Like the open sky above me … – talking The Undertones, The Carrellines, Derry, Dublin, and much more with Paul McLoone

I realise that most of you reading this know The Undertones’ back story full well, but humour me and read on, even though it’s one of those situations where people say, ‘This band needs no introduction,’ then waffle on for several paragraphs all the same, doing exactly that.

Emerging from Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1976, The Undertones continue to exude the spirit of punk rock 46 years on, the last half of those years with their Mk.II line-up.

When John O’Neill and younger brother Damian, Feargal Sharkey, Billy Doherty and Michael Bradley set out, with no local bands worth watching they learned by listening to records bought through mail order, reading the few copies of the NME that made it to their locality, and listening to John Peel’s influential nighttime BBC Radio One show.

It was Peel’s love of their debut single, ‘Teenage Kicks’ that provided their springboard to success, John O’Neill’s classic 1978 single recorded for Terri Hooley’s Good Vibrations label in Belfast so loved by the legendary DJ that he played it twice in a row one night.

On signing for America’s Sire Records, ‘Teenage Kicks’ was re-released, a first appearance on Top of the Pops following. And for five years from there, John continued to craft gems, Damian and Michael also pitching in, and Billy too coming up with some cracking tracks, Derry’s finest recording four acclaimed LPs before Feargal – these days best known for environmental campaigning – left to pursue a fairly successful solo career in 1983, the remaining members deciding to call it a day, the story of that amazing stint told so well by Mickey in his highly (family) entertaining Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone memoir (Omnibus Press, 2016).

But The Undertones reconvened in 1999, Feargal’s place taken by fellow Derryman Paul McLoone, his vocal prowess and electric onstage presence quickly convincing floating voters. And after much consideration, the reconfigured five-piece released the first of two further LPs of original material, 2003’s Get What You Need and 2007’s Dig Yourself Deep proving this accomplished outfit had not lost the art of writing short, sharp songs.

Furthermore, the reconfigured band’s first single, ‘Thrill Me’ inspired John Peel to repeat history, playing that 45 twice in a row on his show as well.

From there, the focus has largely remained on live shows, although in 2016 they released vinyl remasters of their first two LPs, alongside a 7” vinyl remix of 1979 single ‘Get Over You’ from Kevin Shields, of My Bloody Valentine fame. Then, to mark the 40th anniversary of ’Teenage Kicks’, there was a 2018 vinyl boxset containing their 13 singles from 1978-1983, while last year saw a vinyl best of compilation for the post-reformation LPs, Dig What You Need issued on the Dimple Discs label.

And still the love for this remarkable band remains, their current nine-date autumn tour including several guest spots from former Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell’s three-piece. What’s more, my interviewee Paul McLoone is loving it all, this month alone starting with dates in County Down, County Donegal, and Barcelona. Not a bad life, eh?

“Spot the odd one out there!”

Is it County Down?

“Absolutely … a non-European date, that! No, it’s been really good since everything came back, thank goodness. We’ve been having a great run of it. And we’re really enjoying it. I mean, it’s just great to be doing it again, because, you know, it’s in the back of our heads, but of course, I have to say it out loud. Two years ago, we were kind of going, ‘Did we just do our last show?’ Your brain really was in that sort of place, so yeah, it’s great to be back. Of course, Covid hasn’t gone away. The repercussions of it certainly haven’t gone away, and the logistics are pretty challenging at the minute, so there’s all that side of it.”

Similarly, post-Brexit, playing in Europe’ no doubt. Even a band of your size.

“Well, yeah, it’s not even so much bureaucratic, it’s just the actual logistics of getting about. The flights are still a bit crazy, with delays and cancellations. And some of the infrastructure is still in recovery. For instance, when you hire buses, some of those businesses are just gone. I mean, they’re coming back, but they’re still playing catch up to an extent. So you’re noticing little things here and there that are still going on. But that’s to be expected. You know, the world’s been through a crazy, mad period …

“Why am I saying, ‘has been’? The world’s in the midst of a crazy mad period! And I’m a little premature in saying we’ve come out the other side of anything, it’s a challenging kind of period. And it’s probably going to remain that way for a while. But that’s all on the negative side of the ledger, it’s great to be back, it’s great that people are showing up and still coming to gigs, as money is even less abundant. “

I imagine those couple of Covid years gave you as a band a chance to think about whether you really wanted to carry on. And it seems that you concluded that you were happy to carry on.

“It was very much that. In fact, I’ll go further and say you don’t miss something until you can’t do it, you know? Certainly, I was raring to go, absolutely chomping at the bit, and I don’t want to speak for Michael, but I know he’s said he’s really enjoying gigging again, you know, whereas I think if you’d asked him maybe two or three years ago, he’d have said, ‘Yeah, fine.’ I think it really underscored how much we were enjoying it, and I think maybe that came as a bit more of a surprise to some of the other guys in the band. I was dying to get back out there.”

Pre-pandemic I recall having a similar conversation with John (O’Neill), who always struck me as the one who perhaps doesn’t really feel that compunction to keep playing live these days, in the same way that he was the first to walk away from That Petrol Emotion. Yet here was a fella telling me he was loving it then more than ever. And it shows on stage.

“Absolutely. I totally get what you’re saying there. John, I think in his own little quiet way, has been rocking. And I think he’s really enjoyed being back. We’re all loving being back. Billy as well, even though he had his own issues. It’s great to have him back as well. It’s all good, despite the challenges.”

And you’ve got your own Sharkey on the bench as well.

“Exactly – the super-sub! Yeah, Kev was great to step in those couple of times…”

Including a Manchester Academy appearance on April 1st that I loved (with my review here), another show also featuring Hugh Cornwell‘s trio.

“Ah, great … and thanks so much! You know, it’s been great having him waiting in the wings… but you know, I’m sure he won’t mind me saying this, but hopefully he won’t be needed too often! We can’t be too careful with Billy, but it is what it is. We had a couple of little scares, but he’s fine. He’s 100% and in great form, playing out of his skin, to be honest with you.”

I don’t think he’d be able to play any other way, to be honest back at you.

“That’s very true.”

Incidentally, since we spoke the band’s autumn tour has got underway, with winning shows at Birmingham’s O2 Academy 2, Castleton’s Devil’s Arse, and Holmfirth’s Picturedrome. And this year also saw the release of the Dig What You Need compilation, a best of those two post-reformation LPs on vinyl. Any chance of you completing a treble soon, making another record?

“I would absolutely love that to be the case. And I’m not saying it isn’t or it won’t be. I didn’t really know about the compilation when it was first mooted. I kind of went, ‘Why?’ But I’m really glad we did it. It makes a lot of sense and kind of displays those songs in a possibly better context.

“I don’t want to tempt fate, speaking for the others, but certainly with me it kind of reignited the idea of maybe doing another record. John’s been busy with side stuff, and Damian’s got another solo record – an instrumental album coming out in a week or two, which is brilliant, also on Dimple Discs – but maybe next year, the smoke will clear a wee bit. I don’t want to put all the pressure on John, but he’s the instigator on that score.”

Well, that’s what I thought until the last LP, which carried a lot of very good Michael Bradley compositions.

“Oh, they are, but John starts it off, then Mickey will go, ‘Oh, I better write some now.’ John sort of sets the tone, no pun intended, then the rest of us get behind it. And it is a group thing. So hopefully, we’ll be in a place next year where we can get a bit of time to consider it and kind of go, ‘Let’s take a month and maybe try and get a record together.’ I would absolutely love to, but I don’t want to say it’s happening, because at the moment … well, it’s less unlikely now than it was before we put out the compilation.”

The Undertones’ story effectively goes back to 1976 at St Mary’s Scout Hall in Derry, winding up  initially in 1983, the band having originally called it a day 40 years ago next year.

“That was before I was born, of course.”

Indubitably. I’d like to say me too, seeing as Paul’s just a few months older. But I could have sworn I was at Guildford Civic Hall, the Lyceum in London, then at Crystal Palace FC for the UK finale with Feargal. Then of course came those Nerve Centre shows in Derry in 1999, and now Paul’s been part of the band for three times as long as his predecessor, 23 years and counting. What’s more, I’ve seen him out front with the band 12 times, and only saw Feargal fronting the band four times.

Yet the fella with the golden warble has been back in the spotlight of late, proving a mighty fine orator, giving inept politicians and utility firm bosses a hard time on TV and radio, running rings around them and voicing environmental concerns so perfectly.

“Well, absolutely. And, you know, things are in a dreadful state all over, but the way they’re treating the environment generally and the water in the UK, particularly, it’s an absolute disgrace. There’s no other word for it. This gang of clowns, this Government the UK has at the moment, seriously, it’s beyond parody, it’s beyond satire, it’s genuinely criminal right across the board. So Feargal, for getting out there, using his profile the way he has, and being so clever on social media, choosing his moments, he’s doing great, doing something necessary and really important, and more power to him. I think he’s really carried himself brilliantly, saying things that need to be said.”

And a Derry lad at that.

“Absolutely, and I genuinely don’t know him at all, but I’m behind what he’s doing and wish maybe a few more people in genuine positions would wake up to what’s going on, because with all due respect, it’s pretty easy to characterise environmentally concerned campaigners and whatever as these sort of Jeremiah figures, but it’s really, really important, you know?

“Generally, we’re in an environmentally threatened period, and globally things need to change. But I think the water thing is indicative of this almost Dickensian age these people want ordinary people to return to, to further their own interests and those of the corporations and rich people pulling their particular strings. I really think it’s symptomatic of and a little part of that broader vandalistic agenda of these people that really needs to be stopped and dealt with and reversed urgently.

“Things have reached a point now where it just can’t go on. I wish I was a bit more like Feargal, to be honest. I’m a wee bit backwards in common forwards, as we say over here, but really think what he’s doing is very admirable.”

Seeing as this Autumn tour includes a show at Lytham on the Fylde, on the subject of the Dickensian age idea, there was Jacob Rees-Mogg on the telly the morning we spoke, talking about relaxing fracking constraints, a move that if it happens could have a devastating effect on that part of the country.

“I mean, where does it stop? Drop the legal age for children working? We clearly have … or should I say you clearly have a Government that doesn’t care about anything, any precedent that’s been set, any rule, they’ll just tear it up and flush it down the toilet. And If you have guys like that in charge – where if they don’t like a rule, they’ll just change it – we’re in deep, deep trouble. There’s a word for it, and it’s going that way, and people need to really, honestly, wake up.

“I don’t despair, but sometimes look at what’s going on and wonder, is nobody paying attention? These people don’t care about you. I don’t care whether you voted for Brexit or not, fuck that, but do you think these people actually give a shit about you and your life, and how well you’re doing or not doing, or whether you’ve got money or a home? And there’s more food banks than McDonald’s in the UK now.”

Home’s been Dublin for Paul since as long as he’s fronted The Undertones. He clearly likes it there.

“Well, I hate to just throw stones at the UK and suggest everything’s perfect over here. Far from it. But it is home. And what passes for my friends are here!”

Paul has two sons, one in Dublin, the other in Glasgow. Have either of them followed his road to rack and ruin, his rock’n’roll path?

“Not to the same detrimental extent, but they’re both musicians on the side. They both play, they’re both guitarists.”

As far as I recall, I’ve not seen you up on stage with a guitar strapped on.

“No, they wouldn’t let me! Actually, it’s really funny. I don’t know if this is going to look interesting in print, but I’ll tell you now, Mickey has a real problem with singers playing guitar. John would love me to play guitar because it would take a bit of pressure off him. I’m not so sure if it would work either, just in terms of what I do on stage with The Undertones ….”

Prancing about, mostly, yeah?

“You used a very polite word there. My Terpsichoral skills, darling, would be somewhat inhibited! But I’d be very interested to hear what it sounded like with three guitars. I think it was me that said it, although it might have been Mickey – but I’ll take it anyway – we’re not Radiohead. Two guitars are enough. I actually did play when we did a wee acoustic tour in Holland. A long time ago now. It wasn’t all of us. It was me, John and Damian. Kevin Sharkey joined us on a bit of percussion. It wasn’t really The Undertones, but it was Undertones songs and a few covers, and kind of interesting. I played guitar on that. So strictly speaking, it’s not unheard of, but it’s unlikely to happen.”

Did I hear a whisper that your pre-Undertones band, The Carrellines (an early ‘90s Derry four-piece, also featuring Billy Doherty, named the Carling/Hotpress Band of 1990, no less) are coming back?

“You did! Word travels! We’ve been threatening – not publicly, mind – each other to do this for 30 years. Now it’s eventually happening on December 29th in Sandinos, Derry. Now we’re dealing with the reality of the fact that we haven’t rehearsed and don’t know the songs anymore, everybody kind of terrified! {Bandmates} Aidan {Breslin} and Damien {Duffy} are kind of the organisers, getting the tickets and social media together. And it’s all a pathetic display of denial – we don’t want to face the fact that we’ve got to get together, stand in a room and actually play these songs. But we really need to get the finger out, get that organised … because winter is coming.”

Before I called, I was listening back to your single, ‘Bridesmaids Never Brides’, and it incorporates a mighty sound, with a lot going on. It sounds fresh, a cracking song. What surprises me is that if I hadn’t seen 1990 on the label, I’d have assumed it would be commemorating its 40th anniversary now. It sounds like it was from a different era.

“It kind of was really. It is kind of an Eighties thing. It came out in 1990 but we were an Eighties band, 100%, and were all big fans of synth. We didn’t really have an idea what we wanted to say, but what we eventually became was a synth-rock band … a bit closer to New Order than maybe Erasure … put it that way.”

Although listening back I was kind of getting classic – and I mean pre-big hits – Simple Minds, OMD, even Heaven 17.

“Very much, and Aidan and Damian are huge Simple Minds fans, and I’m a big OMD fan. In fact, Andy McCluskey and I are mates now, which is kind of surreal. I love OMD, and Simple Minds as well. I got into them after the fact but love those first five or six Simple Minds records. Yeah, that would definitely be a big influence. Well spotted, hopefully a bit less bombastic than the way that turned out with Simple Minds, but definitely an influence.”

Paul was a great ambassador during the emergence of Dublin outfit Fontaines DC in his DJ-ing days at Today FM. I’m guessing they don’t need him so much now they’re as huge as their fifth single.

“Yeah … how are they doing? Are they doing alright?”

Last time I heard, they were doing okay. But while I’ve liked everything they’ve done, I still hold tightly to the memory of witnessing their first LP promo tour short set at Blitz, Preston, just before they properly took off. I’ve no doubt they’d be great at a big venue, but that’ll do for me. That however is clearly not my approach with The Undertones, having seen you so many times down the years.

“If only Fontaines DC could take a leaf out of our book, they could do much better – they’d be getting a lot of repeat business. Funnily enough, I saw them at Ivy Gardens, a park in Dublin where every summer they have a bunch of gigs. Fontaines headlined one. Actually, they did three nights. I was kind of reluctant, thinking, ‘Can they do this?’ But they totally did. And without doing all that  – and please God, touch wood – all that stadium rock kind of bullshit. Yeah, they’ve got the ability to hold a big crowd.”

Talking of Dublin bands, I dropped my youngest daughter off at The Continental in Preston to see Inhaler, and that was quite an occasion, not least wondering how the hell they got their huge splitter-bus into the car park there. I get the feeling they’re destined for huge stuff, and sound so big. Dare I say it, like early U2.

“There’s genetics for you! And do you know what? When your dad’s Bono, people are going to have a few cracks at you, and that’s really unfair. I I like Inhaler. I think they’ve got some great songs, and that kid {frontman Elijah Hewson, son of Bono} seems a really genuine, good man. They’re a good band and fair play to them. And you know, what, if you get a leg up because your Dad’s who he is, who cares? If you don’t like it, don’t listen to it. And if you don’t like it, don’t have a go at the kid. Grow up.”

I do find the U2 baiting rather tiring.

“In general, it is. It’s kind of dull. We get it. If you don’t like it, shut up. Maybe actually step back and think, ‘You know what …’ You might not like the last couple of records, but they have some fucking great songs. They’re doing something right, you know? Live and let live. I get it if you’re 18 years old, and it’s cool, having a knock at the establishment or whatever. But men my age? Seriously, there are actual other things going on to worry about, rather than Irish rock stars.”

Well, next time perhaps we’ll take this further and defend Phil Collins.

“I’ll tell you what, I was at a Phil Collins show in Croke Park, and it was great. Ha!”

Well, there you go. He lived across the tracks from me in my home village, albeit not on my council estate, and made his first solo records there. So I have a fair bit of affection for him, not least as he regularly drank in my friend’s pub. I still get sentimental hearing Genesis’ rather poignant ’Follow Me, Follow You’. There, I’ve said it.

“I love that too, and do you know what, I’ve never met Phil Collins, but he’s probably a good bloke. He’s always come across as a decent sort.”

Paul’s entertaining stint on Today FM in Dublin ended around the time of the pandemic. I see he’s been compiling Spotify playlists and so on. Is he DJ-ing again?

“No, I’m actively seeking employment. That’s the truth of that. I really miss being on air, and I’m still very much available for that line of work. I can’t say much more about it, to be honest. I didn’t want the show to end, but it did, these things happen in radio – a very cruel place sometimes. I’d seen it happen to many others, and, you know, eventually it’s your turn. Like politics, I guess. It’s kind of ultimately, you know, it’s gonna happen …”

Well, there’s a good title for a song.

“… You get knocked off your perch, but hopefully I can sneak back into something. I have been trying to get back in there.”

Do you have a home studio setup?

“I don’t, I never had to do that. That was the slightly ironic thing – I got through Covid, then next thing you know you’re out. It wasn’t really anybody at Today FM. It was corporate stuff, new owners, big changes. That’s what happens, you’ve just got to live with that.”

Meanwhile, there’s still the rather marvellous Mickey Bradley Record Show on Radio Foyle, with Paul a guest on Northern Irish radio recently too.

“I did a wee Radio Ulster show a couple of months back. That was fun, sitting in for Steve McCauley. It was great, actually at BBC Radio Foyle, where I started out in radio a very long time ago. It was kind of surreal being back in studios completely changed beyond recognition from when I worked there. The setup is good there. And it’s nice to keep your hand in, you know.”

We’ve spoken about The Undertones’ past before, but remind me, did you get to see the band before that initial 1983 split?

“No, I was a fan, but when ‘Teenage Kicks’ came out, I was only 11, and by the time I was old enough to go to gigs, they’d just about split up, and hadn’t played in Derry for a long time. At the end, they didn’t play in Derry. I was only 16, just about getting into gigging, but they weren’t doing any locally. It always annoyed me. Long before I ever dreamt of joining The Undertones. As a young adult It kind of bugged me that I never got to see them, although I got to see the Petrols. So it’s kind of funny the way things turned out.”

Your first show on this side of the Irish Sea, at the Mean Fiddler, Harlesden, North West London, Summer 2000, is among my favourites, if not the favourite itself. That setlist was amazing, including several songs no longer being played when I first saw the band. And I guess I never ever thought I would see the day.

“It was different back then. I think bands played for a shorter time, generally. They always wanted to play newer stuff. There used to be a thing where bands would sort of be a little grudging or even resentful of their early stuff. I remember seeing The Smiths in ’84, one of my earliest gigs, in a little sports hall in Letterkenny, basketball hoops at either end, a small room. I was a big fan, and it would be one of my top five gigs, probably for nostalgic reasons – I was 17 and it was The Smiths at the absolute height of their … Smithdom. Johnny Marr played the intro to ‘This Charming Man’, everybody went mad, then he just stopped, going into something else instead. And that was in ’84! Kind of, ‘Yeah, we’re not playing that one anymore.’”

