Glenn Tilbrook / Charlie Austen – Clitheroe, The Grand

Grand Setting: Clitheroe’s The Grand, the nearby parking spaces taken up by Glenn’s motorhome

With the A59 submerged in places that afternoon, there was a worry that we might not even reach Clitheroe on Saturday night. But if Glenn Tilbrook could get across from a Newcastle Opera House date with Wilko Johnson in that beast of a motorhome of his, it was clearly possible.

To paraphrase Squeeze lyricist Chris Difford on Glenn’s set opener, he came across from Tyneside to greet us with a smile, and by the time we reached York Street he’d taken up several spaces outside the venue, a great night ahead of us in the company of the 61-year-old South-East Londoner and support act, Charlie Austen.

I was playing Nine Below Zero’s 13 Shades of Blue through the puddles on the way over, that 2016 LP recorded at Glenn’s 45 rpm studio in Charlton, with Charlie guesting on two great tracks. What’s more, she’s back there with former WriteWyattUK interviewee Dennis Greaves’ outfit between live engagements right now, a new LP expected later this year.

She also sings and plays bass for DIY indie outfit Lux Lisbon, and as well as a number of dates with Glenn, supports Bryan Ferry this summer. Her star is ascending, and rightly so judging by her short set at The Grand, an artist described as a purveyor of ‘finger-picking folk-soul music with carefully-crafted lyrics and a blues-infused vocal’ well received.

Respect to the audience there too. Many a time I see crowds talk (loudly) over a support act, but there were enough taking it all in here, and that must help increase an artiste’s confidence.

A couple of songs in, she explained the ’Charlie Austen Music’ light box at her side, possibly not so much an aide-memoire as a way to distinguish herself from the similarly-named Southampton striker. Besides, she reckons she plays more often, prone as he is to injury (and suspension).

Lightbox Troubadour: Charlie Austen in live action

A winning smile and easy between-song banter help, while Charlie’s fret and vocal work – the tracks ‘Slave to Chemistry’ and ‘Traces of You’ standing out – impress. I’d like to think we’ll hear more of her soon.

On the subject of the headliner, as my co-traveller and fellow long-time Squeeze fan Jim put it on the night, you know what you’re getting with GT. That’s not to say he’s a safe option. His set is unpredictable, and he’s hardly likely to trot out tired identikit versions of the same songs (great as they are) every night. But you’re guaranteed entertainment from a gifted guitarist and master singer-songwriter who still has such a great voice, four decades after emerging on the scene.

It took me until the Some Fantastic Place tour in late ’93 to finally see Squeeze live (Jim was well ahead in that respect, catching them at Salford Uni in late ’79), and I first caught Glenn on his own at Manchester’s Hop and Grape seven years later, preceding his debut solo LP. And he never disappoints.

The sound was great, clearer than for his support role with Wilko Johnson at Warrington Parr Hall two weeks before, the clarity of his guitar runs spot on. He started with Squeeze’s debut 45, ‘Take Me, I’m Yours’, now 41 years old, then 2004’s solo album Transatlantic Ping Pong lead track ‘Untouchable’ (how was that never a hit?) and the sublime ‘Is That Love?’, the benchmark truly set.

A co-write with son Leon, ‘Schadenfreude’, was next, one of two tracks aired from Trussell Trust EP fundraiser, ‘Against UK Poverty and Hunger‘, then from his Fluffers’ LP, Pandemonium Ensues, we had a song about Tilbrook home life a decade ago, ‘Little Ships’.

I was impressed by his take on ‘(There Is) Always Something There to Remind Me’ in Warrington, and this time it sounded even better, the spirit of Sandie Shaw already channelled by fellow oft-barefooted performer Charlie Austen.

Trust Fundraiser: Glenn Tilbrook’s Trussell Trust EP

From 2004 there was ‘Hostage’, then from 1981 a crowd-pleasing ‘Labelled with Love’, the band and solo selections continuing with the impressive Ben Jones-penned ‘Other World’ and the mighty ‘Up the Junction’, always a delight.

At that point he swapped acoustic for electric guitar, two 2015 Squeeze tracks following, ‘Nirvana’ and ‘Cradle to the Grave’, from the album of the same name. Again, I’d heard him tackle Dave Edmunds’ ‘I Hear You Knocking’ before, and it works so well, memories of early Fleetwood Mac following on Squeeze’s ‘Albatross’ from last year’s Squeeze LP The Knowledge, then a cover of the Peter Green-led ‘Oh Well’.

Further EP track, ‘0-60’ got a good reaction, and he was again note-perfect with voice and guitar on the tricky ‘Hourglass’, impressively duetting with himself. And talking of Squeeze reworks, ‘Tempted’ was commendably constructed by this one-man Squeeze jukebox, the audience in good voice too, late-50s Huey ‘Piano’ Smith rock’n’roller ‘Sea Cruise’ following.

Glenn has a reputation for inviting all manner of fans up on stage, my travelling companion among them before now (taking on ‘The Truth’ and ‘Crowded House’s ‘Weather With You’), and we winced as two eager audience members joined him on ‘Cool for Cats’, Chris Difford’s role played first by a female suddenly all too aware of what she’d taken on, bowing out after a couple of lines, then a fella who soldiered through, doing well with the words (albeit with prompts from Glenn), even if performing in a key all his own.

From there we had ‘Piccadilly’ from East Side Story, then a mighty closing run, ‘Another Nail in My Heart’, ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ and ‘Pulling Mussels From the Shell’ prompting more raised glasses and crowd singalongs.

There was enough time for 2009’s ‘Still’ before rapturously-received finale, ‘Goodbye Girl’, our distinguished visitor back where he started, in 1978. We half expected an encore, but on reflection there was no need. I looked around to find him, but he’d gone … to sign this and that in the foyer, seeimngly as fresh as he was at nine. And there’s stamina for you.

Solo Stint: Glenn Tilbrook, still on the road, 45 years after answering that sweet shop ad placed by Chris Difford.

For all the latest from Charlie Austen, head to her website and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

Glenn Tilbrook’s solo tour, with Charlie Austen supporting on each date, next calls at: St Mary Magdalene Church, Cobham – March 21; Revelation, Ashford – March 22; The Pavilion, Hailsham – March 23; Komedia, Bath – March 28; Acapela, Cardiff – March 29; St Mary’s Parish Church, Kingskerswell – March 31; The Wharf, Tavistock – April 2; Lighthouse, Poole – April 3; St John The Evangelist Church, Oxford – April 5.

Glenn’s also supporting Wilko Johnson’s band at: Yarm Princess Alexandra Auditorium – April 11; Stockton Queen’s Hall – April 12; Edinburgh Fibbers, York – April 13; Junction, Cambridge – April 25; Tramshed, Cardiff – April 26; Town Hall, Cheltenham – April 27. For more ainformation, head to his website and keep in touch via FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

Food donated at venues during all Glenn’s dates this year (including the Wilko Johnson dates) will be collected and distributed to the nearest Trussell Trust foodbank, offering nutritionally-balanced, non-perishable tinned and dried foods. Items in a typical food parcel are cereal, soup, pasta, rice, tinned tomatoes/pasta sauce, lentils, beans and pulses, tinned meat, tinned vegetables, tea/coffee, tinned fruit, biscuits, UHT milk and fruit juice. If possible, check with local foodbanks to see what supplies are needed.

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Fisherman’s Friends / Sunderland Crew – Morecambe, The Platform

The Platform: Morecambe Promenade station has played host to a live venue since its mid-1990s closure.

There was a storm brewing in the Irish Sea last Friday as we parked on the blustery prom at Morecambe and headed across the road from the Midland Hotel to The Platform.

It was the sort of night you thank your lucky stars you’re not out there in the bay, a sentiment both the headline and support acts could appreciate.

It’s a venue I’d never visited before, but I’ll certainly be back. I mean, live music and railway heritage (the Edwardian Promenade station closed to passengers in 1994, around the time the Fisherman’s Friends first sang in public) – what’s not to love?

I barely had time to start necking my Lancaster Blonde before the Sunderland Crew walked on. And that involved a lot of feet (I’d hate to pay for their rider) – this shanty collective hunting in a pack, the giveaway to their presence the rows of empty seats with jumpers on the back, saving their places for later.

If you’re heading over the causeway to atmospheric, characterful Sunderland Point and they’re coming the other way, I’d run if I was you. Not because they might have you in a fight, but because they probably known the tide tables better than most of us.

It was only a short set, but the fact that they share some of their numbers with the main act possibly gave them setlist headaches. They gave a good account of themselves though, and I’d happily catch them again, hopefully at an outdoor home gig, with pint in hand and the tide out.

There was no call for neckerchiefs and band T-shirts for our Port Isaac visitors, themselves admitting a little song thievery over the years, yet insistent on shorter, faster versions (‘FF-ing it up’, as they put it).

They started as a 10-piece, but lately they’ve been down to eight, and on this occasion there were six Friends – with no John B (just the boat of the same name), no Lefty, and no Billy, who that week announced he was stepping down for family reasons.

But don’t think for one moment that means they were firing on fewer cylinders. If anything, there was even more of a presence. Besides, there was a neat replacement in Pete, the only local with a starring role in the film of the same name, the others reckoning they failed the audition while his acting credentials secured his place, his voice good enough to be part of the real deal too (does that make him an able seaman?).

The instantly-recognisable Jon Cleave got them off to a trademark ‘rollocking, bollocking, saucy, bawdy, fruity, jolly-rogering’ start with a drop of ‘Nelson’s Blood’, and there was no turning back from there over two full-on sets, their 22-song salvo bringing a taste of the Atlantic Coast to this North West outpost.

I was going to call Cleavie – the moustachioed maestro with the booming bass voice on our left side – the MC, but we got as much lip from Jeremy on the opposite wing, opening his lead vocal account with ‘Stormalong John’, the first of many choices from last year’s Sole Mates.

There was plenty of input from the ‘outsiders’ too, Leeds-born Johnny Mac sneaking across the border to reprise the early days on ‘Roll the Woodpile Down’ before younger recruit Toby’s poignant ‘Leave Her Johnny, Leave Her’ and fellow Padstow lad Jason’s ‘The Mermaid’.

We also had JC’s inuendo-heavy ‘Sugar in the Hold’ before Jeremy took us to the South Seas for ‘Rolling Down to Old Maui’ then Jason and his accordion got shore leave at ‘Yarmouth Town’.

There was local-ish colour too, Toby treating us to ‘The Leaving of Liverpool’, although Cleavie was worried they’d ‘delighted, entranced and pleasured’ us too soon, ‘Sloop John B’ signalling an interval.

The queue at the bar was ominous, but you have to work at a thirst when the Friends are in town, and they were soon back – bottles of Tribute at their feet – with ‘Blow the Man Down’.

Sole Stirrer: Fisherman’s Friends’ Jon Cleave meets the reviewer at The Platform, Morecambe

Cleavie filled in those who didn’t know the band story with a recap of how they were ‘discovered, although we didn’t even know we were lost’, and how their debut major label release became the largest-selling folk album ever (although Jeremy reckons it still only sold 25 copies).

If the band have a signature tune, I guess it’s the mighty ‘No Hopers, Jokers and Rogues’ from that record, a rousing reception following from the good folk of North Lancs before Johnny Mac introduced us to the ‘Sweet Ladies of Plymouth’.

A plug followed for the movie based on their story, something Jon C joked made a change from documentaries about in-breeding. Yet while promising a film in the feelgood traditions of The Full Monty and Calendar Girls, he stressed there’d be no nudity on this occasion.

This celebrated buoy band were on form with their harmonies all night, not least on ‘Keep Hauling’ from the film soundtrack, while ‘Billy O’Shea’ and ‘God Moves on the Water’ (about the Titanic) kept up the momentum.

The band ran their colours up the mast with a life-affirming ‘Union of Different Kinds’, their resident Yorkshireman again impressing on a hymn to old-fashioned hands across water diplomacy, rather than a call for walls and xenophobic tendencies.

A band of international appeal’s next port of call was stateside with ‘Oh You New York Girls’, then they set sail on ‘The Bonny Ship the Diamond’ whaler, with hardly a dry boat in the sea during a heartfelt finale, the Friends doing Devonian Steve Knightley (of Show of Hands fame) proud on alternative Cornish anthem ‘Cousin Jack’.

Having taken the applause and raised their glasses, there was no reason to leave the stage before the encore, a rousing JC-led ‘(What Shall We Do With) The Drunken Sailor?’ followed by Jeremy having us bound for ‘South Australia’, heaving away and hauling away for all they were worth.

It was hardly ‘Cheers and gone’ though, every man Jack and John remaining an hour or so later, chatting and signing anything that came their way with far-flung fans. And I reckon they’ll be back in these parts dreckly enough.

Cast Away: Fisherman's Friends prepare to leave Port Isaac and head up around Wales, bound for Morecambe Bay

Cast Away: Fisherman’s Friends prepare to leave Port Isaac and head up around Wales, bound for Morecambe Bay

For this website’s feature/interview with Fisherman’s friends’ Jeremy Brown, published on March 8th, 2019, head here.

 

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Further strings to the bow – back in touch with Gretchen Peters

Impressive Setting: Gretchen Peters and her band at Glasgow’s Cottiers Theatre, a converted church

It seems that she’s hardly been back in Nashville a few weeks, but American singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters is set to return to the UK – her ‘second home’ – next month for a rather special, potentially one-off tour.

This time, the Queen of Country Noir, with 12 studio albums to her name, and her regular band – led by her other half and long-time musical partner, Barry Walsh – will be joined by The Southern Fried String Quartet, their Strings Attached tour promising to be another winner from an artist whose star has certainly been in the ascendency in recent years.

Following two American Music Association Awards for 2015’s rightly-lauded Blackbirds (including Best International Album), her 2018 release, Dancing With the Beast, marked another career high, blending shades of country-rock, indie-folk and Southern gothic, all cut through with that smokily-honeyed voice.

And this, her latest all-theatre tour, will feature selections from those albums and several other greatest hits, all performed with strings, as first heard as part of the Celtic Connections festival earlier this year.

You may recently have spotted Gretchen – who has written for the likes of Neil Diamond and Shania Twain, and co-written and performed with Bryan Adams before now – and her band feature in a BBC Scotland broadcast filmed at a Celtic Connections show in Glasgow.

There were also dates on that early-year visit with the Transatlantic Sessions Band, her fellow artistes including Cara Dillon, Tim O’Brien, Molly Tuttle, Paul McKenna, Jerry Douglas, Aly Bain and Danny Thompson. Those dates started at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall and also took in London’s The Barbican, Gateshead’s The Sage, Cambridge’s Corn Exchange, and Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.

When we spoke, she was between Manchester and that evening’s show at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, talking from the tour bus, that night followed by a mini-tour finale at Derry’s Millennium Forum (‘what a way to go out’ she told me). And how was the Bridgewater Hall?

“I think it was my favourite night of the tour so far, really lovely – a stunning venue, an incredible crowd, and so much fun.”

The televised Celtic Connections show (from the Cottiers Theatre in Glasgow’s West End) looked interesting, from the brief highlights I saw.

“Yeah, we did a really lovely venue – an old, converted church. I didn’t actually know that when I chose the songs, but one we chose was ‘Say Grace’, and in that setting it was just so perfect.”

Frequent Flyer: Gretchen Peters, back in the UK very soon

I found the Transatlantic Sessions TV series compulsive viewing. Although I have comparatively little Irish heritage I know about (a few per cent of my DNA), my punk beginnings with The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers and early appreciation of Thin Lizzy led to a wider trawl that took me in time to catch on to Van Morrison, The Pogues, and so much more.

I also recall a joint BBC and RTE series on TV here in 1991 called Bringing It All Back Home which truly resonated, featuring the likes of Elvis Costello, The Everly Brothers, Hothouse Flowers, Emmylou Harris, Mary Black, Dolores Keane, Mary Coughlan, The Waterboys, and so on. Then there was 1996’s Common Ground compilation, involving the likes of Tim and Neil Finn, Kate Bush, Christy Moore, and so on. I guess what I’m saying is that so much of what I love is shot through with those Celtic connections.

