The Orchids / The Chesterfields / The Suncharms – Preston, The Continental

Continental Class: The Orchids in action in Preston (Photo: Julie Wright)

Continental Class: The Orchids in action in Preston (Photo: Julie Wright)

In these uncertain times, I’m all for reaffirmations that things ain’t so bad after all, and three treasured indie bands put plenty of smiles on faces at a Lancashire riverside pub venue on Friday night, serving up a feast of neat lyrics, winning melodies, singalong choruses and chiming guitars.

The early 1990s’ so-called ‘shoegaze’ scene rarely resonated with me. I saw Ride, Lush, and a few others, but felt little of that rush of DIY post-punk indie from a ‘what shall we do now?’ era on the alternative scene. Yet while Tuff Life Boogie’s evening openers were lumped in with all that, they seem to transcend those roots.

The Suncharms certainly hit the ground running at The Conti, a power-blasting Wash Away putting me in mind of Bobby Gillespie fronting The Wedding Present. And they barely drew breath from there, next offering Spaceship again including a Gedge-esque six-string climax.

There was at least one new song and suggestions of more to come soon, this Sheffield five-piece’s re-emergence attracting a sizeable following, most crossing the Pennines to see their heroes’ first live outing since ‘93. And thankfully there was no evidence of the pudding bowl hairdo sported by frontman Marcus Palmer on their new retrospective CD cover. In fact, they’re all wearing well and scrubbed up alreet on the neet.

As well as the Weddoes – apparently David Gedge once suggested their previous name The Eunuchs wasn’t the greatest – at times there were Teenage Fanclub touches from guitarists Matt Neale and John Malone, while Marcus shook his tambourine to a beat dictated by a formidable drum and bass engine-room stoked by Chris Ridley and Richard Farnell respectively.

And for me they were at their best on Magic Carpet, Marcus stepping up a gear, the band then seeing themselves out in style with the epic She Feels and One I See.

Charming Men: Steel City visitors The Suncharms get things rolling (Photo: Julie Wright)

Charming Men: Steel City visitors The Suncharms get things rolling (Photo: Julie Wright)

Next were The Chesterfields, my eagerly-awaited first live sighting of this Wessex outfit in close to 30 years. And while there were early nerves, that inspired added warmth from the audience. They hadn’t had the greatest journey North, and didn’t quite do gorgeous opener Shame About the Rain credit, yet started to find their feet on fellow Kettle cut Oh Mr Wilson and Crocodile Tears’ Lunchtime for the Wild Youth.

They found top gear in time for 1986’s Sweet Revenge, bass player Simon Barber and co-singer/guitarist Helen Stickland’s harmonies working well, confidence continuing to build on later single Blame. Meanwhile, Girl on a Boat proved emotional, co-founder Simon a little choked explaining how their debut b-side was the first written with the late Davey Goldsworthy.

By then the band dynamic was apparent too, and while clearly missing Davey’s stagecraft they work together as a unit, lead guitarist Andy Strickland – also on board for a short spell in ’87 – proving a key addition. And it was the latter calling the crowd closer – much of the Yorkshire contingent having momentarily retreated to the bar – for This is Pop, a fine song borrowed from Simon, Hel and drummer Rob Parry’s other band, Design.

A new arrangement of Let It Go did Simon’s brother Mark Barber’s song justice, while Andy shone on a golden oldie from The Caretaker Race, the late ‘80s outfit he formed after leaving Pete Astor in The Loft (so to speak). But while Anywhere But Home is also pushing 30 – hints of Bobby Freeman’s Ramones-covered Do You Wanna Dance arguably taking it back even further – it proved as fresh as a blooming orchid, you could say.

There were no brass effects, yet Hel and Simon supplied a few ‘ba-ba-bahs’ on the bright and breezy Goodbye Goodbye, before the timely arrival of Last Train to Yeovil, no doubt confusing any loco-spotters supping a pint at this hostelry in the shadows of the West Coast Main Line’s bridge over the River Ribble.

They were on a high now, and I’d have happily heard at least another half-dozen tunes. And it’s worth nothing that Helen’s smile was as big as Simon’s sense of relief that it had gone pretty well after all. Time had run away though and it was pretty clear which songs they’d finish on, suggesting we Ask Johnny Dee where they were staying that night (they weren’t so sure at that point) before the glorious Completely and Utterly rounded things off nicely.

Wessex Wonders: The Chesterfields, wondering where they're staying that night (Photo: Julie Wright)

Wessex Wonders: The Chesterfields, wondering where they’re staying that night (Photo: Julie Wright)

Talking of smiles, frontman James Hackett wore a grin as big as his Caledonian city throughout The Orchids’ set. That went for the entire band actually, guitarists John Scally and Keith Sharp flanking inside-forwards James and Ronnie Borland (bass) in a four-up-front formation, the latter pair’s … erm, distinguished hair suggesting something of a Father Ted convention.

It’s something of a crime that may have perplexed DCI Jim Taggart that they aren’t better known, but there’s still time to catch up on a band up there with the finest Scottish ’80s and ’90s exports, at times reminiscent of Aztec Camera, Belle and Sebastian, The Go-Betweens (Scottish by association), Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Orange Juice and the afore-mentioned TFc, and arguably an influence on later arrivals Camera Obscura and King Creosote.

Tuff Life Boogie’s second Glaswegian guests in four weeks – after Rose McDowall’s band – looked the most relaxed of Friday’s acts, afloat on the adoration afforded them, James’  seemingly-effortless yet quietly powerful vocals and banks of glorious guitars proving a real pick-me-up.

They started with 1994’s Obsession No.1 before She’s My Girl and the super-catchy Something’s Going On illustrated their quality output since 2004’s return in a ‘best of’ set spanning 15 years of great tunes. There was many a singalong en route too, not least on ‘89’s It’s Only Obvious, while the more recent Another Saturday Night and Hey! Sometimes kept the vibe alive.

The band showed their earlier edge on 1989 single What Will We Do Next before the more reflective Welcome to My Curious Heart from their Sarah Records swansong Striving for the Lazy Perfection, while Peaches proved a perfect theme tune on the night, the softly-lilting studio cut becoming an inspirational anthem live, the crowd more than willing to, ‘Get yourself high, feed your soul, set yourself free!’

We were clearly in the realms of classics now, 1990’s Something for the Longing and Bemused, Confused and Bedraggled nothing short of wondrous, that ‘make me happy, make me smile’ line truly evocative, The Sadness of Sex (Part One) and Caveman further highlighting the band’s writing range.

Stage Presence: Glasgow cult heroes The Orchids went down a storm at The Conti (Photo: Julie Wright)

Stage Presence: Glasgow cult heroes The Orchids went down a storm at The Conti (Photo: Julie Wright)

Negotiations followed as to how long an encore they could manage, the rest of the band stepping aside as James gave us an acoustic guitar-fuelled Blue Light from Lyceum, before pondering, ‘If my mother could see me now’. There was just time for unrehearsed early b-side Apologies too, re-started after a little on-the-job training for John, with James telling us, ‘If Adele can do it, so can I’. And that was the last hurrah on a night of gorgeous hooks and all-round good vibrations, all three groups staking a claim to The Chesterfields’ saviour status, breaking our hearts with those electric guitars in their hearts.

Many thanks to Julie Wright for the live photographs, with these and more also featured on the Last Day Deaf webzine (also featuring interviews with all three bands), with a link here.

For the latest from The Orchids, check out their Facebook group page via this link. To keep up to date with The Suncharms and see where to get hold of their CD, try here. And for all the news from The Chesterfields try them via Facebook and also check out Design (including details of their debut CD, Black Marker Red Marker) through this link

Finally, just in case you missed it, this site also recently featured an in-depth interview with Simon Barber of The Chesterfields and Design, linked here.

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Four-eyed handsome men – introducing Doug Perkins and the Spectaculars


Truck'n'Roll: Doug Perkins and the Spectaculars (Photo: Dave Brown)

Truck’n’Roll: Doug Perkins and the Spectaculars (Photo: Dave Brown)

I wouldn’t expect the fervour of a 1950s audience when Doug Perkins and the Spectaculars make their latest return to Chorley Little Theatre this weekend. For the sake of the team at this Lancashire venue you’d hope those days of ripped-out seats and near-riots are in the past. But there will be genuine rock’n’roll spirit, and plenty of dancing in the aisles.

As I’m always at pains to point out, I tend to steer clear of covers bands on these pages, but this likeable outfit are far more than that anyway. And as I put it to Slim Spectacular, this four-piece outfit’s drummer (his real name, Jose, gives a hint of his Portuguese roots, but it’s also a great rock’n’roll name in itself, I reckon), it’s more complicated, isn’t it?

“I guess. We do covers, but change arrangements to make them sound more ‘50s. It’s pretty much a mix of old and new, with around 10 originals and as many we’ve taken into that style – more modern songs from the likes of Daft Punk.”

That latter cover mentioned is Get Lucky, while the band also have their ‘nine-minute medley of lots of songs in the key of A’, not only a bit of Elvis Presley but also CeeLo Green, Prince and Meghan Trainor, rockabilly style. They’re a mighty live act too, judging by video clips like those filmed at The Ferret in Preston a while ago, doing a storming cover of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ Shakin’ All Over.

“We do enjoy those extended pieces … holding those notes.”

In my old neck of the woods in darkest Surrey, there was a band I saw regularly who did the finest Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent covers, a fella called Spike heading up the Hog Valley Stompers and (prior to that) Inspector Tuppence and the Sexy Firemen, the latter supplying a few tracks to a winning 1987 vinyl rock’n’roll revival compilation called The James Deans of the Dole Queue – a Rockabilly Revolution. The fact that Spike used a vintage microphone added to that ’50s feel. And there’s something about those songs being played live that works so well.

“We much prefer playing live. We try and get in to record, but sometimes listen back and it never sound so good, never quite capturing that moment.”

Spectacular Sound: Doug and co. take a break (Photo: Dave Brown)

Spectacular Sound: Doug and co. take a break (Photo: Dave Brown)

That’s how it is with Doug Perkins and the Spectaculars, taking inspiration from rock’n’roll’s pioneers, recreating and reinventing that unique sound, while emulating the greats – from Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash and Eddie Cochran to Duane Eddy, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley. Mind you, I was impressed by the recording of their own composition, Full-Time Rockin’ Man, on a recent live album.

“Ah, great. When we recorded that album, we multi-tracked but didn’t over-dub. We tried to do it in a 50s style, all in a big circle, pressing record and seeing what came out, track-by-track.”

That particular song name-checks a ‘part-time shelf stacker, full-time rockin’ man’. Is that autobiographical of Tarleton-based lead singer/guitarist Stu (aka Doug)?

“Yeah, Stu worked for Booth’s in Hesketh Bank. That was the first song he brought to us. We were just the seeds of a band then. We all knew each other from bands over the years, but all the planets aligned – we were all without a band at the same time, all in the pub at the same time.”

That hostelry was the Dog Inn, Whittle-le-Woods, where they used the back room to practise. Surely that sounds more Phoenix Nights than The Sky at Night though, not least considering the proximity of local luminary Dave Spikey.

“Dave’s been to see us a few times actually. I don’t know if I can say he’s a fan, but we played once or twice at the Royal Oak, close to the Dog. Anyway, Stu told us he had this idea for a rockabilly song and came with these lyrics, and the Dog Inn was our haunt at the time.”

