Remembering Pete Shelley, and entering a new Buzzcocks era – back in touch with Steve Diggle

Avant Garden: From the left – Chris Remington, Steve Diggle and Danny Farrant, now joined by Mani Perazzoli

Punk idols Buzzcocks are back, a year after losing revered frontman Pete Shelley, with a new single to mark the occasion, officially released in mid-February but available during the band’s short run of December dates.

And latest 45, ‘Gotta Get Better’, released by Cherry Red Records, neatly sums up co-founder Steve Diggle’s take on the last 12 difficult months for the band and himself … and the state of the nation right now. Is this a sign that there’s a new album on its way?

“Yeah, we’ve got a few tracks. I like the B-side too, ‘Destination Zero’, always a difficult thing to do, y’know. We’ve recorded them, and I’ve a lot of others we’re working on, but we wanted to get these new songs out there to tie in with this tour – something current.”

The title suggests a desire to move on, channeling the power of positive vibes.

“Exactly. It’s kind of a universal statement, but kind of applies to us and me personally in the band, with Pete dying and that. It’s been a difficult year, one way or another. But it’s a song of inspiration, one everyone can relate to, and in classic Buzzcocks vein, like ‘Promises’ and ‘What do I Get?’”

Pete Shelley formed Buzzcocks with Howard Devoto in Bolton in February 1976, but it was with the arrival of Steve Diggle (initially on bass) and John Maher (drums), that they became a functioning band, making their debut in style – opening for the Sex Pistols on their memorable return to Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall that July; Lydon, Matlock, Cook and Jones’ famous first visit a month earlier having been organised by Pete and Howard.

By early 1977, Buzzcocks, one of the first bands to form their own independent label, New Hormones, had released the seminal ‘Spiral Scratch’ EP, but soon Howard left to form Magazine, bassist Steve Garvey joining in his place, his namesake switching to guitar. And that August, the new line-up signed a recording contract with United Artists, releasing the landmark ‘Orgasm Addict’ single, swiftly followed by ‘What Do I Get?’, their debut UK top-40 entry and first of a string of chart hits.

Over the next three years, they toured extensively, releasing a trilogy of revered LPs, Another Music in a Different Kitchen followed by Love Bites (both 1978) then A Different Kind of Tension (1979), as well as the mighty Singles Going Steady compilation.

In 1981, the band went their separate ways, but the same four-piece reconvened in 1989, and while Steve and John would in time move on, the Shelley/Diggle partnership remained intact until Pete died of a suspected heart attack in Tallinn, Estonia – where he moved with his wife, Greta, in 2012 – last December.

But they honoured a special show booked for the Royal Albert Hall in London in June, that event – already planned to include long-time friends Penetration and the Skids – becoming a tribute to Pete and the band’s legacy, involving various high-profile guests. And after honouring a further summer engagement overseas, it soon became clear that they’d decided to continue, starting out with this eight-date UK tour, Steve taking over lead vocal duties, announcing, ‘I’m going to raise the mast and set the sails for the next voyage of the good ship, Buzzcocks’,

And on that journey, he’s joined by fellow survivors Chris Remington (bass, since 2008) and Danny Farrant (drums, since 2006), plus new guitarist Mani Perazzoli, who featured in the earlier show.

Incidentally, Steve, now 64, hinted about a new Cherry Red reissue boxset when we spoke last week, that project following previous reissues, although details are sketchy at this stage.

“The first reissues put the spotlight on those albums we did back in the late ‘70s, but these we did later on were good as well, so a boxset of those will make a lot of sense of that latter phase.”

Last time we spoke, in late July 2015, we talked a fair bit about The Way LP, and you suggested you were enjoying the new material more. I get the impression you’ve never really been content just playing the old hits. Proper punk spirit, maybe.

“Well, yeah, it’s always good to do a bit of new stuff. But we got heavily into touring, and it took a while to get The Way out. Now we’ve got this single out though, and we’ll get a new album out next year. It keeps it current, and vibrant.”

Was it always clear for this post-Pete phase you would go out under the Buzzcocks banner? You could have toured again, for instance, as Flag of Convenience (also involving fellow ‘Cocks Steve Garvey and John Maher) in honour of that 1981/9 project.

“Well, I also had that (CD) boxset of my four solo albums, Wheels of Time (2016) and like a lot of stuff from that, and a lot of people suggested I carry on with that. I could have done a lot of that and some classic Buzzcocks song of mine. But we were doing our tribute gig to Pete at the Royal Albert Hall already. With Pete dying that became something else, but this band was there already, really.”

Gotta Getta: The new Buzzcocks single, 'Gotta Get Better', available in mid-February but also on the band's December 2019 dates

Gotta Getta: New Buzzcocks single, ‘Gotta Get Better’, available in mid-February but also on their December dates

In the scheme of things, your bandmates Chris and Danny have been with you quite some time now.

“Yes, we’ve still kind of got the Buzzcocks band, so it’s a case of moving on from there, and when we played the Royal Albert Hall I was singing all the songs anyway, along with a few guests.

“We then had a Buzzcocks gig on this boat booked in, from Barcelona to Sardinia and back. And funnily enough, on our last tour Pete came to my room a couple of times after shows and twice during that time said, ‘I’m thinking of retiring, but you carry on, with my blessing’.

“That sounds a bit eerie now, us not knowing what was around the corner, but I’d joke with him, saying, ‘You’re not going anywhere! We’ve still got some stuff to do!’ But I think he’d have been happy for us to carry on.”

I couldn’t get to the Royal Albert Hall show, but as well as some great radio tributes on BBC 6 Music, I heard some fitting live tributes to Pete, starting with two acts who joined you for that London event – Skids when they played Preston Guild Hall and Penetration when they played The Continental across town, with some lovely memories and Buzzcocks covers from Richard Jobson, Pauline Murray, and co. I also recall French outfit Nouvelle Vague’s cracking ‘Ever Fallen in Love’ cover when they played Gorilla, Manchester.

“That’s great, and I remember a lot of people sending me links to songs they played at their gigs, and even Elton John at a big football stadium gig in Philadelphia dedicated a song to Pete.”

A fortnight after Nouvelle Vague, The Undertones were across the road at Manchester’s  Ritz, dedicating ‘Thrill Me’ to your former frontman and reminiscing about the day The Undertones met the Buzzcocks backstage in Sunderland at a festival the previous summer.

“That’s right, we did! And I know we inspired them in the early days. You can hear it in their sound.”

True, and I know John O’Neill readily admits that debt. And in more general terms, there’s still a lot of love out there for Pete and the Buzzcocks.

“A lot of love. We inspired a lot of people in those early days, and there’s a great catalogue of songs out there – another reason for carrying on really. This way we keep the songs alive – my songs, Pete’s songs, and those we wrote together. One of my first was ‘Fast Cars’, for which Pete added the verse. It was the same with ‘Promises’. When we’re singing those, we’re singing together, if you like. It’s keeping Buzzcocks alive really.”

While putting some questions together I was dwelling on one such Shelley lyric, on ‘Nostalgia’ from Love Bites, Pete musing, ‘I guess it’s just the music that brings on nostalgia for an age yet to come’. Fairly prophetic in the scheme of things, eh?

“Yeah, very prophetic! I never thought that at the time. I felt it was more of a cynical thing, and how Pete was at the time. But we’ve sort of lived up to that.

“When I look back there’s such a body of work there. When we’re out on the road playing those songs, we don’t tend to listen to them at home, but now I’m trying to dig out a few that people have asked for, including a few they haven’t heard live for years. Then we’ve got both sides of the new single and all the classic ones! So I’m trying to pick them from all generations and angles.”

It certainly is a mighty body of work, with at least 150 songs to choose from. Deciding on a setlist must bring on a few headaches, albeit positive ones.

“Well, yeah. We’ve got a lot in the pot at the moment, and they all kind of work. But there’s only a given amount of time, so it’s, y’know, ‘We’ve got to condense this’.”

It helps if you can get off the stage before midnight, I guess.

“Exactly! And there will be songs we’ll play at some gigs and others elsewhere. So we fit them in somehow, but alternate them a bit.”

It’s 40 years since your third and final LP of that late ‘70s phase, A Different Kind of Tension, and I’ve probably been playing that more than any other Buzzcocks album lately. And I still love it. That said, listening to the lyrical content of Pete’s songs, he seemed to be …  unravelling a little at the time. Or was he just … over-stimulated?

“Well, it was probably getting on for four or five years together, and we’d probably had about eight hits and had been on tour for all those years, including time in America, or in the studio. So people were getting a little worn down. So I think at that point – on some of those lyrics – he’s a bit vulnerable and … not confused, but maybe analysing himself a bit, and the band, or whatever. There was a little more darkness and intensity on that album, I think.”

But it’s stood the test of time, for sure.

“Yeah, and there’s a bit of the experimental there. We brought a bit of the avant-garde on some of it. Not particularly on my songs – I did more straight-ahead songs to kind of balance the heaviness, and complement them.”

Indeed, and you worked well that way, throughout all the years you made records together.

“Absolutely, and songs like ‘Autonomy’, ‘Fiction Romance’ and ‘Moving Away From the Pulsebeat’ on the first album – even though we’re known for the hits – involve a bit of the avant-garde too. And later we did ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’ and stuff like that, going down all those avenues. And by the time we got to A Different Kind of Tension, it brought elements of that out as well.”

Talking of 40th anniversaries, that also applies to ‘Harmony In My Head’, your last top-40 hit (their sixth, although it’s a crime that 1978’s wondrous ‘I Don’t Mind’ and 1980’s gorgeous ‘You Say You Don’t Love Me’ never made it there) and another great Diggle composition. You should be proud of that.

“Yeah, we’d had a few hits by then and I felt we had to go on Top of the Pops with a heavy one again, like in the early days, something a bit more solid and a bit harder after ‘Ever Fallen in Love’, ‘Promises’ and ‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’. And yes, that has stood the test of time and it’s one of those songs that when you put it on it comes at you a bit steam-rollery! A bit lively.”

You and Pete were in the band together from 1976 to 1981, then again on reconvening from 1989 through to 2018, accounting for more than half of your life working together. I’m guessing over all that time you got to know each other’s thinking well, with real understanding of each other. Erm … do you believe in ESP? Was there a kind of telepathy at times?

“There was, yeah! From the first rehearsal back in ’76, you just kind of knew there was some empathy between us, y’know. If I had a song or he had a song, we’d know where it was going. We’d say, ‘It goes like this …’ and it’d be a case of ‘Yep, it’s alright. I’ve got that.’

“Like ‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’, I’d say, I don’t need the chords, and then I came up with the riff. We never sat down and had to slave away at these things. He’d bring things in that were well on their way, but there was that magic between us. And when he’d gone, I thought there won’t be anyone again like me and him who could play guitar together. We had that chemistry between us.

Cruisers’ Creek: Buzzcocks on board, Summer 2019, including Mani Perazzoli, left. (Photo: Will Byington)

“We’ve got another guitarist with us on this tour, but nobody could get what we had. It’s just one of those things that we met and had that thing between us. Personally, as well. We got on well. We had little squabbles here and there, but artistic squabbles. We’d still go to the pub together and have a drink. We had that gap, but it’s still 40-plus years. There was that major part of my life with him as a musical colleague, but also personally.

“We were very close in a lot of ways and always kind of got on. We’d have a bit of a laugh but also talk about lots of heavy things. To be honest, there was only me and him who would stay in the pub too long! All the others used to go, y’know!”

It was great to see your fellow bandmates from that classic line-up, Steve Garvey (bass) and John Maher (drums), involved with the Royal Albert Hall show.

“It was nice to see them, and we had a few days together leading up to the Royal Albert Hall, rehearsing. It was really nice to have them two back again.

“Each player has their own sound, and when that bass and drums kicked in … ‘Ah, I remember that kind of sound!’ That defined a lot of the early stuff. Now Steve lives in America, John’s on the Isle of Harris, and things have moved on. But it was great to spend a week or so together again, rehearsing, the gig, then a sleeve art exhibition we all went to in Great Portland Street. It was a great thing all round really.”

A worthy send-off for Pete.

“It was, yeah.”

Pete was based in Tallinn, Estonia, in later years, but the current band all live fairly close, with Steve in Highgate, North London, not far from another famous Manc.

“Liam Gallagher lives just up the road, so when I’m in the pub with him it still feels like being in Manchester!”

With Pete: Buzzcocks in 2015. From left – Chris Remington, Steve Diggle, Pete Shelley and Danny Farrant.

Famous neighbours also include The Kinks’ songwriting legend Ray Davies, Steve having moved to the area more than 30 years ago.

“I never thought I’d leave Manchester. But I met a girl down here, and now find a lot of my old friends are either teaching in Europe or off somewhere else. I don’t know anybody in Manchester half the time, although I know every street, nook and cranny and still feel Manchester underneath. But when I go back to do this gig, it’ll all come flooding back.”

Are there specific songs you hear from the Buzzcocks’ catalogue that take you back to a time and place and remind you of being there in that studio with Pete?

“I think most of them, really. When he died, it was all over the BBC news, and they were playing our songs on Radio 6 Music one particular day.

“I missed a lot of that, because people were phoning me up and I was trying to sort things out, but at the end of one show – I think it may have been Lauren Laverne – I was listening in to see what people were saying, and heard six songs back to back. That really blew my mind. I thought, ‘Bloody hell! We were really good!’ And hearing Pete’s voice singing, a little tear came in my eye. I was saying ‘You go for it, Pete!’ at the radio, y’know. I think one of those was ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’ And that’s one that takes me back.

“We did most of our stuff around then at Olympic Studios (in Barnes, South West London), where The Who, Led Zeppelin, and The Beatles recorded, and the Rolling Stones did a lot there – ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and all that. So I was thinking, ‘This is the studio!’ On the cover of the first album, the picture of us in the black shirts, just behind us is one of those famous screens there.

“Anyway, with ‘Why Can’t I Touch it?’ (recorded at Strawberry Studios, Stockport), I remember this groove, and we didn’t really have a groove kind of song at that point, so I went in, did that riff, John and Steve joined in, then Pete – a bit late turning up – came and joined in, adding the words. We recorded ‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’, had a meal at a Greek restaurant, then around 10 o’clock that evening recorded that B-side.

“We’d had quite a bit of ouzo by then, but felt, ‘Well, we’ve got the A-side, so that’s alright’. There’s a bit in the middle where me and Pete are jamming, looking at each other, me playing some off-chord piece, us answering each other. But it was all down to a nod and a wink, and ‘OK, let’s get back into the song’, and moments like that take me back to that recording process, back to the Greek restaurant, keeping it going … and the ouzo!”

I mentioned The Undertones, and talked in May this year to Damian and John O’Neill about their experiences recording their debut LP with engineer Roger Bechirian in early ‘79 (and parts of the follow-up the following January) at Eden Studios, Acton, West London, and I presume you and producer Martin Rushent followed into that studio not long after to make your third long player. Was that a good experience?

“Yeah, that was great. And we might have done a bit of ‘Harmony in My Head’ there too, y’know. And a few others.”

Correct, with that single later mixed at Marquee.

“Yeah, the mainstay was Olympic, but if that was busy we’d sometimes do backing tracks somewhere else, then work back on it at Olympic, or Strawberry Studios. At Eden I remember being with Martin Rushent, looking in a cupboard for more microphones, rather than use the standard ones. We found one of those old black ribbon types, and I’m pretty sure that’s how I did the vocals for ’Harmony in My Head’. I think that gave it a great sound. That was quite a key thing, using some dusty old mic. stored in a cupboard!”

