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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I see … like a museum exhibit!”

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

“Yeah, I have, in a way. Ha!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hope so.”

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

“That’s right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was indeed, yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, perhaps you’ll find out.

“We’ll find out, yeah!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris supports you on these dates, I see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happened to the original van?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, one of the highlights at Ribchester.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For tickets, head to www.ticketmaster.co.uk. For all the latest from Dodgy, visit www.dodgyology.com. And for more on the support acts, try https://bit.ly/TheSupernaturalsFB and www.chrishelme.co.uk.

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Keeping life and soul together – in conversation with Nik Kershaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

Were they the first in the family entering that world? 

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

It was clearly around you though, growing up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m guessing they were older.

“Yeah, probably 10 years older.”

Was that effectively your apprenticeship?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good name-drop, that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have your children followed you down the music path?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Treading Gently forward – beyond The Jam with Steve Brookes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And they’re still asking me!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that what you prefer to listen to now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Overcoming these doubts – in conversation with Marlody

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. Ha!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

A little too lo-fi?

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t mind talking about them.”

There are some quite dark subjects there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Was that a release for you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Heart for heart’s sake – back in touch with Graham Gouldman

Master songwriter and 10cc founding member Graham Gouldman is raring to go for next month’s 16-date tour with his semi-acoustic show, Heart Full of Songs.

Graham, joined by multi-instrumentalists/vocalists and 10cc live bandmates Iain Hornal and Keith Hayman, plus percussionist Dave Cobby, 10cc’s production manager, will perform songs from his celebrated back catalogue, also including hits for The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, The Yardbirds, and Wax, his ‘80s project with Andrew Gold.

The tour begins on March 6th in Bury St Edmunds and ends on the 23rd where it all started for Graham, on his old patch in Salford, including a London’s Cadogan Hall date on the 16th, having played his first Heart Full of Songs show almost a decade ago, for the pleasure of performing his songs acoustically, the format’s popularity such that it now tours the UK every two years, between 10cc’s sell-out UK tours.

The most recent Heart Full of Songs dates were in September 2021, Graham playing and talking about some of his best-known numbers, explaining how they came about, and new material he’s equally proud of – including tracks from solo albums, And Another Thing, Love and Work, Play Nicely and Share, and 2020’s Modesty Forbids.

The last time we talked was in September 2017 (with a link here), and so much has happened since, from the reality of the shambolic Brexit decision the previous year onwards, not least the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences.

“I’m afraid it has!”

But we’ve always got good music to pull us through, yeah?


He certainly keeps busy, more recent highlights including guesting for Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band on 2018 European and North American arena tours, the band playing three 10cc songs a night, Graham describing the experience as, “One of the most enjoyable things I’ve done.”

Then there was the song he wrote then recorded with Queen legend Brian May, ‘Floating in Heaven’, released as a single to mark the unveiling of the first images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, the pair also performing the song with a full orchestra at a prestigious space convention in Armenia, and also featuring as a soundtrack for a video of images released by the Space Telescope Science Institute in the States.

Graham started this year in style too, a Maldives winter break with his beloved, Ariella, proving a suitably restorative moment ahead of preparations for the spring tour.

“It was, because we’ve got quite a busy year. We had a busy 2022 and this year it’s also looking to be very busy. So yes, get a break while you can!”

This is his second post-pandemic Heart Full of Songs tour. In those early days after the initial return of live music, there seemed to be – for musicians and fans alike – a more heightened appreciation and respect for the fact that we were back out there again.

“You could feel it. Exactly, yes. You really could feel how happy people were. As you say, not only us, but the audiences – there was a kind of ‘thank goodness we’re all back together for the audience to be with the band, but also for the audience to be with itself, with other members of the audience, in the same place for a common reason. I really felt that.

“The first gig we did after the lockdown was in a small club in Sutton, for a friend of mine – a journalist – and he said, ‘There’s only going to be 100-and-odd people there, but we said we were going to do it, because it was going to be a warm-up for something else but more ‘why not do it?’ You know, it was just so lovely to get back doing it again.”

Absolutely, and that intimacy counts for a lot, doesn’t it?

“Oh, yeah. It’s everything.”

You’ve played some major venues down the years. Do you still strive to get that intimacy when you’re on the biggest stages?

“I try to. It depends. With the Heart Full of Songs show, it’s easier because I’m sat down, talking to the audience more about the songs, whereas at 10cc gigs there is some chat, but not as in depth, purely because we want to get as many songs in as possible during a set. People aren’t there to listen to me chat. They want to hear the music. With Heart Full of Songs, it’s a completely different experience.”

I won’t hark back too much to lockdown days, but was that mostly in north west London? And did you see a new side to the area where you lived?

“I saw a new side to my recording studio! It became a haven and was really important to me. I recorded lots of stuff with other people, did a solo instrumental album, some library music, lots of stuff, some I wouldn’t normally do. I just wanted to keep working. It was the only way of doing it.

“And thank goodness for the digital technology that me and many, many others … I wouldn’t say held on to their sanity – if it hadn’t been there, I would have found something else – but I was still able to make music, even though it wasn’t with other people. It was still making music. So that was okay with me.”

And creativity is often key to mental health.

“Absolutely, and I think just work in general – to have purpose, get up in the morning, like everybody. Whatever your job is, if you have purpose and know you’re going to do something, sometimes you’re happy to do it. A lot of people aren’t. I’m incredibly fortunate that I love what I do, and that helped me through that horrible time, not being able to be with other people and being confined to your house, virtually.”

Talking of your studio output down the years, I like to look up notable anniversaries of recordings when talking to esteemed interviewees, and it’s now 55 years since Strawberry Studios came to be. Were you aware of the original location, in its inaugural Inter-City Studios days above a town centre music shop in Stockport?

“I knew of it but had never visited it. My first experience of it was while working with Eric Stewart, with The Mindbenders. He said he was going to start this studio off with Peter Tattersall, and asked if I wanted to be a partner in it, to which I said, ‘Yeah, definitely.’”

Was there a little sales patter involved? Or did they not need to sell the idea to you?

“There was no need to sell the idea at all. At that point, being with local bands and recording, the studios in the north of England up to that point weren’t that great. If you wanted to do anything, make a proper record, you had to go down to London. But that was a nonsense, because there were so many bands in the north that needed a really fantastic facility … and Strawberry provided it.”

There’s a great book from former Fall drummer Paul Hanley about all that, Leave the Capital, writing about Strawberry Studios among others in the area, and he makes that very point, pointing out that not even The Beatles recorded outside London.

“That’s right. There were studios, in fact I’ve found some tapes recently, and there was a studio in Huddersfield. The recordings were pretty poor, I have to say, but to give it credit, you know – it’s better than nothing.”

And because you mentioned Eric Stewart, you already knew that talented lad from Droylsden, Tameside, fairly well by then, yeah?

“Well, I’d met Eric at Kennedy Street Enterprises, the agency that handled so many of the Manchester bands, including The Mindbenders.”

First impressions?

“Of Eric? Well, I was already a fan of The Mindbenders, and it was great to meet him. And we went on to have a very successful collaboration, in 10cc in particular.”

The wheels of progress were soon in motion, one thing led to another, and last year marked 50 years since the start of 10cc. How did you celebrate that particular anniversary?

“We celebrated it on tour by saying, everywhere we went, it was 50 years since the release of ‘Donna’ in 1972. And this year sees the release of our very first album, 10cc.”

And this summer it’ll be 50 years since ‘Rubber Bullets’ (credited to Lol Crème, Kevin Godley and Graham) topped the UK charts, while later this year it will be 45 years since ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ did the same, the third 10cc No.1, on the back of 1975’s wondrous ‘I’m Not in Love’, the latter two both Stewart/Gouldman compositions. Let’s face it, you packed a fair bit in to just a few years, didn’t you.

“Yeah, and when you say it, you kind of go, ‘What happened? How did that happen so quickly? Where did the time go?”

These days, only Graham still performs live with 10cc. Are they all still in touch, be that via email, phone calls, or in person?

“Er … the only person I’m in regular contact with is Kevin Godley, who I’ve kept working with over the years. We’ve recorded together, and he’s actually just done a video for me for a song that’s going to be on a new album. He’s also appeared with us on stage. And when we do our own tours, he sings somewhere in Hollywood via a fantastic video that he made. We play live to his singing, and it’s great. And he’s also made other videos for us.”

Is there any animosity in the fact that it’s not all four of you these days? Or is it just that you’ve been there, done that, and you’re all too busy with your own lives and working ventures?

“I think … yeah, with some people you just drift apart for no particular reason, and other people you stay in touch with. It’s just one of those things.”

Graham and Kevin go way back. How good would he say their early outfit, Jewish Lads Brigade house band The Whirlwinds, were?

“Oh, absolutely brilliant, of course! Ha! It was a different sort of band. I mean, like many other bands at the time we did lots of covers. It wasn’t really an original sort of band. It wasn’t really until 10cc that any of us were doing our own material. That’s what 10cc allowed us to do.”

Ultimately, it was the Columbia record label’s lukewarm reaction and rejection of follow-up band, The Mockingbirds’ take on ‘For Your Love’ in 1965 that proved a turning point, the Yardbirds stepping in instead, scoring a major hit.

“A turning point for me as a songwriter, blimey, yeah! A bit of luck, that.”

Out of bad luck came some good?

“Yeah, exactly.”

Working by day in a men’s outfitters shop and playing by night with his semi-professional band, Graham went on to write a string of hits, such as ‘Pamela, Pamela’ for Wayne Fontana, ‘For Your Love’, ‘Evil Hearted You’and ‘Heart Full of Soul’ for The Yardbirds, ‘Bus Stop’ and ‘Look Through Any Window’ for The Hollies, ‘No Milk Today’and ‘Listen People’ for Herman’s Hermits, and ‘Tallyman’ for recently-departed guitar legend Jeff Beck.

In fact, Graham’s and Jeff’s fortunes seem almost linked, albeit each taking very different paths throughout their careers, ‘Heart Full of Soul’ Jeff’s first hit as part of The Yardbirds, having replaced Eric Clapton. Was it around then that they first met?

“Yes, I met Jeff with The Yardbirds just after they recorded ‘Heart Full of Soul.’

Did you get on well and get to know him over the years?

“I never really hung out with them. I was introduced to them by their manager, Giorgio Gomelsky. They were very nice and everything, but it was never like, ‘Let’s have a drink together.’ I’m not being detrimental to them. I mean, I was quite a shy boy anyway. They were very nice, and I’m eternally grateful to them, because they recorded my songs. And also because Jeff recorded ‘Tallyman’, so I’m really proud to have had an association with them and with him in particular, because, like many others who have said it because of his untimely passing, he was quite simply the greatest guitarist in the world.

