Intergalactic Sonic Trio: the Further Adventures of Ash – in conversation with Rick McMurray

Three’s Company: Ash founder members and survivors Mark Hamilton, left, Tim Wheeler, centre, and Rick McMurray, right, check out the lens and await the next live dates.

Rick McMurray was at home in Edinburgh when I called, all set for the next run of live appearances with Ash, the following fortnight alone including outdoor festivals in Devon, Lancashire, Hampshire and Warwickshire, and club dates in Reading and Derby, then his adopted home city and Cardiff.

And despite so many career highs over the years, I got the impression that 44-year-old Rick loves his job as much now as when he first teamed up with Tim Wheeler and Mark Hamilton in his school days. To namecheck the Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz movie the band provided title music for in 1997, it’s been ‘A Life Less Ordinary’ for these three lads from County Down.

Rick, actually born in Larne, County Antrim, will take the stage at the Cotton Clouds Festival, Saddleworth Cricket Club, Lancashire, on Friday night, August 16th, on a bill topped by Peter Hook & The Light, 25 years after the first of 18 top-40 singles and seven hit albums – including two No.1s – with this groundbreaking Northern Irish outfit. So is it still the career of sorts he signed up for all those years ago?

“Yeah, it’s good. It’s been a little bit back and forward, sporadic, so I’m looking forward to the next run, with these festivals and club shows between. It’s almost more knackering going away for the weekend then coming back, trying to recover in time for the next one while looking after your kids, then more travelling.

“But it’s still a buzz. We’ve been doing it now for … I don’t know, I dread to think, doing the miles and working out how many years since we started.”

Funny you should say that. I was trying to suss out the timeline. I gather it all started in 1989, but it wasn’t until 1994 that you delivered debut mini-LP, Trailer.

“I think it was probably 1989 that Tim and Mark started playing together.”

Was that with their Iron Maiden cover band, Vietnam?

“Yeah. We went to the same school, although I didn’t really know them. It was probably six months before we got together. I saw them play some kind of Children in Need show at school.”

Less Ordinary: Ash try a few star jumps for the camera

Were you impressed?

“Erm … they were a kind of weird band. They had these two older guys who’d left school, one playing drums, one singing but walking off stage because he couldn’t sing, Tim having to take over. But I thought they were kind of cool. They were (two years) younger than me, but you could tell Tim and Mark had something, even if the others were something questionable.

“It was shortly after that they got rid of the other guys, and the only other drummer they knew was me.”

That was handy then. And had you been playing for a while by then?

“Yeah, just in my bedroom. I’d never been part of any band.”

What was the first song the band worked on that you thought was something special?

“I’d been in the band maybe two weeks when we recorded the first six-song demo. That was cool and exciting. And I remember Tim had gone away on his summer holidays and came back with ‘Jack Names the Planets’. That was like, ‘Oh wow! This is a different league.’ It was definitely more accomplished from a songwriting point of view. A big leap forward.

“We did our first demo, then Tim went away, came back with that, and I think it was at the end of that summer that we did our first show.”

First Single: Ash’s debut 7″, Jack Names The Planets, was picked up on by Steve Lamacq

That first show was at The Penny Farthing in Belfast, a venue Rick says they played monthly for around a year. Do those performances blur into one now?

“Yeah, the line-ups changed slightly, with new bands coming in, but it was essentially a bunch of bands playing to other bands, not making any money.”

Was that quite a way from your home patch then?

“It was. I think most nights we’d go on first, because the last bus to Downpatrick on a Saturday was around half 10. We’d do the gig then maybe watch one or two other bands, then crash at mates in Belfast or run up the road with guitars and drums to catch the bus.”

Different times, not least with the complications of getting in and out of the city back then.

“I guess it wasn’t something we really thought about then. I think we only really became conscious of that after 1977 came out and we had crew from the rest of the UK. You’d soundcheck, go and get something to eat, and they’d say, ‘What the fuck is that?’, pointing. There was no point saying, ‘Well, it’s a soldier with a gun’. It was pretty normal to us.”

I think of The Undertones recording debut single ‘Teenage Kicks’ for Good Vibrations in Belfast, then their big break when John Peel famously played it (twice in a row) on BBC Radio 1. Was it a similar tale with you, but with Steve Lamacq helping spread the word?

“Yeah, but I guess it was just finding a label interested in us first. I can’t remember the name of the label, but Daisy Chainsaw were around, maybe ’93. They’d been in touch, hearing a demo, showing interest but then going cold on us – these naïve teenagers from Northern Ireland thinking, ‘Oh shit! We nearly had it’. We didn’t know what we needed to do, frustrated.

“Luckily there was this guy who worked with Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins’ (Bad Moon) PR firm, Paddy Davis, whose wife was from Downpatrick, and a cassette landed on his desk. He passed it on to a friend who had some kind of one-off singles label. So he paid for us to go in the studio to record ‘Jack Names the Planets’, then Steve Lamacq played it.”

That friend – I think I’m right in saying – was Stephen Taverner, who put up the cash to press 1,000 7 inch copies on his LaLaLand label, and subsequently became the band’s full-time manager. Was Rick listening in at the time when Steve Lamacq first played the single?

Most Recent: Last year's Islands featured Mickey Bradley and Damian O'Neill from The Undertones

Most Recent: Last year’s Islands featured Mickey Bradley and Damian O’Neill from The Undertones

“Yeah, it took a long time for that buzz to wear off!”

And are we talking an old C60 with that demo on it?

“It might have been a C30.”

Have you still got anything like that stored at your place?

“Probably at my parents’ house, but after a life of living out of a suitcase on the road, I’m not the most organised person, so those things fall by the wayside. The only thing I really collect is drums. But at this point in my life I can’t really get into my drum room to play – there’s too many of them.”

Rick’s been based between tours and recording stints in Edinburgh since around 2005, and has two children, aged eight and four.

“I was educating them in Edinburgh city centre a couple of nights ago, taking them down to see Johnny Marr, with my brother tech-ing bass and drums down there in torrential rain!”

It’s been just over a year since the most recent Ash LP surfaced, Islands, and what a corker it was, not least the track ‘Buzzkill‘, featuring The Undertones’ Michael Bradley and Damian O’Neill.

“Yeah, although that was done remotely. Tim had been working on the song, had just done the backing vocals, then was back home and The Undertones were playing, and he realised he’d really ripped off their style of backing vocals. So he felt a bit of flattery might help him get away with it, and fortunately they were well up for it.”

Well, I think they’d readily admit a few wholesale ‘steals’ from other influences over the years, so what goes around the turntable …

“Oh absolutely, and we had the pleasure of playing with them a few times last year, including the BBC 6 Music weekend event in Belfast, pretty much under the Harland & Wolff cranes. That was an iconic Northern Irish moment.”

You should be used to such moments, not least after your part in a truly momentous happening 21 years ago, playing Belfast’s Waterfront Hall on the night the ‘Yes’ campaign famously brought together SDLP leader John Hume and Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, something I was reminding myself of before this interview, going back to Stuart Bailie’s excellent Trouble Songs from last year.

“Yeah, in fact we did a gig with Snow Patrol there back in May, the first time we’d been back in that building together since. Yeah, that was pretty insane.”

Mighty Debut: The first full-length album, from 1996, really set Ash on the way

Mighty Debut: The first full-length album, from 1996, really set Ash on the way

It was such a big moment – albeit one that this whole Brexit fiasco threatens to undo, of course. Does that night in May 1998 remain clear in the memory, or was it all something of a blur?

“It was really intense, but there were moments that stood out. It was all very last minute. I think it was only a week before that we first heard about it. We were in the studio working on Nu-Clear Sounds when we got the call.”

That was at Rockfield Studios in Monmouth, wasn’t it?

“That’s right, and we were told, ‘Let us know tomorrow morning If you want to do it.’ It was kind of a no-brainer really. We’d not been in Northern Ireland during the campaign, but gathered that the ’No’ side were constantly in the headlines and seemed to have real momentum behind them. We had to do something to play our small part in whatever this would turn out to be. My most vivid memories are of John Hume walking up the stairs and saying, ‘It’s gonna happen’. That was the whole moment kind of summed up.“

And referencing an Undertones hit at the same time.

“Yeah!”

Charlotte (Hatherley) hadn’t been so long with the band then, had she?

“She’d definitely been in the band for less than a year. I think U2 was one of her first gigs the previous summer. Yeah, she’d been in the band less than a week and then we were supporting U2 in Belfast!”

I should ask. Are you still in touch with Bono?

“Err … no. Ha! Snow Patrol did their own festival recently, but we were trying to beat the traffic home, so left before the end, and only the next day heard we missed him.”

It’s now 15 years since Charlotte left and you reverted to the original three-piece set-up. There’s something about that which is magical, from my love of The Jam right through to Wilko Johnson’s band. Can you put your finger on why that formation works so well? Is it just that you have to work that little bit harder?

Charlotte Sometimes: The first Ash album featuring Charlotte Hatherley, from 1998.

Charlotte Sometimes: The first Ash album featuring Charlotte Hatherley, from 1998.

“Erm, well, I’m doing backing vocals now, Tim’s taken on all the guitar parts … but it’s no more work for Mark! Ha!”

And are you still in touch with Charlotte?

“Yeah, we always try and meet up if we’re in London. I’ve not seen her in a while but we keep in touch via social media and stuff. She’s doing great at the minute, doing selfies with Nile Rodgers!”

Actually, that got me thinking. I saw Ash at the L2 in Liverpool on Thursday, August 14th, 1997 with my mate Neil, when we were reporters in Chorley. He’s now a sports editor in Western Australia, but was in Birkenhead then, or ‘rural Cheshire’ as he tred to convince us. I’d like to say it was a memorable night, but was worse for the drink later and can’t recall much. I remember loving Ash’s performance, the 1977 album not far behind them. I should at least recall if Charlotte played, but the memories are blurry.

It turns out that Charlotte’s Ash debut was at Belfast’s Limelight just four days ealier, and the following week the new lineup played the second V Festival’s NME Stage. Her recording debut happened later that year with sublime single, ‘A Life Less Ordinary’, followed by the following year’s Nu-Clear Sounds LP. So now you (and I ) know.

Anyway, if Tim and Mark have been based in New York since around 2006, and you’re in Edinburgh, how do rehearsals work?

“I think these days we kind of avoid rehearsing! This year we’ve done a grand total of probably 45 minutes. Most of our two days rehearsing last year was Tim changing pedals on his rig, stuff like that. I think rehearsing at home is more productive. I’ll be doing some of that in the next couple of days.”

Do you talk to each other a lot via phone or social media between engagements?

“Yeah, yeah, usually emails through the night, with the time difference and that. We’ve been working this way pretty much since we started. I was in Belfast before I moved here, when the others were in London. We’ve always had this remote set-up, and it seems to work.”

It certainly does. I was impressed enough by the Wedding Present releasing 12 singles in one year back in 1992. But you somehow managed one 7″ a fortnight from 2009/10 for your A-Z Series. I don’t suppose you have another 26 singles tucked away for the coming year, have you?

“We’ve a fair few tracks up our sleeves. I think for the first time in our career we’re quite ahead of ourselves. When a band’s been around this long, and when a label you’re signed to buys all your back-catalogue, there are certain other things that may delay that, but … Back in the ‘90s I remember it was, ‘Where’s the follow-up album?’ Fast forward 25 years and it’s us saying, ‘Come on! Let’s get this out!’”

Into 2001: Free All Angels included Burn Baby Burn, surely among the 21st century’s finest ever singles

And it’s a case of all three of your bringing in ideas?

“Yeah.”

So could there be a new album next year?

“We’ll see. I don’t want to put a date on it. But if it was up to us it would probably be out by now.”

So many great songs in the catalogue, and such a rich collection of wonderful singles over the years, but is there a record you don’t think gets the exposure it should? Or do you love them all as much as each other, and – like your own children – couldn’t possibly name one above another?

“Yeah, we’ve never really had a problem with playing the hits, but I was bored a couple of months ago, playing random album tracks. There are certain songs that the set is made of, but it would be fun to look into including others. I think our sets are definitely more high energy than the records, which have more of an ebb and flow to them. It might be nice to turn that on its head at some point. There are no plans, but if I had my way …”

Finally, if you could go back to the Penny Farthing and offer yourself some advice, what would it be?

“Cut your hair, sort those glasses out!”

Inter Galactic: Ash, still capable of turning out cracking tunes, all these years on.

Ash are on the bill this Friday, August 16 at Cotton Clouds Festival, Saddleworth Cricket Club, Lancashire, with more details about the two-day event here. And for more on the band and other dates in the diary this year, try their website and keep in touch via their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

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Introducing The Amber List – in conversation with Mick Shepherd

Amber Gamblers: The Amber List, coming to an ale house near you … probably (Photo: Catherine Caton)

In the 1980s, several independent bands based around Lancashire played a part in an emerging regional scene that ultimately brought wider success for a few North West acts.

Of course, not every act involved would end up on the front cover of the NME or shipping records around the world. Many more had to make do with what Mick Shepherd called ‘a faint brush with the potential that something was going to happen’.

And Mick knows a bit about that from his time with Big Red Bus, who were signed to the Preston-based Action Records label, with their 1989 debut LP followed by a couple of 12” singles in the early ‘90s and more recently a 2017 CD compilation on a German label, love for the band clearly still far reaching.

But if there’s any sense of frustration that Big Red Bus ultimately stalled while contemporaries like The Boo Radleys and The Stone Roses enjoyed major success, Mick hides it well. In fact, he’s more than happy as things are, enjoying a new lease of love playing and making music with latest band, The Amber List. And why not, judging by the material shared so far via videos, digital releases and debut five-track EP, ‘The Ever Present Elephant’, launched in late July at Manchester’s Night & Day Café.

Mick was flying to Luxembourg to see one of his sons the morning I called, marking his 57th birthday in style, a barbecue and party lined up. A former fine art student who spent several years ‘trying to make a living out of painting’, he works for an educational charity these days. But much as he loves that, he tells me ‘music has always been a welcome distraction to the daily grind’, even if he finds it ‘more of a cottage industry again’ today.

“We’re all, I guess you’d say, seasoned musicians, having played in numerous bands. We’ve all had a faint brush with the potential that something was going to happen, kind of getting giddy on that. But now I think we’re all very realistic, doing it because we enjoy it.

