Symptomatic for the People – researching The Common Cold with Ajay Saggar

Cold Remedies: The Common Cold, kraut-rocking up and down your way this May

While his working hours are spent at renowned Amsterdam concert venue The Paradiso, producer, sound engineer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ajay Saggar remains proud of his Lancashire past, 30-plus years after his introduction to the North West indie scene while promoting gigs as a Lancaster University student.

Ajay soon became a key player on the Preston front, proving integral to John Peel favourites Dandelion Adventure, alongside Marcus Parnell, the band’s vocalist known back then as ‘Fat Mark’ (he’s not, by the way).

That spell kick-started a busy alternative career in underground music for Ajay, ultimately taking him to the Netherlands. But he was never above returning to the area where he made his name, and in October 2016 was back on stage with Marcus for the first time in three decades at The Continental in Preston, alongside former Cornershop drummer Dave Chambers, performing as The Common Cold.

They weren’t to be sneezed at that night, putting in a determined, fuelled set in the snug, letting rip on two extended kraut-rock jams as part of Tuff Life Boogie’s John Peel festival tribute, UnPeeled. While I thought at the time that might just have been a brief trip down memory lane, it appears that the project secretly moved forward from there. And now they have an LP coming, released via the esteemed team at Church Street’s legendary Action Records, whose past releases have not only incuded Dandelion Adventure, but also The Boo Radleys, Fi-Lo Radio, The Fall, and even a solo venture featuring the latter’s legendary frontman, Ajay’s recently-departed hero and close friend, Mark E. Smith.

It’s a winner too, with Shut Up! Yo Liberals! out on Friday, May 4th, The Common Cold set to play 10 shows on 10 nights to promote it, the original trio joined by second drummer Scrub (Roland Jones, formerly with Preston’s Big Red Bus) and teenage bass player Jack Harkins (who also features with Ludovico). And it’s fair to say Ajay’s excited about the prospect, as I found out first-hand when I caught him during a brief break from his day-job earlier this week. Any big-name visitors at the Paradiso at present?

“Oh, it’s never ending! We’re celebrating our 50th year as a venue and next week marks the official anniversary, with a whole bunch of stuff lined up, and the roll-call of who’s coming through is amazing – 365 days a year of huge acts, small acts, and everything in between.”

In other words, check the website and find out for yourself. But he still manages the occasional return trip to Preston.

“Last time was recording for The Common Cold, to record Marcus’ vocals at the end of last summer. We did those two shows at the Conti …”

Low-slung Bass: Ajay Saggar wigs out at the Lady Owen Arms with Dandelion Adventure in 1990 (Photo: Greg Neate)

In my review of the first of those, the UnPeeled gig in 2016 (with a link here), I suggested they were ‘deliciously under-rehearsed,’ and noted the look of fear on Ajay’s face when the crowd requested ‘more!’ But as it worked out, that wasn’t to be the end of the story.

“I just felt from there we needed to take it a notch up and do something decent with it. Marcus was super-enthusiastic about it, so I wrote all the music and got the personnel together to play on it. The two-drummer thing was really important, and I’ve always loved that idea of having that powerhouse behind it.

“Scrub was up for it, and I asked Dave Chambers, but he was away the weekend we were recording. I also asked David (Blackwell) from The Lovely Eggs, and he was up for it, but had been ill and then had to start practising for their album sessions, so Daren Garratt (from Birmingham, ex-The Nightingales and The Fall) helped us. I wrote all the bass parts with programmed drums, visited Preston last Spring and we worked our asses off in a rehearsal room.”

They’ll be back in Preston for the last night of the tour, at The Ferret on Fylde Road this time. There’s a Lancaster link too, I see, visiting his old roots there, playing The Yorkshire House.

“Yeah, I felt it was important to do as many Lancashire shows as possible (they also play Darwen and Salford). The whole idea of getting this up and running for me was to play in an all-English band again, based around my musical roots – where I first played in a band and went to see so many other bands.”

You mention recording the bass parts, and I can hear your own identity coming through on tracks like the slow-building Napoleon’s Index Finger on the album – not least with that driving bass guitar.

“That was really important, especially with two drummers. It had to really fucking drive forward! It’s basically a Paul Hanley, Steve Hanley, Karl Burns kind of axis, which was so inspiring with The Fall back in the day. I don’t want to copy or recreate that, I want to do our own thing. But it’s important all the same. It’s the driving force of your life really, constantly discovering new things.

“You can’t get sucked into that morass of constantly putting out the same kind of thing. I can get bored really easily. If I’m not challenging myself and being creative, you get on to that circuit of where it comes too easy and you’re doing it by numbers. I don’t want that. I’ve never wanted that.”

Well, that’s something he can’t be accused of. Take a look, for example, at Ajay’s last three musical projects – The Common Cold, Deutsche Ashram and King Champion Sounds – all suggesting he’s keeping it fresh – with major scope between those projects.

“Well, there is a common thread. You’ll never get away from that, but I like to keep things fresh and that’s always been the case for myself.”

Last time we spoke, 18 months ago (with a link here), he mentioned his friendship with Marcus being borne out of a love of The Membranes. But there was another band they had in common – The Fall. And he became good friends with Mark E. Smith over time.

Hip Priests: Ajay Saggar with Mark E. Smith in 2013

“The Fall were the band that made me listen to music differently and really made me appreciate how the highest art form there was within the whole spectrum of art, and how it appeals to people all over the world in different ways. It ignites you and makes you excited. The Fall took that element of making music to a heightened level, with that combination of Mark’s poetic view of the world around him and his way of expressing that and keeping you on your toes when you listen.

“Then there were the musicians who stood the challenge of presenting Mark with a musical palette that would not only be a perfect foil to his voice and his lyrics but also keep the momentum going for the listener – keeping them challenged in what they were hearing. With that combination, you didn’t know what had hit your ears. This was music from a different planet, so fantastic.

“The thing with listening to Fall records, you think you know an album inside out, but every time I play Hex Enduction Hour or Grotesque, or whatever, from 20 or 30-plus years ago, I still hear new things, which is the greatest compliment you could pay to any band or musician.”

I mention at this point how so many people had different entry points for The Fall, and while, admittedly, I didn’t really get them at first, I went back and properly ‘discovered’ them via the period between The Frenz Experiment and Code: Selfish, despite that period not being seen among their finest moments in some circles.

“Well, that’s fantastic, and a great approach. Mark challenged himself and his group into where they were going with the whole thing. They never became lazy, because he wouldn’t let them. If they did, he’d kick their asses, keeping it fresh for himself and them.”

As he famously said, it could be him and your Granny playing bongos on there, and the group would still be The Fall.

“That’s it. And he’s probably with her right now, playing way up there. And that element of keeping things fresh is something that rubbed off on me. That ethic of keeping yourself challenged and on edge. If you think things are becoming too safe and you may be on to a winning formula, just break away and go in the opposite direction.”

At that point we wander off on to The Clash, and I mention how I could see that same ethos there, with the way they initially looked to a ‘year zero’ approach, however much they loved various past genres.

“Joe Strummer definitely had that going on. Whether it was their roots in West London, vibing off the dub and reggae scene or going to New York and vibing off the hip-hop and critical beats going down there, they had their ears to the ground and knew a good thing when it happened, realising the power of music in its different forms.

Action Painting: Preston’s Mecca for music lovers caught on canvas by Alastair Price

“They brought elements of all that into their own music, but essentially it’s Clash music. You hear it and know it’s The Clash – Strummer’s voice, Jones’ guitar, Simonon’s bass, and Headon’s brilliant drumming. It’s Clash music but with elements of all those things going on around them which they brought in. And as long as you then use that to enhance your own music, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

On to the Action Records link, and Ajay and the Lancashire store’s owner Gordon Gibson go back a long way. He mentions the importance of a Preston vibe with this new venture. Was it key to have Action involved, putting out the record via them?

“Absolutely, and Marcus goes back even longer with Gordon than I do, while Dave Chambers worked in Action. That was important, and I wanted to keep the whole project in Lancashire. It’s a Lancashire band, with Northern roots and with a Northern sound.

“It would have been easy to ask other labels to do it. There were chances of doing that. But I’ve known Gordon for eons and totally trust him, and in this day and age that’s something you need. He’s just somebody I can phone up or drop an email to ask advice on or help.  He’s really honest and he’s really on it, which is why Mark E. Smith liked him too.”

As for the album itself, I was only three listens in at time of going to press, but already loving it, not least early stand-outs like The London Look, Stop the Traffic, and Half-Nelson Headlock, for which you’ll find promo video film links online, the afore-mentioned Napoloeon’s Index Finger, and the LP’s powerful closing statements, Pretty Julie and Body Language, the latter a mighty showcase for Marcus’ evocative poetic imagery. There’s definitely a Fall feel in places, plus all the frenetic energy characterising the early Happy Mondays and more recently Sleaford Mods, and plenty of that great sonic barrage King Champion Sounds provide. But don’t take my word for it. Find out for yourself.

