Return to the Promised Land – talking Cast with John Power

John Power and his band, Cast, were backstage at the Academy in Liverpool before a sell-out show when I caught up with him, and it was clear that the adrenalin was up.

“We always look forward to playing hometown shows. And it’s not like you get nervous, it’s just that there’s a slightly more simmering …until you get on stage and start doing your thing. But because it’s a hometown (show), I suppose you always want to give a good representation of yourself. And once you go on and play the first chord, you tend to be amongst family. People get into it.”

At the same time, I’m guessing a Liverpool crowd will keep you in check. They won’t let you get above yourselves.

“Course not, and we’ll always be humble. But the thing is the music. Once the crowd relax – and they’re there for the same reasons – what happens is you’ve got this extra sense of excitement.

“Because they want to enjoy themselves, one of their own is coming back to town, and they want to celebrate that as much as we want to celebrate coming back to our own hometown. So you might have an awkward five minutes, but then you relax, and everybody will have a great night.”

The Liverpool return was part of an ongoing nationwide tour, the Britpop legends initially set to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the release of All Change, playing that classic LP in its entirety. However, Covid 19 restrictions led to major delays, that record – the highest-selling debut album in the history of the Polydor label – now closer to a 27th anniversary.

For all that time passed though, All Change – best known I guess for top-20 singles ‘Finetime’ and ‘Alright’, and top-10s ‘Sandstorm’ and ‘Walkaway’ – remains as sharp today as on its October 1995 release, something its songwriter only now truly appreciates.

And as John (vocals/guitar) put it, ‘All Change will always be special to me and the band. It captured all the energy and all our hopes, and it was packed to the hilt with great songs’.

For the ongoing tour, he’s joined by fellow long-servers Liam ‘Skin’ Tyson (guitar) and Keith O’Neill (drums), plus Jay Lewis (bass), a more recent acquisition but one also going a fair way back with his bandleader.

But first I tackled John on the premise of the anniversary, suggesting these shows have been so long coming, he should really be planning 25th anniversary shows for follow-up – and fellow platinum-selling long player – Mother Nature Calls instead.

“Yeah, it’s nearly the 27th anniversary! Of course, it’s been put off through all the shenanigans of lockdowns. But it’s just good to go out and play. I listened to the album the other day and I’d actually forgot how fucking good it was!

“Seriously. I don’t listen to my own stuff all the time, and people bandy around ‘classic album’. I hear that quite a bit, but maybe the right time has now gone since recording it. When people say it’s a classic album, it truly is a classic.

“I listened to it two nights ago, and it sounded fresh as a daisy. Everything was great on it. I mean, the band were great, the songs were great, the sound was great. I was impressed … blown away by it.”

Agreed. It struck me back in 1995 that it was very much in your face, a statement of intent, and I think it’s retained that power.

“Oh God, yeah, it has indeed. This is what I’m saying. It set the benchmark, setting the standard straight away when it comes in. And I really enjoyed playing last night {Cast’s tour opener at Oxford Academy}, playing ‘Mankind’, ‘Reflections’ … songs I haven’t really played …

Rather than just the singles you’re more likely to play on every tour.

“Yeah, that’s right. So you put ‘Promised Land’, ‘Mankind’, ‘Reflections’. ‘Tell it Like it is’, and the thing’s rockin’! I mean, ‘Back of my Mind’. It felt great, and we’re really in a good place to celebrate it ourselves. It’s come at the right time.

“I’ve been writing a new album with the idea of trying to get the feeling of writing a debut album for now, y’know, to represent if I was in a new band now, with all the influences I’ve known. I’ve been writing these songs, and it’s funny listening back to All Change, because it’s like, ‘Right, yeah!’

“There’s a lot of good stuff. There’s actually not that much going on. I mean, the riffs are there and they’re there to be heard. We played that album for two years, probably, before we recorded it. So when we got in the studio to record it, we knew exactly what we wanted.

“We weren’t looking for riffs. We weren’t writing in the studio. We had it all, every song was ready – waterproof and bullet-proof! It had all the riffs, all the drums, and we were tight as anything. So it went down like that – probably a big reason why it sounds so fresh and why all the parts work on it.”

I mentioned the follow-up, 1997’s Mother Nature Calls, and in a sense that was a continuation of what you were doing really, wasn’t it?

“It was, but I made a conscious decision to try and make it sound different. Songs like ‘Free Me’, ‘Guiding Star’, ‘Live the Dream’ and all that, I could have done them a bit harder, I guess, a bit more electric, but I thought it’d be a bit passe to repeat the same, although speaking to fans all these years later, everybody would have loved another All Change. But that’s hindsight.

“At the time, I didn’t really want to. I thought it would have been a bit easy for us to just do the same thing. But I don’t look back too much … and Mother Nature Calls is a cracking album.”

They’ve both stood the test of time, so you must have got something right.

“Yeah, definitely.”

By 1999’s silver-certified Magic Hour, Cast had brought in Gil Norton and Danton Supple, production-wise, while John co-produced with Tristin Norwell on 2001’s Beetroot (the band splitting two weeks after its release). But those first two LPs were both made with John Leckie. And the two Johns clearly got on well enough to work again when it came to my interviewee’s debut solo LP, Happening for Love, in 2003.

How would you best describe your working relationship with John Leckie?

“John is a very close friend and a wonderful kind of engineer/producer. He’s probably the last of a certain breed. There’s a lot of good producers and engineers out there, but it was a different art form those days, it was ‘tape and slice’.

“To edit, you had to cut the tape in half, put them together. Watching John do that was like watching a cordon bleu cook putting together something amazing. Literally, he was spinning two-inch tapes, pulling them together, and it would just match.

“He’d fucking tape the things together, you’d play it back and it would be amazing! John is great. We still keep in sorts, and hopefully he’ll come to one of the shows on this tour.”

That was recorded at The Manor in Oxfordshire and Sawmill in South Cornwall, wasn’t it?

“It was … and Abbey Road, and Eden. We recorded all over the place with John. He also did Troubled Times. I’ve done four records with him.”

Ah, of course, the 2011 Cast comeback LP, now itself a decade old. Have you got good memories of those recording sessions with him back in ’95 and ‘97? And were you a well-behaved band, or up to no good antics, Britpop-era style?

“Well, you know … look, it wasn’t that you were up to no good antics – they were the antics! That was just the way. That whole epoch of music … I mean, everybody was partying, y’know, from the people in the record industry offices to the journalists and bands. It was a big knees-up!”

And it was the end of an era, in a sense, I guess. The record industry has changed so much since.

“It has. Everything seemed to change. I do believe that was the last sort of gung-ho era of massive record deals and million-selling records. And every Saturday, pretty much every bloody music listener in the nation would go and buy a record.

“Everyone was glued to Top of the Pops or The White Room, there was only one chart, and everyone was interested in it. Now, I don’t even know who gives a shit about the charts! It was a different time, with this eclectic genre of music knocking around. There were loads of different bands. It wasn’t all just one type of guitar band. It was a big mixture of a lot of great artists.”

How did working with John Leckie compare to working with Steve Lillywhite in your days with The La’s?

“Well, John and Steve are probably slightly of the same … we worked with John with The La’s as well. It just didn’t see fruition. That’s when I met John. Steve probably wasn’t as ‘hands on’ as John. He’d produce but couldn’t help himself jumping on and engineering as well, whereas Steve Lillywhite was your architectural kind of producer, telling the engineer what to do.

“But both … well, you know, their records speak for themselves. And although Steve Lilywhite didn’t quite see eye to eye with The La’s, he’s worked with numerous amazing artists and made numerous amazing records, just like John has.

“And they’re both of a tape-operating nature and came through producing records with tape. I don’t know how it works now. I’ve just been in the studio doing some demos, and the engineer I was working with threw up some drum loops, and it was like a fucking drummer, y’know!

“It’s quick and fast, especially with just getting your ideas down. You don’t have to get the whole band in to record demos. That’s one thing good now. You can just splice something, you can slow it down. Your sketch pad is a lot broader. But when you do the real record, you do it properly, I suppose.”

Seeing as you mentioned a drummer, you came up recently in an interview I did with one of the early La’s drummers, Iain ‘Tempo’ Templeton, later of Shack. It always seems to me that must have been a rather tortuous time ….

“Well, it was for him, ha!”

Indeed. I don’t think he’d argue with that. But I was going to say it was ultimately worth it for the finished product, released in 1990, another classic debut LP, painstaking as it seems to have been with regard to the intricate way those songs were made. How do you look back on those years now?

“It wasn’t tortuous. That was just the way it was, y’know. You did take after take, until you got the right take. Now, I guess it’s a bit different. I don’t know how people record modern records. It just depends on what type of band you are and if you want to sculpt out of a block of stone or marble, or you want to buy some sort of 3D printer that can print half of it out for you.”

Was that time recording with The La’s about you taking it all in, thinking ahead, working towards your own future, going out on your own or at least with your own band? Clearly there came a time when you thought, ‘I know what I want to do my own thing’. Were you a bit of a sponge in those days?

“I was a sponge. I very much listened and consciously and very much subconsciously absorbed things that were said. And they seemed to be the true cornerstones of something. I tended to recognise that very quickly. Never mind the detail at first, what you need is the foundation and rock cornerstones. Once you get that sorted, once you know what they are, you can spend time colouring it in, doing different shapes within that.

“So yeah, I think I was, and a lot of that probably stemmed from being around Lee {Mavers}, very closely, when I was very young. And he was a master songwriter – and still is – probably the most gifted songwriter of a generation, no doubt about it.”

Are you a believer in fate? I’m thinking specifically of you as an 18-year-old in July ’86 when you were on that course for unemployed musicians in Liverpool and happened to meet Mike Badger, in what proved ultimately to be your big break, joining The La’s, going on from there. Or was that just an exciting time, having a crack at this and that, living for the moment?

“I do believe in fate. I had a narrative, and seemed to read it off the page, and it kind of happened. I mean, I do believe in fate, but … it’s not a contradiction, but y’know, you keep coming to forks in the roads. And if you turn left, your fate opens a different reality or something else, but if you keep on your true course, I do believe there is a fate for us all.

“You’ve got to believe in magic and storytelling, you’ve got to believe in something that’s bigger than the mundane flesh and blood of yourself. Otherwise, you may think, ‘What’s it all worth anyway? Why am I trying? I’m only clay and blood. I go to bed, and I wake up’.

“So yeah, I believe in what can’t be expressed. But it can be expressed through things that are further than words and further than comprehension, y’know. We have instincts, and you choose to follow them or you don’t.

“Sometimes with those instincts, it feels like it could be a foolish thing to do. But if that instinct is strong, you’ll do it. And you’ll find out further down the path that actually you had to go through that, whereas other people will get off, where it feels unnatural to them maybe.

“Sometimes you’ve got to ride the white rapids, y’know, to get through. And it’s all part of the journey. Listen, we’ve been believing in things that are unattainable, and unformed … like grabbed … we haven’t made them yet. But isn’t that’s what evolution is?

“I’ve always imagined things that were not present, and in the future they become present, they become normal, you know. We’re sat here talking on the phone, or driving, and all these things are futuristic to one generation, but to another generation they’ll be looked on as primitive.

“The crazy thing about human nature is we’ve been trying to express our solitary soul in the universe, and our connection with many other people, you know. This is the big question … but I’m a big believer in something!”

Talking of forks in the road, it’s close to 30 years now that Liam ‘Skin’ Tyson and Keith O’Neill came on board the good ship Cast. Remind me, did you know them quite well before?

“Not particularly. But I knew when Keith and Skin joined the band that was right. We had numerous line-ups before, and it was never right. Another instinct. Some of them were closer friends, from around the area that I grew up. But it just wasn’t right. We had to disband and be cruel sometimes.

“But once they joined, it was obvious that they were the right ones. Keith was an exciting type of drummer, the kind I’d like to watch myself if he wasn’t in my band. While Skin is just, y’know, an amazing guitarist. So yeah, once you add that in … I had amazing songs, I knew that. I just needed an amazing band.”

It was a lot further down the line before Jay Lewis came in, but I’m guessing that, again, he clicked with you straight away.

“Well, of course, before that, Peter {Wilkinson} was integral to the band. But yeah, me and Jay are very close, and he’s very close with Keith and Skin. He played in The La’s and on my solo stuff. And he was the first man I called when Pete decided he didn’t want to be part of the band anymore.”

Peter Wilkinson (bass, backing vocals), previously with Shack, co-founded Cast with John, and was key to the set-up throughout the first coming. He initially returned in 2010, but departed in March 2015, having abruptly left a tour in December 2014, when Jay took over.

“Jay knew the songs and was playing with me acoustically. But Jay had to forge his own dynamic with the rest of the band. He’s not in the band because he’s my buddy, but because he’s an outstanding musician. He’s also a really cool soul, a really cool guy. He fits in and there’s a lot of love there.”

Now, as I mentioned, it’s even 10 years since Cast’s comeback LP, Troubled Times. Time flies. You mention new material, but do you instinctively know these days if you’ve written a song for Cast or for yourself?

“I think in the past, on Kicking up the Dust {Cast’s sixth LP, from 2017} I might have been guilty of maybe just throwing in a lot of good songs. But not on this one. I mean, I don’t want to make an OK record, I want to make one more seminal record. And then we’ll see what we do after that.

“I’m not talking about splitting up, we’ll keep playing and keep doing things. But the idea is to go back to our roots, and I now have some really good songs … I mean, I’d play them to you and you’d think it’s fucking brilliant, but they’re not going to be on this album.

“They just don’t feel right to go with these 12 or 13 songs … which are like little bullets, and they come flying out! They’re two and a half minutes long, they’re in and they’re out, and they sound just how I envisaged the new album to.

“And I’ve learned a lot from playing All Change recently, because I’ve realised those songs run together … they run together in a pack!

“So the next album has to have that sort of belief and outlook where they’re all parts of the same gang. I’ve got some beautiful songs, but they’re not going to make it on this album. They’ll be on a solo record, which I’m writing as well.”

Were all these songs you mention lockdown-built?

“Some of them. I’ve been thinking about the Cast album for a long time. I’ve wanted to go back to that space between The La’s and Cast, writing a record from that perception. I’ve never really done that. I’ve been working on this as an idea for a long time.

“It’s only over the last so many years that I’ve started to truly pull the songs out that actually sound like the idea. It’s alright talking the talk, but you’ve got to come up with the songs as well. I’ve got that for Cast and I’ve got some other good songs, which I’m not sure what I’ll do with them, but they sound great too. They might be a solo thing. It’s not all been written in lockdown, but a lot of it came together in lockdown.”

Did that prove a productive time for you?

“The first year was unproductive. I think like everyone else I just drank some wine in the garden. But the last year has been very productive. I’ve gone through all my ideas and got a better idea and a better picture of what the Cast album’s got to be.

“I did some demos about six months ago or whatever, then I got about five or six songs that were just fucking rad on the button! And I was like, ‘That’s how they’ve got to be!’. So it’s taken me another six months to find the other five or six …. but now I’m ready to go.”

I should point out there that following a brief La’s reformation around 2005, John went on to release his second and third solo albums, more in the acoustic folk vein, Willow She Weeps (October 2006) and Stormbreaker (January 2008). By then he was performing live in the John Power Band, featuring Jay Lewis (bass, slide guitar) and Steve Pilgrim (drums), Oli Hughes replacing Pilgrim after he joined Paul Weller’s band. John also went out on a solo acoustic tour with Jay in 2015.

Finally, if you could go back to the day you decided to bite the bullet and form your own band, post-La’s, what advice might you give yourself to save a few sleepless nights? Or did you always have that inner belief?

“I did always have the belief, but I suppose if I could do anything I would tell myself to enjoy it a bit more. All through the Cast success I was kind of a bit uptight, because I was writing songs and singing every night, y’know?

“I think I would say. ‘Just enjoy it a bit more’, because actually it wasn’t actually the greatest time of my life. Everybody thinks it was because we had big success, but there was plenty of that I didn’t really enjoy, being like a paranoid fucking freak putting yourself under extreme pressure. I mean, it was good fun. It was all a nice big knees-up, but it took me 10 years to get over it!”

But now you can go back to listen to those early records and enjoy them like the rest of us.  

“Now I’m alright. I’ve made my peace with everything. It sounds great now, and, I mean, I don’t ever like to sit back on my laurels, but …”

I’m guessing you’re not quite ready for Rewind Festival type shenanigans then?

“No, not at all! But as I say, I played the first album the other day and I was quite gobsmacked at how fucking great it sounded! I was made up. And when people say ‘a classic album’, I believe them now.”

Quite right too.

“Alright, mate. I best go. I’ve got a soundcheck to do. Take care!”

For a previous WriteWyattUK interview with John Power, from October 2015, head here.

The All Change 25th  anniversary tour, which started on January 13 in Oxford and carried on in  Liverpool, Birmingham, Leicester, and Dumfries, reaches The Foundry, Sheffield tonight (Thursday 20th), then heads for Manchester’s O2 Ritz (Friday 21st), Leeds’ O2 Academy (Saturday 22nd), Newcastle’s  O2 City Hall (Sunday 23rd), Cardiff’s Tramshed (Thursday 27th), Southampton’s Engine Rooms (Friday 28th), London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire (Saturday 29th), and Norwich’s The Waterfront (Sunday 30th), before February dates at Glasgow’s SWG3 (Friday 4th), Edinburgh’s Liquid Rooms (Saturday 5th), and a finale at Hull’s Asylum (Sunday 6th). Full ticket details of the remaining dates can be accessed via this link. And for more about Cast, check out their Facebook, Instagram, Spotify and Twitter links.

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Art for heart’s sake – back in touch with Vinny Peculiar

“We all need a little more art in our life.”

I can’t speak for you lot, but Channel 4’s Grayson’s Art Club has proved a big draw, so to speak, at WriteWyattUK Towers since the first UK covid lockdowns. Sometimes sad, occasionally deep, most often inspirational.

And I could say similar of Vinny Peculiar’s latest long player, Artists Only, a concept album of sorts where Grayson Perry is one of six artists celebrated by this acclaimed Worcestershire singer-songwriter, born Alan Wilkes. What’s more, Grayson’s well-loved childhood furry friend by the surname of Measles also gets a namecheck.

‘’The potter’s wheel of fortune spins and you invite us in

To share in the delights of broken kilns and a teddy bear called Alan.”

Artists Only is the 14th Peculiar solo venture, and it’s another winner, carrying on where he left off with 2019’s While You Still Can and the previous year’s Return of the Native. But these aren’t glib portraits of the artists portrayed – from Francis Bacon to Jackson Pollock, Paul Rothko to Andy Warhol, and David Hockney to the afore-mentioned GP – as much as reflections of what their artwork means to our Alan, and how they’ve touched his life.

Long since back to his West Midlands roots after several years in Manchester, Vinny (it’ll get confusing if I keep referring to him as Alan) continues to revel in his outsider status, this scribe first experiencing him live as support to The Wedding Present in Blackpool in Summer 2019 (reviewed here), having previously – after a successful career in nursing – shared an indie label with Elbow, past collaborations including those with The Smiths’ Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke, and alongside Oasis’ Bonehead in the splendid Parlour Flames. He also worked with KLF mastermind Bill Drummond and PIL’s Jah Wobble, Uncut describing him as ‘an under-sung national treasure’, while Q had him down as a ‘warm-hearted Morrissey’, and The Irish Times as ‘the missing link between Jarvis Cocker and Roger McGough’.

As for the dedicated artists’ album, I guess we could see this coming. I’ve probably missed a few, but there was ‘One Great Artist’ as far back as 2001’s Ironing the Soul, ‘Christo and Jeanne-Claude’, ‘Artrockers’ and ‘Art Thief’ in 2011, ‘Antony Gormley’ in 2015, ‘Art and Poverty’ in 2019, and ‘Unhappy Painter’ on late 2020’s outtakes LP, Peculiarities.

In fact, let’s start with the latter, for this is the fella who wrote, ‘I am an unhappy painter and I can’t draw to save my life’, now giving us a record where all but four of its 10 songs are inspired in some form or other by established canvas fillers. You’d best explain yourself.

“That’s a rather beautiful opening gambit, Malcolm! I’ve always been an art fan and a fan of galleries really. I’m not much of a painter myself. I’ve had a go in the past but haven’t really stuck with it in any great shape or form.

“I think my inspiration started with Robert Hughes’ book, The Shock of the New, in the early ‘80s, the Australian art critic. There was a TV series on Channel 4 which I became addicted to. He enthused about art’s cultural significance and the way it reflects and directs changes in society, and I got quite fascinated by it and acquired any number of glossy arty books … that I left on the coffee table to impress my dates!

“There was that kind of vague interest, and trips to the Tate Modern and Tate Liverpool. If I’m ever in a city on holiday, I’ll go to a gallery. So that’s my general enthusiasm. But for the album I tried not to do a collection of songs based on artists’ lives. It’s more to do with the way they’ve touched my life in a small way. Like getting a migraine at a Mark Rothko exhibition, or sharing a poster of a David Hockney – where a poster bought on holiday, early in a relationship, stays on the wall then gets taken down, and how things change in a relationship. It’s a kind of reflection.

“And I still like ‘A Bigger Splash’. You can make a record and think, ‘Can I ever listen to that again?’, but I listened to that song the other day in the car and thought, ‘That’s not too bad’.

That was the lead single of this new LP, released in late October, setting the tone perfectly. In fact, it’s up there with the closing two numbers, ‘Fifteen Minutes’ and ‘Perfect Song’, my favourites. Meanwhile, the good (funereal) folk at Vinny’s label, Shadrack & Duxbury (you may well spot the reference, but if it’s nagging you, that’s the name of the funeral director for whom William Fisher, aka the titular Billy Liar, works in Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 book, brought to the screen four years later, Tom Courtenay taking the lead role) suggest this is a ‘typically eclectic and forthright collection’ with ‘elements of hard rock, blue-eyed funk and pastoral chamber pop’. And that’s about right, Vinny – as ever – buzzing between genres.

“Yeah, I often write stuff, then work out the style of music that would possibly suit the words. I think if I was with a band, developing a one-band sound where everybody did things in a certain way, there would probably be a more unified sound. But I’ve always liked diversity in music. I can do different things. I don’t feel constrained by any kind of stylistic strait-jackets.”

At this point, Vinny self-consciously reflects on what he’s just said, in trademark apologetic form, adding …

“Stylistic strait-jackets? That may be too grandiose, Malcolm!”

Yeah, but what a band they were. At least for the first two albums.

“You know what I’m saying though.”

I do indeed, but I’ll spare us the next section of our conversation, where we got on to reviews, music critics, and dreaded marks out of 10 from print and online media. For the record though, he’s had several good ones for this and previous LPs. And soon we’re back to ‘A Bigger Splash’, me suggesting he lays himself somewhat bare regarding emotions and memories, as is the case here and there, setting up his easel, in a sense. Yes, it’s about a famous David Hockney painting, but much more – it’s how that painting relates to him, Vinny adding a biographical framework, so to speak. Is that in effect what he’s doing, telling his own tales inspired by art?

“Yeah, even the ‘Grayson’ tune is … it’s a load of arty statements, but it’s basically saying ‘get some art into your life’, because it can help. And the way he (Grayson Perry) does his programme, the feedback from ordinary people is lovely to see. It reminds me of how I do workshops for kids, usually in the mental health system but not always, just get a group of people together, usually in a club or somewhere where there’s a sound engineer and put on a gig. They come together in the day and write songs and all I do is help them do it, and at night all their mates and their family come along. It’s great, and fun for them, giving them a sense of purpose. And I think any kind of art helps you validate your place in the world … which is sometimes a hard thing to find – who we are and what we’re about.”

At this point, his words are cut out by my answerphone, but he tells me he’d returned to the ‘wittering stage’ anyway, and he wasn;t talking about the West Sussex coast. Instead, I mention the line on ‘A Bigger Splash’ where he sings, in contrast to Hockney’s subject matter,

“Mine’s a different kind of heaven; Football in the park, walking by the Severn.”

