Rose McDowall/Vukovar/Zvilnik – Preston, The Continental

Passing Glance: Rose McDowall in action with her band at The Continental in Preston (Photo copyright: John Middleham)

Passing Glance: Rose McDowall and co. at The Conti, Preston (Photo copyright: John Middleham)

A top night unfolded at the Continental in Preston as former Strawberry Switchblade and Sorrow chanteuse Rose McDowall visited en route for a Celtic Connections date in Glasgow.

Rose was up to Lancashire from her adopted Oxfordshire for another Tuff Life Boogie evening to remember on South Meadow Lane, with sterling support from Vukovar and Zvilnik.

We may be heading for Little Britain, but there was a pan-European feel to proceedings judging by the bill, and while I only saw part of Zvilnik’s opening set I saw enough to inspire future viewings.

This five-piece – who appeared to have left their scientific lab-coats in the dressing room – reckon they exude influences from Eastern Europe, the West End and low-grade horror movies. I hear that, but also enough quirky touches to court wider interest, lead singer Angela’s vocals giving them a B-52’s meet Pixies edge at times. Expect further exploration.

Quirky Touches: Zvilnik in action at The Continental in Preston (Photo copyright: John Middleham)

Quirky Touches: Zvilnik in action at The Continental in Preston (Photo copyright: John Middleham)

Vukovar played a memorable set at Tufflife Boogie’s Xmas party, and again impressed this time, technical woes only adding to their rock’n’roll demeanour. From the first beat, Buddy on drums holds the interest, with Dan’s vocal and synth touches and chemistry with bass-man Rick somewhat mesmeric.

There are elements of Iggy Pop, Jim Morrison and maybe even The Jesus and Mary Chain, although personally I’d add some scratchy guitar in there for some of the promise of The Family Cat’s early days.

This is extreme indie art-rock at times – to a point where Rick’s bass was jettisoned and he stormed off, his band-mates filling in nicely. I kind of guessed he’d return though, while we tried to suss if it was all part of the act. One school of thought suggested Pete Townshend did that to death many moons ago, but you certainly never forget a Vukovar performance, and I look forward to the next.

Stripped down: Vukovar's Dan feeling the heat at The Continental in Preston (Photo copyright: John Middleham)

Stripped down: Vukovar’s Dan feels the heat at The Conti, Preston (Photo copyright: John Middleham)

Three decades after her notable pop chart success, Rose certainly still has stagecraft, making an entrance even before she’d climbed on stage, a butterfly hairclip marking her out from the crowd.

Setting the tone with two songs from her ’90s spell with Sorrow, Ruby Tears and Love Dies, Rose then took us right back down Memory Lane with Strawberry Switchblade favourites Another Day (less ’80s pop, but still eminently danceable), and the gorgeous 10 James Orr Street and Trees and Flowers.

Rose was soon bedded in (so to speak) with her band – who’d come in the other direction, crossing the border especially – and an indie six-piece set-up serves her well. While ‘of the era’ production somewhat characterised her early ‘80s days, this was the Strawberry Switchblade Mk. II I envisaged – proper indie champions.

Backing vocalist/violinist/keyboard player Joan – on loan with bassist Josh from Current Affairs – certainly played her part, her harmonies working well. Meanwhile, guitarists Michael (Apostille and Rose’s Night School Records label head honcho) and Television Personalities’ Texas Bob led from the sides, throwing down the gauntlet as those timpani mallets from drummer Ruari (Vital Idles) dictated the pace.

Band Substance: Rose McDowall gives it her all at The Continental in Preston, flanked by Michael Kasparis on guitar and Josh Longton on bass (Photo copyright: John Middleham)

Band Substance: Ruari MacLean, Rose McDowall, Josh Longton (Photo copyright: John Middleham)

There were occasional signs of this being a rehearsal, but the band were in full swing – with Rose at her most powerful – by the time they reached Sorrow’s brooding, surging Let There Be Thorns, the more poppy Tibet then giving rise to the darker Our Twisted Love and sumptuous Crystal Nights.

The real crowd-pleaser came next, Since Yesterday afforded a more poignant, slowed/ stripped down vibe, melancholic yet totally fitting. Rose then upped the ante, Cut With the Cake Knife fully charged and leading to Strawberry Switchblade finale Deep Water.

And while the cry went up for an encore, it was clear it wasn’t happening as soon as Ruari donned his hat and put on his coat while Rose darted through the throng with an apologetic smile, the following evening’s Hug and Pint date in her home city in mind.

Rose Again: Ms McDowall, with guitarist Michael Kasparis, left (Photo copyright: John Middleham)

Rose Again: Ms McDowall, with guitarist Michael Kasparis, left (Photo copyright: John Middleham)

With a big thank you to John Middleham for the live images (reproduction by permission only).

For the writewyattuk site feature/interview with Rose McDowall, head here.

A number of quality Tuff Life Boogie promotions are planned for The Continental in Preston, Lancashire, over the next few weeks, including the visit of the Three Johns/El Hombre Trajeado/The Great Leap Forward on February 4th; The Orchids/The Chesterfields/The Suncharms on February 17th; the Vernal Equinox festival on March 3rd, 4th and 5th; The Jasmine Minks/The Jazz Butcher Quartet on April 8th; and Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker’s appearance on April 14th. For more information head to Tuff Life Boogie’s Facebook page.

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By any other name – beyond Strawberry Switchblade with Rose McDowall

Rose Taboo: Ms McDowall in live action at London's Double R Club, late 2016 (Photo copyright: Sin Bozkurt)

Rose Taboo: Ms McDowall at London’s Double R Club, late 2016 (Photo copyright: Sin Bozkurt)

While Rose McDowall is best known for her work with early ’80s crossover indie pop act Strawberry Switchblade, she’s made many cult solo recordings over the years.

Starting out as a stand-up drummer in Glasgow proto-avant-garde punk trio The Poems -taking a leaf out of Moe Tucker’s Velvet book – she went on to enjoy five years with Strawberry Switchblade, and has remained busy ever since. Yet somehow she’s never played Preston, Lancashire, something she’s remedying this Friday, January 20th, topping a bill at The Continental with a full band, my excuse for tracking her down on the phone at home in Oxfordshire.

The Poems were borne out of a lightbulb moment when teenager Rose Porter and husband-to-be Drew McDowall witnessed the Ramones at Glasgow Apollo in late ’77, on a bill that also included Edinburgh art school punks The Rezillos, if I’ve done my research right.

While The Poems made an album, the acetates were lost and it never saw the light of day. But as friends of Orange Juice the band were soon party to the emergence of the Postcard Records scene, and through that link came a fresh project for Rose in 1981, alongside art student Jill Bryson in Strawberry Switchblade. That new band quickly took off, with help from two prominent BBC Radio 1 DJs, soon signing to the Warner Music Group via the Korova division, these guitar-based flower punk icons going on to become one of Scotland’s biggest mid-‘80s pop exports. Yet they are chiefly remembered for just one top-five hit single, 1984’s Since Yesterday, with the story soon over and the girls going their separate ways after one album.

From there, Jill moved towards a career as an artist, while Rose delved into the post-industrial neo-folk underground, collaborations following with the likes of Boyd Rice, Coil, Current 93, Death in June, Felt, Alex Fergusson, Into a Circle, Megas, Nature and Organisation, Nurse with Wound, Ornamental (involving members of an Icelandic scene that also brought us The Sugarcubes), The Pastels, Psychic TV, and Rosa Mundi.

There was further work with Boyd Rice in Spell in 1993, a duo signed to the Mute label, before Rose formed neo-folk experimental outfit Sorrow the same year with second husband Robert Lee, two acclaimed albums and European and US tours following in an eight-year spell taking her into the new millennium.

From there, Rose – best known as a vocalist but who also plays guitar, keyboards, melodica and drums – has continued her adventures in music, performing under her own name since 2005. And more recently she linked with Glasgow’s Night School Records, first reissuing Cut with the Cake Knife, a set of songs recorded in the post-Switchblade era with various musicians.

You might not believe it from her strong Glaswegian accent, but Rose has lived in Oxfordshire for nearly a quarter of a century, after spending the previous decade in London, having initially moved to the capital when Strawberry Switchblade took off. And rural living seems to suit her.

“There’s only so much of London you can take. The countryside is nice and tranquil for me. It’s my natural valium, I guess.”

Outside Edge: Rose in 1989, captured by Gilbert Blecken

Outside Edge: Rose in 1989, captured by Gilbert Blecken

Amid a less frantic pace of life, Rose continues to write songs, with new material on its way. But first we travelled back in time to her first John Peel radio session in 1982. How was her first recording experience in Maida Vale?

“It was brilliant, and a real shock because John Peel called me personally. Usually that was the producer’s call. He asked if I was interested in doing a session, and I said, ‘Well …yeah!’ I didn’t have to think twice about that one. David Jensen phoned us as well, also wanting a session. But Peel was the man, although we did both and they were both good enough to get in touch.”

It seemed to take a long time from those initial sessions to the self-titled Strawberry Switchblade album coming out in 1985, getting on for three years later. Was that a frustrating period?

“No, because we were just so busy. I don’t think we realised it was that long. We moved to London in ’83 and were doing radio sessions and lots of recording and gigs. If the public don’t hear about you, they think you don’t exist, but if anything when you’re not appearing in the papers and so on you’re probably working harder.”

Was it soon after those first sessions that management duo Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe, who had already seen success working with Echo and the Bunnymen (their 1980 debut album Crocodiles was the first released on Korova) and The Teardrop Explodes – came to her?

“Very soon after that. We had loads of interest. It was Orange Juice who said, ‘Look out for Strawberry Switchblade’, and everything happened really fast. It was pretty exciting. We were very young, but I was married with a child, which meant a wee bit of extra work, as opposed to being a footloose, fancy-free teenager. When you’ve a child who’s already started school, it’s way more of an upheaval. But it was all good. I moved to London about two months before my daughter and husband moved down for definite, until we’d found a place to live.”

Let’s go back a little further, to that seminal Ramones gig in Glasgow and all the other gigs that set Rose on the path to a career in music. Did punk help this introverted teen out of her shell?

“It totally did. I was this shy little kid, then punk happened and I thought that really opened the gates of life for me. When I saw the Ramones I just turned to Drew and said, if they can do it, we can do it! They made it look easy, and also fun. They were one of my favourite bands.”

I was only 10 at the time of that Rocket to Russia tour, but can at least say I saw the Ramones on their Too Tough to Die visit in early ’85, incidentally while Strawberry Switchblade’s Since Yesterday was still hanging around the UK charts. As I told Rose, we only realised on the way into the Lyceum in London’s West End that we’d subconsciously got smarter at gigs, contemplating ripping our jeans on the spot to try and fit in better with the rest of the clientele. She laughs at this, while thinking back to an earlier era when punk shook the world … not least Scotland.

