Getting to know a Good Thing – having a proper parlez with Paul Young

Good Thing: Paul Young has returned to his soulful roots with his latest album (Photo: James Hole)

Good Thing: Paul Young has returned to his soulful roots with his latest album (Photo: James Hole)

Paul Young was having a chinwag with his good friend and ‘father of the Italian blues’ Zucchero Fornaciari in a hotel room in the capital when I tracked him down, ahead of a Royal Albert Hall date for the latter.

The pair scored a top-five hit together 25 years ago, and remain in touch. And while Paul’s next show was at the Stockport Plaza, don’t think for one moment that was a lesser engagement. In fact, it seems to be the way he prefers it these days.

From Stockport to six dates in mainland Europe then others in Wrexham and Wakefield and onwards, the diary has remained as full as ever. And there’s Manchester Academy 2 this Sunday, December 11th, with special guests and fellow ‘80s survivors Hue and Cry, the same acts then moving on to The Fleece in Bristol (December 13th) and The Plug in Sheffield (December 15th).

Next March there’s another major tour lined up too, a 15-date ‘80s Invasion bill also starring past writewyattuk interviewee Toyah (with a link to that feature here), Martika and China Crisis, heading from Rhyl Pavilion (March 2nd) to Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (March 19th).

But it’s not all about re-living old hits for Paul, and I feel bad calling him an ‘80s survivor. He was perfecting his craft before that decade, has worked hard all over ever since, and a few months ago released his most impressive album for many moons. Yet it was in the ‘80s that he had most of his hits, a 1983 No.1 with his cover of Marvin Gaye’s Wherever I Lay My Hat followed by five more top-10 singles and three UK No.1 albums, the first two amassing 168 weeks between them in the charts. And as I put it to him, judging by the inner sleeve snaps on 1985’s The Secret of Association, he was always one for a little fun on the road back then.

“Yeah, nothing’s changed there!”

One photo that springs to mind involved a little close play-action, shall we say, with a bandmate, in front of a road sign for a notoriously-named Austrian town just north of Salzburg.

Cafe Society: Paul Young snapped for his new album outside Beppe's Cafe, Smithfield Market (Photo: James Hole)

Cafe Society: Paul Young snapped for his new album outside Beppe’s Cafe, Smithfield Market (Photo: James Hole)

“Oh yeah. They felt they had to doctor that sign for the album. I asked why, saying it was the name of a town, but they refused to put the whole name up, adding asterisks. A bit of censorship went down.”

That LP – my favourite of his back-catalogue – surfaced when Paul was in his late 20s, while earlier this year he hit 60, hard as that might be for some of us to comprehend. Has that landmark birthday changed his approach to life?

“Well, my body tells me I should, but I haven’t.”

Does that voice of his need a little more care and coaching these days?

“Yeah, I have to remember that.”

There was a time in the early solo years when you overdid it, I seem to recall.

“That’s right. I collapsed on tour. Too much work, not enough rest.”

Have you looked after yourself a bit better since?

“Yeah, the one thing you have to learn is to pace yourself.”

Soul Septet: Paul Young with the Q-Tips, before his solo years

Soul Septet: Paul Young with the Q-Tips, before his solo years

Listening to Paul’s most recent album, April 2016’s Good Thing, an eclectic collection of reinterpretations of arguably lesser-celebrated songs from the classic soul archives – many from the Memphis stable – it seems that he’s getting back to his own musical roots, for an artist once afforded ‘blue-eyed soul boy’ status.

“Yes, I am, although I didn’t actually decide upon that idea. It was Arthur Baker that suggested the soul album as a project. I haven’t been idle these last 15 or 20 years. I’ve tried other material. Yet every time I worked with a producer or band we recorded three or four tracks to see if it worked, but only one ever did. The rest fell short, so I ended up with a big collection of songs.

“So now I’m throwing the idea around of putting them altogether, doing a kind of ‘basement tapes’ type album, with one track I did in 2013 that I liked, one track in 2000 that I liked, and so on. That might be fun, just getting them out there.”

I gather that Paul was working with the afore-mentioned respected US producer and DJ on this latest LP project for quite a while before it properly came to fruition.

“Yeah, mainly because we got started on it then the finance fell through, and Arthur’s always got fingers in other pies. He has residencies all over the world, with things going on in New York then Miami, then coming here to DJ. It was always a case of working on it a bit then putting it on ice.

“But one good thing that came out of having time to sit on it was that James Halliwell, the engineer and main musician, said, ‘This would sound so much better if we took the programming off’. Then it really started to take shape. I went back and re-voiced some, because the whole atmosphere of the track changed.”

In short – less programmed, more live. And it’s paid off, Paul’s first solo album in more than 20 years proving to be a winner. From Homer Banks and William Bell to Eddie Floyd, Mable John and Staple Singers covers, there are Stax of suprises, you could say. Were most of those songs they chose on Paul’s radar for a while, or did Arthur bring a few to the party?

“Some I knew. We’d get together and have brain-storm sessions, Arthur and I, getting a room in some club somewhere in the daytime, We’d say, ‘Have you heard this?’ and play songs like Your Good Thing (Is About to End). When we came up with Slipped, Tripped and Fell in Love I’d heard a Clarence Carter version while he’d heard Ann Peebles’ version, so we kind of criss-crossed. And another, I Believe in You (You Believe in Me). he suggested but was off my favourite Johnny Taylor album.”

No Parlez: Paul Young's debut album, a No.1 in 1983

No Parlez: Paul Young’s debut album, a No.1 in 1983

The album starts with Paul tackling Al Green’s L.O.V.E. (Love), while as he mentioned fellow Hi Records artiste Ann Peebles, I’m thinking about his 1985 take on I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down, perhaps suggesting he’s come full circle now. When you first look at his choice of covers, though, you might question The Bee Gees’ Words. Yet Al Green did successfully cover How Can you Mend a Broken Heart? in 1972.

“Exactly – that’s what I thought. I felt what I‘d do is go for an Al Green style version of a Bee Gees song, sung by me! That was the idea.”

Going back to the ’60s and Paul’s own musical awakenings, I see he learned piano and guitar quite early. Was he a natural or was there a lot of hard graft involved?

“I wasn’t a natural. I had to work at it. But if you know you love music, sometimes you have to … what’s the nice way to say ‘dick around a bit’? I had to experiment a bit to find what my conduit was as a musician. And piano wasn’t it, while guitar I didn’t enjoy much, although I enjoy it so much more now. But I found the voice was where I felt I wanted to express myself.”

Was there music in the family?

“No, and there was only a piano in the house because I had piano lessons. I bought our first record player when I was 14. Up until then we only had radio in the house. The only remotely musical thing about us was that my mum was in the Luton Girls Choir, which was quite well known at that point. And my uncle, a sailor, played great harmonica, so I think my Dad thought that if I could play piano we could have some great parties! I don’t think he was thinking much beyond that.”

Is that right that Paul played football for the Vauxhall Motors works team? And might that ever have come to anything?

“No! That’s an internet myth.”

Well, you live and learn. He did work for Vauxhall Motors in Luton though, with his Dad. Was it bearable working in a factory, knowing he at least had a way out of the 9 to 5 world in mind?

“Yeah, the minute I did my apprenticeship – although I wasn’t getting much money, I was saving up to get a guitar and an amp. And I played bass guitar for the first three years of my musical life.”

Was he aware of how good your voice was back then? Was it just a confidence thing?

Forgotten 45: Streetband's Hold On, the single that preceded their novelty hit, Toast, also from 1978

Forgotten 45: Streetband’s Hold On, preceding their novelty hit, Toast, which was also from 1978

“I know I wanted to sing. We had a singer in the band, but I kept saying I’d like to do a couple of songs. I had that in me. Then a couple of songs went to four songs, and five songs … and then they sacked the other singer!”

The band he mentions there is likely to be Kat Kool & The Kool Kats, and then came the Streetband and the band that sprang from within that set-up and ultimately lead to his solo deal, the Q-Tips. And Paul clearly loved his soul music from early on, judging by his time fronting the latter outfit. Was that the major influence from the start?

“The first love was actually blues, and I started off with Free. And because I was listening to them and Cream I was buying Albert King and BB King and all that kind of stuff. I got into soul a bit further down the line.”

For all that, was there ever a worry at one stage that you might just be a one-hit wonder, and not even under your own name but as the fella who sang 1978 novelty hit Toast for the Streetband.

“No, there wasn’t really. I was young enough not to care.”

I get the impression the Q-Tips was the Streetband enlarged and re-branded. You played a lot of live shows with them, and they were very well received. Were those your ‘Hamburg years’, like The Beatles’ early apprenticeship overseas, learning your craft on stage?

“Actually yes – it was exactly that. And because we were a seven-piece band we had to work every gig we could get to be able to support ourselves. That’s where I really found my feet on stage, and first had a chance to find my own on-stage personality. That’s something a lot of kids don’t get now. This is the problem. They want fame too fast. All of a sudden they’re up there on stage and don’t know what to do.”

While Paul’s written many songs of his own, he’s still best known for some of the covers he’s reinterpreted and had hits with. But they’re far removed from that talent show level of covering without invention. From that breakthrough hit with Wherever I Lay My Hat right through – whether it be soul, reggae or even the odd indie re-interpretation – he made a mark on those songs.

“Yes I’m famous for doing covers, but I find my own covers then change them, so they become part of my material. There are a lot of artists I like who are singers and performers foremost. Rod Stewart’s written a lot of his own songs though, and so have I. That’s how I see myself – I’m a singer looking for the best material, whether that’s mine or someone else’s song.”

Magnificent Seven: Paul Young with Tex-Mex septet Los Pacaminos

Magnificent Seven: Paul Young, just ‘part of the band’ with Tex-Mex septet Los Pacaminos

One such artist covered was Tom Waits, and while it may not go down too well with the purists, I have to say I love both versions of A Soldier’s Thing. That was a left-field suggestion, I put it to him.

“Yep. I remember doing that album (1985’s The Secret of Association) and my manager saying it was all a bit depressing and a little bit too mature. He was a bit worried I’d made too big a jump from a more poppy first album. It was all a bit dark. So then we went back and found Daryl Hall’s Everytime You Go Away, which we’d originally passed on because we felt it was too easy, too simple. We went back and recorded that … and thank God – it went to No.1 in America!

“I understand what he meant too – A Soldier’s Things is quite dark, as was Standing on the Edge, which my best friend Drew Barfield wrote.”

No Parlez was the first of Paul’s three UK No.1 albums, but it was The Secret of Association I identified most with. Even then, this indie and new wave kid felt some of the touches were clouded by the production of the time, putting them firmly in that ‘80s bracket. But many of the songs were strong and hit a nerve with a teenage lad reappraising and rediscovering ’60s soul. What’s more, I didn’t know my other half at that point, but we later talked about late nights listening to that LP hundreds of miles apart with the headphones on.

“Well, Laurie Latham (who produced Paul’s first two albums) was very big on sonic landscape. He really loved doing that, and so did I. I wanted people to react when they put on headphones and feel like they were stuck right in the middle of the band, with it all going on around them.”

And despite me mentioning all those covers, Everything Must Change was written by Paul and his keyboard player Ian Kewley. Was that a particularly proud moment?

“Yeah, it was. Then again, it seems to bother other people more than it bothers me that the bigger hits were written by others. I really don’t mind where the song comes from. In retrospect I missed out on a shit-load of money by not writing my own stuff, but I look at where my life is now and while I do still have to go out to work to keep the family fed … well, it’s like Rod Stewart said when he got knighted. Prince William said it was nice to see he was still going, and he said, ‘I’ve got to – I’ve got eight kids!’ So if Rod’s got to say that …”

Second Album: Paul Young's The Secret of Association, from 1985

Second Album: Paul Young’s The Secret of Association, his second with Laurie Latham, from 1985

Paul’s not quite got eight children, but helped bring up three of his own. Have his daughters and son followed him into music?

“No, they’re all off doing their own thing, and doing very well at it.”

Did you put them off the music business?

