Me and Mr Jones – the Howard Jones interview

Life Story: Howard Jones, set to tour the UK with his piano

Life Story: Howard Jones, all set to tour the UK, just with his piano this time

Can it really be more than 30 years since Howard Jones first arrived on our TV screens, with that cutaway t-shirt and distinctive split-level dyed-blond spiky hair, amid a bank of synthesisers performing New Song on Top of the Pops?

You may have been distracted by his face-painted and chained dancing buddy, mime artist Jed Hoile, who was also worrying commuters at Holborn tube station in the accompanying promo video (and who was rubbish with a broom in the school corridor scene before his mate instigated a rather unlikely pupils’ mutiny).

Either way, Howard more or less set out his manifesto in that debut single, calling on us to challenge our pre-conceived ideas, see both sides, and throw off our mental chains. Not that the music press were impressed, seeing this Hampshire-born lad of Welsh parentage as just the latest 15-minute pop fame sensation.

I confess that I probably felt the same way. The synth-heavy feel of those records was not what this post-punk teen was about at the time. Listening back though, I realise the songs are there beneath the often-dated production. And there’s no doubting Howard’s musical ability, with Hide and Seek a prime example. Just watch him perform that on Freddie Mercury’s Steinway at Wembley Stadium for Live Aid in 1985 and feel the goosebumps when the chorus comes in.

But Howard was no overnight success, having devoted half of his 28 years then to his music. And as it turns out he had true staying power, this master of his art still out there, still performing, still recording. What’s more, having spoken to him I can reveal – maybe not exclusively – that he’s an all-round nice bloke too.

New Song brought Howard a top-three UK hit at the first time of asking, one of 10 top-40 singles, six making the top 10. Tree decades on that track was used in a pivotal scene in Breaking Bad, as Aaron Paul’s character Jessie Pinkman questions if he wants to ‘play by the rules’. And that suggests he somehow surpassed his allotted quarter-hour shelf-life.

He might not have been a music press darling, but Howard’s first three albums, Humans Lib (1984), Dream into Action, (1985) and One to One (1986) were all top-10 hits, the first going double-platinum and the other two gold in the UK. In fact, he saw major commercial success all over the world (the second LP going platinum in Canada, the US and Japan, among other markets).

Howard+Jones+New+Song+550366From New Song, What is Love? and Hide and Seek to Pearl In The Shell, Like to Get To Know You Well onwards, Howard proved his pop craft, going on to sell more than eight million albums across the globe, and becoming one of the select group of British artists who comprehensively ‘broke America’.

Fast forward a bit and last year he introduced us to his Engage project via a Pledge Music campaign, a CD/DVD/HD/HJ experience incorporating many of his on-going passions – from a love of classical music, electronica and pop to cinematic sound and vision, providing a platform for contemporary dance and ballet, all under-pinned by his own brand of philosophy and regard for elements of the works of Einstein, Ikeda (not to be confused with the Scandinavian furnisher), Kierkegaard, Thoreau and Tolstoy.

This committed Buddhist’s message then wasn’t so far off that initial call to arms either – encouraging respect for all, to live in the moment, defeat cynicism and promote universal brotherhood and sisterhood. Right on. If it sounds like I’m not being totally straight-faced when I write that, I should add that there’s nothing not to like there. Perhaps I just want to get over that Howard’s got a nice sense of humour about him too – this isn’t po-faced, homespun rhetoric. As I suggested before, he’s one of life’s good guys.

Now, all these years after launching Human’s Lib, he’s out there again with his latest solo show – An Evening with Howard Jones (The Songs, The Piano & The Stories), offering an intimate trip through his 30-year career. What’s more, many of his best-known songs were composed on the piano, and in his acoustic show he shares behind-the-scenes tales and reveals the inspiration behind many of those hits.

Howard may be tucked away in Somerset when he’s off the road these days, but – three weeks away from his 61st birthday – he’s certainly not gone down the retirement route, as I found out when I caught him on the phone at his country pad near Taunton, where he moved around a decade ago. And it turns out that life’s pretty good for a man who looks out on the Somerset Levels from his home studio between live engagements.

“It’s certainly a beautiful place to live. A bit far from Heathrow, that’s the only thing – it takes me about two and a half hours. But it’s always great when you get back.”

Married for more than 30 years to Jan, who he met while teaching piano, he’s clearly a devoted family man too.

“Family is really important to me. We’ve got three children, and they’re all in their 20s now, off doing their own thing.”

Any of them following your lead into music?

“No, but they’re all involved in creative industries.”

Are your brothers (Howard’s the oldest of four, with the younger three in their own band, Red Beat, back in the day) still playing?

“Well, they don’t make their living from music. They have other things they do.”

MI0003559887Have you looked back into your family history to see where this affinity with music came from?

“Oh yes. I think it’s quite clear through the Welsh heritage. My grandparents used to sing and members of their family would play piano and were organists at the local chapel. It’s absolutely embedded in the family culture.”

Talking of which, Howard – whose family headed to the Cardiff area not long after his birth, with a later move to Buckinghamshire then a spell in Canada – has toured with Swansea’s Morriston Orpheus Choir before now.

“That’s right. One of my uncles was in that choir, and I went down to ask if they’d be happy to sing along with my songs, giving a bit of a sales pitch in front of all these amazing Welshmen. It was a real moment – fantastic!”

You can’t beat the sound of a good male voice choir, not least a Welsh or a Cornish one.

“That’s true. It stirs the heart, especially men singing – it’s so powerful.”

When you started playing piano did you have something at home to practise on?

“I did. My parents bought an old piano. I think it was 20 quid, a bit rough. But there was a point where we came back from Canada and didn’t, and I told them we needed one. They were really hard up at the time but I made them go to a second-hand shop in Oxford to buy one, kind of giving them an ultimatum. I feel really bad about it now, but I suppose it paid off in the end.”

Was that family move to Canada band work-related?

“It was. My Dad got a job out there and we all emigrated, came back, then emigrated again, but then came back again!”

All good practise for the travelling you were about to embark on in your professional career, I guess.

“It was!”

The Nice: Keith Emerson, Lee Jackson, Brian Davison, David O'List (Photo from the private collection of Davy O'List, courtesy of http://www.slate.com/)

The Nice: Keith Emerson, Lee Jackson, Brian Davison, David O’List (Photo from the private collection of Davy O’List, courtesy of http://www.slate.com/)

The music was always there, and I believe your first band played a bit of prog rock. Who were you listening to around then?

“My first proper band was called Warrior, and I was very influenced by Keith Emerson’s first band, The Nice. That whole idea of combining classical music with rock was right up my street. I absolutely adored those albums. Emerson was a huge influence – he made keyboard playing exciting. He didn’t just sit there at the back, he was the front-man. That was crucial for me. He was like the Hendrix of the keyboard!”

Howard, who started to learn piano at the age of seven, enrolled at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester in 1974, aged 19. Did he enjoy his time there?

“I did. I didn’t stay the distance though. It was a four-year course and I stayed two and a half years, wanting to get on and do my own music. But I was a crazy student who used to practise nine hours a day!

“I have a lot of fond memories of going up Oxford Road, going to the Eighth Day cafe to eat, when it had just started. I lived in Whalley Range in a caravan and walked back through Moss Side when I went to gigs in town. And I’d be on Piccadilly Radio in the middle of the night, doing a song every 20 minutes. Yeah, a huge amount of memories.”

Howard soon began performing as a solo artist in the clubs and pubs of High Wycombe. And at one such show he noticed Jed Hoile dancing and performing mime to his songs, in what proved to be the start of a visual partnership that continued until 1987.

But he’s back at his old Manchester (piano) seat of learning on February 18th. So what will that and the other 11 dates on this tour involve? Is it Storytime with Howard Jones?

“Well, yes. It’s the complete opposite of when I go out with the band, really focusing on the song and getting to play things I don’t normally get to, going back through the career and giving a bit of background as to where the songs came from and the stories. It’s a nice experience for me. I get to tell people about where it all started and what happened.”

And it’s just you and a piano?

“Yeah. I do toy with the idea of using these new Roland synths that are emulations of the old Jupiter-8s, and would like to play a bit with those, but thought it more important to just make it as straight-forward as possible. This is about the core of what I do to write songs and sing, so I’m not going to complicate it. That said, the piano’s being generated from my laptop, so there is a little bit of technology!”

R-1944864-1254141257You were something of a pioneer for the synthesiser (something he started experimenting with in 1979), so I guess that could be construed as a little surprising.

“Yeah, I was the first to do the one-man electronic band, and don’t think many people have ever done that, other than Tom Dolby. It was a real case of ‘this is what this technology can do, so you can form a one-man orchestra with the sequencers and drum machines and synths all around you’. And I know that had a big impact on a lot of young artists who were keyboard-orientated”.

Further breaking down those electronic pre-conceptions we might have, you’ve got Elise Yuill guesting, a Devon-based singer-songwriter making waves on the folk circuit, about to release her debut album, with several successful shows in 2015, including a slot at Glastonbury Festival.

“I’ve always tried to support young artists and help them get going, and I’ve known Elise since the first time she ever performed in front of an audience. I encouraged her to bite the bullet and do it and helped her make her first EP, producing that. But lots of people really helped me when I was starting out and I think it’s important that I support young artists where I can.”

I’m guessing your dancer, Jed Hoile, isn’t involved in any of these acoustic shows (he adds, with tongue firmly in cheek).

“Actually, I’ve just had an invite to his 60th birthday, and I’m still in touch. What he does is bring African musicians over and organise workshops, such as drumming, so he’s still involved in music.”

It’s difficult for the current teens out there to understand, but your run of success in the mid-‘80s was quite something. Those were big days for the music industry.

“I suppose I feel really grateful that I had that decade of being high-profile. That really set me up for the rest of my career. I don’t think it would have been right for me to be in that spotlight my whole life though, because that’s not really me.

“In the position I’m in now, I can go out and do my own work without all the other stuff following me around. It’s really privileged position and I appreciate that. I’ve got my own label and can fund my own recordings and be in the driving seat, which is great.”

ENGAGE_snip-e1421168125796I’m guessing that, as opposed to the horror stories we hear about a lot of artists from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, you were well looked after. Did you have an eye to business too?

“I had a good manager, who was brilliant business-wise and would treat people well. That was always a priority with me. We’ve got to be nice to everyone. That’s important, and I had great people around me. When I formed my own labels I took much more control of all those things myself. I quite enjoy that side of it … making sure I don’t go bankrupt with too many artistic ideas, production and all that!”

Can you remember what you were doing when you first heard Human’s Lib had topped the album charts?

“Yeah. The week before I did this crazy tour around the whole country, going to record shops everywhere the week it was released. Everywhere I went the whole town ground to a halt! There were so many people trying to get there. It was brilliant, and I got to meet all the fans – thousands of people – and sign their vinyl. It was released on CD as well, but that was just a small part of the sales.”

I put to Howard that I love the image of him watching the October ’83 Top of The Pops’ pre-recorded New Song on a TV perched on an ironing board before a gig at the University of Kent. That seems to makes it all a bit more real. He laughs when I tell him this.

