After successive UK top-30 albums, it’s fair to say Midlands soul collective Stone Foundation are on a high, the success of 2017’s Street Rituals followed by last year’s Everybody, Anyone, another long player recorded at Paul Weller’s Black Barn Studios in Ripley, Surrey.
Look at the latest album credits and you’ll find mention of contributions from not only Weller but also The Average White Band’s Hamish Stuart, The Blow Monkeys’ Dr Robert, and The Style Council’s Mick Talbot and Steve White. And since then, they’ve enticed Graham Parker back into the studio.
But while recent Stone Foundation highlights include supports with their esteemed studio host, various headline shows at prestigious venues and storming sets at renowned festivals, I wouldn’t advise you suggest to co-founding bass player Neil Sheasby that he might be enjoying success for the first time.
Neil’s receiving plenty of rightful acclaim at present for his first published music memoir, Boys Dreaming Soul, and within its pages you get many evocative descriptions detailing past associations with revered acts. But it’s not so much name-dropping as subtle tips of one of his many stylish titfers towards a career that’s seen him living a life he always dreamed of.
Sheas, as he’s known to many (apparently Weller calls him ‘Brother Sheas), turned 52 this week, and was set to return to band rehearsals when I called him at home in Atherstone, Warwickshire. The Everybody, Anyone UK tour starts at the end of this month, and he’s raring to go.
“Even though it was only the summer when we were busy, it feels like forever, so it’ll be nice to get back into that, man.”
We’ll get on to that later, but first I’ll talk some more about his book, the story of his life in music, part one, and a personal affair at that.
I intended to just start reading it, then arrange an interview, but once I’d got going I powered on through before tackling its author. For one thing I wanted to know as much as I could about some of the key characters involved before asking more, not least the late Paul Hanlon, aka Hammy, his musical sidekick for so long.
As he puts it in the book, ‘He was the archetypal Boy About Town, the local Face. Even at a tender age, he had swagger and confidence, but never arrogance. He was burning with character, and people loved him.’ He seemed a real character, I suggested. And I guess it’s not a plot-spoiler to talk about him in the past tense.
“It’s funny, because most people buying it locally already know that part, and know Hammy’s gone. But I had to think in a context where the majority of people aren’t going to know our relationship, so I didn’t want to give it away. And that was a delicate balance when I was thinking of doing it.
“I didn’t even know I wanted to put that all in there really. It was because of his kids. They were around nine and 11 when he died, I was a godfather to the pair of them, and see them quite a bit. They’re adults now and started asking me lots of questions about their Dad, so I thought, y’know, I probably need to put this out there. I didn’t care if it sold five copies or 500, I wanted to do it for them.
“And it turned into something else. a love letter to my fans, my family, where I grew up, Mum and Dad, the relationship with Hammy, and more than anything my relationship with music probably. That’s what comes over.”
I agree, and in that situation some would be tempted to turn such a key figure who’s no longer with us into something of a saint. But you’re very honest and open, not trying to sugar-coat your close relationship with Hammy.
“I hope not. It was done over a good period of years. I started probably about six years ago, left it, and didn’t really know whether I was writing a book or not. I was just writing, but then we started making Street Rituals a few years later and when I’m writing tunes, I’m concentrating on that – I can’t do two things at once. But then I found six or seven chapters on the computer, thinking, ‘Fucking hell, I should pick this up again, this is pretty good!’ I’d not read it for a few years. So I picked the thread up again and started to see I might have a book there, but didn’t want it to be an indulgence. I could tell story after story after story, but what really is a story and what’s an indulgence is what people can relate to and connect to. That’s a fine line to get right. And it seems to have gone down well.”
It certainly has. Did you already know the publisher, Days Like Tomorrow Books’ Tony Beesley?
“Kind of. He asked me to write for his Mojo Talking book, and I kind of enjoy all that.”
It’s apparent to me that you’re a proper writer. Lots of people writing similar books haven’t got that skill. They’ll write with passion and the odd sharp turn of phrase, and I’m all for that, but there’s more here. I see that in your social media posts too.
“Well … thank you. I don’t really think about it. I just write rubbish and people seem to like it! It started with social media, reconnecting with old mates, sharing indulgences about what I’d found in the loft or wherever, noticing people would start to engage with it, even if it’s just talking about albums I think are shit!
“I like it when you’re having a conversation from which you can learn something. Most people I’m interested in will probably turn me on to something – a book, a film, a new record. That’s the positivity of it all really.”
