Mary Casio’s 2017 space odyssey – checking in with Hannah Peel

Tubular Belle: Hannah Peel in concert with Tubular Brass (Photo: York Tillyer)

Space – the final frontier. But in this case we’re talking the voyage of Mary Casio rather than Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk, boldly going where no woman has gone before – via a garden shed in Yorkshire.

Last time I interviewed Hannah Peel for these pages, in November 2016, our conversation concentrated on acclaimed solo LP Awake But Always Dreaming and ongoing antics with esteemed sonic trio The Magnetic North in light of the Prospect of Skelmersdale album.  But we also touched on a side-project she was involved with, and next week that rocket-boosted venture gets an independent launch. What’s more, Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia – like the last offering released on her My Own Pleasure imprint – has already proved a critical and live success story.

I guess the close relationship between popular music, classical music, astronomy and space travel has always been there. Take Gustav Holst or David Bowie for example, just two of the many stellar musical influences on Hannah.

And carrying on where she left off on Awake But Always Dreaming – intrinsically linked to her trying to make sense through sound of her grandmother’s battle with dementia – I should let Ms Peel try and explain the concept behind her latest release, which takes on the notion that a character who loves watching the night sky – just like Hannah’s grandmother, she tells me – ends up making an end of life deep space odyssey in a bid to find that afore-mentioned final frontier.

“I wanted to do something that wasn’t just songs and using my voice, and have this collection of keyboards and early synths, including Casio keyboards you can record your voice into. And just for fun sometimes I’d play people a song as this Mary Casio character.

“Then I got approached to score for the Tubular Brass band. They were playing the second half of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells live, and wanted a new composition for the opening half. I researched around then the constellation Cassiopeia, so thought Mary should go into space, on a journey, like my grandma and great-aunt, who never left Yorkshire but had always been stargazers.

“So in the final years of her life Mary gets in a spaceship and goes to Cassiopeia. I wrote it with that in mind, that journey and the planets, nebulas and different stars visited along the way. And it ends with a visit to the planet of past souls, including a 1927 recording of my grandfather performing at Manchester Cathedral, aged 13, one of the first recordings of a choirboy.”

While she has strong links to Lancashire and Yorkshire, Northern Ireland-born Hannah is based in East London these days, a short commute away from her studio base near Hoxton Square. Yet her new LP’s launch sees her return to the city where she studied, another career highlight expected as she starts a Tubular Brass and Synths meets Mary Casio tour at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on Saturday, September 23rd.

Hannah started out playing fiddle in her father’s band, but had discovered a love of the trombone by the time her family relocated to the Barnsley area from Craigavon, playing in brass bands. Then at 18 she developed her violin, trombone, and piano skills at Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. Around then, she was also a regular at the nearby Phil, but never got to perform there … until now.

“I worked in the bar there, from around 2004 to 2006. That way I got to see lots of concerts either side of the interval. I must have seen more than 100 shows there, so to be able to finally perform there is incredible. And it’s the day after the album is released!”

There will also be something of a ‘homecoming’ in Barnsley the following month. What’s more, it’s at the Civic Theatre, where a 29-strong Tubular Brass and Synths ensemble recorded the Mary Casio LP.

“I feel really honoured to have been asked to do all this. You don’t get the opportunity every day to write for that many people, and so many of my records are played solely by me and recorded just by me. The experience of playing a form of music I grew up with, having played trombone with brass bands – it’s a really lovely opportunity.”

Hannah became involved with Tubular Brass after visiting Oldham and Saddleworth’s Whit Friday marches a couple of summers ago with support band, East India Youth, on a day off from touring. Having posted a photo from that event on Instagram, suggesting ‘brass bands meets electronica’, she was invited to write a piece of music combining the two, something she described as ‘a wonderful departure’, a chance to fuse her brass roots with the synth direction she’s taken since. And that commission allowed her to develop her alter-ego.

“Mary Casio is a character that encompasses how we look at life and view mortality and time, and how at any age we can have dreams and still achieve those dreams. In my mind over time I developed this lady, who lived in Yorkshire, probably worked in a post office all her life, who in her back garden had a shed full of inventions and things she created that nobody knew about – kind of like a Daphne Derbyshire or Daphne Oram.”

Those female pioneers of electronica, key innovators in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop sounds effect unit at Maida Vale, had long since resonated with Hannah, herself described as a modern-day Delia Derbyshire in some quarters.

Sound Pioneer: Delia Derbyshire in action at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Photo copyright: BBC)

Having recorded a suite of pieces in her studio and written brass parts, Hannah got Sandy Smith’s Tubular Brass ensemble on board, a team from Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios taking a mixing console to a theatre in Barnsley to capture a performance involving players drawn from various championship section bands around the UK.

“That’s when the magic started to happen. As a trombone player it was about the power, richness and the unity of the breath. For me it was always the experience of the low, melancholy richness of the euphoniums, trombones and tubas. That was in my mind from the beginning, with the analogue synths and the way they breathe and have nuances. You hear where things go wrong, and when you switch something off sometimes it crackles.

“When we recorded the brass band you can hear the breath, the page turns of the conductor and sometimes even the squeak of a foot on the floor. We weren’t getting rid of those – we were keeping every single part. I think that blend of the breathing really made it feel like they were a kind of ethereal alien voice. And essentially they are – it’s a sound through a brass instrument, not straight from the voice.”

Hannah’s remained busy since her first break, work with Sandi Thom leading to backing and collaborations with and for the likes of The Unthanks, John Foxx and the Maths, and the Duke Special. She’d soon released ’80s covers EP, Rebox, and garnered interest from BBC 6 Music, going on to have 2011 solo debut LP The Broken Wave produced by Tunng’s Mike Lindsay, with strings arranged by Nitin Sawhney.

That led to interest from former Verve guitarist Simon Tong and writing partner Erland Cooper, working as The Magnetic North, inviting Hannah to join them on wondrous 2012 debut, Orkney: Symphony of The Magnetic North, adding string and brass arrangements.  Erland (who also helped mix the Mary Casio album) went on to co-produce 2013 EP  Nailhouse, while the following year’s Fabricstate EP included Royal Television Society award-winner Chloe, as featured in Channel 4 TV series Dates.

More critically-acclaimed works followed, The Magnetic North again on top form with 2016’s Prospect of Skelmersdale before Hannah’s revered solo album, Awake But Always Dreaming. And now we have Mary Casio on record, further industry and music media acclaim including support from radio presenters Cerys Matthews, of Catatonia fame, and Mary Anne Hobbs.

“It’s been so fabulous. I never expected that. When you do an obscure record, you think even if it comes out and is not picked up by that many people I’m proud of it and loved the feeling of making it. It was such a delight and took such a short time compared to the last record – really refreshing.”

We briefly mentioned Mary Casio last time we spoke, but I got the idea it was more a fun side-project. I’m guessing events overtook.

“It really has. It’s been beautiful, and in the climate we’re in – I read this morning there’s 80 per cent contamination of plastic in our tap water – there’s so much going on in the world that you need a break from it all. And this is about escapism. On Radio 3 they’ve started ‘slow radio’, featuring longer production pieces, whether it’s music or talking. It seems the more digital we get, the more we need that. In South Korea a few months ago I was told they had loads of ‘slow TV’ there. I suppose it’s like a Big Brother concept – people sat around doing nothing for hours. Then I read about the idea of slow radio here.”

New Religion: Daisy Palmer, left, and Hannah Peel in action at St Philip’s Church (Photo: Molly Wyatt)

There have already been several dates for Hannah with Sandy Smith’s brass ensemble, the most recent at St Cuthbert’s, Edinburgh, during the city’s world-renowned festival.

“That was amazing, not least the power of the reverb around the room. A very special environment, together with the buzz of the Edinburgh Festival.”

Hannah has past form for playing church settings, not least seeing as last time I saw her was at St Philip’s, Salford, in early summer for Sounds From the Other City, overcoming a few early technical gremlins in the process.

“Oh, I was such a mess!”

She’s being modest there, as suggested by the writewyattuk view on her performance here. That was more about Awake But Always Dreaming, but since then Hannah’s concentrated largely on her Tubular Brass and Mary Casio sets, including dates at Cheshire’s Bluedot Festival and the European Capital of Culture, Hull. Is that how it’ll be at the Liverpool Phil and the other dates with the brass ensemble on this autumn tour?

“Yeah, the concerts are fronted by the Tubular Bells show, so you get this amazing array of audiences maybe not so much into the idea of a brass band as much as electronic music. It makes for a really interesting dynamic, with people blown away by the brass band. The power when you’re in the room is unbelievable – it hits your chest. A lot of people say they cry. It’s so overwhelming and really magical … and mixed with the synths you get this outer space vibe!”

What was this multi-instrumentalist’s musical speciality as a student?

“Piano was number one, then trombone, and violin always came last, although I now get a lot of work playing violin. When I moved to Liverpool I didn’t play trombone so much though, having lost that connection to brass bands.”

She’s clearly making up for that now though. Does Hannah know all her bandmates’ names yet?

“No!”

Is it like being a teacher in a new school year? Can you get them to wear name badges maybe?

“Mmm, well, it’s never the exact same players – some will have done three concerts, others two, and so on. I’ll recognise faces but often have no idea about names. Also at concerts they only have one instrument to pack down, so they’ll go to the bar and celebrate while I’m still on stage packing down all my equipment, so never get to see anyone!”

Concerning the Tubular Bells segment of the show, has Mike Oldfield got to hear about the show (and a tie-in album, released on Tubular Brass Recordings in June)?

“Apparently he has … and loves it, and has been sharing lots online!”

Back in July there was also a PRS Composers New Music Biennial Award for Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia! in a collaboration with BBC Radio 3.

“Yeah, that’s how we ended up performing in Hull and at the Southbank Centre, the show recorded on Radio 3, another amazing opportunity.”

Radio 3 – that’s a bit highbrow, isn’t it? I thought you were a pop star?

“I know!”

But I guess the classical world’s all part of your musical background. It’s not always been about a love of ‘80s synth-pop.

“It’s definitely always been there and when I listen to radio in the car I’ll put on Radio 3 or 4. Classical and composition is the heart of my life, but I never had the opportunity to fully explore it and never trained in that.”

Last year I described Hannah’s debut with Mary (her middle name apparently) as ‘an artist transmogrifying as synth-based, space-age alter-ego, combining analogue electronics and a 33-piece colliery brass band to great effect, debuting to a sell-out Manchester audience’. And she told me then it was the most recent Magnetic North LP that gave her confidence to tap into childhood again. But looking at her CV, she’s been involved in film scoring and the like before. The first female recipient of the Arts Council of England’s Momentum Music Fund grant has also written scores for stage productions for London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre, and contributed to the score of the movie Anna Karenina and TV series American Horror Story.

Magnetic Presence: The Magnetic North, live at Liverpool Central Library. From the left – Erland Cooper, Hannah Peel, Simon Tong (Photo copyright: McCoy Wynne)

“Maybe it’s just my attention span! I’ve never been one to have one project. I’ve always sought to learn more – if an opportunity for something else comes up I’ll take that as well. I love exploring and collaborating. I’ve always found that very exciting.”

It’s not just you playing with your vast collection of keyboards and early synths then? Let’s face it, you’re a bit of a geek on the quiet.

“Oh my God! Love it!”

Seeing a video clip of her explaining the concept of the Mary Casio project for the Southbank Centre reminded me of the lyrics to Moby’s We are all Made of Stars:

‘People they come together, people they fall apart,

No one can stop us now, ’cause we’re all made of stars’

Perhaps that’s the key to all this. Has stargazing had a hold on Hannah as well as her grandmother?

“When I go to Donegal for my holidays and see my family, there’s hardly any light pollution. As a kid we’d go to the top of sand dunes, lie in the dark and watch shooting stars. When I was really small I remember a huge meteorite in the sky for weeks, and most nights I’d watch it. Maybe it hasn’t played a part in my life for a long time, because I’ve lived in a city – whenever something happens you can’t see it. But when I go back, I look at the stars … and wow! And it just feels like there are lots more people exploring places out of reach or further away these days, looking to find something else.”

On the sonic side of the project, I told Hannah I felt slightly out of my depth offering any classical critique. But I hear elements of Vangelis and maybe even Rick Wakeman-era Yes in there, and guess there’s nothing new in the link between science, astronomy and classical composition. Think of Stanley Kubrick’s use of Richard Strauss on the soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, for example. And there are hints of that on opening track, Goodbye Earth.

“Definitely, and while you don’t realise it until it’s done, I had an image in my head for the photos that would look to take in the Greek view of Cassiopeia. We found somewhere for a photograph then looked back at them and saw how close it was to the last scene of A Space Odyssey where’s the main character’s laid in the bed, with similar decor and Grecian styling in his room.”

There’s something else with an indirect link to cinematic sci-fi too, the brass on Sunrise through the Dusty Nebula taking me back to future Alien director Ridley Scott’s much-loved 1973 Hovis commercial, a young baker’s assistant struggling up Shaftesbury Hill, Dorset, as Dvorak’s New World Symphony plays. Am I right?

“I would say so, but more leaning towards Holst’s The Planets perhaps. It’s funny though – no matter what a brass band plays it has this melancholy that just touches you, bringing back this Englishness. You don’t find that anywhere else in the world. It’s a special sound. Even my manager told me he hated brass bands, reminded of being a kid in his hometown with some rubbish band. But when he saw the very first Mary Casio concert he was in tears, telling me he’d never heard anything like it before.”

