The continuing adventures of Babybird – the Stephen Jones interview

Latest Compilation: Happy Stupid Nothing (2019) includes some of the latest greats from a rich song catalogue

Fresh from dates in Bristol and Minehead, Babybird return to the road this coming week, London and Leeds dates followed by Liverpool and Manchester visits sandwiching a trip to Birmingham on a mini-tour publicising new LP Photosynthesis, a cohesive collection of 10 tracks self-recorded by Stephen Jones, the voice and songwriting genius behind this cult ‘90s breakthrough act, the latest album coming hot on the heels of similarly-acclaimed, latter-years compilation Happy Stupid Nothing.

Reason enough from my point of view to catch up with Babybird’s main inspiration, with both recent records timely reminders to the wider public that this inventive act has always been about more than 1996 top-three hit, ‘You’re Gorgeous’.

While aware that there are many who don’t even realise he’s still making music, this decade Stephen has been quietly building himself a reputation as one of the music world’s most prolific artists. What’s more, we have Babybird’s first vinyl album release in 21 years, a limited-edition gatefold LP on music blogger Ben Scott‘s RW/FF Recordings label.

Happy Stupid Nothing collected together some of the best Babybird recordings from recent years, garnering praise from BBC Radio 6 Music, Virgin Radio and many other radio stations worldwide. Meanwhile, Uncut hailed it ‘surreal, heartfelt’ and ‘dramatically poignant’, while Classic Pop welcomed its ‘eccentric curios and anthems in the making’, with rave reviews too from various music websites.

But while there was plenty on that collection to please indie fans who gravitated towards Babybird in the ‘90s, Stephen doesn’t see himself as an indie-rock musician, as proved by his latest LP, described as a ‘fluid yet more focused record’ drawing on an ‘advanced range of sounds … taking the listener on an alluring journey’.

Stephen was at his place in Hale, Cheshire, when I tracked him down. Home to the stars, I suggested.

“It’s amazing how many people live up here. I think Morrissey hangs around there …”

Oh dear.

“Yes, the lovely Morrissey! But Johnny Marr runs around as well … in very short jogging shorts!”

Marked Fragile: Stephen Jones, the main driver behind Babybird, back on the road and in the shops right now

Friend of this website, Alan Wilkes, best known for his band, Vinny Peculiar, recorded the Parlour Flames’ 2013 self-titled album in Hale with Bonehead, of Oasis fame, who has a studio there. And he suggested to me recently that those who live there suffer from Paradise Syndrome, as they ‘can’t believe how lucky they are’. What say, Stephen?

“I know exactly what he means. It’s great! I lived in North London for 15 years. It was such a relief to escape. I was in Belsize Park, in a flat on the top floor, so when it came to bringing up kids, it was time to move.”

Time flies, with Stephen’s daughter now 18 and studying at university in Liverpool, while his son is 13. Talking geography, his press suggests he spent time in the 1980s making demo tapes in a Sheffield bedsit. But he’s from Nottingham and attended Trent University, when he became involved with experimental theatre company, Dogs in Honey, writing songs for their productions. So how did the South Yorkshire move come about? I’m confused.

“Yeah, it wasn’t quite a bedsit, but that’s where I met the band, with two of them still with me. I started recording on my own, then the band came along as I moved there from Nottingham. I lived there two years, I think.”

By 1994 he’d written more than 400 songs and had gained a publishing deal with Chrysalis Music. However, unable to win a recording contract, he decided to self-finance the release of a series of albums featuring his demos, limited to 1,000 copies of each under the name Baby Bird. And that ultimately caught the ears of the music press, debut LP I Was Born a Man released in the Summer of ‘95 and positively received by the likes of the NME.

The following summer – by then with a band in tow – he signed to Echo Records, and then came crossover success, the rebranded (one-word) Babybird managing eight UK top-40 hit singles from 1995 to 2000. And while they’d argue that their music was too maverick and eclectic to be pinned down and put into a convenient box labelled BritPop, they sold more than two million records and were nominated for two Brit Awards, sticking with Echo for four years, until poor sales for third album Bugged led to them being dropped, a split following.

Stephen continued on his own, writing fiction, releasing solo work and creating a score for the film Blessed. Then, in October 2005 the band reformed, the main-man now solely joined by fellow originals Luke Scott (guitar) and Robert Gregory (drums),  departed bass player John Pedder on his way to a successful career as an artist (with a link to his website here), his former bandmate playing down talk of any rift.

“It’s really difficult. When I moved to Sheffield, John put the band together really, finding the people. When we kind of parted ways it was strange. But I do talk to him, so I think it’s become okay.”

Time heals and all that?

“Yes, I think so.”

Early Form: The first pre-band Baby Bird LP, from 1995

A new LP was released a year later, that version of the band continuing until 2013, a period including funding from long-term Babybird fan and Hollywood legend Johnny Depp for 2010 LP, Ex-Maniac, also playing guitar on a number of its songs and directing a powerful video for single ‘Unloveable’.

While recognised as a master of accessible melodies and captivating hooks, Stephen never lost his appetite for recording imaginative and challenging music. Since launching his Bandcamp page in 2012, he’s reconnected with his DIY roots, exploring new styles and approaches through various projects, producing many intriguing self-recorded, self-released records, independence allowing him to dig deeper creatively without having to worry about commercial expectations, his output ever-prolific.

After a number of further Babybird releases on Bandcamp from 2015, Stephen took the band back out on tour in late 2017 with another new line-up, and two years on – having hit the road with Dodgy earlier this year on the 25th anniversary tour for their Homegrown album – they continue apace, a flavour of their latest coming covered by that latest compilation album and the new LP.

This short tour ends at Manchester’s Deaf Institute on Friday, November 29th. You’ve played there before, so I’m guessing you enjoy the vibe.

“I think this will be the fourth time. Behind the bar there’s a huge array of old speakers, it’s golden and red in there, and it’s perfect.”

You’ve got to know Manchester well in recent years, I guess.

“Yes, my partner was born in North Manchester, and I lived here way back as well. I’ve been in and out of here since I was 20.”

It’s a relatively short tour this time around. Are there more dates to come early next year?

“I don’t know, there’s a possibility of going to France. That’s what I really miss, doing Europe. We played on a boat on the Seine, which was fantastic, so I’d like some more of that.

“Actually I had a heart attack, over two years ago. I was in hospital and it was fixed, and seen as a mild one, but in terms of touring I didn’t want to go crazy. I’m fighting fit now, and the doctor said I’m probably fitter now than before.“

Laid Out: Taking the band to new heights in 1996

Was that something of a wake-up call for you?

“Yeah, I work at home, in my studio, so I’m constantly sitting down all day, not doing any exercise, so it kicked me up the arse and I go to the gym and try and stay healthy now.”

Well, you’re talking to a guy who struggles not to sit on his own arse writing on a computer most of the day. Thankfully dog-walking has me out and about.

“Yeah, I think something like a smart watch can help too. Something that will buzz every 20 minutes, remind you to stand up. You get used to that, maybe it ignore it, but at first it made me move around as much as I can. And I’m always aware I’ve got to do my 30 minutes a day.”

I have a natural version of that, a nine-year-old Collie cross demanding regular walks and interaction.

“Ah, there you go! A dog is perfect.”

I’ve been playing the new album a fair bit of late, and I’m loving it. Are you pleased with the reaction to Photosynthesis?

“Yes, it’s amazing. It’s had nothing to do with me in terms of the whole set-up. A guy called Ben Scott, a huge fan who also had online reviews and a little record company, wanted to do it. I’ve started to get more into vinyl now, and although it was an expensive option, he was prepared to do it. So he’s done that, he’s got all the press … and you could make a small book of it – there’s loads. It’s been a real eye-opener, and he’s massively dedicated.”

And this is your first vinyl album in more than two decades.

“It is. And a proper gatefold. We’ve had the odd single here and there, and ‘Unloveable’ came out on seven 7” …”

That had the Johnny Depp link, of course. Is he still in touch?

Bleach Boy: Stephen Jones, possibly heading to a town near you with Babybird these coming few days.

“Yes, I’m in touch more with his PA, Stephen, who’s in touch with him and lives here. I hear from him every now and again though, but he’s a busy boy.”

Are you personally a vinyl, CD or digital buyer?

“I’m terrible really. I’m both, I love my Alexa, because I can be downstairs, washing up, and just ask it to play this album or this song. Incredibly lazy really, although I’m sure artists hardly get paid at all. I don’t really buy CDs but do buy vinyl, and like to go to charity shops and find classic albums.”

Do you see this album as a natural progression to what’s come before, or a departure? You’ve been heading this way, creatively speaking, a while really.

“Yes, I don’t know if you know my BandCamp stuff, but I’ve released a lot from there, and Scott’s taken some of his favourite songs from there and put them together … and there were quite a few on there I couldn’t remember. I’ve released too much, probably! It was like a journey for 20-odd minutes, then turning it over for another. It felt really new for me, and like listening to someone else.

“And it came at the right time. Things always do … like the Depp thing, not least as everyone always wants to talk about ‘You’re Gorgeous’. Even now that doesn’t go away, which is fair enough. But my career’s really small. It’s like a little cottage industry.”

The very phrase I was about to use – cottage industry. In this case that led to 10 new tracks, self-recorded, for Photosynthesis.

“That’s exactly it. But Ben compiled the whole thing this time, so that was a nice surprise.”

Depp International: Babybird’s 2010 LP, Ex-Maniac, was financially backed by Hollywood star Johnny Depp

Of the Happy Stupid Nothing compilation, was that your way of reminding the world you’re still out there and not just the bloke who recorded that hit song?

“I don’t know. I’m kind of beyond that now. Obviously, I’d be lying if I said I don’t want to sell more, but I had massive luck 20 years ago. Getting record deals now and getting ahead in the music industry – unless you’re someone huge – doesn’t really work. I had my time, but I don’t think you could do that again – with small indie bands becoming bigger.”

Was there ever a point early on where you felt you might have to do something else for a living, and that big moment would never happen?

“Oh, I think that all the time. I was very grounded. I started in my late 20s. I was in a theatre company before that, but that paid nothing. I was doing that for 10 years, on £40 a week. But when it came to this, I knew a bit more about the business. My original manager used to book bands at The Leadmill in Sheffield.

“I knew what a cut-throat business it is. I was aware it wasn’t necessary going to be something which would be a career. I always knew it could end. But then there was ‘You’re Gorgeous’, and it went insane. We signed a big deal and all these things.

“You lose your head a bit then, but realise again after a few years that it’s not permanent. To this day, I don’t know where my next lot of money is coming from. And it’s always been like that.”

I suppose that way you at least retain a hunger for it all.

“Yeah, and you can work in any job and suddenly be made redundant. Music isn’t really a proper job, is it!”

A bit like writing about it.

“Well yeah, anything creative is seen as not being proper, as my Dad would say.”

What did your folks do for work?

“They were both teachers, and I think if you’re good teachers you’re guaranteed a job for life. Physics teachers. All my family were scientists. I really was the black sheep – crap at things like that!”

Duck Soup: There’s Something Going On, from 1998, was the band’s album follow-up to Ugly Beautiful

Maybe that gave you a different perspective in coming at all this.

“Definitely. You feel weird though. I’ve always felt like the weirdo, the one doing all this. That’s one good thing about success though. People are impressed by that. Not financial success, but the realisation that, ’Ooh, he might actually be quite good at that’!”

In a sense, you’ve had the best of both worlds. You came from those DIY roots, initial independent days followed by commercial success, when major record labels were still taking chances and splashing their cash on emerging artists.

“Oh, absolutely. And I’ve always regarded it like that. Even when the big deal was there and we were all over the place, on TV and what-have-you, I’d still be going home and recording on a little four-track cassette player. Nothing changed until I could afford to buy a laptop and started being a bit more out there, and more creative.”

In that sense you remind me of someone like WriteWyattUK regular Neil Arthur of Blancmange fame, and the way he approaches it all. He too has seen major success but now his work  is largely under the radar in realtive terms. Yet his albums are just as good today, and arguably even more creative.

“Oh God, yeah, I loved Blancmange, especially the first album!”

Well, all these years on, now just involving Neil of the original band, he’s still bringing out great albums, usually without too much fuss. And I get the idea – as with your good self – there’s no compromise these days in terms of commercial expectations. It’s about doing it for the love of it, and creativity.

“Yeah, that’s the thing. It’s funny with Blancmange though. I went down to London around the time of their first single, went to see them in a weird venue, like an office block. Yes, I was a big fan.

“I think everyone would like to be bigger. I’m sure Neil would say the same. You want more people to hear you. They were huge, and it’s very hard to get back unless you’re staggering monsters like the Rolling Stones. But you know why they’re there, and I wouldn’t want that kind of life.”

True, and similarly I couldn’t see you involved in some kind of Lost 90s showcase for various bands.

“Oddly, we have been pushed in to all that. We did Cool Britannia … which was horrible, but we were paid a lot of money. That rarely happens, and I wanted the band to be paid. We do a lot of touring but don’t get very much money. That was weird though, playing with Dodgy and Echobelly and that. But I never saw myself as part of anything like that.”

Take Four: Between My Ears There Is Nothing But Music was Babybird’s fourth studio album

There are positives to the multi-band event set-up though. If people see a five-song set from you at a summer festival they’ll go back and check out your music, providing opportunities to surprise them with regards to the rest of the catalogue.

“I totally agree, and that’s what people say to me if I’m moaning about it! You can still open people’s eyes, and there’s lots of music to grab on to. Very few people will know there’s 100-plus releases.”

Indeed. If one thing comes over just from looking at your Babybird statistics alone, it’s just how prolific you’ve been.

“Yeah, it’s one thing I can do, I enjoy it and do it pretty quickly. I’m not some torturous idiot in a cellar 24 hours a day. I’m a dad and doing everything else – doing the gardening, looking after my cat … like you with your dog.”

At the top of the new album alone, I hear unmistakably you, but also maybe acts probably selling more, like Damon Albarn and previous WriteWyattUK interviewees Alt J. And that kind of dirty blues on ‘October’ brings not only the latter to mind, but also Gomez.

“Oh, that’s cool!”

Were you listening to anything in particular, writing this album?

“I’ve never listened to stuff with that in mind. With lots of people, you get a guitar and start playing along with your favourite bands, but I’ve never been that kind of musician. I listen to stuff, and it must go in and come out subconsciously, but I don’t really do that. I listen to a lot of stuff but it’s not like anything that comes out.

“I like things like XXXTentacion. That’s really interesting. It’s hip-hop yet some of it sounds like Thom Yorke. It’s fascinating to listen to. And I’ve always loved old school hip-hop. I like Public Enemy and Ice Cube, and still listen to Eric B. & Rakim in the gym – that’s one of my things I can get through 30 minutes of!”

At the other end of that specific spectrum, there are trip-hop elements on this album. I hear bands like Portishead. It’s all in there.

“Massive Attack and Tricky I love a lot. These are songs I’m still listening to, so yeah. I like all that.”

Mic’d Up: Stephen Jones, always up for experimentation, goes for a deeper vocal take with Babybird

So who was the first band you saw live and thought, ‘This is what I want to do with my life’?

“Joy Division, always. Peter Hook’s basslines are just so melodic. I can still go back and listen to all that. I saw them when they were in this little cinema in Derby, with Ian Curtis doing his little windmill dance with both arms. I think that was around 1979/80.”

When they were supporting Buzzcocks?

“No, but I did see the Buzzcocks too. I was at school, in the sixth form, cycling in with my friend Ralph. We’d see The Cockney Rejects, The UK Subs, all these bands … and also Joy Division.

“Peter Cook … we were talking about people round here, he’s another who drives around, and seems to have spent all his money on personalised number plates and huge cars.”

Erm … I guess you actually mean past WriteWyattUK interview victim Peter Hook, rather than Peter Cook.

“Oh, what am I talking about! A Freudian slip. People who have liked Babybird through the years have always been comedians!”

Well, Peter Cook did compere that iconic punk show, Revolver, of course And finally, what’s the live set-up on these dates?

“It’s just a four-piece. Rob and Luke were in the original band, and we first rehearsed in 1995. And Danny Lowe is the bass player now. It’s brilliant. It just sounds really cut down. You get the sparseness but also the power. It’s odd that you get more power from less people sometimes.”

Well, you’re talking to a big fan of the three-piece set-up.

“Oh God, yeah. I mean, The Jam – what a sound!”

Critical Acclaim: Babybird’s latest album, Photosynthesis, is making an impact out there right now

Remaining November UK dates: Thursday 21st – The 100 Club, London; Friday 22nd – Brudenell, Leeds; Saturday 23rd – Jimmy’s, Liverpool; Thursday 28th – Hare & Hounds, Birmingham; Friday 29th – Deaf Institute, Manchester. For ticket details head to this SeeTickets page.

You can order new Babybird LP Photosynthesis at www.babybird.info or from selected independent record stores. Buy the LP from the online store and receive the single ‘No Cameras’ and digital-only bonus track ‘Photosynthesis’ as instant downloads. In addition, a number of further Babybird releases are planned, and you can download a free sampler containing several new songs via this linkYou can also follow Stephen Jones via Facebook, or on Twitter at @Babybird_Music or @xbabybird.

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Local hero at home among Orcadian soundscapes – the Erland Cooper interview

Light Show: Erland Cooper gets into the zone, and is heading your way very soon with his eclectic ensemble

Erland Cooper was getting ready to head to the studio to continue work on his latest record when I called, but happy to hang back and discuss another hectic year.

This talented singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and composer from Scotland’s Northern Isles has seen his stock rise of late, not least through collaborations with Paul Weller on his True Meanings album last year. But it’s in his own right that Erland’s turning heads right now, leading a multi-instrumentalist ensemble, recent London and Edinburgh sell-out performances inspiring his first solo headline tour.

The tour is in support of his second solo album, Sule Skerry, the second in ‘a triptych shaped by his childhood home, the Orkney Islands and, in particular, by the air, the sea and the land’. And if his first solo album, Solan Goose, was seen as an ode to escapism, written to ease personal anxiety working in a busy city through soothing piano, electronics, strings and wild bird calls, Sule Skerry takes the concept further, Erland this time turning his attention to the North Sea.