Poetic Pose: The Poems, Rose's first music incarnation

Poetic Pose: The Poems, Rose’s first music incarnation

“The thing about punk in Glasgow, was that it soon got banned, so you’d have to go to Edinburgh or the Silver Thread Hotel in Paisley, where you’d see all walks of life. There wasn’t anywhere else for them to go. They weren’t necessarily punks. One guy I used to dance with wore a dress and make-up, and was into drag, No one felt anyone was better than anyone else.

“I was in The Poems at the time with Drew and his friend Ian, and we saw that big Stiff Records tour and lots of other bands. I was pregnant and my child was constantly beating and kicking me to the rhythm of the bass drum when Siouxsie and the Banshees were playing. That was awesome. She’s got rhythm! I was still playing drums when I was seven months pregnant, with my belly bigger than the drum-kit!”

Rose, who plays 12-string acoustic guitar, six-string electric guitar and electric harmonium live, also told me more about that early friendship with Orange Juice.

“We played with them a few times. At one gig we joined each other, swapping instruments, with James Kirk on drums, me on keyboards, and so on, messing about doing a few songs. That was really good fun.”

Was that right that James came up with your band name?

“It was. He was just going to use it in a fanzine he was doing. I told him he had to use it, to which he said, ‘You have it’. That was on a bus coming out to my house, practicing for that gig. Strawberry Switchblade came directly off the back of that. It was a name too good not to use.”

It may have been an idea that came off the back of a bus, but seemed to sum up a lot of Rose’s material, then and since – that mix of sweet and, shall we say, not so sweet.

“Yeah, it’s all part of the person I am, and the not so sweet came out yesterday when I had to return a faulty car.”

Your Glasgow roots came to the fore, did they?

“Honestly, I’m as sweet as anything, but just don’t push my buttons too hard!”

Long Player: The eponymous Strawberry Switchblade album, form 1985

Long Player: The eponymous Strawberry Switchblade album, form 1985

At that point, we talk about James Kirk also being the inspiration behind the naming of Manchester outfit James, who were big fans of Orange Juice when they started out (as related last year in an interview here with Jim Glennie, with a link here).

“Really? Ah, fantastic. I bought my first electric guitar from James, a limited-edition Fender Coronado, which I’ve still got.”

Getting back to Strawberry Switchblade, I reminded myself of how it all ended in 1986, that dreaded word ‘acrimonious’ popping up in their online biography. Will she elucidate? Well, not a right lot, as it turns out, not keen to re-open old wounds.

“Well, it always starts out pleasant and ends out that way. But I’m just keeping out of all that nonsense. Life’s dramatic enough without all the other little dramas. And it’s nice to be nice!”

I’m guessing the songs featured on the second John Peel session in 1985 were destined for a follow-up Strawberry Switchblade LP. But that never happened, and several tunes from that period subsequently walked with Rose.

“Some of the songs were going to be on the second album, but I wrote a lot on the Cut with the Cake Knife album after we split. The title track (on that Peel session) had been put forward as the next single though.”

Jill and Rose used the term ‘pop pastiche’ back then, and it seems to me, listening to those sessions now, they were more raw than on the rather polished pop records. Yet there was always more going on beneath the veneer and chart-friendly hooks, with lots of melancholic themes, as hinted at on tracks like the lovely Trees and Flowers and 10 James Orr Street. But while there’s a more dated ‘80s sound in places in David Motion’s production – maybe partly down to the technology of the day – those songs still stand up.

“Yeah, it was like, ‘Let’s try this producer’, and he was a lovely guy, really good, but when you’ve put x-amount of pounds into an album, try turning around and saying to someone you want to re-record! That wouldn’t have gone down very well. But in retrospect I don’t actually mind. I love the album and I’m not one of those people who listens to modern music all the time. Often, when I’m going through the writing process, it’s like a release, going back. Sometimes it’s nice to leave something for a while before you hear it again.”

Cover Girls: Strawberry Switchblade, as featured in Smash Hits

Cover Girls: Strawberry Switchblade, as featured in Smash Hits

Was Rose – like Jill – from an art school background?

“I was into my art, and still paint a bit, but didn’t go to art school. I left school when I was 16 and went straight into working. I came from a poor working-class family, so it was all about getting out there. My art teacher said he’d give me a letter of recommendation for art school and felt I would get in. But I didn’t, getting into music instead. That was a bigger passion. Besides, life is an education in itself, and as the eldest of seven children I lived a lot growing up.”

Strawberry Switchblade were certainly fashion trailblazers, renowned for that ‘flower punk’ look, involving lots of polka dots and ribbons. In fact, as it turns out, Jill and Rose was even accused of copying their own iconic look.

“That was hilarious. It was in London, with two teenage girls stood at a bus stop on Tottenham Court Road, outside McDonald’s. I’ll never forget it. One girl said, ‘Hey, you dress like Strawberry Switchblade!’ I just smiled and walked away. They then followed me up the road. But I’d rather them think that than know who we were. The stalkers came later … which was not a lot of fun.”

Indeed. She’s been through it all, in that respect, with a few of those tales told in Ben Graham’s interview with Rose in September 2015 for The Quietus, linked here.

“Yes. I wouldn’t change a thing, but … well, apart from a few wee things!”

Has Rose kept in touch with any of those old friends they worked with at the time, from the Glasgow scene bands through to later collaborators from elsewhere like Echo and the Bunnymen?

“I haven’t heard anything from the Bunnymen for a long time, but tend to see a lot from the Glasgow scene. I’m up there quite often. I keep in touch with some via social media, but I’m a bit of a recluse.”

Solo Album: Rose McDowall's Cut with the Cake Knife, recorded between 1986 and 1988

Solo Album: Rose McDowall’s Cut with the Cake Knife, recorded between 1986 and 1988

Moving a little further on, there’s a faded 1988 video interview with Rose tucked away on the internet, recorded at the Reverb in London when she was working on a new line-up of Strawberry Switchblade. That was with the so-called Creation All-Stars, including Laurence (Hayward) from Felt and members of Primal Scream and The Weather Prophets. In the clip they’re playing Crystal Nights, and it sounds right up my street. It’s a shame I missed them, not least as I was around and about the capital a lot then.

“We did that gig, and a few days before we did one in Brighton. That was awesome – just the best, with really good reviews. It was such fun playing with all those guys, who were all my mates anyway.”

I wish you’d had the chance to make an album with them.

“That would have been great. I still talk to Pete (Astor). He wasn’t on stage then, but his rhythm section were with me.”

I can see and hear that, not least as a big fan of their Mayflower album, recorded in late ’86. They make Crystal Nights sound like a Weather Prophets song in that respect.

“Ah, cool! And someone at the time reviewed it as being the best pop band ever!”

I imagine she got fed up of talking about this at the time, but hope the passing of time means I can ask about the similarity of the big hit, Since Yesterday, and its ripped ‘riff’ from Sibelius’s fifth symphony. Was that ‘nick’ down to osmosis, and if so was that through absorbing Jean Sibelius, The Murmaids’ Popsicles and Icicles (1963) or First Class’s Beach Baby (1974)?

“I didn’t write that introduction. That was something the producer put on, and we had no idea what it was from. That wasn’t a conscience thing.”

I have to say there are elements of The Velvet Underground on Since Yesterday too, not least Rose’s ‘And as we sit here alone, looking for a reason to go on’ line, the wondrous Nico-led Sunday Morning springing to mind, a song she now plays in her own live set.

strawberry-switchblade-since-yesterday-korova“I’ve never noticed that before. I’ll have to listen to that! Yeah, I was a big Velvets fan.”

Seeing as we mentioned past collaborations and friendships, did Rose keep in touch with Bjork after their collaborations in Iceland all those years ago?

“Recently I felt I should get in touch again. I haven’t spoken to her in years, not since Virgin was on Oxford Street. I speak to Einar (Örn Benediktsson) on Facebook though. I was meant to go on tour with Bjork, but at that time one of my best friends died and I was too broken to do anything like that. She proposed to me, you know.”

At first I wasn’t sure I heard that right, but Rose soon elaborated.

“She should have been Mrs McDowall! I think that was just before Switchblade split up, when I was doing the Ornamental stuff in Iceland. That’s also where I wrote Soldier and Crystal Nights.

“Bjork and I are very childlike in a way, very playful, and got on really well. I guess really we weren’t typical girls, to quote The Slits! That’s probably why I have quite a large gay following as well. I think I was always a wee bit different, but it was never always a wonderful thing. It was like, ‘Take this child to the psychiatrist!’”

But she found a kindred spirit in Bjork?

“Yeah, she was just as mad as I was! That was nice. We just laughed all the time, and I’d like to get back in touch. We had a lot in common, such as thoughts on how children should be brought up. She had a son when she was in The Sugarcubes, who’ll be a young man now.”

Did Rose play Preston with any of her previous bands?

“I don’t remember playing Preston. We played Liverpool and Manchester. Actually, I have two brothers who live in Blackpool, and while one may be abroad I’m hoping the other can make it along.”

Talking of family, there’s an 11-year gap between Rose’s older daughter Keri – the one who was a big Banshees fan in her pre-natal era – and son Bobi, 26. Then there’s youngest daughter Velocity, 20. Is that as in Velocity Girl, the first song on the NME C86 cassette (after which I also re-named my first car, a metallic blue Ford Escort Mk. I, I tell her)?

“Yes. It was a choice between Velocity and Epithany. I thought I’d wait to see what she’d sound like – and she was definitely a Velocity!”

Witch Way: Rose McDowall takes a breather between rural rides in her adopted Oxfordshire

Witch Way: Rose McDowall takes a breather between rural rides in her adopted Oxfordshire

So did oldest daughter Keri – after such a promising start – follow her into music?

“No, she’s the one who hasn’t. But my other two kids are very musical, especially Bobi, who plays live with me sometimes.”

Bobi may even be in the band at Preston. Is that right that Rose has bands in Scottish and down South?

“It is. I need to work with a pool of musicians. It’s easier that way. Everyone’s involved in other things. But I have a band based in London and another in Glasgow.”

It’s the latter who are set to call at the Conti, not least as that date is followed by one in Glasgow the following night. How many players will she have in the band at The Conti and The Hug and Pint?

“If my son comes, it will be six. There will be an abundance of people coming from Glasgow!”

And will it be a set including music from throughout her career?

“Yeah, a bit of new, a bit of old. Before the last gig we played in Glasgow we hadn’t played Since Yesterday in years. We’d left that out, but everyone wants to hear that. People get disappointed if you don’t. I was tired of playing it, and felt it time to do something else. But it is a bit of an iconic song – a career song!”

Live Presence: Rose gives it her all for London's Double R Club (Photo copyright: Sin Bozkurt)

Live Presence: Rose gives it her all for London’s Double R Club (Photo copyright: Sin Bozkurt)

With thanks to Sin Bozkurt for the Double R Club photos (with a link to more here) and to Michael Kasparis of Night School Records (with a link here).  And for more on Rose McDowall, head to her Facebook page. 

