The best of Friends with Shalamar – the Howard Hewett interview

Three’s Company: Shalamar, 2017. From the left – Howard Hewett, Carolyn Griffey, Jeffrey Daniel

Howard Hewett had only been in the UK a couple of days when I called, and was alternating between press calls and rehearsals with fellow stalwart Jeffrey Daniel and more recent Shalamar addition Carolyn Griffey. But if my interviewee had something better to do than start the day conversing with me, he hid it well.

“No man, I’ve started my whole day anticipating talking to you!”

Ah, top man. So how were those rehearsals going? Was it a case of just stepping right back into the flow of it all?

“Oh yeah, the three of us get together for tours two or three times a year, and it’s just about getting into a whole ’nother kind of routine than when I’m home in the States.”

Cast your mind back to the early ’80s, with Shalamar well on their way to becoming somewhat synonymous with catchy feelgood dance music at that point, despite their roots as a manufactured group put together by Dick Griffey, ‘talent co-ordinator’ for US hit show Soul Train.

Griffey set up his own label, SOLAR (Sound of Los Angeles Records), and using session musicians, he created Uptown Festival, credited to Shalamar in 1977. And when that was a hit he realised a real demand for a proper group, with Soul Train dancers Daniel and Jody Watley soon recruited. The band’s original lead vocalist Gary Mumford departed fairly swiftly, while his replacement, Gerald Brown, followed suit in 1979 – despite the success of second single Take That to the Bank. But Jeffrey Daniel already had another singer in mind to take his place.

Howard Hewett moved to Los Angeles in 1976, Daniel in time getting to know him at hip Crenshaw district club Maverick’s Flat, and soon asking him to join Shalamar. He was committed to tour Asia and Europe – including Scandinavian and UK visits – with his covers band Beverly Hills at the time though, and turned him down. However, a later offer succeeded, Hewett – who on his return to the US was working with Motown producer Jeffrey Bowen – joining Daniel and Watley, the trio going on to become what was considered Shalamar’s classic line-up, the Big Fun LP quickly following, produced by Leon Sylvers.

From that album, The Second Time Around became the new band’s first million-selling single, not only a No.1 on the US R’n’B chart but a top-10 US Billboard pop chart success, their funk/disco/r’n’b and pop soul crossover potential already tapped into. And while that and their next offering didn’t quite manage the UK-top 40, the next two hits did, and by April 1982 they had the first of what turned out to be three straight top-10 hits here, with I Can Make You Feel Good. What’s more, by the beginning of the following year – nine months after its UK release – the Friends LP had also spawned top-fives A Night to Remember and There It Is and another hit with the title track, the album itself reaching No. 6. And it just so happens that they’re now reliving that golden period, celebrating Friends‘ 35th anniversary. So where’s all that time gone, H?

“I remember everything about recording the album, and all the years performing that material, but yes, time kind of flies when you’re having fun.”

As I chatted to this amiable Akron, Ohio-born and bred vocalist, pianist and guitarist, who was just about to turn 62, I was looking across at my vinyl gatefold sleeve copy of Friends, telling him that while its white backdrop had turned a little creamy with age, I felt the songs themselves remained as fresh as ever.

“Haha! Perfect!”

And I had to ask, has he still got the lilac boots he’s resting his bass guitar on for the LP cover shot?

“I got rid of those a long time ago, not long after that photo. Ha! I’m not a big hoarder. There are some things I get rid of through the years.”

Did he instinctively feel you had ‘something special’ (to quote the latest Shalamar single, The Real Thing) with this album back in 1982?

“Well, every time you go into the studio, the attitude you go in there with is to do your best, the best work that you can. How the public is going to perceive it and media and radio and everybody, that comes afterwards. There’s been projects we’ve had where we’d had a single that we felt was cool but they gravitated towards something else, especially back in the day when DJ’s had the autonomy to play whatever they wanted to play. You just never know. That’s why you always go in there with each track on the project, just putting your best forward.”

Well, everything certainly seemed to come together for you that time around.

“Yep – it was all very cool!”

Confession time. I tend to lean towards Motown, Stax, then Curtis Mayfield, Al Green and Philly material, and can take or leave a lot of early ‘80s soul. And so much of it quickly dated. But I did like that album. And those singles certainly don’t sound dated today.

“Yeah, when you look at There It Is, I Can Make You Feel Good, A Night to Remember, you know, thank God – those are classics!”

And they’ve stood the test of time as far as I’m concerned.

“Exactly! That’s one thing you do go in the studio conscientiously trying to put together – music that’s not going to be dated – or you hope, anyway – and will stand the test of time as far as that genre of music, and kind of transcends what’s being played at that particular time.”

And listening to your latest single, The Real Thing, I’d say you’ve still got it too.

“Ah, thank you! That was a pleasure. We reunited with our producer Leon Sylvers, which was a really great thing, and piecemealed the vocals, because these days Jeffrey lives in Nigeria, Carolyn lives in Memphis, and I’m in LA.

The Real Thing was one of the tracks Leon presented to me on a solo project. I felt it was a perfect Shalamar song … Shalamar 2017. So I went in and I did my vocal and was pretty proud of it, but then Carolyn came into town, put her vocal down, and I said, ‘Whoah – wait a minute, I’ve got to go back to re-do mine!’

“She bought a seriousness to that whole track, man! Then Jeff came in, did his parts, and it came together real well.”

That seems to be the way of things with several name acts these days – living far apart yet somehow still pulling it together when it matters. The world seems to be getting a smaller place. Yet at the same time I feel the need to go over old ground and say you have someone in the White House who seems determined to put a far more narrow-minded slant on world affairs, talking of building walls and so on. Your way of working seems to suggest a far more progressive and positive ‘hands across the water’ approach.

“Well, we hope so, because there are so many things going on, all around the world, like here with Brexit and there with Trump. It’s kind of crazy, but the world does get smaller every day. The only thing that gets bigger are the air-fares!”

‘Baby, I can make you feel good …’

So how about that ‘feelgood dance music’ label that comes up quite a lot when Shalamar are mentioned – is that about right? You certainly put on a mighty show for your audience.

“Thank you! And that’s what the whole thing is about. The majority of people get up every day, go to a job they hate. Our job’s to kind of make that a little easier. We get an opportunity to lighten up a person’s day, making our job a little more worthwhile.”

Lining Up: Jeffrey Daniel, Carolyn Griffey and Howard Hewett, in perfectly soulful synchronicity

Until mid-1983 the classic trio racked up more than a dozen hits worldwide, with Shalamar also becoming well known on this side of the Atlantic for Daniel’s energetic and somewhat intricate dance routines, embracing then-underground body-popping routines and the moonwalk, as it became known (then more likely described as the ‘backslide’).

Born just over five weeks before Hewett, Daniel is widely recognised as an award-winning choreographer, not least having taught Michael Jackson to moonwalk and co-choreographing his 1987 Bad and Smooth Criminal videos. And like Jackson, it was through watching Soul Train on American TV that Hewett got to first experience Daniel’s dance potential.

“Ah man, when Soul Train first came on, I was about 14, and had done music since I was around 10. By then I had a little r’n’b group in Akron, and on Saturdays at noon, like the rest of the country, we’d be in front of the TV watching it. It’s crazy – I used to watch Jeffrey and Jody, not knowing who they were nor that we were going to hook up years later, be in a group together.”

And I understand you got to know Jeffrey through the LA club scene.

“That’s where we first met, a club where all the Soul Train people used to come down there on a weekend. Looking out at the audience, you’d see Lionel Ritchie, Richard Pryor, Chaka Khan – everyone used to hang at Maverick’s. It never had a liquor license, either because the area was so crazy or John Daniels was a little too cheap to get one! They used to make fruit smoothie drinks in the back. That didn’t deter people from coming to the club though. It was good times!

“A couple months after I first got down there, I met John Daniels (who ran the club). I helped him put together this group called Beverly Hills. Every time we had a show we wanted to try out, we’d play at Maverick’s Flat. That’s when I met Jeff. I was a fan of his and he says he was a fan of mine. It still took a couple of years, as I went overseas with the group first. I was over here for a little less than a year and a half. It was cool, but it was definitely meant to be.”

At the height of their fame in 1983, Daniel and Whatley left Shalamar, Hewett carrying on for two years with new members, further hits resulting in a Grammy for the front-man.

“When they split at that time I talked to the record company and said, ‘Why don’t I just do my solo project now?’ But they said I had two and a half years left on the contract and gave me some options as to how I could spend that time, and the best one was to do another Shalamar album. That’s when I bought Micki Free into the group and we did this national tour to find a female replacement, and that’s when we found Delisa Davis.”

In Step: Shalamar feel the groove in concert, with Jeffrey Daniel and his bandmates still aiming high

In Step: Shalamar feel the groove in concert, with Jeffrey Daniel and his bandmates still aiming high

It wasn’t long before he set out on a solo career though, and while a few personal problems followed – he was embroiled in a high-profile drugs case in Florida at one stage, although finally acquitted of all charges – he went on to make 10 albums of his own between 1986 and 2008. Meanwhile, Shalamar’s classic line-up briefly reformed as guests of Babyface on a hit cover of This is the Lover in You in 1996, although it would be another three years before Hewett and Daniel properly reunited. What had changed by then to get the band together again?

