Takin’ Me Bak ‘Ome – talking Slade with Don Powell

Nobody’s Fools: 21st Century Slade. From the left – Mal McNulty, Don Powell, Dave Hill, John Berry. Clearly, Dave hasn’t quite pulled off The Clash’s late-’70s Rauschenberg-inspired paint-splash look.

Christmas was way into the distance when I tracked Don Powell down in Denmark, but the legendary drummer – on a rare break from the live circuit – soon brought the subject up.

As I properly introduced myself and mentioned interviewing long-time Slade bandmate Dave Hill around the same time of year in 2015, he butted in, asking, “You mean about that song?”

What could this genial 71-year-old drumming legend possibly mean? Surely not a certain seasonal ditty that became the legendary Black Country outfit’s third No.1 of 1973. I’m surprised anyone even remembers that track. It’s hardly got any airplay since.

“That’s what we call it – ‘that song’. It’s amazing, y’know, Malcolm. We’ve had something like 24 hits, but people only remember that one! Don’t get me wrong. I’m not putting it down. It’s just so funny.

“I don’t know if you know the story, but when we recorded that in 1973, we were on a world tour, in New York in a heatwave, around 100 degrees. Yet there we were, recording that song.”

I understand it started life as one of Noddy Holder’s more hippy numbers, Buy Me a Rocking Chair.

“It was, and it’s amazing how these things come about. I love stories like that, but never knew that until a few months after we recorded it.”

At that point, Don – a big Beatles fan – got on to how Lennon and McCartney often helped each other out with songs, sometimes fusing them together, giving the example of 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night, with John stuck part-way through and Paul suggesting a tune he’d been working on as the bridge. And with that, I suggested there were clear Beatles influences on 1969’s Beginnings, when his band were called Ambrose Slade.

The Genesis: Ambrose Slade's Beginnings, from 1969

The Genesis: Ambrose Slade’s Beginnings, 1969

“Yeah, especially with the harmonies. But I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been influenced by The Beatles. Recently I was re-watching the Anthology DVDs, and talking a while ago to Gerry Marsden at a charity show, he was saying how people didn’t realise all that incredible worldwide success came in such a relatively short space of time. What they did in seven years was unbelievable!”

There’s another parallel between The Beatles and Slade – you both had those amazing ‘apprenticeships’ in Germany.

“Yeah, it happened to us twice. The first time with a group Dave and myself were in, doing a month in Dortmund, playing eight hours a night – 45 minutes on, 15 off, starting about eight o’clock, going on ‘til four in the morning. But that’s the way it was in those days.”

The second stint was in Kiel in early ’67, by then with Noddy and Jim Lea also involved. That whole experience must have sharpened them up as a musical unit, I suggested.

“I think so, but the biggest thing for Nod, Jim, Dave and myself was when we got stuck in the Bahamas. That really brought us together – our four personalities. We were stuck with an incredible hotel bill, which we didn’t realise we were going to pay for, and no money. All we had were our return flights, and our equipment as excess baggage. We were still paying for it. We couldn’t leave that. It was on HP. We had to get that back.”

I should fill a gap there, explaining how Don and Dave were with club circuit blues band the Vendors, later renamed the ’N Betweens, while Noddy with The Memphis Cutouts then Steve Brett and the Mavericks. But the trio met on a ferry to Germany en route to separate engagements in November 1965 (Dave and Don to Dortmund, Noddy to Cologne and Frankfurt), and not long after their return to Wolverhampton, a chance meeting led to Nod deciding to take up Don and Dave’s offer – at the second time of asking – to join them.

Bass player and classically-trained multi-instrumentalist Jim Lea, three years younger, was already on board by then, with history in the making, the band soon down to a four-piece, in time becoming Ambrose Slade, then – with ex-Animals bassist and Jimi Hendrix manager Chas Chandler in charge – simply Slade, going on to enjoy stratospheric success.

While we’re talking history, the ’N Betweens actually saw chart-topping success five years before Slade, albeit on a local level, with December ‘66 single, You Better Run a No.1 for six weeks in Wolverhampton, keeping Tom Jones’ Green, Green Grass of Home off the top. But it’s clear that they worked hard to reach the top.

“Yeah, but that’s how it was in those days. We were just playing anywhere and everywhere, just to play, basically. When we first started we were doing birthday parties and weddings, youth clubs, and that just carried on really.”

By the end of 1971 they’d truly broken the UK and much of Europe and Australia, their summer cover of Bobby Marchan’s Get Down and Get With It cracking the top-20 and followed by first UK and Irish chart-topper Coz I Luv You that autumn. Usually, I’d go into a potted biography there, but it seems pointless with Slade. Surely you’ll know all that. I’ll add a few more UK chart facts though, because they speak volumes.

That Song: Because it's the time that every Santa has a ball

That Song: It’s the time that every Santa has a ball

In just over 20 years, Slade amassed six UK No.1 singles, the last of which was ‘that song’, straight in at the top this week in 1973 and staying there five weeks. In fact it was in the top-40 come February, and has returned many times since. As I finish this piece, it’s No.62 in the charts, 44 years on.

That was their third single entering at No.1 that year, and on their own shores they’ve had 16 top-10 singles and 24 separate top-40 hits, managing 20 weeks at the top and 213 in the top-40. You can add a few LP stats too, with three No.1 LPs and 12 top-40 hits and a total of 153 weeks on the chart.

The original Slade story ended in 1992, chief songwriters Nod and Jim moving on to other projects. But Dave and Don were soon touring again, initially as Slade II and since 2002 back under the old name. And they haven’t stopped rocking up at venues all over the world since. It’s now been 25 years in this format, the pair joined by Mal McNulty (vocals, guitar, ex-Rockin’ Horse, Paddy Goes To Holyhead, Sweet) since 2005, and John Berry (bass, vocals, violin, ex-Mud) since 2003.

But let’s go back to the early ‘60s. Am I right in thinking Don, who started out playing drums with the scouts in the late ‘50s, was 15 when he first sat in with The Vendors?

“Yeah. I was a member of this youth club, and Johnny and Mick from The Vendors came down, asking me to join. I hadn’t a clue about anything, but borrowed some drums off a schoolmate, Dave Madeley. I don’t think he had them back for about five years! Come to think of it, Malcolm, I don’t know what happened to those.”

Don’t say that. Someone’ll have them on EBay as soon as this goes out.

“Maybe. I’ve got a picture of me playing them, probably when we were doing a wedding.”

You were at school with Swinn (long-time Slade associate and road manager, Graham Swinnerton, who inspired 1974’s The Bangin’ Man, and died in 2015 after battling cancer), weren’t you?

“Yeah, in the same class. We went through together. I met him when we were 11, at secondary modern school. Many years later, when Slade came off the road, he went on to tour-manage Saxon and a few American bands, and occasionally we’d bump into each other. That loyal thing between us never waned. We always had that. We were the best of mates.

“Apparently (when he grew ill) he didn’t want to see anybody, but I said to his wife, ‘I don’t care what he says, I’m going to see him.’ And we had a laugh. It wasn’t long after that. He was poorly. It was the worst thing I ever experienced when the doctor at the hospice said, ‘Will you help me put him back to bed?’ I never thought I’d be doing that. It was only about two days later that his wife called and said he’d gone.”

Early Biog: George Tremlett’s 1975 Futura band biography

At least you got to see him.

“That’s the thing, and my wife instigated that. His spirit was fine but he was very poorly, and my wife said, ‘Why don’t you go and see him one more time?’ He was a different person that time, and was gone within the space of a week, but I’m really glad I went.”

Talking of key components of your success, I was thinking of another who’s been gone since 1996,  Slade manager, Chas Chandler.

“That was another sad case. I went to see him too, not long before he went, and he also looked pretty poorly. But we’ve a lot of lovely memories with Chas, and he was so integral in what happened to us. He really believed in us, even though it took a few years before it happened. He kept on slogging away.”

I’m guessing his experience with The Animals taught him a few lessons about the industry.

“And with (Jimi) Hendrix as well. He’d been there, done it, got a t-shirt.”

Don’s been based in Denmark for around 12 years, which on the face of it seems at odds with his long-term dream – as  shared with music writer George Tremlett in 1975’s Futura band biography The Slade Story – saying one day he wanted to run a small farm in the Staffordshire countryside, not so far from his Bilston roots.

“It almost did. I found a small place, on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, perfect for what I wanted, but basically got ‘gazumped’. I went back to sort a few things out and there was this guy there with a big sheepskin coat on and a Range Rover. I could tell by the people who lived there, he’d probably offered a little more than me. I’ve seen it since and there’s a new house, but it’s still got all the land.

“As it was, after that we were touring non-stop and never at home, so I just bought myself a flat in Wolverhampton. I could just lock it up and forget it, as we were away around nine months of the year.”

So where’s home now?

“Just on the outskirts of Silkeborg, quite central. It’s a beautiful place, near Aarhus, with two airports close by. I can go more or less anywhere in the world. The world’s become a small place today, with four or five flights available from here to the UK every day. It’s become so open now, with travel.”

Slade always went down a treat in Scandinavia while touring.

“It was great. Also, and not a lot of people know this, our very first hit was in Europe – in Holland with Get Down and Get With It, before the UK.”

Time Out: QSP, the side project featuring ’70s glam stars Andy Scott, Suzi Quatro and Don Powell

It’s clearly a rarity to be home for Don, whose busy 2017 included a spell touring Australia and recording with side-project QSP, alongside fellow ’70s glam stars Suzi Quatro and The Sweet’s Andy Scott (with loads of details of that on Don’s website) to be home. Can he describe his surroundings there in Silkeborg?

“I’m right on the lake, with a forest behind me and the lake in front. And (Don’s wife) Hanne bought me a lovely motorboat for my 70th birthday, so we spend a lot of time up and down the lake. It’s wonderful, I tell you. Beautiful.”

Remind me how you got to meet Hanne, and ended up moving to that part of the world.

“It was actually when we played Silkeborg. She came up to me to get some things signed and said, ‘I got one of your drumsticks when I was 14 years old.’ And we just hit it off.

“She has three children from a previous marriage, two girls who were teenagers when we got together, and a son who was seven. They were willing to move to England, but Andreas didn’t know any English then and I thought it would be easier to move here.

“And when she can, Hanne comes with me a lot when we’re traveling in Europe, getting the overnight train or driving down.

Do you ever get back to Bilston?

“Yeah, my two sisters are still there, and my parents are buried there. Every time I get back, I see old schoolmates and all the others, have a walk round, see if I can find Mick, who was in the band when I first started. In those days it was me, Mick Marson and Johnny Howells. We’d keep our equipment in the hallway at Johnny’s place, shared with his father. Across the road from there was a chicken bar, always open late.

“We were playing pubs and clubs, and as we were getting back they’d be getting ready to throw stuff away, so we’d buy it all for pennies, with loads of chips. And it’s still there! When we played The Robin last year I went across and got myself pie and chips, and that brought back a lot of memories.”

Word has it that Don, Dave and Nod visited Jim Lea at home in Codsall on March 12th, 1966, to invite him to join their quest, going on to the Three Men in a Boat pub in Walsall to seal the deal, his official debut following a week later at Walsall Town Hall. Meanwhile, Mick Marson had left by mid-March ’66, and three months later Johnny Howells was also out, ahead of that following month’s booking at the Star Palast, Kiel, where the newly-slimmed band shared the bill with a certain Paul Raven (if I put his later stage name, Gary Glitter, in brackets, will that be more acceptable?).

Early Days: The Vendors. From the left – Cass Jones, Dave Hill, Mick Marson, Don Powell and Johnny Howells (Photo: http://www.donpowellofficial.com)

Don has a great archive of his live performances through the years, and much more, on his website, his information also suggesting Dave and Don’s first gig together was also at the Three Men in a Boat, in early January ’64, and that the band first went out under the name The ‘N Betweens at the Ship and Rainbow, Wolverhampton, that November. I’m always fascinated, I tell him, by the Pete Best type characters who just missed out on the big time, and Johnny – as the last man out – was perhaps the closest Slade had to that.

“He was, and it was very sad when Dave and myself decided to make the break. It was very hard, because I’d started with Johnny and Mick, to break away. But while I haven’t seen Johnny for a few years, me and Mick often see each other and have a laugh. I understand Johnny looks after a school for under-privileged children in that same area.”

Incidentally, for far more detail of Don’s amazing career, I recommend his excellent Look Wot I Dun autobiography (Omnibus Press, 2013), lovingly put together with help from his Danish friend and established writer, Lise Lyng Falkenberg.

“Ah, Lise did a great job there!”

I mentioned George Tremlett’s earlier biography of the band, and his dates don’t always tally up. For one thing the party line was that you were born in 1950, four years later. Were you all pretending to be younger?

“I think that was the case in those days, for things like Jackie magazine. The usual things – we didn’t have girlfriends and we didn’t smoke or drink!”

Dun Thing: Don Powell’s 2013 version of events, with a little help from Lise Lyng Falkenberg

Which was true, of course.

“Oh, of course!”

Then there’s confusion over the date you met Noddy on that boat to Germany. He suggested 1967, while I got the impression it was October ‘64, outside a snack bar somewhere between Ostend and Dortmund …

“I think it was November ’65, and we’d got our old van, when Nod was with Steve Brett. They were going to Frankfurt and we were going to Dortmund. We were driving overnight from Ostend, all the way through Belgium to Germany. And no SatNav in those days!”

I’m guessing you already knew each other by then.

“We would have known each other, but were on the same boat. Probably had a cup of tea together, know what I mean? But we did bump into each other again in Wolverhampton in early ’66, when his band were breaking up and Dave and myself were disillusioned. We headed to this coffee shop and started talking about getting together. But we had to continue with Johnny as lead singer. We still had quite a lot of bookings for the band.”

You’ve been in bands with Dave for nearly 54 years now. Did you hit it off right away?

“I tell you what, we used to rehearse in Johnny’s front room, and it was Dave who reminded me of this – I don’t think we even spoke to each other for a few weeks! It’s strange when you think back.

“But we did hit it off, wanted the same thing, and were getting a bit disillusioned with what was going on. That’s when we decided to break away. I remember Nod in the Memphis Cut-Outs, then with Steve Brett, and it worked out he was disillusioned too. Soon we were auditioning for a bass player. That’s when Jim (Lea) came along.”

Was that the audition at the Blue Flame Club?

“That’s it! It became the Lafayette Club after, a late-night drinking place. The Blue Flame was more like a village hall.”