Our latest conversation came the day before the first anniversary of Pete’s death, and I asked Steve – busy rehearsing for much of the week – what he might be doing to mark the occasion. Would he be raising a glass to his close friend?

“Oh, absolutely! There will be those moments tomorrow. I often think, ‘I can’t believe it’s been a year,’ but a year’s not a long time at our age, is it? There are often moments where I can’t believe he’s not here anymore, going through all that pain process and getting over it. I remember when my Dad died, and it’s a bit similar in a way. You have to blank it out of your mind for a while, and I’ve kind of done that in order for me to be able to function.

“Now, from tomorrow, it’ll be a new stage really. You’ve done the tears, you’ve done the painfulness, and you just have to remember those lovely moments and try and feel warm and remember Pete in a lovely way.”

You’ve obviously kept yourself busy, and the planning for the Royal Albert Hall show must have helped you focus on something positive during those difficult first few months.

“It did. It was a bit of a painful run-up to that, but you’ve got to move on. Like with my Dad, I decided to put it all in a file at the back of my head. You can’t be getting emotional about it every day, or I’d be having a nervous breakdown.”

The important thing is you still have the band, honouring his legacy that way, remembering him and all those great songs you wrote between you all.

“Yeah, from ‘What Do I Get?’ to ‘Ever Fallen in Love’ and all those, I never thought I’d be singing those songs, but do a pretty good job of it, y’know. And I think Pete would be with me on that as well. And let’s hope we’ll have a lot of love on this tour.

“It’ll be nice to get out there and connect with the audience again. I know we did the Royal Albert Hall, but now we’re getting up north and travelling about a bit, and it’ll be a bit of a celebration wake as well, where we can all celebrate, sing along with those classic Pete songs and remember him that way. It should be a bit cathartic for everyone in that sense.”

On Returning: From left – Chris Remington, Steve Diggle, Danny Farrant. And guitarist Mani Perazzoli makes four.

For July 2015’s WriteWyattUK feature/interview with Steve Diggle, Buzzcocks Going Steady, head here.

Buzzcocks’ December 2019 UK tour: Norwich UEA Waterfront, Wednesday 11th; Wolverhampton, Slade Rooms, Thursday 12th; Preston 53 Degrees,  Saturday 14th; Manchester Gorilla, Sunday 15th; Glasgow, Oran Mor, Tuesday 17th; Newcastle, Wylam Brewery, Wednesday 18th; Sheffield, The Foundry, Friday 20th; Leeds, The Key Club, Saturday 21st. For full tour details head here or to the band’s website. You can also keep in touch via Facebook.  

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BOB / The Beer Snobs – Leeds, Wharf Chambers

Banwell Bluesbreakers: BOB in live action at Wharf Chambers in Leeds, on night three of their six-date November farewell tour. From the left – Richard, Simon (in front of Dean) and ‘Arthur Arthurman’. (Photo: The Dribbling Code)

It would be too easy to start this review with, ‘What a Performance!’ But it was, even if the BOB of 2019 were some way removed from that experienced three decades earlier.

That’s not a dig. I was impressed then and possibly appreciate them even more now, the nostalgia factor only part of the story. But where I seem to recall that back then they were more about indie cool and occasional surliness on stage, the passage of time has swept aside any perceived pretence.

It’s an odd thing. With most bands I’ve followed since that era, there was no more than a few years between sightings. In this case it was 28 years, and I guess we’re all a little longer in the tooth. Life moves on, and I got the impression – talking to two band members in the bar before – that I was just the latest attendee bringing an offspring along who wasn’t even a glint in the milkman’s eye when I saw them last in 1991.

However, as Martin Fry would have us believe, that was then, but this is now, the years melting away as soon as they unleashed evergreen opening instrumental, ‘Extension BOB Please!’ But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start a little earlier, having set off post-rush hour on the M61 and M62 for a 125-mile round-trip to find the nearest show on this long-awaited six-date farewell tour.

I’d clearly have fancied an appearance closer to my Lancashire base, but as it turned out, Wharf Chambers proved an inspired choice, providing the kind of quirky set-up I appreciate from a venue. Besides, time and again I caught this esteemed outfit off the beaten track in my native South East back in the day, the random locations adding to the flavour of some truly memorable gigs, several of which I recalled in a recent feature/interview with Dean, BOB’s drumming Leggett … sorry, legend (wuth a link here if you missed it).

Another Crow: The BOB drumkit, all primed and set for action, just awaiting Dean Leggett (Photo: The Dribbling Code)

This particular occasion unfolded in the heart of Leeds, in a club run by a workers’ co-operative, a couple of minutes’ walk from the River Aire, my youngest daughter – making her BOB debut three years younger than I did, and 31 years later – describing the adjoining function room as a converted garage.

In fact, the location screamed Yorkshire, not least having chosen to wet the whistle with a pint of Brassneck before heading out the back. With a name like that, I half expected Wedding Present guitar legend Peter ‘Grapper’ Solowka to have brewed it, and I’m not convinced the front-man of support act The Beer Snobs hadn’t already supped a few himself ahead of their short set.

I kind of liked this rough and ready three-piece, their young drummer regularly gazing up at his bandleader, whether to seek guidance or absolution I know not, while the bass player’s flat cap added a further dash of White Rose identity to the proceedings. They brought many a smile to us assembled, even if I can’t be sure that the damning verdict of a loudmouth a few rows behind after the last song was part of the act. I’d hate to see his TripAdvisor reviews.

Soon enough, the main attraction had taken to the stage, a week rehearsing in the Far West of Cornwall and opening nights in Birmingham and Hull paving the way for what we were about to receive (and for which we were truly thankful).

Co-frontman Richard Blackborow took to keyboards for the aforementioned opener, spending much of the evening there, later revealing he was struggling with his back after a slip on an earlier date. In fact, once they’d carved out spaces, there was little else the band could do, restricted by the lack of leg room, a week of intense choreography before heading upcountry largely wasted.

Ton Up: BOB on their last-ever UK appearance … maybe, in live action at the famed 100 Club in that there London

To our right was Simon Armstrong, the ‘60s Beatles cap of the ‘80s publicity shots seemingly swapped for half-moon specs, helping him tread carefully across the massed wires and find the sole setlist, reminding himself what was next, greeting each number  with a pleasant surprise, as if the other three had decided on the running order in his absence.

Tucked in behind Simon was a new BOBette to me, fan turned bass guitarist Arthur Tapp (or Arthur Arthurman, apparently) with even less space to negotiate, but on fine form, his demeanour suggesting he was having a great time up there with this cult outfit. And behind those three, Dean led from the rear, so to speak, and was more animated than I recalled, touches of Keith Moon dynamism throughout his performance.

My notes were a little sporadic, but by the time we reached ‘Tired’ they seemed fairly settled, renditions of old faves ‘Kirsty’ and ‘What a Performance!’ suggesting the trusty Swagsack was still intact. I’d reintroduced myself to the back-catalogue on the lead-up via the two splendid Cherry Red double-CD packages, and one of the tracks impressing me of late was ‘Another Crow’, an add-on to the polished-up pressing of Leave the Straight Life Behind and arguably one of the best songs written about the touring process, up there with Mott the Hoople’s ‘Saturday Gigs’ for my ears.

And how were they holding up? Well, Richard seemed to be loving it. Perhaps his painkillers had kicked in, but they were certainly firing on all cylinders, the inspirational call to arms that is ‘Flagpole’ leading to ‘Skylark III’ then a further delve into the distant past with the song that kick-started the BOB story, the naïve lo-fi pop of ‘Brian Wilson’s Bed’ followed by most recent catalogue addition, ‘Queen of Sheba’, available on flexi-disc on the night.

Then came the almost-hit, ‘Convenience’, a rousing crowd sing-song ensuing, mobile phones primed in a way that could never have happened all those years ago when it somehow missed the UK top-40, that iced gem followed by its latest reissue’s B-side, ‘Coquette’.

Flexi Time: ‘Queen Of Sheba’, originally only available at the November BOB farewell gigs, a ‘full circle’ development for a band who started out with ‘Brian Wilson’s Bed’ in a similar format, as picked up on by a certain John Peel.

By now, they were truly flying, a barnstorming ‘95 Tears’ giving rise to the glorious ‘Trousercide’. Favourite day? Today, as it happened. They briefly departed, but returned soon enough for the wondrous title track of the LP that landed shortly after my last sighting.

And there’s another thing. Leave the Straight Life Behind was never quite the album I’d hoped when it landed. I tried, but maybe too hard, in time moving on, the band themselves calling it a day before any more LPs could follow, giving up on the big time, carving out careers elsewhere. But the recent tightening up in the studio of that album by the band themselves has truly added something, and now I love it. Perhaps I was just blind to it first time around, missing the point. Who knows. It certainly deserves wider recognition.

‘Leave the Straight Life Behind’ itself provided my highlight on the night, as I suspected it might, with Simon’s guitar solo supreme. And that’s coming from a scribe who tends to prefer one-note Buzzcocks-like solos to Clapton and Page-esque over-gilded pomp. They then finished with the highly-charged ‘Skylark II’, matters brought to a climactic end, the band clearly still capable of waking the dead on this showing.

This was no polished performance, but the rougher edges added to the experience. And the banter between songs was a touch I’m not so sure I recall to the same degree back in the day. In short, here’s another band from my formative gigging days doing it for all the right reasons now, any desire to achieve pop stardom wisely cast aside.

Yep. BOB have still got it, I reckon. But if you caught this show, the earlier two, or those that followed at the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket, London’s 100 Club, or the finale at Hamburg’s Astra Stube, you probably already know that. Now, we have to just convince them to come out on the road again. So here’s to the next last-ever tour, eh? As Del Boy Trotter would say, ‘No, not goodbye, Margaret … no, just bonjour’.

Performance Artists: BOB, live at Leeds – making a big impression at Wharf Chambers on their final tour. From the left – Richard Blackborow, Simon Armstrong, Dean Leggett, and Arthur ‘Arthurman’. (Photo: The Dribbling Code)

With thanks to Yorkshire-based non-league football photo blog and research unit (mostly) The Dribbling Code for the Wharf Chambers shots. To check them out on Twitter, head here.

And to keep up to date on everything BOB, head to their Facebook page,  or check them out via Twitter.

 

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Erland Cooper / AVA – Band on the Wall, Manchester

Literary Landscape: Erland Cooper’s ensemble take in their surroundings on tour at Lancaster Library

Having entered Erland Cooper’s world via The Magnetic North, then retrospectively discovering original band venture, Erland & the Carnival, it was a small step from there to ensconce myself in his solo project, exploring this creative composer’s further sonic tribute to Orcadian roots.

And yet, after two previous Band on the Wall trips in 2019, I was unsure how my third visit might pan out, not least on entering this Northern Quarter venue to find the chairs out. I don’t tend to do seated gigs, and with so few spare when we walked in, it was a case of heading for what was left then craning my neck around a pillar for a better vantage point.

I had a similar concern when legendary Queensland visitor Robert Forster called at this characterful Swan Street location in mid-May, finding myself – standing that time – wedged into a confined space, barely able to see more than half his band at a time. But in both instances, my misgivings were swiftly forgotten, the music soon transporting me. And with Erland and his talented ensemble, I was just thankful to be there when other prestigious dates on this brief seven-date UK tour so quickly sold out.

Friends in high places like Paul Weller and support from various on-the-money BBC 6 Music presenters has helped ensure word continues to spread about Erland, who like Magnetic North bandmate Hannah Peel seems to be on a trajectory to a whole ‘nother level. And on this showing there was proof aplenty that he deserves such accolades.

If there were nerves from the night’s performers, it didn’t seem to be an issue. In fact, I was greeted by AVA’s Anna Phoebe at the top of the stairs as I held back from taking my seat too early, the Kate Bush of the violin – rising more slowly than a Fair Isle weather pattern from the dressing room – cheerfully confiding in this random stranger that she’d lost her pianist.

Riding Waves: AVA’s Anna Phoebe, left, and Aisling Brouwer, lost in the moment on tour with Erland Cooper

In a duo that could be worrying, but thankfully Aisling Brouwer, her creative other half, soon entered the fray, this Berlin-based cinematic, orchestral duo soon in their element, AVA engaging throughout this brief sonic journey, redefining mood music merely through violin, keyboards and electronica.

A short selection of tracks from the pair’s Waves album, including a beguiling ‘In Motion’, climaxed with an emotional, increasingly-intense interpretation of London Grammar’s ‘Wild Eyed’, the scene set neatly for what was to come, the audience metaphorically left sat on a suitcase on the quayside at Scrabster, awaiting a connecting ferry to take us across the Pentland Firth.

Lo and behold, when Erland and his crew welcomed us aboard, there was Anna Phoebe again, part of a beating heart string section (and occasional synth player) helping navigate towards the rugged coastline of the bandleader’s beloved archipelago, alongside fellow talents Jacob Downs (viola, keyboards), Klara Schumann (cello) and soprano/violinist, Kalliopi Mitropoulou.

Between Sule Skerry’s expansive, gloriously slow-building ‘Flattie’ and ‘Haar’, with its sweet signature motif, we reached the open water, us passengers somewhat transfixed by the sight of the main-man giving his all on keyboard, hunched over as if facing a mighty storm.

At times he resembled a mad sea captain battling the swell, the piano his ship’s wheel. At others he circled the deck, conducting and cajoling his crew to a level of recital he sought, as if reluctant to momentarily relinquish control, retaining ownership of the wondrous soundscape he’d created, inspiring ever-greater extremes of performance.

Tidal Journey: Erland Cooper, in charge of the captain’s analog tape loop at Brighton’s Unitarian Church

We were soon lost in the moment, Erland switching between sea and air and back again, the metronomic low croaking murmur of the northern gannet on his tape loop giving rise to piano again on Solan Goose’s title-track, textures piling up as land grew closer, the more reflective ‘Sillocks’ from the next LP seeing Kalliopi as our spirit guide amid Klara’s mournful yet achingly beautiful cello.

Spoken word intros on a few songs further fed the imagination, Erland’s soprano again soaring on ‘Cattie-Face’, amid a fusion of accompanying string harmonies, the ethereal tones of ‘Bonxie’ taking us further in, mist rolling, the band-leader requesting the house lights and power be cut until the mid-point of ‘Maalie’, a spectacular sonic sunrise duly experienced, imaginations well and truly stoked, Will Burns’ poetry incorporated.

‘Shalder’ took us further, riding the currents, before the free Orcadian jazz of ‘Spoot Ebb’ closed the main set, ‘a bugger to play’ according to our self-effacing headliner, who before the last notes died away had fled, his band taking the applause before following suit. But all five returned soon enough, a re-interpretation of an earlier number introduced with a modest rider that they really ought to learn more songs.

If that all sounds too grand, I should add that it was never over-polished, the occasional glitch and a sense of fun and experiment making it all the better, moments of humour and gratitude that we were there to witness it at all further endearing us to Erland, at one stage distracted as his brother watched from the front rows, afforded a better view than me.

Our epic journey ended with Erland and Jacob’s understated vocal duel on a stirring ‘First of the Tide’. And as per the lyrics, we were collectively away, our quintet leaving on a high after a truly memorable trip to our own Far North, delivering an analog masterclass for a digital world en route.

