Out of the shadow of Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine – the Jim Bob interview

Wild Wood: Jim ‘Jim Bob’ Morrison, takes to and talks to the trees (Photo: Paul Heneker)

Don’t expect hyperbole when talking to Jim Morrison. Despite that rock star name, this was never an artist seemingly at ease at being on pop’s top table. In fact, he’s been known throughout his career as plain Jim Bob; not even the best known of the Waltons.

He made his name, after a spell with indie also-rans Jamie Wednesday, as half of Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, alongside Les ‘Fruitbat’ Carter’, the pair breaking through in the late ‘80s, garnering a few tabloid headlines and music press front pages en route.

But amid the wider media interest, raucous guitar, of-the-moment samples, drum and bass sequencing, the deeper quality of the songs was often overlooked, not least Jim’s evocative lyrics, a barometer of those troubled times. These were vivid illustrations of life on the edge, exposing the not so far beneath the surface underbelly of Thatcher’s Britain, as best conveyed on first three albums, 101 Damnations (1990), 30 Something (1991) and 1992: The Love Album (1992).

With that in mind, it makes sense that Jim Bob has more recently been able to prove his worth as an author. For starters there’s recently-reprinted band autobiography Goodnight Jim Bob: On The Road With Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, and newly-published sequel, Jim Bob from Carter: In the Shadow of my Former Self, both via Cherry Red Records, which is also responsible for a number of impressive Carter USM retrospective releases. There are also three novels from Jim Bob. Accordingly, however, his live outings are more limited now. Does he have a busy summer ahead?

“Not really … not by anyone’s standards! I’ve not done that many gigs at all these past few years. I haven’t toured for two years. I find myself doing quite a few of these odd all-dayers though.”

The ‘odd all-dayer’ he’s alluding to is Gigantic Vol. 5, running from 1pm to 11.30pm this Saturday, May 25th, at the Academy, Oxford Road, Manchester, slotting in on a bill – headlined by Echo & the Bunnymen – just below contemporaries The Wonder Stuff and The Bluetones.

This South Londoner hasn’t strayed far from his old patch over the years. Born in Streatham, he’s lived no further from there than Mitcham, and is these days based in Crystal Palace.

“I’ve been here quite a long time, and it’s changed radically. In terms of poshness. I remember it when it was a shithole, and now it’s on those things they do – y’know, ‘the 10 most desirable places to live’.”

It’s nice to still hear a healthy dose of cynicism from him. And he always did seem a little removed from many of his contemporaries. Then again, when Carter USM broke through with first hit ‘Sheriff Fatman’ (1989, possibly one of the last cassette singles I bought) and the 101 Damnations album that followed, they were older than many of the acts around them.

“Yeah, if we made one mistake it was naming a famous album 30 Something! But you can’t really go back on that. I remember around then a meeting with a lawyer or accountant type, advising us to get pensions, saying nobody in the music business would work beyond 50. That’s massively untrue now. But at the time the idea of anyone being in a rock band beyond that age …

“I had little to do with the financial side. I’m the same now. I switch off when anybody’s talking about all that. My manager now seems obsessed with spreadsheets, but there could be anything on them. I have to pretend I read them!”

I recently rediscovered two Stephen Dalton interviews with Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine in back copies of former NME offshoot monthly magazine Vox, from September 1991 and April 1992, the latter revealing how Les bought a house in London with part of his Chrysalis advance, while Jim stayed put in his council flat. That suggests contrasting  outlooks.

“Yeah, we still do. He’s not a planner, I’d say. If he had money, he’d spend it and not really worry about it, whereas I’d probably be more wary of it running out. I’m still like that now, wondering what’ll happen if there’s no money coming in. . His approach probably made more sense though. I don’t know.”

You got a bit of a backlash from the tabloid press, journalists suggesting you were raking it in. But those who understood the way the industry works would have realised you were ultimately borrowing from yourselves.

“When we signed to Chrysalis, that was bought by EMI, and it’s been through various ownerships over the years and is now owned by someone else, who just licenses stuff out. We had a statement a week or two ago and we still owe them, I think, almost £900,000.” We wouldn’t have to pay it, but …”

They made a big thing about you being a millionaires at the time.

“Yeah, and certainly by the way things are going today I’m sure people in bands would love to have the money we got when we signed a record deal. They’ll say someone’s been signed by Simon Cowell for a million pounds, but they don’t get any of that money, do they? Whereas we got the money.”

I recall a decision you took to turn down an impressive advertising deal … only for former support act EMF to take up the option.

“Yeah, maybe they did. We were very principled in a way you couldn’t really be today. That was for either ‘Sheriff Fatman’ or ‘Shoppers Paradise’. It didn’t make any sense in terms of the song. I think they just wanted to be attached to us while they were at that level.

“We turned it down because the company that owned them were testing on animals.  We did an advert for KP Peanuts though. That was for ‘Shoppers Paradise’. Even then, they came to us with storyboards to check we approved. It would be harder to turn the money down than it was then.

“I suppose when everything‘s going well, you don’t necessarily see an end to it. You just think you can afford to turned that kind of money down, £60,000 to do nothing. But if someone said that to us now, it would be, ‘Oh no, what a dilemma!’

My diaries suggest I first saw Carter USM live on October 24th, 1991, at hometown venue, Guildford Civic Hall, then two weeks later saw them at Kilburn National with Mega City 4, then the following year at Preston Guild Hall on the 1992: The Love Album tour, supported by the Band of Holy Joy.

“Ah, that was one of the bands that were a big influence on us when we started as Carter.”

But what surprises me is that I somehow missed out on seeing Jamie Wednesday, his previous outfit. I was a regular gig-goer at most of the pubs and small venues they played, probably just a few days before or after their appearances. I was definitely aware of them, but somehow missed them. In my fanzine, Captains Log, days, I interviewed a few of their contemporaries, including Mega City 4, was in touch with the Senseless Things and followed others on The Pink Label, like The June Brides, That Patrol Emotion, Wire, McCarthy and The Wolfhounds.

I’m guessing you just got – after that initial hard slog – too big, too quick for me.

“Yeah, once it got to that point, I suppose it was kind of quick. But even for the first year or two of Carter there were a lot of false starts. We put a single out and nothing happened. It came out in the middle of a postal strike and so we couldn’t get it to press and so on. Well … that was out excuse for it not doing well. Then our first label weren’t pleased that we wanted to leave more or less straight away. We’d signed a contract to make an album with them, so that kind of stalled. It felt like a long time that we couldn’t really do anything.”

But then, around the time of ‘Sheriff Fatman’, the stars seemed to align for you.

“Yeah, although I don’t really know why. We used to do quite a lot of gigs before anybody knew who we were. But we tended to get asked to go back to places, so built up this following at specific places like Harlow and Bolton. Every time we went back there’d be another 10 people there. We also made a decision not to play London anymore, playing the same pub gigs to the same people we knew.”

That came over in one of those Vox interviews, being quite dismissive of some of those London watering holes, keen to move on from all that.

“Yeah, and it’s a shame now, because they’re probably all gone! But I think you can almost get into a routine.”

Fulham Greyhound was one such regular venue that springs to mind.

“Yeah, although that was one we did come back to when we finally did play London again, and it sold out. That was when things started to come together. I think it was then that Steve Lamacq couldn’t get in to report for the NME. That was perfect in a way. They had to write about how busy it was instead.”

There were several moments like that in your career that suggest you were capable of pulling off masterstrokes of marketing. I’m not sure they weren’t accidents, to be honest, but they worked.

“Yeah, semi-accidental really. Our manager at the time, Adrian (Boss), liked mild controversies, like putting condoms on the posters for The Only Living Boy in New Cross single. He wanted someone to complain.”

Those big moments notably including Les’ headline-grabbing rugby tackle on Phillip Schofield at the live BBC-aired October 1991 Smash Hits Poll Winners Party, the moment Jim reckoned the band became pop stars – ‘known by milkmen and postmen’. As Stephen Dalton put it, ’17 million viewers witnessed a highly intoxicated Fruitbat assault Britain’s favourite children’s TV presenter’. Les had taken exception at the host’s on-air remarks, later reflecting, ‘It occurred to me we were just playing the game, and being treated like shit. Even Dannii (Minogue) and the New Kids (on the Block) were being treated like shit, just like another product’.

Squeaky-clean Phillip hadn’t helped himself, introducing the band miming ‘After the Watershed’ with a string of insults, telling his young audience, ‘With bad teeth, naff shoes, a really weird hairdo and your own very individual style, you too can be a pop star’. What followed was a performance faded early ‘to allow time for more patronising banter’. At which point Jim stormed offstage, while furious Les overturned his amps, provoking the presenter to add, ‘Blimey, that was original. Jimbob and The Fruitbat, pushing back the frontiers of music …’ As Stephen Dalton put it, ‘Five seconds later ‘The Fruitbat’ was knocking him sideways, with cameras panning wildly into space as the Dockands Arena crowd erupted into the day’s loudest cheer.’

“Yeah, but that was never deliberate, although that was the one everyone thought was deliberate. I didn’t enjoy that at all, any of that experience.”

Ever get a chance to talk to Philip Schofield about that in later years?

“Not directly, but there has been interaction. Even when we were still going. We met someone doing the lights for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, when he was in it, and he wished us luck for a gig. And years later when we reformed, we were on BBC 6 Music about to do our last gig, when we got a message. I kind of feel sorry for him, as people on Twitter seems to constantly reference it. So I should imagine that’s worse for him than me.

I suppose. He was a bit of a prat, but I suppose you could argue Les was too at times back then.

“God, yeah! At the time he was very much the villain as far as I was concerned.”

Do you and Les move in the same circles now and again today?

“Well, I’m still in London and he’s in Folkestone, so I don’t see him much. And he’s off permanently on tour with various bands. But every now and again we meet up and go to the pub, and e-mail each other now and again.”

I seem to recall you already had a daughter by the time you broke through.

“Yeah, she was born in ’86.”

Has she followed you into music?

“She’s a teacher … which is better! She went to the Brit School, doing theatre for two years or so. She wanted to act at the time, then got a bit disillusioned with it all and ended up via a series of accidents working in a school,and is now a qualified teacher. And I prefer that to her being a singer or something like that.”

I seem to recall back in the day a rather adulatory Carter USM fan-base. I knew a fair few of the words, but so many more clearly know every line. That’s something I’m sure that left you feeling proud.

“That can be pretty extraordinary. When I played Shepherd’s Bush Empire last year, just me and a guitar and a few songs with a piano, they more or less sang along with every song. And they were crowd-surfing as well, which I think freaked out the security at the venue. I wasn’t prepared for that!

“I’m doing a couple of gigs this year where there might be a few who don’t know me, though, so that might be where it all comes unstuck! But I did Gigantic before and that was brilliant.”

Next Chapter: The live outings are comparatively rare these days for Jim Bob (Photo: Paiul Heneker)

There have been some memorable moments in the past, not least playing to huge crowds at Reading Festival, touring America with EMF, being taken to court by the Rolling Stones, and appearing in the former Yugoslavia just as the civil war was about to come to a head.

“We went there twice, playing Zagreb, and also Croatia and Bosnia. For a while it was sort of calming down, but there was still tension. It’s a terrible thing to say, but it was quite exciting at the time. We also played in Eastern Europe pretty much just as the Berlin Wall came down, playing in East Germany for a few weeks, and the Czech Republic. Interesting times.”

Now, 30 years on, it seems that everything’s breaking down again, politically. You still have plenty to write about. Or is that down to the next generation of musical artistes?

“To be honest, I haven’t written a new song for quite some time.”

Because you’re concentrating on your books?

“I suppose it’s that, but if I write songs it would be to record and release them, and I find all that quite depressing – it’s all about what format, how you’re going to sell it, and will it be on vinyl or just on Spotify. That stops me doing it. You’ve really got to want to do it. If it involves a proper recording studio with other musicians you’re instantly going to lose money. I’ve never done the kick-tarter type thing. I never wanted to. And even that’s gone all tits up. It was bound to happen, I suppose. People set up a business that was a good idea, doing really well, but then it’s a case of ‘how can we make this bigger for us? Let’s invest the money’.”

And what will we get at Manchester Academy for Gigantic – a greatest hits show?

“Yeah, that will just be Carter songs. But I played London last month, and it was about 60% Carter songs and the rest solo work. At these all-day events I don’t think there’s room to be clever. And I’m quite happy playing either.”

For those who have missed out on your post-Carter USM recording career, is there a record in particular you’re most proud of that you’d point them towards?

“Quite a few to be honest. The album I did before the last one, What I Think About When I Think About You, which I recorded with an orchestra. That was some people I’d met rather than the Royal Philharmonic, but sounds great to me. I think that’s another reason why I’ve struggled to make records since. Once you’ve played with an orchestra …”

I don’t suppose you could have afforded to take them out on the road with you.

“No. we did one gig. For the last gig I did in London we had a five-piece band for about 40 minutes, and as a result I’m doing four gigs in October, again with a mix of solo and Carter songs. It was an exciting thing to do, but financially it was a mistake!”

Going back to pre-Jamie Wednesday days, did your band, The Ballpoints, get what they deserved, or was that all just part of getting to where you eventually found success?

“Yeah, I don’t think The Ballpoints were ever that great. I suppose it was heading towards something, changing band members. When Les joined that was us heading towards Carter. There was a band before that, Jeepster, who did just one gig, musically totally inept, but … I’ve got some recordings that very few people have ever heard, and there’s …. I dunno … something legendary about that band.”

Where was that gig?

“I can’t remember what it was called, but it was in Southgate. A youth club or something. It was the first proper gig I got, and I left my job before, thinking, ‘This is it … here we go! I’m going to be a pop star!’ I was working at an advertising company in the West End. I was a messenger. I think that was 1978.”

Who was the first band you saw that made you think, ‘This is what I want to do with my life’?

“The first band I ever saw was Queen. By that point, around 14, I was really into music, but it changed a lot, into what my older sister’s boyfriends brought into the house. But I always think of David Essex in Stardust. That’s kind of what I aspired to, even though it’s got a sad ending, I kind of wanted to be David Essex. I was into him and Buddy Holly, then got into Queen and Bad Company. Then punk came along, and I genuinely hated them all of a sudden, overnight. I don’t think that was fake. But then time passes, and you think maybe I do like them again. The Jam and Elvis Costello were my favourites around that time.“

Carter Days: Jim ‘Jim Bob’ Morrison and Les ‘Fruitbat’ Carter, in demand from 1988-98 and 2007-14

I’m guessing that’s the songwriter in you.

“I suppose so, yeah. And I saw The Jam and Elvis Costello quite a lot, and saw The Clash a couple of times. There was sort of a connection between me and Les and The Clash. We used to hang around in a rehearsal studio in South London, full of inter-changing band members. One was Paul Simonon’s brother Nicky, on drums, and Les went to school with Mick Jones. Also, Joe Strummer once said to me – I would say quite early on – how brilliant Carter was. That blew my mind at the time. Even more so now, in a way.”

I can see that there was a similar spirit there, having seen you live. There was definitely an energy to your sets.

Am I right in thinking Jamie Wednesday were booked to play with The Men They Couldn’t Hang, and while you then split up you honoured the gig with Les in your new format, for what turned out to be Carter USM’s debut gig?

