Celebrating The Day I Was There – the Neil Cossar interview

Cheaters Prosper: Neil Cossar, left, on stage with The Cheaters at the Cavern in Liverpool

Music was always a passion for Neil Cossar, from teenage years learning guitar and dropping by at a record stall on Stockport Market through to minor early ’80s success with his band, a move into radio and establishing his This Day in Music brand in the ’90s, then a 21st-century shift into publishing.

And in the month he reaches a landmark birthday, Reddish-born Neil is celebrating the release of the latest The Day I Was There publication, collating fans’ recollections of seeing Bruce Springsteen live.

That follows involvement with several other ‘I Was There’ publications – collected and edited by Neil or fellow WriteWyattUK interviewee Richard Houghton, previous subjects including David Bowie, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and Pink Floyd, bringing together fans’ accounts from across the world, this latest This Day in Music Books title following The Boss from late ‘60s intimate gigs in his native New Jersey through to sell-out 2018 one-man shows on Broadway, with several UK visits catalogued en route.

As with previous books in the series, it’s the early tales that interest me most, and while Bruce never seems to have lost that personal touch with an adoring audience, recollections of those formative gigs are all the more compelling – taking us back to his pre-Born to Run era. And by then Neil was already sitting up and taking notice.

“I first became aware of Bruce Springsteen when working for HMV Records in Manchester. I worked on the shrink-wrapping machine in the days when all vinyl was still covered that way, and this sounds really sad but I really enjoyed that side of the job.

Big Impression: Bruce Springsteen’s second album soon took Neil Cossar’s eye

“All these new records would come in and I would see the same sleeves maybe 20 times and wonder what they’d sound like. That was the case with Little Feat, Jackson Browne, and Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle, and I’d be intrigued and check it out, and soon appreciated what a great songwriter Bruce was.

“And when it came to this book, I was quite surprised as I started reading accounts from fans at his openness and interaction at gigs and backstage, some of which were an eye-opener. He’s unique for an artist of his stature in that respect. David Bowie would always talk to fans and sign autographs, but there wasn’t that level of audience participation. So many big artists now do a world tour, play the hits and do the same set every night, but Springsteen’s shows involve this huge back-catalogue of great songs and covers which he can play at the drop of a hat, even when someone just holds a sign up requesting one.”

Although it’s Bruce’s name on the cover, this book’s as much about his regular backing outfit, the E Street Band, with many a poignant recollection of the late Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, and co.

“Totally. And again, I think it’s a sign of a good person to work for that he has the same band members for so long. At one stage during his career when he didn’t tour for some time he gave every member of that band a significant amount as a bonus. I’ve never heard of anyone else doing that.”

As well as his previous book in the series, the fans’ take on Bob Dylan, Neil first took on a David Bowie: I Was There book in 2017 for Red Planet, before going it alone. And again that subject was chosen for good reason for a devoted Bowie fan.

“That was also just a joy to work on, and the fans paint such a great picture of someone I see as one of the greatest artists of our time. ‘Space Oddity’ was one of the first singles I bought. I’d go to a second-hand ex-jukebox stand on Stockport Market while helping with the groceries with my Mum and sister on a Saturday morning. I would always disappear, go to this stall and look through the singles.

Flagship Book: Neil’s This Day in Music book has already seen three editions.

“I’d heard ‘Space Oddity’ on the radio and it was one of those records of our generation that I played over and over again. I couldn’t quite figure out what all the sounds were, and the way he painted a picture with the lyrics of being in outer space floating in a tin can … as a young eight or nine-year-old it was real theatre of the mind for me. Much later in my career in PR I ended up working on his Earthling tour, going to five of those dates, and seeing him live was just amazing. I stuck with him all the way, and the last two albums were exceptional.”

These days Neil is based in Prestatyn, North Wales, with his partner, Liz Sanchez, the pair also running radio, TV and online promotions firm Absolute PR, boasting (albeit subtly) a mightily-impressive list of past and present clients. But what do we call him – author or owner/publisher?

“I don’t really class myself as an author. The Day I Was There books are written by the fans. But I feel very fortunate that I’ve always worked in the music business. From that first job at HMV to being a professional in a band, making three albums and being fairly unsuccessful but making a living out of it, then working in radio and moving into PR, which then evolved into being a book publisher with the This Day in Music website … it’s all been music.”

So how about his brush with fame? He plays his band days down and reminds us how The Cheaters ‘never troubled the charts’, but there was major label backing and even a cult following in Scandinavia. Was he playing guitar at an early age?

“I was. My Dad was a guitarist in a jazz dance band just after the war, and I was always interested and really wanted a guitar. I bought one off a friend’s brother when I was nine and Dad showed me a few basic chords. He was also into electronics and built me a little guitar amp and made me a pick-up for my acoustic guitar. I’d play along with the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Bowie, you name it.

“I formed my first band, Zenith, when I was 14 and did my first gig at that age in a pub in Macclesfield. I had various bands until I formed a band called The Cheaters with a guy called Mick Brophy from London. He’d been in a (punk) band called Trash, on Polydor Records, then moved up North with his job.”

Coss Cuts: The Cheaters on record, with their sixth single, Confidante, from 1983.

That link came after Mick put an advert in the NME in late ’78 looking to form a band in Manchester to play ‘1979-style R’n’B’. Neil answered, his band Idiot Rouge having just lost drummer John Doyle to Magazine and singer-songwriter Nick Simpson to Nottingham University, later to form John Peel favourites 23 Jewels, leaving just John Martin (bass) and Neil (guitar/vocals). soon, the new trio recruited drummer Mike Juckes and The Cheaters were born.

“We ended up being firm favourites on the live scene, supporting all sorts of bands like Dr Feelgood, The Q-Tips, The Piranhas, and The Psychedelic Furs, and did quite a few gigs with the John Peel Roadshow. We signed with Parlophone (in 1981), made three albums and did several Radio 1 sessions, finding our own special niche in Scandinavia, touring there around seven times, going over for six weeks at a time. Happy days!”

In fact, Radio 1 once labelled Neil’s four-piece outfit ‘the hardest working band in Britain’, having completed more than 340 gigs in one year, building up a large UK fan-base during the early ’80’s amid those three albums and various singles, while recording Radio 1 sessions for Mike Read, Kid Jensen, Janice Long and Tommy Vance, plus Piccadilly Radio’s Mark Radcliffe. And that Scandi adoration? Apparently the editor of a leading Norwegian music magazine put them on the front cover, proclaiming they were ‘better than Man United’, The Cheaters during one tour of that region becoming the first UK band in over 10 years to play gigs above the Arctic Circle.

You can find out a lot more about The Cheaters via their Facebook page. It’s a bit late, I guess, but they’re well worth checking out all the same. And as it turned out, Zenith didn’t turn out to be Neil’s zenith, so to speak.

“It certainly didn’t. Actually, I was in some bands with great names, also including Frumious Bandersnatch, named after a Lewis Carroll line.”

The latter was in tribute to the Jabberwocky poem, although to be fair it had already been half-inched by a late-’60s Californian psychedelic rock band who went on to form the basis of the Steve Miller Band. But that’s by the by. Carry on, Neil.

The Boss: The latest This Day in Music Books release, featuring fans’ tales of Springsteen live.

“My Dad was from Scotland and his band were called The Treble Clefs. That’s how he met my mother actually, doing a gig in Dunoon where she happened to be in the audience. They got talking, and there you go!”

These days Neil has three sons of his own, ‘scattered across the North West’, albeit none of them following him into the music business, all having ’proper jobs’ instead. But how did the idea for his website come about?

“I started working in radio – reluctantly – in 1990, for KFM Radio in Manchester, a pirate radio station that was one of the very first new incremental stations awarded a licence by the Thatcher Government. Craig Cash was one of the presenters, as well as Caroline Aherne, Terry Christian and Jon Ronson, and for the first few months it was fantastic. We played what we wanted and the Manchester scene was taking off.

“We’d have The Charlatans in, Noel Gallagher gave his very first radio interview with Craig, we had Radiohead in session, their very first, again with Craig, plus James, The Mock Turtles, Shaun Ryder …  everybody came through the doors.”

You can add to that list Blur and Lenny Kravitz too, among others. Anyway, keep going, Neil.

Broadcast Days: Neil Cossar’s KFM station bio. Looking good for someone born in Victoria’s reign

“I wanted to work in radio, but didn’t want to be a presenter, but one Sunday morning the presenter phoned in sick and I happened to be the closest and got called in to do the show.  I was terrified but could work the equipment as I was producing a couple of shows. I didn’t enjoy it at all and thought I was dreadful as a DJ, but the boss seemed to think I was okay, so I ended up presenting an evening show, five nights a week.

“I still found it very difficult to talk nonsense though, so started compiling events that had happened on ‘this day in music’, so I could talk about the Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ reaching No.1 and so on. I ended up doing it for every day of the year, acquiring a few events for every day and just happened to be talking about that to a friend in management, John Wadlow, who managed Seal. He said I should have a website. I really wasn’t aware of the internet at that point.

“This was around 1997, and we launched the site in 1999 so were very early in on all that. Nowadays it gets around 10 million page views a year. It’s very well established and I’m pleased to say it does really well and was a good move. That evolved into a This Day in Music book for the first time 10 years ago, and there have now been three editions. So I guess through that I became involved in book publishing.”

Working alongside publishing clients like Omnibus Press also helped his move into that world. And as the second half of 2018 kicks in, it’s fair to say This Day in Music Books looks to be here to stay, with many more titles at the designing and editing stage, including Richard Houghton’s  Jimi Hendrix: The Day I Was There and an official OMD biography, a fourth edition of Neil’s flagship publication, This Day in Music, Joe Schooman’s Iron Maiden biography, and a new biography of The Clash by the bloke behind WriteWyattUK. But more on all that later.

Coss Play: Neil Cossar with his beloved housemate Woody.

For details of This Day in Music, including a link to ensure a copy of Bruce Springsteen: The Day I Was There, head here

 

 

 

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And I thought you might like to know – the Jim Lea interview

Piano Forte: Jim Lea, still the quiet one, but happy to talk over old, new, borrowed and blue times.

It’s not, erm, everyday you get to talk to a childhood hero, but Jim Lea definitely falls into that category for me.

I was barely four when his band scored the first of six UK No.1 singles with ‘Coz I Luv You’ in late 1971, but my older brother was soon blasting lots of Slade out in our bedroom. What’s more, teen magazine coverage and Top of the Pops appearances ensured the megaphone-voiced guitarist Noddy Holder, lead guitarist/garish clothes-horse Dave Hill, gum-chewing drumming legend Don Powell, and multi-talented bass player/ violinist/ pianist Jim were as good as housemates to me.

The latter was always deemed the best musician, but also the quiet one. And that never changed. He never looked to stand out, and I guess that was relatively easy when Messrs. Hill and Holder shared the same stage. In fact, that’s why he chose to play bass rather than guitar, in a bid to just get on with it and put the music first. So I was mightily surprised when word reached me that he was up for an interview, plugging new EP, ‘Lost in Space’.

That release comes barely eight months after a triumphant return to Bilston’s Robin 2 in the heart of the band’s old Black Country heartland, Jim starring in an emotional Q&A session at the R&B club where he also staged a rare live appearance in 2002, a decade after the Lea-Holder songwriting team finally called time on the band that made their name.

What’s more, we ended up on the phone nearly an hour, Wolverhampton-born Jim proving to be one of my most engaging and definitely entertaining interviewees over the years.

It had been a shaky start, mind, my ice-breaking opening question met with a jocular response by this talented singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Perhaps it was just early nerves, but he quickly homed in on a rather awkward, ‘Where do I find you today, Jim?’ In essence, I might as well have said, ‘Hi Jim, when are you, Nod, Dave and Don getting back together again?’

He was parked up outside his gym – ‘just down the road ‘ from his rural South Staffordshire base – after a work-out, part of his on-going mission to regain full fitness after treatment for prostate cancer, having been diagnosed in 2014. And his energy levels appear to be on their way up again, Jim throwing my initial enquiry back with exaggerated quaintness, asking, ‘Where do I find you, kind sir?’ He was soon rolling though. And rocking.

“I just ate a couple of boiled eggs with spinach, and there’s an article I’m reading about creepy-crawlies, how without them we wouldn’t exist. So there you are, that’s how you find me, Malcolm!”

“I’ve got to get my testosterone back, so have to come to the gym, push myself to the limit so I don’t keep falling asleep all the time.”

Does music help you on the path towards recovery?

“Music? Well, not really. That’s just something that’s been around the whole of my life. It’s just there, you know. Especially songwriting. Once you’ve realised you can do it, I don’t think you can really stop. It’s essential.”

For some older musicians – Jim recently turned 69 – live performance helps keep them young, I suggest. But he’s – how can I put this? – hardly been a gig regular since quitting Slade.

“Ha ha! Well, the thing is, Malcolm, I don’t know how much you know about me, but I was always very low-key in the band, but did do one gig in 2002 that I can’t get away from, at the Robin Hood R’n’B club in Bilston.”

I butt in there and tell him I have my copy of the CD of that performance in front of me, part of a rather splendid gatefold version of his defining 2009 album, Therapy, billed under his Sunday name, James Whild Lea. And there’s a lot of energy on that recording, I suggest.

“I only ever played with energy. I was always loud .,.. and proud. But that gig – they still get phone calls at the club 16 years later, seeing if I’m coming back.”

You did go back for a recent Q&A session, didn’t you?

“Ah, you do know your stuff … yeah, I did. But that was a bit of a strange thing. I’d never done anything like that in my life. The only thing I’d done was stand up and talk to the crowd 16 years ago. Funny thing is that I’ve found some more footage, not great, but you can hear what I’m playing. At the end, I say to the audience, ‘I bet you’ve been wondering where I’ve been since Slade split. Well, it’s to get away from you lot! They then laugh, and I say, ‘You think I’m joking?’

“So I said to the audience when I walked on this time, ‘Guess what? I said that 16 years ago and here I am again, talking to you lot again!”

Did you recognise some of the faces out there?

“Yeah, and I was mobbed on the way in and on the way out.”

They’d probably been queuing out in sleeping bags for 16 years, just in case you changed your mind and put on a repeat-performance.

“Ha ha! I tell you what, I wouldn’t be surprised with some of them. It’s amazing. They were about 30 deep. I was properly mobbed … more than I was in the days of the band. They were shoving things to sign in my face and all that. I had to get my arms in the air to sign anything, I was getting so squashed. They were from Moscow, Sweden … all over.”

Perhaps they got a flight over from Denmark with Don Powell.

“Ha! I didn’t see Don there.”

Maybe he was hiding at the back, chewing gum in the 31st row.

“Yeah. Well, some of them had come from a long way away.”

Far, far away, to be precise (I didn’t add). When Slade finally split in 1992, after more than a quarter-century of sterling public service, Noddy Holder went on to an array of media engagements, from radio presenting to writing (notably 1999 autobiography Who’s Crazee Now) and TV cameos, including his memorable acting role as Mr Holder in cult ITV comedy drama The Grimleys (1997/2001), Coronation Street (2000), Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere (2004), and even Bob the Builder (2001). Listeners to Stuart Maconie and Mark Radcliffe’s BBC radio shows also got to hear him a lot, and Nod’s occasionally out on the road talking about his illustrious career with the latter.

Meanwhile, Dave and Don, both previously interviewed on this site (see links at the end), have also written accounts of their story (Dave with So Here It Is last year and Don with Look Wot I Dun in 2013), still touring as Slade and remaining as busy to this day around the world, having been out there without Nod and Jim longer than they were with them. Yep, there’s a  staggering thought.

As for Jim, he seemed to just happily step back to the South Staffordshire countryside to write and record on his own, away from the spotlight. But there seems to have been a slight shift of late. Does he keep in touch with his old bandmates?

“We’ve all lost contact with one another, which is by the by, really. It’s okay for me though, because I‘ve always been writing and sticking things down on tape recorders or whatever was there at the time – computers and what-not. And I always play all my own instruments, so I’m self-supporting!”

What do you head for first when writing songs? Piano? Guitar?

“I used to write on the piano … but then I found it was much better to use some paper.”

I fell for that. But while he’s a joker, he’s also an amazing musican, first shining on violin in the Staffordshire Youth Orchestra. Did that very different world provide a good grounding for him?

“To tell you the truth, with the violin playing, my Grandad was the leader of the orchestra at the Hippodrome in Wolverhampton, mainly in the variety days. He died a horrible death of throat cancer, and I was born nine months to the day after. Actually, I was a month late coming out – I must have been gripping on the womb walls. I was reluctant even then!

“Anyway, my Mum said to me when I was about nine, ‘Your grandmother and I have been wondering if you might want to play violin’. I wasn’t bothered really, but went along for lessons. and though I didn’t really like them, I kind of picked it up, and was later in the youth orchestra.

“But I always felt I was a bit out of place there, listening to John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, and The Yardbirds – a bit of (Eric) Clapton. I was thinking, ‘How does he get his guitar to sound like a violin? Because he was really the first who came along in Britain who was able to bend strings to play the blues. I didn’t know anything about that. I was still at school. But I was talking to him about it at the Tommy premiere (1975) and told him I’d wanted to come down to The Marquee but was only a little kid and didn’t know how to get to London and find him, ask how he got his guitar to sound like a violin.

“He said, ‘Well, you should have come down, I would have shown you. You’re shy, like me, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m not very forthcoming’. He then said, ‘Why don’t you come around and have a play?’ But I never did.”

Well I’m sure the offer’s still there.

“Erm … I don’t know, he seemed a very nice bloke. He said he was also shy and could understand me, and how Chas ( former Animals bass player Chas Chandler, the Slade and Jimi Hendrix Experience manager) had told him what I was like. But he said, ‘You’re writing all those songs and doing a great job of it’. That was wonderful, but I wanted to get away. I didn’t want to get dragged into anything. I didn’t know if there’d be any follow-up to that, but whoever you talk to …. I’ve blanked so many people! Big names, you know.”

Well, I doubt if anyone could properly take exception. At this point I tell Jim how another band I grew to love, The Undertones, also turned out to appreciate Slade and that glam-rock era. What’s more, like Slade they came over as boys-next-door, with no hint of pretentiousness, and a little wary of other musicians, occasionally turning down encores with others nosing around backstage. And that inspired another Jim anecdote.

“Yeah, it’s really strange, because the band I joined … when I was at school, I didn’t have any equipment, but I played in a little band, and …”

Was this Nick and the Axemen?

“Yeah, it was, then we changed our name to The Stalkers, and were really into stuff like The Yardbirds and that whole burgeoning scene with John Mayall at the forefront, and the Graham Bond Organisation with Jack Bruce, and I loved all that. But I left that behind and got into Dylan, then left that behind and went into Memphis Slim. When I was that sort of age, I was moody and a bit angry, wanting people to piss off and leave me alone. I wanted to find somebody who nobody had ever heard of, and Memphis Slim was my man. I wasn’t fully grown, and looked like a child, with rosy cheeks and a bass as big as me, and in the ’60s you couldn’t go into pubs if you were a child, and I couldn’t have got away with it. But I went to see a concert where the ’N Betweens were playing.”

Fine Tuning: The pared-down ‘N Betweens in ’67. From the left – Dave Hill, Don Powell, Jim Lea, Noddy Holder (Photo: http://www.donpowellofficial.com)

They were local heroes at the time, weren’t they?

“They were, yeah. They were really fantastic. And getting back to what you were saying, the backing sounded like The Undertones. I always felt when ‘Teenage Kicks’ came on the radio, it sounded like the early ‘N Betweens. It was really pushed forward … it’s difficult to explain, but it was exciting, and the sound was really great.”

Do you remember well your ‘N Betweens audition at the Blue Flame club (on premises which later housed Club Lafayette, less than half a mile from Wolves’ Molineux base) as a 16-year-old?

“Yes, I went along with no equipment, my bass in a polythene bag, and I was the last to be  auditioned.”

Did that add to your nerves, that pressure of being last up?

“Yeah, because unbeknown to me, when I walked in there was … they had this singer, then …”

Was that Johnny Howells?

“Johnny Howells! Bloody hell, you have done your homework! He was a good singer and a really good harp player as well. They were doing all that sort of blues stuff, but it really didn’t sound like blues. It sounded very English, and this big, ‘Waahhhh!’”

Was that the Mighty Wah? I’m not sure. It sounded more like a big cat announcing himself, Jim getting into the part. And he’s still going.