I understand Jim was already a fan, and guess you were already big news as a local band by that stage.

“Well yeah, apparently Jim would come and watch us at different places. We’d play quite a lot of blues in those days, and he was a big blues fan.”

House Mates: 1982’s Christmas tour was this scribe’s first trip to see Slade in person, at the age of 15

While I was only six the year that song first topped the charts, my older brother loved Slade and got me interested at a very young age. I finally got to see you – aged 15 – in December 1982 at Hammersmith Odeon on the We’ll Bring the House Down tour. And what a night that was.


Yet somehow 35 years have passed since, while it’s been 25 years since Jim and Nod went their own way.

“I know, it’s frightening. I can’t believe how quick the time’s gone. Unbelievable.”

And I see Dave’s followed you down the autobiography road now, having published So Here It Is in time for Christmas.

“Yeah, he’s taking a different tack to mine. I don’t really understand that pledge situation.”

I look forward to reading that.

“Yeah, so do I!”

And you’ll be able to get a copy of that on Slade’s ‘Christmas Shindig’ tour as well as online, talk of which prompted Don and I to talk about their North West dates – at Manchester Academy 2 and Liverpool’s Hangar 34.

“Actually, I was in Manchester a few weeks ago, for a big drum event. You can imagine what that was like, with drums bashing around all over the place! It was deafening! I was just showing my face and saying thanks to a few of my sponsors. But I met a few nice people I hadn’t seen for long time, like Paul (Burgess) from 10cc.”

We talked about your work ethic before, and I was thinking how taking that chance of being with a band professionally must have been a big decision. You could easily have given up that dream and settled for the 9-5 world.

“Well, I was scared. Dad had to sign the papers, because I couldn’t afford to take on the HP payments and was too young. But I told him, ‘I tell you what, Dad. I’ll give you my first gold record.’ He just laughed, but I kept the promise – giving him that first gold in 1973.”

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

And when it mattered your parents supported your dream. That counts for something. Dad was a steelworker, wasn’t he?

“Yes, he was on the factory floor, working there all his life, basically.”

If you’d stuck with your job at the local iron foundry, you’d be retired by now, or most likely laid off many years before.

“Yeah, and I’d probably have about 20 grandkids by now! Then again, if you’d have told me even 20 years ago I’d still be doing this, I’d have laughed in your face. And the thing is, over those last 20 years we’ve been able to go to places like the old Eastern bloc. We’d never been to Russia in the original years, but have quite a few times since.

“It’s been fantastic. It makes you realise how big that place is. We flew from Moscow to Vladivostok on the east coast and it took us 13 hours. That’ just one country! That’s like flying from London to Los Angeles.”

Of course, a lot of column inches have been devoted to Dave Hill over the years and his fashion sense …

“Ha! Now, if I said to you he was colour-blind, would that make more sense to you?”

Well, I was going to bring up your own natty dressing. There was a lot of velvet in that wardrobe of yours, for a start.

“Oh yeah – a lot of velvet and satin trousers, y’know!”

But there just happened to be someone stood in front of you, who the cameras went to first. You were a couple of peacocks, really.

“That’s it!”

When was the last time you watched 1975’s Slade in Flame? (which included starring roles for all four band members as the fictional band in the title).

“Erm, that’ll be some time ago now.”

Super Yob: Dave Hill’s newly-published autobiography, available online and at Slade’s December 2017 Christmas Shindig shows

It’s stood the test of time for me, its appeal growing over the years, despite its gritty take on the glam rock era largely being seen as a failure at the time.

“I’ll tell you what – it has, and it’s had a lot of great reviews, especially from the Barry Normans and people like that.”

Indeed, including fellow film critic, Mark Kermode. Who called it ‘the Citizen Kane of pop films’.

“Yes, at first we thought it would go against us, with how true it was. But you’re right, it has stood the test of time.”

While clearly fictional, there were a few stories in there pretty close to things that happened to you.

“Oh yeah, like with the management situation and being manipulated, all that sort of thing.”

You certainly came over as a natural on camera (although it would be 25 years before his next role, a small cameo in a BBC TV adaptation of Lorna Doone).

“I really enjoyed it. I loved every minute, and didn’t mind the early mornings or anything like that.”

There must have been a lot of hours standing round, getting cold, waiting for filming to start around Sheffield.

“It’s amazing. About two minutes’ shooting takes about five hours, what with the setting up and all that. I was okay with that though. The only thing is that it spoils you for going to see a film, seeing how things were done and hearing stories from the crew about previous films they’d been involved with. It completely shatters the illusion.”

Lots of great stories tend to have two-thirds points where everything briefly goes awry, and for Slade that twist came at the height of their fame, three days after a show at Earl’s Court on July 1st 1973, just after Skweeze Me Pleeze Me became their second single to go straight into the UK charts at No.1 (becoming the first band to achieve such a feat since The Beatles in 1969).

On July 4th, Don was in an accident in his white Bentley S3 in Wolverhampton, with his 20-year-old girlfriend Angela Morris killed and the Slade drummer in a coma, serious multiple injuries leading to a long stay in intensive care, finally coming round to major short-term memory and sensory issues, which remain with him to this day.

Later that month, Jim Lea’s brother Frank filled in on drums as the band played two pre-arranged shows they didn’t want to cancel on the Isle of Man, and by the end of the summer Don was back, first having to be lifted on to his kit, playing dates in America and recording that Christmas single out there.

As it was, the diaries his doctors suggested he wrote to aid his memory would provide a rich archive when it came to his autobiography and website. And the interest generated by that tragic story proved how much love there was out there for Don, the world eagerly following his recovery. Is that whole period still a blank?

True Grit: Slade In Flame, the 1975 film soundtrack

“Do you know, that concert (Earl’s Court) means nothing to me, Malcolm. It was actually filmed, and I still want to see if I can get a copy of it … just so I can see what it was like.”

How’s the memory these days?

“It’s still sort of the same. I mean, I still have to keep the diary. That’ll be for the rest of my life, I’m afraid. But it’s part of my life now. It’s like my bible, if you like.”

Those diaries must have proved a great help for Lise when she was working on your book. Few people in your position have such meticulous records of that period.

“Great for her, and for me as well. We were sat down for about a month before, and she said, ‘You’ve got to open up for me, Don, otherwise people who know you will know there’s things you‘re missing out. So I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, Lise, I’ll give you all my diaries. Take them all, and everything’s in there, and that’s the way it was.”

There were plenty more painful memories to come, alongside the many further highs in the years that followed, not least Don’s battle with the bottle. Does he drink at all these days?

“I haven’t for 32 years now. I know, it’s incredible. I stopped drinking when Sharon Osbourne came after me and Ozzy with a shotgun. And she actually fired it at us. We just managed to get out of the way. You can imagine, can’t you, when your drinking partner is Ozzy Osbourne, it’s like … say no more.”

I’ve said it before on these pages, but for me you had a boys-next-door feel that Bolan, Bowie and Ferry – much as I loved them – couldn’t quite pull off. You were far removed from the art school acts and the more self-important songwriters of that era.

“I think we were. We couldn’t be anything else, Malcolm. Our manager, Chas, tried to make us a little bit like Rod Stewart and the Faces. But we ain’t like that. We couldn’t do it. It wasn’t in us. We were just who we are and that’s it. We were always first to a party and last to leave.”

So has Don still got the best job in the world?

“What? Traveling the world? I always say I’m doing what I always loved doing, playing drums. It’s incredible. I’ve been round the world four times, especially over these last 20 years with the amount of times we’ve been to Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic and places like that where we couldn’t go in the ’70s. It’s been an amazing rollercoaster ride. and it still shows no sign of waning.”

Slade’s December 2017 tour continues tonight on Saturday, December 16th at Wrexham William Aston Hall (0844 888 9991), then moves onto  Manchester Academy 2 (Sunday 17th, 0161 832 1111), Oxford 02 Academy (Thursday 21st, 0844 477 1000), Liverpool Hangar 34 (Friday 22nd, 0844 477 1000) and Hull Welly (Saturday 23rd, 0844 477 1000). For more details head to http://www.slade.uk.com/ or follow the band via Facebook. And for more about QSP, try here.

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A man of Substance – the Peter Hook interview


Bass Instinct: Peter Hook in live action (Photos by http://www.fb.com/connorgriffinphotography)

‘I’m here now … sorry,’ read my text message, and after a couple of days struggling to locate Peter Hook, it seemed I finally had my chance. We’d missed each other a few times, but seeing as it was a rare Saturday afternoon when my football team weren’t playing, I was happy to finally get through.

The legendary Joy Division and New Order bass player was in Belfast for that evening’s Peter Hook and the Light performance at the Limelight, and clearly enjoying himself across the water.

“We’ve sold out all three nights, which is pretty fantastic. We’re certainly riding the crest of an Irish wave!”

I told him he seemed to have swapped venues with The Undertones, the Derry outfit having played the Limelight the previous night and moving on to the Dublin Academy that night, just after Hooky’s visit.

“Well, it just goes to show – 39 years apart, we’re all still playing. They were with us on our first tour. They were 15, we were the princely old age of 22. The Undertones, Joy Division, and The Rezillos, would you believe.”

Wow. What a bill.

“Yeah, it seems a great bill now. After supporting the Buzzcocks before, we were moving up. We’d gone from bottom to middle!”

I should point out that The Undertones, who’d just released debut single, Teenage Kicks, weren’t really 15. Youngest member Damian O’Neill was 17, his brother John was 21, the others somewhere between. Perhaps they just looked more youthful. Also, as it was a Sire tour, I reckon Joy Division were actually first on for the few dates that survived. For that was the tour when Rezillos singer Fay Fife had to pull out because of vocal scarring, her band soon imploding and splitting, the rest of the shows scrapped.

Either way, Joy Division were making an impact, audiences somewhat mesmerised by Ian Curtis’ striking stage presence. Saying that, my brother and his mates saw the Buzzcocks on tour with Joy Division the following year (Guildford Civic Hall, November 1st, ‘79) but missed the support, only realising later the magnitude of their actions in pursuit of an extra pint in the White Horse Hotel.

“Well, let’s hope that taught them a lesson then!”

Does Peter remember much about that tour?

“I remember pretty much all the Buzzcocks gigs. It was such a delight to blow them off completely, which was really weird, because they were being very radical and experimental, dumping all their old stuff, just playing new material. And the fans hated it. I must say, we were at our youngish best, and managed to cream them every night. Strange. They’d disappeared up their own arses. I think they were probably one of the first bands to do that.”

I’m guessing he meant dropping old material rather than Houdini-like tricks involving their posteriors. There were plenty of examples of that on the scene before.

You’ll no doubt know about Peter’s music past, but I’ll add a brief résumé. Born in 1956, he formed the band which became Joy Division (previously called Warsaw) with Bernard Sumner in 1976, the pair inspired after seeing the Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester.

Hooky (bass) and Barney (guitar) soon recruited charismatic lead singer Ian Curtis, and later drummer Stephen Morris, the band soon drawing the attention of Manchester TV presenter Tony Wilson, who signed them to his fledgling independent label, Factory Records. They went on to complete two highly-acclaimed, influential albums before the death of Curtis in 1980, the remaining trio drafting in Gillian Gilbert on keyboards and reconvening the following year as electronica indie crossover outfit New Order.

The original New Order quartet stuck together until 1993, then reconvened in 1998, working through to 2007. Yet while Peter’s been out of the picture ever since, the other three originals got together as a reconstituted five-piece in 2011, bringing out new album, Music Complete, in September 2015.

Two months later, their former bass player sued Sumner, Morris and Gilbert, claiming they set up a new company behind his back and it had generated £7.8m in four years, while he received a fraction of that. His old bandmates insisted they’d treated him fairly and his stake in band royalties was reasonable, the judge ruling there was ‘at least a reasonable prospect’ of him proving he was not getting a fair share, urging the parties to come to an agreement rather than suffer potential legal costs of around £900,000 if a case came to court. And on September 20th, this year, a New Order official website post announced a full and final settlement had been reached.

Captain Hook: Peter Hook, enjoying it all more than ever in 2017 (Photo: Craige Barker)

Back to the beginning of the story, though, and while it seems Peter’s been asked time and again about witnessing the Sex Pistols’ two Lesser Free Trade Hall shows in ’76 (supported by Buzzcocks), how about the two Electric Circus shows on the Anarchy tour that followed, 41 years ago this month?

“Oh, God, don’t remind me! Do you mean when The Clash played with The Pistols?”

Yes, two of the few gigs that actually survived on that tour, with the Buzzcocks taking over from The Damned, who’d been kicked off by Malcolm McLaren.

“Was that before or after the Bill Grundy thing?”

It was after, hence all the cancellations, The Filth and the Fury headline, and the backlash that followed.

“Yeah, it just seems so tame now, doesn’t it? But it was a bit of a shock for us, having seen the first Lesser Free Trade Hall show with barely 40-odd people there …”

With all of those attendees about to play an important part in the music business too, if you’re to believe the hype.

“Well, yes, then for the next gig there were about 200, about 60 of them coming in a coach from London and about the same number from Wythenshawe to support Slaughter and the Dogs. The others were probably those who’d gone on the first night.

“Then we went to the Electric Circus, and it was bedlam! All hell had let loose. It was full of people outside, and they weren’t fans. They were just there because they’d seen the furore about Grundy. I remember all the punks queuing outside, and in the flats opposite these yobs were on the roof, throwing things over. It was absolutely bizarre. There was a set of railings, and they were removing the spikes from them, throwing them like javelins.

“When we came out afterwards, it was the same, like a football crowd waiting for you. I remember the police were called. All the punks were saying, ‘Listen, we can’t get to our cars, up the road, can you help us?’ The police said, ‘Alright, run behind the van and we’ll escort you back.’ So we all started running, and then the van just drove off and left us all to the mercy of all these football fans!”

He’s laughing at it all as he recalls that chaotic scene, but you can imagine his terror at the time.

“Luckily, my mate’s car was pretty close. That was Terry Mason, who became our tour manager, so we managed to scramble in and get to safety. Then they came back about two weeks later and there was a sizeable crowd then – 600 to 800, something like that. The football supporters had come in by then, I suppose you’d say!”

I got the impression the Pistols came back purely because this was just one of five venues – as it turned out – that would allow them to play on that tour.

“Yeah. I’m not sure the promoter was. I’ve never found out who put the Electric Circus gigs on. But they had their bus and it paid for that. They were stuck really, struggling to earn enough to pay for it all. So, infamously, the Sex Pistols played four times in Manchester in a very short period of time.”