Well, with The Undertones, I finally got to see the band playing all those classic songs of yore, so thanks for your part in that.

“Oh, it’s an absolute pleasure. I remember that gig very well. Funnily enough, with The Carrellines back in the day, the first gig I did in England was also at the Mean Fiddler, in ‘87. On that occasion we were just over and back, that was the thing back then. If you didn’t do that, you probably weren’t going to have much of a swing at it. We never relocated.”

And when you get back to Derry now, is there still a good feeling about the place that maybe wasn’t there when you left just over two decades ago? I wonder how you see it now, post-Good Friday Agreement and all that.

“Yeah, it’s an interesting perspective. I always love being back in Derry, and always notice something new, or maybe something I hadn’t noticed before. Without being too Tourist Board about it, it really has come out of the shadows. There’s still a lot of issues, still a lot of problems, like everywhere at the moment. But that notwithstanding, I think the place is looking really good, with a real little buzz about the place, like that little sort of artisanal sort of hipster-ish kind of thing. I love that.

“I think it’s great that creatively, not just in a musical context but generally, there’s a DIY kind of funkiness about the place that I’ve noticed here and there. And musically, there are some great young bands, across genres and across genders. It’s brilliant, that side of it is all good. Derry is still of course dealing with its legacy, but I think it’s moving in a fairly positive way.

“As usual, it’s probably coming off the worst, and that’s the last thing it needs. Derry doesn’t need a non-functioning executive. It’s had enough as it is, and is always at the back of the queue when it comes to certain things. It’s probably always been that way. But despite that, I’m really proud and really impressed with what I see when I go there, which isn’t often enough.

“It’s always a pleasure and always great to see the progress being made. And you know what? They’re the best people in the world! It’s just great to be in Derry, hear Derry voices and that unmerciful Derry sense of humour, and general kind of Derryness! It always moves me, and it is home in my heart … without sounding corny about it. I live in Dublin but the home in my heart is Derry, and always will be. And it’s great to see it come on, you know.”

For this website’s Spring 2015 conversation with Paul McLoone, head here. And for a Mrs Simms’ shed-load of past Undertones features, interviews and reviews from WriteWyattUK, just type in the band name from there.

The Undertones’ Autumn 2022 dates resume this week, calling at the 1865, Southampton (October 6th); the O2 Academy, Oxford* (October 7th); and the Lowther Pavilion, Lytham* (October 8th). Then there are three more dates beyond that, at the Waterfront, Norwich (October 20th); the Apex, Bury St Edmunds (October 21st); and the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill* (October 22nd). Dates with an * include special guest Hugh Cornwell. For tickets, head here. And for more information on the band, check out The Undertones’ website and keep in touch on social media via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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I guess you’ve heard he’s seen the word: talking Blancmange’s 40-year recording odyssey with Neil Arthur

Before I picked up the phone to call Neil Arthur, I had another listen to latest Blancmange single, ‘Reduced Voltage’, ahead of the release of the new album, Private View, which followed yesterday (Friday, September 30th).

And as I put it to the East Lancashire born and bred frontman and sole ever-present of this influential electronica outfit, I don’t know if it’s just in my head because I knew Blancmange featured at her recent Meltdown festival at London’s Southbank Centre, but I hear Grace Jones covering that track.

“Wow, that would be brilliant, wouldn’t it! Flipping ‘eck. I’d love to hear Grace Jones doing that. And I might get to sit on her knee again.”

Now there’s a story, one involving Neil and former bandmate/Blancmange co-founder Stephen Luscombe, ending up in Grace’s dressing room while supporting her over two shows at Drury Lane Theatre in 1981, taking her to a club night in Charing Cross that second night, learning some handy stage craft along the way, a tale Neil recently retold on Twitter. Anyway, how was the aptly-named Meltdown for Blancmange?

“It was the hottest day so far of the year. In June. It was stifling. But the gig itself, we were lucky enough to support a good friend, John Grant.”

That will be the acclaimed Michigan singer, songwriter and musician, a Blancmange fan boy, the latest single accompanied by a remix from this long-time co-conspirator, who recently enthused, “I have loved Blancmange for close to four decades, so it’s such an honour to be asked to remix a track off the new record. It was a blast.”

Meanwhile, Neil’s back to his Meltdown tale.

“We supported John, the three of us on stage, but it was so hot in the dressing room, you really couldn’t go in it. It’s a beautiful building, but there was no air con working, and the fan in our room wasn’t working. So we stayed anywhere we could find in the shade, trying to keep cool. We did a soundcheck and the lads, Liam {Hutton} and Finlay {Shakespeare}, doing the electronics, they had shorts on. We have a secret ritual before we go on stage. I won’t go into it. We make a bit of noise, and something goes on. But they turned up looking like they’re about to go on the beach, and I’m there with my bloody suit on …”

At this point, Neil lost his train of thought, amid a wail of sirens far removed from something you’d expect at his adopted rural base in Gloucestershire. And with good reason, for he was taking my call while signing CDs and vinyl in the boardroom at London Recordings in the capital, a label with which the band goes back many moons.

“Anyway, there’s me with a suit on, and I looked around to see them in their shorts, like they joined A Certain Ratio or something … who I love, by the way, me with a blasted suit on during the hottest evening. It was a great gig though, and we were absolutely honoured to be asked to go and do it.”

Neil certainly remains prolific, some 41 years after that first Grace Jones engagement, when him and Stephen were working across London from each other, the big time not so far off. Now 64 (not the album, although a quick check revealed Blancmange’s wondrous ‘Don’t Tell Me’ did show up on Now That’s What I Call Music 3 in 1984), I make it 15 new Blancmange records he’s released in just over a decade, since the band returned.

“Yep … keeping myself in trouble. Ha!”

I get the impression you’re not one to dwell on the past or stick to the heritage ‘80s act circuit. You clearly still have that drive to keep making new music … and quality new music at that, as your latter-day releases prove.

“Well, obviously, everybody reminisces, and there’s a lot of reminiscing going on with this album. But what I’m doing, I’m kind of looking back to look forward, really. I’m looking at the stuff that’s passed, I’m looking at the things that are passing, and there’s quite a lot of stuff going on.

“There’s a lot to reflect on, much further back, and then I’m projecting forward. There’s a song on this record called ‘Everything is Connected’. And it is, even the little bits. The title track also deals with all that, reminiscing and dealing with how you feel about what’s past, and what is to come … because we’re going there, whether we like it or not.”

He explained that further elsewhere, how he uses the past as a trigger to create new ideas and build fresh momentum, not as somewhere to linger. 

“A lot of people are frightened of the future and are quite happy to have a repeat of something that was done before. But it’s just not for me. Looking forward you’ve got a hell of a world to try and navigate through at the moment. We’re all moving forward – so we’ve got to try and find some answers.”

At time of going to press your scribe had yet to hear the full album, but if the three advance singles were a pointer as to what we can expect – and I’ve no doubt that’s the case – we’re in for another treat. The aforementioned ‘Reduced Voltage’ is electro-sonic perfection, pitched somewhere between Eno and Vangelis, so evocative and so Blancmange, 2022 style. Then there’s the Sign of the Times that is ‘Some Times These’, carrying the air of a lesser-known early ’70s hit rediscovered on a misplaced Top of the Pops archive reel. There’s the spirit of Roxy Music and Heroes-era Bowie in there, and a monster riff hiding just beneath the surface, and so much more. As for reflective album closer, ‘Take Me’, imagine a New Order take on Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’, freshly reinterpreted, not so much pastiche as an old friend you can’t quite place.

The release of the new LP will be followed by an extensive UK tour, running through to December 10’s London Assembly Hall appearance, with an impressive array of special guests – namely Sheffield-born Cabaret Voltaire co-founder Stephen Mallinder, Oblong, Rodney Cromwell, and Alice Hubble – at various dates. And it’s a mighty tour schedule he has have lined up, his biggest for a while, I’m thinking.

“I think it’s the longest tour I’ve ever done – 28 dates, with a warm-up at Rough Trade East in London, launching the album, then starting in Coventry. And we’re going all over the place.”

There are some interesting venues involved. I guess the Subscription Rooms in Stroud will be the nearest to a home fixture these days.

“Yeah, and there’s Bristol.”

The latter is at The Fleece, The Blue Aeroplanes’ venue. And the band are on my old patch too, playing the Boileroom at Guildford.

“Yes, Blancmange haven’t played in Guildford since the ‘80s. I’ll be looking forward to that.”

And on his old North-West patch, there’s Kanteena, Lancaster (November 11th, ‘I’m looking forward to that. I haven’t played there before, I think it’s a new venue.’), Gorilla, Manchester (November 18th) and Hangar 34, Liverpool (November 19th). Will he get a chance to climb those moors around his old haunts in Darwen?

“I’m not sure I will this time. But I normally end up going to Townsend {Records} to do our merch, with some brilliant people there, and there may well be some more signing to do up there. The last time I managed that, after I finished, I went down to Ewood Park to have a think and look at my beloved Blackburn Rovers … and reminisce.”

You’ve not switched allegiance to near-neighbours Forest Green Rovers then?

“I’ve been to see them. I went to see them play Coventry a couple of seasons ago, and that was absolutely brilliant. The ball went out a few times, and it actually went into a field where they had sheep. It’s a brilliant ground.”

At this point we get on to Neil’s own sporting prowess, playing in an FA over-50s seven-a-side league. He’s also started playing in an over-60s league.

“I’m very lucky. I’m reasonably fit, I’m not a good footballer, but I’m keen and I’ve played a long time. And I get to play with men who have played professionally at that level. It’s like with music, keep your mind open and you’ll learn. Even in football, you can still learn at 64. Sometimes, Dale Vince plays {chairman of Forest Green Rovers FC, and the green energy industrialist behind Ecotricity}, although at the moment he’s crocked. But I love it. It’s brilliant, with a really nice camaraderie. And the ethos is that if you foul somebody, you help that up.”

Not in a Norman Hunter style?

“Nah, when we go down, we go down in instalments these days!”

And how’s his beloved Parson Russell terrier, Audrey?

“If you go on Blancmange’s Instagram page, you’ll see how well Audrey’s doing. She should be 17 in October. She’s amazing. I absolutely adore that dog. As {does} anybody that’s met her. She is incredible.”

I think that compares to 119 human years. And if you head to that Instagram account you’ll see Audrey bounding across a field to a soundtrack of Jackie Lee’s theme song for The White Horses. Marvellous. Anyway, regarding those support acts on this tour, they’re clearly acts he admires, hand-picked for the occasion, although he informs me Jez Bernholz is no longer involved.

“Yeah, Jez and I worked together on the Near Future project, but unfortunately he isn’t going to do that date in Coventry {late update: nor is Neil and co., that show cancelled – check with the band regarding the new date}. But Rodney Cromwell is, and he’s doing some of the other dates. He’s brilliant, his music is absolutely amazing. And Alice Hubble is coming along too, wat a gang we’re going to have! And Mal, anybody who knows his music knows they’re in for a real treat, he’s incredible. And of course, there’s Benge with his project, along with Sid, Helen and Dave, coming along as Oblong. That’ll be terrific. What a gang that is … never mind Blancmange, come along and see that lot!”

I did a double take when I first saw that bill, not least as I thought it included country star Rodney Crowell. But then I realised there was an ‘m’ in there.

“Ha!”

So who’s in your band? Is David Rhodes (who has also featured down the years with Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and Scott Walker, and returned as Neil’s guitarist on the new LP, having previously performed with the band on 1982’s debut Happy Families, as well as several other Blancmange albums) out on the road with you?

“No, David recorded with us in the studio, but live we’ve got Chris Pemberton and Liam Hutton. Chris is playing keyboards. He’s played with, amongst others, John Grant and James Blunt. He’s coming out, doing the crazy synths, and Liam will be on electronic drums again. He’s played with us many times. And me in the middle somewhere, making some strange vocal noises, hopefully some in tune … with approximately the right words.”

Ah, ever modest. And clearly you still work well with Benge (producer Ben Edwards, who has also featured with John Foxx and the Maths, and works with Neil on their Fader studio project).

“Yeah, we love working together. It’s a privilege to work with Benge. He’s a very open and creative person, with amazing knowledge on all appliances and synthesisers, and brilliant to work with. We have a hell of a laugh working. Obviously, there’s light and dark with Blancmange in terms of the emotions and the sounds and subject matter. Having said that, we have a right good time putting all this together, and it’s the same with Fader, but the other way around. With Blancmange, it always starts with me. I write and then send the stuff to Benge, while with Fader he comes up with the ideas, sends them to me.”

And this album, like the most recent ones, was made down at his studio in Cornwall?

“It was. I wrote it at my man cave and sent the ideas down to Benge, and he kind of undoes it and says, ‘Right, we’ll change that for real analog synth, and blah blah blah,’ with a bit of backwards and forwards like that. Then I go down there, and we carry on working on the synth and drum parts and stuff like that, and maybe I’ll do some backing vocals, then we’ll work together and mix it down there.”

And how’s Kincaid (Neil’s son’s artist name) going?

“Our Joe? Yeah, he’s done a couple of remixes for this album. I mentioned John Grant, but Joe’s done a couple as well, which have gone down really well. And he’s doing his own music, with recent releases on Well Street {Records}, a great label.”

So you’re keeping him young, yeah?

“Ha! Well, we’ve been writing material for what hopefully will turn out to be a Kincaid featuring Blancmange album, having had one of the proudest musical moments of my life standing on stage with Joe when we supported Creep Show at the first night in Liverpool {Arts Club, October 2019}, that was an immense moment.

“And talking about proud moments, the cover of this album is inspired by a painting my daughter, Eleanor, did. She’s at art college in London and did a series of paintings of the backs of people looking out. You saw the back of them and what they were looking at, but you then start thinking about what they’re thinking of, and it seemed like a good image to manipulate … which I did.”

Back on the subject of his current impressive rate of artistic output, Neil recently said, “I don’t know whether I’m on a roll, but I feel something in me has been released. I used to hold back and didn’t trust myself. While I’m still full of self-doubt, I’m now quite comfortable with it. This is it. We’ve only got one time around the block, so make the most of it.”

And across the new LP, we get Neil’s trademark deft marriage of futuristic electronica, his deep vocal hooks, and songs veering from buoyant and joyful to dark and brooding. Private View is a record that manages to capture an artist potently in the moment when it comes to creating new work, while drawing on 40 years’ worth of knowledge, experience and built-in intuition. 

“I’m really lucky to be able to make the music completely on my own terms. Within myself there are no limits, there’s a massive palette inside and I will try anything.”

There have been further health issues of late for Neil’s former bandmate, Blancmange co-founder and comrade-in-arms, Stephen Luscombe, who stepped aside in 2011 after the release of comeback album, Blanc Burn, as fans will know all too well via social media. Has Neil managed to see him lately?

“Normally we text and exchange email and chat on the phone, sometimes getting to see each other, but recently Stephen has sadly been very seriously ill. I love him dearly, I’m just hoping he gets better very soon.”

That clearly goes for us all. And finally, it’s now 40 years since Happy Families. When he thinks of that album now, is there a particular memory that jumps out at him on hearing certain songs?

“Well, I’ve got fantastic memories of it and I’m very proud of that piece of work that Stephen and I did together, with an amazing producer called Mike Howlett. If that had been the only album we ever did, it was a heck of an experience. And to see that it’s 40 years ago is something that’s quite difficult to comprehend.

“Also, this new album comes out almost 40 years to the day of that. And to come round to be a full circle, I’m sitting in the boardroom at London Records, signing this album … it’s quite strange.”

Not least because most labels from that day have long since disappeared.

“Well, I’m glad they’ve had faith in this project, and to go along with this. The support for this album is wonderful, and I’m a lucky man.”

And with that, we say our goodbyes and I leave him to sign on, so to speak, getting those new LPs ready for your listening pleasure.

For the WriteWyattUK verdict on Blancmange at Darwen Library Theatre in late 2018, head here. And for this site’s last interview with Neil Arthur, head from Autumn 2018, head here, at the foot of which you can find more past Blancmange encounters.

Private View UK tour: October – 1st, Rough Trade East, London; 7th, The Junction, Cambridge – w/ Oblong; 8th, Subscription Rooms, Stroud – w/ Oblong; 13th – Arts Centre, Colchester – w/ Oblong; 14th – University Y Plas, Cardiff – w/ Oblong; 15th – Cheese and Grain, Frome – w/ Oblong; 20th – Sub 89, Reading – w/ Oblong; 21st  – The Level, Nottingham – w/ Oblong; 22nd  – Glassbox Theatre, Gillingham – w/ Oblong; 27th – The Fleece, Bristol – w/ Alice Hubble; 28th – The Boileroom, Guildford – w/ Alice Hubble; 29th – Tivoli Theatre, Wimborne – w/ Alice Hubble. November – 4th – Exeter Theatre, Exeter – w/ Rodney Cromwell; 5th – The Brook, Southampton – w/ Rodney Cromwell; 10th – The Mill, Birmingham – w/ Alice Hubble; 11th – Kanteena, Lancaster – w/ Alice Hubble; 12th – The Forum Theatre, Barrow-in-Furness – w/ Alice Hubble; 17th – Corn Hall, Diss – w/ Rodney Cromwell; 18th – Gorilla, Manchester – w/ Stephen Mallinder; 19th – Hangar 34, Liverpool – w/ Stephen Mallinder; 24th – The Wardrobe, Leeds – w/ Stephen Mallinder; 25th – The Leadmill, Sheffield – w/ Stephen Mallinder; 26th – The Riverside, Newcastle – w/ Stephen Mallinder. December – 1st – The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen – w/ Stephen Mallinder; 2nd – The Liquid Room, Edinburgh – w/ Stephen Mallinder; 3rd – Queen Margaret Union, Glasgow – w/ Stephen Mallinder; 9th – Concorde 2, Brighton – w/ Stephen Mallinder; 10th – Islington Assembly Hall, London – w/ Stephen Mallinder.

Blancmange’s new LP, Private View, is out on vinyl, CD and digitally on September 30th via London Records 2022, with a pre-order link at https://blancmange.lnk.to/privateview. And you can watch the Harvey Wise-produced video for ‘Reduced Voltage’ at https://youtu.be/l3vittpvjp8

For more information, check out the band website and follow Blancmange via InstagramTwitter and Facebook.

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Way beyond The Implausible Man – crossing the Irish Sea with Adam Leonard and Invaderband

Prolific is the word that springs to mind when describing Adam Leonard’s output these last couple of decades. Head to his Wikipedia entry, missus, and you’ll see a stream of releases since 2003 debut LP, How Music Sounds, and he’s certainly kept himself busy with Derry-based Invaderband of late.

As his latest press release puts it, he’s ‘quietly – and noisily – tinkered at the edges of eccentric English folk, electronic music, and garage art rock with Invaderband, issuing numerous albums, singles and EPs of original music, to much critical acclaim.’

Working with boutique labels such as The Great Pop Supplement, Northwestern Recordings, Tectona Grandis, Polytechnic Youth, Castles in Space, Bibliotapes and The Dark Outside, on formats including 7”, 10” and 12” vinyl, cassette & compact disc, he’s maintained a somewhat low profile, yet he’s still managed to achieve two further Northern Ireland Music Prize nominations.

