Film and Faction Romance – in conversation with Virginia Heath and Grant Keir

On Location: Mark Dorris sets up a car mount grip with Virginia Heath on the set of Lift Share in the Outer Hebrides

Four months ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Scottish singer/songwriter Kenny Anderson and his band, collectively King Creosote, live-score 2014’s celebrated archive film From Scotland With Love, by New Zealand-born director/screenwriter Virginia Heath.

That Bridgewater Hall show in Manchester proved to be not only the last night of a major tour reprising the group’s role soundtracking an award-winning BAFTA Scotland nominated feature-length documentary, but also my last live show for 19 weeks and counting, the UK-wide lockdown swiftly following.

As it turned out, social distancing of sorts was in place, only around a third of the audience showing up at a time of mixed messages from on high, the film’s universal themes of love, loss, resistance, migration, work and play down the years all the more poignant in the circumstances.

It was a night when I found myself so involved in the moving images unfolding on the big screen that occasionally I’d glance down and remember that there was a band performing, and a cracking one too, much of the credit for that going to Virginia and her editing team for a project originally commissioned by the BBC and Creative Scotland to mark Glasgow’s 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Now it seems apt to look at that from another angle, tracking and tracing Virginia and the film’s producer Grant Keir down to their Edinburgh office, asking two-thirds of the creators of the Faction North film and TV production company how their lockdown’s panned out, not least at a time when UK-wide restrictions have ruled out so much work in the film industry.

Virginia and Grant established the firm in 1998 alongside London-based producer Peter Day, the trio still going strong two decades on, writing, directing and producing drama, documentary, TV and cross-platform production for the international and UK domestic markets.

And while my interviewees play it down that they’re an item, it’s worth noting that their daughter Stella has followed their lead, co-writing last year’s film short Lift Share – funded by Creative Scotland, BFI and Scottish Film Talent Network, starring Ana Ularu and Mark Rowley, with its world premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival, and last year’s best drama short award-winner at Copenhagen Film Festival – with her mother, having graduated from the National Film and Television School last year and already with film editing awards under her belt.

Interior Shot: Producer Grant Keir on the Outer Hebridean film set of Lift Share with co-leading actor Mark Rowley

Virginia and Grant engineered a coffee break to talk to me, at first explaining to me how the company seems to be based both in Edinburgh and Sheffield, Faction North’s first base and where Virginia is a professor of film at Hallam University, a research professor for the art, design and media research centre who also teaches on the MA filmmaking course, and Grant mentoring and teaching producing, pitching and business skills.

While Virginia’s originally from Havelock North on New Zealand’s North Island, Grant grew up in Essex but hails from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, with Scottish heritage. In fact, I kind of assumed he was Scottish at first. Maybe it’s the name. Actually, I mistakenly first referred to him online as Keir Grant, which at least appeals to his socialist leanings. In fact, when I mentioned this again when we spoke, he said, “I’ll take that. I’m happy with that!”.

They were based in Sheffield when they helped set up their company, living near Endcliffe Park, which was in the news last year following a BBC campaign supporting octogenarian Tony Foulds’ lifelong efforts to honour the crew of USAAF B-17 Flying Fortress, Mi Amigo after witnessing the plane crash there as a young lad in 1944.

Home for Virginia and Grant is now north of the border though. But how long have they known each other? The first shared credit I see is for 1997’s Songs from the Golden City documentary, following the story of The Manhattan Brothers, jazz superstars who earned millions for the South African recording company, but never saw a penny in royalties during the dark days of apartheid. Did Virginia and Grant know each other before?

Grant: “Yeah, we’re married actually, but professionally don’t make a song and dance about that. We like to have our own independent existence.”

Many of their films carry strong political and social messages, and in 2009 Virginia – whose impressive CV for drama and documentary films also includes a 2002 Berlin International Film Festival award for best short, Relativity – was commissioned by the UK Human Trafficking Centre to create a film to highlight the issue, interviewing exploited girls and women, and frontline agency workers, going on to make the film My Dangerous Loverboy. A related website and social media channels later increased engagement, the overall project winning a cross-media award from the National Board of Canada and seeing her nominated for a Royal Television Society award, the film extensively used in schools and youth centres, and with frontline agency workers across the UK.

Before that, Virginia directed a number of films for Bandung Productions, who had an international art slot for Channel 4, including three episodes of the Rear Window documentary series (1992/93), Britain’s fourth terrestrial TV channel providing her with her UK television breakthrough. In fact, that channel took a lot of chances in their early years. Is that kind of opportunity still out there?

Summer Still: Jamie Sives and Ana Ularu in Anca Damian’s A Very Unsettled Summer (2013), produced by Grant Keir

Grant, also credited for producing ‘A Very Unsettled Summer’ with award-winning writer/director Anca Damian, and a former Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival board member, said: “It’s a very different beast these days.”

Virginia: “That was extraordinary. Those were very different times, of course. I think it went out on Tuesday evenings at nine, and always got good reviews in the broadsheets, Radio Times, and so on.”

Grant: “The tabloids also liked to cover the Rear Window series, because there were often programmes about black people and black culture, and the Daily Mail and Daily Express used to love ranting and raving about them!”

Virginia: “But we also had a really loyal following and good solid audience that tuned in every week. Of course though, audience viewing habits just aren’t like that anymore.

I suppose there’s a real proliferation of product through additional channels these days, so fewer people see the same alternative shows and documentaries.

Grant: “That’s true, but I think television is still a really important benchmark, sets standards and sets viewing figures too. Talk to any of the social influencers, people marking their careers on Twitter and TikTok and all that – if you offer any of them a slot on television, they’ll bite your hand off. It still sets a kind of social, political media agenda. That for me is what’s so disturbing about all the major channels in the UK evacuating the schedules of serious documentary content. We wouldn’t get to make those films Virginia made back in the day for Bandung and Rear Window. You couldn’t make them now.”

Faction Debut: Songs from the Golden City in 1997 was the first film for the Faction North company

Faction Debut: Songs from the Golden City in 1997 was the first of many film projects for the Faction North company

In a sense it was easier then, with just three channels in my early years then four from the ‘80s.

Grant: “That’s another world now. But the real problem with the proliferation of channels and massive variety of options for people to view things in my opinion – and I don’t mind people watching whatever they want, as long as it’s legal – is that broadcasters then go chasing these fragmented small audiences in the hope they can deliver the ‘eyeballs’ to the advertisers and secure the biggest audiences possible. That’s why you see the rise of factual entertainment, which is blocking out serious documentary filmmaking which actually has something to say. And I mean, what really does Love Island Australia really tell us about anything? That’s my question.”

Virginia: “The Bandung arts slot was incredible. For example, I made a film about a Turkish painter after the Berlin Wall came down, a really interesting time to look at that from an insider’s and outsider’s point of view. This guy’s studio overlooked the wall and his paintings included images from East Germany in them. They were about questions of identity and immigrant populations. A fascinating guy and a fascinating subject. And that was enough. When we contacted him, he couldn’t believe someone from England had seen his work and wanted to make a film about him.

“I also made a film about the first Black South African oil painter, an exile in Paris, and it was a really interesting way of looking at South Africa through an extraordinary painter. Tariq Ali was the commissioning editor and it was almost like he, with his huge cultural and political knowledge, scanned the horizon and picked really fascinating subjects to shine a light on.”

Ever consider follow-up documentaries with those subjects? They would make for similarly fascinating viewing.

Virginia: “Well, you’d never get the funding to do that now.”

Grant: “Gerard Sekoto, that first Black African portrait painter and fine artist, back in the days of apartheid just couldn’t have been an artist. It just wasn’t allowed at a professional level. He’s now dead, unfortunately (he died in Paris in 1993, aged 79), but maybe we could find out about the Turkish subject of the Berlin Wall documentary.

Production Role: Grant Keir – Essex and Tyneside roots, Scottish heritage

“But you’d have to put the usual jigsaw of finance together to make a film. That’s what I do as a producer. That is a long and difficult dance, and increasingly difficult. Even though there’s public money around – and funds like the BFI and Screen Scotland have money – they all have very particular editorial requirements. Match-aligning all the different bits of money around what they need and what they’re looking for is really difficult. You’ve got to have a lot of perseverance.

“Actually, you need enough financial stability to be able to do that long haul to put all the money together. This is where people like us – we’ve been around and at this for more than 30 years – have a network and understand how these things can be done, but if you’re starting out now as a young filmmaker, I think it’s impossible.

“One of the biggest revelations for me in my career was when I realised – I’d be at all these different film festivals and markets and see people putting films together and talking about how they’d done it, and sat there and couldn’t work out how they’d survived for five years while they did all the development. Then I heard a couple of people talking in a bar and realised they were independently wealthy people. They had trust funds behind them or just came from rich families. That’s what allowed them to survive. What that means is that people making films are coming from very particular social strata.”

True enough. I see enough of that in writing and journalism. In most cases, it seems that the writer in the household is not the main wage earner. And you need money behind you to pursue those writing dreams.

Grant: “And of course, it has real impact in the sense that in so many news outlets now the journalists are not journalists, they’re simply rewriting corporate communications rather than journalistic, interrogative, questioning writing.”

So how’s lockdown been for you two? There’s been a lot of talk about theatres being unable to open and people who think that’s not really a problem because they can watch Netflix instead, not joining up the dots and realising where those actors and creatives involved come from, how those films and productions are written and made in the first place, and the importance of the individuals behind the film and television industry.

Grant: “People very rarely understand where the film comes from, which is also why people seem to think it’s okay to steal content and watch things on illegal sites. They will understand if you walk into a shop and steal a t-shirt – that’s theft – but if you watch a film on an illegal website they’ll just think that’s being clever.”

Virginia: “Stealing music as well. Anything that’s reducable to zeroes and ones ….”

Faction North do have new features in advanced development right now though. I saw mention of a couple of psychological thriller feature films you have in advanced development,  and talk of a drama series.

My Direction: Virginia Heath, a long way from Havelock North, New Zealand

Virginia: “At the moment I’m working on a feature documentary. That’s in development and we were due to go back to film in New York in May. We’re not sure when we’re going to be able to go back now, but you can do quite a lot online, and I have researchers I’m working with in the States, so we’re carrying on, pushing forward. The feature films take a lot of time and strategising to get from scripts to screen, and there are still things we’re working on, but again because of the COVID-19 situation we have to rethink.”

Grant: “In the business you’d call those small independent feature films – in the two to five million pound or dollar bracket. The difficulty with them – and this is relatively recent with the rise of Netflix, Amazon, and all that – is that they tie up casts on these long-running drama series, so for an independent film like the ones we make, you have to have a cast to get the film finance – well-known actors. But they get tied up on these series, so it’s really difficult to get the cast to commit. And if you can’t get the cast to commit, you can’t close the finance and can’t make the films.

“Some people have talked about how ironically the COVID-19 thing has disrupted production so much that there might now be opportunities for smaller films, as actors won’t want to be tied up for months on end on something that might not actually go into production, or could be scuppered at any point. So there might be a market for limited appearances – from five to 10 weeks on a film rather than eight months. But we’re yet to see if that’s true.”

It’s been around four years since Virginia’s had the chance to return to her native New Zealand, when From Scotland with Love was part of the New Zealand Film Festival, with successful screenings up and down the country.

Virginia: “It’s almost like having a mini-release of the film around the country and was fantastically successful, with such a big ex-Scottish population, or people of Scottish heritage, there who were very enthusiastic about the film. As a result, we had an idea of doing a From New Zealand With Love, but maybe the first involved a fortunate coalescing of material, having access to some amazing archive, all concentrated in one place. That really helped us put the film together. It was a relatively simple process of accessing the material. But what we’ve realised is that in other places it’s not so simple, and sometimes the archives don’t even own the material they have.”

From Scotland with Love provided my introduction to your work, and it’s a film I’ve re-watched several times. In fact, I recently stumbled across some of the archive material within, seeing the wonderful 1948 Edinburgh-based documentary Waverley Steps again.

Virginia: “That was a gold mine, finding that film. It’s not the greatest film ever, but it’s quite beautifully shot, and I really wanted this theme of love and various love stories and liaisons running through our film.”

Since then I’ve also caught up with last year’s Three Chords and the Truth and loved that too. It’s hard to explain the pull of this short film, but it certainly works. In short, Virginia and her team follow several inspirational home-based manufacturers and fellow enthusiasts extolling the joy of cigar box guitars, these three-stringed instruments lovingly crafted from recycled and upcycled materials by true craftsmen with a twin love of great music, leading to unique (an over-used word, but in this case spot on) designs. The history of the cigar box instrument was borne out of the blues and out of necessity in an era when for many this was the only way to get hold of a guitar. But while its genesis was US-led, this is very much about men in sheds in modern, post-industrial Britain taking that legacy forward.

Cigar Man: John Farr, aka Hollowbelly, gives us Three Chords and the Truth for the short film of the same name

I guess a great documentary – like any great film – needs central characters you believe in and care about, and you get that from Three Chords and the Truth’s Nig Richards, Chickenbone John, Robyn Greig-Brown, Hollowbelly and Dennis Duffy, their stories and inspirational approaches drawing me into the story. And there’s something of the punk DIY ethos that resonates too, their cottage industry, anti-corporate, pro-recycling approach inspirational, the finished products providing an evocative sound that musicians and audiences alike will appreciate.

Virginia: “I basically got to that story through my colleague at Sheffield Hallam, Paul Atkinson, who’s part of the same research centre. He’d written an article, Hairy Guys in Sheds, and was telling me about it in the pub one day, and I thought that would be a really nice subject for a film. That kind of DIY ethos and anti-corporate spirit, making instruments from found materials. I just found it really inspiring.”

My own poor DIY skills suggest any efforts I made would be pathetic, but the sheer passion of those involved really brought the subject alive. And there wasn’t just one stand-out talker – the way those involved talk about the subject help tell the story so well. In fact, that documentary led to a follow-up, Faction North commissioned by the BBC to make a half-hour version, renamed Cigar Box Blues – The Makers of a Revolution, including extra material and footage from a guitar-making workshop.

Virginia: “One of my female colleagues from the university came along to that and managed to produce a great little guitar in a day. There was also a young boy there with his Mum, and Chickenbone John is an extraordinary teacher and just inspired people to make things.

Another film Grant was involved with, at least on the fringes of, also appealed to this music lover, not least considering my ‘70s introduction to pop and rock in the glam years, receiving an associate production credit for Liam Firmager’s splendid 2019 Suzi Q documentary from Screen Australia and Film Victoria, telling the amazing story of Suzi Quatro, its narrative supplemented by revealing interviews with Suzi and her family, plus the likes of Talking Heads’ Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, Alice Cooper, Debbie Harry, Henry Winkler, Joan Jett, K.T. Tunstall, Mike Chapman, Tim Rice, and WriteWyattUK interviewees Don Powell (Slade), Andy Scott (Sweet) and Wendy James (Transvision Vamp).

Grant: “I’m credited as an associate producer on that film as I was trying to raise money for the film in the UK in the early stages. I was very graciously given that credit by the producers. In the end the film was sold to Sky Television and released in cinemas in the UK on a limited release, and Suzi very generously gave us time and supported that with personal appearances and Q&As.

“She’s amazing, and an extraordinary artist. She’s been in the industry for many, many decades, yet didn’t crash and burn, didn’t drink it all away, maintaining a privacy about her life but also remaining available for her fans. And as some of the artists in the film say, young women going into the music industry now should study Suzi Quatro, because she shows you how you can have a long career and not become a casualty and not be exploited.

“Not everyone loves her music, and you can argue about how innovative or not she was, but she was one of the first women to lead a rock band. That in itself is really interesting. The other interesting thing from a British perspective is that she was a star in the UK at a time when she wasn’t a star in America.

“I think people forget the rock industry in America arguably never really had a glam phase. We had Bowie, we had T-Rex, we had Slade, we had Sweet, all big bands in the UK, Europe and sometimes Japan, and they all tried to go to America and make it. But I would argue that America was resistant to a more feminine or more fluid gender image, other than Bowie – the one artist who did actually have a career in America. But what they wanted in America was not ‘Star Man’ and David putting his arm around Mick Ronson. They wanted ‘Let’s Dance’. And even though Bowie was big there, how many people actually understood the depth of his work? The thing with Suzi was that she did eventually have a career in America – not as a rock star though, but a television star on Happy Days.”

There’s plenty of Suzi’s determination and spirit in Virginia too, as I’m sure must be the case for every female director that’s broken through in what until now has been very much a male-led industry. And as she puts it herself, her work is all about investigating ‘questions of female sexuality, identity, empowerment of marginalised voices, and the conflict between different cultural perceptions’.

I ran out of time to find out more about her Kiwi roots this time, but know she studied film at London’s St Martin’s School of Art in the mid-‘80s, albeit a decade too late for the Sex Pistols’ debut gig there and three years before Jarvis Cocker studied Fine Art and Film (although perhaps she met the girl from Greece who had a thirst for knowledge, studied sculpture and wanted to sleep with common people – I’ll have to ask her next time).

But there was just about time to ask both Virginia and Grant what films they saw that inspired them to do what they do.

Virginia: “That’s a really hard question. I fell in love with cinema when I was a kid, because my father absolutely loved cinema. He’d take us to see whatever film that was going at the Saturday pictures in the small town where I grew up. We saw war films, love stories, we saw God knows what.”

It sounds like a Cinema Paradiso type upbringing.

Virginia: “I would say one of the films that always sticks in my mind and made me absolutely love cinema was (Bernardo) Bertolucci’s The Conformist (Il Conformista), an extraordinary combination of being quite political but with this really powerful, slightly leftfield love story – that combination of politics and love and sex is the kind of film I really admire. I love all sorts of cinema, but I think that film for me really sums up what cinema can do.

“It’s an Italian film, subtitled, and it’s never going to be a huge mainstream film, but it’s a real example of a film that can look at politics and look at our lives in a really profound way, but it’s also extremely sensual and entertaining, and the acting, the cinematography and the production design all kind of work together to create an absolutely immersive, extraordinary experience. I was probably in my late teens when I first saw that.”

Grant: “The film I would reference that made me want to be a producer was Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle for Algiers, just in the media again recently as Ennio Morricone did the soundtrack. Everyone remembers him for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and rightly so, but for me that film is a perfect combination of cinema as political consciousness, history telling and inspiring people to fight for their rights.

“And I think that’s what cinema is there for – to reflect the world back at us but also inspire us to make a better world.”

For more about the work of Faction North, head to the company’s website via this link, and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Ferry Share: Virginia Heath, centre, with Mark Rowley and Ularu off to the Outer Hebrides to film the Lift Share short

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The rise and rise of Fontaines D.C. – in conversation with Conor Deegan III

Dune Pride: Fontaines D.C. From left – Conor Deegan III, Conor Curley, Grian Chatten, Tom Coll, Carlos O’Connell

Technical issues ensured I was 10 minutes late getting hold of Fontaines D.C. bass player Conor Deegan III, aka Deego. But if he was rattled by that – with another appointment lined up 20 minutes later across Dublin City, the band base that provides their initial suffix, so to speak – he wasn’t letting on.

Then again, there is that key line on the title track of their new LP, A Hero’s Death, telling us, ‘Never let a clock tell you what you got time for; It only goes around, goes around, goes around’.

However, there’s an air of professionalism about this band, also featuring Grian Chatten (vocals), Carlos O’Connell (guitar), Conor Curley (guitar), and Tom Coll (drums). Hard living maybe, but friendly with it, and definitely focused. I saw it when they played a short set at Preston’s Blitz nightclub when mighty debut album Dogrel came out last summer – going on to earn a Mercury Prize nomination and BBC 6 Music’s Album of the Year status – and it’s still very much part of their make-up.

A bit of background first, with Grian born this side of the Irish Sea (just … in Barrow-in-Furness) but growing up in a Dublin seaside town, while Deego and Tom hail from Castlebar in County Mayo (Deego’s been known to wear Mayo GAA tops during live performances), fellow Conor is from County Monaghan, and Carlos grew up in Madrid. But they met in Dublin, attending the British & Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM), bonding over a love of poetry, their name taken from Al Martino’s singer/movie star character Johnny Fontane in The Godfather, Vito Corleone’s godson; the Dublin City initials added to differentiate from an LA outfit.

Self-releasing their first single in May 2017, ‘Liberty Belle’, in tribute to the Liberties, the Dublin neighbourhood where band members lived, that acclaimed debut LP – like this one, on Partisan Records –  followed within two years, its title in homage to doggerel, a form of working-class Irish poetry that’s eased itself into the English language over time since the 17th century.

With introductory excuses behind me, I asked Deego how he and his bandmates – who were set to perform at the 50th anniversary of Glastonbury Festival, perhaps the highest profile casualty of so many this summer – had fared during the lockdown.

“It was actually really nice, weirdly enough. Me and Carlos went to Mayo in the west of Ireland, quarantined there with some friends in a cottage by the sea.”

Those who saw the band’s cracking promo video for new LP title track ‘A Hero’s Death’ on the BBC’s Later with Jools will be familiar with that location, its lyrics described by Grian as ‘a list of rules for the self’. Funnily enough, I was going to ask Deego whose dresser that was behind him in their socially-distanced promo film.

“That was our friend’s Granny’s house, while she was living with their parents.”

And where did frontman Grian record his part? Where’s that headland?

“That was in rural Dublin. He’s from a seaside town in Dublin, so it was probably there.”

Such a great way to announce a return, this scribe hooked from the first listen, its repeated ‘Life ain’t always empty’ mantra over an ever-building, stunning track mesmerising. And while I’d only had a couple of plays of the new record – out on July 31st, its title inspired by the line, ‘Everybody’s looking for a hero’s death’ in The Hostage by Irish playwright Brendan Behan, and the album art featuring the statue of mythological Irish warrior Cuchulainn that stands in Dublin as a commemoration of the Easter Rising – when I spoke to Deego, I could already tell it was a grower, very different but equally sharp, not so immediate as Dogrel.

That said, three of the first tracks to resonate were apparently among the oldest – the title track plus ‘I Was Not Born – its Wedding Present-like guitar (around the time of Bizarro, and perhaps ‘Bewitched’ in particular for these ears) towards the end jumping out at me – and the similarly-urgent ‘Televised Mind’. In fact, all three remain just as powerful a few more lsitens down the line.

“Yeah, ‘A Hero’s Death’ was written when we listened back to Dogrel first, so that was probably written in October 2018, with ‘I Was Not Born’ around the same time, and ‘Televised Mind’ maybe a little later.”

Yet there’s even a different feel from those tracks to those on the first record, and that to me suggests constant evolution. They wouldn’t necessarily have fitted in any earlier.

“Yeah, maybe. I think we just kind of had sounds we wanted to explore and mess around with, certain songs like ‘Living in America’.”

