Rollin’ Home with the Quo – the Francis Rossi interview

Saint Francis: Mr Rossi leads the singing as rock legends Status Quo get down down

Saint Francis: Mr Rossi leads the singing as rock legends Status Quo get down down

When you phone a rock’n’roll legend, you don’t expect him to answer within two rings and launch straight into a breezy rendition of a classic from Singin’ in the Rain.

“Good morning, good morning!”

What’s more, that vast Status Quo back-catalogue included a 1976 top-10 hit in which the band revealed they ‘can live without the rain’.

So Francis Rossi (for it is he), you sound very chirpy this morning – is that a typical way to start your day?

“I’m in showbusiness!”

And you never switch off?

“Well, if I tell you why I’m chipper, it’s too long a process, but it’s to do with what they call oil pulling. Not down there, no, no …”

He’s off already, alternating between a bit of rock’n’roll cheek and a few more philosophical moments.

“You can either do it with olive oil, sesame oil, or I’ve been doing it with coconut oil. We’re all doing it at work. It clears out various toxins and leaves you kind of ‘la, la, la!’

“And anything that makes me feel like that in the morning, I’m going to have a go.”

The Quo: The band rock out, again and again

The Quo: The band rock out, again and again

I’ve had my own morning ‘upper’, I explained, a quick blast of Status Quo’s Caroline doing the trick before I called. In fact, it never fails to hit the spot.

“Well, that probably does the opposite for me, doesn’t it! Cor, d’you know … I’ve had this thing for some years now where I like to be on stage but I’m frightened to go on, and stay like that until I’m finished.

“A few weeks ago I heard Graham Norton on his Saturday radio show, saying, ‘Two more tunes and I’m finished – yippee!’ And I thought, ‘oh’ – whatever the gig is or whatever job one’s got, everyone’s really glad to finish.

“It’s an odd one. We’re all doing the jobs we always wanted, but … that’s how it goes, I suppose.”

Francis is clearly in a pensive although cheerful mood. Perhaps he always is.

I explain how, as a Lancashire-based Woking FC fan, I feel my team should run out to Caroline, on account of Francis’ long-time Quo compatriot Rick Parfitt having spent his formative years in the Surrey town.

I also let on that I would suggest Down Down, but maybe that’s not such a great vibe for a football team.

“No, I can see that. Caroline would be quite good though. Sounds like a good idea to me … and I’d have the PRS!

“I’m not really sure how much that is these days, mind. When I was 19, someone told me it was so many pence at the time. I don’t think about all that now though. I just keep going.”

He certainly does. That leads me to a little history, Francis having first formed the band that evolved into Quo with Alan Lancaster in 1962.

Past Days: Status Quo, the early years

Past Days: Status Quo, the early years

A few personnel and name changes followed as The Scorpions became The Spectres, then Traffic (until confusion with Steve Winwood’s band), Traffic Jam, then The Status Quo.

Under that later handle, they had their first top-10 hit, the early 1968 psychedelic wonder Pictures of Matchstick Men, the personnel by then including Rick.

Francis already knew him, having played in their respective outfits at Butlin’s Minehead and clearly hitting it off.

The writing was on the wall, and they’ve now worked together as Status Quo, as they soon became, for 47 years.

And next weekend they’re not so far from my patch, playing an open-air gig at Hoghton Tower, between Chorley and Preston, Lancashire, for a date which just happened to fall 30 years – give or take a few days – after the band gave us that perfect start to Live Aid.

“Is it really 30 years? Wow! When Bob (Geldof) first asked me and him (that’ll be Rick, I guess), we were with Phonogram and not doing anything in the summer, which was kind of unusual.

“We were quite dismissive when Bob was explaining it all (a poor Irish accent follows). But when we got there and did the show, well …

“It wasn’t until we walked out though, when we thought, ‘Oh!’ The amount of press coverage for a start …”

You had the perfect slot as well, didn’t you?

“Oh yeah! We didn’t have a problem with going on and getting finished, and it proved to be the best slot you could have.

“But no one knew it was going to get like that. And the audience was just unique.”

So where has that time gone, Francis?

“I don’t know. The older you get, the faster the time goes. And that whole relativity thing freaks me out the older I get.”

Five Live: Status Quo, the current line-up (Photo: Danny Clifford)

Five Live: Status Quo, the current line-up (Photo: Danny Clifford)

Quo’s Symphony at the Tower date seems to be sandwiched between a few more in Germany. Did the tour manager get confused as to where Preston was?

“It’s always like that, this time of year. You look at the itinerary and it looks great, with a few days here, then a day off, but when you’re doing it, it’s like …”

There are a few of these moments in our interview. Francis is very animated on the phone, but to the point where even so I can’t exactly see his expression. I’ve got a fairly good idea though.

“We go to Germany tonight, we’re back Tuesday evening, then on Thursday one of our tour buses goes to Europe and the other takes us to Preston.

“We’ll come out of Preston and go to a hotel … yeuch! … then in the morning we get on a private plane we use occasionally and fly down to Vienna, I think, to get in our bus again, and … oh, Jeez!”

I take it from that the travelling doesn’t get any easier over the years.

“No, it doesn’t, and I’m kind of sick of travelling. I like it when we’re actually in the bus and moving, and there’s no show.

“My brother retires in a week or so, and he said, ‘Let’s go to Italy’, but I said, ‘I don’t want to travel, brother’. He goes, ‘Yeah! We can get a nice hotel …’ and I say, ‘I don’t want to stay in a hotel!’

“I suppose I’ve been living out of suitcases since I was 16. Holidays for me are pretty much coming home and being here.”

‘Here’ is Purley, near Croydon, I believe, not so far from his Forest Hill and Sydenham roots.

Rossi Rocks: Status Quo ever-present Francis Rossi (Photo copyright: Danny Clifford)

Rossi Rocks: Status Quo ever-present Francis Rossi (Photo copyright: Danny Clifford)

I tell him I had a similar conversation with Jean-Jacques Burnel about travelling not so long ago, the legendary Stranglers bass player having similar hang-ups about all the time on the road. Of course, he’s only been doing it for a mere 41 years though.

“Lazy buggers, ain’t they!’

“Actually, I remember someone who worked with us talking about The Stranglers when they were coming up, and I thought, ‘What a terrible name!’

“But now I think, they’re old school and pretty much establishment, as much as they’ve still got that look. And these guys are still going!

“We all definitely felt that punk movement wasn’t going to last. And no one thought John Lydon would be doing ads for butter or something, dressed as a country gent – kinda weird!”

Fair point. So, Hoghton Tower – it’s a lovely setting. Have you been there before?

“I’m not really sure until we get there, but I don’t think so. But sometimes you do turn up somewhere you haven’t done before, which is quite refreshing really.”

I take it fundraising for the hospice on the night means a lot to you as well.

“Any we do supporting those serious charities do. Some of my wife’s family are here, they’re American, and we were talking about this.

“Some of the charities out there are iffy, yet something like this at a hospice is properly watched and kosher.

download (1)“I do find it weird that our society needs charities. It’s a political hot one. But my gardener’s parents are both getting Alzheimer’s and he’s struggling to find them somewhere to go, and these are people perhaps just 20 years older than me.

“I think hospices like this are very good, and make me think about the Macmillan people who looked after my mother so well when she was dying.”

At this point, the 66-year-old briefly becomes the interviewer, asking, “How old are you, if it’s not a rude question?”

It’s not. How can I put it? I’’ve been around as long as Rick Parfitt’s been in your band.

“Fantastic! I like people that are older! Well, in 20 years you’ll be older than I am now. How about that?”

It is a sobering thought.

“I moved about seven years ago, only about 100 yards, and had this fabulous mature garden, and I’m trying to do the same with this place. I said to the wife, ‘In about 15 years …’, then realised I’ll be 81 then. That can’t be right, can it?”

Then again, I tell Francis, I look at pictures of my parents when they were my age, and they look a lot older than I think I do now.

“I suppose so, but things go through one’s mind about your childhood or adolescence, and I still picture my Dad as I last saw him, and I’m about 35 years older than he was in my mind. Anyway, where were we?”

Hoghton Tower, I think. So, apart from 100% Quo, what can those at next weekend’s outdoor show expect – something loud and live, a bit of an acoustic hits jukebox, or a bit of both?

“Well, we might work on acoustic sets for future years, this will be an electric show.

“We got an email yesterday about volume and how that’s becoming more of an issue everywhere in Europe. It doesn’t really work when we have someone like Rick though, the loudest rhythm guitarist in the world! But perhaps we are moving to a more acoustic show.

Thirsty Work: Status Quo in live action

Thirsty Work: Status Quo in live action

“As for this one, I’d love to say it’s going to be the best show ever seen. But I don’t know that yet.

“I could say we do have at stage left two ladies kissing – lipstick lesbians. And on the right side there’s two Chippendales for the ladies. But actually, it’s just us lot.”

And you’re not going naked for this gig, like on the cover of the Roundhouse live Aquostic – Stripped Bare publicity shots, are you?

“No, it’s funny really that people have picked up on us being naked for that. They’ve seen our legs before, they’ve seen our tops before, and the bits they haven’t seen before were covered by guitars!”

So I’m guessing it’s yourself, Rick, Andy Bown, John ‘Rhino’ Edwards and the relatively-new ‘Caveman’ on the night?

“Yes, Mr Leon Cave, our drummer. Actually, he plays guitar and bass better than any of us. Everytime he picks up a guitar in the dressing room, we’re like, ‘Keep it simple, boy!’ He’s really good.”

It must be odd for him. You have different levels of new boy, really. You’re up to I don’t want to think how many years (53, actually), Mr Parfitt’s been in the mix for 48 years, then coming up on the inside, next year it’ll be 40 years for Andy and 30 for Rhino.

“Isn’t that ridiculous!”

In any other band there’d be long-service awards, but not in the Quo. How do you think their apprenticeships are going, anyway?

“I think I might keep them now. It’s weird though. Time just sort of goes by. When John joined, people were asking, ‘What’s it like playing with the younger generation?’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’

Bare Faced: Rick and Francis cover themselves up

Bare Faced: Rick and Francis cover themselves up

“I actually call him John Boy, because of that boyish look. Bastard! Whenever he falls asleep, I try and put streaks of grey in his hair. But it ain’t working.

“Leon has brought a lovely vibe to the band though. I’d thought about having him involved a few years before, having used him on solo work.

“A lot of being in a band that people don’t realise when they’re young is that you’re all kind of mates together and as you get older you grow apart because you are different people.

“But Leon has brought a nice kind of muckership to us. John calls him ‘Neph’, as in nephew, and his dad’s more or less the same age as me.”

With all that in mind, and with 500 weeks on the album charts and more than 50 hit singles before the last century was even over, are you getting any closer to calling it a day? Only it doesn’t sound like it, despite your thoughts on the travelling.

“It must be getting closer. This French interviewer said to me, ‘You said once you want to die on stage’. I said, ‘Yes, I was a dickhead. I do not want to die on stage!’

“I’d rather die at home, in my bed, with my family around me. It’s on the cards now though. I say now to the audience, ‘You realise when you come to see an old band there is a responsibility that one of us may fall over?’

