Somehow still finding his way home and away – the Jon Anderson interview

Family Portrait: Jon Anderson, the prog rock legend caught on canvas by his eldest daughter, Deborah Anderson

More than 50 years after his debut recordings with Yes, Lancashire-born US citizen and legendary vocalist and songwriter Jon Anderson remains enthused about his music, eager to spread the word about his 15th solo album.

The prog rock icon is about to see the wider release of 1000 Hands, which took 28 years to complete and is out digitally on July 31st, with a CD and deluxe double-gatefold vinyl LP issue following a fortnight later via Blue Élan Records.

The title refers to the numerous guest musicians involved with the record, including Jethro Tull legend and namesake Ian Anderson; Jon’s fellow Yes alumni Steve Howe, Alan White, and the late Chris Squire; more recent sidekick Jean-Luc Ponty (Mothers of Invention); plus Billy Cobham and Chick Corea (Miles Davis), Steve Morse (Deep Purple), and Belgium’s Zap Mama.

Heavy touring commitments with his live version of Yes and other side-projects led to workaholic Jon, now 75, putting his latest solo opus on the back-burner for longer than he ever envisaged. But as he put it, “I would listen to the tapes from time to time and think, ‘This could have been a great album. One day I’ll finish it’.”

With that in mind, he finally set up at producer Michael Franklin’s Solar Studios in Orlando, Florida, laying down backing vocals to his original lead tracks, his host calling in an array of rock and jazz luminaries to fill out the songs, also including Rick Derringer, Jonathan Cain, and the Tower of Power Horns. And as Jon added, “Michael acted like something of a casting director, bringing so many great players. It was really exciting to hear the record open up and become what I had always envisioned.”

It’s fair to say this artist has one of the most recognisable voices in the business, the lead vocalist and creative force behind the band with which he made his name – a major creative influence behind ground-breaking early ‘70s Yes LPs such as Fragile, Close to the Edge, and more besides – featuring on the first nine albums before walking away in 1980, a spell which included crossover hits in 1977 with ‘Wonderous Stories’ and ‘Going For the One’ (from the album of the same name). But he returned in ’83 to a reconfigured group, resulting in multi-million-seller, 90125, including ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’, written with Trevor Rabin.

Then there was his success with Greek composer Vangelis, including UK top-10s with ‘I Hear You Now’ (1979) and ‘I’ll Find My Way Home’ (1981), and since then embarking on projects with Japanese recording artist, composer, producer and arranger  Kitaro, prog-rock guitarist/producer Roine Stolt, and the afore-mentioned jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.

There are also his solo LPs, starting with 1976’s acclaimed milestone Olias of Sunhillow – performing all the music, playing every instrument, writing a storyline, singing all the vocals – and heading through to 2009 and Survival & Other Stories, the last with just his name on before this new addition. Meanwhile, time in recent years has been swallowed up through work with former bandmates Bill Bruford, Howe and Wakeman, then later Rabin and Wakeman again, with this affable East Lancashire lad inducted with Yes into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.

I caught father of three Jon – also a grandad these days – at home in central California earlier this week, happy to be hiding away from the coronavirus, ‘up in the hills’ near the village of Arroyo Grande, describing first where he was and what he was up to.

“It’s really magnificent to be here … under strange circumstances. Me and my wife, we love each other like crazy and we’re just happy to be safe. I don’t go out, because I’m asthmatic, so have to be careful, but all is good and I’ve just been working steadily for three months on a project which I’m very excited about.”

I’m guessing you have people looking after you from afar, and a local network supporting you during this pandemic.

“Just one guy who works at the local Trader Joe’s, an old friend who called up and said, ‘What do you need? I’ll bring it every week.’ Perfect.”

In the meantime, I’m guessing you’re keeping in touch with your family and close friends.

“All the time, on a constant level, as usual.”

I’ve had a few spins of the digital version of 1,000 Hands, and I’m really enjoying it. And as I understand it, there was a limited release last year.

“Yeah, the record companies weren’t very interested. Even Atlantic Records turned me down. But we went on tour last year with the band, which originates from Orlando, musicians who went there to work at Disneyland and Universal and all these parks, and they’re so damn good, so I got together with them. The studio where we finished the album is in Orlando, run by Michael Franklin, so I was able to go over there and meet with eight wonderful, lovely people who were quite brilliant. We toured twice last year and were supposed to be on tour now. But of course no one is touring.”

Double Act: Jean-Luc Ponty joins Jon Anderson on this LP, as  on 2015’s Better Late Than Never (Photo: Cathy Miller)

Well, the album deserves to be heard. It’s been a long time coming, but for me it seems to continue perfectly the Jon Anderson story and musical journey as we know it.

“True, and as you know the crazy story is that about two-thirds of the album was recorded in Big Bear, a mountain area south-east of Los Angeles, and I had the best time in my life at that moment with some musicians I knew. I then took a couple of tracks down to Alan (White) and Chris (Squire), who were living and working in LA. They added energy on the album, and I always though it should be called ‘Uzlot’, a North country way of saying, ‘Come on, us lot, let’s play football!’.”

Mention of the contributors will have got the excitement factor up for Yes fans, and not just with Chris and Alan involved, but also Steve Howe.

“Yeah, it was like getting the old band back together, but in little bits. Steve came up at the very end. We split the song ‘Now’ into two parts, and for the second part, ‘Now and Again’, I just felt it needed some guitar. So I called up Steve, to see how he was, asked him, and he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that then – alright!’.

Incidentally, it only struck me after another listen to the new LP that there could be a link between that opening track and its accompanying album finale with ‘Then’ from second Yes LP, Time and a Word, from 1970 (and blimey, that’ll be 50 years old this year). Not least the correlation between the earlier track’s,

‘And in a time that’s closer, life will be even bolder then;                                                       Love is the only answer, hate is the root of cancer then.’

Compare that to the opening of ‘Now and Again’, as Jon sings,

“Now, knowing that now is the only centre to be, to feel, to see;
That somehow now brings you to home, brings you to eternity – you are, you see.                To know that now love is your heart, love is truly all you need.”

Honest Jon: Yes legend Jon Anderson, ready to share 1,000 Hands with the wider world (Photo: Deborah Anderson)

Just a thought. In fact, the new LP finale continues with,

‘Never forget that we are friends; Never forget here I am singing as you play;         Memories sing in this lifetime, memories never forgotten.’

There may be more links, ones far greater aficianados than me will spot. And we all love a bit of harmony, in more ways than one, right? There have been words between Jon and Steve in recent years, so it’s nice to think maybe enough water has flowed under the bridge for you to be back on better terms.

“Oh yeah … I mean, even the Beatles argued.”

I’d say maybe that’s part of what made them so special.

“Yeah, and necessity is the mother of invention. Everybody wants to put a lot of energy into a project, and because originally we were the Yes band, we were from different parts of England and all had our different attitudes to life, different energies, and everything. But I think it was that moment in time where I was very vocal about what I could hear and came up with ideas and helped everybody try different things.

“For instance, why would we try to do the song, ‘America’? But Peter Banks was in the band and he started playing the movie score (West Side Story) as a solo, and I felt that was perfect. Everybody put energy into everything we did. The Beatles went from love songs like ‘Love Me Do’, ‘Please Please Me’ and ‘Ticket to Ride’ through to, all of a sudden, Revolver, Sgt Pepper, The White Album and Abbey Road, expanding like wildfire. And that’s what Yes did, expanding into a musical zone that was very rare – it was kind of unique, actually.”

Incidentally, ‘America’ will be better remembered in prog-like circles for Keith Emerson’s version with The Nice, which clearly seemed to be an influence on the early Yes, who covered ‘Something’s Coming’ around the time of their self-titled debut album in 1969. And talking of the early days, does Jon remember much about that fateful first meeting in late ’67 when bar owner Jack Barrie introduced him to Chris Squire at La Chasse (where Jon worked behind the bar) at 100, Wardour Street, Soho? And bear in mind that I also said to him at this point that I didn’t want him to feel old, but I was born that October, so reckon his first co-write, ‘Sweetness’ (written with Chris Squire and his former bandmate Clive Bayley) is around the same age as me.

“Oh boy, oh boy! Well, it was a very magical moment. I’d been looking for a band to sing with, and tried a band managed by someone who managed Amen Corner, who were pretty famous at the time. They were aiming to create another band like them, and I went along to East London for an audition, where there was this big guy with a cigar – a typical manager – with a band in the room. They were really good. He asked what I wanted to sing and I asked him what the band knew. They suggested ‘Midnight Hour’, I said, ‘Why not?’, and then we did ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’. He then said, ’OK, can you come back next week? You’re in the top two. Come back next Tuesday, when the real manager’s here, and he’ll do an image test’. I said, ‘No! I’m a singer, not an image. You can get lost!’

“It was about believing in myself. I had a lot of musical ideas and once we’d started rehearsing, it was like magic for me. I hardly slept. I was so excited. We had a band that could play anything, but I suggested Bill Bruford, a jazz style drummer, quite remarkable in those early days. In fact, the early BBC tapes are damn good.”

When you and Chris got Yes together, were you properly focused on where you might be headed from the start?

“Well, there was a band in London called Family, from Birmingham. They were damn good, and I just wanted to be as good as them. And a band called Heads, Hands & Feet, with Tony Colton in that band (and also legendary guitarist Albert Lee and Chas Hodges, the latter later joining forces with Dave Peacock as mockney legends Chas & Dave). Then at clubs like The Marquee you’d get The Who come in, and Jimi Hendrix, and Keith Emerson’s The Nice were playing there. They’d come up to La Chasse and come to the bar, and I wouldn’t say anything to them because I was so very shy. But these famous people made me think I was in the right place, at least. I just had to work hard.”

As it was, Yes had their own Marquee residency by 1969, and the following year Jack Barrie took over ownership at No.90, Wardour Street, five doors down from La Chasse (he was previously an assistant manager to John Gee, with a great history of the venue here).

I only realised while putting a few questions together, it was five years ago this Saturday just gone that we lost Chris Squire. I’m guessing he’s always in your thoughts.

“All the time, and I think more so. He came to visit me on his passing. I was in Maui (Hawaii) and had this incredible dream about him, that he was passing away. I didn’t know, although I knew he wasn’t very well. Someone called and told me Chris died last night, and I said, ‘Yeah, I know. I saw him in my dream looking up at the sky, the light shining, these little tears coming down his lovely face. My wife said, ‘He loved you so much, Jon.’”

I guess that bond between thew two of you was nearly 50 years in the making.

“Yeah, and like real brothers, we didn’t get on all the time, but we were brothers, no matter what happened. I’ve mentioned it many times, but when Star Wars came out, I’d check into hotels as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and he would check in as Darth Vader!”

It’s now five years since I first spoke to your old pal Rick Wakeman (with a link to that feature/interview here) and four years since I spoke with Alan White at home in Newcastle, Washington (with a link to our feature/interview here). While Rick’s happy where he is in East anglia between live engagements, Alan certainly seems settled where he is, stateside, as you are in California. It’s been more than a decade since you became an American citizen. Do you feel American?

“Very. I always feel that America’s got so much to sort out, it’s like the crazy child of the world.”

And led by a crazy child at present.

“Well, we’ve got this orange man in charge, and he’s an idiot. He’s a little baby that tells lies.”

I don’t see you as a figure who willingly speaks out publicly on politics much, but with all that’s gone on, and the hate speech the likes of Trump continue to come out with, keeping quiet’s not an option right now. You have to speak out sometimes, right?

“Well, In the Vietnam War I was very clear that it was the most stupid thing in the world, as reflected in Apocalypse Now. And America’s a mess, but it’s now ready to change. Barack Obama was so good as a leader, then the pendulum swung the other way and we have the orange man.”

Hopefully not for much longer though.

“No, he’s out of here! And he’ll lose all his money, you watch!”

I hope you’re right. And where does your beloved, Jane, hail from in the States?

“She was born in Alexandria (Virginia), near the capital, Washington (DC). I was in LA and she was living in Santa Barbara, working for (actor turned film director) Ron Howard, involved in music for films, running part of the firm, and knew so much about all that. An amazing woman in my life. I’m very blessed.”

And is it now 23 years married for you two?

“Yeah, but when people ask how long, I say ‘1,000 years’. It feels longer!”

You mentioned Maui before. Wasn’t that where you were wed?

“Yeah, an amazing event on many levels. It was wonderful, and Alan (White) was my best man.”

So I gather. I think my invite got lost in the post, but we’ll gloss over that.

“Ha!”

As you’re talking to someone settled for the last quarter-century in Lancashire from my native Surrey, I should ask if you keep in touch with your Accrington roots. Have you still got family and friends in the area?

“Yeah, my brother’s there, and his kids. We keep in touch, once a month maybe. And when I come over, they all come to the gigs. It’s funny, when you come from a small town, I remember some of the people from there and keep in touch with David Lloyd …”

Ah, the legendary Lancashire and England cricket all-rounder turned commentator, also known as Bumble, two school years younger than Jon and brought up a few streets away.

“Yeah, he lived around the corner from me and was my arch-enemy. We played football on the car park at Accrington Stanley’s Peel Park ground. He’d bring his team and we’d have battles galore, football and cricket. He’s a good old friend, and I was in touch with him about three months ago. It’s great to talk to him. Someone sent a video of him walking around Accrington, going to the football, in his flat cap …”

I saw that. A great watch. Bumble has a real passion for Stanley, something I appreciate as a fan of non-league Woking FC, having seen them play at the Crown Ground many times, and reporting on Bamber Bridge and Chorley fixtures there too in the past. Clearly though, I don’t go back as far as Peel Park (the old ground where Jon was a mascot, ball-boy and trialist, now a public park, Stanley playing their last matches there in 1962, with the old club dissolved in ’66, a new one emerging at the current ground in ’68).

“Well, the ground is still there, would you believe.”

Next time I’m passing I should make a pilgrimage in your honour … and Bumble’s. And while David Lloyd’s accent is distinctive to cricket fans, I’ll add here that Jon these days has something of an American/East Lancs hybrid accent. You hear those Lancastrian tones in his music here and there though, all these years on, something I also get listening to Neil Arthur and recordings with Blancmange. And I’m all for that. He clearly hasn’t lost it.

“Yeah … especially when I’m watching Man United. I get so angry! And I found out recently that (Paul) Pogba gets paid (around) $300,000 a week, so I give him hell!”

Do you still look out for Stanley results?

“Oh year! My brother’s son gives me all the information now and again.”

A Lancashire lad maybe, but I understand your Dad had Glaswegian roots and your Mum had Irish and French links. Were you aware as a boy of that background being different to many of your neighbours? Did that make you feel like you were destined to travel and be something other than an East Lancashire factory worker or something of that ilk?

“It’s funny, I wrote a song last week about how I would run everywhere. I don’t know why, but maybe from five or six, and then I started working on a farm when I was nine, about two miles away, and I’d make some money for the family, because my Dad was very ill. Someone asked the other day the first concert I ever saw, and I said it was my Dad on stage in 1946. I was in a stroller, my Mum serving pies and cake …”

I lost Jon at that point, my mobile phone safety buffer used up (we tried via Skype earlier, but he couldn’t hear me, leading me to call back another way), so I retried from my landline. God knows how much that will have cost … but he’s worth it, of course. Anyway, aiming to carry on where we left off, I tred again, and he finally answered with the line, ‘You have to put another penny in the gas meter’. He wasn’t so far off, I guess. So where was this farm you mentioned, Jon?

“In a place called Huncoats, top of Burnley Road there. Me and my brother would deliver milk all over that side of Accrington, near where we lived (Jon was on Norfolk Street). And we sang all the time, I remember singing Everly Brothers songs in the mid-‘50s. Actually, I just watched Blackpool playing Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup on YouTube – the Matthews final.”

Ah, 1953 and all that. Matthews, Mortensen, Lofthouse … And speaking of those formative years, how good were Little John’s Skiffle Group, your early band? Ever make any recordings?

“I hope not! Ha! We used to do Lonnie Donegan songs.”

A quick rendition followed of Lonnie’s third single, ‘Lost John’ B-side ‘Stewball’ from 1956. But the line quality deteriorated when I switched phones, and I don’t think I’ll be able to upload it and pass it off as a great Jon Anderson lost skiffle tape and make my fortune.  That said, we’ve been mesmerised by Jon’s vocals from the very start, I reckon. On a similar front, was there a voice he heard and thought, ‘That could be me – that’s my career from here!’?

“At that time, it was the Everly Brothers with my brother, and I’d sing a lot of commercial romantic songs in the mid-‘50s, and then Buddy Holly. And of course Elvis Presley – my brother bought the vinyl Elvis Presley album, and a little Dansette record player. So I heard all those incredible songs. So my brother wanted to be Elvis and I wanted to be Roy Orbison, and I’d sing his songs.”

All great influences, and it wasn’t until he mentioned Amen Corner that it struck me that Jon and Andy Fairweather-Low shared similar styles in places.

“Yeah, I think we all copied Americans in the ‘50s, and you tended to give that delivery in your voice, copying those recordings.”

Of all your recordings over the years, is there one particular LP you’re most proud of? I’m guessing this latest record would be in with a shout.

“I always say the same thing – it will be the next one!”

Ah, so will there be a 1,000 Hands Chapter 2?

“Yeah, we’ve been working on half a dozen or so songs already, and more follow every week. I’ve an idea for one large piece that could work, but it takes time to sort that out. But now this album’s out, we’ll be able to release part two next summer maybe.”

And do the contributors on the album include any of the next generation of Andersons (as I know they’ve all been involved in music to at least some extent, including vocal duties on various Yes projects, all three from his first marriage to Jennifer), I ask … to initial silence. Actually, at this stage, Jon was distracted after someone arrived at the door with some wine. Nice work if you can get it. I repeat my question.

“No, Deborah’s sang on albums I did before, but now concentrates on incredible documentaries, covering such powerful subjects. My youngest daughter, Jade, is the best singer, but now has three boys. God bless her, she gave us some grandchildren, and we just love them, of course. We see them every Friday, and they’re beautiful. And my son Damion’s in London and, like me, he loves to create music of all different kinds. God bless him, he’s a very beautiful man, he really is.”

Of all the collaborations down the years, from Yes to Jon and Vangelis, Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe, Anderson/Stolt (with Roine Stolt), the Anderson Ponty Band (with Jean-Luc Ponty) and the Anderson, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman version of Yes, which turned out to be the most fun, in the studio and on the road?

“I think probably ABWH was a fun experience, but …”

Do you think that’s because you all felt you had nothing to prove by that stage?

“Oh God, no, there’s always a lot to prove. But every collaboration, like when I went out with Trevor (Rabin) and Rick (Wakeman) a couple of years ago, that was really damn good. And with Jean-Luc Ponty it was amazing. He’s from Brittany, and my great-great-grandparents were too, so we felt connected. And when I look back to the tours in the ‘70s we were out on tour so much, and the fact that we could make Fragile and Close to the Edge in one year was something.”

Well, that was some going, I’d say.

“Absolutely.”

And are you still discovering new music? What’s floating the Anderson boat right now? My friend Phil, a big fan since day one (he’s a little older than me, he won’t mind me saying) wondered if you’ve heard Big, Big Train, fairly new and much lauded  prog rockers on the block.

“Yep, and also, my favourite guy is Jacob Collier. He is going to be, to me, the best thing that’s happened in music in my life. He’s amazing. He’s conquered a lot, can do incredible orchestrations, and has a good knowledge of music and light-hearted soul, and he’s touching millions of people now. He’s amazing.”

And finally, when the gates are open again post-COVID-19, any chance of live dates with the new material?

“Yeah, I’m doing videos at the moment from a live show on the tour – around 10 days in – and it turned out to be a pretty good recording. Everyone plays so great. We’re also recording ourselves at home, recording some of the songs from 1,000 Hands. And it sounded really good.”

Live Presence: Jon Anderson in action, and he hopes to be on the road again sometime soon (Photo: Tami Freed)

For more information about Jon, his back-catalogue, and 1,000 Hands, out digitally on July 31st, then on CD and deluxe double-gatefold vinyl album on August 14th via Blue Élan Records, head to https://www.jonanderson.com

 

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Pele to Amsterdam and beyond – telling The Story of Ian Prowse

Mersey Tales: Ian Prowse, kept busy during lockdown, and ready to get out there again this autumn, COVID-19 willing.

Three months after a successful tour with Elvis Costello prematurely curtailed by COVID-19 restrictions, Ian Prowse remains on a high, interest in his music, past and present, refusing to tail off, aided by his entertaining Friday night online shows.

This Ellesmere Port-raised singer/songwriter and Amsterdam frontman remains a cult figure with music fans and musicians alike, getting on for three decades after his debut recordings with breakthrough outfit Pele.

Songs such as 2005 John Peel favourite ‘Does This Train Stop on Merseyside?’ only served to underline his abilities as a songwriter, and 2019 LP Here I Lie suggests he remains on a creative high. And it was the latter that inspired the afore-mentioned Declan McManus to personally invite Ian to be his main support on a Just Trust 13-date UK tour, albeit one ended three shows early due to the coronavirus.

But he’s remained busy during the lockdown, his series of weekend internet shows helping plug new 18-track best of collection, The Story of Ian Prowse, a perfect way in for those yet to catch up on the back-catalogue of an artist who tells us, ‘I hit the opening A minor chord of ‘Funeral Pyre’ by The Jam at my very first gig in 1982. There began my musical journey. I’ve been hitting every chord through hundreds of shows with the same passion ever since.’

Tranmere Rovers fan Ian wasn’t long off a trip to his local post office when I called, mailing out merchandise to those who’ve been discovering or rediscovering a love of all things Prowsey. And there are a fair few.

“About three weeks ago we made a special ‘I got through lockdown with Prowsey’ t-shirt, and my catchphrase when we go live is ‘What are you drinking?’, because they all let it hang out on a Friday night. So I’m packing those t-shirts … I’m a cottage industry. It’s been a busy one lately.”

That seems apt. Wasn’t there that line about Pele, your first band, selling more t-shirts than records?

“Yeah!”

That early t-shirt was certainly iconic.

“The old four primary colours thing? That was my only foray into design, that t-shirt. I’ve never done it since and never will again. But I’ll claim that. It was half a joke really (selling more t-shirts than records), because we never had massive hits in the UK, but you’d see our t-shirts everywhere.”

That must have been something you’ve dwelled on in the past, and with this new collection we get a fresh chance to compare and contrast between your work with Pele, Amsterdam and under your own banner, seeing the progression. And I get the feeling Pele could have been the biggest of those formats, hit-wise. That blend of more chirpy folk-pop should have been blasting out of radios in the ‘80s. But it never quite happened on the bigger stage.

“Erm … you say that, but my most popular song – when you look at viewing figures on YouTube and that – by far is ‘Does This Train Stop on Merseyside?’. That outstrips all the Pele songs. So while I had a major record deal, being on Polydor, for that first Pele album, I don’t necessarily think that was the best chance of having the massive hits.

“And the over-arching thing is that I view it as all the same thing. The first vehicle I drove for my songwriting was Pele, the next one was Amsterdam, and nowadays it’s just my name. I wrote all the songs then and now. I consider it to be just the same thing with a different coat of paint.”