So what’s the overriding message of Shut Up! Yo Liberals! then, Ajay?

“It’s definitely a call to arms, and I think it’s one of the best albums that will come out of the UK this year … and it’s coming out of the North! And the brilliant thing about working with Marcus again is that I think he’s one of the best lyricists in the UK. His knowledge of pop culture as such is enormous. In his viewpoint of a lot of things, he’s a man of the world and understands how things work and the difference between good and bad and right and wrong, and he’s not afraid to state things, with a fantastic poetic way of expressing things.”

But you best be quick, because there are only 300 copies of the vinyl, the first 100 copies including a hand-painted inner sleeve, a free badge, and other goodies via this link.

“Yeah, I said, ‘Look, let’s just make it, get it out, we’ll do a tour, then we’ll follow it up with something else in due course. The ideas are always there. This is our calling card, saying we’re on the map, we’re here, we’ve got something to offer, it’s bloody, bloody good – take it while you’ve got the chance! Then we’ll just move on.

“Art is not something that needs to be held on to for dear life. It’s always in flux. Things move and change. That’s the beauty of it, and we’re just a small element of that changing process. This is our contribution … for now, for this moment, for this instant! We’re saying, ‘Here it is, take it, immerse yourself in it, enjoy it, love it, get energy from it, and then we’ll move on. And that’s how we’re going to do the show. It’s going to be 10 shows in 10 days.”

Young in spirit as he and his band clearly all are – as suggested in that inspirational message – they’re all of a certain age, shall we say … except teenage bass player Jack Harkins, that is.

“Jack is a massive Stranglers fan, and when I heard that, I just said, ‘Just get him, bloody get him!”

Was that the idea of hiring someone who understands former writewyattuk interviewee Jean-Jacques Burnel‘s playing?

“That’s it. The bass sound I’ve always gone for has been Jean-Jacques Burnel crossed with Steve Hanley. The first single I ever bought was No More Heroes, the first album I got was Black and White, and the first band I ever saw was The Stranglers at Bridlington Spa on that tour.

“I started playing bass because of JJ – that gnarly growl I got from him, something Steve Hanley has as well. The only instructions were to learn the bass parts and make sure you get that Jean-Jacques Burnel sound. And Jack gets that. In fact, he still follows the band around the country.”

At this point, I tell Ajay about my own Stranglers link, involving the Scout Hut in my home village in rural Surrey where they practised in the early days. But we won’t go into all that again (try this link from five years ago for size).

It’s been a year since I last saw Ajay live, performing at the Conti in Preston with Amsterdam-based outfit King Champion Sounds, providing a fantastic soundtrack for the Man with a Movie Camera film during an amazing set at the Vernal Equinox festival (with my review here). While this is all going on, are King Champion Sounds on hold?

“No, I’m busting my ass recording a new album, having worked on the bass and drums late last autumn, while Jos (G.W. Sok) recorded his vocals a few weeks ago, I’ve laid down all the guitars and loads of other instruments.”

Walk Away: King Champion Sounds and visions in harmony at the Conti in Preston in March 2017

Working towards an autumn tour perhaps?

“Yeah! I’ve got the horn section coming in a couple of weeks, and the strong section coming in at the end of April. It’s all ticking along.”

How about Deutsche Ashram, your amazing ethereal, dreamy, other-worldly project alongside Dutch vocalist, Merinde Verbeek. What’s she up to right now?

“Erm, she’s downstairs in the coffee shop, working at the moment!”

Ah, great stuff. So will there be a new Deutsche Ashram record soon?

“I don’t know … I’ll have to talk to her about it, see what her vibe is. I have loads of ideas for that as well, but really have to sit down and talk to her about that.”

Sounds like you’ve just got to catch yourself for five minutes. You’ve got so much going on.

“Yeah, but life’s too short to sit around. There’s too much to do!”

Preston’s Finest: The Common Cold, waiting for their tour bus to arrive

The Common Cold UK tour: Thursday, May 10 – Darwen Sunbird Records, Friday, May 11 – Lancaster The Yorkshire House, Saturday, May 12 – Salford The White Hotel, Sunday, May 13 – Newcastle The Cluny 2, Monday, May 14 – Brighton The Hope and Ruin, Tuesday, May 15 – Hastings The Palace, Wednesday, May 16 – London Aces & Eights Saloon Bar, Thursday, May 17 – Leicester The Sound House, Friday, May 18 – Glasgow 02 ABC 2, Saturday, May 19 – Preston The Ferret (tickets are on sale for the latter from Saturday, March 24 via the venue or Action Records, from whom you can also order the album via this link).  


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Continuing Songs of The South – in conversation with Gaz Birtles

Southern Comfort: The 2018 nine-piece line-up of The South

When founder member Dave Hemingway and long-serving keyboard player Damon Butcher called time late last year on live involvement with The South – the band that rose from the ashes of The Beautiful South – discussions followed about what to do next. But it was soon – rather aptly – agreed that the outfit would ‘carry on regardless’.

It’s a contentious issue. Like Trigger’s broom in Only Fools and Horses, when does something that’s more or less had all its parts replaced cease to become what it was initially? Yet Alison Wheeler (as featured on these pages in October 2016, with a link here) has been on board since 2003, and her co-vocalist Gary Birtles – best known as Gaz – started touring with the band in 1989.

When I saw The Beautiful South touring on the back of debut single Song For Whoever at Aldershot Buzz Club in June ‘89 (as recalled in my interview with Dave Hemingway in April 2014, with a link here), they were a five-piece (with not even Briana Corrigan involved, if memory serves me right). By all accounts though, it was the overall reception and sound on that eight-date mini-tour inspired band-leader Paul Heaton to change things around, recruiting five extra members, among them the afore-mentioned Damon and a three-man brass section that included trumpet player Tony Robinson, another co-founder of The South, but also a reecent departure, and sax player Gaz.

“When The Beautiful South started, they had extra brass, keyboards and percussion on the first album but just toured as a six-piece (or a five-piece at first, I reckon). And apparently it went down atrociously. I’ve heard bootlegs, and I’ve heard the band talk about people shouting for Housemartins songs or standing there in silence, out-staring the band, who were getting booed off and were wrecking their gear at the end of the night.”

For me, the gear-trashing did them no favours. The Who had already done that, and The Damned just about got it away with it on The Old Grey Whistle Test. But  … yawn … that time around it just came over as ostentatious.

“Well, talking to the rest of the band, once I’d got to know them better, about that tour, the reason they did that was rebelling against the ‘nice’ indie image of The Housemartins. It was almost trying to do the opposite of what was expected. Right from the beginning, if anyone shouted for a Housemartins song, they’d just down tools and walk off.”

Gaz was back at home in Leicester when I called, after a Sunday show in King’s Lynn, gearing up to play Burnley Mechanics this Saturday (March 17th).

“I’m just glad to be back out there again. And after Burnley it’s three or four shows a weekend. I’d be out every week, given a choice. Sometimes it’s better to give it the full three or four weeks, get into the swing of it. But the reality is that promoters prefer you play weekends, and we’ve all got other things going on.

In Step: Gaz Birtles giving it what for, with former bandmate Tony Robinson to the left (Photo: The South)

“Most of the band are professional musicians – doing lots, from teaching to playing in other bands – but a couple have full-time jobs, having to get holidays booked well in advance.”

One of Gaz’s other roles involves Leicester venue The Donkey, booking bands and taking on sound duties, something he also loves. But he also notes a ‘general lack of enthusiasm for original bands,’ in recent years, adding, ‘It seems to be about tribute and cover bands at most venues’.

Playing devil’s advocate, I ask what right his band – with just two survivors from The Beautiful South – have to be out there playing hits mainly penned by Paul Heaton and David Rotheray.

“There is a genuine feeling that people don’t know what we are. I can understand some opinions that we might be a tribute band. We’re almost a tribute band to ourselves now. What we were to The Beautiful South is always like an off-shoot, not an extension. But mainly it’s about Beautiful South songs.

“I’ve been there since day one, pretty much, and think that lends authenticity. The reality is that people we meet after shows tell us how much they’ve enjoyed it. A lot haven’t seen The South or The Beautiful South before. We provide a night’s entertainment of great songs. And those who saw The Beautiful South come back and still love it.

“The songs are the bottom line, not the personnel. And we stick pretty much to the sound and arrangements The Beautiful South did live.”

The fact that you’re going out as a nine-piece suggests your belief. It can’t just be about making money if you end up having to split it nine times every night.

“Absolutely. If that was the case we could whittle down to a four-piece and add backing tracks, but I don’t think we’ve ever talked about that. There’s no reason to. We’re all in it for the same reason. We’re a band rather than a bunch of session players. We look at ourselves as a proper unit.”

Gaz’s link with The Beautiful South indirectly came through his spell – having been on the dole at that point – guesting as part of a brass section with Leicester band Crazyhead, who he described as ‘a Grebo sort of band’, including a European tour supporting Iggy Pop.

