Popping back t’ Cornershop – the Tjinder Singh interview

There’s a brand new single out from indie-dance favourites Cornershop, a band Mojo have dubbed ‘the quintessential 21st-century pop group’, The Independent labelled ‘cultural critique you can dance to’, and The Guardian reckon are ‘clever and engaging, happily detached from the mainstream’.

As far as I’m concerned, this latest offering from a much-treasured outfit with Lancashire roots deserves to be all over the airwaves, and could go someway towards the success of their 1998 tribute to Indian singer Asha Bhosle and their sole UK No.1, ‘Brimful of Asha’, coining the sound of summer two decades on. Wishful thinking maybe, but why not?

The new 45 pairs the laid-back, feelgood dance groove of ‘Double Denim’ with a cover of The Archies’ 1969 bubblegum chart-topper, ‘Sugar Sugar’. There’s also an extra helping of promo video to go with it, and in the animated ‘Double Denim’, featuring fictional band Heavy Duty and seen as director Ian Viggars’ ‘homage to Hanna-Barbera and Peanuts’, the band are apparently celebrating ‘denim as a way of expressing one’s love for music with badges, patches or spray paint’. And more power to their jean-jacketed elbows for that.

The ensemble responsible are now 27 years into an impressive career, with co-founders Tjinder Singh (vocals/guitar/bass/dholki) and Ben Ayres (guitar/keyboards/tamboura)  still at the helm. They’re also currently working on a new album – their 10th, just the excuse I needed to track down Tjinder and quiz him about the band’s past, present and future.

Usually, I’d then hone that and add in the odd nugget of back-story as we went along. But having read back Tjinder’s entertaining responses (put my way via the wonders of electronic mail in this instance), I felt I should just print our Q&A as it came, with the bare minimum of add-ins. So here goes, starting with me carelessly flouting every rule I’ve ever learned about trying to get off to a friendly start, half-suggesting I couldn’t work out why they would go anywhere near that annoyingly-catchy cover version.

So, first off, ‘Sugar Sugar’ – was The Archies’ 1969 version not enough for all time? You do realise that’ll be the song I hear first thing in the morning and last thing at night in my head for a few months again now. Please explain yourself, Tjinder.

“That cover came about from a tweet that endearingly said ‘Cornershop are the real life Archies.’  However, this comparison needed a few months of detailed analysis under laboratory conditions, after which we decided the tweeter was most correct. During such time, a lot of information came to light on the studio recording sessions on the making of ‘Sugar Sugar’, so I decided to do our own version based on these volts of information. We love the original a lot so have been surprised that so many people have taken our version to heart.”

Were yourself and Ben around when that track first topped the charts? I was barely two, but it clearly made a deep impression on me from continued radio rotation in the following years.

Derek Randall: Retford’s finest is believed to be a big fan of Cornershop, possibly

“In those days all we cared about was chess, cricket and awaiting for someone like Derek Randall to enter the field.”

Now I’ve got that out of the way, I feel the need to stress how much I’m loving ‘Double Denim’ (and no doubt I’ll grow to like the other side in time). By rights, this should be the sound of late summer 2018, getting as much airplay as songs like Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’ and Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’. Might we finally see your first top-40 hit since 2002’s ‘Lessons Learned From Rocky I to Rocky III’?

“Again, we have been taken aback by how well ‘Double Denim’ has been received. Mainly because we released the single in the reduced action of holiday season. Maybe it’s because of the ‘It ain’t half hot mum’ weather that the summer sound tag has been put to it, but in any case thank you for your very kind words here. One forgets that it was so long since being in the charts, but one is comforted that songs like that mean even more nowadays.”

You suggest ‘Double Denim’ is a reminder that music is still the key to many of our woes. With the dire political landscape here and over the Atlantic right now, we need that, don’t we?

“Politics in music have always been a key meter for us, even if like Double Diamond here we talk about attire and escapism it mentions the start of work on Mondays morning too.  Further, as many northerners know, denim and the doubling up of such material is a political stance relating way back to Mods and the Dirty Rockers.”

Double Diamond, eh. Now we’re going back. It seems to be the early ’70s again, with that song on the radio. But moving on … What have yourself and Ben been up to since 2015’s Hold On It’s Easy album? Do you get together fairly regularly, or just in creative spurts now and then?

“We have met every Tuesday and Friday at 2pm for the last eight years. Nowadays we don’t work as hard as we did, but we do keep up the Lancashire tradition of cream teas and extremely clean language.”

Quite right too. And there’s a new album on the way, yeah? Are these two tracks a good indication of where Cornershop are at in 2018?

“There is a new album out there. However, like the next Derek Randall, these things take time. I don’t think the album is anything like these two tracks, less spank. We try to keep things different and can’t be sure.”

Band Substance: Cornershop’s first press shot, taken at West Orange Studios, Preston, early 1992. From the left – Ben Ayres, Tjinder Singh, Avtar Singh, David Chambers.

The ‘Double Denim’ video features fictional band Heavy Duty. Is that a nod to your Preston roots in the band, General Havoc? And while I get the Archies inference with the cartoon style, how do Heavy Duty compare to more recent animated ensemble, Gorillaz?

“In terms of influence, many – even academic circles – have said Gorillaz was taken from the blueprint of our side-project Clinton due to its music direction, and as we were the first to use producer Dan the Automator in the UK. Those papers put aside, Heavy Duty are neither Gorillaz nor The General Havoc. They are more of an Olympia, Washington State type group.”

That’s cleared that up then. Taking you right back to your Lancashire years, were those fun days, or was it just a slog to get heard around then?

“It was a most enjoyable time, mainly because there was no slog to be heard. It didn’t become a slog until we got signed to Wiiija Records, which gave us the chance to either stay in a band if we worked hard enough or go back to being unemployed. Preston was always about what you made of it. When we arrived, there was still a hint of the ’50s about it in people’s dress and the music of Glenn Miller and Jo Stafford in the second-hand shops, which was all great to have taken in. Then there were places like Action Records, Ribblesdale Club, and live music at The Lamb.”

Have you strong memories of the first General Havoc gig? And where exactly was that?

“I think I speak for all band individuals in saying ‘very strong’. So strong that even the hint of a Double Diamond transports us back – I can’t however remember where the hell it was we played.”

How about that very first Cornershop show at O’Jays in your next musical base, Leicester?

“That set in store a series of venues we played at which folded soon after our performances, so we were soon refused gigs. O’Jays was a really great gig though – the North was taken, now the Midlands had fallen, and we felt it only a matter of time ‘fore the south to capitulate.”

Pressing Matters: Ben Ayres and Tjinder Singh in 2000 at the Damont Audio record pressing factory in Hayes, Middlesex, where Ben used to work

What were you studying in your Preston days? And is that how you got to know fellow Cornershop bandmates Dave (Chambers, drums) and Ben?

“I studied Business Information Technology, and Ben was on Heavy Geography, at what was then Preston Polytechnic. At that time the town was divided between students and local Prestonians, but we always got on with whoever we liked. It was also a violent town centre, a situation that was bettered down the years, chiefly by investment and by the aid of music.”

Rumour has it that as the social secretary of the Poly (these days the University of Central Lancashire) you very quickly blew the budget through booking bands like The Wedding Present, Mercury Rev, Spiritualised, and so on. Is that true?

“As I said earlier, Preston was what you made of it, so as Social Secretary I tried to have more bands and comedians play. Being so well placed between Manchester and Liverpool or prior to bands going up to Scotland, it seemed a waste of the Polytechnic’s venues and resources not to book bands that were touring. So more gigs took place instead of bad discos, and more local community was welcomed in. In fact, I also set up a free festival at Avenham Park in the summer third term – not something you could do without a budget.

“Truth is, I had two votes of no confidence within my first three weeks, I had racial resentment throughout my tenure, it was very stressful but exhilarating. I was then re-elected as Social Secretary, a role which I then declined. It was this experience in a so called educated arena that made the band change name to the racially-charged Cornershop, and adopt an even more political direction overnight.”

Did you always believe in the band’s chance of striking it big? I get the impression it was more of a winning concept than a happening musical unit at first.

“We only believed in the band’s ability to meet from time to time in different cities as some of us exited from Preston. However, right from the start we had David HB Chambers join us on the basis that he thought we had something. We always had the support of Marcus Parnell or Gaynor, and later John Robb and Tony Wilson, and when we got to Rough Trade, Portobello, there was Pete, Jude and Nigel. So there was always encouragement, but there was never an aim to strike up anything.

“Upon getting signed, everything changed, and no group has ever worked as hard as we have to get somewhere. We started going to Europe’s mainland to keep things going and eventually that led to America, which responded to us in a very open manner, a manner which made it reasonable at that time to deem it a great forward-thinking country.”

Ford Perfect: The first Cornershop EP, from 1993

Something that seems to have deserted the US in recent times, unfortunately … at least for now. Going back, those early days of Cornershop were prime post-punk indie DIY days. Was there a proper community feel among acts from the North West, and something of    a similar philosophy (with assistance from the likes of the afore-mentioned John Robb and Marcus Parnell)?

“There were certainly acts around Preston that had a similar philosophy as each other, such as Dandelion Adventure, or Bogshed, or Stretcheads, but we had not developed enough ourselves to fit into any of it at that time. The live band scene was healthy though. Sometimes you could see three or four events a night and still have time to be arrested. As well as the town pubs and venues, there were Labour clubs in Deepdale and Ribblesdale, which with the help of Action Records got a healthy anti-major label sentiment going.”

It’s 25 years now since legendary broadcaster John Peel introduced you to a wider audience and spoke of ‘the first poptastic band from Britain’s Asian community’ and those first two Cornershop EPs on Wiiija (In the Days of Ford Cortina and Lock, Stock and Double Barrel). Was that exciting, hearing yourself on the national airwaves? And do you remember much about recording that first Peel session in 1993 (more followed in 1998 and 2002, the band having five entries in Peel’s Festive Fifty overall, including a No.1 with ‘Brimful of Asha’ in 1997)?

“John Peel was a catalyst for many a band to get together, and his sentiment was the same as Preston’s circuit. It was wonderful to hear him announce our records, and even better to see him at our gigs. In fact, we became quite close to him. We spent hours in conversation about people like Marc Bolan and the way the industry and technology was going. His favourite song of ours was ‘Staging The Plaguing of the Raised Platform.’ We do remember the first Peel Session. It was a little daunting, as BBC technical engineers were all around us, and it was on the back of a heavy duty night. Marcus Parnell, whom became our manager for a while, was asleep on top of the grand piano, and John Robb, who helped produce our first records, popped in towards the end.”

The powerful ‘England’s Dreaming’, from that first session (voted No.17 in Peel’s 1993 Festive Fifty), seemed to set out your stall as a musically creative force. I’m sure you and your brother (Avtar Singh, bass guitar, vocals) had to put up with prejudice, but you seemed to take that all head on, not least with the band name, challenging the clichés.

“That song was all about working at the Union in Preston, which I talked about earlier. It also uses The Smiths’ line, as at this time we had already been burning Morrissey posters due to his dubious move towards the far right.”

With regard to where we’re at politically right now, the time’s ripe for a Cornershop revival, surely?

“Politically, we are in a hot-pot of course, but the time is really ripe for other Cornershops to say something of the situation. Unfortunately, politics seem to have been taken out of music again and we are back to songs that don’t represent the hard political situations we are having to deal with. The youth seem more set on singing about meeting someone in a car park than why they can’t afford to buy a car.

“I grew up in Wolverhampton, in the rivers of blood that Enoch Powell wanted to magnify.  So our songs were always about what may go wrong, and the way we see it, since the start of this century they have gone wrong. Austerity made things much worse for no conceivable gain, and we are here with (Boris) Johnson thinking he is an Enoch Powell Johnson. Maybe we did what we did as a group because we could see a Derek Randall that was unfortunately more right wing. There is nothing better than that to be perennially proud of.”

Chart Success: The third Cornershop album, from 1997, was the most commercially successful

It’s now been 21 years since Fat Boy Slim’s ‘Brimful of Asha’ remix took you to the top of the charts. How did Norman get involved with you? Are you still in touch?

“No, we have never been in touch. He approached us. We love both versions, it’s strange to hear it all the time still. In its original form it represented the band most closely, being avid record collectors, praising the plastic 45, having disdain for governments that don’t work for us, and showing appreciation for a shopping list that does.”

What did you make of the BritPop movement? Was it good to be associated with, just a happy accident, or part of a true coming together of like-minded bands with a wide selection of influences?

“BritPop never existed, it was just what the papers and magazines put together to give the upturn in optimism a name – fake pop. The only movement that we were happy to be associated with was the Riot Grrrl movement.”

I could mention several more Cornershop tracks from down the years, but was always particularly taken with ‘Good to Be on the Road Back Home’ on your best-selling LP, When I Was Born for the 7th Time. Was that a further nod to the Velvet Underground? And what’s guest co-vocalist Paula Frazer up to these days?

“We didn’t intentionally nod to The Velvet Underground, and that song we saw more like country music or a Lee (Hazlewood) and Nancy (Sinatra) type duet. For me, all the old boys and girls at my local Irish pub still sit around the bar and sing and cry to it. It also has that Irish ‘away from home’ feeling about it, and has certainly brought me many a free drink.

“When Paula Frazer came to do vocals for it, she was perplexed by it. She doesn’t normally sing like that, but when she moved it more towards Nashville, it became clean as country water.”

According to the band’s website, Cornershop have been making a film about London’s independent music industry since 2003. Is that ready for release yet?

“That is true … no it’s not ready yet. The idea was to record as many things as we could about what we were about to lose of the music industry as possible. We got a Peel Session and interview filmed, footage of a record pressing plant, Rowetta singing ‘Wop The Groove’ at a time when she was much more reserved about being in front of a camera, Everett True talking about the demise of music magazines, and so on. It will be finished and come out one day – I hope so.”

Finally, will there be a tie-in tour for the album release? And might your past collaborators the Mike Flowers Pops be joining you for that?

