Perfecting The Professionals’ approach – in conversation with Paul Cook

Professionals’ Approach: Chris McCormack, Paul Cook, Tom Spencer, and Toshi JC Ogawa in pre-self-isolation days

Paul Cook was at home in West London when I called, ‘gearing up, getting ready for the tour’. As it turned out though, The Professionals managed just three of 13 dates supporting Northern Irish punk legends Stiff Little Fingers before coronavirus restrictions truly kicked in.

My friend Bob happened to see them on the opening night at Bristol Academy, where they were already wondering if their first gig on the tour would be the last. Those dates were set to tie in with the release of three new EPs, from January through to this month, each featuring two new tracks plus two live recordings of older material. And the new EPs are available individually via Transistor Music on CD, limited-edition vinyl, super-limited-edition colour vinyl, or as various bundles with exclusive T- shirts and signed posters.

They’re also contenders for a planned album, the follow-up to acclaimed comeback LP, What in the World, studio time having been booked around the slated tour and further US dates, with plans to put down further fresh material.

That’s now all on hold, but when I got in touch, the first date was three days away, and it was apt that they opened in Bristol, having played a warm-up across half a mile away at The Fleece when they first returned in 2015, ahead of a 100 Club show in London.

I joked at the time with Paul after seeing photos of audience members on the Australian leg of the tour for Jake Burns’ headliners, asking if he knew what he was letting himself in for, my esteemed interviewee admitting that a few ‘people of a certain age’ might be turning out.

Going back to that Fleece date three years ago, was this just set to be a brief return, or did they already have plans for a new LP?

“That’s what it was really. I was toying with the idea for a while, because I’ve always been in touch with Ray McVeigh (rhythm guitar, 1980/2, 2015/6) and Paul Myers (bass, 1980/2, 2015/18), the other two originals. Steve (Jones) is in LA and wasn’t going to be a part of it, whatever happened, but then Tom Spencer (guitar, vocals, since 2015) popped up, just came into our lives somewhere along the way.

“We said, ‘Why don’t you come down, we’ll have a bit of fun, play the old songs, see what happens’. It sounded great, and we said, ‘This is good, y’know, we haven’t played these songs for such a long time, and they’re all good songs. Why don’t we do a couple of gigs and see where it goes?’ And here we are, three years later!”

Twenty20 Vision: The Professionals’ Toshi Ogawa, Paul Cook. Tom Spencer, Chris McCormack (Photo: Anabel Moller)

There’s definitely a distinctive sound you’ve carried through, even though the personnel have changed (the band now completed bt Toshi JC Ogawa on bass/backing vocals). Maybe it’s something going back to all those early ‘70s glam bands then the Faces, and even Eddie and the Hot Rods, but along the way becoming trademark Professionals.

“Yeah, well, it comes from the Pistols, from me and Steve Jones (guitar, lead vocals, 1979/82) really. The actual punk sound, if you like. That carried on into The Professionals first time around, and it’s influenced a hell of a lot of people over the years. And now by chance we’ve got Chris McCormack (guitar, since 2017) in the band, a big Steve Jones fan, so the sound continues.”

I was too young to pinpoint it at the time, but recall early plays of The Professionals on night-time BBC Radio One, listening at around 13, my radio under the pillow, and listening back now it seems that ‘Silly Thing’ was in effect your debut single, although still under that Sex Pistols name.

“Yeah, that was the tail end of the Pistols, and The (Greatest) Rock’n’Roll Swindle, when we were sort of evolving into The Professionals really. And nothing changed that much – it was still me and Steve playing power pop and rock music with catchy songs and choruses, which is what the Pistols were really. We carried that over into The Professionals and we’ve still got that element of it today. I’ve got a lot to do it with it, I’m the last remaining link. But it’s still the same sound, the same dynamic, and carried on with the Where in the World album, which I’m really proud of. It sounds great and got a lot of good reviews. So here we are today, with three new EPs out.”