Also on the bill at The Continental on Friday, January 20 (doors 8pm) are North Yorkshire outfit Drahla, a happening band ‘channelling Pixies, Giant Drag and Life Without Buildings’, and Zvilnik, described as the region’s ‘premier sci-fi prog surf cabaret rock band’, drawing ‘influences from eastern Europe, the West End and low grade horror movies to create a sound like no other’. For more on Drahla and a preview of two great songs, try their bandcamp page. And for more on ‘sinister yet welcoming’ five-piece Zvilnik, their ‘complex knots of guitar strangeness, stomping bass and beefy beats, try them via Facebook.

Tickets for The Continental show are £10 advance (£12 on the door), available online from WeGotTickets, SEE Tickets & Skiddle or in person from the Continental (01772 499 425) and Action Records (01772 884 772). For more details head to event promoter Tufflife Boogie’s Facebook gig link.

You can find details of tickets for the Celtic Connections show at Glasgow’s The Hug and Pint (Saturday, January 21st, 7.30pm, with support from Duglas T. Stewart – ex-BMX Bandits – and Katrell Keineg) here.

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The Blue Aeroplanes – Manchester, The Ruby Lounge

Ruby Turners: The Blue Aeroplanes at the Ruby Lounge. From left - , Chris Sharp, Wojtek Dmochowski, Gerard Langley, John Langley, Gerard Starkie, with Bec Jevons and Mike Youe clearly moving too fast to be snapped (Photo courtesy of Kevin Gibson)

Ruby Turners: The Blue Aeroplanes at the Ruby Lounge. From left: Chris Sharp, Wojtek Dmochowski, Gerard and John Langley, Gerard Starkie. Bec Jevons & Mike Youe too fast to be snapped (Photo copyright: Kevin Gibson)

It’s official. The Blue Aeroplanes are no less a beguiling sight and feast upon the left-over mince pies now as they were three decades before.

This Bristol septet have just delivered the finest LP of the year (it’s only January, but they’ve already set the bar), and at the Ruby Lounge proved they still have the stagecraft to go with that studio flair.

Whether darting back and forth across stage or leaping off the bass drum (guitarist Mike Youe somehow not cracking his head on the ceiling), there’s always plenty to marvel at. The fact that they write and perform such great songs is just a bonus in that respect.

And while head honcho Gerard Langley let us know early on this was no nostalgia trip, we still got to savour plenty of past gems alongside all 10 tracks from Welcome, Stranger!

They started with a blistering take on latest single Dead Tree! Dead Tree! And while the sound was soupy at first – the techies’ work cut out in this quirky venue – the on-stage mayhem quickly warmed us on a cold winter’s night.

In most clubs, obstructive pillars would be a curse, but it somehow added to the vibe here, not least the moments when the band switched places and re-emerged from shadows.

Most notably that included veteran ‘Planes’ dancer, Wojtek Dmochowski, sweating profusely, his ‘Keep Corbyn’ t-shirt soon in two hues of red.

Close Inspection: Gerard Langley and co. check out the writewyattuk reaction to their Ruby Lounge visit

Close Inspection: Gerard Langley and co. check out the writewyattuk reaction to their Ruby Lounge visit

At times we winced as the band took avoiding action. Those instruments hurt. But although I won’t go as far as suggesting there’s a level of choreography, they somehow dodged too many injuries.

While there are plenty of guest vocalists for this revered art combo with the revolving door policy, there’s very little introduction from Gerard L. It could be slicker, but I’m glad it’s not.

Yr Own World, from ’91, was the first song to get us reminiscing, but new song Retro Moon packs a punch too. It just needs a bit of bedding in.

For a man talking apps on Looking for X’s on a Map, I’m pleased to see the front-man hasn’t succumbed to on-stage technology. If anything, his jotter book of lyrics is even bigger, as grand as the poetry within.

When the band got to Sweet, Like Chocolate, there was a sense of ‘why do I know this?’ around me, the rock treatment of a dance hit throwing Manchester’s gigging public.

What It Is from 1990’s Swagger gave me my first goosebump moment, the swirling, sweet cacophony of guitar majesty every bit as good as 27 years ago, bass player Chris Sharp and drummer John Langley calling the tune and guitarists Youe, Bec Jevons and Gerard Starkie expertly weaving in and out.

At that point the poet out front made way for his namesake Starkie, neatly reintroducing me to lesser-heard Rodney Allen song Missy Lane, somehow misplaced among so many other greats until now.

Welcome Strangers: The Blue Aeroplanes, touring in January 2017 around the UK

Welcome Strangers: The Blue Aeroplanes, touring in January 2017 around the UK

That was followed by an almost Leonard Cohen-like Oak-Apple Day from 2011’s Anti-Gravity, a prelude to new cuts Walking Under Ladders, Nothing Ever Happens in the Future and Skin, the latter Breeders-like rocker neatly executed by Ms Jevons.

There was also Elvis Festival at some stage, band and crowd in their element, and while the cowbells were missing, brother Langley never skipped a beat at the back.

It was only a matter of time before the mighty Jacket Hangs then And Stones, us taken down There and Back Again Lane, in a manner of speaking.

Then came Here is the Heart of all Wild Things, those wondrous six-stringers to the fore again in a frantic finish.

We finally got Chris up front to deliver Beatsongs’ splendid Fun, and let’s face it, we were having plenty.

Either side of the new album’s epic finale Poetland there were more covering blasts from the past, both BA staples, starting with Bob Dylan’s I Wanna Be Your Lover.

And there could be no other closing statement before we braved the gathering snow than Tom Verlaine’s Breaking in my Heart, the band’s live signature tune.

While no one showed up from the support – missing their chance to shine on A and D – it was a perfect showstopper, the Aero’s truly spent by the close, another top night of rock and indeed roll – as Gerard L put it – complete.

Drum Riser: John Langley's Blue Aeroplanes drum kit, at the Ruby Lounge, Manchester (Photo courtesy of Kevin Gibson)

Drum Riser: John Langley’s Blue Aeroplanes kit, at Manchester’s Ruby Lounge (Photo copyright: Kevin Gibson)

For the writewyattuk verdict on new Blue Aeroplanes album Welcome, Stranger! head here, and for this site’s feature/interview with Gerard Langley, head here.

The tour continues this weekend at Newcastle’s 02 Academy 2 (Friday, January 13th), Edinburgh’s Voodoo Rooms (Saturday, January 14th) and Glasgow’s Stereo (Sunday, January 15th). For details of that and the next nine dates (up to Exeter’s Phoenix Arts Centre on Sunday, January 29th) head here.

 

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Moving the room with the James Taylor Quartet

Looking Up: James Taylor, still out there, striving to move the room

Looking Up: James Taylor, still out there, striving to move the room

There was some serious attention seeking going on when I called James Taylor at his home studio in Kent.

It wasn’t down to him though, but his Cairn terrier, Heidi, after he shut her out of his studio in a bid to answer my questions.

“I don’t know why, but she’s quite possessive, quite yappy and jealous. I’m going to have to shut her up.”

Don’t be alarmed. His weapon is nothing more than reason. Next, I hear in the distance, “Heidi, I’m doing an interview!” He soon relented though, so I had an audience of two on the phone, a four-legged friend on his lap. Well, he is a fan of Bach, after all.

James 0 Heidi 1.

With my two interviewees finally settled (and let me tell you, Heidi answered none of my questions, putting her up there with Toots Hibbert as one of my more challenging respondents), I tell James I’d forgotten until researching his past that it was broadcasting legend John Peel who introduced me to his music.

The former Prisoners keyboard player had not long before formed his own four-piece, their first LP a collection of re-interpreted cult film and TV themes with a very ’60s feel, including inventive runs through Alfie, Blow-Up, Goldfinger and title track Mission Impossible. It’s amazing, I tell him, how many artists from different walks I was introduced to via Peel’s BBC Radio 1 show, proof that it wasn’t all about indie, German industrial bands, punk and reggae in the mid-‘80s.

“It was a good time, wasn’t it? It was nowhere near as saccharine and fascist as it is now. As long as you were doing something interesting and exciting, that was enough. These days it’s about kids coming out of college with PHDs in writing pop songs, which completely misses the point. Peelie was amazing, and got us started … completely.”

Funny he should mention that, as my previous interview was with Gerard Langley, whose band The Blue Aeroplanes emerged during that same era, their frontman now also head of songwriting for the British and Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM) in Bristol, his past students including George Ezra.

“Well, there’s a lot of money in education. There’s no money in making records anymore. But there are certain things you can’t teach. I’m not a teacher, but all my band teach. Millions of students want to learn how to be a jazz or rock musician. There’s money in all that.”

ajxlp292_packshotHeidi had some choice words about that too, but I couldn’t work out what she was barking about, and James carried on.

“It’s the art of survival, but for me I like composition. I can compose and orchestrate and write music, and it doesn’t have to be for an album or a commercial project that gets sold to the public. There are different ways of being a player. The main thing for me is to get on stage and try and make a nice exciting evening.”

I tend to steer clear or rail against covers bands, but that was James’ way in. The first record of his I bought was that Mission Impossible collection, with opening and closing tracks Blow-Up (penned by Herbie Hancock) and The Stooge on a lot of my cassette compilations around then. Meanwhile, the first JTQ single I bought – the following year, by which time they’d switched from the Re-elect the President label to Urban – was their Starsky and Hutch theme revamp.

But between those releases came The Money Spyder, the band moving away from being a covers band, creating a soundtrack of their own, albeit to an imaginary spy film. There were still plenty more re-imagined covers to come though.

“We had a bit of a hit with that first album, and then came a record deal and the question, ‘Do you write?’ To which I thought, ‘Well, no’. I then started writing and some things stand up to these classics, but most of the time my set will include my compositions and other people‘s too. You just want to maximise your punch on stage rather than be an out and out covers band. Also, if we’re doing a Booker T and the MG’s cover, if anything we’ll do it more like the Sex Pistols – really punky! You just put your own stamp on it.”

A case in point was that cover of Tom Scott’s Starsky and Hutch theme, originally titled Gotcha, for which James ‘made the groove more English’, as he put it.

“Yeah, the original had a very LA kind of drum groove – very technical and flash. We kind of straightened it out.”

Along the way, they were seen as originators of the emerging acid jazz scene, and after putting out records on Polydor and Big Life were recording for Eddie Piller (who started Re-Elect the President) and Gilles Peterson’s Acid Jazz label by the mid-90s. Looking back on their early influences, was James already a piano or keyboard player before he discovered Booker T. Jones, Small Faces, and that Hammond organ sound?

“Yeah, I was into The Beatles and The Rolling Stones at 12 years old, but having piano lessons so was learning J.S. Bach and so on. I still love that now, and still love The Beatles and The Stones. But then I found Booker T., although I was already subliminally aware of that sound, drawn to it from ‘60s and ‘70s TV shows, thinking, ‘What’s that keyboard sound?’ Then it was explained to me about the Hammond organ and the Leslie rotating cabinet, and I was hooked, man – I saw then that was my route through life!”