There’s certainly an adventurous feel about the LP, one that works so well, and I don’t think it’s until track three, Deep Space Cluster, that Hannah puts a more recognisable personal stamp on it, adding a flavour of her past work – her signature synth, if you like – with The Magnetic North. Meanwhile, Andromeda M31 puts me in mind of Public Service Broadcasting’s The Race for Space. But what are we listening to in those disembodied voices? Are those radio signals in a foreign language?

“Erm, not really! It comes across as this arty voice through the airwaves. In my mind Mary’s going through the heart of dark matter, hearing frequencies from years ago that we’ve transmitted. Actually, no one asked me before, but it’s from an old birthday card for the Virgo star-sign that someone bought me years ago. It has a vinyl inside with a pin you put on top, turning with your finger to create sound, this voice saying, ‘You are particular!’ ‘You are very perfectionist, critical of yourself!’”

Pipe Dreams: Dickie Bird, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s first engineer, records as Daphne Oram plays an Arabic reed pipe at Maida Vale (Photo copyright: BBC)

That use of at-hand technology fits nicely with Hannah’s trademark ethos and use of self-made music boxes for recording, while also championing those two female pioneers from the world of electronica she mentioned earlier.

“I suppose that kind of element reminds me of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. When I started looking into the lives of Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, I found it deeply upsetting that at the end of their lives they weren’t recognised in the same way they are now. Delia had this massive amount of tapes and recordings in her attic and I suppose Mary Casio became this similar person – unknown, unheard of, but in her garden shed having all these inventions and equipment, telescopes, scientific notes and drawings. And it felt like the recording I had of the sampled voice was something that came from there.”

On next track, Life is on the Horizon, I suggest the brass again suggests Mary going through all manner of emotions and deep thought.

“That’s a flugelhorn, and has this melancholy beauty to it. On the recording she plays along with synthesizers and at that point in the journey I imagine you’d look back and contemplate how small you could possibly be in that amount of space – that vast loneliness as the only person out there.”

I’m guessing there’s a bit of closure here after Awake But Always Dreaming, tackling again your personal experiences and feelings over your grandma’s battle with dementia.

“Yeah, it’s definitely gone as far as it possibly could go now though. You’ve hit the nail on the head there. I don’t know what will come next – it’s hard to come back from a place like that.”

Archid Orange Dwarf is another lovely piece, and I can see why that was the track premiered on radio. And that leads nicely to wonderfully poignant, epic yet subtle finale, Planet of Passed Souls, and that Manchester Cathedral recording of her grandfather, the husband of the grandmother she paid tribute to.

“That was recorded in 1927 and released the following year. He was 13 at the time, and it was one of the first recordings of a choirboy, by Columbia Records. Unfortunately the wax hadn’t set properly so they came back to re-record but his voice broke the day before, so they had to use that version, which is a little crackly.”

Ah, but that adds to it, surely.

“Yeah, and I really used that effect!”

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

Finally, there’s the matter of the next album by The Magnetic North. The first was set in Orkney, on Erland’s home ground, while the second reflected Simon’s formative days in the Lancashire new town of Skelmersdale. So if I’ve got the format right, this time it’s a case of Erland and Simon visiting Hannah’s patch, her giving them an introduction then seeing what they come up with. Am I right?

“Yeah, but whoever’s place it’s about, the fear kicks in. That’s happened every time. We went over to Ireland last year, had a week together, travelled about, and I was fine. But when I got back I didn’t want them to do anything! Before now, the chosen place has been about that person’s past, somewhere they were in childhood before they left, whereas the place I’m most fond of is very much present, somewhere I still go.”

Are you worried you might not be invited back there when the record comes out?

“Ha! No, I think I’ve found a way to present it to them with a different angle. But that also happens every time – you present it one way and it turns out another way!”

Last time we spoke you weren’t letting on whether the album theme would cover your Northern Irish or Yorkshire roots.

“Well … let’s just say North West Ireland! But I’m working on solo material at the moment and have been concentrating on Mary Casio, so it’s been quite difficult. But I’d say by 2018 we’ll have something ready for the world.”

For this site’s interview with Hannah Peel from November 2016, follow this link, and for April 2016’s interview with Simon Tong, head here.  

Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia is out on Friday, September 22nd, in vinyl (500 metallic limited-edition LPs, designed by Barnbrook, also responsible for David Bowie’s Blackstar), CD and digital formats. For detail head here

Casio Royale: Hannah Peel, all set to hit the road again with Mary Casio (Photo: Stormy@ Rebel and Romance)

You can catch Hannah Peel’s Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia tour at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall on Saturday, September 23rd; Stockton-on-Tees’ The Arc on Saturday, September 30th; Barnsley’s Civic Theatre on Saturday, October 21st; and Basingstoke’s Anvil Arts on Saturday, October 28th, all four shows also featuring Tubular Brass and Synths playing Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. More solo shows are planned at Sheffield’s Sensoria Music/Film/Digital Festival on Saturday, October 7th, and Bury’s Enlighten Bury Festival of Sound and Light on Friday, October 20th. For ticket details of all six, try this link.

The Tubular Brass project involves players drawn from elite brass band and orchestral fields, led by Sandy Smith, its ensemble performing contemporary and classic prog rock, working with artists from across the musical spectrum, aiming to bring brass music to a new audience through unique projects and collaborations. For more information, try here.

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop shots used above are from an excellent photographic piece on the Maida Vale unit from March 2016, linked here.

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Regarde le chou: getting a taste for Cabbage with Joe Martin

Band Substance: Cabbage in live action at The Ferret in Preston, Lancashire, October 2016, and set to return soon (Photo copyright: Richard Nixon / rich pictures)

Performance poet turned guitarist/singer Joe Martin was between a band rehearsal and a couple of train rides that would take him over the North Yorkshire border when I called him. But when I let on that a version of our interview would end up in The Lancashire Post, he was more than happy to talk, not least on account of his own Red Rose links.

“I was born in Lancashire, so felt quite obliged to do the interview. I’m from Settle, but on a border patrol on a ferry the other day I was asked where I was born. I don’t often get asked that, so very proudly responded ‘Burnley!’ I then lived in Clitheroe for a bit, until my Dad got a job as head chef at Giggleswick School. Years later, I ended up being canteen staff there … that’s where the song Dinner Lady comes from.”

You may know the track in question. It was the band’s first proper release, a 7” single on Charlatans frontman Tim Burgess’s O Genesis Recordings label. But I quickly assure him I’m unlikely to ask about quiche ingredients.

“No comment.”

I’m pleased to hear that, instead intimating that it’s all a bit ‘cross-border’ in Settle, while unsuccessfully trying to avoid mention of the ’Y’ word lest he should offend any Lancastrian readers.

“I went to school in Yorkshire … but I was born in Lancashire. I didn’t stretch too far. I’m very proud to be from the North of England, and we rehearse in the glorious Northern province of Mossley.”

Cabbage’s spiritual base is itself traditionally Lancashire, but with confusing links to Cheshire and Yorkshire’s West Riding and now deemed part of Greater Manchester. But it’s all academic anyway, and as soon becomes apparent, while Joe and bandmates Lee Broadbent (lead vocals), Eoghan Clifford (guitar), Stephen Evans (bass) and Asa Morley (drums) stick close to their roots they aren’t too interested in the notion of geographical division. Besides, I told him all I really knew about Mossley came from my days reporting on non-league football, covering Chorley FC there.

“Oh, you’re familiar with Seel Park? That’s home to a quite famous incident where a footballer got caught with his trousers down, I believe. Don’t know if you’re familiar with that story. I think that epitomises the Wild West nature of Mossley.”

It rang a bell, so to speak. But changing the subject fairly sharply, I changed tack and asked Joe if Cabbage enjoyed their recent Reading and Leeds festival appearances?

“Yeah, fantastic! Depending which part of the country you’re from, Reading or Leeds is a rite of passage for teenagers, quite often a first experience of a festival, realising you can drink constantly, everyone in the same boat. With me it was Leeds, with a strong sense of humour and lots of fancy dress. I think that dwindled slightly, but there’s always time to bring it back.

“I first went when I was 16, with Ian Brown playing. I’d never taken ecstasy before but felt this would be an appropriate time. I was at the front with identikit Manchester look and bucket hat. He said after in an interview it was great and there was this bunch of 17-year-old kids at the front, digging the tunes. And years later I ended up on BBC North West Tonight being interviewed after a Stone Roses show. I have no recollection, but it was quite a stern interview actually. I’d like to dig it out of the archives.”

Fast forward a few years, and 2017 has proved another winner for Cabbage, their self-proclaimed ‘apocalyptic sprautrock’ going down a treat live, not least at a Manchester Academy sell-out, and big shows at Dingwalls in Camden, Glastonbury …

“And the Scala in London. That was good. Glastonbury was quite special to us. We were very lucky to be invited to play Billy Bragg’s Leftfield Stage, just after a band called Shame that we like. It’s a very noble cause, supporting good ethical charities and encouraging in a really positive way, spreading a message of political change. The following day we played the John Peel tent too. I’ve a lovely cheesy picture of me standing next to a big sign saying, ‘Teenage dreams, so hard to beat’ – true in many ways.

Well, anyone quoting The Undertones is alright by me. Besides, I’d struggle to think of anyone else who used ‘cabbage’ in a song (My Perfect Cousin, of course, which just happens to be about an O’Neill relative by the name of Kevin, written nearly four decades before Cabbage’s own Kevin made it on to vinyl).

“In terms of myself and Cabbage, we were conceived at Glastonbury, pretty much. We’d just begun recording (debut EP) Le Chou in 2015 then had the most amazing time watching The Fall at Glastonbury. It was quite a spiritual moment. I think the stars aligned and what-not, feeling even more inspired than we already did to do it ourselves. It was an awe-inspiring Fall set, with Mark (E.Smith) on fine form, having previously been banned from Glastonbury. Utterly brilliant.

“They released the album Sub-Lingual Tablet on May 25th – my birthday, with bizarre synchronicity – and played the album in its entirety in a late afternoon slot. Very few people knew the songs, despite the band having 40 years’ worth of music, yet they somehow won the crowd round. A real spectacle.”

Brassica Neck: Joe Martin live with Cabbage at The Ferret, Preston, October 2016, across the road from 53 Degrees (Photo copyright: Richard Nixon / rich pictures)

I was set to read Joe a list of Manchester acts I presume inspired his band. He’d already confirmed an appreciation of The Fall and The Stone Roses, and I briefly mentioned Buzzcocks, John Cooper Clarke, The Smiths, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, and Oasis, seeing as there seem to be elements of a few of those in Cabbage’s musical inventory.

“I guess so … as well as bands from other cities. I guess there are sometimes expectations with bands from Manchester, but it’s kind of irrelevant really. We feel more part of a scene of young political bands, such as Idles and Shame. And in the current political climate, especially with communication being so instant and news stories being shared and the way young people can galvanise themselves for political change, it’s more relevant for us to be in a positive group of bands coming through.

”It’s no coincidence that the music’s relatively angry. We live in horrendous, austere times, which create a lot of angst, and hopefully gigs give them somewhere to channel their anger and give us a good outlet.”

The fact that The Coral’s James Skelly, who runs Liverpool label Skeleton Key – the original base of Blossoms and also home to She Drew the Gun – has supported them so far seems to underline Joe’s point that it’s not just about allying yourself to one particular city.

“Yeah, for sure, and we’ll be making an album with him soon.”

How are things going on that front so far?

“I don’t know what I’m allowed to say, which sounds like a diva-ish thing to say, but I can say we’ve got a couple of brand new songs that are really coming into their own – with a fervent blend of rage but more directed approach … I guess more refined is the way to describe it.

“If you can come up with comparisons from bands of yesterday, like obscure late jazz musicians, and say it sounds like a cross between such and such, I think you’re barking up the wrong path though. Music can be interpreted in various different ways. That’s what makes it so great. But I’m too emotionally involved to be able to describe it from an outsider’s perspective.”

You’re not the kind of band that seem to make the same record twice, judging on what I’ve heard so far.

“Definitely not. We’d get bored.”

For instance, I’d suggest Celebration of a Disease might be The Clash’s Mick Jones fronting Black Grape, while Uber Capitalist Death Trade is more like The Dead Kennedys, PiL and The Membranes melded together, and Terrorist Synthesizer has a little of a Mott the Hoople feel for me. And I could go on.

“Yeah … why not.”

If you’re yet to be turned on to the punk thrill of Cabbage, I’d recommend an introductory stint on the internet, getting a taste of their sheer enthusiasm and live presence amid adoring fans. They’re an exciting prospect to say the least. The music press certainly seem to love the band too, not least after The Sun name-checked them as one of their top tips for 2017 and the band unloaded a biting tirade of anti-Rupert Murdoch venom in response.

The band themselves describe themselves as a ‘five-piece Politburo, serving up an idiosyncratic, satirical attack in the form of discordant neo post-punk’. Fair enough. Meanwhile, NME called their debut EP as ‘five twisted post-punk slinkers stuffed with explicit lyrics and Jack White levels of rage’ and The Guardian suggested ‘they’re hell-bent on filling the current vacancy for rock’n’roll commentator on Brexit Britain.’

You can judge that for yourself, with a few EPs already out there, Play & Record release Le Chou (Kevin/Dinner Lady/Contactless Payment/Austerity Languish/White Noise) followed by Uber Capitalist Death Trade (backed by Fickle/Tell Me Lies About Manchester/Free Steven Avery (Wrong America)), Necroflat in the Palace (backed by Indispensable Pencil/It’s Grim Up North Korea/Dissonance) and Terrorist Synthesizer (backed by The Road to Wigan Pier/These Boots Were Made For Walking/Because You’re Worth It) on Skeleton Key Records.