They started out as an acoustic combo, ‘almost like a skiffle band’, Chorley-based Jose using brushes instead of drumsticks. The switch to electric came later. Of Stu and Jose’s bandmates, there’s also double bass player Chris (DB), also from Chorley, and lead guitarist Malcolm (Chet) from not-so-far-off Penwortham.

“We’re all Northern lads, as it were.”

Guitar Man: Doug Perkins, in live action (Photo: Dave Brown)

Guitar Man: Doug Perkins, in live action (Photo: Dave Brown)

While Stu was singing about shelf-stacking at Booth’s on that early track, he’s moved on since, and is away with his job with Evan’s Cycles a lot these days, hence Jose stepping into the breach to talk to me. In fact, Jose’s a music technology teacher at Winstanley College in Wigan. So are the band any closer to becoming a full-time operation?

“I don’t think so. It’s always been a hobby, but we like to be out there at least once a week. It was a lot more than that, but got a bit much with all our work commitments. This way we keep it fresh.”

Now and again a contemporary artist takes on a few rock’n’roll classics, Paul McCartney’s cracking 1999 album Run Devil Run springing to mind. But Richard Hawley’s the only contemporary star of note I can think of who gets away with the slicked-back hair and rock’n’roll demeanour.

“Stu’s a big fan of Richard Hawley. And it’ll never go away. Even The Arctic Monkeys have taken on a bit of a ’50s style in one or two songs, like Baby I’m Yours.”

The band don’t seem quite old enough to have seen all the 80s rockabilly revival bands. So why did they seek out rock’n’roll?

“Stu was already into that style of music. We’d played in folk or rock bands. But as a music teacher I was really interested in recording processes, how they made those records before having the technology we have today, and how we could make that sound. I think it was songs like Elvis Presley’s Mystery Train, early Johnny Cash, hearing Eddie Cochran and that rawness. It’s almost punk.”

Those same influences were heard in early Beatles recordings too, of course.

“Exactly, and the Rolling Stones and all those early ‘60s bands playing what was coming over from America.”

Drum Major: Jose (Slim) gives it some stick with the Spectaculars (Photo: Rachael Foster)

Drum Major: Jose (Slim) gives it some stick with the Spectaculars (Photo: Rachael Foster)

Talking of recording techniques, one such visionary was Buddy Holly, which brings me on to another of the band’s unique selling points – they all just happen to wear glasses. Hence the band name. For while theirs is a truly rock’n’roll monicker, there’s a neat story as to how they settled on that.

“The original name was going to be The Spectacles, but we decided we needed something more ‘50s, and for some reason looked up who was the CEO of Specsavers, learning about Doug and Mary Perkins. And we felt we couldn’t get a more rock’n’roll name than Doug Perkins.”

In fact, Doug has become a big fan, the band having played the high street optician chain’s annual party at his Guernsey HQ before now, even writing the track Love is Blind to mark the occasion. And talking of high profile backing, BBC radio presenter Mark Radcliffe said on his Radio 2 folk show, ‘if you saw that name outside a pub, you’d probably go in, wouldn’t you’.

He has a point, and I get the impression that if those punters did walk in, they’d soon be won over, as proved to be the case when the band triumphed in the People’s Choice award at the Rock the House 2014 national competition and the previous year’s Band Royale competition at the Fox and Goose in Southport.

I mention the Doug Perkins story and its link to the Channel Islands, but there’s another back-story doing the rounds, taking the tale back to the mountainous city of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on the now nearly-forgotten Indian Gap Trail, where apparently a young cow-poke named Billy Joe Perkins met a young woman of Cherokee descent named Salali. They married and in mid-July 1934 gave birth to a son they named Douglas.

If you head over to their website you can learn a bit more about that version of the origins of the band. A fine tale it is too, although it’s slightly spoiled when you read that their current hometown is ‘Preston, Lancashire’. Or does that add to the mystique? I’ll let you decide. Anyway, what can we expect at Chorley Little Theatre this weekend? I’m guessing you attract an audience of all ages.

“Definitely, and it’s a gig that often pulls those who might not come to see us in a pub. If you book a standing venue, perhaps no one will come, but this way lots will book but then come up at the end and say, ‘I wish there were no seats, then I’d get up and dance’.”

That said, you are set to play The Continental in Preston in early May too.

Sweet Harmonies: DB and Chet add voice to the Spectaculars' cause (Photo: Rachael Foster)

Sweet Harmonies: DB and Doug add voice to the Spectaculars’ cause (Photo: Rachael Foster)

“Yes, and there’s a bigger music following there. We don’t tend to play so many gigs in Preston, so that should be pretty well attended. That’s a really good venue for music, where people will take a punt on a band rather than just appealing to the locals.”

Danny and the Juniors suggested almost 50 years ago that rock’n’roll is here to stay, and you seem to be the living embodiment of that statement. What say, Jose?

“Oh, I think so. We just want to keep those sounds alive. Most of us are in our 30s, with Stu the youngest, but I think the older folk who remember it all first time around appreciate it. They tell us it’s nice we’re keeping it going, and that it’s better to hear these songs played than all that Kings of Leon and what-have you.”

And let’s face it, there are still a few old rock’n’rollers doing the rounds in Lancashire.

“Yeah, we get the Preston Rock’n’Roll Club popping down every so often, and Swingaroo Vintage Dancehall have us once a year. That’s always a cracking gig, with all that ‘50s dancing.”

Doug Perkins and the Spectaculars play Chorley Little Theatre, Dole Lane, Chorley, Lancashire, on Saturday, February 18 (7.30pm), with tickets £6 on the door, or via Malcolm’s Musicland in the town or the band’s website via this link. There’s also a Facebook link here.

They then return on Friday, May 5 (8pm) at The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston, supported by Djangopop, with tickets £6 again, on sale from Eventbrite or in person from the venue and via 01772 499425. There’s a Facebook page for that show too, via this link.

Rockin' Men: Doug Perkins and the Spectaculars giving it their all, rockabilly style (Photo: Dave Brown)

Rockin’ Men: Doug Perkins and the Spectaculars giving it their all, rockabilly style (Photo: Dave Brown)

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Sofa, so good – talking about The Chesterfields with Simon Barber

Brooklyn Beat: The Chesterfields, live at the NYC Popfest, 2016 (Photo: The Chesterfields)

Brooklyn Beat: The Chesterfields, live at the NYC Popfest, 2016 (Photo: The Chesterfields)

With his monthly magazine deadline approaching, Simon Barber could probably do without a long chat with me about The Chesterfields.

The 58-year-old – born the day after Paul Weller in the same Surrey town – is these days at the helm of monthly West Country arts magazine Evolver, established in 2001 and soon set to celebrate its 100th issue. He’s something of a one-man band there, save for a little office support and a couple of business partners. Yet I guess he always had entrepreneurial and creative edge, having co-fronted bands since the mid-‘80s, running labels and designing records.

The Chesterfields certainly had plenty of DIY indie spirit, an initial spell with Martin Whitehead’s Bristol label The Subway Organisation leading to them setting up their own operation, Household. Simon was heavily involved in all that, and while part of his artistic approach was later utilised in his day-job, he never walked away from music. In fact, it was through his band Design that he dipped a toe into indie’s heritage circuit. And what started out as a few Chesterfields covers proved to be a first move towards his most recent outings under the old band name.

In the second half of the 1980s, The Chesterfields were at the heart of a West Country live scene that drew in plenty of outside interest, along with The Blue Aeroplanes and the Brilliant Corners. It will be 30 years this Spring since this band of ‘Yeovil yokels’ (copyright pretty much every lazy ‘80s music journo) presented their delightful debut LP, Kettle. That’s as good a reason as any for Simon and co. to get back on the road again, and next weekend they’re playing two shows in the North West of England – Friday, February 17th at the Continental, Preston, and the following evening at Gulliver’s, Manchester.

It’s a complicated affair though, co-frontman Davey Goldsworthy having been gone for more than a decade now, the victim of a hit-and-run incident in Oxford. So these days The Chesterfields comprise founder member Simon (bass, vocals), later addition Andy Strickland (guitar, best known for The Loft and The Caretaker Race) and Design bandmates Helen Stickland (guitar, vocals) and Rob Parry (drums).

I should point something else out early on, as it gets a bit confusing. So, Simon, it’s not everyone who has a Stickland and a Strickland in the band, is it?

“No, that is confusing, and I did see an online conversation where someone asked if they were married, someone answering, ‘Yeah, they definitely are’! In fact, Rob and I were thinking we should chance our surnames, with further variations on that.”

Now we’ve cleared that up, let’s get back to that first Chesterfields album, which certainly made a statement – visually and sonically. Rumour has it that they felt that with a name like that, they’d get free prime-time plugs on Coronation Street each time Rita asked Mavis to ’put kettle on’ in The Kabin, and that pretty much summed up the band’s sense of humour. I loved that album then, and still think it stands up to inspection. It was naïve, but perfect pop. Does Simon agree?

“Definitely, and I wouldn’t change anything about it, because of that.”

Iconic Sleeve: The Chesterfields' debut album, from 1987

Iconic Sleeve: The Chesterfields’ debut album, from 1987

I wasn’t sure about that pop-art style pink on similarly garish yellow cover though. In fact, in an interview I did with the band 18 months after its release, I suggested I loathed it. Yet, as I’m at pains to tell Simon, I love it now, and feel proud I still have that album on vinyl.

“A lot of people loved it, but I can only recall two people who said they hated it – one was Martin Whitehead, partly because of the cost. We insisted on that pink, and it had to be specially mixed. Also, Stephen (McRobbie) from The Pastels. He felt it ridiculous that a band could release an album called Kettle and put a big kettle on the sleeve, whereas we always felt that was hilarious.”

The same goes for 1988’s long-playing follow-up Crocodile Tears, taking that colourful theme further with an electric blue portrait of the band on garish salmon pink background. There was a poster of the design inside too, and it adorned my bedroom wall for a while (later folded back inside the sleeve and forgotten until last week, actually). And both albums and several other single sleeves were credited to The Terrible Hildas, one half of whom just happened to be Simon.

The Chesterfields always rang true to me, and like most of the other bands that really resonated, they seemed down to earth and I could see myself up on stage with them. What’s more, while they achieved a modicum of UK, European and Japanese indie success, they always remained true to their West Country roots, something a London-based music press couldn’t quite fathom, yet an attitude that endeared them to me.

I last interviewed Simon – along with his brother, past bandmate Mark Barber – before a cracking Chesterfields gig at Surrey University in early 1989. Work pressures at the time meant it was part of an ill-fated issue of Captains Log fanzine that never hit the streets, but I will get that online very soon. Suffice to say though, that was an odd time for the band, the Barber brothers out front, lead singer Davey Goldsworthy having already quit. They made one single with that line-up, and while remaining a presence on the live circuit, the writing was on the wall.

“I think Fool is a Man had just come out and Davey left earlier that year, so Mark and I were in a phase of co-fronting. Rob Ellis – who went on to play drums for PJ Harvey and is now working with Marianne Faithfull – was on that single and the last European tour with Davey, but had also left, so we had Richard Chant on drums. That would have been one of his first gigs.