“There’s no one that plays like him. I’ve worked with some of the greatest guitarists in the world. Most recently, Brian May, doing a record with him. He is a phenomenal guitar player but he himself acknowledges the fact that Beck is the greatest.”

I love ‘Tallyman’. It seemed a perfect follow-up to ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’, but barely scraped the UK top 30.

“Hardly anyone knows it. But for me, it’s worth it to have my name and his on the same label.”

Those Yardbirds links seemed to bookend such a creative period for Graham as a successful songwriter and gun for hire the first time around, ultimately leading him to America, from those three hits with them and The Hollies’ ‘Look Through Any Window’ through to ‘Bus Stop’ the following summer, then ‘No Milk Today’, ‘Pamela Pamela’, and so on. But it seems you ended up somewhat burned out for a while.

“I did in the sort of late ‘60s, just prior to 10cc happening. But you know, one thing leads to another, there’s cause and effect, and working in America with a company that was ostensibly … Kazenatz’s Kats was the company I was writing for, and they wanted to sort of up their game with me writing with them.

“It was a project I eventually bought back from New York to Stockport, to the studio, and really it was part of the glue that helped stick the four of us in 10cc together, because we made those records under various pseudonyms.

“I mean, we were recording any old rubbish! But we really enjoyed working together. It was a good experience for us, and it was good business for the studio. Our attitude was, ‘Let’s just make the best possible record we can out of this’. As everybody does. Whatever it was we were working on.”

It was in 1972, along with Eric Stewart, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, that Graham formed 10cc, the band going on to enjoy a string of hits, scoring nine top-10 hits in all – as well as their three No.1s, also including ‘Donna’ (No 2), ‘Art For Art’s Sake’and ‘Good Morning Judge’ (No.5), ‘The Things We Do For Love’and ‘I’m Mandy Fly Me’ (No.6), and ‘The Wall Street Shuffle’ (No.10) – and selling more than 30 million albums worldwide.

In fact, ‘I’m Not in Love’ has been played more than five million times on US radio alone, with YouTube videos of the song viewed more that 30 million times. And on the subject of US radio statistics, ‘The Things We Do for Love’ has been played more than 3.5 million times, while the Hollies’ ‘Bus Stop’ has amassed more than four million plays, and The Yardbirds’ ‘For Your Love’ more than two million.

And ultimately, the enduring popularity of those tracks, others such as ‘Bridge to Your Heart’ by Wax, who sold more than two million albums worldwide, and songs for film soundtracks, including Animalympics, led to the Heart Full of Songs tours.

But let’s go back a bit further again. We talked a fair bit about ‘Bus Stop’ last time, a song I love, and I recently happened to look at the UK chart just before the World Cup Final in 1966, when there was so much quality in there …

“I know! And now, if you’re of a certain age, you look at the charts and probably don’t know one person in it. It’s a different world now.”

That week alone there was ‘Get Away’ by Georgie Fame, ‘Sunny Afternoon’ from The Kinks, ‘Out of Time’ by Chris Farlowe, ‘River Deep Mountain High’ from Ike and Tina Turner, all top five …

“Yeah, great! Blimey, just those lot were classics! And of course, we know every single one of them and they’re still being played today. That’s going to be the difference. I think. You could say, ‘well, so what?’ Today’s No.1 is not going to be played forever, but the kids will say ‘so what?’ Music has maybe a different value to a lot of people today.”

‘Bus Stop’ was also in the top 10 that week, and then there was The Troggs’ ‘A Girl Like You’, Dusty Springfield’s ‘Going Back’, The Beatles’ ‘Paperback Writer’, Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘I Am a Rock’, and The Loving Spoonful’s ‘Summer in the City’, to name but a few. That’s more than nostalgia on my part, surely. Did you feel you were part of a huge moment in music at the time?

“Well, I was part of a huge moment in music, and it was the most important movement. I mean, it really shifted – with The Beatles being the pinnacle of it – from our parents’ music, sort of the big band era, moving into bands that were people were making their own music. Not only playing it themselves but writing their own songs. This was massive.”

And if I’ve worked it out right, you’ve been playing in bands for 60 years now. That’s some going. You clearly still have a passion for live shows.

“I love it. I absolutely love it.”

And two years on from Modesty Forbids, you mention another LP on the way.

“Yes, I’m recording one now, looking forward to that coming out later in the year. I’ve not finished it yet, but …”

And will you work with Brian May again?

“Ah, it’s possible. We’d like to work together again. All it depends on, quite rightly, is the right song, whatever it may be.”

Not just for the sake of it.

“Yeah, I’m certainly not going to do that. I would only approach him with something if I felt it suited him.”

Finally, we talked last time not only about the songs that made your name, but also those that somehow never got the kudos you felt they deserved. And you mentioned ‘Ready To Go Home’. I concur with that, having properly listened since … although I have a suggestion, not least because of your BBC Songwriters’ Circle link a few years ago. I’d love to hear yourself and Neil Finn duet on a new version of that, stripped back.

“Ha! So would I!”

Can you sort that out for me?

“I will do for that! I’ll let you know how I get on!”

Is it too much to ask if Roddy Frame can join in too? Let’s hope so, the three of them joining forces for that show in an edition first aired in 1999 … which is somehow now a couple of dozen years ago.

Anyway, as Graham puts it himself, the beauty of the best songs is there beneath the added touches. And the two versions I’ve heard of ‘Ready To Go Home’ are fairly full on. I’d love to hear a stripped-back, more acoustic take.

“Have you heard the Morten Harket version?”

Well, I will seek it out now you’ve mentioned it (I have, and yes, he does it proud).

“Yeah, I’m very close to that song and of course I co-wrote it with the late, great Andrew Gold.”

Absolutely, and it was lovely to catch up. What’s more, I’m glad you’re still out there performing, all these years on, still on the road.

“Yeah, I’ll keep going! Nice to speak to you.”

Graham Gouldman’s Heart Full of Songs show tours the UK in March, calling at: Bury St Edmunds, The Apex, 6th; Sunderland, Fire Station, 7th; Glasgow, St Luke’s, 8th; Buxton, Floral Pavilion, 9th; Holmfirth, The Civic, 10th; Stamford, Corn Exchange, 12th; Lytham St Annes, Lowther Pavilion, 13th; Southport, The Atkinson, 14th; Shoreham, Ropetackle, 15th; London, Cadogan Hall, 16th; Basingstoke, The Haymarket, 18th; Oswaldtwistle, Civic Arts Centre & Theatre, 19th; Lincoln, Drill Hall, 20th; Wavendon, The Stables Theatre, 21st; Shrewsbury, Theatre Severn, 22nd; Salford, Quays Theatre, 23rd. Tickets are available from all venues and from www.grahamgouldman.info.

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All fired up and still seeking the love remedy – back in touch with Andrew Roachford

Andrew Roachford was suffering from the dreaded ‘man flu’ when I called, but insisted, tongue firmly in cheek, ‘I’ll live’, this veteran singer-songwriter looking to steadily build up his energy reserves for impending rehearsals ahead of a 21-date UK tour, some 35 years after his band’s self-titled debut LP, Roachford.

And he’ll need to hit the road running, so to speak, with that tour followed by another nationwide jaunt out front – alongside co-vocalist Tim Howar – with Mike + the Mechanics, in what promises to be another busy year. And as I put it, his cold surely just adds a different timbre to that distinctive voice.

“Exactly. A Barry White manifestation!”

That could set up a whole new set of cover possibilities for a patron of the Music Venue Trust whose latest tour is in support of independent music venues. Billed as ‘An Evening with Roachford’, it arrives on the back of well-received 2020 LP, Twice in a Lifetime and his band’s most recent, much-lauded tour dates. Not as if he’s ever off the road for long.

“I have breaks, but really, I’m one of those touring musicians. That’s kind of what I do. My suitcase is rarely unpacked fully, because I know I’ll be going back out. It’s a lifestyle you either love or hate, and I’m one of those guys that loves it. I wouldn’t be doing anything else. I’ve been really lucky that I’ve never had another job – I’ve always been gigging, since I was a kid. It’s crazy.”

It’s hoped the dates will bring attention to the #OwnOurVenues grassroots campaign, encouraging music communities to buy shares in owning their local venues to protect and improve them. And as he put it, “I’m thrilled to be staging this tour in support of independent music venues and getting out to more regional cities across the UK, to some wonderful local venues and connecting with fans and some of the places I’ve enjoyed playing at so many times over the years. These intimate shows will be something special.”

Seen as one of the most compelling and consistent UK rock and soul artists, Andrew’s someone who – as his press team put it – ‘channels the energy of James Brown before going on stage each night, and who, on record, summons up the spirit of everyone from Al Green to Joe Cocker.’ And there’s nowt wrong with that.

This London-born, Balham-based performer – who turned 58 in late January – has released 11 studio albums and several greatest hits collections since his late ‘80s emergence on the back of the ‘Cuddly Toy’ and ‘Family Man’ hit singles with the band that take his surname, those seeking out his songwriting including Michael Jackson, Joss Stone, and Chaka Khan.

He’s also toured on his own and with contemporaries such as Terence Trent D’Arby and The Christians. And he’s been part of Mike + the Mechanics since 2010, recording and playing live with Mike Rutherford’s post-Genesis band across the world, including upcoming April-June 2023 UK and German ‘Refueled’ tours.

If that link with Mike Rutherford is something of a surprise to you, perhaps it shouldn’t be. Tracks like ‘Won’t Think Twice’ on the last LP put me in mind of the Paul Carrack-era Mechanics covering The Impressions, and in a sense there’s something of a similar feel to Carrack and Roachford’s take on pop soul.

While the wider public may see Andrew’s band as primarily the outfit behind one top-10 hit – and ‘Cuddly Toy’ still receives regular international radio airplay – they have in fact scored eight top-40 singles and five top-40 LPs in the UK. And his most recent long player, Twice in a Lifetime – produced by Jimmy Hogarth (Paolo Nutini, Duffy, Amy Winehouse, his band featuring several members of the latter’s band) – scored five weeks of BBC Radio 2 A-list airplay for inspirational numbers ‘High on Love’, ‘Love Remedy’ and ‘Gonna Be the One’, and reached No.31 on release. But chart positions have never been the focus of this accomplished musician, singer and performer.

Incidentally, all these years on, with those forthcoming dates in mind, does he still get nervous before opening dates, or any other shows? And if so, des he reckon those nerves are essential?

“Ah, always. Especially the first date. Even if you haven’t done it for a month or something, you still feel there’s a bit of rust and wonder, ‘How’s this gonna go down?’ It’s a weird thing that you get into this head trip, but I can’t remember many bad gigs so I don’t know where that’s all coming from, because it always works out. But I think some artists say it’s because you care, and you want it to be the best.

