With his monthly magazine deadline approaching, Simon Barber could probably do without a long chat with me about The Chesterfields.
The 58-year-old – born the day after Paul Weller in the same Surrey town – is these days at the helm of monthly West Country arts magazine Evolver, established in 2001 and soon set to celebrate its 100th issue. He’s something of a one-man band there, save for a little office support and a couple of business partners. Yet I guess he always had entrepreneurial and creative edge, having co-fronted bands since the mid-‘80s, running labels and designing records.
The Chesterfields certainly had plenty of DIY indie spirit, an initial spell with Martin Whitehead’s Bristol label The Subway Organisation leading to them setting up their own operation, Household. Simon was heavily involved in all that, and while part of his artistic approach was later utilised in his day-job, he never walked away from music. In fact, it was through his band Design that he dipped a toe into indie’s heritage circuit. And what started out as a few Chesterfields covers proved to be a first move towards his most recent outings under the old band name.
In the second half of the 1980s, The Chesterfields were at the heart of a West Country live scene that drew in plenty of outside interest, along with The Blue Aeroplanes and the Brilliant Corners. It will be 30 years this Spring since this band of ‘Yeovil yokels’ (copyright pretty much every lazy ‘80s music journo) presented their delightful debut LP, Kettle. That’s as good a reason as any for Simon and co. to get back on the road again, and next weekend they’re playing two shows in the North West of England – Friday, February 17th at the Continental, Preston, and the following evening at Gulliver’s, Manchester.
It’s a complicated affair though, co-frontman Davey Goldsworthy having been gone for more than a decade now, the victim of a hit-and-run incident in Oxford. So these days The Chesterfields comprise founder member Simon (bass, vocals), later addition Andy Strickland (guitar, best known for The Loft and The Caretaker Race) and Design bandmates Helen Stickland (guitar, vocals) and Rob Parry (drums).
I should point something else out early on, as it gets a bit confusing. So, Simon, it’s not everyone who has a Stickland and a Strickland in the band, is it?
“No, that is confusing, and I did see an online conversation where someone asked if they were married, someone answering, ‘Yeah, they definitely are’! In fact, Rob and I were thinking we should chance our surnames, with further variations on that.”
Now we’ve cleared that up, let’s get back to that first Chesterfields album, which certainly made a statement – visually and sonically. Rumour has it that they felt that with a name like that, they’d get free prime-time plugs on Coronation Street each time Rita asked Mavis to ’put kettle on’ in The Kabin, and that pretty much summed up the band’s sense of humour. I loved that album then, and still think it stands up to inspection. It was naïve, but perfect pop. Does Simon agree?
“Definitely, and I wouldn’t change anything about it, because of that.”
I wasn’t sure about that pop-art style pink on similarly garish yellow cover though. In fact, in an interview I did with the band 18 months after its release, I suggested I loathed it. Yet, as I’m at pains to tell Simon, I love it now, and feel proud I still have that album on vinyl.
“A lot of people loved it, but I can only recall two people who said they hated it – one was Martin Whitehead, partly because of the cost. We insisted on that pink, and it had to be specially mixed. Also, Stephen (McRobbie) from The Pastels. He felt it ridiculous that a band could release an album called Kettle and put a big kettle on the sleeve, whereas we always felt that was hilarious.”
The same goes for 1988’s long-playing follow-up Crocodile Tears, taking that colourful theme further with an electric blue portrait of the band on garish salmon pink background. There was a poster of the design inside too, and it adorned my bedroom wall for a while (later folded back inside the sleeve and forgotten until last week, actually). And both albums and several other single sleeves were credited to The Terrible Hildas, one half of whom just happened to be Simon.
The Chesterfields always rang true to me, and like most of the other bands that really resonated, they seemed down to earth and I could see myself up on stage with them. What’s more, while they achieved a modicum of UK, European and Japanese indie success, they always remained true to their West Country roots, something a London-based music press couldn’t quite fathom, yet an attitude that endeared them to me.
I last interviewed Simon – along with his brother, past bandmate Mark Barber – before a cracking Chesterfields gig at Surrey University in early 1989. Work pressures at the time meant it was part of an ill-fated issue of Captains Log fanzine that never hit the streets, but I will get that online very soon. Suffice to say though, that was an odd time for the band, the Barber brothers out front, lead singer Davey Goldsworthy having already quit. They made one single with that line-up, and while remaining a presence on the live circuit, the writing was on the wall.