“There may well be a tour when the next album comes out. Mike Flowers won’t be joining us though. Nor will Allen Ginsberg, Larry Cornell, Paula Frazer, Soko, Dan the Automator, Noel Gallagher … not even Preston’s own Bubbley Kaur.”

Double Diamonds: Tjinder and Ben, back at work on a new Cornershop album (Photo: Roger Sargent)

You can find the video for ‘Double Denim’ here, and for ‘Sugar Sugar’ here. For details of how to get hold of new single, ‘Double Denim’/‘Sugar Sugar’ (Ample Play) and all the latest from Cornershop, head to their website.

  • With extra thanks to Marcus Parnell for a little insider knowledge from those formative days on the Preston scene.
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Stepping back to gain perspective with The Proclaimers – the Charlie Reid interview

Gear Factor: Craig and Charlie Reid on location with The Proclaimers in Leith (Photo: Murdo MacLeod)

This weekend, Cooking Vinyl release Angry Cyclist, the 11th studio album from The Proclaimers, with plenty of dates between now and the end of the year to celebrate on both sides of the Atlantic.

Their first LP since 2015’s Let’s Hear It For The Dogs finds twins Charlie and Craig Reid and their band in typically top form, at the peak of their songwriting prowess, with more of those catchy hooks and melodies, gorgeous close harmonies, and clever, subtle and often biting lyrics we’ve come to expect.

The new record opens with the title track and first single as its rather short and succinct statement of attempt, perfectly showcasing Charlie and Craig’s impassioned vocals in a lyrical metaphor about the reactionary and bigoted times we live in, from a band who were politically and socially aware from day one.

The sharp, dry and wry observations and added punch are there on songs such as ‘Looted’ and ‘Classy’ too, taking the British Empire and class system to task, while elsewhere the twins are at their romantic and anthemic best on songs such as ‘Streets Of Edinburgh’, a moving paean to their home city, and the joyful ‘You Make Me Happy’ and ‘Sometimes it’s the Fools’. And you can add to that the inspirational drive and poignancy of further stand-outs like ‘Then It Comes to Me’ and ‘The Hours Between’, the jaunty quirkiness of ‘A Way With Words’, and witty yet touching send-off, ‘I’d Ask the Questions’.

And as their publicists put it, ‘What is remarkable about their writing is, after 30 years, it would be so easy for them to be cynical, but Angry Cyclist is incredibly positive, hopeful and optimistic: a life-affirming listen. Its’ vitality and passion easily puts many artists half their age, or younger, in the shade.’ Yep. well said.

Their songs are often timeless, written with poignancy, emotional honesty, political fire and wit, and have been known to feature at weddings, funerals and everything between over these past three weekends, with a few known the world over, having become global anthems, the brothers even inspiring the successful play turned film Sunshine on Leith, its movie becoming the fifth highest-grossing independent UK release of 2013, while the musical had its fourth UK run earlier this year – its biggest production to date – and is now seemingly destined for London’s West End in 2019. But don’t imagine for one moment the fame has gone to their heads, judging by my recent conversation with Charlie Reid.

Charlie was at home when he called, ready for a date at Ayr Town Hall the next night, followed by weekend engagements in Dunoon and Oban, ruling out a trip to Greece to see his beloved Hibernian FC’s Europa League second qualifying round away leg. And having watched the first-leg highlights, I asked if he was a little worried when Ateras Tripoli scored a thumping second goal at Easter Road, making it 2-0 on the night (Hibs fought back to win 3-2).

“It certainly was, and I think the defence is – how shall we put it – being charitable at the moment. It’s the goalie they got on loan from Liverpool. Both of ours are crocked at the moment. Maybe he’s just not settled in yet.”

So Hungarian cap Adam Bogdan is unlikely to appear in a future Proclaimers lyric then, like a certain No.1 mentioned in ‘Cap in Hand’.

“I don’t think so. I don’t think he’s in Andy Goram’s class.”

Are you saving yourself for Motherwell at home on Sunday, the afternoon after your Oban date?

“Well, being on the road, if we get a day off in the middle of the week and there’s a night game, maybe, but the voice gets really worn out, so if you know you’ve got a gig the next night you don’t tend to go. You’ve really got to watch it with all the verbals, y’know.”

You’re still showing plenty of passion on the terraces then, by the sound of it.

“I do. I go to the same place. I used to stand there when I was a kid and a teenager on the old terrace, the big wooden terrace. That was all knocked down, and eventually the whole thing was knocked down, and it’s now the one-tier East stand. I used to take the kids behind the goals. But they’re all grown up now, and don’t all live in Edinburgh anymore.”

Do you remember the first time they played ‘Sunshine on Leith’ at Easter Road  (if you’ve never seen footage of the Hibs fans singing it, you’re missing out)?

“We weren’t even there. It was for another European game against a Greek side, AEK Athens. We were in America at the time, and it was just after 9/11, with a lot of tension. My ex-wife and two of my sons were there, and it seemed to take off that night. They played it and the punters joined in. It just seemed to become one of the club songs from then on, so we’re very grateful of that.”

Plenty of adulation has come The Proclaimers’ way over the years, often in high circles. Actor David Tennant sees them as ‘my favourite band of all time’, adding, ‘They write the most spectacular songs, big-hearted, uncynical passionate songs’. Meanwhile, Dexys frontman Kevin Rowland talks about their, ‘Incredible passion. They inspired me. To me they were like a conscience … They were so honest, they were so genuine.’ And the latter quote in particular must really resonate, bearing in mind that Dexys were such an important influence on so many of us, not least the Reid brothers  themselves. That must give them a thrill.

“It does. He was always one of the top heroes for us when we were younger, and an inspiration and a guy who helped us out on several occasions with studio time. He couldn’t have been nicer to us. Yeah, we love him, And that’s a long-term relationship, that one.”

It seems an obvious thing to say, but singing in your own accents was a key part of your development. Even my recent interviewee Dave Peacock talked of that sudden lightbulb moment when Chas and Dave realised they were better off singing about their own manor in their own London accent. Then there were bands like Stiff Little Fingers hearing The Clash and realising they should write about their own lives in Northern Ireland rather than life on Californian highways. Has The Proclaimers’ story involve a similar journey?

Soul Brothers: The Reid twins, heading your way this autumn (Photo: Murdo MacLeod)

“I think it has. I think it was part of the new wave thing, particularly with The Clash, Buzzcocks, and all those bands with all that energy around at that time. Even The Jam, and people like that. We’d go and see them every time they were up in Scotland. Then with Dexys, Kevin with his Irish heritage, beginning to talk about that when it was really unhip at the time, being Irish in England. I think he was the first who made us think, ‘This is what I am, and I’m not necessarily playing traditional Irish folk music but I am of Irish descent and I’m not going to lie about it’. And I thought that was inspirational.

“I think to be authentic you actually have to find your own voice, be that Chas and Dave, Ian Dury, or what The Clash did. You have to find your own voice and speak about what you know.”

The Clash were a major influence, weren’t they?

“A couple of years ago there was a charity record came off, and we went down to London and finally met Mick Jones. That was a big moment. It’s one of those things – you know he’s had all that stuff said to him a million times, but we meant it. We’d bought every record he ever made, and The Clash was probably the biggest influence of all.”

On to the new LP, Angry Cyclist, and I knew your producer, Dave Eringa, had come up in conversation recently, but had to look it up and saw not only all those Manic Street Preachers’ credits but also involvement with Roger Daltrey and Wilko Johnson’s Going Back Home (2014), remembering it was Wilko who mentioned him in my interview ahead of the release of this year’s Blow your Mind LP. Was Dave good to work with?

“Fantastic. This is the second record we’ve done with Dave, and funnily enough with that album, this is how things go in cycles. Steve Shaw, who played fiddle in Dexys, said you’ve got to hear this Daltrey and Wilko Johnson album. So I went out and bought it, and that’s how the thing with Dave started. So there you go! And he’s great. Again, we work with people we admire and like, and with Daltrey, like The Who, it was one of the great things ever. Just the sound he got … fuck it! We knew we were going to try someone new, his name came up, and we thought that should be the guy to go for. And this is the second record we’ve done with him now.”

In a sense, that takes me back to your roots and the 1987 debut album, This is the Story. Much as I appreciated the Gerry Rafferty single version of ‘Letter from America’, it was the raw sound of the original album track and the whole of that record that first convinced me about you. And I think it’s that more sparse version that really stands the test of time.

“I think so, yeah. As with most bands, it’s the songs you’ve written since your supposed adolescence. And it’s raw and sounded like who we were, because of that sound, and (producer) John Williams set us up and did a great job – just letting us play.”

I’m not sure if it was just a case of setting up the mics then letting fly, but This is the Story still sounds so fresh today. John Williams clearly knew what he was doing, and you had the songs, but I wonder if you took charge or were still green to the process.

“I think we were probably green to everything then, and very much the recording process. We’d only done demos before that and we’d had no money for years. And it was really through Kevin Rowland, then two of The Housemartins, then meeting Kenny (MacDonald), our manager – it was almost like emerging from a cave! A bunch of people we could identify with who could help in their own way. And that’s how we got started on that first record.”

Incidentally, a good mate’s brother, Danton Supple, who also attended my secondary school in Guildford, was credited as assistant engineer on that LP, and went on to a lot more success in his own right as a producer.

“That’s right, I remember his name came up a couple of years ago when we were talking about the record. Yeah, amazing, and all these people who had been either successful before or went on to be successful, and all those connections you make over the years.”

I seem to think I snapped up the first album either just before or just after I saw you – as a 19-year-old – perform on the Sunday at Glastonbury Festival in 1987.

“He he! What I remember is that we were first on, with so many people just getting up and scratching themselves! We were basically waking them up, y’know. We literally woke the PA system up. But you know, I remember doing it then driving to London and doing an interview, having a splitting headache after too much sun. That was with Stuart Cosgrove, so again there’s a connection with another guy who was successful then and is still doing well.”

I also remember my brother raving about catching you at the Sir George Robey in Finsbury Park a few days before that Glastonbury visit, one he trots out to this day as a classic ‘I was there’ moment.

“That was absolute Proclaimers in the raw!”

When I spoke to Charlie I’d not had chance to take in the new album (I certainly have now, and it’s a corker), but I already loved the title track. That set us up nicely. So is that fairly indicative of what we’re about to receive, I asked him.

“It’s probably one of the more political tracks on the record, but as soon as we started playing it – Craig and I standing in the room, mucking around with the songs until they feel comfortable – I thought, ‘Yeah!’ There was just something about it. I loved the chord progression, it was great with the guitar. And the sentiment – the confusion a lot of us are feeling about how things are going culturally and the air of violence and anger that seems to determine everything at the moment – all pretty unsettling.”

A couple of recurring Proclaimers’ themes come up on the album, not least on ‘British Empire’ and ‘Classy’. Has this farce of the last couple of years, politics-wise, made you the more determined to see your homeland break away from the UK?

“Do you know what, I don’t see it as breaking away, but – how can I put it – joining a more civilised world on our own terms. I’m not really big on the flags. It was never about that for me. It was about democracy, and is still about democracy, and I would hope it’s more about getting a more modern country. It’s always ironic when you find the old Tories or even the old Labour left harking back. It’s not about that. It’s about looking forward. And to me the Britain they hark back to – my father’s Britain as a child – has gone. That’s where I’m coming from really.”

Yet there are also new songs on there that prove you’ve not lost your touch for the heartfelt as well as the political. But I guess to do one so convincingly, you need the other. Otherwise, it’s just empty rhetoric. In a bid to explain myself, I mentioned how I’d just seen a documentary about Paul Simon making Graceland, and while I subscribed at the time to the NME view of him exploiting those musicians rather than rightfully boycotting apartheid, his actions were perhaps more politically worthwhile through just celebrating and turning people on to South African music in the long run. And with The Proclaimers, similarly, the message remains strong because it’s not delivered in some bitter whinge. They remain positive in their outlook, despite knocks at the worst aspects of 21st century Britain.

“I think you have to have an open mind, and when something’s clearly wrong, it’s clearly wrong. Playing Sun City was clearly wrong. But what Paul Simon did, I think, in retrospect, helped bring everybody out of that shite, although I too subscribed to that boycott at the time. So yes, he did a lot of good in the long term.”

For those who have only picked up on the band in recent times via 2014’s Sunshine on Leith film and the original 2007 stage musical, where should they go from there with your back-catalogue. Start with this album and work backwards? Or head from Hit the Highway onwards?

“I’m tempted to say go on the internet and listen – it’s all there anyway! It seems that as soon as the damn thing’s published now, it’s on the internet. I think David Bowie said years ago that music’s gonna become like water or electric – turn it on or press a switch. And that’s where we are.

“For us now the main thing is that the publishing helps. The ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’ thing just goes on and on, and the song is so much bigger than the band ever were or ever will be! It keeps us on the road and there are a couple of songs that the public know, and everything else is there – I would hope for anyone who is interested – for them to then explore.”

On the related subject of material on your second album, the splendid Pete Wingfield-produced Sunshine on Leith from 1988, how old is your son Sean (as name-checked on side one track five) now?

“Sean is now 31 and he’s just come back from a holiday this morning with his fiancée and her family, after two and a half weeks in America and Mexico. He was living with me when he was at university and he’s now living with his fiancee, working in recruitment and loving life.”

There’s a verse in that song which rings true to me, and probably anyone else who’s had children of their own, which reads,

‘Though fear and hurt and care
Can lead me to despair
I saw why I’m here
The morning you appeared’

That for me sums up so much for anyone who’s been in that position of becoming a father. It’s about self-discovery and appreciating everything around you really. Yeah?

“Appreciating it and appreciating you’re a link in the chain, and you’re privileged to be so, and if there’s any reason to hang around, it’s family and loved ones, and I suppose it’s all part of that.”

That’s just one great example of many, not least on that album, and if the first LP was about your arrival and letting us know, ‘This is us’, that second album proved you were here to stay and were every bit as soulful as some of those artists you wore on your sleeves. You mentioned Dexys, and then there was Van Morrison and Al Green perhaps, to name just two more. And while I’m a big fan of Steve Earle, your ‘My Old Friend the Blues’ is the definitive version for me.

