Listen Without Prejudice – George Michael R.I.P.

I confess I had eschewed white soul music in the early 1980’s, due to being young and too focused on guitars and experimental synthesiser music. I therefore missed the arrival of Wham on the music scene. Sure, I was aware of their music, but carelessly dismissed it as bubblegum pop. Even their studio engineer Chris Porter initially saw Wham as just a teen band. It took a six-week business trip to Jakarta in 1983 and a long weekend in Bali to begin to understand the genius of George Michael. Sitting in a bar in Kuta drinking Emu lager and listening to “Wham Rap”, “Ray of Sunshine” and “Club Tropicana” on almost continual repeat in the bars was enough to hook me. Enough has already been written in the British Tabloid press about the sensational aspects of George Michael’s life and, to be frank, none of it interests me. The real point of an artist’s life is their artistry and it is to this that I am turning in this article.

My first surprise was George Michael’s personal transformation from disco diva to a world acclaimed soul and ballad singer, something which I should have spotted through my close encounter with Wham in Bali but which I somehow missed when his voice was bubble-wrapped in plastic pop music. I first paid attention to Michael’s voice when he produced “A Different Corner”, the beginning of a shift that would take several years to ferment and which was finally consolidated in 1990 when he released “Listen Without Prejudice”, an album whose title seemed for me to cut the ties with pure pop music and which elevated him to an international superstar. Michael refused to have his picture on the album in a principled decision to present the music and not the man.

What is also quite surprising about George Michael is just how his career was built on relatively few music releases.  After the fast and furious output of Wham, Michael only released 5 studio albums in 30 years, even less than that of the perfectionist Kate Bush. This is in contrast with David Bowie, with 27 albums over an extended period and in extreme contrast with Prince, with 39 studio albums and, reputedly with a vault of unreleased material that could last a generation. Notwithstanding court battles with record companies, it seems that George Michael would spend years working on an album until he was satisfied with it.

George Michael offered us object lessons in authenticity and ethics in his work to help educate the world about HIV / AIDS and his humanitarian work in general. A hallmark of great leaders is their ability to retain a sense of who they are by “touching the ground” from time to time. George Michael did this many times, through his private philanthropy, much of which remained a secret until his passing. I was passionately interested in HIV / AIDS through my work as a pharmaceutical scientist in bringing the first treatment to market in record time. Had we known more about this terrible condition earlier, we might still have had Freddie Mercury here today. Aside from his humanitarian work, George Michael was one of the few singers able to step into Mercury’s shoes vocally and in terms of his performance at Freddie’s tribute concert, as is evident in this performance:

The wider music world also recognised Michael’s vocal talents, having performed with Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Ray Charles, Beyonce, Paul McCartney, Whitney Houston and many more. Frank Sinatra even wrote him a letter advising him not to waste his talent.

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At a personal level, the Wham T-Shirt “Choose Life” made as big an impact upon me as any MBA course and eventually informed my decision to leave a very well-paid job and start my own business some 23 years ago. For that phrase alone, I shall be eternally grateful to George Michael.

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At a global level 2016 unleashed so many disruptive forces in the world and George’s words express my hopes for 2017 better than anyone else:

And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate

Hanging on to hope

When there is no hope to speak of

And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late

Well maybe we should all be praying for time

George Michael 1963-2016 – You have been loved

A tribute to Prince

Friday and Saturday 24/25 June mark a major event in memory of Prince in London and in support of Autism Rocks. Here, Marcus Anderson, Prince’s Saxophone Player talks about the event:

Here’s some of the songs and personalities you might be hearing from and meeting at this once in a lifetime event to mark the passing of a legend:

I hope to see some of you there on the Saturday gig. We are hoping to catch some interviews with the performers along the way. Here are some of the tributes left for him at Camden recently:

Prince Memorial

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Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business Development around Strategy, Innovation, Creativity and Change.

Check Peter’s new book out on innovation and creativity with Bloomsbury. Check out our full development programme for sustainable and profitable innovations.

