Three months after a successful tour with Elvis Costello prematurely curtailed by COVID-19 restrictions, Ian Prowse remains on a high, interest in his music, past and present, refusing to tail off, aided by his entertaining Friday night online shows.
This Ellesmere Port-raised singer/songwriter and Amsterdam frontman remains a cult figure with music fans and musicians alike, getting on for three decades after his debut recordings with breakthrough outfit Pele.
Songs such as 2005 John Peel favourite ‘Does This Train Stop on Merseyside?’ only served to underline his abilities as a songwriter, and 2019 LP Here I Lie suggests he remains on a creative high. And it was the latter that inspired the afore-mentioned Declan McManus to personally invite Ian to be his main support on a Just Trust 13-date UK tour, albeit one ended three shows early due to the coronavirus.
But he’s remained busy during the lockdown, his series of weekend internet shows helping plug new 18-track best of collection, The Story of Ian Prowse, a perfect way in for those yet to catch up on the back-catalogue of an artist who tells us, ‘I hit the opening A minor chord of ‘Funeral Pyre’ by The Jam at my very first gig in 1982. There began my musical journey. I’ve been hitting every chord through hundreds of shows with the same passion ever since.’
Tranmere Rovers fan Ian wasn’t long off a trip to his local post office when I called, mailing out merchandise to those who’ve been discovering or rediscovering a love of all things Prowsey. And there are a fair few.
“About three weeks ago we made a special ‘I got through lockdown with Prowsey’ t-shirt, and my catchphrase when we go live is ‘What are you drinking?’, because they all let it hang out on a Friday night. So I’m packing those t-shirts … I’m a cottage industry. It’s been a busy one lately.”
That seems apt. Wasn’t there that line about Pele, your first band, selling more t-shirts than records?
That early t-shirt was certainly iconic.
“The old four primary colours thing? That was my only foray into design, that t-shirt. I’ve never done it since and never will again. But I’ll claim that. It was half a joke really (selling more t-shirts than records), because we never had massive hits in the UK, but you’d see our t-shirts everywhere.”
That must have been something you’ve dwelled on in the past, and with this new collection we get a fresh chance to compare and contrast between your work with Pele, Amsterdam and under your own banner, seeing the progression. And I get the feeling Pele could have been the biggest of those formats, hit-wise. That blend of more chirpy folk-pop should have been blasting out of radios in the ‘80s. But it never quite happened on the bigger stage.
“Erm … you say that, but my most popular song – when you look at viewing figures on YouTube and that – by far is ‘Does This Train Stop on Merseyside?’. That outstrips all the Pele songs. So while I had a major record deal, being on Polydor, for that first Pele album, I don’t necessarily think that was the best chance of having the massive hits.
“And the over-arching thing is that I view it as all the same thing. The first vehicle I drove for my songwriting was Pele, the next one was Amsterdam, and nowadays it’s just my name. I wrote all the songs then and now. I consider it to be just the same thing with a different coat of paint.”
You’ve always had a loyal following, but I was wondering if more people are listening now. Do you find factors like your friendship with Elvis Costello make a big difference? And if so, do you end up thinking, ‘Where have they been?’.
“Yeah, indeed … good shout. Over the past three months I’ve had so many people getting in touch or writing online, sending me emails, telling me, ‘I can’t believe I missed you, ‘cos it’s just my kind of music’. I’ve had to develop a new saying to cope with the influx, telling them, ‘Welcome aboard the good ship Prowsey. You’re very welcome!’ It doesn’t matter that you’re 30 years late. You’re here now!’
Taking that analogy further, in view of the choppy waters we’ve sailed through these last few months, you said in a video message on your website at the beginning of 2020, ‘it’s going to be our most exciting year yet’. Who knew, eh?
“I didn’t! The Elvis Costello tour was curtailed the night we played Hammersmith Odeon, and that was great to play there – a dream come true. Amazing. The other three got postponed, but the following Friday night I decided to do a one-off, play online, wondering like many others how I was even going to be able to pay the rent at that point. Real stuff. It was just one gig to say the Costello tour’s finished and the acoustic tour we have booked has been completely dropped and everything else in the diary has gone, but tonight I’m going to sing you the songs from the story of Ian Prowse. Let’s just have a night out.’