You’ve always had a loyal following, but I was wondering if more people are listening now. Do you find factors like your friendship with Elvis Costello make a big difference? And if so, do you end up thinking, ‘Where have they been?’.

“Yeah, indeed … good shout. Over the past three months I’ve had so many people getting in touch or writing online, sending me emails, telling me, ‘I can’t believe I missed you, ‘cos it’s just my kind of music’. I’ve had to develop a new saying to cope with the influx, telling them, ‘Welcome aboard the good ship Prowsey. You’re very welcome!’ It doesn’t matter that you’re 30 years late. You’re here now!’

Taking that analogy further, in view of the choppy waters we’ve sailed through these last few months, you said in a video message on your website at the beginning of 2020, ‘it’s going to be our most exciting year yet’. Who knew, eh?

“I didn’t! The Elvis Costello tour was curtailed the night we played Hammersmith Odeon, and that was great to play there – a dream come true. Amazing. The other three got postponed, but the following Friday night I decided to do a one-off, play online, wondering like many others how I was even going to be able to pay the rent at that point. Real stuff. It was just one gig to say the Costello tour’s finished and the acoustic tour we have booked has been completely dropped and everything else in the diary has gone, but tonight I’m going to sing you the songs from the story of Ian Prowse. Let’s just have a night out.’

Denim Days: Ian Prowse, back to the wall amid coronavirus concerns, but enjoying his Friday evening online shows

“And the feedback was so phenomenally positive and community-minded. Everyone enjoyed themselves, interacting with each other. So it became … it wasn’t about me, it was about us. It was more about, ‘We’re all going to hang out together and Prowsey’s going to sing us some songs’. And that’s just been sustained, really – there have now been 14 shows.”

The acoustic tour has been rearranged, with shows set for September onwards, ‘all small rooms with just me on my own to a hundred people, and I think most were sold out – we’ve got London and Chester, Weston-Super-Mare and Stourbridge … all over the country’. Are they gonna take place?

“I’ve spoken to a lot of the venues and they’re all kind of saying the same thing – it looks like in two weeks the pubs are going to open, so that gives us two months before we do the gigs. So I’m hoping they do happen.”

A discussion followed about new capacities, and the worry that if only limited numbers are allowed, venues will struggle to pay acts.

“We’ll see what happens. I’ve also got shows in October and November, so I’m really hoping by that time it’ll all ease off. Let’s face it, when the pubs re-open, with a couple of drinks inside them, they won’t give a fuck about one metre or two metres’ distance!”

Ian’s also hoping he gets to finish the Costello tour, but didn’t know details at time of going to press.

“We were having the time of our lives! I’ve been doing this for 30 years and rarely have I … I was going down a storm and then getting to watch one of the greatest artists of all time do his set, getting stuck in. And he’s mates as well, so I got to hang around with him. And all we talk about is politics, football and music!”

Remind me how that friendship came about and how he was turned on to your music.

“There was an album that came out on EMI in 2001, Mersey Boys and Liverpool Girls, and we had a track each on there. The old Liverpool Poly, John Moores University hosted a gig to promote it, and Elvis did two songs. I got to meet him, I was thrilled, having had all his records from when I was a kid, and he told me he’d watch a couple of my songs but had to go and see his mam, so wouldn’t be there when I finished.

“I said that’d be great, but near the end of the set, because he’s such a familiar person to look at, I could see he was still at the side of the stage, and when we came off and went into the dressing room, he told me, ‘I couldn’t leave! It was fantastic! I was rocking!’ We’ve been mates ever since, and that was almost 20 years ago. Since then, I’ve been in his band on the telly (BBC’s Friday Night with Jonathan Ross), his support band, including playing The Paradiso, where he told me, ‘Let’s have Amsterdam in Amsterdam!’, and then there’s a song we did together to mark Liverpool’s 2008 capital of culture status, covering The Searchers’ ‘Don’t Throw Your love Away’ (included on the new compilation). We hadn’t done anything musically for about 10 years, but I sent him the latest album last year and he told me he felt it was as good as anything I’d ever done. And I guess that led to us doing the tour.”

I could easily dwell on past songs with both Pele and Amsterdam, but more recent numbers like ‘I Did it For Love’ (2014), ‘Something’s Changed’, ‘The Ballad of North John Street’ and ‘Here I Lie’ (all 2019) show you’re still on top of your game, as is also the case with the only new track on this compilation, ‘Only the Love’.

“Well, on Friday night’s lockdown show I did a freeform thought piece on what it was like for me to have to sit out Britpop, because I was having arguments with the record company at that point. And while the portal for young bands was as wide open as it had ever been to get through, I was frustratedly outside it, and missed out. But someone pointed out that if we had been there, we’d have been tainted as a Britpop band, so it was a lucky escape. If I was known for that era, I’d have to go out and trot out all the songs from then. And the greatest pleasure for me doing this has been the reaction we’ve had to the new music, ‘The Ballad of North John Street’ and ‘Here I Lie’ entering into the realms of people’s favourites. That’s immensely satisfying. So many acts have that burst of creative songwriting early on and don’t manage to do it again, so to be able to sustain that and continue to release strong songs is important to me. I got that from Bruce Springsteen – there are always fantastic songs on his albums. That’s a real buzz for me.”

At this point I tell him how, listening afresh, on at least one track I saw him as a missing link between The La’s and John Bramwell, which would fit into the timescale in which Amsterdam broke through and took him forward.

“Okay, yeah … well, I know both of them. They’re both insane, I might point out. Ha!”

An off-the-record discussion followed about touring and getting to know the immensely-talented John Bramwell and The La’s’ Lee Mavers over the years, before we navigated back to safer waters and Pele, me telling him I felt the early recordings were in places somewhere between Joe Jackson and the Faith Brothers.

“Well, the idea for Pele was for a more sort of poppy version of The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues. I’d been in bands a few years, at school, trying to get somewhere. We kept hitting the post and not quite scoring. That band split up, but when I heard all that Celtic soul music they were making, it struck a massive chord. My songwriting came into focus then. That was my blueprint for what we did with Pele.”

There are certainly pop-folk elements in there.

“Yes, although at no point did it veer off into folk-rock, and it was nothing like the crusty bands like The Levellers either. There’s almost like a Mod sensibility in there. I’m a soul boy as well.”

I see that, and the fact that Christy Moore’s taken a shine to your music counts for something along the lines of acceptance on that front too.

“Well, what an honour! I’ve got to know him a lot, and he’s really funny, a beautiful fella, and if you go and see him out in Ireland, out in the sticks, the whole town comes to watch him. I saw him in Thurles, where 8,000 people live, with 4,000 of them at the gig. He’s bigger than the Pope and U2! He’s fearless too, and one of the greatest protest folk singers on this side of the world, for sure. And in the ‘80s, to be sticking up for the Republican movement was putting your life in your hands. I’ve got immense respect for him. And when he decided to do my song, and we became friends …

“He told me a fan of my music had given him a CD and told him to have a listen on the road. I think it was a compilation of mine and other music. They were going to the ferry at Holyhead and played it about five times, and he decided, ‘I’m doing that’. He sent an unsolicited email to the band, and it turned out it was the Christy Moore. And being good friends with Damien Dempsey, my Celtic soul brother from another mother, he views Christy as the Irish musical god. And in terms of Christy’s position in the pantheon of documenting Irishness, past, present and future … it’s just lovely to be mentioned in those circles.”

On the subject of ‘Does This Train Stop on Merseyside?’, I have to mention John Peel’s love for the song. I always think of The Undertones sat at home listening the first time he played ‘Teenage Kicks’. Was there a similar story with you?

“It’s funny really, as we didn’t have a deal and were trying to get Amsterdam off the ground after Pele imploded. We’d been doing that for a couple of years and not really got going. Also, my long-term girlfriend was in the band, but she’d buggered off and left me for some fella. So I’m sat in my local boozer, crying into my ale, not functioning, and someone came in the pub around half ten at night, and said, ‘I’ve just been listening to you on the radio’. I just went, ‘I haven’t even got anything out’. He explained it was something about a train, and John Peel had played it and was choked, crying when he said who it was.

“There was no playback then, but the day after someone told me Peel got my track from a guy called Phil Hayes, who ran The Picket here in Liverpool. He gave him two CDs with 40 local songs on them, and Peel just played ours then had this extreme emotional reaction live on air.

“I just thought, at this really low ebb another door had opened. He played it again, and the exact same thing happened – he was choked, and said that even when he played it at home, Sheila, his wife, had to come and give him a cuddle. We spoke on the phone, and were on for about three-quarters of an hour. He asked me to come in and do a session when he got back from Peru. And of course, tragically he never did.

“But the world operates in strange ways. Within a year we had a record deal, I was back in the business, we had another album out, and I haven’t looked back since.”

We also spoke about another related project, under wraps at present, talking about a line in the song inspired by Bill Drummond, ‘Now there’s a leyline runs down Mathew Street, it’s giving energy to all it meets’.

“That was his (Drummond’s) concept, this idea that Eric’s was at the centre of this energy. I went to see him when he was stood on this manhole on his 60th birthday in the middle of Mathew Street, where all these leylines meet, for 24 hours. He said when the 24 hours was up he was going to walk away and never come back. I knew he was there, gave him a copy of the song and told him Christy Moore had done a version. He then wrote a blog piece about how he felt it very emotional and giving a speech last year in Liverpool he said how people have written their best songs by the time they’re 25, the one person bucking that trend Ian Prowse. I think I was 39 or something. And that sort of thing is the biggest possible honour you can get.

“I’ve often wondered how I’ve managed to keep the quality high, and I think it’s probably because I’ve under-achieved in terms of global recognition or having massive hits. I’ve always been striving. I’m competitive and have that mentality, and I’m always trying to prove myself, and it’s kept the standard high. And now I’m thinking, when I’m dead and gone and they’re making a boxset, I don’t want any shit CDs on it … like The Clash and Cut the Crap. I want them all to be good. So now it’s the legacy keeping the standard high.”

There have been occasional hits. How did ‘Megalomania’ end up topping the charts in South Africa?

“Ha! It’s bizarre really. I was really green. We signed to a major label and someone said, ‘Right, we’ve got to see your agent’. I said, ‘Who’s that?’ and then we had to see a press officer. I said, ‘Isn’t that the record company?’ I didn’t know any of these things. Then someone said we’ve got to go and see the publisher. ‘What’s that?’ All of a sudden, I’ve signed this deal for £30,000, and I also didn’t realise that when you’re on a major label they release your records all over the world, and it’s up to the local promotional offices as to how much they put into it.

“A friend of mine, John Higginson, had recently emigrated to South Africa with his family, and phoned up drunk, around 1992, with that massive delay on our call, so we couldn’t really get a conversation going. I couldn’t understand him, but he told me he’d been listening to the national top-40 and I was No.1. I just said, ‘Fucking hell – that must be strong ale you’re on, John’. But that night we were on tour, supporting Kirsty McColl in Leicester. I told our manager what my mate had said, he phoned Polydor, and when we finished our soundcheck, he confirmed it. They were asking about doing interviews and going out there playing, but there was still a cultural boycott and the Musicians’ Union pointed out that I’d be breaking that. And I was never going to be Rod Stewart, Queen, Elton John, or Paul Simon for that matter. I just said, ‘I ain’t going’.”

Seeing as you mentioned Kirsty McColl, when was it that you were touring with The Pogues?

“I think that was late ’92, and Shane (McGowan) was there but he wasn’t getting up on stage with them. I think Spider was standing in. But it was great. They were at full pelt, the places were packed out, and it gave us an advantage as we could steal some of their thunder. We were socking it to them and went down a storm everywhere we played.”

You mentioned on your website a while ago, when Amsterdam’s 2008 album Arm in Arm was re-released, that it was maybe your favourite of your LPs. Why that one?

“I think it’s because Arm in Arm is sort of my closest record to Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love in that a lot of the songs are about a broken relationship, pertaining to the same relationship and the same girl. So there’s a theme, the songs are strong, and they hang together. Whenever I listen to it, I think that’s a really good bit of work. And the cover’s from Asbury Park (New Jersey), so I always love it for that as well. It completes my Springsteen obsession!”

At the same time, it seems that Janice Long was getting quite obsessed with the song, ‘Home’, from that LP. The crib notes for this compilation suggest she played it for 20 straight shows.

“Yeah, Janice really loved that song! And Bruce and his music has weaved right through my life these past 35 years. My daughter’s called Rosalita, and I met him in New York 18 months ago. You wouldn’t know it from my music – I don’t think it sounds anything like Bruce Springsteen, musically. But the spirit of it is coming from the same place.”

Finally, was it a big moment playing to a sell-out crowd not far from your patch at Liverpool Olympia, supporting Elvis Costello, whose parents were both from Merseyside?

“It was just a mad rush of energy. Our Rosie, aged eight and a half now, had come along to see me live for the first time as well, and Elvis let her try on his gold jacket in the dressing room before. He asked if she’d liked to try it on, and she was like, ‘Yeah!’. It was a beautiful night. It was the first night, we were all nervous, and it was rammed, but we did a really good gig and he took the roof off.  It was extremely memorable.”

Acoustic Tourist: Waiting for the doors to re-open at UK venues, so he can bring us The Story of Ian Prowse soon.

The Story of Ian Prowse is out now via Kitchen Disco Records. For full details, back-catalogue information, Ian’s rescheduled live acoustic dates, merchandise information and more, visit www.amsterdam-music.com. You can also follow Ian via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. 

 

 

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Totally wired for the Soundation experience – talking Bhajan Bhoy with Ajay Saggar

Holland-based musical maverick Ajay Saggar may have been locked down in recent weeks with partner Yoke and their 20-year-old son Arun, a University of Amsterdam student. But don’t think for one moment he’s been twiddling his thumbs since his last overseas tour in the winter.

We last swapped messages in late January when he was driving around the UK and Europe with musical partner Merinde Verbeek as Deutsche Ashram, supporting cult US indie act Giant Drag, in what he now looks back on as an ‘increasingly surreal time … the virus creeping up on us’.

That now feels like a world away though, and he was busy in his Soundation studio when we spoke this week, just ‘a couple of minutes’ cycle ride away’ from his home in Krommenie, north Holland, working on a University Challenged album project with Amsterdam-based Kohhei Matsuda (Bo Ningen) and King Champion Sounds bandmate Oli Heffernan, a few live dates together followed by the trio recording 10 tracks, three of which were premiered last week on The Watt From Pedro, a US radio show hosted by Mike Watt (of Minutemen, Firehose, and The Stooges fame). Ajay hopes to have the rest finished within a week, promising ‘an absolutely stonkingly-good record’ and suggesting a ‘certain label from Preston’ might be interested in putting it out.

Maybe he meant the Concrète label, of which he’s a fan, but he was wearing an Action Records T-shirt, so I suspect Preston record shop/label founder Gordon Gibson will be getting a call. And Ajay’s also been working on a new King Champion Sounds LP and produced and mixed an Ivan the Tolerable album in June, set for release in August, the latter featuring the aforementioned Oli Heffernan and Mike Watt.

As this was a video interview, he also gave me a virtual tour of his studio, built within another unit and including several great posters from live shows he’s been involved with over the years, where either he played with the main act, supported them, or carried out sound engineering duties.

Those artists include Kraftwerk, Cat Power, Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, Mogwai, and The Fall, this former Lancaster University student based in Manchester while playing with cult Preston indie act Dandelion Adventure, a band that recorded a session for BBC broadcasting legend John Peel in the late ‘80s.

In fact, two days after we spoke, he was celebrating the 30th anniversary of his first Peel session being aired. Recorded at Maida Vale in mid-May ‘90, it was a defining moment for this self-proclaimed thrashadelic outfit, Kenya-born Ajay on ‘bass and yodelling’ in a band fronted by further friend of this website Marcus Parnell.

Listening back this week – and what a joy it is to hear John Peel talking between tracks, in this case slightly distracted by Italia ’90 and the antics of the ‘whingeing’ Diego Maradona – that session certainly stands the test of time, and led to dates with My Bloody Valentine. And that from an outfit already touring with Action Records labelmates The Boo Radleys and with their Puppy Shrine mini-LP and ‘Jinxs Truck’ six-track 12” already out.

You can read more about Dandelion Adventure in this September 2016 feature, with contributions from both Marcus and Ajay, the latter going on to join members of The Inca Babies to form Hound God, playing ‘metal percussion’, describing the band in our first interview as ‘Pussy Galore meets Einsturzende Neubaten meets The Birthday Party’. And that’s some meeting.

But at the end of 1991 he upped sticks for the Netherlands, ‘wanting a new challenge’, and he’s remained there ever since … give or take the odd European, UK or North American tour, having also  travelled the world as a sound engineer for several bands before starting work at the Paradiso in Amsterdam around a decade ago, in a production management role these days, serving as a contact between visiting bands and the venue’s 300 or so staff.

His time in the Netherlands included a spell living with underground outfit The Ex and playing with Holland-based band Donkey, leading to his second Peel session, in April 1995, by which time he’d learned a few studio skills of his own, ‘driven by necessity’, telling me he was unable to afford studio engineers so did it himself. From there he was asked to help out Glasgow outfit Bis with their sound, and ‘before I knew it I was stood in a tent in front of 40,000 people, thrown in at the deep end’, never looking back, working with fellow Glaswegians Mogwai, Atlanta’s Cat Power, Massachusetts’ Dinosaur Jr., Montreal’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Iceland’s Múm, Dublin’s My Bloody Valentine, and many more.

These days, he’s certainly no less inspired about his music and various projects, also recently working back alongside Dandelion Adventure bandmate Marcus in The Common Cold. And right now Ajay, who spent his first 11 years in East Africa before his family – of Indian descent – settled in Yorkshire, is celebrating the release of his first truly solo project under the name Bhajan Bhoy, with debut LP Bless Bless self-recorded, self-mixed and self-produced at Soundation Studio, mastered by Helmut Erler in Berlin and manufactured in his adopted Netherlands in Haarlem. Is this something he’s worked on over the lockdown?

“It was something that came into my head about a year ago, and I’d already had this idea of doing something solo. It was something I felt I had to do myself as I was very particular about where I wanted to go with it.  Then a chance came to do a show at OCCII in Amsterdam and I got in touch with the promoter to put me on as a support act. That went really well and after that I opened for J. Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.) in a bigger venue in town. That was a really cool show and thereafter I decided to turn those songs into proper tracks in my studio and put out a record.

“That summer I was busy with a Deutsche Ashram album, and had also been working with King Champion Sounds, but by October I dived into this and was in this studio every single day.”

So did you lock yourself down before the lockdown?

“Well, I had to go to work, but in the evenings I’d just lock myself away there, and when I could be here I’d stay all day, doing that for two or three months, recording and mixing it all here, then got it mastered in Berlin. It was all done and dusted by December, and I kept listening to back to it, and every time I listened, I’d fall into a trance, thinking it was so, so good, totally hypnotised by the music. And at the same time hearing new stuff within it. Usually, when I finish an album, I can’t listen back to it, having been so involved with the whole project. But this time, I’d go on a 10K run, put it on my headphones, and think, ‘Damn! This is really good’.

Bhoy Wonder: Ajay proudly displays a copy of Bless Bless, the debut LP from Bhajan Bhoy (Photo: Gideon Smit)

Subsequently, he sent it to a few labels he trusted and felt would get it, and in one case a US label were very interested but had too much on, as was the case with Mogwai and their own label. So …

“In the end I was like, ‘Bugger it, I’m gonna do it myself!”

I guess you’ve been moving that way anyway, and the Deutsche Ashram project is not far off a solo project, but for Merinde’s wondrous contributions.

“Yeah, I pretty much do everything apart from the singing, so that process sat quite well with me. Even though it involved an enormous amount of work. And I knew where I wanted to go and how to achieve it. And I’ve got all the tools here, around me.”

Ajay’s studio is within premises which have served as a rehearsal space for his various projects for at least a quarter of a century. And as he tells me that, I mention the timber I see above his head and he tells me how he produced an album for a carpenter who regularly dropped by, in exchange for him building his new studio.

“There’s a whole group of us who rehearse here. We did it all up ourselves. When we lost our other space here to a timber yard, I was working at home, but that wasn’t working, so I went to the foreman of this whole industrial estate, told him what we needed, ad he allowed us this space within.”

The latest Bhajan Bhoy track doing the rounds is not on the album, recorded since and given away for free via Bandcamp, uploaded on the day of the LP’s release. It’s a tribute to Maryland-born cult musician Robbie Basho, who died at just 45 in 1986 in California, acclaimed for his finger-picking guitar technique, influenced heavily by sarod playing and studies with Indian virtuoso Ali Akbar Khan.

“I only recorded that three weeks ago. I’ve been a huge fan of his for years, but had never seen any live footage, but found online two songs he did on this US arts programme. Then Stuart (Braithwaite) from Mogwai told me a film was made a couple of years ago, I tracked it down, watched it one Saturday night, and was blown away by his life story.

Dandelion Days: A 1989 shot of Ajay during Manchester-based Dandelion Adventure days (Photo: Richard Davis)

“I’d started on a new track but couldn’t get that out of my head. That took me into a totally different mindset. I scrapped that, started afresh and made this track, which evolved in a really beautiful, organic way. And for me it’s reflection on his life, the beauty of his music and what he gave to the world. He had mental and physical issues, and that’s reflected in the track, or how I saw it.”

When not at home or in his studio these days, chances are that Ajay’s commuting 20 minutes into Amsterdam by train, cycling to the station and then from his destination to The Paradiso. At present, there are still restrictions on the venue, a room holding 1,500 now having to cater for a maximum of 30, sticking to numbered seats, grabbing a drink on the way in, and so on.

“The last couple of Sundays we’ve done shows for the public, with a band playing on the dancefloor and the audience on the balcony looking down.”

Ajay also managed to get five live performances of his own over the last week, starting with an afternoon radio session in Gouda followed that evening by a performance in a Rotterdam café/bar ‘run by a total music-head’.

“He could only get 11 people in there. It was really nice though, with everyone around me as I played in a corner in this beautiful little bar.”

I see there were also three back-to-back sell-outs at OCCII in Amsterdam.

“Oh, totally!”

And those Saturday shows were followed by a Sunday early evening show at a thrift store very close to his own patch in Wormerweer. And can he see a time where he’s back playing in the UK, touring this LP?

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

Bar None: Ajay Sagar lets loose with his electric guitar in his first Bhajan Bhoy Bless Bless live engagement, playing Koffie & Ambacht in Rotterdam (Photo: Hoi Hoi)

Still shoegazing after all these years?

“Yeah, but the times I’ve looked up at the end of the set, I’ve seen people in the audience with their eyes closed, on a different planet. It’s been amazing. I also have a film running behind me, which I’ve made from old archive and footage, which really goes with the music. And a lot of people are really complimentary about the visual aspect of the show as well.”

He’s been down that road before, and I saw a fantastic show at The Continental in Preston in 2017 where King Champion Sounds played with cult 1929 Ukrainian film Man with a Movie Camera playing behind them.