Then there was this April’s Young, Free and Full Of … compilation, including 12 of those songs, and last month’s latest EP, The Extended Play of Cruelty, featuring Celebration of a Disease/Fraudulent Artist/A Network Betrayal/Ertrinken/Asa Morley. Who knows, maybe there are more out there – finding out the details online proved a little tricky for this scribe. Maybe go see them live and find out for yourself. Cabbage play the Grand Pavilion at Portmeirion’s Festival No.6 on Saturday, September 9th, Buxworth’s Rec Rock on Friday, September 15th, and a disused church in Blackburn for Confessional 2017 on Saturday, September 16th.

And then there’s the Healing Brexit Towns Experiment tour, starting at Holmfirth’s Picturedrome on Wednesday, September 27th, calling at Preston’s 53 Degrees the following night (my excuses for calling Joe) and threading right through to Buckley’s The Tivoli on Saturday, October 21st, before a 10-date European stint beginning and ending in Germany. So is there an irony that they’ll be heading slowly towards Europe while David Davis plays at trying to negotiate the UK’s way out of Europe?

“Yeah, and I think the tour’s going to be heavily inspired by a cross between Phoenix Nights episodes and the Bullseye set. That’s what you can expect. Actually, I think 18 of the 20 towns we’re playing voted to leave. Not that that reflects the entire population of those towns. But we feel strongly that bands should go out of their way to travel more and go to towns no one tends to play. Everyone should be able to watch a band in their own town, no matter where you’re from.”

How important was Joe’s previous stint as a performance poet around Manchester in the band’s make-up?

“Personally, it gave me huge amounts of confidence. You’ve nothing to hide behind. When it’s just poetry it’s you and your words and if you forget them, it’s game over. And when it became backed by a band it was a huge rush of euphoria and excitement.”

Was that interest part of your inspiration to study at Salford in the first place, being the city which gave us the likes of John Cooper Clarke and Mike Garry.

“Yeah, Mike Garry’s a big inspiration, as of course is Dr John Cooper Clarke. But I got a job roadie-ing for a band called Twisted Wheel and moved to Salford through becoming mates with friends who taught me how to play guitar better and simply to be around music. I got to know that band through writing reviews. I studied journalism at university, but my main intention was to get to Manchester and start playing music and writing poetry.”

Yet somehow you ended up around the other side of Manchester with these lads in Mossley.

“Well, indeed, yeah.”

The band kind of got in the way, I guess.

“Yeah, my first friend in Manchester was Eoghan, shortly followed by Lee. And now I’m in a band with them, so I can’t complain.”

Joe wasn’t the only band member with a presence out there before the band got together. Lee was a drummer with Where’s Strutter? and Brahma-Loka, while Eoghan was the  drummer in Mossley outfit The Fayre, a member of the afore-mentioned Twisted Wheel, and worked with singer-songwriter Danny Mahon. Meanwhile, Asa was with Storytellers and Stephen fronted Stephen Evans and the Planets as well as playing bass with Twisted Wheel and playing guitar in electro-inspired trio Mary Joanna with his then-fiancee and her brother, who just happen to be the niece and nephew of Steve Coogan. He also plays with journalist/singer/bass player and past writewyattuk interviewee John Robb (of Membranes and Goldblade fame) in Push Drucken.

So now we’ve got all that sorted, we can carry on. Was there a Cabbage game plan from day one? Or did you make it up as you went along?

“We didn’t have any set intentions or political message. You can only write what’s truly natural to you, otherwise it becomes contrived. Lee and I were getting involved with the Reality Party, meeting Bez (of Happy Mondays fame) in Salford, sussing things out, marching in Manchester, getting involved politically, regardless. We just made music that was natural to us. It was just a very natural progression.”

As he mentioned Bez, we briefly got on to anti-fracking protests west of Preston, seeing as the band were set to play nearby UCLan venue 53 Degrees on their autumn tour.

“Actually, Lee and I went to a huge anti-fracking meeting and demonstration in Manchester. I’d forgotten about that. It’s bizarre – we don’t have any time these days to hang out as friends. We’re constantly working.”

By this stage his mobile phone reception was breaking up a little, Joe skirting the Pennines en route to Settle as I asked about difficulties he might encounter if he was to try and get a US working visa, in light of the song Free Steven Amery (Wrong America), and its defiant anti-Trump message.

“Oh, I’ve no idea. I’d very much like to, but we’ll have to see. I’m unable to offer an apology to Donald Trump, but if he let’s us in the country I’m sure we could come to some sort of arrangement.”

You read it here first. Finally, his band talks of ‘a collective desire to express themselves creatively, artistically, and in a semi-rebellious but ultimately meaningful nature’, while suggesting ‘Cabbage are here to fight for all that’s good’. That kind of suggests they’re more politically switched on than most bands. What say, Joe?

“Rebellion is an effective way to protest, coming together for political change, against the state, and it’s very important to channel your angst and energy into a productive thing. It’s too easy to aim it at the wrong people. We’ve a new song about that, Preach to the Converted. Someone was saying how we slag off The Sun but then go on Soccer AM in Murdoch’s back yard. But if we spend all our time preaching to those at our gigs, it’s a waste of time. Why not get on to one of Murdoch’s many programmes and start spreading the message instead?”

Cabbage, with guests The Blinders plus Queen Zee and the Susstones, start their Healing Brexit Towns Experiment tour at Holmfirth’s Picturedrome (7.30pm, £13) on Wednesday, September 27th, and Preston’s 53 Degrees the following night (7.30pm doors, £14.30/£13). For ticket details of those shows and the rest of the tour, head here.  

Healing Power: Apocalyptic sprautrock collective Cabbage, on their way to a town near you

The Young, Dumb and Full of … compilation album is available via this Amazon link while the Extended Play of Cruelty EP can be tracked down here.  You can also check out Cabbage via Bandcamp and learn more about Skeleton Key Records here.

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Believe Me Him – back in touch with Blancmange’s Neil Arthur

Mange Huit: Neil Arthur is back with Blancmange’s eight original studio album, Unfurnished Rooms

Based in Gloucestershire since leaving London a dozen years ago, Blancmange mastermind Neil Arthur continues to divide his time between the Cotswolds and old haunts in the capital.

“I really enjoy it, including walks when I finish work or early morning with my dog, who can never get enough exercise. My eldest’s in London, but the rest of the family’s here and I’ve good friends around. It’s in striking distance of London, and I get there quite a lot, seeing mates. But I love the countryside, as I did when I was up in Lancashire.”

This is where I add a bit of history. Most of you reading this will know the score, but synth-pop pioneers Blancmange formed in 1979 and were soon down to a pivotal core of two – Neil (vocals, guitar, electronics) and Londoner Stephen Luscombe (keyboards, synths). Seven hits followed, including top-20 singles Living on the Ceiling, Blind Vision, Waves and Don’t Tell Me, releasing albums Happy Families (1982), Mange Tout (1985) and Believe You Me (1986).

That looked like being the end of it, both drifting off into other projects. But the fans’ clamour (wasn’t he an Austrian ski legend?) remained, with plenty of love for the band, and they reformed 25 years later, releasing LP Blanc Burn in 2011. And while Stephen – suffering with his health in recent years – then left, Neil has continued under the band name ever since, releasing four more albums since 2015, including Unfurnished Rooms, set for release on September 29th.

Neil has fewer excuses to drop by his old base in Darwen these days, but can’t resist occasional visits to the Lancashire town he left at 19, and plays the Library Theatre (Wednesday, October 25th, 0844 847 1664) on his latest album tour.

“When I do get up there and we play Darwen, there are always a load of mates, and we always look forward to that. I try and get a walk on the moors too. Mum and Dad have a bench up there in their memory. I have a ‘nosey’ around, look back down over Darwen. It’s bizarre – it never leaves you, and I’m very, very proud of where I come from. Sometimes people say, ‘Where are you from up north? Are you from Yorkshire?’ I’m very much not from Yorkshire! I’m very much from Lancashire! And there’ll be songs on this album where that accent will come out … I’m sure.”

That accent’s undeniable, and it’s there to hear as early as the brooding, atmospheric title track that ushers in the new LP, those East Lancastrian tones in evidence as he conducts a ‘search’ of unfurnished rooms and unfinished works, more of which I’ll address in a separate review on this site very soon. But let’s just say for now that Blancmange fans should be extremely impressed, as suggested by the early online feedback to tracks Anna Dine, Share It Out and What’s the Time.

There’s a taste of the North West on track two as well, Neil’s narrative about a ‘chemical spillage on a trading estate in Altrincham’ on We Are The Chemicals giving us an air of mystery and threat, that Cheshire happening seemingly not an isolated incident, something similar occurring ‘in a garden shed 80 miles due south as the crow does fly’ and ‘in the boot of a hire car.’ Sparse and atmospheric with a rich vocal, slowly building, it’s an early highlight on an album of many more.

So is that a song about international terrorism or environmental pollution maybe, Neil?

“If I was to try and explain the meaning of the songs it would be like taking the last page out of a book. It’s better people make up their own minds, leave a certain amount of ambiguity. I’m always intrigued by what people think though!”

At that point I decide not to quiz him any deeper on the lyrical content, instead beginning my own advanced aural journey through Unfurnished Rooms a couple of days later. And I won’t be giving away too much by saying that I see clear lineage between Blancmange’s back-catalogue and the new material, and also between their early ’80s heyday and a more modern vibe, despite this being very much a different album to what’s come before, as is Neil’s wont.

While we’re on the subject of explanations, when Neil mentioned a reticence to explain any of his songs, that’s not to say he’s averse to extensive liner notes, as is evident by his hands-on involvement with this year’s other Blancmange release, The Blanc Tapes. It’s a major project in box-set form, grouping together digitalised versions of the bands early years’ demos right through to their last recordings first time aroundan exhaustive three-CD media books in a slipcase, comprising the first three LPs, 12″ mixes, non album B-sides, previously unreleased demos and rehearsals from Neil’s private collection, along with previously unreleased BBC Radio 1 sessions and live concerts recorded by the Beeb, plus photos and lyrics. What say, Neil?

“This tour is about the new album, but also for the last couple of years I’ve been working on this huge boxset project with the record company, the BBC and my manager, going through a mass of archives I had of demo tapes and rehearsals I kept.”

And it’s not called The Blanc Tapes for nothing – we’re talking cassettes in many instances, aren’t we?

“Exactly. It’s every single thing we recorded, and every piece of music on there came off a tape. now digitalised. When I was going through demos I was running them past Stephen, who’s not well these days, and for whom the most important thing is he looks after his health. But I’ve kept him informed all the way along. We talk a lot. He agreed to do three interviews as part of all this, and I think that did him the world of good. But generally he just said, ‘Get on with it!’ to me.”

You’re not usually one to revisit past works, but I get the impression that you enjoyed the experience.

“Some of it was quite emotive. I hadn’t listened to much of it since it was recorded. I’m a musician – I don’t want to listen to my own music!”

You’ve said that in the past, so I guessed you must have felt you were in the right place at this particular time to tackle it now.

“It took a lot of persuasion, but I decided if we were going to do this it would have to be done properly. I really wanted to get locked into it. And I think the record company and the graphic designer were absolutely amazing.

“Putting the boxset together was hard work without a doubt, but the liner notes were relatively straight-forward, having run them all past Stephen, who told me what he thought. What was difficult at times was listening to all those cassettes. That’s all we could record on in the beginning – all those demos on quarter-inch tape, reel to reel. And the first time I listened back it wasn’t the music that got me – it was the air just before the first sound. As soon as I heard it, I knew where it was. Whoa – that’s a proper big memory, that!

“There’s a really early demo of Waves, where I think we were trying to get the synth going, because Stephen was doing the organ bit …”

Winding it up?

“Yeah, practically! Steam-powered! We borrowed a Wasp synthesiser. The mic. was open and I coughed. Normally you‘d edit that out, but I decided to leave that on. There’s also chatting at the end of one track. And we hoped those sort of touches would draw people in. You see the journey we took – this experimental band who then started forming slightly more structured songs, and then the more polished end results that came out. It was a relatively short period – taking us from around ’78 to ’86 – and It’s a long time ago now, but there’s still a hardcore of fans who enjoy all that, and they’re absolutely wonderful.”

I love that recent publicity shot of you and Stephen sat in a launderette, sharing an old joke no doubt.

“Yeah, that was taken when we did something for Classic Pop. We did an interview the day before at Stephen’s flat. He didn’t really want to do another photo session, and wasn’t up to walking too far. I asked, ‘Is there a launderette near here?’ We always had this joke when we did Irene & Mavis (1980), featuring these two old dears who did avant-garde music, having met in a launderette. This launderette was just around the corner, so we did that instead!”

Now and again, I tell Neil, I’ll revisit the old songs, and while travelling back from my Cornish holidays recently, Don’t Tell Me came on one of my compilations, myself and my better half proceeding to embarrass our teenage daughters with our in-car dancing. I felt sure they secretly loved it though.

“My daughter’s a similar age and her and her mates, when they have parties, will put on Living on the Ceiling and another track and really enjoy it – which is lovely! And I’m flattered by that.”

Of course, your daughter appeared on some of Blancmange’s recordings, I recall.

“Yes, with some backing vocals on Semi-Detached and when we re-recorded some of the Happy Families Too album, doing a re-imagining of that.”

How about your lad, Joe? Is he still causing a stir in his particular musical field?