“And the feedback was so phenomenally positive and community-minded. Everyone enjoyed themselves, interacting with each other. So it became … it wasn’t about me, it was about us. It was more about, ‘We’re all going to hang out together and Prowsey’s going to sing us some songs’. And that’s just been sustained, really – there have now been 14 shows.”
The acoustic tour has been rearranged, with shows set for September onwards, ‘all small rooms with just me on my own to a hundred people, and I think most were sold out – we’ve got London and Chester, Weston-Super-Mare and Stourbridge … all over the country’. Are they gonna take place?
“I’ve spoken to a lot of the venues and they’re all kind of saying the same thing – it looks like in two weeks the pubs are going to open, so that gives us two months before we do the gigs. So I’m hoping they do happen.”
A discussion followed about new capacities, and the worry that if only limited numbers are allowed, venues will struggle to pay acts.
“We’ll see what happens. I’ve also got shows in October and November, so I’m really hoping by that time it’ll all ease off. Let’s face it, when the pubs re-open, with a couple of drinks inside them, they won’t give a fuck about one metre or two metres’ distance!”
Ian’s also hoping he gets to finish the Costello tour, but didn’t know details at time of going to press.
“We were having the time of our lives! I’ve been doing this for 30 years and rarely have I … I was going down a storm and then getting to watch one of the greatest artists of all time do his set, getting stuck in. And he’s mates as well, so I got to hang around with him. And all we talk about is politics, football and music!”
“There was an album that came out on EMI in 2001, Mersey Boys and Liverpool Girls, and we had a track each on there. The old Liverpool Poly, John Moores University hosted a gig to promote it, and Elvis did two songs. I got to meet him, I was thrilled, having had all his records from when I was a kid, and he told me he’d watch a couple of my songs but had to go and see his mam, so wouldn’t be there when I finished.
“I said that’d be great, but near the end of the set, because he’s such a familiar person to look at, I could see he was still at the side of the stage, and when we came off and went into the dressing room, he told me, ‘I couldn’t leave! It was fantastic! I was rocking!’ We’ve been mates ever since, and that was almost 20 years ago. Since then, I’ve been in his band on the telly (BBC’s Friday Night with Jonathan Ross), his support band, including playing The Paradiso, where he told me, ‘Let’s have Amsterdam in Amsterdam!’, and then there’s a song we did together to mark Liverpool’s 2008 capital of culture status, covering The Searchers’ ‘Don’t Throw Your love Away’ (included on the new compilation). We hadn’t done anything musically for about 10 years, but I sent him the latest album last year and he told me he felt it was as good as anything I’d ever done. And I guess that led to us doing the tour.”
I could easily dwell on past songs with both Pele and Amsterdam, but more recent numbers like ‘I Did it For Love’ (2014), ‘Something’s Changed’, ‘The Ballad of North John Street’ and ‘Here I Lie’ (all 2019) show you’re still on top of your game, as is also the case with the only new track on this compilation, ‘Only the Love’.
“Well, on Friday night’s lockdown show I did a freeform thought piece on what it was like for me to have to sit out Britpop, because I was having arguments with the record company at that point. And while the portal for young bands was as wide open as it had ever been to get through, I was frustratedly outside it, and missed out. But someone pointed out that if we had been there, we’d have been tainted as a Britpop band, so it was a lucky escape. If I was known for that era, I’d have to go out and trot out all the songs from then. And the greatest pleasure for me doing this has been the reaction we’ve had to the new music, ‘The Ballad of North John Street’ and ‘Here I Lie’ entering into the realms of people’s favourites. That’s immensely satisfying. So many acts have that burst of creative songwriting early on and don’t manage to do it again, so to be able to sustain that and continue to release strong songs is important to me. I got that from Bruce Springsteen – there are always fantastic songs on his albums. That’s a real buzz for me.”
At this point I tell him how, listening afresh, on at least one track I saw him as a missing link between The La’s and John Bramwell, which would fit into the timescale in which Amsterdam broke through and took him forward.