“A bit like that, but a lot louder, y’know. But anyway, I walked into the Blue Flame Club and they were on stage and there was a guy who looked like a blond Mick Jagger, playing, and he was singing ‘My Girl’. And it sounded fantastic. So I was thinking, ‘Oh my God’. He went home, but unbeknown to me they’d told him he’d got the job. But then I walked up there. Don told me later, ‘We looked out there and said, ‘Is there anybody else out there?” Because when you’ve got the lights on stage, all you can see is the light and anyone right down the front. He was told, ‘There’s a little kid out there with a bass as big as him, in a polythene bag. And they agreed, ‘we’ll get him up and let him play a song, then we’ll send him home.’ Of course, they didn’t reckon with what they were going to get!”

Well, you clearly impressed.

“Yeah, well, Dave broke a string and Don said, ‘Hey mate, come over here.’ He’s got this quick wit and he said, ‘It says here you play the violin, is that right?’ I said yeah, and he said, ‘Do you play anything else?’ I said, ‘Well, a bit of piano and err ..’ and I just lied and said, ‘Oh, and the cello’, which I’d never even played. He said, ‘Ooh, cello as well?’ and I said, ‘Well, I didn’t get very far with that.’ And he said, ‘Did the spike keep sticking in your neck?’

“And I’m not kidding you, Malcolm. Imagine all the tension in me, and the nerves… whenever I tell people about this … do you know that wonderful thing when you get one of those big hour-glasses and just turn it upside down, with all the sand just coming through, going the opposite way to what it was? That’s exactly what I felt like when Don said that. It just calmed me.

“Then Dave said, ‘Hey mate, we’re just going to check out this string, and it’ll be you and me playing – quiet, no band. I wanna see if you’re bluffing, ‘cos you play really fast. But then, I wasn’t nervous at all, and just thought, ‘Bring it on, what you’ve got.’ And I think I was auditioning Dave rather than the other way around. I was playing nothing like a bass player, playing really fast, doing riffs, doing chords, doing drum parts, doing sax parts. You name it, I was doing it. But I got the job!”

I gather your Mum wasn’t so pleased at you turning down offered places at art college and the youth orchestra to join.

“Oh yeah, my Mum and my Gran didn’t like it at all, because I was really turning my back on the youth orchestra and anything like that. I got into loads of art schools. Big ones. But again, I was really nervous when the acceptances came through. I was just a little kid at those interviews, really out of my depth. But as the years went by, you’d meet all these people, in a bar somewhere, or having come to see Slade at a meet and greet. Someone said, ‘I saw you when you came to Hornsey Art College and we felt, ‘We’ve got to have this lad’. But that was a long way from home. They’d have around 200 applicants but only be taking around 20. And if you lived at a distance you’d have even less chance. So I said, ‘But you said at the time my work wasn’t any good. And he said, ‘It wasn’t that. It was just you – you were so different. We said we’ve got to have that lad here.’ And all the people I bumped into said the same thing. So I must have been scared, but must have come across in some esoteric way.”

Glammed Up: Slade in their pomp. From the left – Dave Hill, Noddy Holder, Don Powell, Jim Lea.

How long did it take your Mum to forgive you? When did she finally realise you had a ‘proper’ job after all?

“Oh, I think about two years ago! I played her something I’d written, with me playing cello, double bass, and my Mum said, ‘That sounds great, James. Do you know, you could have done something with yourself.’ So does that answer your question?”

I think it does. And what age is your Mum now then?

“She’s 93. She’s had a lot of trouble with osteoporosis and became housebound earlier on this year, out of the blue. But I’m always down there. I looked after my Dad, and I looked after my elder brother, who died of dementia.”

I saw you’d been raising funds for the Dementia UK charity – which provides specialist dementia support for families through its Admiral Nurse service – through recent events, not least through sales of the limited-edition An Audience with Jim Lea at the Robin 2 DVD.

“Well, my dad died of it and my older brother had vascular dementia, becoming difficult and violent with it. I think we’ve all been touched by it, but it’s the managing of it. Before they go into places where they can’t be managed anymore, it’s the controlling of it – giving them a life, walking around with them and all that. My Mum did it with my brother and I did it with my brother with her, because the rest of my family were all working.

“While we were on holiday, my Mother said to me, ‘James, you said you wanted to give to charity, and dementia is just sort of left somehow at the back of all these various charities. It’s a terrible thing and we’ve had two people in our family affected. Will you give them a thought?’ And I said, ‘Mum, you know what? You’re absolutely right.’ It’s a terrible thing, but the dementia charities are so glad when you give to them. And at the Robin Hood we raised just over eight grand by the time we’d finished … in just three hours.”

At this point Jim overhears my other half talking in the background and remarks on it, leading me to telling him that at 29 years together we’re still some way behind him and his beloved Louise. Is that right it’s now 45 years of married life for him?

“Erm, probably! You know a lot, Malcolm. More than me anyway. I’d have to work it out. The thing is that we got together in 1966 and didn’t even bother about the getting married bit, because we were an item, y’know … I liked her. And I was never a womaniser.”

I’m sure you were surrounded by temptation, with a lot of opportunities over the years.

“Yeah, but I was never interested. People always told me I was different, and there you are again, I suppose. I’ve been with my wife for 52 years, which must be a record in rock’n’roll terms. And the thing is, as time goes by, you change – you’re not the same people. We got together when we were 16 and 15.”

Classic Cinema: Slade In Flame, the 1975 film soundtrack

Are you suggesting it’s like meeting a new partner every few years, but staying faithful?

“Yes, my wife and I are nothing like we were when we met. I went heavily in mid-life into finding out who or what I was. And when I came out the other end, I wasn’t the person I went searching for at all.

“Did you see that documentary, Elvis Presley: The Searcher (HBO, 2018)? They’re kind of saying Elvis was always searching. And I was always searching. But I didn’t know what I was searching for, and didn’t know I was morphing into what I am now, which is nothing like I was. I now know who and what I am. And it was well worth doing. And you can hear that on Therapy too.”

Now you’re courting a few interviews, you’re bound to get those inevitable questions about band reunions, so I best not disappoint you now and miss that one out. So Jim (I drag my question out for full effect), when are you going to get The Dummies back together again?

For a short while, there’s silence at the end of the line, followed by a real belly laugh.

”That was a bit of a curveball, Malc! Ha!”

He soon composes himself again though.

“Dave Clarke, when he set this interview up, texted me and told me, ‘Malcolm will calm you on your mobile.’ So I texted back and asked, ‘Do I need calming?’ He said, ‘That’s predictive texting for you’, and I said, ‘Yeah, tell me about it!’ But that was a real curveball, and one that did more than calm me down!”

For those not in the know, The Dummies was a late 1979 side-project involving Jim and younger brother Frank (who earlier sat in for Don Powell after the tragic accident that led to his girlfriend’s death and major surgery and hospitalisation for the Slade drummer), wondering if their material would be better received if recorded by another band. They released three singles, all receiving plenty of radio airplay, but sales suffered from distribution problems. And when Slade split in 1992, an album, A Day in the Life of The Dummies, was released. gathering all the material recorded by the brothers.

“Yeah, The Dummies was just Frank on the drums and me on guitar. Of course, I played bass in Slade because I didn’t really want to be noticed, but when I did the Robin Hood in 2002 I walked on stage with my guitar, with everyone going, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be terrible!’ That night, I also had a drummer I didn’t know personally (Michael Tongue), plus Dave Caitlin-Birch, the bass player from the Bootleg Beatles and World Party. Karl Wallinger (World Party’s frontman) had rented a flat of mine. That’s how I got to know Dave. And when we cracked on … I mean, bloody hell! It almost knocked me off the stage. People have since told me that when I walked on, they thought it was going to be terrible, worrying about hearing me sing, and knowing I was so shy. They weren’t ready for what they got!”

It’s certainly a very powerful performance, judging by the recording.

“That’s all I ever did. Even going back to that audition in January 1966, and before that. I bumped into a woman a few weeks ago, who took me back. They used to put me in for these violin competitions, and because I was shy and not into the norm, there was this kind of anger coming out of me, because I didn’t really want to be there. And this was the mother of a girl who would win all these competitions, and she said how they had followed my career. I remembered her daughter and always thought if she was there, she was going to win anyway. But she told me she later gave up, got married, and that was that.

“She also said, ‘If every I saw your name on the rota, we’d say, ‘It’s that lad again!’ They used to be frightened of me. But I said, ‘What on earth are you talking about? There’d be seven people and I’d come fifth’. But she said, ‘Yes, but Jim, you weren’t like anyone else’. I told her I was really nervous and she said, ‘You didn’t look it. You played with fire. It was as if you were going to break the violin’.”

I take it you never did break a violin.

“My Grandad’s violin was an heirloom and the neck broke on that, but I got it fixed, and that’s what led me – in making reparations to my Grandma, – to do this big string thing. Whether anyone will ever hear it, I don’t know, but I really like it.”

One of the tracks you re-imagined with The Dummies was one of my favourites, ‘When the Lights Are Out’, from 1974’s Old, New, Borrowed and Blue album.

“Yeah, I had a big argument with Chas (Chandler) about that. We were going to Australia, travelling first class, and there used to be this bubble in the 747s where the restaurant would be. It wasn’t posh or anything, it was just like a café, and Chas and I spent about 10 hours arguing about which should be the next single. Chas was going for ‘Everyday’ and I said ‘When the Lights Are Out’, because it was more up tempo. And we could have released ‘Everyday’ afterwards.

“But I was singing that track, and when I spoke to Chas years later he said, ‘To be quite honest, Jim, when I first saw the band I saw what you could do and saw what you were like, and then you started writing and I thought he’s going to see what he can do and then he’ll leave the band. So I didn’t give you a lot of interviews and I sort of kept you away from the press and a raised profile. But if we’d have had ‘When the Lights Are Out’ as a single, you’d have been having your face in the camera, and that to me was a danger.’

“And when I saw this Elvis documentary, I saw how Colonel Tom Parker wouldn’t let anyone who he thought was a threat to come near him. And to Chas, there was a threat that I would leave the band.”

Talking of Chas Chandler, what about his link with Jimi Hendrix? I know you were a big fan, as indicated by your cover of ‘Hey Joe’ for the Robin 2 gig.

“Yeah, and I’m sure I would have played with Hendrix. We were skinheads at the time, and Chas called us down to London. We couldn’t work out why and it took us around five hours to get there. Eventually, after lots of small talk, he told us that Jimi had rung him up and asked him to manage him again. And I said, ‘Well, I think it’s fantastic’. Jimi Hendrix was my hero, you see, and I thought I’d get to play with him. I wouldn’t have left the band but I would have loved to have played with him. I played bass like he played guitar. I wasn’t bothered about bass players.”

Come to think of it, there’s a Hendrix feel to ‘Goin’ Bak to Birmingham’ on the latest EP, a track you also played during that 2002 live show.

“Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny with the Robin thing. So many people said that up on that stage I played as well as Jimi Hendrix. But from when I rang Mike at the Robin to ask if it was a good idea – because I wasn’t going to play Slade songs, but songs that inspired me – I knew what I wanted to do, but only had about five weeks to get up to speed with a guitar.”

So tell me more about this latest release, your ‘Lost in Space’ EP?

“Well, Frank, my younger brother, who is often kicking my ass, said,‘What about an EP? I’ve been talking to the record company’. And I said, ‘Fine, we’ll do an EP’. He then said, ‘When can I have the tracks?’ So I said, ‘When do you need them?’ and he said, ‘Next Monday’. I said, ‘You what?’

“Of course, I can’t sing now because of throat trouble, that lack of testosterone. But I hunted around quickly and found some songs I felt might fit the bill. They’d got finished vocals on them but only sketchy backing. So I threw something at it, and that’s what you hear, because we only had a few days to get it together. ‘Megadrive’ was already done.”

That was the song I was going to mention first. Proof, as if it needed proving, that you can still write a great melody.

“Oh yeah, there was always a melody. It’s always memorable, whatever it is. Even my string thing is memorable … but it’s beautiful as well.”

The title track, ‘Lost in Space’, has a nice kind of George Harrison and Tom Petty vibe to it, I ventured.

“Ha! Funny you say that. Not many people have compared it to anything else, but I’ve had Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty mentioned. Nobody’s said George Harrison before. Even Del Amitri were mentioned. I can’t see that, but I can’t see any of those. I just put it down and forget about it, then I’m on to the next song.”

On two of the songs, I could hear some heavy metal band coming in and having a lot of fun with them. ‘Pure Power’ has a real anthemic feel, and ‘What in the World’ is another heavy rocker. In short, you haven’t lost that metal edge.

“I can still rock out, you know. It’s just having the energy to do it. That’s the trouble.”

That got Jim back on the subject of his memorable 2002 show at the Robin 2, and then the late 2017 Q&A event.

Strings Attached: Jim Lea with his violin

“The boss there rang and said, ‘The phone’s ringing off the hook. Everyone’s saying, ‘When are you going to come back?’ I said, ‘I’m never coming back. I’m going to make an album, and it’s going to be called Therapy. And it’s gonna be psychologically-based. But he said, ‘Well, if you wanna come and play, any time …’

“When he rang the day after that show, he said, ‘I stood at the bar and thought I might watch one number. But when you walked on stage I almost felt sick. I thought it was going to be a disaster. It was so loud and powerful, and I’d never heard anything like it in my whole career, playing in bands or at the Robin. But I took a swig of my pint and looked up, and I saw you playing guitar, one-handed with one hand up in the air, and you were singing. And I thought, ‘I can’t go home’. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.’ And his right-hand man was a big AC/DC fan who’d seen all the gigs he’d put on there and felt that had to be the best.

“This last time, at the end of the Q&A, he told me everyone was crying. I didn’t have a band but had backing tracks, and played along with them. But I was very tired because I hadn’t played since the cancer. And I didn’t know the crowd were crying, because of the lighting.

“At the end, I was mobbed again on the way out, but finally got to the car and was driven off, then went to have a dinner with my family. But my brother Frank wasn’t there, and we were all waiting, starving. He only came in about an hour later. I said, ‘Where the heck have you been?’ And he said, ‘James, I stayed ‘til the death. Everybody was crying and hugging each other, people who didn’t even know each other, and then the boss of the club was walking towards me and I said, ’Mike, what’s going on?’ And he said, People won’t go home. It’s as if James has risen from the dead’. Then Frank noticed he was crying as well, asked why, and was told, ‘I haven’t got a bloody clue. It’s just all so emotional!”

“Someone also told me Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre was set to play that night, and wondered if he had the right venue. He was asking, ‘Why are all these people crying?’ He was told, ‘Jim Lea from Slade has just done a Q&A’. And he said, ‘Bloody hell!’”

Well, you’ve spoken about therapy, and you did train as a psychotherapist a few years ago. Maybe you’ve released some kind of energy in the room.

“Well, when my brother said, ‘What about a Q&A at the Robin?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, okay’, my wife couldn’t quit believe I’d said that. But I just thought it was another way of pushing myself forward as a person.”

Noize Merchants: The first of three Slade singles to top the UK charts in ’73

So where are you at with your cancer treatment now?

“Wolverhampton’s NHS really looked after me, but then sent me to Leeds for treatment.”

Was that at the aptly-nicknamed Jimmy’s (St James’s University Hospital)?

“It was, yeah. I’d go up there a couple of times a year and stay up, and have got to know people up there, and we’re just one big happy family when we go. So although the treatment was uncomfortable to have, it’s been brilliant. In fact, we went up there for my wife’s birthday – for no other reason – on April 1st. I was up there about three months, then I had these injections. But I’ve finished those now.”

You’ve said no to a Robin 2 return, but I’m still hoping we can tempt you out for another gig at some stage.

“I tell you what, Malcolm. I would love to do it if I got the energy back. I was talking to one guitarist about that live DVD and he said, ‘You were giving it a lot of energy. I know what I do leaves me tired. You could do a gig, but you couldn’t do that again’. And I was kind of dropping at one point.”

Well, hopefully you’ll be back to full fitness soon, and we may see that day yet.

“Yeah, well, I would love to do it if I got the energy back. My brother’s got all sorts of ideas to get me up there. I’m just looking at the back of this copy of the Big Issue, and it’s got an advert for a festival (Cropredy’s Fairport Convention in Oxfordshire next month) with Brian Wilson, The Oyster Band, Police Dog Hogan, Smith & Brewer … so maybe you might be seeing me down the bottom at one of those.”

That would be brilliant. I look forward to that. And until then, there’s always that amazing Slade and solo back-catalogue.

Whild Living: Jim Lea looks back on an amazing career, before, during and after his Slade years

To catch up with this website’s feature/interview with Dave Hill, from December 2015, head here. And for our conversation with Don Powell from December 2017, try here. You can also check out the lowdown on Noddy Holder’s live show with Mark Radcliffe from May 2013 via this link, and find a WriteWyattUK appreciation of Slade from December 2012 here.  

Jim Lea’s six-track EP ‘Lost In Space’ is out now, with details of that, plus the limited-edition An Audience with Jim Lea at the Robin 2, various versions of the Therapy album, and lots more product available from his jimleamusic.com website.   

 

 

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The healing power of music – talking Trouble Songs with Stuart Bailie

Stuart Bailie was chasing invoices when I called him in Belfast, facing up to one of the less glamorous facets of life as a freelance writer, yet part of the job he reckons takes up most of his time. And I know how that feels.

But things are looking good for Stuart’s stock right now, with a fine example in his latest commission from Classic Rock magazine, when we spoke set to use an extract from a chapter about The Clash’s relationship with his home nation from the newly-published   Trouble Songs.

He was also expecting a review from Mojo magazine, one of many in the last few weeks for his rightly-acclaimed chronicle of ‘Music and Conflict in Northern Ireland’. And I can concur with that praise. At the time of our interview I was still 100 pages from the end, up to the section about Christy Moore, already assured of the value of a carefully-researched, highly-informed, entertaining and well-written tome.

As he admits in his introduction, music might seem ‘slight and irrelevant against a death toll that has exceeded 3,700’, so ‘what’s the point of lyrics shouted hoarsely when the volume of bigotry and violence has been so deafening?’ And ‘what chance a protest song when the mainstream has been jammed with intolerance and bad faith?’ Yet he rightly suggests that ‘music has not been a passive voice’ and ‘has called for subversion and disobedience’, putting out ‘stories that have challenged the given histories’ and ‘imagined new fixes’, the finished work ‘inspired by lyrics that have given succour and a sense of collective worth’ while valuing ‘the reckless impulse and the rare clarity of youth’.

There’s no airbrushing for convenience’s sake. Stuart also catalogues music ‘celebrating killings and endorsing sectarian acts’, in a country where ‘life is nuanced and morality often contested’. It’s a tightrope walk, yet he gets across, rising above the basic tale of a ‘centuries-old argument between the Irish and the British about territory and identity’, the 1921 partition and all that ultimately led to, in a land where ‘status is often influenced by religious upbringing’. The focus here is chiefly the devastating period between 1968 and the end of the 20th century, yet Trouble Songs doesn’t attempt to re-tell the political story in full. Instead, it uses the music ‘inspired, agitated or brutalised by the times’ as its narrative, resulting in a fresh perspective on the era and achieving its aim of being ‘hopefully a useful one’. And that it most certainly is.

Within the pages, many of the luminaries of Northern Irish music in the last decades of the old century are interviewed or quoted, not least key members of Ash, Rudi, Stiff Little Fingers and The Undertones, plus the likes of Paul Brady, David Holmes, Terri Hooley, John Hume, Eamonn McCann, Gary Moore and Andy White, as well as outsiders like Dolores O’Riordan, Kevin Rowland and Cathal Smith, and key contributors to the peace process like Bono and Christy Moore. But we started out talking about The Clash, whose initial visit in late October ’77 proved such a catalyst for Northern Ireland’s punk scene. Not only that, but also as they’re the subject of a new book by yours truly (more of that shortly on this site) and were clearly a mighty influence on Stuart, who first witnessed them at the Ulster Hall in his home city a year after that fabled, first cancelled gig. But as I put to him, he doesn’t tend to talk about his personal experiences in Trouble Songs.

“I could have put myself in it, but I was eight when the conflict started, and don’t remember much about that. And every now and then, with Christy Moore and that, you’re dealing with very heavy stuff, so I decided I was going to take a kind of back-seat and try not to judge things. With Northern Ireland, it’s like walking on eggshells anyway, so I was trying to empathise wherever possible, and let the reader come to their own conclusion, and I think that seems to have worked.

“I had very heavily-tattooed paramilitaries turn up at a book reading the other night in East Belfast, and at the end they shook my hand, and said, ‘Well, there you go – we’ve been through that. Then in Derry you meet people from the other end of the spectrum, so I think as a strategy that kind of worked … fingers crossed. And I’ve tried to avoid words like terrorism, so you the reader can draw your own conclusions.”

