Still Crazy after all these years – on the Long, Long Road with Arthur Brown

“I am the God of Hellfire, and I bring you …”

If ever a first line of a song grabbed your attention, there was one.

Frightening kids since 1968, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown only had that one hit, ‘Fire’, but certainly made an impact, even if they took eight weeks to set the charts alight, in a manner of speaking.

They ultimately reached No.1 in late August ’68, briefly knocking Tommy James and the Shondells’ ‘Mony Mony’ off the summit before the same record returned to the top, ‘Fire’ also reaching No.2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and No.1 in Canada that October, and the top-10 in Austria, France, Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands.

That was it, hit-wise, even if that iconic track from 1968 album ‘The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’ still maintains its mesmerising power with audiences and peers today.

A genuine one-hit wonder, yes, but that self-titled debut LP, produced by Kit Lambert with input from The Who’s Pete Townshend, also reached No.2 in the UK, only kept off the top by Small Faces’ sublime Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake then Simon and Garfunkel’s era-defining Bookends.

Their trademark song was co-written with Vincent Crane, who played Hammond organ in Arthur’s band and later featured with Atomic Rooster, later contributing to Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ 1985 cult LP, Don’t Stand Me Down, dying way too young, aged just 45.

However, half a century and a bit later, shock rock pioneer Arthur is still very much with us, his new album, Long Long Road, out on Friday, June 24, which just happens to mark his 80th birthday.

What’s more, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown are set to promote their unique take on psychedelic blues rock at four special UK shows – including elements of dance, poetry and visuals – to help celebrate that landmark.

It seems like perfect timing, but those shows were rescheduled twice due to the pandemic, the iconic band-leader now eager to get out there, promising a full evening of ‘psychedelic individuality, ingenuity and madness’.

Clearly, he hasn’t changed his ways too dramatically, his new immersive multimedia show, ‘The Human Perspective’, featuring ‘great musicians, stunning visuals, iconic dance and sonic adventure’, this self-proclaimed ‘God of Hellfire’ showing us why he’s recognised as a true innovator of progressive rock and a significant influence on heavy metal.

Musically, his show involves a retrospective of a long, long career, featuring a heady mix of psychedelia, prog, blues and rock. And as he put it, “The Human Perspective concept is the exploration of our inner selves while trying to navigate the external world. The God of Hellfire meets The God of Purefire, if you will”.

As for the concept, it’s something Arthur reckons he’s been incubating for decades.

“This is the live show I always wanted to perform with Kingdom Come back in the 1970s, but the technology at the time meant it wasn’t possible. But now I’m able to fully realise my vision for the show. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.”

The first of those take place next Thursday, May 26 at The Playhouse, Whitley Bay, followed by a visit to Waterside Arts Centre in Sale on Friday, May 27, with two more Saturday shows from there, at Leeds’ City Varieties on June 11, and London’s Bush Hall, Shepherd’s Bush, on June 25.

On the back of his 1968 worldwide million-selling smash hit, Arthur’s shared the bill with the likes of The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, The Doors, the afore-mentioned Small Faces, and Joe Cocker.

And there are elements of both Cocker and Small Faces on the title track of the new record, an epic, poignant ballad that could as easily have come our way in the late ‘60s as now.

The same goes for many more numbers on Long Long Road, to the point where I can picture Keith Emerson attacking keyboards with knives on opening track, ‘Gas Tanks’, a Look at Yourself era Uriah Heep-like romp.

The LP then takes something of a Screaming Jay Hawkins meets Johnny Cash – another artist whose late career saw him afforded fresh critical acclaim – turn with ‘Coffin Confession’, before the organ revs up again and the brass arrives for the swirlingly soulful, late Beatles-esque, heavy metal thunder of ‘Going Down’, sort of namesake James Brown possessed by AB disciple Bruce Dickinson, with no guarantee of sleep ’til … well, Shepherd’s Bush at the very least.

‘Once I Had Illusions’, split into two parts, is more Nick Cave, another track including atmospheric prog keyboard from multi-instrumentalist/long-time collaborator/co-producer/arranger, mixer and engineer Rik Patten, who adds everything bar Arthur’s seasoned vocals, guitar and piano.

‘I Like Games’ has a John Lee Hooker fused with Led Zeppelin stomping dirty blues vibe, while ‘Shining Brightness’ conjures up The Doors and Tom Waits. As for ‘The Blues and Messing Around’, that’s a 12-bar blues number steeped with wild guitar licks, underpinning organ, tinkling piano, and Arthur’s life-well-lived vocals.

Then comes the majestic title song, before we’re away with ‘Once I Had Illusions (Pt.2)’, this time with added Daniel Lanois-ish production qualities, David Gilmour-like six-string dashes, lots of those touches that made Arthur who he is, and echoing plenty of those artists who ploughed on where he left off (I could hear Tom Jones giving that finale a great working-over, for example).

I can’t argue with the official line, this being a ‘wild and vibrant affair, crammed with rich musical textures … quintessentially Arthur Brown’ and an album that can ‘easily be construed as the apex and summary of a fascinating career that has spanned no fewer than seven decades’.
 
As long since became his way, Arthur shifts from prog and soul to blues rock, this veteran performer ‘summoning his full vocal range with a mature mastery that comes only with the experience of a lifetime’.  

Whitby-born Arthur attended grammar school in Leeds before university studies in London and Reading, forming his first band in that Berkshire town and involved with others in the capital before a spell in Paris working on his theatrical skills.

He returned in late 1966, featuring with R&B/soul/ska outfit The Ramong Sound before they became The Foundations, Arthur soon finding his own calling alongside Vincent Crane, Drachen Theaker (drums) and Nick Greenwood (bass).

That Crazy World of Arthur Brown quartet quickly built a reputation for outlandish performances, Arthur’s flaming headgear becoming his signature gimmick, not always health and safety-friendly.

As it turned out, personnel changes followed and only two albums were made, their shelved 1969 follow-up not seeing the light of day until 1988, Arthur going on – after further projects – to form an increasingly ‘out there’ Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come, making three influential LPs, even dabbling in space rock.

But their multimedia approach to performance proved some way ahead of its time and arguably too much for mainstream audiences, several more unlikely projects following.  

There was always that sense of the theatrical with Arthur, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise when Ken Russell cast him in Pete Townshend’s rock opera, Tommy, his dramatic vocals kicking in where Eric Clapton left off in a frankly disturbing miracle-working communion scene.

By the early ‘80s Arthur was based in Austin, Texas, with a master’s degree in counselling, soon adding painting and carpentry to his CV.

Returning to England in 1996, many more meanders, recorded product and performances followed, working with afore-mentioned Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour and former Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson, plus Kula Shaker, Die Krupps, and fellow space rock pioneers Hawkwind en route, to name just a few. 

In later years he’d find himself sampled by The Prodigy and cited as a major influence on artists as diverse as Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Kiss, and George Clinton.

Cooper reckoned, “Without Arthur Brown there would be no Alice Cooper”, while Elton John added, “Now there’s a man who was ahead of his time”, and Bruce Dickinson said, “Arthur Brown was a big influence of mine … Arthur Brown has the voice of death.”

His work was also recognised as recently as 2019’s Prog Awards, Arthur receiving the Visionary Artist Award, other accolades including Classic Rock magazine’s Showman Award, all part of his latter-years renaissance.   

As for his wild stage persona, flamboyant theatrical performances, and charismatic multi-octave voice, he’s long been appreciated far and wide by musicians, writers and fans, far beyond the vast shadow cast by that huge hit.

And on Long Long Road, Arthur proves he remains as authentic, challenging, creative and as compelling as he was at his career’s fiery beginning. What’s more, as the team behind him insist, ‘This record is not a swansong, but the thrilling beginning of the final phase of an utterly singular career’. 

Long Long Road is available as a box set, including 48-page hardcover 2CD artbook, gatefold 180g orange marble vinyl LP, bonus 7″ vinyl single, art prints, and various other signed products. It’s also available on black 180g vinyl LP, transparent red 180g vinyl LP, and as a digipak CD. For more details and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s The Human Perspective 2022 live show tickets, try www.glasswerk.co.uk or www.thegodofhellfire.com.

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Right on track with The Goa Express – in conversation with James Douglas Clarke

Rising indie guitar band The Goa Express are the sort of outfit that give me hope for the future of live music.

The Manchester-based Burnley and Todmorden five-piece’s most recent single, ‘Everybody in the UK’, their ‘call-to-arms for togetherness in a world that increasingly looks to drive us apart’, was just the latest statement piece from a group that have been close friends since teen years, harbouring collective dreams of a rock’n’roll career, and determined to enjoy the ride.

That latest 45 came on the heels of the equally impressive ‘Be My Friend’ and ‘Second Time’ (the latter mixed by Ride’s Mark Gardener), all three songs making BBC 6 Music’s A-list, having already proven live favourites at numerous busy headline shows of late, those last two singles issued by happening London indie label Ra-Ra Rok Records.

They’ve also raised their profile through memorable support slots, including on the road stints with The Magic Gang and Shame; played to 1,500 or so punters at Latitude, their first mainstream festival performance; and put in the hours at a Zeitgeist club night at Manchester’s YES.

They’ve clearly come a long way since 2016 debut single, ‘Reincarnation of the Lizard Queen’, and 2017’s surf/psych-punk driven follow-up ‘Goa’/’Kiss Me’. But they retain the ‘play wherever we can’ spirit of their first two live shows – one involving three songs blasted out of a mate’s garage, the next above a vintage shop, the floor nearly caving in – their original maxim of ‘when there’s fuck all, you make do with what you’ve got’ still holding true.

Built around brothers James Douglas Clarke (guitar, vocals) and Joe Clarke (keyboards), Joey Stein (lead guitar), Naham Muzaffar (bass) and Sam Launder (drums, percussion), you only need seek out online footage of their live shows to see what they’re about. And it’s an intense arrangement, by accounts, but works on stage and in the studio, and while there have been occasional bust-ups, they reckon it all aadds to the burning chemistry.

Their stock rose somewhat in 2019 on the back of interest from Steve Lamacq, who gave them their first national radio session for BBC 6 Music in a BBC Introducing slot recorded at Abbey Road’s Gatehouse and Front Room studios. And it’s clear from talking to James that the band – who cite Spacemen 3, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, French existentialism and beat literature as key influences  – are having the time of their lives right now.

As their press biog points out, we’re talking ‘proud Northerners with a DIY foundation that aren’t afraid to look into the often-dim future and see themselves shining brightly in it, unforgiving and unpretentious’. And James came over as modest rather than bullish to me, not taking anything for granted, thankful for the breaks they’ve had so far.

They’ve also garnered interest from BBC Radio 1’s Jack Saunders, who had them on his ‘Next Wave’ segment. As for the tracks that have impressed me so far, I’ll point you towards the afore-mentioned singles and similarly essential B-sides, ‘The Day’ and ‘Overpass, first.

‘The Day’, a surging Teardrop Explodes meets Velvet Underground keyboard-flecked track that pulls out all the stops, was recorded in Sheffield with the Fat White Family’s Nathan Saoudi at his band’s studio, before they headed to another next door to make ‘Be My Friend’ with Ross Orton (Arctic Monkeys, Jarvis Cocker, The Fall). And the latter I see as their true debut 45, described as ‘a cheeky, snarling pop song, holding undertones of raw cynicism laden with psychedelic sunshine’, a high-octane belter reminding me of the fire of personal ‘80s indie favourites like Close Lobsters and The Mighty Lemon Drops.

As for ‘Overpass’, I’m getting Magazine, Wire and Jonathan Richman meet The Fall and Inspiral Carpets. And the fact that those latter two recorded singles with James’ near-namesake John Cooper Clarke has me hopeful that the lauded punk poet might be persuaded to join them for a couple of honed verses of his own on an alternative take one day. They describe that track as ‘a step away from those who’re always trying to get close to you. An avoidance of those that are always hanging round. A shout-out to individuality and an acceptance of rejection’. And like several of their tracks, it’s intense but also a singalong fans’ fave.

As for it’s a-side, ‘Second Time’ – a song that ‘unpicks the imperfections of youth, not dwelling on mistakes, letting them run their course’ – that’s where I started with James, telling him that’s my favourite, in awe at its infectious verve and passion. It’s a song you want to play time and again, capable of forcing the sun out from behind the clouds.

And then I added praise for more baggy-influenced follow-up, ‘Everybody in the UK’. Think Supergrass meet The Stone Roses. Another winner, and anthemic with it.

“Yeah, we hope so, and hope that as the summer months come rolling along, people will be singing it back to us.”

I could see that happening at Kendal Calling or any of the other outdoor events you have lined up. Have you played that South Lakes festival before?

“No, although it’s not too far from us. I don’t think any of us have even been there, but we all love the Lake District. It’s absolutely beautiful. We spent loads of time there as kids walking. And I know quite a few people from that end of the country. I don’t know what to expect from that, but we’re hoping for some nice scenery and sunny days.”

The latest single’s promo video was filmed not so far from Kendal, the band seen throwing pebbles by the water’s edge and also watching a stock car racing event.

“That was in Carnforth. That was great. Luckily, the rain held off. When we arrived, it was dead windy and it was absolutely bucketing it down, us thinking, ‘Not another music video where we’re stuck in the wind and the rain, all our hair getting messed around!’. But the weather turned the corner for us.”

Well, either way, it goes with your Northern territory.

“Absolutely. You never know what you’re going to get!”

You say the key message of that single is togetherness. And we all need a bit of that right now, don’t we?

“Yeah, togetherness, but also – with our more abrupt nature – if you’re not together, don’t stick around. If you’re not on the right side, do one!”

Well said, that man. You and your bandmates have stuck by each other for a long time though.

“Absolutely. We all met in year eight at school. In fact, the others met in year seven, when we were 13 … now we’re 24. So it’s been a good portion of our lives, pretty much half our lives.”

A certain Joe Clarke plays keyboards for the band. Are you the big brother?

“Erm … I think I have to adopt that role sometimes. But I’m not the sternest in the band … and I’m definitely not the most organised. I’m not the most ‘on it’ sort of person. But yeah, I guess so. I guess I maybe adopt that role sometimes.”

Are you more the frontman?

“Yeah, I do the singing and all that sort of stuff … and make sure everyone’s doing their job!”

You’ve had plenty of good support of late, in influential circles. Not least with Mark Gardener, of Ride fame, helping out. Is that a band you were into?

“Yeah, we all were. We all quite like that sort of shoe-gazey stuff. Yeah. We all sort of bonded over that when we were quite young, so that was pretty surreal. He had a nice set-up down in Oxford. I remember walking through the fields in the heat of summertime to record it. A nice few days. He’s got some mad guitars, some quite cool guitars. We stayed in some tiny, weird Airbnb farmhouse that had a farm shop and all that.”

At this point, I mentioned being at a one-day festival at Upton Court Park, Slough, not far from my old patch, in 1991, Ride topping the bill, with support from Curve, The Mock Turtles, Slowdive, 1,000 Yard Stare, and Ratcat, the headlinersd at the height of their success back then. And with that, James let on that he was hoping the band could get in to see them play Manchester Academy when they played there (that was in late April).

Steve Lamacq has also got behind the band, playing The Goa Express on his BBC 6 Music show.

“He has, and we did a session for him. We recorded ‘Second Time’ at Abbey Road, and he picked up on us. He’s been sound and he’s mates with a friend of ours, Paul. And there are other familiar faces around that sphere where we haven’t been introduced yet, but I’m sure we will as time goes on.”

Recording at Abbey Road must have been a big moment.

“Yeah, that was good fun. We recorded it, then were sat on it for a while, before Mark mixed it. And we enjoyed having a bit of time away, taking everything with open arms.”

You’ve also built up quite a live following.

“We have. The live shows are always dead fun to play. Some go really well. We’re on tour for a full month soon, then we’ve got the summer seasons and festivals to look forward to. So towards the end of the tour, we should be as close to being perfect as humanly possible.”

I hear you got a good turnout at Yes in Manchester a while ago.

“Yeah, we did the ZeitFest, and for some absurd reason played that festival three times on the same day, with our first show at noon, a second at six, then our final show at three in the morning. The second was the best, the third a bit of a write-off, but it took some balls to go and do it … and we had them.”

That’s true. No one really wants that slot, surely.

“No one wants to do three shows in the same day. That was the main problem!”

Think of it as your Hamburg years, all part of your apprenticeship towards the big time.

“Exactly. We were burnt out after that. Oh, my God!”

Is that right you’ve got Burnley roots? Is that where you all went to school?

“Yeah, spot on. Me and Joe, my brother, are from Todmorden, a small town just next to Burnley. And we all went to school in Burnley. That’s how we met everyone else.”

I’ve told people this before, but recall driving through your old neck of the woods en route to cover a football match once, playing Revolver on my car stereo, and it seemed like everyone I saw along that stretch of the road, and all the scenery I experienced as I came through neighbouring Portsmouth, fitted those psychedelic moments on that amazing LP so well, the imagery of ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ seemingly perfectly written for my surroundings.

“It is quite a weird little place. It’s hard through the winter, but as soon as the sky and the valley opens up, it’s absolutely stunning. But the winter months are tough.”

You were perhaps far too young first time around to have been influenced by some of the bands I hear in you when they first broke through. I also hear the likes of Fontaines DC, but then there are the ‘80s and ‘90s indie influences, with at least one of those bands from your part of the country, Colne’s Milltown Brothers.

“Ah yeah, and Naham (Muzaffar, bass guitar), his family live in Colne.”

You certainly have the potential to be the next biggest thing from that area.

“Yeah … if we ever make it properly.”

That’s not in doubt as far as I can tell … not as if I’m always right about such things, mind. But you’re Manchester-based now though.

