Floating down the stream of time with The Beatles – the David Stark interview

Cover Stars: Ingrid Black's artwork on the cover of David 's memoir, with more detail about the artist at www.ingridblack.com

Fab Front: Dave Stark’s memoir, featuring Ingrid Black’s cover art, with more detail about her at www.ingridblack.com

Heard the one about the 15-year-old and his mate who gatecrashed the premiere of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film in July 1968, ending up directly behind the Fab Four in seats reserved for Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull?

That same lad, on a non-school day, was also spotted in shots of John Lennon and Yoko Ono on their way into Marylebone Magistrates’ Court on drugs charges three months later, days before his 16th birthday, in a year when he was also on hand for filming of The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.

And a year later he sneaked into the premiere of The Magic Christian, starring distant relative Peter Sellers and a certain Ringo Starr, taking advantage of a flustered usher amid HRH Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon’s red carpet arrival.

Soon enough, John, Paul, George and Ringo got to recognise David Stark at such events, many more encounters following down the years, the 68-year-old these days on the guestlist, considered a distinguished visitor, as with his involvement at Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA) graduations, alongside Sir Paul McCartney.

And while 2020 was a difficult year for David – amid emotional upheavals and sad times, with good friends lost – he put the first UK coronavirus lockdown to good use, finishing a memoir recounting his days as a Beatles fan who in time got to enjoy many of those first-hand encounters with his heroes.

He first caught the band in person 56 years ago this month, attending Another Beatles Christmas Show with family at Hammersmith Odeon, the group’s second festive offering in London.

I won’t go deep into the details of all the encounters that followed. You can find out for yourself in It’s All Too Much, David’s ‘Adventures of a Teenage Beatles Fan in the ‘60s and Beyond’. But it’s fair to say it’s been a star-studded journey for this music industry veteran.

The drummer of tribute act The Trembling Wilburys – who also stood in for proto-Beatles act The Quarrymen in 2013 – has worked with Elton John and members of The Moody Blues and The Who down the years, and got to enjoy quality time with the likes of Sir George Martin and even John Lennon’s beloved Aunt Mimi.

Graduation Day: Sir Paul McCartney and loyal Beatles fan David Stark at LIPA, 2011 (Photo copyright: David Stark)

Then there was his 1999 audience with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana, at an event he helped organise, and another when one of his past bands, Riviera Feedback supported Eddie & the Hot Rods the night they recorded the Live at The Marquee EP in July 1976, replacing the Sex Pistols after they smashed up some of the Rods’ gear.

David grew up in north-west London, and isn’t so far off now, based in Belsize Park, having attended Haberdashers’ Aske’s School in Elstree before embarking on an indirect path into the industry he loves, a short stint with Premier Drums followed by time with Dick James Music, Decca Records, MAM, and Music & Media/Billboard magazine.

He’s edited Sound Engineer & Producer, the Eurofile Directory, and The Producers’ Handbook too; and since 1993 has edited and published SongLink International and Cuesheet. David was also a recipient of a BASCA Gold Badge Award for services to the music industry and was made a Companion of LIPA by founding patron Sir Paul McCartney in 2006.

His life story is certainly Boys’ Own stuff in place. Did this admitted Beatles nut consider himself a shy lad, or did he always possess a bit of ‘front’?

“I was quite shy. I scratched the surface. I could have pushed it a lot more if I’d wanted to. But just being in those few situations, I was really lucky, but with a bit of front, especially at the Yellow Submarine premiere. That was unbelievable – for a kid that age to get that far. But it was just the timing and the circumstances, thanks to Keith Richards, Dick James, and all that.”

Thanks to Mick Jagger and his partner at the time, Marianne Faithfull, too, for being in New York that night.

“Totally. Who’d have thought!”

If that part of the tale turned up in a Hollywood blockbuster, I’d probably question its plausibility.

“I know. That’s the funny thing. Steven Spielberg made a film years ago about Beatles fans in the States getting into their hotel room at the Plaza in New York. A great film, and I always related to that. Lots of kids have their own (similar) stories from all through the Beatles years. I was just a bit luckier than most, I suppose, living in London at the right time.”

Standing In: David Stark helped out on drums for The Quarrymen in 2013. From left – David Stark, Len Garry, John ‘Duff’ Lowe, Rod Davis and Marko Laver (Photo copyright: David Stark)

Geography seemed to be on the side of this native of the capital’s Middlesex borders. But I guess he had more opportunities – as someone born in 1952 – to see his heroes than someone born around then on the outskirts of Liverpool. The Fab four had well and truly uprooted by then, heady days of younger fans being able to catch them at lunchtimes at The Cavern long behind them.

“Yes, and being at the end of the Bakerloo line on the Tube in Stanmore, then at the end of the Northern line in Edgware, was fortuitous. And as I reached my teens, I was into town a bit for discos and the cinema. I’ve good memories from there.”

A love of the cinema comes into his tale, not least memories of seeing A Hard Day’s Night in the summer of ’64 – David starting secondary school that autumn – and Help! in August ’65 at the flicks. In a sense, I argued, that was perhaps the last golden age of popular cinema.

“Possibly, although I’ve loved going to the cinema ever since. But with A Hard Day’s Night being in black and white, it was in that era of classic and iconic British dramas and comedies. It was really of its time and for me still stands up. When it comes on the telly, I have to watch it. It’s brilliant, the script spot on. It’s incredible for their first film.”

While David was first exposed to The Beatles in January 1963 when he heard Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman play ‘Please Please Me’ on Pick of the Pops, it was a while before he learned drums, and even longer before he made his way in the record industry. His was a far more circuitous route, but one he’s equally proud of and thankful for.

“Oh, I’m very lucky! All through my life, meeting a lot of my heroes, some of whom became good friends.”

David follows this by mentioning my Christmas interview with Slade’s Don Powell, a drumming legend he tells me is a good pal, mentioning how he helps organise the celebrity dinners Don mentioned, involving various friends from the industry.

The title of his book comes from one of the more psychedelia-tinged George Harrison numbers on Yellow Submarine, in a nod to the premiere for that animated film he sneaked into.

“Yes, and it’s the perfect title. I love that song and loved that film, although it’s not one of his best known numbers.”

Tremble Ohs: With his most recent band, covers outfit The Trembling Wilburys. From left – David Stark, Dzal Martin, Andy McNish, Glen Knowler, Dave Collison, Marko Laver and Howard Robin (Photo copyright: David Stark)

The line, ‘And the more I go inside, the more there is to see’, that was your journey with The Beatles, wasn’t it?

“I guess so, yeah. Always a bit philosophical, old George. But very true, I’d say.”

Does that mid-July ’68 happening at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus remain pretty vivid today, five decades down the line?

“It always stayed in my memory, being such an incredible occasion. And the fact I was caught in a couple of pictures that day, then later found that news clip where George (Harrison) and Pattie (Boyd, the Beatle’s wife at the time) walk straight past … and I’m making the most stupid expression!

“But what I remember most was the excitement of it all and it being such a colourful occasion, everyone dressed in ‘60s fab gear, looking incredible, especially The Beatles, in particular George with his yellow and orange suit and hat. He looked fantastic, they all looked great. The whole thing was London and the Swinging 60s at its finest.

“Even I looked the part, wearing a Lord John suit with a turquoise shirt and kipper tie. I must have gone up there with something in the back of my mind, despite having no clue what was going to happen. I think I was prepared for any eventuality, and this possibility of getting in. It was pure luck that we managed to bluff our way through and get the manager to approve us, saying, ‘I see you know people here’!”  

As I was only born five months after the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it’s difficult for me to imagine just how advanced aspects of that LP sounded back then. I’ve heard so many great records since that built on that and other classic Beatles albums – including one of my personal favourites, Revolver – that it’s difficult to get a handle on just how revolutionary they were at the time. They certainly broke the mould time and again, from the moment they retired to the studio.

“Definitely – without doubt! That’s how it was. Every record was a progression from the previous one, and in most cases they were only six months apart, with two a year until Sgt. Pepper. And not only were the songs getting better, but the recordings were getting better, moving slowly from four-track to eight-track, and with George Martin’s experimenting.

By George: David with another hero, Sir George Martin, at 2011’s Gold Badge Awards (Photo copyright: David Stark)

“Everything was progressing through the Sixties. We went from black and white TV to colour, and The Beatles went from black and white to vivid colours. Everything was happening, an amazing period to live through. It’s hard to explain it to people today, but that decade changed everything.

“I loved it all. I was still at school, listening to Beatles records and one or two others. I’d tape the charts on the radio on a tape recorder, so when I hear old records today, in my mind I can hear what song’s going to be next from that tape, almost 50 years on.

“That was the Light Programme in those days, shows like Pick of the Pops and The Saturday Club. I was still taping when it turned to Radio 1. I just wish I still had them.” 

Were you listening to pirate radio stations too?

“Yeah, Radio London mainly, because of Kenny Everett, who was fantastic. I enjoyed Johnnie Walker’s shows too … and he’s become a pal. Such a fantastic voice, and still going strong.”

I tend to take issue with over-simplified notions that in the ‘60s you were either Beatles or Stones fans. And it seems that you had time for both acts.

“Oh yeah. I loved the Stones as well, and seeing that Rock’n’Roll Circus show was great. I’ve seen them loads and loads of times over the years … although not as many times as The Who, my second favourite band.”

And you got to meet Keith Moon and John Entwistle in later years through jobs in the industry.

“Yeah, John I knew a bit, promoting his solo record at one point at Decca Records. He was a good bloke, and I met Keith a few times. He was … well, if I do another book, there’ll be stories about him and The Who for sure!”

Yellow Submarine: The soundtrack of the Beatles’ animated film arrived on the market six months after the movie itself

That brings me to a landmark January ’67 support set you witnessed by the Jimi Hendrix Experience – their first major London appearance – for The Who at London’s Saville Theatre.

“I saw Hendrix three times that year, the third time at the Royal Albert Hall with Pink Floyd and Amen Corner. That was fantastic too.”

But it was Jimi’s June return to the Saville I wanted to mention, the night he played the title track of the Sgt. Pepper album, somehow redefining a number released just three days earlier.

“Yes, that was so unexpected. It was like, ‘Oh my God, what is this!’. Nobody realised until around 30 seconds or more what he was doing. It was great, George Harrison and Paul McCartney were there too, and all of them were there in January for his first major gig. And apart from the release of Sgt. Pepper, I’d say 1967 was Hendrix’s year, without doubt. And I still play him a lot today.”

Down the years, David seems to have had an uncanny ability to be in the picture, in more ways than one. And how? Well, sometimes it’s about contacts and being in the know, and arguably his roots gave him a few of those opportunities, such as his Jewish family links and initial chance meetings with the likes of Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s younger brother Clive – during a summer ’64  family holiday at a hotel in Torquay (not Fawlty Towers) – and music publisher Dick James.

“You are right, because if you look at The Beatles’ history and the persons involved with them, quite a lot were Jewish, such as Brian Epstein and Dick James. That said, I’ve never played on that, at all. I’m not particularly religious, but it is something that does connect people.”

In a sense though, that was the entertainment business at the time, wasn’t it?

“It was, although when I left school, I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I was reasonably good at art and thought I’d try that, but I guess I knew I wasn’t really good enough. Then my parents broke up, and that’s why I didn’t end up going to uni, ending up getting that job at Premier Drums. And I really enjoyed that. I mean, having to go and meet Keith Moon at the Rainbow Theatre …”

That must have been a hardship for a drummer who always loved The Who.

“Oh, very hard! He was great, and very funny.”

Second Service: The Beatles’ second long player, from November 1963, was the first one that David Stark bought.

For 18 months, David was also employed as an estate agent, showing prospective clients around flats and houses in north London, on one occasion appointed by Spike Milligan to sell his house in North Finchley and arrange the purchase of another in Hadley Wood, near Barnet.

But while The Beatles’ solo endeavours grew apace, David’s lack of success in finding his first band, Raw Deal, that crucial deal, proved not to be fruitless, an approach made to Dick James Music with a demo tape leading to an offer of a job. He was on his way, soon getting to know a wealth of famous clients, including Elton John.

“That was my first proper job in the music business, having skipped a couple of years. On reflection perhaps I really should have gone with it when I left school – writing to every record company. But I didn’t know that then. Instead, I made my own way, but … why didn’t I write to George Martin?”

Ah, another hero David got to know in later days.

“What a really lovely guy. He would have been 95 a couple of days ago. Always such a nice guy when I met him, and for me the quintessential Englishman, especially with that voice … wonderful. He was always very funny as well, and never ‘bigged’ himself up.”

Reminiscing about his opportunity to see the band play live in early January 1965 at Hammersmith Odeon, David uses the word ‘overwhelmed’ in the book, mentioning how he was ’desperately trying to hear the music but ultimately just taking in the experience of actually seeing The Beatles playing, familiar from so many TV appearances.’

He was lucky enough to get tickets through his Dad’s accountant, Dick James’ silent partner in Northern Songs, formed with Brian Epstein to administer The Beatles’ song catalogue. I gather there was also a chance of an investment, one his father turned down, way before shares were floated.

“Yes, if I remember right, he had that opportunity to invest, but didn’t, because he felt he didn’t know enough about music. Just one of those things, but my life could have been completely different. Who knows!”

Abbey Road: David Stark’s favourite Beatles LP, with the Fabs on the street where John jokingly rebuked him

It did help in his situation that school pal David Templer lived close to Abbey Road Studios, leading to his first personal exchange of sorts with John Lennon around Easter 1966, making for a lovely tale.

“That’s right! I was at school in Elstree, just outside London, and David went there as well, a long way from St John’s Wood every day. But he was always telling me he’d seen The Beatles arrive there and got their autographs, so that was it – I had to do it too!”

And that day you also decided – after seeing his kit – you wanted to take up the drums.

“Exactly. The first time I ever played was when I saw his kit. I thought I’ve got to have a go on this. That’s when it started for me. And an hour or so later, John Lennon was telling me off for having my bike parked up against the studio gate!”

It was the following year that Brian Epstein died, David overhearing news of his death from Sandie Shaw, while holidaying with his family in Majorca in late August, the Eurovision winner staying in the same hotel.

And how about the time he was caught on camera in October 1968 as John and Yoko appeared at Marylebone Magistrates’ Court in relation to a drugs bust at their Montagu Square flat? 

“That’s right. There were hundreds of people there, but I somehow got lucky, right behind them.”

Those meeting-the-stars moments continued apace – from the Rolling Stones’ Rock’n’Roll Circus at a TV studio in Wembley to the Magic Christian film premiere, while David met John Lennon for the last time in July 1971 with Yoko at Selfridges, signing copies of her republished Grapefruit book, weeks before they left for New York.

Cinematic Magic: While the film failed to impress, David Stark managed to sneak into the premiere and mingle

He also talks about memorable meetings with George, and tells a lovely tale of a Saturday night in the autumn of 1970 when he went for a spur of the moment spin in bandmate Vince Lewis’ Ford Anglia, deciding on a whim to call at Ringo’s secluded Hampstead home, ask him out for a pint, first knocking on the wrong door, by chance interrupting Lulu and then-husband Maurice Gibb, who told them which house they really wanted.

“Oh yes! You know, you can’t make this stuff up! That’s how it happened. It’s just ludicrous. And then it was Ringo himself who opened the door – holding a pool cue, demanding to know what the hell we were doing on his doorstep!”

Apparently, Ringo had friends in, David spotting Eric Clapton just behind him. I don’t reckon he’d have got away with that today. The property would have far more secure for starters.

“Oh yeah, they’d all have gated properties. You wouldn’t stand a chance. Although, funnily enough, Paul’s had his house in St John’s Wood since 1966, and over the years he’s put up with the fans.”

I could go on, but time was against us. Yet five decades or so on, interest is clearly still there in the Fab Four judging by pre-Christmas reaction to a sneak preview of Peter Jackson’s Let It Be project, the original film still officially unreleased but now set to form part of a Get Back DVD package, including a re-imagined version of the documentary, the Lord of the Rings director in London to film new interviews during 2019. The completed film was set for release in September 2020, but is now pencilled in for August 2021, pandemic restrictions willing.

“That’s going to be very interesting. He’s re-editing the film, and I think his brief is to turn it into a happier film. And It wasn’t all misery. That promises to be another big event, so it never stops.”

I should mention that David received an official invitation from Apple for the original Let It Be, The Beatles’ fourth feature film, premiered at the London Pavilion in May 1970. On that occasion, there were no Beatles in person though, unsurprisingly just a month after they officially split up. As David put it, ‘The words ‘attending your own funeral’ spring to mind’.

Rockdown Product: Some 57 years after David Stark bought his first Beatles-related product, Macca ploughs on

Let’s hope we’re all back on track by then, and I dare say if that’s the case Ringo will be out and about touring with his All Starr Band again pretty soon.

“Yeah, and I’m sure Paul will as well. He’s out on the road every year and must be missing it. I’m definitely missing it. I didn’t do a single gig last year with the Trembling Wilburys, and we can’t wait to get back. We’re booked to play in March, but I didn’t know if that’s going to happen. I doubt it. So maybe we’re talking the second half of the year, or even later.”

And Paul continues to make interesting records, judging by his ‘rockdown’ release, McCartney III.

“Yeah, I’m enjoying that. And the other connection we have is through LIPA, where I see him every year normally. It’s just such a shame all colleges and unis are now shut again. It’s terrible for those students. I give out songwriting prizes every year with Paul, and they’ve asked me to do it online … but it’s not the same as being there in person. I really don’t know what’s going to happen this year.”

In the meantime, with the next lockdown underway, there may be a follow-up book on its way.

“Well, it’s on my mind, and I’ve got all these other stories, and loads of pictures.”

Paperback Writer: David Stark at home with part of his Beatles collection in the 1990s (Photo copyright: David Stark)

For details of how to get hold of a signed copy of David Stark’s It’s All Too Much, head to www.itsalltoomuch.net. You can also follow the author via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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WriteWyattUK’s Guide to Finding Inspiration … In Spite of These Times, pt. II

In which WriteWyattUK takes a look back – in quotation form – at the pick of our feature/interviews from 2020, the dreaded year the coronavirus carved a devastating impact on the music and arts scene. Click on the highlighted name for the full interview, and we’ll conclude here with the final six months.

July

Live Presence: Prog legend Jon Anderson in concert, hoping to be back out again sometime soon (Photo: Tami Freed)

“At that time, it was the Everly Brothers with my brother, and I’d sing a lot of commercial romantic songs in the mid-‘50s, and then Buddy Holly … and of course Elvis Presley – my brother bought the vinyl Elvis Presley album, and a little Dansette record player, so I heard all those incredible songs. My brother wanted to be Elvis and I wanted to be Roy Orbison, and I’d sing his songs.” Yes legend Jon Anderson on his formative days as a performer back in Accrington, Lancashire

Broadcast Innovator: Steve Barker, a key part of BBC radio for more than 40 years, broadcasting from Lancashire

“We do what we do, we do it from Lancashire, and we’re proud of being from Lancashire, we always have been, and we’re all from Lancashire, but we play music from around the world. We play music that excites us and we think people will enjoy, and that seems to be a pretty clear intent.” Veteran BBC local radio On the Wire presenter Steve Barker on how his county base informs but never rules his love of broadcasting

Liberties Takers: Fontaines D.C. are hoping to be back over in the UK next May, all being well, COVID-19-dependent.