“And I grew up listening to really great live performers and really appreciate a good live gig. I don’t want, you know, lukewarm – people going, ‘Oh, it was okay.’ It doesn’t work that way for me. I’m looking to have people leave there completely blown away, and lifted. So it’s quite a pressure I put on my own shoulders.”

Well, if you’re feeling it, hopefully everyone else will.

“Yes, and they pick up how invested you are in it. There’s nothing worse than seeing someone who’s a jobsworth, going through the motions. But they look at me and go, ‘He’s putting his whole life into this, like it’s his last,’ and yeah, it’s the only way I know.”

Taking that ‘it could be my last’ line, if these past few years taught us anything – and you could come up with many examples of people dear to you that we’ve lost – we can’t take anything for granted.

“Oh, no!”

You worked with the recently-departed Jeff Beck, and we lost Terry Hall of The Specials, Fun Boy 3, and The Colour Field fame before Christmas, plus your friend Maxi Jazz, from Faithless. On an even more personal basis, we lost your brother Stephen (also part of his band and his manager) just before the pandemic kicked in.

“Actually, his funeral was the last thing they allowed before lockdown. So he got out at a good time – he didn’t know anything about Covid. But, yeah, it just shows you can’t take anything for granted. And it may be depressing to people, but it’s a fact that we all have to die at some point, so you have to make sure much as you can that you’ve lived. Other people, I don’t know what they’re waiting for. If someone said to you the world was going to end tomorrow, you’d start living, you know.

“That’s my attitude to life. While I’ve got the gift of life – and not a lot of people have – I’m going to use it as much as I can. Of course, I’m human, so there are days where I might feel down or a bit sorry for myself. But the man in the voice says, ‘Hello, this is reality.’

“And my perspective has really changed since my brother passed and, yeah, Maxi and Jeff Beck – even though he’s from a different generation, I saw him only a few years ago, and he looked so well. Again, he’s a guy that at every gig gave 100%. He wasn’t at all jaded by the music industry. It was like it was his first gig, and he loved it.”

Only last week, I spoke to Graham Gouldman, who gifted Jeff Beck one of his early solo hits, arguably for me his finest single, 1967’s ‘Tallyman’.

“Graham Gouldman? Ah, we’ve worked together too.”  

That doesn’t surprise me, Andrew’s CV including so many high-profile collaborations down the years, a recent example being UK queen of soul Beverley Knight, who duets on the typically soulful ‘What We Had’, from the Twice in a Lifetime LP.

“We often bumped into each other on the gigging circuit, played on some of the same festival stages, and always said, ‘Yeah, let’s do something.’ It was always being said, but not happening, and then I came up with this song and said, ‘That’s it, it’s got to be a duet and she’s got to do the female part.’ I played it to her, she just jumped at it, got to the studio and really nailed it, and I’ve got a lot of respect for her as a singer. And her work ethic – she’s doesn’t mess around. She’s definitely so driven, and that’s one of the reasons she’s had that longevity.”

On this tour, in light of that tie-in with the Music Venue Trust, supporting grassroots venues after a troubled few years – somewhat exacerbated by the pandemic, no doubt – is this you paying your dues to your music past?

“Yeah. I’ve played loads of venues of every different shape and size, and definitely appreciate all that. And I’m a musician first and foremost, and there’s loads of great talent out there that wants to be heard – they want a gig on the circuit. Not everyone can do the O2s or Wembley. There’s so much talent, and it’s a big part of the music culture in this country, so strong and such a big part of the history of the UK, with these venues a big part of that. Also for the punters, so people have got venues on their high street and can actually go and see amazing talent. If that was to go, then it becomes very sterilised, because there’s only going to be a few names that can actually play the bigger venues. So it’s very important.”

Well, we’ve all seen a dearth of tribute acts in the last decade or so, so it’s so good to see artists perform their own material out there. We need that creativity.

“We do. We need the artists, you know, they’re still being born everywhere, they need an outlet, and even when you turn on the radio, there’s stuff you will never hear unless you go to these venues. I’ve been to some of the smaller venues and heard people and gone, ‘Wow!’ I wouldn’t have known about this person ever, unless my mate invited me here. It’s important, and sometimes people make the wrong assumption that if they’re not at big venues, they can’t be that good. That’s not always how it works, and it’s just keeping that live music scene going. It’s not just about people doing social media, you know. And nowadays, it’s not about record sales as much as it used to be when I started out. It’s about gigs.”

That’s kind of flipped on its head, hasn’t it.

“Yes, and it’s so important.”

Have you tried totting up the amount of live shows you’ve done down the years? Do you keep a diary with notes to remind you of each location and venue?

“Oh my God, I really should have, but I haven’t. I’ve played I don’t know how many venues in the UK alone. It’s just ridiculous. Even this next few months, because I’m doing my tour then I’m straight into rehearsals with Mike {Rutherford} and doing the Mike + the Mechanics tour, I’ll be doing, I don’t know how many, 40 dates, maybe?”

Well, on this tour alone it’s 21 days over barely six weeks, and then you’ve got those 30-plus UK Mechanics dates for starters.

“Yeah, it’s going to be really intense. I’ll probably need a holiday after all that.”

You use the word ‘intimate’ when you’re talking about gigs and the Music Venue Trust project. And I get the impression that however big the places you play, you’ll still fix on that one person in the crowd.

“Yeah, I do. When I’m singing, I feel like I’m singing to someone, because you are sort of baring your soul. And I like the fact that when I go to gigs and hear people, it feels real, it feels like if they’re singing a song about an emotive subject, that there’s investment in that way. It gets harder when you start playing bigger venues. If you’re playing an arena or a stadium, it often becomes also about the lights and the screens, and you find you have to projects, put your arms out and be, you know, a performer in that way. And it’s tougher to give it that. I’ve played some big venues, gone off the stage and felt it was a blur.it was all adrenalin. But when you play the smaller venues, you fill that feedback instantly from the people you’re singing to.”

Twice in a Lifetime quite rightly got lots of plaudits. Is there a new LP on its way?

“Well, I’ve started to write some new material. I can’t say when I’ll have an album out. I’m not sure if it will be this year, with all the live stuff I’m doing. But there’s definitely another album in the making.”

And is the contacts book open? We mentioned Beverley Knight, and I guess there will be moments when you get the feeling you need someone or other guesting on this one too.

“Well, I haven’t got to that point, because I like to get enough tracks, so when I do ring these people and saying, ‘Check this out,’ I know they’re going to get blown away. That’s how I start, rather than go, ‘Erm, would you sing on my album?’ Especially if it’s someone who’s really busy, so you need to go there with your gun fully loaded!”

Last time I spoke to you was August 2017. A lot’s happened since, from the horrors of Brexit all the way through the pandemic to the current cost of living crisis and wall-to-wall public services’ strikes. And then there were those personal moments that also impacted on you. But has it at least been a productive period, working through the bad as well as the good times, like so many of us?

“It has been productive. It’s been quite intense, actually, with a lot happening … which I’m grateful for, you know. And I did the right thing, I kept my foot on the gas – I could have just gone, ‘Ah, I can’t be arsed with this.’ I just felt I needed to keep focused and keep going forwards. And from 2017 to today, the time has gone so fast, and I’m thinking that with the next album I make, there’s a lot to draw from, material-wise.

“Yeah, it’s been intense!” And those are the things that inspire writers – the more intense experiences.”

And putting you on the spot, of all the artists you’ve performed with or written songs for, who do you think you learned most from, or who gave you the biggest thrill to be up there with?

“Well, those are two different things, but I’ve learned a lot from Mike {Rutherford}, on a lot of levels – the way he puts songs together or ideas, and his fearlessness. I mean, Mike doesn’t try to sort of please anyone. He just does what he does. It doesn’t always work, but he takes those risks. And I think if you go through life and not take risks, you’re always going to be in the middle somewhere.”

Hearing yourself say that, does that surprise you? Putting yourself back in the mind of the late ‘70s or early 80s you, thinking you’re going to be talking in those terms of inspiration about a guitar-playing member of Genesis?

“Ha! Completely. I didn’t grow up with Genesis, and apart from the commercial side – which a lot of the fans say that’s not the real Genesis – I didn’t know them. And even now I’ve been to the last set of gigs, and it’s like a revelation to me, you know. And it’s about freedom, an artistic freedom of expression. They’re just doing what they’re doing, and somehow it just works. Because you have to trust in the whole process, I guess. Even though you might think this is only going to appeal to me because it’s so out there.

“You can be surprised. I mean, some of the times I wrote over the years, I really thought, ‘This is a bit indulgent. It’s about something that’s very close to me, and it’s not really going to resonate.’ But people go, ‘Oh, that song!’ And I’ll think, ‘Wow, I would never have thought!’  So you’ve got to stick your neck out there, and I think Mike has always been a reminder about that. And I appreciate that he turned up on the scene when he did.”

I guess there’s a great example in that personal aspect that resonates with people, in the Mechanics’ biggest hit, ‘The Living Years’. That must have surprised him, how much it meant to strangers.

“Well, even Mike, when that was being written – because he didn’t write most of the lyrics, that was B.A. Robertson – it had the word die in there, and you know, the rule is, you don’t put that in a pop song. But there’s ‘Spirit in the Sky’, and a few songs. But he didn’t know how people were going to take it. And to his surprise, not only did they take to it a little, but lots of people related to that. And it’s not something we talk about a lot, in society, but I think we need to talk about it more, sort of demystify it, take the dark fear out of that. We’ve got this idea that it’s something and actually it’s … there was a comedian on the radio the other day, Zoe Ball was interviewing him and said, ‘I’m gonna play this song, but it was from before you were born.’ And he said, ‘Oh, yeah, I was dead then!’ And yeah, we’ve all kind of been dead before. Wherever that is that we go to, we’ve come from that. We didn’t exist as what we know we are now. So it’s not that bad, we’ve done it before.”

And who’s in the Roachford band this time on tour?

“Well, this band is Chris Moorhead, who I co-wrote some of the songs with, like ‘Love Remedy’. And my brother introduced me to him. And then there’s Luke {Naimi}, who’s been playing drums for me for a few years now, and David Levy’s been playing bass with me for a while.”

Incidentally, David also features with Paul Young‘s Los Pacaminos. And it seems Andrew’s got a good vibe together with his band.

“Oh yeah, and do you know what, it’s just got an energy about it, because they are invested in it. You don’t want people just playing because they played the songs before. They’re completely … right in it, as I am. I remember going to a Stevie Wonder gig, thinking, ‘How many times has he played ‘Superstition’? But you can hear he plays it like it was the first time, and I get that.”

Last time we spoke, we got on to our mutual love for Al Green and his records for the Hi label with Willie Mitchell, and you’ve clearly got that affinity with all that. In fact, there’s a vibe of all that on ‘Too Much to Lose’ on that last LP.