Last time I talked to Neil was in April 2017, with Stone Foundation’s Street Rituals not long out. It was around then that I became aware of his social media presence, realising he’s just 11 days older than me, an added bonus for me with Boys Dreaming Soul – knowing exactly where I was in my life at key points in his tale, comparing respective life experiences.
One such moment that made an impression was realising how young he was when he lost his father, making me realise what a bonus it was to have my own Dad around until I was 45. I suspect I may well have gone off the rails if I’d lost my father at 21, like him. I briefly mention this, but he swiftly steers me towards a more positive aspect, the fact that we grew up at such an exciting time.
“You could also argue that kids who grew up with Brit Pop had a similar experience, but it was just so exciting to be our age and be impressionable going into your teenage years, surrounded by this melting pot of youth culture – whether you were a punk, skinhead, mod, rocker, whatever. It’s almost like if you weren’t into something you were a kind of outcast. It was all encompassing.”
For Neil that tribalism became more defined on hearing The Jam’s third LP. As he puts it in the book, ‘In the City I loved, but All Mod Cons upped the stakes. It changed everything. I spent the next couple of months reading, researching, devouring, investigating and immersing myself in all things mod … punk had burnt out, a whole new movement was about to explode, and The Jam were lighting the fuse.’
And through that came a knock-on interest in ska, Tamla Motown, Eddie Floyd, Mose Allison, The Creation, the 100 Club, Richard Barnes’ Mods book (‘becoming my bible’), and more. He writes, ’By the time I was 14 I’d read Robert Tressell, Colin MacInnes and George Orwell. I’d seen Curtis Mayfield and Georgie Fame. Paul Weller and Richard Barnes probably showed me more than most of my secondary school teachers could ever dream of.’
At this point we mentioned our parallel childhoods, me in Surrey and Neil in Warwickshire. And while key influences like The Jam, The Stranglers, The Vapors, The Members and Graham Parker were not far off my doorstep, Neil had his own major influences near his neck of the woods.
“Absolutely, going the other way to Coventry, that’s where 2 Tone unfolded, and was the nearest city to us. And in Birmingham – the other way – we had Dexy’s Midnight Runners, The Beat, UB40 … We were surrounded by it. At that age, around 12 or 13, I was going to matinee gigs, but then Dexy’s just seemed different. It seemed to stand out. When I first heard Searching for the Young Soul Rebels I felt, ‘This isn’t what the other stuff is, this is something else’. I was being informed, and you dig deeper into the lyrics and stuff, realising he’s talking about Irish poets, some sense of national pride, all that.”
Incidentally, Neil’s first show was a matinee gig, and what a gig, Madness at Leicester’s De Montford Hall, with admission £1, Sheas up on the balcony taking it all in. He writes, ‘Even though it was billed as an under-16s matinee, it was still mayhem, with lads throwing themselves off the balcony and being caught by the throng below, a hall full of skins, rude boys and mods all united by the music, which in itself was just exhilarating. It was like Cup Final day, but better, a real event. I was left in no doubt. This was the life for me. I was hooked.’
And as it was with me, people like Kevin Rowland, Joe Strummer and Paul Weller inspired you to read around your subject, discovering all the music, books and films they mentioned in interviews.
“Yeah, Kevin Rowland didn’t really do many interviews, because he had that great idea of just doing essays in the music press – and all that attracted me as well – but when Paul did an interview he was informative and he’d talk about whatever he was reading or listening to, like Curtis Mayfield, and namechecking the Five Stairsteps or something, so I’d be checking all that out. We didn’t have the internet, so you had to go and find the records, which was hard to do, but again all that was really exciting and I felt that was a real rite of passage.”
There’s another Dexy’s link, as you might expect from a lad who spent much of his formative years sipping tea as one of ‘The Teams That Meet in Caffs’, when baritone sax player Paul Speare, who played on Too Rye Ay, moved to a village three miles from Sheas and Hammy, who by then had renamed their band Dance Stance in honour of Rowland’s influential outfit. They tracked him down too, persuading him to produce their debut single. And all these years on ‘Snaker’ occasionally plays with Stone Foundation, also writing the foreword for Boys Dreaming Soul.
Where you find a love of Dexy’s and The Jam you’re also likely to link in the Northern Soul revival scene, and Sheas and Hammy were part of that ‘third wave’ at a young age, visiting nearby Hinckley, Leicestershire, for the first of many visits to events there, initially lured in by news that Curtis Mayfield was appearing.