“Well, it really wasn’t a whole conscientious thing. I do my solo stuff as well at home, throughout the States, but Jeffrey called and we talked about doing a show in Asia, and at that time we called Jody and asked if she wanted to come and hang with us, but she was doing other stuff and declined, so Jeffrey and I did it for about a couple of years, in Japan, Africa and a couple of other places, but we still wanted to bring a female entity back in the group. And the first person we thought about was Carolyn, because of her history with the whole thing. There was just a natural fit.”

Hewett and Daniel’s initial dates in Japan were followed by UK tours in 2000, 2001, and 2003, the latter two with their new member. As the daughter of Dick Griffey and accomplished r’n’b artist Carrie Lucas, she was already moving in the right circles, and at the age of 18 had a record deal, her first band Absolute’s claims to fame including contributions to the Lambada film soundtrack. Was she a regular fixture around SOLAR’s offices and the studio in the early days of Shalamar?

“Oh yeah! We’d known her since she was a young girl, 13 or 14. Jeffrey knew her even before I did. She’d be hanging around the studio, getting on everybody’s nerves! She says Shalamar was her favourite group, and that says a lot, because at the time there was Whispers, Lakeside, Midnight Star … so many more.”

When you’re not doing this, you’ve got your four children and two grandchildren back home. I’m guessing the little ones miss you when you’re on tour.

“You know what, they’re so used to it, and that’s how it’s been through the years. You always miss them but always stay in contact, and now – with the way communication is – it’s a lot easier.”

Seeing as when we spoke, he was just about to mark his latest big birthday, I asked if he’d stopped counting them yet.

“Well, no, but with this birthday I’ll be flying all day. That’s when I go back home. I get on a plane at four in the afternoon and don’t touch down at home until about 7.30. So my birthday this year is going to be spent 35,000 or so feet up in the air!”

And when you touch down and you’re on the road or in the studio together, does Ms Griffey keep yourself and your old pal both young? Or is it the other way around?

“Oh, I think we keep each other that way!”

Soul Survivors: Shalamar in 2017, coming to a town near you. From the left – Jeffrey Daniel, Carolyn Griffey, Howard Hewett.

Shalamar visit Preston’s Charter Theatre on a Friends 35th anniversary tour this Saturday, November 18th. For tickets call the box office on 01772 804 444 or try this link. And for details of other dates on the tour – leading to visits to London’s Clapham Grand on Friday December 1st and Brighton’s Concorde 2 on Saturday, December 2nd – check out Shalamar’s official website or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter

I’d like to pretend it was planned, but the day of publication of this feature/ interview just happened to mark what would have been the 79th birthday of Carolyn’s father, Richard Gilbert Griffey, better known as Dick Griffey, of SOLAR Records and Soul Train fame, who sadly died in 2010, aged 71. This feature is dedicated to his memory. R.I.P. Dick.

 

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The Undertones / Roughneck Riot – Warrington Parr Hall

Parr Five: The Undertones, back out there for your humming, leaping and erm, listening pleasure. From the left – Billy Doherty, Paul McLoone, John O’Neill, Damian O’Neill, Mickey Bradley.

“Any day of the week’s when Saturday comes”

And when it entails a night in the company of The Undertones, it’s always going to be special. What’s more, this time it involved a new venue for me, five and a bit decades after The Rolling Stones and The Who rocked the same stage in this county-swapping Cheshire locality.

I’m not going to try and put this show on a par (see what I did there?) with those historic happenings or The Stone Roses’ euphoric return here five years ago. Besides, it meant more to me, in its own way. At the risk of repeating myself, here’s a band still playing for all the right reasons, long after their last chart success, and seemingly loving it all the more than when I first caught them live in the early ‘80s.

When they returned in ’99 with Paul McLoone in Feargal Sharkey’s spot out front, it was a huge moment for us, not least as they were back playing some of the numbers that had drifted out of the set by the time I first got to see them as an impressionable 13-year-old.

And this one was every bit as entertaining as June 2016’s visit to not so far off Chester’s Live Rooms. I saw them again in Kentish Town a few months later, but it was all a little too grand for this punter. This was far more intimate, just the way I prefer it.

First up was a sonic battering from locals Roughneck Riot, an assault on lug’oles and senses, a cacophony of hardcore folk-punk bringing plenty of smiles to faces. The first song on entering the hall sounded a bit like The Pogues’ Turkish Song of the Damned, and they carried on in that style, a more melodic finale reminding me of McGowan and co.’s Bottle of Smoke. Catch them live, but don’t expect your ears not to be ringing the next morning. Gloriously disreputable fare (for more details, head here).

Then came Derry’s finest, launching into Family Entertainment and never dropping below that high bar from there on, the smiles around me suggesting it wasn’t just me having a ball. Some down the front got there via mini-bus from Blackpool, the band announced. Could’ve picked me up. Probably best they didn’t though. They seemed to be having fun anyway, and more to the point so did the band.

At the risk of running out with another footballing comparison, In an ever-dependable five-aside line-up Billy Doherty was on fine form between the sticks, O’Neill brothers Damian and John added wing flair, Mickey Bradley was as close as we’d get to a cajoling captain in centre-midfield (there’s nothing remotely defensive about this combo), and McLoone was every bit as much the centre of attention as that former TV repair man with the voice of an angel back in the day.

Night Three: The writing's on the wall outside Warrington Parr Hall (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Night Three: The writing’s on the wall outside Warrington Parr Hall (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Okay, so Paul likes to peacock around a bit, like his predecessor, but it’s all very tongue-in-cheek. Someone has to anyway. Besides, without his banter with Mickey, we’d just have to make do with all those glorious tunes.

I made it 31 altogether. Don’t quote me on that though. I tend to scribble down three at a time, and that’s hardly a fail-safe method. Come to think of it, I’m glad I didn’t attempt that method of reporting with the Ramones all those years ago.

Highlights? As usual, too many to try and name a handful, but it was as if getting Teenage Kicks out of the way relaxed them, so I’d start with the next track, the one that followed on that debut EP, True Confessions. It’s often the ones I don’t presume will get an airing that leave me in raptures, and on this occasion I’ll mention second LP title track Hypnotised, 2003’s Oh Please, and the third album’s You’re Welcome, always a delight to hear. Just another J.J. O’Neill masterpiece really.

Then there are those you don’t expect – for some reason or other – to make such a big impression, and this time I’ll namecheck Here Comes the Summer, a beautifully-delivered The Love Parade and the seemingly ever-more psychedelic offering, Julie Ocean. Oh, those guitars.

But none of my Undertones reviews could go by without mentioning – amid a set in which more than 20 of the songs were from those awesome first two long players – the stonking Male Model and You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It!), the latter described tonight as a song with brackets. Furthermore, Mickey confused some of the locals, suggesting Warrington was in fact the home of the bracket, inspiring consternation in various sections of the town’s Cultural Quarter.

Of course, When Saturday Comes had to be in there somewhere, with fellow encores I Know a Girl, Top Twenty and Girls Don’t Like It also lovingly showcased.

When Dee had a private word with Paul, Mickey demanded to know what they were talking about, and for a moment it was Bjorn Again acting out ABBA’s inter-band marital insecurities. A Dexy’s-like This is What She’s Like stand-off followed, before an impassioned My Perfect Cousin saw us out, the crowd in fine voice and co-author Damian beaming from ear to ear, another bonus night (and let’s face it, these are all bonuses) of rocking, humdinging wonder soon behind us.

Family Entertainment: The view from the desk at Warrington Parr Hall (Photo copyright: Kate Greaves)

If you missed this site’s latest interview with Mickey Bradley last week, here’s the link.

The Undertones’ 2017 UK/Irish tour (continued): Thursday, November 16th – Brighton Concorde; Friday, November 17th – London Camden Koko; Saturday, November 18th – Northampton Roadmender; Thursday, November 23rd – Sheffield Plug; Friday, November 24th – Leeds University Union; Saturday, November 25th – Newcastle Wylam Brewery; Friday, December 1st – Belfast Limelight; Saturday, December 2nd – Dublin Academy.

For ticket details, try the official website, check out their Facebook page, or follow the band on TwitterThere’s also the mighty Rocking Humdingers Club, linked here

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Clean Bandit / Starley – Manchester Academy

The Stripes: Clean Bandit’s Sam Skirrow, Grace Chatto, Kirsten Joy, Yasmin Green and Luke Patterson acknowledge their live reception (Photo: https://www.facebook.com/cleanbandit/)

It’s official – there’s still life in pop music, 65 years to the week Al Martino topped the first official UK charts, judging by this winning Manchester tour finale.