Indeed, and a real blast they are too, with January’s ‘Kingdom Come’ the first to grab me, and plenty to savour from February’s ‘Curl Up and Cry’ and the latest addition, ‘Twenty 20 Vision’ too. What’s more, I tell Paul, I get the impression from those releases and the previous record that they’re enjoying themselves playing those new songs.

“Yeah. I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise, really. You’ve got to have a bit of fun along the way. I work really well with Tom Spencer, the new singer and guitarist, and we write together in much the same way as I did with Steve Jones. We bounce off each other and it ends up around 50/50.

“Tom’s great and brings a lot of energy to the table, we’ve been writing some good songs, and the idea is to just keep on moving forward really, get new stuff out, and not too trapped by that retro ‘play all the old stuff’ like revival.”

There were a lot of cult punk and new wave names involved with that last LP, from The Clash’s Mick Jones to The Cult’s Billy Duffy and Adam and the Ants’ Marco Pirroni. There are some impressive contacts in that black book of yours, Paul.

“Oh yeah, definitely – the old punk rock address book! Yeah, Ray was in the band when we got back together, but that didn’t work out for various reasons, so he split, and as a three-piece, making this album, I thought there was an opportunity to invite all my mates along, see if they were up for it. And they all were – including Steve Jones. They were all willing and able to do it, which was great. And it was quite exciting really, having different people involved, them bringing their little bits of different flavour guitar in. It worked out really well. They all enjoyed doing it, which was fantastic.”

Are you still in regular touch with Steve Jones?

“I am, and I was in LA in early January with him. He’s good. He’d had some health issues last year, which have been well documented. A bit of heart trouble. But he’s getting over that, is in good form and slowly recovering, which is great news. He’s the only one of the Pistols I keep in touch with.”

Does that include Glen Matlock? Because I recall The Professionals co-headlined with the Rich Kids in London four years ago.  

“Yeah, we did one gig with them, and Glen does his own gigs.”

Indeed. I see he’s been doing the rounds with Earl Slick of late.

“That’s right. He doesn’t seem to stop, Glen. He’s out there every six months. I don’t know how he does it. I couldn’t do it that often. But he seems to enjoy it. I only speak with Steve these days though. We’ve got business stuff to deal with, and keep in touch that way, but we’re not bosom buddies anymore. We never were.”

I guess that’s something Malcolm McLaren liked the idea of – putting these outspoken individuals together, seeing what happened, loving the idea that you might be at each other’s throats.

“Yeah, up to a point, although a lot of that was sort of playing up to the public a bit. We got on well enough at the time. But these days there’s a lot of baggage involved. People often ask if we’ll ever do some shows again, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Well, that’s good to know … not least because it saves me having to ask you. I’ll put my questions about 2016 WriteWyattUK interviewee John Lydon to one side on this occasion. Because you know in every interview all of that is going to be mentioned at some stage.

“Yeah, that’s gonna come up!”

I mentioned Mick Jones before, another who loves his football. And Paul featured with Hollywood United in Los Angeles at one stage, that team founded in the late-1980s by a group of British expatriates who drank at the Cat & Fiddle, an English-style pub on Sunset Boulevard, the original team also including Steve Jones, The Cult’s Billy Duffy and Ian Astbury, and Def Leppard’s Vivian Campbell. But while Glen Matlock and Mick Jones are QPR fans, it’s Chelsea all the way for Steve Jones and Paul, isn’t it?

“Yeah, that’s right.”

Stories of The Clash’s competitive kickabouts between recording sessions are fairly legendary. So who does Paul reckon was the best player among all that first-wave of UK punk bands?

“Ah me, without a doubt! By far! I think I took playing football a lot more serious than all the rest of the musicians did. I couldn’t stop playing. I don’t know how good they are, but they’d have to be pretty good to catch me, I tell you! And I don’t mind saying so myself.

“It’s in the blood really. We was all working-class boys who grew up with a love of music and football, the two staples of our diet. That’s what made our world tick. And while none of us were going to be good enough to play football (professionally), we ended up in music, which turned out to be quite a good move.”