But for all his ‘80s success, there was still that snobbery around the music industry, and he wasn’t truly appreciated outside the record-buying public. In fact, he told The Telegraph’s Marc Lee in 2006, ‘I wasn’t fashionable. I never got good reviews. But I’m proud of the fact that I wasn’t liked by the media… Pop music is so reactionary and bigoted. And I found that what’s ‘cool’ is often very shallow and transient.’

There were clearly a few life lessons for you along the road.

“Absolutely, and people didn’t know the back-story of me being bands since I was 14. It had taken me 14 years to get a record deal – it was no overnight success. But I realised very quickly that you shouldn’t listen to the good reviews and you shouldn’t listen to the bad reviews. You know whether you’ve delivered a good gig – just look out in the audience and see how they’re feeling. Just go on that.

Head On: Howard's over-riding philosophy is to get 'stuck in'

Head On: Howard’s over-riding philosophy is to get ‘stuck in’

“If people want to throw stuff at you, just use it to make you even more determined. I’m still here. I’m still doing it and I’m thinking that a lot of those journalists are probably not!”

All pretty ironic bearing in mind your call to arms in New Song, challenging us to throw off those mental chains, I add, and Howard starts to answer this, but then the image sinks in and he laughs again.

“Yes, but I honestly feel a sense of gratitude that I wasn’t embraced, because it just gives you that fight – I’m not going to change what I do. I’m going to be who I am regardless. And it’s funny that now nearly all the interviews I do are really very pleasant and I have great conversations with journalists. Maybe I’ve overcome that sense of thinking journalists are the enemy!”

Would you say your faith has helped you? Buddhism has been an important part of your life for a long time.

“I’ve been practising for 22 years, so it’s really embedded in my life. Buddhism for me is really about getting stuck in rather than removing oneself from life. It’s about facing the difficult stuff head on, not turning away from it. That’s really stood me in good stead, because if you don’t confront the difficult stuff it just gets worse and mounts up.

“It’s given me a really positive approach to even disastrous things happening if there’s  something I can learn from it and create value from it. There’s also a side of it that’s not just about you, but everyone in your environment. Their happiness is just as important. Buddhism has helped remind me of that every day, and I chant every day.”

Have you made some lasting relationships through your music, and do you keep in touch with many of those ’80s artists, from China Crisis onwards?

“I have quite a few long-term friends, and certainly the China Crisis boys. I love them to bits. Probably my closest friend is Midge Ure, who lives just up the road in Bath. Then there’s (US singer-songwriter) Duncan Sheik, who I work with, and I see others when I do the ’80s festivals, which is also great.”

Top Mate: Midge Ure

Top Mate: Midge Ure

I interviewed Midge Ure for this blog a few months ago (with a link here). He came over very well, with some great tales.

“Yes, and he’s a very humble man, considering his massive achievements. I really like Midge.”

On that front, last summer marked the 30th anniversary of Live Aid. In retrospect, how was the experience for you? Was it a bit of a blur?

“No, it’s crystal clear! The amount of adrenaline that was pumping around my body that day I think helps to embed the memories very deeply. I played just one song, but it was on my own. So it was just me and a piano, and the world out there, and I don’t think anyone would deny it was the biggest gig anyone there was going to do.

“I was very nervous but went out there and started a bit fast, but got to the chorus and the whole of Wembley joined in. It was just like being lifted up – an incredible experience. From then on I started to enjoy the day.

“I was actually going to do another song, and my backing singers, Afrodiziak, came over from America with me and were dead excited to be playing. Then word came that it had all run over and we weren’t going to be able to do the song, but backstage we were rehearsing – a capella, the four of us – and David Bowie and Pete Townshend came out of their dressing rooms and listened to us perform. So for the girls, who were so disappointed, in the end it might have been better to say that was the audience we played to!”

Howard told me this tale just a few days after news of Bowie’s death broke, and he shared his thoughts.

Utterly Fearless: David Bowie (Image: New York Theatre Workshop)

Utterly Fearless: David Bowie (Image: New York Theatre Workshop)

“Very sad. I was hugely influenced by Bowie, but it was more of an ideological thing and his utter fearlessness. If you’re going to be a pop star, then go for it. Don’t be part-time about it. Show people that it’s great to be who you are to express yourself fully, and don’t be afraid. And when you get the sh*t thrown at you, keep going!”

I have to say, you made me feel old when I realised you hit 60 last year. You seem to be doing very well on it though.

“Hitting 60 was a big moment for me, because I realised there’s probably a limited amount of time where I’m going to be on top of my game, and I’m not going to go on beyond that. So now, while I can really do it well, I’m really going for it. I’m doing more shows than ever, like in America last year. While you can still do it, just do it! There will come a time when you can’t.”

While we’re more familiar with Howard’s first three albums, there have been several more since, right up to last year’s Engage. So where might we start if we’re catching up?

“It’s difficult for me to answer that, but those first five albums I did for Warner Brothers showed the progression in writing, and since –in the detox years – I’ve experimented and each album has its own character. Some are very acoustic, some are very electronic, and Engage was a multi-media experiment for me.

“I’ve also just done songs for the Eddie the Eagle film, working with Gary Barlow. He asked me to write a couple of songs that were of the time, with the film set in the ’80s. He wanted songs with the language of the ‘80s but new, and I’ve incorporated the story of Eddie into those. And it’s quite nice to do an album – including those songs – using the ’80s theme, just for fun, before I do the next ambitious thing.

“It was kind of liberating, because I know that language so well. I’m not trying to break new ground, particularly, but to capture a time. It felt very natural and like a really good excuse to be a bit retro!”

Howard’s played his part in the whole ‘80s festival circuit, to great success. But that doesn’t seem to be his way, I put to him – just dwelling on the past.

“I love doing all those festivals where you just do half an hour or so, and it’s such a great atmosphere. People really enjoy it. At the same time, I have to be doing new things, otherwise I’ll go crazy as an artist.”

Light Entertainment: Howard Jones

Light Entertainment: Howard Jones

There have been other side-projects. For example, you were running a vegetarian restaurant at one stage, I believe.

“I hardly ran it! I financed it.  I was there about four times. That was in New York.”

Was there ever a chance of the proverbial ‘proper job’, or did you always have it in mind where you were going with your life?

“There was never any question. It was always going to be music. I was pretty strong-willed as a child and drove everyone mad in the house. I mean, imagine – at 7.30 in the morning I’d be thrashing around at the piano in a tiny house. What they had to put up with! I am very grateful.”

It’s certainly been a dream career, doing all your own work and writing and performing with everyone from Ringo Starr and Sandie Shaw to Midge Ure. Are you still recording in The Shed? Only that sounds like every bloke’s dream, isn’t it?

“That was when I was in Maidenhead, and while it was called The Shed, it did have an SSL (mixing) desk in it at one point – so it was a bit more than that! Now I have a room in the house that looks out on the Somerset Levels, with all my synths and my Steinway. It’s a songwriter’s heaven really – a great room to work in. And that’s important, I think, to be inspired and have lots of light.”

For readers in the North West, An Evening with Howard Jones (The Songs, The Piano & The Stories) calls at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre on Friday, February 12th (tickets £23 via 0844 888 4411 or online here) and Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music on Thursday, February 18th (tickets £22.50 via 0161 907 5200 or online here).

Further UK dates: London Union Chapel (February 5th), Winchester Theatre Royal (February 6th), Exeter Phoenix (February 7th), Glasgow Oran Mor (February 10th), Gateshead The Sage (February 11th), Worcester Huntingdon Hall (February 13th), Sheffield City Hall (February 14th), Leeds City Varieties (February 19th), Lincoln Drill Hall (February 20th), and Bury St Edmunds Apex Arts Centre (February 21st).

And for further information on Howard Jones, head to his website, while keeping track of him via his Facebook and Twitter links.  

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They Might be Giants – Manchester Academy 2

High Five: They Might Be Giants, disappointing folk all over, apparently (Photo: http://www.theymightbegiants.com/)

High Five: They Might Be Giants, disappointing folk all over, apparently (Photo: http://www.theymightbegiants.com/)

Ever tried explaining They Might Be Giants to anyone not in the know? I have, and strongly advise that you shouldn’t bother. Just give people links to a few tracks and let them work it out for themselves.

I’m guessing all those packed into Manchester Academy 2 on Monday night got this wondrous band though, and this was something of a celebration for our returning, conquering heroes.

These days TMBG involve Brooklyn-based founding Johns – Flansburgh (guitar, vocals) and Linnell (keyboards, vocals, all sorts) – plus Marty Beller (drums), Dan Miller (guitar, keys) and Danny Weinkauf (bass, keys). Yet this might well have been our last UK sighting for at least a while, with a live break after their current UK and following US tours imminent.

The key word should still be celebration rather than disappointment though, not least for those of us who have seen this long-established, inventive, alternative outfit in person. It turns out that there was no get-out clause at Manchester’s Academy 2 anyway, with Flansy pointing out that they had a lot of material to get through, the doors were locked, and there would be ‘no refunds’. Extreme housekeeping notices, I think you’d call those.

They started as they meant to go on, a stratospheric The Statue Got Me High one of many ‘near-hits’ here, leading to a similarly-airborne Can’t Keep Johnny Down, the two Johns – whose banter all night was special, the in-between songs sections as entertaining as the tunes themselves – revealing by way of a further introduction that they played the same venue 24 years ago to the day, Flansy explaining how he felt it was an impossibly-large place to fill back then (while admitting to maybe putting on ‘7lb’ since).

There were no gaps that I could spot on the night, but while much has changed in the intervening years, it’s fair to say TMBG remain vital, as shown on a brooding Musical Jail Pts. 1 & 2 from 2015’s Glean before they wound back to Don’t Let’s Start, the mid-‘80s single that first snared me, courtesy of a little late night Radio 1 airplay. They remain innovative too, having launched an ambitious 52-track week-by-week Dial-a-Song project in 2015, with a neat example of that aired in I Love You For Psychological Reasons.

Apollo_18_album_coverMeanwhile, Flansy apologised for the band ‘staring at their hands’ a lot while they were concentrating on the newer songs, some of which this punter probably missed out in this review, my usual method of a few scribbled lines every few songs catching me out. But I had no reason to forget or misplace memory of Apollo 18 cut Turn Around, dedicated to all the short people struggling to see past the 6ft-plus fans, leading to a huge cheer from the woman behind me, the likes of this blogger accused from the stage of taking the band’s name too literally.

Taking my earlier point about explanations, I’ll not try and categorise here, but how could I anyway when songs like Authenticity Trip remind me in equal doses of both The Scissor Sisters and The The? There was certainly a wide range of eras covered here too, across the albums, the band heading back 30 years, for example, for Nothing’s Gonna Change My Clothes, then returning for the chirpy We Live In A Dump, recent wonder Answer (if ever a song deserved chart success, it was this fine ditty) and hi-energy disco stomp Man, It’s So Loud in Here.