“Well, the thing is that all the threads are inter-connected, and I think you realise that when you delve into that type of music you’re brought up on. It’s kind of the same thing from me growing up in the northern United States. I never heard country music, but when I did hear it, I knew it was a close relative to folk music, which I grew up with. And that’s the thing that’s beautiful about the Transatlantic Sessions. It’s a sort of living representation of that on stage every night.”

How about your own heritage? You were born in New York and raised in Boulder, Colorado. How far back does that US link go with your family roots?

“Actually, they come back to England. My father’s side of the family was in America before it was the United States, in the 1600s, but I can trace his side directly back to England – pretty much 100 per cent. And on my Mum’s side there’s the usual mixture you get with Americans – a little bit English, a little bit German, a little bit French.

“But my father always had a really strong emotional tie to England. He was stationed near Peterborough during the war, and all his life he loved England, came here a lot, so I always felt there was some kind of ancestral pull.”

So when you played Cambridge’s Corn Exchange on this tour, you weren’t so far off.

“No, and on a previous tour I had enough time to go to the airfield where my Dad was stationed, and I found that an absolutely haunting experience. He was near a little town called Oundle (RAF Polebrook, which was designated USAAF 110), and I went to the pub and to the church, where there was a little section devoted to the American guys who were stationed there.

“My Dad was shot down on his 13th mission, so standing there on that airfield – which is now abandoned – and imagining him taking off in his B-17, to be shot down over the North Sea …

Never Forget: The USAAF memorial on the former RAF Polebrook airfield (Photo: https://www.geograph.org.uk/)

“That was his last mission. He was rescued, and they took him off active duty after that. He went back to the States and was training pilots, but that was a central event of his life, and I wrote a song about that, called ‘The Aviator’s Song’.”

That’s on 2004’s Halcyon. and well worth checking out. And did Gretchen get a proper chance to talk to him about all those experiences? Or did he shut it all away, as was so often the case with veterans?

“I did. He was not like a lot of men of his generation that wouldn’t talk about it. He would if you asked him, and in fact I had the presence of mind to interview him on video for the grandkids, and presumably for their kids, so we could preserve his story.”

So you’re busy for a couple of months back home and then you’re back with us again. And I reckon you must have your own private room on standby at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester (where I caught Gretchen in May 2018, as reviewed here) by now.

“Ha ha! Well, that would be nice!”

The Strings Attached itinerary is billed as a unique, one-off tour, reprising the Celtic Connections appearance in Glasgow, with your regular band plus The Southern Fried String Quartet. Tell me more.

“Well, we did a show with these four wonderful Scottish women who play in a string quartet – two violins, cello and viola. And the first time we did it was at the Southern Fried Festival in Perth in July. And it was so much fun and people loved it so much that we thought immediately we had to do this again.

“So we’ve put a tour together and we’re doing it with the string quartet and my band, and the lovely thing about the strings part of it – aside from the fact that it deepens the music so much with the sound they make – is that we play a real cross-section of my entire song catalogue, all the way back to the beginning to right now. We have 10 songs which we have string charts written for, and they stand the entire 23 years. Whereas most of the time in recent years I’ve been touring a new album and doing lots of new songs, this is going to be much more of a cross-section of everything.”

And might there be a live album to tie in with all this?

“We’re hoping so, and we’re going to try and record some of the shows. We’ll certainly be hoping we get some great results. It’s really a whole different dimension when you add a string quartet.”

Touring Again: Gretchen Peters, her band and the Southern Fried String Quartet will be calling by soon.

So do you manage to be creative on the road after all this time, making the most of that spare time you have between shows?

“I do, but I have to say it’s still not that easy. It’s not even so much the time management. What you’re doing when you’re touring is all sort of outward directed, And when I’m trying to write is so much about going inwards that it’s really hard to turn on a dime like that.

“I try and take care of myself on the road – that’s really the most important thing. I never seem to get enough rest. But it seems to have worked out. My writing output has stayed basically the same since I started, and whether I was writing daily or I did what I call binge writing – having a few weeks off and writing every day – I still end up writing the same amount of songs.”

Are you a note scribbler when it comes to new songs, or is it a case of a strum and a chord sequence, or a tinkling with Barry’s piano (so to speak)?

“Ha! I’m more about, when I get the first inkling of an idea, I’m generally more about a title or a line or even a concept. It usually starts with words for me.”

So are there new songs in the can from this first mini-tour of the year, ready to be honed in the studio on your return?

“Just little glimmers – they’re little fireflies in a jar at this point. They’re not real songs. The thing I do on the road that I am able to do is catch ideas and write them down and squirrel them away. The thing I’m not able to do is flesh them out, finish and edit them. That’s really a kind of hammer and nails aspect of it, and that’s the thing that really requires that downtime.”

Dropping By: Gretchen Peters at the Cottiers Theatre in Glasgow’s West End on their early 2019 visit, with Barry Walsh, left, and Conor McCreanor

Gretchen Peters’ Strings Attached tour this April takes in visits to Durham Gala Theatre (13th), Whitby Pavilion (14th), Manchester Royal Northern College of Music (16th), Sheffield City Hall Ballroom (17th), Bristol St George’s Hall (19th), London Cadogan Hall (20th), Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion (22nd), and Bury St Edmunds The Apex (23rd). That will be followed by seven European dates, then a UK finale at Edinburgh Queen’s Hall on May 5th. For more details head to her website and follow her via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

This is the third WriteWyattUK feature/interview with Gretchen Peters, following those (follow the links) in May 2018 and February 2015.

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Sailing at Eight Bells with Fisherman’s Friends – in conversation with Jeremy Brown

Cliff Edge: Fisherman’s Friends, heading your way (possibly) in 2019.

As Fisherman’s Friends, the original sole men and Cornwall’s best-known occasionally off-shore musical export, head back out on tour, it was high time I hollered ‘Ahoy there’ to arguably their second most recognisable singer, Jeremy Brown.

The so-called ‘nemesis of the lobster’ and former captain of the Free Spirit II, was in his beloved Port Isaac, North Cornwall, when he called, enjoying a few days at home before getting back in the van with his shanty-singing mates to play more dates with his long-in-the-tooth buoy band.

And I started out on home ground – or at least home waters – asking the man with the ‘hurricane-proof quiff’, one of three Brown boys (the Brothers Grim, according to the group’s MC, Jon Cleave) who formed a fifth generation of Port Isaac family fisherfolk (‘it goes back as far as anyone can remember’, he confirmed), if his 18th and 19th century forefathers had ever been tempted to follow the pilchard shoal further West during those boom years.

If that sounded a rather off-centre question, I should qualify it by telling you we’d started by talking about how my Cornish holidays are currently confined to school holidays, along with the ‘emmets’, around and about my family haunts in St Ives. But apparently that’s not for the Browns.

“Like when you support a football team, once you’ve been born in Port Isaac, you tend to stick with it through thick and thin.

“My son’s now taken over the fishing operation. He’s bought the boat from me, and says it’s easier at Falmouth or Penzance or Newlyn, and it is, undoubtedly, but what are you gonna do? Do you really want to live down there? And we always come back to the same conclusion that actually we’ve just got to suck it up.”

And why not, it’s a beautiful setting, even when it’s full of tourists from upcountry looking for Martin Clunes, in a location also known as Portwenn to viewers of TV drama Doc Martin. But enough about that. Has Jeremy’s lad Tom got a voice on him as well?

“Yeah, he has, and I try and encourage him to sing. A few band members have got children who have good voices, and they’re not so embarrassed, although they initially were. They’re getting into it a bit more now, enjoying it.”

Major Debut: The album that saw the band truly cross over

Major Debut: The album that saw the band truly cross over

While the Fisherman’s Friends story properly started in 1995 – and you could go back even further to pub singalongs in the late ‘80s, by all accounts – matters escalated in 2010 when music producer Rupert Christie saw them singing down by the harbour, on the Platt (just as they had done for many years previously) and liked what he saw, leading to a major recording deal, the resultant Universal debut LP, Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends leading them to become the first traditional folk act to make the UK album chart top-10, that record going on to sell 150,000 copies.

So there they were, 10 working folk (and now an eight-piece) and ‘gentlemen of a certain age’ from a tiny fishing community suddenly entering the realms of rock ‘n’ roll. That said, they appear unchanged from all their adventures, in what they see as something of a ‘riches to rags’ tale. And even when they were presented with gold discs on breakfast TV, they assumed their manager had made them on his kitchen table at home for a laugh.

But while things have settled down in more recent times, you can expect another spike in popularity when a Fisherman’s Friends biopic hits UK cinemas next weekend, based on their story, starring Tuppence Middleton, Danny Mays, James Purefoy and Noel Clarke. Have the band all seen it yet?

“Yeah, we’ve seen the film, up in London. We were up that way, singing, and had a special screening over in Soho of around 40 people. Our management were very nervous, wondering what the hell they were going to do if we didn’t like it. But actually we just sat back and enjoyed the film, for what it was, sort of forgot, and weren’t critical about any of it.”

Did you recognise yourself among the characters?

“The thing is that there are 10 in the group, as there were for us initially, and what they’ve got is four main actors that take on all the speaking parts of the group, while the six other guys kind of make up the numbers – they sing and look the part. So really the four main actors are a mish-mash of all of us, put into four. But there is a good-looking fisherman in the band so obviously that’s me!”

I believe it was filmed last May. Were there any cameos?

“No, we were a bit self-conscious in front of the cameras.”

The clip I’ve seen, from the trailer, suggests there’s a fictional take on the moment you were offered a record deal. The real thing must have been equally comical and a little bewildering.

“It was funny. The guy who plays Danny (actor Daniel Mays) based him on Ian Brown, who still manages us, who said, ‘We’re going to have a bit of fun with this, I don’t think anyone’s going to get rich, but we’re going to make a record.’ So it’s not far off the truth to be honest. We did sort of rock back when he said that. We were having a pint outside at Port Isaac. And where they recorded that is the Golden Lion, our local pub, our preferred place to go and sing.”

As well as signing to Island, they became the subject of an ITV documentary, sang for the Queen’s diamond jubilee, and performed to many thousands, including prestigious festival shows and folk award recognition. But life still goes on back home between engagements, and when not singing with his boy band, Jeremy helps run Just Shellfish, the crab and lobster they catch cooked by the Crabbie Girls, including his wife and daughter.

There’s also a side-venture with his brother John, who was with him in the original group, running sea trips, while he lets a holiday home with his wife. But going back to those early days, were those very first shows on the Platt, or tucked away in a local pub?

“It would have been in the pub, I think. But the first time we officially walked out as a group was on the Platt. That was the first time we decided we were actually going to do this. We were actually planning to go to America to join up with some singing friends over there (booked to appear at a sea shanty festival in Connecticut).

“At some point we were having a rehearsal over in Billy’s chapel, and just said, ‘Right, let’s not have a rehearsal over here, let’s have it on the Platt. We didn’t advertise. That was the start of it really, and we never really looked back.”

That’s Billy Hawkins he’s referring to, who runs Port Isaac Pottery with his wife and daughters, their former Methodist chapel also acting as a rehearsal and meet-up space for Fisherman’s Friends. Actually, as I go to press I understand Billy has stepped away from the band for personal and family reasons right now, which is sad to hear.

While there were occasional dates before, the band’s Platt debut arrived in late May, ’97. Did Jeremy get over his nerves pretty quickly?

“No! I still have a few, to be honest with you. There’s only really one guy who likes to get up in front of people. Most of us are very sort of shy and retiring.”

Sailing Time: Fisherman’s Friends prepare to leave Port Isaac, tides willing

I’m guessing that’s your MC, the man with the booming bass, Jon Cleave.

“Very much so. He’s a born entertainer. He loves it. I couldn’t think of anything worse. It’s just the fact that we’re all friends. It’s all just part of being a team, like with football or something. You get courage from your friends.

“And we’ve had a lot of encouragement, right from the early days, people listening to us who we respected, our wives and family, all on side.”

Having said that, you lead on key songs in the set like ‘John Kanaka-naka’ and ‘South Australia’, so you’re clearly out there on your own in those moments.

“Yeah, that’s right. I haven’t been able to hide away – right from the start.”

I get the impression everyone knows Jon, with that distinctive ‘tache and all the interviews he does. Are you the second most recognisable in the group?

“People do say that. But I haven’t really got a take on it. Also, Jon and I share the talking on stage now as well, which brings you to the fore a bit more, so if Jon’s not there, like for the Pasty Championships this Saturday, I’ll take over the compering, so I’m first reserve really.”

Nice work if you can get it. But can being recognised get wearing, or are you happy as long as there’s a pint to sup mid-conversation?

“It doesn’t happen enough to get wearing. It’s all good fun, especially when we’re in a little group and people recognise us and tell us they’re coming to see us tonight. Yeah, it’s all good really.”

For many years the live performances back in Port Isaac have taken the same format, the group appearing on summertime Friday evenings, ‘sailing at eight bells me hearties’, as their trusty plywood sign announces. After 25 years together performing on the Platt, any idea how much you’ve raised for charity?

“I think we’ve raised over £10,000 a year in more recent years, sometimes even more, usually for a local children’s hospice or various other things, like the lifeboat, then at the Daphne du Maurier Festival at Fowey. We raise money and do a bit here and there.”

Seeing as you mentioned Daphne du Maurier, sticking with the literary theme I’ll move on to another author with strong Cornish links, Winston Graham, and ask if your name was inspired by Jeremy Poldark, or was it a family name?

“Well, I think my mother had intentions of me being a lawyer or something. I’m afraid I’m the third of three boys in the family, and when I popped out the nurse said, ‘Here’s another fisherman for you, Mrs Brown,’ but I think she wanted a profession for me instead!

“Tom’s named after my grandfather though, and he’s named his son after my father, Harold.”

You mentioned early nerves, but I see you were also part of Wadebridge Male Voice Choir for some time (and before that with Janet Townsend’s Port Isaac Chorale, first going along with their wives).

“Yeah, several of us were. Maybe four or five at one point, including myself. We did that in a way to learn singing techniques, harmonies, how to form words and all that, and singing with 35 other blokes in a male voice choir is a great thing to go around and do.”

It’s all very stirring, and those Cornish and Welsh male voice choirs always impress me. It’s one of the few areas of music where my Dad and me would agree on something.

“Well, I always loved it, and I think there were nearly 40 of them down in Cornwall at one point -every town had a male voice choir. “

And alongside all that there’s your appreciation of rock’n’roll.

“Very much so. I grew up in the ’70s in the time of glam rock, Slade and all that, but then through the first chap I worked with on the boat, Bryan Nicolls, I got a great love of rock’n’roll. I love singing a bit of Buddy Holly in my spare time as well.”

I believe you do a cracking ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’.

“We did that on Radio 2. That was amazing!”

Speaking of which, I gather you were the one who got talking to legendary BBC DJ Johnnie Walker, who set you up with your manager in the first place, pointing you in the right direction.

“That’s right. He was staying in my friend’s bed and breakfast, so we went up and had a cup of coffee with him, and Johnnie and his wife were there. My friend said, ‘He’s going to be famous soon,’ introduced us, and we told him how this chap wants us to make a record and that. He said, ‘Who’s your manager,’ and we said we hadn’t got one. He said we’d be silly to talk to anyone without one, giving us the name of his.

“And by the time he’d heard us (Jeremy gave him a copy of a previous small-label recording, having already been impressed by their live performance on the Platt) he recommended us, suggesting his manager had a chat with us. He then rang while I was out at sea, saying, ‘Try not to sign anything – I’ll be down to Cornwall as soon as I can.’”