“It was about three weeks later when we got a phone call from The Beautiful South’s manager, saying we’d been recommended as a brass section. We were asked to do a one-off gig in Paris, and that went down well, so we were asked to do a tour. And that was it – we were there from 1989 onwards.”

His involvement in bands goes back to the punk era though.

“That’s how I started really. If it wasn’t for punk rock, I definitely wouldn’t be here. I was working in a warehouse when a couple of mates started a band, asking me to sing, having heard me sing at work. That was Wendy Tunes, one of the first bands of that ilk in Leicester to get signed.

“We started recording an album at The Who’s Ramport Studio, but it never got finished, although we did all the backing tracks. That was short-lived, but I later went on to an electro-pop band and we got signed to Warner Bros.”

That was The Swinging Laurels, who recorded a 1982 BBC Radio 1 session for DJ John Peel and enjoyed some pop-star moments of their own. You can find a few of the recordings they made on Gaz’s Bandcamp page. And how does it stand up now?

“It’s all very ‘80s because of the drum machines and synths, but it’s quite varied … yeah. We carried on for around six years and in that time supported Culture Club in their very early days, doing two tours with them, and on the back of that got to know producer Steve Levine, who produced for us too.”

There was also a link to the Fun Boy Three, formed by ex-Specials trio Terry Hall, Neville Staple and Lynval Golding.

“We had a Tuesday residency in midwinter at the Hope and Anchor, North London, with the NME coming down to the first one and giving us a great review. The venue was getting busier every week. At the last one you couldn’t walk in the place for all the A&R men. We got signed that night to Warner Bros.

“And during that period, the Fun Boy Three’s manager also popped in, looking for a brass section. And as we were flavour of the month, we ended up on The Telephone Always Rings and did Top of the Pops with them. You can see me dancing with a stupid white hat on!”

Swing Commanders: Gaz Birtles with The Swinging Laurels

It turns out though that Gaz – whose two sons have followed him into the music industry, his youngest having recently signed to Island Records with a band called Easy Life – initially got involved in music long before his punk days.

“Me and my best mate worked on the gas board and were both into Roxy Music, and Andy Mackay was a big influence. My mate went out and bought a saxophone for about £20 one day, so I went out a week after and did the same, and we both tried to learn together.”

In recent years Gaz finally had a chance to meet his initial sax inspiration, while guesting for Fun Lovin’ Criminals – having featured on their 2005 album, Livin’ for the City – in Bonn, Germany while they were supporting his old heroes.

“A mate from Leicester was playing drums for them. He was a massive Fun Lovin’ Criminals fan and used to hang around the stage door, ending up joining them and later recommending me.

“Then, a few years later, they went to Bonn to support Roxy Music and my mate invited me over to play sax and get to see them. And at the soundcheck I grabbed Andy and told him what an influence he was on me, getting him to sign my saxophone with a Sharpie.”

Just in case you think Leicester’s all about Kasabian, Engelbert Humperdinck, Family and Showaddywaddy, Gaz told me about the city’s link with Laurel Aitken too, the Jamaican ska pioneer settling there in 1970 with his wife after a spell in London, working as an entertainer in nightclubs and restaurants under his real name, Lorenzo, before a later resurgence on the back of the 2 Tone explosion, including a minor UK hit in 1980 with Rudi Got Married.

Laurel died in his late 70s in 2005, but got to play with several leading lights in the city’s music scene, not least keyboard player Andy Price, Damon Butcher’s replacement in The South, who’s also played alongside blues guitar maestro, Ainsley Lister, Happy Mondays’ Bez, and The Drifters.

And now Gaz has taken on co-vocal duties, sax is being provided by Su Robinson, who previously featured with fellow ska legend Prince Buster, and former Specials bass player Horace Panter’s band the Uptown Ska Collective, while Tony Robinson’s role has been taken on by trumpet player Gareth John, who’s played alongside members of the Happy Mondays, Fun Lovin’ Criminals and The Specials.

Gaz, Alison, and the new trio are augmented on stage by Phil Barton (guitar, and who had a hand in writing seven of the songs on the last LP), Steve Nutter (bass), Dave Anderson (drums), and Karl Brown (percussion). So what, I asked, made Dave Hemingway quit?

“He’d been saying for a couple of years he was physically tired of doing it, and was always a reluctant pop star. He was never at ease, which is stupid really, because he was so brilliant. On a good day he was far better than Paul in lots of respects, very witty on stage, with a voice like an angel, and a lovely bloke, but he was just getting so tired of it.

Vocal Presence: Alison Wheeler, out front with Gaz Birtles in the new line-up of The South (Photo: The South)

“But as people have left the band, I’ve pretty much got replacements in each time – all the A-team players from Leicester, who have played with each other over the years, including the keyboard player who has replaced Damon, who was so crucial to The Beautiful South’s sound. He moved to Dublin at the same time as Dave left, so his replacement, Andy, has a job and a half to do. A bigger job than me really, but he’s doing a great job. So yeah, it’s really like the A-team.”

Which one’s Mr T then?

“Erm … Karl, the percussionist!”

As well as his off-road work at The Donkey, Gaz also helps out at the De Montford Hall and two other Leicester venues, including involvement with the two-day Simon Says music festival. And then there are his other band duties, helping out on the driving front, not least because he classes himself ‘a rubbish passenger,’ co-managing the band, and even designing the last album.

So did he ever sing with the old band?

“Once on stage with The Beautiful South, on my 40th birthday, headlining the Fleadh in Finsbury Park on a song where we needed a third harmony. That was 1995. I’m 62 now, but still feel 40!”

Are you just a touring band now, or is there a new LP to follow 2012’s well-received Sweet Refrains?

“The last one was fantastic and still stands up. We always play tracks from that, see people mouthing the words, and I’m really pleased and proud of that. But this year is about seeing if people will accept me first, and then we’ll see what we can do next year or later this year. And we’ve got new people in like Andy who write songs. We want to, but at the minute we’re just seeing if people will still book us. And the reactions so far have been fantastic.”

Carry On: The South, with a new line-up for Spring 2018, heading your way.

The South’s Spring UK tour started in Yeovil, Milton Keynes and Kings Lynn, and is now heading towards Burnley Mechanics (Sat, March 17, 01282 664400), Fleet The Harlington (Fri March 23, 01252 811009), Porthcawl Grand Theatre (Sat March 24, 01656 815995), Workington Carnegie Theatre (Thu March 29, 01900 602122), Glasgow 02 ABC 2 (Fri March 30, 0141 332 2232), Inverness Ironworks (Sat March 31, 0871 789 4173), Aberdeen His Majesty’s Theatre (Lemon Tree) (Sun April 1, 01224 641122), Manchester Club Academy (Fri April 6, 0161 832 1111), Wrexham William Aston Hall (Sat April 7, 0844 888 9991), Preston Charter Theatre (Sun April 8, 01772 804444),  Buxton Opera House (Thu April 12, 01298 72190), Pocklington Arts Centre  (Fri April 13, 01759 301547), Norwich Waterfront (Sat April 14, 01603 508050), Wakefield Warehouse 23 (Sun April 15, 01924 200162), Cardiff The Globe (Wed April 18, 0871 220 0260), Barnstaple Queen’s Theatre (Thu April 19, 01271 316063), and Weston-Super-Mare Playhouse (Fri April 20, 01934 645544).  

For more information on The South, head to the band’s official website and keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.     


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Suggs – What a King Cnut, Preston Charter Theatre (Nights at the Theatre, pt.2)

Tidal Flow: Suggs on his throne in his guise as King Cnut at Preston’s Charter Theatre (Photo: Lynda McIntyre)

Fast forward four nights and I’m closer to home at the Charter Theatre (‘We were so close it was scary, we were that close I couldn’t tell you’). Regarding the venue, in this case we’re barely talking a 45-year history, yet while the adjoining Guild Hall is fairly soulless, there’s a nice feel about the Charter, and it seems the whole building – saved from the chop by Simon Rigby – is back on its uppers, as suggested by some of the events I’ve covered on these pages in recent years from those two venues and its LiVe area (I’ll draw a VeiL over that branding).

As for that night’s two-part act, here was someone integral to the soundtrack of my life since the first Madness album, One Step Beyond, hit the racks in late 1979, eight days before my 12th birthday, the members of the band acting like they were probably the same age around then. I guess I matured with them, the Nutty Boys proving to be far more than a great singles band who staged sharp videos by the time they were making albums like Keep Moving and Mad Not Mad. Unfortunately, as the LPs got more serious and more appreciated by the likes of me, the public paid less interest. But while they briefly went away, they returned on the same fine form with the mighty Wonderful and The Liberty of Norton Folgate, and continue to belt out great records to this day, between occasional reunion shows.