What’s more, the new album has been followed by another, Seachange, which Erland describes as an ‘ambient companion’ to that LP, split over three movements, or tides, a collaboration with producer, artist and guitarist Leo Abrahams, who also guests on Sule Skerry. That followed a similar working model for Solan Goose, which was accompanied by Murmuration, a collaboration with William Doyle. And both companion albums include covers by Bermondsey-based artist Norman Ackroyd, Erland telling me, ‘I find Norman’s work very inspiring’. So how best to describe Seachange? Apparently, it’s a ‘seamless sonic poem, evoking the place and memory of the record that came before it’. Tell us more, Erland.

“It’s just a different perspective, or way of seeing. I imagine this music being created by placing recyclable source material into the North Sea, watching it become torn, pulled apart, diluted, stretched, weathered and then reassembled in an Orkney Geo. It creates a different form, with dissolved and overlapping melodies that eventually disappear into granules like plankton. This record is an upcycling of sounds, themes and layers into a new collaborative work.”

It’s been three years since I last saw him play live, in the impressive setting of Liverpool’s Central Library with The Magnetic North, alongside bandmates Hannah Peel (most recently Emmy-nominated for her Game of Thrones score) and Simon Tong (Blur, The Verve, and more recently The Good, The Bad and the Queen). Memories that night in Merseyside (with the full review here) included Erland offering tots of whisky to the audience from a bottle on the band’s rider – an Orcadian tradition, he suggested. Is that something he’s carried into his solo career?

“Well, firstly, I didn’t intend to do any solo career. That was quite by accident. But I think I’ll definitely bring a bottle of whisky. It’ll be mid-afternoon, but just for tradition I’ll put it at the front of the stage, just for you. What do you think? Someone has to break that seal. If that could be you, I’ll do it. It could be our little pact!”

He’s talking about his 2.30pm seven-date UK tour opener at Lancaster Library this Sunday, November 17th, with the second date not far off, a midweek happening in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, at the Band on the Wall. And ticket sales for the tour are going well, his Bristol and Brighton dates already sold out.

I got the impression Simon Tong was keeping him and Hannah in line in Liverpool at times, I suggested, the two of them seemingly more giddy from the experience, having far too much fun on stage for the image.

“Ah, that’s just how he likes to present it. I’m always keeping that boy in order!”

According to Simon in our 2016 interview (see link below), they first met in London, Erland having initially approached renowned producer, Youth (ex-Killing Joke, and who also produced The Verve), wanting to do some demos. Youth was looking for young artists, and Erland, then in his early 20s, turned up on his doorstep, saying, ‘I want to be a singer, can you help me?’

Simon told me the pair met a few years later at a folk night he was putting on with Youth, chatting about music and realising they were both fans of Jackson C. Frank, starting to write together, making demos and forming a band, the debut Erland & The Carnival record in 2009 including a cover of Frank’s My Name is Carnival.

After a couple of albums and through a friend in common, Hannah Peel ended up supporting  the band – also including drummer and engineer David Nock (The Orb, The Cult, Fireman) – and having just started talking about their Orkney project, feeling they needed someone else involved and envisaging it as a lot more orchestral and cinematic, they approached Hannah to join. And as Simon put it, “She was perfect – she played trombone, she sang, did string arrangements and played violin. Hannah was a perfect fit, we got on really well, and it grew from there really.”

As well as this imminent autumn tour, Erland is set to head next June to the Barbican Hall in London for An Orkney Triptych, ‘an evocative mix of music, words and imagery’, taking place not so far in the scheme of things from his East London studio, which he describes as ‘the polar opposite of the Orkney islands, but a wonderfully creative, private space … like a secret bunker!’ So does he see London as home these days?

“Partly, but I’m all over the place. I try to get back to Scotland, and I’ve been working a lot in Ireland. I’ll probably keep migrating. I like to see myself a bit more like a bird. I keep coming and going.”

At the risk of sounding Hitchcockian, not least with Solan Goose in mind, the birds keep coming back into your life, don’t they?

“Consistently! Constantly! I was wondering why, and I just think birds are probably the one creature that even as a kid and a middle-aged man and as an old man, they’re just as majestic. It’s flight really. You can’t explain it, but you try. The older you get you think you know more about it, but you don’t. It’s incredible when you think how far some of these birds have travelled. That kind of blows your mind a bit.”

That took us on to travel, me telling Erland how I used to dream a lot about flying, and more so before I travelled the world for the first time.

“Yeah, it’s about taking flight and exploration really, and people say, ‘You grew up in Orkney, that must that been idyllic’. It was, but my teens were quite difficult for various reasons and you want to leave. Someone in Ireland asked the best and the worst thing about Orkney. In one sentence, it’s a rock surrounded by the North Sea, and that’s both the best, the majestic and the highlight but also something that makes it the worst thing as a kid.”

When it comes to his Orkney triptych, of which we’ve heard two-thirds so far, Erland insists he ‘didn’t mean to release it’. Was this writing as a cure for homesickness or some form of self-therapy maybe?

“Well, as I say, I didn’t mean to release it or even make it. I wrote it in between the cracks of all the other projects I was doing. For me it was like a tool to just ease a busy mind. Let’s say, if you’re on the sweaty London Underground for example, rushing around … I won’t get into intricacies of stress, because that’s relative in what you’re going through compared to anyone else, but I would just put this on. I’d get to the studio and make these layers to kind of counteract what I’d just experienced, and I would then travel with it.

“So instead of frowning on the Underground, when I hear this Orcadian accent, I’d be beaming. I think that’s what music and other people’s art does for me – it transports me to a place, whether that’s real or imaginary. Even if it’s just for a minute or 10 seconds, three minutes or 40 minutes of a record, that’s fine, and that’s all I’m ever trying to do, to get an essence of something that transports me somewhere else.

“I think we did that in Skem (referencing The Magnetic North’s second LP, Prospect of Skelmersdale), and we did that in Orkney with the first Magnetic North record, and I think that’s just what I do. And it’s probably that little boy or that kid who wanted to leave in his 20s. I can’t stop writing the same song.”

From The Magnetic North to Public Service Broadcasting and also King Creosote’s 2014 soundtrack to the From Scotland With Love documentary film, I seem to have experienced this wondrous new wave of filmic music, one that has taken me across various music genres, from classical to electronica.

“Well, there are no rules. Anything that evokes memories – good or bad – is okay. One person can look at a piece of footage and feel one thing, another can feel the other. I felt like I was scoring a film that didn’t really exist, apart from that it was my Orkney in my head. And I was ok with that.

Quay Side: Erland Cooper takes some time out in Orkney, awaiting the next American tourists, no doubt

Quay Side: Erland Cooper taking some time out in Orkney, perhaps awaiting the next ferryload of American tourists

“But I played it to my publisher, who said, ‘What the hell’s that in the background?’ I said, ‘It’s Solan Goose, and all the tracks are named after birds. I think I’m going to write three of them, because they’re keeping me company’. She said, ‘You’ve got to release that!’ And before I knew it, it was flapping around, and still is, which is quite remarkable.”

To a point where I believe there could be a theatrical production now. Is that right?

“Ha! A friend of mine is doing a stage production of Kes, a great thing to do.”

That rather than your Orkney story?

“Oh, I’d love to do the story of Betty Corrigall or something like that.”

Betty was the subject of a song on Orkney: Symphony of The Magnetic North, the trio paying tribute to a late 18th century woman from Hoy who fell pregnant and took her own life, aged 27, after her lover deserted her and ran away to sea, the castigation of the locals and trauma and shame of the situation proving too much.

Actually, what I was really driving at there was that Erland is set to take on a collaboration with the Young Vic next year, for a six-week production of Portia Coughlan from mid-September, following an invite from director Carolyn Byrne, composing the score to Marina Car’s play, with Academy Award nominee Ruth Negga in the title role.

“I’m quite excited about that and think she asked me because I don’t do music for theatre. She felt when she listened to my records in her own space that it would take her somewhere else, and she wondered, ‘Could you try and make a world for me with this theatre production?’”

Is there an irony that the success of his songwriting about home is ultimately keeping him away from Orkney?

“Believe it or not, it gets me there! Radio 4 flew me up, and I did this other thing the other day. It’s brilliant, I get to go there more! I kind of feel like I work for the Tourist Board. And I don’t mind that, I want people to go there.

“This had never happened before and never since, but I was sat outside my house in Stromness with a fucking film crew – embarrassing in itself – telling them anecdotes about jumping off the pier as a kid, when this group of Americans came up and said, ‘Oh, my God, are you Erland Cooper?’ It was like I’d pay them to ask me! That wouldn’t happen anywhere else, but it happened outside my door, this group of people recognising me, saying, ‘We came to the Orkney Islands, with you ‘soundtracking’ our trip. Are you sat on this doorstep all the time?’”

It sounds like a new spin on the wonderful Local Hero.

“I love that film! Yeah!”

As a writer, I have to do lots of extra jobs to pay bills and the mortgage, and guess you’re the same, although your extra projects seem far more glamorous, such as TV and film scoring, advertisements and various multi-arts projects, including gallery, film and installations, most recently scoring Nest, a giant, kinetic light and sound installation opening London’s first borough of culture. Is that something that helps fund your albums?

“Well, I don’t do corporate work anymore, which is great. But I tell you what I love doing – these multi-art projects. It’s so rewarding, and I get to work with real artists. Simon Tong taught me that. People like landscape artists, directors, and people I think do an incredibly evocative job of making something lasting, they inspire me.

“I didn’t expect to be doing galleries or large screen installations until I was much older, when I was retiring. The fact that I’m doing it now is such a joy. It’s so great, getting to score these installations. It’s so rewarding to see people react in different ways. I was speaking to Bill Drummond the other day – and that’s not me name-dropping – and he’s a provocateur but also incredibly wise and said a good idea should stand alone without its creator. That’s so brilliant and right in the sense of a big light installation, for example, when you’re just walking around as a punter.

“I was walking around this Nest installation, and 70,000 people came to see it over this weekend, and I could hear kids and mums and dads talking about it. One Mum had a tear in her eye by this 4D spirograph. This boy said, ‘Mum, it’s like sitting underneath fireworks, but without the bangs. Instead of bangs, you’ve got this music’. Such a lovely way of putting it.

“Then I saw two fellas looking at each other, cans of beer in hands, one saying, ‘It’s like tripping off your tits!’ That’s perfect, and both of those reactions were great. They didn’t know me from Adam, yet I’m stood behind them, thinking, ‘I helped put this together!’ That’s really satisfying.”

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

The Nest installation involved a three-night event in North London, Erland adding, ‘I’d love to take the Nest to the Orkney Islands.’ Watch this space. But with Seachange out now, following the Sule Skerry album, Erland is currently working on the final record in his trilogy, revealing to me that its companion record is to be called Landforms.

“Once that’s done, that’s the whole Orkney project done. I think that will be it. I can’t see me writing as overtly about Orkney again.”

How about moving on to the next archipelago as your subject matter, starting again?

“Well, I’d love to do that anyway!”

All of which leads me to wonder when you’ll get around to a third Magnetic North album. I understood that you were on the case some time ago, according to Hannah Peel last time we spoke. But with Hannah busy with her Emmy-nominated Game of Thrones score and various other projects, and Simon recording and touring with The Good, the Bad and the Queen of late, the project seems to be on hold.

“We have this habit – I think Simon would back me up on this, Hannah maybe less so – of making a record then ditching it, then making another. I think a lot of folk do that. Simon would call it pruning a tree, getting rid of dead wood.

“The Magnetic North is a process of a few things, but most important is to have one local and two other heads that are outsiders. That’s vital and that balance has to be right. At the moment, it’s not there as that local is too busy.

“You could argue that the outsiders have written too much, and that’s not fair. It’s quite normal to ditch it. That’s how it works. It’s great, although ruthless. It’s got to come from her. She’s got to drive that. Maybe it’ll come in 10 years … or maybe it won’t come at all.”

As I understand it, that third Magnetic North album will be written in Northern Ireland, reflecting a key part of Hannah’s past, with yourself and Simon doing the groundwork.

“There’s no rules, but you’ve highlighted one of the main issues. You’ve got to go there, collect sounds and stories and see how you react to it in different spaces. That’s always part of it. But to be frank, they’re both so busy that I’ve ended up releasing my own stuff! And that was unintentional, as I said. But I just keep going and I’ve always found I write between the cracks, doing my own stuff between other projects.”

Passing Through: Simon Tong, Hannah Peel and Erland Cooper take it to the underpass (Photo: McCoy Wynne)

Hannah is based mostly across the Irish Sea now, rather than London, but Erland and Simon remain in the capital, although Erland’s spending more time back in Scotland, adding, ‘But that’s okay. It’s like a cycle of the seasons. We’ll see what happens’.

Erland also gets over to Ireland a fair bit, to ‘a beautiful studio in Donegal’ where he mixes his Orkney records, adding, ‘I love taking stuff from Orkney to my basement in East London, and then on to the wide-open glens of Donegal. This idea that you have to be surrounded by the landscape to write about it is nonsense. You come back from there with it in your head, in your books, or your phone, then see what you’ve got. I call it critical distance. You need to be away from something to realise what it is.”

Remind me how the Paul Weller link come about. He was a fan of Erland and the Carnival, wasn’t he?

“My band, The Carnival, were the best unknown band in Britain, along with all the others! While we didn’t have many fans, we had some hardcore fans, and Paul was one of them. He took me and the guys on tour, we went to America, and we played some incredible venues, including the Royal Albert Hall in London, becoming really good mates. And I didn’t realise he’d never co-written, in a sense, lyrics before.”

Are there songs you wrote together still to see the light of day?

“Yeah. And I brought Hannah in. I’m the one that kind of joins the dots. I don’t like to be in any way the centre of attention, but I’m behind a lot of things or you’ll see my name associated somewhere. He’s a big fan of Hannah now, and she’s just scored his latest record.

“He’s a good, honest bloke, a very genuine and humble guy, and like you and I, he just believes in interesting, creative energy. He doesn’t give a shit about ego!”

You’ve done so much in a relatively short period of time, and it’s fair to say you’ve come from a different place, in more ways than one. You’ve toyed with folk, electronica, classical, prog and pop. Did you come to Paul’s work late, or were you always a fan?

“I’ll say this in earnest, I remember getting bullied because I took a fucking CD of Wild Wood into school. And do you know what I’d say to that fucking bully now? ‘Fuck you!’

Weller’s World: Erland Cooper has been writing with Paul Weller of late, featuring on his True Meanings LP last year

“The thing with Paul is that he’s a force and does what he feels and wants to do, based on what he’s just done last. I came to his music quite early on, while I was learning, breaking down how to figure out how songs were written, like Nirvana and everybody else …”

At this point, Erland’s multi-tasking, putting his jacket on, heading for the door but too polite to tell me to piss off, carrying that thread on.

“I’m always interested in what Paul does next. I find that really interesting, and I really mean this – he’s got more energy, charisma, ideas and creative force than most people I meet in their 20s. And I mean musicians. And he’s in his 60s now!”

There are some grand venues on this tour, including a Charles Rennie Mackintosh late-1890s church in Glasgow. What made you choose Lancaster Library as your starting point?

“I just like the acoustic of spaces, and was told it was interesting. You’ve probably noticed that just when people think they’ve got me clocked, they haven’t. It’s like, ‘Why are you playing there?’ Because you don’t expect me to!”

At this point we briefly compare notes on that venue, this punter having previously seen Robert Forster of Go-Betweens fame, The Thrills, and then Iain Broudie and Starsailor frontman James Walsh on the same bill there.

“I didn’t expect to be touring, let alone … I’m playing the fricking Barbican Hall, and a library! And that’s the whole point, right?”

And who’s he with on these dates?

“It’s a small ensemble. I think a middle-aged white man with a quartet is boring and it’s what everybody does. My band is exactly that – you could think it’s a quartet, but they’re multi-instrumentalists and artists in their own right, they move around on the stage, and it’s interesting for me. It just inspires me, playing with great people. I won’t name names, but if I see another white guy with a quartet, it’s just like, ‘Come on!’”

Erland Cooper has shared an excerpt from Seachange – the ambient companion to his acclaimed LP, Sule Skerry – with a link here, accompanied by recycled visual cut-ups from collaborator Alex Kozobolis, shot in Orkney.

For this site’s most recent Hannah Peel interview, from September 2017, head here (with links to previous conversations). And for our April 2016 interview with Simon Tong, head here

Reflective Moments: Erland Cooper, on the road in support of his Orcadian soundscapes, not least Sule Skerry

UK dates (with support from AVA): Sunday, November 17thLancaster Library (2.30pm); Wednesday, November 20th – Manchester Band on The Wall; Thursday, November 21st – Bristol Arnolfini (sold out); Friday, November 22nd – Brighton Unitarian Church (sold out); Sunday, November 24thLeeds Brudenell Social Club; Saturday, November 30thGlasgow Mackintosh Queen’s Cross Church; Monday, December 2ndGateshead Sage. For ticket details of Erland’s An Orkney Triptych show with the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Barbican Centre in London on June 13th, 2020, head here.

For details of the above shows you can also visit www.erlandcooper.com/live, and for  all the latest, visit his website and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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Lights still turn green at their convenience – talking BOB with Dean Leggett

Indie Cred: Simon Armstrong, Henry Hersom, Richard Blackborow and Dean Leggett, back in the day (Photo: BOB)

Cast your mind back three decades or so. My diaries suggest I saw 148 gigs in the last three years of the 1980s, so inevitably recollections of some are cloudy. But many stick in the memory, not least those documented in print as head honcho of Captains Log fanzine, a few involving one of my live obsessions of that era, the mighty BOB.

I use the term ‘mighty’ with a wry smile. If they’d crossed over, getting the commercial success I felt they deserved, I’d have been pleased for them but possibly then sidled off and left them to it … job done. But they were mighty alright, in the way just a small handful of somewhat underground, indie-pop outfits resonated with this perennial just turned 20-something.