Sonic Worship: Erland Cooper and his ensemble in action at Glasgow’s Mackintosh Queen’s Cross Church

For a limited period, you can listen via this BBC Sounds link to three exquisite songs from AVA and Erland Cooper at the end of Mary Anne Hobbs’ special BBC 6 Music broadcast from Art is Everywhere at the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate, the touring party having arrived in Kent after two hours’ sleep, finishing their tour at The Sage, Gateshead, the previous night. 

To find out details of AVA’s first London headline show, at the Moth Club, Valette Street, Hackney, on Tuesday, December 10th, head here, and to follow the duo on social media, try these Facebook, Instagram and Twitter links.

Follow this link for my recent feature/interview with Erland Cooper, and for details of Erland’s An Orkney Triptych show at the Barbican Centre with the London Contemporary Orchestra on June 13th, 2020, head here. You can also visit his website and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and  Twitter.

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Ignore Alien Orders – talking The Clash with Tony Beesley

Live Presence: Joe Strummer out front with The Clash at Sheffield Top Rank on the band’s 16 Tons tour in early 1980, the first time that Ignore Alien Orders co-writer Tony Beesley saw his favourites play live (Photo: Nick Hawksworth)

As the 40th anniversary of The Clash’s acclaimed London Calling double-LP approaches, it’s time to not only remind you that a few copies remain of my biography of the band, This Day in Music’s Guide to The Clash (subtle hints, we got ’em), but also treat you to an interview featuring the latest fan of this seminal punk outfit to tackle their story in print.

And a splendid tome it is too, Ignore Alien Orders: On Parole With The Clash the result of a joint project involving Tony Beesley and Anthony Davie, this colourful new 300-plus page hardback comprising fans’ accounts of seeing them live and in person.

So many great books have been written about the so-called ‘only band that matters’ since Marcus Gray’s trail-blazing Last Gang in Town in 1995, yet Yorkshire-based Tony still felt there was a gap in the market for his ‘history of The Clash by the fans and for the fans’, co-written with a fellow fan who previously penned Vision of a Homeland: The History of Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros. However, there’s no ‘better than all the rest’ posturing here, Tony instead suggesting they’ve ‘created a new, vibrant and enjoyable volume to sit alongside the shelves of Clash literary work’.

He describes Ignore Alien Orders – its name taken from the slogan Joe Strummer pasted on his battered Fender Telecaster, a phrase thought to have originated among California’s 1960s’ ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ generation – as ‘the definitive Clash fans’ scrapbook’, and I get that. There’s certainly a look in places of the old ’70s and ’80s colourful music annuals, and I mean that in an affectionate way. A touch of nostalgia, yes, but with proper depth and substance and plenty to draw you in, not least through lots of seldom seen photographs and the accounts of those who were actually there, either out front or joining the band backstage or between live engagements.

I won’t give you a full-blown review here – put it on your Christmas list, maybe, and find out for yourself. But I’ll give you a little taster, starting by mentioning the illuminating accounts of Steve Bush and Nigel Lockwood, there at the very first Clash gig on July 4th, 1976, at Sheffield’s legendary Black Swan, aka the Mucky Duck (later regenerated as the Boardwalk), when a five-piece Clash including Keith Levene supported the Sex Pistols. Then there’s Ant Davie himself (on a ‘trip out into the sticks’ from South London) and Steve Carver (with  The Jam camp) recalling the first date of the ‘White Riot’ schedule on my old patch at Guildford Civic Hall on May 1st, 1977,  before a bust-up between respective managers Bernie Rhodes and John Weller led to The Jam leaving that noteworthy tour.

As with all these fans’ account type books, it’s the early stories in particular that fascinate me, however accurate they can be after all these years. After plenty of research on the subject myself, accounts of 1976 and 1977 appearances will often be at odds with the acknowledged versions, but personal testimonies from London’s 100 Club (Michelle Brigandage stepping up), Screen on the Green, the ICA, RCA, and Fulham Town Hall, plus Barbarella’s in Birmingham and further pre-Bill Grundy Today shows at Tiddenfoot Leisure Centre, Leighton Buzzard; the Nag’s Head, High Wycombe (from Kris Jozajtis); and Lacy Lady, Ilford, will always appeal to this scribe.

Even before that, there are tales from Joe’s Woody Mellor days with the 101’ers, courtesy of old friends Cathy Cooper and Paul Roundhill (who also writes about and supplies photos from a May ’77 University of Sussex show), Derek Humphries, and Don Hughes (who adds a nice piece about New Year’s Day ’77’s Roxy opener in Covent Garden). Similarly, Steve Emberton’s photos of the band in their stencilled shirt era are great to see, presumably snapped at Rehearsal Rehersals, Camden, of which Ray Gange – in the book’s foreword – writes that it was ‘a cold, damp shithole, but it was The Clash’s cold, damp shithole, so it was hallowed ground and I felt privileged to walk through its doors and shiver with everybody else’.

Fan’s View: Tony Beesley, the co-mastermind behind Ignore Alien Orders: On Parole With The Clash

As well as Ray, who played the lead role in the 1980 film, Rude Boy (the ‘fakeumentary movie’, as the man himself puts it), which also starred The Clash, contributors also include key member of the entourage/close friend of the band, Robin Crocker (aka Robin Banks), music journalists Kris Needs and Jonh Ingham – who also supplies some amazing early gig photographs – broadcaster and WriteWyattUK interviewee Gary Crowley, and several musicians duly inspired by the band, including Duncan Reid (The Boys), Andy Blade (Eater), Chris Pope (The Chords), and Brian Young (Rudi).

Apparently, Tony’s co-driver here, Ant Davie, was working alongside the BBC for a Clash documentary project based around fans who attended Clash gigs, when the pair first made contact. He ran the Mescaleros’ official strummerdsite.com site, which later combined with the superb blackmarketclash.com site, giving him handy access to a database of some 12,000-plus hardcore fans.

“He got in touch late last year and I contributed a piece for his prospective Kindle book about The Clash, later a paperback. We met and threw some ideas about merging aspects of this with what I was already doing and in no time at all it started to come together. My idea of a fans’ scrapbook, highly visual, containing scores of rare and unpublished photos fit perfectly with his existing idea of grass-roots fans’ experiences.

“I did all the layout and design apart from the cover (designed by Tony’s friend and regular cover designer, David Spencer) and Ant meticulously collated a smattering of fan accounts along with some of his own experiences, which merged perfectly with what I already had.

“It was all perfectly cohesive and right from the outset we were on the exact same track. We have had some superb Clash-related chats, bouncing ideas around throughout the period of this project. And it’s been a real pleasure to work with Ant, a fantastic bloke who always has a great story to tell.”

As well as the contributors already mentioned, there are those from Tony himself, this 54-year-old father of two (his sons now aged 29 and 27) from Rawmarsh, near Rotherham, whose past career opportunities (the ones that never truly knocked) included spells as a painter and decorator, running his own market stall, as a storeman, a brief stint with Royal Mail and a 12-year spell running WH Smith’s book section in a large retail park unit, before he turned his attentions to self-publishing.

While that was going on, he also played in a series of bands, writing his first songs as far back as 1978, coming closest to the big time with The Way, who once got a demo tape to Paul Weller after a gig. But while Weller protege Tracie Young later joined them, Tony had already left by then, and of all that, he simply adds, ‘I no longer own a guitar’. Instead, he focused attentions elsewhere.

Cover Star: Joe Strummer caught live by James Melik for the cover of the latest Clash publication

“It was about writing initially. I always wanted to move into that direction, from fanzines I created to discarded manuscripts I did on music and film. My first book, Our Generation, was self-financed and published in 2009 and sold around 1,000 copies in a few months, so from there it just snowballed.

“Being made redundant in 2015 was the perfect time to give it a go full-time. Since then our small independent company has moved on to publishing books by other authors, most successfully Boys Dreaming Soul by Neil Sheasby of Stone Foundation (who also contributes to Ignore Alien Orders and was the subject of a recent WriteWyattUK feature/interview, with a link here).”

Beyond Our Generation, Tony’s overriding punk/post-punk/ mod theme continued with two other titles, and he’s now written and designed eight books as well as published three by other authors. So what’s next for him as a publisher? What’s on the pre-production list?

“I have a few prospective book project ideas, but in all honesty, nothing confirmed as yet. A couple may be photograph-based books, but I’ve not decided yet.”

Not giving a lot away there, so let’s go on a bit of an Odyssey, in a Richie Havens style – zipping up our boots and going back to his roots. Who was the first artist/band he saw live or caught on the radio or on record and thought music might be where it’s at for him?

“Probably a series of defining experiences. My first music experience was hearing ‘San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)’ on a small transistor radio as a very young kid, towards the end of the ’60s. That and the later ‘Wand’rin’ Star’.”

Well, that Scott McKenzie hit ended its 16-week run in the UK Top-40 the week I was born in late ’67, while Lee Marvin’s sole vinyl success was in early 1970, with Tony pretty young himself at the time. Anyway, carry on.

Complete Control: The Clash live. From left – Joe Strummer, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon (Photo: James Melik)

“My first gig, of sorts, was a local hard rock band called Bitter Suite, who my brothers followed around on the club circuit. They sneaked me into one of their gigs in 1975. I had to stand right at the back and keep away from the bar. Not really my style of music, but their tight sound and volume made an impression.

“I also used to listen to my older brother’s Bowie, Marc Bolan and other glam and pop records, taking it upon myself to look after them and later claiming most of them as my own.

“But the real surge of ‘I wanna do something in music’ was when I first caught The Jam playing their single ‘All Around the World’ on Marc. I was way too young to take any serious steps, but it was kinda in the pipeline for me. That was the catalyst, I suppose.”

Your books often cross cultural, tribal camps. Were you an out-and-out mod or punk or something in between?

“Those influences have always been a huge presence for me and will always remain so; more the attitude of punk nowadays  – though I still love the original punk and post-punk music – and the attention to detail of mod.

“My take on punk was probably a poorly-improvised look and nothing like the striking look that those far more clued-in older fans had. But, it was genuine, and the desire to be creative and follow an alternative path – one different to the adults I knew in my life – was completely driven; obsessive in a way.

“I don’t need labels now, but yes, as a teenager, my life, attitude and music were firmly in line with punk; it was an amazing time to be young, even for us younger wide-eyed and naïve punk rock obsessed kids.”

Classic Album: London Calling, 40 years old this week.

Which bands meant more to you than any other back in the day? And what about now?

“It’s hard to say really. My tastes are so diverse. I’m a huge soul fan too, so there are lots of artists I really like within that genre … but at a push it would have to be The Clash!”

And why not. At what point did you decide you had to write a book about the band?

“I always wanted to, but didn’t want to do an historical biography. That’s already been done a few times, and very well done too. But about seven or eight years back, I started compiling photos, memorabilia and some of my own Clash memories with this in mind.

“I did a two-part Clash in Sheffield feature for a local magazine and this helped formulate the idea somewhat. The project did go on the backburner for quite some time, but last year – after positive encouragement from friends and my wife – I decided to go for it. The only way I wanted to do this was through the experiences of fans. At that point, to my knowledge, it had never been approached.”

Bearing in mind your Yorkshire links, I should ask if you have recollections within the book of The Clash’s live debut, supporting the Sex Pistols at the Black Swan – aka the Mucky Duck, later reborn as the Boardwalk – on July 4th, 1976.

“Yes, there are. A couple of older friends of mine were there, so their memories are included, along with some little-known facts I uncovered about the actual gig while doing my research.”

And your own Clash live debut followed in the same city.

“Yes, on the 16 Tons tour (promoting London Calling) at Sheffield Top Rank, and there are some amazing full-colour photos of the gig included in the book, along with artefacts.

“It was a life-defining experience and completely changed my outlook to music. I started buying the records in 1978. I’m probably a Clash obsessive but not a completist – I don’t collect all the memorabilia as such, although I’ve had some very nice items over the years. But their music and hugely profound influence on me has been a constant force since discovering them and will always be part of me.”

Debut LP: The Clash’s revered self-titled first album.

Ever get to meet them back in the day?

“With a lot of effort and persistence me and a mate managed to cajole ourselves on to the guest-list at Sheffield Lyceum, in October 1981, on the day. I spoke briefly with Mick, got my Clash t-shirt signed, the inside of my leather jacket by Joe – someone somewhere may have that jacket still – and chatted with Paul and Topper for a while. We had pics taken with them but sadly they didn’t develop!”

I guess I should ask what your favourite Clash song and album is.

“The debut and London Calling are my two faves. Sorry, I can’t separate them, ‘though I do love all the albums … Cut the Crap aside! I also have a very strong fondness for Sandinista, which I loved right from release. In fact one of the conversations I had with Joe when I later met him was my love for the album, and he was very pleased to hear this after all of the derision towards it. I clearly remember him saying he thought it would have made a much better single album, or maybe a double. Fave songs?  These would be ‘Complete Control’, ‘White Man’ and ‘Spanish Bombs’ – along with ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’ and ‘Stay Free’. But there are few I don’t like or love with a passion.”

How about your favourite post-Clash record or project from ex-members of the band?

“Do y’know, I loved Joe’s soundtrack for Walker. I’ve always been a big fan of film soundtracks and really enjoyed that one. I also enjoyed most of Big Audio Dynamite and Topper’s Waking Up LP from 1985. Havana 3AM, I am sad to say just about passed me by at the time, but a mate later gave me their LP. Good songs, but I wasn’t keen on the overall sound as such. Perhaps I need to revisit that album.”

And when was the last time you saw Joe?

“Post-Clash, I spent some time with him at an after-show party in Sheffield, and we sat chatting for hours about all sorts of subjects. He was very accommodating, generous and friendly: a memory I will always cherish.

“He actually inspired me to get back into my writing after I mentioned my fanzines, and he offered to help. I suppose that was yet another inspirational milestone for me in influencing my eventual move into writing full-time.

“I last saw Joe live when he and the Mescaleros were touring with The Who in 2000. Little did we know, at the time, that he would soon be no longer with us.”

Illustrious Company: Joe Strummer with Tony Beesley after a Mescaleros show at Sheffield Leadmill in 1988

To order a signed copy of Ignore Alien Orders, and find out and catch up on other books on Tony’s publication list, try  www.tonybeesleymodworld.co.uk. The book is also available via Amazon, Waterstones, Foyles, eBay and other outlets, and in-print titles can be ordered from most good book stores.

Meanwhile, for information about this blogger’s This Day in Music’s Guide to The Clash, and how to get hold of a copy, follow this link, scrolling towards the end for details. 

 

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The Wedding Present – back at the Boileroom, Guildford

Band Substance: The Wedding Present keeping an eye on drummer Charlie Layton at Blackpool’s Waterloo Bar, July 2019. From the left – Danielle Wadey, David Gedge, Charles Layton, Melanie Howard (Photo: Richard Houghton)

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …’

Three Wedding Present shows in less than three years in my hometown after 30-plus years without a single visit, and again all unfolding at the Boileroom, Stoke Fields, a few minutes’ walk from our Alan’s. Another winning night in store, not least for my fellow attendees, both about to reach landmark birthdays, one over from Finland to mark the occasion.

However, the events you look forward to most don’t always hit the spot, and there was a danger that might be the case, the situation ultimately saved by a storming last third of the set.

Those who read my take on February 2017’s visit (with a link here) may recall me moaning about the price of the ale in house, so this time we called pre-gig at our nearby local … but that ultimately proved a mistake. By the time we arrived at the venue, the place was packed – the show long since sold out – and it was all we could do to squeeze through to the left for a half-glimpse of the stage.