Following an Album of the Year shortlisting in 2017 for the self-titled debut Invaderband LP, and another in 2021 for Single of the Year with the gloriously spikey ‘I Won’t Remember You’, this week the four-piece were long-listed for this year’s awards with long player, Peter Gabriel, finding themselves up alongside the likes of Hannah Peel (with Paraorchestra), SOAK, and Van Morrison, and fellow corking single, ‘Cheese Slices’, for which the prize competition also includes David Holmes, The Divine Comedy, TOUTS, and Two Door Cinema Club.

What’s more, frontman/singer/guitarist/songwriter Adam and bandmates Chris McConaghy (guitar), James Cunningham (bass) and Tom Doherty (drums) have received repeat plays from BBC Radio 6 Music’s Steve Lamacq, Gideon Coe and Tom Robinson in recent times, that support replicated elsewhere in the UK and Ireland from the likes of national radio channels BBC Radio Ulster, RTE2, Today FM, and Radio X.

And as well as all the praise put Invaderband’s way for Peter Gabriel (among Danny McElhinney’s top 20 albums of 2021 in The Irish Mail on Sunday), there’s Adam’s solo electronic side-project, A Farewell to Hexes, releasing the Rendlesham album, and Echoes in Rows, his collaboration with analog synth and drum machine operative David Ansara, their Click Click Drone six-track mini-LP drawing on a deep love and understanding of late ‘70s/early ‘80s electropop, heavily influenced by John Foxx‘s 1979 electronic masterpiece, Metamatic.

But before we got into all that, I asked Adam to explain how this Manchester lad ended up in Derry, Northern Ireland, enlisting local musicians to ‘voltage-enhance his dystopian postpunk songs’.

“I was born in Manchester, in 1969, but when I was about one or two we moved. We lived in Clayton, pretty central, but my dad got a good job as a welder so we moved out to the country … well, pretty much the countryside, near Ashton-under-Lyne. And when I was older, I lived in Ashton a bit, East Manchester.

“Then in 1997, out one night in Manchester, I met my wife, as she is now. She was at university in Manchester, and was in the Star and Garter pub, where they did Smile nights. It’s still there, of course. We went back for one of our anniversaries, and there was a punk night on upstairs, featuring a band called Spunk Volcano. We’d never heard of them, but they were absolutely fantastic. Lots of Mohicans and jumping around. Fantastic!”

Well, you can’t beat a romantic night out topped off by Spunk Volcano.

“Exactly! She lived with me for a while in Ashton, but she’s from Derry and always wanted to move back, so in 2000, we moved over to Northern Ireland. Does that clarify the situation?”

It certainly does. And looking at your output since 2003, there have been a lot of releases so far. You’re clearly not one to sit back crowing about the last release.

“I love it. As people like doing sports, it’s a really keen interest of mine. I find it really satisfying. Even last night, I spent about three hours dealing with a track until it was all finished. Every spare moment I’ve got, outside of wanting to spend time with family, my wife and kids. But any spare time I’ve got …”

It’s not a full-time vocation though, Adam telling me – rather mysteriously – his day-job is as an ‘IT drone’.

“It doesn’t pay the bills. I think that would change it though, being paid. I do get some money from it, but not enough to live off. It would change it if I had to do it for money. I’ve spoken to a number of people like that, painters especially, doing commissions, suddenly losing interest in what they were once passionate about. There’s a massive danger of that.”

Regarding that prolific output, one set of releases that jumped out was 2014’s Octopus Project. I was impressed when The Wedding Present released a single each month in 1992. But releasing eight albums in eight months, that’s pushing it.

“Well, it wasn’t really me producing eight new albums – it was stuff that was either a very minimal release or hadn’t been released, and a few new ones, cover versions, all sorts. Just clearing the decks really.”

It’s a lovely idea, all the same.

“Well, I’m still doing it. There’s the Octopus Pt.10 album out next month, on October 10, with 10 tracks on it.”

Are you an all-rounder, musically?

“I started off as a bit of a folkie, big into Bob Dylan when I was a teenager. I had the acoustic guitar and the harmonica around my neck.”

A bit of busking too?

“No, never … I might do now though, to get a bit of money. Ha! One of my daughter’s friends was out busking, and within about 10 minutes was given a £20 note. I could do with a bit of that!”

Well, we’ve all got obscene utilities bills to settle, it seems. And Adam has a wife and children aged 22, 18 and nine to support, after all. He’s certainly had proud moments with his music though, not least involvement in his adopted home’s 2013 UK City of Culture celebrations.

“I was telling my daughter about that today. I sent her the song. Working on Octopus 10, I found a song from 2000 about becoming a father, written for my son. I remember a friend saying at the time it’s too saccharine and soppy, and I decided not to do anything with that. It just sat there for 22 years, then I listened to it this week and thought, that’s not bad at all. I was telling my son, who’d never heard it, sent it to him, and he came up to see me in tears. We had a bit of a moment. That was so sweet.

“I’ve since written a song for my youngest daughter, which is also going to be on Octopus 10, a great song. I also wrote one for my wife for the UK City of Culture. My older daughter’s now complaining that there’s no song written for her!”

Seeing as she’s now a music production student in Derry, maybe it’s time he got that together. And then there was soundtrack work in 2011 for Claudia Heindel’s award-winning independent film, Lucky Seven.

“Yeah, I’ve a poster of that up here in my office, with my name on it.”

Did that lead to more opportunities on that front?

“I was asked to. I did that purely for enjoyment. I was paid £50! I was offered more work, and said I’d do it, but I’d need to be paid properly … and therefore the offer went away.”

You work with a lot of other musicians too, and clearly enjoy doing that.

“I do, although when I’m songwriting I usually just do it on my own, the way I’ve always done it. But James – in Invaderband for around a year – is very keen to write collaboratively, so we’re gonna give that a try. What I’ve done a lot is people send me music and I do like a Morrissey, put words and vocals on, and occasionally the other way around, but it’s always done separately. So maybe that will change.”

As for that on-air support too, he tells me, “I’m totally amazed at that. It started with the second single in 2015. I sent a CD to Steve Lamacq and was absolutely amazed he played it … a couple of times. And all for the price of a stamp!”

The three singles from the latest NI LP prize nominee – its cover a painting of the eponymous star by Luke Haines, of The Auteurs fame, no less – certainly give a grand introduction to what Peter Gabriel has to offer, so to speak, starting with the afore-mentioned ‘I Won’t Remember You’, all Devoto-era Buzzcocks and Wire-esque new wave thrill and Graham Coxon-like charge, with a mighty chorus to boot. And like all the best singles, it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Or as they put it themselves, ‘a punk-pop nugget … accentuated with razor-sharp guitars and a singular voice … cut from a strain of garage-leaning art rock that embraces idiosyncrasy and eccentricity, à la Supergrass, Super Furry Animals, or Modern Life Is Rubbish-era Blur.’ More or less what I said, from the pen of a self-confessed ‘world class forgetter’ with a terrible memory.

Then came ‘Handcuffed Man Shoots Himself’, which they feel suggests ‘an unlikely pairing of The Stranglers’ belligerence and the darker storytelling of Ray Davies … a muscular postpunk anti-anthem on police brutality, featuring minimal synth layers, brutish guitars, a pulverising rhythm section and a (he repeats) singular voice … cut from a strain of intelligent punk rock musique vérité, à la Gang of Four, Swell Maps, the aforementioned Stranglers and more recently, Blur.’

Are you getting it now? Actually, I hear a bit of Adam’s love of early ‘80s electronica in there too, as if Heaven 17 were pairing up with The Undertones. And although they clearly talk the big talk, they also deliver the promised goods on that front. As for the subject matter, while the sleeve shows Derek Chauvin, the policeman who killed George Floyd, the title is ripped from a headline regarding another disturbing case, that of a 21-year-old in Arkansas, ‘arrested, handcuffed and placed in the back of police patrol car … searched twice for a weapon (none was found) … when the dashcam was (conveniently) switched off the detainee somehow managed to obtain a gun and fatally shoot himself in the head, all whilst cuffed with his hands behind his back…. or so the police officers claimed.’ And as Adam puts it, we’re talking ‘the same kind of story, a ‘one-off incident’ which just keeps happening again and again … and again.’

As for current NI 45 prize nominee, ‘Cheese Slices’ is ‘a song drenched with cynicism,’ Adam ‘taking aim and pulling the lyrical trigger onan unnamed self-regarding band, urging them to ‘Stop making music please … you’re as interesting as cheese’.

He sees similarities to the premise behind Morrissey’s ‘We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful’, and reckons it’s his ‘Positively 4th Street’, ‘but with added processed dairy squares’. Personally, I feel it also has Wire undercurrents and Buzzcocks guitar, and no shortage of melodic punk pop hooks.  

As for his latest release, his John Foxx-inspired electronica project, how long has this influential Chorley-born and bred ex-Ultravox frontman been on your radar?

“Well, I started buying records when I was 10, always liked music as a child, and when I saw Gary Numan on TV … I think it was ‘Cars’ – would that be ‘79? That was like, ‘Oh my God, what is this? Who is that alien?’

“I loved the music and even performed as Gary Numan in a primary school music show. Everyone else was doing ABBA and people like that, and there was 10-year-old me with eyeliner on, singing ‘Complex’, with a little pencil mic!

“From that I got into all the synth bands, but John Foxx’s Metamatic from 1980 blew my mind. Stunning. I still love it to this day. So that’s what Echoes in Rows is all about, trying to sound as much like that as possible, to write lyrics like that, trying to replicate John Foxx.”

How did David Ansara fit into all this?

“That material was recorded 10 years ago, but I’m just doing a release of six of those tracks now. David approached me because of the song ‘The Implausible Man’ on the first Invaderband album {their 2015 debut single}.

“I wrote that for an official Ultravox website forum competition, for an original song in the style of Ultravox, pre-Midge Ure, and it won the competition for the best original, best overall and best something else. I couldn’t get my head through the door! Because of that, David approached me and asked if we could cover it in a Metamatic style. He sent me the music, I sang over it, the collaboration starting from that, him sending me other tunes, me doing the words and singing.”

Apart from Adam Leonard, what do Peter Gabriel and Brian Alldis (the subject of the atmospheric, somewhat dark second track on Click Click Drone) have in common?

“Oooh, is there a link?”

I’m sure someone will tell us if there is. But why those name-checks for Peter and Brian?

“I love them both, and Brian is my favourite sci-fi author. I love his stuff. I remember going to the library when I was a kid, getting a lot of sci-fi out, with Brian Alldis the best by a long shot. That was in Mossley, where I grew up.”

Echoes in Rows’ Click Click Drone is clearly some way removed from Adam’s Invaderband incarnation, but certainly works, and not just for Foxx and Numan devotees, offering something of a ‘hurtling through the vortex’ return to a heady scene. Think Depeche Mode, Visage, The Human League, and more. And opening track ‘Shoot Me Like a Scene’ in particular is a thing of beauty, all that he promises on the tin pulled off, to metamatically mix a couple of metaphors. In fact, there’s not a duff track on there.

Back on the subject of the latest Invaderband LP title though, I upset Adam at this point, telling him I walked out of Crystal Palace FC before Peter Gabriel’s headline slot in July 1983, myself and a few friends only having bought our tickets to catch Derry legends The Undertones’ afternoon set, their UK farewell. We’d seen the band we wanted to, so left, feeling we’d already got our £8.30’s worth. The gate security warned us we wouldn’t be able to get back in, but we told them we weren’t bothered, still in mourning for the band we came for.

I should put that in more context. I like Peter Gabriel, and love so many of his songs, but at the time we felt we weren’t going to stick around for some old hippie (he was 33 at the time, I was a mere 15). I tell Adam this, and he sounds incredulous. I reckon he’s smiling though.

“That’s madness. I’m not sure I can talk to you anymore, to be honest.”

The line doesn’t go dead though, and we move on, me wondering if his mini-Irish tour for the Invaderband in June – playing in Dublin, Belfast, and Derry – will be followed by more live dates.

“Just one, but it can’t be announced yet.”

We’ll keep that under wraps then, apart from adding that it’s pencilled in, and will take place in Northern Ireland, for an event soon to be announced. Meanwhile, he reckons there will be more English and Scottish shows, ‘hopefully next year’. And knowing Adam’s intensive output, he could well be plugging the album after the next one.

“Erm … I don’t think the next Invaderband album will be out by then, but it won’t be far off. I’m already halfway through writing it, and it shouldn’t be up to me to say this, but the other band members are saying it too – I think it’s going to be the best one … easily.”

And who will he be name-checking next time?

“Let’s see … Elon Musk gets a mention … Jeff Bezos gets a mention … Richard Branson. All in the same song.”

The sooner they all head off in a rocket the better, surely.

“Mmm … who else? Ooh, it’s controversial, the next one. I might get attacked.”

The other three names are controversial enough, arguably. He’s still pondering though.

“Mmm … Scientology is dealt with in one song.”

A side-conversation follows, too complicated to go into here, touching on the wonders of WriteWyattUK favourites the Dubious Brothers and their on-stage dress code, our topic loosely related to the idea of rich men in space, or as Gil Scott-Heron put it, ‘Whitey on the Moon’. All that with a fella who’s been known to use Richard Avedon’s Jean Shrimpton as Astronaut in his band publicity, that classic shot namechecked in my interview with Louise Wener, of Sleeper fame, in March.

All of which led to a late-doors confession from Adam.

“I like a bit of dressing up on stage, myself. Did you see the sort of spacesuit alien thing I used to wear?”

Maybe that goes back to this love of Peter Gabriel.

“I suppose it could do really. I wasn’t consciously thinking of that, but … I’ve still got the outfit here in this room, and I’m thinking of putting him on stage, with Jeff Bezos’ face in the visor.”

Well, we heard it here first.

“Exclusive, yeah!”

Meanwhile, confirmation has yet to be received as to whether Peter Gabriel’s next album will be titled Adam Leonard. But it’s only a matter of time, surely.

For more information about Adam Leonard and his music, head to the Invaderband website, and follow him via FacebookTwitter, BandcampSoundcloud, and Instagram.

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The Lemonheads: still giving reasons for being around – the Evan Dando interview

Three decades after their first proper breakthrough this side of the Atlantic, The Lemonheads have lined up a 17-date UK and Irish tour to celebrate fifth LP, It’s a Shame About Ray, playing the album in full.

The Boston outfit released that influential album in the summer of 1992, sole Lemonheads ever-present, frontman Evan Dando, having co-produced alongside brothers Dee, Bruce and Joe Robb, gaining rave reviews on its release and beyond, the record proving one of the defining forces of the early ‘90s, its chief songwriter rather modestly telling me he feels it’s ‘aged pretty well’. 

It took me a while to get through to Evan at his Martha’s Vineyard island base, your scribe at first puzzled by a lengthy answerphone message, one he admitted when I finally made contact was to deter unwanted callers.

“Oh yeah, it’s a long-winded one, designed to make people not leave messages!”

Not a bad idea, the Essex, Massachusetts-born guitarist and vocalist long since back in tow with the group he helped mould, and who retain our interest 36 years after Evan and initial bandmates Ben Deily and Jesse Peretz started out as teenagers. And he’s happy to be back out front, the latest dates starting at Opium in Dublin on September 22nd and running through to a visit to 1865, Southampton on October 12th.

“Oh, yes, I’m raring to go. Any touring since this annoying global pandemic has really reminded me how much pleasure and how important it is to me. I really like it, and that’s just reminded me more.”

Do you still get, or did you ever get pre-tour nerves?

“I definitely used to. The night before, I would do sleepwalking stuff sometimes, like on the first tour we ever did. It’s definitely a shift. It’s exciting and daunting to go on tour, but it’s also really hard to get off tour. Some people will stay in a hotel for four days to wind down – that’s like the Bono way … and apparently it works.”

How was the European leg of the tour earlier this year? Was that a blast?

“It was great. We were in all these places in beautiful springtime, in Vienna, over in Zagreb, and so on. It was fantastic, really fun.”

I see you have around a month beyond your dates here before a couple of dozen US shows, ending the week before Christmas in Boston. Will that be something of a homecoming for you?

“Yeah, and we added another show at the Paradise, which sold out quick, and we’re always excited to go there.”

Do the memories flood back when you’re playing on your old patch, and where The Lemonheads’ story began?

“Yeah, they do. There definitely are memories, and playing the Paradise, where I used to go see SS Decontrol, Gang Green … you know, hardcore matinee shows. So that place goes back for me, and standing outside because I couldn’t get in, listening to Robyn Hitchcock one time – I was too young and they wouldn’t let me in.”

While Boston, barely an hour from his Essex, Mass. roots, was the city where The Lemonheads formed, Evan has been based for more than a decade now offshore on Martha’s Vineyard, south of Cape Cod.  

“I’ve been here since about 2011, and I love it – it’s the best. Although there’s almost too many people now, again because of Covid-19. Everyone was like, ‘Run to the hills!’ and all the houses got bought. You can’t buy a house now. It was bad, now it’s prohibited. It’s ridiculous – I think there’s four houses under a million dollars. It’s a challenge that way, but I’m renting right now, so we’ll see.”

While you were there from day one, there have been a lot more names on the credits down the years, in the studio and in your live set-ups, playing at least a bit part in The Lemonheads’ life, so to speak.

“There are!”

So who’s in the line-up for this tour? Yourself and Farley Glavin on bass for two, I’m thinking.

“Yeah, Farley’s become a real member of the band. I love working with him. I couldn’t find a better person. He’s ideal. He’d play at a sort of ‘60s collective called Peacegate, and we had the run of that place, a basement where you cannot bother anyone if you try, noise-wise! It’s got a great vibe. We can record there. We both live on the island, and Mikey the drummer comes down a lot too.”

That’s Mikey Jones, who has also featured with Swervedriver for the past decade. And it sounds to me that this latest line-up might be making a new Lemonheads record at some point.

“Yeah, we wanted to get it done this summer, but Farley’s on a tour with Willy Mason right now. But we did do one thing for my friend, Adam Green, from New York – from the Moldy Peaches. He’s doing a tribute record for himself! He asked me, and we’ve done that down there. We did ‘Losing on a Tuesday’, which came out great, it’s got to be mixed, then that’ll be coming out sometime soon.”

Looking back, at what point did you first think you had something special with The Lemonheads? What was the song you wrote where you felt you’d properly arrived?

“It would be things like ‘Stove’ and ‘Ride With Me’ from Lovey. And maybe ‘Mallo Cup’ and ‘A Circle of One’ on our earlier stuff {from 1989’s third LP, Lick}. Even something like ‘Don’t Tell Yourself’ from Hate Your Friends {the 1987 debut LP}.

“It’s one of those things where we weren’t fully formed when we were making records. We made records just to get gigs, paying for it with our high school graduation money. We came at it backwards, whereas a lot of bands are at their peak when they make their first record, and it’s really hard to beat that.

“Luckily, we kind of stumbled into it, so we’ve still got room to get better. We ought to make a real mind-blowing one this time. The stakes are high! And it’s so much fun.”

It’s been nine years since I caught Evan live, seeing a pared down but still powerful one-man Thursday night set at the University of Central Lancashire’s 53 Degrees venue in Preston, Lancashire in June 2013.

“Wow! Preston, yeah!”

I mentioned that you were off shortly after to play Glastonbury Festival, and wrote at the time (with my review here) that on the evidence of that performance you still had so much to offer.

“Ah, and my friend Nigel Mogg was there, from the bands Nancy Boy and this other metal band … The Quireboys. Nigel was my tour manager on that. But yeah, I remember Preston. A nice place. I enjoyed that gig.”

