Phil on fame through television talent shows and from the school of hard knocks
Reality TV music shows are a double-edged sword for Phil Coulter, whose career in music has spanned almost five decades.
Coulter was just 25 when Sandy Show danced barefoot in black and white on television to the 1967 hit he wrote, ‘Puppet On a String’.
“I cannot believe that it is 45 years ago, but it is,” he says flatly.
Like most of his contemporaries, Coulter cut his teeth the hard way - there was no Simon Cowell mentor-type back then poised to spot his potential and catapult him to fame by virtue of the small screen in the living room corner.
“I had been in London at that stage for about a couple of years. First of all I was a kind of dogsbody working in a publishing house in London. Of course straight from Queen’s, where I had studied music and modern languages, and I went across convinced that I’d be arranging scores for major orchestras. In point of fact, I spent the first six months arranging sandwiches for the office girls. That was the extent of my responsibilities. It taught me the difference between music as a subject in university, music as a pastime and music as a means to earning a living. Those are two very different things.”
He goes on to describe how he cut his teeth in the industry, learning about preparing sheet music - something very mundane, but looking back had been a great discipline to have under his belt.
Referring to instant fame through talent shows, Coulter animates: “There are two sides to it. I have a great caution about them. What they do is that they encourage an attitude among kids that they are sort of ‘entitled’, you know? The ‘It’s my turn’ or ‘All I’ve got to do here is turn up and sing a few songs and the next thing is I’ve got a record in the charts and I’m buying a big house for my mum and dad’ and all that stuff,” he said, adding: “That is one side of the talent show in that it turns up a lot of one hit wonders who are never heard of again. On the other hand, I produced an album at the end of last year with Mary Byrne, and I have been doing some gigs with her and we are doing a run in the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, next month, and for her this really did work. The X-Factor really did change her life.
“I get a wee bit frustrated when i hear some 17-year-old saying ‘I have to win the X-Factor because it will change my life.’ I don’t know what they mean, because at 17 you have not had a life, you don’t know what ‘life’ is...you know? But for Mary to win the X-Factor at 55, it completely revolutionised her whole being. There was a great innocence about her, because she thought the whole thing had passed her by and I asked her what did she enjoy most about this change in her personal circumstances and she said ‘Oh that’s easy. Not having to get out of bed in the morning’.”
For his own part, Coulter began learning the piano because his parents wanted him to: “I was sent to piano lessons when I was six or seven, like a lot of kids. I would love to be able to tell you that it was just a love affair from the start. It was anything but; I hated piano. I hated practising. I hated scales. I hated arpeggios. I hated five-finger exercises, but most of all, I hated my piano teacher. He was old school and used to sit up there [indicating over his shoulder] with a ruler. You got hit if you got it wrong. So, I was making no headway at all and my parents were smart enough to see that this was turning into a bit of a waste of time.”
In the intervening years before he went to St Columb’s College, Phil began to pick up on pop songs on the radio and could pick out the tunes on the piano with his right had, but had no idea what to do with his left hand when it came to the base melodies. That was when he decided he wanted to play as opposed to being forced to do it.
“So, at the age of 11, when I went to St Columb’s, I wanted to learn the piano. It was a great lesson to learn when you are that young that the best motivation is when you want to do it. I had had the false start, so now I genuinely wanted to learn, and I had a couple of great teachers, and I owe then a great debt, because John Malseed was a great teacher and had a great ability to marshal information and get it into your head. My theory teacher was a man called Redmond Friel, who was composer and his musicality was just oozing out of him so you couldn’t help but be effected by that,” he said.
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