“Okay, yeah … well, I know both of them. They’re both insane, I might point out. Ha!”
An off-the-record discussion followed about touring and getting to know the immensely-talented John Bramwell and The La’s’ Lee Mavers over the years, before we navigated back to safer waters and Pele, me telling him I felt the early recordings were in places somewhere between Joe Jackson and the Faith Brothers.
“Well, the idea for Pele was for a more sort of poppy version of The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues. I’d been in bands a few years, at school, trying to get somewhere. We kept hitting the post and not quite scoring. That band split up, but when I heard all that Celtic soul music they were making, it struck a massive chord. My songwriting came into focus then. That was my blueprint for what we did with Pele.”
There are certainly pop-folk elements in there.
“Yes, although at no point did it veer off into folk-rock, and it was nothing like the crusty bands like The Levellers either. There’s almost like a Mod sensibility in there. I’m a soul boy as well.”
I see that, and the fact that Christy Moore’s taken a shine to your music counts for something along the lines of acceptance on that front too.
“Well, what an honour! I’ve got to know him a lot, and he’s really funny, a beautiful fella, and if you go and see him out in Ireland, out in the sticks, the whole town comes to watch him. I saw him in Thurles, where 8,000 people live, with 4,000 of them at the gig. He’s bigger than the Pope and U2! He’s fearless too, and one of the greatest protest folk singers on this side of the world, for sure. And in the ‘80s, to be sticking up for the Republican movement was putting your life in your hands. I’ve got immense respect for him. And when he decided to do my song, and we became friends …
“He told me a fan of my music had given him a CD and told him to have a listen on the road. I think it was a compilation of mine and other music. They were going to the ferry at Holyhead and played it about five times, and he decided, ‘I’m doing that’. He sent an unsolicited email to the band, and it turned out it was the Christy Moore. And being good friends with Damien Dempsey, my Celtic soul brother from another mother, he views Christy as the Irish musical god. And in terms of Christy’s position in the pantheon of documenting Irishness, past, present and future … it’s just lovely to be mentioned in those circles.”
On the subject of ‘Does This Train Stop on Merseyside?’, I have to mention John Peel’s love for the song. I always think of The Undertones sat at home listening the first time he played ‘Teenage Kicks’. Was there a similar story with you?
“It’s funny really, as we didn’t have a deal and were trying to get Amsterdam off the ground after Pele imploded. We’d been doing that for a couple of years and not really got going. Also, my long-term girlfriend was in the band, but she’d buggered off and left me for some fella. So I’m sat in my local boozer, crying into my ale, not functioning, and someone came in the pub around half ten at night, and said, ‘I’ve just been listening to you on the radio’. I just went, ‘I haven’t even got anything out’. He explained it was something about a train, and John Peel had played it and was choked, crying when he said who it was.
“There was no playback then, but the day after someone told me Peel got my track from a guy called Phil Hayes, who ran The Picket here in Liverpool. He gave him two CDs with 40 local songs on them, and Peel just played ours then had this extreme emotional reaction live on air.
“I just thought, at this really low ebb another door had opened. He played it again, and the exact same thing happened – he was choked, and said that even when he played it at home, Sheila, his wife, had to come and give him a cuddle. We spoke on the phone, and were on for about three-quarters of an hour. He asked me to come in and do a session when he got back from Peru. And of course, tragically he never did.
“But the world operates in strange ways. Within a year we had a record deal, I was back in the business, we had another album out, and I haven’t looked back since.”
We also spoke about another related project, under wraps at present, talking about a line in the song inspired by Bill Drummond, ‘Now there’s a leyline runs down Mathew Street, it’s giving energy to all it meets’.
“That was his (Drummond’s) concept, this idea that Eric’s was at the centre of this energy. I went to see him when he was stood on this manhole on his 60th birthday in the middle of Mathew Street, where all these leylines meet, for 24 hours. He said when the 24 hours was up he was going to walk away and never come back. I knew he was there, gave him a copy of the song and told him Christy Moore had done a version. He then wrote a blog piece about how he felt it very emotional and giving a speech last year in Liverpool he said how people have written their best songs by the time they’re 25, the one person bucking that trend Ian Prowse. I think I was 39 or something. And that sort of thing is the biggest possible honour you can get.