Paul was born in July 1956 in Shepherd’s Bush, raised in Hammersmith and attended Christopher Wren School on the White City estate, where he met Steve Jones (not as if he was there much). And it was in 1972/73 that the pair, along with schoolfriend Wally Nightingale, formed their first band, The Strand, who within three years would evolve into the Sex Pistols. So how good were The Strand?

“Ooh, God, now you’re talking! I don’t know. It’d probably be a bit of an embarrassment. That was when we were just learning our trade really. We used to play a lot of covers, but then had a few of our own numbers. I think we realised early on this wasn’t going to happen. Until … well, you probably know the story … you seem quite well up on the situation.  We got rid of a guy called Wally in the band, put Steve on guitar, got John Lydon … and the rest is history.

“Going back to your question though, if I listened back now, I’d probably think, ‘Oh God, what was that?’ But I wouldn’t be too embarrassed about it, because we were just kids learning how to play, playing the songs we loved to play and listen to.”

You probably know the next part of the story, but I’ll fill in a few gaps. The Sex Pistols broke up after a gig in San Francisco on January 14th, 1978, after which Paul and Steve Jones initially worked on the soundtrack to Julien Temple’s film, The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, and recorded a few songs using the Sex Pistols name, with Paul singing lead on the album version of the song ‘Silly Thing’.

They then formed The Professionals with Andy Allan (bass, 1979/80), whose addition subsequently led to legal and contractual problems, neither being credited nor paid. Paul and Steve also played together on Johnny Thunders’ LP, So Alone, around then, and then released four singles as The Professionals, and while a self-titled LP was shelved until 1990, follow-up I Didn’t See it Coming came out in late 1981. But their US tour to promote the album was cut short when Paul and bandmates Paul Myers and Ray McVeigh were injured in a car accident.

The Professionals did return in the Spring of 1982 after recovery, but Steve Jones and Paul Myers’ drug problems further hampered matters, the band declining an offer of an opening spot on tour for The Clash, and soon breaking up.

There was of course a Sex Pistols reunion, the band getting together in 1996 for the Filthy Lucre world tour. They also marked the 30th anniversary of their classic Never Mind the Bollocks LP at Brixton Academy in November 2007, adding two further gigs then four more dates. And in 2008, they appeared at the Isle of Wight Festival, headlining on Saturday night, as well as Sweden’s Peace and Love Festival, Scotland’s Live at Loch Lomond Festival, and Spain’s Summercase Festival.

Meanwhile, Paul, having also featured with Man-Raze alongside Def Leppard’s Phil Collen (releasing an LP in 2008 and touring the UK in late 2009) joined Vic Godard and Subway Sect in 2011, then renewed his collaborations with Paul Myers. In fact, he’s worked with Vic Godard on and off for the past two decades, touring throughout 2012, the pair also recording 1978 Now with Edwyn Collins.

Product-wise, Universal released three-disc set The Complete Professionals in October 2015, and with Tom Spencer filling in for Steve Jones, the band reunited for that 100 Club show then three more in March 2016, a joint-headline show with Glen Matlock’s Rich Kids following on their old patch  at Shepherd’s Bush Empire.

These days, Paul lives in Hammersmith with his wife, Jeni, formerly a backing singer with Culture Club, with their daughter Hollie also following them into the music business, an acclaimed solo artist with three LPs to her name, having also been part of the re-formed Slits (with Hollie’s website here).

Talking of home roots, having nattered with Paul about West London earlier, I got on to my interview this time last year with broadcaster Gary Crowley, who mentioned the fanzine he set up while still at school, making the most of the opportunities on his patch, big-name interviewees from the world of punk and new wave including Joe Strummer, Paul Weller, and a certain Paul Cook and Steve Jones.

