Don’t you wonder sometimes about sound and vision? Talking large rock sound systems with Chris Hewitt

In the last three years alone, Chris Hewitt has published four mighty tomes neatly summing up his rather niche love of, and involvement with, live sound systems and outdoor music events down the decades.

Regular readers may already know the back story of this veteran promoter and vintage PA sound system archivist and collector, described on air at BBC 6 Music as a ‘musical archaeologist’, Chris by day running CH Vintage Audio, hiring out 1960s and 1970s sound equipment, having amassed an impressive collection over the years.

His CV includes involvement in recreating authentic sets for Danny Boyle’s TV miniseries Pistol, based on Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones’ memoir; work on Elton John biopic, Rocketman; Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody; Morrissey drama England is Mine; and Steve Coogan-fronted Jimmy Savile drama, The Reckoning.

Chris’ team also rebuilt 10cc’s legendary Stockport studio Strawberry Studios in its original building, recreating its control room, and recreated Pink Floyd’s legendary Pompeii set back home in rural Cheshire. And when he has a few moments to himself, away from the day-job, it turns out that he’s writing on related subjects too.

A year ago, we chatted about a 50th anniversary edition of his rather splendid book on 1972’s Bickershaw Festival (linked here), when a Wigan pit village was given over to major acts such as Captain Beefheart, Dr John, The Grateful Dead, The Kinks, Donovan, Hawkwind, and Al Stewart, one wet weekend in Lancashire.

Chris was a music promoter at Rochdale College back then, but his involvement helping promote Jeremy Beadle’s ground-breaking event ultimately inspired his own future direction in the industry.

And now we have the third part of his book series celebrating the development of rock sound systems. But before you can say ‘trilogy’, I should add that it’s highly likely there will be at least a fourth volume. He’s said so himself.

“When I first wrote, collated and published Volume 1 in 2020 it was to try and record the history of the PA industry and the companies that grew up as the demand for larger sound systems for larger festivals and larger indoor gigs increased.

“Volume 2 was released to celebrate 50 years since the Pink Floyd at Pompeii film, which must have inspired many musicians and sound engineers to want to build a large sound system. By then I was researching chapters on particular companies in the pro audio industry and on particular vintage PA systems like the Led Zeppelin and the Pink Floyd Pompeii WEM systems.  

“Working on the Pistols’ Disney TV series recreations of classic Sex Pistols gigs in 2021 with various PAs brought me into researching Bowie/Ziggy and Ground Control at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973, as that system had to be recreated for the film, so that led to the Bowie/Ground Control/Turner chapters.

“When PA systems first started being toured as hire systems and used for festivals, it was an industry of mavericks, often described by people who were doing it as pirates setting sail on a ship and not really knowing where they were going.

“Hire companies and manufacturers came and went or got taken over, bought out and reinvented. Sometimes the hire companies were set up by bands wanting to get their equipment used when not on the road, like Colac Hire (Colosseum) and Britannia Row (Pink Floyd).

“It usually started with someone building some bass bins and horns in their garage or building a mixer in their garden shed, and developed from there.”

When I initially spoke to Northwich-based Chris for this website in 2018 (with that feature/interview linked here), we focused on his triple-DVD/ hardback book combo marking Deeply Vale’s 40th anniversary reunion and links with legendary broadcaster John Peel, all his publications carrying the Dandelion Records brand, commemorating the underground label they were both involved with.

And talking of friends of Peel, broadcaster Mark Radcliffe recently described the latest volume of Chris’ impressive (and fittingly rather large) series of books as ’a further meticulously catalogued account of one man’s obsession with the architecturally huge audio systems that soundtracked some of the most historic rock ‘n’ roll gigs ever staged. And this time, there’s plenty of fascinating Bowie information to delve into for the uber-fan like myself.’

That’s true enough, with plenty to get the teeth into for fans of the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Thin Lizzy, and 10cc too. And as Mark concludes, ‘Not everybody needs to know all this stuff, but for those who are interested, Chris knows more than anyone else I can think of.’ I’m thinking the author will take that as a badge of honour too.

Volume 1 started out by covering in depth the story of Watkins Electric Music, best known as WEM, its origins in founder Charlie Watkins mounting what he recalls was a ‘disastrous publicity tour’ with US legends The Byrds in 1966. Struggling to get his PA system louder than the new and very loud instrument amplifiers they were using, led him to join forces with a Belgian engineer and a French entrepreneur to attempt to build a hugely powerful PA using transformer-less transistor amplifiers.

And for the same reason that I have very little idea of how my TV, kettle and other appliances work around, I’ll step back from any in-depth description there. Besides, Chris tells you all you need to know (and more) through his retelling of that story and many others, with the help of interviews with key personnel involved and his own considerable insider knowledge.

In short, revolutionary new PA systems were introduced by the time I was born in 1967, transforming a scene that WEM suggested in their company publicity was until then ‘hampered with the old PA problems of feedback, lack of presence, distortion and downright unreliability.’

As it turned out, that particular firm never looked back, early field tests at the National Jazz Festivals, The Royal Albert Hall, and up and down the country in small clubs, churches, ice rinks, hotels, small venues and mammoth halls, and ‘once even in a zoo’, leading to so much more.

Soon enough, WEM’s clientele included The Who, Soho’s famed Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, Marc Bolan’s Tyrannosaurus Rex, Small Faces, The Nice, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, The Move, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, and the afore-mentioned Pink Floyd. Meanwhile, its systems were used at those iconic Hyde Park open-air shows for Blind Faith, Donovan, Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones.

There’s plenty about all of that, but it’s the human interest stories that Chris has researched and collated and the interviews he’s set up that grab me, and you can take for example Charlie Watkins’ revelation (at least to me) that David Bowie wrote much of ‘Space Oddity’ in his office.

Charlie is quoted as saying, “David was always nice and respectful to me, never offered me a joint or anything, appreciated what I was trying to do with live sound in that period, which was absolutely bloody primitive. I didn’t mind him eating his fish and chips off my desk, but I did have to tell him to take his bloody feet off my desk!”

Chris soon brings Charlie’s Balham near-neighbour John Thompson and Fleetwood Mac soundman ‘Dinky’ Dawson into the story, the company’s factory soon receiving regular visits from big name acts, WEM going on to play a major part in the 1969/70 Isle of Wight Festivals, and Chris intriguingly letting on that Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones wanted ‘large sexual objects incorporated into their stage designs, inspired by Charlie’s large parabolic dishes.’

Meanwhile, we learn – with pictorial evidence – that legendary Who drummer Keith Moon soon had WEM garden speakers at his bungalow, the company’s work also involving major Led Zeppelin shows. As for Pink Floyd, the technical tale of their 1971 outdoor show at Pompeii is told in great detail, road manager Peter Watts recalling, “The sound had a sort of echo to it, not a dry sound like in a studio. The Romans who built the amphitheatre thought not only about the structure but also of the acoustic qualities.”

The limited-edition 500-copy first volume alone carried nearly 200 rare photos alongside Chris’ words and interviews, including some great shots of Jimi Hendrix on stage at the Isle of Wight Festival, while he also told of Floyd’s transition to Martin Audio from their WEM days.

Then, Volume 2 covered not just the development of the sound system in the ‘70s, but also the increasing quality and size of vans used from the ‘60s through to the ‘80s, and detailed not only Pink Floyd’s WEM gear at Pompeii in 1971 – including interviews with filmmaker Adrian Maben – but also that reconstruction of Floyd’s complete sound system from Pompeii in Cheshire 50 years later.

And as well as detail on Led Zeppelin’s WEM system, his chapter on the evolution of the band van includes some rather evocative photos of The Beatles’ Commer and the Rolling Stones’ Bedford CA vans, The Who’s and Status Quo’s Ford Thames vans, and the Ford Transit Mk.1s used by Black Sabbath, Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, Brinsley Schwartz, Camel, and Small Faces, the former snapped outside Tony Iommi’s terraced house in one of my favourite shots.

Chris also looks at companies in the ‘70s that hired equipment, some of the biggest equipment manufacturers, and his own personal journey into large PAs and festivals, with plenty about the sound systems used at the Deeply Vale Festivals and at Manchester’s Alexandra Park for the August ’81 CND event (including photos of The Damned and John Cooper Clarke), among others.

As for Volume 3, we get insight from the likes of Robin Mayhew on David Bowie’s highly influential Ziggy Stardust shows, details of Pink Floyd’s sound system from their Dark Side of the Moon era in ’73 through to 1977, and details of his company’s involvement with the Australian Pink Floyd tribute act in more recent times, a request to show the band’s UK-based Stephen McElroy his collection of WEM and Pink Floyd gear leading to Steve buying various vintage cabinets and Chris’ firm recreating the Pompeii sound system for the 50th anniversary in 2021 with Steve’s friends, including members of the band.

Then there’s a look at the California Jam (’54,000 watts of audio power… 105db spl at one mile… 200,000 satisfied rock fans’), a 12-hour event headlined by Emerson, Lake and Palmer in Ontario Motor Speedway, 40 miles east of Los Angeles), and more on the Great Western Festival in Bardney, Lincolnshire in May ’72, including some wonderful shots of the likes of Atomic Rooster, Genesis, Humble Pie, Roxy Music, Status Quo, Vinegar Joe, and Wishbone Ash.

Chris also profiles sound system companies such as Midas Mixers, Colac (Colosseum Acoustics), Wigwam, and MEH Tasco (The American Sound Company), the latter’s clientele including everyone from Bad Company and Black Sabbath to Frank Sinatra, including The Jackson Five at Wembley’s Empire Pool in ’72, Elton John at Watford FC’s Vicarage Road base in ’74, and The Who for their 1976 outdoor show at Charlton Athletic FC’s The Valley. And then there are tales from the ‘70s from Thin Lizzy’s roadcrew, and detail of 10cc’s sound systems and Strawberry Studios from that era.

As to those Lizzy live stories, by way of example there’s mention of a hair-raising episode involving road crew member Charlie McPherson, of whom we learn, ‘Charlie is from the Highlands of Scotland, and a good few years on the road has hardened his slim frame to the extent that he feels confident to deal with most minor disturbances.’ We then hear from Charlie how, “I remember a time in Devizes. There was this Hell’s Angel who had been drinking heavily. He lurched towards the stage and managed to lift the whole front part up with the boys still playing on top of it. In the end though, he just collapsed through the booze. In general, there’s very little trouble to deal with.”’

And then elsewhere we have Robin Mayhew, who worked on the Ziggy Stardust shows from March ’72 (‘to 200 people tops at Bristol University’) through to Hammersmith Odeon, before going on to work with Lou Reed, The Clash, The Stranglers, Blondie, David Essex, and Mott the Hoople, recalling, “All the Ziggy shows were fantastic. I remember one night David jumped off part of the PA stack and twisted his ankle, so he was unable to do much moving about on stage. He actually got off the stage and came out to join me at the mixer, sang the rest of the show from there, moving amongst the nearby audience.”

All in all, it’s fair to say there’s plenty to savour across all three volumes, the latest carrying on where Chris left off last time around, albeit coming in at a weighty 316 pages of A4 this time, as opposed to 148 and 182 packed pages respectively for the first two. Hats off to a master of his trade.

The CH Vintage Audio collection is available for viewing by personal appointment, based in rural Cheshire, half an hour from Manchester, the Chris Hewitt Museum of Rock seen as ‘the country’s best collection of rock ‘n’ roll sound equipment.’

And for details about how to purchase Chris Hewitt’s The Development of Large Rock Systems, Volumes 1, 2 and 3, head to Chris would also welcome ideas and photos for Volume 4 via enquiries

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Far more than mere nostalgia: stepping forward with The Selecter – back in touch with Pauline Black

I was briefly reminded of 1969 European sightseeing comedy If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium when I spoke to Pauline Black, OBE, this week.

On this occasion, en route to a date at Het Depot, Leuven after a big night at Amsterdam’s Paradiso, she was only an hour ahead, but after 40-plus years touring with The Selecter she’s proved she’s often streets and years ahead of the opposition.

While 43 years have passed since the release of her band’s seminal debut LP, Too Much Pressure, it still inspires and resonates today. But Pauline and her bandmates have never been about standing still, The Selecters’s 16th studio album, Human Algebra proving that fire’s still burning, as current as it is reflective.

Released last weekend, Human Algebra is deemed to be ‘a word from the wise’, subject material including its questioning of ‘fake news’ (‘Big Little Lies’), pointing the finger at keyboard warriors (‘Armchair Guevara’), and the scourge of knife crime (the title track). And there’s also a touching tribute to good friend and former touring partner Ranking Roger, of The Beat (‘Parade the Crown’). 

Co-fronted by Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson, The Selecter have another member of their original line-up involved this time around, drummer Charley ‘Aitch’ Bembridge, with the new LP produced (like the last few) by Neil Pyzer-Skeete, on board since 2010 and contributing sax, guitar and keyboards, the band these days completed by John Robertson (guitar), Lee Horsley (organ) and Andy Pearson (bass). 

I’d seen some lovely photos from the Paradiso’s full house before calling Pauline, and judging by the audience response in Amsterdam and prior to that at Elysee Montmartre, Paris, this iconic outfit can still wow crowds with an incendiary live show on a nightly basis, wherever they play, as I suggested to my interviewee.

“Yeah, Paris as well. It was brilliant in Paris, and it’s great to come to Europe after the lockdown and all those years, and to get a reception like that. Absolutely wonderful.”

I last saw the band in my old hometown, Guildford, Surrey, playing a belting show at G Live in November 2019 on The Selecter’s 40th anniversary tour (with my review here), not long before the shutters came down with the coronavirus pandemic, as it transpired. And three and half years on, they continue to pack venues out.

“Well, yes, and even more. We’ve got this new album out but also needed to satisfy people because we had to unfortunately cancel our tour when the Celebrate the Bullet album re-release came out last November, due to an illness in the band. So we’re taking people on a big journey at the moment, through a lot of tracks we haven’t done off that album and new tracks off the new one.

“And it’s a journey, really, through the ages, and seems to be working out really well. People are really loving it. The Selecter has always been different, I think, from other bands, in terms of how people are very keen to listen to our music and think about it. It’s not the usual sort of knees-up crowd and funny party hats that some of the ska bands attract. And yet it’s ever so much more fun.”

At this point I mention friend of this website, Ajay Saggar, production manager at the Paradiso, who told me he was made up by Pauline’s shout-out from the stage that previous night.

“Ah, you know Ajay! Oh, I got to meet him yesterday. What a lovely man! He came to me during the day with a magazine featuring photos of us from 1980 at The Paradiso. Fantastic! I’d never seen those photos, and just to think that you’re back there 43 years later and can still fill it! And there were so many stories of shows he’d seen over the years. A great guy.”

An accomplished musical artist himself, I should add, in case he never mentioned it.

“Well, I thought he was, from the things he was saying. He didn’t kind of elaborate. But I could tell!”

Surely there’s no future in rock ‘n’ roll or ska though. You’re bound to have a short shelf life in this business, Pauline.

“Well, you never know what might happen! We seem to be managing. They can dust us off!”

There was certainly lots of interest in remastered 1981 live documentary, Dance Craze (also starring Bad Manners, The Beat, Bodysnatchers, Madness, and The Specials) when it got its recent cinematic tour. But it’s not just about nostalgia for the past. It seems you’ve always moved forward in everything you’ve achieved.

“Well, I’ve always wanted to move forward because you’ve got to make it interesting for yourself and you’ve got to fulfil your own creative life. Just bouncing around to ‘On My Radio’ and ‘Too Much Pressure’ for the rest of your life is limiting, let’s just put it that way.

“We’ve always tried to push forward, but after this amount of time, we seem to have the dream team at the moment because we’ve got Charlie ‘Aitch’ Bembridge back on drums, while ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson has been with me these past 12 or 13 years. And Neil Pyzer I’ve known for a long time now, he was formerly in Spear of Destiny and he’s a great producer and saxophonist, and we now have Andy Pearson – who was playing with The Beat, who we co-headlined on numerous tours – after Roger’s death, sadly, when I asked if he’d like to join us. And John Robertson on guitar is no stranger to Grace Jones. So it’s all good!”

You mentioned Roger there, and we paid tribute to him last time we spoke in late 2019, and there was a fitting tribute at your Guildford show shortly after that, as an encore, the band joined by special guest Rhoda Dhakar (who started out with The Bodysnatchers, and also featured with The Specials) on a cover of ‘Can’t Get Used to Losing You’, for what proved a true ‘not a dry eye in the house’ moment (The Beat’s co-frontman having died earlier that year, aged 56).

“Yes, and on this album we’ve written a song specifically for Roger and our memories of him, ‘Parade the Crown’, and I do hope people don’t think it’s a song about the King’s coronation!”

Well, now you’ve got your OBE, you are part of the Establishment, after all.

“Well, there is that aspect of it! But when that song was written, the dear late Queen was still in residence. And that’s the weird thing I think about this record – serendipity has brought everything together, and it’s kind of backing it up. You know, when ‘War, War, War’ was written, there was no Ukraine war, and then there’s ‘Scandalous’. We could see maybe where things were going, but they hadn’t gone there yet. And the very last day that I put vocals on the album, and ostensibly then it was done, Boris Johnson resigned. So he’d obviously heard ‘Scandalous’!”

While I’m only a couple of listens into the album – and I tend to leave proper judgement until three or four – on the first play it was ‘War, War, War’ that really stood out, as did ‘Depends’ second time around.

“The strange thing is that practically every review has picked out different songs, which makes me think overall you’re touching all the bases. And it’s definitely a slice of how The Selecter sees life, and how we can affect our own lives in some way and move forward with that.”

Regarding meeting the future King at Windsor Castle, receiving your OBE last November, I see that came ‘for services to entertainment’. But you were quick to widen that premise, dedicating that honour to your home city, Coventry, your roots, and your part in the recognition and celebration of a diverse, multicultural modern Britain. And that’s the angle you continue to come at all this from.

“Yes, totally. That’s the angle I’m coming at it from. I mean, yes, you can send these {medals} back, you can decide not to have them, all of those things. But I thought that British black people are here, we’re now, and we’ve effected the culture. I just felt that it would have been a disservice to all the black friends that I have that do have one of these to choose to dismiss it, and say no. And I also thought that if it’s good enough for Elvis Costello, it’s good enough for me!”

Talking of strong women and survivors in the music world, I mentioned how Rhoda Dakar was with you on the road last time around. And she seemed to be a perfect star addition to the bill. She’s not with you this time, but you remain close.

“Yeah, we are good friends, and she’s an artist in her own right. It doesn’t serve either of us any good just to be lumped together as the women of 2 Tone, and yet people want to do that to us, so we rail against that. And I can’t wait for her new album, Version Girl, to be out, because she’s really got the bit between her teeth at the moment.

“We’ve learned from each other over the years, we’ve learned the pitfalls and we’ve learned how you negotiate everything, because everything was still skewed to a white male kind of musical fraternity. But you make your way in it. And we of course, have the music, which, if you’re dealing with more political or more social things, then we are in the firing line, if you know what I mean. It would be easier to pick us off than it would be, say, the late Terry Hall, or Suggsy, for instance.

“And when you have consistently been there, and really upholding, I think, those twin desires of what 2 Tone was supposed to be about – an anti-racist and an anti-sexist stance … So all power to her, and I think it’s absolutely wonderful that ladies, you know – ha ha! – of a certain age can be doing this.”

I didn’t like to mention the age, but there is a big birthday coming later this year (Pauline’s 70th). Are you still counting?

“Oh, you give up counting after a while, but I have to say, it’s a big one this year. And every time I stand on stage, it’s just a blessing, really. So many people, some younger than me, you know, Terry Hall, Ranking Roger, Saxa, Everett Morton, have gone before, and untimely gone before us, with Roger being the very youngest. So every day that I can stand on stage and do creatively what I want to do with my friends is an absolute blessing.”