Alternative Ulstermen: Stiff Little Fingers, at home among Belfast’s ruins back in the day

My own route to an interest in all things Northern Ireland – this lad with no proven Celtic heritage, from a council house in the Home Counties of England – came via the music of the bands I loved but wasn’t necessarily sure why. I can’t recall for certain which struck me first, but two albums in the first half of 1979 made a big impression on me at some point that year. February’s Belfast punk statement, Inflammable Material, made me sit up and take notice of a very different landscape, glorying in the startling power of tracks like ‘Alternative Ulster’, ‘Suspect Device’, ‘Wasted Life’ and re-interpreted Bob Marley track ‘Johnny Was’. Meanwhile, May’s The Undertones made me realise there was plenty of common ground after all – here was a band writing about everyday things I could definitely associate with. It turned out it wasn’t all ‘Barbed Wire Love’ after all, however far Belfast and Derry were from my neck of the woods.

True understanding of the settings only came later (I was only 11 when those albums came out), but I was intrigued from that point on, hungrily reading all I could within a few years, from my brother’s copy of Robert Kee’s Ireland: A History (accompanying the 1980/81 BBC/RTE TV series of the same name) through to various NME features and interviews with personnel from several Irish bands, my appreciation of the wider yet hugely-complicated political picture growing.

And for me there was this intriguing double-standard – this was a place officially part of the UK, yet we couldn’t envisage in mainland Britain that level of rioting, bomb threats and no-go areas. And while I always abhorred mindless violence on all sides (I was still three weeks off my seventh birthday in October ’74, but heard the bombs that rocked my hometown, Guildford, from two miles away), I at least understood why key points like the crackdown on the Civil Rights movement would lead to people feeling a need to take more extreme paths. But how about Stuart, in the thick of it all across the water?

”When I was growing up, politics was a bit of a turn-off, with people howling and shouting at each other, especially in Northern Ireland politics. It was like a bear-cage. And then music comes along and you discover Bowie and all these other things and that’s sort of your tribe.

“With The Clash, and with songs like ‘Career Opportunities’, you open your mind and they kind of urge you to think about your social context, and question, ‘Can you do that?’ And the answer’s ‘Yes, you can’. Stiff Little Fingers took that as a green light to sing about Northern Ireland. And to hear ‘Suspect Device’, ‘Wasted Life’, and then ‘Alternative Ulster’ was incredible, and changed my life to a degree.

“At the same time, you’ve got Terri Hooley and his record shop and that whole source of DIY. So with all of those things, for that to hit you in 1977 and 1978 was absolutely brilliant. I’ve kept that with me all my life, and to a degree that’s in the pages as well. You can step outside all the shit!”

That’s one thing that comes over to me in this book more than any other underlying message – music really can overcome all barriers, especially where those turning up at a show might have been through hell just to get that far. And the moment they reached that venue they’d be among kindred spirits, irrespective of religion or specific geographical identity. In a sense, Trouble Songs is just as much about the celebration of a night out and how hard a small but determined group of people fought to have the kind of lifestyle we always took for granted over here in those dark days.

“Yeah, and to a degree, with things like the Miami Showband killings, the bombing and the hunger strikes, I decided to actually try and go back and look deeper into this and talk to the participants. Even though I live here – although I left for a while – I don’t think I even gave myself permission to get deep into it. So it was kind of a strange discovery reading all that about those times.”

Never Forgotten: The last official photograph of the Miami Showband line-up caught up in the 1975 massacre, when Fran O’Toole, Tony Geraghty and Brian McCoy were murdered.

In a sense, by at least following your dreams and forging that career path, moving away to London for a key period, you took yourself out of that bubble. Because sometimes we can get too close to the subject matter to truly get perspective.

“Yeah, and I think a lot of the people I interviewed – because we’re 20 years from the ceasefires and the Good Friday agreements – are talking about it differently now and maybe more openly than we would have before. Every now again, they’d look you in the eye and they would tell you their story …”

Possibly for the first time publicly.

“Quite often. Suddenly there were layers of information that people were divulging that they might not have spoken about before. I think musicians often want to not alienate anyone so they kind of hold their tongue. Whereas now it’s like, ‘Let me tell you about what it was like when I was 16′. So it’s tumbling out a wee bit.”

Praise to Stuart for drawing those stories out, and it’s the first-person recollections that make this work so well. There’s a poignant example where The Undertones’ Damian O’Neill, then 11, recalls watching The Big Match in October ’68 when shooting down the road from his family home in Derry led to mayhem that Bloody Sunday, his parents caught up in the aftermath. And there’s another in That Petrol Emotion and The Everlasting Yeah bandmate Raymond Gorman remembering marching that day with his father, ‘water-cannoned and chased off the bridge’, an experience he said has ‘informed everything that I’ve done’.

Those are just two instances vividly putting you in the frame, and there are many more in Trouble Songs, with Raymond just one example of a lad from one religious background who happily mixed in opposing religious circles as a youth, something ultimately saving him from the kind of ‘entrenched views’ that affected so many on each side of that divide.

Among the more shocking accounts are the chilling testimonies relating the death of three Miami Showband musicians shot at point-blank range in the early hours of July 31st, 1975. And then there are the detailed recollections of the tragedy that unfolded at Belfast’s Abercorn Bar in the mid-afternoon of March 4th, 1972, with two young women killed and 130 injuries. Again, those are just two harrowing examples.

I can’t recall when I first became aware of Stuart’s writing, but he was certainly one of those whose work caught my eye during his NME days. What’s more, while researching this feature, I chanced upon a feature cut out from that very publication, headed Planet Ulster and written by Sean O’Hagan around the time of the mid-‘80s release of Alan Bleasdale’s No Surrender, in which both Stuart and The Undertones’ Mickey Bradley gave their spin on living in Northern Ireland at the time.

Quoted as ‘Stuart Bailie, pop writer’, he revealed, ‘If you’re born Protestant, it’s drummed into you – the whole siege mentality thing is bred into you from birth. Like it was bred into your parents and their parents.’ He also mentioned a marked lack of a Belfast scene at that stage, for reasons that become very apparent to those reading Trouble Songs, and the sad fact that ’Everyone seems to have left for London’, leaving behind a ‘too intense and incestuous and very, very bitchy scene’. But at least for Stuart, an over-riding love of music and writing proved key in escaping that bubble and the tunnel vision of some of his neighbours, I suggested.

“Well, yeah, myself like a lot of other people grew up in a segregated area, so you go to Protestant state schools and hang out with people from that area, and that’s the only reality you kind of know. My family had been in the military and had been very committed to what they saw as a loyal cause, but when you hear The Clash and stuff like that, it kind of … there’s that thing Greil Marcus says, that the essence of punk is two words – ‘question everything’, and all of a sudden you reviewed everything in your world and feel, ‘Hey, I’m not hung up on that stuff’.

“Then also you’re in the Harp bar and you’re meeting guys from North Belfast and West Belfast and they’re all fans of Iggy Pop and The Outcasts or whatever. So there’s a whole other way. To me that was very revelatory, all in the course of six months, and you come out a better person. And Terri Hooley, the old hippy anarchist, was encouraging that all the time.”

I’m glad he mentioned Terri there. The Good Vibrations label and record shop boss and all-round maverick pioneer comes out of this as truly inspirational and one of the book’s heroes for me.

“Yeah, he’s very nuanced, you know. He was an idiot half of the time he was a drunkard and whatever, but to the same extent he hadn’t matured and calmed down and was important in much the same way as Tony Wilson was for Manchester. He had a bit of playfulness and a bit of that hippy perspective and he went, ‘OK, things are kicking off, let’s push this on a wee bit. Let’s give them advice and let’s give them the means of production’. So we were incredibly lucky to have Terri knocking about.”

A non-conformist in the widest sense, really.

“Yeah, and like Tony, nobody had a record contract and it was all chaotic. Terri could have had a pension plan, and he doesn’t. He doesn’t own anything of that.”

The way he let The Undertones sign to Sire with no personal gain seems to illustrate that. Meanwhile, another key player from that Protestant community who gets a fair share of space is Van Morrison, another who seemed to quickly understand that bigger picture.

“Yeah, he was out touring German military bases when he was 16 or 17. He viewed himself as a child of the western popular world really, and moved to America very intentionally. But there’s a part of him that’s very East Belfast. There’s a gruffness and a belligerence that’s part of the character and what he’s about. But to the same extent, when he puts out a song like St Dominic’s Preview he’s kind of thinking about what’s going on at home. There’s a compassion there, and empathy as well.

“He went transatlantic for a while, the accent changed, and everything else, but then the salmon returned to the spawning ground and he returned. And I think even the return of Van to become a resident of Belfast in the ’90s was also part of that process, the fact that he’s singing in front of Bill Clinton at the City Hall and loaning out his lyrics to the Northern Ireland office. I think that was quite a cool way of putting his mind to it.”

Was Van a hero to you growing up, or did you only truly understand his vision a little later?

“No, I was a punk – you weren’t allowed to like Van Morrison! He was a hippy, he had flares and sideburns and he was considered part of the enemy. Also, the ‘60s generation that used to hang around were a bit bedraggled and their hearts were broken, having lived through very exciting times only to see it dashed. Anytime you met them they were just middle-aged men smoking joints, telling us the ‘60s were great. You kind of grew to resent that, almost. You can’t really tell me the good times have gone definitively.

“When punk arrived, you went, ‘There you go, buddy. We’ve got our own fun to manufacture here’. But then there’s a moment in the early ‘80s where you’d start to hear Van Morrison and think, ‘Bloody hell, this is brilliant!’ And you give yourself permission and then you go, ‘Wow!’”

That was a bit of a leading question, as I knew Stuart named Van’s homecoming show on Cyprus Avenue in 2015 among his most treasured live moments (Rudi at the Harp Bar is also up there), with 1968’s phenomenal Astral Weeks his favourite-ever album. But you have to ask these questions. So, how old was he when he first saw The Clash?

“Well, I was born in ’61 and I missed that first gig. If you could go back in the time machine … But I saw them at the Ulster Hall in ‘78. just before Give ‘Em Enough Rope. I took the day off school and spent all night with them, and all the rest of it.”

So you missed that first gig being cancelled and the subsequent Bedford Street punk riot?

“Yes, although I remember one or two people at school were there. In my defence, it wasn’t part of your social life. You didn’t go to gigs. It was a scary time. It was a scary place and your parents were terrified.

“But I saw Dr Feelgood in May to June ’77 – my first proper gig, again at the Ulster Hall – and in January ‘78 I saw Rudi. That was me kind of full on then, thinking I have to get as much of this as I can.”

Maverick Inspiration: Stuart Bailie’s good friend, Terri Hooley

In lesser hands, the book’s contentious subject matter might have led to something of a backfire. Yet Stuart – who’s previously written an authorised biography of Thin Lizzy, The Ballad of the Thin Man, TV and radio documentaries about U2, Elvis Costello and Glen Campbell, and helped set up the Oh Yeah Music Centre in his home city, which continues to thrive to this day, acting as its CEO from 2008/16 – cleverly negotiates his way through, Trouble Songs following So Hard to Beat, his BBC TV documentary on Northern Ireland’s music, and a long-running radio series on a similar subject for BBC Radio Ulster that preceded it. So which project did he envisage first?

So Hard to Beat was 2007, and just before that, starting in around 2005, I did this thing on Radio Ulster, choosing a record a week for 30 or 40 weeks, telling the story of Northern Ireland music week by week. That was the bare bones of the TV documentary. Every week was a story about a song. When it was finished there were no thoughts as to doing anything beyond that.

“I was then working on the Oh Yeah Music Centre, and that was me completely for 10 years, it was like being hit by a truck, trying to renovate a huge whiskey warehouse amid overwhelming pressure, with 10 years away from writing TV and anything else really.

“But I become an admin. person, not writing or thinking creatively. I decided to leave there, and asked myself, ‘What do you want to do, before you get knocked over by a bus? What do you want to have on your obit?’ And I decided, ‘He went down deep and wrote this story about how music related to 30 years of madness’. Like a lot of creative ideas, you run away from it for a while, avoid it or make excuses why you can’t do it. Then you just go, ‘Right, here we go’, and disappear into the bunker.”

You wrote a bit of it away on the Donegal coast, I gather.

“Yes, every now and then I felt I had to get a bit of space on this and would rent out a cottage or someone would let me use a space where I could be far enough away from it to really focus my mind. Especially at the start, working out how I was going to do it and what the shape was going to be. I find that very therapeutic and very helpful, with few distractions.”

Sounds a nice part of the world.

“Ah, it’s incredible. Every day I check out cheap cottages to see if I could buy one!”

Derry Perspective: The Undertones had a mighty impact on both sides of the Irish Sea

Derry Perspective: The Undertones made a mighty impression

Talking of old press cuttings hanging around WriteWyattUK HQ, there’s another illuminating piece Andrew Tyler wrote for the NME, where he takes a trip to Derry with The Undertones’ John O’Neill as his guide. At one stage John mentions ‘struggling to express hard ideas through some new songs’ with a couple of ‘unknown friends’ he was set to move to London with. With those clues I’d say we’re talking 1984 (I foolishly cut off the dates at the top of the page), and I was lucky enough to witness first-hand That Petrol Emotion’s earliest shows on this side of the Irish Sea that following summer. And that would fit in with the time Stuart first came to London, wouldn’t it?

“Yeah, I think the ’80s generally were a time of mass exodus. There was a bubble of people who moved over, mostly economic stuff but also an idea that the conflict was never going to end. You just think, I’ve got a life to live here. What can I do? At that point I was a failed, poor punk musician and I felt there was this whole media and journalism thing kind of interested me.”

So you bought a typewriter and made your move, yeah?

“I did. It was as simple as that. It was very thrilling. Where I was around Wood Green and Finsbury Park there was a whole colony of Belfast people, and likewise in Reading, in West London, and the Petrols and people in South London. It was almost the norm. A lot of people moved out and did their thing. Certainly for me, I always felt I was fairly civilised and into hip-hop and a kind of cosmopolitan kind of guy, but then you arrive ion London and they call you ‘Paddy’! It’s a bit of a leveller, but then you realise you’re Celtic anyway, regardless of all the other bits in your character. So there’s a wee bit of self-knowledge that comes out of moving away too.”

For all the buzz of moving here, there must have been a realisation that you had to move away from your beloved homeland to ‘find yourself’ in the decade you stayed. But as it turns out, it set you up nicely.

“Well, it gives you a bit of energy and offers a wee chance to work out what you can be, and for me going to the Bull and Gate and the Sir George Robey and hanging out in Camden, at a time when Alan McGee was getting off the ground with The Jesus and the Mary Chain and Creation Records. It was a very, very exciting time. At that time there was the NME, Melody Maker, Sounds, Record Mirror, The Hit, Smash Hits … and this enormous market for writers.”

As it was, Stuart went on to write for not just the NME , where he was on the staff for eight years, but also Uncut, Q, Vox, The Times, The Irish Times, Hot Press, and the afore-mentioned Classic Rock and Mojo. But his way in was via Record Mirror.

“Yeah, the NME knocked me back a few times. That broke my heart. But then I went to Record Mirror and was their review editor, and briefly worked at Warner Brothers and at WEA in the press office. And then the NME asked if I wanted to write for them, and it was like, ‘Yeah!’ That was ’88, along with James Brown, Swells, Andrew Collins, Stuart Maconie, Danny Kelly, Barbara Ellen, Mary Anne Hobbs … It was amazing.

“It’s difficult to explain. I tend not to be confident, because there’s so many bright people around you, and over a period of time it ups your game. I’ve never been so challenged and stimulated in my life. It was such a brilliant place, and the social life was amazing. And as a journalist you were given access to bands you would never get today. You were really indulged.”

Boxing Clever: Stuart Bailie was held responsible by Noel Gallagher for the BritPop phenomenon.

Boxing Clever: Stuart Bailie was held responsible by Noel Gallagher for the NME-led BritPop phenomenon.

What’s this about Noel Gallagher holding you responsible for the term ‘BritPop’? Was that phrase’s adoption (in August 1995) down to you?

“Err … yes and no. I’d been on a train journey to the Midlands with a load of people from Creation Records to see one of their signings, Heavy Stereo. At Creation Records, even people who weren’t taking drugs talked like they were taking drugs! It was two weeks before the clash of ‘Roll With It’ by Oasis and Country House’ by Blur. There was lots of screaming and yelling about, ‘We’re going to do this and we’re going to do this’, and on the way back it was, ‘We’re going to have ‘em, we’re going to take ‘em!’ I’m sitting in this train carriage with all these people, thinking, ‘This is a hell of a story’. I went to a meeting the next Tuesday and told them, ‘This is kicking off, this is incredible!’ And there was Steve Lamacq and a few other people, going, ‘Yep, yep, absolutely’. NME meetings were very exciting things. We’d just spark off each other.

“By the end of that meeting, it was, ‘OK, we’re going to do this and flag it up. We’re going to make it’. The art designer, Marc Pechart, put this boxing poster together for that next week. Within 24 hours of that there were five TV crews in the office and it ended up on the national news. It was definitely the NME that manufactured that, a few of us put it into the public space as a story, and everyone else ran with it, which was great.  But I think Noel Gallagher holds me responsible!”

And how’s your relationship with U2 frontman Bono, who apparently once called you a ‘tough nordy ****’ but obviously gets on with you, seeing as he answered your queries for what turned out to be a rather illuminating Q&A in Trouble Songs.

“Well, I wasn’t part of their court, but around the time of Achtung Baby and Zoo TV, I was the NME person who got a wee bit of access and chat, was on the planes, and all that malarkey. It was very exciting, at a time when they were very creative. I’ve also worked with them on various documentaries and radio talks, and had a fairly civil relationship.”

Actually, Bono has my sympathy a bit. It seems too easy to pick on him with his outsider views on Northern Ireland and various other world struggles over the years. He’s an easy target, but I’m thinking he must fundamentally be a good bloke beneath it all.

“Well, he would at some point hold himself up as some sort of philanthropist and libertarian, and then some people would point at his tax affairs and suggest a potential contradiction there. I haven’t written about them (U2) at any great length since a lot of that came out, but when I did this book I put in a request and I think originally he was going to speak to me on the phone. But then he was at the Grammys and then went off on a family holiday, so he asked if he could write the answers to my questions. But it was interesting a lot of the stuff he came out with, and it was the first time he’d really put in an apology about the Miami Showband massacre. When the Bataclan incident kicked off he said that was the first time that had happened, and the band were on social media saying, ‘Hello, Bono, do you remember 1975?’ So he kind of used my book to apologise for that.”

And I gather that although Terri Hooley and you like a good argument – he recently suggested to Jenny Lee of The Irish Times they were ‘the George and Mildred of the Belfast music scene’ – you’re top mates these days. Even if he didn’t sign your band, Acme, back at the turn of the ’80s (Stuart plays bass, but sold his Fender to buy that typewriter).

“Yeah, we have a mutual friend getting married today and we’re doing their wedding reception.”

Ah, DJ-ing, like you did at Voodoo back in the day?

“We play tunes … ‘DJ’ is a bit too professional a word for it! But he’s 70 this year and he’s still very contrary and totally anti-materialist. He scrapes by on pennies, he’s very funny, and he’s kind of oddly charismatic, and there’s going to be this Good Vibrations musical in the summer, so I think we’re all gonna be holding our breath. But it was great that he got a victory lap with the film, because he had been sort of ignored for a few years.

“And almost parallel to my book, people are revising the history angle and saying that music actually was one of the things that brought us towards a better place.”

Talking Troubles: Stuart Bailie, the author of the mighty Trouble Songs.

Trouble Songs: Music and Conflict in Northern Ireland by Stuart Bailie is out now, priced £14.99 and available via Troublesongs.com

 

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The Vapors – Manchester, The Ruby Lounge

Summer Nights: The Vapors in live action (Photo: Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

This was my first rail outing to Manchester since Public Service Broadcasting at the Ritz three years ago ended with the dreaded Bus Replacement Service return-trip, and came 18 months after my last Ruby Lounge visit, for The Blue Aeroplanes. And again I was rewarded with a memorable set.

This time there was barely chance to catch more than a song and a half of the support, Rothman Jack. To be honest, I’d forgotten who was joining them, but the moment I looked up from the bar – after a schoolboy error, asking for ‘bitter’ and being handed a can of John Smith’s, when I thought the days of the floating widget were way behind us – I remembered it was none other than Vapors stand-in guitarist Dan Fenton, son of David, leading a rather dynamic three-piece.

On this occasion they were bringing down the curtain on their time together, to appreciative support from a clued-up and warm (in more ways than one) gathering. Have I mentioned the temperature yet? Dan certainly looked like he’d been through the wringer on this hot, late June night by the time we’d headed out into the throng, giving his all, but his band were soon taking a collective bow and heading off, big smiles all round.