Things moved fast from there, and I love the photograph of the band stopping traffic on the Abbey Road crossing, emulating The Beatles. And it must have been a magical moment recording at those studios, surely (that debut Universal record also recorded in churches at Port Isaac and St Kew).

“Well, to be honest, I missed that. I was away on holiday. I was sick about it, but it was right in the middle of the holidays. The boys still talk about that so fondly. I regret missing that, but it’s just one of those things. John McDonnell, our token Yorkshireman, is a tremendous Beatles fan, and he was just blown away by that.”

Looking back at the photograph again I realise there were nine of them in the shot, just as there were on the steps of the famous Abbey Road studios.

There have been lows along the way, which we won’t go into here. Understandably it’s something the band prefer not to talk about. But of all the high points, what stands out most for Jeremy?

“I think going out at Glastonbury was a hell of a thing. We’ve done a few festivals since but going out there on the acoustic stage we assumed it’d be tucked away in a corner somewhere, but were then told it holds four and a half thousand people if you cram them in.

“We looked through the curtains before we went on stage, having seen the band on before had about 50 people, thinking ‘Fair enough, what do you expect?’ But about an hour later the place was packed, choc-a-bloc, with lots of Cornish flags as well. That was definitely one of those ‘wow’ moments.

“I remember walking out, with all these people who had walked there from wherever they were in the festival. It occurred to us that maybe there was somebody really good on after us! But when we walked around the front after, it was empty again, and we were nearly carried shoulder high to the bar. That was amazing!”

That was in June 2010 and proved so much of a success that they were invited back the following year, this time playing the Pyramid stage on Sunday afternoon, ‘supporting Beyonce’. And there have been many more highlights, not least going down a storm at Cambridge Folk Festival and London’s Royal Albert Hall and Royal Festival Hall,  releasing further hit albums One and All (2013) and Proper Job (2015), and performing to tens of thousands of fans at home and overseas, while being honoured with the Good Tradition Award at the prestigious BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, the likes of Mike Harding and Mark Radcliffe becoming fans too.

These days Fisherman’s Friends comprise Jeremy and fisherman sibling John Brown (their brother Julian no longer involved), writer/shopkeeper Jon Cleave, potter Billy Hawkins (currently taking a step back, as per note above), smallholder/engineer John ‘Lefty’ Lethbridge, builder John McDonnell (the ’outsider’, a Yorkshireman who visited Port Isaac more than 30 years ago and never left), Padstow fisherman Jason Nicholas, and film-maker Toby Lobb. And I’m guessing they’re all still the best of mates. Have there been times where you’ve wondered if this was all a step too far, with that relationship between you all potentially compromised?

“There have been times, but we always pull back. At the end of the day, the most important thing is our friendship. We all have our moments, and think ‘he’s off on one today’, but we’ve never come to that point where it’s come to that. We’ve always held back.”

I’m not suggesting lots of money came your way. I know how it works. But there must be times when the wind’s howling and you’ve stopped yourself going out to make a living on the boat.

“Well, there’s a limit to what you can work. The forecast is really good these days, so even if it looks really good in the morning it might be forecast to come in really bad in the afternoon. You can plan your days a lot better. The thing with Port Isaac is that it’s tidal, and once you’ve gone to sea, you can’t get back in again. And they’re not that big, the boats, so it’s a bit of a scary thing.”

Actually, although he talks about modern advances in weather forecast technology, the tale goes that Jeremy has a candle on the window ledge at home, and ‘if it blows out, there’s too much wind,‘ while ‘if it don’t blow out, there ain’t enough’.

You’ve played some amazing places, but I gather this will be your first visit to Morecambe, with its own proud maritime links, and where the football team are the Shrimps. Could there be a few swapped trade secrets in this cross-cultural experience?

First Footing: The very first Fisherman's Friends recording, pre-Universal days

First Footing: The very first  recording, pre-Universal days

“I think there could be. See how that works out. I’m sure we can find some common ground over a beer, and work from there really.”

There’s proper diplomacy for you. And I hate to get on to politics (honest), but this is a group from a part of the country which felt it wanted to be free of EU legislature  (I know that’s an assumption, and no way am I tarring everyone with the same brush, but the 56.5% Cornish leave vote in 2016’s divisive referendum was deemed signficantly higher than the UK average). It’s not working out well for any of us though. Besides, I’m talking to someone from a band with healthy international links and world views (take 2010’s ‘The Union of Different Kinds’ for example), and I certainly don’t see Fisherman’s Friends as Little Englanders or suspicious of foreigners, even if there is much to do to fairly protect traditional fishing grounds.

“I think everybody’s a bit upset about the way it’s going. I think there’s a tremendous amount of common ground between the remainers and the leavers now.”

He (perhaps wisely) sat on the fence a bit there, so I moved on (his mobile phone reception was pretty poor by now anyway), asking one more leading question – is it true that Jeremy Brown can’t swim?

“I’m not a big swimmer.”

That sounds like a very traditional approach from men of the sea.

“Well, they say it prolongs the agony, when you’re two or three miles out to sea. That’s the theory behind it. If the boat’s gone there’s absolutely no point in thinking about swimming. But we do all sorts of first aid courses these days, and what they teach you is that the last thing you should so is try and swim. You should have your life jacket on, tuck your hands in, bring your knees up and then wait …”

For the lifeboat?

“That’s right, yeah.”

And when I head down to Cornwall this August, will you be around? Will I be able to see you perform on the Platt?

“We’re away a lot this year, with lots of festivals in August, so we’ve only got one gig in Port Isaac that month.”

Well, let’s hope the tides and the diary fall right. And in the meantime, there’s always Morecambe for me, the boys promising to ‘brew up a heady mix of hearty song, salty banter and tall tales from the high seas’, and possibly on stage dreckly around eight bells I reckon, me hearties.

Sole Men: Fisherman’s Friends await the next influx of emmets, and media interest.

Fisherman’s Friends’ UK tour this weekend reaches The Platform, Morecambe (Friday, March 8th) and The Mechanics, Burnley (Saturday, March 9th). Those will then be followed by late March dates in Horsham, Bury St Edmunds, Milton Keynes, Worthing, Margate and Wimborne, before two mid-May visits to Porthcurno’s glorious open-air Minack Theatre and another in Great Torrington’s Rosemoor Gardens on May 26th. For full details, try www.thefishermansfriends.com and follow the band via Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud and Tumblr.

This interview was put together with the help of a little background information culled from the very entertaining and informative Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends: Sailing at Eight Bells (Simon & Schuster, 2011).

 

 

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Wilko Johnson / Glenn Tilbrook – Warrington Parr Hall

Three’s Company: The Wilko Johnson Band, still keen to Blow Your Mind all these years on.

Some 15 months after my last visit to the Parr Hall, and 25 years after a brief stint working in this North West town, I was back in Warrington for a night of quality musicianship and maximum R&B.

Last time around, for The Undertones (with my review here), the floor was jumping, so it was a little odd to find the seats out and our tickets reading ‘stalls’. But as it turned out there was a solution at hand.

I felt uneasy at first, having arrived later than I hoped, struggling to find a parking space on a busy Friday night after battling down the M6 and A49. And when you need to find a designated seat in the middle of a darkened hall and the support’s already playing, it takes all your concentration skills to keep your head down (not least when you’re 6ft 4ins) and your Guinness off neighbouring punters.

And you can add to that the awkward complication that the fella with the acoustic guitar on stage is one of your songwriting heroes, recent WriteWyattUK interviewee Glenn Tilbrook, who first appeared on a bill with Wilko when Squeeze supported Dr Feelgood in 1975 and who has since supplied a fair bit of the soundtrack of my life.

I was unsure how far into his set he was, but as we found row H and sat down he treated us to the sublime ‘Up the Junction’, taking one round of applause for his efforts then asking for another for absent co-writer Chris Difford.

This was no karaoke show or Squeeze on 45 set though, but a swift journey down the years of great songs expertly played, Glenn treating us to Sandie Shaw’s ‘(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me’ before another of his hits of yore, ‘Is That Love? And few opening lines can compete with ‘You’ve left my ring by the soap, now is that love?’

Second-guessing Glenn would be some task, and he soon swapped acoustic for electric for a little Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac on end-of-the ‘60s blues classic, ‘Oh Well’. And where from there? Well, 1987’s ‘Hourglass’ actually, a song that made me realise I never stood a chance of lead vocal duties, tripping up over that rapid chorus time and again while trading lines amid giggles.

‘I Hear You Knocking’ was next, a little turn-of-the ‘70s rock’n’roll from Dave Edmunds delivered so well, followed by another glorious segue into Difford & Tilbrook songbook territory for melancholic masterpiece ‘Letting Go’, three weeks after I told the artiste how much I love 1991’s Play.

Solo Stint: Glenn Tilbrook, still out on the road, and playing a blinder as support to Wilko Johnson.

I got the feeling Glenn went out of his way to reach the blues in his set, but he didn’t have to dig too deep. It’s just below the surface, this consummate performer steeped in all he’s infused and taken on board, so technically accomplished it’s intuitive.

A confessional followed, Wilko’s special guest coughing up to past misdemeanours with ‘0-60 in 3 Seconds’. I’d rather let him tell you the story behind that, and you can find it on a new EP, proceeds going to the Trussell Trust, the charity both headliner and support are backing on this tour.

Time was always going to be against him, and while I dearly hoped there might be a later cameo with the main act, it seems Glenn’s emperor-sized campervan had left long before I reached the exit.

But playing to the crowd amid vociferous requests for ‘Voodoo Chile’, the wondrous ‘Tempted’ and ‘Black Coffee in Bed’ were followed by snatches of Hendrix at the start and end of further early ‘80s hit ‘Labelled with Love’ to finish. What a repertoire, what a performer.

Talking of guitar legends, two more followed shortly, R&B survivors (in more ways than one) past WriteWyattUK interviewees Wilko Johnson and Norman Watt-Roy joined by the son of another, Yes’ Steve Howe’s Dylan on drums, another who saw service with Ian Dury and the Blockheads.

I still found the sit-down setting a little constricting, and there’s nothing like a couple of old souls (Wilko and Norm aged 71 and 68 respectively) to make you realise youth is wasted on the young and middle-aged, their youthful energy intoxicating and contagious.

Wilko prowled from the start, those eyes seeking us out and that flex on his distinctive black and red Telecaster given plenty of stretch, while Norman’s strolling digits hardly let up all night, his facial expressions a picture.

From opener ‘I Love the Way You Do’ onwards, one of many fine Blow Your Mind cuts, we were in awe, and if that was the LP of new material Wilko never dreamed of being well enough to record, it was a similar story with its predecessor, where he got to share billing with Roger Daltrey on Going Back Home, its title track – written with Mick Green and originally recorded with Dr Feelgood in ‘75 –truly getting the blood pumping.

Tunnel Vision: Norman, Wilko and Dylan, going underground (Photo copyright: Leif Laaksonen)

For those who know Wilko’s story, the sheer emotions in seeing him still up there are pretty overwhelming, but you get the feeling it’s mutual, this trio all about playing with passion, celebrating life itself. Never have blues been so joyful.

And these R&B forces of nature – Wilko’s distinctive six-string chop approach given body by Norm and Dylan’s bass and drum engine room stoking – never take a foot off the oil refinery pump, 1978 Solid Senders favourite ‘Dr Dupree’ keeping the pressure up and 2018 single ‘Marijuana’ proving he can still write a corking song four decades later.

At that point it was a great show but missing a little something, but that changed at the eight-song mark, the band slipping into further Feelgood masterpiece, ‘Roxette’, 44 years after Old Grey Whistle Test viewers were first moved to the edge of their armchairs at the sight of Lee Brilleaux and co.

A few punters took that as a cue to make their way down the front, a show of solidarity with those that had already taken to the wings. And I loved the fact they were a right mixed bag, rhythm and blues respecting no age bar or dress code. The older guy in high street raincoat with attached hood seemed to personify that, heads down no nonsense mindless boogie (as my recent interviewee CP Lee once put it) overcoming all.

This isn’t just about out and out R&B standards – old and new – and ‘The Beautiful Madrileña’ showed glorious strength in depth before the band kicked up a gear again for another track first committed to tape in the studio in 2003, ‘Keep On Loving You’, and a nice reminder of the 2014 version with Roger Daltrey, who just happened to have turned 75 that day.

Another track from the good Doctor was next, ‘When I’m Gone’ inspiring a similar effect, the Thames Delta transported to the banks of the Mersey, as if we were seven miles from Canvey rather than Spike Island, the reverberating spirit of John Lee Hooker boom-booming away.

And if ‘Letting the Night Go By’ suggested we were nearly done, ‘Everybody’s Carrying a Gun’ led to more impassioned solos – the switch up to 12 by now – and they weren’t going anywhere until they’d headed ‘Back in the Night’ and treated us to ‘She Does it Right’, the briefest break following before they saw us to the line with a mighty ‘Bye Bye Johnny’, as much Wilko’s as Chuck Berry’s standard now.

Long may you rock, Wilko, and the same goes for Norman, Dylan and Glenn. We’re not worthy, maybe, but we’ll be here all the same.

Live Wires: Dylan, Wilko and Norman giving it their all, as ever (Photo copyright: Leif Laaksonen)

Wilko Johnson and Glenn Tilbrook are next in action together at: Cliffs Pavilion, Southend – March 8; Engine Rooms, Southampton – March 9;  Alban Arena, St Albans – March 10; The Robin, Wolverhampton – March 13; Picturedrome, Holmfirth – March 14; Opera House, Newcastle –  March 15; Yarm Princess Alexandra Auditorium – April 11; Stockton Queen’s Hall – April 12; Edinburgh Fibbers, York – April 13; Junction, Cambridge – April 25; Tramshed, Cardiff – April 26; Town Hall, Cheltenham – April 27. 

Meanwhile, Glenn’s solo tour calls at: The Grand, Clitheroe – March 16; St Mary Magdalene Church, Cobham – March 21; Revelation, Ashford – March 22; The Pavilion, Hailsham – March 23; Komedia, Bath – March 28; Acapela, Cardiff – March 29; St Mary’s Parish Church, Kingskerswell – March 31; The Wharf, Tavistock – April 2; Lighthouse, Poole – April 3; St John The Evangelist Church, Oxford – April 5.

For more about Wilko’s wanderings in 2019, head here or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter. For more information on Glenn Tilbrook, head to his website or keep in touch via FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

Food donated at venues during all Glenn’s dates this year (including the Wilko Johnson dates) will be collected and distributed to the nearest Trussell Trust foodbank, offering nutritionally-balanced, non-perishable tinned and dried foods. Items in a typical food parcel are cereal, soup, pasta, rice, tinned tomatoes/pasta sauce, lentils, beans and pulses, tinned meat, tinned vegetables, tea/coffee, tinned fruit, biscuits, UHT milk and fruit juice. If possible, check with local foodbanks to see what supplies are currently needed.

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Renewed belief in Mother Earth – the Steve Harley interview

 

Live Presence: Steve Harley, still living the best years of his life, four and half decades after his career change

Talking to a celebrated musical artist of whom the Wikipedia entry alone runs to more than 4,000 words, when he has a busy day of interviews for radio and press ahead of him, it’s advisable to get straight in there and pique the interest.

Accordingly, I sought out a little common ground, tackling Steve Harley on his formative days in journalism, the career he jettisoned to throw himself into the dubious world of rock’n’roll … to great effect.

And 45 years after his first album with Cockney Rebel, The Human Menagerie, he’s still touring frequently, fronting his own acoustic trio, accompanied by long-standing bandmates Barry Wickens (violin, guitar, part of the set-up since 1984) and James Lascelles (piano, percussion, recording with Steve since 2003), the set built around his 13 original albums, bigger hits blending in with tracks from more recent critically-acclaimed LPs like 2005’s The Quality Of Mercy and 2010’s Stranger Comes To Town.