Yet while the records suggest maturity, an hour and a half or so in Suggs’ company makes you realise the front-man’s as much a ball of frantic energy now as he was back in the early days – from the moment he’s trying to turn back the tide as his alter-ego King Cnut at the start of this entertaining show. Unfortunately I missed his initial My Life Story shows, but part of that format is here, an autobiographical stroll down the life of Graham McPherson which keeps you engaged from the off. Furthermore, the fantastic Julien Temple has recently made a film of the original show, which I’m very much keen to catch soon.

Ably assisted by his mate Deano on piano and occasional dialogue, there was a feeling that some of this was fairly unrehearsed, but that made it all the more interesting, Suggs sauntering through tales of early petty thievery, unorthodox apprenticeships and how Madness saved his bacon, right through to the 2012 Olympics closing ceremony and the Queen’s diamond jubilee. And en route we got his appreciation of Brian May, awaydays with Chelsea FC (and how he was looking forward to playing his FA Cup final song in Leeds on this tour), his embarrassment (‘A living endorsement’) at a This is Your Life starring role, family secrets, and much more. Meanwhile, the occasional duets with Deano bring to life and set the scene of great songs from the back-catalogue like My Girl, One Better Day, House of Fun, That Close, No More Alcohol, Amy Winehouse tribute Blackbird, and Our House.

How does this differ from his last show? Apparently, ‘if the first show was about how on earth he got there, this is about the surprises that awaited him when he did, for a bloke ‘constantly expecting that inevitable tap on the shoulder to hear ‘what are you doing here, Sunshine?’ How has he managed to get away with it for so long?’ Fame is a tightrope and Suggs has fallen off many times.’

Some Product: I kind of like the fact that Suggs signed my copy of That Close upside down (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

That becomes apparent as Suggs takes you through his past, starting in Glastonbury and ending on the roof of Buckingham Palace, in a show evocative enough to have you think you’re sharing a couple of pints with him or pounding the streets of Camden and Soho, popping in at the Colony Club and sneaking into the Groucho. There’s nothing false about the chumminess either, and he’s big enough to send himself up, riding the punches as characters around him pronounce him ‘a bit of a nob’ or ‘a King Cnut’.

Besides, there’s a warmth here that suggests for his occasional wrong turns in life, here’s a top bloke and a lot sharper and more intelligent than he’d like to admit. But you only have to read his lyrics, wallow in his autobiography, That Close, or its predecessor, Suggs and the City – his love letter to London – to get that. As the performance continues, you get an affinity for the real Suggs and how Madness more or less became his family, a little of the sadness in his life, his deep appreciation of his Mum and enduring love for wife Anne (aka Bette Bright) and his daughters too, all having saved him from the abyss many times these last however-many years.

As it was, my mate Paul, along for the occasion, has more affinity for the post-gig stage-door queuing malarkey than me, so we chatted for a while until most of the hangers-on drifted away. We were pretty sure he wasn’t going to show, but just happened to pass the side-exit as our star attraction made a dash for his transport, a small clique giving chase, us in their wake, getting to a dark, dingy and puddle-strewn car park just in time to have a quick word. ”Where’s next?” I asked awkwardly as a knackered and ready-to-be-gone Suggs signed my copy of That Close. “I haven’t got a fucking clue,” he cheerfully replied.

He stuck around a while though, dutifully smiling for a few selfies before speeding off (to Northampton, it turned out). I came away that night reappraising a bloke I always admired, seeing him in an alternative but similarly-positive light. And as with David Baddiel a few nights before, here’s a fella I felt closer to by the end of the evening. In fact, you could say, ‘We were that close’.

Holding Back: Suggs McPherson exerts his regal power at Preston’s Charter Theatre (Photo: Lynda McIntyre)

For further dates and ticket details for Suggs’ What a King Cnut tour, head here.

To cast your eyes over an appreciation of Madness on this site from five years earlier – in January 2013, just after the release of Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da – head here.

  • With thanks to Lynda McIntyre, No Third Entertainments
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David Baddiel – My Family: Not the Sitcom, Lancaster Grand (Nights at the Theatre, pt.1)

Contemplating chronicling two nights out this past week in one review, I wondered if I was dovetailing for the sake of it. Both involved theatres in Lancashire starring London solo acts, each reflecting on the links between their public and private lives, but with little else in common really. Or perhaps there was.

Grand Setting: Upstairs at the Lancaster Grand (Photo copyright: Ian Grundy, 2014)

I’ll start last Friday night, the first spring dumping of snow seemingly already behind us and a late decision taken by myself and the better half to get up to Lancaster after all. I was keen to see David Baddiel’s show and take in my first Grand visit since a 1997 kids’ show during a work placement at the Garstang Courier weekly newspaper.

Beginning with the venue itself, it’s been a key component of this North Lancs city since 1782 (a mere 208 years before the first TV episode of The Mary Whitehouse Experience). Backing on to Lancaster Music Co-Op, where recent writewyattuk interviewees The Lovely Eggs hang out, the building was remodelled in 1897 by renowned architect Frank Matcham, three years after he got to work on Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom and 13 years before he turned his attention to the London Palladium.

By then, fire had gutted its interior, yet an Edwardian refit proved a winner, the building in that guise for 110 years and counting, with such ornate detail to marvel at, not least where we were in the circle. In fact, it’s in its best nick for some years, thanks to on-going restoration work and a team of dedicated volunteers, the kind of community heroes that ensure so many of these great buildings still host events today.

On to David, and we’d only spoken the previous week (with that interview linked here). I guess I was more of a Fantasy Football League fan than of his previous work, but always liked the fella, and he came over well on the phone. Furthermore, the reviews of his new show were very promising. It was well worth a trip up the M6 on a cold and frosty late winter’s night. This wasn’t someone just out to revitalise his career 25 years after those humungous comedy gigs at Wembley with Rob Newman. There’s often a whiff of payola involved in big names of yore returning to the stage, but he seemed to be doing it for the right reasons.

Actually, David returned to stand-up five years earlier, but this was more akin to the loving son we saw in recent Channel 4 documentary, The Trouble with Dad, tackling his father’s battle with dementia, melding that with a public tribute to his Mum, who passed away in late 2014. And both themes were close to my heart, having experienced my Dad’s demise through dementia (he died in late 2012) and having seen my Mum go down that same road since, now in a care home in Surrey.

With David’s Dad, Colin Baddiel, we’re talking Pick’s disease, or frontotemporal dementia. But before you get the medical dictionary out, I should point out that this was no medical seminar or charity fundraiser. And with tonight’s star act Frank Skinner’s old sidekick, there were plenty of moments where you were likely to wince and question what might be deemed appropriate for comedy treatment.

It’s that old conundrum of whether you should keep family matters private, but it works here, and anecdotal evidence suggests David’s folks would approve too. Furthermore, a fair proportion of us out there identified with his comic recollections of his parents, many moments of which I’d hazard a guess he wouldn’t have been laughing at when they happened, wracked by embarrassment.

This wasn’t throwaway humour either, but more about honouring two special people and their extraordinary lives – David mum Sarah was a refugee from Nazi Germany – in what proved a worthy tribute via warm recollections that proved they were no saints but were certainly good people, for all their foibles. As the man himself told me, “You have a choice of going to silence or a very bland memory of them being a lovely person, or the true story, which will be more complicated. I consider it to be a bigger act of love to tell the true story.”

From everything David tells you about his Mum – who you may recall from past TV appearances with her son – you know she’d have appreciated being the centre of attention for much of the night, even when – or perhaps even particularly – the stories involved such sordid details. I won’t go into all that here – go see the show for yourself – but I certainly heard my old man’s own inappropriate humour in some of the stories about Colin. Couple that with Sarah’s bold as brass view on life and I guess it’s no surprise David ended up in this line of work.

The premise of the show is simple enough – engaging, witty bloke gives multi-media slide presentation, sharing memories of his Mum, Dad, grandparents, wife (comedian Morwenna Banks), children and cats. But there’s much more to it, and certainly a lot of warmth and comic craft. What’s more, we came away feeling a little closer to not only David, but Colin and Sarah Baddiel too, on what – for extra poignancy – would have marked the latter’s birthday.

Family Man: David Baddiel, out on tour through to early July

For further dates and ticket details for David Baddiel’s My Family: Not the Sitcom tour, head here.

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A class act – the Tom Williams interview

Shhh! Listen: Tom Williams is setting out on a mini-tour, including a date at Lancaster Library

Blokes aren‘t supposed to be capable of multi-tasking, but Tom Williams has pulled off something of a highwire balancing act while juggling spectacularly this past couple of years. There are definitely no regrets at turning his back on the music business though. In fact, he’s positively thriving in his new dual-identity.

I best get some of you up to speed first. A few years ago it was Tom Williams and The Boat, a folk-rock outfit signed to Moshi Moshi, beloved of BBC 6 Music, a support act to Adele, and as Tom put it, ‘nearly making it in the business, but not quite’.

A big decision followed, Tom chucking it all in and turning to teaching, with no plans to make any more records. But then, last year, he made the album of his career, All Change, his fifth long player, put together in practice rooms across Kent in breaks from teaching guitar and songwriting to primary and secondary school children, the lyrics coming to him on long daily drives from his home on the South coast, backed by a band of music tech students.

