Paul Young was having a chinwag with his good friend and ‘father of the Italian blues’ Zucchero Fornaciari in a hotel room in the capital when I tracked him down, ahead of a Royal Albert Hall date for the latter.
The pair scored a top-five hit together 25 years ago, and remain in touch. And while Paul’s next show was at the Stockport Plaza, don’t think for one moment that was a lesser engagement. In fact, it seems to be the way he prefers it these days.
From Stockport to six dates in mainland Europe then others in Wrexham and Wakefield and onwards, the diary has remained as full as ever. And there’s Manchester Academy 2 this Sunday, December 11th, with special guests and fellow ‘80s survivors Hue and Cry, the same acts then moving on to The Fleece in Bristol (December 13th) and The Plug in Sheffield (December 15th).
Next March there’s another major tour lined up too, a 15-date ‘80s Invasion bill also starring past writewyattuk interviewee Toyah (with a link to that feature here), Martika and China Crisis, heading from Rhyl Pavilion (March 2nd) to Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (March 19th).
But it’s not all about re-living old hits for Paul, and I feel bad calling him an ‘80s survivor. He was perfecting his craft before that decade, has worked hard all over ever since, and a few months ago released his most impressive album for many moons. Yet it was in the ‘80s that he had most of his hits, a 1983 No.1 with his cover of Marvin Gaye’s Wherever I Lay My Hat followed by five more top-10 singles and three UK No.1 albums, the first two amassing 168 weeks between them in the charts. And as I put it to him, judging by the inner sleeve snaps on 1985’s The Secret of Association, he was always one for a little fun on the road back then.
“Yeah, nothing’s changed there!”
One photo that springs to mind involved a little close play-action, shall we say, with a bandmate, in front of a road sign for a notoriously-named Austrian town just north of Salzburg.
“Oh yeah. They felt they had to doctor that sign for the album. I asked why, saying it was the name of a town, but they refused to put the whole name up, adding asterisks. A bit of censorship went down.”
That LP – my favourite of his back-catalogue – surfaced when Paul was in his late 20s, while earlier this year he hit 60, hard as that might be for some of us to comprehend. Has that landmark birthday changed his approach to life?
“Well, my body tells me I should, but I haven’t.”
Does that voice of his need a little more care and coaching these days?
“Yeah, I have to remember that.”
There was a time in the early solo years when you overdid it, I seem to recall.
“That’s right. I collapsed on tour. Too much work, not enough rest.”
Have you looked after yourself a bit better since?
“Yeah, the one thing you have to learn is to pace yourself.”
Listening to Paul’s most recent album, April 2016’s Good Thing, an eclectic collection of reinterpretations of arguably lesser-celebrated songs from the classic soul archives – many from the Memphis stable – it seems that he’s getting back to his own musical roots, for an artist once afforded ‘blue-eyed soul boy’ status.
“Yes, I am, although I didn’t actually decide upon that idea. It was Arthur Baker that suggested the soul album as a project. I haven’t been idle these last 15 or 20 years. I’ve tried other material. Yet every time I worked with a producer or band we recorded three or four tracks to see if it worked, but only one ever did. The rest fell short, so I ended up with a big collection of songs.
“So now I’m throwing the idea around of putting them altogether, doing a kind of ‘basement tapes’ type album, with one track I did in 2013 that I liked, one track in 2000 that I liked, and so on. That might be fun, just getting them out there.”
I gather that Paul was working with the afore-mentioned respected US producer and DJ on this latest LP project for quite a while before it properly came to fruition.
“Yeah, mainly because we got started on it then the finance fell through, and Arthur’s always got fingers in other pies. He has residencies all over the world, with things going on in New York then Miami, then coming here to DJ. It was always a case of working on it a bit then putting it on ice.
“But one good thing that came out of having time to sit on it was that James Halliwell, the engineer and main musician, said, ‘This would sound so much better if we took the programming off’. Then it really started to take shape. I went back and re-voiced some, because the whole atmosphere of the track changed.”