Steve, born in 1951 in South East London – the second of five children to a milkman and a semi-professional jazz singer – started out in newspapers in 1968 at the age of 17, a trainee accountant with the Daily Express, going on to be a reporter, training with Essex County Newspapers and working for the Essex County Standard, Braintree and Witham Times, Maldon and Burnham Standard, and Colchester Evening Gazette before a stint at the East London Advertiser. Apparently, the snapping point came when his editor insisted he write about a shoplifter who stole a tin of soup and a tin of baked beans. Does he ever wonder what might have happened if he’d just kept his head down and carried on?

“I’ve got no regrets. At the age of 21 when I walked away, I’d done my three-year indentures, had 120 words-per-minute Pitman’s shorthand and had covered some really good stories, particularly in my last year at the East London Advertiser.

“We were in Kray land, opposite The Blind Beggar, covering some big news. It wasn’t provincial anymore, and in those days local papers were always run by juniors – around two seniors and five juniors. Every Wednesday night we put the paper to bed in Dagenham, and the next morning we’d find our stuff all over Fleet Street, because it was all good national news.

“I enjoyed it. I liked the life, until I grew tired of it – having spent a lot of time in Bow Magistrates’ Court, wearing the seat of my trousers out, covering stupid shop-lifting stories. But I was writing songs and playing in folk clubs at that time.

“The only downside of it all and the only point I regret was that leaving all that really distressed my parents. My Dad was pretty heartbroken. I hadn’t got anywhere to go. In those days you could leave a job and get another. But I was on the dole for around 10 months, busking, writing songs and forming Cockney Rebel. But I’ve had a great life – 45 years of this and I’ve still got an audience.”

Were those busking days really so good at the time, or just in romantic retrospect? I’m guessing they were hungry days.

“Oh, they were hungry years, but good days. What can you do? I was 21 and could rule the world. Or you think you can. I lived on the dole and was in bedsits with truly interesting people who went on to have good careers in the art world and in journalism, surrounded by interesting and bright young people and great company.

“Paul Henderson, who I trained with, went on to the Daily Mail, and is now editor of the Daily and Sunday Mirror and still my mate. John Blake is in publishing. He was on the Hackney Gazette. We sat together in magistrates’ courts and are still very close friends. Pauline McLeod went on to be successful as well. There were loads of us.”

Apparently, TV presenter, columnist and novelist Richard Madeley was another, taking over Steve’s desk at the ELA in 1972. Yet this action-packed career might never have got off the ground, Steve having during the summer of 1953 contracted polio, leading to long periods in hospital as a youth, undergoing major surgery in 1963 and 1966.

But while recovering from the first operation at the age of 12, he was introduced to the poetry of T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence, the prose of Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Virginia Woolf, and the music of Bob Dylan, and was duly inspired to carve out his own creative career.

It’s interesting how many talented people in various artistic walks of life suffered serious illness and bouts of confinement as children, I suggested – from comedy scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (tubercolosis) to leading lights in the punk world like Ian Dury (polio) and John Lydon (meningitis). Did his own recuperation help him focus and take something from all that reading?

“Yeah, I think when you’re bed-ridden, like I was … and you could also bring into this equation Joni Mitchell and Neil Young with polio too … I spent nearly four years in hospital, on and off from the age of three and a half through to 16, including two one-year stretches. In each ward there were a dozen or so under-16s at our children’s hospital in Surrey, so you had your pals so didn’t feel the pain – you get through it at that age. But it made me quite solitary.

“My bedside cabinet – this brown wooden thing with the grapes and the Lucozade on top – if you opened that you’d have found notebooks, pens and literature. I read a lot, way off the scale. I was 15, doing my O-levels from a hospital bed, ahead of the curriculum. The school would send everything down to the hospital every week, 12 miles away, and the hospital teacher and I completed it all – nine subjects. We had nothing else to do, whereas my schoolmates were in class, having lunch breaks, playing rugby. I was ahead of them.

“By the time I’d finished it all my English master – to his day one of my best friends, Anthony Harding, who taught me how to write and how to be myself – would say, ‘You’ve read Henry V and Othello, and written your essay, would you like to read some John Donne metaphysical poetry? My own hero?’

“He then sent me Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and that changed everything. I didn’t think you could write without using what he called the $10 words. He didn’t need them. I’d read DH Lawrence and needed a thesaurus by the bed with such a rich vocabulary. Then you read Hemingway and it’s like a man talking to you in everyday language.”

I told Steve at this point how my mid-’90s journalism course leader at Preston’s University of Central Lancashire, Vince Kelly, read a few chapters from an early draft of a novel of mine, subtly suggesting I read The Old Man and the Sea, impressing upon me the importance of writing about what I knew – a valuable lesson.

“Well, someone said to me recently they’d read my online diaries and said it was like I was talking to them.”

At this point, Steve talks about another friend from his journalism past, author Brian Southall, who was with Music Business Weekly, Melody Maker and Disc before joining A&M then EMI, his music books including Beatles and Hollies biographies, including last year’s The White Album: The Album, the Beatles and the World in 1968.

“He also trained with me. He was in Chelmsford and I was in Colchester when we were juniors, and we’ve been mates ever since.”

It transpires that he recently contributed to Brian’s latest work, in which musicians talk about their most influential Beatles album, Steve writing about Rubber Soul, and chuffed at the author telling him there was no reason to change a word of his submission.

Did Steve’s parents get to witness his success in music, realising he’d made the right career choice after all?

“Oh yeah, my Dad is now 92. My Mum died 10 years ago, and once they’d seen me on Top of the Pops, it was brag, brag, brag, brag, brag! They forgot the upset.”

Ever get back to your old roots in Deptford?

“I don’t go down there very often. I raised my kids among the cornfields of Suffolk. That’s where we are. We get to London a lot, and just yesterday I was on air with (BBC Radio London’s) Robert Elms, and I’m there for meetings and the theatre a lot. But I don’t need the city anymore. I see enough cities. I travel around a lot.”

At this point, I mentioned how late Status Quo great Rick Parfitt liked to return to hometown Woking (where my Dad and Grandad were brought up), sitting outside his old house in his car, remembering his formative years. And that sparks something with Steve.

“This is very odd. I know those two guys (referring to Rick and fellow Quo frontman Francis Rossi) very well and told Francis this years ago – I’ve met him loads of times since – how when we walked from my Mum’s flat in New Cross Gate in the borough of Deptford up to my school at Haberdashers’ Aske’s (Hatcham Boys’) Grammar School, every day we’d walk past – on a steep hill – a Rossi’s ice cream van, and that was Francis’ family.”

I could have mentioned so many great tracks associated with Steve and Cockney Rebel over the years, songs such as ‘Mr Raffles (Man, It Was Mean)’ taking me right back to a certain time and place. What’s more, he even managed to get away with covering The Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun’ in 1976, somehow making it his own. Is that the key to it – giving a classic song a different spin?

“Malcolm, I’ve heard maybe 30 of 130 covers of ‘Make Me Smile’, some of which are quite interesting, but most – however – are really just replicas of the original, and I think, ‘Why did you bother?’ But Rod Stewart on his last album, Another Country, covered my song ‘A Friend For Life’ (from The Quality of Mercy), and it breaks your heart. It’s his voice singing my words. It’s wonderful, and he makes it his own. What’s the point of a replica?”

Incidentally, Rod Stewart has described Steve as ‘One of the finest lyricists Britain has ever produced’. Can’t say fairer than that. Anyway, carry on …

“I didn’t get to meet George (Harrison), but I would have told him how I saw that song as (marking) an apocalypse …”

At this point, Steve – sat in a radio studio – had to break off, having a live on-air interview to go to. We should have been done by then, but I like to think he was enjoying himself, arranging for me to call him back half an hour or so later to finish up. But when I got through again, I got the feeling his enjoyment factor had slipped, my next question touching a nerve, after I asked if – while there was clearly lots of hard work involved – there was an element of luck too, not least in coming to the attention of producer Mickie Most.

As I have no hot-shot lawyer on my side and I’d like to keep a roof over my family’s head, I’ll not go into his full response, filling me in on past litigation procedures involving a deal from the early years of his career. Maybe one day it’ll come out in an autobiography. I will print this much though.

“I played five shows at The Speakeasy (Club) with the original Cockney Rebel and then Dave Most came in, who ran RAK Publishing and was a plugger at the Beeb, played my demos to his brother, and he changed my life. It was because what we did on stage was unique and someone – Mickie Most – saw a future. I didn’t get lucky.”

Having cleared that up, I mentioned how I’d reminded myself of a few classic tracks that morning, and ‘Cavaliers’ from 1974’s The Psychomodo came up, something I suggested reminded me of that era, with a hint of a Mott the Hoople … but was perhaps more of a nod to David Bowie. And again it seems like I’d rattled his cage.

Quality Artiste: Steve Harley, back on the road again on his never-ending tour (Photo: Mike Callow)

“Well, I wouldn’t credit either of them. You’ll hear what you want, that’s fine by me, and I’m listening. But I played that back with an orchestra and choir for some big concerts, with Steve Norman from Spandau Ballet playing saxophone and percussion, and we ripped the place up.

“On that album you’ve got ‘Ritz’, ‘Tumbling Down’, ‘Cavaliers’, and I’d like to go to my grave believing no one in the world could have written those songs but me. No bragging there. I hear them, and think, ‘Ah, that’s me’. I never listened to Mott the Hoople. I only heard the singles.”

We were interrupted again soon after, and while Steve said he’d call back when he’d dealt with his other interviews, I wasn’t convinced. But just when I was starting to doubt if he’d have time, he returned. And this time he seemed to be in a happier frame of mind.

Putting him on the spot, I asked who he felt were the ‘70s artists he respected who also proved to have that longevity.

“There’s a whole bunch. You know, Roxy Music was always Bryan Ferry’s band, like Cockney Rebel was always my band, Bowie always had his own band, Ian Hunter still plays and plays and plays, acoustic and with other players and rock bands, Sparks still play a lot of concerts when they want to. The point is that to have longevity you have to want to play live and have it in your heart and soul that you were going to be a rock musician for life, not just to dress up and get on Top of the Pops and be famous in Sainsbury’s.

“The list could go on, and so many from that period are true survivors. Brian May and Roger Taylor can’t stop going out there, pretending to be Queen. They’ve both got more money than Croesus, but they can’t stop. It’s in the heart and soul. Roger is desperate to be a rock star. Bless him, he’s the nicest guy. They ask me, ‘Could I stop?’ and I just can’t not do it. Once you get on a bus with the guys, you know what you’re going to be doing, and everyone feels an uplift. If you’ve survived to a certain age, you’re really good at what you do.”

Well, Steve’s acoustic trio set-up certainly seems to work well for him. As he put it, “Playing the songs in an acoustic format gives me time and space to enjoy every second. And we improvise, exciting for any musician. We can loosen off arrangements and really explore.And this tour’s bandmates have been at his side for some time now.

“Ooh, donkeys’ years. Barry’s played for me for thousands of shows. More than anybody else. James has played with me for 15 years. And they can go anywhere they like.”

Do you tend to chop and change set-wise a fair bit? I can’t imagine you sticking to a formula and going through the motions on that.

“I couldn’t. That’s not the deal. We’ll go on the road next week with 40 titles listed, and each night we’ll play 25, so on the bus I’ll decide what to knock out, what to put in. They love it, and it keeps everyone on their toes. And it keeps the buzz going. ‘What key’s that in?’ ‘Don’t panic! Put your headphones on, listen to it once. You played it five years ago!’ These guys don’t forget. It’s absolutely lovely.”

Some saw the ‘80s as your wilderness years, but I’m guessing it was important that happened in retrospect, not least having the chance to concentrate on your family and the things that really mattered, perhaps giving you the hunger to carry on later.

“Yeah, I had a really hedonistic ‘70s, I was tired, I met Dorothy (Steve’s wife of 38 years), fell madly in love, and we had two children. And the world was changing. Punk had come and gone, there was … what d’you call it? The new romantic thing with the silly haircuts and synthesisers, and it didn’t suit me at all.

“Then Phantom of the Opera came along and, well, I had nothing else to do, although I knew I would not be singing it live. But at the end of the ’80s, someone came and said to me the Germans want you on tour. I said I didn’t know if I could still do it anymore, having lost all my confidence. But they said give it a go, I was pushed out there, and I’ve been on what Dylan would call that never-ending tour ever since.”

Along the way, there’s been so much great music. Is there a certain track or album you feel should have received far more kudos, that would have been a surefire hit in a different era?

“It would be the new ones, that are privately released and don’t get big coverage. We do half of the songs on stage and people love them, and those CDs sell on the road. The Quality of Mercy, two records ago, is the best album I made in my career, after The Psychomodo. But the great public doesn’t know it. And that’s ok too. I bump into people in the most obscure of places, they mention a song from that album, and I say, ‘You know that album? That’s my favourite album ever!’ It’s a great feeling.”

Given a bit longer I’d have asked more about his biggest hit too, the sublime ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)’, a UK No.1 that’s sold more than a million and a half copies and according to the Performing Rights Society is one of the most played records in British broadcasting, yet somehow retains its initial impact 40-plus years on. But the story was told so well by Steve and producer Alan Parsons (interviewed by Dave Simpson) in an article two years ago in The Guardian.

Soon he was away again though, this time for a live interview on BBC Radio Nottingham. I had no compaints though, coming off the phone with Steve having made me smile again after a genuine, kindly reminder to come up and see him at the Morecambe Platform or Lytham’s Lowther Pavilion on this tour. And I look forward to that.

Three’s Company: Steve and his acoustic trio bandmates James Lascelles, left, and Barry Wickens, right

Steve Harley’s acoustic trio tour includes dates at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre (Saturday, March 2), Salford’s Lowry Theatre & Gallery (Sunday, March 3), Morecambe Platform (Saturday, March 30, 0871 220 0260) and Lytham’s Lowther Pavilion (Thursday, April 4). For the full itinerary and all the latest from Steve, head to http://www.steveharley.com/ or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter. 

 

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Live and Direct in Guildford – back in my hometown revisiting The Star, the Boileroom and the Holroyd

Acoustic Stranglers: Baz Warne and Jean-Jacques Burnel perform at the Star Inn, Guildford, January 31st, 2019 (Photograph by Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

It’s been a long month, and with Spring arriving deceptively early in late February (if only on a fact-finding mission), that last day of January when The Stranglers turned up at one of my old haunts seems an age ago.

Founder members Jet Black (and it’s good to see him relatively fit and well), Jean-Jacques Burnel and ’75 arrival Dave Greenfield (replacing Swedish original Hans Axel Wärmling) brought long-time frontman Baz Warne along to the venue where it supposedly started for them, The Star in Guildford, unveiling a new PRS plaque marking the location of what’s believed to have been their first proper show 45 years ago.

While I heard the blast from Guildford’s pub bombings in 1974 from my village (two miles down the A281), I wasn’t even seven, so I can hardly vouch for the noise a band then known as The Guildford Stranglers were making that same year on nearby Quarry Street.

I said supposedly before as JJ Burnel can’t seem to recall any details, and no date seems to be recorded, for all the mentions here and there on the internet. But as a 14-year-old I was at the Civic Hall across town for their La Folie tour, and recall Hugh Cornwell asking a packed house – ‘Golden Brown’ topping the UK charts at the time – how many of us were at The Star in ‘74. Inevitably, around a thousand reckoned they were, something I find hard to fathom seeing as in April 1988 the band I mismanaged, His Wooden Fish, sold out a charity night there and were only allowed to accommodate a 99-strong audience.

In fact, that particular swivel-rock trio (don’t ask) played there twice, while the band that eventually followed them, True Deceivers, followed their lead, playing on a bill with fellow reformed locals (so to speak) Sammy Rat’s Big Big Blues Band, of whom frontman and local author/journalist David Rose wrote a great piece about the venue’s sketchy history as a music venue in this Guildford Dragon feature. What’s more, in my fanzine days The Star was an unofficial HQ for a while, even interviewing bands in there.