That left me briefly contemplating father-and-son combos, seeing as David and Dan have already put in several shifts together, covering for first-choice wing-man Ed Bazalgette. I thought first of Neil and Liam Finn, then Lloyd and Will Cole, plus Johnny and Nile Marr, later adding Bob and Ziggy Marley, Bob and Jakob Dylan, Ron and Jesse Wood, John and Jason Bonham, Tim and Jeff Buckley, and even John and Julian Lennon to that list, though wondering if many of those had even shared a stage. I’ve probably missed a few key examples. No matter.

Son Shines: Dan Fenton, out front with Rothman Jack on the night

Conversation back out by the bar was soon put on hold, heading back into the main room (to be fair, there was only a black curtain separating the two) as tonight’s star guests took to the stage. Now, I went through the significance of the re-emergence of this wondrous outfit last time I had the pleasure of catching them, at Liverpool’s Arts Club in November 2016, so I’ll spare you a bit of that, but again emotions were never far away for this fellow Guildford old boy. An introductory backing track more associated with Frankie Goes to Hollywood in some circles was in keeping with the band’s turn of the ‘80s New Clear Days theme, dynamic sticks-man Michael Bowes, with lurid green bandana in place, soon leading from the rear in what proved to be another startling shift on drums. By God, he can play, and however restricted your view when you catch this outfit live, ensure you’re well placed to see this drumming colossus putting the thrust back into power pop.

To be fair, that ‘power pop’ label is something heard more from transatlantic fans looking to categorise the post-punk and new wave scene, but was one used by my fellow commuter on this occasion to describe a band he knew little of before other than links to key tracks I suggested online. But it seemed fairly apt all the same. Incidentally, I could say we’d travelled from Deepest Surrey and Edinburgh respectively to get there on the night, but to be honest it had barely been a 20-mile ride across Lancashire.

Michael not only hits those drums hard but also seems to inspire all before him, never short of a cheeky grin or beaming smile to light up the stage. I’ll forever associate his role with his predecessor, Howard Smith, but Michael has quickly made this his lookout, adding plenty of verve and no lack of panache. What I like is the air of mischief between him and bass player Steve Smith, another not bothering to hold back the smiles. They’re clearly having fun, playing for all the right reasons and loving what they’re doing. With that shaggy mane and his Trojan Records t-shirt, Steve’s the epitome of cool, having not long stepped back off a plane from the Algarve, interrupting his summer engagement with his other band The Shakespearos, seemingly unfettered by the experience. Laid-back and  on the money all night. My only gripe here was the sound in the Ruby Lounge, not allowing us the best chance to wallow in those glorious Rickenbacker basslines, lost somewhere in the mix at times.

I could say the same about Ed and David and their guitar and vocals. It was all a little ‘soupy’ to fully immerse yourself in the first third, the between-song banter also lost. At first, the venue’s imposing pillars ensured Ed was just out of my eyeline apart from occasional cross-stage jaunts, but we moved ever closer as the night wore on, the sound far better from around the time the ‘Daylight Titans’ surrounded on song seven.

Half a dozen new tracks were premiered, and from opener ‘Secret Noise’ onward the signs are good for that long-awaited third album. The band seamlessly fitted those among the more established, and third number ‘King L’ certainly impressed, as did ‘One of My Dreams’ and later number ‘Letter to Hiro (No.11)’, giving rise to its earlier first LP cousin, ‘Letter From Hiro’, Dave handing over vocal duties to the assembled, who didn’t let him down. And while I couldn’t fully appreciate amid that earlier sound the wondrous ‘Trains’ and ‘Live at the Marquee’, by the time of ‘Cold War’ ( my travelling mate wondered if it was ‘Cod War’, referencing past trade friction with Iceland, giving an entirely different steer on the lyrics) and ‘Somehow’, they were on top form.

Now Wilko Johnson’s pudding bowl years are long behind him and Ed’s joined him on the shaved head front (I know, his was always a far more stylish cut), it’s easier to see common ground in stage presence and guitaronics. And beyond the moody posturing there’s a nice interaction between him and an adoring crowd, those occasional darts across stage to seek out Steve for vocal duets a delight. Ed also mentioned how past Manchester visits seemed to coincide with momentous happenings for The Vapors, not least news of their initial deal and ‘Turning Japanese’ chart success. And while Dave comes over more reserved, he’s equally cherished and fully engaged, the nervous energy working well, keeping him and us on our toes, yet he also seems to be in control.

On a hot, sultry Friday night in the metropolis, I can think of few more fitting songs than ‘Waiting for the Weekend’, and while ‘Spring Collection’ for me seemed out of place deeper into the set, it’s more than welcome wherever. As for ‘Jimmie Jones’, it was perhaps my least favourite Vapors single, yet I’ve grown to fully appreciate it, and it sounded fabulous on this occasion. It was only a matter of time before we reached ‘Turning Japanese’, and I’m pleased the most recognisable song still has a feelgood factor for the diehards. This is no pop novelty, it sounded just as fresh tonight, and credit for that to the band themselves for still being able to so convincingly knock it out, so to speak.

They still weren’t quite done, one eye on the time as the band slipped into debut single, ‘Prisoners’, showcasing the band’s early new wave promise, then the mighty ‘News at Ten’, up there with The Undertones’ debut 45 among the most perfect expressions of teenage angst.

The band returned of course, penultimate number ‘America’ signposting their next big adventure, October’s three-night NYC return, before trademark finale ‘Here Comes the Judge’, the minute-hand against us now, the last train beckoning and us reluctantly inching towards the exit amid this expansive live masterpiece, dashing up the steps as the final chord rang out, into a still humid night, yomping back to Piccadilly and platform 14, determined not to let the trains get me, another great night in The Vapors’ company already etched into the memory.

I’m loving this revival, not least having missed out first time round. I see no reason why there won’t be many more great nights to come either. What’s more, we should have another album to savour soon, 37 years to the month after Magnets, and on this evidence we’re in for a treat. And in the meantime I’ve always got those first LPs to see me through.

Lounge Lizards: The Vapors at The Ruby Lounge, Manchester (Photo: Shaun Modern)

The Vapors are back in action at the Actress and Bishop in Birmingham on July 28th and the Junction 2 in Cambridge on September 8th, before a three-night sell-out at New York City’s Mercury Lounge in October then a return to Portmeirion’s Hercules Hall on November 10th, followed by dates at Olby’s Music Room, Margate (December 7th); Lewes’ Constitutional Hall (December 8th); The 1865, Southampton (December 9th); and Nell’s Jazz and Blues, London (December 15th). For more details, head here.

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One Man’s Madness (I call it gladness) – the Lee Thompson interview

Lee Thompson was at home when I called, ‘sort of just inside 12 o’clock on the M25,’ where he’s been based around 30 years now. Born in St Pancras, NW1 in 1957, this esteemed saxophonist/songwriter’s postcode is EN5 rather than that of Madness’ 2008 single ‘NW5’, the man nicknamed ‘Kix’ explaining, “I was originally Kentish Town, moved to Islington for a while, then High Barnet when the kids were born, somewhere a bit greener.”

My excuse for calling was new feature-length ‘rocku-docu-mockumentary’, One Man’s Madness. And the early sales figures suggest there’s still a mighty appetite for the story of the Nutty Boys.

“Looks like it, yeah. When Jeff (Baynes, director/producer) came to me with the idea, I thought, ‘Ooh … quirky … different. I was more concerned about who it would appeal to. I mean, obviously the Madness camp, but … why me? Why not pick on one of the other band members? But judging by past interviews and stories and what people have told him, Jeff thought I might have a bit more of an interesting story to tell. He came up with the idea and I said, ‘Yeah’, once he explained it. I thought, ‘Let’s have a go, it’s not going to be too time-consuming.’”

Now out on DVD, it’s already seen screenings at numerous UK cinemas, and is also available as a double-CD soundtrack, including 27 Madness hits and others from the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra, his past outfit Crunch, and even Ian Dury.

In One Man’s Madness, Lee tells his story with the help of fellow bandmates (Barso, Bedders, Chas, Chrissy Boy, Suggs and Woody all make appearances, in some guise or other), family, friends, fellow performers, management, and even a musicologist and psychologist, those portrayed along the way including Norman Cook, Clive Langer, Lynval Golding and Neville Staple, in most cases with Kix dressed up as a version of them, including rather-fetching portrayals of his wife Debbie, his sister Tracy, opera-singing alter-ego ‘Thommosina Leigh’, parents of bandmates, and Stiff label boss Dave Robinson.

In other hands this could have become a sociologist’s dream project, examining a ‘rake’s progress’ in a portrayal of a lad from very ‘umble beginnings whose Dad was in and out of the nick. By most accounts, Lee was deemed to have ‘looked a bit dodgy’ by other kids’ parents (according to Suggs, most who became close to him ended up ‘being chased by the Old Bill’ at some stage). But with Jeff Baynes at the helm, it’s anything but. As the press release has it, ‘One Man’s Madness takes its cue from the classic Ealing comedies of the ’40s and ’50s, music hall and famous BBC arts documentaries, with a nod to those great British comics down the years such as Max Wall, Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson, Dick Emery, Morecambe and Wise, and Spike Milligan.’ And I love the quirky approach, I tell Lee.

“Yeah, very quirky. I mouth these people’s words, I dress up as how I see them, (sometimes) a bit Carmen Miranda, an odd-looking thing with a mono-eyebrow (that’ll be ‘Thommosina’ replicating Fiona Jessica Wilson’s fine voice), and there’s my lawyer, who I take on as some sort of drunk ‘beak’. It took up a flow, particularly when I did my wife and my sister – they looked like the men out of the Flash advert. I had those ‘bugger-grips’ at the time, those Edwardian moustaches that go ’round your face. They haven’t seen it yet … I’m trying to keep it away from them as long as possible.

“Dave Robinson, I did as a mad, bully-ish Irish navvy type. He wasn’t keen on how I perceived him. But he watched it a few times then calmed down. Once he got into it, I thought, ‘This has got legs. If he likes it, anyone will.’ He’s very hard to please.”

Shut Up: Suggs takes issue with Lee’s assertion that the idea of One Man’s Madness came long before his My Life Story project with Julien Temple

It’s certainly an off-the-wall approach to documentary-making, but somehow really works. And you need to watch it at least a few times to see what the incorrigible Kix is up to in the background. So what came first, this film project or Mr McPherson’s fellow 2018 film with Julien Temple, My Life Story?

“Mine, easily! We started ours nearly three and a half years ago. But it keeps getting put back. I don’t know why. Jeff and myself are in control. He pointed the camera, I put the costume on. The difficult part was the tongue-twisting mouthings. Some of them were really easy, in particular those with Neil Brand, the musicologist, as was the woman who talks about split-personality (billed as Dr Noyes Maybe). That was quite enjoyable to do. But there was only us two to answer to. If something went wrong, it was down to us, and nothing went wrong at all other than putting dates off because of other duties with the Ska Orchestra and Madness.”

And you still seem to spend a lot of time playing with both of those bands.

“Well, we’ve sort of backed off with the Ska Orchestra, because our drummer (Mez Clough) left us for Van Morrison. The rent doesn’t pay itself, and it was like one gig a month with us. Although they were really enjoyable, Van offered him several months’ work on really good wages, so I said, ‘Go and do it. We’ll find a drummer.’ But I haven’t found anyone as good as Mez, and really I’m quite proud he’s been nicked off me by Van Morrison. And funnily enough he stands in on percussion and backing vocals for Madness, so it’s double-bloody-bubble!”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Jeff Baynes looked to Lee for this project. His subject has always been rather an unlikely character, for want of a better expression. Poor early career choices led to him spending 14 months in borstal, but thankfully he’d already met Mike Barson and ‘Chrissy Boy’ Foreman by then, who shared his interests of graffiti, train-hopping and music, ultimately helping ensure the salvation of a lad Dave Robinson describes in the documentary as having a ‘very, very low attention span’, and of whom Norman Cook says, ‘He’s always felt more comfortable in mid-air than on the ground’.

From entertaining tales of meeting his bandmates to becoming part of a truly iconic, highly successful undeniably English group, we follow Lee’s adventures through his lyrics and songs, a mighty back-catalogue including (either as sole or co-writer) ‘The Prince’, ‘Embarrassment’, ‘House of Fun’, ‘Lovestruck’ and ‘NW5’. And there’s plenty of humour en route from the man himself, someone chiefly recalled by the wider public for his flying exploits during Madness’ memorable promo videos, from ‘Baggy Trousers’ right through to his taking to the air while playing a red, white and blue sax during the closing ceremony of 2012’s London Olympics, and the band’s … erm, crowning moment on the roof of Buckingham Palace as part of the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations.

And as he puts it, “The whole experience of making this has been a sheer joy. Miming along to the characters was slightly tongue-twisting, but with the director’s patience and perseverance we got there eventually. Jeff makes a fantastic Cappuccino and his wife was most patient with my array of props, wigs and slap.”

Going back to those musical roots, what came first for Kix – learning the sax, the flute, the trumpet, fluegelhorn?

Early Days: Mike Barson, John Jones & Lee Thompson in 1973

“I started originally on the clarinet.”

I guess there wasn’t too much call for a rock’n’roll clarinetist.

“Not really. I played along with ‘Stranger on the Shore’, but there’s only so many times you can play that without getting bored shitless. I used the schools’ music section of different instruments. There was flugelhorns, trumpets and trombones, but no saxophone, and the clarinet was much more difficult, fingering-wise. So I stopped that and went on to oboe, but I didn’t last long on that. It was literally months. The embouchure around the lips, the muscles around there, was like I was being given a dead leg. So I landed up swapping that at Dingwall’s for an old clapped-out thing, but one that got past the first audition with Mike (Barson) and Chris (Foreman). And not long after taking up saxophone some friends heard I was starting this little group, around 1976, and approached me with a very hot Selmer Mk.6, fresh out of the shop window.”

Is this the one you’re still struggling to find the receipt for?

“That is the one … with the scratched number, yeah! They tried to scratch it off, but they didn’t know it was embossed into the metal. You can’t melt the thing down.”

And if you could, it wouldn’t bode so well for the sound.

“It might get a better sound out of it than I would these days, with my teeth! But these days I keep that under lock and key. You know ‘karma’? What goes around, comes around? I done The X-Factor a while ago with a saxophone Mike Barson bought on my behalf in Holland because my credit card wouldn’t take it. Obviously, I paid him back … I think … yeah, I paid him back. But that was taken somehow. All the security at The X-Factor – it took half an hour to get in there, it was like Fort Knox – yet our saxophone went missing. So I keep my baby – my very first love – under lock and key.”

But how did this London white boy end up getting into Prince Buster? Did you take the skinhead route?

“Well, yeah, I’d always been into all that, since Desmond Dekker and The Upsetters. I had a paper round in around 1967/68, and Tony Blackburn had just come on the radio. He really liked a lot of Motown and Soul, which took my attention, although I was only 11 or 12. I never had a record player. We never even had a radio at home. I don’t know why. The only TV music you’d get would be Top of the Pops. I think Ready Steady Go had finished. But I got into that, and when ‘Israelites’, ‘Return of Django’ and ‘Love of the Common People’ and all that started coming through the airwaves, I was really drawn to it.

“I’d never really heard of Prince Buster until about ’71, so he’d been going long before that. You’d have to travel to get your reggae records – from Kentish Town you’d have to travel several miles to Brixton or Willesden. They never had it in the shops. It was that early. But once Desmond Dekker and the like started charting, they held up their arms to it to various distributors. But I found an Aladdin’s Cave of singles, a treasure trove down in Upper Street, when it was a proper old pre-gentrified area, finding a load of records on Firefly, Punch, Fab, Blue Beat, Blue Ska, Melodisc.

“I picked a bunch up, and what stuck out that I noticed was this comical fella that sang comical lyrics to a ska beat, like ‘Ten Commandments of Man’, and of course ‘Madness’. I was very much drawn to him, along with ‘50s inspired stuff that was all the go in the mid-‘70s, like American Graffiti, The Lords of Flatbush, and there was a real resurgence of doo-wop like The Coasters. So there was all that and of course the pub-rock scene – Dr Feelgood and Kilburn & the High Roads.”

Banned Mates: Lee gets right behind Suggs

Were you seeing those bands live at the time?

“Absolutely, at the Hope and Anchor and so on. We were so lucky where we were. We were at the epicentre of it all – Dingwalls, the Tally Ho, the (Lord) Nelson. It was a stroll away to your nearest live venue, a couple of bus stops away. It was all around us. There weren’t many soul or blues or reggae artists. I never got to see Bob Marley live in the early ‘70s. I was more attracted to pub rock. I remember bunking in to see Bowie at Earl’s Court when he was doing Aladdin Sane, Roxy Music at the Rainbow …”

I’m guessing Roxy Music sax player Andy Mackay was a big inspiration.

“Oh yeah, absolutely. I was always attracted to that instrument. You go running down the front into the line of fire, as I called it, the Bermuda Triangle – a very tame, glitter-sprinkled Bermuda Triangle – and I’d always land up in front of the sax players like Andy Mackay, and of course Davey Payne, and Damian Hand, who plays with James Hunter. He’s just gone back over to America. When there was a lull in Madness, after the split in ’86, I landed up becoming his roadie. The Madness had died a death and Chris and myself were about to start up Crunch / The Nutty Boys. But between, having time off, I kept my diet of music live by roadie-ing for Howlin’ Wilf and the Veejays, driving him around, because he never had a licence. And his sax player, Damian, I’ve got to try and contact him – I want to record with him at some point. He’s a phenomenal player.”

And did George Melly ever catch you, Barso and your other mate (the pair famously sprayed their nicknames on the jazz and blues legend’s garage door, prompting him to write in a newspaper piece, ‘If I ever catch that Mr B, Kix and Columbo, I’m going to kick their arses’)?

“Ha ha! Have you ever read that book?”

That will be Roger Perry’s The Writing on the Wall (reissued in 2015 as a Plain Crisp Books paperback).

“I mentioned it on a radio show with Liz Kershaw, in a pre-recorded interview with her after our Robert Elms fiasco. I did that show live, and … fucking hell! In 40 years of working with Madness we never did interviews or promotions at weekends unless it was a live gig, because I tend to let my hair down on a Friday night. I let a few words slip which I shouldn’t have with Robert, so that was cut short. I think he’ll have us back though. He knows it was an accident.”

This seems to be the case with Lee. There we were, talking about George Melly and graffiti, and before I knew it we’ve segued on to Robert Elms and swearing live on BBC Radio London. But we’re soon back on track. I mentioned Kix’s grounding in soul, reggae and ska, plus pub rock and rock’n’roll, but how about punk? Was he inspired by the whole DIY aspect of that movement?

“Oh absolutely. If it weren’t for pub rock and certainly punk rock … that opened doors endlessly for us. You never had a chance before that. I think it was Dave Robinson and his partner (I’m guessing he means Jake Riviera) who started down that road. One of the first gigs I saw was Kilburn and the High Roads, playing that music hall sounding stuff, prior to The Blockheads. That attracted me. I would never have dreamed I could go and get a saxophone and play in a pop-rock band. It was a combination of Chris, Mike and myself having the same interest in many things – fashion, music, jumping freight trains, doing graffiti. Fucking hell, unfortunately I’ve just heard about those three kids.”

He’s referring there to the deaths of graffiti artists Alberto Carrasco, 19, Jack Gilbert and Harrison Scott-Hood, both 23, fatally struck by a train at Loughborough Junction in South London in the early hours of June 18th.

On Board: Lee Thompson still has an eye for fashion

“We sort of started that, certainly in North London. There was more political graffiti going on, on the tube trains. You’ve gotta see this book, The Writing on the Wall, it’s fantastic. We sort of got the inspiration from a magazine from The Sunday Times on New York art and graffiti. It was easy to get cans out of Woolworth’s then – silver and black. I know we pissed off a lot of council boroughs … certainly Camden. My son’s taken up the mantle now. He does quite a lot of graffiti work, and knew one of those kids, from Muswell Hill.”

But it proved to be music that really made Lee’s name in the end, thanks to the determined efforts of Mike Barson.

“We had those same interests, and Mike was saying, ‘Look, if Ian Dury can do it …’ He was really into Elvis Costello, the Kilburns, Alex Harvey … and with Chris and I we all seemed to be on the same page with everything, so that helped.”

At that point I mentioned fellow London performers and writers Ian Dury and Ray Davies and the influence of music hall, bringing in my recent conversation with Dave Peacock of Chas ‘n’ Dave fame (with a link here), when Lee interrupted …

“Bloody hell – I was on the phone to him yesterday! I had a French bulldog, Farty Marty, he really did stink and they’re so hard to train. I was going to give him to someone, and Dave heard and said, ‘I’ll have him!’ He’s been with him about a year, but then phoned and said, ‘Lee, me dog’s gone missing! What do I do? ‘ So I said, ‘Well, he’s chipped and neutered.’ But a couple of days later, or even the same day, they said, ‘We’ve got your dog’. He was 20 miles away in Welwyn Garden City. He’d ran off, 20 miles up the road! Dave was saying, ‘At my age, I don’t need this!’ He’s a lovely fella is Dave. He’s old school. Very old school.”