“We actually worked our arses off rehearsing in the summer of 2018 when we were set to go in to record the album, having never done that before. We were really nervous, and we couldn’t believe we’d managed to fool them into giving us a record deal, that kind of mentality. But we also knew, ‘Now we must do the work’, thinking, ‘Oh shit! We need to record these songs’. So we got them really tight. I learned so many things about songs, like the chord progressions that were going on, bar counts, all these sort of things.” Fontaines DC co-founder Conor Deegan III on the Dublin outfit’s work ethic

Interior Shot: Producer Grant Keir on the set of Lift Share with co-leading actor Mark Rowley, and still busy in 2020

“I think television is still a really important benchmark, sets standards and sets viewing figures too. Talk to any of the social influencers, people marking their careers on Twitter and TikTok and all that – if you offer any of them a slot on television, they’ll bite your hand off. It still sets a kind of social, political media agenda. That for me is what’s so disturbing about all the major channels in the UK evacuating the schedules of serious documentary content. We wouldn’t get to make those films Virginia (Heath) made back in the day for (The) Bandung (File) and Rear Window. You couldn’t make them now.” Film producer Grant Keir giving his considered opinion on the continued importance of traditional TV slots

Ferry Share: Director Virginia Heath, centre, with Mark Rowley and Ularu off to the Outer Hebrides to film Lift Share

“I basically got to that story through my colleague at Sheffield Hallam, Paul Atkinson, who’s part of the same research centre. He’d written an article, Hairy Guys in Sheds, and was telling me about it in the pub one day, and I thought that would be a really nice subject for a film. That kind of DIY ethos and anti-corporate spirit, making instruments from found materials. I just found it really inspiring.” New Zealand-born film director Virginia Heath on the inspiration behind the hit Cigar Box Blues music documentary

August

Six Appeal: The Psychedelic Furs, back into light once the pandemic’s behind us all again (Photo: Mathew Reeves)

“It was very frustrating, because we were so happy and excited to get it out and be able to tour with new material. So when the whole pandemic came down we were chomping at the bit to get out there and play to people. That’s what makes it all worthwhile. You can live in a studio, but until you get out and play the songs face to face with your audience, you can’t really gauge the success or failure of a song or album.” Founding Psychedelic Furs member/bass player Tim Butler on his exasperation at not being able to tour 2020 LP Made of Rain

Four Play: Sunbirds Marc Parnell, Laura Wilcockson, Dave Hemingway, Phil Barton, delivered the Cool To Be Kind LP

“I went back and we did a video for that song, back to Hessle Road, where I grew up and used to live. It was very poignant really. It’s changed a lot through the years, but a lot of the same things are still there. Hopefully some things will never change. My old house has been knocked down, but a lot of the same spots are still there that I mention in the song.” Former Beautiful South/The South singer Dave Hemingway on returning to his Hull roots for debut Sunbirds single ‘Meet You on the Northside’

Last Time: BOB in 1991. from left – Simon Armstrong, Stephen Hersom, Richard Blackborow (above), Dean Leggett

“Those recordings were just left on the shelf. For years I wanted to put the BOB archives in order. When I first moved here (West Cornwall) in 2002 I vowed to set up a studio and mix it all, not for any other reason than to get it all out of my system, put it to bed so I could move on, musically. So if I got run over by a bus, people would know what we did.” Richard Blackborow on indie favourites BOB releasing their second studio album, 28 years later than originally envisaged

Banned Substance: Everything, Everything, back rehearsing and itching to get out there again in 2020, but still waiting.

“It’s so often where we default to. We’ve done it a few times. It’s quite an easy way to become uniform. We’ve always admired that kind of utilitarian ‘I’m going to work, I’m doing a job’ thing. There’s also a link to Kraftwerk, DEVO and bands that took what they were wearing almost out of the equation – making it uniform across the band. I’ve always liked that.” Jeremy Pritchard on Everything Everything’s return to the boiler suit look

Belief Systen: Andy Crofts, waking up to all he’s achieved in recent years, and making good use of his spare time

“Well, as you know, that’s what we do, year in year out, touring the world and all those kinds of things. But this quarantine thing has messed everything up and we’re all at a bit of a loose end. We’re all excited, hoping everything will be back to normal next year, but it’s been a bit rubbish in the sense that we just love playing wide. You get a buzz playing live, off the audience and off each other. But on the other side, I’ve pushed myself – I’ve got this book finished, very quickly; I’ve put out some music of my own and for someone else on my label; and I’ve kept busy.” Andy Crofts making the best of not being able to get on the road with Paul Weller’s band in 2020

September

Looking Up: Stone Foundation, keen to get the pandemic behind them and return to the live circuit again in 2021

“Iit becomes more and more difficult to try and keep Paul off our records than put him on them! He’s such an infectious character, and he’s been so good for us. I can’t speak more highly of Paul. His support and the inspiration he offers up is second to none. And just the fact that when he’s in the studio and hearing our stuff … on the last record in particular, there was no plan to have Paul involved. We’d tell him when our sessions were booked in or ask if we could book sessions in his studio. And as is his usual way he’d make sure he’d be down there for a day or two…” Stone Foundation singer/co-founder Neil Jones on Paul Weller’s regular contributions to the band’s LPs

Good Nick: Folk Devils’ Nick Clift in live action, with the reformed version of the band. Hopefully more shows will follow.

“There’s a lot of new material in embryonic form. Because of the way we work it’s not really possible to do it over the internet, better to knock it into shape when we all convene. If Kris, in Scotland, and I, in New Jersey, still lived in London, where the others reside, it would be a lot easier to write and record. But there’s an album brewing, and it promises to be a … beautiful monster.” Nick Clift on the plan to release new Folk Devils material as soon as possible

Monochrome Set: Ginnel. From the left – Paul Lakin, Mark Wareing, Pete Brown, Scrub. Ready to thrill you in 2021

“Happens every new generation … kids see the likes of Oasis, and bang! There’s 100 Oasis lookalike and soundalike bands. Or bang! There’s 100 Nirvana-type bands. The kids need to stop hopping on the bandwagon and look backwards on history and check out stuff from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and so on. There’s loads of stuff worth stealing from. We’ve picked up on stuff, added our own twist … and bingo!” Preston-based ex-Dandelion Adventure frontman Mark Wareing, now leading Ginnel, on the need to keep reinventing, looking backwards to go forward

Artists United: Ray Gange with Clash legend Paul Simonon back in 2013 (Photo copyright: Louisa Philips Kulukundis

“Yeah, it opened my mind, for sure. It’s a cliché, but it broadened my horizons. It certainly did. It gave me a ton of opportunities. I didn’t necessarily grasp them, but they were there. And I think it’s a great document, although it’s a little bit … I’m trying to think of a better word than haphazard …  chaotic in its assemblage, you know.” Ray Gange on the positive side of his lead acting role in 1980 Clash-related film Rude Boy

October

Farm Hand: Carl Hunter, modelling Bruce Foxton’s jacket, enjoying Irlam Live, Summer 2019 (Photo: Steve Grimes)

“It came about during lockdown. I’d drive into Liverpool occasionally, out of boredom really, and the city I grew up in and know like the back of my hand, I’d never seen it so empty. It was almost apocalyptic. I thought I’d take photos, just out of curiosity, document this moment in time.” Farm bassist turned film director Carl Hunter on the inspiration behind his acclaimed More Than Time short film

Hammersmith Valets: Ewan Butler, Ian Hodgson and Stephen Street, set to deliver Bradford’s second LP in 2021

“Fortunately, we’d all grown up with exposure to excellent music, from punk to soul to 2 Tone, and were aware of that kind of music, so it was a development of that kind of vibe. It was never about right-wing, Skrewdriver-type connotations. It was very much related to soul.” Ewan Butler on how indie favourites Bradford were initially determined to reclaim the skinhead look from its right wing associations

“I was offered a support slot for Glenn Tilbrook at Blackburn Museum, and at that stage said to Ewan, ‘Fancy doing a couple of songs for old time’s sake?’ So we started doing ‘Skin Storm’ again, stuff like that. That was the spark.” Ian Hodgson on how Bradford returned after a three-decade sabbatical

Bea Movie: Beatrice Kristi, aka Beabadoobee, delivered her debut album, Fake It Flowers in 2020, to critical acclaim

“It is exciting! It’s also really scary. This album has so much of me in it, so much of my life up until now. I didn’t know that this would become what it has, and I never thought anyone would care – I mean look at my artist name! So yeah, it’s exciting and a little terrifying!” Bea Kristi Laus on her amazement at getting to release her debut studio LP as Beabadoobee, to great acclaim

Looking Up: It turned out to be a year for reflection for David Gedge’s The Wedding Present (Photo: Peter Koudstaal)

“Since Going, Going … came out, and that’s four years ago now, we’ve been doing quite a lot of touring, places where we hadn’t played before like Australia, New Zealand and Asia. So we thought 2020 should be a quiet year … I just didn’t realise it would be this quiet!” David Gedge, who could never have envisaged how The Wedding Present’s less busy 2020 could have turned out

November

Baby Love: New York City punk-rock’n’rollers Baby Shakes made it over to Derry in 2020 (Photo: Nathan Frohnhoefer)

“Since day one, the ‘Tones have been incredibly supportive and encouraging. They’re all super-sweet, really funny and very down to earth. Although we’ve been nervous about supporting them and recording together at first, we all get along so well, and it’s always been such a good time in their company. When we got to chatting, we realised we had a lot in common as far as taste in music and a similar sense of humour. We were literally in tears laughing at their jokes some nights in the studio and on the phone!” New York outfit Babyshakes talk about working with Northern Irish punk heroes The Undertones

Action Stations: Gordon Gibson checks his rising stock at his Church Street HQ (Photo: Neil Cross / Lancashire Post)

“Well, yeah, everyone’s in the same boat. At least we’ve been open as much as we can. A lot of record shops around the country have never re-opened … just doing mail order. They haven’t opened their doors (since last time). But we had to – we’re a record shop and want to meet people!” Action Records shop owner and record label boss Gordon Gibson contemplates the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on Preston’s retail businesses

Tree’s Company: Richard Farnell at home in Sale with a copy of Felt’s Penelope Tree (Photo: Richard Farnell)

“Initially, the first lockdown was pretty positive. It gave us chance to catch our breath, and the website did really well in the first few weeks. However, towards the end it felt the novelty was wearing off, and it was less busy. We furloughed all but two of 11 of us. Our customers were really supportive, and you could recognise many regulars’ names appearing on online orders who we’d normally see in the shop. I hope we get the same level of support this time, but it does feel like this lockdown might be different.” Co-owner of Manchester record shop Vinyl Exchange Richard Farnell on long-term worries as a result of coronavirus restrictions

Work Experience: Robin Turner ticking the no publicity box in the Heavenly Recordings office, all those years ago

“Yeah, it’s 30 years without compromising and being this disparate, extended family, but a family all the same. I mean, I’m still part of it, even though I’ve not worked there for 10 years. Like The Godfather … dragging me back in. And it’s got that identity that makes it work. And you’re right, if you think of comparable labels, there’s Creation, its last records around 2000, and Factory, where it was all over by the early ‘90s. Heavenly’s managed to out-last lots of similar institutions.” Author and music publicist Robin Turner on a new book celebrating 30 years of Heavenly Recordings and how it pays tribute to the label and its cult success

Sun Screen: Saunder Jurriaans, ready to break out and play live, post pandemic lockdowns, on the back of Beasts

“I am and have always been a huge fan of long epic, dramatic, proggy, rock songs! ‘Ghost Walk’ was written a bit later in the scheme of the record and my recording chops were much better, I felt more confident going for it. I played every instrument myself on that one … it was a real exercise in overdubs!” Cult movie and TV soundtrack composer Saunder Jurriaans reveals some of the influences on debut solo LP, Beasts

Curtain Call: Ian Robinson facing the public at Chorley Theatre in January 2016 (Photo copyright: Chorley Guardian)

“When we opened again in September, it was nice to see people back, to catch up with volunteers and our audiences, many telling us it was good to get back to some kind of normality. And really It’s about the fun aspect, meeting people, and all that. It shouldn’t have to be about form-filling.” Chorley Theatre’s Ian Robinson reveals how much he values the Lancashire arts hub and venue’s community feel

December

Drum Major: Simon Kirke behind the kit with Bad Company during their 1979 US tour (Photo: Lyndy Lambert)

“We didn’t just play Stax, we played some classical music. I was really into Mozart and Bach, and we played a lot of Beatles of course. But foremost it was Stax and Motown – that’s how we bonded those Monday nights, and I believe that really cemented us musically for quite a while.” Legendary Free and Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke on his breakthrough band’s initial inspirations

Keeping Going: Kate Stables, trading as This is the Kit, saw off the coronavirus during 2020 (Photo: Ph. Lebruman)

“I really miss swimming! I just want to go to one of Paris’ many excellent municipal swimming pools and plough up and down for as long as possible. I really miss swimming pools. And libraries. I miss all the public services and amenities! Libraries, pools, community centres! We need them!” Kate Stables, the inspiration behind This is the Kit on what she’ll do the moment it’s safe to return to the outside world, post-virus

Glam Survivor: Don Powell gives WriteWyattUK the thumbs-up while recording this June in Denmark at a studio used by The Glam, the band he joined for a cover of Slade’s ‘Far Far Away’ (Photo courtesy of The Glam via Facebook)

“We did our first tour of Australia in 1973 and were trying to find out what we meant to people down there before, which was more difficult to find out in those days, without the internet and all that. When we landed in Sydney, all these cameras and photographers were waiting, and we were looking behind us wondering who was on the plane with us – who were they waiting for? But it was because of the success of Slade Alive, and it was non-stop from there – a great tour.” Slade drumming legend Don Powell reflects on his first tour Down Under and how big the band were there … much to their surprise

That’s it for this year, folks. Thanks as ever for your support. A quick gander at the viewing figures suggests – with less than half a day to go – approaching 96,000 reads on this website in 2020. Thank you all. Plenty going on in 2021 too, some of which I shall reveal as soon as possible in January. Here’s to more great music and a return to live entertainment as soon as we can. Until then, stay safe, and here’s to a happier and healthier 2021. 

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WriteWyattUK’s Guide to Finding Inspiration … In Spite of These Times, Pt. I

In which WriteWyattUK takes a look back – in quotation form – at the pick of our feature/interviews from 2020, the dreaded year the coronavirus carved a devastating impact on the music and arts scene. Click on the highlighted name for the full interview, and we’ll start with the first six months.

January

Club Scout: Richard Houghton stood outside Salford Lads’ Club, stopping Smiths fans if he’s heard their tales before

“That word ‘maudlin’ is a term that many Smiths fans reject. The idea that their music is only for manic depressives really winds them up, and I wonder if that’s because the song ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ is so firmly lodged in the public consciousness. A lot of people said to me that far from making them sad the lyrics of Smiths songs made them laugh.” Richard Houghton, author/editor of 2020 publication The Smiths: The Day I Was There, questioning the band’s ‘miserable’ image

Parsons Knows: Get It Loud in Libraries founder Stewart Parsons at Liverpool Central Library (Photo: Andy Von Pip)

“She was 16 or 17, cheeky, cool and irreverent, drinking Beck’s whilst (support act) Mr Hudson was on stage, and nipping out for fags. Looking back, it felt like they were all having a big laugh in a library, just waiting for world stardom. She only did four songs, but they were wow factor. Everyone just turned and looked at one another, whilst she played it dead cool. She loved Get It Loud in Libraries though. ‘Thanks for doing what you do,’ she told me on MySpace.” Stewart Parsons, founder of the highly-successful Get It Loud in Libraries movement, recalls the 2007 evening Adele played Lancaster Library

Wünderbar Regulars: Rob Talbot hanging out with with one of many impressive 2019 Conti guests, Edward Tudor-Pole

“It’s something for people in the community to go out and do, particularly at the weekend, and not something corporate. It’s not about going to some faceless venue, buying a can of Carling Black Label and just seeing a band from a distance. You’re just here, they ‘re right in front of you, and you can say hello afterwards. People love that.” Events organiser Rob Talbot on the attraction of smaller venues like The Continental in Preston, Lancashire (you remember the concept of live music, right?)

Drag Racer: Annie Hardy was back out on the road in early 2020, touring six years beyond Giant Drag’s farewell tour.

“I’m hoping to at least get down to some freezing cold beach somewhen, looking for crystals and gemstones. You guys have a lot of Victorian mines out here. I keep watching YouTube videos of this girl and her Mum beachcombing, finding all these rubies and korite, all sorts of things. I’m into all that shit! I think that’s in Scotland.” Giant Drag’s Annie Hardy on her hopes for a little spare time during her early 2020 solo whistle-stop European tour

February

Neuk Vision: Kenny Anderson, aka King Creosote, from Scotland with more love earlier this year (Photo: Sean Dooley)

“I penned most of the new lyrics on a train journey to London and back, busked a few chords together, sent Virginia some acoustic demos, then set about building an all-acoustic band culled from the Fence players I’d worked with over the years. Virginia is from New Zealand, and was in no way going to deliver a cliched Scottish ramble through heather, shortbread tins and golf courses, and that suited me fine – but I insisted the music come from a traditional, acoustic source, and that nostalgia would feature heavily in the song material. I simply put myself and the views of those around me into bygone days.” Kenny Anderson reveals how King Creosote’s classic 2012 From Scotland With Love film and album project took shape

Bearded Theories: West on Colfax caught on camera. From left – Pete Barnes, Alan Hay, Mike Lambert, Scott Carey.

“I suppose it’s down to your perception of country … cowboy boots, hillbillies … but I’d say bands like Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo, Wilco and even REM to an extent have been ploughing more of a guitar sound. And there’s bands like Green on Red … Over the last 15 or so years I think it’s started to grow a lot in this country too. We use the term Americana because it’s a handy clothes-peg to hang different sets of music on the same line. If you were to put band T-shirts on that line, you could have all kinds – from Waylon Jennings to The Byrds, Wilco, Gram Parsons, Courtney Marie Andrews … And there are so many great UK bands.” West on Colfaxco-founder Scott Carey, once of Paris Angels, dismisses my initial reluctance towards Americana

Double Trouble: Ben Ayres and Tjinder Singh, still moving forward with Cornershop in 2020 (Photo: Chris Almeida)

“I don’t know about nostalgia. We try to write about issues that are forward. But sometimes you need to go back, and that song goes back to Empire, talking about battles where someone like St Marie would come down and be able to assuage the problems those battles have created. A lot of shit has gone down and we look to St Marie for some benediction on that. And the end of that is fetching it up to date with modern technology, which is the new sort of warfare … or it could be.” Tjinder Singh on the motivation for ‘St Marie Under Canon’, from Cornershop’s critically-acclaimed England is a Garden LP

Studio Tan: True Deceivers (L to R) Nick, Jamie, Rupert, Dee and Graham, Wormwood Studios (Pic: Rob Blackham)

“That’s the one my Mum and Dad are most proud of, playing with Lindisfarne there. My folks are from the North East – they left in their 20s – so as far as they’re concerned Lindisfarne are gods. I said, ‘I don’t think it’s all the original band,’ but my Mum said, “That doesn’t matter – we know you’ve made it now, if you’re playing with Lindisfarne!’ Graham Firth of The True Deceivers on why Kenney Jones’ 2019 Secret Widget Festival at Hurtwood Park was a big moment for his family.

March

Backed Winners: The Blow Monkeys, grounded in 2020. L to R – Neville Henry, Dr Robert, Crispin Taylor, Mick Anker.