“I also said the other day, ‘Remember Tommy Cooper? Well, you lot will probably have your phones out if we fall over!’

“But to get to 66 … I’m definitely in the death zone. It’s reality.”

I’m sure you’d have been a big success whatever you took on, but I’m not sure if you’d have been happy with the Rossi family’s ice cream empire, for example.

Could you ever have taken up any other profession, do you think?

“No, I don’t think so. I had no education. I was a dumb git. However, in the last couple of years I’ve been approached by Rossi’s, the company bought off one of my relatives, and we may actually go into re-launching Rossi’s Ice Cream.

 “My cousins are already going, ‘You can’t go back to that!’ But we went to this place near Southend where they make it and it’s so much like how my grandfather used to.

“I would have said no, but I went, tasted it and went back to seeing it another way!”

“Going back to the old days, a mobile ice cream seller would buy a gallon of our beautiful ice cream, put it in his machine, add two pints of milk and a pint of water.

“So people ended up saying it doesn’t taste quite the same. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Anyway … sorry, I’m waffling again!”

Well, ice cream is nice with a waffle after all. And while we’re on Francis’ family tree, seeing as he’s back for dates in Blackpool (Winter Gardens, November 28th), Manchester (Palce Theatre, November 29th) and Liverpool (Echo Arena, December 1st) later this year, I mention how his Mum’s side were from Liverpool.

“Yes, I’d go to Liverpool for my holidays, and a few years ago went through Crosby, where my grandparents were. But I didn’t really recognise it too well.

“Actually, my Italian family lived in a huge house in Forest Hill in Mayow Road, while my family from Crosby lived in Myers Road, so everyone was like, ‘Do do do do’.”

That’s Francis singing the theme of The Twilight Zone, by the way, rather than a later hit by The Police.

“They said that house was haunted, and I remember being there and hearing this piano playing in a huge vacant front room, then seeing a nun walk past, into the scullery.

“I mentioned this, and they said, ‘What nun?’ I can still see her walking through though.”

Another Place: Antony Gormley's men in the sea have a certain resonance for Francis Rossi

Another Place: Antony Gormley’s men in the sea have a certain resonance for Francis Rossi

You have ghostly ‘iron men’ in the sea at Crosby now, of course, thanks to Antony Gormley’s impressive Another Place sculptures, which arrived on the shoreline 10 years ago.

“Yeah, I think those are fabulous! I don’t for some reason have that same feeling about Angel of the North, but do for those.

“It‘s just something that grabs me, taking me back to being on the shore there and getting cockles with my uncle. I loved going to Liverpool.

”I remember travelling up, sat in the back of the car with a Pekinese and one of those red Scottish blankets.

“We’d leave really early in the morning, when it was still dark, and get there at 10 or 11 at night sometimes.

“I remember just laying there while we were moving, nodding … I think that’s why I love travelling in a bus these days.”

Going back to meeting Rick when he was playing in a cabaret band, The Highlights, at Butlin’s in Minehead, do you think it was destiny?

“Sometimes I do, others I don’t. I was brought up a Catholic but don’t believe in that anymore, with apologies to anyone who does.

“I was taught that God was all seeing, all knowing, all loving, all powerful, but I’m not sure about that and the theories about creation.

“I’m the same with the Big Bang Theory for that matter. For that to occur it would have to be in a space, so how did the space get there?

Deep Impact: Star Trek's Captain Picard, a big influence on Francis Rossi

Deep Impact: Star Trek’s Captain Picard, a big influence on Francis Rossi

“But then one night after recording in the ‘80s, we went to watch Star Trek, and Captain Picard was talking about, ‘From the far flung corners of the universe …’

“I was wondering just what the hell he was talking about – which seemed a complete contradiction. But then I felt, ‘That’s it – everything just is!

“In most religions there’s this idea that ‘as it was in the beginning, so shall it be in the end. And that’s just how it is with the universe – everything just is!

“We are just part of the ‘all’. But how it begins or ends … fuck knows!

“Have you read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything? In that, he gets it down to this one singularity which is so infinitesimally small.

“He then says, ‘You might want to stand back now because there’s going to be a Big Bang. But where are you going to stand back to?’

“So now you see – you should never have asked me that question! Then again, maybe the candle grease is still working!”

I’m not quite sure where I can go from there for my last question, but carry on anyway.

So is there one Francis Rossi or Status Quo track or album you feel more people should be raving about – one that somehow the masses missed out on?

“It depends what foot I’m on. Sometimes I feel that way, other times I’m just glad that millions around the world did get it.

“We all as acts and artists feel the whole world is watching, when really they’re not, particularly these days when even more of us are insignificant.

“I was saying to Rick as we came out of Bournemouth last year that in the ’70s when bands came to town, it was big news.

“Now they’re in seven nights a week, whatever big town or city you’re in. So it’s kind of less special for an artist wanting to feel loved. But that just makes him a dickhead!

R-1545330-1227390047.jpeg“Getting back to your question though, I had this song I wrote for the Rock ‘Til You Drop album (1991) that I thought would lead to the planet standing still, listening to what this boy’s done.

“They didn’t, but the joy is that there’s a handful of songs which I don’t give a shit whether people like or hate, because they make me feel so good, and proud of them.

“I tell this to my sons and anyone I work with. If you write those songs, when you hear them, you’re solid gone.

“And that will happen to me all my life … or whatever’s left of it.”

This year’s Symphony at the Tower events, featuring two nights of live music at Hoghton Tower, end a month of celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of St Catherine’s Hospice in Lostock Hall, near Preston.

While Status Quo and co. perform on Friday July 3, the following night (Saturday, July 4) sees BRIT Award-winning classical vocal group Blake headline, supported by Britain’s Got Talent star Lucy Kay, a show closing with a firework finale set to the music of The Heart of England Orchestra. 

For tickets and further information, visit www.stcatherines.co.uk, ring the hospice on 01772 629171 or drop in at the hospice in Lostock Lane, Lostock Hall, PR5 5XU. There’s also a Facebook event information page here.

And for more from the Status Quo camp, including further dates later this year, with extra special guests The Wilko Johnson Band, head to their official website here

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Cool as Wonderland – in conversation with Wolf Alice

Cool Runnings: Wolf Alice - from the left: Joff Oddie, Ellie Rowsell, Joel Amey, Theo Ellis

Cool Runnings: Wolf Alice – from the left: Joff Oddie, Ellie Rowsell, Joel Amey, Theo Ellis

I’ve admitted before that this blog is occasionally guilty of donning Captain Sensible style New Rose-tinted specs, looking back wistfully on the good old days (whatever the subject matter).

But while inspired by so much great music from ‘way back’ (typically-vague writewyattuk time terminology there), there’s plenty of new material to love right now too, with some shining examples featured over the last few days via the BBC’s TV and radio coverage of Glastonbury 2015.

One such fantastic example involved a live set on the Park Stage by Wolf Alice, in the week their debut LP, My Love Is Cool, saw the light of day.

At one stage it looked like they was going straight in at No.1, but in the end they had to settle for second spot after a late sales flurry for Florence and the Machine linked to their own late elevation to Friday night headliners in the Foo Fighters’ absence.

It didn’t matter anyway, Wolf Alice’s Glasto appearance proving to be a triumph, what had already been a big week for the North London four-piece gathering further pace.

While the rain did its best to dampen spirits at Worthy Farm on Friday afternoon, Ellie Rowsell and co. were undeterred and on something of a creative and emotional high.

It clearly takes more than technical and meteorological problems plus late sales switches to unseat them, as I suspected after a chat with Joff Oddie the day before, the Somerset-bound guitarist having briefly pulled off the road.

We started talking about the band’s unexpected midweek UK album chart top spot, and I put it to Joff that these were unprecedented good times for the band.

Flowered Up: Wolf Alice have made a  debut album to be proud of

Flowered Up: Wolf Alice have made a debut album to be proud of

“Yeah – kinda weird! I don’t think anyone expected the album to be sitting where it is at the moment. It’s nice though, and word seems to be spreading.

“Sometimes you can’t help yourself having a look, searching ‘Wolf Alice’ on Twitter or whatever, and it’s all a bit overwhelming really.”

It’s deserved, and in a sense it’s everything you’ve worked towards. It must still come as a shock though.

“Yes, but at the end of the day those things are numbers, aren’t they. It’s not really what’s important … but we certainly weren’t expecting it.”

I recall hearing how fellow Glastonbury 2015 guest Paul Weller, when The Jam signed to Polydor in 1977, making out he was more excited by having found an old Who badge down his sofa. So is, ‘They’re just numbers’ Joff’s variation on that ‘cautious of fame’ theme?

“Well … I think we can all be in agreement that numbers don’t equal quality. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

He should really avoid such hackneyed expressions like the plague, but we’ll gloss over that, not least as he was super-excited at the prospect of Wolf Alice’s second Glastonbury Festival.

“Yep. Last year we were at the Peel Stage, and this year we’re at the Park …”

Glastonbury Heroes: Wolf Alice enjoyed a triumphant set in Somerset last weekend

Glastonbury Heroes: Wolf Alice enjoyed a triumphant set in Somerset last weekend

Having reminded myself of that footage from 2014, you were definitely on an emotional high back then too.

“Oh yeah! It was probably the most nervous we’d ever been. To play on that iconic stage, having all been there as kids to watch people, with our mouths open, thinking this is so incredible …

“Not that we didn’t enjoy last year, but I think it’s going to be a lot more of an enjoyable experience this time.”

The 22-year-old reveals that his first Glastonbury was in 2010. So who impressed him most on that occasion?

“I’m racking my brain, but don’t think I saw many headline bands that year. I do remember seeing The Dead Weather.

“But the wonderful thing about Glastonbury is that – and this sounds awful, being in a band and as a music-head – the most fun I’ve had there had nothing to do with music.

“It was more a case of running around a field with my mates, getting kind of blind drunk.”

Despite the sheer size of the whole event these days, and be it down to the leylines or whatever, it still seems to retain that magical feel, all these years on.

First EP: Wolf Alice's Blush

First EP: Wolf Alice’s Blush

“Yeah. It’s a strange one. There’s definitely a different vibe there, one very unique to Glastonbury. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. And that’s just about going, let alone playing.

“It’s so amazing just to be part of something so iconic. It’s almost a British institution.”

I take it from that you plan to stick around long after your 5pm set on Friday?

“We’ve got Saturday and Sunday off, so we’ll probably spend that … getting blind drunk and running around a field!”

Any bands in particular you want to catch between those mad mud sprints?

“Yeah – a bunch of people, as we’ve been discussing on the way down. I want to see King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, while Young Fathers could be quite cool.

“I also want to see Swim Deep’s set, mates of ours who’ll be on the Other Stage …”

Actually, Austin Williams from Swim Deep joined the band on piano for a BBC backstage Glasto session which hopefully you can still find, their fantastic cover of The Scissor Scissors’ 2004 hit Take Your Mama including Sympathy for the Devil–like backing vocals.

It’s a wonderful rendition, the ever-so-cool Ellie and her four mates in great voice, the lead singer struggling to get her head around the lyrics at one stage and getting giggly.

That sense of humour and ability to surprise is everywhere with Wolf Alice. Take by way of further example their inspired cover of Katy Perry’s Roar or last year’s Glasto surprise, a beguiling take on Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game.