“I don’t know, but I think it’s hard to follow in someone’s footsteps where they’ve been a success, so I’m almost glad they didn’t. Levi (aged 29) has her own successful business and a lot of people would have seen her on Dragon’s Den. She employs 35 people and it’s going really well. Layla (22) is a model and gets a lot of work. And my son (Grady, 20) is doing chemical engineering at Bath University.”

Listening to him, he’s clearly very proud of them.

“Well, yes. The worst thing that could have happened is that they’d be rolling out of nightclubs late at night, pissed and embarrassing themselves. Anything above that is a plus point!”

As he’s about to go out with Hue and Cry (who Paul told me he’d never met before), then on another ‘80s tour party next Spring, I ask him who he’s kept in touch with from the old days. I understand for starters he’s good mates with another past interviewee of mine, Tony Hadley, having toured a fair bit together over the years.

“Yeah, I last saw him a few weeks ago. I also keep in touch with Midge Ure, and I’m with Zucchero now, who’s a godfather to one of my kids. It’s nice that we’ve all kept in touch.”

Along the way there have been a few albums, some avoiding too much commercial success  But Paul never lost his love for playing live, as shown by his on-going sideline with Tex-Mex outfit Los Pacaminos (also, incidentally, involving Squeeze pedal steel guitar player Melvin Duffy). Was this a case of taking it all back down to bar-room basics again?

“Yes, it exactly was. It got to a point where it was all getting beyond my control, with too many people involved and me having to do thing because I had to rather than because I wanted to. Taking it back to ground zero and starting a band from scratch was very therapeutic. And the fact that we’re still going 25 years later means I got it right again. I’ve got a bunch of great people around me that really love each other and enjoy doing what they’re doing.”

You’re not necessarily the big wheel either. I guess that’s refreshing sometimes.

“That’s right. I’m back in the band again, and I’m loving being in a band.”

Away from the music, Paul has a real passion for cooking, as witnessed by UK viewers from his involvement with the BBC’s Celebrity MasterChef and ITV’s Hell’s Kitchen. Was that always there in the background?

“Yes, ever since I started touring the world. My eyes were opened – or at least my tastebuds were – by a lot of different things. And I just thought, ‘Wow!’ I guess it’s another form of entertainment when you put your heart and soul into something like that, then offer it up and hope people love it – the same as with an album. There are a lot of parallels, and it’s a creative process that can be enjoyed by others.”

Paul's Recommendation: The Crossing is a hit with PY loyal fans

Paul’s Recommendation: The Crossing was a big hit with Paul Young’s most loyal fans, from 1993

Could that ever have been a career, with music the sideline?

“Well, if I’d have thought about it, maybe. But when I was growing up, my school’s vision was a bit peripheral. They tried to push you into local jobs. If someone had said to me, ‘How about being a chef?’ I might have gone, ‘Ooh, never thought of that!’ But it’s just one of those things. And they didn’t like the idea at all that I wanted to be a musician.”

So for those who have maybe missed out on his career after the main charting years – maybe not seeing where he was at beyond 1986’s Between Two Fires – which records should they go back to and seek out?

“They should go to The Crossing. The fans who have been with me for 30/35 years will tell you they love No Parlez, The Secret of Association and The Crossing best. In particular, there’s another song my best friend Drew – also with me in Los Pacaminos – wrote, called Won’t Look Back. It’s a beautiful song, some of the best musicians in the world are playing on it, and it’s one of those stories everybody can identify with.”

And who’s in your band these days?

“On the March tour we’ll all be using the same band, so it won’t be mine, but this time I’ve got Jamie Moses, who’s in Los Pacaminos and was on my albums in the 90s; Dale Davis, who also played with me in the ‘90s and went on to play with Amy Winehouse; Toby Chapman, a gun for hire with Spandau Ballet for many years; and Simon Merry on drums. It’s a great crew!”

Album Shoot: Paul Young, sharp-suited in the city as part of his Good Thing LP launch (Photo: James Hole)

Album Shoot: Paul Young, sharp-suited in the city as part of his Good Thing LP launch (Photo: James Hole)

Paul Young and special guests Hue & Cry are at Manchester Academy 2 on Sunday, December 11 (doors 7pm), with tickets £25, available from the box office on 0161 832 1111 or online via this link

For further information on Paul Young, head to his website, and keep in touch via his Facebook and Twitter pages.

Paul’s also playing three more dates with Los Pacaminos before the year is out, at The Forum in Fonthill on Saturday, December 10th, at The Atkinson in Southport on Friday, December 16th, and at Frodsham’s Forest Hills Hotel on Saturday, December 17th. For full details check out the Los Pacaminos Facebook page and follow the tour dates link. 

Thanks to James Hole for the photographs used here from the Good Thing album shoot, with a link here ot his site. Thanks also to Headliner magazine for background detail on Paul’s Good Thing album, with a link to that here

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Un-Peeled Xmas Special: The Membranes/Folk Devils/The Wolfhounds/Vukovar – Preston, The Continental

Paper Chase: The Membranes are showered in confetti at the Continental (Photo copyright: Joel Goodman)

Paper Chase: The Membranes are showered in confetti at the Continental (Photo copyright: Joel Goodman)

Forget Joe Corre’s headline-grabbing protest claiming punk has ‘become a brand’. The evidence out there suggests there’s still plenty of life in new wave’s revolution.

The spirit of post-punk indie past, present and future was alive and thriving at The Conti on Saturday night for the Un-Peeled 2016 festive finale, this add-on celebration of late broadcasting legend John Peel starring three still-vital ‘80s survivors who broke through with the help of the much-loved BBC radio presenter.

First though, we had three-piece Vukovar, self-styled ‘idealists, voyeurs and totalitarians’ from the North’s ‘Brutalist wastelands’. An early start meant I missed part of their set, but they’d clearly warmed up by the time I arrived – lead singer Dan Shea stripped to the waist, Iggy Pop style, and guitarist Rick Clarke, back to the audience, Stu Sutcliffe style, swapping lines with Libertinesque energy by the time they reached a chaotic climax.

The Wolfhounds were booked as main support, but back woes for drummer Pete Wilkins led to him and bass player Richard Golding staying put in the capital, the band a duo for one night only. Yet I was more intrigued than disappointed by the prospects of a scaled-down version. I knew the song-craft would tell, and the power David Callahan (vocals, acoustic guitar) and Richard’s brother Andy Golding (electric guitar, backing vocals) generated was immense.

There was plenty of extraneous bar-room noise when David launched into a haunting lone rendition of Apparition, but soon there was a hush, attention well and truly grabbed long before Andy let loose and they launched into further Untied Kingdom stand-out Now I’m a Killer. How just two performers could make such an impact was startling, but the delightfully-morose Cheer Up had us singing along (‘It might never happen; In fact it already has”) while fellow post-reunion cut Slide kept us alert.

Double Trouble: Andy Golding and David Callahan treat Preston to a semi-acoustic Wolfhounds set (Photo copyright: Joel Goodman)

Double Trouble: The Wolfhounds’ Andy Golding, left, and David Callahan treat Preston to a not overly acoustic set (Photo copyright: Joel Goodman)

The two albums since their 21st century return provided much of the set, yet Happy Shopper and an ever-pertinent Rent Act from ’89 and their biggest indie hit, The Anti-Midas Touch from ’86 increased the fervour on the floor. In fact, that was the case from the first chord, the sight of the two fellas down the front giving it large on the shouty Middle-Aged Freak making it all the more special.

I’d waited 28 years to see this first-class return, and while I’d have loved at least another half-dozen extra songs in there, this’ll do me nicely until the full band revisit some day soon. Here’s hoping. And if this was The Wolfhounds at semi-strength, we’re clearly in for a treat.

The problem with these Tuff Life Boogie promotions is that organiser Rico La Rocca always packs in far too much, so when you’re socialising you miss out on something else. And there was so much to take in on this particular night that I missed a bit of the Folk Devils set, despite this being their first Lancashire show in more than 30 years and only their second gig back together by all accounts. But thankfully someone filmed it, so I could catch up later.

Founder Ian Lowery died in 2001 (gone far too soon), but originals Kris Jozajtis (guitar) and Mark Whiteley (bass) plus fellow long-servers Nick Clift (back from America especially for the occasion) and John Hamilton (drums) have taken the story on, with Dave Hodgson out front. And they make for a mighty punkabilly five-piece. Think Johnny Cash with the Bad Seeds and you’re not far off, the lead singer alternating between donning then removing his wraparound specs under the stage glare.

From an early Stranglers-like Evil Eye to Peel favourites like Where the Buffalo Roam, Wail and Beautiful Monster, and from stonking crowd-pleasers like English Disease and Brian Jones’ Bastard Son to high-octane closer Hank Turns Blue they were on top form. Come back soon fellas.

Space Invaders: John Robb and Rob Haynes give it their all at The Conti (Photo copyright: Joel Goodman)

Space Invaders: John Robb and Rob Haynes give it their all at The Conti (Photo copyright: Joel Goodman)

That led neatly to the return of almost-local heroes Nick Brown and John Robb at the heart of a frenetic yet majestic Membranes four-piece, the latter the natural focus of most attention and ‘mesmeric’ the key word from the moment the headliners broke into a mightily-intense The Universe Expands …

Between songs our mohawked main-man treated us to memories of an illustrious band past, not least amid Blackpool and Preston’s live music melting pot and their following from the metropolis of Much Hoole (home to a quarter of a million inhabitants, apparently).

Louder Than War’s head honcho dedicated songs to fans old and new, name-checked the rest of the bill’s input, and praised the night’s architect, Rico, even bigging up Action Records supremo Gordon Gibson for his influence on a scene that was always destined to be more than local.

Meanwhile, their bass colossus led from the front, enticing us towards him then letting fly, his band’s space-racing set centred around the dynamic Dark Matter/Dark Energy LP, while two new songs suggested their creative surge continues apace.

A rumbling bass-driven Do The Supernova saw us reach stellar heights from which we never came down, and while there was no choir, Hum of the Universe benefited from all those extra voices out front. Understandably, the joint was jumping for Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder and Myths and Legends, the former punctuated by showers of audience-propelled confetti, while for the latter favourite, drummer Rob Haynes was just the first bandmate to don his menacing raven mask.

And while Mr Robb (who told us we’d have to glue together all that confetti and clean up before we could leave) wore down the stage with his Wilko Johnson-like frenzied movement, Nick coolly got on with what he does best and Pete Byrchmore occasionally illuminated us with his torchlight slide guitar, in the most fitting of event finales.

For this site’s feature/interview with John Robb of The Membranes, and further links to the band, try here, and for an interview with The Wolfhounds’ David Callahan, plus more on his band, follow this link.

Meanwhile, for details of the Folk Devils and how to get hold of their Beautiful Monsters collected works anthology, try their Facebook page.  And to see what Vukovar Vukovar are up to next, head here.

Special thanks to Joel Goodman for the use of the above photographs. You can see more of his fine work via his website at www.joelgoodman.net

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Coming to terms with The Wolfhounds – the Dave Callahan interview

Hanging Out: The Wolfhounds, beyond the noose and on the loose

Hanging Out: The Wolfhounds, beyond the noose and on the loose

If one recent album sums up the state of the nation in late 2016 more than any other, I reckon it’s The Wolfhounds’ Untied Kingdom (Or How To Come To Terms With Your Culture).

This treasured Greater London outfit’s latest long player, released in the autumn, is the band’s first stand-alone LP since 1990’s Attitude, and comes on the back of mighty 2014 comeback compilation Middle Aged Freaks, their first Odd Box release featuring the clutch of singles that followed their 2012 return and put out around the time of the Optic Nerve label’s reissue of their 1986 debut Unseen Ripples From A Pebble.

While some of the songs on the new album may have been kicking around front-man David Callahan’s front room or a while, I put it to him that it all seems very ‘of the now’.

“A few were written at the beginning of this year, but most have been around for the last two or three years, but with the general feeling of the surroundings of those last few years. I think you’re right though. It’s fairly sad that barely anyone but a few grime artists and maybe Sleaford Mods are in any way singing about people’s lives. Maybe Richard Dawson too, in a kind of abstract way. I mistrust artistic statements about the state of the nation, but there’s no one really addressing that. Particularly with guitars … apart from us.”