I tell James at this point how as a choirboy in the mid to late-‘70s I loved the sound of the church organ, at least when it wasn’t consumed with all that ecclesiastical stuff, not least when the choirmaster blasted out some Bach and that ‘vampire music’ we craved, filling the village church’s dark shadows.

“I discovered all that very late, about five years ago, really getting into church organ music. But a life in music is an education in that respect, finding things and thinking, ‘Wow! How did I miss that?’ I didn’t have the privilege of that education, and a choral education as a child is amazing. That’s different to every college kid wanting to learn how to play Led Zeppelin. I’m impressed. It’s just a pity a lot of those kids don’t take it further.”

James has mentioned a few of his keyboard heroes in past interviews – from Booker T. and Ian McLagan to Deep Purple’s Jon Lord, The Nice’s Keith Emerson and fellow Kentish outfit Caravan’s Jan Schelhaas. Was there ever a danger of him going down the prog rock path with those influences?

“Yeah, and there still is a danger of that!”

cdbgpd-184aMaybe it wouldn’t go down too well with your old Mod crowd.

“Well, the Mods don’t really like us. They come and see us because I’m a Hammond player and kind of gave birth to us, so there’s usually one or two geezers in the corner looking a bit Moddy. But in the early days it was everyone, with a sea of scooters outside. That was a bit restrictive.”

When I got into your work, I also discovered Georgie Fame’s Mod credentials, on the Flamingo live recording and so on. So there are clear parallels there.

“He was the king of the Mods. But there’s a bit of an underlying political atmosphere with all that. We did a lot of gigs on the end of piers for people all looking the same, dressing the same. Once we broke out of that, things got a lot more liberal.”

Fashion and image-wise, you always came over as very dapper, very ‘60s. That probably helped your Mod credentials.

“Yeah, and I like what the Mods listen to. I like all that, massively. They have impeccable credentials, musically. It’s only where anything’s shut down. For example, where does James Brown stop being Mod? Night Train is very Mod, but is Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag? Where does it stop being Mod? What are the rules? That becomes pretty dull.”

Was discovering Jimmy Smith a big part of you blossoming out?

“Yeah. Absolutely brilliant. That was everything for me, but I felt he played too quietly. All those bands were amazing but really built for LA supper clubs. It was a case of, ‘how do you get a shot of adrenaline into that?’ So I was fusing much louder drums and funkier bass parts with all that. It needs to have that energy.”

In the early days, the band included James’ brother David on guitar. Did they play together growing up?

“Not so much musically. We were close friends, but when I got into music, he didn’t. I had about five years playing and touring with The Prisoners. By then I was 17 or 18 and he was 14. I’d left him at home. But I remember buying him a guitar and every time I came home he was really into it. One thing led to another, he had his own band, and then we started working together.”

Rochester garage band The Prisoners were led by guitarist/vocalist Graham Day, and played a substantial part on the underground psychedelic and Mod revival scene as well as the Medway scene. It was clearly where James got his musical grounding. Are they all still in touch?

“Yeah, we’ve done reformation gigs and the like. That all sort of hovers around, with occasional emails about doing events. They live just next door to me, so I bump into them, such as when I’m walking Heidi and Graham’s walking his dog. We have a little chat about how 35 years ago we were living in a little transit van!

“What I started to realise over time was that bands run in a so-called democratic way, the best you’re going to get is about five years, if you’re lucky, before you fall out. I thought if I really want to do this for the rest of my life it has to be my thing. That way you can call the shots and don’t fall foul of that dilemma of what happens when the band don’t speak to each other anymore.”

james-taylor-quartetThat initial move to form his own band came 30 years ago, and James has had little reason to look back from there. TV and cinema has continued to have an impact too. Was there a time when the money started coming in for that? And not just big breaks like being part of the Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery soundtrack. Was there always that thinking of how he could make a living from all this?

“That’s always been the backdrop. I make albums for Universal, also Warner Brothers, and another called Audio Network, supplying them with something orchestral, funky with strings on, or whatever. They then position that on TV shows and films, and we have 50% each of the PRS from that, which means I can carry on being a Hammond organist on stage in clubs up and down the country. That’s what makes it all possible.”

A bit like an actor having a passion project alongside the big bucks movies?

“More than that, on a normal day I’ll practise Bach then I’ll write some funk, put some horns on it, then practise some Beethoven, play some Hammond, then at the end of the week I might have a gig. There’s a whole broad spectrum of things you think about. I did a choral project recently, then there might be an orchestral piece, solo piano performances. It inhabits who you are really. And one of the things I am is someone who wants to get on stage with a Hammond and really kick up the dust! That’s one of the best things I can do with music.”

Indeed, and as he put it in a recent video interview, ‘The essence of what we do has always been to try and move the room’, as was the case when I first saw the JTQ play the Town & Country Club, Kentish Town, on a memorable night in late 1988, their set followed by former Boothill Foot-Tappers singer Wendy May’s Locomotion DJ set. I noted then how they’d became an octet by the end. Will it be just be a four-piece on this tour, without the added brass and guest vocalist?

“Yeah, that’s really a money thing. I’ve done expanded line-up shows with as many as 50 people on stage – a whole choir and strings. But to take a whole band up to the North of England … A lot of people don’t like the expanded version anyway.”

He mentions working with choirs, and the JTQ 2015 album The Rochester Mass (Cherry Red) was a notable one-off, recorded in one day with a 40-strong Rochester Choir, composing a piece of classical music, fusing funk with a religious mass sung in Latin … like you do. And then last year there was his Bumpin’ on Frith Street album, recorded live at Ronnie Scott’s club in Soho (Ronnie Scott’s/Gearbox Records).

cs605031-01a-bigHe’s back at Ronnie Scott’s for three nights in early March, after visits to Blue Note, Milan, and Jazz Club Etoile, Paris. But first there’s Preston Guild Hall’s LiVe venue. So what can we expect when he visits Lancashire on January 19th?

“Well, Pat (Illingworth), our drummer, is from nearby, Lancaster, and he’s a lary drummer and really kicks off. He’s a very explosive player and I find that incredibly exciting … quite shocking. Expect a lot of energy – it’ll be like Jimmy Smith on speed!”

“There’s still Andrew (McKinney) on bass, and on guitar there’s Mark (Cox), who’s been floating around for about 10 years and increasingly gets the gig these days and straddles the whole thing so well. And from Booker T. through to George Benson, it’s a nice combination. To be honest, my favourite set-up is the four-piece. That’s what we truly do. Sometimes the more you expand it, the less you’ve got.

“We often play Ronnie Scott’s, and while we take a full line-up we’ll still do half an hour as a quartet before the horns come on, and while the audience are ready for the change you never really capture what you were doing as a four-piece.”

Am I right in thinking you spent time in Sweden before your quartet line-up made it?

“I lived in Stockholm when JTQ took off, having piano lessons and enjoying being out of the UK. It’s something I look back on with really fond memories. And after years trying to make it, when it finally does, in a way you kind of sign off on your life and wonder later what might have been. But I’m not complaining. I like being a musician.

“I made the choice to come back from Scandinavia, but there was a beauty about life up there which I miss, and I haven’t been back in ages. I still have friends up there and talk regularly to people up there. But I’m such a lazy bastard, and spend so much time getting on Ryanair flights to wherever, so when it’s holiday time I don’t want to go anywhere!”

There have been a lot of corporate gigs over the years too, including one fairly recently with Kylie Minogue, I understand – booked to play a car launch for Ford in Paris.

“We still do corporate gigs, although they’re few and far between now. Those days are gone.”

Did you get to speak properly to Kylie on that occasion?

“Yes, we did. She’s a very beautiful woman, man! God, yeah!

mi0003953499“We’ve also done gigs for the Davos bank, up in the Swiss Alps. That’s a well-paid gig, and you think, ‘Well, if we do that, that pays for the next three months. We’d tour around Europe in a bus and the tour manager would fly us back to London for a couple of big corporate shows, which would pay for that whole European tour.”

Finally, you’ve worked with some big names over the years, from The Manic Street Preachers and The Pogues to Tom Jones and U2. Who’s still on your list to work with?

“George Benson. I’ve done gigs with him, and jazz festivals, but I’d like to make an album with him. He’s my favourite musician. I’d like to make a funk album with him. I like what he does a lot.”

Take him back to his roots, maybe? There seems to be a trend for it, from The Rolling Stones and Nine Below Zero going back to their r’n’b roots to Paul Young re-interpreting ’60s and ’70s soul. So why not?

“Yeah, it’s not something I’ve actively pursued, but I could make it happen. When we do a gig with him, I’m totally in awe of what’s going on. And the funkier edge of his set is the bit that’s interesting.

“He’s the one I’d think of first. I really love Herbie Hancock, but what would I do with Herbie? Having two keyboardists on stage isn’t really going to work.”

Keyboard Warrior: James Taylor at work (Photo: from the JTQ Facebook page)

Keyboard Warrior: James Taylor at work (Photo: from the JTQ Facebook page)

For ticket details of the James Taylor Quartet at Preston Guild Hall, head here, and for information about all James’ forthcoming appearances try his website via this link.

You can also keep in touch with the JTQ via their Facebook page. And there’s a lovely six-part video interview with James you can find via this Cherry Red link.

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The Blue Aeroplanes – Welcome, Stranger!

bd0fc756-172c-4e45-83eb-dcb936437124The Blue Aeroplanes are back after a five-year wait, and have delivered the first great album of 2017.

This is a band that always understood the importance of a strong first line. Take 1990’s Jacket Hangs for example. And this album is no different, proceedings getting underway with a drum pattern suggesting The Wedding Present’s Greenland that leads us into something of a digitised 21st-century take on a winning format. “I tapped directions on app, I was Looking for X’s on a Map,” imparts chief lyricist Gerard Langley over a guitar-heavy introductory riff. The scene is set, the band swiftly heading up through the gears from there, a mighty 10-song opus purposefully unfolding.

You can always expect the unexpected with the ‘Planes, and next is a version-excursion of turn-of-the-century Shanks & Bigfoot dance hit Sweet, Like Chocolate. It’s hardly recognisable at first, nagging away in your head until you realise just where we are, the original vibe reinterpreted and re-energised. By the time the chocks are away we’ve moved on from AC/DC to The Pixies playing Club Classics.

Getting back to opening lines that grab the attention, I’m particularly fond of Retro Moon. “I sometimes walk down There and Back Again Lane. Not very far, obviously, because there’s nothing there”. Apparently there is one in the band’s home city of Bristol, so – to confound celbrated BA fan Michael Stipe – perhaps you really can get there from here. Either way, the underlying riff is pure ‘Planes, despite the fact that only Gerard, his brother John Langley, and dance-master Wojtek (yep, I reckon you really can hear him dancing on this album,   not least this track) survive from the band’s ’80s and ’90s incarnations. Once again, I’ll quote the poet, who paints a picture with, “Ah yeah, here it comes … thunderbolt – thrown down from the heavens by a deity with a sense of humour and an eye for a situation”. Glorious. I’d suggest we introduce a performance poet laureate role in his honour, but the music industry would only abuse it and hand the role to less deserving types. Hell, there’s even a bit of swirling keyboard in there. What’s not to love?