They’re clearly enjoying life together at present, basking in the glory of that first LP’s release and the reaction to it. You could say, on the 150th anniversary of a certain Lewis Carroll creation, it’s a case of Wolf Alice in Wonderland.

Creature Songs: The second Wolf Alice EP

Creature Songs: The second Wolf Alice EP

I decided not to run this past Joff, but asked if there were ever any doubts. Every band has its low points, after all.

“Yeah. I’m not blowing our own trumpet by saying we’re successful, but half the battle in getting any level of success is a certain percentage of confidence.

“You’ve got to be able to see your end goal and it’s got to be obtainable. So I think that was always at the back of our minds.

“That said, everyone has their shit days, when you think, ‘Bollocks, I quit!’”

So will success go to their heads?

“Yes! Definitely! Number one, I’m going to get a helicopter straight out of Glastonbury, straight into the rich band.”

Joff pauses for thought, then adds, “OK, no … I should hope not.”

Maybe you could get your ‘suave punk bassist’ Theo Ellis, who apparently loves a little permanent body etching, a new helicopter tattoo instead.

“Yeah, maybe! He’s racking them up is old Theo.”

There can’t be much of him left without a tattoo, can there … without getting graphic.

“Probably … he might turn into a black and white doodle himself.”

So is it singing drummer Joel Amey who instigates the partying off stage, leading you around muddy fields after a few drinks? Or are you all secretly very level-headed?

First Love: Wolf Alice's debut album, My Love Is Cool

First Love: Wolf Alice’s debut album, My Love Is Cool

“Yeah, I think so. But it’s just that Glasto thing. Everybody just kind of loses their inhibitions … in the best possible way.”

Is there a big difference between the Ellie Rowsell we see live and hear on record and the supposedly ‘quietly polite’ Archway lass (who turns 23 this month) you know off stage?

“Well, I would hope so. This is the strange thing – people thing they know people and think they have some kind of relationship with them.”

Fans in general do tend to think they have some kind of ownership through buying an artist’s records and seeing them at the front of a stage.

“Yes, especially front-people. What I find strange is people putting others on pedestals. It’s fine to put the work on a pedestal if you like it. That’s fantastic.

“But there’s also that other level of fanaticism and that ‘I love you’ line. It doesn’t really compute.”

The official band PR suggests that behind the ‘effortlessly visceral’ Ellie, guitarist Joff is the ‘insular romantic, picking out folk tunes on an acoustic backstage then noodling the hell out of his solos when the lights go up’. Is that about right?

“Oh really? I see! I know the girl who wrote that, so I’ll ask. Ha! I don’t know. I do like to keep myself to myself sometimes.

“Touring is quite full-on, and there are always a lot of people around, in your face, so quite a lot of the time I do tend to take a back-seat.”

Close Encounter: The breakthrough Wolf Alice single, Fluffy

Close Encounter: The breakthrough Wolf Alice single, Fluffy

It must seem like an age since February 2013’s debut single Fluffy signalled the start of a public clamour for this Camden outfit.

They have after all slowly worked towards this big moment, their sound evolving, giving us a bit of everything en route, via that year’s Blush EP then last year’s Creature Songs EP, alternating between indie ballads, folky anthems, and Hole-like ‘grunge screamers with big poppy choruses’.

And all the way along there have been plenty of live dates in Europe and the US, the band ‘noodling away’ on their apprenticeship while fighting not to be pigeon-holed.

So has this album seemed a long time in coming?

“Oh well, yeah! For me and Ellie it’s coming up to six years since we set out, and for the rest it’s three or four years, or something like that.

“But I think we’ve done it right. A lot of bands get to a point and release an album when they’re not ready and the songs aren’t ready, and they haven’t quite got the fan-base either.

“They seem to think if you release an album based on hype, it will do well. But it’s been proved these last couple of years that doesn’t really work.

“You need that fan-base that buys tickets to come to your shows, gets involved and has enough of a narrative to get into and stay with the band.”

Giant Peach: A Wolf Alice crowd favourite

Giant Peach: A Wolf Alice crowd favourite

I suppose the fact that you’ve reworked a few crowd favourites on this album shows how you’ve moved on during that past couple of years. I loved the songs as they were, but you can see how you’ve progressed all the same.

“Definitely. What we’re producing now is a lot more … you know ….”

He falters there. Is it a bit more ‘you’?

“I should hope so, and I think it’s chilled out a bit since the earlier stuff. We were maybe overly-loud and overly ferocious then.

“But I think that was a reaction to not being listened to in the beginning. Now we’ve got to a point where we’ve been able to show another side as well.”

And hone that spirit a bit?

“Yeah, definitely.”

So how much of an influence was producer Mike Crossey (who previously worked with Arctic Monkeys and Foals, among others) on the album? And was the band’s choice?

“Erm, he was recommended by the label, and he was alright … yeah.”

Joff seems a little reticent to say too much. I try again. It got a bit intense at times in the studio over your five-week recording stint in London’s Wood Green, didn’t it?

“Yeah, but I’m sure it does with everyone, really, and he’s good at getting a good performance out of you.”

Judging by the results, he’s not wrong, and My Love Is Cool is a joy to behold, a sparkling debut with so much depth.

Friendship Group: Wolf Alice's Bros

Friendship Group: Wolf Alice’s Bros

It’s stunning in places for these ears, from the Smoke Fairies-like ethereal feel of measured opener Turn to Dust and the already-familiar but neatly-reworked Bros – where we really get started – onwards.

There are traces of Harriet Wheeler in Ellie’s vocals on both, before the blown-away qualities of slow-building powerhouse You Love’s Whore, complete with its glorious stop-start structure, our front-girl finally going ballistic around the three and a half minute mark.

That seamless switch between breathy and manic continues on You’re a Germ, Joel vocally shadowing on the lead-up to a mighty chorus, while Lisbon takes me back to the sheer indie pop of The Primitives.

Alternatively, Silk carries a moody undercurrent reminiscent of The The, with gallons of invention, anthemic in places amid Catatonia-esque mass vocals, its huge sound never too polished.

The more laidback Freazy is in effect Wolf Alice’s theme tune and this album’s title track, joyously-catchy and the perfect statement that leads us to the guitar-happy rock fruit that is Giant Peach. Imagine Can’s Mother Sky crossed with Black Sabbath’s Paranoid.

In comes Joel at that supercharged moment for the more dreamy Swallowtail, his own dulcet tones working a treat as we gather pace ahead of a mighty finish, Ellie given a welcome breather ahead of the sweet electronica of Soapy Water.

There’s no mistaking the unmistakable opening bars of the frantic, thrilling Fluffy from there, again subtly rearranged to great effect, taking me back to Elastica at their best.

And like the album itself, it’s not a second too long, The Wonderwhy soon seeing us out in reflective style on an album this cool collective can truly be proud of.

You can judge for yourself of course, and I recommend catching them live while you’re at it. And beyond Glastonbury, Wolf Alice have more big festival dates coming up in the UK and Europe, including Leeds and Reading, Jersey Live, Latitude, Longitude, and T in the Park.

Then there’s an eight-date tour, heading between Bristol Academy (September 16) and Brixton Academy (September 26).

Float Upstream: Wolf Alice have taken to the indie scene like, erm ... musicans to the water

Float Upstream: Wolf Alice have taken to the indie scene like, erm … musicans to the water

That also takes in Birmingham Institute (September 17), Glasgow ABC (September 19), Newcastle University (September 21), Sheffield Plug (September 22), Southampton Guildhall (September 23), and Manchester Albert Hall (September 25), the latter giving me the initial excuse for talking to the band.

“We’ve toured pretty extensively over the last couple of years, and while I don’t think we’ve done the Albert Hall up there before, we played The Ritz not too long ago, which was super-cool.”

With that, Joff had to break away, running back to rejoin the band transport and head further west ahead of his big weekend.

What a winner it proved to be too, and you can still catch their 45-minute set via the BBC website at time of going to press.

Starting with a ‘sit up and take notice’ Fluffy, a dynamic You’re a Germ and an intense Your Lover’s Whore, they were straight out of the traps, but the epitome of charm and mischief between songs.

There were three songs from Blush and two from Creature Songs in a set identical to a secret gig on the William’s Green stage the previous night, by all accounts.

A beaming Ellie declared the band were ‘having the best time ever’, despite heavy rain from part-way through.

While she clearly owns the camera, she struggled with her mic. stand, employing commendable limbo skills to carry on singing ‘Don’t leave me here’ (rather fittingly) from the floor on The Wonderwhy, Joff soon coming to the rescue.

Think Pink: Ellie, in the dress that beguiled Glastonbury first time around, and the band take a break

Think Pink: Ellie, in the dress that beguiled Glastonbury first time around, and the band take a break

The weather was inclement by the time we reached Bros, Theo announcing, “Everyone’s f*^*ing friends in this field, so let’s all have a dance’.

And after Joff implored the crowd to ‘get ready to go hard’, Giant Peach took the vibe to new levels, inspiring a mud-charged mass pogo.

Theo told the assembled it had all been a ‘dream come true’ before finale Moaning Lisa Smile, Ellie soon ‘out of control’, gliding aloft a sea of hands during a memorable bout of crowd-surfing. briefly returning to help Joel out on drums before heading back out there.

It’s been an amazing year for Wolf Alice, and we’re only half-way through. Where they go from here is irrelevant to a point, but I can’t see why they shouldn’t take it up a whole ‘nother notch.

Until then, they have every right to revel in what they’ve achieved so far. And their love is indeed cool.

To find out all the latest from the band, including details of this year’s festival dates and the September tour, head to www.wolfalice.co.uk.

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Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra – Blackpool Empress Ballroom

Empress Impressed:  Jools Holland's band in action in Blackpool (Photo: BBC)

Empress Impressed: Jools Holland’s big band in live action in Blackpool (Photo: BBC)

If a building really carries social history within its walls, there can be few greater examples in Lancashire than Blackpool’s Empress Ballroom.

The ornate decoration throughout the Winter Gardens tells its own stories, and there’s no disguising the magic of that feted ballroom within, particularly with a mighty band in there.

And while the Big Band era may well be long behind us, but there was a real flavour of those heady days when Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra came to town.

As the man himself said during our recent interview ahead of this date, “When you have a place where people have gathered and enjoyed themselves over the years, even when they’re not there a certain resonance stays.

“I think that’s happened in Blackpool, particularly at the Empress Ballroom. All those that saw big bands there and enjoyed themselves – something of that stays in the room, even when all the people have gone.”

I’ll go as far as to say I think the ghosts of yesteryear would have heartily approved of Jools’ personal spin on blues, swing and more at this venue on Wednesday, June 24th.

Band Leader: Jools Holland at the Empress Ballroom (Photo: BBC)

Band Leader: Jools Holland at the Empress Ballroom (Photo: BBC)

The former Squeeze keyboard player and accomplished pianist led his 17–piece ensemble on a summer’s night to remember, and that’s not just because the event was being filmed for later broadcast this coming month.

Apparently, 14,000 applied for tickets, and it was clear that the 800 or so punters downstairs, below my gallery lookout, were chuffed to be there.