He was a man of few words that night. We got little more than the odd ‘thank you’ between songs. But it wasn’t an issue. The bulk of the songs came from the LPs that turned so many of us on to his band, It’s a Shame About Ray, and even bigger follow-up, Come on Feel the Lemonheads (a No.5 hit in the UK on release in late 1993). And he managed to get through 30 songs in barely an hour and a quarter.

“Yeah. I do a tantric thing where I don’t like to stop. I just keep going. It builds up better that way. Sometimes you’re talking, sometimes you don’t, and it’s better not to sometimes.”

Are you still avoiding playing the cover version which proved to be the band’s second biggest hit over here (peaking at No.19 in the UK over Christmas ‘92, the following year’s ‘Into Your Arms’ reaching No.14 the following October), and soon tagged onto later pressings of It’s a Shame About Ray – your splendid, shambling take on Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs Robinson’?

“Oh no, if we’re in a good mood, we’ll play that.”

On that occasion in 2013 we at least got its quirky, country-flavoured B-side, ‘Being Around’ (as included on the following album).

“Ah, that’s pretty much like a mission statement. That’s a very important song to the band … a theme for the whole thing.”

Your choice of covers suggests you wear that heart on your sleeve at times, from takes on Gram Parsons to Lucinda Williams, Neil Young, Nick Cave, John Prine … even The Eagles.

“Yeah, The Eagles one was one my girlfriend at the time was insisting on … but it came out more scary than anything else. It could be in a horror movie, it’s a sort of pale, weird, brittle performance! But yeah, don’t be afraid to state the obvious, come out and say those things, and wear your heart on your sleeve sometimes. I definitely go for that.”

Was that love of Americana, country, or whatever you want to label it, always beneath the surface? Or is it something that’s come out more in recent years?

“I’m always thinking maybe I should just move to Nashville and really kind of get into that, however sleazy and weird that is. I may go down there and try that. I really love it. My ancestors are from South Carolina, so there must be something in that. I think so.”

Listening back to It’s a Shame About Ray, I now clearly hear Elvis Costello in your delivery and songcraft, not least on the title track and songs like ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Alison’s Starting to Happen’.

“Please, yeah! Oh, come on! Even trying to hide it, I was onto myself! I was too into that. Even consciously trying to hide it, it came through anyway. I guess, using the name ‘Alison’, you’re gonna get that anyway, you know!

“When you think about it though, Elvis Costello, for me, is a cross between Doug Sahm and Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, the way he sings and the way he writes songs. I’m reading his autobiography. I haven’t come to that part yet, where he admits that his delivery is a mix between those two!”

With that, Evan starts singing, giving me a quick burst of, ‘Little Orphan Annie and Sweet Sue too, they’ve been coming around …’ from MC5’s ‘Shakin Street’.

“And Doug Sahm’s ‘I Don’t Want to Go Home’ – if you hear that … Anyway, Elvis Costello I have massive respect for.”

Another good call from Evan, that. And how much of an influence would he say some of that music we offered on this side of the Atlantic was? For there are further clues, like the inclusion of his take on ‘Fragile’ by Wire on Varshons (2009).

“Well, we were crazy for Slaughter and the Dogs, The Adverts, X-Ray Spex … We loved all that stuff. Satan’s Rats {who became The Photos} … we really loved that punk rock. My friend Jesse {Peretz} eventually eclipsed everyone else, and we just let him buy all the singles. He had them all, and we would tape them.

“We were really into the English punk thing … super into it. We’d also play The Users’ ‘Sick of You’ … and Jesse’s helped me with this book I’m trying to do, with photos. He’s a real gifted photographer, and a director now, makes movies. And I still hook up with Ben {Deily} as much as possible.”

Speaking of past personnel, going on to that next key stage of The Lemonheads from your beginnings with Ben and Jesse, did you see the addition of Juliana (Hatfield) and David (Ryan) as the real turning point?

“It was really good. It was something about going to Australia and meeting those people in June 1991, a little before Nevermind and everything was about to explode. I went with Fugazi in October, I loved it, met people that inspired me, and it was from there that myself, Juliana and Dave would practise for an hour a day for about a month and a half.

“That was it, an hour, so your ears don’t get too badly hurt. They say the ears give up and get really harmed after that, but you can pretty much be loud for an hour. It was very serious but fun, moving out to LA to make it. That was definitely a coalescing moment.”

For that 2013 Preston show I mentioned, your 2003 solo LP, Baby I’m Bored also got a strong showing.

“Yeah, I was super-proud of that record. I think of that as my Some Girls. You gotta dream, you know! Because Some Girls was so important for the Stones. They really needed to sync then and work, and that record does it for me every time. They had so much extra stuff when they made Some Girls that they had two more albums from those sessions. They re-recorded ‘Start Me Up’, which was a reggae song.

“I used to go to Jamaica to Keith (Richards’) house, back around ’95, and there was a big cabinet full of about 150 cassettes, with weird rough mixes of those three records. I would just sit there all day, get stoned and listen. I never had so much fun!”

I can’t believe almost 20 years have passed since Baby I’m Bored. Where have those years gone?

“It is crazy!”

And it was 25 years over the August bank holiday weekend since The Lemonheads’ Reading Festival date that marked your band’s 1997 farewell.

“Yeah, the long goodbye! I have no idea. It’s funny. That’s just as weird as how fucked up things are now – the time passing. Put them together and it’s time to go on tour, I guess.”

My most recent outing for It’s a Shame About Ray was on the afternoon of our early evening (UK time) interview, and it was good to be there, transported back down the years. I reckon it’s as fresh today as on my first spin.

“Nice. Yeah, I think it’s aged pretty well. I’m happy about it. The funny thing is that the 2006 record which got reissued (The Lemonheads) sounds even better than it did when I first recorded it.”

Maybe I should return to that next. And going back to ’92 and It’s a Shame About Ray, I’m invested from the moment Evan, Juliana and David burst into ‘Rockin’ Stroll’, the cracking ‘Confetti’ followed by a rack of fine tracks that continue to prove the trio’s melodic worth, the title song followed by ‘Rudderless’, the beautifully crafted ‘My Drug Buddy’ and ‘The Turnpike Down’, before the band step up a gear for the wondrous ‘Bit Part’ and ‘Alison’s Starting to Happen’, the reflective ‘Hannah & Gabi’ then leading to a mighty finish with ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Ceiling Fan in my Spoon’ before a gear-change encore on Hair’s ‘Frank Mills’. Wonderful stuff.

And that LP marked the beginning of a highly productive period for Evan, Nic Dalton added to the mix (although Juliana was still very much involved on the vocal front) for the next big LP, another winner. On many an occasion, the peerless ‘It’s About Time’ sneaked onto my compilations around then … and beyond. But I’ll save all that for another time, other than finishing by asking Evan if he’ll be back again next year to mark 30 years of Come on Feel The Lemonheads?

“Well, that is the big question. We found the really good cover we wanted to use. Like the Blind Faith thing where they couldn’t have the pubescent chick on it, we get to change the record cover. So you can judge the record by its cover next time. And then we’ll be there, yeah!”

Tickets for The Lemonheads’ It’s a Shame About Ray 30th anniversary shows are available now. For more information, head to the band’s website and check out their Twitter and Facebook links.

  • For Jason Torchinsky’s August 2022 story behind the Evan and the Scimitar pic, try this link.
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Ready to plant my feet on solid ground – contemplating life off the road with Gretchen Peters

‘I work the high wire in the centre ring
Defying gravity, that’s my thing
Guess I never wanted no regular life
I couldn’t stand to be nobody’s wife.’

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Gretchen Peters’ first UK tour, and she celebrated this week back over here for the first leg of a two-part farewell tour.

The Nashville-based, New York raised Queen of Country Noir was sharing stories and songs from her early touring days here, alongside favourites from her most recent repertoire, on the back of releasing The Show: Live from the UK, recorded on tour here in 2019 with her band – including long-time partner Barry Walsh, who she first worked with in 1990 and has toured with since 2001 – and an all-female Scottish string quartet.

Soon championed by the likes of BBC Radio 2 presenters Terry Wogan and Bob Harris, a few dates promoting debut LP The Secret of Life proved the foundation for what turned out to be an enduring relationship with fans on this side of the Atlantic, one renewed by regular returns down the years.

‘Some people tell me that I’m livin’ their dream
But things in the circus ain’t what they seem
Believe me darlin’ it’s a lonely world
It ain’t easy for a circus girl’

But just ahead of this latest visit, Gretchen revealed that this two-part UK tour would be her last. In an emotional announcement put out via social media, she wrote, ‘Music has been my church for as long as I can remember, and live performance has always been the thing that brings me closest to losing myself in the beauty and mystery of it all. Of all the aspects of my job, performing is the most ephemeral, the most of-the-moment. You can’t do it while you’re watching yourself. It’s a highwire act – and for a circus girl, that’s a nearly irresistible thing.

‘Nonetheless, after several years of soul searching, questioning, and yes, grieving – I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time to say farewell to touring life. It has been an absolute joy to play on stages from Sydney to Aberdeen to Portland, Oregon. It has been a privilege to sing my songs for you. It has been my deepest pleasure and I will miss so many things about the road. But I am ready to stop.

‘Without a doubt, the thing I’ll miss the most is you. You’ve kept my spirits up and my wheels rolling for decades. You’ve been willing to follow me through some rough territory, song-wise, knowing that we would find beauty together in the darkness – literally and figuratively. You’ve shown your big hearts over and over again, whether donating to a cause when I asked, or sending your love and concern when I lost a friend or family member or a beloved dog.

“Seeing some of you become close to each other, even while separated by oceans, has given me so much pleasure – to have been the catalyst that brought you together is an amazing thing. Together we’ve celebrated and grieved births, deaths, marriages, divorces, heartbreaks – just like any family. What an unexpected joy.

‘Barry and I will stop touring in June 2023, but we will not stop making music, and when the opportunity presents itself we may play a live show here and there, or a livestream from home. But we are saying goodbye to the kind of touring we’ve been doing for over 20 years now. We’re ready for a new chapter, one that involves less doing and more being. We’re looking forward to less time on social media, more time at home. Less carbon footprint, more footprints on the hiking trail.

“While I’m on the subject of Barry Walsh, I need to say once again what I’ve said for over 30 years now: there’s no one on earth I’d rather make music with. Since the first recording session of mine he played on in 1990, since the first tour we did together in 2001, his sensitivity and intuition has been nothing short of inspiring. I still get a thrill waiting to hear what he’ll play next. It’s never the same, and it’s always just right.

‘The music business has become increasingly, relentlessly demanding of artists. The pressure to release new “content” (not a synonym for art), to churn out singles and albums and videos and reels and posts on a prescribed schedule, often utterly out of sync with the artist’s internal one, isn’t producing more or greater art. It’s just increasing the noise and exhausting the artists. As someone who has always needed to let the field lie fallow in between creative bursts, I understand the pressure on young artists – and I hope they will resist.

“We need better songs, not more of them. We need artists who want to make art that lasts, not content that’s digested in the time it takes to scroll through your Instagram feed. I’m so grateful to have found you, an audience who understands this and has given me the grace to create on my own clock. My deepest thanks and love to all of you who have been coming – for years, and even decades – to share that sacred space in the dark with a song.’

Inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014, Gretchen has accumulated many awards and accolades en route, writing songs for artists as diverse as Etta James, Bonnie Raitt, The Neville Brothers, George Strait, Bryan Adams (receiving a Golden Globe for ‘Here I Am’), and Faith Hill.

Her song ‘Independence Day’, recorded by Martina McBride, won a CMA Song of the Year awardin 1995. also landing the first of her two Grammys, the other following a year later for Patty Loveless’ take on ‘You Don’t Even Know Who I Am’.

What’s more, 2015’s career-defining Blackbirds was an International Album of the Year and Song of the Year for the UK Americana Association. And that year The Telegraph named her as one of its 60 greatest female singer-songwriters of all time.

Blackbirds was followed by 2018’s similarly feted Dancing with the Beast, ahead of the pandemic, the international tour for her most recent studio album, The Night They Wrote the Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, delayed accordingly, although the LP was still released in 2020, praised by Rolling Stone as ‘mesmerizing’, Gretchen offering her own spin on 12 numbers from the catalogue of a respected Texan songwriter (he died in 2002, aged 62) perhaps best known for ‘An American Trilogy’, as popularised by Elvis Presley, who along with Johnny Cash and Roger Miller was one of the first to rebel against the conventions of the Nashville music society, with John Prine also among his fans.

But now she’s finally back out on the road concentrating on her own song catalogue, Gretchen getting ready for that night’s opening UK show when I called, one of two at King’s Place in King’s Cross, London that bookended the first part of a two-legged tour (the second tonight, Friday, September 2nd) she is set to complete next year. Were there still nervous moments ahead of her tours, all these years on? Were Gretchen and her band excited?

“We are, especially because it’s essentially three years since we’ve been back, because of Covid. So it’s almost like it’s happening for the first time. There’s a combination of excitement and, ‘Oh, my gosh, how do we do this? Ha!”

I’m thinking the muscle memory should kick in on the first, second or third song though.

“I think you’re right.”

I make it nine dates this time, with another 10 starting next May. Have you been over a few days, acclimatising?

“Yes, in our old age we’ve learned a few things about doing this. We now give ourselves a couple of days to acclimate … because I don’t absorb the jetlag the way I used to. It takes a little longer to get over it.”

We first spoke in 2015, then again in 2018, and 2019. And I last got to see you live and meet you in May 2018 at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, on what proved a memorable night.

“Ah, beautiful!”

Who could have guessed what was coming next though, with the pandemic and so on?

“I know. I think at that time we had our 2020 UK tour already set. We were anticipating that and knew the dates. And then … but here we are, two years later.”

Am I right in thinking several of these dates were already pencilled in for the proposed UK tour promoting The Night They Wrote the Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury

“Yes, we were planning a tour around the release of that album, and never got to do it. And since then, we’ve released another album. It was really difficult to put that album out in the middle of lockdown and everything. But I will say there was one sort of silver lining, that the album did really well, considering. I mean, fans bought it, and I think in some kind of way, people at that point – May or June 2020 – really needed music. It was a lifeline for people, and I really fought for keeping our release date because of that.

“(That lockdown) served all kinds of purposes – it was cathartic; and it meant there was some kind of connection with people outside your bubble … wherever your bubble was. I think music always helps people to feel, and we were all feeling an awful lot at that point.”

There was a lot of overthinking for lots of us as well, perhaps. But maybe part of being back on the road is about finally putting those worries about ‘how do I do this?’ aside.

“Yeah, I had plenty of time and did a lot of thinking about it. And there’s a certain thing I figured out, quite a few years ago. When you’re touring, there are nights when you’re really tired, or there are nights when you have something going on, personally, or whatever it might be. And I learned at some point that you bring whatever you have to the stage, and try to channel that into your performance, rather than tamping it down, pretending it’s not there.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen on this tour, or what’s going to happen tonight, but I have a feeling it’s going to be quite emotional, and I’m welcoming that with open arms, because I know I’m going to feel that way after all this time, seeing those people and hearing them …

“If there was one thing that really came home to me during the period when we weren’t able to tour, it was how important being in the same room with people is. Online concerts are great in lieu of nothing, but they’re not the same at all.”

Her reputation growing year by year, it must have taken some soul searching to decide to stop touring after this two-part tour. Was that down to having more time on her hands to think that over, or was she already thinking that way – pre-pandemic – with regard to announcing this final two-legged farewell tour?

“I’ll put it this way, I was definitely entertaining the questions, even before Covid happened. Even in 2018 and 2019, I was feeling the amount of work I was doing and the amount of touring we were doing was unsustainable in the long run, and I had to make some adjustments. And just dealing with the question of, ‘who am I if I’m not doing this?’ because I’ve been doing it for so long.

“But I definitely believe the pandemic put those questions in stark relief. It also gave me a lot of time to see what life looks like when you’re not constantly moving, and that was very educational. I think it certainly probably hastened my decision, or at least solidified it.”

I get that. That happened with so many of us, not least questioning what we were doing with our time, working out what was most important for our own wellbeing, ourselves and our loved ones.

“Well, so much of the time we operate on momentum – we just keep going, doing the same things we did. And I think one of the things that happened for a lot of people is that pause in life was the first time we looked around and said, ‘Okay, I do these things, but why do I do them?’

“That was really key for me to start thinking about what was burning me out and what was feeding me, and to try and turn towards the things that were feeding my creative self, my soul, and so forth. And away from the things that were in danger of burning me out, which was really too much work, without being intentional about it.”

In my case, like with many others, it was time to reappraise priorities in your life, taking stock.

“There was a lot of that going on, for a lot of people. I was no different. I was definitely going through the same sorts of things.”

‘It’s just that sometimes I get so tired
Of goin’ nowhere on that little wire
I’d like to plant my feet on solid ground
But God have mercy it’s a long way down’

I get the impression your decision to quit the international touring circuit was no spur of the moment judgement call, and this will be no Frank Sinatra-style retirement – you know, ‘Offer me enough dough, and I’ll be back.’

“Ha! Well, I did say, and I will stand by this, that we’re done doing the sort of touring we’ve been doing for 20 years or more, playing 10, 15 or 20 cities at a time. However, it doesn’t mean an end to us making music and, you know, we may pop back for a festival, a one-off show or even, I don’t know what, but it’s not going to look like the long tours covering the entire country, like we did before.

“That’s the thing for which we decided we’re done. And we’ve loved it. We’ve incredibly grateful to the people. I mean, for 25 years, people in the UK have been coming to see us, and I still see a lot of people on the front rows at shows that were at those little venues 25 years ago, so it’s with a lot of gratitude and a lot of warm feelings about all that. But we decided that for our own lives, sanity and health and everything else that was part of it, it wasn’t sustainable for us anymore.”

‘So I climb that ladder right on up to the sky
I don’t look down and I don’t ask why
And just for a moment I’m on top of the world
Just for a moment I’m a circus girl’

I guess there will still be travel opportunities though, because travel and meeting people is a key part of what makes you tick. I’m guessing the guitar will still be loaded in the back of the truck from time to time, given the chance.

“Possibly, yeah, but we don’t love carrying the guitar and accordion around, I have to tell you! But definitely, with Barry and I, travel is a big part of what we love. So that’s not going to stop, although I will say travel is not as much fun as it used to be. Maybe that will improve. It’s pretty horrible right now, but maybe we’ll find some kind of new equilibrium.”

So, it’s not necessarily time for the Queen of Country Noir to hang up her plectrum, so to speak?

“You just never know. What I’m really trying to do is make space for whatever’s next. That’s kind of what I’m focused on, but I wanted to share my decision with people, because for one thing I sort of selfishly want to have a chance to say goodbye.”

Your online announcement inspired me to look back at something you told me in 2019, when I asked about new songs and whether they came to you on the road, you responding that they were, ‘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.’ I’m guessing you’re looking forward to exploring that additional downtime come next summer.

“Yes, and I think the other thing about it is that the key is to have that downtime this time without expectation, because that’s already given me such a sense of freedom. I could write something other than music if I wanted to. I don’t know what I’ll do, but just to have that feeling that it’s wide open and there’s no schedule and no expectation … that’s something I haven’t felt for a really long time.”

With your lyrical qualities too, I can see a novel coming next.

“Well, you never know. And I really mean that – I’m not being coy, I have no idea what will come, but I have a feeling that with some downtime and time to think about and sort of process everything that’s happened, there’ll be some sort of an itch to write something!”