“Erm, it’s nice of you to say so. I’ve listened to him a lot recently, and like Kevin (Rowland) he’s as relevant to me now as ever he was. With some of his songs, like ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Christmas in Washington’, he’s just like, ‘Fucking hell!”

While I’m on, as well as spells living in Midlothian and Fife, I see there was a boyhood spell in my beloved Cornwall too. What was the story there?

“It’s funny – not many people ask about that. We were kids in the late ‘60s in Edinburgh when we went for a holiday in Cornwall, as people did, and my parents loved it. My Dad’s father died during the war, and his mother brought up the kids on her own from when they were quite young. She passed away in ‘68, so we had a holiday in ‘69 and then moved down in the summer/autumn of 1970 and were there until mid-to late-’72 when we moved to Fife.

Reid Riders: The Proclaimers’ studio shoot in Leith, 2018 (Photo: Murdo MacLeod)

“We went to Gwinear Primary School, near Hayle, and lived on a little country road, with about three or four cottages at the bottom of it, about two miles from the school. We were then in Fife from about the age of 10. I’ve got very good memories, including how beautiful the weather was so much of the time. We had a palm tree outside the school, and people were so pleasant. And because we lived down there, my cousins and aunts and uncles would come down for holidays. Everybody loved it.

“Dad was a joiner on building sites, and Mum was a nurse who worked at a hospital in Edinburgh and became a district nurse when we went to Gwinear, and was then a district nurse in Fife when we went back.”

Were both of your parents musical?

“Yeah, my old man was a massive Ray Charles fan and into traditional jazz and old r’n’b. He’d pick up records from old second-hand record sales. They were everywhere in those days. We’d go into Hayle every weekend and he’d pick up old records. Mum liked Sinatra, and Dad liked opera and classical music as well. And being born in 1962 you were absorbing all that stuff from 1965 and certainly ‘66 onwards. I remember the radio clearly. It was always on – the (BBC’s) Light Programme and then Radio 1. And it was just … I’m a very lucky man!

“The other thing about my family and the way I was brought up, was also just being born at that time, when the schools still seemed to have enough books. Looking back, Dad grew up in the War, and then my kids were brought up in a very different world. And I think I was luckiest of the lot, to be honest.”

I have my own family links to nearby St Ives and spent many a holiday at the turn of this century with my own family just across the water from Hayle.

“It’s a lovely part of the world. I’ll never tire of it. I’ve only been back a couple of times since we left – a couple of times for gigs and once on holiday. We played the Hall for Cornwall and that place they used to have at St Austell.”

Cornwall Coliseum?

“Yeah, the one they had on the beach. But there’s a bad memory of that from the time we played it, as it was the night of Lockerbie. It was our last show of the tour before the end of the year, and Tom, the tour manager – who’s still with us – said, ‘It’s gonna be a bit slow – there’s a plane crash just on the other side of the border, so we’re gonna have to take a diversion.’ So all those memories come back.”

Twin Engines: Charlie, left, and Craig Reid, back with their 11th studio album (Photo: Murdo McLeod)

Where’s home now?

“Home is Edinburgh, Newington. The kids are all grown up and everybody’s living on their now or with partners. And I’ve just become a grandfather for the first time, a month ago.”

Boy or girl?

“A girl – thank God! Three sons and then … it’s amazing.”

We then started talking about children and I mentioned how my eldest daughter, now 18, was very impressed at me interviewing Charlie, as a fairly recent convert to the Sunshine on Leith film. So on that subject, I asked him about the day playwright and screenwriter Stephen Greenhorn came to him with the idea for the musical on behalf of Dundee Repertory Theatre. Could he see its potential?

“Erm … I checked the diary at first to see it wasn’t an April Fool. I’ve met the writer many times over the years, and he said he’d literally been on the whisky one night and jotted the idea down. It’s nuts! When he suggested it, I said, ‘Ah, come on!’ I thought they’d work up 20 or 30 minutes of material, then abandon the idea quietly. But it went on, and it’s just gone on and on.

“They did another run – some  dates in Leeds – earlier in the year and then brought it up to Scotland for a few days, and they’re talking about the West End now. So, I’ve been sceptical all the way down the line and I never thought any of it would work … and I’ve been proven totally wrong!”

I loved your cameo with Craig in the film, and wondered, seeing as Mamma Mia’s now had its cinematic follow-up, if there was scope for a second Sunshine on Leith movie.

“Hey look – the first idea wasn’t ours, so if another idea came along it wouldn’t be ours either! I’ll leave it at that. But if somebody’s got the determination to put it on, I’m not going to oppose it!”

The original stage musical and subsequent film must have inspired a new generation of Proclaimers fans.

“It really has. It’s rejuvenated everything we’ve been doing, because you come along and play songs, some of which are in the film, and people are getting it, and kids are getting it. From teenagers like your daughter to children with Shrek (which, like the Sunshine on Leith musical included the track, ‘I’m On My Way’) and stuff like that. It’s absolutely amazing. Yeah, it’s been nothing but good for us.”

Finally, the diary’s fairly full through to December, heading for a sell-out 47 UK shows, and in Scotland you sold out 30,000 tickets within 20 minutes of them going on sale. There’s also a 13-date coast-to-coast Canadian tour in September, their 2018 schedule finishing with December sell-outs in Belfast, Dublin, Motherwell, Stirling and Dundee. Not a bad job this, is itm Charlie?

“It’s a fantastic job! The other week when we got back from Scarborough, on the Monday I felt so tired, but it’s like, ‘I’ve got the best job you could ever had’. My old man worked on a building site all his life and he would have loved this, but never got the chance, being part of that generation. I know how lucky I am and how lucky we are. And I do appreciate it.”

Spokes Persons: The Reid twins put the finishing touches to their tour transport (Photo: Murdo McLeod)

Remaining 2018 UK live dates (sell-outs marked *, with the others selling fast): August – 11 Bournemouth Pavilion, 12 Lakefest Eastnor Castle Ledbury, 22 Isle Of Man Villa Marina Royal Hall, 24 Carfest South, 25  Towersey Festival Thame; October – 10  Cardiff St Davids Hall, 11 Norwich  Theatre Royal*, 13 Blackburn King George’s Hall,  14  Liverpool Empire, 16  Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, 17  York Barbican*,  18 Newcastle City Hall*,  20 Hull City Hall, 21 Sheffield City Hall,  23 Leicester De Montfort Hall, 24  Southend Cliffs Pavilion, 25 Portsmouth Guild Hall,  27 Bath Forum, 28 Brighton Dome, 29 Birmingham Symphony Hall, 31 Cambridge Corn Exchange*; November – 1 London  Palladium, 2 Coventry WAC, 4 Manchester Opera House, 9/10 Edinburgh Playhouse**,  5 Dunfermline Alhambra*,  16/17 Glasgow Academy**,  22 Perth Concert Hall*, 23  Inverness Leisure Centre*, 24  Aberdeen BHGE Arena*, 29 Ipswich Regents Theatre,  30 Basingstoke Anvil*; December – 1 Hastings White Rock, 7 Belfast Ulster Hall*, 8 Dublin  Vicar Street*, 13 Motherwell Town Hall*, 14 Stirling Albert Hall*, 15 Dundee Caird Hall*.

For ticket details, further information about the tour and how to get hold of the Angry Cyclist album, head to the official website or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter

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Examining Extraordinary Times – exploring James’ world with Saul Davies

Light Fantastic: James, coming to a town near you. And you can't say Better Than That.

Light Fantastic: James, coming to a town near you. And you can’t say Better Than That.

After 19 UK top-40 singles and 14 top-40 albums in 32 years, you’d think North West outfit James might be happy enough just playing their greatest hits these days. Not a bit of it though. For while this Manchester success story are set to double-up with fellow regional ambassadors The Charlatans later this year, neither outfit are eyeing up the retro heritage circuit yet.

These days an eight-piece, the band are following a recent sell-out mini-tour and on-going festival appearances with a joint UK arena tour with their old Cheshire comrades in December, plugging a 15th studio album, one which suggests there’s still plenty of fuel in the tank.

The release of Living in Extraordinary Times follows the ‘Better Than That’ EP and second single ‘Hank’, both tracks included on an album produced by Mercury/Brit award-winner Charlie Andrew (alt-J, Wolf Alice) and Beni Giles.

It’s James’ first new music since 2016 album Girl at the End of the World, which was only denied a No.1 on the week of its release by Adele, their highest debut entry in nearly 20 years. But perhaps that’s not so surprising for such an iconic outfit steeped in critical and commercial success, having sold more than 25 million albums worldwide.

As their publicity team put it, the new album ‘delivers the same vigour and urgency as its predecessors, a fusion of social commentary and personal reflection, covering everything from the current political climate in America in the frustration-charged ‘Hank’ to the lonesome Father’s Day in the heartfelt ‘Coming Home (Pt. 2)’, the latter track featuring keyboards from long-time collaborator Brian Eno. And as front-man Tim Booth has it, explaining the underlying concept of the new record, ‘We knew something was up when Leicester City won the league, then Brexit, then Trump. It’s as if we’d slipped into an alternate reality, a Philip K Dick reality. We are living in extraordinary times.’

My first couple of listens to the album were enough to assure me James remain switched on, something underlined by 15 minutes in the company of guitarist/ violinist/ percussionist Saul Davies. And that came through straight away when I started out by asking, seeing as I was tearing him away from his bandmates, if they were rehearsing for their ongoing live dates that mid-morning.

“No, we’re doing some writing for our 733rd album. We started writing it in the medieval ages … around the maypole. Actually, you’re not going to like this, but we’re in a house in Yorkshire … ‘Band found dead in hills’.”

Doesn’t bother me. You’re not going to like this, either, I told him, as I’m a geographically-challenged Surrey lad who just happens to live in Lancashire. Anyway, moving on, I suggested that James set a precedent with that method of back-to-back writing sessions with their previous two albums, seemingly going from 2014’s La Petite Mort straight into writing the Girl at the End of the World album.

“No, we just need to grab the time that we get together …”

At that point it got a little noisy on the line, the chinking of crockery causing Saul to temporarily lose his thread.

“Erm, sorry, Mark’s just decided to use that time to make a noise emptying the dishwasher.”

That’s pianist/keyboard player Mark Hunter, like Saul a 1989 recruit to Team James, his rattling of cups and plates soon complemented by a little nonchalant whistling.

“Yeah, welcome to James’ domestic bliss. If I go outside, I get the sound of sheep, and it’s drizzling a bit out there. And in the kitchen here, Jim’s just made me a nice cup of coffee (2016 WriteWyattUK interviewee/ James founder member and bass player Jim Glennie) while Mark’s decided that’s a good idea. I tell you what – omelettes all-round, I think.”

I see that as a call to down tools, and tell Saul I seem to recall the last two albums were devised in the Scottish Highlands, so they’ve moved down the UK map a little this time.

“Actually, the next writing session we do will be in the north of Scotland again. But this album we did entirely in Sheffield, writing it and then going back to record. A place called Yellow Arch Studios.”

The album started life during jam sessions there, and was finished at Iguana Studios in Brixton, with Beni Giles already working with the band on creating a new rhythmical approach when Charlie Andrew joined the project, after being blown away by the band live.

Charlie recently explained, “This album is full of big tunes. Tim and the guys are all very good at writing huge hooks. There’s some really big, energetic tracks and some nice, chilled ones; and there are some monstrous tracks, like ‘Hank’, which is just vast, with layers and layers of drums”.

While it’s Scotland next, they’ve only made it around 90 miles north so far from Sheffield, into the heart of North Yorkshire. Where’s the link there?

“There isn’t one really, other than we needed somewhere big enough to have a room we could work in – four of us – and ended here, this amazing place in Swaledale. It’s beautiful, a new part of the world to us, and one we all really like.”

You have room to breathe there, presumably.

“Yeah. We make a bit of noise – not a vast amount, but we make a bit of noise – and need to be somewhere relatively secluded so we can get on with it.”

Taking the general tone of the new album, Living in Extraordinary Times, are you fairly positive about where we are right now, despite these dark days of austerity, political uncertainty, and all that? If nothing else, this malaise and anger at what’s coming to pass at least seems to make us think things can’t get much worse, surely.

“Oh, I think things could get worse, but I suppose we need to try and make sure things don’t get worse.”

So, it’s more about being a driving force for positive change, maybe?

“Well, it’s clear that there’s lots of mad stuff going on. There usually is, but it does seem that it’s even madder than usual. And that’s not just confined to America and Trump. We’ve our own issues here.”

The video for ‘Hank’, filmed live at Halifax’s Victoria Theatre, showcases the passion and emotion continuing to drive the band’s performances. And when Tim Booth sings, ‘This crackhead’s tiny fingers, accusing you of what he’ll do, white fascists in the White House, more beetroot in your Russian stew,’ and ‘A jester prancing like a fool, In jest digest the monster, this president’s a dangerous tool,’ there are no prizes for guessing who’s he’s directing his tirade at.

But flipping the coin, to a degree, we then have the positive drive of previous single, ‘Better Than That’, a typically-inspirational James anthem. Is the over-riding message to Keep on Pushing, as Curtis Mayfield’s Impressions put it?

“Yeah, probably. As we touched on, we write by getting a room, just jamming and making a noise together, then blending songs within that. We don’t set out with a plan. Whatever comes, happens really. I think if we were more planned, sometimes it might be tempting to think we’d make better records … and we don’t.”

Live Presence: Tim Booth and Saul Davies, getting up close and personal at the Leeds Arena with James in 2016 (Photo copyright: http://www.traceywelch.co.uk/)

I could take issue with that, and although I’d only managed a first listen to the album at that stage, a few tracks came straight at me, not least those already mentioned. And the strength of the last LP and what I’d heard so far suggests they remain in a rich vein of form. For one thing, I’d woken up the morning we spoke with ‘Nothing But Love’ in my head, for no apparent reason.