“Yeah, basically we all moved to university in Manchester, which was quite remarkable considering we were doing all the band stuff on the side. I can’t believe all of us still managed to keep the two things going. And we’ve lived all over town. I’ve lived in Moss Side, I’ve lived in Hulme and Longsight, I’ve lived in Ancoats, lived around Oxford Road, lived all over Manchester for the last five years.”

When you play Manchester’s White Hotel this month, that will be the closest to a homecoming then.

“It’s definitely a bit of a homecoming show. It’s pretty wild playing in Manchester, as you’d imagine. All our friends are out all the time and just want to go partying soon as you put your guitar down, so yeah, we’ll see. We’ll try and keep it a little bit sensible until after the show, then we’ll let our hair down a little!”

You mentioned university studies. Did you all get through?

“We did, yeah. We all got through and all did quite well, sort of commendable for everyone to have done that. We’ve had our moments of stress, but also decided we were going to do this from a pretty young age, and we still love doing it.”

Was there a band you saw around then that made you think this was what you wanted to do with your life?

“Yeah, probably the Brian Jonestown Massacre. We all went and saw them when we were like … I don’t even know, we were definitely way under-age for going out in Manchester, going to parties all night! We were probably 16. We got the bus up, and it was just one of them coincidental moments where every single one of us had a ticket. We were already all into music, but after seeing them we were like, ‘This is what we should do!’.”

Did that sharpen the focus?

“Yeah, and to this day we still love that band. I think they’re on tour soon, and when they play in Manchester, I assume we’re all gonna be there again.”

It sounds like your own early gigs were special, like that first one in a mate’s garage and another above a vintage shop.

“Yeah, and we have a similar mentality now. We’ll play anywhere! But being in Burnley, unfortunately – for whatever reason – it was sort of limited. I can’t think of any actual venues in Burnley (we could play) when we were at college. It was a case of, ‘Who’s got space? Who’s got a room? Who’s got a garage? If you need something doing at the weekend, we’ll come and play for you.’”

At that point, James is interrupted by what I assumed was either an air-raid siren or a peacock. What on earth was that?

“Seagulls, that, man! I’m not in Manchester at the moment. I’m on Brighton Marina, looking out at loads of boats.”

He was visiting his Dad on the south coast, enjoying time away before the tour, ready to head back north the next day, the band’s Great Escape festival appearance in the East Sussex resort still some way off at the time. And what’s next for the band? Is there an LP on the way? There have been a few singles so far. Are you building up to that?

“I think in terms of material, there’s definitely an album there. We just keep writing, non-stop, taking away surplus stuff that doesn’t sort of make the cut, filling the gaps. We just keep going. We’re all big grafters, and we’ll carry on grafting, playing shows, writing, doing things on our own, and hopefully the time will come.”

Are there day-jobs? Or are you giving everything for this?

“There aren’t really any day jobs. That makes it dead tough, but we’ve just got to try and keep our heads above water for the next few months. We’ve put a lot of time into this, and it’s not really just about the band. We all hang out, go and do stuff together. It’s more about the sort of life that comes with it. So yeah, much as we could do with some money, none of us really want to work. We want to do this.”

I get the feeling you’ll get there, and soon. What would the dream be? Three years down the line, where do you reckon you could be? And is there a band manifesto?

“There’s never been a manifesto. We embrace everything with open arms. I think the one thing we all wanted to do, fundamentally, when we started, was go travelling, see new places and meet new people. It’s never really been like a goal – I don’t like using that term – but I guess we’d all like to play in America at some point, see some weird landscapes and weird people!”

We mentioned influences, talking about the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and you’ve mentioned Spaceman 3 before, while I hear Bizarro-era Wedding Present guitars here and there, but also the crossover indie pop of bands like the afore-mentioned Milltown Brothers, and Supergrass too. I guess the bottom line is that you seem to know how to write some cracking hooks and great songs.

“Yeah, we just try and write things that are pretty catchy. Then as soon as they get stuck in your head, you’re screwed, aren’t you!”

The Goa Express’ latest tour details are shown above, with further dates lined up this summer on June 10th at Syd For Solen Festival, Copenhagen; July 23rd at Truck Festival, Oxford; July 24th at Tramlines Festival, Sheffield; and July 31st at Kendal Calling Festival, Lowther Park. For more details try the band’s Bandcamp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages.

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Seeking out parallel worlds and channeling rocket science with Simon and the Astronauts – the Simon Wells interview

A collaborative project between two UK musicians and a producer initially put in touch by an acclaimed singer-songwriter has led to a sparkling new LP recorded with a California-based singer, one spending plenty of time on my sound system at present.

I knew nothing about Simon and the Astronauts until a passing mention from former frontman of The Bible turned acclaimed solo artist and master songwriter Boo Hewerdine in a WriteWyattUK interview last April.

After that was published online, Simon Wells got in touch, and he recently tracked me down afresh to enthuse – quite rightly – about his band’s latest record, the neatly-crafted Simon and the Astronauts, featuring Rachel Haden.

It was Boo who originally put Simon in touch with his son, fellow songwriter Ben Hewerdine, and producer/musician Chris Pepper, the resultant trio initially more of a songwriting/recording collective than a proper band. But maybe that’s changed with the arrival of Los Angeles-based Rachel Haden.

The original threepiece had already involved various guest collaborators, their 2019 debut EP The Entertainment Suite quickly followed by a first self-titled album that year, a record also spawning viral TikTok hit ‘I’m Just A Cat’.

But as they set about recording their second full-length album, they felt they were missing something crucial, and after some soul-searching contacted Rachel with what they thought was a shot-in-the-dark request to a musician and singer they all hugely admired.

A founding member of That Dog and The Haden Triplets, and a respected solo artist – the daughter of jazz legend Charlie Haden – who’d also worked with Jimmy Eat World, Weezer, Anais Mitchell and Todd Rundgren, among others, reacted positively to their pitch, the lads subsequently setting about writing new songs with Rachel in mind.

Working remotely between Chris’ studio in Cambridge and Rachel in LA, they started out on what became a winning collection of 12 new songs, ambitious and sonically-varied, the resultant LP effortlessly shifting from the classic alt-rock of opening track ‘I Have A Name’ via the pop charm of tracks like ‘The Kiss That Landed’ and the crushing guitars and cinematic atmospherics of ‘10 League Boots’, towards under-stated, pensive closing number, ‘Lost In London’, a Simon Wells co-write with Boo Hewerdine.

The new record also involves Swedish multi-instrumentalist Gustaf Ljunggren, input from LA’s Sea Grass Studios and Spirit Kid Sound, and the blessing of Rivers Cuomo for an interpolation of Weezer’s ‘Surf Wax America’.

And as the grounded but ambitious Astronauts put it, ‘The album is a tribute to the possibilities of the global sharing of ideas, each track bouncing between countries and continents, heading to its next destination richer and more developed. Simon and The Astronauts is an unlikely cast of characters hailing from a wide variety of musical backgrounds and traditions – and all the better for it.’

There’s also the possibility of an imminent tour, but for now the emphasis is on the finished vinyl product that recently arrived at their Airlock imprint label office, much to Simon’s pride when we spoke.

As he put it on the accompanying press release, ‘The album has always been a pleasure for me. They can be a mystery that can start with the name of the band, a track on the radio or just the artwork. Dark Side of the Moon is an obvious example for me. Or Kid A, or Universal Human by Weezer. For this recording I wanted to capture the album mystery and for everyone involved to be part of the ride.

“It had to be about playing side A and turning the vinyl to hear the rest of the album and finish the journey / story. This all begins with the songwriting process, through to the mixing and mastering. People always make the difference and the joy of hearing Rachel sing with such emotion made the songs complete.”

While the Astronauts see their spiritual home – at least the grounded version – as Cambridge, it’s clear from talking to Simon, that there’s a London accent there. So where are his roots?

“Ah mate, it’d take me 20 odd years to tell you that! I was born in Somerset, ended up in London, I’ve been here 20-odd years, but I lived in Tokyo for three years, I’ve lived all over the Midlands, and my family originally are from Matlock and Yorkshire.”

So there you hasve it. And whereabouts in London are you now?

“Enfield, North London.”

How did Ben (who also goes out under the name The Entertainment) and dad, Boo, reach your orbit (so to speak)?

“I met Boo in a pub, and we just talked about music and songwriting. He said, ‘I’ve got a weekend of songwriting, come along’.

“For me, he’s one of the best singer-songwriters in the country. And over the years, I’ve got to know him, being on residential weeks with him and people like Darden Smith. And through all that, I met Ben one weekend. Boo said, ‘Let’s try and do one song together, see if it works out’. We met Chris Pepper, this recording engineer in Cambridge, Boo suggesting we just do one song at a time, as live as possible. We’d literally write something in the morning, then record it in the afternoon.

“We didn’t really know if it would work out as a project. And Boo can do that, drive that along. Originally, that project was going to be called Jason and the Argonauts, but I thought I could put a spin on that. When they said, ‘Your name’s got to be on it,’ we became Simon and the Astronauts, because of my love for sci-fi and cartoons and comic books, taking that imagery. And the first album has a booklet where everyone’s got a job title, and what they do on the spaceship.”

Simon tells me this second album is actually the third set of recordings they’ve put together. But, I asked (trying to gauge how old he is, for one thing), was he too young to go back to The Bible (the band, that is, not the Good Book … that would make him really old)?

“I came to the Bible quite late. But I’ve been listening to music for a ridiculous amount of time.”

Turns out he’s 58, but they’re not the sort of band who put that information out there. In fact, even before I realised that I kind of expected it, seeing their promo videos so far. They’re quite happy to have Rachel out front, but I get the feeling the rest are more comfortable hiding behind fictional aliases, more Gorillaz-like – cartoon-led, if you like.

Maybe that’s not a bad comparison, with this a group very much about song-craft, first and foremost, capable of more commercial moments but with plenty of elements of leftfield pop. And while talking cartoon alter-egos, I also mentioned garage-rock outfit Michael & the Angelos, the Liverpool band with a link to Echo and the Bunnymen guitar hero Will Sergeant, who put their own Hanna Barbera style stories online.

“I like that sort of stuff. And there was that element of, ‘Do we remain anonymous?’. People have bugged us for press photos, and yet we’re more interested in the music and writing than anything else. That’s where the focus of everything we’ve done is, and we take a lot more time over that than anything else. I did look into doing some animation, looking at the videos for the last Gorillaz album. But God knows how much money they spend on those.”

One thing that’s changed in recent years is how bands have realised – with improving computer technology, and so on – they don’t all have to be in the same room to write and record, with several winning examples of acts with musicians in more than one country or region, getting together just for tours or studio time. And that remote working world took a huge step forward during the pandemic, with lockdowns and so on.

“It did, but the weird thing is that Rachel was actually meant to be coming over for the Cambridge Folk Festival, so we booked two weeks with her in the summer, to fit in with her European tour, to do all the vocals. We had it all lined up, all the tracks written by that stage. Then of course, no one could travel.

“I like being in the same room with people, but the balance of it all changed. Chris drove it in terms of producing the tracks, sending us mixes or ideas to build on. We then sent those tracks over to Los Angeles for Rachel to do the vocals, soon as she could get into a recording studio. There was a spell when Los Angeles was shut down, of course.”

I’m guessing you’ve properly met since, face to face.

“No! But we’ve talked about doing some dates this year. We’re trying to make it happen. The wild card is that Gustaf (Ljunggren) lives in Sweden, and I’ve been working with him now for two years, yet I’ve never met him! But if we toured, he would do the tour. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, and could fill in the gaps we need.”

There are a lot of layers on these records, the songwriting and musicianship never in doubt. And we cross a fair few genres. For instance, opening track ‘I Have a Name’ carries a heavy metal/ grunge feel as well as something more radio-friendly. Dare I say, even a bit of Bryan Adams’ ‘Run to You’ or Blue Oyster Cult.

Then we’re into ‘The Kiss That Landed’, with its winning ‘70s radio vibe, somewhere between Boo Hewerdine’s Swimming in Mercury period and something more likely to feature in the higher reaches of the mainstream charts, The Feeling springing to mind. Also, maybe someone can tell me why that repeated ‘my friend’ line reminds me of wondrous Irish outfit The Thrills. That’s a sure-fire pop hit for me … at least in the days when that meant something.

“Yeah, it’s so hard. We spoke to people about what should be the singles, and it’s really quite weird. We recorded about 20-odd tracks until Chris and me said, ‘We’ve got to put an end to this!’. Originally, we agreed to do 10 or 11 tracks. I came up with a list of 11, Chris came up with his own list of 11, and 10 of them were the same. We had one difference. That’s how we got the 12 tracks. Then we spent a lot of time sequencing.

“There are also these NASA recordings on there, a few mixed in there, such as on ‘The Kiss That Landed’ and at the end. As for that first track, for us it was like Nirvana, whereas ‘The Kiss That Landed’ is more like me doing a ‘50s or ‘60s Hollywood song for a film.”

Strangely enough, there was another influence I was trying to place, then I looked down the tracklist and saw song three – perhaps my LP highlight after repeated listens – was called ‘Squeeze’, as if you were reading my thoughts. And of course, there’s another link, Boo having worked closely with Chris Difford. In fact, I see some of his lyrical bite and song-craft in a few songs.

“Well, he’s the man in a lot of ways. A very clever writer. I think if someone asked me, I’d have to say Elvis Costello. The way he writes … But Chris Difford is fantastic, so thank you for the compliment! I don’t know if he’s a hero as such, but I really admire the way he writes.”

On ‘Squeeze’, there’s even a ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ Mellotron-like moment on the keys (be that down to Ben or Chris), albeit maybe more Dukes of Stratosphear psychedelia than Beatles.

“Ah, The Dukes of Stratosphear! That first album of theirs, I think it’s just incredible. Andy Partridge is a genius. I saw an interview with Steve Wilson recently, and he thought XTC were The Beatles of their generation. In their later work, I think that’s what they achieved. Their last three albums are just fantastic.”

With Costello, Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, Partridge and Colin Moulding, I get the feeling they could have written even more hits if they wanted to. But perhaps that pop world didn’t entice them at times. As for the Astronauts, with this LP, I hear key elements of you tapping into that crossover market. For instance, side two opener ‘Oxygen’ has an ELO thing going on, another space-influenced outfit.

We again come back to Boo, particularly on a record like Swimming in Mercury, hardly surprising considering that its title track tribute to David Bowie was co-written with Ben, mind.

“Yes, and I think that’s one of the better things Boo’s done in the last five to 10 years. The record Boo did with his band as a four-piece is my favourite recording of his, most probably, in that period. I went to see them play live three times, and that, potentially, is the basis of what our band would be if we toured. Chris Pepper was the drummer on that album and on that tour.”

I hear a little Kirsty MacColl in Rachel’s delivery on ‘All My Days’, while ‘Pay It Back’ is another song that deserves daytime national radio airplay (crossover folk meets Lightning Seeds, perhaps, its lyric inspired by Charlie Haden), before the crowdsurfing grungetronic surge of the mighty ’10 League Boots’ brings side one to a climax, the mighty ‘Oxygen’ and ‘Parallel World’ carrying on where we left off as we flip over.

For all its new wave charm, ‘Chess’ also has the air of a 21st century take on Janis Joplin’s take on ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, while the rousing, ultimately soaring ‘Athena’ is another epic hit in the making – the orchestration suggesting Kate Rusby should tackle this with a full brass band (perhaps that’s Simon’s Yorkshire roots coming through). I could so hear that bursting out of the radio to brighten your day, the clouds parting. Could even be a Christmas smash.

Thre’s still vinyl space though for the heartfelt ‘I Do’, Rachel between Sinead O’Connor and Delores O’Riordan. She at least deserves the O’ prefix. And then we’re away on ‘Lost in London’, its subtle piano accompaniment suggesting Bacharach and David meets McCartney, the Abbey Road imagery poignant, as is also the killer verse,

‘Now I am at Marble Arch, I know that they’ve all been here.

The Thin Duke, The Pirates, the Pistols, The Damned, Strummer, and Ray and Dave.’

It’s a hymn to better days, perhaps, neatly told, never over-egged, and while it’s over before you know it, maybe this record marks just the start of this working relationship. And seeing as Karen Carpenter comes to mind here, perhaps ‘it’s only just begun’. In short, they sound like a proper band rather than a trio hitched up with a guest vocalist. Rachel’s proved a great match. Whose idea was it to approach her?

“It was Chris’ idea. He’s a big Weezer fan and liked her vocal on one of their tracks. The weird thing is that I knew That Dog before. There’s a track on their first album about an imaginary friend, ‘She Looks at Me’. That was a song I remembered, the first time I heard her sing, having been aware of her dad. I thought that was very much a Beatles-y sort of thing. And because of all that, it just felt like a good fit.

“She did one vocal for us, on ‘Chess’, and we absolutely loved it. Then she did backing vocals for ‘The Kiss That Landed’, and we said, ‘Would you sing the lead on it?’ She did, and added some improvisation. All that stuff she sort of does naturally, and that’s very much what she brings.”

Maybe that’s where I’m getting the ‘70s radio feel. Rachel has the potential commercial appeal of someone like Rumer, giving that extra pop edge. That Karen Carpenter feel.

Incidentally, the LP is available on vinyl through a deal with an American label, and can also be snapped up digitally, while limited-edition CDs could be up for sale when the band play live.

And seeing as I mentioned The Beatles, Simon added that there are further nods to the Fabs with the LP artwork, one I missed until closer inspection, regarding not only Abbey Road but also ‘our interpretation of the Help sleeve, and A Hard Day’s Night‘. I’ll leave you to check that out for yourself on purchasing the finished product though.