At this point we got on to mid-’80s Madness, having seen the band perform ‘Uncle Sam’ on a Top of the Pops re-run that week. I told him how much I love that Keep Moving (1984) and Mad Not Mad (1985) era, and the Wonderful album that heralded their proper return in 1999. That said, I’m also with Lee when I’ve heard him talk about how proud he was of what he sees as the band’s masterpiece, 2009’s The Liberty of Norton Folgate.

“Oh yeah, that really moved the goalposts. I thought, ‘I can retire now’. I’ve done the Queen’s roof. I’ve done the Olympics, done the No.1 spot, now we can retire … but the public won’t let us!

“I said to Robert Elms the other day, ‘I heard you got a phone call saying, ‘When you’re 60, are you thinking of retiring?’ But he says as long as people want to hear us, we’ll carry on, way past Tony Blackburn. I’m the same – until me teeth drop out and me lungs pack up, it’s very medicinal, therapeutic …”

Thompson Two: Father Lee passes on sage advice to his son

Dave Peacock offers a good example of that tenacity and determination to keep performing and stay young.

“Yes. And it does keep you going. He retired after his wife passed on, of course. He was absolutely distraught, as you would be. But life goes on and he’s back in the running. I’ve seen him on Jools’ Holland’s show the other day and I’m waving at the telly … as if he can see me! I’m glad that I know him.”

Seeing as I mentioned Top of the Pops before, can you clear something up for me? It’s this story about Madness’ spoof drugs raid on The Clash while they were recording around the corner from you. It was the occasion where you were sporting police uniform …

“Oh, yeah, that was for ‘Shut Up!'”

That would make it Autumn 1981. But I’ve also heard it was your Stiff label-mates, The Blockheads. They had the same gear on (from the same theatrical costumier in Camden, I’m guessing) when performing on that show a year earlier, with the hit single ‘I Wanna Be Straight’ in late August 1980. But you’re saying you definitely carried out your own raid?

“That’s right … but maybe The Blockheads done it as well. I remember I had these big shoes on. It was right around the corner from Westside (Wessex, I’m guessing) Studios, where Clive (Langer) and Alan (Winstanley) had a studio. Stiff picked that location for us to run about. It was half-derelict. They definitely weren’t on the ground floor, because I had these big clown shoes on that wouldn’t allow me to go up these steps. But we were all in these police uniforms and I particularly remember Cathal (Smyth aka Chas Smash) bursting the door open. I was behind him, but can’t remember who else was there. I think Topper fell from his drum kit, and went straight into the toilet. You could hear the toilet flushing … for whatever reason. Ha ha!”

And according to Suggs in his autobiography, That Close, The Clash didn’t speak to them for another five years after that.

As for Lee, all these years on, he still seems to have the drive to get up on stage regularly, be it with the Ska Orchestra, Madness, or whoever else.

“Yeah, my last gig was on Saturday, with a band called The Silencerz who started about two years ago, doing a thing to give a bit back to local charities – a hospice and Marie Clare and the NSPCC. It was the same line-up as with the Ska Orchestra, but with my son (Daley Thompson – yes, not the decathlete gold medallist) on lead vocals, who is phenomenal, and Nick Godwin, who writes the tunes, a real doffing of the cap to the Madness sound, and he’s got those quirky lyrics. And there’s an album that’s just been released, called Better Days. Me and my son feature on that too. It’s right underground at the moment, but I thought I’d let you in on it!”

Very good of him too, judging by my first listens of a band with something of the spirit of a Next Generation Madness, their official album launch having happened at the Bull Theatre in Barnet, with the band’s Facebook page linked here and a chance to buy the album here.

Meanwhile, Lee’s still talking …

“And I won’t retire. I’m enjoying it so much with Madness. It’s all red-carpet treatment and we’ve even got carers on board now, to give us our medication when we need it! We’re wearing neck braces and leg braces, but while the other 22 and a half hours is a fucking pain, for that one and a half hours it’s sheer joy. I’m seriously enjoying it more now than ever before.”

Perhaps you just know how best to put up with each other these days. You’re no longer living in each other’s pockets.

“No. we know how to take the piss out of each other, sit back and then laugh it off.”

Finally, if a stranger came round to your house and you felt you had to explain what you’ve been doing all these years in music, of all the tracks you’ve written or co-written, which would you be most likely to proudly play for them?

“Mmmm … it would have to be ‘(The Liberty of) Norton Folgate’. The title track is just phenomenal, and it was a real enjoyable experience. It’s something I wished I’d done years ago. It’s that sort of Pink Floyd-y thing – you sit back, light up a jazz woodbine, have a glass of wine, listen to that and it just takes you into different dimensions. More of that, I think … but I don’t know, sometimes you can’t repeat history.”

For a WriteWyattUK review of Suggs’ What a King Cnut show from March 2018, head here. There’s also a Madness appreciation on these pages from January 2013, found via this link, and another on Ian Dury (and The Blockheads) from October 2014 linked here.

Further details of screenings of One Man’s Madness can be found via an official Facebook page. You can also visit Lee’s Pledge Music page. To keep up to date with the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra, you can head to their website. And for all the latest from Madness, including this summer’s dates, try here

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Where the Solid Gold Easy Action is – in conversation with Gordon Gibson

Vinyl Reckoning: Owner of Action Records, Gordon Gibson. (Photo: Neil Cross / Lancashire Post)

Getting on for four decades after he sold his first vinyl, I’m pleased to say that Gordon Gibson shows no sign of wanting to step away from Action Records in Preston.

The much-revered Gordon, originally from Stranraer, has been in charge of the celebrated Lancashire store since first picking up the keys in the early ‘80s, having got his grounding working market stalls in not so far off Blackpool. And this year’s itinerary alone proves Action Records remains at the cultural heart of his adopted city, with a number of impressive promotions lined up.

Coming soon, there’s an in-store signing of a new album by The Alarm involving front-man Mike Peters (July 5th), while punk legends The Damned put in an appearance in April, as did the up’n’coming Cabbage in March and The Wombats in February, while Gordon co-arranged a successful event at the nearby Blitz nightspot in May, co-arranged with Blitz’s Peter Alexander, featuring happening outfit Blossoms.

He also gave me brief details of two more events in the pipeline, the first with up-and-coming group The Blinders (date not yet revealed), while another was being finalised with Lancaster band Massive Wagons (August 16th), again at Blitz. And in the past, there have been promotions involving the likes of Bastille, Dirty Pretty Things, The Magic Numbers, Muse, Reverend & The Makers, The Rifles, Starsailor’s James Walsh, We Are Scientists, Willy Mason, and many more.

While Gordon’s in his mid-60s now, he’s clearly still got the hunger, his shop even the subject of a revealing short documentary back in 2015, ‘Chased by Nuns’ (with a YouTube trailer link here).

“Oh yeah. I tell you, if you didn’t have some sort of passion, you wouldn’t do it. You really have to be into it. There’s that many ups and downs, but you just put up with all that. And these gigs and in-store things are just great.”

I always get the feeling that the wider media are only really interested when it comes to Record Store Day. Then they all disappear for a while.

“You’ve just got to accept that, but we’re always working on something, and nowadays you obviously needed this social media thing. The bottom line is that you’ve always got to have something to say. If you just sit around and don’t do anything, you won’t have anything to say. Plus, you might just have some nice new releases coming in, especially now with the vinyl again. It’s encouraging the record companies to at least stay with the physical, as opposed to that download-only way of working, which happens a lot with new singles. Of course, these days when we’re told there’s a new single out, chances are that it won’t be what we see as a new single. It’s more likely a download picked up off an album. But they’ll call it a single, which is rather annoying.”

Action Records has served as an influential label in its time too, revered in indie circles over the years via releases from the likes of The Boo Radleys, Fi-Lo Radio, Preston’s own  Big Red Bus and Dandelion Adventure, plus the late Mark E. Smith and his legendary band The Fall. And most recently there was The Common Cold, featuring Dandelion Adventure’s Marcus Parnell and Ajay Saggar plus former Cornershop drummer Dave Chambers, a past Action Records employee, putting out their album, Shut Up! Yo Liberals!

“Well yeah. The lads were just going to do it themselves, but they just needed that bit of help with the distribution and all that. So I kind of jumped on board with that. And that turned out really well for them.”

And there’s been that real shift in recent years, not just with the re-emergence of vinyl sales and interest, but also with the merchandise stand at live gigs becoming more and more important to bands trying to make a living from their craft.

“Oh yeah. You really have to think about that. If you have a band, I always tell everybody – even if it’s just a young artist playing a social acoustic gig – it’s better if he’s got even a little CD there. That’s the time when you’re going to get people willing to pick something up. Then it’s in the memory. If you’re doing gigs, you should try and have something you can sell. And if you’re more established, you need to be doing all the merch – t-shirts and all sorts, as we’ve done in the past with bands like The Fall.”

How long was Action Records a market stall before Gordon – whose past staff have also included Nick Brown of The Membranes and Kentish Town’s Intoxica Records fame –  moved to Preston?

“I think it was a couple of years. Maybe two to three years in Blackpool. I did have another little shop in the middle of Blackpool for a bit. My brother ran it for us a little while, near where the bus station used to be.”

That’s Andy Gibson, who also featured with post-punk outfit The Genocides, whose raw debut single ‘Is That Alright?’ was the first released on Gordon’s label, their two-track slice of vinyl including a run through The Heartbreakers’ ‘Born to Lose’. Anything become of them from there?

“Well, at the time, it was that style of music between punk and moving away towards hardcore punk, but they were more like Johnny Thunders.”

As shown by that cover version. It sounds great too. You captured a real energy on that recording.

“Oh yeah. They did another 7”, but then it kind of petered out. And Andy was working for me anyway.”

Anyway, sorry Gordon. Where were we?

“Back in Blackpool, there was a market on Bond Street, called Charisma. An Indian guy had this small indoor market, around six to eight stalls. We were right at the front, then did another one. The first year we were just coming off South Shore Pier. Then we moved down Bond Street, where we were open all year, not just for the summer.”

It was in 1981 that Gordon moved his business to its current Church Street base, to a shop the city’s older generation may recall was once home to Preston North End and Scotland right-back Willie Cunningham’s sports shop. And over time, Action Records expanded and took over more space. But how did he get involved in the music industry in the first place?

“I kept getting made redundant! I’d done an awful lot of jobs. I worked in Preston docks when it was still a dock. My yard was where it’s now McDonald’s, with containers coming in for wagons. I was in the Merchant Navy when I was 16.”

His link with Preston came after hitching a lift in 1971 with Lancashire couple Alan and Sheila Cookson to the Lincoln Folk Festival, with James Taylor, The Byrds, Buffy St Marie, Sandy Denny and Tim Hardin among the headliners that year.

“I always think there are some things in life where just one decision can straight away change your whole life. I suppose after being made redundant all those times, you decide, ‘You know what? I’m going to try and see if I can set something up with records’.

“I had a big record collection and started buying as well as selling. And when I got that lift to Lincoln, that couple, Alan and Sheila, they picked me up and … I mean, you can’t realise how your whole life from that point changes. It’s amazing. With that lift, I was totally away on a different angle.”

And all because of a personal message received live on air via legendary DJ Whispering Bob Harris, I understand.

“Yes, I went back to Stranraer after the festival. Do you know, I think I might even have been 19 or 20 actually, because I was still living up there. Alan and Sheila dropped me off at Preston and I hitched back. Then, a few days later, Bob Harris read out that they were trying to contact me, even giving out a phone number. I don’t think they would do that today!”

These days, Gordon’s a father of three, ‘not as if they’re as mad into music as me, I’m afraid. It’s kind of different with people today.’ That said, he tells me one of his sons helps with Action Records’ website.

“But I work a ridiculous amount of hours. Maybe it’s best to get a normal job where you get holidays and everything like that.”

You’re also one of the few people who properly got to know the late Mark E. Smith of The Fall, getting beyond the public persona maybe.

“Well, we worked together for about 15 years. There is that public persona, although he probably was like that most of the time. But we dealt with that, kept it as easy business, and we got on fine. I always think, don’t try and get too close to people. That’s where you go wrong. Talk when you need to talk, ask what you need to do, discuss things. If we don’t agree on something, well. There were plenty of disagreements over the years, but in the end things always worked out.”

So what was the first record you bought?

“The Beatles’ ‘Twist and Shout’ EP. I’ve still got a copy, stuck on a shelf somewhere.”

Asked about his most influential early gigs, Gordon recalled a T. Rex show, ‘the first time they went electric’, at Green’s Playhouse, Glasgow, in October 1971, incidentally on the same tour that last week’s writewyattuk interviewee JC Carroll mentioned.

“That was a big memory for me. And Bob Harris actually DJ’d on that tour. In them days, bands would take DJs out, playing records between sets. They were stars too.”

Any plans to retire from the day-job sometime soon?

“What would I do? People say that, but I’m so busy doing things.”

I’m guessing you’ll say you haven’t got time to retire.

“I haven’t, literally. Sometimes it’s not so good, but bloody hell, it’s not boring!”

And does heading to the office involve a longer commute these days?

“No, I live in Bamber Bridge. Even when working in Blackpool I had to travel from Preston every day.”

So it made perfect sense to find a shop here.

“Oh yeah, especially when you didn’t take enough to pay the bus fare some days!”

Action Stations: Gordon Gibson checks his rising stock at his Church Street HQ (Photo: Neil Cross / Lancashire Post)

For all the latest from Action Records, including in-store and gig promotions, head to their website. You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.   

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Going North, South, East and West with The Members – in conversation with JC Carroll

Stage Presence: JC Carroll and The Members are still out there and remain relevant, four decades after the band’s big break

You could say Jean-Marie Carroll’s musical education started in November 1970, when he caught T. Rex live at Guildford Civic Hall. Within a week, Marc Bolan and Mickey Finn had their first top-10 hit with ‘Ride a White Swan’, and the die was cast for a career in rock’n’roll for a 14-year-old soon better known as JC.

“They’d just gone electric. That was a really interesting show. At the same venue I later saw David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust show (May ’73). Those two had a big influence. I really wanted to do stuff like that.”

After playing in various school bands, a chance meeting at The Three Mariners in Bagshot, three miles from home, with fellow future new wave star Graham Parker led to a two-track bedroom demo.

But while GP went on to the pub-rock circuit and started out on the road to international success, JC was initially consigned to working as a bank clerk and writing songs on a battered acoustic guitar in his North West London bedsit.

That proved to be the rite of passage needed though, Kilburn-based punk JC soon joining forces with a group of mates from his hometown, Camberley, and finding success.

The Members, led by Liverpool University graduate Nick Lightowlers, aka Nicky Tesco, went on to find fame with hits like ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’ (UK, No.12), ‘Working Girl’ (US, No.35) and ‘Radio’ (Australia, No.5), their take on the frustrations of suburban life soon resonating around the world, even with Bruce Springsteen.

“He came to see us in America in 1981. We were playing the Stone Pony, Asbury Park. Someone said, ‘Bruce is here. Mind if he comes backstage after the show?’ He loved The Members, we had a great chat, and he said, ‘When I come to England, I’ll invite you to our show.’ We thought, ‘Yeah, of course’. But then the invitation came.

“We sat backstage – about the size of a football pitch – with everybody who was anybody in London. Then we got a call to the Holy of Holies. He was a great guy, really identified with us, and we got to talk to him about cars and girls.”

JC’s autobiographical take on bedsit life, ‘Solitary Confinement’, set the ball rolling, released by Stiff Records in May 1978. How was their brief working relationship with that esteemed independent label?

“It was really good. We went to see Dave Robinson and he asked if we wanted to put a record out, and we said yes. They had this very small office in West London, and ‘Solitary Confinement’ became a cult record, and that really helped. It was record of the week in NME and all that, and really helped launch the band.

“It was completely autobiographic. I was living in a bedsit in Kilburn, with the rest of the band in Camberley at the time. We still play that, of course, and it’s the second most-requested song we do.”

A deal with Virgin followed, and while the band story seemed to end in 1983 after three LPs, a 2007 reunion proved to be the start of a further adventure, the more recent material as critically-revered as the old.

‘The Sound of the Suburbs’, released in 1979, quickly sold 250,000 copies and went on to feature on many compilations, that year’s debut LP At the Chelsea Nightclub was recently recognised by Record Collector as one of the top 20 punk albums ever made, and financial scandals in later years led to a dusting down of fourth single ‘Offshore Banking Business’, a band with true live pedigree proving just as adept with politically-charged white reggae, and remaining as innovative and relevant today.

You can check the latest line-up out for yourselves (by yourself, on your own, by yourself, on your own … or with friends) at Blackpool’s Rebellion punk festival in early August, The Members playing Friday night, with JC delivering a solo set the previous day. And for this Lancashire-based fan, there are dates in Barnoldswick and Manchester in November too, 62-year-old JC seemingly no closer to retirement.

His career’s not just about The Members and his solo work either. He co-ran – with his first wife, fashion designer Sophy Lynn – a successful boutique, The Dispensary, in Notting Hill Gate from the late ‘80s onwards, his empire growing to four shops, becoming a gathering place for the early acid house scene, customers including Kylie Minogue, their tee-shirts and tailored clothing proving a hit.

These days, the dad-of-two is back in Surrey’s suburban heartland though, remarried – to Sheila – and also working in films and TV. What’s more, he’s working on a memoir of his busy career. So how’s the book, Same Old Boring Sunday Morning, going.

“It’s going really well. It should be finished soon, although I might be a bit late. I’m really busy, doing gigs most weekends and going to Germany to get a platinum record this Sunday. A band there, Die Toten Hosen, covered ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’ on an album that’s gone platinum. They did a whole album of their favourite punk songs, called Learning English, Lesson 2.”

Incidentally, past writewyattuk interviewees Damian O’Neill, Steve DiggleEugene Reynolds (with fellow Rezillos star Fay Fife) and Hugh Cornwell, along with Bob Geldof, Jake Burns, Jello Biafra, Tony James and Edward Tudor-Pole, are among the others involved. And I seem to recall, I put it to JC, John Peel was a Die Toten Hosen fan … and of your band.

“Yes, he was a huge fan of The Members, and we did a few sessions for him (two in 1979 and one in 1981). And I was very blessed to get the chance to sit in on his programme once. I bumped into his producer, Chris Lycett, in a pub in Maida Vale, and we got in a cab and went all the way into the West End. And we never talked about music, only football, talking about Kenny Dalglish and teasing me about Chelsea! Myself and (Members bass player) Chris Payne are Chelsea supporters, and would stand in the Shed End when it was all concrete and corrugated iron in the ‘70s.”

I caught up with JC just a couple of days after he played my hometown, Guildford, having helped put on a two-band show, The Members  appearing with fellow scene veterans Eddie and the Hot Rods at the Holroyd Arms. How did that go?

“That was fantastic, and more or less sold out. A very good evening, and the venue’s really getting on the map now. It’s a really good place.”

JC lives in West Byfleet these days, 10 miles from Guildford, two miles from The Jam’s old Sheerwater base, and 13 miles from his own roots in the place with which he’ll forever be associated, Camberley. What’s more, he’s about to play his first gig in that town since 1979, playing an afternoon solo show at a town carnival. Am I right in thinking that booking had something to do with past writewyattuk interviewee, Green Man Festival creator, Buzz Club founder and accomplished singer-songwriter Jo Bartlett?

“Yes, I went to school with her big sister. Jo also grew up in Camberley, and was in a band with my younger brother for a while.”

That’ll be Rudi Carroll, ex-Bluetrain, a band I interviewed in Frimley Green in the late ’80s for my Captains Log fanzine. Not as if I ever recognised a link. Jo, these days also busy with the wondrous Kodiak Island, later told me the Bartletts and Carrolls both had six children and all went to school together. Maybe I should have asked if fellow Camberley luminaries Luke and Matt Goss were distant cousins.

Instead, JC and I briefly got on on to the Buzz Club, seeing as I’d seen the first show at The Agincourt, Camberley, in 1985, featuring That Petrol Emotion and The Mighty Lemon Drops. Some bill. And those next few years, at its West End Centre base, Aldershot, it became an essential out-of-town location for anyone interested in a happening indie scene (there’s a 2014 writewyattuk interview with Jo here, and she has her own informative, entertaining blog here). And as JC put it, “That was a really important venue at the time.”

Going back to Eddie and the Hot Rods, did you know them in the early years?