“Ah, it’s reared its head again! And what I think you’re alluding to there is that we’re in our 37th year and what you and I are discussing here is about songs we’ve just made. It’s really refreshing and really heartening to me that I’m in a position whereby we’re not having to talk about ‘Sit Down’ and all that. I think that’s testament to the fact that we have pushed it, and we are moving forward.

“I think it’s great that we’re able to do that so convincingly. If we think about it, the tendency is for bands as they get older and older not necessarily to lose their spark but for the business around them to try  to make them keep everything safe – get into the arenas, do the greatest hits, then go home to their castles. But our attitude is that we must make new music … otherwise we’re dead.”

Which brings me on to you hiring producer Charlie Andrew, best known for his work in recent years with fellow past WriteWyattUK double-interviewees alt-J and Wolf Alice. And ‘Hank’ certainly has a big sound equated with both bands. So do you still tend to immerse yourself in new music?

“Oh yes. I mean, there’s a lot of us in James, and a lot of tastes, but I’d say we listen to a healthy mixture of our old favourites and new stuff that’s flying around.”

When you start to jam on a new composition, do you tend to start with something – for instance, a cover version – that you’ve not necessarily tackled live before, to inspire you towards something of your own?

“Erm, no, what we literally do is that Mark will fire a drum machine pattern into the room and we all just start making a noise, all fishing around for a few minutes as we get into working out which chord we’re going to start with …”

If you were hoping for the secret of James’ longevity to be revealed and further insight into the band’s creative process there, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed, as my digital recorder gave up the ghost at that point, and I only realised 30 or so seconds later. A lengthy answer followed, but Saul’s secrets remain intact, as my memory is like a sieve when I don’t write anything down. Just ask my better half.

Soon, I interrupt Saul and ask – slightly embarrassed – if it’s okay to sort out my technical issues and get straight back to him. And he’s good enough (a) to agree, and (b) to bother answering the phone when I called again, at which point I decided to go back to his earliest recollections of joining the band instead of pursuing that songwriting line. But I asked first if equipment failure ever troubled James in the studio.

Hat’s Entertainment: James, 2018 style, reflecting Living in Extraordinary Times

“Well, yeah. All sorts of stuff happens, and sometimes all sorts of stuff doesn’t happen that should happen!”

So let’s go back to that Band on the Wall show in Manchester when Larry Gott (guitar/ keyboard/ flute, 1985–95, 2001, 2007–2015) first saw you. Clear memories of that night?

“Of course! That was amazing.”

Who were you playing with at the time?

“I wasn’t with a band. I just went as a punter. I’d moved away from Manchester a few months before and was working down South, but went up with my girlfriend, and she put my violin in the back of her car. We got to the Band on the Wall quite a lot, they were inviting people to get up and play that night, and Rebecca said, ‘Get your violin and go up on stage’. I said I hadn’t got it, and she said, ‘Erm, no, I put it in the car’. So I did.

“It was weird though. I only played one note – a G. I was trying to be as unmusical as possible. I don’t know why I remember it so clear, and I haven’t thought about this for years, but nine different people came up to me that night and said, ‘Do you want to be in a band?’ And I said, ‘No, no, no. I don’t want to be in a band. What are you talking about?’”

It must have been a hell of a G you played.

“Yeah, it was! And the last one forward was Larry, and he goes, ‘Do you want to be in a proper band?’ I thought, ‘Oh, that sounds interesting.’ So the next day I went for a jam with them.”

Was that a nerve-racking experience?

“Not in the slightest, because I didn’t want to be in a band. It was nonsense really. Weird as hell. I thought, ‘I don’t like this lot. They’re mad!’ But actually, everyone wants to be in a band or wants to be a footballer, yet no one truly gets to be a footballer or gets to be in a band … so what an unbelievable privilege. That was 1989, and I’m now in my 30th year with James.”

What came first for you? Violin or guitar?

“Violin. I was playing from when I was about eight, but it took me a while to unlearn all that training. And I only use it occasionally now.”

I’m guessing that training did help you come at everything from a different angle at first though.

“The thing is, it’s not an instrument used in a band unless you’re in a folk band, so I tread carefully with that. But it has got an amazing sound, and when you hear someone who knows what they’re doing playing violin, it’s quite something.

“I love the guitar though, and have an unseen and unheralded attribute with the guitar, which I love doing. I’m not a very technical player and don’t find all that exciting, but I’m really good at holding down a beat – I play drums as well – and I love hearing guitars that are just on it and just drive.”

At that point, we get on to recent WriteWyattUK interviewee and fellow violinist Jim Lea, telling Saul how the Slade legend chose to play bass – despite being a great guitarist – in an attempt to try to keep more in the shadows than he would if he’d chosen otherwise.

“Oh, interesting. Cool. Really cool.”

However, it appears that Saul has no such problem in taking the limelight now and again.

“Doing these shows in the arenas in December, imagine the buzz of standing in front of 15,000 or however many people on something I start on a guitar, like ‘Tomorrow’, and it just drives. I pick up my guitar and start playing, and I’ll see 15,000 people move. It’s a remarkable process.”

And you have a reputation as something of an orchestrator out there on stage, one to get the crowd going a bit.

“Erm … I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t do it deliberately. I don’t think about it. I just recognise that having the opportunity to do what we do – our job – is amazing. It comes with its down-sides, like all jobs do, but I tend not to dwell on those things.”

And talking of those December dates, co-headliners The Charlatans are a band that have shared the scene with you for many years, going right back. Is it good to be on a bill with them again?

“Yeah, and I admire The Charlatans. They’re a really good band and really know what they’re doing. There’s not that many of us in truth who, despite our longevity and catalogue, continue making new music. I think that’s the key. Not every album is going to be amazing and not everything is going to work, but you must try. And while the lights of creativity are undimmed, you just strike. Because we’re creating our legacy.

“Sometimes we’re standing together in a room, making a noise, like we will be later today, and some of the time I think about my kids and the fact that when I’m gone it’s these moments that I’m literally creating now in this room that will end up on a record, and they’ll have that. That might sound a bit maudlin, or weird. But it’s not meant to. That’s my legacy. And I like to think of my legacy as being important to the people who are most important to me.”

So how old are your children?

“I have an 11-year-old daughter and a son about to turn 17.”

Are either of them following you into music?

“Erm, well, we’re writing an album together at the moment, the three of us, and I think we’re going to record it. As the year goes on and into early next year, in the workspace I’ve set up in my barn in the wilderness in the Scottish Highlands. I live there with my kids, and they get to see their Mum, who lives abroad, on holidays, but mainly they’re with me.

“We have this rather strange life together and we’ve been writing together. We even did a mini-gig recently, playing 15 or so minutes to 70 or 80 people in our village hall, which was really cool … and a little nerve-racking!”

So it seems that the Davies family are on the march, just as James continue to do. Watch this space, I reckon.

Extraordinary Types: James remain pleased to meet you, all these years on.

Living in Extraordinary Times – its sleeve created by contemporary artist and ex-Vivienne Westwood designer Magnus Gjoen, whose work ties in with the album’s themes, ‘exploring the space between politics and tranquillity’ – is available on CD, download, cassette and heavyweight double vinyl, plus a hardback-booked deluxe CD featuring 4 extra songs (three demos plus another session track). HMV and independent stores will also stock a limited grey gatefold package featuring double magenta-coloured vinyl. Meanwhile, for details of exclusive signed bundles and a limited yellow gatefold package featuring double white coloured vinyl, head here

Following their recent seven-date sold out UK tour, revisiting intimate venues across the country, James have already played six festivals this summer, including dates in Portugal and Spain plus Kendal Calling, and this month headline Linlithgow’s Party at the Palace (Saturday, August 11th), Scarborough Open Air Theatre (Saturday, August 18th), and Dumfries Electric Fields (Thursday, August 30th). Then come those dates with The Charlatans at Glasgow Hydro (Wednesday, December 5th), Wembley Arena (Friday, December 7th), Manchester Arena (Saturday, December 8th), and Leeds Arena (Sunday, December 9th). For tickets, information and all the latest from James, try www.wearejames.com and follow the band on Facebook and Twitter.

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Raindrops splash rainbows – revisiting the Lightning Seeds with Ian Broudie


Headline Act: Lightning Seeds, 2018 style, with Ian Broudie second left, heading to Saddleworth, Portsmouth, Penrith, Solihull, Bradford, Knebworth, Blackheath …

It’s been a happening summer for Ian Broudie, back in the limelight with the ‘Three Lions’ single amid a number of festival and studio commitments, topping the charts for a third time on the back of a successful England World Cup campaign.

And while it turned out that football didn’t quite make it home – the VAR team unmoved as Croatia snuffed out England’s chances of ending 52 years of hurt (debatable, I know), then France jumped in to claim their second trophy in 20 years – the occasion certainly provided a boost to the sales of David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and the Lightning Seeds’ initial 1996 hit, the Gareth Southgate feelgood factor truly evoked. Was it nice to get that complementary recognition, Ian?

“It was surprising. And it’s great really. It’s maybe just linked to how well England play, but the song feels good, and it’s great when people sing it.”

That song’s clearly stood the test of time, with new generations seemingly just as quick to adopt it.

“It’s seems to have! It was ages ago now, wasn’t it … 22 years, y’know.”

For me, it’s definitely up there among the nation’s best football songs, of which I’d have to include 1970’s ‘Back Home’ and 1982’s rather ironically-titled ‘This Time’ …

“Yeah, although I can’t say I ever play those songs. A little nostalgia, maybe, but …”

I was all set to get on to New Order’s 1990 hit, ‘World in Motion’ there, not least John Barnes’ memorable rap. He is a Liverpool fan after all. But I got the feeling Ian’s all talked out on the subject, the national media having done it all to death in the past couple of weeks while I’d patiently waited to get my audience with him.

Instead, I changed tack and asked, for all the successful material he’s been associated with, if he felt happier in the shadows … and I didn’t mean the band.

“Well, I used to be Cliff Richard … Erm … in the shadows? What do you mean?

I try again, suggesting that since there’s just one album with his name on the cover, I get the impression he’s happier to hide behind someone else, let them take the credit.

“You mean, the name Lightning Seeds? Yeah, I suppose so. I think at the time I just felt like I wanted it to be a group. That was my thought process. If I give it my name as a solo artist it can never have that same camaraderie.

“All the things I ever liked were groups really. People around me like the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, The Fall, New Order … There were very few solo artists. Initially I was looking for a singer. That was the idea … until I got to the point where I sang the songs myself.”

Did you realise around then that missing link was actually you?

“Yeah, so it wasn’t really so much what you were saying, although there’s an element of truth to that.”

Let’s just dwell on his impressive production credits for a while, because after his initial spell with short-lived Liverpool post-punk outfit Big in Japan, Ian soon proved himself a dab-hand in the studio, going on to produce records – sometimes under the name Kingbird – for many happening artists.

As early as 1980 he was listed as co-producer on the first album by John Peel favourites Original Mirrors, of whom he was a founder member, and also helped out fellow Big in Japan bandmate Bill Drummond and Teardrop Explodes keyboard player Dave Balfe with production duties on Echo and the Bunnymen’s debut album, Crocodiles. And the following year he was credited as a member of Bette Bright and the Illuminations on their sole album.

Strings Attached: Ian Broudie, still living the life of Riley’s dad, nearly three decades after his first Lightning Seeds release

By 1983, during a period in which he also recorded and wrote under the name Care with vocalist Paul Simpson, he was the sole producer of the Bunnymen’s third album, Porcupine, and two years later the Pale Fountains’ From Across the Kitchen Table, another favourite on this scribe’s turntable, while the following year saw him team up for the first time with Specials vocalist Terry Hall, producing the self-titled debut album by The Colourfield.

In 1987 Ian worked with another Liverpudlian outfit, producing The Icicle Works’ If You Want to Defeat Your Enemy Sing His Song, and was also behind The Bodines’ Played, a favourite in my Captains Log fanzine days. And 1988 included production credits on Skids’ frontman Richard Jobson’s Badman, The Fall’s glorious I Am Kurious Oranj and work with Mick Head again, this time on Shack’s debut LP Zilch.

Even when he was off and running with the Lightning Seeds, there was time to produce the likes of Frazier Chorus, the Wild Swans, Northside, The Primitives, The Katydids, Dodgy (their first two albums), Alison Moyet, the afore-mentioned Terry Hall, Sleeper, and Republica.

You may also recall his role in the BBC’s star-studded cover of Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ in 1997, and it was only after I’d spoken to Ian that I was reminded (take a bow, Richard Houghton) he also worked with The Wedding Present, producing 1992 singles ‘Silver Shorts’, ‘Come Play With Me’ and ‘California’, while supplying additional vocals on 1994’s ‘It’s a Gas’ single.

He’s added several more notable credits in the 21st century, not least those with The Coral, Texas, I Am Kloot, The Zutons, The Subways, The Rifles, The Automatic, and Miles Kane. And when it comes to working with the Lightning Seeds, there have been notable co-writes, including Terry Hall, Alison Moyet and Manic Street Preachers’ Nicky Wire. So who’s top of his studio wish-list now?

“It’s funny. I think the wish-list is for me to write this as a more … well, I‘m doing my new album at the minute, and it’s been about 15 years since I’ve really full-on tried to write for the Lightning Seeds. I did my solo album, then there was a collection of songs that came out that were really more solo songs …”

Are we talking about 2004’s rather splendid Tales Told there?

“Yeah, which was just something separate.”

I guessed that’s why you put your name on the front cover that time. It didn’t feel like a Lightning Seeds album, but something more folky.

“Well, there was Four Winds too (the most recent Lightning Seeds album, from 2009), but yeah, Tales Told was definitely a solo album. I felt like I wasn’t writing for the Lightning Seeds that time. It was all very pared down, heartfelt songs really, which was just how I felt at the time. I wasn’t playing live as Lightning Seeds. I felt it was over at that point.”

That LP certainly made an impression on me. It was down my road at Leyland Library that I picked up a copy of Tales Told, and I was quickly won over, not least by opening track ‘Song For No One’.