“When we sang that song, we did it together in the studio, I was facing him and doing my Curtis Mayfield impression, and there was the real man right there! But he made me feel really relaxed and was everything you expected someone like Curtis to be. He was a lovely man. You do get those ‘pinch me’ moments, but then you find out that they’re all just flawed human beings like everyone else, and usually the talented ones are the most modest. Curtis taught me a lot, and I’d grown up with his music, which was so informative to my life.” Blow Monkeys’ frontman Robert Howard, aka Dr Robert, pays homage to Curtis Mayfield, having recorded anti-Thatcher single ‘(Celebrate) The Day After You’ with him in 1987

Pete’s Sound: The Wah! man himself, heading to a town near you until the COVID-19 took hold (Photo: Brian Roberts)

“For lots of reasons, the small nature of the creative bit and clubland at the centre, you can walk from one end of it to the other, and there aren’t other bits. In other cities, clubs are all over, but if you start at Hope Street, the south end, up to Dale Street, it’s a 10-minute walk at best. So if one club isn’t any good or none of your mates are in one place, you can easily go to another. And I still see Gaz (Gary Dwyer) from The Teardrop Explodes and people from all the bands. I played in Leeds last week, some people stayed behind to get things signed, and this fella said, ‘You won’t know me, but my band was called Dead Trout’. And I said, ‘I remember Dead Trout!’ I’d only looked at a poster of one of their gigs on an archive site the day before. So even Dead Trout are still around, y’know! Kind of weird, but I love that. I know some of the younger guys too.” Pete Wylie on the relatively smalltown feel that works in Liverpool’s favour

Who’s Masking: Lee Mark Jones, one of the many victims of live show postponements in 2020, but eager to return

“I was into The Sweet and even Showaddywaddy! It was rock’n’roll, so at least we were on the right path. I’d hate to be a kid nowadays. I was never a Bowie fan, but I was a Ziggy Stardust fan. That was the one that changed it all for me, that period. I was fascinated by all that. The ultimate rock star that went out at the top. I can’t believe it was only one and a half years, and I know lots of people who were at that final gig when he announced that was the last time. To do that then … what! Imagine the record label’s response!” Gypsy Pistoleros frontman and solo performer Lee Mark Jones on the inspiration of glam rock on his sense of stage presence

Professionals’ Approach: Chris McCormack, Paul Cook, Tom Spencer, and Toshi JC Oguwa, pre-self-isolation days

“Yeah, well, it comes from the Pistols, from me and Steve Jones really. The actual punk sound, if you like. That carried on into The Professionals first time around, and it’s influenced a hell of a lot of people over the years. And now by chance we’ve got Chris McCormack in the band, a big Steve Jones fan … so the sound continues.” The Professionals’ former Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook defines the band’s trademark sound

April

Passing Through: Pete Astor, who returned to his musical inspirations with the You Made Me covers album in 2020

“Truthfully my favourite band when I was 12 or 13 was Slade, not Bowie! But I adored him and loved Hunky Dory. I bought that from a record shop and about a year later realised the lyric sheet was missing. I went back to the shop and told them, and they went round the shop and found it!” Former Loft and Weather Prophets frontman Pete Astor talking early influences on the release of his 2020 You Made Me covers LP

Vampish Past: Wendy James followed three Transvision Vamp LPs with two by Racine and now four under her name

“Overall, my taste and style have not changed with time. The music that excites me now, ultimately, is the same as when I was starting out songwriting and back through my days in Transvision Vamp. I continue to marvel at Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, I continue to be blown away by The Stooges, I continue to be everlastingly enthralled by Bob Dylan, but the older one gets the more one discovers, and I am now informed more cohesively and fully by all the music, new and old, which settles into my consciousness.” Transvision Vamp singer turned solo artist Wendy James on how the inspirations that got her involved in music remain the same

Deli Ally: Baxter Dury knows how to track down a good eaterie when he gets the chance, lockdowns permitting

“I just volunteered actually – I signed up. When they asked me my skillset, I realised I had absolutely zero! I could talk about having a famous father, tell them I’m really good at interview techniques, or I could teach old people how to Instagram. Ha! Bleedin’ useless.” Baxter Dury, who released the splendid The Night Chancers in 2020, on how he stepped forward to help out when the coronavirus started to hit his beloved London

Hay Festival: The Ferret during its annual transformation for Glastonferret, but there was no such happening in 2020

“Growing up in Preston, when I was in bands there were more venues, such as 53 Degrees – downstairs and upstairs – and three venues at the Guild Hall. But now everything’s shut down, and there’s really just The Ferret, The Continental and a couple more that sometimes put gigs on. The Ferret’s the heartbeat of the city as far as I’m concerned. It’s more than a venue. It’s where bands cut their teeth and where you find bands. A lot of my favourites I listen to now were discovered there. While I don’t work in Preston anymore, I still try to put shows on there.” Bristol-based promoter Danny Morris explains why he continues to help out his Lancashire home city’s independent music scene

“To be honest, it’s almost become more about the response than the money. It’s been utterly amazing to hear the messages people have been putting out there. I’ve cried a few times. This place matters. That’s really been the theme.” Sue Culshaw of Preston live music venue The Ferret reacts to local support for the venue following forced COVID-19 closure

May

instructions Required: Eileen Gogan, delivered the splendid Under Moving Skies in 2020

Instructions Required: Dublin-based Eileen Gogan and The Instructions delivered the Under Moving Skies LP in 2020

“I just thought he must be a session musician, and said to Brian, ‘Listen, his guitar playing is great, there’s one bit where I need a guitar solo. Could you ask your man Damian if he’d be interested? I’ll pay him. He asked, then Evan looks him up, tells me he’s a founding member of The Undertones. I had no idea. We were sitting there listening while playing scrabble. I just loved the lo-fi quality of that record. That’s what prompted me. Nothing to do with the riff from ‘Teenage Kicks’ or something, because I just didn’t feckin’ know!” Eileen Gogan on getting to know Undertones guitarist Damian O’Neill through Refit, Revise, Reprise, then bringing him in on Under Moving Skies

Boy Wonder: Damon Gough, the artist best known as Badly Drawn Boy, mentally prepares to chat with WriteWyattUK

“A lot of the stuff on my new album reflects this – the world at large, how’s it’s operated these last few years and how that frustrated me.  Now we’ve got this virus it’s perspective on other things, and you couldn’t have written that better, after three years bickering about Brexit and the time wasted doing that, with other issues overlooked because of it.” Damon Gough on how Badly Drawn Boy’s Banana Skin Shoes proved a timely LP

Reflective Moments: Erland Cooper hoped to be on the road in support of Sule Skerry, his new Orcadian soundscape

“Oh, I wish I was in Orkney. I managed to get my folks back before the ferries stopped, as they live in England sometimes. I was supposed to be there now, travelling to the island of Sule Skerry … which sounds very whimsical … travelling there this week with Amy Liptrot. Instead I’ve been burrowed – like a puffin – in my studio.” Erland Cooper on reluctantly swapping lockdown on his home island for carrying on creating new music in East London

Still Life: Karima Francis will be ready to carry on where she left off when the coronavirus is finally done and dusted

“It’s going to be hard at the moment for those in domestically violent relationships. I have noticed though that there’s a lot of help out there, for instance with hotels open in London, and a lot of phonelines. But it is very hard, a tough time. I don’t know anyone who’s finding this easy.” Karima Francis on the impact of coronavirus-related lockdowns on incidents of abuse

June

Attention Stop: Vapors (L to R) Michael Bowes, Ed Bazalgette, Dave Fenton, Steve Smith, Dan Fenton (Pic: Si Root)

“I was pretty chuffed. We worked quite hard and quite fast with Steve Levine. He’s very good, but he cracked the whip, with about six days doing backing tracks and six more doing vocals and overdubs, six days mixing. There’s very little time to sit there and experiment. I was very pleased with how it came out, but at the time, it was like, ‘Is it finished yet?’” Dave Fenton on recording The Vapors’ third LP, Together – 39 years after the last – with Steve Levine

“When I think back to 1978 and my days as a young filmmaker, I realise how fortunate I was to have been in the right place at the right time. I had the privilege then of documenting a brief and fleeting moment in the history of the Northern Ireland conflict. It was a time when a small but brilliant chink of light shone in the heart of darkness, a shaft that split traditional values asunder. Out of the bombs, bullets, and bullshit came a movement more powerful than the hate and propaganda.” Film director John T.Davis on iconic cult Northern Irish punk rock documentary Shellshock Rock, 42 years on

Nerve Centre: Ian Allcock, bucking the trend of economic downturn in 2020 with Optic Nerve Recordings

“I don’t know what my parents were doing. We had Oklahoma, Carousel, The Tijuana Sounds of Brass and The Sandpipers, but also all this other stuff, from sunshine psychedelia to The Beach Boys. I then had my brother, older than me, buying punk stuff, and I liked that. Then I heard ‘Better Scream’ by Wah! Heat. You know where there’s that one single that makes you think, ‘Oh wow! There must be more music like this out there.’ Then you go and find it. That was my gateway really, to indie like Girls at our Best, the Young Marble Giants, and the Postcard stuff. I was spending ridiculous amounts on 7” singles then albums, probably all my wages when I left school in 1979 and started work.” Preston-based Optic Nerve label boss Ian Allcock examines family influences on his initial love of music

Soundation Stage: Ajay Saggar in his Netherlands studio, all set for his next sonic adventures (Photo: José Pietens)

“I really want people to hear this record. It’s uplifting, and interestingly at these shows I’ve done everyone comes specifically for the music, not just for the craic, a chit-chat, to get drunk then go home. Attention is really focused on what you’re doing and what you’re giving them. At the end of my set, after a long fade-out, one of the last notes played … I never look at the audience. I’ve got my head and my hair down, full-focused …” Amsterdam-based musician Ajay Saggar on spreading the word about his first Bhajan Bhoy LP

Denim Days: Ian Prowse, back to the wall amid covid concerns, but ready to return to the road when the virus is done

“We were having the time of our lives! I’ve been doing this for 30 years and rarely have I … I was going down a storm and then getting to watch one of the greatest artists of all time do his set, getting stuck in. And he’s mates as well, so I got to hang around with him. And all we talk about is politics, football and music!” Former Pele and Amsterdam frontman Ian Prowse on how his tour supporting his friend Elvis Costello came to an abrupt halt in early 2020

The second part of this annual review will appear on this website shortly … all being well. Stay tuned, pop kids.

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Slade’s ultimate rockin’ survivor – back in touch with Don Powell

Glam Survivor: Don Powell during recording back in June in Denmark at the studio used by The Glam, whom he joined for a cover version of ‘Far Far Away’ (Photo from Danish band The GLAM’s Facebook page)

It was a grey and overcast day in Silkeborg, but Don Powell wasn’t overly bothered about that.

“It’s just grey skies here, a bit overcast, but whatever. We’ve been pretty lucky here really, and after spending quite a bit of time in Russia over the years, this is like the Bahamas!”

It’s been a strange year for us all, but the 74-year-old Slade drummer seems to have taken it several steps further, his confirmed departure from the legendary rock band earlier this year followed by a stroke later that month, bouncing back to record and rehearse with two other bands, and announce future dates with his own band and guesting with another, followed by another emergency medical setback in recent weeks. So how’s the health right now?

“Pretty good, mate, I go up the gym every morning. There’s a special program the physiotherapist worked out for me, and it’s working well.”

How are people taking the coronavirus restrictions there in this Bilston, Staffordshire-born 74-year-old’s adopted Danish homeland?

“We started a lockdown here about a month before the rest of the world. Consequently, it hasn’t been that bad really, although it keeps rearing its head every now and again. People are pretty good about it, with distances, wearing masks, and what have you. It’s just that I don’t know when’s it going to end.”

What happens when the vaccine arrives there? Will you be heading for the front of the queue?

“More than likely! I will get there to get it sorted out. I think it’s pretty important. I tell you what though, I never thought I’d see the world like this.”

Powell Wow: Don Powell with the Cum on Feel the Hitz: The Best of Slade compilation, the band's most recent UK top-20 hit

Powell Wow: Don Powell with the Cum on Feel the Hitz: The Best of Slade compilation, their most recent UK top-20 hit

And how about the dreaded Brexit? I guess you’ve got co-nationality status, but …

“It hasn’t really hit yet, but I’m not really looking forward to it.”

The sheer amount of paperwork involved promises to be a right mess, enough to make a lot of musicians reconsider if they can afford to tour in Europe.

“Oh God, yeah. It’s incredible, but we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Shouldn’t you have been out on the road with the Don Powell Band (also featuring Bob Wilson, guitar/vocals, formerly with Steve Gibbons, the Idle Race and Ruby Turner; John Briscoe, guitar, who was in a Slade tribute band and hard rock outfit the Juggernauts; Ian ‘Curly’ Davis, vocals, who has a West End show background and was with Desolation Angels; and Craig Fenny, bass, part of the original Slade II and the Redbeards from Texas)?  

“Yeah, but of course, everything is on hold now, so that’ll have to be whenever it starts again. I really don’t know when.”

There were plans for Christmas dates with the Ex-Men too, another of Don’s live projects (members including Lancashire-based guitarist Pete Barton, hence one date being not far off my patch at The Grand, Clitheroe), announced in May, including dates across Europe but also the 100 Club in London and on Don’s old Black Country home ground at the Robin 2, Bilston.

“Funnily enough, we should have been in London tonight. We were set to do three shows in Holland then come to London, but it was knocked on the head. And the 100 Club brings back lots of memories. I remember a press thing there back in about 1970, with the original line-up.”

It’s Christmas: The legendary Noddy Holder presents the latest package, Cum on Feel the Hitz: The Best of Slade

Speaking of which, your website’s list and details of all the dates you’ve played down the years still amazes me – from initial days with Dave Hill in The Vendors to The ‘N Betweens, the outfit that became Ambrose Slade then simply Slade.

It was the latter’s classic line-up of Noddy Holder, Jim Lea, Hill and Holder that managed six No.1s and 24 top-40 singles and three No.1s and 13 top-40 LPs in the UK alone. But it’s the small detail of those classic and early year shows that always stops me in my tracks. And the morning I called Don I saw that 55 years ago – on the run-up to Christmas 1965 – he was between ‘N Betweens dates at Tito’s and Silver Blades in Birmingham, then the Harold Clowes Hall, Bentilee.

“Ah, yeah, Bentilee was like a youth club gig, and Silver Blades in Birmingham was always a great gig, part of an ice skating rink. We’d be playing to the skaters going round, and when they got around to us they’d stop and have a look, then carry on skating. Then, after Silver Blades we’d go and play a late-night drinking place, open till about four in the morning.”

Also, 50 years ago – just after the release of Play It Loud, the first LP released under the name Slade, he was between dates at Portsmouth’s Tricorn Centre and closer to home at Walsall’s George Hotel.

“Oh yeah, fond memories. The Tricorn was great, but we had no roadies then and we had to drive the van up into this multi-storey car park, get the gear in that way through a door that was part of the car park.”

And those dates were before a Boxing Day gig at the Temple in Soho, London.

“Ah yes, that was a tiny little club in Wardour Street, and sometimes we’d play the Marquee first, pack the gear away then do an all-nighter at the Temple.”

For someone who’s suffered with short-term memory issues for 47 years since the horrific July ’73 car crash that killed his fiancée Angela and left him with a fractured skull, broken ankles, several broken ribs and no sense of taste or smell, he has an amazing sense of recall. And maybe that was helped by the fact that he was encouraged to keep diaries as part of his recovery to remember each morning what he’d been doing the previous day.

First Footing: From left – Don Powell, Dave Hill, Noddy Holder and Jim Lea posing for Gered Mankowitz’s camera on a freezing cold winter’s day on Pouk Hill in the Black Country for the 1969 debut Ambrose Slade LP, Beginnings

Lo and behold, despite six days unconscious – he was out of hospital within four weeks and back recording with Slade after six weeks, partway through an east coast US tour, dropping by at the Record Plant in New York, where John Lennon had just finished working on his Mind Games album. And among the recordings was a certain ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’, the song that ensured Slade became the first band since The Beatles to see three singles go straight in at No.1 on the UK charts. But we’ll get back to that shortly.

First, I mentioned how 45 years ago the band was between stateside dates in St. Louis, Missouri, on the build-up to Christmas 1975, part of a year-long, ultimately unsuccessful bid to ‘crack’ America, between the ‘In For a Penny’ and ‘Let’s Call It Quits’ singles, their popularity at home about to take a slide, the last of 17 straight top-20 UK singles.

“That was a good gig for us, and a good place to play. I often go back through my diaries, read some of the places we played. We travelled all over America, touring and everything. In fact, I must tell you this. On our first American tour we were in Philadelphia and I remember watching this group on before us. I couldn’t believe this band – they were incredible, I thought blimey, who’s this? And it was The Eagles!

“I’ve now managed to get a poster to prove to people that was the case, and actually Billy Preston opened the show, then came The Eagles, and we topped the bill. I kept telling people The Eagles supported us, but nobody believed me. Now I’ve got the proof! I told some guy in America and after many years researching he found a poster.”

I could have kept going down the anniversary line, for instance 40 years ago he was between dates at Hull City Hall and Rotter’s Club in Manchester, Slade’s fortunes picking up again after the band’s wilderness years, on the back of that summer’s Reading Festival, a new heavy metal following behind them. Or that on December 18th, 1982, they played Hammersmith Odeon, supported by Jimmy Barnes’ Australian outfit Cold Chisel, with your scribe there, barely a few weeks after my 15th birthday. A Christmas night out to remember for sure.

But time was against me, Don had the floor, and as he’d mentioned Billy Preston I moved on to The Beatles, knowing he was a big Ringo fan, telling Don I’d recently had the pleasure of speaking to fellow drumming icon, Simon Kirke, of Free and Bad Company fame, who’s featured with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, and – like Don – clearly retains his love for drums and his drumming heroes all these years on.

“I don’t know if you know the story, but two or three times a year, around 40 of us get together to have a lunch – musicians, actors, writers and others – and there’s always this drummer there by the name of Clem Cattini, who started with The Tornados, best known for ‘Telstar’, which was a No.1 all over the bloody world! He then went into session drumming, and played drums on over 200 hit records, including 55 No.1s. What a record!

“He told us once he played on ‘Lily the Pink’ by The Scaffold in the morning, never knowing where he was going to next but having been booked for another session, packed his drums away then went to another studio and played on ‘It’s Not Unusual’ for Tom Jones. Clem’s incredible, and such a humble man as well. When you talk to him about certain records, he’ll say, ‘Yeah, I played drums on that’. Yet in those days it would just be like a union fee, so he got paid nothing really.”

Fiftieth Birthday: Slade’s Play It Loud LP, from 1970, with nine of its 12 tracks co-written by drummer Don Powell

Simon Kirke told me, I continued, about receiving a call from Ringo, inviting him to tour with the All-Starr Band, saying how grateful he was for that opportunity, having just gone through rehab after his own drinking problems, something both Ringo and Don could relate to.

“Yeah, that’s amazing, and I’ve also played drums with Ringo’s band. I was talking with this guy who dealt in vintage kits in Seattle, mentioned how Ringo was one of my favourite drummers, and he told me one of his friends was playing drums with him and had just started this tour.

“We then discovered he was doing a gig in Denmark, not far from where I live, and it was arranged for me to go along. And I got up on the night and played on ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ and ‘Give Peace a Chance’, the last two songs … and I’ve got the photographs to prove it, mate!”

For someone brought up on The Beatles and who still loves them, that must have been special.

“Yeah, they’re my favourite band. Ringo was great – just one of the lads. I didn’t really know how much he wanted to talk about The Beatles, but we got on to them playing places like the Shea Stadium, Ringo saying how there were no monitors in those days but you just played as a band.”

Getting on to Don’s current health, his first stroke was on Leap Day, February 29th, thankfully with his stepdaughter Emily – a doctor – at home when it happened. 

“Yeah, that was a weird thing. I was just watching TV, had a cup of tea by my side and couldn’t pick it up. I said to my wife I feel really strange, and luckily Hanne’s daughter was here. She said you’ve had a stroke, did some tests, and said to her Mum, ‘If he was my husband, I’d send him to hospital’. So they sent for an ambulance.”

Don classed that as a ‘small stroke’, and certainly seemed to confound the specialists – not for the first time – with his swift recovery. As for his latest episode in recent weeks, he was only kept in overnight.

“Well, I felt great, and the doctor said, ‘You’re not normal’. I don’t know what he meant by that! He just kicked me out, and I felt really good. But there’s no reason for it. It’s just one of those things.”

Fringe Benefits: Dave Hill, Don Powell, Noddy Holder and Jim Lea play ir proud in their Slade ’70s chart-topping days

At this point, I hear a voice in the distance, and Don sheepishly feels he better rephrase that.

“My wife’s just said it was stress-related … whatever that means.”

In fact, that second health scare was diagnosed as a TIA (Transient Ischaemic Attack). But whatever the medical disgnosis, I told Don he seemed to be the ultimate rock’n’roll survivor, what with the tragic events of ’73, his battle with the booze, surviving those two episodes this year, and many more hospital visits down the years.

As for his old bandmates, Dave Hill suffered a stroke in 2010, and Jim Lea’s had a major cancer battle. But Don, Dave, Jim and Noddy are all still here to tell the tales, an amazing five decades-plus after the band formed. They clearly constructed these Black Country boys well back in the post-war years.

“Yeah, there must have been something in the water!”

Do you feel 74?