“Yeah, he’s got a few releases out at the moment on different labels and compilations. He’s now working under the name Kincaid rather than Applebottom, getting very good reaction for a joint venture (with Sinal), Longhaul Flight Bathroom Romance Scene, and sonically it’s very exciting! Yep, I’m very proud of him.”

I’ve since checked out a recent Pirate Studios live set recorded in London, and concur. In fact, there are inherent international influences that bring to mind some of the innovations Blancmange sprang upon the mainstream market all those years ago. Well worth checking out (and you can start here via the Kincaid – UK Facebook page).

Talking of collaborations, while Stephen is sitting things out these days Neil has another sonic partner he’s working wonders with, involving occasional trips to a studio in Cornwall run by a musician and producer best known in the industry simply as Benge, revered in electronica circles for several of his own projects, not least with further Lancashire synth innovator John Foxx and his band The Maths.

In his current abode, Neil tells me he ‘has a small workroom’ rather than a studio, as before, adding, ‘I tend to mix in another studio so have the bare minimum – basically just a laptop computer, then take it to that next stage in the studio’. And that’s where the trips to East Cornwall follow.

“Yes, I did the new Blancmange LP with Benge down there, and he added some amazing touches. Some of the analogue sounds are absolutely sensational. They’re unique, some of the synths we used. It’s been an absolute delight, Benge and I got to know each other doing the Fader project.”

Listening In: Neil Arthur and Benge got their ears around the Fader project, and then the latest Blancmange album.

The latter album, followed an introduction through the pair’s shared management, Neil aware of Benge’s work with fellow Lancastrian, John Foxx, plus Gazelle Twin and Wrangler.

“We only met once before starting working together, but we certainly got to know each other, and sometimes music speaks louder than words, finding common ground and bonding on that.”

At that point we talk briefly about Benge’s new manor, and I mention how past writewyattuk interviewee Will Young is also a regular visitor to the Bodmin area. And his deadpan response?

“I didn’t see him whilst I was down. I had my head down. I didn’t even see King Arthur, and I’m an Arthur myself! I’ve been to Cornwall many times, but hadn’t been to Tintagel since I was very young, and it was absolutely peeing it down. I was the only person there. I had the whole place to myself. It was brilliant.”

So how does your super-sonic relationship with Benge work?

“With the Fader album, he was living in LA at that time with a view to moving there. He got a studio together and started writing all these instrumentals. At some point my manager told him he thought I’d like these, and when he did I absolutely locked in. It was meant to be. I had a load of lyrics and loads of it just seemed to fit. In a relatively short period of time we had an album’s worth, just sending files back and forth, working in our separate studios then got together for the mixing – the nuts and bolts of it.”

The resultant album, First Light,  came out in June, and pretty soon the pair were working again on the final sessions for what would become the latest Blancmange album. While all the songs on Unfurnished Rooms were written by Neil, his co-producer added percussion and layers of analogue synth, the pair then mixing the record in the latter’s Memetune studios. Does Neil instinctively know the difference between what becomes a Blancmange song and those that become Fader tracks?

“Yeah, the origins of all the Fader pieces came from Benge, him sending more developed or embryonic versions of instrumentals, with me adding the odd melody line, a vocal, and so on. With Blancmange I start it, writing songs and lyrics, and this time exchanging files. And his knowledge of those analogue instrumentation is far beyond mine. I’d write, and even if it was written on guitar I’d transfer that pretty soon to that electronic world I’m used to.

“There won’t be a guitar on a Fader album. That’s always going to be analog sound, but on a Blancmange album you could have anything, including the kitchen sink, or as we did back in the late ‘70s and ‘80s when we were using Indian instrumentation, Tupperware, guitar, synthesizer or synthesized drums, and what-have-you.”

Seeing as I hadn’t had a chance to listen to the new album when we spoke, I asked Neil to explain where he felt Unfurnished Rooms fitted among the Blancmange canon.

“Well … whereas Nil by Mouth was instrumental – as I thought it was about time we had a break from my gob! – and Semi-Detached had an instrumental on it too, then the last album Commuter 23 included several instrumentals, this is all structured songs with lyrics. That’s the way I decided I wanted to do it.

“There are 11 songs on the CD, and on the vinyl there are 10, but purely to ensure the quality of the cut wasn’t compromised, with the other track given away by those ordering the vinyl as a download. To answer your question though, we’re talking structured songs with lyrics and storylines.”

If he sounds a little vague there, I can understand that after my first few listens to the album. But that’s no bad thing, believe you me (sorry, I couldn’t resist adding those last three words). At the time though, I tried to ask a bit more. Prior to talking to Neil, I put on The Western from Blanc Burn, inspiring me to go right through that fine album again. Does that surmising put this latest album more in line with Blanc Burn?

“Yeah, although it doesn’t sound anything like that album. I’m not trying to do anything I’ve done before. That’s the only way I’d carry on. I’d have gone back to working in graphics otherwise, or tried to get another job.”

Last time we heard from you, it was on the back of the instrumental Nil by Mouth and partly-voiced Commuter 23. Was there a block, lyrically, at that stage, or were the notebooks still filling, with you just waiting on the right moment?

“The idea of the instrumental album really came from the fact that I’d spent more or less 20-odd years doing film music, giving me another insight into music production and writing. So I decided I’d explore that angle and have a break from the vocal approach.”

Who’ll be joining you on the road this time around? Is guitarist David Rhodes – on board in at least some capacity since the very first album 35 years ago – with you again?

“Absolutely. He’ll be playing guitar and doing vocals, while Oogoo Maia will be playing synthesisers and vocoder (I think that’s what he said, anyway), and Adam Fuest will be mixing and sorting out visuals, controlling sequencers, and God know’s what else!”

Will Blancmange super-fan John Grant – who appears on the new album’s epic finale Don’t Get Me Wrong – be making an appearance too?

“My goodness, wouldn’t that be lovely? I was so pleased when I heard he really liked our music. I asked him to take part via my manager. I had a song I said I’d really like him to play on. Not only did he play on it but he also ended up singing on it as well. And I couldn’t quite believe it!”

Blancmange also have dates with Heaven 17 later this year, and have already played with The Human League in 2017. Has Neil got to know Martyn Ware and Phil Oakey over the years?

“I was speaking to Phil last Sunday morning. We did a festival together, and last year did a handful of dates around bigger arenas as guests of theirs. I didn’t know him back in the day. I knew the girls, and Stephen was particularly friendly with them, but I knew Martyn quite well, as he helped us do one of our first demos. We go back a long way and he was a massive help to us, and we toured with them the other year. Him and Glenn (Gregory) and the rest of the team are just fantastic. So we’ll enjoy the Unfurnished Rooms tour and all those dates, without a doubt, promoting the album, and once we’ve done those we’ll be enjoying ourselves on tour with Heaven 17 as well, doing old and new songs.”

In the meantime, it’s now been 35 years since Happy Families. That must seem a lifetime away. As we’ve discussed, you’re not generally one to dwell on past successes, but I get the impression you’d left it just long enough to appreciate it all with hindsight through The Blanc Tapes project. And I’m guessing you ended up feeling very proud of that back-catalogue.

“Without sounding conceited, yeah I am actually! And I’d do it all again. I’d probably do it all exactly the same … and stop it at the same time as well. Fortunately we were able to return to it, and then I’ve been able to carry on from there … and I thoroughly enjoy it.”

With that Neil was away on another call, but not before I’d mentioned how I was looking forward to getting along and seeing him live.

“It would be lovely to see you there. Please make yourself know … either by throwing a rotten tomato or saying hello in a conventional way!”

Unfinished Roadworks: Neil Arthur’s Blancmange are heading to a town near you … very soon.

To revisit or catch up with the March 2016 writewyattuk interview/feature with Neil Arthur, head here.  

Blancmange’s Unfurnished Rooms UK tour dates: October 5th – Brighton Concorde 2; October 6th – London 229; October 19th – Southend Chinnery’s; October 20th  – Southampton 1865; October 25th – Darwen Library; October 26th – Newcastle Boiler Shop; October 27th – Edinburgh La Belle Angele; October 28th – Glasgow Audio; November 2nd – Bristol The Fleece; November 4th – Nottingham Rescue Rooms. For full tour information, details of how to order the new LP and early years’ boxset, and all the latest from the band, head to their official website or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

You can also catch Blancmange supporting Heaven 17 on The Tour of Synthetic Delights around the UK, taking in: November 10th – Sheffield Foundry (Students’ Union); November 11th – Liverpool Hangar 34;  November 17th – Hull Welly; November 18th – Manchester Academy 2; November 24th – Coventry Copper Rooms; November 25th – Norwich Waterfront. For more information check out the Heaven 17 website, or try the band’s own Facebook and Twitter pages.

 

 

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Reprising the Roachford Files – the Andrew Roachford interview

Soul Solutions: Andrew Roachford, hardly ever off the road, from the 1980s onwards

After his latest successful tour with Mike + The Mechanics, Andrew Roachford is back on the road with his band this autumn.

Know the name but struggling to place the back-catalogue? Well, his biggest hits came with his first collective in the ‘80s and ‘90s, going out under the name Roachford, their big UK hit Cuddly Toy a top-five smash when reissued in early 1989 and seven more top-40 singles following.

He’s remained busy ever since with his band, as a solo artist, and as a guest for the afore-mentioned outfit led by Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford, impressing audiences with his own take on Mechanics and Genesis classics and a few of his own numbers.

To catch him live is to be convinced by his stage presence. Yet as he revealed to me, there was a time when he was reluctant to show his face on a stage, still seeing himself primarily as a musician rather than singer, despite that wonderful soulful voice.

So what came first as a performer? The voice, the keyboards or his percussion skills?

“I started as a piano player, and it was down to people like my uncle, Bill Roachford, who brought the rest out of me. He was a saxophone player who played a lot of clubs from the late ‘50s through to the ’80s, known well by the likes of Ronnie Scott, a bit of a legend in muso circles and rightly so – a truly amazing musician. He heard me singing in a bedroom and was the one who said, ‘Right, we’ve got to get you singing out there’.

“For me, singing was something very personal. It was like being naked. Doing that in front of an audience was an absolute nightmare for me. But he pushed me and pushed me, eventually settling the nerves a little. That said, I remember when I got signed how the record company came to the first gig and were horrified because I was surrounded by keyboards and you couldn’t see me! They said, ‘We want you to be a pop star! Can you at least take away one keyboard?’ They had to literally wean me off these keyboards I hid behind.”

At least when Howard Jones did that around that era, his hair was poking out over the top.

“Yeah, exactly! Eventually I got used to the idea of singing, yet never really defined myself as a singer. To this day I’d still say I’m a musician with the singing just part of it, an extension of the music.”

The past few years have seen Andrew co-writing and touring with Mike + the Mechanics, and even enjoying a little cinematic success through Cuddly Toy being included on the soundtrack of the film Alpha Papa. And the 52-year-old seems remains a fixture on the road, having been around the music business all his life, including a teenage stint with The Clash – which we’ll get on to later – and that commercial breakthrough with his first band at the close of the ’80s, having formed Roachford two years earlier.

That four-piece were soon building a reputation for live and studio work, and by 1988 Roachford were supporting Terence Trent D’Arby and The Christians. A seven-album deal with Columbia followed, the band becoming the label’s biggest-selling UK act for 10 years.

Andrew’s first solo LP, Heart of the Matter, saw the light of day in 2003, before follow-up Word of Mouth in June 2005 back under the band name. Then in 2010 he joined Mike + the Mechanics, sharing lead vocals with Tim Howar on the following year’s album The Road, the start of a happy alliance.

I caught up with him at home in Balham – that Gateway to the South immortalised by Peter Sellers – having been based in South and South West London for most of his days. Is he between dates at the moment?

“Exactly, although I think I’m always between dates! I’m constantly between dates and recording, and I’m also starting to write another album.”

Let’s start with current release, Encore, though, an emotive, soulful album showcasing Andrew’s unique interpretation of classic tracks, all given something of a fresh Roachford twist.

“There’s an original track on there, but it’s more my take on songs I’ve always loved and I thought it would be interesting to put a twist on.”

That seems to be your general approach – making songs your own.

“I guess that’s because I’m a musician, not just someone who sings. I play piano and was bought up with an improvisation culture that my family taught me. I like to move things around. I don’t think I’ve ever done two gigs exactly the same.”

The Encore album sees Andrew with a full live band, capturing the kind of powerful performance he’s gained a reputation for, explaining, ‘Simplicity is the key’. Stand-out tracks include Sly and the Family Stone’s Family Affair, and Bill Withers’ Grammas’ Hands, both showcasing an artist on top of his game.

“This album showcases some of the songs that have fired me up over the years to become a performer and to look, to bring the magic in every show I play. I once read that a sign of a good singer wasn’t just about ability but more importantly about someone that when they sang you believe every word.”

He told me he switches between workbases, often working from home when starting out writing, but also at various studios, ‘depending on what vibe I want’. And what vibe is he heading towards with the next album?

“I think it’s going to be quite stripped down, all about the songs and the feel. When I listen to the great music I grew up with like Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together, I listen to the simplicity in the set and what it does to you, how it moves you. It’s important that music should have an emotional impact. That’s what I’m going for. It’s essentially soul.”

I love the albums Al Green did with Willie Mitchell, I tell him, not least Let’s Stay Together, Call Me and Still in Love With You, around that early ‘70s era.

“You know your stuff! I know that inside out and can’t get enough of that. It’s an education to someone like me when you hear the way they put the music together. It always feels so joyful, so effortless and yet so powerful.”

Al Green was another artist who reinterpreted songs, taking tracks by the likes of Barry Gibb, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, making them his own. You do a bit of that too.