“We played with them in the ’70s, touring with them in 1979, as support, playing Guildford Civic with them early that year. And recently, we’ve done quite a few shows with them.”

And they’re still built around original front-man Barrie Masters.

“Yes, Barrie’s still there, although he’s set to retire, with just one more show next year, I believe. So this is a sort of farewell tour. That’s why I organised this show in Guildford. And he’s still brilliant. The show they did on Saturday was fantastic.”

Their Summer ’77 top-10 hit, ‘Do Anything You Wanna Do’ (incidentally featured on Die Toten Hosen’s Learning English, Lesson 1, in 1991), is one of those songs that inspired so many. Only at the weekend, a Belfast listener told Tom Robinson on his BBC 6 Music show how important that was to him in those troubled times.

“Some people are very lucky they have songs that prove to be the zeitgeist and the sign of the times, and people can really identify with as a song of their youth and all that. ‘Do Anything You Wanna Do’ is one of those songs and was produced by the same man who produced ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’ – Steve Lillywhite, originally from Egham, Surrey.”

More about Steve – whose brother Adrian played drums for The Members – and his part in the story to come, but first, more about JC’s days since his band’s first coming. I don’t want to preempt too much of his book, but I’ll talk a bit more about his work as a composer, film and TV work, including successful projects with esteemed film/ documentary maker Julien Temple, and even accordian input on 1994’s Don Juan DeMarco, starring Marlon Brando, Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway, and 1996’s Loch Ness, starring Ted Danson, Joely Richardson and Ian Holm.

There’s also 2011’s The Golborne Variations, involving various other Members personnel, his own co-written/directed production, described as ‘an award-winning prog-rock opera about the sounds, sights and people of a road in North Kensington – Golborne Road.’ And JC’s imdb profile lists involvement with Julien on recent release Suggs: My Life Story, 2012’s London: The Modern Babylon, and two of my favourite music documentaries, 2007’s Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten and 2009 Dr Feelgood biopic Oil City Confidential.

Talking of Joe, The Clash were a big influence on The Members, weren’t they?

“Yeah, we loved The Clash, and Joe was a very nice guy. I liked him a lot, and we got on very well. He was a special guy and I got to play with him a couple of times, including his birthday party just before he died. I went to his funeral. He was a really special man, very charismatic, people really loved him, and he was a natural leader and fantastic guy.

“He had a long period where he didn’t really do very much and was fed up with everything, spending about two years in a pub in Portobello Road, across the road from where I lived. I used to practise with him, and he was quite disillusioned then. But he came back, and it was great.”

I loved his later Mescaleros period. Such a sad loss that he went when he did.

“Yes, and he had another band called the Latino Rockabilly War. I did three or four shows with him then in London, with most of his band American, flying in from LA. Yeah, he did lots of interesting things, including film work with (Damned drummer and past Members contributor) Rat Scabies, and some acting. He was a complex person. I understand there’s a new retrospective coming out soon of his work, including a few loose ends.”

JC got to know fellow Clash players Mick Jones and Paul Simonon as neighbours too, having been based in the same area for 25 years. But let’s go back now to his own band, put together in the wake of that initial punk explosion, some 30 miles south-west of the Westway. When was the first time JC became aware of The Members?

“I was asked to join in 1977. Nick started the band in Camberley with a guitarist called Gary Baker. They did a couple of gigs before I joined, my first with them supporting the UK Subs in Croydon, a place called the Red Deer.”

Nick initially formed the band through an invited audition at a recording studio in Tooley Street, south of the river, between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. the year before, also with Steve Morley on bass and Steve Maycock (then Clive Parker) on drums. Soon though came what was seen as the classic 1978/83 line-up, Nick (vocals) and JC (guitar) joined by Nigel Bennett (lead guitar), Chris Payne (bass) and Adrian Lillywhite (drums). Am I right in saying fellow survivor Chris predated you in the band?

“No, he joined just after, probably about a month and a half later. But the band’s had its own life in the past 10 years or so, and we’ve been together longer this second time around than the first time around. I’d say we do some 30 or 40 gigs a year now.”

Of course, Nick Tesco deserves an interview all to himself. Another fascinating bloke, with lots of tales to tell, some caught by Keef Trouble for Jack Slipper Videos in 2010, with a link  to part one here. He’s not involved these days, having struggled with rheumatoid arthritis and associated problems, despite being part of the band’s initial reunion, the classic five-piece getting the ball rolling again with a show in 2007 at the Inn on the Green, near JC’s old West London patch in Ladbroke Grove.

“We’ve had some changes in the last few years, and even Chris took a tour off. I played bass when we toured America. We also had the original guitarist, Nigel, before he went back to the Vibrators, so the line-up has changed … but I’m still there.”

JC was on board early enough to play seminal punk venues like the Red Cow and the Nashville Rooms, and as I suggested to him, early tracks like Handling the Big Jets suggest to me an underlying love of US garage bands.

“Yeah, we liked surf music and liked The Shadows and stuff like that. So there’s a mixture of punk and that.”

I hear Dick Dale and The Ventures in there too.

“Yeah, we liked all that. And in the old days we always played an instrumental before Nick came on. And we still do that today.”

As is the case on the wonderful first album, At the Chelsea Nightclub. At this point, I tell JC that while I raved about The Undertones’ live presence, a couple of mates often told me I missed a trick in not seeing The Members on stage first time around.

“We were very good live … still are … and had a lot of energy. But there wasn’t really anywhere to play around Camberley, so we hardly did any gigs at all round there. Surrey was poorly served. They had big gigs but nothing medium-sized, and until things like the Buzz Club came along there were no real places for people to play. So we would find that in 1979 we’d be touring England and playing a lot in the Midlands, but not down in Surrey.”

How important was that suburban identity to you?

“Well, let me explain to you … in the beginning the punk rock scene was quite small. And quite cliquey. There was a small group of people in London and another in Manchester, scenes of around 200 or 300 people. Then in 1978, more people became interested.

“When we started playing the Red Cow and places like that, we had groups of young men and women coming up to see us from places like Hampton and Staines and all those satellite towns, and they weren’t like that inner London clique. That was quite exciting, and we’d realise there was a whole army out there who were really ready and interested in punk rock, and they didn’t really have any songs written about them.

“That was one of the reasons I wrote ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’, to speak to those people. And we were very lucky that it came out at a time when a lot of people around the country were getting interested in punk, and it kind of spoke to them. Before then, it was just tough inner-city kids leaning against a brick wall, but we spoke about those satellite towns and living on the edges. We identified more with the suburban rather than the metropolitan.”

Even within London’s reach, it’s a similar tale, I suggested. Take for example The Kinks, who were just as much about outlying areas like Muswell Hill as Waterloo.

“Yes, as in The Village Green Preservation Society, Cricklewood, and all that. They were also just a fantastic inspiration in that they sang about ordinary people. And that mundanity made perfect sense to us.”

And while The Jam seemed to gravitate towards London too, again there was a mighty suburban influence there.

“Yes, and they did write about Woking, such as on ‘A Town Called Malice’.”

Speaking of The Jam, I see founder member Steve Brookes played on 2016’s One Law.

“Yeah, he did one track with me, a fantastic song, ‘Incident at Surbiton’. I saw him singing in a little pub, and people weren’t really paying attention to him. I told him I was working on a movie and asked if he wanted to help out. He did, and I then told him I had this song that was half-finished and asked him to add a vocal, and he was fantastic. He’s a fantastic singer. Better than Paul Weller. He’s got a great voice, a very malleable voice.”

Back to the book and Pledge Music campaign, crowd-funding his Same Old Boring Sunday Morning autobiography and a fourth solo LP, Painting in the Sky, the fund already having reached its target. While I’ve packed a fair bit into this feature, I’ve only really scraped the surface, and you’ll have to fork out on the book to find out more, JC’s memoir also set to include tales of Top of the Pops days, world travels, recollection of dates with Devo and the Ramones, party days, and JC’s return from a wild time in the US with $20 in his pocket in 1983, attempting to re-establish himself while taking on temping jobs, until helping launch that successful fashion company at the height of acid house.

Then there was his folk rebirth, complete with accordian, a chance meeting with a top film composer that led to a break into that world, playing with punk legends, celebrity alternative pantomime in West London, and the 50th birthday party that inspired The Members’ rebirth, the band soon back up and running and touring all over the UK, Europe, the US, Australia and New Zealand, this time without road-crew, management, or a safety net. As he puts it, it’s a story about ‘a rock’n’roll survivor, it’s got bromance, camaraderie and bitchiness, its often hilarious, sometimes sad, but never boring.’

Although he was in Kilburn when he hooked up with The Members, JC’s roots were definitely back in Camberley.

“I was born at the Frimley (Park) maternity hospital in 1956. My father worked at Blackbushe Airport, as did my mother, and they met there. When I was one, they bought a house in nearby Lightwater and I lived there until I was 18, moving to London when I left school and got a job. I was living in a bedsit in Kilburn and working as a bank clerk.”

And is that where punk rock grabbed you?

“Yeah, I got to go to the Roxy and see the Ramones, Talking Heads, all that, and later got to play with people like Glen Matlock, Dee Dee Ramone, Johnny Thunders and Rat Scabies, who we had as a drummer for three years. We had some very interesting stories from him. He’s a great raconteur and a very interesting man.”

Thinking of that Roxy link, Don Letts’ involvement with the punk scene via that Covent Garden club is well documented, with links between punk and reggae from the start. And there was a strong reggae association with The Members’ sound.

“Well, they didn’t play punk at the Roxy because there weren’t any punk records at the time, but Nick Tesco and I loved reggae and so we always had this strange mixture of reggae and punk and of fast and slow songs, at a time when not many other bands did that.”

We mentioned two of your early hits, and ‘Offshore Banking Business’ also proved to have staying power.

“Yes, with every fresh financial scandal that gets dug out, and it’s done very well for us, becoming something of a signature tune. It’s great to have those songs and play new songs as well. I always try to incorporate some of my new songs into the show, especially the solo show, trying to keep it fresh as an artist. You have to play the favourites, but there’s no harm in introducing others, and some of the newer material has turned into live favourites.”

Anyone still know you as Jean-Marie?

“Erm … not really, though my mother calls me that. It wasn’t that easy at school, having girls’ names and going to an all-boys school (Salesian College, Chertsey). A lot of people called me Jean, and I still get that at the doctor’s or the dentist’s.”

I’m guessing there’s a French link, as with Stranglers bass player Jean-Jacques Burnel.

“Yes, my father’s French, while my mother’s from Ireland.”

Do you remember clearly the day you signed to Virgin?

“I do remember a little about it. I think we signed around November 1978, gave up our jobs, and had quite a successful record then went around the world. When we were on tour they signed lots of other bands, like The Skids and The Ruts, and by the time we returned punk was no longer in fashion, while 2 Tone was. We felt like we were slightly anachronistic at the time. So it’s really strange how now it all seems to be bigger than it ever was in certain quarters, with these big festivals. I went to see The Skids the other night and they do these huge shows, while the Ruts DC are still going too.”

And like The Skids, The Stranglers, The Vapors and many more of those bands, you’re clearly not just content to live off your past.

“Yes, and there are lots of things to write about. We live in interesting times, and that’s what being in a band like The Members is about. You’ve got to write about the times you live in.”

Was Adrian’s brother, Steve Lillywhite, key to your decision to sign for Virgin?

“Well, basically, we got him into Virgin. He was only just qualified as a producer. He’d only co-produced the Hot Rods’ record before Sound of the Suburbs, so hadn’t had a lot of success at that point. After working with us there, he got other gigs with them, like XTC. We gave him a step up the ladder really.”

How do you see At The Chelsea Nightclub today?

“It was a very good record, and we didn’t really do very much to it. We just played it like we played live. It wasn’t over-produced.”

It certainly has that live, fresh feel.

“Steve put loads of little tricks on the single version of ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’, like acoustic guitars and sound effects, and that was a fantastically-produced record. But subsequently, whenever it was licensed, for greatest hits albums and so on, they used the album version, which was inferior. For many years you couldn’t get the single version. But last year I managed to license it back from Universal, who currently own it, and put out this new Greatest Hits compilation, spanning our long career, and it’s gone down really well, with some very good reviews. And it’s made me very happy that it said the new material was as strong as the old.”

While the follow-up, 1980’s The Choice is Yours failed to have the same impact, I grew to love – and still do – the final album first time around, Going West. What I hadn’t realised until fairly recently was that it had a US release first. And there’s always been that strong interest in the band in America.

“Yes, it was called Uprhythm Downbeat in America, and the album was produced by Martin Rushent, who at the time had a worldwide No.1 with The Human League’s Dare. As a result, they gave him his own label and told him he could sign whoever he wanted, and he promptly signed The Members and Pete Shelley. We had to make the record the same way he made his Human League record, brick-by-brick, using drum machines and electronic loops.”

I had that album on vinyl, on the Albion label, and it always seemed to be a really loud record.

“It was probably cut very loud and produced very loud. Martin pressed everything so everything sounded really loud.

“But there are two versions of ‘Working Girl’, one which we did earlier with Steve Lillywhite and one by Martin Rushent, which was a big hit for us in America. And that’s what we’re known for out there. There was also a big disco song called ‘Radio’, which was …”

… A big hit in Australia, yeah?

“Yes, and also about five years ago two DJs remixed it and re-cut it up, having a huge dance hit with it, renaming it ‘Radio Stereo’.”

Did you get to tour in Australia as well?

“Yeah, we did, in 1979, as soon as we had a hit here, our managers sent us to America and Australia and New Zealand. And we went back three years ago and had a fantastic tour there. And as well as 2014 we spent a lot of time in America in the ’80s, doing loads of touring. So yes, we keep on touring around the world.”

Am I right in thinking someone used it as a jingle on Radio 1 back in the day, possibly Kid Jensen?

“Yes, we did station idents for a lot of people, including Kid Jensen. We did about 10.”

Obviously, you couldn’t dream of replicating the success you had in those days. The record sales just aren’t there now to the same level. But if you had the chance to steer new fans back to the more recent albums in your second coming, where should they start?

“I’d pick one of the most recent ones, because they’re the ones I’ve got on the merch stand! There’s One Law (2016) and Ingrrland (2012) for a start. You can hear them online. We cart them around and still sell them at gigs. That’s what you do today.

“We’re also recording new material at the moment, for an American label called Cleopatra, so there’s a new album in the pipeline, which is exciting. And we’re very lucky to still be working.”

Suburban Sound: The Members, 2018 style, a long way from Camberley, with JC out front.

For more details of JC’s book project, head to his Pledge Music link. He also has his own website.

2018 dates: Lewes Con Club (with Johnny Moped), July 16; Camberley International Festival (solo), June 23; Redhill Ska B Q, July 13; Guildford Suburbs (solo), July 14; Reading Readipop (with Dawn Penn, Don Letts), July 15; Cardiff The Globe (with Vice Squad), July 20; Islington Hope & Anchor (solo/book launch), July 26; Blackpool Rebellion Acoustic Stage (solo), August 2; Blackpool Rebellion Opera House, August 3; East Sussex Byline Fest, August 28; Bedford Squires, September 1; Swindon Victoria (with Charred Hearts), September 22; Rotherham Cutlers Arms, September 29; Stoke-on-Trent Brown Jugg, September 30; Skegness Great British Alternative Festival, October 7; Barnoldswick Music and Arts Centre, November 8; Glasgow Ivory Black’s, November 9; Edinburgh Bannerman’s, November 10; Balcombe Club (solo), November 24; Manchester Star & Garter, November 25; Norwich Waterfront (with UK Subs), December 7; London 100 Club, December 22. For more details, and the latest from The Members, head here. You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Why Chas & Dave Mustn’t Grumble – in conversation with Dave Peacock

 

Pier Pressure: Chas & Dave, having taken their own advice to get themselves down to Margate

When Dave Peacock lost his wife Sue to cancer in 2009, it seemed to mark the end of the Chas & Dave story, ending their professional partnership after 34 years. But a year later the pair announced a tour for 2011, and have carried on ever since. What’s more, Dave reckons they’re playing better than ever now.

“I think that’s true. You never stop learning in music, and we like to think we can play a fair bit. And I think we are getting better.”

Dave’s lived just outside Hertford for the past 36 years, having first moved out of the capital in his late 20s. He’s 73 now, with his latest birthday just a fortnight ago. What did he do to celebrate?

“I went around Chas’ place and dug his allotment over. We live about 14 miles apart. He’s a very keen gardener and I give him a hand.”

Do you feel your age at times?

“No, I feel alright. Music keeps you young, I think, as long as you keep playing. I love to play, and I play every day.”

While performing as Chas & Dave from the start, true fans were always aware of a third bandmate, with Mick Burt on drums from their mid-‘70s beginnings through to retirement in 2009. And while Mick died in 2014, it’s now Chas’ son Nic ‘giving it some stick’, himself an established part of this celebrated ‘rockney’ combo.

“Nic’s always been the baby, being Chas’ boy, but grew up with music all around him, and he’s a multi-instrumentalist – a great drummer, but also a good guitar and bass player. It’s lovely to have him on board with us. He’s doing a great job. Mickey Burt was his idol when he was growing up. He was familiar with Mick’s style, and it sort of rubbed off on him.”

This month, Chas & Dave’s sporadic All Seasons tour continues with a visit to Blackburn King George’s Hall (Saturday, June 23rd, 0844 847 1664), while a scheduled trip to the Liverpool Empire has been put back to September after Chas recently succumbed to flu. Out of interest, when did they first perform in the North West?

“Years and years ago, I was in a country’n’western band that used to run around in the North, backing Slim Whitman and all them people, right up to Scotland.

“Then, when me and Chas got together, they were saying, ‘Ah, they won’t understand you up North,’ which was an absolute load of twaddle. We’ve got loads and loads of fans up north, like in Leeds, Newcastle, and especially Glasgow. It’s a myth. Even people in the business ask, ‘Do they understand you, north of Watford?’ Total nonsense. And we were one of the first to start singing in our own accents.”

That proved to be a master-stroke. Was that decision a penny-dropping moment for you?

“It was really. I’d always done London songs in a set, whatever band I happened to be in. But Chas was in Heads, Hands & Feet (also featuring revered guitarist Albert Lee), and when they toured the States, he said he felt a fraud, singing in a false American accent. But you can turn it around, if you work at it, making it fit your own accent, and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve kept our rock’n’roll, sort of boogie-woogie feel, but sing it in our own way.”

On the back of a successful Spring visit to a prestigious venue in their home city, they have a few more live outings this year, including Autumn visits to Wolverhampton Civic Hall (October 26th) and Leicester’s De Montfort Hall (October 28th), before an end-of-year festive visit north of the border, playing Glasgow Barrowlands (December 15th) and Edinburgh’s Usher Hall ((December 16th). And while they’re aren’t so many dates in the diary these days, they’re cherishing them all and – getting on for eight years since their return – there’s clearly still lots of love out there for Chas & Dave.

“Yeah, when we did the Royal Albert Hall recently, we set the place alight. A woman who’s worked there 30-odd years said she’d never seen a crowd behave like it. We haven’t had a hit record for whenever, but it’s a great thing to be able to please that amount of people and have fun while you’re doing it.

“We still enjoy what we do, do all our hits, and we’re not fed up with them. We love doing ‘Ain’t No Pleasing You’, ‘Rabbit’, ‘The Sideboard Song’, and all those. We always say they’re our babies. We love ‘em.”

Bunny Jabber: Chas & Dave with friends. See what they did there?

For me, Chas & Dave are every bit a treasured export as any of the more celebrated artists who have written about the capital in the post-war years, part of a clique of bands from London who have taken on that music hall tradition and done it their own way, along with the likes of The Kinks, Ian Dury, Madness, and Squeeze.

“Well, music hall’s been a big influence. Harry Champion in particular, who sang a load of well-known songs. We take some of those influences and roll ‘em all up into one with our ‘50s rock’n’roll stuff as well.”

I mentioned Ian Dury, and can’t help but think of him when I see that you were originally from the Ponders End area of Enfield, North London. I realise there was ‘Ponders End Allotments Club’ on your debut LP, One Fing ‘n’ Annuver, but more than 20 years later there’s Ian’s line in ‘Mash it Up, Harry’, off his last album, Mr Love Pants, his character apparently liking ‘a bit of Wembley up his Ponders End.’

“I know! I was surprised he’d even heard of Ponders End. I come from a place called Spike Island in Ponders End, an infamous place. And I’ve found out since there’s one in Manchester too …”

Indeed – where The Stone Roses famously played at the height of their powers. So was Ponders End your old manor?

“Yeah, definitely. A very lovely place to live. I loved it. I didn’t want to move away from there. There were very old terraced houses, but we were also surrounded by fields and horses, and everything. It was great, with a lot of freedom in them days.”