It wasn’t just the view affected but the sound too, David Gedge’s between-songs banter partially lost in a setting where talk from the bar drifted. I turned and glared, but it seemed to be coming from further away. The same applied for the quieter numbers, not so much drowned out as distorted. Of at least 24 past personal Wedding Present encounters from Glastonbury to Reading, London to Portsmouth, and Hebden Bridge to Preston, and a further four Cinerama shows in Manchester, I wondered if this might be the worst. Why would people pay £20 for a ticket then jaw all the way through? It was beyond me.

I could see the Boy Gedge (guitar, lead vocals) and Melanie Howard (bass) okay, but didn’t slap eyes on Charlie Layton (drums) all night, and it was only when Danielle Wadey (guitar) stepped up to the mic. that I could tell she was out there. Don’t ask me how that baby bump of hers is coming on.

Wonderful Copenhagen: From the left – Danielle Wadey, David Gedge and Melanie Howard, out front with The Wedding Present, live in Denmark on a Bizarro anniversary date, September 2019 (Photo: Nicklas Rosén)

Still, I was back from Lancashire for the weekend, on my old patch, in great company and in the presence of the semi-legendary Wedding Present. Why complain? And from the moment they kicked into ‘California’, ‘Brassneck’ and ‘Crushed’, there was no doubting the quality.

The louder the numbers the better, but too often Gedge’s banter with the crowd and his band was lost, as was the case when less-committed punters didn’t seem to know the songs. Promising new track ‘Don’t Give Up Without a Fight’ and lesser-known 2008 number ‘Hulk Loves Betty’ suffered accordingly, separated by Festive Fifty fave ‘A Million Miles’, the crowd briefly attentive.

I got the impression many of those assembled lost interest beyond 1992, this evergreen outfit mere reminders of indie youth gone by. But as so many of us know, they’ve missed out on so much, as next choices ‘Deer in the Headlights’, ‘Montreal and the sublime ‘Click Click’ proved, the harmonies on the latter never failing to impress.

Talking of more recent indie-pop perfection, there was ‘Rachel’ too, but I was too distant to experience its subtle charms. The fact that I was getting dripped on by overhead pipes running parallel to the stage further distracted, the crowd chatter continuing through ‘Don’t Touch That Dial’, ‘Fifty-Six’ and further new number, ‘Telemark’, lost on so many.

But then came a seismic shift, Gedge’s questioning ‘Oh why do you catch my eye then turn away?’ signalling the wondrous ‘Everyone Thinks He looks Draft’, a large swathe of those in front heading forward to dance up front, that extra couple of feet gained making all the difference, the sound if not the overall visual spectacle much improved.

Peak Performance: The Wedding Present, Devil’s Arse, Castleton, Derbyshire, August (Photo: The Wedding Present)

On they went with ‘Heather’, ‘You Should Always Keep in Touch With Your Friends’ (I have, that’s why I was here), and a pleasing take on 1980 Magazine classic, ‘A Song From Under the Floorboards’, and it was the show I’d hoped for. Still the pipes dripped, but it didn’t matter. They didn’t seem corrosive.

‘Kennedy’ was next, the pub erupting into an unseemly siungalong, while that gloriously grungey tell-tale opening riff of ‘Corduroy’ ensured we remained on a high, this finely-honed quartet finishing in style with the always-thrilling ‘Flying Saucer’ and the most heart-searing of break-up songs, ‘My Favourite Dress’. In fact, that final third was up there with my very best TWP experiences, perhaps more accentuated by the disappointment experienced earlier.

It was a memorable occasion for the band too, David revealing that Danielle and Charlie were heading ‘off on leave’ that night, the long-serving duo about to become a three-piece in their own right, a baby on the way. And it has to be said that we got ahead of ourselves after, raising a few glasses back at the King’s Head at the prospect of a new arrival in the Scopitones camp. Cheers both.

Don’t think for one moment that’s scuppered matters for the main man either, two new members already in rehearsal, the next dates lined up, starting in Köln this Thursday (November 28th), four mainland Europe engagements followed by 10 more on home ground before the year is out. Yes, The Wedding Present continues apace, and here’s to the next mesmeric instalment.

To check out the most recent WriteWyattUK Wedding Present live review, from their visit to Blackpool’s Waterloo Bar in late July 2019, and further links to a 2014 interview with David Gedge, past reviews and an earlier band appreciation, head here. You can also check out my take on David‘s recently-published SleeveNotes book here

The Venue: Guildford’s Boileroom, playing host to The Wedding Present again (Photo: https://www.coolplaces.co.uk)

For details of The Wedding Present’s remaining 2019 live dates and screenings of George Best documentary, Something Left Behind, try this Scopitones link. You can also keep in touch with David Gedge and co. via FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

 

 

 

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The Selecter – Guildford G Live

Band Substance: The Selecter in somewhat dynamic live action on their 40th anniversary tour. From left – Andrew Pearson, Winston Marche, Pauline Black, Gaps Hendrickson, Neil Pyzer-Skeete (Photo copyright: Rob Marrison)

As regular readers of this website know, Guildford and I go way back, and it was as a 13-year-old that I saw my first band at the Civic Hall, catching The Undertones on the Positive Touch tour, a mile and a half from my birthplace.

That was in June 1981, two decades after this London Road venue opened for business, with many more visits following – from The Stranglers in January 1982 (as ’Golden Brown’ climbed the charts) through to Squeeze in September 1995 (just before Ridiculous, the last great LP of their second coming).

The old building was gone nine years later, just over 40 years after the Rolling Stones played there (having that week dented the UK top-20 for the first time with ’I Wanna Be Your Man’, pop pickers), by which time I’d been in Lancashire a decade, my first return as an outsider perhaps my favourite Civic moment, fellow Surrey boy Paul Weller headlining between his Wild Wood and Stanley Road LPs in early ’94.

But amid at least 16 visits, the list of bands I missed out on in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was also impressive, and records suggest The Selecter first visited 40 years ago this month, on an amazing bill topped by The Specials and also including Dexy’s Midnight Runners (tour replacements for Madness, who’d just signed to Stiff Records). And they returned as headliners in early March 1980, barely a week after the release of seminal debut album, Too Much Pressure.

Double Act: Pauline Black and Gaps Hendrickson, on the ‘Frontline for the 40th anniversary (Photo: Rob Marrison)

Where the Civic once stood, we now have G Live, opened in 2011, and two years ago The Selecter shared a bill there with Ranking Roger’s version of The Beat. I missed out then, a victim of geography as ever, but finally got along last week, helping celebrate the 40th anniversary of this iconic Coventry ska outfit, with a supporting DJ set and guest spot for fellow 2 Tone survivor Rhoda Dakar – whose band The Bodysnatchers supported The Selecter in Guildford in 1980 – and much-touted young Londoner, Emily Capell.

The latter was with her band, plugging her debut album, the wonderfully-titled Combat Frock. But that’s a sore point. I only managed to get away from Leyland at half two, rolling into town four and a half hours later, arriving at the venue after a swift stroll from my host Alan’s place to hear the final chords of her set. Sorry, Emily. Next time.

Actually, scouring the ‘net, I see The Selecter played the Boileroom – even closer to Al’s – seven years ago, and after my latest visit to that Stoke Fields venue to see The Wedding Present two nights later (yep, review to follow), I’m intrigued as to how a seven-piece outfit had room to skank the night away on that small stage. But they certainly had plenty of room this time, off to a flying start with their finely-honed take on the theme tune of The Avengers, the years melting away as evergreen Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson led the charge out front with Pauline Black.

From there they barely paused for breath, old hits like a perennially-supreme ‘Three Minute Hero’ perfect alongside more recent wonders like ‘Frontline’, this band just as relevant, socially aware and every bit as much of a draw all these years on. And if anything, Pauline’s voice is as strong as ever, the band tighter than we were faced with the thought of buying three more bitters at the bar for eighteen bastard quid (the venue laughing all the way to the bank).

Enduring Image: Paul ‘Hammy’ Hanlon’ caught by Toni Tye back in the day in Coventry, remembered on the big screen

Throughout, the main act had the crowd on their side, proving masters of the ‘la-along’ on Justin Hinds & the Dominoes’ ‘Carry Go Bring Come’, Winston Marche leading from the rear on drums, a human dynamo from the off.

On ‘Murder’, Gaps defied his advancing years, fellow first LP numbers like ‘Everyday’ and ‘Danger’ also shining. If you’re unsure what you’ll get at a Selecter gig all these years on, I can vouch for a quality night out, audience members seeming to know far more tracks than they realised. By all means, do your homework and listen back through the catalogue, but either way you’ll fully appreciate a band with extra live kudos.

A big screen at the back of the stage displayed images matching the songs, from early shots of the band to that of a certain blond moptop PM with Pinocchio nose and problems telling the truth, and classic shots depicting the good old days of the ska revival, Pauline later asking if anyone among an audience of all ages recognised themselves in the photos. And as it was, I did, having recently read Stone Foundation bass player and friend of this site Neil Sheasby’s splendid Boys Dreaming Soul memoir and spotting his late pal, Hammy captured outside Tiffany’s in Coventry at the age I was on first visiting the Civic, in a celebrated Toni Tye image that seems to have gained a life of its own.

With such a shit-hot band – Gaps and Pauline backed by John Robertson (guitar), Andrew Pearson (bass), Lee Horsley (keyboards), co-producer Neil Pyzer-Skeete (sax) and afore-mentioned Winston, I reckon they’re better in places than on the early records, and here’s a confession to go with that. For me, of those great first LP singles ‘Missing Words’ never really resonated. But I can confirm that track sounds better than ever for these ears now.

 

Guest star: Rhoda Dakar – then & now – joins the band, with Winston Marche (Photo: The Selecter on Facebook)

Of course, it’s easy to compare this outfit with illustrious city neighbours and labelmates The Specials, but The Selecter were never some mere ska tribute band making up the numbers. They always offered much more, Pauline and Gaps’ continued stagecraft and work in the studio continuing to show that.

There’s a great example in the most recent LP’s ‘Remember Me’, Gaps with a little Gregory Isaacs-like Lovers’ Rock, while The Skatalites’ classic ‘Train to Skaville’ remains in safe hands with this ever-happening combo, and we stayed on a ‘60s footing for a little Monty Norman, all ska-d up, ‘James Bond’ just one of their many engaging B-sides.

The place was certainly moving for the delightful ‘On My Radio’, old Top of the Pops performances brought to mind and smiles on faces all around, and soon we had Rhoda giving the front two a breather, leading on both sides of her Bodysnatchers debut 7”, her ‘Ruder Than You’ then flipped over for ‘Let’s Do Rock Steady’, her voice also as good as ever, her enthusiasm proving contagious, an extra serving of class added to the mix.

And the shared vocals were spot on for a cracking medley of ‘Too Much Pressure’ and Toots & the Maytals’ ‘Pressure Drop’, Rhoda – who also saw service with The Specials and The Special AKA – sticking around for the old 2 Tone finale, Prince Buster’s ‘Madness’ given an expanded Selecter treatment.

But as I suspected, that wasn’t the end, an emotional finale following in a heartfelt tribute to a close pal, The Beat legend Ranking Roger, Andy Williams’ ‘Can’t Get Used To Losing You’ providing a poignant moment to close the proceedings, an image of this cherished performer – eight months after a far too early departure – looking down on old friends in the band and out among us.

Stage Craft: The Selecter, skanking into a brighter future, all these years on (Photo copyright: Rob Marison)

For this site’s October 2019 feature/interview with The Selecter’s Pauline Black, head here

The Selecter’s final show of their 40th anniversary tour takes place tonight (Saturday, November 23rd) at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, with late ticket details via this Facebook link or via www.theselecter.net

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The continuing adventures of Babybird – the Stephen Jones interview

Latest Compilation: Happy Stupid Nothing (2019) includes some of the latest greats from a rich song catalogue

Fresh from dates in Bristol and Minehead, Babybird return to the road this coming week, London and Leeds dates followed by Liverpool and Manchester visits sandwiching a trip to Birmingham on a mini-tour publicising new LP Photosynthesis, a cohesive collection of 10 tracks self-recorded by Stephen Jones, the voice and songwriting genius behind this cult ‘90s breakthrough act, the latest album coming hot on the heels of similarly-acclaimed, latter-years compilation Happy Stupid Nothing.

Reason enough from my point of view to catch up with Babybird’s main inspiration, with both recent records timely reminders to the wider public that this inventive act has always been about more than 1996 top-three hit, ‘You’re Gorgeous’.

While aware that there are many who don’t even realise he’s still making music, this decade Stephen has been quietly building himself a reputation as one of the music world’s most prolific artists. What’s more, we have Babybird’s first vinyl album release in 21 years, a limited-edition gatefold LP on music blogger Ben Scott‘s RW/FF Recordings label.

Happy Stupid Nothing collected together some of the best Babybird recordings from recent years, garnering praise from BBC Radio 6 Music, Virgin Radio and many other radio stations worldwide. Meanwhile, Uncut hailed it ‘surreal, heartfelt’ and ‘dramatically poignant’, while Classic Pop welcomed its ‘eccentric curios and anthems in the making’, with rave reviews too from various music websites.

But while there was plenty on that collection to please indie fans who gravitated towards Babybird in the ‘90s, Stephen doesn’t see himself as an indie-rock musician, as proved by his latest LP, described as a ‘fluid yet more focused record’ drawing on an ‘advanced range of sounds … taking the listener on an alluring journey’.

Stephen was at his place in Hale, Cheshire, when I tracked him down. Home to the stars, I suggested.

“It’s amazing how many people live up here. I think Morrissey hangs around there …”

Oh dear.

“Yes, the lovely Morrissey! But Johnny Marr runs around as well … in very short jogging shorts!”

Marked Fragile: Stephen Jones, the main driver behind Babybird, back on the road and in the shops right now

Friend of this website, Alan Wilkes, best known for his band, Vinny Peculiar, recorded the Parlour Flames’ 2013 self-titled album in Hale with Bonehead, of Oasis fame, who has a studio there. And he suggested to me recently that those who live there suffer from Paradise Syndrome, as they ‘can’t believe how lucky they are’. What say, Stephen?

“I know exactly what he means. It’s great! I lived in North London for 15 years. It was such a relief to escape. I was in Belsize Park, in a flat on the top floor, so when it came to bringing up kids, it was time to move.”

Time flies, with Stephen’s daughter now 18 and studying at university in Liverpool, while his son is 13. Talking geography, his press suggests he spent time in the 1980s making demo tapes in a Sheffield bedsit. But he’s from Nottingham and attended Trent University, when he became involved with experimental theatre company, Dogs in Honey, writing songs for their productions. So how did the South Yorkshire move come about? I’m confused.

“Yeah, it wasn’t quite a bedsit, but that’s where I met the band, with two of them still with me. I started recording on my own, then the band came along as I moved there from Nottingham. I lived there two years, I think.”

By 1994 he’d written more than 400 songs and had gained a publishing deal with Chrysalis Music. However, unable to win a recording contract, he decided to self-finance the release of a series of albums featuring his demos, limited to 1,000 copies of each under the name Baby Bird. And that ultimately caught the ears of the music press, debut LP I Was Born a Man released in the Summer of ‘95 and positively received by the likes of the NME.

The following summer – by then with a band in tow – he signed to Echo Records, and then came crossover success, the rebranded (one-word) Babybird managing eight UK top-40 hit singles from 1995 to 2000. And while they’d argue that their music was too maverick and eclectic to be pinned down and put into a convenient box labelled BritPop, they sold more than two million records and were nominated for two Brit Awards, sticking with Echo for four years, until poor sales for third album Bugged led to them being dropped, a split following.