A social media post from the day of his OCCII return further underlined his enthusiasm for the Bhajan Bhoy project and a feeling of optimism at restrictions being lifted to allow small-scale shows to happen again in Holland. He wrote, “The main thing I think people gained from these shows was hope. A chance to look beyond the restrictions that have been enforced on everyone and a glimmer of hope that we are very, very slowly turning the tide and can maybe see a way out of the darkness. Playing these shows was really special.’

He added, ‘As an artist you feel under extra pressure, but it’s also a great source of energy to know people are with you on your musical journey, which in turn helps you raise your game. There’s a sense of freedom in the room as people leave their lives behind for an hour or so and sink into the music, and musicians feel fully open to express themselves to an audience who give their entire attention to the music. Live music gives energy to all and judging by the conversations I had with audience members after the shows, these gigs were very much appreciated. I’ve never played gigs under these kind of restrictions, but we made it work collectively. Kudos to the people who work at the venues / radio station for taking on the challenge to bring the music to the people. I’m planning on doing as many shows as are possible in the coming weeks and months, hopefully seeing more smiling faces. Onwards and upwards!’

At this point we talk about what he calls his ‘arsenal’ of musical instruments in the studio, not just his guitars but organs and much more, some bought in India, others in Japan, and another virtual tour follows, stopping for a while to show me the original Fall keyboard, dating back to around 1981/82, when Marc Riley was still with them, a story following from Ajay’s days rehearsing with Hound God at The Boardwalk in Manchester.

“You’d have A Certain Ratio in the room opposite, then Happy Mondays, and Oasis came later, and The Fall had their own room at the end. But when they left, they chucked out a bunch of stuff, and when we finished rehearsing one night, I was like, ‘What!’ and immediately grabbed that. Steve Hanley’s bass cabinet was there too. Also … can you see those drumsticks?”

He’s off again now, taking his screen with him, showing me a set of sticks.

“They were Karl Burns’, from when The Fall played Clitheroe Castle, organised by Steve Barker for On the Wire (BBC Radio Lancashire).”

That was in mid-June ’85. In fact, while transcribing my notes a day after our chat, I realised it was 35 years ago to the very day. Spooky.

“It was this legendary show, and I’d hitched down from Lancaster with a friend. I was at university there. We met up with loads of other Fall-heads from Manchester and all over. There were around 3,000 people there, and what seemed like two policemen on duty. It was amazing. I was up at the front, and after the gig – courage on my side – as they were playing on a bandstand, I made a dash behind to this little marquee they set up instead of a dressing room. And the first person I saw was Karl, chugging on a tin of lager. I asked him for a drumstick as a souvenir, telling him how much I loved the band. He was just laughing, saying ‘Ah, no, they’re quite expensive.’ But when I left, I just jumped on the stage, grabbed those drumsticks and ran off!

“The thing was that Mark (E. Smith) had his hands on the wallet, and every week they’d have to go around his house or flat, and if they wanted new gear, apparently he was super-tight. So I don’t think he’d have been too willing to give away too many drumsticks!”

Funnily enough, an online discussion about that Clitheroe Castle show revealed it was David Chambers’ first Fall gig, the original drummer for General Havoc and Cornershop, later with Formula One and The Wandering Step, also featuring with Ajay and Marcus in The Common Cold.

Back to Bhajan Bhoy though, and I see Ajay’s been out and about on his bike hand-delivering copies of Bless Bless around Amsterdam these last few weeks. And among the early owners of the vinyl on this side of the North Sea were … well, did I spot a photo of your parents proudly clutching a copy?

“Yeah!”

They’re not still waiting for that day when you might get a proper job, are they?”

“They’re just happy that I have got a job, and while it’s music-related they know I’ve got a routine, there’s income coming in and a roof over our heads. We had to go the long way around to get there in the end, having dropped everything after university in Lancaster, having been in Manchester and on the dole, watching The Membranes and playing with Dandelion Adventure. There was no sign of any future, but I knew what I wanted.”

Live Presence: Ajay’s head down, no nonsense kosmiche guitar psych kicks in (Photo: Matthew Stewart Hunter)

It was a little early at time of going to press for a full-blown review from me of Bless Bless, but I’ve loved what I’ve heard so far, and there’s been lots of traction, not least with songs being played by Gideon Coe, a great supporter of Ajay’s recent projects, on his BBC 6 Music evening radio show.

And in lieu of that review, I’ll take on board the official description of a ‘wondrous and beautiful album filled with kosmische guitar psych magick / sonic raga trips / melodic mantras / esoteric electronica that thrill and elevate the listener to a higher sonic plain. The music reaches out to the stars in the same vein if Popol Vuh jammed with John Fahey, Terry Riley, and Robin Guthrie, to produce a beautiful soundscape in which the listener can sink into and float downstream.’

Along the way, Ajay collaborates with Prana Crafter (‘the musical mystic that is William Sol’) on ‘Strung Out’ and Holly Habstritt Gaal on ‘Cascade’, and the afore-mentioned Steve Barker classes it as  ‘the best thing that Ajay has released’, while J. Mascis calls it a ‘killer album’. And I won’t argue with that assessment.

There’s more to come too, and shortly after we spoke, he gave me an update, adding, “I’m playing in someone’s allotment this Sunday, for the solstice – a beautiful place, big garden, tiny house. She’s inviting friends, and I’m gonna play at 9pm for them in the open air. Then there’s an in-store record shop event in Haarlem the week after, with more gigs in July.”

Before I let him go, I mentioned to Ajay a Kraftwerk at the Paradiso poster from 2015 I spotted behind him as we were speaking, Van Gogh looking at me, no doubt thinking I’d make a good subject for a portrait.

“All the posters I have here are all for shows I’ve been involved with. I did eight shows of theirs (Kraftwerk) in a row in the Paradiso. I was doing the production on that and we had to strip everything for them as part of the deal. I went to see their show in Paris and talked to them about what they wanted. We took out the PA, all the stage and all the lights, and they brought everything. We were working three days and three nights getting their stuff up and running. Their main man told me they’d played there before, and I said I know, I’d heard the bootleg – brilliant. He said they’d just recorded Trans-Europe Express (1977), played the songs from that album here, recorded it, then went back to their studio, listened back and tweaked the album mix, based on that.”

And with that, he’s twisting the camera around again, showing me more.

“Then there’s Dinosaur Jr – I was involved with them and toured with them for the first couple of years, and this was from when they reformed and came back again … in 2005. Wow, 15 years ago now. I was behind that, as I was working with J. (Mascis) and Lou (Barlow). There’s also The Fall and Country on the Click, released on Action Records (2003). Mark (ex-bandmate Marcus Parnell) did the artwork for that.

“Mogwai – I toured with them, and this show was at The Fillmore in San Francisco, where I was totally blown away that I was there in the same venue as loads of my favourite bands. That night I drove the volume up so high that … there was this hippie curtain behind me and at the end of the show the in-house guy lifted it and the wall had collapsed there, from the sound pressure. So I was running around with bits of the Fillmore, giving it out to people, telling them it was a bit of history!

“Cat Power – I organised their very first European tour; and Múm – I worked with for many years; Animal collective – another band I worked with for many years, and they released a live double album last year, which were all my recordings; and Sebadoh – that was a US tour with The Bent Moustache, my band at the time.”

I should add that there’s also a big poster of a line-up of his beloved Amsterdam football team, Ajax, and another for Steve Barker’s On the Wire show, his Lancashire links clearly never forgotten, our Man with a Movie Camera having come full circle now … in more ways than one.

Soundation Stage: Ajay Saggar in his studio in the Netherlands, ready for sonic adventure (Photo: José Pietens)

Bhajan Bhoy’s Bless Bless LP, on the splendidly-titled Wormer Bros. Records, is out now, with details via this Bandcamp link. You can also keep in touch via the Bhajan Bhoy Facebook page. 

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Exploring the story of Optic Nerve Recordings – in conversation with Ian Allcock

Ordering a few classic and soon-to-be classic indie records in recent times, I was surprised to find an emerging label I was getting to know through an impressive catalogue happened to be operating from just up the road in Preston, Lancashire.

There’s Action Records of course, the much-loved edge of the city centre shop and occasional record label, and there’s electronic/experimental specialist Concrète. But how did Northampton lad Ian Allcock, who runs Optic Nerve Recordings, end up in the same locality?

“I moved from London to Cumbria, and from there to here. Yeah, it’s surprising who’s on your doorstep! There’s also A Recordings (Brian Jonestown Massacre, Sleaford Mods, Tim Burgess) in Blackpool.”

Was there a personal link to Preston before you moved here?

“Not at all. My ex-business partner, who now runs Brian Jonestown Massacre’s label, and me were working in Northampton in the early ‘90s on The Enid and their back-catalogue, then some indie stuff. We were doing that part-time then went full-time, moving to London, getting into import and export … but it was getting too expensive in London.

“I always wanted to live by the seaside, but Brighton was too expensive, so I decided to head for the countryside, heading up to Cumbria, stopping there a long time. That didn’t quite work out, and my business partner moved back to London while I stopped on. I realised I had all the contacts and knew there was a market for vinyl, so looked into licensing. I didn’t have any distribution and no profile but planned around half a dozen albums … although I over-estimated the size of that market, importing from the United States, and got it wrong at first. Fortunately that vinyl market grew.”

That was in 2012, although Ian’s roots in the business stretched back nearly two decades, and by 1997 he’d issued his first Optic Nerve release, Acrylic, a solo LP from John Ellis, at the time playing guitar for The Stranglers (he was with them from 1990/2000).

“In my naivety, I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it!’ but when the album turned up there were no guitars on it – it was music accompanying an art exhibition in Germany. It didn’t sell, but John was a lovely bloke. He said he didn’t feel he fitted in with anything else I was working on, suggesting, ‘What about ‘Optic Nerve’?’ and came up with a logo, the one we still have.

Nerve Centre: Ian Allcock, proudly wearing his Pooh Sticks T-shirt, and bucking the trend of economic downturn

“When we started up again in 2012, I didn’t want to go back to any of the other labels I did and cause confusion (with an established catalogue), instead deciding to use Optic Nerve again.”

That early licensing catalogue included not only The Enid but also records by the likes of New York’s Ned Hayden’s Action Swingers, featuring among others Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, and even a dance outlet … for a short while.

“There was this dance thing that became a Happy House anthem, around 1992, but we bailed out of that because we didn’t know what we were talking about! Even though the single we put out totally sold out.”

When Optic Nerve restarted, Ian carried on where John Ellis left off, Acrylic’s OPT 4.00 catalogue number built upon for the first release of the rebirth, John Peel favourites Cud’s treasured Leggy Mambo album re-released with cat. no. OPT 4.001.

A fair few releases that followed have allowed me to relive my late-‘80s/early-‘90s indie past, records by the likes of BOB, The House of Love, Pete Astor‘s pre-Weather Prophets outfit The Loft, McCarthy, The Pale Fountains, The Primitives, The Wedding Present and The Wolfhounds causing me to go back and re-evaluate, and new recordings by, for example, One Eyed Wayne (featuring BOB’s Dean Leggett) and (again) The Wolfhounds suggesting this was about far more than nostalgia.

There’s a forged link to another of Preston’s leading lights too, Action Records owner and fellow record label founder Gordon Gibson.

“I like going in and talking to Gordon. I can talk to him about Magna Carta and he’ll know what I’m on about. I like a lot of late ‘60s /early ‘70s music, sunshine psychedelia like The Millennium and Sagittarius.”

On a similar note, the kind of market he moved into regarding sometimes fairly obscure indie acts is hardly an obvious choice for a financially successful business plan. Yet many of those into that scene from the ‘80s onwards have gone on to professional careers and are now going back to buy product reminding them of their younger days. Does that ring true with Ian’s knowledge of his market?

“Erm … when I started, the website asked the age of people visiting, but now we don’t. I didn’t want that. I know what my market is … but it’s around 35 to 50.”

I’d argue even slightly higher in some cases, for example for his Girls at Our Best reissue. I have their 1981 LP, Pleasure, on a 1994 Vinyl Japan pressing, and know it’s since been released by Cherry Red (2009). But Optic Nerve put out a version in 2014 and now plan to repackage again. So how does that work?

“Yeah, we’re going to repress that, as it’s sold out. Every deal is different, and it’s not easy. You can’t just license what you want. It’s not like picking apples off a tree. A lot of stuff we want to do, we can’t, and sometimes a lot of the people want to do the same things.

“That Girls at our Best album is one of my favourite-ever albums, so the chance to license that was great. We pressed it up and when it came to a Pleasure bag, I got carried away – doing my own, a bigger, better Pleasure bag, involving three or four posters, postcards, stickers, the original press release and press photo. There was too much! But it sold out, it was a great release, and it looks lovely.

“Cherry Red own that, and I do a lot of business with them, and have a lot of contacts who help me if I’m struggling to find people. They’ve helped me a lot. It also needs the artists’ approval, and we got that from Girls at our Best, and while that license later expired, we’re now going to repress it and get a new one, as there’s still demand.”

The label’s Optic Sevens catalogue has also sold well, two series of classic indie singles released in limited editions proving a success.

“Yeah, it was a total gamble, just a hunch. Not everything I release sells out. In some cases, I have hundreds sitting on the shelf. We lose money on that, and with albums it’s very expensive to do, especially how I do them. And what I make on pre-sales just increases the advance to the artists and studio costs, not pressing costs. It takes a long time for the money to come back in.

“I was in a situation where I couldn’t afford to put anything out, sitting around until I’ve enough money to release something else, then sitting around another few months before I can release the next thing. That’s not really what I want to do. My goal is to do this full-time. I was just thinking of what I could do that didn’t involve as much financial outlay and got a quicker return. I looked into finding singles that were in demand, expensive to get. For me, music should be accessible at a decent price. I’m also of the age – and I know younger people who totally disagree – where I feel that if you only own it on digital release, you don’t own it!”.

It’s nice to see someone seemingly bucking the trend of economic downturn, at a time when we’ve lost so many music venues and are likely to lose more (and a few businesses) following the pandemic restrictions, Brexit, and so on.

“Well, The Wedding Present single went in at No.2 in the vinyl singles chart this week, but let’s just say I haven’t been able to build a swimming pool.”

Point taken. He does his groundwork though, keen to learn more as he goes along. By way of example, in his preparation to see the best way to market his Optic Sevens series – after a lukewarm reception within the industry, wanting to work out the best way to go about it – he contacted a company marketing e-books.

“I asked a few questions, they were really helpful, and a lot of what they told me gave me the confidence to go forward.  What I’m trying to do is build up, so I can put a couple of albums out every month. But I haven’t got a bottomless pit of money. It’s very tight financially.

“I don’t want to get a loan or end up beholden to the bank. But the idea of the 7” series is to get to a point where we can put those two albums out a month. At the moment we’re nowhere near, although we’ll continue with this series as long as we can license the right products.”

Is it just you running the operation?

“It’s just me. I’m sure there are a lot of other labels who employ staff, but this year I’ve had seven albums out and the plan is to later this year do another (7”) series, one a week for 12 weeks. I’m just working out the logistics of that.”

Do you think your neighbours realise what you’re up to?

“There are enough pallets in my garden … and with the amount of trucks that arrive … they probably do! But it’s about trying to keep the cost down. I’ve got storage and everything, but it’s that fine line. I think I can do two albums a month and two singles series a year if I set my stall out correctly, but I can’t do any more than that without employing staff. And premises would eat up a lot of money.

“I also do all the artwork myself, having realised it would cost me a lot of money to get an artist involved. So I felt I better learn to do it myself. Artists like BOB will do their own, but others just give me all the files and I’ll assemble it, as with The Wee Cherubs and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. That can be very time-consuming.

“I’m fortunate to be in a position where I’m not short of stuff I can put out, but I’m always looking, and I’m frightened that the day’s going to come.”

When I asked how he got into all those indie bands but also those late ’60 underground outfits, Ian blamed his Northamptonshire upbringing.

“I don’t know what my parents were doing. We had Oklahoma, Carousel, The Tijuana Sounds of Brass and The Sandpipers, but also all this other stuff, from sunshine psychedelia to The Beach Boys. I then had my brother, older than me, buying some punk stuff, and I liked that.

“Then I heard ‘Better Scream’ by Wah! Heat. You know where there’s that one single that makes you think, ‘Oh wow! There must be more music like this out there.’ Then you go and find it. That was my gateway really, to indie like Girls at our Best, the Young Marble Giants, and the Postcard stuff. I was spending ridiculous amounts on 7” singles then albums, probably all my wages when I left school in 1979 and started work.”

Discussion followed about bands he saw on his old patch, such as The Cigarettes (another band he’s reissued on Optic Nerve), The Dead Kennedys, The Fall, and The Psychedelic Furs at The Paddock (‘on the A45 on the outskirts of town. I think it’s a Berni Inn or something now’), and New Order and Killing Joke in the early ‘80s at The Roadmender’s, where he tells me he DJ’d in the late ‘80s.

Ian’s first career was as an apprentice carpenter and joiner, ‘but I was rubbish at that and didn’t like it much’. So ‘16 enjoyable years’ followed with camera manufacturer Kodak, ‘something that taught me a lot about colour and film’. That said, even in recent times there have been part-time jobs to keep a roof over his head, including work as a hotel night manager. So does this label primarily remain a labour of love?

“I wouldn’t say that! These singles all come with a poster, and I fold them all. That’s 12,000 posters, folded three times each. There’s no love there!”

I see that argument, but still have this romantic notion, thinking back to The Undertones and other Good Vibrations label artists helping fold their early singles at Terri Hooley’s Belfast record shop of the same name in the late ‘70s. But Ian’s not to be convinced.

“There’s no romance!”

And what’s next for Optic Nerve Recordings? Apparently, next month there’s a reissue of McCarthy’s The Enraged Will Inherit the Earth, licensed from Cherry Red, with a tie-in single licensed direct from the band; then some newly re-found tracks from The Wee Cherubs follow in September; and a long-awaited new release from BOB later that month, something I’m definitely keen to hear and Ian is proud to be associated with.

“When you think that the original recordings for that were done in 1992 … they were ahead of the curve. I love listening to that album. It’s absolutely great and at the same time quite sad because they were ahead of the game there – ahead of the Britpop thing. There’s one track, six minutes long, ‘Sundown’, and it’s like Oasis … but before Oasis.”

He hasn’t finished yet, enthusiastically talking me through more upcoming releases.

“From October, assuming we get the licenses, we’re going to do another 12 singles in 12 weeks (a third series). Then in January we have an Apple Boutique album, done directly with Phil King, which was going to be put out on an Australian label; a Tess Parks re-press, having already sold 2,500 copies of that; and a repress of a sold-out Cigarettes album.

“There’s Girls at our Best too, and hopefully next year a couple of Momus albums. I’ve also been talking to David Callahan about a new pressing of The Wolfhounds’ Bright and Guilty and a Moonshake album. And I’m hoping The Vaselines are going to go into the top five next week, maybe even No.1, having sold out everywhere.”

A double-check before publication saw the Scottish outfit made it to No.14 with a reissue of 1987’s ‘Son of a Gun’. A respectable outcome, I’d say. What’s more, Ian told me there were plans to go back to around 1979/82 for a future (Optic Sevens) series, back to the days of Pete Wylie’s Wah! Heat and the single that sparked his love of indie, albeit ‘purely for romantic reasons’.

He was still going strong at that stage, but I had a deadline looming as he continued to mention various other options Optic Nerve are working on, from those he’d love to put out but would struggle to get licensed, through to those he’d love to get out but it would make no sense to publicise and give the game away at this point … some which would certainly tantalise indie fans and be sure to sell fast. Watch this space. More to the point, keep an eye out for Optic Nerve Recordings.

For more information about Optic Nerve Recordings and its catalogue of current and planned releases, head to their website. You can also follow the label via Facebook and Twitter. 

 

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Celebrating Shellshock Rock, four decades down the line

High Rise: Stiff Little Fingers, on their way to breaking through via the uncompromising Inflammable Material LP

Seeing as our TV sets were seemingly full of depressing images from the aftermath of bomb damage and troops patrolling streets at the time, it’s good to have a celluloid reminder of something more positive going on in late-1970s Northern Ireland.

Good Vibrations, the 2012 Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn-directed film, told that alternative tale with a little license and plenty of swagger, while Tom Collins and Vinny Cunningham’s splendid 2001 documentary Teenage Kicks: The Story of The Undertones and Chris Wilson’s cracking Here Comes the Summer: The Undertones Story 11 years later told another side of the ground level story.

But perhaps the first notable film to emerge, in this case during those dark days of The Troubles, was John T. Davis’ 1979 documentary short, Shellshock Rock, an insightful study filmed in grim times that – despite its half-lit, scratchy, hand-held shots – comes over four decades later as a priceless document of that era, its focus an array of young punks – from the well-informed and right-on to the frankly naive – voicing frustration at being told what to do by their peers, instead choosing to get their teenage kicks watching live performances in tucked-away venues from bands deemed deemed disrespectful or irreverent in wider circles, and certainly with a wilful disregard of the established sectarian divide.

The plight of Northern Ireland throughout that period is well documented. As an outsider  I don’t feel I can go there, in large part. But this is more about the unifying impact punk rock and everything that came in its wake had on the country’s youth. Whilst violence, disenchantment and danger became everyday obstacles, punk provided a means of expression beyond the political landscape, with the spirit of those times at least partially captured through Davis’ lens in 1978.

Now, 41 years after its initial release, it’s being reissued by way of a celebration of that movement and a document of those times, alongside an impressive, somewhat exhaustive triple-CD collection including many rarities. There are 74 tracks all told, from approaching 50 bands, and it comes in hardback book format, the songs recorded during a period that arguably breathed new life into the country’s musical culture.

Looking at this collection with 2020 vision, so to speak, there are glaring holes in that it paints the picture of a very white male environment. Where were the Northern Irish equivalents of Poly Styrene, Pauline Black, Pauline Murray, and The Slits? We have to wait right to the end to hear a female lead vocal. But maybe that’s just how it was at the time, band-wise, with this more about exploring punk and the post-punk landscape over there back then, offering something of a celebration of the power of music and a youth movement that provided hope for the future when it was really needed.

Key bands featured on the Shellshock Rock: Alternative Blasts From Northern Ireland 1977/84 collection include Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones, The Outcasts, and Rudi, all four also starring in the original film, plus more who offered real crossover potential, not least The Moondogs and Starjets. But I won’t just stop there, here taking a brief journey through those six dozen-plus numbers and profiling the groups behind them.

Any collection opening with The Undertones and ‘True Confessions’ is alright by me, part of that amazing Teenage Kicks debut EP on Good Vibrations, a label which understandably features heavily here. Did the O’Neill brothers’ buzzsaw guitars ever sound more urgent across the spectrum, and did Feargal’s wondrous warbling vocal ever seem as innocently raw and innocent?