“Yeah, we’d sort of had enough of the band but were too pathetic to tell the rest of the band. We did eventually, but decided not to tell the promoter. We still wanted to do the gig. So we started out of necessity really. We wrote a few songs then decided to just do them with a drum machine.”

Did any of those songs make it to the first album, 101 Damnations?

“Yeah, although some of them were slightly rewritten. I think we had around seven songs, including ‘A cPerfect Day to Drop the Bomb’, ‘Everytime a Churchbell Rings’, ‘The Taking of Peckham 123’, and  Wire song, ‘Mannequin’.

“Jamie Wednesday were more cowpunk, as they called us, with acoustic guitars and a horn section. So the people who came to see us … I don’t think they liked it. But we did loads of gigs with The Men They Couldn’t Hang. In a way we didn’t really fit in, but for some reason ended up with them quite a lot. And The Boothill Foot-Tappers, and we did quite a few gigs with The Pogues. Yet we were also connected to the twee indie scene, maybe through The Pink Label link – otherwise it doesn’t really make sense.”

I also remember seeing (and interviewing) International Resque (later just Resque), another band you were linked with, not least when Wez joined on drums in 1994.

“Yeah, they did a lot of gigs with Carter in the early days. It was a very diverse scene, I suppose. Interchanging bands who didn’t all sound the same.”

What did the ousted members of Jamie Wednesday make of your breakaway?

“Erm … I’m not sure at the time, to be honest with you. But I know Dean (Leggett) quite well, the drummer.”

I knew him first from Bob, another band I loved. So I guess it worked out pretty well for him after all.

“Yeah, and in more recent years Simon (Henry) and Lindsey (Lowe) – our horn section – have played on my solo stuff after we reconnected. But at the time they probably weren’t too pleased.”

That story will make for a good film, perhaps.

“Yes, although there’s no documentary evidence of anything we ever did. Hardly anything. Nobody ever filmed us!”

Well, you say that, but you’ve got the books out there.

“Well, that’s true.”

Metal Detector: Jim Bob, still searching for true value, all these years on (Photo: Paul Heneker)

Jim Bob plays Manchester Academy on Saturday, May 25th (1pm-11.30pm) for Gigantic Vol. 5, the bill also featuring headliners Echo & the Bunnymen, plus The Wonder Stuff, The Bluetones, The Juliana Hatfield Three, Jesus Jones, and Crazyhead, with Graham Crabb (Pop Will Eat Itself) as DJ/MC. For more details and tickets try the event’s Facebook page or the venue website. Jim Bob is also set to play the Darwen Live free festival on Sunday, May 26th (on stage 6.45pm). For more about his shows, books and records, visit Jim bob’s website or head to the relevant Cherry Red Records artist page, where you can also find details of a deluxe Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine: The Studio Recordings 1988-1998 collector’s edition vinyl boxset and the Hello, Good Evening, Welcome, and Goodbye 2014 live recording on CD, vinyl and download.

 

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All Night Party People – in conversation with A Certain Ratio’s Jez Kerr

It promises to be a busy year for industrial punk-funk pioneers and indie-dance survivors A Certain Ratio, currently playing a series of UK dates to coincide with new Mute collection, ACR:BOX.

After 2018’s acr:set compilation and their LP reissue campaign, the new boxset – remastered by the band’s Martin Moscrop at Abbey Road Studios and including A and B-sides, alternative versions and more than 20 previously-unreleased tracks, available in 7 x coloured vinyl, 4CD and digital formats – follows the band’s delve into their vaults, with various hidden gems unearthed, among them tapes from a session recorded for a shelved collaboration with Grace Jones.

The new release coincides with the 40th anniversary of ACR’s Martin Hannett-produced debut single, ‘All Night Party’, Factory Records’ first single artist 7”, in later days described by Record Collector as ‘a statement of future intentions: to set funk off against nervous angst’.

That single – FAC 5, followed by Orchestral Manoeuvres’ ‘Electricity’, FAC 6 – was released in September 1979, with 5,000 copies pressed, soon selling out, the band recording their first session for influential BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel within a few weeks.

As it turned out though, it was their next single, a 1980 cover of Banbarra’s ‘Shack Up’, that opened things up, not least after its early ‘81 US Billboard Dance chart breakthrough. Not bad for something that cost £50 to record, that song represented on the new boxset through a radio edit by Electronic, featuring New Order frontman Bernard Sumner and Smiths guitar legend Johnny Marr.

By the time of that initial stateside success, they’d already scored their first UK indie top-10 hit with next single ‘Flight’, a band in more recent times described as ‘cult punk funkateers’ (Uncut) and ‘mould-breakers’ (Mojo) soon expanding to a six-piece.

While embracing the ethic and culture of late ‘70s post-punk from the start, it’s fair to say ACR sounded like little else, yet went on to influence a diverse number of acts down the years, from LCD Soundsystem to Happy Mondays, managing nine UK indie chart top-30 hits from 1980/86 on Factory, including seven top-10s.

They made five albums for Factory, initial cassette-only compilation The Graveyard and the Ballroom followed by May 1981 debut studio album To Each…, featuring the expanded line-up and recorded in New Jersey, Martin Hannett again producing. That was their first UK indie chart-topper, and by June that year they’d recorded a second John Peel session. And before 1981 was over next single ‘Waterline’ had provided another top-10 indie hit.

Although early influences included Funkadelic, Parliament and Earth, Wind and Fire, their bass-heavy industrial/funk sound was not easily pigeon-holed, in time introducing more avant-garde elements of funk, jazz, electronics, tape loops and technology to pop, ‘wrapping it in a post-punk aesthetic, adding great clothes and the coolest haircuts’.

But let’s go back a bit here, their story with its roots in 1977 in Flixton, Greater Manchester, the band name taken from a 1974 Brian Eno song.

Initially a duo, comprising singer Simon Topping and guitar/electronics player Peter Terrell, they were then joined by bass guitarist/vocalist Jez, then guitarist/trumpeter Martin, the band without a drummer initially, Donald Johnson there in time for that first Peel session though. But while things hadn’t truly started to come together until Jez joined earlier that year, he had little musical grounding at the time, having taken a very different career path.

“My life had come to a bit of a crossroads. I was a footballer from a very early age. My uncle – my mum’s twin – played in the ‘50s, so I was following in his footsteps. He played for Everton, his main club, for about 11 years, then Derby County, Swansea (still Town at that stage) and Leyton Orient. A really good player, who scored lots of goals for Everton.”

That was Eddie Thomas, his Mum’s twin, Jez following his lead, playing in Manchester United’s youth team, his contemporaries including future England international Mike Duxbury.

“Football was my life really. All I wanted to do was play for United and play for England. And I was lucky enough to play for United until I was 17, signing schoolboy terms at 15, becoming a ball-boy. But at 17 I broke my ankle badly, was at a loose end, and finally found myself in A Certain Ratio.”

There are inevitably comparisons drawn between your band and fellow Factory act, New Order, who also happen to be stablemates these days at Mute. Also, Bernard Sumner hadn’t started out as the front-man of his band, albeit down to different circumstances.

“That’s true. I was the bass player. But I got the job … unfortunately!”

What inspired you to get involved in music?

“My Mum did a bit of acting and I joined Manchester Youth Theatre. That’s where I met up with Gordon the Moron (Jilted John’s arch-nemesis, real name Bernard Kelly). I left home at 17 and shared a house in Rusholme with him. I was actually there when he (Graham Fellows, aka Jilted John) wrote that tune on my sofa.

“I was asked to play bass on Top of the Pops with them, but I was so shit I couldn’t mime! I’d bought myself an amp and bass guitar, but couldn’t play and wasn’t in a band. At this house in Rusholme, John Cooper Clarke was always coming ‘round, and The Freshies, people like that.

“I didn’t know anything about it. It was only through Gordon the Moron and the Youth Theatre that I met up with these people, finding out about Rabid Records. And when they had a hit … ‘Fucking hell – people I know are on Top of the Pops!”

That memorable number reached No. 4 on the UK charts in the late summer of ’78, re-released via EMI after a Rabid release a month earlier, the self-titled hit originally lurking on the B-side of ‘Going Steady’. Readers of this website may recall me talking about that late ‘70s Manchester scene in January with C.P. Lee, reliving his Alberto Y Los Trios Paranoias days. And there’s a link for Jez there too.

“The Albertos were the first band I saw – after Status Quo, then David Bowie at the Hard Rock. That must have been one of the first nights at the Russell Club.”

if online records are right (try this great link), the Albertos headlined at the Russell Club, aka The Factory, in Royce Road, Hulme, in August and September 1978, with A Certain Ratio going on to play there at least three times in 1979 as a support band – on April 6th third on the bill to The Teardrop Explodes and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark; on May 11th to third on the bill to Joy Division and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark; and on June 18th second on the bill to Public Image Ltd. They then featured twice more as headliners, in September ’79 and then April 1980, on the latter occasion with support acts including The Durutti Column and Section 25.

“I didn’t see myself as a musician, but all this was going on. I used to go to Pip’s a lot, seeing A Certain Ratio there – just Pete and Simon – and chatting afterwards. Nothing came of it, but I told them I knew people at Rabid Records.”

Ah, Pips, according to the Manchester Evening News’ Matthew Cooper a four-room club in a basement under Fennel Street (behind the cathedral, now concreted over, with the Corn Exchange on top), which opened in 1972 – 10 years before Factory opened FAC 51, the Hacienda – and hosted Joy Division’s first gig, the night they changed their name from Warsaw.

Anyway, carry on Jez.

“Then about three months later I bumped into Simon in the street. I was waiting for this girl called Lisa, and they ended up going out together. He mentioned they had a gig at Band on the Wall and were looking for a bass player. I said, ‘I’ve got a bass’. So I basically joined the band that minute. We had a rehearsal at my place, playing the gig the next day. And that was it.”

Ah, the Band on the Wall, Swan Street, in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, first used as a jazz venue in the 1930s, this scribe writing this just a couple of days after seeing Robert Forster’s sell-out show there, having only learned before via Marc Riley that he played his first show with The Fall there, the venue also hosting Buzzcocks and Joy Division. Historic, geographic links, I’ve got ‘em, pop kids.

Sorry, back to Jez. They obviously thought you looked the part.

“Yeah … well, you know … I had a bass!

That line was almost delivered Spinal Tap style, I might add.

“Actually, I’ve got a cassette of that first rehearsal, and we did ‘All Night Party’, ‘The Thin Boys’, ‘Genotype Phenotype’, and a track called ‘Intro Talking’ which we never recorded, but I made into a tune called ‘Terry’ for the album Mind Made Up (2008). Neither Pete not Simon could remember who wrote it, but from that cassette I deciphered the lyrics, using a verse from that that and one from another tune.

“We started the set with that for the first six months … although we only had about six tunes. Anyway, the reason the band were playing Band on the Wall was that the Arts Council used to fund a night there, through Manchester Musicians Collective, run by a guy called Frank, an old hippie who lived in Didsbury, and his mate. He booked the night, with six or seven bands playing, a Monday night. They had meetings on King Street, and if you went along you got a gig.

“The Fall, Joy Division, all the bands really started there, the ones trying to make their name. And we played there three or four times and were very fortunate to do so. It was Rob Gretton (New Order manager and Factory director) who spotted us there, telling Tony (Wilson) about us, They’d just opened the Factory in Hulme – the Russell Club – and Rob got Tony to ask us to play there. So it was Rob who really discovered us, if you like.”

And Tony Wilson famously labelled you ‘the new Sex Pistols’.

“That was Tony gobbing off! After playing the Russell Club, he asked us to do a single. We did that at Cargo with Martin Hannett, just carrying on from there, Tony sort of managing the band really. He was a great talker. You didn’t actually believe most of what he said, but punk opened up so much. We thought, ‘We can run a club, we could be a record label, we don’t need a proper manager – our mate will be our manager!”

When you go back and listen to tracks like ‘All Night Party’, does it take you back to a certain place and time?

“Yeah, that’s exactly it. When I joined, they had that tune, and I just put some bass on it, y’know.”

I suspect that’s a little under-statement. Either way, dad-of-three Jez – his daughters aged 14 to 24 -kept his job, and now the modern A Certain Ratio line-up – completed by Martin, Donald, fellow bandmates Denise Johnson, Tony Quigley and most recent addition, Matt Steele – continue their 2019 UK tour on Thursday, May 23rd at Jacaranda Records, Phase One, Seel Street, Liverpool, before a two-day festival at Yes, Charles Street, Manchester, on Friday May 24th and Saturday May 25th, special guests such as Section 25, Shadowparty, and The Orielles joining the band for a celebratory takeover of all four floors of the venue, marking the 40th anniversary of all that.

“Yeah, that and the subsequent 40 years, working with people and making music.”

You’ve already played a few shows, including shows in Islington, North London, Wolverhampton and Belfast, the first ACR visit to the latter. And Barrow-in-Furness was an interesting starting point for these dates.

“It was really good. It was like someone’s front room. Really nice people, and we’ve got quite a few gigs at places we haven’t played before, something I really enjoy. And it’s a conscious decision. We always used to play Manchester, London, Glasgow, Edinburgh … for a while now we haven’t gone around the places we used to play. So we’re playing Cardiff, Nottingham, Leamington Spa …”

You always had a loyal underground following. Was this part of the reason to reach further out to those fans?

“Well, people think we’ve just got together for this 40th thing, but while we had a break from 1994 to 2002, I don’t think we ever had the intention of never doing it again. But real life intervenes, takes over – kids, etc.”

Going back a bit again, there were many chops and changes before ACR’s final Factory LP, Force, surfaced in 1986. A move to A&M then followed for Good Together (1989) and acr:mcr (1990). How was the latter experience different?

“Ha ha! Completely different! “

Those were the latter days of big money being thrown at bands by major labels.

“Ha! Yeah, we were witnessing the very death of the music industry. I felt sorry for all the geezers who were there, set to lose their jobs, with a mortgage in London they’d been paying 10 years, or whatever. The gravy train was coming to an end.”

No doubt you learned from that experience, in time becoming truly independent again.

“I think we’ve always been slightly outside it all, yet fairly insular. In the early days, After a while Tony was more the director of Factory, so we were managing ourselves really. Then when we left Factory, we were on our own. We’ve been sort of self-sufficient for a long time. Even at A&M we felt this wasn’t going to last. But we made quite a bit of money out of them, and with that bought a studio and rehearsal space in Manchester where we could carry on making music. So when we did leave, after only about a year, we made two more albums for Rob’s Records.”

Those albums were Up In Downsville (1992) and Change the Station (1997), Rob’s Records set up by Rob Gretton. Speaking of whom, did you ever feel slightly aggrieved that the likes of New Order proved the bigger band?

“You’re going to feel a bit aggrieved, but we knew what we were doing was good, and business-wise, while we’ve always lived in their shadow a bit, fair enough. They’ve sold more records than us. It would be great not having to worry about money, but then again I think that brings its own problems.”

Indeed. They don’t seem to get on at all now, as opposed to your situation.

“I think that’s really unfortunate. I don’t know the ins and outs, and haven’t read any of the books, but it’s the same in our band. We’ve had big fallings out, but luckily we managed to plough through and come out the other side.”

I guess there’s always a danger at that level if you end up communicating entirely through lawyers and reading each other’s interviews and social media, rather than have face-to-face arguments that would possibly clear the air.