Now there’s a case in point, one suggesting that earlier experimentation I hinted at. It could almost be The Jesus and Mary Chain in places. Anyway, carry on, Deego.

“But then, like you say, there are certain songs which are a development of what we were doing on the first album, like ‘A Lucid Dream’. I think that’s kind of like ‘Too Real’ in a way.”

I’m loving the LP more and more with every listen, from opening track, ‘I Don’t Belong’ right through to reflective closing number, ‘No’,  the introductory number coming with its own neat promo video, directed by Deego. And there’s much to wallow in throughout the record, tracks like ‘I Don’t Belong’ carrying the air of the early feel of WriteWyattUK favourites The Wolfhounds. And there are those surprising moments, like on the reflective ‘Oh Such a Spring’, all seemingly some way away from the live tour de force we heard last time around.

Fontaines Five: Conor Deegan III, Carlos O’Connell, Conor Curley, Grian Chatten, Tom Coll (Photos: Richard Dumas)

In fact, I can’t better the part of the official press release with the album suggesting Grian – and the band in turn – is ‘sounding like someone riddled with angst yet resolved to protect their own freedom at all costs’ on the opening track. It adds, ‘If not a retreat, it almost sounds like a defensive rebuke of ‘Big’ — Fontaines’ last album opener, the one that rushed out the gates hungry to consume the whole world while proclaiming ‘My childhood was small; But I’m gonna be big!’. The fact that Fontaines D.C.’s new album A Hero’s Death begins with ‘I Don’t Belong’ is hard to take as anything but a pointed inversion, the music moodier and the lyrics more searching. Though the tone is noticeably different, the introduction is no less intentional: This is not the same Fontaines D.C.’ And as Carlos adds, “When we wrote this album it was a reaction to the success of Dogrel. We started to feel very detached from who we were when we wrote Dogrel.”

It’s now 15 months since my first live sighting of Fontaines D.C., arranged through Preston’s premier independent record shop and occasional label Action Records. And there was definitely something there that made me think this band were going places. I’m not always right, but there was real presence on stage, and true chemistry between them all. They knew their way around each other and had clearly gelled well together. They made it seem effortless yet raw.

“Yeah, we actually worked our arses off rehearsing in the summer of 2018 when we were set to go in to record the album, having never done that before. We were really nervous, and we couldn’t believe we’d managed to fool them into giving us a record deal, that kind of mentality. But we also knew, ‘Now we must do the work’, thinking, ‘Oh shit! We need to record these songs’. So we got them really tight. I learned so many things about songs, like the chord progressions that were going on, bar counts, all these sort of things.”

Last year, apparently they toured 50 locations throughout Ireland, Europe, and North America, including dates with Shame and Idles. They also played nine sets at SXSW in Houston, Texas over five days, selling out venues.

I recall coming up after the show at Blitz with my youngest daughter to get the LP signed, I told Deego, just one of many in that awkward situation where you’re trying too hard to say something interesting. And it can’t be easy, being sat there making small talk back.

“It’s actually something you don’t ever get used to. To do it right you need to be present, otherwise you’re kind of there with glazed eyes – some kind of dickhead, not respecting the fact that people have come to see you and want to talk to you. You have to engage with all those people in a genuine way, knackering as that is.”

They were nothing less than courteous though, to a man, yet looked so tired. And that was only the beginning of that UK leg of a first headline tour.

“Yeah, we were coming off the back of two to three years’ solid drinking in Dublin as well, so we were kind of weakened from the get-go.”

I think that’s what he said, although I initially googled ‘Gecko’ to see if it was a Dublin beer. I did find a Honduran craft beer, so maybe he was namechecking that. Perhaps the manufacturers could send me a case so I could so some further research.

On a similar subject, Grian felt the band found themselves growing not only distant from one another, but distant from themselves, saying, “We experienced full journeys where we didn’t speak to each other. It wasn’t because we didn’t love each other anymore. Our souls were kicking back against walls that were closing in. We had no space for ourselves. Our souls had nowhere to live, nowhere to lie.”

Has this lockdown, I asked Deego, given the band an unexpected chance to reflect on a mad couple of years, and put things in perspective?

“Yeah, sure. I think we’ve all got a lot more appreciation for our jobs. And they’re good jobs, y’know. It’s easy to get swept up in the stress of it and not see the bigger picture.”

With all the praise for the first album from fans and critics alike, it would have been easy to be swept up by the hype. It must be difficult to ensure you’re not affected. But I guess this enforced break has helped. Besides, many bands in that situation have gone on to disappear up their own backsides.

“Yeah, I think the way we were all raised means I don’t think any of us are super-capable of getting massive egos. But there’s still hope – we could still turn into dickheads!”

How would you compare this LP to Dogrel, which I guess was your take on that vital first album, like The Clash or The Jam’s In the City or The Undertones maybe (incidentally, Undertones Mk.II frontman Paul McLoone, a presenter on Dublin’s Today FM, has long since championed the band)? That first record featured an immediate set of songs you’d lived with a little longer, and was perhaps more of you in a raw sense. Whereas this one seems more experimental or crafted.

“Yeah, we’ve come a long way, and touring makes you a little more introverted in a way. We were listening to a lot of mellow songs, kind of de-stressing in the van, and that kind of impacted on our style of writing.”

There’s mention in your press release of ‘60s influences like The Beach Boys, Suicide, Leonard Cohen and Lee Hazlewood coming through, and that comes over in particular on the penultimate song, the delightfully-dreamy ‘Sunny’, not least with its Brian Wilson qualities, a lovely bit of wonky and twangy guitar, some gorgeous harmonies, and subtle strings.

“That was actually the song we were going to try and build the album around, try and go in that direction. But we also wanted to write authentically and genuinely, and the other songs we ended up writing sounded nothing like that, so …”

A few artists have inevitably seen their records put back these past few months, and that can lead to frustration if you’re enthused about new material you’ve written since. Was that the case with you? Was this a good time for songwriting for the band?

“Yeah, definitely. We’re in writing again now, in the rehearsal room, seeing what comes out.”

And were there songs held back from this latest LP?

“There were tracks we cut off the album, but I think we were just trimming the fat. We did the same with Dogrel.”

You clearly work well with Dan Carey, who produced both this LP and your debut at his studio in Streatham, south London.

“Oh yeah, he’s a great dude. He’s a really great producer.”

By this stage, it sounds like Deego is setting a house alarm and is starting to walk across town, the sound of traffic cutting in here and there. I’m nearly done though.

When you went into the studio, were the songs pretty much fully formed? Or was it work in progress?

“For the first album the songs were more or less fully formed, but for the second we’d recorded in LA already and had got a little confused over the identity. They kind of needed re-orientating. They were essentially the same but just needed a new haircut … or like a scarf or something.”

Speaking of which, have you still got the bleached hair we see in the afore-mentioned band promo version of ‘A Hero’s Death’?

“I do actually. The roots are coming out a little bit, but I might re-dye it.”

It’s a good look. And in conclusion, this new record doesn’t suggest you’re a band out to try and give us Dogrel Pt. II, as great an album as that was, compromising your own development for the sake of a couple of hit records.

“No, I don’t think so … unless we wrote a double album or something like that.”

Well, there’s something to look forward to. Maybe a Dublin Calling, seeing as I mentioned The Clash earlier. And now you seem to be getting closer to touring again, are you looking forward to that?

“Yeah, very much so. It’ll be good to be back out on the road.”

There are some big venues this time too.

“There are. We played Brixton Academy last time, so I think that kind of warmed us up for all of them apart from the Ally Pally (Alexandra Palace, South London). That’ll be a massive show.”

It’s all happened so fast for them, or at least that’s how it seems to me. I wrote after your Blitz show in Preston, ‘They’ve a hard slog ahead if they’re to carry on unaffected by all the hype, but they’re up to that judging by the recorded product and relentless itinerary so far. And whether this is the start of something ‘Big’ or just a brief aligning of the stars is irrelevant.’ Now I can see – just from a couple of listens to the new record – they’ve well and truly moved beyond that stage. They’re definitely here to stay.

When you set out on this journey at music college in Dublin, did you have a clear vision of where you should be headed, and if so, have those expectations and goals changed by the year?

“I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I think our expectations have become more specific, because we’ve got a clear image of how the music industry works and how our path has gone on, but when we were young we were very ambitious and always had this idea of being a massive band. That’s just the way you dream. You don’t dream of playing in small rooms, do you?”

True … although I’ll always prefer those more intimate settings.

“Oh, I do love playing those places. Don’t get me wrong. But when you’re young and starry-eyed … you dream big.”

Even if your childhoods were small. Well, as long as you stay out of the stadia, I’m happy with that … selfish as that may seem.

“Ah … is that too far? How big is a stadium?”

That’s a good question … I guess I’m talking tens of thousands, capacity-wise. Getting on for U2 type fame. I’d still rather see you do a week of dates at a smaller venue.

“Ah … well, you better avoid the Ally Pally then.”

I guess I could make an exception for such an iconic venue. And I couldn’t be more pleased for you, really. I’m just glad it’s going so well for you.

“Ah, cheers – thanks a lot!”

Liberties Takers: Fontaines D.C. are hoping to be back over in the UK come next May, all being well, COVID-19-wise.

After a scheduled appearance at France’s Levitation Festival in October, four dates in Australia in December, and – moving into 2021 – 18 European dates between La Riviera in Madrid on March 10th and L’Olympia in Paris on April 1st, Fontaines D.C.’s next 15 UK dates start with two shows at Manchester Academy on May 7th and 8th and finish at London’s Alexandra Palace on May 27th. For full details (including more about how to pre-order the new LP) head over to fontainesdc.com. You can also find tour tickets via metropolismusic.com, seetickets.com and ticketmaster.co.uk.

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Broadcasting On the Wire after all these years – in conversation with Steve Barker

It’s been 42 years since St Annes-based East Lancs lad Steve Barker made his broadcasting debut on Radio Blackburn, his contributions to the RPM magazine show leading to him helping usher in the 1980s with follow-up, Spin Off, and in turn a show that has remained on air ever since, On the Wire.

But the coronavirus lockdown saw Steve and his team – chiefly Clitheroe-based UCLan lecturer Jim ‘Jimbo’ Ingham, producing and engineering, and on-air sidekick Michael ‘Fenny’ Fenton – exit BBC local radio schedules for the first time in 36 years, their initial spell working remotely curtailed and leading to a notable gap on the station timetable and turntables.

Not as if Steve stopped or has any intention of stopping, the septuagenarian having entered the realms of internet broadcasting via MixCloud instead. But with his departure from BBC Radio Lancashire came a listeners’ backlash that has already led to more than 1,000 names on a petition against its removal, the station itself insisting the show has been ‘rested’ rather than axed.

His BBC online listing suggests Steve’s legendary freeform show involves ‘the latest leftfield releases in electronica, ambient and dub/reggae’, promoting underground and new music every weekend as Saturday turns to Sunday. But don’t try categorising exactly what it is he does, that remit having altered somewhat over the years, even during each show maybe, its main presenter never keen on lazy labelling and putting names on boxes. And perhaps that’s a major part of the success of what for some time has been recognised as ‘the longest running continuous alternative music show on UK radio’.

I write this knowing that many readers here will know most of the story already, but the man behind the mic. was among the first to interview The Smiths and Depeche Mode, and in the late ‘80s played various crossover dance tracks before anyone else. He also helped stage a memorable free gig at Clitheroe Castle by The Fall in 1985, with Mark E. Smith having already guested on the show, as was the case with reggae artist turned producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. And the reputation of each hardly suggests a presenter not willing to take risks on air. Yet there was rarely an easy relationship with BBC management, the show threatened by cuts long before this latest move, previously saved with the help of fiercely loyal listeners across Lancashire and worldwide.

After the initial mid-March Government lockdown, two On the Wire programmes were made remotely via the BBC before Blackburn-based Radio Lancashire switched to an ‘almost skeletal structure’, as Steve put it, the show continuing via MixCloud while restructuring talks went on behind the scenes at the corporation to undergo cost cutting moves nationwide, the axe seemingly ever closer. Then, after brief discussions between Steve and station managing editor John Clayton and what the presenter described as ‘unanswered’ emails to higher up the BBC corporate tree, he felt he had no option to but to make public the resultant decision.

Steve wrote, “The BBC announced that, as ‘part of its future plans’, the basic structure for local radio would remain as it is now and all late broadcasting would be shared across the local network, those slots would eventually be competed. For On the Wire this inevitably means the end of its relationship with the BBC.

“For me personally and the team, no BBC representative has taken the trouble to formally inform us that On the Wire is not required, discuss any possible future for the programme or even thanked us for running the show without break since 1984….. or even said anything at all, save the local manager telling me by a quick phone call I would not be getting another contract and he was really sorry …”

Broadcast Innovator: Steve Barker, a key part of the BBC local radio network for more than 40 years … and counting

In a further statement to Lancashire county councillors, he added, “On The Wire features a vast array of different music and has a reputation not just at county level but also regionally, nationally and internationally. From the comments made on a petition launched last week it is clear that the programme is revered and respected by listeners everywhere, as well as by journalists and the music industry. Total signatories now exceed 1,000 protesting the cultural deficit that would occur with the loss of On the Wire.

“Last week Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC, said, ‘We’re not going to move away from specialist music on BBC local radio’. But this is the first time the subject has even been mentioned, probably in response to growing public dissatisfaction at the lack of consultation.”

Steve further appealed to those councillors to show support via social media, signing the petition, and writing to John Clayton and also BBC head of local radio, Chris Burns.

In response to those emails, John Clayton directed those contacting him to a national statement including the premise that the BBC ‘has to make savings to address the financial challenges the organisation faces’. He added, ‘We have set out proposals to transform what we do across the country, including on local radio, but remain fully committed to providing local content, including community and specialist music programming, and are talking to our stations about what their schedules could look like.’

On a more specific note, he wrote, “I fully appreciate your concerns for On The Wire and I am very much aware of the programme’s history, its reputation and its standing within the world of music. It has been a fixture in our schedules for considerably longer than my 20-year tenure as editor and, prior to March, I assumed that would remain the case for some time to come. Now, although Steve and the team continue to make a weekly edition which is shared via Mixcloud, it has been rested from the BBC Radio Lancashire schedule … along with a number of our other specialist programmes … because of the pandemic. The emergency schedule was put in place to help us significantly reduce the number of people using our buildings in order to minimise the risk of spreading the virus. It is also designed to make it easier for stations in our network to opt in and out of the output from sister stations, should they find that they are unable to sustain all programmes because of absence through illness or the need for colleagues to shield or self-isolate.

“It is now proposed that the emergency schedule will become a permanent arrangement as BBC England looks to play its part in achieving the huge savings required. If the plan is implemented there will be an England-wide Late Show each night between  10pm and 1am which means that we will no longer be able to broadcast On The Wire at midnight on Saturday, the timeslot it has occupied for many, many years. The challenge is to work out if and how the programme can still be accommodated within our reduced schedule. It’s important to bear in mind here that there are a number of community and specialist programmes, all of which are loved and respected by their devoted followings, which would also require a new home in our schedule. There’s also a further question about the affordability of sustaining a schedule rich in this type of programming when we are likely to be expected to get by with a smaller budget. Although individual programmes may not necessarily appear terribly expensive, the cumulative effect of handful of these programmes can have significant impact on our tiny share of the licence fee.

“Clearly there is work to be done but, as things stand, On The Wire remains ‘rested’ but not ‘axed’. It is true that Steve’s contract has been ended for the time being but that was simply a matter of practicality and he has been treated in exactly the same way as countless other freelance presenters across the BBC who have seen their programmes taken off the air because of our response to the pandemic. It is unfortunate but I am sure that most licence fee payers would question the wisdom of a corporation continuing to pay people when they are not making their programmes, especially when that corporation is facing such a huge financial challenge.

“I appreciate that this will not fully allay your concerns about the future of On the Wire, but I hope that it reassures you that the so-called axe has not fallen yet and that we will continue to look for practical solutions. It’s early days as the decision about the schedule was only announced a weeks or so ago and there has been a lot to take in and assess, with staff understandably concerned about the large number of job losses across English Regions.   And in the end, should we not be able to make On The Wire part of our post-virus schedule, I can assure you that we will certainly mark Steve’s significant contribution to the BBC in general, and BBC Radio Lancashire in particular, in appropriate fashion. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that just yet.”

Treble Rebel: David Rodigan, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Steve Barker, ever ready to share their love of good music

Reflecting on his previous statement, I felt Steve carried a sense of inevitability about the BBC decision when I called him, although you could tell he was also hurt.

“I think I’ve been reasonable, really. Our view – me, Jimmy and Fenny – is that the BBC has left us. But I’ve clearly got a few issues. I don’t think any employer, of whatever ilk, should treat somebody who’s worked for them for 42 years in the way I’ve been treated … cursorily.

“I think it’s rude and I think it’s disrespectful, and in many ways just incredible. I know there’s lots of other things going on, but the BBC’s no different to anyone else. We all like to be dealt with in a clear and respectful way. And it’s clear if you look at the petition that people see On the Wire as something that the BBC should be proud of.”

Friend of this website Rico la Rocca – behind several John Peel tribute nights in Lancashire in recent years in his Tuff Life Boogie promoter’s guise – and an avid listener to On the Wire over the decades, sees the show as ‘a genuine local landmark, with a global reach, that should not be removed from the airwaves’.

He added, “Even though On the Wire has not been broadcast by Radio Lancashire during the lockdown, Steve has continued to post weekly two-hour shows of new music on Mixcloud. I can’t think of many BBC 6 Music or Radio 1 DJs who would bother to do that if they got taken off.

“I’ve listened on and off for 35 years and I’m still feeling guilty I didn’t manage to organise an On the Wire tribute show when I was doing gigs, alongside the John Peel ones I did. Steve’s cultural importance is on a par with Peel’s. I suggest everyone signs the petition and considers writing to BBC management to let them know what we think about these proposals.”

And that seems to sum up the feelings of many listeners, I put to Steve.

“Exactly. We do what we do, we do it from Lancashire, and we’re proud of being from Lancashire, we always have been, and we’re all from Lancashire, but we play music from around the world. We play music that excite sus and we think people will enjoy, and that seems to be a pretty clear intent.”

Turning Tables: Esteemed producer Adrian Sherwood and presenter Steve Barker, in action on the record decks.

The new online version is little different from the BBC operation, although Steve now records from home on the Fylde coast, albeit still with technical assistance from Jimbo and contributions from Fenny. In fact, Steve told me Jimbo’s only his third engineer, both predecessors still involved to an extent, the second now Glasgow-based but running the show’s Facebook group.

Looking at On the Wire’s website and Facebook page, it’s clear there’s a lot of love out there for the show from a proper community of listeners from across Lancashire and far away, as has always been. John Peel was a fan, and so too is BBC 6 Music’s Stuart Maconie, who started listening after a tip-off from a student while teaching in Skelmersdale in the ’80s, telling Steve Urquhart in the splendid Greetings Music Lover audio documentary – celebrating 40 years of his namesake Steve Barker on air, also featuring rare archive material and including interviews with On-U Sound’s Adrian Sherwood, the legendary Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and veteran reggae DJ David Rodigan – “People would drive from other parts of the country, park their cars up on remote hillsides in Dobcross and Blackburn, so they could get within the signal.”

What’s more, while Steve refers to himself and colleagues as ‘old guys like us’, he clearly still has a passion for what he does, in the same way Peelie did, with a continuing inspirational desire to seek out new sounds.

“That’s the other thing. There’s so much good new music, and a lot of what we play isn’t played elsewhere on the BBC. And last time we were saved in the early ‘90s, John helped a lot and the BBC board said we were a ‘unique product’.”

Steve’s been based in St Annes for the last 30 years, and while he doesn’t tend to return to his Brierfield roots in the east of his home county, he’s been known to get back to Burnley FC’s Turf Moor ‘now and again’, priding himself on being one of the few Clarets fans at what was originally Radio Blackburn, adding that his two On the Wire colleagues are both Rovers fans.

He had a season ticket when Burnley won the league title in the 1959/60 season, although he reckons even then he’d pass people on the way to the ground wearing Manchester United colours. Yet perhaps in music as in football, he’s always been more about championing underdogs, I suggested.

“We were always a big music family, and would always have it on, usually pop in the ‘50s, then Radio Luxembourg. But I got subverted at school by an older boy, when I was in my early teens, converting us to Ray Charles and James Brown. Then I got into country-blues, before the British blues bloom, becoming this horrible, snotty, superior muso!”

Steve was at Nelson Grammar School then, in time heading for the capital to study for a diploma in journalism at Regent Street Poly in 1967. Was there a career plan by then?

“I wanted to do journalism, but unfortunately was a victim of the time. People were rebelling and dropping out, doing the alternative thing, but a lot had comfortable middle-class backgrounds to lean on. Whereas I was just a working-class lad from Lancashire. I didn’t want to do house journalism, but it was a fantastic place. Pink Floyd were there at the same time, doing architecture.”

Foreign Travels: Steve Barker during time out from Radio Lancashire, at Shelter in Shanghai. But the show went on

That year, 1967 saw the arrival of BBC Radio 1 (and myself, I might add), but Steve didn’t stick around to give kindred spirit Peelie, newly arrived from pirate station Radio London, a run for his money, instead moving on to Keele University. His CV was already shaping up though, Steve one of the first to interview Jimi Hendrix, something he did twice, in London then Manchester (although he told me the original cassette was thrown out many years ago). There was also an interview with Yoko Ono around the same time he spoke to Hendrix, and David Bowie was once a neighbour, borrowing one of his records.

“I lived in Beckenham for a bit, and he used to come ‘round to see a mate. I had a copy of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes on quarter-inch … which he borrowed. He was a nice enough chap. It was around the time of ‘Space Oddity’. He needed prompting to return it though. Ha!”

Steve initially returned to the North West to work in Liverpool, for the DHSS, where he met wife Jan, moving back down to London in 1975, living for a couple of years in Notting Hill. He added, ‘the rest is history, with four kids and 10 grandchildren for me and Jan’.

There’s Scout too, his nine-year-old Dalmatian, following in the paw-steps of Herbie (named after Herbie Hancock) and Jammy the Jack Russell (after Prince Jammy). Everywhere a music link, it seems. When Steve’s not recording or preparing shows, he’s writing a reggae/dub column and reviews for The Wire magazine. And while in Lancashire for much of his broadcasting career, he still has plenty of tales of adventures in London.

“I’d only been there a week and got a call from a mate, who said his mate had a band and did I want to see them. So we went round to this pub at Red Lion Square in Holborn, and he introduced me to his mate, who was Malcolm McLaren … and we saw his band, the Sex Pistols, in their second gig, supporting pub rock band, Roogalator.”