“I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it and how much it meant to me. I started writing solo stuff again and did an album about three years ago, and when we got The Amber List together, I’d forgotten the joy of playing in a band and getting out gigging.”

Mick (vocals, guitar, bass) is joined in The Amber List by Tim Kelly (guitar, vocals, bass), Tony Cornwell (guitars, bass, atmospheres, vocals, racket) and Simon Dewhurst (drums, percussion, vocals). And how do we categorise them? Apparently, you can ‘file under post-Brexit urban folk indie blues, brought to you from the melting pot of the North West with an average age above most England cricket scores’.

Incorporating ‘60’s folk-tinged ballads through to full-on indie pop, key influences include This is the Kit, Big Star, Teenage Fanclub, XTC and Wire, and their fans include Nottinghamshire-based poet Paul Cookson, originally from Preston, who runs a Pies, Peas and Performers band night in Retford where Mick supported The Wonder Stuff’s Miles Hunt and Erica Nockalls as a solo artist.

The Amber List inspired Paul to write, ‘Perfectly pitched, deftly mixed and immediately accessible, their songs feel like old friends you haven’t seen for ages, or best friends you haven’t yet met. Familiar and warm, but different and alive. High on melody and hooks and low on volume for volume’s sake. Understated and all the more powerful for that.”

Nicely put. Do they all bring songs in?

“We do. We’re all writers and probably have the healthiest vein of writers any of us ever had (in any band). We’re bouncing ideas off each other. I’ve been in bands where you sort of scrape away for new ideas, but we’re absolutely bogged down with songs.

“It’s a case of what we should record, what we should work on next. There’s no shortage of ideas. We’ve done this EP, which we’re pretty pleased of, and the idea now is to record an album for release next year. We’ve released four or five online recordings before, but felt it nice to have something physical, and people at gigs will spend a fiver on a CD if they see a band they like.”

As well as at live shows, you can find a copy of the EP at Action Records in Preston, where Mick’s recording journey started 30 years ago.

“We’re also using the CD to help find more gigs, and that’s really healthy, with two or three a month.”

For a four-piece that only started out in March 2017, they’ve proved busy so far, with plenty of collective spirit and marks of quality across all five songs on the EP, recorded with folk-rock outfit Merry Hell guitarist John Kettle at the TMP studio, Pemberton, Wigan.

“John was great around this recording, suggesting things. You go in with a fixed idea, and sometimes people in a studio are quite passive, allow you to do your own thing. But John was quite vociferous – ‘try this, try that’. It was nice to have that input.

“The first thing we did was ’Cold Callers’, acoustically. John said he liked that, and the relationship grew from there. He had Neil (McCartney) from Merry Hell play fiddle on (final track) ‘First Steps’, and we ended up playing a gig with them at the Old Courts in their hometown. They did two nights, sold out, and we did the electric one before another gig in Morecambe the next night, a benefit for the Lancaster Music Co-Op.”

The band are set to return to Pemberton to work with John again in September. A couple of better-aired tracks such as ‘Pink and Orange Sky’, ‘What in the World’ and ‘Guiding Star’ don’t appear on this EP. Are they holding them back for the album?

“We’re discussing that, but because of all the newer material we might leave those as online downloads.”

‘Hiding in Plain Sight’ was the song that truly grabbed me first on the EP, carrying a sense of post-La’s ‘80s/’90s sunshine indie pop for these ears, reminding me of many a melodic jangly indie outfit.

“That’s been said before, and that’s nice. I guess we’re a product of what we listen to, consciously or not. The La’s have come up a few times, and I’ve no problem with that comparison at all. Someone mentioned Gene, and Olympian is one of my favourite albums, one I play to this day. It’s hard to find something we’d all agree on as an influence though – we all listen to different things. I know with ‘Hiding Place’ I was obsessed with Big Star at the time, liking that two-guitar approach.”

Well, if it worked for Teenage Fanclub

“Exactly! Another big favourite of mine, personally!”

Talking of post-Brexit blues, I guess the world needs more ‘bah, bah, bah, bah’ singalongs right now.

“Yeah. You can’t go wrong with that, can you. I remember an interview with Julian Cope years ago, taking about The Teardrop Explodes, how he’d hear trumpet sounds in his head, but couldn’t afford trumpets so made the noises instead.”

Live Presence: The Amber List in action, with Mick Shepherd front centre, Tony Cornwell to the left, Tim Kelly on the right, and drummer Simon Dewhurst not necessarily hiding in plain sight after all.

Incidentally, I hear The Teardrop Explodes too, plus fellow Liverpool scene outfit The Icicle Works. Not as if it’s all about that for Mick, who the previous weekend played an acoustic set at Cambridge Folk Festival. How did that come about?

“I was going anyway, and somebody posted that there would be an open stage, like an open mic. event, so I went to see the organisers and ended up playing a 15-minute set. That was great, with the sound brilliant. I really enjoyed the experience. And what a festival.”

They would have known him from previous Penwortham Live sets, I suggested.

“Ha! That’s it, yeah!”

Remind me about your Big Red Bus days (where Mick’s bandmates included 2015 WriteWyattUK interviewee Dave Spence and local luminary Roland ‘Scrub’ Jones, who also featured with The Amber List).

“That was my kind of formative years. I said about these brushes with something that might have been, and that was the closest for me. We did this Stone Roses support at Birmingham’s Irish Centre. We were supposed to be playing Edwards No.8 there, but the week before they had their NME splashed paint front cover and pulled the gig. Can’t remember why – it was the wrong mixing desk or something. I think they knew they were going to get that cover.

“But about a month later we got to support them at the Irish Centre, which was fantastic, and supported them at the Guild Hall in Preston (in the foyer). Great times. They were very much on the cusp of things and something was about to happen in the North West. We didn’t cash in on it in anyway. Perhaps we should have. When we’d go abroad, people would say where are you from, you’d say, ‘Preston, near Manchester’, and they’d say, ‘Ooh, Manchester!’

“When it all finished, you were left with a sense of frustration at what might have happened, but when you get to our age you just enjoy doing it for the sheer love of the music.”

Back Then: Big Red Bus, Mick Shepherd’s formative outfit were pulling out of the depot three decades ago.

Action Records also thankfully took a chance on putting out records by The Boo Radleys and Dandelion Adventure during that era.

“Yeah, and we played together with the Boos and Dandelion Adventure, who were good mates – we still speak to Mark (Parnell) a lot, and keep in touch with Ajay (Saggar) online.

“Actually, one of my more bizarre memories involved some filming with Paul Crone for Granada Reports, interviewing us at Action, when it was just a tiny shop before they had the corner plot.

“They took us to the bus museum at Leyland and had us on these old double-deckers, jumping around and miming to one of the tracks on the album. I’m not even sure if they put it out, even though there were a couple of days’ filming.”

Mick’s from Penwortham but now based in St Annes, with Tim – formerly with Longhatpins – in Parbold, and Tony and Simon in the Preston and Longton area, the band’s rehearsal space an old mill on Aqueduct Street, Preston. So how did they get together?

“I’d known Tim since we were kids and we put songs on SoundCloud, independent of each other, although maybe not having spoken for 25 years. Out of the blue, Tim messaged me, asking, ‘Do you want to get together?’ We did so, doing acoustic shows as Works Unit Only, and then Tony and Simon got involved. It grew from that really.”

And I gather the band pass the bass around, as the line-up description suggests.

“Yeah, we do. Ha!”

But not your drummer, Simon. Can he not play bass?

“Ha! He’s just bought some gadget for his drums with a pad that can trigger different sounds, so we’re experimenting with that at the moment.

“All four of us sing as well, which gives us a lot more opportunities with harmonies and arrangements. And the bass thing? I don’t know. It just evolved really. We take it in turns.”

Studio Tan: The Amber List. File under post-Brexit urban folk indie blues, if you will. (Photo: Catherine Caton)

The Amber List’s next dates include appearances at The Bobbin, Lancaster (Saturday, August 17th); the Guild Ale House, Lancaster Road, Preston (Sunday, September 1st), Blackpool’s Winter Gardens for the FamFest festival of food, arts and music (Sunday, September 22nd); London Road Inn, Buxton (Friday, September 27th); with a return to the Vinyl Tap, Adelphi Street, Preston, pencilled in for October. And you can keep in touch with The Amber list via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

 

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Cutting It Fine: from Making Out to Poldark, and beyond – the Debbie Horsfield interview

On Set: Debbie Horsfield talks script revisions with Ed Bazalgette, The Vapors’ guitar hero who directed the first four episodes of series one of Poldark, first broadcast in 2015 (Photo courtesy of BBC/Mammoth Screen)

Until she took on the most recent screen adaptation of classic Cornish historical literary saga Poldark, writer Debbie Horsfield was best known for a string of Manchester-based dramas.

It’s now 30 years since the first of her three series of BBC 1 factory-based drama Making Out went out. But her first TV writing credits were for Granada’s Crown Court in 1982 and feature-length Northern Soul story, Out on the Floor a year later, when still in her late 20s.

And while further BBC success, Cutting It (2003/5) truly raised her profile, since 2015 she’s attracted prime Sunday night audiences for an ambitious Mammoth Screen production, this current series of Poldark set to be the last … at least for now.

North West fans can learn more about Debbie’s success story when she’s a guest at a new literature and film festival at Stonyhurst College, near Clitheroe, Lancashire, next Saturday, August 17th, the location a relatively short ride for Debbie and her husband, actor and former Stonyhurst pupil Martin Wenner (the pair also married in the college grounds), from their home near Glossop on the Cheshire/Derbyshire border.

And these last few Sunday nights it appears that the mum of four’s been a nervous wreck at home while Poldark has been aired, irrespective of the positive reception of the first four series.

“Absolutely, I always am, when anything of mine goes out. I’ll have seen it all loads of times as an executive producer, but there’s something about seeing it go out on the night, knowing the world is watching. A bit nerve-racking. But I watch it with all my family around, which makes it less terrifying.”

Does she sit and watch her creations in ‘real time’, occasionally letting on with knowing glances and a glint in the eye, ‘Ooh, I could tell you stories about this scene’?

“I try and watch it like an audience member, and there’s a rule that nobody does any talking. I have some family members who would chatter all the way through if they could.”

Among Friends: Debbie Horsfield, front right,  gets cosy on the front row with fellow executive producer Karen Thrussell and Poldark’s leading actors Eleanor Tomlinson and Aidan Turner (Photo courtesy of Debbie Horsfield)

I know where she’s coming from there. And I tend to find this new generation – not least my teenage daughters – watch telly while checking their mobile phones, yet can’t work out how they miss something key.

“I don’t do social media, so I’m not looking at all that, but I know a lot of people tweet and watch at the same time. That’s not my thing though.”

There was a major opportunity – but also a huge challenge – as a scriptwriter to bridge a gap between Winston Graham’s Poldark books for this series, there being a fairly long gap in the story between 1977’S The Angry Tide and 1981’s The Stranger From the Sea. Did that lead to lots of frustrating script revisions?

“It’s fair to say we never knew from one series to the next whether we’d be going any further. You never know if something’s going to be successful, but the actors were optioned for five series, so there was that opportunity if it was a success. Book seven (The Angry Tide) goes up to where we took series four, then it goes forward nearly 11 years and there’s a further five books, so we knew we wouldn’t be able to fit five books into one (last) series.

“The option was to stop after four series or have a look at the clues Winston Graham left in book eight (The Stranger From the Sea) about things that happened in the interim. And there are clues. He talks about things that happen to the characters and touches on things, but doesn’t go into massive detail.

“I talked to Andrew Graham, Winston’s son, and we agreed that filling in some of those missing years and using as the starting point the clues Winston left while looking at his own methods for creating stories, which was increasingly to look at what was happening historically, socially and politically at the time, such as slavery, the Acts of Union in 1800, Acts of parliament designed to suppress potential revolution, the Napoleonic Wars …”

It all seems so resonant and relevant to what’s going on here with this Brexit farce at the moment.

“I think the books have always been relevant to what’s happening today. When the first series came out, people asked if I’d invented the bits about greedy, self-serving bankers. But maybe some things never change.”

Starting Out: Winston Graham's debut Poldark novel was first published in 1945

Starting Out: Winston Graham’s debut Poldark novel, the first of 12, was initially published in 1945

Winston’s son Andrew, a political economist, was a big wheel in the Labour Party from the late ‘60s to the mid-‘90s, wasn’t he?

“Yes, he was an economic adviser to several Labour Governments. I’ve become very good friends with Andrew and his wife Peggotty, and they’ve been a tremendous support, with Andrew the next best thing to getting to Winston himself.”

Debbie missed out on getting to know Winston, who died at the grand age of 95 in July 2003, a year after the publication of the 12th and final Poldark book, Bella Poldark), but there are parallel between the pair, not least the fact that he was originally from Manchester, born and raised in Victoria Park, just a few miles from her own Urmston and (even closer) Eccles roots (albeit a long time before).

“Yes, he didn’t move to Cornwall until he was 17, so there’s certainly that connection. I didn’t know there were books and didn’t watch the original series in the ‘70s until Mammoth Screen sent me the first two books and asked if I’d consider adapting them. I read them and found them an amazing read, and timeless I suppose. Love triangles, ambition, business rivalry – those things are never going to seem old-fashioned.

“I knew Cornwall a little before, having had holidays there, but obviously I’ve got to know it better since. In my younger days, holidaying in Cornwall, I absolutely loved the whole coastline around Tintagel, having always been fascinated by Arthurian legend. And what I’ve come to love from filming in Cornwall are all those amazing headlands, such as those near Land’s End, around the mines, really spectacular, and St Agnes Head, so wild and epic. And I think they’ve become a character in their own right in telling the story.

“Cornwall’s an amazing place, and there was never any question that we’d try and film those exteriors – the wild nature, the beaches, the coves, the cliffs – there. Nowhere else looks like Cornwall, I don’t think, although I understand why some productions go elsewhere. I recall massive complaints when the latest adaptation of Jamaica Inn filmed some of its town scenes in Kirkby Lonsdale, but there are very few places that look as if they’ve been untouched since the late 18th century. Similarly, we couldn’t film in Truro, which doesn’t look anything like it did back in the 18th century.”