“No! Not at all. But I tell you what, I never thought I’d get this far. I haven’t drunk alcohol since 1985 or 1986. I don’t think I’d have been here now if I had, especially (after my days drinking) with Ozzy (Osbourne).”

I’ve told many people the anecdote Don told me three years ago about how the day he gave up drinking was the day Sharon Osbourne, Ozzy’s wife, came at her husband and Don with a shotgun at their place, sick to the back teeth of their drunken antics.

“That’s it, yeah … but I will say that if it wasn’t for her, I think Ozzy would have been dead a long time ago. I know they’ve had their fights, but theirs is a great marriage, a very strong marriage.”

Loud Hailer: Dave Hill with Play It Loud, 50 years on (Photo: Slade Are For Life – Not Just for Christmas on Facebook)

Meanwhile, another year, another Slade compilation, and another chart hit, the latest collection – Cum on Feel the Hitz – cracking the UK top-10. Clearly the appetite’s still there for the band and their music.

“Yeah, it’s amazing. You see all this stuff and think, ‘How much further can you go?’ But people still want to hear it. And you forget how much stuff we recorded until people come up and mention they’re doing a compilation, me thinking, ‘I’d forgotten all about that song!’”

And it’s nice that all four of you were behind the release. I won’t dwell on the fall-out (Don initially announcing he’d been ‘sacked via email’ by friend and bandmate of 57 years Dave in February, the particulars of which Dave soon insisted were inaccurate), but when was the last time you spoke direct to the others?

“Like I said, it must have been some time ago now. We’d have had one of our lunches at the beginning of December … but because of this crap that’s been going on … I’d have seen Nod there. I haven’t really spoken to anyone for a while now, but nothing’s been going on really.”

There was a photo on your website, showing a display of the latest compilation in an Australian record shop, and among the greatest hits sleeves was a copy of Slade Alive, which was apparently the biggest-selling LP in Australia in the 1970s. Is that true?

“Yep, it actually outsold Sgt. Pepper. We did our first tour of Australia in 1973 and were trying to find out what we meant to people down there before, which was more difficult to find out in those days, without the internet and all that. When we landed in Sydney, all these cameras and photographers were waiting, and we were looking behind us wondering who was on the plane with us – who were they waiting for? But it was because of the success of Slade Alive, and it was non-stop from there – a great tour. There was us, Status Quo and Lindisfarne …”

Our mutual friend, another Dave Hill, the North East publicist, was talking to me recently about that tour, having heard a fair bit about it through his past conversations with Lindisfarne (Dave Ian Hill, as he calls himself in print to avoid any confusion, wrote Fog on the Tyne: The Official History of Lindisfarne in 1998. He told me Caravan were on the tour too. That’s a fairly eclectic mix. 

“It was incredible. We were travelling on the same tour bus and they (the radio) was playing Slade stuff all the time, all the other bands saying, ‘Oh no, not you lot again!’. But it was a great tour and us and Quo have been mates ever since.”

Dun Deal: Don Powell’s splendid biography, Look Wot I Dun – My Life in Slade, written with Lise Lyng Falkenberg

Back up to date, we had some sad news recently about Dave Kemp, a friend of the band since the Summer of 1972 who went on to work closely with yourself and Jim Lea and was involved with a couple of Slade websites and fans’ pages, as well as more recently managing female tribute band Slady.

“Yeah, very sad, He was very poorly. We’d been mates since the ‘70s. It just so happened that we lived near each other in London. I remember going to the supermarket one day, he was there, and that was it.”

I only had a couple of dealings with Dave, but he seemed a lovely fellow.

“Yes, a lovely bloke, and like you say he was looking after my website and did a great job. And he’s been over here (in Denmark) a couple of times, him and his wife. Yeah, very sad.”

Within six months of your first stroke this year, you were playing drums on a cover of ‘Far Far Away’ with Danish band The Glam in August. There’s clearly still plenty of love for Slade on your doorstep.

“That’s it, and I was with them recently as well, doing a couple of gigs. Lovely blokes. They’ve got their own studio, not far from where we live. I’ve been down there a few times. Really nice guys.”

It got a bit confusing earlier this year, because we’ve got the Don Powell Band now, we’ve already mentioned the Ex-Men, and there’s also Don Powell’s Occasional Flames, releasing a single this summer.

“Yeah, and the stuff we recorded some time ago, I think that should be coming out sometime around now, another album we’ve done.”

What name will that go out under?

“I don’t know at the moment. It’s just going to be an online sort of thing.”

Great Pals: Don Powell with website hired help anbd all-round good mate Dave Kemp, close friends for many years

Don’s certainly kept himself busy, and was back at the drum kit by early June after his first stroke. As stepson Andreas put it in a family statement, ‘And they said he would never play drums again … honestly I think our neighbours hoped the doctors were right!’

Meanwhile, it’s now 50 years since Play it Loud was released. When was the last time you listened to that LP all the way through?

“Recently actually, as someone else mentioned the same thing. That was the first time we went into a proper studio with Chas Chandler (The Animals bass player turned Jimi Hendrix Experience then Slade manager). In fact, it was the old Olympic Studio in Barnes (South West London), where the Stones used to record. And Hendrix. It’s sadly closed down now.”

You were co-writing some great songs with Jim Lea then. The credits suggest all nine originals among its 12 tracks, including four of my favourites on that record – ‘One Way Hotel’, ‘Pouk Hill’ (an account of the band’s first album cover photoshoot), and both sides of the single that pre-empted that LP, ‘Know Who You Are’ (a reworking of instrumental ‘Genesis’, the opening track of Beginnings, the previous LP, credited to Ambrose Slade) and ‘Dapple Rose’, written by Don about an old horse he recalled from his days living with his folks. Oddly, another Don-penned lyric was ‘I Remember’, its lyric about amnesia (‘I take a long deep look at the things that I took, but it still isn’t clear’) pre-dating his memory issues a few years down the line.

I often wondered, I put to him, why he didn’t carry on with the songwriting to that same extent.

“Well, yeah, and me and Jim basically wrote that album, but when Nod and Jim came up with ‘Coz I Luv You’, we realised they could do it. And it just worked out they could do it quicker and better, so soon enough I handed over to them.”

Put it that way, and you see the logic, that October ’71 single the band’s first of many UK No.1’s, the die cast. And five decades on, I’m probably as surprised as Don watching via his website and social media pages how many tickets, posters, reviews and old pictures have been unearthed from gigs back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, be those for Slade, The ‘N Betweens, or The Vendors … quite a treasure trove.

“Yeah, it’s amazing really, and it still only seems like yesterday.”

That record: 'Merry Xmas Everybody' still has a life of its own, 47 years after its initial release

That record: Slade’s festive evergreen ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ has a life of its own, 47 years after its release

Now the hard-hitting question … and surely he knew it was coming at some point. Has he switched on the radio or TV and heard that song these past few weeks?  

“Yeah, it’s amazing really. We always called it ‘that record’. I’ve said this many times before, but we’ve had 24 hits, yet some people only remember us for that one! But it’s great really. I’d have never thought it would still be out there.”

I guess you’ve been home-based lately, so maybe haven’t heard it so much, but do people still call and say, ‘It’s on the radio again!’

“Yeah, or I’m in the supermarket and it’s playing over the system, or if I’m in a garage somewhere. I think the worst thing is when I’m in a lift with a lot of people, and it’s playing in there!”

More or less proving his point, I told him how I was listening to Sara Cox on BBC Radio 2 the Friday teatime before our Monday morning interview, driving back from the chippy while the host was talking to a woman from Staffordshire – based around 15 miles from Don’s Bilston roots – whose hubby, incidentally going by the name of Don, had retired from the Prison Service that day. And somehow I instinctively knew what song she’d request, the first time I’d heard it this year. I was only a couple of minutes from home, but had to sit on the drive on arrival until Sir Nod had declared his annual ‘It’s Christmas!’ announcement to the nation.

“Brilliant! And I still remember the day we recorded that song. I think I’ve told you before. It was a heatwave in New York, around 100 degrees, and there we were recording that record!”

Whild Life: Jim Lea co-wrote several tracks with Don Powell in the early days, before Noddy stepped up to the plate

So what’s the plan this Christmas for you? Will it be a quiet one at home with Hanne and the family?

“Yeah, all the kids will be round, and Hanne’s parents. We’ll have a massive Christmas lunch here, there’ll be kids and grandkids opening presents, and what have you – it’s gonna be a big family situation.”

And what were your family Christmases like in the Black Country, growing up. Were those happy days?

“Yeah, fantastic. It’s always been a family thing. Mum and Dad always insisted we were all there for Christmas lunch, and all that kind of thing. Dad would go to the pub at lunchtime and have a couple of pints before he came back, and then we all had Christmas lunch together.”

And after all you’ve been through – again and again, as your old Quo mates put it – maybe you should let us in on the secret. What’s the Don Powell recipe for survival? The love of a good partner and family, and walks through the forest?

“Yeah, a bit of all that really. We live right by all the lakes here, which is fantastic, so it’s all that and time with the family.”

Until he’s back out there making ‘noize’ again of course … hopefully very soon.

Home Again: Don Powell taking it easy back in September at home in Denmark, his base for several years, where clearly it’s still all about the kits (Photo courtesy of Slade Are For Life – Not Just For Christmas via Facebook)

For a link back to WriteWyattUK‘s December 2017 feature/interview with Don Powell, head here. And for Don’s official website, head here, for his official Facebook page try here, for the Don Powell’s Occasional Flames page try here, and for the Don Powell Band’s Facebook page, head here.

For December 2018’s feature/interview with Dave Hill, head here, for July 2018’s feature/interview with Jim Lea, head here. And to catch up with this website’s first feature/interview with Dave Hill, from December 2015, head here. You can also check out the lowdown on Noddy Holder’s live show with Mark Radcliffe in May 2013 via this link, and a WriteWyattUK appreciation of Slade from December 2012 here.  

Think that’s about it for now, folks. Keep on rockin’, and Merry Xmas Everybody!

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More songs about water and power, This is the Kit style – the Kate Stables interview

New Kit: Kate Stables, aka This is the Kit, fresh from her enforced Paris lockdown (Photo copyright: Ph. Lebruman)

This is the Kit’s latest long player, Off Off On, is a record that quickly gets under your skin, somehow tapping into key themes of this testing year, despite being written pre-pandemic.

The alias of Kate Stables (guitar, banjo, vocals) – in this case joined by Rozi Plain (bass/vocals), Neil Smith (guitar), Jesse D Vernon (guitar/keyboards), and Jamie Whitby-Coles (drum/vocals) – This is the Kit seemed to be ahead of the curve in a year in which the old ‘normal’ was severely tested.

Kate also touches on mental health and ‘not so much mood swings as brain swings’ across 11 evocative tracks. How does she feel she’s coped amid all 2020’s thrown our way?

 “These past few months have been quite a rollercoaster ride through all kinds of different emotional weather systems. I think this has probably been the case for most people. It’s an intense time of coming to terms with what is happening in the outside world, pandemic-wise but also politically, and environmentally.

“Lots to think about and lots to feel frustrated about. And lots of ways in which you wish you could help but can’t or don’t know where to start. Lots of time to think about all the problems but not being able to get out and do anything is really weird.”

Kate’s Lockdown #2 was spent at home in Paris, and got off to a rather inauspicious start.

“It started off pretty bad as me and my family all got Covid, so for a solid two weeks or so we were very much out of action and feeling ill. But looking back it was probably the best time for it to have happened. Although ideally it wouldn’t have happened at all!

“This year seems to be one huge year of learning how to roll with the punches.”

You certainly seemed to get the new LP recorded just in time.

 “Yes, luckily. Quite the fluke! We finished in the studio a couple of days before everything got clamped shut. It felt very lucky that we were able to get the recording done in time.

“It also just felt really lucky that we were able to have such a brilliant time together for a week before not being able to see each other for the best part of a year. One last hoorah before there was no more hoorah-ing for quite some time.”

With roots in Hampshire and a lot of time during her career in Bristol, has she managed to travel at all lately, or is it mostly phone or video calls with band, friends and family?

 “Not really any travelling, apart from the odd trip in France. It’s actually been quite nice to just be here. I’ve been doing lots of cycling, which has been a lifesaver and a sanity saver.

“My partner Jesse runs a community orchestra here, and they organised an outside socially-distanced bike tour this summer. I was able to go on that, and it was brilliant. Cycling all day every day and playing outdoor gigs and camping for a couple of weeks in Brittany. I feel really lucky we were able to do that this summer.” 

There are several recurring themes on this new record, and one you go back to time and again is water and power. Was that iniitally down to rehearsing in wintry, rural Wales, before recording at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios (near Bath)?

Keeping Going: Kate Stables is proving there’s life beyond the coronavirus (Photo copyright: Ph. Lebruman)

“Any reoccurring themes that are in my music and albums are always accidental. I never set out with a plan for a concept album or anything like that. Not yet anyway!  It’s only after I finish the songs and start listening to the recordings that I start to notice reoccurring themes and ideas.

“But it’s true that water and power are mentioned in this record. I think, accidentally, water always makes its way into my albums and songs.

“I can see that I’ve been thinking about power a bit more recently though. Not just political power or power in terms of control over something or someone, but power in the sense of ability. Ability to do something. Self-belief. Inhibition. Emotional strength. Things like that.”

The promo video for the splendid single, ‘Coming to Get You Nowhere’ tells its own tale about those remote Welsh ‘cold-water’ album rehearsals.

“I like to think places play an important part in the outcome of the work that gets done. It affects the feeling and energy between the people working together in that place, so in that way it definitely affects the outcome of the work. But I like to think there are more mysterious hard to pin-point influences a place has as well.”

I get the feeling on some songs you must have been near some raging torrent or a hydro-electro power station.

“Ha ha! I hadn’t thought about it until now, but at Real World there’s a river and a lock, and it had been raining quite a lot – the river and floodgates were definitely quite raging in places. Hopefully it’s that you can hear. All those ions!”

Shouldn’t you have been out touring this autumn? And if so, have those dates now been  rescheduled? I see there’s a Royal Albert Hall date (at least pencilled in) this April.

“Yes, all the gigs that were originally planned for just after the release of the album have now been shoved to later dates. They’ve maybe even had a couple of shoves by now. Everyone is working on a kind of week-by-week basis, gig-wise, at the moment. It’s all pretty touch and go.

“I really hope all the amazing and important independent venues and promoters are able to tread water long enough to stay afloat through all this. There have been a few socially-distanced shows added in January though, which I wasn’t expecting. Fingers crossed they’ll go ahead!”

This latest long player makes it five albums in barely a dozen years, starting with Krulle Bol in 2007, then Wriggle Out the Restless (2010) and Bashed Out (2015), with Off Off On preceded by fellow Rough Trade release Moonshine Freeze, released a decade after her debut. Does each new record tell the story of where you’re at during that spell?

“I don’t think I’m someone who has really ever thought about where I’m heading. My main goal is just to keep at it and make sure I’m still enjoying it. There’s no beginning or end or arriving for if you ask me. There’s just doing it and still doing it or doing it differently to before. So in that respect I think each record tells its own story of that particular time.

“I guess lining them all up and looking at them analytically there’s probably some kind of journey that could be mapped. People do grow and change after all. But mainly each album is its own thing, I think.”

Was working with Josh Kaufman (Yellowbirds, The National, The Hold Steady, Muzz, Bonny Light Horseman, having also collaborated with Taylor Swift on both her Folklore and Evermore LPs in 2020) what you thought it would be? He seems to have brought something out of you that works, for sure.

“Yes! It was every bit as excellent as I’d hoped. Maybe even more so? He’s such a pleasure to hang out with and make music with. He really knows his craft and is great with people. A really great person to work with.”

And is Peter Gabriel still involved at Real World?

“Ha ha, yes it’s still his studio, I believe. And the Womad offices are based there as well. I don’t think he lives there any more though. He wasn’t about when we were there. Not that I was aware of anyway. All the staff and engineers who work there are so great, so welcoming and friendly. A really top troupe. We were working with an engineer called Oli (Middleton), who was a frickin’ angel.”

It’s one of my favourite LPs of 2020, and opening track ‘Found Out’ sets the bar high. For me, there are echoes of Sandy Denny-era Fairport Convention through to Judie Tzuke and onwards, but with that sense of quirk we expect from Kate and co. It’s very much a This is the Kit record.

‘Started Again’ is another that soon resonates, ‘rocks and water’ at its heart. And while she talks about ‘This is What You Did’ as a ‘bit of a panic attack song’, isn’t it also another about coming to terms with how things are, taking strength from that?

“Yes, for sure. Coming to terms with things. But also saying them out loud to kind of exercise any negative thoughts. Things like that. We can get in a bit of a funk sometimes when we don’t talk about things enough or get outside enough. That song speaks a lot about that.”

‘No Such Thing’ offers further moments of multi-layered subtle beauty, with lovely vocals from you. There’s a real band feel here and elsewhere. And this time the water turns into electricity between people. I first heard it as ‘feed the current between you and me’, and I guess there’s a link. Then, ‘Slider’ has a more reflective late-night feel, ripe for further soul-searching. Was that part of the appeal of Paris for you – the place it becomes after dark?

“Ha ha. Paris after dark is nice. But for me it’s particular neighbourhoods in the daytime I love. Neighbourhoods where people are out using shared public space and kind of reclaiming the streets. Using the benches, parks and basketball courts and just hanging out, as often there’s not much space inside.”

Are you missing the human interaction of nightlife right now?

“Missing human interaction of any time of day! Missing human interaction in general. But it’s true that there’s something about being at a gig and being with people in that way that I really miss. There is something really great about being out with people at night and sharing the experience of a gig. I really miss that.”

I get the feeling that mantra of  ‘making time, losing time’ is about belief and those days when we perhaps don’t feel strong enough to fight for what we want.

“Yes, sure. But it’s also just about our relationship with time and how we use it, and how disciplined we are with ourselves. There’s a great Jeffrey Lewis song, ‘Time Trades’, which sums it up very well indeed. He wrote a perfect song about it. All I could manage was the phrase ‘making time, losing time, making time’. Ha ha!”

‘Coming to Get You Nowhere’ is gorgeous, and you never lose that strong sense of melody throughout. And while you ask for ‘energy, energy please’, it seems you’ve already got it here.

“Ha ha! That line has a few different meanings, I guess. Yes, asking for more energy but also asking people to tone it down a bit and not give off such chaotic high energy. To consider the other people in the room and their feelings and energy.”

​‘Carry Us Please’ is an important part of the LP’s more inspirational ethos, I sense. ‘But you won’t make this change by slagging things off, go get some ideas’. Is this the most political song here?

It is a political song, yes, but there’s other political songs on the album too. Hard to say who wins the election, so to speak. But yes, ‘Carry Us Please’ does talk about social and political responsibility, and that line in particular is about how bitchy society has become. Especially with things like Twitter. People spend so much energy on feeding each other negativity and bullying each other. No problem is going to get solved that way. It’s a waste of time energy and server space.”

On the title track, there are echoes of your namesake Kate Bush. It’s clearly deeply personal, but – like t’other Kate – you look at things differently, with a call to move on, despite contrasting emotions.

“It’s about patterns and cycles and the way we as humans explain the universe to ourselves. Patterns of lights, cycles of activity. Daily routines. Sun up, sun down. Things like that. And to not take things for granted. ‘To assume makes and ass out of you and me’, as the saying goes.”

‘Shinbone Soap’ seems to be a further example of your ‘night-time mind race and morning day dread’, yeah? And I note that the water’s turned to quicksand here!

“Ha ha! Good liquid to not quite solid spot. It’s actually for me quite a calm and contemplative song. Not so much panicking. It’s thinking about our actions and the things we do that get us stuck, even though we know we shouldn’t be doing them. It’s about memory and physical sensations. Smell, taste, temperate touch. And a sense of belonging or not.”

Then, ‘Was Magician’ sets us up nicely for the climax, and this time it seems to be about inner power –    

‘But the power, it was in her, to control it and to use it’.