“I’ve often wondered how I’ve managed to keep the quality high, and I think it’s probably because I’ve under-achieved in terms of global recognition or having massive hits. I’ve always been striving. I’m competitive and have that mentality, and I’m always trying to prove myself, and it’s kept the standard high. And now I’m thinking, when I’m dead and gone and they’re making a boxset, I don’t want any shit CDs on it … like The Clash and Cut the Crap. I want them all to be good. So now it’s the legacy keeping the standard high.”
There have been occasional hits. How did ‘Megalomania’ end up topping the charts in South Africa?
“Ha! It’s bizarre really. I was really green. We signed to a major label and someone said, ‘Right, we’ve got to see your agent’. I said, ‘Who’s that?’ and then we had to see a press officer. I said, ‘Isn’t that the record company?’ I didn’t know any of these things. Then someone said we’ve got to go and see the publisher. ‘What’s that?’ All of a sudden, I’ve signed this deal for £30,000, and I also didn’t realise that when you’re on a major label they release your records all over the world, and it’s up to the local promotional offices as to how much they put into it.
“A friend of mine, John Higginson, had recently emigrated to South Africa with his family, and phoned up drunk, around 1992, with that massive delay on our call, so we couldn’t really get a conversation going. I couldn’t understand him, but he told me he’d been listening to the national top-40 and I was No.1. I just said, ‘Fucking hell – that must be strong ale you’re on, John’. But that night we were on tour, supporting Kirsty McColl in Leicester. I told our manager what my mate had said, he phoned Polydor, and when we finished our soundcheck, he confirmed it. They were asking about doing interviews and going out there playing, but there was still a cultural boycott and the Musicians’ Union pointed out that I’d be breaking that. And I was never going to be Rod Stewart, Queen, Elton John, or Paul Simon for that matter. I just said, ‘I ain’t going’.”
“I think that was late ’92, and Shane (McGowan) was there but he wasn’t getting up on stage with them. I think Spider was standing in. But it was great. They were at full pelt, the places were packed out, and it gave us an advantage as we could steal some of their thunder. We were socking it to them and went down a storm everywhere we played.”
You mentioned on your website a while ago, when Amsterdam’s 2008 album Arm in Arm was re-released, that it was maybe your favourite of your LPs. Why that one?
“I think it’s because Arm in Arm is sort of my closest record to Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love in that a lot of the songs are about a broken relationship, pertaining to the same relationship and the same girl. So there’s a theme, the songs are strong, and they hang together. Whenever I listen to it, I think that’s a really good bit of work. And the cover’s from Asbury Park (New Jersey), so I always love it for that as well. It completes my Springsteen obsession!”
At the same time, it seems that Janice Long was getting quite obsessed with the song, ‘Home’, from that LP. The crib notes for this compilation suggest she played it for 20 straight shows.
“Yeah, Janice really loved that song! And Bruce and his music has weaved right through my life these past 35 years. My daughter’s called Rosalita, and I met him in New York 18 months ago. You wouldn’t know it from my music – I don’t think it sounds anything like Bruce Springsteen, musically. But the spirit of it is coming from the same place.”
Finally, was it a big moment playing to a sell-out crowd not far from your patch at Liverpool Olympia, supporting Elvis Costello, whose parents were both from Merseyside?
“It was just a mad rush of energy. Our Rosie, aged eight and a half now, had come along to see me live for the first time as well, and Elvis let her try on his gold jacket in the dressing room before. He asked if she’d liked to try it on, and she was like, ‘Yeah!’. It was a beautiful night. It was the first night, we were all nervous, and it was rammed, but we did a really good gig and he took the roof off. It was extremely memorable.”
The Story of Ian Prowse is out now via Kitchen Disco Records. For full details, back-catalogue information, Ian’s rescheduled live acoustic dates, merchandise information and more, visit www.amsterdam-music.com. You can also follow Ian via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.