Incidentally, when Terry Hall died last December, aged 63, The Selecter posted on their social media pages, ‘Terry Hall was always the epitome of cool. The golden voice of 2 Tone’s greatest band, The Specials, plus many other worthy vehicles for his prodigious vocal and songwriting talents. He’s even managed to die in the coolest way possible – hardly anybody knew he was ill, until he’d gone – that’s going out in style! Hat’s off to you, Terry. The Selecter will always have fond memories of the 1979 2 Tone tour. RIP.’

If you’d have stuck with your post-uni NHS role as a radiographer, you could have been retired by now. But maybe retirement’s never been an option for you.

“No, that’s not on the cards! You’ll have to carry me off a stage somewhere, that would be a good ending. Ha ha!”

The UK leg of this tour involves some iconic venues, such as Band on the Wall in Manchester (Wednesday, May 3rd), and Koko in Camden, North London (Friday, May 5th). Didn’t that used to be the Music Machine and …

“Camden Palace!”

So you’ll have some good memories from there.

“Oh, absolutely. That was a fabulous venue to go to and to play back in the day. And it’s lovely to go back. We’ve played there before, but a long time ago, probably a decade ago. And you know, we’re really hoping that London’s going to turn out for us. I see no reason why they shouldn’t. If they’re doing it as far away as Amsterdam and Paris …”

And is it always a proud moment to get back to Coventry to perform, in this case finishing the tour at the HMV Empire, playing to that hometown crowd?

“Hometown crowds are always special, and we’ve never been disappointed in Coventry. And there’s a lot of people in Coventry at the moment looking at this new record and feeling very proud, I think, that something has come out of it. You know, we had Coventry as the UK City of Culture, and 2 Tone was very much a part of what the legacy of that was. And for my hometown people to actually see something new come out of it, it’s not just nostalgia, and it’s not just going to see what was once glorious. It’s actually seeing something and taking it forward, music for today.

“That, for me is the best legacy that The Selecter could have. It’s like we’ve been handed the baton of 2 Tone now, to a certain extent. And we intend to run with it!”

And what happens after that Coventry show? A well-earned rest, or straight back to it?

“We’re out again – myself and Gaps. This is our third tour of duty now with the Jools Holland R&B Orchestra. So we’re doing material on that, Selecter songs that people will know – we’re not going to kind of foist on them with a whole new set, but it’s glorious going out and doing that show. It’s like being on a lovely comfy feather bed, among others you’ve have heard about for years and years, but you’ve never met them. And Jools makes it such a wonderful feeling on stage. It’s an honour and a joy to help him make a night of music.”

And sharing a stage with Ruby Turner has to ensure you a good night out.

“Ah, she’s lovely, isn’t she!”

In the meantime, thanks for your time, happy travels, enjoy the rest of the tour, and all being well, I’ll get along to the Band on the Wall.

“Ah, that would be fabulous. And do come and say hello to me at the merch desk!”

For this website’s previous two feature/interviews with Pauline Black, follow these links for October 2017 and October 2019..

For full tour details and more about Human Algebra and The Selecter’s back catalogue, visit the band’s website and stay in touch via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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A truly immersive experience: in praise of False Lankum – in conversation with Ian Lynch and Radie Peat

Technology, eh. It’s lovely to conduct video interviews these days, but if the connection goes a bit awry, you struggle a bit.

It’s not like it was down to mere distance, either. Ian Lynch and Radie Peat, from the Dublin band Lankum, were just across town from each other, Ian coming through loud and clear while a time delay and dodgy sound made it a struggle for Radie.

That’s me over-explaining why Ian does much of the talking here, but it’s the music that speaks volumes, and on that front Lankum are true artisans in communication, having just delivered a wonderful fourth LP, False Lankum, a third for Rough Trade Records and for my ears their best yet, carrying on where they left off with 2019’s wondrous The Livelong Day.

And that’s where I came in with Radie, while Ian was wrapping up another interview, the gap between my gushing praise and her modest response a few seconds as we tried to get into the swing of things.

“Thanks. It feels nice to get it out.”

The new record started coming together in early 2021, the band – Radie and Ian joined by Ian’s brother, Daragh Lynch, and Cormac MacDiarmada – overlooking Dublin Bay from a Martello tower close to one housing James Joyce’s museum, only realising later that almost every song had some sort of reference to the sea.

Then they began recording, overlooking the city at Hellfire Studio, sleeping each night back at that 19th century defensive fort. The result? A somewhat startling record, soon drawing you in, lead single/opener ‘Go Dig My Grave’ (from Robert Johnson’s ‘A Forlorn Lover’s Complaint’, c.1611) seeing Radie ‘showing us Hell before they show us Heaven.’

As their press people put it, this is a band – ‘folk radicals’ is the term I’m tending to see, and that sounds about right – that plays together ‘as though they are a single lung, with sounds expanding and collapsing from indistinguishable mouths, bellies, fingers, keys and feet, creating not so much a wall but an orb of sound.’

That was evident before this LP, not least on the song that first snared me, ‘The Wild Rover’, from 2019’s The Livelong Day, that album seen as one breaking Lankum out of the mould of ‘Irish traditional’ or ‘folk’ music, paving the way to critical and commercial success, earning them that year’s RTE Choice Music Prize and resulting in Vicar Street shows in Dublin selling out in 20 minutes.

And there are so many highlights this time, not least Cormac’s first time singing a full song on a Lankum LP, ‘Lord Abore and Mary Flynn’, and second single ‘Newcastle’, an achingly heartbreaking tale of pain, of longing for love and for home, again with a timeless melody.

Then there are the 12-track album’s originals, ‘Netta Perseus’ and ‘The Turn’, both penned by Daragh. And as I put it to Radie, it sounds like they truly immersed themselves in order to bring this record about.

“Yeah, that was while we were writing it, and that’s where we were living while we were recording. The whole experience of the album is very much that we were all together in that place. And immersion is the right term, because usually we would be, you know, getting on with our normal lives then kind of meeting up to write or record, but because of the circumstances with Covid, it was just like, go and be all together in one place through the whole thing, which is a lot more intense and makes it a different way of working as well.”

Is that right that it took a while to realise there was a link among the themes of the songs, with regard to the sea playing a huge part in it all?

“Yeah, we’re not very prescriptive, if that’s the word. We don’t decide before we go in what we’re aiming for in terms of over-arching themes. Usually, it’s just subconscious, and comes to light after.”

Is Hellfire Studio on the other side of town from where you were based?

“Hellfire is kind of more up the mountains, closer to the tower than where I am now, but out of the city and up in the mountains, quite rural, with an amazing view from there. And it’s a studio, but there’s cattle as well, so we’d be recording tracks then go out, and there’s lots of cows.”

By now, Ian has joined us as I confess to both of my interviewees that I was somewhat late to the Lankum party, only on board since The Livelong Day landed on my desk, courtesy of Ben Ayres at Rough Trade. It stood out amid several records put my way pre-lockdown, and I felt I had to know more. And when I conveyed that sense of wonder to Ben, he clearly wasn’t surprised that it appealed to me. I’ve certainly made up for lost time anyway, receiving an introductory ‘cool’ from Ian for my admission.

How would you say you’ve changed in getting on for a decade now as Lankum? You were never mainstream Irish folk, clearly, but you’ve clearly gone down your own road from more rootsy beginnings. And how much of that resultant journey was down to your ‘fifth member’, producer John ‘Spud’ Murphy (credited on the previous LP for his ‘metaphysical counselling’)? Was it largely down to his studio techniques, or just a natural progression?

Ian stepped up this time.

“Erm, I would say it’s a bit of both, you know. I think there were elements of our sound that, if I look back on the last four albums, I can see there’s a thread we’ve been following. I think there’s elements of that even on the first album {Cold Old Fire, 2015}. There’s more drone-heavy tracks, like ‘The Tri-Coloured House’ with that extended drone piece in the middle, and ‘Lullaby’, and I think that was the stuff we were most excited about.

“But I think in a way, we had to kind of like misrepresent ourselves, because anytime we were doing anything for the radio, they all wanted three or three and a half minute songs. If you’re going on to a TV show, it’s like, ‘Oh, will you do ‘Salonika’ and ‘Cold Old Fire?’ or whatever. So, I don’t think that side of the band was really coming out.

“I think then, going on to Between the Earth and Sky {2017}, we wanted to kind of develop that side of things more. But we didn’t really know what we were doing. It was just that we had this idea, the four of us, going, ‘We want to get these bigger sounds and more drone-heavy sounds out of the instruments that we have.’

“And it wasn’t until Spud came down that he could get some really heavy ‘low-end’ out of those instruments. Since then we’ve been kind of ramping it up the whole time, seeing how far we can take it.”

I gather the linking pieces – fugues – on this new LP started life as one track, ‘Sheep Stealer’, spliced up. And that’s something not enough musicians do, I suggested. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Paul Weller’s 22 Dreams as an example. It’s something I really like though, and works so well. It’s certainly not just a case of ‘have drone, will travel’. There’s a lot more to it than that.

“Ha! Yeah, I think it’s something we had been interested in doing, and we’ve discussed for a number of years. It was in our gigs, just having one extended piece of music, whereby one track would lead into another, and maybe some segments in the middle that would join up certain pieces of music, which we never got around to doing.

“It was only really during lockdown that we kind of put a bit more work into that. We did a live-stream thing from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, ‘A National Disgrace’, where we were able to work those elements. We played the entire thing in two different segments, 45 minutes each. And within that we were kind of experimenting, linking up songs with separate drone pieces, using samples and stuff like that. That was really exciting, and I think that led on to us wanting to do something similar with the album.”

The day ‘Go Dig My Grave’ was released online, I saw a tongue-in-cheek online comment regarding an imaginary conversation between you and a record company executive, them telling you that you were on the cusp of crossover success, suggesting, ‘maybe lean into the accessible acoustic folk numbers and we can hit the mainstream’, your response being to release a ‘nine-minute funeral dirge from hell.’ Not far off the mark, I’d say. But I love that you don’t seem overly concerned about chart or commercial success.

“No, I don’t think that kind of thing has ever motivated us. We just want to make the music that we like making, really.”

When I shared that first single online, one friend said it was well timed, the latest record from your One Leg One Eye side-project, Ian, having arrived in the post that day, so he was looking forward to going off and listening to that. And you’re clearly not a band to stand still. Is that right that you’re not long back from a lecture tour of America?

“That was last October.”

I get the impression you don’t live in each other’s pockets.

“Yeah, we’ve all got our different projects going on, you know, and all like to stay busy, doing different things. And you have to these days. It’s not like you can just be in a band, and that can be the one thing. You need to have a load of different side-hustles on the go!”

Track two, the exquisitely gorgeous ‘Clear Away in the Morning’, for me is perhaps more akin to Richard and Linda Thompson, those folk elements in there somewhere. But again, you take it somewhere else altogether.

“Yeah, I think the way we understand it, or the way we see it, is that we wouldn’t really call the music we make folk. The term isn’t used as much in Ireland anyway, but even traditional … we all know what traditional music is, and all know that what we make is not traditional music.

“It’s obviously one strong element of what we do, but amongst many other things. But maybe it’s easier to let other people define and analyse to what degree those things are there. We just like making the music, we don’t try and pass all that down, you know.”

I read how all the band members bring in songs in to potentially cover. What was it, Radie, you heard on Jean Ritchie’s 1963 take on ‘Go Dig My Grave’ that made you think it could work for Lankum?

“I just loved that song. I didn’t think it was going to work as a Lankum song for years, but I was tinkering with it, thought it would probably go on a solo album, then it just kind of floated up into my memory or my head or whatever, when we were getting together the material for this album.

“Hearing the kind of stuff we were writing, I thought it would bring another element to it. It was very obvious it would fit, and it was really easy that day, trying to figure out what to do with it. It came together really fast. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes it’s fast, sometimes it’s really obvious which songs are the right ones, and sometimes it’s not. You just have to work them all, see what jumps out.”

There are two originals on this album, but to me it has the feel of being a whole album of originals, just because of the way you operate as a band.

Ian: “Well, yeah, maybe!”

‘The New York Trader’ is outwardly more traditional sea shanty fare. But I like the idea of, for example, an American tourist stumbling upon you playing that in a pub on a remote part of the coast or down on a slipway, in a Fisherman’s Friends style, then getting drawn in by its majestic beauty, ultimately being dashed on the rocks by its sheer power. And this is what you do, going somewhere with a song, drawing us in, then taking us on that wild ride. And it works so well.

Ian: “Ah, thank you!”

But then, on this album, you go straight into the sweet folk melody of the gorgeous ‘Lord Abore and Mary Flynn’. A genius move. I gather Cormac’s been playing that a while. Had you considered recording it before this album, or is it just something that felt right this time?

Ian: “I think he’d been planning it for a while, but I don’t know … maybe you were, Ray, when we were recording The Livelong Day?”

Radie: “I’d been at him to bring it forward for a couple of years. He’s been playing that for years and years. And he’s been playing it in that arrangement for about eight years. And I just love it. It’s brilliant, and that coming after ‘The New York Trader’, I think a lot of the balance on the album is about contrast, you know, and some things only work because of where they come in the series of the album.

“It’s kind of tension and release, and the fugues are kind of like clearing your memory or cleaning your musical palate. Yeah, I love that contrast, and how full and heavy ‘The New York Trader’ becomes, and then you’ve got this lovely … wispy thing then.”

It’s a record that stays its considerable distance too, and somehow you’re left wanting more as ‘The Turn’ – like a dramatic reworking of prime Simon & Garfunkel, although perhaps less ‘I Am a Rock’ and more ‘I Struck a Rock’ – reaches its dramatic conclusion (arguably entombed again, where we started out), not something you might expect from a 13-minute finale. Glorious.

Anyway, talking of impressive reinterpretations of the nine concentric circles of torment, I gather, Radie, you’re something of a scholar of Dante’s Inferno in Italian.

“Yeah, I studied The Divine Comedy. I started reading it when I was 19, in university. And yeah, it’s still probably the most amazing work of literature I’ve ever read. It’s wild stuff! I’m really glad that some of the imagery made its way onto the cover, and Ian also loves that artist.

“I don’t know if he came at it through The Divine Comedy angle, but he had discovered Gustave Dore, I think, through his other work. So that was like a point that we really had in common, that we loved all that. But you can’t get any more ‘high drama’ than The Divine Comedy!”

There’s kind of a parallel here for me – and you can shoot me down on this one – with the imagery arguably a 2023 take on The Pogues’ Rum, Sodomy and The Lash using The Raft of the Medusa on its cover 38 years before.

Radie: “Yeah, one of the Dore images is from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the guy on the prow of the ship being swept by the wave. It definitely looks like it fulfils that album cover by The Pogues. I liked that crossover. Very subtle!”

Forthcoming live highlights include a sell-out at London’s Barbican on Thursday, May 4th, with their biggest headline gig to date following across the city at The Roundhouse in December, their upcoming tour almost completely sold out already, the band also set for key European dates. How easy will it be to translate all of this on the record to the live Lankum experience for these forthcoming shows? Because for a four-piece you certainly carry a bit of a punch.

Ian: “Yeah, that’s something we’re still working on now, to be honest. We’ve got about another month until our first gig. So yeah, it’s just another part of the whole process for us, trying to figure out how we’re going to arrange the songs live, because doing what we do in the studio is one thing, but quite often we end up playing different instruments or having to figure out new bits completely.

“But that’s fun as well. It just has to be done, and that’s where we’re at now.”

And to bring it full circle, I’ll say the same to Ian – congratulations on another wonderful record. It’s really something special.

Ian: “Ah, thanks very much.”

For more information about Lankum, new album, False Lankum, its predecessors, and the band’s forthcoming live dates, head to their website. You can also follow them via, and

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Getting the run down on The Higsons, four decades on – the Terry Edwards interview

Among this weekend’s 2023 Record Store Day releases, I was intrigued to hear word of the vinyl release of a mini-album featuring two cult early ‘80s 12” singles by post-punk/funk pioneers The Higsons, celebrating their brief liaison with 2 Tone Records.

Run Me Down – The Complete 2 Tone Recordings is a 500-copy limited-edition black vinyl LP from Sartorial Records, its tracks originally released by Jerry Dammers’ label in 1982 and 1983, out of print for more than 30 years.

The Higsons fitted in with the label’s political nature and were integral to The Specials’ mastermind’s vision of having something other than ‘new wave of ska’ acts on the roster, this reissue arriving 40 years after the initial release of the ‘Run Me Down’ single.

What’s more, Higsons frontman/vocalist turned comedy writer/author Charlie Higson has designed a new cover under sleeve art pseudonym, René Parapap, having been responsible for all the band’s cover art bar the ‘Run Me Down’ sleeve, designed by Chrysalis Records’ art department.

The Higsons came together at the University of East Anglia, Norwich in 1980, releasing several singles before joining 2 Tone, their sole studio LP, The Curse of The Higsons, following in ‘84, the group disbanding two years later.

While Charlie Higson, aka Switch, went on to fame alongside Paul Whitehouse and co. in The Fast Show, my interviewee, brass player/guitarist/vocalist Terry Edwards became a much sought-after session musician, his many engagements these days including shows with Higsons drummer/vocalist Simon Charterton and Madness bass player Mark Bedford in The Near Jazz Experience. Did Terry ever think he’d see these early ‘80s 2 Tone releases reissued on vinyl?

“Ha! Well, everything seems to come around eventually!”

How did that Jerry Dammers link come about, something we perhaps wouldn’t associate with the label’s previous championing of ska.

“Well, he was aware of the band, and it came out around the time they did the More Specials album, I think. Lots of people just loved ‘I Don’t Want to Live with Monkeys’, our first single. It was one of those things that was a bit of a touchstone to a lot of people.

“Bizarrely, my connection with the Tindersticks is slightly through that. The singer {Stuart Staples}, five or six years younger, would have been mid-teens when he heard that, and absolutely loved it. And in later years he got in touch, wanting me to do something because of that record.”

That involved a one-off show at London’s Barbican Centre in 2006, the Nottingham indie outfit, formed in the early ‘90s, performing their second album in full, with a nine-strong string section and two brass players, including Terry on trumpet. And more recently, Terry teamed up with Tindersticks guitarist Neil Fraser for another project. But, back to Jerry and 2 Tone …

“The Specials were also aware of that first single, and on one of those Smash Hits things of what you were listening to, Terry Hall named it as one of his records, saying, ‘It makes me laugh.’ And with the band a bit hot at that moment, Jerry and a couple of guys from the band – not including me – were at some party in Bristol, started chatting … I believe alcohol was involved … and it came from there really – a face-to-face meeting and a chat over a few drinks.”

Was it just a single deal initially?

“Two singles and an album was the deal mooted, our manager holding out for more money for the album, so we made it a two-single deal, which in retrospect … maybe we should have done the album, but you know, hindsight, 20/20 …”

‘Tear the Whole Thing Down’ was the first 2 Tone release, in October ’82, their fifth single – after one on the Romans in Britain label and three on Waap! Records – followed by ‘Run Me Down’ in February ’83. And although I put the band’s take on ‘Music to Watch Girls By’ on more compilations back in the day, ‘Run Me Down’ was my favourite Higsons-penned song, although follow-up, ‘Push out the Boat’, back on Waap! that November, also made an impression on a lad just turned 16. More to the point, ‘Run Me Down’ was playing in my head when I woke up on the morning of this interview.

“It was rather annoying that it didn’t make the Radio One playlist. With Chrysalis and 2 Tone behind it, we thought, ‘Yeah, this is the one that’s gonna break us.’ It didn’t … but it did extremely well on import in New York. Ha! It was on New York University radio all the time, and a lot of college radio stations, and so forth. So it has a bit of a life in the American underground, in a way.

“We went to America three times in ’82, ’83, ’84, on an absolute shoestring, not having the money to do anything other than get from gig to gig, but we sort of had a bash at it. And that song was big for them.”

Was that on both coasts?