The venue was amplified for a recording, so the sound wasn’t quite right for us up in the gods at times.

But you’ll hear no complaints from this witness, and I’m itching to see how it all comes over when the BBC finished product arrives on our screens in a few weeks’ time.

If it wasn’t enough to see Jools’ splendid band take us through a wondrous set of standards from the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, there were truly memorable guest spots too.

As well as the power of ‘Drum King’ Gilson Lavis, bass hero Dave Swift, behatted guitar guru Mark Flanagan and Jools’ brother Christopher’s added keys, we had a whole host of quality sax, trombone and trumpet heaven to savour.

Positive Touch: Rumer joins  Jools Holland at the piano (Photo: BBC)

Positive Touch: Rumer joins Jools Holland at the piano (Photo: BBC)

And at the heart of it all was the boogie-woogie bandleader himself, off his stool as much as on it, playing with one hand or two but always tinkling like a trooper, to superb effect.

Not only that, but the ever-affable South-East Londoner can still belt out a great tune from his own larynx too, no mean feat considering the vocal talent around him.

There were genuinely heart-rending moments with those voices, the high standards never dropping from the moment first guest singer Mabel Ray took to the stage.

I found myself transported amid the band sound and Louise Marshall’s gorgeous treatment of the Sam Brown-co-written Valentine Moon, bringing genuine goose bumps in those surroundings.

Meanwhile, Marc Almond did great credit to Edith Piaf’s If You Love Me (Really Love Me), surely not the easiest of songs to nail in one take.

As powerful as Marc’s performance was, Rumer somehow made her contribution – tackling Arlen and Mercer’s Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive – seem effortless, yet with every bit as much class.

Classic Piaf: Jools Holland  with Marc Almond during the Empress Ballroom filming (Photo: BBC)

Classic Piaf: Jools Holland with Marc Almond during the Empress Ballroom filming (Photo: BBC)

This being a Jools night meant another big voice was on its way, and I’m not sure that Ruby Turner could ever disappoint, her four songs here leaving us on a spiritual as well as an emotional high.

Her version of 1938 jazz standard I’ll Be Seeing You was just perfect, and who could resist Ruby‘s call to gospel on sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Up Above My Head? Not this grateful scribe, I can tell you.

Presentation Skills: Lucy Worsley (Photo: BBC)

Presentation Skills: Lucy Worsley (Photo: BBC)

This being a TV production, there were a couple of tweaks needed later on, not least with the admirably-quirky Lucy Worsley’s pieces to camera hampered by technical problems first time around.

But that only gave us the chance to stay in such exalted company a little longer, on an evening that will forever remain in the memory banks.

In short, make sure you catch the related BBC2 documentary on July 25 and the BBC4 concert the following day. In fact, Enjoy Yourself, for this truly was a magical affair.

For the recent writewyattuk interview with Jools Holland, published on June 11th, head here.

And for all the latest from Jools Holland, including his forthcoming dates, check out his website here.

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Lancashire daytrippers’ Tower of strength – the New York Tourists interview

In the build-up to next week’s Symphony at the Tower concerts, the team at writewyattuk (OK, so that’s just me) follow this blog’s recent feature/ interview with Lucy Kay, a rising star on the classical crossover scene, by talking to an act enjoying accolades of their own on the North West indie rock scene and set to support Status Quo on Friday, July 3rd.

Tourist Trap: Blackburn's New York Tourists

Tourist Trap: Blackburn’s New York Tourists

It was a perfect midsummer’s evening when I caught up with Gary Taylor, vocalist and guitarist of the Blackburn-based New York Tourists, and close enough to his band’s forthcoming appearance at Hoghton Tower to wish for more of the same on the actual night.

“We were just saying that. It will be absolutely superb if the weather’s like this. I’m not bothered if it rains all day, as long as it’s nice when we’re playing.”

This band of up-and-coming 20-somethings with ‘dirty rock’ roots are set to step on stage for St Catherine’s Hospice’s big fund-raiser on Friday, July 3, at 7.45pm, just before the mighty Status Quo and after a group they already know well from the local circuit, fellow East Lancs outfit Good Foxy, from Clitheroe.

“We’ve played a few times with them before. We suit being on the same bill. They’re more bluesy sounding than us, a bit more like The Doors.”

So when did Gary get the call about this prestigious support?

“Just a few weeks ago we got this message on our band page on Facebook asking if we’d like to support Status Quo. We thought it might have been a joke, and were making sure it wasn’t just a tribute band.”

Well, I guess after all these years, Rossi and Parfitt’s outfit are their own tribute band really. Was their heyday long before Gary’s time?

“My Dad was a big fan, and he’s always reminding me of them opening Live Aid.”

That particular Wembley Stadium fund-raiser just happens to have been more or less 30 years ago to the week. So will this be a chance for these two support bands to replicate that piece of music history?

“I’d like to think so!”

Top Dogs: Status Quo (Photo: Danny Clifford)

Top Dogs: Status Quo (Photo: Danny Clifford)

While maybe not in the same mega-league as the show’s headliners, New York Tourists have already had a few prestigious supports in their relatively-short spell together.

“We supported The Futureheads twice, with them, Doves and the likes of Calvin Harris at Kendal Calling.

“Then there was Buzzcocks, The View and We Are Scientists at King George’s Hall. We haven’t done too bad so far.”

Apparently, there was also a date with recent writewyattuk interviewees The Subways that didn’t quite happen, put down to the main act ‘being picky with their rider’ at Blackburn’s Live Lounge, leading to a late pull-out.

“That was a real shame. The tickets were printed and everything. And they’re such a superb band live.”

Incidentally, the band has another date not so far from Hoghton Tower this weekend, the band visiting Preston’s Brockholes wetlands and woodlands nature reserve on Saturday, June 27th, for a late night cantina event.

“It’s acoustic, and we don’t normally do that, but it’s part of a kick-starter campaign for our album.

“We had a £2,500 target and actually managed to hit £3,500, which was great, with certain pledges securing certain things. And one was for this half-hour acoustic slot, which Crafty Vintage donated £100 for.

“It might well become a regular event for us actually, maybe bringing in a new audience. These events involve street food, cocktails, different beers. It should be really good.

“In fact, I’d recommend it during the daytime too, with vintage clothing, home food, cheeses, chutney, and all that.”

Vintage Setting: Brockholes will play host to New York Tourists, acoustic style

Vintage Setting: Brockholes will play host to New York Tourists, acoustic style

Gary could get a job with the Lancashire Tourist Board at this rate, let alone the New York Tourists. And it works out that straight after their big Hoghton Tower date, the band play the Glastonferret festival in Preston.

“Yes, we’re on at 9.30, so we’ve got an hour to hack down, get to The Ferret, and play again!”

That Preston venue, just across the road from UCLan’s 53 Degrees, is another favoured venue for the band, although of course it might cause a slight dilemma if Francis, Rick and co ask their support back on to join them on Caroline or Down Down.

“Yes, I think I’d have to pass on the gig after if I got offered that opportunity!”

New York Tourists are hardly strangers to the outdoor and marquee circuit, and as well as past Kendal Calling and the wonderfully-named Shrewsbury Fields Forever festival appearances, there was one in their hometown last year too.

“Yes, at Blackburn we were the main support to Toploader, which was brilliant. We’ve quite a local following, so there were around 1,500 to 2,000 watching us.

“That was probably the highlight of gigs so far for me personally … although I have a feeling that the third of July might top it!”

They’ve a few more dates lined up this summer too, and it appears that the NYT fan-base is steadily growing.

“Yes, and now we have an album finished and ready to release, waiting for a date, possibly in September or October.”

So I see. Is there anything from the band’s well-received early EPs on there, or is it all fresh material?

“We have older songs on there, including a fan favourite we always end the set on, A Kick in the Teeth, and another nine tracks.”

Blackburn Quartet: New York Tourists

Blackburn Quartet: New York Tourists

The album was recorded at Clitheroe Grand Studios, as per their first EPs, 2013’s Thank You and Goodnight and last year’s Dead Man’s Leather.

Those songs hadn’t gone unnoticed either, receiving promising reviews, not least Chew Me Up, Spit Me Out, which was listed on BBC Introducing’s top 10 tracks of 2013.

“We won’t really go anywhere else other than the Grand Studios. We’ve recorded with a guy called Tom Peters there. He’s absolutely superb.”

Gary, ‘born and bred in Chorley’, has been based in Blackburn for around three years now, having joined guitarist Carl Rutherford, his cousin Lewis Lovett on drums, and Graeme Anderson on bass in the first line-up, the latter two later making way for Adrian Mckenzie on bass and Joe Mooney on drums.

“I was looking for bands and scouring the internet and they messaged me off a website, leading to this nerve-racking audition, with all their mates in the room.

“There were no songs at that stage, so I sang The Kings of Leon’s Molly’s Chambers. That’s how it all sort of kicked off.”

It did indeed kick off, and Gary says the band’s material is a lot ‘more catchy’ and dance-oriented now, ‘more towards an indie sound’ than their ‘dirty rock’n’roll’ roots.

Early reviews suggest they were more Arctic Monkeys meet Led Zeppelin, but current comparisons suggest Queens of the Stone Age meets Foals, which I can concur from the band footage out there on the net.

They’re well worth checking out, and I can also recommend the AC/DC and White Stripes-like Jacqueline, no doubt helped by their distinctive guitar style and Gary’s bluesy vocals.

There’s not so much evidence of his appreciation of Johnny Cash yet, but maybe it will come out somewhere.

“Yeah, I was a big fan. The Cure are a massive influence too, especially with me and Carl. We’re huge fans.”

No Relation: New York Dolls

No Relation: New York Dolls

So go on then – devil’s advocate time. Why the name? You’re hardly the New York Dolls, and they at least came from New York.

“True. Actually, Carl went to New York and when he came back … well, that was it really.”

Mmm, I can see they might have to reinvent that anecdote to add more mystique. But now at least you know.

Besides, there seems to be a history of bands from Blackburn taking on the identity of other places, Morrissey’s former ’80s favourites Bradford springing to mind too.

Finally, any chance of a special Quo cover in your set at Hoghton Tower?

“Oh no, we won’t be doing that. We’ll just be trying to get our own material over to people.”

All the same, it might be a nice gesture, at least something unexpected in the band’s own style – checking first that the main act won’t be upset, of course.

“Upset, or upstaged? No, I’m only kidding!”

And with that Gary was back to the sunshine, dreaming of a further balmy summer evening on a local hillside … very soon.

This year’s Symphony at the Tower events, featuring two nights of live music at Hoghton Tower, end a month of celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of St Catherine’s Hospice in Lostock Hall, near Preston.

Tower Talent: Lucy Kay

Tower Talent: Lucy Kay

While Status Quo and co. perform on Friday July 3, the following night (Saturday, July 4) sees BRIT Award-winning classical vocal group Blake headline, supported by Britain’s Got Talent star Lucy Kay, a show closing with a firework finale set to the music of The Heart of England Orchestra. 

For tickets and further information, visit www.stcatherines.co.uk, ring the hospice on 01772 629171 or drop in at the hospice in Lostock Lane, Lostock Hall, PR5 5XU. There’s also a Facebook event information page here.