Yes, again the idea of ‘pouvoir’, the ability to use your own forces, will, strength. It’s only just occurred to me but a while ago I did a cover of a friend’s song and the song was called ‘Du Pouvoir’, and my understanding of her song – a brilliant artist called Halo Maud, on Heavenly Records – is in part of the ability we have and the acknowledgement of that ability and of the power we have. Very similar to ‘Was Magician’.  I’d not thought of that before.”

And then we’re away on the splendid ‘Keep Going’. In a sense it’s part three of a trilogy on this record, after ‘Carry Us Please’ then ‘Was Magician’ – finding ways forward, then getting on with it, overcoming all barriers; that resolute thinking behind ‘This love has been ours, this love is ours, this love is still ours’.  

“Yes, I hope so. Resolute thinking and finding ways forward. Very nicely put.”

And when the vaccine finally does its job, the virus is done for and we’re free again, what’s the first thing you think you’ll do as the shutters come up and we return to the outside world again?

“I really miss swimming! I just want to go to one of Paris’ many excellent municipal swimming pools and plough up and down for as long as possible. I really miss swimming pools. And libraries. I miss all the public services and amenities! Libraries, pools, community centres! We need them!”

Eye Level: Kate Stables, aka This is the Kit, ready to return to the road as soon as (Photo copyright: Ph. Lebruman)

For more information and how to get hold of Off Off On and other This is the Kit releases, check out the band’s website and Kate’s Facebook and Twitter links.

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Songs of Yesterday and today – talking Free, Bad Company and more with Simon Kirke

Free Spirits: Simon Kirke, Paul Kossoff, Andy Fraser and Paul Rodgers, backstage, Summer 1970 (Photo: Lucy Piller)

Whichever side of the Atlantic you’re based, you won’t need reminding what a wretched year we’ve somehow clambered through. But Simon Kirke is feeling relatively chipper now, with 2021 firmly in his sights.

While coronavirus continues to ravage America, this drumming legend’s base this last quarter-century, the vaccines are on their way, he’s ecstatic that President Trump is finally on his way out of office, and he can think about touring again soon. But what odd times, eh?

“It’s been a perfect storm really, especially here, with Trump. Most of us are ecstatic that he’s going, but the last few months have been very dark, with his inaction and inability to bring this country together and at least curb the spread of this pandemic. We have a terrible, terrible mortality rate over here.

“Right now, I’m on Long Island, right at the end, pretty far away from the city. If we didn’t look at the TV, we wouldn’t know there was a pandemic going on. But soon as we go back into the city, it’s terrible. But you know, he’s gone, dragging his heels, but we’re glad to see the back of him.”

It does seem that things finally look a little brighter ahead, changing for the better, hopefully.

“I think so. We’ve never seen anything like it in our lives. You’d have to go back to the Spanish flu in 1918. There’s the UK, and my brothers live in France and the Czech Republic and it’s pretty bad there too, but it seems that a vaccine’s just around the corner. It’s just getting people to take it and trust it. I mean, what does it take? It’s 260,000-plus dead here. Unbelievable what it’s done in nine months, it’s just ravaged this country, with 12 million infected.

“There’s no work for the rock’n’roll industry, but I guess we can get that another time. I was talking with Mick Fleetwood a few weeks ago and we were saying, ‘What the fuck are we going to do when we get the green light? We’ve got around 60 bands who want to go out on the road, maybe we should go out in a package, six big bands at a time, like the old Motown and Stax revues, going out together, playing 45 minutes. That’s in a dream world – it’s not going to happen – but I just want to go out and work again.”

Pandemic aside, it seems that New York life suits you. You’ve been there a long time.

“It’s 25 years now. I always liked New York. It’s a big city and it’s got pros and cons, but I like America, Trump aside and what he’s done to the country. It’ll be a long time before it’s healed again.

“We left England when John Major was in power, and over 50 years I’ve got to know the country well. With my ex-wife, we brought the kids over, they loved it, and we’ve made a good home for ourselves. I’m not saying I’ll finish my days in this country. I don’t know. But at the moment, it’s a pretty good country.”

Ever get a chance in recent years to get back to your Lambeth roots and around London? Or is that just consigned to the memory banks?

“That’s where I was born, and I spent the first seven or eight years of my life in London. Then we went to Watford and from there out to the border of Wales, up around Shrewsbury and Ludlow.”

A nice part of the world.

“Yes, my formative years were spent – from eight to 17 before I left for London – up there. Then, after success with Free and Bad Company I spent around 25 years in London. I do miss London, a city I call home. There’s a certain … I’m trying to think of the word … refinement maybe.

“I like the manners of the English. Americans tend to be a little brusque and pushy, and you can’t tell them what to do. That’s why we’ve got such a raging pandemic here. I miss London and that refinement. For the most part it’s a gentle country in areas … although you’ve only got to go to a Chelsea vs Spurs match to see that other side!”

I should add that Simon’s a Chelsea fan, but I won’t hold that against him. It’s his birth-right, after all, even if he was born on the Surrey side of the river.

My excuse for our conversation is David Roberts’ recently-published Rock’n’Roll Fantasy: The Musical Journey of Free and Bad Company. It provides a cracking read, recalling the fast-living exploits of an influential blues-rock phenomenon and the mega-successful (particularly in America) outfit that followed in their wake, the latter co-founded by Simon, Paul Rodgers and ex-Mott the Hoople guitarist Mick Ralphs in ’73.

Within an impressive and somewhat weighty, colourful 400-page hardback tome, we get insightful testimonies from band members, insiders and fans alike, bringing epic stories back to life, with druming icon Simon and acclaimed bluesy vocalist Paul Rodgers at the heart of a five-decade trip taking readers from bedroom practises and the late–‘60s pub and club circuit to packed halls and stadia across the world. Was it a good feeling to see the finished product, Simon?

“Oh, I think it’s a wonderful book, and I’ve always liked the idea of oral history. It’s a very good idea and I love the layouts, the photos … Lucy (Piller), our fan club secretary for over 50 years now, who runs the whole show as far as I’m concerned, did a great job, and it’s quite humbling to hear some of the quotes attributed to fans who wrote in. It’s lovely.”

Boss Koss: Paul Kossoff, caught backstage during those early days of the Free story (Photo: Lucy Piller)

I guess you’re frequently reminded how much people appreciate the bands you’ve played in. But it must still give you a warm glow seeing that all recorded in print.

“I have to say Free held more affection in England than in America. For some reason we tapped into something. We were only really around four years – ‘68 till ‘72. The following year was pretty fraught with tragedy, but for some reason we settled in the hearts of many, many people in England.

“That’s so evident in some of the quotes, and we still get letters on our websites and through social media from people now in their 60s and 70s, so affectionate towards me and Paul, and of course Koss and Andy, who are no longer with us.”

Paul Rodgers and Simon, the survivors of that initial legendary group, clearly retain their love for the profession and continue to inspire old and young fans alike. But the book also provides a fitting tribute to Free guitar legend Paul Kossoff, lost in March 1976, and bass maestro Andy Fraser, who died five years ago.

The book also pays homage to Bad Company’s ex-King Crimson bass player Boz Burrell, involved from the early days – their 16th auditonee, according to Simon – to 1982 and again from ’86/’87 then ’98/’99, passing away aged 60 in 2006. And while the story of the band from 1986/94 seems to be airbrushed out – with no mention of Paul’s vocal replacement Brian Howe, who died in May this year, aged 66 – that was hardly a period in which they were on form, even though they continued to shift lots of units.

Meanwhile, chart positions tell their own tale, Free scoring seven UK top-10 LPs (Fire and Water and compilation The Free Story both reaching No.2) and four UK top-10 singles (‘All Right Now’ charting twice, reaching No.2 first time), while Bad Company failed to make an impact in the UK beyond 1982’s Rough Diamonds, despite the first three LPs going top-five (although 2010’s The Very Best of Free & Bad Company Featuring Paul
Rodgers
reached the top-10), with three top-40 singles. However, across the Atlantic, Fire and Water was the only Free LP to dent the US top-20, yet Bad Company went platinum many times over, continuing to make an impact on the US charts in the ’90s. And it’s fair to say the latter band never matched the critical acclaim on these shores afforded Free, as Simon duly acknowledges.

“With Bad Company, I was reminded of something I read about The Beatles. When they left for London, there was almost a wake held in Liverpool, because they knew that once they got there, their talent would be spread all over the world from there. I think the same held true with Free.

“Once we broke up and splintered, when Paul (Rodgers), myself and Mick (Ralphs) formed Bad Company and came over to America, that affection for Free never really carried over to Bad Company the way it did in America. A lot of people here thought we were an American band, but we’d say ‘No way, we’re from England, mate! Don’t you worry!”

You say at any given moment somewhere in the world a Free or Bad Company song is being played. What were the strangest circumstances in which you heard a record you played on?

“Well, this is the story of all stories! In 1971 I was in America, we’d finished a tour and I borrowed a car from someone in our record company, taking off north from Los Angeles up Route 5. I was caught speeding, and the cops searched the car and found a little roach, a joint. Back in those days that was a federal offence, I was arrested and spent the next six days in jail in Salinas, California.

“During my stay they piped music every now and again into the cells, and I heard ‘All Right Now’. The guys in the cell said, ‘What’s that music?’ I said, ‘That’s my band!’ They said, ‘Cool. What’s the name of the band?’, I said Free, and they just cracked up!”

You say how you were mesmerised by the drums from the start, the moment you saw All That Jazz on an old black and white TV set. And from Buddy Rich to Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts, plus Motown’s in-house drummers and the likes of Booker T & the MG’s and Stax Records’ Al Jackson Jr.,  you were, as you put it, ‘transfixed’. Do you still have that enduring love, through either playing or listening to fellow drummers?

“Oh, without a doubt! That’s a very good question. I’ve been playing nearly 60 years now, and still love playing drums. I’ve just done an album with an English band, LoneRider, and it’s fantastic – playing with Steve Overland (formerly with FM, and with whom Simon guested in pre-FM outfit Wildlife) and Steve Morris on guitar was so good, sort of resurrecting my love for playing drums.

“I’m not a big technician – I don’t sit down and do paradiddles on the kit. My love of drums only comes when I’m actually playing. I’ll be honest with you – I don’t practise. I spend more time playing guitar and at the piano now. That awakens other things in me. But once I got playing along with this second Lonerider album over the summer (their follow-up to Attitude), I played the best drums I’ve ever played.”

From the tracks I’ve heard, I agree. And all that certainly suggests you’re not just going through the motions all these years on.

“Oh no, and doing it by myself, just playing along to the track without any people in the room, was rather strange, but really works, and I was a good taskmaster to myself. If I didn’t think it worked, I’d just do another take. I have my own studio, it worked really well, and I still love playing – that’s the bottom line.”

That also seems to take you full circle from your teenage apprenticeship playing at local dances on the Welsh borders, adding live drums to hits of the day.

“Ha! That’s a very good connection. I hadn’t thought of that.”

Remind me how you got that first gig.

“That was from my school bus driver, Mr Lane. He had a stack of 45s and a couple of turntables in a sort of forerunner to discos, and we’d go around village halls. One minute he’d play Jim Reeves’ ‘She’ll Have To Go’ or ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ by The Beatles, ‘Baby Love’ by The Supremes …

“A whole different array of songs over about three hours, and I’d have to play along and keep in time, otherwise it would sound like a train-wreck! That was around Clun, Craven Arms, Knighton, Ludlow, Bishop’s Castle, that whole area on the border between Shropshire and Wales. Yeah, I’d never thought of that connection, but it helped me to be able to play to other people’s songs when they weren’t there.”

On your website, it mentions your ‘powerful backbeat drumming’, and you describe your style as ‘simple and solid and powerful where necessary’. That’s not a bad code to live life really, is it?

“Ha ha! Keep it simple. Yeah, that’s true.”

It seems to me that 1968 marked the beginning of the Free story, starting with your Underground ride across South West London to see the Black Cat Bones at the Nag’s Head in Battersea. You were clearly impressed with Koss, if not his band. Did it strike you straight away that you’d like to be in a band with him?

“I’d been given two years by my parents to make something of this or knuckle down and go to university. I had pretty good exam results (Simon keeping up his studies for two years to do A-levels before heading to London to try and make his name). So when I went to the Nag’s Head, there was a kind of air of desperation, as this was the last month of the 24 months.

“I was quite resigned to it – I’d had a go and it hadn’t happened. I literally tossed a coin to go out that night or stay in Twickenham, heads being for the Nag’s Head. Luckily enough it came down heads. And when I say luckily enough, that’s the understatement of the century! If I’d stayed in Twickenham, I wouldn’t be talking to you now.

“When I saw Koss, he just blew me away. He was so good, set apart from the other four guys in the band, who were older than him by a few years. The drummer wasn’t very good. He was dragging, I remember to this day trying to urge him along, speed up a little.

“When Koss came off stage at the end of the first set, I said to him, ‘You’re a really good player, wow! But I don’t think your drummer’s very good.’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s funny you should say that. Tonight’s his last night. We’re auditioning drummers tomorrow.’ So yeah, that was the start of it all.”

It was clearly meant to be.

“Yeah, and I should have framed that coin I tossed!”

Master Vocalist: Paul Rodgers with Bad Company on 1979’s US Rock’n’Roll Fantasy tour (Photo: Lyndy Lambert)

Was it a similar feeling seeing Paul Rodgers sing and Andy Fraser play bass that first time?

“Oh yeah! Koss had told me about this singer that he’d jammed with, in secret as the other Black Cat Bones would have been upset. He said, ‘I met this singer who was so good. I want to form a band with him. Would you like to be the drummer?’

“We went up to this big house in North London, in Golders Green, and this guy opened the door, looking a little uncomfortable that I was there. I only found out later he was also a drummer, Paul Rodgers had befriended him, and he was up for the job.

This guy, Andy Borenius, sadly no longer with us, it was his house and his kit, so when we walked into this very big living room, with a little kit there and a PA set up, Andy Borenius played the first couple of songs, and I knew straight away he wasn’t the guy for the job. He was very jazzy, and we had a solid backbeat.

“When I played, it didn’t even occur to me that he was also up for the job. I played a little shuffle and slow blues, then me and Koss left after an hour or so, Koss calling me the next day asking if I’d like to be in this band that the two Pauls were forming. It was years later that I learnt Andy Borenius was really upset I’d come along and kind of stolen his gig!

“As for Andy Fraser, we found him through Alexis Korner …”

Alexis (who Simon describes in the Homegrown interview linked below as ‘like the godfather of the British blues scene’) was a great supporter, wasn’t he?

“Yes, and I don’t have to tell you about Alexis, whereas over here I have to explain who he was. Anyway, Alexis told Koss, ‘You have to see this kid … and I mean he’s a kid’. He’d just got the boot from John Mayall’s band, but that wasn’t a big deal to be let go by him. That band was like a college. You came and served your apprenticeship, then left after a few months.

“Alexis told us Andy was really good and we’d have to go and see him. We were like, ‘Yeah, okay, 15 years old – how good can he be?’ But we were just knocked sideways! I still remember seeing him at Ken Collyer’s club in London, me and the two Pauls. We were like, ‘Fucking hell! Who is this guy!’ He was unbelievable!”

Andy Fraser reckoned that when the four of them first jammed upstairs at the Nag’s Head, ‘It was instant magic – we all knew it.’ Many times I’ve read about those big moments when bands come together and it just seems right, whether it’s just about brotherhood, shared dreams or manifestos. In Free’s case, the bonding moment seemed to be about Monday nights at Andy’s mum’s house in Roehampton, playing Motown and Stax records, yeah?

“Ha! You’ve done your homework. Yeah, I’ve never known a band before or since who did that, but I believe it was Andy’s idea, and he had a very good system – Wharfedale speakers and a Leak amplifier. How do I remember that? Well, I do!

“We didn’t just play Stax, we played some classical music. I was really into Mozart and Bach, and we played a lot of Beatles of course. But foremost it was Stax and Motown – that’s how we bonded those Monday nights, and I believe that really cemented us musically for quite a while.”

There’s a lovely description in the book from Mick Austin about June 15th, 1968 at another Nag’s Head, this one in Wollaston, Northamptonshire, Mick having gone along to see Alexis Korner, who was also on the bill. His vivid portraits of the band members include talk of this ‘long, straight-haired muscle-bound man dressed in a red singlet and brown corduroy trousers’, adding, ‘I still recall him taking a few strokes of the snare drum, and I instantly knew (being a drummer myself) that this bloke wasn’t taking any prisoners.’ 

He also reckons Simon ‘really hit those drums like I’d never seen before’ and mentions how, ‘sweating, hair stuck to his face, facial contortions in competition with Kossoff’, the drummer looked ‘as though he would be equally at home in a boxing ring’.

“Ha! Well, in those days, I was all out, and with songs like ‘The Hunter’, ‘All Right Now’ and ‘I’m A Mover’, they’re all pretty hard-hitting songs, so there is a parallel there.”

You talk about having Guy Stevens at the controls for the first LP, Tons of Sobs, and how it was all about a live feel, cutting it in two days and mixing it in two more. You describe Guy as ‘very endearing … when he wasn’t hurling himself around the studio spilling wine’. I’ve read a lot about his 1978 sessions for The Clash’s London Calling LP. He was a character.

“A tortured genius, and knowing what I know about drink and drugs, I believe he was an addict with a substance abuse problem, but like most geniuses had this streak of madness and self-destruction about him. But what I liked about him was that we were very young and inexperienced and he had the ability to bridge the producer/artist continents, if you will, with endearing child-like behaviour.

“On one hand he was quite a serious producer, coming up with these great ideas, yet then he could be like us – almost like a kid, not serious at all. I think that was where his spark of magic lay.

First Footing: Free's 1969 debut, Tons of Sobs, with added 'genius' studio touches from Guy Stevens

First Footing: Free’s 1969 debut, Tons of Sobs, with added ‘genius’ studio touches from Guy Stevens

“Like his cross-fading on Tons of Sobs. We had this acoustic song, ‘Over the Green Hills’, a Paul Rodgers song, beautiful, and he said why don’t we have a cross-fade into the first song, then on the other side of the album the last song can cross-fade into the second part. What a great idea!

“Paul and Andy had written a couple of songs, quite a few actually, but overall he said, ‘Just play what you would normally play on stage’, and that’s basically what we did. Tons of Sobs was really our stage set, and most of it was (recorded) live.”

Moving on into Bad Company territory, you made me laugh when you rather succinctly explained the difference between Free and your next band as not only a bit more mature but also a lot more ‘free’, not bogged down with drinking and drugs … at least initially.

“It’s true. I’ve a lot of affection for Free … the good days in Free, breaking through, amassing the fanbase we got, amazing, with hundreds of gigs all over England. But looming over everything and the history of Free would be the drug use of Paul Kossoff, and how he went downhill so quickly. It breaks my heart that the appropriate action wasn’t taken – putting him in rehab. Simple as that.”

Was there a feeling of inevitability when you heard about Koss’ passing?

“I was upset – very much, I went off the rails for a few days with grief – but I wasn’t surprised. Back in the ‘70s there wasn’t the awareness of drug use there is today. And I speak from experience. I’m in recovery myself. Back in those days no one went to rehab. You just had a cup of tea, stayed at home a few weeks and got on with it. There was no 12-step programme.

“There was AA, which had been around a long time, but there weren’t the resources for recovery there are nowadays. And I still gripe and hold a little grudge, to be honest, that Island Records and the management were so effective in combating Koss’ addictions. They could have done more.

“Free reunited for the first time to help Koss, but he needed a longer stay in rehab, so that just poured fuel on the fire really. It was done with honourable intentions, but it didn’t work and ultimately I think it cost him his life.”

In 1994, my friend Neil Waite (who also contributed a Free top-10 feature for the splendid Toppermost website, linked here) saw you guesting with Paul Rodgers at The Forum, Kentish Town, for a couple of Free numbers, writing in this book how thrilled he was to see you invited on, reckoning you still had the ability to play drums with such energy and passion. And that seems to be how so many fans put it.

“I think so. Look, I’m 71 years old now, but I think I’m playing as good as I’ve ever played. In fact, going back to when I was using, I had youth on my side but didn’t have the head. I never really played stoned, it was always after the show, so I like to think the standard of my playing has remained pretty constant … without wanting to appear big-headed.