“The third visit went to the West coast, but the first two were just on the East coast, and we got to Minneapolis and Chicago. We didn’t do anything in the middle.”

Taking of New York, listening back to ‘Ylang Ylang’ on this LP, I hear a David Byrne / Talking Heads influence.

“Ah, yeah, well, Charlie’s on record saying we always strenuously denied we sounded anything like the Talking Heads … but always wanted to sound like the Talking Heads!”

Above all else though, I just remember what a great live band they were. I only got to see them once though, and not until 26th January 1986, on my old Guilford patch at the University of Surrey, age 18.

“That was our penultimate gig!”

I didn’t realise that, although I did wonder, seeing as you parted ways that March. So where was the finale?

“The University of Nottingham, although we got back together for one thing, the bass player’s birthday. Colin {Williams} was a mature student, six years older than me, and that was for his 50th in 2004. We got together for a party. He very smartly asked me last, so as everybody else said yes, I had to! I’d just come back from America, having done a few weeks in the theatre, for Tom Waits’ The Black Rider, so my head was very much somewhere else.”

Looking back to early ’86, I don’t recall any rock star petulance or dramatic walks off stage. Was it all pretty amicable when it ended, a natural ending?

“Erm … our popularity had waned. We were together five years, and it hadn’t happened for us, in all honesty. We’d done reasonably well as an independent band, but never broke through that glass ceiling. We still meet now and again, and I play with Simon in the Near Jazz Experience, so we see each other a hell of a lot. We all get on, but I certainly don’t want to do the band particularly, not through anything other than I’ve just got lots of other things on!”

He’s not wrong. There’s not enough space on the internet to walk you through his amazing CV, but I remember talking to his former Essex associate, David Callahan, of The Wolfhounds fame, about something he contributed to one of this records, as if surprised, David responding with a suggestion that there aren’t many records out there that Terry’s not featured on.


Am I right in recalling you go way back?

“We’re from the same neck of the woods. He’s from Romford, I’m from Hornchurch, spitting distance between the two towns. We’ve been aware of each other for some time. Different schools, but we were in various sort of school bands around the same time, knowing each other quite a while.”

In another parallel, I was talking to Martin Ling, from another early ‘80s Norwich scene outfit, Serious Drinking, and he also has Romford roots. And I believe you have mutual friends in Madness’ bass player Mark Bedford, also part of the Near Jazz Experience?

“Yes, in fact Mark was my best man last year. Ha!”

Mention of Serious Drinking (okay, I brought them up, but …) reminds me that both bands released their debut LPs on Upright Records. Mind you, I’m still miffed that I missed out on a triple-CD Cherry Red reissue of The Curse of The Higsons, having to make do with a 1999 CD version that replaced my original 1984 vinyl, one of many downsizing despatches after redundancy a decade or so ago. But that’s another story.

How important was legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel to the cause (he asks, knowing full well the answer)? I’ve heard from some quarters there wasn’t really a Norwich scene until he mentioned there was.

“Well, Colin heard him on the radio saying he lived in East Anglia and there didn’t seem to be any bands around there doing anything. So he wrote in and said, ‘We’re The Higsons, we’re supporting The Fall next week, if you want to come.’ Which was true. We’d just done our very first demo. He said he couldn’t come to that but he’d come to whatever the next one was, and we gave him a cassette of the five tracks we’d done to eight-track, one of which was ‘I Don’t Want to Live with Monkeys’. He gave us a session on the back of that, out just before two of its tracks came out on a local compilation album.”

That was Norwich: A Fine City. And what was your link to Norwich’s Backs Records and Waap! Records (which accounted for their other early singles)?

“Waap! was our imprint, but two older guys at the university decided to start a label called Romans in Britain. At the time, there was a big hoo-hah about full frontal nudity on stage in a play of that name. There was also a band called Screen Three involved. The label founders wanted the first release to be Nero 1, so that was the catalogue number for Norwich: A Fine City, with our first single Hig 2 … so I think people were looking around for Hig 1, and there never was one! Then they wanted Screen 3 for the third release. Yes, people with too much time on their hands who should have been studying at university!”

On The Curse of The Higsons’ credits, there’s also a mention for Pete Saunders, ex-Dexy’s Midnight Runners and at the time with Serious Drinking, someone else Terry’s worked with since, not least at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Talking of keyboard supremos, there’s also a mention of Frog from The Farmer’s Boys, which brings me on to a certain René Parapap, whose early sleeve artwork also included their first three singles. It never struck me back then that might be a pen name for Charlie ‘Switch’ Higson.

“Well, I think that was the point, wasn’t it, that you wouldn’t guess! Ha!”

Good point, well made. I love the cover he’s done for the re-release. And his artwork is very distinctive, something I also recall from early Farmer’s Boys singles ‘I Think I Need Help’, ‘Whatever Is He Like’, and ‘More Than a Dream’. Like my interviewee, it seems there’s no end to his talent, I suggested.

“Ha! We’ve obviously gone on slightly different career paths, but we’re grafters, really, and care a lot about what we do, we like doing it, we do it well. So we worked at it, and you don’t turn out a piece of artwork like that without throwing a few bits of paper away in the first place.

“Charlie’s always sort of been a doodler and a drawer … and a writer – that was his thing at university. His degree was in English, with a minor in film studies, I think, while mine happened to be in music. And I think we both really toiled at what we do, neither of us wanting to do anything else.”

Did you bond straight away at UEA?

“There were two years between us at university, so he was in his third year when I came in for my first, along with Simon and Colin. Charlie was that cool, slightly older bloke, far as I was concerned. In fact, everybody was cooler and older! Simon had just come off touring with Alex Harvey, at the age of 18. That’s what he’d done in his year between school and university. So I was slightly awed with him. Having been a professional drummer, he was much better than the drummers I’d ever played with.

“And Charlie was one of those people who … I always thought he knew what he wanted. He’d say, ‘I was really insecure at the time,’ but he had a good image and we met in the rehearsal studio, via Simon and possibly Colin, and just started playing together. It was the band that connected us.”

There’s a live photo of Terry on sax alongside Charlie on trumpet among the press information that came my way for this release. But don’t be fooled …

“He learned literally two notes to play along with songs! I showed him what fingers to put down. He was never a trumpet player, but we managed to get enough notes out of it to make a section when we were a five-piece.”

Did the others move on to day jobs after the band split?

“Yes and no. Colin’s background was that he played with an early incarnation of Wah! Heat. He’s from Liverpool, and we supported Wah! on two or three occasions through Colin.

“Stuart {McGeachin, guitar, vocals} was from Bristol and was playing there, and after The Higsons he started working in airline entertainment, putting together all the music and film stuff you would get when you’re sat in your airline seat.

“And Colin became a speech therapist, then helped children with severe autism. He’s retired now.”

How did scriptwriter and Charlie Higson associate Dave Cummings fit into all this?

“He was in the original band. We did three or four gigs before he left – again in his last year while we were in our first. He then moved to London to make fame and fortune with his band, Bonsai Forest, who had Paul Whitehouse playing guitar with them. He was in Charlie’s year, after which Charlie got Stuart involved in the band.”

Dave Cummings left in Summer 1980, his CV also including six years on guitar with Del Amitri (from 1989) and co-writing credits with Paul Whitehouse for early 2000s BBC sitcom Happiness and 2015’s Nurse, 2000 feature film, Kevin and Perry Go Large, and playing the role of the bass player in prog rock band Thotch in 2014’s The Life of Rock with Brian Pern.  

Dave’s place in the band was filled by Stuart that October, when the demo was recorded which found its way to John Peel in January 1981, including two Dave Cummings songs collectively written.

Of the many names Terry’s worked with, it’s a somewhat eclectic mix, including The Blockheads, The Creatures, Department S, Faust, Hot Chip, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Lydia Lunch, Madness, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Robyn Hitchcock, Snuff, and Spiritualised. I half-heartedly ask for his personal highlights, but he wriggles off the hook.

“You take different stuff from experiences, and as a session musician you have to be fairly pliable. What I like about what I do is that people get in touch now because they want Terry Edwards. They don’t want a trumpet or sax player. If you want somebody who’s plays real high Cuban trumpet, you don’t phone me. Robyn Hitchcock was asked by someone, ‘Why did you think you needed a trumpet on such and such a song?’ And he said, ‘I didn’t think I needed a trumpet. I thought I wanted some Terry on it!’ I thought that was really nice.

“So I’m kind of avoiding your question, but I think you learn a lot from playing with other people, because no two people write songs the same way. When you go in and think you understand how something’s going to go, you learn from that, then take that away. Thankfully, I’ve never really had to do something I absolutely detested. But even if it’s music I wouldn’t necessarily listen to, you learn from that experience, how people write those songs. You go against your better judgement.

“Sometimes a song needs that specific style of sax playing, so you do it, then you go, ‘Oh, I understand that now.’ On the same subject, I’ve played with {US pianist and long-time David Bowie collaborator} Mike Garson a few times, via this producer, Tom Wilcox, who gets very interesting things together.

“He was doing one of those Bowie alumni things, I said, ‘I’m gonna come and see you in Manchester,’ and he said, ‘Oh, bring your saxophones.’ He sent me the set-list and said, ‘Why don’t you play on ‘Young Americans’, which I’d never learned to play. You think you know a song because you’ve heard it a million times, then actually having to learn it, you realise how it’s put together, and in fact, it’s got quite a limited number of notes on it.

“You think it’s David Sanborn and he’s all over the saxophone, but he’s really strictly in a six or seven note scale, with no notes outside that. And it’s a discipline that really makes you think about your instrument.

“That was early 2020, just before the shutters came down. So we’re talking quite late in my life to have discovered something. And the absolute beauty of it is that you don’t know everything!”

That was for the Holy Holy project, yes?

“Yeah, there were some shows on a tour that Steve Norman couldn’t do. And funnily enough, Steve and I come from similar backgrounds in the way that we were originally guitarists. There wasn’t really a place for a second guitarist in Spandau Ballet after the initial singles, so he learned the saxophone.”

You mentioned Robyn Hitchcock, and I believe there’s a tribute song of sorts, ‘Listening to the Higsons’.

“Yes, that was my introduction to Robin. I’d never heard The Soft Boys. Somebody said, ‘You know someone’s written a song about you?’ Then I got to know him. We were introduced – Simon and I – backstage at the Town and Country Club in London (now The Forum) by our soundman, who was the house soundman there. And I played with him just a few weeks ago at Alexandra Palace.”

Meanwhile, mght there be a live launch for this Higsons re-release?

“Erm … we’re just hoping that the good people of the world will just buy the 500 that we’ve pressed. Ha!”

Do you think there will ever be a moment when you all step back onto a stage at the same time?

“And for the same reason? Ha! Erm, there are no plans. Things certainly have their time. I didn’t get a ticket to go and see Led Zeppelin when they did their one reformed gig at the O2, but I’d love to see them. But by the same token, I wouldn’t want to do that with my own band … although that’s a bit two-faced.

“I think Charlie feels the same way. I remember him saying, ‘I want to grow old with a bit of dignity.’ I was a bit affronted by that, thinking, ‘Well, actually, I’m still doing this,’ and this was the same week he was on The Chase Celebrity Special. He’s standing there, next to Basil fucking Brush, and there’s a man who wants some dignity! Ha! I have pulled his leg about that!”

I like to think that – like The Beatles in Help! – The Higsons, The Farmer’s Boys and Serious Drinking went through separate front doors of band abodes in a terrace of houses in Norwich back in the day, yet it would all be one room on the inside, maybe with Popular Voice (and possibly Screen Three) coming round for a cuppa now and again. Tell me that’s actually true.

“I don’t think the house would have remained standing for very long with all those bands in!”

Did you live with any other Higsons at the time?

“Stuart and Charlie for a short time.”

Were they good housemates?

“It was just the way the university turned people out, really. You had to find somewhere to live, Charlie had a place, Stuart was already in, and a room came up for me. I took that for the best part of a year, I suppose.”

In the Discogs’ listing for The Higsons’ early 1982 Live at the Jacquard Club performance – included on the Cherry Red reissue of The Curse of The Higsons – one comment reads, ‘The energy in this life performance could be distilled and replicated to replace fossil fuels and address the climate crisis. Waap!” That seems a perfect tribute for the band I recall four years later.

“I think that’s actually one of the things we could never really get on record – what the live band was like. I think the same’s true of Gallon Drunk. What a phenomenal band. I thought Gallon Drunk was gonna be absolutely huge. I don’t think the records ever really … but can you actually do that?”

Terry joined Gallon Drunk in 1993, staying onboard for three albums. Had he completed his degree at UEA?

“I did get a degree in music, yes! I think only Stuart didn’t.”

Going right back, were there musicians in the Edwards family?

“Certainly on my mum’s side. She was an infants’ schoolteacher, the one playing the piano at assemblies. Her sister was a piano teacher and taught me piano, and their mum played piano and their dad played violin.”

That was in Hornchurch, with Terry’s maternal grandfather from Ipswich and maternal grandmother from Hammersmith, with links to Romford and East Ham on the Edwards side, and a Welsh link way back. Was there always a love of brass for you?

“Chronologically, saxophone is very late in the instruments I played. I started off on piano at the age of five, purely because I broke my leg and couldn’t go out running after a ball, and mum’s piano was there in the house.

“Then at senior school, a trumpet was available. I hadn’t really thought about it, but it wasn’t the violin, which my brother played, and a boy who sat next to me in class played trumpet, so I kind of fell into that. I really just wanted to be a pop star. I got a guitar when I was 13, wanting to play pop and then Beatles songs, then discovering Jimi Hendrix, and so on and so forth.

“I just kept plugging away at that, then I got a sax for my 18th birthday, because I really liked The Blockheads, and Davey Payne’s playing, and an amazing R&B saxophone, Earl Bostic. But I don’t come from a jazz background at all – hence the Near Jazz Experience, playing rock music but on jazz instruments.”

There can be a bit of snobbery in that world.

“Oh, not ‘alf, yeah! And because of it you get a bit frightened … until you actually listen to things. The best thing you can do is follow your ears, rather than a trend or your eyes. Follow your ears … although it gets you in a very funny place! Ha!”

There’s no denying you’ve worked hard at this, a love of music the common thread.

“Yeah, and it is largely for the love of it, you know, rather than a way to make money. Ha! I think you have to love doing these things, first and foremost, because you don’t become an overnight sensation overnight!”

As for the Record Store Day release, I look forward to physically seeing this new release.

“Yeah, it’s nice to have those songs all in one place, and it makes sense to have them on two sides. It sounds a bit funny when you hear all six without turning a record over. It makes sense, because the A-side is the A and B of ‘Tear the Whole Thing Down’, followed by the full {12” of) ‘Run Me Down’, then you turn the record over and get the A and B of the second single, then the instrumental. A lot of thought went into that. Ha!”

Maybe I should press pause and step out of the room between them when listening to the digital version.

“Yeah, go and have a cup of tea in between. It’ll make more sense!”

The Higsons’ Run Me Down – The Complete 2 Tone Recordings is out today (Saturday, April 22nd) on Sartorial Records as a limited-edition LP, to mark Record Store Day. For more details, head to The Higsons’ Facebook page. You can also check out a Rough Trade Records link here, and The Higsons’ Bandcamp page.

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Let me tell you about Sweden (and Denmark, Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester …) – catching up with Hugh Cornwell

Early May sees the return of former Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell to the road for three more UK headline dates, celebrating last October’s acclaimed Moments of Madness LP.

Following a 23-date nationwide tour late last year, he has shows in Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield along with bandmates Pat Hughes (bass) and Windsor McGilvray (drums), playing two live sets – one of solo years’ material, the other comprising classic Stranglers songs.

As the punk icons’ lead singer and guitarist from 1974 to 1990, Hugh was the main songwriter across 10 Stranglers albums, overseeing 21 top-40 hits and 14 top-20 LPs in the UK alone, before going it alone, having delivered 10 more LPs since.

And Moments of Madness, is considered a high watermark, one of his most significant, attracting praise from the likes of Mojo (‘Cornwell’s still doing things his way and often with striking results.’), Uncut (‘Thunderously tribal garage-rock… the ex-Strangler not yet gone soft.”), Classic Rock (‘the one constant with Hugh Cornwell albums is that they’re never dull’), Record Collector (‘creates a universe where hardcore and newcomer Stranglers fans alike can revel.’) and Louder Than War(‘a call back to his rock roots … a late flowering classic from a man who has always known how to write a damn good tune.’).

Self-produced, and playing all the instruments himself, Moments of Madness finds Hugh flexing his musical muscles with a stripped-down, offbeat, reverberating ‘60s vibe across its 10 tracks, indelibly stamped with Hugh’s trademark imagination and storytelling, the latest long player landing four years after previous high calibre solo offering, Monster.

As the 73-year-old suggests on opening track and first single, ‘Coming Out of the Wilderness’, there are elements here of a hardy veteran tackling the art of survival amid challenging and turbulent times.

This time, his subject matter includes the ‘bewildering trend for tattoos’ (‘Red Rose’), environmental concerns and threats to our ecology (‘Too Much Trash’), and his Mexico-based Italian friends who make the best pasta he’s ever tasted (’Lasagna’), amid more reflective, very personal insights (‘When I Was a Young Man’ and LP closer ‘Heartbreak at Seven’, the first song recorded for the album).

It’s been a tough few years for many of us, and Hugh’s lost some old friends, including former bandmates and co-conspirators Dave Greenfield in May 2020 (‘He was the difference between The Stranglers and every other punk band. His musical skill and gentle nature gave an interesting twist to the band.’), fellow ‘Tele brother’ Wilko Johnson just after the latest LP landed (‘No one could play like Wilko. We’ll all miss him.’), and Jet Black in December (‘We shared a special period of our lives when we strived to become professional musicians. We were immediately drawn to one another, he had a singular sense of purpose that I identified with. He threw everything in his previous life out, to dedicate himself to our common goal. The Stranglers success was founded on his determination and drive. His timing was faultless. All power to him and his legacy.’).

As for the sound, he says, “It’s like I’ve got a stew-pot of sounds where I’ve put in a bit of Joe Meek, a bit of Lou Reed, a flavour of The Doors, a bit of this, a bit of that, and I mix it all up and it tastes good. I’m like a cook when I make records in that I don’t follow any recipe.”

Born and raised in North London, where he played in a band at school with fellow future star, Richard Thompson, Hugh’s degree in biochemistry from university in Bristol led to a postgraduate research role in Sweden in the early ‘70s, where he spent part of his spare time busking in nearby Copenhagen (a cross-border hydrofoil ride away from nearest town, Malmo), ultimately leading to his role in the band Johnny Sox. And when that outfit decamped to England, Jet Black joined and the band got back to basics in Guildford, Surrey, where The Stranglers story proper started in 1974.

While Hugh stuck around for another 16 years, he made an album with Captain Beefheart drummer Robert Williams in 1979, Nosferatu followed nine years later by hisfirst solo offering, Wolf, two years before he called time on The Stranglers.

And since 2012’s rightly acclaimed eighth solo outing, Totem and Taboo, recorded in Chicago and engineered by Steve Albini, we’ve had 2016’s This Time It’s Personal alongside fellow poet laureate of punk contender John Cooper Clarke, giving their own inimitable takes on songs that shaped their youth, and then Monster in 2018, writing about the idols that shaped and influenced his life. And on the evidence of Moments of Madness, he’s clearly still on a creative roll.

Hugh was in West London when I caught up with him, taking a breather amid rehearsals with his bandmates.

“We’ve found a good place here, in Shepherd’s Bush. The boys, Windsor and Pat, both live in Guildford, but we’ve got a system now where they come up to town, which is good.”

The three dates coming up include a Manchester show rescheduled from late November, when a show at Gorilla was cancelled due to an ‘insurmountable technical problem on the part of the venue’, Hugh and his band feeling they ‘did everything they could to try to make the show happen’, apologising on behalf of the venue to ‘everyone who made the effort to get to the show on an evening of travel difficulties and poor weather.’