Many plaudits followed, the LP made on a shoestring yet sounding anything but, described as a reflection of his ‘life-long love affair with 1970s American rock, showcasing a new refinement to his songwriting, and a more commercial edge’. Or as the man himself added, it was, ‘A celebration of the big chord-change and the emotional sucker-punch line’.

The previous band was formed with friends from his hometown, Tunbridge Wells, with 2010 debut album Too Slow leading to support from the likes of Lauren Laverne, Steve Lamacq, Cerys Matthews and Huw Stephens. Yet those early gigs were seldom easy – not even for Adele, with whom he shared the stage supporting Late Of The Pier. He said,  “Everyone faced the other way and talked while she sang. It’s brutal when you start. I tell the kids now, don’t let anyone tell you if you’re good you get noticed, because it’s bullshit!”

Contemplating his original change of heart, he gives a matter of fact, “The stars just never aligned for us. I was about to turn 30, I was getting married, and I was teaching and I really love it. I’ve got a mortgage. I’m not that fussed. And I was content.

“I spend most of my time with these kids. I absolutely love teaching seven year-olds their first chords, and helping teenagers get into writing their first songs. Songwriting can make them feel better. It’s like shouting into a balloon.”

What’s more, being forced to bond with his pupils by playing the latest Ed Sheeran or Taylor Swift singles led him to look at songwriting in a new light, his methods becoming quicker and more refined. And with no expectations, no plans and no management looking over his shoulder, he just happened to enter the most creative period of his career.

It was in January 2016 that his new songs came to life during a week-long artist-in-residence role in the music department of Leeds Beckett University, getting involved on the proviso that they provided him with a band, which turned out to be the six 19-year-old music technology students who appeared on the LP.

He added, “They were the best band I’ve ever had. I was there pretending to be a success, and they were there pretending to be a band, and we met in the middle and bluffed each other, and it worked.”

The band recorded two songs a day – 20 takes before lunch and 20 after – and Tom persuaded them to stay on during the Easter holidays for a second three-day session. Every one of the seven tracks they recorded made it on to the album.

And what an album, ‘a feast of rock and folk songs drenched in strings, Hammond organ and rich ‘70s harmonies,’ mixed in June by Ian Grimble (The Fall, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Mumford & Sons), with additional guitar and backing vocals.

Tom reckons, “The whole album has a magical feeling – it feels like I did it in my sleep. After 10 years trying to make records and chase the industry I was happy and wasn’t chasing it – and for some reason I made a record I loved. Because I’m not worried in it, I’m not self-conscious, and I’m not embarrassed.”

It seems that he’s never been one to take the obvious road. A former student of abstract art, as a teenager he ran away from home to avoid a place studying at Oxford’s prestigious Ruskin School, deciding instead to run away and be a musician, inspired after hearing Mumford & Sons, chasing the romantic notion of being ‘in a warehouse with no heating, throwing paint around’. He eventually took up his place though, and retains a love for abstract art, something arguably reflected in his attitude to music and his zig-zagging path to success.

And teaching – in Kent and East Sussex – is now at the heart of what he does. There’s even a song on All Change co-written with a 15-year-old student. Meanwhile, three of the Leeds students on the album still get out there with him when they can, when their mutual timetables allow it, including a string of six low-key shows starting next Thursday (March 15th) in Stroud, Gloucestershire.

Tom was catching up on lessons when I got in touch earlier this week, after a week of snow, “Back in schools and songwriting workshops,” and, “Also in the middle of finishing a new album – it’s all go, go, go!”

I asked him about his dual-identity, suggesting that’s the way forward for many of us these days. The fact that we can do what we really love doing helps, of course.

“Absolutely. I love everything I do. I love teaching and tutoring and also love writing, recording and touring with the band. I count myself very lucky and don’t feel like either takes second-fiddle to the other. They’re all equally important parts of my life for sure.”

Tom and his partner Sarah, an illustrator, live in St Leonards-on-Sea, ‘one mile down the seafront from Hastings’, his base for the last eight years. Is fitting the band around work a difficult task then?

“It’s the way I like it. I like being busy. I have lots of friends in bands who are signed to major labels and I see them come off big tours and just shuffling around at home, bored out of their mind. I couldn’t do that. I like that I tour, record and play but also teach and work. Works for me anyway!”

Are your Leeds student friends in the band for this next handful of dates?

“Yes, the band on the album was big, seven or eight, but I’ve taken the core of that band – bass, drums and keys – out on the road with me for this past year. I also have Anthony Vicary, who was in Tom Williams & The Boat. I’ve played and sung with Ant for about 11 years now, so he’s essential.”

You had a lot of interest in the past from the likes of BBC 6 Music, and that still seems to be the case.

“That’s always been vital to us. Even on this last album we were put in 6 Music’s top 10 albums of 2017, which was mind-blowing.”

It was a big decision to make, going into full-time teaching. Was there a catalyst?

“It’s just the way life was going at the time. I really enjoy teaching and like keeping myself busy when I’m not touring or recording. I had no plans to make a new album but then the opportunity to record at Leeds Beckett came about and a new album emerged. A little miracle!”

I get the impression All Change was a ‘no pressure’, ‘doing it for the right reasons’ type project. It certainly comes over that way. Did you find yourself in a creative frame of mind, with that pressure off?

“Absolutely. No label, no management at the time, no band and no songs! Blank canvas, an amazing experience.”

Studio Tan: Tom and his band behind the scenes (Still: Tiny Light Productions)

I was very impressed with the result. Were you pleased with the reception?

“We were all thrilled. The album ended up coming out on Caroline International/ Universal, so to sign a major label deal of sorts in your second decade as a musician is pretty weird. We had no expectations at all. It was all a total thrill and a surprise.”

Has the day-job opened your eyes to refining your ideas of what makes a good tune? Because there are some mighty melodic touches on the last album.

“Absolutely. I think teaching pop music to kids of all ages has really helped open my eyes to different ways of singing and writing. It’s been an education for me, not sure my pupils would say the same – ha! It’s certainly exposed me to music I wouldn’t have listened to otherwise.”

The label ‘folk rock’ was brought up in past descriptions, but All Change goes far beyond that. There are elements of the best of Mumford and Sons, Noah and the Whale, and so on, giving an indication of where this all started, but much more. How would you describe your sound?

“I think it’s sounding quite classic rock at the moment, or dare I say it, dad-rock! It’s difficult to describe your own sound. I may be able to describe what I think I sound like but what actually comes out may be a completely different thing.”

I’ve heard you allude to Bruce Springsteen and mention Tom Petty, Nick Cave, Tom Waits … all suggesting a broad church. Who would you say were your biggest influences over the years?

“Bob Dylan never fails to surprise me and blow the cobwebs off. There are still albums I’ve never heard that are amazing. I got into a big Infidels phase in the last six months. Elliott Smith, Ryan Adams and Nirvana were all massive as a teenager and What’s The Story? (Morning Glory) was my first love as a nine-year-old, bought on cassette from Sainsbury’s. I remember seeing War On Drugs at Concorde 2 on the Slave Ambient tour and their solos were so long people were going into trance-like states, it was like a rave. That was amazing. To see guitar music so classic but so contemporary and energised. It was inspiring to see people doing new things with old tools. Not always chasing the new shiny sound.”

All Change was among the cream of the albums of 2017 for this scribe. The single Get High quite rightly got a lot of airplay, Sometimes would sit well on a Lloyd Cole album, and I felt proud on your behalf hearing the album’s opener, Everyone Needs a Home, used as the play-out music on an episode of Cold Feet last year. You’re in good company there over the years.

“That was certainly surreal to say the least. I’ve never had so many texts!”

There’s just a handful of gigs coming up this time. Is it a case of fitting in shows where and when you can?

“We’re just keeping our eye in with six shows now, festivals through the summer, then hopefully a new album before the end of the year. But who knows, eh. ‘Every day is a winding road,’ as a wise woman once said!”

No need to Crow about it, Tom. Actually, my main excuse for speaking is the Lancaster Library show. Erm … a Sunday matinee performance?

“Yes, that should be interesting, getting the band up and awake so early. Let’s see what happens – ha!”

Let’s hope it’s not a case of Sleep Tight Saturday Night, eh. Actually, at the same venue I’ve seen cracking sets in the past from The Thrills, The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster, then James Walsh and Ian Broudie (in a double-header). And I see you’re also playing Oldham Library. It’s a splendid idea and a great concept. Besides, anything that keeps libraries open in these days of major Government austerity cuts and a lack of cultural funding has got to be a good thing.

“Absolutely, libraries are sacred spaces and I’ve wanted to play these gigs for years. First time though, can’t wait.”

Talking of alternative venues, I enjoyed your set at St Philip’s Church, Salford, for Sounds from the Other City last May (with a review here). Other acts seemed to struggle with their sound, but it sounded pretty good where I was for you.