If you haven’t heard yet, the reason this is all semi-relevant is that there’s a campaign endorsed by The Stranglers to ‘Save Our Star’, with this prime town centre venue under threat from a noise abatement order, despite a long history of live music happenings and as a platform for so many emerging musicians over the decades.

It’s still a thriving music, comedy and theatre performance venue, but the borough council allowed a property developer to build flats in a neighbouring ex-office block, and that’s where the trouble started, not least after he complained to the council about noise from the back room venue last May. The Star were given eight weeks to comply with a noise abatement notice, one they felt would force them into stopping host live acts completely from December. But in October, the pub confirmed it intended to challenge the notice, after legal counsel confirmed there were sufficient grounds to launch an appeal.

Star Inn manager Georgina Baker said: “When the planning application went in five years ago we pointed out it was ludicrous to put flats next to a live music venue overlooking a pub courtyard, but they wouldn’t listen. Now, sure enough, the developer has complained and the council has finally realised it might be a bit noisy in the flats.

“Small live music venues are the lifeblood of the music industry as well as an invaluable cultural and social asset, they can’t just be swept aside for luxury apartments. We’re part of the historic fabric of Guildford, but if the council issues a Noise Abatement Notice, that’ll put us out of business.”

Georgina has called on all music lovers to sign a petition in a bid to persuade the council, and you can get involved via this link. If like me you’re 240 or so miles away, you might feel it’s got nothing to do with you, but this seems to be the tip of the iceberg, with so many venues up and down the country and across Britain in similar jeopardy right now. A report by ITV News arts editor Nina Nannar about the campaign estimated a third of Britain’s small music venues had already been lost. So think of my hometown as Anytown UK. The time seems ripe to have a say and get involved.

I missed out on The Stranglers’ Star return, where a short set included an acoustic stroll through ‘Strange Little Girl’, a 1982 UK top-10 hit but in the set right back in ’74, a band co-write in which the afore-mentioned Wärmling gets a credit (he died in 1995 in a boating accident). But I was back on my old patch a fortnight later, sampling two more happening pub venues, the Boileroom (The Elm Tree in my day, part of a town crawl from my mate Al’s nearby flat) and Suburbs at the Holroyd (the plain, poky Holroyd Arms when I was working in town, an occasional lunchtime watering hole now knocked through and also creating a great live room).

That Friday night – the first of two nights back in Al’s company – provided a good example of just what’s on offer on the scene in this day and age, as it involved Bristol-based Clash tribute act, London Calling. You’ll know from these pages I tend to avoid such shows – there’s so much original talent out there, why not support bands doing their own songs instead? But I’ve been known to show up at such events, even recalling a night in Blackburn’s King George’s Hall watching entertaining Australian faux-Swedes Bjorn Again as early as 1998.

Look down the list of acts appearing at most venues these days and there’s often little on offer but derivations on the tribute theme. But with my Clash book not long out I eyed a chance to savour a band afforded great reviews and currently playing the London Calling double album from start to finish, four decades after its release year. And I knew it would be a neat place to catch them, having seen The Wedding Present in this intimate setting two years ago.

I could have done without the eyebrow-raising bar prices (£10 for two pints? You’re having a giraffe!), but fair play to any venue still operating in these testing times. Besides, I was intrigued by London Calling, and sure enough it made for a top night out, their 19-track wander through a classic record followed by an encore of ‘I Fought the Law’, ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’, ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ and ‘White Riot’, enthusiastically received by a young-ish crowd … or at least mostly too young to catch The Clash first time around. I’d get far more excited seeing Jones, Simonon and Headon back out there, but that ain’t gonna happen, and this outfit are impressive – a class act as much as a Clash act.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, and the track-by-track album concept meant they started with ‘London Calling’ itself, not the easiest song to cover convincingly. But from ’Brand New Cadillac’ onwards – that rockabilly rumble suits them – they had me on their side, unable to resist. I could have done without ‘Koka Kola’ and wouldn’t have been upset if a couple more were missed, but my only real quibble was the lead singer’s need to introduce his guitar sidekick as ‘Mr Mick Jones’ a few times. Why do that? It’s plainly not. He’s a great player in his own right – celebrate that (for the record, credit should go to Reg Shaw as Joe, David Devonald as Mick, Zep Guatieri as Paul, and Shane Tremlin as Topper).

Any name-check for my favourite songs on the night would just echo my favourite tracks on the album, but I also particularly enjoyed their runs through ‘The Right Profile’, ‘Clampdown’ and ‘Guns of Brixton’.

Faraway Town: London Calling put Guildford’s Boileroom audience through their paces (Photo copied from the band’s Facebook page)

Actually, they do look the part as well as sound the part, but not in a lookalike way thankfully. That would be pointless. ‘Joe’, ‘Mick’ And ‘Paul’ had all the affectations and facial expressions that suggest they’ve done their homework and come at this from a place of love, carving a pure connection with the originals and a respect for their craft. And ‘Topper’ got it just right, putting his energy into just sounding the part, what it should be about.

Incidentally, one of my highlights involved their reaction to an awkward stage invasion on ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’, an amused Reg suggesting the enthusiastic audience member jumping up and joining ‘Mick’ on his mic. might not have supplied the greatest harmony, quipping, ‘There are only five (or so) words in that chorus, and she didn’t seem to know any of them.’

By all accounts they were a hit on the Give ‘Em Enough Rope tour too. Wish I’d seen that. Not sure how they’ll tackle a Sandinista tour, but I recommend they don’t attempt a full-blown 36-track affair. As for a Cut the Crap tour … let’s hope for the lead guitarist and drummer’s sakes they’ve been sacked by then.

In short, I’ll revise my advice and suggest there are some very good covers bands out there, London Calling offering a great service and reminding us – if we need it – how good those songs are, 37 years after the last great Clash record.

And then came Saturday night on the edge of my hometown, the Suburbs at the Holroyd venue having put on several fine nights in recent times, not least hosting Guildford legends The Vapors and fellow Surrey stars The Members (with Eddie and the Hot Rods). And it was nice to see Members’ guitarist/songwriter JC Carroll there, not least as the pub rebrand carries its own respectful nod to his biggest hit – hence me wearing a coveted Members t-shirt.

This was definitely a proper Mod crowd, far better turned out than the previous night, in several cases oozing ‘60s style. After a busy day – also involving a home game at Woking FC – my last-minute arrival meant I barely had time to shake Sha La La’s drummer John Piccirillo’s hand before he worked his way through a packed-in crowd and clambered up to join his bandmates. But while I was stuck near the bar at the back, the atmosphere came over loud and clear.

It’s always great to see John and frontman Darron Robinson (and you’ll find plenty about his band on these pages, starting with this May 2018 feature), and all these years on – several personnel changes down the road – it seems they have things just as they want them. Back in the ‘late ‘80s and early ‘90s (as A Month of Sundays, then Sweet Life and Fools Like Us), there was often underlying tension and a feeling it might just kick off, a relentless push for success – and they deserved it – driving them on. Now they seem to be totally enjoying themselves, adding to the excitement factor from a band where the musicianship was never in question.

Their Jam meets Redskins fire always worked well, distancing them from being Style Council copyists and drifting towards a pop soul market. And in more recent years they’ve added more Dr Feelgood, Otis Redding and Small Faces-like R&B and ’60s spirit to the mix, Darron’s voice and the band’s sound all the more honed. That’s something you earn and need to properly build towards. And they do just that, more recent additions Vere Osborne (bass) and John Lee (keyboards) a perfect fit.

Inspirational Souls: Darron and Vere lead the line for The Sha La La’s (Photograph courtesy of Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

They started as they meant to go on with new single ‘You Got Me (Wantin’)’, never looking back, building on a friendly audience vibe in an 11-song set in which they never slipped from that early benchmark, my highlights including earlier 45s ‘Before I Let You Down Again’ and ‘Soul of the Nation’, plus supreme B-side ‘Hold On’, then finishing in style with a 100mph crowd-pleasing take on Temptations classic ‘Get Ready’, perfectly setting us up for the headline act, Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band.

Yep, ever-sprightly Geno (interviewed on these pages in July 2016, linked here) is now 75 years young but shows little sign of flagging, and despite only really having one hit single to his name in his adopted country, this Indiana-born natural entertainer – a regular on the UK circuit since his days as a USAF serviceman in the early –‘60s – has enough about him to work any audience. When he started out he faced stiff competition, but as the decades have passed his contemporaries have dropped by the wayside while he’s still going strong, a Duracell bunny with soulful attitude.

When Kevin Rowland sang about him in ’79, he was talking about a live inspiration who had perhaps lost his mojo, but four decades later I see no sign of that. If anything, he’s as good today as when I first caught him live in South London in late ’87. And there’s good reason for that, because while there’s no doubting his continued stagecraft, workmanship and star presence, it’s the Ram Jam Band that give him the platform and ensure he’s still a force to be reckoned with.

How many members of that band there have been over the years is anyone’s guess, but the current line-up has got it all going on and could lay claim to being the finest soul band still treading the boards. Think the Cutting Crew, the MG’s and the Famous Flames, and you’re on the right track. At the heart of it all, there’s Steve Bingham (bass), six years Geno’s junior, a rich past including spells with The Foundations and Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance, with whom he’s still involved. Add to that the supreme guitar of Greg Lester, the twin tenor sax assault of Nick Blake and Alan Whetton, and drumming colossus Geoff Hemsley, and you get the picture. For on that soulful foundation Geno is truly at home, his repartee and charm hard to resist. He’s funny, he’s a flirt, he’s a blast, and that voice still grabs you.

You don’t have to be a 60s aficionado to know most of the set, and while all bar one song belonged to others, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting this is also a tribute band …and  yet I guess they are – a tribute to that Philly sound, Stax, Tamla, and so much more. Steeped in proper soul.

From the band’s ‘Philly Dog’ instrumental opener to Geno’s showtime arrival onwards, they barely drew breath, charging through (among others) ‘Ride Your Pony’, Everything’s Alright (Uptight)’, ‘Roadrunner’, ‘Hold On I’m Coming’, ‘I Can’t Turn You Loose’, ‘Land of 1,000 Dances’, their own ‘Michael the Lover’, ‘Midnight Hour’, ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’, ‘I Feel Good’, ‘Sweet Soul Music’, ‘Knock on Wood’, ‘Everybody Needs Somebody’, ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ … Did I miss some out? Indubitably. That’s not important.

I can’t pretend I was back in ’68 in a sweaty club’, but this did very nicely, with Geno still capable of being our bombers, our dexys, our high, and the Ram Jam Band still offering a mighty lesson in performance to any band cutting their teeth on the live circuit. And long may that live circuit continue to exist and those venues remain. Rant over.

Soul Power: Geno Washington, 75 years young, in typical live action (Photograph by Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

For more about Clash tribute act London Calling, including the remaining dates of their extensive tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of the album of the same name, head to their Facebook page here. For all the latest from The Sha La La’s, including details of new single ‘You Got Me (Wantin’)’, head to this Facebook page, and for more about the wanderings of Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band, try here. There’s also a Save Our Star page on Facebook, linked here, and you can find details of The Stranglers’ Back on the Tracks Spring 2019 UK tour right here

With thanks to esteemed photographer Derek D’Souza for several of the photographs featured. For more examples of his work, head to www.blinkandyoumissit.com.

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The Freedom I’ve Been Gifted – Glenn Tilbrook makes it to the phone again

Solo Stint: Glenn Tilbrook, still out on the road, more than 45 years after answering that sweet shop ad in Blackheath.

Squeeze frontman and co-founder Glenn Tilbrook will be keeping himself busy these next couple of months, not only supporting Wilko Johnson’s band on the UK leg of their tour, but also filling a few gaps with his own solo dates.

And on both sets of shows the esteemed South East London-based singer-songwriter will be promoting awareness of and inviting donations to The Trussell Trust, supporting a network of foodbanks around the UK.

At most venues there will be drop points and collection boxes, Glenn also donating profits from his merchandise – including an exclusive four-track EP – to the charity.

As he put it, “It is shameful that in the 21st century there are people that can’t afford to put food on the table. Anyone, from any walk of life, can fall upon dire times, and I hope that by doing this tour it will remind people that there is a very real need. Most of us can do something to help – be it giving some food or a little money – and I hope people coming to the shows are inspired to donate.”

There’s been a long link between Glenn and the headliners, his band Squeeze having opened for Dr Feelgood – the legendary Canvey Island outfit where Wilko made his name – as far back as September 3rd, 1975 at St Albans Civic Hall.

“They were the only band I’d ever seen besides us who were doing short concise songs and hitting you between the eyes. They blew my mind. I’m so happy to be doing this tour with Wilko and his extremely talented band, and I’m pleased he has accommodated support for The Trussell Trust on this tour.”

This isn’t just some loaded musician digging deep for the poor, out for shameless photo opportunities while propping up the Establishment, complicit in silently backing a draconian Government more intent on passing off poverty as a concern for charity rather than the state.

Glenn’s about far more than that, and not one to shy away from political confrontation, as proved three years ago when he made headlines for switching the words to the title track of 2015 Squeeze album Cradle to the Grave while playing live with the band on BBC One  current affairs show The Andrew Marr Show, then-Prime Minister David Cameron squirming on the sofa.

There was a sense of pride that Sunday morning for this lad from a council house background who acknowledges his life would have been be so different without a free NHS, social housing, and all that, as Glenn sang:

“I grew up in council housing, part of what made Britain great;

There are some here who are hellbent on the destruction of the Welfare State.”

And he certainly has no regrets.

“In a nutshell, my belief – and it’s almost an old-fashioned belief now – is that the role of taxation and Government is to provide these things for people, so this sort of situation doesn’t happen. As a society we’re slipping backwards to an older time where there were poorer people who were despised, thought of as lesser people, and rich people who may or may not deign us with their magnificence.”

I see Glenn and Chris Difford as great examples of successful products of the post-war (I know, they’re not quite that old, but …) Welfare State, I tell him.

“Very much so. And if I look back on my life now … growing up as I did and as Chris did in council housing where we had space to play and they were well maintained … that was the ’60s, and in many ways that was the golden age of the Welfare State.

“I don’t look back on things and get nostalgic very often, but about that I do. There was still Cathy Come Home, there was still private landlords milking poor people and being heartless, just as there are today, but the problem is that all that stuff is growing now.”

We saw a bit of that nostalgic look back on the past on the afore-mentioned 2015 Squeeze LP, songs from which also featured on the soundtrack of Danny Baker-penned ITV drama Cradle to Grave. Friend of the band Danny’s writing seemed to transport them back to their own experiences during that era.

“Yeah, it was interesting. I read Danny’s book and thought it would be great for us to get involved. And around the same time I read Alan Johnson’s autobiography, This Boy, and thought that was really great – him recalling the poverty he grew up in. There was no self-pity. The descriptions of what he and his sister went through themselves are enough.

“Danny’s book was almost the polar opposite of that. He views everything through an extremely cheerful … I’m not saying it’s rose-coloured, it’s just the way he is. I think our album at the time sort of reflected that. By the time we got around to (follow-up LP) The Knowledge, that was slightly more gritty. And I’m really proud of both records.”

Quite right too, and that brings me on to the subject of the three early-‘90s Squeeze albums – Play, Some Fantastic Place and Ridiculous – that made me realise all the more what a great band they were, not just a singles or live band, but an albums band too, capable of true depth as songwriters.

And while I loved everything that led up to it, the darker Play truly resonated. To this day, if I hear it I’m transported back to a winter’s afternoon spent with my better half at Greenwich Market, probably in early ’92 (a few months after it was released), the songs in my head that day due to the geographical link to that area, dropping the needle on side one, track one, ‘Satisfied’, on my return back down the A3, back in my bedroom.

I know the album came out in summertime, but I get the feeling those songs were borne out of winter. Do you recall the kind of mindset you were in at the time?