Instead, you settled on the Cotswolds for those scenes.

“Yes, within striking distance of our studio in Bristol.“

I interviewed Ed Bazalgette, who directed the first four episodes, broadcast in 2015, about his role as director as well as his past and present involvement with my hometown band The Vapors, and he let on about the amount of background research carried out into the times the books are set. I’m guessing you all learned a lot along the way.

“The funny thing is that Winston Graham does all the research you could ever need. You just need to read the books. To begin with, I started out to see whether we needed any additional material that would be needed, but the truth is that his research was absolutely impeccable, even down to things like illnesses and diseases of the late 18th century, and what the physical symptoms would be.

“He had it all off to a tee. I soon learned there was no need to question or query the detail of what he was writing. His research was just immaculate. But I think it was exciting for Ed and for me. When you work on a period drama all your departments – design, costumes, make-up, and so on – have to research so the whole thing looks authentic. It was a big lesson for me, such as how much more difficult it makes a production if it’s a period drama, because period costumes are way more expensive to make. You can’t just get them off the peg as you would with contemporary drama. You can’t have endless versions of a costume. Often, you only have one. For instance, if something gets wet …

Maid in Cornwall: Demelza Poldark (Eleanor Tomlinson), far from Redruth Fair (Photo: BBC / Mammoth Screen)

“In another example, when we started episode one of series one, what turned out to be a skirmish in the American War of Independence was actually supposed to be a much bigger battle, but we couldn’t get the uniforms. We could only get – I think – six Redcoat uniforms. The others were all out on a Jimmy McGovern production called Banished. So what was meant to be a battle ended up a skirmish with six soldiers. Those are the kind of things when you watch a show where you can never know the reality of what having to create it has been. That was a big eye-opener.”

There’s a duty of care to do right by the books, and I know you have the Graham family’s blessing. But I also get the impression you must feel you know by now (not least through close study of the original books) the author’s mindset.

“There is, but the thing I’ve discovered through doing adaptations is that things that work brilliantly in a novel may not work at all on screen. In a perfect example, a lot of the story’s told through internal thoughts, but nobody wants to have somebody have a voiceover for hours on end. You’ve got to find ways of dramatising those internal thoughts, either making them into a conversation with somebody with whom that character would be likely to be talking to, or find other ways to articulate that. While sometimes the chapters in the book are wonderful and go on for pages and pages, you can’t have a scene that goes on for 20 minutes in a drama.”

I must admit I was worried about this adaptation before, being a fan of the books and the original televised version, but I was quickly impressed by the results. Debbie and her team have certainly carried the spirit of the original, through the writing, filming, and acting, finding the right balance. I was fairly young when the Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees-led original TV adaptations went out, but recall key scenes, such as the original production’s prison break, various Ross and Demelza scenes (ah, Angharad, sigh), the hero riding on the beach, and so on. But many of the scenes in the remake now also stick in the mind, although I have to say that at key points, my better half and I will shout, ‘Get away from the edge!’ when we see someone going hell for leather riding along the cliff path.

“Well, in reality that’s a good point. No one’s going to be riding along cliff edges. That’s not going to be the quickest route into town. But fact is that if you’ve got the cliff edge … It looks spectacular, so you may as well use it. If you’re making the landscape a character, you should show it off.”

Fair enough, and I don’t think the Cornwall Tourism Office would have a problem with that.

“I don’t think so.”

Good Company: Karen Thrussell and fellow executive producer Debbie Horsfield with key Poldark cast members, celebrating the success of their adaptation of Winston Graham’s Cornish saga (Photo courtesy of Debbie Horsfield)

You’ve no doubt made lots of friends during filming too – cast, crew and locals.

“The thing is that when you’re working with the same cast for five years, and I’ve been working with the production company far longer. And it’s coming up to seven years since they first sent me the books and I took them away on holiday to read them. I’ve made friends for life. It’s been very special, and I hope to work with many of them again.”

That’s a lot of crew, and I guess we’re talking from Aidan and Eleanor right through to their beloved dog, Garrick on the acting side.

“Yeah, people often say about Garrick that he must be the oldest puppy! How is he still alive?”

You say you first read the first novel, Ross Poldark in 2012. Have you now read right through to Bella Poldark, way ahead of where we’re at as this series ends?

“Absolutely, and you need that overview. I haven’t read the later books quite as exhaustively, but I’ve probably read those ones I’ve adapted seven or eight times, and would have them on the desk next to me all the time.”

While I’m on that subject, in response to an inevitable question about another Poldark series, you previously said you expected something ‘somewhere down the line possibly’. Is that right?

“I have no expectation. We’re all very clear that this is it. Having said that, there are five more books that carry on the story, so what I’ve said is that I could never say never. But I’m very clear that we’ve come to the end as things stand.”

Before Poldark, the majority of Debbie’s screen and stage work was set in and around the North West, largely in her native Greater Manchester, fictional or otherwise. Sex, Chips and Rock’n’Roll, The Riff-Raff Element, Cutting It, True Dare Kiss, All the Small Things, Age Before Beauty … she’s found so much inspiration from her home patch, writing along the way about the North/South divide, and – as with Poldark – class politics.

“Yeah, and pretty much everything was my original stuff. I hadn’t written an adaptation before Poldark.”

So where do you go from here with your writing? Back to Manchester?

”Well, one of the things I’m writing at the moment is definitely there, and another is set between there and London. I can’t mention either yet. They haven’t been announced yet, but there has been an announcement from Mammoth Screen that we’re looking at doing an adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo further down the line. So that’s definitely not in the North West of England!”

In a feature for August 2019’s Cornwall Today you did mention there’s ‘not a tricorn in sight’.

“There’s not, sadly … although there might be some in Monte Cristo. I think they were still wearing tricorns then.”

And are any of your children following in your footsteps, as budding screen and scriptwriters?

“None of them have gone into writing, although two are doing a variety of fairly creative things. They’re not children anymore though – the eldest is 32 and the youngest is 25!”

My eldest daughter – a history undergraduate with a keen interest in drama – was inspired by seeing you give a talk in York, not least when it came to talk of dilemmas facing you and your team procuring costumes in a bid to ensure authenticity, talking about a key Ross and Demelza bedroom scene.

“Actually, that was one of the few things Winston Graham got wrong, and we didn’t realise until our costume designer said, ‘No, I can’t give you a dress that fastens down the back, because that wasn’t what they had then.’ There was a lot of discussion about that, and in the end I had to concede that while I got that it was historically inaccurate, for the purposes of the story it had to be that way. There are times when a story has to trump historical accuracy, and that was definitely one of them.”

How did you get to meet your husband? I see Martin was cast in Making Out in 1991 and True Dare Kiss in 2007.

“He was cast in a play of mine at the Liverpool Playhouse. I started off writing for theatre before I got into television. We met at an audition in 1983, he got cast … and it all happened from there!”

It seems that much of the television world has upped sticks and moved into your old backyard in recent years, with yourself, Paul Abbott and Sally Wainwright prime examples with many prestigious credits to your names. It’s a good time for Northern writers.

“Do you know, I think it always has. When I went to the Liverpool Playhouse, it was run by Willy Russell of Educating Rita fame, Alan Bleasdale had just done Boys form the Blackstuff, while Jimmy McGovern was my contemporary at the Playhouse, Kaye Mellor was up and coming … For me it’s not new that there’s this great body of Northern writers.

“And my stuff has always been filmed in and around Manchester, including filming at Stonyhurst. I had two series of The Riff Raff Element, which was set around Clitheroe and Slaidburn, and we filmed at the college.”

Although you started out, career-wise, in Newcastle while studying there.

“Yes, I went to university there. That’s where I started out, although truth is that I’d been writing since I was about four! But I wrote a play and took it to the Edinburgh Festival as a student, and I got my first job in a little theatre – the Gulbenkian Studio – as an assistant administrator. I had a great time in Newcastle, and while there the Royal Shakespeare Company were touring, I made connections, and soon heard there was a job going for an artistic director. So I got that job then moved to London, living there for a few years before moving back to Manchester. And we’ve been in Broadbottom since 1996.”

I’m intrigued by mention on your credits profile of the Out on the Floor TV film in 1983, as a Northern Soul fan. I missed that, but it pre-dated Elaine Constantine’s Northern Soul film by 30 years. Was that a scene you were part of?

“Most people will have missed it, to be honest. It started out as a stage play. I think it was the very first thing I had produced professionally. I kind of wrote it on spec. I raised the money to take a play to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and didn’t really expect anything to come of it, but got an agent and a couple of theatre directors told us to keep in touch and let them know what I was writing next.

“I wrote Out on the Floor because my sisters were really mad on Northern Soul and would go to Wigan Casino. And this play got taken up by the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London. They had this studio – literally a little portable cabin – and I don’t know how the director heard about this but the BBC were looking at doing a series featuring plays by new writers, he sent it to them, and they got me to adapt it, for my first TV show.”

Horse Around: As Ross (Aidan Turner) rides out we cry, “Keep away from the edge!” (Photo: BBC/Mammoth Screen)

A lot of your work before Poldark seems to have been at least semi-autobiographical.

“Yeah, for instance my series Cutting It – my twin sisters were hairdressers. I do tend to write about the world I know about. Not necessarily something I’ve done myself, but I need to have some kind of connection.”

I guess most of us first became aware of you as a writer through Making Out in 1989/91. That was filmed mostly around Tameside, with soundtrack input from Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert from New Order, aka The Other Two, whose soundtrack credits soon included the BBC’s Common as Muck (1994/97) and the pilot of Manchester-based ITV comedy drama Cold Feet (1997). Was that where your music taste laid?

“I’m way older than that! I love New Order, but it wasn’t actually my idea. That was the producer, John Chapman (who also produced Common as Muck). We never thought for one minute they’d agree, but they did, and it was incredible.

“The irony was that in the heyday of the Hacienda my kids were really tiny. I had a new-born and a two-year-old, so it wasn’t the kind of thing I was able to take advantage of. I was at home feeding the baby. Yes, I missed all that, I’m afraid.”

There was a return to your theatrical roots with a musical adaptation of Sex, Chips & Rock’n’Roll at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in 2005. Could you always be tempted back to that side of the business?

“Definitely, I love writing for theatre, although it tends to be a much longer gestation period in my experience. What I’m enjoying at the moment is – literally and metaphorically – not being on a treadmill … albeit a very pleasant one, these last six years, with a schedule that’s been incredibly punishing, although it’s been exhilarating, and I’ve loved it.

“There was one year when I literally had one day off. You can’t continue at that level. It helped that the kids were all grown up and I was no longer driving to football training or band practise … although I have to say I really miss that too.

“There are a lot of hours in the day that are freed up by not driving people to whatever training there is. But I was only saying to my youngest son yesterday how I loved those times, when you’re sitting in a car just chatting, the two of you together. No, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Beach Scene: Poldark’s Cornish landscapes, ‘a character in their own right’. (Photo: BBC/Mammoth Screen)

Debbie Horsfield appears at Stonyhurst Literature & Film Festival, Stonyhurst College, near Clitheroe, Lancashire, on Saturday, August 17th, with more about the two-day festival programme, other guests and events, here.

With thanks to Alex Gill and Debbie Horsfield for images used in this feature.

For more about Debbie’s adaptation of Poldark, follow these official links for Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. For the latest from Mammoth Screen, head here. And for more about Winston Graham’s Poldark novels, try this Pan Macmillan link.

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Years on the clock, but magic in the songbook – the Craig Reid interview

Chain Males: Craig and Charlie Reid, The Proclaimers, still pedalling quality songs. (Photo: Murdo MacLeod)

It’s been a busy year for The Proclaimers, still promoting last year’s mighty Angry Cyclist album with live dates here, there and everywhere, clocking up a hell of a lot more than 500 miles and 500 more so far.

But the finish line is now in sight, getting on for a year after their 11th studio LP saw the light of day.

Angry Cyclist saw Caledonian twins Charlie and Craig Reid still at the peak of their songwriting prowess, with plenty of catchy hooks, melodies and gorgeous close harmonies, plus clever, subtle but often biting lyrics.

I saw the brothers and their long-term band at Sheffield City Hall last October, and was suitably impressed (with a review here). And while that first leg of shows ended in December – featuring a sell-out 47 shows in the UK and a 13-date coast-to-coast tour of Canada – they’re back out there now for several more big dates.

And all that 32 years after first impressing this scribe and countless other fans around the world, the Reid boys similarly inspired the first time I saw them in 1987 at Glastonbury Festival, their songcraft and inner fire as strong as ever, long after This is the Story first stopped so many of us in its tracks.

They’ve even inspired a musical, the play and film Sunshine on Leith, a new generation of fans picked up along the way, with the movie becoming the fifth-highest grossing independent UK film of 2013 and Stephen Greenhorn’s original musical enjoying its fourth UK run last year and believed to now be heading toward’s London’s West End.

Charlie and Craig, born in Leith, Edinburgh, in 1962, were flying to Amsterdam the day after I called the latter, looking forward to a first ever appearance at the Paradiso, then a show in Bruges, before returning to the UK for a date in Solihull that Sunday. And when we spoke, their latest appearances at Edinburgh Castle were still very much on the mind.

“We did it once before, 11 years ago, but this time we did two nights, and for the first the weather conditions were perfect. On the second there was a little rain and the wind was pretty high, and a couple of times I think we thought we were going to have to pull it. But luckily, we got to do the whole show, and it was great. Yes, a very memorable experience.”

That involved 8,000-capacity sell-outs each night, as opposed to a similarly-impressive 5,500 success for a recent Inverness date. And I believe there’s a documentary about the song ‘Sunshine on Leith’ coming soon.

“There is. They asked a while ago if they could film both nights (at Edinburgh) for this film, so I wait to see how that turns out.”

I see you’ve been asking fans via social media for memories of what that song means to them. I’m guessing you’ve heard lots of inspirational stories so far.

“Yes, about ‘Sunshine on Leith’ and many other songs of ours, but that song more than any other.”

My chief excuse for talking to you this time is the Warrington Parr Hall show this Sunday, August 4th, and Blackpool Opera House on Saturday, August 17th, with dates at Watford Colosseum (9th), Oxford New Theatre (11th) and Stoke-on-Trent Victoria Theatre (16th) in between. Have you played the Opera House before?