“Thanks. Yeah, I’m very proud of that album. I was going to do another solo album fairly quickly, but various things stopped me. I haven’t really done an album since. It’s a long time since I’ve properly thought about doing a Lightning Seeds album. I’ll probably end up co-writing a bit, but I’m trying to get the core of it as just me.”

But this one will go down as a Lightning Seeds album?

“It will. I’m writing it as the Lightning Seeds.”

You have a big birthday coming up, I see (August 4th). Does that number 60 fill you with dread, or is it just another number?

“No, it’s just a number, although I definitely feel a little bit different and it’s a kind of a landmark. It’s something you never imagine being. I think everyone imagines inside their head they’re really 18 or 19. I certainly still feel like that. It’s almost slightly embarrassing.”

Since that 2009 Lightning Seeds return, Ian has extensively toured with a line-up including Angie Pollack (piano), Martyn Campbell (guitar) – both on board since 1996’s Dizzy Heights – and Ian’s son Riley Broudie (guitar). In fact, I admitted to him that when I recently wrote about father and son outfits – inspired by The Vapors occasionally including guitarist Dan Fenton as well as Dad, David – I listed a number of esteemed examples, including Neil and Liam Finn, Lloyd and Will Cole, Johnny and Niall Marr, and so on … but forget to include Ian and Riley.

“Yeah … true!”

Is Riley a chip off the old Broudie block?

“Err, no, he’s his own man.”

He’s played with the Lightning Seeds for some time now.

“For ages really. Yeah, that’s good. I mean, the reason I started playing again really was just because we were always playing acoustic guitars, and then we ended up opening up for a couple of friends. We just did a couple of songs, and that was fun, and that just sort of led me back into playing with the Lightning Seeds.”

Time flies and it’s somehow 30 years next year since the first Lightning Seeds recordings. Was there a feeling at that point that finally big-time recognition was coming your way? Or was there never that compulsion to prove yourself?

“I don’t know … none of those things. I just felt like I was a songwriter. I was in a couple of bands before, and they just weren’t the right bands. Big in Japan was just when I was a kid really. Although that’s lived on in the memory, it was only going for three or four months.

“I then drifted into producing, and really the thought when I did the Lightning Seeds was, ‘You’re a songwriter, so you better write some songs while you can’. But at that time the bands being signed from Liverpool were real bands, like The Real People and The La’s, all people who were gigging as bands, whereas mine was really just me.

“I didn’t really have a band. I recorded it all in the house on a four-track for that first album and then continued to record at home. And gradually home became a studio. So it was very much just about putting some songs out without any thought of anything else.”

It would take you until 1994, the year of immense success with the Jollification album, for him to get a touring band together.

“Yeah, I was kind of prised out of the studio really … prised out of the house, actually. And I was very nervous about that stuff and hadn’t really sung in public. Our very first gigs and our very first tour was in front of around a thousand people. So I didn’t really get a chance to get used to it or develop. It was sort of very much in the glare of the albums.”

Conversely, last time I saw you live it was just you and a guitar plus keyboard from past Lightning Seeds employee Ali Kane at Lancaster Library, sharing a bill with Starsailor frontman James Walsh in December 2009, hidden among the books.

“Yeah, that was part of my rehabilitation, I think.”

In my pre-WriteWyattUK review at the time I described it as a ‘low-key semi-acoustic success’, Ian giving us a glittering run-through of old and new Lightning Seeds songs and solo material, even sharing a stage with James and Ali on Bob Dylan’s wondrous ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’. Does he tend to enjoy the small and intimate gigs as much as the larger festival appearances (with several of those lined up this summer) these days?

“Well, y’know, I wouldn’t want to play a festival with just my guitar. That’s for sure. But there is something really nice about them. It just becomes something else. When you play something like that library gig, it’s as a songwriter doing his songs. And it’s something different when it’s a band playing.”

I can still recall the first time I heard and loved debut Lightning Seeds single, ‘Pure’, now safely tucked away in one of my 45s boxes. And the subsequent Cloudcuckooland album was still getting plenty of plays on my Walkman (yes, I’m that old) by the time I headed off on my world travels at the end of 1990.

OMD’s Andy McCluskey and the Icicle Works’ Ian McNabb had a hand in that debut Lightning Seeds album, the latter also supplying vocals on the next two LPs. Which made me think – my interviewee’s not only appeared in Liverpool bands, but he’s also worked with a lot on the production side, and there’s clearly a certain feel about many of those acts. Has he ever tried to work out what that vibe is about, or is he too close to the product to have that clarity?

“Well, all those bands are quite different, aren’t they? So maybe the thread is me … I don’t know. From the Pale Fountains to the Bunnymen to The Coral there’s … I can’t tell.”

OK, that was a bit of an impossible question really. It’s not just a Liverpool thing anyway. Those production credits also included Dodgy, Terry Hall, and The Primitives, by way of three examples. Of all those credits, which record gives you the most pride in being involved?

“Difficult to say really. When you’re producing, it’s not really about you. it’s about the band you’re producing. So it would have to be for my own records, really. There’s a lot more of me in them.”

You’re a keen Liverpool football fan (he’s endorsed the Justice for the ’96 and Support the Liverpool Dockers campaigns, and the Lightning Seeds headlined 1997’s Hillsborough Justice Concert). Are you an Anfield regular these days?

“Not as regular as I used to be. But I’ve got a season ticket, so whenever I can, I’m there really.”

These days I see you tend to float between Liverpool and London. So where do you call home?

“Nowhere! I’ve always been a bit of a wanderer.”

Have you got studios at both?

“I had a studio in Liverpool until very recently, but I haven’t right now. I just work in the house again – like when I started. I’m taking it right back to when I started.”

Is it like a Lennon and McCartney thing, but with you sat opposite a cut-out of yourself writing a song on an acoustic guitar?

“Yeah. A bit of a lonely Lennon.”

Finally, if you had a chance to go back in time and talk to the teenage Ian Broudie, playing with Big in Japan alongside the likes of future Holly Johnson and Bill Drummond, what advice might you offer him?

“Erm …. relax … in the words of Holly.”

Lightning Conductor: Ian Broudie, out on tour and busy in the studio this year with the Lightning Seeds

The Lightning Seeds are set to headline the Cotton Clouds Festival at Saddleworth Cricket Club, Greenfield, Oldham, on Friday, August 17th, with support led by the Pigeon Detectives and Badly Drawn Boy, while Sister Sledge, Starsailor and Toploader top the Saturday, August 18th bill. For more details try the festival’s website or Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

The band then head to the Victorious Festival, Southsea, Hampshire (Friday, August 24th); Solfest, Aspatria, Cumbria (Saturday, August 25th); Solihull Summer Fest, West Midlands (Sunday, August 26th); Bingley Music Live, West Yorkshire (Friday, August 31st), Cool Britannia Festival, Knebworth, Hertfordshire (Saturday, September 1st); and On Blackheath, South East London (Sunday, September 9th). For more details head to their official Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages, or the Lightning Seeds website.

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Celebrating The Day I Was There – the Neil Cossar interview

Cheaters Prosper: Neil Cossar, left, on stage with The Cheaters at the Cavern in Liverpool

Music was always a passion for Neil Cossar, from teenage years learning guitar and dropping by at a record stall on Stockport Market through to minor early ’80s success with his band, a move into radio and establishing his This Day in Music brand in the ’90s, then a 21st-century shift into publishing.

And in the month he reaches a landmark birthday, Reddish-born Neil is celebrating the release of the latest The Day I Was There publication, collating fans’ recollections of seeing Bruce Springsteen live.

That follows involvement with several other ‘I Was There’ publications – collected and edited by Neil or fellow WriteWyattUK interviewee Richard Houghton, previous subjects including David Bowie, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and Pink Floyd, bringing together fans’ accounts from across the world, this latest This Day in Music Books title following The Boss from late ‘60s intimate gigs in his native New Jersey through to sell-out 2018 one-man shows on Broadway, with several UK visits catalogued en route.

As with previous books in the series, it’s the early tales that interest me most, and while Bruce never seems to have lost that personal touch with an adoring audience, recollections of those formative gigs are all the more compelling – taking us back to his pre-Born to Run era. And by then Neil was already sitting up and taking notice.

“I first became aware of Bruce Springsteen when working for HMV Records in Manchester. I worked on the shrink-wrapping machine in the days when all vinyl was still covered that way, and this sounds really sad but I really enjoyed that side of the job.

Big Impression: Bruce Springsteen’s second album soon took Neil Cossar’s eye

“All these new records would come in and I would see the same sleeves maybe 20 times and wonder what they’d sound like. That was the case with Little Feat, Jackson Browne, and Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle, and I’d be intrigued and check it out, and soon appreciated what a great songwriter Bruce was.

“And when it came to this book, I was quite surprised as I started reading accounts from fans at his openness and interaction at gigs and backstage, some of which were an eye-opener. He’s unique for an artist of his stature in that respect. David Bowie would always talk to fans and sign autographs, but there wasn’t that level of audience participation. So many big artists now do a world tour, play the hits and do the same set every night, but Springsteen’s shows involve this huge back-catalogue of great songs and covers which he can play at the drop of a hat, even when someone just holds a sign up requesting one.”

Although it’s Bruce’s name on the cover, this book’s as much about his regular backing outfit, the E Street Band, with many a poignant recollection of the late Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, and co.

“Totally. And again, I think it’s a sign of a good person to work for that he has the same band members for so long. At one stage during his career when he didn’t tour for some time he gave every member of that band a significant amount as a bonus. I’ve never heard of anyone else doing that.”

As well as his previous book in the series, the fans’ take on Bob Dylan, Neil first took on a David Bowie: I Was There book in 2017 for Red Planet, before going it alone. And again that subject was chosen for good reason for a devoted Bowie fan.

“That was also just a joy to work on, and the fans paint such a great picture of someone I see as one of the greatest artists of our time. ‘Space Oddity’ was one of the first singles I bought. I’d go to a second-hand ex-jukebox stand on Stockport Market while helping with the groceries with my Mum and sister on a Saturday morning. I would always disappear, go to this stall and look through the singles.

Flagship Book: Neil’s This Day in Music book has already seen three editions.

“I’d heard ‘Space Oddity’ on the radio and it was one of those records of our generation that I played over and over again. I couldn’t quite figure out what all the sounds were, and the way he painted a picture with the lyrics of being in outer space floating in a tin can … as a young eight or nine-year-old it was real theatre of the mind for me. Much later in my career in PR I ended up working on his Earthling tour, going to five of those dates, and seeing him live was just amazing. I stuck with him all the way, and the last two albums were exceptional.”

These days Neil is based in Prestatyn, North Wales, with his partner, Liz Sanchez, the pair also running radio, TV and online promotions firm Absolute PR, boasting (albeit subtly) a mightily-impressive list of past and present clients. But what do we call him – author or owner/publisher?

“I don’t really class myself as an author. The Day I Was There books are written by the fans. But I feel very fortunate that I’ve always worked in the music business. From that first job at HMV to being a professional in a band, making three albums and being fairly unsuccessful but making a living out of it, then working in radio and moving into PR, which then evolved into being a book publisher with the This Day in Music website … it’s all been music.”

So how about his brush with fame? He plays his band days down and reminds us how The Cheaters ‘never troubled the charts’, but there was major label backing and even a cult following in Scandinavia. Was he playing guitar at an early age?

“I was. My Dad was a guitarist in a jazz dance band just after the war, and I was always interested and really wanted a guitar. I bought one off a friend’s brother when I was nine and Dad showed me a few basic chords. He was also into electronics and built me a little guitar amp and made me a pick-up for my acoustic guitar. I’d play along with the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Bowie, you name it.

“I formed my first band, Zenith, when I was 14 and did my first gig at that age in a pub in Macclesfield. I had various bands until I formed a band called The Cheaters with a guy called Mick Brophy from London. He’d been in a (punk) band called Trash, on Polydor Records, then moved up North with his job.”

Coss Cuts: The Cheaters on record, with their sixth single, Confidante, from 1983.

That link came after Mick put an advert in the NME in late ’78 looking to form a band in Manchester to play ‘1979-style R’n’B’. Neil answered, his band Idiot Rouge having just lost drummer John Doyle to Magazine and singer-songwriter Nick Simpson to Nottingham University, later to form John Peel favourites 23 Jewels, leaving just John Martin (bass) and Neil (guitar/vocals). soon, the new trio recruited drummer Mike Juckes and The Cheaters were born.

“We ended up being firm favourites on the live scene, supporting all sorts of bands like Dr Feelgood, The Q-Tips, The Piranhas, and The Psychedelic Furs, and did quite a few gigs with the John Peel Roadshow. We signed with Parlophone (in 1981), made three albums and did several Radio 1 sessions, finding our own special niche in Scandinavia, touring there around seven times, going over for six weeks at a time. Happy days!”

In fact, Radio 1 once labelled Neil’s four-piece outfit ‘the hardest working band in Britain’, having completed more than 340 gigs in one year, building up a large UK fan-base during the early ’80’s amid those three albums and various singles, while recording Radio 1 sessions for Mike Read, Kid Jensen, Janice Long and Tommy Vance, plus Piccadilly Radio’s Mark Radcliffe. And that Scandi adoration? Apparently the editor of a leading Norwegian music magazine put them on the front cover, proclaiming they were ‘better than Man United’, The Cheaters during one tour of that region becoming the first UK band in over 10 years to play gigs above the Arctic Circle.

You can find out a lot more about The Cheaters via their Facebook page. It’s a bit late, I guess, but they’re well worth checking out all the same. And as it turned out, Zenith didn’t turn out to be Neil’s zenith, so to speak.

“It certainly didn’t. Actually, I was in some bands with great names, also including Frumious Bandersnatch, named after a Lewis Carroll line.”

The latter was in tribute to the Jabberwocky poem, although to be fair it had already been half-inched by a late-’60s Californian psychedelic rock band who went on to form the basis of the Steve Miller Band. But that’s by the by. Carry on, Neil.