In short – less programmed, more live. And it’s paid off, Paul’s first solo album in more than 20 years proving to be a winner. From Homer Banks and William Bell to Eddie Floyd, Mable John and Staple Singers covers, there are Stax of suprises, you could say. Were most of those songs they chose on Paul’s radar for a while, or did Arthur bring a few to the party?
“Some I knew. We’d get together and have brain-storm sessions, Arthur and I, getting a room in some club somewhere in the daytime, We’d say, ‘Have you heard this?’ and play songs like Your Good Thing (Is About to End). When we came up with Slipped, Tripped and Fell in Love I’d heard a Clarence Carter version while he’d heard Ann Peebles’ version, so we kind of criss-crossed. And another, I Believe in You (You Believe in Me). he suggested but was off my favourite Johnny Taylor album.”
The album starts with Paul tackling Al Green’s L.O.V.E. (Love), while as he mentioned fellow Hi Records artiste Ann Peebles, I’m thinking about his 1985 take on I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down, perhaps suggesting he’s come full circle now. When you first look at his choice of covers, though, you might question The Bee Gees’ Words. Yet Al Green did successfully cover How Can you Mend a Broken Heart? in 1972.
“Exactly – that’s what I thought. I felt what I‘d do is go for an Al Green style version of a Bee Gees song, sung by me! That was the idea.”
Going back to the ’60s and Paul’s own musical awakenings, I see he learned piano and guitar quite early. Was he a natural or was there a lot of hard graft involved?
“I wasn’t a natural. I had to work at it. But if you know you love music, sometimes you have to … what’s the nice way to say ‘dick around a bit’? I had to experiment a bit to find what my conduit was as a musician. And piano wasn’t it, while guitar I didn’t enjoy much, although I enjoy it so much more now. But I found the voice was where I felt I wanted to express myself.”
Was there music in the family?
“No, and there was only a piano in the house because I had piano lessons. I bought our first record player when I was 14. Up until then we only had radio in the house. The only remotely musical thing about us was that my mum was in the Luton Girls Choir, which was quite well known at that point. And my uncle, a sailor, played great harmonica, so I think my Dad thought that if I could play piano we could have some great parties! I don’t think he was thinking much beyond that.”
Is that right that Paul played football for the Vauxhall Motors works team? And might that ever have come to anything?
“No! That’s an internet myth.”
Well, you live and learn. He did work for Vauxhall Motors in Luton though, with his Dad. Was it bearable working in a factory, knowing he at least had a way out of the 9 to 5 world in mind?
“Yeah, the minute I did my apprenticeship – although I wasn’t getting much money, I was saving up to get a guitar and an amp. And I played bass guitar for the first three years of my musical life.”
Was he aware of how good your voice was back then? Was it just a confidence thing?
“I know I wanted to sing. We had a singer in the band, but I kept saying I’d like to do a couple of songs. I had that in me. Then a couple of songs went to four songs, and five songs … and then they sacked the other singer!”
The band he mentions there is likely to be Kat Kool & The Kool Kats, and then came the Streetband and the band that sprang from within that set-up and ultimately lead to his solo deal, the Q-Tips. And Paul clearly loved his soul music from early on, judging by his time fronting the latter outfit. Was that the major influence from the start?
“The first love was actually blues, and I started off with Free. And because I was listening to them and Cream I was buying Albert King and BB King and all that kind of stuff. I got into soul a bit further down the line.”
For all that, was there ever a worry at one stage that you might just be a one-hit wonder, and not even under your own name but as the fella who sang 1978 novelty hit Toast for the Streetband.
“No, there wasn’t really. I was young enough not to care.”
I get the impression the Q-Tips was the Streetband enlarged and re-branded. You played a lot of live shows with them, and they were very well received. Were those your ‘Hamburg years’, like The Beatles’ early apprenticeship overseas, learning your craft on stage?