“We played Blackpool three years ago, and that’s definitely going to be the biggest crowd we’ve played to. We’re looking forward to getting back there.”

It’s been a long tour, and it goes on. You see out August at Salisbury City Hall (30th) and The Hexagon in Reading (31st), then in September have your Home Internationals of sorts, with dates at Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall (1st), Cork Opera House (5th), Dublin’s Bord Gais Energy Theatre (7th) and Belfast’s Waterfront Hall Auditorium (8th) followed by a finale at the Glasgow SSE Hydro (14th). Will that be the last show for a while?

“That’ll be the last for this album. I think by that time we’ll have been touring with this record since June of last year, so I think we’ll take a break then make another record. I’d have thought that next year we’ll all be writing and recording, and I wouldn’t have thought we’d be playing any live dates.”

When I saw you live last autumn, you were already on the money, so I can’t imagine how tight a band performance it must be now. Could you be doing this in your sleep by now?

“No, we do keep changing things. Even at Edinburgh Castle we changed songs for the second night. You’ve got to keep yourself on your toes. We’ve a lot of songs we can play. There are some you feel you should play every night, but others to switch around and keep it interesting.”

I’m guessing it might get a little wearing going into something like ‘(I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles’ every night, great a number as it is. Then again, I saw a clip of the Jacaranda School in Malawi singing the song as part of the Mary’s Meals charity initiative. Moments like that must make you proud and somewhat emotional.

“Yeah, it does. It’s great when your song can get through to so many people. Certainly, ‘500 Miles’ is not a difficult song, but I think that adds to it. That’s part of the popularity. That’s why so many people have done it in so many different situations.”

It must play on your mind or indeed any other successful band with something like that, wondering just what it was that made it become such a worldwide hit. If you could bottle that … Then again, I don’t see you and Charlie looking for an elusive formula that might guarantee a hit record.

“No. We didn’t expect to get them in the first place, so we don’t set out to make hit records.”

How was your Glastonbury Festival this time around?

“It was fantastic. We were on at 11.45, by which time the sun was directly over the stage, and it was very hot. But it got much worse in the late afternoon. I really pitied the acts that were on after us. The heat was incredible. I’ve never felt it like that at any festival. But it was good to get back there.”

That’s where I first saw you live in 1987, and in a similar mid-afternoon slot I seem to recall.

“We did, yeah. The first album was not long out at that stage, possibly a month or so.”

I said in my review from Sheffield City Hall from last October that you seemed somewhat channelled when you got out there, but fired straight into ‘Angry Cyclist’ and it made for a mighty, punchy start. I get the impression you still get nervous.

“Yes, sometimes. Even playing regularly. It’s not something where you get a couple of gigs and then you feel fine for the rest of the tour.”

I suppose it’s good to have that nervous energy. It leaves you less likely to get complacent.

“I don’t think we’d ever become that, y’know. It’s never happened, and I don’t think that’s ever going to happen with us.”

The lyrics for that song are spot on. It perfectly encapsulates the state we’re in politically right now, on both sides of the Atlantic, with a clear shift to the right and the seemingly-unchecked rise of populism. It seems that you must have so much material to go at as a songwriter right now, yet that must get hard – feeling a need to raise those issues all these years on.

“Yeah, I think that the polarisation of politics in many Western democracies, America and Britain especially, has been very obvious. For a number of years now. I think it will end eventually, but I don’t know how or when it will. It’s got a while to run yet. And I don’t think you could watch what’s gone on in the last couple of years and not write about it.”

Even the day we spoke, waiting – despairingly – to hear whether Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt would emerge as Conservative leader and therefore Britain’s next Prime Minister, I thought of another Proclaimers song, ‘What School’. We seem to be living little vignettes from your songbook. And on a similar front, 30 years or so down the line, can you still feel at times, thinking of a song from your previous album, ‘Forever Young’?

“No … in spirit I suppose, but reality and age catches up with you by the time we step down from the bus when we’re out on tour and the bloody legs are playing up. I think you take longer to recover from gigs and everything.”

Do you find it difficult to write songs when you’re out on the road? Because you’ll have spent a long time in that situation this past year or so.

“I never even try. I get an occasional tune and I’ll maybe just sing that into the phone, and might use that later on, but I don’t make any attempt to write on the road. I concentrate on what we’re doing.

“If you tour long enough you do look forward to writing again, and I look forward to probably October when we start.”

When you are back home, do you live quite close to Charlie these days?

“Yeah, about four miles or something like that.”

Do you see a lot of each other between recording and touring commitments? Do you still properly socialise?

“We do, but only for the reason that we rehearse a couple of times a week. Even when we’re not on the road, just to keep the voices right and when we’re writing new songs. Once we’ve got maybe three or four together we start rehearsing them, and that takes us through the months. So we end up seeing each other at least a couple of times a week even when we’re not touring. But it’s not a social thing. It’s work.”

And amid all this, where do you get your own sense of piecethese days? Is that still around and about Edinburgh, communing with that special ‘Sunshine on Leith’, or elsewhere?

“I think in Edinburgh, yeah, I think so.”

For this site’s August 2018 feature/interview with Craig’s twin, Charlie Reid, head here.

Spokes Persons: Craig and Charlie Reid on location with The Proclaimers in Leith (Photo: Murdo MacLeod)

For full details of The Proclaimers’ remaining 2019 dates and ticket information, head to the band’s Facebook and Twitter pages and their website.  

 

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The Wedding Present / Vinny Peculiar – Waterloo Music Bar, Blackpool

Live Presents: David Gedge and Charles Layton have put in the most TWP appearances (Photo: Richard Houghton)

Thirty summers ago I saw the semi-legendary Wedding Present play to possibly their largest audience thus far at Reading Festival, and certainly a bigger crowd than when I saw them at Glastonbury two years earlier.

It had been an amazing year, the success of October 1987 LP George Best propelling them way beyond the realms of mere indie stardom, moving away from venues like Reading Majestic, where I finally saw them in early ’87. And a year after that stunning debut album, a new record landed, Bizarro, with tickets duly snapped up for shows at Portsmouth Guildhall then the first of two nights at Kilburn National Club.

If I recall rightly, it was at the latter that during a full-on ‘Take Me!’ David Gedge and Peter Solowka gave it some tongue-in-cheek rock star poses, announcing, ‘Status Quo – 25 years in the business’. They’d clearly hit the big time, yet seemed not so much bewitched or bothered as bewildered by the experience. And anyone who’s spoken to members of the band knows that down-to-earth approach never left them.

That stretches to their choice of venues – they’re still capable of filling the biggies, but are at home elsewhere too, bringing intimacy to them all. That’s something I spoke to two lads near the front about on the night. They couldn’t work out how they managed to snap up tickets with just a week or two to spare in this Blackpool watering hole for a band they witnessed fill the Academy at Leeds a few months before. But perhaps that’s just how the Boy Gedge rolls.

While the guitarist known as Grapper became the second of at least 20 personnel to leave what would soon be acknowledged as a rolling line-up just after third LP, Seamonsters, The Wedding Present had already proved they were here to stay, with Bizarro playing a key part in that.

Blackpool Visit: The Wedding Present impressed at the Waterloo Music Bar (Photo copyright: Richard Houghton)

Gedge is the only TWP constant down the years, bringing to mind Mark E. Smith’s line that, ‘If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s the Fall’. But as he pointed out on Saturday night in Blackpool, current drumstool incumbent Charlie Layton has now played more shows than anyone else other than him. What’s more, The Wedding Present have now reached three and a half decades under that banner since Gedge and Keith Gregory stepped away from The Lost Pandas.

Having mentioned Gregory, I clearly hear his mark on that second LP – like the first, produced by Chris Allison – and love so many of those basslines. They remain integral to its sound all these years on too, perfectly executed on this occasion by most recent addition, Melanie Howard.

While this was an anniversary-type gig, it wasn’t what I expected. I saw a Bizarro celebration gig after the record turned 20, the band on similarly great form at Preston’s 53 Degrees. But this time, shifting from Fylde Road to the Fylde coast, the format changed.

A rough and ready venue with good, honest punk rock sawdust appeal – one where Camper Van Beethoven could happily retire for a pint after taking the skinheads bowling at the ‘Wembley of crown green bowls’ venue next door – certainly suited opening act Vinny Peculiar, invited along by Gedge after previous TWP supports, making new friends on this occasion too.

Try and imagine a singer-songwriter with vocal dashes of Ian Hunter and Steve Harley, offering hints of the songcraft of Ray Davies and Neil Hannon, wrapped up with something of the look of John Otway, John Shuttleworth and Robyn Hitchcock rolled into one, and you’re on your way towards a picture of an artist The Irish Times dubbed ‘the missing link between Jarvis Cocker and Roger McGough’.

Worcestershire Source: Vinny Peculiar bowled us over at the Waterloo last weekend (Photo: Richard Houghton)

He’s certainly personable, full of biographical tales and vignettes of life in the Malverns, with liberal lashings of Worcestershire sauce and past North West adventures between ad during selections from his Down the Bright Stream, Silver Meadows, The Root Mull Effect, and Return of the Native LPs, with a new record about to land.

He’s Bromsgrove’s answer to whatever the question was in the first place, his lyrical matter often somewhere between whimsy and introspection, his voice and guitar competently complemented by bandmate Rob Steadman on keyboards and added vocals.

Highlights included a Kinks-esque ‘English Village’, pensive Clifford T. Ward tribute ‘The Singing Schoolteacher’, a Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band-like ‘Anthony Gormley’, The Go-Betweens-ish ‘Everyone Has Something To Say’, a reflective ‘Pop Music, Football & Girls’ (recorded with his previous band Parlour Flames), and singalong finale ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a King‘. One to seek out live and on record, I’d say.

How to follow that? Well, Gedge and co. sailed straight into ‘Rotterdam’ from the classic 1991 LP, Seamonsters, a perfect work-out teeing up the first three selections from our guest LP, 100mph renditions of ‘Brassneck’ – the crowd reaction as strong as ever – and ‘Crushed’ followed by a peerless ‘No’, Melanie’s chunky bass throb taking this punter back down the years.

We went off-piste for promising newbie ‘Don’t Ask Me’ before a trundle back to 1992, the year of the band’s 12 hit singles, ‘Go-Go Dancer’ and ‘California’ B-side ‘Let’s Make Some Plans’ as fresh as ever, the latter reminding me – as if it were needed – what great songs former Weddoes support Close Lobsters are capable of.

Strings Attached: Danielle Wadey co-wrote the new TWP 45, their first picture disc (Photo: Richard Houghton)

Back to Bizarro we went, seeing out side one with ‘Thanks’ and ‘Kennedy’, the latter still capable of dragging old-ish fellas into the middle of the throng (and don’t get me wrong,  a Wedding Present gig is certainly no male-only club). I’m not so sure we had a sprung dancefloor, but it became one for a while.

In case you assume this is a band living off past success, brand new B-side ‘Panama’ was next, and it’s perhaps the mark of the band that it was that and not A-side ‘Jump In, The Water’s Fine’ getting an outing here. Besides, it’s an instant winner on this evidence, even if a few old heads are still not convinced by David’s bid to initiate audience-participatory hand-clapping. New fangled ways, eh.

‘Crawl’ was next, from 1990’s ‘Three Songs’ EP, while I was lost in music again for compelling Bizarro side two opener and epic tour de force ‘What Have I Said Now?’, a brief segue following through the surging ‘Wow’ by Cinerama, another key part of the Gedge story.

The band wrenched up the tempo further still for a super-charged ‘Granadaland’, heading from there to the beguiling ‘Bewitched’, inspiring a feeling of enhanced trance-like matter. And while tonight’s version didn’t carry so much of the slow drop-out and urgent return of past encounters, it’s no less mesmeric. What’s more, I imagined I sensed recently-departed Doris Day at the end, as if willing the band home.

We were nearly there, a heartfelt, reflective ‘Spangle’ from 1994’s Watusi another mighty gateway for this accomplished quartet, launching straight into a monumental ‘Take Me!’  If anything, I enjoyed it as much as at any point down the years, Charlie on sparkling form at the back and Danielle and Melanie willing the Boy Gedge on out front.

Bass Instinct: Melanie Howard, with The Wedding Present (Photo copyright: Richard Houghton)

Bass Instinct: Melanie Howard, the most recent Wedding Present arrival (Photo copyright: Richard Houghton)

Yep, 35 years in the business and somehow still with something left behind after another nine or so enthralling minutes, the sweat dripping from audience and band alike.

His breath briefly back, a few departing words followed from Gedge, still feeling a need to explain to newcomers (and there are a few, I’m pleased to say) his no-encore policy before a reconfigured ‘Be Honest’. And as soon as the needle arm returned, they saw us out with another classic 45, this scribe happily transported back to the days I was still buying 12”s, ‘Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm’ as crisp today as in ’88.

To catch up on Vinny Peculiar’s back-catalogue, find out about new LP While You Still Can and forthcoming dates, try his Bandcamp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter bases.

For the latest from The Wedding Present, including remaining Bizarro 30th anniversary shows and At the Edge of the Sea XI Festival on August 9th/10th at the Concorde 2, Brighton, head here. You can also keep in touch with David Gedge and co. via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

To see WriteWyattUK’s verdict on the band’s two nights at the Continental, Preston in July 2017, head here, for a review from the Boileroom, Guildford, in February 2017, try here, for my verdict on 2016’s Going Going … head here, for a past band appreciation wrapped around a review of 2012’s Valentina, try here, and for a link to an interview with David Gedge at Hebden Bridge’s Trades Club from five years ago, head here

Band Substance: The Wedding Present check up on Charlie at the Waterloo Bar, Blackpool at the weekend. From the left – Danielle Wadey, David Gedge, Charles Layton, Melanie Howard (Photo copyright: Richard Houghton)

With kind permission for photographs from the Waterloo Music Bar from Richard Houghton, who worked alongside David Gedge on official band publication The Wedding Present: Sometimes These Words Just Don’t Have To Be Said.  

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Even Better with The Real Thing – in conversation with Chris Amoo

Real Live: The Real Thing, still a force to be reckoned with in 2019, and coming to a town near you soon.

