It’s typical of my friend Romano that his final album should have a scene-of-crime photo on the sleeve. Bad taste meets commerce.
To this day, the police have no idea whether he committed suicide or was murdered, and his death made to look like he killed himself.
I have my suspicions, though it’s surely too late to prove either way. He died before DNA testing was routine and all the physical evidence was destroyed in a fire at Muswell Hill police station in 1984.
So it’s a big question. But before I answer the what and the who, I want to talk about the why.
When Charlie Romano first emerged from the slums of Stepney in the late 50s, hawking popular songs to the crooks and charlatans of Tin Pan Alley, he could do no wrong.
A second-generation Italian emigre, Charlie decided his name wasn’t appropriately showbiz. He changed his name by deed poll to Romano Chorizo before he had placed a single song. Making his surname his first was an inspired move. But no-one ever really understood why he chose Chorizo for his stage surname. Romano would always wave the question away, as if the asker was an idiot. As recently as 2002, a famous vegetarian food brand pulled out of using Dutch’s Theme for an expensive (i.e. potentially profitable) Stateside advertising campaign simply because they didn’t want to be associated with a meat sausage.
However divisive the name, in pre-Beatles England, songs like Tutti! and It Looks Like Love, It Feels Like Love quickly became standards.
Despite the bravado, in reality he was a green Stepney lad, and the publishing sharks smelled blood. To this day, despite both songs being certified as having more than 2 million plays each, he (and his estate) have received no more than 250 Euros in royalties across 60 years. His contract gave him 99% of 10% of 1% of gross publishing. Even Spotify pays artists more.
Things improved when he began composing theme music for the BBC and various American networks in the 60s – not least because he was, for a time, on salary. But fashions come and go and his career dried up. Ultimately, he died penniless, in rent arrears, owing the taxman more than £500,000 from the presumed profits of the many soundtracks he worked on. In truth, he didn’t earn close to that sum across his whole career.
Over time, the curious, happy-go-lucky lad from Stepney turned into a bitter, middle-aged man, stuck in a small flat in Mile End. Only his creativity survived the journey. He died surrounded by curious musical instruments, master tapes stolen from various record companies and his sad books of cuttings and memories. Romano died from a gunshot wound on 13 April 1973.
His friends were shocked, but not altogether surprised, by this violent end. After all, it was well known that he had become withdrawn and bitter, matters made worse by the loss of his leg from diabetes complications in January 1970.
“A new decade begins and I’m destined to limp through it,” he prophetically told me, three weeks before the amputation.
Two record companies sued him for the return of their master tapes. Romano said he would rather burn the tapes than give them back. He did neither, though the tapes were destined to burn anyway. They were seized as evidence during the inquiry into his death and were consumed with the rest of Romano’s archive in the Muswell Hill police station fire.
Post 1966, the key to his continued output was the setting up of Sasspot Studios in 1971. He bought a job-lot of Pultec EQs, a Fairchild compressor, an MPI multitrack recorder, a broken EMT plate reverb and borrowed some Neumann mics from an engineer friend at the BBC’s Maida Vale studios. It is believed he never gave them back. Curiously, they weren’t in his effects, though Neumann’s of that vintage sell for tens of thousands today.
“Give me a compressor and a microphone and I can make a hit record,” he would say. Well, he had both but never made another hit record after The Children of the Sunspot scored a top 10 with 1967’s psychedelic (Whorls of Colour) Painted on my Skin. He did, however, create quite a few instrumental pieces that, to my honest ears, stand the test of time.
Romano could play reasonably well on quite a few instruments: guitar, bass, drums, percussion, saxophone, trumpet, xylophone, kazoo, penny whistle – but his two favourite instruments by far, were grand piano (“It has to be a grand. I’m not Mrs Fucking Mills. Don’t ever ask me to play an upright.”) and Hammond Organ.
Over the years he was asked to play organ on quite a few tracks by other people, but more often than not, he would be fired from the sessions. I once heard him tell Bob Dylan, “You’ve got it all wrong – less lyrics, more music.” Bob kicked him out and forever after Romano claimed to have played on some of Bob’s biggest hits even though all his friends knew all his parts had been wiped and Bob’s manager at the time had refused to even pay him, calling him a “complete idiot.”
This picture was taken at one of Romano’s own recording sessions – you can tell because he’s wearing a scarf. He rarely had the money to turn the heating on in his home studio.
I remember visiting him in Burdett Road in 1972 and found Romano hard at work on a delightful piece called A Look to Kill. “Is it for a spy film?” I asked. “It’s a love theme.” “Why the title?” “Because love kills everyone in the end,” he said, betraying his inability to hold down a meaningful relationship for longer than a month. Intention aside, it remains one of my favourite Romano pieces – even though the piano was badly recorded.