“But my life overall is so much better now I don’t drink, and you’ll have to listen to this new Lonerider album so you can judge for yourself.”

Going Solo: Simon’s third solo LP, All Because of You

By 1996 you were touring with Ringo Starr, for the first of three All-Star band tours to date. How did that make your inner teenage Beatles fan feel?

“It was a real honour, and I’m forever grateful to Ringo for taking a chance with me. I’d just got out of rehab and he called me – he didn’t even get his manager to do it – and my daughter said, ‘Ringo Starr’s on the phone,’ and I thought she was kidding.

“I picked up the phone and he said (adopts a great Ringo impression), ‘Hello, Simon,’ and added, ‘Would you like to do a tour? I’ve heard you’ve just got out of rehab.’ That’s how small a village we live in, in the rock’n’roll world! He said, ‘Do you think you can do it?’ I got a bit tearful, but said, ‘I’m willing to give it a shot’.

“And of course, Ringo is one of the patron saints of recovery – him and Eric Clapton are responsible for a lot of people getting sober, I believe. So I went out to LA to meet him, and our styles are quite similar – he’s very simple and solid, and of course one of my influences. And it was a great band – one of the best I’ve ever played in – with Peter Frampton, Jack Bruce, Gary Brooker … wonderful.

“After the first show in Seattle I was in my hotel room, and Ringo called me and said (adopts that impression again), ‘Well, I thought you were fucking great!’ And we both got a bit tearful. It was the start of a lovely relationship.”

I guess, to paraphrase John Lennon’s rooftop farewell with The Beatles at Savile Row in 1969, you’d passed the audition, a timely chance to bounce back presenting itself. And beside the downs, it’s certainly been a grand career. So what advice would you offer that young lad who used to play along with Beatles records and many more at those local dances back in the day?

“Ah, what a great question! Erm … don’t give up, you know. Look, it’s a different world to what it was 60 years ago, but I still believe you need to keep your head on straight. Don’t do drugs – it’s a waste of fucking time. Most kids are going to try it, peer pressure and whatever, but it never ever helped. Just believe in yourself, and practise.

“There’s no shortcut to success. If you practice and dedicate yourself, whatever instrument it is – I don’t care if it’s a bloody triangle! – just practise and listen to your peers. And just follow your heart, not your head – your head’s a mess sometimes. Ha ha!”

There was much more I’d loved to have got on to, not least Bad Company’s formative days on my old Surrey patch. Maybe next time though. Besides, I was acutely aware of the fact I’d promised a quick 15-minute chat and we’d already doubled up on that, Simon good enough to call me back after technical issues first time around. Instead, we said our goodbyes, me telling Simon it had been a pleasure talking with him, and how I appreciated his time and honesty.

“Well, an interview is only as good as the questions … and that was a very good interview.”

Drum Major: Simon Kirke behind the drum kit with Bad Company on their 1979 US tour (Photo: Lyndy Lambert)

For more details of Rock’n’Roll Fantasy: The Musical Journey of Free and Bad Company by David Roberts for this Day in Music Books, head here. And to check out Simon’s website and keep up to date with his various projects, follow this link. You can do the same with Paul Rodgers, heading here.

There’s also a revealing interview online from October, Simon joining Harry Wareing for Homegrown on LTV East Hampton, talking about everything from Red Cross volunteering in the aftermath of 9/11 to movie soundtrack scoring, life in the US, Free and Bad Company days, hia drug and drink battles, meeting his wife Maria Angelica at the Cutting Room, New York, and great anecdotes about friendship and meetings with various Rolling Stones, and great anecdotes involving Bob Marley and Ginger Baker. He also plays a lovely acoustic guitar version of Free’s ‘Love You So’, gives a snippet of his take on Bad Company’s ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love’, and finishes with the wonderful ‘Maria’, a song about his beloved from 2017 solo LP All Because of You. Just follow this link.

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Battling on amid the pandemic – Chorley Theatre’s inspirational survival story

Empire Building: Chorley Theatre, with its dedicated volunteers determined it will pull through (Photo: Ian Robinson)

“This was meant to be a big year for us. It marked the 110th anniversary of our building, plus 60 years since CADOS took control, 35 years of Chorley Youth Theatre, and 30 years since the Chorley Film Society started.

“It was all coming together, and we were set to celebrate by opening a second room to increase our capacity. But then … yeah, it’s all gone out of the window really.”

Chorley Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society (CADOS) chairman Ian Robinson is laughing, but you feel his pain. All celebratory and expansion plans postponed, uncertainty in the air. You still get the feeling and a strong belief that Chorley Theatre is here to stay though.

If you’re reading this wondering why I’m concentrating on a specific market town hub in my adopted county of Lancashire, well … let’s face it, it’s a situation so many of those working in or supporting the arts across the UK have gone through in recent months, a tale of frustration involving a community-run theatre which just happens to not be so far from my doorstep, illustrating pretty much perfectly the on-going national struggle to keep cherished venues alive amid this dreaded coronavirus pandemic and the protective restrictions that followed in its wake.

That said, even if you know the venue you may have taken your eye off the ball lately and are just spotting now that this theatre no long carries its middle name, ‘Little’. What was the thinking there, Ian?

“Part of it is that I don’t think we should define ourselves by our size. We’re the only theatre in Chorley, and now the Guild Hall (in nearby Preston) has closed one of the only venues of our type in the whole area. Also, historically, Chorley Little Theatre was the name of the venue CADOS performed in before we moved here. And with the Film Society now absorbed into the apparatus of the general theatre, it felt like it was the time to change, not least with the extension coming on.”

The extension? The theatre now runs to ‘the whole block’ at its base in Dole Lane, Chorley, including the premises of a former restaurant which stood between the venue and the (also now gone) offices of the Chorley Guardian newspaper, where this ex-journalist worked as a reporter from 1996/2006.

Live Laughs: Dan Nightingale in action at a between-lockdowns Manford’s Comedy Club night (Photo: Ian Robinson)

So now Chorley Theatre has two performance spaces, and when it eventually re-opens it will have a capacity across two rooms of 450. An exciting new era awaits, yes, but tradition remains important, and you’ll see from the photos that the impressive venue exterior still carries the Empire name, having initially opened in September 1910 as the Empire Picture House (I read elsewhere it was originally the Empire Electric Theatre, but apparently not), the town’s second electric cinema and first purpose-built flicks. In fact, a little scouting around online (not least via impressive US website Cinema Treasures) suggests this Lancashire market town alone has lost eight cinemas of various forms over the years, the first – the Hippodrome – on nearby Gillibrand Street built and opened in 1909, converted into a supermarket by the late-‘60s, that also now gone, its land reduced to car parking space opposite one of Chorley Theatre’s two ticket outlets, the Ebb & Flo bookshop.

As for the cinemas that followed the Empire in the centre of town, there was the Plaza from 1937 and fellow art deco picture house the Odeon, which opened the following year and continued to show films until 1971, soon after becoming a bingo  hall, the cost of removing asbestos recently deemed too high to save the structure, demolition imminent. As for the Plaza, which still holds affection for many around my age, that lasted until 1986, becoming a gym then converted with the rest of the building into flats and shops before being pulled down in 2012. But the Empire remains, and Ian reckons, “We’re one of the oldest surviving purpose-built cinemas in the UK … if not the world.”

Nothing’s taken for granted though, and in recent months venues across the country have had to prove their worth above others to survive. Are the Chorley Theatre team in contact with similar organisations going through those same dilemmas?

“We’re part of the community cinemas group, Cinema For all, and the British Film Institute’s Film Hub North, all part of a network, with regular events where we meet up … not for a while though! This year, the community cinemas conference was online, rather than us heading over to Sheffield and having a party. We missed out on that this year.”

In a sense, I guess you’re all in the same boat right now … struggling to stay afloat.

“We are. It’s all very tricky. But before we reopened in September, we visited the Dukes (in Lancaster), looking at what they’ve done, as we have with Southport’s Bijou Cinema. Yes, there’s been lots of sharing resources and ideas, and it’s helped a lot – you realise you’re not alone.”

And where are you at right now with regard to pandemic funding?

“We’ve done okay. It’s been frustrating going straight back into lockdown, but we managed to get funding over the summer through the ACE (Arts Council England) cultural recovery fund, part of £1.5bn the Government announced. We got £51,000 from that.

“That’s helped a lot and will keep us going, meaning the second lockdown hasn’t been quite as hard-hitting. We also got £9,000 from the BFI Film Vault, so the ACE funding will help us pay the bills and the BFI finding will help us pay for the films we put on, in turn helping us put more films on and generating more interest in the community. I need also acknowledge all those who very kindly donated via our GoFundMe campaign. That really helped. 

“But right now, we don’t know if we’re even going to be open over Christmas. That makes a difference as to how you plan, and planning is the most frustrating part of it all.”

Curtain Call: Ian Robinson facing the public at Chorley Theatre in January 2016 (Photo copyright: Chorley Guardian)

I spoke to Ian just before the latest Government announcement regarding the end of the second lockdown and return to the tier system, which turned out to be another tale of frustration for Chorley Theatre, with the entire county placed in tier three, much to his team’s frustration.

It was only on Saturday, October 31st that the venue held its first live event since the initial lockdown, a Manford’s Comedy Club bill (named on account of support from Salford-born comic, actor and presenter Jason Manford) topped by Dan Nightingale. The following night the theatre was advertising live music from The Swing Commanders ‘with socially-distanced seating, seat-service drinks and snacks, extra toilet capacity and enhanced cleaning’. But as it turned out, the theatre ‘went dark’ again soon after.

“Yes, we had Carl Hutchinson planned for November 7th, bringing him forward four days, but it was so frustrating, having spent thousands of pounds making the place Covid-secure. That’s not money we’re going to be able to get back. We’ve knocked a wall through, put barriers up, spent so much on sanitiser, we feel we’re really safe and audiences were starting to come back.

“We also had (National Theatre live screening) Fleabag, which did pretty well, then 90-odd for the comedy club event, and again for Carl. Word was getting out, people saying how safe they felt.

“If we’re in tier three from here the word is that indoor venues aren’t going to open again … even though we feel we’re safer than many other places, with social distancing, table service for drinks, loads of toilets, track and trace, one-way systems … yet it seems like we’re being punished.

“It’s great that we got money from the Arts Council, but I don’t like that we had to compete against other theatres for that. We’re all in this together. The constant chopping and changing makes it hard, and it wasn’t just theatres going for that money – there were museums, art galleries and so on.

“I am very grateful for that funding – it’s taken a lot of pressure off. But there was a lot of form filling too.”

Stage Fright: Behind the scenes at the theatre, 2020 pandemic style, Chorley, Lancashire (Photo: Ian Robinson)

Among the casualties this year was the annual panto, The Snow Queen postponed for a year as ‘am-drams’ can’t rehearse, the venue unable to afford to book a professional alternative ‘in case we have to cancel again’.

The hope when I spoke to Ian was that the venue would come out of lockdown into tier two, so they could re-open and show films over Christmas. But despite the subsequent tier three announcement, the venue is cracking on with online events, for instance those with comedians Mark Thomas and Bridget Christie, and its own ‘Virtual CADOS’ event. However, a National Theatre Live event on the run-up to Christmas, for a stage production of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, was regrettably cancelled.

In an announcement on the theatre’s Facebook page on November 26th, we learned, “With the news that Lancashire has been placed in tier three coming out of lockdown, it sadly looks like we’ll have to cancel our December shows, so we’ll be in touch with ticket-holders in due course. Then we’ll have to see what happens in a few weeks. Merry Christmas!”. Get the feeling they wrote a few frustrated drafts of that message before deciding on that particular wording?

But back to my conversation with Ian, getting on to a number of prestigious dates already in the diary for 2021, including confirmed (as much as anything can be confirmed right now) visits from high-profile comics such as Mark Watson, Jenny Eclair, Rob Newman, local lad (and recent Britain’s Got Talent finalist) Steve Royle, the afore-mentioned Jason Manford, Clinton Baptiste, Ed Byrne, and Bridget Christie.

And this from a theatre which has made many good friends down the years, not least the likes of comics Richard Herring, Angela Barnes, and John Bishop, with appearances in recent years too from locally-based Dave Spikey and fellow former WriteWyattUK interviewees Johnny VegasLucy Beaumont, Mark Steel, Phill Jupitus, Justin Moorhouse, Chorley’s own Phil Cool, plus Jo Caulfield, Mike Harding, and recently-departed Bobby Ball, a regular visitor – off-stage and on.

“Jason Manford’s show’s been moved a few times – it’s been in the diary more than two years, while Gary Delaney will be coming back next year, and there are a few more pencilled in. Things are still up in the air, and next year will be a mad scramble, trying to put on new and delayed shows. And we’re just going to have to hope audiences will come back. That’s still a big worry.”

Burning Bright: The lights still burn at Chorley Theatre, with a happier, healthier 2021 in sight (Photo: Ian Robinson)

I get the impression you remain cautiously optimistic though.

“I am. We’ve been tested this year. You just have to get on with your job and hope the Government sorts their bit out. They haven’t really done that though, and they’re on the back-foot all the time. That frustration’s there for most businesses too. A lot of shops bought Christmas stock, then they were back in lockdown.

“But we’ll be running socially-distanced seating until Easter, and hopefully after then we’ll be back to full houses. Promoters have been very patient with us too. They don’t want us to go bust. They still want places to bring comedians in the future.”

The main theatre holds 230, but currently holds around 95 due to restrictions (dependent on the size of groups booking together). And while the new space is as yet unfinished, with work abandoned last Easter, in time that will hold 100 seated and 150 standing, the space configured according to each event – for live bands, talks, comedy, and plays performed in the round.

And just to stress, there are no permanent staff at this voluntary-run community hub that Ian first got involved with as a 14-year-old in 1989.

“That’s another thing. Those volunteers are our friends, and we’re a community yet we’ve not been able to see each other this year. Normally we’d do a play together, have a drink after, and all that’s been missing. You just hope they’re going to come back when we re-open.

“When we opened again in September, it was nice to see people back, to catch up with volunteers and our audiences, many telling us it was good to get back to some kind of normality. And really It’s about the fun aspect, meeting people, and all that. It shouldn’t have to be about form-filling.”

Community Hub: Chorley Theatre is ready to catch up on its celebrations as 2021 draws closer (Photo: Ian Robinson)

For a January 2016 feature/interview with Ian Robinson, putting the spotlight on Chorley Little Theatre, as it was then known, head here.

And I should stress that in light of the latest COVID-19 restrictions, it makes sense to check out the Chorley Theatre website for all the latest information about forthcoming events, via this link

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On the right track for sound and vision – in conversation with Saunder Jurriaans

It’s likely you’ve already heard some of Saunder Jurriaans’ music. Over the past decade, not only has he released records with groups Tarantula, Tarantula A.D. and Priestbird, but he’s also one half of an award-winning duo with Danny Bensi, creating soundtracks.  

Together they’ve created music for more than 100 film and TV series, including Ozark – recently Emmy-nominated for their work on series three – and The OA, and from American Gods, Barry, Chef’s Table and Boy Erased to acclaimed arthouse films such as Martha Marcy May Marlene, Enemy, The One I Love, The Fits and HBO series The Outsider. 

But lately Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter and composer Saunder has stepped into uncharted territory with ‘vulnerable, affecting and musically inventive’ debut solo LP Beasts, released in September on Decca. And it seems that even while Hollywood kept him busy, he never lost his love for straightforward songwriting. 

“Soon as we started scoring, I started accumulating songs. With my creative life consumed by writing film scores, I found catharsis in writing songs – music that wasn’t necessarily dictated by someone else’s story or structure. It was something I needed … and still need.”

Opening track ‘All Just Talkin’’ is a great example, Saunder setting heartfelt words to music that shifts and pulls you in surprising directions. 

“It goes into this weird, psychedelic world. I was thinking a lot about The Beatles, and unexpected ways of breaking out of song structure. I like the cinematic aspect of songs like ‘A Day in the Life’, where you go into this kind of chaos. It felt right.”

And lyrically, that song sets the tone for the deeply personal themes explored throughout.

“These songs were written after a difficult number of years dealing with depression. They were written when I was coming out of that period, but they’re about how this darker side of me has stayed with me, and about trying to reconcile how to live with that person.”

DIY Dilemma: Saunder Jurriaans has plenty of work to do on his new abode between film commissions, it would seem

Another standout, ‘Easy Now’ is one of the most personal songs, first written and performed live during a four-month period when Saunder and his Argentinian wife, artist Patricia Iglesias, were living in Buenos Aires. 

“That song very much dealt with our relationship at that time, which was on the rocks for a few years. My wife and I would sing it on stage together. It’s about us, but has since evolved to be about much more.”

And it was Patricia who created the abstract artworks which inspired the name Beasts

“They were paintings of these strange creatures and animals. I love them so much and wanted to use them for the album artwork. When I started to think about what to name the record, Beasts worked so well. These songs are creatures that came out of my imagination after lurking in my life for so many years. They’re elusive and fantastical, and in some ways terrifying.”

It’s a singular, personal record, one wholly his own. And it certainly carries an apt title.

“Putting out music this intimate is scary. It’s a beast. The whole album is a beast and each song is a beast.”

Saunder, born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1977, is the child of Dutch immigrants who bounced around the United States before settling in Seattle, Washington.

After moving to Providence, RI to study at the Rhode Island School of Design, he instead dropped out to play in a band. Around then he also met Danny Bensi, and they quickly became collaborators.

Live Presence: Saunder Jurriaans in live action back in 2013 in Brooklyn, NYC, with Danny Bensi over his left shoulder

Moving to New York in 2000, along with drummer Gregory Rogove they formed ‘proggy, chamber-rock trio’ Tarantula, later renamed Tarantula A.D., and then Priestbird, touring with a suitably-eclectic mix of bands.

Those included avante-jazz-funk outfit Medeski Martin & Wood, freak folk singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart, psychedelic duo Cocorosie, and heavy metal rockers, The Sword. What’s more, in Europe, they opened for Pearl Jam.

The first film Saunder and Danny composed the score for was 2010 drama Two Gates Of Sleep, with director Alistair Banks Griffin a friend from Saunder’s RI studies.

Their new way of working came naturally to the pair, critical acclaim following and leading to the pair scoring 2011 thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene, their career soon snowballing.

But this year, mid-pandemic, there was a chance to finally complete Saunder’s behind the scenes solo project. Strange times, eh?

“Yes, a very odd year! Patricia and I moved from New York to Los Angeles exactly a year ago, so we feel pretty fortunate to be in a place we can spend a lot of time outside. I’d just finished building out the garage into a studio when the pandemic hit, so was quite lucky in that respect.”

Are soundtrack commissions still coming your way? Alternatively, is a follow-up solo LP taking shape?

“Yes – both! Danny and I have stayed quite busy through this year, even though many projects got cancelled or put on hold. The world might seem to be stopped, but people still need their TV and film. Maybe more than ever now. I’ve a bunch of solo songs and music in the works, and would like to release another album in 2021 for sure.”

How would you say this year of the virus has affected you, professionally and personally? Has it changed the way you work? Might you have been out on the road touring this album with a band now? And if so, will that happen in the near future instead?

“It’s hard to say – I’ve talked a lot about this with people and can’t decide whether the whole thing has been a blessing or a curse. I guess a little of both. On one hand, to be in one place, with no holiday travels, visiting friends, limited social activities, it’s been amazing for consistency in my work. At the same time, I periodically feel ‘pandemic fatigue’ that can be creatively crippling.

“I really wish I could have done some shows around the release. I tried to keep up with the ‘live’ videos and streaming stuff that’s going on, but it’s not my favourite. I would love to put together a band and play this stuff. That would be a blast. I hope it can still happen somehow … if not this album, it will be the next!”

Beasts is an album that’s slowly but surely got under my skin these past couple of months. An alternative soundtrack for these strange times, maybe, full of reflection on the past but also a beacon of hope for a better future. Is that how you see it?

“Yes, what a perfect and wonderful observation! Not sure I need to say more – I think that’s ideally how I’d want people to feel about it.” 

