While there’s inevitably a sombre undertone bearing in mind guitarist Stuart Adamson’s sad passing 15 years ago, it’s fair to say Richard Jobson is relishing the chance to relive his youth while charting new territory with a reborn Skids outfit.
Some 40 years after this influential Scottish punk and new wave combo formed in their hometown of Dunfermline, Jobson and fellow survivor Bill Simpson (bass) are back in tow in a five-piece version of the band, joined by drummer Mike Baillie, who joined in 1980, and father and son guitar duo Bruce and Jamie Watson, on loan from Big Country.
And not only are they hitting the road for a UK tour, but they’re also working on a brand new album, Burning Cities, their first since 1981, the lead singer determined the outfit should not be seen as just another ‘heritage band’.
But first, let’s go back a bit, success coming fairly fast for the original line-up, interest from legendary DJ John Peel leading to prestigious early support slots with The Clash and Buzzcocks, the band going on to sign to Virgin Records in 1978. While late ’78 singles Sweet Surburbia and The Saints are Coming helped them carve their niche, their first proper hit was Into the Valley, the second 45 from debut LP Scared to Dance and the first I heard. I still can’t resist its wonderful intro, that single followed into the top-40 by Masquerade, Charade and Working for the Yankee Dollar before 1979 was out.
While first time around I never owned a Skids record, I recall the excitement of borrowing the cassette version of the Bill Nelson-produced, Rockfield Studios-recorded second LP, Days in Europa (in its memorable first edition cover format, an Aryan-type image bringing to mind the 1936 Olympics, complete with Gothic-style, Germanic lettering) from a Surrey County Council travelling library van parked at the end of my road in Shalford, barely a three-minute walk from the scout hut previously used as a practise venue by The Stranglers, for whom the Skids opened on an autumn ’78 tour, Bill Simpson even suggesting JJ Burnel wanted to produce their first album. Anyway, I digress. I was barely 12 at the time, but remember getting that in the tape deck back home, opening track Animation transporting me back to that moment.
In time it all came to an end, third album The Absolute Game in 1980 the last with Stuart Adamson, who went on to worldwide success with Big Country while Richard Jobson and a new-look band made one more, late 1981’s Joy, before he embarked on his next project, The Armoury Show. But the Skids have occasionally got back together since Adamson’s death in late 2001, most notably in 2007 to celebrate the band’s 30th anniversary at Strathallan’s T in the Park and for two nights at the Glen Pavilion in Dunfermline (where they return in late June), leading – via 2009 and 2010 shows – to this current 40th anniversary tour, their biggest collection of dates since reforming.
Post-split, father-of-two Jobson made his name in other areas, ultimately as a film-maker but also as a poet, TV presenter and even a model. But he was back in Dunfermline when we spoke, rehearsing in the town where the story began. So is it good to be getting back out there?
“Yeah, first of all we were going to do a few gigs to mark this anniversary, but got offered an awful lot more, which slightly concerned me – I didn’t want to be like all those other old bands doing nostalgia trips and heritage trails.
“We started recording new material, with Youth, who’s worked with Pink Floyd, The Verve, the Jesus and Mary Chain and many more. He was a bit of a fan and had written some songs in our style. So we started writing together, making it all a bit more authentic.”
While some of the band remain in Fife, Richard lives in Bedfordshire these days, having been born in Kirkcaldy, grown up in Ballingry, Fife, this son of a miner and docker at Rosyth also spending time in Berlin.
Soon we were talking about his hometown football team, the Pars, and past visits to East End Park, my interviewee telling me how he’d gravitated towards German second division outfit St Pauli these days.
“It’s more for the atmosphere, but I approve of the social work they do in the community. Football here’s been separated from what it was borne out of and for. The way the English Premier League has gone, for example, is pretty disgraceful. And while St Pauli are actually trying to hang on in their division at the moment, they still get a full house, because it represents something.”
Will there be a pilgrimage to the Bellville Hotel in Pilmuir Street this August to mark 40 years since the Skids’ very first gig?
“I think so. We’ve be doing that every day as we’re rehearsing just around the corner. It’s a nightclub called Johnson’s now, known locally as Jiggy’s.”
Is there a blue plaque outside?
“No, there should be though! It’s an amazing venue.”
We talk briefly about other Dunfermline acts too. Wasn’t The Rezillos’ Fay Fife a local lass?