For all their time in the business, the two Johns reckon they’re still regularly asked by family if there’s a Plan B, and accordingly revealed details of their new cover band if the moment should come, Destiny’s Child’s Child, giving us a taster with Bills, Bills, Bills – Linnell as Beyonce, Flansy as Kelly Rowland, the other three taking the role of the third member. Visualise all that?

We also had the super-catchy Older – with John L interrupted by a phonecall from ‘The Ghost of Manchester Academy Past’ mid-song – and a mightily-quirky Trouble Awful Devil Evil, the afore-mentioned songsmith taking to bass clarinet for a stirring Cloisonne while Flansy stepped up to the main mic. In fact, this was very much an interchangeable feast all evening, everyone bar the industrious sticksman Marty swapping roles from time to time, and to great effect.

Further near-hit Meet James Ensor proved a big crowd-pleaser and led to quirky country humdinger Number Three, the band then quickly upping gears for The Famous Polka. They also delved into 1988’s Lincoln for Where Your Eyes Don’t Go and treated us to Careful What You Pack, which we’re led to believe was turned down for a film for being ’too beautiful’.

In these worrying times of Trump and co, we had a lesson from US history in James K. Polk, before indulging Flansy for a flighty Let Me Tell You About My Operation. As you probably know, in recent years TMBG have built a reputation for ‘kid’s albums’ too (and the day before had played to a young audience in Glasgow) and we were treated to the awesome Alphabet of Nations before Flood’s rock-n-roller Twisting and fave rave Dr Worm (’I’m not a real doctor, but I am a real worm’) saw us out for the first time.

Three encores followed, starting with a thumping cover of Jonathan Richman’s I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar and the ever-sublime Particle Man, John L delightfully segueing into Dolly Parton’s Here You Come Again en route. Then came a jig-crazy Damn Good Times, the band complaining it was too cold backstage as they swiftly returned for debut album perennial She’s an Angel (anyone who can get the word nonchalant into a song is alright by me) and an equally-loveable Robot Parade, proffering a glimpse into a future where Faith No More seem to have gone electronic.

Sky Scrapers: Messrs Flansburgh and Linnell work out their tour strategy

Sky Scrapers: Messrs Flansburgh and Linnell work out their tour strategy

Despite Mr Linnell protesting (and pretending) that they had run out of songs, they still managed to come up with those 1990 pop exclamation marks, Birdhouse in Your Soul and Istanbul, the latter’s extended instrumental finale just the perfect climax.

Incidentally, at one stage we were requested to share photographs of ourselves via social media to let everyone know how disappointed we were by the night’s entertainment. You may even have spotted a few examples. At the risk of going back on my word and trying to explain the TMBG experience, I guess that’s the kind of band we’re dealing with here.

Given free rein I might have chosen half a dozen other great songs on the night, but I’m sure a few of them will be aired elsewhere on this tour. Besides, something had to give and people had last trains and buses to contemplate. Similarly, I’ve probably missed a few songs in this review, and maybe got a couple out of order. I tried to keep up, but was clearly having too much fun. I’m not sure it really matters anyway.

Thanks for sharing something special though, fellas. It’s been surreal … but somehow real.

For the recent writewyattuk feature/interview with John Flansburgh, head here.  And for further tour dates, ticket details and all the latest news from the band, head to their Facebook and Twitter pages or the official TMBG website.

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From The Jam / Nine Below Zero – Colne, The Muni

Jam Session: Russell and Bruce in action at Cardiff Tramshed, December 2015 (Photo: Warren Meadows)

Jam Session: Russell and Bruce in action at Cardiff Tramshed, December 2015 (Photo: Warren Meadows)

Any musician worth their salt will have learned a great deal by getting along to the mystical East at the weekend (well, East Lancashire, any road), for a masterclass in maximum r’n’b and impassioned post-punk.

While The Jam material played by the band’s latest incarnation was more familiar to this packed-out crowd, there was plenty to warm to from specially-chilled guests Nine Below Zero, on a night when a cold wind blew down Albert Road and snow was forecast.

I’d hate to guess the average age out there, but reckon I helped bring it down (says he, in his late 40s). Yet there was enough adulation from young and old alike to suggest there’s no best-before date on great music.

Dennis Greaves’ openers have certainly been around the block a few times, this respected South London quartet soon causing a live stir with a set chock-full of rhythm’n’blues standards, including many of their own making.

There was a proper Dr Feelgood vibe too, a great influence on each band (in fact, Wilko Johnson’s 20 Yards Behind got a welcome airing), and by evening’s end we were left in no doubt as to the enduring attraction of both outfits.

Much of the crowd were outside the main hall at this characterful venue early on – at the bar or in a nearby local – but the whole building throbbed from the outset.

Soundcheck Blues: Nine Below Zero look to acclimatise to East Lancs (Photo from the band's Facebook page)

Soundcheck Blues: Nine Below Zero acclimatise to East Lancs (Photo from the band’s Facebook page)

Perhaps we got used to the volume, or the larger numbers soaked up some of that, but by the fourth number there was movement out on the floor as the band gave their own spin on classic blues and soul, alongside their own revered numbers.

From I Can’t Help Myself, Hoochie Coochie Coo, Boom Boom Boom, Can I Get a Witness? and Got My Mojo Working onwards, we were a captive audience.

All were given a Greaves twist too, the frontman’s gruff delivery and esteemed fretwork neatly aided by Mark Feltham’s heart-felt harmonica (the respected session musician featuring on Bruce Foxton’s new album, I believe) and a rigorous engine room stoked by Brian Bethell (bass) and Brendan O’Neill (drums).

Don’t Point Your Finger at the Guitar Man, Three Times Enough and Treat Her Right kept the groove going, all three featured on the 1981 album that featured on the band’s backdrop cover art – helping give us a ‘then and now’ outlook.

I can’t say I expected Area Code 615’s theme from The Old Grey Whistle Test when I set off, but I was far from disappointed. And we also pondered on Dennis’ delivery of Rockin’ Robin against little Michael Jackson’s version, before Wooly Bully and Eleven by Eleven (the volume level of the amps, maybe) saw them out in style.

Bruce-Foxton-Smash-the-Clock-cover-jpgThe floor was packed by the time Bruce Foxton and Russell Hastings stepped on stage, with assured backing from Paul Weller session player Tom van Heel (keyboards and occasional guitar) and drummer Mike Randon.

The audience were eating out of their hand from the opening bars of A Town Called Malice, and the joint rarely stopped rocking from there.

From Bruce’s take on The Kinks’ David Watts to fellow All Mod Cons rave To Be Someone, there was no doubting this was the real deal, Weller and Rick Buckler’s absence not an issue.

The next section, from Man in the Corner Shop, Pretty Green and But I’m Different Now to The Gift reminded us – as if we really needed reminding – of the depth of those final two albums and young Weller’s songwriting, all respectfully delivered by Russell.

Bruce – restricting himself to just a few trademark leaps these days – was back to the fore again with the ever-poignant Smithers-Jones, before the evergreen Boy About Town, a song that never fails to set up an evening out for this perennial teen.

When You’re Young and Saturday’s Kids fall into that same hallowed territory, while 1982’s Ghosts gave us a chance to reflect, and Pictures and Diamonds proferred an intriguing glimpse of what’s to come with the eagerly-awaited new Bruce Foxton album, Smash the Clock.

Colne Dynamo: The Muni (Photo: http://www.themuni.co.uk/)

Colne Dynamo: The Muni (Photo: http://www.themuni.co.uk/)

But while much of the newer material would deserve a place in this set, Foxton and Hastings never deny the average crowd what they really came for, and as The Public Gets What The Public Wants show title suggested, from there on it was it was all tried and tested, classic Jam.

A sing-along That’s Entertainment and Start followed, then a storming run through the debut LP’s Larry Williams cover Slow Down and modern anthem for disaffected youth The Eton Rifles.

The band finally got their collective breaths back and returned, Down in the Tube Station at Midnight rattling powerfully down the tracks before frenetic debut single In the City and the inevitable Going Underground saw us home, our revision session in great live music complete, and this punter pleased to get back down the M65 without having to use a snow shovel.

For this blog’s recent interview with Bruce Foxton, head here. And for all the latest from each band, try the Nine Below Zero and From The Jam Facebook links.  

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Going back 25 years, ending up 10,000 miles from Kingfield

Still Buzzing: Tim Buzaglo gets the national headlines in January 1991 (Image from the writewyattuk archives, with proper credit to the original photographer & publication)

Still Buzzing: Tim Buzaglo gets the national headlines in January 1991 (Image from the writewyattuk archives, with proper credit to the original photographer & publication)

Woking’s National League defeat at Altrincham on Tuesday, January 26th, 2016, won’t stay in the memory bank for long for too many Cardinals fans, despite the latest party-piece goal from free-kick maestro Giuseppe Sole.

For a moment there in the second half, Gez’s strike suggested my team might get something from this midweek away fixture, stretching an unbeaten run to 12 matches. It wasn’t to be though, and the lowly Robins – the team papier-mâché big-head Frank Sidebottom once told us he was ‘bobbins’ about – soon finished us off amid swirling rain in Cheshire. But there was at least one other moment that resonated for me on the night, and it happened almost an hour before kick-off as this part-time reporter managed a brief chinwag with a non-league legend.

You can get blasé about meeting your heroes, and I’m lucky enough to be in a career where I get to interview a few of the big figures that have made an impression on my life so far. For the most part that involves musicians, authors or comedians. But now and again there are sporting heroes too, and Geoff Chapple falls nicely into that category.

I knew little of Geoff, who turns 70 this year, until I was around 19, but his achievements in football over the next two decades put him up there with the stars of my childhood, not least through overseeing a record number of FA Trophy victories (five in seven seasons, three with Woking) and a few notable FA Cup scalps. And passing the time of day with him today still gives me a warm glow, even if it’s just a few shared words on a miserable winter’s day at Grange Lane, North Ferriby, or a rainy night at Moss Lane, Altrincham.

What’s more, when myself, photographer David Holmes and club director/ambassador Geoff chatted in Cheshire this week, I had the pleasure of reminding the latter exactly where he was a quarter of a century before, with a few memories stoked just days before this season’s FA Cup fourth round fixtures.

Let’s face it – Geoff, his coaching team and players have given this scribe and WFC terrace devotee plenty to savour down the years, from memorable league encounters to crucial cup games. But there’s one particular campaign he will be forever associated with on a wider scale, and that took place in that 1990/91 football season.

Cardinal Legend: Geoff Chapple, taking time out before kick-off at Altrincham, 25 years after his Woking side gave Everton a battle at Goodison Park (Photo: David Holmes)

Cardinal Legend: Geoff Chapple, taking time out before kick-off at Altrincham, 25 years after his Woking side gave Everton a battle at Goodison Park (Photo: David Holmes)

So cast your mind back to the days of yore, before the birth of the Premier League, Justin Bieber and Harry Styles, and even before Jurassic Park’s velociraptors roamed the cinemas. I’m talking about an era pre-dating the whole Strictly Come X-Factor Talent circus, when the Manchester Ratepayers’ Stadium was just wasteland and ISIS were just something that helped you cool down on hot summer days. For in early 1991 the road to Wembley was temporarily re-routed via Kingfield, Aggborough, The Hawthorns and Goodison Park, and errant coach drivers couldn’t even blame satellite navigation.