And I’ve since spotted that there was another show at Didsbury College as well as two each at the Lesser Free Trade Hall and the Electric Circus. At this point, we talked briefly about The Clash and the impact they had, not least as it’s rumoured Hooky got his own low-slung bass stance from watching Paul Simonon. He’s of the opinion that The Clash’s ‘strange image’ didn’t go down well with the North West ‘homegrown grass root punks’, but added, ‘I think musically they were a far better group, without a shadow of a doubt, but it was so anti-fashion led’.

“I think Bernie Rhodes was one of those old-fashioned mangers who took advantage of the group. Malcolm would make no bones about the fact that it was his group, while Bernie Rhodes led you to believe it was your group, but was in charge. When you see the Svengali aspect of it, it’s not really pretty. It’s really just taking advantage … the business has never changed! But they were fantastically exciting.”

And that whole scene inspired you to go forward with Joy Division, didn’t it?

“Yeah, although by the time we saw The Clash we were an established group. We’d been going for months! We were almost old hands at it! It’s quite odd looking back. The saddest thing for me was when they sacked Mick Jones, and got rid of Topper Headon. Sadly every group acts exactly the same, and it’s all just a terrible cliché.”

Of course, the other sad thing is that we lost Joe Strummer so early, just when he’d properly re-found himself with The Mescaleros.

“Yeah, I liked the Mescaleros. I only met Joe once. I met him in Groucho’s in the late ‘90s and he was a little bit the worse for wear. He took us over to Soho House. He was a member and took us in … then went home! So I didn’t really get much of a chance to talk to him, but he was a hero to a lot of people.”

A bit late, perhaps, but I should explain my excuse for talking to Peter is that after his band’s widely-acclaimed world tour playing in full the Substance albums of Joy Division and New Order – taking in North and South America. Europe and Australasia this year – they’re off to the Slade Rooms in Wolverhampton on Thursday, December 14th, have a homecoming at Manchester Academy the following day, reach Wakefield’s Warehouse 23 on Saturday 16th, and then finish at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, London, on Tuesday 18th. And at time of going to press, it seemed that tickets remained for just the Manchester show, but were limited.

And what of the albums featured in their set? Released in August 1987, New Order’s Substance compilation became the band’s best-selling album on its release, the double album going on to sell two million copies in America alone. Factory Records’ 200th release featured 12″ mixes of the singles as well as re-recorded takes on Confusion and Temptation, running from 1981’s Ceremony up to that year’s True Faith. Then, released the following July 1988, Joy Division’s Substance featured all the singles which didn’t appear on their albums, as well as B-sides, tracks from the An Ideal For Living EP and a Factory Records sampler. Factory Records’ 250th release began with Warsaw, taking in the band’s development right through to the final tracks.

Peter Hook’s band have toured Joy Division and New Order’s albums extensively since debuting Unknown Pleasures back in 2010, with dates around the world well received by critics and fans alike. But it’s not always been about those two outfits, and while New Order were on hiatus in the mid-’90s, Hooky recorded albums with Revenge and then Monaco, and in more recent years with Freebass (with fellow bass players Andy Rourke of The Smiths and Mani from The Stone Roses). And it will be 20 years now since debut  Monaco LP, Music for Pleasure, one of the first CDs I bought (unfashionably slow to move on from vinyl). In fact, I’ve a bone to pick with him there, on account of a hidden message on the CD’s run-out after last track, Sedona, and the amount of times that frightened the shite out of me. I tell him this and he laughs.

“Yeah, that nearly caused our A&R woman to crash her car on Dartmoor, because of that voice. It’s so dry. It sounds like someone really close to you, and she swerved off the road and only just got it back on. So yeah, that was a great little trick, that … it could almost kill people.”

I think it’s just the right amount of time after the last track, so even if you know it’s coming, it’s still a shock when it does.

“The idea was that I noticed when you left a CD running, the last track gave you no warning, so I thought about a minute’s silence. I guess it was one of those wonderful moments where I was exploiting being allowed to do whatever I wanted to, without being in a sort of democracy, shall we say. My experience allowed me to railroad Pottsy (bandmate David Potts), and I didn’t have three other members to argue with.”

Is that how you view that period now – with Revenge and Monaco? Because the latter project certainly resonated with me.

“Well, Revenge was very much a learning process. I sort of realised that while New Order taught me a lot, it hadn’t taught me how to do everything. Barney did it the other way round. He did Electronica with established musicians, while I did Revenge with complete beginners. Then we turned that round, and I did Freebass with established musicians and he did Bad Lieutenant with beginners. The thing was, I was learning, very much so, and by the time I got to Monaco I’d learnt, and it was a great album.”

While it’s surprising that was 20 years ago, I find it even more surprising that just 10 years had passed between New Order compilation, Substance, and that point.

“Yeah, it’s amazing the way time flies. It’s my wife and I’s 20th wedding anniversary, and we were like, ‘Where the hell did that go?’ Then suddenly you realise that playing with The Undertones was 39 years ago! But I’m very lucky I’m still doing what I love and enjoying it as much as I do. It’s been wonderful. It’s the same with the Hacienda, getting the name known and for it to be so successful, the way it is with the Classical, is such a compliment to everybody involved … maybe apart from the accountants!

“But everybody creative who helped do both should really give themselves a pat on the back. And it’s the same with all three bands. What we call New Order nowadays is on hiatus, but people are still digging the records, they’re still brought to people’s minds, and obviously it’s very important to a lot of people, which is great … because it keeps me in a bloody job!”

There’s been a great response from fans and press alike this year, to your shows with The Light and your Hacienda dates.

“Yeah, we had to earn that though. When I first broached the idea and put the first gig up, which we did for charity, there was a lot of keyboard banging, shall we say. That’s the thing that cost me all the singers, who were scared off by the expectation. God bless her, but it was Rowetta who said to me, ‘You’re going to have to do it’. And I was like, ‘Oh, shit!’ I’d never considered it for one moment. My ego just never wanted to go there.

“I was happy being the bass player, and really looking forward to that. But to have my son (Jack Bates) do that is almost like being able to live with it. And definitely as a musician, my one love is bass playing. If anything, singing has made me sympathise more with Bernie. When I got to Revenge and Monaco, I sympathised with him a lot more, but you do tend to forget very quickly.”

I recall seeing a clip of you playing live with The Light, somewhere in South America, and you look absolutely knackered come the encore. Is that just another night?

“Ha! Yeah, I keep myself fit and that sort of helps. Being an alcoholic in remission, I spend most of my time in the gym now. But it’s wonderful!”

It’s a long show too.

“Yes, we play for two and a half to three hours. I’m the Bruce Springsteen of Salford! And the weird thing is that the passion you put in is mirrored by the passion the audience gives you. It has to be. The reaction we get playing is fantastic, and that really spurs me on … in the same way that when we toured with The Undertones, I had that passion. And I’m lucky to have kept it.

Hacienda Daze: Peter hook in action on a Factory shift

“I have to say I enjoy it more now than I ever have. I say that without fear of contradiction. And I have to thank … God (laughs) that I’ve actually ended up like this, which is wonderful, because it wasn’t always that way.”

When you’re out revisiting the back-catalogue of Joy Division and New Order, do you get moments where you’re suddenly back in the studio, something coming back that you haven’t thought about for ‘x’ amount of years?

“Yeah, watching Jack play as you get a song together is the most evocative. It’s those learning bits and that seeking that transports me right back. Not the playing of the finished song, but the bit where you’re putting it together. That’s the most evocative.

“And I’ve been very lucky with an LP like Closer that I actually got to play it, whereas the others – to my knowledge – hadn’t, other than the odd track or two, but not the entire LP. So that was a wonderful moment, because we were so cruelly denied it.”

Did you get the impression there’d been just the right amount of distance between then and when you first got to that?

“Yeah, although I don’t mean about Ian Curtis. I mean by fate. Ian unfortunately had reached the end of his tether, for one reason or another, and we were too young to help him. The saddest thing was that he worked so hard on that record, and was so optimistic and looking forward to getting that record out. I do feel it was denied him, in many ways.  So one of the nicest things was to be able to play it, and watch the reaction on people’s faces when you did it. It was amazing.”

You point out in the introduction to The Hacienda: How Not to Run a Club (Simon & Schuster, 2009) that Joy Division are somehow still huge, all these years on, and perhaps even bigger in a sense. Ever tried to put your finger on why?

“It has to be down to the music. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve since realised I was definitely in the right place at the right time on a number of occasions. And the Hacienda actually added to our myth, shall we say, because of acid house, Manchester, post-punk … We really were in the right place at the right time. I do feel very blessed to have done that, and I’m not sure that many musicians will ever be that blessed again. I don’t think those happenings will happen again, if ever. If anything does, I can hardly wait.

“I do feel for modern musicians, because these young kids have so much competition. It’s really difficult. Then, lo and behold, not content with bringing two bands back – as in playing Joy Division and New Order’s back catalogues – as well as going forward with the newly-called New Order, they then drag the Hacienda up, doing classical interpretations of the songs!

“I think the very reason no one’s seen most of these songs performed ever, captures a vibrancy and also strikes a chord with these people who spent their lives in the Hacienda, from first going out as a young teenager through to mid-life crisis.”

And you’re probably reminding a few of those turning up what the hell they were actually doing during that period.

“Oh God, yeah! My daughter did the guest list at the Apollo in Manchester last week, and said, ‘Oh, my God, Dad, I’ve never seen so many old people off their heads!’ I said, ‘Love, it was like that in the Hacienda every night!’”

Getting back to 1987, somewhere in this house, there’s a less than pristine cassette box version of New Order’s Substance.

“That’s a collector’s item, that one, mate. You better get it found!”

True. Mind you, it tells you a fair bit about my slow embrace of technology, seeing as Anthony H. Wilson supposedly wanted that compilation put together and released on CD so he could play your songs in his car’s brand new CD player.

“Yeah, he did. He bought a new Jaguar, an XJC, which he had modified to look more like Steed’s. And it was one of the first cars to have a CD player in it.”

Well there you go, and that suggests how far apart Tony and I were at that stage. I had to settle for a tape player in my Ford Escort Mk.I.

“Well, yes, but don’t forget I still had a cassette player, mate. Don’t worry about that. But yes, his idea was to put it together just to do that. And I only found out when I was writing the New Order book that he wanted a new single on it, so they could market it in America. Him and Rob (Gretton) cooked up the idea of getting Stephen Hague – the pop producer of the time, doing the Pet Shop Boys. He didn’t tell us any of this, and only suggested it to us in quite an off-hand way. We actually went for it, even though it proved to be very difficult. It was really our first undoing, those sessions, I have to say.

“It was very much concocted by him and Rob. We were definitely in the dark. But it worked, Substance was our biggest-selling record. We tried to emulate that with the Joy Division compilation, but of course the tracks were much darker. But it had a great feel, and playing them together, as we do, it’s a toss-up which one’s going to go down best.

“And I have to say, and I don’t know what this means, but I’d have to say the Joy Division Substance goes down better than the New Order Substance.”

That does surprise me. That said, I love them both. And only yesterday was playing 1963 from the New Order collection, taking me back to driving round with that on my cassette player.

“It’s a fantastic record. I think the biggest mistake we ever made was giving that away as a B-side of True Faith. We’ve done some monumental cock-ups, and there was another. That could have been another huge hit single. But never mind, it’s all done now.”

Substance was a favourite, and the first of your products I actually owned, even though I was 19 by then. But I guess there was always someone to borrow from before … or I’d tape you off John Peel. By the time of Technique and Republic, I was definitely buying the albums though, catching up.

“Well, we’re playing Technique and Republic next year. I’m looking forward to that. Those were both 1989. When we get to them it’ll be 10 and 11, and we’ve just got three left. Then I’ll have to start again … unless I retire.”

If those numbers are confusing, I reckon the first seven shows (before the two Substance sets) were for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures and Closer, and New Order’s Movement, Power Corruption and Lies, Low Life, Brotherhood, and the So This is Permanence – A Celebration of Ian Curtis show. But I may be wrong. Whatever the case, is retirement ever likely to be on the cards for Hooky?

“According to my wife, no. She told me I’d never retire, because I like it too much. I suppose once you get over 60, it’s one of those things you long for, then unfortunately you don’t know what you’re going to do. I don’t know. The thing is I’m very happy. I really enjoy it and it’s a fantastic thing to do.

“I’d probably drive my wife mad if I was at home all the time. So it’s not something that’s on the cards. The first thing anybody says to me these days is that I don’t look 61, so I suppose that’s what I have to bear in mind … and carry on being that 22-year-old kid touring with The Undertones in 1978!”

Dare I ask the last time you properly spoke to the rest of New Order? At least without solicitors.

“Mmm. When did we speak? Erm … 2011 was the last time. And they were very unkind words. Yeah, I mean the argument is over. We’re both just picking up the wounded from No Man’s Land at the moment, bringing them back for medical attention … shall we say (laughs). I don’t expect a reunion any time soon, so … erm, we’re both getting on with doing – in our own ways – what we want to do.”

Who came closest to the real Peter Hook with their film portrayals – Ralf Little in 2002’s 24 Hour Party People, or Joe Anderson in 2007’s Control?

“Definitely Joe Anderson. The thing is, he was schooled by Anton Corbijn, who wanted it to be as real as possible. I must admit, everybody’s portrayal in Control made me go, ‘Ohh, God! That was very alike!’

“The difference was, Ralf Little was playing it for laughs, because Michael Winterbottom felt the whole thing was a bloody farce. And in many ways he was absolutely correct. So yeah, he just hammed it up … to good effect. That film, my God, it’s been popular around the world. 24 Hour Party People was a great success.”

Oven Gloves: Inspired by Joy Division … and Half Man Half Biscuit

You know you’ve truly arrived when your band are name-checked in a Half Man Half Biscuit song. Just ask Len Ganley, Ted Moult, Vitas Gerulaitis and Tommy Walsh. Do you own any Joy Division oven gloves?

“Ha! I don’t think there ever have been any. But I still think Joy Division oven gloves would be very popular. I think Joy Division tea towels would be even more popular. Maybe I’ll save that for my retirement plan.”

There’s another job for Hooky too, as he’s involved with the Music Industry Management and Promotion courses at my old seat of learning, the University of Central Lancashire in Preston. So where does he keep his certificate for his honorary Fellowship from UCLan?