However, as he puts it, ‘there’s so much of San Francisco in that’ song too, where he bought the poster in the first place. And there’s no denying a languid feel of the artist as a ‘70s Brit in LA on that number, this scribe also reminded of Al Stewart’s ‘Year of the Cat’.

“Yeah, someone else said that to me the other day. I tried to get that kind of West Coast electric piano undulating feel. I recorded loads of piano, thinking I’ll change the sample to an old Fender Rhodes and put it through various effects. And all of a sudden you get a little ripple of that, and being a song driven like that, with acoustic guitars and twangs, is a little bit of that era.”

That leads us on to ‘Rothko’, the first example of Vinny rocking out a bit, channelling ‘Ohio’-era Neil Young or Jimi Hendrix taking on Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’. Is this him unleashing his inner guitar hero again?

“I think it is, that’s a really good way of putting it. I’m never going to be Jimmy Page, but that’s all I ever wanted to be, so every now and again … When I started playing in bands, I just wanted to be the guitar player, but always ended up at the front of them, writing the words, then became a singer.

“When you’re fronting bands or doing solo stuff, you tend to do less guitar dynamics and focus more on introductions and other elements, the way you put a song across. But there’s definitely a little Hendrix moment towards the end. And I quite liked that.

“Again, it’s a total cliché – those chords have been used by everyone. But you get to a certain point in life when you think, well, everyone’s used them, so I’ll use them as well. That really is the story of songwriting. There’s only so far you can take it, unless you want to get into the world of augmented fourths and triads and strange jazz tempos, and then it becomes almost impossible to relate to.”

So many great songwriters have taken that magpie approach. It’s just how you repackage something.

“It is. I mean, it’s the same chords as ‘All Along the Watchtower’, but they’re repackaged in a slightly different way! But we don’t want to go on too much about that, and interest Dylan’s publisher, as he’s just sold his entire back-catalogue. It could get us some good publicity though, Malcolm!”

A good point, leading me to bring up my interview last year with Du Kane, regarding Beautiful People’s If ‘60s were ‘90s LP in 1992, sampling Hendrix, one of those moments when you’d expect a pummelling from the publishers, but they ended up giving the project their blessing.

“In a similar way, Suzanne Vega ran with that British band that covered ‘Tom’s Diner’ (DNA, covering her 1987 Solitude Standing LP opener, giving an acapella track a breakbeat revamp). The guy that did that used to be the sound engineer at Moles in Bristol. He told me they were up in arms about it to start with, but suddenly realised it was a good thing, and it had a massive impact on their album sales.”

Talking of added drums, on this LP you have Joe Singh complementing six tracks, while Leah Walch provides backing vocals …

“Yes, that’s my daughter. She’s been roped in on many of them!”

Ah, there you go. Otherwise, it’s just Alan Wilkes. Was that chiefly because this turned out to be your lockdown LP?

“I suppose it was. Because I’ve been more isolated in the creation of this one, I’ve just done more things myself. Which is probably true of a lot of people making records. I would have preferred to rehearse a band and go in and do things live, and really want to do that for the next album. But that’s not really been very possible in the last couple of years.

“So this is essentially a studio album that I’ve had quite a long time to get ready. I recorded probably 23 songs. The others I’m currently tarting up a bit, seeing if they can fit on to something new.”

A few tracks don’t necessarily meet the concept theme but fit in well, the first of which, ‘Pathetic Lament’, carries shades of past Vinny Peculiar songs, but wouldn’t be out of place on a Ray Davies LP.

“Really? That’s very kind of. Ray Davies is the man! I love the way he’s just kept going. He just keeps working. I’ve had that song a while and just happened to re-do a vocal on it and thought, maybe I’ve about nailed the vocal on that now. Then my mate in Southport, who I worked with quite a bit, said, ‘Why don’t you just try and break it up a bit, and put that one on?’ So I did. It’s not really part of the art narrative though.”

No, but it works. And then we’re back into guitar overload territory on ‘Heavy Metal’, the spirit of Crazy Horse coming through, as well as a slight Mott the Hoople feel, something that hit me before hearing the lyrical reference to ‘Saturday Gigs’. Another autobiographical walk through the memories of early ‘70s Alan Wilkes, recanting, ‘teenage tales of heavy metal heartbreak’.

“Yeah, there is a slight Mott the Hoople reference there! I did play gigs on a Saturday, but realised when I did that line … but just left it in. That’s an older song as well. I did an album called Return of the Native, with loads of Midlands-based songs, but ran out of studio time and resources to finish it. But I always quite liked it.”

A song to prance about to on stage too, swishing his hair, early Teenage Fanclub style (although maybe Alex Chilton’s early ‘70s Memphis outfit Big Star could be more appropriate for a fella who wrote a song about them back in 2005.

“Yeah! We recorded a live video of that at (Worcester venue) The Marr’s Bar. One for that and for ‘Rothko’. Yeah, you can see me playing my teenage licks there!”.

Incidentally, when I suggested that song’s Thin Lizzy-like twin guitars, he retorted, ‘More like Wishbone Ash in my case!’.

As for side one closer, ‘Jack the Dripper’, about Jackson Pollock, that’s more reflective and ethereal, while when we turn over, ‘Francis Bacon’ takes us somewhere else again, maybe more Julian Cope meets David Bowie in this LP of many parts. Who’s responsible for the sleeve art and inserts, anyway?

“That’s Dave Hulston, a Manchester painter, a good friend of my arts collaborator Paul Cliff, who’s a Manchester photographer and also a great friend. Paul photographed elements from Dave’s work and used them to represent individual songs, so you’ve got an eclectic set of images to match an eclectic set of songs from a painter. And they work so well. I’m the kind of person who gets excited about artwork. And in a funny kind of way, the whole look of the sound is an interesting thing. So I was really pleased with that.”

I scribbled early on by ‘A Man and his Shadow’ the comment, ‘just on the right side of Pink Floyd’. I’m not sure if that’s how I still see it, but …

“Yeah! It’s a bit bleak!”

It’s another providing a bridge to the main theme, like ‘Pathetic Lament’. And I’m guessing that song is the story of your lockdowns, in a way.

“Yeah, I think the mood of our interactions kind of changed. You know, whether it become more cautious, more suspicious, or more respectful sometimes. It doesn’t have any answers. It’s kind of bleak, but sometimes bleak can be beautiful.”

Absolutely, and from there we reach ‘Grayson’, taking more positive aspects of all that over a Talking Heads-like feel …

“Yeah, or ‘Fashion’ by David Bowie, with those Robert Fripp kind of dirty honking guitars as well! I tried to get that same sound. I’m probably nowhere near it, but it’s an approximation!”

As you put it in that chorus, ‘We all need a little more art in our life’. Were you, like my family, rather glued to and inspired by Grayson’s Art Club during the lockdowns?

“I really enjoyed it. And I should really make an attempt to send the song to Grayson.”

You should, and get the opener to David Hockney. Both deserve a copy of the record for sure.

“Yeah, I need to try and work out how to do that. I did send an early version to Grayson’s film company. They said they really loved it, but I didn’t really hear any affirmation as to whether he heard it.”

The album’s peaks for me as ‘Grayson’ leads to ‘Fifteen Minutes’, a thing of beauty somewhere between Damon Albarn and Ray Davies again, the spirit of Morrissey and Marr in there too. I get the feeling this is you using Warhol as a way to reflect where we’re at right now with regard to creative art. And I’m not just talking art hung on walls.

“Yeah, and it’s a little more abstract. Some people would say it’s lazier. It’s doesn’t have a linear story to it. But sometimes songs just work with hopefully half-decent lines in them that aren’t always perfect. I kind of like that. I mention various things, like the factory closing down, everything getting copied … Warhol was a great copyist. He was such a copyist that he sent an actor around 30 American universities impersonating him, to give lectures. And all those lithographs of the Marilyns and … With all the classic Warhols, he’d oversee a couple, then say, ‘Just knock me up 500, I’m going to the cafe …’”

This to me reflects your own take on today’s music industry, something you go into in more explicit terms on finale, ‘Perfect Song’. There was a shop in my hometown, Guildford, Surrey, called ‘But Is It Art?’ It’s that kind of thinking for me – what is art? And musically, there’s a lovely Pulp-like rumble on that last song. I feel you’ve a potential hit on your hands there … although it might have fared far better on that front in 1995.

“Yeah, it’s the excitement and the disappointment, I suppose, of possibility. Everything’s about possibility, but then reality can take you both ways. That sounds a bit fuzzy, but I think you know what I mean!”

I do, and that brings me to my ultimate refelction on this LP. I see Artists Only as your take on conceptual art, in your case perhaps striving for or alluding to that perfect song and breakthrough success but finding so much more to savour along the way. When people like Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker and so on broke through, you were there in the slipstream struggling to be heard. But now, I’d suggest, you’ve finally found your audience. I’m not sure how you got there, but you’ve now made 14 albums and you’re still at it!

“The other problem nowadays is you have to kind of get into this zone of maximum self-belief, maximum push, maximum publicity, social media, all that sort of stuff. Most musicians do their best with that, then kind of fade away, because we can’t spend every waking minute talking about how great we are, because that’s bad for the soul! We want a bit more balance and a bit more humanity in our lives, other than our own vanity!”

“Yeah, it’s quite a lot of work. I must have something in the dogged persistence gene that’s kept me going. Music can be quite a self-rewarding experience – performing can reward you and that same kind of completist experience of making a record is vaguely satisfying, even if the world doesn’t always embrace it to the extent you feel it may deserve.

True, and this week, for example, I get the feeling you’ve had to go against your more shy instincts to push the release of this LP, acting the reluctant PR guy.

“Well, I don’t mind doing that. I went on a course when I was still in Manchester, around 2014. Some guy was talking about how many tweets you needed to do and how to vary them, with a load of musicians sat there, thinking, ‘What, 10 times a day?’. But I suppose people like Bob Dylan have someone to do that for them.

“I do like Twitter sometimes, I’m not totally opposed to it. I’m just not engaged in it as much as some people.”

As for the next Vinny Peculiar record, will you move on again, away from the art concept? Could it be Never Mind the Pollocks?

“Ha! That’s sowing a great seed! I suppose I’m a quarter of the way into the next one. It’s probably not going to have a theme. It’s just going to be a collection of songs, because the last two or three albums have all had more of a concept album feel, so I’ll probably buck my own trend!”

For WriteWyattUK’s previous feature/interview with Vinny Peculiar, from late 2019, head here.

For information regarding tickets for Vinny Peculiar on Friday, March 11th at The Marr’s Bar, Worcester; Friday, March 18th at the Castle Hotel, Oldham Street, Manchester; and Saturday, March 26th at Thornton Hough, Birkenhead, head here. And to track down a copy of Artists Only and catch up with Vinny’s back-catalogue, head here. You can also keep tabs on him via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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WriteWyattUK’s year in quotes, 2021 – part two (July to December)

As we draw closer to a new year, here’s the second half of my 12-month review of sorts, featuring quotes prised from the collected words of the WriteWyattUK website in 2021, this time involving the concluding six months, as yet another new variant of coronavirus stalks this land and we hobble towards January, our determination to keep on keeping on – Redskins style – hopefully seeing us towards a better world from here on in, with music, arts and the collective spirit showing the way. Upwards and onwards, one and all.

July

Mick Shepherd and Simon Dewhurst, of The Amber List, who released their splendid debut LP, The Ache of Being in 2021, on the band’s ‘been around the block a few times’ attitude to making music:

Mick: “We’re doing it for the love of the music. There’s no pretence. We’ve been around long enough to get past all the fads and fashions in music. It’s beyond all that. It’s about creating something that’s lasting … and good.”

Simon: “I think the beauty is that we’ve all dabbled and been there before. We’re a bit more ‘eyes open’. When I joined, we sat down and discussed our aims and what we were trying to do with this. And we all came with the same viewpoint. We weren’t looking to get signed or become the biggest band in the world. It was always about the music and the songs, communicating that.”

Edinburgh-based singer-songwriter Dot Allison, formerly of One Dove, blesses her luck in a year that she released her tremendous Heart-Shaped Scars solo album:

“I’ve always felt very … I guess gratitude. I appreciate the things that have happened. It’s been a privilege. And I wrote two songs with Hal David … when I got that call, I was … ‘what the …!’. So there are those moments. And what’s not known is that Paul Weller asked me to write a song with him. He said, ‘I’m with Bobby Gillespie, he says you’re good, do you fancy writing a song together? He’s given me your number’. I was like, ‘What! Is this a wind-up?’. Then Pete Doherty also asked me to write with him. I did ask to write with Hal David though.”

Dublin indie singer-songwriter Keeley Moss, who finally got to play live with her band after a frantic year of recording, writing and looking to spread the word about her music and cause, explaining her compulsion to dedicate all her songs to Inga Maria Hauser, the German tourist killed in the North of Ireland in 1988,aged just 18:

“Ever since coming upon Inga’s case back in 2016, I became totally fascinated by the circumstances, and my two key interests in life had always been music and true crime, ever since I was a child. And I felt so moved and inspired by Inga and her story, I felt such an urge to get involved and try and do all I could.

“The case had been dormant for a number of years prior to commencing the writing of The Keeley Chronicles, and I wasn’t in any way deterred by that. I thought this is the most important thing I’ve ever read about, so just give it gusto and approach it with pride and passion, and after researching Inga’s case, I published part one of the blog, which to my amazement went viral on the first day in 2016.

“To me it was a logical step to want to bring Inga and her story into my sonic field and start to write about her. It was all I was thinking about, so it was all I wanted to write about. To pool and fuse the fields of music and true crime together, something I believe has never been done before. No one has made an album about a murder victim, certainly never composed an entire body of work in honour of and about a murder victim and a murder case. But that’s what I’m determined to do, that’s what I’m doing, and that’s what I’m going to do.”  

Kim Wilde, who brought out the Pop Don’t Stop greatest hits compilation and was the subject of Marcel Rijs’ tie-in biography in 2021, four decades after ‘Kids in America’ had us take her to our hearts, responds to my suggestion that the Minimoog sound her brother/bandmate Ricky utilises on that debut 45 stands the test of time.

“Oh, it really has! It’s a magnificent record, and Ricky’s talent at that time was so precocious. He was only 18 or 19 years old but was listening to Ultravox and Gary Numan, the Skids, the Sex Pistols, Kraftwerk, and The Stranglers – all of those great bands. And we were brought up with rock’n’roll. And somehow all of it came together. There’s even a bit of Abba in there, y’know.”

Funny you should say that. It’s very much of its time but still fresh. In fact, it’s almost like you’re backed by The Attractions, and I know Elvis Costello tipped his hat to classic pop, specifically Abba, as heard on ‘Oliver’s Army’ and its ‘Dancing Queen’ motif. So maybe it all makes more sense in retrospect.

“It does, yeah. I mean, pop music was influenced by Elvis Costello’s ‘Pump It Up’, and I’m a huge Elvis Costello fan. I had all his albums in my collection, and still have. I used to love the diversity and loved it when he moved into country music and introduced me to all the country artists I’d never heard before, like George Jones. And I fell in love with that music. Yeah, he was a really important inspiration for me personally and for Ricky, and I really enjoyed that amazing book he wrote.”

August

Composer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist Hannah Peel, now based in Donegal, joyfully reflects on her 2021 Mercury Prize nomination for Fir Wave, her re-interpretation of the original music of 1972 KPM 1000 series: Electrosonic – the Music of Delia Derbyshire and the Radiophonic Workshop, a decade after debut solo LP The Broken Wave truly set out her creative stall:

“I’ve always dreamed of having a record Mercury-nominated. Anybody who releases records that have an aspiring feel to it … I think every record I’ve ever worked on has probably been submitted. But you kind of get used to, ‘Ach, no, I’m not on a big label, I don’t have a lot of press money and I can’t push a lot of things’, which is ultimately what happens – it gets attention, gets listened to, and that’s what influences the judges as well.

“The fact that it’s a little self-release and they’ve listened and taken note is just amazing. I’m so thankful.”

Han Mee, of Manchester indie rockers Hot Milk, on the back of their in-your-face I Just Wanna Know What Happens When I’m Dead EP, gets pensive:

“I’m kind of optimistic, but naturally a pessimist. My mum’s nodding at me! I’ll say I’m a realist. I’ve seen the worst of people the last five years or so, generally jaded about humans. We’re innately selfish to a degree. But then I see kids coming through that have such liberal minds and are so optimistic about the future, and think, ‘I used to be like that!’. That does give you a bit of faith. They’re not jaded like I am.”

Howard Smith, four decades after ending his playing days behind the drum-kit with The Vapors, whose first two records got the anthology treatment in 2021, reflects on how it all began for him and bandmates Ed Bazalgette and Steve Smith, joining David Fenton’s fledgling new wave outfit all those years ago:

“Ed joined and did some gigs, then Steve and I joined, and we had a week or two to get ready for the first gig. My father ran the launderette in Stoke Road (Guildford, Surrey), with two flats above, one of which Ed and I twisted his arm into renting, the other one empty. Dad wasn’t money-minded at all, renting them out was too much hassle. So we persuaded him to let us use the other flat as rehearsal space. That may have been some attraction for Dave saying, ‘Let’s get Howard in the band’! Having a drummer with free rehearsal space …

“Dave was working at the fruit and veg shop in Market Street and got loads of packaging, which we plastered the walls with to sound-proof. But we literally had two weeks to the first gig with me and Steve, and I still remember my drums set-up in the living room of this flat, us all crowded in there with amps and stuff, trying to learn every single song. And that (Godalming College) setlist is basically all the songs we had to learn, songs we inherited from the previous incarnation of the band.

“After that … well, Dave was writing songs regularly, so we were working out those ourselves, with some input into their creation. And of those originals, some songs were dropped. With some of them I’m not sure any of us can actually remember how they go now.”

Jim Bob Morrison proved again in 2021 there was still plenty of life in the ex-frontman of Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, his Who Do We Hate Today LP impressing, its creator revealing how snappily-titled, infectious feelgood single, ‘Song For the Unsung (You’re So Modest You’ll Never Think This Song Is About You)’ came about.

“’Song for the Unsung’ was the last song I wrote for the album, when I realised all the others kind of painted a fairly pessimistic picture. I literally did think, let’s say something a bit positive for a change. I think most people in this country just want to get on with their lives. They don’t necessarily have strong opinions, yet that’s what we constantly tend to hear – strong opinions – just because they’re the loudest.

“And because I’m almost masochistic about the things I look at on (Twitter), I find myself telling someone else about it. Maybe I’ll say something about Laurence Fox, and they’ll say, ‘Who’s Laurence Fox?’. Then you realise it’s not necessarily troubling the majority of people at all.”

Multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Newton Faulkner on how he coped during the first Covid-19 lockdowns, with the help of his family in his East London home studio, and what drove him on to complete Interference (of Light):

“I didn’t do anything in the first lockdown. I went in the studio, sat and stared out of the window – I was confused, and scared. I didn’t really feel like playing guitar. I wanted to understand what was going on. There were massive ups and downs, creatively and in terms of how you were feeling about life in general and yourself. Sometimes I was very focused and incredibly hard-working, working hours and hours and hours, other times I’d go in and …oh no. Everyone creatively seems to have been in the same boat.

“I dug myself a trap when I was promoting (2019’s) The Very Best Of – I went around telling everyone in all the interviews I did that the next thing I did would sound really different. But I completed a curve or thought process and that had come to a natural conclusion, then after that it was a different kind of time period. When you told a lot of people that, you really have to pull something out of the bag! One of the reasons I told anyone that would listen is because I really wanted to force myself to have to get out of my comfort zone and go down different paths, make different noises … and it really worked.”

September

Dutch indie bandleader Pip Blom looking forward to the band’s return to the UK this summer just gone, contemplating life back on the road with her bandmates:

“I’m very curious to see what’s going to happen when we play. I’m not sure that I’m going to be very nervous, but I do feel there’s going to be a lot of adrenaline – just the feeling of people being there. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. I hope I won’t get too nervous, but we’ll see.”

Saint Etienne singer Sarah Cracknell contemplating 2021’s impressive I’ve Been Trying to Tell You, an LP all about optimism, youth and the late ‘90s, at a time when we all needed some of that again.

“For the last 18 months to two years, there’s not been a lot of optimism, and there was around then … although slightly misguided optimism perhaps. It’s about exploring that, and how you can remember things not quite as they were – a bit blurry, through gauze. You don’t remember the intricacies. You just have a feeling about it.”

Public Service Broadcasting mastermind J. Willgoose Esq. talking about his surprise that Blixa Bargeld, veteran of The Bad Seeds and Einstürzende Neubauten, would even contemplate being involved with one of his records, having guested on the band’s love-letter to Berlin, Bright Magic.

“I think that’s the first time in all our collaborations it was suggested by the label rather than coming from me. Not because Blixa and Einstürzende Neubauten weren’t on my radar, but I just thought, ‘Why would he want anything to do with us?’. I didn’t have the audacity to ask him! But when someone asks if we’d thought about it and said, ‘I can put you in touch,’ it was, ‘Well, put me in touch, but he won’t be interested’. But then they came back, said he was interested, and I was saying, ‘Are you sure they’ve spoken to him? Is it just someone asking on his behalf?’. They assured me he was, and I said again, ‘Are you sure?’.

Comic, juggler, broadcaster and Britain’s Got Talent finalist Steve Royle recalling his 2013 role as compere at a book launch show for his pal Michael Pennington, aka Johnny Vegas, on Steve’s adopted patch in Chorley, Lancashire:

“That was a mad night, wasn’t it? I think I left at three in the morning, and he still hadn’t finished signing all the books! Unbelievable. I’ve spoken about that night to so many people as an example of just how lovely he is. You didn’t just get your book signed, you got a personal 10-minute experience with Johnny Vegas and a personalised book. I think I was only hanging around to get my copy signed. He said, ‘I’ll do yours last’. Bloody hell! But it was a very elaborate copy when he finally did it.”

October

Virtuoso musician and singer Liam Ó Maonlaí on his earlier days touring with Dublin outfit Hothouse Flowers on the back of their initial chart success:

“Just having the gift of music … music did all the talking for us. It was the consummation of our friendship, really. We weren’t always the best at talking, but a good gig … there’s nothing like it, to share an experience like that. And three of us are still together … and we’re very rich for having those experiences shared.

Do you and your fellow Flowers tend to chat on the phone, or is it a case of turning up on the doorstep these days?

“Well, the friendship is on the stage actually, we don’t see much of each other bar significant life events these days. But when we do get to see each other, we’re really glad to. And that’s the way our friendship sort of works. There’ll be the odd phone call, alright, but …”

Does the conversation carry on where it last left off?

“Yeah, and there’s always great excitement when we get together. We’ve known each other for a long, long time now.”

To the point that you’re finishing each other’s sentences?

“Err, maybe … sometimes … or sometimes just stopping them dead in their tracks!”

Writer, poet, broadcaster and award-winning producer Henry Normal on helping pull together Mrs Merton and The Royle Family with Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash:

“The lovely thing is I was paid to sit in a room with funny people. Caroline, beyond the television, was a funny person anyway. When the bosses used to come up from London, we worked on the sixth floor at Granada, they’d have a chat with us, then when they left, Caroline would open the window and shout down to them, these big top brass, ‘Do a funny walk!’. And because she was so cheeky and charming, they would do a funny walk across the road. I love that she wasn’t over-awed by authority. She had that little devilment. If she didn’t feel like writing, we’d go on a Granada tour, go shopping, or go for a bite to eat. Most days we’d probably only write for a couple of hours.