But what happens next time around? Will that involve Rachel again? Have you thought that far ahead?

“We have, yeah. And in an ideal world, we’d all be in the same country, and we’d do maybe a week or two recording, then a week of rehearsal, then some shows. The idea would be to play most of this album, although ‘Athena’ would be really hard to play live, because it’s got so much orchestration. But we’d try and do that and some older stuff, and we’d cover some of Rachel’s earlier material, and Ben’s earlier material. We’ve enough between us to play for a couple of hours.”

For more about Simon and the Astronauts and how to get hold of the album on vinyl or digitally, head to their social media hang-outs on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And for a link back to my interview with Boo Hewerdine – and my first mention of the band – from April 2021, head here.

All design copyright Simply Marvellous Music, with illustrations by Chris Baldie.

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Pip Blom / San Lorenz – Preston, The Ferret

We waited a long time for this, but it was definitely worth the delay, Amsterdam visitors Pip Blom on fine form at The Ferret in Preston, Lancashire, more than seven months after they were first scheduled to visit.

This four-piece Dutch outfit have increasingly filled larger Manchester venues on North-West trips, but on this occasion instead gave a performance at a more intimate Preston music hub fighting for survival, post Covid-19 lockdowns, part of a National Lottery-funded Revive Live tour originally arranged for last September, a Music Venue Trust initiative supporting grassroots venues.

This date had long since sold out, but illness first time around meant Pip and co. (lead singer / guitarist Pip Blom joined in the band of the same name by brother Tender Blom on guitar/backing vocals, Darek Mercks on bass, and Gini Cameron on drums) had to rearrange first for mid-November, then, when that failed to happen, switched again to late April.

Amid all that, the band moved a couple more rungs up the ladder on the back of second LP, Welcome Break, this latest UK trip also including their biggest headline show yet, at Islington Assembly Hall, North London, a winning Sounds From the Other City festival appearance in Salford, a further delayed Revive Live show at Independent, Sunderland, various in-store LP launch events and more evening shows, including dates at Liverpool’s Jacaranda Club (Wednesday, May 4th), Barrelhouse, Totnes (Thursday, May 5th), and festival sets at Focus Wales, Wrexham (Friday, May 6th) and Are You Listening?, Reading (Saturday, May 7th).

There were also prestigious European supports with Franz Ferdinand recently, with Bloc Party next, and just last night we had another entertaining session for long-time supporter Marc Riley’s BBC 6 Music show (Tuesday, May 3rd).

Last Thursday, The Ferret was certainly packed, but your scribe just about managed to get a Guinness in and carefully hoist it, using the limited space he had in front of his boat race while catching the back end of an inspired set by San Lorenz, Pete Harrison’s Merseyside four-piece another outfit with a highly-expressive female drummer, Bex Denton.

I certainly need to check them out again on the strength of this performance, the band recently changing name from SPQR to distance themselves from any white nationalist feckwits adopting that moniker. Instead, they’ve name-checking a fictional island in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, their Ferret set suggesting layered, intelligent pop craft on the respective edges of indie and electronica, somewhere between alt-J, Squeeze, XTC and Wire for my money (although that’s not a right lot of cash, to be fair).

The fact that I only saw a few songs will stop me from writing much more though, at least until next time, but their online product suggests they’re here to stay and are well worth checking out.

Then came the main attraction, offering a heady mix of tracks from 2019 debut LP Boat and afore-mentioned latest platter Welcome Break, a few great singles thrown in for good measure.

It’s been a strange time for the band, the latest album getting its CD and digital release in early October, but the vinyl version only just out. In fact, it was there on the merch stand, Pip and Tender’s mum tending shop, so to speak, while dad Erwin, of Peel favourites Eton Crop (fellow UK circuit regulars in days of yore) was in the throng of it all watching the band, his shock of white rock’n’roll quiff reminding me somewhat of late Jam manager John Weller. And while Erwin didn’t take his cue and step on stage to introduce the ‘best fucking band in the world’, he looked proud all the same … rightly so.

Set-wise, the headliners ordered anchors aweigh with Boat’s side two openers ‘Tinfoil’ and ‘Ruby’, stepping up the knot rate from brooding, intense and grungesome beginnings, Gini pumping away in steerage, the band’s road fitness there for all to savour, this punter allowing himself his first smile at around the minute-mark of song two as the chorus swept in, memories of early Catatonia rekindled.

From there, a giveaway wonky riff swept us into 2018 single ‘Come Home’ before a chance to breathe on the first of five tracks from the new record, the more dreamy Sundays-like open expanses of ‘Faces’ leading to the finely-crafted ‘12’, Pip’s assertion that they’d waited nine months to set their eyes on the vinyl version prompting Darek to chip in that it had been like waiting for a baby to arrive.

Rather aptly, with that in mind, we got 2017 lo-fi wonder singles ‘Babies Are a Lie’ and ‘I Think I’m in Love’ next, the latter’s insistent punk rock surge never failing to hit the spot.

The foot came back off the gas a little for ‘Holiday’ from the latest LP, perhaps more Wolf Alice than the rest of the set, but I guess this was more about pacing themselves towards a big finish, 2016’s rough and raw ‘Hours’ providing another bridge before the frenetic ‘School’ upped the ante – Courtney Barnett springing to mind – and along with the similarly wondrous ‘Easy’ showed they can still write those more off-kilter tracks we love.

By then, Tender was bare-chested, this quartet still giving everything, working towards a big finish, driving 2018 single ‘Pussycat’ (a more ballsy take on The Police’s ‘Spirits in the Material World’, maybe) followed by the sheer ecstasy of crowd-pleasing recent 45, ‘Keep It Together’ and inevitable show-stopper ‘Daddy Issues’, the might of this outfit and their songwriting flair again proven without doubt. And for the record, the last minute of the latter – the Blom siblings’ duelling vocals and false fade, then that big finish – never fails to grab by the tail and swing you around, regardless of available venue space.

On this occasion, there was no encore, but what more could we ask? Besides, I defy you to see Pip Blom and not leave with smiles on your faces. So good, every time. Here’s to a swift return to these shores. 

For last year’s interview with Pip, marking the release of Welcome Break, head here. And for our first chat, from 2019, head here. You can also check out this live review from Band on the Wall, Manchester from that year.

For all the latest from Pip Blom, including live shows, recorded product and other merchandise, try their official website, and follow the band via FacebookInstagram, and Twitter. And for more about San Lorenz, heads to their Soundcloud page and their Facebook page.

And for all the latest from The Ferret in Preston, Lancashire, including its ongoing fight for survival, head to its website and Facebook page.

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All the way from Detroit, destined for success – celebrating Duke Fakir’s I’ll Be There: My Life with The Four Tops

Picture the scene. It’s the second Sunday of November, 1966, barely three months after England’s World Cup triumph, The Four Tops riding high in the UK charts, their fourth hit on this side of the Atlantic rather fittingly retaining the top spot, ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ at No.1 for the second of a three-week run, their On Top LP set to start its 23-week top-40 run the following weekend.

That evening, Levi Stubbs, Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir, Lawrence Payton and Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson played two sets at the Saville Theatre in London’s West End, Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers the main support act for an event promoted by Beatles manager Brian Epstein. They’d be back for a proper UK tour two months later, including two sold-out shows at the Royal Albert Hall, the Tops’ love affair with the UK and Europe well under way, as Duke Fakir recalls in his forthcoming autobiography.

‘The Tops had always aimed high, wanting to entertain in the top venues in the country, not imagining that one day we’d be in demand in Europe too. When Brian Epstein foretold that he’d make us as popular as the boys from Liverpool, who were an international phenomenon, we gladly put ourselves in his hands. Brian was a young man, just a little older than we were, a nice Jewish guy who was easy to talk to, free-spirited but also a savvy businessman, an expert in marketing. His first step was bringing us over to the UK for a promotional tour with various bookings and lots of television appearances. On the last day of the tour, we performed at a small London theatre, the Saville, an eight-or-nine-hundred-seater. It wasn’t concert-sized, more like the size of our usual nightclub venues. Brian sold out every ticket in the house and invited key media people and artists. Backstage before we went on, he reiterated his promise: “This could be great for you. You do the best show you can do, and I guarantee you will be front-page news.”

‘The people just went crazy, and when Brian came backstage to congratulate us, he was almost crying. After that he brought us back for a whole tour of the UK, which was a complete sell-out. And in 1967 that was big, really big. To cap it off he gave us an amazing going-away party at his three-storey brownstone on Chapel Street. At the party were The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Who, Small Faces, and every other group in the country who was on the charts or on their way up. It was a party to behold.

‘The first floor was for meeting and greeting, saying hello and thank you, and drinking a little bit, which we all did. Paul McCartney asked about ‘It’s the Same Old Song’, which he was a big fan of. He told us he thought it was unique, it had a very particular sound to it, and he loved the rhythm. He said something like, “That’s some bad mother-fucking music!”. All of the artists were very nice and open, and it felt a lot like any artistic community in America where musicians gravitate to each other and shake hands and talk music. The women at the party ran up and kissed us and told us how much they loved the Tops. The guys said how much they loved the Motown sound. The thing everyone was most impressed with was how all that music could ‘come out of just one building’. It was astonishing to them.

‘Moving upstairs at the party, on the second floor, folks were smoking hash and weed. Everybody started gravitating up there. England had always been a little bit more open about getting high. Judging by today’s standards it may seem like it was a big drug scene. But in the ‘60s and ‘70s it was all part of the culture, the way people partied and had mind-altering experiences. It wasn’t like we were drug addicts. It was all about spreading kindness, joy, love and happiness. I think I was having too much fun because I never made it up to the third floor of the party. I had the driver take me home.”

Not quite sure what was happening on that third floor, and records suggest there was also a fourth floor at that swish Belgravia address, one Duke was clearly not party to, so to speak. Either way, by the end of August, Brian was gone, Duke describing his accidental overdose of sleeping pills as ‘a huge, tragic loss’. He added, ‘Later we learned that he and (Motown boss) Berry (Gordy) had been in discussions about joining forces and putting together some kind of business deal that never came to pass.’

But this nation’s love affair with the Tops continued, with promotional support initially from Brian’s agency, his belief in them proven right, their positive relationship with the UK continuing to this day, Duke now the sole survivor from that classic line-up.

One of the interviewing highlights of the last dozen years for this website was my first opportunity to speak to Duke, exactly six years ago, reminiscing about so many moments involving his past, present and pre-Tops years, celebrating one of the finest vocal bands of all time (with a link to that interview here). What’s more, a few months later I got to speak to Otis Williams, last surviving ever-present of The Temptations (with a link to that interview here).

For a lad won over by ‘60s soul in the early ‘80s, buying my first Four Tops and Temptations compilations on vinyl two decades after those early hits, it was a big moment, Duke by then on the road with three younger Tops, including original bandmate Lawrence’s son Larry, aka Roquel Payton, as was Otis with the modern take on The Temptations. And still they tour, together in fact, with plans to return later to the UK later this year, Duke and Otis – 86 and 80 years young respectively – remaining very much at the centre of each outfit.

As for that autobiography, as Duke puts it in the foreword of I’ll Be There: My Life with The Four Tops, told with Detroit-raised TV and film writer, producer, playwright and poet Kathleen McGhee-Anderson: ‘Most singing groups didn’t stay together for a lifetime, but The Four Tops did. Not until Lawrence Payton, Obie Benson and Levi Stubbs sang their last notes did we change our line-up. Now I’m the last Top left alive to tell our story and I’ve asked myself, ‘why me?’ and ‘what kept us together for so long?’.

‘In my view, most of it was out of our hands. Something bigger was at play from the very beginning. In the middle of the 20th century worlds were colliding, times were changing, and people were ready for a message of love and togetherness – and they could get that from music.

‘The Four Tops were a part of that and maybe because of who we were – a band of brothers who stuck together, known for our melodious harmonies – we were ones to sing it.’

It’s a remarkable tale, not just about defining hit singles such as their afore-mentioned sole UK No.1 – among 11 top-10 singles here up to 1988’s ‘Loco in Acapulco’, and five top-10 LPs – but also of four bandmates who became tighter than brothers, touching on Duke’s marital ups and downs, struggles against drink and drugs, soured investment deals, over-riding religious faith, and the loss of those soul brothers, all told with honesty, humour and humility.

At its heart he draws on complicated relationships with his devout Christian mother, Rubyleon, and Muslim father, Nazim, plus the grandmother he credits with installing within his strong work ethic, and second wife Piper, ‘the love of my life’.

Religion plays a huge part throughout, but so does Detroit, Michigan, the Motor City where East India (Bangladesh) born Nazim settled after spells in London and Canada, a street singer and sitar maker who became a cook and chef before heading to his adopted home’s car factories, marrying a Georgia-born church choir director who later became a minister.

Abdul was the fourth of six children, his grandfather having set up the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the racially mixed North End of town, the church to which he would later devote himself, inspired by Piper to give up the hedonistic party lifestyle.

Duke, as he was known from a young age, was around seven when his parents separated, eight decades later remaining keen to advocate the peace and love message of each of their faiths, spirituality manifesting itself at various key events in his life, adamant regarding certain ‘special forces watching over me’.

Within, Duke and Kathleen paint a vivid picture of Detroit from the ‘40s to the ‘60s as he found his way towards his destiny, telling of a city where music culture rang out from assembly lines, shops and churches, ‘with a doo-wop group on every corner and talent shows every week of the year’.

At 13 he was blown away on seeing Jackie Wilson’s cousin, future bandmate Levi Stubbs, then 11, guesting with the Lucky Millinder Big Band, the pair later thrust together – as Pershing High School pupils – during a spell with a street gang they fell in with and were soon eager to distance themselves from, determined to make it their own way, seeking out a far more positive destiny.

Their first singing engagement was out west in Colorado, that particular quartet undone by an off-key fourth member, a learning experience that saw them vow to seek out a proper fit next time. And they soon met their fellow Four Aims (as they were known then), a wonderful moment of happenstance seeing Obi and Lawrence join them to perform at an invitation-only hometown graduation party in 1954, the chemistry and four-part harmonies there from the start, on a night involving Four Freshmen, Ray Charles and Orioles covers.

Lawrence’s instinctive arrangements quickly made an impact, each member bringing different qualities to the set-up, their first show proper following at a competition at the Warfield Theater, the biggest amateur show in town, subsequent interest leading to increasing numbers of bookings, far and wide.

On one occasion, their confidence took a knock on sharing a bill with James Brown and His Famous Flames in Atlanta, shocked by an outfit they knew nothing of before, stalling their own top-of-the-bill performance as long as they could that night, letting the crowd come back down to earth somewhat, Levi eventually suggesting, ‘We can’t out-funk him, we can’t out-dance him, we can’t out-holler him, but we can out-sing this mother-fucker, so we just going to go up there and sing!’. And sing they did, raising their game to new heights, on what proved to be another winning live appearance.

A first summer season at Daddy Bragg’s club in Idlewild, Michigan further raised their stock, Duke taking a particular interest in the business side that would serve him well over the years. And they also ended up winning over four of the dancing girls, a third of those liaisons ending in marriage, Duke hitching Inez, his first child following.

In time came their deal with the legendary Chess Records, leading to that name change on the Chicago label’s insistence, to avoid confusion with country act the Ames Brothers.

There were plenty more turns in the road, not least their unanimous decision to turn down a move to Berry Gordy’s fledgling Motown label back in their home city, concentrating on their R&B circuit labours, more prestigious bookings following, including various ‘top-of-the-line nightclubs out west’, inching closer to big-time venues in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

As the ‘50s made way for the ‘60s, they recorded for Colombia then New York’s Riverside Records. Meanwhile, Berry Gordy’s firm continued to grow, the Tops in the audience at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem when the Motown Revue hit the town, Duke and co. marvelling at The Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells and Marvin Gaye, wishing they were part of that bill but still retaining faith in their own destiny. But when a televised appearance on The Tonight Show in New York was caught back home in Detroit by Berry and his director of A&R, William ‘Mickey’ Stevenson, the latter accordingly reached out (I can use that particular turn of phrase in this case) and within weeks they were signing a deal at Hitsville, West Grand Boulevard, a few blocks down from General Motors’ HQ.

Their first Motown sessions, in 1963, led to an album of jazz standards, but Breaking Through would not be released for more than 35 years, Berry and Mickey already having other ideas, introducing them to in-house songwriters Eddy and David Holland and Lamont Dozier. And while the wages were modest at that stage, their studio education proved second to none, that first hit just around the corner, the Holland-Dozier-Holland penned ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’.

Their mighty rise followed, but Duke’s marriage was on the rocks, label-mates The Supremes’ Mary Wilson waiting in the wings, that romance cut short in an attempt to resuscitate his family unit for the sake of his children.

Soon, there was that first transatlantic trip, word spreading worldwide, but while things would never quite be the same beyond 1967, their take on ‘Walk Away Renee’ cracked the UK top-10 as the new year arrived, March ’68 single ‘If I Were a Carpenter’ also a success but proving to be their last big hit of the decade.

Changes were afoot, the landscape shifting, no better illustrated than by Duke’s inside story of how Marvin Gaye’s classic What’s Going On album came about, against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, escalation of the Vietnam War and ensuing protests and marches, picket lines, police brutality and overt racism, Duke and Obie on hand with Marvin and his brother Frankie, just back from ‘Nam, at the birth of the title song.

For Duke, those hometown riots of 1967 brought back memories of 1943’s racial tensions fuelled by the KKK, overcrowded housing and political suppression on Detroit’s East side. But while Motown took what followed as its cue to up and leave for Southern California, the Tops stayed put for now.