That date has now switched down the Oxford Road to the Academy 3 on Saturday, May 6th, with all tickets from the Gorilla concert remaining valid.

“It was impossible to play there under the circumstances. You have to put a standard on what you expect people to accept, and what we could have done wouldn’t have been acceptable. I think it would have been substandard. If people are paying the money for the ticket, they deserve a good show, so it’s been rescheduled.”

I see you’ve also got a trip back to Scandinavia lined up, supporting The Undertones again. Are you doing a few dates with them?

“Yeah, we’re also up in Copenhagen. We’ve got about a week of shows.”

It’s been half a century or so since Hugh was living in Sweden, working on a PHD at university in Lund while living the life nearby and building up that live acumen across the water in the Danish capital.

“This is my first trip for a long time. I’m looking forward to it. It should be interesting. I’ll have to brush up my Swedish!”

Funny you should say that. A friend was telling me how he was in Stockholm around 2003 with a friend from London, married to a Swede and fluent in the local lingo. They went into a record shop, finding and buying a copy of ‘Sverige’ (the Swedish language version of Sweden (All Quiet on the Eastern Front)’, released as a single solely in Scandinavia in 1978). He told me the guys in the record shop insisted on playing it before they let him leave, critiquing the quality of your Swedish in a long, long debate in their mother tongue, in what proved to be a listening party with a difference.

“What, saying it wasn’t a good translation?”

I think it was more about your accent and pronunciation in places.

“Ah, well, you can’t win over accents! Ha, how funny.”

I’ll have to find out the address for you.

“Absolutely. I’ll have to go in there. Did he purchase it or not?”

I believe so. I think he was hoping to just buy it, then leave the shop.

“Oh, I see … like a museum exhibit!”

I think so … which – no offence – I suppose you’ve become, in a way.

“Yeah, I have, in a way. Ha!”

I love that track, both versions, and picking up on the English language version and the line, ‘Too much time to think, too little to do,’ how is your boredom threshold these days, would you say?

“Well, I mean, I still have a lower boredom threshold. It doesn’t take much to get me bored. But I manage to fill in with different interests. So I avoid boredom as much as possible. Because boredom is the end of life, really. I mean, you’ve got to avoid getting bored, basically.”

And the music’s keeping you young, I’m thinking. You’re certainly out of the stalls at pace right away on the latest album with ‘Coming out of the Wilderness’, your ‘60s roots to the fore but sounding as current as you ever have.

“Well, thank you. I hope members of the public think that too, so they’ll come along to the shows, because the new stuff sounds good live. It works well. I mean, Pat and Windsor have done very well in interpreting it their own way. And it’s great, I’m really looking forward to playing them again.”

There’s even a little heavy dub on the title track. It sounds like you’re having fun playing bass there.

“Oh, yeah, it was the first time I’ve let myself play bass for many years, and I really enjoyed it. And some of the songs started out from the bass riff, which was interesting. ‘Too Much Trash’ started out from a bass riff, which is a nice way to start songs.”

‘Coming out of the Wilderness’ was already out last time I saw you live, supporting The Undertones at Lytham’s Lowther Pavilion on Lancashire’s Fylde coast, on what proved a great night (with a review here). And that song for me is somewhere between the Rolling Stones, The Troggs, and a few ‘60s UK R&B influences, but there’s also something deeper in there, perhaps a bit of some of those acts that influenced all those outfits, like Howling Wolf or John Lee Hooker.

“Well, great! I mean, why not? I’d be happy for all those to be cited as influences. It’s just, does anyone know what those names mean anymore? That’s the thing.”

Well, they should do. Then again, America was partly oblivious to their own influential acts in those days when the so-called British Invasion came about, not realising where they’d nicked those songs from in the first place, so who knows.

“That’s right. Well, maybe that will happen with me. Maybe they’ll think, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ and not know where I’ve nicked it from!”

And is there a subtle nod to your early solo outing, Wolf, as well on that song and its accompanying promo video? Only somehow that’s 35 years old now.

“Wow! Yeah, and we’ve revisited Wolf. I got the guys to gen up on ‘Another Kind of Love’, which I’ve always been fond of. And it’s worked really well live. Also, we’ve been looking at resurrecting some of the old Nosferatu songs, and they’re working quite well too. So everything and anything’s possible, you know. If you go back into your back catalogue, you can find ways of playing almost anything.”

I’d say, having caught you live a few times in recent years, you’ve proved that time and again.

“I hope so.”

Will it just be that core trio of yourself, Pat and Windsor on these forthcoming dates?

“That’s right.”

You’ve clearly found a formula there, and you seem so tight as a unit. It works well.

“Yeah, they’re very gifted, and between us we’ve managed to cover the keyboards option, because I don’t want to take keyboards with me on the road. What I’ve discovered is that because they’ve got such great voices, you can actually summon up a lot of the extra instruments from that, which is really nice. And on some of the old Stranglers songs – we can recreate them using the voices to supplement the guitars and bass, so there’s not so much missing as people would imagine.”

Agreed, with a case in point for me – among the tracks that really stood out last time I saw you – alongside several solo era songs, ‘London Lady’, which sounded so fresh at Lytham. And while I never feel comfortable with ‘Five Minutes’, because of the real-life horror story behind it, it’s such a great song live, all these years on.

“Yeah, my manager said, ‘Are you sure you should be playing ‘Five Minutes’ at a festival?’ Because it’s not really family material. But it works so well and it’s so exciting that I think it kind of transcends any of those misgivings. And yeah, I mean, ‘London Lady’, that’s one of the really early Stranglers songs, and in those days we were just a power trio. That was really before Dave Greenfield had stamped his keyboard mark. It’s a song that lends itself to a power trio, so I’m really happy the way that’s worked out.”

Seeing as Moments of Madness is your 10th solo album, were you at all tempted for history to repeat and to call this one 10?

“Ha ha! Well, no, not at all … although there are 10 songs on it!”

Well, there is that as well. And among some extremely positive reviews for this LP, someone in Uncut mentioned your ‘thunderously tribal garage-rock’. That’s not as bad description, really, that nod to garage rock. A couple of songs here wouldn’t have been out of place on the classic Nuggets compilation.

“Great! Well, that’s very good feedback. It’s nice to know it’s working, you know. And I mean, it was actually recorded in a garage … or a building that used to be a garage, so there you go!”

Was it a bit of a lockdown project in that respect?

“It was indeed, yeah.”

Have you now got a taste for self-production, then? Or would you be happy to record with someone else twiddling the knobs next time?

“Well, it’s working. We did Monster there too, and the album with John Cooper Clarke. The last album I actually went somewhere else to record was Totem and Taboo with Steve Albini. Since then, everything’s been working very well. There’s an old maxim which says, ‘If it works, don’t fix it,’ so I see no reason not to continue that. And there’s a progression as well. I mean, I think Moments of Madness sounds better than Monster did. So hopefully, maybe the next one will sound even better. So we’re getting there now!”

And this one’s rather a personal album. A few tracks have that vibe to them.

“Yeah, they are very personal. I mean, it’s a lot of my actual life, and what goes through your mind and stuff, all put down there. So yeah, I’ll plead guilty to that!”

However, despite the content of ‘When I Was a Young Man’ and a couple of other tracks of that lyrical bent, you’re not po-faced. Songs like ‘Lasagna’ suggest the Cornwell humour’s still there.

“Well, ‘Lasagna’ is based on a real experience, you know, and it’s all real stuff. I don’t really have to make anything up. I write about things that happen to me, about real things. There’s not much fantasy in there.”

Were you always happy to be the showman, do you feel?

“Well, when I was in the band that The Stranglers became, in Sweden, Johnny Sox, I was the second guitarist, the sideman who played rhythm guitar and sang backing vocals most of the time. So I started out there, then as time went on, I ended up centre-stage. So it wasn’t always a given. I didn’t always think I was going to be where I ended up.”

That said, one of my abiding memories of the first time I saw The Stranglers, at Guildford Civic Hall in 1982 when I was barely 14, was you telling jokes to the audience while all manner of technological problems were going on with Dave Greenfield’s keyboard. And you still had that warm rapport in the support slot at Lytham four decades later. You’ve always came over as a natural frontman to me.

“Oh, well, why not? If you’ve got people listening to every word, it’s the perfect time to tell a story or a funny happening or something, and just basically make them laugh, you know, and realise that life isn’t that serious and you’ve got to try and enjoy it as you can.”

Good point, well made. And talking of bands who always bring a smile to the face, you’ve played a lot of gigs with The Undertones now. They’re celebrating the 45th anniversary this year of much loved debut single ‘Teenage Kicks’, and this May also marks 45 years since The Stranglers released third studio album, Black and White.

“Oh, well, it makes sense then, and we will be playing the Swedish version of Sweden in Sweden! So that sort of goes along with that thinking, right? And it gives me a good introduction to that song.”

The university town of Lund isn’t so far from Malmo, where one of the dates takes place. Was that where you would get along for a night out back in those days?

“Well, there wasn’t much going on in Malmo in those days! It might have changed now. I shall find out. But you’d go to Malmo to get the ferry across to Copenhagen, and that’s where everything was going on. I could be in Copenhagen in an hour, via Malmo. It was so quick to get over there, and I used to go over there and play in the bars, busking in the bars. I used to do that a lot.”

And as you say, Copenhagen’s also on this itinerary. And you’ve clearly got something of a rapport with The Undertones. You’ve played with them a few times now. It seems to work, the two acts on the same bill.

“Oh definitely, they’re a great bunch of guys. It’s nice. We have good fun.”

As long as he steers clear of trouble this time. According to Hugh’s ex-bandmate JJ Burnel, talking to Dave Simpson for The Guardian in 2014 about the band twice being escorted out of Sweden by armed police, ‘200 members of this teddy boy gang who hated punk drove up in their big 1950s American cars, beat up our road crew and smashed our equipment. We were locked in our dressing room but managed to escape by throwing a few Molotovs before the police arrived.’

On the other occasion, Jet Black (in his own words) ‘kicked up a fracas because I couldn’t get served any food and the hotel threatened to call the police, who turned up with machine guns again to escort us on to the next plane.’ 

I put this to Hugh, telling him I’m hoping for his sake those notorious Swedish greasers they’d had a few past run-ins with in The Stranglers’ years wouldn’t be out to confront him this time.

“Ha ha! Yeah, I think they were called the raggare. I don’t know if they exist anymore.”

Well, perhaps you’ll find out.

“We’ll find out, yeah!”

Let’s just hope for his sake, any surviving gang members will be on Zimmer frames these days.

For this website’s November 2019 feature/interview with Hugh Cornwell, head here, and for our October 2018 chat, head here. For our November 2015 feature/interview with Hugh, head here,  and for our July 2013 feature/interview, head here. You can also check out a July 2014 interview with Jean-Jacques Burnel here, and a March 2015 interview with Baz Warne, fronting the band since 2006, here.

Hugh Cornwell’s forthcoming UK, Irish and Scandinavian dates (*acoustic **supporting The Undertones, who are doing five extra dates in Holland and Germany around their four shows in Sweden and one in Denmark): Belfast Black Box* (Wednesday, April 12th), Dublin Pepper Canister* (Thursday, April 13th), Galway Roisin Dubh* (Friday, April 14th), Cork St Luke’s* (Saturday, April 15th), Uppsala Katalin** (Tuesday, April 25th), Stockholm Slaktkyrkan** (Wednesday, April 26th), Goteborg Pustervik** (Friday, April 28th), Malmo Plan B** (Saturday, April 29th), Copenhagen** (Pumpehuset, Sunday, April 30th), Birmingham O2 Institute 2 (Friday, May 5th); Manchester Academy 3 (Saturday, May 6th); Sheffield O2 Academy 2 (Sunday, May 7th). Hugh and his band will also be appearing at the Mama’s Pride Festival in Geleen, Holland, the second of nine dates in Germany, the Netherlands and Austria that month, leading up to his Melkweg show in Amsterdam on Sunday, May 21st. For details and tickets on all those and more shows in October and next January, head to and You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

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Fill in the pages of tomorrows yet to be – talking Dodgy with Nigel Clark

What is it about dogs that they get vocal the moment interviews start? It’s normally my rescue lab-cross, Millie, but in this case Dodgy frontman Nigel Clark’s Bedlington whippet-cross is doing all the barking.

“As soon as I say hello to anybody … hang on … Indie, there’s no one coming! It’s a phone!”

Soon enough, Indie is settled – on Nigel, it turns out – and we can commence, first comparing notes on our four-legged housemates, in his case with a tale of the cat that comes into his garden and causes ructions.

It will be eight years this summer since I last met Nigel, after a storming couple of sets with Dodgy – the band he co-founded with previous WriteWyattUK interviewee Mathew Priest (drums), Andy Miller (guitar, on board since just after the band relocated to London and took their name) and Stuart Thoy (bass, who joined just in time for their most recent LP in 2017) – in the unlikely setting of Ribchester Village Hall, a rural Lancashire setting 10 miles north-east of Preston, one glorious summer’s evening, a Hollow Horse production that formed part of local promoter Carl Barrow’s visionary drive to put under-used community buildings to good use.

It was my eldest daughter’s first live show … and what a great one to open with. And among the many highlights (with my review here) were hits from their biggest-selling LPs, 1994’s Homegrown and 1996 follow-up Free Peace Sweet, plus inspired takes on the Sex Pistols’ ‘Pretty Vacant’ and Frank Wilson’s Northern Soul classic ‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’, the latter including wondrous forays into The Velvet Underground’s’Waiting for my Man’ and ‘Run Run Run’ and Jonathan Richman’s Roadrunner. Does he remember that night?

“Yes! I do remember that! Wow! How many years ago? Eight? Isn’t it mad, eh. Time goes so quickly.”

It’s odd to think that’s a longer period than Dodgy were together first time around. But in seven years they sold more than a million records worldwide, releasing three albums and enjoying 12 top-40 singles, including ‘90s classics ‘Staying Out for the Summer’and ‘Good Enough’, the latter officially one of the most played tracks on UK radio in the last 25 years.

They reformed in 2012, comeback album Stand Upright In A Cool Place landing16 years after their double-platinum bestseller, to rave reviews, The Word magazine suggesting, ‘They’ve just made the record of their career by a country mile,’ The Guardian describing it a ‘revelation’, and the record also receiving four stars in Mojo, Uncut, Q, and various national newspapers.

Then there was 2017’s What Are We Fighting For, again well received. And now, 27 years after Free Peace Sweet (‘rather beautiful and serendipitous as the average age of the band was 27 when we made it’), from which ‘Good Enough’ was drawn, there are five celebratory shows, carrying on where they left off in 25th anniversary live celebrations of Homegrown, a tour that ended witha big night at O2 Shepherds Bush Empire.

Ahead of this interview, I revisited Free Peace Sweet, and it’s lost none of its impact. Such a great LP. I have all their albums on the shelf, but that remains my favourite.

“I don’t know if it’s my favourite. I think it was the most eclectic of the three albums we did to then. I think Homegrown was the most concise, from song to song. It sounded like the same band, while Free Peace Sweet, in that period of the ‘90s there were so many different musical styles going around, it was the start of the future, if you know what I mean, with so many influences – from the technology of drum and bass onwards.

“I was really into all that, and still am. I love technology, but I love nylon string folk guitars and fingerpicking. So it goes from the birth of music to where we are now, really. And I’m still the same – the eclecticism lives on.”

I get that, but also recognise that wouldn’t work if there wasn’t a great collection of songs beneath it. The quality of the songwriting is there. You talked about the birth of music, and for me there are nods to Ray Davies’ songcraft on that LP. And of course, The Who, something that comes across in so much that Mathew plays.

“Yeah! Well, it used to. He’s calmed down a bit now! He doesn’t wear his influences on his sleeve as much these days … that was 27 years ago. But those 27 years don’t seem like real years. It doesn’t seem that long a distance. In fact, since ‘97, what seems to have happened since the internet {took off}, time has taken a different tangent, I think.

“I was talking to my wife the other day, saying, ‘God, we’re middle-aged’ and she said, ‘There’s no such thing as middle-aged anymore.’ If you think back to when people were in their 50s years ago, they’d all be getting their clothes from that certain shop, the blokes would be wearing caps … Know what I mean? It’s not like that anymore. The gap has shrunk.

“I don’t know if I’m reliving my past, but my kids have grown up now, they’ve all moved out, so I feel like I can get along with my life again, going back into the things me and my wife like doing.”

Nigel, originally from Redditch, and Mathew, from Bromsgrove, moved to the capital from their Midlands roots to get Dodgy off the ground. But these days, Nigel’s in West Wales while Mathew’s in Wiltshire.

My interviewee tells me he’s coming up to 29 years of marriage, aged 27 at the time (yep, that number again). I told him I tend to find it’s those who married far earlier who have the midlife crises, perhaps building up this idea of what they felt they missed out on while bringing up children.

“And they’re normally not married now! You have to make a mistake. When I went down to London, I jacked in my job, my girlfriend, my house, then moved down to London to do music. Everything had to go. But I’ve done that in my life. I know what I want … and what I don’t want!”

Back on the subject of Free Peace Sweet, I’m struggling to think off the top of my head of another LP carrying the title track of the previous album. And that makes me smile.

“I don’t know why that happened! We always had a song that should have gone on the album before, and it never made it. And with ‘Homegrown’, it was destined to be on an EP that got shelved, as we didn’t like the other side. It was kind of Dodgy trying to do something different. It sounded like Stereo MCs, it was called ‘Don’t Go Back’ or something like that. We went, ‘This isn’t what we want to do.’ So we shelved it, and when we got to Free Peace Sweet we went, ‘What about ‘Homegrown’?’ And I liked the idea of putting it on and nodding to the previous album. Like ‘Grassman’ was supposed to be on the first album.”

I’m still struggling to think of a previous case where someone’s done that.

“I seem to think something’s gone on with Led Zeppelin. Somewhere along the line, they had a song that was supposed to be on another album, or whatever. But maybe it is unique. And I like that. One of the reasons for me to get into music in the first place was because … I got a job and bought a house in the mid- to late-‘80s, and started to live this life. So I wanted my next career to not be anything to do with business, and we made a point of trying to avoid all the business rubbish that goes on in the music industry.

“Like, when we first signed our publishing deal, we got two publishing companies to play video football against each other for us. To do different things, turn it a little bit crazy. I’d been in business. I didn’t want to be in business. I wanted to be in music, and the music would carry us. And it did, you know. We had that focus, we were very focused.”

That sounds like my own experience. Being in fairly well-paid jobs, but quitting to get on the path to doing what I really wanted to do, foregoing a comfortable wage to do it. But real life experiences teach you so much, and in my case, being in business at least convinced me what I didn’t want to do for a career.

“Yeah, I think that’s how we work it out really. It is what you don’t want, and sometimes I dip into this parallel world where there’s the Nigel that didn’t leave that job. And it’s quite useful to remember those things. Sometimes I write lyrics that are about not conforming to the life that society has. Even your parents told you, ‘You need to get a job, you need to do this.’ I look at this person I once was, the conforming one. I can bounce things off him sometimes.”

I mentioned Ray Davies before, and he shone a light on those situations at times, something The Jam echoed with songs like ’Smithers-Jones’.

“Yeah, and that line, ‘I’ve some news to tell you, there’s no longer a position for you’, for me personally, I wanted to be in control of all that. I didn’t want that to be my life. I could see how easy it is to do it. People get trapped.

“When I worked at Rover on the shop floor, I was only young, 18 or 19, but a lot of people started there at my age, then had kids and couldn’t leave, because they had children to look after. I was lucky in one way that my circumstance of not having children that young, not having much responsibility then, enabled me to be able to follow my dreams.”

Remind me how you met Mathew and how the Dodgy adventure came about.