“I was definitely the responsible one. I’d write it all down then type it all up. Even when we were doing Mrs Merton, when we had Dave Gorman writing with us. There’d be four of us, but I’d be the one writing it down. I got paid as a script editor as well as a writer, which was quite nice. I was the only one with a computer. But it was such good fun, and nobody ever worried if you told a bad joke. You’ve got to be able to fail in creativity as well and push the boundaries. And you don’t know where the boundaries are, until you’ve crossed them.”  

Dean Leggett, of late-‘80s and early ‘90s indie favourites BOB on the story behind the recording of their Berlin Independence Days LP, and how it somehow took 30 years to get its vinyl release:

“We had a very basic soundcheck, about three in the afternoon. There were other things happening around the city, all being recorded for German radio, and we had to be there at half four to go on at five or half five on the dot. We weren’t allowed to drink or swear or take too long talking between songs. Everything was mic’d up, it would go straight to a sound deck, mixed by our engineer, Chris, a cable going out the back of the building to a van with a huge dish on top, fired to the radio tower on the front of the record sleeve {Berliner Fernsehturm, aka Berlin TV Tower}.

“We were all on form and played really well, so Richard said to Chris, ‘I want you to go out there and get the tape, and I don’t want you to come back until you’ve got it’. Ha! Two hours later, he came back with the reel-to-reel tape. The radio guy said, ‘You can have these, but we want them back’. I don’t know how he persuaded him. Then, 29 years later, Richard gets the tape, bakes it in an oven – as you have to – put it in his computer and up pop the tracks, tweaked a bit where necessary, and I sent it to Ian (Allcock) at Optic Nerve, who initially wasn’t sure about putting out a live album, but then listened and said, ‘Let’s put it out – it’s great!’ The quality’s that good.”

Echo & the Bunnymen guitar legend Will Sergeant on his new-found love of writing, working on his life story, the first volume of which, Bunnyman: A Memoir, got its release in 2021:

“It’s nice, like having a time machine. With the first one, a lot of it was about being a kid, and that was great, going back to then and what we used to get up to, all those scallywag things we used to do.”

You’re not so far from that patch now, around 10 miles from your Melling, Lancashire, roots, right?

“Yeah, if that. I just like it round here. When we were bigger, in our heyday – I was going to say massive, but we were never massive – loads of bands moved to London, and it was like, ‘Why move to London?’. It was full of fakers.

“To me, London seemed to be too many people scrambling around. We were trying not to do that. We turned down more things than we did. Even if there was some band on down there we didn’t like the look of, or they had the wrong trousers on or something. ‘We’re not going on with them,’ y’know. ‘They’re shit!’. London felt a bit like that, everyone too desperately trying to impress the local A&R man and all that stuff.”

Linda Jennings and Nick Davidson, whose late ‘80s ‘criminally-unheard Manchester noisemakers’ Magic Roundabout finally saw the release of their cult debut, 30-plus years on thanks to a label set up by Jack White, reflected on the band’s short spell together:

“We played in Leeds in this upstairs room at the Three Legs pub, one of the roughest then. It was around April/May ’87. We supported Loop that night. They lost their licence the next day, because it was so loud! There were only about 20 or so there, but Ian {Masters, his band Pale Saints hailing from Leeds} liked us, approached us after, and we swapped addresses. We’ve been friends since. He’s been a great supporter of the band.

“We were together for around two years, but for around nine or so months it was really intense. For some mad reason we decided we’d live in a band house, moving to Nottingham. We just thought that was what bands did … like The Monkees! We left Manchester, because we didn’t like the Happy Mondays and all that shite! But it was the death of us really.”

Linda: “Yeah. It was all, ‘Your turn to wash up!’, ‘No, you do it! I’m making tea!’. It was like The Young Ones.”

Nick: “We were 18 or 19. We had no social skills. We had rehearsals in the house, brought dustbins in and played them.”

Linda: “I missed all my friends as well. I was homesick for them … not my parents.”

November

Devonian multi-instrumentalist Seth Lakeman on how his second solo album, released 15 years ago, truly marked his arrival on the established crossover indie folk scene:

“I think that was the first time I really understood the process of making a whole album, where each song is like a chapter of a book. The full concept of an album also struck me, that’s where the Dartmoor legends and stories came from, and that’s the arrival of Kitty Jay.

“Lots of things were coming into play there, such as learning to sing with a violin, learning about the tenor guitar, things like that … experimenting with sound, really.

“Sharing stories about real people and their efforts, and celebrating them in song, that’s something I’ve always loved. Singing about where you come from, making sure people are aware of that – you don’t want to lose sight of your roots. So many times we step over into Americana, which I have, and we love to do that, but it’s always good to find those stories right here, back at home.”

Wolfhounds frontman David Callahan, who played shows with his band as well as dates of his own in 2021, while releasing his acclaimed English Primitive I solo record, talking about the inspiration for that record’s opener, ‘Born of the Welfare State Was I’, and his continuing appreciation of the NHS and state provision:

“Yeah, there’s a lot of that, and about how I literally do think – like it says in the first line of the song – it’s the very peak of civilisation, the Welfare State, we’re one of the richest countries in the Western world there’s ever been, and can afford to support the people who are falling behind or who aren’t as able as others. The danger is, as heard in the song and the accompanying video, that under the surface we’re taking it too much for granted, and gradually – ever since Tony Blair got in – the Governments have been chipping away at the NHS and other parts of the Welfare State, farming them out to private companies, who certainly won’t be considering their clients with too much empathy.

“But as I discovered this morning, because I’ve got a friend who’s a doctor, it says in the song about – half-jokingly – how we don’t have scurvy and rickets anymore. But we do! They’re back. So we need it more than ever, at a time when the whole thing is being eroded by vested interests.”

South Wales-based singer Hue Williams, of Swansea Sound, who released their debut LP, Live at the Rum Puncheon, and played their first live shows in 2021, reminiscing about his Pooh Sticks past:

“There was also this thing of, you know, ‘the ironic Pooh Sticks’, but we liked that C86 scene as much as we were sneering about it. It was a slight love/hate thing, but we liked a lot of it. And without sounding pompous, the positive thing is that it was inclusive enough to let a pair of oiks like us kind of enter the territory. And it’s completely true that the whole idea at the beginning was that we never ever thought all these years later we’d still be talking about it.

“Again without sounding pompous, it was a project in the sense that we were never trying to fool anyone. We were never a band in that we wanted to do a few demo tapes and send them out to labels. We thought it would be fun and funny to make a record, which we did, then created quite quickly this fucking monster we couldn’t control!”

December

Former Catatonia singer turned solo artist, radio and television broadcaster Cerys Matthews, on the back of guesting on the Guy Chambers-penned soundtrack of new Sky Cinema release A Christmas No.1, recalling her late-‘90s invite to record with Tom Jones on a festive cover of ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’, on the back of her duet with Tommy Scott on Space’s ‘The Ballad of Tom Jones’:

“In my memory, I’d done that with Space, it was riding pretty high in the charts, and it was kind of set up live on television. Was it a Welsh programme, The Pop Factory? Or CD-UK? I can’t remember. But in my memory, it was a TV show, we phoned Tom Jones, and that conversation was the first time I’d probably come into contact with him. Somebody said, ‘Would you do a duet?’ Or maybe I asked Tom, ‘Would you do a duet with me?’. Something like that. 

“I was like, ‘Absolutely. I’d love to do a duet with you’, and he said the same. It was only a few weeks following that conversation where his son and manager Mark, got in touch, said, ‘Listen, we’re gonna do this album of duets. We want you to be involved, have a think about what you want to sing, here are some choices we were thinking of. What do you reckon?’. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I want the Frank Loesser song!’. My voice kind of goes with that sort of character song.”

Was your ‘bloody freezin’, innit’ line a spur of the moment ad lib?

“Oh God, yeah, absolutely! The whole setup was recorded as if it was in the 1940s, with Ian Thomas on drums, a big band set-up, and I was sharing the same vocal booth as Tom, which is quite extraordinary because we’ve both got such different voices. Don’t know how the engineers managed that. And he kind of nudged me, elbowed me in the middle of the song, and you hear me go, ‘whoop!’. We had so much fun, and it was just three takes.”

California-born, London-based Jetstream Pony – their latest LP Misplaced Words released this year – singer/Micky Dolenz-esque tambourine shaker Beth Arzy on her continuing love for The Monkees, in an interview shortly before Mike Nesmith died, Beth also featuring this year with Mary Wyer and Julian Knowles of Even as we Speak under the name Tapioca Tundra (from a classic Nesmith track) on a Spinout Nuggets double A-side, covering ‘Sometime In The Morning’:

“Oh God, I love The Monkees, they were my first favourite band ever. It’s my comfort blanket. It’s everything. My cousins were like my sisters, they gave me their hand-me-down records when I was little. So I thought they were children’s records. I had my little Dansette, and when I was like three years old, I started listening to The Monkees. It was probably the first lyrics other than ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ type stuff that I knew.

“We were meant to play with Even as we Speak at The Lexington during lockdown, and it got cancelled. So I was talking to Mary and it came up one day, because we were going to do that cover. She was also a big fan, and we were talking about our favourite Monkees song, like, ‘Oh, that’s mine, too!’ and ‘Who’s your favourite?’. We really bonded over many things, one of them a love of The Monkees.

“She said, ‘It sucks that we can’t do the gig, but we can still do the song’. I was like, ‘I can’t do anything, I can’t play anything, what can we do?’. So we roped in Julian, and he created this amazing, beautiful composition of everything that needed to be there. Then Mary and I dropped in our bits, Tony from The Pop Guns made a video for us, then Lee from Spinout Nuggets … I was hinting one day, ‘Holy fuck, this song – it’s really nice, d’you want to hear it?’ and he was like, ‘Oh, I’d love to release that!’.

“And it just so happens that Sounds Incarcerated, who are Alan {Crockford} – from The Prisoners – together with Viv {Bonsels}, both from The Galileo 7, had been doing lockdown songs as well, and did a version of ‘The Porpoise Song’. So I said, ‘I’ve an idea for the other side! It’s not really like an A and B-side, it’s a joint effort. So that happened, then Micky Dolenz retweeted it on Twitter!”.

Richard Houghton, author/editor of Queen – A People’s History, on seeing Mercury, May, Deacon and Taylor live at Hyde Park, London in the summer of ’76:  

“That was the first gig I went to on my own. Previously, my mum had taken me to see The Beatles, Sacha Distel, Cliff Richard and various others at the London Palladium in the ‘60s. I was with my friend, Roger, it was September 18, we’d been to a football match that afternoon, Arsenal against Everton. We arrived early enough to see the infamous appearance by Kiki Dee. She’d just had a No.1 with Elton John with ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’. The rumour was that Elton was going to appear on stage with her, but she actually appeared with a cardboard cut-out of Elton. The urban myth is that they had an argument backstage and that’s why he didn’t go on. But that would suggest they manufactured a cardboard cut-out of him rather quickly!

“We were quite a way away for Queen, but it was a free concert, like the (Rolling) Stones and Pink Floyd and others had done in Hyde Park in the late ‘60s, the sort of gig that now you would easily pay upwards of £100 for. I remember the lights particularly, because of the marquee-style tent they used. It was getting dark, with the effects quite spectacular, a lot of dry ice and smoke bombs. It was a real sense of occasion, a real coming together, Queen saying to their British fans, ‘thanks very much’. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ had already been a big hit around the world, and they didn’t play many gigs in ’76.

“It was a fantastic day out, and on the back of the fact that Queen weren’t fashionable with music critics. There was that famous NME headline, ‘Is this man a prat?’. The music press at the time didn’t seem to like Freddie and Brian and Roger and John because they were college boys, and college boys weren’t supposed to be down and dirty rock’n’rollers. And there was tension between what Queen were and what they represented, Brian doing his astrophysics degree at Imperial College, London. They were all a bit too posh for the papers, which they knew and didn’t care, and the fans didn’t care either. There were 100,000 people in Hyde Park, but it was almost like a secret gathering. You know, ‘we can’t tell anybody else we’re here, but we’re proud to be here because we’re Queen fans’.

Journalist turned music writer Richard Balls, author of A Furious Devotion – The Authorised Story of Shane MacGowan, on how he caught The Pogues supporting Elvis Costello at the University of East Anglia in his home city, Norwich in 1984:

“I was 17, a massive fan of Elvis Costello. That was the first time I’d ever seen him, and I was really excited to see him in Norwich, this sell-out gig. I got there and this band were on stage, and I could hear this clattering going on, thinking what on earth is this? I literally had no reference point for what I was looking at.

“These guys, and Cait was obviously there as well, wearing old-fashioned suits, with the exception of Dexys, I suppose, on Too Rye Ay, playing instruments that were not seen in mainstream pop. And this was in the hedonistic times of Wham! singing about ‘Club Tropicana’ and Duran Duran singing on yachts, this band right at the other end of the spectrum, playing this kind of roots music.

“I remember them playing ‘Boys from the County Hell’ at that gig, ‘Streams of Whiskey’ and those kind of songs, so it was probably the faster songs and the fact you had Spider (Stacy) smashing a beer tray off his head pretty much throughout the set, while Shane was wandering about quite drunk, and Cait (O’Riordan) looked quite aggressive.

“The whole thing was very visual, in keeping with a lot of other Stiff Records acts. That’s probably the one thing they had in common with other people on Stiff down the years. There were a lot of them, and they were like a band of brothers.”

So there you have it. Another year over, a new one just begun (almost). Peace and love, as John’s old pal Ringo would put it.

With less than two days to go in 2021 (and for those who hate stats, look away now), it seems we’re on for another record-breaking year, with 5,500-plus reads this month taking us to more than 95,000 annual views for a second successive year, and more than 400,000 in the last five years. That means more than 570,000 total views since my first tentative web post on here in late March 2012, a big anniversary on its way.

So thanks for all your support and input this year and every other, and cheers to all those who answered their phones, swapped messages or picked up those video calls in 2021. All very much appreciated. Plenty of plans for 2022, so stay tuned. And here’s to a happy new year and a far healthier one all round. Over and out, ye discerning folk.

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WriteWyattUK’s year in quotes, 2021 – part one (January to June)

As another challenging year moves towards its stuttering conclusion, here’s the first half of my 12-month review of sorts, featuring quotes prised from the collected words of the WriteWyattUK website in 2021, involving the opening six months as the first anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic on home shores came and went, the virus still at large but music and the arts fighting back while the Government dithered and protected its own interests as we found our own way through the gloom.

January

David Stark, author of 2020 Beatles memoir, It’s All Too Much, recalls sneaking in – uninvited – to the mid-July ’68 premiere of the Fab Four’s animated film, Yellow Submarine, at the London Pavilion, Piccadilly Circus, where he was in esteemed company:

“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’!”  

Brix Smith, who released Lost Angeles with Marty Willson-Piper in 2021, 24 years after it was initially recorded, and is set to curate a new book on The Fall in 2022 with the writer behind WriteWyattUK, recalls a 2014 Steve Hanley book launch in Manchester that sharpened her resolve to make a stage comeback, in what turned out to inspire the formation of Brix and the Extricated:

“That night, Steve put together a band of ex-Fall members, including Paul (Hanley), Una Baines, and different singers like John Robb, this amazing band doing cover versions of Fall songs. They never asked me though, and during ‘Mr Pharmacist’ I was watching somebody – who I now know is Jason Brown (Brix and the Extricated) – play my guitar solo, a fire going through my body as if driving me up on to that stage. I wanted to shove him over, grab that guitar and fucking play it! Then I knew the mojo was back.

“That same night I said to Steve, ‘Why the hell didn’t you ask me to play? I would have done it. I’m playing again secretly, writing in my bedroom’. He was like, ‘I’d never have the temerity to think you would do this’. I said I would, he said, ‘Why don’t we just get together and jam?’, and I said, ‘Hell, yeah!’ That’s how it started. He said, ‘Let’s get our kid on drums, Jason Brown and Steve Trafford’, and once we all got in a room together … there was magic!”

February

Indiana-based singer/songwriter, guitarist and film-maker Brick Briscoe, host of The Song Show, who delivered the Brick Briscoe and The Skinny LP (ILoveYouSoMuch) in 2021 – the story of which, not for the faint-hearted, will follow on this website soon – on missing out on the New York punk scene first time around, but later making up for it:  

“Well, that was what I was digging at high school, but I wasn’t there when it happened. The high point though was when I was standing backstage at CBGB’s in one of the last years it was open, The Dictators were playing, and I felt this presence right next to me, and it was Joey Ramone! I’m tall, but this guy was really tall. My God, he looks so sick … but that’s just how he was. These beautiful girls were just coming up, fawning over him. I’m like, ‘My gosh – this is what being a rock star means.

“Then the coolest thing happened. He walked out on stage and sang a bunch of Who songs with The Dictators, me standing there, right by the side of the stage. A great rock’n’roll moment. I got to talk to him a little backstage after the show. I wasn’t going to play fan-boy, although I was in my heart! But that’s something living in LA and New York teaches you – you don’t do that. It doesn’t play well!”

Former Microdisney and Fatima Mansions frontman turned solo artist Cathal Coughlan, who released rightly revered solo LP, Song of Co-Aklan in 2021 and is about to deliver the debut Telefis LP alongside award-winning US producer Jacknife Lee, questioning the UK Government’s pandemic response strategy and its self-serving motives:

“The thing about the NHS in the pandemic is that because of this dearth of candour we have, it was possible for the whole ‘leave’ wing of the Tory party to co-opt the Thursday night applause as if they’d thought of it. And clearly there’s still no consideration given toward rewarding properly the people who have worked in the NHS through all of this or taking into account the fact that such a high proportion at certain levels were born in another country.

“It would be nice to think once the smoke has cleared, there will be some sort of evaluation. No one’s looking for a lynch-mob, but it doesn’t seem too likely at the moment that this evaluation will happen. It will just move on to the next thing.”

Liverpool-based drummer Iain ‘Tempo’ Templeton, best known for his time with brothers Michael and John Head in Shack, on his fleeting involvement in the formative days of The La’s:

“I’ve kind of been airbrushed out of their history really. I was busking in a band on Bold Street, and someone said, ‘The La’s are checking you out.’ I replied, ‘Ah, fuck The La’s. Syd Barrett meets The Beatles. Not interested!”. But then Lee (Mavers) came up to me. him and John (Power). He always had a bit of an entourage with him. This was early 1988. He said, ‘You’re our new drummer!’. The first thing he said to me. ‘This is biblical, la! You’re our new drummer. You are The La’s drummer.’

“I pretended I didn’t know who he was. I said, ‘Ah, no, not my scene’. They asked if they could go round my flat when I’d finished, play me a few songs. It was about teatime, Saturday night, they left at two in the morning and were back at nine, then went back to Huyton, where they lived. They stayed until I said, ‘Alright, I’ll give it a shot’.

“So I joined them, but he was so myopic – everything was ‘right’, everything had to have ‘dignity’! He’d say, ‘You’ve got to stomp with your right foot!’ I’d swing between left and right, and he was like, ‘No, you’ve got to do it like this, la!’. I was with them probably five or six months. I was the guy who left them, so he airbrushed me out. I don’t really get a mention.

“But there were about 40 drummers! They had Chris Sharrock waiting in the wings. I told them they didn’t need me, they needed someone like Chris. Lee’s Dad told me, ‘You’re like Gene Krupa!’ He was lovely. When I left, Lee said, ‘I could cry, la, but I won’t!’ I suggested, ‘Get your Neil’, and he said, ‘It’s not the fucking Osmonds, la!’. Neil’s a really great drummer, but that’s what he said at the time.

“He’d seen me busk in town, stood up with a bass drum, ride-cymbal, mounted tom and snare. From then he wanted stand-up drummers. Neil would stand up. Don’t get me wrong, Chris Sharrock was a great drummer, but … he went from Robbie Williams to Oasis, that’s what you need to know. He’s established, a bit mainstream … but he played with Lou Reed, man! A nice lad. I remember seeing him in a pub in town one afternoon. He’d been with them about a month. He asked, ‘How do you handle them?’ I said, ‘Well, I left, didn’t I?’.”

Legendary Joy Division and New Order bass player Peter Hook, now leading The Light but also finally releasing in 2021 a limited-edition EP of  1993 recordings under the banner K÷ alongside Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman and Geordie Walker, on his coping strategy for pandemic lockdown policies:  

“I’ve just been out with the dogs. I’ve done my bit. I was just tidying up you lot, then I’ll be watching Netflix with the rest of the bloody country. I thought it was bad in January and February last year, watching all my dominoes fall down. But someone put all my dominoes back up, moved them to 2021, and now they’re all fucking falling down again!

“But me and the better half have done very well, I must admit. After being away for 40 years … haha! … being thrust together for a year and a half has actually worked out fantastically. I could actually count our major arguments on one hand. The weird thing about being away all the time is that you get nothing done … and when you come back, you’re fucked – you don’t feel like doing anything. But because I’ve been here, I’ve managed to get loads of stuff done, which has been very satisfying.

“I’m keeping fit, and as a grumpy old bloke who never goes anywhere … we went out the other day to Sainsbury’s, and I realised I’d not been outside the door of our house, apart from walking the dogs, and haven’t mixed in public with anyone for three and a half weeks. I’m in the vulnerable category – I’ve got asthma, pneumonic scarring on my lungs, so have to be really careful. It’s weird, isn’t it.”

March

Respected Lagos-based multi-instrumentalist Femi Kuti, son of Nigerian legend Fela Kuti and father of emerging artist Made Kuti (Fela’s grandson), in a year both released acclaimed new LPs, on their family’s musical, political and cultural legacy:

Femi: “Ah, the legacy’s there. But of course, we’re passing it about, playing music. Made plays all the musical instruments (on his LP) and recorded it all, and I still do six hours of practise (a day).

“That’s our life! Unfortunately, we have to sing about those things, because we live this situation. This poverty’s right outside our doorstep, we drive bad roads, we have bad healthcare. I don’t see a love story as important as the crimes I see outside – the kidnappings and the hatred. But I hope the music will inspire change, and I think Made can speak for himself …” 

Made: “Because of our upbringing, the books we read, the conversations we have, the life we experience, the music is really just a reflection of our state of mind.”

Beautiful People mastermind Du Kane hints – on the back of the 2021 release of a remastered triple-CD/purple vinyl boxset celebration of their debut LP, the Jimi Hendrix-sampled, highly-influential If 60s Were 90s – there could be follow-ups finally seeing the light of day at some stage:

“We got another deal after that, but it was very hard to cross over from that to … anything! Unless we were sampling The Beatles or something. I did some recording, sampling Vangelis and Demis Roussos’ 666 (the pair recording together as Greek prog rock outfit Aphrodite’s Child). But they’re still unreleased.

“The second Beautiful People album though was just a bunch of really great songs, going back to what we would have done before the Hendrix project came along and we changed direction. We had an album called Beautopia, released on Castle, with one single, ‘Take It’ / ‘Psychedelic Betty’, and another, ‘Not Necessarily Stoned’, which is on the DVD – the only thing that’s on there not from this first album. But they didn’t release the album, which was a shame, one that led to a misunderstanding, mainly because Castle got bought out.

“I went into the label one day, didn’t recognise anyone. Everyone had left. They started a new company, and they weren’t big enough to take us on. We were left with this album and a lot of unreleased material, very Brit Pop/rocky. I’m very proud of it. Great songs, and I probably will put that out, now people can deal with people directly, online. I just want to have my work out there! I’ve been carrying it around for years on my back, proud as I am of it. Until then, I can’t really move forward.”

Matt Fawbert, general manager at The Ferret in Preston, Lancashire, on his hopes earlier this year of a full return to a live programme of events, in keeping with more or less every other UK venue in 2021:

“We managed to do a short run of limited-capacity seated and socially-distanced shows in autumn as well, all of which sold out in advance. This run got cut short by local restrictions hitting Preston, so we had to close before the last of our planned gigs. Over recent months we’ve been running weekly livestream gigs, various live acts from the area – filmed live on our stage behind closed doors, and broadcast over our social media platforms – usually via Facebook, many of which can be watched again via YouTube.

