Robert Howard, aka Dr. Robert, lead singer, guitarist and main songwriter with The Blow Monkeys, spends a fair amount of time visiting Andalucia, Spain these days. Born in Scotland, he’s certainly got around, having initially formed a band on returning to the UK after a teenage spell in Australia, joining forces with Mick Anker (bass), Tony Kiley (drums) and Neville Henry (saxophone) in 1981. And three and a half decades on, it’s the same four-piece involved, his band having released four studio albums since their return in late 2007.
First time around, it took them four years to make a major impact, their promising indie debut single Live Today, Love Tomorrow among six gathering interest but failing to set the charts alight. Yet the band were soon building a live following and attracting further attention, a subsequent deal with RCA leading to rightly-acclaimed 1984 debut LP, Limping for a Generation.
Around then, I’d say they had the feel of Orange Juice and The Higsons in places, ABC, The Smiths and The Style Council in others, playing their own particular brand of ‘jazz-punk’, as the good Doctor put it. Meanwhile, Robert’s vocal delivery and lyrical approach arguably brought to mind another artist breaking through around then, going by the name of Morrissey.
While commercial success was eluding them, a breakthrough soon arrived, the poppier, more soulful second LP Animal Magic making its mark when second 45 Digging Your Scene became a hit. And that great track – still as fresh to this day – just happened to be my introduction to the band as an 18-year-old – one that was just outside the top-10 singles chart 30 years ago this month.
In time, more hits followed, most notably It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way and Choice? as the band evolved seemingly seamlessly from indie to dance over the course of the She Was Only a Grocer’s Daughter (1987), Whoops! There Goes the Neighbourhood (1989) and Springtime for the World (1990) albums. But the latter proved to be the last for 18 years, the lead singer soon concentrating on a busy solo career.
Robert certainly remained a regular on the live scene, including a date a few miles from me at the Adelphi in Preston, Lancashire, in the late ’90s, promoting hi comparatively-sparse fourth solo album Flatlands. Clearly, he’d stepped away from the Balaeric beats and returned to basics. He was out on the road – just one bloke and a guitar, yet packing a proper punch, his new songs somewhat fitting considering his stark rural Lincolnshire surroundings at the time he made that album.
Fast forward to 2008 and The Blow Monkeys were back with Devil’s Tavern, with three more great LPs and a live collection following since, up to last year’s celebrated If Not Now, When? And you only have to check out the single OK! Have It Your Way – arguably a re-imagining of Prince’s Cream done in a David Bowie style – to see this band remain as fresh as ever.
You can judge that for yourself soon, The Blow Monkeys’ new tour starting at Liverpool’s St George’s Hall on Thursday, April 21st, with sporadic dates from there right up until an appearance at The Grand, Lancaster, on Sunday, July 24th. There are also a couple of outdoor dates lined up too, including one not far off my old patch at Weyfest, near Farnham, Surrey, in late August.
“Those festivals are good fun. We never used to do any of those back in the ’80s. I like those smaller ones in particular. And the size of Weyfest is perfect.”
While we’re on the subject of geography, and seeing as Robert’s near Granada when I speak to him (and I don’t mean some motorway services chain or North West TV studio complex), how about that move to Spain? All a bit different from The Fens, I guess.
“Yeah … but not really. There are a few differences, I suppose. There aren’t as many eels here.”
The morning we spoke, I told Robert I’d just been playing a track by the Buzzcocks, as it was 35 years ago to the day that the influential Mancunian punk and new wave outfit split … which just happened to be the year The Blow Monkeys got together.
“I loved the Buzzcocks. A real seminal band to me growing up. If you were learning guitar they were good to play along to – they played easy chords. They also did love songs, something not so many punk bands were doing.”
Moving right on to the end of that following decade, another mightily-busy one for Robert, and the afore-mentioned late-’90s date at The Adelphi, I’m guessing a lot of water’s passed under the bridge since.
“We’ve all passed a lot of water since. Put it that way.”
Powerful songs like Hanging on to the Hurt (later revived for The Blow Monkeys’ Staring at the Sea album in 2011) from that era seemed to redefine Robert in my eyes, an artist I’d previously seen in a far more pop setting. But maybe it’s never been too clear-cut whether Robert was a pop, dance or rock artist – solo or with The Blow Monkeys.
“Yeah, probably to our detriment. We’ve never been that easy to pigeon-hole or categorise. At the height of our success, pop fans would turn up and be quite surprised. But if you traced before then you’d have seen we came from a different scene.”
That was where I came in. I was late to the party maybe, only discovering Limping for a Generation later, but Digging Your Scene and it barber-shop style b-side I Backed A Winner in You proved a perfect introduction. Soon, I’d snapped up the Animal Magic album, a love for the band truly kindled.
“Well, thank you for your support.”
That was all a staggering 30 years ago though. It’s not just a nostalgia thing, although that LP conjures up great memories. Yet I soon lost touch. Did he find that was the case with part of his old fan-base?
“Yes, my solo stuff was pretty much under the radar. I jumped from small label to small label and did a lot of small gigs like the sort you’re talking about. I was just putting the acoustic guitar in the boot, with no big deal. It was a case of reconnecting with my roots, and I’ve just carried on doing that. Sometimes I get lucky and people hear them, other times it’s just hardcore fans. It’s been a continual process for me.”
Robert, who turns 55 this year, remained a fairly prolific songwriter, as a solo artist and with the band. Have there been lean times?
“That’s never been a problem for me, writing – that’s what I do. I don’t have a proper job, so have plenty of time to do that! I never stop writing and trying to improve, as a musician and a writer. A lot of people wouldn’t know a lot of the stuff I’ve done, but that’s fine. I‘ve been lucky, and I’ve never had a fallow period in terms of inspiration.
“I’ve always written about what’s around me – landscape, people. I’m not really a storyteller. I’m more an impressionistic writer. As long as you’ve got your eyes open – seeing good and bad – you can keep expressing that.”
There’s clearly the appetite out there for the band since their return, unsurprisingly judging by the quality of the new material, with 2011’s Staring at the Sea and 2013’s Feels Like A New Morning also definitely worth finding if you missed out. So, getting the band back together again – was it a case of making up for lost time, unfinished business, or a natural progression of what you were doing?
“For me, it was a natural progression. I reached a point where I fancied being in a band again, and I think all the guys did as well. We had this shared history and we all still got on. We also had this back-catalogue and it was the four original members, so it felt like the right thing to do. And we’ve made four new albums in that time, so it’s not like we’re putting ourselves out there as a nostalgia act.
“Okay, we’ve done a lot of Rewind-type festivals, but I think we’re the only band that turns up and say those scary words, ‘And this is a new song’. That really matters to me.”
Last year’s If Not Now, When? was self-released. The industry’s clearly changed a bit since the band’s 1990 RCA swansong Springtime for the World.
“Well, that’s a wonderful thing, because now we don’t have to rely on record companies and getting play-listed on national radio. You can follow your own course and get fans on board. Even the process of recording is far easier, and cheaper. It’s much more a level playing field. That’s great for a band like us, especially when you have that fan-base and history. It can really work as long as you’re prepared to work hard. We have to get out there and play live, but I love that anyway. That’s no hardship.”
You always went down well as a live outfit though, didn’t you?
“Well … mostly. When we started we got supports with bands like The Sisters of Mercy, and I don’t think their fan-base took particularly to us! But it was a challenge and helped me create a little stagecraft – how to deal with audiences who don’t like you!”
When I mentioned the ‘new’ album, I confused Robert somewhat, as he was about to release a further solo album – another stripped-down acoustic affair, Out There. So it seems he’s still treading a line between solo artist and band member.
That take me back to how Flatlands inspired me to catch up with his solo back-catalogue, wondering how I’d missed 1984’s Realms of Gold and all that followed, songs like The Coming of Grace and Circular Quay stopping me in my tracks. That’s all history though, so let’s get back to The Blow Monkeys circa 2016. Not many bands reform – and stay together – with all four original members. I take it they all get on well.