History in the making, that show at the Central School of Art on November 7th, 1975, just a day after the Pistols’ St Martin’s School of Art debut. And when he moved back down to London, was there already a personal fascination – for a presenter whose first song played on the radio was by The Abyssinians – for reggae, dub, and all that?

“I’d say it was an interest and awareness, but it wasn’t a fascination and involvement. It was a fantastic place to be though. You walked along Ladbroke Grove and Portobello Road and the reggae was just there, pumping out. It was brilliant. I started buying a few reggae albums. Just open at the time was the Rough Trade shop, with Geoff Travis, and I’d pop up the road to Honest Jon’s. All these people I’ve known a long time.”

The Smith: The Fall’s Mark E Smith in action at Clitheroe Castle in 1985, during a live  show broadcast by On the Wire

Living in the neighbourhood, were you on hand as Joe Strummer and bandmate Paul Simonon made a nuisance of themselves on Notting Hill Carnival day in ’76, the inspiration for The Clash’s debut single ‘White Riot’?

“Ha! Yeah … it wasn’t me! Of course, we did interview The Clash, in 1980 on the ‘Bankrobber’ tour, ending up with a bit of a fight in the toilets in the dressing room with The Notsensibles. They interviewed The Clash, and I interviewed Mikey Dread.”

It was RPM in 1978 that provided Steve’s foot in the door, broadcasting-wise, while Spin Off in 1980 truly saw  things come together, the station rebranded Radio Lancashire the following year. Then in September 1984 the initial three-hour On the Wire started going out on Sunday afternoons. Did that slot suit him?

“In a way. For the show it was fantastic. At the time there was no internet, shops weren’t open, you’d go out on Saturday night, have a good time, then have a bit of a lie-in. There was bugger all else to do. You could just chill out and listen to On the Wire. We had a fantastic listenership across the North West, and ever since we’ve been like this anachronism on the BBC.”

The time slot switched around, including a Thursday night before moves towards the current weekend midnight slot. And there was that brief foray into concert promotion, The Fall playing Clitheroe Castle in 1985, carrying near-legendary status now (as mentioned in my recent interview with fellow On the Wire fan and friend of Mark E. Smith, Ajay Saggar). Did it all go swimmingly from Steve’s point of view, I asked, mischievously.

“Funny, isn’t it, we put that on and said we were doing it but didn’t really know what was going to happen. We knew we could broadcast it though. Those old school BBC technicians were fantastic, they could do anything. But we didn’t think two and a half thousand people would turn up … and that there’d be one policeman! Ha! In fact, the production editor of Q magazine sent me a fantastic, unpublished photo this week of Mark E Smith on stage there, which I hadn’t seen before.

“We also put on The Mel-o-tones at the same venue about a month or two later, with maybe around 400 people there … but there were loads of police. Ha! Then there was Manchester’s Ritz Ballroom for a Christmas party in ‘88, around 1,800 in. That was fantastic – 808 State, A Guy Called Gerald …”

Incidentally, the day before I spoke to Steve, I saw a 1989 Top of the Pops rerun featuring 808 State, when ‘Pacific State’ charted. And On the Wire were also champions of those bands, again providing some of their earliest radio airplay.

Double Trouble: ‘Jimbo’ Ingham and Steve Barker at work on another Saturday night on air at BBC Radio Lancashire.

Mind you, when I put that about Clitheroe Castle to Rico la Rocca, who missed The Fall as it was the day before one of his O-levels but attended the Mel-o-tones show, he doubted Steve’s optimistic 400 attendance figure for the second show, reckoning it was ‘more like 50 or 60 tops’. He added, “We had to go before the end of the set because the last bus from Clitheroe on a Sunday was something ridiculous like a quarter to five. But the Mel-o-tones were a great Liverpool band on Probe Plus that Steve used to play a lot. They were three blokes in their early 20s and Martin Dempsey, the guitarist from The Yachts, who was the sort of experienced older head ‘pop’ influence. They did a couple of EPs and then the lads dumped Martin and did their own thing as The Walking Seeds. Bob Parker, bass player in the Mel-o-tones and guitarist from the Walking Seeds manages the Probe record shop in Liverpool.”

As I understand it, the last BBC Lancashire show in mid-March was the 1,850th edition of On the Wire, but I’d stress again here that on the whole I found Steve diplomatic about the situation during our chat, affable as anyone who knows him will tell you. Hurt about a lack of communication from the top regarding the show’s axe, but at the same time philosophical about it all.

I get the feeling – as with Governmental motives of late – that times of crises always bring kneejerk, quick-fix reactions that often do more harm than good. In this case, maybe On the Wire was seen as easy pickings for the chop by bigwigs far higher up the corporate tree than those involved with the show at county level like John Clayton, looking for more obvious examples of shows that might not necessarily fit in with an accepted premise of what works with a perceived station ethos.

Yet no balance sheet will tell you the true value of this broadcasting enigma and proud oddity. And it seems that those behind the decision – be it temporary or not – again over-looked the strength of feeling out there among the show’s long-term fans. I’m not looking for alternative scapegoats, but when you compare the amount of new music put our way by Steve and his team compared to what Steve Wright’s given us these last four decades on national radio …

On a more positive note, Steve and co. and their army of listeners have successfully fought previous battles over the years and come out victorious. And maybe they will again. In fact, Steve tells a lovely tale about a fresh young buck who joined Radio Lancashire in the early ‘90s and his behind the scenes war with Steve, including illuminating detail of what he initially perceived Steve to be playing in his ‘graveyard’ slot. And while Steve actually appreciates a bit of Dire Straits, that’s not quite what he was offering.

So where are we at now? Well, Steve and his team intend to keep putting out shows ‘every week at Saturday midnight with no changes to our modus operandi other than we could run over time a bit’. And therefore they continue, On the Wire.

I hope Deadbait blogger Matthew Jones, who started the petition supporting the show,  doesn’t mind me finishing this feature with his own conclusion about the show and what it means to him and many more listeners. For the full piece, I’ll direct you here, but I feel this closing paragraph about On the Wire says so much.

“It’s a piece of solid gold, an oasis of new, strange and unusual wonders, a trove of hitherto undiscovered treasures from the past, a kaleidoscopic window on so many worlds. It’s two hours of headspace and it goes from strength to strength. Gently evolving, always moving yet always in the same place. It’s just some people playing records, but so much more at the same time. It weaves a world of magic, takes you somewhere and shows you things you didn’t already know. If that’s not what the BBC licence fee is for, then I don’t know what is.”

Studio Tan: Steve Barker, flat cap firmly in place, broadcasts to the world via Lancashire, but no longer from Blackburn

For more information about On the Wire and the petition to push for its reinstatement on BBC local radio – which you can find via this link you can head to the On the Wire website, where you’ll also find various archive shows and can listen to Steve Urquhart’s 2018 Greetings Music Lover audio documentary. And to personally voice your opinion, the BBC is open to feedback via BBC Radio Lancashire managing editor john.clayton@bbc.co.uk, copying in head of BBC local radio, chris.burns@bbc.co.uk

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Somehow still finding his way home and away – the Jon Anderson interview

Family Portrait: Jon Anderson, the prog rock legend caught on canvas by his eldest daughter, Deborah Anderson

More than 50 years after his debut recordings with Yes, Lancashire-born US citizen and legendary vocalist and songwriter Jon Anderson remains enthused about his music, eager to spread the word about his 15th solo album.

The prog rock icon is about to see the wider release of 1000 Hands, which took 28 years to complete and is out digitally on July 31st, with a CD and deluxe double-gatefold vinyl LP issue following a fortnight later via Blue Élan Records.

The title refers to the numerous guest musicians involved with the record, including Jethro Tull legend and namesake Ian Anderson; Jon’s fellow Yes alumni Steve Howe, Alan White, and the late Chris Squire; more recent sidekick Jean-Luc Ponty (Mothers of Invention); plus Billy Cobham and Chick Corea (Miles Davis), Steve Morse (Deep Purple), and Belgium’s Zap Mama.

Heavy touring commitments with his live version of Yes and other side-projects led to workaholic Jon, now 75, putting his latest solo opus on the back-burner for longer than he ever envisaged. But as he put it, “I would listen to the tapes from time to time and think, ‘This could have been a great album. One day I’ll finish it’.”

With that in mind, he finally set up at producer Michael Franklin’s Solar Studios in Orlando, Florida, laying down backing vocals to his original lead tracks, his host calling in an array of rock and jazz luminaries to fill out the songs, also including Rick Derringer, Jonathan Cain, and the Tower of Power Horns. And as Jon added, “Michael acted like something of a casting director, bringing so many great players. It was really exciting to hear the record open up and become what I had always envisioned.”

It’s fair to say this artist has one of the most recognisable voices in the business, the lead vocalist and creative force behind the band with which he made his name – a major creative influence behind ground-breaking early ‘70s Yes LPs such as Fragile, Close to the Edge, and more besides – featuring on the first nine albums before walking away in 1980, a spell which included crossover hits in 1977 with ‘Wonderous Stories’ and ‘Going For the One’ (from the album of the same name). But he returned in ’83 to a reconfigured group, resulting in multi-million-seller, 90125, including ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’, written with Trevor Rabin.

Then there was his success with Greek composer Vangelis, including UK top-10s with ‘I Hear You Now’ (1979) and ‘I’ll Find My Way Home’ (1981), and since then embarking on projects with Japanese recording artist, composer, producer and arranger  Kitaro, prog-rock guitarist/producer Roine Stolt, and the afore-mentioned jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.

There are also his solo LPs, starting with 1976’s acclaimed milestone Olias of Sunhillow – performing all the music, playing every instrument, writing a storyline, singing all the vocals – and heading through to 2009 and Survival & Other Stories, the last with just his name on before this new addition. Meanwhile, time in recent years has been swallowed up through work with former bandmates Bill Bruford, Howe and Wakeman, then later Rabin and Wakeman again, with this affable East Lancashire lad inducted with Yes into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.

I caught father of three Jon – also a grandad these days – at home in central California earlier this week, happy to be hiding away from the coronavirus, ‘up in the hills’ near the village of Arroyo Grande, describing first where he was and what he was up to.

“It’s really magnificent to be here … under strange circumstances. Me and my wife, we love each other like crazy and we’re just happy to be safe. I don’t go out, because I’m asthmatic, so have to be careful, but all is good and I’ve just been working steadily for three months on a project which I’m very excited about.”

I’m guessing you have people looking after you from afar, and a local network supporting you during this pandemic.

“Just one guy who works at the local Trader Joe’s, an old friend who called up and said, ‘What do you need? I’ll bring it every week.’ Perfect.”

In the meantime, I’m guessing you’re keeping in touch with your family and close friends.

“All the time, on a constant level, as usual.”

I’ve had a few spins of the digital version of 1,000 Hands, and I’m really enjoying it. And as I understand it, there was a limited release last year.

“Yeah, the record companies weren’t very interested. Even Atlantic Records turned me down. But we went on tour last year with the band, which originates from Orlando, musicians who went there to work at Disneyland and Universal and all these parks, and they’re so damn good, so I got together with them. The studio where we finished the album is in Orlando, run by Michael Franklin, so I was able to go over there and meet with eight wonderful, lovely people who were quite brilliant. We toured twice last year and were supposed to be on tour now. But of course no one is touring.”

Double Act: Jean-Luc Ponty joins Jon Anderson on this LP, as  on 2015’s Better Late Than Never (Photo: Cathy Miller)

Well, the album deserves to be heard. It’s been a long time coming, but for me it seems to continue perfectly the Jon Anderson story and musical journey as we know it.

“True, and as you know the crazy story is that about two-thirds of the album was recorded in Big Bear, a mountain area south-east of Los Angeles, and I had the best time in my life at that moment with some musicians I knew. I then took a couple of tracks down to Alan (White) and Chris (Squire), who were living and working in LA. They added energy on the album, and I always though it should be called ‘Uzlot’, a North country way of saying, ‘Come on, us lot, let’s play football!’.”

Mention of the contributors will have got the excitement factor up for Yes fans, and not just with Chris and Alan involved, but also Steve Howe.

“Yeah, it was like getting the old band back together, but in little bits. Steve came up at the very end. We split the song ‘Now’ into two parts, and for the second part, ‘Now and Again’, I just felt it needed some guitar. So I called up Steve, to see how he was, asked him, and he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that then – alright!’.

Incidentally, it only struck me after another listen to the new LP that there could be a link between that opening track and its accompanying album finale with ‘Then’ from second Yes LP, Time and a Word, from 1970 (and blimey, that’ll be 50 years old this year). Not least the correlation between the earlier track’s,

‘And in a time that’s closer, life will be even bolder then;                                                       Love is the only answer, hate is the root of cancer then.’

Compare that to the opening of ‘Now and Again’, as Jon sings,

“Now, knowing that now is the only centre to be, to feel, to see;
That somehow now brings you to home, brings you to eternity – you are, you see.                To know that now love is your heart, love is truly all you need.”

Honest Jon: Yes legend Jon Anderson, ready to share 1,000 Hands with the wider world (Photo: Deborah Anderson)

Just a thought. In fact, the new LP finale continues with,

‘Never forget that we are friends; Never forget here I am singing as you play;         Memories sing in this lifetime, memories never forgotten.’

There may be more links, ones far greater aficianados than me will spot. And we all love a bit of harmony, in more ways than one, right? There have been words between Jon and Steve in recent years, so it’s nice to think maybe enough water has flowed under the bridge for you to be back on better terms.

“Oh yeah … I mean, even the Beatles argued.”

I’d say maybe that’s part of what made them so special.

“Yeah, and necessity is the mother of invention. Everybody wants to put a lot of energy into a project, and because originally we were the Yes band, we were from different parts of England and all had our different attitudes to life, different energies, and everything. But I think it was that moment in time where I was very vocal about what I could hear and came up with ideas and helped everybody try different things.

“For instance, why would we try to do the song, ‘America’? But Peter Banks was in the band and he started playing the movie score (West Side Story) as a solo, and I felt that was perfect. Everybody put energy into everything we did. The Beatles went from love songs like ‘Love Me Do’, ‘Please Please Me’ and ‘Ticket to Ride’ through to, all of a sudden, Revolver, Sgt Pepper, The White Album and Abbey Road, expanding like wildfire. And that’s what Yes did, expanding into a musical zone that was very rare – it was kind of unique, actually.”

Incidentally, ‘America’ will be better remembered in prog-like circles for Keith Emerson’s version with The Nice, which clearly seemed to be an influence on the early Yes, who covered ‘Something’s Coming’ around the time of their self-titled debut album in 1969. And talking of the early days, does Jon remember much about that fateful first meeting in late ’67 when bar owner Jack Barrie introduced him to Chris Squire at La Chasse (where Jon worked behind the bar) at 100, Wardour Street, Soho? And bear in mind that I also said to him at this point that I didn’t want him to feel old, but I was born that October, so reckon his first co-write, ‘Sweetness’ (written with Chris Squire and his former bandmate Clive Bayley) is around the same age as me.

“Oh boy, oh boy! Well, it was a very magical moment. I’d been looking for a band to sing with, and tried a band managed by someone who managed Amen Corner, who were pretty famous at the time. They were aiming to create another band like them, and I went along to East London for an audition, where there was this big guy with a cigar – a typical manager – with a band in the room. They were really good. He asked what I wanted to sing and I asked him what the band knew. They suggested ‘Midnight Hour’, I said, ‘Why not?’, and then we did ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’. He then said, ’OK, can you come back next week? You’re in the top two. Come back next Tuesday, when the real manager’s here, and he’ll do an image test’. I said, ‘No! I’m a singer, not an image. You can get lost!’

“It was about believing in myself. I had a lot of musical ideas and once we’d started rehearsing, it was like magic for me. I hardly slept. I was so excited. We had a band that could play anything, but I suggested Bill Bruford, a jazz style drummer, quite remarkable in those early days. In fact, the early BBC tapes are damn good.”

When you and Chris got Yes together, were you properly focused on where you might be headed from the start?

“Well, there was a band in London called Family, from Birmingham. They were damn good, and I just wanted to be as good as them. And a band called Heads, Hands & Feet, with Tony Colton in that band (and also legendary guitarist Albert Lee and Chas Hodges, the latter later joining forces with Dave Peacock as mockney legends Chas & Dave). Then at clubs like The Marquee you’d get The Who come in, and Jimi Hendrix, and Keith Emerson’s The Nice were playing there. They’d come up to La Chasse and come to the bar, and I wouldn’t say anything to them because I was so very shy. But these famous people made me think I was in the right place, at least. I just had to work hard.”

As it was, Yes had their own Marquee residency by 1969, and the following year Jack Barrie took over ownership at No.90, Wardour Street, five doors down from La Chasse (he was previously an assistant manager to John Gee, with a great history of the venue here).

I only realised while putting a few questions together, it was five years ago this Saturday just gone that we lost Chris Squire. I’m guessing he’s always in your thoughts.

“All the time, and I think more so. He came to visit me on his passing. I was in Maui (Hawaii) and had this incredible dream about him, that he was passing away. I didn’t know, although I knew he wasn’t very well. Someone called and told me Chris died last night, and I said, ‘Yeah, I know. I saw him in my dream looking up at the sky, the light shining, these little tears coming down his lovely face. My wife said, ‘He loved you so much, Jon.’”

I guess that bond between thew two of you was nearly 50 years in the making.

“Yeah, and like real brothers, we didn’t get on all the time, but we were brothers, no matter what happened. I’ve mentioned it many times, but when Star Wars came out, I’d check into hotels as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and he would check in as Darth Vader!”

It’s now five years since I first spoke to your old pal Rick Wakeman (with a link to that feature/interview here) and four years since I spoke with Alan White at home in Newcastle, Washington (with a link to our feature/interview here). While Rick’s happy where he is in East anglia between live engagements, Alan certainly seems settled where he is, stateside, as you are in California. It’s been more than a decade since you became an American citizen. Do you feel American?

“Very. I always feel that America’s got so much to sort out, it’s like the crazy child of the world.”

And led by a crazy child at present.

“Well, we’ve got this orange man in charge, and he’s an idiot. He’s a little baby that tells lies.”

I don’t see you as a figure who willingly speaks out publicly on politics much, but with all that’s gone on, and the hate speech the likes of Trump continue to come out with, keeping quiet’s not an option right now. You have to speak out sometimes, right?

“Well, In the Vietnam War I was very clear that it was the most stupid thing in the world, as reflected in Apocalypse Now. And America’s a mess, but it’s now ready to change. Barack Obama was so good as a leader, then the pendulum swung the other way and we have the orange man.”

Hopefully not for much longer though.

“No, he’s out of here! And he’ll lose all his money, you watch!”

I hope you’re right. And where does your beloved, Jane, hail from in the States?

“She was born in Alexandria (Virginia), near the capital, Washington (DC). I was in LA and she was living in Santa Barbara, working for (actor turned film director) Ron Howard, involved in music for films, running part of the firm, and knew so much about all that. An amazing woman in my life. I’m very blessed.”

And is it now 23 years married for you two?

“Yeah, but when people ask how long, I say ‘1,000 years’. It feels longer!”

You mentioned Maui before. Wasn’t that where you were wed?

“Yeah, an amazing event on many levels. It was wonderful, and Alan (White) was my best man.”

So I gather. I think my invite got lost in the post, but we’ll gloss over that.

“Ha!”

As you’re talking to someone settled for the last quarter-century in Lancashire from my native Surrey, I should ask if you keep in touch with your Accrington roots. Have you still got family and friends in the area?

“Yeah, my brother’s there, and his kids. We keep in touch, once a month maybe. And when I come over, they all come to the gigs. It’s funny, when you come from a small town, I remember some of the people from there and keep in touch with David Lloyd …”

Ah, the legendary Lancashire and England cricket all-rounder turned commentator, also known as Bumble, two school years younger than Jon and brought up a few streets away.

“Yeah, he lived around the corner from me and was my arch-enemy. We played football on the car park at Accrington Stanley’s Peel Park ground. He’d bring his team and we’d have battles galore, football and cricket. He’s a good old friend, and I was in touch with him about three months ago. It’s great to talk to him. Someone sent a video of him walking around Accrington, going to the football, in his flat cap …”

I saw that. A great watch. Bumble has a real passion for Stanley, something I appreciate as a fan of non-league Woking FC, having seen them play at the Crown Ground many times, and reporting on Bamber Bridge and Chorley fixtures there too in the past. Clearly though, I don’t go back as far as Peel Park (the old ground where Jon was a mascot, ball-boy and trialist, now a public park, Stanley playing their last matches there in 1962, with the old club dissolved in ’66, a new one emerging at the current ground in ’68).

“Well, the ground is still there, would you believe.”

Next time I’m passing I should make a pilgrimage in your honour … and Bumble’s. And while David Lloyd’s accent is distinctive to cricket fans, I’ll add here that Jon these days has something of an American/East Lancs hybrid accent. You hear those Lancastrian tones in his music here and there though, all these years on, something I also get listening to Neil Arthur and recordings with Blancmange. And I’m all for that. He clearly hasn’t lost it.

“Yeah … especially when I’m watching Man United. I get so angry! And I found out recently that (Paul) Pogba gets paid (around) $300,000 a week, so I give him hell!”

Do you still look out for Stanley results?

“Oh year! My brother’s son gives me all the information now and again.”

A Lancashire lad maybe, but I understand your Dad had Glaswegian roots and your Mum had Irish and French links. Were you aware as a boy of that background being different to many of your neighbours? Did that make you feel like you were destined to travel and be something other than an East Lancashire factory worker or something of that ilk?

“It’s funny, I wrote a song last week about how I would run everywhere. I don’t know why, but maybe from five or six, and then I started working on a farm when I was nine, about two miles away, and I’d make some money for the family, because my Dad was very ill. Someone asked the other day the first concert I ever saw, and I said it was my Dad on stage in 1946. I was in a stroller, my Mum serving pies and cake …”

I lost Jon at that point, my mobile phone safety buffer used up (we tried via Skype earlier, but he couldn’t hear me, leading me to call back another way), so I retried from my landline. God knows how much that will have cost … but he’s worth it, of course. Anyway, aiming to carry on where we left off, I tred again, and he finally answered with the line, ‘You have to put another penny in the gas meter’. He wasn’t so far off, I guess. So where was this farm you mentioned, Jon?

“In a place called Huncoats, top of Burnley Road there. Me and my brother would deliver milk all over that side of Accrington, near where we lived (Jon was on Norfolk Street). And we sang all the time, I remember singing Everly Brothers songs in the mid-‘50s. Actually, I just watched Blackpool playing Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup on YouTube – the Matthews final.”

Ah, 1953 and all that. Matthews, Mortensen, Lofthouse … And speaking of those formative years, how good were Little John’s Skiffle Group, your early band? Ever make any recordings?

“I hope not! Ha! We used to do Lonnie Donegan songs.”