The Wolfhounds certainly cover a lot of ground on their latest offering, the canvas spread across a number of key political and social issues, the music inventive yet somewhat in line with all that came before, those de-tuned guitars reminding us who we’re dealing with here.

As the accompanying press release put it, the album incorporates ‘sample mangled dub, freak-beat protest punk and late-night unplugged lo-fi along its 50-minute plus journey’, and ‘musically and lyrically goes pretty much everywhere all other underground bands can’t or won’t go’.

I might as well carry on there, adding, ‘The album summons sometimes dystopic, sometimes frighteningly dysfunctional hallucinations of desperate working life and insecurity, while at the same time being as raw and hardcore celebratory as danceable blues. It’s as modern as any young band could hope to be, but as wise and disturbed as any alert adult has to be. It conjours up demons of the fiercest rock’n’roll along with the unfettered experimentation of singer Callahan’s past band, Moonshake, as well as even the occasional pop hook, to form an expansive whole with surprises around every spin of the turntable.’

Slightly hyperbolic, maybe, but pretty much spot on. All a long way from the chief songwriter’s day-job, you might think, writing about birds and conservation (mostly for Birdwatch magazine). But Walthamstow-based David (‘Isn’t that East 17? I ask, to which he replies, ‘Yes, but no relation’) and his band have never been easy to categorise.

r-426250-1256610883-jpegTake for instance the movement they arguably hitched a lift on the tailcoats of, having appeared on the NME’s near-legendary C86 compilation 30 years ago. Track four, Feeling So Strange Again, only sticks around for one minute 42 seconds, but their inclusion was enough to widen the scope of their support.

I’m not quite sure what I make of that song today. It’s clearly them, but that same year’s wonderful Cut the Cake and Anti-Midas Touch singles were more an accompaniment to many a fan’s cup of tea, and closer to their own considerable live presence. In fact, David reckons that debut 45 and following indie hit were about the only times they felt they properly got to grips with translating live passion to recording tape early on.

Don’t let him talk down the appeal of the first album though, the record that got me hooked on the band. It could have done with a cash injection in recording terms, but can’t be knocked for me. I’d already seen them live and was suitably impressed. But hearing that 1986 Pink Label debut platter made me realise there was a lot more about them, the melodic moments every bit as compelling as the more raucous ones.

And listening again last week made me realise I still love that LP, from wondrous opener Me right through to buzzsaw closer Handy Howard.  Yet in an interview I did with the band in early 1988 – backstage at Aldershot’s West End Centre – they were largely dismissive of it, not least David. Does he still feel that way?

“It sounds a bit better than I felt then. The recording that was more like we wanted to sound was Bright and Guilty. We already sounded like that live, but couldn’t catch it in the studio, even though we had on Cut the Cake and The Anti-Midas Touch.

“By the time the LP was done we were all floundering with the pressures of having to live up to our reputation and not having any money. Some in the band thought we had to be more poppy to make money, others said they hated that kind of music. There was a lot of tension.

“The results are patchy in my estimation. But there are three really good singles there, and a couple of other really good songs, so my toes don’t curl too much when I listen back.”

We’ll have to agree to disagree. They came on with the later albums but I honestly believe it showed their worth as proper songwriters.

“It’s nice to have done that, but I really think what we were doing musically – especially with the guitars – was not captured at all. At the time I found it extremely depressing.”

I first saw The Wolfhounds at the Hammersmith Clarendon’s Klubfoot, third on the bill to That Petrol Emotion and The Mighty Lemon Drops on Valentine’s Night ’86, shortly before their first John Peel session, and before both C86 and that first album surfaced.

o72885Later – as an 19-year-old – I wrote in the second edition of my Captains Log fanzine that ‘listening to their album you’d expect this lot to be a bunch of boys next door playing jangly pop, but with an out of place vocal’, yet ‘it all seemed to make more sense’ and ‘it’s easy to see the album doesn’t represent their live performances’. There may have been lashings of hindsight benefit there though, as by the time my review surfaced, the NME cassette and debut LP were out and they’d released two more cracking singles, Me and Cruelty. 

I had to wait until November ’87 until I saw them again, this time at the iconic 100 Club on Oxford Street. And what a top night. By then we’d had a second Peel session, and I only had four months to wait for my next fix in March ’88, the year of the Son of Nothing single, just over the Surrey/Hampshire border at Aldershot’s Buzz Club, on a night David remembers well. He had little recollection of the interview I did with the band earlier that night (one I intend to upload to this site very soon), but certainly remembered the ‘near-riot’ that ended their set prematurely.

“It’s fairly clear. It was a rather abrupt end to the evening, and in mine and a couple of other people’s cases a bit bloody.”

So what did he make of that interview, having read it for the first time 28 years on?

“It’s always an amusing time capsule. Those kind of interviews were more about the repartee between a bunch of mates who just happen to be in a band. There’s not so much chance for that to happen these days apart from in the back of a van or in a green room. We’re distributed over Essex and London, so it’s pretty hard for us all to get together.”

They next surfaced – as far as I was aware – at the tail-end of 1988 for a third Peel session, one including Happy Shopper and Son of Nothing, and within two months I caught them at Drummond’s in Euston, although I seem to recall that third-on-the-bill Lush grabbed the music press attention. The future was theirs, while The Wolfhounds’ own bumpy ride would be over within 18 months (* interestingly, just a few weeks after this Romford outfit proved their worth on vinyl again, Lush played their final show, at Manchester Academy).

So, back to Untied Kingdom, and it’s an album of many parts, yet works so well, with plenty of surprises but enough classic Wolfhounds moments to remind you who you’re listening to. And it’s intriguing from the start, a capella opener Apparition proving a major curve-ball. I get an image of an Isambard Kingdom Brunel figure there. Am I off the mark?

“That’s pretty much spot-on, really. I sang that straight into my phone about a year and a half ago, and was trying to capture the atmosphere just from that. All the backing vocals were done on my phone as well, with all the extraneous noises from me walking around Alexandra Park – birds singing and trains going past. But it has a vaguely ghostly effect.”

That sets us up nicely for Now I’m a Killer, which for these ears is pure Wolfhounds, not least because of that trademark ‘skewiff’ guitar sound.  Did I just write ‘skewiff’? That’s a word you don’t often see, but I was making notes on my second listen, and somehow came up with that. Then a cursory look at the band’s Wikipedia entry described how the band ‘began as a slightly askew indie pop rock band’. So maybe I’m not the only one who sees it that way.

a1854958397_16“I guess so. It’s kind of half way between Wilko Johnson and Winged Eel Fingerling (Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention). It has pop and rock chops but also flies off at angles all the time. But that’s what we wanted. Our early influences were things like that. We bonded over a mutual love of something between The Who and The Fire Engines.”

Then we come to track three, and in an ideal world (which it clearly isn’t judging by this past year) My Legendary Childhood would be a hit. I love the brass and backing vocals and their blend with David’s voice. Who’s responsible for those factors?

“It’s always a collaboration between you and the people who record it, in this case our house engineer, Anthony Chapman (ex Collapsed Lung), a really good engineer and producer. We record a lot at home but often with his assistance, rather than hiring a studio, with a laptop and record stuff in bedrooms, halls, and front rooms. You can hear from the results how it works so well – way better than most of those we did in expensive studios in the ’80s. Also we have Terry Edwards’ horns on there, who I’ve known since I was 15, and we collaborated when I was in Moonshake.”

Terry seems to have been making quality contributions to great records for as long as I can recall, off the top of my head from working with The Higsons in the early ’80s right through to The Everlasting Yeah last year.

“The same guy, and he plays with PJ Harvey and Gallon Drunk, and sometimes Mick Ronson and David Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti.”

And who’s the female vocalist?

“There are several, but on My Imaginary Childhood it’s Elin Grimstad, who plays in Norwegian psychedelic pop band Je Suis Animal. And I’m on their album when it comes out. We also had Katherine Whitaker, who plays in Evans the Death, another really good band, and Astrud Steehouder, who plays in Paper Dollhouse, a kind of gothy/electronic/ folky band. I go out and see bands a lot and make mental notes when I see good singers!”

I won’t go into every track here, but will finish by mentioning The Stupid Poor, which fits in neatly with the idea of the album being so 2016.

Four's Company: The Wolfhounds, by David Janes

Four’s Company: The Wolfhounds, by David Janes

“That was my attempt to try and catch the neuroses of the way middle class people seem to feel about the underclass these days. Half say how terrible it is, and the other half say, ‘Don’t touch me, keep away from my car and my TV!’ This is me trying to summarise that.”

And is the album selling well?

“Record sales for everyone – no matter how small or big they are – are low.”

So it’s only ever going to be a hobby really?

“As far as putting vinyl records out. There are other ways of getting your music across, but that kind of physical entity is very much a niche interest these days. But so far it’s had the biggest advance and is the largest-selling on the label. So on that level that’s quite good.”

The LP was officially launched with a special show in Islington, with support from another band recently featured on these pages, Dutch duo Deutsche Ashram, who incidentally played the last Un-Peeled event the previous night. Any more dates being lined up?

“We’re booking more, and Cardiff and Bristol are coming in January, with a view to another that same weekend.”

As for The Membranes, Saturday’s Preston show is The Wolfhounds’ last of 2016, with David looking forward to returning to this part of Lancashire after a mid-’80s visit.

scan0014“We drove to Scotland for some dates, but one was cancelled and we ran out of money. We needed to pay for petrol and had just enough to get to Preston, where a friend was. We just about made it, kipped on the floor and had to figure out a way of getting back to London.

“We went busking in a shopping centre and booked a couple of impromptu shows in pubs, handing out fliers someone did in their office, managing to get enough people along to get us home. It took about a week, being stranded in Preston rather than Glasgow, having to use all our talents and abilities to get back.”

Is he looking forward to catching up with (my previous interviewees) The Membranes?

“Yes, and again I’ve known John since the mid-80s, when a friend booked them to play in Romford. I’m also friends with Nick Brown, the guitarist. Our paths often pass through gigs. The Membranes are another good band, and again having a bit of a renaissance.”

Are Moonshake, the band David formed after his original band went their separate ways, on indefinite hold while The Wolfhounds story continues?

“That project’s been on hold since around 1997, although there’s a whole bunch of electronic stuff – at least an LP‘s worth – I’ve been doing, something I’ll work on next year. I also have a solo LP, more acoustic, even closer to being finished. I just need to mix and add a few things.”

David was behind a petition this year in a bid to get Warner Chappell to hand over copyrights and back-date royalties for their early catalogue, citing a breach of contract. The band asked the publishing company to reinstate the songwriting credits of David Callahan and Andrew Golding from The Anti-Midas Touch and six other songs. So where are they up to with that campaign. Is the money flooding in?

“Of course not! But it was really great that it got such a nice response, and I have draft documents handing the rights back to us from Warner Chappell. It’s not much money, but it’s the principle really, and it’s 27 years’ worth, so should have paid for a holiday or something.”

wolf_frontTalking of copyright tissues, any chance of them suing Nirvana or at least getting a percentage of their royalties for that similar riff on Smells Like Teen Spirit?

“I don’t think it’s that similar. Kurt Cobain knew who we were. I met him in Seattle when we were there with Moonshake. But that’s how pop music works – it’s largely people attempting to emulate other songs and failing! We’ve done it too. You try to copy things and it comes out completely different. This whole thing about Marvin Gaye is bullshit really. I’m not sure how lawyers managed to convince a judge there.”

I was half-joking, but do you think maybe you were passed over in the past while others pushed past? The likes of Blur spring to mind.

“I did see a really early Blur gig though, as Steve Mack from That Petrol Emotion said they really sounded like The Wolfhounds. But when I went I was very insulted, actually! Actually, there was another Preston connection that night – they were supporting Dandelion Adventure, who I thought were way better.”

Do you think you could ever have been more of a commercial success – or would the financial excesses have gone to your head, the money spent on yachts and women?