Even when they’re supposedly being more straightforward, this band inspire closer inspection, as is the case on Dead Tree! Dead Tree! Another story song, equally evocative and clear proof of  Gerard’s continued worth in the sphere of the thinking man and woman’s alternative pop. Need him to explain more? How about, “Something that is beautiful but doomed to disappear must be appreciated while it is there to forestall the sense of loss”. Is that clearer now? Thought so. The kind of philosophy that resonates with me, Chris Sharp’s underlying bass-line transporting us towards a gripping finale.

By comparison, the title of Walking Under Ladders for a Living seems to have jumped ship straight from the back cover of a Half Man Half Biscuit album. Think Stevie Wonder on the Wirral, the writing on the wall. There’s a gear change here, as if we’re swapping sides for a fresh perspective, the backing vocals proving the perfect foil to our revered front-man’s spoken imagery (because ‘all the best words are never enough’).

blueaeroplanes-2112-editMeanwhile, on side two, Elvis Festival is a joy, a further touch of BA genius, with glam elements courtesy of Bec Jevons’ guitar riff, and guaranteed to bring a smile to the face. The concept may seem fairly sad, but this is heartfelt and a celebration of The Wonder of You the underdog, and your 15 minutes of fame. “His wife sewed on the sequins, but he made the cape himself. He’s been saving his money all year for the Elvis Festival”. As Gerard puts it, “It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part”. Besides, who doesn’t love cowbells?

Talking of celebrations, why put off today what you might not be able to manage tomorrow? And Nothing Will Ever Happen Here in the Future takes us down that path,     offering a welcome change of pace, the orchestral backing track increasingly stirring – with surging strings attached – as Gerard implores, cajoles and caresses with his repeat lines, “Want to be wanted, we need to be needed, we love to be loved”.

On Skin, we switch tack again, Ms Jevons up front this time, the IDestroy chanteuse stepping up to the mark for something of a fresh approach. “This is my skin, and I welcome you in,” comes the beguiling catch-line. Over to Mr G. Langley, who adds, “Identity is increasingly important in an age where many of your friends will be pixels”. True enough.

Here is the Heart of All Wild Things was the first track I heard from this album, and it still hits the spot. Again, the poetic imagery grabs you. “She was not afraid, she clung to the horse’s back, she left for parts unknown. She was not afraid.” Circular, gentle guitar licks help the song slowly build towards a tumultuous Crazy Horse climax. And the lyrical content, Gerard? “Just because something is difficult or unknown doesn’t mean you can’t try”. I heartily agree.

And then we’re away with Poetland, and it’s a land of contrasts apparently. Gerard takes us to a whole new setting, one clearly not so easy to define yet full of imagery. “Poetland – it’s like Poundland … only weirder”. Off to the edge we head on a sweeping tide, accompanied by sweet ’60s surf rock’n’roll harmonies, battling to catch our breath after so many great lines across these 10 tracks – lyrically, visually and sonically. Yep, Welcome, Stranger! is a mighty addition to a wondrous catalogue of colourful aeronautic delights.

Five previous essential long-playing highlights from The Blue Aeroplanes:

mi0001748548Tolerance (1986)

It took a while for me to lay hands on my first slice of BA vinyl, but this – their second platter – provided proof that the band could be just as manically inspired on record as on stage. If ever an LP painted a picture, this be she. Its many highlights include the wondrous single, Lover and Confidante, the W.H Auden-infused zeitgeist  of   Journal of an Airman, and swirling glimpses of what was to follow in the beguiling Warhol’s Fifteen.

61t3-8-kpslSwagger (1990)

While for me the band found their wings when they launched into Arriving four years earlier on Tolerance, their true arrival on the wider indie scene came four years later, the ‘Planes by now with Ensign. From the moment that guitar riff breaks out and Gerard asks us to pick a card (any card), we’re hooked. Rodney Allen was also on board, and all was well in my world. I’ll go for the more obvious highlights like Jacket Hangs, And Stones, and the epic What It Is, but there’s not a duff track.

mi0001642483Beatsongs (1991)

The band had entered their Chrysalis stage, continuing on a creative high, the story on-going with this US-recorded winner. The songwriting’s supreme, not least Yr Own World, that juxtaposition of Gerard’s spoken lead, those sweet backing vocals and searing guitars proving somewhat sublime. Well, everybody’s happy sometimes. A filmic Angel Words and Rod’s Fun keep us on that higher … erm ‘Plane, while Colour Me is six minutes of aural beauty.

mi0002385368Rough Music (1995)      

While never really sold on the delayed Life Model (save for Broken and Mended) I didn’t have long to wait for the next high, the second Beggars Banquet album out the following year – one of the last vinyl LPs I bought. It was a return to form from openers Detective Song and Sugared Almond  onwards, with Rod’s Worry Beads possibly my favourite BA moment. Oh, those guitars. A more cinematic side resurfaces on the reflective James and Secret Destination, with seldom a weak moment throughout.

61eb6dcculAltitude (2006)                             

I took my eye off the ball beyond Rough Music. Blame it on parenthood if you will. But there was proof that the BAs were back (they never really left) and large as life by the time of this Harvest debut, taking us towards 2011’s Anti-Gravity and today’s return of a perennially-welcome stranger. Up In A Down World carried on where we left off, while Beautiful Is (As Beautiful Does) – with Dawn Larder’s co-vocals and Calvin Talbot’s George Harrison-like guitar – could brighten the darkest of days. Sublime.

For this site’s interview with Gerard Langley of The Blue Aeroplanes, from January 5th, 2017, follow this link.

The Blue Aeroplanes are on tour to promote the new album from this week. For ticket details and to learn how to get hold of Welcome, Stranger! contact the band website or check out their Facebook and Twitter pages.

Landing Lights: The Blue Aeroplanes, heading our way in January 2017

Landing Lights: The Blue Aeroplanes, heading our way in January 2017

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Further entries from the journal of an airman – in conversation with The Blue Aeroplanes’ Gerard Langley

Welcome Strangers: The Blue Aeroplanes, touring in January 2017 around the UK

Welcome Strangers: The Blue Aeroplanes, touring the UK, possibly making their own way there

The Blue Aeroplanes pride themselves on fusing elements of rock, folk, poetry, punk, dance and art, and were acknowledged as favourites of the likes of Radiohead and REM back in the day.

Their lead singer also lectures on songwriting, his past students including George Ezra; former bandmates having gone on to play with everyone from Busted, Goldfrapp and fellow Bristol outfit Massive Attack to Placebo, Primal Scream and Suede; several of their LPs becoming alternative UK and US hits, while 1990’s Swagger was an Independent on Sunday, Sunday Times and The Times album of the year.

Yet this Avon art-rock collective has been known to combine its more accessible pop moments with what they deem ‘serious weirdness’, and consequently rarely leave the subterranean shadows. What’s more, an outfit previously invited to play the Hay-On-Wye Literary Festival were once rejected by BBC 2’s The Late Show for being ‘too arty’, and never got a session for legendary DJ John Peel, apparently for being ‘too rock’n’roll’.

Talking of contradictions, they share multi-instrumentalist Ian Kearey – a  regular for the first two years, and an auxiliary member ever since – with folk legends the Oyster Band, while remaining the only group banned from The Rainbow Lounge, Lemmy’s favourite hangout. And from that you’ll see – along with many more of the items filed under ‘trivia’ on their official website – just how much of a conundrum the Aeroplanes are.

Consequently, I won’t be holding out too much hope that international fame will follow the release of their new studio album, Welcome, Stranger! But that’s the world’s loss, not us in the know. And for the record (so to speak) it’s a mighty fine waxing – the first great LP of 2017 in my opinion, as you’ll see from the review that follows on this site.

More to the point, I’ll be hoping to see them live for the first time in more than 25 years when they return to the road next week, their tour starting at Liverpool’s 02 Academy (Wednesday, January 11th) and Manchester’s Ruby Lounge (Thursday, January 12th), 11 more dates following before a finale at Exeter’s Phoenix Arts Centre (Sunday, January 29th).

These days, founding brothers Gerard (poet/singer) and John Langley (drums) plus Wojtek Dmochowski (dancer) are joined by Gerard Starkie (guitar, on board since 2006), Chris Sharp (bass, on board since 2008) and more recent additions Bec Jevons and Mike Youe (both guitar). And apparently it’s their longest-lasting line-up yet, 35 years after emerging from the ashes of Bristolian post-punk combo Art Objects.

Marc's Mates: The extended Blue Aeroplanes line-up with Marc Riley at BBC 6 Music (Photo: BBC)

Marc’s Mates: An extended Blue Aeroplanes line-up with Marc Riley at BBC 6 Music (Photo: BBC)

Frontman Gerard was heading up to Salford for a live BBC Radio 6 Music session for Marc Riley when I caught him on his phone, that three-track recording followed by a sell-out Christmas show at 450-capacity Bristol venue The Fleece, which just happens to be owned by bandmate Chris Sharp. And that led me to ask Gerard how that would compare to their debut at the nearby King Street Art Gallery 35 years earlier.

“Wow, you remember that?”

Not quite, unfortunately. It was five more years before I learned about the wonders of The Blue Aeroplanes.

“Well, that was the first thing we ever did. I knew the guy who ran it, and it seemed a nice sort of place to play. They started a new music week, with around five bands every night, which was pretty cool.”

What was the difference between Art Objects and the revered band that followed?

“That band was quite slick, but fell apart as a couple of people were in another band at the time, more pop. The Aeroplanes were a lot looser, and it didn’t matter if someone couldn’t make it – we could always got someone else.”

There have been 48 band members, overall, so I guess that suggests a far looser set-up.

“Yeah, that sounds more impressive than it really is though. Usually, a line-up lasts a couple of years, but with people around that as well. Some of those listed only lasted a couple of gigs or played on a couple of tracks. But they’re all important and they’re all on the back of the t-shirt as well.”

mi0001748548My first Blue Aeroplanes live sighting came in June 1987 at Glastonbury Festival, the band proving a feast for the senses on stage two. I wrote in issue two of my Captains Log fanzine about a ‘frantic seven-piece including a scratch DJ welding the gaps between songs, a guitarist bounding across the stage Wilko Johnson-style (and wearing a dress), a totally wired non-stop dancer, and a vocalist who halfway through the set starts reading poetry among the frenzied goings on’. I think I was already aware of the band (they’d featured on revamped BBC music show Whistle Test) but can’t recall if I’d already shelled out on their (second) album Tolerance, which was later joined in my vinyl collection by gatefold double-album Friendloverplane.

I witnessed more of the same at Aldershot’s West End Centre and Portsmouth’s Hornpipe Arts Centre in October and November 1988, and for that Portsmouth show, my diary reminds me that The Mighty Lemon Drops’ Marcus Williams featured on bass, while soon after Dave Newton – also of the Droppies – filled in on guitar, two of many BA cameos and loans over the years.

