Calling Captain Summertime – the Nick Heyward interview

Woodland Wonder: Nick Heyward takes it easy, and waits for the plaudits (Photo: nickheyward.com)

While Woodland Echoes is Nick Heyward’s seventh solo album, it’s his 10th in total, going right back to 1981’s Haircut 100 debut Pelican West. And this highly personable Beckenham-born singer/songwriter, guitarist and pianist is rightly proud of his latest offering, telling us, ‘I’m glad I’m alive, I’m glad I’m writing and putting records out’.

Even that quote takes me back to the first long player, Nick having ‘borrowed’ a little of the Lizette Reese-penned hymn Glad That I Live Am I for the last verse of Milk Film, as this ex-choirboy knew full well but was unlikely to let on to his mates.

If Nick was guilty of anything in those days – and for much of his career – it was for his relentlessly cheerful lyrics and tunes, as the early Haircuts hits underline. Fantastic Day speaks for itself, and who can forget Favourite Shirts‘ ‘Your favourite shirt is on the bed, do a somersault on your head.’ Not great advice for us with back and neck problems. In fact, his sole concern back then seemed to be a phobia of lakes, if Love Plus One‘s anything to go by. Yet Nick’s enthusiasm and optimism was contagious, and Pelican West still gets regular plays on my in-car system, not least when the sun’s out. What’s more, within a year he delivered another classic, a grown-up one by comparison.

But more of that later. Instead let’s focus on Woodland Echoes, his ‘first pop record in 18 years’ (since 1998 Creation rebirth of sorts, The Apple Bed), and an ‘accidentally-autobiographical reflection’ of the course Nick’s life has taken, its songs ‘influenced by love, nature, togetherness, ‘70s’ pop, America, open spaces and afternoon tea’. As the blurb has it, ‘This is the sound of a confident man in his mid-50s making music for nobody but himself’, Nick insisting it was only when he started compiling and sequencing the LP that he realised he had something different’.

As he puts it, “It came together like a storybook, a love story. I realised the songs were chapters. It starts with time passing; you find love and get a significant connection with your other half, in the forest of love. I’d never really had that connection. I didn’t know why I could always split up with people – it was either them or me.

“The passage of time is reflected on the album – it begins with a cuckoo clock ticking; as you age you become more selective about who you spend time with; no longer the hasty friendships of youth. Who is about the question of who do you keep and who you let go. When you stop looking for what you want, it is often there in front of your nose.”

Three listens in, I was impressed. There’s something of Skylarking-era XTC in places, such as opening track, Love is the Key by the Sea. While that’s quintessentially English, we cross the Atlantic for something of a Great Outdoors hoedown (complete with Jew’s harp) on Mountaintop before The Stars gives us old school Heyward quirkiness, as suggested by the line, ‘I’m a garden wall, you’re a spinning parasol’. A reflective, part-trippy Beautiful Morning carries traces of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, while Who is more Django Reinhardt goes camping, kind of Huck Finn’s Hot Club de France years. And Forest of Love would sit nicely on master songwriter Boo Hewerdine’s most recent offering, Swimming in Mercury.

He’s on top form for the guitar-driven Baby Blue Sky, inviting us on a coastal ride in a convertible on another perfect summer’s day. I’m channeling Paul McCartney (with George Harrison guitar touches) on radio-friendly love song, I Can See Her, while we’re catching Californian rays and filmic imagery on the evocative, somewhat epic Perfect Sunday Sun. Colourful, duelling acoustic guitars, glockenspiel and Fleet Foxes-style harmonies provide a semi-instrumental bridge – more Drake than Heyward – on New Beginning as we near journey’s end, Nick then back in classic pop territory on I Got a Lot  – think Tom Petty guesting with the Lightning Seeds – and then talking to the trees again on For Always, at one with nature on a closing track somewhat reminiscent of Dodgy, another outfit in their element staying out for the summer.

Recorded on a houseboat in Key West, Florida, and back in his native UK at Zak Starkey’s Salo Sound studio, there’s definitely an unhurried feel as well as a holiday vibe from an artist in somewhat transitory mode at present, between short-term accommodation. And in Baby Blue Sky, the flip of his double-A-side lead single, it certainly seems that Nick’s coined the sound of summer … again. In fact, I suggest to him on the phone, there’s almost a Teenage Fanclub vibe there, something not so many would associate with this ‘80s pop icon.

“A lot of people … many millions, in fact … don’t know I was on Creation Records, and I toured with Teenage Fanclub in America. I’m a big fan.”

Meanwhile, Mountaintop – the other side of that first single – is totally different again, more country-tinged.

“That was recorded near the Everglades, using a local band. It’s all blues there, but there was definitely a country influence. We were driving through Nashville and doing stuff over there. That’s nothing like the rest of the album either. But they all have this connection, a celebration of nature. There’s a track called Who and it’s gypsy jazz, and an out-and-out rock number like early AC/DC, I couldn’t put on the album though – people would think I was all over the shop, like a fox running all over the garden, into every bit of foliage you could find.”

Maybe we have the blueprint there for an extended album – Wild Woodland Echoes maybe?

“Well yeah. I’m Springwatch, through and through!”

Do you spend a lot of time in the States?

“It seems to have been that way. It wasn’t planned though. Maybe that’s down to Ian Shaw, who I worked with in the ’90s, who worked with Julian Cope and Alan McGee’s assistant Edward Ball. I played bass on his records and Alan would come down a lot, and really liked my song Kite, and said I should come to Creation Records. Anyway, Ian later moved to Key West to be near his Dad, ending up building a houseboat, including studio equipment. My girlfriend – now my fiancée – is from way up North in Minnesota, and while visiting her parents in Florida I went to see Ian.”

The LP’s certainly a mixed bag, style-wise.

“Yeah, I think that’s because it was recorded over a long period. It was either I save up for a property or invest in me and make an album. The more I was making it the more I really wanted it to sound like a proper vinyl record, and it’s mixed by Chris Sheldon, so all that took more investment and more time.”

Having Fun: Nick Heyward, not at all fazed by writewyattuk’s questions (Photo: nickheyward.com)

Nick’s son Oliver, 29, was also involved in the recording process, as a studio engineer.

“Yes, he’s doing brilliantly with sound engineering, and just the other day he was working with Chris Thomas and Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook. He never wanted to play, but always looked at the equipment I had around and seemed to know how to work it. He does all the summer festivals, like Let’s Rock and Rewind shows I’m involved with.”

Nick also has a daughter, Katie, 26, who he says ‘writes lyrics effortlessly, but chooses at present not to get involved with music’. He hasn’t put her off, has he?

“I might have done! Ha!”

As it says on his website, ‘While the battle for the music industry was playing out as the ‘00s became the ‘10s, Nick stood aside from all this, released two albums under the radar, and got on with the business of life; seeing his children grow up, and finding love’.

It’s certainly been a full career so far, from major label, big money backing at Arista, Warner and Sony to more cult indie support with Creation, and now fully embracing the crowd-funding era. And that independent direct-to-audience concept seems to make sense for him, not least being so social media friendly. Yet while he has his own label these days, Glenhawk, he’s not averse to PR help, via his Pledge Music album initiative.

“That way I can carry on and do another album. That’s why touring is so important to me – from the summer gigs I can then invest back into making more music. And I’ve chosen that rather than owning a house, living in short-term rents.“

Until September that’s in Henley-on-Thames, near Oliver and much of his work. But now his daughter’s Sheffield-bound, he’s contemplating upping sticks again, possibly to there, or nearer Manchester or Liverpool. Speaking of the latter, he played The Cavern last November and previously featured at a show marking the end of the About the Young Idea exhibition at the Echo Arena, celebrating The Jam.

“Yeah, brilliant, and I’ve played with Russell Hastings and Bruce Foxton’s band (From The Jam) again recently, jumping on with them at Let’s Rock, doing Modern World.”

All Set: Nick Heyward awaits the next tricky question (Photo: nickheyward.com)

That’s a quality I like about this Kentish entertainer – it’s not about obvious covers. There’s also footage of him from 1994 playing The Jam’s Sounds from the Street for a TV show.

“Well, Fantastic Day was written when I was pogoing to The Jam! I’d go home inspired by them and others around that time, ending up buying a practice amp and guitar. I locked myself in my bedroom and kept playing D major, C major and G. I had to sing something over those chords, which just happened to be, ‘It’s a fantastic day’. I then thought, ‘Actually, that sounds like a song. I should write one of those other things you have in songs – a verse’. But I didn’t know any other chords, so just played C and G. Later, I learned another chord – F, so put that in just before the chorus.

“I then had this song I played in various bands, although it didn’t pop out until it was suggested in a rehearsal to play to a record company. So we did, and they decided to sign us.”

The rest was history, Nick having left school in 1977, aged 16, working as a commercial artist but soon realising his pop dream. And as the bit about Haircut 100 on his website says, ‘They played the pop game perfectly, tucking their Arran jumpers into their trousers, riding the post-new romantic funk wave, marrying Chic with the Monkees and opening their shows with a blistering cover of Low Rider by War.’

That all sounds pretty cool, but I still feel like I’m at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting when I stand up and admit to Nick that Pelican West and North of a Miracle were two of my favourite LPs of the 1980s.

“Wow! Really!”

My tastes were more punk and new wave then, but I’d still regularly listen to both albums, and still do to this day. So why should I have felt a need to keep that to myself and feel reluctant to publicly appreciate his early work? Was it because of all the Smash Hits and fashion and pop teen mag coverage?

“It’s interesting. I don’t know why that was the case for us and not Edwyn Collins and Roddy Frame, who had similar kind of acts. It might have something to do with the fact we played with the pin-up thing. I don’t think Edwyn and Roddy did. Now we’ve got stats suggesting it’s 90% male fans buying records. Maybe that smaller percentage of women made it … off-putting.”

It was a golden era for white pop-funk and dance, from more mainstream ABC, Duran Duran, Haircut 100 and Spandau Ballet to indie-crossover outfits like A Certain Ratio, The Associates, Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, and The Higsons. I loved the latter’s East Anglian neighbours The Farmer’s Boys too, a band that seemed to be like a tipsy version of the Haircuts to me. All those bands still sound fresh for these ears, and that can’t just be nostalgia on my part, can it? But – as I suggested to Nick – perhaps for me it was more about the songs than what his band were wearing on Top of the Pops.

“Yeah, I think that first album was closer to Steely Dan than anything. It was more complicated, but I got tarred with the icon thing, probably in the same way David Essex was. But musically that’s never affected me, and I’m still doing what I do. Maybe it’s just down to people not being able to openly admit that.

“I also put music first and was playing Dreamin’ by Cliff Richard last night. I don’t give a f*** that it was Cliff. It was written by Alan Tarney (and Leo Sayer), one of this country’s great producers, songwriters and bass players. The way he crafted pop records … I listen to great pop music regardless of who it’s by, but I suppose if I was doing an interview for the New Musical Express I probably wouldn’t say I was listening to Cliff Richard.”

It struck me in later years that Nick was barely 22 when he made North of a Miracle. Yet it’s such a mature album, the artist co-producing with Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick and involving quality session players. As Uncut later put it, ‘If Elvis Costello had released this album, it might just feature in the lower reaches of those lists of all-time greats’. And for a record of that era it’s remarkably unfettered by the synth touches that quickly aged so many LPs around then.

“Well, hopefully I’m going to be doing that album somewhere soon, and get Geoff along to do a talk. To me he’s not only the guy who made Sgt. Pepper but also Imperial Bedroom and so much amazing music. He was the guy who put the microphone six inches closer to the bass and made the guitar on Paperback Writer sound more rocky. For me, he was there at the birth of rock music!”

Is it true that XTC were in line to record that album as well as Geoff? I’d have loved to heard their spin on the album.

“Yeah, and I’d still like to work with Andy Partridge. I speak to Thomas Walsh, of Pugwash fame, a lot. He has me in fits of laughter – he’s the most eloquent, hilarious man – and knows Andy really well. So you never know!

“Back then, we were sat in a coffee bar around the corner from Air Studios and Andy said, ‘Maybe we could be your band’. I was such a fan and was just stunned. I was thinking, ‘He doesn’t really mean that’. But that was a younger, startled, gob-smacked me. Now I’d say, ‘Oh yeah! What time? Nine o’clock? I’ll be there!’”

The following period wasn’t Nick’s best, and while I bought the more club-friendly single Warning Sign, his final top-40 hit in late ‘84, and Postcards From Home in 1986, the latter was soon in the bargain bins. There are some fine songs on Nick’s second solo LP, but production-wise he lost me. Perhaps I felt he was more interested in winning over the audience that saw him support Wham! at their Wembley farewell shows.

“Yeah, I’d lost that … it’s weird. I got to work at Air Studios and with Geoff Emerick and have great musicians, but then didn’t have that power, so the studios weren’t so good and my manager wasn’t really a manager. As a songwriter you’re as good as who you work with. In hindsight I see quite clearly things weren’t sounding so good. Howard Jones and Nik Kershaw were doing well at the time so I was put with Pete Collins and the results sounded good, but I must say my songwriting wasn’t as good around that period.”