Is this perhaps the record you’re most proud of, the closest to the real you, or at least the most personal so far? You’ve used the word catharsis. Was there genuine freedom in writing for yourself rather than looking to express someone else’s vision, as must often be the case in soundtrack work?

“It’s definitely the most personal, and perhaps I’m the most proud of it in that I somehow squeezed it by my very vocal ‘inner critic’ and overcame some deep resistance!

“For me it’s been cathartic or therapeutic in so many ways to just write music without having to answer to anyone else, or please anyone else, besides myself of course … which can be admittedly more difficult at times.

Yellow Fever: Saunder Jurriaans tests out his projected sun and moon tattoos, to a backdrop of Patricia’s artwork

“I love writing music for film, but it’s much like illustration in that I’m always telling someone else’s story. I need to be able to tell my own story, I guess.”

I feel I should apologise if I’ve gone too far with the following questions. I guess that’s the problem when you share your work with the world – a hundred of us might come up with a hundred different interpretations. We tend to bring our own baggage to the party. Are you easy with that?

“I absolutely love hearing other people’s interpretations of my music.”

Well, you hit the ground running with opening track, ‘All Just Talkin’’. For me there’s the feel of a lost Lee Hazlewood number at first, to a point where I half expect Nancy Sinatra to come in. But just before the minute and a half mark, you’re off somewhere else. What’s more, it happens again at the three-minute mark.

And that seems to be your modus operandi, taking us on paths we don’t expect, sharing a mighty ride. Is that part of the thrill? It’s a brave thing to do, not least on an opening song of a debut LP. Those who hear it and listen properly will love it, but I get the impression you’re not seeking a Billboard top-10 here.

“Ha ha! No, definitely not looking for the Billboard top-10! I guess I have a sort of musical attention deficit disorder – I get a huge thrill out of unexpected changes and musical juxtaposition.

“I’m obsessed with creating unlikely combinations – both instrumentally and compositionally – but also trying to make them work and not sound like Frank Zappa at his most insane … even though I do like Frank.

“I guess my process while writing a song is a modulating, changing experience – it’s not always all coming out at once. Each layer I add informs the next. I don’t usually start with a concept of the whole track, so these unexpected changes usually occur quite naturally according to how I may be feeling while writing the song.

“Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t – I do a lot of muting and deleting!”

Band Substance: In Tarantula AD days around 2004, off to record Book Of Sand (Photo: Saunder Jurriaans)

That opening track, like many on this fine album, might have turned up on a film soundtrack anywhere between the late–‘60s and … well, in 10 years’ time. Is this you paying tribute to some of those influences that have come your way since you were first spellbound by music?

“For sure – that stuff is in my blood and bones – also the ‘80s and ‘90s. I grew up listening to classic hard rock, prog, psych, heavy metal and later was living smack in the middle of the 90’s grunge explosion, as I grew up in Seattle.

“I don’t ever want to feel like I’m trying to recreate those sounds or songs though, even though the influence is there naturally.”

‘A Different Shade of the Same’ is another that catches me out. I’m still trying to put my finger on what’s there, from The Beatles and Love through to Fleet Foxes and The Magic Numbers. Maybe even a future direction for someone like Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner. And there’s that big sound, socking it to us, as Otis Redding might have said. 

“This song was really inspired by one of my favourite tunes – Elliott Smith’s ‘Everything Means Nothing To Me’. I love the structure of that song – it feels like what he’s saying … not sure how to explain that any other way!”

I realise your roots were elsewhere (and later), and much of this LP was written before you even moved to LA, but ‘Easy Now’ has a late-‘60s Californian feel for me, with elements of everyone from Simon and Garfunkel to The Lovin’ Spoonful, Mamas and Papas and even something of a late Monkees vibe. Was that – albeit retrospectively discovered – a defining era for you as a songwriter?

“Man, I used to love The Monkees’ TV show so much when I was a kid! Kind of forgot about that! I’m not sure what the influence was stylistically for ‘Easy Now’ – I remember for a while I was going back and forth between wanting to write more ‘acoustic’ music and then suddenly I’d hate it and electrify everything.

“A lot of the songs on Beasts are casualties of this little psychological war, including ‘Easy Now’! It could feel like a fireside folk tune or be a more anthemic rock song like it turned out.”

I understand how that song came about, but in a sense it’s become something beyond that now you’ve shared it with the world. Maybe there’s a wider message there amid these odd times, digging deep and discovering what really matters – as America seems to have done recently, getting rid of its orange despot – and looking forward and outward rather than getting hung up on building walls and the like.

“Yes – originally the song reflected a very personal experience for me, but now it’s taken on a whole new meaning. I guess it could be a call to re-centre and try find some balance and common goal. Although I don’t think this rupture in our society is only in the US – it seems to be a global trend unfortunately.

“‘Easy Now” definitely has a glimmer of hope and I think I do too – but it’s hard to imagine how we’re going to put things back together without some major self-reflection on the part of every one of us.”

There’s another mighty change of pace on ‘Ghost Walk’, kicking in at the two-and-a-half minute mark this time. And for me there’s a kind of early-‘70s glam feel. I could hear later-day Bowie tackle this, partly taking us into uncharted territory but also harking back to his work with and influence on the likes of Mott the Hoople. And like the latter, you’ve unleashed a big sound there.

“I am and have always been a huge fan of long epic, dramatic, proggy, rock songs! Ghost Walk was written a bit later in the scheme of the record and my recording chops were much better, I felt more confident going for it. I played every instrument myself on that one … it was a real exercise in overdubs!”

There are perfectly wistful moments too, like ‘All the King’s Men’. Was that something that came into your head one day and you had to get it down and out there?

“Occasionally I’ll spit out an entire song and record in a matter of hours. I could have started to go crazy layering stuff on the piano/vocal take, but I restrained myself – which wasn’t easy – and just let it be!”

‘Last Man Standing’ is another song that takes its time to build and draw you in … then wham! Is that something you’re aware of doing, or set out to do? And while I’m at it, ‘Brittle Bones’ is another lovely, evocative … interlude, I guess, but another integral part of all this. Maybe this LP could have as easily been named Beauty and Beasts.

“I’ve written a ton of instrumental guitar music over the years and always struggle with what to do with it. I don’t use much guitar in films. I love albums with instrumental interludes, especially flashy guitar ones!

“Eddie Van Halen’s ‘Eruption’ comes to mind, as well as Jimmy Page’s ‘Black Mountain Side’. I am – before everything else – a guitar player. Sometimes I fight it and pretend I’m something else, but I always come back to her!

“And ‘Brittle Bones’ was a sort of etude I wrote while studying classical guitar. I was very influenced – and still am – by Haitian guitarist and composer Frantz Casseus.”

‘I’m Afraid (I’m a Fake)’ takes us on another major journey, and I hear a little late Beatles, guitar-wise. And while I’m not normally swayed by drum solos, there’s something suitably manic at the climax which brings a smile to the face. It’s kind of like Phil Collins in a padded cell for a while. Was this you fighting off Beasts?

“This was the last song written that went on Beasts. I didn’t even mean for it to be on the record, It was meant for the next one perhaps, but I just loved it so much, and I felt the record needed a real rock guitar solo, dammit!

“It’s very much about the whole struggle of releasing the album. It’s another one I played all the instruments and layered everything myself. I had so much fun making this song and it remains one of my favourites …

“And I’m a huge George Harrison fan. I love his weird tinny, in-your-face guitar solos. He was definitely an influence on this tune!”

After that, we perhaps needed ‘The Three of Me’. It’s other-worldly but reminds me in a sense of Neil Finn’s more recent work with son Liam. And as with him, the melodies are never far away – as is the case even among this LP’s more discordant moments – albeit again with little clue as to where we’re going before we take that next fork.

“I don’t know Neil Finn, but will check him out!”

Double Act: Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans have created a mighty soundtrack portfolio (Photo: ATC Management

Ooh, I bet you are when you check him out. And then we’re away on ‘Miles To Go’, a suitably-atmospheric climax, that big sound at its heart … although – as with all the strongest songs – I get the impression it’d be just as effective stripped down to just you and an acoustic guitar as it would if it was given the major production treatment in the hands of the afore-mentioned Simon and Garfunkel or even Nilsson perhaps.

“’Miles To Go’ is probably my favourite song on the record. It started as a sort of cowboy, campfire song and turned into the soundscapey distorted metal wash of doom!

“This is the type of juxtaposition I was talking about before that’s so exciting to me – melding to disparate worlds into something that feels cohesive and new.

“At one point, years after I originally wrote the song, I added the heavy metal chunking guitars at the end, which really satisfied a deep, deep part of me!”

Overall, is this something you see as completely different to your scoring work, or is it perhaps a soundtrack to a film that’s not yet been made?

“I don’t really know … so much of what I’ve learned and discovered scoring films has gone into this music, but my work scoring films has also been informed by all the roots these songs come from. I think it’s going to be an ongoing exploration!”

Finally, what’s next for you? And what’s the first thing you and your beloved will do when the virus is behind us and we can get back to somewhere approaching where we were at before the veil came down?

“I’ve just released a podcast. It’s called Giant Steps and is about running and the creative process … don’t ask me how, but I’ve become a pretty serious runner over the last years and increasingly interested in the great things it does for my mind.

“The show consists of interviews with various artists, directors, designers, musicians etc … who are avid runners. I’m working with my dear friend and brilliant film editor, Matt Hannam.

“Each episode is meticulously sound designed and scored for a sort of immersive interview experience. So that is currently taking up a good chunk of my time.

“When this pandemic ends, I really hope to get some live shows going though. I’m itching to play music with people again! For Patricia and I, we will immediately go and visit our families, with hers in Buenos Aires and mine up in Washington State. We miss them terribly.”

Saun Screen: Saunder Jurriaans is ready to break out and play live again soon, post Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns

To track down a copy of Saunder Jurriaans’ Beasts, follow this link. And you can follow Saunder’s progress via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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Come a long way – talking Heavenly Recordings with Robin Turner

When Robin Turner came to the phone, I half expected mayhem around him, having recently read his evocative recollections of mad days in the mid-‘90s working in the Heavenly Recordings office in Soho, one of many vivid descriptions in his introduction to newly-published, celebratory tome…Believe in Magic. Heavenly Recordings, The First Thirty Years telling us, ‘On any given day, you might answer the door to Throb from Primal Scream, who’d be in need of a ‘Berwick stop’ between Covent Garden and Oxford Circus, or Paolo Hewitt and Paul Weller, who’d end up heading a football round the office for half an hour. If that sounds like a brag, imagine trying to get actual work done under those circumstances.’

Robert ‘Throb’ Young checked out six years ago, aged just 49. As for Paolo and Paul … well, they’re not there with you now, are they?

“No! Those were what we called the good old days. Now it’s just two small kids shouting at me all the time.”

Robin’s children are 10 and seven and he’s based in Bristol these days, his label days long behind him. Well, kind of. He still does press for bands he loves with strong links to those days, notably The Chemical Brothers and Underworld. And as he points out, you never really leave Heavenly.

“It was kind of crazy. Work got done, but I often wondered why others I knew who worked in similar offices were getting offered jobs, but we never were. I think we were only suited to working for that company! I don’t think we could have coped anywhere else.”

…Believe in Magic, from Orion Publishing imprint White Rabbit, was put together by Robin with the help of filmmaker, photographer and graphic designer Paul Kelly, who led early Heavenly signing East Village.

Heavenly Father: Jeff Barrett, the driving force behind Heavenly Recordings since 1990, still in his element at the label

I told the author I also particularly liked his description of the label’s old Soho office back in the day, ‘above Ronnie Scott’s and opposite Bar Italia on Frith Street … sat on a wonky trans-time ley line that connected the 2i’s, the Astoria, the YMCA and the End. As much as it was a working environment, it was also a makeshift disco and an egalitarian meeting place – think a Quaker meeting house with religion replaced by Raw Power, Bummed and an armful of Strictly Rhythm 12-inches.’ He certainly paints a great picture.

“Well, thank you. But it was so true, that’s the problem – it’s not even a stretch of the imagination!”  

In time, they’d move premises, but are now back at the heart of things after a few years out of Soho on Portobello Road, currently ‘three floors up on Old Compton Street, halfway between the old sites on Wardour Street and Frith Street’. But a home isn’t just about addresses, label founder Jeff Barrett revealing, ‘Heavenly was already a state of mind. Seemed like the right time to make it something really special. We were all deeply immersed in music that we loved. None of us could believe our fucking luck, really.’

…Believe in Magic is seen as a chronicle not only of the spell between this fiercely independent label’s first album release, Saint Etienne’s debut Foxbase Alpha (HVNLP1) and Working Men’s Club’s self-titled 2020 debut(HVNLP179), the bookends which hold in place a further 28 key releases that arguably got the label to where it is today, but also of Heavenly haircuts, nights down the pub, pencil-eraser-carvings, cheese toasties, acid houses, Sunday Socials and lost Weekenders, all just as much a part of this amazing story. 

And as Jeff Barrett put it, ‘If there’s a continuous theme that runs through all this, it’s that everything comes down to conversations with people about music. It might seem like it all starts with someone on one side of the counter selling you something, or someone writing excitedly in a magazine telling you about a band you need to hear, but I don’t think I’ve ever really seen things as one-way transactions.

‘It’s more an ongoing dialogue, one that never really stops and helps build up this growing soundtrack to our lives, something that’s passed from one person to another. That’s really the ever-present thread. That’s why we still believe in magic.’

Three decades have passed since initial Heavenly release, Sly and Lovechild’s ‘The World According To …’ (HVN1), touched by the hands of a certain Andrew Weatherall, with various line-up changes, ups, downs and a good few office clean-ups since. Yet Heavenly ‘continue not to believe their fucking luck … still being here, keepin’ on keepin’ on’ doing what they love for our listening pleasure.

In the words of long-time associate and BBC radio veteran Annie Nightingale, who put together a compilation for the label, ‘Heavenly has always lived up to its name. Celestial tunes with the sublime sure guidance of Jeff Barrett. A beacon of integrity.’ Meanwhile, Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh’s tells us, ‘Heavenly is more than a record label, it’s the absolute nectar of all that’s brilliant in the culture of these island. I love the shit out of them and everything they stand for.’  

Nicky Wire, whose trailblazing band Manic Street Preachers issued two singles on Heavenly before joining major label Columbia, writes in the book’s foreword, ‘Right from the start, Heavenly seemed to have a real sense of itself and its mission’. He adds, ‘Stylistically, it may have looked chaotic and disconnected to the outside world, but that was the point’.

You only have to look at the early roster to see the diverse range involved – from Saint Etienne to the Manics, Camden’s Flowered Up to Manchester’s Doves, and Norfolk-born folktronica pioneer Beth Orton to Ealing double-sibling quartet The Magic Numbers, the last band signed in the pre-digital era. This was never about identikit acts. Similarly, in more recent times, we’ve had Ian Dury’s son Baxter Dury, Australian dance-pop act Confidence Man, Cornish-Welsh solo artist Gwenno, Dutch indie darlings Pip Blom, Halifax’s The Orielles, and Wirral four-piece Hooton Tennis Club.

In a nutshell, …Believe in Magic is a celebration of all that and much more, a fully illustrated history of sorts of one of the most colourful independent UK record labels; one ‘responsible for creating satellite communities of fans around the country and at all the major festivals’.

The story of Jeff Barrett alone is worthy of the attention alone, this pioneering maverick setting up the label in 1990 with the acid house revolution in full swing, after several years working at or at least alongside Factory and Creation, soon fostering interest from the likes of music writer Jon Savage, ‘part of the Heavenly extended family since the start’, not only curating a compilation on the label but also providing the book’s introduction.

It’s fair to say the early releases set the tone and tempo, from that initial recording by perhaps the most revered acid house DJ of all to singles from the similarly afore-mentioned St Etienne and Manic Street Preachers.

And Heavenly was always different to other labels; more a ‘club’ with a defiant spirit of inclusiveness, as reflected in the way they set up The Heavenly Social in 1994, alongside the Hacienda perhaps the most famous club in recent British history, The Chemical Brothers for one making their name there.

With nearly 200 LP releases in three decades, Heavenly has consistently produced some of the most exciting music across various genres – dance, acid house, singer-songwriter, psych-garage – and Robin’s celebratory work collects rare photographs, ephemera and artwork as well as those 30 great tales, mostly told in the form of oral history by artists like the Manics’ James Dean Bradfield, Flowered Up, Beth Orton, Doves and pioneering DJ Don Letts, the latter having put together a Heavenly compilation celebrating his days providing a soundtrack for London’s legendary Roxy club from December ’76 to April ’77. And together they capture the presiding personality of the label, its bands and those associated with its success.

But enough ambling, let’s get back to Robin, getting him on the subject of Jeff Barrett’s back-story, from Nottingham roots to Plymouth, Bristol and beyond, including many anecdotal nuggets, at one early stage quitting a promising career at HMV to run a market stall nearby. And then there was the night he put on The Jesus and Mary Chain at Ziggy’s in Plymouth, having stoked a media storm about the band’s riotous reputation first, that happening soon selling out, Chain manager, Creation label guru and past WriteWyattUK interviewee Alan McGee so impressed that he offered him a job there and then, Jeff becoming Creation’s first employee. It’s been an amazing journey, hasn’t it?

“It’s the kind of thing you can’t really imagine happening now – a working-class kid having a load of lucky breaks, albeit breaks he’d created. He worked hard, but it’s hard to think that could happen again now in the music industry.”

Similarly, for this label to still not just be around but remain as fresh and driven three decades on is really something, not least considering the many changes in the industry since 1990. And Heavenly still boasts such an array of acts.

“Yeah, it’s 30 years without compromising and being this disparate, extended family, but a family all the same. I mean, I’m still part of it, even though I’ve not worked there for 10 years. Like The Godfather … dragging me back in. And it’s got that identity that makes it work. And you’re right, if you think of comparable labels, there’s Creation, its last records around 2000, and Factory, where it was all over by the early ‘90s. Heavenly’s managed to out-last lots of similar institutions. Not many get that far, and Rough Trade has had lots of different iterations over the years.”

So how did Robin – whose publicity clients these days also include Steven Wilson – get involved?

“Through interviewing Saint Etienne for a fanzine that never actually happened! We became friends, I came to Heavenly to do PR, and that’s what I’ve gone back to doing since.”

What struck me going through the book was how many Heavenly records I own where I either forgot they were on the label or never realised they were, such as Beth Orton’s Trailer Park (HVNLP17).

“Yes, there’s always that interconnectivity between them all, but someone like Beth … she was so different at the time. No one else was making folk music with a kind of electronic twist to it. These days you have festivals like the Green Man (featuring acts) doing what she did. Then you listen to (BBC) 6 Music and you’ve got someone like Laura Marling, but it was totally its own thing back then.

“After Beth, things tightened up a bit, partly because (new overseers like) BMG/EMI didn’t want us to sign lots of acts. In the Noughties, there was a lot less output. But now, Jeff’s properly independent and they’re putting out records all the time, from The Orielles to Working Men’s Club.

“They just put out a single by Sinead O’Connor, produced by David Holmes. They’re absolutely firing, whereas when I was there and we were linked to major labels, quite often that was more of a speed-limiter. You couldn’t really put your foot down, and you’d end up with lots of arguments.”

Yet some of the greatest opportunities come from taking such chances. In Jeff’s case, you could argue that his whole career was built on that maverick spirit – him seemingly over-ordering copies of The Smith’s ‘Hand in Glove’ at an HMV branch in Devon and soon selling out. That got him his first real break, ending up with links to Bristol’s Revolver Distribution, one of many defining contacts.

That said, Robin doesn’t try to dress all this up into one big success story. There are stories of decisions that didn’t go quite so well. He’s not over-glamourised.

“Yeah, we’ve done some stupid things! We weren’t always sensible. If I had infinite time with this book … but we didn’t want to get bogged down in talking about distribution deals and all that. The mechanics of the music industry are very boring for people outside all that.

“And thankfully there are enough great stories here to take this approach – there’s the Manics, there’s Doves, there’s Mark Lanegan, who of all people had a Sunday Times’ bestselling book this year (his memoir Sing Backwards and Weep)!