“She was. They were a great, fun pop band, more of a cartoon thing than us, but we came from the same area. It’s a bit more rural here, with a different mentality and attitude, not normally the sort of place bands would spring out of. But quite a few have, including Fay, us, Nazareth, Barbara Dickson …”
The Rezillos sprang from Edinburgh’s art scene. Were you also expected to cross the Forth Road Bridge to make your name?
“I think it was deemed surprising we came from here rather than an art-school background. We didn’t have that urban sound. Our influences were pretty different from a lot of other bands springing up. There was a pretty healthy folk scene and a bit of that’s in the blood, something heard in Stuart Adamson’s guitar sound.”
Now you mention it, we saw that particularly in his later days with Big Country, but I guess it was always there.
“I think so. It was a bit tougher with us, becoming a bit softer, more melodic later.”
Within a few months of forming, John Peel’s patronage led to the Skids scoring a prestigious support with The Clash in Dunfermline in late October ’77 at the Kinema Ballroom, the bill also including Richard Hell and the Voidoids and The Lou’s.
“An amazing night!”
Have you clear memories of that evening?
“Oh yeah! The Clash in Dunfermline? Come on!”
Living the dream, I guess. Their first landmark album had been out a few months by then.
“It was, yeah. I think The Clash were one of the few bands that came from the London scene that actually stood by some of the principles of punk and played places like Dunfermline. Others were a bit more aloof. I think we established a scene here, playing here a few times, with a cult following. All of those things together made it a viable place to come and play, and that was one of the great nights.”
I always got the impression Joe Strummer was good at talking to people, with no stand-offish nature.
“He was a good guy, and never changed. I saw him not long before he died, had a coffee. He was always very generous with his time, and always very supportive of what I was trying to do. He was a hero!”
Then that next month you supported the Buzzcocks in Edinburgh.
“Yes, that was in Cloud’s, with a band called The Dickies.”
And when did you last listen to the independent EP, Charles, that initially brought you to John Peel’s attention and ultimately led to that wider appeal?
“I haven’t since we made it. It’s the same with all the books and films I’ve made. I’ve never seen 16 Years of Alcohol since the premiere. People say very nice things but I’m not interested in watching it again. I just move on.
“But while this project is revisiting the songs, in a funny kind of way they’re sounding like they were supposed to in the beginning. In many ways what was lacking was that Stuart played rhythm and lead guitar on the recordings.
“Towards the end I was playing more guitar, which I didn’t really like doing. I felt quite restricted by it but had to fill the sound out a bit. I think if we’d got a second guitar in he probably would have been happier and The Skids might have existed to this day. Well, we do exist to this day, of course, but …”
In a sense you had to wait for Bruce Watson – the Skids fan who wen ton to play alongside Adamson in Big Country – to have a child before you could reconvene though.
“That’s it, you’re right! I hadn’t thought about it that way, but yeah! And he’s great to work with. Such a great guy and incredibly generous, his son too. Bruce is the musical leader of the band, without doubt, and creates a dynamic quality to the music that should have been there before. We were always a very good live band, but I think we’re surpassing that now.”
Did you send that first single (on the No Bad label created by Dunfermline music shop owner turned manager Sandy Muir) to John Peel?
“I can’t actually remember who sent it. It might have been us. Of course, people were doing that every day, but it was an amazing thing. John Peel was our connection to what was going on in the rest of the country, introducing us to new music and wonderful things we might not have heard. To hear Television and the Banshees, then hear Charles played was extraordinary.
“We were very proud. I guess our generation didn’t measure success by finance but by getting to make things. That seems to have changed now. The creative process seems less important.
“Also, we were a genuine working class band from the mining villages of Fife and most bands coming through today seem to be from fairly privileged, exclusive backgrounds. The only way you can be in a band now is if it’s a hobby rather than something you truly love.”
I totted up five BBC Radio 1 sessions for John Peel (May and August ‘78, February and May ’79, and September ‘80). And listening back, tracks like ‘79’s Walk on the Wild Side remain so fresh 38 years later.
“We’d use those Peel sessions as an opportunity to be free, in a way. We’d never go in to play potential songs for albums, but be creative and experimental. I always loved that freedom. When we had a proper record company and Virgin were involved, they hated us being that way. They wanted us to be much more on the money. A lot we would write on the day at the Maida Vale studios, which was great fun.”
Will you play your cult Coronation Street tribute TV Stars while on Weatherfield’s doorstep at the 02 Ritz in Whitworth Street, Manchester (Friday, June 2nd, £22.50 advance, 0161 236 4355 or via here)?