“Live music is missed massively by everyone, from performers to audiences. It’s going to be quite emotional when we finally get to open up properly, it will probably feel too good to be true at first. Gigs have a way of connecting people – not only through the music, but the shared experience and friendships that are built in the crowd, on the dancefloor and in the beer garden!”

Stalwart post-punk icon Robert Lloyd on continued public love for his band, The Nightingales, not least on the back of 2020 Stewart Lee-fronted film documentary, King Rocker, and his determination to carry on making new music.

“I don’t know. I suppose it’s a mixture of me thinking I’ve got something to say, the band wanting to express themselves, and the quality of the material. I know what pop stars are like – it’s a traditional to say the material you’re working on is the best thing you’ve ever done. If we had a quid for every time we’ve heard that. But I do think this is our best stuff – better than the old Nightingales, and I really like the three people who are in the band. That makes a massive difference.

“All I need now is for us to sell some records and hopefully make a few quid. I don’t want to die a pauper, with everyone saying I was a good bloke!”

Seb Hunter, guitarist of Hampshire-based three-piece Provincials, on how the band’s sound had evolved from its initial dark folk remit, on the evidence of latest LP, Heaven Protect Us:

“That’s just me, I don’t know what to call us! Dark folk used to fit really well with the stuff we used to do … but we’ve now expanded the sound. First off, it was all dark harmoniums, lap steel and weird tunings. That’s probably still the core of our sound, all very soundtracky, and when we play live we tend to turn the lights off, go down to red fairy lights, all very vibey. But we’ve added drums, widening that sound, and like having free sections, coming from an improv background.

“However, that has opened this issue, having initially been pushed towards that folk label. We’re excited about our new material, heading towards a slightly more dynamic, more psychy side. But the album still has the dark stuff as well, so I don’t know if we’re going down the wrong route by leading with these tracks.”

April

Former frontman of The Bible, Boo Hewerdine, on his 35-year journey in music since their Backs Record debut, Walking the Ghost Back Home, a string of band and solo albums released since as well as celebrated songs written for other artists, Chris Difford and Eddi Reader among them, asked if he’d have considered back in ’87 still being involved in music when he turned 60:

“Yeah, I guess. I’ve never wanted to do anything else. It’s where I feel at home. And in my mind … I may be deluded, but I’m still trying to make the perfect record. I’ve some friends who look back on things with nostalgia, and I love doing that a little, but I don’t really do that.

“That’s one of the reasons it’s so good working with Eddi Reader, because it’s always about the next thing. The other thing is that I don’t think I’ve ever had real success. I’ve sort of pottered along. I haven’t really got a glory era to look back on.

“What I’m doing now always seems to be the most exciting thing I’ve been involved with. I mean, this Adam Holmes record is one of the two or three best things I’ve ever been involved in.”

Doyle and the Fourfathers/East India Youth frontman turned solo artist William Doyle on finding inspiration in the most unlikely places, including in his case – during the lockdown – BBC 2’s long-running Friday night magazine show, Gardener’s World:

“I became obsessed with Monty Don. I like his manner and there’s something about him I relate to. He once described periods of depression in his life as consisting of ‘nothing but great spans of muddy time’. When I read that, I knew it would be the title of this record.

“Something about the sludgy mulch of the album’s darker moments, and its feel of perpetual autumnal evening, seemed to fit so well. I would also be lying if I said it didn’t chime with my mental health experiences.”

Departure Lounge frontman Tim Keegan on how geography couldn’t stop his band – its members based in Devon, Sussex and Tennessee – reconvening to record again, pulling together splendid new long player, Transmeridian, the remote version of the group certainly playing up to the band’s name:

“Yes, and it fits with our vision of keeping it small but global – global indie, if you like. Although I don’t think our music is particularly niche. Someone said in a recent review our contemporaries are Coldplay, Keane and Travis. Well, some of our stuff isn’t that far from what those guys were doing, but there wasn’t room for us, and we didn’t have the timing or the budgets. But what’s nice is that we can still exist … on a lower flying level, as it were.”

May

Veteran guitarist Pete Hughes on how his late-‘60s band Stoned Rose ended up on a Cherry Red compilation of psychedelic rock, and what lead singer Mick ‘Caz’ Carroll – who died in 2018, aged 68 – would have made of their late-found cult fame.

“He’d have been buzzing about this. He would have found it unbelievable, someone picking up on something we did 50 years ago and considering it good enough to be put on a very credible album. Like me, he would have been philosophical about it – he wouldn’t have been jumping up and down, thinking, ’Wow, we’re going to be pop stars again’. But it’s nice for people to hear what we were doing in those days. It deserved to be heard at the time.

“And it’s not like it’s coming out on next-door-but-one’s record label. It’s going out all over the world. Mick was the lead singer, and his vocal on ‘Day to Day’ is fantastic. He had a fabulous voice, and back then it was more Robert Plant-like. And we carried on writing songs from there, touring the world.”

New Zealand-based, Lancashire-raised singer-songwriter Tim Allen on what’s it like to be living in a country where the Prime Minister – Jacinda Ardern – seems to have got it spot-on regarding official reaction to the coronavirus pandemic, as opposed to his home nation:

“It’s brilliant. Most people love her, and I think she’s great. I met her before she was Prime Minister. She was campaigning and came into my son’s pre-school. I’ve a picture of me, my son and her.”

James’ co-founding bass player Jim Glennie on how the band’s All the Colours of You LP expressed in creative terms the times we live in:

“To some degree the album does reflect the period we’ve been through, so there’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s sad. Inherently, Tim (Booth)’s reflections on things and how they’ve impacted on him. But at the same time, we wanted a record that was uplifting – the last thing we wanted to do was wallow in misery and darkness. That’s the last thing anybody needs right now.

“And I think (producer) Jacknife (Lee) picked up on the fact that we wanted a lightness and a humour at times, not taking ourselves too seriously and getting that mixture sometimes where bits of the lyric might be dark or quite personal but with something underneath it that’s very positive. That’s kind of a trick we do a lot – when Tim comes up with a dark lyric or we write music that’s more uplifting, he tends to use that as an excuse to get something quite dark in.”

The Loft/The Caretaker Race guitarist Andy Strickland – also working on a new LP by The Chesterfields in 2021 – on how the in-depth sleevenotes and timeline of his breakthrough band came together for the Ghost Trains & Country Lanes compilation, having seemingly made impressive diary notes at the time:

“Yeah, I’ve a battered old briefcase containing loads of bits of paper, set-lists, receipts, posters, up in my studio room. Pete (Astor) and I talked about what we could put in the booklet, to make it different from the last compilation apart from the extra tracks. We wanted photos that hadn’t been used before, and when I looked into what we were doing in 1984/85, this massive document emerged, which needed rather a lot of editing. I sent it round to the guys, everyone going, ‘Blimey, I remember that!’

“We thought people of our generation would like sitting there reading it while listening to the CDs. I love that sort of thing. I’ve been having a Beatles solo blast lately, loving going through those booklets.”

Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey of The Catenary Wires – who along with drummer Ian Button also played live and released an LP alongside former Pooh Sticks frontman Hue Williams as Swansea Sound in 2021 – on the symbolic use of Birling Gap, a crumbling, iconic English location on the South Coast (read by this scribe as a metaphor for our post-Brexit existence under a right-wing Government amid plenty of flag-waving nonsense) whch fitted their remit for their new LP’s name perfectly.

Rob: “There’s a song called ‘Three-Wheeled Car’ about a Brexit-supporting couple who’ve gone to look at the cliff and the sea to celebrate the splendid isolation of being English, but then the car goes over the edge of the cliff, so it’s like a suicide pact. There’s also the irony that the reason those cliffs stay so white and are getting whiter is because the erosion is getting worse. The chalk gets cleaned every time a lump falls off and there’s a fresh face of chalk. The whiter and more English the cliffs become, the greater climate change is.”

Amelia: “Actually, when you were asking your question, I thought you were saying ‘crumbly and ironic, like you are!’”

June

Mercury Prize winners Wolf Alice’s singer/principal songwriter Ellie Rowsell in a new interview alongside bandmate Joel Amey, right on the celebrated indie outfit being invited to take part in the first online Glastonbury Festival:

“I don’t really know what to expect, but because the line-up is so reduced, I feel unbelievably flattered to be asked to do it. And yeah, it’s going to be intimate because it’s just going to be ourselves in front of our crew and probably just a few people there, but then it’s live-streamed globally, so anyone who’s anywhere can watch it if they have £20 or whatever… so that feels even more scary in a way. It’s a really unique experience that I’m just thrilled to be a part of.”

Composer/producer of UK acid folk act Tunng’s Mike Lindsay and Mercury Prize/Grammy/Ivor Novello nominee Laura Marling on their working relationship as LUMP, having released second album Animal in 2021:

Mike: “We just had one day of experimenting. I had a piece of music and didn’t know if we could work together or not, Laura came up with some magic, and it seemed to take on a world of its own. That was the first song on the first record (‘Late to the Flight’).

“From there, we decided to try another day, that worked, then we tried a few days, and we had this collection of music that all seemed to take its own adventure on when I tied them together. It was very organic in that sense, and very ‘in the moment’ when we were together.”

Did you see it as a departure from what you were doing elsewhere?

Laura: “Yeah, definitely, it’s a great relief in that sense, completely different to what I do, certainly. A different way of working … and also working with someone else is great.”

Martin Stephenson on his earliest forays into live music, before the birth of The Daintees, with whom this Northern Scotland-based, North-East England-raised singer-songwriter made his name:

“It sounds mad, but I was a new wave guitarist by the time I was 15, and then I was in a couple of great bands. There was one, Strange Relations, where the singer was 21, into The Monochrome Set. He was cool, he was bisexual, and he developed his own photographs. I was his little sidekick guitarist, into the early Cure and anything really, but I had a great musical education and was into Captain Beefheart by the time I was 11.

“But when punk came along, I did what Joe Strummer did – I denounced the whole fucking lot and rebirthed, pretending I’d never listened to Steve Hillage. Ha!”

Holly Ross talks of her resilience alongside partner David Blackwell, co-driver of cult Lancaster-based lo-fi psych-punk duo The Lovely Eggs, in the year they released sixth LP, I Am Moron:

“I think one of the important things at the core of The Lovely Eggs’ ethos is just riding with whatever shit is thrown at you. And we’re quite used to surfing that wave. Whatever it’s been in the past – whether our van’s broken down and we can’t make a gig, we’re stranded or whatever happens, good or bad – we just ride that wave. That’s what we choose to do.

“We haven’t been able to gig for over a year, and at first it was pretty shocking when we had to cancel our tour. We never cancel gigs – if we say we’ll do it, we will. We’ll not let you down. But once we got used to the idea it’s not going to happen, we realised we just had to go with it, and that’s what we’ve done.

“We’ve just been up to no good doing other stuff these last 12 months … like making a single with Iggy Pop. Stuff like that.”

The Membranes/Goldblade bassist/lead singer and music writer/Louder Than War head honcho John Robb on the uncertainty of our times and those mistakenly thinking they have all the answers:

“There have been a lot of festivals shifting, and some have been moved back a year. We did have a 20-date tour lined up. But everything’s more or less kicked into next year, apart from a few club dates, hopefully, for the autumn, and a few festivals from autumn onwards. We still don’t know 100 per cent though. There were a few festivals organised recently in Spain and Holland, and that seemed to work, but now there’s this variant, way more infectious but not seeming to put so many people in hospital … yet. Trouble is, we don’t really know for three weeks the long-term effects.

“It looks like two jabs will hold the line, but would you want to be the person who says, ‘OK, fuck all that, I’m going to open up my venue tomorrow!’, then four weeks later everybody’s really ill and it’s your fault?

“The buck doesn’t seem to stop with anybody either. It doesn’t stop with anyone on Twitter, that’s for sure. Ha! Remember all the 5G stuff at the beginning? When even those people realised that was a load of bollocks, they didn’t say, ‘Sorry, I made a mistake there’, they just moved on to another thing. But that’s very ‘now’, having that absolute certainty about stuff you know nothing about.”

The second part of the 2021 WriteWyattUK year in quotes review will be with you very soon. Stay tuned.

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A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day – talking A Furious Devotion: The Authorised Story of Shane MacGowan with Richard Balls

After acclaimed music books on Ian Dury and Stiff Records, you could argue it was almost inevitable that established rock biographer Richard Balls would turn his attention to Pogues frontman and somehow living legend Shane MacGowan next.

But there was nothing nailed on about him even completing A Furious Devotion: The Authorised Story of Shane MacGowan. In fact, there were far easier writing projects he could have chosen.

There was a feted prior publication, 2001’s A Drink with Shane MacGowan, a co-write between the man himself and his partner, Victoria Mary Clarke. But this goes deeper and wider, you could say, and anyone who’s tackled Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n Roll: The Life of Ian Dury and Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story instinctively knew the project was in good hands.

Richard, a newspaper journalist for 20 years – almost half of which he spent in Ireland – now working in communications for the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, first stumbled upon The Pogues on their first nationwide tour in 1984 at the University of East Anglia in his home city, Norwich, supporting Elvis Costello and the Attractions. And something clicked.

“I was 17, a massive fan of Elvis Costello. That was the first time I’d ever seen him and I was really excited to see him in Norwich, this sell-out gig. I got there and this band were on stage, and I could hear this clattering going on, thinking what on earth is this? I literally had no reference point for what I was looking at.

“These guys, and Cait was obviously there as well, wearing old-fashioned suits, with the exception of Dexys, I suppose, on Too Rye Ay, playing instruments that were not seen in mainstream pop. And this was in the hedonistic times of Wham! singing about ‘Club Tropicana’ and Duran Duran singing on yachts, this band right at the other end of the spectrum, playing this kind of roots music.”

I recall a bit of an overlap with other emerging bands like The Men They Couldn’t Hang, not least linked through Shane’s friend Shanne Bradley and an affinity with the Boothill Foot Tappers too. But I can’t recall if it was so much a scene as just a haphazard collection of similarly-motivated London-based bands given a label by the music press, be that ‘cowpunk’ or whatever.

“Yeah, it wasn’t a scene the same way as like ska, but it was kind of an accidental scene, I suppose, all performing in roughly the same sort of venues in King’s Cross and around Camden. I saw The Men They Couldn’t Hang in about ’85, again at the UEA, not long after I saw The Pogues. Maybe it was a bit of a reaction to that kind of slick, studio-oriented pop.” 

What was it that jumped out to you about The Pogues? Could you see beyond the shambolic side? Because the songs were there from the start. I recall the first that jumped out at me was debut single, ‘Dark Streets of London’, taping it from highly influential BBC Radio 1 presenter John Peel’s show.

“Well, I remember them playing ‘Boys from the County Hell’ at that gig, ‘Streams of Whiskey’ and those kind of songs, so it was probably the faster songs and the fact you had Spider (Stacy) smashing a beer tray off his head pretty much throughout the set, while Shane was wandering about quite drunk, and Cait looked quite aggressive.

“The whole thing was very visual, in keeping with a lot of other Stiff Records acts. That’s probably the one thing they had in common with other people on Stiff down the years. There were a lot of them, and they were like a band of brothers.”

Were you aware at the time of the link back to Shane’s first band, The Nips, and his cult status on that original London punk scene, following The Jam, The Clash, Sex Pistols, and so on?

“I knew nothing about Shane at that point. That was the first time I clapped eyes on the guy. And I wouldn’t have known a lot about punk at that point. I missed all that. I was too young.”

Incidentally, Richard was born in July ’67, three months before this fellow ‘youngster’, and we’ve shared a fair few reference points, not least live shows we attended and a love of several bands, not least London-based outfits with Irish links such as Microdisney and That Petrol Emotion, as well as those Richard caught on his own patch, such as The Farmer’s Boys. But like me, he missed out on some of the seminal bands from that previous era, including The Clash.

“Because I was way too young to have been at a at a punk gig, I reckon seeing The Pogues at Hammersmith Palais about two years later, when they were doing Rum Sodomy and the Lash – and were quite big by then – I thought that was the closest I’d come to experiencing a punk gig.”

But we both lived and breathed that scene enough to keep following it down the years, and his initial love for The Pogues has now come to this authorised biography of a fascinating one-off artist, one of the greatest songwriters of his generation.

In his new Omnibus Press publication, Richard vividly recounts experiences that shaped Shane, from formative trips to his mother’s home in Tipperary to attending Westminster School, London, and the explosion of punk which enabled him to change his life forever, telling this gifted songwriter, musician, poet and bon viveur’s story through a combination of interviews with the man himself, journalist, writer and wife Victoria, Shane’s family, including those speaking publicly about him for the first time.

Included are interviews with Nick Cave, Aidan Gillen, Cillian Murphy, Christy Moore, Sinead O’Connor and Dermot O’Leary, all of whom pay their tributes and give their own recollections, as well as previously unseen personal photographs. But how did Richard get to know Shane?

“I first met Shane when I was writing a book about Stiff Records. I found him fascinating, a really nice guy, I really liked him, and it wasn’t a quick interview. I spent hours with him that day, just chatting with him and Paul Ronan, one of his oldest friends, who set up that meeting. That gave me a glimpse into the kind of person he was, and he certainly didn’t come across as a kind of hellraiser or this chaotic sort of person that you read about in the tabloid headlines.

“And when I later talked about telling Shane’s story, it was Paul who came with me on visits to Dublin to stay with Shane. That put me in a very privileged position, giving me the opportunity to spend time with Shane in his home and speak to him at his leisure rather than trying to ‘interview’ him, which he hates. His sister Siobhan and his father Maurice were also extremely supportive and provided access to other family members.

“There are voices in this book that have never been heard before – ex-girlfriends, relatives, close friends, even his English teacher, who spotted his genius as a writer, keeping some of his schoolwork. I think the book pulls back the curtain on parts of his life that have never been seen, and I hope it does justice to this kind, intelligent and generous man.”  

It certainly does that. And there’s been great feedback to the book so far, rightly so.

“I’ve been really surprised at the feedback. You’re never really sure how anything is going to be perceived, particularly in Ireland when you’ve got an English writer doing a piece about one of their favourite icons – you’re never quite sure how that’s all gonna go. But it’s gone brilliantly well, and I’m overwhelmed by the response to it really.”

It seems apt timing too to be talking about all this at a time of year when on the radio, on the telly, in shops, wherever, there’s the Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer-penned ‘Fairytale of New York’ again, getting lots of airplay, somehow never having lost its magic 34 years after its initial release. How many times does Richard reckon he’s heard it in recent weeks?

“Quite a bit, albeit maybe a little bit less as I’m not in shops as often under current circumstances. But yeah, you hear it all the time, and it’s consistently coming up in lists as people’s favourite Christmas record.”

Yet that’s just one of so many great songs Shane’s written or co-written down the years, from the heady days of debut LP Red Roses for Me in 1984 through to Hell’s Ditch in 1990 with The Pogues and beyond, not least with next outfit The Popes, from someone Richard labels ‘a shy, complex man, a poet of whip-sharp intelligence and intense spirituality’. Was that how he saw Shane before setting out on this writing project? Or did his opinions and perceptions change as he got to know him better, seeing beyond the public persona? Because, let’s face it, we’ve all got our idea of what we might think Shane’s like. Yet Richard’s had a first-hand glimpse into his world.

“Because I had this really privileged access to him in his own house, I think that really helped me understand the kind of person he is away from music and being on stage and the public persona, the fact that I was actually not just talking and asking him things, but observing him in his own surroundings and seeing him with other people.

“One of the things about him which I think you only really find out if you spend a lot of time with him is how little he actually says. He’s a man of really few words. And he loves watching television. Even if there are three or four people in the room, which there normally was, we’d all be having a glass of wine and chatting, and he’d be watching TV.

“A lot of the time the conversation would be going on around him, and it would be other people reminiscing about things that that happened – tours and gigs, incidents and escapades, and Shane would kind of join in. But he’s definitely somebody who’s quite shy naturally.

“He’s a complex kind of person. And I think there were certain things I did learn about him, observing how shy he was, how introverted and so on. But what’s actually going on in his head? That’s not something I got to the bottom of completely. I think I’d be a fool to think I had.

“He does kind of live in his head. I’ve commented a lot on this and it’s because it is so noticeable how much television he watches. He has it on all the time. I went over to Ireland five times in the writing of the book, and never arrived to find him doing anything other than watching television. And often you’d arrive and he’d be watching the same thing he was when you left the previous day. He watches things on loop.

“He’ll watch a whole film, kind of doze a bit, then wake up and put it on again. Even if it’s something like The Deer Hunter, where you think, my God, have I got to sit through this again? But he really treasures that time, and … it’s speculation, I’m not a psychologist, but maybe that’s how over the years he’s coped with, you know, injuries he’s sustained, deaths of people in his orbit – from family through to band members and friends. And that’s a long list of people. But he’s survived.”

That’s something I was going to put to you. Be honest, many of us thought the previous book written with Victoria was something of an obituary in waiting. Who would have imagined he’d still be with us 20 years on, with this fresh biography landing?

“Yeah, and the thing is, over the years people have predicted his death so often that it’s become the stuff of legend! His doctor, Niall Joyce, passed away recently. He was an elderly man, but yeah, Shane managed to outlive his doctor, who treated him for years and years. And his sister, Siobhan, was with Dr Joyce when he arrived to find Shane lying on the floor. He said, ‘He’s got six weeks to live’. Obviously, that had a real marked effect on Siobhan – your brother lying there, at a young age, a doctor saying he’s got he’s got weeks to live here unless we get something done.

“So yeah, you’re right. And it’s extraordinary that we get to 2021 and he’s about to celebrate his 64th birthday.”

Then again, his Dad, interviewed within, Maurice MacGowan, is now in his 90s, so maybe it’s the pedigree of that family.

“Oh, you’re so right. Maurice is 91 or 92, and his brother Billy, who lives in County Dublin, is older, and still about, also in his 90s. And Shane’s mother died after an accident but was in her late 80s. So there’s pedigree there for long life.”

Who knows, perhaps there’s scope for another updated book 20 years down the line.

“Definitely! There’s things he’s done that need reporting on.” 

How would you define the difference between your book and the one Victoria published two decades ago? Was she too close to the subject perhaps? And has it been easier or harder to get to the truth two decades later, speaking to more people? Has the passage of time and a distance from the subject made this easier or harder to tell?

“I think they’re just so different really. She interviewed Shane only, and it was his life told through his own eyes and his recollections, kind of stream of consciousness, a lot of it. It was him speaking, unedited. That made it in a lot of parts a really entertaining read. He’s just got such a great way of expressing himself, an amazing kind of take on things.

“Mine was interviewing over 60 people. If I’d just interviewed Shane, they’d have been a lot more similar, but I thought it was important to corroborate a lot of things around Shane’s life, particularly his birth, upbringing and early life. Myths have grown up like weeds around his story, to the point where it’s actually obscured the truth so much that I thought part of my job as a biographer was actually untangling some of that, so fans and people who were interested could actually see where he grew up and what the influences on him were, what kind of environments he knew as a child.”

And much of the last 30 or so years have been spent in Ireland, yeah?

“He lived in Dublin on and off in the ‘90s, and I think they’ve probably lived there about 20 years now, uninterrupted. He’s had a number of flats but still doesn’t own his place. He lives in a rented flat and the places he lived in before that were rented houses in roughly the same area. Again, that underlines another thing about him – he literally has no interest in fame, celebrity, money or material possessions.”

I should imagine the royalties from ‘Fairytale of New York’ alone would probably see him through a year.

“There’s no question. That’s the money song, bringing in a substantial amount every year. But equally, it’d be wrong to say that’s in some way the motivating factor. Money’s never been a motivating factor for Shane. He always wants to be paid a fair amount for touring or whatever, but he’s not money driven. The fact that money is coming in merely means he’s just comfortable. But a really interesting question to me is why hasn’t he recorded more original material these last 25 years.”

