Still Holding The Flame – The Roland Gift interview

Good Thing: Roland Gift is back, set for a 12-date UK tour showcasing solo material and the work of Fine Young Cannibals

Good Thing: Roland Gift is back for a UK tour showcasing his solo material and Fine Young Cannibals days

It was an appreciation of the soulful voice of Otis Redding that helped inspire Roland Gift to seek out a life as a performer.

The Birmingham-born singer and actor was only six when Redding was killed in a plane crash in Wisconsin, but when a neighbour passed on three of his albums, it proved a key moment.

And the night before the 50th anniversary of the Stax legend’s death, Roland will no doubt pay tribute to his vocal hero at Manchester’s Club Academy, at the midway point of a 12-date UK tour showcasing more recent solo material and highlights from his time with best-selling outfit Fine Young Cannibals.

I was 17 when I first heard his band, around the same time I was properly discovering ’60s soul – from Motown to Stax and the Northern Soul scene. They fell at the right time for me, not least with that debut self-titled album and its singles in 1985. It never struck me back then that he might also be a big Otis fan. Now it seems obvious. You really hear that in his voice.

“Well, sometimes people do sound more or less like their influences. I remember Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads) saying Psycho Killer was influenced by Otis, that ‘Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa’ line, but you wouldn’t necessarily pick up on that. I do remember Otis Redding being on the radio when I was very young, and then a neighbour, who half the time was nice to me and the rest of the time was a real bitch, gave me some of his albums, which I’ve still got and became sort of a template for me … in a big way.”

Incidentally, those LPs were Otis Blue, Otis Sings Soul Ballads and a hits collection, Roland’s musical route soon mapped out.

“I’d heard  him, when I was a kid, and my sister was a fan. To say it changed my life would be a bit dramatic, but it did have an effect on my musical development. And we all shared a love of the Stax sound in the Cannibals.  That was the thing that brought us together. Otis was probably my favorite singer, and still is, so those influences will definitely be there.”

Roland, who moved to Hull at the age of 11 but made London his home around a decade later, retains a passion for acting too, having appeared in several films and stage and small screen productions over the last 30 years. His most recent release on that front is Brakes, a dark comedy also starring Kerry Fox, Noel Fielding and Paul McGann, among others, out at selected cinemas right now.

“When I started, I wanted to be an actor. That’s one of the reasons I came down to London. But most people I know have been in a group sometime in their life.”

His first group was punk band the Acrylic Victims, later Akrylykz, with an added ska dimension, releasing a couple of independent 45s en route.

“We got a bit of notoriety, released a couple of singles, and my music focus grew from there.”

That was chiefly down to Andy Cox and David Steele, fresh from The Beat, inviting him to sing for their next project, the band that became Fine Young Cannibals, Roland’s group having previously supported them in Hull. In the summer of 1985 the new combo released debut single, Johnny Came Home, the first of five UK top-10 hits in the next four years, two of those – She Drives Me Crazy and Good Thing – becoming US No.1s in 1989.

The 56-year-old father of two – his lads are now 26 and 23, with one at art college and the other a circus performer – who spent his pre-teen years in the West Midlands before moving to Hull, has been based around North London since the early ‘80s, but still occasionally returns to the UK’s current Capital of Culture. What took Roland, one of four children, and his family to the East Riding in the first place?

“My Mum grew up there, and houses were cheaper. I think she bought our house for £1,100. It needed work, but you could get a five-bedroom house for that price, get more for your money. I think people get drawn back to where they’re from. Mum had a second-hand shop there.”

At that point I bring up the subject of further Hull retail outlet Everything But the Girl, the furniture shop that inspired a band name for Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt when they got a music project together in Hull in 1982. You may also recall that Everything But the Girl were named by The Housemartins, self-styled ‘fourth best band in Hull’, among the three outfits supposedly better than them at the time – along with The Red Guitars and The Gargoyles. But that’s another story.

“I remember the shop, and did travel up to Hull once with a woman whose family owned that shop. We just happened to be in the same carriage.”