The High Priest of Fusion

I interviewed Maxi Priest recently about his life and music. He is credited as having fused Soul, R&B and Reggae in his music and is one of the most successful reggae fusion acts of all-time.  Check the interview with ME1TV out:

Max’s fusion of different styles came from being exposed to an enormous variety of music as a child. Starting by singing Gospel music in Church for his mother and being asked to sing Country songs by his father, he absorbed Motown, Reggae, Pop and a wide range of other musical genres, fusing it into his own unique style.

The parallel lesson for me is that it is wise to sample from a diverse range of sources to create something new.  A unique proposition can arises from fusing things together into a product or service that is hard to copy or beat.  That also means sampling from a wide palette of knowledge, skills and experiences.

Fuse, don’t Confuse!!

Sample from a diverse palette 

Check Max’s new album out “Easy to Love“.  Here’s a sample:

Maxi Priest Camden

It’s easy to love Maxi Priest – a lovely guy

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Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics, offering better Organisation Development, Training and Coaching. He offers keynotes that blend World Class Leadership Thinking with the wisdom of the street via The Academy of Rock – where Business Meets Music. Author of seven books on Business Leadership, acclaimed by Tom Peters, Professors Charles Handy, Adrian Furnham and Harvey Goldsmith CBE. Connect with us on our Linkedin Company Page and join our group The Music of Business where we discuss parallel lessons from Business and Music.

 

 

 

Funk’n’Soul – An exclusive interview with George Clinton

The Godfather of Psychedelic Funk jamming it out at Kentish Town

The Godfather of Psychedelic Funk jamming it out at Kentish Town

I had the extraordinary pleasure of conducting a film interview with George Clinton at The Forum in London recently. Check out the film further down this article. In case you are not familiar with the legend that is George Clinton, here is a brief bio below: George Clinton was the principal architect of the genre of music that has come to be known as P-Funk, via his ensembles Parliament and Funkadelic. He is cited as one of a triad of most influential innovators in funk music alongside James Brown and Sly Stone. His music fused diverse genres such as Motown, The Beatles, Soul, Psychedelia, Classical and many more. Clinton has influenced several generations of musicians since such as The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Prince, Primal Scream, LL Cool J, Digital Underground and Primus. He is widely cited as a major influence on the development of hip hop music. He ranks 2nd on the list of most widely sampled artists. What then can innovators in other fields learn from the CFO (Chief Funk Officer)?

Clinton on synthesis

Clinton is a synthesiser of musical genres, bending, breaking and sometimes smashing musical conventions as to what fits in to a particular genre of music. He loved The Beatles Sargent Pepper and could not see why this could not be fitted into soul and funk music. He loved Jimi Hendrix’s wild guitar playing and could not see why this should not be included into his music and so on. Unlike so many musicians that sit inside a genre, Clinton has been a fearless boundary crosser. This quality is a hallmark of great innovators, as much innovation comes from combination and synthesis of things which others do not see as fitting together. To do this requires not just a tolerance of mistakes but a positive passion for them.

Prince exemplifies the attitude behind synthesis:

“One time, George sends me a tape and says: You pee on it and send it back to me, and I’ll pee on it and we’ll see what we got”

Find out more in the film:

Clinton on dyads

There is a long history of creativity coming from the basic unit of two, or a dyad. In the music world good examples of diverse dyads are Lennon / Mc Cartney, Goffin / King, Simon and Garfunkel etc. In other walks of life we see the same, with James Watson / Francis Crick, who uncovered the structure of DNA; and Socrates / Plato. Often the dyad is successful because individual personality styles are different enough to induce what author and thinker Peter Senge calls “creative tension”. Bootsy Collins provided the essential element of difference / creative tension in George Clinton’s case although his ensembles also contained “engines of difference” by design.

Creativity can become more problematical when we get into large groups due to the complexities of communication that exists in such groups … but not with Mr Clinton …

Clinton on creativity and structure

George also breaks conventional rules of the rock / soul ensemble, which rarely consists of more than seven members, with Clinton sometimes having up to 40 people on stage. Paradoxically, such levels of freedom require an equivalent amount of musical structure / discipline, with musical leadership passing round the band and everyone paying extremely good attention to everyone else in order to deliver a seamless performance. The parallel at work is that you can work effectively in large teams if everyone is ‘in the groove’ and if all have excellent communication skills. It’s what George nonchalantly calls “Tag Team”. If only it were so easy to organise this for everyone else!