I’d moved on by the time of his Warner Bros. Records move and 1988’s third album I Love You Avenue, the single You’re My World just another that failed to chart. And however good the records that followed, it’s a fickle market, Nick struggling to pull back that wider fanbase. By the time of 1993’s From Monday to Sunday he was revitalised though, touring regularly, particularly in the US, alongside the likes of Belly, The Lemonheads, Mazzy Star and Therapy? I think I only picked up on that later though, missing Tangled too, the 1995 album that pushed him further on again. However, I fully appreciated both later, and thankfully he was on Creation’s radar by then, acclaimed 1998 album The Apple Bed seeing Nick finally publicly acknowledged as having returned to form, even if he didn’t seem to sit comfortably with the new breed when that resurgence in interest came around the time of the BritPop phenomenon.

“Yeah, that all followed me getting to work with Ian Shaw, doing demos. That’s where Kite came about, the single Alan (McGee) first liked, a demo all the way through really, because it just worked with acoustic guitar, a drum, cello, trumpet and bassoon sound. That was it, and it was just one of those magical recordings.

“Ian just gave me a beat to play along to, I then took it home, felt I really liked it, opened a little book – and I don’t usually write that way – and tried some lyrics. I went back the next day to see if it worked, and sang it in literally one take. It wasn’t going on the album, but was the song Rob Stringer at Sony heard and thought was great.

“That proved to be the turning point. Maybe I was trying too hard before. Up until then I’d been giving people what I thought they wanted, and it was working. But then there was pressure after North of a Miracle. I was trying to write a hit, and nothing happened. But then I started being creative again in the studio, all this new material starting to pop out.”

Plenty of songs from that era have stood the test of time, such as 1993’s January Man, which for me was kind of On a Sunday part two (although that accolade arguably falls more directly to the rather splendid Perfect Sunday Sun on the new LP). He was properly back with us.

“That was it. It was like a blip before then, despite little glimpses like Traffic in Fleet Street (from I Love You Avenue). But then it was back again.”

On Spec: Nick going for the studious look with his fellow Haircuts, back in the day

Time flies, and it’s now 40 years since Nick and schoolmates Graham Jones and Les Nemes initially started a band. When was your first gig?

“The first as the band? That’s an interesting question. I’ll have to find that out.”

There were plenty of names, including Rugby, Boat Party, Captain Pennyworth and Moving England, before they settled on Haircut 100.

“We changed names so quickly! But the first would have been the four-piece with Pat (Hunt) on drums, probably the Ski Club of Great Britain, in the bar, inviting our friends. I don’t think (music writer) Adrian Thrills came to that, but it was either there or another around the corner in Kensington at the university supporting a band called The Tropicanos. Herschell Holder was in the brass section, and we went on to work with him on the album.”

Incidentally, Herschell had already played with Graham Parker, Eddy Grant and Black Slate by that stage. But as Nick’s website biography concedes, ‘Haircut 100 burnt briefly and brightly – the ultimate group of pals who, within a year, had hit the big time. It finished as quickly as it began’. So while the rest of the band carried on and made a second album, 1984’s Paint and Paint – Marc Fox taking over lead vocal duties – Nick had already released his debut solo LP. Does he keep in touch with his former bandmates?

“Well, Blair (Cunningham, drums) plays on two tracks on my album, and we played together last summer, along with Echo and the Bunnymen, one in a girls’ school playground turned out to be the best gig of the summer! Last summer I had tea in Marc’s garden, him and his lovely lady, and before then I went to Graham Jones’ wedding. I never miss a Haircut wedding, and I’ve been to every one of Blair’s!”

Inevitably there was talk of animosity at first, but Nick was clearly destined to be out on his own.

“Well, it’s just a long boring story about a band without a manager – like a football team without a manager would be a rudderless ship, probably not even getting outside the harbour. It could be the best ship in the world and the greatest crew, but if you haven’t got direction and a leader … But I’m always open to the idea of the six of us playing together again.”

So that might happen again?

“It’s up to us – it takes six people collectively to do that. The last time was when VH1 got us together for a TV show. That was really enjoyable. In the meantime though, I’m not twiddling my thumbs!”

Guitar Man: Nick Heyward knows a few more chords these days (Photo: nickheyward.com)

True enough, not just with the new album but a series of dates too, this week’s headline show at 229, Great Portland Street, Marylebone, seeing Nick – as with his Cotton Clouds festival appearance in the North West (Sunday, August 12th) – backed by his own five-piece band. There are also appearances on the Rewind circuit at Scone Palace, Perth (Sunday, July 23rd) at Capesthorne Hall, Macclesfield (Sunday, August 6th) and in his current backyard at Temple Island Meadows, Henley-on-Thames (Sunday, August 19th), while Nick is set to see out the gigging year for Let’s Rock Christmas at Wembley Arena (Thursday, December 14th).

For those shows he’ll be working with house bands he’s got to know well, including his own players in the Let’s Rock band and a Rewind band drawn ‘mostly from ABC and again great guys’. And when we spoke, he was looking forward to Let’s Rock in Southampton with The Human League, Belinda Carlisle, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Tony Hadley and recent writewyattuk interviewees Howard Jones and Katrina Leskanich. I’m guessing he’s having a ball. Is there good camaraderie between the acts?

“There really is, and it’s getting nicer, meeting up every summer and playing with them. We really put the effort in to make the day work too. It’s not so much the bands as the audiences that lift the day, and when the weather’s good, it really works.”

Then again, I bet it’s equally memorable when it’s chucking it down during Fantastic Day.

“I’ve played that song in all weathers! I remember one at Alnwick Castle where it was literally hailstones, wind, and icicles, with everyone still out there, singing along. How hardy are they!”

Scooting Off: Nick Heyward heads off, another interview complete (Photo: nickheyward.com)

Nick Heyward appears at the Cotton Clouds Festival on Saturday, August 12th, on a bill also featuring The Coral, The Sugarhill Gang, the Everly Pregnant Brothers, and a DJ set from Inspiral Carpets’ Clint Boon, with tickets £39 plus booking from the festival website. There are also official Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. 

And for all the latest from Nick Heyward and more detail about Woodland Echoes and where to order the LP, head here.

 

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Never Gonna Say Goodbye – the Pete Waterman interview

SAW Thing: Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman, weighed down with awards, back in the day (Photo: http://pwl-empire.com)

Perhaps you know him best these days for the countless TV appearances as presenter, judge or pundit, from his shows on regional radio in the Midlands, or – going back a bit further – as a club DJ.

Alternatively, you maybe more aware of his hands-on involvement with Britain’s rail industry, building from scratch successful train businesses, creating hundreds of jobs, salvaging and preserving steam locomotives and championing model railways en route.

But Pete Waterman’s place in the history of popular cultural was cemented in the mid to late ‘80s and early ‘90s as the catalyst of a music production and songwriting partnership that scored more than 100 UK top-40 hits.

Stock Aitken Waterman sold a staggering 40 million records and earned an estimated £60 million, working with a who’s who of pop over that period, from Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue to Donna Summer and Steps. And at the heart of the trio’s PWL label, Pete was clearly the prime mover, his many accolades along the way including 13 Ivor Novellos, despite having left school unable to read or write.

What’s more, Pete remains as passionate about music today as he was working as a DJ for the Mecca organisation in his youth. So whatever you do, don’t mention retirement to this 70-year-old pop impresario, as I did early on when I tracked him down to his London office. In fact, I started by mentioning another septuagenarian I’d just spoken to for these pages, legendary Mott the Hoople front-man Ian Hunter, 78 years young and still touring and writing acclaimed material.

“Oh, and I remember seeing his band when I was a young lad!”

So now Pete’s hit 70, has he any ambition to retire?

“Not at all! Then again, I don’t perform like Ian does. If he’s still out there playing, that’s fantastic! Those guys were brilliant, coming in that post-Beatles pre-Bowie era, lucky to catch that brief time period, I guess.

“I loved Bowie. I was a soul boy, particularly Northern Soul and Motown, but working for Mecca I had to play stuff I wouldn’t have gone out and purchased … even Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep! And just after that period we’re talking about, seeing Bowie break through, the rock scene improved dramatically, through Mott the Hoople and bands like that. A really interesting time.”

So when was the last time Pete DJ’d?

“I still work for BBC Radio Coventry and Warwickshire (and WM), every Saturday. And the great thing is that it’s about music rather than entertaining people dancing. The last time I DJ’d to people to dance to has to be 25 years ago … maybe for the last edition of The Hit Man and Her. And that’s gone on to be legendary really.”

TV Times: Michaela Strachan and Pete Waterman on the set of The Hit Man and Her (Photo: Granada TV/http://www.itv.com)

Us of a certain age remember that well, late night TV after a night out, if you weren’t out clubbing yourself, with Pete joined by Michaela Strachan in a Granada show that ran from September 1988 to December 1992. And in the region I later settled, it seemed that a fair few people knew some of the more prominent dancers that popped up on screen most weekends. Take That’s Jason Orange was one, as were a couple of members of 911.

While he was talking to me from the heart of the capital, Pete remains part-based in the North West, not far from Mr Smith’s, the club from which his hit show was first broadcast.

“I tend to live in Warrington from Friday to Sunday and here Monday to Thursday. And I love that … well, I love the train journey, don’t I!”

The capital’s received a few hard knocks of late, not least from the Westminster and London Bridge terrorist attacks. But it seems that Pete’s not ready to move out yet.

“We have an advantage in our old age sometimes, having been born at a time when people were dropping bombs on us every night out of the sky. Then I grew up in a period as a DJ when we were constantly clearing clubs and ballrooms because of IRA violence. Throughout my career, I took the security aspect as absolutely essential, as I had to. We were trained to do that at Mecca, working in public places, so to me there’s always been a real threat. It’s something I’ve had to live with, and you have to get on with life.”

Pete’s heading back to the North West for the Hit Factory Live Show on Saturday, August 26th though, part of the Livewire Festival at Blackpool’s Headland Arena over the August bank holiday. He’ll be appearing alongside and introducing several ‘80s and ‘90s superstars from his stable, not least Jason Donovan, Pepsi and Shirlie, Go West, Samantha Fox and Sinitta, plus Nathan Moore (Brother Beyond) and Undercover. Is there still strong competition among his acts?

“There was never competition for us. We didn’t allow that. You were there to enjoy yourself. If there was, you were in the wrong business. If you’re not enjoying it, don’t do it. We always said it could last five minutes, five weeks, or five years, so enjoy every moment. If you don’t, you’ll regret it.

“The great thing is we look back over 30 years or so and we’re still all friends. I went to a friend’s funeral yesterday, and you go back and think, ‘We’ve had a charmed life, we did what we wanted to do and have such fantastic memories’.

“We were in Blackpool regularly, including with The Hit Man and Her every six weeks or so. You look back and it’s magical. I’m very privileged to have been able to look back at so many great events. It was amazing, I got paid for it … and I kept my clothes on!”

There’s clearly a strong 80s’ retro market out there too, with Bananarama the latest PWL-associated act reforming.

“It’s incredible. I remember when journalists told me it wouldn’t happen, and I always said, ‘You’re wrong’. You can’t sell a million records in a couple of weeks if people ain’t keen on your record. You might sell 20,000 or 30,000, but not millions. And that’s what was happening.”

Pete left school at 15 in 1962 to work for British Railways, becoming a steam locomotive fireman based in Wolverhampton until his Stafford Road depot closed in 1963, choosing music instead, inspired by The Beatles.

That gives me the excuse to talk trains, telling Pete my Dad was a steam loco fireman from 1953 to 1961.

“Wow! Amazing. What a great career that was.”

I add that he reluctantly left British Railways to become a postman, hoping to support his growing family better.

“Yeah, probably better paid.”

Hit Factor: Pete Waterman shows us around the PWL empire. (Photo: http://pwl-empire.com)

So how about Pete – would he have changed his own career path, given the chance, and carried on where he started?

“No. I started on the railway at Wolverhampton, but I have to say I wouldn’t have done all I’ve done if I still worked for BR. I might have had a great time and enjoyed it, but … I love my railways and I’ve been able to buy trains to play with, but music pays the bills and trains are for enjoying myself.”

It was the same with my Dad. Getting out of that industry when he did, he at least retained his love of railways, never losing that passion. And that’s clearly the case for Pete too.

“Yeah, people tend to forget how dirty and how hard it was, and what unsocial hours and poor pay it offered. I remind people when they talk about taking the railway back that I worked on it and we were there. Drivers now get £60 or £70,00 a year. We don’t want to go back to where they were on £20 a week, working at four in the morning for four nights or four days sometimes, for less than £20. We don’t want to go backwards.”

He’s said to be worth around £30 million these days, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, and has been involved in several railway ventures. For instance, in 1988 he revived the name of the London and North Western Railway (LNWR), involving a rail vehicle maintenance business based at Crewe, with depots across the country, by the time of its sale the largest privately owned rail maintenance business in the country.