“Well, we don’t really see each other outside the music. We don’t socialise, particularly. But I think we realise we all need each other. All of us have got a part to play. Why bands split up is often about ego and money. We’ve come close quite a few times, but …”

You’re hanging on in there.

“Yeah, I’m really enjoying it. It’s better now than it’s ever been. There’s no pressure on us. The only pressure we’ve got is through writing new stuff – making that as good as all the other stuff.”

I love the string version of ‘Won’t Stop Loving You’. Does this signal a fresh direction, or is it something that’s always potentially been in your arsenal?

“A friend of ours, Jason Brown, has a partner in a string quartet (Parent’s Sarah Brandwood-Spencer) who did this arrangement and played it to Donald. It sounded great, so we thought we’d do it as a special for this acr:box. We have done acoustic versions before, but not a string arrangement. And if someone’s passionate enough to come up with something, we’re not going to turn around and say no.

The boxset looks impressive. Is this like your life flashing in front of your eyes when you first set eyes on the finished product?

“It’s funny. I’ve not listened to it in its entirety yet, but I’m going to. Our tour manager, Pete, says that with all the different styles that are there you get a real sense of 40 years.”

Was this latest collection more down to Martin?

“Martin did a lot of work on it, but we all got together to listen to stuff. The first part – the B-sides and singles – was easy. They hadn’t been on the albums. But the second half was where we … all the stuff from the SoundStation, our studio, we were looking at DATs, and a lot were deteriorating and unplayable. It took us about three days to go through those. But we found (Talking Heads cover) ‘Houses in Motion’, which we didn’t think we had, a tune called ‘force’ which was suppose dot be on that album which we’d all forgotten about.

“There’s a lot stuff we missed. For one, virtually a complete album that we never recorded. We were in New York and played a gig at the Ritz, possibly the second time we went to New York. A guy called Tyrone Downey, the keyboard player in The Wailers, leant us loads of equipment as we had a lot of gear missing from our flight.

“We did a soundcheck at the Ritz and it was our worse one ever. There was a lot of pressure – it was our gig and a 3,000 capacity, our first big gig in New York. After the soundcheck Michael Schomberg, tour managing us and a friend of Tyrone, said ‘Let’s go back to Tyrone’s’.

“We went to Brownstone and this studio, and Tyrone was standing outside. I was handed a big bag of grass and Donald a big bottle of Southern Comfort. We walked in this room with this backing track going on. There was a drum kit, a bass, two guitars, keyboards and loads of percussion, and this Tom Tom Club-like backing tape of claps and so on. He said, ‘There you go – enjoy yourself’.

“We spent the next three hours jamming, and no one fucking recorded it! I tell you, there was a complete album there of new stuff. If someone had just turned the tape on, we’d have had at least four or five tunes from that three-hour jam!”

Great story. And what about that proposed collaboration you had with Grace Jones?

“We recorded the tunes with a view to her singing on it, but Chris Blackwell got wind of it, thinking, ‘No, I’m not having this’. It would have sounded great. There’s two versions – the one we brought out was our version, us learning the tune, and the other version is Martin Hannett’s, ready for Grace’s vocals to be put on.”

Taking of female vocalists and different approaches, I like Nouvelle Vague’s version of ‘Shack Up’.

“Yeah, I quite like that, but prefer their version of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart‘. That’s my favourite. There you go again, see – we’re always being compared to them!”

And you just happen to have Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr – as Electronic – doing a version of ‘Shack Up’ on this boxset.

“Yeah, I quite like that.”

And what’s next after this tour – is there a new LP on its way?

“Yeah, there’s still more to come on Mute – a live album, then there will be a remix album. And hopefully after that we’ll be ready with the new album. We’ve already got six or seven tunes together. And we want to make it a really good one, in between gigging and all that.”

And there are lots of gigs coming.

“There’s quite a few, yeah. Last year we did maybe 20, but prior to that we’d only been doing about 10 a year.”

I seem to recall you doing a solo set at the Continental in Preston a couple of years back too.

“Yeah, I did a solo thing for a few years. I really enjoyed doing that, but I’m busy with doing this now.”

And long may that continue.

Celebration Ratio: A Certain Ratio, celebrating four decades of pioneering recorded material (Photo: Kevin Cummins)

ACR’s next UK dates: May 23rd – Jacaranda Records, Phase One, Liverpool; May 24th/25th – Yes, Manchester; May 30th – Sheffield, The Leadmill (Steel Bar); May 31st – Newcastle, Riverside; June 1st – Edinburgh, The Voodoo Rooms; June 2nd – Leamington Spa, Zephyr Lounge; August 16th – We Out Here Festival; Cambridgeshire; August 17th – Green Man Festival; August 18th – County Durham, Hardwick Live Festival; November 2nd – Dublin, The Sugar Club; November 8th – Cardiff, Clwb Ifor Bach; November 9th – Birmingham, The Crossing; November 15th – Stoke-on-Trent, The Sugarmill; November 16th – Glasgow, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut; November 17th – Huddersfield, The Parish; December 6th – Stockton on Tees, The Georgian Theatre; December 7th – Nottingham, Rescue Rooms.

For more about the band, keep in touch via their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter links, their website, or Mute Records.

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The Undertones / The Neville Staple Band – The Ritz, Manchester

Ritz Cracker: The view from the stage at the Ritz, Manchester, as snapped by the singing one (Photo: Paul McLoone)

An early start caught me out, my train arriving after seven, The Neville Staple Band already in charge by the time I’d made it from nearby Oxford Road station. And to channel ska inspiration Prince Buster and fellow 1979 breakthroughs Madness, even if I kept on running, I’d never have crossed Whitworth Street West in time.

By the time I’d wandered through the foyer into the main hall – stopping only to shake hands with Mickey Bradley – this dynamic octet (Mr and Mrs Staple accompanied by bass, guitar, drums, keyboards and two-man brass) had already revisited May ’79 debut Special AKA single ‘Gangsters’ and The Slickers’ ‘Johnny Too Bad’, and were part-way through ’Monkey Man’, Nev’s missus Sugary’s smile infectious as she gave us the knees-up treatment on a Toots Hibbert number as good as adopted by her hubby after all these years.

Next was a splendid take on Bananarama and Fun Boy Three adapted ‘60s soul staple (so to speak) ‘Really Saying Something’, Sugary out front, then the mighty ‘A Message to You Rudy’, Dandy Livingstone’s dancefloor smash hitting the spot. And another Specials’ debut LP highlight, Rufus Thomas’ ‘Do the Dog’, kept the place moving. Yep, the Spirit of ’79 was truly captured, the line drawn in the sand for tonight’s headliners.

Another Fun Boy Three excursion followed, ‘The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum’ increasingly apt given the current UK and US political climate. Then, after a plug for the band’s charity rewrite of ‘Rudy’, ‘Put Away Your Knives’, Sugary led on a ska-licious ‘Rude Girl’, her other half toasting at her side.

The jukebox kept cranking out hits, The Pioneers’ Long Shot Kick the Bucket’ showcasing late ‘60s Trojan gold and the roots of the ska revival a decade later, while a multi-speed take on Symarip’s ‘Skinhead Moonstomp’ from even earlier kept the groove going, the joint jumping.

Time was always going to be against this accomplished band, but an extended ‘Ghost Town’ took us all back to a place and time, the musicianship never in doubt, the brass supreme. Alas, there’s only so much you can shoehorn into a support slot, and – individual introductions done – we got a further delve back with Lynval Golding’s ‘Do Nothing’, more a celebration on this occasion, before a glorious closing run through The Skatalites’ version of ‘Guns of Navarone’.

All Together: The Undertones and The Neville Staple Band join forces, the Spirit of ’79 well and truly intact.

Few will have left the Ritz not wishing to catch Nev and his band again sometime soon. Satisfaction guaranteed. And it was a perfect bill – a punky-reggae party of sorts, both sets of fans with ears wide open and hearts responding. A later show of hands from the headliners suggested several punters hadn’t seen them before, and that worked the other way too. New fans won over by each set.

I’m not sure whether I could fail to be cheered by the sight of The Undertones either, and this proved another perfect venue to catch Derry’s finest. What’s more, 38 years after my Positive Touch debut, 36 years after my final sightings of the Feargal Sharkey-fronted band , and 19 years after first clapping eyes on the refurbished Paul McLoone-led five-piece at the Mean Fiddler, the revival party continues apace. And as John O’Neill recently put it, they’re, ‘definitely getting better. I don’t know how or why’.

That wasn’t in doubt as they took to the Ritz stage with an introductory treble from their eponymous first LP, released 40 years ago that week, ‘Family Entertainment’, ‘I Gotta Getta’ and ‘Jump Boys’ ensuring the sprung dancefloor was properly utilised from the off, old-time punk and new wave values writ large.

While they had every right to turn this into a show solely about celebrating ‘the greatest record of all time’ (© Neil Waite, Rocking Humdingers Club), this was never an outfit to sit back and crow on past achievements, and 1981’s ‘It’s Going To Happen’ sounded fresher than ever … even if I’d have loved to hear Neville’s brass duo let loose on that middle section.

Similarly, the gorgeous ‘Tearproof’ never falls short of the mark, while 2009’s ‘I’m Recommending Me’ gets better with every outing, now fully appreciated by the faithful, one of several Mk. II classics penned by Mickey (‘using a really nice crayon’ , as he put it).

The better-known songs always go down a treat of course, and ‘Jimmy Jimmy’ was afforded a rousing crowd singalong. And this being weekend Manchester on the eve of the Premier League season finale, ‘When Saturday Comes’ was inevitable, Mickey doing his bit for diplomacy with a shout-out for local heroes Bury FC.

Sound Check: The Undertones’ Paul McLoone, Billy Doherty and Mickey Bradley limbering up before their Newcastle’s Boiler Room show, clearly saving their excitement for later (Photo: Kate Greaves)

‘Girls That Don’t Talk’ from 1980 was next, Dee and John’s guitars still tugging this boy’s heartstrings all these years on. Also inevitable was the tribute to Pete Shelley, Paul dedicating mighty comeback single ‘Thrill Me’ to his memory, recalling the band’s chat with him in Sunderland last summer.

‘Love Parade’ is another song reborn in recent years, and here – as it on Damian O’Neill’s stunning Refit Revise Reprise LP – it was more as it was intended from Dee and Mickey’s Wesleys’ side-project days.

And ‘Male Model’? What can I say? Still the perfect tongue-in-cheek punk exclamation mark, the band’s enthusiasm for their own material neatly encapsulated by Mr Bradley’s ‘I love that one’ pronouncement.

Again, we felt the strength in depth of the more recent material with Monkees-esque 125-second neo-classic ‘Here Comes the Rain’, succinct and to the point, further proof that John never forgot how to craft a perfect song.

Speaking of which, you’ll have heard of ‘Teenage Kicks’, kids, that nugget preceded by the raw original version of ‘True Confessions’, as explosive today as in ‘78. And the hits kept coming, ‘Here Comes the Summer’ similarly crowd-pleasing before ‘Dig Yourself Deep’ again showed the depth of the 21st Century ‘Tones.

From the first long player we got ‘I Know a Girl’ and from the second ‘Nine Times Out of Ten’, Mickey admitting to another Buzzcocks steal on the outro, then paying tribute to fellow Manc Paul Hanley, praising his splendid Leave the Capital book, the Fall legend and current Brix & the Extricated drummer there with bass-playing brother and bandmate Steve on the night.

The last of the McLoone-era selections was 2003’s ‘Oh Please’, and who could resist those backing vocals and melodious riffs? There was still plenty of credit in the jukebox too, with two of the finest singles ever made next, ‘You Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use it?) and ‘Wednesday Week’, the latter something of a breather before ‘79’s ‘Girls Don’t Like It’, ‘(She’s a) Runaround’ and second single ‘Get Over You’ closed the main set. Every song a classic.

A 10 o’clock curfew was nearly upon us, my last train closer to departure, but they still managed to squeeze in five more glorious numbers, the encore kicking in with Doherty the drummer’s esteemed ‘Billy’s Third’, a storming ‘There Goes Norman’, the wall-to-wall fervour of final debut LP choice ‘Listening In’, and second record title track ‘Hypnotised’, another track exuding evergreen status.

And then the floor was sprung once more, our treasured quintet going out on ‘My Perfect Cousin’, penned 40 summers previously and never failing to please.

Yes, 30 songs all told, and each bringing sunshine, smiles, nostalgia and inspiration, The Undertones carrying on where Neville had started the evening, the Spirit of ’79 refitted, revised, reprised, revitalised, and revved up good and proper.

For this website’s recent interviews with The Undertones’ Damian and John O’Neill (where you’ll also find links to plenty more Undertones-themed interviews, features and reviews), and with Neville Staple, follow the links.

Post Sharkey: The Undertones. From left: Billy Doherty, John O’Neill, Paul McLoone, Mickey Bradley, Damian O’Neill

The Undertones and Neville Staple Band’s UK tour concludes this weekend (doors 7pm, tickets £25 advance) at Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion (Friday, May 17th, 01424 229111) and Southampton Engine Rooms (Saturday, May 18th, 0800 688 9311 ). For more details of The Undertones’ 2019 schedule, including US tour, UK and Irish festival appearances, head heretry their website and keep in touch via FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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Top of the world, looking back on Creation – the Alan McGee interview

 

Bearded Theory: Alan McGee, out on the road and telling tales throughout 2019

When I got through to Alan McGee, it sounded like he was having his flat trashed by Dr Who monsters, possibly in the process of drowning him in a bubble bath. Either that or it was just another day of me dealing with poor mobile phone reception.

The first thing I could make out was his rather worrying, “I’ll go to the window, man.” Don’t jump, Alan. Not on my account. But things improved a little from there, at least sporadically. Not as if I’d have had enough time to hear half of his stories if I was on for four hours and the reception was perfect from his base in the capital, not so far from Tower Bridge.

How best to describe this 58-year-old East Kilbride-born maverick? The press release accompanying his An Evening with Alan McGee shows suggests ‘Scottish businessman, music industry executive, record label owner, musician, manager, and The Guardian music blogger’. But I guess he’s best known for co-founding independent label Creation Records (which he ran from 1983 to 1999) and as the man who discovered and signed Oasis.

There’s so much more to his story than that though, as those popping along this Friday night to Warrington’s Pyramid Arts Centre or anywhere else on his current talking tour will hear. Top entertainment guaranteed, I reckon.

Maybe he’ll touch on how in 1997, Tony Blair’s revitalised Labour Party took note of his track record with Creation and got him to spearhead a pre-General Election media campaign to reach out to Britain’s youth. Consequently, he was largely responsible for changing Government legislation regarding musicians being given three years to develop their craft – state-funded – instead of having to take other jobs to survive. That ranks as one of his proudest achievements.

He’ll also likely be discussing his career, his inside and outside take on the music industry and his relationship with bands such as Oasis and Primal Scream (he met their frontman, Bobby Gillespie at school). And his days with Creation provided big moments for so many bands, also including The Boo Radleys, My Bloody Valentine, Teenage Fanclub, Saint Etienne, Super Furry Animals, The Jesus and Mary Chain (putting out their first single in 1994), The House of Love, Ride, Bernard Butler, Bob Mould, Echobelly, The Cramps, Felt, The Pastels, The Loft, The Weather Prophets … the list goes on.