“Oh, that’s in the office. I still work there, because we have our course at UCLan. The boys and girls I mentor have just been down to a Hacienda Classical show – 13 students coming down to help us, and they’re coming to the (Manchester) Academy for Peter Hook and the Light when we play there.

“When you go for a job, the first thing people ask is what experience you’ve got, and I felt that was something lacking from most college courses. There are things you can’t teach, like dealing with a drunken drug dealer at midnight in a club – easy enough to learn in a classroom but very difficult to deal with in real life. But these kids now get to go to Fac 251, get to work there, do projects there, encouraged to work in a proper working environment, working with Peter Hook and the Light and the Hacienda, getting a much more hands-on experience.

“In educational value, it’s worth its weight in gold. It’s wonderful, and (course leader) Tony Rigg is an old hand, who used to work at the Ministry of Sound. He knows what he’s doing. And whether they like it or not sometimes, his kids are getting that. It’s usually a safe environment, being in a classroom. Regardless of what they want to do, stick them in a position where it’s a lot more imposing and frightening. And there’s a lot of responsibility. That really sorts out the chaff from the wheat. I do believe in that, and you’re actually teaching people something they will be able to use and can then take to an employer, saying you’ve had experience.”

I got my Master of Arts there six months earlier. Perhaps I should have put my date back and waited so I could have to walked across the stage the same day as you.

“Well, there you go! That’s strange, innit! Ha!”

Were your ears burning back in the summer when I was talking to Rowetta (with a link here), when she was saying nice things about you and Mrs Hook?

Soul Survivor: Rowetta, busy as ever in 2017, and coming to a town near you (Photo: Angie Wynne)

Soul Survivor: Rowetta, Hooky’s Hacienda inspiration (Photo: Angie Wynne)

“Rowetta’s a wonderful woman, and without her there’d be no Peter Hook and the Light, to be honest. I do owe her that. It was wonderful to work with her on the Hacienda show. I think she’s going to have a break from it now while concentrating on the (Happy) Mondays. But she’s a great, great talent, and works so hard at what she does. She’s an incendiary character, shall we say. But talent burns bright, don’t it, mate!”

It does indeed. One of the things I talked about with Rowetta was the Manchester Arena bombing. She told me more about your personal link, with your daughter there that night. How’s she doing now. Do you often talk about that with her at home?

“Yeah, we do. The thing is, both me and my wife are always on at her to be careful. It’s a terrible world our children are being left with, and much as I hate to say it, it’s becoming something you have to be aware of and something we’re going to have to live with for a long time.

“So yeah, you have to look after yourself. We all do. The thing you worry about with your kids is that they don’t have the experience you think you have. That’s what scares you. It’s a big education for them as well.”

Finally, I haven’t quite managed to collar John Cooper Clarke, Mark E. Smith or a certain Bernard Sumner yet, but I’ve interviewed Elkie Brooks and Graham Gouldman, now you. Broughton, Salford, is clearly a rich area for talent. Why’s that then?

“Well, I hate to break it to you, but I’m from Ordsall, mate. Not far from Broughton, mind, and Barney was from there. We used to go to North Salford, which was the Broughton youth club, where we mispent our youth.

“But, you know, Manchester had always had a rich heritage, and the thing that used to piss Tony Wilson off was that Manchester stole all the Salford musicians. Alan Wise, the great impresario and presenter, would also get really annoyed we were all lumped in together as Manchester. The thing is, we’re so used to it, so when I say Manchester, I mean Manchester and Salford, so it doesn’t confuse the rest of the world.

“But what a great musical force. It’s waned off a bit lately for the first time in 30 years. I don’t know what’s happening to the youth of today. They need to buck their ideas up in Manchester. Too many tourists, mate!”

Ritz Cracker: Peter Hook in trademark low-slung bass action at the Ritz in Manchester

An Evening with Peter Hook & The Light, performing Substance By Joy Division and New Order, visits Manchester Academy on Friday, December 15. For tickets try here and for full tour information and other news about the band head here. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

Meanwhile, Hacienda Classical are back in 2018, in a show being prepared by Peter Hook (executive producer) alongside DJs Graeme Park and Mike Pickering, and musical director Tim Crooks. Featuring Manchester Camerata and the AMC Choir, a five-city tour visits Glasgow’s Braehead Arena (Saturday, May 19th), Manchester’s Castlefield Bowl (Saturday, June 30th), Edinburgh’s Royal Highland Centre (Saturday, August 18th), London’s Royal Albert Hall (Friday, September 28th), and Leeds’ First Direct Arena (Saturday, September 29th). For ticket details head here.

Meanwhile, if you step across to the excellent RetroMan Blog, you’ll see a nice piece by photographer Paul Slattery about his 1979 photo session with Joy Division and the Strawberry Studios Exhibition.

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Following in the Fab Four’s footsteps – The Bootleg Beatles feature

Band Substance: The Bootleg Beatles in live action, taking us back to 1967, even though Steve White, left, can't remember it.

Band Substance: The Bootleg Beatles take us back to 1967, even though Steve White, left, can’t remember it.

Granted, it’s not necessarily the best way to start a conversation, telling an interviewee who plays in a tribute band that I’ve always felt there are so many great groups out there that it’s pointless featuring such acts.

But while Steve White’s possibly wondering how to respond to that, I tell him that if I’m going to break my own rule and speak to one tribute act, then it should be The Bootleg Beatles.

“Ah, that’s amazing. I feel quite honoured!”

Yes, The Bootleg Beatles are back out on the long and winding road, heading to a town near you, seeing off 2017 in style, after another remarkable year for one of the most successful tribute bands on the circuit. The Fab Four copyists (I can’t call them The Prefab Four, because that’s clearly The Rutles), complete with their string and brass ensemble, are visiting 15 cities, and after 37 years perfecting their art, it’s fair to say they know what they’re getting into.

Since their inception in 1980 they’ve performed thousands of shows around the world, with recognition and respect from many involved in the inner circle of the original group.  By way of example, Sir George Martin described The Bootleg Beatles’ experience as ‘A terrific show’, and George Harrison even shared a few stage secrets with the band.

And as far as Steve – who takes on Paul McCartney’s role – is concerned, it’s been Getting Better and better this year, a run of memorable concerts marking the 50th anniversary of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP including a rather special date at the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and two performances at Glastonbury Festival, including a Pyramid stage set. But they’re not quite done yet, their current run featuring an extended Sgt. Pepper section to further celebrate that iconic 1967 album.

Formed from the original cast of London’s West End show Beatlemania, The Bootleg Beatles have become something of an institution in their own write, as John Lennon may have put it, through their note-perfect recreation of hits from every era of the original band’s treasured song catalogue. The detail is somewhat meticulous, from costumes to authentic period instruments, and from the Liverpudlian banter to the inflective vocal mimicry. What’s more, there’s an uncanny resemblance to the Fab Four, not least Steve, out there as Paul for the past five years.

He was back home in Nottinghamshire when I called, after a month touring Australia, Malaysia and Hong Kong. But as he put it, ‘A few days home, then we hit the floor running!’ And while the 48-year-old’s only been part of the story for the last half-decade, and never got to see the original Beatlemania show, he’s certainly made up for lost time.

“I was a bit too young to travel down to London back then! But as I understand it, an American company came over, looking to do a show, wanting four UK hopefuls to learn the roles of John, Paul, George and Ringo. The show was a hit in the West End, but after a period of time when that came to an end, the guys didn’t really know what to do, having taken all that time and effort to learn to be The Beatles. They thought, ‘What shall we do now?’ and went on to try this, thinking they’d give it six months, see how they’d do. And all these years later we’re still going strong.”

Steve, who sings, plays bass and keyboard for the band, is the third ‘Bootleg Paul’ in 37 years, with the first, David Catlin-Birch, there for the first seven years, then a later 11-year stint, while fellow originals Andre Barreau (Bootleg George) and Neil Harrison (Bootleg John) went on to put in more than 30 years’ service each, and are still involved behind the scenes. But these days, the stage dynamics are shared by Steve, Adam Hastings (‘Bootleg John’ – guitar, vocals, keyboard, harmonica since 2011), Stephen Hill (Bootleg George – guitar and vocals since 2014) and most recent addition Gordon Elsmore (Bootleg Ringo – drums, percussion, vocals, since last year).

I see there was a bit of a crossover, with Steve getting to work with both David and Andre in the early stages. Did they talk a lot about the band’s early days?

“They did, because fundamentally we’re all massive fans of The Beatles, and I don’t think you can do a job like this unless you are. You wouldn’t be able to do the performances whole-heartedly if you weren’t. The original line-up – Andre, Dave, Neil Harrison and at the beginning, Jack Lee Elgood – were lucky enough to play some of the places The Beatles played, such as The Budokan in Japan, and also did the 30th anniversary show at the top of the Apple building in London.”

Incidentally, Elgood soon made way for Rick Rock, aka Ricky Goldstein, formerly with Sham 69, who also put in more than 20 years’ Bootlegs service. And while I’m playing a Michael Caine-like ‘not a lot of people know that’ game, word has it that the Bootlegs looked to copy their own 1999 performance on Apple Corps’ rooftop at No.3, Savile Row, Mayfair, 10 years later (a tribute to a tribute act, maybe?), but health and safety concerns prevented them.

“That‘s right. They wouldn’t let it happen! And for Andre to regale us with all those kind of stories was just so brilliant. I also did a couple of shows standing in for David towards the end of his second stay, and was lucky enough to get time on stage with him, just the two of us. And it’s great to talk to a like-minded musician.”

They say if you can remember the ’60s, you weren’t really there, and seeing as Steve was born between the release of the Ballad of John and Yoko and Something singles, at the ‘back of the ‘60s’, he definitely falls into that category.

“I just scraped in, but don’t remember anything of it! I was born on June 1, however, and this year that date marked the 50th anniversary of the release of the Sgt. Pepper album!”

Standing There: The Bootleg Beatles get down to it, with Steve and Stephen harmonising on the left.

While my own birth date was five months after the release of Sgt. Pepper, Steve’s was three months before Abbey Road, which for me is up there with Revolver as the best of so many great albums (of course, I might change my mind in a few minutes and cite a couple of different ones, not least Rubber Soul, Help, and The Beatles).

“I can’t say I really favour one more than any other, but If I had to, I’d say Abbey Road too. I like the cleverness of the fact they didn’t really have any songs – they just kind of cobbled together loads of good stuff together, that made for such a great medley. And the production is so good. It blows me away when I hear that album.”

So what was this Beatles fan’s route into all this?

“It was all really a happy accident. I was in a band doing ‘60s music and we were all Beatles fans so started to learn a few songs. Pure self-indulgence. Then someone saw us and asked if we’d play their 60th birthday, but just as the Beatles. We learned lots of songs and did this party, and someone there said they had a wedding anniversary coming and asked if we could play that. In time our Beatles bookings kind of overtook our others, and the ‘60s show dropped by the wayside as we ended up being a Beatles cover band.”

But his abiding love of The Beatles and his dedication to the cause went even further, as it turned out, with Steve taking his music obsession to a new level.

“I was a right-handed rhythm guitar player in a John Lennon type role, but we’d turn up at venues and people would say, ‘You’ve got to be Paul, yeah?’ I wouldn’t say I look too much like him, but there’s a nod to that. So me and the bass player decided to swap over, leading to months of restructuring, learning harmonies and basslines. But then the audiences would ask if I was left-handed. So I thought I’d best have a go at that, teaching myself left-handed. For a while it was difficult, but over time it’s got easier.

“When I left that band. I became a floating Paul McCartney, as it were, helping a lot of Beatles covers bands out across the UK, which was good fun. Then I got a call from the Bootleg Beatles, asking if I could help out, and that happened several times over the course of a year as David had an on-going condition. After a year of that they asked if I’d be interested in doing it full time. David had a long time in Beatle boots and felt it was the time to call it a day.”

Well, the original band barely lasted a decade, so David hadn’t done so badly, service-wise.

“Exactly – technically, the original line-up of our band lasted way longer!”

Mop Tops: Twisting and shouting, Bootleg Beatles style – From the left – Steve White (Paul), Stephen Hill (George), Gordon Elsmore (Ringo), and Adam Hastings (John).

At that point we get on to left-handed guitarists, and how I’d always used the fact I was left-handed for not being a great bass player and guitarist, despite the likes of McCartney and Jimi Hendrix spectacularly showing me up. And seeing as Steve’s been to all that trouble to learn ‘the wrong way round’, I told him I’d class him as an honorary left-hander.

“Ha! Well, I can play left-handed now, and you’d never know I wasn’t, but it‘s always nice to go back. When I’m at home, playing for leisure, I’ll pick up a right-handed guitar and … well, the only way I can describe it is that it’s like putting on a comfy pair of slippers, as opposed to your work shoes.”

I can’t quite believe at this point that I’m talking about comfy slippers in a complimentary way with a rock’n’roller, but there you go. Perhaps there’s something in that old baloney about the comparative social qualities of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, not least which you were more likely to be able to get away with taking home to meet your parents.

On a similar front, I tell Steve that my older sister and her husband are big fans of the competition, a tribute band going by the name of The Counterfeit Stones. Does he know them fellas?

“Ah yes, we’ve worked with them a few times.”

So is there a good bit of rivalry there?

“I think there’s got to be, hasn’t there!”

Oddly enough, my first experience of seeing a recognised tribute band live came via Australian ABBA act, Bjorn Again in Blackburn in 1998, and I was suitably impressed by their between-song banter, playing out intricate insecurities between members and the increasingly broken relationships within the unit. Do The Bootleg Beatles tend to go in for such stage drama?

“Yeah, what we try to do with the show is recreate The Beatles, but we know we’re not The Beatles, so we don’t try to speak like them, verbatim, for example. It’s almost a slight mockery of it, really. At first it’s all smiles, and we’re all best buddies. Then, as it progresses we tend to have little digs at each other. But it’s all humorous, There’s no animosity. It’s a tongue-in-cheek, done in good taste.”

I have to ask, are you a fan of The Rutles?

“Oh, gosh, yeah! Absolutely fantastic!”

Poster Boys: How it all began. The original show that ran at the Astoria Theatre from late 1979 to early 1980.

Is there a bit of Dirk McQuickly (Eric Idle’s McCartney-like character) in your act?

“Ha! Yeah, and he can probably play bass better than me! We’re all massive fans of The Rutles. That’s really what we tend to do, and they capture that beautifully. True to form, yet very tongue-in-cheek. But while we’re under no illusion that we actually are The Beatles, it’s nice to put a show together to the degree that you’re doing enough acting and character gestures that you can fool people into thinking they’re seeing the real thing.”