“We do. We’re very different people, and don’t really mix outside the group, but that’s always been the case, and that’s probably why we do get on. Everyone has their own lives outside the group, musically as well. But it just works. I don’t really know why, and don’t really want to analyse it unless it falls apart.
“There’s a family feel too, and it’s interesting that the four of us are still with the same partners as we were 30 years ago. That probably tell you something of the nature of the band, and the loyalty we have.”
So are there new generations of Blow Monkeys coming through then?
“Well, my son’s making his own thing in electronic music, running a label and DJ-ing. But you have to be in Peckham, South London, to know what’s going on, basically …”
For some reason I see Howard Jnr. as a bit of a Rodney Trotter character now. But I’m sure Robert’s son is no plonker, and he’s still talking anyway, so I let it go.
“… and my daughter’s into film. You can’t help but influence them though. They probably don’t understand the notion of someone getting a proper job. After all, I’ve managed to avoid it thus far!”
While their musical styles adapted over the years, there was always a political edge to The Blow Monkeys beneath the beat. Does Robert still find plenty to get mad about to this day (he asks knowingly)?
“I do, and write about what affects me in my life. Just thinking about now – this migrant crisis, the idea of leaving the European Union, borders … you can just get so involved. I’ve always been a socialist at heart, so to see someone like Jeremy Corbyn ascend to the leadership of the Labour Party was an amazing thing. I never thought anyone like him would get there. Whether or not he lasts is another thing, but to see how popular he is with young people especially gives you hope. That’s the future.”
That sentiment resonated neatly with the words of a certain song written by the next interviewee I had lined up that day, a certain Graham Nash: ‘Teach your children well … And feed them on your dreams’.
“Exactly! That’s what you do. You just try and make the world a better place, and the old divides of left and right politically are less important than what you’re like as a person in the end. As you get older you realise that. I could even say I’ve met some nice Tories in my life … although I can’t remember any right now … but I’m sure there are!
“When I was 25 I would have been far more black and white about things. Yet there’s still an awful lot more to fight against.”
Robert’s ticked off a few ambitions over the years, and has worked with everyone from PP Arnold to Dee C. Lee, and from Curtis Mayfield to Paul Weller. Not a bad job for someone who’s never had a job, eh?
“Yeah, although I didn’t set out with that in mind. Those things just sort of happen, and I was very lucky. And people like Paul and Curtis taught me a lot. I’m very grateful for that. It’s not a bad life.”
The fact that his old friend Mr Weller is still doing it at his age must also be inspirational.
“Yeah, although he’s only a couple of years older than me – he’s not that old! But he’s always been fantastic. He’s just such a force of nature. He keeps pushing. What I love most about him is that he likes to confound his audience, always pushing those boundaries. When I worked with him it was a thrill. I learned an awful lot … not just about being brave.”
Like Weller, the light clearly still burns bright for The Blow Monkeys, judging by the new material. And as their press has it, they’re a sight to behold live, ‘invigorated, charged and on a roll’. There’s Mick with his ‘intricate bass lines of funk and grace’, Neville with ‘achingly beautiful tenor sax lines and stylish suits’, and Tony the ‘powerhouse from the valleys of South Wales, who can explode like Buddy Rich and swing like Gene Krupa’. And then there’s Robert, ‘spouting opinions and poses in equal measure, with a canny sense of knowing and a suitcase full of killer songs’.
Incidentally, that same press release includes a quote from the Doctor saying he was ‘really only just beginning to get the hang of all this’. Is that right?
“In a funny sort of way, yeah. I just feel at the moment I’m going through a good period in terms of the writing and playing … and enjoying it. When you’re young sometimes your ego is fragile when you push yourself out there. But the best times are normally when the music’s just flowing through you.
“It’s not about you so much. It’s about the atmosphere you create in the room. I’ve a feeling that’s happening more often and that makes for better music and better gigs.”