He’s also managed Happy Mondays, Black Grape, Shaun Ryder, Cast, Glasvegas, and The Bluetones, and has many a gruesome tale to tell about rock luminaries like The Libertines.  In fact, days after our chat he told BBC 5 Live’s Danny Baker (on what would perhaps turn out to be his last show on the station, but not because of Alan) a particularly horrendous yarn about Pete Doherty’s bandmate, Carl Barât, involving a headbutt, a sink, an eyeball, a handkerchief, and a trip to A&E. Not for the squeamish.

And if the right anecdotes don’t come up for you when you see him, you can always ask a question yourself. What’s more, he told me, ‘They’ve got me DJ-ing after the show’.

Pow Wow: Alan McGee, right, in Biff Bang Pow! days

I kicked off by suggesting I wasn’t sure where to start, as he has one of the most impressive, heaviest CVs I’ve trawled through over the years.

“Oh aye, it’s because I’m old and I’ve been around a bit, y’know!”

So how would he describe yourself?

“I’m just a music fan.”

I would suggest that shows in more or less everything he’s set out to achieve.

“I think so.”

There have been good decisions and not so good decisions, but that’s all part and parcel of it, surely.

“To be fair though, compared to most, I’ve probably got it right more times than I ever got it wrong. But I agree, you learn more from failure. And I was never an overnight success. People might think I was, but I was doing Creation for 10 years before Oasis, y’know.”

For many in indie circles, Alan first emerged as lead singer and guitarist of the band Biff Bang Pow! (1983-91) But he’d been in London for a while by then, previously seeing service with Glasgow punk band The Drains, then co-forming The Laughing Apple on reaching the capital.

“Yeah man, I headed down in 1980. I was 19.”

With a suitcase or a backpack and not much else?

“It was actually nothing. I had five quid in my pocket, and I was effectively, technically homeless. But I managed to squat. These were the days when you didn’t need to be homeless, back in the ’80s – you could squat.”

That whole squatting scene in London was so important for many musicians and other creatives coming through, perhaps with Joe Strummer the most high-profile musician, back in his 101’ers days.

“Yeah, Portobello Road, Elgin Avenue and all that. I was in Clapham, squatting in St Alphonsus Road, Clapham Common.”

Ah, many a time I would have passed by quite close on the A3, en route from Guildford to the capital for gigs.

“I was there for about six months, then got a little bedsit. If I couldn’t have done that, I couldn’t have made it in London. I look back now and wonder how the fuck I done it really. I came with no money but actually made it work. Unbelievable really. I’m not saying I’m really talented. I have got talent. I’m not denying that, but the truth is that even if you’re the most talented person in the world, the odds would still not be fantastic. I really did it because of the tenacity, I suppose … that tenacity I got from Glasgow.”

After quitting a job with Royal Mail (something else we have in common), he started Creation Records with Dick Green and Joe Foster, their label a nod to cult ’60s outfit The Creation and also Paul Weller via The Jam’s All Mod Cons. Did Alan have confidence from day one?

“I don’t think I did from day one, but I had that tenacity that I didn’t know how to lose. I could lose battles but could never lose wars. I just kept going, and because I kept going – dealing with everything, even when everybody’s saying you’re defeated – I still kept going.”

I love the fact that Creation wasn’t just about those names that became so big. You were also championing favourites of mine like Teenage Fanclub, and others who weren’t obviously going to be huge-draw rock’n’roll stars.

“I did that because I loved the music. I never worried about sales and whether something’s going to sell or not. I just put it out.”

I know there were many more outfits given a leg up too at key stages, not least in your Poptones days (the label he set up in 2000, as Sony Music took control of Creation, and was in charge of until 2007), for instance putting out Undertones guitarist Damian O’Neill’s A Quiet Revolution album in 2001. Then there are those you’ve put your hand in your pocket for in the arts around music, like Matteo Sedazzari with his online fanzine, Zani and his own print publications (with a link to a past interview with Alan by Matteo here). And it’s that ‘out of the headlines’ work that appeals to me.

“Yeah, but the truth is – and you’ll know this as someone’s who’s written a book about The Clash – we come from the underground, and why I’m strange is that I’ve absolutely had blue-chip success. That’s why the underground still love me, because ultimately even the underground needs a few success stories. I suppose that’s why my story is very interesting. I don’t really know you, but I don’t really sound that much different to you, talking to you for five minutes.”

Talking Shop: Alan McGee on one of his talking dates, with plenty more in the diary in 2019

So how’s it going to work with these talk dates of yours?

“Well, I did one for the British Music Experience (he actually said ‘Liverpool Music Explosion’, which I quite like too), and had no intention of doing a tour … but this is the story of my fucking life! It sold out and they put it on the internet, and from that I got two dates in Scotland. “And because they sold out, I got an agent, who said, ‘I can book you 50 of these’. I think the guy’s a bit fucking mad, but I’m always up for a bit of graft, and so far the guy’s booked 37 shows.”

I remember seeing Noddy Holder doing a similar show with Mark Radcliffe, and that worked well as Mark pulled him back in line when he went off topic, as was the case when Johnny Vegas was chaperoned live by fellow comic Steve Royle. Is that how it works with you and your host, author and broadcaster Rob Fiddaman?

“Not really. Rob got pissed in Scotland so I had to kick him off the tour. Ha ha! I’ll just find a local journalist. Who knows.”

When we spoke, Alan was between media interviews for the tour before that Friday’s gig in Chesterfield and the same weekend’s DJ-ing commitments in Japan. Some life, eh.

“Yeah, it’s no’ bad!”

Famously, you walked away from the beast that Creation became …

“I’ve still got Creation, but it’s a 7” label now. Creation 23 (started in August 2018). And I manage the (Happy) Mondays and Glasvegas and Cast, and the Bluetones … I still take music pretty seriously, but I couldn’t work for the Sony version of Creation.”

I liked The Boo Radleys’ 1995 LP, Wake Up! Was that a band you heard (their first album, Ichobod & I, came out via cult Preston label Action Records) and decided you had to have them on your label?

“If you really want the truth, I really got them to piss off Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine) and put them at No.1! Because I knew I could do it. I love Kevin, but at the time I’d fallen out with him, and thought that if I could sign the Boo Radleys and put them to No.1 it would really piss him off! Ha ha!”

That’s fantastic, and who was the easiest act to deal with on the label, and who was the most difficult?

“Oasis were pretty easy, to be honest, as a band. And now I’ve calmed down, but when I was doing the My Bloody Valentine records I was out of my mind. so I was probably a bigger problem than Kevin, because of my own seedy behaviour, y’know what I mean?”

How about your spell working with Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ supremo Kevin Rowland, putting out 1999’s My Beauty? You obviously did that as a fan.

“Yeah, I did. And it was a great record. It’s just a pity the world couldn’t deal with him dressed as a woman (on the cover). But there you go. It happened.”

I’m guessing you were a big Dexy’s fan.

“Massive, yeah. In fact, I DJ’d last night and played ‘There There, My Dear’.”

When you initially stepped away from the Sony-owned version of Creation, you said you would be concentrating on being a proper Dad. How’s your daughter doing now?

“Oh, she’s great, man. Dead cool. She’s 18 now, and brilliant.”

Is she following your lead, learning from your own ups and downs?

“No, she’s really into music but I think she’s going to art school, insisting she’s gonna be an artist … a little Bohemian on the go, y’know!”

And I gather Danny Boyle and Irvine Welsh are now set to work together on the cinematic version of your life story.

“Yeah,man. Can’t wait. I’ll have nothing to do with it. I’ll just check it at the end of the film, make sure everything’s okay and it’s reasonably representative of what happened.”

Are you envisaging something along the lines of Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Michael Winterbottom’s splendid Steve Coogan-fronted 24 Hour Party People film?

“Yeah, I didn’t know we’d get Danny until we did, but the truth is it could really blow up now … and maybe it will. I didn’t think before it would be a hit. Everybody said, ‘This could be big, McGee!’ And I said, ‘It won’t be big, it’ll be in and out of the cinemas in fucking two days!’ But with Danny and Irvine together, it’s got the chemistry that could work, know what I mean? I’m looking forward to it.”

Tokyo Skyline: Alan McGee at the controls for a DJ-ing engagement in Japan recently

The next An Evening With Alan McGee date is this Friday, 10th May at Pyramid Arts Centre, Warrington (8pm, tickets £15 plus booking & restoration levy online or via 01925 442345, with support from The K’s).

That will be followed (at time of going to press) by: 11th May – The Mansefield, Rugeley; 25th May – Square Chapel, Halifax; 31st May – The Thunderbolt, Bristol; 6th June – Corran Halls, Oban; 7th June – Queens Hall, Dunoon; 11th June – Phoenix, Exeter; 21st June – St Paul’s, Worthing; 22nd June – Guildhall, Cambridge; 28th June – Old Dr Bell’s Baths, Edinburgh; 29th June – Café Drummond, Aberdeen; 23rd August – The Venue, Derby.

Then in November, Alan has Glee Club shows booked at: 3rd November – Cardiff; 4th November – Birmingham; 5th November – Nottingham; and 7th November – Glasgow. For more details head to each venue’s website.

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Family Entertainment – celebrating The Undertones, part two – back in touch with Damian O’Neill

With the 40th anniversary of the self-named LP by The Undertones just a few days away, here’s part two of a special WriteWyattUK feature celebrating a momentous 1979 album, this time tackling guitarist Damian O’Neill about that fantastic debut, amid a clutch of UK dates for Derry’s finest.

Damian O’Neill was barely 15 when he replaced older brother Vincent – who quit to concentrate on his exams – in The Undertones, and still only 17 when the band recorded their brother John’s ‘Teenage Kicks’, the track that arguably defines them to this day.

We probably all know that part of the story, legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel’s love of that single and the five working-class lads behind it leading to so much more, the band signing to Sire Records on October 2nd, ’78 on a five-year deal, recording their first Peel Session a fortnight later, and on October 26th performing their re-released debut 45 on Top of the Pops, the song peaking at No. 31 on the UK singles chart that November.

That month – until December 16th – they were out on their first UK tour, supporting The Rezillos and John Otway as well as headlining three concerts in Belfast and Derry. And then came second single ‘Get Over You’, recorded that December, their first for Roger Bechirian at Eden Studios, West London.

And recently I got to reminisce with Dee – who also plays guitar for That Petrol Emotion offshoot The Everlasting Yeah and last year released the wondrous Refit Revise Reprise album as Damian O’Neill and the Monotones – about those recordings, recalling a few treasured photographs from the first two LP sessions at those studios, one taken on his 19th birthday (while the band were completing second album, Hypnotised).

“We liked the studio and Roger, booking to do the first album in January ’79. And (the following year) Roger’s mother made a guitar-shaped cake, and (Stiff Records co-founder) Jake Riviera was there. He was managing Elvis Costello, who Roger also worked with. I remember champagne … and wearing a Clash t-shirt.”

Still got that Take the Fifth t-shirt?

“I don’t! God … if only!” All those great t-shirts I was wearing back in those days … I don’t have any of them.”

Tier Proof: The cake Roger Bechirian’s Mum made for Dee’s birthday, sweet-toothed Mickey Bradley first in line for a slice (Photo from Roger Bechirian’s collection via Pete Weiss for https://tapeop.com)

That’s a shame. I expected the cake to have gone, but …

“Ha! The cake was devoured there and then!”

While the ‘Teenage Kicks’ EP was recorded at Wizard Studios in what’s now known as Belfast’s Cathedral district, ‘bang-slap in the centre of town’ according to Dee, London soon beckoned, their first Top of the Pops appearance proving key to the tale.

By the time that was transmitted, the band were already back home, playing a hometown gig in Derry at The Rocking Chair. But the previous day they’d taken advice from fellow punk and new wave stars.

As I understand it, Elvis Costello and the Attractions recorded both This Year’s Model and Armed Forces at Eden.

“That’s right, and both classics!”

Then there was Nick Lowe’s The Jesus of Cool before that …

“Yeah, we never met Nick, although Roger knew him really well, having worked with him and Dave Edmunds at Eden. But in the foyer and sitting room, where you’d sit, relax and watch TV, it had all the albums they made on the walls. I’ve got pictures of us messing about there, and you can see them in the background. There was also Joe Jackson …”

Stiff Competition: Rare pic of Jake Riviera visiting to wish Damian a happy birthday at Eden Studios in early 1980 (Photo from Roger Bechirian’s collection via Pete Weiss for the https://tapeop.com website)

Look Sharp. I was going to mention that, and the fact that Graham Parker also recorded there.

“Yeah, and Lene Lovich. ‘Lucky Number’ and all that … plus Rockpile.”

Later that same year there was also Buzzcocks’ A Different Kind of Tension, their first recordings outside Manchester. And there was some link with Madness’ One Step Beyond, if only for a couple of tracks, while Joy Division also briefly recorded there, as did Squeeze, who made East Side Story there with Roger and Elvis in 1981.

“Great studios. Just a shame that’s gone. Mickey Bradley (bass) would probably tell you exactly what it looked like. He’s got a great memory, outside and inside (the studio, not Mickey’s memory, I’m guessing). But yeah, it was on a residential street, possibly converted. I know Roger helped build it, the console and all that.

“I’m still in touch, although I haven’t seen him for a couple of years. We went for a meal a few years ago – me, John (O’Neill), Roger and our wives. It was really good to see him again.”

Did Dee – these days around a dozen miles from Eden Studios, not so far from Trotter family base Nelson Mandela House in South East London – and the band know Roger before they went in to record ‘Get Over You’?

“No, he was recommended. When we did Top of the Pops the first time, Elvis Costello and the Attractions were on as well, doing ‘Radio Radio’. We were chatting – we were big fans – and their drummer, Pete Thomas, mentioned Roger, saying, ‘He engineered our album, but is actually a great producer.’ So it was down to his recommendation that we sought him out.

“Funny thing was that we did ‘Get Over You’ with him first, probably one of our best songs, but were never really happy with it. We were desperate to get a hit, because ‘Teenage Kicks’ wasn’t really a hit. Roger always thought he kind of ruined it.

Roger That: Undertones producer Roger Bechirian at the controls at Eden Studios, West London (Photo from Roger Bechirian’s collection via Pete Weiss for the https://tapeop.com website)

“He over-‘popified’ it. It’s too smooth. And those backing vocals … we wanted to sound like the New York Dolls, and didn’t. So it’s kind of funny that after that experience we went back to him for the first album. But that turned out OK!”

Another touch of O’Neill understatement there, as I got with older brother John in yesterday’s part one feature. It is of course one of the finest albums ever made.  No arguments required. I probably mentioned that to Damian too, but he most likely shrugged it off.

“As you know, we got Kevin Shields (of My Bloody Valentine fame) to remix it a few years ago, and it’s the exact same performance, but he gave it a rougher mix … and it’s much better – the way it should have been, y’know.”

You stuck with Roger to deliver the second album, but this time starting in Holland, at Wisseloord Studios, Hilversum, a place we perhaps only previously knew from the station display on the old radio sets (in fact, they returned there in January and February 1981 to record Positive Touch).

“Yeah, and he did some great stuff on those songs. He really brought them out.”

So what was Roger like to work with?