“I think somehow we’ll get to that at some point in the evening! It was a kind of joke at the time, having a laugh in rehearsals. TV in that era was something that was watched by so many people, and we all grew up with Coronation Street.
“What’s more, we went to Manchester as The Skids when we were kids, before we went to London actually, not long after we formed, playing in a club called The Ranch, just off Piccadilly. It didn’t open until after midnight and we supported a Manchester punk band called Slaughter and the Dogs. A really strange place, a cult place, and earlier that day we played on the roof of the Virgin store.
“We came down because we loved the Buzzcocks and saw them with Howard Devoto as the singer at the Electric Circus, so were pretty tuned into the Manchester scene and remained so. It was always pretty vibrant … and still is.”
I’m a bit confused there. Richard suggested that date was in early ’77, but that would even pre-date the Pilmuir Street debut. In fact, on the band’s website their first technician, Clive Ford, seems to tell a different version, suggesting a plan to ambush a Rezillos gig in Rafters in Manchester, the band’s low billing meaning they played ‘to about eight people’. He adds, ‘The following day we tried to play a gig at the Virgin store, it nearly happened but the manager chickened out’, their entourage ending up ‘in a club getting drunk with one Rossi from Slaughter & the Dogs’.
It’s understandable if the memories are slightly mixed up. For one thing, Richard was barely 16 when he joined the band. And he’s been far from idle in the time since the Skids called it a day. In fact, he has two grown-up children, his son fresh from doing his masters at university, studying cyber-terrorism, while his daughter, just turned 24, went down the art school route, ‘doing a more creative thing’.
Stupid question, I know, but could he ever have imagined back in ’77 that the Skids would go on to have a 40th anniversary tour? I mean, rock’n’roll itself was barely in its 20s at that point.
“No. Obviously I gave it up quite early, despite a brief dalliance with The Armoury Show with John McGeoch and John Doyle from Magazine, and loved the album we made together. “I couldn’t be arsed with it anymore and went on to do other things, but occasionally would dip my toe into the water with The Skids, and when Stuart died we did a concert in his honour and for every anniversary did one gig from there. This too was only supposed to be a couple of gigs, having not toured for 35 years, but then word got out and people wanted us to come to other cities, so we’ll see what happens. It’s been amazing so far.”
Is everything else on hold for now then?
“It is. I’m coming to Manchester next year though, to make a film in late Spring, called Saddleworth, set in Gorton, so I’ll be based in Manchester for much of 2018, and really love the city.”
Thinking of this line-up with you on this tour, Bill Simpson was there from the start with Stuart, the pair having met in high school in Cowdenbeath. Did you hit it off with the two of them straightaway?
“Not really, I think it was just that they were looking for a front-man and I had all the accoutrements – the attitude and the hair! When I did the audition they had some guys who came along who were all a bit Bryan Ferry-esque, and then I came along and sang Raw Power by Iggy Pop, which seemed to do the trick. We became very close, but I didn’t know them at all at first.”
In fact, Bill said in an interview sourced on the Skids’ website, “Richard was somebody from Dunfermline who we saw walking around and thought, ‘Who the hell is that?’ He was a tall, imposing looking character in a big, long, black trench-coat, with black and white hair. He just had a look and a presence about him. I never spoke to him but what happened next was we were talking about putting a band together and thought we’d audition for a singer. Stuart must’ve bumped into Richard somewhere and invited him along to audition with some other singers, and that was that. As soon as we heard he could carry a tune, the confidence and presence he had, the overall look and the fact he was of the same mindset, that was it, we had found our singer.”
Did Richard stay in touch with Bill over the years?
“Not really. He wandered off, he’d had enough of it, but Stuart and I continued. I was always a bit of an itinerant while Stuart was a bit of a home-boy, loved coming back to his home in Scotland.”
And Mike Baillie came in for The Absolute Game, didn’t he?
“He did, and was a friend of ours anyway, a fan of the band, hanging around with us as a kid, and we kept in touch. It was a close-knit community and we kind of grew up together through music, which pulled us all together. Before punk happened there wasn’t a unifying sound.
“We knew what we didn’t like but didn’t quite know what we did like. There was nothing really for us. David Bowie and Lou Reed were always there, but there was nothing new and young of our own generation.”
When I interviewed Bruce Watson three years ago for this website (with a link here) he suggested the catalyst for the reunion was U2 and Green Day tackling The Saints Are Coming for a charity single in 2006 (to help tackle the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina). Could that rebirth have happened even five years earlier?