“That’s good to hear, thank you. We were first on, so got to sort our sound before we went on – always an advantage. Churches are a nightmare sonically. They were obviously built to amplify acoustic music, so when you pump thousands of watts of amplified sound into them it’s fairly cacophonous. Everyone sounds like the Jesus & Mary Chain!”

Finally, no pressure but you best get on with that new album. Is it a case of fitting recording around school holidays?

“It’s all recorded already. It needs mixing and mastering and it’ll be with you soon. Watch this space!”

All Change: Tom Williams will be out and about in 2018 … between teaching commitments

Tom Williams and his band visit Stroud’s Marshall Rooms (Thursday, March 15th), Oldham Library & Lifelong Learning Centre (Friday, March 16th), Sheffield Regather (Saturday, March 17th), Lancaster Library (Sunday, March 18th, 2.30pm), Reading’s South Street Arts Centre (Thursday, March 22nd), and Bexhill’s Albatross Club (Friday, March 23rd, already sold out). For ticket details and all the latest from Tom, head to his official website here. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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Power to the M People – the Heather Small interview

“Stop barking! It’s like, ‘Take notice of me!’ I’ve had to be away from her for the morning. I’ve only had her two years, and I wouldn’t be without her. She’s absolute sunshine.”

That’s Heather Small, talking about her beloved toy poodle, who goes by the name of Nina, after Ms Simone, which gives me my first point of reference, a chance to mention another great vocal talent and interpreter of songs, telling my interviewee I’d only been listening to Nina’s stonking version of Barry and Robin Gibb’s To Love Somebody that morning.

“Ah, she’s a mistress at interpreting other people’s songs, such as her version of Suzanne.”

Indeed, from that same 1969 album, not only tackling the Bee Gees and Leonard Cohen but also Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger numbers. Mind  you, I say, I always get the impression that she wouldn’t play a song live if you expected her to though.

“Yeah – don’t make a request! Ha! ‘I’m not here to please you – I don’t care if you’ve paid!’”

Heather, not so long back from a trip to Barbados and now dealing with snow in London, was in fine voice, as you might expect, the day I called her. And when she’s on a roll, it’s hard to equate her with the younger performer said to be remarkably shy at the start of her career.

Somehow, it’s now 27 years since the first M People album, Northern Soul, let alone her first ballad with fellow Deconstruction dance outfit Hot!House back in early 1987, Don’t Come to Stay.

“I know, and for me it’s the fact that I’ve got an hour and a half of hits these days. That’s amazing, and what’s even more amazing is that people are still willing to come and see me sing those hits.”

Let’s tally up those hits before we go much further. With M People alone we’re talking 20 top-40 hit singles in the 1990s, of which 10 made the top-10. Including How Can I Love You More?, One Night in Heaven, Moving On Up, Renaissance, and Search for the Hero. And there were also four top-five albums, a Mercury Music Prize win for second LP, Elegant Slumming, in ’93, and a Brit award for Best British Dance Act in ’94 and ‘95.

Going right back, with Heather born in late January 1965 and brought up on a West London council estate, I understand religion and faith became an important aspect of her life. Was it through her church links that where she found her voice?

“I never went to a church where I could sing gospel music or anything like that. I never sang in church. I sang from my own endeavours. I didn’t really do anything until I was 18.”

I got the impression you were initially shy, so assumed it was singing that brought you out of yourself.

“No, I never sang anywhere or did any performance. When I started to perform to an audience was when I did The Tube. I was terrified. I didn’t move! I just sang, concentrating on making it through the song.”

That was with Hot!House in early 1987, on the final series of the Jools Holland and Paula Yates-fronted Channel 4 show, and you can find it via Heather’s YouTube link, Heather battling shyness and severe nerves and going on to make two albums – in 1988 and 1990 – with bandmates Mark Pringle and Martin Colyer. But it was with her next Deconstruction outfit that she reached her promised land.

“I joined M People after Hot!House disbanded. They were going in one direction and I wasn’t really interested in that, but the guys in M People had the same management and said to their manager, ‘Let Heather know if she does leave that we have two songs we’ve written especially for her and we’d love for her to record them, see what she thinks.’”

That was in 1990, Manchester-based DJ and musician Mike Pickering and his London bandmate Paul Heard getting in contact (percussion player Shovell also soon in the mix), with those two songs Colour My Life and How Can I Love You More? And word has it that Mike and Paul were looking at just taking on guest vocalists, until they heard Heather.

“They let me do what I wanted to do with the song, and I brought a gospel element to Have Can I Love You More? They went with that and let me do the songs the way I felt them. I hadn’t had formal training and still always go for feel. I can’t read music and can’t play an instrument.”

She laughs at this, hearing herself say that, and I ask where she thinks that mighty soulful voice came from.

“I found out after that there were people in my family who would sing in church, in the Caribbean. They would sing for people – for religious gatherings, funerals, stuff like that.  But my grandfather would never have condoned them singing outside of church. Making pop music wouldn’t have gone down well at all!“

Heather’s parents arrived in the UK from the Caribbean in the ’60s, and while it’s easy to place the soul influences in her voice, it turns out that she was also a fan of 2015 writewyattuk interviewee Elkie Brooks. Which, on closer reflection, also makes sense.

“Yeah, and on the last tour I did Pearl’s a Singer. What a great singer, great interpretation, very soulful, and you know straight away it’s Elkie Brooks when you hear her, at a time when it’s quite difficult to differentiate between singers. And I grew up in a time in the ‘70s when you’d have Bob Marley and ABBA on the same radio station. So for me it was about being on top of your game … whatever your game was.”

Growing up in 70’s Britain and not wanting to be stereotyped or treated differently, Heather knew she wanted to make something of herself. I mention how Martha Reeves told me in a 2015 interview that being one of 11 children led to her making herself heard, helping bring herself out. How about Heather? Was she aware early on that she had this great voice?

“I was very shy, and when it comes to my voice, all I can say is that singing made me feel great. It was more intrinsic to me, in that I didn’t feel right if I didn’t sing. I told myself I had to make it as a singer, because of the joy it gives me. Purposefully, I didn’t learn to type or anything like that, so I didn’t have anything else to fall back on. If you heard a young person saying that now, you’d say, ‘Oh no!’ But I had to make it!

“And it’s so much fun. No two days are the same. It’s still like that for me after being in music for over 25 years. There’s that element of surprise, and right now, I’m writing songs with a young writer/producer, and it’s exciting and still has that power to surprise me.”

In 2008, Heather was back in the public eye as a contestant on BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing, that infectious personality and sense of humour leading to many more TV appearances, including several high-profile chat and quiz shows. But the live work never waned, either as a solo artist – having recorded two albums under her own name – or with M People. And then there was her 2010 tour with 2016 writewyattuk interviewee Lulu and US singer Anastacia on the ’Here Come the Girls’ tour (Heather replacing Chaka Khan from the initial tour). But did she realise there was another link there? For 18 years before Heather recorded her debut LP with Hot!House at Muscle Shoals in Sheffield, Alabama, Lulu recorded in the same legendary studio, for her New Routes album.

“Oh, my God, I didn’t know that! That’s where I did my first recordings. I tell you what, there’s a real aura in that studio. I’d been nowhere before, and here I was, this British girl, in Muscle Shoals, and yet I felt so at home. I started singing with a live band and thought, ‘This is it, this is my life, being in that environment with other musicians, and the way it made me feel. I’d be interpreting something, and they’d do the same. To this day I still get that same joy. And I’ve just realised I closed my eyes while explaining that!”

So many great songs were made there, from The Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar and White Horses to The Staples Singers’ I’ll Take You There and Respect Yourself, via Arthur Conley’s Sweet Soul Music, Wilson Pickett’s Land of a 1,000 Dances and Mustang Sally, Etta James’ I’d Rather Go Blind

“Listen, there’s an aura there. And people say about Aretha Franklin, and how she wasn’t happy there, going through a bad time with her then-husband and then she just let it all out in her vocals. And that’s the thing about experience. You’ve got to be brave enough to let those experiences come through. I think that’s what I’ve learned with live performances.”

Heather’s talking about Aretha’s mighty I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) there, a great story neatly retold on the entertaining and informative Every Record Tells a Story website. And what an advert for Muscle Shoals, recorded in 1967, the year I was born.

But let’s fast forward 22 years, because I’m a little confused over this. Is that right that we heard Heather some time between Hot!House and M People, through a re-recorded vocal take on 1989’s Ride on Time mega-hit for Black Box? I realise it was originally half-inched from Loleatta Holloway, but …

“Do you know, I’ve never confirmed this, with all this folklore around that. Someone recently told me, ‘Well, it’s on Wikipedia!’ Ha ha!”

Well, I’m always very wary about what I repeat from the internet.

“I’ve never ever said that. People just take it for granted. But if you listen … I was a younger woman then, and if you hear the two versions you can hear which is the woman with the real experience and which one is the pretender! If you listen to it, you can tell.”