Granted, I can’t imagine Martino’s Here In My Heart or fellow top-five acts Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Guy Mitchell and Rosemary Clooney raised the pulses of youth in 1952. As John Lennon put it, ‘Before Elvis there was nothing’. But in time we caught on, a golden era following. And while I tend to baulk at much of today’s chart fodder, we’re in safe hands with Grace Chatto and Jack Patterson’s crossover electronica act Clean Bandit.

Soulful Touch: Yasmin Green lets loose with Clean Bandit (Photo: https://www.facebook.com/cleanbandit/)

For me the popularity of shows like Pop Idol, The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent – not least the farce of the annual battle for the Christmas No.1 – suggests we’re on borrowed time, all those manufactured brands a slap for the true spirit of pop as much as New Faces, Opportunity Knocks and those dreadful Summertime Specials in the past.

I admit my punk attitude to such shows ensures I tend to sneer (John Lydon-style) at prime-time TV schedules, but I did dip in and out of The Voice early on, respecting the worth of advice from the likes of Tom Jones rather than Mickie Most-esque promoters like Simon Cowell or Louis Walsh. Besides, genuine talent occasionally emerges, even if acts still need the right songs to find a more promising path.

Kirsten Joy, one such example, put in a top guest vocalist shift at Manchester Academy this week, co-fronting Clean Bandit with further impressive find Yasmin Green. A singer-songwriter in her own right, Kirsten featured in 2012’s inaugural The Voice UK series, championed by Jessie J, six years after performing (then still a teenager) with the ACM Gospel Choir, industry recognition leading via various session and touring roles with big name acts to Clean Bandit’s door.

Strings Attached: Grace Chatto says hello with cello (Photo: https://www.facebook.com/cleanbandit/)

My youngest daughter – who joined me on the night – introduced me to Clean Bandit, and from the start it was clear this was no bubblegum pop outfit, with Grace, Jack, brother Luke Patterson and (since departed) Neil Amin-Smith fusing electro-pop, electronica and classical elements amid those more commercial hooks. And while their more commercial numbers are a tad too mainstream for this gnarly cynic, those hits worked really well here, the live set-up adding real balls.

This is a band that’s done its homework (well, they were studying at Cambridge when it all came together), with nods to the best ‘90s dance. In fact, I came away inspired to dig out some early Pet Shop Boys LPs to show my youngest where I felt they were coming from. Meanwhile, Kirsten and Yasmin’s soulful touches put me in mind of Rowetta and Shara Nelson.

Live Guest: Sydney singer-songwriter Starley (Photo: https://www.facebook.com/starleymusicofficial/)

Another hope for the future was unveiled beforehand, Sydney singer-songwriter Starley going down well, her distinctive tones reminding me of Tracy Chapman, only more dance-oriented, although that might just have been down to her Fast Car cover. If you haven’t heard her, start with her biggest hit so far, Call On Me. You’ll probably know it. One to watch, for sure.

Of course, pop’s nothing without a good tune, and Grace and Jack provide that platform, their band and guest singers then taking it up a notch. And regular bursts of Grace’s cello and Stephanie Benedetti’s violin got me thinking I’d love to see this outfit play the same set in a ragged Irish folk style. Just a thought.

If I have one criticism of the recorded output so far, it’s that they don’t bring out what I heard for myself live. There have been exceptions, but sometimes they’re just too safe on record. They don’t really need my suggestions though. The hits keep coming. I just wish the audience moved as well as the girls on stage. But I’d like to think a new generation comes away from their shows inspired enough to head in the right direction.

Opening song Stronger set the tone, the ghost of house music alive and well (and not just because of the oft-repeated cries of ‘Manchester!’ all night), while Cologne showcased their pop sensibilities and Symphony properly brought in the crossover element. As did A&E, their debut single’s funkalypso fusion just as fresh today, given extra earthiness by Grace and Steph’s strings.

Joy Unconfined: Guest vocalist Kirsten Joy in live action (Photo: https://www.facebook.com/cleanbandit/)

Between those numbers, Extraordinary builds towards Introspective-era Pet Shop Boys and Disconnect further heightens their more pounding electronic leanings, rhythm section Sam Skirrow (bass) and Luke (percussion) on form. Meanwhile, next offering Birch was my highlight, the lights low as Kirsten’s haunting vocal and that brooding structure giving off Massive Attack and Portishead qualities. Right up my street.

Come Over is more calypso-pop reggae, the girls working that stage, up close and personal. And then came Rockabye, last Christmas’ chart-topper given major confetti-firing effects treatment. Let’s face it though, they’ll never get that baby to sleep that way.

I’m pleased Telephone Banking still gets an airing (even if further Love Ssega track Mozart’s House was conspicuous in its absence), while the pounding Piece of You kept the party vibe going and Should’ve Known Better inspired a sing-along. And while Grace was absent then, swapping sparkly catsuit for the sweeping cloak, she was back for a triumphant Real Love, Yasmin and Kirsten on a soulful high in Jess Glynne’s absence.

For the encore they switched to matching black and white stripes, Grace, Jack and Luke congregating stage-centre before the rest returned for latest hit I Miss You – top-30 and climbing – then last year’s Tears, before inevitable show-stopper Rather Be sent everyone home happy.

Sound Off: Clean Bandit’s Jack Patterson, Grace Chatto and Stephanie Benedetti in live action (Photo: https://www.facebook.com/cleanbandit/)

For this site’s feature/interview with Grace Chatto from last month, head here. And for all the latest from Clean Bandit, including details of their North American tour in March and April 2018, head to their official website and  keep in touch via FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

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Still pickin’ up Good Vibrations – talking The Undertones with Mickey Bradley

Stepping Time: The Undertones, 40 and a bit years on. From left – Damian O’Neill, Paul McLoone, Billy Doherty, Mickey Bradley, John O’Neill

Devising questions for the following feature/interview, I thought it was high time I caught up online with The Mickey Bradley Record Show, in which The Undertones’ bass player treats listeners to a two-hour weekly stroll through a vinyl wonderland of his own making on BBC Radio Ulster.

On that particular edition, choices ranged from David Bowie, The Four Tops, The Four Seasons and Captain Beefheart to Bow Wow Wow, The Jam, The Specials, and Tom Jones. And as I put it to Mickey, you really can’t go wrong when you start a show with the Buzzcocks’ I Don’t Mind.

“Yeah great record! One of my favourite singles. And did you hear the Penetration version?”

That’s another featured on the same show, and a good cover it is too. Not as if I could see a reason to cover it so soon.

“There’s something about Pauline Murray, a great voice, and there were Buzzcocks connections. They were good pals.”

As Mickey reminded me, they also covered Nostalgia on their Moving Targets debut album in October ’78, within a month of Shelley’s outfit including it on wondrous second LP, Love Bites. Speaking of which, like a certain band from Northern Ireland, Manchester’s Buzzcocks rarely went over the three-minute mark for their singles.

“God almighty! Love You More! I remember watching that on Top of the Pops. When it stopped, I was like, ‘What!'”

Yep, one minute 47 seconds and it’s all over. And going back to his show, after barely two and a quarter minutes of Buzzcocks‘ class, he cued up his next selection, Mickey (I called him Michael on the phone, but he seems to switch between the two, so let’s go down the less formal road) letting on how he recalled seeing that song performed on Top of the Pops in 1978, back ‘in O’Neill’s kitchen’. And anyone who’s read his acclaimed Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone memoir will recognise that location.

Derry’s Finest: The Undertones, sound-checking at Manchester Academy in 2016 (Photo copyright: Kate Greaves)

The band properly formed at No.22, Beechwood Avenue, Derry, with Mickey and friends  Billy Doherty (drums) and Billy’s second cousin Feargal Sharkey (vocals) regular visitors to the home of guitar-playing brothers John, Vinny and Damian O’Neill, the latter in time taking over band duties from Vinny while he knuckled down to his A-levels. That said, they’d probably tell you that’s a bit of a grandiose statement, as most of the time they sat round watching TV and playing records, on a not-so rock’n’roll diet of tea and toast.

For me, The Undertones should need no introduction, but music writers always follow such declarations with one anyway, and so will I. Emerging from Derry (or should I say Derry-Londonderry, or even ‘Stroke City’ as Mickey’s broadcasting buddy, the late Gerry Anderson, put it) in 1976, they played mostly locally until the big time beckoned in 1978 after Teenage Kicks, recorded on Terri Hooley’s Good Vibrations label in Belfast, was picked up on by legendary DJ John Peel, who liked it so much he played it twice in a row on his late-night radio show. They subsequently signed with Sire Records, with that single re-released, leading to a first appearance on Top Of The Pops, within six months of the Buzzcocks’ own debut on the show.

Over the next five years, John, Damian, Michael and occasionally Billy crafted many more pop gems. And while John was responsible for five of their UK top-40 hits, Damian and Mickey wrote half of the most successful quartet, not least sole top-10, My Perfect Cousin. There were four acclaimed LPs too, before Feargal made the move the others were also contemplating in 1983, soon enjoying a successful solo career.