“Well, with Bruce it made sense, a musical person I would get on with who could really deliver the goods, with no secondary issues. And it was mainly one-offs so wasn’t financially driven. We didn’t make any money. We did it for the sheer love if it.
“But we’ve taken all this very seriously and have rehearsed since January this time, we’re recording now, and we’re in good shape.”
You’ve always had that work ethic.What did your folks make of your move into the music business in the first place?
“I think they were quite shocked, coming from a pretty old-fashioned working-class family, with five boys. But my eldest brother was a unique guy. That helped. They tried to control him and it hadn’t worked. He became a bit of a rebel. Unfortunately he’s dead now, but was a big influence on me and was listening to music that he fed into my life, like MC5 and Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls and crazy stuff like Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa – music others weren’t listening to.
“He was also a bit of an artist and introduced me to great comic books. So when punk rock came along it made sense. But the only band in Scotland I paid any attention to was Alex Harvey. I didn’t really love the music that much, but loved Alex himself – an amazing front-man.”
Are you a prolific songwriter?
“I’d not written a song for 25 or 30 years, so it’s not been hard – there’s so much to write about.”
You kept your hand in with your poetry though, didn’t you?
“Yeah, I’ve been reflecting on what’s been going on around me, in a way, but these songs gave me an opportunity to do that with a bite.”
Back in the early days was it like a Difford and Tilbrook thing, with you handing over scribbled notes and Stuart adding the chords?
“I think that’s right. Originally, he wrote the words but then I had a go. I got into that whole William Burroughs and David Bowie ‘cut-ups’ thing, and he was quite generous about that. I wasn’t technically a musician, while he was a high-quality musician, but went with my fairly abstract stylised way of working and was very supportive.”
Was there animosity when Stuart went off and did his own thing?
“Not at all, and my ex-wife (journalist and fellow TV presenter Mariella Frostrup) was his press officer. There was no animosity. It was just a bit sad really. We went off and did our own thing. I wouldn’t have wanted to be in Big Country and he wouldn’t have wanted to be in The Armoury Show.”
Did you get back in touch in later years?
“Yeah, when I came back I would drop in, kept in touch and would say hello to his kids. I didn’t really see him towards the end, and didn’t really know about all his problems. It was a bit of a shock to me. I didn’t know he was in such a bad place. It was a shock to everybody.”
Finally, I ask, which Skids album, track or single is Richard most proud of?
“I’ve a deep affection for Days in Europa. It was so ambitious. We tried to redesign our own wheel, if you know what I mean, going from being an interesting rock’n’roll band to something that had more of a nuance and a more subtle approach to songwriting. And from that album I still love Animation quite a lot. I love that album and love the sleeve as well.”
And that brings us full circle, this scribe telling his interviewee his own memories of the day he returned from the library with a copy of that very album. Sigh.
The Skids’ 40th anniversary tour continues with dates at The Academy, Dublin (Friday, May 26th) and The Limelight, Belfast (Saturday, May 27th), then continues in June at:
Thursday 1st – The Picturedrome, Holmfirth
Friday 2nd – The Ritz, Manchester
Saturday 3rd – O2 Academy, Leeds
Sunday 4th – Roadmenders, Northampton
Thursday 8th – The Bierkeller, Bristol
Friday 9th – The Academy, Oxford
Saturday 10th – The Academy, Sheffield
Thursday 15th – The Junction, Cambridge
Friday 16th – The Roundhouse, London
Saturday 17th – Concorde 2, Brighton
Wednesday 21st – 1865, Southampton
Thursday 22nd – The Robin 2, Bilston
Friday 23rd – The Academy, Newcastle
Saturday 24th – Stone Valley Festival, Stanhope County Durham
Thursday 29th – The Town Hall, Montrose
Friday 30th – Glen Pavilion, Dunfermline
There are also dates in August (Saturday 5th – Lagoon Arena, Charity Event, Paisley, Sunday 6th – The Rebellion Festival, Blackpool), September (Friday 1st – Rock City, Nottingham, Saturday 2nd – Midfest, Dalkeith), and October (Wednesday 4th – The Ironworks, Inverness, Thursday 5th – Beat Generator, Dundee, Friday 6th – Warehouse 23, Wakefield, Saturday 7th – The Great British Alternative Festival, Skegness).
For full details and all the latest from the band, head to their official website here. And to find out about the band’s Burning Cities album project via Pledge Music, how to pre-order a copy, and other exclusive Skids offers, try here.
You can also follow this link to an appreciation of the band from Michael Martin for the rather splendid Toppermost music fans’ website.