“Actually yes – it was exactly that. And because we were a seven-piece band we had to work every gig we could get to be able to support ourselves. That’s where I really found my feet on stage, and first had a chance to find my own on-stage personality. That’s something a lot of kids don’t get now. This is the problem. They want fame too fast. All of a sudden they’re up there on stage and don’t know what to do.”
While Paul’s written many songs of his own, he’s still best known for some of the covers he’s reinterpreted and had hits with. But they’re far removed from that talent show level of covering without invention. From that breakthrough hit with Wherever I Lay My Hat right through – whether it be soul, reggae or even the odd indie re-interpretation – he made a mark on those songs.
“Yes I’m famous for doing covers, but I find my own covers then change them, so they become part of my material. There are a lot of artists I like who are singers and performers foremost. Rod Stewart’s written a lot of his own songs though, and so have I. That’s how I see myself – I’m a singer looking for the best material, whether that’s mine or someone else’s song.”
One such artist covered was Tom Waits, and while it may not go down too well with the purists, I have to say I love both versions of A Soldier’s Thing. That was a left-field suggestion, I put it to him.
“Yep. I remember doing that album (1985’s The Secret of Association) and my manager saying it was all a bit depressing and a little bit too mature. He was a bit worried I’d made too big a jump from a more poppy first album. It was all a bit dark. So then we went back and found Daryl Hall’s Everytime You Go Away, which we’d originally passed on because we felt it was too easy, too simple. We went back and recorded that … and thank God – it went to No.1 in America!
“I understand what he meant too – A Soldier’s Things is quite dark, as was Standing on the Edge, which my best friend Drew Barfield wrote.”
No Parlez was the first of Paul’s three UK No.1 albums, but it was The Secret of Association I identified most with. Even then, this indie and new wave kid felt some of the touches were clouded by the production of the time, putting them firmly in that ‘80s bracket. But many of the songs were strong and hit a nerve with a teenage lad reappraising and rediscovering ’60s soul. What’s more, I didn’t know my other half at that point, but we later talked about late nights listening to that LP hundreds of miles apart with the headphones on.
“Well, Laurie Latham (who produced Paul’s first two albums) was very big on sonic landscape. He really loved doing that, and so did I. I wanted people to react when they put on headphones and feel like they were stuck right in the middle of the band, with it all going on around them.”
And despite me mentioning all those covers, Everything Must Change was written by Paul and his keyboard player Ian Kewley. Was that a particularly proud moment?
“Yeah, it was. Then again, it seems to bother other people more than it bothers me that the bigger hits were written by others. I really don’t mind where the song comes from. In retrospect I missed out on a shit-load of money by not writing my own stuff, but I look at where my life is now and while I do still have to go out to work to keep the family fed … well, it’s like Rod Stewart said when he got knighted. Prince William said it was nice to see he was still going, and he said, ‘I’ve got to – I’ve got eight kids!’ So if Rod’s got to say that …”
Paul’s not quite got eight children, but helped bring up three of his own. Have his daughters and son followed him into music?
“No, they’re all off doing their own thing, and doing very well at it.”
Did you put them off the music business?
“I don’t know, but I think it’s hard to follow in someone’s footsteps where they’ve been a success, so I’m almost glad they didn’t. Levi (aged 29) has her own successful business and a lot of people would have seen her on Dragon’s Den. She employs 35 people and it’s going really well. Layla (22) is a model and gets a lot of work. And my son (Grady, 20) is doing chemical engineering at Bath University.”
Listening to him, he’s clearly very proud of them.
“Well, yes. The worst thing that could have happened is that they’d be rolling out of nightclubs late at night, pissed and embarrassing themselves. Anything above that is a plus point!”
As he’s about to go out with Hue and Cry (who Paul told me he’d never met before), then on another ‘80s tour party next Spring, I ask him who he’s kept in touch with from the old days. I understand for starters he’s good mates with another past interviewee of mine, Tony Hadley, having toured a fair bit together over the years.