“Definitely, and with Encore that was what it was all about. The originals are so perfect, classic songs like Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine, so you have to take that somewhere. It’s my nature to explore where things can go.

“With some of Al Green’s songs I thought his were originals but then found out they weren’t. First time I heard Jimi Hendrix doing Hey Joe I assumed it was his song because he put that spin on it. When Marvin Gaye sang I Heard it Through the Grapevine it was the same. I guess what they have in common is that they’re musical, so they can do that.”

He mentions a love of performing live, and is fired up about his forthcoming autumn tour.

“I love to be out on the road. I see myself as a working, gigging musician. That’s kind of what I’ve always done, no matter what’s happening as far as records are concerned. And it’s a great buzz you get when you connect with a crowd. There’s nothing like it.”

And you’ve just toured with Mike + the Mechanics too. You’re clearly enjoying that too.

“Yeah, I think we’re on year six or seven now, and it’s going from strength to strength. We’re also out next month around Europe for quite an extensive tour, then I come back to do my UK tour. At the moment the Mechanics have a new album out, Let Me Fly, and it’s going down really well, getting lots of airplay, well received. So there’s a lot going on.”

A few years ago Mike Rutherford had Paul Carrack and Paul Young (of Sad Café fame, rather than the former Q-Tips singer) as co-vocalists, and I guess it’s a similar dynamic with yourself and Tim Howar.

“It’s very similar and I think Mike had that plan. When he was working with the two Pauls, Paul Carrack was more the soul, r’n’b voice, while Paul Young had more of a rock edge, even though he was quite soulful too.

“Sadly, Paul Young then passed away, and they carried on with just Paul Carrack, but then after a while the energy had gone, Mike wanted to take a break, and Paul wanted to pursue more of a solo career, having been with the band a long time. Years later, when Mike started writing again, he wanted someone to co-write, finish songs and actually sing them. But who? That was the big question … and my name came up.”

Did you already know each other?

“Yeah, we’d bumped into each other over the years at Top of the Pops and things like that. I knew Paul Carrack too. I wasn’t sure it would work, and don’t think Mike was. But then we got in the studio, jamming, and within 10 minutes it just started to happen. There was something there.”

Did you know Tim Howar?

“No, Mike introduced us in the studio. But we clicked straight away. We’ve got a great synergy together and Tim had this amazing ‘full of rock’ voice, whereas mine’s more old school r’n’b. That’s where I’m coming from. But I love guitar too, harking back to when soul music used guitars and had more edge to it. That’s what I love.”

No disrespect intended, but it would be easy to suggest that being with Mike + The Mechanics offers a more Radio 2 friendly approach – a bit safe, maybe. But that’s not necessarily the case, is it?

“Yeah, Paul Carrack has an amazing voice and is an amazing singer, but I think we’re quite different. And I think that difference works. The Mechanics needed to move on. With the first tour we did, people didn’t really know what to expect, having known the old line-up so long. You could kind of feel that in the audience, wondering how this was going to work.

“In the beginning ticket sales were okay but not great, but then people started to get their heads around the fact that it’s a different thing. And when we do songs like The Living Years people are just in tears. It’s a great song and I think I sing from a place people really relate to. It’s an amazing song and it’s an honour to sing. When I really relate to a message, it’s a lot easier to put myself into it, make it my own.”

Mechanics Mates: Tim Howar, Mike Rutherford and Andrew Roachford back in 2011

It worked very well for Paul Carrack, serving as a bridge between his time with Squeeze and being his own man. I’m guessing this has helped you reach a wider audience too.

“It definitely has. And a lot of people have come to gigs not knowing much about me, but now I see a cross-section of people at my shows, and some of that has something to do with my work with the Mechanics. Sometimes you have to bring the mountain to Muhammad, so to speak! When they come along I don’t think they know what to expect. But after I generally get, ‘We didn’t expect that!’”

There must come a time when you’re having to explain to people – or shout at the radio – it’s not just about Cuddly Toy though. Don;t get me wrong – it’s a great song, but there’s much more in your armoury.

“Yeah, it’s one of those things.”

Do you think you get tarred with that one big hit brush?

“You can be. Take Rick Astley, who has a really lovely voice, and writes material, but came on the scene with Stock Aitken Waterman – it was almost impossible for him for so many years to get taken seriously. And I can really understand that frustration.

“It’s different for me – I’ve never seen myself as a pop star, but a musician out there rocking and rolling. And people who have come to my gigs over the last 15 or 20 years don’t really come just for Cuddly Toy. But when it gets played again or is on a film soundtrack, the old crowd come back, trying to work out what I’m going to do as well as Cuddly Toy and Family Man. Then they realise they’ve missed so much.

“When I tour Europe, Mike likes me playing my own songs too, and at first they said, ‘Well, we’ve got to include Cuddly Toy. But outside the UK that song is not my big tune. I was discovered there later.”

There’s a fine example online, a cracking live version of This Generation (from 1994’s Permanent Shade of Blue album) played in front of a studio audience in Liechtenstein in 2014. That’s just one song that seemed to be missed by the wider public.

“Yes, at some point I feel I should revisit and maybe re-record some of the old songs. My core fans want more people to hear those songs, getting frustrated on my behalf. I believe in that music, and feel sometimes it’s about timing.”

It’s not as if Cuddly Toy was a novelty song. At least you can be proud of it.

“Yeah, I guess what resonates about that song is that musically it had something going on. It wasn’t just manufactured pop. And people can tell the difference.”

You mentioned Bill Withers covers. What else is featured on Encore?

“Well, I love Sly and the Family Stone and bands from that era that weren’t in a particular pocket, and couldn’t be that narrowly categorised. And Family Affair is probably one of my favourite songs on this album. I also did a Red Hot Chili Peppers song, Under the Bridge, in a more soulful style.”

I guess the soul’s there in the original somewhere too.

“It is! But people don’t always hear it in that way until you do it in that way. It’s the same with Elton John. He was well into soul music, and although not obvious, that was at the root of what he was doing.”

I agree, and while you’ll probably laugh at me for this I’ll add that it was only really in the last five years or so that I truly realised Van Morrison was a soul singer.

“I’m the same! And it seems so obvious, once you know. It’s the same hearing the band Free, the singer – Paul Rodgers – saying he was trying to be Otis Redding. Now you think ‘of course!’

Soul Ambassador: The late, great Otis Redding, sorely missed

“Otis is another of my favourites. Again, he kind of cut through all the genres of the time. He was so powerful, so emotionally strong. I don’t think there’s a lot of that around now. There are a lot of people who are great technicians vocally, but who don’t allow themselves to be vulnerable or open up in that way.”

You mentioned never playing the same way two nights in a row, and Otis Redding was a master of that, to the point where he must have frustrated those recording him trying to get those previous performances down on tape.

“Yeah! And I guess the greats of our time include Amy Winehouse, yet you hear the producer Mark Ronson say how recording her was a nightmare as she did a completely different vocal every take.

“With Mike and the Mechanics I’ve had to rein it in a bit, as I’m pretty much free with my style, singing how I feel in that moment. But you have to respect the nature of the material and curb the movement a little.”

You mentioned earlier your uncle, Bill Roachford, being a musician. Was he a first generation UK arrival?

“Yeah, on my Mum’s side (Andrew’s surname is his mother’s) there were seven of them, but Bill came over on his own, around 18, quite a big deal coming to a country he’d never been to, and so different from the Caribbean. It may have looked glamorous watching snow scenes back in Barbados. but with no notion of how cold it must feel, and that damp British thing. It was kind of a shock.

“But then my Mum came over and they ended up living in the UK. The plan was never to stay but they ended up here longer than they were in the Caribbean, although my mother and uncle ended up moving back to Barbados.”

Guitar Man: Andrew Roachford tries a different approach

Andrew adds that the Roachford family were better known as teachers than musicians in Barbados.

“I wasn’t the first though, my mother and great-grandparents were in music. And I was very happy I could show my grandma before she died a massive poster for one of my gigs, marked ‘sold out’. That was lovely. She’d never been to England, but she was the one who insisted we learn to play piano.”

Andrew reckons he grew up ‘surrounded with jazz and soul’. Was there a lot of music around the house growing up?

“We’re talking literally bands rehearsing in the living room, so I heard a great level of musicianship. My mother would go to clubs, and my father played drums and is now a conductor. When my mother was pregnant with me she was going round all the gigs they were playing. So I was hearing music before I was born, and I think that makes a difference – it has an effect.”

Looking at the music you’ve played over the years, I guess you’re no music snob and you’re not one to lazily label bands and songs, categorising everything you hear.

“No, I really like Prince’s music, for example – there are influences of Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield, but he makes it his. He started through the r’n’b route, but was also into David Bowie and all sorts.

“People expect your tastes to be narrow, and reflect who they think you are culturally and socially, but I can fit quite comfortably with all kinds of people, and my music is a reflection of what I listen to. If you see my CD collection or my playlist, it’s very eclectic, but what it has in common is that is has some kind of soul and real grit to it. I love artists that move me, no matter what genre.”

There was the seven-album deal with Columbia. Yet you then made that solo move, and had the best of both worlds in that respect.

“I really enjoyed my time at Columbia. As it was so long I saw so many come and go, and when you’re in the music business the people who sign you are the ones that really believe in you. So when they leave the company you’re at the mercy of the new guys that come in, who might not have the same vision or passion, or it takes them a while to get it. That was happening for a bit and while the time I spent with Sony was great, by then it was time to move on. And there’s always going to be that struggle between art and commerce, so often contradicting each other.”

Band Substance: Andy Roachford and Derrick Taylor out front with Roachford in the late ’80s   (Photo: Flat Eric’s Bass & Guitar Collection blogsite)

Any other original Roachford members in your current band?

“No, the guys from the original band all have their own projects these days. For years the bass player (Derrick Taylor) was working as a musical director for Gabrielle, Hawi (Gondwe) the guitarist was with Amy Winehouse for a while. And the drummer, Chris (Taylor), who lives in Brighton, is more into world music and percussion.

“I think people seem to think it’s going to last forever when you have a group, but I don’t look at it like that. It lasts as long as it lasts, then something else happens. And I really love where I’m at now. I still see some of the guys and have a lot of respect for them, and was really lucky to work with them, but it was like a marriage and when we went our separate ways it was amazing to see other people and find so many other influences out there I had no idea about.”

With that in mind, excuse the pun but away from the studio and the road, are you a family man?

“Ha! Well, they call me the king of puns, so I may have heard that one before! But do you know what? I’ve spent so much of my life on the road I haven’t really had time. I kind of missed that one. I don’t really have a family in that sense but I’m on the road with my brother, and my cousins are around all the time. I’ve always had family around.”

Also on that rich Roachford CV was a stint working in the studio with The Clash as a teenager, something he felt helped give himan incredible grounding in music’. How did that link come about?

“It’s a crazy one really. When I started music college, Clash manager Bernie Rhodes was trying to start a record label, and needed to get some people into the studio to help with that, and one thing they wanted was an in-house keyboard player.

“They found me, and I didn’t really know anything about The Clash and definitely wasn’t a fan. When I started at the studio they were away in America, touring with David Bowie I think, so I didn’t see anyone from the band for six months. Then one day they turned up, just after they’d got rid of two members. I was basically there every day for a year or maybe more while they put that album together.”

Clash Mates: Paul Simonon and Joe Strummer around the time of the Clash LP Andrew Roachford played on (Photo found on The Clash Blog)

So we’re talking about the final album, 1985’s Cut the Crap. Did you get to know Joe Strummer?

“Yes, very well. He was a lovely guy, a very intelligent guy and big-hearted, and that educated me about The Clash. He really felt what he was singing about and really meant it. Even though maybe he came from a nice background, he really was a working-class hero. He’d travel on the tube every day to the studio in Camden, and never went for all that pop star status.

“The last time I saw him was at Glastonbury Festival, with his band The Mescaleros. He was living in that area and found me, telling me he’d recorded all these jam sessions I was involved with, and had all the master tapes but couldn’t find a machine to play them on! It was an old eight-track two-inch tape.”

Have those sessions seen the light of day since?

“No, I haven’t heard anything about them. I need to talk to his family about that. But he invited me over. He was into his rave culture and invited me to this campfire gathering where they were going to be jamming. But I turned it down – I was getting a bit cold. It was the end of the evening. I wish I’d gone though. Instead, I went off-site, and that was the last time I saw him. He had a heart attack that following winter.

“But we really connected and I really liked him as a person. He also helped when I was still finding myself as a singer, telling me, ‘You’re great. If I sang like you I wouldn’t be in this band! That was his sense of humour. He was also into the whole soul scene and reggae thing. He was great.”

I was expecting you to say your link was through Mick Jones rather than Joe Strummer, through his time with Big Audio Dynamite.

“I met Mick afterwards. We were both on Columbia, although of course he knew my Clash connection. And of course you couldn’t help but notice Bernie Rhodes. He was so prominent, and had this strong connection with Sony and Columbia. Malcolm McLaren was connected with that whole thing as well.”

Did you get to know Mick Jones pretty well too?

“Yes, he’s a lovely guy as well. And it was great through Gorillaz seeing Mick and Paul Simonon back together again all those years later.”

Finally, you talk about a connection when you play live, and I guess that’s irrespective of the size of the crowd or venue on certain nights. There seem to be a few intimate venues on this autumn tour. Yet I get the impression audiences will get nothing less than a full-felt Roachford performance.

“Oh definitely! You have to honour the music and honour the people who bought a ticket, and whether it’s 65 people or 65,000 you’re going to get 100 per cent!”