It was John Peel who brought them to my attention. Listening back now to the first session this North London collective recorded for his show at Maida Vale, broadcast on January 7th, 1988, I more or less know every note, to the point that the final recorded versions of three of those songs were never quite the same. But listening again this last couple of weeks I’m appreciating them all the more.

The BOB story proper started in 1985, Simon Armstrong (vocals, guitar) and Richard Blackborow (vocals, guitar, keyboards) recording and writing at home, Jem Morris (bass) joining the following year, their first release arriving soon after, a three-track flexi-disc single released on their House of Teeth label, tracks including ‘Brian Wilson’s Bed’. And then came a real break, bumping into Peel in the Rough Trade record shop, the legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ going on to play it several times.

Gary Connors joined on drums in 1987 and they made the ‘What a Performance’ single for Sombrero Records, that indie label’s link to the Cool Trout Basement, Great Portland Place, London W1, leading to regular gigs there, with a few more around the capital and on Jem’s old patch in South Wales.

That first of three Peel sessions followed, the band given just a couple of days’ notice after another pulled out. A further BBC session was broadcast for Simon Mayo in early March, with second single, ‘Kirsty’ next, those singles and the early flexi then collected for Sombrero’s Swag Sack compilation.

I guess that’s where I came in – along with fellow Guildfordian Alan and Windsor-based Steve taking in our first of seven BOB gigs, at Windsor’s Community Arts Centre in late April, supported by the wonderfully-named Nine Steps to Ugly. By then Dean Leggett, originally from Redruth, Cornwall, was the drummer, previously serving with BOB’s Sombrero bandmates The Siddeleys and The Pink Label’s Jamie Wednesday, the London outfit led by ‘Jim Bob’ Morrison before he formed Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine with Leslie ‘Fruitbat’ Carter.

Another cracking Peel session followed in early February 1989, and I saw them in Windsor again the following month, by which time it must have struck me just how prolific they were, so many great new songs in the set. That time they were at the Old Trout, River Street, one of my favourite venues of that or any other era, now long gone, an appreciation group on Facebook reminding us it was ‘heartlessly destroyed and turned into a Furkin monstrosity’.

BOB were great that night, as they were when they returned a fortnight before Christmas ’89, us by then with two more gigs under our belt, one on my patch at the University of Surrey, the other on theirs at the Town & Country 2, Highbury Corner, London N5 (now home to The Garage, where I saw the reformed Undertones in the early 2000s).

In his notes on the Leave the Straight Life Behind reissue, Simon writes, ‘Dean’s telephone skills and formidable address book meant that tours of venues all around the country, now mostly long gone, were now possible every couple of months. Over the next few years BOB played hundreds of dates, improving most of the time; and on a good night, a good night was had by all. On a bad night, there was always tomorrow; most likely a long way away. These tours were always shoestring affairs, made possible only by the kindness of strangers (and promoters) when it came to accommodation.’

Those gigs helped pay for studio time too, releases by then solely via House of Teeth, their demos mostly recorded DIY style in a converted studio in the attic of Richard’s brother’s place in Banwell, Weston-Super-Mare, ‘sleeping all day and recording all night’.

A third and final Peel session proved to be another cracker, broadcast in early September ’89, with Jem soon away, replaced by Stephen ‘Henry’ Hersom, previously with The Caretaker Race. But Jem was still involved when I caught them back at the Old Trout in mid-December, writing a review that night for my fanzine, the semi-legendary fourth edition that would have included interviews with BOB, The Beautiful South and The Chesterfields among others, but somehow never saw the cold light of print. One missed deadline led to another, financial and work pressures for me and my designer playing a part, instead putting my energies into my world travels, disappearing from the scene for around nine months.

I’ve still got the interview (that will follow online as soon as I get time) and my ‘in not more than 250 words’ review from that December night follows. In hindsight I wouldn’t have been so harsh about their most recent single. I think it just seemed an unlikely choice after their previous release, the mighty ‘Convenience’. But this is what I wrote.

“After the lacklustre ‘Esmerelda Brooklyn’ single, this band had to perk up our often wild interest in them and they couldn’t have any better than they did in their signing off the decade gig tonight; all complacency ridden off with a stormer in which Simon (guitar, vocals) warded off flu and fatigue with the help of a hankie strewn from the mic. stand and plenty of guitar pedals (early Christmas presents?).

“Tonight was a far cry from the early ‘Backbone’ days, the crowd might have been pretty sparse but only really meant more dance space for those of us who hadn’t yet gone down with the flu. Simon fought through everything from nasal congestion to sore throat for songs ranging from ‘Making Plans for Nigel’ to ‘I’m a Believer’, snatches of ‘Eye Know’ and ‘Stand Down Margaret’ thrown in for good measure, all in all a positively rocked-out yet funky set-up.

“But none of their songs tonight surpassed the charge of ‘Convenience’ and their show-topping cover of The Beatles’ ‘Rain’, giving it all the hallmarks of a being a BOB classic, with Richard and Simon’s harmonies and Jem’s mega-loud plodding bass. Nothing else could please us more than BOB becoming synonymous with the ’90s, the first step of which would be their getting to grips with the studio in the same way as they did with ‘Convenience’. Stroll on!”

Parisienne Walkways: BOB in Paris, way back, waiting for the big break that never came (Photo: BOB)

Funny I should end it like that, seeing as the next release, the first with Henry, was the ‘Stride Up’ EP, released that next year. I should add though that five months prior to that festive Old Trout show I met my better half on a Turkish holiday and was soon spending alternate weekends up in Lancashire. Something had to give, dropping a few of my many nights out in and around London catching live music and writing about it. And within a year I was off to Thailand and beyond, at a time when BOB were on the brink of a breakthrough that sadly never truly came to fruition.

I saw them live just once more, with Alan, my fanzine designer Malcolm Smith and his pal Jimmy at Reading’s After Dark Club in mid-July ’91. When I mentioned that gig to Dean, I said I couldn’t remember a lot about it. But I’ve since looked at my diary, and while it makes for just a few lines, it’s worth adding.

“A classic evening in a West Indian club with shitty support bands, a manager who banned us taking glasses into the corridor, no BOB until 12.30am and only then after five Bobbies were in and out with two locals and a blood-caked train driver. Bob weren’t on top form but probably because they’d have rather played at 10 and with a better sound system. Rattleback and Colour Mourning were appalling. Home at 3. A good night in a strange sort of way.”

A bit harsh on the support acts, but blame that on my 23-year-old self. Interestingly, by that point they’d recorded the album, and there was another single that year, ‘Tired’. And the following year, Backs Records of Norwich put out final single, Nothing for Something’. However, in Simon’s words, ‘nobody seemed to notice’. The story almost over, the original duo soon resorting to home-demoing on an ailing eight-track machine, back where they started.

But wait up … fast forward 28 years, and I’m back in touch with Dean, calling him in Aberdeen before a gig at The Tunnels, the first of four nights with One Eyed Wayne supporting WriteWyattUK favourites The Wedding Present (with Glasgow, Newcastle and Birmingham shows to follow) on their Bizarro 30th anniversary tour.

I started by pointing out that I saw two shows on the original Bizarro tour, around the time I saw my fifth and sixth BOB shows at the tail end of 1989. But while The Wedding Present were on a roll, cementing their position among indie royalty, BOB’s own crossover appeal was destined never to be properly realised.

That was the year I got to interview Dean, Simon, Richard and Jem for my fanzine in Highbury Corner, on a night when Hull outfit The Penny Candles were on the bill and ex-Housemartins drummer Hugh Whittaker pointed his cartoon likeness out on a ‘There is Always Something There to Remind Me’ t-shirt I happened to be wearing backstage. And as Dean reminded me, BOB were managed by Paul Thompson, who previously looked after The Housemartins and went on to direct The Beautiful South’s operation.

“We did actually go to The Beautiful South’s first gig at the T&C2, around that time, then went to an after-party somewhere near Camden, where there was a bit of trouble. Ha! We didn’t think they were very good.”

As previously recalled on these pages in a 2014 interview with Dave Hemingway, I too saw a very early Beautiful South show at Aldershot’s Buzz Club, interviewing them before. They liked a bit of chaos, I suggested to Dean, and it was almost as if they were trying a bit too hard to be edgy at the time.

“Yeah. I liked Paul, and really got on with him, but the rest of The Beautiful South at that time, at this after-party, were quite full of themselves. I think their first single had charted by then … and y’know … things went on. We didn’t really get on with them very well, which was unusual for us really.”

Come on then, spill the beans. What happened?

“Well … me and their drummer had a bit of a set-to. Not a fight. But it was alright in the end … no harm done.”

When I saw you back at The Old Trout in Windsor in December ‘89, I was convinced you were on the way to the next level, success-wise. Alas, it wasn’t to be, and I only saw you once more, a few weeks after returning from my world travels, at Reading’s After Dark Club.

“Ah, yeah. We stayed the night with a good friend of the band who was the accounts guy for Rough Trade. A lovely chap. He had this cupboard of Rough Trade records, test pressings and all sorts, and gave me a copy of The Smiths’ ‘Reel Around the Fountain’, with ‘Gene’ on the B-side, which never got released and is now the most expensive Smiths record you can buy. Somebody offered me 2,000 Euros for it a couple of weeks ago, but I refused. It’s such a nice memory, I thought I’d hang on to it.”

Flexi Time: The ‘Queen Of Sheba’ flexi-disc, exclusively available at  Bob’s forthcoming November gigs

But it turns out that Reading date wasn’t my final BOB gig after all. Because now they’re back for what’s been billed as one final tour, the band gearing up for rehearsals in the Far West of Cornwall when I called, Richard having moved there some time ago and based not far from Land’s End. Actually, I popped in to see him at the art gallery he helps run in St Ives two summers ago, at which point he was working on archiving various BOB recordings.

Looking at my interview from 1988 (I’ll get that published on here at some stage soon) – conducted after an earlier failed attempt at the nearby Ferret & Firkin (or some such North London boozer, a local muso opening his set and drowning us out) backstage at the T&C 2, until we were drowned out for a second time by main support The Unbelievers – I see hints were dropped about EMI Records interest at the time.

“Yes, and Richard recently rediscovered the demos we did for them. Around 1991/2 we did a couple of big UK and European tours and were writing lots. We’d written the third album – I say that, but the second in reality, as Swagsack was a compilation – but when Rough Trade collapsed, with our Leave the Straight Life Behind album with them, we were looking for something else.

“Someone from EMI talked to Paul Thompson, wanting to do something, wanting to work out what sort of deal they could offer us. We were all very excited about that, but it fell through. He had three projects on the go – Duran Duran, Radiohead and ourselves, with us and Radiohead at the same level, about to be taken on in progression-type deals.

“But Duran Duran were spending (I think he actually said ‘spunking’, but it was a dodgy line) loads of cash on their comeback album and he was told by the execs he was spending too much money and couldn’t sign both bands. Presumably there was a toss-up between us and Radiohead …”

And the rest is history.

“Well yeah, but he was only there for another two months, so obviously wasn’t happy that his ideas had been taken away from him. And he was about 50 at the time, so wasn’t a young A&R man. He was one of the old school. But now we’ve found the tapes, they’ve all been remastered digitally, and Richard’s mixing those – around three or four tracks – plus a bunch of others recorded in Harlow at The Square club, recorded live straight through to the desk in a room at the back, and now remixed.

“They’re live but with some overdubs, so we’re looking at 12 properly-recorded brand new songs no one’s heard on the vinyl version of the album, and there will a double-CD as well, featuring that album and loads of unreleased demos and other songs we were working on that never got further. Actually, there’s nearly 200 tracks, believe it or not, in various forms, that never came out, and we’ve whittled them down to around 50.”

I don’t doubt that at all from such a prolific outfit, and strongly recommend the two double-CD packages BOB have released via 3 Loop Music (distributed by Cherry Red Records), a Leave the Straight Life Behind reissue from 2014 with four extra tracks and a 20-song The Complete BBC Sessions included, and from the following year The Singles and EPs two-disc compilation, Richard and Simon providing exhaustive notes for both.

I think I appreciate the Leave the Straight Life Behind album – recorded in March 1991 and released via their own House of Teeth imprint later that year – a lot more these days. There’s some belting tracks there, across both retrospective packages. At the time, I wasn’t sure they’d fulfilled the potential I saw in them live or heard on those Peel sessions. But that sounds harsh in retrospect. Putting this feature together, I’ve re-immersed myself in those packages, and could write loads of glowing copy about so many of those songs.

“We were good live – there’s no question of that. I think with studio albums, the edge can go off a bit. I think this album feels live though. It’s got the energy, having just plugged in and played the songs after coming off that tour, a few of which were aired on those dates.”

When we spoke, there were around 140 copies left (after barely a fortnight of sales from an initial batch of 800) of an eye-catching 7” vinyl single of BOB’s big indie hit ‘Convenience’ (No. 31 in John Peel’s 1989 Festive Fifty) re-pressed in red, amber and green and re-released by the Optic Nerve label. Those are sure to have gone by the time you’re reading this, but by all means check via the band’s Facebook page (linked below).

And as well as that and the new LP, with the working title Another Motorway, Another Crow, which follows next February, there’s this forthcoming six-date tour, taking in Birmingham, Hull, Leeds, Stowmarket, London and Hamburg, although I understand it was initially set to involve just one night in London.

“Erm … yes! Grant (Holby), the promoter who runs Mute Elephant, had been asking a few years if we’d do a gig, but we declined as we’re all busy with other things. So when Optic Nerve said they’d press the single reissue for their next series, we said OK, and why don’t we do a gig to help push that? We were quite reluctant to play the 100 Club, as it’s quite big, worried if anyone would come or even care. But clearly they do, and it will sell out (it has now) with a few weeks to go.

“We then decided to do a warm-up gig and Simon suggested we do a few, so I put out a few feelers and a few people came back, said, ‘Yes, please!’ And there we go – it’s like a mini-tour!”

Initially disappointed there were no North West dates, I splashed out on a ticket for Leeds’ Wharf Chambers instead. But it turns out that the demand has seen the band contemplate future dates now, Dean – who also mentioned a possible warm-up in a Cornish pub or somewhere in the Midlands – confirming, ‘It’s not necessarily the end,’ even if they are all busy doing their own thing.

“Richard has two young kids, as have I. Simon plays a lot around Walthamstow and with a couple of bands, and I’ve got my band now, going well, Optic Nerve putting out a 7” single in February – two new tracks – then our third album in May, our most commercial and ‘guitary’ so far.”

That’s the three long-serving members, but you had Jem on bass when I interviewed you in ‘89, and then there was Stephen, aka Henry.

“Yes, Henry was also in The Caretaker Race and stayed with us until the end. But we couldn’t find him – we tried, but I got the impression he’d stopped playing anyway.”

Accordingly, Arthur Tapp (‘Arthurman’, according to Dean) from Birmingham features on bass for these shows, having put the band on back in the ‘80s a few times, a big fan who plays guitar too and played a couple of BOB gigs in 2014. And this run of dates includes Stowmarket’s John Peel Centre, of huge relevance to the band.

“It is important, and they actually rang and asked if we’d go there. That was great, we’ve never been before, and after the sessions we did for John and the fact that his wife, Sheila, will be there, that will be great.”

And it seems that BOB are going full circle, putting out a flexi-disc for this final tour, apt considering it was interest in their initial flexi that got them up and running, thanks to Peel’s interest.

“Yes, we’re doing a blue flexi-disc in a special cardboard sleeve that you can only get at the gigs, with the little girl logo from the early Sombrero releases, including a previously-unreleased track , ‘The Queen of Sheba’, which we’ll also be playing live.

“There will of course be the album after, but it’ll be something for the people at the gigs to get their hands on. And there will be four new t-shirts with the classic BOB logo, in red, blue, green and vintage white, as well as posters and enamel BOB logo badges.”

Here endeth the sales pitch, but not the full BOB story. Time is clearly ripe to snap up that back-catalogue then feast on the new releases, catch a show, and stroll on.

Faraway Motorway: From the left – Stephen ‘Henry’ Hersom, Simon Armstrong, Dean Leggett, Richard Blackborow

BOB’s November 2019 dates: The Flapper, Birmingham, with The Proctors – Saturday 23rd; The New Adelphi Club, Kingston-upon-Hull, with My Life Story – Sunday 24th; Wharf Chambers, Leeds – Tuesday 26th; John Peel Centre for Creative Arts, Stowmarket – Wednesday 27th; 100 Club, London, with The Popinjays – Thursday 28th; Astra Stube, Hamburg, with Red Letter Day – Friday 29th. For more information and to keep up to date on everything BOB, head to their Facebook page,  or check them out via Twitter.

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Three decades beyond 10 – having words with Hugh Cornwell

Almost 30 years after leaving The Stranglers, the legendary punk band with whom he made his name and managed more than 20 UK Top-40 singles and 14 Top-20 LPs over barely a dozen years, Hugh Cornwell remains a force to be reckoned with.

A couple of months beyond his 70th birthday, he’s out with bandmates Pat Hughes (bass) and Windsor McGilvray (drums) this month, a 15-date tour starting at Liverpool Arts Club next Tuesday, November 12th, threading through to Gloucester Guildhall on Sunday, December 1st, comprising – like last year – both solo years and Stranglers sets … with a further twist this time.

“We’ve changed the format – it’s a game of two halves, the solo set changed considerably, with extra Monster tracks. It will be great to play those live for the first time, ‘La Grande Dame’ and ‘Attack of the Major Sevens have come in … if that makes any sense.”

It does, this scribe – who first saw The Stranglers at age 14 in January ’82, on the La Folie tour, my fourth-ever gig – snapping up Monster in a double-CD pack with Hugh’s Restoration reworking of various favourites, signed on the night by the man himself at The Grand, Clitheroe, a year ago.

“Great! And there’s an album called Beyond Elysian Fields (2004) which has just been remastered and is coming out on vinyl, so we’re revisiting that too.

“As for The Stranglers’ set which comes second, we’re going to jazz that up by not deciding on the set. We’ll go on and me, Pat and Windsor will take it in turns to call the tracks. So no one will have any idea what the set’s going to be!”

When Hugh visited my patch in 2013, he was following a different format, playing solo years’ tracks and Stranglers number alternately. And that worked equally well.