Clearly, your domestic, studio and touring soulmate Barry is key to all this, but it’s also good to see Kim Richey back on the road with you, having gone down well last time around in the UK, opening for you. You’re sisters out there on the road, aren’t you?

“We are, and we’re so happy to have her out with us again. I mean, she’s so much fun. Not to mention the fact that just having her sing with us elevates everything. She is one of the greatest singers I know. And everyone loves her. It’s such a … you know, it’s having three cherries on top instead of one, to have her out, so people can hear her songs, and for us to have her sing with us. We’re really looking forward to that. And she’s a lot of fun on the road.”

I gather this year marks the 25th anniversary of you first setting foot on a UK stage, plugging your first LP. Where was that first gig? And how was the turnout and crowd reaction?

“Oh, gosh, it was actually 26 years ago that my record came out (The Secret of Life). I think I did a couple of little gigs at that time, but it wasn’t really a tour. So technically, my first tour was 25 years ago. I want to say there were four shows, and one of them had to be London. I’m sure that that was true. I’m pretty sure we played Glasgow, and I know we played Sunderland as well.

“I’m not sure where the other one was, but I think the Sunderland show might have been the first. It was tiny. It was a bar. I had no expectations. It was my first tour, it was a very small venue, but it was a respectable turnout. There were probably, I don’t know, 50 or 60 people there. The sound was great, and it was fine with me.”

I’m pretty sure there will be people coming up to you before and after shows, letting you know exactly where those first shows were.

“Oh, they’ll have photos of their ticket stubs! I get corrected all the time, online, because my memory’s not very reliable when it comes to stuff like that. But I see those familiar faces, every show almost, and it’s so wonderful – we have a history together, and it’s great. They feel like part of the family to me.”

And you’ll be sharing a few stories between songs, stirring up some grey matter.

“It’s gonna be as much of a challenge for my memory as it is for everyone else. But yes, I hope to, especially as this tour we’re doing right now is about half with our band, then half with just Barry and me, and then Kim. Especially the ones that are sort of the unplugged shows, as I’m calling them. But I will have the time and the freedom to tell some stories and talk about our early years a little more, because I’ll have the flexibility to do that. So that’ll be fun.”

Finally, it’s nice not to have to talk so much about Old Man Trump in the White House. I know (worryingly), he hasn’t gone far away, but it’s great to be talking about more positive aspects of life … in America, at least.

“Yeah, we’re still locked in a death struggle over there, but I have reason to feel a little more optimistic these days. I hope that’s not misplaced. And honestly, at this point, I’m choosing to be optimistic, because I think that’s the right thing to do.”

But you’re over here now, and no doubt you could already see the parallels with our own broken system and Government.

“Oh, I’m paying attention, there’s no question, because, you know, we’ve gone on parallel paths, our two countries, and I think it’s not only that I’m just interested, but also I think it’s educational to watch what’s happening, because we have definitely followed those parallel paths. It’s informative. But here’s sending out a positive thought for both of us.”

Lyrics from ‘Circus Girl’ by Gretchen Peters © 1993 Sony/ATV Tunes LLC/Purple Crayon Music, found on The Secret of Life (1995).

Gretchen Peters’ latest UK tour dates, with Kim Richey as special guest, kicked off last week in London’s Kings Place and Wimborne’s Tivoli Theatre, and Leeds’ City Varieties, returning to Kings Place tonight (Friday, September 2). She then joins Beth Nielsen Chapman and Dan Navarro  on an eight-day Danube cruise from Budapest in October, with a few US dates before she returns to the UK and Ireland next year, on that occasion visiting The Mac in Belfast (May 3), Lowther Pavilion, Lytham (May 4), The Sage, Gateshead (May 5), Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (May 6), followed by four dates in the Netherlands before a UK return to play Bury St Edmunds’ The Apex (May 17), Buxton Opera House (May 19), Birmingham Town Hall (May 20), Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion (May 21), Cardiff’s St David’s Hall (May 23), Swindon’s Wyvern Theatre (May 24), Exeter’s Corn Exchange (May 25), and finishing at London’s Cadogan Hall (May 26). For tickets head here, and more information on Gretchen Peters, the new live album, and her past releases head to her website. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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Dream on – catching up on The Orchids with John Scally

It’s always a pleasure to discover a band you previously knew little about, but instantly chimes with you. And that was the case for me in early 2017 when I chanced upon The Orchids live for the first time.

When these cherished purveyors of sophisticated Caledonian indie pop played The Continental in Preston, Lancashire, I knew the name and a bit about the Sarah Records label they once recorded for, and had it in mind that legendary BBC Radio 1 broadcaster John Peel was a keen supporter (from the moment he aired their first single in 1988, in fact). But that was as far as it went.

I turned up chiefly to see the reformed Chesterf!elds that night, but was smitten by the headliners too (the review is here), and I’ve been catching up ever since … albeit three decades late. And thankfully they continue to make great music and put in occasional live appearances, this Glaswegian outfit about to deliver a seventh studio LP, Dreaming Kind.

I heard a couple of tracks from the new record when they returned to the Conti a year ago for the Preston Pop Fest three-dayer, where it was clear that here was a band about far more than churning out old indie cult classics, near-hits and should-have-been-hits.

And it turns out that Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey, playing the same event that weekend with both The Catenary Wires and Swansea Sound, were similarly impressed … to the extent that they decided there and then they’d like to release the next Orchids LP on their Skep Wax label.

As Rob put it, “The first gig we went to after lockdown was the Preston Pop Fest. It was an emotional occasion. Many bands were playing for the first time in two years. The Orchids were really special that night. We were surprised to hear so many new songs, and such great new songs too – really powerful.”

Amelia and Rob were also with Sarah back in the day, as key components of Heavenly, and dwelling on The Orchids’ past, the label insisted, ‘Their songs were as emotionally pure as anything else on Sarah Records, but they were always a step ahead of their peers in terms of song arrangements and musical ambition. With a casual, unpretentious air they made writing perfect pop songs seem easy, almost accidental, several great releases following.’

They weren’t alone in seeing and hearing that, The Orchids having soon secured a passionate following – ‘people knew a good thing when they heard it and they hugged it close.’ A loyal fan base it is too, judging by the numbers still catching them where they can. And now it’s hoped more folk will be let in on the secret. Besides, after a couple of listens, I’m already convinced about the quality of Dreaming Kind, the promise of advance single ‘This Boy is a Mess’ and opening track ‘Didn’t We Love You?’ duly met.

The Orchids’ line-up these days comprises originals James Hackett (lyrics, vocals, acoustic guitar, melodica), John Scally (lead guitar/keyboards) and Chris Quinn (drums, percussion, his older brother Paul also adding percussive touches on the new LP), plus Ronnie Borland (bass, keyboards, guitar, backing vocals), who joined briefly in ’93 and has remained involved since they reformed a decade later, as is the case with Keith Sharp (rhythm guitar).

Listening back now, I know I should have fallen for this South-West Glasgow combo from the start. But by the time they were on my radar, I’d started to drift away from the world of jangly indie pop. That went for my perception of much of Sarah Records’ output, perhaps to some extent scared off by the withering attitude of some of the established music press. My loss.

Now I hear 1989’s ‘It’s Only Obvious’, 1990’s ‘Something for the Longing’ and 1991’s ‘Bemused, Confused and Bedraggled’ and ‘Peaches’, I know how far up my proverbial street they all are. I also hear Go-Betweens traces on tracks like ‘Tiny Words’, ‘What Will We Do Next?’, ‘Magic in Here’, and the gorgeous, Velvets-like ‘Welcome to my Curious Heart’. Move along, nothing not to love there. As for later pearls like 2007’s Another Saturday Night’ and 2014’s ‘Something’s Going On’, how did I miss those first time around?

The afore-mentioned John Scally is a social worker by day, working for a mental health charity, around 30 years in his line of work behind him. Were The Orchids ever a full-time career option?

“Erm … way back when we were younger, students and that. But then we would just take time off work, and never actually reached a point that we were full-time. Myself, Chris and James always had jobs … since we were kids. We never had the luxury of being full-time. They never made us an offer!”

Were Chris, James and yourself ‘the Penilee three’ who put the band together?

“Yes, we grew up together, lived in the same street, went to the same school, going all the way through to secondary school, and at 14 and 15 – getting into music – it kind of transcended from there.”

What was floating your boat back then, musically?

“Obviously, there was Postcard Records, stuff like that. But I’d always been a huge Beatles fan, and from 13 or 14 was into early Simple Minds, back to things like ‘Empires and Dance’. James was into things like Steel Pulse, Chris was into New Order, Joy Division … a whole load of things.”

That eclectic taste makes sense, judging by the wide canvas of influences colouring your output. And you seem a cultured bunch.

“Again, we were really lucky, because in the early ‘80s the Barrowlands had reopened in Glasgow, and there would be something every week to go and see, like Aztec Camera, Echo and the Bunnymen … and at that time the Splash One happening in Glasgow.”

For the uninitiated, the latter was a short-lived indie scene at 46 West George Street from 1985/86, homegrown acts such as Primal Scream, BMX Bandits, The Pastels, The Shop Assistants and Jasmine Minks joined by feted cross-border visitors such as Sonic Youth, Wire, and The Loft.

John’s not ventured so far from his roots, these days based down the coast in Prestwick, a 40-minute drive away ‘on a good day’ (and closer by train) from the city. And he tells me, ‘Life on the Ayrshire coast is good. It’s quite cosmopolitan, it’s got a high street about two miles long, and 10 pubs. It meets the criteria!”

Are you a social bunch as a band? Do you meet outside rehearsals, recording and live shows?

“Oh aye. Not as much as we used to, but when we have rehearsals, we have a pub we meet up in, going for a pint before.”

I’m only a few listens in, but the new LP is already resonating. I’m guessing you’re pleased with the results.

“We are! It’s been a long haul. It always takes time to get an Orchids album together these days. We started with very good intentions of having it finished for some point in 2020, but then Covid happened.”

Our interview fell on the first anniversary of the band’s return to The Continental for the Preston Pop Fest, and there were a few songs then which were new to me.

“I think we played two new songs. We played ‘Didn’t We Love You?’ that night.” 

When I first caught you at the Conti in 2017, I was there first and foremost for The Chesterf!elds. You were a name to me, but I missed out on the Sarah Records bands as a live phenomenon. But your following that night certainly seemed to know all the words, helping you through.

“It’s a funny thing, a musical journey – if you discover things at a different time in your life and they bring you joy and excitement … that’s just life. There’s lots of stuff you discover at an older age and think, ‘How did I not discover that years ago?’

Similarly, it took me a while to realise producer Ian Carmichael (keyboards, rhythm programming, and arguably the band’s sixth member) has proved integral to your story, knowing him chiefly through his collaboration with Dot Allison in One Dove.

“Yes, and again, it’s one of these things. Ian always offers his service, and we can’t really knock him back, because we don’t really pay him much! Ha!”

What does he add to the band through his studio craft?

“Well, the songs on the album are ours, but we give Ian credits because he’s involved in some arrangements and so on. And if he was to send us a bill for the amount of hours spent on this album …”

… You’d be working until you’re 75 to pay him back, yeah?

“It would be a hefty bill! But I guess this makes it an equal partnership. If we end up with a No.1 hit that makes a couple of thousand pounds, he’ll get some money!”

Let’s hope so. I’ve written so many times down the years that this or that track should have been a chart-topper in a perfect world, but clearly have little idea of crossover potential. What I find refreshing though is how many bands from the ‘80s and ‘90s back out there now are doing it for all the right reasons, concentrating on a love of playing live, recording and hanging out rather than chasing contracts and hits. And that often shows – as is clearly the case with The Orchids – in the quality of the songcraft.

“As I say, we all have jobs, so a lot of the time we fund the band. Don’t get me wrong, we still get money coming in, but if we play gigs, we have to subsidise it. And we love to go in luxury these days. We don’t like driving!”

You’re not still using that cool VW bus then, all piling in and heading for the seafront like you did on the ‘Another Saturday Night’ promo video?

“Ah, It’s one of those things. I’d love to get back in the campervan, but you can’t go anywhere, it seems, without finding a bus lane or triggering a congestion charge.”

I think a few of us have fallen foul of that in strange cities before now. Talking of your past, I also see long-time associate Pauline Hynds Bari (vocals) is on this record too. Another key link to the band’s rich history?

“She is, and when we need a backing vocalist, Pauline’s always there, the first we go to. But she’s out on Barra, about five hours away by boat, so it’s not easy to get hold of her at times! She’s been there for maybe 20 years.”

This will be your seventh studio album and your first since 2014. That doesn’t sound too long ago in my head, but I guess it is between releases.

“It is, and a lot’s happened between the years. In late 2015 I took really ill, ending up in hospital, needing heart surgery. I had a bacterial disease, a really rare thing that attacked my heart valves. That put me out of the game for the whole of 2016.”

In fact, that February 2017 date in Preston was their first outside Scotland since that forced break. Is John back in good health now?

“I’m fine, it was one of those things. I just have to be really careful with medication, things like that.”

As it was, his band were seemingly among the few Preston Pop Fest attendees who avoided catching Covid that weekend. But he tells me he finally succumbed after seeing Simple Minds at Glasgow Hydro (in the company of a 15-year-old nephew who had recently discovered the South Side big-hitters) in April.

Like Jim Kerr, Charlie Burchill and co. before them (in 1979 and 1982), The Orchids recorded two sessions for John Peel’s highly influential BBC Radio 1 show in 1990 and 1994, the legendary broadcaster first playing them in 1988, helping them on their way.

“Oh, straight away he was giving Sarah Records airplay, and kept that up. And those two sessions with him are about to be re-released on vinyl by Precious Records. They might come out before the end of the year, depending how fast the record plants are all working.”

Both sessions were recorded at Maida Vale. I realise he rarely got down to his sessions, but did you ever meet Peelie?

“No, but Dale Griffin was the producer/engineer, so that was pretty good. I was into Mott the Hoople and told him ‘Roll Away the Stone’ was one of my favourite songs when I was about eight.”

How did that Sarah Records link-up come about, not least with them being Bristol-based?

“We had a friend, Karen, involved in Glasgow fanzines, and she corresponded with Matt (Haynes) and Clare (Wadd). She sent off one of our demos – she didn’t tell us until after – and told us, ‘They want to do a flexi single and they’d like to put this song on it.’ That’s when it kind of snowballed.”

Were they a good label to be with?

“They were great. Matt and Clare are great people, so straight down the middle, very flexible with what you wanted to do, and it fitted in with everything we wanted to do. We were just happy somebody wanted to put out our records, everything a 50/50 equal share.”

Now it seems to have come full circle, former Sarah labelmates Rob and Amelia stepping up through the Kent-based Skep Wax label. I’m guessing you knew each other from their Heavenly days, so to speak.

“Yeah, and in recent years we saw Rob and Amelia when we played the Madrid Pop Fest, and we’d often see them at gigs. It was maybe just prior to Preston, corresponding. They were writing new songs and looking for places to book, Rob said he was going to start a label, and we mentioned that we were trying to get an album finished.

“He said they might be interested, keep us in mind. When it all came together, it fitted perfectly and just seemed the right thing to do. We were keen to try to talk to other labels, but Rob and Amelia seemed to have an idea of what they wanted to do and how they were going to do it, and we thought that sounded easier. And The Orchids always go for the easy option we’re quite lazy when it comes to those things!

“And I have to say, so far Rob and Amelia have generated so much interest for the label. We were saying the other day, after they sent an up-to-date press update about how many people wanted an interview and had showed interest in the album, we’d not had that in years! It was like, ‘Another interview?’

“It’s brilliant, and the (Skep Wax) compilation (Under the Bridge, with The Orchids one of 14 acts featured) has done really well. It’s just about sold out, and they’ve sold all the CDs, far as I know.”

There are live dates lined up, I see, including an album launch at 229 in London. Is there a Scottish launch date as well?

“Yeah, we’re hoping to have a Glasgow gig the week before. We’re just waiting for that to be confirmed.”

If the Barrowland Ballroom will have you?

“Oh aye! That’d probably be the last gig The Orchids would ever do, I think! But nah, it’s never beckoned. And we’ve never been asked for a support slot. I don’t know what we’ve done wrong!”

Well, they don’t know what they’re missing. I was looking at the excellent Toppermost website’s Orchids tribute, where Rob Morgan writes in a neat appreciation of the band (linked here) how you’d ‘quietly released some of the best pop music of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.’ There’s definitely something in that.

“Ah, it’s just one of those things. We were just a bunch of guys who were really happy to be offered gigs, and in the early ‘90s we were really happy to be invited to play Switzerland and Germany, all expenses paid trips. And that will do for us.

“We never really courted major record deals or anything like that. At one point there was maybe talk that Chrysalis Records and Go! Discs or something like that were interested. But again, we didn’t really show any ambition. And hey, this is part of life.”

You certainly have loyal support. That struck me the first time I saw you. There you were, 190 miles from home, and it was like a Glaswegian takeover, the crowd more or less an extension of the band.

“At Preston? I have to say, we were really overwhelmed by that, our first gig in a number of years, and we had no idea what The Continental would be like. I think it’s one of the best venues I’ve ever played. And Rico is an amazing guy, a lovely man.”

That’s Rico la Rocca, aka promoter Tuff Life Boogie, who put together 2022’s Preston Pop Fest, seemingly against all odds in Covid times, yet somehow pulling it off.

They’ve not long since rocked the happening Glas-Goes-Pop indie festival too, And I guess it’s easy to play the geographical card, as so much I hear in The Orchids reminds me of so much I admire about so many bands from their patch and thereabouts, from Aztec Camera to The Go-Betweens and so on, the latter adopted Scots, of course …

“Yep, The Go-Betweens are a big part of The Orchids. We love their albums and saw them numerous times in Glasgow.”

Then there’s Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Orange Juice, and Teenage Fanclub in more recent years, and even next generation bands like Camera Obscura.

“Yeah, all bands that are in the mix.”

And while on that first time I saw you it was more of a ‘best of’ set, we now see how strong the new songs are as well, as hinted at in last year’s return, that trademark mix of melodic and sometimes lilting and dance-edged songcraft truly evident. What also grabs me is the never-OTT delivery – the guitars, rhythm section and James’ vocals, always subtly effective, working so well. I’m sure it’s not the case, but it seems that you’re hardly breaking sweat at times.

“Erm … I don’t know about that. It depends how many beers we’ve had!”

All the same, the quality of the songs shines through, and you seem at ease with it all.

“I think it’s one of these things, because we all have busy family and work lives, it’s not like we rehearse every week. But for the gigs coming in October we’ll probably start to rehearse in the next few weeks, and we make the best use of the time we have.

“We just need to focus on what we need to do and how we do it. I guess we have a formula, and it works for us, but we do try and throw things in the mix, and see what works, because we like to be different. I’m a big Van Morrison fan and some of his albums are very much the same, but for The Orchids we’ve always tried to make the next song a bit different.”

That breadth of style is incorporated on this new LP. And what was the thinking behind the title, Dreaming Kind? Is there an overriding manifesto or theme?

“I think it’s about everything that’s happened in the last couple of years in terms of Covid and mental health and people’s wellbeing, and the title is in one of the lyrics of the songs (‘What Have We Got To Do?’).

“We spent ages debating album titles. In The Orchids, we probably spend more time on album titles than we do writing songs … going back and forth! Dreaming Kind was in the mix and kind of stuck, and we decided to go with that.”

Well, again, it fits perfectly. And will there be a North-West England date this time?

