It would be all too easy to point out that Alan Wilkes, the inspiration behind Vinny Peculiar, has flirted with indie stardom but never quite attained that elusive crossover fame.
But don’t think for one moment this Worcestershire-born and bred singer-songwriter, now back to his roots after several years in the North West, is in any way bitter about that. In fact, I think he rather revels in his outsider status.
Alan already had a successful career in nursing before taking a chance on a full-time music calling, signing to Manchester cult label Ugly Man Records, whose acts included a certain Elbow. But don’t expect him to moan about his lot and cite missed opportunities while Guy Garvey’s star soared. I reckon he’s quite happy where he is, at the moment somewhat self-consciously plugging his latest quality long player, While You Still Can, his 13th instalment of literate autobiographical pop over an impressive if relatively low-key, two-decade knock.
This eclectic performer tours regularly in band, solo and duo format, Uncut describing him as ‘an under-sung national treasure’, while Q has him down for a ‘warm-hearted Morrissey’, and The Irish Times as ‘the missing link between Jarvis Cocker and Roger McGough’. And none of those descriptions are wrong.
He’s worked in the past with KLF mastermind Bill Drummond, Luke Haines and Jah Wobble from John Lydon’s PIL, while his bands have included members of The Smiths, Oasis, Aztec Camera and The Fall. Alan’s also written and recorded under the Parlour Flames name, formed in 2013 with former Oasis rhythm guitarist Paul Arthurs, aka Bonehead, currently with Liam Gallagher’s band.
What’s more, he’s opened for the likes of Duke Special, Wreckless Eric and The Wedding Present, and it was with the latter that I saw him in late July, typically engaging at Blackpool’s Waterloo Bar. That pairing has won him lots of new fans too, performing at David Gedge’s annual At the Edge of the Sea festival in Brighton among other dates.
“It has. They’ve been great. There’s a really nice Wedding Present community on social media and elsewhere. I knew the main albums before, but hearing them live I really got into them. They’re an interesting band, not a cliché, their own thing going on, very nice people. There was this holy trinity, wasn’t there – The Smiths, The Fall, The Wedding Present – that (John) Peel helped massively.”
Vinny’s spent a fair bit of his time in the North West in recent years, and while he’s now back to his Midlands roots, he stressed to me, ‘I’ve still got a Northern band.’ Is that the core of his Parlour Flames set-up?
“Yeah … minus Bonehead. He was going to do this, then got the Liam gig, which is bizarre really. He texts and I’m playing at a pub down the road while he’s off to play the Hollywood Bowl with Liam. He says, ‘Have a good gig’, and I say, ‘Yeah, you too!’ That’s the last time I spoke to him.”
There’s no malice in that, just a little friendly bewilderment, perhaps. And it turns out that the pair’s union followed another project with former members of The Smiths.
“I made a record with Mike Joyce and Craig Gannon in 2006, and Bone loved it. He’d been playing with Mike, then managed Vinny Peculiar for a year or so. When Karen Leatham, our bass player, who was in The Fall, couldn’t come to Europe with us, Bone said he’d play. He stayed until around 2009, when I went back to my own albums. But we always said we should do something together again, and both had a window, recording the Parlour Flames album in Bonehead’s basement studio.”
Where was that?
“In Hale. I reckon everyone who lives there suffers from Paradise Syndrome – they can’t believe how lucky they are. A packet of Walker’s crisps and bag of sandwiches was about £7, and that was in 2013!
“But that was a good experience, and it’s not a bad album. We possibly ended up overcooking it a bit, but that’s just my view – it’s probably a bit over-thought and over-produced, but …”
Don’t believe a word. It’s a corker, and if you haven’t caught up with it yet, you’re only six years behind. Find yourself a copy. Highly recommended. I am 6ft 4 after all.
I say that as if I’ve been a fan of his work a long time, but I’m still catching up with his back-catalogue. What’s more, there will be plenty more of us in that boat, largely unaware of his past work with bigger or at least better-known names in the industry.
“A lot of people are. The hardest job in music isn’t making it, it’s promoting it. And you’re either a born Tweeter or you’re not. I engage with all that, but don’t thrash the hell out of it, and unfortunately you kind of need to, or need someone to.”
That whole layer of record company staff seems to have gone these past couple of decades, along with promotions money.
“Every musician now has to be their own A&R, their own publicist, their own promoter, their own PR, their own blagger … There are so many roles being eroded away. What’s that great quote about how in the ‘70s a hundred albums were released and all sold a million, now there’s a million albums selling a hundred? There’s so much music out there, and I struggle as a punter to find it. Instead, I’ll listen to Jethro Tull again, like when I was 15.”
A friend with an impressive record collection accrued over the years told me a few years ago he couldn’t be bothered acquiring more new LPs from artists he doesn’t already know as he doesn’t even have time to listen again to everything he’s already got. Sad but true.