Many acts featured were new to me, the first of whom Midnite Cruiser, the spirit of punk R&B coming through on their sole single ‘Rich Bitch’ and its B-side, with pub rock credentials even more evident with next contributors the Duggie Briggs Band, delivering a Shellshock Rockney standard (have I belatedly invented a new genre there?) on ‘Punk Rockin’ Granny’, while their other track here, ’42 Hours Late’, suggests they may have been Portadown’s answer to Bruce Springsteen (although I’m not sure what the question was). Meanwhile, North coast outfit XDreamysts‘ ‘Dance Away Love’ suggests a Phil Lynott influence, and they’re one of a few here who supported Thin Lizzy and one of several who recorded sessions for BBC Radio 1’s John Peel, a big supporter of the NI scene.

If one band put a smile on your face more than any other in John T. Davis’ film, it’s The Idiots, who provide a punky ‘Parents’ from autumn ‘78 here, of which guitarist Barry Young adds, in relation to the first song he ever wrote, ‘All I was trying to do was write about what was more relevant to me, as someone who had just turned 16, rather than the big ideas of anarchy or world rebellion. The Idiots got together out of a shared love of this exciting new punk music, having a laugh and enjoying the odd bottle of cider. Musical ability wasn’t too high on our priorities, but we were game enough, and we improved as we went along, becoming more confident. Looking back at it now, I have a lot of good memories of mad nights out and crazy, innocent fun. I’m just glad we recorded this as a testament that punk really was for everyone and changed the rules for good.’

I recall my mate Steve adding Starjets‘ ‘War Stories’ to an early compilation that came my brother’s way, and these London-based West Belfast ‘pretty boys of the new wave’ offer that track, still a corker all these years on, plus ‘Any Danger Love’, frontman Terry Sharpe going on to co-found The Adventures and secure more Top of the Pops coverage. As for Ali McMordie’s pre-SLF outfit The Detonators‘ ‘Cruisin”, there’s a reinvented Jonathan Richman feel, the band showing why they were chosen to support Buzzcocks when the seminal Manchester band played the Ulster Hall in September ’78. And Ballymoney trios No Sweat also impress with the new wave pop of ‘Start All Over Again’, sort of The Jags meet Thin Lizzy (not least due to its duelling guitars). But there’s more of a Stranglers feel to Pretty Boy Floyd and The Gems, a former showband reenergised by punk, initially as a sideline. There’s a story attached to that change of focus that you’ll have to buy the boxset to read. It’s not pretty though. Like many of the bands, they went on to try their luck across the Irish Sea, in their case including a backup band link with Auf Wiedersehen Pet actor and past Heavy Metal Kids frontman Gary Holton.

The Stranglers are also arguably channelled on Blue Steam‘s ‘Lizard King’, something of an oddity but interestingly so, from a band who just about cracked the UK top 100, with help from Peelie. And I like Jumpers‘ ‘Baby C’Mon’, another shot of R&B, complete with harmonica (perhaps I should say harp), a one-off project for producer George Doherty, backed by the afore-mentioned Gems. Cobra’s ‘Lookin’ for a Lady’ was another one-off single, with its B-side here, the band straight outta Belfast with something of a new wave Motorhead feel, providing the kind of impassioned oddity that makes this collection a joy.

Tinopeners make two contributions, a melodic teenage outfit with Ramones and X-Ray Spex-like qualities, inspired by fellow East Belfast outfit Rudi and so fresh here. And then there’s Clive Culbertson, whose name comes up a lot across these discs, and who despite success south of the border became better known for his production and session work with names like Van Morrison, the Chieftains and Cliff Richard. We also find Clive later with 1980’s The Sweat, who were No Sweat until a threat of legal action from Pete Townshend’s Eel Pie Records, whose band of the same name had been around a while.

‘Suzy Lie Down’ by Cramp carries raw energy, a one-off single from an outfit concentrated on Coleraine, Portrush and Portstewart’s live circuit. When Peelie played this, he pondered over the airwaves ‘what those guys would do if Suzy lay down’. Two members later turned up in North coast melodic four-piece Minor Classics, featured elsewhere on two Clive Culbertson-produced tracks with Boomtown Rats-like tendencies, unreleased before 2010’s Rip Off Records Sing Sing compilation. It’s a shame they released just one single, March ’82’s ‘Sign Language’, one of the last on Chiswick Records.

Lenny & the Lawbreakers give us a punked-up version of Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, while The Androids, led by Joe ‘Zero’ Moody, supply two uncompromising numbers from the original Shellshock Rockers compilation. Bangor’s The Doubt sound a blast too, represented here via two tracks completing the first CD, the sleevenotes telling us, ‘Rehearsing in their singer’s living room and fuelled by nothing more than cider and ham sandwiches, The Doubt’s sound began to take shape and they began to play as many gigs as possible, using teenage enthusiasm and stupidity to overcome obstacles such as not having any transport and being underage for licensed premises. On one particularly memorable occasion a human train of ‘roadies’ carried all the equipment necessary for the gig a couple of miles to a beach. There, dozens of purloined extension leads were run across a main road from a friend’s house and the band risked life and limb to play a few songs’. Now that’s punk rock.

Who can forget the first time they heard Stiff Little Fingers? And that pure power and bite is relived here with the inclusion of October ’78’s vital debut 45, ‘Suspect Device’ and April ’79’s mighty ‘Gotta Getaway’. Jake Burns, the afore-mentioned Ali McMordie, Henry Cluney and Brian Faloon spring from the traps, the band who inspired by The Clash to write about their own experiences, with help from Gordon Ogilvie, truly nailed the zeitgeist of Belfast life back then, setting out their stall on ‘Alternative Ulster’, the single in between, and landmark debut LP Inflammable Material.

Protex, also featured in the film, are next to hit the spot, a melodic new wave feel evident on ‘Strange Things’ and ‘Strange Obsessions’, a take on life delivered in time for the ’80s from another band initially inspired by that iconic Clash visit. In fact, at first they used the name Protex Blue in honour of the Westway’s finest, but ‘evidently, they had absolutely no idea that the song was, in fact, about condoms’. Debuting in ‘78 at Knock Methodist Church Hall, Belfast, success to a point – short in the scheme of things but sweet all the same – followed via interest from Terri Hooley and Good Vibrations, Rough Trade, Kid Jensen and Polydor, while they studied for A-levels. Next came Adam & the Ants and Boomtown Rats supports, the band by then London-based, a subsequent North American tour part-caught on film by John T. Davis on another project.

Next up, Ruefrex carried something of the air of Howard Devoto for these ears, their ‘One By One’ single among Good Vibrations’ earliest, darker in feel, a touch of dystopia from a band living in a place where escape from reality surely appealed. In fact, slow-burner ‘The Perfect Crime’, also included, featured not only on the original Shellshock Rock film but also Good Vibrations.

Lunar Force: The Moondogs, leading lights of Cherry Red collection, Shellshock Rock, and teatime TV stars to boot.

After that, Ballymoney’s The Faders sound fairly soothing with the Nick Lowe-like ‘In It For the Kicks’, and then we have The Zipps with ‘Don’t Tell the Detectives’, another who briefly swelled bills in Belfast and on the north coast. ‘Self Conscious Over you’ by The Outcasts will be more familiar, a classic angsty punk love song followed here by ‘81’s darker ‘Magnum Force’, tackling the Troubles head on, from a band also remembered for ‘Just Another Teenage Rebel’, a single I recall being covered in more recent years by The Undertones. And I have to admit that Victim’s sparky contributions from 1979 and 1980 were new to me, despite the band having relocated to Manchester. You certainly hear the progression between tracks, very of that time and Buzzcocksy.

Undertones fans won’t need an introduction to the work of fellow Derry outfit The Moondogs, who initially included John and Damian O’Neill’s brother Vinnie on bass. They positively sparkle on both sides of debut 45, ‘She’s Nineteen’, including ‘Tones-like guitar, those links leading to UK and Irish dates, Peel’s support and even interest from legendary boss Andrew Loog Oldham (see the sleevenotes for that tale). To give a flavour of this band’s story, I’ll just focus on 1981, when Granada approached them with a view to giving them their own teatime TV show. Further radio sessions and gigs followed, plus the ‘Talking in the Canteen’ and ‘Imposter’ (produced by Kinks legend Ray Davies) singles, before the band headed to New York to record their debut LP with Todd Rungren in late May. But, according to their biog, ‘That’s What Friends Are For proved to be an ironic title for the long player as the band split up halfway through recording. Warner Bros bought Sire Records and began to clean out the cupboards, and it seemed that The Moondogs would be dropped without the album ever being released. On their return to Derry, the band went en masse to the bank, collected their publishing and recording advances, paid the VAT and declared themselves bankrupt. With a few pieces of paper, it was over, and the following Monday The Moondogs went and signed on the dole. However, unbeknown to the band Todd Rundgren had finished off the album, and Sire released it in Germany later that year.’

There’s more of an ’80s feel to the two selections from Rod Vey, a Belfast lad in his early 20s dividing time between Queens Uni music studies and professional sax playing and session work for Rip Off Records, here messing around to great effect with electronics, another artist who went on to work with big names. And we definitely seem to be in post-punk, darker territory by the time we reach Stage B‘s ‘Light on the Hillside’, the band fitting in a filmed Toyah support tour slot before a 1981 break-up. Meanwhile, there’s a big sound to The Tearjerkers (their forntman once with Midnite Cruiser) with ‘Heart on the Line’, yet that’s a mere B-side for this Portadown outfit, who managed a Thin Lizzy support, a couple of Peel sessions, and a little TV and further radio before splitting. And the same goes for Aftermath, here with ‘Mixed Up Kid’, and also supported by John Peel and RTE’s Dave Fanning.

RTE favourites Male Caucasians looked to Dublin and Scoff Records to release ‘For the Night’, somewhere between Graham Parker, the Boomtown Rats and Split Enz maybe, the band’s Pat Cunningham explaining, ‘I gave up the boring day-job and concentrated on writing and gigging – we played around Belfast, Dublin, Cork and many places in between. It gave me an identity, a sense of belonging and a sense of possibility: we were going somewhere. The music provided an escape from the tribal politics and the drab reality that was Belfast then. ‘For the Night’ is the sound of that escape.’

Reflex Action provide both sides of 1980’s ‘Spies’ single, its school of The Clash skank’ a favourite of John Peel’s wife Sheila, and according to Paul Bradley, ‘a neat embodiment of the NI post-punk music community’s gift for dismissing sectarianism’. He adds, ‘Roughly half unionist and half nationalist, we, like many of our gigging peers, ignored sectarian divisions’.  Fair play to them. And disc two ends with fellow Belfast combo The Rattling Throntons‘ ‘The Whistle Song’, Rockpile-esque and from their sole EP in 1980. They played a cocktail of mod-punk covers alongside original material, their name taken from some cheap Chinese cassettes bought to record rehearsals, early bass player Andrew Thompson revealing that the ‘recording was funded by us putting on matching blue shirts and trousers and playing horrendous C&W covers under the name Bandit’, adding, ‘There was no commercial market in NI for our music, but plenty of demand for bad country music.’

So to disc three and Terri Hooley’s faves and NI punk pioneers Rudi, represented by a radio version of ‘Steps’ – among my favourites on this boxset – and 1981’s ‘When I Was Dead’, produced by Paul Weller. Some might suggest ’Big Time’ should be here, but like ‘Teenage Kicks’ and ‘Alternative Ulster’ we’ve all got that, right? Formed in 1975 by East Belfast schoolmates, they progressed from glam and rock’n’roll to a punk direction, inspiring Terri Hooley to set up his label and missing out on a deal with Polydor as they refused to sack drummer Graham ‘Grimmy’ Marshall, who the corporate considered a ‘madman’. As it was, while Grimmy stayed, Gordy Blair (bass) was turfed out soon after (later joining The Outcasts), and as a three-piece – Grimmy plus fellow founder members Ronnie Matthews (guitar, lead vocals) and Brian Young (guitar, vocals) – they signed to Tony Fletcher and the afore-mentioned Weller’s Jamming! label. In fact, as Brian Young put it, ‘Grimmy was the heart of the band, and was there from day one right through to the bitter end, alongside Ronnie and yours truly.” In that next spell, Weller took the band on tour. But fate conspired when The Jam split and the label folded, Rudi also deciding to call it a day.

Ex-Producers’ ‘The System Is Here’ sounds more like The Jam at their most blatantly political, the band meeting at school in West Belfast, starting in 1978 as Blitz – inspired by SLF and Rudi – before becoming The Producers, with personnel changes en route. The key further name change followed, the new line-up receiving radio airplay and featuring on a January ’80 Belfast edition of BBC TV’s Something Else, finally becoming a three-piece but never receiving the breaks they craved. They split in 1982 but re-emerged in 2004.

There’s real punk charge from The Defects – the vocals bringing to mind Ade Edmondson’s Vyvyan from The Young Ones – on Christmas ‘81’s ‘Dance (Until You Drop)’, which quickly sold out 2,000 copies, and presented here with its B-side. Formed in Belfast in summer ’78, they first performed Never Mind The Bollocks and The Clash covers, later borrowing money from parents to set up Casualty Records, before a deal with London’s WXYZ Records, alongside label and tour-mates Anti-Nowhere League and Chelsea. Key UK dates and a tour followed, plus the ‘Survival’ 45, the band living on a Chelsea Wharf houseboat moored next to Lemmy’s, regularly partying with Girlschool, Motorhead and various other rock‘n’rollers. An Ulster Hall date supporting the later version of The Clash was their finale, but they resurfaced in 2003, recording for Punkerama Records and still gigging far and wide.

The new wave/power pop of ‘Radio Songs’ and its cracking B-side follows from Strike, who played around Ireland, with various press and radio interviews, supporting the Boomtown Rats at the Ulster Hall in Belfast when the headliners were topping the UK charts, A&M Records expressing interest at that stage. And there’s a similar new wave vibe to The Singles, who hailed from the Portadown/Lurgan area, more aligned to the mod revival than the punk scene. They recorded with producer George Doherty, leading to one-off single ‘TV Deceives’ in 1981, included here with previously-unreleased demo ‘I’m Only Asking’. They split soon after, two members going on to synth-pop band Shadow Talk, who had a minor hit in 1983 (and who I saw support The Fall and Serious Drinking at Surrey Uni that year).

Another pleasant surprise for this scribe was the rather jerky, angular ‘Mr Mystery Man’ by Belfast’s Shock Treatment, whose members included Davy McLarnon, who leads Shock Treatment 21 to this day, and original vocalist Barry McIlheney, best known for his writing at Melody Maker, subsequent editorships at Smash Hits and film mag Empire, and much more. The track chosen is a tribute to his Dad, who died when he was just 19, and it’s a corker. The band formed around ‘78, inspired by bands like Eddie and the Hot Rods, Dr Feelgood and the Ramones, signing to Good Vibrations in early 1979. Their ‘Room to Move’ EP included ‘Belfast Telegraph’, with follow-up ‘Mystery Man’ on their DAB label in 1981.

There’s a Graham Parker/Elvis Costello/Joe Jackson vibe to ‘Put It Around’ by The Nerves from Newry, formed by the three McCaul brothers, previously The Mash. By March 1980 they were a four-piece playing their hometown and across the border in nearby Dundalk, and occasionally Belfast and Dublin. A demo tape left in Terri Hooley’s shop eventually led to a rare offer to record an LP. They received airplay from RTE and Downtown, the Notre Demo album recorded in Dundalk in late 1980, recorded and mixed in 46 hours for £400, a limited 1,500 pressing well received. A Battle of the Bands win at Ulster Hall led to finals at The Rainbow in London. There was also an early ‘81 Irish tour.

The Peasants shared a history with Protex, members of both playing in The Incredibly Boring Band. They issued one 7” EP, ‘Here She Comes’, pressed in limited quantities in 1981 before they split. And it’s a real pleaser, very ‘60s West Coast US in feel. And there’s a similar cross-Atlantic vibe with East Belfast combo Acme, formed in late 1978 as Acme Music, ‘sustained on Clash records, Protex gigs and Olde English cider’. They supported Rudi and The Outcasts, their pleasing contribution here early ‘81 demo track, ‘Jealousy’, with an Edwyn Collins feel.

Big Self formed in Belfast in the late ‘70s, the line-up swelled to a five-piece in 1982 by bass player Gordy Blair (ex-Rudi and The Outcasts) turned saxophonist. On a reggae-influenced canvas, they developed their sound and signed to Eire’s Reekus Records, first two singles, ‘Surprise Surprise’ (included here) and ‘Don’t Turn Around’ (its B-side featured here) both Sounds singles of the week. Relocated to Brixton in early 1983, they recorded LP, Stateless in Dublin the following winter, with 4 ¾ out of 5 stars in Melody Maker, losing the quarter-point due to an 18-month release delay (the distribution company went into liquidation). Several well received shows and festivals followed, plus John Peel and Kid Jensen BBC radio sessions, and BBC and RTE TV appearances. They bowed out in 1986 at Dublin’s Self-Aid festival.

Act Together: Belfast five-piece Katmandu. It took a move to Dublin to crack it. (Photo courtesy of Sean Hennessy)

Belfast five-piece Katmandu formed in 1978, yet frontman Marty Lundy – who died recently – had featured on the city’s club circuit since 1974. After 18 months writing in their home city, a Dublin move followed, regular gigs there establishing them, 1980 debut single ‘I Can Make the Future’ garnering major label interest and leading to TV appearances both sides of the border. The track chosen, ‘Get My Act Together’, the B-side of ill-fated 1982 second 45, ‘Coma’, carries a rather splendid Bowie meets Roxy Music feel. But it wasn’t to be, the band returning home and going no further.

The Boots & Braces label’s 1982 United Skins compilation shows us another side of the story with two belters from Control Zone, Tony McGartland explaining, ‘When bouncers at a local nightclub started using their fists to show their authority I found myself barred from the venue for wearing Dr Marten boots, not the sort of thing the new disco boom wanted to see. As bouncers laid into young skinheads and punks, Control Zone responded with a new anthem, ‘Bloody Bouncers’. “And ‘Johnny Johnny’ could have been the story of anyone who got into trouble, got on the wrong side of the law and managed to survive on the streets.’

The old punk thrill resurfaces via Electro-Motive Force, formed in the winter of 1980, previously named White Noise until a new line-up. With guidance from manager James Tweedie, they released a self-titled four track 7” on their Surge Records label in 1982 – two tracks featured here – with 500 copies pressed and soon proving hard to come by. Picture sleeves are particularly rare, a couple of hundred stolen from a band member’s car shortly after release, thus becoming a much sought-after NI punk artefact.

And finally, Dogmatic Element offer both sides of Summer ’82 post-punk single ‘Strange Passion’, and I’m pleased to finally hear a strong female voice through Alison Gordon, reminiscent of Leeds’ Girls at Our Best on the (preferable to me) B-side. They formed in 1980, rehearsing in the basement of a loyalist pub in Newtownards and a chapel hall on Sundays, debuting live at July ‘81’s ‘Project Bangor’ gig to a full house in their hometown. Building a reputation for energetic live shows, novelist Colin Bateman managed them for a time, setting up the Cattle Company label to release 7” singles in 1982 and 1984. They also released several cassette-only EPs, put down at Bangor Drama Club, recorded a couple of Downtown Radio sessions, and played on TV’s Channel One in 1984. Extensive gigging included support slots with Rudi, The Outcasts and Poison Girls, several line-up changes following before a 1985 split after a residency in Larne.

Back to the Shellshock Rock film included, and what strikes me is how young the acts look and how much passion for their art shines through. Through footage in the studio and live shows in sweaty clubs to vox pops on busy Belfast streets, there’s also a realisation of how far away that world is now, and how far off an eventual ceasefire they were too – another 20 years of suffering following before Ash, Bono, David Trimble and John Hume congregated on stage at the Waterfront Hall, the peace process finally in motion.

John T. Davis certainly captures the passion of Good Vibrations’ label founder, Terri Hooley a real star here, flicking (victory) Vs while pogoing in his record shop to Rudi’s ‘Big Time’, the first 45 he put out in a momentous year in which he took on the majors and won.

The boxset also features written contributions in its tie-in hardback book from music writer and WriteWyattUK interviewee Stuart Bailie, who featured on these pages after the release of 2018’s excellent Trouble Songs: Music and Conflict in Northern Ireland.

He suggests in his narrative that the original film is ‘regarded as a design classic’, and adds, ‘International fans have long considered the value of punk and alternative music out of Northern Ireland. It’s perceived as the real deal, the proof of concept, a place where music engaged and informed to an inspiring degree. Some of us believe that it pre-empted the dynamic of the peace process. The bands of Belfast and beyond created a scene entirely of their own making during those times, punk forging alliances that reached across sectarian boundaries and pushed back against a culture of traditions and establishment which seemed to offer very little to the country’s youth.’

As the boxset sleeve notes suggest, ‘Nowhere was punk as necessary and as life changing as it was in Northern Ireland’. And that’s something Shellshock Rock director John T. Davis also acknowledges in his notes.

He writes, ‘When I think back to 1978 and my days as a young filmmaker, I realise how fortunate I was to have been in the right place at the right time. I had the privilege then of documenting a brief and fleeting moment in the history of the Northern Ireland conflict.

‘It was a time when a small but brilliant chink of light shone in the heart of darkness, a shaft that split traditional values asunder. Out of the bombs, bullets, and bullshit came a movement more powerful than the hate and propaganda.

‘Terri Hooley said, ‘New York had the haircuts, London had the trousers, but Belfast had the reason’. Punk rock was bringing together kids from both sides of the sectarian divide, Catholic and Protestant teenagers uniting in the name of their music and what it stood for, far more important to them than social or political conformity.

‘I first became aware of this phenomenon when invited to a Stiff Little Fingers concert, hearing ‘Alternative Ulster’. I was compelled. Here was a film waiting to be made.

Shellshock Rock is not about punk, it is punk! This is the key to its longevity. Every trick in the book was employed during the production – friends worked for free, and Heath Robinson was never very far away.

Big Time: Rudi proved to be star turns of both Good Vibrations and Shellshock Rock (Photo courtesy of Colin Henry)

‘We had to be creative and ingenious in the execution of ideas, there was no real cash to oil the machine. What money was available came from community arts and myself.

‘For a small backhander to friends in the processing department at local TV stations, my raw film footage was developed along with that of the 6 o’clock news. Punks and paramilitaries in the bath together!

‘In the editing we couldn’t afford a work print, so the reversal master was cut – something fraught with problems and seldom done. The rolling credits were filmed by setting the artwork boards on top of my childhood model railway cars and pulling them along the track with string while the rostrum camera filmed from above.’

He also stresses that the film could not have been made without Terri Hooley assuring the punks that he had his seal of approval.

‘Terri ran Good Vibrations Records and I had known him when he was part of the Dublin Road Folk Club – long before Punk ever came to Northern Ireland, when Belfast was R&B city, in the days of Sammy Houston’s Jazz Club, Van Morrison and Them.’

It seems that his film really took off when it was pulled from 1979’s Cork Film Festival on its premiere night, John adding that, ‘After that everyone wanted to see the banned movie!’.

It went on to win a silver award at that year’s New York Film and Television Festival, with screenings in Europe, Asia, Australia, South America and North America. But it was the NYC exposure that its director recalls with most affection.

‘The Americans could not believe the message the film was bringing. All they knew of Northern Ireland was the violence and murder. We were the good news!