To find the New York Tourists Facebook page, head here, and for the latest from Good Foxy try here

Finally, find out more about Crafty Vintage at the Brockholes centre here.

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Tripping the Alternative Light Fantastic – the Leftfield interview

Sixteen years after their last album topped the charts, Leftfield have a fresh top-10 hit, inspiring writewyattuk to talk long lay-offs, innovative electronica, dance music, deep space and excessive decibels with the band’s driving force Neil Barnes.

Leftfield - LPLike its Mercury Prize-nominated predecessors, 1995’s Leftism and 1999’s Rhythm and Stealth, the latest Leftfield album, Alternative Light Source, shows the London-based dance outfit on top form.

Yet there’s one fundamental difference – this time it’s solely a Neil Barnes-driven project, his Leftfield co-creator Paul Daley having decided against returning to the fold in 2010.

That doesn’t seem to have hampered Neil though, an array of expertise on both sides of the mic. in the studio and on the road helping take the Leftfield story on from where it initially left off in 2002.

This week the new album, in digital, CD and vinyl format via Infectious Music, entered the main charts at No.6, while second single, Bilocation, one of two tracks featuring Polica’s Channy Leaneagh, followed lung-busting first waxing, Universal Everything.

Alongside Minneapolis chanteuse Channy, the album includes collaborations with London’s ‘distorted soul and unearthly gospel’ exponent Ofei, Tunde Adebimpe of Brooklyn’s TV on the Radio, and quirky Nottingham post-punk hip-hop duo Sleaford Mods.

Meanwhile, the first live outings for the new set are underway, Neil and his guests having already taken their big sound authority to Bristol Academy and London’s Forum (for two nights), before a sell-out show at Manchester’s Albert Hall on Thursday (June 18th) then a trip to Glasgow’s Barrowland the following evening (Friday, June 19th).

What’s more, Leftfield have a few special headline shows this summer, including a return to Glastonbury Festival at the end of the month for what promises to be a spectacular Saturday night show-stopper on the Sonic stage.

But first I wished Neil, on the line from the capital, congratulations on another top-10 album, with a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that it’s easy, this long player lark.

“Yep … well, actually, it’s never easy, but it’s always good news … great news in fact.”

This latest collection of songs – at least officially – considers how we all look for different ways of doing things, while considering the band’s own heat-seeking hunt for inspiration.

Creative Force: Neil Barnes, the main energy behind Leftfield today

Creative Force: Neil Barnes, the main energy behind Leftfield today

So, if the new album title, Alternative Light Source, is officially described as a metaphor for our unceasing search for answers, does Neil think he’s any closer to revelation than when he set out on this whole venture 25 years ago?

“No! I’m still learning as I go, learning every day. Maybe that revelation might hit me in the head, but perhaps there are no answers out there.

“Nothing’s occurred to me, apart from continuing along the path really.”

Well, it has been said that it’s often better to travel than to arrive anyway.

“Everyone expresses it in a different way – journey and arrival, light out of dark, it’s also about education and young people.

“And whenever I think about the music, I think about the cover and the amazing art.”

Talking of travelling, you’ve been busy touring since the return of Leftfield. Have these new songs been a long time in the making, honed as you went along?

“The album’s taken three years to make, we’ve been in the studio since we stopped touring in 2011, and first time we took these new songs out was in Bristol, just last week.

“It’s going really well. I’ve got Ofei doing vocals on Swords, which is amazing, a new drummer, Nick Rice, and Adam Wren on stage too.

“In fact, Ads was a major part in making the record. That should be mentioned.”

Leftfield Founders: Neil Barnes, right, with  Paul Daley at 2000's Mercury Music Awards event, when Rhythm and Stealth was among the nominations (Photo: Graham Jepson)

Leftfield Founders: Neil Barnes, right, with Paul Daley at 2000’s Mercury Music Awards event, when Rhythm and Stealth was among the nominations (Photo: Graham Jepson)

Yes, it’s easy to think that now Paul Daley’s moved on, Leftfield is just Neil’s baby. But that’s not strictly the case, is it?

“It’s a collaboration, and there’s a lot of collaborative work on this album. Ads has been there all the way through the process and with the live stuff as well. It’s very much me and him in the studio too.”

According to the record company handouts, Alternative Light Source is, at times, ‘both crushingly heavy and fantastically delicate’. Which is about right.

As Neil puts it, “There’s always an honesty to the music. It is genuine and it comes from a genuine place.

“There’s nothing cynical about it, I’d never just put on a breakbeat that everyone is familiar with.

“There’s an element of bravery too – after all this time I do feel like I’m jumping into the unknown a little.

“Some of the things that have happened in my life over the last two years have been very sad, and that’s reflected in the music. But it’s uplifting too.

“There’s a very emotional bedrock in everything I do, a genuine emotion that’s underneath it all. That’s precisely the feeling I’m trying to get across with this album.”

While Alternative Light Source is supposedly about knowledge and searching, Neil stresses that there’s a physics angle to it too – that Universal Everything, plus thoughts of black holes, alternative realities, a bit of mad dystopia, immense space and immense weight.

I’m only a few listens in so far, but straight away moments jumped out of the speakers at me, not least first single Universal Everything then Little Fish, the other track featuring Channy.

Light Show: Neil Barnes has got it just right with Alternative Light Source

Light Show: Neil Barnes has got it just right with Alternative Light Source

I put it to Neil that he seems to have got the mix spot on, with regards to guest appearances and so on.

“Yes, it’s just continuing the story really, what I started working on with Paul on the first two albums. I’m just trying to make a good record.

“As a vocalist I really like Channy, then there’s Jason from Sleaford Mods on Head and Shoulders.

“We did that ages ago, and it’s been sitting around. It’s a real pleasure to work with him.”

I remember in my formative London and South-East days, DJ Gary Crowley playing something on Capital Radio, then announcing, ‘If it’s too loud, you’re too old’. And it just so happens that Leftfield were once said to be recorded at a higher decibel level than Concorde.

So com eon then, Neil – have this band whose first gig led to the soundman in Amsterdam being arrested, then issues with refunds in Belgium after complaints about excessive sound levels, and whose thumping bass inspired falling plaster at Brixton Academy as recently as 2010, not quite – to misquote This Is Spinal Tap – ready to  turn it down to 10 yet?

“No! It’s still up there at 11! We travel with a quality system supplied by Britannia Row and put it in where we can.

“We try and make it as powerful, sonically, as we can – to match the music. In the end, that’s what our music’s about, hopefully losing yourself on the dancefloor, getting immersed in the sound. And you need power to do that.”

Interesting you should say that, as I associate 1995’s Leftism with getting told off by my other half for unwittingly getting faster and faster in the driving seat while playing that album in the car. In fact, I had to ban myself from doing so on the road.

“Singing down the motorway at dangerous levels, that’s a great image! I’ll think about that today.”

Speed King: Leftism, the debut Leftfield album

Speed King: Leftism, the debut Leftfield album

For all the freshness of the new album, there’s definitely a link back to that first album. But it still sounds very ‘now’. Is that just a reflection of how far ahead of the pack you were back then?

“That’s interesting. I don’t know. Someone mentioned the word ‘vintage’ regarding our sound, which I thought was something. It’s not meant to be.

“What I’m trying to do is something that keeps me interested, because I do listen to lots of music and there are certain things I continue to like, like bass-end.

“This album does the same thing most Leftfield albums do, it coaxes you and pulls you along and drops you into places you don’t expect.

“That’s sort of what Leftfield has all been about, doing things in a slightly different way. So maybe that’s the same as what me and Paul did.

“It’s a different sound this album, it’s not so much a reggae album and not such a dub-centred album.

“But maybe I’m not listening to as much reggae now. Dub-influenced music has been done so much … by Leftfield, particularly.”

Listening to Leftism again recently, I felt there was nothing there that had aged, as opposed to a few albums from that era. I’m not sure what it was they nailed there.

“I don’t know either. It’s difficult to say, but there’s definitely a link between that and electronic music. Styles changed, but maybe modern acts have heard it. I don’t know.”

In short, I’d say Leftfield have continued to stay ahead of the pack judging by this latest release.

And there’s clearly still a mighty appetite for the band judging by some of their big shows since Neil’s return, such as the Creamfields, Rockness and Electric Picnic headliners.

Leftfield also just happen to be one of those bands where more people know their songs than they might first realise, not least with tracks used on adverts, like Phat Planet (used by Guinness) and 6/8 War (used by Volkswagen).

That seems rather apt though, considering the fact that Neil and former Leftfield partner Paul started out more as underground record producers, working on remixes, steadily building their reputation.

Second Sight: Rhythm and Stealth, the follow-up album by Leffield, from 1999

Second Sight: Rhythm and Stealth, the follow-up album by Leffield, from 1999

Neil’s journey to where he is now involved a complicated route, arguably starting when he ‘blew his mind’ hearing A Day In The Life as a nine-year-old in 1967, from his sister’s copy of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

In his own formative club nights he enjoyed the disco scene and a bit of Giorgio Moroder before discovering punk, becoming a 100 Club regular alongside the likes of future Leftfield collaborator John Lydon.

He soon fell in love with reggae and live music in general, following the likes of Joy Division, Black Uhuru, The Fall, Gang of Four and Wire.

Then, inspired by Africa Bambaataa and his drum machine after seeing the innovative New Yorker live, Neil went down the dance route, later meeting Paul on the deep house warehouse scene.

At one stage Neil was playing hip American electro-funk outfits and similar homegrown talents at the Wag Club, while studying at the London School of Samba. And while playing congas at one London club he just happened to meet fellow congas and bongo player Paul, the pair hitting it off immediately.

To cut a long story short, Neil borrowed his brother’s Juno 106 keyboard, got a bank loan and bought a sampler, the Leftfield story properly starting in the kitchen of Neil’s tiny flat in Marylebone.

In fact, the pair worked together as a unit six years before that first album saw the light of day. Part of the reason for that stalling was out of their hands, down to contractual problems, while contemporaries like Massive Attack had more product out far earlier.

I put it to Neil that while in that sense it must have been a frustrating period, it turned out for the best.

“I think definitely. We weren’t ready at that stage and weren’t really interested in making an album then.

“But as we started to grow, that changed, and after Release the Pressure (featuring Earl 16), Space Shanty and Open Up (featuring John Lydon) it was starting to occur to us by then.

“We started out just doing remixes and very much as an underground unit, like a lot of young people today.

“The idea of doing an album wasn’t something that really struck us. But then we started to experiment with all these other areas. And that’s how it happened.”

And a quarter of a century after those first Leftfield recordings, Alternative Light Source suggests Neil and his associates are continuing to shine, lighting the way for progressive house and electronic music in general.

For the latest from Leftfield, head to their official website here.

 

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Testing the Big Band theory – the Jools Holland interview

Big Time: Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra

Big Time: Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra

It’s difficult to write about Jools Holland without going down the retro route. He is after all a man who carved out a career celebrating the best in popular music from the past century.

His long-running BBC television show Later With Jools Holland provides the best elements of old and new music, while his BBC Radio 2 show offers an eclectic mix of tunes from his own vast record collection.

There are also his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra live shows, a big band in every sense switching between blues and boogie-woogie. Jazz, ska, soul and country.