“Well, I’m planning this year after touring to go out to Nashville, and I want to head out to Memphis. Actually, Beverley Knight did some stuff out there, recording at Al Green’s family studio, and she kept saying to me, ‘Andrew, of all people, you should be going there.’ So that’s gonna happen this year, and I’ll pop down to the church that Al Green preaches out, and hopefully he’ll be around. I’d love to really connect with him. I mean, who wouldn’t? But I just feel there’s an affinity there. We would understand each other. And appreciate. So yeah, who knows what’s going to come from that!”

Well, next time we speak, it could be a case of me asking you to talk me through the recording of Roachy in Memphis.

“Exactly! So yeah, I’m looking forward to that.”

And on a personal note, there was also the awarding of your MBE for services to music since we last spoke. A proud moment?

“Oh man, that moment is etched in my memory. I’ll never forget it. We were driving into Buckingham Palace in the morning, my brother was driving, and it was beautiful blue skies, like we were in the Mediterranean or something, even though it was cold. And as the gate opened, ‘Love Remedy’, one of my songs, came on the radio. It couldn’t have been more perfect.

“Sadly, my brother was gone within weeks of that, but it was just that moment. It meant a lot, and it means a lot on a lot of levels. I may have said to you last time, obviously I don’t make music for awards …”

I imagine so, and I still have that vision of you hiding behind a bank of keyboards, as it was in the early days until you were persuaded to lose them one by one and show us your face.

“Exactly, that was me, and it still is me to an extent. Because it’s about music for me. The music is bigger than me, and I feel sort of like a servant to music. Obviously, I understand the whole fame thing. But when you’ve been through it, you don’t need it. Some people need it, but others don’t need that kind of hero worship, they just want to make the best music that actually resonates with people in the deepest way. And that makes me happy.”

And having mentioned Al Green and Stevie Wonder, are you still discovering music from the past and thinking, ‘How did I miss out on this?

“Always, and even with artists I know really well, I’ll find a track and think, ‘Where did this come from?’ And you just learn. That’s what I’m like, I’m a sponge. You hear something and, ‘What was that?’ And you try to sort of assimilate it, make it part of what you do, if you can. I tend to listen to the greats a lot, and people like Sam Cooke, they’re on another planet. I don’t know how they did it.”

He recorded so much too, in such a short space of time.

“Yeah. Living in the studio. Sam Cooke, Otis Redding … I mean, how much material did that guy have? He died at 27. It’s crazy.”

And just to finish off – I best let you go because you need to save your voice, or I’ll be in trouble for ending the tour before it’s even opened – it’s 35 years this June since ‘Cuddly Toy’s initial release, although it was this time the following year when it properly charted. Looking back at the subsequent Top of the Pops appearances and other TV performances playing that breakthrough hit, do you still recognise that fella fronting the band back then?

“Ha! Erm … not really … In some ways I do, but I’m a lot older now and I’ve been through the journey. I think I was kind of half present and half not. I think that’s what I needed to be to make that music at that time. I could never write the way I wrote then, because I’m just not the same. If you could be the person that you are now and go back then, it would be a completely different story. But what a lovely journey it’s been, and I feel blessed so far. And when people talk about ‘Cuddly Toy’, I’m glad I wrote it. It’s done so many good things for me and made so many people happy, so what more can you want?”

It opened the door, for certain

“Big time!”

And with that, I let him go, sensing a coughing episode, not wanting to be the interviewer responsible for dragging him back to square one on his road to recovery.

For this website’s August 2017 feature/interview with Andrew Roachford, head here.

Special guest at the forthcoming 21-date An Evening With Roachford tour is Acantha Lang, born and raised in New Orleans, and currently building a name for herself on the UK circuit since moving to London. Also writing for Grammy-nominated Robert Randolph & The Family Band. Acantha’s debut EP, Sugar Woman was selected by Soul Tracks as their featured album of the month on its release and earned her a New Artist of the Year award at 2021’s Soul Tracks Readers’ Choice Awards. Debut single, ‘He Said/She Said’ gained praise from Craig Charles (BBC 6 Music Funk & Soul Show), who described Acantha as, ‘brilliant … an independent artist destined for world domination’ in a recent interview for Blues & Soul Magazine. Her music has gained more than one million streams and been playlisted on top Spotify playlists, including its Best Retro Songs of 2021 playlist. Acantha was also accepted into the Recording Academy’s (Grammy) 2022 member class, with her single, ‘It’s Gonna Be Alright’ on the first round ballots in three categories at the 65th Grammy Awards nominations.

An Evening With Roachford dates: 15th February – Nottingham, Rescue Rooms; 17th February – Wigan, The Old Courts; 24th February – Holmfirth, Picturedrome; 25th February – Stockton-on-Tees, ARC; 26th February – Shrewsbury, Theatre Severn; 1st March – Blackburn, King George’s Hall; 2nd March – Bury, The Met; 3rd March – Carlisle, Old Fire Station; 4th March – Sunderland, Fire Station; 9th March – Cambridge, The Junction; 10th March – Stroud, The Subs Rooms; 11th March – East Sussex, Trading Boundaries; 15th March – Basingstoke, The Haymarket; 16th March – Coventry, HMV Empire; 17th March – Milton Keynes, The Stables; 18th March – Margate,  Olby’s Creative Hub; 23rd March – Eastleigh, Concorde Club; 24th March – Cardiff, The Globe; 25th March – Buckley, Tivoli; 29th March – Bury St Edmunds, The Apex; 30th March – Lincoln, The Drill. Tickets are on sale now, available at www.roachford.co.uk.

The Music Venue Trust is a charitable organisation, founded in January 2014 to help protect, secure and improve UK music venues, and currently provides support to more than 900 venues, helping purchases freeholds, renting them back to operators at a fairer rate than previous landlords, with greater security and better understanding of the sector. Music fans and ethical investors can buy community shares in Music Venue Properties from £200 to £100,000 and receive 3% APR on investments. To the end of 2022, MVP raised £3.5m to buy freeholds for nine UK grassroots music venues. For more details head here.

And for Mike + The Mechanics’ UK and German tour details and ticket information, visit https://mikeandthemechanics.com.

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Finding her voice again – the Sam Brown interview

I still can’t get used to online video interviews, and this one with Sam Brown was definitely one that caught me out. When in-person one-to-ones are ruled out by time and impracticalities, it’s arguably the next best thing, somewhat more intimate than a phone call. And yet, when you’re talking to people who have helped form the patchwork of your life as a music fan, providing part of the soundtrack to your formative years, you can’t help but feel a little more nervous and, in my case, come over as a bit of an awkward fan boy … a teenage one at that.

Okay, I was already 20 by the time I heard her debut hit single, ‘Stop!’ And she’s barely three years older than me (although she looks far younger). All the same, I had our video call to look back over, but made do with the audio file when it came to transcription, as I struggle to get past my voice and demeanour, squirming as I think, ‘Why didn’t I ask that?’ or ‘What did you say that for, you bloody idiot?’

That said, as much as she does online, it’s clearly as odd a situation for my interviewee as it is me, as became clear soon after my opening gambit, asking if it’s good to be back … or has she never really been away?

“Ha! No, I was definitely away … away with the faeries!”

She’s quoting one of her own songs there, the gorgeous, dreamy last track on Of the Moment. On which the esteemed Herbie Flowers contributes double bass while Sam adds ukulele, tenor guitar, piano, and keyboards, as well as that breathy, rather exquisite voice. 

“It is nice though, and quite strange. And it’s been a long time since I’ve done all the PR stuff. But it’s been really nice to meet new people and have a chat. I get a bit bored of talking about myself, but …”

The release of her new solo LP, Number 8, completes a series of studio and live albums where the first letters spell out her name. Mind you, Sam admits that naming convention passed her by until fifth LP, Reboot in 2000. She carried it on from there though, with this latest offering her first studio album since 2007’s splendid Of the Moment, and following 2021 archive live offering, Wednesday the Something of April, which featured recordings from 2004.

Sam had by last year accepted the loss of her voice as it was as permanent. So how did Number 8 – released last week alongside its lead single, ‘Doll’ come about? Well, apparently it required a little thinking outside the (voice) box.
“When I began experiencing difficulties with my voice, I started on a rigorous pursuit of answers. I worked with top voice trainers, here and in America. I saw reputed voice doctors, did speech therapy, hypnotherapy, therapy therapy! Yoga, acupuncture, nutrition, crystal healing …

“Nothing changed my inability to achieve pitch and closure simultaneously. A fundamental problem. Along with my voice, my creative impetus also disappeared. I didn’t play anything or write anything. I didn’t want to. It was upsetting, to say the least.” 

That was until lockdown, when close friend and long-time associate Danny Schogger suggested they try a little writing.

“Long story short, we tried, and we did. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, and there were tears. Danny was amazingly patient, and we ended up with an album’s worth of tracks, the recording a wonderful revelation, all done on Skype and Zoom. 

“Danny did most of the instrumental side of things in his home, I worked at home with my Melodyne programme, allowing me to sing something in any pitch then move it to where I wanted it … and tune it – essential!
“It also meant I could add harmonies, double-tracking, etc. My brother Pete came on board at the mixing stage, fine-tuning what I’d done already. The end-result? Like nothing I’ve ever done before. In short, it’s all fake!”

That seems to be typical Sam, doing herself down. Arguably, she never quite fitted into a more egotistical mainstream pop way of operating, and certainly never seemed to take herself too seriously, despite an obvious talent as a singer and also a songwriter.

I had my first exposure to Number 8 this weekend, ‘Doll’ my earlier raised-eyebrows introduction, seemingly pitched somewhere between Thomas Dolby and Goldfrapp. And from more ‘90s dance-centric opener ‘It’s Okay’ to the disco throb of Adamski-esque penultimate number ‘4 on the Floor’, if you listen with ears open, I’d like to think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. It’s not what we would have expected from her a decade ago, but take for example the Art of Noise match-up with Depeche Mode feel of track three ‘Injured’ or Teutonic-electronic feel of ‘Another Day’, a move towards ‘80s electro-pop surprisingly suiting her. And as a long player, it’s a grower.

If I heard this 30-plus years ago I’d have checked to have seen if Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were on the credits, not least on ‘The Story’ and ‘Tribe’, the latter a surefire hit if released with Madonna’s name on it. Meanwhile, ‘Showgirl’ reminds me of Alice Hubble, who I recently caught supporting Blancmange, and who also kind of provides a modern twist on the past.

If I’m honest, perhaps we need a couple of Brown/Schogger instrumentals breaking things up in places, the pitch-too-perfect programming moments a little wearing by the time we reach ‘Marionette’, while ‘Not For Anyone’ has the feel of a lower-charting Spice Girls 45, before ‘Shift’ lifts us again. As for my personal highlight, that’s Gallic-tinged finale, ‘Ghost’. Imagine the Pet Shop Boys channelling Vanessa Paradis, with shades of The Kinks’ ’Village Green’.