“I answered an advert in a local paper, looking for a singer. I was just starting out, musically. I’d been doing it quite a few years, recording demos, and thought it was about time I got a band. I met Mathew that way, he was the drummer in the band, and we decided after about a year that we were really serious about it.

“I went to America, travelling, came back and decided I was either going to live in New York or London. And he said, ‘I’ll come.’ So we did it together, which was brilliant. It would have been difficult on my own. I tried to always be Mister Overconfident, saying, ‘I’m going’ but it was a lot better and easier that I had someone with me.”

You were based in Hounslow, West London. Was that purely a case of somewhere you could afford to live, close enough for the circuit?

“When we first moved down in 1988, we lived in Battersea, and as someone into punk, the soundtrack to our first year in London was The Story of The Clash. Mathew knew The Jam more, so I kind of influenced him there. Then his mum and dad went travelling and we sort of inherited their records, which is when I got into Sly and the Family Stone, in a big way. I still think they’re probably the greatest band ever.

“We were DJs as well. We bought a set-up and would go around colleges and places like that. So we knew what we liked, were vivacious in the music we wanted to listen to, and took on everything. There were things going on – techno, baggy, all that, but we were consuming Simon and Garfunkel, The Beach Boys, then The Beastie Boys, then Neil Young. And when we first heard Crosby, Stills Nash and Young, that was it. I love harmony. I don’t think anything’s complete if you can’t sing a harmony. I listen to a lot of Townes Van Zandt these days, and always sing harmony to him, thinking, ‘If I knew him …’

That makes sense. It’s threaded through your music. Take for example, Free Peace Sweet’s ‘You’ve Gotta Look Up’, with its Beach Boys sunshine vibe.

“I’m listening to an album at the moment, which I really recommend, a feelgood album that’s just come out by Panda Bear from Animal Collective and Sonic Boom from Spaceman Three, who sent him all these intros from ‘60s songs. They both live in Portugal. Some you may know, some you’ll definitely know, such as ‘Three Steps to Heaven’. Panda Bear put them into his sampler and started singing these new melodies and songs over them, and it’s joyous. It’s just sunshine. It’s amazing. It’s my album for the summer.”

An artist who has also released two solo LPs, 2006’s 21st Century Man and 2020’s Make Believe Love, clearly still has his ears open. We’re not going to find him solely on the Rewind ‘90s circuit, are we?

“Well, you might do! I’ve got three or four things on. The Dodgy thing at this moment in time, there’s no record label, there’s no finance for it. So we just do gigs, including these five for the first part of the tour, and hopefully we’ll carry on if we can. Then we’ve got about 25 festivals this year, so that’s great. So this is my income really. Dodgy is still earning my income, then I’m doing stuff with Chris Helme, from The Seahorses …”

Chris supports you on these dates, I see.

“Yeah, he’s great, and he’s coming down to mine, having recently moved by the sea, which is amazing.”

Nigel has his own studio at his new base in Ceredigion.

“I do a lot of electronic music as well. My plan is to start doing online gigs, at least video gigs from my studio. I’m aware that a lot of people aren’t going out nowadays. It’s very difficult to sell live tickets at the moment.”

It’s noticeable that these five Dodgy dates are all weekend shows.

“It’s ridiculous. Someone booked me the other day for a Monday. I said, ‘Monday? Are you sure about this?’ But two weeks before, he said, ‘No one’s coming.’ So I know that now. Society has changed so much, and the money flowing around isn’t fairly distributed in this country. Which is unfortunate, because we need people to have money for society to be able to grow. This is why we’re stagnating as a country right now.”

I was going to ask, 27 years on from Free Peace Sweet’s ‘U.K.R.I.P.’, where do you feel we’re at now? Slowly decomposing?

“Well, the system is broken, and we’re looking at a situation where, hopefully, although I don’t want it to get better at the moment – because I want it to get so bad that we never have these people back in power – I think we need a year zero in this country. We need to get rid of the rotten establishment causing this country so much pain. It’s so blatant, and it’s disaster politics. As soon as we get ready to go out on the streets, another disaster happens.

“They’re a horrible bunch. I’m talking about the Tories, definitely, but I’m also saying that politics in general is out of touch with people. We need to move on, to stop thinking people are stupid. We’re not stupid. We don’t even need politics. We’re a global world. The internet enables us to think globally. And what do we do? We shut it all down. It’s the end, and they know it. They just want to try and squeeze the last juice out of their control.

“It’s a sorry state of affairs. And you have Rishi Sunak getting really excited about the prospects for Northern Ireland, and you think, ‘Fucking idiot! We had that!’ I think we need that year zero, need to go back. I don’t know how it’s going to happen and what it’s going to look like, but I keep coming back to – and I did keep saying this when lots of people were going to vote for Brexit – that the European Union was a peacetime union. And look what’s happened since 2016 – the war in Ukraine escalated because of the weakness of Europe that we caused. I’m outraged about that, the Russia papers, Brexit … I’m angry. These people should be in prison. I think a lot of us think that.”

On a far happier note, back to Free Peace Sweet, and ‘Good Enough’. A modern classic. You found a formula for radio airplay longevity there, it seems. Not many acts manage that.

“We did, didn’t we! And it still earns more money than any of our other songs combined. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? If we didn’t have ‘Good Enough’, I wouldn’t be talking to you now.

“My wife was pregnant with our first son, Marley. We were living in London, and I remember accidentally writing it on the sampler. I got the beat and all that, originally from Lee Dorsey & the Meters. I was learning about samplers. We were making a nest for our newborn son to come into the world, and it was inspired by Bob Marley and George Harrison, really – ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and most of Bob Marley’s back catalogue, because of the positivity.

“It’s so easy to write in a negative sort of way. To write a positive song is so difficult, and yet it came together, When we were in the studio, we felt, ‘This is really good, this is gonna be a hit!’ Then the chorus came. It was a bit cheap, but I liked the harmonies and we managed to get a good hook. It’s one of those things, and it is a radio song. I used to write letters to the radio, going, ‘Why you putting techno on the radio in the daytime?’ People just want to be cheered up on the radio!”

“One of Those Rivers’ also has that feelgood vibe. Another for held-up lighters and swaying arms at festivals. And you’ve written some great festival songs.

“I’m really looking forward to playing that this year We played it at the time, but in the ‘90s we were all a lot younger, and just wanted to bounce around! We didn’t want to be introspective. This will be the first time doing the album in its entirety. It’s a fun thing. We’ve a lot of things to do, a lot of rehearsals in London in April. I’m really looking forward to seeing the guys. It’s been months!”

You clearly don’t live in each other’s pockets.

“We really don’t. Mathew lives in Salisbury, Andy and Stuart in London … and I couldn’t live any further away! We’ve got a keyboardist as well, Graham. Yeah, it’s all good.”

Regarding ‘One of Those Rivers’, that ‘From the rooftops’ line reminds me of classic children’s TV show Rainbow … prompting a chorus of that theme tune from Nigel.

“’Up above the streets and houses!’ It’s a really simple chorus actually. It’s that simplicity of two chords, the melody rising over it. I’ve always liked that. I like starting low then seeing where you can go, the chords staying the same. Those things just happen, but these days it’s really hard to finish music, I find. Doing an album in the ‘90s, we’d collectively finish. It’s very difficult to finish something on your own.

“That’s sort of why I’m more aiming towards the live thing from my house now. I’ve got a performance studio, with visuals, projectors, stuff like that, so this is what I’m hopefully doing very soon. But I feel I’m going to be playing songs that aren’t finished, but are atmospheric, with electronics, and could go on for 10 minutes. They’ll be jams, you know. I want to do something new, as I think the world has moved on in some way.”

You always did mix things up. I mention various classic influences, but on a song like ‘Ain’t No Longer Asking’ I not only hear The Kinks but late ‘90s bands like Gomez who followed in your wake, another more experimental band.

“Yeah, Gomez was about ‘98/’99, and we’d gone by then! One of my absolute favourite modern contemporary artists is Beck, and I think I took an influence from Mellow Gold for ‘Ain’t No Longer Asking’. Again, it was me using samplers, which to me are like guitars now – as much an instrument. Pressing a button to me is the same as holding a chord down, and twisting a knob is the same as strumming. It’s a new way of looking, and it’s fun.

“And I love taking all my stuff out in my campervan. A lot of them run on batteries, so you can do a jam in your van.”

On the subject of which, what became of the van featured on the cover of Homegrown?

“That was the band’s. We rented it at first, for the original Homegrown. Then 25 years later we re-did it and used my silver van, my Crafter.”

What happened to the original van?

“One of our fans bought it. It’s in a garage. He’s been doing it up for years. It’s still being looked after.”

Incidentally, Homegrown’s opener, ‘Staying out for the Summer’, their other big hit, was also written about Nigel’s days at Rover in Longbridge, south-west Birmingham, not far from his Redditch roots.

“It was like, you’re only young once, am I going to just stay in this place and rot away, or just get all those commitments then not be able to leave. I didn’t do very well at school. I went to a rubbish school, but then I realised I was in the summer part of my life. When you’re born, it’s spring, then summer is your 20s, and so on. That was the thinking behind that song, and I love that song. That’s probably my favourite of those I wrote for Dodgy.

“But I still feel a sense of guilt when I talk about my life, because I did it, working at Longbridge and all that, then I got away from it, and now I feel guilty that not everyone did. ‘You can’t go around saying that!’ That’s what my mum used to say. ‘It’s not for everybody, you know.’

Anyway, we went off the subject. You were telling me about the band’s roots in the capital.

“Yeah, we started off as The Dodgy Club in Kingston-upon-Thames in the late ‘80s. We started there just because we couldn’t afford to play gigs in London. When you’d play the Sir George Robey or the Lady Owen Arms, they’d charge £30, you’d be on the graveyard shift, and no one would be there because they’d got the bus home. Everyone was on that circuit, and I was like, ‘We need to find our own venue.’

“We had an eclectic music collection, from the Dead Kennedys to Deee-Lite and NWA to Neil Young. We had that on a poster. We crossed this generational thing. We found a venue that was a restaurant, and said, ‘You’ve got a basement without tables. Can we do it in two weeks and have this as a club on Tuesday nights? You keep the bar, and we’ll keep the door.’ And it’s been a venue since that day we started it. Beggars Banquet use it, there’s drum and bass clubs, and it’s open every night of the week as a small club for students.

“I’m so proud that the legacy of Dodgy is that we started a venue, now part of a recognised cultural centre, also associated with David Bowie, who did a lot of gigs in Kingston. And they’ve invited Dodgy back there in May or June. I’m very proud of that legacy.”

Of course, while you’re out celebrating your majorly successful third LP soon, it’s actually 30 years this spring since your debut, The Dodgy Album, was released.

“Yeah, and they’re all being re-released in June, on vinyl, which is great.”

Did you learn a lot from Ian Broudie (who produced that first record)?

“Yeah. He’s a great teacher. He won’t always give you the answer, but will point you in the right direction. I remember saying to him, and I didn’t know much about music, ‘I find this one really hard to sing, Ian,’ and he’d say, ‘Why don’t you change the key?’ I’d be like, ‘How? I don’t know how to!’ So you’d get the chance to revisit your songs. He’s always been brilliant like that. Such a good teacher, and so knowledgeable. We’ve done a bit of writing together. He’s a great guitar player, although he’s not so confident about his voice. And he’s a music lover.”

Talking of music lovers, you love to drop in those cover versions here and there.

“My wife said this morning, I’ve found a cover version for you,’ and it was Kurt Vile singing ‘Speed of Loneliness’ by John Prine. I said, ‘I already do it, love!’ She put it on, and I sang all the verses!

“I’ve a gig tomorrow in Doncaster and I’ll pick a few Northern Soul songs, like ‘Do I Love You’ by Frank Wilson …”

Ah, one of the highlights at Ribchester.  

“Yes, we did a band version, but I changed it during lockdown, made it more like Jackson C. Frank or Paul Simon, a finger-picking version. I’m going to release that, because someone came up to me the other day and was like, ‘That’s amazing! I love that song, and you’ve just done your own version of it.’ I like doing that, especially with soul songs. I love Northern Soul, and I’m perfectly matched for punk rock and technology too.”

Nigel was born in 1966, so like me came from an era where there were so many tribes to fit into when it came to music, kids often feeling they had to choose between Northern soul, punk, hard rock, and so on.

“Well, when I was into punk, you weren’t really supposed to like any other songs. You’d go to a school or youth club disco and there’d be a Northern Soul section, where older guys with their flares and talcum powder would get out there, do half an hour, then there’d be the punk bit, and the Angelic Upstarts would come on, ‘Teenage Warning’ or something. Then it’d be the rockers’ section with Deep Purple … But I liked it all!

“I was really into rock, and really into Led Zeppelin, because John Bonham was from Redditch and went to my school – he was born in the same area, Headless Cross, where I was born. So I’ve always liked John Bonham and Led Zeppelin … and I loved reggae!”

Again, the Midlands was at the epicentre of all that, with Steel Pulse’s Handsworth Revolution, UB40, and so on. 

“Exactly! UB40 in King’s Heath, 2 Tone in Coventry, all that. And I’ve got into more African music recently, probably through listening to a lot of Talking Heads, listening to Fela Kuti, for me one of the greatest. I’m such a fan, and I got my son to buy me a couple of albums last year on vinyl. I think they’re fantastic.

“And there you go, that whole idea of where the song’s not really finished, but just let it evolve live, rather than verse and chorus. I’m interested in pop melodies, but also in creating something that people can step into, and I think that’s what Fela Kuti did – 18-minute tracks with the bassline the groove and the girls singing. It’s amazing.”

As for home life, you’re clearly enjoying life in West Wales.

“We love it here. What I can’t get my head around is, the whole of Ceredigion from where we live all the way down to Cardigan, there’s only 73,000 people …”

And probably a lot less in winter, with so many second homes, sadly.

“Yeah, and where I’m from in Redditch, it’s 125,000 people. So to move here … you know, I’m feeling very Welsh at the moment.”

That area, particularly Aberystwyth, is where Brummies went for holidays, traditionally, wasn’t it?

“It was, and you hear loads of Brummie accents here, but also accents from Geordies, from Yorkshire, Manchester, and then you’ve got your Welsh-speaking people … and it’s just so friendly. You don’t feel like you’re being ripped off. And you know what, none of the people around here voted for Brexit. I feel safe, I feel amongst friends!”

Dodgy’s Free Peace Sweet anniversary shows take place at Bristol’s O2 Academy (May 20th), Edinburgh’s O2 Academy (May 26th), Manchester’s O2 Ritz (May 27th), Birmingham’s O2 Institute (June 3rd), and London’s O2 Forum in Kentish Town (June 10th), with support from The Supernaturals, back for some rare appearances after five top-40 hits in the late ‘90s, and Chris Helme, lead singer/songwriter of The Seahorses (formed with John Squire after he left The Stone Roses), their UK No 2 LP ‘Do It Yourself’ spawning three top-20 singles, Chris performing Seahorses tracks alongside solo material.

For tickets, head to For all the latest from Dodgy, visit And for more on the support acts, try and

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Keeping life and soul together – in conversation with Nik Kershaw

As our video interview got underway, Nik Kershaw – surrounded by recording hardware – told me in response to my opening enquiry that his studio was previously in the cellar of his rural East Anglia home, near the Suffolk/Essex border, but he ‘got too distracted by Amazon deliveries and so on’.

And with comic timing, that’s when my rescue Labrador-cross, asleep a couple of hours, chose to walk to the back door and sound a single bark, bidding to be let outside for a call of nature. I ‘pawsed’ proceedings, and on returning apologised, my interviewee responding, “I feel your pain. That’s the other reason I left – my two cocker spaniels. I’m now 10 minutes down the road.”

While spending his first 18 months in Bristol – ‘before I was a sentient being!’ – this accomplished singer-songwriter and ‘80s synth-pop pin-up, newly turned 65, is largely associated with Ipswich. Does he still have friends and family around that Suffolk town?

“No family, and I’m rubbish at keeping in touch with old friends. So I rarely get back, but I’m about an hour away, I guess.”

Music clearly runs in the family, with Nik’s dad an architect but also a flautist, while his mum had a passion for singing. Was that solely a part-time pastime for them both?

“Yeah, it was. I think my mum had dreams of being an opera singer, when she was very young. She never got to do that, but used to sing in local choirs, do little concerts locally. My dad was the flautist with the Gilbert and Sullivan Society in Ipswich, and the Ipswich Light Orchestra.”

Were they the first in the family entering that world? 

“I don’t remember my grandparents being particularly musical. I think they were the first generation to be involved in any kind of music.”

It was clearly around you though, growing up.

“Yeah, my mum was always singing the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ when she was doing the washing up and stuff. And it was a tiny little house, so you couldn’t really get away from it! There was a piano in the corner, but I rarely remember anybody playing it. I think my dad knew about two pieces on piano, which he used to play every now and again, when we had guests … after some Harvey’s Bristol Cream!”

Were you sneaking into that room to play piano? Was that where you got your musical grounding?

“Not really, I wasn’t that interested. I was more interested in my Lego and my Meccano.”

Nik describes himself as a late developer, first picking up a guitar when he was 15, inspired by a small screen feature on David Bowie. Was that the Ziggy Stardust era?

“It was just after. I wasn’t aware of that when that happened. I was just getting into music when I saw a documentary on Nationwide, which was like The One Show in the ’70s. It was literally a 20-minute documentary piece about Bowie on tour. He must have already released the Aladdin Sane album because he was doing songs from that. That would have been my first {Bowie} album, then I went back to Ziggy and Hunky Dory and all that.”

Was there a kind of switch that went on, realising this was what you wanted to do with your life?

“Pretty much exactly that! I always wanted to be the centre of attention, and thought, ‘I want to be a famous racing driver’, ‘I want to be a famous footballer’, ‘I want to be a famous actor’ … Then Bowie came along and it was, ‘I want to be a famous performer, singer-songwriter, whatever.’ Then a mate got an electric guitar and I used to go around his and every Sunday afternoon and he’d pretend he was Marc Bolan and I’d pretend I was Bowie, and we just sort of made a lot of noise together.

“Then I got my first guitar and locked myself in my room, slowing down Ritchie Blackmore solos.”

Other early influences included such diverse artists as Slade, Deep Purple, Simon & Garfunkel, and Genesis. And several local bands later, after three years working as a civil servant, he grabbed the opportunity to turn professional, having served his apprenticeship playing guitar in jazz fusion and functions bands.

I returned to Giles Smith’s splendid 1995 pop memoir, Lost in Music ahead of our chat, recalling a chapter dedicated to him (‘I don’t want to sound like I’m crowing or anything, but we knew him before the ‘c’ fell off.’), the Colchester-born and bred journalist entertainingly writing about Nik’s pre-fame days in the band Fusion, around their mutual patch. He gives the impression that Nik was already a consummate player, in a band that could play the twiddly bits other covers outfits in the area couldn’t, writing, ‘Kershaw, in particular, was a frighteningly dextrous musician, a blindingly fast and bafflingly inventive guitar soloist – although it now seems irrelevant to say so, after what became of him. There have been many conversations in in which I have tried to make myself heard about the laughter and justify him – and, more particularly, my interest in him – by referring to his diligent interest in the jazz guitarist Allan Holdsworth. But, perhaps, inevitably, this line of argument meets with suspicion from those who know him only as a man who once appeared in Smash Hits on the back of a horse wearing a kind of woolly armour.’

I didn’t read that bit out, but held up my copy of Lost in Music to the webcam to gauge his response, and Nik smiled.

“I used to go and watch Fusion when I had my own band, on Sunday nights in Ipswich at The Kingfisher. The highlight pretty much every month was when Fusion used to come and play. All the musicians used to turn up, because they were playing Weather Report and Steely Dan, and really doing it well. You’d think, ‘Wow, these guys are amazing.’

“And by complete fluke I got offered the job. Their bass player stumbled across a gig that we were doing, and those gigs were pretty rare – about three a year – happening to walk into the King William pub one night. There I was, and their guitarist was leaving {the band}, so I got offered the job.”