The Boss: The latest This Day in Music Books release, featuring fans’ tales of Springsteen live.

“My Dad was from Scotland and his band were called The Treble Clefs. That’s how he met my mother actually, doing a gig in Dunoon where she happened to be in the audience. They got talking, and there you go!”

These days Neil has three sons of his own, ‘scattered across the North West’, albeit none of them following him into the music business, all having ’proper jobs’ instead. But how did the idea for his website come about?

“I started working in radio – reluctantly – in 1990, for KFM Radio in Manchester, a pirate radio station that was one of the very first new incremental stations awarded a licence by the Thatcher Government. Craig Cash was one of the presenters, as well as Caroline Aherne, Terry Christian and Jon Ronson, and for the first few months it was fantastic. We played what we wanted and the Manchester scene was taking off.

“We’d have The Charlatans in, Noel Gallagher gave his very first radio interview with Craig, we had Radiohead in session, their very first, again with Craig, plus James, The Mock Turtles, Shaun Ryder …  everybody came through the doors.”

You can add to that list Blur and Lenny Kravitz too, among others. Anyway, keep going, Neil.

Broadcast Days: Neil Cossar’s KFM station bio. Looking good for someone born in Victoria’s reign

“I wanted to work in radio, but didn’t want to be a presenter, but one Sunday morning the presenter phoned in sick and I happened to be the closest and got called in to do the show.  I was terrified but could work the equipment as I was producing a couple of shows. I didn’t enjoy it at all and thought I was dreadful as a DJ, but the boss seemed to think I was okay, so I ended up presenting an evening show, five nights a week.

“I still found it very difficult to talk nonsense though, so started compiling events that had happened on ‘this day in music’, so I could talk about the Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ reaching No.1 and so on. I ended up doing it for every day of the year, acquiring a few events for every day and just happened to be talking about that to a friend in management, John Wadlow, who managed Seal. He said I should have a website. I really wasn’t aware of the internet at that point.

“This was around 1997, and we launched the site in 1999 so were very early in on all that. Nowadays it gets around 10 million page views a year. It’s very well established and I’m pleased to say it does really well and was a good move. That evolved into a This Day in Music book for the first time 10 years ago, and there have now been three editions. So I guess through that I became involved in book publishing.”

Working alongside publishing clients like Omnibus Press also helped his move into that world. And as the second half of 2018 kicks in, it’s fair to say This Day in Music Books looks to be here to stay, with many more titles at the designing and editing stage, including Richard Houghton’s  Jimi Hendrix: The Day I Was There and an official OMD biography, a fourth edition of Neil’s flagship publication, This Day in Music, Joe Schooman’s Iron Maiden biography, and a new biography of The Clash by the bloke behind WriteWyattUK. But more on all that later.

Coss Play: Neil Cossar with his beloved housemate Woody.

For details of This Day in Music, including a link to ensure a copy of Bruce Springsteen: The Day I Was There, head here




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And I thought you might like to know – the Jim Lea interview

Piano Forte: Jim Lea, still the quiet one, but happy to talk over old, new, borrowed and blue times.

It’s not, erm, everyday you get to talk to a childhood hero, but Jim Lea definitely falls into that category for me.

I was barely four when his band scored the first of six UK No.1 singles with ‘Coz I Luv You’ in late 1971, but my older brother was soon blasting lots of Slade out in our bedroom. What’s more, teen magazine coverage and Top of the Pops appearances ensured the megaphone-voiced guitarist Noddy Holder, lead guitarist/garish clothes-horse Dave Hill, gum-chewing drumming legend Don Powell, and multi-talented bass player/ violinist/ pianist Jim were as good as housemates to me.

The latter was always deemed the best musician, but also the quiet one. And that never changed. He never looked to stand out, and I guess that was relatively easy when Messrs. Hill and Holder shared the same stage. In fact, that’s why he chose to play bass rather than guitar, in a bid to just get on with it and put the music first. So I was mightily surprised when word reached me that he was up for an interview, plugging new EP, ‘Lost in Space’.

That release comes barely eight months after a triumphant return to Bilston’s Robin 2 in the heart of the band’s old Black Country heartland, Jim starring in an emotional Q&A session at the R&B club where he also staged a rare live appearance in 2002, a decade after the Lea-Holder songwriting team finally called time on the band that made their name.

What’s more, we ended up on the phone nearly an hour, Wolverhampton-born Jim proving to be one of my most engaging and definitely entertaining interviewees over the years.

It had been a shaky start, mind, my ice-breaking opening question met with a jocular response by this talented singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Perhaps it was just early nerves, but he quickly homed in on a rather awkward, ‘Where do I find you today, Jim?’ In essence, I might as well have said, ‘Hi Jim, when are you, Nod, Dave and Don getting back together again?’

He was parked up outside his gym – ‘just down the road ‘ from his rural South Staffordshire base – after a work-out, part of his on-going mission to regain full fitness after treatment for prostate cancer, having been diagnosed in 2014. And his energy levels appear to be on their way up again, Jim throwing my initial enquiry back with exaggerated quaintness, asking, ‘Where do I find you, kind sir?’ He was soon rolling though. And rocking.

“I just ate a couple of boiled eggs with spinach, and there’s an article I’m reading about creepy-crawlies, how without them we wouldn’t exist. So there you are, that’s how you find me, Malcolm!”

“I’ve got to get my testosterone back, so have to come to the gym, push myself to the limit so I don’t keep falling asleep all the time.”

Does music help you on the path towards recovery?

“Music? Well, not really. That’s just something that’s been around the whole of my life. It’s just there, you know. Especially songwriting. Once you’ve realised you can do it, I don’t think you can really stop. It’s essential.”

For some older musicians – Jim recently turned 69 – live performance helps keep them young, I suggest. But he’s – how can I put this? – hardly been a gig regular since quitting Slade.

“Ha ha! Well, the thing is, Malcolm, I don’t know how much you know about me, but I was always very low-key in the band, but did do one gig in 2002 that I can’t get away from, at the Robin Hood R’n’B club in Bilston.”

I butt in there and tell him I have my copy of the CD of that performance in front of me, part of a rather splendid gatefold version of his defining 2009 album, Therapy, billed under his Sunday name, James Whild Lea. And there’s a lot of energy on that recording, I suggest.

“I only ever played with energy. I was always loud .,.. and proud. But that gig – they still get phone calls at the club 16 years later, seeing if I’m coming back.”

You did go back for a recent Q&A session, didn’t you?

“Ah, you do know your stuff … yeah, I did. But that was a bit of a strange thing. I’d never done anything like that in my life. The only thing I’d done was stand up and talk to the crowd 16 years ago. Funny thing is that I’ve found some more footage, not great, but you can hear what I’m playing. At the end, I say to the audience, ‘I bet you’ve been wondering where I’ve been since Slade split. Well, it’s to get away from you lot! They then laugh, and I say, ‘You think I’m joking?’

“So I said to the audience when I walked on this time, ‘Guess what? I said that 16 years ago and here I am again, talking to you lot again!”

Did you recognise some of the faces out there?

“Yeah, and I was mobbed on the way in and on the way out.”

They’d probably been queuing out in sleeping bags for 16 years, just in case you changed your mind and put on a repeat-performance.

“Ha ha! I tell you what, I wouldn’t be surprised with some of them. It’s amazing. They were about 30 deep. I was properly mobbed … more than I was in the days of the band. They were shoving things to sign in my face and all that. I had to get my arms in the air to sign anything, I was getting so squashed. They were from Moscow, Sweden … all over.”

Perhaps they got a flight over from Denmark with Don Powell.

“Ha! I didn’t see Don there.”

Maybe he was hiding at the back, chewing gum in the 31st row.

“Yeah. Well, some of them had come from a long way away.”

Far, far away, to be precise (I didn’t add). When Slade finally split in 1992, after more than a quarter-century of sterling public service, Noddy Holder went on to an array of media engagements, from radio presenting to writing (notably 1999 autobiography Who’s Crazee Now) and TV cameos, including his memorable acting role as Mr Holder in cult ITV comedy drama The Grimleys (1997/2001), Coronation Street (2000), Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere (2004), and even Bob the Builder (2001). Listeners to Stuart Maconie and Mark Radcliffe’s BBC radio shows also got to hear him a lot, and Nod’s occasionally out on the road talking about his illustrious career with the latter.

Meanwhile, Dave and Don, both previously interviewed on this site (see links at the end), have also written accounts of their story (Dave with So Here It Is last year and Don with Look Wot I Dun in 2013), still touring as Slade and remaining as busy to this day around the world, having been out there without Nod and Jim longer than they were with them. Yep, there’s a  staggering thought.

As for Jim, he seemed to just happily step back to the South Staffordshire countryside to write and record on his own, away from the spotlight. But there seems to have been a slight shift of late. Does he keep in touch with his old bandmates?

“We’ve all lost contact with one another, which is by the by, really. It’s okay for me though, because I‘ve always been writing and sticking things down on tape recorders or whatever was there at the time – computers and what-not. And I always play all my own instruments, so I’m self-supporting!”

What do you head for first when writing songs? Piano? Guitar?

“I used to write on the piano … but then I found it was much better to use some paper.”

I fell for that. But while he’s a joker, he’s also an amazing musican, first shining on violin in the Staffordshire Youth Orchestra. Did that very different world provide a good grounding for him?

“To tell you the truth, with the violin playing, my Grandad was the leader of the orchestra at the Hippodrome in Wolverhampton, mainly in the variety days. He died a horrible death of throat cancer, and I was born nine months to the day after. Actually, I was a month late coming out – I must have been gripping on the womb walls. I was reluctant even then!

“Anyway, my Mum said to me when I was about nine, ‘Your grandmother and I have been wondering if you might want to play violin’. I wasn’t bothered really, but went along for lessons. and though I didn’t really like them, I kind of picked it up, and was later in the youth orchestra.

“But I always felt I was a bit out of place there, listening to John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, and The Yardbirds – a bit of (Eric) Clapton. I was thinking, ‘How does he get his guitar to sound like a violin? Because he was really the first who came along in Britain who was able to bend strings to play the blues. I didn’t know anything about that. I was still at school. But I was talking to him about it at the Tommy premiere (1975) and told him I’d wanted to come down to The Marquee but was only a little kid and didn’t know how to get to London and find him, ask how he got his guitar to sound like a violin.

“He said, ‘Well, you should have come down, I would have shown you. You’re shy, like me, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m not very forthcoming’. He then said, ‘Why don’t you come around and have a play?’ But I never did.”

Well I’m sure the offer’s still there.

“Erm … I don’t know, he seemed a very nice bloke. He said he was also shy and could understand me, and how Chas ( former Animals bass player Chas Chandler, the Slade and Jimi Hendrix Experience manager) had told him what I was like. But he said, ‘You’re writing all those songs and doing a great job of it’. That was wonderful, but I wanted to get away. I didn’t want to get dragged into anything. I didn’t know if there’d be any follow-up to that, but whoever you talk to …. I’ve blanked so many people! Big names, you know.”

Well, I doubt if anyone could properly take exception. At this point I tell Jim how another band I grew to love, The Undertones, also turned out to appreciate Slade and that glam-rock era. What’s more, like Slade they came over as boys-next-door, with no hint of pretentiousness, and a little wary of other musicians, occasionally turning down encores with others nosing around backstage. And that inspired another Jim anecdote.

“Yeah, it’s really strange, because the band I joined … when I was at school, I didn’t have any equipment, but I played in a little band, and …”

Was this Nick and the Axemen?

“Yeah, it was, then we changed our name to The Stalkers, and were really into stuff like The Yardbirds and that whole burgeoning scene with John Mayall at the forefront, and the Graham Bond Organisation with Jack Bruce, and I loved all that. But I left that behind and got into Dylan, then left that behind and went into Memphis Slim. When I was that sort of age, I was moody and a bit angry, wanting people to piss off and leave me alone. I wanted to find somebody who nobody had ever heard of, and Memphis Slim was my man. I wasn’t fully grown, and looked like a child, with rosy cheeks and a bass as big as me, and in the ’60s you couldn’t go into pubs if you were a child, and I couldn’t have got away with it. But I went to see a concert where the ’N Betweens were playing.”

Fine Tuning: The pared-down ‘N Betweens in ’67. From the left – Dave Hill, Don Powell, Jim Lea, Noddy Holder (Photo: http://www.donpowellofficial.com)

They were local heroes at the time, weren’t they?

“They were, yeah. They were really fantastic. And getting back to what you were saying, the backing sounded like The Undertones. I always felt when ‘Teenage Kicks’ came on the radio, it sounded like the early ‘N Betweens. It was really pushed forward … it’s difficult to explain, but it was exciting, and the sound was really great.”

Do you remember well your ‘N Betweens audition at the Blue Flame club (on premises which later housed Club Lafayette, less than half a mile from Wolves’ Molineux base) as a 16-year-old?

“Yes, I went along with no equipment, my bass in a polythene bag, and I was the last to be  auditioned.”

Did that add to your nerves, that pressure of being last up?

“Yeah, because unbeknown to me, when I walked in there was … they had this singer, then …”

Was that Johnny Howells?

“Johnny Howells! Bloody hell, you have done your homework! He was a good singer and a really good harp player as well. They were doing all that sort of blues stuff, but it really didn’t sound like blues. It sounded very English, and this big, ‘Waahhhh!’”

Was that the Mighty Wah? I’m not sure. It sounded more like a big cat announcing himself, Jim getting into the part. And he’s still going.

“A bit like that, but a lot louder, y’know. But anyway, I walked into the Blue Flame Club and they were on stage and there was a guy who looked like a blond Mick Jagger, playing, and he was singing ‘My Girl’. And it sounded fantastic. So I was thinking, ‘Oh my God’. He went home, but unbeknown to me they’d told him he’d got the job. But then I walked up there. Don told me later, ‘We looked out there and said, ‘Is there anybody else out there?” Because when you’ve got the lights on stage, all you can see is the light and anyone right down the front. He was told, ‘There’s a little kid out there with a bass as big as him, in a polythene bag. And they agreed, ‘we’ll get him up and let him play a song, then we’ll send him home.’ Of course, they didn’t reckon with what they were going to get!”