Travelling Man: Andrew Roachford, out and about and visiting a town near you in late 2017

Andrew Roachford’s UK tour visits Southport’s Atkinson Theatre (October 13th), Leicester The Musician (October 14th), Birmingham Academy (October 20th), Sheffield Academy (October 21st),  Southampton The Brook (October 27th), Seaton The Gateway (October 28th), Chester Live Rooms (November 2nd), Darwen Library Theatre (November 3rd), Selby The Venue (November 4th), Newcastle Academy (November 10th), Glasgow Oran Mor (November 11th), Aberdeen The Assembly (November 12th), Hull Fruit (November 17th), Norwich Waterfront Studio (November 18th), Lewes Con Club (November 19th), Farncombe St John’s Church (November 24th), Islington Academy (November 25th), Manchester Academy 3 (December 1st), Bedford Esquires (December 2nd), Douglas Villa Marina Prom Suite (December 7th). 

For more tour information and the latest from Roachford, head to his website and Facebook page. 

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Talking ’bout that Who generation – back in conversation with Richard Houghton

Did you happen to catch a band called The High Numbers in Greenford, West London, in 1963? They were regulars at the Oldfield Hotel around then, still playing there the following year, by which time they’d changed name to The Who. Barbara Hicks was one of those lucky enough to be there, and remembers ‘the place was always completely full and jumping’.

Meanwhile, on the Mod scene at the Florida Rooms in Brighton, Hazel Smith tells us that same group’s singer, Roger Daltrey, had her and her friends ‘drooling’, putting her tinnitus down to that gig, having stood too close to the main speakers. Further afield, Mick Shelton was at the Corporation Hotel, Derby, saying The High Numbers (they regularly switched between names, dependent on bookings) ‘went down a storm’, while Tony Churchouse reckons they played so loud at the Regency Ballroom, Bath, ‘you could feel it in your stomach’.

John Schollar goes further back, having played in a band called The Beachcombers who placed an ad in the Harrow and Wembley Observer for a new drummer, Keith Moon turning up for the audition at the Royal British Legion, Harrow, in December 1962. Brought along by his Dad, aged around 16 – five years younger than the rest of the band – he was deemed unsuitable … until he played, getting the job there and then, sticking with them for around 18 months until joining Daltrey, John Entwistle and Pete Townshend in The Detours, the band soon re-christened. Schollar also mentions the young drummer shooting their singer with a starting pistol, one of the earliest anecdotes related to a legendary character soon labelled ‘Moon the loon’.

On another night at the Railway Hotel, Wealdstone, Harold Mortimer – the venue’s entertainment manager then – recalls one local ‘in a bit of a disagreeable mood’ arguing with Townshend, ending up throwing him on to a snow-covered pavement. And barely 10 miles south, Richard White, in a South London band called the Rivals, was on the bill with the band at Goldhawk Social Club, Shepherd’s Bush, remembering being complimented by Townshend on his bass playing, while Daltrey ‘always had a crowd of girls around him’ and ‘Keith was totally barmy – you’d be travelling somewhere by train and he’d be running through the railway carriages. He was very extrovert but very likeable and very sociable. He loved talking to people and loved having a laugh’.

There were occasional North West visits too, Steve Gomersall catching The High Numbers at Blackpool Opera House in August 1964, The Beatles and The Kinks further up the bill. He tells us how Entwistle was listening to the headliners in a dressing room through a tiny PA speaker, insisting John Lennon was singing a rude version of A Hard Day’s Night, not so much working like a dog as something far less savoury in the company of the screaming girls present, however oblivious they were.

We also get Michael Smith Guttridge, whose band The Avalons supported them at Rawtenstall Astoria, recalling how Moon – ‘probably the friendliest’ – ‘had gone walkabout’ in East Lancs, borrowing our drummer’s jacket’ while Townshend ‘was drinking red wine from the bottle, unaware that Keith had urinated in it’. And back on the West Coast, Syd Bloom was at Morecambe’s near-empty Floral Hall Ballroom, parked ‘right outside on the promenade’, when he found Daltrey ‘freaking out at the lack of interest’, saying how at Eel Pie Island people were ‘queueing for two days to get in’. But Daltrey still bought him a drink, inviting him backstage, adding, “I bet there weren’t 60 people there that night, but Keith Moon still managed to pick a fight with somebody’.

Those are just a few of the top tales of the influential r’n’b outfit’s early shows told to Richard Houghton for his new Red Planet title, The Who – I Was There, an epic read painstakingly compiled. And by the end of that year the band were Ready Steady Go regulars, Top of the Pops guests in Manchester, playing the Empire Pool, Wembley, the big time well and truly cracked. But what about the author, who was barely four when they played those first gigs as The Who –  when did they first come on to his radar?

“Listening to the radio as a teenager you inevitably got to hear The Who. When Radio 1 still played songs featuring guitars, stuff like Pinball Wizard would get an airing. I remember the greatest hits album, The Story of The Who, the cover of which featured an exploding pinball machine, being prominently displayed in the window of my local record shop in Northampton. It was a ‘must have’, and a great introduction to the back-catalogue.

Rich Pickings: Richard Houghton stands proudly with his latest publication, The Who – I Was There

Ever get to see them live?

“Yes, at Stafford Bingley Hall in 1979 and at Wembley Stadium in 1980, both times with Kenney Jones on drums. Sadly, I never saw them with Keith Moon. They were rumoured to be playing a ‘secret’ gig at Loughborough University the year I went up, as someone who worked there developed the lasers for their stage-show and playing the new student union building was supposed to be their way of saying ‘thank you’. But Keith’s death about a month before put paid to that.  I don’t know whether the story is true, but it would have been great to see them in an 1,100-capacity venue like that.”

The book runs to more than 400 pages, with 400-plus fans, friends and colleagues of the band telling their stories of seeing, knowing or working with them, right back to their roots. Can Richard explain the basic concept behind The Who – I Was There.

“I’m trying to tell the story of the band in the words of the people who were there and in the process give a different take on a story that has been told many times before. I’m hopefully capturing memories that might otherwise be lost and preserving something that is part social history, part pop history. Seeing a band live isn’t just about the band – it’s also about the people, the venue, how the crowd interacts. And I’m trying to take the reader back to what it was like to see The Who at the Railway in Wealdstone or the Trade in Watford during the height of Mod.”

Did this – like your last two books on The Beatles and The Rolling Stones – prove something of a learning curve?

“I was pretty familiar with the story of The Who, although some of the reflections on Tommy – how Pete Townshend had to do quite a sales job to persuade people to listen to an album about a severely disabled child who is empowered through playing pinball – were quite illuminating. But it left me feeling sorry for The Who’s sound engineer. Pete wasn’t afraid to let his feelings show if things weren’t right, as they often weren’t when they toured the Who’s Next album and were trying to work with backing tapes in what was the pre-digital age. Bob Pridden, who famously engineered a lot of The Who’s shows, was often on the receiving end of verbal abuse when things weren’t going right, especially when they were trying to use quadraphonic sound. It’s all so much simpler now for sound engineers.”

How do you feel The Who’s personnel differed from the characters in the other bands you’ve featured in this series?

“They were four quite strong personalities, all pulling in different directions. Even John Entwistle, who has a reputation for being the quiet one, was it seems quite the party animal. And the tension within the group often spilled out on stage – Roger quitting, Keith and John quitting, Pete punching Keith, and so on. The Who were famous for their explosive stage act, and the fireworks weren’t just theatrics put on for the audience.”

Do you think you know more about the individual members of The Who from writing this book? Only it’s far too easy to latch on to the clichés, i.e ‘Moon the loon’ and so on.

“What I learnt about Keith was that he was mad as a hatter but a really nice bloke. If he was a child now, he’s probably be diagnosed as having ADHD. But he channeled his energies into playing the drums and as a result became what he himself described as ‘the best Keith Moon-type drummer in the world.’ But the others come across as nice blokes too, giving lifts home to female fans to make sure they got home safely and so on.

“It’s easy to overlook how much contact big bands had with their audiences back in the day when you had to play six or seven nights a week to get your music heard. Don’t forget, when The Who started out there was no Radio One, and if you wanted your music to be heard then getting out and playing live was the best – in fact, the only – way to do it.”

Were there points in compiling this book where you felt, ‘Oh no, not another Keith Moon prank or Pete Townshend trashed guitar story’?

“No, because that’s part of what they were, and it also charts the evolution from a band that did it to create a spectacle through to a band that was forced to carry on doing it because the audience expected it.

“Some of the memories – ‘I caught a drumstick’, ‘I saw the roadie give Pete a guitar that had been patched together because he didn’t want to smash his Rickenbacker’ – are precious to the individuals telling those stories, and that’s what I’ve tried to encapsulate too. Teenage memories of seeing your heroes live on stage.  I think the instrument-smashing helps paint the picture of The Who, as do the stories about them ‘liberating’ gear from the BBC and flogging it to support bands!”

A lot of the material used has been previously unpublished, such as photos and memorabilia. Were there a few ‘wow’ moments while sifting through the responses?

“Although The Who’s career is well documented, the real ‘wow moments for me were in uncovering four different Who shows that were not listed in other books, including one in Wem in Shropshire where the three people who were there can’t even agree on which year it was and where the date doesn’t seem to be recorded anywhere. It’s not exactly up there with discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb, but it is still quite exciting from a rock historian’s point of view, if I can call myself that!”

If there was one Who or High Numbers gig you could go back in time and sneak into, which would it be?

“Even though it would be great to go back to when they were starting out and playing small clubs and dance halls, I think it would have to be one of their two gigs at Charlton Athletic FC’s ground, probably the 1974 show. They were playing to 60,000 people and it just seems like it was a fantastic celebration of their music.”

I get the impression Tommy got a lot of spins in the Houghton household at one stage, seeing as you mention how your son Bill knew the words to Sally Simpson by the time he was four.

“We had the soundtrack on the CD player in the car for a while, and it’s perhaps not fair to subject your child to something like that when he should be listening to The Wheels On The Bus or something a little less intellectually challenging than a Pete Townshend lyric. But in my defence he would keep asking for it.  And I wouldn’t let him watch the Ken Russell movie of the album, even though I had it on DVD. That was because it was an AA certificate – aimed at 14 year olds and older – when first released. I didn’t think some of the scenes in the film were suitable for a four-year-old, and certainly didn’t want to subject him to Oliver Reed’s singing.

“Bill’s 21 now. He’s more into Grime now than he is The Who … and I’m proud to say that I don’t really know what Grime is.”

Could you pick out a favourite Who album and track, for whatever reason?

“I think it has to be I Can See For Miles.  What I love about Pete Townshend is that he never writes what you would call classic boy-girl love songs. This is a great example: ‘You’re gonna lose that smile, because all the while…’ But Roger Daltrey’s singing about getting revenge in such a beautiful voice.”

I see your Rolling Stones book is getting a new edition. How will that differ from the original Gottahavebooks version reviewed on these pages two years ago?

“It will have around 25,000 extra words and loads of different images. The publisher will also be issuing it at a more competitive price, so hopefully more people will be tempted to buy it. I haven’t seen the artwork yet, but the layout on the Beatles and Who books have attracted lots of favourable comments, which is nice. The Rolling Stones are my first love, and I’m hoping to go and see them next month in Zurich, although the last time I travelled abroad to see the Stones Mick Jagger had a sore throat and the show was cancelled.”

You’re already hard at work on the next book too, I see – an I Was There project focusing on memories of Pink Floyd. How can people who saw the band get involved?

“I’m working on the book right now, and it’s amazing how many gigs they played in the late ‘60s before hitting the big time, including shows not far from my own Lancashire patch in Nelson, Southport, Ainsdale and Blackpool, the latter supporting Jimi Hendrix. And if you saw Pink Floyd, in the early days or later in their career, I’d love to hear your memories via isawpinkfloyd@gmail.com.

So how is this director of operations for Chorley Community Housing – based between offices in Chorley, Leigh and Manchester, where he also lives – managing to fit in the day-job with all this extra work?

“Writing the books is still a hobby. It would be great to be able to concentrate on my writing full-time, but I still need to pay my half of the mortgage.”

For a link to a writewyattuk interview with Richard Houghton following the publication of The Beatles – I Was There last year, head here.

The Who – I Was There is available from HMV stores and can be ordered at Waterstones, other reputable bookshops, or direct via redplanetzone.com. Red Planet’s I Was There series also includes Neil Cossar’s newly-published David Bowie – I Was There titles, available from the same outlets. Meanwhile, Richard’s Rolling Stones – I Was There is due out later this month, with his Pink Floyd book set to follow later this year, along with Neil Cossar’s Bob Dylan – I Was There.

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After the pills ‘n’ thrills and bellyaches – the Rowetta interview

:Mondays Return: Happy Mondays are back on the road (Photo: Paul Husband)

:Mondays Return: Happy Mondays are back on the road (Photo: Paul Husband)

Legendary Madchester trailblazers Happy Mondays are set to return later this year for a 25-date UK and Irish tour, their Twenty Four Hour Party People Greatest Hits Show, with those November and December appearances marking the 30th anniversary of the band’s debut LP.

But don’t think for one moment that Rowetta is having the summer off ahead of those 25 shows. In fact the band’s esteemed guest vocalist is busier than ever. That said, the day we spoke, the sun was out in her home city and she’d managed to sneak off to the park to walk her dogs.

Born Rowetta Idah, later taking the married name Satchell, she’s one of those music artists best known by her first name, like Madonna, Prince and … err, Bez, having recorded and toured with Happy Mondays from 1991/2000 and now back with the original line-up.