“He was very amenable. He wasn’t a taskmaster at all. He’d suddenly suggest things, and he got good takes out of you, which is very important, made me feel more comfortable. Actually, I think me and John were at the controls a lot more than the others. We’d always hang back, try and be there for the mixing, whereas Billy (Doherty, drums) would always go home the moment he’d recorded his parts. Mickey was there sometimes, and Feargal (Sharkey, vocals), but me and John were the main ones around the studio.”

Perhaps you were both destined for all that, as subsequent years proved.

“Yeah, I think so. I think you’re right.”

Seafood Diet: Mickey Bradley and Billy Doherty tuck in for the second Undertones album cover, the photo snapped by Damian in downtown Manhattan

And who was the sequencing of the albums down to?

“That was all of us. We always made sure it was a democratic decision, over whose songs came first. And we got the sequencing right most of the time.”

Definitely, and was there a particular thrill at kicking off that debut album with a song of yours, ‘Family Entertainment’?

“For me, personally, that was wonderful. It’s a great opener. ‘Casbah Rock’ at the end was my idea as well, using the tape of that. I don’t think Roger was so keen on that at the time, being such a hissy demo tape. But it worked perfectly, fading out after 30 seconds or whatever.”

Was that the part of the album credited as recorded in ‘Mrs Simms’ Shed, Derry’?

“Yeah. Also, Roger got Lene Lovich to do the talking bit at the beginning of ‘The Way Girls Talk’. No, hang on … we had so many titles with girls in them! Erm … ‘Girls Don’t Like It’! The ‘Hey, wasn’t Eddie driving that car?’ bit. That’s Lene and an American friend.”

Wow. I never knew that. Funnily enough, I was going to ask who that was.

“Yeah, I wasn’t there for that recording. I think Roger did it when he was doing some work with her. We’d asked him, saying it would be really nice to get an American voice on there. I had her album too, so got Roger to sign it … I’ve still got that. Typical me – two birds with one stone!”

How about the cover photography – was ‘Laurence O. Doherty’ a friend of the band?

“Laurie was a very well-known Derry photographer, normally taking pictures of rioters or buildings or local singing competitions and showbands. The session was done by Bull Park, famous in Undertones folklore, near our headquarters – O’Neill’s, Beechwood Avenue – and where we always played football.

“We did a few corny showband poses, deliberately, and he wanted us to go a bit further, put our hands out. John especially wasn’t having that! But we picked what we liked, and I really like that cover. I especially like the front cover, it shows us as we were. There’s no thrills. We were a pretty ugly-looking band! And it’s very punk. No pretence.”

Well, let’s for a moment consider Mickey on the back cover, with that toothy grin. What the hell?

“I know! Ha! He could have objected, but he didn’t. Mickey didn’t care. It’s very punk rock.”

Third Offering: Positive Touch was the last Undertones LP Roger Bechirian produced, from 1981

You at least had a semblance of cool about you.

“Yeah. It had to be black and white too, like the Ramones (first LP cover). We just wanted a picture like the Ramones.”

On the inside cover, there’s a photo of a cinema billboard, showing The Swarm … and The Undertones.

“That was a Rialto cinema that became a venue as well. We played there a few times. It’s now Primark … unfortunately.

“And on the other side (of the inner sleeve), I typed out the stupid nonsense about stealing cans of Mr Sheen and guitar strings and stuff. We’d done that tour with The Rezillos, and there was some reference to that as well.”

There was the later (October) sleeve with different photos, this time shot in colour, also including ‘Teenage Kicks’ and ‘Get Over You’, with that cover shot by Jill Furmanovsky.

“That was taken at Top of the Pops, at the BBC Studios upstairs. The bar opened out and you got this sort of garden area. That’s a good picture as well. I really like that.”

True. It’s a good ‘un. But the first one was the iconic photograph.

“Yeah, the first was the best. The dodgy thing about when that album with the new cover was that there was a new catalogue number too, so although we nearly sold 100,000 albums for the black and white cover, that was deleted and there was a new one … so we never reached that mark, never got a disc.”

Outrageous. I might write to my MP or Damian’s MP, or perhaps Derry’s MLA about that. Anyway, you were initially at Eden Studios for the ‘Get over You’ session, then returned for the first LP for around four weeks of recording?

“Yeah, I’d say about four weeks.”

Park Life: The Undertones line up for the first album sessions. From left – John O’Neill, Damian O’Neill, Feargal Sharkey, Billy Doherty, Mickey Bradley.

And the wondrous ‘You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It!)’ was next.

“Yeah, that came after. We’d exhausted all our songs and needed to come up with some new ones. And when John came up with that, it was like, ‘Yes! We’re going to be fine!’”

Fantastic, and maybe still my favourite of all your singles.

“Yeah, it’s Mickey’s favourite, and I do love it. Good memories too. Recording that was great. Things were on the up for us.”

And what a year that was. That summer, 40 years ago, I gather that you and Mickey also wrote ‘My Perfect Cousin’.

“Yes, it would have been, because we recorded it in January 1980. Yeah, late summer maybe.”

So the bulk of the Hypnotised album would have been written that year, with a few more added around Christmas.

“Yeah, we went to Holland, recorded around seven or eight songs, then kind of ran out, and were under pressure to come up with five or six songs. Luckily, we just about did it, even though we used ‘Under the Boardwalk’, which was never supposed to be on the album.”

I see that as more of a B-side, but these were the days when I loved B-sides too. As for the later tracks, this was hardly writing to order, lacking as a result – songs like ‘Wednesday Week’ and ‘Tearproof’ showed real maturity, even a jump within that year.

“Absolutely. I still love ‘Tearproof’. That’s John, and I think Mickey did a little. And ‘Wednesday Week’ was just another level altogether, wasn’t it? We were listening to different influences, and I guess for that it was more The Beatles or The Velvet Underground.”

I’d agree. Maybe Rubber Soul era.

“Yeah, that’s a good example. Even the cover – the kind of psychedelic mid-’60s kind of cover.”

And you kicked off with your own self-pastiche of sorts, ‘More Songs About Chocolate and Girls’. I love it, but that also suggests someone putting the squeeze on you, asking for more songs.

“Yeah, it was kind of tongue-in-cheek. The lyrics aren’t great, but …. funnily enough, I’d opened up the album with one of my songs again. Surprising, maybe, but it seemed to work.”

It certainly did. And what was it like to be at Wisseloord that time? Was that a completely different set-up, or more like a Dutch Chiswick, not least with Roger back at the controls.

“Yeah, a bigger studio, more expensive, a beautiful set-up actually, with an incredible control room. Roger really liked it, that’s why he went over. And we loved it. It was January 1980, pretty cold, about 30 miles from Amsterdam, the middle of nowhere really. So you just got on with it. The accommodation was next door, with beautiful little rooms, and everything was just warm, with amazing breakfasts, fresh orange juice and the most amazing breaded rolls we’d ever seen. It was luxury compared to where we lived! And just being warm in winter for a few weeks was … ha!”

I gather that shot of your bandmates with lobster bibs that graced the cover of Hypnotised was – according to Mickey’s autobiography – taken at a seafood restaurant in The Bowery, Manhattan, NYC.

“(Sire Records MD) Seymour Stein took us out for a meal. I just thought it was funny, Mickey and Billy wearing bibs, so took this stupid photo. When it came to doing the cover, we had this fella, Bush Hollywood, involved, doing our singles as well, and I think Mickey and I met him in Newcastle, gave him this Polaroid, and said, ‘Here’s the cover.’ He said, ‘Very funny, now what’s your idea?’ And we said, ‘That is the idea!’ He was aghast but had to do what we told him. We had complete artistic licence. They didn’t dictate to us.”

Going back to the first album again, am I right in thinking that for the most part you’d honed the songs live, not least at Derry venue The Casbah?

“Oh yeah – we did the bulk of those songs there, so knew them inside out. That’s why it was such a breeze to record those songs at Eden in January ’79.”

Are you marking the 40TH anniversary of the debut LP this year with a special event, or are you just celebrating via this tour? And will that fella currently helping clean up our rivers be joining you somewhere to help mark the occasion?

“I would be very surprised! We lost touch many years ago. But his rivers work is admirable. I’m very much into the environment myself, so that’s great – good on him.”

Derry’s Finest: The Undertones soundcheck at Manchester Academy on a past tour (Photo copyright: Kate Greaves)

And you have the Neville Staple Band as support, something Neville was very much looking forward to when we talked recently. In a sense, you’ve a shared history, not least him in his Specials days having also supported The Clash back in the day, with your respective, rightly-acclaimed eponymous debut albums both out in 1979.

“Yeah, and they came to see us when we played Coventry or Birmingham, I seem to recall. I remember three or four coming to talk to us. They mentioned they were in a band. I can’t recall if they gave us a name.”

Interesting. I wonder if they were The Specials or The Coventry Automatics then.

“Maybe. I remember they struck us as being really nice. We must have found out who they were pretty soon. That was on the first album tour, around April ’79.”

And I see you met up with your old That Petrol Emotion pals recently.

“Yes, Steve Mack happened to be over from America, and our John was over that weekend to see his kids with his wife, so everyone was just there. That’s why I brought my camera. Just a couple of hours in a pub. Who knows if this will ever happen again. Purely a social thing.

“Steve’s still involved with Stag (back in Seattle), and we’re playing America in May and June, so he’s coming over to Vegas to see us, and was thinking of bringing the rest of the band, hoping to support us.”

Wow, what a bill that would be. And maybe you’ll stay and do a residency there for a few years, Elvis Presley style. I can see it now … The Undertones – the Vegas years.

“Ha. The Lost Vegas years! Yeah.”

Chips Again: The Undertones’ second coming. From the left – John O’Neill, Paul McLoone, Damian O’Neill, Billy Doherty, Mickey Bradley

Will you be playing anywhere over there that you played with The Clash in late ’79?

“Well, we’re playing New York … not the Palladium though! We’re doing two shows there, and Boston, then (Las) Vegas and California (San Diego, Santa Ana and Los Angeles) … where we never made it with The Clash of course … much to my chagrin. We had frickin’ girlfriends! But I can’t complain, can I.”

Clearly that still rankles a little with Damian. Ah well.

“We’re also doing a few sporadic shows, including a few festivals, but then it’s kind of winding down again. Billy’s not been in great health recently, having had heart problems over the last year, so it’s been decided not to do as many as in the past. But we should be playing with Madness at their House of Fun Weekender at Butlin’s in Minehead.”

That event runs from November 29th to December 2nd, with details here, while those other appearances include festivals in Stanhope, County Durham (June 29th), Liverpool (July 6th), Perth (July 20th), Macclesfield, Cheshire (August 3rd), Cork (August 4th), and Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire (August 17th).

Finally, while The Undertones remain a band on the up all these years on, revitalised since 1999 when hometown lad Paul McLoone joined as frontman, there are new kids on the block too, winning the plaudits. Has Dee been enjoying the second series of Lisa McGee’s acclaimed sitcom Derry Girls?

“It’s very good. It’s gone down a treat as well. It’s put Derry on the map, which is brilliant. I was thinking, ‘Fuck, they’ve usurped The Undertones! Derry is now synonymous with Derry Girls, and not The Undertones.”

Male Models: The Undertones, still causing audience excitement 40 years after releasing their debut album

The Undertones and the Neville Staple Band tour continues this week (all shows doors 7pm,with tickets £25 advance) at: Thursday 9 May – Newcastle Boiler Shop; Friday 10  May – Leeds O2 Academy (0113 389 1555); Saturday 11 May – Manchester O2 Ritz (0161 714 4140); Thursday 16 May – Norwich Open (01603 763111); Friday 17  May – Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion (01424 229111); Saturday 18 May – Southampton Engine Rooms (0800 688 9311 ).

For an April 2018 feature/interview with Damian O’Neill, head here, and for a Mickey Bradley feature/interview from November 2017, including links to past Undertones-related interviews on this site, head hereMeanwhile, for more details of The Undertones’ 2019 schedule, including US tour, UK and Irish festival appearances, head here, try their website and keep in touch via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Three of the photographs used in this feature were sourced from a special feature/interview on Roger Bechirian by Pete Weiss for the TapeOp website, with a link to his informative piece here.

 

 

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Family Entertainment, part one – celebrating 40 years of The Undertones’ debut LP with John O’Neill

Family Entertainers: The Undertones, 21st Century style . From the left – Paul McLoone, Damian O’Neill, Billy Doherty, Mickey Bradley, John O’Neill, heading around the UK as we speak (sort of), evoking the Spirit of ”79

May 13th marks the 40th anniversary of the self-named debut LP by The Undertones, as good a reason as any to track down two of my guitar heroes, brothers Damian and John O’Neill.

I don’t tend to do double interviews, least not when my subjects are based some 500 miles and around 11 hours apart by road, rail and Irish Sea these days. But I’m always happy to make an exception when Derry’s finest are in mind, especially when I get a chance to talk about one of my favourite albums of all time.

Besides, this weekend sees the return of The Undertones to my adopted neck of the woods, and it’s now more than 30 years since I was first granted an interview with older O’Neill brother John, that interview for my Captains Log fanzine conducted in his last few days with the band he co-formed after the original Undertones split, That Petrol Emotion.

So with that in mind, here’s part one of a WriteWyattUK special, and I reminded John straight away about that previous interview in late October 1988, the title of the resultant feature – ‘More Songs About Factories and Girls’ – bringing it all back for him.

“I remember that! Yeah, I think I might have a copy.”

Gold dust, John. Look after it. The location for that chat was backstage at my hometown venue, Guildford Civic Hall, where the Petrols also played three years earlier as a support act to The Long Ryders. And I seem to recall it was one of your last shows before heading home.

“Really? Ah right! Didn’t we end up with a cover version of ‘Mother Sky?’”

You certainly did, joined on stage for a take on that Can classic by your own support, Hugo Largo. A great memory, among the very finest of my time seeing the Petrols over the years.

“Yeah, I remember that. A long time ago.”

It was clearly a key time for the band, TPE’s third album, End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues, struggling to make the impact I felt it deserved, and John rocking his bandmates by – at least privately – announcing he was going home to Derry after around four years in London, family commitments taking precedence, a new start awaiting him.

At that point, fellow Petrols guitarist Raymond Gorman had problems of his own, missing that night and a few more, the partying and temptations taking their toll, John Marchini joining the live band earlier than planned while Damian O’Neill switched from bass to join his brother on guitar. But as it turned out, John’s departure was perhaps the spark the regalvanised band needed, all taking a step up, new heights soon scaled. And while the commercial success they deserved never quite came about, two acclaimed if somewhat ignored albums followed before they felt it was time to call it a day.

Anyway, I’m guessing that John, now 61 (not as if you’d think any of The Undertones are beyond their 30s when you see them live), has been home in Derry for 30 years now.

“Well yeah. My wife was pregnant with our second child. That was what made my decision. I had to move back.”

As it turned out, I think you stepping away – in the long term – proved to be the shot in the arm your bandmates needed, to stand on their own feet.

“I think so too. I think the first Petrols LP is great, but Chemicrazy is amazing.”

True. Manic Pop Thrill remains my favourite though.

“Damian always says that, funnily enough. It is great, and still holds up better than Babble or End of the Millennium …, but Chemicrazy and Catch A Fire (that’ll be Fireproof) are phenomenal too.”

In my case perhaps it’s coloured by nostalgia and great memories of your early London dates, from the Pindar of Wakefield and Chalk Farm Enterprise to Bay 63, Kennington Cricketers, and so on. A sense of ownership, maybe. You were our band, you could say.