“There was also Jamie (Anderson) on guitar, who drove down separately for that gig from Sherborne, while we took Rich. And those two hadn’t met until they went on stage together. It was great, as it happened though.”

You seemed at the time determined to carry on, despite Davey’s departure.

“We were certainly determined that me and Mark would carry on, although in the end that didn’t work creatively. That was more of a shame for me. I thought co-fronting with my brother was the way my life was going. But we write in completely different ways. I tend to bring a bassline and melody line and the rest of the band do what they want, whereas Mark tends to know how everything should sound – from the bassline to the drums. In the end it just didn’t work for us. Mark needed to be doing his own thing where he could be in complete control. I think I was much more disappointed about that than he was.”

Barber Brothers: Mark and Simon Barber, co-fronting the band at Surrey University in early 1989 (Photo: Paul Sherwood)

Barber Brothers: Mark and Simon co-fronting at Surrey University in early ’89 (Photo: Paul Sherwood)

These days Mark is Bristol-based, doing occasional shows as Pop Parker, including a few past releases on Vinyl Japan. He also toured North America with PJ Harvey a few years ago, played bass with Davey Woodward in The Experimental Pop Band, and now runs a greetings card business.

But let’s go right back to the beginning, to the first incarnation of the band in 1984, with Simon, co-singer/guitarist Davey Goldsworthy and drummer Dominic Manns.

“I knew Dom because I went out with his sister for a while. He was 13 and I heard him drumming on things in his bedroom, using chopsticks and sandwich boxes. I remembered that when Davey and I were looking for a drummer, and he started taking lessons at Yeovil College with John Parish, who was known on that scene and had some success with Thieves Like Us. John was the go-to guy who knew what he was doing!

“Davey and I were part of the Yeovil punk scene and played in various bands. I was in The Act, releasing a single that John Peel played, and Davey was in The Bikini Mutants with Debbie Gooch, who went on to My Bloody Valentine. But both bands split, people tending to do that thing of moving to London, thinking that was the way to succeed. In the end all those people ended up being consumed by London while we ended up being the band that succeeded, staying exactly where we were.”

You weren’t tempted to go to Bristol?

“No, Davey was working as a printer in Yeovil, and I was a nurse in a mental hospital. We vaguely knew each other from the scene, and I went round his flat one afternoon with a bag of 7” records. We played each other stuff and realised we loved a lot of the same stuff.

“At that time we particularly loved the Sandie Shaw record with The Smiths, and that’s why to start off neither of us thought we were going to be the singer. We thought we’d put together a band and find a girl singer, and for a while that was Sarah Featherstone, now a fabulously wealthy architect but at that point having a dalliance with local herberts!

“We realised soon Davey needed to be singing, but that afternoon were just playing The Fall and Orange Juice songs. Both of us had early Postcard stuff and both loved The Go-Betweens. I hadn’t heard Man o’ Sand before, while I got him into stuff too. Before all that The Beatles were my thing, while I loved The Smiths and Davey loved The Fall.”

I can hear that Andy Rourke sound in your bass-playing at the time.

“I never considered myself a bassist, so was always playing tunes all the way through, like on Two Girls and a Treehouse. I still don’t play properly, but really don’t want to know how, because maybe the creativity stops then.”

Four Play: The Chesterfields in 1986. From the left - Simon, Davey, Dom, Brendan (Photo: The Chesterfields)

Four Play: The Chesterfields in 1986. From the left – Simon, Davey, Dom, Brendan (Photo: The Chesterfields)

Davey and Simon were also inspired by emerging indie outfit The June Brides, who were on the bill the night they got their big break, thanks to Bristol fanzine writer Martin Whitehead, then in the process of starting The Subway Organisation.

“Martin was doing his fanzine, The Underground, and putting on gigs. Davey and I went to see The June Brides there, which proved a turning point, another band we loved. There was The Loft too, the start of my friendship with Andy Strickland. We also both support the same football team, which helped!”

That’s Portsmouth, by the way, Simon having lived there as a teenager after moving from my Surrey patch, while Andy is from the Isle of Wight. But that’s another story.

“We’d never played outside Yeovil, but a friend of ours was running a fanzine called Screed in the area and putting gigs on, bringing Bogshed and others down. He was asked by the Big Twang Club and Especially Yellow fanzine, run by Johnny Dee in Brighton, to organise a gig in a pub in the middle of nowhere.”

That was The Railway Inn, Templecombe, Somerset (more recently renamed The Royal Wessex and The Templars Retreat, if you’re contemplating a Chesterfields heritage tour), with two coachloads of indie kids from Brighton taken on a ‘magical mystery tour’ one Saturday.

“They didn’t have a clue where they were going, but visited Stonehenge and the Cerne Abbas Giant, then arrived for this gig featuring The June Brides, The Shop Assistants and us. Nobody had heard of us, but Johnny Dee (later immortalised in a Chesterfields song) and Martin were there, and I think Phill Jupitus was in the bar doing his Porky the Poet thing. We had the whole Brighton scene in this pub plus all our mates. It was a fantastic night, and we were great. Davey was really on form, everyone loved him and us, and Martin pretty much signed us to Subway straight away.”

At that point, Martin had already released a Shop Assistants single which John Peel broke, and pretty soon had The Soup Dragons on board, followed by The Chesterfields. So was it Subway as in Subway Sect? You did cover a Vic Godard song on Kettle after all.

“When we did that we were more or less covering Orange Juice’s version, only hearing the original after we’d worked out our own. I’ve met Vic since though. Design supported The Bitter Springs in London and he’s mates with them so gets up and sings with them.”

On Location: The Chesterfields in 1988. From the left - Davey, Dom, Simon, Mark, Bradford Abbas (Photo: The Chesterfields)

On Location: The Chesterfields, ’88: Davey, Dom, Simon, Mark, Bradford Abbas (Photo: The Chesterfields)

Has Simon still got a copy of that flexi disc featuring The Chesterfields’ Nose out of Joint and The Shop Assistants’ Home Again?

“Yeah, I’ve got everything. I’m pretty good at archiving recordings, and also music press and fanzines.”

As well as Davey, Brendan Holden plays guitar on Kettle, but soon made way for Rodney Allen, another former Captains Log interviewee, recently mentioned in my interview with The Blue Aeroplanes’ Gerard Langley (linked here), having joined that Bristol outfit not long after leaving The Chesterfields.

“By the time Kettle came out Brendan had left, and we’d got to know Rodney. He was a fan, knew all the songs, and fitted right in, although he had his own career. Sometimes we’d play somewhere and he’d go on first. Then Andy came in, and played probably our biggest gig, at Glastonbury Festival.”

That’s another story, which I’ll go into more detail on another time. But, in short, a smashed windscreen on the Friday night of the ’87 event meant myself and two other festival-goers spent a frustrating evening waiting for a replacement in Castle Cary, so we missed their set. I was however around the following afternoon when Rodney played on the main stage. In fact, it turns out Simon’s still in touch with Rodney, still based very close to the festival site in Pilton.

“I always loved his song, Saturday the If, my favourite song, not just of his, but of anyone. He knew that and asked me to get up and sing it at this packed-out gig, one of my personal highlights, his whole family stood in front of me, gazing up. Magical! I love that song so much.”

I’m with him on that. That was the song that really summed up Glastonbury ’87 for me, and it might even have been the first time that weekend the sun came out and started to dry out the mud. We had a bit of a moment like that when we played there. It was a bit miserable until we did Ask Johnny Dee, looking at each other, thinking, ‘What? Has that really happened?’ There was a similar thing when I saw the Go-Betweens. It was very muddy and I think I’d just watched a terrible band on the main stage, when they came on and the sun came out. Fantastic.”

Post Kettle: The Chesterfields in 1987. From the left - Rodney, Simon, Dom, Davey (Photo: The Chesterfields)

Post Kettle: The Chesterfields in 1987. From the left – Rodney, Simon, Dom, Davey (Photo: The Chesterfields)

By the time they’d played Glastonbury ’87, The Chesterfields had released their Guitar in Your Bath EP and Completely and Utterly single (both ’86) then Kettle, early singles compilation Westward Ho! soon following. And within a year, on their label, there was also Crocodile Tears, another LP that stood the test of time. So what inspired them to break away from Subway?

“We had a good relationship with Revolver Distribution in Bristol and Lloyd there suggested we should set up our own label. For a while we put another band from Yeovil, The Beat Hotel, on there too. They were great but unfortunately split up at their peak, going off in a different direction.

“We wanted to do another album for Subway, but Martin wasn’t ready. I think he wanted to wait – maybe rightly – until we had another album’s worth of material. We were writing, but we were on that treadmill – we had management and wanted something out there.

“In retrospect there was a lot we did that we should have slowed down. We had an agency and were saying yes to everything. If we’d taken a pause at some stage, perhaps Davey wouldn’t have left when he did. We could have taken a short break, got our breath back.”

Did you feel you’d learned enough from your Subway experience to steer yourself towards forming your own label?

“Well, it was me running Household, basically, and I loved the idea of it, establishing an aesthetic and a look, and there were things I felt Martin could have done better at Subway. But he was doing it in that naive way, in the same way that Creation were.”

And I suppose 27 singles and 15 albums without a proper business plan is some going. You can’t knock Subway’s indie spirit. As for Household, I bought the next Chesterfields’ singles and second album and even The Beat Hotel’s Hey Audacious 12”. But it seems that was the last of nine label releases.

“Yeah, The Beat Hotel and The Chesterfields collapsed around the same time, and it just felt like there were new things happening, like a band called The Becketts and PJ Harvey, and my post-Chesterfields band were definitely influenced by American bands. On our last European tour with Davey we were in our agent’s cellar when he played Gigantic by The Pixies and Freak Scene by Dinosaur Jr. Davey and I looked at each other and it was like, ‘Oh yeah, the world’s changed a little’, us wanting to do something more like that.”

15241210_1780734865512134_5898739236828637141_nThat said, he remains quietly proud of much of that Crocodile Tears LP. Quite rightly too.

“I played it all the way through for the first time in years recently, and really enjoyed it. There are things I’m not so sure about and I really don’t like the front cover. A lot of it was really rushed and some of the songs didn’t achieve what some of them went on to be. We made a few wrong decisions, and I feel we should have used a slightly different recording of Lunchtime for the Wild Youth.

“That was the song John Peel played from that album, but it wasn’t a single. Half of the band wanted one song for a single while the other half and the manager wanted Blame.  I felt Let It Go – my brother’s song – should have been a single, but we should have made more of Lunchtime, not least because of the reaction it got live and from Peelie, who played it several times.”

There was an impressive contribution from Simon’s brother on that album (Mark having taken over from Andy Strickland), not least on compositions such as Alison Wait and Let It Go.

“I loved Alison Wait, but hated playing it. We were playing what Mark wanted us to play. But we do Let It Go as part of our current set. Besides, Mark’s seen us do it, and approves.”

If anything, Crocodile Tears at least took them away from being lumped in with a scene of so-called ‘twee indie pop’. On their Wikipedia write-up, it mentions how ‘hardcore fans’ tended to refer to them as ‘The Chesterf!elds’ with an exclamation mark in there. That made me laugh. I didn’t really imagine them having hardcore fans.

“I really don’t know where that came from!”