In many ways, I can’t quite get my head around the fact that Woking’s famous FA Cup run was 25 years ago. Yet while I can’t readily recall much about what happened a few days before Christmas 2015, I remember a fair bit about that campaign, despite my absence from these shores at the time. You see, at the time of my club’s most memorable spell in the national spotlight I was in Australia – 10,000 or so miles from Kingfield, so this feature might as well be sub-titled, ‘I wasn’t there!’

Let’s back up a bit first. To properly put you in the picture I’ll transport you to November 1986 and a 1-1 first round proper home draw with Chelmsford City, my Kingfield terrace debut, the Cards having made their way through all five qualifying rounds for the first time since late 1978 (when we went out to John Toshack’s Swansea City after a replay, having held the Third Division side – during their meteoric rise to the top flight – 2-2 at the Vetch Field before a 5-3 extra-time defeat at Kingfield, our best-ever post-war showing).

The abiding recollection for this first-timer was keeping half an eye on the skirmishes around us on the terraces. But – with no repeats of trouble I recall – I was showing up a lot more by the time we fought through all the qualifying rounds again two seasons later. This time we crashed out 4-1 at home to Cambridge United, a Chris Turner team languishing in Division Four. It was a great occasion all the same, this teen somewhere within what we thought of as the ‘bus shelter’ which in late 1995 made way for the Leslie Gosden Stand.

The following season Geoff’s outfit reached the first round again, winning 2-1 at Conference-bound Slough Town, Tim Buzaglo and Paul Mulvaney scoring, only to go out in the next round to … yes, Cambridge again, 3-1 at the Abbey Stadium. However, it was another big day (the only time I travelled to a game by supporters’ coach), and we got the odd mention nationwide plus a healthy pay-off. But the best was still to come.

On the whole that ‘89/’90 season was a great success with our FA Cup run, reaching the FA Trophy last 16 and league and county cup semi-finals, and winning promotion to the Isthmian League Premier (just one tier off non-league football’s top flight). But I tried not to take too much interest in our ‘90/’91 prospects, having just paid out for my world trip.

Hero Worship: Woking FC's class of '90/'91, with a few notables missing (Image from the writewyattuk archives, with proper credit to the original photographer & publication)

Hero Worship: Woking FC’s class of ’90/’91, with a few notables missing (Image from the writewyattuk archives, with proper credit to the original photographer & publication)

I had few qualms about leaving Blighty the night of my final match of 1990, a 2-1 home win over Enfield on a cold Tuesday in late October. That included a cracking goal from the occasionally-sublime Mark ‘Biggo’ Biggins, and we not only stayed top but also underlined our prospects for a real shout at that year’s title. However, as a bitter wind rattled around us, the absence of romantic fixtures in our division was never more clear as the fans sang, ‘If you all went to Dagenham, clap your hands’.

As I later wrote, ‘You know how it is. The days get colder and the terraces are subjected to the foggy breaths and stamping feet of diehard fans, clapping the feeblest of efforts in an attempt to keep warm on a freezing night. But for the non-league teams that make it to the first round of the world’s greatest knock-out competition, there is still a slim hope that national stardom and pride of place are just around the corner’. That said, I was set to fly to Thailand later that week, en route for a trek across South-East Asia towards Australia and New Zealand, the thought of which helped keep me insulated as the blood stopped circulating, gloating as I pictured the hard English winter sure to follow, one I wouldn’t have to endure.

However, I had last-minute concerns about leaving my Lancashire-based better half behind, and a nagging doubt that something big was going to happen, having seen us knock out Conference side Bath City that previous Saturday to earn a first-round tie with another team from England’s fifth flight, Kidderminster Harriers. I can’t recall too much about that match, but my diary mentions a nail-biting last 20 minutes, a couple of pre-match pints at my old Shalford local, and a visit to a sports shop in Knaphill, this departee contemplating shelling out on a club top for my travels. But with my budget already stretched, a £21 price tag – which would pay for a week’s accommodation and food on Koh Samui at the time – seemed too steep.

I also felt I could survive without football for a while. Besides, as I later put in writing (think of it as therapy), ‘What would you choose? A Thai Airlines 747 to the mystical East, or a day-trip in Alan’s Talbot Sunbeam to Worcestershire?’ I was interested in the outcome, but knew my best bet was to put all thoughts of ‘soccer’ out of my head as I headed Down Under.

Yes – soccer. We may speak the same language, but the average blue-eyed Aussie clearly didn’t give a XXXX about real football, as I was about to find out. Things might have changed since, but when I was over there the balls were definitely a different shape (so to speak). When they talked about ‘footie’, it involved something we knew better as rugby league, without so many bad Eddie Waring impressions.

There was plenty of animated discussion about State of Origin test matches (Queensland vs New South Wales) or league battles involving that year’s champions Penrith Panthers, runners-up Canberra Raiders, my cousin’s team Brisbane Broncos and even the intriguing Manly-Warringah. But you had to work harder to find out about those who didn’t pick it up and run with it (so to speak).

Brisee Belle: The blogger with his cousin Debbie and Tilly the dog, about to leave Brisbane (Photo: Ian Donmall)

Brisee Belle: The blogger with his cousin Debbie and Tilly the dog, about to leave Brisbane (Photo: Ian Donmall)

I visited the Kogarah Oval once, watching an impassioned derby between St George Dragons and South Sydney Rabbitohs as a guest of a home team sponsor, for whom I was helping renovate a 1920s house in the suburbs. But while I enjoyed the experience, it made me feel all the more homesick for those cold terraces back home. Thankfully, there was so much going on for me that, apart from the odd cold beer-fuelled argument about the Beautiful Game, I was managing to avoid it all, other than occasional sneaky looks at the Sydney Morning Herald results column.

But then l I blew my cover in Newcastle, and we’re talking the home of New South Wales RL outfit Newcastle Knights rather than the Newcastle United I left behind. Names like John Burridge, Roy Aitken, Gavin Peacock and Mickey Quinn meant nothing to locals I met.  Folk in Newcastle-upon-Tyne may pride themselves on their love of football, but those based in and around the Aussie namesake town seemed more interested in the merits of coach Allan ‘Macca’ McMahon and dependable skipper Michael Hagan.

I was staying in a hostel on the outskirts, among a gang of building site labourers, and at first I was oblivious to the fact that they didn’t have the remotest interest in the soccer highlights being shown on TV. I nonchalantly asked who was playing and got little by way of a response but for a worrying remark that it was ‘some wog side from Melbourne against some other wog side from Sydney’ (the derogatory term in their eyes relating to anyone with a better tan than themselves at the time – for the most part Lebanese, Greek, Italian, Chinese or Bosnian settlers).

Without their help, I eventually sussed I was watching an ill-tempered grudge match between Sydney Olympic and Melbourne Croatia, and got quite involved until a fellow guest proclaimed, ‘We ain’t watching this crap!’ and turned over to a Lassie film. My flabber was suitably ghasted, but it was pointless making something of it. For a start, the bloke with the remote control was built like a proverbial outside dunny. I decided there and then there was little hope for these ill-bred sons of convicts, the conversation turning to ‘proper footie’ as I drifted off while half-watching this tired old MGM blockbuster.

“Woof woof!”

“What’s that, Lassie? These fellas don’t know who Timmy Buzaglo is and are stuck down a cultural well?’

Meanwhile, back in the real world as I knew it, Woking overcame Kidderminster after two replays (none of this one replay followed by a shoot-out format in those days), going on to thrash Merthyr Tydfil 5-1 at Kingfield, on a day when even JRR Tolkien fans would have appreciated Biggo bagging a hat-trick to set up a West Midlands awayday.

Great Read: Cards keeper Tim Read gets the national adulation (Image from the writewyattuk archive, with proper credit to the original photographer and publication)

Great Read: Cards keeper Tim Read gets the national adulation (Image from the writewyattuk archive, with proper credit to the original photographer and publication)

Chances are you know the rest, ‘Scuffer’ Buzaglo on spectacular form as the Cards stuffed their Division Two hosts 4-2 at The Hawthorns to book a dream fourth-round tie at Everton, going on to give Howard Kendall’s outfit a mighty scare before a solitary Kevin Sheedy second-half decider in front of a 34,724 gate, around 10,000 supporters cheering on the Cards. And by then I wasn’t only getting cock-eyed news about ‘Woking Town’ from British Soccer Weekly, but also from my nearest Aussie daily. For these were heady days, a great deal of the world taking an interest in ‘tiny Woking Football Club from the Home Counties’ commuter belt’.

By the time of the West Brom game, I’d shelled out the last of my savings on an old VW Kombi van with a fellow traveller, and that day embarked on a return run to Noosa on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, joining my cousin Dave. Within a few weeks I’d be tackling 12-hour stretches along remote bush roads at the wheel of our ‘big bus’, but this was our maiden voyage and I was a nervous wreck by the time we re-crossed the imposing Gateway Bridge back towards Manly West in the early hours.

Our van eventually ground to a halt outside my aunt’s house, and I stumbled up the steps to the front door, still going through the motions of driving, concentrating on nothing but my bed. Yet I managed to focus just long enough to see a huge homemade paper banner strung on the wall, proclaiming the legend ‘Woking For The Cup’. It didn’t seem to make sense. I don’t think I’d even mentioned the tie to my Mum’s sister. But a second banner to the side read, ‘Newsflash from Mark: Woking 4 West Bromwich Albion 2’. And there on the table was a further cryptic clue – a scribbled note mentioning a late-night call from my brother, including several attempts by Auntie Lesley to spell ‘Buzaglo’.

Suddenly I was very much awake again, spending the next couple of hours alone at the kitchen table, downing Castlemaine stubbies, never before feeling quite so far from home. The next day there were even a couple of paragraphs about it all in The Courier Mail. I soon set off for pastures new, taking the inland highways this time, heading slowly back to Sydney, giving our ‘Brisee Belle’ a proper road test. But the ghost of my soccer past was never far behind, with Woking’s mighty performance at Everton just three weeks ahead.

On the day in question I was slowly recovering from a heavy night in Sydney, drinking too much Toohey’s Red on Australia Day, part-celebrating an offer of work – cash in hand – that would give us a chance to move on and semi-circumnavigate this huge island-continent. So while Geoff Chapple’s side played the game of their lives on Merseyside, all I could do was sit there, almost comatose, watching England cling grimly on in the Fourth Test at Adelaide via Channel 9, paying the price for my drunken indulgence.

I finally managed to pick up the phone at nine that next morning (eight the previous evening in the UK) to call my beloved, who was celebrating her 26th birthday. It wasn’t a great line, the two of us struggling with the time delay, our own voices echoing, but she soon asked, ‘Is there another reason you’re ringing?’ There was, of course, and she soon told me all she knew about that 1-0 defeat at Goodison Park. In a sense I was relieved we’d gone out. I’m not sure I could have taken another round, not least as the Toffees were set to face Liverpool in the next round.