The tracks on this album have survived only by the merest chance. In 1971, the BBC approached Romano to discuss making a documentary about his work. Initially excited, he compiled the unreleased tracks we have here onto a 1/2” reel and sent it to Ivan Kostikoff, the director of the planned film. These unreleased tracks, supplemented by a few new compositions, were intended to soundtrack the documentary and possibly make up an album if the documentary was a success.
However, it wasn’t to be. Ivan was killed in a skydiving accident in Peru and the BBC lost interest in the project. Kostikoff’s widow refused to release the tape, despite many enquiries. I was also refused access when I discovered its existence in the early 1990s.
Luckily, she chucked all these letters, including mine, in a box with the tape. When she died of gangrene of the nose last year, heirless and friendless, her executor saw my letter and contacted me to ask if the tape was still of any interest to me.
I was overjoyed and delighted to receive it. The first time I threaded the tape onto the machine, I heard A Look to Kill for the first time in more than 20 years, and instantly remembered my conversation with my old friend in 1972. As I listened, track after track of Romano’s genius spilled out, reminding me of why I wanted to work in music in the first place.
It’s taken a while to get clearance from the estate, but here it is, finally. The missing masterpieces of my old friend, Romano Chorizo. All royalties will go to his estate.
Romano worked on many dozens of films but he was proud of very few of them. “How come Morricone get to work with Sergio Leone all the time while I get morons like Capinore, who wouldn’t know a story from a kick up the arse?”
He spoke like that all the time. As many of his friends could attest, he could be a bit of a nightmare like that. In fact, Stetson, Romano’s main theme from Scalp! was a sizeable hit in Botswana.
Anyone wondering how he managed to get such good recordings on his limited budget need only look back to the days when he learnt his engineering skills at the hands of Bradley Shrill, the famous recording engineer who later set up CPD Music, one of Britain’s first music libraries, in Stockport in 1964.
There, armed only with a razor block and joining tape, Shrill taught a handful of protégées his formidable editing skills. But they also created a recording studio in an abandoned nuclear bunker, which had a 2″ tape machine, Neumann mics and one of EMI’s first recording consoles, which legend has it, was bundled out of the back of Abbey Road Studios in a laundry truck. Its current location is unknown.
And now the who.
Romano could be a fool. In 1972, long on reputation, short on funds, he took out a loan from Giovanni Semprini – a London-based bookie with known connections to the Mafia. Like a lot of artists, he felt his public profile would protect him from the effects of his worst excesses. It didn’t. This can only be discussed now that Semprini himself is missing, presumed dead. He disappeared in 2004 in a pearl-diving competition in Sicily. His body was never recovered, though a dismembered foot washed up in Positano a few months later bearing a tattoo similar to Semprini’s.
However, in 1972, Semprini was on Romano’s case. He repeatedly turned up at Burdett Road demanding repayment. Romano told me about the first visit. Semprini burst in with a knife and sliced open all the calf-skins on the studio drum kit. He never mentioned Semprini to me again, but according to his then-girlfriend, Rema Thornstrom, things soon got nasty. During one visit, Romano lost a toe to a pair of Semprini’s nail clippers. Semprini allegedly said he didn’t want to damage Romano’s hands or he’d lose the ability to play music and earn Semprini’s money back. Romano was apparently grateful for this small kindness.
Romano was stoic, and over the following year, lost a further two toes and a chunk of ear. Rema had long-since completed her obligatory month as Romano’s girlfriend and as far as I can tell, there were no witnesses to these further visits, no hospital records and no police reports. It is assumed he simply bandaged up the injuries himself. Forensic police found 3 empty bottles of Savlon, and numerous unused bandages, in his bathroom cabinet.
The day Romano died, Semprini claimed he was at the race track. When police checked this, they discovered most of the race meeting had been cancelled. “So what?” said Semprini. “I hung around anyway. I like the smell of horseshit.” I’ll leave it to my readers to make their own minds up. When police visited Semprini’s apartment after his disappearance, they found over 50 toes in a spaghetti jar filled with formaldehyde.
I miss my friend. I met him at a low point in my own life, when I was just 21. Romano took me under his wing and showed me how to work a tape recorder, place a mic, arrange for orchestra, sync to film. The few of you who know my name and reputation as a TV producer, may be surprised to hear I got my professional start at the feet of a TV/film composer.
To paraphrase Dr John Watson at the end of The Final Problem, Romano was neither the kindest, nor the wisest man I ever knew. But he sure did know how to knock up a quirky instrumental. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these tapes is that, as well as composing and arranging every note, he played every instrument himself, with the honourable exception of the orchestral pieces – many of which featured a local orchestra, recorded on a portable machine in church halls. It was cheaper that way.
Like Joe Meek before him, if he had surrounded himself with more sympathetic musicians and friends, and not seen everyone as his enemy, perhaps he would have had protection on that fateful day when he kept his date with destiny at the hands of that damn revolver.
Ciao Romano. I miss you.
London, Jan 2020