Radio 1 night-time DJ Janice Long was a great supporter of the band in the early days, and through her and Peelie that’s no doubt how I picked up on them. But that misleading description ‘twee’ got used a lot in the music press. Did they prefer ‘Bristol jangly pop’, as the Japanese market later suggested?

“I think Crocodile Tears separated us from that whole scene, also that Sarah Records scene. Lots of great things came out of that, but we were old punk rockers, having loved the energy of Orange Juice and all that, which I felt followed on from bands like Buzzcocks.”

Industrial Past: Brendan, Simon, Dom, Davey - Gas House Hill, Sherborne, 1986 (Photo: The Chesterfields)

Industrial Past: Brendan, Simon, Dom, Davey – Gas House Hill, Sherborne, 1986 (Photo: The Chesterfields)

I agree, and when I saw them at a packed Coalhole in Covent Garden in early June ’87, I was surprised by the touristy, trendy indie audience. That wasn’t how I imagined it all when I listened to the records.

“Yeah, we certainly didn’t have twee indie attitude, and never felt like we fitted in. One regret we had was that we had a manager early on who did a deal with Time Out to allow them to come and photograph us in anoraks for a feature. Davey and I were against it, but the others said we should. There’s a photograph somewhere of us in these anoraks, and we just look stupid. But maybe that attracted the audience that bought the records, so you can’t really be too dismissive.”

They certainly had a big Japanese following, ultimately leading to the band re-grouping – with Davey back in the fold – for 1994 album Flood, and more live dates, including some in the Far East.

“Japan loved The Chesterfields’ aesthetic, the guitars, and sleeve designs. They bought into all that. We’ve still got fans out there and there’s a possibility we might be able to go over there again. I’d also like to take Design there. That’s one of the problems of being involved in a band doing new things but also doing the heritage thing. But it did get both bands to the NYC Popfest last year!”

Confession time now. At the beginning of ’94 I moved to Lancashire, a lot was happening in my life, and I was concentrating on a football fanzine rather than writing about music, so was more likely to write about Yeovil Town FC than a Chesterfields’ re-emergence. Accordingly, it took me until buying the 2005 Cherry Red best of (Electric Guitars in their Hearts) retrospective to hear the splendid Down by the Wishing Pool single and the LP that followed.

Yet, as I put it to Simon, Flood is a bit of a strange animal for me, although there are some great tracks there and a promise of what might have come next.

“Maybe, but it was three people coming back together – Davey, me and Mark, with songs half-written with other bands we were in at the time. We loved doing that album, and did it with Head, who’s doing PJ Harvey’s stuff now. The process was brilliant, Davey was back on form, and we did it because Vinyl Japan asked us to do it. They paid for it and we agreed to do it if we could go and play Japan, playing over there with the TV Personalities.

“I’m not unhappy with that album. I love a couple of Davey’s songs and his lyrics. There are a couple of tracks I’m not so sure about, and we’re not doing anything from it this time, although some think we really should.“

There are a few lovely Teenage Fanclub type guitar moments there too, although arguably too low in the mix for me.

“Oh yeah – that’s Davey!”

There was also the Open to Persuasion single at the end of that year, but nothing more. So how come?

“We came back and did a couple of gigs but there wasn’t really that much interest, so just went back to the bands we were with before. But it was great fun and I suppose that’s what I’m still doing now. If The Chesterfields are asked to do things, and we can afford to, we do it, and it’s really good fun. I’ve seen clips of bands that have reformed from that time and felt they shouldn’t have. That was my big fear. But I’m told that’s not the case with us.”

While that Cherry Red compilation helped re-ignite interest, it came barely a year after Davey’s tragic death, a father of two lads gone far too early. Was Simon still in touch with him?

“Yeah, we saw each other regularly. He moved to Brighton for a while, then Oxford, and was in New York for a while. He actually phoned the week before he was killed. We had a really nice conversation, touching in retrospect on our relationship and things like that. That was very weird, having that conversation just before. In fact, the same thing happened with another friend the following year.

“Davey was always the person – whatever I was doing – whose opinion meant more to me for any music I was working on than anyone else. Then suddenly that person was gone. That was hard. I still think lyrically he was one of the best. Anything I write now I measure against that, imagining sharing it with Davey, asking what he thinks, just as it was.”

The Subway Organisation 1986-1989 CD sleevenotes mention ‘Davey’s sharp, observant and smart lyrics set The Chesterfields apart from the soundalikes’. Is that fair comment?

“Yeah. I agree with that.”

City Slickers: The Chesterfields, New York City, 2016 - Helen, Andy, Rob, Simon (Photo: The Chesterfields)

City Slickers: The Chesterfields, New York City, 2016 – Helen, Andy, Rob, Simon (Photo: Rowan Taylor)

A dozen years later we have that new line-up though, borne out of the 2014 retrospective celebrations of the legendary NME C86 tape, as Design, augmented by Andy Strickland, played a set of Chesterfields songs at the 92 Club in London. They continued to play a few of those ‘heritage songs’ live, finally going out under the old band name with Andy again last year at Exeter’s Cavern Club and The 100 Club in London.

And it’s fair to say Simon’s still on something of a high about last summer’s appearances with both The Chesterfields and Design at the NYC Popfest, playing The Knitting Factory, Brooklyn, putting it up there with that breakthrough Templecombe showcase and 1987’s Glastonbury (also involving Andy Strickland).

“Just to be up there singing Davey’s songs and my songs, with friends, in a place I never thought I’d go to with the band, with the audience seeming to know all the songs. All the other bands were lovely too, and the whole experience was just fantastic.

“I still think about playing Glastonbury too, our biggest gig. There have been so many highs, including playing Tokyo and recording for Janice Long. She was a huge fan and her support was so important.  Peelie didn’t play us quite so much, but told our manager he would if Janice hadn’t already taken us. He said, ‘You don’t need my help’. It would have been lovely to do a Peel session but we were very proud to record for Janice. Our sessions were released on vinyl too, and that was her personal choice.”

Furthermore, it seems that Simon’s very happy for Helen to share the limelight out front, and their voices work well together, not dissimilar from that juxtaposition with Davey’s voice.

“Yeah, I found my other perfect side-kick in Helen, after Davey, with whom I had that sweet’n’sour Lennon-McCartney thing. I don’t have to be a front-man, even when they’re my songs and I’m singing lead.”

15232068_1780781692174118_8088713971218767367_nThe Chesterfields play The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston, Lancashire, on Friday, February 17th, on a Tuff Life Boogie bill topped by Glasgow five-piece The Orchids and also including Sheffield’s The Suncharms’ first show in almost 25 years. Tickets are £8 (advance) or £10 (door) from WeGot Tickets, SEE Tickets, Skiddle, the venue (01772 499425) or Action Records (01772 884772). For more details follow this link.

And on Saturday, February 18th the band top the bill at Gulliver’s, Oldham Street, Manchester, supported by Karen (Brilliant Corners frontman Davey Woodward’s band) and Matinee Records’ Charlie Big Time. Tickets are £7 or £9 on the door, available from the venue or this link.



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Strictly for Dance Lovers – in conversation with Brendan Cole

Strictly Glamour: Brendan Cole, out on the floor, in good company, and heading to a town near you

Strictly Glamour: Brendan Cole, out on the floor, in good company, and heading to a town near you

Brendan Cole made his British television debut 21 years ago, and has been a Strictly Come Dancing draw since the Saturday night prime-time BBC One show’s 2004 debut.

But forget the small screen for a moment. Right now he’s treading the boards – or at least bounding and gliding across them – in theatres across the UK, promising a spectacular production this month and next with his All Night Long show, featuring eight world-class dancers, a 14-piece band and a feast of lighting, special effects and choreography.

The 40-year-old New Zealander and his cast – including the show’s new leading lady Faye Huddleston – are aiming to dazzle 45 audiences up until an April 2nd finale at the Mayflower in Southampton. And as the headliner himself puts it, this is no ‘sit back and watch’ production.

They started out at Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre and earlier this week reached The Palace, Manchester, with future dates including a few more on my Lancashire patch – at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall (Thursday, February 9th), Preston Guild Hall (Saturday, February 18th) and Blackpool Opera House (Thursday, March 23rd). And that must all take a fair bit of stamina, as this two left-footed scribe mentioned to Latin American dance expert Brendan when we spoke ahead of his final tour rehearsals.

“It’s pretty full on and intense. There are five matinees too. It’s not a quiet show.”

He promises a production chock-full of high energy routines. So how did his month of rehearsals go?

“It’s really hard to train for and get fit for. And you burst on to the stage. It doesn’t start with a nice casual waltz. It’s full on from start to finish. There’s no preparing for that. You could do as many hours in the gym as you want, if you had time, but you get fit on the stage, and need to look like you’re fit from that first night. But two or three days in you find that you are match fit, because you’ve done it, your body knows what it feels like and you’ve managed to conserve energy at certain points.”

098How involved was Brendan in organising and choreographing the show, deciding who’s on the bill, and so on?

“Every aspect of the show has my fingerprint on it. It’s not someone else’s show, like some of the others out there. It’s very much mine from start to finish – from concept and costumes to lighting and casting. I don’t have a director coming in and telling me what to do.

“Having said that, it’s very much a creative process, with my cast very much involved in putting the show together. And I want them involved. I want them to feel it and be excited by it. Their input inspires me, and my input inspires them. I make most of the decisions, but it’s very much driven by a team effort. My musical director and my wife sit down and we discuss the songs, but we make sure we’ve got a diverse number of songs. It’s collective, and that’s what makes the show work.”

It seems to be a big undertaking, with rumours of a fleet of trucks heading between towns and cities. Does Brendan enjoy the travel aspect?

“I absolutely love it. I love the camaraderie. We have 22 people on the road, and don’t tell my wife but I love being on tour! It’s exciting. We’re a good bunch. I’ve been working with these musicians now for seven years on the road and know them very well. We all get on really well and have some great nights out after shows.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard being away from family, but to get two months on the road with friends – new and old – is exciting. We’re on a coach, we travel around, we go out, and we unwind after the adrenaline of that two-hour show. You need a good two hours after a show to unwind, so we go for a glass of wine or a beer and sit around talking and laughing about the mishaps that happen on stage. We’re just talking nonsense all the time. It’s great!”

It turns out that this is Brendan’s ninth UK tour. Could he ever have dreamed of all this as an 18-year-old about to leave New Zealand for the UK?

“No, it’s quite something when you look back.”

bc-all-night-longHe’s clearly worked hard for his success, but does he think he fell on his feet, so to speak?

“In some ways, but I believe in hard work and I’m very much a hard worker. And when you’ve got that work ethic and you’re determined to follow your dreams and push, hard work creates opportunities. People who don’t work hard very seldom get the opportunities.

“Take Strictly for example. I worked so hard in my early days as a dancer to try and be the best I could and get myself in a position to be a world champion. That’s what I wanted to be. That dream didn’t come to fruition because Strictly came along, but they wouldn’t have taken me on if I hadn’t had the base in the first place.

“It was a big gamble but I chose to take that, where others didn’t. And when the opportunity for my first tour came along I was petrified that it wouldn’t be well received or a flop, but I believe in myself, I believe in the product and that’s how I’ve worked my whole life.”

Born in Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island, Brendan started dancing at the age of six, yet between leaving school at 17 and heading to England a year later, he was a builder and roofer. Could there ever have been a career in the construction business?