We mentioned his formative punk days earlier, and there’s a cracking photo in the book of a 19-year-old Shane in 1976 with Bondage, his six-page handwritten foolscap paper punk fanzine, having used safety pins to attach pictures torn out of the music press. That also suggests to me the written word always interested him, something borne out by your interview with Shane’s English teacher for the book.

“Oh, definitely. Shane is very artistic, very poetic, he does his own artwork, and we’re seeing examples of that now, and we know he was writing poetry in his flat around the same time he was writing songs. He’s just an all-round creative person, a lot of creative energy, and ultimately at school he was incredibly bright as a child but it was very much English and those kind of humanities subjects where he really shone.”

As for you, it’s struck me that you’ve now gone from writing about the gifted but notoriously difficult Ian Dury to writing about a trailblazing independent record company put together by the gifted but notoriously difficult Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera … and now Shane. Obviously, there are parallels, not least the London-Irish links and sense of rebellion and colourful characters portayed. I’m guessing from that, your next subject for a biography won’t necessarily be a member of Boyzone or Westlife.

“Ha! I was saying to somebody the other day that I think partly it’s because I worked in Ireland throughout the whole of the ‘90s as a journalist – living in Ireland at a really interesting time, when it was changing quite a lot, although I might not have appreciated it quite as much at the time, but certainly looking back that was a really pivotal time for Ireland, which was really growing as a country.

“Having lived there for a long time, I think it helped me writing this book, particularly having all those trips over there, knowing how society works and a lot about Irish culture. I think that was really helpful. And it might be that in a kind of subliminal way … going back to the UEA when I saw The Pogues I didn’t know nothing about Irish music, apart from hearing Val Doonican records at home, seeing Terry Wogan, and so on. I never had any reason to listen to Irish music. Dexy’s would have been about the closest I’d have come, so my interest in Irish music, which came from Shane and seeing The Pogues, might have been why I eventually did move to Ireland. I didn’t have any family connections there. It was music that drove me.”

Having recently seen Richard’s cousin, former Labour cabinet member Ed Balls, feature on the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? genealogy series, I learned that the Balls side of the family were based in East Anglia for a long way back, so I’d assumed any Irish link was on his mother’s side. But apparently not.

“No Irish links at all that I’m aware of. But I love it as a country. I’d been there on holiday a couple of times before I lived there and think that was a massive factor as well. But by then I was liking lots of Irish bands – Fatima Mansions, Microdisney, That Petrol Emotion, and a lot of stuff The Waterboys were doing. I loved the Fisherman’s Blues album. But my introduction to all that was because of The Pogues.

“I think it’s also worth saying that when you think of the Northern Irish bands from that time and that whole scene – like Ruefrex, The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers – there’s a lot of anger there. A huge amount of real ferocity which in my opinion was never reflected in Republic of Ireland bands. They seemed tamer somehow.

“I think it’s worth saying that I think it’s because Shane grew up in London, not in Ireland. It was that perspective of being second-generation Irish, looking back at this country he romanticised, hearing about what British troops were doing in Belfast, which energised him. And that’s where a lot of punk energy came about … which wouldn’t have been the case if he’d been born in Tipperary.

“And one thing Shane did, I think, was kind of give a voice to Irish people living in Britain. Because of the IRA bombing campaigns at the time, a lot of Irish people felt really cowed and were massively discriminated against. It was a very difficult time to live in Britain and be Irish. And I think Shane was so out there, in the same way John Lydon was, with his Irishness, saying I’m so proud to be Irish, and that really instilled a lot of pride in people.”  

Did you get a sense from various interviews in the book that people shared similar ideas of Shane as a person? Or was there a wide canvas of thoughts on him, suggesting he’s far more complicated than we might at first imagine?

“I’d say mostly people agreed, and a lot of people said the same things – he’s introverted, shy, very generous … He can be irascible, and I got on the end of a couple of tongue-lashings. The funny thing with Shane though is that the voice kind of goes up and you think, oh crikey, this is gonna put us back. It’s almost like a game of Snakes and Ladders. You sit there hours and hours trying to get an opening and get it round to the things you want to talk about, finding the right moment, almost get to the top, then all of a sudden, oh no, I’ve gone down a snake!

“But actually, what sounds irascible is just the way he speaks. Even when he’s just being really positive, even his little affirmations will sound like an attack! That’s just the way he expresses himself. And it’s something I really love about him. He’s pretty hard to fall out with.”

“Yeah, if he thinks he’s being interviewed, you’ve no chance! And he must have been difficult to film. I had the advantage of being in his living room. He hadn’t had to be dragged off to a hotel to speak to some journalists he didn’t want to speak to, the way artists have to do those and are often very reluctant to, they just see it as a chore.

He’s clearly something of a tortured soul, and these interviews must have taken their toll and made you wonder if you would ever achieve your aim at times. But you suggest if there was a key to your success here, it was letting him think he wasn’t being interviewed.

“But he was in his sitting room, we were all sitting around, chatting, and a lot of the time he was just enjoying the company. Then other people in the group maybe would sort of also help by trying to get him around to talk about certain things. I found what he was more willing to talk about was his childhood, being at school, being the Minister for Torture at Westminster School, pushing nettles down fellow pupils’ pants, selling drugs, escapades of family, the East End of London …

“That’s what he really wanted to talk about, really happily. If you wanted to start asking about records he’d made and stuff like that, you’d struggle. He has no interest in talking about The Pogues or his work or his career. But he loves talking about Tipperary and The Commons. He’d talk about that all day.”

Incidentally, The Commons is a cottage in a remote part of Tipperary, Shane’s mother’s patch, even if it’s often said that Shane was born there too, rather than Pembury, ‘near the quintessentially English town of Tunbridge Wells, Kent’, as Richard puts it in his opening chapter. He adds, ‘This common misconception was only encouraged by the BBC’s 1997 documentary, The Great Hunger: The Life and Times of Shane MacGowan, which stated that he was ‘born on the banks of the river Shannon in rural Ireland’.This and other subsequent films have concentrated heavily on his mother’s family, and his time spent at their remote cottage. Much less had been said about his father’s relatives, some of whom still live in England, and around whom Shane spent a great deal of his early life.’

Some of his interview subjects were more surprising, I suggested, using the example of South London singer-songwriter and 2020 Brit Awards Rising Star nominee Joy Crookes, of whom Richard says her ‘Bangladeshi mother introduced her to Sufi music and her dad to The Dubliners and The Pogues’. Was that someone who came up when you were doing an interview in your newspaper days?

“Funnily enough, it was just a coincidence. Paul Ronan knows Joy’s dad, David Crookes really well, so Paul’s been aware of Joy for a long time. And when she was in her early teens, she recorded ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’. Paul knew she was influenced by Shane and said, ‘why don’t you speak to Joy?’ Again, it shows that breadth of influence. It’s not just the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. It was great to get some comments from her about how Shane influenced her songwriting, even though her music’s so different, she was definitely inspired by his way of writing.

“About two years ago, before Covid, we had a night out. We met in a pub in Camden and Joy was there with David, and we went on to the Dublin Castle to see a Pogues tribute band and had a few drinks. She’s lovely, and a wonderful artist.”

And when did you last see Shane appear on stage or perform in public? I’m guessing you followed him in his days with The Popes?

“Yeah. I suppose again because I lived in Dublin in the ‘90s. A guy called Vince Power, who I think lost his shirt on the event, put on this thing called the Fleadh Mor in Waterford, at Tramore Racecourse in ‘93, with this unbelievable billing – Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Van Morrison, Shane MacGowan and the Popes, Jerry Lee Lewis … you can see why he lost money on it! That was basically the first time Shane and the Popes performed a big gig, their debut performance for all intents and purposes. It was a bit shambolic, but it was great. They played Pogues songs, starting with ‘Sally MacLennane’, then some of the stuff which was eventually on The Snake, which I think is brilliant.

“I saw them once more at Midnight at the Olympia at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, really late at night when they took so long to come out that people started smashing up seats in the auditorium. It all got a bit tasty! That was the last time I saw Shane in person on stage.”

I was surprised I never saw The Pogues earlier, having been impressed from the start, buying the records from fairly early. But I missed out on the If I Should Fall from Grace with God tour, my first instead on St Patrick’s Night in March ’89 at Brixton Academy, around the time of Peace and Love

“Wow, that must have been a good night. I only saw The Pogues three times, the third time at Brixton Academy, around ‘87/’88, so before Peace and Love. What I can’t remember is whether Kirsty (MacColl) came out and performed with them that night.”

Funny you should say that. I had it in mind Kirsty appeared at that St. Patrick’s Night show. But I’m not convinced.

“Well, I’ve got it in my head I did see her perform, but your mind can play tricks, and I wouldn’t swear that I did. I did see her perform though. I feel really lucky in that way. I’d never seen her perform as far as I know, but then saw Ian Dury’s last ever concert. I was doing the book about him so went to the Palladium, and she was a support, February 2000.”

I’m jealous of that, but at least got to see Ian and the Blockheads’ Charley Charles benefit at the Town and Country Club, Kentish Town (late September 1990, having also caught them supporting Madness at Finsbury Park in August ’92). That was amazing. In fact, I was talking about it to Norman Watt-Roy, who was also in Wilko Johnson’s band that night.

“Ah yeah, he would have been.”

Getting back to The Pogues though, my second sighting was in late August ’89 at Reading Festival. But by the time I saw them again in June ‘92 at the Fleadh in North London (nine weeks to the day after that Madness/Blockheads show in the same outdoor setting), it was Joe Strummer out front with Spider.

“Well, again, you’re like me – I never got to see The Clash live, and in my case never saw Strummer with the Pogues, but did see him right at the end with the Mescaleros at the UEA.”

You’re one up on me there, and I regret not taking the opportunity, loving those Mescaleros LPs now, and the live footage.

“I went to that really because Mickey Gallagher’s son was in a band called Little Mothers who were supporting, and invited me along.”

I joked about it before, but do you know what you’re doing next, book-wise? Or are you happy to sit back a while after this?

“Yeah, I’m having a bit of a rest. It was a really exhausting project, involving travelling back and forth to Ireland. I’ve also got a full-time job, so I was always trying to fit it around work. I didn’t have the luxury of just being able to do the book.

“But I’m always on the lookout for the next thing. You never know where you’re going to find inspiration. You might just watch a TV programme, and out of the blue suddenly think, ‘I’d never thought of that …’. And I do like writing about a person, especially people like Ian and Shane, who are absolutely true originals. If you can find those kind of people to write about, that’s the most enjoyable thing.”

Is there a song or album that takes you back to your favourite Pogues moments? Not least if there’s a fresh resonance hearing it now, knowing the background better.

“I think it would be Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, because although the first album is the one to listen to if you want to hear what they sounded like right at the start, when they were really raw – and that’s such a great, great record – I think on the second one the songs are so strong, and not just the ones written by Shane. ‘Navigator’ is terrific as well. But things like ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’, ‘I’m A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day’, ‘The Sickbed of Cuchulainn’, which has always been a big favourite of mine, and ‘Dirty Old Town’, again not written by Shane, but …”

It kind of became his for me.

“Yeah, and also there were stories around how they had the launch party on the Thames and the journalists either fell or got pushed over the side into the water. I love the classic Stiff marketing around it, the whole navigation theme which Stiff just picked up and ran with.”

Well, you’ve done another cracking job here, as you did with the Ian Dury and Stiff Records books, and I look forward to the next one, whatever the subject.

“Ah, well thanks a lot – that’s really lovely!”  

For this website’s 2014 feature/interview with Richard Balls, celebrating Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story, head here.

A Furious Devotion: The Story of Shane MacGowan by Richard Balls (Omnibus Press, 2021) is available from all good booksellers and online outlets. You can also connect with Richard Balls via Twitter.

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Reign or shine, you’ve stood by me – talking Queen with Richard Houghton

As Richard Houghton readily admits in his introduction to Queen: A People’s History, there was a sense of conflict for his 16-year-old self in 1976, knowing all too well it was far cooler to follow emerging ground-zero bands like The Clash and The Damned at the time and ditch a group seemingly more about pomp than punk back then.

He writes, ‘I was conflicted, as the largely hostile music press said these well-educated college boys clearly weren’t a serious rock band when the guitarist played a homemade guitar with a sixpence and the singer camped it up outrageously with his long hair and painted fingernails. I was so conflicted that in 1978 my best friend taped Jazz on one side of a C90 cassette for me and put the first Clash album on the other.”

On September 18th, 1976, two days before the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Subway Sect opened the 100 Club’s notorious two-day punk festival barely a mile away, this Northamptonshire lad was at Hyde Park for a free Queen concert, impressed enough to go on to catch the band three more times, ‘downsizing each time – Hyde Park to Earls Court to Wembley Arena to the Rainbow’.

This royally-named quartet certainly weren’t on the way down though, many more crowning glories following, not least going on to fill Wembley Stadium, play Rock in Rio, Knebworth Park, and sell millions more records. And as Richard adds, ‘At Live Aid they played to the biggest audience of all – the whole world’.

Over 380 or so pages, we follow the band’s amazing journey from Roger Taylor’s first live engagements in Cornwall to his late-‘60s move to the capital, where he met Imperial College astrophysics student Brian May, their fledgling outfit – at that point known as Smile – soon attracting a young Londoner surnamed Bulsara among their entourage, the rebranded Freddie Mercury joining them in early 1970, John Deacon completing the classic line-up the following year.

They still mainly flitted between London and West Country dates then, but Queen were soon turning heads, a self-titled debut LP landing in July 1973, their first top-10 hits following the next year, before ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and parent album A Night at the Opera went one step further than ‘Killer Queen’ and Sheer Heart Attack to top the UK charts in late ’75, the whole world soon catching on.

It was with Sheer Heart Attack that it properly started for Manchester-based Richard, who 45 years after his first live sighting of the band is just about to retire from Lancashire housing association landlord Chorley Community Housing, where he has worked for the past 14 years, to concentrate on his writing, having previously served nearby Preston Borough Council from 1993 to 1999, overseeing regeneration programmes there.

Having launched his Spenwood Books publishing company this year – its first publication being another book in the same series, Cream: A People’s History – I reckon that makes it 17 music books he’s edited in total, since 2015. And that’s some going, I suggested.

“Yes, I suppose I’ve stumbled across or invented – depending how you look at it – a formula that can be applied to any artist from any era. And since it’s very much driven by fans’ memories and stories they want to tell, if I get enough material on any one artist, I can produce a book on them.

“I know, all my books say, ‘by Richard Houghton’. But I am very much editor/compiler. Sometimes I’m rewriting interviews or rehashing what somebody sent in an email to make it more coherent, but the key to it, I think, is trying to preserve the original spirit of the story, whether it was watching The Beatles in 1962 or The Wedding Present in 2011.”

There are elements in a few similar fans’ account books, I find, where lots of those interviewed end up sounding like that person doing the editing, but you’ve managed to avoid that, so must be doing something right.

“Hopefully. I do try to keep the original author’s voice where I can, which can bring conflicts with the English language occasionally, on account of the grammar when they’re speaking or writing! Sometimes I change that, and others I leave, where it impacts on the story.”

Other than the Queen book, of course, seeing as that’s the one we’re chiefly looking at here, which did you enjoy doing most?

“I’ve enjoyed doing them all, but the one I look back on with the most fondness is The Who: I Was There. Although I considered myself a fan before and was fairly conversant with their early history, I learned quite a bit about the band. Also, in the process of putting the book together, I uncovered details of three Who gigs that hadn’t been recorded elsewhere. In one case, a lady had seen them in Stevenage at such and such a venue on such and such a night. I said, ‘But they played there the week after,’ I said, and they replied, ‘No, they played there both weeks, and here’s our diary entries to prove it’. There was satisfaction in that, adding something to the band’s canon and established chronology. So when it comes to whether my books have any artistic merit, hopefully they serve a little bit of a purpose in terms of social history as well as any musical knowledge they might add.”

How did Queen enter your life? Was it through hearing a song on a radio or somebody else’s record?

“They were a band that emerged through the remains of glam, I suppose, on the back of Slade and T. Rex. Freddie (Mercury) with his painted fingernails and all the rest of it was part of that. I must be honest and say I don’t remember the first single, ‘Keep Yourself Alive’. They did do an appearance on Top of the Pops, but the tape doesn’t survive.

“What I do remember is ‘Killer Queen’ on Top of the Pops, one of those Bowie-like appearances when everybody who saw it remembers it, because Queen looked so different from everybody else, Freddie really vamping it up for the camera.

“My friend Roger, my best friend from school, bought a copy of Sheer Heart Attack, and I remember being round his house and us playing that LP to death.

“I just think that was Queen at their prime. People look back now at the first three albums – and for some Queen fans, just the first two albums -and are very fond of those, feeling the band kind of sold out with A Night at the Opera, which is where most of the rest of the world discovered them, via ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. It’s funny that they had that hardcore fanbase that fell out of love with them around 1975. There is clearly some great stuff on the first couple of albums, but to suggest A Night at the Opera or A Day at the Races are somehow secondary albums is having rather a skewed view of the world, I’d suggest!”

And as you mentioned Top of the Pops, there’s a tale within of someone catching the band perform ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’ on there too, another early performance.

“Yeah, and again that’s one that hasn’t survived in the BBC archives, as they were still in a policy of wiping or over-writing footage then. I think there’s something on YouTube, something which appeared in a recent TV documentary, but it is a viewer’s own recording so it’s quite poor quality in terms of how it appears on the screen, although again it gives you a sense of what Queen were like at the time.”

You mention first seeing them at Hyde Park in 1976. Was that a big moment for you?

“That was the first gig I went to on my own. Previously, my mum had taken me to see The Beatles, Sacha Distel, Cliff Richard and various other people at the London Palladium in the ‘60s. I was with my friend, Roger, it was September 18, we’d been to a football match that afternoon, Arsenal against Everton.”

A 3-1 home win for the Gunners, incidentally … not as if Manchester City fan Richard’s pal Roger, an Everton supporter, would choose to recall that in too much detail, Liam Brady, Malcolm Macdonald and Frank Stapleton on target at Highbury in a Division One clash played in front of 34,076, George Telfer scoring the Merseyside visitors’ consolation goal. Anyway, on with the story, Richard …

“We arrived early enough to see the infamous appearance by Kiki Dee. She’d just had a No.1 with Elton John with ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’. The rumour was that Elton was going to appear on stage with her, but she actually appeared with a cardboard cut-out of Elton. The urban myth is that they had an argument backstage and that’s why he didn’t go on. But that would suggest they manufactured a cardboard cut-out of him rather quickly!

“We were quite a way away for Queen, but it was a free concert, like the (Rolling) Stones and Pink Floyd and others had done in Hyde Park in the late ‘60s, the sort of gig that now you would easily pay upwards of £100 for. I remember the lights particularly, because of the marquee-style tent they used. It was getting dark, with the effects quite spectacular, a lot of dry ice and smoke bombs. It was a real sense of occasion, a real coming together, Queen saying to their British fans, ‘thanks very much’. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ had already been a big hit around the world, and they didn’t play many gigs in ’76.

“It was a fantastic day out, and on the back of the fact that Queen weren’t fashionable with music critics. There was that famous NME headline, ‘Is this man a prat?’. The music press at the time didn’t seem to like Freddie and Brian and Roger and John because they were college boys, and college boys weren’t supposed to be down and dirty rock’n’rollers. And there was tension between what Queen were and what they represented, Brian doing his astrophysics degree at Imperial College, London. They were all a bit too posh for the papers, which they knew and didn’t care, and the fans didn’t care either. There were 100,000 people in Hyde Park, but it was almost like a secret gathering. You know, ‘we can’t tell anybody else we’re here, but we’re proud to be here because we’re Queen fans’.

“And I remember that when I went to see them at Earl’s Court in ‘77, all these people with union flags around their shoulders, coinciding with the Queen’s silver jubilee, union flags painted on their face and the rest of it. Again, I thought I just don’t see these people on a normal day, where have all these Queen fans been hiding? It was this coming together, this celebration for a Queen concert in a way that almost no other band was doing at that time.

“We caught the train down from Wellingborough to St Pancras, having to leave before the end, sadly, to make sure we got the last train home, because we were well behaved 16-year-old boys, not sleeping on railway platforms or taking any risks to get the milk train home. We had to be on that 11 o’clock train out of St Pancras!”

I always enjoy the early days tales, and in this case there’s a strong West Country link, with Truro being Roger Taylor’s adopted patch, him getting lots of bookings as Smile then Queen, a number of those dates recalled in this book, sometimes with a certain Freddie Bulsara in tow.

“Yes, I think he was he was part of the circle of friends of the band that was then called Smile. He had one, if not two other bands on the go at the time, before that personnel change, going on to be the lead singer before John Deacon came in as bass player. And there was a June 1970 line-up billed as Smile at Truro City Hall initially, but that night they said, ‘We are Queen’. That was Freddie’s first appearance, but he’d been hanging out with Roger and Brian, actually sharing a flat with them for a while.”

I have to say, much as I like the band from their interviews, the later years didn’t do it for me, not least the more recent dates, post-Freddie. For me, he would aways be the frontman.

“Well, that is a line of thought that can either get people saying you’re absolutely right or shouting you down! There are a lot of people who think Queen plus Adam Lambert are still Queen. I must confess as somebody who saw them with Freddie, I’ve never been tempted to see them with Adam, and that’s with no disrespect to him. Partly to preserve the memories I’ve got, and partly, it’s got to be a different beast in the same way that if the Rolling Stones went on the road without Mick Jagger.

“Then again, Ozzy Osbourne did say if you went to see the Stones – and he was talking about his own departure from Black Sabbath in 1978/79 – and the only member there is Bill Wyman and they’ve got Freddie Mercury up front, it’s not the Rolling Stones’! It does seem to be an issue on which Queen fans definitely have an opinion. People either love them with Adam or wouldn’t buy a ticket to go and see them with Adam. Personally, I think if Brian and Roger want to be out playing music, celebrating their legacy, they should be free to do that. As long as nobody goes under the impression that they’re going to get a genuine Queen performance, fine.”

True enough. And I do realise full well how important all four classic line-up members were to the equation, not least the way Brian May defined their sound with his trademark guitar.

“Yeah, as you hinted there, they all wrote songs and brought something to the party. And John Deacon wrote ‘Another One Bites the Dust, one of their biggest number ones. But yeah, the Brian May guitar sound is quite distinctive. When you hear Brian’s guitar, you know it’s Queen. That Red Special just shines on every track it appears on, the guitar he made with his dad. That in itself is obviously quite something. That you happen to be in one of the biggest bands in the world is a bonus really, but to make a guitar and have hit records playing it is something very few people can say, ‘I did that’.

If I remember correctly, the word spread somewhat about Queen when they supported Mott the Hoople in late ’73, didn’t it?

“Yes, Queen’s first national tour was supporting Mott. And Mott were big while Queen were emerging, I suppose. But as some of the tales in the book describe on the British tour, on occasions people came away saying Queen had blown Mott away, although others suggest Mott held their own. But what I thought was really nice was that Freddie and Roger were doing backing vocals on one of their songs. So they (Mott) obviously took them under their wing, whether that was Ian Hunter, the band or their management.

“It certainly wasn’t one of those situations where the support band gave the main act a hard time and the main acts fell out with them. And there are many tales of that nature in rock history, of course, where people get kicked off a tour for being too big for their boots. But they went on to tour as support to Mott in America the following year too.”

Have you a favourite story among all these?

“There’s one from the early gigs, I can’t remember the venue now, where the urban myth is that there were only six people in the audience. But the chap who tells the story was in the support band and says, ‘We were the audience – our band of five people and our roadie! They watched us and we watched them and there were no paying customers whatsoever’. And Brian apparently came to see them at a later gig as well, so there was moral support from Brian too … although that other band didn’t go on to any success, as the author readily admits.”