“Yeah, but that’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it? I do feel we were passed by a little, but probably because of our snotty, aggressive attitude. They were much more likely to snap up nice middle-class boys than people who take the piss and misbehave all the time. The Sex Pistols were let through once – they weren’t going to let anyone else through like that … although Happy Mondays managed it in the end!

“We probably would have ended up how they did … if we were still alive. We were young, and ‘caners’ to varying degrees. With money and unlimited success It would have gone horribly wrong. On the other hand, I was more than happy to figure out if that were true!”

The band’s story began in 1984 in Romford as a teenage five-piece, their geographical roots at least giving me a chance to ask David if he grew up hanging out with Five Star.

“I didn’t even know they were from Romford until later.”

Also, I read somewhere that the town’s former export John Bull Bitter – as brought up in my original interview – has recently been relaunched via Charles Wells. Should we be scared?

“That was just horrible generic bitter, wasn’t it. Anyway, everyone in London now is a ponce – they drink IPA. Every pub has its own, every railway arch has a brewery under it!”

1986-iiThere’s just David and Andy Golding left from that original line-up, both supplying guitar, vocals, samples and keyboard skills. Are they still in touch with the other originals?

“Yes, but apart from the drummer that was true anyway when we broke up. And we would have got Frank (Stebbing) involved if he didn’t live in Dubai. We’re still in touch to varying degrees, not least due to these contractual issues. There’s the occasional reunion, but we’re distributed all over the globe. Martin, who played bass, is in Chicago, with the rest of us scattered around the Southern end of this country.

“That Aldershot gig was Martin’s last, and Dave from Belfast’s first. He got the job because he was handy in the fracas afterwards! He wasn’t afraid to get stuck in. There was often a bit of trouble at shows. But that’s just what happened then. Things are much more civilised today. Actually, one of our mates who roadied for us got employed by Primal Scream and The House of Love after he took on a rugby club at York University after a show we played with the latter.”

Then there’s Pete Wilkins on drums and Richard Golding – a younger brother of Andy – on bass.

“Yes, and Richard used to roadie for us, so it was a natural progression.”

This time at Preston it will just be David and Andy though, for a special one-off acoustic set of old and new Wolfhounds songs, after Pete was ruled out at the 11th hour due to a back problem.

Having recorded three John Peel sessions for BBC Radio One with The Wolfhounds between ’86 and ’88, plus one with Moonshake in November ’92 and another with Miss Mend in June ’99 (‘a band that became the Project. I played guitar and synthesiser with them.’), did David ever get to meet the inspiration behind Saturday night’s event?

“No, he very rarely came down to sessions. Occasionally he would write you a letter though – a personal note. Mostly it was all done through John Walters and the BBC office. Your manager would get a call to be there at a certain time. I think you were allowed eight hours, with no breaks. We’d virtually play live, with a few vocal overdubs or whatever. Often we played the songs a bit too fast, particularly because of nerves or reasons you’re not allowed to publish! But they gave a fairly accurate representation of what the band was doing live at the time.”

r-850292-1196766355-jpegFast forward now to 2006, when Bob Stanley of St Etienne curated a 20th anniversary event at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London to mark the release of that initial NME C86 cassette, marked by a special exhibition and two nights of live music featuring bands on the original album, plus an enlarged triple-disc reissue, CD86 – Still Doing It For Fun, with The Wolfhounds among those involved. Back under the microscope and the bacterial kaleidoscope, you could say. So what had changed for the band to return?

“We got together as a one-off, for the hell of it when it was 20 years since Cut the Cake came out, We did one show and it went quite well, but then I was off to Madagascar for seven weeks. I used my savings to buy myself on to an expedition, while working in a warehouse and doing a degree at night school.

“But the following year Bob Stanley waved the ICA at us, where we made a horrendous racket which more or less divided the entire audience! Around half walked out while the other half thought it was the best thing they’d seen for years … kind of ideal really!”

I should put it on record that the original compilation wasn’t just a collection of wishy-washy guitar bands. There were plenty of abrasive and off-kilter moments too. Did David feel that being on that compilation along with all those other emerging indie bands did his band more harm than good?

“It was a double-edged sword. Five albums after that, there are still people who think we’re still some twee, jingle-jangle pop band, which we never were really. But it also means the people interested in all that come and see us. And it’s younger people as well, so that partly gives us a new audience – a lot of people in their early 20s come along now.”

You don’t strike me as someone to dine out on the past, with regard to the anniversary circuit (he asks, without irony, just before they play the latest John Peel tribute night). Is that what My Legendary Childhood is about?

“Well, it’s looking back on those days with jaundiced specs! But we looked back in the same rose-tinted manner on the days of ’60s garage as younger people look back on the mid-‘80s with rose-tinted specs. We’re saying it was quite tough in those days, but we’re also saying it’s even tougher now, so you shouldn’t give up – still do it!”

I guess my life had moved on, so while I loved a lot of the 1989 Midnight Music albums Blown Away and Bright and Guilty, not least the singles Happy Shopper and Rent Act, I can’t recall much about the following year’s Attitude, their fourth critically-acclaimed long player and what turned out to be their last for more than 20 years. Was my ignorance on that count the general way of things, sales-wise?

“It was diminishing returns, really. We felt the better we got the less we were selling, at least in Britain. When we were touring Switzerland, Germany and France we were getting good crowds and people were buying the new records. But over here people had lost interest. I still consider that to be the case really – we were improving continually but no one was interested.

r-430924-1256611607-jpeg“In retrospect, it’s quite hard to consider how tied up the scene was with the music press. They called the shots, and if you didn’t get a prominent review you were done for. Also, John Peel wasn’t really into the later stuff so much, so we couldn’t get a session there. Our whole lifeblood of the radio and the press was cut off apart from in Europe. Over there, we’d still get sessions, reviews, publicity, interviews, so tried to tour there as much as we could.

“But we were hitting 30 and completely skint, half of the band still living with their parents, rehearsing in front rooms. Also, I’d fallen in love with the idea of sampling by then, as was used minimally on a couple of the later albums. I could see massive potential yet knew the band weren’t going to be into that.”

Hence Moonshake. The die was cast.

“Exactly, yeah.”

In more recent years, David has certainly moved on, having gone on to complete a Master of Science degree in taxonomy and biodiversity at London’s Imperial College and carving out a career in conservation. He’s also published a well-received book, A History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects. And since I’ve known that, I’ve looked back on at least two of those early songs in a different light. When I hear about Cruelty‘s ‘scientist in research’ I see David in a white coat (albeit as an ethical, animal-friendly scientist, of course), while that ‘dumb advertising’ on In Transit has me thinking of the songwriter as he ‘swans around Greater London’ or ‘ducks and dives around Dartford’, probably on some exposed bit of estuary, a pair of binoculars in his hand.

“Well, it has been known!”

And seeing as David’s a father to 11-year-own twins, I felt I should ask if his children have been known to go around whistling Happy Shopper or Sandy from time to time?

“Err, no, but they have been known to inspire the odd song, but not in a namby-pamby kind of way. They have a knack of saying quite surreal things that sometimes seem quite apposite. They have barely any interest in music, although my daughter likes Little Mix and they sometimes come with me to matinees or see me perform acoustically, and normally cringe with embarrassment or say something non-committal!”

Despite that vote of non-confidence, since their return The Wolfhounds have carried on from where they left off, not just making cutting-edge recordings but in the last few years playing some happening venues and events too, such as the New York and Berlin Popfests, and the Scared To Get Happy box-set and afore-mentioned C86 reissue launch nights.

There have also been dates in Paris, Madrid and Norway, plus several John Peel tribute bills and their own headline shows, while back in March, comedian Stewart Lee invited them to play the final ATP (All Tomorrow’s Party) event in Wales, where they also went down a storm. Then came Untied Kingdom, and I get the feeling there’s plenty more where that came from in 2017. Watch this space.

Quiet Corner: The Wolfhounds love to curl up with a good book (Photo: Andrew Springham)

Quiet Corner: The Wolfhounds love to curl up with a good book (Photo: Andrew Springham)

At time of going to press, a few tickets (£12 plus booking or £14 on the door) remained for Saturday, December 3’s Un-Peeled Xmas Party (7.30pm-11.30pm), starring The Membranes, The Wolfhounds, The Folk Devils and Vukovar, with details on the Un-Peeled Facebook page, via the bands, or this WeGotTickets.com link.

And for all the latest from The Wolfhounds try them via their Bandcamp, Facebook and Twitter links.

 

 

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Tripping the dark fantastic with The Membranes – in conversation with John Robb

Bass Instinct: John Robb, in action with The Membranes (Photo: Phil Newall)

Bass Instinct: John Robb, in action with The Membranes (Photo: Phil Newall)

It’s fair to say that the bands topping the bill at this weekend’s Un-Peeled Christmas Party at The Continental, Preston, Lancashire, are enjoying something of a renaissance.

Post-punk outfit The Membranes and C86 outsiders The Wolfhounds have both released LPs to be proud of in recent times, three decades after they first shared dressing rooms on the indie circuit. And they’ve shifted more albums in the last couple of years than for many moons, with critical acclaim heaped upon them from the more discerning music press.

More of the latter in the next feature on this site, but first I’m focusing on fellow Death to Trad Rock troubadours The Membranes, talking inner space, outer space, dark energy, dark matter and much more with the band’s bassist and front-man John Robb.

At times it seems that Blackpool born and bred John’s never off our TV screens, this human whirlwind of an author, blogger, broadcaster and journalist something of a ‘go to’ talking head when it comes to online, on screen and on air tributes to lost rock stars and all manner of conversations regarding music culture’s past, present and future.

You may even recall talk of the last of the rocking mohawks on these very pages recently, as Ajay Saggar and Marcus Parnell reminisced about their formative days with ‘80s Preston indie favourites Dandelion Adventure.

The Membranes were a major catalyst for that band, with Marcus (aka ‘Fat Mark’) leading a loyal army of fervent fans following them all over. And it seems that John’s band – back together since 2009 – still inspire that level of adulation all over. But first, a bit about those Lancashire roots.

“Preston’s always been a big part of The Membranes’ story, and always a great place to play back In the old days. In the post-punk era, Blackpool had the bands and Preston had the audience, with classic venues like The Warehouse. We had some great gigs there, with people like Mark from Much Hoole and others smashing up venues!”

I think he’s being metaphorical there, but didn’t ask, instead fast-forwarding to November 2016 and The Membranes’ recent dates with The Sisters of Mercy. How did the Leeds rockers’ crowd react to their support act?

“It was an amazing reaction. When you’re supporting you never know what you’re going to get, and may get audiences resenting the fact that this other band’s playing. But they were really open from the first song. Even those who didn’t get it were trying hard to be really positive. And all the CDs we took along sold.”

12803293_10154004849639185_1994445922401642799_nThere seem to be lots of physical record sales of late, be it for 2015’s Dark Matter/Dark Energy (Cherry Red) or more recent remix LP Inner Space Outer Space (Louder than War), with its reworks of the previous album’s initial songs masterminded by the likes of the Manic Street Preachers, the Bad Seeds, Einsturzende Neubaten, Keith Levene, Reverend And The Makers, The Pop Group, and many more.

“It’s the economics of rock’n’roll these days. Not every town and city is blessed with a shop like Action Records, with people out of the habit of buying in shops. And a lot still think they can get it off the internet for free.”

The Membranes have also toured with Killing Joke and Therapy this year, and this site’s favourite band The Undertones, with a great photo of both bands together a few weeks back, captioned ‘The nicest chaps in rock and roll with the nicest chaps in rock and roll’.

“Yeah, we got on very well, and have known them a really long time. They’re really nice people to tour with. That’s also the case for The Sisters (of Mercy), despite them having a reputation for being difficult, and the fact that Andrew Eldridge doesn’t suffer fools.”

Away from the band, I see John’s got a live date in the diary with The Smiths’ guitar legend Johnny Marr, following the publication of the Mancunian’s autobiography, with the pair in conversation at Birmingham Town Hall (Friday, December 9th, with details here). Will he be taking his bass along?

“Well, I know he’ll take his guitar along … but he’s a very high standard, isn’t he!”

Are you suggesting you’re not?

“I’m really good at my style, but I don’t practise his style. I’m in that Peter Hook school. He told me (the pair in conversation to mark the publication of Peter’s Unknown Pleasures – Inside Joy Division book four years ago) The Rolling Stones once asked him to join, making their shortlist. He thought that was amazing, but then said, ‘To be honest – I can’t learn your songs’.

“He can’t play cover versions, and that’s a very post-punk thing, I think – picking up a guitar or bass and writing music without learning how to play music, coming up with your own style. Nowadays people tend to go to college for four years and learn every song. I don’t know which way’s best really. It’s quite good to be able to pick out your own style.”

Mohawk Master: John Robb in live action with The Membranes (Photo: Phil Newall)

Mohawk Master: John Robb in live action with The Membranes (Photo: Phil Newall)

Incidentally, what ever became of John’s original, erm … distinctive homemade bass?

“It was stolen out of my house – a complete nightmare, around 1992. It was heart-breaking – it meant absolutely nothing to anyone else. It only ever worked for me. I’m sure they nicked it, got halfway down the street, then thought, ‘What the f*** is that?’ It looks like a stick!’ People would borrow but couldn’t play it. It was so small and a weird shape and it’s hard to get your hand around it. But these days I’d probably still use what I’ve got now – my (Fender) Precision – because it’s a heavier sound.”

The Membranes have certainly packed in a lot of work this year – not bad for a band up for a 40th anniversary next year.

“It would be if we hadn’t taken 25 years off!”

Okay, so John’s also been at the helm of fellow punk rockers Goldblade since ’95, among all his other media work and writing, but let’s not split hairs.

“It was a long weekend!”

It’s not like you were idle for all those years.

“We had to take time off to study the universe.”

You didn’t go too far though.

“No, we just went to Manchester! The thing is that we only came back because My Bloody Valentine asked us to play the ATP (All Tomorrow’s Parties) Festival. That went really well, so we did this album. I just wanted to make a record I could listen to on the headphones and go, ‘F***! That sounds good!’ But then a few more said, ‘F***! That does sound good!”

14718717_10154651021854185_5936125292192229257_n“I thought it would just be me, but it’s rolled and rolled, ending up being our bestseller, doubling the sales of anything we put out before. It’s like everyone’s caught up with us. When we started people didn’t know what we were and would look baffled when we were playing. Then all these American bands turned up and we got told we were ripping them off! Err – yeah, of course – we had a crystal ball to look into the future!’

“Coming from Blackpool it makes it all the more difficult. Section 25 suffered that as well. To me their first album (1981’s Always Now) equals Joy Division’s – an amazing record. Yet in interviews there will be references to candy floss, the Tower … I’ve no problem with that, but our contemporaries like The Fall came from Manchester, Nick Cave was living in Berlin, Sonic Youth came out of New York … all cooler places. But coming from Blackpool they thought we must be taking the piss!”

So, just a few miles back up the road from his Fylde coast roots, what can we expect from John and his band this time at the ‘Conti’?

“We’ve got a whole new album ready, so will play three or four songs off that. And it’s not even recorded yet. We’re not really lumbered with hit records. If you’re The Undertones you’ve got to play Teenage Kicks, because it sells every venue out, and Lemmy always played Ace of Spades and never complained because it kept him going. But we can just play what we like – we’re not hampered by having a hit!”

Won’t there be someone out there shouting for the cult single that made No.6 in John Peel’s Festive 50 in 1984 – Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder?

“Occasionally you’ll get that, but for us it’s more about the sound and the attitude. I’ll be disappointed if people expect us just to play songs they semi-remember from 30 years ago, and just hope they will understand what we’re trying to do.

“For us it feels a lot better now. All the ideas we had in the ‘80s were way beyond our means and the songs were too difficult to play. They were so complex – almost like prog songs. Coming out of punk we only knew about two things. Now, if we want to go classical or into all these mad directions we know how to do it.”

So can we expect something of a celebration of all that dark matter, dark energy, inner space and outer space?

r-1014032-1184217392-jpeg“Yeah, we’ve always been fascinated by space, and when I met the head of the CERN project after a TEDx talk, we had a massive conversation all about the universe, and everything he told me fused with the album, which is very dark sounding. The idea of dark matter and the mystery of it poetically fascinated me, so it had to be the album title, and the songs started to feed into that.”

What will the line-up be on the night in Preston?

“A four-piece – me and Nick Brown from Blackpool, Rob (Haynes) from Manchester and Pete (Byrchmore) from Birmingham.”

And the other acts on the bill (I asked him this before a late change added Vukovar to the bill)?

“We’re not competitive – we all like each other. I love The Wolfhounds’ new album. We all kind of cheer each other on. You’re on the barricades together. We’ve never had that sense of competitiveness that you get in the bigger music scene. Maybe that’s why we all end up in cult bands!

“I only met The Folk Devils once, for about 20 seconds! We both supported The Fall at The Lyceum in London in 1984. It’ll be nice to meet them properly. They’re a great band too. It’s an amazing bill, and Rico (la Rocca, promoting the event as ‘Tuff Life Boogie’) does amazing stuff for Preston, with these really diverse bills. It’s a big town, and Gordon (Gibson) at Action Records has helped give it that reputation. But for the kind of music he’s putting on it’s an outpost, compared to Manchester.

”Similarly, we played Middlesbrough last week and on the night about 120 came and the promoter made a profit – I’ve never seen him so happy! I like playing those fringe towns and taking complex, weird music out there. And if people get to hear what we do, I think they’ll like it.”

Releasing the Flexible Membrane EP in 1980, did John ever contemplate that almost four decades later there would still be such an interest in Europe, the UK and the US for the band by the time he reached the grand old age of 55?

“When you’re young you don’t think past 25, and we were all set to burn out – living pretty fast. You’d think no one would like that kind of music by now. But – staring 60 in the eye – it’s more popular than ever, and virtually every band that came out of 1977/80 still going, apart from The Clash. It has a longevity no one expected.

“When we were 17 we loved Captain Beefheart, Howling Wolf and loads of old blues guys, and we’re a modern version of all that – old people who haven’t lost our edge really.”

51q5up2rvul-_sx305_bo1204203200_Three decades after their Death to Trad Rock EP (also the title of a John Robb book and tie-in CD on the ‘80s post-punk fanzine scene in 2009), give us a medical condition check on rock’s life expectancy right now – is it good, fair, critical, serious or dead?

“Ha! Rock music is a great musical form but at that point in time it was too suffocating. But one of the great things about rock music is that it keeps morphing into different forms.

“Some of the best things today are on the fringes of metal – when they go into drone or psychedelia, bands like Wardruna from Norway – Viking folk music played on traditional instruments. That’s where all the weird shit is! If (John) Peel was alive now he’d be playing that kind of thing.

Death to Trad Rock was just a cool title to antagonise at the time, but also a celebration. People will think they’re hip and say we’re only allowed to like certain types of music. But we got past that crap about 100 years ago!”

There certainly seems to have been a shift from the old big record company approach to a more punk DIY model, regarding ‘crowdfunding’ and so on.

“I like crowdfunding, and it works for us. We crowdfunded our remix album and we’re going to crowdfund a film about the universe too. Now, 20 years ago you’d have to go on your knees and grovel to someone asking them to give you money for a film, and they’d still say no. But we have an opportunity to make a film now, and with the technology can make something much cheaper.

“I love film, but of course I’m more into my music, and will spend every penny to make that perfect … or perfectly imperfect!”

How was it recording a BBC Radio One session for John Peel back in 1984?

“The same as for everyone really – it was a bit odd, because Dale Griffin was a bit grumpy! But I was a massive Mott the Hoople fan, so put up with it. It’s just a shame it wasn’t (Mott bass legend) Overend Watts, who I met at an after-show party on their previous tour. He was such a hero when I was 12 or 13, and I told him, ‘I’ve just got to shake your hand’ And – unbelievably – he said, ‘It’s John Robb, isn’t it? From The Membranes? I love your band!’”

“I thought, ‘How the f*** does Overend Watts know my band?’ But he liked The Monks and all that weird underground cult music. So we became good friends and have kept in touch.”

Those alternative celebrity endorsements must count for a lot, not least the love previously professed for his band by Big Black singer-songwriter and guitarist turned acclaimed sound engineer Steve Albini, and My Bloody Valentine singer-songwriter turned producer Kevin Shields.

Beyond Spike: John Robb lets rip with post-punk survivors The Membranes (Photo: Phil Newall)

Beyond Spike: John Robb lets rip with post-punk survivors The Membranes (Photo: Phil Newall)

“There’s always things you tell people, but they think you’re making it up! But we were the first band to be recorded by Albini after Big Black. We went to his house and recorded an album in his cellar. He’d never been asked before.

“When we recorded Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder, we felt that sounded perfect but had no idea how we got it to sounds like that. But when we went to his house he showed me all his Membranes records and Rox fanzines (John’s first publication) that he bought in Rough Trade in 1985, and he said he’d been trying to find me. He wanted my label to put his early records out. I tell people that now and they say, ‘That can’t be right! It must be the other way around.”

Well, it would seem that Steve Albini at least has a more romantic notion of Blackpool’s musical worth then.

“Ha! It probably fascinates him more. It’s like with Shellac (the occasional Chicago three-piece, including Steve Albini). We played the Brudenell in Leeds last night and they were also on, and they just like playing cool venues. Instead of playing London you could probably get them to play Blackpool instead. They don’t work in a conventional way. They play weird gigs in weird towns. And I reckon Steve will have been fascinated by how we sounded like we do coming from a town that was totally different.

“As for Kevin Shields, My Bloody Valentine used to support us in Manchester, and Nick (Brown) played on their first release. That’s why Kevin reformed us really.”

If John had to boil down a career in The Membranes to two gigs, which would he choose?

“The choir gig we played in Estonia or Manchester. That was mind-blowing. You’d think, how does that work?’ But it does – really well! I saw this choir in Estonia – Sireen – during Tallinn Music Week and went up to them after and said, ‘We’ve got to work together!’

“I managed to get a gig with an Estonian promoter, but had never worked with a choir before, so it was a case of me singing parts to them. They then brought in Estonian folk songs, which we arranged around a piano. The only rehearsal we had was the soundcheck of the actual gig. I like to take a gamble! It could have gone badly wrong, but I felt I had nothing to lose. It’s not a career – everything’s on a tightrope!

Choral Treat: The Membranes with the BIMM choir, set to be heard again together at Manchester's Ritz in April 2017 (Photo: BIMM)

Choral Treat: The Membranes with the BIMM choir and BBC 6 Music’s Marc Riley, set to be heard again together at Manchester’s Ritz in April 2017 (Photo: BIMM)

“We’re now set to play The Ritz in Manchester with a 20-piece choir next year (the British and Irish Modern Music Instititute – BIMM – choir, on Saturday, April 29th, in a show also featuring ex-Fall chanteuse Brix with her band The Extricated, Dub Sex, The Blinders, and more. For details head here). It’s a massive venue and another big risk, but tickets are going well.”

It must be a buzz to have all those voices behind his band. At this rate, are we likely to see John take over from Gareth Malone on the BBC series The Choir?

“Weirdly, that was mentioned the other day. I don’t watch telly and someone had to explain to me who he was, but … okay. We are a punk band, but punk to me is being very smart and revolutionary, taking risks and gambles with music.”

Rather than burning rare acetates of Sex Pistols singles (he says, bringing up a recent publicity stunt by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s son Joe Corre, who burned an estimated £5m worth of Pistols and punk memorabilia in protest at what he saw as punk’s 40th anniversary celebrations turning music’s revolution into a ‘museum piece’)?

“I don’t give a f*** about burning stuff. I just don’t like the way he’s talking on behalf of everyone else, saying punk is over. Try telling that to a 15-year-old kid inspired by this ancient spirit to go and do some art, being told he can’t! You can’t burn that. Joe Corre’s got £47m in his bank account because he sold underpants and knickers. It’s nothing to do with him.”

With its online empire, magazine, record company and so on, John’s sideline, Louder Than War, has certainly made a huge impact and proved it’s here to stay. The site’s 15-part manifesto alone is certainly a joy, and rather stirring too (with a link here). Do his writers have to chant those 15 points as a mantra every morning?

“That would be a great idea, like in Chairman Mao’s China – the Little Red Book, a digital version! It’s important to set parameters, but so many people write for us and what we’re really into is encouraging young writers.

“A girl from Blackpool did her first review for the site last week, on the band Lush, and their bass player started bitching about my writer and all these other old writers started criticising her syntax and grammar. But all their grammar was wrong as well. These are just old men of my age, moaning and complaining!

14907002_1154569294623731_7553018851655712774_n“The only bad thing about young people now is that they don’t tell those old people to f*** off! That’s what we did. They’ve got so much talent, but they’re scared of the old people. I see that on The X-Factor, where a 20-year-old singer’s so desperate they’ll be kow-towing to some weirdo creep like Louis Walsh. Why? Just make your own art!”

So what’s John’s advice for a new band coming through, from someone who’s been out there and at it for four decades now?

“One of my favourite words is ‘relentless’, and you don’t get in a band to avoid getting a job. It’s one of the toughest jobs in the world. Okay, it’s not like picking people off a road after they’ve been hit by a bus or working down the pits, but it’s very low-paid and you get snubbed or slagged off all the time.

“You really need an immense amount of self-belief and an incredible work ethic. All day you’re working and hustling like mad. Most musicians are quite introverted people, but the only way people are going to hear you is by you telling them you exist.

“It’s easier now with the internet, but back in the day I’d stand in a callbox in Blackpool for six hours a night, putting in washers the drummer stole from GEC in Preston, the same size as 10p pieces. For about three years all our phone calls were free. But it was f***ing freezing – just off the prom, with a howling wind coming off the sea.

“Yet that attitude and idea of standing there in a callbox all night calling one person after another, asking if they’ve got another number so I could ring the next person, was basically what you had to do.

“Also – write and keep writing, writing, writing, and keep playing, playing, playing. It’s an amazing life, unless you want a proper house in a proper kind of world – you won’t have that!”

 Finally, with the John Peel link in mind again, to mark your Un-Peeled Xmas Party appearance, let’s go back to  Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder‘s No. 6 placing in the festive 50 in 1984. There was talk of there being many similar postcodes and handwriting on the entries. What have you got to say for yourself, John?

“What happened was that my brother enthusiastically sent four postcards from Liverpool while he was at university there. I don’t think he understood the concept of how you rig a poll, so probably wrote the same thing on each, and Peel thought we’d fixed it. And because he mentioned it, it sort of stuck.

Lining Up: The Membranes in live action, with John Robb flanked by drummer Rob Haynes and guitarist Pete Byrchmore (Photo: Phil Newall)

Lining Up: The Membranes in live action, with John Robb flanked by drummer Rob Haynes and guitarist Pete Byrchmore (Photo: Phil Newall)

“But I think it was more likely that because you had a choice of songs you’d write down two you liked then put a curve-ball in for the third, and because of the title of our song, that was one you’d automatically think of. It had such an impact that year, so those who maybe voted for The Cure and New Order might have felt that was a bit mainstream so also voted for us – something off the wall.

“Ours was the ‘go to’ weird track, and got us one more radio play. And I still think it’s a great record. I’m my own worst critic, but when you get it right … I still play that record and think, ‘F***!’

“We did it in an all-night session, took it back to Mark Tilton’s house the next morning and were just rolling around on the floor, laughing, because it was so f***ing perfect! We kept playing the beginning, where the bass comes in, over and over again, thinking, ‘F***! That sounds good!”

At time of going to press, a few tickets (£12 plus booking or £14 on the door) remained for Saturday, December 3’s Un-Peeled Xmas Party (7.30pm-11.30pm), starring The Membranes, The Wolfhounds, The Folk Devils and Vukovar, with details on the Un-Peeled Facebook page, via the bands, or this WeGotTickets.com link.

Be sure to come back here for writewyattuk’s Wolfhounds feature over the next day, starring David Callahan. In the meantime, you can keep up to date with all things Membranes via their websiteFacebook and Twitter links.  

And for all the latest from Louder Than War, head to John Robb’s site here.

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A weekend to savour (pt. II) … The Undertones – Kentish Town, The Forum 

Derry's Finest: The Undertones, sound-checking at Manchester Academy earlier on the tour (Photo copyright: Kate Greaves)

Derry’s Finest: The Undertones, sound-checking at Manchester Academy earlier on the tour (Photo: Kate Greaves)

What a weekend, with Friday’s blinding set from The Vapors in Liverpool followed by a road-trip to Kent for a rare Woking FC away win, then up to the smoke for The Undertones’ 40th anniversary tour finale.

That said, let’s get the miserable stuff out of the way first, as I’m still kicking myself for not getting in earlier and working my way down the front, the snob in me not so keen on sharing this special moment with such a big (sell-out) crowd.

Yet while I might have preferred a ‘secret gig’ in The Bull and Gate next door, I certainly don’t begrudge the band the fact that all these years on they can still fill a place this size. That’s some going. And while I’d have preferred something more intimate, I had plenty of chances to pick more of a backwater during this 26-date six-month ‘jaunt’ (other than a memorable evening at Chester’s Live Rooms in June, reviewed here).

Compared to The Vapors’ 35-year hiatus (after barely four years together initially), it seems like The Undertones never really left us, despite that 16-year gap between Feargal Sharkey’s last shows out front in ’83 and the start of the Paul McLoone era in ’99. And while we were celebrating 40 years since those early Derry appearances, I was celebrating 35 since my debut (Positive Touch tour, mid-June ’81, Guildford Civic Hall).

My own key moments were mostly up the A3 in London, not least those Lyceum and Crystal Palace FC farewells in the summer of ’83, the first post-Sharkey shows outside Derry in 2000 at Harlesden’s Mean Fiddler and the Fleadh, Finsbury Park, and a later date at The Garage in Highbury. So a venue where I saw the O’Neill brothers with That Petrol Emotion in ’87 and ’88 (in its Town & Country Club era) seemed an apt choice for this tour’s finale.

My mood on arrival wasn’t helped by a late arrival, missing out on a first chance to see Cork’s Sultans of Ping FC in 24 years (Aldershot Buzz Club, October ’92). Put that down to traffic woes – it seems to have got far worse since my first regular trips ‘up town’ in the mid-80s. And then there were the bar prices – enough to make anyone from outside the capital weep. Three (not even full) plastic beakers of Old Speckled Hen for £16.50? Are you having a giraffe?

So there I was, nursing my ale, struggling to get much closer than the sound-desk to the action, surrounded by less committed punters, shall we say. But help was at hand from Derry’s finest, on a night when few acts could have successfully lifted my spirits. And I swear The Undertones can still raise the dead on their night.

Higher Ground: The view from above at The Apex, Bury St Edmunds (Photo: Kate Greaves)

Higher Ground: The view from above at The Apex, Bury St Edmunds (Photo: Kate Greaves)

From the opening chords of Jimmy Jimmy to Jump Boys, Whizz Kids, I Gotta Getta and onwards, they were on top form, although I struggled at first, a fair few around me latching on to the bigger hits but generally nonplussed with the rest. It didn’t help that someone to my right was shouting, ‘Jimmy Jimmy, oh!!!’ after every line. But as the night wore on I successfully channelled the vibe – managing to work my way down the front, at least figuratively speaking.

And what’s not to like when you can look up and see Damian and John flanking the stage, Billy working away at the back. Paul preening in the centre, and Mickey wise-cracking by his side? Yes, there were moments when my neighbours were a little lost amid less celebrated songs like Dig Yourself Deep (‘If you don’t know this one, don’t worry, it’ll be over in one minute 52 seconds,’ said Paul) and Much Too Late. But they loved the bigger hits, so fair play. In fact, they couldn’t push that ‘record’ button on their phones fast enough at times.

On a dark and miserable winter’s night, Here Comes The Summer offered us a few rays of sunshine for the soul, while Tearproof, Hypnotised, Family Entertainment and Nine Times Out of Ten were heaven-sent. And although there should have been a bigger surge from the back for (relatively) modern classic Thrill Me and the ever-awesome Male Model, there was a genuine seismic shift for Teenage Kicks. And from there, where but True Confessions?

Pretty soon we had punk rock exclamation mark You Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It?) and Girls That Don’t Talk, before the mood shifted for the delightful Wednesday Week and fellow ‘slowie’ Julie Ocean, the pace cranked up again for She’s A Runaround, Listening In and Get Over You, the band bidding us farewell but in no way finished.

Along the way there was also the Heartbreakers’ Get Off The Phone, Billy’s Third (‘This was our drummer’s third song, he sold the first two to The Beatles,’ said Mickey), It’s Gonna Happen, The Love Parade, and When Saturday Comes, which it clearly had. And what an encore – from the tell-tale opening riff of I Know A Girl they never let up, My Perfect Cousin going down a storm before Top Twenty gave rise to the song it namechecks, T-Rex’s Sold Gold Easy Action, another special moment.

Still they weren’t done, this 10-legged jukebox of delights giving us Girls Don’t Like It before they went mad down the front for Mars Bars. I thought that was surely it. How do you top that? But a genuinely lovely moment followed, John Peel’s dulcet tones coming over the PA, introducing ‘the best record in the whole history of the world ever’, barely half an hour after its last airing.

Twice in one evening, with such a great back-catalogue to delve into? Well, if it was good enough for Peel, it was good enough for me … and definitely worked. What’s more, it was really the only way to end this mammoth tour, on a night when we had more than 30 songs to marvel at. Thanks fellas, and here’s to the 41st anniversary jaunt.

Saturday Comes: Damian, Paul, Mickey and John out front - what an attacking line-up (Photo: Kate Greaves)

Saturday Comes: Damian, Paul, Mickey and John out front – what an attacking line-up (Photo: Kate Greaves)

For a whole host of Undertones-related feature-interviews (including those with Mickey Bradley, Billy Doherty, Paul McLoone and Damian O’Neill), reviews and general ramblings on this site, type ‘Undertones’ into the search engine and see what happens. 

With thanks to lighting supremo Kate Greaves for the use of the live and soundcheck photographs from the 40th anniversary tour.  

 

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A weekend to savour (pt. I) …The Vapors – The Loft, Liverpool Arts Club

Backstage Pass: David Fenton, Ed Bazalgette, Steve Smith and Michael Bowes at Dingwall's (Photograph courtesy of © Derek D’Souza at www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

Backstage Pass: David Fenton, Ed Bazalgette, Steve Smith and Michael Bowes at Dingwall’s (Photograph courtesy of © Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

I could say I’d been waiting 35 years for this weekend to come, but that’s being a bit melodramatic. One thing’s for sure though – I finally got to see a band I suspected I’d never catch live, and they were well worth the wait.

I’d already missed the openers in Dublin and Camden Town, and had no chance of getting to Wolverhampton the following night on this four-show return. What’s more, at eight o’clock last Friday evening the odds were still pretty much stacked against myself and a mate (back from Finland to mark the occasion) getting to this venue either. But on a treacherous November night, despite the traffic jams and foul weather encountered en route from my Lancashire base, we successfully navigated our way across Liverpool before a ‘trickling down the neck’ sleet-storm on the final leg up Seel Street.

Our late arrival ruled out support act Klammer and guest DJ Jacqui Carroll’s spot, but we were in time for the main attraction, not least thanks to a fellow attendee swapping my plastic fiver for pound coins in the nearest car park, saving me the ignominy of feeding 60 titchy fivepences into a cantankerous ticket machine.

I’d seen fellow Guildford lad Steve Smith with later John Peel sessioneers Shoot! Dispute a couple of times, but never with his breakthrough band … until now. And while we’re all a little older, there was no mistaking him nor band-mates Ed Bazalgette and Dave Fenton as they filed out to join Howard Smith’s replacement, drummer Michael Bowes.

David’s hair has turned … erm, a lighter shade, while Ed’s has … well, gone. As for Steve, he was as I perhaps imagined – like a kid brother of fellow Surrey bass guitar legend Jean-Jacques Burnel. Yet I reckon they retain the youthful looks of the fellas I’ve seen belting out Turning Japanese on all those Top of the Pops re-runs. The years have been pretty good to The Vapors, and the spirit clearly remains.

Where I was, four or five rows back (my guest for the weekend always preferred to hog stage right) I couldn’t see much of Ed, but now and again he strode forward, guitar in hand, taking in his wider audience (and a few of us were wider, it had to be said). Besides, I was in a prime position to catch the others.

Arguments aside about Howard not being around this time, Michael was a revelation, a real powerhouse, regularly off his stool to catch a cymbal or lead from the rear. He was having so much fun too, and it was contagious. In this case at least, a happy drummer makes for a happy band and happy crowd.

Lining Up: The Vapors, in live action at the Arts Club in Liverpool, November 2016 (Photo: Owen Carne)

Lining Up: The Vapors, in live action at the Arts Club in Liverpool, November 2016 (Photo: Owen Carne)

While Ed was closer, Steve’s bass was more prominent to these ears, and together with Michael’s percussive masterclass we had a perfect foundation for those six-strings and great songs. And the voices? There was talk of detuning by half a tone to reach the notes, but not once did I feel anything less than admiration for the results. What’s more, those harmonies really worked.

Cards on the table – I was always a first album man, and still love New Clear Days, while at times I struggled with Magnets. Yet this performance made me appreciate all the more the fine songs on there. If anything, the live versions were better, inspiring me to go back and listen again with fresh ears.

There’s talk of new songs when the band return next year, but this time it was all about the back-catalogue, and we were treated to all but one track off the debut LP, six off the follow-up, both sides of the debut 45, two more B’s, and a rarity. And they started with the latter, warming up nicely (while I was still drying out) on Secret Noise, before News at Ten, the first of many emotional highs for this fan, leaving me in no doubt I really was there. I wasn’t even a teenager when that LP was released (not quite), yet here they were – back again, especially for me (of course).

There were early technical issues, Dave disappearing with his guitar while the others jokingly considered carrying on without him, giving brief snatches of two b-sides I love – Wasted and Talk Talk. Maybe next time, eh.

Galleries for Guns saw them away again, and then came the first of those Magnets tracks to make an impact, Steve’s rumbling bass and Ed’s staccato guitar punctuating Johnny’s in Love Again, before an elongated Live at the Marquee, complete with instrumental duelling, each leaving us in no doubt as to the competency of this quartet. The hours rehearsing had clearly paid off.

Spring Collection is always my ‘go to’ opener, and the band were in their stride by now, fellow lead track Jimmie Jones keeping that vibe super-fresh. Meanwhile, the ever-poignant Letter from Hiro was always destined to be a highlight, and was everything I hoped for, a favourite on the deck and now in concert too.

Those neat three-part harmonies on Isolated Case led us nicely towards a sublime Sixty Second Interval, my lop-sided smile remaining for Somehow and the military might of Cold War, the strength in depth on New Clear Days all too apparent.

Behind You: Michael Bowes calls the shots at Dingwall's (Photograph courtesy of © Derek D’Souza at www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

Behind You: Michael Bowes calls the shots at Dingwall’s (Photograph courtesy of © Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

The band joked about writing about venues that would ultimately see them close, and up next was Civic Hall. Again, Ed was out of my sight for much of it, but I was pretty sure he was picking out a keyboard solo. At least he was in my head. Try telling me I’m wrong.

While many of the lyrics remain as relevant today amid the political mess of 2016, there was a suggestion that David was some kind of visionary when we reached Daylight Titans, pondering on his ability to freeze time for this special occasion.

A further indication of how good this band’s b-sides surfaced on debut flip Sunstroke, Michael keeping us on track, going where Howard took us all those years before – dictating the tempo on Trains. That call and response final verse remains sublime, and while it’s not an overly-emotional song, I got a little dewy-eyed thinking back to my own days on Guildford station waiting for the Reading-Tonbridge stopper while my old man waited to load mail across on platform eight.

I kind of feared the next song. Yes, it was the big hit, the one that tends to get all the airplay. For lesser audiences it could have been the moment when they finally let loose, recognising something they finally knew. Yet this was a cultured gathering, on the money from the start. And as it turned out, Turning Japanese was nothing short of a celebration, and I embraced it far more than for many a year.

Prisoners was next, and it struck me for the first time that it carried a ‘60s alt-surf Nuggets vibe, one complementing David’s stripy top. And then they were away with Bunkers. I’ve got no idea where we go from here, but this was all about the moment, and I was keen to drink it all in.

On returning, there was no real surprise as Ed’s guitar ushered in Waiting for the Weekend, that criminally-ignored (at least commercially) gem followed by the traditional finale, Here Comes The Judge, just as fresh today. Again, we’re talking quality fare.

They were soon away, an early start the next day ruling out my chances of sticking around. But they’ll be back next year, and what’s a few months to wait after all this time? Yes, The Vapors are back, and that’s got to be worth celebrating.

Stage Presence: Steve, David and Ed out front in Camden on date two of the Vapors' four-show Waiting for the Weekend 2016 tour (Photograph courtesy of © Derek D’Souza at www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

Stage Presence: Steve, David and Ed out front in Camden on date two of the Vapors’ four-show Waiting for the Weekend 2016 tour (Photograph courtesy of © Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

For this site’s November 2016 interview with Ed Bazalgette, head here, and for September 2016’s interview with Dave Fenton, try here. Meanwhile, for all the latest on The Vapors visit their Facebook page or keep in touch via Twitter and Instagram.

With extra thanks to Derek D’Souza for the Dingwall’s photos (check out some of his brilliant work via this link), Owen Carne for the Arts Club shot, and Shaun Modern for his work behind the scenes.   

 

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All that matters is here – the Hannah Peel interview

Dreaming Head: Hannah Peel has had another amazing year

Dreaming Head: Hannah Peel has had a highly creative 2016, with much more to follow

Among the festive-themed adverts on our TV screens right now is a touching Aardman-animated tale made for the Alzheimer’s Research UK charity.

The Santa Forgot story follows a little girl, Freya, who while preparing for Christmas realises much of the magic has gone, and through her father learns how memory problems have stopped Santa’s worldwide visits, with the words spoken by Stephen Fry and music from Hannah Peel.

As self-styled ‘composer, arranger and singer’ Hannah put it, “Imagining a world where you grow up as a child and there isn’t a Santa Claus is utterly devastating. You see what’s going on with his elves, Freya going to see Santa, saying it’s going to be okay. It makes you feel there is hope and positivity, and a chance that things will be better.”

That message rings true for Hannah after her work on a dementia research project and on her second solo LP, Awake but Always Dreaming, written partly as therapy after losing her grandmother to the disease.

Research suggests clear benefits of music in relation to cognitive ability, songs that were key in our young adult years likely to provoke strong responses in the later stages of dementia. And that’s also something Hannah has learned from personal experience through her grandmother, and something she’s explored deeply.

Tonight, there’s an official launch party for her latest album, not far from her East London base at St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch, curated by Kirsteen McNish of the Vine Collective. Described as ‘a meeting of minds through film, live music and poetry all based around the themes of her new album and memory’, the line-up also includes actor (and former Dr Who) Christopher Eccleston, poet/writer/filmmaker Lavinia Greenlaw, DJ We Are Wrangler, Lancashire electronica icon (and fellow East London resident) John Foxx, and director/choreographer Shelly Love.

Awake But Always Dreaming was released on the My Own Pleasure label in late September on double gatefold vinyl, digital and CD formats, and went  on to garner great reviews. It features 10 new songs, and from lead single All That Matters to a closing cover of The Blue Nile mastermind Paul Buchanan’s Cars In The Garden (with Hannah joined by Hayden Thorpe of Wild Beasts), it’s certainly compelling. And this from an artist who featured on another critically-acclaimed album this year, The Magnetic North’s Prospect of Skelmersdale.

What’s more, this year has also seen Hannah spearheading a Memory Tapes audio project, inviting fellow artists to make playlists of their lives, with electronica pioneers (and a close friend) John Foxx and Gary Numan among those already having followed her lead. And as she puts it, “I think of it like a time capsule, so if ever I fall into dementia, there would be a mixtape of the songs that connect for my children and grandchildren.”

Freya's Journey: A still from the Aardman Animation ad for Alzheimer's Research UK, with music from Hannah Peel

Freya’s Journey: From the Aardman advert for Alzheimer’s Research UK, with music from Hannah Peel

Is Hannah still in touch with former writewyattuk interviewee and her East London neighbour John Foxx, having previously featured in his band The Maths?

“Yeah, and he’s still got so much energy and power still, and still has that presence. He’s also doing a lot more sculpting and artwork – he’s massively into it and incredible at it.”

I feel I should go back a bit at this point, explaining how Hannah first came to public recognition with her ‘hand-punched music box’ EP Rebox, covering ‘80s bands Cocteau Twins, Soft Cell and New Order. Can she explain her on-going relationship with the music box?

“It’s a love-hate thing that started off as a bit of fun with Tainted Love. Every single note is hole-punched on paper and it’s become one of those things I adore doing but takes so long. By the end you feel you’ve wasted a whole day punching holes! But what comes out of that process is really beautiful.”

Is it her inner scientist – her geeky side – coming through?

“Definitely! I really love analogue synths, and I suppose the music box is the very basics of early computer technology. We rely on that so much, so making music without any cables – just paper and a pencil again – is really something. Even orchestrators don’t tend to use paper anymore – they do it all on a computer. So this feels like you’re touching the core again. That’s why I also use it at the end of this new record – it seems to sum up the childhood everyone goes back to.”

It was Hannah’s solo debut LP The Broken Wave that led to her first collaboration with ex-Verve guitarist Simon Tong (who’s also featured with Blur, The Good The Bad And The Queen, and Gorillaz) and Erland Cooper (Erland & The Carnival, alongside Simon) on 2012’s stunning Orkney: Symphony of The Magnetic North.

She’s also created a series of limited edition EPs, including her version – on Rebox 2 – of John Grant’s Pale Green Ghosts and Wild Beasts’ Palace. And this year has certainly been a prolific one, for as well as the second Magnetic North album there’s also been Hannah’s other live project – the artist transmogrifying as synth-based, space-age alter-ego Mary Casio, combining analogue electronics and a 33-piece colliery brass band to great effect, debuting to a sell-out Manchester audience.

Underpass Masters: The Magnetic North, on location in Skelmersdale. From the left: Hannah Peel, Simon Tong, Erland Cooper. (Photo copyright: McCoy Wynne)

Underpass Masters: The Magnetic North, on location in Skelmersdale. From the left: Hannah Peel, Simon Tong, Erland Cooper. (Photo copyright: McCoy Wynne)

“This year has been amazing, and the Skelmersdale record was incredible to do. Doing that gave me the confidence to do this – tapping into childhood again, talking about things. With Mary, I wanted to do something that wasn’t just songs and using my voice, so had this side-project. I have this collection of keyboards and early synths, including Casio’s you can record your voice into. And just for fun sometimes I’d play people a song as a character.

“Then I got approached asking me to score for a brass band. They were playing the second half of Tubular Bells as the second half, and wanted a new composition for the first. I also discovered around then about the star constellation Cassiopeia, so thought Mary should go into space, on a journey, like my grandma and great-aunt – who never left Yorkshire but had always been a stargazer.

“So in the final years of her life Mary gets in a spaceship and goes to Cassiopeia. I wrote it with that in mind, that journey and the planets, nebulas and different stars visited along the way. It ends with a visit to the planet of past souls and a recording of my grandfather performing at Manchester Cathedral, aged 13 in 1921, one of the first recordings of a choir boy.”

Incidentally, Joyce Peel died earlier this year, aged 98, seven years after her diagnosis, and in a recent interview Hannah said she was keen to remember her now as ‘the beautiful soprano who moved to County Armagh to marry an organist, loved music and her family and sang in the choir her husband conducted’. With all that in mind, the Mary Casio project seems rather fitting. Besides, as she put it, “Scoring for brass bands has been amazing. I grew up playing in brass bands in Yorkshire, so going back to that is really magical. And since that first show at the Halle St Peter’s in May, we’ve done another in Leeds.”

Not having met Mary Casio personally, I confess to Hannah, I’m getting a picture there of Kate Rusby joining forces with ELO, a concept that rather tickles her. Is this also her Barnsley link coming to the fore?

“Yeah, although I don’t usually write about Yorkshire. As with Simon (Tong) writing about Skelmersdale, you look at certain towns you’re put in by your parents and don’t like it …”

She wanted to be back in Ireland at that point, I guess.

“Without a doubt, and my family craved to be there, but we couldn’t sell the house so spent every holiday going back on the ferry instead.”

Mirror signal: Hannah Peel, reflecting on a busy 2016

Mirror signal: Hannah Peel, reflecting on her compelling Awake But Always Dreaming album

That love continues, and while Hannah tends to do much of her writing and composing from her London studio, the new album was partly created with Magnetic North bandmate Erland at Attica Audio in County Donegal. And the fact that key parts of Hannah’s childhood were spent in the landscape of the North West Irish coast seems to inspire a sense of openness – places to roam and investigate – on the new record, before a more complex, darker, percussive thrust comes into the fray, as adult city life intrudes and inspires.

“I was born in Armagh, but so many from that area would go to the North West coast across the border for their holidays, and Donegal is a place I’ve been every year of my life. But I didn’t know there was a studio there until around two years ago. I knew the owner, Tommy McLaughlin (guitarist with the band Villagers) and was told to visit his studio, so one summer went along with Erland.

“We thought it may have been in his bedroom or attic but then turned up and it was the most amazing place – overlooking the glen and mountains, and just stunning. When you’re sat playing piano you have 10ft tall windows looking out on incredible views. It really added something – the sound of the record really came together there. You can do a lot in London, but don’t get that same sense of dreaming and escapism.”

The new album is one of two halves, mood-wise (the official description suggests it’s ‘full of vibrant, direct colour in the early stages contrasted with esoteric, dreamscape, legato movements towards the end’ – the ‘bright, raw magic and joy of personal relationships’ sitting alongside the premise of a gradual loss to dementia). but the overall message – like the new TV ad – is about hope and celebrating life, albeit with a dream-like feel, with daily life expressed and decoded.

“I often use deep meditation to comb the recesses of my mind I can’t reach during the day, and sometime the lines between reality and sleep become a little blurred. It’s an inspired feeling, the conscious awake dream becomes movement using that dreaming energy, but without passing entirely out of that waking state of consciousness. It’s like being asleep with one eye and awake with the other. You see things differently and get a real sense of the world around you and what’s important, which actually presents itself as being pretty simple.

“It’s supposed to feel like a journey into the mind but also into adulthood. There’s a constant reminder that however large the adventure or realised the ambition, to not forget about the ones who will always care, the ones standing waiting to welcome you back, the ones who will forever look after you and say simply, they love you. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters, caring and being cared for. To love and not be loved is one of the saddest thing of all.”

There’s certainly been a great response to the LP, initial critical acclaim leading to a ripple effect of appreciation.

“It’s been overwhelming – from personal stories and messages to people picking it up, writing about it and talking about it, even more so now. For me that’s really beautiful – it has a life of its own, rather than the usual music out for a month and then you don’t hear of it again.”

cs1672584-02a-bigLead single All that Matters got plenty of national radio airplay. Was that Hannah at her most commercial – going into dance-crossover territory?

“Definitely for this record, although I find I could probably do a lot more of that but have this kind of resistance in my soul that just doesn’t allow it. It seems to edge more towards a darker side! The first version of All that Matters is just piano, very melancholy and emotional, so it’s nice to touch a lot more people by doing a different production.”

It’s a lovely track in that stripped down format too, I might add, and well worth seeking out, even if I’d venture that the opening track is not an obvious snapshot of the LP it trails.

“Well, I want to take you on a journey, and that’s important for those who have been touched by dementia but also the lesser number who haven’t. I didn’t want to alienate anyone. I also wanted to discover that journey myself to help me understand it.

“Before I came to the realisation of what it was about I had many different tracks inspired by (Italo) Calvino’s Invisible Cities book – all these songs about mysterious worlds and places to go, a mix of songs like Octavia, the second half of Foreverest and Awake But Always Dreaming. But how would I put that all in an album without completely jumping around? And then I had this moment with my Grandma and realised it was actually perfect – you had to go into the brain rather than throwing that in at the beginning.”

Many of us have had those personal links to dementia through watching the suffering of loved ones – be they family or friends. Was this Hannah trying to make sense of her own close-hand experiences of dealing with dementia?

“Yes. As you very well know there’s never a day where something doesn’t happen or where something isn’t upsetting, and it makes you analyse not just them but also yourself and coping mechanisms with that. It was definitely therapy for me after she passed away.

“Also, talking to a lot of scientists helped. Although I grew up in Northern Ireland, but went to school in Barnsley, and so did Selina Wray, one of the lead research scientists at University College London, who works in Alzheimer’s research therapy. We met via Facebook through mutual friends and she ended up inviting me along to her lab to see what she did and to understand her work. She makes neurons from stem cells to analyse what happens with different cures.”

As it turned out, seeing those cells moving around in petri dishes under a microscope also put Hannah in mind of fireworks, stars and astronomy, leading to something of a creative realisation of her album’s theme (and arguably Mary Casio’s big adventure too).

“The fact that Selina’s from Barnsley also opened a door for me in understanding the science of what’s going on, helping me deal with it a lot more. It’s fascinating what they’re doing. There’s also something else via the Wellcome Collection, a programme with Government backing for artists and scientists to collaborate. It’s breaking down conceptions over what dementia is and how to handle it in an artistic way and get more people involved. I’m really happy to be part of that.

24957“Statistics suggest that one in three of us will die with dementia, and a third of us are connected to someone with dementia through family and friends. Around 850,000 people in the UK alone have it now and two in three affected will be women. It’s quite remarkable really, and it’s getting worse.”

True, and there’s a line on Conversations that seems particularly poignant – ‘When I awake, don’t recall your name, my only friend’. I think a lot of us can identify with that through loved ones suffering with dementia.

“Yes, and thinking of Still Alice (the Lisa Genova book, later adapted into the film of the same title, starring Julianne Moore), one thing I got out of that was that she says ‘I love you’ rather a lot, as was the case with my grandmother. She’d ask my Dad ‘Are you my lover?’ We make jokes about it to make it light-hearted, but it always came back to love.”

It must have been a hard album to write, emotionally, but I’m guessing it was somewhat therapeutic.

“Definitely, although it’s not an easy one to perform live. Some of them, I just don’t know how I’m going to do them. But the more hallucinogenic instrumentals are fun to do, really get into and go for it. And I don’t feel satisfied in a performance if I haven’t gone into that place myself.”

It was Hannah’s father’s job that brought her from Craigavon, Armagh, to England, a year’s contract leading to a much longer stay, initial stalling over the sale of a house then Hannah and her brother’s immersion in their schooling and a new set of friends ultimately leading to the family staying put. Was there a link with the Troubles back home at the time too?

“Not directly, although there was an element of just being out of that, trying something new. My parents never really spoke about that, and only over the last few years have I heard stories that made me think, ‘Wow’ – things at Dad’s work where you wonder how people live with all that. In Northern Ireland, you’re schooled a very different way to the South and what you’re told is very different. But with everything around the centenary of the 1916 Rising you get a different perspective as to what was going on and why there was so much hatred, and can really sympathise – even something like it being a British man responsible for ripping up the railways, leaving so many towns stranded and unable to get around in that era.

“And with Brexit, I honestly do not know what they’re going to do. I think there will be a massive rise in people wanting to leave. There’s no way people will survive going back to border patrols again.”

So where does Hannah reckon she’s best known now – Barnsley, Craigavon, Donegal, London, Orkney, Skelmersdale, or Liverpool (where she spent her university years and recently returned for a triumphant sell-out show at the Central Library)?

“I don’t think anybody knows me! I just like making music. But I think from living in Liverpool for so long and the Skelmersdale record this year, it could be around there! I think it’s wonderful we could sell out in Liverpool, a wonderful thing in a city you lived in so long. And to have a record out that touched so many people in that community … I studied there, worked there, and played in my first bands there, and have a massive love for that city and area.”

hannah-peel-rebox2I let on that I’d never previously felt an urge to visit Skem other than for covering football matches at White Moss Park then Selby Place in the past, but now have a feeling it may lead to sightings of Hannah – decked out in red poncho and distinctive headwear, of course – with Erland and Simon. Have they returned to Skelmersdale since making the album?

“We’ve been back a few times. I really love it, and for me there’s a real connection with the town I was born, Craigavon. That was also a new town, but a failed political town. There were a lot of murders and things that went on, and they never finished it, and the housing estates where they hoped everyone would be integrated were completely divided. Walking around Skem, I felt, ‘Wow! This is just like Craigavon … but without the horrible history.”

Supporting The Magnetic North on a memorable night back in October at Liverpool’s Central Library was author Frank Cottrell-Boyce, who wrote some lovely things about the album and remains a champion of the band. How did they get to know each other?

“Years ago, he was doing something for Liverpool, making a film for the BBC, and I’ve followed him on Twitter. Knowing he lived just outside Liverpool and the photographers we work with (McCoy Wynne) were based in the town where he lived, I sent him the CD. I wasn’t really thinking he would write about it, just hoping he’d appreciate it. But he loved it and he’s been a massive supporter ever since.”

That recent Liverpool show was then followed by what was announced as a final Prospect of Skelmersdale date at the Polar Bear in in Hull, as that city builds up to its own spell as the UK City of Culture next year. And before you know it, it will be time for a third album from The Magnetic North. So will the next one be about Hannah’s Armagh or Barnsley roots?

“I’m still coming to a conclusion over where my home is! But I think we’ve come up with something that will encompass a lot of things. It might not be as grounded in one place. The journey has already started and we’ve done our research trips we do at the start, involving a list and a map of places to visit, the other two getting their perspective.

“I think it will come a lot quicker than the Skem album. It took a long time for Simon to realise what the last album would be about. He was very resistant about it being about the town and his life! He’s a guitarist and doesn’t say very much. It’s not in his nature to talk about himself. But I think it made him more open and enthusiastic. Simon’s been in a lot of bands and toured the world, so coming back down to earth and playing tiny venues with us must make him start to question what he’s doing!”

Skem Surfing: The Magnetic North's Simon Tong, Hannah Peel and Erland Cooper getting around Skelmersdale, (Photo copyright: McCoy Wynne)

Skem Surfing: The Magnetic North’s Simon Tong, Hannah Peel and Erland Cooper getting around Skelmersdale, (Photo copyright: McCoy Wynne)

Among the many lovely appraisals of Hannah’s work so far, came The Observer’s description of her as ‘A great singer and a latter-day Delia Derbyshire’. That’s quite an accolade, isn’t it?

“I know!”

In fact, there are plenty of mentions of Delia, of Daphne Oram and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – was that something she was aware of growing up, or did that all come later?

“Definitely a bit later. I was brought up with very traditional Irish music, song and dance. I suppose my passion for electronic music began when I started to work with John (Foxx). He was wanting someone to play violin and effects, and I’d been playing around with a few things, but I really cut my teeth with learning about synths and analogues five years ago when I started with working with him. It was then that I discovered how many wonderful people there are out there, and experimenters.”

She put her heart on your sleeve, so to speak, pretty early on with her ’80s covers, performed music box style. So this wasn’t down to what was playing in her house back then and beyond?

“There were certain things I knew about but I never would have thought more deeply about how it was created and the technicality behind it. But without doubt when I started to do the music box project and looked into the songs I heard and remembered, that opened up a whole new world, from when I was in my 20s.”

You can find this site’s feature/interview from April with Simon Tong of The Magnetic North here, and a review of the band’s Central Library sell-out show in Liverpool in October here.

4For more details of Hannah’s work and future plans, head to her website. You can also keep in touch with Ms Peel via the wonderful world of social media through her Facebook, TwitterInstagram and Soundcloud links.

And to keep up to date with the Alzheimer’s Research UK charity, head here.

 

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