“Then there’s Saint Etienne, who drew me to the label in the first place. I was living in Newport, South Wales, heard Flowered Up and Saint Etienne, and a light went on, thinking, ‘This is my music!’

“The thing with Flowered Up … they had such potential. An amazing live band, but they were chaos. Mad, druggy fools. And in the book, it’s all pretty explicit. But for me the only record that’s really brilliant is ‘Weekender’.”

Well, I learned a lot, not least that modern-day Australian dance-pop wonders Confidence Man weren’t even a live unit until Heavenly persuaded them, having seen what this Brisbane four-piece could do in the studio on wondrous debut single, ‘Boyfriend’. 

“Ah … such a brilliant band! I remember hearing that single the first time, thinking, ‘What the hell is this!’”

Agreed. But at the same time, it brought smiles to faces.

“Completely! I’ve seen them a few times and my kids are obsessed with them, first seeing them at a festival a couple of years ago when they were eight and five. It’s definitely a bit too racy for kids … but, you know – sod it!

“And when you think about it – another totally bonkers thing (for the label), yet when you speak to them they are completely part of this mad family, and a really solid, good pop band.”

There’s the great story of Heavenly taking on Gwenno too, Jeff – who has Cornish roots and links of his own – having that initial chat about what’s next, the artist letting on that she’d decided her next LP – after one entirely in Welsh – would be entirely in the Cornish language. And he went along with that, releasing Le Kov (HVNLP145). An inspired move.

“I know! Such a brilliant thing, and more power to the label for supporting artistic decisions like that. A lot of people would have looked at that, seeing she’d made a Welsh language record and thinking that she could then capitalise on that, or make something in English – having been in The Pipettes before.

“But no, she decided to do something in Cornish, and both Jeff and Gwen herself were of the opinion that if you can put yourself in a position where you can make an artistic statement, you might not be in that position again so you have to do it when you’ve got that kind of acceleration behind you. In five years you might be kicking your heels, thinking, ‘No one’s asked’!

“I think that was one of the strongest statements they could have made as a label. And it really paid off.”

Talking of risk-taking, however huge they became, taking on the Manic Street Preachers was a huge gamble initially, wasn’t it?

“Yes! Completely. We know them now as such a huge British act, somewhere between BBC Radio 2 and 6 Music. But – and I worked with them, I’m a huge fan, and love them to bits – back in the day, when I was still living in Wales and they were about to sign to Heavenly …well, Welsh music at that point was The Alarm, disregarded in all respects as a joke, and I just wanted to get out, as there was no scene apart from US hardcore.

“And here was a label where the first few records were a Sly & Lovechild record remixed by Andrew Weatherall, Saint Etienne’s ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, Flowered Up’s ‘Weekender’ single (HVN16) … You could look at that and think this is an acid house label, or at least operating in that world.

“So signing the Manics – a four-piece punk band from Wales, with both of those things working against them – was a proper risk. But then you hear ‘Motown Junk’ (HVN8), and if you saw them live around then, you could totally see it. The energy and excitement there is absolute. You couldn’t fault it.

“And what that did, signing the Manics – and it was only ever going to be for a couple of singles to pivot them on to a major label, as agreed by all sides – the label set the template for the next 30 years. They could sign anything from that point.

“In fact, the next signing was The Rockingbirds, a country band from Camden!”

Ah, yes, HVNLP2 bringing me on to my next point. Edwyn Collins was perhaps the first artist I realised was on the label. Perhaps I just read his LP sleeves closer. And, almost bringing things full circle, his was one of the most recent live shows I’ve seen, a September 2019 appearance at Gorilla in Manchester (with a live review here) – seemingly an age ago now with the subsequent arrival of the pandemic and all that.  And his band that night included long-time collaborators Sean Read and Andy Hackett, Rockingbirds from the start.

“Yes, and speaking to Edwyn and his wife Grace for this book, I realised just how much of that record – 2007’s Home Again (HVNLP182) – and the support for it was part of a rehabilitation from his stroke. I was still working for Heavenly at that point, and that gig he did at Dingwalls … the first time he’d been on stage since, one hell of an evening. A real emotional rollercoaster. You were almost in tears when he walked on, yet the next thing … they were just going for it!”

Tremendous, and Grace and Edwyn are such a great double-act when you talk to them, aren’t they?

“Ah, Grace is phenomenal. They both are, but the way she finishes his sentences … it’s like a telepathic link at times. I adore them.”

It’s not just about the acts that have featured on the label either. For example, there can’t be too many labels that have their own hairdresser, surely.

“Ha! Basically, everything within – the 30 things in the book –was deemed relevant as long as it had a catalogue number. That included clubs we’ve run, like the Sunday Social (HVN44), Paul Cannell’s toasted cheese sandwich artwork (HVN13), and Heavenly hairdresser, Christopher Camm (HVN200).

“I describe Chris as Heavenly’s spirit animal. He’s cut everyone’s hair since … forever, and a vast amount of ideas have gone through his chair which he’s had to listen to, many of which would have been absolutely crap, but some of which will have been completely brilliant.”

Incidentally, there was even a catalogue number for the 25th birthday party at Hebden Bridge’s Trades Club in West Yorkshire in January 2015 (HVN300), its chief promoter Mal Campbell telling the tale in the book. And if you don’t know the story of Primal Scream singer Bobby Gillespie’s discarded toasted cheese sandwich, left at the home of artist Paul Cannell (who created the Heavenly logo as well as so much iconic Primal Scream sleeve art) and in time getting framed and securing its own cat.no., there’s another great reason to grab the book. And those are just a few of the off-the-wall tales within.

A more recent Heavenly act I love are Amsterdam indie pop four-piece Pip Blom, who released debut LP Boat on the label last year. It’s a shame they don’t get a chapter of their own, for there’s another great story, singer Pip and brother Tender’s Dad being Erwin Blom, frontman of John Peel favourites and session veterans Eton Crop. But I guess Robin couldn’t pick everyone, and others will maybe feel their favourites should have got a look-in.

“My daughter’s called Pip, and I’ve taken her along to see them … but wow, I didn’t know that. I love those family links in music. But with the later years’ bands, I wanted to put the onus on Jeff, and he didn’t want to direct me. He’s one of my oldest, best friends, and didn’t want to tell me what to do.”

Robin started at Heavenly in January 1994, which was when I moved from the South-East to Lancashire. My London days ended just as his truly kicked in, kind of making me wonder whether his role – with a twist of fate – could have been mine, heading from my own fanzine writing days to joining the Heavenly stable and covering all these great acts.

That said, I was fairly burned out around then with regard to the music scene, to a point that I couldn’t get too excited by the time the Brit Pop thing happened, having seen lots of great bands who deserved success not getting those breaks I felt they deserved.

“I probably remember those early days best, but at that point it was quite a dormant label, with very few releases. That is interesting. Brit Pop was this thing that wiped out everything else, but you’re right, there were lots of great scenes before that. The kind of Oasis-centric Brit Pop story I find pretty uninteresting. There was so much more to it than that.

“I preferred the electronic side, so I was working with Underworld and The Chemical Brothers out of the Heavenly office, and there was drum and bass kicking off. Noel Gallagher was on Chemical Brothers and Goldie records. It was all very interconnected. But read the history now, and it’s basically … Oasis play Knebworth, and so on!”

Yep, and I could name so many bands from that previous era who deserved more, not least personal favourites like BOB and before them That Petrol Emotion.

“Ah, That Petrol Emotion! Andy Weatherall’s Boys’ Own mix of ‘Abandon’ is one of my favourite records of all time! Jeff was managing Andy at that point, so again … all part of the big inter-connected family.”

Robin’s book is dedicated to both Andrew Weatherall and Pete Lusty, the Australian label boss whose managed bands included Heavenly outfit The Vines (who also get a chapter in the book), both gone far too young, lost in February and March 2020 respectively.

As Jeff put it in his closing piece, ‘Andrew’s name and fingerprint runs all the way through this story. He mixed our very first release, remixed our second, and it’s fair to say that his recent remixes for The Orielles, audiobooks and Confidence Man are up there with his best. His DJ sets soundtracked more of our nights than we can remember, from the first Heavenly party at the Camden Underworld to half a dozen successive summers in Cornwall as resident DJ on the Caught by the River stage we booked for the Port Eliot Festival.’

And both Andrew and Pete were fondly remembered by Robin as we wrapped up our chat.

“I’ve still got a text message from Andy, trying to arrange an interview which never happened. He was one of the last people I was due to speak to for this book. Much like Chris (Camm), he’s somebody who was very important to the label and was always there, even though he was never a signed artist.

“He was managed out of the office for ages, and DJ’d for us, from these weird little nights at The Social onwards, and was such a brilliant, lovely chap. He passed away just as we were getting to the finishing stages of the book. As did Pete, another friend of ours, and another brilliant bloke.”

…Believe in Magic is available as a £30 hardback, or £35 limited-run exclusive special editions with either a 7” Saint Etienne single (HVN550STE – ‘Spring’ b/w ‘Spring (instrumental)’, the A-side taken from Foxbase Alpha and available for the first time as a single, the flip side previously unreleased) or a Working Men’s Club track (HVN550WMC – ‘Angel (part 1)’ b/w ‘Angel (part 2)’, as heard in WMC’s live sets and here in a studio version produced by Ross Orton, split over both sides of a 7”). Special editions also include a fold-out map by Herb Lester of Heavenly’s London hotspots, with more detail here

Work Experience: Robin Turner attempting to tick the ‘no publicity’ box in the Heavenly office, all those years ago

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Independents’ Day – fighting the lockdown from behind closed doors at Action Records and Vinyl Exchange

Corner Shop: Vinyl Exchange, Oldham Street, Manchester. But the shutters are down for now (Photo: Vinyl Exchange)

As the UK returned late last week to ‘non-essential’ retail limbo – aka Lockdown 2 – amid the on-going coronavirus pandemic, I felt it was high time I caught up with two treasured independent North West record shops among many more nationwide forced back behind closed doors.

But fear not. Action Records in Preston and Vinyl Exchange in Manchester are here to stay, determined to weather the storm, albeit in online-only format right now in line with the latest restrictions.

Adaptation appears to be key in these testing times, and Gordon Gibson at Action Records and Richard Farnell at Vinyl Exchange are no strangers to having to think differently in order for their long-established, cherished independent stores to survive.

Let’s start with Gordon, who set up his first record stall in Blackpool in 1979, and who’s hardly had the 40th anniversary celebrations he might have envisaged when we looked forward to that occasion in a feature during the summer of 2018 (with a link here).

“Well, no! We’re just hoping we can get to 41 now!”

First there was the lockdown in mid-March, the adopted Lancastrian with Stranraer roots forced to shut his doors until mid-June. And now it’s happening all over again, trading in store ending at the close of play on Wednesday, November 4th, the shop closed for the foreseeable future.

But while there’s no clear end-date to the latest national lockdown, Gordon’s determined to battle on behind the scenes, the level of community support last time suggesting he has reason to remain optimistic for the shop’s future.

Early last week, Action Records announced, “In line with Government guidelines, we will have to be closed from Thursday until further notice. We will be operating a click and collect service, either by using our website or phone. Mail order will continue as normal. We look forward to seeing you soon!”

Two’s Company: Gordon Gibson with the legendary John Peel at a Fi-Lo Radio session, 2000 (Photo: Action Records)

It was a typical understated but resolute approach from Gordon – who first picked up the keys for his Preston shop in the early ‘80s – and nothing you wouldn’t expect in such trying circumstances, mid-pandemic.

“In the first lockdown, we did alright. There was a lot of support around. And the weather was good. It was a kind of different atmosphere then. We managed to get through, but I think it might be bit tougher this month, going up to Christmas. I don’t see it being so easy, and the online thing …people tend to get fed up with that. They want to get out and buy stuff.

“I don’t know how it’s gonna go … but as long as we take enough to cover the bills …. I don’t want to lay anybody off. We just want to get through it.”

As well as himself, Gordon has three staff, his son helping out behind the scenes too.

“I just don’t want to go down that route, getting involved with furloughing. And even that’s different this time to the original scheme. We managed to get through last time without doing any of that, and let’s just hope they’ll let us open at the beginning of December. If they keep shops shut going up to Christmas, so many businesses will be knackered.”

You mentioned the level of community support you had last time from a loyal customer base, for the three-month lockdown. I guess all you can hope is that they’re there for you again this time around.

“Yeah, hopefully. Although there were a lot of extra factors involved last time, and we did a lot better on mail order. This time we’re going to have to rely mainly on the regular type of customers.”

Of course, there would be an outcry if Action Records – the subject of 2015 short documentary, ‘Chased by Nuns’, and a business that’s also served as an occasional record label, revered in indie circles through releases from the likes of The Boo Radleys, Fi-Lo Radio, local stars Big Red Bus, Dandelion Adventure, The Common Cold, and most recently Ginnel, plus the late Mark E. Smith and his legendary band The Fall – was no longer on Preston’s main thoroughfare.

Queue Action: The congregation awaitibng the arrival of Reverend and the Makers in 2019 (Photo: Action Records)

But this inspirational character, now in his mid-60s, has witnessed enough closures around town in recent times to keep a level head.

“Oh yeah, you just see empty shops when you walk through town. And I see a lot of cafes and worry that this is going to kill a lot of them off. We’ve got away with it so far, but this (lockdown) is going to be crucial for them.”

I’m guessing you get a similar vibe talking to fellow independent traders you have links with in neighbouring towns and cities.

“Well, yeah, everyone’s in the same boat. At least we’ve been open as much as we can. A lot of record shops around the country have never re-opened … just doing mail order. They haven’t opened their doors (since last time). But we had to – we’re a record shop and want to meet people!”

I’m guessing you’ve had to either cancel or at least postpone a few music-related events you were planning on hosting.

“We’ve still got a lot of ongoing gigs, like those with The Cribs and Seagulls … all still in the pipeline. We just have to confirm the dates. They’re all still going to happen in (nearby nightclub) Blitz.”

I get the impression it’ll only really be the Amazon-type mail order firms wringing their hands at the prospect of another period of online-only trade in your sector.

“They will be, but I’m also worried about the supermarkets. There were mentions of that in Wales (for their earlier circuit-breaker lockdown), when people asked – rightly so – ‘Why should they be allowed to sell clothes? Why should they be allowed to sell anything that’s not food or deemed an essential item?’”

Vinyl Score: A happy punter behind the mask after a long queuing experience for #RSD2020 (Photo: Action Records)

I guess there’s a knock-on effect, even if it’s just someone buying a Lewis Capaldi CD or a bestselling paperback on the way to the tills.

“Yeah, and why should they be allowed to sell that? Supermarkets have absolutely cleaned up. They may not be in the same market as me, but they’re in the same market as a lot of others. Even HMV has to close.”

If anything positive is coming out of this, it’s various independent book stores and other non-retail giants coming together as mail order concerns, to try and compete with bigger online businesses.

“Well, there is that. And there’s the Entertainment Retail Association, behind Record Store Day and all that (involving more than 200 independent record shops across the UK). We were meant to have this RSD (Record Store Day) Black Friday retail promotion for record stores coming up (November 27th), but that’s just before we’re meant to open … if we are allowed to then.”

And yet, customer loyalty is something that’s helped you get through before now.

“Yeah … we’re hoping. As long as we can pay the bills and all that … it’s just a case of getting through, hoping we’re not shut after the beginning of December. Christmas is maybe not what it used to be – for anyone these days – but it’s still a big piece of business.”

It’s a similar story at Vinyl Exchange, a shop lots of record lovers across the region will know well,  in the heart of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, set up in 1988 by Jo Bindley and Mark Jarrett, who worked at London’s Reckless Records and realised a similar business model could work elsewhere, relocating accordingly. They began in a smaller shop, mostly selling records from their own collection to get things going before expanding into the current premises on Oldham Street in 1991 as the business grew.

Richard Farnell, originally from Deepcar, near Stocksbridge, on the outskirts of Sheffield, started working there in 1995, having relocated from South Yorkshire, telling me he ‘was tired of living in grotty shared houses back in Sheffield’ and ‘wanted a change of scene’.

Charming Man: The Suncharms’ Richard Farnell rehearsing in a Bamford attic in 1990 (Photo: Richard Farnell)

“I’d had a Christmas job in Our Price over there, which expanded to about six months, then worked in a second-hand shop, Jack’s Records, one or two days a week. I also worked nights on the bar at The Leadmill. I was mostly focused on playing bass in a band and naively thought working in record shops would be something to do before getting famous!”

That band was indie favourites The Suncharms, who by 1993 – by his own admission – ‘had fizzled out’, Richard ‘doing a whole lot of nothing for a while’. But two years later he decided to send his ‘meagre CV’ to various record shops around the country, ending up with an interview at Vinyl Exchange, ‘no doubt helped by the fact that my brother was friends with one of the staff’.

“I’d been visiting Manchester since 1986 when my brother moved here to study, so it didn’t feel like too much of a scary move. I had two interviews – one to get to know me and another to gauge my music knowledge – and got offered the job. Within two weeks I’d moved over and found myself living in another grotty shared house, but now on the ‘wrong’ side of the Pennines!”

Having worked his way up to a supervisory then a management role, when the owners decided to sell the business, he joined forces with fellow manager, James, buying the business as a going concern, taking over in August 2008.

So, a dozen years on, how’s it going for this 51-year-old – married with two children and living in Sale, South Manchester – as we enter a second UK lockdown?

“Initially, the first lockdown was pretty positive. It gave us chance to catch our breath, and the website did really well in the first few weeks. However, towards the end it felt the novelty was wearing off, and it was less busy. We furloughed all but two of 11 of us. Our customers were really supportive, and you could recognise many regulars’ names appearing on online orders who we’d normally see in the shop.

“I hope we get the same level of support this time, but it does feel like this lockdown might be different. I’m concerned people might be less inclined to spend if worried about their jobs and income. But I guess we’ll see.”

Tree’s Company: Richard Farnell at home in Sale with a copy of Felt’s Penelope Tree (Photo: Richard Farnell)

Does it make it worse being on the run-up to Christmas?

“Potentially, as I suspect many people will be tightening their belts, but on the other hand there should hopefully be enough people wanting to treat themselves to records, CDs and DVDs to while away the hours of lockdown boredom. And I remain fairly positive that there are enough music lovers out there who want to support independent shops like ours.”

Is there a good community feel where you are? The Northern Quarter has a good reputation for its nightlife and general vibe, and I’ve enjoyed past visits to The Band on the Wall, and the Night and Day café a few doors from you, where I caught the reformed version of The Chesterfields last year, supported by a certain outfit also back recording and playing occasional shows, The Suncharms.

“Ha! Yeah, it’s a very vibrant area, but much of that’s based around the bars and cafes, which of course can’t properly function now. It’s nice that there are a few record shops within spitting distance of each other, and we know them all and feel we’re all mutually supportive of each other. And we’re a ticket outlet for a couple of local gig promoters like Hey! Manchester.”

Was there a feeling of solidarity regarding Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham’s recent stand for local businesses and battle with the Government? The last few weeks seem to have – cliché alert – put the region back on the map in a show of resilience and independent spirit.

“I think most local businesses were pleased with Mr Burnham’s stance. There is a proud tradition in Manchester of putting up some resistance when things get tough.”

True enough. And like Gordon over at Action Records in Preston, do you see it similarly with regard to the threat of online competition, supermarkets, and so on?

“I totally get where he’s coming from, and yes, there’s a lot of competition online. But supermarkets selling vinyl is possibly a passing trend, and they only really focus on a few current pop acts and reissues of the usual ‘heritage’ bands. If they start stocking second-hand copies of rare psych-folk albums or punk singles though, then I’ll be worried!

“I think our strength is that as well as the big-name artists from the past, we also focus on many different niche genres, and a lot of rarities and collectable one-off items.”

Action Stations: Gordon Gibson checks his rising stock at his Church Street HQ (Photo: Neil Cross / Lancashire Post)

For more details about Action Records’ online operation, head to their online  site or keep in touch via the shop’s Facebook page. For Vinyl Exchange info, head here and keep in touch via Facebook. And for details of other record shops involved with RSD Black Friday on November 27th, follow this link.

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