That was sold in 2008 to Arriva UK Trains, but there’s also the Waterman Railway Heritage Trust, which owns several steam and diesel locomotives. and then there’s his interest in model railways, his Just Like the Real Thing initiative specialising in O-gauge kits, having spoken about how his ability to become absorbed in making models helped him cope with the death of his eldest son. And as an avid collector his frustration at a lack of high-quality model railway kits on the market saw establish his own company, now widely regarded as a world leader and creating and sustaining jobs at the factory where the kits are made in Scotland.

Furthermore, in 2007 he became involved in a co-operative UK rail industry bid to create a national railway training scheme under the Labour government, halted in 2009. So, while I’ve got him on the subject, I ask – as a leading employer and innovator in the rail industry – what he makes of plans for a return to nationalisation of the railways. Something needs to be done, doesn’t it?

“Yeah, but once we renationalise the industry it becomes fat, lazy, and we go backwards. We need to rebalance, but you have to understand that every Government since 1948 except the last Tory one, under Patrick McLoughlin, has failed to put the money in. And five years of that has not made up for 55 years of under-investment. Yes, we’ve spent billions, but we needed to spend trillions, because our railway system is so far behind.

“If we spent £20 billion a year for 50 years that would only get us to where European railways are today. And we haven’t the money to do that. In a Utopian world, we’d like to have a state railway, but there’s no money to invest, because you have to have money from outside. It’s the only way. No party will do that over the NHS. If you have to argue railways versus health service, you lose every single time … and so you should.”

Having left the locomotive cab in the early ’60s, he started to build an impressive record collection, not least through acquiring rare US imports, his subsequent DJ-ing taking him across the UK, entertaining bigger crowds with a blend of classic R’n’B and soul. At one point, he was supplementing his income by work as a gravedigger then as a General Electric Company apprentice, becoming a trade union official.

Ska Boom: Fellow Coventry success story The Specials, back in the day

Gaining a residency with Mecca, initiatives such as matinee discos for under-18s in Coventry gave him valuable insight into what music interested young audiences. And it was at Coventry Locarno that he met long-time friend Neville Staple, later co-vocalist for The Specials, a band he went on to briefly manage, even going on to write the foreword to Staple’s biography, Original Rude Boy, in 2009. Did Pete recognise the themes of urban decay, unemployment and violence in the inner cities The Specials sang about in their evocative 1981 No.1 hit, Ghost Town?

“Oh, there’s no question. Absolutely perfect. Jerry (Dammers) for me was the best songwriter in that period and for all the youngsters who want to know what the ’70s were really like, go and listen to Jerry’s records. He summed that period up perfectly.”

In an early A&R role for the Philadelphia scene, Pete introduced the Three Degrees to the UK, a later move to Jamaica then seeing him work with Peter Tosh and Lee Perry, and produce Susan Cadogan crossover hit Hurts So Good. By 1979, he’d set up Loose Ends with Peter Collins, hits with artists like Musical Youth and Nick Kershaw following, setting up the PWL (Pete Waterman Limited) label in 1984.

Soon, he signed producers Matt Aitken and Mike Stock, Hazell Dean’s Whatever I Do the first of many successes, with 22 UK No.1s following, including those with Dead or Alive, Kylie Minogue, Bananarama, Steps, Mel and Kim, Donna Summer, Sinitta, Cliff Richard and Jason Donovan. But throughout his varied career, it seems Pete’s never sought to rely on one project. Is that a secret of his success?

“I just love working. If you sit and wait for it to come to you, it’ll never happen.”

Even as an enterprising young boy, he cycled between churches earning a few shillings singing in their choirs. Was his sense of business acumen better than his voice?

“Without question! And my enthusiasm outstripped both.”

Pop Impresario: Pete Waterman today, with retirement not on the cards (Photo: Sarah Lee)

His success in the music industry was recognised through honorary doctorates from Coventry University (2001) and the University of Liverpool (2004), and an OBE in the 2005 New Year’s Honours List. What’s more, he remains on board with local enterprise and training initiatives as well as his rail ventures, this thrice-married father-of-four also having seen four books published, including I Wish I Was Me: The Autobiography. And all that despite dealing with dyslexia, the music industry’s ‘Man of the Year’ in 1990 not learning to read and write until in his 40s. Did his dyslexia help fire him up in a bid to succeed? Or did it put barriers in his way from day one?

“It helped. I didn’t know what failure was. When you can’t read, how bad’s a review? You just got on with it. I never lied to anyone though. I would tell people I couldn’t read or write.”

Do you think things are easier for today’s generation in a similar position, now it’s better recognised?

“I think it’s impossible for today’s generation. I learned to spell through the internet, and wouldn’t recommend any kid to go to school and not learn to read and write. Quite the opposite – try twice as hard!”

It would be easy for this punk and new wave fan to write a former Pop Idol judge off as just another symbol of the established music industry, the ‘hit factory’ Pete created arguably a key influence on the current dearth of TV music talent shows. For that alone some of us may feel we should disown his pop legacy. But that’s not fair, is it?

“No, we set up to be independent. The Specials went their own way and I went mine. I had a mortgage I had to pay, salaries to find, so chose a way I could remain independent. And we were never, ever part of the music industry in that respect.”

He wasn’t really given kudos for that spirit though, despite PWL propping up that indie charts for many years.

“No, but look at the events of the General Election. Five months before everyone said Jeremy Corbyn was a waste of time. Similarly, everyone said of Stock Aitken and Waterman, ‘Forget it’, yet we went on to dominate the world! The public make up their own mind.”

When did he last speak to Mike Stock and Matt Aitken?

“Erm … last year.”

And how’s the relationship between you these days?

“We’re fine. I guess when you work that intensely for a while it comes to a positive end. I think it does.”

Was there a specific moment in your life when you saw a performer and knew what you wanted to do next?

“Yeah, with David Bowie, when I went to see the Serious Moonlight tour. I’d had hits before but that made me realise I knew what I wanted, and no compromise – if I fail, I fail, but this is what I want to do.”

He retains a love of pop all these years on. What was the last great acts he saw who he felt were on their way to deserved success?

“Over the last six months there have been some really good acts, like Clean Bandit, 21 Pilots – I love Stressed Out – and Bastille. Coldplay at the moment are on fire! They’re amazing.”

Anyone you’d still love to work with, who somehow slipped the net?

“There are a couple of young kids I’d love to meet. Jonas Blue is very talented. Dua Lipa too. I love her. That’s my sort of stuff. I guess I see what I did and what they’re doing 20 or 30 years on and see all the traits and excitement, and that’s fantastic.”

What would your advice be to the next generation of emerging artists?

“Stick to what you do. Don’t get carried away. Coldplay are a great example. They pop up all over but never let the quality drop. Chris Martin is exceptionally talented, putting himself with all sorts of people from different situations but still coming out a winner. That’s talent.”

And of what song attributable to yourself are you most proud?

“Oh, it’s Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up. It’s over something like 100 million hits on YouTube … or billions … God knows what it is these days! But it’s about so much more. The point is, that was a moment in time.”

Yep. I’ve since gone back and checked, and it’s 332 million internet hits now for that particular track … and counting. There’s no arguing with that. Respect due.

Hits Radio: Pete Waterman at the controls at BBC Coventry & Warwickshire (Photo: BBC)

For the full line-up, tickets and more information about the Livewire Festival this August bank holiday at Blackpool’s Headland Arena, call the box office on 0871 220 0260, visit the official website or go to http://www.seetickets.com.

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Remembering Rick and Status Quo – the John Coghlan interview

Classic Revival: JCQ, coming to a town near you. From left – Rick Abbs, Rick Chase, John Coghlan, Mick Hughes.

In the BBC documentary Hello Quo, there’s revealing footage of a jam session at Shepperton Studios featuring the original members of Status Quo, for the first time since drummer John Coghlan left 31 years earlier.

That 2012 meeting led to two reunion tours for Coghlan, old pal Alan Lancaster (bass) and Quo ever-presents Rick Parfitt (rhythm guitar/vocals) and Francis Rossi (lead guitar/vocals). And recriminations and tensions surrounding Coghlan’s initial departure were finally put aside for what proved to be one last hurrah of the ‘classic’ line-up, deemed all the more important bearing in mind Parfitt’s death last Christmas.

And while Rossi remains busy on the international circuit under the old Status Quo banner – alongside long-time associates Andy Bown (keyboards), John ‘Rhino’ Edwards (bass) and Leon Cave (drums) plus Rick’s recent replacement Richie Malone (guitar) – the original drummer is also still out there, leading John Coghlan’s Quo from the rear.

Coghlan first worked with Rossi and Lancaster in The Spectres in 1963, that band becoming Traffic Jam then Status Quo in 1967, by which time Parfitt was also on board, a five-piece honed down to the ’Frantic Four’ in 1970 and lasting until the drummer’s 1981 departure. But after a year kicking his heels he was back behind a kit, and 35 years later the gigs continue for this amiable 70-year-old, who brings his band to The Continental in Preston, Lancashire. on Saturday, August 12th.

That’s not the next show though, and I asked my interviewee about the Party in the Park in Woking, Surrey, on Saturday, July 8th, dedicated to Parfitt, who grew up within walking distance of that open-air location. What’s more, we talked about an impromptu tribute in South-West London at what turned out be an emotional end of year JCQ show at the Half Moon in Putney, following Parfitt’s death in Marbella on Christmas Eve, 2016.

“It was, and I also had an email on my phone from a friend in Holland who wrote a poem about Rick. I read that out and it was very moving. We miss Rick. He was a great guitarist, great singer, great guy, and just a really lovely bloke.”

Coghlan’s doesn’t come over as a big talker, at least not on the phone. Just humble, I guess. There’s nothing showy about him. My interview with the more in-your-face Francis Rossi – and I mean that in a good way – a couple of years ago was very different. But I told the original Quo sticksman I’d just watched that Shepperton Studios footage from 2012 again, and felt Alan G. Parker’s film perfectly captured the sense of awkwardness as the ‘Frantic Four’ resumed for the first time since 1981.

There are several versions of the story behind Coghlan leaving, the most dramatic involving him sat down to do a session take, tapping around then getting up, kicking the whole kit apart and storming out. He denies that in the Hello Quo documentary, suggesting – a little tongue-in-cheek, perhaps – he loves his kit too much to damage it. But the drink and the drugs were clearly taking their toll on the dynamics and there were obvious in-band tensions. It seems he didn’t feel part of the inner circle, Rossi tuning his drums before he came in to that particular session supposedly proving the last straw.

A decision was made – to Lancaster’s surprise, the original bassist the next to move on four years later – to let Coghlan go, Pete Kircher replacing him. Coghlan recalls tour manager Ian Jones telling him the day after the kit incident that the band were thinking of replacing him with a drum machine. His response, he recalled in 2012, was, ‘Bollocks. I’ll get on the plane.’

Frantic Revival: John Coghlan at the rear, with Rick Parfitt, left, and Francis Rossi, live in Stuttgart in 2014

We don’t go into all that though. Instead, I asked if it was a relief, particularly in light of Parfitt’s passing, to finally get back together after all those years.

“Well yeah. We all did it for the fans. That’s the way I look at it. Because there’s nothing better than the Status Quo fan. They look after our band really well and follow us everywhere. It’s really appreciated. And if it wasn’t for those fans none of would still be doing these gigs.”

And as a result, the classic four-piece ended up playing two reunion tours together.

“Yeah, we did a UK tour in 2013 and then the following year started in Berlin and did dates in Germany, Belgium and Holland, then back to England, finishing in Dublin.”

Was that a bit of ‘closure’ for you and the band? And was it nice to be back with the old crew, rather than dwelling on all the problems and arguments that ultimately pulled you apart?

“Yeah. It was good fun, but Francis didn’t want to do a third tour. I think Rick, me and Alan would have done another, planning to get together with someone else for a PLC (Parfitt/Lancaster/Coghlan) line-up. That never came to light of course, but there was talk about it, and I think it probably would have happened.”

Looking back on that 1981 departure – irrespective of the decision and the aftermath – I suggest to my interviewee that he got out at the right time, even though he probably didn’t feel that way at the time.

“Yes.”

Let’s face it – the years that followed weren’t the band’s best, creatively. And to be part of the band for so long was something to be proud of. He was on board for 20 years and 14 albums, after all.

“I think I was.”

It was rarely the same again from 1981 until more recent returns to form, at least not in the studio.

“No.”

I tried my best there, but he wasn’t for enlarging on all that, opening old wounds. You can’t  blame him either, and I’m sure Parfitt’s passing help put all those old tensions in perspective. Instead, I moved on, right up to date, asking about the fact that he’s still out there playing and to shed light on JCQ and JCB (the John Coghlan Band).

“JCB doesn’t exist anymore, but JCQ is basically me playing with my band – Rick Abbs (guitar/vocals), Mick Hughes (guitar, previously with Predatür) and Rick Chase (bass/vocals). We play all ‘70s stuff, including songs from the early Quo albums that we never really played on stage. We have a great following, and we’re looking forward to playing in Preston and elsewhere.”