I’m guessing he means a railway carriage, but I reckon I could see Roland in period costume, riding in an 18th century coach, being rightly resentful of race and class prejudice directed against him.

Talking of his work in front of camera, I tell him it seems that I’m forever talking anniversaries with interviewees, and much as I loved the first two Fine Young Cannibals LPs albums, his films also offered an important snapshot of my 1980s’ landscape. It’s been a while since I revisited 1987’s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, but I put to Roland that there seems to be a correlation between that period, eight years into Thatcher’s premiership, and now. History repeats.

“Yeah, when I was a kid, black people were demonised, now it’s Muslims. But it’s the same noise people made about blacks, or the Irish. When people feel short of money or are short of money, they look to simple explanations as to why. It’s always slightly different, but more or less the same old stuff.”

That Stephen Frears film – also starring Shashi Kapoor, Frances Barber, and way down the list, Bad Manners’ frontman Buster Bloodvessel – proved to be Roland’s breakthrough role. Was he aware of the director’s work then?

“Yes and no – there were a lot of things I’d seen and really liked which I didn’t realise Stephen directed, like his TV work and his first film, Gumshoe. It’s easier now, with the internet, to find that all out, but not in those days. But all these things I’d really liked, it turned out he’d directed. So I was aware of him, but not consciously.”

While set a quarter of a century earlier, 1989’s Scandal was another film that seemed to characterise that era. And from the Mandy Rice Davies and Christine Keeler link to Roland’s character, Johnny Edgecombe, and his subterranean world, including a visit to the legendary Flamingo Club in Soho, that was a side of London that intrigued me.

“Yeah. It’s kind of … it’s the margin, isn’t it? Those people who co-existed in those worlds, slightly hidden.”

Did you get to meet Johnny Edgcumbe, whose spat with ex-lover Christine Keeler kick-started the chain of events that ultimately exposed the Profumo Affair?

“I did actually, much later at a Windrush event at Alexandra Palace.”

What did Johnny make of your portrayal of him?

“I think closer to the film he wasn’t best pleased, but by then he was alright, not taking it so personally. That’s the thing about films depicting real events. The writer chooses what they write about, the director chooses what they film. It’ll never be the truth. Every frame’s chosen by another person.”

I wonder how different that film would be if told again now, with the makers not subject to so many potential legal writs (and this week, I saw on the news further revelations of an earlier Profumo affair, this time with a pro-Nazi in the 1930s, which MI5 had a file on).

“I’m sure it would be. Quite a lot of the family were still alive when that was made. There’s a lot more to be said.”

I know you weren’t involved, but I also equate another Stephen Woolley production with that – as Mandy Rice-Davies was cast as Ray Davies’ wife in the half-brilliant, half-car crash 1986 film musical of Colin MacInnes’ classic late ’50s novel, Absolute Beginners?

“Yeah, and in fact we were asked to do some music for that, which is why we ended up doing the song Blue. They wanted a song with that in the title. Soon, it became clear we wouldn’t be contributing, but we carried on.”

Had The Style Council got in there before you with Have You Ever Had It Blue?

“I think everyone was being asked around that time. Anyone who had anything kind of retro about them … which we did.”

Getting back to that first Cannibals album, there are some nice touches on there from The Beat sax player Saxa (Funny How Love Is) and Jimi Somerville (Suspicious Minds), and it had such a great sound, not diluted by ‘80s production techniques. I was listening the morning I called Roland for the first time in ages, and – considering it dropped slap-bang in the middle of the ‘80s – it’s stood the test of time for these ears, sounding just as fresh 32 years later.

“Well, thanks. One of the things when we got together was … well, the stuff we were listening to back then was at least 25 years old, and we wanted to make something that people could listen to 25 years later. That was one of our objectives. We didn’t have a mission statement, but that was one of the things we wanted to do. And we still get radio play, so people are still listening.”

You bridged indie, soul and jazz, with added political undertones, and were a key component of my personal life soundtrack for at least a couple of years. Also, you were effortlessly cool, and I was intrigued from first single, Johnny Come Home, seeing those sliding steps from bandmates Andy Cox and David Steele when you appeared on TV.