Stephen continued on his own, writing fiction, releasing solo work and creating a score for the film Blessed. Then, in October 2005 the band reformed, the main-man now solely joined by fellow originals Luke Scott (guitar) and Robert Gregory (drums),  departed bass player John Pedder on his way to a successful career as an artist (with a link to his website here), his former bandmate playing down talk of any rift.

“It’s really difficult. When I moved to Sheffield, John put the band together really, finding the people. When we kind of parted ways it was strange. But I do talk to him, so I think it’s become okay.”

Time heals and all that?

“Yes, I think so.”

Early Form: The first pre-band Baby Bird LP, from 1995

A new LP was released a year later, that version of the band continuing until 2013, a period including funding from long-term Babybird fan and Hollywood legend Johnny Depp for 2010 LP, Ex-Maniac, also playing guitar on a number of its songs and directing a powerful video for single ‘Unloveable’.

While recognised as a master of accessible melodies and captivating hooks, Stephen never lost his appetite for recording imaginative and challenging music. Since launching his Bandcamp page in 2012, he’s reconnected with his DIY roots, exploring new styles and approaches through various projects, producing many intriguing self-recorded, self-released records, independence allowing him to dig deeper creatively without having to worry about commercial expectations, his output ever-prolific.

After a number of further Babybird releases on Bandcamp from 2015, Stephen took the band back out on tour in late 2017 with another new line-up, and two years on – having hit the road with Dodgy earlier this year on the 25th anniversary tour for their Homegrown album – they continue apace, a flavour of their latest coming covered by that latest compilation album and the new LP.

This short tour ends at Manchester’s Deaf Institute on Friday, November 29th. You’ve played there before, so I’m guessing you enjoy the vibe.

“I think this will be the fourth time. Behind the bar there’s a huge array of old speakers, it’s golden and red in there, and it’s perfect.”

You’ve got to know Manchester well in recent years, I guess.

“Yes, my partner was born in North Manchester, and I lived here way back as well. I’ve been in and out of here since I was 20.”

It’s a relatively short tour this time around. Are there more dates to come early next year?

“I don’t know, there’s a possibility of going to France. That’s what I really miss, doing Europe. We played on a boat on the Seine, which was fantastic, so I’d like some more of that.

“Actually I had a heart attack, over two years ago. I was in hospital and it was fixed, and seen as a mild one, but in terms of touring I didn’t want to go crazy. I’m fighting fit now, and the doctor said I’m probably fitter now than before.“

Laid Out: Taking the band to new heights in 1996

Was that something of a wake-up call for you?

“Yeah, I work at home, in my studio, so I’m constantly sitting down all day, not doing any exercise, so it kicked me up the arse and I go to the gym and try and stay healthy now.”

Well, you’re talking to a guy who struggles not to sit on his own arse writing on a computer most of the day. Thankfully dog-walking has me out and about.

“Yeah, I think something like a smart watch can help too. Something that will buzz every 20 minutes, remind you to stand up. You get used to that, maybe it ignore it, but at first it made me move around as much as I can. And I’m always aware I’ve got to do my 30 minutes a day.”

I have a natural version of that, a nine-year-old Collie cross demanding regular walks and interaction.

“Ah, there you go! A dog is perfect.”

I’ve been playing the new album a fair bit of late, and I’m loving it. Are you pleased with the reaction to Photosynthesis?

“Yes, it’s amazing. It’s had nothing to do with me in terms of the whole set-up. A guy called Ben Scott, a huge fan who also had online reviews and a little record company, wanted to do it. I’ve started to get more into vinyl now, and although it was an expensive option, he was prepared to do it. So he’s done that, he’s got all the press … and you could make a small book of it – there’s loads. It’s been a real eye-opener, and he’s massively dedicated.”

And this is your first vinyl album in more than two decades.

“It is. And a proper gatefold. We’ve had the odd single here and there, and ‘Unloveable’ came out on seven 7” …”

That had the Johnny Depp link, of course. Is he still in touch?

Bleach Boy: Stephen Jones, possibly heading to a town near you with Babybird these coming few days.

“Yes, I’m in touch more with his PA, Stephen, who’s in touch with him and lives here. I hear from him every now and again though, but he’s a busy boy.”

Are you personally a vinyl, CD or digital buyer?

“I’m terrible really. I’m both, I love my Alexa, because I can be downstairs, washing up, and just ask it to play this album or this song. Incredibly lazy really, although I’m sure artists hardly get paid at all. I don’t really buy CDs but do buy vinyl, and like to go to charity shops and find classic albums.”

Do you see this album as a natural progression to what’s come before, or a departure? You’ve been heading this way, creatively speaking, a while really.

“Yes, I don’t know if you know my BandCamp stuff, but I’ve released a lot from there, and Scott’s taken some of his favourite songs from there and put them together … and there were quite a few on there I couldn’t remember. I’ve released too much, probably! It was like a journey for 20-odd minutes, then turning it over for another. It felt really new for me, and like listening to someone else.

“And it came at the right time. Things always do … like the Depp thing, not least as everyone always wants to talk about ‘You’re Gorgeous’. Even now that doesn’t go away, which is fair enough. But my career’s really small. It’s like a little cottage industry.”

The very phrase I was about to use – cottage industry. In this case that led to 10 new tracks, self-recorded, for Photosynthesis.

“That’s exactly it. But Ben compiled the whole thing this time, so that was a nice surprise.”

Depp International: Babybird’s 2010 LP, Ex-Maniac, was financially backed by Hollywood star Johnny Depp

Of the Happy Stupid Nothing compilation, was that your way of reminding the world you’re still out there and not just the bloke who recorded that hit song?

“I don’t know. I’m kind of beyond that now. Obviously, I’d be lying if I said I don’t want to sell more, but I had massive luck 20 years ago. Getting record deals now and getting ahead in the music industry – unless you’re someone huge – doesn’t really work. I had my time, but I don’t think you could do that again – with small indie bands becoming bigger.”

Was there ever a point early on where you felt you might have to do something else for a living, and that big moment would never happen?

“Oh, I think that all the time. I was very grounded. I started in my late 20s. I was in a theatre company before that, but that paid nothing. I was doing that for 10 years, on £40 a week. But when it came to this, I knew a bit more about the business. My original manager used to book bands at The Leadmill in Sheffield.

“I knew what a cut-throat business it is. I was aware it wasn’t necessary going to be something which would be a career. I always knew it could end. But then there was ‘You’re Gorgeous’, and it went insane. We signed a big deal and all these things.

“You lose your head a bit then, but realise again after a few years that it’s not permanent. To this day, I don’t know where my next lot of money is coming from. And it’s always been like that.”

I suppose that way you at least retain a hunger for it all.

“Yeah, and you can work in any job and suddenly be made redundant. Music isn’t really a proper job, is it!”

A bit like writing about it.

“Well yeah, anything creative is seen as not being proper, as my Dad would say.”

What did your folks do for work?

“They were both teachers, and I think if you’re good teachers you’re guaranteed a job for life. Physics teachers. All my family were scientists. I really was the black sheep – crap at things like that!”

Duck Soup: There’s Something Going On, from 1998, was the band’s album follow-up to Ugly Beautiful

Maybe that gave you a different perspective in coming at all this.

“Definitely. You feel weird though. I’ve always felt like the weirdo, the one doing all this. That’s one good thing about success though. People are impressed by that. Not financial success, but the realisation that, ’Ooh, he might actually be quite good at that’!”

In a sense, you’ve had the best of both worlds. You came from those DIY roots, initial independent days followed by commercial success, when major record labels were still taking chances and splashing their cash on emerging artists.

“Oh, absolutely. And I’ve always regarded it like that. Even when the big deal was there and we were all over the place, on TV and what-have-you, I’d still be going home and recording on a little four-track cassette player. Nothing changed until I could afford to buy a laptop and started being a bit more out there, and more creative.”

In that sense you remind me of someone like WriteWyattUK regular Neil Arthur of Blancmange fame, and the way he approaches it all. He too has seen major success but now his work  is largely under the radar in realtive terms. Yet his albums are just as good today, and arguably even more creative.

“Oh God, yeah, I loved Blancmange, especially the first album!”

Well, all these years on, now just involving Neil of the original band, he’s still bringing out great albums, usually without too much fuss. And I get the idea – as with your good self – there’s no compromise these days in terms of commercial expectations. It’s about doing it for the love of it, and creativity.

“Yeah, that’s the thing. It’s funny with Blancmange though. I went down to London around the time of their first single, went to see them in a weird venue, like an office block. Yes, I was a big fan.

“I think everyone would like to be bigger. I’m sure Neil would say the same. You want more people to hear you. They were huge, and it’s very hard to get back unless you’re staggering monsters like the Rolling Stones. But you know why they’re there, and I wouldn’t want that kind of life.”

True, and similarly I couldn’t see you involved in some kind of Lost 90s showcase for various bands.

“Oddly, we have been pushed in to all that. We did Cool Britannia … which was horrible, but we were paid a lot of money. That rarely happens, and I wanted the band to be paid. We do a lot of touring but don’t get very much money. That was weird though, playing with Dodgy and Echobelly and that. But I never saw myself as part of anything like that.”

Take Four: Between My Ears There Is Nothing But Music was Babybird’s fourth studio album

There are positives to the multi-band event set-up though. If people see a five-song set from you at a summer festival they’ll go back and check out your music, providing opportunities to surprise them with regards to the rest of the catalogue.

“I totally agree, and that’s what people say to me if I’m moaning about it! You can still open people’s eyes, and there’s lots of music to grab on to. Very few people will know there’s 100-plus releases.”

Indeed. If one thing comes over just from looking at your Babybird statistics alone, it’s just how prolific you’ve been.

“Yeah, it’s one thing I can do, I enjoy it and do it pretty quickly. I’m not some torturous idiot in a cellar 24 hours a day. I’m a dad and doing everything else – doing the gardening, looking after my cat … like you with your dog.”

At the top of the new album alone, I hear unmistakably you, but also maybe acts probably selling more, like Damon Albarn and previous WriteWyattUK interviewees Alt J. And that kind of dirty blues on ‘October’ brings not only the latter to mind, but also Gomez.

“Oh, that’s cool!”

Were you listening to anything in particular, writing this album?

“I’ve never listened to stuff with that in mind. With lots of people, you get a guitar and start playing along with your favourite bands, but I’ve never been that kind of musician. I listen to stuff, and it must go in and come out subconsciously, but I don’t really do that. I listen to a lot of stuff but it’s not like anything that comes out.

“I like things like XXXTentacion. That’s really interesting. It’s hip-hop yet some of it sounds like Thom Yorke. It’s fascinating to listen to. And I’ve always loved old school hip-hop. I like Public Enemy and Ice Cube, and still listen to Eric B. & Rakim in the gym – that’s one of my things I can get through 30 minutes of!”

At the other end of that specific spectrum, there are trip-hop elements on this album. I hear bands like Portishead. It’s all in there.

“Massive Attack and Tricky I love a lot. These are songs I’m still listening to, so yeah. I like all that.”

Mic’d Up: Stephen Jones, always up for experimentation, goes for a deeper vocal take with Babybird

So who was the first band you saw live and thought, ‘This is what I want to do with my life’?

“Joy Division, always. Peter Hook’s basslines are just so melodic. I can still go back and listen to all that. I saw them when they were in this little cinema in Derby, with Ian Curtis doing his little windmill dance with both arms. I think that was around 1979/80.”

When they were supporting Buzzcocks?

“No, but I did see the Buzzcocks too. I was at school, in the sixth form, cycling in with my friend Ralph. We’d see The Cockney Rejects, The UK Subs, all these bands … and also Joy Division.

“Peter Cook … we were talking about people round here, he’s another who drives around, and seems to have spent all his money on personalised number plates and huge cars.”

Erm … I guess you actually mean past WriteWyattUK interview victim Peter Hook, rather than Peter Cook.

“Oh, what am I talking about! A Freudian slip. People who have liked Babybird through the years have always been comedians!”

Well, Peter Cook did compere that iconic punk show, Revolver, of course And finally, what’s the live set-up on these dates?

“It’s just a four-piece. Rob and Luke were in the original band, and we first rehearsed in 1995. And Danny Lowe is the bass player now. It’s brilliant. It just sounds really cut down. You get the sparseness but also the power. It’s odd that you get more power from less people sometimes.”

Well, you’re talking to a big fan of the three-piece set-up.

“Oh God, yeah. I mean, The Jam – what a sound!”

Critical Acclaim: Babybird’s latest album, Photosynthesis, is making an impact out there right now

Remaining November UK dates: Thursday 21st – The 100 Club, London; Friday 22nd – Brudenell, Leeds; Saturday 23rd – Jimmy’s, Liverpool; Thursday 28th – Hare & Hounds, Birmingham; Friday 29th – Deaf Institute, Manchester. For ticket details head to this SeeTickets page.

You can order new Babybird LP Photosynthesis at www.babybird.info or from selected independent record stores. Buy the LP from the online store and receive the single ‘No Cameras’ and digital-only bonus track ‘Photosynthesis’ as instant downloads. In addition, a number of further Babybird releases are planned, and you can download a free sampler containing several new songs via this linkYou can also follow Stephen Jones via Facebook, or on Twitter at @Babybird_Music or @xbabybird.

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Local hero at home among Orcadian soundscapes – the Erland Cooper interview

Light Show: Erland Cooper gets into the zone, and is heading your way very soon with his eclectic ensemble

Erland Cooper was getting ready to head to the studio to continue work on his latest record when I called, but happy to hang back and discuss another hectic year.

This talented singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and composer from Scotland’s Northern Isles has seen his stock rise of late, not least through collaborations with Paul Weller on his True Meanings album last year. But it’s in his own right that Erland’s turning heads right now, leading a multi-instrumentalist ensemble, recent London and Edinburgh sell-out performances inspiring his first solo headline tour.

The tour is in support of his second solo album, Sule Skerry, the second in ‘a triptych shaped by his childhood home, the Orkney Islands and, in particular, by the air, the sea and the land’. And if his first solo album, Solan Goose, was seen as an ode to escapism, written to ease personal anxiety working in a busy city through soothing piano, electronics, strings and wild bird calls, Sule Skerry takes the concept further, Erland this time turning his attention to the North Sea.

What’s more, the new album has been followed by another, Seachange, which Erland describes as an ‘ambient companion’ to that LP, split over three movements, or tides, a collaboration with producer, artist and guitarist Leo Abrahams, who also guests on Sule Skerry. That followed a similar working model for Solan Goose, which was accompanied by Murmuration, a collaboration with William Doyle. And both companion albums include covers by Bermondsey-based artist Norman Ackroyd, Erland telling me, ‘I find Norman’s work very inspiring’. So how best to describe Seachange? Apparently, it’s a ‘seamless sonic poem, evoking the place and memory of the record that came before it’. Tell us more, Erland.

“It’s just a different perspective, or way of seeing. I imagine this music being created by placing recyclable source material into the North Sea, watching it become torn, pulled apart, diluted, stretched, weathered and then reassembled in an Orkney Geo. It creates a different form, with dissolved and overlapping melodies that eventually disappear into granules like plankton. This record is an upcycling of sounds, themes and layers into a new collaborative work.”