“Yeah, mixing it up, and I do that at festivals. I’m not sure which I prefer. But I know the band likes it when it’s separated.”

Mosin’ Around: Hugh Cornwell is back on tour with Pat Hughes and Windsor McGilvray (Photo: Warren Meadows)

When we spoke last year, you suggested you were ‘being brave’ over the idea of separate sets, but the premise of a solo years set followed by Stranglers numbers has clearly gone down well.

“Absolutely, I was very apprehensive when we first did that, but it seemed to work, the fans like it, and they like to carry on with the singalong.”

At that Clitheroe show, you told us four punters needed St John Ambulance medical attention in Kendal the night before, your ‘Death by Strangulation’ set inspiring a rather enthusiastic response by an audience … erm, not getting any younger.

“Ha! Yeah, I remember that. I felt it was a bit quieter that next night, but lots of people told me later to come back a second time and it would be rammed.”

That was with Pat and Windsor too. You clearly work well together.

“That’s it. I love those guys. They’re so full of energy, they love doing it, and they’re forever saying, ‘I’ve had another listen to that old Stranglers number and what do you think of this … do you think that’s going to be an improvement?’ They’re always looking at ways to make things better, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

I spoke briefly to Pat (like Windsor a tutor at Guildford’s Academy of Contemporary Music by day) after that show, telling him I first saw you when ‘Golden Brown’ was climbing the charts in early ’81. He looked at me as if I was some mad uncle talking down the pub. You’re sharing dressing rooms with youths, Hugh.

“I know! And I feel very fortunate that not only are they involved but it’s not just a job for them. They’re actually enjoying it and getting involved, which is great.”

Monster Sets: Hugh Cornwell, on the road again this month, revisiting both his solo years and Stranglers songs

Are they keeping you young, or is it the other way around?

“Well, I know I’m putting them through their paces, because Pat keeps saying, ‘Jesus, if we keep playing those three numbers together, my arm’s gonna fall off!’ He told me that of all the people he’s played with, this is the heaviest work-out. Ha!

“I’m from another era, but they like to find out new stuff and are very inclusive people.”

Monster continues to get occasional plays at my house, and I get the impression in places that it’s a back to basics rock’n’roll album, not least on tracks like ‘Mosin’’, the spirit of Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Johnny Kidd trapped in the studio. I don’t know if it’s just that echoey sound.

“Sure! Yeah, I like all that. It’s what I was brought up on. It feels very natural to me.”

Listening back this morning, I reckon ‘Mr Leather’ is your most Stranglers-like moment on that album, although of course the spirit of Lou Reed is writ large too.

“Well, yeah, it’s all about Lou, so I’m happy with that.”

For me it’s still Totem and Taboo that resonates most from your solo career though. Is the brassy instrumental version of the title track that you come on to available to purchase?

“Our walk-on music? No. We call that ‘Totem Latino’. I did that with my engineer one day. I thought that melody made a great bass riff, and it became the basis of that.”

It’s a great call to arms, I reckon – sort of ‘drain your pint, get down the front!’

“Yeah, it works well. And that’s still on board.”

With a few weeks of propaganda coming our way before December 12th and the UK general election, are we in danger of truly being ‘Stuck in Daily Mail Land’?

“Ha! Well, between you, me, the gatepost and the rest of your readers, I don’t think Brexit is going to happen. The big problem is that whatever anyone else wants, you’ve got an elected Parliament where the majority want to stay in Europe, and until that changes …

“If half the MPs resigned, they’ve got a chance of it happening, but you’ve got a couple of dozen and that’s not enough, even if they were all Brexiteers. That still wouldn’t be enough to overturn the majority. While that situation exists, it ain’t gonna happen. That’s the truth. Maybe they’ll end up having another referendum, who knows.”

My worry is that we’re in danger of following America’s lead, getting saddled with our own ‘Duce Coochie Man’.

“Ah! I love that title!”

I was hoping he’d bite there, but Hugh wasn’t to be drawn on his take on Boris Johnson, so I moved on, telling him how that track, the closing number on Monster, came over well live last time.

“Did it? Great! And we’re playing it even better now. Down the line a bit, we’ve been to Australia with it, had a few dates in Europe as well, so it’s sounding a lot more settled.”

There were a few surprises among both the solo set and from The Stranglers’ songbook. And it sounds like that might be even more the case this time. I mentioned ‘Golden Brown’, and felt last time it was almost Nouvelle Vague-esque.

“Do you mean the Mariachi (Mexteca) version?”

Well, that was a corker, but I meant the latest live version, somewhere between the original and that, very Dave Brubeck Five-like for these ears actually.

“With the bass playing all the keyboards? Well, great. We had to learn how to play it in this format somehow, and that works, so that’s the way it goes.”

Cairo Practise: Hugh Cornwell in the early 1980s for the ‘Golden Brown’ promotional video with The Stranglers

Going back a bit, 40 years to be exact, it was in November ’79 apparently that you told the NME, ‘We’re never going to use a producer again. They are just shitty little parasites. All they’re good for is telling jokes. And we know better jokes than any of ’em.’ That wasn’t a verdict on Alan Winstanley, who you’d just worked with on The Raven, was it?

“No, I think it was Martin Rushent. Alan is really – and I hope he’ll forgive me for saying this – an excellent engineer.”

Funny you should say that. Fast forward four decades and Monster saw you work with Phil Andrews, and prior to that you made Totem and Taboo in Chicago with Steve Albini. In both cases it’s about engineering rather than producing. Is that how you prefer it these days?

“Well, I know the way it should sound. I’ve an idea of the way I want it to sound. So it’s about working with someone who can create that sound.”

Recorded earlier than The Raven but released just after it, this month in 1979, you had your first record away from the rest of the band, a collaboration with Robert Williams on Nosferatu. Did that involve a learning curve?

“Sure! I was going into a studio completely unprepared. We just had the bare bones of songs. We were making it up as we went along, really.”

Are you still in touch with Robert?

“No, we didn’t see eye to eye over a few things, and unfortunately he’s in LA and I don’t think he plays much music anymore. He’s more involved with scene painting on film lots.”

When The Stranglers reconvened after that short spell apart, was that the beginning of a fresh start for you?

“Yeah, I came back from that really inspired, with different ideas.”

The Raven involved a major change of gear.

“There you go. It’s got quite a bit of interesting stuff going on.”

I loved the first Stranglers album and appreciated the next two, but perhaps that was the one that proved you were about a lot more, something deeper. Did you feel that at the time? Were you consciously moving into a new era, five years after The Guildford Stranglers came into being?

“It was all about experimenting. We didn’t really know what we were doing. You’ve just got to go out there and see what happens. And I think we did introduce some new boundaries in pop music … or tried to.

“It’s also coming up to (The Gospel According to the) Meninblack 40th anniversary. That was before the Simmons electronic drumkit, but that album’s got an electronic drumkit on it … before they even existed. That was through some recording techniques I experimented with, using condenser microphones against the drums for a real metallic sound. There was stuff like that that pre-dated anything else, and I’m really proud of that. The Meninblack was my favourite album.”

They started recording that fifth Stranglers LP in January 1980, even though it wasn’t released until the following February. It was too much for a 14-year-old wanting another punk and new wave record though, having borrowed it from the travelling library on cassette. I listened hard but didn’t quite get it. That wasn’t where I was at. Listening back now, however, I see its merits and can marvel at its creation. Still not my favourite, mind.

Anyway, I’ve talked a fair bit in the past about The Stranglers’ Guildford days with Hugh, these days based mostly in the West Country, but how about his old haunts in the capital? Does he still recognise his Kentish Town, Tufnell Park and Highgate stomping grounds when he’s around there these days?

“I don’t go up there anymore, because my parents aren’t around anymore. But I do still go to Guildford, because that’s where Pat and Windsor are based, and that’s very much a return to the old stomping ground.”

So the spirit of Jet Black’s Jackpot lives on.

“Yeah, that’s what it was called – The Jackpot! In fact, the college where they teach is built where the Jackpot was. The ACM. Ain’t that strange!”

Plenty more of that in our previous interview (link below), but while I’m getting the Cornwell grey matter going again, much was made in the past year or so – amid a public battle to save The Star pub in my old hometown – about where the earliest gigs took place for the band. In fact, some reckon an early September ’74 date at that Quarry Street local was the first. But flicking back through Hugh’s 2004 A Multitude of Sins autobiography, he suggests the first show was actually that summer at a youth club in Guildford.

“Possibly.”

I don’t think he’s being dismissive there. It was more a case of over-running with our interview, and pressure to call the next number, quickly reminding me he has to wrap up soon. I crack on regardless, keen to get in at least a couple more questions.

Last time we spoke you had your 70th birthday on the horizon but were playing it down, telling me that if you have too much time to think about birthdays, ‘it means you’re not busy enough’. Did he mark the occasion in style after all?

“No, I did nothing! I was doing something else. I can’t remember what!”

Talking of anniversaries, next year marks 30 years since you walked away for the last time from The Stranglers.

“That’s right – is that next summer? Wow, incredible!”

Are you going to mark that in any way?

“Probably doing a gig! Ha! I think it was while there was a Test match on, so it must have been either a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday. It was at the Ally Pally. I think it might have been a Saturday.”

Records suggest he’s right, his last appearance alongside Jet Black, JJ Burnel and Dave Greenfield at iconic Alexandra Palace in Muswell Hill, North London on August 11th, 1990, two months after the release of their 10th album … erm,  10. Time flies, eh.

And with that in mind, what do you reckon the 1977 Hugh Cornwell would have made of this engaging fella who signs anything put in front of him at the end of a show these days? You’ve got a grizzly punk rock reputation to live up to after all.

“Yeah, yeah! He’d probably be saying, ‘You idiot! Why are you doing all that?’ Anyway, I best go. Take care, man. I’ll see you in Bury or Liverpool!”

Guitar Man: Hugh Cornwell at the Tivoli, Buckley, in 2016, with Chris Bell drumming then (Photo: Warren Meadows)

To revisit WriteWyattUK’s October 2018 feature/interview with Hugh Cornwell, with links to previous interviews, follow this link. And for the lowdown on his November 2018 visit to The Grand, Clitheroe, head here.

Hugh Cornwell UK dates: Tuesday 12th November – Liverpool Arts Club; Wednesday 13th November – Carlisle The Brickyard; Thursday 14th November – Aberdeen Lemon Tree; Friday 15th   November – Edinburgh Liquid Rooms; Saturday 16th November – Leeds Brudenell; Sunday 17th November – Bury The Met; Thursday 21st November – Harpenden Public Halls; Saturday 23rd November – Southampton 1865; Sunday 24th November – Exeter Phoenix; Tuesday 26th November – Basingstoke Haymarket; Wednesday 27th November  – Nottingham Rescue Rooms; Thursday 28th November – Bury St Edmunds Apex; Friday 29th November – Wolverhampton Bilston Robin 2; Saturday 30th November – Swansea Sin City; Sunday 1st December – Gloucester Guildhall. For tickets call 08444 780 898 or follow this link.

And for the latest from Hugh, head to his website or visit his Facebook and Twitter pages.

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Understanding Vinny Peculiar – in conversation with Alan Wilkes

Fork’s Sake: Alan Wilkes, the sky-gazing singer-songwriter behind Vinny Peculiar, striking a pose, rural al fresco style.

It would be all too easy to point out that Alan Wilkes, the inspiration behind Vinny Peculiar, has flirted with indie stardom but never quite attained that elusive crossover fame.

But don’t think for one moment this Worcestershire-born and bred singer-songwriter, now back to his roots after several years in the North West, is in any way bitter about that. In fact, I think he rather revels in his outsider status.

Alan already had a successful career in nursing before taking a chance on a full-time music calling, signing to Manchester cult label Ugly Man Records, whose acts included a certain Elbow. But don’t expect him to moan about his lot and cite missed opportunities while Guy Garvey’s star soared. I reckon he’s quite happy where he is, at the moment somewhat self-consciously plugging his latest quality long player, While You Still Can, his 13th instalment of literate autobiographical pop over an impressive if relatively low-key, two-decade knock.

This eclectic performer tours regularly in band, solo and duo format, Uncut describing him as ‘an under-sung national treasure’, while Q has him down for a ‘warm-hearted Morrissey’, and The Irish Times as ‘the missing link between Jarvis Cocker and Roger McGough’. And none of those descriptions are wrong.

He’s worked in the past with KLF mastermind Bill Drummond, Luke Haines and Jah Wobble from John Lydon’s PIL, while his bands have included members of The Smiths, Oasis, Aztec Camera and The Fall. Alan’s also written and recorded under the Parlour Flames name, formed in 2013 with former Oasis rhythm guitarist Paul Arthurs, aka Bonehead, currently with Liam Gallagher’s band.

What’s more, he’s opened for the likes of Duke Special, Wreckless Eric and The Wedding Present, and it was with the latter that I saw him in late July, typically engaging at Blackpool’s Waterloo Bar. That pairing has won him lots of new fans too, performing at David Gedge’s annual At the Edge of the Sea festival in Brighton among other dates.

“It has. They’ve been great. There’s a really nice Wedding Present community on social media and elsewhere. I knew the main albums before, but hearing them live I really got into them. They’re an interesting band, not a cliché, their own thing going on, very nice people. There was this holy trinity, wasn’t there – The Smiths, The Fall, The Wedding Present – that (John) Peel helped massively.”

Vinny’s spent a fair bit of his time in the North West in recent years, and while he’s now back to his Midlands roots, he stressed to me, ‘I’ve still got a Northern band.’ Is that the core of his Parlour Flames set-up?

“Yeah … minus Bonehead. He was going to do this, then got the Liam gig, which is bizarre really. He texts and I’m playing at a pub down the road while he’s off to play the Hollywood Bowl with Liam. He says, ‘Have a good gig’, and I say, ‘Yeah, you too!’ That’s the last time I spoke to him.”

There’s no malice in that, just a little friendly bewilderment, perhaps. And it turns out that the pair’s union followed another project with former members of The Smiths.

“I made a record with Mike Joyce and Craig Gannon in 2006, and Bone loved it. He’d been playing with Mike, then managed Vinny Peculiar for a year or so. When Karen Leatham, our bass player, who was in The Fall, couldn’t come to Europe with us, Bone said he’d play. He stayed until around 2009, when I went back to my own albums. But we always said we should do something together again, and both had a window, recording the Parlour Flames album in Bonehead’s basement studio.”

Where was that?

“In Hale. I reckon everyone who lives there suffers from Paradise Syndrome – they can’t believe how lucky they are. A packet of Walker’s crisps and bag of sandwiches was about £7, and that was in 2013!

“But that was a good experience, and it’s not a bad album. We possibly ended up overcooking it a bit, but that’s just my view – it’s probably a bit over-thought and over-produced, but …”

Don’t believe a word. It’s a corker, and if you haven’t caught up with it yet, you’re only six years behind. Find yourself a copy. Highly recommended. I am 6ft 4 after all.

Lounging Around: Vinny Peculiar’s Alan Wilkes, suited up, low lights, shades indoors, with songs to sing and play.

I say that as if I’ve been a fan of his work a long time, but I’m still catching up with his back-catalogue. What’s more, there will be plenty more of us in that boat, largely unaware of his past work with bigger or at least better-known names in the industry.

“A lot of people are. The hardest job in music isn’t making it, it’s promoting it. And you’re either a born Tweeter or you’re not. I engage with all that, but don’t thrash the hell out of it, and unfortunately you kind of need to, or need someone to.”

That whole layer of record company staff seems to have gone these past couple of decades, along with promotions money.

“Every musician now has to be their own A&R, their own publicist, their own promoter, their own PR, their own blagger … There are so many roles being eroded away. What’s that great quote about how in the ‘70s a hundred albums were released and all sold a million, now there’s a million albums selling a hundred? There’s so much music out there, and I struggle as a punter to find it. Instead, I’ll listen to Jethro Tull again, like when I was 15.”

A friend with an impressive record collection accrued over the years told me a few years ago he couldn’t be bothered acquiring more new LPs from artists he doesn’t already know as he doesn’t even have time to listen again to everything he’s already got. Sad but true.

“It’s weird, you’ll go into a record shop now, and … 25 years ago you had a rough idea before they sectionalised it all, but now it’s just overwhelming.”

Never one to sit back though, several releases as Vinny Peculiar have surfaced since that afore-mentioned Parlour Flames offering, his latest LP a further example of splendid recorded output in recent years.

There’s plenty to savour, not least glam-rock influences on the marvellous ‘Man out of Time’, the songcraft always shining through, with echoes of Steve Harley there for these ears.

“There’s all sorts you can cross-reference. It’s great how different people hear different influences. A friend of mine says he’s still waiting for my big Wishbone Ash rip-off. That’s who we loved at school, and it’s got to be in there somewhere. And I still listen to Argus.

“That said, I supported them once (in Liverpool) and it was terrible! I went on and did a load of poetry to all these frizzy-haired guys in denim shirts just glaring at me. I was probably wrong for the bill, but said to Alan at The Cavern, ‘I’ve got to do it! I loved that band as a kid. It was a terrible mistake. It was the wrong audience.”

At this point, we discuss how early influences often show, for example Mick Jones’ love of Mott the Hoople on The Clash’s London Calling. And Alan’s soon off again, ‘wittering’ as he put it, telling me Mott’s version of ‘All the Young Dudes’ is in his all-time top-10 singles.

He never got to see Mott back in the day, but got his fair fix of glam, sheepishly telling me his first gig was Gary Glitter at Birmingham Town Hall, an uneasy laugh following, adding, ‘My Dad dropped me off, picking me up later with my mates’. But creepy frontman aside, we decided we could at least talk in reverential tones about The Glitter Band.

Moving on, the new Vinny Peculiar LP is described as a ‘noisy hard-rock affair with big drums, wild guitar solos and trippy Floyd-like excursions,’ and ‘an intense unsentimental record by VP standards’. Would he say that’s a bit of a departure from what’s come before?