“I think Fool is a Man had just come out and Davey left earlier that year, so Mark and I were in a phase of co-fronting. Rob Ellis – who went on to play drums for PJ Harvey and is now working with Marianne Faithfull – was on that single and the last European tour with Davey, but had also left, so we had Richard Chant on drums. That would have been one of his first gigs.
“There was also Jamie (Anderson) on guitar, who drove down separately for that gig from Sherborne, while we took Rich. And those two hadn’t met until they went on stage together. It was great, as it happened though.”
You seemed at the time determined to carry on, despite Davey’s departure.
“We were certainly determined that me and Mark would carry on, although in the end that didn’t work creatively. That was more of a shame for me. I thought co-fronting with my brother was the way my life was going. But we write in completely different ways. I tend to bring a bassline and melody line and the rest of the band do what they want, whereas Mark tends to know how everything should sound – from the bassline to the drums. In the end it just didn’t work for us. Mark needed to be doing his own thing where he could be in complete control. I think I was much more disappointed about that than he was.”
These days Mark is Bristol-based, doing occasional shows as Pop Parker, including a few past releases on Vinyl Japan. He also toured North America with PJ Harvey a few years ago, played bass with Davey Woodward in The Experimental Pop Band, and now runs a greetings card business.
But let’s go right back to the beginning, to the first incarnation of the band in 1984, with Simon, co-singer/guitarist Davey Goldsworthy and drummer Dominic Manns.
“I knew Dom because I went out with his sister for a while. He was 13 and I heard him drumming on things in his bedroom, using chopsticks and sandwich boxes. I remembered that when Davey and I were looking for a drummer, and he started taking lessons at Yeovil College with John Parish, who was known on that scene and had some success with Thieves Like Us. John was the go-to guy who knew what he was doing!
“Davey and I were part of the Yeovil punk scene and played in various bands. I was in The Act, releasing a single that John Peel played, and Davey was in The Bikini Mutants with Debbie Gooch, who went on to My Bloody Valentine. But both bands split, people tending to do that thing of moving to London, thinking that was the way to succeed. In the end all those people ended up being consumed by London while we ended up being the band that succeeded, staying exactly where we were.”
You weren’t tempted to go to Bristol?
“No, Davey was working as a printer in Yeovil, and I was a nurse in a mental hospital. We vaguely knew each other from the scene, and I went round his flat one afternoon with a bag of 7” records. We played each other stuff and realised we loved a lot of the same stuff.
“At that time we particularly loved the Sandie Shaw record with The Smiths, and that’s why to start off neither of us thought we were going to be the singer. We thought we’d put together a band and find a girl singer, and for a while that was Sarah Featherstone, now a fabulously wealthy architect but at that point having a dalliance with local herberts!
“We realised soon Davey needed to be singing, but that afternoon were just playing The Fall and Orange Juice songs. Both of us had early Postcard stuff and both loved The Go-Betweens. I hadn’t heard Man o’ Sand before, while I got him into stuff too. Before all that The Beatles were my thing, while I loved The Smiths and Davey loved The Fall.”
I can hear that Andy Rourke sound in your bass-playing at the time.
“I never considered myself a bassist, so was always playing tunes all the way through, like on Two Girls and a Treehouse. I still don’t play properly, but really don’t want to know how, because maybe the creativity stops then.”
Davey and Simon were also inspired by emerging indie outfit The June Brides, who were on the bill the night they got their big break, thanks to Bristol fanzine writer Martin Whitehead, then in the process of starting The Subway Organisation.
“Martin was doing his fanzine, The Underground, and putting on gigs. Davey and I went to see The June Brides there, which proved a turning point, another band we loved. There was The Loft too, the start of my friendship with Andy Strickland. We also both support the same football team, which helped!”
That’s Portsmouth, by the way, Simon having lived there as a teenager after moving from my Surrey patch, while Andy is from the Isle of Wight. But that’s another story.
“We’d never played outside Yeovil, but a friend of ours was running a fanzine called Screed in the area and putting gigs on, bringing Bogshed and others down. He was asked by the Big Twang Club and Especially Yellow fanzine, run by Johnny Dee in Brighton, to organise a gig in a pub in the middle of nowhere.”