Now , there’s a thought. Do you think I should go out there and form The Replica Rutles? My half-baked ‘leftie’ playing might be seen as an advantage, after all.

“Yeah! A tribute to the Rutles! Great!”

I’ve seen nice words from both George Harrison and Sir George Martin about the show. And there’s a quote on your website from Paul, saying, ‘I’m gonna come to your next gig and heckle ya!’ Have you spoken to the man himself, or got any feedback on your portrayal?

“I’ve not heard directly from him, but I’ve heard comments from close friends of the original band, and the original line-up were lucky enough to actually meet them on a number of occasions. Actually, there was one tale where Andre and Neil were carol singing up in Liverpool in the late ‘60s, knocked on a door, and Paul McCartney opened the door. They had no idea! It was around the time of the Let it Be album, and Paul – with long hair and a beard at that stage – invited them in, playing them I’ve Got a Feeling when it had yet to be released, while sat at the piano!”

“I know. It seems more like a couple of years. Andre met him quite a few times, the last time around the release of Free as a Bird. The Bootleg Beatles were booked to play a venue and George turned up. They sat down together and exchanged chords – George told him the actual chords he was playing on the records. It turned out that Andre was doing them slightly wrong. George pointed him in the right direction, which was wonderful. He also asked who the ‘Bootleg Brian Epstein’ was, as he reckoned he would have all the money!”

Talking of anniversaries, we lost John 37 years ago (this week), the year The Bootleg Beatles started. He would have been 77 now, and I often wonder where he’d be at now, if he hadn’t been taken away so young, and how much more great music he might have shared with us. Such a shame.

“Definitely. The mind could run riot over what could have been. Sadly, it was something we were destined never to find out.”

Phab Phil: The line-up for the Summer 2017 Bootleg Beatles and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra shows. (Photo: http://www.liverpoolphil.com)

But Paul is still going strong, and he’s made them some great records in recent years.

“He has, I think my favourite was Memory Almost Full. A great return to form. He’s had a run of great albums recently. His last four or five have been really good. And I really can’t imagine a time without him.”

Is that right that the first Bootleg Beatles gig was at a student gathering in Tiverton, Devon, in late March, 1980?

“Yes, and Andre’s told us many stories about those days, where more often than not, members of the audience would laugh at them, ridiculing them for dressing up, trying to pretending to be someone else. It’s difficult to believe people would find it quite so silly. There are so many tribute acts now, and you can’t imagine a time when there weren’t. That term wasn’t even recognised then.“

Well, more than 4,000 gigs later, I think you’ve had the last laugh on the doubters.

“Yes, and both Andre and Neil remain heavily involved with the production, behind the scenes. And The Bootleg Beatles are still really Neil and Andre in that sense.”

It must have been really something, playing the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and playing Glastonbury Festival’s Pyramid stage this year.

“It’s been absolutely fantastic. To work with an orchestra of that scale is absolutely fabulous anyway, and then with the added bonus of performing start to finish the entire Sgt. Pepper album with that 70-piece orchestra – incredible!

“And there was another bonus on top of that – to be able to do that at the Royal Albert Hall … and on my birthday, again with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, playing one of the best albums ever written! It doesn’t get any better!”

December UK dates: Tue 5 – Cardiff St David’s Hall (02920 878 444), Wed 6 – Bradford Alhambra (01274 43200), Fri 8 – Harrogate Theatre (01423 502 116), Sat 9 – Leicester De Montfort Hall (0116 233 3111), Sun 10 – Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (0151 709 3789), Mon 11 – Edinburgh Usher Hall (0131 228 1155), Tue 12 – Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (0141 353 8000), Thu 14 – Sheffield City Hall (01142 789 789), Fri 15 – Birmingham Symphony Hall (0121 345 0600), Sat 16 – Newcastle City Hall (08448 11 21 21), Sun 17 – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall (0115 989 5555), Tue 19 – Bristol Colston Hall (0844 877 1500), Wed 20 – Manchester Apollo (0161 907 9000), Thu 21 – Plymouth Pavilions (0845 146 1460), Fri 22 – Brighton Centre (0844 847 1515). Tickets, subject to a booking fee, can be booked at www.ticketmaster.co.uk. For more information about the band, head to www.bootlegbeatles.com.

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Comedy & Theatre, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Notes From a Cornish Shed – Another Shedload by Pete Cross – a writewyattuk review

Beach Boy: Pete Cross’s latest best-seller gets the Porthcurno sand-blast treatment (Photo: Pete Cross)

Trepiddle’s Finest is back, and it’s like he’s never been away. Perhaps that’s because he hasn’t, but that’s not the point. Pete Cross has a new collection of scribblings out, and now it’s December I’ll throw in my first festive cliché and tell you it’s a perfect stocking-filler. And even Devonians may be tempted to splash out, because while he’s bleddy proud of that St Piran flag tattoo on his chest (actually, that’s just a rumour), Pete’ll still give most of us up-country buggers the time of day.

Described as ‘another choice selection of Pete’s ‘Backalong’ columns for Cornwall Today, (here’s my review of the first) he carries on where the last left off, proving (if he needed to) he’s no one-trick Levant pit pony. Just looking at the cover, I was laughing. Not because of his profile pic, but an anti-endorsement from Minty Fumble, who those who read part one will recall as the acclaimed author of A Puffin on the Aga.

As a Cornwall Today subscriber, I’d read most of these pieces, but all are worth revisiting. What’s more, some of the earlier columns were new to me, left out last time and pre-dating me receiving that reassuring monthly thud on the doormat (that sounded better in my head).

While Backalong had its roots in his return to Cornwall after his London years, it’s not the tale of some over-paid executive quitting the Big Smoke and heading for a slower-paced life among amusing yokels, ‘finding’ himself. Pete’s premise was more about returning to a county he loved but had changed immeasurably (for good and bad), giving accounts of his findings. If you want a modern take on Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, maybe look elsewhere, but that format’s been done to death.

Of course, the Cornwall some ‘incomers’ crave might not actually exist. It’s one seen in Doc Martin (Pete describes Portwenn as ‘a place blissfully free of the vagaries of 21st century deprivation, where a dim-witted full-time policeman has nothing to do and everyone lives in a lovely whitewashed cottage with a sea-view’) or that thankfully short-lived Dawn French/Catherine Tate sitcom Wild West.

Equally, Pete’s Cornwall doesn’t seem to be the one Caroline Quentin gushes about on ITV travelogues, featuring over-priced bijou b’n’bs and twee craft concerns. If you want that, you’ll find plenty of examples on the shelves, just right for those wanting to wind down from a busy week in the city at a novel-writing seminar with Richard and Judy in Portshallow Bay. But maybe I’m wrong. Besides, as he puts it, ‘Living in Cornwall is idyllic. It says so in all the magazines.’

I get it that, as the author admits, Cornwall for many is ‘just that place with the pretty beaches, and pasties, and pixies, and that nice Rick Stein.’ But the county he writes about is more like the one I know and love, a place I’ve been visiting for nearly 45 years.

He’s got five years on me (Pete’s weathering better, but I put that down to his dream location) but started a family later, and much of what he mentions I can relate to. Okay, he prefers rugby and spent much of his youth skateboarding, but we’ve plenty in common. He’s well-travelled, having seen a fair bit of the world, and now he’s home, I can equate to all that through visits with my young family, having put my own wider travels aside for a while, revisiting childhood haunts and discovering new ones.

Would-be columnists should note, there’s an art to talking about yourself and not being too revealing. We don’t want to see pictures of your tea and daily selfie. But Pete comes over as humble, self-effacing, understated and funny (subtly so, not sledgehammer funny), and can also write. That last point may seem obvious, but the more print, online and social media columns and opinion pieces I read, the more I appreciate an ability to turn a phrase and write with colour, understanding less is more.

His columns are tongue-in-cheek, not to be taken too seriously, the author laidback enough to resist adding gags every couple of paragraphs. In short, to read his column is to like the bloke and know you’d happily have a pint with him, even if you might not fancy a day helping him dig out his furzey bush (not a euphemism) or joining him on his annual fishing trip if the sky’s looking a little odd.

Enough waffle. This time the subject matter includes PC’s take on how the county’s changed since The Life of Brian was banned in ’79, the best way to tackle your overgrown garden, an account of Kernow’s kick-start that ensured the success of the 2012 London Olympics, mispronunciation of place names, the abundance of lifestyle books on the market (hats off to Minty Fimble again), sheds, 21st century weather, and updates on his beloved chickens and geese.

Then there’s the joy of outdoor festivals and quoits, lots about bird-watching and the wondrous chough (as also featured in his 2007 children’s story, Shadows in the Sky, as reviewed here), musings on Cornish tartan (yep, you heard right), tree echiums, the heart-warming tale of Keith the Robin, media hysteria over shark-infested waters, how to survive camping and van holidays, an appreciation of parsley (not the lion from the Herbs), and the basic principles of living an idyllic Cornish lifestyle.

Bay Watch: Pete's latest volume of Backalong columns has even been spotted in Mount's Bay (Photo: Pete Cross)

Bay Watch: Pete’s latest volume of Backalong columns has even been spotted in Mount’s Bay (Photo: Pete Cross)

Throw into that mix talk of beer, pasties, the struggle to master social media, the resurgence of Cornish cuisine, observations on drifting into middle-age, scary statistics about gastropods, and you’re even closer to understanding PC’s DNA. Then there was his horror at being mistaken for a tourist once. Boy, did I laugh at that, waking up my better half, who wasn’t best pleased.

There are also insightful deliberations over the East-West divide (not just a North-South thing when it comes to comparing areas of UK affluence and deprivation), Cornwall’s official recognition as a national minority group (whatever that really means), Truro’s bid for capital of culture status, thoughts on the Tate St Ives and the gasometer it replaced, and how the Race for Space might lead you to St Mawgan in the future.

Finally, factor in taxidermy, couch grass, and celebrations of our national sport of queuing, the pleasures of coastal walks, Christmas memories, pipe smoking, the victory of books over e-books, The Archers, and Cornish identity, and Poldark of course. Mr and Mrs Pete are huge fans of the latter, and over the course of several pieces on the subject you sense relief that the BBC reboot was not only a success but also truly respected Winston Graham’s literary legacy.

I remain jealous of the fact that Pete can sod off to the beach when his lads finish school, gazing into rock pools at low tide and plunging into those invigorating waters. Granted, there’s lots on my doorstep in Lancashire I don’t always appreciate, and I know the grass is greener elsewhere, but it certainly appeals. That doesn’t make it idyllic. There’s hard graft involved, and this is real life, not postcard romanticism. But all the same …

It’s not just about locations, culture and proud history either. There’s no pretentiousness,  the author happy enough just inspiring an ‘approving nod or even, on occasion, a chuckle’ from these pieces. Similarly, he’ll not claim guru status when it comes to surviving modern life (he can’t even tell you where his other flip-flop went), but I prefer Pete’s steer on philosophy to most.

But I’d best let you go now, because it’ll be selling like hot saffron buns down at Goon Gumpas this month, so you’d best get in there quick. Just one note of caution – if you do feel the need to then read it on the loo, don’t let him know.

To track down a copy of Notes From a Cornish Shed – Another Shedload by Pete Cross, head along to his Facebook page or his website.

Posted in Adventure & Travel, Books Films, TV & Radio, Comedy & Theatre | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Still Holding The Flame – The Roland Gift interview

Good Thing: Roland Gift is back, set for a 12-date UK tour showcasing solo material and the work of Fine Young Cannibals

Good Thing: Roland Gift is back for a UK tour showcasing his solo material and Fine Young Cannibals days

It was an appreciation of the soulful voice of Otis Redding that helped inspire Roland Gift to seek out a life as a performer.

The Birmingham-born singer and actor was only six when Redding was killed in a plane crash in Wisconsin, but when a neighbour passed on three of his albums, it proved a key moment.

And the night before the 50th anniversary of the Stax legend’s death, Roland will no doubt pay tribute to his vocal hero at Manchester’s Club Academy, at the midway point of a 12-date UK tour showcasing more recent solo material and highlights from his time with best-selling outfit Fine Young Cannibals.

I was 17 when I first heard his band, around the same time I was properly discovering ’60s soul – from Motown to Stax and the Northern Soul scene. They fell at the right time for me, not least with that debut self-titled album and its singles in 1985. It never struck me back then that he might also be a big Otis fan. Now it seems obvious. You really hear that in his voice.

“Well, sometimes people do sound more or less like their influences. I remember Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads) saying Psycho Killer was influenced by Otis, that ‘Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa’ line, but you wouldn’t necessarily pick up on that. I do remember Otis Redding being on the radio when I was very young, and then a neighbour, who half the time was nice to me and the rest of the time was a real bitch, gave me some of his albums, which I’ve still got and became sort of a template for me … in a big way.”

Incidentally, those LPs were Otis Blue, Otis Sings Soul Ballads and a hits collection, Roland’s musical route soon mapped out.

“I’d heard  him, when I was a kid, and my sister was a fan. To say it changed my life would be a bit dramatic, but it did have an effect on my musical development. And we all shared a love of the Stax sound in the Cannibals.  That was the thing that brought us together. Otis was probably my favorite singer, and still is, so those influences will definitely be there.”

Roland, who moved to Hull at the age of 11 but made London his home around a decade later, retains a passion for acting too, having appeared in several films and stage and small screen productions over the last 30 years. His most recent release on that front is Brakes, a dark comedy also starring Kerry Fox, Noel Fielding and Paul McGann, among others, out at selected cinemas right now.

“When I started, I wanted to be an actor. That’s one of the reasons I came down to London. But most people I know have been in a group sometime in their life.”

His first group was punk band the Acrylic Victims, later Akrylykz, with an added ska dimension, releasing a couple of independent 45s en route.

“We got a bit of notoriety, released a couple of singles, and my music focus grew from there.”

That was chiefly down to Andy Cox and David Steele, fresh from The Beat, inviting him to sing for their next project, the band that became Fine Young Cannibals, Roland’s group having previously supported them in Hull. In the summer of 1985 the new combo released debut single, Johnny Came Home, the first of five UK top-10 hits in the next four years, two of those – She Drives Me Crazy and Good Thing – becoming US No.1s in 1989.

The 56-year-old father of two – his lads are now 26 and 23, with one at art college and the other a circus performer – who spent his pre-teen years in the West Midlands before moving to Hull, has been based around North London since the early ‘80s, but still occasionally returns to the UK’s current Capital of Culture. What took Roland, one of four children, and his family to the East Riding in the first place?