“A little, yeah, less of a singer-songwriter album, more band-centric. There’s more guitars – louder guitars – although a couple of tracks are more jangly, which seems to be one of my defaults, maybe from living in Manchester so long … a few Johnny Marr-isms.”

And the subject matter? ‘Political vanity, news black-outs, cultural betrayals and a song about class A drugs as a form of political oppression’. Is this his most political album?

“Probably, although I don’t see it as overtly political so much as a response to the political confusion everyone’s going through, regardless of which side of the Brexit divide they sit on. For me, one of the issues is the vanity of politics now, which is quite extreme. You want them to focus less on their profile and followers and more on the issues, getting things done in a less show-off way.

But even opening song ‘Vote For Me’, despite the fact that the character in the promo video wears a blond, Boris Johnson-type wig, could be read in more ways than one. You could see it cynically or take it as sincere.

“Yeah, it’s a funny one. I said to Andy Squiff, the director, ‘Don’t make it too cynical,’ but in the end we went with that, him convincing me it would get more viewers. But it could just be a serious, sad love song. You often get that in songs – it’s not always as obvious as you think. Messages can be a little more fractured. The best music is less slogans, more reactions.

“And a song like ‘Man Out of Time’ is almost a throwback to another world really – which seems to be more my default! We all have a defining cultural moment, and mine was probably glam in the early ‘70s, when I was 13 or 14.”

Despite that glam feel, the slide guitar might even suggest Gerry Rafferty’s Stealers Wheel, although Alan suggested Medicine Head was more likely.

Was there a band you saw or listened to in the early days and instantly felt this was what you had to do for a living?

“I always considered myself Bromsgrove’s answer to David Bowie. At least that’s what someone told me once. I saw Bromsgrove as the new Bromley. … if only because it sounded a bit similar. We’d bullshit people about that, but it didn’t quite happen .. then I had kids, got a real job, and all that.”

I hear Bowie coming through in your songs sometimes, not least on this album.

“Well, you’re bigging me up now, comparing me to the master!”

‘Pop Music For Ugly People’ has hints of ‘Scary Monsters’ coupled with Magazine’s ‘Sweetheart Contract’.

“Wow – Magazine, yeah! And there is a bit of ‘Scary Monsters’, which has a real density of guitar noise.”

I also hear a little Wire.

“I like Wire. I saw them at Barbarella’s in Birmingham in about ’78, and bands like XTC in clubs, and Elvis Costello I think at the Barrel Organ or some small Brum venue where I almost suffocated. They didn’t seem to care how many people they let in back in those days. I also saw lots of mid-70s hard rock bands like Man, and Be Bop Deluxe were one of my favourite bands. I got to see Eddie and the Hot Rods …”

We’re interrupted at that point, my landline ringing, me telling Alan – who named his label Shadrack & Duxbury Records in tribute to Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 novel turned 1963 movie, Billy Liar, the eponymous protagonist an undertakers’ clerk there – I could pretend I was in a busy office but really it was just my front room.

“Well, we’re all in that world. My studio is in my attic!”

Anyway, back to Bowie as a defining influence.

“Yeah, the whole Bowie thing of the 70s, I don’t think anyone will ever do what he did. The Beatles changed with every album, but Bowie did it for longer at a time when the microscope was heavier, and did it so amazingly. Switching genres and bands, creating the whole avant-garde alternative in such a great way. I was a big fan from The Man who Sold the World to Scary Monsters.”

Alan’s Manchester move came in the late ‘80s after a previous spell in Liverpool, working in mental health services in both cities. But he left the NHS around eight years ago, ‘beginning my descent into poverty’, working part-time for the previous 15 years.

“I’d put out a lot of records and had to make this decision as to whether this was what I wanted to do or whether I wanted a more standard career.”

Manchester comes through in his work, not just on the Parlour Flames LP, which opens with ‘Manchester Rain’, an inspired answer to The Mamas and Papas’ classic ‘California Dreaming’.

There’s a ‘Madchester’ feel to ‘Scarecrows’ on the new record. Maybe he should invite Happy Mondays to cover that for their next record.

Parlour Pals: Paul Arthurs, also known as Bonehead, and Alan Wilkes in technicolour action as Parlour Flames.

“Well, the drummer (Che Beresford) is in Black Grape, as well as Badly Drawn Boy, Parlour Flames, and about six wedding bands.”

A few extra royalties wouldn’t do any harm, would they?

“No. I’ll see if I can have a word with Shaun (Ryder), although I’m not sure how that will go. Ha!”

There’s definitely a ‘baggy’ thing going on.

“You’re right, although I was thinking Bowie meets Talking Heads type funk.”

While I’m at it, ‘Culture Vulture’ has a Blur-like feel. I’d expect to find it on a Graham Coxon album.

“Yeah, it’s got a kind of energy about it. For me there’s a slight Led Zeppelin feel to the riff. But I’d much prefer a Blur or Coxon record!”

And the closing track, ‘Let Them Take Drugs’ is The Pet Shop Boys with added bollocks for me.

“Yeah, more slide guitars as well! That was my Dave Gilmour impression.”

Note that for every indie, punk or at least more contemporary influence I mention, he often counters with some ’70s guitar colossus or other. I don’t see him as some sort of rock dinosaur though.

“I’m not really. I’m adapting. You have to keep doing that, reinventing versions of yourself in relation to different times. A lot of this album is more than just about musicality. It’s about the lyricism too.”

This is your state of the nation address, in a sense.

“In some ways, I guess. Ha! Yeah, I’ll take that, although I find it amusing that the nation would be even remotely interested in my statements!

“It’s also about the twisted nature of the news. A lot of the ideas came quickly for this album, probably from watching too many episodes of Newsnight. I’ll get up the next morning, watch it, get angry, then get in the studio!”

Don’t be too quick to label him in a certain genre though. He’s just re-pressed a Vinny Peculiar album called Silver Meadows (Fables From the Institution) and is set to play a small set at an annual psychiatry conference in Leeds later this month, that LP’s subject matter stemming from his days as a nurse in the 1980s. And the same day he’s a special guest of Duke Special, joining him on stage at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music.

Away from music, his children are now 33 and 26, and he has two grandchildren. What do the young ‘uns make of Grandad Peculiar?

“Ha! They appeared on my last album, Return of the Native, doing some chanting on ‘The Grove and the Ditch’, a song about gang wars between Bromsgrove and Redditch. They enjoyed that, but I’m sure when they get older they’ll be totally embarrassed by the whole thing. They come over once a week after school, there’s a drum-kit here and I allow them a limited amount of time to annoy everyone!”

Home Again: Alan Wilkes, most likely coming to a town near you fairly soon, with his Vinny Peculiar bandmates

Alan is also returning to his old Manchester haunts for a Vinny Peculiar show at the Castle Hotel on Tuesday, November 26th, in full band mode alongside Rob Steadman (synths, who also appears with Alan in two-piece format), the afore-mentioned Che Beresford (drums) and Ollie Collins (bass, ex-Cherry Ghost and Badly Drawn Boy).

“It’s a full band, and it’ll be noisy in there, as it’s only small.”

You’ve made many great records and it’s a full-time passion these days, but have you given up on dreams of top-level fame?

“I haven’t given up, I’m just more realistic nowadays…and take pleasure in smaller victories. I’m trying to just create some kind of positive live experience for smaller groups, telling stories about where my song ideas came from. It’s not teenage music. Lennon famously said he was going to retire at 30, but everyone comes back … and why not!”

Do you feel you missed out while old label-mates Elbow enjoyed comparatively stratospheric success?

“I’m past all that. The only moments I have like that are realisation moments.”

He’s sure to have such moments during acoustic sets with Andy Rourke at Salford Lads’ Club, seeing the adulation afforded the former-Smiths bass player. But he wouldn’t be drawn on that.

I reckon he’s got it right too. And anyone catching Vinny Peculiar live will testify not only to the quality of the songs but the humour too, his autobiographical accounts between numbers inspiring you to take a shine to this seasoned, prolific performer and all-round good bloke.

Two’s Company: Vinny Peculiar in duo mode, with Alan Wilkes on guitar backed up by Rob Steadman on keyboards

For details of Vinny Peculiar live dates, new LP While You Still Can and past releases, head to www.vinnypeculiar.com or visit his Facebook page. 

 

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Stone Foundation – Manchester Gorilla

Red Up: Neil Jones, right, into the swing while the SF brass boys kick in at Gorilla, Manchester (Photo: Paul W Dixon)

The idea was to take the soul train to Manchester on Friday night, but Northern Rail shenanigans put paid to that, the state of the nation’s railways more ‘What’s Going On?’ than ‘People Get Ready’ right now, discussions over whether to renationalise or bring in The O’Jays ongoing.

As a result, faced with hanging around another 90 minutes before leaving for Oxford Road and missing the bulk of the set, I decided to drive, my eldest daughter having already set off from Sheffield to join me. But it worked out fine, even if the venue’s early curfew ahead of a club night meant we didn’t get to see fellow Paul Weller associate Steve Pilgrim’s support slot. Hopefully next time.

In fact, we barely got to the bar before the headliners stepped up, this soulful eight-piece (and that number is commendable in this day and age of musicians struggling to make ends meet – no half-baked brass loops on synths here) getting into their stride on new song ‘Freedom Starts’, ‘Open Your Heart to the World’ – Rob Newton’s percussive touches driving them – and ‘Next Time Around’. They know their onions, green and otherwise.

Think of the vibe of the Paul Weller Movement set-up with plenty of Curtis Mayfield fire, and you’re not far off. Stone Foundation are awash with deep soul influences, added professionalism keeping them some distance from any sound-alike Mod tribute brigade.

No special guests tonight, so no Hamish Stuart on ‘Only You Can’ – my personal highlight on Everybody, Anyone – even if the Average White Band’s ‘Pick Up the Pieces’ was played in the bar after. But lead vocalist/guitarist Neil Jones was more than up for it, his enthusiasm – he sings, dances, plays, and inspires all around him – catching, a funky riff built on co-founder Neil Sheasby’s bass and long-time cohort Phil Ford’s drumming proving a perfect … erm, foundation.

Hat’s Entertainment: Neil Sheasby lays down another groove with Stone Foundation at Gorilla (Photo: Paul W Dixon)

Next new song, ‘Changes’ was followed by Street Rituals’ ‘Season of Change. Yes, it’d be nice to see Bettye LaVette out with them, but balance sheets need to be taken into consideration. Besides, the band were firing on all cylinders now, Ian Arnold’s tinklings and Jonesy’s guitar building on Brother Sheas’ bass throb.

My evening highlight followed. No Weller of course, but ‘The Limit of a Man’ sounds great in studio form and even better live in a song recapturing The Style Council at their strongest. You might even say that as daylight turns to moonlight, they’re at their best.

In fact, that’s my general take. There’s a spark here that’s not always been as apparent on the recordings for these ears. Buy the records, learn the songs, wallow in them, but I reckon you get more of a feeling of this together outfit on stage, and their front-man really gets caught up in it.

They only started this UK run the night before in Edinburgh (selling out the Voodoo Rooms), and while nothing less than a class act, I got the feeling the brass trio – Anthony Gaylard (sax), Steve Trigg and Dave Boraston (trumpets) were perhaps nervy at first at their stage-front position in such an intimate setting. But they were note-perfect and soon flying.

Similarly, Sheasby was having technical issues, even if most of us were oblivious. But by the midway point they all seemed to be having a ball, feeding off a positive energy coming from throughout this compact venue. And it was a great size hall for them – far better than some enormo-dome, I imagine.

Brass  Tax: From left – Anthony Gaylard, Steve Trigg, Dave Boraston and Rob Newton inspire (Photo: Paul W Dixon)

We had another quality Weller co-write with ‘Your Balloon is Rising’, the brass boys switching to flute and flugelhorns while Arnold moved seamlessly from Hammond to keyboard piano. And ‘Back in the Game’ saw our assured guests plough on in style, Impressions influences to the fore.

A set-closing take on ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ rightly went down a storm. Yes, the purists will always point to Ann Peebles’ 1973 single, and I love Graham Parker’s 1977 re-read (GP also featuring on the SF single version), but they kind of make it theirs.

And back they came, trying to squeeze in as much as they could before the power was cut, ‘Sweet Forgiveness’ followed by A Life Unlimited opener ‘Beverley’ before a final flourish with closing cover ‘Going Back to My Roots’, Lamont Dozier’s evergreen given the Odyssey party vibe as much as the Richie Havens’ version they were building on.

More to the point, every interpretation – covers and originals alike – works well, this consummate Midlands combo clearly having fun and tight enough as a unit to pull it all off. Cracking night, fellas.

Green Light: Stone Foundation at full throttle, Phil Ford driving from the rear between the Neils (Photo: Paul W Dixon)

For this website’s most recent interview with Stone Foundation’s Neil Sheasby, a link to our previous interview, and details of how to snap up his Boys Dreaming Soul memoir, head hereAnd for information regarding the remaining dates on Stone Foundation’s latest UK tour, resuming this Thursday, November 7th at the Rescue Rooms in Nottingham, threading right through to Saturday, November 23rd at Thekla, Bristol, details are here

With thanks to Paul W Dixon Photography for use of the images. To find out more about Paul and his work, head here or follow him via Instagram

 

 

 

 

 

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Still on The Vapors’ trail – back in touch with Dave Fenton

Family Way: Father and son Dave and Dan Fenton – the latter deputising for Ed Bazalgette – in live action with The Vapors at Cardiff University’s Students’ Union Great Hall. Photo: Warren Meadows.

This time 40 years ago, The Vapors were about to set out on tour with The Jam on their biggest adventure to date, invited along for the ride on the latter’s Setting Sons tour by their co-managers, Jam bass player Bruce Foxton and the headliners’ manager John Weller, father of front-man Paul.

You may have caught that tour somewhere, perhaps at Manchester’s Apollo Theatre, Lancaster University, London’s Rainbow Theatre … who knows. But if you didn’t, fear not. They’re back again, supporting Bruce Foxton’s more recent venture, From the Jam, a band that originally included Jam drummer Rick Buckler, Bruce leading the charge with long-time songwriting and performing partner Russell Hastings. They’re a class act, and the same goes for the support band.

Three of the classic four-piece Vapors remain on board, but while just two feature on this tour – Dave and bass player Steve Smith – missing guitarist Ed Bazalgette (the celebrated television director currently busy with filming commitments) has quality cover between appearances from protégé Dan Fenton, who just so happens to be one of Dave’s three children.

Dave, a music lawyer before taking early retirement from a role with the Musicians’ Union, reconvened his old band in 2016. He’s based in Worthing on the South Coast these days, moving after his children left school from Hertfordshire to Sussex, handy for rehearsals with Brighton-based Steve and Crawley-based drummer Michael Bowes, the latter a tutor by day at Brighton’s British and Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM), taking over from Howard Smith – busy with a young family, gig promotions and his role as Guildford’s prospective parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party – when they finally got back together after 35 years.

As Dave put it when we spoke earlier this week, “There was nothing keeping us in Harpenden. It made sense to move closer to them. I didn’t need to get into London on the train anymore. I’ve retired now. This is my retirement, see!”

Yes, four decades after writing ‘Trains’, for me up there with The Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and The Jam’s ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’ and ‘Smithers-Jones’ as a classic tale of life as a London commuter, we can confirm that Dave Fenton successfully took on the trains … and they didn’t get him.

It’s also fair to say Dave’s loving it, not only out there playing live, but also recording new songs, a third Vapors album recorded and set to land fairly soon, 38 years after the previous one. And all in all, a band best known for UK top-three hit ‘Turning Japanese’ (also a No.1 in Australia) are relishing their second coming.

Double Act: Michael Bowes, left, gets the joke as Steve Smith, centre, and Dave Fenton get down to it at Cardiff University Students’ Union Great Hall, as The Vapors support From The Jam (Photo: Warren Meadows)

So, three dates into this tour, has Dave had opportunities to reminisce with the band’s former manager, Mr Foxton?

“A bit, yeah. Not a lot. We sort of pass each other in soundchecks mostly, as we’re playing at different times. But yeah, we all get on fine.”

He was gearing up for Leeds Stylus (Thursday 24th), Middlesbrough Empire (Friday 25th) and Hull City Hall (Saturday 26th) when I called, coming closest to my adopted patch at Blackburn’s King George’s Hall (Friday, November 15th), another venue visited in 1979, although missing From the Jam’s Manchester Ritz return (Saturday, November 23rd) due to a prior London booking at Nell’s in West Kensington.

“We’ve only done three dates so far, but it’s going well, with a great crowd.”

This tour ends at London’s Indigo at the O2 on Saturday, November 30th, but they’re back out again in January and then in March and April, another busy year expected in Dave’s hectic retirement, anxiously awaiting the release of that new LP.

“We’ve recorded it and it’s all ready to go, and we’ve done test pressings. But I don’t think it’ll be ready until later in the year. We’re in negotiations with a distributor. I’ve never put a record out myself – everything’s changed, we’re on a learning curve, needing all the help we can get.”

That sounds a little frustrating.

“It is a bit. It’s going to be a year old by the time it comes out. On the other hand, I’ve never put a record out myself and everything’s changed since my day, so we’re on a learning curve and need all the help we can get. But so far, so good.”

Steely Dan: Dave Fenton’s son Dan on lead guitar in Ed Bazalgette’s absence at Cardiff University Students’ Union Great Hall, as The Vapors support From The Jam (Photo: Warren Meadows)

For those catching up, possibly thinking it might just be about one big hit and a couple of minor ones, the band made two great LPs in 1980 and 1981, with debut album New Clear Days among my favourite ever long players and follow-up Magnets, though so different, gradually growing on this scribe and one I love too now.

The early shows such as those in late 2016 were all about celebrating those records and the accompanying singles and B-sides. But last summer when I saw them again at Manchester’s Ruby Lounge there were a few new songs in the set too – and going down well – giving us hope that something was afoot.

“Well, some of the new tracks haven’t actually made the album. We had around 20 songs to choose from, and only chose 12.”

The band also head to North Wales on the first weekend of November for a sell-out two-day Vapors convention at Sir Clough Williams-Ellis’ celebrated Italianate-style village in Portmeirion, Gwynedd, the location for cult ‘60s series The Prisoner, in what’s become something of a regular date in the band’s diary.