“Yeah, it was written over a period of time. It was also the last album I wrote at home before going into the studio. It was winter, and I wrote some of it on a ski-ing holiday with my then-wife and lots of other people. I didn’t ski – I stayed in and wrote during the day. I also remember writing ‘There is a Voice’ … yeah, it was quite a dark record,”

It was, but there were those chinks of light, as there always are with Squeeze. I won’t go too deep into that record here, but advise you to read the book Glenn and Chris wrote with Jim Drury, 2004’s Squeeze Song by Song. That tells you all you need to know about where each was at back then. And thankfully they both made it through, in tact.

Bringing us right back up to date, Glenn’s first engagement of the year is his support slot with Wilko Johnson’s band at Buxton Opera House on Thursday, February 28th, followed by a date a little closer to my patch at Warrington Parr Hall on Friday, March 1st, before heading to the South Coast to play Bexhill-on-Sea’s De La Warr Pavilion that Saturday, March 2nd.

Those will be his first public shows since one at the Union Chapel in Islington, North London, back on December 1st. Has he been travelling overseas during that period?

“No, I’ve just had a bit of time to contemplate, think about writing, and get ready for this year really. My father’s nearly 90 and not been that well, so I’ve been spending some time with him as well.”

We were talking about your London roots before. Are you still hands on with your 45 RPM studio in Charlton?

“Oh, very much so. In fact, I’ve just had another political battle there. I own my studio and the land it’s on, but it’s in an industrial estate, the rest of which has been bought by developers who want to build these terrible flats and deny my proper entrance (I have my bus and stuff). A long battle followed, ending up going to City Hall, with us making our case in front of (Mayor of London) Sadiq Khan, who actually denied the builder the right to build this monstrosity.

“That was a real inside lesson on how democracy can work, when I was thinking it wouldn’t. But I set this studio up as I wanted this to be the last place I would work before I stop, and it’s everything I wanted it to be. I’m so happy there.”

And you even let mates like Nine Below Zero in there now and again.

“Ah, come on, they’re local! And they make great records.”

Absolutely. I’m waiting for the next album, having loved 2016’s 13 Shades of Blue.

“Yeah, and I think they’re going to do one.”

Great news. And are you busy in there in the meantime?

“I’m in and out of there, yeah.”

It’s five years coming up since your most recent solo album, Happy Ending. When we last spoke in late 2016 you said your energies were channelled on Squeeze. Is that still the case?

“Yeah, but actually last year I did an EP, which I’m going to be selling on this tour, for the Trussell Trust. It has four tracks on it and everything from that will go to them. My focus has been on Squeeze, completely, but for this tour I’ve found that it’s really important to step out of all that, and solo stuff for me really informs what I bring back to the table with Squeeze.”

I bet, and I’m sure it’s the same with Chris and his work outside Squeeze, not least his dates with Boo Hewerdine.

“Yeah, exactly.”

Then in mid-October, 45 years after you first answered Chris’ advert in a sweet shop, it’s back to Squeeze duties, and The Difford and Tilbrook Songbook 2019 tour. It’s a fairly extensive one too. Since we last spoke, Yolanda Charles (who previously played with the likes of Paul Weller, Dave Stewart, Robbie Williams and Mick Jagger, replacing Lucy Shaw on bass) and Steve Smith (percussion, ex-frontman of Dirty Vegas)  have come on board. Is it good to keep things fresh like that?

At Odds: Glenn Tilbrook gets right behind songwriting partner Chris Difford during Squeeze’s big day out at Tenterden on the Kent and East Sussex Railway back in 2015 (Photo: Rob O’Connor/www.stylorouge.co.uk).

“Do you know, the change in the band has been pretty constant, but the one thing I think we’ve done – and this has been since we got back together after five years as ‘the best Squeeze tribute band’ and then started writing – and I was really clear on this, is that I didn’t want our albums to be after-thoughts. If we were going to make records we were going to make proper records, amongst the best we’ve ever done.

“I think we have done that, and the band line-up has been consistently strong. We’ve had some changes – some of which have been forced on us and others which we chose – but having Steve Smith and Yolanda Charles in the band now has propelled us onwards and upwards.”

So is there a 16th album on the go, after The Knowledge?

“No, at the moment I think we’re all thinking about what making a record means, and having the studio I think we’re more inclined to just now see what it’s like to release individual songs at different times, then maybe collate those for an album at the end of it. That seems to be more of a way to reach people, but as an album it takes so much effort and to be honest the time when those things are important for any other reason than artistic ones have gone. So we’re struggling to make the best of it commercially whilst realising that records for us are probably a loss-leader. But they’re also a thing that keeps us together and vibrant.”

Well. I’m all for that. And how far does Chris have to walk now to post his lyrics under your front door?

“Ha! You’d have to ask him that question, but it’s a fair old drive, I think. But he does it. Bless him.”

Glenn is a special guest support with Wilko Johnson’s band at: Opera House, Buxton – February 28; Parr Hall, Warrington – March 1; De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, March 2; Cliffs Pavilion, Southend – March 8; Engine Rooms, Southampton – March 9;  Alban Arena, St Albans – March 10; The Robin, Wolverhampton – March 13; Picturedrome, Holmfirth – March 14; Opera House, Newcastle –  March 15; Yarm Princess Alexandra Auditorium – April 11; Stockton Queen’s Hall – April 12; Edinburgh Fibbers, York – April 13; Junction, Cambridge – April 25; Tramshed, Cardiff – April 26; Town Hall, Cheltenham – April 27. 

Meanwhile, Glenn’s solo tour calls at: The Grand, Clitheroe – March 16; St Mary Magdalene Church, Cobham – March 21; Revelation, Ashford – March 22; The Pavilion, Hailsham – March 23; Komedia, Bath – March 28; Acapela, Cardiff – March 29; St Mary’s Parish Church, Kingskerswell – March 31; The Wharf, Tavistock – April 2; Lighthouse, Poole – April 3; St John The Evangelist Church, Oxford – April 5.

Six Pack: The current Squeeze line-up, set to return to live action later this year. From the left – Stephen Large, Yolanda Charles, Steve Smith, Glenn Tilbrook, Chris Difford, Simon Hanson.

Glenn Tilbrook last starred on these pages in a November 2016 feature/ interview, linked here, and prior to that in December 2013, linked here, while Chris Difford was featured in August 2015 (link here). Alternatively, type in ‘Squeeze’ in the search column (towards the top right of this page) and feast your eyes on a few other options, including an appreciation of the band from October 2012, linked here.  

For more information on Glenn Tilbrook, head to his website. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And for Squeeze, try their official website, follow them via Facebook and Twitter, or follow Facebook’s packetofthree page.

Food donated at venues during all Glenn’s dates this year will be collected and distributed to the nearest Trussell Trust foodbank, offering nutritionally-balanced, non-perishable tinned and dried foods. Items in a typical food parcel are cereal, soup, pasta, rice, tinned tomatoes/pasta sauce, lentils, beans and pulses, tinned meat, tinned vegetables, tea/coffee, tinned fruit, biscuits, UHT milk and fruit juice. If possible, check with local foodbanks to see what supplies are currently needed.

 

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From Bombay to Sala Apolo, o’er the hills and far away – the Norman Watt-Roy interview

Watch Out!: The Wilko Johnson band in action, coming to a venue near you  (Photo: Leif Laaksonen)

I should warn you before you get any further that there’s an underlying current of adulation in this here feature/interview. Another day and another musical hero brought to book (or the WonderWeb in this case), as I spend an all-too-quick half-hour in the telephonic company of bass guitar marvel Norman Watt-Roy.

But if you’re okay with that, come with me on this latest internet journey from Bombay to Sala Apolo, Barcelona, o’er the hills and far away … on to Cheltenham Town Hall by April 27th, the last date I see in Norm’s diary for now with guitar legend Wilko Johnson’s band.

Rock’n’roll and rhythm & blues are certainly here to stay, judging by the outcome of recent health trials and tribulations for both Wilko and Norman. Chances are that you’ll know the story of Wilko’s miraculous return from near-death after a mighty battle with a cancerous tumour. Julien Temple directed a fantastic documentary about it, and the tale was retold on these pages in August 2016 (linked here). I was then back in touch with the artist formerly known as John Wilkinson in May 2018 (linked here), celebrating the release of his first LP of new material in three decades, Blow Your Mind.

But what about bandmate Norman’s own health battle? Well, we’ll get to that in good time, this Anglo-Indian master of the bass guitar fretboard having shed light on many career highlights with me ahead of the band’s latest UK tour, their trio completed by Dylan Howe (son of Yes guitar legend Steve Howe), shows at Teatro Barcelo, Madrid; Sala Apolo, Barcelona; Centro Cultural de Belem, Lisbon; and Casa de Musica, Oporto, followed by the first UK dates at Buxton Opera House (February 28), Warrington Parr Hall (Friday, March 1st) and Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion (Saturday, March 2nd), splendid settings all.

Following Wilko’s miraculous recovery, the original Dr Feelgood guitarist has enjoyed a rousing return to the live arena, including a UK No.1 album with Who legend Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home, a sold-out show at the Royal Albert Hall to mark his 70th birthday in July 2017, then that acclaimed LP of his own.

See Wilko live and you can’t help but marvel at his frenetic stage wanders and finger-style, chop-chord strum (the ‘stab’, as he describes it), a distinctive mix of simultaneous chords and lead picking. But you’d be equally impressed by Dylan’s rearguard action and Norm’s wondrous bass ambles, the former session man a true artisan of the four-string kind.

The pair first joined forces when Wilko had a short spell with Ian Dury’s band – Norman having been on board as a Blockhead from near enough the beginning, and right beyond Ian’s sad death in 2000. Wilko went on to form his own trio, Norman soon a key ingredient there too.

I caught him at home in Fulham, South West London, the day before he jetted off to Spain and Portugal with the band, warm-ups for a busy 2019 schedule with Wilko back home.  And I pointed out early on how the first couple of times I saw him live was with Wilko rather than The Blockheads, not far from his manor, at the Kennington Cricketers in January ’86.

“Oh, the Oval Cricketers, brilliant gig! We used to do that once a month, regular, that and the Half Moon, Putney and the Powerhaus …”

The Half Moon was the other one I was going to mention, in late December ’87, another special night, with Salvatore Ramundo on drums in those days.

“I live just around the corner from there. I got to know Wilko when he joined the Blockheads in ’79, and we went all over the world. And while he was with us, he’d go out on the road with his Solid Senders. He never stopped working.

“Then around ’84 or ’85 his bass player left him, and I wasn’t here, but he asked my missus if I’d be up for four or five gigs he had left, and she said, ‘I’m sure he’ll do it.’

“Actually, I was in Germany with The Clash at that point, with Joe Strummer, doing their last album, Cut the Crap.”

Ah, the album most Clash fans wish had never happened.

“Well, it wasn’t really The Clash – it was Joe on his own with a load of other players really. But that’s when I started with Wilko. It started with those gigs and then they just kept coming in, so we kept doing them.”

I recall such a buzz at those shows I mentioned, everyone so excited to see Wilko do his stuff on a stage, not least his moves. And there was a live album I bought, Watch Out!

“Yes, I think some of that was recorded at the Half Moon or The Cricketers. So you go back a bit.”

Well, sort of, but I was only born in 1967, at which stage I gather you were with a band called Living Daylights.

“Yeah, I was about 16 at the time. I started playing at school with my brother. We had a band and I was playing rhythm guitar, with (brother) Garth playing lead. Bass players were quite hard to find, but when I was around 14, I started teaching a friend of my brother’s who bought the bass and the amp the shop had.

“We said, ‘Look, if you buy that, you can join our band’. We forgot to ask him if he could play though. But I’d started showing him what to do, and after about a week he had big blisters on his fingers and said, ‘You can keep the bass. I don’t wanna be in the band anymore!’ My brother then said, ‘Norm, you’ll have to play bass,’ and that’s when I started out and fell in love with it.”

What was it about the bass that you loved? And did you have bass heroes then?

“Well, we also had this soul band, and learning all those lines I didn’t know who was playing – it would have been James Jamerson and Carol Kaye – but I loved those lines, they were just so melodic and counter-melodies to the songs. I just loved it. It was something I could get my teeth into. Even people like Paul McCartney – what a melodious bass player!”

Was that with The Greatest Show on Earth?

“No, first was the Guyatones, then the Living Daylights, then we had The Sonny Burke Outfit (backing a US artist whose CV included soundtrack co-writes with Peggy Lee on animated Disney classic, Lady and the Tramp), this little soul band where we’d back all these so-called American singers. My brother got in touch with an agency, and they were supposed to be from America, but some were from Brixton or Stoke Newington, putting on American accents! But they did all the Tamla and Stax stuff and that was a great schooling. We toured all over Europe. We’d do American GI bases around Germany. We spent months out there.”

In fact, Living Daylights had a single on the Phillips label in early ’67, ‘Let’s Live for Today’, while two years later The Greatest Show on Earth were with Harvest, the single ‘Real Cool World’ released in February 1970, a hit in Europe and a No.1 in Switzerland. Two TGSOE albums followed that year, Horizons followed by The Going’s Easy. But there were complications before all that for young Norman.

“Oh yeah, the thing was that when I first went to Germany with my brother, on my first passport – I’ve still got it, actually – I had to have a special licence from the Home Office, because I was only 14 or 15 but playing in these clubs  I shouldn’t really have been in. But it was allowed as I had someone older in the band kind of looking after me.”

A bit like George Harrison’s situation when he first played in Germany?

“Yeah, I can relate to George! It was a nine-piece soul band and a fantastic schooling, working like that and playing all that kind of material – great stuff to learn and play.”

Have you got kids of your own these days, Norman?

“No, but my brothers and sisters have, and I’ve got around five bass players in the family, all very good, and my sister’s son is 21 and really good now – he’s learned all my stuff! And my cousin plays, and his children, he’s done some really good stuff.”

And I’m guessing you wouldn’t still be out there if you weren’t still enjoying it 50 or so years down the road.

“No, I love, I love it! It’s fantastic, and funnily enough it’s got easier. I think when you’re young you just expend all this energy, but when you get older you learn how to pace yourself. And being on the road is great fun.”

You’ve lost some great mates over the years though.

“Oh yeah, like Charley …”

That’s who I was set to mention first. My first Ian Dury and the Blockheads gig was one of two benefit shows for Guyana-born drummer Charlie Charles’ family after his death from cancer, held at Kentish Town’s Town & Country Club (The Forum these days) in September 1990.

“Yeah, that was with The Blockheads and Wilko’s band.”

Then my next was in August ‘92 when you were supporting Madness, the night they reckoned the crowd reaction to ‘One Step Beyond’ triggered an earthquake, that first Madstock event in Finsbury Park, North London.

“That’s right, and I toured with Madness as well after that. Bedders (Madness bass player Mark Bedford) kind of quit for a while and they asked me to go on the road with them. I did a couple of tours and did three or four Madstock shows with them after that first one.”

And last time I saw you was in March 2013 at Preston’s 53 Degrees with a post-Dury Blockheads line-up led by Derek ‘The Draw’ Hussey, when I recall a lot of talk mid-show about Wilko’s on-going battle with what was believed to be terminal cancer.

“Yeah, and I love the Blockheads as well. It’ll be 19 years this March since Ian died. We felt we couldn’t really replace him as such, he was such a one-off. So we didn’t really do anything for about a year, but we had so many hits on our website and that saying, ‘Please do some gigs – we’ll come!’ and while there seemed to be a lot of tribute bands around, there wasn’t anyone doing a tribute to Ian, so we thought, ‘Let’s go out there and try and keep the music alive’.

“And as one of Ian’s best friends, Derek just slotted into it. He was a poet as well, and they wrote together, and for nearly 20 years he’d come on the road and look after Ian, bringing him on and off stage, and many times Ian made him sing three or four songs at the end with him. So he knew several of the songs and we said you’ve got to come with us. The first gig was at Dingwall’s, with loads of support, like Phill Jupitus. It was a case of remembering all the lyrics, so we had Derek, Phill, Mark Lamarr, Keith Allen, all getting up. We did a few gigs like that, and it gave us such a buzz that we decided to keep going with Derek.”