I try one more time for a definitive answer, but she’s not playing, and just laughs when I say we’ll have to leave that a little ambiguous. So with that we move on to Proud, the title track of her debut solo album in 2000, an inspirational worldwide hit soon heard in so many situations – including the launch of Queen Mary 2 and England’s victory at the Rugby World Cup in 2003, the VE Day 60th anniversary commemorations in Trafalgar Square and the Tsunami Relief Concert in Cardiff in 2005, and the London Olympics’ bid and a ceremony marking the handover from Beijing in 2008. In fact, I put to her, the song (co-written with former Jethro Tull keyboard player Peter-John Vettese) seems to have a life of its own.

“It has, and it’s taken me to so many different places. It’s unbelievable. It’s flown around the world, so people can hear me sing that one song live.”

And when Oprah Winfrey was looking for a song to sum up the work she’d been striving to achieve over a 20-plus year career, she got in touch with Heather, who squeezed in a trip across the Atlantic to perform on the show in the middle of her last M People UK tour in 2005, explaining, ‘If Oprah calls, you go!’

“Which is very flattering. But like I’ve said before, it doesn’t make it any less flattering if it’s somebody who is watching their son or daughter in a school play and they use ‘Proud’.  I attended a school where the pupils were all talking about their experiences and they started singing Proud at the end. I thought, ‘Hold it together, Heather,’ and then this one boy started crying and I was gone! When you experience something like that … it’s been used for school anthems and assemblies. Oh my goodness! Especially going over to Chicago to sing it for Oprah, because it’s about celebrating those small, joyous moments and those private moments.”

That pride theme fits neatly with Heather’s charity work for anti-racist and anti-bullying causes, for a campaigner who is also an ambassador for children’s charity, Barnardo’s. And she comes over very much a spiritual person, I put to her.

“Yes, I go to church and always seek out some kind of spiritual life and connection, and other people. That’s why I like doing what I do for those charities. It keeps me in touch with my own humanity. They’re doing something for me – keeping me in a place where I will always feel sensitive. I don’t deserve any praise for it. I say if you have an abundance of something money or whatever … I can sing, so I go and sing, and there are people who have lots of money so they give lots of money, and there are people who have time and they give all of their time. And no one thing out-trumps the other.”

She laughs at my next question, mainly because I suggest I don’t want to pry into her private life but do so all the same, her shouting, ‘Go ahead! Go ahead!’ in the background. In short, she spent a fair bit of time in the North West of England through her past relationship with Wigan rugby league legend Shaun Edwards. Does she miss this part of the world?

“Well, the North West came to London, so that was alright!”

You were based around Standish, weren’t you?

“They were so lovely to me. My son is still a regular visitor there, because his grandparents are there. So he’s fluent in Wigan-ese!”

Is Heather’s son, now 21, following in Mum or Dad’s footsteps, career-wise?

“He doesn’t sing but he’s at Edinburgh Uni now and he’s a sportsman like his father. He’s in the uni rugby team. But I don’t like to talk about him too much, or I’ll get a little phone call!”

People Person: Heather Small, back out on the road in April and May 2018

Heather Small – The Voice of M People visits 14 UK venues in April and May, opening at Newcastle’s Tyne Theatre (April 13) and calling at Hull University Union (April 14), Wrexham William Aston Hall (April 15), Bristol Marble Factory (April 17), London ULU (April 20), Sheffield Foundry (April 21),       Manchester Academy 2 (April 22), Preston Charter Theatre (April 24),         Salisbury City Hall (April 25), Oxford 02 Academy (April 27), Isle of Man Gaiety Theatre (April 29), Wakefield Warehouse 23 (May 4), Glasgow 02 ABC (May 5), and Norwich Waterfront (May 16). Tickets also available from Ticketweb (0333 321 9990). For more details head to Heather’s website or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter. 


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On Tour: Not the bike race – the David Baddiel interview

Family Man: David Baddiel, out on tour across the nation, right through to early July

After a sold-out run at the Menier Chocolate Factory and in London’s West End, comedian, novelist and TV presenter David Baddiel is taking his Olivier-nominated one-man show to theatres nationwide, with four dates already in the bag when we caught up.

My Family: Not the Sitcom is the follow up to 2013’s Fame: Not the Musical, David’s return to stand-up after several years. And as much as he enjoyed the previous tour, the new show is taking him into new areas, and he’s loving the reaction.

As his press release put it, ‘It’s a show about memory, ageing, infidelity, dysfunctional relatives, moral policing on social media, golf, and gay cats.’ Not your average stand-up show then. It’s also, ‘A massively disrespectful celebration of the lives of David Baddiel’s late sex-mad mother, Sarah, and dementia-ridden father, Colin,’ so we need to, ‘Come and be offended on David’s behalf.’

The 53-year-old Londoner is perhaps still best known for early ‘90s radio and TV comedy, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, alongside Rob Newman, Hugh Dennis and Steve Punt, and fellow BBC hit Fantasy Football League in the mid-’90s, with Frank Skinner. These days though, the father-of-two, married to fellow comedian Morwenna Banks, has seen his writing take precedence, both his adult and children’s novels. But right now, it’s his take on his parents grabbing the attention, following on from an autobiographical peek into his family through last year’s powerful Channel 4 documentary The Trouble With Dad, a very personal insight into dealing with a loved one’s dementia.

But don’t expect him to portray his folks – his mother died in 2014 – as saints. As he explains, “When family members die, or are lost to dementia, all we tend to say about them is that they were wonderful. But if that’s all you can say about them, you may as well say nothing. To truly remember our loved ones, you have to call up their weirdnesses, their madnesses, their flaws. Because the dead, despite what we may think, are not angels.”

The critical reaction to his latest show has been quite something, not least the reviews in the Evening Standard, The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Times. Then there’s all that social media praise, from the likes of JK Rowling, Russell Brand, Ricky Gervais, Hugh Laurie, Lily Allen, Graham Norton, Rob Brydon, Jack Dee, Sue Perkins, David Mitchell, David Walliams, Matt Lucas, Ross Noble, Katherine Ryan, Bill Bailey, George Ezra, David Morrissey, Chris Evans, Alan Carr … What’s more, as I suggest to him, it doesn’t seem like the average rent-a-quote West End back-patting.

“Well, that’s nice for you to say. It’s been really great, the reaction. I think because the show is very personal, and authentic, people respond to that. And every word is true. Despite being very personal to me, it also seems to speak to people about their own family experience. I think that’s what happens.”

His next date is on Friday, February 23rd, a sell-out at Chester’s Storyhouse, followed by a visit to Birmingham Alexandra on Wednesday, February 28th, then – my excuse for talking to David – a two-night run at Lancaster Grand on Thursday, March 1st and Friday, March 2nd. And when we spoke he was extremely pleased with the response to the first regional shows.

“Yes, I’ve done four already – Aberdeen, Bath, Truro and Cheltenham – and they’ve all gone really well, as is often the case. While I had a lovely time in the West End, out of London it’s really brilliant. There’s a real sense of joy at these gigs.”

It’s a truly personal show, as you say, and a different form of stand-up to that which perhaps we might have expected from you back in the ’90s. Is it good to be back out there playing live again? Because, let’s face it, you’re not exactly a regular gigging comedian these days.

“Well, I did a show in 2013, Fame: Not the Musical, the first time I came back to stand up after having not done it for a while, with a new type of stand-up, much more storytelling, including a screen, using clips, and very autobiographical. So it was a different type of stand-up, although not a million miles from what I did. It felt a bit more mature, for want of a better word.

“I hadn’t done it for a bit, but partly because I was having children and all sorts of things. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to perform. But I performed so much in the ‘90s, touring and doing all this for such a long time. It’s very all-consuming, stand-up comedy, so I think I needed time away from it. I wasn’t sure how it would feel to come back to it. But it felt really great.

“This show particularly has touched a chord with people, and that’s different to how it was. I used to enjoy getting laughs but didn’t get the sense I get with this – that people think it’s spoken to them and they want to tell me about their family and all that. It’s really lovely.”

Stand-up comedy can be a lonely profession, not least as you’re out there on your own most nights, even away from mates doing the same job in other towns.

“Well, you do bump into people quite a lot, and one of the things about having done this for a long time is that you do feel part of a little community. It’s a funny old thing, that.

“Actually, to say something rather bleak, when Sean Hughes died, I went to his funeral and part of going was seeing like 40 comedians from my generation, all feeling sad but also part of a real community. We were mourning one of our own, who came up in the same generation, and there’s something really nice about that. It’s not very competitive or anything. It’s very comradely.

“Funnily enough, Rob Newman is playing Salford Lowry the same night as me. And without going on about it, he’s in the smaller room! So it’s the first time Newman and Baddiel will be performing in the same theatre on the same night in … ”

Well at the end of this year it will be 25 years since those huge Wembley gigs you did together, won’t it?