“We would love to. We don’t like driving anywhere, but can get a train, so Preston’s perfect. We have tried to get promoters in Manchester interested, but it just doesn’t seem to work. But we’re always looking for options. It’s just getting to places. We’re going to London in October, but how we’ll get there, I don’t know, given the train situation.

“One fan asked, ‘Why do you always play gigs abroad?’ Well, because they make us offers. And it’s always nicer to be going to Barcelona than it is to go to Bradford.”

For pre-order detail about Dreaming Kind, available via the Skep Wax label (Skepwax007) in LP, CD and digital formats on September 2nd (CD, digital) and October 14th (LP), distributed through Cargo (EU/ROW) and Redeye (US), and the band’s upcoming live dates, head to their website. You can also keep in touch via their Facebook and Twitter pages.

And for more about the Skep Wax Records label, check out their Bandcamp page and follow them via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

The original Orchids band photographs used above were ‘borrowed’ from the splendid Sarah Records official website, which can be found here.

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Reigniting the Spark – back in touch with Elliott Morris

It was November 2014 when I first chanced upon virtuoso guitarist and singer-songwriter Elliott Morris, his engaging playing and personality during a short set supporting Paul Carrack at Preston Guild Hall (reviewed here) making a big impression.

I first interviewed Elliott in the summer of 2016, as he looked to spread the word ahead of the release of his debut LP, Lost & Found subsequently landing in 2017, followed by The Way is Clear in 2019, his star steadily rising.

Then came the pandemic, but while the regular live engagements were halted, this travelling troubadour – ‘half-English, half-Scottish, raised in Wales and Lincolnshire’ – remained busy, determined not to lose momentum, online lockdown-era streamed shows supplemented by guitar tuition and a little ‘noodling’ in his home studio in South-East London.

And the result is Something Worth Fighting For, due out on September 1st, further showcasing his ‘signature acoustic percussive technique, swooping soulful electric lines and explosive, distorted slide-guitar solos’, and Elliott’s songwriting and vocal abilities, its genre-spanning guests including the afore-mentioned Paul Carrack (Ace, Squeeze, Mike + The Mechanics, Eric Clapton) on Hammond organ.

As it is, Paul’s son Jack Carrack (drums) features in Elliott’s band, along with fellow mainstays Henry Webster (fiddle) and Elliott’s brother Bevan Morris(double/electric bass), their contributions on the new record complemented by those from Michael Manring (bass), Gráinne Brady (vocals/strings, also co-writing with Elliott), and Adrienne Nye(vocals).

On a 10-track album also featuring co-writes with Jack Shaw and Andy N. Taylor, Elliott promises a ‘celebration of love, hope and friendship,’ one written and recorded during and after lockdown, initially in his spare room, ‘a bit of gritty angst thrown in for good measure,’ the songs hopping between blues rock and folk, plus those soulful playing and slick acoustic guitar moments his fans have come to expect.

It was too soon for me to delve too deep into the record when we spoke, but I was already sold on the instrumental ‘Tonnau’, inspired by the Welsh coastline, apparently fast becoming a crowd favourite at live shows, described by Elliott as ‘a big chunk of fuzzy-Celtic-electro-dance-stomp-rock’.

“Ah, tonnau means waves in Welsh. It’s about those things I was missing in lockdown, being in those places where you feel that sort of grounding. Not to say I don’t feel at home in London – it’s my home and I love it to bits, I’m very lucky in the part of London I am to have that green space, and I can’t imagine what it would be like living in a tower block in the centre of town. And London did become very peaceful – you’d go out into parks, and it would be so quiet, and you’d be like, ‘Oh, wait, I remember why it’s this quiet, and why there are no planes going over.’ It was weird.

“But I grew up in Carmarthenshire, lived there 10 years, and didn’t go back as much as I wanted to.

Then, around 10 years ago, I got an email from a guy called Mike who runs a pub called the Pentre Arms in Llangrannog, and remember getting there, thinking, ‘I’ve been here before.’ It was deja vu but it was more certain than that. I spoke to my Mum and Dad, and they said I went there on school trips. It was just very circular to end up back there, gigging, and that was one of those I would look forward to in the diary every year I play there.”

In fact, Elliott had the Pentre Arms lined up for his next show when I went to press on this feature.

“There’s also an instrumental on my last album, the closing track, ‘The Pentre’, written about my gigs there. I’ve played there so many times – solo, as a duo with Jack, and us two with my brother as a trio … and we’ll have Henry as well this time.

“That track reflects that journey when you’re on the way there. Pentre means village in Welsh, it’s got this real community feel, and it was another of those places I missed in lockdown. And tonnau means waves in Welsh. Besides, you can only have one song called ‘The Pentre’!”

“What’s mad is that ‘The Pentre’ is a song we’ve played together probably over 100 times, yet Henry’s never been there. It will be really nice to finally play it on that stage.”

There’s plenty of catchy riffs, infectious rhythms and ear-worm choruses across the new LP, from an artist that’s grafted out something of a reputation on the acoustic scene, honing his craft from Orkney to Jersey, Belfast to Clonakilty, including headline shows as far afield as Germany, Holland, Ireland and Canada. Then there are all those major venues where he’s supported Paul Carrack, further supports including those with Frank Turner, Andy McKee, Seth Lakeman, Lau, Damien O’Kane and Ron Block, Albert Lee, Big Country, The Levellers, Ed Sheeran, Cara Dillon, and Eddi Reader.

​Elliott was in Hither Green last time we chatted, but tells me he’s now ‘about half a mile up the road’ in Lee, ‘the other side of the tracks … under the bridge, a little closer to Blackheath.’ And he also gives guitar lessons at a school in Blackheath on afternoons, as well as teaching privately, online from home (something he feels wouldn’t even have been a thing pre-pandemic, but has continued despite the lifting of lockdown).

“That was really good. I don’t know what I’d have done otherwise. In those early days when people were kind of finding their feet with all of it, I’d log on for a lesson with one of my students – I teach students of all ages, from complete beginners to those doing their grade eight, and adult learners that have come back to the instrument – and they’d be surrounded by the rest of the family, because I was an outside face coming into their home! I’d have parents going, ‘Can we hang on a little longer after the lesson so I can do a bit?’ I’d be like, ‘I can’t, I’ve got another student!’ But I’d end up dialling back once their kid had gone to sleep, and they’d grab their child’s guitar, have a lesson themselves!”

The promo video for the new record was shot in an idyllic spot on the Isle of Skye, a regular stop-off for Elliott, one he was more than happy to take up the offer of performing at, post-virus restrictions.

“Having that long pause, people had either booked you prior to the pandemic or got in touch, saying, ‘When things can happen again, please come and visit.’ It was very odd dipping your toes back in the water, and I didn’t actually know how to book a gig anymore!’ Even this summer, so many festivals are still honouring 2020 lineups. If you email them, they say, ‘We’re still owing people gigs booked 18 months before the pandemic hit.’ For a while I couldn’t even begin to fathom how I would book tours or structure this the way I used to.

“The flipside is that it’s more flexible than it used to be. You can book at shorter notice, people still happy to come, because we’re in this sort of honeymoon period – we’ve missed it for so long. Although they’ve never heard of this or that guy, they’ll take a chance on them, see what’s what. And there was a gig on Skye where they contacted me, mid-lockdown, and said, ‘Please come up and see us.’ I booked that at the beginning of the year, off the back of finishing recording the album. I spent a couple of days there, and that (video) was recorded at the end of this little shingly beach, outside one of the venues I was playing (the Stein Inn, Waternish).

“They realised it’s quite far from London, so said, ‘Stick around a bit. I wanted to make myself a bit more useful than just doing the gig itself, and thought, ‘This place looks stunning, it’d be rude not to film here! So we did that and another couple of things we’ll put online these next few weeks.”

It’s been six years since we last spoke, and since then there have been three LP releases. How do you feel your recordings have changed over that period?

“I would say this one is certainly a natural progression from the last two. I feel it’s a bit ballsier, more powerful and gritty in places. I guess there’s a perfect storm thing happening, in part, between the fact I was wanting to experiment and come up with something new and fresh, but at the same time kind of borne out of necessity. I didn’t want it to be extremely explicit. It was recorded at home, but part of the parameters of recording this was that I needed to do something, so how am I going to make this possible? The subject matter and I guess my frustrations were then reflected in a slightly more DIY sound.

“I honestly wasn’t expecting it to be album worthy. It was just, ‘Let’s just make some noise, try and do something again.’ When things were going back to normal, I spoke to Mattie (Foulds), the producer, and said, ‘Can we see what’s here, and mix it?’ And he felt it didn’t sound like a lockdown album or iPhone notes. I mean it wasn’t iPhone notes, but you run the risk of it sounding a little too ‘homemade’ when recording in your spare room for the first time! Luckily, according to Mattie, I passed the audition!

“At the same time, I think there was a perfect storm between the subject matter mixed with the parameters of recording at home and a progression to want to be a little louder, a little bigger in sound, and I think some of that was missing playing with other people. I was like, ‘When I get back on stage, we’re gonna make so much noise, this is gonna be great!’”

As well as regular solo live streams, mid-lockdown, Elliott also kept himself busy by putting music on in care homes, additional needs schools, and so on via the Live Music Now charity.

“Luckily, I live very near to Henry (Webster). We’d only done one proper gig before lockdown, then the charity got in touch, said schools are going back, but don’t have anyone visiting. We can make it safe for you guys to meet up and perform livestream concerts, streaming into schools. That kept us fresh, and we also wrote an album as a duo that we’re going to record very soon.”

What’s more, after coronavirus restrictions were lifted in Summer 2021, Elliott’s band filmed a recording session in the bedroom of Jimi Hendrix’s late-‘60s Georgian flat in Brook Street, Mayfair, West London (opened to the public five years earlier after Heritage Lottery funding, along with the flat next door, where G.F. Handel lived and composed for 36 years), something he also shed light on.

“That was lovely, another of these mid-lockdown ‘what if’s. We’d been talking to them (the Handel House Trust), and they said, ‘Come and do some recording.’ We then got an email in June saying the museum was opening again, then closing from September for an enormous re-set (it re-opens next Spring). It’s Jimi Hendrix’s flat, left as he would have lived there. We were invited to film some videos, recorded a few songs, and it’s phenomenal.

“The magnitude of where we were didn’t really sink in while I was there, because we were recording, but afterwards we put some of his records on a vinyl player there, built to his spec, and just being in that space, then seeing videos of us playing there, that was very special – essentially going from writing and recording songs in my bedroom to writing and recording them in his bedroom. So yes, I guess the first time I recorded and played live with Jack and Henry for 16 months was actually in Hendrix’s bedroom! That still feels crazy saying it now, but at the time it was just the next step. It was what was possible at the time. How mad to think that the way it was possible to make music together and share it with people at that point in time was to record it in Jimi Hendrix’s bedroom!”

This LP campaign was very much an indie enterprise, it seems, and I see you’ve carried on with a crowdfunding initiative, despite being previously involved with the now defunct PledgeMusic direct-to-fan platform. Did you lose money back then?

“I lost about a grand, which wasn’t nice, but some bands lost £30,000 and never made that album, never recovering from that – not just financially, but being so disheartened, your entire fan-base getting behind you and remaining sympathetic but also having been burned by it and therefore understandably hesitant next time around.

“Luckily, my first campaign was absolutely fine, I had a really good campaign manager who loved it, and that’s kind of what you pay your commission for – having someone on your side, to hold your hand through a process that might be relatively new. I’d released EPs before, so knew the work going into it and what it was like to record in a studio, so it wasn’t completely alien, but it was nice having someone to help you talk to your audience, how to ask for funding or present yourself.

“With the second album, I needed less help, but the campaign manager changed about halfway through, the contact getting a little looser. Then – and I regret this so much – they managed to pay me twice for part of the process, which was thousands of pounds. I had this stupid honesty to send it back and say, ‘I think you’re wrong here.’ And they said, ‘Oh yeah, thanks. So sorry about that.’ Then the company folded, and the final amount of about £1,000, to cover the postage, unfortunately I never got back. It was awful, but I was able to fulfil every order.

“And here I am now with Indiegogo, and it’s the best way as an independent artist to get those pre-orders. And I don’t want anyone to feel like their money could be at risk and they wouldn’t get the product.”

As for Paul Carrack’s contribution, did your link with his son, Jack come through Paul, or was it Paul setting you up with Jack?

“A bit of both. I did two full tours with Paul and was the ‘go to’ support guy if they didn’t have anyone. He has a lot of say in who he chooses. Quite rare for a headliner. So I’m chuffed he calls on me!’ Jack played those two tours, we started playing together as a duo, and I remember arranging Lost and Found and saying to Jack, ‘I feel it needs something like what your dad does here,’ And he was like, ‘Why not just ask my dad?’ I didn’t want him to be like, ‘Oh, so that’s why you wanted to jam’ because that totally wasn’t the case! I love Jack’s playing! But he said, ‘why would you need to look for anyone else?’

“Paul’s very, very kind with his time and when we got to recording parts it would just be exactly what the track needed. And with this album, with me recording at home then people sending their parts, Jack recorded his drums at his dad’s studio and while he was there, Paul recorded his.

“I was up in the studio with Mattie, mixing, when Paul’s part came for a tune called ‘Come Back to Me’, which begins as more of a sort of Fleetwood Mac thing, kind of R&B bluesy thing, then rises up and is a bit more bit more rock‘n’roll. I remember Mattie going, ‘There’s nobody in the world that could play on this track better than he does! You’ve got the guy here that plays organ for Eric Clapton!’ When you’re in a studio, going through takes, there are bits where you’re like, ‘We should probably take that out’, or ‘They overplayed on that’, or ‘This fill’s slightly out of time.’ But when you get a tape from Paul Carrack, you drop it in at the start, click play, play it to the end, and it’s just spot on!”

(As it happens, four days after this feature landed, and eight days after we spoke, Elliott was back in tow with Paul Carrack again, called on late doors to support him at Southend-on-Sea’s Cliffs Pavilion. I’d like to think it was all down to the powerful influence of a WriteWyattUK plug, but can’t be so sure.)

Then of course there’s your brother, Bevan. In fact, all your core bandmates are clearly integral to all this.

“Yeah, in lockdown, it was so hard to knuckle down and write anything when there was no gig on the horizon. I was feeling starved for inspiration and kind of lost that sense of direction. But that was okay because everyone had, and I guess I did a lot more improvising and playing guitar for fun, just nonsense noodling, really good for exercising that guitar muscle, but at the same time very loose.

“Every so often, I would record a voice note or little idea and maybe ping it to my brother, or Jack or Henry, saying, ‘Is there anything? Is this anything?’ And because it was an exploration and I didn’t have gigs on the horizon a lot of the time, I was like, ‘Have I heard this before? Does this sound like me? Does it fit with my set and other stuff I’ve written?’ But then I told myself, ‘There is no set at the moment, there’s no gig, there’s no trying to sneak in a new song amongst the old, so just write for the sake of it!’.

“And it wasn’t until coming out of that, going, ‘Okay, I’m going to gig again,’ that I found this folder on my computer, and realised there was a whole album there. I recorded all of it as a scratch demo, sent it through to Jack, Bev and Henry, the core band, and said, ‘Does this work together? Is this an album?’ And the general consensus was, ‘Yeah, let’s get this down!’

For all the latest from Elliott Morris, fresh from recent UK dates with Henry Webster and Jack Carrack at Stroud Brewery Bar and the Pentre Arms, Llangrannog, then a trip to Germany with Henry, Jack and Bevan Morris to play B&B Fiddler’s Inn, Neuruppin (Friday, August 26th), including forthcoming dates, latest news and release details, plus Something Worth Fighting For pre-order links (the album comes out to pre-order backers on September 1st, with a full digital album release on December 2nd), head to www.elliottmorris.co.uk. You can also keep in touch with Elliott via his Facebook page.

And for this website’s September 2016 interview with Elliott Morris, head here.

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Cool to be Kind – talking Sunbirds and The South with Phil Barton

When The Beautiful South split in 2007 after a highly successful two-decade run, it seemed that the end of the party had come too soon for co-founder Dave Hemingway.

Hammy, as he’s known, was there from the outset, joining forces with fellow Housemartins singer (and genius songwriter) Paul Heaton. But when the latter went his own way, he was keen to keep going.

As a result, along came The South, Hammy joined by latter-day Beautiful South co-singer Alison Wheeler and long-serving bandmates Gaz Birtles (sax), Damon Butcher (keyboards), Dave Stead (drums) and Tony Robinson (trumpet), putting together a formidable nine-piece act that soon became regulars on the live circuit, their set built around The Beautiful South’s hit-strewn 18-year recording career.

Then, in 2012, an LP landed, Sweet Refrains, one suggesting this outfit were moving in a new direction, guitarist Phil Barton co-writing seven of the tracks while holding down a full-time job in the NHS. As it was though, despite plenty of (rightful) acclaim for that record, The South continued to concentrate on their live profile, and at the end of 2016 a seemingly frustrated Hammy departed (Alison and Gaz now the sole originals remaining), in time announcing a new project, Sunbirds, which also happened to feature the afore-mentioned Phil, the pair joined by Laura Wilcockson (violin, vocals) and Marc Parnell (drums).

Initially a studio concern, the Sunbirds’ debut LP landed late in 2020, Cool to be Kind proving to be a finely-crafted record which seemed to follow on from Sweet Refrains. And public and critical response to that LP has clearly seen their confidence increase, recently expanding to a six-piece, Jerry Jobson and Chris Offen joining on bass and guitar/keyboards respectively, the band currently working on a new record as well as setting up live dates.

All good reasons to track down Phil to his base in Upminster, East London, not least as he’s been behind so many great songs for both outfits over that last decade, and continues to feature for each band. And I started by asking if he’s still managing to fit in working in IT for the NHS.

“No, I managed to escape. I had three tunnels on the go.”

He left to ‘give the music a go’ full time. And so far, so good. What’s more, from my most recent interview with bandmate Hammy (from August 2020, with a link here), I understand the far-flung Sunbirds (Phil, Marc and Chris are London-based, but Jerry’s on the south coast, Laura’s in Nottinghamshire, and Hammy’s now in Yorkshire) rehearse at his when they can.

“I’ve a little studio at home. It’s always been a condition with my wife to get at least one room, wherever we live. (Phil laughs) On this occasion, it’s the garage. I soundproofed it out. I’ve had various jobs along the way and as a sound engineer for a while, I learned all about that. It’s a nice little set-up, I can record drums, and it sounds quite good actually.”

Are you a bit of a multi-instrumentalist?

“Not really. Just guitar, but the production side always interested me.”

All bar one track on debut Sunbirds LP, Cool to be Kind, has his name on it, and on 2012’s Sweet Refrains, it’s the same for seven of 12 songs there.

“I’ve been writing songs all my life. It’s just a confidence thing – a few things happened in my 20s which meant I wasn’t really able to go down the path I wanted, ending up having to go into the real world. But writing songs is something I’ve always done … and I need to do it, otherwise I could go a bit potty.”

It came up in my October 2016 interview with Alison Wheeler (linked here) from The South, and prior to that The Beautiful South, that you had worked together before you joined.

“Yeah, I originally auditioned Ali. (Phil laughs) We were in a band called Junk, originally on the coat-tails of grunge but with a British twist to it, this sort of quite grimy, grungy music with very sort of twee, cutesy girl singing on it. And it worked quite well, basically going around the toilets of Camden.”

Was that always your patch (Camden, rather than its toilets)?