“Yeah, I have fantastic memories from around then. Loved it. I look back on all those days with fond memories.”

I also totally understood your decision to give the band up. I’ve been there since with family of my own, recognising those over-riding emotions. Looking back to our interview, it makes even more sense to me. But do you miss anything about London today?

“The ironic thing is that our two kids now both live in London, living and working there, and we love going over. Obviously, it’s changed a lot, but it’s got better and better. I love London now, and every time me and my wife are over there … it just shows you what comes around!”

Have either of your children followed your path into music?

“Not really. My son would put me on to new things and I’d put him on to old things. We have similar tastes. We went to see the Oh Sees a few months ago and more recently Yo La Tengo (no relation to Hugo Largo, pop kids) in London. That was a phenomenal concert.”

I saw via social media recently that there was a rare alignment of the stars and the old That Petrol Emotion reformed … at least for one night only.

“Oh right, that was just a big coincidence, with Steve Mack in town. We all met up and that was great, catching up with everyone, and Raymond was on great form.”

I have to ask, were there secret talks about an imminent Petrols reunion?

“That was just pure coincidence. There‘s the odd rumour that they’re going to get back together again, but I don’t know.”

I think the clue there was in the ‘they’re’. If there is any reunion, perhaps John wouldn’t be a central figure. Ah well.

Six Appeal: That Petrol Emotion reconvene, at least for one night only, over a drink in London back in February

“But I know Damian, Ciaran, Raymond and Brendan were rehearsing the next day as The Everlasting Yeah, and the Petrols did reform anyway. I wasn’t involved then, but … I don’t mind anyway. I loved seeing them reform. I’m quite happy to be in the audience, y’know.”

Besides, John remains busy with his own project, a long-term musical partnership back in Derry with Locky Morris for the band Rare, whose sole LP, 1998’s PeopleFreak, appeared a decade after his return to Northern Ireland.

“We just performed last week, and it’s gonna be an ongoing thing now, playing and getting some music out there as well.”

Great news. Might you cross the water and play over here too?

“Funnily enough, Locky is good friends with John Hyatt, who used to be in the Three Johns. He’s an artist in his own right, and there’s something in Liverpool in September, possibly. Locky’s also got his exhibition there, so hopefully we can play over there.”

Ah, The Three Johns – there’s a name that takes me back to John Peel’s show in the ‘80s.

“The Three Johns were brilliant. Back in the Petrols days we played with them a few times, and the records still sound fantastic.”

It’s funny, this sounds like two old nostalgics talking, but while people have this set idea of what ‘80s music was, my own definition is far removed from that, and I suppose in that decade my record buying was at an all-time high.

“I always thought that. When we moved to London, The Jesus and Mary Chain had just taken off and there were all these great bands, like The Three Johns, The June Brides, The Loft, The Weather Prophets, and they all made these great records. It was almost like a mini-punk thing, ‘84/’85/’86 time. And then it all went downhill again!”

Rare Groove: The ’98 Rare line-up – Mary Gallagher, Locky Morris, John O’Neill and David Whiteside

It seems to me that it was the next wave of indie bands that came through were the ones who found success, like Blur, the Stone Roses, and so on. I’m not slagging them off, but a few were surely inspired by that whole scene yet did so much better, commercially, with That Petrol Emotion among those that missed out on the big time. And suddenly there was a name for it all too, BritPop. Not as if you’d expect the Petrols to have gone anywhere near that monicker, of course.

“Well, a lot of that glossed over me. By that stage I was more into Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky. That’s what got me then, getting into sequencers and all that sort of stuff.”

And you never really looked back.

“Well, no, that’s the way I write songs now. And that’s what me and Locky are doing again as well.”

Moving on, when was the last time you wrote a song and thought, ‘That’s one for The Undertones’?

“Ah, well there’s a few songs probably that Locky and I are doing that probably The Undertones could do as well. I have a great working relationship with him and he gets the way to phrase with the singing that I’ve always struggled with, either with Feargal, Steve or even Paul McLoone.

“There are some things you instinctively have or you don’t, and I’ve discovered that working with Locky. He will spend literally hours and hours getting the timing of things right. It’s fine the way others have done it, but in retrospect I’ve gone back to original demos and gone, ‘He doesn’t sing it right’ or ‘It doesn’t sound as good’.

I get the impression you could have put a lot more great songs out there. Have you got vault-loads of material waiting for the right day?

“Well, I’ve loads of songs that are half-completed. But again, I don’t know if they’re that good, y’know.”

My proper excuse for talking to you is the 40th anniversary of The Undertones, that amazing first album and the UK (then US) tour celebrating it. There was a lot of fuss made – rightly so – about the debut single last year, and now we have this milestone. And 1979 was such a great year for you as a band – the year everything seemed to come together for these five lads from Derry. From ‘Get Over You’ and the first LP to ‘You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It!)’ and the songs you wrote that year for the second album, a few of which really showed a huge leap in maturity, songwriting-wise.

“Yeah, it’s funny. It was just … the main thing was that we were always huge fans of music, and were soaking everything in – a wide variety of music. That was the core for me, Damian, Mickey and Billy anyway.  We’d just play records. Our entire life revolved around listening to music, trying to find out new sounds. It was like osmosis almost. It came on to us, and once we’d got signed and knew this was our job – at least for the next few years – we wanted to make the most of it and try and write as many songs as we could.

“It wasn’t always easy. I remember the sessions for Hypnotised, when Mickey’s father died halfway through, so we cut the recording off. And we realised before that we hadn’t enough songs written to finish the record. So we went back and wrote two or three other songs, between those recording sessions. I’m sure every musician would say the same though – if you’ve got a deadline and the pressure’s on, that focuses you.”

Interestingly, John pronounces that second album ‘Hype-notised’, which takes me back to the ‘It’s Gonna Happen’ B-side, ‘Fairly in the Money Now’, the story of fictional ‘top showband’ Tommy Tate and the Torpedoes, something I’d never really considered before as autobiographical. Anyway, John’s clearly underplaying the significance of the new songs he wrote late in ’79, those ‘two or three other songs’ including arguably the cream of the crop at that stage – ‘Wednesday Week’ and ‘Tearproof’. A real step-up.

“Again, I suppose, yeah. Funnily enough, when we played with the Buzzcocks last year, we got to talk to Pete Shelley after. I was talking about all the great records he wrote, and he said, ‘That’s when it was easy. It’s not like that anymore!’ I told him I feel exactly the same way. It’s very rarely that I’ll write a whole song over the space of five, 10 or 15 minutes. But in those days I could almost do it once every couple of months. And ‘Tearproof’ or ‘Wednesday Week’, they just wrote themselves, y’know.”

That seemed to be a golden era for great punk and new wave crossover pop. I’m thinking of tracks like ‘That’s Entertainment’ by The Jam, a few Elvis Costello songs from that era …

“Oh, brilliant records, yeah.”

But you made that important point about a sort of osmosis. You are always going to be the product of your own influences, and this was also the year that London Calling came out, another great example, but where I hear a bit of Mott the Hoople in Mick Jones’ work here and there.

Post Sharkey: The Undertones line-up, all set to head your way, then swan off to America, four decades after following The Clash out there.

“Definitely. I’ve always believed that. I don’t like slagging off bands, but with Stiff Little Fingers – off the top of my head – you can tell they came from a rock background, and their later records just sounded like rock records. You just knew that was where their original influences were. It always comes out.”

Well, If I think back to the early Petrols, you turned me on to so many different influences, from the Velvet Underground through to Captain Beefheart, Pete Ubu, Can, and so on.

“Well, I missed out on that myself. It wasn’t until The Undertones broke up that I met Raymond and he was playing me Pere Ubu.”

So many name bands from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s are still out there today, even if it’s just two-thirds of a classic line-up, doing reunion gigs and so on. And some are very good. But I can’t see The Undertones ticking off each album with an anniversary tour each year. It works for some – From the Jam being a prime example – but I can’t see you subscribing to that concept, for example in two years’ time doing a Positive Touch Revisited tour.

“Well, there’s a few dodgy songs on that record anyway. We’ve played all of the first LP, because other than the dodgy version of ‘True Confessions’ that record’s pretty good. But even Hypnotised, there’s a couple of dodgy songs on that. I’d never do that. The first LP’s the only one I’d feel comfortable with doing. And let’s face it, our set these days really consists of the first LP with a few extra songs.”

I take that point, but there aren’t so many poor tracks on Hypnotised for these ears. Even ‘Under the Boardwalk’ would have made a good B-side.

“I don’t even know why we did that. It’s a great song, but it was pretty famous. We were trying to be the New York Dolls, the way they did those R&B cover versions on their records. But they picked obscure records, which is what we should have done.”

Well, you got it spot on with Chocolate Watch Band cover, ‘Let’s Talk About Girls’, on your third single.

“Again, we were just trying to be like the New York Dolls. That was the thing. But I always think Damian’s guitar solo on that song was brilliant. It was worth it for that alone.”

I’m hardly the one to criticise anyway. I still have a lot of affection for The Sin of Pride album, although no one in the band really wants to talk to me about that.

“Well, I can’t remember the last time I played that.”

Production issues aside, I still hear the soul in some of those songs and love it accordingly. Again, that was a gateway album for me, making me listen to the early Isley Brothers, the Miracles, even better appreciating the likes of ABC, the Tom Tom Club, and so on.

“Most of us have bad memories of it, y’know. It wasn’t a good time. We stayed in London during the recording, in Camden, my wife was with me the whole time, and we had a ball, y’know. I have great memories outside of making the record, but (producer) Mike Hedges and me never really hit it off.”

A nice excuse for me to ask about your previous producer then, bearing in mind the 40th anniversary of your first trips to Eden Studios to record the second and third singles and that debut album. What are your memories of Eden? It obviously suited you as a band.

“Well, Roger (Bechirian) picked it. He did those Elvis Costello records there. he knew the studio and knew the people who ran it. It was out first proper recording studio, and it definitely had a lovely homely feel about it. I could see why he liked it. We did as well.”

I was taking a wander down there only yesterday, courtesy of Google Maps, seeing the new-build there where I’m guessing the studio was, nestling among terraces on both sides.

“What was the actual address?”

Beaumont Road, I understand, kind of midway between Acton and Chiswick.

“Beaumont Road! That’s it! I must go there again, next time I’m over in London … for old time’s sake.”

I believe it closed as a recording studio in 2007 and was knocked down for housing, more’s the pity. You obviously had a good working relationship with Roger though, as proved by the fact that you recorded two more albums with him after that debut album (the second and third largely recorded in the Netherlands).

“We did, although after Positive Touch we felt we needed someone else. When we recorded the single version of ‘Julie Ocean’ we worked with the guy who did the first Petrols LP, Hugh Jones, and I wanted him to do The Sin of Pride … but Feargal (Sharkey) didn’t. He didn’t get on with him. That’s where we were at.

“So Mike Hedges became an afterthought really. I thought that was a mistake, but at the time he was working with Wah! and The Creatures, which were good records, so at the time we thought it was good.”

Going back to Hypnotised, how was that experience of recording at Wisseloord, Hilversum, with Roger?

“It was great! Again, I have good memories. My wife came over and stayed with us, and we had this beautiful hotel, about five miles away in gorgeous countryside. Yeah, great memories of recording there too.”

I got the impression from Damian that you two showed more interest in the recording process than the rest of the band.

“Well, again, we’d always try and get that guitar turned up, as we did with Kevin Shields’ remix of ‘Get Over You’. That’s the way it should have sounded. And that’s the way the whole first LP should have been.

“We were getting a lot more confident by the time of the second record, asking him to turn the drums down a little bit and the guitars up, y’know! And I think the guitars sound better on Hypnotised.”

And Roger was a good listener?

“He was a lovely guy. We met him last year when we visited London and that was great.”

At the time of our last interview in late ‘88, you were about to head home to Derry. How much had your home city changed in the five or so years you’d been away?

“Well, obviously the Good Friday Agreement – nearly 20 years now – that was a pivotal time, y’know. There were a lot of dark years before that. Horrible times, y’know. But with this whole Brexit fiasco people are scared that’s going to change. The DUP never wanted the Good Friday Agreement, so we’re terrified that at some point … that’s the only cloud hanging over all this.”

You’d obviously seen something positive by the late ’80s though, to want to go back home when you did (bear in mind that this interview was carried out before the shocking murder of Lyra McKee).

“Well, with Sinn Fein getting into power, to know it wasn’t just the IRA and violence against violence … there was an alternative to that. That was positive in its own way. And obviously that’s what came to fruition.”

Fast forward to the end of the next decade, and The Undertones were back, this time with fellow Derry lad Paul McLoone taking over on vocals, Feargal deciding against getting involved. And it’s been a mighty ride since 1999 or thereabouts. In fact, every time I catch you live, it seems that you’re having so much fun as a band.

“And we’re definitely getting better! I don’t know how or why, but it just seems that we’re sounding better and we’ve got enough integrity to know that if it’s not right we’ll not do it, y’know. Everybody loves it and enjoys doing it, and I never thought in a million years I would still be doing this. I thought maybe a year or two, then I’ll get bored, but it just seems to get going, and with the way it works, we’ve had a long break now over Christmas, and I dread the fact that we’re about to start playing again, but you forget that it’s a good laugh. It’s fun, and it’s become a good craic. The other thing is the age groups in the audience – there’s a lot of young kids. It’s not just old people like us, y’know!”

And you can find that out for yourself by getting along to at least one of the remaining dates on this tour, The Undertones supported by the Neville Staple Band, with tickets for all shows (doors 7pm)s £25 advance, taking in: Thursday 9 May – Newcastle Boiler Shop; Friday 10  May – Leeds O2 Academy (0113 389 1555); Saturday 11 May – Manchester O2 Ritz (0161 714 4140); Thursday 16 May – Norwich Open (01603 763111); Friday 17  May – Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion (01424 229111); Saturday 18 May – Southampton Engine Rooms (0800 688 9311 ).

Derry Roots: The Undertones, back in the day. From the left – John O’Neill, Feargal Sharkey, Billy Doherty, Mickey Bradley, Damian O’Neill (Photo: Paddy Simms, or perhaps Laurence O’Doherty)

For more details of The Undertones’ 2019 schedule, including their US tour, UK and Irish festival appearances, head here, try the band’s official website and keep in touch via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

And for part two of this special feature, this time starring John’s younger brother Damian O’Neill, head back to this site tomorrow.

 

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Nouvelle Vague – Manchester Gorilla

Party On: Nouvelle Vague’s Olivier Libaux, Mélanie Pain, Marc Collin and Phoebe Killdeer.

I’ve witnessed some effective starts to live shows lately, with the arrival of Mélanie Pain and Phoebe Killdeer to the stage at The Gorilla particularly jaw-dropping.

The price of the drinks already had me a little dazed, but this was a far more inspiring moment, Nouvelle Vague’s vocalists descending the stairs from above the bar during a haunting introductory interpretation of Visage’s ‘Fade to Grey’, Olivier Libaux’s sparse picked guitar and keyboard accompaniment from co-founder Marc Collin and the night’s other Vaguette, Mathieu Coupat, providing atmospheric backing.