More to the point perhaps, Number 8 perhaps proves what the power of optimism and self-belief can lead to, providing an unexpected return, Sam reclaiming her voice, the songs personal and affecting, and the album landing 35 years, give or take a few months, after debut album, Stop! – which sold more than two and a half million copies – followed the hit 45 of that name, both reaching No.4 in 1988.

That first single opened the door on what would prove a busy career, Sam also having featured as a backing singer for some of the world’s biggest artists, from Small Faces (her first work in the music industry was in 1978, aged 14, providing backing vocals on their final studio album, 78 in the Shade) to David Gilmour and Pink Floyd, Jon Lord and Deep Purple, The Firm, Gary Moore, and Spandau Ballet. And then there was a certain fella by the name of George Harrison, plus a long stint on our TV screens and on the road with Jools Holland’s band.

But back to the interview. and Number 8 sounds like it was meant to be, I suggested, the way it all came together.

“Definitely. I am really excited. It’s been quite a while since we finished it, but everyone seems to quite like it, which is really nice.”

It must have been an anguished time with the voice problems. Did that knock your confidence? Because, let’s face it, you had one hell of a voice on you.

“Ha! A bit of a shouter! Yeah, it hasn’t been easy. Singing was my whole life, apart from my children. There’s been difficult moments. But lots of people go through things like that, don’t they, and you’ve got a choice. You’ve got to come through the other end, really.”

The day before we spoke, I started going back through her album catalogue while out driving across Lancashire, playing debut LP Stop! for the first time in a long while. And I couldn’t help but wonder if she brought it upon herself by pushing that mighty voice of yours from the start.

“Ha! You’re not the only person to say that! Maybe. I definitely had a very loud voice, but did a lot of voice training from about 1995, which I hadn’t done with Stop! or Pink Floyd. I went through a marriage breakdown, and definitely channelled everything into my singing. Perhaps not the best thing to do. Who knows? I don’t know is the answer, Malcolm. I’ve no idea why, and I still don’t know what’s wrong with it.”

What also struck me, looking at the credits for that first album, having realised your brother, Pete, had been there with you all this time, was that Danny Schogger was also involved back then.  

“Absolutely. I met Danny in a recording studio when I was 15. He was in the kitchen making tea, and made some cheeky, sexist remark. As he was walking away, I threw a hot tea bag at the back of him, hit him right square on his nice new clean white t-shirt. We’ve been firm friends ever since! He’s a really nice bloke, and on this album we’ve done everything together. It’s been great fun, really easy, lots of laughing and a bit of crying when I couldn’t sing things. But then we got the auto-tune out, you know … fantastic.”

Ah, tea. Sam has long professed a love for a cuppa. Builders’ tea in her case, I understand. I was wondering, now things have changed at the top, sovereign-wise, is it time to replace our national anthem with the delightful ‘Tea’ from her debut LP?

“It’s a fucking genius idea! Ha!”

It’s not too long either. Just about right.

“Yeah, probably shorter than your average national anthem.”

How it would work on the football terraces, I don’t know, but …

“Yeah, I’ll write to the King and suggest it.”

You’ve got his personal email, right?

“Definitely. I mean, he’s gonna go for it, isn’t he?”

Let’s face it, the old one’s tired and dreary.

“Well … you know, change is good.”

I mentioned the first album, but for my better half and I – together since Summer ’89 – April Moon, out the following Spring, was one of the first LPs we both listened to together, when we lived 240 miles apart. She recorded it for me on a C90, and as I told Sam, the first time I played it and heard that doorbell ring at the start, someone answering it, I instinctively wondered if it was – more in the manner of 1970s recordings on tape recorders – my better half inviting some other fella in for a romantic evening, jealousy briefly kicking in, what with me being in Surrey and her in Lancashire.

“Ah, that’s brilliant! And you’ve been together a long time – congratulations.”

If the debut single and LP of the same name announced her arrival and showcased that great voice, April Moon took Sam forward, flagging up that talent for songwriting. And alongside three cracking singles (only one of which, somewhat criminally, made the top-40) for me there’s a melancholy beauty on various tracks. Looking back now, I equate it with Squeeze’s Play, even though that wasn’t out until the following summer. It carries that same Difford and Tilbrook minor key feel in places, both LPs proving perfect for when the days are shorter. A winter warmer.

“I can’t remember what time of year it came out, but I’m very thrilled to be put up against Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, amazing writers. I loved doing that album. The band was very heavy at that time, a good thing in a lot of ways. But I did think it was a bit long.”

I agreed there, but only later recalled that maybe that was because the CD version I later bought carried an extra four tracks. that said, in the years that followed, the music industry tended to ‘front-load’ records, thinking people would only have staying power for the opening tracks, getting the potential hits out of the way. And there are elements of that with April Moon. You were ahead of your time.

“Yeah, it tails off. But there’s some lovely songs on there. Lots of good co-writes.”

True. Here’s a confession though – be it down to personal circumstances or whatever, I didn’t buy another of your LPs until Of the Moment, although aware of and enjoying your work with Jools Holland, not least numbers like the gorgeous ‘Valentine Moon’, which I was convinced at first must be a classic ‘40s or ‘50s cover rather than a Julian Holland/Samantha Brown composition. It has that quality.

“Yeah, it’s quite old-fashioned.”

Was that your song initially, Jools adding to it around the piano?

“Definitely. All the writing with Jools was based around the piano. Always. That’s how we wrote best. And also with ‘Stop!’, lots of people didn’t realise I’d written it. They thought it was an old blues song. The same as with ‘Valentine Moon’, it’s got that old-fashioned feel to it.”

Clearly, you could knock out all those old soul and blues classics, and you got to perform with many an icon via Jools, including the likes of legendary namesake Sam Moore.

“Ah, that was amazing. You’ve never met a bigger character. Him and his wife Joyce are just lovely, lovely people, and Sam’s got such great atmosphere about him. A nice man and a great voice, of course.”

It was only while working on a little background research to this feature that I realised I could have asked about her duet with Nick Cave on ‘Kiss of Love’ with Jools’ band in 2003, but had said I wouldn’t go through all her collaborations, or I would have also asked about Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings and songs played with Kenney Jones’ band the Jones Gang for 2001’s One for the Road: Ronnie Lane Memorial Concert, including Small Faces classic ‘Tin Soldier’. Then there was 2002’s backing vocal duties at Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s golden jubilee’s Party at the Palace.

But I did mention rewatching her perform ‘Horse to the Water’ – a George and Dhani Harrison co-write, and George’s final appearance on a record, released on Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra’s 2001 LP, Small World, Big Band – at November 2002’s memorable tribute show, Concert for George, where she was on typical top form. And, I suggested, it must have been difficult to not turn around and lose it, catching sight of a backing band including Eric Clapton, Jeff Lynne, Albert Lee, Jim Capaldi, Dhani, and Jools.

“Yeah, I’d met most of them. I hadn’t met Jeff Lynne. He keeps himself to himself. I didn’t really talk to him. I would have loved to. But yeah, you’re right. It was incredible and I was given such a warm welcome with Jools on that gig. I loved it. I knew George and I know Olivia and Dhani. Nevertheless, it was amazing.”

Sam’s father, pioneering UK rock’n’roll star Joe Brown, also performed that night at the Royal Albert Hall. How’s her dad doing these days?

“He’s good, yeah. He’s 82, bumbling about, you know. He likes to make things. He’s got a workshop and works with wood – always restoring things, building things for the neighbours, fixing things, making cupboards. He made me this clock. Look at that – innit nice?”

Sam holds up an impressive work of art. A new vocation, it seems. My dad, I told her, before becoming a postman for 30-odd years, was a loco fireman on the railways, so I always think of the two of them doing that same role in their formative years. And at one stage it seemed that whenever they talked about steam railways on television, Joe would be invited to add insight from his own days in that role. That would – much to our amusement – rattle my dad, eight years his senior, saying, ‘Oh, here he is again – what a surprise!’ Or words to that effect.

“Yeah, lightweight! Ha!”

In a filmed interview for the National Railway Museum in York’s British Rail – a Moving Story exhibition in the early 2000s, Joe, who spent two years in the late 1950s as a loco fireman at Plaistow, east London, said: “I loved it, but the smell of the diesels drove me out when they took over from steam. There was no shovel to cook your breakfast on.” Does Sam think he could have hacked that role longer term? I’m guessing the pull of the entertainment industry was always too strong.

“Erm, he’s pretty tough, my dad.”

It was a dirty old job, wasn’t it.

“Yeah, really hard work. You don’t really get it anymore, do you. But he always treated doing music like a normal job. He was very workmanlike about it. And he went to work. That’s what he did. So I think he probably – whatever he did – would have been quite good at it. But he’s got a very big personality. I don’t know how that would have been in normal day-to-day life.”

Well, we need those characters to get through life.

“You do. How long did your dad do it for?”

Eight years – from 1953, after RAF national service, to 1961. So their spells would have overlapped. I think by the time Joe left, my dad could also see the writing on the wall, steam coming to an end. As it is, getting out when he did to better support a growing family, financially, helped him retain that love for steam, as was the case with Sam’s dad, I imagine.

And talking of family, have either of her children followed down a similar career music path? Or did she put them off?

“Ha! Well, they both are very musical. My daughter can play and sing really well, but she does photography and videography. She’s doing a degree at the moment, in Edinburgh. But my son’s firmly on that financially unrewarding path of being a singer/songwriter musician. It’s so much harder now, but he’s very good and loves it. I think it’s his vocation. I guess we’ll see what happens.

“Both my kids were born up in Scotland. We moved up in the ‘90s, bought a house and – when I was married – built a studio.”

These days Sam lives in Dorset, and I told her I spotted she had a ukulele club on her adopted patch.

“Oh, there are bloody ukulele clubs everywhere! I still teach in Oxfordshire, where I used to live. I’ve still got three clubs there, I’ve got a couple of clubs in Dorset, and a club I do occasionally in London. In fact, a week tomorrow I’m going out to Australia to teach ukelele.”

In fact, Sam was leading a ukelele show – the culmination of a week of workshops – in Busselton, Western Australia this weekend. She started the first club in 2010, and also runs online classes. Is this something she got more into when she started suffering voice problems?

“Well, I can’t sing at all, I haven’t been able to for a long time, and needed to earn a living. I was on my own with two kids, and needed a job. I tried lots of different things, but that took off very quickly. It started off with nine people and before I knew it there was 20, then 50, then 60. It really snowballed, so I just went with it really. And it’s been great. I’ve met lots of lovely people.”