The prime aim – according to JCQ’s press release – is ‘to recreate an authentic ‘70s Quo sound’, in keeping with John’s time with the band. And the diary remains pretty full.

“Yes, most weekends we’re away, and we did two gigs in Belgium and two in Holland, then others at The Northcourt, Abingdon, and The Brook, Southampton, then Queen’s Hall in Nuneaton, and we’re looking forward to the Party in the Park, Woking, and beyond.”

Did you always enjoy the travelling, including all that down-time?

“It’s a part of your life when you’re playing in a band. You have to accept you do a lot of travelling. We try and do it as comfortably as we can, and if we’re playing in Europe we fly out the night or day before. Days of getting up early in the morning, catching a flight don’t exist anymore for us. If they want us out there, they fly us out the day before. We’re not teenagers anymore!”

Seeing as he mentioned age, I asked if it’s harder to get up on stage these days, or does his rock’n’roll vocation keep him young?

“Well yeah. It doesn’t make any difference really. It’s still the same. We’re all quite fit and look after ourselves, and I’ve learned to relax while I’m playing to save energy. It works, and it’s great.”

Originally from South London, he’s been based in Oxfordshire for more than 30 years, on the edge of the Cotswolds, having spent around a decade on the Isle of Man before that. Is there enough room on the drive for his collection of vintage military vehicles?

“Well, I used to be a collector. I’ve only got one now, and that’s somewhere else. Yeah … it’s a hobby, I suppose.”

Going back to his roots, his father was from Glasgow and his London-born mother was half-French, on her mother’s side. Were his family always supportive of his music career?

“Oh yeah. They supported me and loved it, although nobody in the family on either side was a musician before,”

You had that early break with The Spectres, getting a call to play Butlin’s in Minehead. Was it then that you had a little extra tuition from Lloyd Ryan (as Phil Collins would later)?

“Yeah, Lloyd was playing in the orchestra in the theatre, We got together and he taught me a few things. That’s where we met Rick Parfitt as well.”

By his own admission, your future bandmate Mr Parfitt was more on the cabaret side of the business at that stage.

“That’s right.”

Coghlan grew up in Dulwich, leaving school at 15 to begin an apprenticeship as a mechanic. Could that ever have worked out, or was the pull of music too strong?

“Yeah, I got a job but hated it. It wasn’t really my scene and I wasn’t happy. But I learned to play drums and realised I could make a living out of it. I’m lucky in the sense that my hobby is also my job and I enjoy doing it. I love walking on stage and playing with the band. And I’m lucky I don’t have to get up at six in the morning to go to work.”

It helps that you’re very good at your job too.

“Well, yeah. I guess I’m lucky that what I do I can do well.”

Was there the belief when you joined The Spectres 54 years ago that you could ever reach the top?

“Not really. I think in those days if you were in a band that was enough – there weren’t that many of us. We loved the excitement of playing to an audience and being able to make everyone happy, playing good music.”

Looking back at all those years, from the holiday camps until you left Quo, could you pick out a few key moments that will always stay with you, confirming this was what you wanted to do in life?

“I suppose those six weeks at Butlin’s were an eye-opener, doing it – in a sense – professionally, getting to play to people and them coming up saying how much they enjoyed it. Then you think back to that stage with Quo in ’68 with our first hit record, Pictures of Matchstick Men, and playing places like the Royal Albert Hall, Glasgow Apollo, doing the live album there (October ’76), Hammersmith Odeon, Manchester Apollo …”

After you left, you had around a year away from it all, but already had side-project Diesel in the background, making your live debut at the Marquee in ’77.

“Yeah, that was just a bit of fun. Jackie Lynton, our singer, thought of the name, with me, Micky Moody, John Gustafson and various others playing with us. It was really good fun. I guess we could have made a career out of it, but we were all in other bands.”

I’m also intrigued by your one-off 1983 project The Rockers, with Roy Wood, Phil Lynott and Chas Hodges.

“Yeah, that was a strange thing!”

That’s some line-up though.

“Yeah, but it was just put together by this character who had this idea. But there was no plan to go on the road with it, which I thought was a shame. That would have been fun.”

Did you keep in touch with your fellow Rockers?

“Not since we did that recording. Our paths haven’t crossed. But it was fun.”

One of those involved with Diesel was Andy Bown, part of the Quo set-up since 73 but not a full-time member until after Coghlan left.

“He played keyboards but wanted to play bass with us, and did … well. I haven’t seen Andy since Rick Parfitt’s funeral.”

Drumming Legend: John Coghlan caught in a classic portrait in 1977 (Photo copyright: Terry O’Neill)

I’m guessing you met a lot of old mates at Woking Crematorium that day, albeit in difficult circumstances.

“That’s right. We went on somewhere after the event and had a chat with Matt Letley, who was also with Quo for a while, and loads of girlfriends of friends too, but it was a sad occasion.”

When you think of Rick now, is there a particular moment that springs to mind, or was it just all those shared memories?

“Well, he was just a lovely guy, one of the best rhythm guitarists in the world, he wrote great songs, sang extremely well, and all the fans loved him.”

I suppose the business gets in the way sometimes and it’s easy to forget the good times and shared memories you had.

“Exactly.”

During those years on the Isle of Man and in Oxfordshire ever since you’ve been with your beloved, Gillie. Does she deserve a medal for sticking by you all those years?

“I think anyone deserves a medal for sticking with me that long!”

He also has a daughter, from his first marriage, based in Hertfordshire, Is he a grandfather these days?

“Yeah, we have a granddaughter. She’s lovely, and doing well at school.”

But Grandad John’s still out on the road. Could he ever have envisaged that scenario all those years ago?

“No!”

You’ve worked with many big names. Anyone in particular still on the list, at least to jam with?

“I don’t know. Maybe Eric Clapton. I like the blues and I think he’d be a great guy to play the blues with.”

You suggested on the Hello Quo documentary that after your success with Pictures of Matchstick Men, you still didn’t know which direction to take until the band heard The Doors’ Roadhouse Blues.

“Yeah, Bob Young suggested we get rid of the pop image for heads-down boogie blues. That’s what we did, and it paid off.”

And of course Young was another Quo contributor who ended up with you in Diesel.

“Yes, he sang and played harmonica for us.”

Finally, of which Quo tracks would you say you’re most proud of all these years on?

“We made so many albums and recorded so many songs I think it’s difficult to pick one out as the best. I always felt if you ask a Status Quo fan they’ll tell you which they think is the best. They take it from a different outlook, not being part of the recording process.”

Okay then, if you put me on the spot, I’d have to say Paper Plane, or maybe Down Down … or Caroline …

“Oh yeah – good stuff!”

Operation JCQ: John Coghlan’s Quo are coming for you this summer, promising heads-down boogie blues

Tickets for John Coghlan’s Quo at The Continental on Saturday, August 12 are £18 in advance from WeGotTickets or in person from The Continental (01772 499 425) and Action Records (01772 884 772).

For details of Woking’s Party in the Park on Saturday, July 8th, try here. The band are set to go on at 5pm, and later the same day play the Rose Theatre in Kingston, stepping on stage at 9.30pm. For more gig news and all the latest from John Coghlan’s Quo, check out the official website. You can also keep in touch with John’s happenings via Facebook and Twitter.

To look back on this site’s interview with Francis Rossi from July 2015, follow this link. And for the writewyattuk verdict on Status Quo live at Hoghton Tower later that month, head here.

 

 

 

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In praise of Paddington’s world – a tribute to Michael Bond

The Beginning: Michael Bond’s first Paddington story books in my ‘Young Puffin’ editions (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

In a short piece penned for children’s author Cathy Cassidy’s Dreamcatcher blog in January to mark Michael Bond’s 91st birthday, I talked about my friend Paddy, who came into my life 40 years ago last Christmas. Something of a consolation prize at the time, he quickly became the bear I treasured most and all these years on he’s still with me, 240 miles north of his Surrey birthplace, having moved to Lancashire in 1994. He’s now largely consigned to a bedroom alcove, but is still very much loved. And a few days ago I raised a glass to his creator, who died after a short illness in his beloved London.

Consolation prize? I should explain. Most summers from around 1973 Mum and Dad took us to St Ives, Cornwall, my special place, where for as long as I recall while holidaying there, a Paddington Bear sat in a shop window on The Terrace, along our walk into town from the railway station, probably one of the endorsed replicas by Gabrielle Designs, a firm run by Jeremy Clarkson’s Mum. Each summer I looked longingly in, but always understood he was out of our price range.

Dad was a postman and Mum did every job under the sun – mostly cleaning – to help pay rent on our council house outside Guildford, so we were just grateful that they somehow managed to put away enough each year to pay for that annual West Country visit. Besides, the price-tag for the bear with the distinctive toggle-loop duffle coat, rubber wellies, felt hat and luggage label seemed to increase each year.

I’m not sure when I first clapped eyes on that official Paddington, but I was familiar with Michael Bond’s stories about this loveable Peruvian stowaway brown bear long before the BBC children’s TV cartoon, The Adventures of Paddington, was first aired in 1975. I didn’t own many books at the time (most were borrowed from the library) but he was up there with A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh for me, and I’d caught up with them all before I turned 10 in late 1977. What’s more, I still have my copies, some more dog-eared than others.

I don’t remember being disappointed that I never got to own a ‘proper’ Paddington. I got the best possible alternative. I’ve no idea how Mum sought out the bear that became known as Paddy, and it’s too late to ask her now, but he arrived on Christmas Day ‘76, sporting hand-made red felt coat with buttons, black felt boots and hat. These days he sports a jumper Mum originally knitted for one of her nine grandchildren, the clothes he arrived in long since gone. After all, he travelled thousands of miles to reach Darkest Surrey. And Paddy turned out to be the perfect Christmas present.

Paddington Paperbacks: The blogger’s Paddington book collection (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

But what of his inspiration? Thomas Michael Bond was born in Newbury, Berkshire, on January 13th, 1926, five days before A.A. Milne’s 44th birthday and nine months before Winnie-the-Pooh first saw the light of day. Michael would go on to sell more than 35 million books around the world in his lifetime, with the Paddington series published in more than 40 languages, this much-loved author becoming a CBE two years ago.

That first book, A Bear Called Paddington, was published in October 1958, with Michael 32 then, his breakthrough coming two and three-quarter years after Pooh’s creator died. And nearly six decades later he remained proud of his creation in a way Alan Milne – who felt his own loveable character overshadowed his other work – never truly was.

Like my Mum, Michael was brought up in Reading, Berkshire, where early visits to the main railway station – where my Grandad Thomas worked in the signals department and Mum was later in the telegraph office – to see the Cornish Riviera Express steam through en route from Paddington to Penzance (and even direct to St Ives) inspired a lifelong love of trains. His family home was on Winser Drive (Windsor Gardens in the books was an amalgam of that address and a later base in Arundel Gardens, W11, not far from the rail terminus he named his bear after), barely a mile from my Mum’s Cranbury Road roots.

While my Mum passed her 11-plus but had a difficult time at Kendrick School, singled out for her working-class roots among more monied pupils, Michael – also from a C of E background, but seven years her senior – had a hard time at the strict, fee-paying Catholic boys’ Presentation College, insisting his mother only chose that school because she liked the purple blazers. It wasn’t a happy time, Michael remembering with disgust the masters who disciplined their young charges with rubber straps, not least one particularly vicious member of staff, and often endured long cycle rides home to avoid the boys from the local state school, lying in wait.

This son of a post office manager subsequently gave up on the education system, starting work at 14, joining a solicitor’s practice as a mail-boy in the early days of the war. He soon switched employers, becoming an engineer’s assistant at the BBC in nearby Caversham, ‘switching the radio transmitters on in the morning and off at night’, as he told the Telegraph’s Anna Tyzack in 2012, an earlier interest in building amplifiers and radio sets helping him get the job.

Bomb Damage: Reading Town Hall Square after the 10 February, 1943 bombing (Photo: Reading Museum/BBC)

Of that period, a harrowing Wednesday afternoon in February 1943 cast a dark shadow, Michael working in an office at the top of a building in central Reading when it collapsed under him after a direct hit from a Dornier 217, during a raid that killed 41 people and injured many more. The bomber was one of two following the GWR line west from London, one wreaking havoc on Newbury and the other dropping four 1,000lb bombs on Reading, many of the victims trapped below Michael’s office. He told BBC Berkshire, “The bombs blew everything away from beneath you. People on the bottom floor in a restaurant just disappeared into the basement.”

My Mum often talk about the same raid, and that afternoon went with her step-mum and sister by bus to see Bambi at a cinema on Friar Street, getting as far as nearby St Mary’s Butts before an air raid warning was quickly followed by the attack, the passengers forced to lay where they were, Mum recalling a man holding her glasses in case they smashed. After the blasts and eventual all-clear, badly shaken up, they walked home, to be met at the end of their road by my relieved Grandad, who that evening cycled into town to help the rescue operation.