“Well, we did a tour of America with them and then they were around for a year or so after a couple of people left, before we formed a more regular line-up. I saw them recently at South by South West (SXSW), with Dave – based over there now – coming to one of the gigs. It was really nice to see him again.”

My diary entry suggests Marcus was only in at Portsmouth because regular bass player Andy McCreeth had punctured a lung.

“Ah, that was when he first appeared, but then he joined for a bit. He was also playing with Julian Cope. That’s why he wore the leather trousers – Julian’s uniform at the time!”

As the Louder Than War website recently put it, this is a band that ‘still sound remarkably fresh’ rather than one that ‘should have given up yonks ago – amazingly enough, they sound like a band still on the verge of a major breakthrough’. That sounds about right to me, on the eve of the release of the new LP, which has been available via Pledge Music as a pre-order. Is this their first experience of crowd-funding?

“We’re not really doing the crowd-funding thing. We’ve already paid for the album, although we might do a campaign next year. This is just another way of putting out an album.”

I was going to say it’s good to have them back, but I’m not really sure they ever went away. There have been gaps in the history though. Were there side-projects when the band weren’t together?

“No, we don’t disappear. We just hole up in Bristol for a bit, doing other things, like running The Fleece. I also lecture in songwriting, three days a week, at a music college in Bristol. It’s part of a chain, with other colleges in Manchester, Brighton, London and Dublin, towards a BA honours degree.”

61t3-8-kpslGerard’s head of songwriting role at BIMM (British & Irish Modern Music Institute) Bristol suggests to me a vision of him walking into lecture theatres in trademark shades, reading W.H. Auden, as he did back in the day.

“I’d like to, but it’s mainly about songwriting rather than anything too poetic, although I cover a bit of that. It’s pretty high level.”

Well, let’s just hope George Ezra takes a leaf from the notebook of this performance poet turned agit-pop singer. And on that front, did he see himself as a poet first and foremost? Or was that just a clever way to try and hide in front of an audience?

“I’d probably say about two-thirds of what I write is written first as poems, but I know I’m   going to put them to music so I’m already looking for lines I can repeat, maybe use as a chorus. Sometimes I’ll also fit them to a piece of music, so it sort of evolves into something else, like poem-songs. But some are written purely as poems and could be around quite a while until I find the right piece of music.”

Of those 48 Blue Aeroplanes over 35 years, there’s still a core nucleus, and between Gerard, brother John and Wojtek, I make it 91 years’ service. That’s not far behind Rick Parfitt and Francis Rossi for Status Quo.

“Yeah … but there’s no upper limit these days, really. And I always felt people like BB King would go on forever.”

These days, they’ve even got two Gerards (with Mr Starkie too). Even the mighty Teenage Fanclub only have one.

“I know, I think it’s a bit unfair on everyone else. We’re just lucky.”

The current line-up also includes Chris Sharp (bass) and guitarists Mike and Bec Jevons. Were they key to this album too?

“Yes, it started as us jamming with Bec and Mike at The Fleece one weekend, and we wrote half to two-thirds of the album in three or four weeks.”

mi0001642483Are The Blue Aeroplanes in 2016 as fired up and writing as much as they were back in 1981?

“Yeah, we actually recorded 16 tracks, putting 10 on the album. It had been five or six years since the last one so I had loads I’d written. We’re certainly not short of material.”

On the subject of past band members, one I wanted to ask about was Rodney Allen, who I saw live for the first time the same weekend as the Aeroplanes in ’87, playing a solo set on the main stage at Glastonbury. He memorably featured for the band from 1988 through to 1998, again for three years from 2002, and was a past interviewee of mine in my Captains Log days.

In a review of The Blue Aeroplanes at Aldershot’s West End Centre in October ’88, I mentioned how on final encore Bury Your Love Like Treasure, Rodney – the main support that night – joined them and provided ‘a perfect vocal combination with Gerard’. What’s more, I treasure that year’s Circle Line 12″ by Rod, which carries as its main image a photo of the artist sat on a guitar-case reading my fanzine. So what’s he up to these days?

“Rodney’s just had his second kid. He’s very happy and still plays, mainly doing covers. In fact, he’s in a Slade tribute band.”

Splendid. Now there’s a tribute band I’d like to see. Actually, Rodney’s a prime example of the BA recruitment policy – going from support act to full-time member. I was also recently reminded of catching the band twice in London in 1991, at Camden Underworld in the summer supported by The Katydids, then at The Mean Fiddler in December with Railroad Earth, each featuring future BA contributors – namely Susie Hug and Tim Keegan. Furthermore, Gerard’s brother John Langley and Mike Youe currently also play with ex-Aeroplane Rita Lynch’s band. So is it a bit of an apprenticeship scheme, giving artists a chance to reach a new audience?

Gerard laughs.

“Yeah, people join for their own reason, and I never mind them having their own things going on. Bec has her band, IDestroy, who play quite a lot. I like that feeling of being part of something larger.”

Live Presence: The Aeros, on stage, the boys in the bubbles, you could say

Live Presence: The Aeros on stage – boys and girl in the bubbles, you could say

And what about Wojtek? Is your groove-master still pulling out leads while dancing in your general area, so to speak?

“Not so much my area, because I’d just kick him. But he does tend to entwine leads, as he always did. Actually, he’s travelling up from London for this Marc Riley session, so we will have a dancer on the radio.”

Essential, I’d say. Every happening band should have one. In fact, Wojtek arrived late for that radio session, having Marc Riley in stitches as he burst into the studio during the final bars of opener Dead Tree! Dead Tree!, yet still managing to throw himself across the floor on his knees.

While the band’s biggest-sellers were Swagger, Beatsongs and Life Model in the first half of the ’90s, there have been so many more great songs across the albums. Does that lead to a bit of head-scratching for Gerard and co. when it comes to set-lists?

“Actually, yeah. We’ve a few we tend to always do, but tend to concentrate on the new material, and will be playing pretty much all the new album on the January dates. But we’ll also do older ones we haven’t played for ages, including What It Is off Swagger. There’s a lot to choose from, and when people join the band they often tell me, ‘I really like that one’, so we do that too.”

Is Bristol still the centre of Gerard’s world?

“Well, it’s where I live! I suppose that’s the same thing. It’s a creative kind of place.”

It’s got a proud history as far as music goes.

“Yes, it’s slightly isolated in a way, it’s on its own, and things are quite important in Bristol that are not known anywhere else.”

Aeroplane Antics: The Blue Aeroplanes, coming to a town near you

Aeroplane Antics: The Blue Aeroplanes, still seeing spots before their eyes

Away from all this, are you a family man? Is there a Junior Aeroplanes Collective waiting in the wings?

“No, that’s for other people, I think … that kind of distraction!”

As I’m writing this first for a North West publication, have you any specific memories of venues in this region?

“Well, when we were doing a lot of touring, it all got a bit blurry.”

Ah, the old ‘If it‘s Tuesday, it must be Brentford Red Lion’ syndrome?

“Yeah, I was never very good at that in interviews, trying to remember the last time I played Phoenix or somewhere. I’d always look at Rod. He’d get out a notebook and say, ‘Yeah, that gig where there was the big fire escape,’ and I’d say, ‘Oh, that one!’ I remember playing The Boardwalk in Manchester though, where an early Inspiral Carpets supported us quite a lot. Noel Gallagher must have been roadie-ing for them at the time.”

I described that Portsmouth gig in ’88 in my diary as ‘a great night – an orgy of broken strings and fluffed lines’. Does that sound pretty much par for the course during that era?

“Yeah, that’s pretty much right. When we started out, we got out of Bristol as much as we could, but would often be third on the bill, playing without a soundcheck. So we thought we’d just run around a lot and make plenty of noise. You couldn’t hear yourself anyway. That’s kind of how all that started. Then there was having lots of guitarists on the last song. The most we had was 16 on Breaking in My Heart!”

blue-aeroplanes-visual-stage-1For the official verdict on Welcome, Stranger! head back to this site very soon. And to catch up with the recent Marc Riley session for BBC 6 Music, try here before mid-January 2017 (subject to international restrictions).  

Meanwhile, for tour and ticket details and to learn how to get hold of the new album, contact the venues or the band website or check out their Facebook and Twitter pages.

Also, watch out over the next few weeks for an interview here with another band for whom Rodney Allen previously featured – The Chesterfields. We’ve got it all going on, you know.

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The writewyattuk quotes of 2016, part two – July to December

As the festivities start to take hold at writewyattuk hq, we best conclude our 12 months of quotes from 2016’s feature/interviews, encapsulated via a series of soundbites. Again, much gratitude to all who responded, and big respect to those who read the rambling results. Click on the names for links to the features.  

July

Road Runners: Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band, par-taying in 2016 (Photo courtesy of Steve Bingham)

Road Runners: Geno Washington & the Ram Jam Band, ‘par-taying’ in 2016 (Photo via Steve Bingham)

1960s soul legend Geno Washington on continuing to give it his all in live performances

“I can’t change that. That’s part of me, and I love performing and making people happy. A lot of musicians will tell that you can be achey, have a headache, backache, all that. But when it’s showtime, the adrenaline starts flowing. Yeah, man, you know! The kids are switching on to us, because they haven’t seen nothing like that. There’s no gimmicks, no backing tapes, none of that. This is live … straight from the heart! The Ram Jam Band is geared up to par-tay! Par-tay! Forget about your troubles for that moment, and par-tay!”

Jamaica Smile: Toots Hibbert, captured live by Lee Abel

Jamaica Smile: Toots Hibbert (Photo: Lee Abel)

Reggae legend and Maytals survivor Toots Hibbert gives advice to young musicians following in his wake

“I’d wish them to listen to music from me … and Jimmy Cliff … and Bob Marley. Young people should listen very attentively and try to write good lyrics and be creative to produce good music. And to do that they have to listen and learn, and pay respect to us – the original singers of reggae music!”

Postcool Customer: Dennis Locorriere, back out on the road in 2016

Postcool Customer: Dennis Locorriere, back out on the road in 2016

Dr Hook’s Dennis Locorriere analyses a year in which there were no end of celebrity bereavements

“Hey, with the year this has been, I’m happy to be spoken to rather than about! I’m glad this is an interview and not an obituary. But do you know why it’s so shocking now? Stars used to be around until maybe they were 40 then they thought it was unbecoming and disappeared. You’d see a photograph of them shopping with sunglasses on when they were 60, then you’d hear they’d died. Now they dance right to the precipice – baby boomers like Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, leaping off amplifiers. So when these guys go, we’re like, ‘What!’ It’s sad, but I chuckle a little when people in their 70s are dying, especially those who lived the way that they did! Rock’n’roll takes its toll.”