“We pretty much get it to ourselves, with only a 100-something capacity for the main hall, so it’s just us and our fans spending the weekend together, which is great.”

And all following an invite from Vapors fan, Meurig Jones, a major player in the running of the celebrated No. 6 Festival, who happens to be an official guide in ‘The Village’.

“That’s how it all started really, him asking if we’d like to play there, being the place where The Prisoner was shot, and our first single being ‘Prisoners’.”

And four decades after that debut Vapors 45, how would you say this next LP will compare to the first two? Is this perhaps the longest trilogy in music history?

“Ha! It could be! There are references to people and things mentioned on the first album, for example ‘Letter to Hiro (No.11)’ – which when you write it down is ‘no one won’ – the other side of that first album’s ‘Letter From Hiro’, if you like. And I think Johnny crops up in one or two places.”

Headline Act: Russell Hastings, left, and Bruce Foxton, out on the road with The Vapors with From The Jam, rocking Cardiff University Students’ Union Great Hall (Photo: Warren Meadows)

Ah, yes, a character that features large on the second record, 1981’s Magnets. And there’s another nice reference to the first album… but they’re keeping that under wraps for now.

A lot’s happened since out last chat four years ago, Dave …

“Yeah, we were about to do our first four gigs in 35 years! And there was a really nice response.”

I was lucky enough to be at Liverpool Arts Club for one of those, a day I thought I’d never get to see, having been just 13 when the band first parted ways.

“Nice one. We get a lot of that, especially, ‘First time around I was too young to come’.”

Including The Vapors’ stand-in guitarist, your lad Dan.

“Yeah, he wasn’t even a twinkle in anyone’s eye!”

He’s going down well with the fans, with a fair few stage hours with the band under his belt now in Ed’s absence.

“Yeah. He’s a good guitarist, and he’s enthusiastic.”

Hallmark One: The Vapors Mk I outside Shalford Village Hall after recording their first demo in 1978. From left – Mike Hedges, Rob Kemp, Dave Fenton, Mike Jordan. Photo by early roadie Colin Crew, courtesy of David Shephard/Soundscene Does Facebook!

I think people can see he’s there on merit, and not just because of any family link.

“Yes. It’s a shame Ed couldn’t do more stuff, but he’s been really busy filming this year. He’s in London editing at the moment and has been away in Turkey, I think, filming. I’ve hardly seen him.”

You’ve travelled a fair bit yourself with the band during this latest spell in the band’s history. It’s been an amazing journey since you and Ed got up on stage with Steve’s band, The Shakespearos at London’s Half Moon, Putney in late April 2016, just playing ‘Turning Japanese’ on that occasion.

“I had no idea! And that’s before we did the initial four gigs.”

You’ve even inspired a book, dedicated Vapors fan Mike Philpott’s Time’s Gonna Make Me A Man Someday (on sale throughout this tour at the merch desk or via Amazon through this link), its title taken from the band’s third single, ‘News at Ten’.

“Yeah, that was strange! There are all these people that we’re finding out how much The Vapors meant to them.  And we didn’t know then. There was no internet. It was completely different.”

I’m guessing you were never stand-offish to the fans. You seem to have always been fairly open to approaches from them. I wonder how much of that was down to being associated with The Jam, a band who always looked after their supporters, however young.

“We learned that from the Jam really. They’d always go to the merch desk after a gig, sign things, shake hands, and have photos taken.

Morris Movers: The Vapors Mk II, outside Roundhouse Studios during the recording of ‘Turning Japanese’, early 1980. Clockwise from top – Ed Bazalgette, Howard Smith, Dave Fenton, Steve Smith. Picture courtesy of Alan ‘Fred’ Pipes

“This time last year we did three gigs at the Mercury Lounge in New York City, which all went down well, and we sold out. A great weekend for everyone, and quite a few fans came out from the UK. We’ve got quite a good following there and got invited back for the lost ‘80s tour this summer, doing around 22 dates over 30 days across America.

“It was weird playing there. Indoors it was freezing cold because the air conditioning was on, but when you went outside it was 100 degrees. And then we came home, and it was the complete opposite of that.”

I don’t wish to be disparaging, but it was a case of short, sharp greatest hit sets, sometimes barely a few aired. Does that get frustrating, just being asked to play the better-known songs?

“It was a bit. But there were so many bands on the roster that we were lucky that we got to play three or four songs each night. Some were just doing their one hit. I didn’t mind that, but it would have been nice to vary the set a bit. But the audience wanted to hear what they were getting.”

And hopefully they returned home to play the other records, get them on order, or save up to see you again somewhere soon.

“Well, exactly. If they liked us live maybe they’d look online and see what else we’ve got. And I’d never stop going back there. It was great.”

While The Vapors never properly toured Europe (Dave just recalls one TV show in Germany), with the thought of his past work with the Musicians’ Union, I put it to him that US tours involve a lot of painstaking paperwork, and we currently have a dark horizon looming with Brexit, making it increasingly difficult for bands planning future European travels.

“Well, yeah, it’s going to restrict musicians touring abroad, having to go through visa applications for each territory – and there’s 27 of them, rather than just through one passport. It’s going to be a nightmare.”

Lining Up: Michael Bowes leads from the rear as The Vapors’ front-line, on this occasion – from left – Steve Smith, Dave and Dan Fenton, kick in. Photo: Si Root.

I went more into the early history of the band with you in our feature/interview in September 2016 (with a link here), carrying on that conversation since with Ed and Steve in further features, and also Howard Smith. But something I only learned more recently involved the band before they all joined.

I’ve always dined out on the fact that The Stranglers practised at the end of the road I was brought up on, at Shalford Scout Hut, just outside Guildford. What I hadn’t realised was that an early incarnation of The Vapors also practised nearby, at Shalford Village Hall, a venue I knew better from Christmas fairs and older siblings going to dances and a social club there. Small world, eh?

“Yeah, that was a very early formation of The Vapors – Mark I, as we called it, with Rob Kemp, Mike Hedges and Mike Jordan on drums.”

So I gather, with the latter known as Joe, for fairly obvious reasons to football fans of that era. I hear Rob’s no longer with us though.

“Unfortunately not. He moved to America, and died about three years ago.”

Were you in touch?

“I’m in touch with his sister, and we did get in touch after all that time, when he sent me some photos and demos we’d done. It was very much a shock when he died. He was a lot younger than me.

“I’ve been in touch with Mike Hedges since, but Mike Jordan seemed to fall off the face of the earth when he left the band. The two Mikes were at school together, and it was because Mike Hedges went off to do his degree at Southampton that Mike Jordan left the band at the same time. Ed was already in the band by that point, and we’d done a gig with him, I think.

Younger Days: Dave Fenton in live action at Scratchers (Three Lions), Farncombe, Surrey, on January 14th, 1979. Picture courtesy of Alan ‘Fred’ Pipes

“Then they left and we ended up looking for a bassist and drummer. Howard was previously with Ed, while Steve was in a number of bands around Guildford, playing various instruments, including drums!”

Is that right that the original ‘Turning Japanese’ demo was recorded at Shalford Village Hall?

“It could well have been. I don’t have a copy, but we did a version at Chestnut Studios, somewhere in Surrey. I’m pretty sure we did borrow a tape recorder to make some recordings at the hall, but I haven’t got the tapes. I’m not sure if anyone else has.

“Things keep cropping up. ‘Caroline’ cropped up on the internet recently, but I think that was recorded from The Rainbow along with the B-side from ‘Turning Japanese’, ‘Here Comes the Judge’. I think someone lifted ‘Caroline’ from the same tape.”

Dave, who moved to Guildford from the east of Surrey to study at the College of Law, was working at a grocer’s shop in Market Street in the town, and his past keeps catching up with him.

“I keep bumping into someone I worked with, coming to gigs. And he was at Cardiff at the weekend.”

And who had that lovely old Morris in the early publicity shots for The Vapors, Mk. II?

“I really couldn’t tell you. I think that might have been one of our roadies. It’s not still with us, I’m afraid!”

According to a Facebook page run by Surrey music scene aficionado David Shephard, I learned after that the Morris 1000 belonged to a fella called Steve Gunner. So now you know.

There were earlier names. Were you still the Big Box Band or BBC3 when practising at my village hall?

“No, I think by the time we had Rob in the band we were The Vapors.”

With or without the ‘u’ in the name?

“Ah, I’m not sure if we’d made that decision by that point. But fairly soon after we decided the name was too long, and if the Americans didn’t need it, neither did we.”

Returning Heroes: Back in 2016. From the left – Michael Bowes, David Fenton, Ed Bazalgette, Steve Smith (Photo: The Vapors).

Well, that’s a bone of contention. It has to be the exception that proves the rule for this pedant – I always go with anglicised versions, unless I’m writing about your band.

“Sorry!”

There’s also a little confusion about when Bruce Foxton saw you first at Scratchers in Godalming. Were Ed, Steve and Howard in the band by then?

“I think just Ed … but I really don’t remember. Actually, it was Steve that Bruce mostly spoke to at the pub, so he must have been playing. But it was 40 years ago – my memory’s not as good as it was! I know things happened in a certain order, but sometimes the details …I don’t remember at all.

“It’s like that with Mike (Philpott), who’s written this book. There’s stuff in there I’ve no recollection of at all! Steve also said he read it with trepidation. Mike talks about queuing up at The Marquee hoping he’d remembered to put him on the guest list, with Steve worried whether he had or not!”

Before I let Dave go – on a rare day off between shows – I thanked him for getting The Vapors back together after all these years. I never thought it would happen, so it’s all a bonus for this ‘too young’ fan. And his response?

“No problem … it’s the day-job now!”

Supporting Role: Dave Fenton, live at Cardiff University Students’ Union Great Hall, with The Vapors joining headliners From The Jam (Photo: Warren Meadows)

The Vapors are currently supporting From The Jam at venues across the UK, celebrating the 40th anniversary of Setting Sons, with full details of dates – including a few pre-arranged shows outside the tour – and how to get tickets via this link

With thanks to Shaun Modern, plus former Barbed Wire fanzine head honcho Alan ‘Fred’ Pipes, freelance photographer Warren Meadows and Si Root for the use of their photographs, and David Shephard for his splendid Soundscene Does Facebook! archive.

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Sleevenotes by David Gedge (Pomona, 2019) – a review

This is the first example I’ve seen of Pomona’s Sleevenotes series – where musicians choose favourite tracks from their back-catalogue and provide insight into their creation, meaning and mood – and on this evidence it’s a simple concept that works well.

David Gedge is a fine choice for the fourth book in the series, the founder and sole, erm … ever-Present of his band having enjoyed a 35-years-and-counting recording career, neatly bridging that gap between cult indie status and mainstream crossover success (18 UK top-40 singles count for something), John Peel’s championing of an outfit the author has been known to introduce live as ‘semi-legendary’ in more recent times leading to so many of us getting on board early on.

I wasn’t convinced this would work. Friend of this website Richard Houghton’s splendid This Day in Music Books 2017 Gedge co-write, Sometimes These Words Don’t Have To Be Said, finished a job started in 1990 by Pomona main-man Mark Hodkinson in Thank Yer Very Glad. Furthermore, with talk of a one-volume version of David’s long-running comic-book alternative life story to come and a ‘songography’ project involving the author for the https://gedgesongs.wordpress.com already out there, there’s reason to think that’s all in the past (there, I’ve said it now at last).

Besides, I got the impression that the words of the opening line of ‘My Favourite Dress’ used in the official biography’s title summed up the author’s thinking regarding any such history project. I also feared that the artist Peelie lovingly referred to as ‘the Boy Gedge’ might over-explain the songs we love given the chance (less is more, and all that). But it works, not least because it’s short, sharp and succinct, an A5 format running to just over 100 pages preventing any over-writing.

So although I thought I knew all I needed to, he fills in a few gaps and inspires the reader to return to the songs themselves, hearing them again with new-found insight. And while concentrating on just 15 tracks – I’ll not dwell on the specifics, but we start with thrilling 1985 debut 7”, ‘Go Out and Get ‘Em, Boy!’ and thread on through to the sublime indie pop of 2016’s ‘Rachel’ – a full timeline is established, including the seven-year gap in which offshoot project Cinerama took centre-stage.

If you’re a fan, you’ll fly through the pages at speed, as if you’ve been invited up on stage to join the band’s heady six-string assault, the tales told around each choice giving a one-take outline of this mighty sonic journey we’ve been on since the band set out from Leeds in the mid-‘80s. Yes, the afore-mentioned Houghton/Gedge title offered a tidy production and works perfectly, but this complements it nicely. Think of it as a Steve Albini-engineered alternative, raw and urgent.

Along the way we see glimpses of the obsession of TWP’s driven sole survivor down the years. And I was inspired to not only go back to the songs chosen, but to check out more mentioned in despatches. There’s enough trainspotter-level info to appeal to the more obsessive, not least a few recording secrets and explanations as to how they got that guitar sound on ‘’What is it Now, Missus?’ (not actually a Wedding Present title, but you had to think about it, right?), but there’s plenty for the rest of us to enjoy too.

Gedge also talks about his move towards more conversational styles of songwriting and various experimentations (‘A lot of my early writing was of the ‘Send me a flower, I’m going to die’ school of lyricism’, he admits), and analyses those leaps between small to large record labels and then self-releases over the years. There’s talk of the thrill of getting that first Peel play and how that led to so many bookings, and lovely little tales like how David once unwittingly offered an off-the-wagon George Best a drink at the debut LP publicity shoot, and how time and again he appears not to fully get what makes a hit (thankfully he always has a band to steer him in the right direction).

What else? There’s more about 1992’s successful 12-single Hit Parade campaign – Keith Gregory’s idea initially, just before his departure – and David’s thoughts on the differing approaches of the many producers employed over the years, plus talk of a bizarre London rooftop experience with The Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie between recording sessions, and a splendid yarn about the day David asked Steve Albini if he could possibly use his Chicago studio’s Mellotron during the recording of El Rey.

And did you realise that Take Fountain started life as a fourth Cinerama album? In fact, Cinerama – which the author now as good as admits was a solo career in all but name – features a fair bit across these pages, Gedge suggesting promoters were far happier when TWP returned, feeling they’d do better when it came to shifting tickets. But that side-project has survived, not least through guest slots for the annual At the Edge of the Sea festival in David’s adopted home city, Brighton.

I mentioned staff turnover within his bands, and Gedge says, ‘Some people stay for 12 years and some people stay for 12 months. I think people possibly suppress their personality a bit in order to fit in with the band at first, but then, over time, it will start to niggle them’. Yet it appears that there are still plenty of takers out there to fill those gaps, among them Labour Party luminary, Mayor of Greater Manchester and TWP obsessive Andy Burnham.

Also, the author stresses how the Weddoes are more of a proper band than they’re given credit for. Despite so many musicians passing through over the years fuelling notions that David may be an ogre to work with, you get the impression his scariest quality is an over-reaching passion for his projects.

Tellingly, he adds, ‘I encourage people in the band to put forward ideas and songs, because even if I don’t think it works, others might. Also, of course, there’s always the chance that I will grow to like it eventually. I’ll go away, sleep on it, and then possibly change my mind. Things like that can move the group forwards so I’m always open for band members to stamp their identity on our sound. That’s why The Wedding Present have made this series of records that each have their own personality; it’s because there have usually been different people playing on each one. I generally feel like I’ve been in about half a dozen bands. I have always said that the sound of The Wedding Present is the combined sound of the four people who are in the group at any given time’.

Content-wise, we’re taken up to his most recent winning LP, Going, Going … and the accompanying shows which led to a memorable 2017 Cadogan Hall live show, Cinerama supporting and the headliners complemented by flute, brass, strings, a 20-piece choir, and David’s partner Jessica’s films projected onto a huge screen. And where do we go from there? We’re yet to find out two years on, but judging by my most recent TWP date at Blackpool’s Waterloo Bar in July (reviewed here), the band remain as fresh and relevant today as ever.

In short, I’m thinking that no discerning Wedding Present fan would be without Gedge’s Sleevenotes, although – knowing the author as we do – there will probably be an extended, repackaged 30-song version in time for the band’s 40th anniversary. And we’d be up for that too, of course, even if the purists will come back to this slim volume and argue the case for its superiority.

Live Presents: David Gedge. left, leading from the front with The Wedding Present, with Charles Layton on drums, at Blackpool’s Waterloo Bar in late July, 2019 (Photo copyright: Richard Houghton)

David Gedge’s Sleevenotes, following those from Bob Stanley of St Etienne, Mark Lanegan (ex-Screaming Trees) and Joe Thompson (DIY behemoths, Hey Colossus), is available for £8 (plus p&p) from Pomona via this link

And for an interview with David Gedge for this website from September 2014, head here

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From The In Crowd and onwards – talking Boys Dreaming Soul and Stone Foundation with Neil Sheasby

Stoned Love: Stone Foundation are back out on the road later this month in support of the Everybody, Anyone LP. Pictured, from the left – Rob Newton, Phil Ford, Ian Arnold, Neil Sheasby, Neil Jones (Photo: Jordan Curtis Hughes)

After successive UK top-30 albums, it’s fair to say Midlands soul collective Stone Foundation are on a high, the success of 2017’s Street Rituals followed by last year’s Everybody, Anyone, another long player recorded at Paul Weller’s Black Barn Studios in Ripley, Surrey.

Look at the latest album credits and you’ll find mention of contributions from not only Weller but also The Average White Band’s Hamish Stuart, The Blow Monkeys’ Dr Robert, and The Style Council’s Mick Talbot and Steve White. And since then, they’ve enticed Graham Parker back into the studio.

But while recent Stone Foundation highlights include supports with their esteemed studio host, various headline shows at prestigious venues and storming sets at renowned festivals, I wouldn’t advise you suggest to co-founding bass player Neil Sheasby that he might be enjoying success for the first time.

Neil’s receiving plenty of rightful acclaim at present for his first published music memoir, Boys Dreaming Soul, and within its pages you get many evocative descriptions detailing past associations with revered acts. But it’s not so much name-dropping as subtle tips of one of his many stylish titfers towards a career that’s seen him living a life he always dreamed of.