Was playing the uke something learned from your dad?

“Not really. Dad was often working when we were kids. My ex-husband bought this ukelele, it was lying around the house in Scotland, I picked it up about 2000, started writing songs on it, then started playing.”

Igniting a passion?

“Yeah, I love it. It’s great”

My roots are in Guildford, and I see you tutored there for a while, at the Academy of Contemporary Music.

“That was quite a while ago, when I first lost my voice. I don’t know Guildford that well. I taught there for a while, but it wasn’t really right for me. There are some lovely people there though, and I met some lovely musicians.”

Are you still in touch with Jools Holland?

“I do keep in touch. I went for lunch with him the end of last year. He’s doing the same as he was when I left – touring, making albums, always up to something. I don’t know where he finds the time for it all. He’s great, isn’t he. Brilliant.”

Putting you on the spot, if there’s one recording you made with him that stands out, live, in the studio, or for television, what would it be?

“Erm, ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ – a really old song. I did that, I think, on one of the Hootenannys.”

I remember that clearly. Great choice.

“We used to do that live and I’d go and sit with him on the piano at the beginning, and he’d always try and nudge my bum off while we were doing it! It ended up with my knees killing me to stand up, always a bit of a funny moment. And I love that song, loved singing it.”

Regarding friendship with George Harrison and his family, did you get to know him through your dad?

“My mum and dad both knew him. My mum’s from Liverpool.”

Ah, of course, Vicki Brown, who died aged 50 in 1991, having started out with The Vernon Girls before joining vocal trio The Breakaways in 1962, seen as Britain’s premier session vocalists in that era.

“Yes, she met George, presumably in the ‘50s. Then The Beatles supported my dad, and George very cheekily snuck into my dad’s dressing room and had a picture taken with dad’s guitar, which Olivia recently brought out to show us. Other than that, I used to see them because we lived nearby in Oxfordshire. When Mum was ill, we spent some time with them. They were very kind, lovely people, and I did a few sessions for George, when he needed a couple of bits of backing vocals.”

I was also reminded, reading back on your career, of the Homespun band project with David Rotheray, someone I met briefly when The Beautiful South took off. That seemed to be a bit of a swerve-ball career move for you.

“Yeah, but a really nice thing to do. I knew the guy who played trumpet and keyboards, Tony Robinson, and he’d spoken to Dave, who wanted to put together a different thing to everything else he was doing. He’d written some songs on his own, rather than – presumably – with Paul Heaton. I went up to Leeds and sang these songs, which were fantastic, really different, really good lyrics, very gentle. All the people involved were just lovely. Kind of a little holiday in Hull, you know! I sang some demos, and it went on from there. Always very easy, nothing stressful, a really nice departure, musically, for me – something completely different that was original. It wasn’t old blues stuff or my own stuff. I really enjoyed doing it.”

A penchant for the blues and soul always came out in your songs. Was that what you were listening to, growing up?

“Funnily enough, not really. Well, I say that, but I listened to a lot of Stevie Wonder. But that’s not obvious blues and soul, although it’s very soulful. I listened to a lot of Aretha, but other than that, I didn’t really. I listened to Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman …”

“When I wrote ‘Stop!’ I didn’t really realise it was a blue song. I didn’t know where those influences had come from. I know that sounds a bit naive, but I had no idea. I just sort of wrote it, now realising it’s a blues ballad, really.”

I definitely hear Joni in a few tracks on Of the Moment, now I come to think of it, having revisited that record a couple of days over the last couple of weeks.

And did that fine voice come from your mum? Was she the first in the family belting something out?

“Mum had an amazing voice. She was fantastic. I used to sing a lot with her, growing up. We had a studio at home, so I’d help out with BVs in the studio. Then I’d go to sessions with mum and get involved in session work, which I absolutely loved. At the same time I was writing, so it was a very musical life.”

Right from the beginning, your work was at least co-produced with your brother, Pete. Were you both sponges in the studio and live, picking up stuff as you went along?

“I think we were both sponges. It’s just the way it happened. I did more going out and singing, and Pete was always the sort of kid who’d take a radio apart and put it back together. Very natural at being able to fix things. And instinctive, you know, which I definitely am not, never have been.

“He went to work in a recording studio at the age of 16, and was recording full orchestras. From an engineering point of view, he’s been doing it a long time. He can produce, but he’s also an absolutely brilliant musician. He plays guitar, piano. He had piano lessons recently, which was brilliant.

“And he’s got a really fantastic voice. He does everything. We both do all of it, but he’s much better on the technical side. I wouldn’t say I’m any better than him musically. I think writing-wise though, that’s where my experience lies.”

It says at the end of your press release, regarding the Sam Brown LP naming convention, ‘what comes next?’ Well, when the Salvo label repackaged Madness’ albums, they added letters to each LP, but I seem to recalled they had licensing issues over The Madness, so it spelt out M-A-D-N-E-S, followed by an exclamation mark for the following release. Maybe you should call your next one ! That would work … maybe.

“That’s a good idea. There have been all sorts of suggestions, as you can imagine.”

I’m guessing because of how things are with your voice at present, there’s unlikely to be a tour this time … unless you do a Voyage style show, in an ABBA style.

“Haha! I’d like to think I could afford to do that. At the moment I can’t see it happening, but there’s definitely a possibility that with some technical trickery, and I have some fantastic singers and musicians around me, there could be something at some point.

“I couldn’t go out and do a gig now, I just wouldn’t be able to do it, but you just never know. Maybe we can put something together.”

For more information about Sam Brown, including her new LP and back catalogue, head to her website. You can also follow her via Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.

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Looking back on The Jam, 1982 and all that – back in conversation with Rick Buckler

This time 40 years ago, Rick Buckler must have been wondering just what was next, Christmas and New Year behind him, the ultra-successful group that had been his life for the past decade disbanded, his future uncertain. But as the wording on the back of a new book he’s co-written about The Jam’s final year puts it, ‘It was the end of an era, the start of a legacy’.

The Jam 1982, written with respected music writer Zoë Howe, tells the story of the final year of one of the most iconic UK bands, a tumultuous 12 months that ended with front-man Paul Weller controversially calling time on a three-piece he co-founded a decade earlier, having gone on to amass four UK No.1 and 18 top-40 singles, plus five top-10 LPs by the time that year was out.

As The Jam, Paul (guitar, vocals), Rick (drums) and Bruce Foxton (bass) spearheaded a late ‘70s Mod revival and before that rode the wave of punk, yet always forged their own path, continuing to move forward, their tight live shows, razor-sharp style and perfectly-crafted songs earning a hugely deserved and devoted following.

By 1982 they were bigger than ever, but the pressure of success was taking its toll, Paul’s shock decision – taken at the peak of their powers – far from welcomed by his bandmates, let alone fans.

The Jam 1982 is a neatly compiled, richly illustrated, full colour, 176-page glossy hardback recalling that momentous period – ‘eye of the storm stories of life in and around The Jam from the recording of The Gift just before Christmas 1981 through to the end of that following fateful and unforgettable year’ – and includes previously unseen images (some from Rick’s own collection) and untold stories, in a revealing oral history taking us from the recording and release of final studio album, The Gift, to their last appearances together. 

In addition to Rick’s memories and excerpts from various print and broadcast media interviews, including several with Paul and Bruce, The Jam 1982 brings together testimonies from the likes of broadcaster Gary Crowley, producer Peter Wilson, A&R manager Dennis Munday, music publisher Bryan Morrison, photographers Neil ‘Twink’ Tinning and Pennie Smith, music writers Paolo Hewitt, Mark Ellen, Chris Salewicz and Valerie Siebert, Big Country drummer Mark Brzezicki (later Rick’s replacement in From The Jam), Suede bassist Mat Osman, singers Jennie Matthias (Belle Stars, who sang on ‘The Bitterest Pill’) and Tracie Young, touring musicians Jamie Telford (keyboards) and Steve Nichol (trumpet), plus Paul’s sister Nicky Weller and dad John, the legendary Jam manager, all helping put a new spin on the tale of the fateful year three Woking class heroes went out at the very top of their game.

I shouldn’t need to go into the full history, but Rick gives us his take on the early days in the book’s introduction, telling us, ‘From the moment I teamed up with Paul at school to start a band, everything else became secondary. We started out as a three-piece with Steve Brookes on lead guitar and vocals, Paul on his prized Hofner violin bass and backing vocals, and myself on drums. We also had a name – not a very good name we thought – but it would do until we thought of a better one: The Jam.

‘Dave Waller joined on rhythm guitar, learning to play on the way. Rehearsing in Paul’s bedroom we got together a set of ‘60s covers and put on an hour of music as we worked towards our first gigs in Sheerwater Youth Club, county fairs, and anywhere around the Woking area we could secure bookings. Dave soon dropped out, but we continued to go out as a three-piece, improving our set and adding some rather dodgy self-penned love songs along the way.”

In time, Steve left and Bruce joined on bass, while Paul switched to guitar, history in the making, even though it would be 1977 before it all truly came together. But while much has been written about the full tale, Rick felt, four decades on, ‘The real inside story hasn’t been fully told,’ adding ‘The Jam still means a great deal to me and so many others. I’ve always thought it was a great shame that we did not take it as far as we should.’

And as I put it to him, this latest Omnibus Press publication makes for an impressive read, a welcome addition to an already mighty canon of books about the band.

“Yeah, I think the publisher did a good job on laying it out, helped by having access to a set of photographs, which we expanded on. And those photographs tell a lot more about the story at the time. Because it was a decisive year, for all sorts of reasons.”

There’s an understatement if ever there was one, Rick realising that and laughing as the words slipped out. And a lot of those images, including the front and back cover shots, were by ‘Twink’ Tinning, and while I – like so many of us – already knew a fair bit of the story of that decisive final year, I was intrigued by Rick’s take on how his photographer friend came into the band’s confidence and into a position where he could get such close access. For his pictures certainly tell part of that tale.

“They do. Most of the photographs of the band up to 1981 were fairly staged, and normally always associated with us being interviewed. The whole thing was a little one-sided. But I said to the guys about this good friend of mine, Twink, and said let’s take him on the road, so he came along with us on tour, taking shots other photographers simply didn’t have access to.

“And it turned out to be a really good thing. Unfortunately, they were rejected by {Paul’s father, and the band’s manager} John Weller right at the end. He refused to pay Twink, who held on to the rights of those photographs, and a lot of them never got seen. But I always thought he was a really great photographer, as seen on those cover shots, and there’s loads of the audience, like those taken from behind my kit.”

There are certainly some candid pics among them, and on one that springs to minds it looks like Paul’s about to rip Twink’s head off for snapping him and his girlfriend at the time, Gill.