A short spell in the RAF followed for Michael, acute air sickness leading to a switch to the Army’s Middlesex Regiment, staying on until 1947, the year he sold his first short story while stationed in Cairo. The London Opinion magazine paid seven guineas for that, but he later said he ‘could have papered the walls of our one-room flat near Holland Park with rejection slips’ before his literary breakthrough. On demob, he joined the BBC monitoring service, which translated radio programmes from around the world, switching to the children’s television department in 1956, rising through the ranks to cameraman on the first series of Blue Peter.

Writing for Radio Times in 2014, Michael recalled, “There are some avenues in life that feel as though they are meant, and there are others that are simply a matter of chance. Occasionally, very occasionally, there is a happy combination of the two. For example, although I didn’t realise it at the time, my coming across a small bear when I took shelter in Selfridges’ toy department one snowy Christmas Eve was just such a million-to-one chance. Had there been two bears, I might have given them a passing glance, but I could hardly ignore one bear all by itself, with Christmas coming on. He looked so forlorn that I bought him as a stocking-filler for my wife, and called him Paddington after our nearest railway terminus because it has a masculine ring to it; important but not overbearing, with nice, safe, West Country overtones.”

He continues, “My writing had to be squeezed into days when I was off-duty. One such day found me sitting with a blank sheet of paper in my typewriter and not an idea in my head, only too well aware that the ball was in my court. Nobody else was going to put any words down for me. Glancing round in search of inspiration my gaze came to rest on Paddington, who gave me a hard stare from the mantelpiece, and the muse struck, along with what was destined to become the equivalent of a literary catchphrase. Suppose a real live bear ended up at Paddington station? Where might it have sprung from, and why? If it had any sense it would find a quiet spot near the Lost Property Office and hope for the best.

“I knew exactly how my own parents would react if they saw it, particularly if it had a label round its neck, like a refugee in the last war. There are few things sadder in life than a refugee. My mother wouldn’t have hesitated to give it a home, while my father, who was a civil servant to his fingertips, would have been less enthusiastic in case he was doing something against the law.”

His daughter, Karen Jankel, born the year the first book was published, says that Selfridges visit was on December 24th, 1956, with the writing happening just after Christmas and completed within 10 days. It was never intended as anything other than a writing exercise, but such was his first wife’s enthusiasm for the tale that Michael was inspired to try to get the book published.

Mane Attraction: Parsley the Lion, one of the stars of The Herbs (Photo: BBC/FilmFair)

It seems apt that it’s my sister Jackie’s name in the front of my copy of A Bear Called Paddington, as she was born the same year as Karen – now managing director of Paddington & Company – and the book’s initial publication. My version is a mere seventh ‘young Puffin’ reprint, from 1969, while my copy of 1959 follow-up More About Paddington is from 1967, the year I was born, long after Aunty Lucy’s move to the Home for Retired Bears in Lima.

I also have a 1968 reprint of Paddington at Large, youngest sister Tracy’s name in the front, followed by ‘Class 4, Shalford School’, a full home address and ‘Telephone number is have not got one. Ha ha.’ Comedy ain’t what it used to be. More to the point, on the title page she added, ‘Great book’, further proof that it wasn’t all just about James Bond in our house in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

There’s one more Young Puffin edition in my collection, a 1970 reprint of Paddington at Work. All of those carry drawings by Peggy Fortnum, who remained Michael’s illustrator during the Armada Lions reprint years which make up the bulk of my collection, dating between 1972 and 1978. I bought most with birthday or holiday money, and never truly grew out of the series, my Paddington on Stage ‘plays for children’ 1976 edition used for home productions of the stories (no doubt with Paddy in the lead role), just as it would be around 30 years later by my daughters.

By 1965 Michael had given up the day-job behind the camera to concentrate on full-time writing, and us of a certain age fondly recall TV animation The Herbs, the first FilmFair success he created and wrote, working alongside animator Ivor Wood. Using innovative 3D stop-motion model animation, the first show was transmitted in February 1968 in the BBC’s Watch With Mother slot, its regulars including Parsley the Lion, Dill the Dog, Sage the Owl, Sir Basil, Lady Rosemary, Constable Knapweed and Bayleaf the Gardener soon national treasures. And from 1975 onwards The Adventures of Paddington became an after-school staple for this impressionable lad. In fact, to this day Michael Hordern’s voice and Herbert Chappell’s theme tune conjure up home comforts on cold evenings, watching our black and white set (colour TV in the UK may be celebrating its 50th birthday, but my days in front of the box were strictly monochrome).

Michael adapted 56 stories for that series, again directed by Ivor Wood (also associated with The Magic Roundabout and another of my favourites, The Wombles) for FilmFair, bringing Paddington to an even wider and somewhat younger audience. And this was stop-motion fare of the highest order, its largely black and white 2D backdrops not hampering its appeal. They were ahead of their time, producing quality television in a golden era.

Old Pals: Michael Bond and Paddington Bear at home in Maida Vale in 2012 (Photo copyright: Rebecca Reid / Eyevine, as published in Radio Times)

We all move on, and soon I felt I had little in common with private school boarders Jonathan and Judy Brown. Mine was hardly a 32, Windsor Gardens type middle class upbringing. In that respect, Pooh Bear stayed with me longer, and while Christopher Robin also went off to private school at the end of those stories, it always seemed more about making the most of your youth before grown-up adventures inevitably took over. But although I began to value more the complexities of the relationships, understanding a deeper humour in the Hundred Acre Wood while relating more to the ‘great outdoor’ aspects of Milne’s work, his woodland setting comparable to my own semi-rural existence in the Tillingbourne Valley, that in no way denigrates Michael’s stories and the underlining human values in his books.

For one thing, Mr and Mrs Brown are loosely based on his own parents, and so many friends of Michael mention the author’s own Paddington attributes. Michael told Anna Tyzack about his father, “He was a polite man who always tipped his hat and never wore a bathing costume in the sea; he’d just roll his trousers up. But if he came against something he thought was wrong he did stick his feet in, just like Paddington.” And as Karen Jankel put it, “There was nothing slapstick about Paddington, the books are much subtler than that. Paddington is quite a serious-minded bear but he has an innocence which children share and so they can relate to him.”

While I was getting to be the wrong age to fully appreciate the qualities that first hooked me and could most relate to with Paddington – not least that polite, understated manner and accident-prone nature – I always loved his cosy relationship with Mr Gruber, feeling at home when he was dropping in for elevenses on Portobello Road, talking all manner of subjects with a gentleman who had great stories of his own – in the same way I loved my 1970s’ conversations with my Grandad Wyatt and the old boy next door, Jack Grant.

That relationship between the two immigrants is something that endeared both characters to many of us, and Michael told Anna Tyzack, “I based Mr Gruber on my literary agent, Harvey Unna, who fled Germany before the war. He used to tell me people never recognise themselves in books, and he was right; he never realised he was Mr Gruber.” He also told Michelle Pauli of The Guardian the first Paddington book was partly inspired by memories of the evacuee children he saw pass through Reading station from London, saying, “They all had a label round their neck with their name and address on and a little case or package containing all their treasured possessions. So Paddington, in a sense, was a refugee, and I do think that there’s no sadder sight than refugees.”

With that in mind, I was pleased David Heyman’s Paul King-directed 2014 film version of the stories, Paddington, picked up on that. It makes for great viewing, not just because of the stunning CGI effects (for a start, Paddington himself was somewhat life-like, and gorgeous). It seemed that the film-makers fully respected Michael’s vision, and definitely understanding the importance of the camaraderie between two firm friends. Samuel Gruber is wonderfully played by Jim Broadbent, while the choice of Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins as Henry and Mary Brown was equally inspired, with the children, plus Julie Walters as Mrs Bird and Peter Capaldi as Mr Curry – both just the right (believable) side of batty – also nicely cast.

Movie Star: Paddington in the 2014 David Heyman film adaptation

Maybe we don’t tend to see so many people around London raising a hat or being quite as polite in the modern era, and there are elements of an idealistic Mary Poppins-type London in the film, but perhaps we should revert to the ‘Paddington Way’ of doing things, issuing hard stares to those who go against our far more refined new world order. A marmalade sandwich in a hat could defuse the most difficult of situations. I also love the fact that the film put its star at the heart of a buzzing city with a calypso soundtrack, in tribute to the Windrush generation arriving on Michael’s West London patch from the late ’50s onwards.

Actually, I’m due a visit to the capital, and it’s about time I had a proper look around the principal railway termini. Most of my commuting in the past involved Waterloo and Euston, but I’ve a yearning to finally see the John Betjeman sculpture at St Pancras and a certain bronze sculpture of a bear sat on a suitcase under the clock on platform one at Paddington, where the Brown family first found him with that ’please look after this bear’ label around his neck.

That’s not so far from Michael’s own patch, the author sticking around West London, seeing out his days in Little Venice. He’s also one of three popular subjects picked out in sculptures alongside a new pathway and cycle route between St Mary’s Terrace and Paddington Station, two-dimensional steel artworks depicting famous nurse Mary Seacole, computer pioneer Alan Turing and Michael himself – clutching his famous bear – part of the Portrait Bench series by transport charity Sustrans, the subjects voted for by residents.

When my daughters were a little younger, I not only introduced them to Paddington, but also Michael’s much-loved guinea pig Olga da Polga. Others may recall his adult culinary mysteries based around Monsieur Pamplemousse and faithful bloodhound Pommes Frites. But it will be for that Peruvian stowaway that the alternative Mr Bond will forever be associated, and he continued to write throughout the decades, his last title Paddington’s Finest Hour published as recently as April.

As Karen Jankel put it in The Guardian, “The whole world is lucky to have had him. Paddington is so real to all of us. He’s still a part of our family and we’re very lucky. For me, he was the most wonderful father you can imagine, so our loss is personal. But it’s wonderful that he’s left the legacy of his books and Paddington will live on forever. Because Paddington and his other characters were so real to him, he became alive to everybody else. You can tell just by reading his books what a lovely person he was. I never came across anybody who disliked my father. He was one of those people that people instinctively warmed to and he was as funny as a person and delightful as he was in his writing and as a father.”

Of course, the author made a cameo in the 2014 film, a lovely touch that will ensure this ‘kindly gentleman’ (as he was credited) remains with us in another form. As a result, this fan will always picture him raising a glass to his special creation, welcoming a foreign stranger to the big city. Yes, you’ll be missed, Michael, but thanks for the memories. I not only raise a glass but also a metaphorical hat to you.

Bear Essentials: Paddington and Paddy, Lancashire, July 2017 (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

With thanks to The Guardian, Radio Times and The Telegraph for the quotes from past interviews with Michael Bond and Karen Jankel replicated in this feature.  

Along similar lines, for this website’s interview with award-winning illustrator and author Michael Foreman, from October 2016, head here. For a June 2015 150th anniversary appreciation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books, try this link. From March 2015, there are interviews with leading children’s authors Cathy Cassidy and Frank Cottrell-Boyce, and from March 2014 there’s a personal appreciation of Seven Stories national centre for children’s books in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

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The enduring appeal of Sparks – in conversation with Ron Mael

 

Mael Bonding: A pensive Russell, left, tries to avoid older brother Ron’s questioning look.

Many of us of a certain age will recall the first time we heard American art-pop-rockers Sparks, a band that properly appeared on the UK chart radar around the time of the glam movement, sitting pretty comfortably amid an air of flamboyance. Yet they were an outfit that always seemed so ahead of their time and never easily categorised – an enigma for sure, in the best sense of the word.

I was barely seven when This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us and Amateur Hour first stopped Britain in its tracks, struggling to make out be-flared singer Russell and altogether less-animated keyboard player Ron, on Top of the Pops and other notable TV music shows of the day. The fact that they were even brothers seemed bewildering enough. What a band too, not least the delightfully-named Dinky Diamond on drums. That’s if you could see beyond Russell’s wondrous falsetto, flowing curls, flowing scarf, and even more flowing trousers, or Ron’s menacing stare and ‘tache panache.

Where they quite fitted in, I wasn’t sure then, and I’m not so certain I know now. But they certainly impressed. As my friend Niall Brannigan put it recently, talking about that first hit single – kept off the top spot by The Rubettes’ Sugar Baby Love for two weeks – It seemed like aliens had taken over my radio. Nothing else sounded like it. It was exhilarating, plugged into the mains, overdosed on adrenaline. And then you saw them on Top of the Pops ….’

That year’s Kimono My House certainly proved an influential album, and some 40-plus years later you’ll still find plenty of acts who cite the Mael brothers as inspirations, these trail-blazing innovators regularly picking up new generations of devotees through high-profile appearances, big-name collaborations and so many great songs.

From those breakthrough singles to tackling crossover disco – with Giorgio Moroder on hand – five years later on songs like Tryouts for the Human Race, Beat the Clock and No.1 Song in Heaven, they remained a few steps ahead of the competition. And while in time the grand-scale commercial success tailed off, there’s been so much to savour since. Take for example, 1982’s Angst in my Pants (think Can doing Pop) and a wealth of material right through to their last big project, FFS, alongside Franz Ferdinand, soon to be followed by an album we finally get to hear in full later this summer, Hippopotamus.