That was The Railway Inn, Templecombe, Somerset (more recently renamed The Royal Wessex and The Templars Retreat, if you’re contemplating a Chesterfields heritage tour), with two coachloads of indie kids from Brighton taken on a ‘magical mystery tour’ one Saturday.
“They didn’t have a clue where they were going, but visited Stonehenge and the Cerne Abbas Giant, then arrived for this gig featuring The June Brides, The Shop Assistants and us. Nobody had heard of us, but Johnny Dee (later immortalised in a Chesterfields song) and Martin were there, and I think Phill Jupitus was in the bar doing his Porky the Poet thing. We had the whole Brighton scene in this pub plus all our mates. It was a fantastic night, and we were great. Davey was really on form, everyone loved him and us, and Martin pretty much signed us to Subway straight away.”
At that point, Martin had already released a Shop Assistants single which John Peel broke, and pretty soon had The Soup Dragons on board, followed by The Chesterfields. So was it Subway as in Subway Sect? You did cover a Vic Godard song on Kettle after all.
“When we did that we were more or less covering Orange Juice’s version, only hearing the original after we’d worked out our own. I’ve met Vic since though. Design supported The Bitter Springs in London and he’s mates with them so gets up and sings with them.”
Has Simon still got a copy of that flexi disc featuring The Chesterfields’ Nose out of Joint and The Shop Assistants’ Home Again?
“Yeah, I’ve got everything. I’m pretty good at archiving recordings, and also music press and fanzines.”
As well as Davey, Brendan Holden plays guitar on Kettle, but soon made way for Rodney Allen, another former Captains Log interviewee, recently mentioned in my interview with The Blue Aeroplanes’ Gerard Langley (linked here), having joined that Bristol outfit not long after leaving The Chesterfields.
“By the time Kettle came out Brendan had left, and we’d got to know Rodney. He was a fan, knew all the songs, and fitted right in, although he had his own career. Sometimes we’d play somewhere and he’d go on first. Then Andy came in, and played probably our biggest gig, at Glastonbury Festival.”
That’s another story, which I’ll go into more detail on another time. But, in short, a smashed windscreen on the Friday night of the ’87 event meant myself and two other festival-goers spent a frustrating evening waiting for a replacement in Castle Cary, so we missed their set. I was however around the following afternoon when Rodney played on the main stage. In fact, it turns out Simon’s still in touch with Rodney, still based very close to the festival site in Pilton.
“I always loved his song, Saturday the If, my favourite song, not just of his, but of anyone. He knew that and asked me to get up and sing it at this packed-out gig, one of my personal highlights, his whole family stood in front of me, gazing up. Magical! I love that song so much.”
I’m with him on that. That was the song that really summed up Glastonbury ’87 for me, and it might even have been the first time that weekend the sun came out and started to dry out the mud. We had a bit of a moment like that when we played there. It was a bit miserable until we did Ask Johnny Dee, looking at each other, thinking, ‘What? Has that really happened?’ There was a similar thing when I saw the Go-Betweens. It was very muddy and I think I’d just watched a terrible band on the main stage, when they came on and the sun came out. Fantastic.”
By the time they’d played Glastonbury ’87, The Chesterfields had released their Guitar in Your Bath EP and Completely and Utterly single (both ’86) then Kettle, early singles compilation Westward Ho! soon following. And within a year, on their label, there was also Crocodile Tears, another LP that stood the test of time. So what inspired them to break away from Subway?
“We had a good relationship with Revolver Distribution in Bristol and Lloyd there suggested we should set up our own label. For a while we put another band from Yeovil, The Beat Hotel, on there too. They were great but unfortunately split up at their peak, going off in a different direction.
“We wanted to do another album for Subway, but Martin wasn’t ready. I think he wanted to wait – maybe rightly – until we had another album’s worth of material. We were writing, but we were on that treadmill – we had management and wanted something out there.
“In retrospect there was a lot we did that we should have slowed down. We had an agency and were saying yes to everything. If we’d taken a pause at some stage, perhaps Davey wouldn’t have left when he did. We could have taken a short break, got our breath back.”
Did you feel you’d learned enough from your Subway experience to steer yourself towards forming your own label?
“Well, it was me running Household, basically, and I loved the idea of it, establishing an aesthetic and a look, and there were things I felt Martin could have done better at Subway. But he was doing it in that naive way, in the same way that Creation were.”