Then there’s his new wave past with Squeeze and the days he co-fronted Channel 4’s cult entertainment and music show The Tube.

That’s as good a place to start as any, so I put it to Jools that I find it hard to believe it’s now 30 years since he filmed with Paula Yates for The Tube at the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool.

As he put it in entertaining 2007 autobiography Bare-faced Lies and Boogie-Woogie Boasts, ‘We all, with the exception of Paula, thought there was something rather romantic about empty holiday seaside destinations off season’.

Tube Station: Paula Yates and Jools Holland on the set of Channel 4's The Tube

Tube Station: Paula Yates and Jools Holland on the set of Channel 4’s The Tube

It appears that’s still the case for Jools, three decades after his first Fylde coast filming stint.

“I’ve some lovely memories from then. Blackpool has changed since, but has a certain atmosphere, and is a magical place. It has a romance to it, and is one of the most iconic towns in Britain.

“When you have a place where people have gathered and enjoyed themselves over the years, even when they’re not there a certain resonance stays.

“I think that’s happened in Blackpool, particularly at the Empress Ballroom, where we are this time. All those that saw big bands there and enjoyed themselves – something of that stays in the room, even when all the people have gone.

“So it’s very nice to bring it all back and resurrect it. It will be great fun. We won’t sound like the big bands back then, but we’ll be paying tribute to a lot of those who came before, going through the history of big band music, from my point of view taking in a lot of the blues and swing.”

It would be something to be a fly on the wall during those golden years, wouldn’t it?

“Exactly … as long as I didn’t get squatted.”

The Empress Ballroom Big Band Special free show (details at the foot of this feature) is on Wednesday, June 24, and is set to be broadcast on BBC 4 in July.

Ballroom Bliss: Blackpool's Empress Ballroom

Ballroom Bliss: Blackpool’s Empress Ballroom

On the night, Jools aims to give a personal view of the genre, with a little insight into Big Band greats such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton.

“I’ve always been a fan of Big Band music and think this is a great way to take the music genre to a wider audience.

“We are going to have one big party, and I’m looking forward to playing at an iconic venue steeped in music history.”

Furthermore, the charismatic Londoner will make Blackpool his home over the next month while filming a documentary to coincide with the performance.

In a separate BBC 2 documentary, Strictly Come Dancing’s Len Goodman and historian Lucy Worsley join Jools to explore how Big Band music helped keep the nation’s spirits up during World War Two, also delving into fashion and dance crazes.

What’s more, Jools also plays nearby Preston Guild Hall on Friday, July 24 with his 20-piece Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, including guest vocalists Ruby Turner and Louise Marshall.

And it was that date that got me thinking back to the first time I saw his big band – or at least an earlier, smaller line-up – in Avenham Park in 1992 at a free festival marking that year’s town Guild celebrations.

“I remember it! Once in a Preston Guild, as they say!”

Just Jools: The bandleader himself enjoys a good blather

Just Jools: The bandleader himself enjoys a good blather

Well yes, although Jools did miss the last one. But he’s a busy man, and has barely sat still for the past two decades other than his stints at the piano.

I remember it well too, not least spotting him stood on the riverbank of the Ribble, taking a short break amid the event soundchecks, gazing towards the Victorian railway bridges that midsummer afternoon.

I wanted to speak to him, to talk music or even railways maybe, but felt he was having a reflective moment, so just nodded, smiled, said hello, and moved on.

I think I’ve regretted it ever since, the briefest of pleasantries somehow not enough considering all we have in common.

“Well, you can always get me talking on any of those subjects. I’ll blather on and on.”

That year proved a bit of a turning point for an artist carving out his post-Squeeze and The Tube solo career as well as filming interviews for The Beatles Anthology, his music show also just getting going.

“That’s right. Later had just started around that time.”

So had he – to paraphrase his Squeeze writing buddies Difford and Tilbrook – ever thought it could happen at that point, bearing in mind all he’s achieved in the two decades since?

“The strange this is that none of us can tell what’s around the corner. I heard a man on the radio the other day said he’s done this and that and was therefore a master of his own destiny. But I don’t think anybody is.

“You just never quite know what’s going to turn up. When I was first in Squeeze I wouldn’t have thought I’d have ended up presenting The Tube.

“Then, if somebody had said I’d be running a big band for as long as we have, I don’t think we would have – not least as most big bands died out around 70 years ago.

“And if you’d said Later would have kept going all this time, when most such shows last around five or six years, it seems rather unbelievable.

TV Set: The BBC's Later With Jools Holland has proved a long-running success

TV Set: The BBC’s Later With Jools has proved a long-running success

“So I’m delighted. I love what I do and I’m very fortunate I don’t really so much work as play.”

I think that shows, seeing Jools live on the box sat in with big-name artists or talking to his musical heroes.

Now and again there’s a look on his face across that piano lid suggesting he can’t quite believe his luck. He’s the proverbial kid in the sweet shop.

“Well I am! And the great thing about music is that you continue to surprise yourself. You think, ‘What’s going on here? This is great!’ Even though you’re trying to concentrate.

“The wonderful thing is that if you keep going you learn more. It never fails to move on again.”

A close friend once told me he’s got so much good music in his house that he’s unlikely to ever hear it all again in his lifetime, so there’s no real point seeking out new artists.

I can see his point, but that doesn’t seem to be the Jools Holland way of things.

“No, and I think I’m looking for music for different purposes. For the TV show there are producers and researchers looking for new music, and they pop up almost out of the ether.

“I’m also looking to write new things and maybe look for records around 70 years old to see if there’s a piece of music that’s got lost that I never knew about.

“You’re looking at both ends of it, really. New music could be a week old or 500 years old, but if it’s new to me, that’s great. It’s a bit like you’re looking for your next fix!”

There have been some amazing guest appearances on his show and records over the years, many since lost, like George Harrison, Amy Winehouse, Joe Strummer, Kirsty MacColl, and most recently BB King. That must have given him a different outlook on life.

“That’s right. You’ve got to be very thankful and very grateful – as I am – at having met such wonderful people.

Blues Legend: BB King with his beloved Lucille

Blues Legend: BB King with his beloved Lucille

“BB King was a good example of someone who just kept going. He enjoyed what he was doing, was a master of what he was doing, and just kept playing, and his records just got better.

“I loved to hear him and learn from him, and was so pleased to get to meet him. He was such a wonderful man.

“Also, the other night I went to see Eric Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall, and was walking to my seat when I suddenly had a moment and couldn’t quite believe I play there as well! It’s so hard to see outside of something when you’re in it.”

I reckon that proves my point. You’re clearly still in the right job if you’ve still got that passion for it all after all these years.

“I still have to pinch myself. It’s all so unbelievable.”

I remember seeing Jools’ star vocalist Ruby Turner at Avenham Park a couple of years after him, stepping in as a replacement headline act for Sister Sledge and stealing the show.

“Ruby is fantastic, and I think she’s so amazing because she goes back to the early stuff and can make the boogie come alive.

“She can do the same with the blues, and as a gospel singer has something different again – a delivery that is directed by true belief, that takes you somewhere else.

“We’ve been doing a lot of big band music ahead of Blackpool, but we’re also celebrating some of the less mainstream music – what was at the time underground music but went on to really inspire rock’n’roll.

“One such artist, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, played boogie-woogie guitar and gospel with the Lucky Millinder big band. All those greats like Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard and Johnny Cash mentioned her as an influence.

Star Turn: Ruby Turner has real stage presence

Star Turn: Ruby Turner has real stage presence

“Ruby can do that too, not least because we have a big band that likes to boogie. And I don’t think you hear that anywhere else.”

And then, behind the beat, Jools has his long-serving ex-Squeeze team-mate, his ‘Drum King’ Gilson Lavis, a big band ever-present. In fact, Jools’ first ‘big band’ comprised just the two of them.

“Exactly! He really is the nuclear reactor at the centre of what we do, and the pulse of everything.

“I think we have Marc Almond coming to join us for the Blackpool show too, maybe doing an Edith Piaf song from that era.

“That’s something we want to concentrate on. It won’t sound so much like Edith as it does us now, but that’s a good thing too.”

Time was running out at that point with our allotted slot, but I quickly steered the subject on to another mutual love – Clough Williams-Ellis’ innovative architectural designs at Portmeirion, North Wales.

In fact, he loved the innovative architecture of that Italianate-style village by the Afon Dwyryd so much, that he modelled features on his own land in a similar style.

He’s clearly a man of taste when it comes to such matters, so would Jools ever feel the need to get involved in town planning and vintage fairs like Lancastrian fashion designer (and recent writewyattuk interviewee) Wayne Hemingway?

“Well, I do love all that. I built something where my studio is, tiny by comparison. I don’t think you need to be an expert on town planning though.

Released Prisoner: Jools filming at Portmeirion

Released Prisoner: Jools filming at Portmeirion

“When I go somewhere and realise it’s an agreeable place, I ask myself, ‘Why is that?’ Alternatively, there are places that aren’t so nice, and you think, ‘Why is that?’

“So I make a note of why we all rather like one place and not another. Not everyone likes the same thing, but generally I think small is beautiful.”

That probably goes against the philosophy of his band, but carry on, Jools …

“One of the worries now in London is that there are no scruffy corners left.  In the same way, you don’t want Hong Kong and Singapore to look like other cities in Britain.

“I think it’s important to protect what we have. That might involve that lovely colour of red brick you have in the North West, or the yellow stone in East Anglia. Everywhere should have its own style.

“I think that’s wonderful, and it’s great that people still think things through like that.”

Getting back to Portmeirion, isn’t it time they repeated The Laughing Prisoner, Jools’ 1987 The Tube spin-off spoof of The Prisoner? 

“Funny you should mention that. I’d like to see that again too!”

It had quite a cast too, from Chris Difford, Siouxsie and the Banshees and XTC to Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, Rowland Rivron, Stanley Unwin and John Peel.

The same goes for another film he made two years before, 1985’s Walking to New Orleans, involving Fats Domino, Lee Dorsey, Allen Toussaint, Dr John, The Neville Brothers, Rik Mayall, Robbie Coltrane and Sting, among others.

But there’s been so much since for the … erm, Groovy Fella, including his house band role in Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, the Chris Evans-fronted precursor to newly-reprised Channel 4 show TFI Friday.

And then there’s the recorded material, with 19 original studio and live CDs in my collection alone from 1990’s World Of His Own right through to last year’s Sirens of Song. In fact, it’s not Christmas at mine without at least one new Jools album wrapped up – in the same way that we can’t make it into a New Year without switching on Jools’ Annual Hootenanny.

Band Substance: When Jools was with Squeeze

Band Substance: When Jools was with Squeeze

I think I already knew the answer to this next question, but is Jools ever likely to record with Squeeze again in the future (having served from the band’s formation in 1974 through to 1980 and then again from 1985 to 1990)?

“I wouldn’t have thought so. I was very happy and enjoyed everything we did together, but that was all then.”

Do you keep in touch still?

“Yeah. I saw them just the other day.”

Time was short now – I was already over-running by five minutes – so I (reluctantly) ditched a few more questions about Squeeze, Jools’ solo years, and burning questions such as whether his stolen custom-made piano suit ever turned up again and if Paul Young forgive him for stealing his Fabulous Wealthy Tarts and turning them into Millionaires.