And is there a favourite LP or a song that jumps out at you all these years on, taking you back to a certain time and place?

“I’m a big fan of Queen II, all that kind of stuff just really worked as a concept. That’s my favourite album. It’s the guitars, and the whole ‘nobody played synthesiser’ mantra that ran through those early albums. But of course, they use the synth to great effect on songs like ‘Radio Ga Ga’. There’s something there for lots and lots of different fans of different music styles. If you came to the band around the time of The Works, just before they did Live Aid, you could listen to the album and get into them through that and not necessarily go back and appreciate those early albums. But then there’s an anecdote in the book where some fellow said he started listening to Queen II, really liked it, then the penny dropped that there must be a Queen I, so he had to go and look for that as well.”

And what’s next on the horizon for you, book-wise?

“I’m working with the management of Jethro Tull on a book about them. I think it’s going to come out next summer, although I’m waiting for the publisher and band’s management to determine that.  I’ve also been working on a book about The Faces with Rod Stewart for a number of years and I’m determined that will come out next summer, as Rod and Ron Wood are supposed to be doing some shows and a new album, going back to some old material which was recorded but never finished. It would be great to do that. It’s been 46 years since they performed as a band together.”

For this website’s feature/interview concerning Richard Houghton’s 2020 book on The Smiths, head here, You can also check out the following links to chats with the man himself about his Rolling Stones book in 2015, The Beatles in 2016, and The Who in 2017.

Incidentally, there’s also a book about Slade in the pipeline, one right up this scribe’s street, and for which Richard is also keen to hear memories of, as is the case for his planned people’s history publications on Thin Lizzy and Neil Young, and any other acts you feel may make fitting subjects for comprehensive ‘fan’s history’ style publications. To get in touch, and for more details about how to order a copy of Queen – a People’s History (Spenwood Books, 2021), you can email Richard via iwasatthatgig@gmail.com or visit his website.

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Misplaced Words with the girl who plays the tambourine* – talking Jetstream Pony with Beth Arzy

In late August, one of the highlights of Preston Pop Fest at The Continental in Preston, Lancashire, was a Sunday evening set from Jetstream Pony, an indie pop post-punk four-piece perfectly fusing US West Coast ‘60s sensibilities with homegrown UK South Coast flavour.

Somehow, it was the first time I’d seen the band’s co-founder, Shaun Charman – these days writing songs and supplying guitar and backing vocals – play since he was drumming for The Wedding Present, leaving David Gedge’s indie legends after a three-year stint in 1988, returning to his native Sussex.

In fact, the timing of his departure from a band at that stage proudly carrying its ‘Middleton Bramley Gateshead Hassocks’ logo (the latter marking his neck of the woods) on its Reception Records label, reminds me that my previous sighting of Shaun was on the night the Great Storm hit the South-East in mid-October ’87, this not-quite-20 fan heading back to Guildford after a night watching an in-form Wedding Present and The Brilliant Corners at the University of London’s Union venue.  

Much of that period in between for Shaun involved service with Brighton’s The Pop Guns, and on this occasion Jetstream Pony’s drummer was Tony Bryant, ‘on loan’ from that same band as German sticks-man Hannes Müller was unable to travel due to ongoing Brexit and Covid complications.

Meanwhile, the cosmopolitan vibe was aided by NYC-born, Brighton-based bass player Kerry Boettcher, who previously featured with Shaun in Turbocat (who recorded for John Peel in November 1998) and South London-based Californian lead singer/occasional tambourine shaker Beth Arzy, my interviewee on this occasion, also known for Trembling Blue Stars and The Luxembourg Signal.

By day, Beth is an executive assistant at BMG Records in London, where her pre-Christmas schedule has apparently involved ‘all kinds of craziness’ with deadlines and so forth. Didn’t stop me muscling in to set up an interview during her lunch break, mind.

I was hoping to chat to Beth anyway, but pulled it forward after another interviewee’s Christmas dates were pulled at the last minute due to a positive Covid-19 case in her band. And while we set aside 15 minutes, I managed to keep her on the line a while longer, dear readers, her boss frantically messaging by the end, apparently.

It made perfect sense anyway, Jetstream Pony having just put out a new mini-LP, Misplaced Words, for our delectation, something I was keen to hear – and was subsequently impressed by – after their charming set at the Conti 15 weeks earlier.

“That was fun. It was also the first time I ever got to see The Jazz Butcher … and the last time, so I’m always going to remember that.”

Indeed. A sad moment, the cherished singer-songwriter, Pat Fish, having passed away aged 64 in early October, his Continental and Ferret dates that weekend proving to be his last.

“But it was really nice, even though most of the people I know got Covid that weekend! I managed not to though, walking around with a mask on.”

But what came first for Beth? Was it Jetstream Pony – who describe themselves as ‘schrammelig post-punk and indie-pop’, that perfect German word translated as ‘raw, rough, unrefined’ – or her other on-going outfit, The Luxembourg Signal? The opening word of this following exchange suggests a complicated explanation is forthcoming, and that turns out to be the case.

“Right … so I was in Trembling Blue Stars, with Bobby Wratten from The Field Mice, for a very long time … 10 years … then Bobby decided he didn’t want to play live anymore and was kind of winding down the band, but we turned it into a project called Lightning in the Twilight Hour. The same players, basically – Michael Hiscock and … that’s really weird, a message from Anne Mari {Davies} just popped up on my screen as I was gonna say her name too. But that freed me to go do something else.

“I was, you know, humming and harring about what to do, then somebody in a really great band called The Fireworks, who I really liked and was a fan of and got to see a couple of times, said, ‘We’ll let you in on a little secret. Our lead singer, Emma, is leaving, would you like to do it?’. That’s never a good idea, it’s never going to be as good as the original person. But I have ‘fomo’ {fear of missing out} so had to say yes. I didn’t want someone else to do it! Like a dog with a bone when somebody else comes near, and they’re like, ‘No!’.

“I did it, but it didn’t work because she was such a great part of the band. But it was fun for a little while. The songs are great. Matthew, the main songwriter, just wrote the best pop songs! It suited me to a tee, kind of C86, Glasgow-like fuzzy type. And Shaun was the drummer for The Fireworks, so that’s how that happened – he wrote a couple of the songs, and I really liked them.”

Does that mean The Fireworks mutated into Jetstream Pony?

“No, because Matthew is The Fireworks, you know, like if it’s Mark E. Smith and your granny on bongos, it was still The Fall, that’s how it is with Matthew and The Fireworks. That’s his baby. They were his songs, except for, you know, a couple here and there that’d be knocking around and I’d like, and that would be Shaun. He said, ‘If you like that, do you want to hear some more of my demos?’. I was like, ‘Shit, yeah, dude!’

“I listened to a tape and he said, ‘Fancy having a go, singing?’, I said yeah, and it just clicked from the first demo. Then he roped in Kerry {Boettcher}, who was in a band called Turbocat {with Shaun}. They even got to do a Peel session. And it just kind of came together.”

It certainly did. You’ve got a kind of C86 indie / Shop Assistants meets West Coast US sound …

“Where Malibu meets The Wedding Present!”

That’s a neat way of putting it. And what’s not to love about that? But how did this California girl wash up on these shores? Music? Travel? A career? All of those?

“No, I had a long-distance relationship for many years, and he didn’t want to come to the US, so I ended up moving over here. It didn’t work out, unfortunately, but …”

Well, it kind of did, because you’re here working and making music.

“Well, I’ve been here 22 years, so have to go way in the past to remember!”

I’m guessing you were a bit of an Anglophile, music-wise.

“Absolutely!”

And it seems that there’s a strong European link with Jetstream Pony, with Hannes from Augsburg, Bavaria, on drums, and the band signed to German label Kleine Untergrund Schallplatten (KUS), as well as Shelflife in the US and Spinout Nuggets in the UK.

“Yes, but I thought you were gonna talk about The Luxembourg Signal there, which is my band in LA as well. But that’s just like friends and family. I was in a band called Aberdeen with two of the guys in The Luxembourg Signal, then two people in a band called Super 31, and we’re just one big band of merry idiots! So I’ve kind of split my heart between Jetstream Pony and The Luxembourg Signal.

“As far as Hannes goes, I poached him from one of my favourite German bands, our labelmates on Kleine Untergrund Schallplatten, The BV’s, and I fell in love with that band. It’s funny, because Ronnie from KUS said, ‘I think you’ll really like this band on my label’. People say that, and you go, ‘Yeah, okay,’ but I listened to them, and it’s like every ingredient of every band I ever loved! I can’t remember how we poached Hannes, but yeah, we grab him whenever we can. He’s just perfect.”

What I also enjoyed about Jetstream Pony live was the between-songs easy humour and banter, not least the ribbing of each other. However, in Croydon-based Beth’s mind, Shaun’s allegiance to his beloved Brighton and Hove Albion FC has had consequences, not least regarding Beth turning up in one of their promo videos at Mayfield Stadium, Thornton Heath, the home of her adopted club, Combined Counties League Premier Division South outfit AFC Croydon Athletic.

“They’ve said, ‘Oh, you guys should come and play in the clubhouse. But I’m like, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea, because Shaun is a Brighton season ticketholder and lifer, and my club’s basically comprised of Crystal Palace fans … Palace fans and Brighton fans, it’s not good – it gets kind of ugly!”

As for Hannes, he has a full-time job back in Germany, hence Beth’s insistence that ‘we’re very lucky to be able to use Tony {Bryant} from The Pop Guns,’ as was the case in Preston.

“It’s like a No.60 bus – you either have no drummers and you’re completely in the shit, or you have too many great drummers, and Tony fits in amazingly – he’s such a great drummer.”

Incidentally, Tony Bryant is also credited for recording and mixing the new mini-LP, at Sunny Studio in Hove. Is Shaun trying to avoid the drums these days?

“Well, he’s our main songwriter and plays guitar, and it’s kind of about the guitar sound for Jetstream Pony.”

Fair enough. He did a mighty apprenticeship behind the kit, after all.

“He still plays on some of the recordings and the demos though. He’s still got the drums set up in his room.”

As for your UK record label, Spinout Nuggets, that’s ostensibly Lee Grimshaw, isn’t it?

“It is. He does everything, is such a great supporter and he’s been so helpful. You know, he’s gotten us gigs and done amazing promotion. He’s like an A&R person, a marketing person, the owner … he does everything!”

He must do a hell of a lot of driving from his North Cornish base too.

“Yeah, he’s been our tour manager, our driver, a jack of all trades. His main hat is a headcoat, but he’s got lots of other hats he wears as well.”

I was confused by that, but gather that’s another name for the deerstalker, Kentish outfit Thee Headcoats apparently part of the reason for that alternative name. Someone will let me know, I reckon.

When we spoke, there was just one more live show for the band this year, at the Hope and Ruin in Brighton, supporting Big Boss Man on Friday, December 17th at the Spinout Nuggets/Suit Yourself Christmas party. But in light of this week’s Dexys Midnight Runners tribute Plan B from our clown car Government (that’s me taking issue with the Conservative Cheese and Wine Christmas Party rather than the somewhat inevitable restrictions, I should add), that’s now been put back a year to Saturday, December 17th 2022. Anyway, we spoke a little about the main act.

“Have you heard Big Boss Man before? You need to check them out. They’re so … they’re more on the Mod side of things, so Shaun’s kind of scared. Normally, when we play with The Pop Guns, you know what you’re gonna get, and that crowd’s a dead cert. And when we opened for The Primitives, I didn’t have to worry, ‘Are they going to hate us?’, because it’s kind of like playing to the converted. But we’re going out of our depths a little with Big Boss Man.

“That caters for my more Mod, more psychy, groovy Hammond side. I’ve seen them a few times, at Brighton weekenders and stuff the Mods go to and wear their 50-something-year-old bodies out at! They’re just amazing, proper musicians just absolutely giving it their all. They’re so much fun. If anybody goes to see them, and doesn’t end up loving them, there’s something wrong.”

Are there plenty more dates in the diary? Is there a mini-tour lined up to go with the mini-LP?

“No, we still have to catch up with everything that’s been rescheduled because of Covid. We’re in Portugal in March, then if all goes to plan we’re in Lewes on March 12 with The Monochrome Set, who we’ve played with a couple of times before. Hannes is coming over for that, and later in March we’re in Madrid. Then in April, we’re doing a couple of gigs – one in Bristol and one in London at The Lexington.”

I’ve only made it there once, to see The Everlasting Yeah – four-fifths of That Petrol Emotion in early 2016. A good venue as I recall.

“Was that with Steve Mack?”

No, he’s the one-fifth not involved, these days firmly across the water and beyond, back home in Seattle.

“Ah, yeah, he’s like a techie/computer guy now.”

There is his band, Stag, though. I like what I’ve heard from them.

“Ah, I love Steve, and saw him with the Petrols a few times back in LA, which was great.”

And because we mentioned Shaun’s Wedding Present past, you’ve played David Gedge’s annual At the Edge of the Sea Festival in Brighton, haven’t you?

“We have. It was a really nice crowd and the other bands we played with were great. We played in the smaller room, essentially the bar, and I was three sheets to the wind. When it came to do a Softies cover, which we’d played loads of times before and I knew the song, I’d had so much gin and tonic that it sounded in my head like I didn’t know the song!

“It just didn’t click, and we started it about three or four times. My friend was in front of me, mouthing the words to the song, and I was so drunk I was laughing, like, ‘I don’t know what y’all are playing – I’ve never heard this song before!’. And David Gedge was standing in front of me, going like, ‘What are you doing?’. I was so out of it.

“Then we did some dates with them the Christmas before lockdown, essentially went on tour with them, and David was like, ‘Right, now you’re not gonna drink as much as you did last time, are you?’, and I was like, ‘No, David, I promise. I’ll be so professional’. It was actually Lee {Grimshaw} who made sure I was dead sober on stage.”

I learned in recent months we have a shared love of The Monkees. How did you get involved in that Spinout Nuggets split-single you did in late summer (joining Mary Wyer and Julian Knowles of the band Even As We Speak under the name Tapioca Tundra – that name borrowed from a classic Mike Nesmith track, with your scribe adding a sad postscript to that a few days later after news of Nez’s farewell – for a cover of ‘Sometime In The Morning’)?

“Oh God, I love The Monkees, they were my first favourite band ever.”

Was that like a comfort thing, reconnecting you with home and your childhood?

“Yeah, it’s my comfort blanket. It’s everything. My cousins were like my sisters, they gave me their hand-me-down records when I was little. So I thought they were children’s records. I had my little Dansette, and when I was like three years old, I started listening to The Monkees. It was probably the first lyrics other than ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ type stuff that I knew.

“We were meant to play with Even as we Speak at The Lexington during lockdown, and it got cancelled. So I was talking to Mary {Wyer} and it just came up one day, because we were going to do that cover. She was also a big fan, and we were talking about our favourite Monkees song. We’re like, ‘Oh, that’s mine, too!’ and ‘Who’s your favourite?’. We really bonded over many things, one of them a love of The Monkees.

“She said, ‘It sucks that we can’t do the gig, but we can still do the song’. I was like, ‘I can’t do anything, I can’t play anything, what can we do?’. So we roped in Julian {Knowles} from Even as we Speak, and he created this amazing, beautiful composition of everything that needed to be there. Then Mary and I dropped in our bits and Tony from The Pop Guns made a video for us.

“Then Lee from Spinout Nuggets … I was hinting one day, ‘Holy fuck, this song – it’s really nice, d’you want to hear it?’ and he was like, ‘Oh, I’d love to release that!’. And it just so happens that Sounds Incarcerated, who are Alan {Crockford} – from The Prisoners – together with Viv {Bonsels}, both from The Galileo 7, had been doing lockdown songs as well, and did a version of ‘The Porpoise Song’. So I said, ‘I’ve an idea for the other side! It’s not really like an A and B-side, it’s a joint effort. So that happened, then Micky Dolenz retweeted it on Twitter!”.

Incidentally, follow this link to grab yourself a copy. Highly recommended. Where were you when you first heard The Monkees? Where did that childhood unfold?

“Well, this is going back to what you said about the West Coast. I kind of bounced between LA and Florida. My family were like vagabonds, just kept going back and forth. My grandmother moved to Florida, then the rest of the family moved there. Then my aunt would move back to California, and everyone moved back. So I was kind of bounced between Fort Myers, Florida and LA, and sometimes Palm Springs, which is only two hours away from LA.”

Meanwhile, it seems that bandmate Kerry had the East of the States covered?

“Yeah, she’s East and I’m West!”

Americans lost in Europe?

“Exactly. She’s married to a very lovely Englishman called Peter. And Shaun just said, ‘Oh, I’ve an idea for bassist, and you guys are a lot alike. I think you’ll like her’. And when you look at her, it kind of looks like a diet ad – before and after! I’m the before, and we have similar hair and a fringe. People come up to me and go, ‘Kerry!’ or up to her and go, ‘Beth!’.

“But when you know us, we’re so different. Like, she’s just evil – she’s impish and cheeky, and does really horrible things! She’ll say anything, and just does not give a shit! She’s got no filter, whereas I’m a bit more reserved, y’know? It’s a funny dynamic, because like, sometimes I’ll say, like, ‘Oh, that curry didn’t agree with me. I had the shits all night,’ and we’ll get on stage and Kerry will go like, ‘Hi, everybody, Beth had the shits all night!’ Basically, you don’t tell her secrets. You don’t tell her anything!”

You’re painting an all too vivid picture of a cartoon band here. Perhaps we should get Hanna-Barbera on board, make that happen.

“We’re totally a cartoon band! Yeah, we’re like the Banana Splits, basically.”

And what are you doing for Christmas? Anything big?

“No!”

Just getting through it?

“Exactly. Just going to catch up on records I’ve bought recently and books that are stacking up by the bed that I haven’t read. Taking walks and playing with the cats.”

Jetstream Pony’s new six-track mini-LP, Misplaced Words, with its artwork as per the previous full-length LP by Carol Seatory @atelierbricolageis, is available on pale blue 12″ vinyl or CD via the Spinout shop, Bandcamp, all good record shops, and via digital streaming platforms.

  • With a nod to WriteWyattUK favourites The Chesterfields‘ ‘Ask Johnny Dee’ for this feature/interview’s title, of course.
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Christmas Wishing and Hoping for the Blessed – the Cerys Matthews interview

If the phone goes and it’s a private number, I’m often on the offensive, wondering what dodgy scheme or other someone’s out to try and sell to me. But there was really no need for Cerys Matthews to formally introduce herself.

It’s difficult to remember when I first grew accustomed to that luscious lilt from this Cardiff-born, Swansea-raised singer-songwriter, musician, author and broadcaster, but I reckon it was Catatonia’s 1996 single ‘You’ve Got a Lot to Answer For’ that first made me sit up and take notice. And these days it seems I can’t put on the radio or TV without hearing her, whether voicing documentaries or fronting numerous BBC radio shows.

Now there’s a new single, Cerys joining fellow South Walian and Games of Thrones actor Iwan Rheon on ‘A Christmas Wish’, the song that opens soon to be released rom-com A Christmas No. 1, in which her singing partner stars alongside Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) in a Sky Cinemafilm streaming from December 10th, that song among several Guy Chambers compositions in BAFTA-winning director Chris Cottam’s Sky/Genesius Pictures/Lupus Films/Space Age Films production, its ensemble cast also including West End / Broadway recording artist Alfie Boe, Helena Zengel (News of the World), Debi Mazar (Goodfellas, Entourage) and Richard Fleeshman(Call the Midwife, Four Weddings and a Funeral).

Cerys is West London-based these days, her home since the late ‘90s, give or take time in America, and we started out by swapping notes about the weather after the first proper ‘bloody freezin’, innit?’ day of winter in both the capital and Lancashire. And that gave me an excuse to segue straight into – almost seamlessly – how Slade recorded ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ in the summer of ’73 at the Record Plant in heatwave-hit New York, midway through a US East Coast tour. Was it a similar case for Cerys’ latest festive offering with this lad from Carmarthen (who first popped up on our screens on Pobol y Cym)?

“Actually, it’s quite unusual, because you’re right, usually Christmas songs are recorded in summer, like ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ with Tom Jones, was in June. Tommy Danvers {aka TommyD}, produced that and did International Velvet and Equally Cursed and Blessed with us {Catatonia}. He always reckoned a cool environment made for a better record, so he’d dress the studio in lava lamps, fairy lights, and in this case Christmas trees, stuff like that … even in June, with all the live players in there.

“In terms of this though, it was recorded recently. They’ve been working on A Christmas No.1 throughout this year, Guy Chambers leading on the writing of all these original songs. I won’t tell you too much about the plot, but it’s a romantic comedy, two artists battling it out for a Christmas No.1. One’s a boy band and one’s a sort of goth-thrash metal band, its lead singer, the protagonist – played by Iwan – the writer of this song, written for his niece {played by Helena Zengel}, who has cancer. 

“It’s a brilliant plot, two very different music-makers battling it out with this one song. However, that isn’t the song I sing with Iwan. That’s a kind of lower tempo Christmas song, whereas the song I was involved with and had the pleasure of co-writing with Guy was because they wanted a more upbeat song for the opening credits.

“We’ve been in touch now several years, having worked together on the Prince Harry TV programme, with Goldie and Ms Dynamite {Goldie’s Band: By Royal Appointment, 2010} and this one, recorded in a studio in West London, turns out to be the one of the catchiest three-minute songs I think I’ve ever worked on. There were times where I literally couldn’t get it out of my head.”

Who knows, maybe 30 years down the line, they’ll be talking about this in the way we do now about all the Christmas classics, not least those heard on entering high street shops from October onwards.

“Well, I love this time of year, you know, and as we’re talking now it’s absolutely freezing, hovering around zero even in London. The loveliest thing of all is if you’re trudging your children to school or trudging to work and back in the rain and the wind and the cold weather, thinking there’s going to be an end to term and you can light the fire, the candles, sing silly songs, and eat a lot at Christmas.

“I’ve an album of carols, Baby It’s Cold Outside, I put out a few years ago, and it’s a territory I love to go back to. It feels very … it’s a happy place, a comfortable place for me, and I hope this song brings as much happiness as it has already to those of us involved in it.”

While Cerys never met Guy Chambers in World Party days, they’re both on the credits of Tom Jones’ Reload LP from 1999 – Guy behind Tom’s duet with Robbie on ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way?’ while Cerys duetted with the Pontypridd legend on the afore-mentioned hit, which surprisingly only reached the top-20.

“Yeah, that’s eagle-eyed of you! And I can’t talk highly enough of Guy and the songs he’s written for this film – for the thrash metal band and the boy band. And the boy band {5 Together, namely Ashley Margolis, Joshua Sinclair Evans, Darryl Mundoma, George Walker and Benji Colson} … I mean, it’s just, it’s ripe for spoofing, isn’t it, a boy band? They’ve a song called ‘Maximum Pleasure’ that gets turned down by Alfie Boe, who plays the baddie record industry boss. If you’ve ever read Kill Your Friends {2008, by John Niven}, he plays that sort of crooked character brilliantly, you’d think he was born to it. And there’s a spoof Christmas song he turns down called ‘Christmas Miracle’, but I actually love that song. And they’re all Guy’s songs. He’s done amazing.”

Regarding ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’, remind me of the timeframe of that with the previous year’s duet with Tommy Scott on Space’s ‘The Ballad of Tom Jones’. Did you first hook up with Sir Tom as a result of that?

“In my memory, I’d done that with Space, it was riding pretty high in the charts, and it was kind of set up live on television. Was it a Welsh programme, The Pop Factory? Or CD-UK? I can’t remember. But in my memory, it was a TV show, we phoned Tom Jones, and that conversation was the first time I’d probably come into contact with him.