That sense of loyalty and brotherhood comes up time and again in this tale. While The Temptations, for instance, underwent personnel changes, and Diana Ross left The Supremes, Tops frontman Levi remained loyal to his bandmates as overtures were made by Gordy to take that solo path, seeing an opportunity for four hit acts where there were two. But while Levi said no, in a sense the writing was on the wall, their faces no longer fitting, leaving Motown in 1972.

There were still the occasional hits over the next quarter-century or so, and Duke has plenty more to tell, such as the story of the twist of fate (or faith, perhaps) that somehow saw them avoid the ill-fated Pan Am flight 103 just before Christmas 1988, following a festive Top of the Pops recording session. Then came 1990’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the Waldorf Astoria, New York, marking a staggering 45 Billboard Hot 100 hits since 1964, including 24 top-40s and seven top-10s, the quartet introduced by Stevie Wonder.

Soon enough, Duke had swapped cocaine and weed in Vegas for a more pious hometown existence, Piper having introduced him to the church that just happened to be the one his grandfather set up 50 years before, now at its new address.  

In 1997 they lost Lawrence, aged 59, the other originals continuing until Levi bowed out in 2000 after a stroke, more changes following Obie’s death in 2005, Levi passing away three years later.

Duke carried on though, making it his mission to properly say goodbye and thank you to audiences on behalf of his soul brothers, a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2009 seen as the icing on the cake, 55 years after those first Four Aims engagements.

And he’s not looking to throw the towel in yet, Duke now behind a musical telling the Four Tops story, I’ll Be There set to open in Detroit later this year, while the current four-piece are set to join forces with fellow Motown legends The Temptations – Otis Williams among them – for their latest UK arena tour later this year.

Whatever happens next, we’ll always have those great records to savour. Before I started this piece, I revisited, online, the Tops’ spellbinding televised live show from Paris in 1967, their take on ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ on that occasion just as thrilling today as in the year I was born, the two drummers doing their level best to keep up. And the moment I post this, I’ll blast out ‘Bernadette’ on the record deck, savouring that heart-searing moment, around 2 minutes 39 seconds in, where the band cut away and Levi issues that emotionally charged call to the lady in question. Then, as I’m talking killer percussion, I’ll follow that with the super-charged ‘You Keep Running Away’, a favourite from my 45s box, and that very track Macca raved about way back then, ‘The Same Old Song’.

And now, not so far from treasured copies of Eddie and Brian Holland’s Come and Get These Memories: The Genius of Holland-Dozier-Holland and Gerri Hirshey’s Nowhere to Run, I have Duke’s own version of events to reach out for.

I’ll Be There: My Life with The Four Tops by Duke Fakir with Kathleen McGhee-Anderson, is published by Omnibus Press on Thursday, May 5th, pre-orders on offer including limited editions hand-signed by Duke. For more details, head here.

The Four Tops and The Temptations’ delayed UK arena dates are now set to happen this autumn, with late-‘70s soul-disco favourites Odyssey as special guests, calling at Manchester’s AO Arena (Friday, September 30th), Leeds’ First Direct Arena (Saturday, October 1st), Liverpool’s M&S Bank Arena (Sunday, October 2nd), Southend’s Cliffs Pavilion (Wednesday, October 5th), Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena (Thursday, October 6th), Bournemouth’s International Centre (Friday, October 7th), Birmingham’s Utilita Arena (Sunday, October 9th), Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena (Monday, October 10th), and London’s O2 Arena (Tuesday, October 11th), with tickets available via 24-hour hotline number, 0844 888 9991, www.ticketline.co.uk, or direct from the venues.

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Salutations, serenades, savoured situations – Phil Odgers on Cush, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, and Ghosts of Rock’n’Roll

Phil Odgers was working with bandmate Paul Simmonds over the bank holiday weekend, the pair back on track after a difficult year following the devastating loss of The Men They Couldn’t Hang co-frontman Stefan Cush to a heart attack in February 2021.

Phil, best known to fans as Swill, and Paul had an Easter ‘songwriting get-together’, my interviewee telling me they were working on tracks for the band’s next album, the band deciding late last year that carrying on was the right thing to do.

Before we spoke, I re-immersed myself in Phil’s latest solo LP, Ghosts of Rock’n’Roll, a cracking record that deserves all the critical praise garnered upon it so far … and more.

And I was reminded through an online interview with Phil from six months ago (by Dave Jennings for Louder Than War, linked below) marking that release, that while he remains busy with his solo venture, the band were honouring prior bookings, in what turned out a cathartic experience for fans and group alike.

“Yeah, obviously with Cush, it was a total shock, and right in the middle of lockdown. The gigs we ended up doing at the end of last year and beginning of this year had been moved around so many times – postponed, rescheduled, and rescheduled again and again – and we never thought in our wildest imaginations that Cush wouldn’t be here to do them.

“We had to think about what we were going to do, and thought we’d honour the commitments we had, doing those gigs as a way of … well, for a lot of people there, it was their first time out at a gig in two years, so people hadn’t even had a chance to get together, and this was a chance for everyone to do that.

“We always talk a lot anyway, but if we could talk about things over the mic. and people could talk to us at the bar or wherever … and certainly by the second or third gig it was quite clear to us that the right thing to do would be to continue.”

It’s always been a loyal fanbase, and Phil mentioned how it’s expanded, 38 years beyond the release of ‘The Green Fields of France’, their debut single on Elvis Costello’s Imp Records, and the first of their three John Peel sessions.

“With those people that come to see us, not only have a lot of those grown up with the band, there from the beginning, but there are also people coming who are bringing the next generation, and their children aren’t children anymore.

“So many times, I hear stories now of younger people who got into us because their parents would listen in the car. They kind of had no choice. In those days, you didn’t have Bluetooth, and kids couldn’t overtake car stereos with their phones. Ha!”

I guess those rearranged dates gave you all a chance to properly grieve for Cush.

“Totally. And, especially with the first few gigs, there would be times when pretty much all of us at one point or another during the gig would be extremely emotional. Also, I’m the one who’s got a microphone in front of me, and there were bits where you had to just compose yourself and bring yourself together. There’s no point you just standing there, blubbing!”

I still struggle to comprehend Cush is no longer with us, let alone the band. But I’m pleased I got to see them all again in Preston in late 2018 (with my review here). And the Cock-a-Hoop LP was a great one for him to go out on, not least the songs he contributed, including the wondrous ‘Salutations’ and ‘Pone’.

And Cush and Swill were always a great double act as frontmen, forever covering for each other.

“I think I said, last time we spoke, that for Cush and myself, because we’d done it for so long, it was almost a case of knowing what the other was thinking, being able to step in immediately if the other one … I think sometimes I knew before Cush if he was going to make a mistake or get distracted, and vice versa, after such a long time working together like that, singing together, sharing all those experiences.

“Also, there’s the sound, with those two vocals, so what we did there and what we plan on doing going forward is that everyone’s singing, so I’m pretty much singing everything, with one or two songs where others are, but we’re all singing the choruses.

“And it’s surprising. Ricky (McGuire), the bass player, had never sung anything with the band, so we were quite shocked what a nice voice he’s got!”

Clearly, it’s been a cathartic experience, and I also gather you’re all helping out with a biography of the band, no doubt giving further opportunities to reflect.

“Yeah, in the sense of the cathartic thing, absolutely it has. It’s impossible not to. We’ve been trying not to write an album that dwells on Covid, because everybody went through that. The thing for us was Cush, and there’s one song that’s completely about him, and his memory is in those songs. It’s not a case of getting it out of your system, but …”

It can’t be forced. Those reflections may take a long time to emerge. As you’ve said yourself, you were such a huge part of each other’s lives.

“Yeah, and what makes it different about the Covid aspect is that we’ve all been through deaths in our lives. I lost my father, and lost my mum when I was young, but this happened during a time where you couldn’t go to funerals, and I really understand that word closure now. With Cush’s burial, we had to drive four hours to South Wales, have the funeral then drive back again. You couldn’t go to anyone’s house or get-together. But it was very important to sort of see him put in the ground and bring it home to you that it was real.

“Also, genuinely, I’ve felt his presence on stage at gigs. We all have, we’ve all felt that, and we bring his guitar with us now, have that on stage.”

The book is being compiled by Aaron Chapman, a Canadian writer previously known for publications about Vancouver’s former gangster and club scene, his work mostly Canada-centric. But he’s a long-time fan.

“Yes, to the extent that he couldn’t come into our gig when we played Toronto the first time because he was too young to get in. But he’d followed the band from a distance, and we’ve got to know him. We’ve been talking about it for a couple of years, and now it’s started, using Facebook as a platform to get stories. And we do interviews with him every now and then … telling our different versions of the same events!”

I guess it helps that he’s not too close to the band’s inner circle, therefore – in theory – able to get a clearer perspective on it all.

“Yeah, and if any one of us was to write our own book you’d just get that one point of view. Also, he’s connecting with people we’ve worked with in the past, other musicians, venue owners, DJs, producers, fans, and so on, so there’ll be all these different stories, some of them we won’t even know about … and hopefully they won’t be too awful. Ha!”

Incidentally, Phil also revealed that he’s working on a second songbook – or ‘more than just a songbook’, as he put it.

“Everybody thought during lockdown they’d have this extra time. I don’t know where the time went!”

True. I think I just started more writing projects … mostly unfinished.

“That’s what I did! I started a lot of projects and talked about a lot of projects with other people!”

Despite all the sadness and difficulties, the pandemic proved a relatively creative period for Phil, off the road and out of the studio, a full household at his West London family home ultimately leading to him demolishing a ‘damp old shed full of junk in the backyard’ and building a recording room – ‘my space’, as he put it – where his weekend session with Paul took place.

“What I hope is that I can go in there, shut the door, and most importantly, I’ve got a mic set up, so when I get that idea in the middle of the night, I can go in there with a guitar … and hopefully it will sound all right the next day!”

I guess – like many more of us – you’ve lost a few of those ideas down the years, those that might come to you on a dog-walk, for instance, struggling to keep them in your head until you get home and write it all down or sing into a device.

“Definitely, sometimes I’ve jotted down song ideas on my phone, put it on loop and walked around with one earphone in to get ideas. Other times I’ll get an idea and I’ll have to stop, get my phone out and hum it into my phone for when I get home. I don’t know what the dog thinks about it! He doesn’t mind when he wants to stop, sniff around and all that, but when it’s me, it’s a different story!”

That’s Monty he’s talking about, the first few minutes of our conversation taken up by updates on our respective rescue dogs, in his case ‘a total mongrel who a lot of people think is a Patterdale Terrier’.

“That’s what he looks like, but he’s from Romania. We tried Battersea Dogs’ home for a long time, but we have two cats and it’s not that easy – some of those dogs have particular issues where they’ll need a more experienced owner. So we have Monty, our Romanian refugee.”

Phil and his family live in the borough of Ealing, with ‘lots of green space’ nearby, but also plenty of ‘wild foxes and rabbits, and that sets him off!’. And yet he’s less than seven miles from Shepherd’s Bush, where he first met Cush in the early ‘80s and The Men They Couldn’t Hang took shape.

Back on the subject of Ghosts of Rock’n’Roll, there’s been a pleasing reaction.

“It’s been amazing. And I’m still getting good feedback. I was surprised how well it went down, and the folk chart position. I got a message saying it looked like it was going to chart, and could I send them a bio and a video if I had one. And then it went in at No.5, and I just couldn’t believe it went that high. And with the vinyl …”

Those ongoing delays at pressing plants have become a major issue, leading to disruption regarding dates when vinyl LPs were expected to be released. But finally it seems it’s set to happen in Phil’s case, in time for Record Store Day on June 18th, that version including a couple of tracks not on the CD.

One of many tracks from the album that jumped out at me straight away was his duet with The Long Ryders’ Sid Griffin on Phil Ochs cover, ‘Flower Lady’. Had Swill and Sid known each other a while?

“Yeah, first I think it was us doing the same festivals in mainland Europe, then – especially both living in London – we’d bump into each other at venues like the Mean Fiddler. And I’m a big fan, listening to The Long Ryders but also The Coal Porters, and all that.

“With Phil Ochs, I’d been compared to him over the years, time to time, in my style and some of my songwriting approach, kind of got curious about him, started listening properly, bought a biography about him and got quite obsessed, extremely interested in his life. I’m surprised they haven’t done a film about him. You know, the fact that he was always there, and had people like Bob Dylan looking up to him. He never quite got the recognition he deserved, and had a very troubled life. I got very interested in the idea of doing one of his songs, and decided on ‘Flower Lady’.”

A great choice, and you blend so well with Sid on that version.

“Yeah, and it was so good for Sid to come in, do his stuff, in that short gap during lockdown where you could get together again. And the album was recorded in four or five days. Sid was amazing. He then put bits of harmonica on other stuff, and we just had a laugh. He’s a real gent, the epitome of the American gent, so well-mannered.”

Among the other tracks I love is ‘Early Morning Rain’, which for me has a Jimmy Webb feel.

“I had a couple of Gordon Lightfoot albums, and he wrote that. He’s one of those artists where you get an album, and you know there’ll be three brilliant tracks on there. Like Stan Rogers, if you know him, the guy who wrote ‘Barrett’s Privateers’. But I heard ‘Early Morning Rain’, thought, ‘What a great song!’, and decided to do it. Billy Bragg did a version, not long ago, and when I found out I wavered, but then thought, ‘No, I really want to do this’.”

You’ve definitely made it your own, although there is that Jimmy Webb writing for Glen Campbell thing going on for me. But I suppose that’s not 100 times removed from where you’re at.

“No, and I often find little Glenn Campbell influences coming in, in lyrical ideas or the way of singing a line or playing a bit of a song. I am a fan.”

Thinking forward to your upcoming live shows supporting previous WriteWyattUK interviewee Ian Prowse, do you go back a long way?

“It’s pretty recent, another of those where I’m really surprised we didn’t cross each other or work together before. We did a gig in London a couple of weeks ago, were chatting away in the dressing room, and have lots of people we know in common, and had been on the same label at one point. Often when you go to a new label, they give you a ton of their other artists’ stuff, but I never had any Pele or Amsterdam or Ian Prowse records until recently. And I’d never seen him live.”

Was it his support slots with Elvis Costello that turned you on to his music?

“No, we were both doing online lockdown sessions and had a core of people tuning into mine and his, like a cross-pollination, getting comments from both sides. And he did a version of ‘The Green Fields of France’. Fans on my page were saying I should check out Ian’s page, and his fans the same thing, so we got chatting online, I sent him a copy of my album, and he liked that.

“He was still working on his at the time. The first time we met was playing together in London. I’m also doing one in Liverpool, but get a feeling there will be other things. Our influences are the same … and we’re politically aligned.”

What’s more, (ahem) the day after the Liverpool show (Saturday, May 7th, with details here), Phil’s doing a Sunday session, broadcast live on stage in Nottingham, at a venue called Foreman’s Bar.

That recent London show included Phil and Ian joining forces on a cover of The Clash’s ‘London Calling’. And seeing as Phil’s worked in the past with, for example, Eliza Carthy and more recently Sid Griffin, maybe there’s a duets LP coming someday, I suggested.

“I would think about doing something like that. That’s in the back of my mind. I’d like to do some more stuff with other people.”

But in the meantime, he’s busy with Paul again.

“Yeah, we spent Saturday working on seven songs or so. We’ve already been in the studio as a full band and recorded one new song for the album, and we’re going again at the end of May, planning to go in several times over the next few months, record one track with a full band for the album, and then we’ll do three tracks that would be the equivalent of B-sides, if you like, a bit more basic.

“Also, Tom (Spencer, lead guitar) came round and listened … and then we got quite drunk. Ha!”

As for Cush, after all those years I guess he’s never far from your thoughts.

“Oh, yeah, and as life gets more closer to ‘normal’, you’re constantly reminded of places you’ve been and things you’ve done.

“Because this book idea was coming up, and The Men They Couldn’t Hang were planning a new album and we were talking about an acoustic album, we had a Zoom get-together, the first we’d had … and it was four days after that when I got the call. We just couldn’t believe it.

“Again, because of lockdown it was as if someone was in Australia had gone. If that had been the case before, we’d have just gone out and got together, gone round and seen everyone … but you just couldn’t do it.”

It was a friendship and working relationship lasting almost 40 years, for a band of brothers who met ‘Right Time, Right Place, Right Song’.

“We met in this mental kind of flat we lived at in Shepherd’s Bush, round about the time that The Young Ones was on the telly. That was very much like where we lived! He was a friend of some people living next door, we all got on really well and just decided …

“I was reading an article this morning about bands on the dole and so on, how that was a real kind of inspiration. The article was almost saying if you weren’t a band on the dole, you weren’t really a band! We were all on the dole but didn’t have a band, but found busking a good way to supplement our dole money.”

Was Cush already roadie-ing for The Pogues then?

“Sort of. It all happened so quickly. I don’t know if he was doing it when we first met, but that whole thing exploded so quickly that by the time we were busking he’d been doing gigs with The Pogues, and within the space of just a couple of months or so we went to do our first gig, then we were doing gigs with Elvis Costello, being signed by him. It was all incredibly fast, with no major record company interest. It happened so quickly that it was its own little scene.”

For this website’s previous Phil Odgers feature/interview, from 2018, head here. For details of Phil’s Ghosts of Rock’n’Roll, other solo releases and merchandise go to https://philodgers.bandcamp.com/. For all the latest on The Men They Couldn’t Hang, their back catalogue and future dates, head to https://www.tmtch.co.uk/. And for Dave Jennings’ piece with Swill from last October, head here.