A quick rendition followed of Lonnie’s third single, ‘Lost John’ B-side ‘Stewball’ from 1956. But the line quality deteriorated when I switched phones, and I don’t think I’ll be able to upload it and pass it off as a great Jon Anderson lost skiffle tape and make my fortune.  That said, we’ve been mesmerised by Jon’s vocals from the very start, I reckon. On a similar front, was there a voice he heard and thought, ‘That could be me – that’s my career from here!’?

“At that time, it was the Everly Brothers with my brother, and I’d sing a lot of commercial romantic songs in the mid-‘50s, and then Buddy Holly. And of course Elvis Presley – my brother bought the vinyl Elvis Presley album, and a little Dansette record player. So I heard all those incredible songs. So my brother wanted to be Elvis and I wanted to be Roy Orbison, and I’d sing his songs.”

All great influences, and it wasn’t until he mentioned Amen Corner that it struck me that Jon and Andy Fairweather-Low shared similar styles in places.

“Yeah, I think we all copied Americans in the ‘50s, and you tended to give that delivery in your voice, copying those recordings.”

Of all your recordings over the years, is there one particular LP you’re most proud of? I’m guessing this latest record would be in with a shout.

“I always say the same thing – it will be the next one!”

Ah, so will there be a 1,000 Hands Chapter 2?

“Yeah, we’ve been working on half a dozen or so songs already, and more follow every week. I’ve an idea for one large piece that could work, but it takes time to sort that out. But now this album’s out, we’ll be able to release part two next summer maybe.”

And do the contributors on the album include any of the next generation of Andersons (as I know they’ve all been involved in music to at least some extent, including vocal duties on various Yes projects, all three from his first marriage to Jennifer), I ask … to initial silence. Actually, at this stage, Jon was distracted after someone arrived at the door with some wine. Nice work if you can get it. I repeat my question.

“No, Deborah’s sang on albums I did before, but now concentrates on incredible documentaries, covering such powerful subjects. My youngest daughter, Jade, is the best singer, but now has three boys. God bless her, she gave us some grandchildren, and we just love them, of course. We see them every Friday, and they’re beautiful. And my son Damion’s in London and, like me, he loves to create music of all different kinds. God bless him, he’s a very beautiful man, he really is.”

Of all the collaborations down the years, from Yes to Jon and Vangelis, Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe, Anderson/Stolt (with Roine Stolt), the Anderson Ponty Band (with Jean-Luc Ponty) and the Anderson, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman version of Yes, which turned out to be the most fun, in the studio and on the road?

“I think probably ABWH was a fun experience, but …”

Do you think that’s because you all felt you had nothing to prove by that stage?

“Oh God, no, there’s always a lot to prove. But every collaboration, like when I went out with Trevor (Rabin) and Rick (Wakeman) a couple of years ago, that was really damn good. And with Jean-Luc Ponty it was amazing. He’s from Brittany, and my great-great-grandparents were too, so we felt connected. And when I look back to the tours in the ‘70s we were out on tour so much, and the fact that we could make Fragile and Close to the Edge in one year was something.”

Well, that was some going, I’d say.

“Absolutely.”

And are you still discovering new music? What’s floating the Anderson boat right now? My friend Phil, a big fan since day one (he’s a little older than me, he won’t mind me saying) wondered if you’ve heard Big, Big Train, fairly new and much lauded  prog rockers on the block.

“Yep, and also, my favourite guy is Jacob Collier. He is going to be, to me, the best thing that’s happened in music in my life. He’s amazing. He’s conquered a lot, can do incredible orchestrations, and has a good knowledge of music and light-hearted soul, and he’s touching millions of people now. He’s amazing.”

And finally, when the gates are open again post-COVID-19, any chance of live dates with the new material?

“Yeah, I’m doing videos at the moment from a live show on the tour – around 10 days in – and it turned out to be a pretty good recording. Everyone plays so great. We’re also recording ourselves at home, recording some of the songs from 1,000 Hands. And it sounded really good.”

Live Presence: Jon Anderson in action, and he hopes to be on the road again sometime soon (Photo: Tami Freed)

For more information about Jon, his back-catalogue, and 1,000 Hands, out digitally on July 31st, then on CD and deluxe double-gatefold vinyl album on August 14th via Blue Élan Records, head to https://www.jonanderson.com

 

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Pele to Amsterdam and beyond – telling The Story of Ian Prowse

Mersey Tales: Ian Prowse, kept busy during lockdown, and ready to get out there again this autumn, COVID-19 willing.

Three months after a successful tour with Elvis Costello prematurely curtailed by COVID-19 restrictions, Ian Prowse remains on a high, interest in his music, past and present, refusing to tail off, aided by his entertaining Friday night online shows.

This Ellesmere Port-raised singer/songwriter and Amsterdam frontman remains a cult figure with music fans and musicians alike, getting on for three decades after his debut recordings with breakthrough outfit Pele.

Songs such as 2005 John Peel favourite ‘Does This Train Stop on Merseyside?’ only served to underline his abilities as a songwriter, and 2019 LP Here I Lie suggests he remains on a creative high. And it was the latter that inspired the afore-mentioned Declan McManus to personally invite Ian to be his main support on a Just Trust 13-date UK tour, albeit one ended three shows early due to the coronavirus.

But he’s remained busy during the lockdown, his series of weekend internet shows helping plug new 18-track best of collection, The Story of Ian Prowse, a perfect way in for those yet to catch up on the back-catalogue of an artist who tells us, ‘I hit the opening A minor chord of ‘Funeral Pyre’ by The Jam at my very first gig in 1982. There began my musical journey. I’ve been hitting every chord through hundreds of shows with the same passion ever since.’

Tranmere Rovers fan Ian wasn’t long off a trip to his local post office when I called, mailing out merchandise to those who’ve been discovering or rediscovering a love of all things Prowsey. And there are a fair few.

“About three weeks ago we made a special ‘I got through lockdown with Prowsey’ t-shirt, and my catchphrase when we go live is ‘What are you drinking?’, because they all let it hang out on a Friday night. So I’m packing those t-shirts … I’m a cottage industry. It’s been a busy one lately.”

That seems apt. Wasn’t there that line about Pele, your first band, selling more t-shirts than records?

“Yeah!”

That early t-shirt was certainly iconic.

“The old four primary colours thing? That was my only foray into design, that t-shirt. I’ve never done it since and never will again. But I’ll claim that. It was half a joke really (selling more t-shirts than records), because we never had massive hits in the UK, but you’d see our t-shirts everywhere.”

That must have been something you’ve dwelled on in the past, and with this new collection we get a fresh chance to compare and contrast between your work with Pele, Amsterdam and under your own banner, seeing the progression. And I get the feeling Pele could have been the biggest of those formats, hit-wise. That blend of more chirpy folk-pop should have been blasting out of radios in the ‘80s. But it never quite happened on the bigger stage.

“Erm … you say that, but my most popular song – when you look at viewing figures on YouTube and that – by far is ‘Does This Train Stop on Merseyside?’. That outstrips all the Pele songs. So while I had a major record deal, being on Polydor, for that first Pele album, I don’t necessarily think that was the best chance of having the massive hits.

“And the over-arching thing is that I view it as all the same thing. The first vehicle I drove for my songwriting was Pele, the next one was Amsterdam, and nowadays it’s just my name. I wrote all the songs then and now. I consider it to be just the same thing with a different coat of paint.”

You’ve always had a loyal following, but I was wondering if more people are listening now. Do you find factors like your friendship with Elvis Costello make a big difference? And if so, do you end up thinking, ‘Where have they been?’.

“Yeah, indeed … good shout. Over the past three months I’ve had so many people getting in touch or writing online, sending me emails, telling me, ‘I can’t believe I missed you, ‘cos it’s just my kind of music’. I’ve had to develop a new saying to cope with the influx, telling them, ‘Welcome aboard the good ship Prowsey. You’re very welcome!’ It doesn’t matter that you’re 30 years late. You’re here now!’

Taking that analogy further, in view of the choppy waters we’ve sailed through these last few months, you said in a video message on your website at the beginning of 2020, ‘it’s going to be our most exciting year yet’. Who knew, eh?

“I didn’t! The Elvis Costello tour was curtailed the night we played Hammersmith Odeon, and that was great to play there – a dream come true. Amazing. The other three got postponed, but the following Friday night I decided to do a one-off, play online, wondering like many others how I was even going to be able to pay the rent at that point. Real stuff. It was just one gig to say the Costello tour’s finished and the acoustic tour we have booked has been completely dropped and everything else in the diary has gone, but tonight I’m going to sing you the songs from the story of Ian Prowse. Let’s just have a night out.’

Denim Days: Ian Prowse, back to the wall amid coronavirus concerns, but enjoying his Friday evening online shows

“And the feedback was so phenomenally positive and community-minded. Everyone enjoyed themselves, interacting with each other. So it became … it wasn’t about me, it was about us. It was more about, ‘We’re all going to hang out together and Prowsey’s going to sing us some songs’. And that’s just been sustained, really – there have now been 14 shows.”

The acoustic tour has been rearranged, with shows set for September onwards, ‘all small rooms with just me on my own to a hundred people, and I think most were sold out – we’ve got London and Chester, Weston-Super-Mare and Stourbridge … all over the country’. Are they gonna take place?

“I’ve spoken to a lot of the venues and they’re all kind of saying the same thing – it looks like in two weeks the pubs are going to open, so that gives us two months before we do the gigs. So I’m hoping they do happen.”

A discussion followed about new capacities, and the worry that if only limited numbers are allowed, venues will struggle to pay acts.

“We’ll see what happens. I’ve also got shows in October and November, so I’m really hoping by that time it’ll all ease off. Let’s face it, when the pubs re-open, with a couple of drinks inside them, they won’t give a fuck about one metre or two metres’ distance!”

Ian’s also hoping he gets to finish the Costello tour, but didn’t know details at time of going to press.

“We were having the time of our lives! I’ve been doing this for 30 years and rarely have I … I was going down a storm and then getting to watch one of the greatest artists of all time do his set, getting stuck in. And he’s mates as well, so I got to hang around with him. And all we talk about is politics, football and music!”

Remind me how that friendship came about and how he was turned on to your music.

“There was an album that came out on EMI in 2001, Mersey Boys and Liverpool Girls, and we had a track each on there. The old Liverpool Poly, John Moores University hosted a gig to promote it, and Elvis did two songs. I got to meet him, I was thrilled, having had all his records from when I was a kid, and he told me he’d watch a couple of my songs but had to go and see his mam, so wouldn’t be there when I finished.

“I said that’d be great, but near the end of the set, because he’s such a familiar person to look at, I could see he was still at the side of the stage, and when we came off and went into the dressing room, he told me, ‘I couldn’t leave! It was fantastic! I was rocking!’ We’ve been mates ever since, and that was almost 20 years ago. Since then, I’ve been in his band on the telly (BBC’s Friday Night with Jonathan Ross), his support band, including playing The Paradiso, where he told me, ‘Let’s have Amsterdam in Amsterdam!’, and then there’s a song we did together to mark Liverpool’s 2008 capital of culture status, covering The Searchers’ ‘Don’t Throw Your love Away’ (included on the new compilation). We hadn’t done anything musically for about 10 years, but I sent him the latest album last year and he told me he felt it was as good as anything I’d ever done. And I guess that led to us doing the tour.”

I could easily dwell on past songs with both Pele and Amsterdam, but more recent numbers like ‘I Did it For Love’ (2014), ‘Something’s Changed’, ‘The Ballad of North John Street’ and ‘Here I Lie’ (all 2019) show you’re still on top of your game, as is also the case with the only new track on this compilation, ‘Only the Love’.

“Well, on Friday night’s lockdown show I did a freeform thought piece on what it was like for me to have to sit out Britpop, because I was having arguments with the record company at that point. And while the portal for young bands was as wide open as it had ever been to get through, I was frustratedly outside it, and missed out. But someone pointed out that if we had been there, we’d have been tainted as a Britpop band, so it was a lucky escape. If I was known for that era, I’d have to go out and trot out all the songs from then. And the greatest pleasure for me doing this has been the reaction we’ve had to the new music, ‘The Ballad of North John Street’ and ‘Here I Lie’ entering into the realms of people’s favourites. That’s immensely satisfying. So many acts have that burst of creative songwriting early on and don’t manage to do it again, so to be able to sustain that and continue to release strong songs is important to me. I got that from Bruce Springsteen – there are always fantastic songs on his albums. That’s a real buzz for me.”

At this point I tell him how, listening afresh, on at least one track I saw him as a missing link between The La’s and John Bramwell, which would fit into the timescale in which Amsterdam broke through and took him forward.

“Okay, yeah … well, I know both of them. They’re both insane, I might point out. Ha!”

An off-the-record discussion followed about touring and getting to know the immensely-talented John Bramwell and The La’s’ Lee Mavers over the years, before we navigated back to safer waters and Pele, me telling him I felt the early recordings were in places somewhere between Joe Jackson and the Faith Brothers.

“Well, the idea for Pele was for a more sort of poppy version of The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues. I’d been in bands a few years, at school, trying to get somewhere. We kept hitting the post and not quite scoring. That band split up, but when I heard all that Celtic soul music they were making, it struck a massive chord. My songwriting came into focus then. That was my blueprint for what we did with Pele.”

There are certainly pop-folk elements in there.

“Yes, although at no point did it veer off into folk-rock, and it was nothing like the crusty bands like The Levellers either. There’s almost like a Mod sensibility in there. I’m a soul boy as well.”

I see that, and the fact that Christy Moore’s taken a shine to your music counts for something along the lines of acceptance on that front too.

“Well, what an honour! I’ve got to know him a lot, and he’s really funny, a beautiful fella, and if you go and see him out in Ireland, out in the sticks, the whole town comes to watch him. I saw him in Thurles, where 8,000 people live, with 4,000 of them at the gig. He’s bigger than the Pope and U2! He’s fearless too, and one of the greatest protest folk singers on this side of the world, for sure. And in the ‘80s, to be sticking up for the Republican movement was putting your life in your hands. I’ve got immense respect for him. And when he decided to do my song, and we became friends …

“He told me a fan of my music had given him a CD and told him to have a listen on the road. I think it was a compilation of mine and other music. They were going to the ferry at Holyhead and played it about five times, and he decided, ‘I’m doing that’. He sent an unsolicited email to the band, and it turned out it was the Christy Moore. And being good friends with Damien Dempsey, my Celtic soul brother from another mother, he views Christy as the Irish musical god. And in terms of Christy’s position in the pantheon of documenting Irishness, past, present and future … it’s just lovely to be mentioned in those circles.”

On the subject of ‘Does This Train Stop on Merseyside?’, I have to mention John Peel’s love for the song. I always think of The Undertones sat at home listening the first time he played ‘Teenage Kicks’. Was there a similar story with you?

“It’s funny really, as we didn’t have a deal and were trying to get Amsterdam off the ground after Pele imploded. We’d been doing that for a couple of years and not really got going. Also, my long-term girlfriend was in the band, but she’d buggered off and left me for some fella. So I’m sat in my local boozer, crying into my ale, not functioning, and someone came in the pub around half ten at night, and said, ‘I’ve just been listening to you on the radio’. I just went, ‘I haven’t even got anything out’. He explained it was something about a train, and John Peel had played it and was choked, crying when he said who it was.

“There was no playback then, but the day after someone told me Peel got my track from a guy called Phil Hayes, who ran The Picket here in Liverpool. He gave him two CDs with 40 local songs on them, and Peel just played ours then had this extreme emotional reaction live on air.

“I just thought, at this really low ebb another door had opened. He played it again, and the exact same thing happened – he was choked, and said that even when he played it at home, Sheila, his wife, had to come and give him a cuddle. We spoke on the phone, and were on for about three-quarters of an hour. He asked me to come in and do a session when he got back from Peru. And of course, tragically he never did.

“But the world operates in strange ways. Within a year we had a record deal, I was back in the business, we had another album out, and I haven’t looked back since.”

We also spoke about another related project, under wraps at present, talking about a line in the song inspired by Bill Drummond, ‘Now there’s a leyline runs down Mathew Street, it’s giving energy to all it meets’.

“That was his (Drummond’s) concept, this idea that Eric’s was at the centre of this energy. I went to see him when he was stood on this manhole on his 60th birthday in the middle of Mathew Street, where all these leylines meet, for 24 hours. He said when the 24 hours was up he was going to walk away and never come back. I knew he was there, gave him a copy of the song and told him Christy Moore had done a version. He then wrote a blog piece about how he felt it very emotional and giving a speech last year in Liverpool he said how people have written their best songs by the time they’re 25, the one person bucking that trend Ian Prowse. I think I was 39 or something. And that sort of thing is the biggest possible honour you can get.

“I’ve often wondered how I’ve managed to keep the quality high, and I think it’s probably because I’ve under-achieved in terms of global recognition or having massive hits. I’ve always been striving. I’m competitive and have that mentality, and I’m always trying to prove myself, and it’s kept the standard high. And now I’m thinking, when I’m dead and gone and they’re making a boxset, I don’t want any shit CDs on it … like The Clash and Cut the Crap. I want them all to be good. So now it’s the legacy keeping the standard high.”

There have been occasional hits. How did ‘Megalomania’ end up topping the charts in South Africa?

“Ha! It’s bizarre really. I was really green. We signed to a major label and someone said, ‘Right, we’ve got to see your agent’. I said, ‘Who’s that?’ and then we had to see a press officer. I said, ‘Isn’t that the record company?’ I didn’t know any of these things. Then someone said we’ve got to go and see the publisher. ‘What’s that?’ All of a sudden, I’ve signed this deal for £30,000, and I also didn’t realise that when you’re on a major label they release your records all over the world, and it’s up to the local promotional offices as to how much they put into it.

“A friend of mine, John Higginson, had recently emigrated to South Africa with his family, and phoned up drunk, around 1992, with that massive delay on our call, so we couldn’t really get a conversation going. I couldn’t understand him, but he told me he’d been listening to the national top-40 and I was No.1. I just said, ‘Fucking hell – that must be strong ale you’re on, John’. But that night we were on tour, supporting Kirsty McColl in Leicester. I told our manager what my mate had said, he phoned Polydor, and when we finished our soundcheck, he confirmed it. They were asking about doing interviews and going out there playing, but there was still a cultural boycott and the Musicians’ Union pointed out that I’d be breaking that. And I was never going to be Rod Stewart, Queen, Elton John, or Paul Simon for that matter. I just said, ‘I ain’t going’.”

Seeing as you mentioned Kirsty McColl, when was it that you were touring with The Pogues?

“I think that was late ’92, and Shane (McGowan) was there but he wasn’t getting up on stage with them. I think Spider was standing in. But it was great. They were at full pelt, the places were packed out, and it gave us an advantage as we could steal some of their thunder. We were socking it to them and went down a storm everywhere we played.”

You mentioned on your website a while ago, when Amsterdam’s 2008 album Arm in Arm was re-released, that it was maybe your favourite of your LPs. Why that one?

“I think it’s because Arm in Arm is sort of my closest record to Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love in that a lot of the songs are about a broken relationship, pertaining to the same relationship and the same girl. So there’s a theme, the songs are strong, and they hang together. Whenever I listen to it, I think that’s a really good bit of work. And the cover’s from Asbury Park (New Jersey), so I always love it for that as well. It completes my Springsteen obsession!”

At the same time, it seems that Janice Long was getting quite obsessed with the song, ‘Home’, from that LP. The crib notes for this compilation suggest she played it for 20 straight shows.

“Yeah, Janice really loved that song! And Bruce and his music has weaved right through my life these past 35 years. My daughter’s called Rosalita, and I met him in New York 18 months ago. You wouldn’t know it from my music – I don’t think it sounds anything like Bruce Springsteen, musically. But the spirit of it is coming from the same place.”

Finally, was it a big moment playing to a sell-out crowd not far from your patch at Liverpool Olympia, supporting Elvis Costello, whose parents were both from Merseyside?

“It was just a mad rush of energy. Our Rosie, aged eight and a half now, had come along to see me live for the first time as well, and Elvis let her try on his gold jacket in the dressing room before. He asked if she’d liked to try it on, and she was like, ‘Yeah!’. It was a beautiful night. It was the first night, we were all nervous, and it was rammed, but we did a really good gig and he took the roof off.  It was extremely memorable.”

Acoustic Tourist: Waiting for the doors to re-open at UK venues, so he can bring us The Story of Ian Prowse soon.

The Story of Ian Prowse is out now via Kitchen Disco Records. For full details, back-catalogue information, Ian’s rescheduled live acoustic dates, merchandise information and more, visit www.amsterdam-music.com. You can also follow Ian via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. 

 

 

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Totally wired for the Soundation experience – talking Bhajan Bhoy with Ajay Saggar

Holland-based musical maverick Ajay Saggar may have been locked down in recent weeks with partner Yoke and their 20-year-old son Arun, a University of Amsterdam student. But don’t think for one moment he’s been twiddling his thumbs since his last overseas tour in the winter.

We last swapped messages in late January when he was driving around the UK and Europe with musical partner Merinde Verbeek as Deutsche Ashram, supporting cult US indie act Giant Drag, in what he now looks back on as an ‘increasingly surreal time … the virus creeping up on us’.

That now feels like a world away though, and he was busy in his Soundation studio when we spoke this week, just ‘a couple of minutes’ cycle ride away’ from his home in Krommenie, north Holland, working on a University Challenged album project with Amsterdam-based Kohhei Matsuda (Bo Ningen) and King Champion Sounds bandmate Oli Heffernan, a few live dates together followed by the trio recording 10 tracks, three of which were premiered last week on The Watt From Pedro, a US radio show hosted by Mike Watt (of Minutemen, Firehose, and The Stooges fame). Ajay hopes to have the rest finished within a week, promising ‘an absolutely stonkingly-good record’ and suggesting a ‘certain label from Preston’ might be interested in putting it out.

Maybe he meant the Concrète label, of which he’s a fan, but he was wearing an Action Records T-shirt, so I suspect Preston record shop/label founder Gordon Gibson will be getting a call. And Ajay’s also been working on a new King Champion Sounds LP and produced and mixed an Ivan the Tolerable album in June, set for release in August, the latter featuring the aforementioned Oli Heffernan and Mike Watt.

As this was a video interview, he also gave me a virtual tour of his studio, built within another unit and including several great posters from live shows he’s been involved with over the years, where either he played with the main act, supported them, or carried out sound engineering duties.

Those artists include Kraftwerk, Cat Power, Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, Mogwai, and The Fall, this former Lancaster University student based in Manchester while playing with cult Preston indie act Dandelion Adventure, a band that recorded a session for BBC broadcasting legend John Peel in the late ‘80s.