“Yeah, and actually they offered us a gig … but it’s not going to be happening. Wembley did offer a big 25th anniversary gig. I was sort of interested. I think Rob wasn’t. I wasn’t sure either, because I didn’t quite know what we were going to do. But we wouldn’t have to dress up as History Today people, because we already look like them.”

Baddiel Sprit: David Baddiel and his Dad, Colin, putting the world to rights.

At the same time, is this you trying to redress the balance. I mean, was there a danger of you just becoming known as that bloke married to Mummy Pig and Dr Hamster from Peppa Pig.

“Well, that’s alright. I don’t mind that. I can only be proud. Actually, of that younger generation, a lot are now into the kids’ books. The other day I was in a shop and this woman told me her daughter was a massive fan. She was around 10. Then she said, ‘Can I have your autograph, because I used to come and see you.’ So that’s nice.

At this point, David seems to have a go at me for suggesting – and I wasn’t, by the way – that his beloved Morwenna might just be the mother of his teenage children plus TV favourites Peppa and George, letting me know about her recent writing with Jo Brand for Channel 4 sitcom, Damned, set in the children’s services department office of a local council, starring its writers plus former writewyattuk interviewee Alan Davies, Kevin Eldon, Himesh Patel, Isy Suttie, Georgie Glen, and Aisling Bea. If you’ve not caught up on last autumn’s first series, you best hurry as they’re now running the second one, which began last week.

Anyway, I soon re-dress the balance, talking about Morwenna’s West Country roots and our mutual love of Cornwall.

“We’ve just come back from there, because my second or third night of the tour was in Truro. We decided after that gig to spend some time doing a whistle-stop tour of her family, who are mainly still there. We normally go there two or three times a year, and one thing I’ve noticed about Cornish people is that wherever they are, they have a yearning to return, in a way that I don’t have a particular yearning to return to Cricklewood. We spend a lot of time there. And it’s especially nice now, opposed to in the summer when it’s mental. Now there’s hardly anyone there, so it’s really nice.”

You mentioned Rob Newman before, and I see that next year marks the 30th anniversary of the radio pilot of The Mary Whitehouse Experience.

“Really? I saw Rob’s show recently, the stand-up show he’s doing now, and we had a long chat after, and we get on really well now, me and him. Frank (Skinner) and me are mates and he lives in my road, and while I don’t see him every day I see him a lot and we’re still very close. Me and Rob aren’t, but we’ve become more friendly in the last year or so.

“He came to see my show in the West End. He tweeted, asking for tickets, not realising that was a public message! It was all very nice though. There’s no animosity anymore, which is nice, but I doubt we’re going to work together any more. What Rob does and what I do now don’t really link together in the same way.”

Sleeping Partners: The Mary Whitehouse's (from the left) Steve Punt, Rob Newman, David Baddiel and Hugh Dennis get to grips with their inspiration. (Photo copyright: BBC)

Sleeping Partners: The Mary Whitehouse’s (from the left) Steve Punt, Rob Newman, David Baddiel and Hugh Dennis get to grips with their inspiration. (Photo copyright: BBC)

I see at one point The Mary Whitehouse Experience might have been named The William Rees-Mogg Experience. Might we see a new spin on that now, as The Jacob Rees-Mogg Experience perhaps?

‘I’m very happy for someone else to do The Jacob Rees-Mogg Experience. And he could do it himself, because he is basically a comedy character. We have this situation now where politicians are like comedy characters – Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg … You can imagine them being played by Harry Enfield.

“It’s almost as if a politician can’t get noticed anymore unless he or she has big, stupid, grotesque characters. I don’t know why. But I suppose John Major managed to be Prime Minister for eight years and no one even noticed him.”

While we’re on politics, talking to Mark Steel recently about Trump’s America and Brexit Britain, he was of the opinion that – as per his latest live show – ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Alright’ and the tide is turning. Do you share that optimism?

“I don’t really know. I’d like to think so. Things are getting more extreme, and I think that’s driven mainly by technology. We have technology that allows very quick mass communication, all the time, and It suggests in theory there’s going to be this lovely communication between all people at all times.

“But what’s really happening is that those who shout loudest are the ones most heard. So you end up essentially with an internet troll being President of the United States. That has happened very quickly. I don’t think anyone could have imagined Donald Trump or someone like him being President 10 years ago. And that’s not for any other reason than because of the internet.

“That’s a man who built his image and brand on Twitter, and as we know you can build your image and brand there by just saying very brash, loud, mad things. That is a worry, but I don’t think it necessarily means everything will be terrible, because things go in cycles, and maybe there will be a calming down.”

You’re wrapped up with your tour at the moment, I’m sure, but are there any more novels on their way?

“Not adult books, but the children’s novels have done so well that I’ve become someone who thinks I should keep writing these, and they’re a joy to write and it’s a joy the way kids interact with them. I have another of those coming in October, which is going well, and I’m also written a film of the first one, The Parent’s Agency, which Is currently being thrashed out by the studio. We’re looking for a director at the moment. Then there’s AniMalcolm, my fourth children’s book, which is being made into a theatre show by Story Pocket Theatre, a puppet theatre company, and that will be touring in your area too.”

A year ago, David returned to our screens, with his brother Ivor in a moving documentary about their father, Colin Baddiel, filmed over the course of a year, charting their attempts to care for the 82-year-old, living with a form of frontotemporal dementia, known as Pick’s disease, that has affected the part of his brain that controls personality and behaviour.

You clearly got a good reaction to Channel 4’s The Trouble With Dad, which I’m guessing was the route for this show, in a sense.

“I was already doing this. In fact, it’s got footage in it of me doing this in the Menier Chocolate Factory when I started. The show’s changed quite a lot but it’s the same basic show. Then, because I was doing the show, the company who made that documentary got in touch, wondering if there was more to be said specifically about my Dad and this type of dementia.

“I wasn’t sure at first, but in the end they gave me and my brother a lot of control over it, and I felt very happy with that. And it seemed to touch a lot of people, that documentary. I was very glad to do it.”

You made a nice point recently about a perceived betrayal, letting on to others that a loved one has dementia when you haven’t had permission from them to say so. I’m sure a lot of us have encountered similar feelings of guilt.

“At the end of the day, I’d say that when one’s parents, either through death or dementia, aren’t able to tell their own stories, you have to accept that their children are the ones going to tell the story. You have a choice of going to silence or a very bland memory of them being a lovely person, or the true story, which will be more complicated. I consider it to be a bigger act of love to tell the true story. That’s the choice you have, and you’ll always be slightly conflicted about that. But I think the conflict is all part of it.”

You mentioned Frank Skinner before. Will you be off to Russia for the World Cup with him this June?

“We’re not planning anything. I’m still on tour for the first part. I’ve tried to carve out the England games, although for the big one against Belgium I think I’m in Stoke, so I’ve asked for it to be put back.

“The trouble with doing stuff around the World Cup is that you’re always dependent on what England do, and you don’t want to put too much store on that and build a whole show around England getting to the World Cup Final and winning it. I think that would be a mistake.”

Sofa so Good: Baddiel and Skinner catch up on the telly for Fantasy Football League. (Photo copyright: BBC)

When I spoke to Frank four years ago (with a link here), just before the World Cup in Brazil, he was of the opinion that he’d probably be happier watching it all at home rather than heading out there.

“Well, we’ve gone to quite a few, going to Germany in 2006 and South Africa in 2010, and had a brilliant time. Those podcasts were really fun. But it’s also nice to watch it at home, so I agree with him.”

You previously shared something of your family history on Who Do You Think You Are? In 2004, not least your Jewish heritage and details of the Government’s internment policy for refugees from Nazi Germany during the Second World War. That also proved to be powerful viewing.

“Well, I wrote a book about that, a novel called The Secret Purposes, based very loosely on my Grandfather’s experiences on the Isle of Man. I felt it wasn’t very well known, like a secret part of British history. And for me it remains so. I think most people still don’t know that refugees were interned on the Isle of Man, in the case of my Grandfather for around two years. But it’s good if it’s opened up something.”

Finally, it’s too late for our own parents, but dementia is a ticking timebomb for our futures. What, in your view, needs to be done? Is it about throwing money at scientific research, care improvements, or both?

“I don’t know. Sorry! All the things it involves with me talking about dementia in my show, people tend to come to me for answers. A woman wrote to me saying her Dad had got the same type of frontal lobe dementia that my Dad had and was getting no help from her local NHS authority, and did I have any advice. And I don’t.

“All I am is a comedian and a storyteller. I can only tell my own story. I can’t fix stuff like that. I wished her all the best, but I’m afraid I don’t know what should be done.”

Well, I’m sure just by talking about it so openly, you’re making a big difference, helping open up the debate.

“Well, I hope so. Thank you.”

Talking Family: David Baddiel, coming to a theatre near you at some stage over the next four months.

David Baddiel’s My Family: Not the Sitcom is out and about around the UK between now and July 2nd’s finale at Bristol Hippodrome. For a full list of dates and ticket information, head to his website.  

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