‘A lot of press was generated, and the film received national distribution, while the underground music clubs all wanted screenings. The line-up was impressive – Tier 3, Hurrahs, The Mud Club, The Peppermint Lounge, Club 57, and CBGBs.’

New friendships were forged along the way, not least with scene luminaries such as beat poet Allen Ginsberg and legendary documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker.

‘You can understand how much this little film has meant to me over the years. I’m amazed by, and proud of, what Shellshock Rock has become. It’s been a huge part of my life. I’ve watched it grow like a child, and still hold the innocence we all had back then.

‘It’s a window into those times. From the desperate streets of Belfast in 1978 to the lofty echelons of New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2018, Shellshock Rock has achieved cult status.’

The Shellshock Rock collection, including in-depth sleevenotes and previously unseen images, is the latest in a Cherry Red Records regional compilation series that also includes Manchester – North of England, Revolutionary Spirit – The Sound of Liverpool, Big Gold Dreams – A Story of Scottish Independent Music, and Dreams to Fill the Vacuum – The Sound of Sheffield.

Derry Air: The Undertones. From left – Damian O’Neill, Billy Doherty, Mickey Bradley, John O’Neill, Feargal Sharkey.

Shellshock Rock: Alternative Blasts From Northern Ireland 1977-1984 is available in 3CD/DVD hardback book boxset format from Friday, July 31st, priced £24.99, including a bonus exclusive promo postcard while stocks last. For more details head here.

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How we got there – talking Together with The Vapors’ Dave Fenton

Four decades to the week of the release of their debut LP, The Vapors delivered a new album, and it’s one that proved beyond doubt the staying power of a band that were always about so much more than one big hit.

Regular visitors to this website will know I’ve been extolling the virtues of a group from my old neck of the woods in Guildford, Surrey, since they got back together, any initial concerns about their decision to reform cast aside on witnessing their performance at Liverpool Arts Club in late 2016.

It was always going to be a balancing act, having loved the first album, 1980’s New Clear Days since I first heard it as a young teen, and learning to love in the interim 1981 follow-up, Magnets.

And while those early shows on reforming four years ago were all about playing the old songs, frontman Dave Fenton stressed from the start that he was eager to move on, not content to just play the numbers we already knew and loved, keen to take the band into a new era of creativity.

The shows that followed reflected that, with more and more new songs aired and tested live, and now we have Together, a long playing statement of true intent, a celebration of the band and a mutual enduring love with a loyal fanbase – young and not so young alike – and an album that suggested they’ve simply carried on where they left off before a 34-year hiatus.

As expressed in more detail in past interviews with band members on this site, Dave (lead vocals, guitar), Ed Bazalgette (lead guitar, vocals), Steve Smith (bass, vocals) and Howard Smith (drums) packed in a lot during the years in between, the latter deciding when they reformed his priorities had to be elsewhere at that stage, not least with a young family in tow.

In his place, up stepped Michael Bowes, a Brighton-based BIMM drumming tutor with an impressive CV, previous stints between the sticks including those with Nelly Furtado, Joss Stone, Tears For Fears, Heather Small, Michelle Gayle, Desmond Dekker and Laura Mvula. And Jamaica-born Michael fitted in right away, his infectious smile seemingly ever-present and somewhat infectious for anyone catching the band live since.

While Dave’s retired from his legal role (in later years working as an in-house solicitor for the Musicians’ Union), Ed’s work in TV and film (most recently directing Versailles and The Last Kingdom, and next up, The Witcher) continues to keep him busy, but there’s a more than competent replacement in Dave’s son Dan Fenton, regularly deputising on lead guitar, both players featuring on the new record.

Real Time: Dan and Dave Fenton locked down at home, near the South coast, waiting for the weekend when they can finally get back out again (Photo: Branka Fenton)

The initial decision to get back together (I’ll keep using that word, in celebration of the latest arrival) came after Dave and Ed guested with Steve’s punk and new wave cover band The Shakespearos at a PolyFest charity event at the Half Moon, Putney, south west London, playing their biggest hit, ‘Turning Japanese’, a UK No.3 that proved a hit around the world, even topping the charts in Australia.

That Half Moon appearance inspired four Waiting for the Weekend dates later the same year – in Dublin, back in London at Camden’s Dingwalls, then in Liverpool (where I caught them) and Wolverhampton. And from there there’s been precious little let-up, numerous gigs and festivals following around the UK, alongside a series of sell-outs in New York City which led to 22 Lost ‘80s Live package tour dates across the US, 38 years after their previous (third) saunter across the States, in what proved to be the final act before the initial split.

Law student Dave formed an early version of The Vapors in 1978, a year later recruiting Ed and Howard, with Steve on board shortly after, one of their early gigs at Scratchers, Farncombe (four miles outside Guildford) caught by past WriteWyattUK interviewee Bruce Foxton, who asked them to open for The Jam on 1979’s Setting Sons tour. He also took on management duties alongside Paul Weller’s father John Weller, and late last year The Vapors reunited with their old manager, supporting Bruce’s From The Jam on a Setting Sons 40th anniversary tour.

More of those dates happened this year, until coronavirus restrictions curtailed live outings. But now fans have that new LP to savour, made in Liverpool with BRITS/Grammy award-winning producer Steve Levine (The Clash, Culture Club), who said of the experience, “It was such an enjoyable project to be involved with. I’m enormously proud of this album. The band really upped their game musically and sonically during the sessions and were a pleasure to work with.”

COVID-19 curbs willing, Fenton and co. are set to celebrate not only the new record but also the 40th anniversary of New Clear Days with a headline UK tour later this year, playing the debut LP in full as well as songs from the new album. But Dave admitted when I called last week a sense of frustration at not being able to get out and about with his bandmates right now.

“We can’t rehearse, because we can’t travel. Writing’s fine, but …. I’ve got 30 songs towards the new album already. I’m just wondering what to do with them. We’ll probably have to do a double album.”

That reminds me of a recent conversation for this website with Erland Cooper where we got on to Paul Weller, the pair having worked together on projects in recent times. He told me Paul was already enthused about his new record … even before his latest is released. That’s the mark of the man, I guess, in his 60s yet as prolific as ever. And that seems to be the case with Dave too.

“Well, what else can you do if you can’t rehearse and you can’t play live?”

Nuclear Nights: Dave Fenton in action with The Vapors, before the COVID-19 lockdown kicked in (Photo: Si Root)

That said, I guess yourself and Dan, self-isolating together, will be all the more tight as a unit, seeing as you get to practise together while the rest of the band are elsewhere.

“Yeah, well, we’re going to end up doing loads of acoustic stuff, just me and him, unless we can sort out some way of getting everyone to record.”

A Zoom band meeting isn’t so easy, I suppose.

“No. The time delay on that is a problem. We’ve had podcasts though, and a Zoom party the night the album got released. We were altogether, drinking together … virtually. But there is some other software we’re going to try out, so we’ll see what happens, experimenting to find a way to play without a time delay.”

Dave’s been confined to base in recent weeks with wife Branka, sons Dan and Jack and two dogs, ‘a walkable mile and a half away’ from the South coast. And while missing their daughter, locked down elsewhere, he’s clearly loving the public and critical acclaim for Together.

“Well, who wouldn’t be? I haven’t seen anything negative.”

Those of us who have caught you live these last few years have been believers from the start, but even then, I think it’s fair to say the finished product has exceeded expectations. It’s as if you carried on where you left off with Magnets in 1981. Another winning set of songs.

“It’s nice when people say things like that. I’m just amazed no one so far has said, ‘It’s not as good as it used to be’. That’s what I was dreading most, that we’d let people down.”

Lining Up: Michael Bowes gets right behind, from left, Steve Smith, Dave and Dan Fenton. Photo: Si Root.

Despite last year’s US package tour on the retro circuit, I don’t think there was ever a doubt that you were always about the next record. You’ve never been a band to come up with more of the same, as proved by Magnets, arguably a step too far at the time for a wider audience.

“That was the initial basis on which we got back together in 2016, over a drink in a pub in London. I said I wanted to get back to where we were before, and that would include writing new songs if these gigs were a success and we still had an audience. And everyone agreed.

“It’s taken a bit of time. I didn’t expect it to take four years. But to be quite frank, I don’t mind the pace it’s going at. I’ve got nothing else to worry about. I’m retired and this is it, so I’ll get it right.”

That’s as good a place as any to include my own brief-ish critique of the new record before I get back to my latest chat with Dave. Apologies if you’ve only got a short break, as this feature is clearly turning into another trademark epic, it would seem. That fella Tolstoy’s got nothing on me.

T Time: The new Vapors T-shirt could be yours, all yours, via https://everpress.com/the-vapors

T Time: The new Vapors T-shirt could be yours, all yours, via https://everpress.com/the-vapors

“We’ve been through troubled times, we’ve been through stormy waters.”

Somehow, Together gets its message across without the angst and ire of a late ‘70s approach to kicking against the pricks. That’s not to say there’s no cutting edge. Far from it. There’s are more subtle ways to deliver perhaps, and while I crave a little more fire at times, I think they’ve struck a great balance. They certainly get their points across, sonically and lyrically. We’re talking melodic new wave pop with added bite.

Look away if you like, but for me the pop sensibilities of a very 21st century success like The Feeling come through on tracks like opener ‘Together’, incorporating a respectful nod to the past but pushing on all the same. The US term power pop always confused me, but I reckon it probably fits the bill here. And whatever label you use, the title track and several more scream ‘radio airplay’. Think commercial with attitude, carrying enough sonic hooks to lure non-partisan floating voters.

‘I don’t think I could have made it on my own; I don’t even think I’d find my way back home’.

Track two, lead single ‘Crazy’, also falls into that category, grabbing you from the moment you hear that introductory late-‘70s Steve Jones-like guitar riff. If Steve Smith’s side-project The Shakespearos start playing this and it’s new to you, you could be excused for thinking it was a little-known post-punk single from ’78. I’ll be honest and say, like ‘Turning Japanese’ and ‘Jimmie Jones’, I’d more likely point new fans to something more subtle and less commercial. But it’s a classic new wave hit.

‘All I really want is floating down the river; All I really want’s a reason to forgive her.’

It’s the deeper numbers that truly resonate a few more listens down the line, and ‘Sundown River’ carries a melodic laidback 12-string feel. A beautifully-crafted song, one more punk-rock elements among the fanbase might shy away from. Dare I say the harmonies put me in mind of Aussie environmental rock warriors Midnight Oil in reflective mode? In fact, I see the titular river more a dried-up creek picked up in an aerial shot by a passing helicopter. And there’s definitely a touch of the cinematic about this fine number.

‘Freeze frame, freeze frame, freeze frame; And look at everything you’ve got.’

The subject matter of ‘Real Time’ puts me in mind of ‘Daylight Titans’ on the second LP, and its ‘We can freeze time’ line. And while a band that have been away as long as this shouldn’t just be able to drift back into the groove, The Vapors pull it off, seemingly seamlessly. And if there’s an over-riding message across these vinyl grooves, perhaps it’s something about making the best of the limited time we have on this earth and using the power we have – personally and politically – for good. And a big yes to all that.

‘I could have stayed for longer, probably should have; But the last thing I saw happening was this.’

‘Girl From the Factory’ is the first of the New Clear Days: Revisited songs here, it’s title taken from ‘Letter From Hiro’, and while the sheer number of years between Vapors records suggests such reflection might have been over-thought, over-wrought and over-played, they manage to keep within the parameters. Nothing’s in your face, and similarly nothing comes with a smug or conspiratorial wink to the camera. It’s great storytelling, masterfully done.

‘I can’t remember how we ended up like this; Just that it’s beautiful, I feel so blessed.’

There’s cause for further reflection on ‘I Don’t Remember’, and this time I could easily hear Suggs and Madness tackle this. In their case too it would be tucked away on another quality album and only a select few of us would pay much attention. But given the chance it‘s a song that gets inside your head and refuses to budge, the message put across without the need for a mallet.

Double Act: Steve Smith, left, and Dave Fenton at Cardiff University SU Great Hall (Photo: Warren Meadows)

‘Now it’s a different story, someone’s singing our song; Land of hope and glory for the rich and the strong’.

The Vapors were always a political band for these ears, and those messages made an impression on a teenage lad waking up to what was going on around him, on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘In Babylon’ continues that great tradition, although for me it sounds like it would fit better on Magnets than the more direct debut album. Incidentally, the day after my fourth listen to the new record, this was the one still playing in my head, that chord progression imprinted on the brain. In a good way. A sure sign of staying power.

‘But if you wait till the war is all over, and then you wait till they all drop their guns; And then you wait till they pick up the pieces, no-one won.’  

I guess ‘Letter From Hiro’ was the song I returned to most during the ‘80s and ‘90s, thinking I’d never ever get a chance to see The Vapors. So near, yet so far, a band on my doorstop gone before I had chance to catch them live. So there was something of a thrill in finding out there was a follow-up here, one I first heard live at Manchester’s Ruby Lounge in 2018 (reviewed here)and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. ‘Letter to Hiro (No.11)’ moves the story on, in its structure and its narrative, and it’s certainly worthy of its company. It brings us up to date and again there’s a maturity that might not have sounded right if the LP had surfaced in the early ‘80s but sounds just right here. Think of Peter Gabriel (I know, I know, but please bear with me) at his most evocative. Think ‘Biko’ and the chill you got first hearing that.

‘White Rabbit is blue, Mad Hatter is too; I’ve told you before, you’re Alison Wonderland.’

Another number that has more in common with Magnets is ‘Wonderland’, which would have slipped into that set perfectly. There’s an ethereal feel in tune with the title, Dave Fenton with looking-glass in pocket in a creative nod to past Guildford resident Lewis Carroll, letting his imagination run wild.

‘I only came to pick up my things; I was hoping that you wouldn’t be in’.

I get the idea with ‘Those Tears’ that if all these songs were ready to record in, say, 1983, this could well have been the lead single. Who knows what might have happened then. It could have bombed without trace, the band done for, or it could have been a mega-success, at least in America, the biggest hit since Turning Japanese, a new era of The Vapors ushered in and a life by the pool with dubious substances and temptations assured. Ah well. I’d have probably walked away then, and would have certainly disliked the tie-in MTV promo video.

‘And we loved Suzanne, and we loved Marianne, and we hung out at the Chelsea Hotel; But then Jane came by with a bird on a wire; Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye, goodbye; King L!’

The car’s running now and we’re ready to depart, the plane not far off from taxi-ing across the runway as ‘King L’ kicks in, the crowd going wild, the band wigging out somewhat. Is this the track the band end on right now rather than ‘Here Comes the Judge’? It would make sense. There’s certainly not so many places to go from here. Kin’ ‘ell!

‘Cos those nuclear nights, followed by the new clear mornings, make the sun so bright in your eyes.’

Yet for all the penultimate song’s firepower, we have a perfect album finale in ‘Nuclear Nights’, the understated yet raw guitar at the death leaving us hungry for more. Again, there’s that perfect fusion between Heritage Vapors and 21st Century Boys in the Zone. And there will be more great records to come, I’m sure, that bridge safely crossed, new horizons in the sights. And here’s to that. Crack on.

Into 1980: The Vapors, on the New Clear Days sleeve

Nuclear Haze: The Vapors, 1980 vintage, on the debut album sleeve, somehow four long decades ago

Talking of which, now I’ve got that down, let’s get back to it. And in the same way that a successful football team builds around key players, I get the feeling the building blocks on the new LP are songs like ‘Together’, ‘Crazy’, ‘Sundown River’, ‘Girl From the Factory’, ‘Letter to Hiro (No.11) and ‘Nuclear Nights’.

“I honestly can’t remember which were written first. Some are quite old and we’ve been playing them since 2017/18, including ‘No.11’ and ‘Sundown River’, coming up from riffs that Ed played. But some of them were finished just before we got in the studio, and I was still tweaking lyrics when I was in there.”

I should point out that when Dave mentions ‘No.11’, he says ‘No-one won’, as those listening to the LP will realise. Vintage Fenton wordplay, up there with talk of ‘Alison Wonderland’ elsewhere, something there right from the start. And what was his gut feeling on first playback of the new record, and how that might have compared to first hearing the completed New Clear Days?

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

Was that because he had such a busy diary, or just that’s he worked out over the years the best way to approach it all?

“I think it was a bit of both really. We were lucky to get a slot with him in the first place and lucky that he was keen to do it.”

And how did he compare to Vic Coppersmith-Heaven for the first LP and Dave Tickle for the second?

“Well, we got in touch with a number of these people to see if they were free or interested, and Steve was the first to come back and say yes. And we’re still waiting to hear back from some of them! Some were hard to track down, and I believe Dave Tickle is in Hawaii somewhere.”

Returning Heroes: Back in 2016. From left – Michael Bowes, David Fenton, Ed Bazalgette, Steve Smith

Somehow over the course of these last four years, you’ve become a five-piece with a twist, with Dan and Ed sharing lead guitar duties here and live.

“Yeah, we didn’t want to chop Ed out of the album. I think he spent three days with us, and he’s on three tracks, songs he knew already – ‘No.11’, ‘Sundown River’ and ‘King L’.

On the subject of the latter, I was wondering what Lemmy would have done with that. I’d have loved to hear a Motorhead cover.

“It would have been interesting to have found out!”

I love Mandy Cox’s cover design more and more, and Derek D’Souza’s live shots and Si Root’s bus stop five-piece line-up.

“That was in Porthcawl, South Wales. We did a gig there, and that was the last place all five of us were together. Dan came along to help roadie and Ed played.”

Would you have been out on the road now as a band, if not for coronavirus restrictions?

“No. we were halfway through the From the Jam 40th anniversary Setting Sons tour. That was set to go on until the end of April. Next up would have been a Lost ‘80s six-week tour in America from the end of July to mid-September.

“We were then set to tour in October/November /December to play stuff from the new album and mark the 40th anniversary of New Clear Days, so that’s still pencilled in for those dates, although Lost ‘80s Live is not going to happen, postponed to next year effectively.”

Steely Dan: Dan Fenton live, Cardiff University SU Great Hall, supporting From The Jam (Photo: Warren Meadows)

I guess if restrictions on live music and reduced numbers in confined spaces continue, there’s a chance it might even be five years on from the Half Moon reunion if those shows are delayed again.

“It could be. That was May, yeah.”

Either way, when that tour finally happens, there will inevitably be setlist casualties. There are only so many songs you can play each night.

“Well, it’s already been stated that we’d be doing the entirety of New Clear Days, so we’ll be doing less of Together.”

For someone like you who’s already thinking ahead to the next album …

“Yeah, it’s frustrating. I can’t keep all these songs in my head all the time. I have to rehearse them, depending on which set we’re doing.”

We had Talking Heads with More Songs About Buildings and Food in 1978 and The Undertones with ‘More Songs About Chocolate and Girls’ in 1980, and now we’ve got The Vapors 40 years later with, in your words, ‘more pop songs about war, famine, suicide, mental health, dementia and having fun’.

“Yeah, the short title was going to be ‘More Songs About Wanking and War’ … but we didn’t think that would get played!

Director’s Cut: Ed Bazalgette, live with The Vapors (Photo: Derek D’Souza at www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

“Some are about depressing subjects, people coming back and saying, ‘That made me cry’. Which, I think, y’know … is that successful? If it affects people emotionally, that’s amazing.”

Absolutely. And I was going to ask you about the dementia line, something I know all too well through struggles with both of my parents in their latter days. Was there a personal link with you?

“Well, yeah, my Mum was towards the end, but it was me I was talking about, really. I can’t remember lyrics. The older I get the less I remember … and it’s embarrassing sometimes. Because the audience know them all. Sometimes it goes through fine, but other times I just go blank.”

And you’re clearly a bloke who’s had to remember a lot of information over the years, not least through all those years in the legal profession.

“Yeah, but I’ve always found it hard. Names to faces as well. That’s difficult as well, and I’m really finding it now with new songs. The old ones I learned that long ago now that they’re still stuck in there somewhere. It’s just a matter of teasing them out.

“Then again, as it says in the song (‘I Don’t Remember’), ‘But then it comes to me.’ Sometimes you just sit on it and the answer will come. It’s no good me doing pub quizzes though, because it’s going to take a day or so!”

On a brighter note, the title track, ‘Together’ seems to be a celebration of relationships and doing alright at life. Am I right?

“I don’t want to spell it out, but they’re usually about more than one subject. It might sound like a boyfriend/girlfriend, and sometimes it’s me and the fans, sometimes it’s me and the band. The first line of the last song, ‘Nuclear Nights’, is ‘Don’t cry when it ends’, and that was about the end of the band. I didn’t know how long it would go on. I’m 67 now, already, and how long can we keep this up? It’s bound to end sometime, even if that’s not soon. But everything should be read on that level. And together in itself is three words – ‘to get her’.

Batman Returns: Steve Smith with The Vapors (Photo: Derek D’Souza at www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

I love that, and despite what you just said, in a sense you did spell it out with the front cover graphic.

“Well yeah, and it’s a stunning design. I love it. So simple, yet …”

Then of course there’s the alternative on the inside (and if you don’t know what that is, dear reader, it’s time you bought the finished product).

“Yeah, you don’t find that until you take the CD out.”

While you’re still pushing on and finding new ground, there are clearly links from the first album to this one. As heard in the titles of ‘Girl From the Factory’ and ‘Letter to Hiro (No.11)’, both linked to ‘Letter From Hiro’, and ‘Nuclear Nights’, referencing the first LP title. But it’s all rather subtle, like some of the key signatures and repeated motifs.

“Yeah, if I’d written an album immediately after Magnets, it wouldn’t have been the same. But now, with the hindsight of realising so many people did like us … that wasn’t at all obvious in 1981. There were a few people still turning out to gigs, so we felt bad about that, but there was no internet or MTV, the BBC’s Top of the Pops was off for the follow-up to ‘Turning Japanese’, and that crucified it. I think ‘News at Ten’ would have gone further if not for that.

“Instead though, I could stand back and have some perspective on what happened 40 years ago. So what’s on this album now comes with the benefit of hindsight.”

On that front, listening back to those first two LPs, they’re not dated in any way for me, and the subjects you wrote about first time around hold true to this day, whether it’s politics, relationships, or whatever. Even when you were the frustrated son in ‘News at Ten’, hitting out but maybe just worried you might turn into your old man. That song sounds as fresh and genuine today, and any generation will understand that sentiment, not least after several weeks of lockdown with family.

“Yeah, although I am now the father, with my son there next to me on stage. That’s weird. And he enjoys singing it back at me. We did an acoustic version when we played Portmeirion, where he did lead vocal on that.”

Sonic Boon: A few prized items from the WriteWyattUK HQ’s Vapors collection (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

That’s another venue I’d love to catch the band at when it next happens and this virus is behind us, past performances at Hercules Hall in Clough Williams-Ellis’ splendid Italianate estuary-side village in North Wales proving a hit with the fans in recent years. A gorgeous setting, and in keeping with the band’s history as the filming location for cult 1960s TV series The Prisoner, part of the inspiration for The Vapors’ debut single, Prisoners.