Sheas, as he’s known to many (apparently Weller calls him ‘Brother Sheas), turned 52 this week, and was set to return to band rehearsals when I called him at home in Atherstone, Warwickshire. The Everybody, Anyone UK tour starts at the end of this month, and he’s raring to go.

“Even though it was only the summer when we were busy, it feels like forever, so it’ll be nice to get back into that, man.”

We’ll get on to that later, but first I’ll talk some more about his book, the story of his life in music, part one, and a personal affair at that.

I intended to just start reading it, then arrange an interview, but once I’d got going I powered on through before tackling its author. For one thing I wanted to know as much as I could about some of the key characters involved before asking more, not least the late Paul Hanlon, aka Hammy, his musical sidekick for so long.

Sheas’ Sidekick: Paul Hanlon, aka Hammy, outside Tiffany’s in Coventry in 1980, aged 13 (Photo: Tony Tye)

As he puts it in the book, ‘He was the archetypal Boy About Town, the local Face. Even at a tender age, he had swagger and confidence, but never arrogance. He was burning with character, and people loved him.’ He seemed a real character, I suggested. And I guess it’s not a plot-spoiler to talk about him in the past tense.

“It’s funny, because most people buying it locally already know that part, and know Hammy’s gone. But I had to think in a context where the majority of people aren’t going to know our relationship, so I didn’t want to give it away. And that was a delicate balance when I was thinking of doing it.

“I didn’t even know I wanted to put that all in there really. It was because of his kids. They were around nine and 11 when he died, I was a godfather to the pair of them, and see them quite a bit. They’re adults now and started asking me lots of questions about their Dad, so I thought, y’know, I probably need to put this out there. I didn’t care if it sold five copies or 500, I wanted to do it for them.

“And it turned into something else. a love letter to my fans, my family, where I grew up, Mum and Dad, the relationship with Hammy, and more than anything my relationship with music probably. That’s what comes over.”

I agree, and in that situation some would be tempted to turn such a key figure who’s no longer with us into something of a saint. But you’re very honest and open, not trying to sugar-coat your close relationship with Hammy.

“I hope not. It was done over a good period of years. I started probably about six years ago, left it, and didn’t really know whether I was writing a book or not. I was just writing, but then we started making Street Rituals a few years later and when I’m writing tunes, I’m concentrating on that – I can’t do two things at once. But then I found six or seven chapters on the computer, thinking, ‘Fucking hell, I should pick this up again, this is pretty good!’ I’d not read it for a few years. So I picked the thread up again and started to see I might have a book there, but didn’t want it to be an indulgence. I could tell story after story after story, but what really is a story and what’s an indulgence is what people can relate to and connect to. That’s a fine line to get right. And it seems to have gone down well.”

It certainly has. Did you already know the publisher, Days Like Tomorrow Books’ Tony Beesley?

“Kind of. He asked me to write for his Mojo Talking book, and I kind of enjoy all that.”

It’s apparent to me that you’re a proper writer. Lots of people writing similar books haven’t got that skill. They’ll write with passion and the odd sharp turn of phrase, and I’m all for that, but there’s more here. I see that in your social media posts too.

“Well … thank you. I don’t really think about it. I just write rubbish and people seem to like it! It started with social media, reconnecting with old mates, sharing indulgences about what I’d found in the loft or wherever, noticing people would start to engage with it, even if it’s just talking about albums I think are shit!

“I like it when you’re having a conversation from which you can learn something. Most people I’m interested in will probably turn me on to something – a book, a film, a new record. That’s the positivity of it all really.”

Last time I talked to Neil was in April 2017, with Stone Foundation’s Street Rituals not long out. It was around then that I became aware of his social media presence, realising he’s just 11 days older than me, an added bonus for me with Boys Dreaming Soul – knowing exactly where I was in my life at key points in his tale, comparing respective life experiences.

One such moment that made an impression was realising how young he was when he lost his father, making me realise what a bonus it was to have my own Dad around until I was 45. I suspect I may well have gone off the rails if I’d lost my father at 21, like him. I briefly mention this, but he swiftly steers me towards a more positive aspect, the fact that we grew up at such an exciting time.

“You could also argue that kids who grew up with Brit Pop had a similar experience, but it was just so exciting to be our age and be impressionable going into your teenage years, surrounded by this melting pot of youth culture – whether you were a punk, skinhead, mod, rocker, whatever. It’s almost like if you weren’t into something you were a kind of outcast. It was all encompassing.”

For Neil that tribalism became more defined on hearing The Jam’s third LP. As he puts it in the book, ‘In the City I loved, but All Mod Cons upped the stakes. It changed everything. I spent the next couple of months reading, researching, devouring, investigating and immersing myself in all things mod … punk had burnt out, a whole new movement was about to explode, and The Jam were lighting the fuse.’

And through that came a knock-on interest in ska, Tamla Motown, Eddie Floyd, Mose Allison, The Creation, the 100 Club, Richard Barnes’ Mods book (‘becoming my bible’), and more. He writes, ’By the time I was 14 I’d read Robert Tressell, Colin MacInnes and George Orwell. I’d seen Curtis Mayfield and Georgie Fame. Paul Weller and Richard Barnes probably showed me more than most of my secondary school teachers could ever dream of.’

At this point we mentioned our parallel childhoods, me in Surrey and Neil in Warwickshire. And while key influences like The Jam, The Stranglers, The Vapors, The Members and Graham Parker were not far off my doorstep, Neil had his own major influences near his neck of the woods.

“Absolutely, going the other way to Coventry, that’s where 2 Tone unfolded, and was the nearest city to us. And in Birmingham – the other way – we had Dexy’s Midnight Runners, The Beat, UB40 … We were surrounded by it. At that age, around 12 or 13, I was going to matinee gigs, but then Dexy’s just seemed different. It seemed to stand out. When I first heard Searching for the Young Soul Rebels I felt, ‘This isn’t what the other stuff is, this is something else’. I was being informed, and you dig deeper into the lyrics and stuff, realising he’s talking about Irish poets, some sense of national pride, all that.”

Incidentally, Neil’s first show was a matinee gig, and what a gig, Madness at Leicester’s De Montford Hall, with admission £1, Sheas up on the balcony taking it all in. He writes, ‘Even though it was billed as an under-16s matinee, it was still mayhem, with lads throwing themselves off the balcony and being caught by the throng below, a hall full of skins, rude boys and mods all united by the music, which in itself was just exhilarating. It was like Cup Final day, but better, a real event. I was left in no doubt. This was the life for me. I was hooked.’

And as it was with me, people like Kevin Rowland, Joe Strummer and Paul Weller inspired you to read around your subject, discovering all the music, books and films they mentioned in interviews.

“Yeah, Kevin Rowland didn’t really do many interviews, because he had that great idea of just doing essays in the music press – and all that attracted me as well – but when Paul did an interview he was informative and he’d talk about whatever he was reading or listening to, like Curtis Mayfield, and namechecking the Five Stairsteps or something, so I’d be checking all that out. We didn’t have the internet, so you had to go and find the records, which was hard to do, but again all that was really exciting and I felt that was a real rite of passage.”

Dance Stance: Sheas, right, with the Dexy’s-inspired band he formed with Hammy, centre, on the Battlefield Line at Shackerstone, Leicestershire. Phil Ford is next to his bass-playing Stone Foundation comrade (Photo: Neil Sheasby)

There’s another Dexy’s link, as you might expect from a lad who spent much of his formative years sipping tea as one of ‘The Teams That Meet in Caffs’, when baritone sax player Paul Speare, who played on Too Rye Ay, moved to a village three miles from Sheas and Hammy, who by then had renamed their band Dance Stance in honour of Rowland’s influential outfit. They tracked him down too, persuading him to produce their debut single. And all these years on ‘Snaker’ occasionally plays with Stone Foundation, also writing the foreword for Boys Dreaming Soul.

Where you find a love of Dexy’s and The Jam you’re also likely to link in the Northern Soul revival scene, and Sheas and Hammy were part of that ‘third wave’ at a young age, visiting nearby Hinckley, Leicestershire, for the first of many visits to events there, initially lured in by news that Curtis Mayfield was appearing.

As he puts it in the book, ‘We’re buzzing! This is the real deal. A Northern Soul all-nighter and on our doorstep! Then reality hits. This is 1982, Hammy’s barely 15, I’m 14, we’re still at school, and we’re planning on fucking off to Hinckley with grown blokes we only loosely knew, to a dance that doesn’t begin until midnight and doesn’t finish until 8am on Sunday. This is going to take some planning.’

They succeeded though, with many more trips following, seeing the likes of guest acts Major Lance, Martha Reeves, Edwin Starr, and Eddie Holman.

As I told him, I didn’t find myself at an all-nighter – at the 100 Club in Oxford Street – until I was 19, an interest in Northern Soul somewhat inevitable in light of my love of Motown and Stax. But even then I only appreciated what I experienced in retrospect, finding that whole scene too cliquey.

“Yeah, it was like people-watching in a way, at first, thinking, ‘Christ! What is this!’ It was this whole new underground kingdom where people are just dancing and no alcohol. You didn’t realise these people were speeding their tits off or whatever when you’re 13! But I got into these places and can’t believe nobody stopped us and said, ‘Sorry lads, you’re too young’.  We got in all sorts of places, another benefit of growing up when we did.”

There’s a nice description of the time his band was playing a local bar and the afore-mentioned Edwin Starr joined them on stage, to their amazement, for a medley of ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ segued with ‘Respect’.

“There are all these bizarre things that the book’s littered with and the fact that me and Hammy never seemed to go out and just have a normal night. Something would always happen. We’d done some charity gig in a wine bar, a low-key affair, and they were going to present a cheque as we’d raised a certain amount, so we turned up to do an hour’s set, and Edwin was there to present the cheque to the nurses it was raised for. And that night he looked at us, thought, ‘Crikey, this is some band’, and on the spur of the moment asked, ‘Would you know anything I know?’ then got up and sang with us.”

Festival Fare: Best buddies Hammy and Sheas take it easy in Tamworth, back in the day (Photo: Neil Sheasby)

When Neil describes the moment where Edwin comes in with his first line, you’re with him in that bar, sharing a moment of elation and jubilation at being in this everyday establishment with a bona fide soul legend.

“Yeah! The walls were shuddering. It was amazing!”

I’d forgotten until I looked back at our last interview how we mentioned Graham Parker last time. But since then he’s been back in Paul’s studio with you, guesting on your cover of ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ (best known for Ann Peebles’ fantastic version and Paul Young’s later hit but commendably covered by GP himself in 1978).

“Graham emailed me yesterday, funnily enough.”

I had a mate who always raved about GP, and over time he made an impression on me too, getting to see him for the first time on the Mona Lisa’s Sister tour in Kentish Town in late ‘88. He crossed several genres, seen as a new wave artist at first, alongside Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, but the soul was always there, not far below the surface.

“Definitely. He had the Dylan thing, he had the soul thing going on, coming from loads of good angles. At the end of the day it’s just good songs really. People are very quick to bag artists, but really it’s about good songs and good delivery with people like Graham Parker and Joe Jackson.”

Conversely, reading the NME as a teenager they told me how good LPs like Astral Weeks were, but I didn’t get it straight away – not comprehending that Van Morrison was a soul singer. It took me a while to hear more, go back and truly get him.

“Well, I did, because my first entrance to Van was the It’s Too Late to Stop Now live album (1974), so I had to go back to Astral Weeks and think, ’Ah, ok, that’s what he was before’. That was a real Eureka moment, and down to the guy who worked in the record shop with me. He said, ‘You like soul, do you like this sort of soul?’ He gave me this tape, just a typed-out cassette, telling me, ‘Take that home with you’. He gave me that and Heat Treatment by Graham Parker, and a Little Feat record, and with the Van thing I got it straight away. It was soul but coming from a different place, and connected to the Dexy’s thing.”

Keep It: Dexy's first LP provided a major turning point for Neil Sheasby

Keep It: Dexy’s debut LP, Sheas’ turning point

I should mention there that after a brief spell on a BTEC diploma in business studies, Neil started working full time in a record shop, initially on the YTS at £25 a week. And it was the perfect job for a fella who’s always had his ears open to great music.

While we were born the same month, were both brought up in solid working-class environments – Neil’s Dad, who later managed his early bands, was in quarrying while his Mum made tights and stockings –  and loved our football (in his case a passion for Leeds United and non-league outfit Atherstone Town, as well as regular trips as a kid with his Dad to see Coventry City), where we differed was perhaps how we were introduced to music. It was through being the youngest of five children (the oldest with 11 years on me) that I was subjected to everything from rock’n’roll and The Beatles to glam and pop, whereas Sheas was an only child …

“Yeah, me and my imagination, and me and Elvis films! I had an imaginary friend called Simon, yeah! I think I found it all out for myself.”

But that led to him spending time socialising with his parents while they were unwinding at weekends at child-friendly working men’s and social club, experiencing a world of live bands and mirrored disco balls, an early opportunity for his love of people-watching, ‘seeing how they dressed and danced and smoked’.

“It was the fascination that when the working week was done, they’d want to go out to the local working men’s clubs. It was as much about that as The Jam and Dexy’s. Way before, it was local bands at the working men’s clubs, playing the hits of the day, whether it be Edison Lighthouse, The Kinks, whatever.

“Funnily enough, I was in town the other day and someone shouted me in one of the cafes. They had a band called The Adders, named after the football team across the way (Neil’s beloved Atherstone Town). They had this residency there every week and at The Angel, and we were reminiscing about that. I said, ‘D’you know what, lads, you were one of my key first influences’. That made me think, ‘That’s what I want to do! I wanna play in a band!’

“We’d ride our bikes around town on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, hear bands rehearsing, just like in ‘That’s Entertainment’ (‘An amateur band rehearsing in a nearby yard’). There were loads of punk bands, there was Spirit of Water, a hippie band using the arts centre, and we’d be outside, eavesdropping, thinking, ‘This is great!’ That fascinated us.”

There’s another difference between us maybe. I still have my left-handed bass guitar, but never got much further than playing in my mate’s garage. I never had the confidence to get out and perform live. I know now I should have, but get the impression that thriving scene inspired Neil to try his luck.

“I’m not sure I did, but I had people around me who said, ‘Come on, what’s the worst that can happen?’ People like Hammy, who was fearless, although he ended up just singing. But what you say about brothers and sisters playing their music, I was really lucky to be surrounded by older kids and kids my own age into music and would inspire you locally, like the guy I bought my initial records off.

“I also had older cousins, but it was like the Northern Soul thing – that came about because me and Hammy were having cups of tea in a local café at the swimming baths, with two lads working there who were into all that. Then with The Jam there was an older kid who’d drive and they took me under their wing because they knew I was into the mod thing – ‘Tell his Mum and Dad he’ll be alright with us’. I was really lucky in that respect, these pockets of people really encouraging us.

Start Point: The Jam's Sound Affects, a major inlfuence on Neil Sheasby

Start Point: The Jam’s Sound Affects, a huge influence

“And nobody laughed when we started at the youth clubs and could barely play – I’ve found VHS footage which I must get transferred and get online, and it’s amazing. We were 14 and 15, with loads of girls and lads from school coming to watch us, and you can see there’s something there. It’s really exciting to look back. That’s all you need. We had one review in a local paper, and it said we were great, so it was like, ‘Fucking hell! We’ll carry on then!’

“You get those stepping stones, all the way through. I’ve just found out some diaries and I’m looking through the early Stone Foundation thing where I’m thinking, ‘What the fuck am I still doing this for?’ Really despondent, really down, but then something happened, some little spark …”

There’s clearly a part two coming of these memoirs.

“There will be, yeah. Initially, I thought I was going to tell the Stone Foundation story, but now I’m looking at it thinking that’s still ongoing, although there will be a part of that in the next book, the time where we were really struggling and didn’t really know where we were going.”

There’s more to the story of course, but I won’t go any further here other than mentioning how that love of The Jam led to a love of The Style Council, and the band continued to regenerate. In his Dance Stance days there were overseas shows and even appearances on the god-awful Bob Monkhouse-fronted Op Knocks. And there’s the sex and drugs experimentation as well as the rock’n’roll, of course. Let’s just say his Kid Creole story and later episode involving playing air congas to Youssou N’Dour will stay with you a long time.

But I’ll break off there and move on to current Stone Foundation developments, asking a fella who reckons that 40 years ago he was regularly in ’Weller World’ as a kid at school, daydreaming in class, when he last got down to Paul’s studio.

“We’ve done the bulk of the album actually, and I’m back next week, then we have a week in December when we should finish it and get on to mixing. I think the album’s going to be out around April or May next year.”

Is Paul involved again?

“He’s on a couple of things. He features on one track and plays on a few, just bits and bob – guitar, piano … yeah, he can never help himself! He always pops his head in and ends up involved. It’s a nice relationship.”

Foundation Inspiration: Paul Weller has Stone Foundation back in his studio, recording their new LP

It remains something of a dream for Neil, getting to work alongside his childhood inspiration. In our last interview, he told me how nervous they were first working with Paul, but revealed how he quickly put them at ease, making them all a cuppa. That’s not the Weller I’d have expected from his press a couple of decades ago.

“I don’t think it’s the Paul Weller that Paul Weller would have expected 20 years ago either! I think we met him at the right time. A lot of it is to do with his sobriety now, and he seems to be in a much, much better place than he was. We have a nice relationship, we keep in touch, and we’re privileged that he seems interested in what we’re up to all the time.”

Well, let’s face it. If he didn’t want you in there, he wouldn’t re-book you.

“No, we’d be long gone! I don’t know, it just seems to work. He’s just a music fan, like us, and seems to like us.”

I’m guessing the ‘Playhouse’ single was something of a stop-gap between the last LP and the next.

“It was. We were touring and thought we could put something out to coincide with that.”

It’s great, and I love the accompanying promo video when Neil Jones and Graham Parker exchange high fives towards the end of the take.

And there is another link with the stories recounted in Boys Dreaming Soul linking your early bands with the current set-up, through your ‘brother in rhythm’, long-serving drummer, Phil Ford. He’s been around a long time, hasn’t he?