“My Mum grew up there, and houses were cheaper. I think she bought our house for £1,100. It needed work, but you could get a five-bedroom house for that price, get more for your money. I think people get drawn back to where they’re from. Mum had a second-hand shop there.”

At that point I bring up the subject of further Hull retail outlet Everything But the Girl, the furniture shop that inspired a band name for Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt when they got a music project together in Hull in 1982. You may also recall that Everything But the Girl were named by The Housemartins, self-styled ‘fourth best band in Hull’, among the three outfits supposedly better than them at the time – along with The Red Guitars and The Gargoyles. But that’s another story.

“I remember the shop, and did travel up to Hull once with a woman whose family owned that shop. We just happened to be in the same carriage.”

I’m guessing he means a railway carriage, but I reckon I could see Roland in period costume, riding in an 18th century coach, being rightly resentful of race and class prejudice directed against him.

Talking of his work in front of camera, I tell him it seems that I’m forever talking anniversaries with interviewees, and much as I loved the first two Fine Young Cannibals LPs albums, his films also offered an important snapshot of my 1980s’ landscape. It’s been a while since I revisited 1987’s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, but I put to Roland that there seems to be a correlation between that period, eight years into Thatcher’s premiership, and now. History repeats.

“Yeah, when I was a kid, black people were demonised, now it’s Muslims. But it’s the same noise people made about blacks, or the Irish. When people feel short of money or are short of money, they look to simple explanations as to why. It’s always slightly different, but more or less the same old stuff.”

That Stephen Frears film – also starring Shashi Kapoor, Frances Barber, and way down the list, Bad Manners’ frontman Buster Bloodvessel – proved to be Roland’s breakthrough role. Was he aware of the director’s work then?

“Yes and no – there were a lot of things I’d seen and really liked which I didn’t realise Stephen directed, like his TV work and his first film, Gumshoe. It’s easier now, with the internet, to find that all out, but not in those days. But all these things I’d really liked, it turned out he’d directed. So I was aware of him, but not consciously.”

While set a quarter of a century earlier, 1989’s Scandal was another film that seemed to characterise that era. And from the Mandy Rice Davies and Christine Keeler link to Roland’s character, Johnny Edgecombe, and his subterranean world, including a visit to the legendary Flamingo Club in Soho, that was a side of London that intrigued me.

“Yeah. It’s kind of … it’s the margin, isn’t it? Those people who co-existed in those worlds, slightly hidden.”

Did you get to meet Johnny Edgcumbe, whose spat with ex-lover Christine Keeler kick-started the chain of events that ultimately exposed the Profumo Affair?

“I did actually, much later at a Windrush event at Alexandra Palace.”

What did Johnny make of your portrayal of him?

“I think closer to the film he wasn’t best pleased, but by then he was alright, not taking it so personally. That’s the thing about films depicting real events. The writer chooses what they write about, the director chooses what they film. It’ll never be the truth. Every frame’s chosen by another person.”

I wonder how different that film would be if told again now, with the makers not subject to so many potential legal writs (and this week, I saw on the news further revelations of an earlier Profumo affair, this time with a pro-Nazi in the 1930s, which MI5 had a file on).

“I’m sure it would be. Quite a lot of the family were still alive when that was made. There’s a lot more to be said.”

I know you weren’t involved, but I also equate another Stephen Woolley production with that – as Mandy Rice-Davies was cast as Ray Davies’ wife in the half-brilliant, half-car crash 1986 film musical of Colin MacInnes’ classic late ’50s novel, Absolute Beginners?

“Yeah, and in fact we were asked to do some music for that, which is why we ended up doing the song Blue. They wanted a song with that in the title. Soon, it became clear we wouldn’t be contributing, but we carried on.”

Had The Style Council got in there before you with Have You Ever Had It Blue?

“I think everyone was being asked around that time. Anyone who had anything kind of retro about them … which we did.”

Getting back to that first Cannibals album, there are some nice touches on there from The Beat sax player Saxa (Funny How Love Is) and Jimi Somerville (Suspicious Minds), and it had such a great sound, not diluted by ‘80s production techniques. I was listening the morning I called Roland for the first time in ages, and – considering it dropped slap-bang in the middle of the ‘80s – it’s stood the test of time for these ears, sounding just as fresh 32 years later.

“Well, thanks. One of the things when we got together was … well, the stuff we were listening to back then was at least 25 years old, and we wanted to make something that people could listen to 25 years later. That was one of our objectives. We didn’t have a mission statement, but that was one of the things we wanted to do. And we still get radio play, so people are still listening.”

You bridged indie, soul and jazz, with added political undertones, and were a key component of my personal life soundtrack for at least a couple of years. Also, you were effortlessly cool, and I was intrigued from first single, Johnny Come Home, seeing those sliding steps from bandmates Andy Cox and David Steele when you appeared on TV.

“I was just as surprised when I first saw that!”

Were they doing that in their days in The Beat? I can’t readily recall. Or maybe they just didn’t have as much space on the stage then. It was a bigger band after all.

“I think David was. He was called ‘Shuffle’, so that might have been to do with his dancing style. In fact, the first time I really saw it was when we did the video for Johnny Come Home. I looked around and the rest of them were doing it!’

Despite my occasional exclamation marks, I should mention that Roland rarely gets beyond softly-spoken here. A man named In 1990 by People magazine as one of the ‘50 Most Beautiful People’ in the world seems quiet, shy almost. He’s no Geno Washington.

He also seems to deliberate before answering questions. Perhaps he’s been at the wrong end of a few tabloid interviews before now. But Roland – also a guest singer with Jools Holland’s band in recent years – comes over as open and warm. Is he still in touch with Andy and Dave?

“I see Andy from time to time, but never David. They hadn’t spoken for a while, until the saxophone player from The Beat died recently, meeting up at the funeral.”

Lionel Martin, aka Saxa, died in May, aged 87. I mention to Roland how, on Funny How Love Is, when you hear him, it could be no one else. Such a distinctive style.

Fine Young Cannibals officially dissolved in 1996, after struggling to complete a third album, long after after the mega-commercial success of second LP, The Raw and the Cooked. Instead, they brought out The Finest, what Roland called ‘a greatest hits set plus three new tracks that didn’t have a home to go to’ , including their final hit, The Flame.

At one point he joined Jools Holland’s big band as a guest singer, touring with them for a year, a move that inspired him to want to take his own group out to play again.

“The group didn’t stop with a bang. It was like a freeze-frame that stopped and stayed and stayed, then eventually faded. But nobody said, ‘OK we’re going to end this.’”

Part of the solution came with Roland’s self-titled solo LP in 2002, described as ‘a sophisticated blend of pop and soul with jazz and even gospel flavours’. Is that far from where he is now?

“Yeah … although that could mean anything. I like the term, ‘pop music’. Actually, Andy’s wife, (writer) Malu Halasa, came in the dressing room after a gig at the Cafe de Paris, and said, ‘I really love that black psychedelia!’ She was referring to a number of songs that had that kind of feel So, yeah, everything you said there, but also black psychedelia!”

The Roland Gift album was recorded at various locations, from demo studios to front rooms to Mayfair Studios. Was it a case of fitting it around other paid projects?

“This is where you’ve got music and you’ve got business, and they kind of need each other, but sometimes the business becomes the bigger thing. When the Cannibals split up, I was still signed for America but free for the rest of the world. I ended up doing a deal with Universal, who already had me in America.

“While a couple of people were keen, a lot weren’t. It wasn’t a deal they’d gone and got, but something they’d inherited. It was a kind of loveless marriage. I was kind of tied up with a company that weren’t really in love with what I was doing. But that’s not an unusual situation.”

As well as his live shows, he’s also been working on a stage musical, Return to Vegas, with Bob Carlton, who created the show, Return to the Forbidden Planet. It was set to premier in Hull as part of the city of culture celebrations, but that didn’t happen for some reason or other. Yet, Roland added, “I’m pleased by the way the Return to Vegas songs have been received in the live set, sitting nicely alongside the FYC classics.”

And while we haven’t heard much from him of late, tracks like 2009 single Crushed and Return to Vegas teaser This Broken Heart, first shared in 2015, suggest there’s still plenty of soul in that great voice, as you can experience for yourself over the next three weeks, with Roland’s pre-Christmas tour,

I mention at that point – as it was something I’d been writing about – long term deals, particularly the one Bernie Rhodes negotiated with CBS for The Clash, a 10-LP deal when they thought they had a five-album deal. And that took Roland back to his musical roots.

“They were my ‘coming out’ band. The Clash were the kind of band I was into at that impressionable age!”

Were they part of the inspiration behind Acrylic Victims and the Akrylykz ska band they became?

“Well, that was an art college band, and while they were there they moved from using oil paints to acrylic paints, hence the name. But yes, we supported The Clash at Bridlington, around 1980. Me and some mates went hitch-hiking, following them, then I got a job doing back-drops for them, down at the Music Machine. This fella I knew, Roger Hudson, knew their tour manager, Johnny Green, and we’d turn up at gigs and get free passes.

“I didn’t get to know the band. I was more of a fan than a contemporary. They were kind of the biggest of the bunch really. But I just liked being around it. You’d see gigs and people you’d seen at other gigs. You felt some sort of camaraderie.

“Also, The Clash played reggae as well. When punk started, people weren’t so sure, because of the swastikas and that, with the National Front on the rise then. So something like The Clash playing reggae was a good invitation for someone like me to be a part of it.”

So how did your link with Andy Cox and David Steele come about. Did your band also support The Beat?

“Yeah, they came and played in Hull. The keyboard player gave them a demo tape, and they invited us to support them. That was great.”

We mentioned Saxa, but how about your own sax playing back in those days?

“Ha! A while ago I bumped into somebody in Hull at a friend’s party, who’d bought my first saxophone for her son. When I left Hull for London I sold it. So I bought it back!  She’d had it refurbished, and I bought some reeds, but they’re a little bit stiff. I don’t know if I really want to go back to that, but it’s nice to have it.

“I only really bought it because a mate said I’d look good with a saxophone! My dream back then would have been to be the sax player in The Clash, a bit like Clarence Clemons with Bruce Springsteen.”

At this point I tell Roland – whose film career also included 1987’s Tin Men, for which FYC also supplied the music at the request of director Barry Levinson, and 2001’s The Island of the Mapmaker’s Wife, directed by Michie Gleason – that at least two of the songs on The Raw and the CookedShe Drives Me Crazy and I’m Not the Man I Used To Be – appear on another soundtrack that hasn’t quite dropped yet. But that’s because no one’s taken up the rights to a film version of my own first novel. I won’t go into that here though.

We then got on to how the Cannibals somehow managed to pull off a couple of unexpectedly-corking covers, Elvis Presley’s Suspicious Minds and Buzzcocks’ Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve), somehow making them their own, not so easy to pull off successfully.

“Well, again it’s that thing about not knowing what’s going to happen. I like that kind of knife-edge thing. It could go completely the wrong way. But they’re really good songs, and for me everything’s at the service of the song. You don’t put a trill in just because you can. But I think if you follow the song, you can’t go wrong.”

And while he never became Clarence Clemons, he’s certainly lived the dream, both in the studio – working with the likes of producers Robin Millar, Jerry Harrison and David Z – and on the road, all over the world. I mentioned the first LP, as that was the best for me. But the second was a huge seller of course, with some great songs on there – not least the two personal favourites I mentioned before – going on to top the UK, US, Canadian and Australian charts. But it was a long time coming. Was that down to the acting taking off?

“Well, She Drives Me Crazy took quite a while. We didn’t even settle on the title until we were in the studio. Whereas Good Thing was written in five minutes. But both became No.1s. So there’s not really one way of doing it. People say to break America you have to tour and tour, but we didn’t. That’s one thing I got from all that – when people tell you, ‘This is the way,’ it’s not necessarily so.”

Something Soulful: Roland Gift, out and about again, around the UK, in December 2017

Roland Gift’s December UK tour starts this Saturday, the 2nd, on old home ground in Hull, playing The Welly, moving on to Wakefield Warehouse 23  (3rd), Leamington Spa Assembly (5th), Norwich Waterfront (6th), London  ULU Live@Student Union (8th), Manchester Club Academy (9th), Bristol The Fleece (11th), Cardiff The Globe (12th), Brighton Concorde 2 (14th), Southampton Engine Rooms (16th), Reading Sub 89 (17th), and Exeter  Phoenix (18th). For more details, head to Roland’s Facebook page. 

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Quo must go on – back in conversation with Francis Rossi

Lining Up: Status Quo, 2017 style. Francis, Richie and Rhino get in formation, while Leon calls the beat from the rear and Andy stays out of the way (Photo: Tovita Bråthen Razzi)

I wasn’t quite sure how to start my conversation with Francis Rossi, wondering at what point it would be right to bring up the subject of Rick Parfitt’s passing, 11 months ago. I shouldn’t have worried though, the effervescent Londoner an expert after all these years at breaking the ice.

“I heard that in your voice – ’Oh, he’s gonna fuck about again!’”

We last spoke a couple of summers ago, on which occasion I recall him starting by talking about his daily ‘oil pulling’ homeopathic regime.

“Yeah, I’ve been doing that for a while. I’ve this Chinese-Malaysian woman who’s been looking after myself and my family nearly 30 years. I don’t trust the medical profession much. Because of the world we live in, even that’s become about profit. You’re never sure when they’re marketing something.

“I knew this doctor I was seeing about these headaches, years ago, and he read this stuff out and said, ‘If I give you this, me and the wife can go on holiday for three weeks to fucking Fiji. I’m very suspicious. They tell you to try and stay off medication now. There’s even an ad on telly telling you not to take antibiotics. But how do you get them unless you get them off a doctor? Anyway, you don’t want to talk about that.”

Yep, barely a minute in and we’re already off-road. But I wouldn’t expect it any other way. I steer us back towards the main track though, telling Francis my last sight of the band was in July 2015 in the grounds of Hoghton Tower, not far from my Lancashire base, at a charity gig for a local hospice.

What a great night of maximum rock’n’roll that was. And we somehow remained dry until walking back to our car, those eventual showers nothing more than an endorsement from the gods for a legendary band, lightning in the night sky showing us the way out.

“Well, sometimes it happens. One night this year we did one of those ‘80s things, and it pissed down from around three in the afternoon. I’ve never seen an audience put up with so much rain. Perhaps they were all rat-arsed, but I appreciate it when they endure it. I friggin’ wouldn’t, so I’m always knocked out that people stay … otherwise we’d be playing in an empty field. Not good for the ego, that one.”