But I guess we’ll just have to wait before the band are out and about again, making do with playing Together at volume around the house instead. As for Dave, I asked before I went what was next for him that day – was he off to the coast to the accompaniment of a rousing rendition of ‘Sussex by the Sea’ perhaps?

“Erm … I’m vacuuming the garden! We’ve got fake grass, and it’s covered in petals and leaves, so I’ll be hoovering that off.”

Rock’n’roll lifestyles ain’t what they used to be, pop kids. And crazy don’t seem crazy anymore.

Pay Attention Stop: Michael Bowes, Ed Bazalgette, Dave Fenton, Steve Smith, Dan Fenton (Photo: Si Root)

For this website’s feature/interview with Dave Fenton from October 2019, head here,  and for another marking the band’s return from September 2016, head here. There are also Vapors-related feature/interviews with Ed Bazalgette (November 2016) and Steve Smith (May 2018).

For tour dates and details of how to order new Vapors LP, Together, go to www.thevapors.co.uk. You can also follow the band via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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West Coast aspirations, dreams and realisation – the Karima Francis interview

Fylde Roots: Karima Francis, exploring Las Vegas and Los Angeles via Blackpool, Manchester and London

There’s a new single out from Karima Francis, 11 years beyond feted debut LP, The Author. And it signals a welcome return for this acclaimed Blackpool singer-songwriter, currently based in London after a spell in Los Angeles.

‘Orange Rose’ is more West Coast America than West Lancashire and more Pacific Ocean than Irish Sea, a fair indication of where Blackpool-born Karima is at right now, as was the case with last November’s ‘Shelf Life’, both tracks suggesting added maturity but no less soul.

Taking her first steps into the music industry two decades ago, aged 13, self-taught Karima’s true break came in 2009 with her first album, consequent releases The Remedy (2012) and Black (2015) further showcasing her talent and creative development, Manchester and London moves later leading to the next step in California, selling some of her beloved guitars to buy a ticket to the States and kick-start a fresh direction.

Karima was 21 by the time she truly arrived, named by The Observer as the No.1 act to watch in 2009. And after winning performances at In the City in Manchester and SXSW, Austin, Texas, she was signed by influential indie label Kitchenware Records, linked to Columbia, and within two years was with Vertigo Records, linked to Mercury.

The Author certainly made a stir, notable appearances following on Later With … Jools Holland and supporting Paul Simon on the main stage at Hard Rock Calling in London’s Hyde Park, where she revealed to her backstage interviewer a ‘Made in Blackpool’ neck tattoo, while admitting it was a lie as she was ‘conceived in Benidorm’.

There were also shows on bills with Amy Winehouse, Patti Smith and The Stereophonics, and Karima  played the Royal Albert Hall in a Teenage Cancer Trust fundraiser. Her second LP was produced by Flood (U2, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, Foals, Smashing Pumpkins), and her third by Dan Austin (Massive Attack, Biffy Clyro, Doves, Maximo Park).

Now, five years on, things have moved on again, her new 45 described as a love song ‘but like almost all love stories, it’s not without complications’, the artist offering wistful rumination on how mental health can send shockwaves through even the most intimate and entwined of relationships.

“In a world where we sometimes feel we can’t speak out, we tend to take the worst out on people closest to us,” she says. And as I put it to her, that’s surely all the more an issue in lots of lives of late, following the COVID-19 lockdown.

“It’s definitely very relevant, and it’s going to be hard at the moment for those in domestically violent relationships. I have noticed though there’s a lot of help out there, for instance hotels open in London, and a lot of phone lines. But it is very hard, a tough time. I don’t know anyone who’s finding this easy.”

That said, I imagine you more or less self-isolate much of the time anyway, with just a guitar for company.

“Yeah, that’s true. And I’m more of an isolating-type person actually. I used to be more of a social butterfly, but now I’m a little more within myself.”

Talking of air-bound existences, until that option was taken away you tended to flit between London and Los Angeles, it seemed.

“Yeah, last year and the beginning of this year I was in LA for around six months. It’s like a haven for me.”

I wonder if that’s helped you look at yourself from afar, in a sense – travel broadening the mind and all that bringing new perspective. You’re described on the new single, for example, as striking ‘a masterful balance of meditative and melancholy songwriting’. That’s you in a nutshell, isn’t it?

“Yeah, and I’ve been busy lately focusing my life on doing the things I’ve not done, travelling a bit, studying, and think that drive to go over to LA led to music starting to come out of nowhere, taking my perspective to another point of view, especially when writing ‘Shelf Life’.  I wouldn’t have been able to write that song over here … even though there is a massive homeless problem here.”

Karima found the other side of the coin to the City of Angels’ accepted image as a place of celebrities and million dollar mansions, feeling compelled to shine further light on the reality, devastated by what she saw and the contrast between rich and poor, as explored in an accompanying promo video shot with director Joseph Calhoun.

“It was different seeing it there, and it affected me so much. I was struggling to cope with it. It’s not what I expected to see. That was such a shock. But it’s such an inspiring place, with the energy, the creativity, the music.”

‘Orange Rose’ is one of a number of songs Karima penned in Venice Beach, California, finding herself ‘instinctively drawn to the sun and sounds radiating from the West Coast and its simmering alternative scene’, discovering a kindred spirit in LA producer Tim Carr, who also produced ‘Shelf Life’.

“I was fantasising about making more organic, saturated-sounding records for a long time and alongside this, I wanted to record out in America as I was finding most of my musical influences were artists from America. Last year I made the move to go out to California to find the sound for the new record and immerse myself in the West Coast indie/alternative scene. And out there, the relationship with Tim bloomed and the music was made.”

The fact that you’ve written songs in Venice Beach seems to make for very different records than before, adding something of a West Coast feel.  And I’m talking California rather than the Fylde.

“Ha! Yeah, definitely, this record definitely has that West Coast feel to it, almost like sun-kissed – very organic, almost vintage, I guess, not least in the production.”

You’ve mentioned a love of the indie-folk singer-songwriter revival happening out there. But how much of an influence was working with Tim Carr?

“A lot of it is down to him, but I knew how I wanted it to sound as well. He’s produced it, but it’s very much, ‘We’ll figure it out together’. I definitely knew what I was going for, but meeting Tim was a blessing.”

How did you go about letting your producer know what you wanted this time? Were there certain influences you directed him towards?

“Yeah, I’m a big fan of people like Sharon Van Etten, Katie Von Schleicher, and I loved the Phoebe Bridgers record when that came out. But when I was referencing stuff, Tim’s an artist in his own right and has that kind of Californian sound, so I didn’t really need to reference. I knew he was going to bring to it the kind of sound I was looking for anyway. It just happened really naturally.”

I seem to recall you were one of the bigger names to feature early on at Lancaster Library for Stewart Parsons’ Get It Loud in Libraries initiative.

“Oh, yeah, I remember playing there. That was a long time ago, but I remember it really well. And they’ve got a lot of cool people coming through from that. I like that idea. I’d definitely play there again sometime. It was cool. I loved it.”

Karima has spent the last two months locked down at her home in South West London, where I asked how her COVID-19 lockdown was going.

“I’ve been at home now for nine weeks, and just venturing out for runs and occasionally walks, but mainly I’ve been indoors. I live with someone else, so I do have company, which is nice. I feel sorry for people that have got a lot of friends but are isolating on their own, and who are going a bit stir crazy. I’m really lucky to have someone to talk to.”

While I moved from Surrey to Lancashire, Karima relocated to the capital from Blackpool via Manchester, of late becoming a regular visitor to my hometown, Guildford, studying for a degree at the Academy of Contemporary Music.

“There’s a lot going on there, it’s a very interesting set-up, with some very passionate people there. I really enjoy it. I’ve always been interested in music production and just wanted to take some time out to get to know all that.”

We got on to the town’s link with The Stranglers, with Hugh Cornwell a regular visitor to the ACM of late through band practises with course lecturers Pat Hughes and Windsor McGilvray, back on the patch where his breakthrough band made their name, a stone’s throw from the off-license Jet Black ran and where an outfit first known as The Guildford Stranglers first rehearsed. That also gave me an excuse to tell her about The Stranglers practiced in my village scout hut, a couple of miles out of town.

“That’s so cool, and Guildford’s a beautiful place. Very hilly too.”

Not as if I could afford to live round there these days, I add, having moved away in 1994, despite retaining my accent.

“No, that always stays, doesn’t it, no matter where you go. In my case, people say, ‘I can’t work your accent out, and I’m like, ‘I’m from Blackpool, me. Ha!”

That said, Karima was driven to get away from the ‘tatty seaside town’ Blackpool lad John Robb’s band The Membranes wrote about when she was less than a year old.

“I remember supporting John Robb and was just talking about this the other day. I used to play drums in a punk band years ago, and we supported The Membranes a few times. It’s crazy but growing up I came across John in lots of different circumstances throughout my music career, and at the time I didn’t really realise – I was only about 14 when I first played with him. I didn’t realise how much of a bit of a legend he is! Such a musical icon. He’s a taste-maker.”

He’s certainly an energy. I think we could all do with a bit of that in our lives.

“Yeah! And he’s buff as well. He must work out a lot!”

But what about your own Fylde roots? Are they an important part of what you’re about?

“Erm … of course. I think, socially, where I grew up and the life I had as a child has had a lot of influence on me, and as an artist as well. That passion and that drive to get out of Blackpool was the main thing. I think I was very lucky to have found music, because that was my get out card. Not as if I’m saying anything bad about it, but it wasn’t for me. I crave more culture and stuff.”

Yet there were times, not least in the 1950s, when Blackpool was at the heart of the entertainment world, rock’n’rollers like Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran a part of that whole scene.

“I know! I believe it was!”

Is there a new album coming, and are ‘Orange Rose’ and ‘Shelf Life’ fairly indicative of that as a whole?

“Yeah, there’s going to be an album. I’m working on it, remotely, as I was meant to be going back out to LA to finish it. It’s probably going to be coming out early 2021 now. I’ll probably just be releasing singles up to then. That’s seems to be a nice way to do it, and I’m enjoying making videos.”

In the promo video for ‘Orange Rose’, filmed in Las Vegas before Christmas last year, Karima explores the notion of ‘ self-destructive behavior – a constant running away from our fears which potentially ends in us running away from the people who can make us whole again’- the artist portrayed lost deep in thought and caught between a rock and a hard place in Nevada.

Did you get to explore that Nevada fairly well while you were filming?

“I was only there a day and night this time, but I’ve been a couple of times, visiting the Grand Canyon the year before, and finding Las Vegas really bizarre. When I got to the hotel at around midday there were people gambling, and crazy amounts of smoke, and the same people were there when I got up in the morning, having got up at 4am to make it to the Grand Canyon. They were still there at the table, and I found that really sad.”

Casino life, eh. A home from home for a girl from Blackpool.

“I guess so, but I get scared even putting more than $10 on. The people there though … the amounts they’re putting on.”

Street Life: Karima Francis, moving into a new creative period of her career through her move to America

Street Life: Karima Francis, moving into a new creative period of her career through her move to America

Do you get back to Blackpool to see family and friends from time to time?

“I do. Last time was just after Christmas, visiting my Mum and some friends, surprising a friend at a birthday party. Having a party the previous night, I had a few drinks and just booked a ticket, and it was really nice.”

Career-wise, you seemed to fly out of the traps on the back of lots of critical acclaim. Did that put pressure on, or was it all good?

“That was all amazing. I was so lucky and grateful to experience all that at such a young age. I take a lot from that. It was an amazing time for me.”

And that acclaim was from both sides of the Atlantic, it seems, following exposure at SXSW and so on. Do you feel equally at home over there in that respect?

“Yeah, the response in America is really positive, and it’s somewhere I always wanted to go with my music. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen with the first couple of albums, so it took a lot to buck up the courage to say, ‘Do you know what, I’m just gonna do this’.

“It was always my dream to tour the States, and I’m a massive fan of KEXP and the radio presenters there, listening to that station every day. This is no offence to British music – I love that too – but it’s just something that gets me in my soul. A lot of bands coming out of America, like War on Drugs, have completely blown my mind and inspired me so much. And I just want to go and play Philadelphia and all these tiny states. That’s the dream.”

Do you feel The Remedy and Black got enough traction, regarding radio airplay and so on? Tracks like ‘Wherever I Go’ deserved to be hits.

“I know! It was a strange one. The label didn’t think the numbers were as high as they were expecting, so the album was kind of dropped.”

Between Shots: Karima Francis on location for the promo video of new single ‘Orange Rose’, enjoying the sunshine

I guess you were a victim of changing times and the way labels were heading, caught up in the machinery.

“Totally! The industry I went into back then was so different to the industry now. I just wish … if I was doing it now, I’d have chosen to be solely independent and take a totally different direction. But I was young and believed in everything and was just so excited, going along for the ride.

“You’re always going to look back and wish you’d done something different. That’s my journey and it’s taken me until now to understand really what I want. You have to go on that self-exploration to reap the benefits, I guess.”

Do you feel you’ve learned a lot along the way from some of the artists you’ve been lucky enough to feature alongside or support? You’ve played with some big names over the years.

“Yeah, definitely, and I think the most influential people were Flood, the record producer, and Ken Nelson (Gomez, Badly Drawn Boy, Coldplay, Feeder, Paolo Nutini). I learned a lot from them in the studio.”

And when the lockdown’s over and you can go back to doing all the things you’ve truly craved these past few weeks, what will you do first?

“The first thing I’m going to do is – probably like the rest of us – go and see my family. But I’d really like to go to a park and meet with all my friends, have a few drinks, just socialise. That would be the best thing!”

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

For more information about Karima Francis, head to her website. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

 

 

 

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Return to Orkney – back in touch with Erland Cooper

We’ll have to wait a while before we see acclaimed Scottish singer-songwriter, composer and multi-instrumentalist Erland Cooper and his ensemble live again, but can at least transport ourselves to his spiritual neck of the woods in our imaginations through latest long-playing record, Hether Blether.

Featuring poetry by John Burnside, written after a trip to Orkney with the man himself (as documented on BBC Radio 4’s Wild Music), spoken word from the award-winning Kathryn Joseph, and ambient tape and modular synth work from Hiroshi Ebina, the final part of Erland’s Orkney trilogy follows on where the wondrous Solan Goose (2018) and Sule Skerry (2019) left off.

And this time, we move on from songs inspired by the archipelago’s birdlife and surrounding waters, our guide looking to the land and its people, the LP title name-checking a hidden island in folklore, said to rise green and fertile from time to time from the foam. Inspired in essence by Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown, filmmaker Margaret Tait and composer Peter Maxwell Davies, it’s described as a celebration of memories held in timeless landscape, community, myth and mythology, weaving in elements of its predecessors, bringing them together in a full circle around the cycles of the changing seasons.

Throughout the triptych, Erland explores a restorative path in the rhythm and poetry of the everyday, deep within a land and community at the edge of the world, and on Hether Blether, as before, song titles are taken from local dialect and acknowledge the places and stories of the island.

We’re soon in its spell, opening track ‘Noup Head’ introducing us to the title track’s hidden island via a young girl that goes missing one day, her family finding her in a storm – on an island emerging from the fog – grown up, with children of her own. The girl reappears, ‘as memories do’, as the album ebbs and flows, first in the swell of the Arco string quartet on ‘Rousay’, named after the island where she was born; then on the atmospheric ‘Longhope’, where we discover ‘The echo of a child, suspended in a web of kelp and feathers, a long-lost sister waiting for the tide to guide her home’.

I was hooked after barely a couple of listens, captivated as soon as we reached the mournful yet uplifting fourth track ‘Skreevar’, a moment of pure beauty totally in keeping with the finest moments of the first two records. And Erland’s voice comes through more (‘a point of strength and vulnerability’) on this final part of the trilogy, first on mesmeric third track, ‘Peedie Breeks’ (which translates as ‘children’).

Where Solan Goose didn’t feature his vocals at all, and Sule Skerry only featured his vocals briefly, this time his vocals are given room to breathe, inviting us down new paths of discovery and exploration. We also hear him – after the colourful, stirring ‘Linga Holm’ takes us further on from ‘Longhope’ – on the slow-building ‘Hildaland’, where we discover inhabitants that were said to retreat to a secret undersea kingdom every winter, ‘just as our guide retreated from the real world through the soft waves of his music’.

And there he is again on the beautiful title track, ‘Hether Blether’, reflecting on times past, whether he’s back to his subject matter or reminiscing about loved ones, familiar landscapes, cherished memories or all of those, confiding how ‘You gave me all the best days of my life; Even though I didn’t know it then; But I know now’.

Then, beyond the similarly-evocative ‘Hamnavoe’, we end with Erland delivering a lyric borrowed from celebrated film composer Clint Mansell, ‘Where I Am Is Here’ exploring time and memory, its repeated phrase ‘Love now more than ever’ sounding like an urgent demand for our times, described as ‘a natural end-point for a project that began with one man needing to retreat from the chaos of everyday life, to return to where he came from, taking all of us with him, to the very roots of ourselves’.

Closing line, ‘Time will show you how’ certainly resonates, reminding us how past and present always connect in our lives, bringing our experiences full circle. Yet Erland stresses this is far from the end of the story, saying of Orkney, ‘I’m only just coming to terms with where it’s taken me – from a place of necessary escape, to a very different world’. And when I called him, I enquired first where he was answering his phone, wondering if he’d managed to spend the lockdown back in his beloved islands.

“Oh, I wish I was in Orkney. I managed to get my folks back before the ferries stopped, as they live in England sometimes. I was supposed to be there now, travelling to the island of Sule Skerry … which sounds very whimsical … travelling there this week with Amy Liptrot. Instead I’ve been burrowed – like a puffin – in my studio.”

That’s in East London, yeah?

“It is, and I suppose the life of a musician, producer, writer … whatever … involves a lot of solitude, so I’m kind of used to it. The creative side hasn’t been hindered.”

You’re back in Orkney in your imagination, no doubt, and so are we after being introduced to your records about the Magnetic North of the British Isles, capturing something of the magical spirit of those surroundings you grew up among.

“That’s a lovely thing to say, and I guess it is transportation – that’s all I’m ever trying to do.”

I used that very word when posting a clip of ‘Peedie Breeks’ this very morning. We tend to associate transportation with convicts being carted off and dumped Down Under, the dark days of Van Diemen’s Land and all that. But in this case it’s nothing but positive.

“I was talking to Rob (co-artistic director Robert Ames) at the London Contemporary Orchestra, and the thing we both had in common when we first spoke – and working with the LCO is a big privilege for me, although obviously the mid-June show we were going to be doing at the Barbican is not happening yet – and what really resonated was that idea of being transported to a place for an hour or two, whether it’s in a concert hall or on a record. We both share that idea.”

At this stage, Erland’s kettle boiled, so he breaks briefly off to do the most important prep work needed for our interview, while I ask if he has everything he needs at his home studio (including biscuits, of course) to see him through this COVID-19 lockdown, not least in terms of recording and instruments.

“Yeah – I’ve got all my Moogs! It’s a real haven here, I call it my sea haven, and it’s exactly that. I spend hours, days, months in here.”

Before I know it, Erland’s turned the mic. on me, so to speak, asking how my lockdown’s going, how my eldest daughter – who he met at his Band on the Wall show in Manchester’s Northern Quarter last November – was doing, and what I miss most right now, confessing that he always tends to end up interviewing his interviewers.

In response to his enquiry I tell him the value of family and close friends and places I love has truly sunk in, with an increased desire to see those people and locations again as soon as it’s safe to do so.

That’s something that appeals to Erland too, but for now it seems he’s happy with his lot most of the time.

“I call it the magic of the everyday, and that can even be enjoying the process of making your coffee … even though that sounds insane. I’m delighted that every day I get messages from folks asking if I’ve noticed the bird song. I get sent a lot of that, and love that, and just noticing those smaller details is one thing I think everybody’s enjoying.”

I can’t fully work out if that’s just down to us listening that little bit harder, or the fact that we’re not about so much is making those birds sing louder and be more open around us.

“Noise pollution is a big factor in terms of the fact you can hear further in the distance, but also they’re wondering why we’re inside and enjoying it all.”

It’s all a bit odd, isn’t it, and I can’t believe it’s only five months since I saw you in your ‘mad sea captain’ guise, guiding us across choppy seas to Orkney with your ensemble at the Band on the Wall on a truly memorable night.

“Ha! Er, wait … what? Mad sea captain?”

That’s the expression I used in my review, with you there at the helm, the electronic equipment shaking and band members busy at their work, as if we were being picked up on the quayside at Scrabster, taken aboard and off on a journey to your beloved archipelago.

“I love it. I’ll take that. I like mad sea captain. That feels good, because the rest of the crew don’t know whether to trust the captain or not.”

There were elements of that. They clearly knew what they were about, but you seemed somewhat fussy around them, making sure they were doing what you wanted from them, as if you were altering your route every few nautical miles, cables or fathoms, twiddling knobs on stage as if to let them know, ‘This is how we do it’. You weren’t patronising their abilities, just eager to express your own inner vision.

“Ha! Good, because it’s not a lack of confidence. If anything, it’s taking you out of that feeling of knowing what you’re doing. Does that make sense? It’s not about going through the mechanics and the routine. I wanted everyone to get a sense that, ‘He might just change this!’ What that means is that you all enjoy it as if it’s your last performance of your life. And whether that’s good or bad or the reaction is good or bad, there’s a feeling of uncertainty but also absolute trust in each other.

“That’s the thing when you’ve got an ensemble of folk, and to me that’s such a joy. I trust them all implicitly, and know that if I throw something on the stage – not physically, but metaphorically – they’ll react to it, even just as simple as me walking off stage, going to the back and watching, with them thinking, ‘My God, what’s he doing?’”

One moment that fell into that category was when you had the houselights turned down and sound-deck consoles briefly turned off to re-enact a spell-binding Orcadian sunrise, mid-song.

“Kind of simple pyrotechnics. You see, I’d rather pay for musicians than all the glitz and glam. I always make sure everyone’s adaptive, and we had to come up with some creative way … it’s more like theatre, isn’t it?”

Do you think there’s a good chance of this new album tour going ahead this autumn? I’m hoping to see you on the first night (Thursday, September 24th) at Halle St Peter’s, Manchester, but I’m guessing the dates you’ve announced are all just pencilled in for now, depending where we go next with this virus.

“I think the reality is that nobody knows the shape if it – whether people will sit six metres apart, all these things. But I felt this determination to make sure we released the record as planned, the messages I get from folk inspiring me to carry on. Playing live is a rare bird for me anyway. That side of things will either happen or not. And if it doesn’t, we’ll find a way to do something else or do it another time. It’s more important that people are healthy and safe.”

In the meantime, we have the final part of your Orkney triptych to savour. I’m only a few listens in, but I was very quickly hooked, already instinctively knowing I’ll love it as much as the first two parts. And your vocal is more prominent this time, something you’ve built up album by album.

“I’m glad you’ve noticed. Narrative is really important to me in everything I do creatively, whether it’s guiding me or shaping what I’m doing. And each of those voices tells a story of what’s happening. You don’t need to know that story, but to me I almost don’t hear me singing.