Almost five decades after their debut single, The Real Thing are still out there, treading the boards, with no intention of slowing down for co-founders Chris Amoo and Dave Smith.

The passing of Chris’ older brother Eddie Amoo in February 2018, aged 73 put that in doubt. But as long as there’s an appreciative audience, they decided the show will go on. And it’s never just been about record sales for this popular Merseyside combo.

Was there ever a doubt they’d carry on after losing Eddie last February, I asked Chris, when I called him at home in Liverpool. After all, his big brother hadn’t been part of the band at the start.

“At first there was. He was my right arm. And we never ever pictured ourselves without each other. It was a hard decision to carry on. We felt there was no way we were going to try and replace him. For me and Dave he was irreplaceable.

“We wanted to always be known as the original Real Thing, rather than bringing someone else in and making it into something else. But we can do that because I was the lead singer. While I’m there we’ve still got the Real Thing sound.

“What I have, basically – and this is technology for you – I’ve sung all Eddie’s parts, and our keyboard player can play them along with us while we’re singing. So we’ve still got that nice three-part harmony.”

I guess in that sense, it seems like he’s still out there with you.

“Of course, And we’ve never known anybody else- there was me and Dave, Eddie and Ray. We’ve never known anybody else, from when we were in school, we were together. Me and Dave know each other inside out and we know how to carry the show. And we know what we’ve always done to carry a show. So we’ve just carried on, and it’s been very successful.”

Big Brother: Eddie Amoo was a big influence on younger brother and co-writer Chris, not least in his Chants days.

Big time success followed shortly after Eddie’s arrival. Was he the missing link before then, in a sense?

“No, he wasn’t. We were quite proficient before, but at some stage he was going to join. We were brothers and we were already doing all the writing and working on the musical direction of the band, so it was always obvious that he was going to join. And he added another level, because his voice was higher than the parts we had, so we could do a nice four-part harmony.”

I equate The Real Thing with the long hot summers of my youth in suburban Surrey, a key part of the soundtrack accompanying my childhood, their singles blasting out of the transistor radio and my older sister’s Dansette. And as she was (and remains) a big David Essex fan, that makes even more sense now, the band having recorded with and toured internationally beside Plaistow-born David.

What’s more, I’m reminded now that their Ken Gold-produced big hit, ‘You To Me Are Everything’, recorded at Camden’s Roundhouse Studios and becoming their sole UK No.1 (also a minor US pop and soul hit), reached the top during the long hot summer of 1976, the group only kept off the summit with follow-up ‘Can’t Get by Without You’ that autumn by Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’.

While I was primarily about punk and new wave by 1979, that track still resonated with this pre-teen when they reached the top-five again with ‘Can You Feel the Force?’. And at a stage when I was closer to the indie scene in the mid-‘80s, there was still a more soulful side to my growing singles collection when they climbed the charts again with commercially-successful remixes of the old hits.

It was only in later years that I was introduced to a less pop-influenced side of The Real Thing, discovering late on their 1977 long player, Four From Eight, a whole different aspect to this accomplished outfit revealed. But more of that later.

Before I get on to The Real Thing, I should go back a bit and talk a little about influential 1960s’ Liverpool doo-wop outfit The Chants, the vocal group from which Eddie Amoo emerged. Seen as the UK’s first black acapella quintet, The Beatles and several other Merseybeat outfits were among their fans.

Apparently, a chance meeting with Paul McCartney at a Little Richard show at Birkenhead’s Tower Ballroom led to them being invited to audition for The Beatles at the Cavern Club, the Fab Four so knocked out by the group’s sound that they invited them to appear with them that night, to the reluctance of Brian Epstein. And thanks to John Lennon’s persistence, they did so, the Beatles manager going on to briefly represent them.

Early Influence: 1960s Liverpudlian doo-wop outfit The Chants, including Chris’ big brother Eddie Amoo

They were signed to Pye Records by Tony Hatch, but despite touring for 13 years they never quite reached the next level. That doesn’t mean they weren’t a major influence on Eddie’s younger brother though.

“They were like our big brothers, and an influence in as much as how it showed us it can be done and you can have a career on stage. Unfortunately, they never ever made it, but at least they had a living doing it, which was all we wanted to do at the time.”

I guess they proved that a band from Toxteth, Liverpool 8, could make it.

“That’s what I mean. We could always look to them and we could always – even if we’d never had a hit – we knew we could go around and do it professionally.”

Founded in 1970 by Chris, Dave, Kenny Davis and Ray Lake, and later briefly joined by Edward Ankrah, younger brother of Joe Ankrah from The Chants, The Real Thing were originally known as The Sophisticated Soul Brothers, manager Tony Hall – the London-based A&R man – renaming them after taking the band on in early 1972, inspired by seeing a Coca-Cola neon sign while stuck at traffic lights at Piccadilly Circus.

They soon secured a recording deal with EMI, having taken that next big step closer to fame by winning an episode of Hughie Green-fronted Thames TV national talent show Opportunity Knocks, with a cover of ‘Grazin’ the Grass’.

Opportunity Knocks opened the door to the nation, but David Essex made us really. It takes a lot to make it, because there are so many people wanting to make it in this business. You need elements of luck, and the first we got was meeting Tony Hall. That was the very first piece of magic, because there was nobody quite like him in this country for black music. And he was respected worldwide.”

Within three months, in April 1972, they released their debut 45, ‘Vicious Circle’, written by Eddie. Listening back now, I suggested to Chris, I detect more than a few traces of The Temptations or perhaps War there.

“Yeah, The Temptations, definitely.”

Debut Single: 1972’s ‘Vicious Circle’

Was that where you were at by that stage, the Temps, the Philly sound, and all that?

“Yeah, the Temptations – that was the whole thing about that particular record. And at that point there were five of us. And they were one of the first to have those five different lead singers. We were right into that – we could all be in the limelight!”

There’s a band who have regenerated of sorts, bringing in old friends and younger family down the years after original members departed. Is there another generation of Amoo boys or girls waiting to come through the ranks too?

“No, unfortunately.”

Did you ever get to meet The Temptations?

“Never met The Temptations. They were a little before us.”

You say that, but as with their tour-mates The Four Tops (with original member Duke Fakir still performing), there’s a Temptations line-up still going strong, past WriteWyattUK interviewee Otis Williams touring all these years on.

“Yeah, although the one I would be interested in seeing is Dennis Edwards. He was a big, big influence.”

After ‘Vicious Circle’ there was second single ‘Plastic Man’, again credited to Eddie, earning a first appearance on BBC TV’s Top of the Pops, a few more faltering 45s following before Kenny Davis departed, the band continuing as a trio – backed by a formidable band – until Eddie joined permanently following the demise of The Chants.

Next single ‘Stone Cold Love Affair’, their first for Pye, became a club hit in Europe and the US, and through producer Jeff Wayne the group was introduced to David Essex, who quickly took a shine to the band, inviting them to contribute backing vocals to his 1975 album, All the Fun of the Fair – perhaps most notably on ‘Rolling Stone’ – while writing and producing their next single, ‘Watch Out, Carolina’, released that September.

“Our number two stroke of luck was meeting David Essex and Jeff Wayne, with David taking us under his wing, doing Top of the Pops with him, and things like that. When we got ‘You To Me …’ out, it was snapped up first and foremost by lots of his followers.

Vocal Backing: The Real Thing chipped in on David Essex’s 1976 hit album, All the Fun of the Fair

“We were quite good by then. By the time we met David we knew exactly what we were about. We were writing good songs – me and Eddie – and out manager was taking us in the right direction, career-wise. When we met David, we were ready for it.  And we learned how to put on a proper show, going to America with him, so by the time we’d finished with David and we had our own hit record, we took to doing theatres and knew exactly how to put a show on.”

Meanwhile, Jeff Wayne engaged the band to sing on the soundtrack of his concept album, War of the Worlds, Chris supplying lead vocals on the iconic ‘Forever Autumn’. Yet Pye soon pulled out, the track later re-recorded by The Moody Blues’ Justin Heyward, a major hit following, The Real Thing’s contributions left on the cutting room floor.

The band toured extensively with David Essex though, including his US ‘Lamplight’ tour, and can be heard on an On Tour live LP that saw the light of day in 1976. And that year they also appeared on his next single, ‘City Lights’, including a promo video shot in London’s West End. But pretty soon, they had that elusive hit of their own, ‘You to Me Are Everything’ taking them to a whole new level.

In fact, in the early ‘80s they returned to working with David Essex, featuring on his top-20 hit, ‘Me and My Girl (Nightclubbing)’, and accompanying him on a 1983 tour of South Africa in the era of apartheid, a decision they now consider one of the few regrets of their career.

Did the Amoo brothers – Liverpool-born, with African and Irish roots – and their bandmates ever doubt big time success would follow within four years of recording ‘Vicious Circle’?

“To be honest with you, no – we never ever doubted it, but that’s the arrogance of youth. We never doubted that at some point we were going to crack it, especially having the manager we had. We had a lot of confidence in him. We were only kids.”

Was there music on both sides of your family – in both your Ghanaian and Irish roots?

“Definitely on the Ghanaian side. My Dad used to play guitar, playing in a lot of trios when he first came over, in London.”

In time, you were deemed the most successful UK black soul act of the ‘70s. That’s something to be proud of.

“Absolutely proud. And not many get a chance to record hit records, especially three classics.”

Eight Wonder: The Real Thing’s 1977 LP, a tribute to their Toxteth roots

I mentioned before second LP, 1977’s Four from Eight, its title alluding to the Toxteth, Liverpool 8 neighbourhood in which they grew up, the band taking a more socially-aware approach, channelling experiences of growing up in a racially-integrated, low-income area. It included lead single ‘Love’s Such A Wonderful Thing’, a quarter-century later sampled by Daft Punk for a white-label bootleg, then two years later by The Freeloaders for ‘So Much Love to Give’, a major club hit following. And at the heart of the record there was the ground-breaking medley of title track ‘Liverpool 8’, ‘Children of the Ghetto’ and ‘Stanhope Street’, the middle cut later covered by Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey, Courtney Pine, Paul Hardcastle and Mary J. Blige.

In his excellent Liverpool: Wondrous Place (Virgin Books, 2002), music writer Paul Du Noyer rightly sees ‘Children of the Ghetto’ ‘in the socially-committed vein of latter-day Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder’. Was that album chiefly about The Real Thing paying their dues?

“It was something we were always really interested in doing, writing that type of song, hence ‘Children of the Ghetto’ and those songs about our experiences of growing up. We were very influenced by people like Curtis Mayfield, doing all those songs like ‘Move On Up’. That was just another step as writers in what we were pursuing. And it was a little bit ahead of the time, actually.”

Have you got happy memories of your first forays into all this in 1970 – 50 years ago next year?

“Yeah, because basically we had no worries. All we wanted to do was sing and anyone who could give us a microphone we were there. It didn’t matter what pub, what social club … if they had a microphone we’d show up and we’d do a bit of acapella, and we built up a really good following around Liverpool with all the youngsters. They could all relate to you, y’see.”

Think of The Beatles and you think of The Cavern, while later with Echo & the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, and Wah! It was nearby Eric’s. Was there a venue you became associated with more than any other?

“We never had a residence, but we used to do all the clubs in Liverpool – the Mardi Gras and places like that. And then of course we did Opportunity Knocks. We won that, and that opened the door to the nation, really. We were then professional, singing all over England.”

Was it all cover versions at that point, or were you increasingly introducing your own material?

Number One: The Real Thing topped the charts in 1976

“It was mainly covers, but we did a few of our own songs, like ‘Vicious Circle’ and ‘Children of the Ghetto’.

That suggests you were playing that latter song long before it showed up on a Real Thing album.

“Yes, we were. We used to play a lot of universities, and that was fantastic for those shows. And we were always into that type of song – more so than the poppier stuff.”

Was Liverpool on board with you from the start? It’s always had the reputation of a city that looks outwardly rather than inwardly, welcoming all its residents, regardless of colour.

“I don’t think there was that much popularity for black music in Liverpool, to be honest with you. We were different, but when we cracked it, obviously they took us to their hearts.

“Basically, I think Liverpool was a Beatles-type city, whereas London was more diverse in its music. There was a lot more happening for black music in London. If there was in Liverpool, I can’t remember it. Bands like The Chants were a lot older than us.”

You say that, but it seems that the pioneering bands like The Beatles took on board a lot of outside influences and added their own stamp to those, like American R&B.

“Yeah, definitely.”

When this all started in 1970, could you ever have imagined that you might still be treading the boards five decades on?

“Never thought about it really. We were just worried about the time and what we were enjoying at the time. We never thought about records or anything else, to be quite honest. We were just enjoying being on stage.”

And the band still has a busy schedule. When I spoke to Chris he was fresh from a date in St Alban’s, heading off the following evening to play Hale Barns Carnival in Cheshire, then Felixstowe on Sunday, before my excuses for speaking to him – this weekend’s dates in Morecambe and their home city, Liverpool, their tour set to continue in early August, with at least 28 dates in the diary up until early December.

Back Then: The Real Thing in the early days, with Chris Amoo and Dave Smith still out there in 2019

I’m guessing you wouldn’t still be out there if you weren’t enjoying it.

“Yeah, that’s all we’ve ever done.”

Time moves on, and Dave’s just turned 67, with you not far behind. Do you plan to keep performing as long as possible?

“As long as we can, as long as people want to hear us.”

And what do we get on the ‘Feel the Force’ tour? Is it yourself, Dave and your five-piece band (John Chapman on saxophone, Sam Edwards on keyboards, Stuart Ansell on guitar, Jon Bower on bass and Danny Rose on drums)?

“Yeah, we’ve got a band we’ve had for a long, long time, and they’re super-tight. We’ll be doing hits and some new songs as well, and a mixture of one or two classics that we particularly like.

“You can come along, have a nice sing, you can have a dance, and you can have a nice, relaxing evening … but be prepared – put your dancing shoes on!”