Well, you clearly impressed.

“Yeah, well, Dave broke a string and Don said, ‘Hey mate, come over here.’ He’s got this quick wit and he said, ‘It says here you play the violin, is that right?’ I said yeah, and he said, ‘Do you play anything else?’ I said, ‘Well, a bit of piano and err ..’ and I just lied and said, ‘Oh, and the cello’, which I’d never even played. He said, ‘Ooh, cello as well?’ and I said, ‘Well, I didn’t get very far with that.’ And he said, ‘Did the spike keep sticking in your neck?’

“And I’m not kidding you, Malcolm. Imagine all the tension in me, and the nerves… whenever I tell people about this … do you know that wonderful thing when you get one of those big hour-glasses and just turn it upside down, with all the sand just coming through, going the opposite way to what it was? That’s exactly what I felt like when Don said that. It just calmed me.

“Then Dave said, ‘Hey mate, we’re just going to check out this string, and it’ll be you and me playing – quiet, no band. I wanna see if you’re bluffing, ‘cos you play really fast. But then, I wasn’t nervous at all, and just thought, ‘Bring it on, what you’ve got.’ And I think I was auditioning Dave rather than the other way around. I was playing nothing like a bass player, playing really fast, doing riffs, doing chords, doing drum parts, doing sax parts. You name it, I was doing it. But I got the job!”

I gather your Mum wasn’t so pleased at you turning down offered places at art college and the youth orchestra to join.

“Oh yeah, my Mum and my Gran didn’t like it at all, because I was really turning my back on the youth orchestra and anything like that. I got into loads of art schools. Big ones. But again, I was really nervous when the acceptances came through. I was just a little kid at those interviews, really out of my depth. But as the years went by, you’d meet all these people, in a bar somewhere, or having come to see Slade at a meet and greet. Someone said, ‘I saw you when you came to Hornsey Art College and we felt, ‘We’ve got to have this lad’. But that was a long way from home. They’d have around 200 applicants but only be taking around 20. And if you lived at a distance you’d have even less chance. So I said, ‘But you said at the time my work wasn’t any good. And he said, ‘It wasn’t that. It was just you – you were so different. We said we’ve got to have that lad here.’ And all the people I bumped into said the same thing. So I must have been scared, but must have come across in some esoteric way.”

Glammed Up: Slade in their pomp. From the left – Dave Hill, Noddy Holder, Don Powell, Jim Lea.

How long did it take your Mum to forgive you? When did she finally realise you had a ‘proper’ job after all?

“Oh, I think about two years ago! I played her something I’d written, with me playing cello, double bass, and my Mum said, ‘That sounds great, James. Do you know, you could have done something with yourself.’ So does that answer your question?”

I think it does. And what age is your Mum now then?

“She’s 93. She’s had a lot of trouble with osteoporosis and became housebound earlier on this year, out of the blue. But I’m always down there. I looked after my Dad, and I looked after my elder brother, who died of dementia.”

I saw you’d been raising funds for the Dementia UK charity – which provides specialist dementia support for families through its Admiral Nurse service – through recent events, not least through sales of the limited-edition An Audience with Jim Lea at the Robin 2 DVD.

“Well, my dad died of it and my older brother had vascular dementia, becoming difficult and violent with it. I think we’ve all been touched by it, but it’s the managing of it. Before they go into places where they can’t be managed anymore, it’s the controlling of it – giving them a life, walking around with them and all that. My Mum did it with my brother and I did it with my brother with her, because the rest of my family were all working.

“While we were on holiday, my Mother said to me, ‘James, you said you wanted to give to charity, and dementia is just sort of left somehow at the back of all these various charities. It’s a terrible thing and we’ve had two people in our family affected. Will you give them a thought?’ And I said, ‘Mum, you know what? You’re absolutely right.’ It’s a terrible thing, but the dementia charities are so glad when you give to them. And at the Robin Hood we raised just over eight grand by the time we’d finished … in just three hours.”

At this point Jim overhears my other half talking in the background and remarks on it, leading me to telling him that at 29 years together we’re still some way behind him and his beloved Louise. Is that right it’s now 45 years of married life for him?

“Erm, probably! You know a lot, Malcolm. More than me anyway. I’d have to work it out. The thing is that we got together in 1966 and didn’t even bother about the getting married bit, because we were an item, y’know … I liked her. And I was never a womaniser.”

I’m sure you were surrounded by temptation, with a lot of opportunities over the years.

“Yeah, but I was never interested. People always told me I was different, and there you are again, I suppose. I’ve been with my wife for 52 years, which must be a record in rock’n’roll terms. And the thing is, as time goes by, you change – you’re not the same people. We got together when we were 16 and 15.”

Classic Cinema: Slade In Flame, the 1975 film soundtrack

Are you suggesting it’s like meeting a new partner every few years, but staying faithful?

“Yes, my wife and I are nothing like we were when we met. I went heavily in mid-life into finding out who or what I was. And when I came out the other end, I wasn’t the person I went searching for at all.

“Did you see that documentary, Elvis Presley: The Searcher (HBO, 2018)? They’re kind of saying Elvis was always searching. And I was always searching. But I didn’t know what I was searching for, and didn’t know I was morphing into what I am now, which is nothing like I was. I now know who and what I am. And it was well worth doing. And you can hear that on Therapy too.”

Now you’re courting a few interviews, you’re bound to get those inevitable questions about band reunions, so I best not disappoint you now and miss that one out. So Jim (I drag my question out for full effect), when are you going to get The Dummies back together again?

For a short while, there’s silence at the end of the line, followed by a real belly laugh.

”That was a bit of a curveball, Malc! Ha!”

He soon composes himself again though.

“Dave Clarke, when he set this interview up, texted me and told me, ‘Malcolm will calm you on your mobile.’ So I texted back and asked, ‘Do I need calming?’ He said, ‘That’s predictive texting for you’, and I said, ‘Yeah, tell me about it!’ But that was a real curveball, and one that did more than calm me down!”

For those not in the know, The Dummies was a late 1979 side-project involving Jim and younger brother Frank (who earlier sat in for Don Powell after the tragic accident that led to his girlfriend’s death and major surgery and hospitalisation for the Slade drummer), wondering if their material would be better received if recorded by another band. They released three singles, all receiving plenty of radio airplay, but sales suffered from distribution problems. And when Slade split in 1992, an album, A Day in the Life of The Dummies, was released. gathering all the material recorded by the brothers.

“Yeah, The Dummies was just Frank on the drums and me on guitar. Of course, I played bass in Slade because I didn’t really want to be noticed, but when I did the Robin Hood in 2002 I walked on stage with my guitar, with everyone going, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be terrible!’ That night, I also had a drummer I didn’t know personally (Michael Tongue), plus Dave Caitlin-Birch, the bass player from the Bootleg Beatles and World Party. Karl Wallinger (World Party’s frontman) had rented a flat of mine. That’s how I got to know Dave. And when we cracked on … I mean, bloody hell! It almost knocked me off the stage. People have since told me that when I walked on, they thought it was going to be terrible, worrying about hearing me sing, and knowing I was so shy. They weren’t ready for what they got!”

It’s certainly a very powerful performance, judging by the recording.

“That’s all I ever did. Even going back to that audition in January 1966, and before that. I bumped into a woman a few weeks ago, who took me back. They used to put me in for these violin competitions, and because I was shy and not into the norm, there was this kind of anger coming out of me, because I didn’t really want to be there. And this was the mother of a girl who would win all these competitions, and she said how they had followed my career. I remembered her daughter and always thought if she was there, she was going to win anyway. But she told me she later gave up, got married, and that was that.

“She also said, ‘If every I saw your name on the rota, we’d say, ‘It’s that lad again!’ They used to be frightened of me. But I said, ‘What on earth are you talking about? There’d be seven people and I’d come fifth’. But she said, ‘Yes, but Jim, you weren’t like anyone else’. I told her I was really nervous and she said, ‘You didn’t look it. You played with fire. It was as if you were going to break the violin’.”

I take it you never did break a violin.

“My Grandad’s violin was an heirloom and the neck broke on that, but I got it fixed, and that’s what led me – in making reparations to my Grandma, – to do this big string thing. Whether anyone will ever hear it, I don’t know, but I really like it.”

One of the tracks you re-imagined with The Dummies was one of my favourites, ‘When the Lights Are Out’, from 1974’s Old, New, Borrowed and Blue album.

“Yeah, I had a big argument with Chas (Chandler) about that. We were going to Australia, travelling first class, and there used to be this bubble in the 747s where the restaurant would be. It wasn’t posh or anything, it was just like a café, and Chas and I spent about 10 hours arguing about which should be the next single. Chas was going for ‘Everyday’ and I said ‘When the Lights Are Out’, because it was more up tempo. And we could have released ‘Everyday’ afterwards.

“But I was singing that track, and when I spoke to Chas years later he said, ‘To be quite honest, Jim, when I first saw the band I saw what you could do and saw what you were like, and then you started writing and I thought he’s going to see what he can do and then he’ll leave the band. So I didn’t give you a lot of interviews and I sort of kept you away from the press and a raised profile. But if we’d have had ‘When the Lights Are Out’ as a single, you’d have been having your face in the camera, and that to me was a danger.’

“And when I saw this Elvis documentary, I saw how Colonel Tom Parker wouldn’t let anyone who he thought was a threat to come near him. And to Chas, there was a threat that I would leave the band.”

Talking of Chas Chandler, what about his link with Jimi Hendrix? I know you were a big fan, as indicated by your cover of ‘Hey Joe’ for the Robin 2 gig.

“Yeah, and I’m sure I would have played with Hendrix. We were skinheads at the time, and Chas called us down to London. We couldn’t work out why and it took us around five hours to get there. Eventually, after lots of small talk, he told us that Jimi had rung him up and asked him to manage him again. And I said, ‘Well, I think it’s fantastic’. Jimi Hendrix was my hero, you see, and I thought I’d get to play with him. I wouldn’t have left the band but I would have loved to have played with him. I played bass like he played guitar. I wasn’t bothered about bass players.”

Come to think of it, there’s a Hendrix feel to ‘Goin’ Bak to Birmingham’ on the latest EP, a track you also played during that 2002 live show.

“Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny with the Robin thing. So many people said that up on that stage I played as well as Jimi Hendrix. But from when I rang Mike at the Robin to ask if it was a good idea – because I wasn’t going to play Slade songs, but songs that inspired me – I knew what I wanted to do, but only had about five weeks to get up to speed with a guitar.”

So tell me more about this latest release, your ‘Lost in Space’ EP?

“Well, Frank, my younger brother, who is often kicking my ass, said,‘What about an EP? I’ve been talking to the record company’. And I said, ‘Fine, we’ll do an EP’. He then said, ‘When can I have the tracks?’ So I said, ‘When do you need them?’ and he said, ‘Next Monday’. I said, ‘You what?’

“Of course, I can’t sing now because of throat trouble, that lack of testosterone. But I hunted around quickly and found some songs I felt might fit the bill. They’d got finished vocals on them but only sketchy backing. So I threw something at it, and that’s what you hear, because we only had a few days to get it together. ‘Megadrive’ was already done.”

That was the song I was going to mention first. Proof, as if it needed proving, that you can still write a great melody.

“Oh yeah, there was always a melody. It’s always memorable, whatever it is. Even my string thing is memorable … but it’s beautiful as well.”

The title track, ‘Lost in Space’, has a nice kind of George Harrison and Tom Petty vibe to it, I ventured.

“Ha! Funny you say that. Not many people have compared it to anything else, but I’ve had Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty mentioned. Nobody’s said George Harrison before. Even Del Amitri were mentioned. I can’t see that, but I can’t see any of those. I just put it down and forget about it, then I’m on to the next song.”

On two of the songs, I could hear some heavy metal band coming in and having a lot of fun with them. ‘Pure Power’ has a real anthemic feel, and ‘What in the World’ is another heavy rocker. In short, you haven’t lost that metal edge.

“I can still rock out, you know. It’s just having the energy to do it. That’s the trouble.”

That got Jim back on the subject of his memorable 2002 show at the Robin 2, and then the late 2017 Q&A event.

Strings Attached: Jim Lea with his violin

“The boss there rang and said, ‘The phone’s ringing off the hook. Everyone’s saying, ‘When are you going to come back?’ I said, ‘I’m never coming back. I’m going to make an album, and it’s going to be called Therapy. And it’s gonna be psychologically-based. But he said, ‘Well, if you wanna come and play, any time …’

“When he rang the day after that show, he said, ‘I stood at the bar and thought I might watch one number. But when you walked on stage I almost felt sick. I thought it was going to be a disaster. It was so loud and powerful, and I’d never heard anything like it in my whole career, playing in bands or at the Robin. But I took a swig of my pint and looked up, and I saw you playing guitar, one-handed with one hand up in the air, and you were singing. And I thought, ‘I can’t go home’. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.’ And his right-hand man was a big AC/DC fan who’d seen all the gigs he’d put on there and felt that had to be the best.

“This last time, at the end of the Q&A, he told me everyone was crying. I didn’t have a band but had backing tracks, and played along with them. But I was very tired because I hadn’t played since the cancer. And I didn’t know the crowd were crying, because of the lighting.

“At the end, I was mobbed again on the way out, but finally got to the car and was driven off, then went to have a dinner with my family. But my brother Frank wasn’t there, and we were all waiting, starving. He only came in about an hour later. I said, ‘Where the heck have you been?’ And he said, ‘James, I stayed ‘til the death. Everybody was crying and hugging each other, people who didn’t even know each other, and then the boss of the club was walking towards me and I said, ’Mike, what’s going on?’ And he said, People won’t go home. It’s as if James has risen from the dead’. Then Frank noticed he was crying as well, asked why, and was told, ‘I haven’t got a bloody clue. It’s just all so emotional!”