Merseyside Dream: More national adulation for Woking FC (Image from the writewyattuk archive, with proper credit to the original photographer and publication)

Merseyside Dream: More national adulation for Woking FC (Image from the writewyattuk archive, with proper credit to the original photographer and publication)

It’s difficult to get your head around all that in our modern age of broadband internet, Skype calls and so on, but it wasn’t until February 5th that I got a letter from my Mum including a page spread on that match. I never got to see all the newspaper reports she gathered over that period until I returned home in June for my big sister’s wedding. And at that stage it all still seemed a little surreal, comparing the great Surrey Advertiser coverage by Chris Dyke with less-accurate pieces in the nationals that Mum – working in a village newsagent’s then – had riffled through.

The public clearly fell in love with my team and the many personalities within that classic Cards line-up. Less salubrious rags were full of tales of ‘Bonking’ Bradley Pratt’s appetite for rumpy-pumpy on match days, and laidback Gibraltarian Buzaglo being fed grapes by his wife Rita. It seemed that ‘Effin’ Fred’ Callaghan and co. were more than happy to supply a few spicy stories to the hacks in exchange for national headlines, the tabloids finding new spins on those Crazy Gang tales featuring Dave Bassett’s Wimbledon.

I soon left Sydney, headed for Melbourne, Adelaide, Uluru, Darwen and all points between, traversing outback Australia and only occasionally picking up mail. So it was seven weeks before I had my next first-handwritten reports of that amazing Cup run, while on a remote campsite north of Alice Springs in mid-March, among a batch of letters collected from the nearby Poste Restante. For once I was content to have a night in the van, a stack of reading and feeling homesick ahead of me.

It’s a strange thing: I loved my travel adventures, but at times like that all you can do is rue what you’ve left behind – in my case my Lancashire lass, my Surrey family, my mates and my old social life. All you’ve seen and experienced doesn’t mean a thing, however beautiful the sunsets. And you know you’re truly missing something special when you get a long letter from someone who normally had trouble writing, ‘Gone to the pub’, let alone three whole pages. But as I picked up fellow Cards fan Al’s letter, the situation seemed even bleaker. There I was, 1,000 miles from the nearest town, and all he could do was rub it in:

‘Dear Malc,

I’m sitting here in my dimly-lit bedroom, listening to my Joy Division records, with the snow falling and the temperature well below freezing. The economy is in recession, unemployment rising, there’s war in the Gulf, Poll Tax … you get the picture. But am I depressed? No! Why? BECAUSE I WAS THERE! …..”

Alan went on to catalogue those special moments at the Hawthorns and Goodison Park, and all I could wonder was what I was doing there while Timmy Buz knocked seven shades out of the Baggies. He added how we’d really taken the pee by bringing on a ‘growbag’ as a sub and how he ended up scoring our fourth. Belated apologies to Terry Worsfold there, but my unlikely correspondent went on to marvel at the memory of Bradley Pratt, Trevor ‘Smokin’ Joe’ Baron, Biggo, Mark ‘Frilly’ Franks and co. on the same pitch as all those Merseyside-based internationals, giving them a proper battle.

Regal Respect: The Cardinals take the plaudits at Goodison Park (Image from the writewyattuk archive, with proper credit to the original photographer and publication)

Regal Respect: The Cardinals take the plaudits at Goodison Park (Image from the writewyattuk archive, with proper credit to the original photographer and publication)

No doubt aware of the damage he was doing, he at least added a touch of gritty realism with his concluding line, writing ‘the League and AC Delco Cup shall now be concentrated on’. He also included admission ticket number 177, inscribed with the not-so-legendary caption ‘Woking 0 Barking 0’.

It was the story of my life. I thought of all the matches I witnessed in previous seasons, against the likes of Dorking, Dulwich Hamlet, Southwick and Seaham Red Star. Yet the moment I turned my back on Blighty, the Cardinals did this. To add insult to injury, British Soccer Weekly reported that Aussie TV would show highlights of the FA Cup, round by round, that following season.

Things weren’t the same on the home front after that. A backlog of fixtures spoiled our promotion hopes, Redbridge Forest taking the title in front of barely 300 jubilant fans. And I was secretly pleased I hadn’t missed out on anything else. Things returned to normal and I basked in the sun on a holiday of a lifetime, the Cards eventually settling for fourth place and an AC Delco and Surrey Demolition cup double after a mighty 66-game season.

As I put in a feature in the late ‘90s, ‘Now it all seems a long time ago, the days of boring everyone with my travel tales and photos long since passed. And after that next term’s league title, our Conference glory days, further FA Cup triumphs and three FA Trophy wins at Wembley, I had no cause to complain. But I could still do without hearing all those nostalgic rambles about our Midlands and Merseyside epics before a pitying, “But of course, you weren’t there, were you?” Sick as a cockatoo, Brian’.

Everton went on to draw twice with Liverpool (0-0 sand 4-4) before a 1-0 win one month after the same outcome against Woking saw them into the last eight. From there, it was a negative run, the Toffees losing to West Ham, who lost to Nottingham Forest, who in turn went down 2-1 after extra time at Wembley to Spurs in a classic final.

Coincidentally, myself and Everton fan Mick Stack, from Crosby, planned to watch the final live from a hostel in Queenstown, New Zealand after a night on the beer and a little clubbing. But our 2am viewing was ruled out as we were in a remote part of South Island where Channel 3 didn’t quite reach. Faced with that disappointment we decided instead to take a Likely Lads approach, avoiding the result until we’d tracked down a repeat showing in Dunedin. But we hadn’t figured on having local radio piped into our rooms at 8am, hearing the outcome on the news.

Cards Trick: Tim Buzaglo and Adie Cowler in the media spotlight (Image from the writewyattuk archive, with proper credit to the original photographer and publication)

Cards Trick: Tim Buzaglo and Adie Cowler in the media spotlight (Image from the writewyattuk archive, with proper credit to the original photographer and publication)

Incidentally, that was the day Paul Gascoigne suffered his cruciate ligament injury, the same injury that ultimately wrecked Tim Buzaglo’s playing career three months earlier – barely a fortnight after the Everton tie – following an X-rated St Albans City tackle. Buz finally returned and played a minor part in our early Conference adventures, but was never really the same player.

As it turned out, we were only really getting going, Geoff Chapple, Fred Callaghan (who left that following season) and Colin Lippiatt’s side gathering momentum. I was back by June, 1991, and witnessed plenty of key moments during the following promotion-winning season – after just two terms in the Isthmian League top flight. That led to a 17-season first spell in the Conference, nine of those involving top-10 finishes, including two second-places and two third-places in the era before play-offs at that level.

We also won the FA Trophy at Wembley three times – to add to 1958’s FA Amateur Cup success there – by seeing off Runcorn, Kidderminster and Dagenham and Redbridge respectively in 1994, 1995 and 1997, and enjoyed a few more FA Cup highlights, including taking Brighton to a replay in late ’92 (repeated 18 years later) and winning at Millwall and Cambridge United (revenge at last) in late ’96 to set up another day that will always remain with me, a 1-1 third-round draw at Coventry City in late January ’97 (followed by a narrow defeat in the replay at ours).

In fact, we made it to the third round three times in the following six seasons, as opposed to progressing beyond the first round only twice in the next 18 seasons. I guess it’s human nature that we don’t appreciate something until it’s gone, but we’re surely due more national headlines by now. This season’s early exit at Maidenhead United – getting piss-soaked in the process – was a case in point. We haven’t impressed in the FA Trophy either, our last best campaign a defeat in the final to Grays at Upton Park in 2006, another day that didn’t quite go to plan.

But I can’t complain. I’ve got my VHS tapes from those wonder years backed on to disc, and all these years on we’re back on the fringes of the Football League, these last five years under Garry Hill and Steve Thompson (our goal hero at Coventry) seeing us on a high again. And despite our 2015/16 FA Cup no-show, this could be our year, with the National League play-offs in reach and a last-16 FA Trophy home tie coming on February 6th.

No pressure of course, but I’ve been waiting to visit the rebuilt Wembley Stadium for nine years now. And if the current gaffer needs any advice on those big occasions, he just needs to have a quiet word with Geoff, our in-house legend. I can’t promise I’ll be out of the way Down Under this time though.

Sydney Skyline: The blogger looks towards the big city, probably trying to avoid any sports news from home (Photo: Ian Donmall)

Sydney Skyline: The blogger looks towards the big city, probably trying to avoid any sports news from home (Photo: Ian Donmall)

With thanks to the various photographers and publications included in the scrapbook pages above. Where credits are needed, please let me know.

To rewind the years and relive some of those heady Woking FC moments from 1991 and other key Cards clashes down the years, I heartily recommend the Cardinal Tales’ YouTube channel here

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Giants’ steps lead to Manhattan transfer – the John Flansburgh interview

Two Johns: TMBG founders John Linnell, left, and John Flansburgh (Photo: Shervin Lainez)

Two Johns: TMBG founders John Linnell, left, and John Flansburgh (Photo: Shervin Lainez)

The signs weren’t so good when I made contact with John Flansburgh in Manhattan last week. He sounded affable enough, but he’d already had a hard morning fielding questions from UK journalists.

“I’m completely bored of myself. I’m just going to start saying things that aren’t even true, to keep myself interested.”

In response, I promised I’d make my questions as interesting as possible, prompting a somewhat typically-deadpan response.

“Oh, don’t worry about me. I’ll just start lying.”

John was at a friend’s apartment at the time, the Massachusetts-born and bred musician and occasional actor having been based in New York City since the early 1980s. so does he ever get back to Lincoln, MA, where They Might Be Giants, the band he formed with John Linnell in 1982 hail from, and which gave its name to their second album?

“My Mom actually moved to Florida, doing the thing people tend to do here. So there’s no real reason or excuse to get back. For years I’d go back for holidays though. It’s a very beautiful part of the world.

“However, I don’t know if you’ve heard the term, ‘snob zoning’, but there’s a little of that. When my parents moved there it was very much under-developed, but it became much fancier after I left. They probably figured it was safe to make it nice! There was a lot of defence industry engineering going on, high-tech and professional in the suburbs. It got pretty posh. I’m sure it’s a dilemma British people feel all the time – you want to be some place that’s pretty, but it becomes pretty fancy!”

So when were the two Johns, the two Dannys (Miller and Weinkauf) and Marty Beller flying over to join us in the UK?

“Right after the enormous snowstorm … apparently there’s a huge one coming on Saturday.”

Back Home: Lincoln, the second TMBG album

Back Home: Lincoln, the second TMBG album

Yes, you guessed it. Our conversation happened just a couple of days before that ‘big dump’, and at one point it looked like the tour was in jeopardy. Either way, it seemed that the tickets were being snapped up fast for a band described as ‘Brooklyn’s very own perpetual-motion machine’.

“Yeah, the shows are all selling out. There’s something very relaxing about playing a sold-out show. The artist feels like he’s done his job before even getting on stage. Can’t do any better than that!”