Force Field: The Real Thing, still feeling it at the Rewind Festival, Scone Palace, Perth (Picture: Martin Bone)

The Real Thing are playing Morecambe Platform this Friday, July 26, with tickets available via this link, and Liverpool’s Let’s Rock Festival at Croxteth Hall Country Park on Saturday, July 27, with details here. And the Feel the Force tour then continues at: Thursday, August 1 – Birmingham Jam House; Saturday, August 3 – Jersey Royal Showground; Friday, August 16 – Bournemouth Canvas; Thursday, August 22 – Alcester Ragley Hall (Warwickshire Festival); Sunday, August 25 – Codicote GoatFest; Saturday, August 31 – London Boisdale; Sunday, September 1 – Bolton Albert Halls; Friday, September 6 – Milton Keynes Stables; Saturday, September 7 – Let’s Rock Essex: Chelmsford Hylands Park / Broxbourne Spotlight; Saturday, September 14 – Kettering Lighthouse Theatre; Friday, September 20 – Worksop Van Dyk Hotel; Friday, September 27 – Bognor Regis Butlin’s; Saturday, September 28 – Selsey Embassy; Sunday, September 29 – Littlecote Warner; Friday, October 4 – Minehead Butlin’s; Friday, October 11 – Great Yarmouth Vauxhall Holiday Park; Saturday, October 19 – Purnerend P3; Friday, October 25 – Peterborough East of England Showground; Saturday, October 26 – Bilston Robin 2; Saturday, November 2 – Croydon Fairfield Hall; Sunday, November 3 – Skegness Butlin’s; Friday, November 8 – Leiden Gebr De Nobel; Saturday, November 9 – Hilversum Vorstin Concert Hall; Friday, November 15 – Skegness Butlin’s; Saturday, November 16 – Whitby Spa Pavilion; Friday, November 29 – Dunstable Grove Theatre; Saturday, November 30 – Eastleigh Concorde; Wednesday, December 4 – High Wycombe Swan.

For more details about those shows and the band, head to The Real Thing‘s website. You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Still living the Impossible Dream – the Bez interview

Back Again: Happy Mondays, coming to a town near you this October, November and December 2019.

Four decades after crossover indie/dance combo Happy Mondays set out on their initial adventure, and 30 years after their biggest-selling LP, the legendary Manc outfit have announced a marathon greatest hits tour for October, November and December this year. And it’s fair to say that the band’s resident freaky dancer and percussionist, Mark Berry – best known the world over as Bez – is mad for it.

It’s a big undertaking this, I put to one of music’s great characters, still twisting his melons where and when he can all these years on. I mean, 29 dates in total – is he up for that?

“Let’s just say I’ve left it a little bit late now for any career change. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. And luckily, I’m still fit and healthy, so yeah, I’m really looking forward to it.”

It’s the classic line-up too, also featuring frontman Shaun Ryder, Rowetta (vocals), Gary Whelan (drums), Paul Ryder (bass), Mark Day (guitar) and Dan Broad (guitar/keyboards), with memorable tracks such as ‘Step On’, ‘Kinky Afro’, ‘Hallelujah’, ‘W.F.L.’, ‘Loose Fit’ and ‘24 Hour Party People’ pretty much guaranteed.

I spoke to Rowetta when you were touring two summers ago, and she told me that September 2015 WriteWyattUK interviewee Shaun Ryder was a different bloke since he’d become a family man. Have you mellowed too over the years?

“Well, I’m a different bloke to when I first set out. I have changed my lifestyle slightly, moving into more sustainable living. I got involved in politics for a while, and I’m a Grandad these days.”

Ah, splendid. Tell me more.

“Grandad Bez, he calls me! He’s seven, and his name’s Luca. He had to go into hospital to have an operation done on his ears, and when he woke up afterwards, he was talking to the nurses about being at Glastonbury that summer. That was on his mind at the time for some reason. I don’t know why. Ha ha!”

Born in Bolton and raised there and in Salford and Wigan, and at one point a next-door neighbour of his pal Shaun – the pair popping up this last week on a celebrity edition of Channel 4’s Gogglebox – in the High Peaks of Derbyshire, Bez has shifted from his North West roots of late to Herefordshire. But I guess he’s been a wandering soul for some time.

I recall him popping up in the story of Joe Strummer, among his campfire crew, part of a scene that ultimately inspired The Clash frontman’s return from his wilderness years fronting the Mescaleros, the pair among those roaming the great outdoors of Hampshire before Joe moved to Somerset. Happy days, Bez?

“They were great days, and I’m lucky to live in an area where we’ve not spoiled the countryside now.”

I think he was alluding there to light pollution and a superior night sky somewhat removed from his old Greater Manchester haunts, ideal for stargazing and evening campfires. But you can’t have it all, and his mobile reception wasn’t so great, Bez drifting in and out as we spoke. So home is no longer Urmston then?

“No, I’m near Hereford these days. It’s a beautiful area and I really enjoy living there, but I’m back and forth all the time to see family and everything else in Manchester.”

It was a big shock losing Joe Strummer when we did, in December 2002.

“Yeah, and he died so young. But all the campfire kids are really good friends to this day, and Joe left us some great music behind.”

Talking of friends in the music business, I was talking to Carl Hunter from The Farm the other day about his first film as a director, the splendid Sometimes Always Never, and he put the 2004 reformation of his band squarely at the door of the Mondays, inviting them to get back together as a support act on a tour that year.

“Yeah, we always had a good relationship with The Farm. They’re from a similar background to ourselves, and we enjoy their company.”

He mentioned politics, and not only did that involve standing for Parliament – in Salford and Eccles for the 2015 General Election, independently on behalf of the Realist Party on a platform of ‘free energy, free food and free anything’, winning 703 votes, 1.6%, in a seat won by Labour’s Rebecca Long-Bailey with 50% of the vote – but also continued protest against shale gas fracking. In fact, four and a half years ago he was a media presence on site, at the forefront of the battle, on-site as well as joining fellow activists outside Lancashire County Hall in Preston, opposing proposed tests.

He told reporters at the time, ‘The welfare of the people don’t come into question. What comes into question is profits – that’s all they care about. They haven’t any interest at all in any sort of welfare or the being of this planet or even care for the planet itself.’

The story’s not on the front of the newspapers right now, but I get the impression you still want people to remain vigilant.

“I believe they’re planning on resuming drilling in West Lancashire at Preston New Road. We’ve done everything we can so far to stop them and they’ve lost every battle as we try to uphold our rights to freedom of protest. We’ve fought court battles to ensure rules aren’t changed. I don’t know where they’re getting their money from. Any other company who’d lost that much money would have left. But they’re still there, still going, with plenty of corporate backing, and my fear is that they’re now waiting for a Brit exit and then a new deal with America. We’ve got no idea what that deal’s about, and when it’s implemented it will remain secret for years. I think that’s what these fracking companies are waiting for. But it’s not over yet. They’re intent on going on, but they ain’t gonna succeed!”

After signing to Tony Wilson’s Factory Records, the late ‘80s saw Happy Mondays become pioneers of the ‘Madchester’ sound, blending their love of funk, rock, psychedelia and house music with the sounds of the UK’s emerging rave scene. It was the third LP, 1990’s platinum-selling Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches, that saw the Mondays cross over into the mainstream, and a quarter of a century later they won the Ivor Novello’s Inspiration Award in 2016, helping cement their reputation.

However you might class part-time beekeeper and beer brewer Bez’s creative input for Happy Mondays over the years and Black Grape in the past, he’s certainly been a key factor in both bands’ appeal, and has hardly been shy in front of the cameras over the years. And while there have been a lot of questionable choices and actions down the years, including a short custodial sentence and bankruptcies along the way, his popularity has hardly waned, as seen in a 2005 Celebrity Big Brother public vote victory. And then there was last September’s celeb Bargain Hunt victory on the BBC alongside Rowetta over Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and Candida Doyle, until subsequent disqualification after it emerged that his girlfriend bought two of the items at the auction, Bez paying their £8 profit to Comic Relief out of his own pocket.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride. Ever think for one moment when you joined the Mondays that you might still be out there on our TV screens and playing live, treating us all to your freaky dancing, shaking your maracas – so to speak – and living the life of a music star at the age of 55?

“No, it’s absolutely incredible. If you’d told us when we were young kids, when we first set about in the business, when we were struggling musicians, that we’d still be out there after 35 years, it would have been like an impossible dream. How fortunate we’ve been to pursue a career doing something that you absolutely love doing. Not many people get that opportunity in life, with the lifestyle that goes with it.”

Not just one successful band either, but Black Grape back in the day too, amassing six top-10s and 13 top-40 hits between those bands, even scoring a 1995 No.1 with the latter’s It’s Great When You’re Straight … Yeah album.

“Yeah, the sad thing with Black Grape is that (first) album would have been the next Happy Mondays album. Kermit actually sang on the last Happy Mondays album, and that was like the stepping stone in the direction we were moving into. It’s such a shame that we all fell out. I think we would have all gone on to greater success. But we went on with Black Grape, and that’s one of the biggest selling albums we ever produced.”

And going back to your recording roots, have you still got your copies of Happy Mondays’ hard to find 1985 Factory singles – the ‘Forty Five’ EP and ‘Freaky Dancin’’ singles?

“No. At the time I used to give everything away. But I still see them knocking about. People still bring them out and I sign them. And I always look at them and say, ‘Ooh, I wish I had that record!’”

I’d run out of time by then, but still managed a couple of quick-fire questions. Does he still get around in his black cab?

“No, the black cab got stolen. You can’t have anything these days unless it’s tied down.”

What did you make of Chris Cogshill’s portrayal of yourself in the 24 Hour Party People film?

“I’m actually gutted because he’s taller than me, more handsome than me, and does me better than I do myself!”

Finally, if you could go back 40 years and take aside your 15-year-old self, what advice would you offer him?

“Well, when I was that age, I wasn’t very good at taking any advice. I suppose if I was able to go back again I’d be in that same sort of position where I wouldn’t really listen to any advice. But that’s what’s life’s all about. It’s all about experience, whether it’s good or bad. That’s what you live for.”

Happy Mondays’ late 2019 tour begins on Wednesday, October 23 in Inverness, the first of four Scottish dates, and runs through until a Saturday, December 21 date at Lincoln’s Engine Shed, highlights including London’s Roundhouse on Thursday, October 31, and North west dates at Preston Guild Hall on Thursday, November 14, a Manchester homecoming at the Academy on Thursday, November 21, and a visit to Liverpool’s Mountford Hall on Friday, December 6.

Full list of tour dates: Wed 23 October – Inverness The Ironworks; Thu 24 October – Aberdeen Music Hall; Fri 25 October – Dunfermline Alhambra Theatre; Sat 26 October – Glasgow O2 Academy; Thu 31 October – London The Roundhouse; Fri 1 November – Southend Cliffs Pavilion; Sat 2 November – Cambridge Corn Exchange; Thu 7 November – Brighton Dome; Fri 8 November – Folkestone Leas Cliff Hall; Sat 9 November – Portsmouth Pyramids Centre; Thu 14 November – Preston Guild Hall; Fri 15 November – Newcastle  O2 Academy; Sat 16 November – Scunthorpe Baths Hall: Thu 21 November –  Manchester Academy 1; Fri 22 November – Sheffield O2 Academy; Sat 23 November –  Bristol O2 Academy; Thu 28 November – Oxford O2 Academy; Fri 29 November – Cardiff University, Great Hall; Sat 30 November – Nottingham Rock City; Wed 4 December – Belfast Limelight 1; Fri 6 December – Liverpool Mountford Hall; Sat 7 December – Leeds O2 Academy; Thu 12 December – Norwich UEA; Fri 13 December –  Northampton Roadmenders; Sat 14 December – Birmingham O2 Institute; Wed 18 December – Frome Cheese & Grain; Thu 19 December – Bournemouth O2 Academy; Fri 20 December – Guildford G Live; Sat 21 December – Lincoln Engine Shed.

Maracas Master: Mark Berry, the artist best known as Bez, still mad for it all these years on. (Photo: Paul Dixon)

Tickets are on sale now, available from this link. For more information try Happy Mondays’ Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages.

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Kooks still hung up on romancing – in conversation with Hugh Harris

It’s been 15 years since The Kooks took shape, and while this Brighton outfit increasingly distanced themselves from their initial sound, the latest singles suggest they’ve returned to their roots.

As co-founder Hugh Harris puts it, new single ‘So Good Looking’, out now via Lonely Cat / AWAL Recordings, and predecessor ‘Got Your Number’ sound ‘very Kooksy’. And that’s surely a good thing.

The multimillion-sellers who took their name from David Bowie’s 1971 Hunky Dory track, met as students at the Brit School in Croydon, South London, before moving further south to Brighton’s British Institute of Modern Music Institute (BIMM). And soon they’d signed to Virgin Records, going on to receive their first Brit and MTV Europe awards.

But they were no flash in the pan, 2006 debut LP, Inside In / Inside Out last year finally achieving four-times platinum status, a decade after 2008 follow-up Konk went straight in at No.1. In fact, all five of their studio LPs and a best of compilation have made the UK top-20 album charts, with an estimated billion-plus streams gathered en route and success enjoyed around the world.

These days the band is down to core members Hugh (lead guitar, backing vocals, piano, keyboards, bass, rhythm guitar) and fellow co-founder Luke Pritchard (vocals, guitar), plus 2012 recruit Alexis Nunez (drums). And all this time on, they continue to attract huge audiences, last summer supporting the Rolling Stones on two stadium dates and playing the main stage at the Reading and Leeds festivals before embarking on a more intimate UK tour promoting fifth LP, Let’s Go Sunshine.

What’s more, this weekend they’re back on the festival circuit, a recent London Community Festival date – playing to 40,000 on Finsbury Park – followed by this weekend’s appearances at Manchester’s Sounds of The City tonight (Friday, July 12th) and Glasgow’s TRNSMT Festival (Sunday, July 14th).

When I called, Hugh was gearing up for the first of those dates, a North London headliner on a bill also including Blossoms, Kate Nash and Gerry Cinnamon. And I couldn’t help but wonder whether any of the Stones went shopping in Selfridges for an outfit for their children before playing Hyde Park 50 years ago. I say that because Hugh was looking to get his three-year-old daughter togged up there when we spoke.

“I guess festivals are as much as about fashion these days as they are everything else, so you’ve got to look the part!”

Still Selling: The debut Kooks LP, now 13 years young, yet recently certified quadruple-platinum

It’s hardly the spirit of ’69 though, is it. And I guess no one will be releasing doves during your set.