As he puts it in the book, ‘We’re buzzing! This is the real deal. A Northern Soul all-nighter and on our doorstep! Then reality hits. This is 1982, Hammy’s barely 15, I’m 14, we’re still at school, and we’re planning on fucking off to Hinckley with grown blokes we only loosely knew, to a dance that doesn’t begin until midnight and doesn’t finish until 8am on Sunday. This is going to take some planning.’
They succeeded though, with many more trips following, seeing the likes of guest acts Major Lance, Martha Reeves, Edwin Starr, and Eddie Holman.
As I told him, I didn’t find myself at an all-nighter – at the 100 Club in Oxford Street – until I was 19, an interest in Northern Soul somewhat inevitable in light of my love of Motown and Stax. But even then I only appreciated what I experienced in retrospect, finding that whole scene too cliquey.
“Yeah, it was like people-watching in a way, at first, thinking, ‘Christ! What is this!’ It was this whole new underground kingdom where people are just dancing and no alcohol. You didn’t realise these people were speeding their tits off or whatever when you’re 13! But I got into these places and can’t believe nobody stopped us and said, ‘Sorry lads, you’re too young’. We got in all sorts of places, another benefit of growing up when we did.”
There’s a nice description of the time his band was playing a local bar and the afore-mentioned Edwin Starr joined them on stage, to their amazement, for a medley of ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ segued with ‘Respect’.
“There are all these bizarre things that the book’s littered with and the fact that me and Hammy never seemed to go out and just have a normal night. Something would always happen. We’d done some charity gig in a wine bar, a low-key affair, and they were going to present a cheque as we’d raised a certain amount, so we turned up to do an hour’s set, and Edwin was there to present the cheque to the nurses it was raised for. And that night he looked at us, thought, ‘Crikey, this is some band’, and on the spur of the moment asked, ‘Would you know anything I know?’ then got up and sang with us.”
When Neil describes the moment where Edwin comes in with his first line, you’re with him in that bar, sharing a moment of elation and jubilation at being in this everyday establishment with a bona fide soul legend.
“Yeah! The walls were shuddering. It was amazing!”
I’d forgotten until I looked back at our last interview how we mentioned Graham Parker last time. But since then he’s been back in Paul’s studio with you, guesting on your cover of ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ (best known for Ann Peebles’ fantastic version and Paul Young’s later hit but commendably covered by GP himself in 1978).
“Graham emailed me yesterday, funnily enough.”
I had a mate who always raved about GP, and over time he made an impression on me too, getting to see him for the first time on the Mona Lisa’s Sister tour in Kentish Town in late ‘88. He crossed several genres, seen as a new wave artist at first, alongside Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, but the soul was always there, not far below the surface.
“Definitely. He had the Dylan thing, he had the soul thing going on, coming from loads of good angles. At the end of the day it’s just good songs really. People are very quick to bag artists, but really it’s about good songs and good delivery with people like Graham Parker and Joe Jackson.”
Conversely, reading the NME as a teenager they told me how good LPs like Astral Weeks were, but I didn’t get it straight away – not comprehending that Van Morrison was a soul singer. It took me a while to hear more, go back and truly get him.
“Well, I did, because my first entrance to Van was the It’s Too Late to Stop Now live album (1974), so I had to go back to Astral Weeks and think, ’Ah, ok, that’s what he was before’. That was a real Eureka moment, and down to the guy who worked in the record shop with me. He said, ‘You like soul, do you like this sort of soul?’ He gave me this tape, just a typed-out cassette, telling me, ‘Take that home with you’. He gave me that and Heat Treatment by Graham Parker, and a Little Feat record, and with the Van thing I got it straight away. It was soul but coming from a different place, and connected to the Dexy’s thing.”
I should mention there that after a brief spell on a BTEC diploma in business studies, Neil started working full time in a record shop, initially on the YTS at £25 a week. And it was the perfect job for a fella who’s always had his ears open to great music.
While we were born the same month, were both brought up in solid working-class environments – Neil’s Dad, who later managed his early bands, was in quarrying while his Mum made tights and stockings – and loved our football (in his case a passion for Leeds United and non-league outfit Atherstone Town, as well as regular trips as a kid with his Dad to see Coventry City), where we differed was perhaps how we were introduced to music. It was through being the youngest of five children (the oldest with 11 years on me) that I was subjected to everything from rock’n’roll and The Beatles to glam and pop, whereas Sheas was an only child …
“Yeah, me and my imagination, and me and Elvis films! I had an imaginary friend called Simon, yeah! I think I found it all out for myself.”