He told me, ‘Steve and Paul did an interview for us, and I have a vivid memory of coming out of school with a pal, walking slowly up past them. We knew they lived there so we’d change our way home. I found out later that this was the day – Paul told me – the Sex Pistols signed to A&M Records. They were given a black limousine for the day to carry them around, and I remember this limo pulled up outside their flat, all four of them inside. It was like a cartoon, they fell out of this limo, looking very merry. It was like, ‘Bloody hell – it’s all four of them!’”

Gary also told me he was the apple who hasn’t fallen far from the tree, these days based fairly close to his Lisson Green estate roots in Maida Vale. And for all Paul’s world travels, he’s another who hasn’t strayed so far.

“That’s true. This apple hasn’t fallen very far either. I’ve ended up back around the area where I was brought up after living all around London. I’ve spent a lot of time in Los Angeles and Spain but ended up back local. I feel comfortable around here, I like it. I like London and like living in West London. It’s great – it’s my roots and makes me feel grounded, if you like.”

You could never have been tempted to up those roots and relocate to Scotland‘s far reaches with past WriteWyattUK interviewee Edwyn Collins in Helmsdale after he left London? Only you seemed to have a good vibe as a band before he relocated.

“That’s right, I played with Edwyn for a long time, from the Gorgeous George album, touring around the world for three years, and on and off over the years I’ve played with Edwyn a lot, which has been a really great experience. I never fancied moving out anywhere remote though. This is as far out of London as I’ll ever get! I’m very much an urban creature.

“I do need to go up there and see his studio though. I must go! It’s just never worked out, time-wise. I did pop around and see him play Shepherd’s Bush Empire though. I saw them all then and we had a catch -up, which was great.”

He’s certainly an inspiration to us all, the way he’s fought back.

“Yeah, totally! What he’s done is amazing really … miraculous. His recovery and how he’s learned to paint again with his left hand, write again, write songs and make albums, do live gigs. It’s astounding really. It’s fantastic.”

That link came via an introduction through Paul’s close friend, Vic Godard, although I got the impression that Edwyn was a little shy of making an approach in the first place, ‘a little bit in awe,’ as he put it. Do you get that a lot – the feeling that, ‘He’s a Sex Pistol, he’s probably hard to deal with’?

“Erm, yeah, you do get that sometimes, unless it’s late at night after a gig, everyone’s really pissed, and they get over-friendly! Generally, people are alright though, quite respectful. I don’t mind as long as they’re not being aggressive or sarcastic and that. Most people know to come up and say hi, and might say, ‘Do you mind if I have a picture?’ I usually say no, but they’ll have a little chat and then they’re off and they’re happy. Yeah, they’re usually generally alright.”

Whisper it, but you’re set to reach that fabled ‘when I get older, losing my hair, many years from now’ fabled Paul McCartney age in a few months. Is it any different for you these days? Has your lifestyle had to change over the years?

“Yeah, of course. You slow down. I’m quite fit, as we touched on earlier. I’ve always played football, and I’ve always gone to the gym to stay in shape. I have to really, when I’m playing the drums. Our stuff is not Abba or lightweight poppy stuff, although there’s nothing wrong with them, of course. It’s not laidback, so I have to keep in shape. I’ve had to change my drumming style slightly, because it’s pretty relentless what we play. I have to kick back a little bit, use the drums a bit more rather than just getting up there, going crazy for an hour or so, like I used to.”

While the car crash seemed to signal the end for The Professionals first time around, I think I’m right in saying there were drug issues too among the personnel. You’ve been amongst it, shall we say.

“Yeah, when we imploded first time. The Pistols didn’t last too long … just a few years, then The Professionals about the same. It all imploded after the car crash, and there were drug issues, again well documented – it’s not a secret. Usually bands don’t last much longer once that gets involved.

“So it was unfinished business really – getting the Profs back together, playing those songs again, it was great. Even though Steve isn’t there now, the guys in the band are all good players. They enjoy it, we have fun and there’s no negative energy about it.”

Do you remember anything about the car crash in 1982? Or was it blocked from your memory?