”I know, man, a different era altogether. But it‘s cool. I enjoy it. And it’s a very different world today to when we started the band, but it’s nice to have a bit of maturity.”

Is it fair to say you’re somewhat domesticated these days?

“Pretty much, yeah. I love it, and I’ve taken to it well. A bit of wriggling at first, then you kind of realise …”

You’re second fiddle?

“Exactly!”

I’ve heard the new single, ‘So Good Looking’, a few times, and it’s a winner, the sound of summer for these ears.

“I guess it is. And it’s very Kooksy. I think we’re kind of channeling ourselves, thinking, ‘Do you know what – if anyone can do this, surely we have license to!”

Kinks Links: The Kooks’ second LP, 2008’s Konk, recorded at the studio of the same name.

A few years ago, I’d have said the new single’s a sure-fire top-10 hit. Not sure if it works that way now though. You’re clearly still selling well, but are you expecting big things from this?

“No. Our streaming numbers are really good for a British indie band. They’re fantastic. We’re way out ahead, but I think charts went out a long time ago. Songs have such a journey in themselves, and through that journey can be synched up to all sorts of things and can be synonymised with all sorts of events. It’s not just about the first week of the release. And that’s kind of more exciting. Songs these days have more of a life and a lineage, and I don’t think we’ve ever aimed for the charts as a band.”

Maybe that’s why you’re still going strong.

“Yeah. We have our goalposts firmly set in some kind of very simple ethics and a very simple ethos.”

There’s a Beatles-like quality there, but also something of the era from which you emerged, with shades of bands like Dodgy and Supergrass.

“Yeah, big time, we’re ‘90s children! It was all Brit Pop for me, with Oasis one of the main reasons I got in a band, while Jimi Hendrix was one of the main reasons I picked up a guitar. And we absolutely love that kind of Immediate movement.”

As in the Small Faces?

“Yeah. We went on this journey for a few records to kind of distance ourselves from the thing I think we were perhaps quite good at. And now it’s nice to have found our stripes again.”

The two latest 45s are neatly crafted, and ‘Got Your Number’ for me has shades of everything from Sparks and Cockney Rebel through to The Cure and Franz Ferdinand at their more poppy. But I shouldn’t be surprised, seeing as I get the impression you’re historians of good music.

“That’s a nice way to speak about it. I guess we’re kind of … although it’s like town planning in a way! But because we still have such a big fan-base and we’re still going as a band, we just feel it’s our responsibility. You could criticise that, say it’s regurgitation, but I think we have our own sound by now and our own twist, and it’s fun to play music that we enjoy, and it definitely draws on a huge range of influences. And if we can encourage a kid in his bedroom to play guitar and follow our lineage, in our eyes that’s our job done really.”

Live Presence: The Kooks in action. From the left – Hugh Harris, Luke Pritchard and Alexis Nunez.

I said historians, but I guess it’s as much about DNA, being the sum of your influences and building on that.

“Yeah, we’re really a bit of an afterglow of a huge amount of good music, and I don’t really feel there’s a lot of that going on in among our contemporaries. So it’s even more important really. And these gigs we’ve got coming up like the Community Festival and the Castlefield Bowl show, with great bands supporting, it’s important to fly the flag, now more than ever,

Recent sales for your debut LP suggest it’s still being discovered, presumably by a new generation.

“It’s a conveyor belt!” And we do still see in the front three or four rows that kind of doe-eyed innocence from teenagers just getting into music. It’s really quite tender and kind of sweet, with a huge amount of admiration there towards us. There’s a similar thing with the others, but perhaps they’re just a little more drunk and older!”

You’re playing a few festival dates this season. Do you prefer the more intimate shows though?

“Well, everything! I’ll take whatever I can get my hands on! Any performance is treasure to me. I think performing in any sense of the word is just the most beautiful expression and the most important thing for our culture. And festivals that bring people together – specially in such divisive times – if gigs can do that in this climate, they’re pretty powerful things. Yeah, I have a huge amount of respect for all performing arts that bring people together.”

Do these latest singles suggest a sixth album is coming?

“I wouldn’t read too much into that. Those songs belong with the recording session for Let’s Go Sunshine the album that came out last year. They were going to be on that album, but then we thought we should keep some candy back.”

Double Act: The Kooks’ Hugh and Luke at London’s Community Festival, Finsbury Park (Photo: John Williams)

Have you been writing a fair bit since?

“Absolutely. We never really stop writing. There are various solo projects coming up to, which is exciting. So next year there might be a bit of a break, and I’ve got something lined up – as have Al and Luke – that’s taken me around seven years to complete. We’ve been so busy, but I’ll take some time out to do that next year.”

Will that also be a little ‘Kooksy’?

“It sounds nothing like us! I went to Cuba to record horns, and there’s strings and a gospel choir and drums, and I went to an ashram in India to record a choir. It’s all a bit mental, really.”

We mentioned your musical DNA, and although I know your band roots are really in Brighton, it could be Huyton, Merseyside at times – there’s a trace of everyone from The La’s and Cast to The Coral, The Zutons, even the Head brothers in your work. I’m not so sure that’s just Luke’s vocals either.

“Yeah, he’s got a bit of a Merseyside lilt, definitely. That’s what I really like about his voice. It’s kind of playful, and borrows from a lot of phonetics. He’s a bit of a salad of articulation, isn’t he!

“But I was just out in Dublin, going out to catch some kind of folk music out there, and you can hear a bit of Beatles in that, but you can also hear where jazz came from – if you swing it, it’s jazz.”

Balloony Tunes: The Kooks, at that point a four-piece, launching last year’s album, their fifth (Photo: Andrew Whitton)

We mentioned before your understanding  of the history of pop and rock, and you were music students. Is that label something you’ve tried to shy away from since?

“No, I love that we’re students of music. I don’t know how you could criticise someone who loves playing music going to music school. For me, we probably were taught all that stuff. But when you write it all on paper you’re probably more interested in going out, meeting people and having a good time. Physically investigating the history of music is much more exciting than being taught in a class. And exposing yourself to as many live performances as possible, that’s an absolute thrill.”

I guess your student days in that respect were your Hamburg apprenticeship.

“Yeah, I guess, in a very modern way. At the British Institute of Modern Music, we incubated and just kind of grew … and partied. And we got our stripes in order.”

Hugh grew up not so far from the band’s Brighton base, in the nearby Sussex town of Lewes, ‘which was kind of a bit shit when I was there, but now is full of hybrid coffee shops and what-not’.

And did he get to properly meet the Rolling Stones when the band supported them last year?

“Yeah, we did. We met them a few times. The last time it was a bit lack lustre, I think they may have been working quite hard. But we’ve supported them four times now, and it’s very reassuring, to put it that way.”

And they were one of the bands you cited when you started out too.

“Definitely, and their fizziness was something we related to.”

And now you’re honed down to a three-piece. I’ve always been a fan of that set-up, from The Jam right through to Wilko Johnson’s band right now. There’s a real energy there, and it must keep you on your toes. I guess no one can hide in a three-piece band. Does that set-up work well for you?

“Yeah, it’s great! I feel as though quite a lot of the songwriting duties have been on Luke’s shoulders and to an extent mine also, with regards to things like sonic soundscapes.

“But we enjoy playing with lots of musicians. Kooks is not really one line-up. It’s more of a concept … although that sounds really wanky! But we don’t suffer from the band syndrome. We see a lot of bands on stage who hate each other, but we don’t stand for that. Music should be about joy, and if something’s not working or if someone is perhaps not flying that flag, we’d prefer to continue without that negativity.”

Finally, seeing as I mentioned the summer sound of the most recent singles, I should mention how the opening track of your debut album, ‘Seaside’, has appeared on several of the CD compilations I’ve put together over the years, part of the soundtrack for family holidays with my girls to Cornwall, the Welsh coast, the Isle of Wight, and all over.

“Ah, that’s amazing. That’s so good to hear. Thank you for telling me that.”

It’s only 90 seconds or so, but it’s a perfect starting point not just for that album but also  summertime adventures, and hopefully my daughters will get that same nostalgic feeling about your music in years to come.

“Yeah, it’s a nice kind of … dip your big toe in!”

The Kooks play Manchester’s Sounds of The City, Castlefield Bowl – a multi-day event also featuring Kylie Minogue, Elbow, Bloc Party, Janelle Monae, The National, Hacienda Classical, and The Wombats – tonight (Friday, July 12th), with support from The Sherlocks and Sea Girls. For tickets and more information, head here. The band then play Glasgow Green’s TRNSMIT Festival on Sunday (July 14th), on a bill topped by George Ezra and Jess Glynne, with tickets and more details here.

Band Substance: Hugh Harris, left, with his Kooks bandmates Luke and Alexis, getting into the swing of things.

For the latest from The Kooks, head to their website, or follow them via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

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Introducing West London’s Magnificent Six – back in touch with Matteo Sedazzari

Three years after our last conversation on these pages, WriteWyattUK got back in touch with author and Zani website creator Matteo Sedazzari, following the publication of his second novel, Tales of Aggro.

Following 2015’s A Crafty Cigarette – Tales of a Teenage Mod, Surrey-based author and online magazine creator Matteo Sedazzari decided on a further foray into fiction, this time delivering the tale of a gang of ‘working-class loveable rogues’ fresh out of school, claiming the streets of Shepherd’s Bush and White City as their playground.

Describing his ‘Magnificent Six’ as a group of ‘fashion-conscious, music-obsessed and shooting from the lip’ lads, Matteo tells a story of West London life and ‘ordinary people getting up to extraordinary adventures’, introducing various vigorously-drawn characters en route.

To find out more about the inspiration behind his latest novel and the figures he portrayed, I tracked Matteo down to his Walton-on-Thames base, offering congratulations on Tales of Aggro and wondering, second time around, if it remains special to see his work in print and on the bookshelf.

“Thank you. Yes, a proud moment in finishing and marketing my second novel, and people are starting to respond, which is nice.”

This time you’ve tackled a rum band of friends, dubbed ‘The Magnificent Six’. Are the characters based on people you’ve known over the years, or composites of old mates?

“In A Crafty Cigarette, the main characters are based on real people. Yet in Tales of Aggro the majority originate from my imagination, with aspects of certain people I’ve met over the years, seen on TV or read about, used to shape the characters’ personalities.”

Is there a character among them you identify most with? I’m guessing Oscar De Paul, not least with his appreciation of The Jam and Paul Weller’s lyrics. Is he at least partly you?

“Oscar, to a degree is loosely based on me, yet I mean loosely. He’s passionate about things, means no harm but gets excited by petty crime, yet knows deep down that a living out of being creative will be far more fulfilling than a life of crime. I included The Jam and Paul Weller reference as Weller was popular with the Casual movement back in the day, especially The Style Council, and some Casuals were former Mods, so I wanted to keep that association.

“The first story in Tales of Aggro about Oscar doing telesales for a living, along with hoax calls, is the only semi-autobiographical part of the novel. As mentioned in a previous interview, hoax calls are not cool, and certainly at my age I do not endorse them!

“After that story, I separated myself from Oscar, so I could focus on the other characters, from Rooster the dealer to Priscilla Pryce, the Page Three Girl, otherwise it would have been A Crafty Cigarette part two.”

For A Crafty Cigarette, you chose your current base, Walton-on-Thames as a location. This time we’re uptown, in West London. Why Shepherd’s Bush and White City? Am I right in thinking your brother was based there, and that’s how you got to know that turf?

“No, more via the A316, the road that runs from Sunbury, my place of birth and childhood, through Twickenham, Richmond, Hammersmith then Shepherd’s Bush. When I was a kid and my parents drove into London, that was the route they took, and to this day I often use that route to get into the old smoke. But back in the day, it was my gateway into the inner city.

“Also, in the 1970s, Top of The Pops was filmed at the BBC at Shepherd’s Bush, White City, and The Osmonds had a weekly show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. So I thought as a child this must be the place where the musicians live. I was a kid, ha! Later I had friends who lived around that area, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, getting to know the area well, even getting into the odd filming of Top of The Pops and Later With Jools Holland.

“Also, the Bush is the part of London where three original members of The Who came from – Daltrey, Townshend and Entwistle, with Quadrophenia – the album and film – set around there. Guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook from the Sex Pistols are Shepherd’s Bush lads too. And you’ve got Stuarts’ clothes shop down the Uxbridge Road, a Mecca for Casuals back then, still going strong today.

“Finally, Steptoe and Son is set around the Bush, which after Porridge, is my favourite comedy. It’s a part of London with a rich history of TV, music, youth and subcultures, fashion, comedy and more.

“When my brother moved there, it was a case of him moving to a part of London I already knew. Shepherd’s Bush has grown on me since my childhood. It would be pretentious to say it’s my spiritual home, but it’s a place I know well and like. So when I was writing Tales of Aggro, I could visualise in my head the scene and characters.”

You describe the book as ‘a collection of short stories all about love and unity with a little bit of aggro’. These are your people, aren’t they … warts’n’all? ‘A gang of ‘working-class loveable rogues’ and rough diamonds.

“My people? I’ve just written about everyday folk from a working-class or lower middle-class background. I suppose a gang of well-dressed young lads and girls from a subculture, estate or whatever will always be seen as ‘loveable rogues’. The Magnificent Six change over the course of the book, as it goes from the early ‘80s to the present. At the end they’ve all gone down different paths, moving away from being a gang hanging outside a chip shop.”

There’s a danger of this all being about ‘the lads’, but you have wannabe pop star Stephanie in the mix too. Is that a character you feel you could write more about now?

“Stephanie is a great character. I enjoyed creating her and was highly influenced by the narrative style of Gillian Flynn, author of Sharp Objects, Dark Places, and Gone Girl, when I wrote her story in the first person. There are other strong female characters, like Eve Berry, the beautiful travel agent, who saves the day for Rockin’ Wilf and his friends, and there’s Priscilla Pryce, the Page Three Girl, who solves a countryside murder before falling in love with Jamie Joe, a man with a troubled pass who finds salvation with Priscilla. Plus, Oscar’s sister Olivia may not feature heavily but is seen as a strong character by Oscar. These tough female characters don’t make it about ‘the lads’, and that was a conscious decision from the onset.”