But that led to him spending time socialising with his parents while they were unwinding at weekends at child-friendly working men’s and social club, experiencing a world of live bands and mirrored disco balls, an early opportunity for his love of people-watching, ‘seeing how they dressed and danced and smoked’.
“It was the fascination that when the working week was done, they’d want to go out to the local working men’s clubs. It was as much about that as The Jam and Dexy’s. Way before, it was local bands at the working men’s clubs, playing the hits of the day, whether it be Edison Lighthouse, The Kinks, whatever.
“Funnily enough, I was in town the other day and someone shouted me in one of the cafes. They had a band called The Adders, named after the football team across the way (Neil’s beloved Atherstone Town). They had this residency there every week and at The Angel, and we were reminiscing about that. I said, ‘D’you know what, lads, you were one of my key first influences’. That made me think, ‘That’s what I want to do! I wanna play in a band!’
“We’d ride our bikes around town on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, hear bands rehearsing, just like in ‘That’s Entertainment’ (‘An amateur band rehearsing in a nearby yard’). There were loads of punk bands, there was Spirit of Water, a hippie band using the arts centre, and we’d be outside, eavesdropping, thinking, ‘This is great!’ That fascinated us.”
There’s another difference between us maybe. I still have my left-handed bass guitar, but never got much further than playing in my mate’s garage. I never had the confidence to get out and perform live. I know now I should have, but get the impression that thriving scene inspired Neil to try his luck.
“I’m not sure I did, but I had people around me who said, ‘Come on, what’s the worst that can happen?’ People like Hammy, who was fearless, although he ended up just singing. But what you say about brothers and sisters playing their music, I was really lucky to be surrounded by older kids and kids my own age into music and would inspire you locally, like the guy I bought my initial records off.
“I also had older cousins, but it was like the Northern Soul thing – that came about because me and Hammy were having cups of tea in a local café at the swimming baths, with two lads working there who were into all that. Then with The Jam there was an older kid who’d drive and they took me under their wing because they knew I was into the mod thing – ‘Tell his Mum and Dad he’ll be alright with us’. I was really lucky in that respect, these pockets of people really encouraging us.
“And nobody laughed when we started at the youth clubs and could barely play – I’ve found VHS footage which I must get transferred and get online, and it’s amazing. We were 14 and 15, with loads of girls and lads from school coming to watch us, and you can see there’s something there. It’s really exciting to look back. That’s all you need. We had one review in a local paper, and it said we were great, so it was like, ‘Fucking hell! We’ll carry on then!’
“You get those stepping stones, all the way through. I’ve just found out some diaries and I’m looking through the early Stone Foundation thing where I’m thinking, ‘What the fuck am I still doing this for?’ Really despondent, really down, but then something happened, some little spark …”
There’s clearly a part two coming of these memoirs.
“There will be, yeah. Initially, I thought I was going to tell the Stone Foundation story, but now I’m looking at it thinking that’s still ongoing, although there will be a part of that in the next book, the time where we were really struggling and didn’t really know where we were going.”
There’s more to the story of course, but I won’t go any further here other than mentioning how that love of The Jam led to a love of The Style Council, and the band continued to regenerate. In his Dance Stance days there were overseas shows and even appearances on the god-awful Bob Monkhouse-fronted Op Knocks. And there’s the sex and drugs experimentation as well as the rock’n’roll, of course. Let’s just say his Kid Creole story and later episode involving playing air congas to Youssou N’Dour will stay with you a long time.
But I’ll break off there and move on to current Stone Foundation developments, asking a fella who reckons that 40 years ago he was regularly in ’Weller World’ as a kid at school, daydreaming in class, when he last got down to Paul’s studio.
“We’ve done the bulk of the album actually, and I’m back next week, then we have a week in December when we should finish it and get on to mixing. I think the album’s going to be out around April or May next year.”
Is Paul involved again?
“He’s on a couple of things. He features on one track and plays on a few, just bits and bob – guitar, piano … yeah, he can never help himself! He always pops his head in and ends up involved. It’s a nice relationship.”
It remains something of a dream for Neil, getting to work alongside his childhood inspiration. In our last interview, he told me how nervous they were first working with Paul, but revealed how he quickly put them at ease, making them all a cuppa. That’s not the Weller I’d have expected from his press a couple of decades ago.
