. "Sheís the keyboard player in Ooberman and was voted the third sexiest woman in rock last year by Melody Maker, a fact that I was insanely proud of!" Russell was so pleased with this that he even carried a copy of the article around to show off to everybody. "Look: Number Three: Sophia Churney; Number Ten: Kylie Minogue! I Thank You!"

Desís first record was equally embarrassing: Ernie (The Fastest Milk-Man in the West) by Benny Hill (which he also excuses with then fact that he was ten at the time. Hmm...) "The first full-price album I bought was indeed Aladdin Sane. I then bought Ziggy Stardust and started collecting them all. I was very surprised when he said he was getting into soul, I wasnít a soul fan at the time (I am now). I found David Live fascinating as it was a very different interpretation of his older material. But it all went a bit pear-shaped after Letís Dance, I thought. Outside was a real return to form. I think Scary Monsters is the best though. My personal favourites are The Man Who Sold the World and Diamond Dogs, theyíre both very interesting albums. They have a very interesting sound, the texture, feel and atmosphere of the albums is very distinctive."

Although Des rates Outside, Russell is not convinced. "I never got far into Outside, I listened to the first few tracks and thought Ďthis is too much like hard work! I can tell itís better than the last few albums and thank god itís not Tin Machine, but Iíll leave it for another dayí. That day never came." Russell remembers his first contact with the man himself. "I got into David Bowie very late. I was always aware of Space Oddity and then Ashes to Ashes, with itís then ground-breaking video, which I saw on Top of the Pops, with Steve Strange walking around in front of a JBC full of hay, throwing shapes. I thought it was quite the scariest pop video Iíd ever seen, but quite intriguing.

"In the mid-eighties, Paul Gambaccini was presenting a fan-boy resume of Bowieís career on the radio and he played Jean Genie, which Iíd never heard before and from the first line I was hooked. I thought Ďthis is brilliant, how have I not been aware of this?í. I sat glued to the whole programme and ran out the next day and bought the K-Tel Best of Bowie then everything from Space Oddity through to Scary Monsters. I loved Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs immediately, it took a bit longer with Low and Heroes because they were so peculiar but eventually I grew to love them all! Hunky Dory is probably my favourite though, or Scary Monsters, these days I listen to Scary Monsters more."

One of the mainstays of the Bowie band for over two decades has been Mike Garson, whose amazing piano-playing style has wowed listeners throughout that period, including Russell and Des.

Russell: "I think Mike Garson is terrific, I vividly remember the first time I heard him playing on Aladdin Sane, and thinking, Ďwhat the fuck is that!í, I had never heard the like and I didnít even know if I liked it or not. I thought it was extraordinary and certainly as a musician you always remember when you first hear something thatís not like anything youíve ever heard before."

Des: "When I got Ziggy Stardust I was very disappointed that he wasnít on the credits. Hearing that guy play was one of those moments that just opens your mind to a whole new realm of musical possibilities."

Which, appropriately enough, is something that Des and Russell have achieved with Darkness and Disgrace. It is a fascinating journey for a Bowie fan, as the duo take some very unexpected routes through the songs, but should also prove intriguing to lovers of cabaret as Des makes his way through a lesser-known and less obvious songbook.

At the time of writing, Russell is on tour with Dillie Keane and Des still DJís regularly and presents his club, Pirate Jennyís. Darkness and Disgrace is intended to tour in the summer and has had full approval from Bowie Net, so hopefully you can catch it at a venue near you soon!

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This piece also appeared on Teenage Wildlife.