“For example, with ‘Peedie Breeks’ I wrote that with King Creosote in my head. I went to ask him about it, but it was too late. So I left my vocal on, played it to a few folk, and got people saying, ‘You should leave it like that’. Even though I know I recorded it with a couple of drams of whisky in me, it was late, and it’s not really singing. I tried to sing it, and it was crap, so I just left the original vocal on.

“Each of the voices I kind of feel are people within this mythical island, part of the stories. The first record was about air, the second sea, and this one land, but it’s about more – it’s about community and it’s about people. So what better way than to have the voice tell that story?”

Strangely enough, getting back to your original idea for ‘Peedie Breeks,’ the last live show I caught before the lockdown, at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, involved King Creosote and his band scoring the wondrous From Scotland with Love film, taking my youngest daughter, experiencing more or less socially-distanced circumstances, seeing as barely a third of those that bought tickets turned up, restrictions about to kick in.

“Ah, you’re kidding! And it’s interesting you remember that fondly as ‘the last show’. It’s a surreal thing to say. Actually, I asked KT Tunstall, as I figured she knew Kenny (Anderson, aka King Creosote), but the email went to junk. I only found out recently that he’d replied … and it was too late by then.”

Well, much as I like the original concept, the track as it is proves pretty much perfect, and you’ll have to bear with me on this, but the first thing I wrote on an early listen was ‘Echo and the Bunnymen’ …

“Oh, that’s a nice thought!”

But there was also something else I couldn’t place, realising after much brain-mashing it was arguably reminiscent of Peter, Paul and Mary’s ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’. Not convinced though, I played it to my better half, expecting her to say U2 or just agree, but she mentioned Cliff Richard’s ‘In the Country’. And I get that too.

“Ah, Jeez! Wow! That’s something I didn’t expect, but I love it all the same. It’s probably something the wonky sounds of Benge’s analogue synth and my slightly drunken voice trying to do King Creosote has!

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that. And as you know, I wrote Solan Goose (the first album of the trilogy) as a tool, and these subsequent records are tools in themselves, finishing this record in around November then sitting on it. But now it’s out there in your world, it lives its own life.”

Well, I’m loving it, and was gone by the time we reached ‘Skreevar’ and ‘Longhope’, both clearly proof that we’re continuing on that same epic journey into the imagination we set out on for the first two records, part of the same set but pushing on into different areas.

“I’m glad you feel that way, and hope it feels like full circle to you. I tried to borrow all the elements. A keen ear will not only hear similar key signatures but repeated motifs from the first album.”

Agreed, and there’s also a point on ‘Hildaland’ where I was taken back …

“D’you know, sorry to interrupt, but its great hearing you say the titles. I get a real kick out of that. These are almost lost words. Hildaland – just listen to that word!”

Absolutely. It takes me back, musically, to childhood holidays on long sandy expanses of St Ives Bay, or maybe South Devon or the Isle of Wight. The way you add what you primarily saw as more of a guide vocal, that’s me back then, writing lots of fantastic songs at the water’s edge. The difference is that mine were very quickly lost in time, probably by the time I got back up the beach, whereas you’ve recorded yours, turned those initial melodies and ideas into songs of wonder, a master musician with the means, vision and determination to get them down on tape and truly realised.

“Jack of all trades, master of none! I just try and work hard, and among my peers and colleagues I feel like an under-dog … constantly. I just try and do as much as I can in the short time I have.”

Typical understatement, but I let it go, instead asking Erland about the title track, ‘Hether Blether’. I know the official explanation but get the feeling it’s also your tribute to past and present loves, or a sense of belonging to the place you love. Or all of those.

“Erm … yeah, it’s complex, but it’s also not difficult at all, telling the story of the myth itself. It’s both of those things as well though. I was curious as to how that would be read. For all intents and purposes, it sounds like I’m singing about a person, but really I’m singing about Orkney, about a home, about a memory and a place and how a place can be almost human-like. Does that make sense?”

Definitely. That’s what I get from it.

“Equally it could be about various people in my life. But it’s an interesting myth, a story about how to deal with grief. What a lovely thought – a grieving family over decades are still grieving, and so over those painful years create a story that a person’s probably happy somewhere. Madeleine McCann’s quite a good comparison. We like to think hopefully to deal with grief sometimes. If you don’t get closure, you make up a story. And I like to think that’s where that myth has come from, maybe on a small island.”

In the song’s delivery, I think there’s something of the spirit of Bryan Ferry too. I’d be interested to hear him cover that.

“Ha! People keep asking me to do remixes of their music. I did that Nightflight EP as an experiment, and a lot of my inbox now reflects that. It’s interesting, although I haven’t replied to half of them.”

Talking of collaborations and suchlike, having featured on the last one, are you on the soon to be released new Paul Weller LP?

“I’m not, but I feature in spirit. I got to listen to a bunch of tracks and funnily enough was messaging him as you were calling. He’s so great – he’s already thinking about the record after the one he’s putting out now!”

I heard the single, ‘Village’ for the first time today, and was saying on Facebook, there’s not much we can be sure of right now, but a new Weller LP comes into that category. I reckon I’d say the same about your records too.

“Ah, that’s kind, and I’d tell you to look out for the string arrangements on Weller’s new record, done by Hannah.”

That’s Hannah Peel, who has worked with Erland on several projects, notably joining forces with Simon Tong for two albums and tie-in-shows as The Magnetic North, that project title itself a nod to Erland’s Orkney roots.

“She collaborated again with him, quite extensively, so keep a keen ear out for them. Yes, the very talented Miss Peel!”

At this point the cadence of his voice is followed by a quick burst of electric piano, and I ask if that’s his equivalent of the old ‘b’dum-t’sh’ response from drummers to corny jokes.

“Yeah, when I walk around and a good line comes out, that just happens! This wee guy on piano just comes in with this melancholic minor chord!”

I thought that might be the case. Meanwhile, when I should have been working on questions this morning and several other things I should be doing, instead I mapped out a route to Orkney, and internet tools suggests I’m eight hours off by road to Scrabster. And I guess I’d be happy to wait a bit at the harbourside for a connecting ferry from there.

“Really? Well, maybe you should explore that, post-lockdown, that bit of the UK, going off that way. Go for it!”

That’s another thing I’ve missed – travel and seeking out new places to explore. And I think in that instance, if travelling by road between my patch and Orkney, it’d be rude not to drop by to visit Edwyn Collins in Helmsdale en route.

“Ah, he’s a keen birder is Edwyn. I’m a big fan of his work, going back to Orange Juice. I know his music intimately, but I’ve not met.”

Well, I think you should. That’d be something down the line for us all to savour, the two of you working together.

“That’s a nice thought.”

I was running out of time by this point but asked him next about working with poet John Burnside on this record.

“Ah! John was an absolute joy, and I was gobsmacked not just to have him write words for me – it felt like a true collaboration. We travelled around Orkney together in gale-force, horrific, nasty wind and rain that comes from the ground. We retired for the evening with a tea and got under the fingernails of our stories to each other, then went our separate ways. Then these words came into my inbox in floods!

“He’s a very prolific writer anyway, and we were there to do a Radio 4 programme, but I felt it important not to say we’d be collaborating on the new record as well. It made for a more natural way of collaborating – all the dots joined.

“Normally, Will Burns would do the poetry on the records, and I asked, but he was doing the record I helped put together with him and Hannah (Peel), Chalk Hill Blues. He was off touring for the first time – a poet on tour, he had no idea what was to come! – so instead I got John, which was an incredible honour.

“When you listen to music, new things present themselves in the layers within the piece, and his words are doing the same – I hear them in a different way. I was also fortunate enough to get Kathryn (Joseph) to read them. And hearing them read is another thing – such a joy.”

How about that wonderful voice on the record – is that Kalliopi Mitropoulou, who was with you for the live shows late last year, or Lottie Greenhow, who featured on the previous records?

“It was really important that the voice of Solan Goose threads all the way through, and that was Lottie’s. She wasn’t going to do it, because she was pregnant – she’s heavily pregnant now, which is great news – but I’d built a digital version of her, creating an instrument of her, told her about it, and she said that was cool but felt, ‘No, I’ll come – just tell me where and when!’ So she did, we did it in a day, had a cup of tea, and that was it. And it felt like full circle to me.

“Kalliopi is also a wonderful singer. They’re very different performers – both incredibly talented – but it felt right to have Lottie finish the record.”

First Footing: The Magnetic North’s debut album, from 2012

I recall you saying this Orkney trilogy was something you never planned to fly with publicly. Are you glad you did? I hope it’s not spoiled it for you, having to share your personal project with the wider world.

“Quite the opposite. It’s opened up a world of joy and opportunity and hope, and connections with people like yourself and other folk that connect with something I never thought possible. Actually, I’d go as far as say it’s changed my musical career in a way I simply didn’t expect.

“I’m able to work and collaborate with incredibly-talented folk and nothing excites me more than scribbling these notes down, giving them to someone in a studio, them making your work sound so much better.

“Collaborating isn’t just being sat in a room together. To me, it’s that last 20 per cent, so everything I do I leave 20 per cent open for a bit of magic to walk in the door. That comes through learning from people I admire and working with people I admire, and it’s changed my career, opening up a whole world of exploration. I was just recording clarinet remotely yesterday for this new piece, and what a joy – I’d never written for a clarinet!”

As we mentioned Hannah Peel, how about your fellow Magnetic North (and also Erland and the Carnival) collaborator, Simon Tong – are you still in regular touch?

“I texted him yesterday. Sadly he recently lost a close friend, Tony Allen …”

I was about to mention Tony, who as well as his many other acclaimed projects, such as his work with Fela Kuti and Afrobeat, worked alongside Simon, Damon Albarn and Paul Simonon with The Good, The Bad and The Queen. A sad loss.

“Yeah, and it’s been on my mind post-lockdown to get back together and catch up with Simon. We’ve all been so busy. I’m really looking forward to that. I miss him greatly.”

And now we’ve reached part three of your Orkney project, we also need part three of the Magnetic North trilogy, surely.

“It feels like a trilogy needs to be completed.”

Tidal Journey: Erland Cooper, the ‘mad sea captain’ takes overall charge on last year’s Sule Skerry UK tour

Agreed, although it shouldn’t necessarily stop there. I recall, after all, that Douglas Adams presented So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish as ‘the fourth book of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy’.

“I like that!”

And finally, what’s the first thing you’ll do once the shutters are up, when this crisis is officially over and it’s deemed safe for you to go back to everything you’ve wanted to do during the lockdown? I’m guessing you’ll be heading North.

“You’ve got it. A ferry to the Orkneys, heading north, and going to visit the North Sea.”

To revisit this website’s previous interview with Erland Cooper, from November 2019, head here. And for the WriteWyattUK verdict on Erland and his ensemble at Band on the Wall in Manchester in late 2019, head here.

You can also find this website’s review of The Magnetic North at Liverpool Central Library from October 2016 here, feature-interviews with Hannah Peel from November 2016 here and September 2017 here, and one with Simon Tong from April 2016 here.

For details of how to pre-order Erland Cooper’s Hether Blether, released on Friday, May 29th, and his scheduled tour dates, pencilled in for autumn, head to his website  and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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Exploring Badly Drawn Boy’s Pocket Guide To A Midlife Crisis – back in touch with Damon Gough

Boy Wonder: Damon Gough mentally prepares for his latest conversation with the fella behind the WriteWyattUK site.

It was almost six years since I’d last spoken to Damon Gough, and a lot had happened since in his life. On that occasion I cocked up, putting the lead in the wrong jack (which sounds like some obscure late-‘80s house track), recording half an hour of me asking questions and getting inaudible replies. Thankfully, my interviewee – better known as Badly Drawn Boy – was good enough to go through it all again 12 days later. But I didn’t go into that this time. First, because I thought he was unlikely to remember, and second, because I barely got a word in for the first quarter-hour.

There’s only been one Badly Drawn Boy LP since 2010’s It’s What I’m Thinking, Pt.1 – Photographing Snowflakes, and that the soundtrack to 2012 film, Being Flynn, which I understand never got a UK release. But that tells little of the real Damon Gough story, involving brushes with alcoholism, depression, rehab and therapy, finally knocking the drinking on the head in 2016.

What he now admits was a ‘long-time personal crutch, and an artistic one’, became something habitual in a busy career pattern of recording and touring for two decades, doing most of his best work at night, suitably relaxed after a few drinks … until that method stopped working. And that’s without mentioning an inevitable relationship breakdown.

In the end he quit the booze thanks to the help of a residential facility in Kent, counselling, and the love of the new woman in his life. Meeting him at a low ebb, in time they married and, in May 2017, had a son. Meanwhile, the world was going to hell in a handcart, Damon like many of us consumed by all those social and political changes, messing up his head even more. That’s where the therapy came in, and he reckons, ‘I’ve had to grow up a lot’. And now he wants to help others, reconnect, sing, perform and engage again, his subsequent ‘Pocket Guide To A Midlife Crisis’ a key part of that, Banana Skin Shoes rightly presented as one of the most honest pop records you’ll hear this year.

As he puts it on the opening song, ‘It’s time to break free from this plaster cast and leave your past behind … It’s time to supersize your soul.’ This is Damon ‘fessing up to his fall from grace but refusing to be dragged down, that title track upbeat, defiant, inspiring, and fun, neatly setting the tone. And he reckons this is ‘the poppiest record I’ve made’ but still wants ‘to say a few things and try to subtly be a conscience for people that might think like me, whether you call it your fanbase, people who are like-minded, Remoaners or whatever…’

Not as if it all came together so quickly. Away from his personal ‘journey’ there were trips to and from studios and producers. Four years ago, he recorded six songs in eight days with producer Youth (Paul McCartney, Crowded House, The Verve) in London. Then there was year-long paternity leave. Reconvening closer to home, he worked with Seadna McPhail at Airtight Studios and Keir Stewart, ex-Durutti Column, a neighbour with a home studio (Inch Studios). Then, at Eve Studios, Stockport, along with producer Gethin Pearson (Kele Okereke, Crystal Fighters) he whittled 20 songs down to 14 that properly told a tale, helped out by Public Service Broadcasting’s Johnny Abraham (brass), Skindred’s Daniel Pugsley (bass) and Davey Newington (aka Boy Azooga), the songs and recordings swimming into focus.

As his press release puts it, ‘Over 14 songs Banana Skin Shoes is the sound of a songwriter skipping between musical idioms, and between emotional extremes, but doing so with a cool, calm confidence’. He’s clearly happy with the result, and rightly so, as suggested by the fact that this interview had been going at least 17 minutes before I managed to get in my second question. Having scribbled down two pages’ worth before calling, I ended up mentally ticking off more than I needed ask this Bedfordshire-born, Bolton-bred, Manchester-based 50-year-old, who broke through to critical acclaim in 2000 on the back of Mercury Prize-winning debut LP, The Hour of Bewilderbeast. The furthest I got was, ‘How’s the lockdown been for you so far?’.

“Erm, well I dunno. It’s a bit weird, innit? It equalises us all and some say some are more equal than others, and I get that. It depends where you are and where you live, what your outlook on life is, how your mental state is. Where we were before predetermines how we’re equipped to deal with it, I suppose.

“I’m lucky. I live in a nice place. I’ve got my wife and little boy with us. We’re in a relatively nice version of lockdown. For somebody living in a high-rise flat with three or four kids, it might be a different story. We’ve got a nice big house and gardens, and that helps. I live in a nice area, Chorlton. I haven’t gone out much. Then again, I don’t go out much anyway.

“I gave up the boozing nearly five years ago, so I’m used to isolation of a certain type.  When it’s imposed on you it’s different, I suppose, and while I can cope with this, you feel other people’s pain. As this unfolds, the things that are important ….

“I’ve got two other kids, 19 and 18. My daughter was at uni, first year at Leeds, and has had her time cut short. My son was about to do his A-levels. My newest arrival, Reuben, is nearly three, and he’s not seen his nursery pals. That’s just me, one story. People’s livelihoods have been affected as well. At the moment we’re all wondering how we’ll end up living with this virus and coping with it.

“It’s easy to point the finger at the Government. I feel sorry for them to a point. I feel they were underprepared and made some fundamental mistakes, but to keep on going on about that is futile. It should be about getting it right now. I watch all these political programmes and I’m suck of hearing people complaining about it. Let’s work together, do something now.

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

“I finished this album last November and it was made from that period of the referendum in 2016. I started recording in 2017, took a little break when my boy was due and once he came, after just a few weeks in the studio. There were a few false starts, but I resumed in 2018 around the corner with a friend, Keir Stewart, who’s got a studio in his house.

“Then last year I got Gethin Pearson to help finish it. So that three-year period seems like a moment in time, and this album for me in time will define a period in my life. I couldn’t have made this record any other time. I tried my best to reflect personal struggles I’ve come through.

“It’s a personal triumph to make this album, having gone through lots of knockbacks and the break-up of a major relationship with the mother of my two elder children, breaking up after 14 years. That was largely down to my drinking really, and not coping with all this. I was so busy for 12 years, from the first album in 2000, touring the world and what-not. I became a habitual boozer because of it and the break-up fuelled that further.

Gough Revival: Damon Gough, aka Badly Drawn Boy, back with a great new LP, his first non-soundtrack in 10 years.

“There’s a song on the album, ‘I Just Wanna Wish You Happiness’, about maintaining dignity throughout that, and managing to do that was a triumph, coming through that then meeting Lianne, my wife now, having met only a few months after the break-up.

“I was hardly looking for another relationship. I honestly wasn’t. But she helped me get through those first few years. I carried on partying, having a good time, the kids living with their Mum around the corner. We kept it all dignified, and me giving up the booze helped enormously. I’m more present in everyone’s lives now, and after I’d given up the booze I thought it was time I made another album.

“Time’s taken care of itself these last seven years, and it doesn’t feel to me like I’ve been away as long as I have, because of all these events. It was more or less my 40s – a lost decade in terms of being a recording artist. If I could turn back time and change that, I would, but because of all these things I’ve come up with a positive set of songs. I’ve had some tough times, but I’ve come back stronger. And I still believe there’s hope for me and there’s hope for everyone.”

It comes over as very reflective, and perhaps your most personal album yet.

“Yeah, they’re all kind of personal, but I feel I’ve learned lots of big life lessons, and if you’re going to bounce back from something like that … I feel I’m a better new version of me through the resilience I’ve had to show to come back. I wanted to articulate that in an album to help other people. Everyone’s got struggles of one kind or another. As life goes on, you’re lucky if you don’t encounter hardship. You learn so much more than if life was a breeze. If you come through that, you appreciate life more.

“This coronavirus is a great example. Hopefully we’re all in a better place, and the one thing everyone can do is appreciate life more. We’ve had a lucky escape if we get through this okay. And I’ve been through that on a personal level, on the brink with drink. I had to give up, and Leanne helped with her support and strength.”

And why call this Banana Skin Shoes?

“I wanted it to be a comedy title and a comedy take on a serious matter – taking ownership of your own mistakes. I’ve done everything I can to not come across as feeling sorry for myself. I’ve had health issues as well – I’ve had Crohn’s disease, diabetes, a hip replacement two years ago because of complications with Crohn’s and the medication I was on, steroids. But even when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s, I wasn’t bothered. My younger sister’s had it all her life, and as a teenager she nearly died through operations.

“When I was diagnosed I was almost jubilant, in solidarity with my sister, who’s lived with it for 30 years. She’s ok, and it’s made her a very spiritual person. I felt the least I could do was not let this bother me. It set her back at the time, missing a year of schooling, her grades suffering, so it didn’t phase me.

“Similarly, with diabetes – the discipline I gained from giving up boozing was just the beginning. Once I’d cracked that and regained some self-pride – feeling worthy again of people’s love, especially my kids – I was back to a better me, and that gave me strength and discipline. I thought about losing weight, lost nearly three stone, and that reversed my diabetes. I’ve also been doing some therapy over the last 12 months – more like life coaching, and that’s been amazing, sort of helping me manage my mind a bit.

“Depression and that is common with artists and with boozing, and again it’s something I’d love to help others with. Think more from your core self than from your brain, which gets cluttered with all the information the world throws at you. No wonder there’s so many people struggling at the minute. And on this album the messages are all kind of loosely based around reconnecting with who you are, ‘supersizing your soul’ as I say on the title track.

“You’re only useful to others when you’re in a position of strength yourself, and ‘I Need Someone to Trust’ is a spiritual song about that. ‘I lost control, a part of my soul, bring it back, make it whole’. Coming back from the brink of disaster, finding strength then being able to help others – ‘Where the river bends, you bounce, fall in, and if this should happen, keep a grip of my hand’. I’m offering some kind of guidance. Some is metaphorical, some is true. You immortalise these things when you put them in a song, making something bigger than it actually is.

“The gesture in real life only needs to be small, and doing lots of small things can contribute good things to the world. That’s what I’m trying to do with this record – adding something good to the mix rather than something meaningless.”

I was going to pick up on one of those songs mentioned. ‘I Just Wanna Wish You Happiness’ seems to be the antithesis of Elvis Costello’s ‘I Hope you’re Happy Now’. I feel you might have written a similarly angry song if you’d voiced those emotions straight away. Instead, we have more measured, reflective thinking further down the road.

“That’s a good point actually, and a really good analogy, but the sentiment of the song was there really soon. I wrote the skeleton of that song just a few months after the break-up, although I didn’t finish it until more recently. I knew that was the sentiment I wanted to carry through. Even though I didn’t orchestrate the break-up – Clare was ditching me, as it were – I still knew in my heart of hearts it was largely my fault. I felt a duty to pay respect, and the opportunity was there to do that.

“I couldn’t think of another song where somebody had said that in so many words. There have been some classic break-up songs. You’ve just mentioned one, and Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks was like a whole album’s worth. There’s another song on this album, and while I didn’t want to write more than one as I didn’t want this to be a break-up album, the other song touching on that is ‘Funny Time of Year’. The reason I kept that was because it tells the story from the point of view of the person doing the dumping, and the person having to make that choice. My ex-partner had to make that difficult choice, and that’s my take on trying to understand her and how that‘s not easy either.

“It’s hard being at the receiving end of being ditched, but just as hard in certain circumstances being the one making that hard decision. It was the day after my daughter’s birthday in December when I was asked to leave, and there’s never a good time of year. When you lose someone at a certain time of year, it’s always going to be a bad time. A ‘Funny Time of Year’ is basically any time of year it happens really.”

For me, songs like that, ‘I’m Not Sure What it Is’ and ‘You and Me Against the World are more noticeably Badly Drawn Boy of old. Deceptively simple, effective songwriting. And I could hear Glenn Tilbrook delivering ‘I’m Not Sure What it Is’ – something Damon sees as ’a milestone song for me, like ‘Once Around The Block’’ – with Squeeze. What’s more, I could also see him sending it to … erm, Michael Buble, his subsequent cover potentially setting Chorlton’s finest up for another year or two, financially.

“Ha! Well, daft as that sounds, I really like the idea. You’re bang on. It’s definitely a nod to what people know from me, stylistically, and in my head, I was trying to do Georgie Fame meets Frank Zappa. ‘I’m tired of climbing ladders’’. A jazzy big band number. ‘I know what I want when I see what it is’. That’s where Michael Buble works as a suggestion, weirdly.”

