Where the Solid Gold Easy Action is – in conversation with Gordon Gibson

Vinyl Reckoning: Owner of Action Records, Gordon Gibson. (Photo: Neil Cross / Lancashire Post)

Getting on for four decades after he sold his first vinyl, I’m pleased to say that Gordon Gibson shows no sign of wanting to step away from Action Records in Preston.

The much-revered Gordon, originally from Stranraer, has been in charge of the celebrated Lancashire store since first picking up the keys in the early ‘80s, having got his grounding working market stalls in not so far off Blackpool. And this year’s itinerary alone proves Action Records remains at the cultural heart of his adopted city, with a number of impressive promotions lined up.

Coming soon, there’s an in-store signing of a new album by The Alarm involving front-man Mike Peters (July 5th), while punk legends The Damned put in an appearance in April, as did the up’n’coming Cabbage in March and The Wombats in February, while Gordon co-arranged a successful event at the nearby Blitz nightspot in May, co-arranged with Blitz’s Peter Alexander, featuring happening outfit Blossoms.

He also gave me brief details of two more events in the pipeline, the first with up-and-coming group The Blinders (date not yet revealed), while another was being finalised with Lancaster band Massive Wagons (August 16th), again at Blitz. And in the past, there have been promotions involving the likes of Bastille, Dirty Pretty Things, The Magic Numbers, Muse, Reverend & The Makers, The Rifles, Starsailor’s James Walsh, We Are Scientists, Willy Mason, and many more.

While Gordon’s in his mid-60s now, he’s clearly still got the hunger, his shop even the subject of a revealing short documentary back in 2015, ‘Chased by Nuns’ (with a YouTube trailer link here).

“Oh yeah. I tell you, if you didn’t have some sort of passion, you wouldn’t do it. You really have to be into it. There’s that many ups and downs, but you just put up with all that. And these gigs and in-store things are just great.”

I always get the feeling that the wider media are only really interested when it comes to Record Store Day. Then they all disappear for a while.

“You’ve just got to accept that, but we’re always working on something, and nowadays you obviously needed this social media thing. The bottom line is that you’ve always got to have something to say. If you just sit around and don’t do anything, you won’t have anything to say. Plus, you might just have some nice new releases coming in, especially now with the vinyl again. It’s encouraging the record companies to at least stay with the physical, as opposed to that download-only way of working, which happens a lot with new singles. Of course, these days when we’re told there’s a new single out, chances are that it won’t be what we see as a new single. It’s more likely a download picked up off an album. But they’ll call it a single, which is rather annoying.”

Action Records has served as an influential label in its time too, revered in indie circles over the years via releases from the likes of The Boo Radleys, Fi-Lo Radio, Preston’s own  Big Red Bus and Dandelion Adventure, plus the late Mark E. Smith and his legendary band The Fall. And most recently there was The Common Cold, featuring Dandelion Adventure’s Marcus Parnell and Ajay Saggar plus former Cornershop drummer Dave Chambers, a past Action Records employee, putting out their album, Shut Up! Yo Liberals!

“Well yeah. The lads were just going to do it themselves, but they just needed that bit of help with the distribution and all that. So I kind of jumped on board with that. And that turned out really well for them.”

And there’s been that real shift in recent years, not just with the re-emergence of vinyl sales and interest, but also with the merchandise stand at live gigs becoming more and more important to bands trying to make a living from their craft.

“Oh yeah. You really have to think about that. If you have a band, I always tell everybody – even if it’s just a young artist playing a social acoustic gig – it’s better if he’s got even a little CD there. That’s the time when you’re going to get people willing to pick something up. Then it’s in the memory. If you’re doing gigs, you should try and have something you can sell. And if you’re more established, you need to be doing all the merch – t-shirts and all sorts, as we’ve done in the past with bands like The Fall.”

How long was Action Records a market stall before Gordon – whose past staff have also included Nick Brown of The Membranes and Kentish Town’s Intoxica Records fame –  moved to Preston?

“I think it was a couple of years. Maybe two to three years in Blackpool. I did have another little shop in the middle of Blackpool for a bit. My brother ran it for us a little while, near where the bus station used to be.”

That’s Andy Gibson, who also featured with post-punk outfit The Genocides, whose raw debut single ‘Is That Alright?’ was the first released on Gordon’s label, their two-track slice of vinyl including a run through The Heartbreakers’ ‘Born to Lose’. Anything become of them from there?

“Well, at the time, it was that style of music between punk and moving away towards hardcore punk, but they were more like Johnny Thunders.”

As shown by that cover version. It sounds great too. You captured a real energy on that recording.

“Oh yeah. They did another 7”, but then it kind of petered out. And Andy was working for me anyway.”

Anyway, sorry Gordon. Where were we?

“Back in Blackpool, there was a market on Bond Street, called Charisma. An Indian guy had this small indoor market, around six to eight stalls. We were right at the front, then did another one. The first year we were just coming off South Shore Pier. Then we moved down Bond Street, where we were open all year, not just for the summer.”

It was in 1981 that Gordon moved his business to its current Church Street base, to a shop the city’s older generation may recall was once home to Preston North End and Scotland right-back Willie Cunningham’s sports shop. And over time, Action Records expanded and took over more space. But how did he get involved in the music industry in the first place?

“I kept getting made redundant! I’d done an awful lot of jobs. I worked in Preston docks when it was still a dock. My yard was where it’s now McDonald’s, with containers coming in for wagons. I was in the Merchant Navy when I was 16.”

His link with Preston came after hitching a lift in 1971 with Lancashire couple Alan and Sheila Cookson to the Lincoln Folk Festival, with James Taylor, The Byrds, Buffy St Marie, Sandy Denny and Tim Hardin among the headliners that year.

“I always think there are some things in life where just one decision can straight away change your whole life. I suppose after being made redundant all those times, you decide, ‘You know what? I’m going to try and see if I can set something up with records’.

“I had a big record collection and started buying as well as selling. And when I got that lift to Lincoln, that couple, Alan and Sheila, they picked me up and … I mean, you can’t realise how your whole life from that point changes. It’s amazing. With that lift, I was totally away on a different angle.”

And all because of a personal message received live on air via legendary DJ Whispering Bob Harris, I understand.

“Yes, I went back to Stranraer after the festival. Do you know, I think I might even have been 19 or 20 actually, because I was still living up there. Alan and Sheila dropped me off at Preston and I hitched back. Then, a few days later, Bob Harris read out that they were trying to contact me, even giving out a phone number. I don’t think they would do that today!”

These days, Gordon’s a father of three, ‘not as if they’re as mad into music as me, I’m afraid. It’s kind of different with people today.’ That said, he tells me one of his sons helps with Action Records’ website.

“But I work a ridiculous amount of hours. Maybe it’s best to get a normal job where you get holidays and everything like that.”

You’re also one of the few people who properly got to know the late Mark E. Smith of The Fall, getting beyond the public persona maybe.

“Well, we worked together for about 15 years. There is that public persona, although he probably was like that most of the time. But we dealt with that, kept it as easy business, and we got on fine. I always think, don’t try and get too close to people. That’s where you go wrong. Talk when you need to talk, ask what you need to do, discuss things. If we don’t agree on something, well. There were plenty of disagreements over the years, but in the end things always worked out.”

So what was the first record you bought?

“The Beatles’ ‘Twist and Shout’ EP. I’ve still got a copy, stuck on a shelf somewhere.”

Asked about his most influential early gigs, Gordon recalled a T. Rex show, ‘the first time they went electric’, at Green’s Playhouse, Glasgow, in October 1971, incidentally on the same tour that last week’s writewyattuk interviewee JC Carroll mentioned.

“That was a big memory for me. And Bob Harris actually DJ’d on that tour. In them days, bands would take DJs out, playing records between sets. They were stars too.”

Any plans to retire from the day-job sometime soon?

“What would I do? People say that, but I’m so busy doing things.”

I’m guessing you’ll say you haven’t got time to retire.

“I haven’t, literally. Sometimes it’s not so good, but bloody hell, it’s not boring!”

And does heading to the office involve a longer commute these days?

“No, I live in Bamber Bridge. Even when working in Blackpool I had to travel from Preston every day.”

So it made perfect sense to find a shop here.

“Oh yeah, especially when you didn’t take enough to pay the bus fare some days!”

Action Stations: Gordon Gibson checks his rising stock at his Church Street HQ (Photo: Neil Cross / Lancashire Post)

For all the latest from Action Records, including in-store and gig promotions, head to their website. You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.   

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Going North, South, East and West with The Members – in conversation with JC Carroll

Stage Presence: JC Carroll and The Members are still out there and remain relevant, four decades after the band’s big break

You could say Jean-Marie Carroll’s musical education started in November 1970, when he caught T. Rex live at Guildford Civic Hall. Within a week, Marc Bolan and Mickey Finn had their first top-10 hit with ‘Ride a White Swan’, and the die was cast for a career in rock’n’roll for a 14-year-old soon better known as JC.

“They’d just gone electric. That was a really interesting show. At the same venue I later saw David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust show (May ’73). Those two had a big influence. I really wanted to do stuff like that.”

After playing in various school bands, a chance meeting at The Three Mariners in Bagshot, three miles from home, with fellow future new wave star Graham Parker led to a two-track bedroom demo.

But while GP went on to the pub-rock circuit and started out on the road to international success, JC was initially consigned to working as a bank clerk and writing songs on a battered acoustic guitar in his North West London bedsit.

That proved to be the rite of passage needed though, Kilburn-based punk JC soon joining forces with a group of mates from his hometown, Camberley, and finding success.

The Members, led by Liverpool University graduate Nick Lightowlers, aka Nicky Tesco, went on to find fame with hits like ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’ (UK, No.12), ‘Working Girl’ (US, No.35) and ‘Radio’ (Australia, No.5), their take on the frustrations of suburban life soon resonating around the world, even with Bruce Springsteen.

“He came to see us in America in 1981. We were playing the Stone Pony, Asbury Park. Someone said, ‘Bruce is here. Mind if he comes backstage after the show?’ He loved The Members, we had a great chat, and he said, ‘When I come to England, I’ll invite you to our show.’ We thought, ‘Yeah, of course’. But then the invitation came.

“We sat backstage – about the size of a football pitch – with everybody who was anybody in London. Then we got a call to the Holy of Holies. He was a great guy, really identified with us, and we got to talk to him about cars and girls.”

JC’s autobiographical take on bedsit life, ‘Solitary Confinement’, set the ball rolling, released by Stiff Records in May 1978. How was their brief working relationship with that esteemed independent label?

“It was really good. We went to see Dave Robinson and he asked if we wanted to put a record out, and we said yes. They had this very small office in West London, and ‘Solitary Confinement’ became a cult record, and that really helped. It was record of the week in NME and all that, and really helped launch the band.

“It was completely autobiographic. I was living in a bedsit in Kilburn, with the rest of the band in Camberley at the time. We still play that, of course, and it’s the second most-requested song we do.”

A deal with Virgin followed, and while the band story seemed to end in 1983 after three LPs, a 2007 reunion proved to be the start of a further adventure, the more recent material as critically-revered as the old.

‘The Sound of the Suburbs’, released in 1979, quickly sold 250,000 copies and went on to feature on many compilations, that year’s debut LP At the Chelsea Nightclub was recently recognised by Record Collector as one of the top 20 punk albums ever made, and financial scandals in later years led to a dusting down of fourth single ‘Offshore Banking Business’, a band with true live pedigree proving just as adept with politically-charged white reggae, and remaining as innovative and relevant today.

You can check the latest line-up out for yourselves (by yourself, on your own, by yourself, on your own … or with friends) at Blackpool’s Rebellion punk festival in early August, The Members playing Friday night, with JC delivering a solo set the previous day. And for this Lancashire-based fan, there are dates in Barnoldswick and Manchester in November too, 62-year-old JC seemingly no closer to retirement.

His career’s not just about The Members and his solo work either. He co-ran – with his first wife, fashion designer Sophy Lynn – a successful boutique, The Dispensary, in Notting Hill Gate from the late ‘80s onwards, his empire growing to four shops, becoming a gathering place for the early acid house scene, customers including Kylie Minogue, their tee-shirts and tailored clothing proving a hit.

These days, the dad-of-two is back in Surrey’s suburban heartland though, remarried – to Sheila – and also working in films and TV. What’s more, he’s working on a memoir of his busy career. So how’s the book, Same Old Boring Sunday Morning, going.

“It’s going really well. It should be finished soon, although I might be a bit late. I’m really busy, doing gigs most weekends and going to Germany to get a platinum record this Sunday. A band there, Die Toten Hosen, covered ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’ on an album that’s gone platinum. They did a whole album of their favourite punk songs, called Learning English, Lesson 2.”

Incidentally, past writewyattuk interviewees Damian O’Neill, Steve DiggleEugene Reynolds (with fellow Rezillos star Fay Fife) and Hugh Cornwell, along with Bob Geldof, Jake Burns, Jello Biafra, Tony James and Edward Tudor-Pole, are among the others involved. And I seem to recall, I put it to JC, John Peel was a Die Toten Hosen fan … and of your band.

“Yes, he was a huge fan of The Members, and we did a few sessions for him (two in 1979 and one in 1981). And I was very blessed to get the chance to sit in on his programme once. I bumped into his producer, Chris Lycett, in a pub in Maida Vale, and we got in a cab and went all the way into the West End. And we never talked about music, only football, talking about Kenny Dalglish and teasing me about Chelsea! Myself and (Members bass player) Chris Payne are Chelsea supporters, and would stand in the Shed End when it was all concrete and corrugated iron in the ‘70s.”

I caught up with JC just a couple of days after he played my hometown, Guildford, having helped put on a two-band show, The Members  appearing with fellow scene veterans Eddie and the Hot Rods at the Holroyd Arms. How did that go?

“That was fantastic, and more or less sold out. A very good evening, and the venue’s really getting on the map now. It’s a really good place.”

JC lives in West Byfleet these days, 10 miles from Guildford, two miles from The Jam’s old Sheerwater base, and 13 miles from his own roots in the place with which he’ll forever be associated, Camberley. What’s more, he’s about to play his first gig in that town since 1979, playing an afternoon solo show at a town carnival. Am I right in thinking that booking had something to do with past writewyattuk interviewee, Green Man Festival creator, Buzz Club founder and accomplished singer-songwriter Jo Bartlett?

“Yes, I went to school with her big sister. Jo also grew up in Camberley, and was in a band with my younger brother for a while.”

That’ll be Rudi Carroll, ex-Bluetrain, a band I interviewed in Frimley Green in the late ’80s for my Captains Log fanzine. Not as if I ever recognised a link. Jo, these days also busy with the wondrous Kodiak Island, later told me the Bartletts and Carrolls both had six children and all went to school together. Maybe I should have asked if fellow Camberley luminaries Luke and Matt Goss were distant cousins.

Instead, JC and I briefly got on on to the Buzz Club, seeing as I’d seen the first show at The Agincourt, Camberley, in 1985, featuring That Petrol Emotion and The Mighty Lemon Drops. Some bill. And those next few years, at its West End Centre base, Aldershot, it became an essential out-of-town location for anyone interested in a happening indie scene (there’s a 2014 writewyattuk interview with Jo here, and she has her own informative, entertaining blog here). And as JC put it, “That was a really important venue at the time.”

Going back to Eddie and the Hot Rods, did you know them in the early years?

“We played with them in the ’70s, touring with them in 1979, as support, playing Guildford Civic with them early that year. And recently, we’ve done quite a few shows with them.”

And they’re still built around original front-man Barrie Masters.

“Yes, Barrie’s still there, although he’s set to retire, with just one more show next year, I believe. So this is a sort of farewell tour. That’s why I organised this show in Guildford. And he’s still brilliant. The show they did on Saturday was fantastic.”

Their Summer ’77 top-10 hit, ‘Do Anything You Wanna Do’ (incidentally featured on Die Toten Hosen’s Learning English, Lesson 1, in 1991), is one of those songs that inspired so many. Only at the weekend, a Belfast listener told Tom Robinson on his BBC 6 Music show how important that was to him in those troubled times.

“Some people are very lucky they have songs that prove to be the zeitgeist and the sign of the times, and people can really identify with as a song of their youth and all that. ‘Do Anything You Wanna Do’ is one of those songs and was produced by the same man who produced ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’ – Steve Lillywhite, originally from Egham, Surrey.”

More about Steve – whose brother Adrian played drums for The Members – and his part in the story to come, but first, more about JC’s days since his band’s first coming. I don’t want to preempt too much of his book, but I’ll talk a bit more about his work as a composer, film and TV work, including successful projects with esteemed film/ documentary maker Julien Temple, and even accordian input on 1994’s Don Juan DeMarco, starring Marlon Brando, Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway, and 1996’s Loch Ness, starring Ted Danson, Joely Richardson and Ian Holm.

There’s also 2011’s The Golborne Variations, involving various other Members personnel, his own co-written/directed production, described as ‘an award-winning prog-rock opera about the sounds, sights and people of a road in North Kensington – Golborne Road.’ And JC’s imdb profile lists involvement with Julien on recent release Suggs: My Life Story, 2012’s London: The Modern Babylon, and two of my favourite music documentaries, 2007’s Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten and 2009 Dr Feelgood biopic Oil City Confidential.

Talking of Joe, The Clash were a big influence on The Members, weren’t they?

“Yeah, we loved The Clash, and Joe was a very nice guy. I liked him a lot, and we got on very well. He was a special guy and I got to play with him a couple of times, including his birthday party just before he died. I went to his funeral. He was a really special man, very charismatic, people really loved him, and he was a natural leader and fantastic guy.

“He had a long period where he didn’t really do very much and was fed up with everything, spending about two years in a pub in Portobello Road, across the road from where I lived. I used to practise with him, and he was quite disillusioned then. But he came back, and it was great.”

I loved his later Mescaleros period. Such a sad loss that he went when he did.

“Yes, and he had another band called the Latino Rockabilly War. I did three or four shows with him then in London, with most of his band American, flying in from LA. Yeah, he did lots of interesting things, including film work with (Damned drummer and past Members contributor) Rat Scabies, and some acting. He was a complex person. I understand there’s a new retrospective coming out soon of his work, including a few loose ends.”

JC got to know fellow Clash players Mick Jones and Paul Simonon as neighbours too, having been based in the same area for 25 years. But let’s go back now to his own band, put together in the wake of that initial punk explosion, some 30 miles south-west of the Westway. When was the first time JC became aware of The Members?

“I was asked to join in 1977. Nick started the band in Camberley with a guitarist called Gary Baker. They did a couple of gigs before I joined, my first with them supporting the UK Subs in Croydon, a place called the Red Deer.”

Nick initially formed the band through an invited audition at a recording studio in Tooley Street, south of the river, between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. the year before, also with Steve Morley on bass and Steve Maycock (then Clive Parker) on drums. Soon though came what was seen as the classic 1978/83 line-up, Nick (vocals) and JC (guitar) joined by Nigel Bennett (lead guitar), Chris Payne (bass) and Adrian Lillywhite (drums). Am I right in saying fellow survivor Chris predated you in the band?

“No, he joined just after, probably about a month and a half later. But the band’s had its own life in the past 10 years or so, and we’ve been together longer this second time around than the first time around. I’d say we do some 30 or 40 gigs a year now.”

Of course, Nick Tesco deserves an interview all to himself. Another fascinating bloke, with lots of tales to tell, some caught by Keef Trouble for Jack Slipper Videos in 2010, with a link  to part one here. He’s not involved these days, having struggled with rheumatoid arthritis and associated problems, despite being part of the band’s initial reunion, the classic five-piece getting the ball rolling again with a show in 2007 at the Inn on the Green, near JC’s old West London patch in Ladbroke Grove.

“We’ve had some changes in the last few years, and even Chris took a tour off. I played bass when we toured America. We also had the original guitarist, Nigel, before he went back to the Vibrators, so the line-up has changed … but I’m still there.”

JC was on board early enough to play seminal punk venues like the Red Cow and the Nashville Rooms, and as I suggested to him, early tracks like Handling the Big Jets suggest to me an underlying love of US garage bands.

“Yeah, we liked surf music and liked The Shadows and stuff like that. So there’s a mixture of punk and that.”

I hear Dick Dale and The Ventures in there too.

“Yeah, we liked all that. And in the old days we always played an instrumental before Nick came on. And we still do that today.”

As is the case on the wonderful first album, At the Chelsea Nightclub. At this point, I tell JC that while I raved about The Undertones’ live presence, a couple of mates often told me I missed a trick in not seeing The Members on stage first time around.

“We were very good live … still are … and had a lot of energy. But there wasn’t really anywhere to play around Camberley, so we hardly did any gigs at all round there. Surrey was poorly served. They had big gigs but nothing medium-sized, and until things like the Buzz Club came along there were no real places for people to play. So we would find that in 1979 we’d be touring England and playing a lot in the Midlands, but not down in Surrey.”

How important was that suburban identity to you?

“Well, let me explain to you … in the beginning the punk rock scene was quite small. And quite cliquey. There was a small group of people in London and another in Manchester, scenes of around 200 or 300 people. Then in 1978, more people became interested.

“When we started playing the Red Cow and places like that, we had groups of young men and women coming up to see us from places like Hampton and Staines and all those satellite towns, and they weren’t like that inner London clique. That was quite exciting, and we’d realise there was a whole army out there who were really ready and interested in punk rock, and they didn’t really have any songs written about them.

“That was one of the reasons I wrote ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’, to speak to those people. And we were very lucky that it came out at a time when a lot of people around the country were getting interested in punk, and it kind of spoke to them. Before then, it was just tough inner-city kids leaning against a brick wall, but we spoke about those satellite towns and living on the edges. We identified more with the suburban rather than the metropolitan.”

Even within London’s reach, it’s a similar tale, I suggested. Take for example The Kinks, who were just as much about outlying areas like Muswell Hill as Waterloo.

“Yes, as in The Village Green Preservation Society, Cricklewood, and all that. They were also just a fantastic inspiration in that they sang about ordinary people. And that mundanity made perfect sense to us.”

And while The Jam seemed to gravitate towards London too, again there was a mighty suburban influence there.

“Yes, and they did write about Woking, such as on ‘A Town Called Malice’.”

Speaking of The Jam, I see founder member Steve Brookes played on 2016’s One Law.

“Yeah, he did one track with me, a fantastic song, ‘Incident at Surbiton’. I saw him singing in a little pub, and people weren’t really paying attention to him. I told him I was working on a movie and asked if he wanted to help out. He did, and I then told him I had this song that was half-finished and asked him to add a vocal, and he was fantastic. He’s a fantastic singer. Better than Paul Weller. He’s got a great voice, a very malleable voice.”

Back to the book and Pledge Music campaign, crowd-funding his Same Old Boring Sunday Morning autobiography and a fourth solo LP, Painting in the Sky, the fund already having reached its target. While I’ve packed a fair bit into this feature, I’ve only really scraped the surface, and you’ll have to fork out on the book to find out more, JC’s memoir also set to include tales of Top of the Pops days, world travels, recollection of dates with Devo and the Ramones, party days, and JC’s return from a wild time in the US with $20 in his pocket in 1983, attempting to re-establish himself while taking on temping jobs, until helping launch that successful fashion company at the height of acid house.

Then there was his folk rebirth, complete with accordian, a chance meeting with a top film composer that led to a break into that world, playing with punk legends, celebrity alternative pantomime in West London, and the 50th birthday party that inspired The Members’ rebirth, the band soon back up and running and touring all over the UK, Europe, the US, Australia and New Zealand, this time without road-crew, management, or a safety net. As he puts it, it’s a story about ‘a rock’n’roll survivor, it’s got bromance, camaraderie and bitchiness, its often hilarious, sometimes sad, but never boring.’

Although he was in Kilburn when he hooked up with The Members, JC’s roots were definitely back in Camberley.

“I was born at the Frimley (Park) maternity hospital in 1956. My father worked at Blackbushe Airport, as did my mother, and they met there. When I was one, they bought a house in nearby Lightwater and I lived there until I was 18, moving to London when I left school and got a job. I was living in a bedsit in Kilburn and working as a bank clerk.”

And is that where punk rock grabbed you?

“Yeah, I got to go to the Roxy and see the Ramones, Talking Heads, all that, and later got to play with people like Glen Matlock, Dee Dee Ramone, Johnny Thunders and Rat Scabies, who we had as a drummer for three years. We had some very interesting stories from him. He’s a great raconteur and a very interesting man.”

Thinking of that Roxy link, Don Letts’ involvement with the punk scene via that Covent Garden club is well documented, with links between punk and reggae from the start. And there was a strong reggae association with The Members’ sound.

“Well, they didn’t play punk at the Roxy because there weren’t any punk records at the time, but Nick Tesco and I loved reggae and so we always had this strange mixture of reggae and punk and of fast and slow songs, at a time when not many other bands did that.”

We mentioned two of your early hits, and ‘Offshore Banking Business’ also proved to have staying power.

“Yes, with every fresh financial scandal that gets dug out, and it’s done very well for us, becoming something of a signature tune. It’s great to have those songs and play new songs as well. I always try to incorporate some of my new songs into the show, especially the solo show, trying to keep it fresh as an artist. You have to play the favourites, but there’s no harm in introducing others, and some of the newer material has turned into live favourites.”

Anyone still know you as Jean-Marie?

“Erm … not really, though my mother calls me that. It wasn’t that easy at school, having girls’ names and going to an all-boys school (Salesian College, Chertsey). A lot of people called me Jean, and I still get that at the doctor’s or the dentist’s.”

I’m guessing there’s a French link, as with Stranglers bass player Jean-Jacques Burnel.

“Yes, my father’s French, while my mother’s from Ireland.”

Do you remember clearly the day you signed to Virgin?

“I do remember a little about it. I think we signed around November 1978, gave up our jobs, and had quite a successful record then went around the world. When we were on tour they signed lots of other bands, like The Skids and The Ruts, and by the time we returned punk was no longer in fashion, while 2 Tone was. We felt like we were slightly anachronistic at the time. So it’s really strange how now it all seems to be bigger than it ever was in certain quarters, with these big festivals. I went to see The Skids the other night and they do these huge shows, while the Ruts DC are still going too.”

And like The Skids, The Stranglers, The Vapors and many more of those bands, you’re clearly not just content to live off your past.

“Yes, and there are lots of things to write about. We live in interesting times, and that’s what being in a band like The Members is about. You’ve got to write about the times you live in.”

Was Adrian’s brother, Steve Lillywhite, key to your decision to sign for Virgin?

“Well, basically, we got him into Virgin. He was only just qualified as a producer. He’d only co-produced the Hot Rods’ record before Sound of the Suburbs, so hadn’t had a lot of success at that point. After working with us there, he got other gigs with them, like XTC. We gave him a step up the ladder really.”

How do you see At The Chelsea Nightclub today?

“It was a very good record, and we didn’t really do very much to it. We just played it like we played live. It wasn’t over-produced.”

It certainly has that live, fresh feel.

“Steve put loads of little tricks on the single version of ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’, like acoustic guitars and sound effects, and that was a fantastically-produced record. But subsequently, whenever it was licensed, for greatest hits albums and so on, they used the album version, which was inferior. For many years you couldn’t get the single version. But last year I managed to license it back from Universal, who currently own it, and put out this new Greatest Hits compilation, spanning our long career, and it’s gone down really well, with some very good reviews. And it’s made me very happy that it said the new material was as strong as the old.”

While the follow-up, 1980’s The Choice is Yours failed to have the same impact, I grew to love – and still do – the final album first time around, Going West. What I hadn’t realised until fairly recently was that it had a US release first. And there’s always been that strong interest in the band in America.

“Yes, it was called Uprhythm Downbeat in America, and the album was produced by Martin Rushent, who at the time had a worldwide No.1 with The Human League’s Dare. As a result, they gave him his own label and told him he could sign whoever he wanted, and he promptly signed The Members and Pete Shelley. We had to make the record the same way he made his Human League record, brick-by-brick, using drum machines and electronic loops.”

I had that album on vinyl, on the Albion label, and it always seemed to be a really loud record.

“It was probably cut very loud and produced very loud. Martin pressed everything so everything sounded really loud.

“But there are two versions of ‘Working Girl’, one which we did earlier with Steve Lillywhite and one by Martin Rushent, which was a big hit for us in America. And that’s what we’re known for out there. There was also a big disco song called ‘Radio’, which was …”

… A big hit in Australia, yeah?

“Yes, and also about five years ago two DJs remixed it and re-cut it up, having a huge dance hit with it, renaming it ‘Radio Stereo’.”

Did you get to tour in Australia as well?

“Yeah, we did, in 1979, as soon as we had a hit here, our managers sent us to America and Australia and New Zealand. And we went back three years ago and had a fantastic tour there. And as well as 2014 we spent a lot of time in America in the ’80s, doing loads of touring. So yes, we keep on touring around the world.”

Am I right in thinking someone used it as a jingle on Radio 1 back in the day, possibly Kid Jensen?

“Yes, we did station idents for a lot of people, including Kid Jensen. We did about 10.”

Obviously, you couldn’t dream of replicating the success you had in those days. The record sales just aren’t there now to the same level. But if you had the chance to steer new fans back to the more recent albums in your second coming, where should they start?

“I’d pick one of the most recent ones, because they’re the ones I’ve got on the merch stand! There’s One Law (2016) and Ingrrland (2012) for a start. You can hear them online. We cart them around and still sell them at gigs. That’s what you do today.

“We’re also recording new material at the moment, for an American label called Cleopatra, so there’s a new album in the pipeline, which is exciting. And we’re very lucky to still be working.”

Suburban Sound: The Members, 2018 style, a long way from Camberley, with JC out front.

For more details of JC’s book project, head to his Pledge Music link. He also has his own website.

2018 dates: Lewes Con Club (with Johnny Moped), July 16; Camberley International Festival (solo), June 23; Redhill Ska B Q, July 13; Guildford Suburbs (solo), July 14; Reading Readipop (with Dawn Penn, Don Letts), July 15; Cardiff The Globe (with Vice Squad), July 20; Islington Hope & Anchor (solo/book launch), July 26; Blackpool Rebellion Acoustic Stage (solo), August 2; Blackpool Rebellion Opera House, August 3; East Sussex Byline Fest, August 28; Bedford Squires, September 1; Swindon Victoria (with Charred Hearts), September 22; Rotherham Cutlers Arms, September 29; Stoke-on-Trent Brown Jugg, September 30; Skegness Great British Alternative Festival, October 7; Barnoldswick Music and Arts Centre, November 8; Glasgow Ivory Black’s, November 9; Edinburgh Bannerman’s, November 10; Balcombe Club (solo), November 24; Manchester Star & Garter, November 25; Norwich Waterfront (with UK Subs), December 7; London 100 Club, December 22. For more details, and the latest from The Members, head here. You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Why Chas & Dave Mustn’t Grumble – in conversation with Dave Peacock

 

Pier Pressure: Chas & Dave, having taken their own advice to get themselves down to Margate

When Dave Peacock lost his wife Sue to cancer in 2009, it seemed to mark the end of the Chas & Dave story, ending their professional partnership after 34 years. But a year later the pair announced a tour for 2011, and have carried on ever since. What’s more, Dave reckons they’re playing better than ever now.

“I think that’s true. You never stop learning in music, and we like to think we can play a fair bit. And I think we are getting better.”

Dave’s lived just outside Hertford for the past 36 years, having first moved out of the capital in his late 20s. He’s 73 now, with his latest birthday just a fortnight ago. What did he do to celebrate?

“I went around Chas’ place and dug his allotment over. We live about 14 miles apart. He’s a very keen gardener and I give him a hand.”

Do you feel your age at times?

“No, I feel alright. Music keeps you young, I think, as long as you keep playing. I love to play, and I play every day.”

While performing as Chas & Dave from the start, true fans were always aware of a third bandmate, with Mick Burt on drums from their mid-‘70s beginnings through to retirement in 2009. And while Mick died in 2014, it’s now Chas’ son Nic ‘giving it some stick’, himself an established part of this celebrated ‘rockney’ combo.

“Nic’s always been the baby, being Chas’ boy, but grew up with music all around him, and he’s a multi-instrumentalist – a great drummer, but also a good guitar and bass player. It’s lovely to have him on board with us. He’s doing a great job. Mickey Burt was his idol when he was growing up. He was familiar with Mick’s style, and it sort of rubbed off on him.”

This month, Chas & Dave’s sporadic All Seasons tour continues with a visit to Blackburn King George’s Hall (Saturday, June 23rd, 0844 847 1664), while a scheduled trip to the Liverpool Empire has been put back to September after Chas recently succumbed to flu. Out of interest, when did they first perform in the North West?

“Years and years ago, I was in a country’n’western band that used to run around in the North, backing Slim Whitman and all them people, right up to Scotland.

“Then, when me and Chas got together, they were saying, ‘Ah, they won’t understand you up North,’ which was an absolute load of twaddle. We’ve got loads and loads of fans up north, like in Leeds, Newcastle, and especially Glasgow. It’s a myth. Even people in the business ask, ‘Do they understand you, north of Watford?’ Total nonsense. And we were one of the first to start singing in our own accents.”

That proved to be a master-stroke. Was that decision a penny-dropping moment for you?

“It was really. I’d always done London songs in a set, whatever band I happened to be in. But Chas was in Heads, Hands & Feet (also featuring revered guitarist Albert Lee), and when they toured the States, he said he felt a fraud, singing in a false American accent. But you can turn it around, if you work at it, making it fit your own accent, and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve kept our rock’n’roll, sort of boogie-woogie feel, but sing it in our own way.”

On the back of a successful Spring visit to a prestigious venue in their home city, they have a few more live outings this year, including Autumn visits to Wolverhampton Civic Hall (October 26th) and Leicester’s De Montfort Hall (October 28th), before an end-of-year festive visit north of the border, playing Glasgow Barrowlands (December 15th) and Edinburgh’s Usher Hall ((December 16th). And while they’re aren’t so many dates in the diary these days, they’re cherishing them all and – getting on for eight years since their return – there’s clearly still lots of love out there for Chas & Dave.

“Yeah, when we did the Royal Albert Hall recently, we set the place alight. A woman who’s worked there 30-odd years said she’d never seen a crowd behave like it. We haven’t had a hit record for whenever, but it’s a great thing to be able to please that amount of people and have fun while you’re doing it.

“We still enjoy what we do, do all our hits, and we’re not fed up with them. We love doing ‘Ain’t No Pleasing You’, ‘Rabbit’, ‘The Sideboard Song’, and all those. We always say they’re our babies. We love ‘em.”

Bunny Jabber: Chas & Dave with friends. See what they did there?

For me, Chas & Dave are every bit a treasured export as any of the more celebrated artists who have written about the capital in the post-war years, part of a clique of bands from London who have taken on that music hall tradition and done it their own way, along with the likes of The Kinks, Ian Dury, Madness, and Squeeze.

“Well, music hall’s been a big influence. Harry Champion in particular, who sang a load of well-known songs. We take some of those influences and roll ‘em all up into one with our ‘50s rock’n’roll stuff as well.”

I mentioned Ian Dury, and can’t help but think of him when I see that you were originally from the Ponders End area of Enfield, North London. I realise there was ‘Ponders End Allotments Club’ on your debut LP, One Fing ‘n’ Annuver, but more than 20 years later there’s Ian’s line in ‘Mash it Up, Harry’, off his last album, Mr Love Pants, his character apparently liking ‘a bit of Wembley up his Ponders End.’

“I know! I was surprised he’d even heard of Ponders End. I come from a place called Spike Island in Ponders End, an infamous place. And I’ve found out since there’s one in Manchester too …”

Indeed – where The Stone Roses famously played at the height of their powers. So was Ponders End your old manor?

“Yeah, definitely. A very lovely place to live. I loved it. I didn’t want to move away from there. There were very old terraced houses, but we were also surrounded by fields and horses, and everything. It was great, with a lot of freedom in them days.”

I mentioned several other London acts. Who for you best characterises the best of London?

“I don’t really know. Lots of different ones. You mentioned The Kinks, and they had an album out called Muswell Hillbillies. There’s a song on there called ‘Holiday’ that I really like, and a couple of others too. But no one seems to know them. They keep going for ‘You Really Got Me’, and all them sort of songs. The title track’s a good song as well. Ray Davies came up with some good tunes, but we’re not really influenced by them though. We mainly use American influences … but in our own accent.”

Guitar Man: Dave Peacock gives it some strings in the studio

‘Ain’t No Pleasing You’ proved your worth as songwriters, but that’s often lost on the wider public, who arguably see you as a mere cockney ‘knees-up’ outfit, maybe more in the guise of that Two Ronnies parody.

“You’re dead right, Malcolm. You got it in one there. There is an element of that, but it’s not all like ‘down-the-old-pub’. People who haven’t seen us think that’s what it is. But it’s not. In Record Collector last week there was an article which said, ‘‘Ain’t No Pleasing You’ is the best song never written or recorded by Fats Domino’. And we take that as a real compliment. We love Fats Domino.”

And now you say that, I can properly hear the influence of tracks like ‘Blueberry Hill’, ‘Ain’t That a Shame’ and ‘Blue Monday’ in that track. I could hear Antoine Dominique tackling that fine number.

Of course, we know you chiefly for bass and vocals, but you’re also a dab hand on other instruments, not least piano …

“Well, I can play a little boogie-woogie. I saw an interview, years and years ago, with John Lennon, where he said, ‘I don’t play finger-style guitar, but do something that makes people think I can.’ That’s a bit like me on the piano. If I do a little bit of boogie-woogie, they think, ‘Oh, he can play the piano.’ But that’s all I do, whereas Chas plays ragtime and is the best rock’n’roll player going.”

And for you there’s also guitar, ukulele and banjo …

“Yeah, I love banjo. I like a bit of bluegrass and clawhammer as well.”

So what did you pick up first?

“Ukelele, when I was really young. I was about six. I just couldn’t stop playing it. I had an uncle who showed me some chords. I used to get plastic ukeleles. They were 19/6d, which in old money was very dear. But if you leaned them up against the coal fire, they’d warp. You’d have to go and buy another one. It took a fair while before my Dad realised why!”

Three’s Company: Chas & Dave relax with the late, great Mickey Burt

Perhaps it’s a bit of a myth about the notion that everyone in London could join in on a ‘knees-up’ around the piano down the pub, but did you ever get that chance to shine?

“Yeah. When I was a kid in the local pub, they would put me on the table and I used to sing. When I was a little boy, I just loved music. I just couldn’t stop playing, just strumming a ukulele and singing.”

Was there anyone in the family playing professionally before you?

“No professional people. But later, when I got together with Chas, we’d have fantastic parties, because Chas’ Mum was a fabulous piano player. She knew any song going. We’d get our uncles and aunts, and her and me and him strumming away. That’s where we learned loads of them songs, because a lot of them are just passed down orally through our families. They would have been extinct if we hadn’t put them on those LPs.”

We can’t always believe what’s on Wikipedia, but is that right that really it could have been Chas & Chas?

“Chas and who?”

Chas & Chas.

“No! I never heard of that one.”

I read that you were actually christened ‘Charles Victor Peacock’.

“No! I was christened Dave. Ha! The things people say makes you laugh, don’t it. Throw that one out of the window, Malcolm!”

We’re Away: Messrs Hodges and Peacock, suited and booted, casually hot-foot it.

I will. Take note, Wikipedia. But I really enjoyed the 2012 BBC Four documentary Chas & Dave: Last Orders. That gave me a little more insight into your story, and I’m always intrigued about session players who crossed over – including the likes of Rick Wakeman, Norman Watt-Roy, and Paul Carrack. After all the work put in over the years was there a feeling that you might never get properly credited on a record?

“Well, not really. When you’re young and a little bit skint you’re glad just to get on a session. Even though, I must admit, I didn’t really enjoy doing sessions, just reading chord sheets. Me and Chas together did them together and separately. I’m on that first Eminem single and didn’t even know I was. That was a session I did with Labi Siffre, which we were both on. Nic, our drummer, told us.”

Apart from that, is there any track in particular you’re happy to tell people, ‘That’s me, there’?

“Quite a few. I did some stuff with Dave Edmunds, played banjo on ‘Warmed Over Kisses’ (1982). You sort of forget how many sessions you have done. When we were in our 20s, we were just happy to get a session and get some money.”

Just remind me. While you started working with Mr Hodges as Chas & Dave in ’75, you knew each other for some time before, didn’t you?

“Yeah, I first met Chas in the early 60s. he was like the famous bass player around our way. He was in a band called The Outlaws and they had a couple of hits. The guitar player I was with, we had a band together called The Rolling Stones. But we changed that name because we thought it was silly!

“Anyway, that guitar player went to school with Chas, and he was thumbing a lift one night. And this would happen quite often. He’d be at his girlfriend’s house until two in the morning, He’d miss the last bus home and we used to pick him up, then we’d go back to his house and play records.

“That’s when Chas and myself found out we both liked the same sort of stuff. And once we started writing songs, the whole world opened up for us … but not immediately. We thought it would catch on a lot quicker than it did. But we were packing out places and getting quite a big following, wherever we played. I suppose we just kept working. That’s the secret of it all. Get out there and play!”

Laughing Matter: Those cowsons Chas & Dave play up for the lens back in 1984

And next year it’ll be 40 years since the success of the ‘Gertcha’ single truly broke you. How did that come about?

“We were doing a session with Big Jim Sullivan, the famous session player, who played with Marty Wilde and was Tom Jones’ guitar player for a while. We were doing a session with him and I had a pair of them bib and braces overalls on, which people used to wear in the early ‘70s. He was doing a vocal down the studio, saw me through the glass in the control room, and said, ‘Look at him with his bib and braces – gertcha!’ And it became the word of the session.

“Then me and Chas were down in Wales and we wrote that song down there, just to make Jim laugh really. But then we were playing it in a pub and the advertising man came in, John Webster, and he said, ‘I really like that. I’d like to do that for an ad.’ It was quite slow when we first did it, but we had to speed it up as we only had a 30-second ad. And then it became a hit, so that TV ad was a good video for our song.”

Did you realise more or less straight away that the big time would beckon?

“Yeah, but we weren’t busting ourselves to be famous. We just wanted to earn enough to pay the bills and maybe get our music recognised. But it all sort of went off good, going into the ‘80s. We were having a few hits and doing loads of work, loads of gigs. We went to Australia a couple of times, and they liked us too, with ‘Ain’t No Pleasing You’ in their charts for about six months.”

There was that brief break in recent times, you taking that difficult decision to retire when Sue died. What changed your mind a year or so later?

“Well, it’s a funny thing when you lose someone. You don’t know how you’re gonna react. I certainly didn’t. I lost all my spirit and everything when I lost my wife. I didn’t want to leave where we were together, so I felt I won’t go on the road.

“Chas went out on his own for a while, doing solo stuff. But then Nic, our drummer, said, ‘Come on – get the bass out. Just do a couple of things with us’. And once I’d done a couple of things, through him really, I got back into it.”

So we’ve got Nic to thank for that.

“Yeah, I have really. Because if he hadn’t have pushed me …”

Pleasing You: Chas & Dave are heading our way to show us ‘A Little Bit Of Us’

Going back a bit, what do you think you learned most about this whole business from the years working with acts like Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers in the ’60s?

“Well, Chas was the main bass player with them, although I did sit in with them for a while when Roy Young became ill. But they were another band that worked a lot and did a load of things, like touring with The Beatles … with Chas involved then too.”

Were you into The Beatles at that stage.

“I liked The Beatles but was more interested in Earl Scruggs and bluegrass. I love The Beatles now, but when they came out, ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ didn’t really get me. But some of their other songs were really good.”

Finally, will 2019 be the year when your beloved Tottenham Hotspur finally see sense and re-enlist your help to get some silverware?

“Ha ha! I wonder! Of course, we’ll be hoping and praying Gareth Bale comes back to us at our new stadium. That’d be great if he would.”

I was reminding myself of your part in Spurs’ Cup successes in 1981, 1982 and 1991 (note that I didn’t mention their wasted efforts in 1987), not least the latter as it’s probably the least known of the three singles you did with them. And I have to ask – at what point in that ’91 song did you come up with that line, ‘Now they can’t get a double up the Arsenal’?

“Oh yeah, they got the ’ump about that, the Gooners did. We had to withdraw that! Ha!”

There must have been a proper schoolboy moment between you in the studio, writing that line.

“Oh yeah. We had fun doing that. We had fun doing all those football songs. I wrote the first one, ‘Ossie’s Dream’, but only because our manager was tormenting us to write a song. We’d been on a 35-date tour and I was knackered. So was Chas. He kept phoning and asking, ‘Have you got a song?’

“My sister asked me on the telephone what I was doing, and I told her they wanted us to do a song for Tottenham. She said, ‘I’ve just heard Ossie Ardiles on the radio and he says, ‘Totting-ham’. As soon as she said that, I was away! I knew that would be the hook.”

And was Osvaldo a natural in the studio when it came to his delivery?

“He was. First of all, we said, ‘How do you say ‘Tottenham, Ossie?’ He said, ‘Tot-n’m’ and we said, ‘No, we don’t want you to say it like that. We want you to say, ‘Totting-ham.’

“You know how footballers are, always mucking about, and they were all taking the mickey out of him. But there was a clock on the wall in the studio, and Chas said, ‘Just look at that clock. Take no notice of them, and when your line comes in … ‘ And he did it in one go – his first take.”

Maybe you can entice him back into the studio then. Perhaps you could even record a new version of ‘Gertcha’ with him. What do you reckon?

“Oh, I don’t know if he could ‘andle that one …”

Rockney Rebels: Chas & Dave, back out on the road in 2018

To find out how to get hold of the new LP, A Little Bit of Us – the first in more than 30 years to feature new Chas and Dave songs, along with a few live favourites – and for full tour information, head to the Chas and Dave website. You can also follow Messrs Hodge and Peacock via Facebook and Twitter.

Most of the photos in this feature have been sourced from Chas & Dave’s Facebook page. If any need proper captions, please let me know.

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Where we go from here: Talking The Vapors with Steve Smith

Stage Presence: Steve  Smith, Dave Fenton and Ed Bazalgette out front in Camden, 2016 (Photo © Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

Steve Smith lives near Brighton these days, having left his Surrey hometown in the mid-1980s, initially heading to London. He returns regularly to Guildford to pop in on his Mum though, and plays locally with new wave/punk covers band The Shakespearos.

That includes dates at Suburbs at the Holroyd, taking in a lunchtime haunt from my early working years, when I was ‘waiting for the weekend to come’. But that was in the late ’80s, and I can’t imagine how such a small pub is now a thriving music venue.

“They’ve knocked it all through. It’s a really good venue. It was quite small but there was a kitchen behind the stage and they decided to knock that out and expand. It’s about a 200-capacity, with a proper stage, PA and lights. Eddie & the Hot Rods and The Members are playing there soon.”

Good plug (that’s on June 9th, with details here) for a date I was intrigued about, although it would involve a 480-mile round-trip for me. But The Vapors, the band that ensured Steve’s long career in music, pass a little closer to my Lancashire base when they start their summer schedule with gigs in Manchester, Newcastle, then north of the border in Paisley. And I’m looking forward to that June 29th opener, my first chance to see them live since a memorable Liverpool Arts Club gig in late 2016.

“Ah, that was a while ago now. I think we’ve come on a quite a bit since then.”

While those past Vapors dates were more about influential early ‘80s LPs, New Clear Days and Magnets, I gather Dave Fenton is now busy writing, with the band working on new material.

“Dave’s had a complete writing spurt. We’re most of the way through demoing the first batch of six new songs, probably all done by the end of next week, then we’ll move on to another six. Then we’ll decide what to do – to release them as an an album, remix and produce them, or find a producer and go back in the studio. We’re in the process of that, which is really good fun and it’s keeping it moving.”

That’s great, because much as I love the original material, it must get dispiriting after a while when your band’s newest songs are still more than 30 years old. Not least when your other group’s a covers outfit.

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Whatever Happened: The Shakespearos, L to R – Nick Horton, Du Kane, Steve Smith, Dave Maskery (Photo: Alabama Arnold)

“There does come a point, but luckily when it comes to all that with The Shakespearos they’re all songs I really love – real classics and songs I’ll never tire of playing.”

Incidentally, the guitarist in The Shakespearos is Dave Maskery, a key component of the very first band I saw live, Blank Expression, who went on to support The Jam at Brixton (mid-March ’82 at the Fair Deal, I believe). I saw them a second time in late July ’81, but that first occasion at world-renowned rock’n’roll venue Wonersh Youth Club in mid-July 1980 proved a huge moment for a 12-year-old already wallowing in punk and new wave via Smash Hits (the NME would follow) and my brother’s cassette collection. Knowing two band members (Dave was my pal Jimmy’s older brother, and I’d been in a church choir with lead singer Chris Try) suggested for the first time that the punk revolution wasn’t just something happening elsewhere. Furthermore, The Jam, The Stranglers, The Members, and The Vapors had properly put Surrey on the punk and new wave map, the latter having just released wondrous debut LP, New Clear Days.

Is that right that Steve’s link with Dave Maskery and Shakespearos lead singer Duncan (aka Du Kane) initially came through the latter’s band, The Beautiful People?

“I did their live sound, but I’d known those guys a really long time. Duncan got me to produce one of his demos around 1982, and Dave was involved in that band. They’ve been in a lot of bands together. I met them way before Duncan came up with The Beautiful People’s Hendrix album (1992’s If 60’s were 90’s, well worth checking out, if you missed it). They said they wanted me to do the sound, and it was insanely complicated, with bits of Hendrix guitar and voice, then keyboard, other bits of percussion … it was all over the place! But I love that album.”

I missed The Vapors live first time around, but saw Steve twice with John Peel favourites Shoot! Dispute, first at a Peel Roadshow at Surrey University in late January 1984, and then supporting Jam bass player Bruce Foxton – who co-managed The Vapors with Paul Weller’s father, John – in early May that year, on his first solo tour at Guildford Civic Hall.

“I was friends with Bruce for ages. When I moved to London we lost touch, but when we played with From the Jam last year we re-connected. That was really nice.”

Shoot! Dispute were definitely a band of their time, and Peelie liked them a lot. I was about to sit my O-levels when I saw them, and still have their single, featuring Gat Gun and Lack Lustre. And as Peelie said on air, they were, ‘Anything but lack lustre.’ Has Steve kept in touch with his old bandmates?

“Yeah, I’m Facebook friends with most of those people.”

Shoot! Dispute: Cathy Lomax and co. relax by the pool, mid-’80s style

I recall Shoot! Dispute’s percussionist Mark Charles and sax player Scampi in a band I regularly saw busking in Guildford High Street, Inspector Tuppence. I was a Saturday boy working at Boot’s then, gazing out of an upstairs window wishing I was there with them.

“Yeah, and also … this is really getting incestuous … Julian and Mark from that band were with me in a band called 1ST after Shoot! Dispute. If you look on my YouTube channel you’ll see us in a sort of rap band on MTV’s rap show in the late ‘80s. There was another band I was in with Mark, with him as the singer. He was the singer in two other bands I was in. So I’ve been in three bands with Mark.”

What’s more, Inspector Tuppence’s double-bass player, Jason, was a couple of years ahead of me at Guildford County School, while Steve – who has a few years on me – was at the nearby Royal Grammar School, where The Stranglers’ bass player Jean-Jacques Burnel attended before him. But not for long ….

“I got ejected and ended up at Bishop Reindorp. I really didn’t last long there. Two and a half years and I was out of the door.”

Any particular reason?

“Err … I was surrounded by posh people and just couldn’t relate to anybody. No one came from Guildford. Everyone came from the rich villages like Shere, Ripley, Cobham. They’d all been to prep school.  But when I went to Bishop Reindorp, I came upon people I knew, thinking, ‘These are my people!’”

I guess you passed your 11-plus and got a scholarship.

“Yeah, then got taken away from my friends and put into a school where I didn’t know anybody at all.”

That seems to be the system this Government wants to revert to now.

“Yeah. I just don’t get it, really.”

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

Steve has his own school-age children now, a 16-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. And he reckons his son’s ‘much better than I was at that age’ on bass.

While The Vapors recorded one session for John Peel (in July 1979), Shoot! Dispute recorded two in 1984. Did they properly get to meet Peelie?

“Only really through the Roadshow gig show, but he phoned Shoot! Dispute a couple of times. That was brilliant. Within a week of the roadshow we were recording this session, and within another week it was out. We’d gone from just being this band playing pubs to all of a sudden being played on Radio 1. That was phenomenal for us.”

I wondered about that. Peel was obviously a big fan of Altered Images. I wonder if he saw Kathy’s quirky vocal style a similar way.

“Yeah, and that was fantastic for us. He also did this event at the ICA – I think it was four nights, with three bands a night, and we were on that as well. We did a lot of stuff, but it just wasn’t enough to get us over the line to get a record deal, unfortunately.”

No regrets though, I’m guessing. You had a great time.

“Oh, totally. I’ve had good times with every single band I’ve been in.”

Well, that’s what it should all be about. And if you can make a living out of it, all the better.

“Yeah … well, it’s barely a living, but it’s great!”

Silver Machine: Dave Fenton in live action with The Vapors (Photo: Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

When The Vapors split in 1982, Dave Fenton returned to the legal profession, going on to specialise in music law, while guitarist Ed Bazalgette moved into television, his recent directing credits including hit BBC dramas Dr Who, Poldark, and (this June) Versailles. Meanwhile, drummer Howard Smith (no relation to Steve) worked for the PRS, going on to run an independent record shop in Guildford in recent years. He now runs People Music Promotions, putting on gigs in the South-East, and became Guildford’s Labour parliamentary candidate in 2017, adding 4,000 votes to the party’s 2015 result.

But while those three shifted away from the gig circuit for a while, Steve never really left the music business.

“I’ve spent about 25 years doing live sound and being in bands. I also did house engineering jobs in London – Clapham Grand; The Barfly, Camden; The Orange, West Kensington. The latter was my favourite job. I loved working there. I started there about ’92 and finished in ’98.

“I love the whole thing about a gig. I love the fact that you go along and you play music or go along and watch music then have a bit of a party afterwards. I love the whole thing. That’s probably not happening so much in the industry as it did once, but that’s still one of my favourite things to do. There’s nothing better – have a gig and then a bit of a party.”

He’s also helped a few indie acts along the way, including Fad Gadget, Loop and Lush, leading me to tell him I saw the latter early on at Drummonds, Euston, supporting The Wolfhounds. I remember them being really raw, but within a couple of weeks the NME were all over them.

“They supported Loop on a tour and I ended up working with both bands. A busy tour all round. They were really nice people, and I was friendly with them, especially Miki (Berenyi), who sent me postcards from all over the place. They were fun to work with, but I ended up having to make a choice between them and another band.”

Of course, for all I’ve since learned, I still imagine his most famous band putting in a bit of overtime working in Vapors Garage overalls, as per 1980’s Waiting for the Weekend promo video.

“Ha! I think that was in Camden Town. It might even still be there.”

Greased Lightning: Steve Smith and Dave Fenton at work in the Waiting for the Weekend promo video, 1980

Do you know your way around cars?

“No! I’d say none of us would be any good at all if you needed any mechanical work doing on your car.”

You look like you knew how to polish chrome and wash grease off.

“Ha! That’s acting, Malc. That’s just acting.”

As it was, it was The Shakespearos who helped ensure the return of The Vapors, via Polyfest, a charity event in memory of late, great X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene, and a late-April 2016 cameo at Putney’s Half Moon.

“It did, in a way. Mike Bennett runs PolyFest and was a producer with Trojan Records and a bit of a mover and a shaker (he also produced The Fall), and gets as many acts as he can to play a few songs. He knows us and always gets us in, to do covers and as a backing band for various people. A couple of years ago he got really on my case about The Vapors and asked me to get them down. He got at me so much that I told him I’d message them straight away, and Dave got back five minutes later, saying, ‘Yeah, definitely’. He subsequently told me he was at the pub and quite drunk when he got the message!

“Meanwhile, Ed thought about it for a week, then messaged me back and said, ‘Sure, why not’. So we went down, played ’Turning Japanese’, without any rehearsal, but the rest of The Shakespearos have played that song hundreds of times in our set so they all knew what they were doing. It was quite well received and we got offered a few gigs, so it all stemmed from that really.”

And it’s been so great finally seeing you live after all these years. What’s more, you seem to be doing it for all the right reasons. That really shows.

“Yeah, I’d like to think we are doing it for the right reasons … we definitely don’t go through the motions.”

Steve’s personal music apprenticeship pre-dated punk, but seeing The Clash live in May ’77 proved to be the catalyst in finding his future direction.

“I went to the first night of the ‘White Riot’ tour at Guildford Civic Hall. I was a bit of a hippy, to be honest. I had long hair and sat up in the balcony. But the next day I thought, ‘I’m a punk rocker’, I cut all my hair off and threw all my records away. The Clash completely changed my life, just from going to see them at the Civic Hall. Music was so boring at that time. All of a sudden I was looking at this thing and thinking, ‘This is great!’”

I got the impression Dave Fenton was more into the likes of Devo.

“Yes, definitely. Dave was influenced by more arty stuff like Talking Heads and that sort of thing. He was really into Captain Beefheart at the time. That was more his kind of vibe. Mine was much more mainstream, I suppose, while his was more left-field.”

Vapors Trial: The 21st century line-up of The Vapors, with Michael Bowes, left, joining Dave Fenton, front, Ed Bazalgette, rear, and Steve Smith, right (Photo: The Vapors).

How old were you when you first saw The Clash, and what were you doing at the time?

“I must have been 19, and was ripe for it. I was playing in a covers band. When I was 17, working in Debenham’s, my two cousins turned up and said they were in this band, playing working men’s clubs up North. They asked if I wanted to play bass with them. At the time I was a guitar player. I told them I’d never played bass, but they told me they thought I could do it and offered to buy me all the gear.

“I was working in the loading bay at the time and they told me I’d earn a little more money playing with them three days a week than over a five-day week with Debenhams. So I started doing that, but it wasn’t like The Shakespearos, where we love everything we play, with real attitude. It was things like, ‘Play That Funky Music, White Boy’ and all very mainstream. But it was brilliant for me and that’s how I learned to play the bass.”

Was that your equivalent of The Beatles’ Hamburg years?

“Yes, except it was in places like Middlesbrough, Leeds and South Shields!”

Tough crowds, no doubt.

“Oh, miners’ clubs, social clubs and welfare clubs – a real crash-course in being in a band and being a bass player. And I was still doing that when I went to see The Clash. But then I rapidly tired of that covers thing. I saw a whole new world in front of me, where you don’t have to be a brilliant musician. You just need to want it and want to have fun.”

And you haven’t looked back since.

“Well, I’ve looked back, but …”

Dave Fenton told me he knew you were a good bass player, but you were playing drums for someone when he asked you to audition.

“Yes, for a band called The Absolute, a proper punk band. I wasn’t a drummer though, that came about because … do you remember The Wooden Bridge at Guildford?”

Indeed, another of my lunchtime drinking places during my working days there.

“The Absolute had a gig there, then discovered their drummer was banned from the pub! They came to me as I’d expressed an interest in having a go playing drums, asking me along to rehearsals to use their kit, see how it goes. It was really good fun. I didn’t do many gigs though. I got bored of playing drums pretty quickly. It was just like you were doing the same thing over and over again.”

Howard Smith and Michael Bowes might take issue with that, but I take your point.

“But I was also going to see lots of Vapors gigs, and knew Dave was a great songwriter.”

Were they already calling themselves The Vapors?

“Yeah, there was an early version of the band that did a demo I really love. But they didn’t get anywhere. I think they played one London gig, what’s now Koko in Camden. It was very much a local band, but they were great and a few songs ended up on the first album.  But I think it just fell apart. Different people were leaving or being chucked out. When I auditioned there was Dave, Ed, and a drummer called Joe. The bass player, Mike, was off to university. I went away thinking I’d done alright, then got a call from Dave the next day saying, ‘You’re in, but there’s one slight problem – the drummer’s left now!’

“That drummer was actually at our 229 gig (November 2016) and I asked him, ‘Was I really that bad that you had to leave the band? All I did was audition!” That was when we got Howard in. It was between him and a drummer who went on to World Domination Enterprises. They were a great band and I was their sound engineer. Really good friends of mine. But it was Howard or Digger (Metters), and Howard was chosen for whatever reason, because he fitted in better.”

And didn’t Howard have somewhere to rehearse as well?

“I don’t think that really came into it … but it was a total bonus!”

For me, that’s where the stories of Guildford’s best-known bands seem to merge. Stranglers drummer Jet Black had his off-licence, while Howard had a launderette.

“Yeah, it was his Dad’s launderette and there were two flats above it. Howard and Ed lived in one and the other was empty. When Howard left there, I moved into the flat with Ed. And we’d rehearse in the other flat two or three nights a week.”

Are you in touch with Howard now?

“Yeah, we played a festival in Guildford, where it poured with rain all day, and Howard turned up with his wife and young child. It was really lovely to see him, a very pleasant afternoon in his company. I obviously wish him all the best in everything he does. He’s very political now, which is great.”

And he recorded Labour’s highest vote in the area since 1979 last year, at the first time of asking.

“Yeah, I’ve got my fingers crossed for him that he’s actually going to crack it, be an MP at some point.”

Now you have Michael Bowes (who’s also worked with the likes of Nelly Furtado, Joss Stone, Tears For Fears, Heather Small, Michelle Gayle, and Laura Mvula) in his seat, and I get the impression he fits in well.

“Michael’s brought a lovely freshness and impetus. He’s such a lovely man to have around. That in itself is great, but he’s also got a handle on the drums. He’s listened to Howard and reproduces that. He’s also coming up with his own parts on the new stuff. It’s all good. We’d all have loved Howard to do it, but couldn’t really have found anyone better than Michael if it wasn’t to be Howard.”

So, 36 years after the initial split, it’s Dave, Ed (occasionally with Dave’s son Dan Fenton deputising), Steve and Michael, with this summer’s UK dates to be followed by three October sell-outs at New York City’s Mercury Lounge. That’s impressive, I suggest. It’s really taken off again.

“It seems to have taken on a bit of a life of its own. I think it’s coincidental that we signed our back-catalogue over to an American independent label around the same time as fans over there started a funding campaign. The label saw that and realised it was a good idea to get us over, so decided to bung a bit in to make it happen. The American fans did brilliantly to raise the money they did, and the record company topped it off at the end.

“It costs a hell of a lot of money for visas and lawyers. Ridiculous. It didn’t used to be like that. It’s like they really don’t want you to go. There’s a 40-page form to fill in, after you get someone to petition the US Government to let you in. You fill in a preliminary form with all your details, then this 40-page form, remembering all your secondary school education dates, stuff like that, asking whether you’ve ever been involved in terrorism or in genocide. Pages and pages. And after that, you go to an interview at the embassy. Then they decide whether you’re good enough to get into their country.”

And this is for a bunch of white boys from South-East England. What if you were a Tijuana brass ensemble from across the Mexican border?

“Yeah, or an Iranian death-metal band!”

Guitar Man: Ed Bazalgette, live with The Vapors (Photo: Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

Between our interview and publication, the last of the three New York dates sold out, with the band’s four-day schedule set to be jam-packed, the sightseeing kept to a minimum. I dare say there will be photo opportunities though. Is that right that Dan is featuring on guitar in America?

“I don’t think Ed’s going, but I spoke to him last week and he’s doing all the UK gigs to the end of the summer, starting in Manchester. He really wanted to do America but couldn’t give a cast-iron commitment, which isn’t normally a problem as we have Dan on standby. But Ed wants to keep his work going, so that makes it difficult, and he couldn’t commit to this six months in advance.”

Wasn’t there a previous attempt to reunite the band that didn’t quite come off?

“That was after I was working at the Orange. We did a few rehearsals there, after it became something else, about 1992 or 1993. We used the drummer from Basement Jaxx … and also the drummer from The Beautiful People. There’s the connection.”

Time flies and it’s 38 years since New Clear Days was released. Yet it remains one of my favourite albums of all time. Good memories of recording that?

“Really good memories. Instead of going to some dodgy studio and doing a couple of days recording and paying for it out of your own money, all of a sudden we’re in the studio where Bob Marley was recording, just off Portobello Road. We did a lot of it there and then some of it at Townhouse, where The Jam recorded.

“It was like a dream, these really posh studios. Not only that, but they’d make us dinner every night. ‘Can we get some beers please?’ ‘Yes, we’ll just mark it down as some cassettes.’ Yes, lots of happy memories. That was my dream to be in the studio recording an album, and all of a sudden it was actually happening. A dream come true.”

I struggled more with Magnets initially, although appreciating the songs. How close do you think the third LP will be to the first two?

“We don’t know yet. A lot of it’s down to how it’s recorded. The main difference between the albums was having a different producer with a different approach and different ideas. I think what Vic Smith did was create a sort of readily-identifiable cool sound for the band, with the guitar sound on a lot of the tracks very similar. Dave Tickle would treat each song like a different entity and try and make something without the thought of a ‘whole album’ thing – treating each song individually, whereas Vic had an overall sound in mind. And it seems to me that most people like that sound better than the other sound.”

In a sense I wonder if it was the sound of that first LP, as much as touring with The Jam, that singled you out as Mods, although I’m not sure you ever were.

“Maybe a bit, but actually I was a bit of a Mod. And so was Howard. Me and him used to bowl around on his scooter. I think it was a Lambretta GP200. A really cool scooter with mirrors and everything, and a Tonic jacket. Me and Howard were Mods, but Dave and Ed totally weren’t and we didn’t want to be identified as a Mod band … even though two of us secretly were!”

Maybe you should have branched off, started a solo project, called yourself The Smiths.

“Ha ha! No, I don’t think that was likely to catch on.”

After New York, I wondered about Australia next. You did well Down Under, so to speak, first time round. How about an Aussie tour next year?

“I’d love to go back to Australia. Over there we had one of those massive hits (with ‘Turning Japanese’) that went on for about eight weeks, like one of those horrible songs like ‘Mull of Kintyre’ or ‘Shaddup Ya Face’. It was absolutely massive there. Apart from our Jam shows, our gigs involved small venues, but then we turned up at this huge arena for our first show there! But again, it was such fun.”

Subsequent research reveals that while official records suggest ‘Turning Japanese’ was No. 1 in Australia for barely two weeks (impressive as that is), it was the second-highest grossing single in 1980 there, selling more than 100,000 copies Down Under.

And while organising that Aussie return could take some time, in the meantime there’s another trip for Steve with The Shakespearos to Portugal.

“Yeah, we’re off again to the Western Algarve, where it’s a little wild, not so touristy, with 16 or 17 shows before coming back to do the gigs at the end of June. It’s lovely. We’ve got two residencies we play every week, while picking up odd gigs around and about, here and there. We did it last year and the two years before, and we’re making the most of it … until Brexit maybe puts the kibosh on it.”

Well, hopefully that’ll never happen. I’m in denial on all that.

“I am too. I’ve just got my fingers in my ears, going, ‘Nah nah nah! Can’t hear you, can’t hear you!’”

Live Wires: The Vapors are back this Summer and Autumn (Photograph © Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

The Vapors’ next dates start with a visit to Manchester’s Ruby Lounge (0161 834 1392) on Friday, June 29th, followed by The Cluny in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on Saturday, June 30th, and the Bungalow in Paisley (Sunday, July 1st). For more dates and to keep up with the band’s latest news, check out their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

For writewyattuk‘s Dave Fenton feature/interview (September 2016), head here. And for our Ed Bazalgette feature/interview (November 2016), try here.

 

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Gretchen Peters / Kim Richey – Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester

Touring Troubadour: Gretchen Peters, out and about and Dancing with the Beast.

“Hi Gretchen, it’s Malcolm. I did an interview with you a while back. I know. It seems an age ago. I seem to recall we talked about how the weather in Nashville was pretty much like we’d expect in Manchester. I know. It’s been gorgeous today, hasn’t it? And it’s lovely to finally meet face to face. All five of you were on top form tonight.

“I probably said too much back then about relating to ‘Love that Makes a Cup of Tea’, and how I was heading back up the motorway from my Mum’s funeral when I heard that for a third time, truly listening for the first time. I wrote in her eulogy, ‘She was always there for us, however far away we lived, and on returning there’d be a home-cooked meal on the table and home-baked cake in the tin. She’d be at the end of the phone too, offering help and advice, whatever the problem. And there would be offers of cash, however well you thought you were doing. We also learned what a great listener she was.’ Consequently, that chorus reduced me to tears … happy tears.

“I’ve just spoken briefly to Kim, but think I babbled somewhat, so please let her know her short set was pretty much perfect. And the harmonies between you, Barry and Kim were spot on. I told her how much she’ll enjoy your trip to Shetland, even though I’ve never been. I think she realised though. A look passed between us, me silently saying, ‘I’m talking out of my arse here, please excuse me’, her politely responding, ‘I know, but it’s okay. That’s how it goes in these situations.’

“We particularly liked her song about boxes, smoke and mirrors, and how when you get to know people better, you realise they’re not who you thought they were. ‘Chinese Boxes’? That’s it, with a real Suzanne Vega vibe. And whether she’s singing about driving down the interstate (‘Those Words We Said’) or rivers running dry (‘Every River Runs Dry’), I can equate with that. We have roads and waterways here too. Oh, you knew. You’re probably better travelled around here than most Brits.

“Kim mentioned how the poignant ‘Pin a Rose’ was written with Chuck Prophet, taking me back to first hearing bands like Green on Red, REM and The Long Ryders, realising that gap across the Atlantic wasn’t as wide as I imagined. Sticking with her Edgeland material, I’ve never actually got to ‘Chase Wild Horses’, but understand the sentiment. We’ve all done spur-of-the-moment stuff, some ‘we ain’t proud of’. It’s all part of what makes us who we are. And the fact that I’d never considered until the wistful ‘Your Dear John’ that there might be bargemen in Ohio just shows my ignorance of the true America. Music’s always been an education though.

Collage Education: Kim Richey, supporting Gretchen Peters throughout the UK (Photo: http://kimrichey.com/)

“Finally, that song about counting on me and crooked miles was exquisite, not least those chord sequences. It‘s always nice to go somewhere you weren’t expecting. ‘Straight as the Crow Flies’? Right. I could hear Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’, but shades of Nick Drake too. A winning combination.

“I loved your intro, that wondrous voice cutting the air in the darkness. The power in that almost-whispered introduction defied belief. Simple, stripped down, evocative, you name it. I had a lump in the throat as you sang, ‘I get lost in my hometown …’ It’s beautiful on record, and tonight all the more so. I may have mentioned, but the imagery in ‘Arguing With Ghosts’ and right across this new album is really something. And here was the proof.

“I see ‘Wichita’ is your new single. Good choice. Say hello to Barry for me, by the way. I’ll probably rudely interrupt his conversation and shakes hands before darting off in a few minutes. I’m sure he’ll be very gracious, while thinking, ‘Who was that guy?’ He’s amazing on piano and accordion, isn’t he? I really enjoyed ‘The Matador’, again truly brought to life here, not least through Conor McCreanor’s double bass. The sound was amazing too. Hats off to the technicians. I was here exactly a year ago to see Canada’s Ron Sexsmith and Lori Cullen, and similarly impressed.

“And ‘Blackbirds’? I listened to that album coming into Manchester rather than the new LP, which I’ve been playing a lot lately. And on that track there’s a real kind of Steve Earle and latter-day Johnny Cash edge. When you finally addressed the crowd, I can’t speak for the rest, but like to think we were all with you when you mentioned these defining moments back home over the last couple of years, and how none were for the better.

“Similarly, ‘Truckstop Angel’ follows that ‘Blackbirds’ formula, again to great effect, your Belfast lad, Colm McClean, coming into his own on lead guitar. ‘Knopfler-esque’, I wrote. That whole dynamic between you and him reminded me of Mark and Emmylou Harris on All This Roadrunning.

Meet’n’Greet: Note to self – always ensure flash is turned back on when grabbing sneaky pic with headliner

“My second ‘hairs-on-the-back-of-my-neck’ moment came with ‘The Boy From Rye’. I guess it’s written about a US location, but could easily relate to a pebble beach setting on our South Coast. There’s the power of great songwriting in a nutshell – that ability to ensure the listener empathises with the subject. And so beautifully delivered. I wrote ‘bare and tender’. I think I know what I meant. And again … that imagery.

“You talked some more about your homeland, and that call to your Mum after Trump was elected. I know how that conversation goes. I felt it over here after this Government somehow got in again, and after the Brexit vote. I too struggle to recognise my country sometimes. But for all our concerns, it seems all the worse there. How the hell can people be so blind and deaf to all that? What made them think it would be a good idea to elect such an arse?

“You mentioned wondering if that’s how it felt for your folks in 1939, ‘54 and ‘68, searching for assurances when sometimes there can’t be any. Yet we have to stay positive. If nothing else, this past year’s reawakening makes me believe better days are ahead. People seem to recognise what they’ve unwittingly unleashed. Here’s to a wind of change. Take Ireland this last week, for example.

“Never mind ‘arguing with ghosts’, I think you exorcised a few with ‘Lowlands’. There was anger and bitterness, and grief and concern for the future, but all wonderfully measured. That line about the neighbour with the sticker on his bumper making you see him in a whole new light really resonates. I could feel the energy and feeling you put in back in row J. And those harmonies on ‘Say Grace’, and the guitars complementing each other.

“I could say the same about ‘Dancing with the Beast’. I heard you talk about that on the radio. I saw it as a song about an abuser. It hadn’t occurred to me that the beast might be depression, making the line, ‘He don’t like my friends or my family’ all the more sublime.

“I’ve said before I don’t do country, and ‘Disappearing Act’ has the hallmarks, yet it’s the right side of country. I’ll stick with the Americana label. And seeing the Queen of Country Noir live, those more earthy qualities shine through. If anything, it’s more blues, which is alright by me. Besides, Barry’s New Orleans piano touches, Conor’s bass, and Colm’s guitar underline that.

Own Accordion: Barry Walsh, London’s Union Chapel, November 2017 (Photo: Philip Ford))

“Tom Russell’s ‘Guadalupe’ is so evocative, like taking ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’ to the Baja California peninsula. Barry’s accordion flourishes are glorious, and again the vocal interplay is stunning. In contrast, ‘When All You Got is a Hammer’ saw you all really let rip. It should have seen the audience on their feet, but it wasn’t the right venue or crowd for that. I won’t dwell on that, but a few of us were bringing the average age down. I’m not being rude. A lot of those assembled probably had more youth in them than audiences half their age, but there was little chance of Springsteen-like stage-diving.

“Much as I’ve heard ‘On a Bus to St Cloud’, it grabbed me more than ever. Perhaps live, I understand the structure better, your County Down bandmate reverting to double bass. I was reminded of Boo Hewerdine’s songcraft. You have that same ability to write and deliver such great songs. ‘Five Minutes’ was another that truly came to life, the characterisation so real that we could really empathise, my better half and I thinking ahead to our eldest daughter heading to uni later this year, dwelling on past arguments with loved ones over the years, and how everything can change in next to no time.

“I see ‘Idlewild’ in the ‘Lowlands’ bracket. So powerful. You tell us you’re not a protest singer, but the punch packed with your stories is so strong. This is personal-political. ‘The day JFK was killed’ recollections are rarely as moving all these years on. Although I know it’s coming, the N-word still makes me flinch, but truly conveys the horror. Again, there’s that sense that we just don’t learn from our mistakes.

“When you returned, after all those wondrous sad songs, your Mickey Newbury cover, ‘Why You Been Gone So Long?’, was nothing short of a celebration, the band truly letting their hair down. Again I felt a need to get up and dance, joining the honky-tonk carnival.

“And after that joyful, bonding moment, we had the most delicate of encores, your solo, unamplified take on ‘Love That Makes a Cup of Tea’.

‘And there is love that makes a cup of tea,

Asks you how you’re doing, and listens quietly.

Slips you twenty dollars when your rent’s behind

That’s the kind of love I hope you find.’

“You stood there with acoustic guitar in the heart of the first two rows. Personal, intimate, heartfelt, emotional … all the above. Thanks Gretchen, that was a truly special night.”

Dedicated to anyone who ever stood in line to talk to the main act after a show, not quite conveying what was on their mind, instead talking gibberish, the moment soon gone, leaving you kicking yourselves for a missed opportunity.

Signed Up: Mementos of a Manchester RNCM visit (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

For my Alternative Nashville Skyline feature/interview with Gretchen, from May 4th, head here

To snap up tickets for the remaining dates on the UK tour, with support from Kim Richey, and various festival dates, try this Facebook link. You can also keep in touch via Twitter. To order Dancing with the Beast, try this Proper Records link. To find out more about Kim Richey’s new LP, Edgeland, and her back-catalogue, try her BandcampFacebookTwitter and website pages.

 

 

 

 

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Digging that Ocean Colour Scene – the Simon Fowler interview

Scene Stealers: Ocean Colour Scene, taking the al fresco approach in 2018 (Photo: http://oceancolourscene.com/)

Simon Fowler was walking Cooper the cockapoo down by the river at Stratford-upon-Avon when I called, a day and a half after Ocean Colour Scene headlined Lancaster’s Highest Point festival.

That Shakespearean link seemed apt, seeing as I associate festival venue Williamson Park with summer performances of the Bard’s plays. But Simon’s merry band were hardly promenading. There was no following the players between locations in the shadow of the Ashton Memorial. For a start, that PA gear would take some shifting.

“Ha! You could have a moving stage, I suppose … or play on the back of an artic like the Rolling Stones.”

Now there’s an idea. The spirit of the Fifth Avenue flatbed truck happening in New York City in 1975, transported to North Lancashire.

“It was really good though, a spectacular place, and we had some old mates there, like John (past writewyattuk interviewee John Power) from Cast. We go a long way back, and a young band called Stillia, who toured with us in Australia and New Zealand last year. The crowd was really good, and we stayed and rehearsed in Clitheroe, a town I’d never been to. Really nice.

“I’ve always quite liked playing outdoors … although, Christ, it was cold. I could barely move my fingers to play some of the chords … and I’ve only just learned them! It had been a lovely day, but we didn’t go on until half nine. But we’ll be back for Kendal Calling next, in late July, and that gives us time to learn all the words!”

Simon, aka Foxy, also previously involved with his Merrymouth side-project, lives in rural Warwickshire these days, but spent his early years in Moseley, the south Birmingham suburb referenced by Ocean Colour Scene’s best-selling album, a play on legendary US studio, Muscle Shoals, later becoming the name of the band’s recording studio. In fact, that album was the first of five top-10 LPs, also including their sole No.1 in 1997 with follow-up Marchin’ Already. They’ve also achieved 17 top-40 singles, six reaching the top-10. But these days, OCS meets are comparatively rare, bandmates living further apart.

“We practically lived together and were in the studio every day at Moseley Shoals. Now we’re scattered around the country, with Steve (Cradock, guitar) in Devon, Oscar (Harrison, drums) in Birmingham, me in Stratford, and the two other guys who play with us in Glasgow.”

I’m guessing that at least keeps it all fresh for you.

“Quite frankly, it’s a bit like riding a bicycle. As long as we get together a few hours, we’re alright. And the idea is to start writing a new album now.”

Taking Steps: Ocean Colour Scene, about to start work on a new album (Photo: http://oceancolourscene.com/)

It’s been five years since their last LP, Painting. But they have a big year ahead of them in 2019, marking their 30th anniversary next October.

“It will be. Do you think we could get parole?”

And how’s the writing going for studio album No.11?

“It’s going slowly at the moment, but I suspect it’s going to speed up soon.”

You made a fair bit of your 21st anniversary, so it makes sense to make some fuss over this, right?

“I don’t think so. But that’s frightening. I remember recording that, and it’s nearly nine years ago now. Jesus Christ!”

When you meet up with the band these days, is it like a class reunion?

“Absolutely. It’s like we’ve just been with one another five minutes before.”

Was there ever a time when you were rubbing against each other up the wrong way?

“No. We’ve always been close. And in the ’90s we were working so hard and had a lot of fun. We always had a laugh. Now, we’re practically all teetotallers. We’re sort of … all grown up.”

As if to prove the point, Foxy was set to celebrate a birthday this weekend – incidentally, he was born on Paul Weller’s seventh birthday – with absolutely no indication that it might end up with a Rolls Royce being driven into a swimming pool.

“I’ve just spoken to my Mum, and I’m going ‘round Mum and Dad’s for a sandwich to mark my 53rd birthday.”

That’s in Solihull, where the Fowler family moved in 1974, when Simon was nine. It would be another 15 years before the Ocean Colour Scene story began, Foxy having initially been in a group called The Fanatics, bandmates including fellow OCS co-founders Oscar Harrison (who also featured with Echo Base) and bass player Damon Minchella (a key component of the band until 2003). That said, it took a while before the new outfit were hanging out with the likes of Oasis and Paul Weller, at the heart of the BritPop scene.

Foxy Frontman: Simon Fowler in live action with Ocean Colour Scene (Photo: http://oceancolourscene.com/)

Speaking of which, they play Cool Britannia on September 2nd at Knebworth Park, 24 years after a major support date to Oasis there. Apparently, more than 2.6m people applied for tickets on that occasion, the largest demand for concert tickets in UK history, the event attracting a combined audience of more than 250,000. It must have been a bit mad looking out from the stage at all those faces, I suggest.

“It was terrifying, the only time I’ve almost frozen on stage. Chris Cradock – Steve’s Dad – was our manager then, and was holding a cine camera. I asked how it worked and he said, ‘Just push that button.’ I walked out with it, up to the crowd, they reacted, and my nerve just melted, looking at 125,000 people.”

That reminds me of my first writewyattuk interview with Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook (link here), when he told me about the day he froze on stage during one of his best-known songs, wondering if he’d left the grill on after having cheese on toast just before leaving.

“I do that all the time, making words up. Ha! Actually, next time you speak to Glenn, ask if he remembers nearly getting arrested with me and Steve in a Glasgow hotel …”

Intriguing. When was that?

“God knows how long ago. The manager banged on the door – he didn’t like the smell emanating from the room. I don’t know why. You’ve never seen Steve and me move so quickly. But I was there playing ‘Up the Junction’ with him that night.”

That was the song he mentioned. Not one you’d expect him to forget the words to.

“Well, I’ve forgotten the words to ‘The Riverboat Song’ before now, singing the second verse first, then singing that verse again, knowing I’ve made a prat of yourself and that song is now officially ruined!”

At least when it’s a big hit, you can always put the mic. out to the crowd, let them help you out.

“Yes! It is funny though, when you’re singing, a hundred thoughts sometimes go through your mind. You can still be singing the words, not knowing how you’ve done that. It’s almost like an automatic thing. It’s incredible. The best thing is to be in the moment – like a zen thing. But you’re not. You’re back there with the cheese on toast!”

Highest Point: Ocean Colour Scene in action at Lancaster’s Williamson Park (Photo: http://oceancolourscene.com/)

I suppose it’s like querying a computer password. Type it in automatically and you’re ok, but the moment you over-think it …

“Well, I’ve never used a computer in my life. I’m probably the only person in Britain who hasn’t. And I don’t intend to.”

That’s interesting, because when One From the Modern came out in 1999, I read a review somewhere where the typeface suggested it was actually One From the Modem. I didn’t realise until I’d bought my copy that it wasn’t the OCS response to Radiohead’s OK Computer.

But I digress. Among all the band’s festival appearances this summer, I see there’s at least one indoor gig scheduled – at Brixton Academy on September 29th …

“Is there?”

Well, I was going to ask, ‘what’s the occasion?’ But it seems that you’re not sure.

“I’ve got no idea … then again, I don’t have a computer! I just get in the van, asking, ‘Where are we going?’ Brixton Academy? Great. I haven’t played there for a long time.”

It’s 22 years since the rather marvelous Moseley Shoals broke, yet all those festival headlines and recent Australian, New Zealand and Japan dates suggest major interest remains. Not a bad way for a Brummie lad to see the world, eh?

“No, it’s not. We went business class to Australia last time. What a wonderful experience that is, compared to fucking ‘cattle class’! At our age, we should never go economy again. I know we’re from Birmingham, and we’re not snobs, but I want to be able to feel my feet when I get off the plane. It’s such a sod of a journey. You really need to be comfortable and see if you can sleep. Otherwise you arrive for a fortnight in Australia and by the time you’re coming home you’re just getting back to normal. Sounds like I’m joking, but I’m not. It’s horrendous.”

First-world problems, I suggest, but he’s not taking me up on that, and I change the subject, reminding him that he was a journalist long before I was. In fact, I was starting sixth-form when he was at the Birmingham Post, just starting to write my fanzine. How long was he there?

“I did four years. You see, my hero was John Motson. He was the reason I became a journalist. I wanted to be a football commentator and my uncle was picture editor of the Birmingham Post and Mail. His first job was in Norwich as a photographer, and ‘Motty’ was a reporter. Uncle Trevor told me how John Motson had started, so that was my plan.

“By the time I became a journalist, within a fortnight I realised I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. I didn’t like being shouted at by middle-aged, balding, short blokes … especially when they were so much better than me at their job and I had no recourse for complaint.”

Should I look out the ‘Suburban Love Songs’ EP you made with The Fanatics in ’89? Has that stood the test of time?

“Oh, goodness me … on Chapter 22? Good God! Have you got a copy? Apparently, they’re worth a bloody fortune – something like £250.”

I haven’t, I’m afraid. Did you keep a copy?

“No! I didn’t!”

Soon, The Fanatics were behind Simon, Damon and Oscar, and they were joining forces with Steve, fresh from The Boys. That said, OCS were together eight years before their first No.1. Was there a day when they felt they might have … erm, missed the train?

“I can’t remember, to be honest. The first album proved a complete damp squib and took about three years and four producers to make. It was complete nonsense. But we did get to work with Jimmy Miller … or more to the point, we got to drink with Jimmy Miller!”

Their first single, ‘Sway’, was released in September 1990, but soon their label, Phfftt Records, was swallowed up by larger company Phonogram and their eponymous LP was remixed against the band’s wishes, given more of the trending ‘Madchester’ baggy feel.

In dispute with their label, the band were soon back on the dole, still writing but with no recording outlet. Fast forward a bit to the Britpop explosion though, and it was a case of right place, right time. A lot of bands around at the time somehow missed out, despite having helped pave the way for all that, somehow not getting the kudos. But OCS kind of clicked, right?

“Yes, we did. Oasis basically kicked open the door. When we started, you almost had to justify liking bands like The Beatles. Journalists saw two ‘year zeros’ really – one in ’63 with The Beatles, the other in ’76 with the (Sex) Pistols, and the ‘76 crew looked down on the other lot. But when Oasis came along and got trendy, we’d been telling them all that for the last seven years.”

Getting back to Moseley Shoals, Steve’s love of 60s’ music shines through on that LP. How about Simon? Were his influences similar? Did they all bring something different to the party?

“Yeah, my background was The Beatles and the Stones and The Who, Motown, Small Faces. But I guess I also bought my infatuation with Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, added a bit later by Fairport Convention and Pentangle influences. Oscar bought the reggae stuff, while Damon had a sort of jazz thing going, and hip-hop, so it kind of all mixed together on certain tracks.”

That broad church certainly comes through. And does he recall much about that first fateful meeting with the Gallagher brothers down his Moseley local?

“I do, yeah. That was brilliant. I’d never met anyone like Liam in my life … and still haven’t. I met Noel prior to that, during a Paul Weller video shoot for ‘Hung Up’, at a hotel in Oxford.

“That poor girl from The Cranberries (the late Dolores O’Riordan, who died earlier this year, aged just 46) was there too. I asked, ‘Where are you playing in Brum?’ They told us The Jug of Ale. They were supporting Whiteout on one of those tours when they swapped over each night. Whiteout were a bunch of scallies from Greenock who we met when they supported us. We went down to see them as much as Oasis.

“I was sitting in the changing room and remember some arm came around and threw a small piece of paper at Liam, folded up. I reckon it was a note from his Mum. Liam just caught it mid-air and I thought, ‘I wanna be like you!’ Ha ha! He was so fucking cool!”

There was clearly a bond from the start with Paul Weller too.

“Oh, there was. We were proper partners in crime, and it was us who introduced Noel to ‘Commander’ Paul. Funny thing was, I think Liam was a bit resentful in a way. Suddenly, instead of wearing trainers, Noel was wearing penny loafers, so Liam starts going (he tries a Manc accent), ‘Eh, Weller fella!’ The irony of course is Pretty Green (the fashion brand founded by Liam in 2009). Ha ha!”

While bandmate Steve Cradock’s been a regular in Weller’s band for a quarter of a century now, Simon also contributed to the wondrous Wild Wood album in 1993, adding backing vocals on ‘The Weaver’, while Steve chipped in guitar on the same track. Simon also made a ‘little cameo’ on the promo video of ‘Hung Up’, although he adds, ‘I think I was flying, to be quite honest. But weren’t we all!’

Inevitably, OCS record sales fell off a bit come the millennium, even though the band have kept busy and made several more albums. Is it frustrating at times playing the festival circuit and being expected to just play the older hits?

“I don’t find it frustrating, because a concert is for the crowd. You experiment as a band and forge different sounds in the studio, but when you look at the Stones, what do the crowd want to see? They want the ones they know. That’s why they’ve gone.

Modern Times: OCS around the time of 1999’s One From the Modern (Photo: http://oceancolourscene.com/).

“About a year ago though, we did the Moseley Shoals album in full, live, and that was one of our most successful tours since 1998. You realise how important that album was to so many people. We kind of missed that as we were working so hard. I don’t think we quite understood the significance of that record to that generation.”

Throughout our conversation, I get updates on what Simon’s eight-month-old pooch is up to by the riverside – ‘this is live … Cooper, live in print,’ he tells me – and I ask how he ended up getting named after an Australian ale.

“We were at the airport in Adelaide, in a Cooper’s Ale House, when I was told I was getting a dog, which was a real surprise. I went up to the bar to get a drink, probably in shock, and on the counter was a piece of cardboard – now at the side of my bed – which read, ‘Cooper’s – the new addition to the family.’ I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is fate!’ I then flew to New Zealand, put the telly on in the hotel, and Quadrophenia was on, and Jimmy (the main character, played by Phil Daniels) in that is actually Jimmy Cooper. So Cooper he is!”

Finally, with Russia and the 2018 World Cup in mind this summer, will Simon be back in touch with the Bunnymen, Space, and the Spice Girls for an England Reunited project, 20 years on from their collaboration for France ’98?

“Ha! No, to be honest, I don’t think we should be going. And it was an absolute farce that they got it. And where are we going after that? Qatar? What a load of nonsense. An absolute disgrace.

“But I’d love to do something with Ian (McCulloch) again though. He’s a great chap. Another partner in crime … big time. Christ almighty, we had fun!”

Wild Woodland: Ocean Colour Scene take a welcome breather http://oceancolourscene.com/).

For full details of this year’s Kendal Calling (July 26/29), head hereAnd to see where else Ocean Colour Scene are playing this year, check out their website and keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Something to Hold On to – out on the floor with The Sha La La’s

Anyone who truly loves ‘60s Soul understands the thrill of flipping over a single and finding a lesser-known gem on the B-side. Whether it was Atlantic, Stax, Tamla Motown, or a Northern Soul rarity, there was something special about making that discovery, then spreading the word about a number that stopped you in your tracks.

The golden age of vinyl, despite a recent revival, is long behind us, and in my case I only started buying singles from that era in the ‘80s. But now and again a 45 takes me right back. And the latest to drop on to the writewyattuk dansette is by an, erm, Modern outfit with true ‘60s soul acumen – The Sha La La’s.

We’re not talking Hitsville USA, Detroit, MI; Soulsville USA, Memphis, TN; or even Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, AL; but in this case something straight outta Big Noise, Rochford, Essex, UK; coupling masterful floor-filler ‘Before I Let You Down Again’ with inspirational flip-side ‘Hold On’.

Similarly, The Sha La La’s front-man, Darron Robinson, hails not from Barnwell, SC; Clarksdale, MS; or Dawson, GA; but can be found in Fleet, Hampshire. That said, a little happenstance recently drew his band to Southend. Perhaps the call of Britain’s own Missisippi delta – through an appreciation of early Dr Feelgood – proved too strong.

It was fellow South-East outfit The Jam that initially woke Darron up to the best of ‘60s music, his band’s DNA incorporating more than a little love for everyone from The Kinks and Small Faces through to Arthur Conley, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett.

And for me their latest 45 offers listeners an old school Northern Soul and Stax masterclass, as visitors to the band’s single release party at the Hand in Hand in Brixton, SW2, recently found out first-hand.

Yeah, I know, a bit late to tell you about that now, but if you missed out – and I was a 450-mile round-trip away – there’s the Hope and Anchor, Islington, on June 9th, the Music Mania Festival in Brighton on July 6th, and a date on Darron’s doorstep at Fleet Festival on July 14th. I gather they’re also heading to Blackpool in December, a little closer to me, for the Beat Generation’s Mod Christmas Ball. But don’t feel you have to wait that long.

As discussed before on this website, The Sha La La’s and myself go back a fair while, to when Darron (vocals, guitar) and John Piccirillo (drums) were in A Month of Sundays with my Captains Log fanzine co-conspirator Malcolm Smith. They even pitched up at my Guildford secondary school at a supposed ‘folk evening’ in October ’82, 12 days before my 15th birthday. I can’t recall a right lot about that, but between May ‘86 and February ’89 I saw them at least 17 more times around London and the South East, including dates at Hammersmith Clarendon, Harlesden Mean Fiddler, Kentish Town Hype, and Fulham Greyhound.

If that sounds excessive, this wasn’t about blind loyalty. I always felt the band were on the cusp of fame. I probably would have distanced myself a little when that arrived, but felt they were really going somewhere. It never quite happened though, and a name and personnel change followed. As Sweet Life, with the addition of bass player Billy Adam, I saw them four more times, first with a better turnout than The Beatles managed at Aldershot Palace in the summer of 1990, co-headlining with similarly-inspirational Jim Jiminee spin-off The Deep Season.

Holding On: Darron robinson, out front with The Sha La La’s (Photograph courtesy of Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

By the time I departed for my world travels, their big break still hadn’t happened, but they realigned and I saw them next in the summer of ’93 at a little pub in Ash Vale as Fools like Us. Perhaps the size of that latter venue tells its own story. By then, Blur had truly broken, concluding Modern Life is Rubbish. As Britpop ascended, it appeared that another band that had carried the torch had been left by the wayside. When their ship finally came in, Darron and co. were waiting at the railway station. I was gutted for them that they never truly made it, but in a sense it’s all part of what The Sha La La’s, the band that followed, are today. Besides, Darron’s never been one to be brow-beaten for too long. Cliché alert, but he brushed himself down and just got on with it a few years down the line.

But before we get to that, I take him right back to my first real memory of A Month of Sundays, in May ’86 at Fetcham’s Riverside Club, just outside Leatherhead in Surrey’s sweet suburbia.

“That’s where we got our publishing contract. A guy recommended us to this publisher, who also signed The Blow Monkeys. We were the support band. He was the type, if you know what I mean, with the ‘80s haircut and that. He walked in and stood at the back, and you could tell it was him. He stayed for about … not even three songs, and I thought, ‘Oh, bugger!’ But about a week later I got a call saying. ‘I saw you at the Riverside and I’d like to sign you’. That’s where it all started. I told him I saw him leave early, and he said, ‘That’s all I needed to see.’”

Or perhaps I slopped beer down him, heading back from the bar. I remember seeing A Month of Sundays more at the Chertsey Galleon though, on the west side of the bridge.

“That’s right. On the opposite side there was The Cricketers, which we played as well. It was a crazy time. They liked us down there, and we used to cause a bit of mayhem, with all that youthful energy. I’d get told off for my language … I still do!”

One that always sticks in my mind was at the King’s Head, Ash, next to a police station. The pub and cop-shop have long gone now. There weren’t that many punters in, and they were more interested in a chat with their mates than hearing some mouthy socialist talking between songs. There were only about half a dozen of us there to see you. I thought we were going to get our heads kicked in. You were rather surly, I seem to recall.

“Nothing changes, Malc.”

Fast forward a bit and – 25 years ago – that July ‘93 date at The George, Ash Vale, as Fools Like Us. Not as if I readily recall the difference between that line-up and the previous one.

“Neither can I, Malc. It’s all a bit of a blur. I don’t listen to the old stuff, but recently found a four-track demo. I’ve gone back ‘old school’ after working digitally. I’ve got so many cassettes, you wouldn’t believe it. But I’ve only got to hear three seconds and instantly can tell you everything about it.”

Get Organised: John Lee in action with The Sha La La’s (Photograph courtesy of Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

Among the many demo recordings that came my way, I remember a Sweet Life track called Cry that I thought was great, but over-produced. I always got the impression they never truly got the real you in the studio. It wasn’t half as powerful as the song I heard played live.

“You’re absolutely right. Being that young and always very conscientious, I took on advice from all these people that were older than me in the business. I felt they must know more than me, this little gobshite from Camberley.

“Only material can teach you that, give you that strength to follow on that vision you have in your head. You can ruin anything, even the greatest song ever written. Can you imagine Imagine done by George Michael? I trusted those people, but the only way you can learn is to go through all that, and realise you were actually right. And you eventually get to a point where you know how to tell people what to do without winding them up!”

Will there be an analogue reimagining of all those past songs at some point? There’s at least a box-set of lost recordings there.

“You’re probably right. Occasionally I do go back to old lyrics. It’s always in a folder at the back of my mind, thinking ‘There’s a good line, but the song’s rubbish.’

“Unfortunately, we suffered – like everyone else around then – in that we started to make music around the mid- to late-‘80s when digital technology was coming in. Everyone went mental for CDs. Even then, I could hear the difference, this fizz I didn’t like that didn’t suit the music I was listening to, which was more organic.”

That takes us nicely on to today, because I have to say this latest Sha La La’s single is the best yet.

“Ah, thanks, mate.”

But first, let’s fill in a few gaps since my initial Introducing the Sha La La’s piece in January 2013 and subsequent Feelin’ Real album review that October. At first, Darron and co-founder John Piccirillo were solely joined by Lou Lucano (guitar, vocals), as heard on their first four-track EP for Royale Records, but John Lee (keyboards) was on board in time for the debut LP.

Drum Major: John Piccirillo leads from the rear with The Sha La La’s (Photograph courtesy of Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

Things were on the up, and in 2015 we had the ‘Your Blind Soul’ EP, its assured title-track featuring plenty of Small Faces/Weller-esque urgency, while fellow stand-outs ‘Always There’ and ‘Do Whatcha Wanna’ showed how the band had retained high ground, Signor Piccirillo absolutely flying from the rear. Then, the following year there was another corker, ‘Soul of the Nation’, a guitar-fuelled, piano-driven, foot-stompin’, hand-clappin’ statement of intent, drenched in horns, Hammond, and bags of attitude. Was this the track that would finally announce their late arrival at the top table?

As it turned out, no, and soon everything changed, the band reborn as the Sonic Keys, as introduced by 2016 Soul Mule Records single ‘Ain’t It Time’, suggesting a departure into early ‘70s Mayfield and Gaye territory, built around a solid-loop groove, more Blaxploitation than Stax rotation. Yet before we knew it, The Sha La La’s were back, this time with Lou replaced by Vere Osborne. So, go on then, Darron – explain yourself.

“I’ve explained to people that the Sonic Keys had a bit of a moment, shall we say. When The Sha La La’s put out ‘Your Blind Soul’, I thought that was going to do it. And after ‘Soul of the Nation’, which I thought was brilliant, did really well, I was disappointed with the reaction.

“We were doing some really good gigs, like those at Guildford G Live and The Cavern, Liverpool, then it went a bit flat. We were also having problems with the personnel of the band, so I stopped the Sha La La’s, got in another couple of people. It was a bit cathartic, that whole process.

“It’s a fault of mine – my wife says I’ve got honesty issues! – but I stripped everything out of The Sha La La’s at that moment and focused on that. Some of it was pretty good, some of it a waste of time, but I had to do it. At the time I was writing a lot of loop-based grooves. Ultimately, it was a good thing, as it led me to start song-writing again.

“I love singing, playing, gigs, and recording, but the thing I love most is the writing. Keith Richards said, ‘A painter’s got a canvas. The writer’s got reams of empty paper. A musician has silence.’ I absolutely love that … although some people would prefer the silence, I’m sure! I love that challenge, that something that’s just in your head. The skill is getting it out of your head into other people’s heads.”

The new single is such a breath of fresh air. It’s kind of 1967 and 2018 at the same time. Built on a similar riff to The Style Council’s ‘Council Meetin’, but horn-led, the rasping quality of Darron’s vocal on ‘Before I Let You Down Again’ gives it classic soul 45 appeal, and I was hooked from the moment that brass blasted in. Think benchmark Dexy’s, with that nod to all that came before. I could hear Maxine Brown tackling this with the same conviction. Then on the other side there’s ‘Hold On’. I understand why it’s on the flip, as the track features – albeit in a radically-different version – on the album. But what a B-side. The album version is more gospel-like, and I love it, but this time it’s built on JP’s powerhouse drumming and Vere’s roaming bass, and while I could hear Sam and Dave duelling on there, there’s clearly a Stax vibe first and foremost, as that giveaway Otis Redding-like ‘Fa-fa-fa-fa!’ intro suggests.

“Unashamedly, yeah!”

The brass is something else, not least that last section that inspires you to kick out with that, ‘I don’t know about you, I need something to hold on to!’ line. So tell me about that horn section. They can’t be easy to come by these days.

Bass Instinct: Vere Osborne sets the tone for The Sha La La’s (Photograph courtesy of Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

“Both that and the A-side came out of a song on the album called ‘Sorrow’. You always have one song when you’re writing an album that you nurture that little bit more, and I’m always on the look-out for what I call charm. That was the case with ‘Sorrow’. I was convinced it was going to be the best song.”

Well, that track certainly holds Northern Soul power.

“Absolutely. I don’t want to make it sound like I work on songs. They come to you. But it’s that ‘one per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration’ thing, and with ‘Sorrow’ I saw the reaction after the album came out, particularly after gigs, people saying about that song, as proof that I was right.

“With horn parts, I can write them, even if I can’t play them. Fortunately, at the studio where we did everything we’ve recorded in the last year or so in Southend, we found what we wanted.”

That’s the afore-mentioned Big Noise Recording Studios, with Simon ‘Sting Ray’ Davies at the controls. How did that all come about?

“I bought the Hot Funky & Sweaty compilation album (Acid Jazz, 2005) about 10 years ago, with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and Lefties’ Soul Connection on there, and a band called The Organites that I assumed were Black Americans …. probably all dead. I thought it must have been recorded in 1964. It was so good. But then I stumbled across something on the internet a couple of years ago, with that band playing a gig in Camden. I thought, ‘That can’t be right!’

“Then I spotted it was recorded in Southend, so did a bit more digging and ended up phoning the studio. We were talking about Northern Soul, Stax and Motown, and just before we finished I asked about The Organites, and the guy said, ‘Yeah, that’s me. It was all done in this studio.’”

It’s not so obvious on this last album as your first, but it seems apt that you’ve ended up recording not so far from Canvey Island. There’s still an air of Dr Feelgood spirit on this record.

“Definitely, yeah. And I was working with ‘Sting Ray’, or just me with an engineer, and it was all done straight to tape. That was all part of that sound. He also plays trombone, and through working with him we had the chance to work on this next single, using those melodies I could write, explaining them to him so he could score them properly, then source a brilliant trumpet player and a fantastic sax player.

“After all these years you get fewer surprises, but when you hear a part you’ve written become that, and when you can stand just four feet in front of them recording it … it almost brought a tear to my eyes.”

That took us on to The Rumour Brass section and three-quarter version, The Irish Horns, as featured on The Clash’s classic London Calling album, plus of course that early, phenomenal Dexy’s sound. I’ve always been a sucker for a great horn section … even Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan in The Commitments. And there’s a great sound on these tracks.

“It’s brilliant, and what I love about it is, you can’t just say brass, it had to be that sound. Certain parts are in unison, others in harmony, sometimes they’re chordal, but when we were putting the parts down on paper was when it started sounding like Arthur Conley, like ‘Let’s Go Steady’, the B-side of ‘Sweet Soul Music’, which is beautiful.”

Well, there’s another great example. And how I loved those days when you’d flip over a single and find a couple of minutes of solid gold you felt no one else knew about but somehow ended up there. And that’s what you’ve done with ‘Hold On’.

“Yeah, and that was the plan! Because the version on the album, which I love, with all the hand-claps, has more of a gospel feel.”

The very word I used in my notes.

“Well, yeah, and for an atheist like me, that’s not bad! It’s about the spirit, and you can feel that. Even when we played Paris at the end of the summer, we had the audience clapping along for the Reverend Robinson!”

I guess that’s something the many incarnations of your bands over the years had in common. If you’ve got a unique selling point it involves creating songs of hope and inspiration, with an over-riding aspiration to improve your lot, in the tradition of Curtis Mayfield or Al Green.

“Yeah, and I’m glad you say that. I’ve had a few people saying that. When John (Lee), our keyboard player, joined, his Mum told him, after listening to the album, ‘That singer must have had a hard life’!

“If there’s a theme running through everything I write, it’s about that hope and that optimism. I’m not going to just sing, ‘Come on everybody, let’s dance.’ It’s more, ‘This is a load of shit, but we will win!’

“‘Hold On’ has that. It came out of Brexit and Trump; the UK referendum and the US election, talking to my kids. I don’t tell them how to think. They’re clued up, but what I got from talking to them and their friends was this, ‘What’s the point?’ negativity – ‘They lie and they win’. But I was saying, ‘You’ve got to hold on. We will get through it.’

“When I was their age, we had apartheid. I know things aren’t perfect now in South Africa, but it’s difficult to look back and see a system there that even Hitler couldn’t achieve. But good eventually wins. Not only that, but, ‘You’re not going to drag me down to your level of hatred and intolerance – we’re going to fa-fa-fa-fa-fa, all the way through!’”

Well said, Reverend Robinson. And now I’ll take us on from ‘Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa’ to ‘Sha-La-La-La-Lee (yeah)’, name-checking the Small Faces in honour of the band’s Hammond organist and Wurlitzer pianist, John Lee, who augments Darron and JP’s contributions so well.

“He’s brilliant. I love him to bits. When he plays the Wurlitzer, he’s so … only occasionally do you see a musician who becomes ‘as one’ with their instrument. He’s an absolute star.’

Then there’s Vere Osborne on bass, who joined when The Sha La La’s returned in early 2017.

“He’s another one who’s really enthusiastic and keen, and we’re making a really good din. When you strip away any kind of soul music, back to the brass, the singers and strings, what you’ve effectively got is bass, drums, guitar and Hammond organ. That’s the groove, which is the Small Faces really. Those instrumentals they did, like ‘Grow Your Own’, and all the rest of that. They were Booker T and the MG’s, but they were from Stepney!”

There’s definitely an MG’s feel on a few songs on the album, although I feel they’ve nailed that sound all the more on the new single. And returning to ‘Hold on’, I can see Otis or James Brown performing that live, Vere and JP’s underlying bass and drum throbbing and pounding as the guest front-man makes a theatrical meal of leaving the stage, stretching it out for anything up to 10 minutes, coming off then sneaking back on, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Is Darron up to recreating that vision?

“Maybe we should hire a cape!”

Do you use that for a show-closer? You ought to.

“We don’t, but in the second half of last year we did it as it is on the album. Yet all along I knew at some point we would kick in with this more Stax-like version. Now we’ll be playing that version live – the first half gospel, then in that middle section you’re talking about, you’re into 10 minutes of that maybe!”

Now we’ve cleared up the personnel changes, how about the label switch? The first singles were with Royale, then there was Soul Mule. Was Detour just a better fit for you?

“That was an odd one. I hadn’t expected that. All I wanted to do was get writing again. Then Royale contacted me, told me they were setting up this record company and could we put an EP out. I said, ‘Absolutely!’ We put out a four-track CD which went on to sell 500 copies, which was like, ‘What the fuck!’

“It was only then that Detour Records – also a record shop – contacted us, asking for copies. We told them they’d all gone, so I think they decided they wanted a bit of that, asking if we wanted to do an album. That’s really how the whole thing started. And that’s what I need – I’m writing all the time but always need that reason.”

Inspirational Souls: Darron and Vere lead the line for The Sha La La’s (Photograph courtesy of Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

The previous single, during your Sonic Keys stage, ‘Ain’t It Time’, had a deeper ‘70s soul feel. I liked it, but can’t help thinking that this current sound is where you’re really at.

“I think you’re right. To me, it’s always been about soul music that has that urgency. It’s almost punk. It’s as good as a smack in the mouth!”

As not so many have discover the second album yet, I’ll offer a track-by-track introduction of that 37-minbute wonder here, with a little help from the man who wrote the songs.

Title track ‘(Gotta Find) A Better Way’ leads the way perfectly, the curious punter enticed away from the bar as the band set out their stall, leaning in, head-first, the Hammond already to the fore, setting us up nicely for ‘Loser’s Song’, JP’s drumming and those hand-claps ensuring we stay out on the floor, the band offering echoes of Café Bleu era Style Council, a mighty influence on Darron around the time I first met him. And while it’s not a single, it’s clearly a neatly-crafted song.

“I was pleased with that, ‘cos it’s quite ‘chordy’, if you know what I mean. A bit like The Style Council, with all those major sevenths. I really liked the title too. I wanted to confuse people as to whose song it was. Is the loser the guy writing the song? Is it a song only losers write? Or is he saying, I’m glad that relationship’s over? ‘Cos every time I hear it, I think of you.’”

I guess the more ambiguous a song can be, the wider cross-section it appeals to. Meanwhile, track three, the slow-building Let Love Shout, seems to have a little of Jr. Walker and the All Stars ‘Cleo‘s Mood’ as its bluesy foundation, with Steve Cropper-like guitar touches.

“Definitely, and when I brought that, I knew straight away that was going to be guitar and Wurlitzer piano rather than a band thing. I sat in front of John on keyboards and told him, ‘Think of Wilko Johnson playing The Staple Singers’. It’s got that spikiness of the guitar and constant groove, although it’s another that could maybe benefit being re-recorded.’

Now he mentions it, I’m getting The Staple Singers too. I could see Mavis tackle this, or maybe even Duffy, and John Lee’s keyboard touches suggests early Doors era Ray Manzarek.

We mentioned the wondrous ‘Sorrow’, with that classic Northern Soul feel, that feel accentuated by those bell-like vibes from ‘Sting Ray’ Davies. A floor-filler for sure, seemingly straight off an obscure Kent compilation. And then there’s side one closer, ‘Leave the Hurting Behind (Move On)’, again a track I might have heard at a 100 Club all-nighter back in the mid-‘80s, complete with understated guitar licks and Vere’s bass throb.

Leaning Back: Darron Robinson takes Wilson Pickett’s advice and lets his backbone slip (Photograph courtesy of Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

Side two starting point ‘Crossfire’ is an out-and-out instrumental, full of funky bass and looped percussive touches. Give the drummer some, eh. Come to think of it, there’s more than a tilt of the titfer to the might of James Brown’s Famous Flames for this gripped listener.

“Yeah, and do you know what? It’s actually quite complex.”

I suppose so, but surely The Famous Flames had to be, with their bandmaster.

“Yeah, and you have to be very good musicians to play simple. Funnily enough, I wrote that on Boxing Day last year. I get bored – I’m not very good at doing nothing! I went to my little room, came out with that riff, and didn’t stop playing. I record everything I do, and as you hear it, that’s as long as it took me to write it.”

How about ‘Loving Tree’? Darron’s bands have always had this ability to take you to another level, and here we have a track first aired in more experimental form during the Sonic Keys era, that this time around has been reworked into perhaps the album’s most commercial moment … in a good way. There’s a great hook, and shades of something I couldn’t quite place, until I wondered if it might be a slowed-down version of ‘It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over’, arguably Lenny Kravitz’s finest single.

“Oh, OK … yeah.”

I can tell he’s not convinced if that’s a good thing.

“Well, he did kind of have that whole retro thing going on, I suppose. He could have done well to head down to the Muscle Shoals recording studio to add a little grit though. As Aretha called it, ‘Greazy’.

That got us on to that legendary Alabama studio and Aretha nailing ‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)’ there.

“It doesn’t get any better than that opening piano riff from Spooner Oldham. I got the impression that they were kicking that song around for a few hours and couldn’t make it work, then he kicked in with that riff. It has absolutely everything going for it. I’ve got hairs rising on the back of my neck just talking about it.”

Then we have another reinterpreted Sonic Keys track, ‘Love Get Ready’. I’m not sure if we were ever off the floor, but this has us back out there again. What’s more, it leaves a mighty Impression, you could say, with an inspirational Curtis Mayfield vibe going on.

“Definitely. Very simple, keeping that groove going, and with lyrics full of optimism and hope, against that whole climate of fear and intolerance. It takes a lot of strength to love. It’s a weakness to hate and to want to hurt people. It’s about showing tolerance and understanding.”

We’ve talked a bit about ‘Hold On’, particularly the reworked version on the new single, and this take is somewhat pared back and yet oozing with an inspirational gospel feel. I believe. In fact, after discovering the Stax-like remake, I think I appreciate it all the more.

“I wrote four or five songs that I didn’t complete, and I tell my youngest son, a budding songwriter, that most songs you throw away. Then I stumbled across those chords and that opening phrase, and thought, ‘Do it gospel! Do it the way you would if you only had a few minutes in the studio. And going back to The Style Council and the Café Bleu album, I remember being really impressed by the piano version of ‘My Ever Changing Moods’, as opposed to the full-on single version.”

And now The Sha La La’s have taken that similar approach of reinvention, both tracks definitely standing up to close inspection. But where to go from that higher ground? Well, that leads us neatly on to a nicely-honed finale.

When I saw the title, ‘Yer Revolution’, I wonder if there was a nod to John Lennon – kind of part ‘Yer Blues’ and part ‘Revolution’. But it’s more like Sly and the Family Stone or ‘Me and Baby Brother’ era War, right?

“Yeah, with that Sly and the Family Stone and Parliament-like solid groove all the way through.”

I can see this as a show closer too, at least before the inevitable encore. It’s almost a military tattoo, seeing us away. And there’s a real album feel across these 10 tracks.

“Well, the first album was more a collection of songs, already written and then recorded, picking the best 10, whereas this was about writing specifically for an album. And it was really exciting seeing the track-listing take place, working out what would end side one, and ‘Yer Revolution’ was clearly to be the last number, although ’Hold On’ was the last song I wrote.”

So there you have my verdict, and a few insights from Darron. But don’t just settle for that. Do yourself a favour – catch The Sha La La’s live, kneel at the altar of the Reverend Robinson and experience first-hand his ministry of sound. Come and join the congregation.

Faith Healers: The Sha La La’s in live action (Photograph courtesy of ©Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

For more details about The Sha La La’s and how to go about tracking down new single ‘Before I Let You Down again’ b/w ‘Hold On’ – available in all formats, including limited edition 7” vinyl – and both albums, head to the band’s Facebook page. You can also keep in touch via Twitter

 

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Playing the mind guerilla – back in touch with Wilko Johnson

Five years after being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, R’n’B guitar legend Wilko Johnson is still very much with us, in the form of his life, and more than happy to talk about the power of rock’n’roll and survival against all odds.

In fact, Canvey Island’s six-string master is celebrating the release of his first LP of new material in three decades, Blow Your Mind, ‘the album I never thought I’d get to write,’ with his latest short UK tour, even though – as he put it – ‘I’m supposed to be dead!’

You may know the background story. A second medical opinion led to pioneering life-saving surgery on a supposedly ‘inoperable’ tumour, Wilko eventually declared cancer-free, and losing none of his lust for life, stage presence or studio flair under the knife.

The Dr Feelgood founder member, born John Wilkinson and rightly renowned for that distinctive chop-guitar style, last wowed us on record in 2014 alongside legendary front-man Roger Daltrey on Going Back Home, including various inspired reworkings of R’n’B numbers, many his own (he did after all write 20 of the songs on the Feelgoods’ first three studio albums). But for all the adulation of Wilko’s stagecraft and songwriting over the years, wasn’t his inner teenager a little over-awed, recording with the lead singer of The Who?

“Well, of course! That whole thing … I’d been given 10 months to live when I was diagnosed with cancer, and in fact we did the Roger album in the 11th month! I was thinking, ‘This is it – this is the last thing I ever do.’ I didn’t expect to see the album released even. But I had a year that made me think a lot. I remember working in the studio and sometimes I’d step out into the darkness and walk around and you kind of think, ‘I’m gonna die’, and you can’t believe it. But looking at it all, I’ve had a pretty good life, and to end up making an album with Roger Daltrey, a hero to me when I was a teenager, it was like, ‘Well, you can’t complain!’

Still performing with bass legend Norman Watt-Roy (the prime reason for him joining Ian Dury and the Blockheads at the turn of the ’80s) and acclaimed drummer Dylan Howe (son of Yes guitar legend Steve Howe), last September Wilko celebrated his 70th birthday with a sell-out at London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall. Another career highlight?

“Ha ha! Yeah! It did turn out to be a good thing. My birthday means nothing, that was in the summer and more of a, ‘Well done, you’ve reached 70!’ A few people didn’t even expect me to reach 37! But the Albert Hall was great, with that obvious symbolic significance of the venue itself.

“We’d not played in London during that year, so we could get the audience in. It was quite worrying – you want to fill it up. You don’t want it half-empty. But it was selling quite well, and then we got John Cooper Clarke on the bill, and I think that tipped the balance. And it was an absolutely great night, a very varied show, with something that everybody there could enjoy.”

But we’re clearly not talking retirement here. Within a couple of months of that show, his band laid down their new LP, and now they’re treading the boards – or in Wilko’s case, seemingly gliding across them – promoting that new set of songs.

Solid Fender: Wilko Johnson doing what Wilko Johnson does best (Photo: Laurence Harvey)

Wilko was half an hour from Oxford Academy when I called, en route with his bandmates to that night’s show. I told him I was enjoying new single Marijuana before I picked up the phone, and was really looking forward to hearing the full album and catching his band live again.

“Yeah, we’ve just toured Finland, working in new numbers from the album, and it went down well. We played last night in Bath and that did too. So we’re quite pleased with all that.”

The new album, like the last, features Wilko, Dylan and Norman, plus Steve Weston on harmonica and ex-Style Council keyboard player Mick Talbot, with Dave Eringa producing.

“We did it very, very quick, in about two weeks in November. I just hope it does as well.”

I still play Going Back Home fairly regularly, probably as much as I do those wondrous early Feelgood LPs. And those albums never fail to fire me up.

“Yeah, I think a lot of that is to the credit of Dave Eringa’s production, although that album was done under peculiar circumstances. I didn’t actually expect to see it released when we were recording it. We really thought it was going to be the last thing I ever did, so I was quite keen for it to be good. And it’s probably the best thing I’ve done.”

Well, there was certainly magic on there, and it sounded naturally good. If this new album took a fortnight to record, what was the timescale with the Roger Daltrey album?

“It was even less. I think we had eight day, other than a couple of tweaks later. And I really honestly think that with rock’n’roll – or certainly the kind of thing I do – that’s absolutely the best way to do it. You go in and play it, and don’t sit there analyzing it and trying to improve this or tweak that. Go in, get a good feel, and if you’ve got a good producer and engineer, they will record that. That’s the way to do it.”

After Oxford there were visits to Norwich, then Bishops Stortford, and this weekend it’s Leeds Stylus (Thursday, May 10th), Glasgow ABC (Friday, May 10th) and then this Saturday, May 12th, Wilko calls at Manchester Academy 1 (doors 4.30pm, show starts at 5pm, with tickets £25 in advance via the box office on 0161 832 1111 or via this link), my excuse for speaking to him, his band backed on the night by former Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell and his own band, Mike Sweeney and the Salford Jets, and Mollie Marriott, daughter of Small Faces legend Steve Marriott. Sounds like a proper charabanc package tour, Wilko.

“Yeah yeah! I love to put on a good show, varied, something that’s gonna be entertaining for the whole show for the audience. That’s what I aim for.”

What with your Chess label imprint, I’m guessing you’re all travelling on a clapped-out old 1950s’ coach, right?

“Ha! No, we’re riding along in a nice Mercedes. It’s a Mercedes of a certain age, but it’s a Mercedes!”

Did you ever do a bit of that label ‘package tour’ thing back in the day?

“Yeah, the first proper tour we did with Dr Feelgood featured us, Kokomo, and Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, alternating the headline each night … although I do have to say that half-way through the tour it was obvious that Dr Feelgood was the big attraction, so we ended up closing the show.”

None of that pulling the leads on the other bands malarkey going on, was there?

“No! It’s just like … y’know, rock’n’roll.”

Seeing as Hugh Cornwell will be featuring with you on this tour, did you ever get to play with The Stranglers in those earlier days?

“I have on occasions over the years, and got to be great friends with Jean-Jacques Burnel.”

Of course, you famously shared a London flat with him at one stage.

“That’s right. And once or twice I got up and had a twang with them.”

And is Hugh a good man to share a dressing room with?

“Well …we just started, but I’m certain that he is!”

I saw him at the heart of his own impressive trio at Preston’s 53 Degrees five years back, and there’s something so powerful about that three-piece set-up – as proved by yourself, The Jam, Cream, and so many others. Ever tried to analyse why? Is it just that you can’t hide in a three-piece?

“I don’t know. The thing I’ve always liked about the three-piece is that it’s as basic as you can get. And it does require that each member is strong in his own department and also you can lock in together – not always easy. But if you get the right people, when it clicks together … I love a three-piece because it’s very … I don’t know … free! You can play around with the arrangements but only have to look at each other and follow where you’re going. You don’t have to have everything strictly arranged. You get more spontaneity.”

When I think back to all those kids who came along and saw you and got that thrill from Dr Feelgood, using a bit of that for their own ends when punk exploded, did you have any idea how much of an influence you were on the likes of The Jam, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Stranglers, and all those others? Were you aware of how good you were and how inspirational you must be?

“Well, when we were making our name, you’re just doing what you’re doing. You don’t know who’s down in the audience. In fact, in that audience, there were many of those people who went on the next year to create the punk thing. So yes, I think we can claim we had quite a bit to do with the instigation of that era. But when we were doing it, we didn’t know we were doing it. That only came later. It’s not about huge light shows, multi-keyboards, and all that – it’s simplicity and energy. That’s the thing we instigated.”

Did you ever play on the same bill as Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash outfit, The 101’ers in those days?

“The closest I got to playing with The 101’ers was actually after Joe sadly died. We had a memorial gig and I played with the other guys. But I first met Joe after I got dropped out of the Feelgoods. I bumped into him on Oxford Street and he started talking to me. He was quite an enthusiast for the Feelgoods and was asking what I was going to do next. I made friends with them then (The Clash). In fact, most of the punk bands – the Pistols, The Damned, you name them – became friends during that year, hanging out in my flat with JJ – we’d have all these punks of various varieties coming in.”

Going back a little further, seeing as Mollie Marriott’s with you on this tour, did you ever get to see her dad perform live?

“I never did. I tell you another thing – I never met Steve Marriott, really weird, because for so many years we were going around playing the same gigs, and were obviously closely related by the music. But sadly, I never did meet the guy. So that was a shame. And the Small Faces was a really seminal band. But we did a tour with Mollie last year.”

All these years on, Wilko still has the ability to – as the new LP suggests –Blow Your Mind via those electric live performances and songs, giving us an ultimate celebration of life affirmation after his … erm, health scare (to put it mildly). Clearly the specialist who operated on him didn’t steal his mojo.

“Ha ha! D’you know, it’s been a very strange five years for me. The band was succeeding more and more – we came out of the slough of despond of the ‘80s, travelling all around Europe playing small clubs and that. We started to really get somewhere. Then, suddenly, getting cancer … yeah, y’know, it’s a bit of a drag.

“But people have asked me, ‘Did I exploit that?’ And somehow that got into the mainstream press. I don’t know. In many ways, we ended up doing a farewell tour, and that was fantastic. It was very emotional – the audience just knew my time had come and they probably wouldn’t be seeing me again. You walk on stage and you can’t really go wrong. And we didn’t go wrong. People have a genuine affection for you, and that’s really touching and also gave me strength while I was going through that.”

In no way am I playing all that down, but I think I was even more worried for you when you did that open-air gig at the old BBC Broadcasting House with Madness in the Spring of 2013.

“Oh dear, oh dear. You were quite right to be worried! I tell you what, man, I did that gig, and what did I do? One number? Two numbers? And we were in the teeth of this driving rain, coming straight towards us. It was terrible, and I was standing there, thinking, ‘These guys have been standing on stage for an hour.” I had a bad chest and cold for a week after that. It made me really ill, so the Madness guys are either super-human strong or they’ve got thicker skin.”

Maybe they just had a better rider than you.

“Ha ha!”

This new album is your first album of new material in 30 years. That’s worth celebrating in itself. So are these all Wilko ditties or proper band compositions?

“Some are my songs, but a good part of the album was written together with the band. And this band is absolutely the best band I’ve ever had. Norman and Dylan are just great musicians, and we all fit together and take advantage of playing in a three-piece – free. We ain’t flash, man. We play rock’n’roll … but we do it pretty well.”

Is there anyone you still want to work with who you haven’t managed to get into a studio yet?

“I don’t know. The Roger Daltrey thing happened because of all these things – this, that, and the other. And it all just came together and worked perfectly. I think if you planned to make such an album it wouldn’t have been half as good. So if someone else pops up and unusual circumstances occur, why not.  But I haven’t got any schemes in mind.”

Seeing as many people out there know you chiefly as the king’s mute executioner, Ilyn Payne, in the first two series of HBO fantasy blockbnuster, Game of Thrones (the show’s production team hired him after seeing Julien Temple’s wondrous Dr Feelgood documentary Oil City Confidential), have you been offered any more acting roles of late?

“Ha ha! I had to go up to London recently, to do an interview. They’re making a documentary about Game of Thrones, now it’s coming to an end. I was sticking in my two pen’north. But I’ve got to say, I’ve never done any other acting before, ever, and absolutely loved that. It was so much fun that if a similar role comes along for an actor who’s got no tongue, so I don’t have to learn any lines, yeah … I could have a go!”

Last time we spoke, this former English teacher told me he was reading Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy. Has he read any good books or plays lately? What passes for tour reading on this tour?

“Actually, last night I was reading Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. So you never know what I’m going to be reading!”

Live Wires: Dylan Howe, Wilko Johnson and Norman Watt-Roy give it some (Photo copyright: Leif Laaksonen)

This website’s first Wilko Johnson feature was five years ago, with a link here. That was followed by my first interview with the man himself, from mid-August 2016, with a link here. For details of his 2018 live itinerary, the new album, and all the latest from Wilko, head to his website or keep in touch via his Facebook and Twitter links.

Update: In June 2018, Wilko is set for several in-store signings for Blow Your Mind, including visits to Fives Records in Leigh-on-Sea and HMV’s 363 Oxford Street store in London W1C (15th), Resident Brighton on the South Coast (18th), David’s Book Shop in Letchworth (19th), Southsea’s Pie and Vinyl and Marlborough’s Sound Knowledge (20th), and Rough Trade, Nottingham (23rd). For details head here

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Alternative Nashville Skyline – back in touch with Gretchen Peters

Dance Partner: Gretchen Peters, back in the UK to mark the release of Dancing with the Beast (Photo: Gina Binkley)

Gretchen Peters knows how to make you feel at home when you’re calling, in my case quickly dispelling my glamorous image of her adopted hometown, suggesting Nashville’s like any other city I might know.

“It’s looking a bit like England actually – it’s grey and raining right now. It’s a good day to get work done though.”

The Tennessee state capital is her nerve centre, but don’t get the wrong impression. We’re not talking Stetsons, cowboy boots and redneck country. Come to think of it, that’s probably more my perception than yours anyway. I always had a distrust of country, put off by the Grand Ole Opry, lingering notions of the Marlboro Man, and that bar in The Blues Brothers where they play both kinds of music – country and western.

For me it took Emmylou Harris’ winning 1995 Daniel Lanois-produced LP, Wrecking Ball, to realise there was plenty of good country around. That was my gateway album, this elder stateswoman of country on top form amid guest collaborations from the likes of Neil Young, Steve Earle, the McGarrigle sisters, and Lucinda Williams.

And she was a profound influence on Gretchen, a decade younger and still finding her feet in the recording world at the time. The following year she recorded her debut LP, The Secret of Life, including contributions from Ms Harris, Mr Earle, and the man who later became her husband, keyboard player Barry Walsh. Yet while that record was well thought of, she reckons her turning point came a decade later with her Burnt Toast and Offerings LP.

Born in Bronxville, New York, and raised in Boulder, Colorado, Gretchen re-settled in Nashville in the late ‘80s, composing hits for Bryan Adams, Neil Diamond, Etta James, Shania Twain, and Trisha Yearwood, among others. She was soon making her own records too, her reputation slowly growing via high-profile covers from the likes of Faith Hill and Martina McBride, Gretchen finally inducted to Nashville’s Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014.

If 2015 album Blackbirds saw her reputation grow all the more outside America, she’s now proved that career high was no one-off on the strength of powerful new offering, Dancing with the Beast. So where does she tend to work these days – at home or in the studio?

“I work in the studio in spurts. If I’m on a recording project, I’m living there. But I go long periods without being in the studio. It’s one of my favourite places to be though. I feel there’s something magic about it. The world kind of melts away and you’re just in this little space making stuff with your friends.

“I love it, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time lately working on another project, but most of what I’m doing right now is getting ready for this album to come out and to go out on tour, doing all the things you need to do to make sure you can survive for a month or so away from home.”

Have you got dates lined up stateside before leaving for the UK?

“We don’t have tour dates so much as a lot of album promotions, including radio shows, Facebook live, and so on. The first time we really get a chance to stretch our legs is going to be when we get over there.”

That UK agenda starts with a date in Stamford Corn Exchange on May 19th, her itinerary including a return to my North-West patch for dates at The Atkinson in Southport (May 26th), and the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester (May 27th) en route to a tour finale at London’s Cadogan Hall on June 13th. And as it turns out, my Queen of Country Noir has been lined up for a few festival dates too, including ones in Beverley (June 15), Wadebridge and Shrewsbury in late August, plus three Irish dates in early September.

“That’s right. And I quite like that title, by the way – I may have to steal that from you!”

By all means. I did mention a similar handle on the strength of your last album, and now have no doubt as to your elevation to regal status.

“Well, I like it!”

When I caught up with Gretchen, I was barely two listens into Dancing with the Beast, driving around with it playing in my car, but already hooked. And subsequent plays have only made me love it all the more. She’s on great form again, I venture.

“Thank you so much. That makes me feel so great on a rainy day!”

While there was no need to prove yourself, this latest record suggests you’ve retained that high ground reached by Blackbirds.

“Well, I really appreciate that. One of the things about Blackbirds was that it was a wonderful thing but also a bit daunting to come back and make another record. But we must! So that’s wonderful to hear.”

I got the feeling your Blackbirds period marked recognition for a self-confessed late bloomer as a leading artist, and this LP suggests you remain there, the songs seemingly effortlessly good.

“Well, thank you for that, but they’re definitely not effortless! Nothing in the realm of writing for me has ever been effortless. I work really hard at it. But it’s a double-edge sword having success. Blackbirds felt like a big step forward. But having that kind of success did give me a sense of confidence, I guess, about what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years.

“The other side to that coin is that you feel you’ve set the bar and have to reach there every time. But I think that’s just the way it goes in a creative career. You earn your craft a little more each time, the bar gets higher, and then you aim higher.”

Be home tomorrow evening if we fly, if the weather’s clear and the interstate stays dry.’ (The Show)

Three years ago, you mentioned to me how Burnt Toast and Offerings was a career turning point. Somehow that’s 11 years ago, to me suggesting you’ve been on that higher creative plane more than a decade now, hard as it must have been at times to keep up that heavy touring profile.

“Wow, 11 years ago? I quite agree with that though. I felt like I had a fire inside of me from that album on – to do better and better work and be a more and more honest and vulnerable in my songwriting, and to dig deeper, I guess.

“I look back at that 11-year period and it makes me a little dizzy, because there’s so much touring and so much work involved. But one of the things that my husband – my now-husband, because he wasn’t my husband at the time – said to me around that time when we made that album was that the way you get better is by doing it over and over and over again.

“I hadn’t really been touring regularly the way I have for the last 10 years, and there was so much wisdom in that. It was so true. A lot of it is just doing the thing over and over and over again, and I think I developed more confidence and more of a sense of knowing where I was going from constant touring rather than anything else.”

We’ve talked about Emmylou Harris’s influence before, and and there seem to be similar production qualities on this album to her Wrecking Ball outing with Daniel Lanois, thanks to yourself, the hubby, and Doug Lancio (who Gretchen has worked with since that Burnt Toast and Offerings LP).

“Yes, I think so. The thing I instinctively knew about Doug was that he’d push me slightly past my comfort zone. He does that, and continues to do that, and that’s why I love working with him. I know I need that and know it’s a very strong element of the production team Doug and Barry and I have put together. And Doug’s kind of a ‘vibe whisperer’ … much in the same way as Daniel Lanois, although I’ve never worked with him before in the studio.

“Doug is very unobtrusive. He never comes up and says, ‘Do this, do that.’ He’s more about creating the stage for magic things to happen. I just cannot overstate how much I love working with him.”

Dark Angel: Gretchen Peters, shining a little light amid the darkness (Photo: Gina Binkley)

Dark Angel: Gretchen Peters, shining a little light amid the darkness (Photo: Gina Binkley)

I guess what made me think of Daniel Lanois was the slow-build qualities of songs like the title track, Dancing with the Beast, and Lowlands, both of which have a kind of U2 feel. I could hear Bono tackle them.

“Yes, definitely. We really wanted to have that – no peaks and valleys, just one big build, and to have a bit of a menacing feel, because that’s really what’s in the lyrics. Doug really shines at that, with part of that coming from his guitar-centric play. There’s so much about tone and a lot of the guitar carries that. So yes, that’s absolutely what we were hoping for.”

Ever since he put that sticker on his bumper, I just turn out the lights and lock the doors.‘ (Lowlands)

For some, an out-and-out attack on the Trumps of this world would work, but the power in your work is in that more intricate attention to detail, on Lowlands and elsewhere, be it addressing disrespect of the individual, objectification of women, casual racism, any of that. And as things stand politically, perhaps it’s all the more important for someone with your strong character and sense of right and wrong to come over here and remind the world that the fella with the orange day-glo tan doesn’t represent the America we felt we knew and loved.

“I feel strongly about trying to impart that message. I know people in the UK know he doesn’t represent all of us, or even most of us, but after what happened in 2016 I just feel it’s not possible or not morally right to remain silent.

“I thought long and hard about this when I was writing the songs for this album, because I’m not a protest songwriter. I’m a storyteller. I talked to my friend Mary Gauthier at great lengths about how we write in this time, and came to the conclusion that if you’re a storyteller, the most effective thing you can do is tell very small stories about people, the hardships they face and the things they come up against, and how it’s affected in this world – how they’re affected by this kind of harsh and brutal world we’re living in. So that was what came out.”

‘And I’ll know them when they come, and I’ll rise above the neon above the trailer park, and fly like a truckstop angel with an arrow through my heart.‘ (Truckstop Angel)

Strong women are at the heart of this record, little vignettes of other people’s lives written so believably. Has that always been your stance, or are you getting more radical as the years pass, forced into confronting it all?

“Ha! Well, they say you either get more radical or you get more conservative. something’s gonna happen! I wasn’t so much radicalised as I was energised by what happened in the election, and as far as the women characters go, my approach to writing has never really changed.

“I listen for characters, I listen for voices, I listen for titles, and the voices that were the loudest in my head when I was writing these songs were these girls and women, so those were the stories I chose to write. But when I look back on it, I’ve been doing that for 25 to 30 years, going back to Independence Day and probably going back further.

“I think the reason I don’t really care to analyse it too much is that there’s a little bit of magic in that. But I think the basic reason is that those characters inspire me. They’re heroic. These women I’ve written about, some of them almost feel like my best friends, my guardian angels. They’re heroic in very quiet, almost stoic ways, but they capture my imagination. That’s why they stay in my head and that’s why their songs get written.”

Of course, none of the above would be worth listening to unless you knew how to write a great lyric and a cracking song too, and the imagery on this record is so sharp, from Arguing with Ghosts right through, not least on Wichita and Truckstop Angel. You have a skill for writing tales so personally. Is there a lot of you in the characters you sing about? Or are you just a seasoned people-watcher?

“I’ve thought a lot about this, and I think there’s more of me than I even want. But what it really boils down to and what I’m always trying to do is to find the empathy. If I’m writing a song, I have to find the empathy I have with that character.

“So it’s not so much about her being like me or that she is me, it’s that I’m finding that commonality, and I think the reason that works is that’s what songs do and I think that’s what art does – it holds up this mirror and says, ‘This person doesn’t look anything like you, but look – you’re alike, look how alike you are!’

“I think it’s a mixture of the things I’m feeling and thinking about coming out in those characters and there’s a bit of me in them. But there’s also just that empathy for another human being, and if you can feel that empathy as a songwriter, you can make your audience feel it too.”

You told me last time we spoke how much you enjoyed writing songs with Ben Glover, and he features a lot on this album too. There’s Matraca Berg too. Any closer to that dream duets album we’ve talked about before now?

“Oh, I would love that! I have another project in the works for next time, but maybe that should go after that. And I do love working with Ben. He’s one of the only co-writers I have, and he’s fantastic.”

I get lost in my hometown since they tore the drive-in down.’ (Arguing with Ghosts)

On the last album we had the wondrous Nashville, you covering David Mead’s song, with him guesting, and this time you’re back on the theme of your adopted hometown with Matraca and Ben, telling us you’re not quite recognising what they’re doing to the place on lead track, Arguing With Ghosts.

“That’s how that song started. Matraca is a Nashville native – and they’re very rare here. We were talking about how Nashville’s changed and she literally said, ‘I get lost in my hometown,’ and we all looked at each other and knew we had our opening line.

“But it’s changing so rapidly. I was driving with my husband a couple of days ago in town and we got completely disoriented and turned around, because we didn’t recognise where we were. That’s how crazy it is … and we both started singing that opening line!”

Speaking of Nashville, last time we spoke I hadn’t realised an indirect link, an old friend from my South of England hometown, talented ex-Ben Folds, Supermodel, Deep Season and Jim Jiminee drummer Lindsay Jamieson, based there quite some time now and in a band called Elle Macho with a certain David Mead.

“Wow. Well, David’s just such a creative genius and has done so many things. And it’s almost a truism nowadays that all roads lead to Nashville!”

I think I need to lay low for a while, stare at the Gulf of Mexico for a while.’ (Lay Low)

I get the impression from what you’ve spoken about so far regarding this album, that it came out of a hard place, and not just because of the current political landscape, but for personal reasons too, following a difficult period in your life. Is this the power of music as therapy?

“I think it is, but I don’t really want to reduce it to therapy. If it were just therapy, everyone would … From my own point of view, I was taking a year off which didn’t turn out to look anything like the year off I pictured in my head. I was picturing restoration, rest, sitting in a lotus position, and instead the election happened and I lost my mum about a month after that, then I lost two very dear friends, one of them being Jimmy LaFave.

“It was an onslaught. I’d really intended to not write or do anything, to just be, but about halfway through 2017 I was bathing in grief, wallowing in it, and just thought, ‘My way through this had always been to write, so dammit, I’m gonna write!’ And that was what I needed to do. I needed the downtime, I needed to get away from touring, as I’d worn myself out physically, but stopping being creative was not the answer, as hard as writing is for me.”

But there is love that makes a cup of tea, asks you how you’re doing and listens quietly; slips you twenty dollars when your rent’s behind, that’s the kind of love I hope you find.’ (Love That Makes a Cup of Tea)

I know I was feeling that while listening to the album on my way back up the motorway after my Mum’s funeral, most startlingly on Love That Makes a Cup of Tea, some of the words almost echoing the eulogy I wrote about her. That song’s clearly extremely personal to you, but translates perfectly to me and no doubt many others.

“Oh, well I’m so sorry to hear about that, but at the same time I’m so glad that song affected you that way, because – as you say – it was very personal to me.

“She gave me the title in a dream! And I just thought, ‘I have to write that! I have no idea what it’ll mean to anyone else, but I have to write it.’ So I’m really heartened to hear that.”

It’s a perfect way to end the album. A little light at the end of the tunnel, you could say.

“Well, on my albums, we need that!”

And I guess there will always be those highs again if we can learn from the lows, right?

“Absolutely. It’s all shades of light and dark.”

So leave that ‘don’t disturb’ sign on the door, come lie beside your weary troubadour.’ (The Show)

Meanwhile, I understand that as well as truly appreciating the power of a good song, you’re a fan of the whole package, not least a continuing love for the vinyl long player.

“Oh, I’m so happy that vinyl has come back. I think one of the things that makes me happiest about it is that when we sell vinyl on the road, it’s no one particular group of people – it’s young people, it’s older people, it’s everybody. I love that. It’s not just a cool thing for kids. I think everybody misses that warm sonic hug you get from vinyl.”

Reappearing Act: Gretchen Peters, heading to a town near you (Photo: Gina Binkley)

Reappearing Act: Gretchen Peters, heading to a town near you (Photo: Gina Binkley)

For a link back to Gretchen Peters’ last writewyattuk interview, from February 2015, head here.

To snap up tickets for Gretchen’s 2018 UK tour, with support from Kim Richey, and various festival dates, try this Facebook link. You can also keep in touch via Twitter

And to pre-order Dancing with the Beast, out on May 18th, visit this Proper Records link. 

In 2015, I reviewed Gretchen’s Blackbirds album for this site, but this time  happened to chance upon an album review by my friend Niall Brannigan for The Afterword, and felt he said much of what I wanted to add. Follow this link to find his online take on Dancing with the Beast

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A question of life balance – the Justin Hayward interview

Justin Time: Moody Blues’ frontman Justin Hayward, heading back to the UK for an In Concert tour.

If I made Justin Hayward feel old right from the outset of our conversation, he had the good grace to laugh and carry on talking to me. My genuine respect for his back-catalogue probably helped, mind.

I was telling him that while I’ve not long since hit 50, I worked out that his first LP with The Moody Blues, Days of Future Passed, was released when I was just a fortnight old. The album that spawned Nights in White Satin has certainly stood the test of time though.

“I suppose it has. Do you know, I get more interest in that album now. It’s surprising the amount of young songwriters that speak to me about that album. I think it’s maybe because it didn’t have any kind of commercial pretension or wasn’t made to try to sell anything.”

In fact, it was the album that had the lowest chart placing of 13 studio LPs they released up to 1988, that tally including UK No.1s with On the Threshold of a Dream (1969), A Question of Balance (1970) and Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1971). But what do the buying public know? It came from the right place.

“I think so. We were very lucky. And none of us had any commercial aspirations, in truth.”

I spoke to Justin on the 50th anniversary of The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle album’s release date (with a link to our January 2016 interview with Colin Blunstone here), and told him I saw that LP in a similar light – the right mix of experimentation, good songs and strong musical ideas.

“That’s right. Yes, so do I. Absolutely.”

That whole period for me was just such a creative time for music – everything from The Beatles and The Beach Boys trying to outdo each other, through to The Kinks.

“Well, it really was, and I think we all considered ourselves lucky to happen to be in London when that was really all going on. Then we were lucky enough to be brought to America by Bill Graham in ’68, introducing us to a whole new audience. yeah, The Beatles were the leaders, opening the door for the rest of us.”

Days of Future Passed is often cited as a prog-rock prototype album, not least through including classical elements. Was that a happy accident or something you set out to do?

“You have to give the credit to Decca. They had a special products division with a wonderful man called Michael Dacre-Barclay, whose idea was to do a record to demonstrate stereo for rock’n’roll. They had a consumer division and were trying to sell their stereo units but were confined really to the classical market. And they had the second-largest classical market in the world. It was their idea. They called on us – we actually owed them money.”

So they gave you a blank canvas, in a way.

“Yes, and it was the great days when record companies gave you lousy royalties but had lots of studio time and big studios. They said, ‘Just get on with it, do what you want to do, there’s the studio and engineer.’ That’s how it worked for us.”

Justin was in Surrey when he called, dropping in on his sister from his European base ahead of a flight the next day to the Netherlands and a date in Utrecht, the opener on his latest tour. His home is ‘near the Italian border’, and he’s a partner in a studio in Genoa, where he’s been working ‘the best part of 20 years now,’ with much of his solo material and work with The Moody Blues – the Moodies as he refers to them – recorded there.

I hear traces of his Swindon, Wiltshire – the former GWR works town that also gave us XTC – upbringing when he says ‘years’, and Justin’s retained a strong West Country affiliation, spending lots of time in West Cornwall, where he had a home for many years, and where his daughter still lives and works.

That gave me a chance to reminisce on my own regular trips to Lelant, just outside St Ives, a village we have in common, both having first visited that area in the early ‘70s – me barely six, Justin 27. In his case it involved a holiday with wife Ann Marie, the French model he married in late 1970, a short break after his band’s work on 1972 album Seventh Sojourn – their last studio album before a six-year hiatus, released the year his daughter Doremi was born – becoming much more.

“My daughter still lives there. She’s a cranial-sacral osteopathist with a little practice in Penzance, and works out of her home as well.”

That’s easy for him to say, I suggest.

“I do so miss it down there. What a magical part of the world. It still is. It’s gorgeous, and there’s something about that. I can remember when big steamers were coming in there, and a power station opposite that they took down in almost one day. We were at the Ferryhouse, right on the beach, terribly impractical, with a beach café opposite. We had to haul everything across the golf course. We then moved up the hill. When my daughter got married, it became her home, and I’m so pleased she’s down there.”

Were the Moodies still in Birmingham when you first hooked up with them in 1966?

“They were actually not far from where I am right now in Claygate. I came up to Paddington Station and met Mike (Pinder) first and we went for a coffee then to his place, somewhere around New Malden. A couple of weeks later I met the other guys in Esher, where they were not paying the rent, hiding from the milkman … They’d left Birmingham by the time Go Now was a hit (a UK No.1 in 1964).”

Idyllic as your home base must be, do you miss the UK?

“Well, I come back when I can, but home is over there by the Mediterranean now, where all my music is. In truth, recording became so expensive in London and England. I honestly couldn’t afford it. But I had a holiday home in the South of France and met a lot of backing musicians there, some for Johnny Hallyday, and other French and Italian artists who liked English rock’n’roll. There’s a whole community down there. I started writing, found this studio. I just want to be where the music is now, and that’s where it is for me.”

Justin’s currently looking forward to his live return to the UK, backed by virtuoso guitarist Mike Dawes and vocalist Julie Ragins.

“Mike’s an unbelievable guitar player. My guitar-tech, Chris, and I one night at a soundcheck said, ‘Can we just stand really close and watch you play and see if we can work it out? He said okay, so we stood about two feet away. When he finished playing, Chris said, ‘No, I still don’t get it’. And nor did I. I don’t know how it’s done. And then there’s Julie, who has the voice of an angel. She just loves these songs, and we’ve been working together for a long time now.

“We’re just a small crew and it’s mostly acoustic, with just a little bit of electric, but no drums. I like to hear every nuance. I’m doing these songs as they were written, like the original demos I made, and hopefully some of the stories behind them are interesting. The Moodies’ shows are big productions, with two drummers, lots of amplifiers, very loud. There are lots of those songs that just don’t work in that context. But I get to do things in my solo show complemented by that way of doing it. I get to do Forever Autumn as well, which is always nice.”

We’ll come back to that 1978 hit later. Does it tend to just be you and a guitar when you write?

“It is, a couple of old guitars, a couple of newer ones, and a bit of programming. Even way back in the ’80s I started doing things to time-code. Tony Visconti was very much into that when we started working. I could do that on my own tape recorders, then bring them into the studio. But yes, I’d usually start with a couple of guitars. And there’s a whole world of imagination inside a guitar.”

While I and many more knew Nights in White Satin well (making the UK top-10 on its release in 1972), I admit I knew your work on Jeff Wayne’s musical adaptation of The War of the Worlds before I knew great singles like 1973’s Question (No.2 in the UK). So what had changed in between Days of Future Passed and the A Question of Balance LP in 1970, approach-wise?

“We were very insecure about a lot of our recordings and it started to dawn on us that there might be something in it. We made an album called On the Threshold of a Dream in early ’69 which did very well, getting to the top of the charts in this country. And everyone knew it in America.

“Then we followed that with an album that was completely obscure and self-absorbed, To Our Children’s Children’s Children, and got to a stage where we couldn’t play the songs on stage – the overdubbing was so impossible, so much, and overlaid.

“With Question, the song, recorded before the album, there’s no double-tracking, just echo and a big old 12-string guitar. We learned to play that the old-fashioned way and just recorded it one Saturday. It was a deliberate attempt to try and pull back to something more real.”

And it remains powerful, to this day.

“I hope so. It was a great time for us, with the Isle of Wight Festival and all that kind of stuff going on. It carried us along, Question. The whole album did.”

One name that seems to have popped up on your CV more than any other over the years is bandmate John Lodge, and not just with the Moodies. Are you still in regular touch?

“Yes, we were together only last weekend, with Graham (Edge) and Mike Pinder, as we were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”

That was in Cleveland, Ohio, with the band inducted alongside Bon Jovi, The Cars, Dire Straits, Nina Simone and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Quite a coup for the band.

“We played together, and there were a few days of events and Q&As, with school kids, lots of press, and so on. It was a big deal, and for the American fans it validated the music they loved … at last.”

There must have been elements of, ‘Why only now?’

“There were, and it’s very different when you’re not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but when you are, the world seems a different place. But when they asked who I thought should be in there now, I said, ‘Well, you could start with Cliff (Richard) and the Shadows, even Johnny Halliday. If you really want to tell the story of rock’n’roll throughout the world, not just through American eyes. But it’s great to be part of and I’m very pleased. It’s kind of a temple to all the stuff I’ve ever loved.”

Justin’s first Moodies’ single was 1966’s Fly Me High, just after he was brought in to replace Denny Laine.

“Yes, it wasn’t the first we did on stage, but it was the first released with the band.”

At this point I admit to Justin I was first aware of Ambrose Slade’s version on 1969 debut album Beginnings, before that band dropped the first half of their name and went on to mega-success. As it turned out, Justin was unaware of that cover.

“Really? I’m going to Google that right now. Wow!”

Watching and Waiting: Justin Hayward, out on the road with Mike Dawes and Julie Ragins in 2018

He does too, and was set up to listen when I finally got off the phone and left him in peace. I wonder what he made of it. I like both versions, for the record.

You mention Mike Pinder, of whom you’ve said before, ‘Mike and the Mellotron made my songs work.’ I know he’s been out of the band for 40 years, but it appears that you keep in touch with all of the first line-up you were part of.

“Well, Ray (Thomas) sadly passed away earlier this year, a great tragedy. And Tony Clark had some time before, so that really brought things home. But I’d seen Mike five or six years ago when we played in Northern California. He came to a gig with his sons. He’s got such a beautiful family. And to see him at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was absolutely great, walking up there together. We had a long talk. When Bon Jovi were up there doing 85 minutes, Mike’s wife said, ‘Do you think there’s somewhere we can all go?’ We found a little room round the back. That was really lovely.”

Things like losing Ray must make you realise time’s not guaranteed.

“Yes, that’s why I’m doing it now and I’m going to sing while I can. I don’t know what the future holds. I haven’t really got any plans except to make new music, and that’s what I’m going to do next year. I’m working on the road now, I’ll keep my little crew together – with Mike and Julie, my front of house guy and my guitar tech – and that suits me just fine.”

There have been plenty of Moody Blues reunions over the years, and then there’s your solo career, including eight studio albums from 1975’s Blue Jays with bandmate John Lodge through to 2013’s Spirits of the Western Sky. Ever feel the need to remind the wider world that, far from it, you haven’t been quiet since The War of the Worlds?

“Ha ha! Erm … well, fortunately, some people have been paying attention! For me, I’ve never been a celebrity or anything like that. What’s important is that I’ve done what I think is right. I’ve been prepared to make mistakes and I take responsibility for that.”

Bearing in mind my Surrey roots, and your link to November 2014 writewyattuk interviewee Jeff Wayne’s musical adaptation of The War of the Worlds, with H.G. Wells’ story set on my old family patch around Woking, I wonder if you read the book when you were growing up.

“Yes, as a matter of fact all of that series was given to me by a dear friend of mine, Lionel Bart, who wrote Oliver! He gave them to me as a present one birthday, in the late ‘60s – the whole works of H.G. Wells. And The War of the Worlds was the one I’d read and really resonated, not least as I knew this part of the world from when I first came to London.”

Knowing the geography makes the story that little bit more real, doesn’t it?

“It does.”

Was your The War of the Worlds experience a happy period?

“Oh, what a lucky break, getting that call from Jeff! I wasn’t going to do it, but there just happened to be a chap round my house that day from the Moodies’ record shop in Cobham. We had a shop connected to our office, where our roadies were. Someone came over for me to sign some papers and was listening to this demo Jeff sent round. When it finished he said, ‘You ought to do that, mate! It’s perfect for you!’ So I thought, ‘Why not’, went down to meet Jeff and did Forever Autumn. Then they called me back a couple of days later to do another song, Eve of the War, which also had some success. And it was a great time for me, being on Top of the Pops, and all that.”

Did you get to work with David Essex, Phil Lynott, and Richard Burton, or were you just recording your own parts?

“I knew all the others involved. Funnily enough, the person we had in common and who had something to do with bringing me to Jeff was Ken Freeman, a keyboard player who I worked with on my album, Songwriter. Ken also wrote that wonderful theme to the TV show,  Casualty.”

At this point, Justin gives me a rendition of that distinctive theme tune, in many ways the sound of Saturday night for a couple of generations.

“I knew all the others, like Phil (Lynott), because he was on the same label, while David (Essex) was an acquaintance. But Richard Burton did his pieces down in Ibiza somewhere. I was his ‘song thoughts’ though, which I thought was a bit bizarre but I was very happy to do.”

I still listen to that album now and again, sometimes in the car, which is probably not the greatest idea, to be honest.

“It’s quite heavy, isn’t it. A powerful album.”

My eldest daughter was telling me there’s a new film or at least a mini-series on its way, featuring Eleanor Tomlinson, of Poldark fame. I’m intrigued by that.

“Oh yeah. That’ll be great. I did the stage show for five or six years, starting around 2006, going to Australia and New Zealand, but then I stepped aside. I thought, to be respectful, it’s a part for a younger man. But that music will go on … and doing Forever Autumn in my solo show is great.”

Do you miss your family when you’re out on the road? Or does Ann Marie travel with you?

“If it’s somewhere of interest she’ll come, and she did when we played Days of Future Passed with the LA Symphony at the Hollywood Bowl. But otherwise I think that would be like having the wife at the office. She’s got her own life and her own pals. That’s the way it should be.”

You’ve been married a long time (47 years and counting).

“Yes … well, I’ve been away a lot, you see! Ha ha! Even though it looks like I’ve been married for nearly 50 years, I’ve only actually been home for about eight years!”

Finally, for those who’ve missed out over the years and maybe just know the big hits, where should they start on the Justin Hayward back-catalogue? Do we start with Spirits of the Western Sky and head back?

“I think … it started for me with Blue Guitar, recorded when the Moodies were still together, when Decca didn’t want to release any solo thing. The original version was recorded with the guys from 10cc. I have a compilation album out now called All the Way, and the original version is on that record.

“That was the version that was released, but it was remixed by Decca, with an orchestra put on it. The record actually was me and Eric Stewart, recorded at Strawberry Studios in Stockport, where I was a director for many years, with Graham Gouldman on bass, Lol Crème on gismo, and Kevin Godley on drums.

“Then there was Blue Jays and Songwriter, the album on which I really focused on writing and expressing what was in my heart.”

So what you’re really saying at this point is that we should catch up with the whole of the back-catalogue, right?

“Ha! If you can find it!”

The Songwriter: Justin Hayward, out and about and In Concert around the UK

Justin Hayward’s May/June 2018 In Concert tour, with support on all dates from Mike Dawes, visits Bristol Colston Hall (May 27, £37.50), Norwich Theatre Royal (May 28, £37.50), New Brighton Floral Pavilion (May 29, £37.50), Eastleigh Concorde Club (May 31, £60 non-members, £55 members), Stockport Plaza (June 1, £37.50), Christchurch Regent Centre (June 2, £44.50), and St Albans Arena (June 3, £39/£37.50). Tickets are available via Ticketline.co.uk, Ticketmaster.co.uk, or direct from the venues. Booking fees may apply. To keep in touch with Justin, head to his Facebook and Twitter pages or head to www.justinhayward.com

 

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