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Singing for those I know – talking Ocean Colour Scene acoustic side-shows with Simon Fowler

Last time I chatted to Simon Fowler, four years ago, he was walking Cooper, his cockapoo, by the river near his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, not long before heading up to my adopted neck of the woods with Ocean Colour Scene to play Lancaster’s Highest Point Festival.

“Oh right. He was a little puppy then.”

And he’ll be back soon (Simon, that is), this time with bandmate Oscar Harrison for a two-man take on the band’s back-catalogue, the pair currently rehearsing for 25-date acoustic UK tour, An Evening with Simon and Oscar of Ocean Colour Scene, starting on April 29th at Fat Sam’s in Dundee and running through to June 2nd at The Globe in Cardiff.

For those shows, Simon (aka Foxy) sings and play acoustic guitar, and Ocean Colour Scene drummer Oscar also sings and plays piano, bass and percussion, the duo on the back of a sell-out full band UK tour in 2021, but this time playing more intimate seated venues, hopefully including acoustic performances of hits and anthems such as ‘The Riverboat Song’, ‘The Circle’, ‘You’ve Got It Bad’, ‘Better Day’, ‘Travellers Tune’, ‘Hundred Mile High City’, ‘It’s a Beautiful Thing’, ‘Profit in Peace’, ‘So Low’, and ‘The Day We Caught The Train’. So many great songs that formed an integral part of my soundtrack to that second half of the ‘90s … and beyond.

And it turns out they were in Lancashire last week too, playing Blackburn Museum & Art Gallery.

“We did a gig in memory of a great friend of ours who died last year, on the anniversary of his death. His name was Craig Dunstan. Him and his wife Tracy, they’d come and say {adopts a broad Lancashire accent}, ‘You know, this is the 186th time we’ve seen you!’.  They were absolute super-fans, and went in the front car with Chris and Steve Cradock when Steve’s mother died. They were very, very close to us. So Oscar and I did a concert in memory and to raise money for a brain tumour charity, in an incredible venue in Blackburn, like a little theatre above a fantastic little museum.”

I see Paul Weller and his band (including Steve Cradock) were also in Blackburn last week, on his latest tour, playing King George’s Hall. As for Craig and Tracy, that goes to show the enduring love out there for the Scenies (as the fans would have it), a quarter of a century or so after that period in which they seemed to be everywhere, from Chris Evans’ TFI Friday TV show to major Oasis supports, the Weller affiliation, and that whole surge that came with the Britpop movement. But how does Simon look back on those mid-‘90s glory days now?

“Oh, with great fondness. And quite a bit of pride, to be quite honest. It was as good as you can imagine, really.”

I touched on those years with Louise Wener, from Sleeper, recently, someone else party to that inner circle of bands tucked in behind heavyweights Blur and Oasis, moving in similar circles.

“Yeah … although I didn’t know them. They were kind of the Camden crowd … they were in Blur’s gang, and we were in Paul’s gang!”

Does it all seem a dreamy blur now – no pun intended – looking back on that? Did you get a chance to enjoy it at the time?

“Oh God, yeah … far too much! Haha! I’m glad we did that. We did the whole rock’n’roll show, we really did. We were just about young enough. Well, I was – me and Oscar are four years older than Steve (Cradock) and Damon (Minchella), and I was in my early 30s. But the idea of living that lifestyle now fills me with utter horror! Haha! I mean, the idea of going to a nightclub fills me with dread!”

It all started back in their native Solihull. Who was it that had past involvement with the band Echo Base?

“That was Oscar. They made an album at UB40’s studio, whilst it was being built. And they toured with them on the Geffery Morgan tour, when Oscar would have been about 17.”

What were you doing at the time? Were you aware of them, and did you know Oscar?

“No, I got to know Oscar through the manager we had before Chris Cradock. Oscar joined our band, The Fanatics, which Damon was also in. Then Steve joined us, and we became Ocean Colour Scene. That was in October 1989.”

Simon describes his forthcoming dates with Oscar as ‘a real tonic – a great chance to look the audience in the eye and interact with them on a more personal basis than ever before’, the latest chapter in a winning career.

The afore-mentioned Chris Evans’ support helped, the Scenies doing the pilot show for TFI Friday, its presenter also making ‘The Riverboat Song’ his BBC Radio 1 breakfast show record of the week for two weeks in a row, Top of the Pops performances and much more also regularly popping up.

There were top-10 albums with breakthrough second album Moseley Shoals (1996, No.2) and follow-ups Marchin’ Already (1997, No.1), One from the Modern (1999, No.4) and Mechanical Wonder (2001, No.7), the band also amassing 17 top-40 singles, including a staggering run of nine successive top-20 hits, six of those making the top-10, with a mantelpiece full of awards also coming their way.

They were clearly no overnight success though, having spent half a dozen initial years fine-tuning their sound. And before calling Simon I went back to their self-titled debut album, now 30 years old, and …

“The very first album? Crikey, yeah!”

Indeed, and I feel on a fresh listen that’s stood the test of time, even if it’s not one that gets talked about so much. As it was, they soon parted from the Fontana label and started writing their own material in a Birmingham studio, a period they now see as one where they ‘learnt how to make records rather than just playing two guitars, drum and bass on stage’. Was that earlier period (their first three singles initially came out on the Phffft label, before Fontana snuck in) your apprenticeship of sorts?

“Yes, I guess it was. Also, that’s when we got to know Paul, and that sort of made us. Yeah, that was part of our apprenticeship. And we were with Jimmy Miller, the (Rolling) Stones producer … which actually didn’t really work out because we had too much fun with Jimmy, and he was sacked. Haha!”

There was also a link with Alison Moyet in those days, the former Yazoo star adding guest vocals to ‘Giving It All Away’, one of the singles from the debut LP.  

“Steve went out with Alison’s manager, a lady called Debbie Rawlings. And Alison became part of the gang. She came to my 25th birthday party at the dump where we lived in Birmingham, and proceeded to reverse a Range Rover into the wall and knock it down! Haha!”

A sort of ‘Alf was here’ calling card?

“And we were renting! She was a great laugh, Alison … goodness me!”

You were clearly never just a 15-minute fad, and listening back to that first album I hear those folk-rock roots and ‘60s influences, but much more too. And those were qualities you prided yourself upon really, weren’t they?

“Well, yeah, and now Oscar and I are doing this acoustic tour, that is essentially closer to how the songs were written. Much closer, because I wrote all the songs on an acoustic guitar with a little Sony tape player and a notepad. That’s how they were written, and then the others turned it into Ocean Colour Scene.”

All these years on, the fact that you weren’t fly-by-night successes is perhaps reflected in the amount of Ocean Colour Scene records still on my CD shelves, between Oasis, Orange Juice, OMD, The Orchids, and Otis Redding. In fact, there’s a wealth of albums you made that you can be rather proud of.

“Thank you. I think so, yeah.”

And behind the occasional swagger and layers of style, there were those great songs, the words and melodies finding their way into heads and hearts, ones we can now experience in that stripped-back format.

“Yeah, I hope so. A good example is ‘The Circle’, which we play as a ballad. That’s probably one of my favourite songs we do live. And it’s one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written.”

I wouldn’t disagree with that. Such a great song. As for the afore-mentioned Paul Weller, he latched on to you pretty early. Do you remember the first time you heard he was interested in your band?

“Yeah, Steve had always been a big, big fan. And it’s incredible, the path Steve’s life has taken, because they’re now best friends. He absolutely idolised Paul, and we ended up recording that first album initially at Solid Bond, which was Paul’s studio.”

That was near Marble Arch in London, long before Paul headed back to his Surrey roots to set up Black Barn.

“That’s how we ended up working with Brendan (Lynch) on the second album, because we got to know Brendan and Max (Beesley) through Paul, who were doing an album, Roads to Freedom, with Carleen Anderson’s band, Young Disciples.

“Brendan was doing that album whilst we were doing the album with Jimmy Miller. And by ‘93, Steve was in Paul’s band, and he’s been there ever since. Also, I went on the tours, around Britain and Europe as the support man. So I played the Albert Hall on my own, with songs like ‘The Day we Caught the Train’, before the band played that venue. That that really was a great apprenticeship … thanks to Paul.”

Having played those larger venues and big outdoor shows, it must offer a fresh buzz to be able to play those more intimate venues like those you have coming up on this tour with Oscar.

“Yeah, we like that, me and Os. Also, we can sit down! Haha! We are both 56, for Christ’s sake!”

And only just. Oscar turns 57 this weekend (April 15th), with Simon following suit within six weeks (May 25th). Do you tend to tell a few stories each night?

“Yeah, I like doing that.”

How about Oscar – does he pipe in, put you right on a few things?

“He normally tells me to shut up and get on with the act!”

I was talking last week to Neil Sheasby from Stone Foundation, and Paul Weller not only invites his band back time and again to record their LPs at Black Barn, but it seems he can’t help chipping in with vocals and instrumentation here and there.

“He’s a workaholic, isn’t he!”

True. Have you got a similar work ethic?

“Well … not really. Haha! I haven’t written for quite a while, but I’ve got a load of lyrics I’ve been working on. They’re kind of poems, but they need to be turned into songs. So maybe I’ll try and do that. Mind you, this year we’re kind of busy.”

I’m guessing as a band you’ve stayed pretty close, at least as friends, if not geographically … and you and Oscar aren’t so far from each other.

“Yeah, Oscar lives in Birmingham, while I live near Stratford-upon-Avon. Actually, Oscar’s meant to be over here now, because we’re doing something for Record Store Day, then we’re rehearsing upstairs in my little studio room.”

That Record Store Day engagement on April 23rd ties in with the re-release of hit album, Live on the Riverboat, from 20 years ago, recorded on the Renfrew ferry, which operates on the Clyde. Hence their visit to Strip Joint Records in Glasgow to mark the occasion. As for future Scenies dates (these days with Raymond Meade on bass), is it a case of meticulous checking of diaries, not least with Steve’s itinerary with Paul?

“Well, yeah, Steve’s with Paul at the moment. Then Ocean Colour Scene have some festivals over the summer. As have Oscar and I. But at the moment we’re concentrating on this tour, which is 25 dates … and we haven’t done that for years.”

Including a few on my adopted patch. And when you’re writing songs and lyrics, do you tend to think some are for the band and some for other projects?

“I never think that, because Ocean Colour Scene have a range which includes all of that. I think probably my favourite album is the B-sides album. And that’s sort of more akin to what Oscar and I are doing really.”

Incidentally, having written this interview up now, a number of OCS CDs still surround me, and I’ve moved that 1997 compilation, B-Sides, Seasides & Freerides (their other top-10 LP, reaching No.4) a little closer, with a view to revisiting it soon as I have a chance.

Do you think there might be a new album coming in the next year or so?

“There might.”

You’re not ruling it out.

“No, I’ll just see if I can drag my way from the Peroni!”

And how is Cooper?

“He’s great.”

Keeping you fit?

“Well, I wish. I can’t walk that well actually. I’ve got a bad hip. That’s why I’ve had to drop the Mick Jagger moves a little bit recently. He hasn’t though, and he’s 78 … bastard! I hate him!”

Maybe he’s not having to walk a dog every day.

“He’s probably got someone to do that. But he does run about 10 miles a day, doesn’t he? He used to run around Richmond Park. I never saw him. I used to live in Ham. I’d run into Pete Townshend practically every day, and we sort of became pals. He’s just sold the house actually. He lives almost opposite where Mick lives. And Jerry Hall, who took over the main house in the split. I never bumped into Mick though, but I’d love to.”

There is another Stones link, the Scenies supporting them in Stuttgart, Germany, at one point, Simon saying in another interview they were thrilled about that, but never met them, adding, ‘There were two stadiums in the city and a football match at one of them. So our dressing rooms were two miles away and somehow, in all the logistics, we never got to shake Mick’s hand.’

On the Pete Townshend front though, there must have been a fair few moments like that when you thought, ‘How’s this lad from Birmingham got here?’.

“Oh, I know. I still think it’s absolutely absurd. Mind you, when I was a journalist, I interviewed Muhammad Ali. So beat that one! Haha! That was for the Birmingham Post & Mail. I was doing   work experience there and ended up as a journalist on the Post and Mail for four years, I’d have joined the paper in … it must have been September ‘83.”

Glad you didn’t carry on with that?

“Yeah, I knew within a fortnight I didn’t like being shouted at by small sub-editors. They were always small, and they were always far better than me at their job! I thought, ‘I’m out of my depth here. I don’t like this’. I wanted to be a football commentator. That’s why I became a journalist. I wanted to be John Motson … and within a fortnight I wanted to be John Lennon.”

Well, he clearly found his path soon enough, and getting on for 33 years later all four members of the band are still going somewhere, just like the narrator of ‘The Circle’.

To head back to this website’s May 2018 feature/interview with Simon Fowler, head here.

An Evening with Simon and Oscar of Ocean Colour Scene dates: April 29th – Dundee, Fat Sam’s; 30th – Aberdeen, Lemon Tree. May 1stGlasgow, Oran Mor; 2nd – Edinburgh, Liquid Rooms; 5th – Stockton-on-Tees, ARC; 6th – Newark, The Palace; 7th – Stamford, Corn Exchange; 8th – Sheffield, City Hall; 10th – Whitley Bay, Playhouse; 11th – Buxton, Opera House; 12th – Corby, The Core; 13th – Bridlington, Spa; 15th – Southend, Palace Theatre; 16th – Bury St Edmunds, The Apex; 17th – London, Islington Union Chapel; 19th – Ilkley, Kings Hall; 20th – Lytham-St-Annes, Lowther Pavilion; 21st – Manchester, RNCM; 22nd – Burnley, Mechanics; 24th – Bristol, St George’s; 26th – Bexhill, De La Warr Pavilion; 27th – Harpenden, Public Halls; 28th – Shrewsbury, Theatre Severn; 29th – Birmingham, Town Hall. June 2ndCardiff, The Globe. Tickets are available from venue box offices and Ticketmaster. You can also find out more via www.oceancolourscene.com and keep in touch with the band’s happenings via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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Outside status, inside track – celebrating the continuing rise of Stone Foundation, with Neil Sheasby

For a fourth straight album release, Stone Foundation managed to score a top-40 hit last weekend, despite no major label backing, this eight-piece Midlands-based soul band entering the UK charts at No.27 with Outside Looking In, following similar success for the previous three long players they made at good friend and creative collaborator Paul Weller’s Black Barn Studios in Surrey.

But while they again joined the big league, on the back of similar commercial as well as critical kudos with Street Rituals (2017, No.25), Everybody, Anyone (2018, No.30) and Is Love Enough? (2020, No.39), don’t go thinking it’s a case of ‘more of the same’. In fact, every time they move on somewhat, a fresh and creative approach to their craft keeping them up where they belong.

This, their 10th studio album (released as with those most recent LPs on 100 Percent Records), continues their rich vein of form. But it’s been hard graft all the way, co-founders Neil Jones (guitar, vocals) and Neil Sheasby (bass) at the heart of the band for 24 years now, chopping and changing as they go, building on – as their band name suggests – that solid base, for an ever-growing and incredibly loyal fanbase.

And Stone Foundation remain very much a band, this soulful collective priding itself on its collaborative spirit and inclusive approach, Outside Looking In remaining true to their manifesto.

Once again, the afore-mentioned Paul Weller was on hand for key vocal and instrumental touches, this LP also featuring a guest lead vocal from legendary disco diva Melba Moore (on ‘Now That You Want Me Back’, also a single) as well as equally important contributions from Sulene Fleming, Laville, Sheree Dubois and Graziella Affinita.

What’s more, they remain determined not to sit back on past successes, as some of the fresh approaches on this latest record suggest. As Sheas put it (I’ll call him that in print to avoid confusion with namesake bandmate, Jonesy), “When creating music, the goal is always to recreate the sound you’re imagining in your head. Sometimes it’s achievable, sometimes you fall short. With this record I believe it’s the closest we’ve come to realising what we set out to achieve.

“It was important to push ourselves, and not get caught up in a musical cul-de-sac of complacency. It had to sound fresh and a leap forward into uncharted territory. I think the songs reflect that.”

That they do, for what Jonesy reckons is ‘one of our most optimistic and uplifting records to date’, their frontman adding, “We’ve all experienced so many negative things over the past few years and it was really important for us whilst writing this record to not dwell on the past but instead look forward to the future and all the amazing possibilities that lie ahead for everyone.

“Musically and lyrically, it feels completely fresh and exciting, like a brand-new chapter in our ever-evolving story.”

The result? Another big step forward for an octet continuing to graft and make their own luck, and these days receiving more national airplay via the likes of BBC 6 Music and BBC Radio 2, as well as rave reviews from a range of publications, and plenty of love on the road from that fanbase. Incidentally, not long before I knocked this feature live, I read the latest of Sheas’ wonderful ‘Bass Notes’ on social media, and he wrote, ‘It feels a bit Duran Duran saying ‘fanbase’. I prefer ‘following’, although that makes us sound like a cult – which isn’t that far off the mark, I suppose’.

And yet, as the new LP title suggests, while now firmly established, establishment they are not, their underdog spirit remaining intact, as became clear from my latest chat with Sheas, first joking that I was surprised he even answered the phone to me, on the back of this latest chart success.

“Ah mate, none of that nonsense!”

I was lucky to catch him, Sheas with domestic duties while a couple of bandmates attended an in-store album launch show on the south coast, at Pie and Vinyl in Southsea, Jonesy and Dave Boraston (trumpet) stepping up, part of a week of in-store performances in association with record shops, another example of their work ethic behind the scenes, in keeping with that accountability to their supporters but also a way to help bolsters sales during the week of release, all registering towards those final chart positions.