“Ha! Yeah, especially with that one – they’d just fallen out, and weren’t speaking to each other. Paul’s looking one way, Gill the other, and that sort of thing used to happen on a regular basis. Twink would just walk onto the bus and take a photograph. There was real spontaneity, and I suppose there’s a bit of an insight into what was going on.”

At the same time, I’m pleased to hear that Rick and his partner at the time, Lesley, another caught on camera within, remain an item all these years on. Hardly the rock’n’roll way, mind.

“Ha! Yes. Absolutely. Unbelievable, isn’t it?”

Perhaps Rick just got out of the big, bad music business at the right time … not as if he saw it that way at the time. He met Lesley, also from the Woking area, in 1978, coming up to 45 years ago (“I know. It’s frightening. The joke is, you get less for murder!”) and they still live ‘on the edge of Woking’, all these years on.

As the cliche goes, I bet they’ve seen some changes. My nan, and before that my dad and grandad, lived at the Maybury end of Woking. And even back in the ‘80s she’d tell me on weekend visits to ours, ‘I hardly recognise the place, it’s changing so much. They’re pulling everything down.’

“Yeah, I think like all those remote towns, seeing it evolve from after the war, where they were knocking a lot of it down, to the regeneration of town centres. And it is completely different to what it used to be 40 years ago.”

When I walk away from Kingfield after the football these days, I’m met by the sight of all those massive high-rises in the town centre, wondering if I’ve stumbled into Beijing somehow.

“Yeah, I don’t know, some people like them. I’m not sure about them really, but they’ve got plans for more. It’s certainly changed.”

The new book is dedicated to respected music writer Simon Wells, who was working on this project ahead of his illness. Sadly, he died after a battle with cancer in 2022. Did you get to know him?

“I bumped into him a few times. I didn’t know him too well. He was put forward by Omnibus to help do a lot of the research. Unfortunately, we hadn’t really got started before he was diagnosed. He said, ‘We’ll get together once I’ve been in hospital and got this thing sorted, then we’ll get stuck into it.’ Sadly, we never really got started. Yeah, it was very sad, and I was quite shocked at how quickly it took hold.”

Accordingly, publication times came and went, before Zoë stepped up to take the project on, another revered writer with a wealth of previous acclaimed music biographies behind her, past publishing projects including biographies of Lee Brilleaux, Poly Styrene, Wilko Johnson, Florence + the Machine, Stevie Nicks, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and The Slits. She knows her stuff, and she’s done a great job with you here.

“Yeah, it was a bit strange, because we did most of it at a distance. But she helped out a great deal, doing a lot of the interviews, phoning people up, typing it up, what have you. I’d not worked with her before, but she has a lot of experience with other books.”

Perhaps it helps that she knows how to deal with drummers, I joked, being married to Dylan Howe, from Wilko Johnson’s band.

“Absolutely! She knows the music industry, and we rubbed along alright there.”

Gary Crowley writes in the book’s foreword about a life-affirming Battersea Town Hall date in late June 1977, his first live gig, aged 15, recalling, ‘Paul and Bruce jumped around the stage like synchronised trampolinists plugged into the National Grid whilst Rick sat steady at the back, pounding the skins on that jet-black kit, cool as fuck in those Roger McGuinn shades, keeping the solid beat which underpinned their revolutionary sound and led the charge of their musical attack.” And for me, he sums up the spirit that fans saw in the band, that ‘fire and skill’ we often hear about. As with The Clash, and the likes of Mott the Hoople before, there are plenty of tales of kids being let into pre-show soundchecks. There was a real affinity with fans, I suggested to Rick.

“Yes, a lot of that came from the very early days when we were playing the clubs. A lot of people twigged that if they got there in the afternoon, especially London shows and pubs, we’d be doing soundchecks at about three or four o’clock. They’d come along, get stuff signed, and just talk to us.

“This was prior to us getting signed. And the first thing we did with the record company was sort a tour, which involved only London – the Red Cow, the Nashville, the Marquee, those sorts of places. John {Weller} wasn’t particularly keen on it. But it was something we did and carried on through to playing the larger shows.”

In my experience, I’d say that remained the case long after the split, and it was in late 2007 that I first saw Bruce and Rick, by then with From the Jam, having the pleasure of a backstage audience with the band at Preston’s 53 Degrees university venue. In fact, I recall Rick taking me to task – somewhat bewildered, perhaps – on my then-regular 500 mile round-trips to watch Woking FC home games, despite so much football competition on my adopted Lancashire patch. Meanwhile, there was Bruce, who I’d chatted with earlier, patiently waiting to get a word in so he could say goodbye and get back to his hotel, both equally generous with their time.

It’s been a while now since Rick stepped away from that live line-up. No regrets? Was that a good time to end that chapter of his career and concentrate on his writing and Q&A commitments?

“From the Jam? Well, yeah, it became hard work. It was great, because I really wanted to revisit the songs. And we did, but when Bruce came on board, unfortunately, he took a completely different take on things. I didn’t really want to go down the road of becoming a tribute band, going round and round doing the same old thing.

“Myself and {keyboard player} Dave Moore did try to get into doing new material, and the view from Bruce at the time was that if we did, we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot and wouldn’t be able to pull an audience, because they’d only be there for the Jam material, which was fairly true.

“I thought, you know what, it just isn’t working anymore. We weren’t earning any money, all the money we were earning spent on ridiculous things like hotels. You think, ‘I’ve run this, it’s done its course.’ I wasn’t there to support anybody’s ego or what have you. I felt, ‘I don’t need this.’ So I left, and that was that.

“I did a couple of other things later, getting together with Ian Whitewood from Sham 69, a two-drummer thing there. Then I did the autobiography, and that was coming on for six or seven years. So yeah, I think one of the biggest things in the music industry is never to become boring. And I think From the Jam had become a bit boring, and it wasn’t really working for me anymore.”

I take your point, but since then we’ve had a couple of cracking Foxton & Hastings albums outside the live show format, with Bruce and singer/guitarist Russell Hastings (who co-founded the original band, The Gift, with Rick and Dave Moore in late 2005, Bruce joining earlier in the year I first saw them) writing their own material. Very good they are too … as are the live shows. So perhaps Bruce was willing to take that suggestion up after all.

“Well, yeah, the penny finally dropped, I think. But there were lots of tribute bands out there playing Jam stuff {at the time}.”

Only one with a genuine Jam member involved though. Anyway, I didn’t dwell on all that. Instead, I headed further back into the memory banks, picking Rick up on his assertion that there was determination and dedication from the moment The Jam formed at school. Clearly the belief was always there, and they were all very driven, doing their apprenticeship of sorts in pubs and clubs, mostly playing covers at first, largely on the South-East circuit, but gradually adding more and more of their own songs, before that move up to London to take it to the next level. Was there a day that Paul or fellow founder member Steve Brookes turned up with a song and you thought, ‘We’ve really got something here’? Did you hear, for example, ‘I Got by in Time’ and think, ‘yes, we’re on the right track!’?

“I don’t know. It’s difficult from the inside to judge that, but one thing I remember that we did know, but weren’t really sort of facing up to, was the fact that most of the songs written in the early days were love songs, our influences really coming from us being a covers band, so we thought that was okay. But it really wasn’t enough.

“When we encountered what was going on in London, the pub rock scene, and saw all these other bands, that sort of broadened our horizons. It was becoming boring, doing the same thing over and over, but we had the foresight to say we wanted to go and play the London scene.

“Unfortunately, from John’s point of view, that wasn’t a good idea. Because we weren’t going to get paid. A lot of the band were doing it for the love of it, not the money. John didn’t like that at all. From his point of view, we had to borrow a van, there were petrol costs, all that sort of thing. So we came up against a little bit of opposition. But if we weren’t going to be doing the clubs, and we were going to play in London, I don’t think he had much of a choice into anything but going along with it.”

As you point out in the book, as a band you never rested on your laurels. Every LP saw The Jam move forward. And yet you’ve had four decades to ponder over all that now, and accordingly come over as rather philosophical in print on the consequences of Paul’s decision to end it. I wonder if you truly felt that way at the time. I recall bitterness within the ranks when Paul called time on The Jam when he did, yet you seem to convey a more laid-back inevitability now that he was unlikely to change his mind.

“Well, yeah, absolutely. I don’t think there was ever any bitterness as such though. We were grown up enough to sort of accept the decision that Paul wanted to leave the band. Where the bemusement came, let’s say, was the fact that we didn’t really understand his reasons. Having known Paul, and that he can be a bit kneejerk at times, over his reaction to things, we thought, ‘One minute you’re saying this, the next you’re saying something else.’ Then when he was free of having to look us in the face, the reasons changed again.

“I didn’t mind whatever his reasons were. It just became a little hypocritical that he said to us one of the reasons he wanted to leave was because he was on a treadmill. But he’d already signed another treadmill deal with Polydor before our last show. That didn’t make sense.

“I really think there was more going on in the background. I think a lot of it was to do with the way John managed the band. We were beginning to ask questions, like, ‘Why aren’t we earning any money, John? Why are you going around saying Paul is now a millionaire?’ I couldn’t afford to buy a car. Those sorts of questions were beginning to raise their head.

“I’m not being funny, but I really think that was probably a contributing factor as to why Paul jumped ship before … I think that had a lot to do with the demise of the band, which was a real shame, because things were creeping in that weren’t anything to do with us, musically. It was to do with things like the money and the fame, which becomes a vacuous reason to throw things away.

“There were other things as well, and we always got the feeling that Paul didn’t like touring America. And we were getting to the point where we were probably going to have to start doing very large shows. The last shows we did were like the Wembley ones – multiple nights at the same venue.”

There’s a lovely quote from you in the book where you contemplate, on that matter, ‘Maybe we should split up more often.’

“Ha! We could easily have done a worldwide tour as a last thing, ran it right into 1983. But …”

There was a school of thought that maybe you could have just taken a break, then possibly come back again, refreshed.

“Well, that’s right, but there seemed to be a sort of rush from Paul to get it done. And there always seemed to be another reason why such a decision was made. The last shows were great. Anybody who went to those will know we still gave it 100%. We were still doing really well, the record company happy because the records were still selling. All the fairy stories in the world about trying to make the band mean something – complete twaddle. The band absolutely already meant something, and to so many people. The reasons for it just seemed vacuous.”

With that in mind, I wonder what a seventh Jam album might have sounded like. Would it have been anything like the first Style Council album? A few of those songs were demo’d, like ‘Speak Like a Child’.

“Yeah, we already had stuff rehearsed, if not recorded, that we were going to move forward. But I don’t think we would have ended up like The Style Council. The songs might have gone down a different route … which was always the way.

“I’m no fan of The Style Council. It all seemed very sort of one-man band. The production I didn’t think was particularly good. Bruce summed it up to me when we met up, as we often did during the ‘80s. He said one day, ‘If The Jam had evolved into The Style Council, I would have left.’ That’s always one thing that’s bemused me. Why throw away The Jam for what The Style Council would become? No one had a crystal ball, but it seemed very odd.”