“I don’t think it’s the Paul Weller that Paul Weller would have expected 20 years ago either! I think we met him at the right time. A lot of it is to do with his sobriety now, and he seems to be in a much, much better place than he was. We have a nice relationship, we keep in touch, and we’re privileged that he seems interested in what we’re up to all the time.”
Well, let’s face it. If he didn’t want you in there, he wouldn’t re-book you.
“No, we’d be long gone! I don’t know, it just seems to work. He’s just a music fan, like us, and seems to like us.”
I’m guessing the ‘Playhouse’ single was something of a stop-gap between the last LP and the next.
“It was. We were touring and thought we could put something out to coincide with that.”
It’s great, and I love the accompanying promo video when Neil Jones and Graham Parker exchange high fives towards the end of the take.
And there is another link with the stories recounted in Boys Dreaming Soul linking your early bands with the current set-up, through your ‘brother in rhythm’, long-serving drummer, Phil Ford. He’s been around a long time, hasn’t he?
“He’s like shit on my shoes! For about 40 years. We were in middle school together. I’ve known him since he was about five or six, and at 12 he started drumming.”
Introducing Phil in the book, Neil writes, ‘Thirteen years old, he could barely see over the top of the kit, but when he played, it was just magical.’ And there’s a nice story about how he joined, which I won’t go into, following a rehearsal at Phil’s house, The In Crowd’s first gig soon arranged at a school in Coventry guitarist Nick Thomas attended. And all these years on, it’s fairly obvious that Sheas and Phil work well together.
“Yeah, he’s been in every band we’ve been through – The In Crowd, Dance Stance, Rare Future, Mandrake Root. When I finished, he stopped drumming, then I started a new band, wanting it to be completely new, and by then he’d packed it in. We had maybe three or four years as Stone Foundation trying to find our feet, using different drummers. But he came to see us play one of the last nights at Ronnie Scott’s, Birmingham and came up after and said, ‘Fucking hell, Sheas, that was incredible. I’ve got to play again – I’ve got to get my kit out!’
“I said, ‘Mate, if you get that kit out, I tell you now, I’ll sack the drummer tonight!’ Not the nicest thing to do, but I loved Phil and we had that relationship – personal and musical – for decades. So he came back and that was it, he’s been drumming for Stone Foundation ever since.”
Finally, I get the impression that this book and the planned follow-up is a celebration of every band you were in that didn’t quite make the big time.
“Ha! It could be seen that way, yeah.”
Of course, the reader knows success did follow, but …
“Well, I don’t know … we got asked a question really early doors, on one of the first breaks we had with Stone Foundation – going on the Janice Long (radio) show, doing a session one night, and she asked, ‘Everything seems to be going really well, why do you think success has always eluded you?’ I had to think about that, and said, ‘Well, whose yardstick are we measuring success on?’ Because I always felt I had been successful.’
“I mean, touring with Gil Scott Heron and Roy Ayers – I never thought I’d see a day when that would happen. If it all stopped then, I’d have thought, ‘This is fucking great!’ So for me I always thought it was a success. It’s just that it wasn’t in the glare of the public eye.”
Fair point. I’ll take that back and try it another way. This whole story is more about inspiration and living that life you always wanted to and were always switched on to achieving. I guess I’m really talking about what is perceived as commercial success … although even that can be disputed. I guess you still have to work your arses off to make ends meet.
“Yeah, it’s a real struggle, definitely, a real balancing act. But our story is more, I think, about … even with Paul getting involved and John Bradbury taking us on tour with The Specials when he did … we weren’t hip, we weren’t young, we weren’t trendy or whatever, something they could easily have attached their credibility to. They took a punt on us because they liked the music, liked the band and what we were all about. That’s really the story, I think. And people look at us and think, ‘Fucking fair play to them!’
And long may it continue.
“Hope so, yeah!”
Maybe the difference now is that if someone asked what you did for a living, you could hand over the vinyl or CD/DVD packages for the last two LPs and say, ‘There you go, look at those – read the credits’.
“Well, yeah. But I always look to the next thing, thinking, ‘I could have done that better’. You still think, ‘Well, I’ve not written the one yet’. You keep chasing your tail with that. But I think that’s what keeps driving you forward really, mate. And I just enjoy it. I enjoy creating, I really do.”
For this website’s April 2017 interview with Neil Sheasby, head here.
Stone Foundation’s Everybody, Anyone UK tour starts on November 1st at Gorilla, Manchester, then the following night at Liverpool Arts Club, with the full dates here. And to order Neil Sheasby’s Boys Dreaming Soul, (Days Like Tomorrow Books, £12.99) try here.