“That’s interesting, actually. I love building, creating, knocking something together. I was always pulling a nail out of my garage wall, getting two bits of wood and sticking them together, or making a go-kart, pulling wheels off old prams.

“So going into roofing and the building profession straight from school – I left at 16, knowing I probably wasn’t going to follow an academic career – all I really wanted to do was get out there and look after myself. I didn’t want to have to ask Mum for $8 a week for my scooter petrol money. I wanted to earn my way up. I was always driven in that respect.

“I probably would have gone on to be a builder, have a building firm, run my own business. Instead I decided to try the dancing dream. That sounds weird, but I played lots of sport and was into everything. But the dancing was consistent. I never stopped, and obviously had a talent for it.”

035Were there dancers in the family?

“Not so much, but Mum was very musical and rhythmical, and we were a very musical family. Pretty much everyone can sing, save my brother! It’s something I didn’t realise until my Grandad’s funeral. It was like a choir in there, pretty much pitch-perfect. Dad was pretty rhythmical as well.”

I seem to recall from my youth that the original BBC Come Dancing series (1950-1998) was a rather starchy affair, far removed from what we have beamed into our living rooms on a Saturday night these days. So what made Brendan think ballroom dancing was the career for him? Was Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 Australian film success Strictly Ballroom an influence?

“When I first saw that film I was around 15, yet a few years later was working on the New Zealand version of Strictly, called Dancing with the Stars, with Paul Mercurio, one of the stars of that film. At first, I didn’t really like that film, as it was taking the mickey out of something I really loved doing. However, in my humble opinion I’d say it’s one of the most brilliant movies made. I love the story, and looking at it now from a very different perspective, I appreciate it as a brilliant piece of theatre in many ways.

Come Dancing was a bit dated, but it was of its time and one of Britain’s longest-running television series, which is amazing. It certainly had a following, and we’ve taken that on. And even since Strictly started, it’s two very different shows. Look back at the original, it’s very dated, but there’s a real innocence about it that is lovely. But television improves and increases and grows, and production becomes more, and people expect more.”

Brendan’s certainly seen his fair share of stunning celebrity partners during 14 series of Strictly Come Dancing. On the debut series there was newsreader and presenter Natasha Kaplinsky, the pair going on to win the show. And from there, his screen partners have included actresses Sarah Manners, Claire King and Sunetra Sarker, TV presenters Fiona Phillips, Lisa Snowdon and Kirsty Gallacher, model Kelly Brook, businesswoman (and former Rolling Stone wife) Jo Wood, Olympic cycling legend Victoria Pendleton, and singers Michelle Williams, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, 2016 writewyattuk interviewee Lulu (with a link to that feature here) and most recent screen partner Anastacia.

Come to think of it, I recall Len Goodman talking a while ago about how lads of his generation thought dancing was a rather ‘cissy’ career (his word, not mine), but that he soon proved them wrong, not least on account of all the glamorous women he met through his dancing. Was it a similar story with Brendan?

“I guess so. I got a lot of stick growing up for being a dancer. But at the same time that stick is part of what I am and what I do today and part of what drives me. I like the stick and like people giving me a hard time. It fuels my drive to be better and stick two fingers up. It certainly is quite a glamorous thing we do now.

“I’ve had my fair share of really lovely women to dance with, and I’m sure a lot of people watching think, ‘Crikey, I wouldn’t mind having a dance with her!’ I’m very lucky, and it’s an incredible thing to be a part of.”

Top Marks: Bruno Tonioli, Arlene Philips, Len Goodman and Craig Revel Horwood give their verdict on the writewyattuk interview with Brendan Cole (Photo copyright: BBC)

Top Marks: Bruno Tonioli, Arlene Philips, Len Goodman and Craig Revel Horwood give their verdict on the writewyattuk interview with Brendan Cole (Photo copyright: BBC)

Is that right that on arrival in England he studied pasodoble, ballroom, ballet and the robot in Manchester?

“That’s a bit of Wikipedia fiction – I don’t even know how that’s on there. I did a paid gig for the dance school mentioned once, but … that really upsets me.”

So where did he head when he initially got off that plane?

“South London was the place for dancing, and I went to a place in Norbury called Semley Ballroom. I watched from the sidelines, waited to get a partner, then that was that.”

I understand his late father was from a Glaswegian family. Did Brendan have family roots over here?

“None, just a one-way ticket and a thousand pounds in my pocket. Very strange to look back on. I wouldn’t do the same now. I’m older and wiser!”

It seems that Brendan was only passing through, taking time out during a European competition. Either way though, he was hooked and soon returned, landing at Heathrow one April morning in 1995. He was soon sharing digs with other struggling dancers, his money spent on lessons, taking jobs where he could find them to finance his dream.

Around then he met Danish-born dancer Camilla Dallerup, the pair – soon a couple – going on to travel the world, learning their craft and entering competitions. They became contestants on the BBC’s long-running show Come Dancing as amateurs from 1996, and from 2002-04 as professionals, by which time they were engaged.

Band Substance: Brendan Cole's tour band , caught on camera

Band Substance: Brendan Cole’s tour band , caught on camera

While that relationship ended in time, he was soon well and truly settled in England, and married model Zoe Hobbs in 2010, with their daughter Aurelia born on Christmas Day, 2012, the family settling in Aylesbury. I’m guessing he’ll miss Zoe and Aurelia over the next couple of months. Are there gaps in the schedule to get back to Buckinghamshire?

“Yes. I tend to schedule in a little time for family, so I’ve got time at home as well. Things are really cool. Never a dull moment, but it’s fun.”

Has having a family of his own changed Brendan’s outlook on life?

“Definitely. Everything is about family rather than all the other things you get up to on any given day. It definitely changes your thought process. Everything revolves around your child and wife. I love that and wouldn’t have it any other way.”

All these years on, what does he miss most about New Zealand?

“I haven’t been back in about six years, for my father’s funeral. But you miss family and there’s a freshness in the air that’s quite spectacular, a certain light you won’t find anywhere else in the world. It’s a beautiful place. It’s nice to go back as a tourist as well. You get to visit some amazing places.”

It’s certainly a lovely part of the world, not least his home city of Christchurch, where this scribe briefly stayed in both 1991 and 1999. How close were Brendan’s family and friends to the earthquake zone last year?

“Very close. It affected a lot of my friends. It’s not nice, and earthquakes continue unfortunately. Luckily, I haven’t lost anyone, but hundreds died in the first earthquake (the 2011 earthquake killed 185 people). It’s tragic and also happening elsewhere. Look at Italy recently.”

vis_6791Talking of home visits, from 2005 to 2009 Brendan was a judge on New Zealand’s version of the Strictly show, Dancing with the Stars, where there were said to be a few on-air differences of opinion with fellow judge Craig Revel Horwood. Wasn’t that just Craig playing his role of pantomime villain? Only I get the impression they might sneak out for a pint after shows.

“We certainly do. Quite often we’ll be arguing one night and then down the waterfront the next day enjoying a nice glass of something cold. It’s quite amusing, we’re good friends, and we have a good relationship. But on air, I can’t stand him – ha!”

From appearing in 2006 on ITV’s Love Island and judging and teaching roles on Britain’s Next Top Model to 2007’s BBC show Just the Two of Us, partnering Beverley Knight, there have been many TV appearances. He also represented the United Kingdom with Camilla Dallerup at the first Eurovision Dance Contest in 2007, and was a guest team captain on the What Do Kids Know show in 2010. What’s the most ridiculous role he’s been offered?

“No idea. I’ve been offered some crazy stuff, turned a couple of things down and accepted a few that were crazy, but it’s the way it is. It’s nice that people want you involved.”

Meanwhile, he’s appeared in every series of Strictly, often clashing with the judges over scoring and comments on his performances, on occasion deliberately breaking the show’s rules, not least through incorporating illegal lifts into his choreography. But this so-called ‘bad boy of Strictly’ is one of only two professional dancers to have completed every run of the show, along with Anton du Beke, who I gather is set to be the father of twins this Spring. Are Strictly‘s stalwart movers and shakers in touch between series?

“Yes, he’s one of my very good friends, and I’m so excited for him and Hannah (Summers). It’s an amazing thing.”

I mentioned Len before. Will Brendan miss the veteran Strictly judge now he’s left the show?

“I will. The show will be very different without him. It’s a shame he had to go, but change happens and he will be very much missed.”

030Back in the winter of 2004, Brendan had his first acting experience, featuring in UK feature film Everything To Dance. Is that something he’d like to return to someday?

“Yeah. I’m not an actor by any means, but it’s definitely part of what we do as artists and there’s an element of acting involved. Once Strictly comes to an end for me – whenever that may be – it’s definitely something I’ll look to become more involved.”

Meanwhile, it’s been a while since he was on Strictly’s winning team – 13 years to be precise. Is there still a keen sense of competition among the professionals?

“There is, but you’ve got to realise your limitations. You can only do so much with your partner. Not everyone can win it. You’ve just got to give your best, put your best foot forward, and hopefully it works. If you’ve got someone who can win it, great, if not, never mind.”

Brendan Cole’s All Night Long visits Preston Guild Hall on Saturday, February 18, with tickets starting at £23. For ticket enquiries, e-mail or call the box office on 01772 80 44 44.

And for details of all the other shows on the All Night Long tour, head to Brendan Cole’s own website via this link.

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To Be Someone – Talking about The Jam with Den Davis

Tunnel Vision: Den Davis with Paul and Nicky Weller at the About the Young Idea exhibition in Liverpool last summer (Photo copyright: Den Davis).

Tunnel Vision: Den Davis with Paul and Nicky Weller at Liverpool’s About the Young Idea exhibition.

When a 1,500kg truck bomb was detonated in central Manchester in June 1996, the collateral damage included a vast collection of vinyl rarities belonging to Den Davis, collector and avid fan of The Jam.

A few weeks passed before Den was allowed anywhere near the Corn Exchange building where his records were on display, and as it turned out, what the IRA hadn’t managed to destroy fell victim to the subsequent emergency operation.

“My mate Paul Ladley owns Clampdown Records, and I’d bought loads of things from him over the years. We had loads in common, kids of a similar age, the music and being Man United fans, following them home and away.

“We were hosting the European Championships that summer, and Paul wanted to do something different with his shop, which was in the basement of the Corn Exchange. I agreed to display my vinyl collection, acetates and all. Thankfully I left my memorabilia safely at home.

“None of us believed there was a bomb and we were really slow to evacuate the building. If I’d known what was about to happen, I’d have grabbed all those acetates. We never got back in as the building was condemned, and the vinyl was lost forever. By the time we got back, it had all been bulldozed. The only thing left was my Union flag, that we’d ‘rescued’ from the rooftop of the Arndale a few years earlier. I still have it now.”

It was the biggest bomb detonated in Great Britain since the Second World War, targeting the city’s infrastructure and economy and causing damage estimated by insurers at £700m. The IRA sent telephoned warnings 90 minutes before the blast, with at least 75,000 people evacuated from the area, the bomb squad unable to defuse the device in time. More than 200 people were injured but thankfully there were no fatalities from a Saturday morning blast the day before Germany took on Russia at nearby Old Trafford.

For Den it certainly marked the end of an era, the biggest collection of Jam memorabilia lost to the world, its owner distraught and initially despondent. But come the year 2000 he’d started again, and over time his collection grew bigger than ever before. So was that the spark that made him start collecting again? A new millennium’s resolution?

“Yeah that’s all it was, I just decided that the 20 years I had spent building it in the first place shouldn’t be wasted.”

Cunard Building: One of Liverpool's 'Three Graces', home to the About the Young Idea exhibition (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Cunard Building: One of Liverpool’s ‘Three Graces’, during the About the Young Idea run (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

That resultant new collection was the cornerstone over the last two summers of an exhibition of Jam-related memorabilia on display at Somerset House in London and then the Cunard Building in Liverpool, with plans to run another this year too.

Den, based in Stalybridge, had collected records and other memorabilia related to his favourite band for around 15 years at the time of that initial blow, an obsession that grew out of hearing The Jam’s records and knowing instinctively this was his band.

He first got to see Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler live at the Apollo in Ardwick in 1979, another defining moment, and was soon collecting anything he could related to the band. And by the time he’d splashed out on a US promo single of The Butterfly Collector on yellow vinyl, snapped up from a record fair at the back of Piccadilly Records in his home city, he was hooked.

“There’s a picture of me from the summer of ’78, aged 11, wearing my first Jam t-shirt. My brother was 16 and had got into going into Manchester with his mates, and the whole punk thing had taken off. He got into The Jam, and once All Mod Cons came out I couldn’t wait for him to go out as I’d be playing it to death in our bedroom.

“I was a half-decent footballer and played a couple of years up, so was welcomed by the older lads, and my brother reluctantly let me go along to see The Jam on their Setting Sons tour in November 1979. I managed to crawl my way to the front against the stage, the night Paul Weller wore that infamous black and white suit. I just remember not being able to breath. I couldn’t wait until the end of the show when the mass of bodies moved back. A gig’s simply not the same if you’re not among it all at the front and I still do that to this day.

“I saw The Jam 39 times between then and the end in December ’82. Having different groups of mates, inevitably there was always someone to go with, further afield. We’d get the coach from Aytoun Street in Manchester. I then followed The Style Council, seeing them 52 times. I’ve seen Weller more than 100 times in the last 25 years.”

Old Pals: Bruce Foxton and Den Davis

Old Pals: Bruce Foxton and Den Davis, back in the day

Did he get to meet the band and their manager (Paul’s dad) John Weller around then?

“I first met the band in the summer of ’81 at Bingley Hall, when we got into a soundcheck. I met them all many more times after that and stayed in touch after the split. I started The Jam Tapes Collection service in April 1982, which kept me involved long after they went their separate ways. John Weller was always key to gaining access.”

The second of three children to a Mum and Dad he described as ‘rock’n’rollers’, Den’s the same age as this scribe. And while my Sound of the Suburbs emanated from Surrey – land of The Members, The Stranglers, The Vapors and a certain three-piece from Woking – there was plenty going on in his own sweet suburbia too, not least Buzzcocks and all who followed in their wake.

His passion for The Jam has clearly never left him, but what about his day-job over the years? Is Nicetime Productions, the company responsible for About the Young Idea, and his work with the Universal Music Group (as archivist for The Jam) a full-time vocation now?

“I got into my own band in 1983 and have always stayed involved in music, production and management. I have a large residential studio set-up near Manchester. I used to keep diaries and that led me to writing a film script and book that got all this started. I went to see Universal in 2009 to discuss all the ideas I had and it went from there.

“I’m also a UEFA-licensed football consultant. Football and Music, that’s it. And that’s the way it was always going to be, ever since I heard To Be Someone.”

A few months after the doors finally closed on the exhibition at the Cunard Building in Liverpool, can Den sum up the experience for himself and the rest of the About the Young Idea team?

“We wanted to offer a real ‘fans’ experience’ in Liverpool. Somerset House was very different and I think we really made it extra special this year. The feedback was amazing and we’re really happy we could help so many people relive their youth one more time.”

Praise Indeed: Paul Weller's verdict on About the Young Idea

Praise Indeed: Paul Weller’s verdict on the About the Young Idea exhibition

Any particular highlights spring to mind?

“The Q&A’s were great, but every day brought something new. The opening night in London was really special, but after that it was their exhibition really, whereas this was very much ours.”

The Cunard exhibition opened to the public on July 1st, 2016, but I’m guessing he was there putting things together a lot earlier.

Not really, it was really rushed in the end due to delays with Liverpool City Council. We actually only got the money five weeks before we opened and it all had to be built from scratch.”

As a Manchester lad (and a United fan), did it stick in your craw a little that the exhibition went to Liverpool? Or was that the obvious choice with the Beatles link and so on?

“It was my choice, and it had to be Liverpool. I’ve got loads of musical Scouse mates. Though it wasn’t like that back in Deeside Leisure Centre watching The Jam. It was more a football mentality back then.

“And if you look at the school books on show, you can see how much of an influence The Beatles were on Paul.”

There was clearly a lot of planning. Could he ever have imagined how much was involved?

“I spent six years cataloguing and thinking about the layout, the tube tunnel and the re-creation of the final show’s equipment, so that part wasn’t hard. It was just the man hours available to build it for opening day. Thanks to a great team though we did manage it.”

For much of the Liverpool run, he was lift-sharing with neighbour, fellow Jam devotee, exhibition helper and lead singer of The Transmitters, Dave Lees. But how many hours does Den reckon he’s devoted to the exhibition and tie-in events over the last two years? And has his family understood that devotion?

“Countless hours, and it’s been pretty constant for the last six years. But I balance it out well. My lads are older now and we’re all involved together.”

Display Material: Inside the All Mod Cons area of the exhibition (Photo: About the Young Idea)

Display Material: Inside the All Mod Cons area of the exhibition (Photo: About the Young Idea)

Incidentally, talking of his lads, both followed Den’s lead into the music industry, with Chez 23 and lead singer of a band called Y.O.U.N.G and his eldest, Louis, 28 and a pro drummer who’s ‘turned his hand to innovative tech development’.

How many visitors came to the Liverpool exhibition, and how did that compare to the numbers for Somerset House?

“Overall it was around half of what came to London. The press didn’t pick up at all that Liverpool was a totally different and much better exhibition. I think because we kept the same name they just thought it had already been done. That really did us no favours. Thankfully the people that did come really got to see something special.”

I got the idea from a previous conversation with Paul’s sister, Nicky Weller, that as co-curators you had a lot more say in what went where than at Somerset House, and could change the exhibits as you went along.

“Yeah, this was totally our exhibition, full control from start to finish.”

She also told me last August, ‘Fingers crossed it makes a bit of profit, otherwise me, Russ (Reader, her partner) and Den are going to be doing this for nothing’. So did they break even?

“We didn’t do this for the money anyway. And we didn’t make any, no.”

Sharp Suited: A young Den Davis, out on the town

Sharp Suited: A young Den Davis, out on the town

Some big names showed up, from all three band members through to Blondie drummer Clem Burke. Who else springs to mind, and did he get to have a chinwag?

“So many, from pretty much every Liverpool band and all the northern-based indie bands. Nick Heyward was such a nice guy and his connection to The Jam really surprised me. I ended up giving him a big poster of himself, which had The Jam on the back of it.”

What about the end of run celebration concert? How was that experience, and what were your personal highlights on the night?

“The night was great in the end but the politics of pulling something like that together are better left alone.”

In talking to visitors, what seemed to go down best with them?

“The sheer scale blew people away. You had to spend two days in there to take it all in. I think everyone got something different out of it. Everyone I spoke to really loved it.”

In the BBC’s Inside Out feature, former Brookside actor Simon O’Brien, visiting the Liverpool exhibition, introduced Den as the owner of the largest collection of Jam memorabilia. So what percentage of the exhibits was down to him this time?

“Pretty much all of it after the Stanley Road and John Weller rooms, as they were family items. All the stage was mine, though most of the guitars still belong to Paul and Bruce. We also selected a handful of fans to show a few of their prized items. Even with all that space I could only show about half of what I’ve got. So next time I’ll try and make it different again.”

As he suggests there, more pieces were provided by the Weller camp this time. Was that exciting for him, seeing some of those items for the first time, such as Paul’s school exercise book jottings.

“Amazing, yeah, just like any family they had boxes stored in places they’d forgotten about. Going through them for any fan would be special but it was a real journey for the family too.”

Jam Fan: Young Den wears his t-shirt shirt proudly

Jam Fan: Young Den wears his t-shirt  proudly, on a family holiday

Quite a few items were sold off after the exhibition. What fetched the most?

“Bruce wanted to sell of his things as he has no children to pass them on to. To make the auction worthwhile I decided I’d gather all my spares up as I’ve never really sold anything. The posters surprised me, how much they went for. I went straight to another auction the week after and replaced anything I’d sold. There were a few things I let go just because the time was right for me too. Bruce’s Town Called Malice bass was the highest sale.”

From his own collection, are there specific items he couldn’t bear to be parted from?

“I find it hard to part with anything; I’ve kept it all so long and in such great condition. There’s so many items, but my autographed Skegness train ticket from 1981 is a fave of mine. There will be a time I let it go though, as my kids don’t want to inherit it from me. Nothing against The Jam, they’re just not into collecting and nostalgia.”

Some of the items on display couldn’t have been easy to transport, such as the All Mod Cons target feature. Did any end up going home with him and cause his better half to give him grief for taking up too much space?

“The big items stay in my studio and there’s plenty of space at home for the vinyl.”

As a collector, are there items out there that he still has his heart set on tracking down?

“I’ve been cataloguing everything to create a true definitive guide. Retrospective is miles away from what I’ve collected now. I hope to make that available in a digital format sometime soon. I don’t think there’s anything I haven’t got now, but you never know. Things do surface even now that no one has ever known about.”

And was this exhibition a good way of proving to the world it’s all been for good reason?

“It certainly proved The Jam really have left a legacy to be proud of. And it proved to Universal that The Jam’s back-catalogue still means something.”

Looking forward, have they decided as a team where’s next for the exhibition? There was talk of overseas offers from Nicky Weller. And would it ever be on the same scale again?

“I’d like to see it in Brighton on a large scale. As for anywhere else I can’t think it will ever be shown on the scale of Liverpool. Logistics and costs will always outweigh the demand sadly in any overseas venues.”

Suits You: Redefining style at the About the Young Idea exhibition (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Suits You: Redefining style at the About the Young Idea exhibition (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

For the writewyattuk verdict on 2016’s About the Young Idea at the Cunard Building in Liverpool and this site’s feature/interview with Nicky Weller, try here.

Furthermore, for a number of past Jam-related features on this website – including two interviews with Bruce Foxton and others with Rick Buckler and From the Jam’s Russell Hastings – just type The Jam in search, top right of the page. 

Finally, to keep up to date with About the Young Idea, follow this Facebook page. You can also keep in touch via Twitter.

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Rose McDowall/Vukovar/Zvilnik – Preston, The Continental

Passing Glance: Rose McDowall in action with her band at The Continental in Preston (Photo copyright: John Middleham)

Passing Glance: Rose McDowall and co. at The Conti, Preston (Photo copyright: John Middleham)

A top night unfolded at the Continental in Preston as former Strawberry Switchblade and Sorrow chanteuse Rose McDowall visited en route for a Celtic Connections date in Glasgow.

Rose was up to Lancashire from her adopted Oxfordshire for another Tuff Life Boogie evening to remember on South Meadow Lane, with sterling support from Vukovar and Zvilnik.

We may be heading for Little Britain, but there was a pan-European feel to proceedings judging by the bill, and while I only saw part of Zvilnik’s opening set I saw enough to inspire future viewings.

This five-piece – who appeared to have left their scientific lab-coats in the dressing room – reckon they exude influences from Eastern Europe, the West End and low-grade horror movies. I hear that, but also enough quirky touches to court wider interest, lead singer Angela’s vocals giving them a B-52’s meet Pixies edge at times. Expect further exploration.

Quirky Touches: Zvilnik in action at The Continental in Preston (Photo copyright: John Middleham)

Quirky Touches: Zvilnik in action at The Continental in Preston (Photo copyright: John Middleham)

Vukovar played a memorable set at Tufflife Boogie’s Xmas party, and again impressed this time, filling in at the last minute for Yorkshire outfit Drahla, their technical woes on the night only adding to their rock’n’roll demeanour. From the first beat, Buddy on drums holds the interest, with Dan’s vocal and synth touches and chemistry with bass-man Rick somewhat mesmeric.

There are elements of Iggy Pop, Jim Morrison and maybe even The Jesus and Mary Chain, although personally I’d add some scratchy guitar in there for some of the promise of The Family Cat’s early days.

This is extreme indie art-rock at times – to a point where Rick’s bass was jettisoned and he stormed off, his band-mates filling in nicely. I kind of guessed he’d return though, while we tried to suss if it was all part of the act. One school of thought suggested Pete Townshend did that to death many moons ago, but you certainly never forget a Vukovar performance, and I look forward to the next.

Stripped down: Vukovar's Dan feeling the heat at The Continental in Preston (Photo copyright: John Middleham)

Stripped down: Vukovar’s Dan feels the heat at The Conti, Preston (Photo copyright: John Middleham)

Three decades after her notable pop chart success, Rose certainly still has stagecraft, making an entrance even before she’d climbed on stage, a butterfly hairclip marking her out from the crowd.

Setting the tone with two songs from her ’90s spell with Sorrow, Ruby Tears and Love Dies, Rose then took us right back down Memory Lane with Strawberry Switchblade favourites Another Day (less ’80s pop, but still eminently danceable), and the gorgeous 10 James Orr Street and Trees and Flowers.

Rose was soon bedded in (so to speak) with her band – who’d come in the other direction, crossing the border especially – and an indie six-piece set-up serves her well. While ‘of the era’ production somewhat characterised her early ‘80s days, this was the Strawberry Switchblade Mk. II I envisaged – proper indie champions.

Backing vocalist/violinist/keyboard player Joan – on loan with bassist Josh from Current Affairs – certainly played her part, her harmonies working well. Meanwhile, guitarists Michael (Apostille and Rose’s Night School Records label head honcho) and Television Personalities’ Texas Bob led from the sides, throwing down the gauntlet as those timpani mallets from drummer Ruari (Vital Idles) dictated the pace.

Band Substance: Rose McDowall gives it her all at The Continental in Preston, flanked by Michael Kasparis on guitar and Josh Longton on bass (Photo copyright: John Middleham)

Band Substance: Ruari MacLean, Rose McDowall, Josh Longton (Photo copyright: John Middleham)

There were occasional signs of this being a rehearsal, but the band were in full swing – with Rose at her most powerful – by the time they reached Sorrow’s brooding, surging Let There Be Thorns, the more poppy Tibet then giving rise to the darker Our Twisted Love and sumptuous Crystal Nights.

The real crowd-pleaser came next, Since Yesterday afforded a more poignant, slowed/ stripped down vibe, melancholic yet totally fitting. Rose then upped the ante, Cut With the Cake Knife fully charged and leading to Strawberry Switchblade finale Deep Water.

And while the cry went up for an encore, it was clear it wasn’t happening as soon as Ruari donned his hat and put on his coat while Rose darted through the throng with an apologetic smile, the following evening’s Hug and Pint date in her home city in mind.

Rose Again: Ms McDowall, with guitarist Michael Kasparis, left (Photo copyright: John Middleham)

Rose Again: Ms McDowall, with guitarist Michael Kasparis, left (Photo copyright: John Middleham)

With a big thank you to John Middleham for the live images (reproduction by permission only).

For the writewyattuk site feature/interview with Rose McDowall, head here.

A number of quality Tuff Life Boogie promotions are planned for The Continental in Preston, Lancashire, over the next few weeks, including the visit of the Three Johns/El Hombre Trajeado/The Great Leap Forward on February 4th; The Orchids/The Chesterfields/The Suncharms on February 17th; the Vernal Equinox festival on March 3rd, 4th and 5th; The Jasmine Minks/The Jazz Butcher Quartet on April 8th; and Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker’s appearance on April 14th. For more information head to Tuff Life Boogie’s Facebook page.

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By any other name – beyond Strawberry Switchblade with Rose McDowall

Rose Taboo: Ms McDowall in live action at London's Double R Club, late 2016 (Photo copyright: Sin Bozkurt)

Rose Taboo: Ms McDowall at London’s Double R Club, late 2016 (Photo copyright: Sin Bozkurt)

While Rose McDowall is best known for her work with early ’80s crossover indie pop act Strawberry Switchblade, she’s made many cult solo recordings over the years.

Starting out as a stand-up drummer in Glasgow proto-avant-garde punk trio The Poems -taking a leaf out of Moe Tucker’s Velvet book – she went on to enjoy five years with Strawberry Switchblade, and has remained busy ever since. Yet somehow she’s never played Preston, Lancashire, something she’s remedying this Friday, January 20th, topping a bill at The Continental with a full band, my excuse for tracking her down on the phone at home in Oxfordshire.

The Poems were borne out of a lightbulb moment when teenager Rose Porter and husband-to-be Drew McDowall witnessed the Ramones at Glasgow Apollo in late ’77, on a bill that also included Edinburgh art school punks The Rezillos, if I’ve done my research right.

While The Poems made an album, the acetates were lost and it never saw the light of day. But as friends of Orange Juice the band were soon party to the emergence of the Postcard Records scene, and through that link came a fresh project for Rose in 1981, alongside art student Jill Bryson in Strawberry Switchblade. That new band quickly took off, with help from two prominent BBC Radio 1 DJs, soon signing to the Warner Music Group via the Korova division, these guitar-based flower punk icons going on to become one of Scotland’s biggest mid-‘80s pop exports. Yet they are chiefly remembered for just one top-five hit single, 1984’s Since Yesterday, with the story soon over and the girls going their separate ways after one album.

From there, Jill moved towards a career as an artist, while Rose delved into the post-industrial neo-folk underground, collaborations following with the likes of Boyd Rice, Coil, Current 93, Death in June, Felt, Alex Fergusson, Into a Circle, Megas, Nature and Organisation, Nurse with Wound, Ornamental (involving members of an Icelandic scene that also brought us The Sugarcubes), The Pastels, Psychic TV, and Rosa Mundi.

There was further work with Boyd Rice in Spell in 1993, a duo signed to the Mute label, before Rose formed neo-folk experimental outfit Sorrow the same year with second husband Robert Lee, two acclaimed albums and European and US tours following in an eight-year spell taking her into the new millennium.

From there, Rose – best known as a vocalist but who also plays guitar, keyboards, melodica and drums – has continued her adventures in music, performing under her own name since 2005. And more recently she linked with Glasgow’s Night School Records, first reissuing Cut with the Cake Knife, a set of songs recorded in the post-Switchblade era with various musicians.

You might not believe it from her strong Glaswegian accent, but Rose has lived in Oxfordshire for nearly a quarter of a century, after spending the previous decade in London, having initially moved to the capital when Strawberry Switchblade took off. And rural living seems to suit her.

“There’s only so much of London you can take. The countryside is nice and tranquil for me. It’s my natural valium, I guess.”

Outside Edge: Rose in 1989, captured by Gilbert Blecken

Outside Edge: Rose in 1989, captured by Gilbert Blecken

Amid a less frantic pace of life, Rose continues to write songs, with new material on its way. But first we travelled back in time to her first John Peel radio session in 1982. How was her first recording experience in Maida Vale?

“It was brilliant, and a real shock because John Peel called me personally. Usually that was the producer’s call. He asked if I was interested in doing a session, and I said, ‘Well …yeah!’ I didn’t have to think twice about that one. David Jensen phoned us as well, also wanting a session. But Peel was the man, although we did both and they were both good enough to get in touch.”

It seemed to take a long time from those initial sessions to the self-titled Strawberry Switchblade album coming out in 1985, getting on for three years later. Was that a frustrating period?

“No, because we were just so busy. I don’t think we realised it was that long. We moved to London in ’83 and were doing radio sessions and lots of recording and gigs. If the public don’t hear about you, they think you don’t exist, but if anything when you’re not appearing in the papers and so on you’re probably working harder.”

Was it soon after those first sessions that management duo Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe, who had already seen success working with Echo and the Bunnymen (their 1980 debut album Crocodiles was the first released on Korova) and The Teardrop Explodes – came to her?

“Very soon after that. We had loads of interest. It was Orange Juice who said, ‘Look out for Strawberry Switchblade’, and everything happened really fast. It was pretty exciting. We were very young, but I was married with a child, which meant a wee bit of extra work, as opposed to being a footloose, fancy-free teenager. When you’ve a child who’s already started school, it’s way more of an upheaval. But it was all good. I moved to London about two months before my daughter and husband moved down for definite, until we’d found a place to live.”

Let’s go back a little further, to that seminal Ramones gig in Glasgow and all the other gigs that set Rose on the path to a career in music. Did punk help this introverted teen out of her shell?

“It totally did. I was this shy little kid, then punk happened and I thought that really opened the gates of life for me. When I saw the Ramones I just turned to Drew and said, if they can do it, we can do it! They made it look easy, and also fun. They were one of my favourite bands.”

I was only 10 at the time of that Rocket to Russia tour, but can at least say I saw the Ramones on their Too Tough to Die visit in early ’85, incidentally while Strawberry Switchblade’s Since Yesterday was still hanging around the UK charts. As I told Rose, we only realised on the way into the Lyceum in London’s West End that we’d subconsciously got smarter at gigs, contemplating ripping our jeans on the spot to try and fit in better with the rest of the clientele. She laughs at this, while thinking back to an earlier era when punk shook the world … not least Scotland.

Poetic Pose: The Poems, Rose's first music incarnation

Poetic Pose: The Poems, Rose’s first music incarnation

“The thing about punk in Glasgow, was that it soon got banned, so you’d have to go to Edinburgh or the Silver Thread Hotel in Paisley, where you’d see all walks of life. There wasn’t anywhere else for them to go. They weren’t necessarily punks. One guy I used to dance with wore a dress and make-up, and was into drag, No one felt anyone was better than anyone else.

“I was in The Poems at the time with Drew and his friend Ian, and we saw that big Stiff Records tour and lots of other bands. I was pregnant and my child was constantly beating and kicking me to the rhythm of the bass drum when Siouxsie and the Banshees were playing. That was awesome. She’s got rhythm! I was still playing drums when I was seven months pregnant, with my belly bigger than the drum-kit!”

Rose, who plays 12-string acoustic guitar, six-string electric guitar and electric harmonium live, also told me more about that early friendship with Orange Juice.

“We played with them a few times. At one gig we joined each other, swapping instruments, with James Kirk on drums, me on keyboards, and so on, messing about doing a few songs. That was really good fun.”

Was that right that James came up with your band name?

“It was. He was just going to use it in a fanzine he was doing. I told him he had to use it, to which he said, ‘You have it’. That was on a bus coming out to my house, practicing for that gig. Strawberry Switchblade came directly off the back of that. It was a name too good not to use.”

It may have been an idea that came off the back of a bus, but seemed to sum up a lot of Rose’s material, then and since – that mix of sweet and, shall we say, not so sweet.

“Yeah, it’s all part of the person I am, and the not so sweet came out yesterday when I had to return a faulty car.”

Your Glasgow roots came to the fore, did they?

“Honestly, I’m as sweet as anything, but just don’t push my buttons too hard!”

Long Player: The eponymous Strawberry Switchblade album, form 1985

Long Player: The eponymous Strawberry Switchblade album, form 1985

At that point, we talk about James Kirk also being the inspiration behind the naming of Manchester outfit James, who were big fans of Orange Juice when they started out (as related last year in an interview here with Jim Glennie, with a link here).

“Really? Ah, fantastic. I bought my first electric guitar from James, a limited-edition Fender Coronado, which I’ve still got.”

Getting back to Strawberry Switchblade, I reminded myself of how it all ended in 1986, that dreaded word ‘acrimonious’ popping up in their online biography. Will she elucidate? Well, not a right lot, as it turns out, not keen to re-open old wounds.

“Well, it always starts out pleasant and ends out that way. But I’m just keeping out of all that nonsense. Life’s dramatic enough without all the other little dramas. And it’s nice to be nice!”

I’m guessing the songs featured on the second John Peel session in 1985 were destined for a follow-up Strawberry Switchblade LP. But that never happened, and several tunes from that period subsequently walked with Rose.

“Some of the songs were going to be on the second album, but I wrote a lot on the Cut with the Cake Knife album after we split. The title track (on that Peel session) had been put forward as the next single though.”

Jill and Rose used the term ‘pop pastiche’ back then, and it seems to me, listening to those sessions now, they were more raw than on the rather polished pop records. Yet there was always more going on beneath the veneer and chart-friendly hooks, with lots of melancholic themes, as hinted at on tracks like the lovely Trees and Flowers and 10 James Orr Street. But while there’s a more dated ‘80s sound in places in David Motion’s production – maybe partly down to the technology of the day – those songs still stand up.

“Yeah, it was like, ‘Let’s try this producer’, and he was a lovely guy, really good, but when you’ve put x-amount of pounds into an album, try turning around and saying to someone you want to re-record! That wouldn’t have gone down very well. But in retrospect I don’t actually mind. I love the album and I’m not one of those people who listens to modern music all the time. Often, when I’m going through the writing process, it’s like a release, going back. Sometimes it’s nice to leave something for a while before you hear it again.”

Cover Girls: Strawberry Switchblade, as featured in Smash Hits

Cover Girls: Strawberry Switchblade, as featured in Smash Hits

Was Rose – like Jill – from an art school background?

“I was into my art, and still paint a bit, but didn’t go to art school. I left school when I was 16 and went straight into working. I came from a poor working-class family, so it was all about getting out there. My art teacher said he’d give me a letter of recommendation for art school and felt I would get in. But I didn’t, getting into music instead. That was a bigger passion. Besides, life is an education in itself, and as the eldest of seven children I lived a lot growing up.”

Strawberry Switchblade were certainly fashion trailblazers, renowned for that ‘flower punk’ look, involving lots of polka dots and ribbons. In fact, as it turns out, Jill and Rose was even accused of copying their own iconic look.

“That was hilarious. It was in London, with two teenage girls stood at a bus stop on Tottenham Court Road, outside McDonald’s. I’ll never forget it. One girl said, ‘Hey, you dress like Strawberry Switchblade!’ I just smiled and walked away. They then followed me up the road. But I’d rather them think that than know who we were. The stalkers came later … which was not a lot of fun.”

Indeed. She’s been through it all, in that respect, with a few of those tales told in Ben Graham’s interview with Rose in September 2015 for The Quietus, linked here.

“Yes. I wouldn’t change a thing, but … well, apart from a few wee things!”

Has Rose kept in touch with any of those old friends they worked with at the time, from the Glasgow scene bands through to later collaborators from elsewhere like Echo and the Bunnymen?

“I haven’t heard anything from the Bunnymen for a long time, but tend to see a lot from the Glasgow scene. I’m up there quite often. I keep in touch with some via social media, but I’m a bit of a recluse.”

Solo Album: Rose McDowall's Cut with the Cake Knife, recorded between 1986 and 1988

Solo Album: Rose McDowall’s Cut with the Cake Knife, recorded between 1986 and 1988

Moving a little further on, there’s a faded 1988 video interview with Rose tucked away on the internet, recorded at the Reverb in London when she was working on a new line-up of Strawberry Switchblade. That was with the so-called Creation All-Stars, including Laurence (Hayward) from Felt and members of Primal Scream and The Weather Prophets. In the clip they’re playing Crystal Nights, and it sounds right up my street. It’s a shame I missed them, not least as I was around and about the capital a lot then.

“We did that gig, and a few days before we did one in Brighton. That was awesome – just the best, with really good reviews. It was such fun playing with all those guys, who were all my mates anyway.”

I wish you’d had the chance to make an album with them.

“That would have been great. I still talk to Pete (Astor). He wasn’t on stage then, but his rhythm section were with me.”

I can see and hear that, not least as a big fan of their Mayflower album, recorded in late ’86. They make Crystal Nights sound like a Weather Prophets song in that respect.

“Ah, cool! And someone at the time reviewed it as being the best pop band ever!”

I imagine she got fed up of talking about this at the time, but hope the passing of time means I can ask about the similarity of the big hit, Since Yesterday, and its ripped ‘riff’ from Sibelius’s fifth symphony. Was that ‘nick’ down to osmosis, and if so was that through absorbing Jean Sibelius, The Murmaids’ Popsicles and Icicles (1963) or First Class’s Beach Baby (1974)?

“I didn’t write that introduction. That was something the producer put on, and we had no idea what it was from. That wasn’t a conscience thing.”

I have to say there are elements of The Velvet Underground on Since Yesterday too, not least Rose’s ‘And as we sit here alone, looking for a reason to go on’ line, the wondrous Nico-led Sunday Morning springing to mind, a song she now plays in her own live set.

strawberry-switchblade-since-yesterday-korova“I’ve never noticed that before. I’ll have to listen to that! Yeah, I was a big Velvets fan.”

Seeing as we mentioned past collaborations and friendships, did Rose keep in touch with Bjork after their collaborations in Iceland all those years ago?

“Recently I felt I should get in touch again. I haven’t spoken to her in years, not since Virgin was on Oxford Street. I speak to Einar (Örn Benediktsson) on Facebook though. I was meant to go on tour with Bjork, but at that time one of my best friends died and I was too broken to do anything like that. She proposed to me, you know.”

At first I wasn’t sure I heard that right, but Rose soon elaborated.

“She should have been Mrs McDowall! I think that was just before Switchblade split up, when I was doing the Ornamental stuff in Iceland. That’s also where I wrote Soldier and Crystal Nights.

“Bjork and I are very childlike in a way, very playful, and got on really well. I guess really we weren’t typical girls, to quote The Slits! That’s probably why I have quite a large gay following as well. I think I was always a wee bit different, but it was never always a wonderful thing. It was like, ‘Take this child to the psychiatrist!’”

But she found a kindred spirit in Bjork?

“Yeah, she was just as mad as I was! That was nice. We just laughed all the time, and I’d like to get back in touch. We had a lot in common, such as thoughts on how children should be brought up. She had a son when she was in The Sugarcubes, who’ll be a young man now.”

Did Rose play Preston with any of her previous bands?

“I don’t remember playing Preston. We played Liverpool and Manchester. Actually, I have two brothers who live in Blackpool, and while one may be abroad I’m hoping the other can make it along.”

Talking of family, there’s an 11-year gap between Rose’s older daughter Keri – the one who was a big Banshees fan in her pre-natal era – and son Bobi, 26. Then there’s youngest daughter Velocity, 20. Is that as in Velocity Girl, the first song on the NME C86 cassette (after which I also re-named my first car, a metallic blue Ford Escort Mk. I, I tell her)?

“Yes. It was a choice between Velocity and Epithany. I thought I’d wait to see what she’d sound like – and she was definitely a Velocity!”

Witch Way: Rose McDowall takes a breather between rural rides in her adopted Oxfordshire

Witch Way: Rose McDowall takes a breather between rural rides in her adopted Oxfordshire

So did oldest daughter Keri – after such a promising start – follow her into music?

“No, she’s the one who hasn’t. But my other two kids are very musical, especially Bobi, who plays live with me sometimes.”

Bobi may even be in the band at Preston. Is that right that Rose has bands in Scottish and down South?

“It is. I need to work with a pool of musicians. It’s easier that way. Everyone’s involved in other things. But I have a band based in London and another in Glasgow.”

It’s the latter who are set to call at the Conti, not least as that date is followed by one in Glasgow the following night. How many players will she have in the band at The Conti and The Hug and Pint?

“If my son comes, it will be six. There will be an abundance of people coming from Glasgow!”

And will it be a set including music from throughout her career?

“Yeah, a bit of new, a bit of old. Before the last gig we played in Glasgow we hadn’t played Since Yesterday in years. We’d left that out, but everyone wants to hear that. People get disappointed if you don’t. I was tired of playing it, and felt it time to do something else. But it is a bit of an iconic song – a career song!”

Live Presence: Rose gives it her all for London's Double R Club (Photo copyright: Sin Bozkurt)

Live Presence: Rose gives it her all for London’s Double R Club (Photo copyright: Sin Bozkurt)

With thanks to Sin Bozkurt for the Double R Club photos (with a link to more here) and to Michael Kasparis of Night School Records (with a link here).  And for more on Rose McDowall, head to her Facebook page. 

Also on the bill at The Continental on Friday, January 20 (doors 8pm) are North Yorkshire outfit Drahla, a happening band ‘channelling Pixies, Giant Drag and Life Without Buildings’, and Zvilnik, described as the region’s ‘premier sci-fi prog surf cabaret rock band’, drawing ‘influences from eastern Europe, the West End and low grade horror movies to create a sound like no other’. For more on Drahla and a preview of two great songs, try their bandcamp page. And for more on ‘sinister yet welcoming’ five-piece Zvilnik, their ‘complex knots of guitar strangeness, stomping bass and beefy beats, try them via Facebook.

Tickets for The Continental show are £10 advance (£12 on the door), available online from WeGotTickets, SEE Tickets & Skiddle or in person from the Continental (01772 499 425) and Action Records (01772 884 772). For more details head to event promoter Tufflife Boogie’s Facebook gig link.

You can find details of tickets for the Celtic Connections show at Glasgow’s The Hug and Pint (Saturday, January 21st, 7.30pm, with support from Duglas T. Stewart – ex-BMX Bandits – and Katrell Keineg) here.

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