Maybe you could get your people to talk to his people.

“Well, it’s a great idea. I’m flattered by that, while years ago I may have put the phone down on you! Being older and wiser you realise the value. I’m not as competitive as I used to be. I appreciate other people’s abilities are different to mine. There’s room for everybody. So I’ll take that as a compliment, and I always find it fascinating what other people see in the potential of a song. Cover versions are an amazing thing in themselves. Remixes aren’t as much a thing as they used to be, but a good remix would enhance your own vision of what a song is capable of.

“The most obvious cover version that springs to mind for me when I’m trying to explain it to people who maybe don’t get music in a certain way and how a song can manifest itself in so many different ways is Joe Cocker’s version of ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’. His is probably the definitive version, even though the original is brilliant. It makes the original better. And more likeable. That’s what a good cover does. Like Hendrix doing ‘All Along the Watchtower’. That makes the original feel more powerful, show in the strength of the song.”

You could turn that concept on its head too. Imagine if Joe Cocker’s version was the original, subsequently covered by The Beatles.

“That’s a strange thought. That would seem even more improbable. You’d think, ‘How did they get that version out of his?’. Wow!”

Talking of songs taken into unexpected areas, the title track, ‘Banana Skin Shoes’ kind of reminds me of Kirsty MacColl and Johnny Marr on ‘Walking Down Madison’, as does ‘Tony Wilson Said’. There’s a fusion of styles there, and it might not be what people expect from you.

“Again, that’s a nice point. I love the reference, and Johnny Marr was working with Billy Bragg around them, working on his version of ‘Walk Away Renee’, the version I learned to play guitar from. ‘Walking Down Madison’ is a song I’d forgotten about. As an artist I’ve a lot of things that inspire – lots of soul music, dance music, hip-hop even. And with ‘Banana Skin Shoes’ and ‘Tony Wilson Said’, particularly the latter, it needed to be a joyous song.

“It’s one of those songs I’d have never thought I’d write. It just came to me while I was sat at the piano, humming a melody when those words came into my head. I kind of laughed, went outside, had a coffee and a fag – I don’t smoke anymore, I’m just vaping now – but reflected on it, and it took a bit of courage to pursue that song in the studio, with a few attempts, jamming it out. It eventually became a dancey, upbeat, kind of song reflecting that Manchester scene.”

Woodland Vibe: Badly Drawn Boy at 2013’s Festival No.6. But no outside or inside shows this summer as it stands.

Talking elsewhere about his Tony Wilson tribute, Damon revealed, ‘When we emerged in the ’90s – people like me, Andy Votel, Doves, Elbow – there was a thriving scene in Manchester largely because people like Tony had kept things going through pretty hard times.’ And there’s arguably an underlying Happy Mondays feel to the result, I suggested.

“I had The Beastie Boys in my head for some reason as well. None of that came to the fore but there was the essence of some spirit of what hip-hop’s about, as well as The Clash meets Motown. That line, ‘You symbolise and crystalise freedom’, is more like a Mick Jones melody. Big Audio Dynamite rather than pure Clash. But there’s something of that spirit in there. And it’s a Joe Strummer thing to do – championing a guy that meant something to you, like Tony Wilson.”

Now you mention it, I hear something of later Joe, on a track like ‘Bhindi Bhagee’ on splendid 2001 Mescaleros LP Global a Go-Go.

“Yeah, the fascinating thing about The Clash was that crossover of styles for what was in essence an angry punk band to begin with, with soul music creeping in, and reggae, and a fusion of influences, that Clash of styles. And Joe’s sensibility of spirituality and stuff …

“I was fortunate enough to get to know Joe well. I’ve been so fortunate in my career to meet people, and Joe was probably one of those at the top of the list. We hung out a few times, I met him at the Q magazine awards in 2000. I’d already won the Mercury Prize, was getting a handful of other accolades, and was up for best solo artist, while Joe … his acceptance speech humbled me. It was my first record and I’d won all that, then Joe walked on stage to accept his and said it was his first-ever prize, and was so honoured. I thought, ‘Wow!’

“Then we were stood waiting to get our photographs taken, and Joe tapped me on the shoulder, said, ‘Thank God someone in our country is making great music again. I thought he was talking to someone else, but he gave a hug. That was a shock, something I didn’t expect. I felt honoured but also there was this thing that Joe had done so much yet he was just getting his first award, while I was getting awards on my first outing. It made me realise how fortunate I’d been, and we stayed in touch.

“We ended up doing a few festivals where he’d be watching me from the side of the stage. When he died, I was involved in a few gigs with Mick jones and Billy Bragg, at Glastonbury and at Strummerville, and planted trees in Joe’s name, so that connection was always there.”

A creative purple patch followed, The Hour of Bewilderbeast followed by 2002’s film soundtrack to Nick Hornby adaptation About A Boy and next studio LP Have You Fed The Fish? that year. In fact, a mutual friend, much-loved broadcaster Pete Mitchell earlier this year told Damon’s story through a radio documentary celebrating the 20th anniversary of his 2000 breakthrough album. And subsequently, Damon was among those artists paying tribute to Pete in a Chris Evans-presented Virgin Radio tribute show in April, a few weeks after he died.

“Yeah, Pete came to my stag do and wedding, and I think because of this lockdown and everything I haven’t really had time to process Pete dying. I was in London at the time, just before it all took hold. I’d gone down to do Chris Evans’ breakfast show, which felt a bit odd when social distancing was starting to happen. Then I came out of that interview and Andy Votel told me Pete had died the day before. He wanted to call me rather than I find out through social media. I was floored by that news, having just been with Chris, a friend of Pete’s. Then we did that documentary.

“Pete went ahead and did that Bewilderbeast programme without me. He messaged me, but I thought there was no urgency as the album came out in June (2000) – I thought it’d be later in the year. But he cracked on, doing it with some of the archive stuff he had anyway. He said, ‘No worries, it’s great anyway, I’ve got it all together.’ That was the last I heard from him. I’ve still got his text. I’m going to print it out, frame it as a keepsake.

“It crops up in my head at certain moments in the day, and I haven’t had a chance to see anyone – I’d have gone to the funeral if I’d been allowed to – so haven’t had that real send-off feeling in my head.”

Staying with tributes, we talked about ‘Tony Wilson Said’, and on that song there’s a sense of adventure, as if you’re driving around Tony’s old patch with the music playing. In that respect, it’s kind of ‘Once Around the Block’ revisited. Perhaps you need to make that the next single from this LP, reshooting that breakthrough single’s promo video, this time taking in a few Manchester cultural landmarks en route.

“A video? I wonder if I’d get away with shooting my own video during lockdown. This morning I was talking to my management about putting together a video for ‘I Need Someone to Trust’ – that’s the next single.

“’I’m Not Sure What It Is’ is going to be another, but some of these songs will just go out and make it on to playlist platforms rather than being physical releases. I’m not sure how it works, but we’re hoping ‘I Need Someone to Trust’ gets on Radio 2’s playlist, as happened with ’Is This a Dream?’.

In old money, I’d say the latter would surely have been a hit single. It’s catchy, you can sing along, it deserves success, and it’s good to hear it received plenty of radio traction.

“Yeah, that was out at the end of January and got played through February on a few stations. That got us off to a good start. It’s a lottery though with anything like that. I’ll just be happy to get the album out. Then it can just sit there, do its thing, people discovering it in their own time, over a few months permeating its way into people’s consciousness. You never know.”

I’m only two listens in but can already tell this LP’s a real grower, with staying power. And there are plenty of great hooks.

“It was tough to compile. Because I had so much time away, I had quite a collection of strong songs, so they were almost fighting for space. ‘I’m Not Sure What It Is’ is one of my favourites. If you listen to it on its own, you really get it. Where it lands on the album you don’t get chance to digest it before you go on to the next song. With other albums, especially the first, I really took time making sure it listened down well, making segues, making songs breathe, little palate cleanser before you hit the next one. With this album I didn’t endeavour to do that.

“It was more like I was compiling a playlist – like a best of for my last seven years’ songwriting. I had a bit of irreverence for that, arriving at the running order relatively quick. There’s a kind of chronology in terms of what the songs mean, but I didn’t overthink it. In the modern era, people will put one song on, then listen to another at another time of day. I’ll let them do what they want with it. It could work in so many ways. People will have their favourites.

“Ultimately, I’m just happy to get a record together this time. It’s felt as close to making a debut as you can do again. So I tried to be instinctive, not worry too much – just to get some more music out there was a result.”

When we spoke in 2014, you were set for Lancashire’s Beat-Herder Festival and North Wales’ Festival No.6, having played there the previous year too. Did you have lots of dates in the diary this summer?

“Fortunately not many that have had to be postponed or cancelled. We had a cluster of dates towards the end of May, small venues to begin with, like Manchester’s Stoller Hall, which I’ve never played before. There were five or six dates planned, with maybe more to follow, but now we don’t really know what’s going to happen. I’ve been doing online streaming gigs recently to compensate for a lack of ability to play live. But who knows when we’ll be back to a situation where we can play.”

Before the lockdown you did manage to sell-out The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, London, though.

“That’s right, at the end of January.  That was amazing. I knew about the venue, but I’d never seen a band there or played there before. I was shocked. It was one of my most memorable gigs, particularly in London.”

An interesting history too, from railway days through to its rebirth as a venue, its hippie collective past, the fact that the afore-mentioned Mick Jones would be there as a kid attending shows, and so on.

“I’ve seen footage of a few bands playing there and it never comes across on TV. You only really know how special it is by being there. It was like playing a mini Royal Albert Hall or The Barbican – a combination of that modern feel and an arty venue. It was a big deal me playing there, and I didn’t know it would be my last gig for a while. I got there for my soundcheck and just knew it was going to be special … as long as I kept my head together and did a good set.”

Thinking Time: Damon Gough wonders where he might be able to source a new pair of banana skin shoes.

Also since we last spoke, you’ve had your busking cameo on long-running ITV drama Cold Feet, in 2017. How did that come about?

“I got an email from my management saying they wanted me involved. I knew John Thomson and Jimmy Nesbitt. When they were filming the original few series, they were often in Chorlton, and I got to meet up. They were pretty wild in those days, out all night, drinking …”

When you were telling me your story, I was thinking about John Thomson, and a few personal parallels.

“Yeah, and John knocked the boozing on the head a while ago. I knew John and Jimmy pretty well, and when I got that call, it was a nice thing to be invited down on set, see them again and be part of that.”

You’re in great company. I recall Jimmy’s rant in an earlier series about The Undertones, pointing out to his newborn son the wonders of John O’Neill’s songwriting.

“I think Jimmy might have had something to do with this as well. He came to a lot of my gigs back in the day. And John – me and him have crossed paths a lot doing various weird shows, like the Manchester v Cancer show, with Frank Sidebottom sweeping the stage before I came on.

“And with Cold Feet, they let me choose which song I thought would work best. I felt ‘The Time of Times’ (from 2006’s Born in the UK) was appropriate, and they went with that. Yeah, it was a really nice thing to do.”

Talking of time, it had marched on by now, with so many of my original questions subsequently jettisoned. Maybe I’ll talk about some of that in an LP review soon. But on such a personal record, I felt I should at least ask more about closing number, ‘I’ll Do My Best’. Is that perhaps the closest to where he’s at right now? There’s a nod to one of his songwriting heroes, Bruce Springsteen, who popped up in conversation last time. But that link’s fairly subtle, despite something of a feel of The Boss around the time of ‘Streets of Philadelphia’.

Looking Right: Badly Drawn Boy seeking out inpsiration from afar … and within, and finding it in more recent times.

“Well, it’s nice that you picked up on that. Being at the end of the album, it’s kind of where I’m at in life now, so it was the right place to sign off for now. The album as a whole is reflective but forward thinking. It’s about what do I do now, what do we do now, and what life holds for lots of us. ‘Apple Tree Boulevard’ is near the end because it’s an ode to this country, my love poem to England, and the fact that apples are synonymous with us, the boulevard element a piss-take of us not really knowing what our identity is, with this island eroding away. That was fairly political, after three years of nonsense we’ve been through. But signing off with ‘I’ll Do My Best’ was me saying that even though that’s all gone, I’ve got this, I’ve got my relationship and I want to step up to the mark.

“Since we’ve been married, I’ve been too busy to perhaps be the man I need to be. That line, ‘it’s hard to start a fire when it rains’ is the link to Springsteen and how you ‘can’t start a fire without a spark’, but I feel I’ve made it different enough to call it my own.

“The interesting thing is that when he finished Born in the USA, Bruce’s manager and label were saying they didn’t have a lead song there. He came up with that line because he couldn’t write a song. He had no ideas, no inspiration. That became the song itself, writing backwards from the chorus, ‘Dancing in the Dark’.

“For my take on it, ‘how do you start a fire when it rains?’ is about not being my best because I’ve let things get to me, but now I’m through that, I’m in a better place to deal with these things and fulfil those vows we made. ‘I’ll Do My Best’ was the last song I wrote and recorded for this album. I’d half-written it, but knew I needed to put something in it that made it more rounded, bringing it back round to proper real life.”

Reverting to Type: Damon gets ready to respond to the critical acclaim sure to follow for new LP, Banana Skin Shoes

Banana Skin Shoes is out via AWAL on May 22,and can be pre-ordered via this link. You can also keep in touch with Badly Drawn Boy via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

And for a link to the 2014 feature/interview on this website with Damon Gough, head here.

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Remembering Brian Pilkington, and Burnley’s 1959/60 title win

Leyland Legend: A visual tribute to Brian Pilkington at his funeral in Leyland's parish church in February (Photo copyright: Keith McIntosh)

Leyland Legend: A visual tribute to Brian Pilkington at February’s parish church funeral service (Photo: Keith McIntosh)

This weekend 60 years ago, Burnley were crowned league champions after a last-day victory at Manchester City, just the excuse needed to finally post about former Clarets star and England international Brian Pilkington, a near-neighbour and old friend who died in February.

It’s now 10 weeks since I joined a packed congregation at St Andrew’s Church, Leyland for Brian’s funeral, the same day St Patrick’s Church in Coleraine was rammed for Manchester United and Northern Ireland goalkeeping legend Harry Gregg, a year older than Pilky. That wet afternoon seems a lifetime ago in light of all that’s followed, but I felt it only right that I should brave the elements to pay my respects, around 300 mourners (downstairs and upstairs full) including Brian’s Burnley team-mates Jimmy Robson and Trevor Meredith, fellow Clarets and England international John Connelly’s widow, and Brian’s Barrow team-mate Mick Wearmouth, who I knew from my newspaper days reporting on Chorley FC, where Pilky was on the board and Mick was groundsman.

It was at Chorley, where his association began at the back end of his playing career in 1967/68 (when I was doing some dribbling of my own, as a newborn), that I got to know Brian. In fact, those are the memories I cherish most regarding Pilky, not least evenings when he’d cadge a lift back from away games rather than use the team coach, telling me tales from his footballing past en route.

I also visited the house he shared with his beloved Maureen, just across the wall from Worden Park, Leyland, and recently rediscovered the resultant feature I wrote about him. Suffice to say, he proudly had his club and representative medals and England cap by his side that day, the latter awarded after featuring for a home international side that triumphed 2-0 over Northern Ireland (Johnny Haynes and Don Revie scoring) at Windsor Park, Belfast, in October 1954, outside left Brian one of seven England debutants playing in front of 60,000, Walter Winterbottom’s side captained by Billy Wright and also including Nat Lofthouse and Stanley Matthews.

Brian’s story is real Roy of the Rovers in places, and I love the fact that on the day he married (at the same Leyland church where we said our farewells) on March 15th, 1958, the wedding was arranged early so he could travel 25 miles to Turf Moor straight after to be part of a Clarets side that beat Manchester United 3-0. Jimmy McIlroy (in that Irish side against England four years earlier), Alan Shackleton and Albert Cheesebrough got the second-half goals, but it was Brian interviewed by future This is Your Life presenter Eamonn Andrews for his TV show that evening, his wedding night.

Newspaper Days: My 2003 Chorley Guardian feature/interview with Brian Pilkington

I’ve only seen a few clips of him playing, but Brian was a gifted player for sure, and arguably it was only that he was competing against Preston North End’s England legend Tom Finney for a place that Brian missed out on more caps. He did add a couple of England B caps though, scoring once, his teammates including Brian Clough. He was also on standby for the 1954 and 1958 World Cup finals.

Perhaps part of the reason his story resonates is that he was just a year younger than my Dad, part of that generation having to undergo National Service. While Surrey lad Bob Wyatt got his basic RAF training at Padgate, Warrington, then moved on to Weeton, near Blackpool (later switching to St Mawgan, Cornwall, where we had family links), Brian wasn’t so far off, based at Kirkham and putting in representative duties along the way. By his own admission, in an era that national servicemen became embroiled in the Korean War and the Suez crisis, he had it relatively easy, the merits of his fitness and sporting prowess recognised in high places.

There were more links, and he told me he grew up a few doors from the Victorian terrace house I shared with my better half in Leyland at the time, albeit half a century or so before. What’s more, his daughter-in-law Helen showed us around the house we now live in, by which time she’d taken over the day-to-day running of Brian Pilkington Estate Agents in the town he so loved.

He wasn’t the first in his family to shine at football, telling me his Dad, William, played for PNE in the late 1920s, that team also featuring Scottish international Alex James. Brian was an apprentice at Leyland Motors and played for the works team in the Lancashire Combination when he signed for Burnley in 1951, for a £10 fee. He carried on as a coach-painter at first, becoming a first-team regular in the 1953/54 season before his call-up. He went on to make around 350 appearances for Harry Potts’ team, scoring 77 goals, missing just one of 60 matches in the year the Clarets won that 1959/60 league title, scoring 11 goals. Not a bad return for a fella earning £20 a week at the time.

That season they won the title – their first in 39 years – by a point over Wolverhampton Wanderers, it was a Pilky strike at Birmingham City that took the championship to the final game, 66,000 at Maine Road on that last day as he put the hosts ahead, his fourth-minute cross turned into the net by City legend Bert Trautmann. The Burnley Express match report recalled, “It came from the eighth throw-in (that in itself being an indication of the liveliness of the ball as against the subdued skill of the players). Elder and Robson pushed it on and Pilkington cut in along near the bye-line, hit a low centre across the face of the goal, the ball appearing to touch Trautmann, who had moved too near the post, and it finished inside the net by the far upright.”

Match Report: The Burnley Express take on the game that settled the 1959/60 league title

Match Report: The Burnley Express take on the game that settled the 1959/60 league title

Denis Law levelled for City, but then came a winner from John Connelly’s stand-in, Trevor Meredith, the Burnley Express revealing, “Strangely enough, each trainer made only a brief appearance. The players were too busy to note their bruises. No doubt they could count them afterwards, though the Burnley boys were too happy to bother. Most serious casualty was Pilkington, the Burnley outside left, who had been a constant worry to the City right flank. He is an expert at the acrobatic fall and he executed it with full dramatics on two occasions – to the baffled fury of the home crowd when the referee have free kicks in acknowledgement of justice, pain and suffering. However, it was the final occasion, a few minutes before the end, when he was brought down and the injury was actual and serious and left him limping with a damaged ankle.”

The following season Burnley reached the European Cup quarter-finals, and many moons ago Brian leant me a video tape of that last-eight showdown from the BBC coverage, a dreadful Turf Moor pitch helping the hosts on a freezing cold mid-January 1961 night in East Lancashire against SV Hamburg. Typically, he played down his part, telling me it was ‘blink and you’ll miss it’. But there’s no denying he was a star that night, scoring twice, the second a cracker by any standards, while Jimmy Robson – whose daughter Dany went on to train as a journalist with me in Preston in the mid-1990s – added a third in a 3-1 victory. The Clarets went out after the second leg though, losing 4-1 in Germany in front of 70,000.

Brian also played in September 1957 for Burnley against Brazilian champions Flamengo at the official opening of the Nou Camp in Barcelona. But by 1961, the year my Dad swapped steam loco firing duties to be a postman down in Guildford, Brian’s Clarets days were over, sold supposedly without his knowledge for £30,000 to Bolton Wanderers by chairman Bob Lord. He also told me he belatedly learned he was tapped up by Manchester United but turned down by his club in 1958, again without his knowledge, to come into their depleted side in place of David Pegg, one of the ill-fated Busby Babes so cruelly lost in the Munich air disaster.

Brian later moved on to Gigg Lane, Bury, then Holker Street, Barrow, where he helped win the Division Four title, his teammates including the afore-mentioned Mick Wearmouth, another lovely, extremely approachable fella I got to know during my Chorley Guardian and Lancashire Evening Post days. In fact, I recall Brian coming up to me and Mick one Saturday afternoon while we were chatting at half time over a cuppa and a custard cream in the boardroom beneath the main stand, reaching up to our shoulders (he was five foot four and a half) and announcing, ‘Centre-halves’. I’ll take that, any day, being talent-spotted by Pilky.

Also paying their respects to the National League club’s life president at the funeral were Magpies boss Jamie Vermiglio and chairman Ken Wright, respectively player and manager in the days I covered Chorley. And Brian’s love for the game never diminished, carrying on training in his Clarets days with Leyland Motors and retaining links with regional football throughout his career. I’ve heard several first-hand accounts of Leyland lads star-struck by him coming along to help coach them at boyhood park sides, joined by Clarets teammate Trevor Meredith, a Shropshire lad who taught in Preston after his playing days and settled in Leyland.

Playing Days: Brian Pilkington, as featured in Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly magazine in September 1960

Soon enough, Brian had another role, success selling houses for local businessman (and future Chorley FC owner and Grand National-wining racehorse owner) Trevor Hemmings leading to his post-professional football career change.

I saw him less often in later years, but now and again we’d chat, either while he sneaked in a cuppa at his old Leyland office, passing on words of wisdom to his daughter-in-law, or walking around a nearby supermarket. In time, it became clear he’d succumbed to dementia, and I felt for his wife and family as well as Brian. He died in a care home in Adlington in early February after a long battle with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

His legacy lives on though. Just this morning, my pal Keith Bradshaw mentioned how he’d travel over from Morecambe by bus to see that feted Clarets side in his youth, telling me, ‘I loved that team and saw most home games in the Championship-winning season. I even owned a claret and blue rattle, which is now with Sporting Memories’. And Brian’s close friend Keith McIntosh, a key player in Lancashire’s Sporting Memories Foundation group, a charity setting out to ‘tackle dementia, depression and loneliness through the power of sport’, paid a personal tribute at the funeral to a fella he clearly knew well. There’s also a stand at the Lancashire FA headquarters named after him these days, and through family, friends and the fellowship of football it’s fair to say Brian will never be forgotten.

With thanks to Dany Robson for casting her eyes over the finished feature, Keith McIntosh for his photographs, and Keith Bradshaw for his own Clarets’ memories.

For more details about the Sporting Memories Foundation, follow this link

Clarets’ Legacy: A visual tribute to Brian Pilkington at February’s parish church funeral service (Photo: Keith McIntosh)

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