I’m guessing they were older.

“Yeah, probably 10 years older.”

Was that effectively your apprenticeship?

“To a very large extent, it was. I remember really working hard for that first audition gig, just getting my head down and learning these Steely Dan and Weather Report songs they did, not really realising they actually earned a living by donning purple velvet suits and playing ‘The Birdie Song’!

“But equally, that proved a great apprenticeship. My first gig was at the Kingfisher in Ipswich, and my second, a week later, was at Walthamstow Town Hall, where we donned these suits and I was just put onto the stage, not having a clue what I was about to play! I had to learn the noble art of busking, learning as you were going. I never had a rehearsal for those songs.

“For literally the first few gigs I played live, trying to figure out what key we were in! We were playing proper foxtrots and Irving Berlin songs, and Cole Porter songs, and the pop songs of the time. We were playing everything. It was extraordinary.”

After Fusion split, Nik doubled his efforts to make the big time, and signed to MCA Records in 1983. That September, debut single ‘I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me’ reached a respectable No.47 in the UK charts. As it turned out, it would go much higher when re-released the following summer, his true breakthrough arriving in early 1984 as ‘Wouldn’t It Be Good’ reached No.4 in the UK charts, spending three straight weeks there in March, held off the top by Nena’s ‘99 Red Balloons’, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’, and Kool & the Gang’s ‘Joanna’. That month also saw debut LP Human Racing released, going on to achieve platinum sales in many territories.

The re-released ‘I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me’ then reached No.2, kept off the summit by Frankie’s Two Tribes’. And that December, ‘The Riddle’, the title track of his second LP – another platinum platter – reached No.3, kept back by – you guessed it – Frankie’s ‘The Power of Love’ and Jim Diamond’s ‘I Should Have Known Better’, in a year when he also squeezed in two European tours.

In Lost in Music, Giles Smith says he lost track of Nik after Fusion disbanded. But then, ‘after nearly a year I sighted him. It was in Colchester’s shopping precinct, outside Lasky’s electrical store and at the back of Marks & Spencer’s. And this was not the Nick Kershaw I had known (or rather, not known).’

He wrote, ‘First there was the hair – all spiky and bright blond, as if a small bomb containing bleach had gone off on his head, the di rigueur 1980s pop-star plumage. And then there were the clothes. No more wearisome waistcoats, no more duff ties. He was wearing a tiny black jacket with some complicated fastenings, and black drainpipe jeans which bottomed out in a pair of pointy boots. There are only two possible explanations: either a major record company had signed him up and had got its people to make him over, ready for stardom; or Kershaw had retrained as a hairdresser and was now working in a shiny-floored unisex salon in Chelmsford – Sophisticut, maybe, or Hair Today. Naturally, I assumed the latter and shook my head ruefully all the way home on the bus.’

Regarding Nik’s first appearance on Top of the Pops with ‘Wouldn’t It Be Good’, Giles added, ‘I watched with a friend who had come round specially. The room positively thrummed with our nervousness, our proximity to this momentous event and our feeling of tragic non-involvement in it all. We leant close to the screen as the camera swung from whichever Radio 1 DJ was presenting that week, across the backs of the squawking audience and picked out Kershaw, alone amid the fake chrome piping and the flashy lights.

‘It shook us that he had no guitar round his neck … Instead, he was wearing a white boiler suit and a pair of fingerless gloves and clutching his bunched fists up to his chest like someone working out with a set of hand-held dumb-bells. At the same time, he would bring up a knee in the manner recommended by aerobics videos. Who had taught him to do this? It was certainly never a feature of his performances at the Goose and Firkin in Tollesbury.

‘Staggered, we realised he was also wearing a snood – a tube of netting, of the kind you sometimes see protecting strawberries, bunched around his neck. He looked terrified, at least to us seasoned Kershaw-watchers, but he popped and clenched and wilfully concentrated his gaze on the floor, and as the song faded in the camera drew back, there was the usual hilarious applause. We went to the pub afterwards and drank in silence, alone with our thoughts.’

Album-wise, Human Racing reached No.5 in July ‘84, while The Riddle peaked as a new entry at No.8 that December. There were also tours of Europe, Australasia, North America, and Japan, and (gulp) an appearance at Live Aid followed in 1985, a four-song early afternoon set between Elvis Costello and Sade, Nik riding the crest of a commercial wave. And in total, on UK shores alone, he managed five top-10 singles and spent 62 weeks in the top 40, while spending 47 weeks in the UK top 40 albums chart. But let’s back-peddle a bit. How did he get to be in that position where MCA Records came calling? Was he firing out demo tapes?

“Because the band split up, the work dried up and everyone went off to do different things. I was on the dole for a bit, and made a demo of six songs, hawked them round the record companies, got a nice collection of rejection slips. I then advertised for management in the back of Melody Maker and got this chap calling himself Mickey Modern, who at the time managed Nine Below Zero. I sent him the tape and he hawked it around various places … and one person I’d already got a rejection slip from got me a deal!”

Giles Smith suggests you were playing a few of those songs we got to know in your Fusion days.

“I think we might have played ‘Wide Boy’ on a rare occasion. And ‘Human Racing’ was on a record I made with Fusion.”

The latter suggests Stevie Wonder for these ears, some distance from his more commercial pop. Did he keep in touch with his Fusion bandmates?

“I did. Sadly, two of them are no longer with us. Reg, the keyboard player, who I owe a huge amount to – he put a lot of trust and faith in me, very early on. He died of cancer a couple of years ago. And Ken, the bass player, heroin got him eventually, a few years ago.”

This year marks 40 years since his initial MCA deal. Did it all happen at breakneck speed once success followed? Or did he get a chance to savour it?

“It did happen really quick. It was insane. The first single was a little taster, and it kind of got my name around, the first time ‘I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down’ was released. Then, when ‘Wouldn’t it be Good’ hit in January, it was insanely fast. One minute I couldn’t get arrested, and the next I couldn’t go out in public without a bodyguard. Literally within weeks.

“Either before the release of the album or when it was, in February or March, we were putting a band together to do some club shows, and in that space of time between beginning the rehearsals and finishing them, Harvey Goldsmith turns up and says, ‘You should be doing four nights at Hammersmith Odeon.’ Which is what we did.”

Had you been to many of those bigger venues as a punter?

“Yeah, principally at Ipswich Regent, which was later the Gaumont {and now the Regent Theatre again}. I saw a lot of my favourite early bands there. I remember the first being Hawkwind, the Alex Harvey Band, Rory Gallagher …

“There was another little venue, the Manor Ballroom, with people like Stray, and the Groundhogs. I remember going to see Genesis at Stafford Bingley Hill, which is massive – 10,000 people, I think – and the next week Brand X {Phil Collins’ side-project} played the Manor Ballroom. The only way on stage was through the bar. So I’m sitting on the floor in the bar, Phil comes through, steps on my coat … I’d never wash that coat!”

Nik later recorded with another of his Genesis heroes, Tony Banks. I’m guessing that was also something of a dream.

“Yeah, I was a real big Genesis fan, the Peter Gabriel days especially. So to get a phone call out of the blue from him, especially when I wasn’t making records anymore. That was during the ‘90s. To get a phone call, ‘It’s Tony Banks here …’ He got my phone number from somewhere, phoned me up and said, ‘I’ve got the songs. I need some lyrics, would you sing on them?’”

When was the last time you watched footage from Live Aid?

“I went a long time not daring to look at it. For a couple of reasons. One being that we really struggled – the sound on stage was awful. We couldn’t hear each other. Only half the gear was working. I could hear some drums and a bit of my guitar, so it was all a bit of a nightmare to do. And I forgot the words to ‘Wouldn’t it be Good’. I covered it, but just assumed it looked as terrifying as it felt.

“But when the 10th anniversary came up in ‘95, when they released the DVD, I was forced to watch it! And I thought, ‘Actually, that’s not bad. And I couldn’t see the fear in my eyes when I forgot the words! Then, quite recently, I remixed the rest of the tracks from that gig, and they’re all on YouTube now.”

He recorded two more albums with MCA, Radio Musicola and The Works, before a switch in direction in 1989 to focus on songwriting and production, the ‘90s seeing him work with the likes of Cliff Richard, Bonnie Tyler, Lulu, Ronan Keating, Jason Donovan, Colin Blunstone, Petula Clark, Gary Barlow, The Hollies, Let Loose, and Imogen Heap.

And arguably most notably (although I couldn’t bring myself to mention it), he penned and co-produced Chesney Hawkes’ early 1991 UK No.1 smash ‘The One and Only’ (it spent five weeks at the top). Not as if I knew anything about that. It became a hit while I was backpacking around the world, Chesney’s chart days over by the time I returned, leaving me puzzled in years to come as people talked animatedly about his success on retrospective pop programmes.

But back to Nik – what brought on that sea change in 1989, when he decided to move away from performing and recording his own songs? Was he just ready for a fresh challenge?

“Yeah, my deal with MCA was over. They’ve had their four albums. I thought, ‘What do I do now?’ It was kind of a watershed moment. And I’d just come off tour with Elton {John}, doing a European tour with him …”

Good name-drop, that.

“Thank you very much! Ha! I’d just kind of … I’d had enough, really. The flame wasn’t burning as bright as it was in the mid-‘80s, so the writing was on the wall. I thought, ‘Do I keep flogging this particular horse, or do I get on a different one?’

“And I love being in the studio. That’s my comfort zone. And I love creating, writing and producing, so I thought, ‘That’s what I’ll do … with no stress involved in writing songs for other people.”

As you mentioned Elton John (who described him as ‘the best songwriter of his generation’), was that a nervous moment, working with him? Or did he put you at ease?

“Recording with him? Really easy! When we recorded all the tracks for the Ice and Fire album, playing guitar on ‘Nikita’ and all those tracks, that was fabulous. Literally just four of us – me, him, a bass player and a keyboard player – putting those rhythm tracks down. It was great, like being in a band.

“Then when we got to do the Duets album, and I was actually producing the thing – I’m in charge. How do I do that? I’m supposed to tell Elton when he’s singing out of tune!”

He’s got a bit of a fiery temper … at least we’re led to believe so.

“And I’d seen it! I’ve just finished reading his book, and a lot of that time is covered there. And yeah, tantrums and stuff. And there were plenty of tantrums. But he’s always been really sweet with me, and in the studio, he was just a consummate professional.”

Nik’s sabbatical briefly interrupted by those projects with Tony Banks and Elton John, he returned to making his own records in 1998 with fifth studio album, 15 Minutes, on Eagle Records. Was that his nod to Andy Warhol’s take on fame, fickle fame?

“Yes, I think the song speaks for itself, and the album cover as well is a little Warhol-esque. The video had that going on as well. I think the same people that did the album cover did that. But it wasn’t a bitter look back at that time, just the fact that it is kind of true, you do get 15 minutes and you have to kind of nail it then, otherwise you don’t get another chance.”

I get the feeling you’ve always been rather grounded, though.

“I’ve also been lucky enough to be surrounded by pretty grounded people as well. And they always kept my feet on the ground. There were probably a few moments where I got a bit too kind of … big for my boots, but they brought me back down to earth again.”

I can’t vouch for how he was back then, but like Giles Smith suggests, I always got the impression – even when I was 16 first catching him on the telly – that he wasn’t completely at ease with all that media attention, wanting his records to do the talking instead. And judging by Nik today, and now knowing more about his honest roots, I’d say he’s probably always been a likeable fella, and certainly down to earth.

Anyway, that comeback album was followed by the equally well-received To Be Frank (2001), also for Eagle Records, then You’ve Got to Laugh (2006), the solo acoustic No Frills (2009), and Ei8ht (2012) for Shorthouse Records. And the most recent addition, Oxymoron (2020) was for Audio Network.

Along the way, he’s also attracted praise from Eric Clapton and Miles Davis and been nominated for four Brit Awards. And he continues to write and record for his own projects and for film and TV, while performing his songs, old and new, to a faithful following all over the world.

You’ve remained fairly prolific, so what’s next, other than preparing for these live shows?

“I don’t know about prolific. I’ve taken a lot of time doing this. The last album was eight years in the making. So I’m not exactly prolific anymore, because I don’t want to repeat myself. But I am releasing another Songs from the Shelf, of which part one is out now. It’s an EP of songs that got written and demoed but never used. Some from those ‘90s days when I was working with other people and projects got shelved. And I’m helping Universal compile an MCA years boxset. Not choosing the songs, just kind of overseeing it.”

Have your children followed you down the music path?

“Izzy, my oldest daughter, writes and produces her own music, sticks it out on Spotify.”

Do you try and keep out of that, or is there a little wise fatherly advice here and there?

“I try not to meddle, but she did ask if we could do something together last year, which we did, and that was nice. A song called ‘Paranoid’, which is out there somewhere.

“And my youngest, Theo, he’s 12 and so into his music, a really good little drummer, and he’s got his own little set-up to record stuff and play the guitar. He’s totally into it.”

And who’s in the band these days? Who will you be going out with on these forthcoming dates (including one on my patch at The Grand, Clitheroe, on Thursday, May 11th, with tickets £32.50)?

“My current band have been with me for quite a long time. The bass player since 1999, that’s Paul Geary. We’ve got Bob Knight on drums, he’s been with me over 10 years, I think. As has Adam Evans, the guitar player. And the newbie is Phil Peskett, the keyboard player, he’s been with me about five years.”

You clearly have a good chemistry together, and enjoy being on the road.

“It’s just too much fun! It really is. And it’s not like the old days, when it always seemed so terribly important. It really isn’t. It’s music, and it makes people feel good. It connects people. And it’s just a real privilege to be able to do it, and to be on the road with some really good mates, having a good old laugh and being on stage in front of your own crowd. There’s nothing better.”

For full tour details and more information about Nik Kershaw, head to his website. You can also follow him via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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Treading Gently forward – beyond The Jam with Steve Brookes

When I spoke to Steve Brookes earlier this week, he was at home in Camberley, Surrey, having played Thames Side Brewery in Staines that weekend, this accomplished guitarist and singer-songwriter clearly enjoying gigging as much now as five decades ago, when he was just starting out.

He still puts in the miles too, albeit mostly around the South-East these days, his current base 30 miles south-west of central London, best known in music terms as the starting point for The Members – the area for which 1979 punk classic ‘the Sound of the Suburbs’ was written – and, ahem, Bros.

It’s also ’around 10 miles from Woking’, as he put it, his first nod to a legacy of which I have a few questions ready to weave in, about his pre-fame days in The Jam. But I’ll stress from the Start (sorry), Steve is not one to dine out on the past, so don’t expect a ‘my regrets about leaving’ tale.

He was barely 17 in the Summer of ‘75, when he left the band he co-formed with Paul Weller in 1972, in broad terms having few regrets at quitting when he did, big time success not far around the corner for his bandmates. And he certainly never begrudged them their deserved success.

There was an early attempt to get him back onside, an offer from EMI stipulating a four-piece line-up, but though tempted he turned that down, and not long after came the Polydor deal that effectively made them.

The next time he was in touch with Paul, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler was just before the release of second LP, This is the Modern World, a big night following, lots of drink involved. And the old band were back together again in the Spring of ’79 as The Jam officially opened Steve’s music shop in Brookwood, just outside Woking, my interviewee having pulled the plug on his solo career the previous summer, that evening also ending in a night on the pop with Paul.

A few more planned and chance meetings followed as The Jam’s star soared, Steve increasingly doubtful about his old friend and where he perceived he was at. By 1981, his guitar shop venture had folded, proving unviable as market conditions swung, the pair not in touch again until the mid-‘90s, an interview for the Boys About Town fanzine filmed by writer and Jam/Style Council biographer Paolo Hewitt for the Highlights and Hang-Ups documentary leading to Paolo inviting Steve to a surprise 36th birthday party for Paul, just in from Grosvenor House with his Ivor Novello Outstanding Contemporary Song Collection Award, friendships rekindled again.

But all that’s just background. It’s mostly about the future for Steve, not unlike Paul in that respect. And judging by his most recent output, that’s with good reason. What’s more, he’s hardly champing at the bit to record a follow-up to 2021’s winning LP, Tread Gently, telling me, ‘I’ve a few tunes that need to be sort of done, but nothing lined up in the pipeline.’ This interview was more about me wanting to help spread the word about a comparative below the radar act deserving to be heard.

Steve was 50 when he released first LP, Thankful, in 2008, following that with Down the Line, ‘an album of solo acoustic blues’, a year later, the similarly bluesy Snakes and Ladders in 2011 leading to him performing with Blues Band/Manfred Mann singer turned BBC Radio 2 presenter Paul Jones at a show in Cranleigh, Surrey, in December 2012. As word spread, Vintage Troubadour followed in 2014, then Paul Weller contributed to 2017’s Hoodoo Zoo and – post-pandemic lockdowns – Tread Gently, both recorded at Paul’s Black Barn Studios HQ in Ripley, near Woking.  

That latter album for me is neatly characterised by understated, somewhat dreamy opener, ‘A Walk in London’, augmented by Ben Gordelier, best known for The Moons and also a Paul Weller band regular. Ben adds percussion, drums and guitar on several songs, while Paul adds organ, melodica and electric guitar, having added blues harp on one track on Hoodoo Zoo, which also includes lots of contributions from Ben.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that fans of one will love the other, but Steve’s guested on various tracks – slide and electric guitar here and there – across all five Weller LPs since 2015’s Saturns Pattern, plus 2017’s Jawbone film soundtrack, having made his first contributions for his old friend on the 22 Dreams (2008) and Wake up the Nation (2010) albums, Steve also providing additional vocals for the afore-mentioned Members on 2016’s ‘Incident at Surbiton’.

Tread Gently in particular gets plenty of plays from me. If pushed for a comparison, I’d say it was somewhere between John Martyn and Jack Johnson. Think Eric Clapton with added heart. And I was lucky enough to catch Steve live at the Boileroom in my hometown, Guildford, in late 2021, supporting – and appearing with the headliners on a cramped stage for one song – seven-piece soul combo Stone Foundation (with a link to my review here). But it’s not always about his own songs when he performs live.

“To be honest, a lot of the gigs I do are just sort of covers type gigs. They’re not really showcases for your own songs. It’s hard work trying to find gigs that will actually allow you to do that. It’s few and far between, really.”

I don’t doubt that, and even at the Boileroom, Stone Foundation frontman Neil Jones came on before to suggest he was given the courtesy of being listened to rather than talked over, something I’m pleased to say was mostly the case towards the front from a largely discerning audience.

 “Well, yeah, I mean, obviously with a band like Stone Foundation, it’s not that kind of crowd which are coming out to listen to a bloke playing an acoustic guitar, you know. So I try and make as much noise as I can, over the top of it! The problem with acoustic music is that it acquires the space and the gaps, and the quiet bits need to need a quiet audience, but I kind of get it if people are out for drinks and whatever. It’s one of them things.”

It’s a thin line sometimes. I guess you can’t be seen to be precious, coming over as some grumpy sod full of his own importance.

“No, if you go to a folk or a jazz club, the rules are to keep quiet, and everyone tends to respect that, but when you’re in a more mixed environment, it’s not really like that. But beggars can’t be choosers, ha ha!”

Steve became friends with Paul in early 1972, the purchase of his first guitar the previous Christmas leading to a mutual interest that ultimately led to them playing their first engagement at the age of 13 as a duo at their secondary school in Sheerwater, Woking, mics plugged into a record player, the realisation that they mostly had a female audience convincing them they were on the right track.

Dave Waller (guitar) and Neil Harris (drums) soon joined, the latter then making way for fellow Sheerwater pupil Rick Buckler, Dave soon leaving (while not a great guitarist he was a big influence on Paul, a published poet who died from a heroin overdose in 1982, later the subject of The Style Council’s poignant ‘A Man of Great Promise’), with Bruce permanently on board, after an earlier shift, by 1974.