And I suppose 27 singles and 15 albums without a proper business plan is some going. You can’t knock Subway’s indie spirit. As for Household, I bought the next Chesterfields’ singles and second album and even The Beat Hotel’s Hey Audacious 12”. But it seems that was the last of nine label releases.
“Yeah, The Beat Hotel and The Chesterfields collapsed around the same time, and it just felt like there were new things happening, like a band called The Becketts and PJ Harvey, and my post-Chesterfields band were definitely influenced by American bands. On our last European tour with Davey we were in our agent’s cellar when he played Gigantic by The Pixies and Freak Scene by Dinosaur Jr. Davey and I looked at each other and it was like, ‘Oh yeah, the world’s changed a little’, us wanting to do something more like that.”
“I played it all the way through for the first time in years recently, and really enjoyed it. There are things I’m not so sure about and I really don’t like the front cover. A lot of it was really rushed and some of the songs didn’t achieve what some of them went on to be. We made a few wrong decisions, and I feel we should have used a slightly different recording of Lunchtime for the Wild Youth.
“That was the song John Peel played from that album, but it wasn’t a single. Half of the band wanted one song for a single while the other half and the manager wanted Blame. I felt Let It Go – my brother’s song – should have been a single, but we should have made more of Lunchtime, not least because of the reaction it got live and from Peelie, who played it several times.”
There was an impressive contribution from Simon’s brother on that album (Mark having taken over from Andy Strickland), not least on compositions such as Alison Wait and Let It Go.
“I loved Alison Wait, but hated playing it. We were playing what Mark wanted us to play. But we do Let It Go as part of our current set. Besides, Mark’s seen us do it, and approves.”
If anything, Crocodile Tears at least took them away from being lumped in with a scene of so-called ‘twee indie pop’. On their Wikipedia write-up, it mentions how ‘hardcore fans’ tended to refer to them as ‘The Chesterf!elds’ with an exclamation mark in there. That made me laugh. I didn’t really imagine them having hardcore fans.
“I really don’t know where that came from!”
Radio 1 night-time DJ Janice Long was a great supporter of the band in the early days, and through her and Peelie that’s no doubt how I picked up on them. But that misleading description ‘twee’ got used a lot in the music press. Did they prefer ‘Bristol jangly pop’, as the Japanese market later suggested?
“I think Crocodile Tears separated us from that whole scene, also that Sarah Records scene. Lots of great things came out of that, but we were old punk rockers, having loved the energy of Orange Juice and all that, which I felt followed on from bands like Buzzcocks.”
I agree, and when I saw them at a packed Coalhole in Covent Garden in early June ’87, I was surprised by the touristy, trendy indie audience. That wasn’t how I imagined it all when I listened to the records.
“Yeah, we certainly didn’t have twee indie attitude, and never felt like we fitted in. One regret we had was that we had a manager early on who did a deal with Time Out to allow them to come and photograph us in anoraks for a feature. Davey and I were against it, but the others said we should. There’s a photograph somewhere of us in these anoraks, and we just look stupid. But maybe that attracted the audience that bought the records, so you can’t really be too dismissive.”
They certainly had a big Japanese following, ultimately leading to the band re-grouping – with Davey back in the fold – for 1994 album Flood, and more live dates, including some in the Far East.
“Japan loved The Chesterfields’ aesthetic, the guitars, and sleeve designs. They bought into all that. We’ve still got fans out there and there’s a possibility we might be able to go over there again. I’d also like to take Design there. That’s one of the problems of being involved in a band doing new things but also doing the heritage thing. But it did get both bands to the NYC Popfest last year!”
Confession time now. At the beginning of ’94 I moved to Lancashire, a lot was happening in my life, and I was concentrating on a football fanzine rather than writing about music, so was more likely to write about Yeovil Town FC than a Chesterfields’ re-emergence. Accordingly, it took me until buying the 2005 Cherry Red best of (Electric Guitars in their Hearts) retrospective to hear the splendid Down by the Wishing Pool single and the LP that followed.
Yet, as I put it to Simon, Flood is a bit of a strange animal for me, although there are some great tracks there and a promise of what might have come next.