Then there are 20 dates back home. Is it likely to be a similar situation there?

“We’ve sold out a couple of shows already, but tour the United States pretty relentlessly, and there’s almost a ‘how can we miss you when you won’t go away?’ problem. People post on social media if we’re playing a venue out of town rather than a regular venue, it’s too far away and they’ll see us next time – not the response you want!

“The thing is that I don’t know how frequently we will tour in the future. Hopefully we will, but I don’t want to spend my entire life sleeping on a tour bus. So far I’m 25 years into it. It will be exciting not to tour every year.”

You’ve certainly put in some miles on the road since forming in 1982. Have you learned to make the most of those pockets of spare time between your travels, soundchecks, performances and hotel stopovers?

“I’ve really given up thinking I’ll be able to do more than just what I’m doing. It’s a very physical show, so when I’m not on stage I’m usually in a state of preparation or total collapse. Every day I’m just recovering from a show. Others in the band are more physically fit and go out and do museums and touristy things, but I don’t have the energy to get that extra layer of experience.

“That said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t really enjoy it. I love doing the shows. It’s cliché to say a couple of hours of playing make all the rest worthwhile, but if that isn’t worth it, it really wouldn’t be worth it! That’s the reason so many bands explode. It’s too physically unrewarding being in a band that’s not capturing your imagination!”

Imagination has never been a problem with TMBG’s creative geniuses, and that hectic schedule doesn’t seem to affect their output either. And the last 12 months’ material alone suggests they haven’t lost the ability to write cracking songs and hooks.

“Oh, thank you! People point out we’ve been doing it for 30 years or whatever and ask how we can keep going, but we have all these fresh songs that are really exciting to play and that get a really big response.”

Glean Machine: TMBG's Glean, from 2015

Glean Machine: TMBG’s Glean, from 2015

At this point, John throws in something of a curveball to try and explain himself better.

“Do you get the Inside Amy Schumer show over there? She’s a very funny comedian, kind of shocking and a little provocative, and was doing a comedy sketch where she’s breaking up with her boyfriend and he’s yelling at her as she was leaving the apartment, and she says, ‘I hope you go see your favourite band and they only play their new songs!’ I just thought that was a great way to curse someone!

“I’m sensitive to that idea. I can imagine what that’s like. But I have to say a lot of rock bands are very lazy – I’ve seen so many bad shows where guys in the band clearly don’t give a rat’s ass about what they’re doing. When things start to fade they get into this bad imitation of themselves, and in some cases there are some highly notable bands that really should have stopped.”

You’ve always been a very clever band – the term ‘unconventional and experimental’ gets used a lot – with plenty of humour. But you never come over as smartarses.

“I think the level of humour in what we do is a natural reflection of us as people and comes very naturally to us. From an early moment we were aware of what worked with repeated listening. It wasn’t like we were overly ambitious and dreamed of being rock stars, but one of our genuine ambitions was to make records. And good records hold up to being listened to again and again – which is not the same as comedy.

“The theatre of comedy is like first time it hits you it’s interesting but if you hear the same thing again it’s more like ritual. So in general I think what we’re doing is deadpan in its ultimate way. If the main point was to be funny it should’ve been a whole lot funnier! But ultimately we want the songs to be something you want to listen to again and again, and that really the tempers the amount of humour there can be in any song you want to continue hearing. It’s pretty finite.”

The band are certainly far from one-dimensional, their 2015 output including the follow-up to the Grammy-winning Here Come the 123s and Grammy-nominated Here Comes Science, TMBG returning to making ‘family-friendly’ albums with Why? And like their ‘grown-up’ albums – with the most recent, Glean, also released last year, to a typically great response – the result involves plenty of memorable songs with irresistible melodies and original production techniques.

TMBGy also released a new song (and video) every week last year through their Dial-A-Song project (www.DialASong.com) while touring non-stop, including dates in Australia in the autumn and a month of shows on home ground at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg.

And all this between several other projects, this John alone having also featured in the band Mono Puff, and having spent time running a record label, directing music videos, producing other artists and working alongside his wife, co-actor, co-writer and occasional TMBG contributor Robin Goldwasser.

Could you ever have dreamed in those formative days of the band that it might all come to this for yourself and your fellow John (Mr Linnell)? Did you really think you might be giants overseas, or did you just crave success on a more manageable Massachusetts scale?

Question Time: TMBG's latest family-friendly fare

Question Time: TMBG’s latest family-friendly fare

“Some things have surprised us all along, while others seemed more manageable. When we first got booked for a regular show at CBGB’s I was amazed. It seemed impossible. But John had already played there in his previous band and his attitude was that it was kind of a dump! And by the end of our tenure there we were completely tired of playing there – it was a dump!

“There are so many things that are thrilling about playing to audiences though, getting used to being a performer. Neither of us had any professional training, even though we’d had this material for five years we’d worked on. It was on the job training and ‘earn as you learn’ while figuring out how to put on a good show. It was a challenge.”

For the first decade it was just the two Johns plus a drum machine. What became of your original drum machine? Is it in the They Might Be Giants Retirement Home now?

“In my apartment I have a hall of shame of drum machines, and in November we did a duo show where we played with drum machine tracks, doing songs from the ‘80s and early ‘90s but also brand new songs using that format.”

Did the original drum machine remember the old material, or did you need to take it to one side for a tapped-out reminder of the hits?

“Oh yeah! I think people were fascinated to witness that kind of presentation, and it works very well in a club but not so well in a theatre. You start to move into Milli Vanilli ratios of what feels prefab and what feels spontaneously generated.

“The drum machine show worked surprisingly well for us and doing it again was interesting. But one of the things that was strange about putting the track together and making all those rhythm section decisions was that there are so many aesthetic decisions to be made now that are so different, as to where electronic music and its production in 2016 is.

“It’s such a world away from drum machines we were working with in 1984. We were basically like cavemen. If all you have is rock you’re just going to smash the rocks together. That’s kind of what we were doing. Now I can put together a rhythm track in traditional ‘80s style sound or a very contemporary sounding rhythm track that is an homage to that ‘80s sound.

“There are a lot of bands right now – very much contemporary bands, where all their sounds draw on that ’80s aesthetic. There’s also a world of electronica dance music that contemporary audiences love and we can do that as well. So there are a lot of choices to be made, and they can be surprisingly challenging. It wasn’t a preset … put it that way.”

At that point our interview is temporarily postponed as John deals with his cat, which has just bolted the flat, in a scene reminiscent of a scene from cult 2014 Coen brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis.

Feline Groovy: Oscar Isaac with his co-star in Inside Llewyn Davis (Image: CBS Films/StudioCanal)

Feline Groovy: Oscar Isaac with his co-star in Inside Llewyn Davis (Image: CBS Films/StudioCanal)

It turns out that a friend had agreed to take care of his cats while he’s away. But one of John’s cats – an ‘extremely wily’ one – escaped while John was opening the door, and was three storeys away before he was caught. Perhaps he feared he was about to be transported back to the early 1960s’ Greenwich Village folk scene.

Anyway, with everyone back we continued, and I explained how for me it was hearing early single Don’t Let’s Start in 1987 on night-time Radio One that led me down the road to loving the band. And that made me wonder – does John think Europe understood the band better than America back then?

“In the first couple of years of our recording life, Germany was a huge booster of American indie rock – ‘college rock’ bands like Husker Du and The Replacements, the first wave of bands that ended up being called alternative rock, like R.E.M. and Green on Red.

“We were part of that proto-alternative rock scene and our booking agent booked a lot of bands that would be very familiar to you. And we discovered from around 1987 to 1989 that Germany was more receptive to that kind of music than any other kind of American underground music.

“I think they were always interested in American counter-culture and viewed it as a counter-cultural movement – almost being the opposition to mainstream music. It’s a funny idea, because I don’t think music ever comes from negative energy – that’s not how it works. But I think they took it that way.

“I was getting lots of questions about Frank Zappa from interviewers, who definitely framed us like that. So we toured in Germany a tremendous amount, doing four or five weeks a time, playing every major city as well as secondary places, sometimes very small audiences. It wasn’t unusual to play to a hundred people, night to night. To us it was really interesting and felt remarkably like a real career.

“We’d always stop and play in London, but it wasn’t for a while that things really started to click for us in the UK. It was more like a work project.”

Debut Album: TMBG's Don't Let's Start

Debut Album: TMBG’s Don’t Let’s Start

In my case, I’d say it was more a case of me and my indie sensibilities, searching for something slightly different. I don’t think there were too many of us thinking that way. But the big break was on its way, and certainly came with the third album, 1990’s Flood, which turned out to be the most commercially-successful in the UK of 18 studio albums, not least thanks to the success of first single, Birdhouse in Your Soul. 

That said, they’ve barely troubled the charts here beyond that, other than a 2001 hit with Boss of Me, the Grammy-winning theme tune of cult US series Malcolm in the Middle.

“Yeah, but what was crazy about Britain was that if they liked you they tended to like you a lot! The way things got built up was really wild. ‘This band are like The Beatles … and Hendrix … but better!’”

We do like to build bands up, then knock them down.

“Exactly. Quite a system you’ve got perfected over there!”

A discussion follows over which bands were currently being built up on our side of the pond, something I didn’t feel I could be classed an authority on these days, despite making positive plugs for a few bands, including one I feel has a lot in common in certain respects with TMBG – Public Service Broadcasting, suggesting he checked them out.

“I remember a bunch of years back we came over and the Arctic Monkeys were the band du jour. I recall thinking those guys were so young and weren’t going to look like that in two years. It would be strange for their audience to see them go through that metamorphosis of post-adolescent ageing.’”

Another call soon comes in, and I’m already over-running, but John seemed to be enjoying himself after all, and soon ‘bought us 10 minutes’. Either way, I dovetail my questions and try and get in as many as I possibly can.

Having mentioned Don’t Let’s Start, is it fair to say you taught American film director Adam Bernstein (who started out making promo videos with the likes of The B-52’s and TMBG before moving on to shows like Breaking Bad, Californication, 30 Rock and 2014’s Fargo) everything he now knows?

“I think Adam taught us everything we know! He’s had an amazing career. I haven’t seen or talked to Adam for years, but would love to have a beer with him and see where he’s at. He’s such a talented guy and was such a self-starter. I don’t think we even dreamed it could have the life it had, and he just kept on going – he’s a very big wheel in Los Angeles now.”

Float On: TMBG's breakthrough album, Flood

Float On: TMBG’s breakthrough album, Flood

What did respected British producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley add to your success with Flood?

“They were such gentlemen, so smart, operating with a kind of confidence and purpose. They were very close listeners to us as people and to the demos we put together. In a lot of ways they were classic pop producers – they amplified everything we were about.

“People make a fuss about Svengali producers like Phil Spector who bring in talent in a very a la carte way. With Langer and Winstanley part of what they were doing was lashing their sonic booster rockets to the very specific person they were working with. That’s why their records sound so different from artist to artist, rather than going through a template.