“I was born in South London, or the suburbs thereof … in Petts Wood, and went to school in Bromley, I went to the same school as David Bowie. I was watching this Bowie documentary, and he nailed Bromley completely brilliantly, as he did with most things, the idea that if a town was going to produce somebody like Bowie it would probably be Bromley, because it’s so painfully kind of straight.”

Wasn’t that also the territory for Chislehurst born and bred Susan Ballion, aka Siouxsie Sioux?

“That’s right, as part of the Bromley Contingent. Slightly older than me, of course, that lot. But there’s definitely something in the water, and always a bit of a subculture going on in these sort of places. We had the Bromley Musicians’ Collective, which put on local bands at the labour clubs and the HG Wells Centre … another famous name from those parts. That was a really good scene, a room people could use, turn up, bring your own bottle, putting bands on every week. I had a little band called Derek Nimmo’s Blues Band, a kind of mickey-take of all the blues bands around at the time.”

Had you learned guitar early?

“Oh yeah, I was self-taught from 16 or 17.”

Which acts inspired you? Are we talking the punk years?

“No, but I had an older brother – three years older – so I got to hear all the cool stuff. I’d hear about the Sex Pistols and everything like that going on. I remember sitting in a car with my brother and his mates. Somebody mentioned the Sex Pistols and his dad said, ‘We don’t talk about that sort of thing, if you don’t mind,’ quite upset that the children were talking about them. I remember thinking, ‘That’s pretty cool.’ (Phil laughs) Through him, I’d hear stuff I would probably never have heard otherwise, not just punk but Black Sabbath and whatever you want coming out of his room.”

I thought the latter was Status Quo.

“Well, I did quite like them at school, I’m not afraid to admit. I saw their original line-up in about 1981, one of the first gigs I went to, and there was around three days trying to get your head round just how good that was afterwards. You know how it is when you’re young, you start to see bands and feel, ‘This is it!’

Seeing as you called the first Sunbirds LP Cool to be Kind, I’m guessing there’s at least a nod to Nick Lowe too, from the other side of London, namely Walton-on-Thames.

“Definitely. That was an intentional doff of the cap. I mean, he’s fantastic, isn’t he? He’s one of my heroes, songwriting-wise. And it’s also a comment as to how things are in society at the moment.”

Regarding your friendship with Dave Hemingway, did you ever catch The Housemartins live?

“I didn’t. I was more into rock as a lad, and in my day it was very tribal in music, not like it is now where anything goes. You had to pick a gang then stick with it. It was in the very early ‘80s for me, when all the New Romantics was starting to fill the charts. And that didn’t do anything for me.

“Looking back now, they’re great songs, but when you’re a teenager, it’s a hell of a lot more tribal. And the gang I chose was rock. I was into rock in a big way, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple … I was getting into guitar, so liked good guitar players, tracing that back to Jimi Hendrix.”

Listening back to Cool to be Kind this morning, hearing ‘The Black Sea’, I felt there was a nod to Hendrix there.

“Yeah. good spot!”

That’s a good example of the depth of your songwriting on this LP. And for me, ‘The Black Sea’ is the first curveball, reminding me of a band I love called The Deep Season, a North Hampshire offshoot of indie cult heroes Jim Jiminee. Maybe it’s the chord structures and how it meanders into areas you might not expect. It seems to be about depression, and some might say it is depressing, but works on more than one level.

“I don’t find it depressing at all. I mean, The Smiths were fairly popular. (Phil laughs) And Pink Floyd weren’t exactly song and dance men, were they. You tend to be at your most emotional, honest and raw when the emotions are the other way around … when you’re sad rather than when you’re happy. It only stands to reason that the best music comes out of that.”

But then there’s ‘When I’m Gone’, arguably far more radio friendly, quality shining through again. However, Phil’s still tackling ‘The Black Sea’.

“I don’t want to get too political, but after the financial crisis, or whatever you want to call it … they took all the money out of public services. I had a very humble, simple job in the NHS, and won’t bore people with what I did but I was out troubleshooting around the hospital, fixing computers, and it went from being quite a good little job where you feel you’re doing – without being too self-righteous – something quite nice, helping people, even though you’re not really into the job, it’s just to pay the bills. I thought, if I’m gonna do this, it’s probably the best way I can use the skills I got. But then they stripped out a lot of the people on the ground floor.

“That’s what happens in companies, they don’t sack those at the top on the huge money, they strip out all the assets on the floor who don’t really have a say in it. So you end up with this top-heavy organisation, with too many chiefs. My workload went absolutely crazy, and I was doing The South at the time, so all my time off I wasn’t taking on holiday, I was going on tour. I was burning the candle at both ends for quite a few years, absolutely no chance of keeping up with my workload. On top of that, I had bosses cracking the whip, saying I wasn’t working hard enough. I was working as hard as I could, and it reached a point where I started getting panic attacks, things not going well. That’s what ‘The Black Sea’ was originally about.

“Rather than about depression, per se, it’s about having a panic attack and everything going on in my life at that time. It’s meant to sound discombobulating, and there’s a reason for that. And people who’ve experienced that … I’ve had a couple of people say, ‘Mate, ‘The Black Sea’, I love that.’ And I’ve had others say, ‘That’s a bit depressing, isn’t it?’ Well, that’s because you haven’t been there, mate!”

The way Hammy takes ownership of those songs suggests – even though there aren’t many songs with Barton/Hemingway credits – you work well together. It seems that he left The South because he wanted it to be about new material as well as old hits. And maybe that wasn’t the game plan beyond 2012’s Sweet Refrains. But arguably you’ve carried that on under a different set-up, Cool to be Kind in effect proving to be the follow-up LP.

“In a way, yes. But because we’re not tied down with this … Damon Butcher described the name, The South, as the ‘golden millstone’. A very good way of putting it, because it gives you an audience, which I’m very lucky to get, but at the same time you’ve put this label on it … and we couldn’t do ‘The Black Sea’ in The South. That’s not going to happen. The same goes for ‘When I’m Gone’. To me, those are much more personal, confessional songs.

“‘When I’m Gone’, I wrote for my daughter. I’d been wanting to write a song for her for years and years, yet it always came out as cheesy old nonsense. But one day, I just sat down and it came out. It’s lovely when you get songs like that. I put the phone on record, sang it, listened back, said, ‘That’s not bad.’ I felt I had to tweak the lyrics here and there, but it must have been something brewing a long time that finally came out. It’s not necessarily a love song, it’s a song to kind of reassure my daughter that, yes, it’s gonna be okay.”

I spoke with Hammy about final track, ‘Stars Still Shine’, another song he took ownership of, feeling it was written as much for him, yet it’s another credited solely to ‘Barton’.

“Well, I’ve got to know Hammy well, being on tour and everything, and you end up spending a lot of time together. And our life experiences have been extremely similar. And there really is a bond there that isn’t just a kind of professional collaboration. It’s deeper than that. When I send him a load of songs, I don’t give him any clues as to who wrote them. I like to get a genuine reaction, without it being sort of prejudiced. I send him stuff I’ve done and that means a lot to me, and might send something that’s quite pretty that I co-wrote, more written to order for what we’re doing. That sounds terribly cynical, but there’s a real art in that as well. And the ones he picks out are always the ones he has a connection with. There’s a wavelength thing going on.”

Have you also got a good voice on you? We don’t hear it much.

“I do a bit of backing vocals. But I’m not a singer. I can’t pretend I am.”

I don’t suppose that matters if you’ve got Alison, Hammy, Laura …

“Exactly. What’s the point! If it’s alright for Roger Daltrey to sing Pete Townshend’s songs, Lee Brilleaux for Wilko Johnson … If they can put the song across better than you can, it’s a no-brainer. And with Hammy, you’ve not just got a good singer, you’ve got a vibe. When he sang ‘The Black Sea’ in the studio, he did it in one take and we were blown away. He said, ‘Shall I do another one?’ I said, ‘Hang on,’ had a chat with Teo Miller, the producer, and he said, ‘We better get him to do another one, but that was brilliant!’

Hammy sings about his Hull roots on opening song ‘Meet You on the Northside’. Where’s your own Hessle Road? Where do you think about when it comes to channelling roots, like Paul Weller did with Stanley Road and his Woking youth.

“Well, that’s pure Dave. He came up with those places in Hull. And (we wrote that with) a guy called Kenny Grant, a lyricist and singer-songwriter, a Glaswegian living in Dublin I met through a mutual friend. He’s a virtual friend – I’ve never actually met him, we write over the internet. Jerry, who’s now the bass player in Sunbirds, put us in touch.

“After Sweet Refrains, I thought there was going to be a second South album, and the guy I was mostly writing with – Ronnie Westrip – decided he didn’t want to do it anymore, for whatever reason. So I was looking for someone else. On that LP, I wrote the music and worked with lyricists, maybe honing some of those lyrics. I felt with The South there was no point me singing about my life. I put an ad out on Gumtree back then, got hundreds of replies.”

That seems to be the way with a few songwriters these days, Boo Hewerdine springing to mind, writing with various well-known and not so well-known artists, from Chris Difford to Simon Wells, to use examples of recent interviewees of mine.

“It does, yeah … and doing it this way, you can dip into it when you’ve got time, rather than sitting in a room together, on the spot. Sometimes you need time for these things to ferment. But Kenny sent me some songs, and ‘Beautiful People’, for example, is mainly a Kenny song. I changed some of the arrangements , bits and pieces, but the original demo came from him on piano, singing it. It’s a great song and suited what The South were doing down to the ground – a great little pop song with a bit of social commentary.”

What also strikes me is that although you’re clearly a co-writer as well, the songs that really grabbed me – perhaps as with Hammy – are those with just your name on them, perhaps those most likely to involve you baring your soul.

“I suppose. Kenny was giving me really great lyrics though, so it’s silly to not do something with those. On ‘Holiday Monday’, he gave me the words and I put the music to it, and he’s got that sense of humour …”

Which is important if you’re channelling the spirit of PD Heaton, I guess, a few songs on Sweet Refrains almost written in his image.

“Well, you have to doff your cap to what’s gone on before. We can’t start bringing out drum and bass records! The way I saw The South, the songwriting, was as another sprig of The Beautiful South tree. And if you listen to what Dave Rotheray does on his own – he’s a genius songwriter, writing all those amazing songs – you know you’re going to get something sounding a bit like The Beautiful South.

“We weren’t trying to copy anybody, what we wanted to do was lend our own personalities. Take Damon, who was sort of like a fifth Beatle in a way, doing a hell of a lot on those records, but never officially a member of the band. A lot of that stuff is Damon – when you listen back, there’s so much of him on those records. And on Sweet Refrains I would demo songs with an acoustic guitar, give it to him, say ‘there you go’ and he would do what he does – just go off somewhere completely different. He’s amazing, the most musical person I’ve ever met. He’s incredible.”

He co-wrote ‘Insert Answer Here’ on the Sunbirds LP, I see.

“That’s right. He sent me over that lyric one day. I liked it, and it reminded me a bit of Ian Dury.”

What’s not to like there.

“That’s right, and I live in Upminster. I’ve always loved him, and feel this affinity with Ian here. I drive past the house where he grew up most days.”

I was also going to mention ‘Please Yourself’ as a highlight, and ‘Long Cuts’. Both jump out at me. And with the latter and ‘Big Moneymaker’, like ‘Stars Still Shine’, I hear shades of Americana. Is that another side of you?

“It’s a music I’ve only recently come to. I grew up predominantly into rock, because that’s the way the world was, but as you get older you start to embrace all these other things fashion meant you weren’t allowed to like. And country music was one. I’ve been through blues, funk, jazz, everything but country really. I love all styles of music, yet country always passed me by.

“But then you go to the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, Crosby, Stills Nash and Young … For me, it was a band called Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams’ first band, hearing the Strangers Almanack album (1997). For what I was going through at the time … I just couldn’t stop playing it. It really spoke to me.

“I think what they were trying to do at the time was mould Ryan Adams into being a country version of Kurt Cobain. He made this really polished album with Scott Litt, surrounding himself with all these great Nashville session players, and this really earthy young upstart kid from Jacksonville was writing songs straight from the heart, not censoring anything he wanted to say in the songs, a bit of punk attitude in there somewhere. Even though it was country, it was raw … and he sang it like it was.”

That could be Steve Earle for me, my own portal to that world.

“Yes, Steve Earle’s great, but I think he’s a bit more country than Ryan Adams. Keith Richards is a fan too. I don’t know if it was a deliberate label ploy to get this punky young kid from the South to be the face of the alt country movement, but he didn’t really want to be, understandably, like Kurt Cobain, so deliberately sabotaged it, went off and started making records by himself, doing what he wanted to do, rather than having some sort of corporate machinery.

“I was into a band called The Posies, out of Seattle, and Ryan Adams seemed to blend The Posies for me with this fantastic sound of country music pedal steel guitars, this very raw-edged music that didn’t use obvious chord sequences, a bit like the Foo Fighters’ first album when the influence of Nirvana was still in the music. It’s like a cross between Nirvana, The Beach Boys and Johnny Cash, I guess, maybe Emmylou Harris and the more traditional Nashville sound too … But I’m waffling on. I do apologise.”

Not a problem. Good to know the influences. And back to the Sunbirds, Marc and Laura are clearly a good fit, and now you’ve expanded, so to speak.

“That’s right. The band is now a six-piece, with Jerry on bass and Chris on guitar, keyboards and backing vocals. I originally knew Chris from school. I always knew he was good then. He was one of those guys who was streets ahead of everybody else. He’s a great guitar player and a multi-instrumentalist who also sings and plays keyboards in Sunbirds as well as guitar, and he can do a fairly good pedal steel guitar impression on guitar … when finding a pedal steel player for your band – unless you’re Emmylou Harris – is not going to happen. There’s not that many.”

Yes, although I see the legendary BJ Cole contributed to Sweet Refrains. Meanwhile, it seems like you’re looking at more live performances for the Sunbirds now.

“That’s where we’re at the moment. We just want to gig as much as we can, although it’s proving quite hard finding gigs.”

I got the impression the hardest part was enticing Hammy back to live performances.

“Yeah, when this project started, after he left The South, he got in touch and said, ‘Have you got any songs?’ When I said yeah, he said, ‘Send them over,’ then said, ‘Do you want to do an album?’ I asked, ‘Is this a recording thing?’ and he said, ‘I think it would just be an album.’ But fair enough – just to get to work with Dave and still be friends … and it already looked like The South weren’t particularly interested in a second album. And it’s gone so well, and the reaction we’ve had suggests we ought to go out and play these songs to people.”

Are you happy to remain in two bands, as long as you can fit both in?

“Oh, yeah. I mean, it’s worked out pretty well. I’m not doing anything other than music. And hopefully, the South will continue, because I think it’s a great band, and they’re a great bunch”.

And is there another album around the corner?

“Yeah, we’re writing at the moment. We’ve three or four new songs in the set, they’re going down really well, and I’m very pleased with how that’s going.”

Cool To Be Kind, on Nectar Records, is available via the Sunbirds’ website and various digital platforms, the band next in live action at the Smile Bar & Venue, Huddersfield (Saturday, 3 September), the British Country Music Festival, Blackpool (Sunday, September 4), and The Brook, Southampton (Thursday, 22 September). You can also follow Sunbirds via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  

Meanwhile, The South – Alison Wheeler, Gaz Birtles (also the subject of a WriteWyattUK feature/interview, in March 2018, linked here), and Phil Barton joined by Steve Nutter (bass), Dave Anderson (drums), Karl Brown (percussion), Gareth John (trumpet), Su Robinson (sax) and Andy Price (keyboards) – are back on the road next month, playing Glasgow St Luke’s (Thursday, 1st September), Glenrothes Rothes Hall (Friday 2nd September), Mansfield Palace Theatre (Wednesday, 7th September), Oswaldtwistle Civic Arts Centre (Thursday 8th September), Louth Riverhead Theatre (Friday 9th September), Yarm Princess Alexandra Theatre (Saturday 1st October), Newark Palace Theatre (Sunday 2nd October), Hertford Corn Exchange (Friday 7th October), and Rugby Benn Hall (Friday 14th October). For tickets, try here, and check out their website from there. You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.  

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Golden Years – celebrating ABBA at 50 with Carl Magnus Palm

I considered starting this feature/interview with the line, ‘Ring, ring, I stare at the phone on the wall’ as a build-up to tracking down Carl Magnus Palm, seen as the world’s leading historian for a certain legendary pop quartet from his home nation. But I don’t think I’ve properly encountered a telephone attached that way since the days my Mum would take herself off to the hall, perching at the bottom of the stairs while chatting to friends and family.

However, while technology, fashions, interior design decor and lay-outs change, ABBA remain a force to be reckoned with, half a century after their first English language recordings.

As for Carl Magnus, he has a new book about this Swedish phenomenon on its way, charting afresh the journey of a band that has clearly shaped his life, ABBA at 50 following the journey of that group formed in Stockholm in 1972 by Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad from humble post-war Scandinavian beginnings to global superstardom.

It’s a band that needs no introduction, but I’ll offer one anyway, ABBA emerging victorious from the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Waterloo’, quickly catapulted to fame, capturing hearts across the world over the next few years with their melodic, ever-so-catchy pop songs.

One of the most commercially successful acts in the history of pop music, they topped charts worldwide from that breakthrough year until – initially – 1982, their nine UK No.1s – among 20 top-10 singles – including classic hits such as ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Mamma Mia’, ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, ‘The Winner Takes It all’, ‘Super Trouper’ and ‘Take a Chance on Me’.

Although ABBA never officially announced their break-up, their final public performance together came in December 1982 on Saturday night BBC TV show The Late, Late Breakfast Show, a satellite broadcast live from Stockholm, just a few weeks after a ‘read between the lines’ personal appearance with Noel Edmonds on that same show. But as it turned out, the story was far from over.

A decade on, the ABBA Gold greatest hits compilation became a global bestseller, then in 1999 their music was adapted into successful musical Mamma Mia! A feelgood jukebox rom-com film of the same name followed in 2008, its sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, premiering a decade later.

Then, last November, after a 40-year hiatus, the band released their 10th studio album, Voyage, simultaneously announcing an accompanying ‘virtual concert residency’ – featuring their digital avatars, dubbed ‘ABBAtars’. Depicting the group as they appeared in 1977 in a motion-capture hologram show held in the ABBA Arena, a purpose-built venue within East London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, their 22-song set each night included two singles from their comeback LP and plenty of old hits.

And now, my interviewee, ABBA aficionado Carl Magnus, also the author of 2001’s Bright Lights Dark Shadows: The Real Story of ABBA (the first comprehensive biography of the band) and 2017’s ABBA: The Complete Recording Sessions (a revised and expanded version of the writer’s 1994 tome), is about to deliver a full-colour follow-up, neatly illustrated with 200 images, ABBA at 50 examining the group’s enduring legacy and much-loved musical repertoire, the fashions, and the toll commercial success took upon the private lives of their two married couples.

I caught up with Carl Magnus, who has also co-produced a number of television programmes about the band, contributed to his beloved home city’s ABBA The Museum, and worked as a consultant to Polar Music in their ABBA reissues project, earlier this week, and he suggested life was pretty good on the other side of the North Sea.

“It’s a nice, fairly warm day in Stockholm – not too hot, not too cold, so I’m not complaining.”

Was it another great moment having that finished book, ABBA at 50, in your hands?

“That’s always a thrill, you know, when you have a new book out, and it’s, ‘Oh, wow, it actually exists!’ Because it gets a bit … what’s the word I’m looking for? Abstract. When you work on a book … until it becomes a book.”