“I don’t think about it that much, but it was very serious. I nearly lost my life, that’s for sure. I do remember crawling from the wreckage. It was in Minnesota – Minneapolis-Saint Paul – a head-on collision. It was pretty serious stuff and knocked me for six for a long time. I just happened to walk away from it.”

Moments like that must make you re-evaluate where you’re headed, making you decide to make the most of your life from there on.

“Yeah, although I didn’t at the time, funnily enough. You just get up and carry on, thinking, ‘God, that was lucky’. But the older you get, you do reflect on things a bit, and Christ almighty – every day’s been a bonus since. I know a lot of people who haven’t walked out of those situations.”

No doubt it was a similar story with some of the drug casualties around you over the years too.

“Yeah, all that. You do wake up feeling blessed sometimes, trying to be positive – a bit of positive energy, saying, ‘Let’s get on with it’.”

If you’d carried on the day job as an apprentice electrician, you may well have retired by now.

“Yeah, I’d be getting my pension soon, wouldn’t I?”

Unless Ian Duncan Smith could get you to work for another 20 years. Which brewery were you based at?

“That was Watney’s Brewery in Mortlake, right by the river there, for a few years. And I’ve still got the skills. I actually put a couple of lights up for my daughter, Hollie, the other day. So they do call me in when they want some stuff done.”

Well, it’s good that you took something from the situation. Let’s face it, I tend to think of the delights of Watney’s Red Barrel when I think of that brew, which is probably best forgotten.

“Yeah … with good reason as well!”

I was going to mention Hollie. You’re obviously very proud of her, as a daughter and a musical artist, performing and recording.

“Yeah, she’s done really well, and I’m really proud of her. She’s made three great albums, and done it all off her own back, hasn’t asked for anything. I don’t get involved in her musical endeavours though. She’s quite capable of getting on with it herself, she knows what she wants to do and where’s she‘s going. That’s all really good.”

You’re credited with aiding Bananarama’s breakthrough in the early 1980s, helping them record their 1981 debut single, ‘Aie a Mwana’, and producing their 1983 first LP, Deep Sea Skiving. Could you have done a bit more of that, do you think? Or did you prefer the idea of remaining on that drum-stool, doing your own thing, playing in bands rather than overseeing them?

“Yeah, like you say, I did help them out. They were originally girls around town (hence the track of the similar name on Deep Sea Skiving, I guess) wanting to be in a band and I helped them get their first single out and got them going, so they got a record deal off the back of that. But I’ve never been one for being in the studio, sitting behind a desk all day. I like playing live really. I don’t really like the studio that much, even recording. Playing live is what we do and where it’s at, really. And I’m looking forward to doing this tour.”

And long may that continue … once we’ve got past COVID-19. Before I let Paul go though, I asked him to shed light on a modern punk folk tale that’s grown legs somewhat in my old manor over the years, about the night the Sham Pistols, a short-lived, ill-fated outfit involving Paul, Steve Jones and Sham 69 frontman Jimmy Pursey stage-invaded a late May 1979 show by WriteWyattUK favourites The Undertones at Guildford Civic Hall, with Jimmy managing support band The Chords at that point … their association soon broken. Whatever became of the Sham Pistols then, Paul?

“Well, I think the name says everything there! I think we can leave it at that.”

Fair enough … but I’ll ask more. Do you remember that night?

“Well, it was true. I don’t think I jumped up on stage, I would never do that … being such a great guy! I think Pursey and maybe Jonesy stormed the stage, not me though. Yeah, it wasn’t a great episode. I must admit. But yeah, it happened, and probably there’s the reasons why we never got it together.”

Kingdom Come: The Professionals, on their way back around the UK as soon as the coronavirus is banished

Keep an eye out via both Stiff Little Fingers and The Professionals’ social media outlets for rescheduled dates on the postponed Spring 2020 tour. And for details of the three latest Professionals EP releases, their most recent LP and how to buy them, check out the band’s website link and Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages.  

 

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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