And while they can clearly mix and match with regards to membership these days, if they need to, I’m still in awe, I told Sheas, at how all eight of them managed to fit on a comparatively tiny stage when I saw them live on my old patch at Boileroom in Guildford last autumn (with my review here), another stonking night for this great live act, which as well as the two Neils and Dave Boraston also involves Phil Ford on drums, Ian Arnold on keyboards, Rob Newton on percussion, Steve Trigg, also on trumpet, and Anthony Gaylard, saxophone.

“They are great fun, these events, but I couldn’t make this one. I had to take my lad to the airport for his holiday … and I play football on a Monday night.”

As for that chart success – the band also in at No.3 in the indie album chart and No.4 in the vinyl chart – how does it feel (as Noddy Holder and Jim Lea would put it)?

“The thing is, we’re not too hung up on chart positions. It’s a lovely thing, because you’re up against not just the download things like Adele, Elton John, Queen, or whatever, but … well, look at the companies, you’ve got Universal, Warner’s, Sony … and here we are, pretty much hand-to-mouth on a lovely little indie label. So it seems like a little victory.”

He knows this all the better from past days working in and managing record shops in the Midlands, albeit with that ‘80s and ‘90s world very different to how the music industry is now.

“It’s weird now, how the chart’s set up. Then, it was just new releases. But then they changed it to reflect what people were listening to, including downloads … so it could be Dark Side of the Moon in at No.10. But in the physical, new chart, if you look at new releases, we were actually No.6, if you take away everything released ages ago. It’s a real result for us and for the people that follow us. They’re part of it. It’s them that’s done it. We just put the records out!

“I thought this might be the difficult album, actually, because we changed tact a little bit, purposely, wanting to challenge ourselves, not knowing whether people would be on board with it … but it’s been received incredibly well.”

Quite right too, and I’ve enjoyed all their more recent albums, particularly since that Weller-backed era (and let’s face it, that’s when I became aware of them). And every time they’ve done something different, taking themselves into new, far from safe territory, somehow pulling it off.

“I think we have to. If we’re just resting on our laurels and it’s a case of, ‘Let’s just make another record with Paul Weller,’ we’d be doing ourselves a disservice. We have to challenge ourselves.”

Seeing the band were in the top 10 halfway through that first week, I did wonder if Ed Sheeran would release a couple of LPs a day later and they’d be down a few places. There was also the sad news about Taylor Hawkins, suggesting Foo Fighters would go on to bag all the top spots. But Stone Foundation were still in that top 30 a few days later. And what might have helped was an online message from Weller himself, saying he’d taken advantage of a special £4.99 digital download price for the record. In fact, he told them, in inimitable style,  ‘Good luck with the album, comrades. I’ve just had £4.99 worth. Fiver for an album? Fuck me, amazing! Anyway, I’ll be blasting it on our tour bus’.

As for Stone Foundation, their next full tour is set for autumn, with details being announced fairly soon, but there are opportunities to see them before, with a mini-tour about to get going, plus festival and outdoor dates lined up this summer.

But now, a bit more about the new LP, track by track with Sheas, starting with opening number, ‘Soon You’ll Return’. As a band, they’ve made a point of saying they’re all about looking forward rather than dwelling on the shit-show of the last few years – from politics to pandemic – but I get the feeling this opener provides a bridge, covering that move away from everything negative that’s happened in recent years. Am I anywhere on the money?

“No. Haha! It was written pre-pandemic, actually. But yeah, it was a song that was developing, and it soon became apparent that it fitted that sentiment. What I should make clear is that the first two songs, and really the bulk of this record, came out of a project me and Neil were asked to do, to go to America to write and produce an album for other voices.

“It was going to be at Al Green’s studio. We were due to go in April 2020, right when it all kicked off. So that was curtailed. It was looking like it may get rescheduled, then it became obvious this was going to be more than just a couple of months of unpleasantness and travelling restrictions, and it all got scrapped.

“So we had these songs. ‘Soon You’ll Return’ was one, (second track) ‘Turning Up the Hurt’ was another. We worked them up in a demo form with Phil and Ian, went back to the demos and thought, ‘These songs are decent. This could actually be our next record. Let’s go back, look at the arrangements and get back into these, even though the intention was going into this American session with Boo Mitchell, which would have been tremendous, but …”

Was that where Al Green recorded his classic Hi Records albums with the late great Willie Mitchell?

“Yes, Boo Mitchell is his son, and still runs it, in Memphis. Unfortunately, that project was scrapped. I don’t know if that will happen again or not, that moment’s passed. But we then had these tunes and it became apparent to us that those first two songs should almost be one, linked almost together at the start.

“While ‘Outside Looking In’ is not connected to them, there’s only six chords between those three songs. Very Ramones-esque! And we thought, ‘This really fits, this really works’. At first, we thought, ‘Maybe this needs a bridge’. But it doesn’t, because of the dynamic of the arrangement.”

Very true. And I hate to use the word smooth, so instead I’ll say it’s a soulful way into the record, and from my first listen I felt there was something of a Marvin Gaye feel, circa What’s Going On? Accordingly, I thought that’s where it’s going as an album. But as it turned out, you go elsewhere before finally coming back for ‘Somewhere a Voice’, the last track, which also has that opening vibe.

“Well, there you go. That was from the same sessions. But we just had it in our heads that it should start with a BV, so we knew we were going to ask Laville, Graziella and Sheree to do that at Paul’s gaff. We had them in for a day or so. We felt we should have that kind of haunted start with the voices. But when they actually did it, we were like, ‘Fucking hell, this is it! This is definitely it!’. And with ‘Somewhere a Voice’, funnily enough, when we set up the first day in Black Barn, and were soundchecking the tunes, we just warmed up, trying to get the sound for that song, played it, went back into the control room to listen, and went, ‘Fuck me, that’s the take! That’s it!’ So the first thing we played became the last track on the album!”

Earlier, I was going to put tongue firmly in cheek and mention your ‘overnight success’, knowing full well it’s taken almost a quarter of a century to get where you are. And its clear that you have this chemistry these days where you can do those kind of one-take tracks. Because you know what you want and how to go about doing it, having been together so long. Seamless moments borne out of some kind of intuition.

“I think that’s a credit to the band as well. Me and Neil, over the course of nearly 25 years, we’ve changed bands quite often because, you know, people have not quite been at the races for where we want to go next. But thankfully, we’ve found a line-up, as used for Street Rituals, so that’s been … five years? And it’s just worked. I’ve played with Phil for years, since we were kids. But the horn section as well, they just get it – they get the arrangements and where we’re going with all this. They just get it – bang on – where we want to move with it. So that’s a big part of it as well.”

So much of it threads together, from Ian’s keyboard touches to that solid bass and drums rhythm partnership with Phil. But there’s also a subtlety coming through now, not least with Jonesy’s voice, often underplayed here, and all the more powerful for that.

“I agree. He’s not in a rush to impress. It’s not OTT. I was really pleased with the way it all came out. It’s one album where the sound in your head that me and him have … We’re quite intuitive, in tune with each other, and get ideas, but to get that out and make it sound exactly like what you were trying to do is a difficult process. I was really pleased when we finished this record, sat back and listened, and said, ‘Do you know what – I think we’ve got this!’.

“Take (title track) ‘Outside Looking In’. People say it sounds like Talking Heads, and it does …

Well, that saves me mentioning that again!

“Thanks! But we set out to get a NYC vibe, like James Chance, thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to make something a bit edgy like that’. You know, new wave, but funky. So it was more that than Talking Heads. But it come out that way and we thought that was quite ambitious, even though it’s fairly simple – again, just a two-chord progression. But it’s the way you play it, the way you execute it, playing these mad things in the studio!”

That includes that amazing breakdown towards the back end, which reminds me a little of your studio landlord, Mr Weller, when he’s in more experimental jazz-soul territory.

“Maybe. I hadn’t thought of that.”

While I’m handing out the plaudits, I was really impressed last time I caught your brass lads live. There are hints of Graham Parker’s The Rumour for me … a band I regret not seeing in their prime. And your trio come over so well on this LP,  again with touches of ‘less is more’ subtlety, like the sax on the opening song, and the mute trumpet on ‘Movin’ On’.

“Yeah, it works nice that, doesn’t it, that trade-off between the two of them. Again, that’s credit to them and their understanding of what we need. And it’s not just us and the brass section, you know. With the Graham Parker comparison, it’s a bit like that. It’s very much a band really, like The Rumour were.”

Onto ‘Now That You Want Me Back’. How did the link with Melba Moore come about? In this country, most people just know her for 1976 hit ‘This Is it’, while others will know of her from the Northern Soul scene. What made you think she’d be right for this?

“We always like to have at least one collaboration, because we like the idea of it, and that was the tune. When we finished it, we thought maybe this is the one to get a female voice on, a soul diva thing. I was more interested in her ‘80s records really. And she popped up on our Instagram timeline. We watched this footage of her singing, and she’s got this incredible voice still. She looks great as well, and a friend of ours knew her manager … who turned out to be her partner. So, as always, we just pitched in, and it was put to her that this English modern soul band had a song they’d put forward with consideration for Melba’s vocal. And when she heard it, she said, ‘I’m bowled over by it. This is great, it’s gonna work!’.

“Actually, when we first sent it to Melba, she said it was far too low for her register, so we had to take it up a few notches, having to re-record the guitar and keyboard parts. She was good enough to do the video as well, and it just worked.”

It sure does. Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but there was something else there that I was reminded of … and then I got it – a more soulful take on Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’, not least your bassline threading its way through.

“Really? Ah, okay. That’s a bit weird, but yeah. I love the sound of that record. I play it now and again. It’s one of the best sounding records, I reckon. And the bass on that is amazing.”

Perhaps it’s subconsciously written into your DNA somewhere.

“Maybe. An interesting comparison!”

‘I Need Your Love’ keeps that groove going, and then there’s another single, ‘Echoes of Joy’, where you’re almost into piano driven Balaeric beats, at least a Blow Monkeys take on that. That stemmed from me messing about in lockdown. My kids were about, and my middle son, Lowell, who’s into his music and was studying, he’d been in his room for days on end and I said, ‘Come on, let’s go for a walk, you’ve been ages playing your Xbox’, and he said, ‘I’m actually working out this (Apple) Logic program, recording. Do you want to hear something?’. He played me it, and I was like, ‘Fuck!’.

“We started messing around, recorded a few bits, just for fun, and that was one of the things I had the idea of, this ‘Echoes of Joy’ beat, this chorus going ‘round me head! I said, ‘Let me put this down!’ and we had a bit of a sample of piano, and he did the beat … as you’ll see on the credits for a few of the songs. And it started with that track.

“Neil then came up with the bridge, and it took on a life of its own. We demoed it up at our studio, then took it to the (Black) Barn. It’s just trial and error really.”

Back to ‘Movin’ On’, and there’s a Curtis Mayfield feel for me, and there’s a great example of Neil’s vocal being more understated, and how I really like that.

“Do you know, he did that vocal, we played it back in the Barn, put the big speakers up, and I turned to him and said, ‘Y’know what, mate, I think that’s your best vocal! I thought if Terry Callier was still alive, I think that would have been a perfect song for him. But I love Neil’s vocal.”

Then you move on again, with a Superbad ‘70s soul feel to Stylin’.

“Yeah, we had the riff first, then coloured it all in. I did the verse, Neil the chorus. A perfect example of how Neil and I work. I’ll say, I’ve got this bit, I’ve got the verse, he’ll say, ‘Okay, this will fit this’. And off he goes. We’ve always got melodies, and thankfully they glue together.”

Sulene Fleming features with a guest vocal. She’s been part of the set-up for a while now.

“Yeah, Neil met her through the Monk’s Road project (led by Dr Robert, of Blow Monkeys fame). She come on board to do some stuff with Is Love Enough? Wejust kept on, and it works. With that, we thought, ‘This is kind of like a Betty Davis thing. And who do we know who can pull that trick off? Okay, Sulene! On the deluxe version of the CD, there’s a hidden track, ‘Stylin’, Pt.2’, he really moves away on that one. That was fun to record.”

‘Feel the Colours’ is another departure. For me, there’s a ‘Digging Your Scene’ vibe. It’s a great pop song. It should be the next single.

“I think that’s the double-tracked sax. We went to record ‘Back to My Roots’ as a one-off a good while back, and on that session we recorded ‘Feel the Colours’, totally different. Initially it was a kind of ballad with piano. Paul played piano on it. But when we got home, we thought no, this isn’t right. Sounds a bit pedestrian. But we liked the song, thought let’s not discard it. That could have easily got chucked out of the sessions, but then we thought, ‘What if we do like a slow ‘Young Americans’ thing and double-track the sax? And it worked.”

That sax conjures up an ‘80s video played all over MTV, but there’s far more to it than that commercial appeal. Actually, it’s almost anthemic, perhaps more than anything else you’ve done. It’s potentially your biggest hit so far.

“You think? That’s Weller’s favourite, apparently, he texted to say ‘Feel the Colours’ is my favourite at the minute. So there you go. Maybe you should do the video then!” There’s a challenge. And then we have ‘Heaven Knows Why’. There’s a mid-‘80s feel to me, and I could hear that bursting out of a radio on a hot summer’s day. On that, you have Laville and Sheree Dubois guesting.

“Yeah, that was another destined for the US sessions they called back, we thought let’s look at this again … and I’m glad we did.”

And then ‘Reach Up Higher’, which leads to your ‘Somewhere a Voice’ finale, something else coming to mind there, shades of Anita Baker’s ‘Sweet Love’, again mid-‘80s.

“Oh right, yeah. I was probably listening a little to Dennis Edwards, that bassline kind of hints at that. Again, Neil came up with the hook and chorus, me and Lowell played around with it, getting that Soul II Soul feel. We took it to the band, and Phil said, ‘I think it should be like a Washington Go-go kind of beat, so that’s what that turned into. I added the verses, Neil the choruses, and Neil the other bit that to me sounded a bit like Minnie Ripperton.

“When we finished it, we thought it needed someone else to sing it. It was a bit high for Neil’s register. That’s why we brought the girls (Sheree Dubois and Graziella Affinito) and Laville in. Graziella works a lot with Laville, so he introduced us. And they were great.”

Well, congratulations all round, not just on the chart placing, but on another great record. It’s fair to say you’ve moved successfully on again, clearly not looking to play it safe and give us more of the same.

“Yeah, thank you, mate. It feels that way. It feels like it’s a step in a different direction. And we’ve started the next one already!”

And is your Birmingham O2 Academy finale rounding off your April mini-tour being treated as a celebration close to home ground?

“It’s always nice to play locally, and get a few local faces. And Arthur Tapp is a good promoter. He’s been promoting us since we started, including our previous bands. He’s been promoting gigs I’ve been involved with for 30 years, so definitely the 24 years of Stone Foundation.

“But we enjoy them all, Malc. We really do. We just enjoy playing.”

For this website’s 2017 feature/interview with Neil Sheasby, head here. For our 2020 feature/interview with Neil Jones, try here. Outside Looking In is available digitally and on a range of physical CD and vinyl formats. Meanwhile, the band’s mini-tour starts tonight at Newcastle Hoochie Coochie (Friday 8th), followed by Leicester Musician (Sunday 10th), Darlington Forum (Friday 15th), Stoke Sugarmill (Saturday 16th), Porthtowan Mount Pleasant Eco Park (Friday 22nd), and Birmingham O2 Academy (Friday 29th). For ticket details and all the latest from the band, check out their website here.

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Following The Country Line – from The Farmer’s Boys to The McGuilty Brothers with Mark Kingston

Whatever happened to The Farmer’s Boys? Those early ‘80s, Norwich-based, unlikely pop stars who found affinity with influential broadcaster John Peel, scoring three indie hits before signing for EMI Records and having a somewhat unexpected crack at the big time.

Somehow they were never quite as big as this teenager at the time felt they deserved, but they certainly flirted with commercial success, with plenty of national TV appearances (vowing to never return to Pebble Mill at One, but enjoying Crackerjack and somehow surviving kids’ game show Hold Tight, despite wobbling, mid-performance, on scary individual risers at Alton Towers – if you’re brave enough, watch the shaky VHS footage online, Baz’s trademark ironing board the only rigid prop) and national radio plays and sessions, even if the label number-crunchers and PR movers and shakers investing in their rise to fame didn’t get the returns they felt their promotional efforts deserved, assigned to an A&R man whose sole interest was his recent signing, Marillion.

There was also that moment when they reached No.44 with Cliff Richard cover ‘In the Country’ and were lined up to do Top of the Pops, only for Alphaville, slightly higher, to fly in from Germany at the last moment. Needless to say, ‘Big in Japan’ became a hit, while they slipped back down. And despite going along with various odd promo requests, often involving half-arsed, patronising agriculture-related ideas, the bottom line was that this somewhat awkward combo (signed to EMI the same day as Kajagoogoo) never felt comfortable with that corporate music industry world, far less interested in fame once the novelty allure faded, and totally disinterested in units sold.

Accordingly, two cracking LPs were largely overlooked, but after an inevitable split, lead singer Baz (by now trading as Barry McGuilty) and bass player Mark Kingston continued in harder-edged four-piece The Avons, prior pressure regarding record sales seemingly behind a band perhaps fittingly with Létharge Records, releasing an LP and a 12” single, describing their sound as ‘new Waveney’.

Later came The Great Outdoors, FBs guitarist Stan returning (his real name’s in the public domain, as is the case for Baz and Frog – who hopped on to Strawberry Switchblade then Julian Cope’s band -but those rock’n’roll monikers suit them), another LP following, again never seeing more than cult success. And these days they’re out there again in another guise, maybe one they were truly destined for, The McGuilty Brothers’ take on (whisper it) country and Americana a direction that always appealed. And their first two LPs – 2016’s Songs to Leave Home To and now Redemption & Rust – are a joy to behold, prompting me to track down Mark and talk about their musical past, present and future.