It’s been three years since I last saw him play live, in the impressive setting of Liverpool’s Central Library with The Magnetic North, alongside bandmates Hannah Peel (most recently Emmy-nominated for her Game of Thrones score) and Simon Tong (Blur, The Verve, and more recently The Good, The Bad and the Queen). Memories that night in Merseyside (with the full review here) included Erland offering tots of whisky to the audience from a bottle on the band’s rider – an Orcadian tradition, he suggested. Is that something he’s carried into his solo career?

“Well, firstly, I didn’t intend to do any solo career. That was quite by accident. But I think I’ll definitely bring a bottle of whisky. It’ll be mid-afternoon, but just for tradition I’ll put it at the front of the stage, just for you. What do you think? Someone has to break that seal. If that could be you, I’ll do it. It could be our little pact!”

He’s talking about his 2.30pm seven-date UK tour opener at Lancaster Library this Sunday, November 17th, with the second date not far off, a midweek happening in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, at the Band on the Wall. And ticket sales for the tour are going well, his Bristol and Brighton dates already sold out.

I got the impression Simon Tong was keeping him and Hannah in line in Liverpool at times, I suggested, the two of them seemingly more giddy from the experience, having far too much fun on stage for the image.

“Ah, that’s just how he likes to present it. I’m always keeping that boy in order!”

According to Simon in our 2016 interview (see link below), they first met in London, Erland having initially approached renowned producer, Youth (ex-Killing Joke, and who also produced The Verve), wanting to do some demos. Youth was looking for young artists, and Erland, then in his early 20s, turned up on his doorstep, saying, ‘I want to be a singer, can you help me?’

Simon told me the pair met a few years later at a folk night he was putting on with Youth, chatting about music and realising they were both fans of Jackson C. Frank, starting to write together, making demos and forming a band, the debut Erland & The Carnival record in 2009 including a cover of Frank’s My Name is Carnival.

After a couple of albums and through a friend in common, Hannah Peel ended up supporting  the band – also including drummer and engineer David Nock (The Orb, The Cult, Fireman) – and having just started talking about their Orkney project, feeling they needed someone else involved and envisaging it as a lot more orchestral and cinematic, they approached Hannah to join. And as Simon put it, “She was perfect – she played trombone, she sang, did string arrangements and played violin. Hannah was a perfect fit, we got on really well, and it grew from there really.”

As well as this imminent autumn tour, Erland is set to head next June to the Barbican Hall in London for An Orkney Triptych, ‘an evocative mix of music, words and imagery’, taking place not so far in the scheme of things from his East London studio, which he describes as ‘the polar opposite of the Orkney islands, but a wonderfully creative, private space … like a secret bunker!’ So does he see London as home these days?

“Partly, but I’m all over the place. I try to get back to Scotland, and I’ve been working a lot in Ireland. I’ll probably keep migrating. I like to see myself a bit more like a bird. I keep coming and going.”

At the risk of sounding Hitchcockian, not least with Solan Goose in mind, the birds keep coming back into your life, don’t they?

“Consistently! Constantly! I was wondering why, and I just think birds are probably the one creature that even as a kid and a middle-aged man and as an old man, they’re just as majestic. It’s flight really. You can’t explain it, but you try. The older you get you think you know more about it, but you don’t. It’s incredible when you think how far some of these birds have travelled. That kind of blows your mind a bit.”

That took us on to travel, me telling Erland how I used to dream a lot about flying, and more so before I travelled the world for the first time.

“Yeah, it’s about taking flight and exploration really, and people say, ‘You grew up in Orkney, that must that been idyllic’. It was, but my teens were quite difficult for various reasons and you want to leave. Someone in Ireland asked the best and the worst thing about Orkney. In one sentence, it’s a rock surrounded by the North Sea, and that’s both the best, the majestic and the highlight but also something that makes it the worst thing as a kid.”

When it comes to his Orkney triptych, of which we’ve heard two-thirds so far, Erland insists he ‘didn’t mean to release it’. Was this writing as a cure for homesickness or some form of self-therapy maybe?

“Well, as I say, I didn’t mean to release it or even make it. I wrote it in between the cracks of all the other projects I was doing. For me it was like a tool to just ease a busy mind. Let’s say, if you’re on the sweaty London Underground for example, rushing around … I won’t get into intricacies of stress, because that’s relative in what you’re going through compared to anyone else, but I would just put this on. I’d get to the studio and make these layers to kind of counteract what I’d just experienced, and I would then travel with it.

“So instead of frowning on the Underground, when I hear this Orcadian accent, I’d be beaming. I think that’s what music and other people’s art does for me – it transports me to a place, whether that’s real or imaginary. Even if it’s just for a minute or 10 seconds, three minutes or 40 minutes of a record, that’s fine, and that’s all I’m ever trying to do, to get an essence of something that transports me somewhere else.

“I think we did that in Skem (referencing The Magnetic North’s second LP, Prospect of Skelmersdale), and we did that in Orkney with the first Magnetic North record, and I think that’s just what I do. And it’s probably that little boy or that kid who wanted to leave in his 20s. I can’t stop writing the same song.”

From The Magnetic North to Public Service Broadcasting and also King Creosote’s 2014 soundtrack to the From Scotland With Love documentary film, I seem to have experienced this wondrous new wave of filmic music, one that has taken me across various music genres, from classical to electronica.

“Well, there are no rules. Anything that evokes memories – good or bad – is okay. One person can look at a piece of footage and feel one thing, another can feel the other. I felt like I was scoring a film that didn’t really exist, apart from that it was my Orkney in my head. And I was ok with that.

Quay Side: Erland Cooper takes some time out in Orkney, awaiting the next American tourists, no doubt

Quay Side: Erland Cooper taking some time out in Orkney, perhaps awaiting the next ferryload of American tourists

“But I played it to my publisher, who said, ‘What the hell’s that in the background?’ I said, ‘It’s Solan Goose, and all the tracks are named after birds. I think I’m going to write three of them, because they’re keeping me company’. She said, ‘You’ve got to release that!’ And before I knew it, it was flapping around, and still is, which is quite remarkable.”

To a point where I believe there could be a theatrical production now. Is that right?

“Ha! A friend of mine is doing a stage production of Kes, a great thing to do.”

That rather than your Orkney story?

“Oh, I’d love to do the story of Betty Corrigall or something like that.”

Betty was the subject of a song on Orkney: Symphony of The Magnetic North, the trio paying tribute to a late 18th century woman from Hoy who fell pregnant and took her own life, aged 27, after her lover deserted her and ran away to sea, the castigation of the locals and trauma and shame of the situation proving too much.

Actually, what I was really driving at there was that Erland is set to take on a collaboration with the Young Vic next year, for a six-week production of Portia Coughlan from mid-September, following an invite from director Carolyn Byrne, composing the score to Marina Car’s play, with Academy Award nominee Ruth Negga in the title role.

“I’m quite excited about that and think she asked me because I don’t do music for theatre. She felt when she listened to my records in her own space that it would take her somewhere else, and she wondered, ‘Could you try and make a world for me with this theatre production?’”

Is there an irony that the success of his songwriting about home is ultimately keeping him away from Orkney?

“Believe it or not, it gets me there! Radio 4 flew me up, and I did this other thing the other day. It’s brilliant, I get to go there more! I kind of feel like I work for the Tourist Board. And I don’t mind that, I want people to go there.

“This had never happened before and never since, but I was sat outside my house in Stromness with a fucking film crew – embarrassing in itself – telling them anecdotes about jumping off the pier as a kid, when this group of Americans came up and said, ‘Oh, my God, are you Erland Cooper?’ It was like I’d pay them to ask me! That wouldn’t happen anywhere else, but it happened outside my door, this group of people recognising me, saying, ‘We came to the Orkney Islands, with you ‘soundtracking’ our trip. Are you sat on this doorstep all the time?’”

It sounds like a new spin on the wonderful Local Hero.

“I love that film! Yeah!”

As a writer, I have to do lots of extra jobs to pay bills and the mortgage, and guess you’re the same, although your extra projects seem far more glamorous, such as TV and film scoring, advertisements and various multi-arts projects, including gallery, film and installations, most recently scoring Nest, a giant, kinetic light and sound installation opening London’s first borough of culture. Is that something that helps fund your albums?

“Well, I don’t do corporate work anymore, which is great. But I tell you what I love doing – these multi-art projects. It’s so rewarding, and I get to work with real artists. Simon Tong taught me that. People like landscape artists, directors, and people I think do an incredibly evocative job of making something lasting, they inspire me.

“I didn’t expect to be doing galleries or large screen installations until I was much older, when I was retiring. The fact that I’m doing it now is such a joy. It’s so great, getting to score these installations. It’s so rewarding to see people react in different ways. I was speaking to Bill Drummond the other day – and that’s not me name-dropping – and he’s a provocateur but also incredibly wise and said a good idea should stand alone without its creator. That’s so brilliant and right in the sense of a big light installation, for example, when you’re just walking around as a punter.

“I was walking around this Nest installation, and 70,000 people came to see it over this weekend, and I could hear kids and mums and dads talking about it. One Mum had a tear in her eye by this 4D spirograph. This boy said, ‘Mum, it’s like sitting underneath fireworks, but without the bangs. Instead of bangs, you’ve got this music’. Such a lovely way of putting it.

“Then I saw two fellas looking at each other, cans of beer in hands, one saying, ‘It’s like tripping off your tits!’ That’s perfect, and both of those reactions were great. They didn’t know me from Adam, yet I’m stood behind them, thinking, ‘I helped put this together!’ That’s really satisfying.”

Taken Up: The Magnetic North, live in Liverpool’s Central Library in October 2016 (Photo: http://www.getintothis.co.uk/

The Nest installation involved a three-night event in North London, Erland adding, ‘I’d love to take the Nest to the Orkney Islands.’ Watch this space. But with Seachange out now, following the Sule Skerry album, Erland is currently working on the final record in his trilogy, revealing to me that its companion record is to be called Landforms.

“Once that’s done, that’s the whole Orkney project done. I think that will be it. I can’t see me writing as overtly about Orkney again.”

How about moving on to the next archipelago as your subject matter, starting again?

“Well, I’d love to do that anyway!”

All of which leads me to wonder when you’ll get around to a third Magnetic North album. I understood that you were on the case some time ago, according to Hannah Peel last time we spoke. But with Hannah busy with her Emmy-nominated Game of Thrones score and various other projects, and Simon recording and touring with The Good, the Bad and the Queen of late, the project seems to be on hold.

“We have this habit – I think Simon would back me up on this, Hannah maybe less so – of making a record then ditching it, then making another. I think a lot of folk do that. Simon would call it pruning a tree, getting rid of dead wood.

“The Magnetic North is a process of a few things, but most important is to have one local and two other heads that are outsiders. That’s vital and that balance has to be right. At the moment, it’s not there as that local is too busy.

“You could argue that the outsiders have written too much, and that’s not fair. It’s quite normal to ditch it. That’s how it works. It’s great, although ruthless. It’s got to come from her. She’s got to drive that. Maybe it’ll come in 10 years … or maybe it won’t come at all.”

As I understand it, that third Magnetic North album will be written in Northern Ireland, reflecting a key part of Hannah’s past, with yourself and Simon doing the groundwork.

“There’s no rules, but you’ve highlighted one of the main issues. You’ve got to go there, collect sounds and stories and see how you react to it in different spaces. That’s always part of it. But to be frank, they’re both so busy that I’ve ended up releasing my own stuff! And that was unintentional, as I said. But I just keep going and I’ve always found I write between the cracks, doing my own stuff between other projects.”

Passing Through: Simon Tong, Hannah Peel and Erland Cooper take it to the underpass (Photo: McCoy Wynne)

Hannah is based mostly across the Irish Sea now, rather than London, but Erland and Simon remain in the capital, although Erland’s spending more time back in Scotland, adding, ‘But that’s okay. It’s like a cycle of the seasons. We’ll see what happens’.

Erland also gets over to Ireland a fair bit, to ‘a beautiful studio in Donegal’ where he mixes his Orkney records, adding, ‘I love taking stuff from Orkney to my basement in East London, and then on to the wide-open glens of Donegal. This idea that you have to be surrounded by the landscape to write about it is nonsense. You come back from there with it in your head, in your books, or your phone, then see what you’ve got. I call it critical distance. You need to be away from something to realise what it is.”

Remind me how the Paul Weller link come about. He was a fan of Erland and the Carnival, wasn’t he?

“My band, The Carnival, were the best unknown band in Britain, along with all the others! While we didn’t have many fans, we had some hardcore fans, and Paul was one of them. He took me and the guys on tour, we went to America, and we played some incredible venues, including the Royal Albert Hall in London, becoming really good mates. And I didn’t realise he’d never co-written, in a sense, lyrics before.”

Are there songs you wrote together still to see the light of day?

“Yeah. And I brought Hannah in. I’m the one that kind of joins the dots. I don’t like to be in any way the centre of attention, but I’m behind a lot of things or you’ll see my name associated somewhere. He’s a big fan of Hannah now, and she’s just scored his latest record.

“He’s a good, honest bloke, a very genuine and humble guy, and like you and I, he just believes in interesting, creative energy. He doesn’t give a shit about ego!”

You’ve done so much in a relatively short period of time, and it’s fair to say you’ve come from a different place, in more ways than one. You’ve toyed with folk, electronica, classical, prog and pop. Did you come to Paul’s work late, or were you always a fan?

“I’ll say this in earnest, I remember getting bullied because I took a fucking CD of Wild Wood into school. And do you know what I’d say to that fucking bully now? ‘Fuck you!’

Weller’s World: Erland Cooper has been writing with Paul Weller of late, featuring on his True Meanings LP last year

“The thing with Paul is that he’s a force and does what he feels and wants to do, based on what he’s just done last. I came to his music quite early on, while I was learning, breaking down how to figure out how songs were written, like Nirvana and everybody else …”

At this point, Erland’s multi-tasking, putting his jacket on, heading for the door but too polite to tell me to piss off, carrying that thread on.

“I’m always interested in what Paul does next. I find that really interesting, and I really mean this – he’s got more energy, charisma, ideas and creative force than most people I meet in their 20s. And I mean musicians. And he’s in his 60s now!”

There are some grand venues on this tour, including a Charles Rennie Mackintosh late-1890s church in Glasgow. What made you choose Lancaster Library as your starting point?

“I just like the acoustic of spaces, and was told it was interesting. You’ve probably noticed that just when people think they’ve got me clocked, they haven’t. It’s like, ‘Why are you playing there?’ Because you don’t expect me to!”

At this point we briefly compare notes on that venue, this punter having previously seen Robert Forster of Go-Betweens fame, The Thrills, and then Iain Broudie and Starsailor frontman James Walsh on the same bill there.

“I didn’t expect to be touring, let alone … I’m playing the fricking Barbican Hall, and a library! And that’s the whole point, right?”

And who’s he with on these dates?

“It’s a small ensemble. I think a middle-aged white man with a quartet is boring and it’s what everybody does. My band is exactly that – you could think it’s a quartet, but they’re multi-instrumentalists and artists in their own right, they move around on the stage, and it’s interesting for me. It just inspires me, playing with great people. I won’t name names, but if I see another white guy with a quartet, it’s just like, ‘Come on!’”

Erland Cooper has shared an excerpt from Seachange – the ambient companion to his acclaimed LP, Sule Skerry – with a link here, accompanied by recycled visual cut-ups from collaborator Alex Kozobolis, shot in Orkney.