Even with Rick Parfitt’s exit, there’s plenty of long service among the Quo frontline – more than 120 years between Rossi, Andy Bown and John ‘Rhino’ Edwards alone. And if we’re talking ages, those same three campaigners have a total of more than 200 years on the planet … and counting.

Duel Controls: Rick Parfitt and Francis Rossi during the band’s Hoghton Tower show in July 2015, with the ‘Caveman’, left, plus ‘Rhino’ and Andy to the right (Photo: Symphony at the Tower)

But on that occasion two years ago, I mentioned how Quo’s four ‘outfield players’ – Rossi, Parfitt, Bown and Edwards – had more zip and sparkle than many a younger band. And Francis put some of that down to drummer Leon Cave, aka the Caveman.

“He’s got a certain energy and vibe to him. I think musicians get so carried away with musicianship, but that doesn’t necessarily give you good performances and good vibes. And with Status Quo, Leon’s a much better guitarist than any of us. He really is!”

I recall how at one point they left him out there alone, doing a drum solo. We could only presume it was a case of power naps all round, all those years on the road ensuring this was a band that could sleep through anything.

“Well, if you ask someone to do a really good drum solo, the punters might fall asleep. So you have to have a certain amount of crowd ‘duh-duh-duh’ response-y stuff!

“Leon, Richie (Malone) and John love the stuff they listen to on the bus, but it’s from a musician’s point of view. I always say you have to try and get a balance. It shouldn’t just be about musicianship. There are such brilliant players out there. I suppose it’s the X-Factor thing. But there’s something about those who have been successful over the last 30 or 40 years. They’re not the best singers or best players, but look at the Stones, look at Quo, look at AC/DC, loads of them. You think, I don’t get it really, but something works … something happens!

Funny he should say that. I’ve been writing a lot of late about the 40th anniversary of punk rock and the main players’ ‘year zero’ approach – discounting all that came before. Yet I’m pretty sure The Clash didn’t mean it – and Mick Jones certainly didn’t – when, on 1977, they sang, ‘No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones.’

“Yeah, it was a PR thing, and some of that annoyed me. But the pendulum went so far the other bloody way. Listen to The Clash, they actually improved and got to be really good players, whereas certain other bands wanted to sound like they couldn’t play. I say you need a jolly clairvoyant with all that – a happy medium! But of course, they were rejecting us, the ‘old school’. They didn’t want fame, they didn’t want limousines … then they went and got it all!”

Seeing as I mentioned 1977, I put it to Francis that it’s exactly 40 years now since their 10th studio album, Rockin’ All Over the World, saw the light of day, built around that inspired John Fogerty cover version that would forever be associated with them from that point on.

“Is it? That caused a lot of upset. We lost a lot of fans on that album. So many letters. Similar to recently, where we got letters and emails to push us to keep this tour but make it electric rather than acoustic. I’m confused by that. I didn’t think I’d be in this position. Weird shit. I don’t know what the fuck’s going on. I’m sure people are pissed off with me for continuing, but things change and it’s given a new spark of life, and Richie’s done that.”

I mentioned how Leon Cave gives them extra vigour, keeps them on their toes, and I’m hearing much the same about most recent addition Richie Malone, the Dublin guitarist playing in namesake Rick’s place. He looks the part too, like a younger Parfitt.

“Those two are a similar age, get on well together, and like each other. And there’s something about Richie. When we rehearse, me, John and Andrew keep looking at each other, thinking, ‘What’s he doing?’ Then we realise that’s how it used to sound!”

You mean, he’s actually been listening to the old records?

“Yes! Like a moment on Roll Over Lay Down in the first verse, this piece we kind of lost somehow. He’s made us older people focus a lot more, and we’ve all begun to enjoy it. Either that or we feel we’ve got something to prove or worry because Rick’s gone and wonder what people might think. I think it’s made us dig in again, try to prove something, a very strange position to be in.”

I won’t bother going into the history of the band here. That was pretty well covered in my last Francis Rossi interview. In short though, 22 top-10 hits in the UK alone between 1968 and 1990 tells its own story, along with 24 top-10 albums here, four of those topping the charts. I should explain, however, the position with Status Quo as of late November 2017. As their latest press release put it, ‘Quo, perhaps more than any other band, are defined by their touring and by their fan-base. Francis Rossi and Quo have spent a lifetime on the road. Travelers on all roads eventually reach a crossroads, where a decision needs to be made. Status Quo are no exception. This is their decision’.

So, from here on, Rossi and co. have announced they are set to ‘radically cut back on their touring activities’, with only a series of summer shows and festivals planned for 2018, and for the first time in around 30 years no plans for a European winter tour or UK Christmas shows next year. As a result, a show in Zurich has been brought forward to October 6th and will be the 2018 finale. Therefore, the Plugged In: Live and Rockin’! UK Tour is the only opportunity for fans in the Northern Hemisphere to see the band in smaller and more intimate venues for at least two years.

Francis added, “This year’s been one of change and reassessment. Although Rick had already retired from touring for six months, it was still a major shock and my immediate reaction was to honour existing contracts and then knock it on the head. However, since then I have become increasingly confused as I realised just how much I was enjoying touring with two vibrant young guys in the band. They’ve given us old guys a good kick up the backside and while it could never be the same as with Rick in the band, it is different now, but in an exciting and vibrant way that I can’t fully explain.

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

“The 2017 gigs have been absolutely incredible and spirits are high, but we do now need some thinking time to consider all of the options now on offer for 2019, which could well include the recording a new full on Quo rock album! We would love as many fans as possible to come and really help us make some noise on this year’s dates, as we definitely won’t be touring in 2018.  This is a massive change for us, and I know that the Quo tour has become a traditional part of the festive season for many fans.

“This has been a year like no other.  In many ways the band has felt out of control. Rick’s passing was a huge blow. Much of what we had planned was envisaged initially to accommodate what would be right for him; those sands have obviously shifted.  Now everything has changed. The band is not the same – it can’t be and shouldn’t be – and the plan has changed too. We’re still listening to the fans, we always have, and we’re hearing that this is what they still want. We’re going to give it to them.”

Now I’ve factored that in, I’ll continue. And seeing as I mentioned 1977’s Rockin’ All Over the World,  at that point it was still the ‘Frantic Four’ line-up, but with Andy involved too, even though he wasn’t officially added to the line-up for a lot longer.

“It was silly. He was in the band from ’72 or ’73, but Rick and Alan used to find it a real worry for some reason. I never understood why. The idea of a keyboard broadens the limited thing that Quo are. It means you can have Hammonds, Wurlitzers, Rhodes, Clavinets, anything! And I’ve always liked Andrew … and his playing.”

The other night I was flicking through the channels, and there was the promo video for your take on Dion’s The Wanderer on a late 1984 edition of Top of the Pops, the band – including Andy – playing on the back of a flat-bed lorry crossing London.

“I love that track! I enjoyed making that record too. I was only thinking the other night, someone very instrumental for us … oh, there goes his fucking name again … I’ll get it in a minute.”

My 68-year-old interviewee pauses for thought, racking the brain, then carries on.

“Anyway, we took one record to him, it was that Marguerita Time period … Brian Shepherd, it was! It’s come to me! I really liked working with him. He was MD of Phonogram. When we did The Wanderer, he loved it, but said, ‘That solo – is it a bit …?’ We said, ‘No, it’s perfect,’ and he said, ‘Alright … fine’. Now I look back and suppose they expected more of a hairy solo, whereas it’s more melodic, which I prefer.”

A hairy solo would have dated it, surely.

“Yeah, I think it’s odd what lasts and what doesn’t. I heard a record yesterday, The Strawbs’ Lay Down.”

A rendition of the chorus follows over the phone, Francis in fine voice this morning.

“I thought that was fucking marvelous, and it still sounds marvelous! It has a sound where you imagine Lady Marian, horses, knights, English history. A beautiful record. Probably the best they ever made. Some of those records, when you listen back, you see through it now, but that still has its magic to me.”

Soon, Francis is on to another bug-bear. I can’t even recall how we got there, but he picked up on something he heard a fellow performer mention the previous day, feeling it needed repeating.

“Bryan Adams was talking to Ginger (that’ll be the host of BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Breakfast Show then), telling him how much he loves playing, and said a lot of people rely on him for a living – wives, children and the roadcrew in his organisation. And I had to ring and thank him for saying that. It’s about time people realised a rock’n’roll band or singer is like a corner shop. Unless it takes ‘x’ amount of money a year, there’ll be no corner shop. The same with newspapers, magazines, whatever.

“He’s the only other person I’ve heard mention it. I called him, I think he was in Paris, and we agreed it’s a responsibility. Some people have worked for us for 25 years or more. They’re paid, but that’s not the point – they’ve remained loyal to us, and they have commitments such as mortgages, children, so on. Without them, we’re on our own and nothing works. At the moment, if something comes up and we need to do a gig this evening, that can be done. If you don’t have that back-up …”

Talking of loyalty to the cause, I mentioned long service, and should stress that Rhino’s been with Quo for 32 years too. That’s nearly a decade more than original bass player Alan Lancaster.

“Yeah! Now, where were we the other day? Fuck it … Sydney, I think.”

He realises he’s sounding like an ageing rock star there, and laughs before continuing.

“This guy came up and asks if he was an original, and he said no. I said, ‘Wait a minute, John. You’ve been here since 1985!’

“I know what people think about the old band, but you cannot do that to Andrew, John, and now Leon and subsequently Richie. If they want to slag me off, that’s fine, but not the rest, particularly John and Andrew, who’ve dedicated a lot of time to this band. For someone to then say, ‘You’re not original’ – fuck off!”

Thinking back to the ‘Frantic Four’, I spoke to John Coghlan this summer, who gave me the impression they were all up for a third reunion tour after those in 2013 and 2014, but Francis said no.

“Yeah, that’s right, although Rick wasn’t sure either when it came to it.”

I think in retrospect that was the right decision, if only to ensure it all remained rather special.

“Well, apart from that, John did an interview and said what he hadn’t realised was that Rick and I had stayed on and therefore had the stamina. That’s one thing Alan and John didn’t have, to keep the tempos up. If they’d have kept going another few years perhaps …

“Anyway, we did two tours, and that’s fine. I don’t think we should have done a second, really. Business dropped drastically. It’s not something I wanted to do. And John said … no, hang on … Rick said, in Manchester, ‘Given a bit of time it’ll fall apart.”

It was a nice bit of closure though, wasn’t it?

“It was. It was something we needed to do for those guys. Rick and I were quite content doing this, but it was nice to visit there.”

Did it get the bad blood out of the way after the manner of those early ‘80s changes?

“Pretty much. Not that it hasn’t come back. It’s a bit iffy at the moment, but there you are.”

I wonder sometimes if you envy John playing smaller, more intimate venues these days.

“No, I’m quite happy where I am, and we’re playing smaller venues this year. But it’s a bit strange, this whole acoustic and electric thing, and with Rick dying on Christmas Eve …

Staff Meeting: Andy, Rhino, Richie and Francis discuss Leon’s performance so far (Photo: Christie Goodwin)

I was wondering when we were coming to that, and if not how to broach the subject. But we’re there now.

“For him to have to retire or stand down was one thing. He was still part of the organisation. But …”

There’s a slight pause, and you can instinctively tell this is something that’s never been far from his thoughts this past year.

“I heard him Christmas Eve morning, when I was speaking to Simon (Porter, Quo’s manager), in my head saying, ‘There you go, Frame, at least I didn’t die on a show day!’ Only he called me Frame, so … and he would have said stuff like that.

“And before we went out (on tour), he called Richie and said, ‘Good luck. I’m glad it’s you. It needed to be you. There’s really nobody else for the job. That helped Richie a lot and helped the rest of us.”

Was that at your house?

“Yeah, I got in just about now, I’d think (it was shortly after 9am when we spoke). I do that. I stay on the bus overnight then get off around eight in the morning, particularly coming home at Christmas.

“Simon called me, and we were kind of shocked. And it was sepsis that got him – none of his ailments at all. But he died for us in June last year. That’s why I said that about the medical profession. What these people did to make him come around, I think a lump of wood would have come around, let alone a human being.

“They took him off and he was gone. We said that was that, but in the morning he was on a drip-feed and they said he wouldn’t make the evening. We get to London and he’s sat up having a cup of tea! He was a tough old git!”

The Wanderer: Francis Rossi gets around, around, around the stage (Photo: Christie Goodwin)

I’m guessing you’d been half-expecting it for so many years, with all those health scares, but I bet it was still a mighty shock.

“The final death was, I must admit, and it reminds oneself of one’s own mortality. But it’s interesting that some years ago when Richie used to come and see us with his dad, we met him at a soundcheck somewhere in Ireland, looked at him, and Rick said, ‘If I die, we should get him in’.

“We laughed, and he said, ‘No, I’ve got a better idea. We find a lookalike for you too, we put them two out there, and we can stay at home and watch the telly!’ That was Rick’s humour, something not everyone understands. People think we’re being irreverent or whatever.”

Well, last time I saw you, you were having a laugh on stage about that, saying there was a chance you might not see the night out, saying, ‘Things might happen’, advising the audience to get their cameras ready.

“Yeah, we’d laugh about that, and say how one of us might keel over. And it’s still possible. I’m at that age. My generation are dropping like fucking flies! However, it’s weird we keep saying that – we were all born at roughly the same time, so it’s logical really.”

Let’s face it, you’ve all lived the life too.

“We certainly have. We burn the candle at both ends, and Rick had one burning in the middle as well!”

And as a tribute to Rick, I see you’re including two of his favourites this time, Don’t Drive My Car and Little Lady.

“Yes, we are, as a homage to Rick, and again they’re really rather good. The way Richie plays Little Lady, and with Andrew singing Don’t Drive My Car, which is magical. It was really good on the acoustic tour and we’ll try and do that similar style on the electric tour. It’s a real buzz to play and it makes everybody beam on stage.

“That’s one of the things that’s going on in the band at the moment, this kind of ‘up vibe’, I don’t quite understand it, but I think a lot of it’s down to Richie, his relationship with Leon and all that. And while old people don’t like to admit it, young blood has done something … bastards!”

Pitch Parfitt: Status Quo, the 2015 line-up (Photo: Danny Clifford)

Finally, you told Jo Mears of The Guardian in 2011 all eight of your kids played music professionally. Is that still the case?