“Yeah, I last saw him a few weeks ago. I also keep in touch with Midge Ure, and I’m with Zucchero now, who’s a godfather to one of my kids. It’s nice that we’ve all kept in touch.”
Along the way there have been a few albums, some avoiding too much commercial success But Paul never lost his love for playing live, as shown by his on-going sideline with Tex-Mex outfit Los Pacaminos (also, incidentally, involving Squeeze pedal steel guitar player Melvin Duffy). Was this a case of taking it all back down to bar-room basics again?
“Yes, it exactly was. It got to a point where it was all getting beyond my control, with too many people involved and me having to do thing because I had to rather than because I wanted to. Taking it back to ground zero and starting a band from scratch was very therapeutic. And the fact that we’re still going 25 years later means I got it right again. I’ve got a bunch of great people around me that really love each other and enjoy doing what they’re doing.”
You’re not necessarily the big wheel either. I guess that’s refreshing sometimes.
“That’s right. I’m back in the band again, and I’m loving being in a band.”
Away from the music, Paul has a real passion for cooking, as witnessed by UK viewers from his involvement with the BBC’s Celebrity MasterChef and ITV’s Hell’s Kitchen. Was that always there in the background?
“Yes, ever since I started touring the world. My eyes were opened – or at least my tastebuds were – by a lot of different things. And I just thought, ‘Wow!’ I guess it’s another form of entertainment when you put your heart and soul into something like that, then offer it up and hope people love it – the same as with an album. There are a lot of parallels, and it’s a creative process that can be enjoyed by others.”
Could that ever have been a career, with music the sideline?
“Well, if I’d have thought about it, maybe. But when I was growing up, my school’s vision was a bit peripheral. They tried to push you into local jobs. If someone had said to me, ‘How about being a chef?’ I might have gone, ‘Ooh, never thought of that!’ But it’s just one of those things. And they didn’t like the idea at all that I wanted to be a musician.”
So for those who have maybe missed out on his career after the main charting years – maybe not seeing where he was at beyond 1986’s Between Two Fires – which records should they go back to and seek out?
“They should go to The Crossing. The fans who have been with me for 30/35 years will tell you they love No Parlez, The Secret of Association and The Crossing best. In particular, there’s another song my best friend Drew – also with me in Los Pacaminos – wrote, called Won’t Look Back. It’s a beautiful song, some of the best musicians in the world are playing on it, and it’s one of those stories everybody can identify with.”
And who’s in your band these days?
“On the March tour we’ll all be using the same band, so it won’t be mine, but this time I’ve got Jamie Moses, who’s in Los Pacaminos and was on my albums in the 90s; Dale Davis, who also played with me in the ‘90s and went on to play with Amy Winehouse; Toby Chapman, a gun for hire with Spandau Ballet for many years; and Simon Merry on drums. It’s a great crew!”
Paul Young and special guests Hue & Cry are at Manchester Academy 2 on Sunday, December 11 (doors 7pm), with tickets £25, available from the box office on 0161 832 1111 or online via this link. The same artistes then move on to The Fleece in Bristol on Tuesday, December 13 (with a ticket and info link here) and The Plug in Sheffield on Thursday, December 15 (with a ticket and info link here).
For further information on Paul Young, head to his website, and keep in touch via his Facebook and Twitter pages.
Paul’s also playing three more dates with Los Pacaminos before the year is out, at The Forum in Fonthill on Saturday, December 10th, at The Atkinson in Southport on Friday, December 16th, and at Frodsham’s Forest Hills Hotel on Saturday, December 17th. For full details check out the Los Pacaminos Facebook page and follow the tour dates link.
Thanks to James Hole for the photographs used here from the Good Thing album shoot, with a link here ot his site. Thanks also to Headliner magazine for background detail on Paul’s Good Thing album, with a link to that here.
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