She was already on the scene when she joined the band that took her to that next level, a dance hit with Sweet Mercy, Reach Out, later sampled by various acts, most famously by Black Eyed Peas on their hit Boom Boom Pow. It’s also likely that you know her for her stint on The X-Factor in 2004, ending up ‘last lady standing’ in that hit ITV talent show’s first series, and in recent times has been working with Joy Division and New Order bass legend Peter Hook and his band, including her part in the Hacienda Classical project. But we’ll get to all that later.

Rowetta was between festival dates with the Mondays when I called, 17 years after her initial nine-year journey with Shaun Ryder, Bez and co. ended. And she’s loving it again.

“It’s more a greatest-hits set with these dates, but we’re really looking forward to adding songs for the tour. We played Sunderland at the weekend and we’re playing better than ever. Everyone’s getting along. It’s not going to be easy, with around five days on some weeks, but when you’re all getting along it’s a joy.”

A bit different to first time around?

“Completely! For a start Bez and Shaun don’t travel with the rest of us, as we go for soundchecks as well. But in general it’s just a lot easier.”

Happy Holidays: Rowetta in Lake Garda (Photo: Angie Wynne)

Happy Holidays: Rowetta during a visit to Lake Garda (Photo: Angie Wynne)

Are you suggesting you’ve all grown up?

“Well, you have to! I had children first time around, but a lot of them hadn’t settled down with partners and so on. Everyone’s different now. My children have grown now, while Shaun has little ones and likes going home to them. Completely different. It was one big party before, but there was a lot of addiction involved. That’s all gone out of the window and it’s a joy. You can really enjoy life now, and the music, and the gigs. It’s fantastic.”

So how old are your children now?

“They’re 33 and 34 … they’re older than me!”

Personally, I’d say Rowetta doesn’t seem any older now than when she was guesting with US dance collective Inner City in the mid-‘90s.

“I was only on one track, Your Love. Paris (Grey, vocalist) was pregnant at the time and we did this Serial Diva mix. And it’s a good tune. Actually, I was walking through the park with my kids one day in Manchester, and Johnny Marr was walking past with his kids and said, ‘I’ve just heard you on this track!’ He recognised my voice. That made my year!”

So how did she get involved with that Detroit outfit?

“Well, they got somebody to remix that track, and came to Manchester quite a bit. My voice was quite well known then, so rather than sampling me, they wanted me to come in, and it turned out really well. The problem was that they were about to tour but Paris changed her mind when she got pregnant, so they didn’t do any promo for that single.”

Rowetta’s first tentative steps into the business came in the late ‘80s, releasing club favourites Back Where We Belong and Passion with Vanilla Sound Corps, and Stop This Thing with Dynasty of Two. She also worked as a backing singer, credits including added vocals on Manchester outfit Simply Red’s hugely successful Stars album in 1991.

But it was with Happy Mondays that she truly crossed over, 1990’s top-five single Step On catapulting her to fame, followed by the albums Pills’n’Thrills and Bellyaches – given a 25th anniversary tour in 2015 – and less-lauded Yes Please! plus three hectic world tours. You could say that several uppers and downers followed before the turbulent Mondays split in 2000. But that wasn’t the end of the story, as it turned out.

Rowetta finally resurfaced, playing herself in Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 film 24 Hour Party People, with Steve Coogan in the key role as Tony Wilson in a memorable  comedic take on the Factory Records story.

It seems her past was never far behind. As we touched on addiction before, I asked how involved she was in the house and club scene.

“I sang a lot, including that big tune sampled by Black Eyed Peas and Robin S, so I was more known for my singing. I had two young children back then. Luckily I’m not an addict and I left all that behind. But I then joined the Mondays, not realising the sort of things they were on and how heavy it was. When I found out I just thought, ‘Oh no, not again! Do I know anyone who’s not on drugs?’ It makes life so much harder. I‘m just so lucky I’ve not got an addictive personality, surrounded by people who have.

“I like a whisky, but a lot of the time you drink because you’re bored or because of the people you’re around. Sometimes you just need to stop associating with those people. It’s all just part of growing up.”

First time around with the Mondays, the rest of the band had already been together a while. Were they on your radar from the start?

“Only through Tony Wilson. I watched his programme on Granada. I remember him saying in 1976 about the Sex Pistols being the greatest band in the world. Then he was saying the same about the Mondays in 1989. I decided I had to see this band. When I did I just went, ‘Oh my God, I can see myself on stage with these! It took me about six months to persuade everybody else though.

“I sat in the office all the time. I was managed by Elliot Rashman and his office was opposite Nathan McGough’s. I’d see mine then pop in to see theirs. Eventually I persuaded them they needed me! I could see myself doing a T-Rex type of thing, when Gloria Jones was involved.

“I wanted to be in a punk band but didn’t have the right voice. This was the closest I was going to get, apart from working with Hooky on Colony. That’s where I’m really at home, it’s just finding the opportunity to do things like that. As a kid I could never see how I could be in a punk band, but the Mondays found that role for me.”

Step On: Bez in live action with Happy Mondays

Step On: The incomparable Bez and Shaun Ryder in live action with Happy Mondays

Born to an English mother of Jewish origin and a Nigerian father, who left when she was three, it took Rowetta a while to realise her potential. Was this Bury Grammar School pupil always confident of her abilities as a singer?

“Absolutely not! It was the last thing I wanted to be. There are those who say, ’I came out of the womb singing!’ I didn’t. My Mum would say, ‘Shut up!’ all the time. I wasn’t allowed in the choir. I stood out too much. It was never encouraged. I didn’t think I had any talent and wasn’t bothered. I never sang anything.

“Shirley Bassey said – and this might have happened to a lot of black American singers if they hadn’t been surrounded by people similar to them – when you’re in an all-white school with very clean, pure voices, and open your mouth and maybe sing an octave lower than some of the boys, people don’t appreciate that’s talent. You just don’t fit in.

“I was never encouraged until I was singing along to something while looking after this woman suffering cancer. We were sat upstairs in her pub and she told me I should go downstairs on to the stage and sing. I did, and the reaction was amazing. I couldn’t believe it. It was a rubbish song, I can’t even remember what it was, but later I entered a talent competition at Butlin’s, Barry Island, and never looked back. I couldn’t believe I won that competition. I thought I was older but was told I was only 10.”

It was in 2010 that Rowetta first appeared with Peter Hook and the Light on his Unknown Pleasures tour, going back to the Joy Division catalogue. And the following year she also recorded with the band. Before we spoke, I reminded myself of that collaboration, watching a powerful live performance of Atmosphere recorded at a church in Macclesfield.

“Oh, amazing – the whole night! Howard Marks introduced us, someone else no longer with us. There’s a clip of him watching me while I’m singing New Dawn Fades, and he wrote the most incredible review. I get goosebumps reading that. It gave me the biggest confidence boost. And I’m so lucky I work with Hooky and the Hacienda Classical.

“I often spend Christmas with him and his family. I love them and he treats me like one of them. Singing with him is just a joy. He’s one of the greatest bass players in the world, his music’s phenomenal, as are Ian Curtis’ lyrics and melodies. I don’t think you can get better than that.”

Rowetta’s Manchester link was underlined recently with an impassioned performance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show backed by a Manchester Camerata string quartet, covering Candi Staton’s You Got the Love in memory of the victims of the Arena bombing. That spine-tingling moment came six days after the tragedy, and after an equally-emotional London show with Peter Hook and the Hacienda Classical (hence the Camerata link).

It made for powerful television, a timely, heart-felt response, Rowetta telling me she’d been particularly shaken by the sad tale of the youngest victim, eight-year-old Saffie Roussos.

“I couldn’t believe the response. I was buzzing after playing the Royal Albert Hall, yet still devastated by what had happened, and stayed on to do Andrew Marr’s show. My kids had a joint birthday that Tuesday, the day after the bombing. I said, ‘Let’s cancel your birthday this year’, and they were really understanding. I didn’t want to celebrate while children were missing.

“It was a really weird week, with the elation but also the devastation, so to be asked to sing on that show, which I love anyway, with a string quartet was just phenomenal. An honour any week, but on that Sunday in particular, with the Home Secretary and Diane Abbott there, it was surreal almost. And the response after … something like 200,000 people watched it immediately after, leaving all these comments, Twitter going mad, all these people with so much grief, saying how it affected them.

“I then got on a train to Leeds to meet a friend there, and got a round of applause. I started crying there and then. I couldn’t believe it. It was pure emotion, people telling me how they were feeling. Each night I kept thinking about that little girl and whether she’d been found, although you knew she’d passed. It brought the best out of Manchester, but was so horrible.

“We had that bombing in Manchester years before, but there were warnings before and no fatalities. This was completely different, and at a kids’ gig! I’ve played the Arena so many times, and was thinking of all the great nights there. Also, Peter Hook’s daughter was there, and the thought of that stampede to get out … I can’t imagine how bad that’d be.

“But we have to carry on, and we were honoured – myself and Hooky – to be asked by the Eavis family to lead a minute’s silence at Glastonbury Festival. Hooky asked me to say a few words at the end too. And to perform with the Hacienda Classical straight after …”

Those performances saw Rowetta truly back in the spotlight, 13 years after her successful stint on the first series of The X-Factor. On that occasion, having impressed the judges with a rendition of Lady Marmalade, she was placed in the over-25 category, her soulful, powerful voice soon proving a hit with audiences, her performances earned rave reviews. She went on to reach the final four, finishing as the highest-ranked female, even leading to an opportunity to release a self-titled album the next year.

Apparently Steve Brookstein won that year, but this is where my musical snobbery comes into it, and I borrow a phrase from my former boss Pete Storey when I tell Rowetta that – no offence – I missed all that, and if The X Factor was being filmed in my back garden I’d draw the curtains.

“I’ll be really honest and say that was for my Grandma. She didn’t like the Happy Mondays and didn’t like house music, and didn’t reckon I’d made it. If it wasn’t for her I probably would have walked away. But she loved the idea of me being on telly every week and was able to come and see me, and all her friends could see me singing songs she liked, including River Deep, Mountain High.

“I played along and got drunk before the audition, and enjoyed it. I wasn’t doing much else and thought, ‘What harm can it do?’ You then get right into it and wonder what you’re doing! Then there comes a point where you feel, ‘I’m not singing that song, and I’m not wearing that, after a few weeks. I look like a tit!

“At the beginning you don’t mind, and it’s ‘anything for Grandma!’ But I got a fantastic gay following from it, and to be the top woman in the show … It wasn’t my kind of scene and I was right out of my comfort zone. Not many songs I wanted to sing were allowed. I wanted to do Stop Crying Your Heart Out by Oasis, but Simon (Cowell) said that wouldn’t work. But a few years later he got Leona (Lewis) to do it! But it was good really, and got me back in the public eye.”

Simon Cowell described you as ‘Amazing, but barking bloody mad’, apparently.

“Well, I was drunk at the time! When he found I wasn’t really that mad he wanted me to be madder on TV. I can’t just perform like that though. I wanted to learn my songs. Then there are press stories coming out. My head was absolutely battered. And everywhere you go you’re recognised … for something you don’t really want to be recognised for! They say, ‘Sing Over the Rainbow to my Mum’, and you think, ‘I don’t really want to!’ That went on for a few years. But I’ve no regrets. I did enjoy it really.”

It was during her time on The X Factor that it was revealed to the wider public that Rowetta had been a victim of domestic violence at the hands of her ex-husband, a former drug dealer who she married at 18. She left him in 1987, the couple later divorcing, Rowetta since becoming a spokesperson for domestic violence awareness, and in 2005 featuring in BBC documentary Battered and Bruised.

You mention past run-ins with alcoholism, and spoke out on the issue after your personal experiences …

“The thing with me though, I drank too much, but there were reasons why I was drinking. The only thing I drink is whisky and I used to smoke cigarettes when I was down or when I was bored. When I decided to stop that and go around with different people all that stopped. My thing was that I was a battered wife. I got therapy, and now I don’t drink ridiculously, and don’t even smoke cigarettes.”

You talking about your experiences has helped other victims of domestic violence too.

“Definitely, and it’s an honour to be involved. I was lucky I wasn’t an addict. Sometimes you just need a cuddle. If you haven’t got anyone to get a cuddle from, that’s when you turn to other things.”

I get the impression you’re in a good place in that respect now, with relationships and so on.

“Fantastic, although I’m too busy to have a proper relationship. But I’m in a very happy place.”

Live Passion: Happy Mondays, live at Southampton Guildhall (Photo: Jack Gorman)

Live Passion: Happy Mondays, live at Southampton Guildhall (Photo: Jack Gorman)

Rowetta’s certainly remained busy since The X Factor, including TV appearances for the BBC’s Children in Need, and a cameo as herself on ITV’s Footballers’ Wives: Extra Time. She was also looking to forward to playing Preston Guild Hall’s summer ball when we spoke, while her cult club status has led to gigs as far away as Japan, as well as playing the Pop Goes the ’80s UK circuit.

Away from all that, she made her musical theatre debut in 2007 with Suranne Jones at Manchester’s Palace Theatre in The Best of Broadway, followed by a spell at the Indigo with Marti Webb, Stephen Gately and Maria Friedman in Christmas on Broadway. Later there were nationwide tours of The Songs of Sister Act with former Three Degrees star – and good friend – Sheila Ferguson and the London Community Gospel Choir. She’s also presented shows on Gaydio, community station Salford City Radio, and Manchester United FC fanzine show Red Wednesday on BBC Radio Manchester. So is it likely that her future is in radio or as an actress?