“Maybe, but it was three people coming back together – Davey, me and Mark, with songs half-written with other bands we were in at the time. We loved doing that album, and did it with Head, who’s doing PJ Harvey’s stuff now. The process was brilliant, Davey was back on form, and we did it because Vinyl Japan asked us to do it. They paid for it and we agreed to do it if we could go and play Japan, playing over there with the TV Personalities.
“I’m not unhappy with that album. I love a couple of Davey’s songs and his lyrics. There are a couple of tracks I’m not so sure about, and we’re not doing anything from it this time, although some think we really should.“
There are a few lovely Teenage Fanclub type guitar moments there too, although arguably too low in the mix for me.
“Oh yeah – that’s Davey!”
There was also the Open to Persuasion single at the end of that year, but nothing more. So how come?
“We came back and did a couple of gigs but there wasn’t really that much interest, so just went back to the bands we were with before. But it was great fun and I suppose that’s what I’m still doing now. If The Chesterfields are asked to do things, and we can afford to, we do it, and it’s really good fun. I’ve seen clips of bands that have reformed from that time and felt they shouldn’t have. That was my big fear. But I’m told that’s not the case with us.”
While that Cherry Red compilation helped re-ignite interest, it came barely a year after Davey’s tragic death, a father of two lads gone far too early. Was Simon still in touch with him?
“Yeah, we saw each other regularly. He moved to Brighton for a while, then Oxford, and was in New York for a while. He actually phoned the week before he was killed. We had a really nice conversation, touching in retrospect on our relationship and things like that. That was very weird, having that conversation just before. In fact, the same thing happened with another friend the following year.
“Davey was always the person – whatever I was doing – whose opinion meant more to me for any music I was working on than anyone else. Then suddenly that person was gone. That was hard. I still think lyrically he was one of the best. Anything I write now I measure against that, imagining sharing it with Davey, asking what he thinks, just as it was.”
The Subway Organisation 1986-1989 CD sleevenotes mention ‘Davey’s sharp, observant and smart lyrics set The Chesterfields apart from the soundalikes’. Is that fair comment?
“Yeah. I agree with that.”
A dozen years later we have that new line-up though, borne out of the 2014 retrospective celebrations of the legendary NME C86 tape, as Design, augmented by Andy Strickland, played a set of Chesterfields songs at the 92 Club in London. They continued to play a few of those ‘heritage songs’ live, finally going out under the old band name with Andy again last year at Exeter’s Cavern Club and The 100 Club in London.
And it’s fair to say Simon’s still on something of a high about last summer’s appearances with both The Chesterfields and Design at the NYC Popfest, playing The Knitting Factory, Brooklyn, putting it up there with that breakthrough Templecombe showcase and 1987’s Glastonbury (also involving Andy Strickland).
“Just to be up there singing Davey’s songs and my songs, with friends, in a place I never thought I’d go to with the band, with the audience seeming to know all the songs. All the other bands were lovely too, and the whole experience was just fantastic.
“I still think about playing Glastonbury too, our biggest gig. There have been so many highs, including playing Tokyo and recording for Janice Long. She was a huge fan and her support was so important. Peelie didn’t play us quite so much, but told our manager he would if Janice hadn’t already taken us. He said, ‘You don’t need my help’. It would have been lovely to do a Peel session but we were very proud to record for Janice. Our sessions were released on vinyl too, and that was her personal choice.”
Furthermore, it seems that Simon’s very happy for Helen to share the limelight out front, and their voices work well together, not dissimilar from that juxtaposition with Davey’s voice.
“Yeah, I found my other perfect side-kick in Helen, after Davey, with whom I had that sweet’n’sour Lennon-McCartney thing. I don’t have to be a front-man, even when they’re my songs and I’m singing lead.”
The Chesterfields play The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston, Lancashire, on Friday, February 17th, on a Tuff Life Boogie bill topped by Glasgow five-piece The Orchids and also including Sheffield’s The Suncharms’ first show in almost 25 years. Tickets are £8 (advance) or £10 (door) from WeGot Tickets, SEE Tickets, Skiddle, the venue (01772 499425) or Action Records (01772 884772). For more details follow this link.
And on Saturday, February 18th the band top the bill at Gulliver’s, Oldham Street, Manchester, supported by Karen (Brilliant Corners frontman Davey Woodward’s band) and Matinee Records’ Charlie Big Time. Tickets are £7 or £9 on the door, available from the venue or this link.