Before making that call, I flicked through my dog-eared copies of Farmer’s Boys’ fan club mag Griff, and press clippings squirrelled away from those teenage years regarding that band and post-split outfit, The Avons. And, I told him, that included Mark’s Portrait of a Farmer’s Boy as a Consumer entry. He had cracking taste in those days, so I’m guessing he still has.

“Ha! I can’t remember what it said. It was a long time ago.”

Well, the favourite records section alone included The Mekons’ ’Where Were You?’, David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, The Teardrop Explodes’ Wilder, Roxy Music’s Country Life and Stranded, Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom, Squeeze’s East Side Story, and The Fall’s Hex Enduction Hour and Fall in a Hole.

But as ABC’s Martin Fry put it in the same year The Farmer’s Boys released splendidly-titled debut LP, Get Out and Walk, that was then but this is now, and it’s been an odd two years for everyone. In fact, I reckon we all lost at least 12 months en route.

“Yeah, we were going to release an album in March (2020). It was all ready to go, then it was like, ‘Oh no, not so fast. So it sat on the shelf for a year.”

Was the pandemic lay-off a productive spell, all the same? Did you start on a third album while waiting for the second to drop?

“I’ve got loads of new stuff, and now we’re playing again. The current album’s almost old news for us.”

Well, it sounds fresh to me. I was late to the party for Songs to Leave Home For, but I’ve had a chance to get into that and Redemption & Rust since. How does the songwriting process happen, anyway?

“I sort of come up some ideas, the singer and I get together, make sure he can sing them and he’s happy with the words I’ve written, then we present them to the rest of the band, say, ‘This is the key it should be,’ … and we’re back in that process at the moment.”

In Farmer’s Boys’ days, there were four of you on the credits – ‘Baz, Frog, Mark and Stan’.

“It was always very democratic, everything split four ways, irrespective of whether someone had more input than any other. That was fine. But Barry and I used to do a lot of sitting in the corner of a pub playing covers and things, just for fun, then a few new songs crept in. We were going to put together a band of different people. But it just so happened that we said, ‘We can’t seem to find people who we like’. Ha! So we suggested this to the others, and they were up for it.

“That’s how it evolved, really. As far as writing goes, I don’t know how it’s worked out this way, but you write more and more, and they just expect you to write the stuff. So although we’ve got about two songs written by others, the rest are sort of mine. But that’s just how it’s worked out. I keep saying, by all means come up with some songs … but I think they’re quite happy to work on these. And because they’re so good, they pick it up straight away.”

You certainly sound like a proper band, and you can tell you’ve played together a long time. With an element of tongue-in-cheek, do you now see the ‘80s, ‘90s and Noughties as your Hamburg apprenticeship?

“Trouble is that back in the day, we’d sit in a room for hours, noodling, until something came up. Looking back, that was probably the wrong way to do it. I’d say the songwriting was quite hard in the end, trying to come up with something in a democratic way. Sometimes that just doesn’t work.”

As for musical direction …

“We were sitting, doing our own thing, and a lot of what we were doing was country music anyway. We had a book full of country songs and stuff from The Byrds or Gram Parsons.”

The cooler end of the range.

“Yeah, but even back in the ‘80s, we all loved country. So unfashionable! Whenever we tried to do anything like that it was really frowned upon. We’ve always loved it, but that’s probably more to do with … how shall I say this … country music’s quite popular in East Anglia, always has been, and lots of people sort of grew up on it. Certainly, in the ‘80s though, it was really uncool!”

Fellow Norwich-based post-punks Serious Drinking’s ‘Don’t Shoot Me Down’ B-side piss-take springs to mind there.

“Ha! Yeah, but when Barry and I were doing our stuff, we wanted to do something that had a slight country edge. I know, if I’m honest, the newer album’s probably less country than the first, but that’s probably just because we’ve got a bit more confident about what we do.”

Perhaps to spread the word outside East Anglia you should just use the term Americana. I admit, I’ve had a problems with the notion of country in the past, then at some point realised that’s really what Bruce Springsteen did, what Steve Earle did, and so on. Then there was an appreciation of the likes of Emmylou Harris, Gretchen Peters, and more. Maybe it was initial snobbery on my part.

“I think so. The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo was quite influential, certainly for us. The other for us was The Gilded Palace of Sin by The Flying Burrito Brothers. Another big, influential album. Also, bizarrely, ‘(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville’ by REM. I think that was a turning point in that we thought, ‘Actually, this is more what we might want to sound like’.”

True, and there’s lots of good stuff out there. Maybe it’s just down to hearing and accessing that.

“I think it is. And just by adding pedal steel to something, you can make it sound country.”

Talking of which, your son, Laurence (now studying songwriting and performance in Brighton) often guests with The McGuilty Brothers, and he’s credited on the new record for guitars and pedal steel.

“Yeah, when he was about 12, we used to get him up for a song, he’d play a solo, and we thought that was cool …”

He was clearly a great player from an early age.

“Yeah. Difficult for me to say, because I’m his father, but gradually he’d join in more, then we thought, ‘Let’s just get him in the band!’. He’s been with us on and off since. Now he’s 19, he’s got a pretty good solo career. He lives in Brighton now, down there at uni.”

Was that bad timing, this delayed record coming out and your guest guitarist not around to play tie-in live shows?  

“Not really, he just gets a train up, if we’re playing London, and we meet him there. We don’t rehearse with him. He just turns up, does his thing. That works fine. He’s still into doing it, and it’s nice having a youngster in a band, that gives you a little bit of bite. He’s a very good session player. You can tell him what to play, he’ll get it, he’ll do it, and always brings something else. It’s great having him in.

“I know lots of people who get younger players in, and it does change the dynamic of a band. He’s doing his own thing though, with a couple of albums out on Spotify. He does more gigs than we do, he’s got his own band, and writes his own stuff. He’s having a great time, and he’s my youngest, so I’m kind of used to them doing their own thing. He’s got a really good little group of friends, fantastic musicians, goes out as a solo artist, they back him, and it works really well. He was doing well up to the pandemic, getting more and more gigs. Then, just as he was starting to get a bit of traction, it all stopped. But it’s the same for everyone. I know lots of bands who literally didn’t have any money.”

As for the regular line-up, it’s the same five-piece as for the first LP, Barry (lead vocals, mandolin), Mark (bass guitar, backing vocals) and Stan (guitars) joined by Rob Masters (drums, percussion) and Justin Fisher (keyboards, guitar), the latter recording both albums at Stable Sounds.

“I’ve probably known Rob for 45 years, he and I were playing in bands, messing around years and years ago. In the ‘90s he was with us in The Great Outdoors, as was Justin, an old schoolfriend of Stan. We’ve known him years. When we set up, Justin and Rob got involved, and it’s been the same people ever since really.”

I was late to The Great Outdoors. I have 2001’s Fading Fast EP on CD, but that year’s What We Did in Our Holidays LP was harder to track down, going for a lot of money last time I checked. Not changing hands for as much as second Farmer’s Boys LP, With These Hands, mind.

“I think it’s available on digital and on Spotify. When The Great Outdoors started, we were originally with Fierce Panda Records.”

Simon Williams’ label?

“That’s it. We knew Simon from Farmer’s Boys days, and when Baz and I were in another band, The Avons.”

Among my clippings there’s an interview from his Jump Away fanzine. Around then, we bonded at a London gig when I was selling my Captains Log fanzine, him somewhat astounded I’d run a retrospective Farmer’s boys feature in the first issue. Soon, we were swapping correspondence and ‘zines, just before he started writing for the NME.

“I can’t remember how we ended up knowing him, but when we split, Baz and I formed The Avons, and he was very supportive of us. We ended up doing two singles on Fierce Panda. We also did a gig with Coldplay when they were still playing the back of pubs. Ha! Little did I know then … After that, we got Backs Records involved, who put the first Farmer’s Boys record out.”

Not only do you go back a long way with that Norwich indie label (and before that Waap, the cost of recording early ’82 debut 45, ‘I Think I Need Help’ £80, apparently), but also with Essex boy come good, former Norwich scene luminary, much-hired session supremo Terry Edwards, memorably described by Mark Adams as ‘the Jimmy Page of brass’, who turned up on several Farmer’s Boys records (and played for The Higsons – fronted by ‘Switch’, better known now as The Fast Show’s co-creator and author Charlie Higson – and Serious Drinking, plus Gallon Drunk, PJ Harvey, Ian Dury, and countless others).  

“Last time I saw him was about a year ago. He came along to a gig we did in London. Terry’s great, we used to regularly play with The Higsons, and he ended up joining in on songs now and then, brass and stuff.”

It wasn’t until I re-found my copies of Griff that I recalled its Farmer’s Boys family tree (produced in Pete Frame style) and read about predecessors, The Ordinaires (originally La Ville Ordinaire), links to The Higsons, and much more.

“The Ordinaires was a strange kind of band. You didn’t know what the line-up was until the night. People just turned up and plaedy. When you look at that family tree, it splinters off everywhere! That was probably a bit before The Higsons. They met at UEA (University of East Anglia, Norwich), about the same time as The Farmer’s Boys started. That’s how we knew them. They played in Norwich, we’d go along, and we’d see a lot of gigs together.

“Although there was a Norwich scene, it was really just The Higsons, The Farmer’s Boys and Serious Drinking. The rest we didn’t really have much to do with … and they didn’t have much to do with us.”

According to that ‘rough family tree’, The Ordinaires not only included Stan and Mark, but also Rob (March to May ’81, ‘best described as chaos … responsible for foul tunes on the Casio, and all gigs being banned from the Prince of Denmark pub, Norwich’), while Stan and Justin were previously with Bang Goes My Stereo (1980 – March ’81, ‘a legendary pop combo, Stan used to wear a dress on stage and all the songs were less than two minutes long’). Meanwhile, Mark was previously with Dissolute Youth (1980-March ’81, ‘Dereham’s No.1 garage band, spent a long time supporting The Higsons and Screen 3’), bandmates including his brother, Paul, and future Avons drummer Ed Street.

While we’re talking FB predecessors, I’ll throw in Baz and Frog’s The Marauders (1978-80, ‘at one time hailed as Suffolk’s leading punk band’), and a short spell for Baz, with Justin on bass, in The Per Favors (May ’87, ‘not really a group, just three drunks who gatecrashed an Ordinaires gig one night and insisted on playing ‘Y Viva Espana’’). Furthermore, Frog was with the Gay Gordon & the Cumberland Squares ceilidh band before joining The Farmer’s Boys in February ’82.

While Mark says there were just three bands on that main Norwich scene, Channel 4’s Switch music magazine show, aired between series of The Tube, ran a memorable mini-feature involving that illustrious trio plus Popular Voice, who I recall as part of a four-band live package at one point.

“Yeah, if we did a tour, they’d support us. They were great. Good fun.”

Anyway, sorry, I’m in danger of veering way too far down Memory Lane.

“That’s the trouble when you go back 40 years! We worked out a few months ago it was the 40th anniversary of the first Farmer’s Boys gig … which is a bit frightening really. Royal Wedding day, in the back of a pub, the Prince of Denmark. Stan’s local. He lived up the road, and they said, ‘The Royal Wedding’s on, I hear you’ve got a band. Do you want to play?’, and he said, ‘Yeah, we’ve got about six songs’. I think Charlie Higson turned up, did a little review in the local paper.”

So there you go, Charles and Diana’s true legacy was not so much about producing an heir and a spare as inspiring the Prince of Denmark to commission the debut of the legendary Farmer’s Boys.

They were a three-piece then, Baz, Stan and Mark, ahead of Frog’s arrival a few months later. They had been a four-piece in rehearsals, but we’ll get to that later. Instead, back we go to Redemption & Rust, which I told Mark gets better with every listen, from opening track ‘Cigarettes & Gasoline’ on, bridging country and rock, as fellow Norwich band The Rockingbirds did, songs like ‘Better Apart’ almost with a Richard Hawley guitar feel, on a record chock-full of quality songwriting.

“The thing is, we started recording, got halfway through, I had all these songs, and we hadn’t really played them. Normally, bands would play them live a lot, then record them. We kind of went about it a different way. We had enough for an album, but the guys didn’t really know the songs that well. We sort of piled in, then it was, ‘Hang on a minute, is that the best arrangement for that?’. So we’ve actually recorded different versions of these songs, which is why there’s two versions of ‘Better Apart’ (on the LP). There are different versions of four or five songs. We’d say, ‘Actually, that should be a fast song’. What we got was not what we originally set out to do.”

In the old days, you’d have put those other versions as extras on 12-inch singles.

“Well, I’m always a bit mindful of putting stuff out you were never originally happy with.”

‘Last to Know’ provides a fine example of the close harmonies that work so well. Is that you with Barry?

“Yeah, that really came about from he and I sitting in the corner of a pub. We harmonise all the time, something we kind of developed later on. In the early days, certainly with The Farmer’s Boys, he’d do the majority of the harmonies, double-tracking.”

Barry’s certainly got a range on him, thinking of past tracks like ‘Soft Drink’ and ‘Heartache’.

“Not so much now, but he did. But we love harmonies. That’s why we love The Byrds and people like that. It’s a big part of what we do now.”

‘Getting Somewhere Now’ is another great example, while ‘World on Fire’ is perhaps the closest to a Farmer’s Boys song. As if it was from a third LP that never happened. I also see ‘Until the Roses Die’ in that light.

“Funnily enough, ‘World on Fire’ was written by Justin! It was something we had hanging over from The Great Outdoors, just before we split. We never recorded it. When we came to do this, it was like, ‘Hang on, we’ve still got this great song you wrote, Justin,’ so we kind of resurrected it. He wrote the music and Baz wrote the words. It’s from the ‘90s, but …”

It’s all pretty seamless. And then there’s the epic, ‘Path of Least Resistance’, perhaps the closest to where you were with The Avons.

“I wouldn’t disagree with that. Ha! It’s a pretty depressing tune, but …”

Almost a dirtier cousin of ‘Whatever Is He Like?’. Despite a more sombre outlook.

“Ha! Yeah. And everybody’s got to have a song about drugs, I suppose.”

I won’t go into the song meanings. That’s often down to interpretation. But ‘Ghost of You’ jumps out. I mentioned Richard Hawley, and there’s a bit of him there, but something else nagged away at me until it came to me – traces of Catatonia’s ‘Dead From the Waist Down’. Maybe that piano lick. Either way, that’s another song I love.

“Ah, I appreciate that, and again that was another where it was completely different at first. When we originally recorded it, it was quite syncopated. Then it was like, ‘Hang on, we just need to play through it’. That’s why it’s got quite a lot of acoustics and stuff on it. At the time, it was, ‘Think of ‘Tequila Sunrise’. Ha! It didn’t quite happen that way, but it’s that sort of strumming we liked.”

And it’s a brave thing to do, covering The Bee Gees, in this case ‘To Love Somebody’. But it works. Has that been in the set for a while?

“That was one of the songs we used to do, sat in the corner of a pub. We’d do anything really from that to Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones … even did a Kylie Minogue song! It’s one of those songs we’ve always liked, and not actually very similar to the original, so we’re happy with that.”

I was a few lines in, thinking, ‘Oh, I know this! What’s this?’. That’s a good sign. You made it your own, in the way Al Green made ‘How Can you Mend a Broken Heart?’ his own.

“The thing about covers… quite often, it’s best not to listen to the original. I couldn’t even remember what that sounded like. We had the chords in front of us and sang it how we thought it was done. And when the band did it, it was like, ‘Well, this must be how it goes’. Then I remember hearing the original, thinking, ‘Oh, crikey, they’re completely different’. There are hundreds of versions, of course, and probably one out there similar to the one we did. But we were pleased with it, and we’ve no issues with doing covers. I mean, we did a Flying Burrito Brothers cover on the first album.”

That was ‘Wheels’, written by Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons.

“That was another song Baz and I used to do, just the two of us. Most of the covers we do now are like Creedence (Clearwater Revival) or Gram (Parsons), things Baz and I used to do, and we’ve been playing them for years.”

A friend’s band who went down the Americana line covered Dylan’s, ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’, and I could hear you covering that.

“Funnily enough, we did! We had a songbook with about 100 songs in it, and we’d sit there and go, ‘Shall we do that one next?’. We never had a set. If it went down badly, it never got played again!”

Returning to the LP finale, ‘Better Apart #2’ sounds like it must be a cover … but it’s you covering your own song, featured eight tracks earlier!  

“We re-recorded it as more of a rock version, then thought, actually we can stick it on the end, because it’s quite a charming version. We had a mate who plays accordion, and he played on there.”

Is that Martin Mc?

“Yes, every now and then he’ll come and play with us. Never rehearses with us. Just turns up, we fill him full of beer, he sits on a stool with his accordion … and he’s got this fantastic ear. He can play to anything. An Irish guy, really funny. When he turns up, he has us in stitches!”

An honorary McGuilty brother?

“Kind of. He hasn’t done the last couple of gigs, but he’s got a small child who keeps him busy. But if we’re doing a gig and he’s about, he’ll turn up. He’s great. So, sometimes we’re a seven-piece, but most the time we are six.”

I see Stan still hasn’t got a surname on the credits. Is that a throwback to post-punk days, struggling musicians claiming dole, trying to keep their heads down, keeping real names out of the equation? Your ‘BazFrogMarkStan’ days suggested that.

“Yeah … and to be fair, mine’s the only one that isn’t a nickname! But he’s always been known to us as Stan. Everyone calls him that, I think, apart from his wife. When we did this, there was a conscious effort we didn’t want to be like The Farmer’s Boys. But he said, ‘I don’t care. I’m happy just to be Stan’.