It struck me then just what a tight band you were, but that’s not so surprising considering your collective history, not least with you, Mickey Gallagher (keyboards) and fellow Geordie John Turnbull (guitar) going right back (initially with Charlie).

“Well, we did the Loving Awareness project with Ronan O’Rahilly, and me and Charley were doing a lot of sessions for songwriters and stuff, and it was us who met Ian and Chaz (Jankel) and basically we demoed and made New Boots and Panties in a couple of weeks.”

I should fill in a few gaps there and mention that between The Greatest Show on Earth and Loving Awareness there was Glencoe, Norman joining them in 1972, his bandmates including guitarist John Turnbull. They released two albums, Glencoe, and The Spirit of Glencoe, plus three singles, and recorded four BBC Radio 1 sessions for John Peel. Then, in 1974, Glencoe joined forces with Mickey Gallagher, forming the nucleus of the band – with the addition of Charlie Charles – that became Loving Awareness, managed by Radio Caroline’s Ronan O’Rahilly.

So tell me more about that session with Charlie that led to an introduction to Ian and writing partner/guitarist Chaz. I’m guessing you were aware of Ian through his work with Kilburn and the High Roads.

“Oh yeah. I was doing a session with Charlie, some songwriter wanted us to put bass and drums on his song, and we were re in this little studio in Wimbledon called Alvic, run by two engineers, including Vic Sweeney, the drummer in the Alan Bown Set, and he really dug Charlie’s drumming and saw us as a great rhythm section. He knew Ian and Chaz and knew they were looking for a rhythm section and felt we’d fit the bill, asking if we’d like to come down that Monday and meet them. We’d heard of Ian from Kilburn and the High Roads and I’d seen them at the Tally Ho! and really liked them. I thought they were so different, like nothing I’d ever seen before. So I said we’d love to, and that’s when the four of us met and made that album.

“But when Stiff decided to release it (in 1977) we had to put a band together, so Ian and Chaz knew Davey (Payne) from Kilburn and the High Roads, and got him in, while we mentioned how Mickey and Johnny had been playing with us for the last three years in Loving Awareness, and doing various projects, so basically that was the beginning of The Blockheads.”

Of course, Ian wasn’t the easiest of characters to get on with though.

“Yeah, he could be difficult at times, but … I don’t know … we were like brothers. We spent so long on the road. We’d argue and things, but I loved him to bits. It was his words. He was such a master with lyrics. One of the first I saw when I first met him that time at Alvic, he had this big sheet of paper with all his lyrics, I picked up one, and it was ‘Billericay Dickie’.  I started reading it and thought it was amazing. ‘Clever Trever’ was another. I just fell in love with his words. Unbelievable! I’d never heard anything like it.”

Let’s go back even further, and touch on your own roots, in post-independence India. I realise you left when you were very young, but do you remember anything from those early days in Bombay?

“Well no, but I have pictures of India, and remember standing on a veranda, waving to my brother and sister as they were going off to school. But I left India when I was three years and nine months. We came to Southampton, then drove up to Highbury. We had a flat there, where I started my schooling at St Joan of Arc, off Blackstock Road.”

I recall a similar story from Spike Milligan, talking about leaving India and ending up in Catford, South-East London, albeit at the age of 12 in 1931. It must have been a mighty shock for your family.

“Oh yeah. We arrived in November 1954. Me and my brother had never seen snow, and the place was covered in it. ‘Wow, this is cold and white!’ So strange after Bombay. We’re what you call Anglo-Indian, and both Mum and Dad were in the Royal Air Force in India. That’s how they met. They were both born in Calcutta, as it was known then.”

Ever been back?

“I never have, although my cousins have. We’ve no family there now. We all came over. Funnily enough, my brother’s son went for his honeymoon two years ago, and went to look where we lived and actually found the flat. The woman who lived there invited him in and they sat and had a cup of tea and took loads of pictures. Unbelievable – the veranda was still there and everything, all these years later.”

Is your brother Garth still playing guitar?

”Unfortunately, health stopped him playing, but he played with all these 60s bands and did a lot of tours with the Solid 60s shows, long tours playing Australia, Indonesia, Japan, all over. One of the last was a three-month tour, but he was having problems with degenerative discs in his back. He’s 71 now. But if it wasn’t for that, he’d still be playing. He still happily plays at home though.”

Yet you’re still going strong, and I’m guessing this tour is still about the Blow Your Mind album. Is there another in the offing?

“That’s all down to Wilko. I’m amazed he came out with so many good songs. After all these years he can still write a great song.”

I guess you were on the circuit with Dr Feelgood back in the day.

“Oh yeah, when I was with Glencoe. I remember seeing them many years ago at The Kensington, but one I really remember was Wilko with the Solid Senders after he’d left the Feelgoods, down at Dingwall’s. I’d go down and watch him. Lew Lewis was in the band then. Fantastic.

“Funnily enough, I’d go down there with Kosmo Vinyl. The two of us really dug Wilko, and there was a period after Chaz had gone off to do his own thing with A&M, when we needed someone else to come into the band, and Kosmo suggested Wilko.

“Hugh Cornwell was in prison at the time, having been busted, and there was a benefit show to raise money for bail. Ian was involved, and when he was down there he saw Wilko in the corner, looking quite down. He said, ‘What’s up, Wilks?’ and he said, ‘My band’s broken up and I’m thinking of giving it all up.’ So Ian invited him down to the studio we were in, in Fulham. Wilko said yeah and ended up staying for a couple of years.”

Are you still in regular touch with Mickey Gallagher?

“Oh yeah, we’ve just finished a load of gigs and have loads more coming up this year. There’s four of us originals – Mickey, Chaz, Johnny and myself – and we’ve got Derek, John Roberts on drums and Gilad (Atzmon) on sax. We’re doing lots of festivals too.”

Main Man: Wilko Johnson, Norman Watt-Roy’s collaborator of many moons (Photo: Laurence Harvey)

Between Wilko’s commitments and those with The Blockheads, you’re not going to be at home much this year.

“No, but I love it that way. When my wife died 10 years ago, I said to Wilko, ‘Keep me busy!’ And the Blockheads do too. And I love it on the road. If I had a gig every night I’d be the happiest guy in the world! I sit at home and play all day, even when I’m not working. I just love it so much.”

Might you be following up 2013’s Faith & Grace album (featuring Norman’s own band) at some point?

“Yeah, that really came about because of Wilko’s illness, and after the operation when he had a year off to recuperate. I had a couple of instrumental ideas I wanted to record, and Gilad is a brilliant producer as well. So we went to a studio at his house and he loved it so much he suggested we did some more. I felt I didn’t have enough material, but he suggested playing a few of Ian and Wilko’s covers as well. So I did ‘Roxette’, ‘Billericay Dickie’, and so on. It kind of got shelved when my wife died. She’d encouraged me to do it, but later Gilad pushed me into finishing it and when Wilko was recuperating it seemed the right time. So I put a band together with Gilad and Asaf (Sirkis) on drums and Frank (Harrison) on keyboards.”

I was reminding myself this morning of the promo video you did, shot live at the Half Moon in Putney.

“That’s right, and I took the band on the road, here and in Europe, then Japan, where me and Wilko have played so many times. They love him out there, and we’ve done 38 or so tours there. So we did the Fuji Rock Festival and some in Tokyo and Kyoto, and really enjoyed all that.

“As for doing any more … I just don’t really have the time. It’s the same with my band. They’re all constantly working and they’re fantastic players, doing jazz gigs and all sorts. To get them to commit to me for a month, and for me to pay them … I was very lucky that I got them to do all that. And it kept me busy too.”

Besides, Wilko’s still keeping you busy all these years on. And yet I think we all feared the worse when he got ill.

“Well yeah. Unbelievable, the whole thing. He was basically given six to eight months to live, and he accepted that. The growth he had started out the size of a fist, and it grew and grew, to the size of a football. But it didn’t hurt at all, and he was still doing gigs 15 months after his diagnosis. That was when Charlie Chan, this cancer surgeon, saw him and said, ‘Something’s not right. You should have been dead six months ago, but you’re still doing gigs!’ He wanted him to see this specialist friend of his, Emmanuel Huget, at Addenbrooke’s (Cambridge), the one who did the operation and saved Wilko’s life after this 12-hour op.

“I remember them saying, ‘We’ve done all these operations very successfully individually, but never on one person at once, but we think you can handle it.’ And they got it all … this seven-and-a-half pound growth … and he’s been cancer-free since. I think he likes life even more now. And being on the road is an absolute joy.”

We can see that from your demeanour on stage.

“Well, funnily enough I had a heart attack, while playing with Wilko at Hampton Court (Lido) in 2017. I wasn’t in any pain. We were coming up to the end of the set and I just felt really weak. I told Wilko, ‘I can’t play’. I took my bass off and Wilko looked round and said to Dylan, ‘Do a drum solo!’ I came off and they called an ambulance and I got rushed to hospital. The guy in the ambulance was looking at his machine, saying, ‘You’re actually having a heart attack now, Norman. I said, ‘Am I? I’m not in any pain’. But within three hours they’d operated and put this stent into my arteries and I was fine. I took a month off then we went to Japan and started another tour!

“They took me to St George’s at Tooting, because they knew I lived in Fulham, and that’s one of the best for heart care. I later got to know my surgeon, Zoe, very well, and she told me it was a minor heart attack, but I was very lucky to be surrounded by people and for the paramedics to be there, being an open-air festival. She said there are people who have felt a little funny, gone to bed and died in their sleep, so I was very lucky.

“Since then, people have said how the Grim Reaper’s tried to get both me and Wilko, and failed! I think it was Charles Shaar Murray who wrote, ‘Wilko stared Death in the face and saw Death back down’! I thought that was brilliant!”

Well, between yourself and Wilko’s recent experiences, there’s a mighty advert for the enduring importance of ongoing free NHS care for us all, surely.

“Oh, fantastic! It’s something we should definitely never lose and something that we’ll always support. And we do charity gigs for Addenbrooke’s and all sorts of things, and donate stuff – me and Wilko.”

I could have happily carried on talking to Norman for another half-hour, going deeper into his days with Glencoe and the early-‘70s Peel sessions, and discovered more about his session work – not least memories of work with Mickey Gallagher on the Sandinista! sessions at Electric Lady, New York City, and later Clash works.

Similarly, I’d have asked about the part he played, in more ways than one, in making Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ the mega-hit it became, and work over the years with the likes of Nick Lowe, Rachel Sweet, Jona Lewie, The Selecter, Wreckless Eric, Nick Cave, Viv Albertine … the list goes on.

But I had an appointment straight after to speak to Glenn Tilbrook, lined up as support in a solo capacity for this Wilko Johnson tour. Accordingly, I ended by wondering if there was anything in particular I should ask Glenn.

“Well, just tell him to keep writing really. He’s such a great songwriter.”

So is there anything he should know about sharing dressing rooms with you, Wilko and Dylan, seeing as he’ll be out there with you for several dates?

“Where? Is he? Oh brilliant! D’you know, I didn’t even know that! Oh, fantastic! We’ve met Glenn during past events for the Teenage Cancer Trust, which Roger Daltrey started. We’ve met there a few times. Oh well, that’s all good then.”

Three’s Company: Norman, Wilko and Dylan, still eager to Blow Your Mind, all these years on.

The Wilko Johnson band play Warrington Parr Hall (01925 442345) on Friday, March 1st, with special guest Glenn Tilbrook, 45 years after he first linked up with Chris Difford to form the much-loved Squeeze. For more about Wilko’s wanderings in 2019, head to http://wilkojohnson.com/ or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter

For a 2014 reappraisal of Ian Dury & The Blockheads’ back-catalogue, head here. You can also try Richard Balls’ excellent Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll – The Story of Ian Dury. (Omnibus 2000), its author (interviewed here in 2014) also responsible for Be Stiff – The Stiff Records Story (Soundcheck, 2014). You can also track down a copy of Looking Back At Me (Cadiz, 2012), the autobiography of Wilko Johnson, written with acclaimed rock writer (and drummer Dylan Howe’s other half) Zoë Howe, learning more about her books here

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Finding Gold in a Brass Age – the David Gray interview

 

Gold Record: David Gray is back, and in style, with Gold in a Brass Age (Photo: Derrick Santini)

David Gray is no stranger to success, but sometimes it’s been a waiting game for the 50-year-old Sale-born singer-songwriter.

He’s topped the UK album charts three times during a recording career of more than 25 years, first in the summer of 2000 with White Ladder, the single ‘Babylon’ the first of his nine top-40 hits, several Brit and Grammy nominations following that multi-platinum LP, along with plenty of commercial and critical acclaim, reaching No.1 again with follow-up A New Day at Midnight in 2002 then Life in Slow Motion in 2005.

But while he received plenty of ground support from day one, it’s worth remembering that White Ladder was his fourth album and, self-released on IHT Records in late 1998, it failed to cross over for 18 months, Dave Matthews’ ATO Records’ re-release finally doing the trick. So you’ll understand why he’s showing plenty of patience awaiting the release of his 11th LP in 26 years, Gold In A Brass Age, his first of new material in four years.

The producer this time was Ben de Vries, a nice twist seeing as David worked with his father, fellow producer and soundtrack composer Marius de Vries, 14 years earlier on double-platinum Life in Slow Motion. And despite the pair not having met before, the seeds of the album’s sound were sewn early on in David’s home studio in London.

“We were talking about production ideas and artists we were currently listening to when Ben played the track ‘Sixes And Nines’ by Birkwin Jersey. With this electro-acoustic sound and very chopped-up aesthetic, it was a great reference point, precisely the sort of thing I was looking for.”

Of course, using electronics is nothing new for David – they were all over era-defining, 10-times platinum White Ladder in the late ‘90s and have featured on each album since. But it was working with Lamb’s Andy Barlow on 2014’s acclaimed Mutineers that opened his eyes to how they could transform his songwriting, not just his sound.

Mutineers played a key role in opening up a world of new sonic possibilities and in granting me the sense of creative freedom that I have now. Andy was very good at encouraging me to come at ideas from different angles and introduced a new, more open way of thinking that I was eager to explore more on this record. It’s easy to fall in to a rut and get encumbered by certain ways of working. Andy helped remind me that nothing is set in stone. I’ve never felt as undaunted by the creative process as I do now, knowing that a song can start anywhere, go anywhere.”

The LP is out on March 8th, followed by a 17-date UK and Irish tour ending with two nights in Dublin, in a country where he’s had seven top-10 albums, just across the water from his old family base in idyllic Solva, Pembrokeshire.

New LP: Gold in a Brass Age

New LP: David Gray’s Gold in a Brass Age is here

Raised in Altrincham before a family move to mid-Wales, he went to art college in Carmarthenshire then Liverpool before settling in London more than half a life ago. But don’t think for one moment he’s all about the past, his challenge here to retain the same excitement for music while pushing himself into unfamiliar terrain. And David was keen for all those interviewing him this week to properly listen to his latest long player first.

Hardly an onerous task, mind. Three listens in, I was already impressed. We’ll have to wait another few weeks before it’s unleashed on the world, but it must be good to be able to finally talk about it, right?

“Oh, absolutely. It’s been finished a long time, but it takes a while to set these things up and put them out properly. I needed to make a few arrangements – new record deal, new this, new that. I was hoping it’d be out last year but here we are. So it’ll be March 2019 and we’re about to tour it, and it’s going to be great.”

In fact, work on the album began in 2016 and was written and recorded in several month-long spells between tours to promote that year’s Best Of, including 50 US dates and a co-headline tour with Alison Krauss. Has he rehearsed with a band ahead of those dates?