“Somebody said, ‘Would you do a duet?’ Or maybe I asked Tom, ‘Would you do a duet with me?’. Something like that. I was like, ‘Absolutely. I’d love to do a duet with you’, and he said the same. It was only a few weeks following that conversation where his son and manager Mark, got in touch, said, ‘Listen, we’re gonna do this album of duets. We want you to be involved, have a think about what you want to sing, here are some choices we were thinking of. What do you reckon?’. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I want the Frank Loesser song!’. My voice kind of goes with that sort of character song.”

Was your ‘bloody freezin’, innit’ line a spur of the moment ad lib?

“Oh God, yeah, absolutely! The whole setup was recorded as if it was in the 1940s, with Ian Thomas on drums, a big band set-up, and I was sharing the same vocal booth as Tom, which is quite extraordinary because we’ve both got such different voices. Don’t know how the engineers managed that. And he kind of nudged me, elbowed me in the middle of the song, and you hear me go, ‘whoop!’. We had so much fun, and it was just three takes.”

It seems these last few years we hear you all over the radio and telly, from BBC 6 Music to Radio 2 and World Service …

“And Radio 4 now, a Friday show, Add to Playlist.”

Then there are your roving reports on BBC TV’s The One Show, all those voiceovers, and even walking the Scottish Borders with Gus Caseley-Hayford, talking JMW Turner for Tate Britain’s Great Art Walks for Sky Arts …

“Ah, that was great!”

I enjoyed that too. All that certainly keeps you busy, but it’s slowed down your recording career. I enjoyed Cock a Hoop, Never Said Goodbye, Don’t Look Down, Tir, and so on, but with everything else going on, that seems to have become more a part-time passion, what with bringing up a family and the broadcasting career.

“It was such a pleasure to go into the studio and write and record, produced by Steve Power, whose back-catalogue is astonishing as well. But I’m now 13 years married and between us we have five children. So if I’m being honest, coming off the road for this period of time – and now my children are getting older, my youngest just turned 12, so they’re 12, 16 and 18 – has kept me … if you’re a touring musician, there’s definitely a push and pull effect on day-to-day family life. And I was lucky enough to have options whereby I could continue being creative in music. And with all those programmes I’m involved with on the radio, I’m absolutely knee-deep in the production …”

You can tell that you’re really into everything you do, not least your radio shows.

“I’m having the world’s longest prep sessions for any future recorders just by being able to be so … I love it, and I’m instantly there for the emerging music-makers, and interviewing some of my heroes, some of the artists that make me most excited. Totally jammy! To be able to stay home with the kids as well ….”

I was invigilating a French exam at my local high school this morning, reminding me of your aptitude for languages – from English and Welsh to French, Spanish, Catalan. Any more to add?

“I read Italian, as it’s very close to Spanish. I just love sounds, full stop! Human sounds, which includes the world’s languages. I’m one of those annoying people finding it extremely interesting to try and talk and pick up a bit – it’s really annoying for my husband when I’ve asked people from that country something for the 10th time!”

The same goes for your love of traditional roots music, I guess. Maybe that was always there, right back to busking days.

“I’m just hungry, hungry for culture, and to work out how the world works. It’s the same pot as far as I’m concerned – of language, of folk music, recipes handed down, folk cookbooks, poetry, history, geography. It’s all the same pot of this amazing world!”

You’ve come up in conversation in at least a couple of my recent interviews …

“Uh-oh! Ha!”

All complimentary. First, when Iain ‘Tempo’ Templeton talked about his Shack days and your support for that band at a key early stage, telling me how well he was looked after by you and Catatonia’s crew when they played the Royal Pavilion, Llangollen, in May ’99. I was there too, and loved those Home Internationals events.

“Oh wow!”

Then only a couple of weeks ago I was talking to Hue Williams about …

“The Pooh Sticks?”

Yes, and his current project, Swansea Sound, and the gap between, not least how he was involved in promoting you in the early days.

“He was the first to hear in public anything that Mark {Roberts} and myself and the other founding members of Catatonia were doing. I famously rejected the idea that he should work with us. That was the first time I’d ever stood on stage. It was an open mic night in Cardiff, very early ‘90s, and I think they were movers and shakers in Cardiff, and maybe we were thinking about … I remember being absolutely terrified of going up, having some brandy beforehand. Probably unwise. No, definitely unwise! I was just doing one or two songs and given that our songs were quite experimental, it was literally in the infancy of the band …”

‘Sweet Catatonia’ was one such early indicator (it’ll be 25 years since Catatonia’s debut LP Way Beyond Blue, but the For Tinkerbell EP from which that came was three years earlier), showing just how much potential the band had from the start.

“I was very lucky to work with one of the most brilliant lyricists and melody writers from the ‘90s – Mark. But, you know, Catatonia also had Owen Powell, another great songwriter. And Paul {Jones}, the bass player, is also a brilliant melody writer, string arranger and producer. Thinking back, you know, on my own terms I write melodies and produce and write lyrics, so there were quite a lot of writers in that band.”

It was clearly meant to be, the way you pulled together.

“Yeah, I think pull together but also influence each other, you know, vie for brilliance, and we were always wanting to do something slightly different from the usual sort of 1-2-3-4. That was the aim, anyway.”

By the way, it wasn’t long after Catatonia’s Llangollen shows that I found out I was to be a Dad, my eldest daughter born late January 2000. Perhaps there was something in the air that weekend.

“Oh! I don’t wanna ask what song you were getting into! Ha!”

Abiding memories, for sure, although I should ‘fess up that we had tickets for the first night, but then realised how many people were watching for free from the other side of the canal, so did the same the second night. I probably owe you a few quid.

“Ha! Do you know what, the Llangollen gig was a stand-out for me, of all the things I did in my youth.”

Such a good bill too (also involving Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Big Leaves and Richard Parfitt). I didn’t know Shack at the time, and only later discovered Big Leaves, following their path. Great times. But time marches on, and it’s now 20 years since final Catatonia LP, Paper, Scissors, Stone. Did it all end a bit flat for you, or was it a bit of a blur? It seems you were somewhat burnt out, personally and the band.

“Erm … do you know what, looking back on it, we’d only been together a few years. We could have gone a bit longer, I think. What we lacked was great guidance – to look after us as individuals, and as I mentioned earlier there were a lot of individuals in that band!

“Mark and myself had a relationship away from the band, then split, that didn’t make it at all easy. Without clear guidance, I think that made it an impossibility to carry on. And I regret that. I wish … but I’ve got a great manager now – he’s my husband!”

That’s Steve Abbott, who started the Big Cat label in 1990, early acts including 2021 WriteWyattUK interviewee Jim Bob Morrison’s Carter USM and Pavement, Abbott later instrumental at Richard Branson’s V2 label, associated acts during his time there including Moby, The Black Crowes, The Jungle Brothers, and The White Stripes.

“I’ve just been talking to Craig David and Guy Garvey today as part of a songwriting series for Radio 2. Both have had the same manager for 20-odd years, and we were paying tribute to the idea, because it really matters if you’ve got somebody on your side that has your best interests at heart, to make sense of the whole situation and inevitable ups and downs and rackets of the industry and the personal battles within bands – to have somebody you trust and love with your best interests at heart really is something you cannot underestimate its value. And we didn’t have that.”

Look at someone like Paul Weller, who had his dad, John Weller, looking after him.

“Yeah, and Tom Jones has his son! When you see an individual that has consistent success and quality material, it’s interesting when you see there’s often a strong guiding hand by their side. Because, you know, it’s an interesting ride. But yeah, with benefit of hindsight, it’s a shame in a way, because there were a lot of songwriters in that band, and I miss that part of it.”

Will there ever be another Catatonia album?

“At this point, I don’t think so. After 20 years, I still think it’s a bit too soon! And Malcolm, now I want to ask you something – do you like the Christmas single? Have you heard it?”

I have, and you’re right, it’s very catchy pop. It should do well. And back to you, if you had to choose a Christmas film that gets you every time, what would it be?

“There has to be two, and they’re two very different films. Every Christmas we watch White Christmas, with Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and the other lady I’ve forgotten.”

Vera-Ellen, I’m reminded later.

“I love that, and the other one I absolutely love, and it’s a pretty dodgy choice … the rest of the National Lampoon films I don’t like to watch, but the Christmas one – National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, to me, is like, oh my God! If you’ve a member of your family that tries really hard to do things right but always gets things wrong and it ends in a mess, that’s the film for you. The Dad’s trying to get the Christmas lights up, but can’t work it out, and … I don’t know, you have to watch it! The kids have grown up with it. It’s a story of disaster that gets funnier every year, just so stupid.”

It’s became a Christmas tradition with my girls now to expect me to bring out It’s a Wonderful Life.

“Ah, that’s another we watch. And Elf, obviously. But The Grinch freaks me out.”

How about festive reads? It’s become a personal tradition in more recent years for me to read Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Usually Christmas Eve, after everyone else has gone to bed. And that’s clearly an important one for you, too.

“I love it. I love Christmas stories. It Was the Night before Christmas too. And I’m doing a reading for The Samaritans this Thursday of A Child’s Christmas. Who else is reading with me? I was gonna say Simon Cowell, but it’s the actor …”

Simon Callow?

“That’s it! And I’ve recorded A Child’s Christmas and set it to music. That’s being put into a musical theatre production in Massachusetts, as we speak, to start in 2022. There’s a ballet too. But anyway, I’m boring you now!”

Not at all. But let’s get on to favourite Christmas songs … although I could probably find out by switching on some freeview TV channel or other these coming weeks.

“Well, you mentioned The Pogues, and I love ‘Fairytale of New York’ and had the pleasure of coming out of Nashville, back to Cardiff and sang that with Shane McGowan, one of my abiding memories. That was live {International Arena, 2005}. What was shocking to me was that I’d been in Hicksville, living in a shack with no water or electricity for years, coming back to duet with The Pogues at Christmas, people holding mobile phones aloft in the crowd, thinking, ‘Oh my God, things have changed!’. So funny!

“I’m a big fan of Kirsty MacColl, of course. Another great songwriter. And I love anything by Louis Armstrong this time of year, plonking along on the piano, doing really bad versions. And I know it’s not cool to say you love your own, but one of my favourites I’ve done is my Christmas album. It’s cute, with ‘Little Donkey’ on it, carols like ‘We Three Kings’ …”

I’m guessing you don’t need much persuasion to get on that piano around Christmas.

“It’s kind of a ritual, yeah – give me loads of Baileys and I’ll plonk along.”

Mint Baileys?

“No, never give me any fusion stuff! Never give me any pumpkin latte or caramel coffee. That’s my nemesis! But I will enjoy a pure Baileys with some ice in it.”

My mention of Mint Baileys was a nod to Rob Brydon character Uncle Bryn’s new-found love in Gavin and Stacey, but she either missed the reference or just wasn’t taking me up on it. Anyway, did I dream she performed ‘All Through the Night’, either in English or Welsh (‘Ar Hyd Y Nos’), on Later with Jools some years ago? Because I can’t seem to find a link now.

“Good God, I don’t remember.”

I know you did that on the Tir album.

“Yes, I love that song. We did a similar song called ‘Nothing Hurts’.”

I remember it well. Not sure that’s what I’m thinking of though.  

“But some bells are ringing in my mind, so you could very well be right. I love Jools Holland as well.”

I’m trying to recall if it was you solo on a night when maybe Tom Jones was on as well, or if it was with Catatonia.

“Or did I do it with John Cale? I can’t remember! You forget about all the things you’ve done, don’t you.”

I’ve since discovered Cerys playing with Cale on his gorgeous ‘I Keep a Close Watch’ with Catatonia for documentary Beautiful Mistake/Camgymeriad Gwych, filmed in 2000, the Garnant-born Velvets legend’s guests also including Super Furry Animals, Manic Street Preachers, and afore-mentioned Gorky’s and Big Leaves, filmed at the Coal Exchange, Cardiff (a few extra background notes culled from David Owens, author of Cerys, Catatonia and the Rise of Welsh Pop (Ebury Press, 2000), as previously mentioned on these pages.

I’m also reminded from searching online that Catatonia played Later with Jools in November ’96, April ’98 and April ’99, plus Jools’ Hootenanny in December ’99, when Tom Jones was also on and they did ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’. ‘Nothing Hurts’ also featured that night, but I can’t find footage now. Maybe it was just a snatch of ‘All Through the Night’. Or perhaps the late-night Baileys had got to me as we lurched into a new millennium.

Anyway, I’ve since seen an interview with Cerys where she adds that was the first song she sang on television, post-Catatonia. And as I put it to her, it’s another that gives a warm feeling.

“Do you know, the best thing is whatever tradition and rituals have started in your family. Songs that come with memory and all of a sudden it doesn’t matter what songs they are, as long as they become part of your tradition, they have that lovely kind of fuzzy feeling.”

For me that would also Freddie King’s ‘Christmas Tears’, recalling John Peel playing that back in the day.

“Do you know, that should kick you off, asking people for their most wayward Christmas playlist! No holds barred! It would be such an eclectic collection.”

Good call. And where will Christmas 2021 be for you and the family? In London, or back to Wales?

“I’ve got such a tiny house in London that I can’t invite (all) my family, so I’ve actually rented a place just outside and for the first time I’ve been able to invite everyone, so I’m having a massive get-together … especially after these last couple of years.

“And I just want to wish everyone reading this a very merry Christmas!”

Consider it done, Cerys.

For all the latest from Cerys Matthews, including how to catch up on the back-catalogue, head to her website here. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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Stone Foundation / Steve Brookes – Guildford Boileroom

We’ve clearly still got some way to go with this bastard virus, and I’m not likely to go easy on preventative measures as we look for a continued safe return to the joy of live music and all that. But if ever there was an upbeat example of what can be achieved against the odds, there it was last weekend in my hometown.

Having caught The Vapors on my old patch and theirs six weeks earlier, I felt reassured returning from Lancashire to Surrey to a venue clearly taking it seriously, doing what it can to help reduce risks, not least through its door policies.

Safely in, among the clientele this time were a couple of mates from way back who’d previously shared bills with the headliners, The Sha La La’s no doubt taking note of where they could also be if there’s any justice. Darron Robinson and John Piccirillo have been on my radar in various band incarnations since I first caught them play my secondary school 39 years ago, and certainly retain the songcraft, the fire and the inspirational belief that should have seen them make it long ago.

They kept the faith and are still hard at it all these years on, despite not receiving the breaks to reach that next level … yet. But here they were checking out a soulful collective that’s done just that, albeit themselves taking a few years to get there.

Stone Foundation know only too well how much hard graft as well as that modicum of luck is needed to build support to that level. In their case, backing from Paul Weller made an impact, but it’s about more than that, and there’s no doubting how committed these Midlands lads have been in a push for success.

Next year marks their 25th anniversary in this configuration, and they’re celebrating that milestone with a 10th LP, due out in February, another put together with Weller at his Black Barn studio, and from the new numbers teased our way seven miles away at the Boileroom, I’d suggest it’s another winner, this octet having set the bar high in recent years.

But before we got to Stone Foundation, we had a more pared back but no less full-on set first from Steve Brookes, this early days co-founder of The Jam not so far off his old territory, treating us to an array of crafted songs from an impressive back and current solo catalogue. And seeing as I hinted at that thin line between commercial and critical success, here’s an example of what you can achieve without making that big league jump, much of the clientele on this occasion no doubt surprised how many solo albums he was dipping into.

You probably know the tale, told so well in his 1996 memoir Keeping the Flame, taking us back to Steve’s 1972/75 spell alongside Buckler, Foxton and Weller in a four-piece version of Woking’s class heroes. But while there were occasional between-song mentions of influential friends in the music business, this is someone clearly not about namedropping. Camberley-based Steve was here on musical reputation, that impressive lived-in voice and classy guitar picking to the fore as he charmed us every bit as much with his songbook as his laidback, easy chat.

My highlights included the atmospheric ‘A Walk in London’, among the numbers featured from most recent arrival, Tread Gently, which it kicks off, and predecessors Vintage Troubadour and Hoodoo Zoo. If you need to catch up, you’ll find those three LPs and two earlier ones on Spotify. Then you can find him out on the road and shell out on the real deal.

There’s always a danger – as was the case on earlier dates of this tour apparently – that punters will talk all over semi-acoustic performers in support slots (singer-songwriter Pete Williams – whose role as the bass player on Dexys Midnight Runners’ stunning debut, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, secures his place in any hall of fame for me – also featured on this tour), but there were enough taking interest to make it work, the chatter not as jarring as on previous visits. And then the headliners took the spiral staircase down from that cramped dressing room to got to work.

I was among those raising an eyebrow as to how Stone Foundation – who I previously caught at Gorilla in Manchester in November 2019 (with my review here) might fit on this stage, let along have room to groove, but they soon showed how. True, we saw little of drummer Phil Ford and percussion player Rob Newton all night, but like those to the right of the stage who couldn’t spot keyboard player Ian Arnold, we were left in no doubt that they were there.

The same could be said of those closer to the bar who perhaps wondered where the SF brass trio – sax player Anthony Gaylard and trumpet players Dave Boraston and Steve Trigg – were. But I’ve been at this Stoke Fields local enough now to know the best place to get the full effect, and they were a joy to watch as well as hear. I didn’t catch friend of SF, Graham Parker with the Rumour 45 years ago, when it didn’t mean a thing if you didn’t have that swing, but this did the trick nicely. What’s more, even if I hadn’t had a commanding view, I reckon I’d have known they were wearing shades all night.

That leaves the two Neils, co-founders Jones and Sheasby in their element, celebrating the end of a successful tour with a sell-out show, far from home. I bought my ticket way back and must admit part of the compulsion to jump in so quick was in case that fella from Ripley put in an appearance. Needless to say, within a month or so it transpired he was playing Sheffield on the night, but I was more than happy seeing his old bandmate squeeze back on stage in his place, in what really must have been a Jam up there.

Yet while space was at a premium – with Brother Sheas almost rooted to the spot when the support act joined them, having to do his running with his fretboard – Jonesy was giving it plenty of shapes, the elation of getting so far into the tour unscathed apparent.

They came on to the Little Anthony and the Imperials heart-searing 1964 single that perhaps partly informed the title of their forthcoming long player, Outside Looking In, that record represented straight off by a take on Melba Moore-fronted recent single ‘Now That You Want Me Back’, Sheas’ deep bass laying it down for a band all the more polished for time back on the road.

From Street Rituals, the first of their albums to truly reach me, there was ‘Season of Change’, and from my favourite so far, Is Love Enough?, ‘Hold on to Love’ and ‘Freedom Starts!’, before a return to 2017’s ‘Open Your Heart to the World’ then the new LP’s splendid Talking Heads-esque title track, our guests firing on all cylinders.

Everybody, Anyone’s ‘Next Time Around’ certainly impressed, with 2020’s ‘The Light In Us’ keeping the groove going and ‘AF–RI–KA’ taking us even further, Steve Brookes soon back up for ‘Help Me’ from that same record.

‘The Limit of a Man’ couldn’t fail to get shoes shuffling, while ‘Carry the News’ then latest 45 ‘Stylin’ led us to 2015 floor-filler ‘Beverley’ and 2020’s sumptuous ‘Deeper Love’, before a stonking take on ‘Waterfalls’, at a time when we all need a little TLC in our lives.

The finish line in sight, July’s single ‘Echoes of Joy’ and Street Rituals closer ‘Simplify the Situation’ took us to the wire, and there was no way they were going back up that staircase yet, needing little encouragement to stay put and kick straight into the encore with Everyone, Anyone opener ‘Sweet Forgiveness’ and last year’s ‘Changes’. And then came the Saturday night party climax, with plenty of zip on Richie Havens’ ‘Going Back to my Roots’. Back down to earth? Not a chance.

Other highlights? How about when Sheas got all emotional about SF’s love for their in-crowd and its unstinting support, only for a yell of ‘Get on with it’. He took umbrage, asking rather curtly if someone out among us had to be somewhere, until t’other Neil stepped in and pointed out that it was actually his drummer who had spoken, those on-stage acoustics clearly confounding us all. That said, the sound was spot on all night where I was. And aother moment? How about that huge smile on the aforementioned bassist’s boat race late on, after gazing out at a sea of moving bodies stretching right back to where I was by the door, all feeling the love.

Perhaps this is what we’ve missed, being sat at home those previous 18 months. Here’s to far more of it in 2022, all being well. Keeping the flame burning.

For all the latest from Stone Foundation, you can follow them via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and their own website, with pre-order details for the new LP here, and details of upcoming live dates, including a trip to the refurbished Koko in Camden next November, here. And for more on Steve Brookes, you can follow him on Facebook and via his own website, with information about live shows here.

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Turning on, dropping by and tuning in for the Swansea Sound experience – off to the Vale of Glam with Hue Williams

With so many new records in recent months it’s often been a case of ‘out at last’, albums long delayed after 18 or so months of lockdowns and various restrictions. But not the delightful debut LP from the remotely assembled Swansea Sound.

This four-piece (five if we’re talking their live line-up) weren’t so much as a glint in the milkman’s eye back in March 2020, and hadn’t even all met in person before rehearsals for their Preston Pop Fest stage debut in Lancashire three months ago.

While we’re talking anomalies, only my interviewee, Hue Williams, hails from Swansea, and the South Welsh boozer alluded to in the title of Live at The Rum Puncheon was closed down decades ago. Oh, and it’s not a live recording. Apart from that though, pretty much spot on.

You may recall Hue – his stage name spelled ‘as in shade’ to differentiate from the real Huw, the Welsh way, for ‘reasons now lost in the mists of time’, but ‘almost in the indie tradition of people lying about their names because they were all signing on the dole’ – as frontman of John Peel indie-pop favourites The Pooh Sticks, this project starting out at least to some level a tribute of sorts to that West Glam outfit. There’s even a cracking song called ‘The Pooh Sticks’ on the album, Hue’s ‘apparently sincere tribute to one of the great lost indie bands of the 90s. No-one else was going to do it. We have all become own archivists these days. We’ve all become our own covers bands’.

Formed in 1987, around initially until 1995, The Pooh Sticks are seen on Wikipedia as ‘notable for their jangly melodiousness and lyrics gently mocking the indie scene of the time’. But a direction change was underway by the time they recorded their wonderful 1991 US breakthrough LP, The Great White Wonder, a notably guitar-driven classic, their next long player – 1993’s Million Seller – also a big favourite with this scribe.

By late ’87, Hue Pooh was joined – apparently – by old schoolmates Paul (guitar), Alison (bass), Trudi Tangerine (keyboards) and Stephanie (drums) for glorious debut single ‘On Tape’, released on ‘manager/svengali’ Steve Gregory’s Fierce Recordings label. In fact, it seems the latter was the mastermind, writing, arranging and producing their records, designing the cover art and, ahem,‘choreographing their live performances’.

Hue went on to manage The 60 Ft. Dolls, recommended The Stereophonics to the A&R team who signed the band to V2, and advised Catatonia in the early stages of their career, was in Swansea when I called. Did he ever move away?

“Yeah, but I was only up the road, in the Vale of Glamorgan, outside Cardiff. I lived in Cardiff for years, even though I’m a ‘Jack’. And I was in Holland quite a while with The Pooh Sticks. In fact, Steve (Gregory) never came back. He’s been out there 25/30 years.”

I should add that a new transcription system I was road-testing this week reckoned Hue said ‘Available Morgan’ there, a potential Swansea Sound song in the making. As it is though, Hue prefers the ‘Vale of Glam’, which conjures up an image which may well lead to a future guest appearance from Sweet’s North Walian guitarist Andy Scott. I look forward to that.

David Owens, in Cerys, Catatonia and the Rise of Welsh Pop (Ebury Press, 2000), described The Pooh Sticks as ‘a monumental yet affectionate prank on the very mythology of pop music itself, adding that Hue had ‘an encyclopedic knowledge of pop cool and his first-hand experiences of his dad’s successful rock’n’roll career made him hungry to sample the same giddy success’. He also describes my interviewee as ‘a lynchpin of the 90s Welsh music uprising’, more of which later.