In fact, right across the board, what’s not to love? They’re clever but fun – take 2006’s heavy metal pastiche Dick Around and 2008’s Lighten Up, Morrissey for example – and quirky, yet always understood the power of the pop hook, the first singles from their forthcoming LP proving Sparks remain on a long-time creative high.

I tell Ron Mael a bit of that down the phoneline, the 71-year-old sat at home in Los Angeles between UK visits, working on a set-list for a forthcoming tour while putting finishing touches to his band’s latest promo video, his band having not long before proved a big success at BBC 6 Music’s festival in Glasgow. And what a joy to make contact. He was everything I could have hoped for, those deep tones and an understated manner equating him all the more in my mind with the late, great Leonard Nimoy – to whom there’s been more than a passing resemblance in recent years as far as I’m concerned.

I started properly by telling him that while I feel title track Hippopotamus is super-catchy, clever and funny by turns, its rather splendid follow-up, What the Hell is it This Time? reminds me more of one of the band’s earlier contemporaries, Roxy Music.

“Ah … yeah, I guess so. That was an exciting period in Britain, with healthy competition between the two bands. They’d come out with songs, we’d hear them, be jealous and try and do that sort of thing.”

Big Splash: Russell and Ron Mael mull over their swimming pool dilemma

Big Splash: Russell and Ron Mael mull over their swimming pool dilemma

In the same way as it was for The Beatles and The Beach Boys a few years previously, pushing each other on?

“Yeah, and I think those kind of situations are really healthy.”

While the title song of the new LP had been around for a while by then, I told Ron I was still loving Hippopotamus, to the point where I could replace every song I’ve hated over the years with it – an earworm to end all earworms.

“Oh …. okay.”

I guess what I’m rather clumsily trying to say is that it has such a powerful hook, nothing can compete with it.

“Well, that’s good. We apologise for any kind of seeping into your brain, but in the end that’s what we’re trying to do anyway. So perhaps we shouldn’t really apologise!”

There’s even a brilliant fans’ version on the worldwide web, Sparks lovers filmed taking on a line or two for the camera (the fact that I know one of those featured – alongside his daughter – has nothing to do with my opinion on this, of course).

“Oh yeah, that turned out really amazing, with the scope of the people involved and the enthusiasm … fantastic.”

Breakthrough Album: Sparks’ 1974 classic, Kimono My House

You seem to have always had that cult following, and such a committed fan-base, several generations loving your work.

“It’s really amazing, and makes our shows so enjoyable for us. And we really don’t take it for granted. It also inspires us when we’re working on albums to do something we think has real substance and is special, because we know those people really do care and it wouldn’t be right to not do something that has something to it.”

While I find it hard to categorise Sparks, I can see key components in several other acts. And one enjoying similar degrees of love from their audience is fellow US art-pop-rock outfit, They Might Be Giants. When I saw them – finally – early last year, I was of the opinion they could well be Sparks for another generation. But I’ve since realised I was wrong – in fact Sparks are Sparks for another generation, having never lost that vitality.

Ron laughs at this, then adds, ‘Well, we really try. There is our past and legacy, but we really try to fight the thing of being one of those kind of bands. It gets harder and harder, but we’re aware of that situation and want to try to avoid that as much as we can.”

At the time of the interview, I’d only heard four of the new songs, the two mentioned plus Edith Piaf (Said It Better than Me), typically surging and stirring in equal measures, and Missionary Position, again so strong. But that was enough to back up the accompanying PR description about the band and how they take ‘the pop form, shake it up, and create an album that is adventurous, fresh and idiosyncratically Sparks’.

Besides, who could resist a record which includes the inspiringly-titled, ‘So Tell Me Mrs Lincoln, Aside From That How Was the Play?’ What’s more, this is – their PR adds – ‘the smartest, most consistently evolving band in the history of rock’, a combo once memorably described by BBC presenter Bob Harris as a cross between Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and The Monkees.

I tell Ron next that I feel Edith Piaf (Said It Better than Me) is possibly the best song the Pet Shop Boys have released in years (come to think of it, I could have said the same about When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way’ in 1994).

“Oh, well that’s okay then … yeah!”

Meanwhile, Missionary Position. carries traces of early Queen to me, another band Sparks have played with in the past.

“Yeah, a long time ago, at The Marquee club. They were setting up their own equipment at that time, which shows you how long ago it was!”

Board Masters: Russell and Ron spell it out, ahead of their September album release

You did a residency there, didn’t you?

“Yeah, we came over, having been playing in Los Angeles before, at places like the Whisky a Go Go, to no reaction. Then we came to London and did things like The Marquee, and the reaction was totally different.”

That must have been special for someone who loved so many of the bands who played there in the ‘60s, including a few acts your countrymen dubbed the ‘British Explosion’ groups.

“It was a dream. We always pretended in our own minds we were a British band, and really didn’t go along with the whole American sensibility of it only being about music. We thought that flash element was tied in, really loving bands like The Who and The Move.”

Arguably, music lost its way a little during that following era, but Sparks never seemed to fall into the trap of the overblown theme and the whole prog movement. You must have been doing something right, I put to Ron, and always seemed quite grounded.

“Yeah, we were kind of aware of what we were trying to do. They aren’t traditional songs but in general we’re working in song structures. As strong as we want the music, it all came back to what the song is, and we’ve never lost sight of that.”

All these years on, that remains the case, as seen from their performance and resultant critical reaction to their BBC 6 Music festival appearance in Glasgow. Did they enjoy that?

“Oh, it was beyond what we expected. It was a little nerve-racking because it was the first show with the present band, doing four new songs, but it really went well and inspired us for doing the tour – we have confidence that it’s going to work.”

Incidentally, do you still own the BBC, as you first informed us back in the mid-90s?

“Ah … as a matter of fact, yes! Paid for – lock, stock and barrel.”

Has that resultant power gone to your respective heads?

“Just slightly, yeah. Hee hee!”

With the next live dates in mind, are you a good traveler after all these years, or is the whole touring thing a bit testing?

“I love being in cities and around, and love playing. But the traveling part has got worse and worse. And airports now are not my idea of a good time. But once you’re on stage, you kind of forget about all that. I love traveling as far as seeing other places, and we always try to be real tourists and get out in the mornings. It seems a shame just to be going on stage, when that stage could be anywhere.”

So we get to see you over here in September, with lots of dates in the UK and mainland Europe. Will you get to sing My Way?

“Err … yeah, actually!”

I hate to point it out, but the years are advancing though. Does that mean the end of the touring Sparks show is on the horizon? Or do you aim to keep doing this as long as you can?

“Well, we haven’t really thought about it one way or another. We’re at a point where it’s all kind of surreal to be doing this now and in a way that doesn’t kind of look back, as much as we can stay in the present. But things just kind of happen. We haven’t really got a grand plan. We’ll see … I mean, who knows?”

Keyboard Wizard: Ron Mael gets down to it at the Barbican in London

That’s the thing. I take my eye off the ball for a while and suddenly realise Ron Mael is 72 and his little brother Russell is 68. Time flies. Does Ron feel any different to the fella who wrote and performed This Town Ain’t Big Enough and Amateur Hour when I first heard him on the radio as a seven-year-old?

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s self-delusion, but I really don’t feel any different when we’re doing shows. It just feels the same. The exciting thing to us is that so many new people are coming in to be Sparks fans, the same kind of age that were discovering us a long time ago. That really is inspiring, when you can see you’re doing something where chronologically you’re older than somebody but in attitude they’re able to pick up something that seems for them.”

I was thinking of that recently. I loved the 2015 set-up with Franz Ferdinand, and you’re forever finding new audiences. I was only recently reminded of the band’s cameo on Gilmore Girls, performing a short section of Perfume in 2006. In short, it seems that every once in a while something else comes along and a new generation asks who Sparks are.

“Yeah, just being rediscovered along the way by new people is exciting, and knowing what you’re doing at the present time has some kind of relevance – although I don’t like that word – for a new set of people.”

It’s now been 45 years since the marvellously-quirky Wonder Girl single was released (initially in the US, proving a hit in Alabama at least, then later in the year in the UK), taken from the reissued album Sparks, which was previously released under the band’s initial name. In fact, as I put it to Ron, that whole album bore a strong relationship to one released by a group called Halfnelson. What became of them, and did they ever try to sue?

“Ha! Not really, the similarities are too close, I know, but … yeah. It was one of those things – we had that name, and Albert Grossman, who was with Todd Rundgren, thought the reason the Halfnelson album didn’t sell was because of the name, so we felt we should change that.”

They’d call it a re-brand these days.

“Exactly … although it didn’t really have the right effect at that time.”

First Footing: The debut 1971 LP, Halfnelson, later reissued under the new name, Sparks

Looking back at those formative years, were Mr and Mrs Mael very encouraging of their sons’ early forays into music?

“I think like all parents of musicians, when you first start off, they’re warning you that you should get a real job and not mess around with this. But when you do have some success, they become your No.1 fans. It was one of those things. In general they were always really supportive, and my mother had me take piano lessons when I was really young, which in the end was a smart move!”

Was there a lot of music in the Mael household?

“As far as records, yeah. It was odd, looking back, but I was really exposed to popular music, yet not so much any other form. Things like Elvis and Little Richard, which at the time was a little more forbidden to be listening to. It was pretty daring at the time, but our whole musical education came from records and the radio. It wasn’t so much from any special training.”

Judging by your UCLA days (Ron studied cinema and graphic arts in 1963 while Russell studied theatre arts and filmmaking between 1966 and 1968), it seems that you might have followed in your father’s footprints as a graphic artist. But I guess music got in the way and you expressed yourself in a different art-form.

“It’s really odd, because that was my intention – to be some sort of graphic or industrial designer. But then we made a record, sent it to everybody, and it was rejected by everyone apart from Todd Rundgren. So we had an offer we couldn’t refuse!”

In time, you got to be an influence on so many acts (including the afore-mentioned Morrissey) and have worked with a lot of big names over the years, not least on 1997’s Plagiarism, with last week’s writewyattuk interviewees Erasure, plus Jimi Somerville and Faith No More. Is there anyone out there you still want to work with?

“Well, there was always the thought of doing something, not electronic, but we did a festival where Public Enemy were there, and talked with Chuck D a little, so that would be a dream for us – some kind of collaboration with them. I’m not even sure where that would go, but we’ve always been huge fans of theirs.”

Intriguing! And finally, I make Hippopotamus your 24th studio album, if you count the FFS collaboration. Have you a favourite of the less celebrated ones?

“I don’t know. It’s so hard to know. I really think that what we’re doing now is as strong as we’ve ever done. But looking at our recent past I think the Lil’ Beethoven album (2002) was something really special for us. We were searching for a way to do something that was true to Sparks but where the formation was different from what we had done before. And I think in some ways we succeeded with that album. So that’s one that stands out for us.”

Well said, that man. Well worth checking out, but then again that goes for pretty much every other Sparks album. And let’s just hope there are still many more fine moments still to come, starting with this September’s long-playing offering.

Mirror Men: Ron and Russell Mael reflect on their longevity

Sparks’ new LP Hippopotamus is released on September 8 on BMG, with a number of UK and mainland European dates around that, starting in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland in August, before the following month’s shows in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium and nine UK dates, right through to two Shepherd’s Bush Empire appearances in London and a Paris finale at La Gaîté Lyrique on October 1st. Check out the band’s official website for full details. You can also keep in touch with Ron and Russell via their Facebook and Twitter links. 

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Championing a little respect, to the sky and back – the Vince Clarke interview

Little Respect: Erasure’s Andy Bell (left) and Vince Clarke try to keep a low profile (Photo: Doron Gild)

When World Be Gone, the 17th studio album from Erasure, crashed into the UK album chart at No. 6 this month, it proved to be this established synth-pop duo’s highest new entry since 1994’s I Say I Say I Say, which went on to be their fifth straight No.1 LP in six years.

The new album was released – as with all Erasure’s recordings – on Mute, a record label synonymous with the work of keyboard maestro and band founder Vince Clarke since his first successful studio venture as chief songwriter of the fledgling Depeche Mode in 1981.

After a pivotal role with that Essex synth-pop combo on their Speak and Spell debut LP, Vince walked away on the eve of their first US tour, but quickly proved he had retained the Midas touch after forming Yazoo with Alison Moyet, two more hit albums following before another early disbandment in early ’83.

At that stage Vince envisioned a new project alongside his studio engineer, Eric Radcliffe, this time involving a variety of vocalists, the first recruit former Undertones singer Feargal Sharkey, the powerfully-emotive 1983 top-five hit single Never Never following, credited to The Assembly. Later came a collaboration with Edwyn Collins’ old schoolmate Paul Quinn, previously with Bourgie Bourgie, on One Day. But this time they failed to chart, and an alternative vision was floated, a subsequent advert in Melody Maker bringing Andy Bell to his door, this 20-year-old from Peterborough – selling women’s shoes and performing in a band called The Void at the time – impressing at his audition, leading to a winning partnership that has now endured for 32 years … and counting.