I mentioned several other London acts. Who for you best characterises the best of London?

“I don’t really know. Lots of different ones. You mentioned The Kinks, and they had an album out called Muswell Hillbillies. There’s a song on there called ‘Holiday’ that I really like, and a couple of others too. But no one seems to know them. They keep going for ‘You Really Got Me’, and all them sort of songs. The title track’s a good song as well. Ray Davies came up with some good tunes, but we’re not really influenced by them though. We mainly use American influences … but in our own accent.”

Guitar Man: Dave Peacock gives it some strings in the studio

‘Ain’t No Pleasing You’ proved your worth as songwriters, but that’s often lost on the wider public, who arguably see you as a mere cockney ‘knees-up’ outfit, maybe more in the guise of that Two Ronnies parody.

“You’re dead right, Malcolm. You got it in one there. There is an element of that, but it’s not all like ‘down-the-old-pub’. People who haven’t seen us think that’s what it is. But it’s not. In Record Collector last week there was an article which said, ‘‘Ain’t No Pleasing You’ is the best song never written or recorded by Fats Domino’. And we take that as a real compliment. We love Fats Domino.”

And now you say that, I can properly hear the influence of tracks like ‘Blueberry Hill’, ‘Ain’t That a Shame’ and ‘Blue Monday’ in that track. I could hear Antoine Dominique tackling that fine number.

Of course, we know you chiefly for bass and vocals, but you’re also a dab hand on other instruments, not least piano …

“Well, I can play a little boogie-woogie. I saw an interview, years and years ago, with John Lennon, where he said, ‘I don’t play finger-style guitar, but do something that makes people think I can.’ That’s a bit like me on the piano. If I do a little bit of boogie-woogie, they think, ‘Oh, he can play the piano.’ But that’s all I do, whereas Chas plays ragtime and is the best rock’n’roll player going.”

And for you there’s also guitar, ukulele and banjo …

“Yeah, I love banjo. I like a bit of bluegrass and clawhammer as well.”

So what did you pick up first?

“Ukelele, when I was really young. I was about six. I just couldn’t stop playing it. I had an uncle who showed me some chords. I used to get plastic ukeleles. They were 19/6d, which in old money was very dear. But if you leaned them up against the coal fire, they’d warp. You’d have to go and buy another one. It took a fair while before my Dad realised why!”

Three’s Company: Chas & Dave relax with the late, great Mickey Burt

Perhaps it’s a bit of a myth about the notion that everyone in London could join in on a ‘knees-up’ around the piano down the pub, but did you ever get that chance to shine?

“Yeah. When I was a kid in the local pub, they would put me on the table and I used to sing. When I was a little boy, I just loved music. I just couldn’t stop playing, just strumming a ukulele and singing.”

Was there anyone in the family playing professionally before you?

“No professional people. But later, when I got together with Chas, we’d have fantastic parties, because Chas’ Mum was a fabulous piano player. She knew any song going. We’d get our uncles and aunts, and her and me and him strumming away. That’s where we learned loads of them songs, because a lot of them are just passed down orally through our families. They would have been extinct if we hadn’t put them on those LPs.”

We can’t always believe what’s on Wikipedia, but is that right that really it could have been Chas & Chas?

“Chas and who?”

Chas & Chas.

“No! I never heard of that one.”

I read that you were actually christened ‘Charles Victor Peacock’.

“No! I was christened Dave. Ha! The things people say makes you laugh, don’t it. Throw that one out of the window, Malcolm!”

We’re Away: Messrs Hodges and Peacock, suited and booted, casually hot-foot it.

I will. Take note, Wikipedia. But I really enjoyed the 2012 BBC Four documentary Chas & Dave: Last Orders. That gave me a little more insight into your story, and I’m always intrigued about session players who crossed over – including the likes of Rick Wakeman, Norman Watt-Roy, and Paul Carrack. After all the work put in over the years was there a feeling that you might never get properly credited on a record?

“Well, not really. When you’re young and a little bit skint you’re glad just to get on a session. Even though, I must admit, I didn’t really enjoy doing sessions, just reading chord sheets. Me and Chas together did them together and separately. I’m on that first Eminem single and didn’t even know I was. That was a session I did with Labi Siffre, which we were both on. Nic, our drummer, told us.”

Apart from that, is there any track in particular you’re happy to tell people, ‘That’s me, there’?

“Quite a few. I did some stuff with Dave Edmunds, played banjo on ‘Warmed Over Kisses’ (1982). You sort of forget how many sessions you have done. When we were in our 20s, we were just happy to get a session and get some money.”

Just remind me. While you started working with Mr Hodges as Chas & Dave in ’75, you knew each other for some time before, didn’t you?

“Yeah, I first met Chas in the early 60s. he was like the famous bass player around our way. He was in a band called The Outlaws and they had a couple of hits. The guitar player I was with, we had a band together called The Rolling Stones. But we changed that name because we thought it was silly!

“Anyway, that guitar player went to school with Chas, and he was thumbing a lift one night. And this would happen quite often. He’d be at his girlfriend’s house until two in the morning, He’d miss the last bus home and we used to pick him up, then we’d go back to his house and play records.

“That’s when Chas and myself found out we both liked the same sort of stuff. And once we started writing songs, the whole world opened up for us … but not immediately. We thought it would catch on a lot quicker than it did. But we were packing out places and getting quite a big following, wherever we played. I suppose we just kept working. That’s the secret of it all. Get out there and play!”

Laughing Matter: Those cowsons Chas & Dave play up for the lens back in 1984

And next year it’ll be 40 years since the success of the ‘Gertcha’ single truly broke you. How did that come about?

“We were doing a session with Big Jim Sullivan, the famous session player, who played with Marty Wilde and was Tom Jones’ guitar player for a while. We were doing a session with him and I had a pair of them bib and braces overalls on, which people used to wear in the early ‘70s. He was doing a vocal down the studio, saw me through the glass in the control room, and said, ‘Look at him with his bib and braces – gertcha!’ And it became the word of the session.

“Then me and Chas were down in Wales and we wrote that song down there, just to make Jim laugh really. But then we were playing it in a pub and the advertising man came in, John Webster, and he said, ‘I really like that. I’d like to do that for an ad.’ It was quite slow when we first did it, but we had to speed it up as we only had a 30-second ad. And then it became a hit, so that TV ad was a good video for our song.”

Did you realise more or less straight away that the big time would beckon?

“Yeah, but we weren’t busting ourselves to be famous. We just wanted to earn enough to pay the bills and maybe get our music recognised. But it all sort of went off good, going into the ‘80s. We were having a few hits and doing loads of work, loads of gigs. We went to Australia a couple of times, and they liked us too, with ‘Ain’t No Pleasing You’ in their charts for about six months.”

There was that brief break in recent times, you taking that difficult decision to retire when Sue died. What changed your mind a year or so later?

“Well, it’s a funny thing when you lose someone. You don’t know how you’re gonna react. I certainly didn’t. I lost all my spirit and everything when I lost my wife. I didn’t want to leave where we were together, so I felt I won’t go on the road.

“Chas went out on his own for a while, doing solo stuff. But then Nic, our drummer, said, ‘Come on – get the bass out. Just do a couple of things with us’. And once I’d done a couple of things, through him really, I got back into it.”

So we’ve got Nic to thank for that.

“Yeah, I have really. Because if he hadn’t have pushed me …”

Pleasing You: Chas & Dave are heading our way to show us ‘A Little Bit Of Us’

Going back a bit, what do you think you learned most about this whole business from the years working with acts like Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers in the ’60s?

“Well, Chas was the main bass player with them, although I did sit in with them for a while when Roy Young became ill. But they were another band that worked a lot and did a load of things, like touring with The Beatles … with Chas involved then too.”

Were you into The Beatles at that stage.

“I liked The Beatles but was more interested in Earl Scruggs and bluegrass. I love The Beatles now, but when they came out, ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ didn’t really get me. But some of their other songs were really good.”

Finally, will 2019 be the year when your beloved Tottenham Hotspur finally see sense and re-enlist your help to get some silverware?

“Ha ha! I wonder! Of course, we’ll be hoping and praying Gareth Bale comes back to us at our new stadium. That’d be great if he would.”

I was reminding myself of your part in Spurs’ Cup successes in 1981, 1982 and 1991 (note that I didn’t mention their wasted efforts in 1987), not least the latter as it’s probably the least known of the three singles you did with them. And I have to ask – at what point in that ’91 song did you come up with that line, ‘Now they can’t get a double up the Arsenal’?

“Oh yeah, they got the ’ump about that, the Gooners did. We had to withdraw that! Ha!”

There must have been a proper schoolboy moment between you in the studio, writing that line.

“Oh yeah. We had fun doing that. We had fun doing all those football songs. I wrote the first one, ‘Ossie’s Dream’, but only because our manager was tormenting us to write a song. We’d been on a 35-date tour and I was knackered. So was Chas. He kept phoning and asking, ‘Have you got a song?’

“My sister asked me on the telephone what I was doing, and I told her they wanted us to do a song for Tottenham. She said, ‘I’ve just heard Ossie Ardiles on the radio and he says, ‘Totting-ham’. As soon as she said that, I was away! I knew that would be the hook.”

And was Osvaldo a natural in the studio when it came to his delivery?

“He was. First of all, we said, ‘How do you say ‘Tottenham, Ossie?’ He said, ‘Tot-n’m’ and we said, ‘No, we don’t want you to say it like that. We want you to say, ‘Totting-ham.’

“You know how footballers are, always mucking about, and they were all taking the mickey out of him. But there was a clock on the wall in the studio, and Chas said, ‘Just look at that clock. Take no notice of them, and when your line comes in … ‘ And he did it in one go – his first take.”

Maybe you can entice him back into the studio then. Perhaps you could even record a new version of ‘Gertcha’ with him. What do you reckon?

“Oh, I don’t know if he could ‘andle that one …”

Rockney Rebels: Chas & Dave, back out on the road in 2018

To find out how to get hold of the new LP, A Little Bit of Us – the first in more than 30 years to feature new Chas and Dave songs, along with a few live favourites – and for full tour information, head to the Chas and Dave website. You can also follow Messrs Hodge and Peacock via Facebook and Twitter.

Most of the photos in this feature have been sourced from Chas & Dave’s Facebook page. If any need proper captions, please let me know.

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Where we go from here: Talking The Vapors with Steve Smith

Stage Presence: Steve  Smith, Dave Fenton and Ed Bazalgette out front in Camden, 2016 (Photo © Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

Steve Smith lives near Brighton these days, having left his Surrey hometown in the mid-1980s, initially heading to London. He returns regularly to Guildford to pop in on his Mum though, and plays locally with new wave/punk covers band The Shakespearos.

That includes dates at Suburbs at the Holroyd, taking in a lunchtime haunt from my early working years, when I was ‘waiting for the weekend to come’. But that was in the late ’80s, and I can’t imagine how such a small pub is now a thriving music venue.

“They’ve knocked it all through. It’s a really good venue. It was quite small but there was a kitchen behind the stage and they decided to knock that out and expand. It’s about a 200-capacity, with a proper stage, PA and lights. Eddie & the Hot Rods and The Members are playing there soon.”

Good plug (that’s on June 9th, with details here) for a date I was intrigued about, although it would involve a 480-mile round-trip for me. But The Vapors, the band that ensured Steve’s long career in music, pass a little closer to my Lancashire base when they start their summer schedule with gigs in Manchester, Newcastle, then north of the border in Paisley. And I’m looking forward to that June 29th opener, my first chance to see them live since a memorable Liverpool Arts Club gig in late 2016.

“Ah, that was a while ago now. I think we’ve come on a quite a bit since then.”

While those past Vapors dates were more about influential early ‘80s LPs, New Clear Days and Magnets, I gather Dave Fenton is now busy writing, with the band working on new material.

“Dave’s had a complete writing spurt. We’re most of the way through demoing the first batch of six new songs, probably all done by the end of next week, then we’ll move on to another six. Then we’ll decide what to do – to release them as an an album, remix and produce them, or find a producer and go back in the studio. We’re in the process of that, which is really good fun and it’s keeping it moving.”

That’s great, because much as I love the original material, it must get dispiriting after a while when your band’s newest songs are still more than 30 years old. Not least when your other group’s a covers outfit.

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Whatever Happened: The Shakespearos, L to R – Nick Horton, Du Kane, Steve Smith, Dave Maskery (Photo: Alabama Arnold)

“There does come a point, but luckily when it comes to all that with The Shakespearos they’re all songs I really love – real classics and songs I’ll never tire of playing.”

Incidentally, the guitarist in The Shakespearos is Dave Maskery, a key component of the very first band I saw live, Blank Expression, who went on to support The Jam at Brixton (mid-March ’82 at the Fair Deal, I believe). I saw them a second time in late July ’81, but that first occasion at world-renowned rock’n’roll venue Wonersh Youth Club in mid-July 1980 proved a huge moment for a 12-year-old already wallowing in punk and new wave via Smash Hits (the NME would follow) and my brother’s cassette collection. Knowing two band members (Dave was my pal Jimmy’s older brother, and I’d been in a church choir with lead singer Chris Try) suggested for the first time that the punk revolution wasn’t just something happening elsewhere. Furthermore, The Jam, The Stranglers, The Members, and The Vapors had properly put Surrey on the punk and new wave map, the latter having just released wondrous debut LP, New Clear Days.

Is that right that Steve’s link with Dave Maskery and Shakespearos lead singer Duncan (aka Du Kane) initially came through the latter’s band, The Beautiful People?

“I did their live sound, but I’d known those guys a really long time. Duncan got me to produce one of his demos around 1982, and Dave was involved in that band. They’ve been in a lot of bands together. I met them way before Duncan came up with The Beautiful People’s Hendrix album (1992’s If 60’s were 90’s, well worth checking out, if you missed it). They said they wanted me to do the sound, and it was insanely complicated, with bits of Hendrix guitar and voice, then keyboard, other bits of percussion … it was all over the place! But I love that album.”

I missed The Vapors live first time around, but saw Steve twice with John Peel favourites Shoot! Dispute, first at a Peel Roadshow at Surrey University in late January 1984, and then supporting Jam bass player Bruce Foxton – who co-managed The Vapors with Paul Weller’s father, John – in early May that year, on his first solo tour at Guildford Civic Hall.

“I was friends with Bruce for ages. When I moved to London we lost touch, but when we played with From the Jam last year we re-connected. That was really nice.”

Shoot! Dispute were definitely a band of their time, and Peelie liked them a lot. I was about to sit my O-levels when I saw them, and still have their single, featuring Gat Gun and Lack Lustre. And as Peelie said on air, they were, ‘Anything but lack lustre.’ Has Steve kept in touch with his old bandmates?

“Yeah, I’m Facebook friends with most of those people.”

Shoot! Dispute: Cathy Lomax and co. relax by the pool, mid-’80s style

I recall Shoot! Dispute’s percussionist Mark Charles and sax player Scampi in a band I regularly saw busking in Guildford High Street, Inspector Tuppence. I was a Saturday boy working at Boot’s then, gazing out of an upstairs window wishing I was there with them.

“Yeah, and also … this is really getting incestuous … Julian and Mark from that band were with me in a band called 1ST after Shoot! Dispute. If you look on my YouTube channel you’ll see us in a sort of rap band on MTV’s rap show in the late ‘80s. There was another band I was in with Mark, with him as the singer. He was the singer in two other bands I was in. So I’ve been in three bands with Mark.”

What’s more, Inspector Tuppence’s double-bass player, Jason, was a couple of years ahead of me at Guildford County School, while Steve – who has a few years on me – was at the nearby Royal Grammar School, where The Stranglers’ bass player Jean-Jacques Burnel attended before him. But not for long ….

“I got ejected and ended up at Bishop Reindorp. I really didn’t last long there. Two and a half years and I was out of the door.”

Any particular reason?

“Err … I was surrounded by posh people and just couldn’t relate to anybody. No one came from Guildford. Everyone came from the rich villages like Shere, Ripley, Cobham. They’d all been to prep school.  But when I went to Bishop Reindorp, I came upon people I knew, thinking, ‘These are my people!’”

I guess you passed your 11-plus and got a scholarship.

“Yeah, then got taken away from my friends and put into a school where I didn’t know anybody at all.”

That seems to be the system this Government wants to revert to now.

“Yeah. I just don’t get it, really.”

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

Steve has his own school-age children now, a 16-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. And he reckons his son’s ‘much better than I was at that age’ on bass.

While The Vapors recorded one session for John Peel (in July 1979), Shoot! Dispute recorded two in 1984. Did they properly get to meet Peelie?

“Only really through the Roadshow gig show, but he phoned Shoot! Dispute a couple of times. That was brilliant. Within a week of the roadshow we were recording this session, and within another week it was out. We’d gone from just being this band playing pubs to all of a sudden being played on Radio 1. That was phenomenal for us.”

I wondered about that. Peel was obviously a big fan of Altered Images. I wonder if he saw Kathy’s quirky vocal style a similar way.

“Yeah, and that was fantastic for us. He also did this event at the ICA – I think it was four nights, with three bands a night, and we were on that as well. We did a lot of stuff, but it just wasn’t enough to get us over the line to get a record deal, unfortunately.”

No regrets though, I’m guessing. You had a great time.

“Oh, totally. I’ve had good times with every single band I’ve been in.”

Well, that’s what it should all be about. And if you can make a living out of it, all the better.

“Yeah … well, it’s barely a living, but it’s great!”

Silver Machine: Dave Fenton in live action with The Vapors (Photo: Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

When The Vapors split in 1982, Dave Fenton returned to the legal profession, going on to specialise in music law, while guitarist Ed Bazalgette moved into television, his recent directing credits including hit BBC dramas Dr Who, Poldark, and (this June) Versailles. Meanwhile, drummer Howard Smith (no relation to Steve) worked for the PRS, going on to run an independent record shop in Guildford in recent years. He now runs People Music Promotions, putting on gigs in the South-East, and became Guildford’s Labour parliamentary candidate in 2017, adding 4,000 votes to the party’s 2015 result.

But while those three shifted away from the gig circuit for a while, Steve never really left the music business.

“I’ve spent about 25 years doing live sound and being in bands. I also did house engineering jobs in London – Clapham Grand; The Barfly, Camden; The Orange, West Kensington. The latter was my favourite job. I loved working there. I started there about ’92 and finished in ’98.

“I love the whole thing about a gig. I love the fact that you go along and you play music or go along and watch music then have a bit of a party afterwards. I love the whole thing. That’s probably not happening so much in the industry as it did once, but that’s still one of my favourite things to do. There’s nothing better – have a gig and then a bit of a party.”

He’s also helped a few indie acts along the way, including Fad Gadget, Loop and Lush, leading me to tell him I saw the latter early on at Drummonds, Euston, supporting The Wolfhounds. I remember them being really raw, but within a couple of weeks the NME were all over them.

“They supported Loop on a tour and I ended up working with both bands. A busy tour all round. They were really nice people, and I was friendly with them, especially Miki (Berenyi), who sent me postcards from all over the place. They were fun to work with, but I ended up having to make a choice between them and another band.”

Of course, for all I’ve since learned, I still imagine his most famous band putting in a bit of overtime working in Vapors Garage overalls, as per 1980’s Waiting for the Weekend promo video.

“Ha! I think that was in Camden Town. It might even still be there.”

Greased Lightning: Steve Smith and Dave Fenton at work in the Waiting for the Weekend promo video, 1980

Do you know your way around cars?

“No! I’d say none of us would be any good at all if you needed any mechanical work doing on your car.”

You look like you knew how to polish chrome and wash grease off.

“Ha! That’s acting, Malc. That’s just acting.”

As it was, it was The Shakespearos who helped ensure the return of The Vapors, via Polyfest, a charity event in memory of late, great X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene, and a late-April 2016 cameo at Putney’s Half Moon.

“It did, in a way. Mike Bennett runs PolyFest and was a producer with Trojan Records and a bit of a mover and a shaker (he also produced The Fall), and gets as many acts as he can to play a few songs. He knows us and always gets us in, to do covers and as a backing band for various people. A couple of years ago he got really on my case about The Vapors and asked me to get them down. He got at me so much that I told him I’d message them straight away, and Dave got back five minutes later, saying, ‘Yeah, definitely’. He subsequently told me he was at the pub and quite drunk when he got the message!

“Meanwhile, Ed thought about it for a week, then messaged me back and said, ‘Sure, why not’. So we went down, played ’Turning Japanese’, without any rehearsal, but the rest of The Shakespearos have played that song hundreds of times in our set so they all knew what they were doing. It was quite well received and we got offered a few gigs, so it all stemmed from that really.”

And it’s been so great finally seeing you live after all these years. What’s more, you seem to be doing it for all the right reasons. That really shows.