“It’s weird, you’ll go into a record shop now, and … 25 years ago you had a rough idea before they sectionalised it all, but now it’s just overwhelming.”
Never one to sit back though, several releases as Vinny Peculiar have surfaced since that afore-mentioned Parlour Flames offering, his latest LP a further example of splendid recorded output in recent years.
“There’s all sorts you can cross-reference. It’s great how different people hear different influences. A friend of mine says he’s still waiting for my big Wishbone Ash rip-off. That’s who we loved at school, and it’s got to be in there somewhere. And I still listen to Argus.
“That said, I supported them once (in Liverpool) and it was terrible! I went on and did a load of poetry to all these frizzy-haired guys in denim shirts just glaring at me. I was probably wrong for the bill, but said to Alan at The Cavern, ‘I’ve got to do it! I loved that band as a kid. It was a terrible mistake. It was the wrong audience.”
At this point, we discuss how early influences often show, for example Mick Jones’ love of Mott the Hoople on The Clash’s London Calling. And Alan’s soon off again, ‘wittering’ as he put it, telling me Mott’s version of ‘All the Young Dudes’ is in his all-time top-10 singles.
He never got to see Mott back in the day, but got his fair fix of glam, sheepishly telling me his first gig was Gary Glitter at Birmingham Town Hall, an uneasy laugh following, adding, ‘My Dad dropped me off, picking me up later with my mates’. But creepy frontman aside, we decided we could at least talk in reverential tones about The Glitter Band.
Moving on, the new Vinny Peculiar LP is described as a ‘noisy hard-rock affair with big drums, wild guitar solos and trippy Floyd-like excursions,’ and ‘an intense unsentimental record by VP standards’. Would he say that’s a bit of a departure from what’s come before?
“A little, yeah, less of a singer-songwriter album, more band-centric. There’s more guitars – louder guitars – although a couple of tracks are more jangly, which seems to be one of my defaults, maybe from living in Manchester so long … a few Johnny Marr-isms.”
And the subject matter? ‘Political vanity, news black-outs, cultural betrayals and a song about class A drugs as a form of political oppression’. Is this his most political album?
“Probably, although I don’t see it as overtly political so much as a response to the political confusion everyone’s going through, regardless of which side of the Brexit divide they sit on. For me, one of the issues is the vanity of politics now, which is quite extreme. You want them to focus less on their profile and followers and more on the issues, getting things done in a less show-off way.
But even opening song ‘Vote For Me’, despite the fact that the character in the promo video wears a blond, Boris Johnson-type wig, could be read in more ways than one. You could see it cynically or take it as sincere.
“Yeah, it’s a funny one. I said to Andy Squiff, the director, ‘Don’t make it too cynical,’ but in the end we went with that, him convincing me it would get more viewers. But it could just be a serious, sad love song. You often get that in songs – it’s not always as obvious as you think. Messages can be a little more fractured. The best music is less slogans, more reactions.
“And a song like ‘Man Out of Time’ is almost a throwback to another world really – which seems to be more my default! We all have a defining cultural moment, and mine was probably glam in the early ‘70s, when I was 13 or 14.”
Despite that glam feel, the slide guitar might even suggest Gerry Rafferty’s Stealers Wheel, although Alan suggested Medicine Head was more likely.
Was there a band you saw or listened to in the early days and instantly felt this was what you had to do for a living?
“I always considered myself Bromsgrove’s answer to David Bowie. At least that’s what someone told me once. I saw Bromsgrove as the new Bromley. … if only because it sounded a bit similar. We’d bullshit people about that, but it didn’t quite happen .. then I had kids, got a real job, and all that.”
I hear Bowie coming through in your songs sometimes, not least on this album.
“Well, you’re bigging me up now, comparing me to the master!”
‘Pop Music For Ugly People’ has hints of ‘Scary Monsters’ coupled with Magazine’s ‘Sweetheart Contract’.
“Wow – Magazine, yeah! And there is a bit of ‘Scary Monsters’, which has a real density of guitar noise.”
“I like Wire. I saw them at Barbarella’s in Birmingham in about ’78, and bands like XTC in clubs, and Elvis Costello I think at the Barrel Organ or some small Brum venue where I almost suffocated. They didn’t seem to care how many people they let in back in those days. I also saw lots of mid-70s hard rock bands like Man, and Be Bop Deluxe were one of my favourite bands. I got to see Eddie and the Hot Rods …”
We’re interrupted at that point, my landline ringing, me telling Alan – who named his label Shadrack & Duxbury Records in tribute to Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 novel turned 1963 movie, Billy Liar, the eponymous protagonist an undertakers’ clerk there – I could pretend I was in a busy office but really it was just my front room.
“Well, we’re all in that world. My studio is in my attic!”