In fact, Erasure have amassed 17 UK top-10 singles along the way, not least Sometimes, A Little Respect, StopDrama!, Blue Savannah, Chorus, Love To Hate You, and the Abba-esque EP that topped the charts for five weeks, 25 years ago this month. And while that chart presence inevitably fell off a little over the last two decades, this is an outfit still very much on top of its game, with their latest offering, World Be Gone, the follow-up to 2014’s The Violet Flame, seeing them in more reflective mode, tackling world issues and recent political upheavals.

Don’t get the wrong idea. These seasoned dancefloor fillers haven’t turned their back on synth-pop, and have hardly become po-faced, as highlighted by the first release from the album, the celebratory and super-catchy Love You to the Sky, just the latest fine example of Bell and Clarke’s pop craft. What’s more, the new LP artwork shows a ships’ masthead rising from stormy waters, and as Andy put it, ‘I think there’s an under-swell of opinion, and people are slowly waking up. I’m hoping people will take the album in a positive way, as optimistic rabble-rousing music’.

But on this occasion it was Vince I was speaking to, via the wonders of Skype from my place to his home in Brooklyn, New York, before he set out on Erasure’s next batch of live shows. He’s lived in the US for more than a dozen years now, including a spell in Maine. I guess it’s a good life out there, I put to him.

“Erm …. It’s alright.”

It’s hardly Basildon though.

“No, it’s not quite Basildon.”

That introductory exchange seemed to sum my interviewee up. Don’t expect hyperbole, just understated honesty. His band may carry an air of flamboyance, but that’s mostly down to an outwardly more-showy frontman, with Vince far happier in Andy’s shadow. Watch a couple of Erasure’s ‘80s and ‘90s videos and you’ll see that. And they’re still putting on great shows today, as anyone who catches their latest live outings as special guests of Robbie Williams will tell you. Not as if Vince will shout that from the rooftops.

“The touring always tends to be great in the beginning, then not so great … like with anything – the grass is always greener. I think Andy’s always more the showman and really enjoys the touring, despite all the pressure he’s under, whereas I enjoy being in the studio more, recording.”

I guess he’s someone good to hide behind on stage. That must take the spotlight off you.

“Well, if there were two Andys on stage it’d just be ridiculous, y’know. It’d be mayhem! So I’m really happy. He’s an amazing showman … and you really don’t want to see me dance.”

Silly question maybe, but are they proud of the latest batch of songs?

“Yeah, we’re really pleased. We had a lot longer to record this record than we normally get so had the chance to write more songs than we needed, and that’s a real luxury. The process went really smoothly, the songwriting seeming to come quite easy this time round. And while the last two albums were more dance-y, it was nice to do something completely different.”

And lyrically, as heard on the more mellow Be Careful What You Wish For and the title track, this is Erasure reflecting on what’s going on in the world, isn’t it?

“Well, I think with all the weird stuff going on we thought we had to say something. Having said that, I don’t want people to get the impression it’s all doom and gloom. Hopefully there are a few positive notes within the record.”

There certainly are, but 32 years after their first 45, Who Needs Love Like That, I wonder if Vince could ever have imagined he’d be in this position, a North-East London lad who made his name with a few mates from Basildon still travelling the world, having shifted huge amounts of records, and now long since established in America. Was there ever a clear dream of where this might all take him?

“I had no idea. I couldn’t have imagined two weeks in advance. Even with Erasure, when I look back I can’t believe it’s been 30-plus years we’ve been together. In the beginning all we cared about was the next week – the next gig you were playing or perhaps the next single you were writing or album you were releasing. And I’m not one to reminisce. The only time I listen to old Erasure records is while preparing for a tour.”

After those short but successful stints with Depeche Mode and Yazoo, then The Assembly project that never really got off the ground, those three decades with Andy have certainly bucked a personal trend.

“Well, yeah. The Assembly thing was meant to last a little longer than it did, but just proved impractical really. And it was at that point that the producer I was working with suggested getting someone permanent as the singer.”

Hence that Melody Maker ad.

“Exactly, yes.”

When you met him, was there an affinity straight away that made you realise ‘this is it’?

“Well, there was as far as the sound of his voice was concerned. We’d been auditioning people all weekend and when he came along his voice just shone. With regards to his personality we had no idea. It took us a while to get to know each other. But it turned out that we are pretty similar, with similar political views for one thing.

“He’s just an incredibly laid-back person and super-easy to work with. The other good thing is that he’s totally not interested in computers, while I’m not so interested in recording vocals. We have our own little corners, and it’s a match made in heaven.”

And yet, with the miles between the duo these days – with Andy dividing his time off between homes in Miami and London – I guess they spend a lot of time (as Vince and I were on this occasion) talking and swapping ideas via a computer link.

It’s interesting, I tell Vince, seeing his early career in bullet point via all the Top of the Pops repeats on BBC4 – first with Depeche Mode, then with Alison Moyet in Yazoo, then Eric and Feargal in The Assembly. And while Erasure followed, there have been lots of other collaborations for Vince over the years, from Paul Quinn to West India Company – also including Blancmange’s Stephen Luscombe – through to Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware (The Clarke and Ware Experiment), past Depeche Mode bandmate Martin Gore (VCMG), and even Jean Michel Jarre. Then there are the countless remixes since the late ’80s for other high-profile acts, from Happy Mondays, Betty Boo and Sparks through to The Saturdays, Blancmange, Dido, Franz Ferdinand and Goldfrapp.

“Recently I’ve been collaborating more and more. As I’ve got older I enjoy it much more. When you have your own studio in your own house it can be a bit lonesome, so there have been more collaborations and remixes for people.”

I might be giving your record company an idea here, but any chance of a compilation of some of those collaborations from over the years?

“Well, I wouldn’t put it past Mute! There’ll be someone planning something, somewhere!”

When Vince left Depeche Mode he was taking a big career chance, as he was when he walked away from Yazoo. Word was that he didn’t enjoy the public aspects of success, not least touring and interviews. Did that get easier over the years?

“Well, I keep in the background pretty much anyway, so just learn how to do that. I don’t like going to public events and reward shows. That just doesn’t interest me. And I have a pretty anonymous lifestyle here in New York.”

Basildon Boys: Depeche Mode in the early days, with Vince Clarke, right, playing a key role.

He says that, but he did collect his ‘outstanding song collection’ gong at the 2009 Ivor Novello awards ceremony, in recognition of 30 years in the industry.

“Weird. I wouldn’t say I was glad I did it, I kind of wished I hadn’t. Maybe it reaffirmed my belief that I’m not into that sh**!”

While he suggests he tends to avoid the nostalgia circuit, there was also 2008’s 25th anniversary reunion with Yazoo. So, any plans for a 35-year celebration with Alf next year?

He snorts a little at that, then adds, ‘No – no plans. We’re just thinking about the upcoming tour, the tour with Robbie (Williams) and our own 2018 tour, starting in the UK early next year. That’s as far as I’m looking ahead.”

So far this year the band have already played late-May headline dates at Glasgow’s 02 Academy, Manchester’s Albert Hall and London’s Roundhouse. And then came their seven-date UK stadium run as special guests of Robbie Williams, reaching London’s Olympic Park on Friday, June 23rd. A 22-date European leg follows with the former Take That star, starting in Dusseldorf (June 28th) and ending in Moscow (September 10th).

And then the band are set to return for that headline tour next year, starting with three dates in Dublin in late January, the UK leg including visits to Liverpool Philharmonic (February 6th) and Manchester Apollo (February 8th), culminating in a return to London’s Hammersmith Apollo (February 23rd) then seven German dates, with full details here.

Of course, a lot of those audiences will want to hear the old songs too. And yet you tell me you’re not a nostalgic.

“I think that’s true of most artists, really. In our case it’s about that search for that elusive, perfect pop song.  And I love writing with Andy. It still amazes me how we go into a room with nothing and come out maybe a couple of hours later with a song. That’s one of the huge reasons why Andy and I are still together, I think. And there are still surprises out there.”

So many hits too. That shouldn’t automatically define the success of a working relationship, but there have been so many good tunes. And I’m not sure you get your fair share or even just – sorry – a little respect for that.

“I don’t know …  we’re still looking for that perfect song. When we do that I’ll Skype you and let you know – a bit of an exclusive!”

Odd Couple: Vince Clarke with Alison Moyet in Yazoo, his second success story.

I loved the 13 albums project he talked about in The Quietus in late 2013, where the likes of the Sex Pistols and T-Rex sat alongside Pink Floyd, Simon & Garfunkel, Michael Jackson, Philip Glass, Genesis and The Eagles. With that in mind, going back, what was the biggest influence on Vince – the thrill of punk or later electronic outfits like The Human League and OMD taking on Kraftwerk’s legacy?

“I wasn’t a huge fan of punk music, personally.”

Maybe not, but surely the DIY aspect of it all and the independent approach resonated with you, judging by your work ever since.

“Yeah, but at that time I was getting into trying to improve my acoustic guitar playing. I was more of a folkie.”

You were playing violin early on, weren’t you?

“Yeah, I played violin, although thankfully there are no recordings of my performances.”

It’s not like a Sherlock Holmes thing then – it doesn’t come out when you’re looking to solve some dilemma or other?

“No. Mum sent all of us to music school on Saturdays. I took up violin, my sister did piano, my brother did flute and my other brother did trumpet, I think. I don’t know why I chose violin.”

V for violin, V for Vincent, maybe?

“Something like that. But the moment we worked out how we could bunk, we used to do that.”

Live Wires: Erasure’s summer line-up. With Andy and Vince are (left) Emma Whittle and Valerie Chalmers.

Do you tend to write with piano or with keyboard these days?

“In the past, the majority of what we recorded was written on guitar or piano. But with this record I worked out some kind of atmospheric backing tracks before joining up with Andy, writing lots so we had lots of choices. We then worked out the songs around those tracks.”

While not on the road, Vince is based in Brooklyn with wife Tracy and their 11-year-old son, Oscar, having relocated his Cabin studio and synthesizers collection from their previous home in Maine. Tracy is the co-founder of the nearby Morbid Anatomy Museum and the twin sister of New York author Tonya Hurley, who is married to Erasure manager Michael Pagnotta.

Is Oscar following in Dad’s footsteps?

“He’s a real Logic guy, the same program I use. He was having lessons for a while but got bored as the teacher wasn’t fast enough! I’ve had a piano for about 20 years, which I had moved here, and he’s been tipping those keys now. Yeah, he’s definitely got a musical sensibility. He’ll come down to the studio and tell me I’m doing it all wrong! I can’t impress him.”

Does he not realise how much of a synth-pop idol you are? If I was you, I’d probably be sat watching TV and announcing to those with me, ‘I worked with him’ and ‘I worked with her’.

“Ha! Not really. I don’t think he really knows or appreciates … I don’t think he really understands what I do. He just thinks I mess about … which is kind of what I do really! As far as he’s concerned, he has to go to school while I just stay here, fiddling with synthesisers all day.”

Whatever Oscar might think, it’s a mightily-impressive back-catalogue – from 1981’s Speak and Spell with Depeche Mode right through. And which past album would he say he’s most proud of?

“One of my favourite records is Chorus, just because it was … I don’t know … the songs kind of wrote themselves and we were being quite experimental with the keyboards and synthesisers. I just think it’s got a really nice, semi-dark feel, which I really enjoy.”

Although you may not be the kind of guy to hang out with a few showbiz mates, do you keep in touch with the likes of the two Martins (Gore and Ware), Alison Moyet, or even Feargal Sharkey?

“I don’t tend to, but when we do bump into each other, that’s the only time I do a bit of reminiscing.”

And I guess you’ve got plenty to reminisce about with Andy Bell these days anyway, after all these years.

“Oh, I’ve got some stories you wouldn’t believe!”

Intriguing. Are you willing to drop in a juicy fact or two here before we finish?

“No.”

Ah well, I tried.

Heading Off: Erasure’s Andy Bell, left, and Vince Clarke, in the driving seat and coming to a town near you (Photo: Doron Gild).

World Be Gone, written, performed and produced by Erasure and mixed by Matty Green, is available on CD, limited-edition orange vinyl, regular vinyl and cassette. For details head here. And to keep in touch with all things Erasure, including live details (not least with a lot of those early 2018 shows already sold out) check out their Facebook and Twitter links. 

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Fingers Crossed for top night with Mott legend – the Ian Hunter interview

Hunter Gatherer: Ian Hunter, with trademark shades (Photo: Ross Halfin)

Ian Hunter was at home in Connecticut when I called, having a few days to himself before returning to the UK with The Rant Band for the latest run of shows to promote last year’s acclaimed Fingers Crossed album.

He’s around an hour and a half north of New York, having moved to that part of the US around 20 years ago following a spell in NYC. And although I wasn’t brave enough to ask so early in the conversation, I kind of assumed he was wearing his trademark shades.

As frontman of ‘70’s legends Mott The Hoople and a hugely influential solo artist, Ian’s rightly revered as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most compelling performers, and for 1973’s Mott and 1974’s The Hoople alone deserves major plaudits as a songwriter too. But while this Shropshire lad remains as busy now as when he started out in music in the 1950s, it seems that at the age of 78 he’s happy to be back in the sticks between engagements.