His English, I should add, is fantastic, putting us insular Brits to shame. Meanwhile, I tell him I can’t believe it’s five years since we last spoke, marking the publication of ABBA: The Complete Recording Sessions. And it’s been an extremely hectic 60-plus months since, no doubt. Has he managed to keep healthy amid the pandemic and all that’s thrown our way?

“As far as I know … and for me – and I guess it’s the same for you, at least to an extent – I’ve been working from home for 30 years, so things just continued as they always had, largely.”

I’m guessing ABBA at 50 has kept you busy for a fair bit of that time.

“I got the assignment early last year, I think, so I put that together. It didn’t really entail too much original research …”

Because you’ve done that groundwork for 30 or so years, no doubt.

“Yeah, I have, I mean it’s mostly just a matter of typing it out and finding the right tone for that book. It was a bit of a challenge, because I’m used to writing these really detailed books, but I only had 45,000 words, because that’s what they asked for … although I extended it to 50,000.

“But it was a nice challenge. It was good, because I could just concentrate on finding the right tone for it – a different tone from what I’m usually writing, being a bit more free. I really enjoyed that … a lot more than I thought I would.”

And not only is it now 50 years of ABBA, but soon you’ll be able to mark half a century of your own journey – your Voyage, I guess – with the band, in effect from that day as an eight-year-old you picked up your first ABBA single, ‘Ring Ring’.

“Well, yes, next year. I was born in ’65, so that was in the spring of ‘73.”

At this point I fell foul of shoddy internet research, telling Carl Magnus I was surprised to learn ‘Ring Ring’ was a minor UK hit before ‘Waterloo’. But he soon put me right, telling me that while it was first released in ’73 – the title track of their debut LP – it didn’t chart until just after their Eurovision success, subtly telling me, ‘That’s both right and wrong – ha!’

“That single was released in the UK in October 1973, but didn’t enter the chart at the time. Then ‘Waterloo’ was a big hit and a remix of ‘Ring Ring’ was released in the UK, and that was the one that went to No.32.”

Of course, most of us will always equate the proper arrival of the band with a certain event at The Dome in Brighton on April 6, 1974.

“Exactly! I mean, the group’s real 50th anniversary – when they started recording together English language pop songs – is this year, because it was 1972. But the big 50th anniversary is going to be in 2024. obviously, because of ‘Waterloo’.”

That first English language single was June 1972’s ‘People Need Love’, a top-20 hit in Sweden if nowhere else, at which stage they were recording as Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid. And it turned out to be the first of eight singles that appeared on debut LP, Ring Ring, which received a limited release in late March 1973.

And while that long player failed to make any real ground outside Scandinavia, their fortunes would change in Brighton barely a year later … big time. And all these years on, the hits keep coming, the Voyage LP No.1 more or less everywhere late last year, save for North America, it seems. And even there its No.2 placing in the US and in Canada proved a best-ever album performance. The global love for Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid clearly continues.

“It does. I remember 30 years ago when people said to me, when I was working on my first book, ‘You better hurry up, before the ABBA revival dies down.’ Ha! They’re like The Beatles now, in the sense that they’re part of the culture … it’s a reference point, it’s everything else, you know. You don’t have to compare it on any other level, but in that sense, people are always interested.”

Regarding Voyage, the sixth ABBA studio album to top the UK charts and their 10th chart-topping LP in this country altogether, last time we spoke you told me you had access to exclusive material that few had before, with official permission, when writing ABBA: The Complete Recording Sessions. Did you also have early access to the recordings on Voyage?

“I didn’t. I haven’t really been involved in Voyage in any way. I’ve only got information through the media, like, everybody else.”

It seems apt that Voyage came out – and straight in at the top of the charts – 40 years to the month after The Visitors seemed to signal the end of the story. And I’m guessing that even five years ago that probably would have surprised you, a new LP landing.

“Oh, absolutely. I never thought this would happen. Anytime people, everywhere, if I was interviewed about ABBA – and people inevitably asked if I thought there was going to be a reunion – at one point I would say, ‘There’s no chance whatsoever.’ But then I changed it to, ‘You should never say never, but it seems very unlikely.’

“Deep inside, I never thought they were going to do that, because the motivation didn’t seem to be there. But then the ABBA Arena and ABBAtars show came along, and all of a sudden they had a platform for it … or an outlet, I should say.”

Last time we spoke, we mentioned your 25 years of research as it was then, to add to that earlier love for the band, leading to the updated ABBA: The Complete Recording Sessions. Time clearly flies.

“It does. Yeah. It’s insane!”

And it only struck me this morning that we’ve also had Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again since we last spoke. The ABBA machine continues to function, and the industry around the band clearly continues to flourish.

“Yeah, it’s like ABBA has become, you know, a franchise. It can be a musical based on their melodies, and that musical can be a motion picture, and then you can take that musical and turn it into this dinner party concept, Mamma Mia: The Party. Now you have the ABBAtars. It’s interesting, and that’s the way it goes with these big acts, I guess.

“And ABBA seem to be more successful at doing it than anyone else. I mean, The Beatles, they have their albums, and they have the Love show in Las Vegas, but beyond that …”

Did you manage to get across to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park for any of the ABBAtar shows?

“Yes, I’ve been there. I saw the show three times when I was in London in May.”

Was that a big moment for you?

“Well, the problem when people ask me about this is that because of the nature of the work I do, people expect me to be super-excited about it. The other thing is that, because everybody else is so super-excited about it, and, ‘Ooh, it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. I was in seventh heaven!’, my more, shall we say, normal reaction makes it seems like I’m putting it down … but I’m not really.

“I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed sitting there. I enjoyed all three nights. I wasn’t bored for one second. I thought it was well put together as a show.”

You didn’t have to send a Carl Magnus Palmatar across to attend in your place then.

“Ha! No, I was there in person and I really, really enjoyed it. I thought it was good.”

With regard to listening to the back-catalogue, it’s great to wallow in nostalgia now and again, but I’m guessing that’s just a part of your life. We can’t just live on memories, great as they might be. Is there a part of you still discovering new music?

“Sure.”

Who else do you listen to these days?

“If I’m being honest, I don’t listen to that much new music these days. I’m still discovering or rediscovering old acts from the from the ‘60s and ‘70s mainly. But of the bands that are around today, the ones that I’ve bought every album and everything are the Fleet Foxes. And I’m glad I’ve found a present band I can really get into and be excited about.”

And when you mention ‘60s bands, who’s floating your boat there at the moment? What’s the album you always have to reach for?

“Well, I’m a Beatles fan from childhood, so that’s what I listen to a lot. You’ve put me on the spot though!”

I’m afraid I have. If you had to name one Beatles album, which would you go for?

“That also varies, of course, but I usually come back to Revolver.”

That’s a very good answer. Personally, I’ll float between Revolver, Abbey Road, and maybe The White Album. So I’m with you there.

“I think it’s probably between the three of those for me as well.”

And what’s next? What are you writing at the moment, or working on?

“I’m working on a sort of companion volume to ABBA: The Complete Recording Sessions. And this companion volume has expanded to be very much a book in itself, and it’s taking much, much longer than I had hoped for. What it is, if I’m explaining it in simple terms, ABBA: The Complete Recording Sessions told the story of how ABBA wrote and recorded their music, while this book, which is called ABBA on Record, describes what happened to the music once it had left the recording studio.

“It’s very detailed stories about how the album sleeves were put together, it’s about chart success, it’s about how the record company people in the UK and the US primarily promoted or tried to promote their music. I interviewed people who used to work for CBS in the 1970s and who were involved with the ABBA catalogue, or putting together commercials, or running up to radio stations or whatever they had to do. There’s a lot about that, and it’s about chart positions, and I’ve gone through hundreds of album and single reviews from – primarily – the American and British music press, putting in extracts from that as well. So you can get a flavour of what people actually said about music at the time.”

It sounds better than the average internet search engine, that’s for sure.

“Ha! Yeah, and it’s actually turning out to be a really good book … even if I say so myself. I’m pretty pleased with how it’s turning out.”

Any idea of a release date?

“Well, sometime next year is what I’m shooting for.”

All part of the ongoing 50th anniversary celebrations then, I suppose.

“Yeah, for sure.”

For this website’s previous feature/interview with Carl Magnus Palm, from 2017, head here.

ABBA at 50 by Carl Magnus Palm, priced £30 in hardback, is available via Palazzo Editions on September 8. For more details and to pre-order, head to this Palazzo Editions website link and check out Carl Magnus’ website here.

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Time Flashin’ By – discussing the everlasting allure of the Rolling Stones with People’s History author Richard Houghton

On the night Paul McCartney thrilled the crowd and a huge television audience at the 2022 Glastonbury Festival, a few of The Beatles’ celebrated ‘60s arch-rivals were giving it their all elsewhere, rocking Hyde Park, more than half a century after their first open-air show there. And among the crowd in central London was Stones aficionado Richard Houghton, a few days after catching his favourite band on honeymoon with wife Kate in Milan, on that occasion at the San Siro.

We’ve seen a few notable dates for the Stones – let alone Richard – this year, this month marking the 60th anniversary of their first gig at the Marquee, barely a mile from the site of that latest visit to the capital, and frontman Mick Jagger turning 79 (a year younger than Paul McCartney); while next month marks the first anniversary of the passing of legendary Stones drummer Charlie Watts, just beyond his 80th birthday.

Then of course – very much still with us – there’s Keith Richards, set to turn 79 in December, and relative new boy Ronnie Wood – the former Faces guitarist on board since 1975 – who reached 75 last month. What is it about these old stagers that lures recently semi-retired Richard, a mere 62, back every time, not least in his role as an author and editor of music books (having written 20 books on a variety of artists over the past seven years)?

“Quite simply, I’m a fan. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I’ve collected over 200 different books about the Stones over the years, and whilst I haven’t quite gone to the lengths of some of the uber-fans out there who’ve got every album, DVD and t-shirt that’s ever been produced, I have seen them over 30 times and my travels have taken me to the States, Brazil and Europe … and Anfield, which shows just how dedicated I am!”

Spoken like a diehard Manchester City fan, albeit one with a love for hometown team Northampton Town too, despite having lived in Chorlton, Manchester, for some time now. And it turns out he has two Stones people’s history publications landing this year, All Along the Line, tackling the iconic band’s 1972 North American tour, and an updated take on The Rolling Stones in the Sixties, covering the initial Brian Jones era (the original lead guitarist and major innovator died in July 1969, aged just 27, his replacement, John Mayall’s Bluebreakers guitarist Mick Taylor remaining on board until Ronnie Wood took over in the mid-70s), in limited-edition hardback (‘480 pages, 600-plus memories, one great band’).

The other key members from that classic ‘60s line-up are also fondly remembered in the latter – namely ground-breaking bass player Bill Wyman, who joined in late ’62 and stuck around until ’93 (also guesting in 2012); and co-founding keyboard player Ian Stewart, who later took on road manager and pianist roles (he died aged 47 in late 1985). And it’s good to see Charlie Watts featured on the cover, in an iconic image by Stanley Bielecki from 1964.

However, isn’t their legacy somewhat overstated (he asks, somewhat mischievously)? They wrote some cracking songs in the Sixties but surely they haven’t released a properly decent album since 1978’s Some Girls. Aren’t they just a golden oldies machine, recycling the same songs for the same adoring section of the concert-going public?

“You could level that accusation against any stadium act, whether that’s Queen with Adam Lambert, Bruce Springsteen, Metallica or whoever. And in that setting and with that audience, you haven’t just got the fan who wants to hear a few deep cuts but also the casual fan who only knows the hits that have been played on the radio.

“Mick Jagger understands that, and that dictates the choice songs they perform live. But I think what it is about the Stones that is worth remembering is that they’ve done more to shape modern music than anyone except perhaps The Beatles. The Stones pretty much invented stadium shows with the pyrotechnics, the lighting and the big screens, and which, like it or not, is the way many larger bands now choose to perform.

“And don’t forget that back in the Sixties, the Stones were the rebels, whereas The Beatles were very much in the showbiz tradition. In the same way Elvis ‘died the day he went into the army’, as john Lennon put it, The Beatles ceased to be a great live act when Brian Epstein took them out of their leather jackets, put them in matching suits and made them wear collars and ties.

“They appeared on variety bills with comedians and jugglers. They had great songs but weren’t really any more radical looking than The Shadows. They became the boys next door you could bring home to tea with your mum. The Stones were the ones who had fathers foaming at the mouth at the idea that these scruffy layabouts might come anywhere near their teenage daughter. If Mick Jagger and Keith Richards moved in next door to you back then, your dad was probably going to go out and buy an electric fence.”

When I hear that oft-repeated charge, I like to counter with Lemmy Kilmister’s quote (from 2004 memoir White Line Fever), ‘The Rolling Stones were the mummy’s boys – they were all college students from the outskirts of London. They went to starve in London, but it was by choice, to give themselves some sort of aura of disrespectability. I did like the Stones, but they were never anywhere near the Beatles – not for humour, not for originality, not for songs, not for presentation. All they had was Mick Jagger dancing about.’

But I only dug that out later, on this occasion allowing Richard to rant on. Wasn’t much of that ‘bad boy’ image made by then-manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, though, feeling that portraying them as rebels would work well in the media?

“It wasn’t just Andrew’s idea. The Stones took it beyond Andrew, who ceased to have an effective role as manager with the band from the mid-Sixties onwards. They were getting busted for drugs, they were wearing more exotic and outrageous clothes and they were still playing concerts and having audiences, particularly in continental Europe, rioting and smashing up venues.”

What made you decide – after the Sixties project – on a book about the Stones’ 1972 North American tour? I’m guessing you were still at school in Northamptonshire then, yet to hit your teens.

“I was, but that was exactly the time – when the double album Exile on Main St. came out and ‘Tumbling Dice’ was in the charts – that I became a fully-fledged Stones fan. The band were in their pomp, with Mick Taylor having replaced Brian Jones on guitar, and the tour that they undertook in June and July of that year was a ground-breaking one.

“And those were challenging times for the Stones. They were performing on American soil for the first time since the stabbing of a fan by Hell’s Angels at Altamont three years earlier. And with The Beatles having split up – and with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all dead – in 1972 the Stones embodied what was left of Sixties counterculture. The United States was coming to terms with 1970’s Kent State massacre and grappling with the Vietnam War, the draft and the civil rights movement.”

Robert Greenfield’s STP: A Journey Through America with the Rolling Stones (1974) captured some of that, but Richard – currently knee-deep into his next writing projects, covering The Stranglers and Fairport Convention – goes at it from a different angle, collecting memories of more than 300 people who saw that tour (as with several of his past books, including those on The Beatles, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Queen and Thin Lizzy).

“It has been written about, yes, but that’s where my Stones book is different because I’ve collected together the memories of over 300 people who saw that tour. As with the other books I’ve written – on The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Queen and Thin Lizzy for example – it’s a different perspective on things.

“It’s not about backstage passes and meeting (acclaimed photographer) Annie Leibowitz. This book is about American teenagers falling in love with the Rolling Stones and doing whatever it takes to get hold of a ticket for a tour that was hotly anticipated. There was no internet then, but if there had been, it would have crashed the day the tickets went on sale. In New York, for example, people had to send in postcards and tickets were allocated randomly on a lottery basis to beat the touts. Some people sent in more than 50 postcards, or got every friend or relative they could think of to submit an application on their behalf.”

The Stones played 48 shows in 32 cities in 54 days to promote their new album on that occasion. What is it that marked this tour out from what had gone before, or has happened since?

“Well, they had a ground-breaking new stage show, with large mirrors so that lights behind the stage were reflected down onto the band. That was unheard of at the time, and of course we’re all so used to digital effects and full-on light shows, so some of this doesn’t sound that special now. But back then it was.

“More importantly, the Stones and their fans found themselves going head-to-head with the authorities from the outset. Concerts were marked by crowd riots in the clamour for tickets, starting with the very first show in Vancouver, and there were drug busts and tear gassings as a result of over-zealous cops at several stops on the tour.

“They weren’t just playing the usual cities that rock bands visited. The Rubber Bowl in Akron, Ohio, for example, had never hosted a band as big as the Stones before. And in Tuscaloosa they still talk about the visit by the Rolling Stones, not least because one of their own was in the audience that day and has been a Stones sideman for the past 40 years, in the shape of their keyboardist and musical director, Chuck Leavell.

“And in Rhode Island, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wound up in police custody after an altercation with a photographer while miles away in Boston a full house waited expectantly for them to appear on stage.

“No one had toured the way the Stones did before, bringing their own crew with them. Previously, bands turned up with one or two crew and used local crew. Cream’s touring personnel in 1967 and ‘68, for example, consisted of three band members plus two other people. They didn’t have the fleet of HGVs that the biggest bands tour with now. The Stones had what was branded the ‘Stones Touring Party’. They were like a band of brigands roaming across the US, and of course the press interest in the tour, and the presence of a film camera crew, added to that.”

Ah, Robert Frank’s infamous Cocksucker Blues fly-on-the-wall tour documentary, which never saw a full theatrical release because of the scenes of, erm … general debauchery contained within. Isn’t that all a bit old hat now?

“Well, the Stones – and specifically Mick Jagger, because I suspect Keith Richards may have been too strung out at the time to have any real perspective on things – vetoed its release on the grounds that the overt drug taking it portrayed might mean they’d have trouble getting visas for entry into the United States. It would certainly have meant that they attracted more attention from immigration officials every time they entered the country.

“Don’t forget that Nixon was the US President, and rock ‘n’ rollers, and particularly British ones, were viewed as the enemy. John Lennon was living in America and trying to get a green card which would have legalised his residency in the States, and for the Stones, not being able to tour there would have meant the end of the band as a commercial entity.”

Back to the Stones in the Sixties, and there are far more details of the earlier version of the book on this very website, from my first feature/interview with Richard back in 2015. But Brian Jones and Charlie Watts clearly play a huge part in the first book, and no doubt it’s the same again with Charlie in All Down the Line. Those two certainly can’t be forgotten when you are talking about the Stones and their musical legacy.

“Absolutely. As longstanding Stones fans will say, ‘No Brian Jones, no Stones,’ because he was the first and founding member who brought Mick and Keith into his idea of the band. And his instrumentation on songs like ‘Ruby Tuesday’ and ‘Paint It, Black’ are what made those songs special.

“And of course Charlie was the backbone of the Stones until his sad passing last year. He is widely acknowledged as one of the best drummers in the world, with his own distinctive and yet unassuming style. And he was unaffected by fame, or as unaffected as anyone who has been in the most famous working rock ‘n’ roll band for the past 60 years can be. I cried when I heard the news of his passing, because it marks a step closer to the end of the Stones, and I have put him on the cover of the Stones in the Sixties book as a tribute to him.”

Finally, looking forward, how long do you reckon Mick, Keith and Ronnie can keep this going?

“Mick still trains as hard as ever for a tour to make sure he’s fit, and Keith has given up hard booze and hard drugs. Ronnie’s had a couple of cancer scares in recent years but, subject to them all staying healthy, they’ll keep going until they drop. And I, for one, will keep going to see them for as long as I can.”

For a link to this website’s original Richard Houghton interview, from late 2015, marking the release of the first version of the Stones’ Sixties book, head here.

Bill Wyman featured in an interview on this website in October 2013, with a link here.

Richard Houghton’s The Rolling Stones in the Sixties and All Down the Line are both available to order. For more details, head to the Spenwood Books website.

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