In my most recent interview with Rick, we touched on those days, and it’s fair to say he remembers some of the stories differently, judging by Steve’s splendid (and long since out of print) 1996 memoir, Keeping the Flame. But we are talking upwards of 50 years ago, and clearly a lot happened for Rick with the band after Steve left. Besides, who’s telling who’s right?

“I think the other problem is that distance of the time. I talk to people now, and even when I talk to Paul sometimes, he remembers things I don’t remember, and vice versa, or we remember different versions of the same event. I don’t think you can necessarily say there’s a definitive take on it.”

One memory that struck me from your book – something I forgot until it came up in conversation with Rick – was how you were set to play Guildford on the night of October 1974’s IRA pub bombings. I was coming up to my seventh birthday, but have fairly clear memories of that evening, hearing at least one bomb go off from two miles away. Meanwhile, The Jam were at Bunter’s nightclub, Rick recalling how they set up then went home for tea while Bruce met friends in town, later getting a phone call telling him not to come back. However, Steve reckons he was still at the venue when word came that the band needed to get out quick, police swarming everywhere as they left the venue and their equipment.

“We might have taken the gear up in the afternoon, but were definitely up there, setting up.”

I enjoyed Keeping the Flame, and Steve’s writing makes it. I get the impression he had a smile on his face while putting much of that together.

“The thing was, I didn’t want to come out of it like some sort of sad old twat. We had a lot of fun back in the day when we were doing it. We were young fellas just doing what we loved. I was trying to get that across, really.

“I had a warm-hearted recollection of it all. But I’ve got to be honest, I was inspired to write it when I read Bruce and Rick’s book {1993’s The Jam: Our Story, written with Alex Ogg}. I was written about by this guy that had never met me, never interviewed me, didn’t know anything about me, because they had it ghost-written. I just thought, ‘I’ve got to correct that, got to do something, make that right. There’s people taking away from that, that my role wasn’t what it really was.’”

In fairness, Rick’s later memoir, 2015’s That’s Entertainment: My Life in The Jam addressed much of that. What’s more, perhaps we should ask ourselves how we would write about our experiences of being 13 through to 17 all these years on. How many of the people we knew at that age are we still close to? And how likely is it that our personal recollections would match?

By the same token, there are those who will still think of Steve as that young lad who quit the band just before they were famous, despite all he’s accomplished since. Life moves on, but some people still expect, it would seem, us to be in the same place we left them.

“I still get that, especially if I do a gig around Woking, these people that come out of the woodwork. People you’ve never met in your life come up to you and have these recollections of things {they feel} you were at that they were. They talk to you about it, and you think, ‘You know what, mate, I wasn’t there. You’ve got it all wrong. That was two years after I left the band, and you’re telling me you remember me doing something.’ But I don’t bother correcting them. It’s just too complicated. I’ll just say, ‘Yeah, you’re probably right,’ or ‘I don’t remember that, but you’re probably right,’ let them carry on!”

You say in Keeping the Flame you wrote it to stop people asking why you left The Jam …

“And they’re still asking me!”

Would you ever reissue it? There would be grounds to add more, bring the reader up to date, that book somehow now more than a quarter of a century old, and long since hard to find.

“To be honest, I was in two minds about whether to do this with you today. I’ve pretty much done everything I’ve done in terms of talking about The Jam. It’s pretty much all been kicked over a million times. I don’t think there’s much new I can say. When I did the Dan Jennings thing {an August 2021 audio interview for the Paul Weller Fan Podcast} during the lockdown, I think his questions were among the best I’ve ever been asked. That interview sort of summed it up. I was quite pleased with that. I thought it was well done.

“But I read that article you did on the Boileroom show, which I thought was great, and thought, ‘The guy’s on side, yeah, give it a go.”

I certainly appreciate Steve picking up the phone in that respect. And yet, for all that positivity about leaving when he did in his book, I feel I should re-ask a few of those questions. There must surely have been times when he saw The Jam’s success and wondered if he made the right decision, or if he should have stuck it out that little bit longer. Or was that never in his nature?

“I suppose … it’s easy to sort of look back on something like that and think, ‘Maybe if I’d sort of knuckled down and got on with it, there would have been a different outcome. But really, I think it was never meant to be, and that’s the story of it.”

Paul comes over as someone all about the next thing rather than his past, and I’m guessing you’re the same in that respect.

“Yeah, I’m not a great one for looking backwards in my life. I had quite a mixed upbringing when I was a kid, we moved around a lot. You know, I don’t dwell on any of the bad experiences I’ve had, and try not to sort of blame other people. We all get our go round, so just keep going, you know, keep pressing on!”

Steve’s a family man with ‘a couple of grown-up kids.’ Have either of his children followed him down the same path, writing and performing music?

“Not really. They both played piano when they were kids, but they’ve not really taken up any sort of any performing type ideas. They’re not interested in it, and in a way I’m quite pleased about that, because it is a tough old road. When I talk to musicians of my age and look at opportunities for young musicians to make an impression and actually make enough for a living at it, you know, streaming and all that, apart from live performing, there’s not a great deal of money in the whole thing.”

You came through at a time when there were talent contests, but they were local ones in The Jam’s case, rather than X-Factor-style mainstream national telly.

“Yeah, we used to do a few things like that, but it was much more based on … I suppose everyone was after the dream ticket, which everyone still is, but back in the day the dream ticket was the dream ticket, whereas now, just being able to earn a living and make your music is about as good as it gets.”

You stuck at it for a couple of years as a solo artist after leaving The Jam, then came the music shop, then a job in the car business, yeah?

“Yeah, I sort of soldiered on, on my own for a while, but kind of lost my way really. And I’m kind of glad I gave it up. I carried on playing, but … I think it would have just grabbed me down. I would have probably ended up giving it all up together, never playing again, and maybe I might have turned into this bitter, old sort of twat!

“When I started playing again, in the ‘90s, I had a little blues band, going out and doing a few pub gigs, and I was really loving it. Mostly blues covers, really – old rhythm and blues, like the Chess Records catalogue, stuff like that.”

You’ve clearly retained – maybe because you got out when you did – that over-riding love of music.

“I think that’s the big problem with it when you’re doing it for a job. It’s easy for it to, all of a sudden, become a chore. You’ve got to keep that spirit of creativity about it.”

That certainly shows with your solo records. And when I last spoke to Rick Buckler, saying what a great player you were, he said you were from the start.

“That’s really nice of him. And back in the day when we started playing, we were just a three-piece – two guitars and drums, so had to make quite a good noise between us. And yeah, it was different.”

Out of interest, did you ever get any royalties for co-writing ‘Takin’ my Love’, that eventually turning up on the B-side of ‘In the City’ in 1977?

“Ha! No. And I don’t lose too much sleep on that one!”

Fair enough. And I know you say it was quite a slow version in your day, at least by comparison.

“Yeah, it was more of a country blues sort of thing.”

He’s said elsewhere it was based on The Beatles’ ‘One After 909’, which John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote as young teens, rather aptly. And it seems that Paul and Steve’s copy of The Beatles Complete was the foundation upon which their song catalogue came together in those formative years.

While Steve, fresh from London, was living in Byfleet when he met Paul at school, this time 50 years ago he was more or less living in with the Weller family at Stanley Road between weekday stints away at school with his younger brother in West Sussex. He finally moved to the town in Autumn ’74, his mum’s place ‘backing onto the park – a flat near where used to be the Cotteridge Hotel, at the top of the hill there.’

That was no doubt handy for gigs at Woking Football Club, and he’s played a few at Kingfield’s Cardinals Bar in recent times too, the venue used for The Style Council’s ‘Speak Like a Child’ promo video, Paul reminiscing about the dances he once attended there.

That’s no doubt one of those places he plays where locals ask if he remembers them, not least during residencies upstairs at Michael’s (despite The Jam being under-age for the club itself), or dates at The Albion or Woking’s Liberal, Working Men’s and Conservative Clubs, arguably The Jam’s equivalent of The Beatles’ Indra, Kaiserkeller, Top Ten, and Star Club shows in Hamburg.

He also mentioned in Keeping the Flame supporting Thin Lizzy at the Greyhound in Croydon, mentioning The Jam’s set, but not the headliners. Did he catch them that night, or were they busy having a smoke out the back?

“I did, and I was pretty impressed. They were a proper sort of live band, you know. They were good. I wasn’t really a Thin Lizzy fan at the time, but they were pretty impressive.”

Incidentally, after I put down my copy of his book the night before our chat, I saw online an advert for a Secret Affair tour, with support from Squire, The Jam’s ‘70s Woking contemporaries back in his day. But I get the impression that nostalgia kicks don’t appeal to Steve, despite him telling me he thought Squire were great.

“It’s almost like, ‘Why not just let it lie, move on,’ you know. There’s so much nostalgia. For instance, the tribute thing. I really despise it. I think it sucks so much of the lifeblood out of the music scene. And I don’t get why 60-year-olds want to go and watch people pretending to be their favourite band from 40 years ago. It mystifies me. To me, the whole point of getting older is to sort of, you know, sit there with your pipe and cardigan and listen to some of the jazz and Miles Davis and all this stuff you missed out on the first time around!”

Is that what you prefer to listen to now?

“I can’t really say there’s an awful lot of new music that turns me on. It’s mostly sort of delving back into the Blue Note catalogue and things like singer-songwriters from the ‘60s, people like Tim Hardin, because it’s almost like they wrote the blueprint.

“When you go back a long way, you can listen to something and think, ‘They’ve used such and such a blueprint for that. You hear a song and think, ‘That’s a Stones blueprint or a Who blueprint.’ And it feels like not so much a parody but over-influence. They haven’t tried to disguise it. And I just find it a bit self-defeating.

“Even with the little records I make now, they’re nothing special, but in terms of the sound I get, I think principally, if you listen to what I’m doing, it doesn’t sound like me trying to be someone else. It’s my sound. I’m not trying to be somebody else.”

I disagree regarding the ‘nothing special’ line, but he’s right – it is difficult to compartmentalise what he does … a great quality.

“Yeah, it’s not really focused on blues, although I always like to think there’s a little bit of a Beatles thread running through what I do, because they were master songwriters. But even people like Burt Bacharach, and Jim Webb, all those songs from the ‘60s … they’re brilliant and still sound fresh. I heard ‘MacArthur Park’ the other day. I hadn’t heard it for a while, and it was so off the wall. A masterpiece. With all those kinds of songs, I think they’re just such fantastic achievements, in terms of stretching things as far as they could go.”

Steve turns 65 in May, a day after a certain Paul Weller. Is there still a day-job, or is that the music again now?

“I do a bit of property maintenance and stuff, but I’m sort of winding down now. I do a few gigs and a few bits and pieces. I’ll be getting my old-age pension next year!”

I tend to find that those who broke through around the time The Jam did – so many of the bands I love – and are still creating music rather than just regurgitating old hits are doing it for the love of performing and recording – it’s no longer about chasing contracts, big bucks or chart places. And I get the impression that’s Steve too.

“I guess that’s the case, but I was out of it for a long time, and when I came back, it was really just for the love of it.”

There’s a mention in Rick’s most recent book, The Jam: 1982, as previously detailed in his memoir, of Steve climbing on a grand piano during ‘Johnny B. Goode’ in those early days, painting a vivid picture of him being chased around the piano by someone from the venue, Woking Conservative Club. I’m guessing those days are behind him now (not least playing a Tory club).

“Yeah. The thing is though, the night we did New Year’s Eve at that club, if you go down to the bottom of where Stanley Road was, it was on the corner of there and the bottom of Chertsey Road, and I’m pretty sure that when we played there it was the Liberal Club, which later on turned into the Conservative Club.”

I still get down to Kingfield when I can, a Lancashire-based Cards fan – a victim of geography, as Billy Bragg put it – and that Woking skyline changes every time, those skyscrapers getting taller and ever more prominent as I head back towards the park. Then again, I guess there was always something being pulled down in my youth. Arguably, Woking was already a mess.

“Well, it’s a real mess now, isn’t it. It’s all been done piecemeal. You’ve still got loads of crappy old buildings, then you’ve got all these bloody skyscrapers. It’s horrible. It was never a pretty town, but they’ve missed the opportunity to at least improve it, or do something.”

As well as the solo shows, there have been many live highlights in recent years guesting with or supporting Paul Weller, such as June 2010’s Wake up Woking charity gig for Woking and Sam Beare Hospice – Paul’s first in the town since a YMCA charity gig at Sheerwater Youth Club with The Jam in 1980 – and another for the same cause in November 2013, where Bruce Foxton also guested. Then there was the afore-mentioned 2012 date with Paul Jones, his fellow guests including Imelda May, and a guest spot with Paul at Islington’s Union Chapel for George Ezra’s MIND charity gig in late 2018. And Steve also featured in the promo film for the cracking About the Young Idea exhibition.

As for the inevitable trawls through this interview for new insights about The Jam’s formative days, he remains resolute that he has little more to add to the subject.

“It was only like four years of my life. All the stories have sort of been told. People have said to me, ‘Why don’t you re-do the book, update it?’ But it would come across like you’re sort of clutching at this little bit of fame that you could have had.

“Last week, playing somewhere in Camberley, they billed me as a co-founder of The Jam, and I said, ‘Look, before we go any further, I do get people sometimes turning up thinking they’re going to see this bloke with spiky hair, black and white shoes, doing Mod covers … and that ain’t me!’

“That was something that happened 50 years ago, and I’ve made the joke that the good thing about being a ‘never was’ is that no one can ever call you a ‘has been’!”

For more about Steve Brookes and his music, live shows, and more, check out his Reverb Nation site or visit his YouTube channel. You can also check him out via Spotify.

For this website’s most recent Rick Buckler feature/interview, from January 2023, with further links to past interviews, head here. Then, for my January 2016 feature/interview with Bruce Foxton, and links to our past conversations, head here.

And for a link to Dan Jennings’ August 2021 audio interview with Steve Brookes for the Paul Weller Fan Podcast, head here.

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Journey to the Art of Darkness – talking The History of Goth with John Robb

Ah, the dreaded label. An integral part of music culture down the years, but an all too easy way to categorise, and often proving nonsense. Punk, post-punk, alternative, indie, indie pop, twee pop, shoegaze, soul, funk, jazz funk, heavy soul, deep soul … our soles seem to depend on it, not least music writers looking to compartmentalise.

And there’s a neat example in goth, yet as John Robb would have it in his latest publication, the mighty 650-page epic, The Art of Darkness: The History of Goth, it’s not a label that sits easy with many of those considered to be goth bands, hating the term as it ‘compressed a nuanced and fascinating journey full of ground-breaking musical and stylistic ideas into a simple cliché.’

However, he still feels there is ‘a definable culture with a shadowy sartorial style’, and a soundtrack to match, ‘reacting to those dystopian post-industrial times,’ adding that the ‘disparate bands that were painting it black had a melancholy, a sense of theatre, and an artful sensuality to their styles.’

As he puts it, ‘They somehow married those moods to a post-punk skreegh and to the pulsating dance floor, embracing funk, disco and dub. They were the true answer to punk’s questions, and many have become 21st century legends whilst others are highly influential footnotes.’

As a music scribe, presenter, environmental activist and bass player of perennial post-punk survivors The Membranes, it’s fair to say John is a man who struggles to sit still.

When he’s not touring with his band – they recently toured in Europe with The Stranglers, The Chameleons and Fields of the Nephilim – he’s presenting, moderating, or writing for his impressive website, Louder Than War, and through that is behind the Louder Than Words literary festival. And then there’s his more recent venture alongside fellow campaigner/entrepreneur Dale Vince, the pair having launched eco-education scheme the Green Britain Academy.

But this Manchester-based, Blackpool born and bred ‘multi-faceted creature of the night and day’ is also an author, past well-received works including best-selling books Punk Rock: An Oral History and The North Will Rise Again: Manchester Music City 1976-1996. And his latest opus is certainly an in-depth account, one he feels presents the first major and comprehensive overview of goth music and culture and its lasting legacy, promising readers a ‘deep dive into the dark matter’ and into a ‘gothic hinterland where we can submerge ourselves in the delicious dark energy, take a walk on the dark side, and dance, dance, dance to the diablo darkness.’

Starting with a night out in a goth club, John plunges into the wider culture, en route exploring the social conditions that created this post-punk period genre, heading right back to … well, the fall of Rome actually, ‘sacked by the original Goths’, going on to tackle Lord Byron and the romantic poets, European folk tales, gothic architecture and painters, the occult, then ‘the dark heart of the forest of pop culture’.

While he sees The Doors as the first band to be called gothic, as those who know his work might expect there’s plenty about ‘the life-changing adventures of glam and punk’s culture war’ (and as John states, ‘No Bowie – no scene’), and ‘that crucial post-punk period in a scene that was loosely called ‘alternative’ and then retrospectively termed ‘goth’, which annoyed everyone.’

In examining why goth happened, where, and when, he takes us right through to modern-day social media influencers, arguing that ‘what was once underground is now mainstream.’ As he puts it, ‘In the 21st century, culture/dystopia is everywhere, from the news to Instagram influencers, goth gaming, goth-influenced novels, films and music. TV series Wednesday is just the latest populist cathode ray incarnation of all things goth, opening up the doors, yet again, to the attractive melancholy lurking all around us.’

And as he so evocatively puts it in the book’s introduction, ‘The art of darkness has been with us for centuries, because every generation has got to deal with its blues. What was once expressed in art, architecture, Romantic literature and painting was, in the post-punk wars, a Cimmerian alternative culture creating its own dark narrative whilst accelerating away from the Big Bang of punk. It was a thrilling time when music soundtracked the style, and a culture coalesced from a bricolage of black.’

John see the goth scene as something that ‘seemed to arrive by symbiosis as a logical escape from punk,’ going on to explore a North vs South theme, in this case largely Leeds vs London (the capital’s first goth club, incidentally, was Beasts, opened on Valentine’s night in 1981 on fashionable Carnaby Street), talking about a ‘convergent evolution.’

‘Much of the scene, as we know it, evolved in places like Bradford, Northampton, Wakefield or Crawley: satellite towns, mill towns, dead towns. It was in these unlikely landscapes that the goth aesthetic began to thrive. These towns took their cues from the patchwork of mid-‘70s Bowie/Roxy nights in the big cities and the pioneering alternative/goth clubs like the Phono in Leeds and The Batcave in London.

‘Soon, everywhere would have its own goth night. Every town and city would have at least one ‘alternative’ club years before they were called ‘goth’ clubs. Safe havens where the freaks could come out to play. All over the UK, in the most unlikely nooks and crannies, a whole new network of clubs emerged, driving the culture forward.’

With regard to his own North-West patch, he starts with Liverpool, its ‘sartorial scene flamboyance … initially celebrated in Eric’s and in gay clubs such as Jody’s, providing a safe space for the proto-goth scene. The city then had its own goth club, the legendary Planet X, which was named by Paul Rutherford from Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and was opened in 1993 by the indefatigable Doreen Allen, who’d been a central player in Liverpool’s alternative culture since the ‘60s.’

Later, he goes into more detail, as is also the case with his adopted home, Manchester, which already had Pips, open from 1972 to 1978, its most influential DJ, the late Dave Booth, among those interviewed in the book. Then, post-punk, the city was full of new nights, such as Devilles, ‘filled with big hair that twitched along to the likes of The Cure’s ‘A Forest’’ while Cloud 9’s ‘post-punk fusion mixed early psychobilly with Adam and the Ants before they became pirates’ and the 1980-85 period saw The Berlin Club, ‘famed for its camo netting, dry ice and constant playing of The Sisters {of Mercy}, Sex Gang Children, The Birthday Party, and Southern Death Cult.’

To add to those there’s mention of Placemate 7, Blood Club, Monday night at The Ritz, Legends with its alternative Thursday nights, The Playpen, and The Banshee, all ‘key to the new cultural frontier’,  18-year-old future Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, another interviewed within, among the attendees, ‘a junior freak experiencing the power of these new club nights in Manchester – Legend in particular. As well as being a lifelong expert on music culture, Johnny used to manage Aladdin’s Cave, a goth/alternative clothes shop in Manchester, from 1981-82 until The Smiths got signed.’