“The rehearsals haven’t started in terms of a full band – that starts next week. But I’ve already rehearsed enough to do it. We did it at a stripped-down showcase level. That was really great, giving me a sense of what it would be like. We’ve done a certain amount of the donkey-work. It’s quite technical this time, because there’s no way you can get around the electronic aspect of the record. And it’s been a long time since I played lived live with a computer on stage.

“That has to be a part of it – live sampling, triggering electronic things and looping. I’ve got three looper pedals, they all need to sync to something, so they’ve all got to be played through a computer.”

And on tracks like ‘A Tight Ship’ and ‘Watching the Waves’ you’re duetting and harmonising with yourself (as is the case later with the similarly-splendid ‘Hall of Mirrors’, where the main guitar riff reminds me of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ and perhaps the stand-out track for me).

“Yeah, that’s something I’ve done a lot these last few years. I enjoy it and I’m free and available and like looking for harmonies. It’s one of the most exciting parts of the whole process – starting to look at sections of the songs seeing what’s possible. It’s very instinctive. I don’t think, ‘I’ll do a fourth, a fifth, whatever’. Wherever I feel against the music I should move. It’s a very personal thing.

“So yeah, the vocals are always a massive part from my point of view, and you really widen the song with that effect of a lot of voices. It’s a big production technique which I used on the last record a lot and I’ve used it again here, perhaps with a slightly different vibe to it this time.”

First Footing: The first David Gray long player, back in 1993

First Footing: The first David Gray LP, back in 1993

Well, we probably associate your voice with a certain gravelly, rich rasp of a vocal, yet there are occasional falsetto outings here too, and you seem comfortable wherever you are on the scale, the singing often softer, sweeter, more intimate.

“Yeah, the voice is the hardest thing to get around when you’re trying to make things sound different. I’ve definitely been delivering the lyrics softer most of the time, not all the time – sometimes you’ve got to drive it through.

“I mean, my voice is really loud when I sing out, so I’ve been constrained by trying to create this sense of intimacy on a lot of the songs, letting the vocals bloom on the mic., taking the velocity of everything you’re doing down as far as you can until you can still phrase, hit the note and control – just about – and that creates a different quality. And then you’ve got the vocals on top, with quite a few octaves involved.”

That inventive approach in using your voice reminds me of Crowded House frontman Neil Finn’s similar path in recent times – moving into areas where perhaps he wasn’t so comfortable initially. Is he on your radar?

“Well, obviously he’s great, but not somebody I’ve listened to avidly, although I know the more obvious things. He’s got such a great ear though, that guy, a great sense of melody and an effortless style.”

It’s more about his more recent work and the creative direction taken, like you successfully experimenting with a wider vocal range.

“I’ll check that out. Most days I can do them, but If I’ve had a big night out it might be a struggle!”

David’s lyrics have been transformed too, declamatory tales of love and loss replaced by couplets closer to poetry. And while his guitar and piano playing remain, ushering in of electronica and exploring of new textures and sound palettes alongside new production techniques has turned his approach to songwriting on its head.

Explaining his new approach, David said, “With this album, my default position was to try and approach everything differently. I didn’t begin by thinking ‘this could be a good hook’ or ‘these lyrics might work for a chorus’, and I was keen to get away from a traditional storytelling style.

“Instead of fitting words to melodies, I looked for snippets and phrases with a natural cadence, and let the rhythm and melody stem from there. It was a case of reimagining where a song might spring from and what form it might take.”

Breakthrough LP: It was 1998's White Ladder that helped David Gray's star rise

Breakthrough LP: It was 1998’s White Ladder that helped David Gray’s star rise to the top

There’s certainly a soulful feel up front on this record, although – I suggest to David – I’m not sure if there’s an attempt to put more commercially-accessible material there, a hangover from the early days of CDs and notions that ‘youth’ don’t have the staying power to properly listen all the way through. That aside, I say, there are elements for me of Stevie Wonder on the chorus of opening track (and lead single) ‘The Sapling’.

“Yeah, I feel there’s a real soulful vibe and swing, and that whole feel is closer to Prince than it is Van Morrison at times. That’s just the way it went. It wasn’t constructed with that view.

“We only constructed the record in a way that felt natural and you had to start with ‘The Sapling’, and it was then felt we should put ‘Gold in a Brass Age’ after it. Beyond that, one of the challenges was putting ’Furthering’ somewhere, because that song starts so slowly – it’s almost like in quarter-time, but it gets there in the end.

“The running order dictated itself, but there was definitely a different feel, and that was partly down to me and partly down to the producer and my drummer. A lot of rhythm gave birth to a lot of things on this record, with very rhythmical beginnings to quite a few songs.”

I mentioned Stevie Wonder there, and there are shades of Marvin Gaye on certain numbers, not least song two, the title track.

“Who doesn’t love those two? I mean Marvin … we’d all be thanking him forever for What’s Going On? if that was the only thing he’d ever done. It’s just knockout.

“To get some of that feel … and I’ve got that soul in the way I perform. That’s my thing. I’m a British soul singer in a way. That’s where my voice goes. It’s got a natural bluesiness. To dig into that and that kind of feel and sense of scatting off the rhythm, and being playful within the frame, those things get me high and so excited, working off the beat that way.”

Incidentally, where was that sapling you’re writing about?

“Well, there’s more of them coming. There’s a production line, isn’t there. One acorn sprouts up and another …”

Gray Day: David Gray is back with his 11th album in 26 years, after a five-year gap

I mean, did you have a particular location in mind when you wrote those lyrics?

“Well, I’ve seen my kids growing up and I’ve seen a lot of people come and go now, and there’s this cyclical nature of things. I watched a raindrop fall in a puddle, saw these concentric circles emanate out from that.

“I was in a park and they’d cut down a tree, I was looking at the rings and suddenly an acorn fell on the ground next to me and I thought, ‘God, it’s the same thing – the acorn creates the ring, just like ripples in a puddle, but over 150/200 years rather than a couple of seconds.

“But that’s still a blink of an eye in terms of the measurement we now have for the universe. That was the beginnings of the song, tying those two ideas together then bringing that human element into the middle of it. Non sequiturs – I’m very keen on things that have no relationship whatsoever to the verse. And there’s an example in ‘The Sapling’. ‘I kept it bottled up too long’. It’s nothing to do with what it says. It’s just a human cry in the middle of this thing. Later, it’s the same with ’Watching the Waves’, ‘Everything you are, I long to be.’ It doesn’t really tie to the verse or try to make sense. It’s just a step into something that feels right to me. I like the fact I don’t quite understand why.”

David said he didn’t realise there was an over-riding concept to this record, until it was done and he realised ‘time ticking by’ was a a recurring theme, ‘fragility, renewal, a changing of perspective’.

As he put it, “I’ve been through a phenomenal amount of emotional upheaval in recent years. You can only process so much; you just have to push most of it away. In the heat of the creative moment the weight of buried feeling becomes bound to the spark of a new idea and is magically transformed and given form. This album’s style isn’t autobiographical, I’ve markedly avoided that path, yet when I pull back from the record – it’s a pure document of my life at this time.”

I told him I was more or less the same age, just turned 50 – we’d have been in the same school year – and it’s inevitable at our time of life that we’re losing people dear to us and seeing our children finding their own path.

“Yeah, and no one tells you children are so annoying!”

For the record, he does love his own, of course.

“Well yeah, they’re gorgeous and all that, they’re vivacious beings, it’s impossible to resist their energy and charm. But they really get in your face when they get past a certain age!”

Following Up: 2002's album was David Gray's second UK chart-topper

Following Up: 2002’s album was David Gray’s second UK chart-topper

Explain in a nutshell the central concept of Gold in a Brass Age, a line I gather comes from a Kafka-esque Raymond Carver short story, Blackbird Pie. Are you a big reader?

“Yeah, I do read a lot. I read more than I listen to music these days. Carrying on from what I was saying about something just feeling right, we were working on a completely different song and I was doing these little loops of guitar, then had to step away to take a phone call and answer the door or whatever I was doing, and when I came back Ben had sort of looped these bits of guitar together and created this weird sort of groove, which is what you hear at the beginning of ‘Gold in a Brass Age’.

“I said, ‘That’s great, forget the song, let’s deal with this. So we started working into it and the song was born there and then. I had hairs standing up on the back of my neck. The whole thing just suddenly happened. When we’d finished after about five hours – just getting the basic thing down, vocals, guitars and bits and pieces – he asked, ‘What should I call it?’ And I just said ‘Gold in a Brass Age’. I’d been re-reading the Raymond Carver book which it came from, although I didn’t really know where it came from. I just had it sort of logged and said that.

“That felt like the right title for the album. You can interpret it very obviously as something special that rings true in a world of noise and meaninglessness. But the way he puts it in the story is more humorous. It’s something of infinite value almost, in a world of utter absurdity, his life taking an absurd twist. Something happens and he says, ’That’s gold in a brass age’. So that’s where it came from, and it’s got an uplifting quality. And this is certainly a brass age – let’s make no mistake.”

Actually, the piped instrumentation on the title track takes me back to Vangelis’ gorgeous 1992 soundtrack to 1492 – Conquest of Paradise, an old favourite on the car stereo, and its final track ‘Pinta, Nina, Santa Maria’. Meanwhile, something like ‘Furthering’ takes me back to The Blue Nile’s Hats, maybe even Neil Finn again – perhaps in ALT with Liam O’Manlai and Andy White this time – but with an underpinning of Prince on ‘Sometimes it Snows in April’ perhaps.

“I think all these influences are just in there, be it Talking Heads, Talk Talk, Prince, Marvin Gaye, Van Morrison, whatever. I’m steeped in all that. I’ve given my heart and soul listening to those records, so when things come out you find yourself reacting and influences come to the fore sometimes. At the end of that track, where the vocoders and the autotune kicks in, it’s obviously completely false, and for somebody who’s supposed to be a genuine, sensitive singer-songwriter, it’s a bit of a stretch for people’s heads, but it sounds so playful and so correct. We had a whale of a time doing that. That’s one of my favourite bits – myself and the producer. It just suddenly sprang up, and off we went.”

I get the feeling you could have rewritten White Ladder many more times over your career, but I don’t think that’s you. You’re more about keeping things fresh for yourself and everyone else.

“Yeah, it’s about trying to find something true to say in a way you haven’t said it before. Doing the same thing again until you’re so good at it you can do it with your eyes closed, I think I’ve defaulted to a position of taking creative risks or stepping into the unknown, and if I don’t feel a sense of that, I feel I’m not making the right move. I want to challenge what it is I’m doing in the hope of catching myself off-guard and revealing myself, through my heart, in a way that’s fresh and new but says something truthful … whatever that means, and I don’t think here’s any possibility of that happening if it’s just rehashing things and staying where you are.

“I’m always restless to move on. Sometimes I’m restless to peel away the layers and start again, sometimes I want to add more, like on Life in Slow Motion. But essentially the process doesn’t just stop. Each record will continue to be a different thing. I feel like I’m living in a world of possibilities, with ideas springing up left, right and centre. There’s almost not enough time in the day. That’s how I feel about the creative process. It feels so fertile – that world of sound and the approach I’ve been taking – to shake up the way I work. And I’ve grown to really love that sense of not quite knowing what I’m doing – I now see that as a very positive thing.”

Marius' Moment: In 2005, David Gray was working with Marius de Vries, and now he's working with his son, Ben.

Marius’ Moment: In 2005, David Gray worked  with Marius de Vries, and now he’s worked with his son, Ben.

David reckons, ‘This feels like a London record, more than any I’ve made since White Ladder. The city has a staggering capacity to tear itself apart and rebuild at a rate that’s almost too much to take in. In its own small way this album is both a part of, and a tribute to, that relentless energy’. So how long has he been based in the capital now?

“Staggeringly, more than half my life. I came here in April 1992, after art school in Liverpool. I had a band there and stayed around doing some demos, then came down to London, just in time for the election, when John Major won and Neil Kinnock fucked it up! I call it the death of the British imagination.”

And I’m guessing your North West roots are in the mix somewhere too.

“Definitely, yeah. Big time. Take me back to Manchester, stick me in a seat at Old Trafford, I’m just a hooligan. Ha!”

Were you surrounded by music growing up?

“Yeah, my Dad listened to records a lot and my Mum was a good singer. She sang more choral stuff really. She sang in a choir.”

Well, there are a few sampled operatic moments on this album.

“Yeah – that’s not me, that’s someone who knows what they’re doing! But yeah, my Manchester roots are very much a part of me, as is my time in Wales. But I’ve been here a long time now.

“London is a relentless place. It’s straining, it’s stifling, it’s a crush of sound and ideas and faces and people and things, and it’s sort of dehumanising – the scale and non-stop nature of it. Yet if you conserve that energy it can work for you. When you’re here a long time you see it tearing itself down, things you’re attached to – venues, places, pubs closing, the Astoria going, things being torn to the ground. You try and get your head around it and find different ways of dealing with the crush of people and terrifying speed of destruction and rebuilding.

“You get a detached, ironic, humorous thing but also a human, community level to some of the societies, clubs and cliques – the Soho set, the tattoo set, the graffiti people, the artists. There’s a glue and a sense of humour there, and this record feels it’s very much born in this city. My producer lives right in the centre of town, he’s younger and more a part of it. He’s in the soup while I just dip my toes in while he swims around in it. He’s the full crouton. I’m just a dipped celery stick in the soup of the city … sorry, this has all gone a bit Alan Partridge!”

Last Time: 2014's Mutineers saw David Gray, working with Andy Barlow, take a new direction

Last Time: 2014’s Mutineers saw David Gray, working with Andy Barlow, take a new direction

Maybe, but it’s hardly Matt and Luke Goss talk.

“Exactly, yeah.”

Incidentally, seeing as I mentioned the operatic touches, the track in question is ‘Hurricane Season’, which on first listen is the song we’d have mostly likely expected from the David Gray we felt we knew two decades ago. Yet it’s more complex than that, production-wise a rather layered, unexpected departure, with melodicas and soprano sax taking it off into unexpected territory, as if WriteWyattUK favourites The Magnetic North have suddenly turned up in the studio.

All in all, it’s an intimate album and has that feel. Yet he’s still playing some large-ish venues, I point out, and is obviously still comfortable with those kind of surroundings.

“Well, most are quite human-scale, theatres from about 1,000 to 3,000, but it’s the fact that the tickets have gone and the speed they’ve gone that has surprised me – because I don’t take any of this for granted anymore. Every record’s different and I’ve been putting a lot of effort in with the social media thing to connect with people rather than wait for someone to do me a favour, play something on the radio or whatever. And that seems to have worked.

“But the live thing is more like watching the studio on stage. I’ve got the computer, all these different looper pedals on my voice, on my keyboards, on my guitars, basically layering the sound live. It’s a completely different show to anything I’ve done before, and that in itself is really exciting.”

Striding On: Davd Gray, all set for a 17-date UK and Irish tour this Spring (Photo: Derrick Santini)

David Gray’s 11th album, Gold In A Brass Age is out on March 8th on IHT Records / AWAL Recordings, with a 17-date UK and Irish tour starting the following week in South Wales, calling at: Fri, 15 March – Cardiff St David’s Hall; Sat, 16 March – Cambridge Corn Exchange; Sun, 17 March – London Royal Festival Hall; Tue, 19 March – Brighton Dome; Wed, 20 March – Southend Cliffs Pavilion; Fri, 22 March – Manchester Bridgewater Hall; Sat, 23 March – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall; Sun, 24 March – Gateshead Sage; Tues, 26 March – Liverpool Philharmonic Hall; Wed, 27 March – Bournemouth Pavilion Theatre; Fri, 29 March – Birmingham Symphony Hall; Sat, 30 March – York Barbican; Sun, 31 March – Glasgow Royal Concert Hall; Tues, 2 April – Belfast Waterfront; Thur, 4 April – Castlebar Royal Theatre; Fri, 5 and Sat, 6 April – Dublin Bord Gais Theatre. For more details, head here.

For all the latest from David Gray, check out www.davidgray.com. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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