Clinton on business

George recently started a project called Flashlight 2013, to highlight the need for musicians, artists and songwriters to own the copyright on their music. This springs from a long history of artists being ripped off by the music business. George Clinton has long thought that musicians need to be more astute in business and finance and the Flashlight project aims to shine the light on some of the things that need to be put right in this area. I must agree, having noticed that artists can be their own worst enemies in this respect. They either dismiss business skills as unimportant or are not able or willing to do the basics in business. They simultaneously whinge about being ripped off by unscrupulous music industry managers. These elements are related of course, although some of my artist friends don’t see the connections, preferring to take the “victim” position …  Check out the Flashlight Page.

Click on the fist to stop exploitation

Click on the fist to stop exploitation

I was delighted to present George with a copy of my book “The Music of Business“, which draws out relevant parallels in business and music. I also passed him a copy of my song for Prince, which is raising money for a Children’s Hospice at the moment. I hope he likes it’s funky tones and cheeky words! To read more on close encounters with George and the mothership, read One Night Alone … with George Clinton and Prince. The Academy Awards video is also well worth a look:

Clinton on the future

George has a book and a new album “First You Gotta Shake The Gate” out in October. Check the website for more details of these as they emerge. If you have never seen the Godfather of P-Funk, then check this performance out at Montreux:

Special thanks to Lois Action of Urban Unlimited for making all the arrangements. To Lee Philips and his team for making the film and Linda Vanterpool for valuable assistance on the night to ensure that our Director did not expire due to his chest condition ! 🙂

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About the Author:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk 07725 927585

Killing me softly – An interview with Roberta Flack

Killing me softly with her words - Miss Roberta Flack

Killing me softly with her words – Miss Roberta Flack – Photo by Adam Coxon, The Lowdown Magazine

It was an unexpected delight to be invited to interview Roberta Flack recently, still performing at 75 years of age with a beautiful singing voice, wit charm and experience well beyond X-Factor and American Idol wannabes.  Let’s begin with a brief reminder of that beautiful singing, writing, playing and performing talent:

 

Here’s some insights from our dialogue which went on well past the TV interview:

Roberta on Teaching and Learning

Flack started her career teaching music at schools and privately in Washington D.C.  Reflecting on this she said she had some wonderful opportunities compared with the other students.  Teachers would leave the room and say “Carry on Roberta”.  Asked about what qualities they thought she possessed to get this request, Roberta said in a typically self-effacing manner that she had a fairly big mouth!  This ignores all her other qualities: an articulate style; a passion for her subject (in her case all forms of music) and an ability to reach other people’s heads, hearts and souls.  These are all transferable qualities for great leaders in any field. Asked what she had learned through her life she learned to appreciate everything that came her way, even those songs that she knew she could not or would not sing.  At one point she accompanied aspiring opera singers on piano in Georgetown and she got to meet and meet John F Kennedy, who attended the club.  In the course of working there, Flack had to learn to play songs that she had never played.  Reflecting on this she said:

“As a musician, when you get an opportunity to learn something that you don’t know, and to really learn and play it and execute it well, is such a thrill”

There is a direct parallel here for leaders in any field.  As Tom Peters says, execution is everything.  That relies on deep learning, the so-called 10 000 hours effect as quoted by Malcolm Gladwell. Musicians are used to the idea of deep practice as are great leaders.  Check out the full interview here:

 

Transferable Lesson : To become a great learner, learn to teach and teach people to learn

Roberta on Creativity and Reinterpretation

Flack took on the awesome task of reinterpreting a selection of songs by The Beatles in 2012 – Let It Be Roberta, having lived nearby to and also become good friends with John Lennon many years before. Reinterpreting a canon of work of such magnificence presents the artist with an enormous challenge as to how faithful you remain to the original or whether to do something quite different with the songs, which are almost untouchable. Flack wisely chose to do something different with the material to stunning effect. Reflecting on this, Roberta said that, it helped to be a classically trained musician. She was taught by Hazel Harrison, a music teacher from Howard University who excelled in Bach and music of the Baroque period. Roberta said:

“If you can hold on to your love for playing the piano and play Bach this way, rather than playing it like Chopin or Mozart, you will have accomplished something”

So, Flack learned to sight read all the pieces that the opera singers wanted her to play and make the music come to life rather than just to read the notes on the paper.  She was also stretched all the time by people who asked her to modify the pieces at will.  This level of adaptive behaviour provided her will the skill to get inside the heart of the musician and interpret the piece for the singers she had before her.  Undoubtedly this learning was formative in terms of her ability to reinterpret The Beatles material whilst staying true to the heart of the music.

Transferable Lesson : Act from your heart to find your soul

Roberta on new Business models

We held a fascinating after interview chat about Prince and his recent decision to work again with Warner Brothers after 20 years of producing his music independently. Roberta acknowledged the difficulty of gaining funding for your work in the modern age. Off camera we had a long chat about money and artistry. In her own case she set up The Real Artist Symposium, a gathering creative artists who own their own work and have worked with her to help give them a platform for their work.  This is just one of a number of new funding models that have emerged. We recently commented on Bernie Torme’s Crowdfunding Experiment as another exemplar of innovation.  These models are also apparent in other fields, such as publishing, where downloading has democratised the creative process but also made it much harder for artists to earn a living from their art. Business people would do well to learn that if what you are doing isn’t working, do something different.

Transferable Lesson : If your business model is broken, find a new one rather than banging your head against the same wall

And finally, a beautiful rendition of “Killing Me Softly”:

 

The first time ever I met Roberta Flack

The first time ever I met Roberta Flack

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About the Writer:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk or +44 (0) 7725 927585.

One Nite Alone … with George Clinton and Prince

I was privileged and astonished to be invited to a private event for 35 people with George Clinton, the inventor of P-Funk, Funkadelic, Parliament, whose influence has transcended generations, musical genres, class, creed and credentials.  With influences spreading from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers to Joss Stone.  Thank you so much to Lois Acton at Urban Unlimited for the invite.

I’d caught the train up to Shoreditch House in Bethnal Green on Saturday – the first time I’d ever been to Bethnal Green, although I quoted it in my spoof hard rock song on economics Fiscal Cliff, so there was a piece of serendipity!  I was expecting a huge venue with a massive audience.  Imagine my surprise when I was standing in the foyer with 4 others and Mr C comes in and casually remarks “Prince – what a great T Shirt” whilst shaking my hand.

George Clinton - Godfather of Funk, Soul, Psychedelia

George Clinton – Godfather of Funk, Soul, Psychedelia

At the start of the session, the interviewer asked if Mr Clinton was from another planet and he reassured us that he was certain that he was not sure …  as I have said on many occasions, truly creative people are better at ambiguity tolerance than most mortal souls!

Quite a few people wanted to know what the ‘recipe for fusion’ was and it became clear that George was simply an intuitive learner who ‘felt things and followed the direction’.  Perhaps that is the lesson from mastery of an art – being able to follow where the path leads.  He said on more than one occasion that he watched what Sly Stone was doing, where Jimi Hendrix and James Brown was going musically and so on and just felt that a fusion of these genres was possible, which became the P-Funk genre, a totally unique brand of music.  Coming ‘late to the party’ was clearly an advantage in terms of surveying emergent forms of music and being able to comprehend it all through being a songwriter for major labels.  Let’s hear Mr Clinton to get in the groove:

I asked George about the value of happy accidents in fusing musical genres and he replied with a detailed story about a day in the studio when he had laid down a drum pattern but somehow the studio engineer had reversed the loop on a tape machine in the same way as Prince subsequently used backward drum tracks.  George was trying to talk with the engineer but for some reason could not be heard, so he just started singing some ‘nonsense’ words about a ‘man and a dog’, expecting the engineer to eventually reverse the tape loop and for a key to come up to.  He did not do so and he kept on singing.  Eventually he realised that he had just created “Atomic Dog”.  We have discussed the value of serendipity on The Music of Business Linkedin group – please join to learn more.  Here’s the track:

Someone else asked him what album he wished he had recorded and he said “Sargent Pepper” – a real surprise, but perhaps not when you consider the production values that Mr Clinton has applied to his songs.  Asked about these he related a story about engineers being unwilling to say they had produced his records, due to George pushing recording levels way beyond the point at which normal recording conventions allowed, sometimes just using the repeat of a sample rather than the original recording as the main groove.  The only rule being to break rules and follow your intuition when you find something cool to jam on

I saw George again at a Prince gig tonight as I write this on the train.  Needless to say the concert was better than sex.  I will write more on this soon.  Suffice to say, I have not slept that much tonight after a two and a half hour set and 40 songs at Shepherd’s Bush Empire.  Let’s hear what Prince has to say about the teacher:

Mr Clinton with Lois

Mr Clinton with Lois

George Clinton… May the funk remain with u until the dawn …  He has a new album out soon at George Clinton.

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About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk or +44 (0) 7725 927585.  Check out our online Leadership programme for FREE via The Music of Business Online.

Box Set 7

Lady sings the blues

Introducing Alex Watson.  By day, Alex works as a senior manager for Lloyds Register in London – A high pressure / high performance job.  She manages to combine this with being lead singer and writer for suburban soul group Bastedo.  Check out their work:

Alex had some kind words to say on “The Music of Business“:

The Music of Business is a really enjoyable read. Great insights in how to approach 21st century business challenges, using lessons from the world of rock music. It’s funny and thought provoking whilst absolutely hammering home the messages of strategy, collaboration, and project execution.

I wanted to find out her own story about mixing the two disciplines in perfect harmony:

On authenticity

Peter : I know that you have walked away from record deals with Sony BMG and so on.   What has guided your decisions to keep to your authentic self?

Alex:  I’d always wanted to be a singer from a very early age since from around the age of five or six.  When I left school, I actually started to think about how I would do it.  As I sought out and became involved in a few opportunities, I began to see that there were choices about what I expected from music and what others expected from me. The way others saw me and what musical contribution I could make, was at odds with my vision.  I have always relied on my intuition rather than manuals and books, or even the advice of others, to decide on what I would do with my music. I have never had any formal training, and cannot (yet) play an instrument to any practical level. However, I had my voice and the ability to write songs. I’ve tried to expand on these talents and to evolve and grow them. It is these gut feelings married with the ongoing experiences that I picked up, that guided my decisions about staying true to my authentic voice.

The parallel with leadership is very clear.  You can have good and bad leadership. Leadership by consensus, or by command and control. Those in positions of leadership need to be able to make sound decisions based on lots of information streams. Trusting yourself and standing by your decisions when they affect many others takes a lot of courage, but also a strong sense of purpose.  When the relationship between you and those you work for is consonant then you have an agenda for doing your best to mutual advantage.  It’s about deciding what trade offs are ones that you can cope with in order to reach your dreams.

Peter : So, what’s the difference between good and bad leadership in music and business?

Alex :  In terms of leadership. Good leaders are those that allow you to become your best, to harness your potential and leverage it in ways that are mutually beneficial for the business and you as  the individual. Bad leaders can stifle progress, assist in the creation of toxic atmospheres and act based on purely selfish motives.

I’ve had some tremendous opportunities to work with record companies, publishing companies and individuals who I have had deals and dealings with.  For example, when I was at still at University, I also  had a retainer with a major record company which allowed me to have the financial leverage to work on my music and not worry about how I would survive from month to month. It allowed me to work with top songwriters and producers. However, there are always trade offs that come with such freedoms.  As a songwriter, that meant I didn’t have any control over the agenda, or who I would work with. Working in some of those circumstances, I became fully aware I was part of a machine, and it often made me feel disconnected from music itself! Once I started to work with kindred spirits, I felt much happier, and less concerned with the commercial outcomes.  It was always important to me that I worked with the right people as I am not necessarily that commercial with my music.  That’s pretty much transferable to the business.  Of course business is focussed on the bottom line, but ultimately, sustainable businesses add true value.