Regarding Stan, there were also spells under pseudonyms Dr Fondle (backed by an East Anglian version of the Love Unlimited Orchestra) and Alan Christchurch, and he appeared in the bands Mulch and Arthur Thirkettle’s Blues Breakers, all of which suggest entire other stories for a fella who once offered up his dodgy Mini for a ‘Win a Car’ competition run by their best-known band and EMI.

Anyway, we touched on how we shouldn’t really be surprised by the music direction taken, and there were hints down the years, not least ‘The Way You Made Me Cry’ on the first Farmer’s Boys LP, and the gloriously miserable ‘Heartache’ on its follow-up, which I always loved.

“Haha!”

And when I listened back to early B-side, ‘The Country Line’ … that’s almost an earlier version of ‘Heartache’.

“Erm, well … that was nearly going to be the A-side. I don’t know why, but we decided to do the other one, ‘More Than a Dream’. But John Peel played ‘The Country Line’ more. He really loved it. Baz, Stan and a couple of mates had this thing, Baz and the Bluegrass Boys. Every now and then they’d do a gig, and it was just country. ‘The Country Line’ came from that. The thing about us, we’d have happily done a whole album of that stuff, but the record company said, ‘No way!’.

Furthermore, listening back now, I hear traces of Edwyn Collins, way before he went that way.

“It’s a funny thing. If you say to someone you like country music, they immediately think of Charlie Pride, Don Williams, Jim Reeves … They have a fixed opinion in their head. Worse still, they think of things like Garth Brooks, ‘Achy Breaky Heart’, or whatever!”

Thanks, Mark. Now I’ll be singing that dreadful song for the rest of day.

“Sorry! But that’s the thing, like saying all pop music is ABBA, there’s so much more depth to it. And some of it’s just wonderful. And we quite like the naff stuff as well – it makes us laugh!”

I’m guessing ‘Heartache’ was recorded with tongue firmly in cheek.

“Ha! Oh, it would have been, yeah, but if you’re gonna do a slow country song, it’s got to be miserable!”

 I love both LP sleeves too. Regarding Redemption & Rust, where’s Dante’s Discotheque? Dereham?

“That was a photograph that was taken, then we added that bit. We just thought it looked like hell! Ha!”

It reminds me of the The Avons’ Four Songs EP sleeve, four of you outside King Street Fish Stores, Norwich, which I had my own pilgrimage the year after. There’s a dodgy photo of me unable to keep a straight face, stood next to where Baz was, seemingly dressed by Man at C&A, August ’87, still just about a teenager.

“Ha! That’s funny. And that was quite an iconic picture for us.”

Three of us did the Norfolk Broads that week, so to speak, and that was most likely the same day we attended a pre-season friendly at Carrow Road, Norwich City vs John Toshack’s Real Sociedad (I mention this, knowing full well Mark’s an Ipswich Town fan … he doesn’t bite though). I’m guessing that shop’s long since gone.

“I assume so. I just remember a photographer was going to take some pictures, and we didn’t really want to do it. We were bored, but it was like, ‘Oh, this will do’. I don’t think it even occurred to us. We just stood in front of it, and he took this picture really quickly.”

A subsequent Google Maps stroll along King Street suggests it’s now ‘Hair & Hound’ (‘purveyors of fine haircuts’). In case you want to do your own pilgrimage, possibly as part of a Farmer’s Boys East Anglian Sightseeing Experience. That would indubitably bring in tourists.

Back to the present, I missed out on the debut McGuilty Brothers LP first time around, but I was hooked on the band after a couple of plays of the wondrous ‘Things Will Change’. If ever there was closing credits music to a film version of your story … What’s more, I played it in the car returning from dropping my eldest daughter as she headed to uni in last autumn, both girls now having left home, the song taking on a whole new emotional meaning. As if it was written specifically for me.

“That was destined to be the end of a record. But again, it was one of the really early songs, recorded on a laptop or something, then I played it to the others, they did their thing, and they always, somehow … I think their arranging skills are fantastic. They always make something sound much better than I ever thought it would. They’re really good at just bringing out a song.”

Couldn’t agree more, the build-up sublime. Maybe that’s why I was quite surprised that lots of these songs started with Mark and Barry. They often sound like band co-writes.

“I think we’ve found from experience that different people do different things in different ways. But certainly, we found if you all stand in a room and go, ‘Right, we’ve got to write a song,’ that’s a painful process. Then you’ve got to be very diplomatic if someone comes up with something that nobody really likes. Although, because we’ve known each other 40-odd years, that doesn’t bother us anymore. We can say to each other, ‘Actually, that’s not very good,’ and no one takes it personally. With the time available, it’s easier to say, ‘Here’s a complete song, I’ll play it to you on an acoustic guitar. Tell me if you like it’. That’s a good starting point, it seems to work for us, and gets things done a lot quicker.”

When we spoke, the band had just played The Boogaloo in Highgate, North London, part of the Gospel Brunch Sunday series set up by close friend and resident DJ Andy Hackett, of Rockingbirds fame (also part of Edwyn Collins’ live band).

“I’ve known Andy’s since the ‘80s when we lived in Norwich. He was in bands with my brother. He then went to London. My brother was in The Rockingbirds at first. We got to know that band, did a few gigs with them. First there was Come Down and Meet the Folks, arranged by Alan Tyler, their singer, bands playing Sunday afternoons, a bit low-key. Andy’s doing a similar thing, and The Boogaloo’s a great pub, a proper London pub. I believe it was Shane McGowan’s local. It’s great to be part of. Andy said, ‘I’m going to find about six bands I really like and put you on rotation’.

“The first one went down really well, with an appreciative audience, a really nice feeling about the whole thing. Andy plays records, and the bands are a real eclectic mix, such as (Jose McGill and) The Vagaband, from Norwich, worth checking out. And he’s got a rock’n’roll, skiffle-type band, effectively Americana. It’s doing really well.”

While life moves on for The McGuilty Brothers, their past is never far away, and recently an excellent 74-track compilation from Cherry Red, The Shines Here, included ‘Whatever Is He Like?’, the early single version, their first for Backs Records (and the first with Frog on board). Cherry Red also helped put out the two McGuilty Brothers LPs, both released on its Franks Wild Ears Records label imprint.

“They’re good like that. They’ve been very good with the McGuilty stuff. They were quite happy to put it out, and we just published the songs. It was very easy. Then we just tend to get our own CDs done, mainly for gigs and promo. It seems to work pretty well.”

Talking of Cherry Red, I was recently impressed by their Aztec Camera boxset, covering Roddy Frame’s outfit’s 1984/95 WEA recordings, the sleevenotes and artwork reminding me The Farmer’s Boys and Martin Stephenson’s band, The Daintees, supported them at The Lyceum, London in late ’83, a month before the release of High Land, Hard Rain. Do you recall much about them that night?

“I know we liked them. We were big fans all that Postcard Records stuff. We did quite a few of those Lyceum things. We played with Orange Juice there as well, a couple of times. I remember Aztec Camera being really good. But I don’t think it was the right venue for them. They were one of those bands that would probably benefit from a smaller, more intimate venue. And that was a big, cavernous place.”

Incidentally, my 12th ever gig was The Farmer’s Boys at the University of Surrey in my hometown, Guildford. about five weeks after I saw Serious Drinking support The Fall there.

“Ah, okay. I can’t imagine Serious Drinking supporting The Fall.”

It was a strange night. I’ve spoken about this with Serious Drinking’s Martin Ling, how there were lots of dodgy Nazi skinheads in, causing trouble. Aged 15 at the time, I was yet to ‘get’ The Fall, having gone along for the support. But it was the intimidating idiots – there just for the aggro – that left the biggest impression that time.

“That could be quite intimidating. I remember seeing The Cramps, a similar kind of thing. I’ve never been so petrified in my life. There were people punching each other the whole evening. But Serious Drinking were great. When we first started The Farmer’s Boys, Andy Hearnshaw was in the band. There was four of us originally, Stan playing a little Casio keyboard. Then Andy had to leave because he was at the UEA and …”

He’d run out of money from his grant, hadn’t he?

“Something like that … or he hadn’t done any work on his degree! He hot-footed it back to his parents, back in the South West or somewhere, buggered off to kind of salvage his degree, and we carried on without him. When he came back, he (co-)formed Serious Drinking. We never did a gig with him. I think we had about three or four rehearsals. It’s probably 20 years or so since I last saw him.”

I got the impression there wasn’t really a Norwich scene as such … until Peel’s interest created one.

“There wasn’t really. But I think it’s because we all knew each other and were good friends. None of the bands sounded like each other. We didn’t sound like The Higsons and none of us sounded like Serious Drinking, although we did a lot of gigs together, and they were always good fun. I think that was the sum token. Popular Voice were different again. Everyone was making out it was like Liverpool, but it wasn’t anything like it!”

Much as I love the raw early stuff and the first LP, I also love With These Hands, the same way I love The Undertones’ The Sin of Pride, maybe built on nostalgia for a certain time and place in my life. Those days when you live and breathe music, learning all the words to songs from repeat plays. Whatever it was that hooked me, I’d really love to see a re-release. Is that right Cherry Red could be working with you on that?

“I think they’re looking at taking over all that stuff. Initially, digitally, and dependent on whether there’s demand for CDs … they might. They put out the first album, then a Japanese label put out the second on CD … or was it just vinyl?”

There was a CD, from Vinyl Japan, but it goes for silly prices. It’s certainly hard to come by.

“I think Cherry Red are going to do all the indie singles and everything. So hopefully, yeah … we also did a reissue, probably in the late ‘90s, including John Peel and Kid Jensen sessions, demos, and so on. I think they’re going to put that out (again) as well.”

That was the splendid 19-track Once Upon a Time in the East (The Early Years 1981-1982) from Backs Records, while the equally good Get Out & Walk Cherry Red 2009 reissue included 10 extra tracks.

By the way, in that 1986 Jump Away fanzine interview with The Avons, Baz told Simon Williams, “In 10 years I hope to be singing country and western in the corner of a pub … songs about rivers and fishing.” As it turned out, it’d be a few more years before that came to pass. But I only reminded myself of that after our chat, and I’d already kept Mark, not long home from work, on far too long (his day-job is in design and marketing). He’s clearly still loving being part of all this though, alongside old friends.

“It’s just something we do, I think mainly just so we keep in touch with each other.”

That really comes over with so many bands of your vintage I’ve interviewed that are still out there. Doing it for the love of it, no longer worried about chasing the next hit or best-selling record, with no pressure from record companies, marketing companies or men in suits higher up the chain, just having fun, better appreciating their audience, their audience better appreciating them.

“We have little gaps where we stop doing it, but it’s almost like you’re compelled to … it’s a weird thing. Gigs-wise, we’ll be having a bit of a push now, as they’re more freely available. We don’t tend to do many though, just ones we think are going to be good rather than just taking anything.”

“It’s so easy when you get to our age, with all the other distractions of life … Baz and I live quite close to each other, but the others are in Norwich, and I don’t think I’d see much of them if I didn’t do this. I think that’s the reason why we do it. If you ask any of us, they’ll probably tell you that. And when we do it, we just love it, because we get on. That’s a big part of it.”

And long may that continue.

For more on The McGuilty Brothers, including details of their two albums and forthcoming live shows, head to their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/themcguiltybrothers and their website http://themcguiltybrothers.com/.

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The Undertones / Hugh Cornwell – Manchester Academy 2

How I’ve missed this. My 13th live outing since last July’s return following the pandemic shutdown, and the biggest venue faced so far. And while until now I’ve stuck to smaller, trusted venues, this was a blast from beginning to end, one that gives hope looking ahead. No way is this pandemic over, but I’ll happily keep topping up if it means I can keep getting out there again.

While I’m firing stats at you, I reckon this was my 16th Undertones date since a Positive Touch tour happening in my hometown in June ’81, while it was 40 years ago in January that I first saw Hugh Cornwell fronting The Stranglers, ‘Golden Brown’ about to spend six weeks in the top-10, that gruff voice asking the assembled in Guildford, where it all began, how many were there for their first ever gig, downtown at The Star. Needless to say, half of a packed Civic Hall pretended they were, the set back in ’74 including one song still featured 48 years on, ‘Strange Little Girl’ one of tonight’s many highlights, Pat Hughes’ bass treatment almost cello-like on a reflective Beatle-esque re-boot.

Last time I caught Hugh, Pat and drumming colossus Windsor McGilvray (all three pitching in on the backing vocals, then as now) was at The Grand in Clitheroe in late 2018 (with a review here), and they remain a hard act to follow, a 13-song set from a rock-hard, tight trio segueing between old and new, Stranglers and solo years, never less than committed, always compelling.

I was gripped (and you should know) from the start, 1997’s ‘Black Hair, Black Eyes, Black Suit’ never sounding better to these ears, giving rise to ‘Big Bug’ from 1979’s Nosferatu and the wondrous ‘Duchess’ from that same year, this perennial youth transported right back. Particularly with those first two songs I realised just how much of an influence Lou Reed was on this stalwart performer, and then – as if he’d picked up on that – came ‘Mr Leather’, his love letter to Lou, one of several tracks from 2018’s Monster, also represented by tributes to ground-breaking animator Ray Harryhausen (the title track) and screen icon Hedy Lamaar (‘The Most Beautiful Girl in Hollywood’).

This time, Hugh just chose ‘Bad Vibrations’ from my favourite solo outing, Totem and Taboo, but time was against him. Besides, It never fails to hit me how good his later Stranglers hits are in this less layered format, ‘Always the Sun’ and ‘Skin Deep’ sounding so much better than I recall in the days when I wanted my Stranglers sounding more like they did in the ’70. And on that front, their incendiary 1977 debut was represented by the wondrous ‘Goodbye Toulouse’, then in a stonking finale, ‘London Lady’, before ‘Five Minutes’ saw us out. Never easy listening, but powerful for it.

It’s not about competition, the original band having reached a new high in recent years with Baz Warne, last year’s Dave Greenfield tribute, Dark Matters a case in point. But the ingenuity of this three-piece was never in doubt, and it seems that Hugh’s new bandmates similarly keep him switched on, 45 years – give or take a fortnight – beyond Rattus Norvegicus.

I did wonder if Hugh – who held the fort the night before in Newcastle amid a backstage crisis – might deliver a longer set in Manchester to help cover the headliners’ predicament, but then came a blistering 30-song set that totally allayed my fears.

If you don’t know the story, Newcastle’s show was pulled at short notice due to a medical emergency involving drummer, Billy Doherty. He was taken to hospital for observation and soon returned home, friend of the band Kevin Sharkey stepping up for Friday in Manchester and Saturday in Liverpool, the Newcastle show set to be rearranged.

Anyway, I reckon I’ve now seen the Paul McLoone-fronted Undertones three times more than the classic five-piece, and they never fail to hit the spot, as driven now as on their 2000 return. And this time I got to see them with a Sharkey for the first time since Summer ’83, fellow Derry-ite Kevin thrown in the deep end without so much as blow-up armbands. It was seat-of-the-pants fare at times, but what a star, two hours of rehearsals followed by an amazing set. And even when it went slightly awry, there were smiles, belly laughs, much cajoling, and rock’n’roll spirit a plenty.

“Now we’ve got a drummer called Kevin,” sang Mickey, and while there was briefly a moment of unintentional jazz on one number, and he may have over-thought ‘Billy’s Third’ (perhaps worried about messing up the main-man’s song), Kev’s confidence grew song by song, to a stage where he started ’When Saturday Comes’ a day early … I mean, one song early, his bandmates ready for ‘Here Comes the Summer’. Mind you, the way the weather’s been this week, perhaps he was right and they were wrong.

And to rephrase my opening statement, how I’ve missed that easy on-stage banter, Mickey and Paul on form, the latter corpsing at one point following a typical Bradley one-liner about Billy’s absence, the band earlier ruminating as to whether he was by then sat at home with pipe and slippers, sipping Horlick’s, his bandmates soon ‘humming, leaping and minging’ away at the coalface all the same.

Song by song? There’s not enough space on the internet, but from the moment The Glitter Band faded out and they kicked into ‘Family Entertainment’ then ‘You’ve Got my Number (Why Don’t You Use It!) we were on for another sonic treat. It’s often the numbers I never assume I’ll hear that stay with me, and this time those included ‘True Confessions’, ‘I Gotta Getta’, ‘Girls That Don’t Talk’, and ‘Hypnotised’, while others reached or re-found new heights, ‘Get Over You’ among them.

This was my first Undertones show since May 2019 at the other end of Oxford Road at The Ritz (with a review here). It was also my first Undertones sighting at the Academy since October 2005, six of the songs featured on the new Paul Tipler-remixed Dig What You Need, their all-winners/no-fillers reformation years best of, my highlight of those ‘Here Comes the Rain’, part of a four-song encore starting with a chest-out, raucous ‘Male Model’ and ending in style with ‘I Know a Girl’ and of course, ‘My Perfect Cousin’, on the day Manchester Uni students finally got a graduation day, some smart boy bound to have got a first in maths, physics and bionics.

Get well soon, Billy. Health comes first, but we’ve got to have you back soon. That said, the other Sharkey played a blinder in your absence. I fear you may have to audition for Derry’s Finest at this rate.

For this website’s most recent interview with Mickey Bradley, head here. And to order Dig What You Need via Bandcamp, head here, or for digital downloads, try this link. You can also keep in touch with the band via FacebookTwitterInstagram and Spotify.

With thanks to Steve Iggy for the live and merch stall shots from the night, and to Rob Kerford at Sonic PR.

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