“They were a great team – both having skills the other didn’t have, respecting the other’s skill set. That was very exciting, and they were cool guys, and very generous.”

You’ve been known to play Flood live in reverse, from track 19 down to 1. How many other great LPs do you think would benefit from such a reconstruction?

“The truth is Flood was very much front-loaded. We were very nervous about making a hit record so did the classic thing of putting all the really hot songs up top. Faced with a night of playing the album in its entirety, if we were to do it front to back it would just spiral down into the space walk that it was!

“The CD era ushered in a lot of front-loaded albums. I’ve been listening to a lot of Rolling Stones LPs lately, and a lot of times the end of sides have the big songs on them. It was probably a trend people spotted in the ‘70s, but transferred to CD those songs just turn up in the middle!”

Do you regret not having Elvis Costello involved on your fourth album, Apollo 18? I’m intrigued as to how that would have worked.

“Elvis Costello was a huge influence on a lot of different levels. He’s one of the greatest talents going. It was an idea floated past us, but it would have been too intimidating. It would have been the opposite of the Langer and Winstanley thing. I wouldn’t know how to collaborate with somebody more famous than I!

“I guess the closest we came to that was working with the Dust Brothers. But the main topic with them is that it’s ever-changing. They have a very kaleidoscopic production technique and the fact that it’s identifiable doesn’t fully define it – they’re very wide open.”

With that John really did have to go, his next caller having waited patiently long enough, this interviewer having to wait until next time to ask the rest of his questions, not least the story of the next album coming our way, Phone Power. But as it turned out I probably could have called back a couple of days later for part two, while his band twiddled their thumbs amid the snowdrifts, waiting for JFK Airport to re-open. Thankfully that finally happened though, and I for one can’t wait to see them.

Take Five: From the left - John Flansburgh, Marty Beller, John Linnell, Dan Miller, Danny Weinkauf, coming to a town near you (Photo: http://www.theymightbegiants.com/)

Take Five: From the left – John Flansburgh, Marty Beller, John Linnell, Dan Miller, Danny Weinkauf, coming to a town near you (Photo: http://www.theymightbegiants.com/)

They Might Be Giants’ UK tour: Wednesday, January 27th – Leeds, Brudenell Social Club; Thursday, January 28th – Newcastle, Riverside; Saturday, January 30th – Belfast, Limelight 1; Sunday, January 31st – Glasgow, Celtic Connections Festival (two shows); Monday, February 1st – Manchester Academy 2; Wednesday, February 3rd – Cambridge, Junction; Thursday, February 4th – London, Shepherd’s Bush Empire.

For ticket details and further news from the band, head to their Facebook and Twitter pages or the official TMBG website.

 

 

 

 

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Now the time has come – back in touch with Bruce Foxton

Bass Instinct: Bruce Foxton, performing with From The Jam at Cardiff Tramshed last December (Photo: Warren Meadows)

Bass Instinct: Bruce Foxton, with From The Jam, Cardiff Tramshed, December 2015 (Photo: Warren Meadows)

After an extended festive break, Bruce Foxton is all set for another punishing year for his band, with 100-plus gigs already arranged and a brand new album on its way.

If anything, the anniversary circuit is old hat for Bruce now, after several commemorative tours celebrating the music of The Jam, the Paul Weller-fronted band he initially joined in 1973.

From 1977 to 1982 this revered three-piece outfit, completed by drummer Rick Buckler, enjoyed massive worldwide success, releasing six studio albums and 18 singles, four of which topped the UK charts and five more made the top-10.

Then it was all over, The Jam’s front-man and chief writer forming The Style Council then later embarking on a stellar solo career. But while Bruce felt let down at first, he bounced back, a brief solo project followed by a lengthy spell in the reformed Stiff Little Fingers before Rick enticed him into guesting with Russell Hastings’ tribute band, in time evolving into From The Jam.

And while several personnel changes followed – not least Rick moving on at the end of 2009 – the inner nucleus of Foxton and Hastings remains, the duo set to release a second studio album this year under Bruce’s name.

Bruce and his songwriting partner clearly have another big year ahead, the diary already fairly full and Smash the Clock ever closer. So, to quote a song from the new LP, Now the Time Has Come.

“Exactly – back on it again! We finished in Brighton on December 19, and I enjoyed having Christmas and New Year off. We needed it really, to get fixed up again and all the aches and pains sorted out. Unfortunately, that’s the price Russ and myself pay. We give it everything … every show, and it takes its toll after a while.

“But we’re reasonably fit again now, so we’re going out again and I think we’ve got around 118 shows this year. It scares me when those words come out but it’ll be great once we get rolling again.”

Jump Boy: Bruce Foxton makes one of his trademark leaps (Photo: Warren Meadows)

Jump Boy: Bruce Foxton makes one of his trademark leaps (Photo: Warren Meadows)

That’s a lot of bass leaps – photographers somewhat duty-bound to catch Bruce airborne while playing during those shows.

“Well, they’ve got their work cut out – I kind of restrict leaping around these days, having had a couple of cartilage operations on one knee and being advised to not leap about as much. It’s not choreographed anyway. It’s not false or fake. I’m not just doing it so a photographer can snap me. It’s just what I do … when I do it.”

Where are we at with Smash the Clock? I heard it was set for a March 18th release.

“Well, here’s an update for you. We’ve been full on and we’re using Paul Weller’s studio – so when he needs it, he has it. What with that and fitting in studio time to finish it around our commitments, we’ve now knocked it back to late April.

“Not because we haven’t got the material – we just need to do one more lead vocal and backing vocals on a couple of tracks, then mix it. We’re in again in early February to finish it.”

Bruce-Foxton-Smash-the-Clock-cover-jpgWell, we’ve waited since 2012’s Back in the Room, so I guess one more month won’t hurt.

“We kind of figured that all round. We’re really pleased with how it’s sounding, so don’t want to rush the last couple of tracks. In fact, on tour in December Russ came up with this verse which was really good. We knocked it up while we were on the road, and thought we should record it. So every cloud has a silver lining – wait an extra month and you get an extra track!”

Fantastic, and I like the snippets I’ve heard, as a Pledge Music subscriber to the album. Remind us who features on this album other than yourself and Russell.

“Paul (Weller) does. He pulled something completely off the wall and out of the bag, as he does – he’s a talented guy and really added to a couple of songs. Wilko Johnson’s on it as well, and was the first to come in actually, around February last year. It was lovely to see him. The Jam were heavily influenced by Dr Feelgood, and it was nice to see him after his major op, looking so well.”

The Survivor: Wilko Johnson appears on Bruce Foxton's Smash the Clock album (Photo:  Wilko's <a href="https://www.facebook.com/WilkoJohnsonBand/">Facebook page</a>)

The Survivor: Wilko Johnson appears on Bruce Foxton’s Smash the Clock album (Photo:  Wilko’s Facebook page)

The legendary guitarist famously overcame the odds recently – having been told to prepare for the worst by medical experts – beating cancer following radical new surgery. In fact, Wilko seems to defy nature.

“Yeah, and long may that continue! We’ve also got Paul Jones, from The Blues Band and Manfred Mann involved. He lives very close to me, which I didn’t know until we got him in the studio, and plays great harmonica on a couple of tracks.

“It’s all sounding great. We’re really pleased with it, and now just want it finished.”

You mention Paul Jones, 73, and only last week I interviewed Colin Blunstone, 70, of The Zombies. Musical heroes like that, still playing and recording, must make 60-year-old Bruce feel young.

“Yeah – there’s hope for everyone! There’s no getting away from it, it’s hard being on the road. My wife ribs me about it, saying, ‘What are you moaning about? You’re in the car five or six hours, and you’re only sitting down’.

“It does gets tiring, but it’s a great way to get out there and earn a living. I’m just glad we’re still able to do it, very grateful – having all those classic songs to perform is a joy.”

From the Jam tend to alternate between band shows and acoustic performances these days. They’ve also taken to anniversary gigs celebrating past Jam albums. Is the Sound Affects 35th anniversary tour still on-going?

“I think there may still be one or two we rescheduled, but while we’re pretty much done there, our greatest hits sets still include tracks off every album.”

Those greatest hits shows – dubbed The Public Gets What the Public Wants in honour of a lyric from Going Underground – include visits to Bridgewater, Blake Hall (Friday, January 22nd), Barnstaple, Factory Petroc (Saturday, January 23rd) and Colne, The Muni (Saturday, January 30th) before the month is out, the latter following a rearranged Sound Affects show at Shrewsbury, The Buttermarket (Friday, January 29th).

And then there are the That’s Entertainment acoustic shows, starting at London’s Under the Bridge (Friday, March 11th).

“Yeah, we’ve got to get our heads around those again – they’re a whole different ball game the way we approach them, with the songs slightly changed as we don’t have a full kit behind us. I think we’ve got Tom (van Heel) on keys for those though.

Sound Affects: Russ and Bruce out front at Cardiff Tramshed on the Sound Affects 35th anniversary tour (Photo: Warren Meadows)

Sound Affects: Russ and Bruce out front at Cardiff Tramshed last December (Photo: Warren Meadows)

“When the idea was first suggested, acoustic shows, I was really apprehensive, having been used to having the power of a band behind me. I was so nervous. I get nervous whatever the show, but to go out there acoustic, you’re really exposed. You can hear a pin drop.

“That said, they’ve taken on a life of their own at some venues, as raucous from the audience point of view as anything with a full band. Unbelievable! Again, it’s testament to how great those songs still are. If you can play them on an acoustic guitar and get a reaction, you know you’re on to a winner.”

Seeing as you’ve branded those acoustic gigs your That’s Entertainment shows, I take it you realise it’s 35 years next month since that classic single was released.

“Well … you know more than I do!”

I doubt that very much, but it was February 7, 1980, when the single came out.

“There you go – and that’s what amazes me doing these anniversary celebrations. In a lot of ways it doesn’t feel like that long ago and I never thought I’d be doing it.

Time Out: Bruce Foxton, taking a break from recording at Paul Weller's studio

Time Out: Bruce Foxton, taking a break from recording at Paul Weller’s studio

“When the Jam split in 1982 I thought that was the end of it. But I’m proud and grateful I can still play those songs, and we still get great crowds.”

For me, Sound Affects and the singles that followed suggest The Jam were on a creative high then.

“Absolutely. It’s a great album. With the Setting Sons and Sound Affects tours I’ve re-learned some of the songs, and it hits home even more how great Paul’s lyrics are. It’s incredible considering how young we all were, to come up with those lyrics. I’ve probably paid more attention to that side of it now.”

Since I last caught From the Jam live – the third time I’d seen them at Preston’s 53 Degrees – they’ve switched personnel again, with Steve ‘Smiley’ Barnard joining Rick Buckler, Big Country’s Mark Brzezicki and Paul Weller studio aide Tom van Heel (who still helps out when he can on keyboards) in the ranks of former From The Jam drummers.

In his place is Mike Randon, a lack of availability for Smiley – who previously featured with Joe Strummer and Robbie Williams, among others – leading to a rethink.