“No, I’m too busy singing! I’ve been offered musicals, but I’ve not got time with all the gigging and writing, rather than stopping in one venue for one show. I don’t think I could really do that for six weeks at the moment. I’m enjoying the way life is and I’ve just got a gig today to sing in New Orleans on Bourbon Street, a big gay event called Southern Decadence.

“With things like that and Happy Mondays, the Hacienda Classical shows, and singing in Ibiza – doing my house tunes – there isn’t the time! And hopefully life will continue like that. It’s just great. Yeah, I’ll try and stick with my music at the moment.”

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

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

Happy Mondays’ tour opens on Tuesday, November 14 at Bristol’s O2 Academy and includes visits to Brighton Dome (November 15th), London Roundhouse (November 16th), Cardiff Great Hall (November 17th); Portsmouth Pyramids (November 18th), Folkestone Leas Cliff Hall (November 22nd), Norwich UEA (November 23rd), Southend-on-Sea Cliffs Pavilion (November 24th), Cambridge Corn Exchange (November 25th), Preston Guild Hall (November 28th), Scunthorpe Baths Hall (November 29th), Carlisle The Sands Centre (November 30th), Liverpool Olympia (December 1st), Leeds O2 Academy (December 2nd), Birmingham O2 Institute (December 6th), Lincoln Engine Shed (December 7th), Newcastle O2 Academy (December 8th), Nottingham Rock City (December 9th), Manchester Academy 1 (December 13th), Llandudno Venue Cymru (December 14th), Dublin Vicar Street (December 15th), Aberdeen Beach Ballroom (December 20th), Inverness The Iron Works (December 21st), Kilmarnock Grand Hall (December 22nd), Glasgow O2 Academy (December 23rd). Tickets are available from www.alttickets.com, www.ticketweb.co.uk and www.seetickets.com, with more details via the band’s Facebook and Twitter pages. 

For this site’s interview with Shaun Ryder in September 2015, click this link.

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From Weller to the Moon – in conversation with music writer Ian Snowball

Sleeve Master: Ian Snowball with artist Sir Peter Blake and the classic 1995 Paul Weller sleeve he designed

Ian Snowball was writing the foreword for a book on a Merseyside football casual turned Para when I called, having also recently co-authored Beatles-related novel A Hard Day’s Month with his friend Mark Baxter.

There are many more publications out there with his name on the cover too, but on this occasion I wanted to talk chiefly about his latest music biography, celebrating 40 years of Paul Weller recordings.

A big music fan for three and a half decades, I suggested down the line to his home in Kent that he has fingers in many pies.

“That’s the way it is really. It’s about spreading that network as far as possible, and it’s all good for keeping the profile up.”

Snowy, as he’s known, certainly has that profile at present. You wonder how he manages to fit in his career, working in family mediation.

Paul Weller – Sounds from the Studio (Red Planet, 2017) sets out to explore the musical journey of one of the most successful and influential of all UK artists. It includes interviews with solo years’ collaborators such as Noel Gallagher and Steve Cradock, Style Council partner Mick Talbot, ex-Jam bandmates Steve Brookes, Rick Buckler and Bruce Foxton, and other key players – from musicians, producers and engineers to family members.

The author’s own love of music can be traced back to a passion for The Jam at the turn of the 1980s. What was the first recording he splashed out on?

“The first I bought with my own money was That’s Entertainment, when I turned 11 in 1981. The record hadn’t been long out and I bought it with some birthday money. I marched off down to Woolworth’s in Maidstone. It was a picture sleeve, and I remember getting home, realising – as with many 7” singles around then – there wasn’t a middle bit. I can almost picture myself racing back down there to get an adapter so I could play the record. I’d have then played it over and over, as you did. The kids of today are missing out, aren’t they?”

What was it that resonated with him about Paul Weller and The Jam?

“I was going to a youth club and the part of town I lived in was Mod-heavy, rather than skinhead or punk, and the jukebox there had three Jam tracks – Going Underground, Start and That’s Entertainment. They’d get played countless times every evening, and I was already aware of The Jam, with Setting Sons the album I first heard. They were soon my band, with the Mod thing important to me and my crowd.

“I’ve a photo of me at 11, wearing a pair of desert boots, sta press trousers, V-neck jumper and button-down shirt. Boys today of that age don’t seem to have that passion or the music or surroundings.”

Or that sense of tribalism, really.

“That’s it. People were more old-headed back then. And that was my gateway into finding out about bands like The Who and Small Faces. With songs like The Kinks’ David Watts or The Who’s Disguises I heard The Jam versions first. The recorded version of So Sad About Us, for example, came out about a month after Keith Moon’s death, but they’d been playing it two or three years. I didn’t know that until doing the book with Rick though.”

He’s name-dropping there, having not only written a 2016 commemoration of The Who’s drummer in A Tribute to Keith Moon (There Is No Substitute), but also working with The Jam’s revered sticks-man Rick Buckler on 2015’s That’s Entertainment: My Life in The Jam, both Omnibus Press titles.

“I’m just off the phone from Rick, funnily enough. We’ve another book coming out, in fact two by the end of the year, one an illustrated graphic novel covering the early days to the end of 1977, part one in a three-book series. We’re working with a great illustrator, bringing it to life in a different way, a 1,000-copy collectors’ item. Rick was adamant he didn’t want serious illustrations, so we found someone who’s done things in his own style. It seems to be in vogue right now. I was talking to one of the guys from Madness about doing a similar thing next year. Again, people want something collectible.”

The Keith Moon book plus Ready Steady Girls (Suave Collective, 2016, with Mark Baxter and Jason Brummell), Thick As Thieves: Personal Situations with The Jam and Supersonic: Personal Situations with Oasis (both Marshall Cavendish, with Stuart Deabill) suggest you’ve targeted a ‘coffee table’ market.

“Yes, I like that sort of thing. I love reading, but not everyone’s a reader. Some people prefer to sit there with a cup of coffee and a Rich Tea, flick through a couple of pages, put it down, come back to it later.”

I suppose that concept of creating stylish publications with lots of great pictures goes back to Mod culture.

“Yeah, and I’ve been very fortunate that every book I’ve done for a publisher has had a nice quality to it. Hopefully that will continue, but it’s getting tougher, getting publishers to put hands in pockets.”

Snowy’s published list also includes co-writes with Blackpool-born Pete McKenna such as In the Blood, Once Upon a Tribe, Nightshift/All Souled Out and Black Music White Britain. Then there’s Tribe: Made in Britain with Martin Roach, Soul Driver: Ocean Colour Scene with Tony Briggs, and The Kids Are All Square: Medway Punk & Beyond with Bob Collins. Add to those his The Who: In the City and Long Hot Summer, and even a children’s novel, 2013’s Sky and the Bell Guardians, written with his daughter Josie when she was eight.

But back to The Jam – how did it work with Rick Buckler? I get the impression he was hands-on with the writing side, as opposed to many music autobiographies.

“He’d come to my place, we’d sit down, have a couple of hours with a phone on the table, me pumping him with questions and able to steer it through knowing The Jam history. We’d have a bite to eat, come back and do another hour. Or I’d go to his local, we’d have breakfast, chew the cud for a while then sit down for a couple more hours, or do the same at his. Over about nine months there was a lot of work, the worst thing the transcribing. Each session we’d end up with up to 9,000 words, about five hours’ work.

“But it was all his voice, and that’s so important. Richard Dolan, who ghost-wrote Tony McCarroll’s Oasis book, told me early on it’s all about catching the voice. There’s a skill with that – it doesn’t come easy.”

It certainly seems that he’s living the dream, talking to his music heroes. That’s nicely illustrated in the introduction to the Keith Moon book, mentioning one sunny afternoon at a polo club in Surrey, having a chinwag with Kenney Jones. As a big fan of The Who and Small Faces, that must have been a thrill.

“Yeah, and I play drums, so doing the Rick thing was massive as well. I’ve been playing since I was 15. I was also trying to talk Mick Avory of The Kinks into doing a book. I love it when I get to talk to these guys, and this summer I’ve travelled around the country with Steve White, doing In Conversation nights. He has a drum-kit with him too so we’ll be talking away, then I’ll ask him to give a demonstration of Dropping Bombs on the White House or something. We’ll talk about his time with Paul Weller and the Style Council over the years. And for the launch of the Weller book I had Mick Talbot down for an In Conversation. That was great too.”

Has he got to know Weller well over the years?

“I wouldn’t say I know him well, but he’s always been as good as gold with me. I probably came on to his radar when he wasn’t drinking, and that made a difference. Fortunately he also gave us that foreword for Thick as Thieves. I think he’s always just seen me as a fan, a grafter, and no threat. I’m not there to dig him out about anything. And he’s mellowed a lot.”

Going Underground: Ian Snowball with drumming legend Rick Buckler, and no doubt a distant echo

I always had the impression – probably from old NME interviews and the like – that he could be a bit of a grouch, and hard work. But now I detect a ready wit and humour. And you only have to revisit some of the Style Council videos to see that was there then too.

“I think so. With Mick the other night, we talked a bit about The Jam and the seriousness and how The Style Council was totally different, and how it seemed Paul was having more of a laugh, something Mick pretty much confirmed. That was a really nice night, giving a real personal, intimate insight into The Style Council, who I loved.”

Snowy stuck with Weller while others wavered, the likes of me having a spell away beyond 1987’s The Cost of Loving, feeling he’d temporarily lost his way.

“I think most people did. Don’t think you’re alone in that! I agree, but a lot of us became a certain age around that time. Life takes over, you get distracted. I was in that boat, but still bought the records.”

For me the Paul Weller Movement signalled a return to form, even including a couple of reworked Jam covers.

“Absolutely, and that was a great album that followed. And having done this book, I’ve been listening to it from a different place. In the car, driving from A to B, I’ll listen and hear different things now. And I came out of it with an even greater admiration and respect for Paul Weller as a musician. People buying the book have also told me they’re going back to listen to this or that album, giving it attention in a different way.”

While my favourite post-Jam spell involved the early solo LPs up to Stanley Road then 22 Dreams, there’s no doubt that Weller’s still making great records, such as this year’s A Kind Revolution, at the tender age of 59.

“I love the last album and really like the track with Boy George. Really superb. And I know he’s currently recording his next one, which from what I’ve heard is an acoustic album.”

He’s not one to hang around, is he.

“Absolutely! And you can only admire him for that.”

Snowy’s other books include one with Geoff Blythe and Pete McKenna about Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ early years, 2014’s The Team That Dreams in Caffs.

“That was all about the Searching For the Young Soul Rebels album, that one-year period in 1980, working with the band’s official photographer at the time, Mike Laye, using his photographs. That was another coffee table type work, all black and white images, and visually they were such a great band. They looked fantastic, and that lent itself nicely to that.”

How did the Keith Moon project come about? I’m guessing it was important to get that blessing from the family and estate, including his daughter.

“That was a huge part, but there was part of me – as a drummer – disappointed so much emphasis was put on how Keith Moon was the mad one, ‘the loon’. I’m not skirting around that but Tony Fletcher’s written about that side of it. I just felt there was another side to him that got over-looked, over-shadowed. That was my angle and I think that’s why people stepped up to get involved in the interviews, as I wanted to do something a lot more positive.”

We mentioned a few of those who came forward, such as Mick Avory, and there was also Slade’s Don Powell, another of my heroes.

“Don had a reputation as being a really nice fella, and was fantastic – it was good talking to him about the early days of being in bands. And Slade were such a huge act of course. He’s in Denmark these days. We stay in touch via email.”

There was also From Ronnie’s to Ravers, again with Stuart Deabill, a ‘50-year history of London clubs, right back to the jazz days’. Was Snowy a club regular in his youth?

“Yeah, especially in the acid house rave period. That was about the diversity of the city really, from jazz to soul, reggae and dance music in a city with such great heritage and clubs, not least from a Mod standpoint.”

Oh, for a chance to go back in time, nip down Wardour Street and pop into the Flamingo club in the ’60s, around the era Georgie Fame played there.

“Absolutely! I was fortunate enough to talk to people who went to those clubs, and it always fascinates me. I’m always up for subjects that perhaps haven’t been tapped into.”

Meanwhile, there’s still the day-job between assignments, although Snowy tells me writing’s ‘become a second profession’.

“I’m still working to pay the bills. It does take up a lot of time, but I’m fortunate I just do the projects I want to do. That makes it easier.”

So how did he get involved? Was he moving in those circles anyway, at venues and so on?

“You do bump into people, but even as a kid I liked writing letters, long before the world of email. I wrote a few bits for different fanzines as well, and it just took off from there. It seems a long time ago now but it’s only 10 years or so. And you just keep going.”

And when Pete Townshend and Paul Weller write introductions for your books, that must make up for all those hours at a computer keyboard and all those unanswered calls and emails.

“Yeah, and the nice thing is I hope I’ve built a bit of a reputation for positive books rather than slating people. That gets around. You get to know people who know those people, get the green light here and there.”

Sometimes it’s about getting past PR people and those in the way of your heroes. It can be frustrating.

“I’ve had my fair share of that, but fortunately there’s often a way around that. And if there’s too much aggro I’ll just drop it. But with Pete Townshend, his PA was amazing, so attentive and got things done, never rushed you, as opposed to others who just haven’t got the time of day.”

Taking Notes: Music writer Ian Snowball, with several titles already under his belt, takes a deserved breather

Paul Weller: Sounds from the Studio by Ian Snowball (£12.99, paperback) is available now via HMV, all good bookshop and online outlets, or via publisher Red Planet.

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