The Pooh Sticks have returned in more recent years. Was that ever going to be anything more than a few one-off shows?

“We did quite a few. We got back initially to do one at the Indietracks Festival in 2010, but that was good fun and went really well, and we did quite a few then, the last in 2015, including playing New York and Berlin. There were six of us in that line-up, myself and Amelia the only constants from the old days. There were three different live line-ups for the original Pooh Sticks, Amy doing pretty much all the shows we did on reforming.”

That’s indie icon Amelia Fletcher, who along with partner Rob Pursey is now with Swansea Sound as well as their other musical outlet The Catenary Wires, her music CV going back to fellow indie-pop outfit Talulah Gosh, then Heavenly (also involving Rob) among others. What’s more, Catenary Wires drummer Ian Button is also on board, the four-piece augmented live by Canterbury-based Viennese whirling guitarist Robert Rotifer. That said, they’ve only actually played that one live show so far, 290 miles from their Kentish roots (as opposed to 240 from Swansea) at The Continental in Preston, Lancashire.

They took their name from a local radio station, even using its abandoned logo, telling us, ‘Something modern, acidic and angry has taken up residence in a familiar, borrowed frame, just as it has in these indie-punk pop songs’. They add, ‘You can throw yourself around to Swansea Sound like it’s 1986, but if you catch the lyrics, you’ll remember you’re in 2021. Sorry about that.’

Available space (as opposed to Available Morgan) on the internet challanges me in adding a full review here (your coffee breaks are only so long, after all), but the LP – its sleeve designed by Catrin Saran James – should brighten any day. From stonking starting point ‘Rock’n’Roll Void’ (‘a two-minute revision session to make sure you haven’t forgotten The Kinks, Ramones and the brief explosion of noise pollution that was C86 pop’) and the qirky punk of ‘I Sold My Soul on eBay’ (also two minutes long, it ‘savages the corporate piracy of our digital present, where anyone can earn plenty of ‘likes’, but no-one gets paid any money’, released as a one-off lathe cut 7” single that got auctioned on eBay, with a £400 winning bid), with its own in-built tribute to ‘Teenage Kicks’, I’m hooked, next offering ‘I’m OK When You’re Around’ a gloriously heartfelt love song with cross-continent fascist butt-kicking sentiments, dedicated ‘to all the people Swansea Sound would like to meet in the future – people they’ve fallen in love with in digital chatrooms: new allies all over the world who are standing up to the digital giants and the shit-stirring racist trolls everyone’s forced to share the internet with’).

Then comes ‘The Pooh Sticks’ (‘At Reading Festival, they were the best of all indie bands – no word of a lie’) and some sound advice in matters of love on ‘Let It Happen’, before ‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’ (‘pure pop throwaway fun. The other songs are catchy too, they just happen to express a sickness and a contempt for the state of things’) brings the first side to an edgily quirky, smile-inducing break.

Turning over, pensive, dreamy opener ‘Pasadena’ adds a little remote wanderlust for our border-closed times, while past single Indies Of The World (one of four tracks previously released as short-run singles,in this case a 7” single/cassette, briefly hitting the UK physical top-10 before selling out) has a chorus to marvel at and get a little dewy-eyed at, while cassette-only single, Corporate Indie Band tells a spot-on tale in fine style of ‘a group who mortgage their creativity to a major label and sell their identities to an online marketing team of public schoolboys’. The world needs more of this, and fast.

‘Freedom of Speech’ also impresses, backing vocals provided by queer indie punk band The Crystal Furs, from Portland, Oregon, on a Talking Heads-like look at three contemporary ‘alternative’ music stars, considering ‘how they’ve responded to Black Lives Matter, the pandemic and the rise of right-wing populism’, concluding ‘like self-serving arseholes’, the band adding, ‘you won’t struggle to work out who the three alternative stars are’. And then we have the Buzzcocksy ‘Angry Girl’, the song that marked the beginning of this winning project for our Hue, and another where the band ‘search for hope’.

Then comes the sign-off, all too soon, the band’s title song, ‘Swansea Sound’ (previously released as a limited-edition cassette/mini-CD on September 1st, a year to the day the radio station of the same name was re-branded by its new corporate owners and its old name became available), ‘a requiem for that lost radio station – a DJ describing his final day at work before his show is ‘rationalised’ – but it’s also a wider protest about the culturally stultifying effect of corporatisation’. A wondrous finale.

But let’s rewind that tape a bit, heading off to those Pooh Sticks days of yore again. I was going to say, ‘days of Yorath’, but as former Wales, Leeds, Coventry and Spurs star Terry is a Cardiff man, I best not.

“It was always me and Steve (Gregory), but in terms of the live thing, he never played live with us. The last shows we did first time around were in Japan, at the end of ’93, and I was still in my 20s. So I was quite young when we stopped and never really had any interest in doing it again. I worked in the music biz for a long time, leaving all that of my own accord around 2008. I did various things after that. The music business had become my job, which was horrible really. I literally couldn’t afford for music to be my hobby. But then I realised music was – and is – my hobby. At that point, I’d had offers to do Pooh Sticks shows, so looked into that and we ended up doing around a dozen or 15 shows.”

I saw the early Pooh Sticks as an indie rebirth of the TV Personalities’ late ’70s days – ‘On Tape’ kind of an ’80s take on ‘Part-Time Punks’ – but in time they became something else. By The Great White Wonder and Million Seller albums – including some of the greatest songs ever sung by anyone, you could say – they were somewhere between The Byrds, Camper Van Beethoven, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Jonathan Richman, Lou Reed, Teenage Fanclub and Weezer. You’d successfully reinvented yourselves, Hue.

“I think you’re right about the TV Personalities thing. When we did the first shows with The Pastels and The Vaselines, Steven Pastel was going on about The Television Personalities. It wasn’t a conscious thing though. There was also this thing of, you know, ‘the ironic Pooh Sticks’, but we liked that C86 scene as much as we were sneering about it. It was a slight love/hate thing, but we liked a lot of it. And without sounding pompous, the positive thing is that it was inclusive enough to let a pair of oiks like us kind of enter the territory. And it’s completely true that the whole idea at the beginning was that we never ever thought all these years later we’d still be talking about it.

“Again without sounding pompous, it was a project in the sense that we were never trying to fool anyone. We were never a band in that we wanted to do a few demo tapes and send them out to labels. We thought it would be fun and funny to make a record, which we did, then created quite quickly this fucking monster we couldn’t control!”

If there was a joke, it was a good one, and John Peel definitely got it. And I’m thinking you were laughing with the indie scene rather at it.

“I think so. John Peel was important to almost everyone who ever existed in the independent world. I think we would have sent it to Peel and he’d have played it anyway, but the first person to pick up on us and write about us very heavily was James Brown, this kid at the NME who’d literally just started there.

“I was 21 or something and he might have been even younger, this fanzine kid. We met him and he said, ‘I really want to write about you, because I’m bored of writing about The Housemartins’. He wrote a little review, one of those ‘On’ pieces, then a two-page feature, and it was totally daft really, but he picked up on some of my one-liners and general vibe and was very important in going along with our ridiculous ideas. And of course, Peel played us, we got a session early on, and all that.

“As for Million Seller and how it got to that, even with something as scratchy as ‘On Tape’, the song was there, and it’s a solid good song. We were always fans of pop music, and there was that transition between that and the Orgasm live album, which was obviously fun as well, Formula One Generation, which is not a bad record – that was the stepping-stone to wanting to do more song-based stuff. And Great White Wonder was the first we did with live drums, and it’s still quite a free-wheeling record but that’s the one that took us on to Million Seller, because we did that terrible thing of signing to a major label!”

I can listen to that now and think you weren’t a million miles from Super Furry Animals, but they would enjoy more success. Were you just victims of timing as the music industry went down the Brit Pop path?

“Well, people say we’re one of those sort of underachieving indie bands, and I completely disagree – we’re the most overachieving band you can imagine! We never thought we’d be around two minutes, let alone three decades, and apart from maybe the initial thing, we were always very wrong place at the wrong time.

“But everything we did, we knew what we were doing. With Great White Wonder, up until that point, we were still making records with our own money for ourselves, putting them out on Fierce Recordings, our label, through Rough Trade distribution. We then made Great White Wonder in Holland for more expense than we’d previously done and got test pressings, but then Rough Trade distribution went bust.”

The afore-mentioned David Owens called The Great White Wonder ‘their masterpiece, a collection of sunkissed bubblegum pop songs built in tightly around other people’s ideas’. What’s more, legendary animators Hanna-Barbera agreed to immortalise them as cartoon characters, the band playing live with their cardboard cutouts on stage. And need I add anything about the 15-minute TFC-dripping, guitar-soaked Neil Young-esque marvel that is ‘I’m in You’? And yet, as Owens put it, that album ‘stiffed as rigidly as those cardboard cutouts’. He added, ‘The UK was still suffering a hangover after the baggy excess of Madchester, and The Pooh Sticks’ American flavours were just not to the taste of the general public’.

On the subject of Million Seller, he added, ‘Despite it’s cheeky title it was anything but a unit shifter. It was though yet another wondrously iridescent album, brim full of giddy bubblegum pop and sunny psychedelia. It included the one-minute 48-second histrionic sugar rush of ‘The World is Turning On’, which, released as a single, propelled the band to the hitherto untold heights of daytime Radio 1 play. Its eventual chart placing typified much of The Pooh Sticks story – it stalled at 41′. As for final LP, 1995’s Optimistic Fool, on cult US label Seed, that ‘only heightened the band’s seeming ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time’.

“It’s kind of boring business stuff, but when I look back, it was quite important – there was massive fallout from all the big indie labels going through it, and a pecking order in terms of most labels getting sorted quicker than us. We didn’t get paid and were owed about £6,000, a lot of money. And we didn’t have money to then release or press the record or have a distribution deal. So instead of waiting around, we went to our mates, Nick (Allport) and Vinita at Cheree Records, who’d previously done a flexi with us, and did it with them. And even though it was an independent label, they had backers, pluggers and press people, whereas we would send one to Peel, then do fuck all with it!

“It was a good record, even if I say so myself. And because there was a little team around it, it did really well, we did some shows, and were offered a major deal. We’d been offered major deals before but never wanted to do it, but this time thought it’d be interesting. We wanted to make an expansive pop record, and that was the means to do it. I learned a lot too, because we signed with BMG in North America, so when it came out in England, we were literally part of RCA’s international department. And this was in the days when if you were in an indie band, when you signed to a major that was the end of it – you had to make that breakthrough or lose your audience … and that’s pretty much what happened.”

Was the band ever a full-time concern for you?

“It wasn’t up until we signed to a major, but I think Steve left his day-job, and he’s a few years older than me. I was a sports instructor, working in an athletic stadium as a tennis coach. I was in Swansea, then we made three records in Holland, and for the second, Million Seller, I’d left my job at that point. We made that record in Utrecht, doing bits in Haarlem, near Amsterdam, and finished it in New York in RPM Studio.

“We made another record after that, when we were signed to Atlantic Records, and I don’t regret making that, but we didn’t have the financial means to make it the way it probably needed to be made. It was very cheaply recorded, although some of it was good. And that was it. At that point, I didn’t have a proper job, I was working in music and managing groups and doing various things, and did that for a long, long time.”

Remind me who you were working with back then.

“The one everyone knows about was Catatonia, but I did various things, working as an A&R guy in publishing for Sony Music, involved with them all the way from the beginning. I also had my own music publishing company, Townhill, funded by Sony, with groups signed to that company like Murry the Hump on Too Pure Records, still around as The Keys, and a band called Mo-Ho-Bish-O-Pi. They were on V2, did an album with Don Fleming producing (who did Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque), a really good record. And there was a band called Big Leaves, really popular in Wales.”

Ah, yes, Mo-Ho-Bish-O-Pi, described by the NME as being ‘as eclectic as their name is confusing’. As for Big Leaves, they supported Catatonia at their Home Internationals show in Llangollen in May 1999, a cracking occasion for this scribe (also mentioned in this recent feature/interview with Iain Templeton). And a great band.

“Yes, I did lots of stuff with Catatonia, and Osian Gwynedd (from the band) played piano on International Velvet, Equally Cursed and Blessed and most of the Furrys records – he knew how to twiddle a knob and make a good noise. He’s in Gruff Rhys’ group now. Paul Adams, the main guy at Polydor, was all over them. I think on the surface they were seen as another Brit Pop group, but they were extremely talented. The guitar player was amazing – Meilir (Gwynedd), Osian’s brother – and they were tight, this bunch of kids from this little village in the foothills of Snowdon.”

I later caught up on their records and the band the brothers formed next, Sibrydion.

“Yeah, and pretty much most of the group is The Peth, the band Rhys Ifans was in … having originally been the singer in the Super Furrys, when Gruff was finishing his studies in Barcelona. I haven’t got it anymore, unfortunately, but had a Super Furry Animals demo tape, the first I heard of them, that he’s on. It almost sounds like the Spaceman 3 or The Teardrops. Now long gone unfortunately.”

That could have been your pension plan.

“Possibly, yeah.”

As for Big Leaves …

“I saw them do their own show in a marquee in North Wales somewhere with 1,000 kids in, going absolutely nuts. Like watching The Stone Roses. They then started doing English language stuff and a song called ‘Racing Birds’ was single of the week on Mark and Lard’s show on Radio 1. But it didn’t quite happen, they were the sort of band who probably did need a major label, and didn’t quite get there. And the other group I managed all the way through was 60 Ft. Dolls.

“Of all the things I was doing, that was probably more my day-job than anything. I managed them from around ’94 until just before they got dropped. They had a couple of proper hits and were signed to Geffen in the States.

“I then left about 2008, a casualty of that kind of being an old guy who couldn’t really make that transition into digital stuff. I took myself out of it and for a couple of years did a film and music festival in Cardiff, Soundtrack, curated with my friend Mark Cousins, a documentary filmmaker who presented Scene by Scene on BBC Two, and that show Alex Cox started (Videodrome). He’s still a filmmaker, and the brightest, brainiest guy I know.

“And from there I’ve morphed into working in regeneration, in Swansea. I work for a housing association, looking after knackered commercial properties, doing a lot with art galleries, theatre companies, tech spaces … cultural regeneration. Yeah, I’ve become a wage slave finally, in my 50s!”

But then came a call from old pal Rob Pursey, saying, ‘I’ve written a song, but it sounds a bit too much like The Pooh Sticks’, right?

“It was a bit like that. Yeah, a reconnect. I hadn’t seen Amelia for quite a while until I bumped into her in the Science Museum in London, 2009, kids all around us, then went to see her group, Tender Trap, a couple of times, thinking if Amelia agrees I could put a new line-up together for The Pooh Sticks. And that’s what happened.

“I knew Rob from back in the day with Heavenly, less so than Amelia but I’ve got to know him more in recent years, and he threatened me with this song right in the early weeks of the initial lockdown, which was of course extremely strange for everyone and I was living in a village on my own, pretty much. He sent me this song and I was like, ‘How am I going to do this? I haven’t got any recording stuff’. He said, ‘Just sing into your phone’.

“I did that one in the kitchen on my knee, barking into my phone thinking, ‘Fuck, this isn’t gonna work’. But I sent the files and it came back as ‘Angry Girl’ and Rob was like, ‘Okay, this is actually going to work’. Then I did most of the vocals in a cupboard in my son’s bedroom. And look, I’m no singer. Never been a singer. I’m a frontman. But pretty much all the vocals are one take.”

The fact that you chose a cupboard in your son’s bedroom (Hue’s children are now 21 and 15) suggests to me it wasn’t the first cupboard you tried.

“Well, it kind of was. And it was the best one. The airing cupboard would have been a bit too warm, I think.”

According to their press, Swansea Sound came into being during lockdown and decided ‘fast, loud, political indie-pop punk was the answer to being stuck indoors’, adding ‘who needs introspection?’. Is that how Hue sees this project?

“I think so. It started with ‘Angry Girl’ and ‘I Sold My Soul on eBay’, that kind of anti-corporate approach coming into focus quite quickly, and ‘Indies of the World’ might have been when I found the cupboard. As I said, I’m no singer, but I realised I was gonna have to work here to actually sing a decent vocal. And as with the best projects, if we want to call it that, we found our schtick of what it was gonna be.

“The name was important as well. For a while, maybe Amy and Rob thought it could or would be The Pooh Sticks, but I couldn’t see that. We were bandying names around, and at one point calling it Sympathy for The Pooh Sticks. We had lists of names, getting to the point where we really needed one, and Swansea Sound was this radio station here, the second-ever commercial station in the UK, after Capital Radio. But Bauer, the big German media corporation took it over in 2020, killed it and killed that brand, turned it into Greatest Hits Radio South Wales. So I suggested Swansea Sound. I think at first they didn’t quite understand it, but there’s that connection because it’s Swansea and Steve (Gregory) was the only decent DJ they ever had. He did this new music show, a very obscure Saturday night thing.

“And they soon bought into the fact that this was about the death of hyper-local stuff, like newspapers and all that. As Rob put it, when Swansea Sound was killed, we sort of took it over. We even have the retro logo, which we’ve kind of inhabited.”

All well and (very) good, but with that name you’re unlikely to build much of a groundswell of support in, for example, Cardiff?

“Frankly, I don’t care! I understand it can be a bit confusing. Even more confusing now I’ve moved back, as all my vocals were – as it says on the sleeve – recorded in the Vale of Glam. I think people might just think it’s some kind of stupid made-up name, but I lived in the Vale of Glamorgan. That said, the rest of the group are in Kent, the live band four-fifths Kent-based.”

I did suggest because of the band link to Rolvenden Layne in Kent that maybe you should be Swansea Layne, perfect if the band take a more psychedelic path from here.

“Yeah, I suppose it depends if Swansea Sound becomes a monster like The Pooh Sticks did, and we’re doing this for the next five or 10 years. Or maybe this is it, and it won’t work with me behind a microphone in a proper studio.

“It’s the same with when we then coming up with the album title, although it’s not a live record. The Rum Puncheon was this extremely dodgy pub on the council estate I grew up on, so by default it becomes this sort of conceptual thing. But when you come up with an album title, it needs to sound like an album title, and first time we heard Gideon Coe say, ‘live at the Rum Puncheon’, he said it with relish.

“And yeah, of course there’s (The Fall’s) Live at the Witch Trials, and Misty in Roots’ Live at the Counter-Eurovision is another album I really like and always thought was a cool title.”

In my Captains Log fanzine days, I wrote about this garage band – my band Captains Don’t Play Chess, named after a line from a Marx Brothers film – that rarely got out of the garage, and one of our guitarists, Stephe, always listed that Misty in Roots LP among his favourite albums. And talking of fanzines, one I once swapped copies with was a German publication that took its name from an early Pooh Sticks line, Anorak! Can I Just Say Sweatshirt?

“Ah, yeah, I think I’ve seen that.”

Which brings me on to your popularity overseas, and your healthy European fanbase.

“Yeah, although, weirdly, apart from that show we did in Berlin a few years ago, we never played in Europe first time around, although we played in the States and in Japan. I suppose one of the reasons was that until we signed to BMG, we hardly ever played any shows. But when we were on that major label treadmill hell, there was an obligation to play live more. We did play in the UK for quite a while though. And from an early point, putting our first records out, like a lot of groups we had a PO Box and people would send us handwritten letters, and got a lot in particular from Germany.”

Any memories jump out from the John Peel sessions you did in April ’88 and April ’89? The first at least must have marked a defining moment.

“Yeah, because going into the first Peel session, we’d recorded at home, put that on tape, the only thing we’d done, then John Walters called, asking, ‘Do you want to do a session?’. We’d also recorded ‘Alan McGee’ by then, but that must have been pretty much it, so we were like, ‘What the f*** are we going to do?’.

“We’d seen Tallulah Gosh play in December and they’d just split. We didn’t really know Amelia, but got her number from somewhere, and her first response was, ‘Are you the band who take the piss out of indie?’, and we were like, ‘Well, sort of …’. But she still turned up and sang with us.

“I’d never been in a studio, having probably only recorded two or three songs at that point, and that would have been in the basement of Fierce HQ in downtown Swansea. So to be in that environment where … it wasn’t intimidating but I would have been nervous, as I wasn’t that confident of my abilities. And Dale Griffin was the producer, from Mott the Hoople!

“At one point he asked me to double-track my vocal. I knew what double-tracking was, but Steve lent over to him and said, ‘There’s no point him doing that – that’s as good as it gets’. Which is not the concept of double-tracking, which is to make it sound meatier, but at this point Dale Griffin – he was in a dark suit and tie, and on reflection maybe he’d been to a funeral, his mood was funeral-like anyway – turned to Steve, and said, ‘I am aware of the parameters of perfection’. That was one of our Spinal Tap moments, one we refer to all the time. The Parameters of Perfection, there’s a group name for you!”

Bringing things back to Swansea Sound, drummer Ian Button not only plays with The Catenary Wires, but also former Loft and Weather Prophets frontman Pete Astor and veteran singer-songwriter Wreckless Eric. But is that right the build-up to Preston Pop Fest marked the first time you met?

“Yeah, but we did a rehearsal in July to see if this was going to work, and it was really good, then we did another day before Preston, then drove up. And for the live stuff we’ve also got Rob Rotifer. Rob Pursey plays all the guitars on the record, but live he plays bass, so we need a guitar player and Robert’s an Austrian based in the UK, making his own records, playing with Helen McCookerybook’s band and doing lots with Darren Hayman from Hefner. I think he’s done stuff with Robert Forster too.

“We’re not going to be the most well-rehearsed, well-oiled group, but that lot are so good, it’s just a case of how much mayhem I can cause by being under-rehearsed!”

It was badly timed on my part. I made it to all three evenings at that festival, but when I turned up to see you on Sunday – convinced the running order would be all to pot – I walked around the corner and saw you all carrying instruments out. And it’s barely seven miles from home.

“And we’d come all the way from Kent! In fact, I came from Wales to Kent, then all the way to Preston! But it was really good, and I think it worked. There were contemporary groups playing as well, but those things can be a bit of a nostalgia fest or you’re watching groups who haven’t done anything for a long time, whereas this was weird because even though some of it is Pooh Sticks-like, it was all new songs. And halfway through, I was thinking I’ve never ever been in a band playing new material before. Some people knew some of the songs, but we were pretty much playing new material to people who didn’t know it.

“The Pooh Sticks weren’t a traditional band in that the first show we ever did was with The Pastels and The Vaselines at ULU (University of London Union of Students) in London to around 800 people! So I’ve been spoiled. I’ve played shows where there haven’t been so many people there, but generally haven’t been in that position of most new bands.

“But I really enjoyed that first Swansea Sound show, and we’re looking forward to the next ones. We’re doing one at the Rough Trade East shop in Brick Lane, London, then this mini-tour in February and March, including one in Manchester on my birthday.”

Go on then, how old will you be then?

“Do you want my stage or real age? My stage birthday … well, I was born on the same day as Jamie (Roberts) from The Sea Urchins. He’ll be 54, I think. Actually, I’ll be 57, which is kind of amazing really – life accelerating and all that.”

Swansea Sound release debut album, Live at the Rum Puncheon, on Friday, November 19th, on vinyl LP, CD, cassette and digitally, via Skep Wax (vinyl, CD, and digitally via Bandcamp) and Lavender Sweep (cassette); in North America by HHBTM (vinyl, CD) and Austin Town Hall (cassette); and in Indonesia by Shiny Happy Records (cassette). The album is not available to stream. For more details, including details of 2022 shows at Zed Alley, Bristol (Friday, February 4th; Hope & Anchor, Islington (Saturday, February 19th); and The Tallyrand, Manchester (Friday, March 4th), check out Swansea Sound’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages.

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