“We just agreed to part company. We’re friends, he came to the Brighton show and we remain in touch. There’s no animosity. It was the practicality, with his band, Archive, away he couldn’t do the run-up to the Sound Affects tour.

“But Russ heard about Mike and he’s just great – he fits the bill and is the closest thing to Rick in his style of drumming we’ve ever had. It’s working really well, he came to Australia with us last year, and we’ve kept him on since. He’s got a lot of detail in his drumming, as Rick has.”

Park Life: Nine Below Zero (Photo: http://www.ninebelowzero.com/)

Park Life: Nine Below Zero (Photo: http://www.ninebelowzero.com/)

Support at Colne in Lancashire next weekend comes from stalwart blues outfit Nine Below Zero. Is there a good camaraderie between the bands?

“Yeah, they’re no spring chickens either, they’ve been round the block – like I have. They’re no prima donnas either, excellent at what they do, very talented, and gentlemen as well. When we’re backstage, it’s a real nice friendship and vibe. I’m really happy they’re our special guests. It promises to be a great night out.”

Bruce goes back a long way with lead singer Dennis Greaves – who also fronted ‘80s outfit The Truth – and Nine Below Zero are enjoying something of an r’n’b resurgence,  thanks to younger acts like The Strypes and older hands like Wilko Johnson.

Meanwhile, there’s plenty of fresh interest in late-‘70s new wave bands judging by Squeeze’s 2015 comeback and continued live success for From The Jam and fellow Surrey outfit The Stranglers.

“Yeah, you can’t get shot of us, can you!”

True, and recently From The Jam played Manchester Academy alongside two more of my favourite old bands, The Undertones and The Beat.

“Yeah – that was good!”

Jam Session: Russell and Bruce in action at Cardiff Tramshed, December 2015 (Photo: Warren Meadows)

Jam Session: Russell and Bruce in action at Cardiff Tramshed, December 2015 (Photo: Warren Meadows)

It’s a fair step-up from the dreaded tribute circuit, I put to Bruce, leading to a typically-deadpan response.

“Yeah … I never understood that anyway. I can’t be a tribute to myself! I mean, how great am I? But it’s come on unbelievably since we embarked on it all.

“I think that’s testament to how hard we work and at such a high level. We’re very passionate about those Jam songs and want to perform them to the best of our ability, and I think we do that. The crowds appreciate that, and the numbers are getting bigger and bigger in most towns.”

Back to the new album – explain the title, Smash the Clock.

“Well, it’s a song title, and the outline is that good music is timeless. That sums it up really.”

Is it mostly Russell’s lyrics or both of you this time around?

“It’s probably 75/25.”

Prime Exhibit: Somerset House played host to last summer's Nice Time Inc Productions-supported exhibition

Prime Exhibit: Somerset House played host to last summer’s Nice Time Inc Productions-supported exhibition

Last year was a big one for Bruce’s old band, with a celebratory summer exhibition at Somerset House in London, The Jam: About the Young Idea, attracting large numbers.

“It was unbelievable, and lovely to see people like Barry Cain, who was at Record Mirror all those years ago and was a good friend of my first wife. There was also Paul Cook of the Pistols, and the actor, Martin Freeman. I didn’t realise he was such a big fan.

“More importantly, there was the chance to hang out with Paul, and his sister Nicky again. And I went back a few weeks later, met up with Paul and had a late morning walking around Somerset House, which was a lot calmer.

“It was nice to hang out. Our friendship is as strong as ever. I was very impressed with the actual exhibition too, seeing a lot I hadn’t seen at all or not for many years.”

Rick's Side: That's entertainment, the Rick Buckler autobiography, went down well with Jam fans in 2015

Rick’s Side: That’s Entertainment: My Life in The Jam (Omnibus Press, 2015)

As it happens, Rick Buckler was also there – although not at the same time as Bruce and Paul – just a couple of months after publishing his autobiography, That’s Entertainment: My Life in The Jam. Has Bruce read his book?

“I haven’t, but not for any reason. I just haven’t got around to it, and haven’t got a copy. But I’ve always wished him all the best.”

When I spoke to Rick last April he seemed keen to put any past disputes – mostly those played through the press, I might add – behind you all.

“That’s good, but if he really wanted to, he should have come to the preview! That was probably the last chance to get all three of us together for something.

“I was just disappointed he wasn’t there. If you want to let bygones be bygones, that would have been a good time. I haven’t any gripe with Rick. I don’t know about Paul. Either way, it wouldn’t have been brought up at a premiere of that exhibition. It would have been nice to see him and say hello. But the book did really well for him, and I wish him all the best with whatever he’s up to next.”

I should add at this stage that I’ve since understood that Rick was unavailable at such short notice for the preview event, not least as he was doing an In the Crowd fan event just across the river from Somerset House at The Roxy that evening. I also understand that he was ‘gutted’ to miss out. Hopefully though, the three of them will get ‘back in the room’ again one day, even if a performance is extremely unlikely, perhaps rightly so at this stage.

Finally, I put it to Bruce that next March will mark the 35th anniversary of The Jam’s final studio album, The Gift. All being well, will that also inspire a special commemorative tour?

“Yes, like you say, all being well. I haven’t got any wish to hang up the bass guitar as yet. You never know what’s around the corner, but God willing, and all that, I’ll keep going as long as I can, as long as I enjoy it and people still want to keep coming to see us.”

Clocking On: Bruce Foxton, with From The Jam, Cardiff Tramshed, December 2015 (Photo: Warren Meadows)

Clock Work: Bruce Foxton, with From The Jam, Cardiff Tramshed, December 2015 (Photo: Warren Meadows)

From The Jam and Nine Below Zero play the Muni Theatre, Colne, on Saturday, January 30 (doors 7.30pm, £20 advance, £23 on the night). For tickets call 01282 661234 or head to http://www.themuni.co.uk/.  

For details of all the other forthcoming From The Jam shows, head to the band’s Facebook page here, and to  find out more about Bruce’s new album, Smash the Clock, try here

This is just the latest Jam-related feature on this blog, with links to the previous ones here:

Super Sonik flight with Weller … again (April 20th, 2012)

Back (on the phone) with Bruce Foxton (May 31st, 2013)

Bruce Foxton (Back in the Room) – a writewyattuk review (May 31st, 2013)

Sound affects on a midsummer’s night (June 22nd, 2013)

Weller’s ever-changing mode (October 13th, 2013)

Where did it all go right? In conversation with Russell Hastings (May 3rd, 2014)

When Setting Sons rise again – the Bruce Foxton and From The Jam update (October 3rd, 2014)

From The Jam/Deadwood Dog – Preston 53 Degrees (October 12th, 2014)

Time for Truth – the Rick Buckler interview (April 2nd, 2015)

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The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin – a writewyattuk book review

9781447283836Some books have you hooked from the start, and the debut novel from Ali Benjamin offers a prime example … even if the last thing I reckon I’d want on the end of a hook would be a jellyfish.

The title certainly reeled me in, and while this reader never had any great hankering to study marine biology, perhaps that’s because I never had an inspirational science teacher to fully engage me in the subject – like Mrs Turton in The Thing About Jellyfish. More to the point, on this evidence I’d say the author has similar qualities, with an ability to tidily translate her way with words into accessible children’s fiction us adults can appreciate too.

The scientific approach to a novel has largely passed me by before now, but Ali’s approach offers us fresh perspective. It also helps when you can truly identify with a character, and from the off I felt I knew and largely understood Suzy Swanson, a likeable 12-year-old coming to terms with the sudden death of her best friend, Franny Jackson.

We might soon question Suzy’s real motive in doubting the official verdict on strong swimmer Franny’s drowning on holiday in Maryland, but not once does she lose us as we follow her more logical approach to understanding the tragedy – unwilling to accept ‘sometimes things just happen’ and trying to piece together events the only way she feels she can – via the power of learning and research.

It’s a school trip to an aquarium that puts her on the road to what she sees as a more feasible explanation, even if we soon realise that’s not the whole story for a girl desperate to turn the page and get through the Eugene Field Memorial Middle School. What’s more, we have an exclusive peak into Suzy’s thought process, seeing as she’s opted for selective mutism, vowing to keep herself to herself and enter a pledge of silence until she has something concrete to share.

Suzy’s tale is told to some extent in the format of a science lab report, but we get to read between the lines as she aims to make sense of it all, immersing herself into extra-curricular studies to find the evidence that will convince everyone what she feels really happened out there in the water – however unlikely her theory might seem.

Science Fiction: Ali Benjamin certainly reels us in with The Thing About Jellyfish

Science Fiction: Ali Benjamin certainly reels us in with The Thing About Jellyfish

It’s as much a tale of how friendships change as we grow apart and are drawn to others though – the politics of the playground. Don’t think for a minute it’s a girls’ book either. Dedicated to ‘curious kids everywhere’, It should resonate with all readers who have been that age or thereabouts at some stage, irrespective of gender. It’s quirky too, and despite the dark premise there’s humour and plenty of warmth on offer down in South Grove, Massachusetts.

As Suzy aims to prove the interconnectedness (is that even a word?) of all those telling factors, she finds potential help via a kindred spirit halfway across the world, a high-profile scientist in Queensland, Australia. Taking that scholarly line, she explores ’cause and effect’ – in this instance how changes to one part of her world can lead others to change, at a time in Suzy’s life when everything seems to be shifting – not least as she copes with her parents’ separation and those troublesome friendship issues.

Meanwhile, a child psychologist who she refers to as ‘Dr Legs’ (‘the doctor I could talk to but would rather not’) does all she can to help Suzy, but Miss Swanson is adamant she’s doing okay on her own, even if that’s likely to involve some mighty big steps.

I won’t go into where she’s heading, but as Mrs Turton tells her pupils, ‘we learn as much from failures as we do from successes’, Suzy getting to redefine her personal relationships while reflecting on just where things went awry with Franny. In so doing, she proves to be someone we can all learn from, wise beyond her years and unclouded in her thinking.

In her author’s note, Ali – a member of the New England Science Writers and a busy working mum who likes to ‘teach kids about storytelling and writing’ – acknowledges others who have gone before her with that scientific approach to understanding the bigger picture. A prime example is Bill Bryson, with Ali giving credence to his explanation of ‘the origins of the universe, the natural history of our planet, and the astonishing fact of our own existence’. There’s a definite correlation there too, and what Bill does for the non-scientifically-minded reader (I’ll include myself in that category) she replicates in the form of engaging children’s fiction.

Like a good teacher, Ali helps us understand not only Suzy and her grief but the wider subject itself, helping us see the world through her main character’s eyes in a relatively easy yet enriching read. In so doing, Ali Benjamin gives science a good name, and word has it that her story is already set to be brought to life by Reese Witherspoon’s production company Pacific Standard Films.

Oh, and I got to learn a fair bit about jellyfish along the way too.

THING ABOUT JELLYFISH_packThe Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin is published in hardback (Macmillan Children’s Books, £10.99) on March 16th, 2016, available from all good bookstores and various online outlets in the UK. And for more about Ali, head to her website here.

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