Built mainly around the 1980s period, the book also includes interviews with The Sisters’ Andrew Eldritch, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, the afore-mentioned Adam Ant, Nick Cave, and members of Killing Joke, Bauhaus, The Cult, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Damned, Einstürzende Neubauten, and Laibach. 

There’s plenty of cultural insight too, for example examining some of the perceived contradictions regarding female empowerment, androgyny, gender-bending, intersections with the LGBTQ+ scene, and so on, with the likes of Professor Claire Nally from Northumbria University adding analysis, while John talks about the ‘inherent yet thrilling contradictions in the style.’

And in looking at the style and the political and social conditions that spawned the culture and the music, fashions and attitudes, plus the clubs that defined it, he crucially offers first-hand accounts of being there at some of the legendary gigs and venues that made the scene happen.  

In conclusion, it’s a highly comprehensive work, the index alone running to 27 pages, and I won’t be giving too much away if I let on that John concludes ‘goth is in rude health,’ adding, ‘The art of darkness is all around us, reacting to the dystopian like it always has. Every generation is still dealing with its blues.  

‘Culture blur continues – where it was once easy to stand out in the crowd, provocative clothing has become normalised, and those without tattooed skin are the exception. Piercings fall in and out of fashion and are no longer the signifiers of alternative culture. Black clothes are just another Friday night option, and skulls adorn everything from school bags to cereal packets. The dark side has become cartoon fun instead of a badge of the underground.

‘Yet beyond the mainstream’s meddling and cynical appropriation of the surface of a darkly attractive form, the post-punk alternative’s dark matter and energy are everywhere. Thankfully, the new dark ages still require a fitting soundtrack and the art of darkness is the only modern art that truly defines these dystopian end times.’

All as good a reason as any to track John down earlier this week, first asking if the book was a long time in the making, not least considering how much content there is, and recalling how he mentioned the book to me some time ago.

“I started about 10 years ago, on and off, but in the last six months, it was pretty intense.”

What you make clear is that there’s no compartmentalising of this or any other scene, the links there to see throughout, be that with The Doors, Bowie, even the fall of Rome and those dark European folk tales.

“Yeah, I think all pop culture is like a bricolage, all stuck together. And with this, it was a deep dive, starting with the fall of Rome, going through the romantic poets, European folk tales … it’s all kind of in the background of what goth is. It isn’t just one thing – it’s feeding into all different places, and in pop culture terms, you kind of see that The Doors were the first to be called a goth band. And that’s quite obvious really, you see their influence across the goth scene, in a really kind of weird and interesting way.

“I think most people hadn’t really heard of The Doors in the UK until Apocalypse Now came out. They were known, but not huge like they were in America, with No.1 albums. I’d heard of them because I had hippie mates in Blackpool, but for a lot of people of my generation, the first experience of The Doors was via Apocalypse Now, like the Kate Bush thing from last year {’Running Up That Hill’s resurgence after its use in Stranger Things}, but an older version of it, where you suddenly get into the mainstream.

“So that criss-crossed with people coming out of punk, which in a way kind of sparked a lot of the early kind of Goth scene. But obviously Bowie’s in there, and glam rock, and a lot of people sort of term goth as dark glam, in a sense.”

You write in great detail about the burgeoning scenes in Liverpool and Manchester. Were you well served in your youth for goth nights in Blackpool? 

“Blackpool had The Tache, but that was slightly later on. That was kind of the epicentre of it there. Preston had The Warehouse. They weren’t called goth nights at first, but alternative nights. Goth was actually a retrospective term for a scene that was already there. It was the same with post-punk. At the time, everyone thought we were still in punk! It’s only 30 years later that it’s turned into something different! And it was the same with goth.

“But the styles were getting darker, a bit more freaky, just pushing the envelope of what punk was in different directions, with its own soundtrack, more exotic groups, and different influences. There was Black music influence, like funk and disco, with the dancefloor very key, a lot of goth fans making their music work on the dancefloor, such as the dark disco and dark dub in Bauhaus, and that sense of space as well.”

It’s only when I see you put that in print that I realise how right you are. It’s not something I thought about at the time, that dance influence within. But I guess that’s the case throughout the history of popular music. For instance, I was listening today to David Bowie’s Station to Station from 1976, only now properly comprehending that shift he was making from funk and soul towards German electronic music and krautrock, something I hadn’t previously looked to analyse, just happy knowing I liked what I heard. And there are so many different strands in there. That also applies to the amalgam of influences we’d later see in what would in time be termed as goth music. And I guess that’s how music evolves.

“Oh yeah, when you hear those Bowie records, you can see that line going through. Station to Station and also the Berlin records. Like that amazing sound he got on Low and Heroes, and on Iggy Pop’s record at that time, and new technology creating those kind of very dark soundscapes – that was feeding in as well. Kraftwerk as well. It’s not like everybody sounded like Kraftwerk, but that idea … kind of looking at the future and technology was reducing rock ‘n’ roll to a brilliant kind of visceral primitivism.

“And goth was embracing the new technology coming in, people like Martin Hannett using that on Joy Division’s album, an incredible record. That darkness is inherent in that record, but also that sense of space. And these are all key musical roots feeding in here.”

And yet, as you say, none of these influential outfits would have wanted to be seen as goth bands. But it’s there.

“They all absolutely hate the term! So you had to start each chapter sort of qualifying why The Sisters of Mercy {for example} aren’t a goth band in their eyes, even though most of their audience would consider them a goth band. And there’s a chapter on most of the bands. I totally respect the groups not wanting to be known as goth, though, and I don’t think any band forms to be part of a scene. It just forms its own thing and gets cobbled into a scene! Ha! Then when you’re part of that scene, you get, ‘Why are you doing this?’ You get rules applied to you that you didn’t apply to yourself, very quickly, which is frustrating.”

Another example you look at are The Cure, and while I always think of their darker periods earlier on as borderline goth, it’s interesting that you talk about the goth influences on later LPs like Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, which came at a time when I initially felt they’d moved away from all that.

Pornography was actually the big one. Before that, when they did Faith and 17 Seconds, The Cure were looked on as being a ‘raincoat band’, like Joy Division. Bands that got played by John Peel that had a slightly dark, gloomy, late evening kind of sound – because they wore raincoats, because it rained a lot! Ha!

“But with Pornography, in a sense they become a goth band because they looked like a goth band, and Robert Smith had been touring as a stand-in guitarist for the Banshees, so that influence was in there too. And as much as they protest about being called a goth band, at the time of Pornography they became an archetype goth band, and that album is a goth classic. Whether they intended it as a goth classic or not is not the matter. If you listen to that record … sartorially, musically, stylistically, it becomes one of the pillars of goth and it remains a really influential record to this day, you know – one of the darkest, most intense records ever made … and a total classic.”

Summing up, the dark matter has clearly always been important to you, and now it seems to have taken you to another universe, as proved by the subjects tackled on the most recent Membranes LP, 2019’s What Nature Gives…Nature Takes Away.

“Ha! The darkness is everywhere. We talk about the North of England, the melancholic weather, blah, blah, blah. But if you talk in terms of the universe, 90% of the universe is made up of dark stuff which nobody knows what it is. It’s completely mysterious!”

There’s clearly something in that and your parallel championing of goth music culture. And while I’m on, is there a new Membranes record on the way?

“Yeah, we’re just getting a new album together, although it’ll probably take about a year to get it out.”

I look forward to that. And in the meantime, there’s this new publication to wallow within, John’s tie-in promotional events including a book signing at Action Records in Preston on Saturday, April 8th.

The Art of Darkness: The History of Goth by John Robb is published by Louder Than War Books on March 24th, containing 650 pages plus photographs from music journalist and goth live scene photographer Mick Mercer. You can pre-order a signed copy via Bandcamp or Rough Trade. You can also find out more about Mick Mercer and his goth, indie and punk photo books via this link, and follow John Robb on social media via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

For this website’s most recent interview with John Robb, from July 2021, head here. You can also check out the previous WriteWyattUK feature/interview with John, from June 2019, here, and another from December 2016 here.

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Overcoming these doubts – in conversation with Marlody

There’s a stunning debut album doing the rounds right now from a talented singer-songwriter starting to earn plenty of critical acclaim, building a steady following after initial interest from a South East indie label.

Marlody’s I’m Not Sure At All was released last month as a limited edition white vinyl LP, on CD, and in digital format, and it seems rather apt that it emerges 45 years after the first album from another notable Kent-based female artist, a certain Kate Bush. And while this particular performer bats off any such comparison, however flattered, a refreshing mix of quirkiness, talent and songcraft certainly rings bells.

Even the name suggests mystery, this mum of three from Ashford preferring to go out under her one-word stage name, winning over new fans whenever and wherever she plays.

As her label, Skep Wax Records, puts it, I’m Not Sure At All ‘takes anxiety, weakness, fear – and turns them into strength: powerful melodies, the sweetest harmonies you ever heard, and lyrics that insist on the possibility of hope, without losing sight of the possibility of despair.’ I wouldn’t argue with that, these ‘deep, darkly beautiful pop songs’ dominated by quality keyboard, ‘illuminated – and sometimes made sinister – by occasional bursts of programmed percussion, submarine bass and distant, chiming digital bells.’

There’s an intriguing back story too, Marlody one of the higher-achieving classical pianists of her generation as a child, winning competitions and seemingly destined for greatness. But she hated all that, throwing it all away, putting more and more distance between herself and those more rigid music roots, listening to Yo La Tengo and Shellac ‘and a hundred other things that took music to new, untutored extremes’ … all to great effect.

Her painful personal journey is not glossed over in her lyrics, and by way of example ‘Words’is about the debilitating effect of psychiatric medication, ‘Malevolence’is about an urge to commit inexcusable violence, and ‘Friends in Low Places’ her ‘remarkable hymn of solidarity with all those people who’ve contemplated taking their own lives.’ 

But for all that, the songs are uplifting, not least lead single ‘Summer’ the first that made me and many others sit up and take notice, written from a child’s point of view, describing the beginnings of new life after the loss of a parent. From that tinkling piano threaded through to those sumptuous, haunting harmonies and the subtle power behind it all, I’m captivated, something that continues across these 10 powerful tracks.

And talking of hard subject matter, there’s ‘Wrong’, relating the history of an adulterous affair, offering a piercing sympathy for the emotional state of the adulterer. These are certainly not dialled-in would-be pop hits. 

While I mentioned Kate Bush earlier, her label stresses echoes too of Cate Le Bon, Liz Phair, and The Unthanks. And now she’s got our attention, she’s at work on a follow-up record. Has she been impressed with the reaction so far, not least after an official Sunday afternoon LP launch last month in the surrounds of Central London’s treasured Victorian pub venue, the Betsey Trotwood?

“Yeah, people seem to like it, and some were a bit emotional … which is good, I guess.”

If you can send them home with tears in their eyes, that’s a start, right?

“Yeah. Ha!”

It was Skep Wax Records’ husband and wife team Rob Pursey and Amelia Fletcher, also behind The Catenary Wires and Swansea Sound, who took her on.

And while between school runs and weekend record fair set preparations in Folkestone when we spoke, in May she’s set to support Heavenly – the celebrated indie ‘twee pop’ act (1989/96) Rob and Amelia had a major part in beyond involvement in C86 era darlings Talulah Gosh – at treasured 400-capacity Shepherd’s Bush venue Bush Hall. How did your link come about?

“Oh, a friend of my husband introduced him to Rob, showing him one of my songs I’d done some really rubbish recording of! I think it was ‘Change’. He liked it and said I should come along and play at the venue at their house, a little barn they put events on at sometimes.

“I said, ‘Erm … okay …’ I tend to say yes to things and see what happens. I said I’d give it a try. I’d already put together this album, a suggestion of a friend who I sent a few songs to. And Rob was like, ‘We should release this on our label.’”

So it was more or less fully formed collection at that stage?

“Yeah, we did make a few adjustments to some of the songs and added a bit of bass to a couple of tracks, while Amelia added harmonium to one of the songs. A couple of minor adjustments. And I re-did ‘Wrong’, because I had a version that was a very basic recording. It sounded nice, but was really hissy.”

A little too lo-fi?

“Yeah, I quite like that, but it was just pushing that!”

You mentioned the lovely, somewhat timeless Marlody masterpiece, ‘Change’, which I imagined was recorded on a church hall piano or somewhere out in some dusty back room. And there’s almost a hymnal quality there.

“Yeah, someone said it sounded like something you’d hear in some old bar.”

There you go. I was imagining a more teetotal setting, but maybe they’re closer to the truth. And because you mentioned ‘Wrong’, that and particularly ‘Runaway’ – a potential crossover hit for me, so take note, radio people – put me in mind of Judie Tzuke’s ‘Stay with Me Till Dawn’, a single which made an impression on me when I was 11. Both of those tracks have a similar sweet but somewhat haunting quality.

Marlody’s vocal delivery styles certainly chop and change over this LP, not least on the afore-mentioned ‘Summer’, which carries a proper sense of voice and place, the way it’s captured from a child’s perspective truly chiming. Which makes me think it’s very real, making me wonder if she’d be comfortable talking about the inspiration behind a few of her songs. They seem rather personal, and I get the impression that asking any more could be intrusive.

“I don’t mind talking about them.”

There are some quite dark subjects there.

“Yeah, I wrote most of it when I was in the process of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a very tumultuous time for me, when going to sing and play piano was kind of like my therapy, really.”

I guess sharing it with others might help, rather than keeping it all in.

“I hope so. I never wrote the songs with the idea of sharing them, they were just for me. This was other people’s suggestions that I thought, okay, put them into the world. The only one I wrote with other people in mind was ‘Friends in Low Places’. I was doing a spark therapy group as part of my trying to get through my depression. And there were these people that I met there, and some of them were really struggling with loneliness and stuff. I wrote that song kind of thinking that I would share it with them, but then I was too shy to. But now I’ve put it out into the world, much more people are going to hear it than the eight people that are in the group!”

That’s the power of music really. And despite the dark subject matter, that’s an uplifting song, carrying a morning after the storm vibe.

“Yeah, that was the point I was at. I was just trying to get to the other side of this horrible phase of my life, on the cusp of it, really.”

There’s a clarity in that voice that for the likes of Rumer led to commercial success, and Marlody’s work is very filmic for me, offering a soundscape feel in places, with ‘Up’ a perfect example. And it is perfect. I imagine a few of these songs featuring on soundtracks. Is that a possibility somewhere down the line?

“Someone approached me to use some of my songs on a little documentary she’s making about a young lady with bipolar disorder. She came to my Betsey Trotwood gig. She’s directing a documentary film for 4Digital, for online streaming. She wanted to use some of my music for that, which is cool.”

Back to ‘Summer’, is that third person narrative or deeply personal to yourself?

“It’s actually about one of my nieces. I lost my mum as a young adult, so, obviously, it’s got my own emotions in it, but it’s about my niece, whose mum died of cancer when she was just a toddler. It’s part fact, part fiction, but I sort of wrote it for her and her dad, really.”

It seems particularly poignant on the back of the disappearance of the Lancashire mum all over the news at present, one of those familiar sad tales where, as a fellow parent, you wonder just what you would tell your own children if it happened to you.

Meanwhile, mesmerising second single ‘These Doubts’ is a potential hit for me. I’m reminded of that same haunting quality (yep, that phrase again) that accentuated Vince Clarke and Feargal Sharkey’s ‘Never Never’ as The Assembly. It grabs you, reminding me somewhat of Smoke Fairies, the female duo that came to my attention via them featuring on Public Service Broadcasting’s The Race for Space. In their case, there’s a wonderful blend of female harmonies, whereas in Marlody’s case, she’s harmonising with herself.

“Yeah, although now I’ve been doing some live stuff, my friend Nem has been singing with me on some of the songs, singing harmonies and playing a bit of guitar with me. But when I was recording the album, I was doing everything myself, and it didn’t occur to me to ask anyone else to sing with me. I just liked coming up with the harmonies myself.”

There are some fine examples of that partnership, not least a beguiling take of ‘Runaway’ with Nem online via For Folk’s Sake, linked here, And, back to the LP, ‘Wrong’ and ‘Words’ also have those lush harmonies, even a California highway feel in the latter case, a little into Crosby, Stills and Nash territory. And then we have more off-kilter moments like ‘Malevolence’, somewhere between Tori Amos and Mitski for these ears … and a little Kate Bush.


That then segues into the more reflective, other-worldly ‘Up’, on an album that carries a rather enigmatic feel in places, even if she does seem fairly open on talking about the songs. Anyway, what comes first for Marlody – the keyboard, the voice, or is it all in-built within by the time she puts it down on tape for the first time?

“It depends on the song. They kind of come together a lot of the time, but sometimes I’ll be driving in my car and I’ll come up with some little melody I’ll hum to myself. I’ll be like, ‘Right, I’m not going to remember this,’ so I’ll stop the car, record a voice memo, then back home I’ll sit at the piano and see if it turns into a song. And at other times, I’ll just sit at the piano, do some chords and eventually some words will come out. It depends on the song really.”

Did she find her classical music training roots all too rigid, something she grew to despise?

“I just didn’t like the pressure of it all, having to perform at all these recitals and stuff I really hated. I used to get really bad stage fright, would learn everything off by heart but just sometimes sort of freeze. I’ve got this dissociation thing where I’d be playing the piano, then I wasn’t in my body, and suddenly there’d be these hands moving on the keyboard, and I’d be like, ‘Whose hands? What? What’s that?’ Sometimes I’d literally sort of stop, mid-piece, a really horrible experience when you’re in front of an audience. As a kid, I did competitions and recitals for local halls.”

Was there as key turning point, a record she heard or a performance she saw that made her realise this was perhaps what she was destined for after all, despite those negative early experiences?

“After I left school and got with my boyfriend, now my husband, I used to have a little band, making music with friends, like, kind of post-rock stuff I got into, making up our own songs. That’s when I properly left all the classical stuff behind. “

Was that a release for you?

“Yeah, I had to do it when I was at school, to sort of fulfil everybody’s expectations. I didn’t have to do it anymore. We had this little band for a few years, then I stopped playing when I had my first daughter and didn’t play for about a decade. Then, within the last few years, I got given on loan this really nice, upright Steinway piano from a friend whose brother was moving to China, and he wanted somewhere to keep this piano. I went to school with this girl, and she remembered that I played. And that’s when I started playing again.

“It’s not some sort of expensive new one, but it’s properly nice and I’m privileged to have that, my previous one having come from a place called Necessary Furniture, very honky-tonk. And when we got the Steinway one, we took apart the old one, among various recycled objects around the house.”

She cites Low, The National, the afore-mentioned Mitsky, and The Japanese House among her influences. Arguably an all too easy comparison, but how about fellow Kentish performer/singer-songwriter, Kate Bush? For me, there are echoes there in particular on initially sparse but slow-building penultimate number ‘Friends in Low Places’, with ‘The Man With the Child in His Eyes’ springing to mind.

“I think I listened to Kate Bush when I was a kid. I think my mum used to listen to her. That must have gone in to somewhere, although I don’t think I’ve really considered her as an influence, particularly. But quite a few people have said that somethings I do sound reminiscent of Kate Bush. And I’m glad that’s the case.”

But I guess she’s in a genre all her own, ultimately, something perhaps labelled, if anything, like the final number on this compelling debut, ‘Otherly’, its harmonies on the edge of folk but not so easily pinned down. And irrespective of any label, to misquote Lee Mavers on ‘Timeless Melody’ all those years ago, ‘The Marlody chord unwinds me.’

To find out more, and find a copy of the first LP, visit Marlody’s Bandcamp page. You can also follow her progress via Instagram and Twitter, and keep in touch through Skep Wax records via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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