With that, Francis let‘s me know he’s looking at a photo on his wall of all of them together, no doubt his way of ensuring they all get a proper mention.

“My eldest isn’t, but he went into musical theatre, while No.2 had a band for some time, but to pay for his time in the studio at home a few years ago he said he was going to do some painting and decorating. I thought, ‘That won’t work,’ but now he’s got a successful business doing that.

“No. 3 is really, really good but just could not face playing in public at all. My daughter’s very good and does gigs, but now has two children. The other daughter dabbles with music, as the other son does.

“Then, Patrick’s a chef and has no music about him whatsoever. And Finn’s very musical but is more of a banker fella … fucking weird, eh!”

I tell Francis that reminds me of the Monty Python blue-collar playwright sketch, where the posh son turns his back on his Northern father’s theatrical roots to become a miner, the concept of parental expectations and escaping perceived career paths turned on its head.

“Well, my third son works in a petro-chemical firm doing safety systems for oil rigs and does extremely well, yet told me he would love to be on a building site, but doesn’t feel there’s enough money in that. That’s Kieran, who has the best voice, a nice bass player and guitar player, but just doesn’t have that stage thing.”

But isn’t that Francis to an extent? I recall him telling me he doesn’t enjoy the thought of being on stage, and certainly wasn’t looking forward to the prospect last time we spoke.

“Yeah, that’s like me, so it’s weird I still want to do it. But I’m actually looking forward to going out again, and haven’t looked forward to it so much for so many years … so something’s happening!”

Youthful Vibe: Richie Malone has added fresh vigour to Status Quo since first standing in for his guitar hero, Rick Parfitt (Photo: Christie Goodwin)

Status Quo’s Plugged In – Live and Rockin’! tour starts this Sunday, November 26th at Manchester O2 Apollo, moving on to Sheffield City Hall (November 27th), Cardiff St David’s Hall (29th), Reading Hexagon (November 30th), Bournemouth International Centre (December 2nd), Wolverhampton Civic Hall (December 3rd), Glasgow Clyde Auditorium (December 5th), Newcastle City Hall (December 6th), London Eventim Apollo (December 8th). All shows are fully seated except Manchester, Reading, Wolverhampton, with tickets available via aegpresents.co.uk priced from £42.50 plus booking fees.

To head back to the original writewyattuk interview with Francis Rossi, from July 2015, follow this link. And for this sumnmer’s feature with fellow ‘Frantic Four’ band member John Coghlan, head here. And for all the latest from Status Quo, try the official website.

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The best of Friends with Shalamar – the Howard Hewett interview

Three’s Company: Shalamar, 2017. From the left – Howard Hewett, Carolyn Griffey, Jeffrey Daniel

Howard Hewett had only been in the UK a couple of days when I called, and was alternating between press calls and rehearsals with fellow stalwart Jeffrey Daniel and more recent Shalamar addition Carolyn Griffey. But if my interviewee had something better to do than start the day conversing with me, he hid it well.

“No man, I’ve started my whole day anticipating talking to you!”

Ah, top man. So how were those rehearsals going? Was it a case of just stepping right back into the flow of it all?

“Oh yeah, the three of us get together for tours two or three times a year, and it’s just about getting into a whole ’nother kind of routine than when I’m home in the States.”

Cast your mind back to the early ’80s, with Shalamar well on their way to becoming somewhat synonymous with catchy feelgood dance music at that point, despite their roots as a manufactured group put together by Dick Griffey, ‘talent co-ordinator’ for US hit show Soul Train.

Griffey set up his own label, SOLAR (Sound of Los Angeles Records), and using session musicians, he created Uptown Festival, credited to Shalamar in 1977. And when that was a hit he realised a real demand for a proper group, with Soul Train dancers Daniel and Jody Watley soon recruited. The band’s original lead vocalist Gary Mumford departed fairly swiftly, while his replacement, Gerald Brown, followed suit in 1979 – despite the success of second single Take That to the Bank. But Jeffrey Daniel already had another singer in mind to take his place.

Howard Hewett moved to Los Angeles in 1976, Daniel in time getting to know him at hip Crenshaw district club Maverick’s Flat, and soon asking him to join Shalamar. He was committed to tour Asia and Europe – including Scandinavian and UK visits – with his covers band Beverly Hills at the time though, and turned him down. However, a later offer succeeded, Hewett – who on his return to the US was working with Motown producer Jeffrey Bowen – joining Daniel and Watley, the trio going on to become what was considered Shalamar’s classic line-up, the Big Fun LP quickly following, produced by Leon Sylvers.

From that album, The Second Time Around became the new band’s first million-selling single, not only a No.1 on the US R’n’B chart but a top-10 US Billboard pop chart success, their funk/disco/r’n’b and pop soul crossover potential already tapped into. And while that and their next offering didn’t quite manage the UK-top 40, the next two hits did, and by April 1982 they had the first of what turned out to be three straight top-10 hits here, with I Can Make You Feel Good. What’s more, by the beginning of the following year – nine months after its UK release – the Friends LP had also spawned top-fives A Night to Remember and There It Is and another hit with the title track, the album itself reaching No. 6. And it just so happens that they’re now reliving that golden period, celebrating Friends‘ 35th anniversary. So where’s all that time gone, H?

“I remember everything about recording the album, and all the years performing that material, but yes, time kind of flies when you’re having fun.”

As I chatted to this amiable Akron, Ohio-born and bred vocalist, pianist and guitarist, who was just about to turn 62, I was looking across at my vinyl gatefold sleeve copy of Friends, telling him that while its white backdrop had turned a little creamy with age, I felt the songs themselves remained as fresh as ever.

“Haha! Perfect!”

And I had to ask, has he still got the lilac boots he’s resting his bass guitar on for the LP cover shot?

“I got rid of those a long time ago, not long after that photo. Ha! I’m not a big hoarder. There are some things I get rid of through the years.”

Did he instinctively feel you had ‘something special’ (to quote the latest Shalamar single, The Real Thing) with this album back in 1982?

“Well, every time you go into the studio, the attitude you go in there with is to do your best, the best work that you can. How the public is going to perceive it and media and radio and everybody, that comes afterwards. There’s been projects we’ve had where we’d had a single that we felt was cool but they gravitated towards something else, especially back in the day when DJ’s had the autonomy to play whatever they wanted to play. You just never know. That’s why you always go in there with each track on the project, just putting your best forward.”

Well, everything certainly seemed to come together for you that time around.

“Yep – it was all very cool!”

Confession time. I tend to lean towards Motown, Stax, then Curtis Mayfield, Al Green and Philly material, and can take or leave a lot of early ‘80s soul. And so much of it quickly dated. But I did like that album. And those singles certainly don’t sound dated today.

“Yeah, when you look at There It Is, I Can Make You Feel Good, A Night to Remember, you know, thank God – those are classics!”

And they’ve stood the test of time as far as I’m concerned.

“Exactly! That’s one thing you do go in the studio conscientiously trying to put together – music that’s not going to be dated – or you hope, anyway – and will stand the test of time as far as that genre of music, and kind of transcends what’s being played at that particular time.”

And listening to your latest single, The Real Thing, I’d say you’ve still got it too.

“Ah, thank you! That was a pleasure. We reunited with our producer Leon Sylvers, which was a really great thing, and piecemealed the vocals, because these days Jeffrey lives in Nigeria, Carolyn lives in Memphis, and I’m in LA.

The Real Thing was one of the tracks Leon presented to me on a solo project. I felt it was a perfect Shalamar song … Shalamar 2017. So I went in and I did my vocal and was pretty proud of it, but then Carolyn came into town, put her vocal down, and I said, ‘Whoah – wait a minute, I’ve got to go back to re-do mine!’

“She bought a seriousness to that whole track, man! Then Jeff came in, did his parts, and it came together real well.”

That seems to be the way of things with several name acts these days – living far apart yet somehow still pulling it together when it matters. The world seems to be getting a smaller place. Yet at the same time I feel the need to go over old ground and say you have someone in the White House who seems determined to put a far more narrow-minded slant on world affairs, talking of building walls and so on. Your way of working seems to suggest a far more progressive and positive ‘hands across the water’ approach.

“Well, we hope so, because there are so many things going on, all around the world, like here with Brexit and there with Trump. It’s kind of crazy, but the world does get smaller every day. The only thing that gets bigger are the air-fares!”

‘Baby, I can make you feel good …’

So how about that ‘feelgood dance music’ label that comes up quite a lot when Shalamar are mentioned – is that about right? You certainly put on a mighty show for your audience.

“Thank you! And that’s what the whole thing is about. The majority of people get up every day, go to a job they hate. Our job’s to kind of make that a little easier. We get an opportunity to lighten up a person’s day, making our job a little more worthwhile.”

Lining Up: Jeffrey Daniel, Carolyn Griffey and Howard Hewett, in perfectly soulful synchronicity

Until mid-1983 the classic trio racked up more than a dozen hits worldwide, with Shalamar also becoming well known on this side of the Atlantic for Daniel’s energetic and somewhat intricate dance routines, embracing then-underground body-popping routines and the moonwalk, as it became known (then more likely described as the ‘backslide’).

Born just over five weeks before Hewett, Daniel is widely recognised as an award-winning choreographer, not least having taught Michael Jackson to moonwalk and co-choreographing his 1987 Bad and Smooth Criminal videos. And like Jackson, it was through watching Soul Train on American TV that Hewett got to first experience Daniel’s dance potential.

“Ah man, when Soul Train first came on, I was about 14, and had done music since I was around 10. By then I had a little r’n’b group in Akron, and on Saturdays at noon, like the rest of the country, we’d be in front of the TV watching it. It’s crazy – I used to watch Jeffrey and Jody, not knowing who they were nor that we were going to hook up years later, be in a group together.”

And I understand you got to know Jeffrey through the LA club scene.

“That’s where we first met, a club where all the Soul Train people used to come down there on a weekend. Looking out at the audience, you’d see Lionel Ritchie, Richard Pryor, Chaka Khan – everyone used to hang at Maverick’s. It never had a liquor license, either because the area was so crazy or John Daniels was a little too cheap to get one! They used to make fruit smoothie drinks in the back. That didn’t deter people from coming to the club though. It was good times!

“A couple months after I first got down there, I met John Daniels (who ran the club). I helped him put together this group called Beverly Hills. Every time we had a show we wanted to try out, we’d play at Maverick’s Flat. That’s when I met Jeff. I was a fan of his and he says he was a fan of mine. It still took a couple of years, as I went overseas with the group first. I was over here for a little less than a year and a half. It was cool, but it was definitely meant to be.”

At the height of their fame in 1983, Daniel and Whatley left Shalamar, Hewett carrying on for two years with new members, further hits resulting in a Grammy for the front-man.

“When they split at that time I talked to the record company and said, ‘Why don’t I just do my solo project now?’ But they said I had two and a half years left on the contract and gave me some options as to how I could spend that time, and the best one was to do another Shalamar album. That’s when I bought Micki Free into the group and we did this national tour to find a female replacement, and that’s when we found Delisa Davis.”

In Step: Shalamar feel the groove in concert, with Jeffrey Daniel and his bandmates still aiming high

In Step: Shalamar feel the groove in concert, with Jeffrey Daniel and his bandmates still aiming high

It wasn’t long before he set out on a solo career though, and while a few personal problems followed – he was embroiled in a high-profile drugs case in Florida at one stage, although finally acquitted of all charges – he went on to make 10 albums of his own between 1986 and 2008. Meanwhile, Shalamar’s classic line-up briefly reformed as guests of Babyface on a hit cover of This is the Lover in You in 1996, although it would be another three years before Hewett and Daniel properly reunited. What had changed by then to get the band together again?

“Well, it really wasn’t a whole conscientious thing. I do my solo stuff as well at home, throughout the States, but Jeffrey called and we talked about doing a show in Asia, and at that time we called Jody and asked if she wanted to come and hang with us, but she was doing other stuff and declined, so Jeffrey and I did it for about a couple of years, in Japan, Africa and a couple of other places, but we still wanted to bring a female entity back in the group. And the first person we thought about was Carolyn, because of her history with the whole thing. There was just a natural fit.”

Hewett and Daniel’s initial dates in Japan were followed by UK tours in 2000, 2001, and 2003, the latter two with their new member. As the daughter of Dick Griffey and accomplished r’n’b artist Carrie Lucas, she was already moving in the right circles, and at the age of 18 had a record deal, her first band Absolute’s claims to fame including contributions to the Lambada film soundtrack. Was she a regular fixture around SOLAR’s offices and the studio in the early days of Shalamar?

“Oh yeah! We’d known her since she was a young girl, 13 or 14. Jeffrey knew her even before I did. She’d be hanging around the studio, getting on everybody’s nerves! She says Shalamar was her favourite group, and that says a lot, because at the time there was Whispers, Lakeside, Midnight Star … so many more.”

When you’re not doing this, you’ve got your four children and two grandchildren back home. I’m guessing the little ones miss you when you’re on tour.

“You know what, they’re so used to it, and that’s how it’s been through the years. You always miss them but always stay in contact, and now – with the way communication is – it’s a lot easier.”

Seeing as when we spoke, he was just about to mark his latest big birthday, I asked if he’d stopped counting them yet.

“Well, no, but with this birthday I’ll be flying all day. That’s when I go back home. I get on a plane at four in the afternoon and don’t touch down at home until about 7.30. So my birthday this year is going to be spent 35,000 or so feet up in the air!”

And when you touch down and you’re on the road or in the studio together, does Ms Griffey keep yourself and your old pal both young? Or is it the other way around?

“Oh, I think we keep each other that way!”

Soul Survivors: Shalamar in 2017, coming to a town near you. From the left – Jeffrey Daniel, Carolyn Griffey, Howard Hewett.

Shalamar visit Preston’s Charter Theatre on a Friends 35th anniversary tour this Saturday, November 18th. For tickets call the box office on 01772 804 444 or try this link. And for details of other dates on the tour – leading to visits to London’s Clapham Grand on Friday December 1st and Brighton’s Concorde 2 on Saturday, December 2nd – check out Shalamar’s official website or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter

I’d like to pretend it was planned, but the day of publication of this feature/ interview just happened to mark what would have been the 79th birthday of Carolyn’s father, Richard Gilbert Griffey, better known as Dick Griffey, of SOLAR Records and Soul Train fame, who sadly died in 2010, aged 71. This feature is dedicated to his memory. R.I.P. Dick.


Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment