Fontaines D.C. – Blitz, Preston

Blitz Kids: Fontaines D.C., fresh from a one-night stand in Preston, and they’re gonna be big (Photo: Daniel Topete)

‘My childhood was small, but I’m gonna be big.’

Those great ‘I was there’ moments in music history don’t come along often, and admittedly I’ve occasionally been proved wrong in the past when calling them. But this was one such slice of on-the-spot gratification, a band pervading rock’n’roll star quality just a few feet ahead of us.

They came, they thrilled, they signed merchandise (seemingly a little shell-shocked in that awkward moment), and moved on, these much-touted products of ‘a pregnant city with a Catholic mind’ soon headed for Nottingham, London, Brighton, Diksmuide, Rotterdam, Paris, and quite possibly indie world domination.

As I write this I hear that the debut album, Dogrel, released three days earlier on Partisan Records – recorded with Dan Carey in Streatham, South London – nestles among the UK top-five, above the likes of fellow high-fliers Emma Bunton, Tom Walker, George Ezra, and the Bohemian Rhapsody and The Greatest Showman soundtrack albums. And I’ll raise a glass to that.

Building on a string of inspirational, critically-acclaimed singles, the first long player  captures their very essence in a mighty 11-song opus that ‘taps into the social and mental consciousness of Dublin City’ (Peter McGoran, Hot Press), proving art and lit remain prime Irish exports, 105 years beyond James Joyce’s Dubliners.

We only got a half-hour set on this occasion, but by God it was impassioned, five 20-somethings from Ireland’s own D.C. (and in this case I don’t mean Derry, fellow Undertones fans) taking on the Brits and leaving indelible marks on hearts and minds here, there and everywhere.

This was something of a coup too, treasured Lancashire independent centre of gravity Action Records somehow borrowing its guests from under the noses of bigger sold-out UK venues. Initially booked as an in-store promotion, it wasn’t long before Action kingpin and 2018 WriteWyattUK interviewee Gordon Gibson switched them to a nearby nightspot in the shadow of Preston’s renowned Brutalist bus station.

Gordon, on hand at the venue, seemed pleasantly surprised at the value for money received, and from the moment this all the rage quintet strolled on stage to The Pogues’ ‘Boys From the County Hell’, we were indebted to them and would have gladly lent them £10 so they could buy us a drink.

My youngest daughter joked that she didn’t want to be judged, having lead singer Grian Chatten and compatriots Carlos O’Connell and Conor Curley (guitars), Connor Deegan (bass) and Tom Coll (drums) staring at a rapturous audience as if asking us all out for a fight, setting up what would prove a memorable, explosive set. But while there were elements of Stone Roses and Oasis-like bluster and Grian has the frenetic mark of Ian Curtis at times, these are no copyists, their innate sense of post-punk presence and fervour all pervading.

What’s more, it proved a perfect venue, Grian checking out the workmanship on the low ceiling in front of his head when he briefly settled from his relentless stage wanderings, shaking his arms out and thriving on that nervous energy, the assembled – all in after pre-ordering the album from Action – appreciative throughout but leaving it late to become a pogoing mess, the last couple of songs really having the place moving.

I won’t dress this tucked-away venue as something it isn’t, but I saw it as the kind of sticky-floored, dingy, superficially-grubby cavern where art dreams are hewn if the guests are up to the challenge. And these lads have said qualities in abundance. ‘Is it too real for ya?’ Not a bit.

Inevitably, there were great songs from the LP we didn’t get to hear on the night, notably wondrous 2017 debut single ‘Liberty Belle’ and ‘Television Screens’ and the more radio-friendly ‘Roy’s Tune’ and their Poguesque tribute to home, ‘Dublin City Sky’. But they certainly filled their 30 minutes or so wisely.

We were pulled in from the moment they launched into the punky rock’n’roll meets The Fall charge of ‘Chequeless Reckless’, their acerbic manifesto of sorts overcoming the early technical gremlins, the club PA struggling to cope, the backing harmonies initally lost in a soup of noise terrorism. But by the time the opener was pared down to Tom’s percussion and Grian’s searching ‘What’s really going on?’ we were caught in the spotlights.

‘Hurricane Laughter’ took that on, ‘tearing down the plaster’ (thankfully not around that afore-mentioned low ceiling). And yes, there was certainly a connection available tonight.

‘The Lotts’ is more about melancholic evocation, Connor D’s bass, Tom’s stick-work and the guitar licks suggesting hints of The Cure. And from there on in it was no-holds barred Fontaines D.C. alternative hits, the Noughties’ indie pop of ‘Sha Sha Sha’ getting the fingers poking, before almost-anthemic new single ‘Boys in the Better Land’ revved us up again, recently described by Grian as ‘a celebration of independent thought’. I’m all for that, and was taken back to the live fire of the early Mighty Lemon Drops.

Then came the mighty ‘Too Real’, its introductory alarm call – in the tradition of the wondrous call to arms of The Mekons’ ‘Where Were You?’ – keeping us on that high plane, the Wolfhounds-like guitar thrash that followed having the joint jumping, before the inevitable Strokes-esque show-stopper, ‘Big’, another impassioned band statement of intent that left you reeling, its six-string clang during the chorus carrying traces of Anglo-Irish old favourites Stump for me.

These boys, barely three years after getting something together at music college in Dublin – ‘from the ruins of early nowhere bands’, buoyed by ‘a shared love of poetry and common zeal for authentic self-expression’ – are going places, and we were proud to just be passengers on a brief part of that journey.

They’ve a hard slog ahead if they’re to carry on unaffected by all the hype, but they’re up to that judging by the recorded product and relentless itinerary so far – after a debut headline sell-out UK tour comes further sell-out US dates supporting Idles (after first-time sell-outs of their own in NYC and nine attention-grabbing SXSW showcases in Houston) and across Europe, with more festivals and big UK shows planned this year. And whether this is the start of something ‘Big’ or just a brief aligning of the stars is irrelevant. It’s something to savour for sure. Now, let me get back to that album again.

Liberty Belters: Fontaines D.C. have plenty more dates ahead in 2019 (Photo: Molly Keane)

For a podcast featuring an on-air early April 2019 interview with Fontaines D.C. in the company of long-time band supporter and friend of this website Paul McLoone for his weekday evening show on Today FM in Dublin, head here.

Fontaines D.C.’s first UK headline tour continues this week (after those Preston and Nottingham visits) with sell-outs at London The Garage (April 17) and Brighton The Haunt (April 18), followed by Belgian, Dutch and French dates at Diksmuide 4AD (April 19), Rotterdam Motel Mozaique Festival (April 20), and Paris Le Point Ephemere (April 22), then a long trek to Mexico City’s Bajo Circuito (April 29) before sell-out North American dates supporting Idles in May, that month ending with Germany’s Neustrelitz Immergut Festival.

In June there are three French festival dates and others in Greece, the Netherlands and Croatia, while in July more European outdoor dates lead to further UK engagements at Glasgow’s TRNSMT Festival (July 13), London Citadel Festival (July 14), Oxford Truck Festival (July 26), Rainton Deer Shed Festival (July 27) and Pikehall Y Not Festival (July 28).

And after more festivals in Ireland, Canada, Norway, Germany, Italy and France in August, there’s the End of The Road Festival in Wiltshire (August 29/September 1), 14 more US dates in September (headlining, with Pottery supporting), four more European festivals in early November, then their next UK dates at Manchester 02 Ritz (November 19), Liverpool O2 Academy (November 20), Glasgow SWG 3 (November 21), Leeds Stylus (November 22), Sheffield Leadmill (November 23), Birmingham O2 Institute (November 25), Oxford O2 Academy (November 26), London O2 Forum (November 27), Brighton Concorde 2 (November 28), Bristol SWX (November 30), Southampton The 1865 (December 1), and two dates at Dublin Vicar Street (December 7/8, the first already sold out).

For more on Fontaines D.C., follow them via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and their website.

Better Band: Ireland’s Fontaines D.C., going places in 2019, and way beyond (Photo: Daniel Topete)

Meanwhile, Action Records team up with neighbour Blitz Preston again this weekend, Fat White Family promoting new album Serfs Up at the same venue,  playing a special 7pm show on Saturday, April 20th (5, Church Row, Preston). To gain admission, pre-order the album from Action Records (46, Church Street, Preston), collecting your purchase and ticket anytime the previous day. For more information, head to Action Records’s Facebook page.

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Mott’s Class of ’74 revisited – back in touch with Ian Hunter

I only turned seven in the month Mott the Hoople released their final single with Ian Hunter, and it was another dozen years or so before I became aware of ‘Saturday Gigs’.

Sure, I knew the David Bowie-penned ‘All the Young Dudes’ and a few other hits that got aired on daytime and early evening radio, maybe even seeing a couple of Top of the Pops appearances. But it was only in the second half of the ’80s that I got to grips with that tremendous back-catalogue, starting to understand what had turned on bands from Slade forwards to those amazing performances and recordings.

My gateway was via the 1976 Greatest Hits compilation, bought on vinyl (most likely a 1981 UK pressing), and the track that made me sit up and take notice – not least wondering how it had passed me by before – was the final song, its lead guitar part played by Mick Ronson rather than recently-departed Luther ‘Ariel Bender’ Grosvenor, who featured on its demo version.

What was it about that song that stirred me? I’m not sure if I’m any wiser 30 years after first hearing it. It’s certainly epic though, like so many Mott numbers, and left me aching for something, having missed out on all that inspired the lyric. That’s the power of good music. I understand the Germans have a word, as they often do, for such emotions – sehnsucht, in its most literal meaning a longing and nostalgia for a far-off home one has never visited. I guess that’s how ‘Saturday Gigs’ makes me feel.

It seems odd now that Ian Hunter didn’t know this was his Mott swansong when he wrote it. That’s neatly explained though on the www.hunter-mott.com website, its author explaining, ‘In the years since, many retrospectives (including some LP sleeve notes) have commented that during the recording of ‘Saturday Gigs’ the band sat in the studio control room wondering why Ian was singing ‘Goodbye’ at the end. No mystery … the plan always was to put the band ‘on hold’ for a while. Hunter was going to do a solo album, (Morgan) Fisher was going to do session work, (Pete Overend) Watts and Buffin (Dale Griffin) were going into production. The single was meant as a letter to fans saying, ‘Goodbye, for a while, but we’ll be back’.’ Well, I guess they eventually returned.

It’s a kind of joyful obituary to the band. And what an obit. I wasn’t at the Roundhouse in those formative days, I didn’t meet any Chelsea girls down the King’s Road at the turn of the ’70s, I wasn’t in the crowd for Top of the Pops, and I wasn’t there at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon (even if it was just 25 miles from home), never mind on Broadway, where Mott became the first rock group to sell out a week of concerts in New York’s theatreland. But Ian was certainly there, and perfectly conveyed it all in his lyrics. And speaking recently, he reckons he understands what I’m saying about my ‘sehnsucht’ feeling too.

“Yeah, I get it. Ironically enough, ‘Saturday Gigs’ was the end. A good song, but never quite made it. And in my mind, I was, ‘Well, if that doesn’t happen, forget it.’ Stan Tippins, our manager all the way through and the singer before me, they sent him over to try to get me to stay in the band. But that morning when he left Heathrow, he found we were stuck at No.33 with ‘Saturday Gigs’. So by the time he got to New York he was like, ‘I think you’re right.’

“The feeling with that particular track at that time was that it was too like ‘All the Young Dudes’. Which I didn’t think it was. A lot of people like the song now, but it was irritating to me because I knew it was good, but they weren’t getting it. Sometimes that can happen.”

Actually, it was previous single ‘Foxy Foxy’ that made it to No.33 in the charts at home, with ‘Saturday Gigs’ stalling at 41. But the same logic stands. It deserved much more.

It had been a long road for the band, with so many amazing memories tied in. Between 1969 and 1973, they split main songwriting duties between Ian and lead guitarist Mick Ralphs. By 1974 though, Mick (forming Bad Company) and organist Verden Allen had left, leaving Ian as principal songwriter, that free rein clearly suiting him, the following year’s The Hoople LP charting on both sides of the Atlantic and exploring ideas and concepts now widely credited as having influenced everyone from the punk movement to Queen.

This was arguably Mott’s most intensely creative period, not just with that album, but also a string of fine singles, with ‘Roll Away The Stone’ and ‘The Golden Age Of Rock ’n’ Roll’ from that March’s LP followed by ‘Foxy Foxy’ that summer then ‘Saturday Gigs’ in October, their legacy already long since assured. What’s more, there was a live album, half of it recorded during that week-long stint at the Uris Theater on Broadway, NYC.

The live LP certainly highlighted the talents of Mick and Verden’s replacements, Ariel Bender and Morgan Fisher, the new pair breathing fresh life into Mott classics and crowd favourites like ‘All The Young Dudes’, ‘All The Way From Memphis’ and ‘Honaloochie Boogie’. And while the game was soon up, in 2009 and 2013 the band’s 1969/73 line-up completed two highly-successful reunion tours, with talk naturally leading to a ‘Class Of ’74’ reunion too.

Sadly, the rhythm section of Pete (bass) and Buffin (drums) have since passed away, while Mick’s health rules him out. But Ian is back with long-term backing group the Rant Band around the UK this month, this time with fellow Hoople legends Ariel and Morgan along for the ride, following three successful festival appearances with the same line-up last year.

With a set based around the 1974 The Hoople and Live LPs plus the non-album greatest hits, they’re back for ‘seven shows, one more time’, across the nation, my excuse for tracking down Ian to his Connecticut home a month ahead of his UK run, rehearsals all set to start the day after. Was he raring to go?

“Yeah, yeah. I’m up for it. Y’know, you have to rev your voice up a little bit. You can’t just sort of walk in.”

Seven shows, one more time, yeah?

“Well, we’re doing another eight here before we come there.”

The pre-publicity suggests this is a bit of a one-off set-up.

“Yeah, yeah, it’s not an eternal thing, but it’s important that we give Luther (Grosvenor, aka Ariel Bender) and Morgan (Fisher) a good shot.”

His latest itinerary started in Milwaukee on April 1st, and he’ll be halfway through before reaching the UK opener at Leamington Assembly this Wednesday (April 17), coming closest to my patch on Friday 19th, playing Manchester Academy (7.30pm, tickets £45 plus booking, 0161 832 1111).

“I like being on the road. I could do without the busy-ness of the airports, timing your runs according to rush hours to get to the airport, but what are you going to do? When I’m on tour I kind of want to be home, and when I’m at home I want to be on the road!”

As this tour is all about the spirit of ’74, a huge year for you, it’s worth mentioning this was also the year his acclaimed Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star was first published (in May), documenting the band’s late-1972 All the Young Dudes Stateside tour. And a new Omnibus Press edition includes a foreword from Johnny Depp and an eight-day diary from Ian – originally published in Mojo magazine – of his 2015 Japanese tour.

It clearly remains something of a cult classic, influencing so many musicians over the years, including The Clash’s Mick Jones, Duran Duran’s John Taylor, and The Cult’s Billy Duffy. And if there’s a secret to its enduring appeal, maybe it’s because it’s about a band doing all these amazing things, but written with such a down-to-earth approach, somehow normalising the rock’n’roll excess of that era. What does Ian think it was that resonated?

“Well, we’re halfway or somewhere. You’re either top of the bill or you’re opening for someone else, and sometimes you’re in the middle, but that’s more interesting than if you’re big or if you’re small. Plus, the bit at the end with Elvis. Normally, you just finish then go home, but I got lucky with that. A nice little ending.”

Indeed it was, Ian in a drunken attempt to get into Graceland by sneaking through the back door, but coming up against the King of Rock’n’Roll’s housekeeper. And I guess one of the things that set this Shropshire lad and his Herefordshire-reared band apart from a lot of contemporary acts was the fact they were so approachable as a band, and fans of music first and foremost, never losing sight of that.

“I don’t know if it was that or that I didn’t know what I was for. I heard Jerry Lee Lewis do ‘A Whole Lotta Shaking’ when I was 15 or 16 and thought, ‘Oh, thank God! I’m here for something’. There was nothing before that. I didn’t understand why I was here. A lot of people don’t know what they’re doing, then they hear something or see something and know what they’re supposed to do.”

What also strikes me is the grounded qualities of the set-up, as illustrated by Stan Tippins’ moods being dictated by results for his beloved Hereford United FC. As Johnny Depp put it in the foreword to the book’s new edition, Ian was a ‘reluctant rock’n’roll legend’. And the way he let young kids like Mick Jones in the back door at gigs was something both The Clash and contemporaries The Jam would be famed for in later years.

“There’s two ways of looking at it. Some people like their stars to be stars, like the way David (Bowie) did it. That different planet aspect. I couldn’t be bothered with all that stuff. (Tony) Defries (who managed both acts at one stage) used to get very upset. That was his modus operandi – you don’t do all this, you don’t talk on stage. But we couldn’t help it, we were just happy to be there. You either get lucky or you don’t. If you’ve got a gene that helps you do something, you’ve got to consider yourself lucky … not superior.”

That tour diary, a bestseller for two years initially, was written in late ’72. Was it easier to put it out when you did? You didn’t pull your punches, writing so honestly about your bandmates and so on.

“No, but it’s a bit softer now than it was then! It was more like Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in them days. You could say what was on your mind without social media.

“I don’t know. It was lucky. I came back off the tour and I’d written this diary. I’d just got married, so I wasn’t hanging out with the ladies and all the rest of it. And I met Charlie Gillett, who was way behind on a contract for Panther – two books behind – and they were hassling him. I said, ‘Have a look at this. Maybe this will help you.’“

The fact that Ian remains married to second wife – and manager – Trudi 48 years after they tied the knot and 45 years after she was immortalised in a song on The Hoople tells you something about him, while his late ’72 diary offers a fascinating account of his atttude to his ‘on the road’ existence. Originally published as a 50p paperback, it was reissued in the UK in 1976, republished in America the same year with a new title and cover, and published in French as recently as 2013. Did Charlie Gillett (the writer and radio producer also working with Ian Dury, Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, among others) make more money from the book than Ian?

“I’ve no idea. He said he edited it, but I don’t remember it being edited.”

I understand there’s an authorised biography on its way, Rock’n’Roll Sweepstakes (Ian’s original title for his diary), from Campbell Devine, who writes an introductory chapter in this new edition of a book he describes as ‘the ultimate rock’n’roll travel brochure’, one which remains ‘insightful and a compulsive read’.

“Yeah, Campbell’s got a deal with Omnibus … volume one, apparently! Ha ha!”

Oh wow.

“I don’t know if anybody’s going to read it, but …”

Oh, I’m sure many of us will. And Campbell gets it spot on in his introduction of this latest edition of Ian’s diary, writing how, ‘Thankfully sex and drugs took a back seat while music, people, insights and humour thrived, Hunter penning perhaps the definitive account of the seventies rock lifestyle, whilst deftly demystifying the business in the process’.

As Campbell also put it, ‘It was Ian’s eye for the mundane that made his book slightly Spinal Tap, fretting about his weight, grumbling about the price of drinks or lambasting a bossy, belligerent air hostess.’ There are also his own takes on recording processes, the US cities he visited and his impressions of the stars he met, as well as those frank assessments of his bandmates. But as Ian put it, ‘It was never meant to be a work of literarary merit, rather an open revelation of the rock business from the inside,’

Last time I spoke to Ian, in June 2017 (with a link to that feature/interview here) we concentrated on his Fingers Crossed album and the Rant Band, while this time he has that set-up on tour, plus two extra distinguished guests. After success with the reunion gigs featuring the 1969/73 line-up, it made sense to get the ‘Class Of ’74’ back together this time, not least having lost two key members of the earlier band, and with Mick Ralphs not in the best health. In short, he was forced towards this new line-up, but it made sense.

“All I thought was that in 2009 and 2012 Luther and Morgan didn’t get to play, so I thought we owed them. They turned up at both gigs and were great – good sports about it. I just thought if I could find a window … I didn’t expect to be doing American dates with them though. We did those festival dates last year and everybody got on really well. But at festivals no one’s particularly there to see you. There’s a load of bands on. I just wanted to play for our lot, y’know. Ha!”

Thinking back to ’74, you were certainly on a creative high, with no need for David Bowie or anyone else to come up with the goods on your behalf.

“Well, David said that himself. He gave us ‘Dudes’, which was amazing, but after that, he came down when we were rehearsing on the King’s Road somewhere, with more material for us, but was the first one to say – when we played him the songs which would eventually appear on the Dudes album – ‘This is fine. You don’t need anything else.’ He wanted us to do ‘Sweet Jane’, because he was hot with Lou (Reed) at the time, so that was fair enough. It was a good song.”

Have you got good memories of your week’s residency on Broadway in 1974?

“Oh, I just remember the white limos with the Union Jacks and the music blaring as we came up from the Gramercy (Park) area, up to the Uris, and every night more and more people would be outside, when they heard the music. It was a great week. It was good fun.

“That was down to a New York promoter, and we’re doing a gig now for him there. He said, ‘Come and have a look at this theatre’, and it was just like Fairfield Halls in Croydon, which we’d done a couple of times, so we thought, ‘Yeah, we can do this!’

“We didn’t realise it was the first and only time a rock band would ever do Broadway. But we realised the first day, when NBC and ABC and so on turned up! That freaked us out a bit.”

How about the rest of the Rant Band – are they on cloud nine at the thought of this new tour, working with such rock’n’roll legends?

“That was the only thing I was worried about last year – would they get on? But they get on great. They talk to each other more than they talk to me, y’know! There’s eight people on stage, so you have to be a little unselfish. You have to be careful what you’re doing.”

Do you think you’re better at doing that now than you would have 45 years ago?

“Oh, most definitely. Everyone’s been through that and come out the other side, generally in their late 40s or early 50s, where all the ego’s gone. And the Rant Band is typical of a band that does less to get more.”

And what happens after this tour? Are you working on another album with the Rant Band?

“Yeah, it’s nearly done. We’ll go in this summer, then out in the Fall with the Rant Band. And I’ll be at the winery for my birthday.”

How do you mean?

“Well, I’ll be 80 in June, so I’ll be doing four nights at the City Winery in New York. We play there quite regularly.”

That doesn’t seem right, you approaching 80. Does it scare you, that age?

“No, actually. It’s been coming so long, I’m quite looking forward to it. It sounds good to me. It sounds better than 70 – that sounds like nowhere! This sounds quite positive to me, y’know.”

Three’s Company: Morgan Fisher (left), Ian Hunter (centre), and Ariel Bender (right), Mott the Hoople’s Class of ’74, reunited in the UK this month, playing with Ian’s Rant Band

Mott the Hoople ’74 play seven dates in the UK this month, calling at Leamington Assembly (April 17th), Manchester Academy (April 19th), Glasgow Barrowland Ballroom (April 20th), Birmingham Town & Symphony Hall (April 21st), Gateshead Sage (April 23rd) and Shepherd’s Bush Empire (April 26th/27th), with ticket details here. You can also keep in touch with the band via this Facebook link.

 

 

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Steve Harley Acoustic Trio – The Platform, Morecambe

Three’s Company: Steve and acoustic bandmates James Lascelles and Barry Wickens came a calling

You can get complacent when a venue announces ‘doors 7.30pm’, not least when your designated driver has to beat Saturday night football traffic before we can get anywhere near.

We were locked in by circumstances to a just before eight arrival, but my fellow traveller, City fan Richard, had a slow pass around Old Trafford on his way over as United fans streamed out and returned to the Home Counties. But we weren’t too stressed. Surely we’d only miss a song or so from a local support.

Oh dear. Schoolgirl error. As we arrived at The Platform, 70 miles North-West of mine, Steve Harley and long-time bandmates James Lascelles and Barry Wickens were already underway, the main man talking to the audience as we were ushered quietly in to find a couple of the last seats as he launched into 1976’s reflective ‘(Love) Compared With You’.

We were among royalty, and I don’t just mean because pianist/keyboard/melodica king James is a distant cousin of Her Maj. While Richard’s way ahead of me on the Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel gig count, this was my debut, all those years after ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)’ and ‘Mr Raffles (Man, It Was Mean)’ first struck a chord with your seven-year-old scribe watching Top of the Pops.

As it was, Steve hardly spoke between songs from our late entrance until a break, but the songs did the talking as he went into ‘That’s My Life in Your Hands’, one of at least three choices from mid-‘90s album Poetic Justice, then ‘Red Is a Mean, Mean Colour’, the masterful lead track from 1976’s Timeless Flight, and ’Judy Teen’, 45 years to the month after it hit the UK top-five.

From there we got the measure of Steve’s bandmates with a little noodling piano and violin on The Psychomodo’s rousing ‘Sling It!’, a track that surely set The Waterboys on their way, while 1996’s ‘Loveless’ also impressed (I’d love to have heard Ian Dury and the Blockheads tackle that), and the atmospheric ‘The Lighthouse’ took us to another level, Steve impassioned on acoustic guitar, accompanied by melodica and violin. I was lost for a while in the detail until a discussion between two blokes in front as to what their foursome wanted from the bar had me chunnering, the moment gone. For future reference, please just shut the fuck up.

There was no doubting the talent of all three musicians, but that would be meaningless without a fine song beneath it, and here was proof that Steve’s crafted many a fine song since his chart heyday. Yet nostalgia was important here too, and I was transported back to mid-‘70s hot summers with the afore-mentioned ‘Mr Raffles (Man, It Was Mean)’, the band inspired, the song supreme.

What we missed earlier I can’t say for sure, but there was mention of a Bob Dylan cover, so I’m guessing that was 1996’s ‘Love Means Zero – No Limit’. Don’t quote me on that though.

Having given up in the queue for a half-time beverage on my previous Platform visit, this time I was determined to stick it out, a Blonde Witch helping quench the thirst for the second half. And it appeared that Steve’s palate was refreshed too, increasingly chatty for part two of the proceedings.

Live Presence: Steve Harley, still living the best years of his life, four and half decades after his career change

He started with a tribute to Scott Walker, a brief mention of how his last hit with the Walker Brothers involved just him … well, him and a few sessions players name-dropping Steve also worked with down the years. But it wasn’t ‘No Regrets’ aired, but a respectful run through ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’, the wall of sound absent but our visitor doing Scott justice all the same.

An evocative ‘Stranger Comes To Town’ was next, then 1996’s ‘Strange Communications’, prompting a tongue-in cheek reminder that his composing didn’t actually end in 1975. There followed a mention of the cover shot on 2010’s Stranger Comes to Town album, Steve taking his place alongside Anthony Gormley’s Another Place installations at down-the-coast Crosby, telling us his unaware photographer that day had yet to come forward and request a royalty.

Once he got going, there was no stopping him. As he put it, ‘After 40 years I want to share this shit with you’, talking at length about the many covers of his biggest hit – 130-odd apparently – and name-checking The Wedding Present’s ‘finger-poking punk version’ and Duran Duran’s spin on the theme among his favourites. Meanwhile, James patiently awaited his cue, his intro continuing for an eternity, Steve telling us his keyboard player runs on Duracells.

Erasure’s electro-pop version also got a thumbs-up, with talk of Steve cornering fellow shy lad and kindred spirit Vince Clarke at an awards ceremony, the pair’s hugs more important to Steve than any inane celeb banter. And when he did get going, it turned out the reason for all that about covers was due to old friend Rod Stewart’s take on The Quality of Mercy’s ‘A Friend For Life’, mischievously referencing the ‘ker-ching’ of Rod’s LP shifting three million copies.

We got a glimpse of Steve’s home life with 2005’s ’Journey’s End (A Father’s Promise)’, talking about that difficult day his lad went off to uni, and it was already clear by then that he wouldn’t still be in the live game if it was just about straight renditions of his songs, Barry and James’ artistry leading to fresh, revisions, Steve admitting, ‘We never know where that’s going’.

Next was ‘Sebastian’, recorded in 1973 but already long since honed on the busking circuit by then. It’s a song I always equate with T-Rex’s ‘Cosmic Dancer’ two years earlier, its other-worldliness apparent. On this occasion, James’ keys gave it a Doors feel, delivering Ray Manzarek style. And that suited the song nicely.

At times you had to remind yourself there were just three of them on stage, ‘The Coast of Amalfi’, another 2005 selection, also painting a vivid picture. And while – confession time – I never truly warmed to ‘Mr Soft’, it worked on the night, Barry’s gypsy fiddling putting me in mind of Slade B-side treasure ‘Kill ’Em At The Hot Club tonight’, the spirit of Grappelli and Reinhardt in the room. And Steve followed that with a tale about a drugs company offering a huge deal for his best-known song to promote Viagra, wondering why they hadn’t instead opted for ‘Mr Soft’.

Then came my personal highlight, this ‘70s kid lost in time and space as Steve embarked upon ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’, the second of three selections from the 1975 long player of the same name, complete with heart-searing violin. Richard felt there was too much noodling, and had a point, suggesting we’d have then had time for missing numbers like ‘Tumbling Down’. But I felt it worked, sold on the vibe, Steve reminiscing about the good old days, falling off stage at the Liverpool Empire.

And where from there? Well, I mentioned The Wedding Present, one of the few bands who refuse the tired concept of the encore. And in this case, Steve, his stick supporting him and clearly ready to flop, patiently took the applause with his bandmates long enough to know the crowd wanted more, sticking around to deliver ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)’, the caustic bite of the original lyric long since lost but the magic remaining. And that’s something you can level at Steve too, celebrating a rich song catalogue with true creativity and passion all these years on.

Cockney Rebels: James Lascelles, Steve Harley and Barry Wickens, big on the Lancashire coast and all around.

For this website’s recent feature/interview with Steve Harley, head here. Meanwhile, Steve Harley’s acoustic trio tour continues. For the full itinerary and all the latest from Steve, head to http://www.steveharley.com/ or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter. 

 

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Tales from the Rocking Chair songsmith – in conversation with Dean Friedman

The Dean: US singer/songwriter Dean Friedman, gearing up for his SongFest

The Dean: US singer/songwriter Dean Friedman, gearing up for his tour and next SongFest engagements

While four decades have passed since Dean Friedman’s biggest UK hits, admittance of a liking for him in trendy circles often remains reserved to cautious whispers here and there.

But Dean’s hip stock rose with the inclusion in 1987 of a certain song on Half Man Half Biscuit’s second album, Back Again in the DHSS, this master singer-songwriter yet self-confessed guilty pleasure becoming something of a cult hero.

And the 63-year-old who brought us ‘Lucky Stars’ and ‘Lydia’ in 1978 and his big US hit, ‘Ariel’ the year before, was again seen in a different light after respectful nods from luminaries such as Ben Folds and The Barenaked Ladies. That said, as Half Man Half Biscuit’s Nigel Blackwell warned, ‘The light at the end of the tunnel is the light of an oncoming train.’

He clearly moves in influential circles to this day, Dean’s latest tour including his second UK SongFest, two songwriting masterclasses involving, among others, Squeeze lyricist and past WriteWyattUK interviewee Chris Difford, former Bible frontman Boo Hewerdine, and folk singer/comic Richard Digance.

As he put it, “A good song is like a combination time machine and transporter device; with nothing but a handful of words and melody, it creates an instant universe capable of transporting the listener into another dimension, immersing them in a vivid, virtual world, filled with humour, beauty, pathos and joy. And every one of the incredible songwriters performing at SongFest does just that, in their own unique and wonderful way.”

Dean was over last year too, celebrating 40 years in the business with a sold-out tour and digitally-remastered re-release of 1978 LP, ‘Well, Well,’ said the Rocking Chair. And now he’s back, performing solo – on guitar and keyboards – and featuring songs from throughout his recording career, up to most recent fan-funded studio album, 12 Songs. And this year also marks his 16th appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

In addition to his familiar radio hits, album releases and regular concert runs, he’s written and produced several children’s musicals, composed TV and film soundtracks – including jingles and the music to ITV drama Boon (1987/95) – and wrote The Songwriter’s Handbook, based on his on on the secret workshops and masterclasses around the world.

I found him at home in upstate New York, ‘about an hour north of Manhattan’, his between-tour base for the past 30-plus years, and started out by suggesting his major schedule will see him away a long time in 2019.

“It’s funny. I do a little gigging in the United States, but for whatever reason the bulk of my touring circuit is in the UK and Ireland. It’s a little bit of a schlepp, but the audience make it worthwhile.”

UK Breakthrough: 1978's 'Well, well,' said the Rocking Chair.

UK Breakthrough: 1978’s ‘Well, well,’ said the Rocking Chair album opened the door for Dean Friedman

Your last visit was something of a triumph, numbers-wise.

“Yeah, most of the dates were sold out. It went really well. It was nice to reconnect with that (Rocking Chair) album and those songs, and folks turned out.”

That must be a comfort, all these years on.

“I appreciate that. The travelling can be a little tedious but it’s worth it to be able to share my songs with what’s always an enthusiastic audience.”

Your itinerary includes regular gigs and festival dates, including another Edinburgh Fringe appearance.

“That’s correct. I’d heard about it for many years, then I finally did it around 2001, and keep coming back.”

You’re also hosting, performing and producing those two SongFest micro-music festivals.

“That’s something I’m especially excited about. I love doing my gigs, but last year for the first time I tried something new, to share my audience with a couple of songwriters I consider really excellent. The first SongFest was last July, with myself and Boothby Graffoe, a brilliant comedian, singer-songwriter and performer, and then there was Tracey Curtis, from Wales, who used to be in a punk band, Shelley’s Children.”

You have some impressive names involved, including two of my favourite songwriters, Chris Difford and Boo Hewerdine.

“Exactly. It went so well last year that I was determined to do it again and to do one north and one south event. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that Chris Difford agreed to do it, plus Boo and Richard Digance, and all those involved.

“My criteria was that I didn’t want to focus necessarily on bands or rock or dance, although I love all those difference influences. As a song guy I really wanted to focus on people who write great songs, and someone like Chris Difford or Richard Digance for me personify a master songsmith.”

Not many people would put you in the same category as Chris’ Squeeze, yet you’ve been on the scene around the same amount of time, and I’m guessing they’ve always been on your radar.

First Time: Dean Friedman's self-titled debut album, from 1977

First Time: Dean Friedman’s self-titled ’77 debut LP

“Absolutely, and here’s the thing, I grew up listening to all kinds of music but always had a special affinity for folk singers like Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and Bernie Taupin, storytellers who painted pictures in their songs.

“There was a narrative where you could really envisage what was going on, almost a cinematic quality. That was something I aspired to do, starting out and to this day, and someone like Chris Difford … I know Squeeze are acknowledged as a legendary band, but I think they’re even better than they’re given credit for. Someone like Chris, I don’t think he has any peers as a lyricist.”

I like the tale that Chris delivered his lyrics under co-writer Glenn Tilbrook’s door rather than face him about them.

“Well, whatever that quality is that allows him to do that, there’s a sort of casual, descriptive real world sort of concrete quality to his lyrics, yet they are sheer poetry at the same time.”

There’s a similar quality in Dean’s brand of story songs, something first heard by many of us in the UK on ‘Well, Well,’ said the Rocking Chair, via that album’s No.3 UK hit, ‘Lucky Stars’. I was only 11 then, but an older sister had it on cassette, and like so much defining music from that era it stayed with me. What’s more, a couple of recent spins suggest it stands the test of time.

He wasn’t the first songwriter to impress from New Jersey (Paramus in his case), the afore-mentioned Paul Simon and also Bruce Springsteen springing to mind, although the latter seemed to be way off his territory, style-wise, I suggested.

“Well, I admire the writing, and there’s another example with Springsteen. He uses language to depict a scene, a character, and the way he tells a story. It’s the language of the street, but it is so beautifully crafted, And the poetry just comes through. There’s a quote attributed to Springsteen when he was writing ‘Born to Run’, where he said his rhyming dictionary was on fire. And I get that!”

Sometimes I wonder if Dean was too clever a musician and lyricist for his own good, at least perception-wise. In a sense, I saw him as a man out of time, equating him with our own Gilbert O’Sullivan, although a few years later to the party. He was going against the grain really, I put it to him, breaking through at a time when he was surrounded by punk and new wave bands. And people do like to categorise.

“I understand that, and I do myself. Listen, I’m pleased to be spoken of in that company, and Gilbert O’Sullivan is another great songwriter – smart, giving heartfelt and sophisticated lyrics to equally sophisticated and beautiful melodies and hooks.

“And you’re right. I did Top of the Pops with The Boomtown Rats and Buzzcocks. D’you know what? (Boomtown Rats keyboard player) Johnnie Fingers came over, saying his little sister demanded he got my autograph. I said, ‘I’ll give you mine for her if you give me yours’. So I have Johnnie’s autograph.”

On a related subject, I recently listened back to some early Boomtown Rats, and there’s definitely a big Springsteen influence.

Hit Duet: Dean Friedman and Denise Marsa combined to great effect in '78

Hit Duet: Dean Friedman and Denise Marsa combined to great effect in ’78, and Top of the Pops followed

“No question about it, in terms of the instrumentation, not least the sax. It’s funny, you talk about that punk era and I don’t know if you’re familiar with the song, but I was stunned when friends from the UK first told me about a song by Half Man Half Biscuit …”

Ah, I was about to mention the Four Lads Who Shook the Wirral’s sublime ‘The Bastard Son of Dean Friedman’. Carry on, Dean.

“First I was kind of shocked. You know, ‘What is this about?’ But I did the figures in my head, realised that in order for it to be true I’d have had to father him at seven years old. And I listened to the track and it was great. I was cracking up. I’ve since met them, and was determined to get my revenge, which I did. I don’t know if you ever heard my song, ‘A Baker’s Tale’?”

Indeed, and I was listening again just that morning. And on a HMHB internet message board thread I saw that someone wrote, ‘He gets it’. That’s acceptance, I reckon.

“Well, they’ve genuinely embraced me, and show up at my gigs now. I did a concert six or seven years ago at the Robin in Wolverhampton (Bilston), and sang that song. And by the second chorus the whole audience were singing along.

“I first met Nigel and the boys at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We chatted a little, and I was a little shy, and he said he had the (Rocking Chair) album. People will still describe being a Dean Friedman fan as being a guilty pleasure, but it occurred to me that the whole premise of Nigel’s song was that he was being teased about that.

“To my mind, Nigel Blackwell is the most literal lyricist in the whole punk idiom, the most literate and cleverest lyricist – I don’t think there’s another punk band that comes close to his writing and mastery of the craft and use of words.

“Maybe I’m over-thinking this, but in that regard – and it’s not for me to say – it wouldn’t surprise me if on some level in a songwriting sense he is my bastard son! If he grew up listening to my albums, and I might be flattering myself too much, I like to imagine he might be my literary bastard son.”

While ‘Lucky Stars’ and other fine songs from that album take me back to a place and time, it was a while before I heard my personal favourite of his, ‘Ariel’. So I was a little surprised to learn that was his big hit in America.

“Well, it was the first single off my first album. It really kicked off my career in the States. It was more of a turntable hit, but I attribute that more to politics and my record label at the time. And when I perform it on tour in the UK the audience considers it one of my hits, along with ‘Lucky Stars’, which I usually end shows with.”

I have to ask, whose fault was it that his ‘Lucky Stars’ co-singer – possibly Lisa’s nemesis – Denise Marsa (who Dean’s been reunited with and played live with in recent years) didn’t get a proper namecheck on that single? She was a big part of the appeal of that track (and in 2003 Dean said, ‘That guy Nigel was hip to the fact Lisa and I didn’t just do lunch’).

Trail Blazer: 2001’s The Treehouse Journals was one of the first crowd-funded albums

“That was down to my idiot label, the same label that took ‘Jewish girl’ out of the edited version of ‘Ariel’. But don’t get me started! It made no sense. She’s credited on the album, but … they were just idiots, that’s all I can say.”

Going right back, were you from a musical family? What inspired you to first pick up a guitar?

“My Mum was a professional singer and actress, so there was always some Broadway show tune on the piano. I grew up in a house full of music, so it was inevitable it was going to be part of my life. And when I started getting $15 for a coffee house gig at the university I thought, ‘This is not bad. I get to play what I want, have fun and people will pay me for it. That’s what started things off.”

Later, I see you were on the wedding and bar mitzvah circuit with Marsha and the Self-Portraits. Had you been honing your own songs from an early age?

“I got my first guitar when I was nine. I learned four chords and started singing Beatles and Monkees songs … and it’s sad that Peter Tork has just passed away.”

Absolutely. This big Monkees fan concurs with that sentiment. Did you ever get to meet Peter?

“I did. We did a gig together. I opened for him at a gig in New Jersey, six or seven years ago. He was playing with his (Shoe Suede Blues) quartet. A very genuine guy.”

We mentioned Half Man Half Biscuit, and you’ve got a fair bit of kudos from artists citing you as an influence, like North Carolina’s Ben Folds – whose 1997 Ben Fold Five single ‘Kate’ was in homage to ‘Ariel’ – or covering your songs, like Ontario’s Barenaked Ladies and Minnesota’s The Blenders tackling ‘(I Am in Love with the) McDonald’s Girl’.

“Well, ‘McDonald’s Girl’ was banned by the BBC and that pretty much derailed my career – that’s how I got kicked off my label. But a year or so later, I heard The Barenaked Ladies’ cover, their first hit in Canada, even though they never put it on one of their major studio albums. That led to more exposure, then a band called The Blenders on Universal Records had a No.1 with it in Norway.

“Then when the internet came along, the song went viral, a capella groups at colleges, universities and then high schools all over the United States then all around the world doing their own versions. And then, 30 years later, I finally got a call from McDonald’s, asking if they could license it for a national TV and radio campaign. I said, ‘Yeah, that’s great, but what took you so fucking long?’”

Masterclass Act: Dean Friedman, ready for this year’s SongFest intake in Crewe and Wareham, and not just being nice

Fair question. Between adverts and soundtrack work, kids’ musicals and video games, I see a jobbing musician getting by. Has the industry treated you well over the years, not least in the last 20 or so years when things have changed immeasurably.

“That’s an understatement! Yes, I’ve always considered myself a multi-media artists and producer, although there’s usually a strong musical component to whatever I do. Even when I was doing virtual reality video games for Nickelodeon Television and Fuji TV, I still had a great time doing the music for those games. It’s the same with the interactive children’s museum exhibits, for museums around the world.

“To me, it all shares a similar process, like getting a new instrument, like a computer synthesiser. It’s a new toy to play with and experiment and explore with different sounds or colours – it’s just another palette to create something with, whether it’s sound or colour. They’re very much related.”

You were one of the first to go down the direct to fans’ online pledge line, loyal supporters probably helping you through on a few occasions.

“I couldn’t pursue my music, touring or recording without it. As far as I’m aware, Marillion was the first band to announce such a project. But as far as I know I was the second, and probably the first solo artist.

“That was when I did The Treehouse Journals (2001) – a good six years before Kickstarter and Indiegogo launched. I was an early adopter of the internet and it was by virtue of being able to reconnect gradually over the years with my audience that I’m able to do what I do.”

For those who lost touch beyond the second album, would you advise they start with 1981’s Rumpled Romeo and work forward through the catalogue, or head to 12 Songs and work backwards?

Half Measures: Dean Friedman, looking for his Wirral-based bastard son, Nigel Blackwell

“Ah … well, gee, that’s a very good question. D’you know what – ha! – it depends whether they want to start with their own adolescence and gradually approach their mature self, or whether they want to start from where they are and gradually get back to where they were.”

Have your children followed you into music, or have you put them off?

“They’re both really talented musicians and writers as well. They both work in the entertainment field in TV and film, writing for cartoons and what-not. Again, there’s always a musical component to what they do. Growing up with a Dad in the business I think they benefitted to a degree from having no illusions about the industry.

“They knew it was a hard job but if they were committed to their art they could get satisfaction out of it and hopefully make a living at the same time.”

Is that the advice you give anybody else about this industry?

“Yeah, don’t have any illusions. If you’re just doing it to get rich and famous, there are probably other ways to do that! But if you’re doing it because you love doing it, your chances of winding up satisfied with what you do and how you spend your life are going to be increased and enhanced.

“The other thing I would say is to operate on a parallel path. Prize your art and craft, hone it, prove yourself, try and be as good as you can be but on a parallel path do whatever you need to do to keep the electricity turned on. If and when you get an opportunity to exploit it commercially, you’ll be ready for that opportunity. If you just wait for it, it’s not going to happen.”

And what are the chances of you sharing a stage with local-ish lad Nigel Blackwell at the Epstein Theatre in Liverpool or the Old Courts in Wigan on this tour?

“Well, I know he has trouble crossing the Mersey, so it depends what time it’s on. But you never know.”

Guitar Man: Dean Friedman, heading for a venue near you in 2019, four decades into his recording career

Dean Friedman’s 2019 UK tour takes in visits to Belfast, Crescent Arts Centre (April 19), Dublin, Arthur’s Pub (April 20/21, the latter at 4pm), Conwy, Theatr Colwyn (April 25), Bury, The Met (April 26), Birmingham, Pizza Express Live (April 27), Liverpool, Epstein Theatre (April 28), Wigan, The Old Courts (May 1), Doncaster, Doncaster Little Theatre (May 2), Stockton-on-Tees, Princess Alexandra Auditorium (May 3), Nottingham, Poppy & Pint (May 4), Grimsby, Central Hall (May 5), Norwich, The Garage (May 8), London, Bloomsbury Theatre (May 11), Henley-on-Thames, The Crooked Billet (May 13/14), Swansea, The Hyst (May 16), Pentrych, Acapela Studios (May 17), Leek, Leek Arts Festival /Foxlowe Arts Centre (May 19), SongFest, Springfield Country Hotel, Wareham (July 20/21), East Hagbourne, Fleur de Lys (July 24), Abergavenny, The Priory (July 25), Henley-in-Arden, Henley Guild Hall (July 26), SongFest, Wychwood Park Hotel, Crewe (July 27/28), Otley, The Courthouse (July 31), Dumfries, Theatre Royal (August 1), Livingston, Howden Park Centre (August 2), Glasgow, Oran Mor (August 3), Edinburgh Fringe Festival – St Andrew’s & St George’s West (venue #111, (August 14/15/16). Tickets are available from www.deanfriedman.com or the venues, prices from £24 to £55.

For SongFest details and to register for Dean’s songwriting masterclasses, try www.SongFest.live. Ticket prices are £48 (Saturday or Sunday) to £68 (weekend), with registration £195 for two, 90-minute sessions, each prior to a performance (4pm to 11pm Saturday and 3pm to 10pm Sunday).

And for all the latest from Dean, head to www.deanfriedman.com

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A Message from our Rude Boy – the Neville Staple interview

Point Made: Neville Staple, out and about with his band as special guests of The Undertones in May 2019.

It will be 40 years in May since debut Special AKA single ‘Gangsters’ thrilled a nation, the first single on 2 Tone Records a fine example of all that followed from that ground-breaking independent label.

Before 1979 was out, a band originally known as The Coventry Automatics had settled on The Specials, their impressive self-titled first album – produced with Elvis Costello – rightfully making a huge impact, nationally and internationally.

It wasn’t just that they wrote great songs – their first seven singles were top-10 hits, including No.1s ‘Too Much Too Young’ and ‘Ghost Town’ – but all they stood for, not least a message of racial integration during a period when right-wing political extremists were on the rise. And for that reason alone, they remain as relevant today as ever before.

All these years on, Specials co-frontman Neville Staple, who later featured with fellow ex-bandmates Lynval Golding and Terry Hall in The Fun Boy Three and then in the Special Beat alongside close friend ‘Ranking’ Roger Charlery, continues to spread his message.

These days, ‘The Original Rude Boy’, 64 next month, fronts the Neville Staple Band, while Lynval and Terry are back in tow with Horace Panter in the latest version of The Specials, currently celebrating the band’s first No.1 album, Encore. Clearly, the world still loves that heady mix of late-‘70s ska revival, kind of bluebeat mixed with dashes of punk and new wave. And that reaction’s something Neville’s witnessed first-hand in recent years too.

“The way we brought ska to the mainstream was by mixing Jamaican music with the English style, which at the time was punk.  The movement helped transcend and defuse racial tensions in Thatcher-era Britain. The actual black and white chequered imagery of 2 Tone has become almost as famous as the music itself. I remember the massive reactions to hit songs like ‘Ghost Town’, ‘Too Much Too Young’ and ‘Gangsters’, and fans still write to me about my rugged, energetic and fun stage presence.”

Magnificent Seven: The classic line-up of ska revival legends The Specials, including Neville Staple, third left.

Neville was in a reunion line-up of The Specials from 1993 to 2001, and again from 2009 to 2012, when he left the band due to personal reasons and some health concerns. But he remains a forerunner of the ska revival movement, popular as ever, playing across the world.

His most recent LP – one of many with his own name on the cover – was last year’s Rude Rebels, credited to Neville and Sugary Staple, the latter his wife and manager, aka Christine, its studio guests including former Specials guitarist Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers, recorded in his beloved Coventry, where he returned in 2004 after a spell in California.

As well as their music, Neville and Sugary work with schools, charities, university and youth groups giving talks, music and performance tuition, and helping publicise fund-raising projects. They were also part of a successful campaign to help Coventry gain City of Culture 2021 status, and continue to work with inner-city children on various creative schemes.

But there have been lows too, and since his grandson, 21-year-old Fidel Glasgow, was fatally stabbed in Coventry late last year, Neville’s been talking publicly as and when he can about the horrors of knife crime and knife culture.

What’s more, when we spoke he was between hospital visits to see his old friend Roger, who died this week aged 56, after undergoing surgery for two brain tumours while and treatment for lung cancer.

Of that sad news, Neville would later announce, “So devastated to lose my super friend and Special Beat partner. We’ve been privately at his bedside, with him and his family, every opportunity over the last couple of weeks, willing him the strength to recover again.

“Sadly the fight of the lion’s fire has gone out. Christine, the whole band and I are so saddened. I will miss him so much. Rest up Turbo. One of a kind!”

Close Friends: Neville Staple, right, with Special Beat pal, Ranking Roger

It was in 1990 that Neville joined Roger to form Special Beat, playing hits from both bands in the title in response to an explosion of interest in the US, the so-called third wave of ska. Neville moved to California around then to work with many new ska acts, including No Doubt, Rancid, Unwritten Law, and Canadian outfit The Planet Smashers.

When he returned 15 years ago, he formed the Neville Staple Band, the critically-acclaimed album The Rude Boy Returns involving contributions from Clash guitarist Mick Jones and Damned drummer Rat Scabies. The group also featured ex-members of fellow 2 Tone label originals Bad Manners, a few more personnel changes following before Sugary began performing with the band in 2015.

Along the way, there’s been relentless touring in the UK and Europe, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand, and several successful outings with Pauline Black and Ranking Roger as Legends of Ska and Special Beat.

Looking back a few days after our interview, when news broke of Roger’s death, his old friend’s health battle was clearly on his mind when we spoke, but I found him nothing short of courteous and engaging throughout, and we started out by dwelling on Neville’s 40th anniversary as a recording artist.

“It’s gone quick, hasn’t it. You don’t realise it happens so fast. So much has happened through the 40 years. Even before the Specials reunion I’ve been carrying the flag in America, over here, all over, touring. Then I guess they said, ‘Ah, Neville’s spreading the word’, and they reformed. But 40 years? It just seems like yesterday.”

Soon, he’ll be on the road with his band, as special guests of fabled Northern Irish punk survivors The Undertones. And while on the face of it, that’s perhaps not an obvious blend, the two bands have a lot in common, not least both having put their respective areas on the map and each touring with The Clash.

While The Undertones featured on a US leg of a tour in late ’79 which trailed the classic album, London Calling, The Specials were there with Strummer, Jones, Simonon and Headon the previous year, on the Out on Parole tour.

“Remember, we had the same management as The Clash – Bernie Rhodes – and toured with them amid the whole punk thing … oh God, that was beautiful!”

You say that, but after some of the tales I’ve heard about your cash-strapped days stuck in their Camden HQ, that must leave you in a cold sweat, thinking back.

“Well, no, it was just an experience. It’s all changed now, it’s the Stables Market, But before that … what can I say … it was rough. Rats running around, and we had to sleep on the floor.”

Classic Debut: The self-titled first album from The Specials, released in October 1979.

Character building?

“Oh yes, it was. And then Bernie sent us off to France, saying ‘Here’s the minibus, guys’. That was it.”

Did you keep in touch with him?

“No, we lost touch, but I’d have loved to. I moved to America and was there 10 years, losing touch with a lot of people I used to know.”

In fact, Neville recalled those earlier days in conversation with John Robb for Punk Rock – An Oral History (Ebury Press, 2006), saying, “I was in a youth club doing my DJ stuff, playing reggae at the time, and The Specials used to rehearse in the room next door – Jerry, Horace and Lynval. They asked if I could go out on the road and help them as a roadie. The punk scene hadn’t really started at the time. That was just coming up. We were called The Automatics, playing reggae and ska. I used to see the punk bands when they came through Coventry. We saw The Clash a lot. When The Specials got going we did the Out on Parole tour. That was fucking brilliant.

‘That was the first time I’d seen so many kids jumping and spitting. You should have seen the fucking spitting. It was like fireworks, man. What the fuck is going on here? Punk made us speed our music up. Playing in front of those kids made it more energetic. I used to really like the Buzzcocks. But it was The Clash who we were very close to. They were a great band. The Bernie Rhodes connection came through Jerry Dammers. We were living in Coventry, and Jerry had all the contacts and knew where to go. We used to rehearse at Rehearsal Rehearsals – it was a fucking pit, man! We used to sleep there in sleeping bags, and there were rats all over the place.”

Going back to that Undertones link, as we’re celebrating your 40th anniversary as a recording artist, 1979 was a huge year for both bands, with ‘Gangsters’, The Special AKA debut single out in May, the same month as their self-titled debut, and your own following in October.

“Yeah, I remember all that pretty well, and in them days you got to know all the bands around – The Undertones, The Clash, Sex Pistols, The Damned. We all had something in common.  Nowadays there are bands around and you haven’t got a clue who they are.”

Some of those links ran right through, you going on to work – for example – with Mick Jones and Rat Scabies.

“Yeah, all of them. I still talk to Rat. And all those bands, we got on. It wasn’t about competition. We were all doing what we were doing and gelling together – it wasn’t that band against that band. It was more like a community thing.”

Neville was barely five when he came to the UK from Manchester, Jamaica, his family settling in Rugby. That story is told in detail in his autobiography, The Original Rude Boy (Aurum Press, 2009), but we spoke a little about it.

“I remember where we lived and what it was like. There were no roads. We had to go through the tracks. When we went back there were roads though. The animal rights people aren’t going to like this, but at five we would catapult birds then roast them on the fire. I remember walking to school through the undergrowth, all happy memories.”

I guess your family moved here to find work.

“Oh yeah, but when they sent for us I remember seeing on the doors the ‘No Irish, Blacks or Dogs’ signs. I also remember seeing snow for the first time, putting my hands in it then putting them in front of the fire, getting chilblains.”

Ska Boom: Coventry success story The Specials take it away back in the day

And that was in Rugby, before you moved to Coventry?

“Yeah, I moved here about 19, but used to come over all the time as kids, staying with friends.”

Did you find an active scene there? And how important was the Locarno in Coventry in your sound system days?

“Well, the Locarno was where I met Pete Waterman, but before that I had my own crew. Pete used to get all the old Jamaican and Northern Soul songs, had his little shop above Virgin Records, and was DJ-ing at the Locarno. The girls and the boys had competitions there, and Pete took the winners – me and this girl – down to London. Yeah, Pete and I always got on.”

That was long before the Megastore days, with Pete and a mate running the Soul Hole upstairs from what was then Virgin Records and Tapes in Coventry, apparently ‘spouting enthusiatically and selling rare soul imports’ according to a feature for the Coventry Music Archives blog. In fact, the Locarno’s resident DJ would go on to briefly manage The Specials before truly making his name as part of the Stock Aitken Waterman pop enterprise. And he also happened to write the foreword to Neville’s autobiography.

Neville’s first involvement with The Specials – when still The Coventry Automatics – was prior to Terry Hall and John Bradbury’s arrival. He initially joined as a roadie, but at a gig supporting The Clash, Neville took to the stage, and never looked back. That Bernie Rhodes link followed, Neville later famously toasting ‘Bernie Rhodes knows don’t argue’ at the beginning of debut hit ‘Gangsters’.  However, he’s said before now the lyric actually refers to ‘Bernie Rhodes’ nose’, the size of their manager’s conk of some amusement in Specials circles.

He sang lead vocals on some tracks or additional and backing vocals to Terry Hall’s lead, his early style mostly toasting, having honed his skills with his cousin’s ‘Messenger Sound’ then later his own ‘Jah Baddis’ sound system crew. When he joined the Automatics, the line-up already included Jerry Dammers and Horace Panter, plus John Bradbury’s predecessor Silverton Hutchinson on drums. Then came Terry Hall, replacing Tim Strickland on vocals, and past WriteWyattUK interviewee Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers on lead guitar.

Shared Billing: The debut 2 Tone 7″ single, featuring both The Specials and The Selecter.

I put it to Neville that The Specials were very much a coming together of styles that made something magical, influences like Roddy’s love of punk and his love of Jamaican music somehow fused by Jerry’s overall wizardry. Whatever it was, it worked wonders.

“Yeah, everything just gelled. That’s just how it was. The punk scene was happening at that time, and ska was big anyway for me.”

As it was Terry Hall’s’s 60th birthday when we spoke, I asked if he was still in touch, and got a negative response. It wasn’t so much a blunt no as a pensive, deliberated one. It possibly means the same though. It seems that the former Specials and Fun Boy 3 bandmates aren’t so close nowadays.

I try again, stumbling for words, encouraged by Nev to speak my mind. Whether it’s The Specials, The Jam, UB40, or a few other notables – for instance, those confusing situations with The Beat and The Selecter where at least two bands of each tour different parts of the world – …

“There’s egos floating around, mate.”

Well, that does seem to be the case sometimes. And that’s always a bit sad for us fans.

“Of course it is. With the (Specials) reunion, I’ve always said I’ll go back and do things for the fans, but I don’t think they (the band) want me back. So I just carry on doing what I’m doing. They said the door’s open, but it seems to be closed. I did say I’d go back and do things with them for the fans’ sake for the 40th year. They’ve said ‘Neville didn’t want to come back’, but Sugary, my wife, spoke to the management.”

Accordingly, you get the impression he’ll not easily be tempted back now. Besides, he’s happy with how things are with his own band instead.

“Nah, it’s a lot of egos. My band is a lot better – there’s no egos floating around the band. Everyone’s treated the same. It might be my name, but I don’t use that with them, I don’t think I’m bigger. We’re a family.”

Live Presence: Neville Staple, live at Magma in Rotherham in February 2019 (Photo: Ian Beck)

So now we have the Neville Staple Band, delivering ‘punked-up anthems, dancehall ska and sweet rebel reggae and bluebeat’. That’s some manifesto. I was going to say you’re returning to your roots, but I’m not sure you ever really left those behind.

“We haven’t. And we have Roddy on a few tracks. The whole idea and concept is still taking from all that.”

He also tells me he’s been an item with Sugary for ‘nearly eight years now’.

“She was my pin-up. I saw her and thought, ‘She looks gorgeous … even when I was on stage. You know what I mean? And you can see we’re all having fun on the stage, my wife there next to me. It’s like a family. Everyone gets on and enjoys what we do.

“If you see the show, you see the fun and the elements coming from the band, interacting with the crowd, like they’re on stage with us. We get them participating. If we’re doing a Specials song, rather than three and a half minutes and it’s finished, this band get the fans involved and keep going. It’s fun, it’s party time, and we’re saying something.”

From those halcyon days with The Specials to two more amazing years with the Fun Boy Three, his Special Beat work, and so on through to the Neville Staple Band, he’s certainly made his mark. It’s the same, I suggested to him, for the likes of his old bandmates, plus former WriteWyattUK interviewee Pauline Black with The Selecter, Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling with The Beat, and so on. In a sense, they’ve done far more between them towards breaking down the old black and white barriers and making a mockery of the racists than any politician.

“Yeah, at the time we started there was the National Front and all that. As a black and white band we’d have that element coming to our gigs. But we got through that, and they could see that was what we were about. And some of those would then turn around and got into it. The message was there.”

Much as I love The Specials, some of those songs do carry an element of the underlying feeling of fear and despair in that early ‘80s Thatcher era, not least Roddy’s ‘Concrete Jungle’ and Jerry’s ‘Ghost Town’. They were dark times, and you reflected that perfectly.

Vest Behaviour: Neville Staple live at Glastonbury Festival (Photo: John Middleham)

“Oh yeah. You couldn’t walk out at night … and not just because you were black. That type of stuff. ‘All the clubs are being closed down’, you know?”

It’s something we seem to be heading back to now. It appears that we still need the likes of yourself and Pauline Black to try and get that message across.

“Yeah, we do, and that’s what we’re going to do, and we’re doing a lot on knife crime since my grandson died. We’re putting our bit across, saying what we’re seeing, how that shouldn’t be happening. But then it’s up to the kids. It’s not like we’re preaching.

“We’re just saying there are other ways with your pent-up anger, like we used to do – fighting fist to fist. But then it went to guns, now to knives, and there was a 12-year-old the other day who had a knife in school. This knife culture – what can we do? We can talk about it and hopefully some of what we’re saying gets through. And it will get through to some of them.”

I see you’re going into schools with your message.

“Yes, myself and Sugary, a lot of talking in schools and youth clubs and to young offenders and on the news as well, saying our bit. At the end of the day, some will listen.”

To that end, there’s also a splendid and timely reworking of their 1967 rocksteady cover, ‘A Message To You, Rudy’ from the band out there to buy right now, titled ‘Put Away Your Knives’, recorded with guest vocalist and the song’s originator, Dandy Livingstone, with all the details on Neville’s website, supporting the work of the Victim Support charity.

And amid all that, Coventry clearly still remains … erm, special to Neville, his base again since returning from California, throwing himself into campaigns like those for City of Culture status … although he plays that down.

“My wife’s done a hell of a lot more than me for that, putting in a lot of work. And we’re still here, while in The Specials – one’s in Seattle, one’s in London …

“Roddy’s still here too. I don’t wanna big ourselves up, but we’re here flying the flag for our roots. And not just Coventry – up North, down South … we’re still spreading the word – not preaching, but saying it as it is. And we don’t beat anybody down, we just carry on.”

Staple Singer: Neville Staple, still a ska revival trailblazer, four decades after first hitting the road with The Specials.

The Neville Staple Band are special guests of The Undertones on their 40th anniversary tour this May, with tickets for all shows £25 advance, taking in: Friday 3 May – Coventry Empire  (08444 771000); Saturday 4 May – Bristol SWX (0117 945 0325); Friday 10  May – Leeds O2 Academy (0113 389 1555); Saturday 11 May – Manchester O2 Ritz (0161 714 4140); Thursday 16 May – Norwich Open (01603 763111); Friday 17  May – Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion (01424 229111); Saturday 18 May – Southampton Engine Rooms (0800 688 9311).

For more about the Neville Staple Band – including details of the ‘Put Away Your Knives’ single, supporting the work of the Victim Support charity – head to his website and seek out his Facebook and Twitter pages.

 

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London Calling to the faraway towns – the Gary Crowley interview

London Calling: Gary Crowley, still at the top of the dial, four decades after his first broadcasts

Behind every successful career you tend to find a mix of good fortune and hard work, but you’re unlikely to hear any gripes about the latter from highly-affable broadcaster, TV presenter and DJ Gary Crowley.

His on-air charm and warm patter, delivered in that infectious and often excitable, unmistakeable London accent, have marked him out as a good ‘un ever since his arguably fortuitous break into the media world in the late ’70s.

Starting out at Decca Records straight from school, this lad from the Lisson Green estate, near Marylebone, reckons he’s led something of a charmed life, career-wise. And from taking over Danny Baker’s role on reception at the NME to his 1980 broadcasting debut on Capital Radio – becoming the UK’s youngest radio presenter – onwards, it’s certainly been an epic journey.

Soon enough, he was hosting club nights at trendy watering holes like the Wag Club and Bogart’s in Harrow, showcasing prominent chart acts early in their career like The Style Council, Bananarama, and Wham! Then came the small screen, starting out on ITV’s Saturday morning Fun Factory and game shows like Poparound, while delivering weekly show The Magic Box on Capital, even getting to compere the first Wham! national tour.

And Gary continued to make waves in the ‘90s, hosting ITV music show The Beat and helping introducing BritPop to a wider audience – conducting a first national TV interview with Oasis among other big moments, and by 1996 introducing them at Knebworth – and remaining at the forefront of a burgeoning scene through championing the likes of Blur, Pulp, Manic Street Preachers, Bjork, Suede, and Massive Attack.

There was Rockworld TV too, and BBC Greater London Radio, and it was there that I last heard him regularly for a while, having moved North in 1994. And isn’t it easy to forget now how it was before internet access to radio shows across the world?

After a brief stint leading a charge on indie station XFM, he returned to a by-now renamed BBC London, where he still presents his Saturday evening show and regular features, simultaneously making a big impression in recent years with his splendid My London interviews, and currently working on A to Z features on music and areas of his beloved city, while also helping curate the region’s BBC Introducing series.

It doesn’t stop there, with occasional BBC 6 Music sit-in slots and a monthly show on Soho Radio with good friend Jim Lahat, inspiring his first music compilation for Demon/Edsel, 2017’s Gary Crowley’s Punk and New Wave, a personal spin on the period from 1977 to 1982, the era when he made his first foray into a fruitful career.

And now there’s a new venture, Gary Crowley’s Lost ‘80s, a 63-song journey through the decade that made his name, delivered in 4CD format (or as a 30-track triple-LP on 180g coloured vinyl) packaged with an accompanying 40-page book, including extensive sleevenotes from Gary and memories from the likes of Nick Heyward (Haircut 100), Sarah Dallin (Bananarama), Gary Kemp (Spandau Ballet), Annabella Lwin (Bow Wow Wow) and Clare Grogan (Altered Images).

As he put it on the press release, “The ‘80s, especially the first part, was an amazing time for music. It was a mad, fast, kaleidoscopic rollercoaster ride where the chancers taking your money not only walked the walk, they backed it up with innovative, amazing tunes that changed the way music was made forever.

“I’ve collected together the best in my personal opinion of the guitar bands, dance acts and synth groups that made up the soundtrack of that gloriously-thrilling decade for me and my friends, and some of its most memorable 12” remixes. and let me just state for the record, you’ll find no Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Duran Duran, Dire Straits or the like appearing on these discs.”

Those were exciting times, not least for a Surrey lad who’d not long since blown out 12 candles on his birthday cake when the ’80s arrived. I loved my radio and regularly heard Gary on the airwaves, listening in the garden on another sunny day (at least that’s what the memory tells me) or up in my bedroom, tuned into 194 on the medium waveband or 95.8 on VHF. I quickly understood the sentiment of The Clash’s derision at the less inspiring sounds coming from Euston Tower, but there were DJs within who proved exceptions to that supposed ‘in tune with nothing’ airplay policy, going that extra mile, not least that young gun Crowley.

There’s a great new film about him currently doing the rounds, The Life, Music and Hairstyles of Gary Crowley, shot and edited by Lee Cogswell, produced by Mark Baxter for Mono Media Films, which is responsible for many other similar projects, including those on or featuring Peter Blake, Tubby Hayes, LeRoy Hutson, John Simons, and Paul Weller. And that 12-minute film wastes no time getting to the heart of its subject, having me thinking about Gary’s own roots, growing up in South West London.

Early in our conversation, he told me he was blown away by early reaction to that film, not least the fact that his 13-year-old daughter had seen it and decided he was cool. Praise indeed from a young teen, although I may now have blown that status for him by mentioning it.

I didn’t want to go in too deep too soon, but on the subject of family, he mentioned in that documentary how his aunt bought him a transistor radio in time for the launch of Capital Radio, and how, when his parents split, he immersed himself in music. That’s something that seems to crop up a lot, I find, the example jumping out at me that of fellow London estate kid Mick Jones. Even if both were seemingly unaware of it at the time, ensconcing themselves in sounds proved crucial, a love of good tunes over-riding less healthy potential career moves.

“That’s right. It becomes an intuitive thing, doesn’t it. I’m now 57, while Mick is 63, and with kids in the ‘70s I think it was becoming a lot more common where parents were starting to split up. My daughter and her mother live in Copenhagen, and it is now – I guess – closer to the norm, but whether it’s music or something else, kids find another outlet, and hopefully it’s positive.”

Well, that’s true, think of Mick’s ‘Stay Free’, which kind of suggests The Clash guitarist’s life might have gone a different way.

Bench Mark: Gary Crowley shares with the world his rather eclectic new Edsel boxset compilation

“True, and my brother did for a little while. Nothing awful. Kids’ stuff really, just a few run-ins with the police. But thankfully he mended his ways, and music became my thing. And I pretty much lost myself in The Beatles for a couple of years before punk happened. And that was something my friends and I had in common in the mid-70s, and I think all of us were probably waiting for something like punk – bands a couple of years older than us of whom we could say, ‘This is ours!’”

I think what appealed to me about punk – and in my case I’m talking about catching up a little later – was that whole back-to-basics, DIY element, not least as someone who – like Gary – initially found a way of getting involved through the world of the self-published fanzine. In his case it was with The Modern World, a whole host of big names interviewed.

“Yeah, that whole ‘have a go’ attitude, and like you said it wasn’t something I analysed at the time – it was more of an intuitive thing. All these bands were coming through, and I don’t forget that I was incredibly lucky – brought up a stone’s throw from my school, and that was on Edgware Road, where I saw Joe Strummer go into the café there, and got an interview with him.

“This was the Metropolitan Café, sadly no more, so when we went to the fish and chippy to spend our money, I literally bumped into him. I said, ‘Oh my God! Listen, we’ve just started a punk fanzine, and Joe – would you be up for an interview?’ And I can only assume that he was impressed by my hutzpah! I got back to school, told a couple of pals, and then the word got around. This would have been early summer in ’77. I said, ‘Can I bring a friend’, and he said, ‘Of course’, but when word got around, I think seven or eight turned up from my school at (The Clash’s Camden HQ) Rehearsal Rehearsals. And bless his cottons, he couldn’t have been more welcoming.”

In the photograph I saw, I can’t work out if you’re wearing school uniform or a Jam suit.

“D’you know what, Malcolm, well spotted! It was a Jam suit but also masquerading as a school uniform. Money was incredibly tight, and there was no way I could have afforded the clothes from Sex or Seditionaries, or anything like that. You had to customise what you had really.”

Perhaps he could have nipped round to the workshop next door to The Clash, asking the mechanics there to sort him out a boiler suit with a spray can and hammer. But more to the point, Gary also managed to nip along to his local phone box and call Paul Weller, at that stage still living at home in Woking.

“Yes, that was on Bell Street. And it’s still there, right opposite my school, which during my time was Rutherford’s School, named after the physicist George Rutherford. The estate I lived on was literally a five or 10-minute walk from there, on the Lisson Green estate.”

Career Opportunities: Gary Crowley in his adapted school uniform, interviewing Joe Strummer at The Clash’s Rehearsal Rehearsals HQ in Camden for The Modern World fanzine

So he wasn’t far from the dole office where The Clash’s Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, with The Slits’ Viv Albertine, famously had a stare-out with Joe Strummer before approaching him to join their band. And as it turned out, that phone box more or less turned out to be his labour exchange, putting him on the road to an amazing career.

“I suppose so. I vividly remember seeing a couple of The Slits walking in there, and that would have been in ‘1977. And if you walk down from the school down Bell Street, past the phone box, towards that dole office, literally just before you get there there’s a little block where Steve Jones and Paul Cook lived. If you went one way you bumped into Joe Strummer and Mick Jones in the Metropolitan Café, and in the other direction you’ve got them.”

Looking back at your early fanzine covers, you interviewed the Sex Pistols too, didn’t you?

“Well, Steve and Paul did an interview for us, and I have a vivid memory – I remember this like it was yesterday – of coming out of school with a pal, walking slowly up past them. We knew they lived there so we’d change our way home. I found out later that this was the day – Paul Cook told me – the Sex Pistols signed to A&M Records. They were given a black limousine for the day to carry them around, and I remember this limo pulled up outside their flat, all four of them inside. It was like a cartoon, they fell out of this limo, looking very merry. It was like, ‘Bloody hell – it’s all four of them!’”

Amazing. Where I was – down the A3 – I felt happy enough just knowing The Stranglers had rehearsed in my village scout hut, that Jet Black once ran an off-licence in town and sent his band out selling ice cream from his fleet of vans, and that a couple of mates had spotted Vapors frontman Dave Fenton walk down into town, past our secondary school.

“Well, I’m not being irreverend here. Fucking hell, how lucky was I, in the middle of it all! My daughter was asking the other day how confident I must have been. But I wasn’t. I was shy, but knew if I didn’t pipe up, none of my mates would. We’d all just be standing there, kind of looking at the floor.”

I can sympathise. I would have been like that – far too shy, then regretting it for the next however many years.

“Well, do you know what, Malcolm – we were incredibly lucky, being so young, Joe Strummer, Tony James and Billy Idol probably thinking, ‘Who are these kids?’ But we had that enthusiasm, and I think that was incredibly beneficial.”

Fanzine Days: GC’s first break came via a number of big-name interviews in his punk fanzine

Meanwhile, my Dad was from Woking, my brother worked there, and my Nan still lived there, so when you reel off Paul Weller’s old Maybury phone number on that documentary, that makes me smile.

“I couldn’t believe I remembered that number – honestly! Maybury 64717!”

Gary’s first job from school was as a junior at Decca Records. And even that impresses me.

“Yeah, I was with Decca for about a year, then through working there – again incredibly luckily – I got offered Danny’s job (Danny Baker switching from answering the phones at the NME to becoming a staff writer there before his own move into broadcasting) and was on reception there for a year.

“Then, again very luckily – and that word keeps coming up – I got offered a job working for a very good friend, Clive Banks – and both him and his wife, Moira Bellas, remain so – this very successful independent radio and TV promotions man looking after press for the likes of The Who and Elvis Costello. I think what swung it for me was that he’d just taken on The Jam. He asked if I had a friend who’d like to come and work for him, and I said, ‘Well, I’d be interested!’ He thought I’d be happy enough at the NME.

“Through that I started getting offered a few bits and pieces on radio, and that was quite something at the time. I mean, someone with such a strong regional accent – that was very, very rare.”

True. I guess Janet Street-Porter paved the way, but I can’t think of anyone else with a strong accent presenting at the time.

“That ‘s right, and again it was all very fortuitous.”

At this point I tell Gary I have a clear memory of listening to him one baking hot Sunday afternoon in the early ‘80s, I’m guessing on Capital, possibly with Animal Nightlife or Working Week doing a live session for him, maybe an outside broadcast, and recall him announce, ‘If it’s too loud, you’re too old!’ For some reason that stayed with me. So is it too loud yet, all these years on?

“I honestly can’t remember that. Ha! But again, I keep saying this, to still be doing it and just about paying the bills … And the nice thing is that myself and one of my best pals, Jim (Lahat), got that chance to curate the punk and new wave boxset we did. That was a lovely thing to do, reflecting on that time in my life.

“Then I said to Ben, this lovely fella at Demon, ’Look, I’ve an idea for another thing and it hasn’t really been done yet. All these ‘80s compilations seem to feature invariably the same bands and same tracks. Would you be interested in something a little more personal, based on my memories, including some of the people I’ve known for a long time?’ So that was the kind of idea.”

Young Gun: Gary Crowley in his Magic younger days at London’s Capital Radio

I have to say that although I probably bought more records in the ‘80s than any other decade, and so many I still love, the term ’80s music equates to most people chiefly as the era of Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Kajagoogoo and Wham! And while I appreciate a few tracks by most of those bands, that’s not my ‘80s. But you’ve showcased a far healthier scene, including a few lesser-known tracks by some of those bands. Take for example Spandau Ballet. I loved ‘Chant No.1’, much as I disliked ‘True’ and ‘Gold’. And you’ve come up here with another fine track in ‘Confused’.

And that’s just part of the appeal. In a sense it’s about reappraising that era, bringing in great Scottish bands like The Associates, Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, and everyone from old punks Vic Godard and Pete Shelley to Altered Images, Bush Tetras, Grandmaster Flash and Haircut 100, as well as The Redskins, Tom Tom Club and 23 Skidoo.

At time of going to press I’d only heard an 18-track sampler, a mix of tracks I knew and loved and a few more that were new to me. But looking down the track listing, I also see other old favourites like Carmel, the Pale Fountains, Pigbag, Prefab Sprout, The Questions, The Staple Singers, Strawberry Switchblade, and Was (Not Was). It’s hardly the accepted MTV vision of that decade.

“Well, that word ‘personal’ I suppose is important – that’s what I tried to do with it really. When I look back to that first Spandau album, there’s about two or three tracks I really love. I remember seeing them very early on, and ‘Confused’ will always stand out for me.

“Chris Sullivan (author, journalist and Wag Club founder) makes a point about the ‘80s and how a lot of people who were in bands at that time would have grown up listening to the radio in the ‘60s and ‘70s, so their influences were classic songwriters like Holland/Dozier/Holland or Marriott and Lane, Bacharach and David, Lennon and McCartney, and so on. They had a good pop ear, I suppose.

“And a girl in her early 20s working for Demon sent me a lovely message this morning, saying she really enjoyed the documentary, and how she’d grown up in that era. Yet, back then I was always wishing I’d grown up in the ‘60s. I guess the grass is always greener.”

That said, I’m glad you didn’t carry on down the rap line, judging by that on-air clip of you guesting with pioneering US hip-hop combo The World’s Famous Supreme Team at Capital.

“I know! Again, when I saw that, I thought, ‘Oh, my God!’ And what am I wearing when I’m coming out of the estate?”

He’s got a point. I won’t try and describe the look. Judge for yourself by watching the film. I was however wondering if he was wearing plus-fours or if he was just about to get on his bike, presumably locked up in a stairwell somewhere.

Pop Pickers: Gary Crowley takes on the old guard, with Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman in his Capital Radio days

“Yeah, I’d just tucked my trousers in! It was my kind of Postcard look, I suppose.”

Speaking of which, you’re up against some stiff boxset competition, including another compilation from Cherry Red, Big Gold Dreams, featuring some great Scottish music.

“How weird is it that it comes out at the same time? Yes, it’s a great compilation, and Cherry Red seem to be able to turn these round really quickly. I really enjoyed their Harmony in My Head compilation too, but end up thinking, ‘I hope I haven’t got the same tracks,’ because I loved a lot of those bands. The Bluebells I was particularly close to, as they signed a publishing deal with Clive (Banks). I met Roddy (Frame) and Edwyn (Collins) around that time too, but sadly couldn’t get Orange Juice on this compilation, because of the rights.”

I note it was the same with The Smiths on an Ace compilation I featured recently, Manchester – A City United in Music. But you at least have Dream Academy doing ‘Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want’.

“That’s right, and I always loved that version. The one I also wanted, from the days I used to DJ a lot, was the ‘This Charming Man’ New York version (a club hit by DJ Francois Kevorkian from December 1983). I believe Morrissey hated that, but I loved it.”

Out of interest, if there was an Orange Juice track on this boxset, what would it be?

“The one I wanted, again a big one for me, was ‘I Can’t Help Myself’. I could have gone for something from the Postcard years, but always loved the poppiness of that, a big radio song for me back then.”

And while I’m at it, what was the first record you ever bought?

Style Counselling: Gary Crowley takes a little advice from Mick Talbot and Paul Weller

“Single-wise, with my own money, it was ‘Rain’ by Status Quo, and my first album would have been The Jam’s In the City. As schoolfriends, into The Beatles, we’d lend each other records, so I got a couple of their records off my aunt and uncle – my Dad’s younger brother. I’ve still got the Jam one, but not the Quo single.”

Of all the interviews you’ve conducted over the years, TV and radio, could you list off the top of your head a top-three?

“Yeah, number one, easy-peasy, Paul McCartney, as a massive Beatles fan. Again, what a joy! He had a lovely PR fella, Geoff Baker, around the time of the Run Devil Run album …”

Ah, I love that album.

“Me too. We were invited – me and my producer – to interview him at MPL, Soho Square, and honestly, Malcolm, if I went to the toilet once, I must have gone about 20 times! But he couldn’t have been more hospitable. Geoff said afterwards – because I think we were with him for about 45 minutes – ‘Gary, he likes you. You almost got double the time.’

“Second, definitely, Jack Lemmon. I love my films, and he’s one of my favourite actors, and again … to be in that man’s company. That was only 15/20 minutes, but fucking hell!”

At that point he breaks off, telling me he’ll give it proper thought before texting a third choice, and we talked about his My London interview series, now sadly finished, although he’s hopeful it may return one day. That would be good. Then he interrupts.

“Hang on – I am going to tell you my third choice – Sian Phillips, the actress. That was from My London and she was just the most beautiful, classiest person, everything I wanted her to be and more. Really engaged, and what a life!”

Thinking of that and all the others on your interview list over the years, from Jenny Agutter and Mel Brooks, and right through the alphabet, surely your 19-year-old self would have been beside himself at all those you got to spend a little precious time with.

“Well, yeah. Look at some of the photos and you’ll see I can’t help but look like the cat that got the canary! And having this opportunity to interview people you want to meet has become increasingly rare, so I’m very fortunate to have had that.”

Our London: Gary Crowley with Sir Peter Blake, one of many high-profile guests on long-running success, My London

Yep, this inner London kid hasn’t done so bad. And it all started in Marylebone for you, didn’t it?

“Yeah, we moved around a bit, but the bulk of my formative years were on the Lisson Green estate, between there and Paddington really.”

And have you strayed far from there since?

“No, not at all – the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. I live in Maida Vale now.”

But you still don’t possess a legit pair of plus-fours?

“No, thank fuck! Ha!”

Top Ranking: Gary Crowley in the zone, live and direct, then as now

Gary Crowley will be out and about in May for screenings of The Life, Music and Hairstyles of Gary Crowley, followed by a Q&A and signing session for his two acclaimed compilations, both available to buy on the night. The events are on Thursday, May 23rd at Hotel Pelirocco, Brighton (tickets here) and on Thursday, May 30th at The Fiery Bird, Woking (tickets here).

Gary Crowley’s Lost ‘80s (Edsel, 2019) track listing:

CD1

  1. Vic Godard – Stop That Girl
  2. The Pale Fountains – (There’s Always) Something On My Mind
  3. Haircut 100 – Milk Film
  4. Aztec Camera – Pillar To Post
  5. The Bluebells – Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool
  6. Johnny Britton – Happy-Go-Lucky Girls
  7. Prefab Sprout – Lions in My Own Garden (Exit Someone)
  8. Fantastic Something – If She Doesn’t Smile (It’ll Rain)
  9. The Suede Crocodiles – Stop The Rain
  10. Friends Again – Honey At The Core
  11. Strawberry Switchblade – Trees And Flowers
  12. April Showers – Abandon Ship
  13. A Craze – Wearing Your Jumper
  14. Paul Quinn – Ain’t That Always The Way
  15. Hurrah! – Sweet Sanity
  16. The Dream Academy – Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want

CD2

  1. Bush Tetras – Too Many Creeps
  2. Bow Wow Wow – Mickey Put It Down
  3. Theatre of Hate – Do You Believe In The West World?
  4. The Apollinaires – The Feeling’s Gone
  5. The Redskins – Keep On Keeping On
  6. Carmel – More More More
  7. JoBoxers – Is This Really The First Time You’ve Been In Love
  8. Makin’ Time – Feels Like It’s Love
  9. Hey! Elastica- This Town
  10. Fashion – Streetplayer (Mechanik)
  11. The Main T Posse – Fickle Public Speakin’
  12. The Associates – 18 Carat Love Affair
  13. Spandau Ballet – Confused
  14. Matt Fretton – It’s So High
  15. Depeche Mode – Shake The Disease
  16. Paul Haig – Running Away
  17. The Questions – Tuesday Sunshine (Jock Mix)
  18. The Kane Gang – Brother Brother
  19. Sunset Gun – Be Thankful For What You’ve Got
  20. Altered Images – Love To Stay

CD3

  1. Wham! – A Ray Of Sunshine
  2. Grandmaster Flash – The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel
  3. Tom Tom Club – Genius Of Love
  4. The Jellies – Jive Baby On A Saturday Night
  5. I Level – Give Me [U.S. Remix]
  6. Jimmy Young – Times Are Tight
  7. Whodini – Magic’s Wand
  8. Blue Rondo à la Turk – Klacto Vee Sedstein
  9. Culture Club – I’m Afraid Of Me [Extended Dance Mix]
  10. Pigbag – The Big Bean
  11. Monyaka – Go Deh Yaka
  12. 23 Skidoo – Coup
  13. Funkapolitan – If Only
  14. The Staple Singers – Slippery People [Club Version]
  15. Matt Bianco – Matt’s Mood

CD4

  1. Bananarama- Aie A Mwana [U.S. Extended Version]
  2. Intaferon – GetoutofLondon [Intacontinentalballisticmix]
  3. Pete Shelley – Homosapien [Dance Version]
  4. Quando Quango – Genius
  5. Was (Not Was) – (Return To The Valley Of) Out Come The Freaks [Extended Remix]
  6. Defunkt – The Razor’s Edge
  7. Chic – Hangin’ [12 Inch]
  8. Gang Of Four – I Love A Man In A Uniform [Extended]
  9. Animal Magnet – Welcome To The Monkey House
  10. Fun Boy Three – The Alibi [Extended Mix]
  11. Brilliant – It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World [Extended]
  12. Morgan McVey – Looking Good Diving With The Wild Bunch

Brick Lane: Gary Crowley, looking back and yet still heading forward, all these years on

LP1 – The Jingly Jangley LP (A1. Vic Godard – Stop That Girl; A2. The Pale Fountains – (There’s Always) Something On My Mind; A3. Haircut 100 – Milk Film; A4. Aztec Camera – Pillar To Post; A5. The Bluebells – Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool; A6. Prefab Sprout – Lions in My Own Garden (Exit Someone); B1. Fantastic Something – If She Doesn’t Smile (It’ll Rain); B2. The Suede Crocodiles – Stop The Rain; B3. Friends Again – Honey At The Core; B4. Strawberry Switchblade – Trees And Flowers; B5. April Showers – Abandon Ship; B6. Paul Quinn – Ain’t That Always The Way).

LP2 – Fuck Art Let’s Dance (C1. Bush Tetras – Too Many Creeps; C2. Bow Wow Wow – Mickey Put It Down; C3. The Apollinaires – The Feeling’s Gone; C4. The Redskins – Keep On Keeping On; C5. JoBoxers – Is This Really The First Time You’ve Been In Love; D1. Hey! Elastica- This Town; D2. Spandau Ballet – Confused; D3. Depeche Mode – Shake The Disease; D4. Paul Haig – Running Away; D5. Altered Images – Love To Stay). 

LP3 – Dance This Mess Around (E1. Wham! – A Ray Of Sunshine; E2. Grandmaster Flash – The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel; E3. Tom Tom Club – Genius Of Love; E4. Whodini – Magic’s Wand [Special Extended Mix]; F1. Blue Rondo à la Turk – Klacto Vee Sedstein; F2. Pigbag – The Big Bean; F3. Funkapolitan – If Only; F4. The Staple Singers – Slippery People [Club Version]). 

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Glenn Tilbrook / Charlie Austen – Clitheroe, The Grand

Grand Setting: Clitheroe’s The Grand, the nearby parking spaces taken up by Glenn’s motorhome

With the A59 submerged in places that afternoon, there was a worry that we might not even reach Clitheroe on Saturday night. But if Glenn Tilbrook could get across from a Newcastle Opera House date with Wilko Johnson in that beast of a motorhome of his, it was clearly possible.

To paraphrase Squeeze lyricist Chris Difford on Glenn’s set opener, he came across from Tyneside to greet us with a smile, and by the time we reached York Street he’d taken up several spaces outside the venue, a great night ahead of us in the company of the 61-year-old South-East Londoner and support act, Charlie Austen.

I was playing Nine Below Zero’s 13 Shades of Blue through the puddles on the way over, that 2016 LP recorded at Glenn’s 45 rpm studio in Charlton, with Charlie guesting on two great tracks. What’s more, she’s back there with former WriteWyattUK interviewee Dennis Greaves’ outfit between live engagements right now, a new LP expected later this year.

She also sings and plays bass for DIY indie outfit Lux Lisbon, and as well as a number of dates with Glenn, supports Bryan Ferry this summer. Her star is ascending, and rightly so judging by her short set at The Grand, an artist described as a purveyor of ‘finger-picking folk-soul music with carefully-crafted lyrics and a blues-infused vocal’ well received.

Respect to the audience there too. Many a time I see crowds talk (loudly) over a support act, but there were enough taking it all in here, and that must help increase an artiste’s confidence.

A couple of songs in, she explained the ’Charlie Austen Music’ light box at her side, possibly not so much an aide-memoire as a way to distinguish herself from the similarly-named Southampton striker. Besides, she reckons she plays more often, prone as he is to injury (and suspension).

Lightbox Troubadour: Charlie Austen in live action

A winning smile and easy between-song banter help, while Charlie’s fret and vocal work – the tracks ‘Slave to Chemistry’ and ‘Traces of You’ standing out – impress. I’d like to think we’ll hear more of her soon.

On the subject of the headliner, as my co-traveller and fellow long-time Squeeze fan Jim put it on the night, you know what you’re getting with GT. That’s not to say he’s a safe option. His set is unpredictable, and he’s hardly likely to trot out tired identikit versions of the same songs (great as they are) every night. But you’re guaranteed entertainment from a gifted guitarist and master singer-songwriter who still has such a great voice, four decades after emerging on the scene.

It took me until the Some Fantastic Place tour in late ’93 to finally see Squeeze live (Jim was well ahead in that respect, catching them at Salford Uni in late ’79), and I first caught Glenn on his own at Manchester’s Hop and Grape seven years later, preceding his debut solo LP. And he never disappoints.

The sound was great, clearer than for his support role with Wilko Johnson at Warrington Parr Hall two weeks before, the clarity of his guitar runs spot on. He started with Squeeze’s debut 45, ‘Take Me, I’m Yours’, now 41 years old, then 2004’s solo album Transatlantic Ping Pong lead track ‘Untouchable’ (how was that never a hit?) and the sublime ‘Is That Love?’, the benchmark truly set.

A co-write with son Leon, ‘Schadenfreude’, was next, one of two tracks aired from Trussell Trust EP fundraiser, ‘Against UK Poverty and Hunger‘, then from his Fluffers’ LP, Pandemonium Ensues, we had a song about Tilbrook home life a decade ago, ‘Little Ships’.

I was impressed by his take on ‘(There Is) Always Something There to Remind Me’ in Warrington, and this time it sounded even better, the spirit of Sandie Shaw already channelled by fellow oft-barefooted performer Charlie Austen.

Trust Fundraiser: Glenn Tilbrook’s Trussell Trust EP

From 2004 there was ‘Hostage’, then from 1981 a crowd-pleasing ‘Labelled with Love’, the band and solo selections continuing with the impressive Ben Jones-penned ‘Other World’ and the mighty ‘Up the Junction’, always a delight.

At that point he swapped acoustic for electric guitar, two 2015 Squeeze tracks following, ‘Nirvana’ and ‘Cradle to the Grave’, from the album of the same name. Again, I’d heard him tackle Dave Edmunds’ ‘I Hear You Knocking’ before, and it works so well, memories of early Fleetwood Mac following on Squeeze’s ‘Albatross’ from last year’s Squeeze LP The Knowledge, then a cover of the Peter Green-led ‘Oh Well’.

Further EP track, ‘0-60’ got a good reaction, and he was again note-perfect with voice and guitar on the tricky ‘Hourglass’, impressively duetting with himself. And talking of Squeeze reworks, ‘Tempted’ was commendably constructed by this one-man Squeeze jukebox, the audience in good voice too, late-50s Huey ‘Piano’ Smith rock’n’roller ‘Sea Cruise’ following.

Glenn has a reputation for inviting all manner of fans up on stage, my travelling companion among them before now (taking on ‘The Truth’ and ‘Crowded House’s ‘Weather With You’), and we winced as two eager audience members joined him on ‘Cool for Cats’, Chris Difford’s role played first by a female suddenly all too aware of what she’d taken on, bowing out after a couple of lines, then a fella who soldiered through, doing well with the words (albeit with prompts from Glenn), even if performing in a key all his own.

From there we had ‘Piccadilly’ from East Side Story, then a mighty closing run, ‘Another Nail in My Heart’, ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ and ‘Pulling Mussels From the Shell’ prompting more raised glasses and crowd singalongs.

There was enough time for 2009’s ‘Still’ before rapturously-received finale, ‘Goodbye Girl’, our distinguished visitor back where he started, in 1978. We half expected an encore, but on reflection there was no need. I looked around to find him, but he’d gone … to sign this and that in the foyer, seeimngly as fresh as he was at nine. And there’s stamina for you.

Solo Stint: Glenn Tilbrook, still on the road, 45 years after answering that sweet shop ad placed by Chris Difford.

For all the latest from Charlie Austen, head to her website and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

Glenn Tilbrook’s solo tour, with Charlie Austen supporting on each date, next calls at: St Mary Magdalene Church, Cobham – March 21; Revelation, Ashford – March 22; The Pavilion, Hailsham – March 23; Komedia, Bath – March 28; Acapela, Cardiff – March 29; St Mary’s Parish Church, Kingskerswell – March 31; The Wharf, Tavistock – April 2; Lighthouse, Poole – April 3; St John The Evangelist Church, Oxford – April 5.

Glenn’s also supporting Wilko Johnson’s band at: Yarm Princess Alexandra Auditorium – April 11; Stockton Queen’s Hall – April 12; Edinburgh Fibbers, York – April 13; Junction, Cambridge – April 25; Tramshed, Cardiff – April 26; Town Hall, Cheltenham – April 27. For more ainformation, head to his website and keep in touch via FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

Food donated at venues during all Glenn’s dates this year (including the Wilko Johnson dates) will be collected and distributed to the nearest Trussell Trust foodbank, offering nutritionally-balanced, non-perishable tinned and dried foods. Items in a typical food parcel are cereal, soup, pasta, rice, tinned tomatoes/pasta sauce, lentils, beans and pulses, tinned meat, tinned vegetables, tea/coffee, tinned fruit, biscuits, UHT milk and fruit juice. If possible, check with local foodbanks to see what supplies are needed.

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Fisherman’s Friends / Sunderland Crew – Morecambe, The Platform

The Platform: Morecambe Promenade station has played host to a live venue since its mid-1990s closure.

There was a storm brewing in the Irish Sea last Friday as we parked on the blustery prom at Morecambe and headed across the road from the Midland Hotel to The Platform.

It was the sort of night you thank your lucky stars you’re not out there in the bay, a sentiment both the headline and support acts could appreciate.

It’s a venue I’d never visited before, but I’ll certainly be back. I mean, live music and railway heritage (the Edwardian Promenade station closed to passengers in 1994, around the time the Fisherman’s Friends first sang in public) – what’s not to love?

I barely had time to start necking my Lancaster Blonde before the Sunderland Crew walked on. And that involved a lot of feet (I’d hate to pay for their rider) – this shanty collective hunting in a pack, the giveaway to their presence the rows of empty seats with jumpers on the back, saving their places for later.

If you’re heading over the causeway to atmospheric, characterful Sunderland Point and they’re coming the other way, I’d run if I was you. Not because they might have you in a fight, but because they probably known the tide tables better than most of us.

It was only a short set, but the fact that they share some of their numbers with the main act possibly gave them setlist headaches. They gave a good account of themselves though, and I’d happily catch them again, hopefully at an outdoor home gig, with pint in hand and the tide out.

There was no call for neckerchiefs and band T-shirts for our Port Isaac visitors, themselves admitting a little song thievery over the years, yet insistent on shorter, faster versions (‘FF-ing it up’, as they put it).

They started as a 10-piece, but lately they’ve been down to eight, and on this occasion there were six Friends – with no John B (just the boat of the same name), no Lefty, and no Billy, who that week announced he was stepping down for family reasons.

But don’t think for one moment that means they were firing on fewer cylinders. If anything, there was even more of a presence. Besides, there was a neat replacement in Pete, the only local with a starring role in the film of the same name, the others reckoning they failed the audition while his acting credentials secured his place, his voice good enough to be part of the real deal too (does that make him an able seaman?).

The instantly-recognisable Jon Cleave got them off to a trademark ‘rollocking, bollocking, saucy, bawdy, fruity, jolly-rogering’ start with a drop of ‘Nelson’s Blood’, and there was no turning back from there over two full-on sets, their 22-song salvo bringing a taste of the Atlantic Coast to this North West outpost.

I was going to call Cleavie – the moustachioed maestro with the booming bass voice on our left side – the MC, but we got as much lip from Jeremy on the opposite wing, opening his lead vocal account with ‘Stormalong John’, the first of many choices from last year’s Sole Mates.

There was plenty of input from the ‘outsiders’ too, Leeds-born Johnny Mac sneaking across the border to reprise the early days on ‘Roll the Woodpile Down’ before younger recruit Toby’s poignant ‘Leave Her Johnny, Leave Her’ and fellow Padstow lad Jason’s ‘The Mermaid’.

We also had JC’s inuendo-heavy ‘Sugar in the Hold’ before Jeremy took us to the South Seas for ‘Rolling Down to Old Maui’ then Jason and his accordion got shore leave at ‘Yarmouth Town’.

There was local-ish colour too, Toby treating us to ‘The Leaving of Liverpool’, although Cleavie was worried they’d ‘delighted, entranced and pleasured’ us too soon, ‘Sloop John B’ signalling an interval.

The queue at the bar was ominous, but you have to work at a thirst when the Friends are in town, and they were soon back – bottles of Tribute at their feet – with ‘Blow the Man Down’.

Sole Stirrer: Fisherman’s Friends’ Jon Cleave meets the reviewer at The Platform, Morecambe

Cleavie filled in those who didn’t know the band story with a recap of how they were ‘discovered, although we didn’t even know we were lost’, and how their debut major label release became the largest-selling folk album ever (although Jeremy reckons it still only sold 25 copies).

If the band have a signature tune, I guess it’s the mighty ‘No Hopers, Jokers and Rogues’ from that record, a rousing reception following from the good folk of North Lancs before Johnny Mac introduced us to the ‘Sweet Ladies of Plymouth’.

A plug followed for the movie based on their story, something Jon C joked made a change from documentaries about in-breeding. Yet while promising a film in the feelgood traditions of The Full Monty and Calendar Girls, he stressed there’d be no nudity on this occasion.

This celebrated buoy band were on form with their harmonies all night, not least on ‘Keep Hauling’ from the film soundtrack, while ‘Billy O’Shea’ and ‘God Moves on the Water’ (about the Titanic) kept up the momentum.

The band ran their colours up the mast with a life-affirming ‘Union of Different Kinds’, their resident Yorkshireman again impressing on a hymn to old-fashioned hands across water diplomacy, rather than a call for walls and xenophobic tendencies.

A band of international appeal’s next port of call was stateside with ‘Oh You New York Girls’, then they set sail on ‘The Bonny Ship the Diamond’ whaler, with hardly a dry boat in the sea during a heartfelt finale, the Friends doing Devonian Steve Knightley (of Show of Hands fame) proud on alternative Cornish anthem ‘Cousin Jack’.

Having taken the applause and raised their glasses, there was no reason to leave the stage before the encore, a rousing JC-led ‘(What Shall We Do With) The Drunken Sailor?’ followed by Jeremy having us bound for ‘South Australia’, heaving away and hauling away for all they were worth.

It was hardly ‘Cheers and gone’ though, every man Jack and John remaining an hour or so later, chatting and signing anything that came their way with far-flung fans. And I reckon they’ll be back in these parts dreckly enough.

Cast Away: Fisherman's Friends prepare to leave Port Isaac and head up around Wales, bound for Morecambe Bay

Cast Away: Fisherman’s Friends prepare to leave Port Isaac and head up around Wales, bound for Morecambe Bay

For this website’s feature/interview with Fisherman’s friends’ Jeremy Brown, published on March 8th, 2019, head here.

 

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Further strings to the bow – back in touch with Gretchen Peters

Impressive Setting: Gretchen Peters and her band at Glasgow’s Cottiers Theatre, a converted church

It seems that she’s hardly been back in Nashville a few weeks, but American singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters is set to return to the UK – her ‘second home’ – next month for a rather special, potentially one-off tour.

This time, the Queen of Country Noir, with 12 studio albums to her name, and her regular band – led by her other half and long-time musical partner, Barry Walsh – will be joined by The Southern Fried String Quartet, their Strings Attached tour promising to be another winner from an artist whose star has certainly been in the ascendency in recent years.

Following two American Music Association Awards for 2015’s rightly-lauded Blackbirds (including Best International Album), her 2018 release, Dancing With the Beast, marked another career high, blending shades of country-rock, indie-folk and Southern gothic, all cut through with that smokily-honeyed voice.

And this, her latest all-theatre tour, will feature selections from those albums and several other greatest hits, all performed with strings, as first heard as part of the Celtic Connections festival earlier this year.

You may recently have spotted Gretchen – who has written for the likes of Neil Diamond and Shania Twain, and co-written and performed with Bryan Adams before now – and her band feature in a BBC Scotland broadcast filmed at a Celtic Connections show in Glasgow.

There were also dates on that early-year visit with the Transatlantic Sessions Band, her fellow artistes including Cara Dillon, Tim O’Brien, Molly Tuttle, Paul McKenna, Jerry Douglas, Aly Bain and Danny Thompson. Those dates started at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall and also took in London’s The Barbican, Gateshead’s The Sage, Cambridge’s Corn Exchange, and Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.

When we spoke, she was between Manchester and that evening’s show at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, talking from the tour bus, that night followed by a mini-tour finale at Derry’s Millennium Forum (‘what a way to go out’ she told me). And how was the Bridgewater Hall?

“I think it was my favourite night of the tour so far, really lovely – a stunning venue, an incredible crowd, and so much fun.”

The televised Celtic Connections show (from the Cottiers Theatre in Glasgow’s West End) looked interesting, from the brief highlights I saw.

“Yeah, we did a really lovely venue – an old, converted church. I didn’t actually know that when I chose the songs, but one we chose was ‘Say Grace’, and in that setting it was just so perfect.”

Frequent Flyer: Gretchen Peters, back in the UK very soon

I found the Transatlantic Sessions TV series compulsive viewing. Although I have comparatively little Irish heritage I know about (a few per cent of my DNA), my punk beginnings with The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers and early appreciation of Thin Lizzy led to a wider trawl that took me in time to catch on to Van Morrison, The Pogues, and so much more.

I also recall a joint BBC and RTE series on TV here in 1991 called Bringing It All Back Home which truly resonated, featuring the likes of Elvis Costello, The Everly Brothers, Hothouse Flowers, Emmylou Harris, Mary Black, Dolores Keane, Mary Coughlan, The Waterboys, and so on. Then there was 1996’s Common Ground compilation, involving the likes of Tim and Neil Finn, Kate Bush, Christy Moore, and so on. I guess what I’m saying is that so much of what I love is shot through with those Celtic connections.

“Well, the thing is that all the threads are inter-connected, and I think you realise that when you delve into that type of music you’re brought up on. It’s kind of the same thing from me growing up in the northern United States. I never heard country music, but when I did hear it, I knew it was a close relative to folk music, which I grew up with. And that’s the thing that’s beautiful about the Transatlantic Sessions. It’s a sort of living representation of that on stage every night.”

How about your own heritage? You were born in New York and raised in Boulder, Colorado. How far back does that US link go with your family roots?

“Actually, they come back to England. My father’s side of the family was in America before it was the United States, in the 1600s, but I can trace his side directly back to England – pretty much 100 per cent. And on my Mum’s side there’s the usual mixture you get with Americans – a little bit English, a little bit German, a little bit French.

“But my father always had a really strong emotional tie to England. He was stationed near Peterborough during the war, and all his life he loved England, came here a lot, so I always felt there was some kind of ancestral pull.”

So when you played Cambridge’s Corn Exchange on this tour, you weren’t so far off.

“No, and on a previous tour I had enough time to go to the airfield where my Dad was stationed, and I found that an absolutely haunting experience. He was near a little town called Oundle (RAF Polebrook, which was designated USAAF 110), and I went to the pub and to the church, where there was a little section devoted to the American guys who were stationed there.

“My Dad was shot down on his 13th mission, so standing there on that airfield – which is now abandoned – and imagining him taking off in his B-17, to be shot down over the North Sea …

Never Forget: The USAAF memorial on the former RAF Polebrook airfield (Photo: https://www.geograph.org.uk/)

“That was his last mission. He was rescued, and they took him off active duty after that. He went back to the States and was training pilots, but that was a central event of his life, and I wrote a song about that, called ‘The Aviator’s Song’.”

That’s on 2004’s Halcyon. and well worth checking out. And did Gretchen get a proper chance to talk to him about all those experiences? Or did he shut it all away, as was so often the case with veterans?

“I did. He was not like a lot of men of his generation that wouldn’t talk about it. He would if you asked him, and in fact I had the presence of mind to interview him on video for the grandkids, and presumably for their kids, so we could preserve his story.”

So you’re busy for a couple of months back home and then you’re back with us again. And I reckon you must have your own private room on standby at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester (where I caught Gretchen in May 2018, as reviewed here) by now.

“Ha ha! Well, that would be nice!”

The Strings Attached itinerary is billed as a unique, one-off tour, reprising the Celtic Connections appearance in Glasgow, with your regular band plus The Southern Fried String Quartet. Tell me more.

“Well, we did a show with these four wonderful Scottish women who play in a string quartet – two violins, cello and viola. And the first time we did it was at the Southern Fried Festival in Perth in July. And it was so much fun and people loved it so much that we thought immediately we had to do this again.

“So we’ve put a tour together and we’re doing it with the string quartet and my band, and the lovely thing about the strings part of it – aside from the fact that it deepens the music so much with the sound they make – is that we play a real cross-section of my entire song catalogue, all the way back to the beginning to right now. We have 10 songs which we have string charts written for, and they stand the entire 23 years. Whereas most of the time in recent years I’ve been touring a new album and doing lots of new songs, this is going to be much more of a cross-section of everything.”

And might there be a live album to tie in with all this?

“We’re hoping so, and we’re going to try and record some of the shows. We’ll certainly be hoping we get some great results. It’s really a whole different dimension when you add a string quartet.”

Touring Again: Gretchen Peters, her band and the Southern Fried String Quartet will be calling by soon.

So do you manage to be creative on the road after all this time, making the most of that spare time you have between shows?

“I do, but I have to say it’s still not that easy. It’s not even so much the time management. What you’re doing when you’re touring is all sort of outward directed, And when I’m trying to write is so much about going inwards that it’s really hard to turn on a dime like that.

“I try and take care of myself on the road – that’s really the most important thing. I never seem to get enough rest. But it seems to have worked out. My writing output has stayed basically the same since I started, and whether I was writing daily or I did what I call binge writing – having a few weeks off and writing every day – I still end up writing the same amount of songs.”

Are you a note scribbler when it comes to new songs, or is it a case of a strum and a chord sequence, or a tinkling with Barry’s piano (so to speak)?

“Ha! I’m more about, when I get the first inkling of an idea, I’m generally more about a title or a line or even a concept. It usually starts with words for me.”

So are there new songs in the can from this first mini-tour of the year, ready to be honed in the studio on your return?

“Just little glimmers – they’re little fireflies in a jar at this point. They’re not real songs. The thing I do on the road that I am able to do is catch ideas and write them down and squirrel them away. The thing I’m not able to do is flesh them out, finish and edit them. That’s really a kind of hammer and nails aspect of it, and that’s the thing that really requires that downtime.”

Dropping By: Gretchen Peters at the Cottiers Theatre in Glasgow’s West End on their early 2019 visit, with Barry Walsh, left, and Conor McCreanor

Gretchen Peters’ Strings Attached tour this April takes in visits to Durham Gala Theatre (13th), Whitby Pavilion (14th), Manchester Royal Northern College of Music (16th), Sheffield City Hall Ballroom (17th), Bristol St George’s Hall (19th), London Cadogan Hall (20th), Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion (22nd), and Bury St Edmunds The Apex (23rd). That will be followed by seven European dates, then a UK finale at Edinburgh Queen’s Hall on May 5th. For more details head to her website and follow her via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

This is the third WriteWyattUK feature/interview with Gretchen Peters, following those (follow the links) in May 2018 and February 2015.

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Sailing at Eight Bells with Fisherman’s Friends – in conversation with Jeremy Brown

Cliff Edge: Fisherman’s Friends, heading your way (possibly) in 2019.

As Fisherman’s Friends, the original sole men and Cornwall’s best-known occasionally off-shore musical export, head back out on tour, it was high time I hollered ‘Ahoy there’ to arguably their second most recognisable singer, Jeremy Brown.

The so-called ‘nemesis of the lobster’ and former captain of the Free Spirit II, was in his beloved Port Isaac, North Cornwall, when he called, enjoying a few days at home before getting back in the van with his shanty-singing mates to play more dates with his long-in-the-tooth buoy band.

And I started out on home ground – or at least home waters – asking the man with the ‘hurricane-proof quiff’, one of three Brown boys (the Brothers Grim, according to the group’s MC, Jon Cleave) who formed a fifth generation of Port Isaac family fisherfolk (‘it goes back as far as anyone can remember’, he confirmed), if his 18th and 19th century forefathers had ever been tempted to follow the pilchard shoal further West during those boom years.

If that sounded a rather off-centre question, I should qualify it by telling you we’d started by talking about how my Cornish holidays are currently confined to school holidays, along with the ‘emmets’, around and about my family haunts in St Ives. But apparently that’s not for the Browns.

“Like when you support a football team, once you’ve been born in Port Isaac, you tend to stick with it through thick and thin.

“My son’s now taken over the fishing operation. He’s bought the boat from me, and says it’s easier at Falmouth or Penzance or Newlyn, and it is, undoubtedly, but what are you gonna do? Do you really want to live down there? And we always come back to the same conclusion that actually we’ve just got to suck it up.”

And why not, it’s a beautiful setting, even when it’s full of tourists from upcountry looking for Martin Clunes, in a location also known as Portwenn to viewers of TV drama Doc Martin. But enough about that. Has Jeremy’s lad Tom got a voice on him as well?

“Yeah, he has, and I try and encourage him to sing. A few band members have got children who have good voices, and they’re not so embarrassed, although they initially were. They’re getting into it a bit more now, enjoying it.”

Major Debut: The album that saw the band truly cross over

Major Debut: The album that saw the band truly cross over

While the Fisherman’s Friends story properly started in 1995 – and you could go back even further to pub singalongs in the late ‘80s, by all accounts – matters escalated in 2010 when music producer Rupert Christie saw them singing down by the harbour, on the Platt (just as they had done for many years previously) and liked what he saw, leading to a major recording deal, the resultant Universal debut LP, Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends leading them to become the first traditional folk act to make the UK album chart top-10, that record going on to sell 150,000 copies.

So there they were, 10 working folk (and now an eight-piece) and ‘gentlemen of a certain age’ from a tiny fishing community suddenly entering the realms of rock ‘n’ roll. That said, they appear unchanged from all their adventures, in what they see as something of a ‘riches to rags’ tale. And even when they were presented with gold discs on breakfast TV, they assumed their manager had made them on his kitchen table at home for a laugh.

But while things have settled down in more recent times, you can expect another spike in popularity when a Fisherman’s Friends biopic hits UK cinemas next weekend, based on their story, starring Tuppence Middleton, Danny Mays, James Purefoy and Noel Clarke. Have the band all seen it yet?

“Yeah, we’ve seen the film, up in London. We were up that way, singing, and had a special screening over in Soho of around 40 people. Our management were very nervous, wondering what the hell they were going to do if we didn’t like it. But actually we just sat back and enjoyed the film, for what it was, sort of forgot, and weren’t critical about any of it.”

Did you recognise yourself among the characters?

“The thing is that there are 10 in the group, as there were for us initially, and what they’ve got is four main actors that take on all the speaking parts of the group, while the six other guys kind of make up the numbers – they sing and look the part. So really the four main actors are a mish-mash of all of us, put into four. But there is a good-looking fisherman in the band so obviously that’s me!”

I believe it was filmed last May. Were there any cameos?

“No, we were a bit self-conscious in front of the cameras.”

The clip I’ve seen, from the trailer, suggests there’s a fictional take on the moment you were offered a record deal. The real thing must have been equally comical and a little bewildering.

“It was funny. The guy who plays Danny (actor Daniel Mays) based him on Ian Brown, who still manages us, who said, ‘We’re going to have a bit of fun with this, I don’t think anyone’s going to get rich, but we’re going to make a record.’ So it’s not far off the truth to be honest. We did sort of rock back when he said that. We were having a pint outside at Port Isaac. And where they recorded that is the Golden Lion, our local pub, our preferred place to go and sing.”

As well as signing to Island, they became the subject of an ITV documentary, sang for the Queen’s diamond jubilee, and performed to many thousands, including prestigious festival shows and folk award recognition. But life still goes on back home between engagements, and when not singing with his boy band, Jeremy helps run Just Shellfish, the crab and lobster they catch cooked by the Crabbie Girls, including his wife and daughter.

There’s also a side-venture with his brother John, who was with him in the original group, running sea trips, while he lets a holiday home with his wife. But going back to those early days, were those very first shows on the Platt, or tucked away in a local pub?

“It would have been in the pub, I think. But the first time we officially walked out as a group was on the Platt. That was the first time we decided we were actually going to do this. We were actually planning to go to America to join up with some singing friends over there (booked to appear at a sea shanty festival in Connecticut).

“At some point we were having a rehearsal over in Billy’s chapel, and just said, ‘Right, let’s not have a rehearsal over here, let’s have it on the Platt. We didn’t advertise. That was the start of it really, and we never really looked back.”

That’s Billy Hawkins he’s referring to, who runs Port Isaac Pottery with his wife and daughters, their former Methodist chapel also acting as a rehearsal and meet-up space for Fisherman’s Friends. Actually, as I go to press I understand Billy has stepped away from the band for personal and family reasons right now, which is sad to hear.

While there were occasional dates before, the band’s Platt debut arrived in late May, ’97. Did Jeremy get over his nerves pretty quickly?

“No! I still have a few, to be honest with you. There’s only really one guy who likes to get up in front of people. Most of us are very sort of shy and retiring.”

Sailing Time: Fisherman’s Friends prepare to leave Port Isaac, tides willing

I’m guessing that’s your MC, the man with the booming bass, Jon Cleave.

“Very much so. He’s a born entertainer. He loves it. I couldn’t think of anything worse. It’s just the fact that we’re all friends. It’s all just part of being a team, like with football or something. You get courage from your friends.

“And we’ve had a lot of encouragement, right from the early days, people listening to us who we respected, our wives and family, all on side.”

Having said that, you lead on key songs in the set like ‘John Kanaka-naka’ and ‘South Australia’, so you’re clearly out there on your own in those moments.

“Yeah, that’s right. I haven’t been able to hide away – right from the start.”

I get the impression everyone knows Jon, with that distinctive ‘tache and all the interviews he does. Are you the second most recognisable in the group?

“People do say that. But I haven’t really got a take on it. Also, Jon and I share the talking on stage now as well, which brings you to the fore a bit more, so if Jon’s not there, like for the Pasty Championships this Saturday, I’ll take over the compering, so I’m first reserve really.”

Nice work if you can get it. But can being recognised get wearing, or are you happy as long as there’s a pint to sup mid-conversation?

“It doesn’t happen enough to get wearing. It’s all good fun, especially when we’re in a little group and people recognise us and tell us they’re coming to see us tonight. Yeah, it’s all good really.”

For many years the live performances back in Port Isaac have taken the same format, the group appearing on summertime Friday evenings, ‘sailing at eight bells me hearties’, as their trusty plywood sign announces. After 25 years together performing on the Platt, any idea how much you’ve raised for charity?

“I think we’ve raised over £10,000 a year in more recent years, sometimes even more, usually for a local children’s hospice or various other things, like the lifeboat, then at the Daphne du Maurier Festival at Fowey. We raise money and do a bit here and there.”

Seeing as you mentioned Daphne du Maurier, sticking with the literary theme I’ll move on to another author with strong Cornish links, Winston Graham, and ask if your name was inspired by Jeremy Poldark, or was it a family name?

“Well, I think my mother had intentions of me being a lawyer or something. I’m afraid I’m the third of three boys in the family, and when I popped out the nurse said, ‘Here’s another fisherman for you, Mrs Brown,’ but I think she wanted a profession for me instead!

“Tom’s named after my grandfather though, and he’s named his son after my father, Harold.”

You mentioned early nerves, but I see you were also part of Wadebridge Male Voice Choir for some time (and before that with Janet Townsend’s Port Isaac Chorale, first going along with their wives).

“Yeah, several of us were. Maybe four or five at one point, including myself. We did that in a way to learn singing techniques, harmonies, how to form words and all that, and singing with 35 other blokes in a male voice choir is a great thing to go around and do.”

It’s all very stirring, and those Cornish and Welsh male voice choirs always impress me. It’s one of the few areas of music where my Dad and me would agree on something.

“Well, I always loved it, and I think there were nearly 40 of them down in Cornwall at one point -every town had a male voice choir. “

And alongside all that there’s your appreciation of rock’n’roll.

“Very much so. I grew up in the ’70s in the time of glam rock, Slade and all that, but then through the first chap I worked with on the boat, Bryan Nicolls, I got a great love of rock’n’roll. I love singing a bit of Buddy Holly in my spare time as well.”

I believe you do a cracking ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’.

“We did that on Radio 2. That was amazing!”

Speaking of which, I gather you were the one who got talking to legendary BBC DJ Johnnie Walker, who set you up with your manager in the first place, pointing you in the right direction.

“That’s right. He was staying in my friend’s bed and breakfast, so we went up and had a cup of coffee with him, and Johnnie and his wife were there. My friend said, ‘He’s going to be famous soon,’ introduced us, and we told him how this chap wants us to make a record and that. He said, ‘Who’s your manager,’ and we said we hadn’t got one. He said we’d be silly to talk to anyone without one, giving us the name of his.

“And by the time he’d heard us (Jeremy gave him a copy of a previous small-label recording, having already been impressed by their live performance on the Platt) he recommended us, suggesting his manager had a chat with us. He then rang while I was out at sea, saying, ‘Try not to sign anything – I’ll be down to Cornwall as soon as I can.’”

Things moved fast from there, and I love the photograph of the band stopping traffic on the Abbey Road crossing, emulating The Beatles. And it must have been a magical moment recording at those studios, surely (that debut Universal record also recorded in churches at Port Isaac and St Kew).

“Well, to be honest, I missed that. I was away on holiday. I was sick about it, but it was right in the middle of the holidays. The boys still talk about that so fondly. I regret missing that, but it’s just one of those things. John McDonnell, our token Yorkshireman, is a tremendous Beatles fan, and he was just blown away by that.”

Looking back at the photograph again I realise there were nine of them in the shot, just as there were on the steps of the famous Abbey Road studios.

There have been lows along the way, which we won’t go into here. Understandably it’s something the band prefer not to talk about. But of all the high points, what stands out most for Jeremy?

“I think going out at Glastonbury was a hell of a thing. We’ve done a few festivals since but going out there on the acoustic stage we assumed it’d be tucked away in a corner somewhere, but were then told it holds four and a half thousand people if you cram them in.

“We looked through the curtains before we went on stage, having seen the band on before had about 50 people, thinking ‘Fair enough, what do you expect?’ But about an hour later the place was packed, choc-a-bloc, with lots of Cornish flags as well. That was definitely one of those ‘wow’ moments.

“I remember walking out, with all these people who had walked there from wherever they were in the festival. It occurred to us that maybe there was somebody really good on after us! But when we walked around the front after, it was empty again, and we were nearly carried shoulder high to the bar. That was amazing!”

That was in June 2010 and proved so much of a success that they were invited back the following year, this time playing the Pyramid stage on Sunday afternoon, ‘supporting Beyonce’. And there have been many more highlights, not least going down a storm at Cambridge Folk Festival and London’s Royal Albert Hall and Royal Festival Hall,  releasing further hit albums One and All (2013) and Proper Job (2015), and performing to tens of thousands of fans at home and overseas, while being honoured with the Good Tradition Award at the prestigious BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, the likes of Mike Harding and Mark Radcliffe becoming fans too.

These days Fisherman’s Friends comprise Jeremy and fisherman sibling John Brown (their brother Julian no longer involved), writer/shopkeeper Jon Cleave, potter Billy Hawkins (currently taking a step back, as per note above), smallholder/engineer John ‘Lefty’ Lethbridge, builder John McDonnell (the ’outsider’, a Yorkshireman who visited Port Isaac more than 30 years ago and never left), Padstow fisherman Jason Nicholas, and film-maker Toby Lobb. And I’m guessing they’re all still the best of mates. Have there been times where you’ve wondered if this was all a step too far, with that relationship between you all potentially compromised?

“There have been times, but we always pull back. At the end of the day, the most important thing is our friendship. We all have our moments, and think ‘he’s off on one today’, but we’ve never come to that point where it’s come to that. We’ve always held back.”

I’m not suggesting lots of money came your way. I know how it works. But there must be times when the wind’s howling and you’ve stopped yourself going out to make a living on the boat.

“Well, there’s a limit to what you can work. The forecast is really good these days, so even if it looks really good in the morning it might be forecast to come in really bad in the afternoon. You can plan your days a lot better. The thing with Port Isaac is that it’s tidal, and once you’ve gone to sea, you can’t get back in again. And they’re not that big, the boats, so it’s a bit of a scary thing.”

Actually, although he talks about modern advances in weather forecast technology, the tale goes that Jeremy has a candle on the window ledge at home, and ‘if it blows out, there’s too much wind,‘ while ‘if it don’t blow out, there ain’t enough’.

You’ve played some amazing places, but I gather this will be your first visit to Morecambe, with its own proud maritime links, and where the football team are the Shrimps. Could there be a few swapped trade secrets in this cross-cultural experience?

First Footing: The very first Fisherman's Friends recording, pre-Universal days

First Footing: The very first  recording, pre-Universal days

“I think there could be. See how that works out. I’m sure we can find some common ground over a beer, and work from there really.”

There’s proper diplomacy for you. And I hate to get on to politics (honest), but this is a group from a part of the country which felt it wanted to be free of EU legislature  (I know that’s an assumption, and no way am I tarring everyone with the same brush, but the 56.5% Cornish leave vote in 2016’s divisive referendum was deemed signficantly higher than the UK average). It’s not working out well for any of us though. Besides, I’m talking to someone from a band with healthy international links and world views (take 2010’s ‘The Union of Different Kinds’ for example), and I certainly don’t see Fisherman’s Friends as Little Englanders or suspicious of foreigners, even if there is much to do to fairly protect traditional fishing grounds.

“I think everybody’s a bit upset about the way it’s going. I think there’s a tremendous amount of common ground between the remainers and the leavers now.”

He (perhaps wisely) sat on the fence a bit there, so I moved on (his mobile phone reception was pretty poor by now anyway), asking one more leading question – is it true that Jeremy Brown can’t swim?

“I’m not a big swimmer.”

That sounds like a very traditional approach from men of the sea.

“Well, they say it prolongs the agony, when you’re two or three miles out to sea. That’s the theory behind it. If the boat’s gone there’s absolutely no point in thinking about swimming. But we do all sorts of first aid courses these days, and what they teach you is that the last thing you should so is try and swim. You should have your life jacket on, tuck your hands in, bring your knees up and then wait …”

For the lifeboat?

“That’s right, yeah.”

And when I head down to Cornwall this August, will you be around? Will I be able to see you perform on the Platt?

“We’re away a lot this year, with lots of festivals in August, so we’ve only got one gig in Port Isaac that month.”

Well, let’s hope the tides and the diary fall right. And in the meantime, there’s always Morecambe for me, the boys promising to ‘brew up a heady mix of hearty song, salty banter and tall tales from the high seas’, and possibly on stage dreckly around eight bells I reckon, me hearties.

Sole Men: Fisherman’s Friends await the next influx of emmets, and media interest.

Fisherman’s Friends’ UK tour this weekend reaches The Platform, Morecambe (Friday, March 8th) and The Mechanics, Burnley (Saturday, March 9th). Those will then be followed by late March dates in Horsham, Bury St Edmunds, Milton Keynes, Worthing, Margate and Wimborne, before two mid-May visits to Porthcurno’s glorious open-air Minack Theatre and another in Great Torrington’s Rosemoor Gardens on May 26th. For full details, try www.thefishermansfriends.com and follow the band via Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud and Tumblr.

This interview was put together with the help of a little background information culled from the very entertaining and informative Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends: Sailing at Eight Bells (Simon & Schuster, 2011).

 

 

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