I could have chatted happily about his other big band members too – past and present – too, not least his brothers, Louise Marshall, Sam Brown and ska trombone legend Rico, who has not long since turned 80.

Instead, I asked what he missed most about home when he was out on the road.

“I’m fortunate because I like being on tour, like travelling and looking at things. I suppose what I do miss though is playing the piano at home.

“But the longest I’m away now is maybe two or three weeks, whereas it used to be months on end. My children are all grown up, so time passes quicker anyway.”

With that, he was gone, leaving me with a courteous, “Great to talk to you, and thanks for reminding me about the Preston Guild!”

It was a pleasure, Jools.

Tower Tourist: Jools will be heading for the Fylde coast soon

Tower Tourist: Jools will be heading for the Fylde coast soon

For details of how to register for free tickets for Jools’ Big Band Special on June 24 at Blackpool’s Empress Ballroom (before 4pm on Friday, June 12), head here.  

Tickets for Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra at Preston Guild Hall on July 24 are £34, from the box office on 01772 80 44 44 or via the venue website.

And for other Jools news and tour dates – including guest slots from Marc Almond, KT Tunstall and Melanie C, try his official website here.

Meanwhile, follow these links for past writewyattuk features involving Jools’ fellow Squeeze founder Glenn Tilbrook and his initial replacement Paul Carrack, plus a general appreciation of the band here.    

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Rediscovering Alice’s Wonderland – a 150th anniversary celebration

Riverside Wonderland: The bloggers' daughters meet the Liddell sisters in Guildford, 2010, with the rabbit just out of shot (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Riverside Wonderland: The bloggers’ daughters meet the Liddell sisters in Guildford, 2010, with the rabbit just out of shot (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

To heed the King’s advice to the White Rabbit, I should begin at the beginning and go on till I come to the end, then stop. But I’m not so sure any appreciation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books can be quite as straight-forward.

As the White Queen pointed out, it’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards. And as Alice later told the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle, “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

Already confused? Perhaps, but it comes to something when a ‘book of nonsense’, as the author described Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is still so widely loved and revered 150 years after its publishing debut. And with that in mind, a number of events are being held and tie-ins published to mark that grand 2015 anniversary.

I carried out my most recent pilgrimage of sorts in February in my hometown, Guildford, which has its own strong links with the Cheshire-born, Oxford-based writer – real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – who first came to Surrey’s county town in the summer of 1868, looking for a home for his six sisters, subsequently leasing The Chestnuts – built seven years earlier – on Castle Hill overlooking the historic Keep. There he wrote his 1871 Wonderland sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. But let’s go back to fill in a few gaps first.

Creative Force: Lewis Carroll at work

Creative Force: Lewis Carroll at work

By all accounts a natural storyteller, Carroll regularly invented tales to entertain friends, this mathematics lecturer at Christ Church, Oxford, a keen photographer and poet who chiefly wrote about algebra, geometry and logic. And if it were not for a summer river outing with the Liddell family in 1862, when Carroll was 30, those might have been his only published works.

Instead, 10-year-old Alice Liddell – a daughter of his friend, the Dean of Christ Church – asked him to write down the story he told that day, and at Christmas 1864, he presented Alice with a handwritten copy bound in green leather, with other copies circulated to the author’s best friends, who persuaded him to seek out a publisher.

Alice wasn’t the only one on that trip immortalised in book form, the author himself represented by the Dodo (Dodgson), the Reverend Robinson Duckworth as the Duck, and Alice’s sisters Lorina and Edith as the Lory and the Eaglet respectively. The initial Alice’s Adventures Under Ground – now part of the British Library collection – came in at 90 pages and included 37 illustrations by the author. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party was added later, with many episodes expanded and the title changed.

Carroll’s drawings portrayed Alice in a pre-Raphaelite/Dante Gabriel Rosetti style, with long, flowing hair and a serious expression. But by the time of that 1865 publication his words were accompanied by the black and white plate artwork of Sir John Tenniel, a Punch cartoonist who came to Carroll’s attention through illustrations for Aesop’s Fables.

By 1911, Tenniel’s failing eyesight led to Macmillan being granted permission to ask Harry G. Theaker – who illustrated fellow Macmillan hit The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley – to take over, and he completed 16 new colour plates, iconic images we now know so well. In fact, the commissioned artists that followed Tenniel’s lead as good as branded the look we now associate with Alice – not least that signature blue dress, blonde hair and Alice band, further enhancements in a similar style from John Macfarlane in 1927 and Diz Wallis in the 1990s continuing that legacy.

Bronze Tribute: Jeanne Argent's 1990 Alice sculpture in Guildford's Castle Grounds (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Bronze Tribute: Jeanne Argent’s 1990 Alice sculpture in Guildford’s Castle Grounds (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Talking of Wonderland-related art, there’s a striking bronze-cast sculpture depicting Alice looking through the looking glass in one of my favourite spots in Guildford, the Castle Grounds. And Jeanne Argent’s 1990 artwork is perfectly placed in a walled garden close to The Chestnuts’ sloping garden wall.

A short stroll away – on the banks of the River Wey at Millmead – is a second impressive bronze-cast sculpture marking Carroll’s Guildford legacy, Edwin Russell’s Alice and the White Rabbit, close to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, a rightly-popular feature for the town since 1984.

Meanwhile, Guildford Museum – also a short walk from The Chestnuts – houses a collection of items from the Dodgson family, including an impressive papier-mache cow, a family letter, wooden toys and a biscuit tin decorated with images from the second book, made by a close associate of the author, one of just a few such items he sent out to friends.

Carroll also lectured on maths at Abbot’s Hospital at the top of the town, and preached – in his role as an Anglican deacon – at St Mary’s, Guildford’s oldest church, again close to The Chestnuts. But on his last visit at Christmas, 1897, he caught influenza, dying of pneumonia on January 14th, 1898, shortly before his 66th birthday.

You’ll find his grave in a quiet spot under a plain memorial cross at The Mount Cemetery above the town, facing towards the family home on the other side of the river, his aunt and several sisters buried nearby. And by the time of his passing, his Alice books had already been published in nine different editions – revised English versions as well as French, German and Italian translations.

If this is all sounding a little close to an official history, I should add a less reverent note about an indirect family link with the Revd. Dodgson here. My Dad, rarely one to stand on ceremony as the saying goes, delivered letters up The Mount for a spell during three decades of GPO and Royal Mail service. While we were working on his memoirs, he told me, “I sometimes had letters addressed to ‘The Occupier, The Mount Cemetery, famous as the last resting place of Lewis Carroll. I would write ‘deceased’ on the letter and put it back in the letterbox.”

Keep Looking: Guildford's Castle Grounds sculpture from Alice's corner, February 2015 (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Keep Looking: Guildford’s Castle Grounds sculpture from Alice’s corner, February 2015 (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

In fact, I should confess that the Alice stories didn’t make as big an impression on me as a child – at least not consciously – as the works of AA Milne, Elizabeth Beresford and Michael Bond. What’s more, a fair bit I’ve read about the author suggests I wouldn’t have much liked him, and we wouldn’t have seen eye to eye on several issues. Like the Alice stories themselves, there are implied darker undercurrents, albeit ones I see no point in going into here.

I do however feel that 1865’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and 1871’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There deserve to be celebrated. And that’s exactly what initial publisher Macmillan and various other literary players are now doing. And having revisiting both books in recent times, I can genuinely say I’ve a new respect for Carroll’s historic texts.

I pointed out in a recent feature on this blog how there’s something of a Marmite factor to the Alice stories, and fully understand if others have been put off by any of the many adaptations over the last century and a half – be it through poorly-illustrated books, ill-conceived plays, or lack-lustre or frankly-disturbing films. But there’s no denying Carroll’s imaginative approach – one that inspired many writers over the following generations.

Much of the children’s lit I grew up with owed Carroll at least some debt of gratitude, and I feel I have a better understanding of what he set out to achieve now. I certainly love some of his wordplay, and the fact that you can find so many quotes out there from two relatively-short books tells its own story.

Despite having plumped for a pretty shabby 1993 reprint – the first that came to hand, one with several mistakes and missing the illustrations Carroll alludes to at key points – I still found the storytelling shone through.

Dodgson HQ: The Chestnuts, Guildford, the house Lewis sought out for his sisters (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Dodgson HQ: The Chestnuts, Guildford, the house Lewis sought out for his sisters (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

I could question the premise that Alice is supposedly seven and a half by the time of Through The Looking-Glass, a factor late 20th century and early 21st-century kids may feel just doesn’t wash in the way she talks or the accompanying artwork.

It’s also an early example of the ‘and then I woke up’ ending. But as that hadn’t been done to death at the time, I’ll let the author get away with that. And whatever quibbles I might have, the fact remains that without Alice there might not have been many of the following classic books I hold dear.

So why didn’t I appreciate Alice more before? Well, to use a music comparison, one problem I’ve had in evaluating the books equates to that I had judging The Beatles’ landmark Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, from the year I was born, 1967. That was an album I was led to believe was their big moment, yet I could name at least half a dozen Fab Four albums I prefer. I didn’t really appreciate the innovations on that LP though. By the time I was able to listen with critical ears, top Beatles copyists like Jeff Lynne’s ELO were making better albums than Sgt. Pepper, with much of what made it so impressive first time around taken for granted.

Similarly with Alice, it doesn’t come near several classic works more to my taste that followed in that supposed Golden Age of Children’s Literature up to the Great War. I preferred the storytelling of fellow Britons like JM Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, J Meade Falkner, Edith Nesbit and Robert Louis Stevenson. If you’re just comparing works of fantasy, Nesbit stands out again, and if I can go on to the 1920s, I’ll cite my all-time favourites from the Hundred Acre Wood. Yet I appreciate that we may not have got to enjoy Eeyore, Piglet, Pooh and Tigger or even Kenneth Grahame’s Toad if Carroll hadn’t tested the waters first.

New Edition: Macmillan's latest paperback to mark the 150th anniversary of the first book

New Edition: Macmillan’s latest paperback to mark the 150th anniversary of the first book

On that related subject, when I went back to Alice it struck me just how many of Carroll’s characters are now defined within our culture, be that down to the quality of the original text or the various film and cultural references that followed. And seeing as I made that late 1960s music analogy earlier, I’ll reference a few works from that period involving Wonderland imagery, either directly or indirectly.

In her recent Looking Glass Girl reimagining of the stories, Cathy Cassidy – whose work sits fittingly next to Carroll’s on my children’s lit bookcases – mentions a few notable songs in a playlist for Alice, most relevantly three from 1967, Jefferson Airplane hit White Rabbit, The Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow’s Parties (not quite so obvious, but it fits) and The Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

I’ll add another John Lennon-penned single from that year, I Am the Walrus (inspired by the second book’s The Walrus and the Carpenter verse). In fact, that mid-to-late ‘60s period – staggeringly, a century after publication – seemed to inspire a wealth of Alice-related material that went on to impact on me. And it could be down to The Beatles and The Airplane alone that this scribe equates Carroll’s stories with the hallucinatory effects of psychedelic drugs.