“I was just as surprised when I first saw that!”

Were they doing that in their days in The Beat? I can’t readily recall. Or maybe they just didn’t have as much space on the stage then. It was a bigger band after all.

“I think David was. He was called ‘Shuffle’, so that might have been to do with his dancing style. In fact, the first time I really saw it was when we did the video for Johnny Come Home. I looked around and the rest of them were doing it!’

Despite my occasional exclamation marks, I should mention that Roland rarely gets beyond softly-spoken here. A man named In 1990 by People magazine as one of the ‘50 Most Beautiful People’ in the world seems quiet, shy almost. He’s no Geno Washington.

He also seems to deliberate before answering questions. Perhaps he’s been at the wrong end of a few tabloid interviews before now. But Roland – also a guest singer with Jools Holland’s band in recent years – comes over as open and warm. Is he still in touch with Andy and Dave?

“I see Andy from time to time, but never David. They hadn’t spoken for a while, until the saxophone player from The Beat died recently, meeting up at the funeral.”

Lionel Martin, aka Saxa, died in May, aged 87. I mention to Roland how, on Funny How Love Is, when you hear him, it could be no one else. Such a distinctive style.

Fine Young Cannibals officially dissolved in 1996, after struggling to complete a third album, long after after the mega-commercial success of second LP, The Raw and the Cooked. Instead, they brought out The Finest, what Roland called ‘a greatest hits set plus three new tracks that didn’t have a home to go to’ , including their final hit, The Flame.

At one point he joined Jools Holland’s big band as a guest singer, touring with them for a year, a move that inspired him to want to take his own group out to play again.

“The group didn’t stop with a bang. It was like a freeze-frame that stopped and stayed and stayed, then eventually faded. But nobody said, ‘OK we’re going to end this.’”

Part of the solution came with Roland’s self-titled solo LP in 2002, described as ‘a sophisticated blend of pop and soul with jazz and even gospel flavours’. Is that far from where he is now?

“Yeah … although that could mean anything. I like the term, ‘pop music’. Actually, Andy’s wife, (writer) Malu Halasa, came in the dressing room after a gig at the Cafe de Paris, and said, ‘I really love that black psychedelia!’ She was referring to a number of songs that had that kind of feel So, yeah, everything you said there, but also black psychedelia!”

The Roland Gift album was recorded at various locations, from demo studios to front rooms to Mayfair Studios. Was it a case of fitting it around other paid projects?

“This is where you’ve got music and you’ve got business, and they kind of need each other, but sometimes the business becomes the bigger thing. When the Cannibals split up, I was still signed for America but free for the rest of the world. I ended up doing a deal with Universal, who already had me in America.

“While a couple of people were keen, a lot weren’t. It wasn’t a deal they’d gone and got, but something they’d inherited. It was a kind of loveless marriage. I was kind of tied up with a company that weren’t really in love with what I was doing. But that’s not an unusual situation.”

As well as his live shows, he’s also been working on a stage musical, Return to Vegas, with Bob Carlton, who created the show, Return to the Forbidden Planet. It was set to premier in Hull as part of the city of culture celebrations, but that didn’t happen for some reason or other. Yet, Roland added, “I’m pleased by the way the Return to Vegas songs have been received in the live set, sitting nicely alongside the FYC classics.”

And while we haven’t heard much from him of late, tracks like 2009 single Crushed and Return to Vegas teaser This Broken Heart, first shared in 2015, suggest there’s still plenty of soul in that great voice, as you can experience for yourself over the next three weeks, with Roland’s pre-Christmas tour,

I mention at that point – as it was something I’d been writing about – long term deals, particularly the one Bernie Rhodes negotiated with CBS for The Clash, a 10-LP deal when they thought they had a five-album deal. And that took Roland back to his musical roots.

“They were my ‘coming out’ band. The Clash were the kind of band I was into at that impressionable age!”