In fact, two days after we spoke, he was celebrating the 30th anniversary of his first Peel session being aired. Recorded at Maida Vale in mid-May ‘90, it was a defining moment for this self-proclaimed thrashadelic outfit, Kenya-born Ajay on ‘bass and yodelling’ in a band fronted by further friend of this website Marcus Parnell.

Listening back this week – and what a joy it is to hear John Peel talking between tracks, in this case slightly distracted by Italia ’90 and the antics of the ‘whingeing’ Diego Maradona – that session certainly stands the test of time, and led to dates with My Bloody Valentine. And that from an outfit already touring with Action Records labelmates The Boo Radleys and with their Puppy Shrine mini-LP and ‘Jinxs Truck’ six-track 12” already out.

You can read more about Dandelion Adventure in this September 2016 feature, with contributions from both Marcus and Ajay, the latter going on to join members of The Inca Babies to form Hound God, playing ‘metal percussion’, describing the band in our first interview as ‘Pussy Galore meets Einsturzende Neubaten meets The Birthday Party’. And that’s some meeting.

But at the end of 1991 he upped sticks for the Netherlands, ‘wanting a new challenge’, and he’s remained there ever since … give or take the odd European, UK or North American tour, having also  travelled the world as a sound engineer for several bands before starting work at the Paradiso in Amsterdam around a decade ago, in a production management role these days, serving as a contact between visiting bands and the venue’s 300 or so staff.

His time in the Netherlands included a spell living with underground outfit The Ex and playing with Holland-based band Donkey, leading to his second Peel session, in April 1995, by which time he’d learned a few studio skills of his own, ‘driven by necessity’, telling me he was unable to afford studio engineers so did it himself. From there he was asked to help out Glasgow outfit Bis with their sound, and ‘before I knew it I was stood in a tent in front of 40,000 people, thrown in at the deep end’, never looking back, working with fellow Glaswegians Mogwai, Atlanta’s Cat Power, Massachusetts’ Dinosaur Jr., Montreal’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Iceland’s Múm, Dublin’s My Bloody Valentine, and many more.

These days, he’s certainly no less inspired about his music and various projects, also recently working back alongside Dandelion Adventure bandmate Marcus in The Common Cold. And right now Ajay, who spent his first 11 years in East Africa before his family – of Indian descent – settled in Yorkshire, is celebrating the release of his first truly solo project under the name Bhajan Bhoy, with debut LP Bless Bless self-recorded, self-mixed and self-produced at Soundation Studio, mastered by Helmut Erler in Berlin and manufactured in his adopted Netherlands in Haarlem. Is this something he’s worked on over the lockdown?

“It was something that came into my head about a year ago, and I’d already had this idea of doing something solo. It was something I felt I had to do myself as I was very particular about where I wanted to go with it.  Then a chance came to do a show at OCCII in Amsterdam and I got in touch with the promoter to put me on as a support act. That went really well and after that I opened for J. Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.) in a bigger venue in town. That was a really cool show and thereafter I decided to turn those songs into proper tracks in my studio and put out a record.

“That summer I was busy with a Deutsche Ashram album, and had also been working with King Champion Sounds, but by October I dived into this and was in this studio every single day.”

So did you lock yourself down before the lockdown?

“Well, I had to go to work, but in the evenings I’d just lock myself away there, and when I could be here I’d stay all day, doing that for two or three months, recording and mixing it all here, then got it mastered in Berlin. It was all done and dusted by December, and I kept listening to back to it, and every time I listened, I’d fall into a trance, thinking it was so, so good, totally hypnotised by the music. And at the same time hearing new stuff within it. Usually, when I finish an album, I can’t listen back to it, having been so involved with the whole project. But this time, I’d go on a 10K run, put it on my headphones, and think, ‘Damn! This is really good’.

Bhoy Wonder: Ajay proudly displays a copy of Bless Bless, the debut LP from Bhajan Bhoy (Photo: Gideon Smit)

Subsequently, he sent it to a few labels he trusted and felt would get it, and in one case a US label were very interested but had too much on, as was the case with Mogwai and their own label. So …

“In the end I was like, ‘Bugger it, I’m gonna do it myself!”

I guess you’ve been moving that way anyway, and the Deutsche Ashram project is not far off a solo project, but for Merinde’s wondrous contributions.

“Yeah, I pretty much do everything apart from the singing, so that process sat quite well with me. Even though it involved an enormous amount of work. And I knew where I wanted to go and how to achieve it. And I’ve got all the tools here, around me.”

Ajay’s studio is within premises which have served as a rehearsal space for his various projects for at least a quarter of a century. And as he tells me that, I mention the timber I see above his head and he tells me how he produced an album for a carpenter who regularly dropped by, in exchange for him building his new studio.

“There’s a whole group of us who rehearse here. We did it all up ourselves. When we lost our other space here to a timber yard, I was working at home, but that wasn’t working, so I went to the foreman of this whole industrial estate, told him what we needed, ad he allowed us this space within.”

The latest Bhajan Bhoy track doing the rounds is not on the album, recorded since and given away for free via Bandcamp, uploaded on the day of the LP’s release. It’s a tribute to Maryland-born cult musician Robbie Basho, who died at just 45 in 1986 in California, acclaimed for his finger-picking guitar technique, influenced heavily by sarod playing and studies with Indian virtuoso Ali Akbar Khan.

“I only recorded that three weeks ago. I’ve been a huge fan of his for years, but had never seen any live footage, but found online two songs he did on this US arts programme. Then Stuart (Braithwaite) from Mogwai told me a film was made a couple of years ago, I tracked it down, watched it one Saturday night, and was blown away by his life story.

Dandelion Days: A 1989 shot of Ajay during Manchester-based Dandelion Adventure days (Photo: Richard Davis)

“I’d started on a new track but couldn’t get that out of my head. That took me into a totally different mindset. I scrapped that, started afresh and made this track, which evolved in a really beautiful, organic way. And for me it’s reflection on his life, the beauty of his music and what he gave to the world. He had mental and physical issues, and that’s reflected in the track, or how I saw it.”

When not at home or in his studio these days, chances are that Ajay’s commuting 20 minutes into Amsterdam by train, cycling to the station and then from his destination to The Paradiso. At present, there are still restrictions on the venue, a room holding 1,500 now having to cater for a maximum of 30, sticking to numbered seats, grabbing a drink on the way in, and so on.

“The last couple of Sundays we’ve done shows for the public, with a band playing on the dancefloor and the audience on the balcony looking down.”

Ajay also managed to get five live performances of his own over the last week, starting with an afternoon radio session in Gouda followed that evening by a performance in a Rotterdam café/bar ‘run by a total music-head’.

“He could only get 11 people in there. It was really nice though, with everyone around me as I played in a corner in this beautiful little bar.”

I see there were also three back-to-back sell-outs at OCCII in Amsterdam.

“Oh, totally!”

And those Saturday shows were followed by a Sunday early evening show at a thrift store very close to his own patch in Wormerweer. And can he see a time where he’s back playing in the UK, touring this LP?

“I really want to, and really want people to hear this record. It’s uplifting, and interestingly, at these shows I’ve done everyone comes specifically for the music, not just for the craic, a chit-chat, to get drunk then go home. Attention is really focused on what you’re doing and what you’re giving them. At the end of my set, after a long fade-out, one of the last notes played … I never look at the audience. I’ve got my head and my hair down, full focused …”

Bar None: Ajay Sagar lets loose with his electric guitar in his first Bhajan Bhoy Bless Bless live engagement, playing Koffie & Ambacht in Rotterdam (Photo: Hoi Hoi)

Still shoegazing after all these years?

“Yeah, but the times I’ve looked up at the end of the set, I’ve seen people in the audience with their eyes closed, on a different planet. It’s been amazing. I also have a film running behind me, which I’ve made from old archive and footage, which really goes with the music. And a lot of people are really complimentary about the visual aspect of the show as well.”

He’s been down that road before, and I saw a fantastic show at The Continental in Preston in 2017 where King Champion Sounds played with cult 1929 Ukrainian film Man with a Movie Camera playing behind them.

A social media post from the day of his OCCII return further underlined his enthusiasm for the Bhajan Bhoy project and a feeling of optimism at restrictions being lifted to allow small-scale shows to happen again in Holland. He wrote, “The main thing I think people gained from these shows was hope. A chance to look beyond the restrictions that have been enforced on everyone and a glimmer of hope that we are very, very slowly turning the tide and can maybe see a way out of the darkness. Playing these shows was really special.’

He added, ‘As an artist you feel under extra pressure, but it’s also a great source of energy to know people are with you on your musical journey, which in turn helps you raise your game. There’s a sense of freedom in the room as people leave their lives behind for an hour or so and sink into the music, and musicians feel fully open to express themselves to an audience who give their entire attention to the music. Live music gives energy to all and judging by the conversations I had with audience members after the shows, these gigs were very much appreciated. I’ve never played gigs under these kind of restrictions, but we made it work collectively. Kudos to the people who work at the venues / radio station for taking on the challenge to bring the music to the people. I’m planning on doing as many shows as are possible in the coming weeks and months, hopefully seeing more smiling faces. Onwards and upwards!’

At this point we talk about what he calls his ‘arsenal’ of musical instruments in the studio, not just his guitars but organs and much more, some bought in India, others in Japan, and another virtual tour follows, stopping for a while to show me the original Fall keyboard, dating back to around 1981/82, when Marc Riley was still with them, a story following from Ajay’s days rehearsing with Hound God at The Boardwalk in Manchester.

“You’d have A Certain Ratio in the room opposite, then Happy Mondays, and Oasis came later, and The Fall had their own room at the end. But when they left, they chucked out a bunch of stuff, and when we finished rehearsing one night, I was like, ‘What!’ and immediately grabbed that. Steve Hanley’s bass cabinet was there too. Also … can you see those drumsticks?”

He’s off again now, taking his screen with him, showing me a set of sticks.

“They were Karl Burns’, from when The Fall played Clitheroe Castle, organised by Steve Barker for On the Wire (BBC Radio Lancashire).”

That was in mid-June ’85. In fact, while transcribing my notes a day after our chat, I realised it was 35 years ago to the very day. Spooky.

“It was this legendary show, and I’d hitched down from Lancaster with a friend. I was at university there. We met up with loads of other Fall-heads from Manchester and all over. There were around 3,000 people there, and what seemed like two policemen on duty. It was amazing. I was up at the front, and after the gig – courage on my side – as they were playing on a bandstand, I made a dash behind to this little marquee they set up instead of a dressing room. And the first person I saw was Karl, chugging on a tin of lager. I asked him for a drumstick as a souvenir, telling him how much I loved the band. He was just laughing, saying ‘Ah, no, they’re quite expensive.’ But when I left, I just jumped on the stage, grabbed those drumsticks and ran off!

“The thing was that Mark (E. Smith) had his hands on the wallet, and every week they’d have to go around his house or flat, and if they wanted new gear, apparently he was super-tight. So I don’t think he’d have been too willing to give away too many drumsticks!”

Funnily enough, an online discussion about that Clitheroe Castle show revealed it was David Chambers’ first Fall gig, the original drummer for General Havoc and Cornershop, later with Formula One and The Wandering Step, also featuring with Ajay and Marcus in The Common Cold.

Back to Bhajan Bhoy though, and I see Ajay’s been out and about on his bike hand-delivering copies of Bless Bless around Amsterdam these last few weeks. And among the early owners of the vinyl on this side of the North Sea were … well, did I spot a photo of your parents proudly clutching a copy?

“Yeah!”

They’re not still waiting for that day when you might get a proper job, are they?”

“They’re just happy that I have got a job, and while it’s music-related they know I’ve got a routine, there’s income coming in and a roof over our heads. We had to go the long way around to get there in the end, having dropped everything after university in Lancaster, having been in Manchester and on the dole, watching The Membranes and playing with Dandelion Adventure. There was no sign of any future, but I knew what I wanted.”

Live Presence: Ajay’s head down, no nonsense kosmiche guitar psych kicks in (Photo: Matthew Stewart Hunter)

It was a little early at time of going to press for a full-blown review from me of Bless Bless, but I’ve loved what I’ve heard so far, and there’s been lots of traction, not least with songs being played by Gideon Coe, a great supporter of Ajay’s recent projects, on his BBC 6 Music evening radio show.

And in lieu of that review, I’ll take on board the official description of a ‘wondrous and beautiful album filled with kosmische guitar psych magick / sonic raga trips / melodic mantras / esoteric electronica that thrill and elevate the listener to a higher sonic plain. The music reaches out to the stars in the same vein if Popol Vuh jammed with John Fahey, Terry Riley, and Robin Guthrie, to produce a beautiful soundscape in which the listener can sink into and float downstream.’

Along the way, Ajay collaborates with Prana Crafter (‘the musical mystic that is William Sol’) on ‘Strung Out’ and Holly Habstritt Gaal on ‘Cascade’, and the afore-mentioned Steve Barker classes it as  ‘the best thing that Ajay has released’, while J. Mascis calls it a ‘killer album’. And I won’t argue with that assessment.

There’s more to come too, and shortly after we spoke, he gave me an update, adding, “I’m playing in someone’s allotment this Sunday, for the solstice – a beautiful place, big garden, tiny house. She’s inviting friends, and I’m gonna play at 9pm for them in the open air. Then there’s an in-store record shop event in Haarlem the week after, with more gigs in July.”

Before I let him go, I mentioned to Ajay a Kraftwerk at the Paradiso poster from 2015 I spotted behind him as we were speaking, Van Gogh looking at me, no doubt thinking I’d make a good subject for a portrait.

“All the posters I have here are all for shows I’ve been involved with. I did eight shows of theirs (Kraftwerk) in a row in the Paradiso. I was doing the production on that and we had to strip everything for them as part of the deal. I went to see their show in Paris and talked to them about what they wanted. We took out the PA, all the stage and all the lights, and they brought everything. We were working three days and three nights getting their stuff up and running. Their main man told me they’d played there before, and I said I know, I’d heard the bootleg – brilliant. He said they’d just recorded Trans-Europe Express (1977), played the songs from that album here, recorded it, then went back to their studio, listened back and tweaked the album mix, based on that.”

And with that, he’s twisting the camera around again, showing me more.

“Then there’s Dinosaur Jr – I was involved with them and toured with them for the first couple of years, and this was from when they reformed and came back again … in 2005. Wow, 15 years ago now. I was behind that, as I was working with J. (Mascis) and Lou (Barlow). There’s also The Fall and Country on the Click, released on Action Records (2003). Mark (ex-bandmate Marcus Parnell) did the artwork for that.

“Mogwai – I toured with them, and this show was at The Fillmore in San Francisco, where I was totally blown away that I was there in the same venue as loads of my favourite bands. That night I drove the volume up so high that … there was this hippie curtain behind me and at the end of the show the in-house guy lifted it and the wall had collapsed there, from the sound pressure. So I was running around with bits of the Fillmore, giving it out to people, telling them it was a bit of history!

“Cat Power – I organised their very first European tour; and Múm – I worked with for many years; Animal collective – another band I worked with for many years, and they released a live double album last year, which were all my recordings; and Sebadoh – that was a US tour with The Bent Moustache, my band at the time.”

I should add that there’s also a big poster of a line-up of his beloved Amsterdam football team, Ajax, and another for Steve Barker’s On the Wire show, his Lancashire links clearly never forgotten, our Man with a Movie Camera having come full circle now … in more ways than one.

Soundation Stage: Ajay Saggar in his studio in the Netherlands, ready for sonic adventure (Photo: José Pietens)

Bhajan Bhoy’s Bless Bless LP, on the splendidly-titled Wormer Bros. Records, is out now, with details via this Bandcamp link. You can also keep in touch via the Bhajan Bhoy Facebook page. 

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Exploring the story of Optic Nerve Recordings – in conversation with Ian Allcock

Ordering a few classic and soon-to-be classic indie records in recent times, I was surprised to find an emerging label I was getting to know through an impressive catalogue happened to be operating from just up the road in Preston, Lancashire.

There’s Action Records of course, the much-loved edge of the city centre shop and occasional record label, and there’s electronic/experimental specialist Concrète. But how did Northampton lad Ian Allcock, who runs Optic Nerve Recordings, end up in the same locality?

“I moved from London to Cumbria, and from there to here. Yeah, it’s surprising who’s on your doorstep! There’s also A Recordings (Brian Jonestown Massacre, Sleaford Mods, Tim Burgess) in Blackpool.”

Was there a personal link to Preston before you moved here?

“Not at all. My ex-business partner, who now runs Brian Jonestown Massacre’s label, and me were working in Northampton in the early ‘90s on The Enid and their back-catalogue, then some indie stuff. We were doing that part-time then went full-time, moving to London, getting into import and export … but it was getting too expensive in London.

“I always wanted to live by the seaside, but Brighton was too expensive, so I decided to head for the countryside, heading up to Cumbria, stopping there a long time. That didn’t quite work out, and my business partner moved back to London while I stopped on. I realised I had all the contacts and knew there was a market for vinyl, so looked into licensing. I didn’t have any distribution and no profile but planned around half a dozen albums … although I over-estimated the size of that market, importing from the United States, and got it wrong at first. Fortunately that vinyl market grew.”

That was in 2012, although Ian’s roots in the business stretched back nearly two decades, and by 1997 he’d issued his first Optic Nerve release, Acrylic, a solo LP from John Ellis, at the time playing guitar for The Stranglers (he was with them from 1990/2000).

“In my naivety, I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it!’ but when the album turned up there were no guitars on it – it was music accompanying an art exhibition in Germany. It didn’t sell, but John was a lovely bloke. He said he didn’t feel he fitted in with anything else I was working on, suggesting, ‘What about ‘Optic Nerve’?’ and came up with a logo, the one we still have.

Nerve Centre: Ian Allcock, proudly wearing his Pooh Sticks T-shirt, and bucking the trend of economic downturn

“When we started up again in 2012, I didn’t want to go back to any of the other labels I did and cause confusion (with an established catalogue), instead deciding to use Optic Nerve again.”

That early licensing catalogue included not only The Enid but also records by the likes of New York’s Ned Hayden’s Action Swingers, featuring among others Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, and even a dance outlet … for a short while.

“There was this dance thing that became a Happy House anthem, around 1992, but we bailed out of that because we didn’t know what we were talking about! Even though the single we put out totally sold out.”

When Optic Nerve restarted, Ian carried on where John Ellis left off, Acrylic’s OPT 4.00 catalogue number built upon for the first release of the rebirth, John Peel favourites Cud’s treasured Leggy Mambo album re-released with cat. no. OPT 4.001.

A fair few releases that followed have allowed me to relive my late-‘80s/early-‘90s indie past, records by the likes of BOB, The House of Love, Pete Astor‘s pre-Weather Prophets outfit The Loft, McCarthy, The Pale Fountains, The Primitives, The Wedding Present and The Wolfhounds causing me to go back and re-evaluate, and new recordings by, for example, One Eyed Wayne (featuring BOB’s Dean Leggett) and (again) The Wolfhounds suggesting this was about far more than nostalgia.

There’s a forged link to another of Preston’s leading lights too, Action Records owner and fellow record label founder Gordon Gibson.

“I like going in and talking to Gordon. I can talk to him about Magna Carta and he’ll know what I’m on about. I like a lot of late ‘60s /early ‘70s music, sunshine psychedelia like The Millennium and Sagittarius.”

On a similar note, the kind of market he moved into regarding sometimes fairly obscure indie acts is hardly an obvious choice for a financially successful business plan. Yet many of those into that scene from the ‘80s onwards have gone on to professional careers and are now going back to buy product reminding them of their younger days. Does that ring true with Ian’s knowledge of his market?

“Erm … when I started, the website asked the age of people visiting, but now we don’t. I didn’t want that. I know what my market is … but it’s around 35 to 50.”

I’d argue even slightly higher in some cases, for example for his Girls at Our Best reissue. I have their 1981 LP, Pleasure, on a 1994 Vinyl Japan pressing, and know it’s since been released by Cherry Red (2009). But Optic Nerve put out a version in 2014 and now plan to repackage again. So how does that work?

“Yeah, we’re going to repress that, as it’s sold out. Every deal is different, and it’s not easy. You can’t just license what you want. It’s not like picking apples off a tree. A lot of stuff we want to do, we can’t, and sometimes a lot of the people want to do the same things.

“That Girls at our Best album is one of my favourite-ever albums, so the chance to license that was great. We pressed it up and when it came to a Pleasure bag, I got carried away – doing my own, a bigger, better Pleasure bag, involving three or four posters, postcards, stickers, the original press release and press photo. There was too much! But it sold out, it was a great release, and it looks lovely.

“Cherry Red own that, and I do a lot of business with them, and have a lot of contacts who help me if I’m struggling to find people. They’ve helped me a lot. It also needs the artists’ approval, and we got that from Girls at our Best, and while that license later expired, we’re now going to repress it and get a new one, as there’s still demand.”

The label’s Optic Sevens catalogue has also sold well, two series of classic indie singles released in limited editions proving a success.

“Yeah, it was a total gamble, just a hunch. Not everything I release sells out. In some cases, I have hundreds sitting on the shelf. We lose money on that, and with albums it’s very expensive to do, especially how I do them. And what I make on pre-sales just increases the advance to the artists and studio costs, not pressing costs. It takes a long time for the money to come back in.

“I was in a situation where I couldn’t afford to put anything out, sitting around until I’ve enough money to release something else, then sitting around another few months before I can release the next thing. That’s not really what I want to do. My goal is to do this full-time. I was just thinking of what I could do that didn’t involve as much financial outlay and got a quicker return. I looked into finding singles that were in demand, expensive to get. For me, music should be accessible at a decent price. I’m also of the age – and I know younger people who totally disagree – where I feel that if you only own it on digital release, you don’t own it!”.

It’s nice to see someone seemingly bucking the trend of economic downturn, at a time when we’ve lost so many music venues and are likely to lose more (and a few businesses) following the pandemic restrictions, Brexit, and so on.

“Well, The Wedding Present single went in at No.2 in the vinyl singles chart this week, but let’s just say I haven’t been able to build a swimming pool.”

Point taken. He does his groundwork though, keen to learn more as he goes along. By way of example, in his preparation to see the best way to market his Optic Sevens series – after a lukewarm reception within the industry, wanting to work out the best way to go about it – he contacted a company marketing e-books.

“I asked a few questions, they were really helpful, and a lot of what they told me gave me the confidence to go forward.  What I’m trying to do is build up, so I can put a couple of albums out every month. But I haven’t got a bottomless pit of money. It’s very tight financially.

“I don’t want to get a loan or end up beholden to the bank. But the idea of the 7” series is to get to a point where we can put those two albums out a month. At the moment we’re nowhere near, although we’ll continue with this series as long as we can license the right products.”

Is it just you running the operation?

“It’s just me. I’m sure there are a lot of other labels who employ staff, but this year I’ve had seven albums out and the plan is to later this year do another (7”) series, one a week for 12 weeks. I’m just working out the logistics of that.”

Do you think your neighbours realise what you’re up to?

“There are enough pallets in my garden … and with the amount of trucks that arrive … they probably do! But it’s about trying to keep the cost down. I’ve got storage and everything, but it’s that fine line. I think I can do two albums a month and two singles series a year if I set my stall out correctly, but I can’t do any more than that without employing staff. And premises would eat up a lot of money.

“I also do all the artwork myself, having realised it would cost me a lot of money to get an artist involved. So I felt I better learn to do it myself. Artists like BOB will do their own, but others just give me all the files and I’ll assemble it, as with The Wee Cherubs and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. That can be very time-consuming.

“I’m fortunate to be in a position where I’m not short of stuff I can put out, but I’m always looking, and I’m frightened that the day’s going to come.”

When I asked how he got into all those indie bands but also those late ’60 underground outfits, Ian blamed his Northamptonshire upbringing.

“I don’t know what my parents were doing. We had Oklahoma, Carousel, The Tijuana Sounds of Brass and The Sandpipers, but also all this other stuff, from sunshine psychedelia to The Beach Boys. I then had my brother, older than me, buying some punk stuff, and I liked that.

“Then I heard ‘Better Scream’ by Wah! Heat. You know where there’s that one single that makes you think, ‘Oh wow! There must be more music like this out there.’ Then you go and find it. That was my gateway really, to indie like Girls at our Best, the Young Marble Giants, and the Postcard stuff. I was spending ridiculous amounts on 7” singles then albums, probably all my wages when I left school in 1979 and started work.”

Discussion followed about bands he saw on his old patch, such as The Cigarettes (another band he’s reissued on Optic Nerve), The Dead Kennedys, The Fall, and The Psychedelic Furs at The Paddock (‘on the A45 on the outskirts of town. I think it’s a Berni Inn or something now’), and New Order and Killing Joke in the early ‘80s at The Roadmender’s, where he tells me he DJ’d in the late ‘80s.

Ian’s first career was as an apprentice carpenter and joiner, ‘but I was rubbish at that and didn’t like it much’. So ‘16 enjoyable years’ followed with camera manufacturer Kodak, ‘something that taught me a lot about colour and film’. That said, even in recent times there have been part-time jobs to keep a roof over his head, including work as a hotel night manager. So does this label primarily remain a labour of love?

“I wouldn’t say that! These singles all come with a poster, and I fold them all. That’s 12,000 posters, folded three times each. There’s no love there!”

I see that argument, but still have this romantic notion, thinking back to The Undertones and other Good Vibrations label artists helping fold their early singles at Terri Hooley’s Belfast record shop of the same name in the late ‘70s. But Ian’s not to be convinced.

“There’s no romance!”

And what’s next for Optic Nerve Recordings? Apparently, next month there’s a reissue of McCarthy’s The Enraged Will Inherit the Earth, licensed from Cherry Red, with a tie-in single licensed direct from the band; then some newly re-found tracks from The Wee Cherubs follow in September; and a long-awaited new release from BOB later that month, something I’m definitely keen to hear and Ian is proud to be associated with.

“When you think that the original recordings for that were done in 1992 … they were ahead of the curve. I love listening to that album. It’s absolutely great and at the same time quite sad because they were ahead of the game there – ahead of the Britpop thing. There’s one track, six minutes long, ‘Sundown’, and it’s like Oasis … but before Oasis.”

He hasn’t finished yet, enthusiastically talking me through more upcoming releases.

“From October, assuming we get the licenses, we’re going to do another 12 singles in 12 weeks (a third series). Then in January we have an Apple Boutique album, done directly with Phil King, which was going to be put out on an Australian label; a Tess Parks re-press, having already sold 2,500 copies of that; and a repress of a sold-out Cigarettes album.

“There’s Girls at our Best too, and hopefully next year a couple of Momus albums. I’ve also been talking to David Callahan about a new pressing of The Wolfhounds’ Bright and Guilty and a Moonshake album. And I’m hoping The Vaselines are going to go into the top five next week, maybe even No.1, having sold out everywhere.”

A double-check before publication saw the Scottish outfit made it to No.14 with a reissue of 1987’s ‘Son of a Gun’. A respectable outcome, I’d say. What’s more, Ian told me there were plans to go back to around 1979/82 for a future (Optic Sevens) series, back to the days of Pete Wylie’s Wah! Heat and the single that sparked his love of indie, albeit ‘purely for romantic reasons’.

He was still going strong at that stage, but I had a deadline looming as he continued to mention various other options Optic Nerve are working on, from those he’d love to put out but would struggle to get licensed, through to those he’d love to get out but it would make no sense to publicise and give the game away at this point … some which would certainly tantalise indie fans and be sure to sell fast. Watch this space. More to the point, keep an eye out for Optic Nerve Recordings.

For more information about Optic Nerve Recordings and its catalogue of current and planned releases, head to their website. You can also follow the label via Facebook and Twitter. 

 

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Celebrating Shellshock Rock, four decades down the line

High Rise: Stiff Little Fingers, on their way to breaking through via the uncompromising Inflammable Material LP

Seeing as our TV sets were seemingly full of depressing images from the aftermath of bomb damage and troops patrolling streets at the time, it’s good to have a celluloid reminder of something more positive going on in late-1970s Northern Ireland.

Good Vibrations, the 2012 Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn-directed film, told that alternative tale with a little license and plenty of swagger, while Tom Collins and Vinny Cunningham’s splendid 2001 documentary Teenage Kicks: The Story of The Undertones and Chris Wilson’s cracking Here Comes the Summer: The Undertones Story 11 years later told another side of the ground level story.

But perhaps the first notable film to emerge, in this case during those dark days of The Troubles, was John T. Davis’ 1979 documentary short, Shellshock Rock, an insightful study filmed in grim times that – despite its half-lit, scratchy, hand-held shots – comes over four decades later as a priceless document of that era, its focus an array of young punks – from the well-informed and right-on to the frankly naive – voicing frustration at being told what to do by their peers, instead choosing to get their teenage kicks watching live performances in tucked-away venues from bands deemed deemed disrespectful or irreverent in wider circles, and certainly with a wilful disregard of the established sectarian divide.

The plight of Northern Ireland throughout that period is well documented. As an outsider  I don’t feel I can go there, in large part. But this is more about the unifying impact punk rock and everything that came in its wake had on the country’s youth. Whilst violence, disenchantment and danger became everyday obstacles, punk provided a means of expression beyond the political landscape, with the spirit of those times at least partially captured through Davis’ lens in 1978.

Now, 41 years after its initial release, it’s being reissued by way of a celebration of that movement and a document of those times, alongside an impressive, somewhat exhaustive triple-CD collection including many rarities. There are 74 tracks all told, from approaching 50 bands, and it comes in hardback book format, the songs recorded during a period that arguably breathed new life into the country’s musical culture.

Looking at this collection with 2020 vision, so to speak, there are glaring holes in that it paints the picture of a very white male environment. Where were the Northern Irish equivalents of Poly Styrene, Pauline Black, Pauline Murray, and The Slits? We have to wait right to the end to hear a female lead vocal. But maybe that’s just how it was at the time, band-wise, with this more about exploring punk and the post-punk landscape over there back then, offering something of a celebration of the power of music and a youth movement that provided hope for the future when it was really needed.

Key bands featured on the Shellshock Rock: Alternative Blasts From Northern Ireland 1977/84 collection include Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones, The Outcasts, and Rudi, all four also starring in the original film, plus more who offered real crossover potential, not least The Moondogs and Starjets. But I won’t just stop there, here taking a brief journey through those six dozen-plus numbers and profiling the groups behind them.

Any collection opening with The Undertones and ‘True Confessions’ is alright by me, part of that amazing Teenage Kicks debut EP on Good Vibrations, a label which understandably features heavily here. Did the O’Neill brothers’ buzzsaw guitars ever sound more urgent across the spectrum, and did Feargal’s wondrous warbling vocal ever seem as innocently raw and innocent?

Many acts featured were new to me, the first of whom Midnite Cruiser, the spirit of punk R&B coming through on their sole single ‘Rich Bitch’ and its B-side, with pub rock credentials even more evident with next contributors the Duggie Briggs Band, delivering a Shellshock Rockney standard (have I belatedly invented a new genre there?) on ‘Punk Rockin’ Granny’, while their other track here, ’42 Hours Late’, suggests they may have been Portadown’s answer to Bruce Springsteen (although I’m not sure what the question was). Meanwhile, North coast outfit XDreamysts‘ ‘Dance Away Love’ suggests a Phil Lynott influence, and they’re one of a few here who supported Thin Lizzy and one of several who recorded sessions for BBC Radio 1’s John Peel, a big supporter of the NI scene.

If one band put a smile on your face more than any other in John T. Davis’ film, it’s The Idiots, who provide a punky ‘Parents’ from autumn ‘78 here, of which guitarist Barry Young adds, in relation to the first song he ever wrote, ‘All I was trying to do was write about what was more relevant to me, as someone who had just turned 16, rather than the big ideas of anarchy or world rebellion. The Idiots got together out of a shared love of this exciting new punk music, having a laugh and enjoying the odd bottle of cider. Musical ability wasn’t too high on our priorities, but we were game enough, and we improved as we went along, becoming more confident. Looking back at it now, I have a lot of good memories of mad nights out and crazy, innocent fun. I’m just glad we recorded this as a testament that punk really was for everyone and changed the rules for good.’

I recall my mate Steve adding Starjets‘ ‘War Stories’ to an early compilation that came my brother’s way, and these London-based West Belfast ‘pretty boys of the new wave’ offer that track, still a corker all these years on, plus ‘Any Danger Love’, frontman Terry Sharpe going on to co-found The Adventures and secure more Top of the Pops coverage. As for Ali McMordie’s pre-SLF outfit The Detonators‘ ‘Cruisin”, there’s a reinvented Jonathan Richman feel, the band showing why they were chosen to support Buzzcocks when the seminal Manchester band played the Ulster Hall in September ’78. And Ballymoney trios No Sweat also impress with the new wave pop of ‘Start All Over Again’, sort of The Jags meet Thin Lizzy (not least due to its duelling guitars). But there’s more of a Stranglers feel to Pretty Boy Floyd and The Gems, a former showband reenergised by punk, initially as a sideline. There’s a story attached to that change of focus that you’ll have to buy the boxset to read. It’s not pretty though. Like many of the bands, they went on to try their luck across the Irish Sea, in their case including a backup band link with Auf Wiedersehen Pet actor and past Heavy Metal Kids frontman Gary Holton.

The Stranglers are also arguably channelled on Blue Steam‘s ‘Lizard King’, something of an oddity but interestingly so, from a band who just about cracked the UK top 100, with help from Peelie. And I like Jumpers‘ ‘Baby C’Mon’, another shot of R&B, complete with harmonica (perhaps I should say harp), a one-off project for producer George Doherty, backed by the afore-mentioned Gems. Cobra’s ‘Lookin’ for a Lady’ was another one-off single, with its B-side here, the band straight outta Belfast with something of a new wave Motorhead feel, providing the kind of impassioned oddity that makes this collection a joy.

Tinopeners make two contributions, a melodic teenage outfit with Ramones and X-Ray Spex-like qualities, inspired by fellow East Belfast outfit Rudi and so fresh here. And then there’s Clive Culbertson, whose name comes up a lot across these discs, and who despite success south of the border became better known for his production and session work with names like Van Morrison, the Chieftains and Cliff Richard. We also find Clive later with 1980’s The Sweat, who were No Sweat until a threat of legal action from Pete Townshend’s Eel Pie Records, whose band of the same name had been around a while.

‘Suzy Lie Down’ by Cramp carries raw energy, a one-off single from an outfit concentrated on Coleraine, Portrush and Portstewart’s live circuit. When Peelie played this, he pondered over the airwaves ‘what those guys would do if Suzy lay down’. Two members later turned up in North coast melodic four-piece Minor Classics, featured elsewhere on two Clive Culbertson-produced tracks with Boomtown Rats-like tendencies, unreleased before 2010’s Rip Off Records Sing Sing compilation. It’s a shame they released just one single, March ’82’s ‘Sign Language’, one of the last on Chiswick Records.

Lenny & the Lawbreakers give us a punked-up version of Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, while The Androids, led by Joe ‘Zero’ Moody, supply two uncompromising numbers from the original Shellshock Rockers compilation. Bangor’s The Doubt sound a blast too, represented here via two tracks completing the first CD, the sleevenotes telling us, ‘Rehearsing in their singer’s living room and fuelled by nothing more than cider and ham sandwiches, The Doubt’s sound began to take shape and they began to play as many gigs as possible, using teenage enthusiasm and stupidity to overcome obstacles such as not having any transport and being underage for licensed premises. On one particularly memorable occasion a human train of ‘roadies’ carried all the equipment necessary for the gig a couple of miles to a beach. There, dozens of purloined extension leads were run across a main road from a friend’s house and the band risked life and limb to play a few songs’. Now that’s punk rock.

Who can forget the first time they heard Stiff Little Fingers? And that pure power and bite is relived here with the inclusion of October ’78’s vital debut 45, ‘Suspect Device’ and April ’79’s mighty ‘Gotta Getaway’. Jake Burns, the afore-mentioned Ali McMordie, Henry Cluney and Brian Faloon spring from the traps, the band who inspired by The Clash to write about their own experiences, with help from Gordon Ogilvie, truly nailed the zeitgeist of Belfast life back then, setting out their stall on ‘Alternative Ulster’, the single in between, and landmark debut LP Inflammable Material.

Protex, also featured in the film, are next to hit the spot, a melodic new wave feel evident on ‘Strange Things’ and ‘Strange Obsessions’, a take on life delivered in time for the ’80s from another band initially inspired by that iconic Clash visit. In fact, at first they used the name Protex Blue in honour of the Westway’s finest, but ‘evidently, they had absolutely no idea that the song was, in fact, about condoms’. Debuting in ‘78 at Knock Methodist Church Hall, Belfast, success to a point – short in the scheme of things but sweet all the same – followed via interest from Terri Hooley and Good Vibrations, Rough Trade, Kid Jensen and Polydor, while they studied for A-levels. Next came Adam & the Ants and Boomtown Rats supports, the band by then London-based, a subsequent North American tour part-caught on film by John T. Davis on another project.

Next up, Ruefrex carried something of the air of Howard Devoto for these ears, their ‘One By One’ single among Good Vibrations’ earliest, darker in feel, a touch of dystopia from a band living in a place where escape from reality surely appealed. In fact, slow-burner ‘The Perfect Crime’, also included, featured not only on the original Shellshock Rock film but also Good Vibrations.

Lunar Force: The Moondogs, leading lights of Cherry Red collection, Shellshock Rock, and teatime TV stars to boot.

After that, Ballymoney’s The Faders sound fairly soothing with the Nick Lowe-like ‘In It For the Kicks’, and then we have The Zipps with ‘Don’t Tell the Detectives’, another who briefly swelled bills in Belfast and on the north coast. ‘Self Conscious Over you’ by The Outcasts will be more familiar, a classic angsty punk love song followed here by ‘81’s darker ‘Magnum Force’, tackling the Troubles head on, from a band also remembered for ‘Just Another Teenage Rebel’, a single I recall being covered in more recent years by The Undertones. And I have to admit that Victim’s sparky contributions from 1979 and 1980 were new to me, despite the band having relocated to Manchester. You certainly hear the progression between tracks, very of that time and Buzzcocksy.

Undertones fans won’t need an introduction to the work of fellow Derry outfit The Moondogs, who initially included John and Damian O’Neill’s brother Vinnie on bass. They positively sparkle on both sides of debut 45, ‘She’s Nineteen’, including ‘Tones-like guitar, those links leading to UK and Irish dates, Peel’s support and even interest from legendary boss Andrew Loog Oldham (see the sleevenotes for that tale). To give a flavour of this band’s story, I’ll just focus on 1981, when Granada approached them with a view to giving them their own teatime TV show. Further radio sessions and gigs followed, plus the ‘Talking in the Canteen’ and ‘Imposter’ (produced by Kinks legend Ray Davies) singles, before the band headed to New York to record their debut LP with Todd Rungren in late May. But, according to their biog, ‘That’s What Friends Are For proved to be an ironic title for the long player as the band split up halfway through recording. Warner Bros bought Sire Records and began to clean out the cupboards, and it seemed that The Moondogs would be dropped without the album ever being released. On their return to Derry, the band went en masse to the bank, collected their publishing and recording advances, paid the VAT and declared themselves bankrupt. With a few pieces of paper, it was over, and the following Monday The Moondogs went and signed on the dole. However, unbeknown to the band Todd Rundgren had finished off the album, and Sire released it in Germany later that year.’

There’s more of an ’80s feel to the two selections from Rod Vey, a Belfast lad in his early 20s dividing time between Queens Uni music studies and professional sax playing and session work for Rip Off Records, here messing around to great effect with electronics, another artist who went on to work with big names. And we definitely seem to be in post-punk, darker territory by the time we reach Stage B‘s ‘Light on the Hillside’, the band fitting in a filmed Toyah support tour slot before a 1981 break-up. Meanwhile, there’s a big sound to The Tearjerkers (their forntman once with Midnite Cruiser) with ‘Heart on the Line’, yet that’s a mere B-side for this Portadown outfit, who managed a Thin Lizzy support, a couple of Peel sessions, and a little TV and further radio before splitting. And the same goes for Aftermath, here with ‘Mixed Up Kid’, and also supported by John Peel and RTE’s Dave Fanning.

RTE favourites Male Caucasians looked to Dublin and Scoff Records to release ‘For the Night’, somewhere between Graham Parker, the Boomtown Rats and Split Enz maybe, the band’s Pat Cunningham explaining, ‘I gave up the boring day-job and concentrated on writing and gigging – we played around Belfast, Dublin, Cork and many places in between. It gave me an identity, a sense of belonging and a sense of possibility: we were going somewhere. The music provided an escape from the tribal politics and the drab reality that was Belfast then. ‘For the Night’ is the sound of that escape.’

Reflex Action provide both sides of 1980’s ‘Spies’ single, its school of The Clash skank’ a favourite of John Peel’s wife Sheila, and according to Paul Bradley, ‘a neat embodiment of the NI post-punk music community’s gift for dismissing sectarianism’. He adds, ‘Roughly half unionist and half nationalist, we, like many of our gigging peers, ignored sectarian divisions’.  Fair play to them. And disc two ends with fellow Belfast combo The Rattling Throntons‘ ‘The Whistle Song’, Rockpile-esque and from their sole EP in 1980. They played a cocktail of mod-punk covers alongside original material, their name taken from some cheap Chinese cassettes bought to record rehearsals, early bass player Andrew Thompson revealing that the ‘recording was funded by us putting on matching blue shirts and trousers and playing horrendous C&W covers under the name Bandit’, adding, ‘There was no commercial market in NI for our music, but plenty of demand for bad country music.’

So to disc three and Terri Hooley’s faves and NI punk pioneers Rudi, represented by a radio version of ‘Steps’ – among my favourites on this boxset – and 1981’s ‘When I Was Dead’, produced by Paul Weller. Some might suggest ’Big Time’ should be here, but like ‘Teenage Kicks’ and ‘Alternative Ulster’ we’ve all got that, right? Formed in 1975 by East Belfast schoolmates, they progressed from glam and rock’n’roll to a punk direction, inspiring Terri Hooley to set up his label and missing out on a deal with Polydor as they refused to sack drummer Graham ‘Grimmy’ Marshall, who the corporate considered a ‘madman’. As it was, while Grimmy stayed, Gordy Blair (bass) was turfed out soon after (later joining The Outcasts), and as a three-piece – Grimmy plus fellow founder members Ronnie Matthews (guitar, lead vocals) and Brian Young (guitar, vocals) – they signed to Tony Fletcher and the afore-mentioned Weller’s Jamming! label. In fact, as Brian Young put it, ‘Grimmy was the heart of the band, and was there from day one right through to the bitter end, alongside Ronnie and yours truly.” In that next spell, Weller took the band on tour. But fate conspired when The Jam split and the label folded, Rudi also deciding to call it a day.

Ex-Producers’ ‘The System Is Here’ sounds more like The Jam at their most blatantly political, the band meeting at school in West Belfast, starting in 1978 as Blitz – inspired by SLF and Rudi – before becoming The Producers, with personnel changes en route. The key further name change followed, the new line-up receiving radio airplay and featuring on a January ’80 Belfast edition of BBC TV’s Something Else, finally becoming a three-piece but never receiving the breaks they craved. They split in 1982 but re-emerged in 2004.

There’s real punk charge from The Defects – the vocals bringing to mind Ade Edmondson’s Vyvyan from The Young Ones – on Christmas ‘81’s ‘Dance (Until You Drop)’, which quickly sold out 2,000 copies, and presented here with its B-side. Formed in Belfast in summer ’78, they first performed Never Mind The Bollocks and The Clash covers, later borrowing money from parents to set up Casualty Records, before a deal with London’s WXYZ Records, alongside label and tour-mates Anti-Nowhere League and Chelsea. Key UK dates and a tour followed, plus the ‘Survival’ 45, the band living on a Chelsea Wharf houseboat moored next to Lemmy’s, regularly partying with Girlschool, Motorhead and various other rock‘n’rollers. An Ulster Hall date supporting the later version of The Clash was their finale, but they resurfaced in 2003, recording for Punkerama Records and still gigging far and wide.

The new wave/power pop of ‘Radio Songs’ and its cracking B-side follows from Strike, who played around Ireland, with various press and radio interviews, supporting the Boomtown Rats at the Ulster Hall in Belfast when the headliners were topping the UK charts, A&M Records expressing interest at that stage. And there’s a similar new wave vibe to The Singles, who hailed from the Portadown/Lurgan area, more aligned to the mod revival than the punk scene. They recorded with producer George Doherty, leading to one-off single ‘TV Deceives’ in 1981, included here with previously-unreleased demo ‘I’m Only Asking’. They split soon after, two members going on to synth-pop band Shadow Talk, who had a minor hit in 1983 (and who I saw support The Fall and Serious Drinking at Surrey Uni that year).

Another pleasant surprise for this scribe was the rather jerky, angular ‘Mr Mystery Man’ by Belfast’s Shock Treatment, whose members included Davy McLarnon, who leads Shock Treatment 21 to this day, and original vocalist Barry McIlheney, best known for his writing at Melody Maker, subsequent editorships at Smash Hits and film mag Empire, and much more. The track chosen is a tribute to his Dad, who died when he was just 19, and it’s a corker. The band formed around ‘78, inspired by bands like Eddie and the Hot Rods, Dr Feelgood and the Ramones, signing to Good Vibrations in early 1979. Their ‘Room to Move’ EP included ‘Belfast Telegraph’, with follow-up ‘Mystery Man’ on their DAB label in 1981.

There’s a Graham Parker/Elvis Costello/Joe Jackson vibe to ‘Put It Around’ by The Nerves from Newry, formed by the three McCaul brothers, previously The Mash. By March 1980 they were a four-piece playing their hometown and across the border in nearby Dundalk, and occasionally Belfast and Dublin. A demo tape left in Terri Hooley’s shop eventually led to a rare offer to record an LP. They received airplay from RTE and Downtown, the Notre Demo album recorded in Dundalk in late 1980, recorded and mixed in 46 hours for £400, a limited 1,500 pressing well received. A Battle of the Bands win at Ulster Hall led to finals at The Rainbow in London. There was also an early ‘81 Irish tour.

The Peasants shared a history with Protex, members of both playing in The Incredibly Boring Band. They issued one 7” EP, ‘Here She Comes’, pressed in limited quantities in 1981 before they split. And it’s a real pleaser, very ‘60s West Coast US in feel. And there’s a similar cross-Atlantic vibe with East Belfast combo Acme, formed in late 1978 as Acme Music, ‘sustained on Clash records, Protex gigs and Olde English cider’. They supported Rudi and The Outcasts, their pleasing contribution here early ‘81 demo track, ‘Jealousy’, with an Edwyn Collins feel.

Big Self formed in Belfast in the late ‘70s, the line-up swelled to a five-piece in 1982 by bass player Gordy Blair (ex-Rudi and The Outcasts) turned saxophonist. On a reggae-influenced canvas, they developed their sound and signed to Eire’s Reekus Records, first two singles, ‘Surprise Surprise’ (included here) and ‘Don’t Turn Around’ (its B-side featured here) both Sounds singles of the week. Relocated to Brixton in early 1983, they recorded LP, Stateless in Dublin the following winter, with 4 ¾ out of 5 stars in Melody Maker, losing the quarter-point due to an 18-month release delay (the distribution company went into liquidation). Several well received shows and festivals followed, plus John Peel and Kid Jensen BBC radio sessions, and BBC and RTE TV appearances. They bowed out in 1986 at Dublin’s Self-Aid festival.

Act Together: Belfast five-piece Katmandu. It took a move to Dublin to crack it. (Photo courtesy of Sean Hennessy)

Belfast five-piece Katmandu formed in 1978, yet frontman Marty Lundy – who died recently – had featured on the city’s club circuit since 1974. After 18 months writing in their home city, a Dublin move followed, regular gigs there establishing them, 1980 debut single ‘I Can Make the Future’ garnering major label interest and leading to TV appearances both sides of the border. The track chosen, ‘Get My Act Together’, the B-side of ill-fated 1982 second 45, ‘Coma’, carries a rather splendid Bowie meets Roxy Music feel. But it wasn’t to be, the band returning home and going no further.

The Boots & Braces label’s 1982 United Skins compilation shows us another side of the story with two belters from Control Zone, Tony McGartland explaining, ‘When bouncers at a local nightclub started using their fists to show their authority I found myself barred from the venue for wearing Dr Marten boots, not the sort of thing the new disco boom wanted to see. As bouncers laid into young skinheads and punks, Control Zone responded with a new anthem, ‘Bloody Bouncers’. “And ‘Johnny Johnny’ could have been the story of anyone who got into trouble, got on the wrong side of the law and managed to survive on the streets.’

The old punk thrill resurfaces via Electro-Motive Force, formed in the winter of 1980, previously named White Noise until a new line-up. With guidance from manager James Tweedie, they released a self-titled four track 7” on their Surge Records label in 1982 – two tracks featured here – with 500 copies pressed and soon proving hard to come by. Picture sleeves are particularly rare, a couple of hundred stolen from a band member’s car shortly after release, thus becoming a much sought-after NI punk artefact.

And finally, Dogmatic Element offer both sides of Summer ’82 post-punk single ‘Strange Passion’, and I’m pleased to finally hear a strong female voice through Alison Gordon, reminiscent of Leeds’ Girls at Our Best on the (preferable to me) B-side. They formed in 1980, rehearsing in the basement of a loyalist pub in Newtownards and a chapel hall on Sundays, debuting live at July ‘81’s ‘Project Bangor’ gig to a full house in their hometown. Building a reputation for energetic live shows, novelist Colin Bateman managed them for a time, setting up the Cattle Company label to release 7” singles in 1982 and 1984. They also released several cassette-only EPs, put down at Bangor Drama Club, recorded a couple of Downtown Radio sessions, and played on TV’s Channel One in 1984. Extensive gigging included support slots with Rudi, The Outcasts and Poison Girls, several line-up changes following before a 1985 split after a residency in Larne.

Back to the Shellshock Rock film included, and what strikes me is how young the acts look and how much passion for their art shines through. Through footage in the studio and live shows in sweaty clubs to vox pops on busy Belfast streets, there’s also a realisation of how far away that world is now, and how far off an eventual ceasefire they were too – another 20 years of suffering following before Ash, Bono, David Trimble and John Hume congregated on stage at the Waterfront Hall, the peace process finally in motion.

John T. Davis certainly captures the passion of Good Vibrations’ label founder, Terri Hooley a real star here, flicking (victory) Vs while pogoing in his record shop to Rudi’s ‘Big Time’, the first 45 he put out in a momentous year in which he took on the majors and won.

The boxset also features written contributions in its tie-in hardback book from music writer and WriteWyattUK interviewee Stuart Bailie, who featured on these pages after the release of 2018’s excellent Trouble Songs: Music and Conflict in Northern Ireland.

He suggests in his narrative that the original film is ‘regarded as a design classic’, and adds, ‘International fans have long considered the value of punk and alternative music out of Northern Ireland. It’s perceived as the real deal, the proof of concept, a place where music engaged and informed to an inspiring degree. Some of us believe that it pre-empted the dynamic of the peace process. The bands of Belfast and beyond created a scene entirely of their own making during those times, punk forging alliances that reached across sectarian boundaries and pushed back against a culture of traditions and establishment which seemed to offer very little to the country’s youth.’

As the boxset sleeve notes suggest, ‘Nowhere was punk as necessary and as life changing as it was in Northern Ireland’. And that’s something Shellshock Rock director John T. Davis also acknowledges in his notes.

He writes, ‘When I think back to 1978 and my days as a young filmmaker, I realise how fortunate I was to have been in the right place at the right time. I had the privilege then of documenting a brief and fleeting moment in the history of the Northern Ireland conflict.

‘It was a time when a small but brilliant chink of light shone in the heart of darkness, a shaft that split traditional values asunder. Out of the bombs, bullets, and bullshit came a movement more powerful than the hate and propaganda.

‘Terri Hooley said, ‘New York had the haircuts, London had the trousers, but Belfast had the reason’. Punk rock was bringing together kids from both sides of the sectarian divide, Catholic and Protestant teenagers uniting in the name of their music and what it stood for, far more important to them than social or political conformity.

‘I first became aware of this phenomenon when invited to a Stiff Little Fingers concert, hearing ‘Alternative Ulster’. I was compelled. Here was a film waiting to be made.

Shellshock Rock is not about punk, it is punk! This is the key to its longevity. Every trick in the book was employed during the production – friends worked for free, and Heath Robinson was never very far away.

Big Time: Rudi proved to be star turns of both Good Vibrations and Shellshock Rock (Photo courtesy of Colin Henry)

‘We had to be creative and ingenious in the execution of ideas, there was no real cash to oil the machine. What money was available came from community arts and myself.

‘For a small backhander to friends in the processing department at local TV stations, my raw film footage was developed along with that of the 6 o’clock news. Punks and paramilitaries in the bath together!

‘In the editing we couldn’t afford a work print, so the reversal master was cut – something fraught with problems and seldom done. The rolling credits were filmed by setting the artwork boards on top of my childhood model railway cars and pulling them along the track with string while the rostrum camera filmed from above.’

He also stresses that the film could not have been made without Terri Hooley assuring the punks that he had his seal of approval.

‘Terri ran Good Vibrations Records and I had known him when he was part of the Dublin Road Folk Club – long before Punk ever came to Northern Ireland, when Belfast was R&B city, in the days of Sammy Houston’s Jazz Club, Van Morrison and Them.’

It seems that his film really took off when it was pulled from 1979’s Cork Film Festival on its premiere night, John adding that, ‘After that everyone wanted to see the banned movie!’.

It went on to win a silver award at that year’s New York Film and Television Festival, with screenings in Europe, Asia, Australia, South America and North America. But it was the NYC exposure that its director recalls with most affection.

‘The Americans could not believe the message the film was bringing. All they knew of Northern Ireland was the violence and murder. We were the good news!

‘A lot of press was generated, and the film received national distribution, while the underground music clubs all wanted screenings. The line-up was impressive – Tier 3, Hurrahs, The Mud Club, The Peppermint Lounge, Club 57, and CBGBs.’

New friendships were forged along the way, not least with scene luminaries such as beat poet Allen Ginsberg and legendary documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker.

‘You can understand how much this little film has meant to me over the years. I’m amazed by, and proud of, what Shellshock Rock has become. It’s been a huge part of my life. I’ve watched it grow like a child, and still hold the innocence we all had back then.

‘It’s a window into those times. From the desperate streets of Belfast in 1978 to the lofty echelons of New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2018, Shellshock Rock has achieved cult status.’

The Shellshock Rock collection, including in-depth sleevenotes and previously unseen images, is the latest in a Cherry Red Records regional compilation series that also includes Manchester – North of England, Revolutionary Spirit – The Sound of Liverpool, Big Gold Dreams – A Story of Scottish Independent Music, and Dreams to Fill the Vacuum – The Sound of Sheffield.

Derry Air: The Undertones. From left – Damian O’Neill, Billy Doherty, Mickey Bradley, John O’Neill, Feargal Sharkey.

Shellshock Rock: Alternative Blasts From Northern Ireland 1977-1984 is available in 3CD/DVD hardback book boxset format from Friday, July 31st, priced £24.99, including a bonus exclusive promo postcard while stocks last. For more details head here.

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How we got there – talking Together with The Vapors’ Dave Fenton

Four decades to the week of the release of their debut LP, The Vapors delivered a new album, and it’s one that proved beyond doubt the staying power of a band that were always about so much more than one big hit.

Regular visitors to this website will know I’ve been extolling the virtues of a group from my old neck of the woods in Guildford, Surrey, since they got back together, any initial concerns about their decision to reform cast aside on witnessing their performance at Liverpool Arts Club in late 2016.

It was always going to be a balancing act, having loved the first album, 1980’s New Clear Days since I first heard it as a young teen, and learning to love in the interim 1981 follow-up, Magnets.

And while those early shows on reforming four years ago were all about playing the old songs, frontman Dave Fenton stressed from the start that he was eager to move on, not content to just play the numbers we already knew and loved, keen to take the band into a new era of creativity.

The shows that followed reflected that, with more and more new songs aired and tested live, and now we have Together, a long playing statement of true intent, a celebration of the band and a mutual enduring love with a loyal fanbase – young and not so young alike – and an album that suggested they’ve simply carried on where they left off before a 34-year hiatus.

As expressed in more detail in past interviews with band members on this site, Dave (lead vocals, guitar), Ed Bazalgette (lead guitar, vocals), Steve Smith (bass, vocals) and Howard Smith (drums) packed in a lot during the years in between, the latter deciding when they reformed his priorities had to be elsewhere at that stage, not least with a young family in tow.

In his place, up stepped Michael Bowes, a Brighton-based BIMM drumming tutor with an impressive CV, previous stints between the sticks including those with Nelly Furtado, Joss Stone, Tears For Fears, Heather Small, Michelle Gayle, Desmond Dekker and Laura Mvula. And Jamaica-born Michael fitted in right away, his infectious smile seemingly ever-present and somewhat infectious for anyone catching the band live since.

While Dave’s retired from his legal role (in later years working as an in-house solicitor for the Musicians’ Union), Ed’s work in TV and film (most recently directing Versailles and The Last Kingdom, and next up, The Witcher) continues to keep him busy, but there’s a more than competent replacement in Dave’s son Dan Fenton, regularly deputising on lead guitar, both players featuring on the new record.

Real Time: Dan and Dave Fenton locked down at home, near the South coast, waiting for the weekend when they can finally get back out again (Photo: Branka Fenton)

The initial decision to get back together (I’ll keep using that word, in celebration of the latest arrival) came after Dave and Ed guested with Steve’s punk and new wave cover band The Shakespearos at a PolyFest charity event at the Half Moon, Putney, south west London, playing their biggest hit, ‘Turning Japanese’, a UK No.3 that proved a hit around the world, even topping the charts in Australia.

That Half Moon appearance inspired four Waiting for the Weekend dates later the same year – in Dublin, back in London at Camden’s Dingwalls, then in Liverpool (where I caught them) and Wolverhampton. And from there there’s been precious little let-up, numerous gigs and festivals following around the UK, alongside a series of sell-outs in New York City which led to 22 Lost ‘80s Live package tour dates across the US, 38 years after their previous (third) saunter across the States, in what proved to be the final act before the initial split.

Law student Dave formed an early version of The Vapors in 1978, a year later recruiting Ed and Howard, with Steve on board shortly after, one of their early gigs at Scratchers, Farncombe (four miles outside Guildford) caught by past WriteWyattUK interviewee Bruce Foxton, who asked them to open for The Jam on 1979’s Setting Sons tour. He also took on management duties alongside Paul Weller’s father John Weller, and late last year The Vapors reunited with their old manager, supporting Bruce’s From The Jam on a Setting Sons 40th anniversary tour.

More of those dates happened this year, until coronavirus restrictions curtailed live outings. But now fans have that new LP to savour, made in Liverpool with BRITS/Grammy award-winning producer Steve Levine (The Clash, Culture Club), who said of the experience, “It was such an enjoyable project to be involved with. I’m enormously proud of this album. The band really upped their game musically and sonically during the sessions and were a pleasure to work with.”

COVID-19 curbs willing, Fenton and co. are set to celebrate not only the new record but also the 40th anniversary of New Clear Days with a headline UK tour later this year, playing the debut LP in full as well as songs from the new album. But Dave admitted when I called last week a sense of frustration at not being able to get out and about with his bandmates right now.

“We can’t rehearse, because we can’t travel. Writing’s fine, but …. I’ve got 30 songs towards the new album already. I’m just wondering what to do with them. We’ll probably have to do a double album.”

That reminds me of a recent conversation for this website with Erland Cooper where we got on to Paul Weller, the pair having worked together on projects in recent times. He told me Paul was already enthused about his new record … even before his latest is released. That’s the mark of the man, I guess, in his 60s yet as prolific as ever. And that seems to be the case with Dave too.

“Well, what else can you do if you can’t rehearse and you can’t play live?”

Nuclear Nights: Dave Fenton in action with The Vapors, before the COVID-19 lockdown kicked in (Photo: Si Root)

That said, I guess yourself and Dan, self-isolating together, will be all the more tight as a unit, seeing as you get to practise together while the rest of the band are elsewhere.

“Yeah, well, we’re going to end up doing loads of acoustic stuff, just me and him, unless we can sort out some way of getting everyone to record.”

A Zoom band meeting isn’t so easy, I suppose.

“No. The time delay on that is a problem. We’ve had podcasts though, and a Zoom party the night the album got released. We were altogether, drinking together … virtually. But there is some other software we’re going to try out, so we’ll see what happens, experimenting to find a way to play without a time delay.”

Dave’s been confined to base in recent weeks with wife Branka, sons Dan and Jack and two dogs, ‘a walkable mile and a half away’ from the South coast. And while missing their daughter, locked down elsewhere, he’s clearly loving the public and critical acclaim for Together.

“Well, who wouldn’t be? I haven’t seen anything negative.”

Those of us who have caught you live these last few years have been believers from the start, but even then, I think it’s fair to say the finished product has exceeded expectations. It’s as if you carried on where you left off with Magnets in 1981. Another winning set of songs.

“It’s nice when people say things like that. I’m just amazed no one so far has said, ‘It’s not as good as it used to be’. That’s what I was dreading most, that we’d let people down.”

Lining Up: Michael Bowes gets right behind, from left, Steve Smith, Dave and Dan Fenton. Photo: Si Root.

Despite last year’s US package tour on the retro circuit, I don’t think there was ever a doubt that you were always about the next record. You’ve never been a band to come up with more of the same, as proved by Magnets, arguably a step too far at the time for a wider audience.

“That was the initial basis on which we got back together in 2016, over a drink in a pub in London. I said I wanted to get back to where we were before, and that would include writing new songs if these gigs were a success and we still had an audience. And everyone agreed.

“It’s taken a bit of time. I didn’t expect it to take four years. But to be quite frank, I don’t mind the pace it’s going at. I’ve got nothing else to worry about. I’m retired and this is it, so I’ll get it right.”

That’s as good a place as any to include my own brief-ish critique of the new record before I get back to my latest chat with Dave. Apologies if you’ve only got a short break, as this feature is clearly turning into another trademark epic, it would seem. That fella Tolstoy’s got nothing on me.

T Time: The new Vapors T-shirt could be yours, all yours, via https://everpress.com/the-vapors

T Time: The new Vapors T-shirt could be yours, all yours, via https://everpress.com/the-vapors

“We’ve been through troubled times, we’ve been through stormy waters.”

Somehow, Together gets its message across without the angst and ire of a late ‘70s approach to kicking against the pricks. That’s not to say there’s no cutting edge. Far from it. There’s are more subtle ways to deliver perhaps, and while I crave a little more fire at times, I think they’ve struck a great balance. They certainly get their points across, sonically and lyrically. We’re talking melodic new wave pop with added bite.

Look away if you like, but for me the pop sensibilities of a very 21st century success like The Feeling come through on tracks like opener ‘Together’, incorporating a respectful nod to the past but pushing on all the same. The US term power pop always confused me, but I reckon it probably fits the bill here. And whatever label you use, the title track and several more scream ‘radio airplay’. Think commercial with attitude, carrying enough sonic hooks to lure non-partisan floating voters.

‘I don’t think I could have made it on my own; I don’t even think I’d find my way back home’.

Track two, lead single ‘Crazy’, also falls into that category, grabbing you from the moment you hear that introductory late-‘70s Steve Jones-like guitar riff. If Steve Smith’s side-project The Shakespearos start playing this and it’s new to you, you could be excused for thinking it was a little-known post-punk single from ’78. I’ll be honest and say, like ‘Turning Japanese’ and ‘Jimmie Jones’, I’d more likely point new fans to something more subtle and less commercial. But it’s a classic new wave hit.

‘All I really want is floating down the river; All I really want’s a reason to forgive her.’

It’s the deeper numbers that truly resonate a few more listens down the line, and ‘Sundown River’ carries a melodic laidback 12-string feel. A beautifully-crafted song, one more punk-rock elements among the fanbase might shy away from. Dare I say the harmonies put me in mind of Aussie environmental rock warriors Midnight Oil in reflective mode? In fact, I see the titular river more a dried-up creek picked up in an aerial shot by a passing helicopter. And there’s definitely a touch of the cinematic about this fine number.

‘Freeze frame, freeze frame, freeze frame; And look at everything you’ve got.’

The subject matter of ‘Real Time’ puts me in mind of ‘Daylight Titans’ on the second LP, and its ‘We can freeze time’ line. And while a band that have been away as long as this shouldn’t just be able to drift back into the groove, The Vapors pull it off, seemingly seamlessly. And if there’s an over-riding message across these vinyl grooves, perhaps it’s something about making the best of the limited time we have on this earth and using the power we have – personally and politically – for good. And a big yes to all that.

‘I could have stayed for longer, probably should have; But the last thing I saw happening was this.’

‘Girl From the Factory’ is the first of the New Clear Days: Revisited songs here, it’s title taken from ‘Letter From Hiro’, and while the sheer number of years between Vapors records suggests such reflection might have been over-thought, over-wrought and over-played, they manage to keep within the parameters. Nothing’s in your face, and similarly nothing comes with a smug or conspiratorial wink to the camera. It’s great storytelling, masterfully done.

‘I can’t remember how we ended up like this; Just that it’s beautiful, I feel so blessed.’

There’s cause for further reflection on ‘I Don’t Remember’, and this time I could easily hear Suggs and Madness tackle this. In their case too it would be tucked away on another quality album and only a select few of us would pay much attention. But given the chance it‘s a song that gets inside your head and refuses to budge, the message put across without the need for a mallet.

Double Act: Steve Smith, left, and Dave Fenton at Cardiff University SU Great Hall (Photo: Warren Meadows)

‘Now it’s a different story, someone’s singing our song; Land of hope and glory for the rich and the strong’.

The Vapors were always a political band for these ears, and those messages made an impression on a teenage lad waking up to what was going on around him, on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘In Babylon’ continues that great tradition, although for me it sounds like it would fit better on Magnets than the more direct debut album. Incidentally, the day after my fourth listen to the new record, this was the one still playing in my head, that chord progression imprinted on the brain. In a good way. A sure sign of staying power.

‘But if you wait till the war is all over, and then you wait till they all drop their guns; And then you wait till they pick up the pieces, no-one won.’  

I guess ‘Letter From Hiro’ was the song I returned to most during the ‘80s and ‘90s, thinking I’d never ever get a chance to see The Vapors. So near, yet so far, a band on my doorstop gone before I had chance to catch them live. So there was something of a thrill in finding out there was a follow-up here, one I first heard live at Manchester’s Ruby Lounge in 2018 (reviewed here)and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. ‘Letter to Hiro (No.11)’ moves the story on, in its structure and its narrative, and it’s certainly worthy of its company. It brings us up to date and again there’s a maturity that might not have sounded right if the LP had surfaced in the early ‘80s but sounds just right here. Think of Peter Gabriel (I know, I know, but please bear with me) at his most evocative. Think ‘Biko’ and the chill you got first hearing that.

‘White Rabbit is blue, Mad Hatter is too; I’ve told you before, you’re Alison Wonderland.’

Another number that has more in common with Magnets is ‘Wonderland’, which would have slipped into that set perfectly. There’s an ethereal feel in tune with the title, Dave Fenton with looking-glass in pocket in a creative nod to past Guildford resident Lewis Carroll, letting his imagination run wild.

‘I only came to pick up my things; I was hoping that you wouldn’t be in’.

I get the idea with ‘Those Tears’ that if all these songs were ready to record in, say, 1983, this could well have been the lead single. Who knows what might have happened then. It could have bombed without trace, the band done for, or it could have been a mega-success, at least in America, the biggest hit since Turning Japanese, a new era of The Vapors ushered in and a life by the pool with dubious substances and temptations assured. Ah well. I’d have probably walked away then, and would have certainly disliked the tie-in MTV promo video.

‘And we loved Suzanne, and we loved Marianne, and we hung out at the Chelsea Hotel; But then Jane came by with a bird on a wire; Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye, goodbye; King L!’