“I grew up in the country, and cities are annoying these days – too much traffic and you can’t breathe. And I don’t really have to be in town.”

Has he still got family and friends around Shropshire?

“Yeah, my oldest son lives there, and I have three grandkids there, plus my daughter’s in London.”

He was certainly looking forward to catching up with the Hunter clan and many more of us, a 14-date live run continuing at The Waterfront in Norwich on Friday, June 16th, and ending at The Playhouse, Whitley Bay, on Monday, July 3rd. Then, after three Californian dates in September, there’s a further run of seven shows in Germany, others in Switzerland and Italy, and three in Spain in October.

“I was over last year when the record came out. That went down great and we felt we wanted to come back, do some more, tied in with Europe. I love travelling round England, and on the coast. I was only ever popular straight down the middle first time. Now we’re trying to branch out sideways!”

With that in mind, I put it to him that there can’t be too many rock stars who moved to Northampton to try and reach the big time. And he laughed at that, perhaps recalling his formative days with The Apex Group and parallel outfit Hurricane Henry and The Shriekers.

“Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve never checked. I’ll have to Google that one up.”

If you don’t know that part of the story, I should point out that the future Mott the Hoople frontman’s entry into the business came after a chance encounter with two Colins – York and Broom – at a Butlin’s holiday camp, the trio winning a talent contest performing Blue Moon on acoustic guitars.  The others were part of Northampton-based The Apex Group, fronted by bass player Frank Short, Ian soon leaving home in Shrewsbury to join them on rhythm guitar, transferring apprenticeship from Sentinel/Rolls Royce to British Timken, Northampton.

Thankfully, that didn’t turn out to be the apex of his music career, although it took a while to hit the big time, and gets slightly confusing in the re-telling. In a nutshell (almost), that dual-spell with The Shriekers, formed by Ian in 1963, led to a further apprenticeship – a rock’n’roll one this time – in Hamburg, Beatles-style, then further twists and turns, moving to London in 1966 and joining a band called The Scenery, getting to know Mick Ronson on the Flamingo Club scene around then. What’s more, he played with various other artists, including The Young Idea, Billy Fury and David McWilliams, and in 1968 was hired by Mickie Most to play in The New Yardbirds, not to be confused with the band that became Led Zeppelin.

To make up his wages, he also worked as a journalist and staff songwriter for the firm Francis, Day & Hunter, was a road-digger for a local council, and a newspaper reporter. Then in 1969 things took a fateful turn for this 30-year-old father-of-two, answering an ad (‘singer wanted, must be image-minded and hungry’) and auditioning successfully for a band put together by Guy Stevens, featuring guitarist Mick Ralphs, organist Verden Allen, vocalist Stan Tippins (who became the road manager), bassist Overend Watts and drummer Dale Griffin. Initially known as Silence, they were renamed after a 1966 Willard Manus novel, with their self-titled debut LP recorded in a week and proving a cult success. You probably know the rest.

Actually, a later check by yours truly revealed that Des O’Connor, born in the East End and seven years Ian’s senior, also had a spell in Northampton on his way to success, after being evacuated there in the Second World War, even having a spell as a professional footballer with Northampton Town (‘Cobblers’, I hear you say). That town’s also associated with electronica pioneer Delia Derbyshire, but few others of musical note, so to speak, until Bauhaus, The Communards’ Richard Coles and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke came along. Now what a super-group that would make, eh.

So does Ian make the most these days of all those dead hours between gigs, getting to properly see the places he visits rather than just travel, set up, play and move on?

“I have to soundcheck, one thing I never stop doing, but the band get there around two in the afternoon and I won’t usually get there until five, so I miss all the grind.”

I hesitate there for a moment, struggling to shake the enduring image of Ian as a glam-rock grandad, then tell him how much I love Dandy, his tribute to David Bowie, the lead single on 2016’s Fingers Crossed. It’s a slice of instant nostalgia and a fitting way to remember the iconic, influential star who gave Mott the Hoople their proper first hit, donating All the Young Dudes to them 45 years ago next month, just when they were on the verge of parting company after three years, four albums, and precious little commercial success, scoring the first of five top-20 singles.

In answer to my enquiry, Ian tells me he didn’t stay in touch with Bowie in recent years, but together we work out the last time they met was for the Wembley Stadium tribute to Freddie Mercury, also involving Mick Ronson and Queen, 25 years ago.

“Of course, he got down on his knees and did the Lord’s Prayer on that occasion. That was fun. Queen wanted to do Dudes last, of three songs, and there was quite a tense confrontation between David and Roger Taylor. I just said, ‘Look. It doesn’t matter’ – there’s this couple of multi-millionaires looking at each other rather sharply! But David already had it in mind what he was going to do.”

What about Ghosts, the second single from Fingers Crossed, all the way from Memphis in a sense, albeit via a New Jersey recording session, inspired by the band’s visit to Sam Phillips’ legendary Sun Studio in Tennessee.

“I’d been there once before, and we met the son of one of the original Jordanaires, who asked if we wanted to go around again. It’s kind of like that Disney ballroom scene where you see ghostly holograms dancing. That’s what it feels like in there. My band all picked up instruments and started playing, and I could see it was getting them like it was me. And they’re a lot younger. There was definitely something about that room.”

Ian mentioned on BBC 4’s cracking 2013 documentary, The Ballad of Mott the Hoople, the pull of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, but I’m guessing Elvis Presley – who the afore-mentioned Jordanaires backed for 16 years from 1956 – was a major influence too.

“Actually it was Little Richard, Jerry Lee, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, The Platters, another great vocal band. Elvis was a bit too poppy. We were a bunch of Teds, and liked the hard stuff, y’know.”

I was thinking more of the earlier Elvis, when he was backed by Scotty Moore and Bill Black.

“Well yeah, and Jerry Lee’s piano is still there, as are the cigar stubs where they told them to stop smoking in the studio. Johnny Cash was there too, and The Prisonaires, coming off the chain gang for a day to record. Those early days were really something. There was a nice documentary about it all on the Country Music Channel recently.”

There’s rightly been plenty of praise for Fingers Crossed. Are these still Ian’s golden years, creatively, as Classic Rock suggested in their review?

“It’s quality control really. You hang about until you have the feel acceptable to yourself. I’ve had this band a long time now, they know my modus operandi. I know what will work with a band, and try and keep it as simple as possible. And either you get it or you don’t.”

This tour with The Rant Band will involve a mix of Mott and solo work, centred around Fingers Crossed. Will Ian have his famous Maltese Cross guitar with him?

“No, I sold that to a guy in Folkestone. He took the pickguard off and there was $5 in there and the address of the bloke that made it! When I turned 70, (Def Leppard frontman) Joe Elliott had two made, replicas but with an amazing sound. I used those when Mott got back together. An amazing sound, better than the Les Paul Juniors. The only problem I have with this band is that I have two guitar players already, so it gets complicated. So I use an acoustic.”

Remind me where that original Maltese Cross guitar came from. Was that one of your US purchases?

“Yeah, I was with Mick Ralphs in San Francisco. He saw it hanging on the wall, and the bloke wouldn’t take it down. He thought we were a pair of ne’er-do-wells. We told him we wanted a look and he said if I take it down you have to buy it. It was around $100. I said we’d buy it if we liked it. I don’t think there was even a truss rod. It was pretty crappy, but it looked good, which was most important! I got it for $75 and sold it for £160.”

As he was on the verge of his 78th birthday when we spoke, I asked if Ian planned to record and tour forever, health willing. He’s clearly still on top of his game.

“I’m not really good at hanging about. I love it for a while but get the urge to make a move again. That’s what I do. It’s not just as a means to make money … as long as someone turns up!”

You’ve had a few run-ins with ill health and disillusionment with the business and success you’ve had over the years. Does that get easier to cope with?

“Well yeah, and what we try to do is hover on the periphery. I hate the business. I don’t like anything to do with it. But somehow we’ve found ourselves a little niche on the side, and it works financially.”

Maltese Cross: Ian Hunter with a rather distinctive ‘six-string razor’ (Photo: Ross Halfin)

I tell him I’ve been reading a great book about The Clash, Pat Gilbert’s 2004 epic Passion is a Fashion, where he relates in detail the importance of Mott the Hoople on a certain Mick Jones, not least the ethos of not having that distance from the fans who pay to see you. They weren’t untouchables, I put to him, like some of the big bands of the time.

“Yeah, well (Tony) DeFries managed us and David Bowie and wanted us to be like them – like we were from another planet, very distant, not speaking between songs. That’s what he wanted but that’s not what he got! We didn’t feel any different from the people watching us. And if someone was a bit short of money we got them in the back door.

“That’s what happened with Joe Elliott, and Mick Jones, and a few people like that. They had no money and would maybe jump off a train before it came into a station. The least you could do was let them in.”

I ask him next who was the last band he saw who genuinely excited him in a similar way that Mott fans reckoned his band did … and a long silence follows.

“I don’t know. I really don’t get involved anymore. Not for some considerable time. I just do what I do. If someone bowled me over at a gig it was The Who at The Roundhouse, London, with Elton John opening. Normally you’ll have a discussion after a gig about what you thought, but nobody spoke after that.

“Halfway through, Pete Townshend turned around to Keith Moon and said, ‘Is it full?’ And Moony said, ‘Yeah, it’s jam-packed’, to which Pete said, ‘Is he reliable on the door?’ It took him back to the church halls! They weren’t on all the time, but when you saw them on one of those nights they were scary.”

After all the big names he’s played with over the years, is there anyone missing from that list who Ian would still like to record with?

“There’s a few. I’d have loved to have worked with Leon Russell, and nearly did at one point. Unfortunately it didn’t happen. Also, I’ve never worked with Bob Dylan, although I’ve met him a few times. That’s something I would like to do if I ever get the opportunity.”

Well, we heard it here first.

Listening back this last few weeks to solo work like his 1975 hit Once Bitten Twice Shy, I suggest there’s no great leap from that to some of the punk and new wave bands I loved a couple of years later. He was a trail-blazer in that respect.

“Well, we were partly glam – we were, but we weren’t! – so when the punk thing came in, the press turned on us, but then the punks started saying, ‘No, no, no – they’re alright!’ They had to do a U-turn. They thought they were being cool, but they weren’t! I remember going to the Roxy in London with Mick, and he got chased out of there. But I was alright. They accepted me, but not poor Mick!”

I’m not sure if he meant Ralphs or Ronson there, but I’m guessing it wasn’t Jones. Taking his point on though, I suggest maybe part of that was that he didn’t lose sight of the importance of the three and four-minute single. He didn’t go down the ‘prog rock’ road. He stuck to his guns.

“Well, I just came up with original rock’n’roll – fast, medium and slow songs. Soul was about, but I wasn’t very good at that and it didn’t turn me on like Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. It all got fragmented, but I just stuck with the original idea from the ‘30s, the’40s and the ’50s.”

It’s more than 50 years now since he first met Mick Ronson. I’m intrigued by that Flamingo scene in London, and all the great acts there. Was London truly swinging for this Shropshire lad?

“Err … I tried a few times, like everybody else. I was always dead jealous of London chaps. They were born there, while we had to get there … and it was a fucking long way, y’know!

“I remember going to the 2i’s Coffee Bar on Old Compton Street. I saw a guy called Lance Fortune, with Brian Bennett on drums and (Brian) ‘Licorice’ Locking on bass.  They both wound up with Cliff Richard in The Shadows. I saw those guys playing and went straight back to Northampton. They were so much better than we were. I thought we didn’t stand a chance. But you go down a couple of times and eventually wind up sticking down there.”

Did your time in Hamburg help you move up a few notches?

“It taught you how to play. You’re out seven hours a night and as much as 12 or 13 at the weekend. That was fantastic.”

I get the feeling that even if that advertisement to join Mott the Hoople hadn’t gone Ian’s way he might still have made the big time. He seemed to have the inner belief that it was going to happen, determined to make it one way or another.

“Yeah, I guess so. There wasn’t any desperation. I was bright enough to know there were only two ways for someone like me – it was football or music. Premium bonds were not going to happen. I put five bob in the Post Office and got that and just thought there’s got to be a better life than this.

“I’d been in factories around eight or nine years, and it didn’t appeal. But because of that I had lyrics. A lot of kids left school and joined bands, so didn’t have those lyrics. You just kept going and kept going, like a writer with a book or anything creative. You get rejected, but it only takes a phone call.”

For all his success with Mott, it was only a five-year ride initially. Since then, his solo career’s lasted 40 years, Ian having released a 30-CD box set last year alongside Fingers Crossed. That’s something to be proud of, isn’t it?

“Erm … yeah? I don’t know. I don’t look at it like that. It’s just what I love doing, y’know.”

Rock & Rant: Ian Hunter, heading to a town near you, with The Rant Band (Photo: Ross Halfin)

Ian Hunter and The Rant Band’s latest UK tour includes a visit to Preston’s Charter Theatre on Monday, June 26th, with tickets available via 01772 80 44 44 or this link. For more information and tour details check out Ian’s website here. You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

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