It set the tone for a night which further confirmed this is no mere cover band with exotic gimmicks, the girls carefully threading through a packed dancefloor, Billy Currie, Chris Payne and Midge Ure’s New Romantic trail-blazer afforded fresh head-turning qualities, the five-piece all in place for the last verse and mournful playout.

This was as much a celebration of the music of Manchester as a 15th birthday party for our visitors, their wondrous mix of punk, new wave and synthpop compelling throughout, the vocals blending achingly on New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’, the beauty of the original all the more apparent.

The harmonies impressed all night, while their theatrics also played a part, not least Phoebe’s hammy drug-addled moves on the Ramones’ ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’, bringing plenty of smiles, a whole new side to a great track revealed.

This year I’ve already experienced fine tributes to Pete Shelley from Penetration and the Skids, and here was another inventive take, ‘Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t‘ve)’ delivered in bossa nova sing-song style by these Gallic upstarts, yet every bit as respectful.

Lest we should worry that those selections were relatively mainstream, they dug deeper for Richard Hell & the Voidoids‘ ‘Blank Generation’, and – talking of less-reputable old school punk – the girls were tantalising on a measured yet outwardly-shambolic ‘Too Drunk to Fuck’, Jello Biafra’s sentiments reassigned. And for further illustration, Mélanie and Phoebe told us about a wild night in Newcastle just gone, letting us in on the secret that, ‘We’re not really too drunk’. Cue audience swoons.

There was even a little Doors-like keyboard from Mathieu to finish that number before a further slice of reinterpreted Mancunian musical heritage, Mélanie’s breathy ‘Sweet and Tender Hooligan’ translating Morrissey’s miserable touch via her subtle delivery, helping us see it all from a different angle (et cetera).

Alternatively, The Cramps’ ‘Human Fly’ saw Phoebe vamp things up again, owning the stage as she buzzed and careered, preened and ultimately triumphed. But it wasn’t all plain sailing, technical shenanigans necessitating set rethinks, Mathieu switching to melodica for Lords of the New Church’s ‘Dance with Me’, something I’d written off as too goth-like now truly appreciated.

Olivier and the girls provided further raw material as we happily sang along to The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’. Such a sublime number should arguably be out of bounds, yet they get away with it, radical in their own way, showcasing the deeper quality of John O’Neill’s songwriting.

Eventually, a bit of turning it off and turning it back on again seemed to do the trick, all well again in time for the Violent Femmes’ ‘Blister in the Sun’, another glorious post-punk anthem celebrated in alternative fashion, and duly appreciated, the audience again joining in on backing vocals.

We returned to pioneering electronica for a heartfelt ‘Enola Gay’, one of three selections from the band’s new collection, Rarities, OMD also getting a respectful Nouvelle Vague reshaping, a whole new spin put on an evocative track. And in a year when The Clash’s London Calling turns 40, the NV version of Paul Simonon’s ‘Guns of Brixton’ magnified the pull of the original.

By way of comparison, ‘Road to Nowhere’ was almost mainstream, but let’s not forget the Talking Heads’ arty roots, something deceptively simple really fairly complex beneath, another great choice. That said, Phoebe called a halt to the proceedings part-way in after a lyrical mix-up, the whole thing restarted when it didn’t really matter.

The inspired choices kept coming, first album closer ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’ bringing out the true ambience and nuances of The Specials’ original, another four decade-old classic given new drunken life, head-spinning nights of youth painfully recalled.

Our French visitors rightly attract plenty of adoration, an especially-vociferous Dane out front sharing his love for the girls before Phoebe again sizzled with a sultry take on Bauhaus’ ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’.

And lest we’d forgotten where we were, they finished – lap of honour-like – with a rousing rendition of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, Ian Curtis’ pained lyric given a further compelling twist, this alternative regional anthem ringing out long after Mélanie and Phoebe’s stage exit.

They were easily persuaded to return, a reflective crafting of Echo & the Bunnymen’s The Killing Moon’ – Liverpool’s mighty contribution to the ‘70s and ‘80s UK songbook again not forgotten – underlining that this is a project that could only have been successfully driven by true fans of great music.

And because this was chiefly about celebration, the band’s 2004 visit of Depeche Mode’s best commercial moment, ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’, seemed perfect, Vince Clarke’s pop craft shining through. The band appeared conflicted as to whether to return once more, a three-piece finish following (Phoebe and Marc staying backstage), Mélanie seeing us home with a gorgeous rendition of Tuxedomoon’s ‘In A Manner of Speaking’, the last of seven first LP selections on a night to remember, Parisian style.

Nouvelle Chanteuses: Phoebe Killdeer and Mélanie Pain were out front at the Gorilla in Manchester

For this website’s recent interview with Mélanie Pain, head here. For details of further Nouvelle Vague 2019 dates, head to their website and follow them via Facebook and Instagram. And for more about Mélanie, follow her via FacebookInstagramTwitter, and check out her website.

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Mott the Hoople ’74 – Manchester Academy

Up Front: Ariel Bender, Ian Hunter and Morgan Fisher’s Academy bow (Photo: Mott the Hoople Facebook page)

Five decades after his initial Mott the Hoople recordings, it’s fair to say Ian Hunter knows a fair bit about live presence and was certainly on sparkling form in Manchester for this Class of ‘74 reunion.

What’s more, fellow survivors Morgan Fisher and Luther ‘Ariel Bender’ Grosvenor belied their own grand ages, this three-pronged attack steeped in glam legend fronting Ian’s Rant Band with a combined age of 220.

From the moment they stepped out to Gustav Holst’s ‘Jupiter’ from the Planets suite, this was showbusiness done proper, an accompanying snippet over the PA of Mott being introduced by David Bowie back in the day having the hairs up on the back of the neck.

And where to start but the man behind the shades’ spin on ‘American Pie’ seguing into majestic The Hoople opener ‘The Golden Age of Rock’n’Roll’, the huge electronic ‘M’ as a backdrop and – I don’t often say this – the lightshow perfect, the first snatches of James Mastro’s sax an emotional trigger.

If anything, Ian’s own voice got better as the set blossomed, the 79-year-old on his pegs all night, fellow attendee Jim pronouncing him more switched on than for his previous Rant Band visit, and this from someone who first witnessed Mott supported by Queen in Blackburn 45 years ago.

Certainly, credit’s due for Ian’s band, James Mastro also contributing guitar and mandolin, with powerhouse drumming from Steve Holley and assured turns from Mark Bosch (guitar), Paul Page (bass) and Dennis Dibrizzi (keyboards), the latter and Steve also providing backing vocals.

‘Lounge Lizard’ offered a slow-burn Stones-like blues vibe, this aborted late B-side just one fine example of the songwriting strength in depth of early ‘70s Mott, following number ‘Alice’ from The Hoople also impressing.

Arms Aloft: The Mott faithful greet their heroes from the Class of ’74 (Photo: Mott the Hoople’s Facebook page)

We were never far from the next hit, ‘Honaloochie Boogie fitting the bill perfectly before a lovely theatrical touch, Morgan being poured a glass of bubbly from an ice bucket by a roadie, his reward for a piano intro signalling a move on to ‘Rest In Peace’, further proof that this band – like several others from that golden era – weren’t averse to putting quality songs on the flipside of their 45s, the song itself all the more touching following departures in recent years for Pete Watts, Dale Griffin and latecomer Mick Ronson.

James switched to mandolin for ‘I Wish I Was Your Mother’, the closer of ‘73’s rightly-lauded Mott, before another cut from The Hoople, ‘Pearl’n’Roy (England)’, the years then peeled back further for ‘Sucker’ from ’72.

From that same breakthrough LP, All the Young Dudes, there was a lovely take on Lou Reed’s wondrous ‘Sweet Jane’, Morgan belying his mature years with a cross-stage dash to goad the gloriously-camp, beret-wearing Bender on the other side, the latter revelling in renewed limelight, the ongoing guitar technical glitches no match for his on-stage flamboyancy.

Talking of quality B-sides, ‘Rose’ saw Ian in reflective mode, memories rekindled for fans and stage personnel alike, while we went further back again for ‘Walkin’ With a Mountain’, Ariel with a metal guitar intro and our esteemed frontman donning his latest Maltese Cross six-string for a song first aired long before his buddy’s arrival.

Then came another major highlight, the mighty ‘Roll Away the Stone’ followed by fellow The Hoople winner ‘Marionette’, Ariel right at home with the maniacal laughter.

With such a rich catalogue there were always going to be songs missed out, but while I’d have loved to have heard ‘Hymn for the Dudes’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’, I’ve no complaints, Ian fitting into his time-honoured medley snatches of ‘Rock and Roll Queen’, ‘Crash Street Kids’ and ‘Violence’ amid classic covers ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’, ‘Mean Woman Blues’, ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and ‘You Really Got Me’.

After a brief breather they were back, leaving me wondering how many other bands could supply such a wondrous three-song encore of their own compositions. Morgan was first to return, his ‘Name that tune in one’ single piano note call to arms leading to his bandmates reappearing, kicking into one of 1973’s and in fact any other year’s finest singles, ‘All the Way From Memphis’. And that in turn led to a euphoric ‘Saturday Gigs’ and inevitable Bowie-penned finale, ‘All the Young Dudes’, as fresh as ever, the smiles on faces all around saying it all, returning home on collective highs.

For this website’s recent interview with Ian Hunter, head here

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A walk on la Rive Gauche – talking Nouvelle Vague with Mélanie Pain

 

Stage Presence: Nouvelle Vague, 2019 style. From left: Olivier Libaux, Elodie Frégé, Mélanie Pain, Marc Collin.

Mélanie Pain was working for a Paris design agency when the stars realigned and she ended up swapping careers in 2004, a favour for a friend happening to alert producer Marc Collin. And you could say the rest is histoire.

Originally from Aix-en-Provence, a political sciences student before moving to the French capital, Mélanie soon quit her job at a design agency following growing involvement with Marc’s fledgling Nouvelle Vague project alongside Olivier Libaux, an eponymous album that year proving to just be the start.

On that first LP, Mélanie and seven other female singers – the most famous already-signed Camille Dalmais (best known just by her first name) – reinterpreted 13  punk/new wave classics and rarities in a dreamy 1950s’ and 1960s‘ bossa nova style, entrancing vocals complemented by lush arrangements and plenty of ambient touches.

Ultimately, the underground success of that record led to many more, including three solo outings for Mélanie, 2009’s My Name followed by 2012’s Bye Bye Manchester, and 2016’s Parachute. But it was always more au revoir than bye bye, and she’s back in Manchester this weekend, celebrating that first Nouvelle Vague album’s 15th anniversary.

That band name works on so many levels. Transliterate, I think the term is, something of a nod to the French new wave cinema movement of the ‘60s, the new wave music movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s (providing many of the songs covered), and bossa nova itself – Portuguese for new wave (a musical style frequently used in the arrangements).

What’s more, Nouvelle Vague have arguably deconstructed the notion of cover bands, Marc and Olivier soon touring with Mélanie and Camille, creating a live blueprint, the girls accompanied by acoustic guitar, keyboards, a little electronica and atmospheric moments, a triumphant world tour following.

Now, with five studio albums and extensive global tours under the belt, they’re enjoying a celebratory international unplugged tour, in keeping with the 2004 incarnation, Mélanie this time joined out front by Elodie Frégé and Phoebe Killdeer.

Furthermore, 2019 also sees the release of a Nouvelle Vague By Nouvelle Vague documentary, recounting the story so far, directed by Marc Collin, retracing the project from its genesis to the production of each album, meetings with the main singers, and the multiple tours, featuring archived concerts, TV shows, personal photos and interviews.

There are also two new albums, the first, the February-released Rarities a 24-track digital-only collection of bonus tracks and B-sides previously just on special editions, compilations, 45s and other physical media over the course of the band’s 15 years, long out of print. And then there’s the 12-track, limited 12”, Curiosities – out this week – including various re-recorded songs from the catalogue, all previously-unreleased.

When I called Mélanie, the world’s media was camped not far from her doorstep, after the devastating Cathédrale Notre-Dame fire.

“Everybody’s really heartbroken. It’s sad, something very unusual, with everyone a bit depressed about it. Lots of people said they could see a lot of smoke from where they live. An extreme event.”

But she was all set to head off, her children – aged nine and three – staying at home with their father, a fellow musician, while Nouvelle Vague return to the road.

“We just did the final rehearsal yesterday, and we start on Friday at Printemps de Bourges, a big festival in France, then go to the UK for 10 days … which is cool.”

With the UK leg starting in Dreamland, I see.

“Yeah, we’re very excited about that.”

That was the Dreamland park in Margate, Kent, I should add, whereas the Manchester finale, my excuse for calling, is at the Gorilla. Will that be her first return since working there on her second solo album?

“No, I’ve been back working with (Mancunian psychedelic pop outfit) the Whyte Horses a few times, doing gigs and record with them. I don’t know the Gorilla, but people tell me it’s great. Manchester is always changing, with new bars, new venues …”

Going back to the start of the Nouvelle Vague journey, remind us how you got to know Marc and Olivier.

“It all really happened as a little accident. I was dating a musician who was looking for a singer for his project. He asked me to record a demo. I wasn’t singing at all at that time. I was maybe 20. He said, ‘Could you sing it, so I have something to send to singers?’ I recorded that and he sent it to producers and people he knew, among them Marc Collin, who said, ‘I like the voice of this girl singing. Can you give me a phone number?’

“He called me and I said, ‘I am not a singer’, he said, ‘Perfect!’ and it all happened super-quick after that. I went to his studio, we did two tracks, first take – the two songs I did for Nouvelle Vague, ‘This is Not a Love Song’ and ‘Teenage Kicks’.”

I was revisiting that very album on my holiday last week, and it certainly stands the test of time.

“Ah good. There’s something really magical about that first album. He did that with me and all the other singers. It was very spontaneous, and you can hear that. It’s very fresh. I’m enjoying listening to the first album again. It makes me happy.”

It was a springboard for you all really, not least Camille, who has enjoyed the largest outside success.

“Yes, but she was already signed with a big label before. She already had a solo album, while everyone else was a Marc Collin finding. During that period she was on tour with us while working on her solo album that really exploded her. And she’s amazing.”

Are you in touch with many of those who passed through the band since that debut album?

“Yeah, we all follow each other, meeting here and there in Paris for our own solo stuff or gatherings – singers’ reunions!’

Did you suggest the Public Image Ltd. and Undertones covers on that first album?

“It was the other way around. Marc and Olivier were big fans of new wave, gathering a list of favourite songs.”

Like a menu?

“Exactly. I came to the studio and they said, ‘We’d like you to sing these tracks … I’d never heard them before. After the first recording, I was like, ‘Shit, I should listen now’. With my generation, I was more into Sonic Youth and Nirvana … more ‘90s.”

Incidentally, Olivier Libaux takes that story back further, explaining, “Marc Collin and I were both musicians and producers in the French music industry when, in 2002, he called me with this very strange idea of covering ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ in a bossa nova version. I thought this idea was absolutely crazy but very exciting. We decided to get into the studio and try it out as soon as possible.”

While Mélanie sang on two songs, Camille performed four on that debut, the LP proving something of a slow-burning commercial success, spending 39 weeks in the French top-200, within two years having sold more than 200,000 copies worldwide.