“Yeah, I’d like to think we are doing it for the right reasons … we definitely don’t go through the motions.”

Steve’s personal music apprenticeship pre-dated punk, but seeing The Clash live in May ’77 proved to be the catalyst in finding his future direction.

“I went to the first night of the ‘White Riot’ tour at Guildford Civic Hall. I was a bit of a hippy, to be honest. I had long hair and sat up in the balcony. But the next day I thought, ‘I’m a punk rocker’, I cut all my hair off and threw all my records away. The Clash completely changed my life, just from going to see them at the Civic Hall. Music was so boring at that time. All of a sudden I was looking at this thing and thinking, ‘This is great!’”

I got the impression Dave Fenton was more into the likes of Devo.

“Yes, definitely. Dave was influenced by more arty stuff like Talking Heads and that sort of thing. He was really into Captain Beefheart at the time. That was more his kind of vibe. Mine was much more mainstream, I suppose, while his was more left-field.”

Vapors Trial: The 21st century line-up of The Vapors, with Michael Bowes, left, joining Dave Fenton, front, Ed Bazalgette, rear, and Steve Smith, right (Photo: The Vapors).

How old were you when you first saw The Clash, and what were you doing at the time?

“I must have been 19, and was ripe for it. I was playing in a covers band. When I was 17, working in Debenham’s, my two cousins turned up and said they were in this band, playing working men’s clubs up North. They asked if I wanted to play bass with them. At the time I was a guitar player. I told them I’d never played bass, but they told me they thought I could do it and offered to buy me all the gear.

“I was working in the loading bay at the time and they told me I’d earn a little more money playing with them three days a week than over a five-day week with Debenhams. So I started doing that, but it wasn’t like The Shakespearos, where we love everything we play, with real attitude. It was things like, ‘Play That Funky Music, White Boy’ and all very mainstream. But it was brilliant for me and that’s how I learned to play the bass.”

Was that your equivalent of The Beatles’ Hamburg years?

“Yes, except it was in places like Middlesbrough, Leeds and South Shields!”

Tough crowds, no doubt.

“Oh, miners’ clubs, social clubs and welfare clubs – a real crash-course in being in a band and being a bass player. And I was still doing that when I went to see The Clash. But then I rapidly tired of that covers thing. I saw a whole new world in front of me, where you don’t have to be a brilliant musician. You just need to want it and want to have fun.”

And you haven’t looked back since.

“Well, I’ve looked back, but …”

Dave Fenton told me he knew you were a good bass player, but you were playing drums for someone when he asked you to audition.

“Yes, for a band called The Absolute, a proper punk band. I wasn’t a drummer though, that came about because … do you remember The Wooden Bridge at Guildford?”

Indeed, another of my lunchtime drinking places during my working days there.

“The Absolute had a gig there, then discovered their drummer was banned from the pub! They came to me as I’d expressed an interest in having a go playing drums, asking me along to rehearsals to use their kit, see how it goes. It was really good fun. I didn’t do many gigs though. I got bored of playing drums pretty quickly. It was just like you were doing the same thing over and over again.”

Howard Smith and Michael Bowes might take issue with that, but I take your point.

“But I was also going to see lots of Vapors gigs, and knew Dave was a great songwriter.”

Were they already calling themselves The Vapors?

“Yeah, there was an early version of the band that did a demo I really love. But they didn’t get anywhere. I think they played one London gig, what’s now Koko in Camden. It was very much a local band, but they were great and a few songs ended up on the first album.  But I think it just fell apart. Different people were leaving or being chucked out. When I auditioned there was Dave, Ed, and a drummer called Joe. The bass player, Mike, was off to university. I went away thinking I’d done alright, then got a call from Dave the next day saying, ‘You’re in, but there’s one slight problem – the drummer’s left now!’

“That drummer was actually at our 229 gig (November 2016) and I asked him, ‘Was I really that bad that you had to leave the band? All I did was audition!” That was when we got Howard in. It was between him and a drummer who went on to World Domination Enterprises. They were a great band and I was their sound engineer. Really good friends of mine. But it was Howard or Digger (Metters), and Howard was chosen for whatever reason, because he fitted in better.”

And didn’t Howard have somewhere to rehearse as well?

“I don’t think that really came into it … but it was a total bonus!”

For me, that’s where the stories of Guildford’s best-known bands seem to merge. Stranglers drummer Jet Black had his off-licence, while Howard had a launderette.

“Yeah, it was his Dad’s launderette and there were two flats above it. Howard and Ed lived in one and the other was empty. When Howard left there, I moved into the flat with Ed. And we’d rehearse in the other flat two or three nights a week.”

Are you in touch with Howard now?

“Yeah, we played a festival in Guildford, where it poured with rain all day, and Howard turned up with his wife and young child. It was really lovely to see him, a very pleasant afternoon in his company. I obviously wish him all the best in everything he does. He’s very political now, which is great.”

And he recorded Labour’s highest vote in the area since 1979 last year, at the first time of asking.

“Yeah, I’ve got my fingers crossed for him that he’s actually going to crack it, be an MP at some point.”

Now you have Michael Bowes (who’s also worked with the likes of Nelly Furtado, Joss Stone, Tears For Fears, Heather Small, Michelle Gayle, and Laura Mvula) in his seat, and I get the impression he fits in well.

“Michael’s brought a lovely freshness and impetus. He’s such a lovely man to have around. That in itself is great, but he’s also got a handle on the drums. He’s listened to Howard and reproduces that. He’s also coming up with his own parts on the new stuff. It’s all good. We’d all have loved Howard to do it, but couldn’t really have found anyone better than Michael if it wasn’t to be Howard.”

So, 36 years after the initial split, it’s Dave, Ed (occasionally with Dave’s son Dan Fenton deputising), Steve and Michael, with this summer’s UK dates to be followed by three October sell-outs at New York City’s Mercury Lounge. That’s impressive, I suggest. It’s really taken off again.

“It seems to have taken on a bit of a life of its own. I think it’s coincidental that we signed our back-catalogue over to an American independent label around the same time as fans over there started a funding campaign. The label saw that and realised it was a good idea to get us over, so decided to bung a bit in to make it happen. The American fans did brilliantly to raise the money they did, and the record company topped it off at the end.

“It costs a hell of a lot of money for visas and lawyers. Ridiculous. It didn’t used to be like that. It’s like they really don’t want you to go. There’s a 40-page form to fill in, after you get someone to petition the US Government to let you in. You fill in a preliminary form with all your details, then this 40-page form, remembering all your secondary school education dates, stuff like that, asking whether you’ve ever been involved in terrorism or in genocide. Pages and pages. And after that, you go to an interview at the embassy. Then they decide whether you’re good enough to get into their country.”

And this is for a bunch of white boys from South-East England. What if you were a Tijuana brass ensemble from across the Mexican border?

“Yeah, or an Iranian death-metal band!”

Guitar Man: Ed Bazalgette, live with The Vapors (Photo: Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

Between our interview and publication, the last of the three New York dates sold out, with the band’s four-day schedule set to be jam-packed, the sightseeing kept to a minimum. I dare say there will be photo opportunities though. Is that right that Dan is featuring on guitar in America?

“I don’t think Ed’s going, but I spoke to him last week and he’s doing all the UK gigs to the end of the summer, starting in Manchester. He really wanted to do America but couldn’t give a cast-iron commitment, which isn’t normally a problem as we have Dan on standby. But Ed wants to keep his work going, so that makes it difficult, and he couldn’t commit to this six months in advance.”

Wasn’t there a previous attempt to reunite the band that didn’t quite come off?

“That was after I was working at the Orange. We did a few rehearsals there, after it became something else, about 1992 or 1993. We used the drummer from Basement Jaxx … and also the drummer from The Beautiful People. There’s the connection.”

Time flies and it’s 38 years since New Clear Days was released. Yet it remains one of my favourite albums of all time. Good memories of recording that?

“Really good memories. Instead of going to some dodgy studio and doing a couple of days recording and paying for it out of your own money, all of a sudden we’re in the studio where Bob Marley was recording, just off Portobello Road. We did a lot of it there and then some of it at Townhouse, where The Jam recorded.

“It was like a dream, these really posh studios. Not only that, but they’d make us dinner every night. ‘Can we get some beers please?’ ‘Yes, we’ll just mark it down as some cassettes.’ Yes, lots of happy memories. That was my dream to be in the studio recording an album, and all of a sudden it was actually happening. A dream come true.”

I struggled more with Magnets initially, although appreciating the songs. How close do you think the third LP will be to the first two?

“We don’t know yet. A lot of it’s down to how it’s recorded. The main difference between the albums was having a different producer with a different approach and different ideas. I think what Vic Smith did was create a sort of readily-identifiable cool sound for the band, with the guitar sound on a lot of the tracks very similar. Dave Tickle would treat each song like a different entity and try and make something without the thought of a ‘whole album’ thing – treating each song individually, whereas Vic had an overall sound in mind. And it seems to me that most people like that sound better than the other sound.”

In a sense I wonder if it was the sound of that first LP, as much as touring with The Jam, that singled you out as Mods, although I’m not sure you ever were.

“Maybe a bit, but actually I was a bit of a Mod. And so was Howard. Me and him used to bowl around on his scooter. I think it was a Lambretta GP200. A really cool scooter with mirrors and everything, and a Tonic jacket. Me and Howard were Mods, but Dave and Ed totally weren’t and we didn’t want to be identified as a Mod band … even though two of us secretly were!”

Maybe you should have branched off, started a solo project, called yourself The Smiths.

“Ha ha! No, I don’t think that was likely to catch on.”

After New York, I wondered about Australia next. You did well Down Under, so to speak, first time round. How about an Aussie tour next year?

“I’d love to go back to Australia. Over there we had one of those massive hits (with ‘Turning Japanese’) that went on for about eight weeks, like one of those horrible songs like ‘Mull of Kintyre’ or ‘Shaddup Ya Face’. It was absolutely massive there. Apart from our Jam shows, our gigs involved small venues, but then we turned up at this huge arena for our first show there! But again, it was such fun.”

Subsequent research reveals that while official records suggest ‘Turning Japanese’ was No. 1 in Australia for barely two weeks (impressive as that is), it was the second-highest grossing single in 1980 there, selling more than 100,000 copies Down Under.

And while organising that Aussie return could take some time, in the meantime there’s another trip for Steve with The Shakespearos to Portugal.

“Yeah, we’re off again to the Western Algarve, where it’s a little wild, not so touristy, with 16 or 17 shows before coming back to do the gigs at the end of June. It’s lovely. We’ve got two residencies we play every week, while picking up odd gigs around and about, here and there. We did it last year and the two years before, and we’re making the most of it … until Brexit maybe puts the kibosh on it.”

Well, hopefully that’ll never happen. I’m in denial on all that.

“I am too. I’ve just got my fingers in my ears, going, ‘Nah nah nah! Can’t hear you, can’t hear you!’”

Live Wires: The Vapors are back this Summer and Autumn (Photograph © Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

The Vapors’ next dates start with a visit to Manchester’s Ruby Lounge (0161 834 1392) on Friday, June 29th, followed by The Cluny in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on Saturday, June 30th, and the Bungalow in Paisley (Sunday, July 1st). For more dates and to keep up with the band’s latest news, check out their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

For writewyattuk‘s Dave Fenton feature/interview (September 2016), head here. And for our Ed Bazalgette feature/interview (November 2016), try here.

 

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Gretchen Peters / Kim Richey – Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester

Touring Troubadour: Gretchen Peters, out and about and Dancing with the Beast.

“Hi Gretchen, it’s Malcolm. I did an interview with you a while back. I know. It seems an age ago. I seem to recall we talked about how the weather in Nashville was pretty much like we’d expect in Manchester. I know. It’s been gorgeous today, hasn’t it? And it’s lovely to finally meet face to face. All five of you were on top form tonight.

“I probably said too much back then about relating to ‘Love that Makes a Cup of Tea’, and how I was heading back up the motorway from my Mum’s funeral when I heard that for a third time, truly listening for the first time. I wrote in her eulogy, ‘She was always there for us, however far away we lived, and on returning there’d be a home-cooked meal on the table and home-baked cake in the tin. She’d be at the end of the phone too, offering help and advice, whatever the problem. And there would be offers of cash, however well you thought you were doing. We also learned what a great listener she was.’ Consequently, that chorus reduced me to tears … happy tears.

“I’ve just spoken briefly to Kim, but think I babbled somewhat, so please let her know her short set was pretty much perfect. And the harmonies between you, Barry and Kim were spot on. I told her how much she’ll enjoy your trip to Shetland, even though I’ve never been. I think she realised though. A look passed between us, me silently saying, ‘I’m talking out of my arse here, please excuse me’, her politely responding, ‘I know, but it’s okay. That’s how it goes in these situations.’

“We particularly liked her song about boxes, smoke and mirrors, and how when you get to know people better, you realise they’re not who you thought they were. ‘Chinese Boxes’? That’s it, with a real Suzanne Vega vibe. And whether she’s singing about driving down the interstate (‘Those Words We Said’) or rivers running dry (‘Every River Runs Dry’), I can equate with that. We have roads and waterways here too. Oh, you knew. You’re probably better travelled around here than most Brits.

“Kim mentioned how the poignant ‘Pin a Rose’ was written with Chuck Prophet, taking me back to first hearing bands like Green on Red, REM and The Long Ryders, realising that gap across the Atlantic wasn’t as wide as I imagined. Sticking with her Edgeland material, I’ve never actually got to ‘Chase Wild Horses’, but understand the sentiment. We’ve all done spur-of-the-moment stuff, some ‘we ain’t proud of’. It’s all part of what makes us who we are. And the fact that I’d never considered until the wistful ‘Your Dear John’ that there might be bargemen in Ohio just shows my ignorance of the true America. Music’s always been an education though.

Collage Education: Kim Richey, supporting Gretchen Peters throughout the UK (Photo: http://kimrichey.com/)

“Finally, that song about counting on me and crooked miles was exquisite, not least those chord sequences. It‘s always nice to go somewhere you weren’t expecting. ‘Straight as the Crow Flies’? Right. I could hear Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’, but shades of Nick Drake too. A winning combination.

“I loved your intro, that wondrous voice cutting the air in the darkness. The power in that almost-whispered introduction defied belief. Simple, stripped down, evocative, you name it. I had a lump in the throat as you sang, ‘I get lost in my hometown …’ It’s beautiful on record, and tonight all the more so. I may have mentioned, but the imagery in ‘Arguing With Ghosts’ and right across this new album is really something. And here was the proof.

“I see ‘Wichita’ is your new single. Good choice. Say hello to Barry for me, by the way. I’ll probably rudely interrupt his conversation and shakes hands before darting off in a few minutes. I’m sure he’ll be very gracious, while thinking, ‘Who was that guy?’ He’s amazing on piano and accordion, isn’t he? I really enjoyed ‘The Matador’, again truly brought to life here, not least through Conor McCreanor’s double bass. The sound was amazing too. Hats off to the technicians. I was here exactly a year ago to see Canada’s Ron Sexsmith and Lori Cullen, and similarly impressed.

“And ‘Blackbirds’? I listened to that album coming into Manchester rather than the new LP, which I’ve been playing a lot lately. And on that track there’s a real kind of Steve Earle and latter-day Johnny Cash edge. When you finally addressed the crowd, I can’t speak for the rest, but like to think we were all with you when you mentioned these defining moments back home over the last couple of years, and how none were for the better.

“Similarly, ‘Truckstop Angel’ follows that ‘Blackbirds’ formula, again to great effect, your Belfast lad, Colm McClean, coming into his own on lead guitar. ‘Knopfler-esque’, I wrote. That whole dynamic between you and him reminded me of Mark and Emmylou Harris on All This Roadrunning.

Meet’n’Greet: Note to self – always ensure flash is turned back on when grabbing sneaky pic with headliner

“My second ‘hairs-on-the-back-of-my-neck’ moment came with ‘The Boy From Rye’. I guess it’s written about a US location, but could easily relate to a pebble beach setting on our South Coast. There’s the power of great songwriting in a nutshell – that ability to ensure the listener empathises with the subject. And so beautifully delivered. I wrote ‘bare and tender’. I think I know what I meant. And again … that imagery.

“You talked some more about your homeland, and that call to your Mum after Trump was elected. I know how that conversation goes. I felt it over here after this Government somehow got in again, and after the Brexit vote. I too struggle to recognise my country sometimes. But for all our concerns, it seems all the worse there. How the hell can people be so blind and deaf to all that? What made them think it would be a good idea to elect such an arse?

“You mentioned wondering if that’s how it felt for your folks in 1939, ‘54 and ‘68, searching for assurances when sometimes there can’t be any. Yet we have to stay positive. If nothing else, this past year’s reawakening makes me believe better days are ahead. People seem to recognise what they’ve unwittingly unleashed. Here’s to a wind of change. Take Ireland this last week, for example.

“Never mind ‘arguing with ghosts’, I think you exorcised a few with ‘Lowlands’. There was anger and bitterness, and grief and concern for the future, but all wonderfully measured. That line about the neighbour with the sticker on his bumper making you see him in a whole new light really resonates. I could feel the energy and feeling you put in back in row J. And those harmonies on ‘Say Grace’, and the guitars complementing each other.

“I could say the same about ‘Dancing with the Beast’. I heard you talk about that on the radio. I saw it as a song about an abuser. It hadn’t occurred to me that the beast might be depression, making the line, ‘He don’t like my friends or my family’ all the more sublime.

“I’ve said before I don’t do country, and ‘Disappearing Act’ has the hallmarks, yet it’s the right side of country. I’ll stick with the Americana label. And seeing the Queen of Country Noir live, those more earthy qualities shine through. If anything, it’s more blues, which is alright by me. Besides, Barry’s New Orleans piano touches, Conor’s bass, and Colm’s guitar underline that.

Own Accordion: Barry Walsh, London’s Union Chapel, November 2017 (Photo: Philip Ford))

“Tom Russell’s ‘Guadalupe’ is so evocative, like taking ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’ to the Baja California peninsula. Barry’s accordion flourishes are glorious, and again the vocal interplay is stunning. In contrast, ‘When All You Got is a Hammer’ saw you all really let rip. It should have seen the audience on their feet, but it wasn’t the right venue or crowd for that. I won’t dwell on that, but a few of us were bringing the average age down. I’m not being rude. A lot of those assembled probably had more youth in them than audiences half their age, but there was little chance of Springsteen-like stage-diving.

“Much as I’ve heard ‘On a Bus to St Cloud’, it grabbed me more than ever. Perhaps live, I understand the structure better, your County Down bandmate reverting to double bass. I was reminded of Boo Hewerdine’s songcraft. You have that same ability to write and deliver such great songs. ‘Five Minutes’ was another that truly came to life, the characterisation so real that we could really empathise, my better half and I thinking ahead to our eldest daughter heading to uni later this year, dwelling on past arguments with loved ones over the years, and how everything can change in next to no time.

“I see ‘Idlewild’ in the ‘Lowlands’ bracket. So powerful. You tell us you’re not a protest singer, but the punch packed with your stories is so strong. This is personal-political. ‘The day JFK was killed’ recollections are rarely as moving all these years on. Although I know it’s coming, the N-word still makes me flinch, but truly conveys the horror. Again, there’s that sense that we just don’t learn from our mistakes.

“When you returned, after all those wondrous sad songs, your Mickey Newbury cover, ‘Why You Been Gone So Long?’, was nothing short of a celebration, the band truly letting their hair down. Again I felt a need to get up and dance, joining the honky-tonk carnival.

“And after that joyful, bonding moment, we had the most delicate of encores, your solo, unamplified take on ‘Love That Makes a Cup of Tea’.

‘And there is love that makes a cup of tea,

Asks you how you’re doing, and listens quietly.

Slips you twenty dollars when your rent’s behind

That’s the kind of love I hope you find.’

“You stood there with acoustic guitar in the heart of the first two rows. Personal, intimate, heartfelt, emotional … all the above. Thanks Gretchen, that was a truly special night.”

Dedicated to anyone who ever stood in line to talk to the main act after a show, not quite conveying what was on their mind, instead talking gibberish, the moment soon gone, leaving you kicking yourselves for a missed opportunity.

Signed Up: Mementos of a Manchester RNCM visit (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

For my Alternative Nashville Skyline feature/interview with Gretchen, from May 4th, head here

To snap up tickets for the remaining dates on the UK tour, with support from Kim Richey, and various festival dates, try this Facebook link. You can also keep in touch via Twitter. To order Dancing with the Beast, try this Proper Records link. To find out more about Kim Richey’s new LP, Edgeland, and her back-catalogue, try her BandcampFacebookTwitter and website pages.

 

 

 

 

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