Paul has always punctuated his career around such moves though. Most work, but some don’t (and fair play to him for that, as far as I’m concerned). In a sense, I see that period (and I should stress that I enjoyed various aspects of The Style Council, who left us with some great songs, LPs, and memories, and surely Mick Talbot deserves credit there too) as the beginning of his solo career, taking himself somewhere different.

“It was really, if you look at it in the cold light of day, I don’t think The Style Council were regarded as a band. It was all very much a solo project, which also sort of begs the question … I don’t know if he was just trying to be more in charge of the way everything went.

“Anybody who was in a band that became successful will tell you, your life is not your own. Despite the way you might want it to turn out, you always have to step up to the mark as far as commitments that you make towards touring, recording, et cetera. If he thought that was the reason why, I think that was delusional. I don’t think that was going to be the case.”

Then again, so few great bands survive as a creative machine beyond a decade (and in The Jam’s case, they had five years as a bona fide recording success) and retain their fire. And you had lived in each other’s pockets for a fair bit of that 10-year tenure. Or had you? Because by that stage, Paul had been up in London for a long time, and it seems that yourself and Bruce were happy to do day-trips up to town to work on new material. Were you, Bruce, and Paul, very much your own people by then? The days of piling into the back of a van seemed to have been way behind you.

“Well, yes, Paul was the only one who could actually afford to live in London. He was paying more money in rent, probably twice as much, than I was on my first mortgage in Woking. We simply couldn’t afford it, if we wanted to or not. But we did everything we possibly could.

“The record company knew there was pressure on Paul, so we would always record in London – never outside the capital, at a time when people were mostly going to …”

Studios like The Manor in Oxfordshire?

“Exactly. We did all sorts of things to alleviate that, so Paul could be home for tea. I know that sounds funny, but that was the way, and we were quite up to accommodating that. And Woking is actually not that far … I got ribbed by Paul for having a mortgage. Really? Wouldn’t I love to be able to rent a little place in Pimlico! I simply couldn’t afford it.”

And recording in London is surely no bad thing if, for example, Paul McCartney is in the next studio (making Tug of War). Was that another of those ‘where did it all go wrong’ moments?

“Ha! The thing is that I don’t have any regrets over what The Jam did and what we achieved, and all the things that led to it. One thing I wonder about at times is that I think sometimes Paul forgets that everything that happened to all three of us all stemmed from the work we did as The Jam.

“That established us within the music industry. Everything that happened afterwards was because of The Jam. Myself and Bruce used to think, ‘Why is it that Paul won’t play Jam records when he does a radio interview or in his live set?’ There was a period of around 15 years where every time I went into a radio station, one of the things people used to almost pull me up about was, ‘Why when we interview Paul won’t he talk about The Jam?’ But I think one of the reasons was likely what we’ve already spoken about.”

Once that fateful decision was made about splitting, you and Bruce – at least outwardly – seemed to keep your head down, getting on with the job. The professionalism continued. And in a year when you’d already made a classic single like ‘A Town Called Malice’ and given us The Gift, which carried so many great tracks (I’ve been replaying it in the car recently, and it still grabs me), there was still ‘The Bitterest Pill’ and, wow, ‘Beat Surrender’ to come. What a way to go out, and 40 years on still sounds so sharp.

“Yes, it does. I find that quite amazing, the longevity of everything. Which, you know, we didn’t sort of plan for, because I don’t think you can. I just think we must have been doing something right at the time for that to be the case. So that’s something for all of us to be very proud of.”

As a Guildford boy, born at the Jarvis Maternity Home on the edge of town, that Surrey borough my base for the first 25-plus years of my life, it’s a point of pride that I’ve heard it said many times in band and fan circles that your Civic Hall show – the penultimate Jam date – was the proper farewell, with the Brighton finale that followed comparatively rather flat, at least emotionally. I was just shy of 15 when the split announcement came, and although I tried to get tickets for that and The Gift tour before, I had no chance, missing out on that big moment on my patch. But it seemed like that was the big night.

“Well, yeah, quite early on, we realised where we did the last show was going to be of some importance. Initially it was going to be the Guildford Civic, but for one reason or another we couldn’t do multiple nights there, and as soon as we put shows up for sale, they’d be gone, almost overnight.

“The same thing happened with Wembley in the end. We had to say, ‘Stop, we can’t keep adding nights on!’ It was getting ridiculous. Brighton was no real home for The Jam. It was just this sort of frenzy for the Mod thing, the fights on the beach from the 1960s … which in itself didn’t really exist. It was all a bit out there, really. But it was a good place to play, and a fairly large venue.”

Incidentally, putting you on the spot, do you remember your first gig in Guildford?

“Well, I tell you what, we played a club on the same night Guildford got bombed. …”

Indeed. October 5th, 1974 (when two IRA bombs were detonated at different pubs across the town, around half eight to nine in the evening). That was the one I was thinking of.

“I’m trying to think of one earlier. I’m not sure whether there was. And I’m trying to think of the name of the club …”

Bunters. Close to the A281 road heading to Shalford, my home village.

“That’s it! We were supporting Rock Island Line. Their claim to fame was they were in That’ll Be the Day. They were a real sort of Teddy Boy band. We didn’t actually get to play the gig, unfortunately. The bomb{s} went off, and everything got closed down, so it was our first non-gig!”

I was three weeks short of my seventh birthday then. I was packed off to bed that Saturday night, but remember one of the blasts. I thought someone had slammed the airing cupboard door on the landing. That’s how loud it was, two miles down the road. Soon, my dad was tuned in to police radio, as was often the case, everyone listening in downstairs. My older sister and grandad were planning to go for a drink in town, but as it turned out they decided to stop at the village hall social club … not as if we knew. Thankfully they stayed put. Did you hear a blast?

“No. I remember we set up the equipment in there, went home to Woking, had some tea, because we weren’t going to be on until really late at night. But then we got a phone call, saying we can’t come back because they’d literally shut the whole of Guildford down. So we were a good seven or eight miles away. But yeah, it was a devastating blast.”

Incidentally, a later background check, online, reveals The Jam did play Bunter’s before that ill-fated date, possibly appearing there twice in July ’74, in the days when they were Michael’s Club regulars in their own hometown. And moving forward to 40 years ago, January 1983, the festive season well and truly over, the reality of the split having truly sunk in, Rick no doubt thinking, ‘What am I going to do now?’, could he remind me of the timeline from there? Did his spell in Time UK follow more or less straight away? Was he on with that before ‘Speak Like a Child’ charted in March?

“As far as I can remember, I was the first member to get back out on the road. I was probably quick off the mark. I found a songwriter, Jimmy Edwards, and we were soon rehearsing, and on the road quite quick, because that was really what I wanted to do. And I remember going to see Bruce later that year when he did his solo thing.”

Well, I did manage to get tickets that time, when Bruce toured his Touch Sensitive show and visited Guildford Civic in May 1984.

“It was a difficult time. Like the music industry still, I assume, the style of things was changing quite quick. Punk had already died out, other bands were coming in. If you look at the chart in 1982, when ‘Eye of the Tiger’ was No. 1 {keeping ‘The Bitterest Pill’ off the top, criminally}, I felt quite good that The Jam was still in there. We were doing well in the charts, even though a lot of the punk bands were not. And in 1983, I don’t think it was a particularly great year for music, but it was certainly changing.”

There was a brief band reunion with Bruce around that period too, the pair forming Sharp with the afore-mentioned Jimmy Edwards, recording for the short-lived Unicorn label, subsequently reissued on a Time UK anthology. Did Rick keep in touch with Jimmy Edwards?

“Yes, absolutely.”

Jimmy Edwards died in early 2015, aged 65, after battling cancer, while Time UK bandmates Ray Simone and Danny Kustow (the latter best known for the Tom Robinson Band) have also passed away.

And getting back to those early days of The Jam, has Rick spoken in recent years to co-founder Steve Brookes?

“No, not really. I mean, it was the typical story when he left. And crikey, that was very early on. I think he just fell out of Paul’s bubble. Paul just stopped seeing him.”

Something of a precursor to what was going to happen later, I suppose.

“It was a bit. I don’t think he spoke to him for 30 years or something. That was a bit of a shame. But I do bump into him now and again, around Woking. The last time I saw him was in a pub near me. Yeah, he’s okay. I think he’s still going out as an acoustic player.”

Absolutely. I saw him at the Boileroom in Guildford, supporting Stone Foundation in late 2021, and he was great. He’s certainly a gifted player.

“Well, yeah. At the time, when we were still at school, Steve was the lead guitarist and the lead singer, and Paul was then on bass ….”

And Steve was on grand piano, quite literally, at a show at Woking Conservative Club, I understand (during a cover of ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ending up being ‘chased from one side to the other in an attempt to stop him scratching the polished surface’).

“He was, yeah! I’ve still got memories of that. That was quite funny. And I don’t think we cared too much whether we went back and played there again! Ha!”

Pleased to hear it. And I’ll not even bother asking if there’s been any reunion with Paul, because we’ve been there, and I don’t think you’ll suddenly say, ‘Actually, I met him last week and we’re buddies again…’

“Ha! Well, I will say one thing, which I don’t really understand … at the time, and still, we never actually fell out. There was a time when Paul was putting it about that we weren’t even friends. I don’t know where that came from. It was always a strange thing that people often think that we sort of fell out at the time. Another reason that didn’t seem to make sense.

“It’s just part of Paul’s make-up that once you fall out of his bubble, that’s it. We saw it happen with girlfriends, Steve, all sorts of people really. He doesn’t seem to have that mentality to stay in touch with people.”

I should add that Steve has also worked again with Paul in recent years, and while you don’t really need my opinion, despite any bad feeling or bewilderment over how it ended, Paul ultimately made the right decision, however skewed you could argue his voiced reasons were for doing so. The Jam ended on a high, and that’s something to be commended. I’ll have the last word here too (it is my website, after all), adding that with so many bands I love, not just The Jam, I always want to say, forget all that fall-out crap, make up, and put aside any petty arguments. I know Bruce and Paul made up again, so part of me hopes the same happens with all three. Just have a big hug and get over it, lads. If the last few years have taught us anything, surely life’s too short. And The Jam have, as Rick put it, so much to feel collectively proud of.

For this website’s February 2018 feature/interview with Rick Buckler, head here. And for our April 2015 conversation, head here.

For more about The Jam 1982, head to https://omnibuspress.com/. A signed, limited edition version, including an exclusive print, is also available. And for Rick Buckler’s upcoming live Q&A dates, try http://www.thejamfan.net/. You can also check out https://www.strangetown.net/.

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