The second LP, 2006’s Bande A Part, charted in several European countries, Mélanie  providing lead vocals on five songs, including Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ and – following co-singer Eloisia’s first album take on Joy Division’s ‘Love will Tear Us Apart’ – New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’, Buzzcocks’ ‘Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)’, and Echo & The Bunnymen’s ‘The Killing Moon’.

After the unanticipated worldwide success of the eponymous debut, concerts in 20-plus countries and so on, the band toyed a little with the concept, the initial focus on setting songs in the Caribbean between the ’40s and ’70s, explaining, “Just as on the first album I’d imagined a young Brazilian girl singing ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ on a Rio beach in the ‘60s, this time I envisaged a young Jamaican with his acoustic guitar singing (Blondie’s) ‘Heart Of Glass’ in his Kingston township suburb. I also had another particular scene in my mind: a young blind girl singing (Visage’s) ‘Fade To Grey’ in the corridors of the Parisian Metro, alone with her accordion, ignored by everyone.

“Those ideas were the genesis for an LP moving between Jamaica, the cradle of mento music (which became ska/rocksteady then reggae), to the calypso isle of Trinidad via Cuban salsa, Haitian voodoo, and eventually back to the Brazilian coast, its arrangements and orchestrations colourful – with percussion and acoustic guitar topped off with sensual voices, accordions, steel drums and more.”

That evolving journey continued, and in 2009 Mélanie duetted with Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore on ‘Master and Servant’, and Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch on ‘All My Colours’, while Marina Celeste performed ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ with Fun Boy 3 and Specials singer Terry Hall, and Nadeah Miranda joined Magazine’s Barry Adamson on ‘Parade’.

The next year there was a 15-track Best of and also Couleurs sur Paris, an album of French-language remakes, Mélanie with a splendid take on Marie France’s late-’70s homegrown punk single Déréglée, that album also including contributions from the likes of singer/actress Vanessa Paradis and a return for Camille.

Hiatus followed, Collin explaining, “I was bored of myself doing covers. With the first and second albums, all the media said, ‘This is a great idea, a great rendition’ – and after the third album it was suddenly, ‘OK, it’s always the same thing, the same concept, we don’t want to talk about it.”

But in 2016 there was the I Could Be Happy album, its title track a cover of Altered Images’ 1981 hit, Mélanie with a cover of The Cure’s ‘All Cats Are Grey’ (from Faith, also  1981), and singing Olivier’s ‘Maladroit’ and Liset Alea’s ‘Loneliness’.

And now here we are in 2019, the Rarities album’s many highlights including Mélanie’s spins on New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ (a duet with Elodie) and ‘Confusion’, plus OMD’s ‘Enola Gay’. Ever contemplated how this Aix-en-Provence girl who didn’t set out to be a singer ended up co-fronting a happening group from Paris, singing so many great songs associated with Liverpool and Manchester, the latter a city she’d end up spending plenty of time in?

Well Red: Mélanie Pain, back on the road with Nouvelle Vague this month (Photo: Marc Thirouin)

“Yeah! I got from my sister a love of The Smiths and was such a big fan of Morrissey. So my connection really started when I was 12 or 13. Always in my band every cool band was from Manchester! Ha! Then I got all the confirmation later from Nouvelle Vague!

“First time we played there with the band was 2005, I reckon, and we went to all the places where The Smiths’ covers were shot, That was pretty cool, and I think Marc and Olivier have something special as well with other UK bands from the ’80s.”

Incidentally, Rarities also includes Mélanie’s live cover of The Smiths’ ‘Sweet and Tender Hooligan’. But how did Marc and Olivier first explain the idea of Nouvelle Vague? It’s a simple yet effective concept, working so well. I’m trying to think if anyone had come up with a comparable idea before.

“Well, the difference with Nouvelle Vague is that they really focus on new wave, this big homage, this crazy idea, with Marc like, ‘What if all these tracks were bossa nova standards covered by English bands?’ He had this kind of crazy twist.

“He felt, ‘Maybe we should try and make people believe that in fact they were from Brazil and done in that bossa nova style, a girl singing with a guitar. Because those songs are so strong, the words are great, and sometimes the melodies and beauty of the songs were kind of hidden.”

That’s true, one prime example Camille’s first album take on XTC’s ‘Making Plans for Nigel’, the first Nouvelle Vague track I heard, putting a whole different complexion on what was already a great song. And that’s the case with so many more of their covers.

“Well, I hope so. We met a few times with Winston Tong of Tuxedomoon (regarding Camille’s cover of ‘In a Manner of Speaking’ and he loved our version. He said, ‘You’ve given new life to my song!’ I guess some of the original composers or bands didn’t like our versions, but … y’know …”

Ever hear back from John Lydon about your take on PiL’s ‘This is Not a Love Song’?

“You’ll have to ask Marc. At the beginning they had lots of feedback. But I sang with Martin Gore (duetting on Depeche Mode’s ‘Master and Servant’ for 2009’s 3), so know he liked our version (of first album Depeche Mode cover ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’), and Ian McCulloch (duetting on All My Colours’ for 3, following her second album cover of ‘The Killing Moon’). He came to sing with us in Paris.”

Fast forward 15 years, with five studio albums and several world tours behind them, and now this international unplugged tour, back to their roots really.

“Yeah, exactly. It’s strange, because everyone is asking, ‘You’re singing the same songs after 15 years, touring with them, are you bored?’ But I’m never bored. I’m amazed.

“I finished rehearsing last night, and we were like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s so good. We went through all these different live shows, with bigger production, drums and percussion, lots of rocky stuff, but now we’re back to a candle on stage, just a guitar and two voices.

Pain Barrier: Mélanie Pain is still loving life with Nouvelle Vague (Photo: Kata Szaraz)

“Marc is doing a lot of work on all the ambient sounds and textures, the really interesting thing in the production of the albums. We’ll see how it goes, but I’m quite confident people will like to go back to the first songs.”

And as well as two new Nouvelle Vague albums, there’s a documentary. Have you seen the final cut yet?

“Yeah. It’s really funny. I’ve lived through it all for 15 years but it’s so funny to see it all as a story, with the evolution. we’ve been through a lot. It’s very interesting. I’m very proud and overwhelmed by this 15-year thing.”

So what started on a bit of a whim became so much more. Is that right you worked for web and design agencies before all this?

“Yeah, it all fell on me at some point and there were so many gigs with Nouvelle Vague that I decided to quit my job and just go with the music. Then people sent me some beautiful songs for a solo project, then I started writing, and now I’m composing for films. So it all started with an accident, and my life completely changed.”

Band A Party: 2019’s lineup includes (from left) Olivier Libaux, Mélanie Pain, Marc Collin and Phoebe Killdeer.

Nouvelle Vague’s 2019 UK tour, after opening dates at Margate Dreamland, Cambridge Junction, two nights at Islington Assembly Hall and one at Glasgow St. Luke’s, this weekend it’s Edinburgh Liquid Rooms (Friday, April 26th), Gateshead Sage 2 (Saturday, April 27th), and Manchester Gorilla (Sunday, April 28th). For ticket details, more about the band and the latest releases, head to their website and follow them via Facebook and Instagram. And for more about Mélanie, you can follow her via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and her own website.

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Fontaines D.C. – Blitz, Preston

Blitz Kids: Fontaines D.C., fresh from a one-night stand in Preston, and they’re gonna be big (Photo: Daniel Topete)

‘My childhood was small, but I’m gonna be big.’

Those great ‘I was there’ moments in music history don’t come along often, and admittedly I’ve occasionally been proved wrong in the past when calling them. But this was one such slice of on-the-spot gratification, a band pervading rock’n’roll star quality just a few feet ahead of us.

They came, they thrilled, they signed merchandise (seemingly a little shell-shocked in that awkward moment), and moved on, these much-touted products of ‘a pregnant city with a Catholic mind’ soon headed for Nottingham, London, Brighton, Diksmuide, Rotterdam, Paris, and quite possibly indie world domination.

As I write this I hear that the debut album, Dogrel, released three days earlier on Partisan Records – recorded with Dan Carey in Streatham, South London – nestles among the UK top-five, above the likes of fellow high-fliers Emma Bunton, Tom Walker, George Ezra, and the Bohemian Rhapsody and The Greatest Showman soundtrack albums. And I’ll raise a glass to that.

Building on a string of inspirational, critically-acclaimed singles, the first long player  captures their very essence in a mighty 11-song opus that ‘taps into the social and mental consciousness of Dublin City’ (Peter McGoran, Hot Press), proving art and lit remain prime Irish exports, 105 years beyond James Joyce’s Dubliners.

We only got a half-hour set on this occasion, but by God it was impassioned, five 20-somethings from Ireland’s own D.C. (and in this case I don’t mean Derry, fellow Undertones fans) taking on the Brits and leaving indelible marks on hearts and minds here, there and everywhere.

This was something of a coup too, treasured Lancashire independent centre of gravity Action Records somehow borrowing its guests from under the noses of bigger sold-out UK venues. Initially booked as an in-store promotion, it wasn’t long before Action kingpin and 2018 WriteWyattUK interviewee Gordon Gibson switched them to a nearby nightspot in the shadow of Preston’s renowned Brutalist bus station.

Gordon, on hand at the venue, seemed pleasantly surprised at the value for money received, and from the moment this all the rage quintet strolled on stage to The Pogues’ ‘Boys From the County Hell’, we were indebted to them and would have gladly lent them £10 so they could buy us a drink.

My youngest daughter joked that she didn’t want to be judged, having lead singer Grian Chatten and compatriots Carlos O’Connell and Conor Curley (guitars), Connor Deegan (bass) and Tom Coll (drums) staring at a rapturous audience as if asking us all out for a fight, setting up what would prove a memorable, explosive set. But while there were elements of Stone Roses and Oasis-like bluster and Grian has the frenetic mark of Ian Curtis at times, these are no copyists, their innate sense of post-punk presence and fervour all pervading.

What’s more, it proved a perfect venue, Grian checking out the workmanship on the low ceiling in front of his head when he briefly settled from his relentless stage wanderings, shaking his arms out and thriving on that nervous energy, the assembled – all in after pre-ordering the album from Action – appreciative throughout but leaving it late to become a pogoing mess, the last couple of songs really having the place moving.

I won’t dress this tucked-away venue as something it isn’t, but I saw it as the kind of sticky-floored, dingy, superficially-grubby cavern where art dreams are hewn if the guests are up to the challenge. And these lads have said qualities in abundance. ‘Is it too real for ya?’ Not a bit.

Inevitably, there were great songs from the LP we didn’t get to hear on the night, notably wondrous 2017 debut single ‘Liberty Belle’ and ‘Television Screens’ and the more radio-friendly ‘Roy’s Tune’ and their Poguesque tribute to home, ‘Dublin City Sky’. But they certainly filled their 30 minutes or so wisely.

We were pulled in from the moment they launched into the punky rock’n’roll meets The Fall charge of ‘Chequeless Reckless’, their acerbic manifesto of sorts overcoming the early technical gremlins, the club PA struggling to cope, the backing harmonies initally lost in a soup of noise terrorism. But by the time the opener was pared down to Tom’s percussion and Grian’s searching ‘What’s really going on?’ we were caught in the spotlights.

‘Hurricane Laughter’ took that on, ‘tearing down the plaster’ (thankfully not around that afore-mentioned low ceiling). And yes, there was certainly a connection available tonight.

‘The Lotts’ is more about melancholic evocation, Connor D’s bass, Tom’s stick-work and the guitar licks suggesting hints of The Cure. And from there on in it was no-holds barred Fontaines D.C. alternative hits, the Noughties’ indie pop of ‘Sha Sha Sha’ getting the fingers poking, before almost-anthemic new single ‘Boys in the Better Land’ revved us up again, recently described by Grian as ‘a celebration of independent thought’. I’m all for that, and was taken back to the live fire of the early Mighty Lemon Drops.

Then came the mighty ‘Too Real’, its introductory alarm call – in the tradition of the wondrous call to arms of The Mekons’ ‘Where Were You?’ – keeping us on that high plane, the Wolfhounds-like guitar thrash that followed having the joint jumping, before the inevitable Strokes-esque show-stopper, ‘Big’, another impassioned band statement of intent that left you reeling, its six-string clang during the chorus carrying traces of Anglo-Irish old favourites Stump for me.

These boys, barely three years after getting something together at music college in Dublin – ‘from the ruins of early nowhere bands’, buoyed by ‘a shared love of poetry and common zeal for authentic self-expression’ – are going places, and we were proud to just be passengers on a brief part of that journey.

They’ve a hard slog ahead if they’re to carry on unaffected by all the hype, but they’re up to that judging by the recorded product and relentless itinerary so far – after a debut headline sell-out UK tour comes further sell-out US dates supporting Idles (after first-time sell-outs of their own in NYC and nine attention-grabbing SXSW showcases in Houston) and across Europe, with more festivals and big UK shows planned this year. And whether this is the start of something ‘Big’ or just a brief aligning of the stars is irrelevant. It’s something to savour for sure. Now, let me get back to that album again.

Liberty Belters: Fontaines D.C. have plenty more dates ahead in 2019 (Photo: Molly Keane)

For a podcast featuring an on-air early April 2019 interview with Fontaines D.C. in the company of long-time band supporter and friend of this website Paul McLoone for his weekday evening show on Today FM in Dublin, head here.

Fontaines D.C.’s first UK headline tour continues this week (after those Preston and Nottingham visits) with sell-outs at London The Garage (April 17) and Brighton The Haunt (April 18), followed by Belgian, Dutch and French dates at Diksmuide 4AD (April 19), Rotterdam Motel Mozaique Festival (April 20), and Paris Le Point Ephemere (April 22), then a long trek to Mexico City’s Bajo Circuito (April 29) before sell-out North American dates supporting Idles in May, that month ending with Germany’s Neustrelitz Immergut Festival.

In June there are three French festival dates and others in Greece, the Netherlands and Croatia, while in July more European outdoor dates lead to further UK engagements at Glasgow’s TRNSMT Festival (July 13), London Citadel Festival (July 14), Oxford Truck Festival (July 26), Rainton Deer Shed Festival (July 27) and Pikehall Y Not Festival (July 28).

And after more festivals in Ireland, Canada, Norway, Germany, Italy and France in August, there’s the End of The Road Festival in Wiltshire (August 29/September 1), 14 more US dates in September (headlining, with Pottery supporting), four more European festivals in early November, then their next UK dates at Manchester 02 Ritz (November 19), Liverpool O2 Academy (November 20), Glasgow SWG 3 (November 21), Leeds Stylus (November 22), Sheffield Leadmill (November 23), Birmingham O2 Institute (November 25), Oxford O2 Academy (November 26), London O2 Forum (November 27), Brighton Concorde 2 (November 28), Bristol SWX (November 30), Southampton The 1865 (December 1), and two dates at Dublin Vicar Street (December 7/8, the first already sold out).

For more on Fontaines D.C., follow them via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and their website.

Better Band: Ireland’s Fontaines D.C., going places in 2019, and way beyond (Photo: Daniel Topete)

Meanwhile, Action Records team up with neighbour Blitz Preston again this weekend, Fat White Family promoting new album Serfs Up at the same venue,  playing a special 7pm show on Saturday, April 20th (5, Church Row, Preston). To gain admission, pre-order the album from Action Records (46, Church Street, Preston), collecting your purchase and ticket anytime the previous day. For more information, head to Action Records’s Facebook page.

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