Anyway, back to Bowie as a defining influence.
“Yeah, the whole Bowie thing of the 70s, I don’t think anyone will ever do what he did. The Beatles changed with every album, but Bowie did it for longer at a time when the microscope was heavier, and did it so amazingly. Switching genres and bands, creating the whole avant-garde alternative in such a great way. I was a big fan from The Man who Sold the World to Scary Monsters.”
Alan’s Manchester move came in the late ‘80s after a previous spell in Liverpool, working in mental health services in both cities. But he left the NHS around eight years ago, ‘beginning my descent into poverty’, working part-time for the previous 15 years.
“I’d put out a lot of records and had to make this decision as to whether this was what I wanted to do or whether I wanted a more standard career.”
Manchester comes through in his work, not just on the Parlour Flames LP, which opens with ‘Manchester Rain’, an inspired answer to The Mamas and Papas’ classic ‘California Dreaming’.
There’s a ‘Madchester’ feel to ‘Scarecrows’ on the new record. Maybe he should invite Happy Mondays to cover that for their next record.
“Well, the drummer (Che Beresford) is in Black Grape, as well as Badly Drawn Boy, Parlour Flames, and about six wedding bands.”
A few extra royalties wouldn’t do any harm, would they?
“No. I’ll see if I can have a word with Shaun (Ryder), although I’m not sure how that will go. Ha!”
There’s definitely a ‘baggy’ thing going on.
“You’re right, although I was thinking Bowie meets Talking Heads type funk.”
While I’m at it, ‘Culture Vulture’ has a Blur-like feel. I’d expect to find it on a Graham Coxon album.
“Yeah, it’s got a kind of energy about it. For me there’s a slight Led Zeppelin feel to the riff. But I’d much prefer a Blur or Coxon record!”
And the closing track, ‘Let Them Take Drugs’ is The Pet Shop Boys with added bollocks for me.
Note that for every indie, punk or at least more contemporary influence I mention, he often counters with some ’70s guitar colossus or other. I don’t see him as some sort of rock dinosaur though.
“I’m not really. I’m adapting. You have to keep doing that, reinventing versions of yourself in relation to different times. A lot of this album is more than just about musicality. It’s about the lyricism too.”
This is your state of the nation address, in a sense.
“In some ways, I guess. Ha! Yeah, I’ll take that, although I find it amusing that the nation would be even remotely interested in my statements!
“It’s also about the twisted nature of the news. A lot of the ideas came quickly for this album, probably from watching too many episodes of Newsnight. I’ll get up the next morning, watch it, get angry, then get in the studio!”
Don’t be too quick to label him in a certain genre though. He’s just re-pressed a Vinny Peculiar album called Silver Meadows (Fables From the Institution) and is set to play a small set at an annual psychiatry conference in Leeds later this month, that LP’s subject matter stemming from his days as a nurse in the 1980s. And the same day he’s a special guest of Duke Special, joining him on stage at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music.
Away from music, his children are now 33 and 26, and he has two grandchildren. What do the young ‘uns make of Grandad Peculiar?
“Ha! They appeared on my last album, Return of the Native, doing some chanting on ‘The Grove and the Ditch’, a song about gang wars between Bromsgrove and Redditch. They enjoyed that, but I’m sure when they get older they’ll be totally embarrassed by the whole thing. They come over once a week after school, there’s a drum-kit here and I allow them a limited amount of time to annoy everyone!”
Alan is also returning to his old Manchester haunts for a Vinny Peculiar show at the Castle Hotel on Tuesday, November 26th, in full band mode alongside Rob Steadman (synths, who also appears with Alan in two-piece format), the afore-mentioned Che Beresford (drums) and Ollie Collins (bass, ex-Cherry Ghost and Badly Drawn Boy).
“It’s a full band, and it’ll be noisy in there, as it’s only small.”
You’ve made many great records and it’s a full-time passion these days, but have you given up on dreams of top-level fame?
“I haven’t given up, I’m just more realistic nowadays…and take pleasure in smaller victories. I’m trying to just create some kind of positive live experience for smaller groups, telling stories about where my song ideas came from. It’s not teenage music. Lennon famously said he was going to retire at 30, but everyone comes back … and why not!”
Do you feel you missed out while old label-mates Elbow enjoyed comparatively stratospheric success?
“I’m past all that. The only moments I have like that are realisation moments.”
He’s sure to have such moments during acoustic sets with Andy Rourke at Salford Lads’ Club, seeing the adulation afforded the former-Smiths bass player. But he wouldn’t be drawn on that.
I reckon he’s got it right too. And anyone catching Vinny Peculiar live will testify not only to the quality of the songs but the humour too, his autobiographical accounts between numbers inspiring you to take a shine to this seasoned, prolific performer and all-round good bloke.