Were they part of the inspiration behind Acrylic Victims and the Akrylykz ska band they became?

“Well, that was an art college band, and while they were there they moved from using oil paints to acrylic paints, hence the name. But yes, we supported The Clash at Bridlington, around 1980. Me and some mates went hitch-hiking, following them, then I got a job doing back-drops for them, down at the Music Machine. This fella I knew, Roger Hudson, knew their tour manager, Johnny Green, and we’d turn up at gigs and get free passes.

“I didn’t get to know the band. I was more of a fan than a contemporary. They were kind of the biggest of the bunch really. But I just liked being around it. You’d see gigs and people you’d seen at other gigs. You felt some sort of camaraderie.

“Also, The Clash played reggae as well. When punk started, people weren’t so sure, because of the swastikas and that, with the National Front on the rise then. So something like The Clash playing reggae was a good invitation for someone like me to be a part of it.”

So how did your link with Andy Cox and David Steele come about. Did your band also support The Beat?

“Yeah, they came and played in Hull. The keyboard player gave them a demo tape, and they invited us to support them. That was great.”

We mentioned Saxa, but how about your own sax playing back in those days?

“Ha! A while ago I bumped into somebody in Hull at a friend’s party, who’d bought my first saxophone for her son. When I left Hull for London I sold it. So I bought it back!  She’d had it refurbished, and I bought some reeds, but they’re a little bit stiff. I don’t know if I really want to go back to that, but it’s nice to have it.

“I only really bought it because a mate said I’d look good with a saxophone! My dream back then would have been to be the sax player in The Clash, a bit like Clarence Clemons with Bruce Springsteen.”

At this point I tell Roland – whose film career also included 1987’s Tin Men, for which FYC also supplied the music at the request of director Barry Levinson, and 2001’s The Island of the Mapmaker’s Wife, directed by Michie Gleason – that at least two of the songs on The Raw and the CookedShe Drives Me Crazy and I’m Not the Man I Used To Be – appear on another soundtrack that hasn’t quite dropped yet. But that’s because no one’s taken up the rights to a film version of my own first novel. I won’t go into that here though.

We then got on to how the Cannibals somehow managed to pull off a couple of unexpectedly-corking covers, Elvis Presley’s Suspicious Minds and Buzzcocks’ Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve), somehow making them their own, not so easy to pull off successfully.

“Well, again it’s that thing about not knowing what’s going to happen. I like that kind of knife-edge thing. It could go completely the wrong way. But they’re really good songs, and for me everything’s at the service of the song. You don’t put a trill in just because you can. But I think if you follow the song, you can’t go wrong.”

And while he never became Clarence Clemons, he’s certainly lived the dream, both in the studio – working with the likes of producers Robin Millar, Jerry Harrison and David Z – and on the road, all over the world. I mentioned the first LP, as that was the best for me. But the second was a huge seller of course, with some great songs on there – not least the two personal favourites I mentioned before – going on to top the UK, US, Canadian and Australian charts. But it was a long time coming. Was that down to the acting taking off?

“Well, She Drives Me Crazy took quite a while. We didn’t even settle on the title until we were in the studio. Whereas Good Thing was written in five minutes. But both became No.1s. So there’s not really one way of doing it. People say to break America you have to tour and tour, but we didn’t. That’s one thing I got from all that – when people tell you, ‘This is the way,’ it’s not necessarily so.”

Something Soulful: Roland Gift, out and about again, around the UK, in December 2017

Roland Gift’s December UK tour starts this Saturday, the 2nd, on old home ground in Hull, playing The Welly, moving on to Wakefield Warehouse 23  (3rd), Leamington Spa Assembly (5th), Norwich Waterfront (6th), London  ULU Live@Student Union (8th), Manchester Club Academy (9th), Bristol The Fleece (11th), Cardiff The Globe (12th), Brighton Concorde 2 (14th), Southampton Engine Rooms (16th), Reading Sub 89 (17th), and Exeter  Phoenix (18th). For more details, head to Roland’s Facebook page. 

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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