That was it for 16 years, Mickey and Billy going on to carve out new careers back home while John and Damian played a key role in acclaimed outfit That Petrol Emotion. Then in 1999 they reconvened without Feargal, with Derry lad Paul McLoone – now also a radio presenter, in Dublin – quickly proving any doubters wrong with his own vocal prowess and electric onstage presence. More albums followed in 2003 and 2007, The Mk. II band’s first single Thrill Me getting back-to-back plays from John Peel 25 years after that first momentous spin of Teenage Kicks.

And while it only involves occasional commitments between other projects these days, last year marked an enthusiastically-received 40th anniversary tour, and the band continue to go down a storm all over – from the club to the festival circuit, throughout Britain, Europe, and even Australia and New Zealand for the first time this year.

Away from all that, as well as his Record Show, Mickey also presents Friday night’s The Arts Show on Radio Ulster, alongside on-going duties as a producer for Radio Foyle in his home city. And if you’ve ever had the pleasure of tuning in, have experienced first-hand his between-song banter with The Undertones, read his book, or seen him on camera enthuse about music and his home patch, you have the mark of the man – witty, friendly, informed and as far from pretentious as possible. And while the nod from the Beeb to re-cross the Irish Sea – he was based in London in the mid-80s – to present a high-profile national breakfast show might not be forthcoming, I’m guessing he’s not bothered. As Pete Shelley would say, ‘I don’t mind’.

In fact, laid back and understated seems to be the way of all Undertones. Don’t expect any ‘best band in the world’ hype, just a good, honest punk rock sensibility. Us fans get a bit dewy-eyed, but not the group themselves, as you can witness for yourself if you get along to any of 11 end-of-year UK and Irish dates starting tonight (Thursday, November 9th) at the Birmingham Academy.

It’ll be 35 years ago now since they released the Love Parade single. Not as if that charted. Their Top of the Pops days were done and dusted. As it is, I decide not to go into all that anyway. I’d only end up saying how much I loved The Sin of Pride at the time, with  Michael less convinced at the other end of the phone line. Instead, I try a different tack, not so subtly remarking on the lack of new material coming our way over the past decade, asking if – as last year marked the 40th anniversary tour – this was the Dig Yourself Deep 10th anniversary tour. And he at least has the good grace to laugh.

Past Days: The Undertones in their prime (pic courtesy of BBC)

“I think it’s just that we had such a great time last autumn, with all those shows. It all really worked, and was almost like a proper tour … but without the boring bits. As soon as it was over, the manager said, ‘Do you wanna do that again?’ and we all said, ‘Yes!’”

He seems happier talking about other bands, as is the Undertones’ way, and we’re soon on to ABC … well, in this case, Adam and the Ants, Bow Wow Wow and The Clash, comparing  the influence on the punk scene of svengali managers Bernie Rhodes and Malcolm McLaren, before eventually threading back to our main subject.

Last time we spoke, I reminded him, he was in a Ford Focus, with Billy driving, between shows in Belfast and Dublin in late May 2016, with mobile reception dropping in and out. And as was the case that time, they’ve opted again for mostly three-day live stints followed by brief returns home to go to work (Billy and John also live in Derry, with Paul in Dublin and Damian in London).

“Yeah, I’ll be back at work from Monday to Wednesday. This is our holiday entitlement, or ‘leave‘ as the BBC put it. I do worry that some day I will run out of days off, and the band will go on without me.”

That’s not going to happen, I tell him. I’m hardly privy to such information, but could never imagine that happening. So, any more new releases coming our way soon?

“No, not at the moment. That’s being put on hold, y’know.”

Only you wrote some great songs on that last album, not least final tracks She‘s So Sweet and I’m Recommending Me.

“Thanks very much. But it’s a very slow-moving process. We‘re not at it all the time and don‘t want to make big plans if we haven‘t got the time to fulfil them. I don‘t think it‘s what people are clamouring, and we don‘t have the artistic temperament, except maybe John, but he has different outlets.”

With the distance between you, arranging rehearsals for the live shows can‘t be too easy.

“There will be something in the next couple of weeks, with Damian coming over and Paul coming up too. We‘ll go through, see if there are any different songs to play, and so on.”

True Confessions: Mickey Bradley at the Central Library in Derry, March 2016 (Photo copyright: Vinny Cunningham)

Is it always good to get back in the same room?

“Yeah, it’s a good craic, and whenever we play again for the first time, it’s usually good. It‘s not like you have to crank up an engine or something. Then you do it a couple of times and it’s slightly better. For the physical songs, Billy always feels it and thinks he should practise more. Damian and John as well, with quite fast guitar. But the bass is never a problem … it‘s very sedate. It‘s a sedentary musical occupation, playing the bass guitar. As long as Paul can remember all the words …”

You see, I could never mange that. I’d have to take the Otis Redding approach and make it up as I go along.

“Ha! That’s okay if you’re Otis Redding!”

Then the tour ends back home, with dates in Dublin and Belfast. That must be great, I put to him, but he‘s not convinced by that generalisation of the perceived special resonance of home gigs (and boy, does he hate the word ‘gig’).

“It sounds terrible, when people talk about hometown shows, I don‘t mind it, but I don‘t attach any special significance. I enjoy playing somewhere where there’s an opportunity to get out the next morning and walk around, like in Berlin or somewhere.”

Regarding my own current patch, you’re just 25 miles down the road at Warrington‘s Parr Hall this Saturday (November 11th), following that with a visit to John Robb’s Louder than Words literary festival at The Principal in Manchester on Sunday (November 12th).

“Yeah, I’ll be interviewed by Roisin Dwyer from Hot Press, doing a bit of an illustrated mini-talk and a reading. I’m looking forward to that, and meeting Paul Hanley as well (drummer in Manchester legends The Fall from 1980-85, now with Brix & The Extricated) – who has a book out on Manchester‘s music.”

At this point, we get on to further Louder Than Words guest Robert Forster, publicising Grant & I, and a mutual appreciation of The Go-Betweens, before we’re briefly on to Mickey’s book again, and how I’d just re-read the section about Julien Temple’s visit to Derry to film the promo video for My Perfect Cousin. Well worth reading, if you get chance.

Talk of punk’s early incursions into Northern Ireland then saw me telling him how Tom Robinson recently impressed upon me that while The Clash talked the talk and had their pictures taken by Troubles landmarks, it was his band – TRB – who actually played, the first outside punk band to do so (with a link to the interview here).

“Yeah … And?”

He laughs, but I can tell he‘s not impressed. He did get to see them then, in Portrush, and thought they were good, but his opinion wasn’t helped by Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons suggesting, in The Boy Looked at Johnny, that Tom was the best thing happening in 1978.

“They said, compared to them, all the other bands were pissing in the wind. And I was like, ‘Fuck off!’ Actually, a couple of months ago we were doing a Rewind show in Perth, Scotland, and Trevor Horn and Tom Robinson were playing too. We were all in this partitioned-off marquee dressing room, I was waiting for someone, and Trevor was standing there. He kind of looked at me, and said, ‘Tom?‘ I said, ‘No! Do you think I‘m Tom Robinson? I’m Mickey Bradley from The Undertones!'”

Well, you must get fed up of constantly being mistaken for Tom, I add, mischievously.

“Absolutely, all the time!”

Going back to what was such an important year for music though, I asked Mickey where the band were up to this time 40 years ago, at the tail end of ’77 – following inspirational debut LPs from the likes of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Stranglers, The Damned, The Jam. Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Television, Wire, Talking Heads, and Johnny Thunders‘ Heartbreakers. I’m guessing they made the demo tape that really got things going around then, and had their residency at the Casbah in Derry.

“Yeah, in the autumn of ‘77, we were doing the Casbah and John was writing the odd song. We were probably playing Teenage Kicks too. That was a fantastic time.”

What covers were you playing?

“We’d have been playing New York Dolls songs, and The Stooges, and a few Nuggets songs.”

Had you already started moving away from the ‘year zero‘ UK punk material?

“We would probably have still been playing The Clash’s Garageland and White Riot. It would have been a good combination. We‘d have dropped Gloria and Jumping Jack Flash by then, and I’m Stranded … because it was too hard to play! By the start of ‘78 there would definitely have been more of our own songs, although we‘d have started doing T-Rex songs, playing Get It On and 20th Century Boy … oh, and Gary Glitter’s Rock’n‘Roll.”

You describe the Casbah so well in your book. When did that ‘plastered over Portacabin’, as you put it, actually come down?

“I‘d say about 1979 or 1980, although the shopping centre didn‘t go up until around ’95. It was all just derelict. But we stopped playing there around the time Teenage Kicks came out.”

You haven‘t got any remnants on the mantelpiece at home then?

“No, there was nothing worth keeping really, although I’ve got a plan of it – someone drew me a plan.”

So, finally, any new covers on this tour?

“No, we always have conflict about covers. I love playing them, but some of the others aren‘t that fussed. And whatever we do is for our own benefit!”

There could be the odd surprise though?

“There might be, yeah!”

So Close: The Undertones, all set to head off. From left – Billy Doherty, Paul McLoone, John O’Neill, Damian O’Neill, Mickey Bradley.

The Undertones’ 2017 UK/Irish tour: Thursday, November 9th – Birmingham 02 Academy; Friday, November 10th – Cardiff Tramshed; Saturday, November 11th – Warrington Parr Hall; Thursday, November 16th – Brighton Concorde; Friday, November 17th – London Camden Koko; Saturday, November 18th – Northampton Roadmender; Thursday, November 23rd – Sheffield Plug; Friday, November 24th – Leeds University Union; Saturday, November 25th – Newcastle Wylam Brewery; Friday, December 1st – Belfast Limelight; Saturday, December 2nd – Dublin Academy.

For ticket details, try the official website, check out their Facebook page, or follow them on TwitterAnd for tickets at Michael Bradley’s Louder Than Words festival event (with details of all the events here), try this linkThere’s also the mighty Rocking Humdingers Club, linked here.

For this site’s past Undertones features and interviews, try these links:  Damian O’Neill (November 2014), Paul McLoone (April 2015), my first  Michael Bradley piece (June 2016), Billy Doherty (October 2016) and a general appreciation (September 2012) here 

 

 

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Wolf Alice, back through the Looking Glass – the Ellie Rowsell interview

Radiator Radio: Wolf Alice (from the left – Ellie, Theo, Joff, Joel), straight out of London, and heading your way soon

Ellie Rowsell sounded croaky when she answered the phone. Whether it was down to an early start, testing those vocal cords at rehearsals with her band, Wolf Alice, in East London, or standard rock’n’roll lifestyle fare, I’m not certain. Either way, I put it to this mightily-talented lead singer and guitarist that she’s living the dream right now.

“Erm … perhaps some people’s dream, yeah,” was her faltering response. Not hers then?

“Yeah, in many ways.”

She sounded laidback, not entirely convinced, but after the last couple of years she’s had with  bandmates Joff Oddie (guitar, vocals), Theo Ellis (bass) and Joel Amey (drums, vocals), it’s understandable being a little blasé about it all.

At the time, the four-piece were limbering up for European and UK dates and the release of second album, Visions of a Life. And four weeks on Wolf Alice are a few dates into that schedule, those new songs having gone down a storm, as I was sure they would after my first couple of listens.

Last week they featured live on BBC 2’s Later with … Jools Holland, the host and former writewyattuk interviewee  also asking Ellie and bandmate Theo Ellis about their involvement in Michael Winterbottom’s recently-released, part-fictionalised documentary, On The Road. Not as if they’re the prime focus of the film. It’s about a ‘new management rep’, played by Leah Harvey, joining the band’s retinue for a 16-date UK tour alongside a ‘regular crew member’, played by James McArdle. There’s nothing scripted from Wolf Alice’s point of view though, and while the main pair get it together, making this essentially a road movie love story, it also offers an inside view of the touring life, often candid and glamour-free.

Asked by the NME’s Alex Flood last month (with a link to the interview here) why he chose Wolf Alice, the director said, “’Cos they’re the best band in the world! There were lots of little coincidences too. I like Angela Carter and they’re named after an Angela Carter short story. Theo used to live next door to me and he was in the same class at school as my daughter. Their manager used to work with the band Ash who were the starting point for this idea. Then we met them and they were really up for it.”

The Blackburn-born film-maker, whose past credits include 24 Hour Party People, 9 Songs and Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon comedy ‘vehicle’ The Trip, also mentioned the ‘intense intimacy’ of Wolf Alice, as you’ll see that for yourself in the film, and also through their interviews and ultimately their music.

As it is, Ellie and her bandmates are no strangers to the flicks, also featuring on 2016’s Ghostbusters and this year’s T2 Trainspotting soundtracks. And the interest generated from those projects has done no harm in raising their profile, Visions of a Life having shot straight to No.2 in the UK album charts, held off the top by Shania Twain, two years after Florence + the Machine kept debut LP, My Love Is Cool, off that same spot, in the week Ms Welch’s band replaced the Foo Fighters as Glastonbury headliners, taking the national focus off the band that stole the show on the Park stage.

That first LP also reached No. 12 on the US Billboard alternative album chart, with Wolf Alice nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, an Ivor Novello, a Brit (breakthrough act) and a Grammy (best rock performance), while taking an NME award (best live band).

When we spoke, I’d only had chance to hear the new album twice through, but already knew I could dispense of any talk of tricky follow-up territory. We had another winner. I put it to Ellie that the last LP’s reception didn’t seem to have fazed them in presenting their next creation. If anything, they’d raised their game, with an accomplished piece of work.

“Um … thank you! I think we were really lucky in a sense that we were so eager to make new music for such a long time that we had that kind of creative energy stored up. That made it easier. Also, we had quite an eventful two years in which we weren’t really short of inspiration. Taking all that into account, we were lucky to skip that so-called second album anxiety.”

So is this record really a story of their life on the road since that debut?

“Yeah, definitely. Most of the songs from My Love is Cool were written when we were much younger, and I guess a lot of life has happened to us. That makes it easier.”

The best bands don’t look to make the same album twice over, always moving on, whatever the plaudits of the last. And you don’t appear to be happy placed in a particular box.

“Yeah, but I don’t feel Visions of a Life is too far from the first album, just perhaps more mature, with a variation of styles and dynamics, but all within the realms of pop music with a guitar band feel to it.”

That’s certainly the case. The songs flit from shoegaze-driven opener on Heavenward to the punk energy of Yuk Foo and crossover-pop on Beautifully Unconventional. Then I hear Strawberry Switchblade meet The Ting Tings on Don’t Delete the Kisses, hints of The Sundays on Planet Hunter, a crowd-pleasing air on Formidable Cool (between Garbage and The Cure maybe), and a Grace Slick/Sandy Denny approach on After the Zero Hour, taking us back to their psych-folk roots maybe. And then a twisting and turning epic title track sees us home. Are those acts in your musical DNA?

“Yeah, definitely. We like all those styles you mention, but I don’t think we’d do a whole album of just one of those.”

Since I fired that list her way, I’d probably add PJ Harvey too. You get the idea, and this is a band that has impressed since that explosive debut single, Fluffy, four and half years ago. Actually, it’s now seven years since Ellie and co-founder Joff started kicking the idea of Wolf Alice around. Has her world domination theory gone to plan, or was there no such thing?

“I don’t know. It’s really hard. I like to set myself up for disappointment, so never allowed myself to set a goal. I just knew I was going to try really hard and wasn’t going to stop to think about where it was taking me. I think I’ll take all this in when I have a bit more hindsight.”

I got to speak to Joff when the first album came out, just before your 2015 triumph at Glastonbury. It was already pretty manic by then, and doesn’t seem to have slowed much since. Does there come a point where you get a bit blasé about all these exciting firsts if you’re not careful?

“Yeah, I think there is a danger of that. But I think also what happens is that you start to realise what are the important things to you. And because there are four of us we’re always there to pull each other back down to earth.”

Ellie also had a starring role this year with fellow writewyattuk interviewees alt-J, featuring on the wondrous 3WW. How did that come about?

“We have the same manager – not a very romantic story really! Joe (Newman) had a written part that he wanted my voice on, and I’ve toured with those boys, and they’re really lovely. He sent me this song with him singing my part, and I think it’s my – if I say it myself – my favourite alt-J song. I definitely wanted to do that, went along to the studio around the corner from our studio and laid it down. And I think their new album is their best yet – I love it.”

I agree, and those harmonies – you, Joe and Gus Unger-Hamilton – work so well.

“Yeah, I was really chuffed with that. It’s a beautiful song and I was really happy to be a part of it.”

Are you likely to feature on any of their live shows, or are you just too busy right now?

“I did Jools Holland’s show with them, but don’t think I’ll be doing any more. It’s just so low, that part, for my voice. It’s alright in a studio, but live … it’s one thing performing in front of an audience in your own band, but so scary for someone else.”

Ellie and Theo also saw their profile raised through setting up the Bands 4 Refugees movement, their positive reaction to the horrors of the migrant crisis unfolding, the lack of compassion showing in so many quarters shocking them into action; joining forces with Help Refugees. What’s more, on the run up to the General Election, Ellie was one of the key players in urging young people – fronting a Labour Party video – to register to vote before the deadline, making their voices heard. That’s pop as positive power, isn’t it?

“Yeah, I think you slowly come to terms with your power of influence as someone who has a small to medium-sized following online. It’s a scary thing to speak out, because there are always people you’re going to offend. But once you realise that’s never going to change and that you can never satisfy or please everybody, you can start to move past that and do what you think is potentially helpful and what is right. I think you have to do everything you can to stay hopeful. Nothing will get better if you’re without hope.”

Meanwhile, the Wolf Alice story continues apace. After multiple shows in Europe and the UK, the US, Australia and Japan on the mother of all two-year tours, they came off the road and it could well have been what they call the ‘classic story’ – ‘you slog your ass off to make your debut; you tour like a demon; you hit the heights; you get no sleep. Then, when you finally come off the road, you come home to an empty house.’ But instead of floundering or foundering, they channeled their energy, regrouping in London, spending intense weeks in rehearsals, working towards a wealth of new material.

Sound Visions: Joff Oddie, Ellie Rowsell, Joel Amey and Theo Ellis, aka Wolf Alice, from the floorboards up

Accordingly, the resultant LP is partly about dealing with their own elevation in the eyes of the industry, the band mentioning ‘disorientating details’, ‘miniature epiphanies and tiny apocalypses from an extreme ride and the lull that came after’. As Ellie put it, “The past two years were such amazing highs and then really extreme lows that we’ve never encountered before. That’s this album.”

With the bones of Visions of a Life in place, they headed to Los Angeles to turn those initial sketches- turned-songs into an album with Justin Meldal-Johnsen, best known for his work with Paramore and playing with Tori Amos, Nine Inch Nails and Beck. In fact, his ‘mad and cool’ bass with the latter at the Electric Picnic made a big impression on the band, who were in awe at getting to California to work with him. And recording at engineer Carlos De La Garza’s Music Friends studio in Eagle Rock, Meldal-Johnsen created a safe, collaborative environment for them to grow, but also pushing them further. As Joel described it, “He can play and hear notes you don’t even know exist. He’s working at such a high level that you just want to try and be on the same level.”

The album was mixed by Tom Elmhirst, whose recent credits include Adele’s ’25’, David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’, Frank Ocean’s ‘Endless’, Lorde’s ‘Melodrama’ and London Grammar’s ‘Truth Is A Beautiful Thing’. So how much of the album was down to Justin and Tom? Did you know what you wanted when you took your material to them?

“All the songs were written, and we had all the ideas of where we wanted to take them. I think both Justin and Tom realised those for us and made it easy for us to get to where we wanted to go. So we were really happy to work with both of them.”

Visions of a Life is fundamentally a personal, revealing album, a natural successor to My Love is Cool. And it’s an album packed with surprises for those who think they know what the band are about. Their progression and maturity as songwriters certainly shines on tracks like the sweet, slow-burning Don’t Delete the Kisses, the second single, ‘a sentimental love song for people who don’t do sentimental love songs until they find themselves there’.

I look at your picture and I smile. How awful is that? I’m like a teenage girl. I might as well write all over my notebook that ‘you rock my world’.

Sticking with the intimate approach, opener track – and fourth single – Heavenward was written about the death of a friend, with Ellie’s vocal performance somewhat sublime.

I’m gonna celebrate you forever. You taught us things we all should learn.

Meanwhile, Beautifully Unconventional, the third single, was written about a friend of Ellie’s. “My feelings towards her reminded me of the film Heathers, where everyone is a Heather and you find your other non-Heather.”

Friendship clearly means a great deal to a band who spend so much time in each other’s company. “It’s a weird thing,” says Theo. “I hope I’m not jinxing it by saying this but we really do spend a lot of time together. We know each other so well, intricately well, more than you would have in a marriage. It’s so close that it almost takes on a new state rather than like a relationship or like a friendship.” Yes, we’re clearly back to Michael Winterbottom’s description of the band’s togetherness.

Standing Ovation: The mighty Wolf Alice, still as cool as Wonderland, two years after their debut LP

Then of course there was the album’s lead single, Yuk Foo, and far more intense.

You bore me, you bore me to death. Well, deplore me? No, I don’t give a shit!’

Who’s that about then, Ellie?

“We wanted to make it open to interpretation, so that anyone who was frustrated at something could have it as their anthem.”

Actually, in Ellie’s case it was about being, “sick and fed up of certain expectations”. She added, “A lot of it is about being a young woman. Even the shit, everyday wolf-whistle thing. As I get older, I feel like ‘Why have I always put up with that?’ When I sing that kind of song, it’s everything that I want to do when that happens. I think almost everyone feels frustrated right now, don’t they?”

I hope you’ve had it translated into Cantonese or Mandarin to ensure it’s not rude, I add, mischievously.

“Sorry? Erm … no, I haven’t done that, but I’m sure it’s ok!”

Seriously though, there’s little sign of mellowing in the Wolf Alice camp from where I’m listening. And it’s done and dusted in 133 seconds. That’s the way to do it, eh?

“Ha! Yeah … it’s all good fun.”

After initial dates in Paris, Brussels and Berlin, Wolf Alice’s latest album tour continues at Mojo in Hamburg (Wednesday, November 1st), Luxor in Cologne (Thursday, November 2nd), and Melkweg in Amsterdam (Friday, November 3rd), before the UK and Irish leg starts five days later. Is Yuk Foo likely to end your shows at present? Because I’m not quite sure where you can go from there.

“No, we play it early on, so people can start with a high and push further than that. Hopefully, that kind of sets the bar!”

Tour Party: Wolf Alice are on their way, from Paris to Dublin, with plenty of points in between

Wolf Alice’s November dates: Wed 08 – Bristol O2 Academy, Thu 09 – Manchester O2 Apollo, Sat 11 – Glasgow Barrowland, Mon 13 – Newcastle O2 Academy, Wed 15 – Nottingham Rock City, Thu 16 – Birmingham O2 Academy, Fri 17 –  Norwich UEA, Sat 18 – Leeds O2 Academy, Mon 20 – Brighton Dome, Tue 21 – Southampton O2 Guildhall, Fri 24 – London Alexandra Palace, Mon 27 – Belfast Ulster Hall, Tue 28 – Dublin Olympia. For more information about the LP and ticket details, head here.

 

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Blancmange / Transference – Darwen Library Theatre

Crack On; Blancmange in action at Darwen Library Theatre (Photo: David Chapman)

“Here comes a love song … there goes the banister!”

Time moves on, and some of us aren’t getting any younger (says a bloke who turned 50 two days after this special happening), with none of us beyond nostalgia, not even an outfit that’s tended to move forward rather than dwell on the past in recent years.

Think Blancmange existed just from 1979 to 1986? Wrong. You’ve got some catching up to do, Neil Arthur and (initially) Stephen Luscombe reconvening 25 years later, the former still at the helm now, having survived some of those big coastal surges headed his way in the video for 1983 hit, Waves.

From 2011’s Blanc Burn (‘Up the Rovers’, as Neil told us on Wednesday, potentially alienating half of his audience) and 2013’s reimagining of Happy Families to the four albums that followed these last two years, right up to Unfurnished Rooms, there’s been little reason to just reminisce. But a mid-week sell-out homecoming for Neil at Darwen’s intimate Library Theatre perfectly fused old and new, re-energising past material and treating us to plenty more modern gems.

It seemed apt that beforehand we had a new find on hand, Tyneside outfit Transfigure proving their potential, a promising set suggesting they’ve a fine future.

Going Underground: Transfigure proved a fine addition to the Darwen bill

At first it seemed a little awkward, the guitarist with the blond highlights looking anywhere but our way and his baseball-cap clad comrade stuck firmly behind flight case-held keyboards. But then out bounded the eye-catching Grace, in space-age raincoat and bunches, looks matched by a fine vocal. I read a description suggesting nods to St Etienne, Pet Shop Boys and New Order, and can see all that, but will put my own spin here, namechecking Dubstar, Electronic and The Cure. A winning combination. I look forward to hearing more.

Soon after, the lights were down, an aural backdrop of analog synth setting the tone as Neil’s voice cut through over the PA, a track from the First Light album by Fader – his extracurricular project with Unfurnished Rooms producer Benge – giving us subtle local colour on Laundrette, linked to nearby Nelson Street and a cycle that repeats. And as the fader dropped, two-thirds of Blancmange, 2017-style, appeared, Oogoo Maia providing keyboard as Neil raised the hairs on the back of the neck with The Day Before You Came.

Where the original Andersson/Ulvaeus masterpiece tugs the heart in its melancholic intensity, Neil’s latest take is just as starkly beautiful and tender, yet even more stripped back and so deserving of its place here after all these years. I briefly wondered where they could possibly go from there, but then on tip-toed David Rhodes, shoes shed and guitar donned, bare feet soon working pedals as our trio gave us the new LP’s title track.

After two songs, Neil confessed his love of his hometown, memories stoked for the front-man as he recalled visits to the venue in his first school days, the stage decked out with crocuses and hyacinths. As he spoke of being back on his old patch, the familiar sight of the tower and moors beyond, stirred emotions proved too strong, our friend having to step away from the mic.

“Before a word was spoken, my heart was broken”

Recomposed, we had the wonder of the new album’s We Are the Chemicals, up there among the finest songs this year, just one of many LP highlights. His phone went off mid-song – his caller no doubt taken aback when he answered – but we were soon back to a pre-mobile technology era, further Mange Tout cut Game Above My Head as fresh today as ever.

Neil’s not averse to throwing in curve-balls, and Commuter 23 opener Red Shift (Blame Thrower) marked a first dark moment, unleashing an almost John Lydon-esque snarl part-way in. Then came another Unfurnished Rooms highlight, the madly-infectious What’s the Time, so deserving of being a hit. ‘List all the things you’ve never owned, list all the things you’ve never said’. Inspired.

Of course, he’s always had a way with words, although he gives the impression he’s from a town where he’d have been told if he’d ever got above his station, recalling an over the wall enquiry from neighbour Muriel back in the Top of the Pops days, ‘Eh Neil … ‘up the bloody tree’?’

Being Boiled-era Human League came to mind with Commuter 23’s Last Night I Dreamed I Had a Job, even incorporating Donna Summer’s I Feel Love in there. Still the audience mostly sat, tapped and clapped, part of me wanting to rip out the seats, rock’n’roll style, getting the joint moving. A band once so big on the dance scene deserved a moving floor.

Commuter 23: Neil Arthur, never allowed to get above his station with Blancmange

They were more involved with the wondrous Waves, although Neil let on he’d had to pull back from his big ‘Goodbye!’ moment as someone was giving it their all down the back, half a beat ahead, our star turn briefly losing his way. New track Gratitude was next, Neil again exorcising demons, telling us after, ‘I really enjoyed that’, before another Unfurnished Rooms high, Anna Dine. Did I mention they deserve some new hits?

Not all the old songs made the cut first time, John Peel session track Running Thin one that got away but recently refurbished and deserving of wider circulation on this evidence. Yet I Can’t Explain reminded us that the angsty songs have been there since the start, Neil talking about hi’self in the third person post-song, announcing, ‘Purge yourself, Arthur!’

But lest this was all getting a little too introspective, help was at hand, a local lad suggesting he ‘Crack on!’ Which he did, with Maia, Arthur and Rhodes in sweet synchronicity on the slow-build powerhouse masterpiece that is the new LP’s Old Friends.

Then came the night’s expected big moment, the audience out of their seats, transported to 1982, when Neil and Stephen were Living on the Ceiling. Most of the crowd had to sit down again then (my other half later remarked how many were having to take mid-set loo breaks). But the lady giving her all down the front was inspired to stick around for I’ve Seen the Word. And fair play to her.

“Feel me now, feel the pain, take the blame, feel the strain”

The end of the set was pretty much nigh, Feel Me the perfect warm-up for the climax, Neil adding tantalising sonic glimpses of Hot Chocolate’s Every1’s a Winner, M’s Pop Music and Grace Jones’ Pull Up to the Bumper en route. Glorious. I half expected the Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime too, King Arthur in his element and Rhodes stretching those in-steps.

The gathered were back on their feet for the finale, Blind Vision, our guests returning once more after the briefest backstage sustenance for another mighty dance work-out, Don’t Tell Me seeing us off on a high. That wasn’t strictly it though, Neil and co. sticking around to meet and greet after a top night out just beyond the Circus (you know – by bus stop, where Woolies were).

The last transport had possibly already long gone, but it was worth hanging on to that return ticket. We were soon heading back over Tops and home, a great night in the company of a special band behind us, keen to do it all again sometime soon.

Waves Goodbye: Oogoo Maia, Neil Arthur and David Rhodes take a bow at Darwen Library Theatre (Photo: Martin Cox)

For the most recent writewyattuk interview with Neil Arthur, head here, and for a review of Unfurnished Rooms, follow this link

To find out more about Transfigure, and to check out their new single Breathe, head to their Facebook page here.

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Juplicity: strong, warm, wild and free – the Phill Jupitus interview

Looking Back: From his Porky the Poet days onwards, it’s all been happening for Phill Jupitus

It was ‘early doors’ and stand-up comic/actor/performance poet/cartoonist/radio presenter/TV stalwart (perm any two from six there) Phill Jupitus was in Leeds, preparing to head to his next gig, 230 miles south in Tunbridge Wells. But he was at least set for a stopover at his Mum’s in Essex after his Kentish date.

I was going to ask if – like his friend Billy Bragg – he’d be taking the A road (the OK road that’s the best, remembering of course to turn off before Shoeburyness). But that seemed kind of obvious.

Phill, doing the rounds for his Juplicity show, was until recently based in Leigh-on-Sea, but home is Edinburgh these days. Was that move inspired by his many annual appearances at the city’s internationally-renowned festival?

“It’s just one of those things. My children have grown up and left home now and I’m at that point lots of parents get to in their lives, thinking about where they really want to be. You get to an age and time where the options broaden out, and I’ve always loved Scotland.”

It’s been a gradual move north of the border for Phill, whose daughters are now 27 and 24. Not as if he’s set to see too much of his family these next couple of months, you’d think. I made it more than 50 dates in all between South Molton’s George Hotel in early September and Milford Haven’s Torch Theatre three months later. Is it a case of ticking off engagements as he goes?

“No, there’s no point. Each gig is treated in isolation and the tour is a complete, evolving thing. And I like seeing the shape of the show change with each city. When you do stand-up, it’s about the energy of the room and the ability of the crew to adapt. When you’re travelling on your own, your ability to control your environment is less.

“It’s not like with Lee Evans, who takes his own people – sound, lighting and catering crews. His gigs – apart from the shape of the room – are identical every night, working with people doing all that for him. I start from ground zero every show, with a new crew to talk to and get things sorted out with, a new half a dozen people every day.”

Chorley Little Theatre is one such fine example, a voluntary-led venue I know fairly well (as featured here in January 2016), manned by volunteers. And he’s happy to return there.

Stained Class: Chorley Little Theatre, where Phill’s Juplicity show is set to play to a full house

“I’ve played there once for Ian (Robinson). There are a couple of theatres like that, such as in Richmond, North Yorkshire – the Georgian Theatre Royal – I did the other week, an absolutely extraordinary theatre run by volunteers – like Chorley.

“There’s a different energy in a room when it’s run as a labour of love, a different feeling about a place. There’s a very similar vibe at City Varieties, where I was last night, with real knowledge about the venue from the people there.

“Alan, their front of house, has been in that role since I first played there in 1998. I’ve been bumping into him nearly 20 years there. That’s something that grounds your experience – it’s not only you as a performer in the business so long, but the people at the venues too – like Ian at Chorley, Alan at the City Varieties, and the crew at the Georgian.”

You may think of Phill foremost for TV work, not least 19 years as a Never Mind The Buzzcocks team captain, plus regular appearances on further BBC 2 success QI, and Alan Davies’ As Yet Untitled for the Dave channel, plus a brief role in Mike Bassett: England Manager, small screen credits for Doctors and Holby City, and various voiceovers.

Then there are the BBC Radio 4 shows, such as I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and The Unbelievable Truth, and past presenting for the BBC’s GLR (1995/2000) in London and BBC 6 Music nationally (2002/07), the station’s first breakfast show host, as chronicled in 2009 memoir, Good Morning Nantwich.

But theatre work has loomed large for an entertainment giant who started out as Porky the Poet, and not just in stand-up, as those who saw his Bottom in the Bath Theatre Royal production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream will testify.

He’s appeared in touring productions of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (as Baron Bomburst and Lord Scrumptious) and The Producers (Franz Liebkind), both alongside fellow comic Jason Manford, and in Spamalot (King Arthur) too. Then there was Urinetown (Caldwell B. Cladwell) and Hairspray (Edna Turnblad) in London’s West End. So was drama ever considered a way of life when he chewed over options with his school careers officer?

“I always enjoyed it, and had a propensity for it, but it was never on the radar. That’s the thing, it’s very much drummed into you that the arts are somehow only a luxury. As proved time and again, they’re much more important than people give them credit for. Yet we live in a time where the arts have been downgraded possibly to the most minimal extent ever in my life.

Poetry Corner: Regular board-treading thespian and jack of various trades Phill Jupitus muses on life

“It’s weird talking about it in a global sense, but it’s that whole ‘Hollywood elite’ thing Trump keeps saying – people involved in the arts have a voice, and that’s why he doesn’t like them. The achievements of a society are not measured by its financial acumen, but the culture of a society, with the arts, literature, visual arts and theatre a part of that. And comedy – recently, the Arts Council finally agreed that comedians are artists too.”

In a parallel sense I know you got behind the campaign to save BBC 6 Music when it was up for closure due to funding cuts, something you passionately fought.

“Yeah, although that was more an accident, having a friend of a friend at The Guardian who knew I was no longer there and wanted my take on it as no one at the BBC was talking. Whenever there’s a leak like that, the BBC goes into an immediate shutdown. But as I wasn’t tied to the Corporation I could talk.”

I was thinking back to when I first saw you, and it was when you supported Billy Bragg at my old local hall, Guildford Civic.

“Oh right … that would have been March 1985.”

When I checked later I was impressed – Phill was spot on. But at the time I couldn’t confirm that as my computer had frozen, losing my prompt questions in the process. And his response?

“Well, don’t worry about that – improvisation will get you a long way!”

I had another pre-Buzzcocks memory of Phill, from my Captains Log music fanzine writing days in the late ‘80s, receiving a compliments’ slip with something shipped out from the Go! Discs label, signed by a certain ‘Porky’. I’m not quite sure where that ended up, I told him, but it must be around somewhere, having survived a couple of house moves over 30 years.

“Ah right. I’m a bit of a hoarder myself! But it’s odd looking back when you’ve done so many things. A guy at a gig the other night in Cambridge came up after the show, asking me to sign a copy of West Ham fanzine, Fortune’s Always Hiding, for whom I was cartoonist. I hadn’t seen one in 15 years.”

Celebrating Sexuality: Billy Bragg and Kirsty MacColl in Phill’s Brits-nominated 1991 promo video

When Phill was at Go! Discs, the label’s roster included Billy Bragg and The Housemartins, and he went on to be the latter’s press officer and compere, also appearing in the 1986 promo video for Happy Hour. And while Phill left Go! Discs in 1989 to concentrate on the comedy circuit, there were many music-related dream moments still to come, not least directing Bragg’s Brits-nominated video, Sexuality, and Kirsty MacColl’s All I Ever Wanted in 1991. And later he appeared live with Madness at Wembley Arena, worked with Ian Dury’s band The Blockheads (for their 30th anniversary tour) and even The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (part of their 40th anniversary celebrations).

“If there was one area of the arts that had the most powerful magnet for me, that’s it. I’ve worked on the fringes but in quite an involved way, and via that got into all this – in at the deep end. As it was, I worked in the music business for five years and toured with six bands, sang and played in bands, appeared on albums.

“I think it’s something I didn’t do properly, but when I look back I did a lot. What I wish I’d done was write a proper album and have a band. I suppose the comedy suppresses that need to be in a band. You’re on stage in a similar sense, you’re just not playing songs.”

When Phill got involved with the Red Wedge musicians’ collective in the mid-‘80s, he said he did so 20% because he believed in the cause, 30% because he loved Billy Bragg, and 50% because he wanted to meet Paul Weller. Did it meet his expectations?

“It did. The ideology pulls you in, but having worked at close quarters with the day-to-day functioning of politics, you realise you need so much commitment. I also found that everyone who works for a political party has an agenda they’re pursuing. When people talk to you or interact with you, they’re looking at you not for your views, what you’re saying or your hopes and dreams, but how much you as a commodity will help their agenda.

“That’s why I don’t really get on with politics. There are so few people who do it with a good heart, and you have to interact with people where you’ve got to really tip-toe around them. It’s just exhausting.”

Then again, a public soundbite from someone in the public eye like yourself is perhaps worth more than from some hardened activist prepared to knock on 200 doors, isn’t it?

“Maybe that’s what they see. Again, that’s why the Labour Party climbed on board with Red Wedge, which was really just a very elaborate, glamorous, brilliant to listen to, leafletting service.”

Before your career properly took off, you worked for the Department of Health and Social Security for five years. Was it anything like Mick Jones’ experiences, as chronicled in The Clash’s Career Opportunities?

“Well, you did get memos about being aware of certain things, such as ‘Can you smell almonds?’ ‘Are there wires?’ ‘What’s the postmark’ …”

Career Opportunities: Phill has kept busy since his first live date in ’83 (Photo: Andy Hollingworth)

I didn’t mean the danger of opening letter-bombs so much as that feeling of being trapped in a job you don’t want to do for the rest of your life.

“Well, I used to sing that song, and you’d have seen that. Obviously that resonated with me, and I’d add a line live about the Youth Training Scheme, which the Government were pushing at the time. But you don’t really known until alternatives present themselves. If my life had taken a different path I could still be with the Civil Service, thinking about retiring now. You might not be talking to me.

“Life’s built on a sequence of such infinitesimal accidents. What if I’d not met Billy (Bragg)? What if I’d not gone to see Attila (the Stockbroker), Joolz (Denby) and Benjamin Zephaniah that day? What if I’d never seen John Cooper Clarke?”

While working at the DHSS, Phill was writing political poetry and drawing his cartoons, going on to leave the day-job in 1984 to concentrate on his big dreams, working alongside organisations such as Anti-Fascist Action, making a name on the ranting poetry scene, approaching bands, offering himself as a support act.

Subsequently, he toured all over, with the likes of The Style Council, Billy Bragg and The Housemartins, supporting Bragg once more on that Labour Party-backed Red Wedge tour in 1985, before getting a chance to help out at Go! Discs, which by then had the latter two acts on board. So, can he tell me more about the very first Porky the Poet performance?

“I think it was October 1983, at a pub on Portobello Road I can’t recall the name of. I was cartooning for that fanzine and happened to have my folder with me. I’d carry all my work around – doodles, cartoons and poems. Attila saw the poems, and said, ‘You’re going to perform these now. Go up before me and do those!’ That was it. For the first time ever, I stood up and performed them … because of Attila. And it was nice to reconnect with John (Baine, the past writewyattuk interviewee also known as Attila the Stockbroker) for the first time in a very long time this year at Edinburgh Festival.”

Skipping forward a dozen or so years, I guess when you took on Never Mind the Buzzcocks in 1996, you couldn’t have imagined it lasting so long.

“When I got that show I remember a comedian I worked with, Mickey Hutton, phoning, saying, ‘I’m so happy for you’ then telling me, ‘Here’s a word of advice from one friend to another.’ He told me, ‘It’s just a bit of telly – don’t think your life’s changed,’ and told me about a comedian he knew who got a TV show, went and bought a flash house and car, spent all the money in one go. Then the show didn’t get picked up again, and he was screwed.”

Phill’s ‘non-showy’ approach certainly came over in his spell as a presenter at GLR then 6 Music. And in Good Morning Nantwich he mentions the influence of ‘less is more’ late great broadcasting legend Sir Terry Wogan, and imagining you’re talking to a few mates rather than a vast, adoring nation.

“Yeah, and every evening I try to remove the showbiz from my stand-up. If you come along you’ll see for yourself the structure – I’m just Phill, not a brand. It’s very anti the normal structure of a stand-up gig.”

At the same time there must be moments when you get awe-struck by the company you keep, not least when you’re sat in the company of Graeme Garden or Stephen Fry, or in a lift with Terry Wogan.

(Please note, dear readers, that lots of name-dropping follows during the next couple of Jupi-quotes. Look away now if you feel you can’t handle that)

“Well, when you’re working with someone you idolise … and when I look back at people I’ve worked with and now count as friends – like Graeme (Garden), Weller, Billy, Kirsty was a mate, Jo Brand, Alan Davies …

“Eddie Izzard too, one of the reasons I started doing stand-up again. After Hairspray, I felt maybe I was more cut out for something like musicals. Then one day I was in a Waitrose car park, the phone went and it read ‘Eddie’. I assumed he’d pocket-dialled me, but then he asked (cue a rather accurate Izzard impersonation), ‘What’s this I hear about you giving up stand-up?’ I told him I was thinking about it and he proceeded to berate me about why I shouldn’t.

“Within a couple of months I was interviewing Chris Rock for the Paramount channel and said I really missed stand-up, and he said, ‘You do realise it’s what you really do, don’t you? Rather than all the stuff you do around it, telly and radio. You should do it again’. Then I had a chat with Stewart Lee and told him if I did it again I wouldn’t know where to start. And he said, ‘Book a room for the Edinburgh Festival, then you’ll write a show. Trust me.’

“That was it. I committed to Edinburgh that year, eight or nine years ago now, for Stand Down. I realised that’s what I do, but you need to step away from stand-up to see things differently. I like to go away and do other things, and focusing on Buzzcocks was no bad thing – it doesn’t demand much of you other than your own speed of thought and energy.”

Isn’t that what stand-up comedy is anyway?

“Well, it’s like being out at a dinner for me, being at a dinner party where you’ve got two mates and you meet three new people – that’s what Buzzcocks was like.”

As music’s played an important part in Phill’s story, I reprise the question I asked fellow ex-Buzzcocks regular, Noel Fielding two years ago. If he could go back in time and appear with one band above all others, who would he choose?

“The thing is … I’ve already done that! Go on to YouTube, type in ‘Jupitus Madness TFI Friday’ and you can see me. And there’s something about being up there with a band – be it with Weller, Costello, Billy, sharing a microphone with Kirsty MacColl, or singing Drop Down Dead on the last Housemartins tour.”

Seeing as you mentioned Billy again, I’ve a complaint – I can’t hear the wonderful Sexuality now without thinking of your spoof version, Bestiality.

“Ah, now someone told me the other day they were at a gig where Billy did my version for a laugh … and after I first did it for him, when he played Sexuality live he’d often get the words wrong, sing mine instead. The audience are often a little bemused, especially if he’s on tour in America, as he sings, ‘I look like Johnny Morris, I love a penguin and her name is Doris.’

Essex Symbol: Phill Jupitus is heading to a town near you … probably

Phill Jupitus’ Chorley Little Theatre show is sold out, but you can book for Saturday, November 11 at Southport’s The Atkinson (8pm, £15 plus booking fee, 01704 533 333), with details here

For further information on Phill Jupitus and his full tour details, try this linkYou can also follow him on Twitter.

Footnote: a few days after speaking to Phill, news broke about the passing of his friend and fellow ex-Never Mind the Buzzcocks captain Sean Hughes, aged just 51. I had the pleasure of seeing Sean live at Preston Guild Hall in 1994, also regularly catching his shows on GLR and BBC 6 Music during the same era Phill was there.  This feature is dedicated to his memory.   

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