Urban Soul Sister

Peter : How do you create?

Alex :  Creativity can happen in different ways and at different times. There is often a modus operandi for me. A natural flow and way of figuring out melodies and building a song. Often I’ll come up with an interesting melody or concept…and I try to capture it somewhere. On my phone, on paper etc. These ‘nuggets’ will often form the basis of new songs or work their way into ideas at some future juncture. For example, I have a song called “Let Me Be”.  This was created over a long time period.  The lyrics and the melody were written a long time (10 years) ago and had been stored in my memory bank until an opportunity to record the piece. I then shaped up the lyrics whilst working with my then guitarist Vinz, who provided accompaniement. The song finally had the opportunity to see light. It’s not a manic obsession with pleasing an audience but I have one eye on that.

However, the beauty of collaboration is that there is always a sharing of process. From these experiences you learn new ways to create. Every artist has the tension between art and commerce. Creativity is borne out of art.  Vangelis pointed out that “Chariots of Fire” was perhaps not the most important piece of music he has composed, but it was THIS piece of music that captured a large audience. What he views as his most important works are ones we’ve likely not even heard of!!

Peter : How has music helped you do your job?

Alex : I find that being a musician gives me an empathy and a sympathy, that enables me to bring humanity to business. It allows me to bring more creativity when solving workplace issues. The fact that I am a musician also gives me a strong identity and sense of self, regardless of the current political tide, latest business fad, change program or initiative

Peter : Do you find that skills such as presenting your ideas and so on are enhanced by being a musician and a performer?  If so, please say how.

Alex :  Being a performer definitely helps with your confidence when presenting to people or putting your ideas across. As a Learning Professional, being able to present your ideas is key. Preparing training programs, working with subject matter experts, developing content, preparing for performance. There are a lot of parallels. Its that whole Preparation, preparation, preparation thing isn’t it? Know your subject. Prepare and plan well…then off you go. Monitor your performance. Take away key learning points and fold these back into future performances. I do this in both Music and Business. I also very mindfully reflect on what I am learning in both business and music, and use any lessons to improve performance in either arena.

Alex with Richard Strange at  our interview meeting

Alex with Richard Strange at our interview meeting

Peter : Have there been any setbacks for you professionally from being a musician?

Alex : Hmmm. That’s a difficult one. I’ve definitely had setbacks. Many setbacks. The musicians road is not a straightforward one. It’s often difficult to make a decent living. So yes, there has been setback…and sacrifice. All for the love of music.

Peter : What’s transferable?

Alex : For me, the act of creating music is a pleasurable one that  can often put me in my state of ‘flow.’ However, depending on what you are trying to achieve, you do need to put some mental elbow grease into the creative process. For example, if I am asked to write a top line for another artist, that’s a different mindset to writing for myself. Different brain muscles. In business, I try to look at each project, challenge or issue within its own context. The days of one size fits all solutions seem to have gone. So being able to use my creativity to solve problems is very useful.

Humility is also transferable skill from being a musician to being a leader. When I have written songs, rehearsed them, then finally bring them to an appreciative audience…its not only satisfying…it’s humbling. I try to bring that gratitude to the workplace. To appreciate the people that are there doing their bit. To pay attention to small kindnesses. The time someone takes to explain something to you, or show you how to do something. Those little favours people do for you at work that nudge things along for you. They don’t have to. I don’t take it for granted.  When we provide solutions for our clients and do a good job..we should feel proud of our achievements.

Alex offered three tips from music to help you be your best

  • Mentors are essential to success.  Unless you are in a hothouse like Motown or PWL, you can find yourself in a vacuum.
  • Get out and perform rather than keep rehearsing – you learn faster and better
  • A polished performance is the result of a lot of background practice and preparation.   This is a direct analogy for meetings at work.  It’s prepared spontaneity.

Alex performs with Bastedo at Cabaret Futura in London on Monday May 20th.

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About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Check his online programme The Music of Business out.  Grab discounted copies of his books by mailing him at peter@humdyn.co.uk