 

Pleasure Principal: Gary Numan, planning new releases in 2017

Pleasure Principal: Gary Numan, planning new releases in 2017

Gary Numan on why we shouldn’t expect him to do many more retrospective anniversary tours

“It isn’t something that will become a regular part of what I do no. My interest is always in what I’m doing next, rather than what I’ve done before. I am obsessed about moving forward, not living on past glories. But I feel my previous reluctance to play much older stuff has often been seen by fans as arrogant selfishness and I regret that, so decided I would back off and be more agreeable about it. My relationship with fans is very important and so these tours of older material will feature again, now and then, in the future. Nothing will change the fact though that the thing that gets me up in the morning, the thing that still excites me, is going in to the studio and writing new music, then taking that on tour all over the world. These retro things can be fun, once in a while, but it’s absolutely not what I see my career settling into. I won’t touch it again for quite some time after this tour is over. The new album will be ready soon and all my interest and drive is leaning towards that.”

August

Time Out: A Crafty Cigarette author Matteo Sedazzari on a fag break

Time Out: A Crafty Cigarette author Matteo Sedazzari on a fag break

Matteo Sedazzari, author and blogger, on how he felt failed by the education system as a schoolboy

“I was up against it but also very inquisitive, forever asking teachers, ’Why?’ I found, like the kid in my book, school pigeon-holed you. Hand your homework in on time, nice and neat and tidy, and you’re an A-grade student. They were preparing those kids for corporate culture. If a kid was a bit maverick, a bit different … I was fortunate I had such strong belief at an early age. I’m a late bloomer but always knew I could do it. When I left school I went to night-school and got three f***ing A-levels, went back to my year head and said, ‘Look at that! Remember me? CSE failure!’”

Rave Reviews: Author Jenn Ashcroft has earned plenty of critical acclaim (Photo copyright: Martin Figura)

Rave Reviews: Author Jenn Ashcroft has earned plenty of critical acclaim (Photo copyright: Martin Figura)

Award-winning author Jenn Ashworth standing up for libraries and the need to maintain them

“I hated high school, and many times when I was supposed to be there, I was actually in the Harris Library in Preston. I remember sitting there one weekday morning, leaning against a radiator reading Melvin Burgess’s The Baby and Fly Pie in one sitting. It was my safe and happy place – a good place to be alone, read whatever I wanted. I was too young to know anything about book hype, the cannon or what books were suitable for a teenage girl of my class and background. So I read whatever I wanted. I cherish those memories, and later on became a librarian because I wanted to help facilitate that freedom for others.”

Meeting Nicky: The blogger with Nicky Weller in the About the Young Idea cafe (Photo: Richard Houghton)

Meeting Nicky: The blogger with Nicky Weller in the About the Young Idea cafe (Photo: Richard Houghton)

Nicky Weller on why Liverpool was chosen for the highly-successful About the Young Idea exhibition celebrating her brother Paul’s band The Jam’s enduring legacy

“We looked at lots of places, including Scotland, Newcastle, Manchester and Birmingham. But when we came to Liverpool we had such a good response from the council. This wasn’t the original building we were going into, so it was all a bit of a rush in the end, but I’m glad we chose the Cunard. Nothing like this has ever been done in this room, and with the musical history here – The Beatles, Merseybeat, Gerry & The Pacemakers, all those bands – it’s perfect. It’s like a Mecca for music. And if you’re coming here to see The Beatles, you’ve got to come and see The Jam too!”

Celebration Time: Wilko and his band (Photo copyright: Leif Laaksonen)

Celebration Time: Wilko and his band (Photo copyright: Leif Laaksonen)

Former Dr. Feelgood and Ian Dury & The Blockheads guitar legend Wilko Johnson on why we should do all we can to safeguard the future of live music venues in London and further afield

“When me and Norman Watt-Roy started this band around the mid-‘80s, at that moment there were loads of good gigs in London and you could make a living just playing around there – The Cricketers, the Half Moon, The Marquee, The Mean Fiddler, The Powerhaus. There were lots of gigs and lots of live music going down. Then it gradually changed with the dance thing, those live venues started going and the gigs went. What the scene is now, I do not know. I wonder what people are doing now! It’s kind of the ideal situation for rock’n’roll, those kind of gigs.”

Rock Idols: Teenage Fanclub, Here, there and everywhere.

Rock Idols: Teenage Fanclub, Here, there and everywhere.

Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, celebrating being in a rather special band where three members write the songs

“I think that’s been a strength for us. You’re not reliant on one person. We’re talking 10 albums, so around 120 songs upwards – a tall order. We’ve been lucky enough to share that burden. When we make an album we bring around six songs then try to whittle those down, focusing on around four. There’s definitely friendly competition too. When someone brings in a great song, you feel, ‘Wow, I’m really going to have to up my game!”

September

Live Presence: Mark Trotter, right, with David Jakes and Lonely the Brave

Live Presence: Mark Trotter, right, with David Jakes and Lonely the Brave

Lonely The Brave’s Mark Trotter on having a more introverted front-man in David Jakes

“Dave’s only ever done what Dave does, and people were confused by that initially, seeing this front-man not into jumping around and swinging a microphone around his head. That would never work for us – it’s so contrived. We’ve toured with bands who practise jump-kicks before they play. I mean, really? Come on! It’s not real. Be spontaneous about it! With Dave, all he wants to do is sing and give the best performance he can. And if he had to stand behind a curtain 20 foot away, I wouldn’t care.”

Street Life: Elliott Morris (Photo copyright: Vanessa Haines Photography)

Street Life: Elliott Morris (Photo copyright: Vanessa Haines Photography)

Solo guitar virtuoso performer Elliott Morris on past live links with a certain Ed Sheeran

“Ed and I used to gig-swap all the time. He’d head up to Lincoln one month, I’d go down to London the next. We shared the bill on loads of shows, the last after his first album came out, a Nando’s Festival in London. Only I was designated driver that day and am a veggie, so when I found out we got as much free beer and chicken as we wanted I was a little under-catered for! It was a fun gig though.”

Vapors Trial: The 2016 line-up of The Vapors, with Michael Bowes, left, joining Dave Fenton, front, Ed Bazalgette, rear, and Steve Smith, right (Photo: The Vapors).

Vapors Trial: 2016’s line-up – Michael Bowes, David Fenton, Ed Bazalgette, Steve Smith

The Vapors’ frontman David Fenton on The Jam’s Setting Sons tour back in 1979

“That was brilliant – our first real dabble into life on the road, going from playing to 20 people or one man and his dog in a pub to 2,000 seaters with The Jam. We each had our own minibus and every time we got to a service station had water pistol fights in the car park. They’d tape our clothes to the ceiling while we were on stage, that sort of thing, while we’d put talcum powder on the snare drum. I’ve got really happy memories of all that.”

Live Presence: Deutsche Ashram's Merinde Verbeek and Ajay Saggar, live at the Oedipus Brouwerij, Amsterdam, (Photo: Kasper Vogelkanz)

Live Presence: Deutsche Ashram’s Merinde Verbeek & Ajay Saggar at Amsterdam’s Oedipus Brouwerij (Photo: Kasper Vogelkanz)

Ajay Saggar on how his Deutsche Ashram project with Merinde Verbeek – a co-worker at Amsterdam’s Paradiso venue – came about by pure chance

“I sent her three songs and the next morning got something back. I listened with trepidation, but was absolutely blown away – a fantastic voice and she totally got it. She said, ‘I loved it. Have you got any more?’ She went on to write all the lyrics and melodies, really fast. We went into the studio and helped develop it with her with extra harmonies and more vocals, tried loads of things, build it up, mixed it and put a lot of work in. And I love it!”

Big Country, 2016. From the left - Jamie Watson, Bruce Watson, Mark Brzezicki, Simon Hough, Scott Whitley (Photo: Paul Green)

Big Country, 2016. From the left – Jamie Watson, Bruce Watson, Mark Brzezicki, Simon Hough, Scott Whitley (Photo: Paul Green)

Mark Brzezicki on how Scottish outfit Big Country ended up taking on a Slough-born son of a Polish immigrant and his friend, Tony Butler, a West Londoner with Ghanaian roots

“We’re like the bumblebee – it should never be able to fly and should never really have happened, but it did. All by chance, like a cork in the ocean caught by a current, finding itself on an island you wouldn’t expect. It’s a long story, a chain of events after answering an advert in Melody Maker when I was around 18, saying ‘Phil Collins/Bill Bruford style drummer wanted’. I wanted to do something original and the reason I played drums in the first place was Phil Collins – he was instrumental in everything for me. I adored his playing. I was listening to prog rock, fusion, jazz funk, and the king of all that for me was Phil, particularly with his other band, Brand X.”

October

Campbells' Kingdom: UB40 in live action (Photo: Martin Porter)

Campbells’ Kingdom: UB40 live (Photo: Martin Porter)

Drummer/songwriter Jimmy Brown, on how UB40’s truly multi-cultural upbringing made the band unique

“I realise now what a privilege it was to live in an area where you could sit on your front doorstep and see the four corners of the world go by. It’s transformed us. It always has been for me, and I’m proud of that aspect of Britain. We were right in it. The people next door had a blues (party) every Saturday night and we were just there – mates together. We’d play with the Irish kids and the kids from Antigua, St Kitts, Barbados … They were the people you were in class with. That’s what cemented the relationships.”

Southern Comfort: The South, with Alison Wheeler out front

Southern Comfort: The South, with Alison Wheeler out front

The (Beautiful) South’s Alison Wheeler, on how she survives as the only woman in a nine-piece band

“When I first joined The Beautiful South, it was a real education. These guys had been in music all their adult lives. There was something quite interesting, and liberating to see four grown adults acting like children – in a good way. They hadn’t been stamped on or downtrodden like the day-to-day rigmarole of earning your keep. It took me a while to wind down from a full-time job, trying to get on in music. I was very serious but eventually learned life isn’t so serious. You’ve got to enjoy yourself, which was their whole approach to life. When you start on a tour everyone’s really polite, everything’s in its place, but three weeks on it’s like a cesspit. But what are you going to do with a chemical loo and 13 men?”

War Boy: Michael Foreman with a depiction of himself as a lad (Photo: Damien Wootten)

War Boy: Michael Foreman with a depiction of himself as a lad (Photo: Damien Wootten)

Award-winning children’s author/illustrator Michael Foreman on an enduring love for Cornwall, 55 years after his first visit

“Cornwall is a magical place, one I first learned of from Pop the sailor, a friend of our family during the Second World War, who was from Mevagissey and told me stories of smugglers, pirates and shipwrecks. So yes, I still settle down in front of Poldark on a Sunday evening and take in those wonderful coastal vistas and crashing seas. You know from going there yourself what a magical place it is. It’s timeless. Apart from the pasties and tourists and everything, you can set all kinds of stories there. The landscape doesn’t change. It’s stunning in places.”