For this site’s most recent Hannah Peel interview, from September 2017, head here (with links to previous conversations). And for our April 2016 interview with Simon Tong, head here

Reflective Moments: Erland Cooper, on the road in support of his Orcadian soundscapes, not least Sule Skerry

UK dates (with support from AVA): Sunday, November 17thLancaster Library (2.30pm); Wednesday, November 20th – Manchester Band on The Wall; Thursday, November 21st – Bristol Arnolfini (sold out); Friday, November 22nd – Brighton Unitarian Church (sold out); Sunday, November 24thLeeds Brudenell Social Club; Saturday, November 30thGlasgow Mackintosh Queen’s Cross Church; Monday, December 2ndGateshead Sage. For ticket details of Erland’s An Orkney Triptych show with the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Barbican Centre in London on June 13th, 2020, head here.

For details of the above shows you can also visit www.erlandcooper.com/live, and for  all the latest, visit his website and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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Lights still turn green at their convenience – talking BOB with Dean Leggett

Indie Cred: Simon Armstrong, Henry Hersom, Richard Blackborow and Dean Leggett, back in the day (Photo: BOB)

Cast your mind back three decades or so. My diaries suggest I saw 148 gigs in the last three years of the 1980s, so inevitably recollections of some are cloudy. But many stick in the memory, not least those documented in print as head honcho of Captains Log fanzine, a few involving one of my live obsessions of that era, the mighty BOB.

I use the term ‘mighty’ with a wry smile. If they’d crossed over, getting the commercial success I felt they deserved, I’d have been pleased for them but possibly then sidled off and left them to it … job done. But they were mighty alright, in the way just a small handful of somewhat underground, indie-pop outfits resonated with this perennial just turned 20-something.

It was John Peel who brought them to my attention. Listening back now to the first session this North London collective recorded for his show at Maida Vale, broadcast on January 7th, 1988, I more or less know every note, to the point that the final recorded versions of three of those songs were never quite the same. But listening again this last couple of weeks I’m appreciating them all the more.

The BOB story proper started in 1985, Simon Armstrong (vocals, guitar) and Richard Blackborow (vocals, guitar, keyboards) recording and writing at home, Jem Morris (bass) joining the following year, their first release arriving soon after, a three-track flexi-disc single released on their House of Teeth label, tracks including ‘Brian Wilson’s Bed’. And then came a real break, bumping into Peel in the Rough Trade record shop, the legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ going on to play it several times.

Gary Connors joined on drums in 1987 and they made the ‘What a Performance’ single for Sombrero Records, that indie label’s link to the Cool Trout Basement, Great Portland Place, London W1, leading to regular gigs there, with a few more around the capital and on Jem’s old patch in South Wales.

That first of three Peel sessions followed, the band given just a couple of days’ notice after another pulled out. A further BBC session was broadcast for Simon Mayo in early March, with second single, ‘Kirsty’ next, those singles and the early flexi then collected for Sombrero’s Swag Sack compilation.

I guess that’s where I came in – along with fellow Guildfordian Alan and Windsor-based Steve taking in our first of seven BOB gigs, at Windsor’s Community Arts Centre in late April, supported by the wonderfully-named Nine Steps to Ugly. By then Dean Leggett, originally from Redruth, Cornwall, was the drummer, previously serving with BOB’s Sombrero bandmates The Siddeleys and The Pink Label’s Jamie Wednesday, the London outfit led by ‘Jim Bob’ Morrison before he formed Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine with Leslie ‘Fruitbat’ Carter.

Another cracking Peel session followed in early February 1989, and I saw them in Windsor again the following month, by which time it must have struck me just how prolific they were, so many great new songs in the set. That time they were at the Old Trout, River Street, one of my favourite venues of that or any other era, now long gone, an appreciation group on Facebook reminding us it was ‘heartlessly destroyed and turned into a Furkin monstrosity’.

BOB were great that night, as they were when they returned a fortnight before Christmas ’89, us by then with two more gigs under our belt, one on my patch at the University of Surrey, the other on theirs at the Town & Country 2, Highbury Corner, London N5 (now home to The Garage, where I saw the reformed Undertones in the early 2000s).

In his notes on the Leave the Straight Life Behind reissue, Simon writes, ‘Dean’s telephone skills and formidable address book meant that tours of venues all around the country, now mostly long gone, were now possible every couple of months. Over the next few years BOB played hundreds of dates, improving most of the time; and on a good night, a good night was had by all. On a bad night, there was always tomorrow; most likely a long way away. These tours were always shoestring affairs, made possible only by the kindness of strangers (and promoters) when it came to accommodation.’

Those gigs helped pay for studio time too, releases by then solely via House of Teeth, their demos mostly recorded DIY style in a converted studio in the attic of Richard’s brother’s place in Banwell, Weston-Super-Mare, ‘sleeping all day and recording all night’.

A third and final Peel session proved to be another cracker, broadcast in early September ’89, with Jem soon away, replaced by Stephen ‘Henry’ Hersom, previously with The Caretaker Race. But Jem was still involved when I caught them back at the Old Trout in mid-December, writing a review that night for my fanzine, the semi-legendary fourth edition that would have included interviews with BOB, The Beautiful South and The Chesterfields among others, but somehow never saw the cold light of print. One missed deadline led to another, financial and work pressures for me and my designer playing a part, instead putting my energies into my world travels, disappearing from the scene for around nine months.

I’ve still got the interview (that will follow online as soon as I get time) and my ‘in not more than 250 words’ review from that December night follows. In hindsight I wouldn’t have been so harsh about their most recent single. I think it just seemed an unlikely choice after their previous release, the mighty ‘Convenience’. But this is what I wrote.

“After the lacklustre ‘Esmerelda Brooklyn’ single, this band had to perk up our often wild interest in them and they couldn’t have any better than they did in their signing off the decade gig tonight; all complacency ridden off with a stormer in which Simon (guitar, vocals) warded off flu and fatigue with the help of a hankie strewn from the mic. stand and plenty of guitar pedals (early Christmas presents?).

“Tonight was a far cry from the early ‘Backbone’ days, the crowd might have been pretty sparse but only really meant more dance space for those of us who hadn’t yet gone down with the flu. Simon fought through everything from nasal congestion to sore throat for songs ranging from ‘Making Plans for Nigel’ to ‘I’m a Believer’, snatches of ‘Eye Know’ and ‘Stand Down Margaret’ thrown in for good measure, all in all a positively rocked-out yet funky set-up.

“But none of their songs tonight surpassed the charge of ‘Convenience’ and their show-topping cover of The Beatles’ ‘Rain’, giving it all the hallmarks of a being a BOB classic, with Richard and Simon’s harmonies and Jem’s mega-loud plodding bass. Nothing else could please us more than BOB becoming synonymous with the ’90s, the first step of which would be their getting to grips with the studio in the same way as they did with ‘Convenience’. Stroll on!”

Parisienne Walkways: BOB in Paris, way back, waiting for the big break that never came (Photo: BOB)

Funny I should end it like that, seeing as the next release, the first with Henry, was the ‘Stride Up’ EP, released that next year. I should add though that five months prior to that festive Old Trout show I met my better half on a Turkish holiday and was soon spending alternate weekends up in Lancashire. Something had to give, dropping a few of my many nights out in and around London catching live music and writing about it. And within a year I was off to Thailand and beyond, at a time when BOB were on the brink of a breakthrough that sadly never truly came to fruition.

I saw them live just once more, with Alan, my fanzine designer Malcolm Smith and his pal Jimmy at Reading’s After Dark Club in mid-July ’91. When I mentioned that gig to Dean, I said I couldn’t remember a lot about it. But I’ve since looked at my diary, and while it makes for just a few lines, it’s worth adding.

“A classic evening in a West Indian club with shitty support bands, a manager who banned us taking glasses into the corridor, no BOB until 12.30am and only then after five Bobbies were in and out with two locals and a blood-caked train driver. Bob weren’t on top form but probably because they’d have rather played at 10 and with a better sound system. Rattleback and Colour Mourning were appalling. Home at 3. A good night in a strange sort of way.”

A bit harsh on the support acts, but blame that on my 23-year-old self. Interestingly, by that point they’d recorded the album, and there was another single that year, ‘Tired’. And the following year, Backs Records of Norwich put out final single, Nothing for Something’. However, in Simon’s words, ‘nobody seemed to notice’. The story almost over, the original duo soon resorting to home-demoing on an ailing eight-track machine, back where they started.

But wait up … fast forward 28 years, and I’m back in touch with Dean, calling him in Aberdeen before a gig at The Tunnels, the first of four nights with One Eyed Wayne supporting WriteWyattUK favourites The Wedding Present (with Glasgow, Newcastle and Birmingham shows to follow) on their Bizarro 30th anniversary tour.

I started by pointing out that I saw two shows on the original Bizarro tour, around the time I saw my fifth and sixth BOB shows at the tail end of 1989. But while The Wedding Present were on a roll, cementing their position among indie royalty, BOB’s own crossover appeal was destined never to be properly realised.

That was the year I got to interview Dean, Simon, Richard and Jem for my fanzine in Highbury Corner, on a night when Hull outfit The Penny Candles were on the bill and ex-Housemartins drummer Hugh Whittaker pointed his cartoon likeness out on a ‘There is Always Something There to Remind Me’ t-shirt I happened to be wearing backstage. And as Dean reminded me, BOB were managed by Paul Thompson, who previously looked after The Housemartins and went on to direct The Beautiful South’s operation.

“We did actually go to The Beautiful South’s first gig at the T&C2, around that time, then went to an after-party somewhere near Camden, where there was a bit of trouble. Ha! We didn’t think they were very good.”

As previously recalled on these pages in a 2014 interview with Dave Hemingway, I too saw a very early Beautiful South show at Aldershot’s Buzz Club, interviewing them before. They liked a bit of chaos, I suggested to Dean, and it was almost as if they were trying a bit too hard to be edgy at the time.

“Yeah. I liked Paul, and really got on with him, but the rest of The Beautiful South at that time, at this after-party, were quite full of themselves. I think their first single had charted by then … and y’know … things went on. We didn’t really get on with them very well, which was unusual for us really.”

Come on then, spill the beans. What happened?

“Well … me and their drummer had a bit of a set-to. Not a fight. But it was alright in the end … no harm done.”

When I saw you back at The Old Trout in Windsor in December ‘89, I was convinced you were on the way to the next level, success-wise. Alas, it wasn’t to be, and I only saw you once more, a few weeks after returning from my world travels, at Reading’s After Dark Club.

“Ah, yeah. We stayed the night with a good friend of the band who was the accounts guy for Rough Trade. A lovely chap. He had this cupboard of Rough Trade records, test pressings and all sorts, and gave me a copy of The Smiths’ ‘Reel Around the Fountain’, with ‘Gene’ on the B-side, which never got released and is now the most expensive Smiths record you can buy. Somebody offered me 2,000 Euros for it a couple of weeks ago, but I refused. It’s such a nice memory, I thought I’d hang on to it.”

Flexi Time: The ‘Queen Of Sheba’ flexi-disc, exclusively available at  Bob’s forthcoming November gigs

But it turns out that Reading date wasn’t my final BOB gig after all. Because now they’re back for what’s been billed as one final tour, the band gearing up for rehearsals in the Far West of Cornwall when I called, Richard having moved there some time ago and based not far from Land’s End. Actually, I popped in to see him at the art gallery he helps run in St Ives two summers ago, at which point he was working on archiving various BOB recordings.

Looking at my interview from 1988 (I’ll get that published on here at some stage soon) – conducted after an earlier failed attempt at the nearby Ferret & Firkin (or some such North London boozer, a local muso opening his set and drowning us out) backstage at the T&C 2, until we were drowned out for a second time by main support The Unbelievers – I see hints were dropped about EMI Records interest at the time.

“Yes, and Richard recently rediscovered the demos we did for them. Around 1991/2 we did a couple of big UK and European tours and were writing lots. We’d written the third album – I say that, but the second in reality, as Swagsack was a compilation – but when Rough Trade collapsed, with our Leave the Straight Life Behind album with them, we were looking for something else.

“Someone from EMI talked to Paul Thompson, wanting to do something, wanting to work out what sort of deal they could offer us. We were all very excited about that, but it fell through. He had three projects on the go – Duran Duran, Radiohead and ourselves, with us and Radiohead at the same level, about to be taken on in progression-type deals.

“But Duran Duran were spending (I think he actually said ‘spunking’, but it was a dodgy line) loads of cash on their comeback album and he was told by the execs he was spending too much money and couldn’t sign both bands. Presumably there was a toss-up between us and Radiohead …”

And the rest is history.

“Well yeah, but he was only there for another two months, so obviously wasn’t happy that his ideas had been taken away from him. And he was about 50 at the time, so wasn’t a young A&R man. He was one of the old school. But now we’ve found the tapes, they’ve all been remastered digitally, and Richard’s mixing those – around three or four tracks – plus a bunch of others recorded in Harlow at The Square club, recorded live straight through to the desk in a room at the back, and now remixed.

“They’re live but with some overdubs, so we’re looking at 12 properly-recorded brand new songs no one’s heard on the vinyl version of the album, and there will a double-CD as well, featuring that album and loads of unreleased demos and other songs we were working on that never got further. Actually, there’s nearly 200 tracks, believe it or not, in various forms, that never came out, and we’ve whittled them down to around 50.”

I don’t doubt that at all from such a prolific outfit, and strongly recommend the two double-CD packages BOB have released via 3 Loop Music (distributed by Cherry Red Records), a Leave the Straight Life Behind reissue from 2014 with four extra tracks and a 20-song The Complete BBC Sessions included, and from the following year The Singles and EPs two-disc compilation, Richard and Simon providing exhaustive notes for both.

I think I appreciate the Leave the Straight Life Behind album – recorded in March 1991 and released via their own House of Teeth imprint later that year – a lot more these days. There’s some belting tracks there, across both retrospective packages. At the time, I wasn’t sure they’d fulfilled the potential I saw in them live or heard on those Peel sessions. But that sounds harsh in retrospect. Putting this feature together, I’ve re-immersed myself in those packages, and could write loads of glowing copy about so many of those songs.

“We were good live – there’s no question of that. I think with studio albums, the edge can go off a bit. I think this album feels live though. It’s got the energy, having just plugged in and played the songs after coming off that tour, a few of which were aired on those dates.”

When we spoke, there were around 140 copies left (after barely a fortnight of sales from an initial batch of 800) of an eye-catching 7” vinyl single of BOB’s big indie hit ‘Convenience’ (No. 31 in John Peel’s 1989 Festive Fifty) re-pressed in red, amber and green and re-released by the Optic Nerve label. Those are sure to have gone by the time you’re reading this, but by all means check via the band’s Facebook page (linked below).

And as well as that and the new LP, with the working title Another Motorway, Another Crow, which follows next February, there’s this forthcoming six-date tour, taking in Birmingham, Hull, Leeds, Stowmarket, London and Hamburg, although I understand it was initially set to involve just one night in London.

“Erm … yes! Grant (Holby), the promoter who runs Mute Elephant, had been asking a few years if we’d do a gig, but we declined as we’re all busy with other things. So when Optic Nerve said they’d press the single reissue for their next series, we said OK, and why don’t we do a gig to help push that? We were quite reluctant to play the 100 Club, as it’s quite big, worried if anyone would come or even care. But clearly they do, and it will sell out (it has now) with a few weeks to go.

“We then decided to do a warm-up gig and Simon suggested we do a few, so I put out a few feelers and a few people came back, said, ‘Yes, please!’ And there we go – it’s like a mini-tour!”