The car’s running now and we’re ready to depart, the plane not far off from taxi-ing across the runway as ‘King L’ kicks in, the crowd going wild, the band wigging out somewhat. Is this the track the band end on right now rather than ‘Here Comes the Judge’? It would make sense. There’s certainly not so many places to go from here. Kin’ ‘ell!

‘Cos those nuclear nights, followed by the new clear mornings, make the sun so bright in your eyes.’

Yet for all the penultimate song’s firepower, we have a perfect album finale in ‘Nuclear Nights’, the understated yet raw guitar at the death leaving us hungry for more. Again, there’s that perfect fusion between Heritage Vapors and 21st Century Boys in the Zone. And there will be more great records to come, I’m sure, that bridge safely crossed, new horizons in the sights. And here’s to that. Crack on.

Into 1980: The Vapors, on the New Clear Days sleeve

Nuclear Haze: The Vapors, 1980 vintage, on the debut album sleeve, somehow four long decades ago

Talking of which, now I’ve got that down, let’s get back to it. And in the same way that a successful football team builds around key players, I get the feeling the building blocks on the new LP are songs like ‘Together’, ‘Crazy’, ‘Sundown River’, ‘Girl From the Factory’, ‘Letter to Hiro (No.11) and ‘Nuclear Nights’.

“I honestly can’t remember which were written first. Some are quite old and we’ve been playing them since 2017/18, including ‘No.11’ and ‘Sundown River’, coming up from riffs that Ed played. But some of them were finished just before we got in the studio, and I was still tweaking lyrics when I was in there.”

I should point out that when Dave mentions ‘No.11’, he says ‘No-one won’, as those listening to the LP will realise. Vintage Fenton wordplay, up there with talk of ‘Alison Wonderland’ elsewhere, something there right from the start. And what was his gut feeling on first playback of the new record, and how that might have compared to first hearing the completed New Clear Days?

“I was pretty chuffed. We worked quite hard and quite fast with Steve Levine. He’s very good, but he cracked the whip, with about six days doing backing tracks and six more doing vocals and overdubs, six days mixing. There’s very little time to sit there and experiment. I was very pleased with how it came out, but at the time, it was like, ‘Is it finished yet?’”

Was that because he had such a busy diary, or just that’s he worked out over the years the best way to approach it all?

“I think it was a bit of both really. We were lucky to get a slot with him in the first place and lucky that he was keen to do it.”

And how did he compare to Vic Coppersmith-Heaven for the first LP and Dave Tickle for the second?

“Well, we got in touch with a number of these people to see if they were free or interested, and Steve was the first to come back and say yes. And we’re still waiting to hear back from some of them! Some were hard to track down, and I believe Dave Tickle is in Hawaii somewhere.”

Returning Heroes: Back in 2016. From left – Michael Bowes, David Fenton, Ed Bazalgette, Steve Smith

Somehow over the course of these last four years, you’ve become a five-piece with a twist, with Dan and Ed sharing lead guitar duties here and live.

“Yeah, we didn’t want to chop Ed out of the album. I think he spent three days with us, and he’s on three tracks, songs he knew already – ‘No.11’, ‘Sundown River’ and ‘King L’.

On the subject of the latter, I was wondering what Lemmy would have done with that. I’d have loved to hear a Motorhead cover.

“It would have been interesting to have found out!”

I love Mandy Cox’s cover design more and more, and Derek D’Souza’s live shots and Si Root’s bus stop five-piece line-up.

“That was in Porthcawl, South Wales. We did a gig there, and that was the last place all five of us were together. Dan came along to help roadie and Ed played.”

Would you have been out on the road now as a band, if not for coronavirus restrictions?

“No. we were halfway through the From the Jam 40th anniversary Setting Sons tour. That was set to go on until the end of April. Next up would have been a Lost ‘80s six-week tour in America from the end of July to mid-September.

“We were then set to tour in October/November /December to play stuff from the new album and mark the 40th anniversary of New Clear Days, so that’s still pencilled in for those dates, although Lost ‘80s Live is not going to happen, postponed to next year effectively.”

Steely Dan: Dan Fenton live, Cardiff University SU Great Hall, supporting From The Jam (Photo: Warren Meadows)

I guess if restrictions on live music and reduced numbers in confined spaces continue, there’s a chance it might even be five years on from the Half Moon reunion if those shows are delayed again.

“It could be. That was May, yeah.”

Either way, when that tour finally happens, there will inevitably be setlist casualties. There are only so many songs you can play each night.

“Well, it’s already been stated that we’d be doing the entirety of New Clear Days, so we’ll be doing less of Together.”

For someone like you who’s already thinking ahead to the next album …

“Yeah, it’s frustrating. I can’t keep all these songs in my head all the time. I have to rehearse them, depending on which set we’re doing.”

We had Talking Heads with More Songs About Buildings and Food in 1978 and The Undertones with ‘More Songs About Chocolate and Girls’ in 1980, and now we’ve got The Vapors 40 years later with, in your words, ‘more pop songs about war, famine, suicide, mental health, dementia and having fun’.

“Yeah, the short title was going to be ‘More Songs About Wanking and War’ … but we didn’t think that would get played!

Director’s Cut: Ed Bazalgette, live with The Vapors (Photo: Derek D’Souza at www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

“Some are about depressing subjects, people coming back and saying, ‘That made me cry’. Which, I think, y’know … is that successful? If it affects people emotionally, that’s amazing.”

Absolutely. And I was going to ask you about the dementia line, something I know all too well through struggles with both of my parents in their latter days. Was there a personal link with you?

“Well, yeah, my Mum was towards the end, but it was me I was talking about, really. I can’t remember lyrics. The older I get the less I remember … and it’s embarrassing sometimes. Because the audience know them all. Sometimes it goes through fine, but other times I just go blank.”

And you’re clearly a bloke who’s had to remember a lot of information over the years, not least through all those years in the legal profession.

“Yeah, but I’ve always found it hard. Names to faces as well. That’s difficult as well, and I’m really finding it now with new songs. The old ones I learned that long ago now that they’re still stuck in there somewhere. It’s just a matter of teasing them out.

“Then again, as it says in the song (‘I Don’t Remember’), ‘But then it comes to me.’ Sometimes you just sit on it and the answer will come. It’s no good me doing pub quizzes though, because it’s going to take a day or so!”

On a brighter note, the title track, ‘Together’ seems to be a celebration of relationships and doing alright at life. Am I right?

“I don’t want to spell it out, but they’re usually about more than one subject. It might sound like a boyfriend/girlfriend, and sometimes it’s me and the fans, sometimes it’s me and the band. The first line of the last song, ‘Nuclear Nights’, is ‘Don’t cry when it ends’, and that was about the end of the band. I didn’t know how long it would go on. I’m 67 now, already, and how long can we keep this up? It’s bound to end sometime, even if that’s not soon. But everything should be read on that level. And together in itself is three words – ‘to get her’.

Batman Returns: Steve Smith with The Vapors (Photo: Derek D’Souza at www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

I love that, and despite what you just said, in a sense you did spell it out with the front cover graphic.

“Well yeah, and it’s a stunning design. I love it. So simple, yet …”

Then of course there’s the alternative on the inside (and if you don’t know what that is, dear reader, it’s time you bought the finished product).

“Yeah, you don’t find that until you take the CD out.”

While you’re still pushing on and finding new ground, there are clearly links from the first album to this one. As heard in the titles of ‘Girl From the Factory’ and ‘Letter to Hiro (No.11)’, both linked to ‘Letter From Hiro’, and ‘Nuclear Nights’, referencing the first LP title. But it’s all rather subtle, like some of the key signatures and repeated motifs.

“Yeah, if I’d written an album immediately after Magnets, it wouldn’t have been the same. But now, with the hindsight of realising so many people did like us … that wasn’t at all obvious in 1981. There were a few people still turning out to gigs, so we felt bad about that, but there was no internet or MTV, the BBC’s Top of the Pops was off for the follow-up to ‘Turning Japanese’, and that crucified it. I think ‘News at Ten’ would have gone further if not for that.

“Instead though, I could stand back and have some perspective on what happened 40 years ago. So what’s on this album now comes with the benefit of hindsight.”

On that front, listening back to those first two LPs, they’re not dated in any way for me, and the subjects you wrote about first time around hold true to this day, whether it’s politics, relationships, or whatever. Even when you were the frustrated son in ‘News at Ten’, hitting out but maybe just worried you might turn into your old man. That song sounds as fresh and genuine today, and any generation will understand that sentiment, not least after several weeks of lockdown with family.

“Yeah, although I am now the father, with my son there next to me on stage. That’s weird. And he enjoys singing it back at me. We did an acoustic version when we played Portmeirion, where he did lead vocal on that.”

Sonic Boon: A few prized items from the WriteWyattUK HQ’s Vapors collection (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

That’s another venue I’d love to catch the band at when it next happens and this virus is behind us, past performances at Hercules Hall in Clough Williams-Ellis’ splendid Italianate estuary-side village in North Wales proving a hit with the fans in recent years. A gorgeous setting, and in keeping with the band’s history as the filming location for cult 1960s TV series The Prisoner, part of the inspiration for The Vapors’ debut single, Prisoners.

But I guess we’ll just have to wait before the band are out and about again, making do with playing Together at volume around the house instead. As for Dave, I asked before I went what was next for him that day – was he off to the coast to the accompaniment of a rousing rendition of ‘Sussex by the Sea’ perhaps?

“Erm … I’m vacuuming the garden! We’ve got fake grass, and it’s covered in petals and leaves, so I’ll be hoovering that off.”

Rock’n’roll lifestyles ain’t what they used to be, pop kids. And crazy don’t seem crazy anymore.

Pay Attention Stop: Michael Bowes, Ed Bazalgette, Dave Fenton, Steve Smith, Dan Fenton (Photo: Si Root)

For this website’s feature/interview with Dave Fenton from October 2019, head here,  and for another marking the band’s return from September 2016, head here. There are also Vapors-related feature/interviews with Ed Bazalgette (November 2016) and Steve Smith (May 2018).

For tour dates and details of how to order new Vapors LP, Together, go to www.thevapors.co.uk. You can also follow the band via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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West Coast aspirations, dreams and realisation – the Karima Francis interview

Fylde Roots: Karima Francis, exploring Las Vegas and Los Angeles via Blackpool, Manchester and London

There’s a new single out from Karima Francis, 11 years beyond feted debut LP, The Author. And it signals a welcome return for this acclaimed Blackpool singer-songwriter, currently based in London after a spell in Los Angeles.

‘Orange Rose’ is more West Coast America than West Lancashire and more Pacific Ocean than Irish Sea, a fair indication of where Blackpool-born Karima is at right now, as was the case with last November’s ‘Shelf Life’, both tracks suggesting added maturity but no less soul.

Taking her first steps into the music industry two decades ago, aged 13, self-taught Karima’s true break came in 2009 with her first album, consequent releases The Remedy (2012) and Black (2015) further showcasing her talent and creative development, Manchester and London moves later leading to the next step in California, selling some of her beloved guitars to buy a ticket to the States and kick-start a fresh direction.

Karima was 21 by the time she truly arrived, named by The Observer as the No.1 act to watch in 2009. And after winning performances at In the City in Manchester and SXSW, Austin, Texas, she was signed by influential indie label Kitchenware Records, linked to Columbia, and within two years was with Vertigo Records, linked to Mercury.

The Author certainly made a stir, notable appearances following on Later With … Jools Holland and supporting Paul Simon on the main stage at Hard Rock Calling in London’s Hyde Park, where she revealed to her backstage interviewer a ‘Made in Blackpool’ neck tattoo, while admitting it was a lie as she was ‘conceived in Benidorm’.

There were also shows on bills with Amy Winehouse, Patti Smith and The Stereophonics, and Karima  played the Royal Albert Hall in a Teenage Cancer Trust fundraiser. Her second LP was produced by Flood (U2, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, Foals, Smashing Pumpkins), and her third by Dan Austin (Massive Attack, Biffy Clyro, Doves, Maximo Park).

Now, five years on, things have moved on again, her new 45 described as a love song ‘but like almost all love stories, it’s not without complications’, the artist offering wistful rumination on how mental health can send shockwaves through even the most intimate and entwined of relationships.

“In a world where we sometimes feel we can’t speak out, we tend to take the worst out on people closest to us,” she says. And as I put it to her, that’s surely all the more an issue in lots of lives of late, following the COVID-19 lockdown.

“It’s definitely very relevant, and it’s going to be hard at the moment for those in domestically violent relationships. I have noticed though there’s a lot of help out there, for instance hotels open in London, and a lot of phone lines. But it is very hard, a tough time. I don’t know anyone who’s finding this easy.”

That said, I imagine you more or less self-isolate much of the time anyway, with just a guitar for company.

“Yeah, that’s true. And I’m more of an isolating-type person actually. I used to be more of a social butterfly, but now I’m a little more within myself.”

Talking of air-bound existences, until that option was taken away you tended to flit between London and Los Angeles, it seemed.

“Yeah, last year and the beginning of this year I was in LA for around six months. It’s like a haven for me.”

I wonder if that’s helped you look at yourself from afar, in a sense – travel broadening the mind and all that bringing new perspective. You’re described on the new single, for example, as striking ‘a masterful balance of meditative and melancholy songwriting’. That’s you in a nutshell, isn’t it?

“Yeah, and I’ve been busy lately focusing my life on doing the things I’ve not done, travelling a bit, studying, and think that drive to go over to LA led to music starting to come out of nowhere, taking my perspective to another point of view, especially when writing ‘Shelf Life’.  I wouldn’t have been able to write that song over here … even though there is a massive homeless problem here.”

Karima found the other side of the coin to the City of Angels’ accepted image as a place of celebrities and million dollar mansions, feeling compelled to shine further light on the reality, devastated by what she saw and the contrast between rich and poor, as explored in an accompanying promo video shot with director Joseph Calhoun.

“It was different seeing it there, and it affected me so much. I was struggling to cope with it. It’s not what I expected to see. That was such a shock. But it’s such an inspiring place, with the energy, the creativity, the music.”

‘Orange Rose’ is one of a number of songs Karima penned in Venice Beach, California, finding herself ‘instinctively drawn to the sun and sounds radiating from the West Coast and its simmering alternative scene’, discovering a kindred spirit in LA producer Tim Carr, who also produced ‘Shelf Life’.

“I was fantasising about making more organic, saturated-sounding records for a long time and alongside this, I wanted to record out in America as I was finding most of my musical influences were artists from America. Last year I made the move to go out to California to find the sound for the new record and immerse myself in the West Coast indie/alternative scene. And out there, the relationship with Tim bloomed and the music was made.”

The fact that you’ve written songs in Venice Beach seems to make for very different records than before, adding something of a West Coast feel.  And I’m talking California rather than the Fylde.

“Ha! Yeah, definitely, this record definitely has that West Coast feel to it, almost like sun-kissed – very organic, almost vintage, I guess, not least in the production.”

You’ve mentioned a love of the indie-folk singer-songwriter revival happening out there. But how much of an influence was working with Tim Carr?

“A lot of it is down to him, but I knew how I wanted it to sound as well. He’s produced it, but it’s very much, ‘We’ll figure it out together’. I definitely knew what I was going for, but meeting Tim was a blessing.”

How did you go about letting your producer know what you wanted this time? Were there certain influences you directed him towards?

“Yeah, I’m a big fan of people like Sharon Van Etten, Katie Von Schleicher, and I loved the Phoebe Bridgers record when that came out. But when I was referencing stuff, Tim’s an artist in his own right and has that kind of Californian sound, so I didn’t really need to reference. I knew he was going to bring to it the kind of sound I was looking for anyway. It just happened really naturally.”

I seem to recall you were one of the bigger names to feature early on at Lancaster Library for Stewart Parsons’ Get It Loud in Libraries initiative.

“Oh, yeah, I remember playing there. That was a long time ago, but I remember it really well. And they’ve got a lot of cool people coming through from that. I like that idea. I’d definitely play there again sometime. It was cool. I loved it.”

Karima has spent the last two months locked down at her home in South West London, where I asked how her COVID-19 lockdown was going.

“I’ve been at home now for nine weeks, and just venturing out for runs and occasionally walks, but mainly I’ve been indoors. I live with someone else, so I do have company, which is nice. I feel sorry for people that have got a lot of friends but are isolating on their own, and who are going a bit stir crazy. I’m really lucky to have someone to talk to.”

While I moved from Surrey to Lancashire, Karima relocated to the capital from Blackpool via Manchester, of late becoming a regular visitor to my hometown, Guildford, studying for a degree at the Academy of Contemporary Music.

“There’s a lot going on there, it’s a very interesting set-up, with some very passionate people there. I really enjoy it. I’ve always been interested in music production and just wanted to take some time out to get to know all that.”

We got on to the town’s link with The Stranglers, with Hugh Cornwell a regular visitor to the ACM of late through band practises with course lecturers Pat Hughes and Windsor McGilvray, back on the patch where his breakthrough band made their name, a stone’s throw from the off-license Jet Black ran and where an outfit first known as The Guildford Stranglers first rehearsed. That also gave me an excuse to tell her about The Stranglers practiced in my village scout hut, a couple of miles out of town.

“That’s so cool, and Guildford’s a beautiful place. Very hilly too.”

Not as if I could afford to live round there these days, I add, having moved away in 1994, despite retaining my accent.

“No, that always stays, doesn’t it, no matter where you go. In my case, people say, ‘I can’t work your accent out, and I’m like, ‘I’m from Blackpool, me. Ha!”

That said, Karima was driven to get away from the ‘tatty seaside town’ Blackpool lad John Robb’s band The Membranes wrote about when she was less than a year old.

“I remember supporting John Robb and was just talking about this the other day. I used to play drums in a punk band years ago, and we supported The Membranes a few times. It’s crazy but growing up I came across John in lots of different circumstances throughout my music career, and at the time I didn’t really realise – I was only about 14 when I first played with him. I didn’t realise how much of a bit of a legend he is! Such a musical icon. He’s a taste-maker.”

He’s certainly an energy. I think we could all do with a bit of that in our lives.

“Yeah! And he’s buff as well. He must work out a lot!”

But what about your own Fylde roots? Are they an important part of what you’re about?

“Erm … of course. I think, socially, where I grew up and the life I had as a child has had a lot of influence on me, and as an artist as well. That passion and that drive to get out of Blackpool was the main thing. I think I was very lucky to have found music, because that was my get out card. Not as if I’m saying anything bad about it, but it wasn’t for me. I crave more culture and stuff.”

Yet there were times, not least in the 1950s, when Blackpool was at the heart of the entertainment world, rock’n’rollers like Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran a part of that whole scene.

“I know! I believe it was!”

Is there a new album coming, and are ‘Orange Rose’ and ‘Shelf Life’ fairly indicative of that as a whole?

“Yeah, there’s going to be an album. I’m working on it, remotely, as I was meant to be going back out to LA to finish it. It’s probably going to be coming out early 2021 now. I’ll probably just be releasing singles up to then. That’s seems to be a nice way to do it, and I’m enjoying making videos.”

In the promo video for ‘Orange Rose’, filmed in Las Vegas before Christmas last year, Karima explores the notion of ‘ self-destructive behavior – a constant running away from our fears which potentially ends in us running away from the people who can make us whole again’- the artist portrayed lost deep in thought and caught between a rock and a hard place in Nevada.

Did you get to explore that Nevada fairly well while you were filming?

“I was only there a day and night this time, but I’ve been a couple of times, visiting the Grand Canyon the year before, and finding Las Vegas really bizarre. When I got to the hotel at around midday there were people gambling, and crazy amounts of smoke, and the same people were there when I got up in the morning, having got up at 4am to make it to the Grand Canyon. They were still there at the table, and I found that really sad.”

Casino life, eh. A home from home for a girl from Blackpool.

“I guess so, but I get scared even putting more than $10 on. The people there though … the amounts they’re putting on.”

Street Life: Karima Francis, moving into a new creative period of her career through her move to America

Street Life: Karima Francis, moving into a new creative period of her career through her move to America

Do you get back to Blackpool to see family and friends from time to time?

“I do. Last time was just after Christmas, visiting my Mum and some friends, surprising a friend at a birthday party. Having a party the previous night, I had a few drinks and just booked a ticket, and it was really nice.”

Career-wise, you seemed to fly out of the traps on the back of lots of critical acclaim. Did that put pressure on, or was it all good?

“That was all amazing. I was so lucky and grateful to experience all that at such a young age. I take a lot from that. It was an amazing time for me.”

And that acclaim was from both sides of the Atlantic, it seems, following exposure at SXSW and so on. Do you feel equally at home over there in that respect?

“Yeah, the response in America is really positive, and it’s somewhere I always wanted to go with my music. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen with the first couple of albums, so it took a lot to buck up the courage to say, ‘Do you know what, I’m just gonna do this’.

“It was always my dream to tour the States, and I’m a massive fan of KEXP and the radio presenters there, listening to that station every day. This is no offence to British music – I love that too – but it’s just something that gets me in my soul. A lot of bands coming out of America, like War on Drugs, have completely blown my mind and inspired me so much. And I just want to go and play Philadelphia and all these tiny states. That’s the dream.”

Do you feel The Remedy and Black got enough traction, regarding radio airplay and so on? Tracks like ‘Wherever I Go’ deserved to be hits.

“I know! It was a strange one. The label didn’t think the numbers were as high as they were expecting, so the album was kind of dropped.”

Between Shots: Karima Francis on location for the promo video of new single ‘Orange Rose’, enjoying the sunshine

I guess you were a victim of changing times and the way labels were heading, caught up in the machinery.

“Totally! The industry I went into back then was so different to the industry now. I just wish … if I was doing it now, I’d have chosen to be solely independent and take a totally different direction. But I was young and believed in everything and was just so excited, going along for the ride.

“You’re always going to look back and wish you’d done something different. That’s my journey and it’s taken me until now to understand really what I want. You have to go on that self-exploration to reap the benefits, I guess.”

Do you feel you’ve learned a lot along the way from some of the artists you’ve been lucky enough to feature alongside or support? You’ve played with some big names over the years.

“Yeah, definitely, and I think the most influential people were Flood, the record producer, and Ken Nelson (Gomez, Badly Drawn Boy, Coldplay, Feeder, Paolo Nutini). I learned a lot from them in the studio.”

And when the lockdown’s over and you can go back to doing all the things you’ve truly craved these past few weeks, what will you do first?

“The first thing I’m going to do is – probably like the rest of us – go and see my family. But I’d really like to go to a park and meet with all my friends, have a few drinks, just socialise. That would be the best thing!”

Still Life: Karima Francis, ready to carry on exactly where she left off when the coronavirus is finally done and dusted

For more information about Karima Francis, head to her website. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

 

 

 

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