“He’s like shit on my shoes! For about 40 years. We were in middle school together. I’ve known him since he was about five or six, and at 12 he started drumming.”

Introducing Phil in the book, Neil writes, ‘Thirteen years old, he could barely see over the top of the kit, but when he played, it was just magical.’ And there’s a nice story about how he joined, which I won’t go into, following a rehearsal at Phil’s house, The In Crowd’s first gig soon arranged at a school in Coventry guitarist Nick Thomas attended. And all these years on, it’s fairly obvious that Sheas and Phil work well together.

Looking Up: Stone Foundation, all set to head on tour again in November. From left – Neil Sheasby, Anthony Gaylard, Dave Boraston, Ian Arnold, Steve Trigg, Rob Newton, Neil Jones, Phil Ford (Photo: John Coles Photography)

“Yeah, he’s been in every band we’ve been through – The In Crowd, Dance Stance, Rare Future, Mandrake Root. When I finished, he stopped drumming, then I started a new band, wanting it to be completely new, and by then he’d packed it in. We had maybe three or four years as Stone Foundation trying to find our feet, using different drummers. But he came to see us play one of the last nights at Ronnie Scott’s, Birmingham and came up after and said, ‘Fucking hell, Sheas, that was incredible. I’ve got to play again – I’ve got to get my kit out!’

“I said, ‘Mate, if you get that kit out, I tell you now, I’ll sack the drummer tonight!’ Not the nicest thing to do, but I loved Phil and we had that relationship – personal and musical – for decades. So he came back and that was it, he’s been drumming for Stone Foundation ever since.”

Finally, I get the impression that this book and the planned follow-up is a celebration of every band you were in that didn’t quite make the big time.

“Ha! It could be seen that way, yeah.”

Of course, the reader knows success did follow, but …

“Well, I don’t know … we got asked a question really early doors, on one of the first breaks we had with Stone Foundation – going on the Janice Long (radio) show, doing a session one night, and she asked, ‘Everything seems to be going really well, why do you think success has always eluded you?’ I had to think about that, and said, ‘Well, whose yardstick are we measuring success on?’ Because I always felt I had been successful.’

“I mean, touring with Gil Scott Heron and Roy Ayers – I never thought I’d see a day when that would happen. If it all stopped then, I’d have thought, ‘This is fucking great!’ So for me I always thought it was a success. It’s just that it wasn’t in the glare of the public eye.”

Fair point. I’ll take that back and try it another way. This whole story is more about inspiration and living that life you always wanted to and were always switched on to achieving. I guess I’m really talking about what is perceived as commercial success … although even that can be disputed. I guess you still have to work your arses off to make ends meet.

Bass Instinct: Neil Sheasby in contemplative mode, live with Stone Foundation (Photo: Ashley Greb Photography)

“Yeah, it’s a real struggle, definitely, a real balancing act. But our story is more, I think, about … even with Paul getting involved and John Bradbury taking us on tour with The Specials when he did … we weren’t hip, we weren’t young, we weren’t trendy or whatever, something they could easily have attached their credibility to. They took a punt on us because they liked the music, liked the band and what we were all about. That’s really the story, I think. And people look at us and think, ‘Fucking fair play to them!’

And long may it continue.

“Hope so, yeah!”

Maybe the difference now is that if someone asked what you did for a living, you could hand over the vinyl or CD/DVD packages for the last two LPs and say, ‘There you go, look at those – read the credits’.

“Well, yeah. But I always look to the next thing, thinking, ‘I could have done that better’. You still think, ‘Well, I’ve not written the one yet’. You keep chasing your tail with that. But I think that’s what keeps driving you forward really, mate. And I just enjoy it. I enjoy creating, I really do.”

For this website’s April 2017 interview with Neil Sheasby, head here.

Early Days: The In Crowd, Atherstone Town FC, 1983. From left – Neil Sheasby, Phil Ford, Paul ‘Hammy’ Hanlon.

Stone Foundation’s Everybody, Anyone UK tour starts on November 1st at Gorilla, Manchester, then the following night at Liverpool Arts Club, with the full dates here. And to order Neil Sheasby’s Boys Dreaming Soul, (Days Like Tomorrow Books, £12.99) try here

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Four decades of Daylight with The Selecter – back in touch with Pauline Black

Frontline Warrior: Pauline Black, out there again with the band with whom she made her name (Photo: Dean Chalkley)

Celebrated 2 Tone legends The Selecter, up there at the forefront of the late ‘70s UK ska revival, are going down a storm in Europe right now, their 40th anniversary tour drawing closer to home.

Led by Pauline Black and fellow co-founder Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson, the entourage this time includes another 2 Tone leading light, Rhoda Dakar, of The Bodysnatchers and The Special AKA fame, their tour covering seven countries before 20 UK and Irish dates. And Pauline, in Vienna when I called, is loving it.

“It’s been great. We’ve been to Mexico and America, and we’re in Europe at the moment, and can’t wait to get back to the UK. We’ve honed the set really well and it’s just going to be amazing – 40 years is a long time, but it still feels really fresh.”

Always a crucial figure in that late-’70s movement, Pauline is also a respected style icon, broadcaster, writer, anti-racism and anti-sexism campaigner, and actress. But right now her focus is all about the band with whom she made her name.

Witness The Selecter live and you’ll see that the passion that fuelled their shows during the original 2 Tone era remains. What’s more, they’re writing some of their best songs, long after breakthrough hits ‘Three Minute Hero’, ‘Too Much Pressure’ and ‘On My Radio’.

Their 2017 LP, Daylight, proved that, a state-of-the-nation address covering themes Pauline has witnessed first-hand and mulled over during her more recent travels, the band having lost none of their original edge and adamant that a multi-racial, multi-cultural scene started in Coventry by Specials founder Jerry Dammers is as relevant today as it was in 1979.

It’s been two years since our last interview, when Daylight had just come out. And it remains oh so topical. I loved it then and listening again the morning we spoke, I found it just as fresh and arguably even more relevant with the way politics has gone since.

“Absolutely, and sometimes all the things being said on it were not necessarily being said at the time, but you could see it was all coming, like the homelessness. It kind of missed its slot. It would have been better coming out two years later.”

There’s a good example in the track, ‘Taking Back Control’, perhaps even more pertinent now so much of what Brexit was really about is more out in the open. But despite the song’s ‘make a false promise and then you run away’ line, it seems that those they were putting the spotlight then – not least the man who would become PM – slid right back in again.

“Exactly, yeah.”

And yet despite the issues raised, these are songs of empowerment, as was often the case with The Selecter. Amid all the doom and gloom, there’s always a positive message.

“I suppose so. Despondency and doom and gloom at what’s going on isn’t the thing. And I’m certainly not despondent or gloomy about it. I think there are plenty of people organising something completely different – they don’t want their NHS sold off, for example. There are all kinds of things we are going to not benefit from, and a lot of people are waking up to that now. And that was the whole point of Daylight, to shine some daylight on all this, looking at all that in its entirety.”

I get that, but don’t always share that optimism. I’m surrounded on social media by lots of people thinking similarly to me, so I’m in a bubble of my own making at times. And there are others in another bubble, thinking all this – not least Brexit – might somehow be a good idea, however extreme the consequences. And that’s frightening.

“This is it. That’s what social media does. It re-enforces your own bubble, whatever bubble you’re living in, and you don’t always see the thorny problem outside that. But that’s the good thing about The Selecter – it tours internationally, it goes everywhere and going to America and getting the perspective now, having seen the rise of Mr Trump, now seeing what it’s like under his presidency, following that and seeing how Britain is following suit, which is quite scary. But then you come to Europe, and we did a show the other day in Milan, where everybody was on message, seeing what you’re saying and what you’re doing.”

Proud Past: Pauline Black with Coventry’s The Selecter, back in the day, On My Radio and into our collective hearts.

Another line that jumped out at me from that LP the morning I called was that challenge to ‘Make sure you use your voice’.

“Yes, and I do think that’s beginning to filter through from what I can see. It’s always good to come to another country and see through their eyes and from their perspective and what they can see.  What gets reported at home isn’t necessarily what’s reported elsewhere. But it’s amazing in America how many people know about Brexit – the B-word has travelled!”

Last time The Selecter played Manchester’s Ritz – the nearest date to my North West patch on this tour – was with The Beat. But in March we lost Pauline’s good friend Roger Charlery, better known as Ranking Roger, aged just 56.

“Yes, and if things had gone as planned and tragedy hadn’t intervened, we could have again, celebrating our 40 years of knowing each other and being together, and knowing each other over that period. But we have our own tribute to pay, and we hope the audience sings along with us.

“It just wakes you up to how life is a gift really, it’s given to us and should be respected in that way.”

Pauline and Roger first met back in 1979 on The Specials and 2 Tone founder Jerry Dammers’ doorstep in her home city, Coventry.

“He was just a young boy. I think he was 15, and we were both just standing there, looking at each other, thinking ‘Wow, this is Jerry Dammers’ house!’, completely not knowing what this was going to be the start of. And the first time I saw Roger on the stage … whatever the X-factor was, he had it. He was such a wonderful person to be around and out on the road with and performing with, for sure.”

Roger's Finale: The final Beat album featuring Ranking Roger, from earlier this year

Roger’s Finale: The final Beat LP for Pauline’s good friend Ranking Roger, released earlier this year

I’m guessing you’re at least thankful now for those final opportunities you had to tour together, in America and elsewhere.

“Oh gosh, yeah. That was a big thing. I think what it taught us was that you don’t know what the future holds, so if you are able to be out on the road and in full health to tour on that scale, that’s absolutely great. Enjoy it.”

I saw Neville Staple and his band at the same Manchester venue supporting The Undertones back in May, with both the former Specials star and the headliners celebrating their own 40th anniversaries. There was a great vibe too, and having a legendary punk band on the bill with a legendary 2 Tone performer really seemed to work. But I guess those two worlds always did gel, from Don Letts playing reggae at the Roxy in 1977 through to The Specials supporting The Clash, with The Selecter a key part of that whole movement.

What I didn’t know at the time I interviewed Neville though was that he was visiting Roger daily in hospital at that stage, this scribe largely unaware of his illness and just how close they were. Neville sounded a little downcast early on, although trying to put a brave face on things, but I put that down – understandably – to him grieving for the 21-year-old grandson he lost a few months before.

“I’m not sure that I knew anything about that either.”

Again though, Neville has that positive spirit and philosophy of making the most out of everything. It seems to have been something a few of you who came out of that 2 Tone ska revival movement have in common, and the punk movement that preceded that, inspiring so many of you to get out there for yourselves.

“I think the whole punk ethic was that you could make music. If you know three chords, and can put bass, drums, keyboards and guitar together, you can get out there and do it. I think it was that ‘doing it’ aspect that made it a level playing field for everybody. You could get out there and be taken on your merits … or not. That was always exciting, and I think 2 Tone very much fell into that post-punk thing. It certainly brought in the whole idea of what The Clash were doing, mixing rock and reggae and all those things. We just went back a bit earlier and mixed it up with ska, a much more upbeat music … and much more danceable.”

Remind me where you fitted into all that. Were you travelling down from Coventry to the Roxy and clubs like that in 1977, or were you too young?

“It wasn’t a question of being too young, I had a job – ha! I worked for the NHS. Some of us had to work. None of this hanging around the Roxy! I was into music at that time, but Coventry-centric in that way, although we were aware of all that.”

There was certainly something stirring in the Midlands and thereabouts, and for me – whether it was bands from Birmingham like The Beat, Steel Pulse and UB40, those of you from Coventry, or wherever – it was almost interchangeable among those groups. It was a whole movement.

Looking Up: The Specials’ first LP back cover image by Chalkie Davies, who talks about that classic shot here)

“Erm, I wouldn’t say it was interchangeable, I think all the bands were very well defined in what they were and occupied areas of that spectrum … monochrome, as it were. You’ve got to remember The Selecter had six black members and one white member. That made us very different right from the beginning. The Specials had two black members and five white. That in those days made a huge difference, in how you were perceived and also in what your relationship to the original music was too.”

I touched on this in our last interview, but on that occasion it involved an email Q&A, as you were travelling across America at the time (The Selecter were touring with US punk bands Rancid and The Dropkick Murphys, and were set to return there again in 2018 with Ranking Roger, but illness prevented him from accompanying them, with Rhoda Dakar stepping up instead). So I’ll ask again, did your ever dream in the early days that you’d still be out there all these years on, sharing stages with Gaps?

“I never dreamed. I mean, look what happened to the last guy who had a dream. I never dream. I hope, and hope is good enough and has got us through 40 years. And I hope we see our 50th anniversary. I’m not sure about that, but certainly the next 10 years will be … ha! Gaps is looking at me at the moment, as if to say, ‘Of course we’ll make our 50th’!”

Touching on this version of The Selecter (at one stage fellow co-founder Neol Davies was performing elsewhere with his own version of the band, but they broke up in 2010) I get the impression that your bandmate and Daylight‘s producer Neil Pyzer-Skeete is integral to this line-up.

“Absolutely. As far as I’m concerned the recording Selecter is very much myself, Gaps and Neil, who produces and takes our ideas and fashions them into wonderful pieces of music. And that’s music that hangs together and says something, having a message even after all these years, very much in keeping with 2 Tone.”

I used the word interchangeable, and that wasn’t quite right, but there was clearly a strong camaraderie with other bands over the years from the 2 Tone stable. And this time you have Rhoda Dakar appearing with you, initially with The Bodysnatchers and later The Special AKA.

“Rhoda Dakar is somebody who everybody who was in The Selecter at the beginning had a great deal of respect for, and we had a great deal of respect for The Bodysnatchers. They later became The Belle Stars and we kind of lost track, as it were, but we were there at the early gigs – myself, Jerry Dammers, and Gaps – and it was fairly obvious that Rhoda Dakar was a really great performer, delivering a great message in her songs. And she went on to do great things with The Special AKA as well.

“And in your 40th year, you’ve got to try and celebrate everything. it’s quite male-centric a lot of the time. If you go to a Specials gig it’s very much that the ladies who are there are the girlfriends dragged along so the men can dance along and lose all the money out of their pockets, because their jeans are too tight now. I feel The Selecter audience is a little more select. We still get ladies coming along, but in their own right, because they like the music!

The Bodysnatchers: Rhoda Dakar’s breakthrough band, several of whom went on to form The Belle Stars.

“So it was a natural fit that Rhoda would come along with us, and she’s DJ-ing and comes on and performs with us in our encore. Also, we have a young lady called Emily Capell coming along, supporting us, doing an acoustic set. And the closer we get to London – because that’s where she lives – she’ll be with her band as well. And that just shows, generationally I feel, how it works and is very much in keeping with the feeling of the time – there’s a lot of women around, but not a lot of women on stage, yet the two planks of 2 Tone were always anti-racism and anti-sexist. I see a lot of the anti-racism but I don’t see a lot of anti-sexism, so we’re here for balance!”

I must admit that until recently Emily Capell wasn’t even on my radar.

“Ah, she’s great!”

Yes, and now I see that link back to The Clash and more (she says her influences range from Dolly Parton to The Clash, and has previously supported Rhoda Dakar and former Specials guitarist Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers, with her newly-released debut LP called Combat Frock, with more details here). Bearing in mind what we were saying earlier, perhaps things are coming full circle.

“Yes, absolutely, and I just feel it’s difficult for young women to be heard these days if they’ve got something original to say. It’s difficult for all bands to be heard, but especially for women. You can put yourself all over social media but if you put a record out and don’t have marketing and money behind it, it’s very difficult. So if we can give a platform to a young woman who wants to come and sing with us, then great. And 2 Tone was always anti-racist, anti-sexist.”

I was going to ask you about recent wide-reaching publicity about the #MeToo campaign, but feel I don’t really need to. Everything you’ve ever achieved has been based around crying out against all of that, using those platforms wisely. You’re hardly someone suddenly coming to terms with that. You’ve been socially aware and outspoken on such issues since the start.

“I just feel women should have a stake. It‘s like anything – people have to fight to be heard. It’s never given to you … ever … and women have to fight doubly hard. To my mind, during those 40 years, that was always what 2 Tone stood for. Or certainly that’s what 2 Tone should have stood for, even if certain members of 2 Tone didn’t think like that at the time. But Rhoda and I were here to inform them!”

I best wrap up soon, but not without asking if the Queen of Ska has got a new book on the go?

“Ah, that would be telling, wouldn’t it! There’s always one there.”

It’s finding the gaps in the diary sometimes, I guess. And last time you told me The Selecter was a full-time career as things stood.

“It is, and has been, and I didn’t realise how much of a full-time thing it would become. As you get older, you really don’t know how your health is going to go, so you make shorter-term plans. But now we’re making slightly longer-term plans! We will see. I’m never bored, put it that way!”

Dynamic Duo: The Selecter’s Pauline Black and Gaps Hendrickson, off to a venue near you (Photo: Dean Chalkley)

For this website’s 2017 feature/interview with Pauline Black, head here. You can also catch up via the following links to feature/interviews with The Beat’s Dave Wakeling, from April 2018, and former members of The Specials, Neville Staple, from March 2019, and Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers, from January 2018.

The Selecter 40TH anniversary UK/Irish dates, with DJ and guest appearances from Rhoda Dakar and support from Emily Capell: October 17th – Nottingham Rock City; October 18th – Leeds Stylus; October 19th – Glasgow QMU; October 20th – Newcastle Boiler Shop; October 22nd – Northampton Roadmender; October 23rd – Cardiff Tramshed; October 24th – Bristol Academy; October 25th – Manchester Ritz; October 26th – Birmingham Institute; November 1st –  Belfast The Limelight; November 2nd – Dublin Academy; November 14th – Guildford G Live; November 15th – Bury St Edmunds The Apex; November 16th – Margate Hall by the Sea; November 17th – Lincoln Engine Shed; November 19th – Cheltenham Town Hall; November 20th – Falmouth Princess Pavilion; November 21st – Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion; November 22nd – Bournemouth Academy; November 23rd – London Shepherd’s Bush Empire. For full details head to www.theselecter.net 

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