I’ll stick to that period and mention a few TV variations on the theme, not least two cult 1966 sci-fi series which dedicated episodes to Carroll’s Wonderland Lost in Space’s Penny Robinson going through a looking glass to discover another universe in The Magic Mirror, and Star Trek’s Shore Leave seeing the crew of the Enterprise visit a planet of dangerous illusions and meeting a large white rabbit and Alice herself.

Liquid Refreshment: Alice contemplates a pick-me-up (Copyright: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Illustrations © Macmillan 1995)

Liquid Refreshment: Alice contemplates a pick-me-up (Copyright: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Illustrations © Macmillan 1995)

Of course, a few film adaptations left more of a mark, with Disney’s 1951 animation Alice in Wonderland arguably paving the way. Who, for instance, thinks of the White Rabbit without contemplating him being late for an important date?

Nearly 60 years later, a new generation were pulled in by Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Aussie-born Mia Wasikowska as a 19-year-old lead who has forgotten past visits to Underland, the land of her dreams, in a role opposite Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka-like Mad Hatter.

That star-studded cast included Burton’s then-missus Helena Bonham Carter – in a near-parody of Miranda Richardson’s Queenie in Blackadder II – and Anne Hathaway playing the Red and White Queens, Stephen Fry the Cheshire Cat, Alan Rickman the Caterpillar, Barbara Windsor the Dormouse, Paul Whitehouse the March Hare, and Michael Sheen the White Rabbit. Incidentally, I’ve since learned there’s a follow-up due next year, Alice Through the Looking Glass, with the same key actors.

I also feel it’s worth mentioning 1972 film musical Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, perhaps the most faithful to Carroll’s original, with a John Barry score and Fiona Fullerton a perfect Alice, getting across on screen a few of those growing-up issues, not just physically, but through general childish frustration at not having the ability to say the right things.

There’s a fair bit of the humour and quirkiness of Carroll’s work incorporated too, a fine cast overcoming what we would see as the somewhat-dated look of the film and costumes, including Michael Crawford as the White Rabbit, Ralph Richardson as the Caterpillar, Roy Kinnear as the Cheshire Cat, Spike Milligan as the Gryphon, Peter Sellers as the March Hare, Dudley Moore as The Dormouse, and Dennis Price and Flora Robson as the King and Queen of Hearts.

What’s more, it doesn’t go light on the ‘working on two levels’ angle, particularly when you picture Alice knocking back the intoxicating liquids, nibbling on magic mushrooms and trying a few colourful pills to help her reach the required size. Of course, as with all musicals (oddly enough) they tend to burst into song a bit too much for me, but it’s pretty much a commendable adaptation.

If Fullerton’s Alice seemed more believable as Carroll’s lines sounded more feasible coming from a 15-year-old, Kate Beckinsale was a similarly good choice as a mid-20s mum reading to her child before becoming Alice Through the Looking Glass in a 1998 Channel 4 adaptation, also starring Penelope Wilton and Geoffrey Palmer as the White Queen and King, Sian Phillips as the Red Queen, and even Steve Coogan as Gnat.

Hat's Entertainment: The Mad Hatter strides out (Copyright: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Illustrations © Macmillan 1995)

Hat’s Entertainment: The Mad Hatter strides out (Copyright: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Illustrations © Macmillan 1995)

I guess it’s a testament to Carroll’s stories that Alice continues to lend herself to reinvention, and while skater girl Avril Lavigne sang the title song for Burton in 2010, Taylor Swift is just one of the latest artists to pen her own Alice tribute song, Wonderland.

I’ll also namecheck Radiohead’s curiosity Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors from 2008’s Amnesiac, based on Alice’s ‘trying to find the right door’ dilemma, Tom Petty’s 1985 hit Don’t Come Around Here No More for its memorable promo video, Siouxsie and the Banshees for naming their label Wonderland and releasing their Through the Looking Glass LP in 1987, and Tom Waits for 2002 album Alice, written for a stage adaptation.

I’ll add one last musical note, so to speak, with Blur frontman Damon Albarn’s wonder.land, a new version of Carroll’s tale coming soon, scripted by British playwright Moira Buffini. Following Albarn’s Dr Dee: An English Opera, it promises to be another fresh and original take on the genre, and opening at Manchester International Festival (June 29th – July 12th) then transfers to London’s National Theatre (opening on November 27th) before moving to Paris next year. It follows the story of unhappy 12-year-old girl, Aly, who is bullied at school but grows in confidence online, where she meets a cast of familiar characters. They start appearing in real life in subtle and unexpected ways, Albarn relating the idea of ‘falling down a rabbit hole’ into the digital age.

While we’re getting arty, I’ll mention Salvador Dali’s 1969 Wonderland illustrations, Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam’s 1977 film romp Jabberwocky, and even the Wachiowski brothers’ The Matrix, from 1999, its Alice’s Adventures theme running throughout the trilogy. And on a more literary front, 60 years earlier James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake involved a Carroll-inspired dreamscape.

Curiouser and curiouser, you could say. In fact, to paraphrase the Queen, sometimes I believe there have been as many as six adaptations before breakfast.

As to the books themselves, there are definitely a few scenes unpalatable to this scribe, not least the nightmarish Pig and Pepper episode, also involving the fish and frog footmen, the Cheshire Cat, the Cook and the Duchess. Actually, it’s not a million miles from Peter Greenaway’s unsettling 1989 film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. I can only really put it all down to a bad trip.

The quirkiness is at least more humorous if no less surreal at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, its comedy al fresco moves along the table and the butter-soaked watch that only tells the day of the month springing to mind. You certainly get the feeling this was stream of consciousness invention from the Dodgson lad. You never really know what’s coming next, let alone why a raven is like a writing desk.

Our introduction to the Queen is even odder, as if Lewis’ medication had truly kicked in. Off his head, you could say. The RSPCA would have a field day among all those abused hedgehogs and flamingos, as would the NSPCC over that baby that became a pig. Unfit guardians for sure.

I like the Mock Turtle and Gryphon scene for its wordplay and punnery, Carroll’s nonsense in full flow by the time of the trial finale. That said, you get the feeling Lewis had run out of time to reach his deadline, judging by the swift ending, Alice’s adventures more or less written off as a curious riverside dream. In fact, I’ll go as far to say I think I prefer Through the Looking-Glass in certain respects.

Younger Adaptation: The Nursery Alice

Younger Adaptation: The Nursery Alice

Two of Carroll’s finest characters only turn up in that follow-up, Tweedledum and Tweedledee (not to be confused with Cheryl Tweedie) memorably portrayed by Matt Lucas in the Burton flick. Their tiresome battle games seem particularly well observed in the books, spanning the generations nicely.

The legend of the Jabberwocky was likely a big influence on Roald Dahl’s BFG word creations a century later, and there’s a lot of verse in a book published the same year as Edward Lear’s The Owl and The Pussycat. The Walrus and The Carpenter inspired Donovan as much as it did fellow ‘60s experimental artist John Lennon.

Talking of the tripping quality of the story, the Queen wrapping herself up in wool and becoming a sheep in a shop is a case in point. And Alice also gets to meet Humpty Dumpty, the Lion and the Unicorn, plus a Knight in crimson armour with questionable riding skills and a penchant for bizarre and useless inventions.

As a rule, I prefer more realist texts from that Victorian era, but through falling down the rabbit hole and heading through the looking glass Carroll opened up a world of adventure and fantasy to us, and for that I feel we should be grateful.

Incidentally, the author talks in an Easter greeting to readers for an 1876 edition of his ‘book of nonsense’ of ‘that delicious dreamy feeling when one first wakes on a summer morning’ and a ‘pleasure very near to sadness, bringing tears to one’s eyes like a beautiful picture or poem’.  It’s his way of getting over how as a writer there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be ‘mixing together things grave and gay’. And that’s not a bad yardstick for any work of fiction.

Today, 150 years after Dodgson’s day on the river with the Liddell sisters, the Alice stories remain a major part of the history of children’s literature this world over.  What’s more, the original publishers can certainly feel proud of founder Alexander Macmillan’s initial belief in Carroll’s work and the illustrations that helped define these stories, helping create a publishing phenomenon that has been ‘sending readers to Wonderland since 1865’.

So which way ought we go from here? Well, that depends a good deal on where we want to get to. But I’ll finish by detailing how Macmillan plan to mark the 150th anniversary, publishing a series of collectible heritage editions plus new and re-imagined works in its Alice range, including:

downloadThe Complete Alice: a new hardback gift edition (out in early July 2015), comprising the original books alongside archive material, with a new foreword by Philip Pullman, Tenniel’s illustrations coloured by Theaker and Wallis, a previously-deleted episode from the second book, Carroll’s poems and prefaces from four historic Victorian editions, and a new account of Alice‘s creation and first publication.

Then there’s The Little Folks Edition, a new small hardback format edition of 1907’s shorter version of the original tales; The Nursery Alice, a new edition of the very first colour Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, adapted by Carroll and Tenniel for younger readers for publication in 1890; and collectible Macmillan Classics editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass with colour plates, alongside new attractive paperbacks with black and white illustrations.

For younger readers, there’s a range of titles too, not least a new picture book, Alice in Wonderland: Down the Rabbit Hole, complete with an audio version read by Joanne Froggatt, while Macmillan’s baby and toddler imprint Campbell celebrates the anniversary in its Busy series, with plenty of tabs to bring Wonderland to life.

Capital Letters: The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll

Capital Letters: The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll

For those seeking out more information about Charles L. Dodgson, his life as Lewis Carroll and his work, there’s a new paperback must-have for the Alice enthusiast, The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll: Anniversary Edition, while Morton N. Cohen’s definitive biography of the author is out in hardback, and – celebrating the language and fun in the Alice books – September sees the publication of What Would Alice Do? Alice’s Guide to Life, featuring some of the most inspired and humorous quotes  from Carroll’s work.

Meanwhile, Alice Day is on Saturday, July 4th, with activity packs available for libraries, schools and bookshops, in a year in which you can expect an Alice presence at various major literature festivals, a BBC TV documentary presented by Radio 4’s Martha Kearney, and various partnership events (some still being finalised at time of going to press), as well as exclusive commercial tie-ins such as Sophie Allport’s limited edition Alice in Wonderland collection and the OXO Tower Afternoon tea service.

What’s more, there’s plenty of social media and web happenings to be found via the impressive www.aliceinweonderland150.com website and a special Facebook page.

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* Guildford Museum hosts a free Looking in Wonderland exhibition from November 28th, 2015, to January 23rd, 2016, with a selection of the best of Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books on show. For more details, contact details and information about other exhibitions at the Castle Arch centre, head here.

* To book tickets for Damon Albarn and Moira Buffini’s wonder.land musical, head to the Manchester International Festival website or London’s National Theatre site.

* The Story Museum in Oxford, the town where the first story was created, Seven Stories in Newcastle-upon-Tyne may also be organising Wonderland-related activities this year, and are well worth checking out, while The Reading Agency and World Book Day may also be involved. 

* There’s also a comprehensive list of more Alice-themed events around the world to mark the 150th anniversary at the lewiscarrollresources.net website.

*With thanks to Alyx Price and Charlotte Copping at Macmillan for extra background material and official illustrations. 

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