Initially disappointed there were no North West dates, I splashed out on a ticket for Leeds’ Wharf Chambers instead. But it turns out that the demand has seen the band contemplate future dates now, Dean – who also mentioned a possible warm-up in a Cornish pub or somewhere in the Midlands – confirming, ‘It’s not necessarily the end,’ even if they are all busy doing their own thing.

“Richard has two young kids, as have I. Simon plays a lot around Walthamstow and with a couple of bands, and I’ve got my band now, going well, Optic Nerve putting out a 7” single in February – two new tracks – then our third album in May, our most commercial and ‘guitary’ so far.”

That’s the three long-serving members, but you had Jem on bass when I interviewed you in ‘89, and then there was Stephen, aka Henry.

“Yes, Henry was also in The Caretaker Race and stayed with us until the end. But we couldn’t find him – we tried, but I got the impression he’d stopped playing anyway.”

Accordingly, Arthur Tapp (‘Arthurman’, according to Dean) from Birmingham features on bass for these shows, having put the band on back in the ‘80s a few times, a big fan who plays guitar too and played a couple of BOB gigs in 2014. And this run of dates includes Stowmarket’s John Peel Centre, of huge relevance to the band.

“It is important, and they actually rang and asked if we’d go there. That was great, we’ve never been before, and after the sessions we did for John and the fact that his wife, Sheila, will be there, that will be great.”

And it seems that BOB are going full circle, putting out a flexi-disc for this final tour, apt considering it was interest in their initial flexi that got them up and running, thanks to Peel’s interest.

“Yes, we’re doing a blue flexi-disc in a special cardboard sleeve that you can only get at the gigs, with the little girl logo from the early Sombrero releases, including a previously-unreleased track , ‘The Queen of Sheba’, which we’ll also be playing live.

“There will of course be the album after, but it’ll be something for the people at the gigs to get their hands on. And there will be four new t-shirts with the classic BOB logo, in red, blue, green and vintage white, as well as posters and enamel BOB logo badges.”

Here endeth the sales pitch, but not the full BOB story. Time is clearly ripe to snap up that back-catalogue then feast on the new releases, catch a show, and stroll on.

Faraway Motorway: From the left – Stephen ‘Henry’ Hersom, Simon Armstrong, Dean Leggett, Richard Blackborow

BOB’s November 2019 dates: The Flapper, Birmingham, with The Proctors – Saturday 23rd; The New Adelphi Club, Kingston-upon-Hull, with My Life Story – Sunday 24th; Wharf Chambers, Leeds – Tuesday 26th; John Peel Centre for Creative Arts, Stowmarket – Wednesday 27th; 100 Club, London, with The Popinjays – Thursday 28th; Astra Stube, Hamburg, with Red Letter Day – Friday 29th. For more information and to keep up to date on everything BOB, head to their Facebook page,  or check them out via Twitter.

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Three decades beyond 10 – having words with Hugh Cornwell

Almost 30 years after leaving The Stranglers, the legendary punk band with whom he made his name and managed more than 20 UK Top-40 singles and 14 Top-20 LPs over barely a dozen years, Hugh Cornwell remains a force to be reckoned with.

A couple of months beyond his 70th birthday, he’s out with bandmates Pat Hughes (bass) and Windsor McGilvray (drums) this month, a 15-date tour starting at Liverpool Arts Club next Tuesday, November 12th, threading through to Gloucester Guildhall on Sunday, December 1st, comprising – like last year – both solo years and Stranglers sets … with a further twist this time.

“We’ve changed the format – it’s a game of two halves, the solo set changed considerably, with extra Monster tracks. It will be great to play those live for the first time, ‘La Grande Dame’ and ‘Attack of the Major Sevens have come in … if that makes any sense.”

It does, this scribe – who first saw The Stranglers at age 14 in January ’82, on the La Folie tour, my fourth-ever gig – snapping up Monster in a double-CD pack with Hugh’s Restoration reworking of various favourites, signed on the night by the man himself at The Grand, Clitheroe, a year ago.

“Great! And there’s an album called Beyond Elysian Fields (2004) which has just been remastered and is coming out on vinyl, so we’re revisiting that too.

“As for The Stranglers’ set which comes second, we’re going to jazz that up by not deciding on the set. We’ll go on and me, Pat and Windsor will take it in turns to call the tracks. So no one will have any idea what the set’s going to be!”

When Hugh visited my patch in 2013, he was following a different format, playing solo years’ tracks and Stranglers number alternately. And that worked equally well.

“Yeah, mixing it up, and I do that at festivals. I’m not sure which I prefer. But I know the band likes it when it’s separated.”

Mosin’ Around: Hugh Cornwell is back on tour with Pat Hughes and Windsor McGilvray (Photo: Warren Meadows)

When we spoke last year, you suggested you were ‘being brave’ over the idea of separate sets, but the premise of a solo years set followed by Stranglers numbers has clearly gone down well.

“Absolutely, I was very apprehensive when we first did that, but it seemed to work, the fans like it, and they like to carry on with the singalong.”

At that Clitheroe show, you told us four punters needed St John Ambulance medical attention in Kendal the night before, your ‘Death by Strangulation’ set inspiring a rather enthusiastic response by an audience … erm, not getting any younger.

“Ha! Yeah, I remember that. I felt it was a bit quieter that next night, but lots of people told me later to come back a second time and it would be rammed.”

That was with Pat and Windsor too. You clearly work well together.

“That’s it. I love those guys. They’re so full of energy, they love doing it, and they’re forever saying, ‘I’ve had another listen to that old Stranglers number and what do you think of this … do you think that’s going to be an improvement?’ They’re always looking at ways to make things better, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

I spoke briefly to Pat (like Windsor a tutor at Guildford’s Academy of Contemporary Music by day) after that show, telling him I first saw you when ‘Golden Brown’ was climbing the charts in early ’81. He looked at me as if I was some mad uncle talking down the pub. You’re sharing dressing rooms with youths, Hugh.

“I know! And I feel very fortunate that not only are they involved but it’s not just a job for them. They’re actually enjoying it and getting involved, which is great.”

Monster Sets: Hugh Cornwell, on the road again this month, revisiting both his solo years and Stranglers songs

Are they keeping you young, or is it the other way around?

“Well, I know I’m putting them through their paces, because Pat keeps saying, ‘Jesus, if we keep playing those three numbers together, my arm’s gonna fall off!’ He told me that of all the people he’s played with, this is the heaviest work-out. Ha!

“I’m from another era, but they like to find out new stuff and are very inclusive people.”

Monster continues to get occasional plays at my house, and I get the impression in places that it’s a back to basics rock’n’roll album, not least on tracks like ‘Mosin’’, the spirit of Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Johnny Kidd trapped in the studio. I don’t know if it’s just that echoey sound.

“Sure! Yeah, I like all that. It’s what I was brought up on. It feels very natural to me.”

Listening back this morning, I reckon ‘Mr Leather’ is your most Stranglers-like moment on that album, although of course the spirit of Lou Reed is writ large too.

“Well, yeah, it’s all about Lou, so I’m happy with that.”

For me it’s still Totem and Taboo that resonates most from your solo career though. Is the brassy instrumental version of the title track that you come on to available to purchase?

“Our walk-on music? No. We call that ‘Totem Latino’. I did that with my engineer one day. I thought that melody made a great bass riff, and it became the basis of that.”

It’s a great call to arms, I reckon – sort of ‘drain your pint, get down the front!’

“Yeah, it works well. And that’s still on board.”

With a few weeks of propaganda coming our way before December 12th and the UK general election, are we in danger of truly being ‘Stuck in Daily Mail Land’?

“Ha! Well, between you, me, the gatepost and the rest of your readers, I don’t think Brexit is going to happen. The big problem is that whatever anyone else wants, you’ve got an elected Parliament where the majority want to stay in Europe, and until that changes …

“If half the MPs resigned, they’ve got a chance of it happening, but you’ve got a couple of dozen and that’s not enough, even if they were all Brexiteers. That still wouldn’t be enough to overturn the majority. While that situation exists, it ain’t gonna happen. That’s the truth. Maybe they’ll end up having another referendum, who knows.”

My worry is that we’re in danger of following America’s lead, getting saddled with our own ‘Duce Coochie Man’.

“Ah! I love that title!”

I was hoping he’d bite there, but Hugh wasn’t to be drawn on his take on Boris Johnson, so I moved on, telling him how that track, the closing number on Monster, came over well live last time.

“Did it? Great! And we’re playing it even better now. Down the line a bit, we’ve been to Australia with it, had a few dates in Europe as well, so it’s sounding a lot more settled.”

There were a few surprises among both the solo set and from The Stranglers’ songbook. And it sounds like that might be even more the case this time. I mentioned ‘Golden Brown’, and felt last time it was almost Nouvelle Vague-esque.

“Do you mean the Mariachi (Mexteca) version?”

Well, that was a corker, but I meant the latest live version, somewhere between the original and that, very Dave Brubeck Five-like for these ears actually.

“With the bass playing all the keyboards? Well, great. We had to learn how to play it in this format somehow, and that works, so that’s the way it goes.”

Cairo Practise: Hugh Cornwell in the early 1980s for the ‘Golden Brown’ promotional video with The Stranglers

Going back a bit, 40 years to be exact, it was in November ’79 apparently that you told the NME, ‘We’re never going to use a producer again. They are just shitty little parasites. All they’re good for is telling jokes. And we know better jokes than any of ’em.’ That wasn’t a verdict on Alan Winstanley, who you’d just worked with on The Raven, was it?

“No, I think it was Martin Rushent. Alan is really – and I hope he’ll forgive me for saying this – an excellent engineer.”

Funny you should say that. Fast forward four decades and Monster saw you work with Phil Andrews, and prior to that you made Totem and Taboo in Chicago with Steve Albini. In both cases it’s about engineering rather than producing. Is that how you prefer it these days?

“Well, I know the way it should sound. I’ve an idea of the way I want it to sound. So it’s about working with someone who can create that sound.”

Recorded earlier than The Raven but released just after it, this month in 1979, you had your first record away from the rest of the band, a collaboration with Robert Williams on Nosferatu. Did that involve a learning curve?

“Sure! I was going into a studio completely unprepared. We just had the bare bones of songs. We were making it up as we went along, really.”

Are you still in touch with Robert?

“No, we didn’t see eye to eye over a few things, and unfortunately he’s in LA and I don’t think he plays much music anymore. He’s more involved with scene painting on film lots.”

When The Stranglers reconvened after that short spell apart, was that the beginning of a fresh start for you?

“Yeah, I came back from that really inspired, with different ideas.”

The Raven involved a major change of gear.

“There you go. It’s got quite a bit of interesting stuff going on.”

I loved the first Stranglers album and appreciated the next two, but perhaps that was the one that proved you were about a lot more, something deeper. Did you feel that at the time? Were you consciously moving into a new era, five years after The Guildford Stranglers came into being?

“It was all about experimenting. We didn’t really know what we were doing. You’ve just got to go out there and see what happens. And I think we did introduce some new boundaries in pop music … or tried to.

“It’s also coming up to (The Gospel According to the) Meninblack 40th anniversary. That was before the Simmons electronic drumkit, but that album’s got an electronic drumkit on it … before they even existed. That was through some recording techniques I experimented with, using condenser microphones against the drums for a real metallic sound. There was stuff like that that pre-dated anything else, and I’m really proud of that. The Meninblack was my favourite album.”

They started recording that fifth Stranglers LP in January 1980, even though it wasn’t released until the following February. It was too much for a 14-year-old wanting another punk and new wave record though, having borrowed it from the travelling library on cassette. I listened hard but didn’t quite get it. That wasn’t where I was at. Listening back now, however, I see its merits and can marvel at its creation. Still not my favourite, mind.

Anyway, I’ve talked a fair bit in the past about The Stranglers’ Guildford days with Hugh, these days based mostly in the West Country, but how about his old haunts in the capital? Does he still recognise his Kentish Town, Tufnell Park and Highgate stomping grounds when he’s around there these days?

“I don’t go up there anymore, because my parents aren’t around anymore. But I do still go to Guildford, because that’s where Pat and Windsor are based, and that’s very much a return to the old stomping ground.”

So the spirit of Jet Black’s Jackpot lives on.

“Yeah, that’s what it was called – The Jackpot! In fact, the college where they teach is built where the Jackpot was. The ACM. Ain’t that strange!”

Plenty more of that in our previous interview (link below), but while I’m getting the Cornwell grey matter going again, much was made in the past year or so – amid a public battle to save The Star pub in my old hometown – about where the earliest gigs took place for the band. In fact, some reckon an early September ’74 date at that Quarry Street local was the first. But flicking back through Hugh’s 2004 A Multitude of Sins autobiography, he suggests the first show was actually that summer at a youth club in Guildford.

“Possibly.”

I don’t think he’s being dismissive there. It was more a case of over-running with our interview, and pressure to call the next number, quickly reminding me he has to wrap up soon. I crack on regardless, keen to get in at least a couple more questions.

Last time we spoke you had your 70th birthday on the horizon but were playing it down, telling me that if you have too much time to think about birthdays, ‘it means you’re not busy enough’. Did he mark the occasion in style after all?

“No, I did nothing! I was doing something else. I can’t remember what!”

Talking of anniversaries, next year marks 30 years since you walked away for the last time from The Stranglers.

“That’s right – is that next summer? Wow, incredible!”

Are you going to mark that in any way?

“Probably doing a gig! Ha! I think it was while there was a Test match on, so it must have been either a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday. It was at the Ally Pally. I think it might have been a Saturday.”

Records suggest he’s right, his last appearance alongside Jet Black, JJ Burnel and Dave Greenfield at iconic Alexandra Palace in Muswell Hill, North London on August 11th, 1990, two months after the release of their 10th album … erm,  10. Time flies, eh.

And with that in mind, what do you reckon the 1977 Hugh Cornwell would have made of this engaging fella who signs anything put in front of him at the end of a show these days? You’ve got a grizzly punk rock reputation to live up to after all.

“Yeah, yeah! He’d probably be saying, ‘You idiot! Why are you doing all that?’ Anyway, I best go. Take care, man. I’ll see you in Bury or Liverpool!”

Guitar Man: Hugh Cornwell at the Tivoli, Buckley, in 2016, with Chris Bell drumming then (Photo: Warren Meadows)

To revisit WriteWyattUK’s October 2018 feature/interview with Hugh Cornwell, with links to previous interviews, follow this link. And for the lowdown on his November 2018 visit to The Grand, Clitheroe, head here.

Hugh Cornwell UK dates: Tuesday 12th November – Liverpool Arts Club; Wednesday 13th November – Carlisle The Brickyard; Thursday 14th November – Aberdeen Lemon Tree; Friday 15th   November – Edinburgh Liquid Rooms; Saturday 16th November – Leeds Brudenell; Sunday 17th November – Bury The Met; Thursday 21st November – Harpenden Public Halls; Saturday 23rd November – Southampton 1865; Sunday 24th November – Exeter Phoenix; Tuesday 26th November – Basingstoke Haymarket; Wednesday 27th November  – Nottingham Rescue Rooms; Thursday 28th November – Bury St Edmunds Apex; Friday 29th November – Wolverhampton Bilston Robin 2; Saturday 30th November – Swansea Sin City; Sunday 1st December – Gloucester Guildhall. For tickets call 08444 780 898 or follow this link.

And for the latest from Hugh, head to his website or visit his Facebook and Twitter pages.

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