A Crafty Cigarette was told from the viewpoint of a young lad approaching and encountering his teen years. Are you hoping to go back to that story at some stage?

“Yes, one day, and Vinnie from A Crafty Cigarette does have a cameo in Tales of Aggro, so I’ve already created my own universe.”

You make the point that some of the language is offensive, Irvine Welsh calling it ‘a real slice of life told in the vernacular of the streets’, yet you’re at pains to stress offence is not your aim, particularly in light of race, religion, gender or sexuality. It’s a tricky balancing act, but works well with characters like Life on Mars’ Gene Hunt or even Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge. Did you find yourself wincing at times at the more controversial characters like Det. Sgt. Legg and Sgt. McDonald?

“Good question. I did the disclaimer to cover myself and have total authenticity. For instance, in a story set in the summer of 1983, local headcase and drug dealer, Rooster calls The Magnificent Six ‘mincers’, and back then someone like him would use homophobic insults to belittle someone. It still goes on today, yet I don’t fucking hang out with anyone that does!

“I didn’t want certain people picking up Tales of Aggro thinking the author was encouraging this sort of language and mindset. We live in the day and age where people are easily offended, and that can lead to censorship. Look at Mark Twain and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Some people want to ban it, believing the sometimes-racist language inappropriate for children. Twain wrote in an authentic, of the time narrative, and Finn is a ‘loveable’ rogue in 19th Century America, when slavery was ongoing, when a white child or adult of that era and location would use racist language. Yet Finn frees the slave, Jim, as he thinks it is wrong, but will go to hell, as it is against God’s will, yet this vagabond went against Christianity to save a man. That is not a racist act, and clearly Twain saw slavery as wrong.

“We can’t ban books just because language may offend. Generations need to know how it was in the past. Censorship is not the answer. I know Tales of Aggro will get more press in the next 12 months, and I could see some reviewer going on about the language, so I wrote the disclaimer to cover myself. I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn when I was writing A Crafty Cigarette, both influencing my writing, neither book offending me.

“Gene Hunt and Alan Partridge wouldn’t be great characters if they spoke and acted in non-offensive PC language and fashion. They wouldn’t have their wonderful dramatical impact. It wouldn’t work. Hunt is symbolic of racist and sexist men from the ‘70s and how we changed, reminding us how bad some men were back in the day. With censorship, we’d be none the wiser.

“I’m pleased you highlighted Det. Sgt. Legg and Sgt. McDonald. There’s certainly a bit of Gene Hunt in them. I didn’t wince, I wouldn’t be an author if my own work offended me. I just wanted to highlight how bad the police were to the youth in the ‘80s, and this does come from experience, not from Shepherd’s Bush but Walton-on-Thames.”

We’ve all known John Roost type characters, and I get that fear of their presence. Do a few of these encounters take you back to your own misspent youth?

“I wouldn’t say my youth was misspent. Far from it, it was an amazing experience, full of dreams with a lust for life and curiosity. It was good and bad, which I learnt from, it developed me and now I’m a published author on the up, using my ‘misspent youth’ for content.

“The misspent part of my life came much later, when I joined the 5.30 club, going straight down the pub after work, drinking with negative people with limited beliefs, like the poem in Tales of Aggro. That was a waste, yet I now see that aspect of my life just as a detour, and I’m on the right path now.

“John Roost is loosely based on dope dealers from the suburbs of Surrey, usually going by nicknames, utter nutters that were either ex-army or ex-cons, or both, loved violence, yet listened to laid-back music, real passive/aggressive people. In fact, scoring off them was more of an experience then smoking the puff itself. But I wasn’t really a big smoker. And I’m not just saying that in case my mother reads this!”

Mod Royalty: Paul Weller gives his endorsement to A Crafty Cigarette (Photo: Matteo Sedazzari)

For all its brutal touches, this is almost nostalgia compared to the nightmares with gang culture and stabbings in big cities now. Is that harrowing story be best left to the next generation of writers coming through?

“You’re right to a degree, yet I think Crafty is more nostalgic, and there is violence throughout Tales of Aggro. A lot of it is set in an era when stabbings weren’t so common. They happened, but not on the scale they do today. Fortunately for me, my friends and family, we haven’t lost anyone due to a senseless stabbing.

“In regard to the next generation of writers coming through, experiencing this horrible rise in knife crime, I’m sure there are many that have penned novels, short stories or graphic novels about it. A novel isn’t going to solve this, but it would be good to have a book that draws awareness to knife crime. I’m not sure if I could write that story, but I’d support any author that does.

“This is a deep subject, and it saddens me when I see the senseless death over usually something minor, knowing a family will be scarred for life, with joyful days like Christmas tragic days instead. That is true heartbreak.”

At what point did you realise you might be going down the short-story road, rather than just a narrative centred around one or two main characters?

“At the start, I wanted it to be a collection of short stories. I wanted to write a collection of love stories, and one-off relationships between Stephanie and Oscar is the only story carried over from that. I called the book Tales of Oscar De Paul and Other Adventures, in homage to Mark Twain, until the kid at my local bank said that was way too long. I said, ‘What about Tales of Aggro?’ and he smiled and said, ‘Nice’.

Casuals, Mods, skinheads … I mentioned last time that I felt no compulsion to belong exclusively to one tribe or other. I could see the value of various aspects (identifying more with Mod, appreciating the love of ska and Bluebeat with the original skins, and so on), but felt a need to distance myself from the crowd and the more plastic, blind followers. How about yourself at that impressionable age – did you find it a tricky path to navigate and choose a side, or did that sense of togetherness appeal?

“Belonging to a tribe has its pros and cons. It’s nice to have like-minded friends who share similar tastes in music, fashion and such-like. I was a Jam fan before I became a Mod, discovering the band by accident when going through my brother’s record collection, All Mod Cons. For some reason, it resonated. It was enlightenment, it really was. I had no idea who Weller, Foxton and Buckler were. It just felt right. I felt it was for me, as I was struggling at school, not with my friends, but with teachers. The sound of The Jam gave me the voice I was looking for, as covered in A Crafty Cigarette. At that moment, I didn’t care if I was the only Jam fan in the world. It was me seeing the light … and no, I’m not comparing The Jam to Jesus!

“Then I started to meet other fans my age or a little older, wearing parkas and all that, and thought this is for me, as many others did. That part was and still is beautiful, yet in tribes you have hierarchies. I was tested – tested brutally – before I was accepted by the Mods, which I glossed over in A Crafty Cigarette. Yet once I was accepted, I became arrogant and highly elitist to anyone new joining our gang. That was my defence mechanism. Then, as a schoolboy Mod, my friend Richard Knights (Rick in the novel) and I got into Jazz/Funk but had to keep it a secret from the other Mods. That was odd and wrong, to have that pressure at an early age.”

It can be a confusing world for teens to find their way through and carve out an identity, not least those leaving school with near to zero prospects. It seems to be as much about trying to fit in as a love of good clothes and great music.

Celeb Endorsement: Recent WriteWyattUK interviewee Alan McGee with his copy of Tales of Aggro

“To quote Tales of Aggro, ‘Anyway, we, The Magnificent Six, just thought our swagger, boyish good looks, thieving, cheeky charm, dress sense, and proficiency at music, street fights and gallows humour were all we needed to get on. But we have all learnt a harsh lesson—it isn’t. Well, not yet.’ It is true – leaving school is a serious wake-up call. That’s why I went back to college to do A-levels. I was clueless to what I truly wanted to be. As mentioned with my experience through a love of The Jam, belonging to a subculture can give confidence and strength.”

As Paul Weller wrote, ‘Life’s a drink, and you get drunk when you’re young; Life is new, and there’s things to be done, you can’t wait to be grown up, acceptance into the capital world’. Your characters neatly encapsulate that element of cocky youth, ‘shooting from the lip’, life yet to wear them down. Was that part of the appeal in telling this story – a kind of nostalgia for a time when us cynics felt we knew all the answers?

“Good point. I suppose it was, and with me writing it, I rediscovered some of the lost drive from my youth, so it was good therapy for me.”

Speaking of The Jam, a band that often come into your work, these are Weller’s ‘Saturday’s Kids’ you’re writing about, aren’t they?

“Weller’s ‘Saturday Kids’ accepted the situation and the system. ‘Think about the future, when they’ll settle down, Marry the girl next door, with one on the way.’ The Magnificent Six might have been Saturday Kids when they were at middle school, yet all of them are dreamers, not wanting to end up like their parents or peers.”

You weave a few real-life situations into the narrative, and celebrities – from Frank Bough to Mike Reid, even using the Sex Pistols’ Paul Cook and Steve Jones’ old school. Does that add authenticity?

“Without doubt, and also adds humour, like The Magnificent Six getting offered out by Frank Bough and Oscar De Paul having a grudge with Mike Reid over a failed audition for Runaround. Cook and Jones are brought in to give Tales of Aggro an element of Punk and DIY culture.”

I mentioned the dodgy cops and there’s an element of changing times in the era you chose to write about – from outmoded out-of-their-depth policeman to out-of-step villains being pushed out of their territories. London was changing.

“I wanted to show that change. Back then, the police were truly brutal and suspects weren’t given legal representation.”

‘Stay Free’, the song Mick Jones wrote for The Clash about his schoolmate Robin, gave a peek into the world of those crossing the line with the law and getting caught out, through petty crime or worse. You mention Feltham Borstal, HMP Wandsworth, then HMP Brixton. There for the grace of God would have gone a few of us if job opportunities hadn’t arisen or supportive families hadn’t had such positive impacts, yeah?

“Well, ‘Stay Free’ is one of my favourite Clash songs. I think when you’re a teenager or younger, hanging out with like-minded peers, and you’re unhappy with your home life and school, there’s a big danger that you can cross the line, without knowing it.

“François Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical film 400 Blows covers this. Antoine Doinel, a kid from 1950s Paris, from an unloving family, bunks off school, leaves school, steals a typewriter from his stepfather’s place of work, tries to do the right thing by returning it, yet is sent to borstal. One simple mistake, and that’s it. I’ve been arrested for minor things, from petty theft to criminal damage, but last time was way back in 1992, I just wised up.”

I think of that line from Billy Bragg’s ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’, where, ‘Her husband was one of those blokes who only laughs at his own jokes; the sort that war takes away. There wasn’t a war, he left anyway.’ In another era, the John Roost types had a chance to be painted as heroes, yeah?

“Rooster, yes maybe, but he had mental health problems along with a drink problem. He couldn’t handle it. In fact, that story is a morality one. He shouldn’t have gone to prison and been labelled a threat to society by the police and the media. Tragically, he believed his own hype and became what society cruelly perceived him to be. At the start, John Roost is a nice kid with one dream, to join the army. The story isn’t an anti-army one, but one of mental health issues, and how society back then dealt with it. It’s a veiled story, not one I’m shouting from a soap-box.”

In the case of Ed’s uncle, Rockin’ Wilf, there’s something of a throwback there to the Teds of Notting Hill in Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners. Another influence?

“I haven’t read Colin MacInnes or Absolute Beginners for a long time. Rockin’ Wilf’s older brothers were original Teds, Wilf was born in the late ‘40s, and was part of the Ted revival of the early ‘70s. He was influenced by a toy bear I had as a child, called Wilf, who liked to steal and loved Elvis. No shit! And Wilf the bear was based on a neighbour, an original Teddy Boy called Sid, the street’s Del Boy. A good man.”

There’s a CD included with Tales of Aggro, attributed to Zani, recorded last summer, with words and music by yourself. Which came first – the songs or the novels? Or were both key elements of where you felt you were headed?

“The riffs came from old songs I wrote many years, and I came up with the words last year. I’m using it more to market the book, plus it was fun to get back recording again. I enjoyed it. I intend to push the music more over the next couple of months, so watch this space.”

You can tell there are characters here who will find success, be that social, personal, financial, or all three, while there are others almost destined to fall by the wayside. Did you know where your characters were headed when you started out?

“I more or less knew the paths Eddie the Casual and Oscar would take, but for the other members of The Magnificent Six that was organic, Like a lot of the book was, I have a simple idea or plot, start hitting the keyboard, and a few hours later I’ve created something fresh. I love that part of writing, as I can put my imagination in full force.”

You’ve a similar passion for film, as regular readers of Zani will know, and I can see your stories being adapted for TV or the big screen, in the same way writing heroes of yours like Martina Cole crossed over. Is that an intention of yours, and are you courting interest on that front?

“Yes, and yes again! It is a dream and on the project list. As mentioned in another interview, both books are the hands of a top director and screenwriter, and both are friends. I will push this more, because Crafty would a great film, whilst Tales of Aggro would be great as a web series. It is a burning passion.”

At a time when the publishing world is struggling, the likes of yourself and a few other platforms suggest there’s a future for truly independent writing. Are you managing to make ends meet through the Zani empire and your writing?

“Empire! Love it, I still do contract telesales – a month here, a month there, two to three days a week, working from home. I haven’t worked in an office since 2002, nor been a PAYE employee since then. Some of the profits from my work is used to promote the books and site. I am looking to be a writer full time. Let’s just say I’m working on a plan.”

Finally, what’s the next novel? Is it already taking shape, and when might that land? Personally, I reckon we need something about your part-Italian roots, something more autobiographical.

“Thank you, it’s been a good interview, with intelligent questions – in depth and intense. I love that, it got my brain working. And I will write something about those part-Italian roots, but I’m already on the fourth chapter of my third novel, planned for release in March/April 2020. Details nearer the time, but I will say that it’s in the realms of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Wind in The Willows and such-like. I’m letting my imagination run free and stay free!”

Soho Signing: Matteo Sedazzari puts pen to paper on Frith Street, London W1

For a look back at WriteWyattUK’s August 2016 interview with Matteo Sedazzari, concentrating on his first novel, head here.

You can find a copy of Tales of Aggro by Matteo Sedazzari (ISBN 978-1527235823) via Amazon, and via the same online marketplace catch up with Matteo’s debut novel, A Crafty Cigarette – Tales of a Teenage Mod, with an Amazon link here

Meanwhile, Matteo’s Zani website is a recommended portal for a wealth of features and reviews from the world of films and TV, music, sport and culture, accessed via this link. West london, Zani, Shepherd’sMark Twain

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