Soul Survivor: P.P. Arnold, on tour with The Manfreds (Photo: Gered Mankowitz)

Soul Survivor: P.P. Arnold (Photo: Gered Mankowitz)

P.P. Arnold on her 1960s’ London friendship with fellow treasured US import Jimi Hendrix

“Jimi and I were very close. He was my ‘brother’ – he really helped me. I was very shy and never planned to do any of this. I didn’t know how the music industry worked. I was just a young girl who’d come out of this abusive teen marriage, who one morning ended up at Ike and Tina Turner’s house after a prayer. Then I was on the road, then Mick Jagger and Andrew (Loog) Oldham invited me to stay and go solo. And the rest is history. The universe and God work in mysterious ways, because Jimi and I ended up just around the corner from each other when he lived in Montagu Square and I lived right behind him in Bryanston Mews East, and he really supported me. He understood me. We came from the same background, out of the civil rights revolution and into the rock’n’roll revolution of the UK.”

Drum Major: Billy Doherty, loving life with The Undertones in 2016 (Photo: BBC)

Drum Major: Billy Doherty, loving life with The Undertones in 2016 (Photo: BBC)

The Undertones’ drummer Billy Doherty on broadcasting legend John Peel, the band’s favourite ‘uncle’

“When we did the documentary, he came to Derry for the weekend and we were all worried about what we were going to talk about, how we were going to entertain this man, not least with such a long gap since we’d last met him. But how wrong we were! It was great from start to finish. He talked about Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, David Bowie … You name ‘em, he’d met them! And there was no bragging. He was just telling it as it happened, and we were all empathising with what he was saying. He was telling stories as we were being filmed as we walked through the streets, and so many people came up and were so gracious to him, shaking his hand, saying, ‘John Peel! How’s it going!’ He was just as nice back to them. Then we went to a local bar and there were guys buying him Guinness. The table was covered. I’m not exaggerating – there must have been at least 20 pints. And he drank every one of them as well!”

November

Happy Wending: Glenn Tilbrook, back out on the road, this time as a solo artist (Photo: Rob O'Connor)

Real Spark: Glenn Tilbrook  (Photo: Rob O’Connor)

Glenn Tilbrook, on how he’s loving being part of Squeeze again after their successful last album, Cradle to the Grave

“It’s a really sparky record and one of the best Squeeze albums. Not only that – I think we’ve got more to come. It’s going to be better. We’re getting better all the time. And that’s such a great place to be. Just being older you get a bit more sensible. It took long enough though, and – after all – pop music is the home of arrested development, I think! But I think we’re good at giving each other space. And we need to do that.”

 

 

Blues Masters: Nine Below Zero in live action

Blues Masters: Dennis Greaves (second left) in live action with Nine Below Zero

Nine Below Zero’s Dennis Greaves on how his family inspired him to make his mark as a musician

“My Grandad, Alf Hardy, sold newspapers outside Tufnell Park tube station, but had harmonicas, keyboards, Hammond organs, guitars, banjos. He could pick things up and play them immediately. Dad would go and see Matt Munro in a real famous pub, The Boston Arms. He was a bus conductor at the time, and his accompanist was Max Bygraves’ brother. My Dad, my Grandad, my great-grandad and I have all sung in there. And my dad thought he was Al Jolson! I grew up in a house that really adored music, and it was always on. My Dad was a hero of mine, a London taxi driver and bus driver, and bought me my first proper guitar – a Gibson 335. I wasn’t the brightest tool in the box, but as soon as I left school I educated myself through reading, especially by being on the road. Travelling educated me, but my Mum and Dad gave me a fantastic start in life, giving me confidence. I can’t thank them enough for that. They never told me I was rubbish or told me what I couldn’t do. I was dyslexic, short-sighted and couldn’t read or write as good as other kids. But I certainly made up for lost time.”

Camden Tan: From the left - Ed Bazalgette, Dave Fenton and Steve Smith at Dingwall's, Camden (Photo: Ashley Greb Photography https://www.facebook.com/ashleygrebphotography/)

Camden Tan: Ed Bazalgette, Dave Fenton and Steve Smith at Dingwall’s (Photo: Ashley Greb)

The Vapors’ guitarist (and award-winning director) Ed Bazalgette on an initial approach David Fenton to join the band

“I’d had a band, and me and Howard (Smith) had watched The Vapors. The band we’d been in had split, so I put a pick-up band together. I don’t think we even had a name. We might have informally called ourselves The Parrots. There was a teacher from my school playing saxophone, Howard playing drums, and a bloke playing bass called John. It was a right old mish-mash. We got pulled off the stage after about three songs – the landlord, Tony McManus, wrestler Mick McManus’s son, thought we were shit! We were supporting another Guildford band, doing covers. David was in the audience, saw me, and I got a call about three months later from his then bass player asking if I was interested in auditioning. So fortunately David didn’t think I was shit, and his girlfriend at the time told me he said if we were in a band together we’d make a real impact. So you have to praise that insight!”

Dreaming Head: Hannah Peel has had another amazing year

Dreaming Head: Hannah Peel has had another amazing year

Hannah Peel, solo artist and key component of The Magnetic North, on her on-going relationship with the music box

“It’s a love-hate thing that started off as a bit of fun with (a cover of) Tainted Love. Every single note is hole-punched on paper and it’s become one of those things I adore doing but takes so long. By the end you feel you’ve wasted a whole day punching holes! But what comes out of that process is really beautiful. I really love analogue synths, and I suppose the music box is the very basics of early computer technology. We rely on that so much, so making music without any cables – just paper and a pencil again – is really something. Even orchestrators don’t tend to use paper anymore – they do it all on a computer. So this feels like you’re touching the core again. That’s why I also use it at the end of this new record – it seems to sum up the childhood everyone goes back to.”

December

Space Invaders: John Robb and Rob Haynes give it their all at The Conti (Photo copyright: Joel Goodman)

Space Invaders: John Robb and Rob Haynes give it their all at The Conti (Photo: Joel Goodman)

The Membranes’ frontman John Robb on just what became of his original bass guitar

“It was stolen out of my house – a complete nightmare, around 1992. It was heart-breaking – it meant absolutely nothing to anyone else. It only ever worked for me. I’m sure they nicked it, got halfway down the street, then thought, ‘What the f*** is that?’ It looks like a stick!’ People would borrow but couldn’t play it. It was so small and a weird shape and it’s hard to get your hand around it. But these days I’d probably still use what I’ve got now – my (Fender) Precision – because it’s a heavier sound.”

Double Trouble: Andy Golding and David Callahan treat Preston to a semi-acoustic Wolfhounds set (Photo copyright: Joel Goodman)

Double Trouble: Andy Golding and David Callahan go semi-acoustic (Photo: Joel Goodman)

The Wolfhounds’ David Callahan, trying his best to explain his band’s trademark skewiff guitar sound

“It’s kind of half way between Wilko Johnson and Winged Eel Fingerling (Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention). It has pop and rock chops but also flies off at angles all the time. But that’s what we wanted. Our early influences were things like that. We bonded over a mutual love of something between The Who and The Fire Engines.”

Album Shoot: Paul Young, sharp-suited in the city as part of his Good Thing LP launch (Photo: James Hole)

Album Shoot: Paul Young, sharp-suited in the city during his Good Thing launch (Photo: James Hole)

Paul Young re-examining his pre-solo career days fronting The Q-Tips, and how he learned about stagecraft

“Because we were a seven-piece band we had to work every gig we could get to be able to support ourselves. That’s where I really found my feet on stage, and first had a chance to find my own on-stage personality. That’s something a lot of kids don’t get now. This is the problem. They want fame too fast. All of a sudden they’re up there on stage and don’t know what to do.”

Presenting Passion: John Suchet, ITN newscaster turned Classic FM presenter (Photo: Classic FM)

Presenting Passion: John Suchet, ITN newscaster turned Classic FM presenter (Photo: Classic FM)

John Suchet on how his approach to writing about classical composers compares to what’s gone before

“I offer the man as much as the music. I think you’ll find a lot of books on Beethoven and a lot of books on Mozart are all about musicological analysis and the way the dominant chord in the third bar correlates with the blah blah blah! What fascinates me is, ‘Was he drunk when he wrote it?’ ‘Was he in love when he wrote it?’ I always try and portray the man as much as the music. That’s the hallmark of my musical biographies – that by the end you’ll know the man as much as you know the music. I never lose sight of the fact that we tend to treat these composers as gods, putting them on a pedestal. But they were men. They had to live and pay their rent, eat and drink. So how did they do it? And with Beethoven, how did he do that when he was slowly going deaf? That’s what fascinates me.”

What's Cooking: Jimmy Osmond on the set of Celebrity MasterChef (Photo: BBC)

What’s Cooking: Jimmy Osmond on the set of Celebrity MasterChef (Photo: BBC)

Jimmy Osmond on why he loves the fact that his superstar days are now way behind him

“That’s what’s been so great! Mostly in the ’70s there were all these screaming teenage girls and whatever. Now it’s so much fun. I’ve done all these reality shows and plays, and now I’ll be on a bowling lane and a bloke will say, ‘Hey Jimmy – good shot!’ or whatever. That’s real nice – nothing crazy, just friendly. People feel they know you and are genuinely nice.”

Booked Up: Richard Houghton at home

Booked Up: Richard Houghton

Richard Houghton, on what he unearthed while researching The Beatles – I Was There

“The very first photograph in the book is from Woolton Village Fete, famously the day Paul met John for the very first time.  The photo I’ve included was given to me by someone who was a babe in arms at the time and he’s in the foreground on his mother’s knee while John Lennon can be seen in the background playing with the Quarrymen. The publisher thinks it’s the very first time this photograph has been published anywhere in the world.”

 

Finally, I could have added favourite albums, books, films and live shows of 2016, but you’ve seen a lot of those mentioned elsewhere in recent weeks. Instead, I’ll leave you with one image, lovingly ‘borrowed’ from the Getintothis ‘beats, drones and rock’n’roll’ website, I felt summed up one of my personal highs, and not just as my eldest daughter and I feature in the photograph (although clearly that helps). It involved The Magnetic North, supported by esteemed author Frank Cottrell-Boyce (a past writewyattuk interviewee, with a link here) at Liverpool’s Central Library for the last-but-one outing of a live set celebrating the Prospect of Skelmersdale album. I was pretty late to this band, so properly introduced myself to 2012 debut Orkney: Symphony of The Magnetic North this year too. But they’re at the forefront of a movement seamlessly fusing atmospheric, sonic landscapes with archive film footage, in a similar manner to fellow favourites British Sea Power, King Creosote and Public Service Broadcasting in recent times. The show itself was a clear contender for gig of the year (with my review here), and took place in an amazing venue at a time when so many more libraries are being lost across the UK. Time to halt that slide, I’d say, looking back to our proud past in order to get a steer on what can be achieved in the future. And on that deep note, I’ll stop and let you ponder.

Taken Up: The Magnetic North, live in Liverpool's Central Library in October 2016 (Photo: http://www.getintothis.co.uk/

Taken Up: The Magnetic North, Liverpool’s Central Library (Photo: http://www.getintothis.co.uk/)

So there you go … over and out for 2016. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all our readers and contributors, and we’ll be back in 2017.  

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