“Someone also told me Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre was set to play that night, and wondered if he had the right venue. He was asking, ‘Why are all these people crying?’ He was told, ‘Jim Lea from Slade has just done a Q&A’. And he said, ‘Bloody hell!’”

Well, you’ve spoken about therapy, and you did train as a psychotherapist a few years ago. Maybe you’ve released some kind of energy in the room.

“Well, when my brother said, ‘What about a Q&A at the Robin?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, okay’, my wife couldn’t quit believe I’d said that. But I just thought it was another way of pushing myself forward as a person.”

Noize Merchants: The first of three Slade singles to top the UK charts in ’73

So where are you at with your cancer treatment now?

“Wolverhampton’s NHS really looked after me, but then sent me to Leeds for treatment.”

Was that at the aptly-nicknamed Jimmy’s (St James’s University Hospital)?

“It was, yeah. I’d go up there a couple of times a year and stay up, and have got to know people up there, and we’re just one big happy family when we go. So although the treatment was uncomfortable to have, it’s been brilliant. In fact, we went up there for my wife’s birthday – for no other reason – on April 1st. I was up there about three months, then I had these injections. But I’ve finished those now.”

You’ve said no to a Robin 2 return, but I’m still hoping we can tempt you out for another gig at some stage.

“I tell you what, Malcolm. I would love to do it if I got the energy back. I was talking to one guitarist about that live DVD and he said, ‘You were giving it a lot of energy. I know what I do leaves me tired. You could do a gig, but you couldn’t do that again’. And I was kind of dropping at one point.”

Well, hopefully you’ll be back to full fitness soon, and we may see that day yet.

“Yeah, well, I would love to do it if I got the energy back. My brother’s got all sorts of ideas to get me up there. I’m just looking at the back of this copy of the Big Issue, and it’s got an advert for a festival (Cropredy’s Fairport Convention in Oxfordshire next month) with Brian Wilson, The Oyster Band, Police Dog Hogan, Smith & Brewer … so maybe you might be seeing me down the bottom at one of those.”

That would be brilliant. I look forward to that. And until then, there’s always that amazing Slade and solo back-catalogue.

Whild Living: Jim Lea looks back on an amazing career, before, during and after his Slade years

To catch up with this website’s feature/interview with Dave Hill, from December 2015, head here. And for our conversation with Don Powell from December 2017, try here. You can also check out the lowdown on Noddy Holder’s live show with Mark Radcliffe from May 2013 via this link, and find a WriteWyattUK appreciation of Slade from December 2012 here.  

Jim Lea’s six-track EP ‘Lost In Space’ is out now, with details of that, plus the limited-edition An Audience with Jim Lea at the Robin 2, various versions of the Therapy album, and lots more product available from his jimleamusic.com website.   



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The healing power of music – talking Trouble Songs with Stuart Bailie

Stuart Bailie was chasing invoices when I called him in Belfast, facing up to one of the less glamorous facets of life as a freelance writer, yet part of the job he reckons takes up most of his time. And I know how that feels.

But things are looking good for Stuart’s stock right now, with a fine example in his latest commission from Classic Rock magazine, when we spoke set to use an extract from a chapter about The Clash’s relationship with his home nation from the newly-published   Trouble Songs.

He was also expecting a review from Mojo magazine, one of many in the last few weeks for his rightly-acclaimed chronicle of ‘Music and Conflict in Northern Ireland’. And I can concur with that praise. At the time of our interview I was still 100 pages from the end, up to the section about Christy Moore, already assured of the value of a carefully-researched, highly-informed, entertaining and well-written tome.

As he admits in his introduction, music might seem ‘slight and irrelevant against a death toll that has exceeded 3,700’, so ‘what’s the point of lyrics shouted hoarsely when the volume of bigotry and violence has been so deafening?’ And ‘what chance a protest song when the mainstream has been jammed with intolerance and bad faith?’ Yet he rightly suggests that ‘music has not been a passive voice’ and ‘has called for subversion and disobedience’, putting out ‘stories that have challenged the given histories’ and ‘imagined new fixes’, the finished work ‘inspired by lyrics that have given succour and a sense of collective worth’ while valuing ‘the reckless impulse and the rare clarity of youth’.

There’s no airbrushing for convenience’s sake. Stuart also catalogues music ‘celebrating killings and endorsing sectarian acts’, in a country where ‘life is nuanced and morality often contested’. It’s a tightrope walk, yet he gets across, rising above the basic tale of a ‘centuries-old argument between the Irish and the British about territory and identity’, the 1921 partition and all that ultimately led to, in a land where ‘status is often influenced by religious upbringing’. The focus here is chiefly the devastating period between 1968 and the end of the 20th century, yet Trouble Songs doesn’t attempt to re-tell the political story in full. Instead, it uses the music ‘inspired, agitated or brutalised by the times’ as its narrative, resulting in a fresh perspective on the era and achieving its aim of being ‘hopefully a useful one’. And that it most certainly is.

Within the pages, many of the luminaries of Northern Irish music in the last decades of the old century are interviewed or quoted, not least key members of Ash, Rudi, Stiff Little Fingers and The Undertones, plus the likes of Paul Brady, David Holmes, Terri Hooley, John Hume, Eamonn McCann, Gary Moore and Andy White, as well as outsiders like Dolores O’Riordan, Kevin Rowland and Cathal Smith, and key contributors to the peace process like Bono and Christy Moore. But we started out talking about The Clash, whose initial visit in late October ’77 proved such a catalyst for Northern Ireland’s punk scene. Not only that, but also as they’re the subject of a new book by yours truly (more of that shortly on this site) and were clearly a mighty influence on Stuart, who first witnessed them at the Ulster Hall in his home city a year after that fabled, first cancelled gig. But as I put to him, he doesn’t tend to talk about his personal experiences in Trouble Songs.

“I could have put myself in it, but I was eight when the conflict started, and don’t remember much about that. And every now and then, with Christy Moore and that, you’re dealing with very heavy stuff, so I decided I was going to take a kind of back-seat and try not to judge things. With Northern Ireland, it’s like walking on eggshells anyway, so I was trying to empathise wherever possible, and let the reader come to their own conclusion, and I think that seems to have worked.

“I had very heavily-tattooed paramilitaries turn up at a book reading the other night in East Belfast, and at the end they shook my hand, and said, ‘Well, there you go – we’ve been through that. Then in Derry you meet people from the other end of the spectrum, so I think as a strategy that kind of worked … fingers crossed. And I’ve tried to avoid words like terrorism, so you the reader can draw your own conclusions.”

Alternative Ulstermen: Stiff Little Fingers, at home among Belfast’s ruins back in the day

My own route to an interest in all things Northern Ireland – this lad with no proven Celtic heritage, from a council house in the Home Counties of England – came via the music of the bands I loved but wasn’t necessarily sure why. I can’t recall for certain which struck me first, but two albums in the first half of 1979 made a big impression on me at some point that year. February’s Belfast punk statement, Inflammable Material, made me sit up and take notice of a very different landscape, glorying in the startling power of tracks like ‘Alternative Ulster’, ‘Suspect Device’, ‘Wasted Life’ and re-interpreted Bob Marley track ‘Johnny Was’. Meanwhile, May’s The Undertones made me realise there was plenty of common ground after all – here was a band writing about everyday things I could definitely associate with. It turned out it wasn’t all ‘Barbed Wire Love’ after all, however far Belfast and Derry were from my neck of the woods.

True understanding of the settings only came later (I was only 11 when those albums came out), but I was intrigued from that point on, hungrily reading all I could within a few years, from my brother’s copy of Robert Kee’s Ireland: A History (accompanying the 1980/81 BBC/RTE TV series of the same name) through to various NME features and interviews with personnel from several Irish bands, my appreciation of the wider yet hugely-complicated political picture growing.

And for me there was this intriguing double-standard – this was a place officially part of the UK, yet we couldn’t envisage in mainland Britain that level of rioting, bomb threats and no-go areas. And while I always abhorred mindless violence on all sides (I was still three weeks off my seventh birthday in October ’74, but heard the bombs that rocked my hometown, Guildford, from two miles away), I at least understood why key points like the crackdown on the Civil Rights movement would lead to people feeling a need to take more extreme paths. But how about Stuart, in the thick of it all across the water?

”When I was growing up, politics was a bit of a turn-off, with people howling and shouting at each other, especially in Northern Ireland politics. It was like a bear-cage. And then music comes along and you discover Bowie and all these other things and that’s sort of your tribe.

“With The Clash, and with songs like ‘Career Opportunities’, you open your mind and they kind of urge you to think about your social context, and question, ‘Can you do that?’ And the answer’s ‘Yes, you can’. Stiff Little Fingers took that as a green light to sing about Northern Ireland. And to hear ‘Suspect Device’, ‘Wasted Life’, and then ‘Alternative Ulster’ was incredible, and changed my life to a degree.

“At the same time, you’ve got Terri Hooley and his record shop and that whole source of DIY. So with all of those things, for that to hit you in 1977 and 1978 was absolutely brilliant. I’ve kept that with me all my life, and to a degree that’s in the pages as well. You can step outside all the shit!”

That’s one thing that comes over to me in this book more than any other underlying message – music really can overcome all barriers, especially where those turning up at a show might have been through hell just to get that far. And the moment they reached that venue they’d be among kindred spirits, irrespective of religion or specific geographical identity. In a sense, Trouble Songs is just as much about the celebration of a night out and how hard a small but determined group of people fought to have the kind of lifestyle we always took for granted over here in those dark days.

“Yeah, and to a degree, with things like the Miami Showband killings, the bombing and the hunger strikes, I decided to actually try and go back and look deeper into this and talk to the participants. Even though I live here – although I left for a while – I don’t think I even gave myself permission to get deep into it. So it was kind of a strange discovery reading all that about those times.”

Never Forgotten: The last official photograph of the Miami Showband line-up caught up in the 1975 massacre, when Fran O’Toole, Tony Geraghty and Brian McCoy were murdered.

In a sense, by at least following your dreams and forging that career path, moving away to London for a key period, you took yourself out of that bubble. Because sometimes we can get too close to the subject matter to truly get perspective.

“Yeah, and I think a lot of the people I interviewed – because we’re 20 years from the ceasefires and the Good Friday agreements – are talking about it differently now and maybe more openly than we would have before. Every now again, they’d look you in the eye and they would tell you their story …”

Possibly for the first time publicly.

“Quite often. Suddenly there were layers of information that people were divulging that they might not have spoken about before. I think musicians often want to not alienate anyone so they kind of hold their tongue. Whereas now it’s like, ‘Let me tell you about what it was like when I was 16′. So it’s tumbling out a wee bit.”

Praise to Stuart for drawing those stories out, and it’s the first-person recollections that make this work so well. There’s a poignant example where The Undertones’ Damian O’Neill, then 11, recalls watching The Big Match in October ’68 when shooting down the road from his family home in Derry led to mayhem that Bloody Sunday, his parents caught up in the aftermath. And there’s another in That Petrol Emotion and The Everlasting Yeah bandmate Raymond Gorman remembering marching that day with his father, ‘water-cannoned and chased off the bridge’, an experience he said has ‘informed everything that I’ve done’.

Those are just two instances vividly putting you in the frame, and there are many more in Trouble Songs, with Raymond just one example of a lad from one religious background who happily mixed in opposing religious circles as a youth, something ultimately saving him from the kind of ‘entrenched views’ that affected so many on each side of that divide.

Among the more shocking accounts are the chilling testimonies relating the death of three Miami Showband musicians shot at point-blank range in the early hours of July 31st, 1975. And then there are the detailed recollections of the tragedy that unfolded at Belfast’s Abercorn Bar in the mid-afternoon of March 4th, 1972, with two young women killed and 130 injuries. Again, those are just two harrowing examples.

I can’t recall when I first became aware of Stuart’s writing, but he was certainly one of those whose work caught my eye during his NME days. What’s more, while researching this feature, I chanced upon a feature cut out from that very publication, headed Planet Ulster and written by Sean O’Hagan around the time of the mid-‘80s release of Alan Bleasdale’s No Surrender, in which both Stuart and The Undertones’ Mickey Bradley gave their spin on living in Northern Ireland at the time.

Quoted as ‘Stuart Bailie, pop writer’, he revealed, ‘If you’re born Protestant, it’s drummed into you – the whole siege mentality thing is bred into you from birth. Like it was bred into your parents and their parents.’ He also mentioned a marked lack of a Belfast scene at that stage, for reasons that become very apparent to those reading Trouble Songs, and the sad fact that ’Everyone seems to have left for London’, leaving behind a ‘too intense and incestuous and very, very bitchy scene’. But at least for Stuart, an over-riding love of music and writing proved key in escaping that bubble and the tunnel vision of some of his neighbours, I suggested.

“Well, yeah, myself like a lot of other people grew up in a segregated area, so you go to Protestant state schools and hang out with people from that area, and that’s the only reality you kind of know. My family had been in the military and had been very committed to what they saw as a loyal cause, but when you hear The Clash and stuff like that, it kind of … there’s that thing Greil Marcus says, that the essence of punk is two words – ‘question everything’, and all of a sudden you reviewed everything in your world and feel, ‘Hey, I’m not hung up on that stuff’.

“Then also you’re in the Harp bar and you’re meeting guys from North Belfast and West Belfast and they’re all fans of Iggy Pop and The Outcasts or whatever. So there’s a whole other way. To me that was very revelatory, all in the course of six months, and you come out a better person. And Terri Hooley, the old hippy anarchist, was encouraging that all the time.”

I’m glad he mentioned Terri there. The Good Vibrations label and record shop boss and all-round maverick pioneer comes out of this as truly inspirational and one of the book’s heroes for me.

“Yeah, he’s very nuanced, you know. He was an idiot half of the time he was a drunkard and whatever, but to the same extent he hadn’t matured and calmed down and was important in much the same way as Tony Wilson was for Manchester. He had a bit of playfulness and a bit of that hippy perspective and he went, ‘OK, things are kicking off, let’s push this on a wee bit. Let’s give them advice and let’s give them the means of production’. So we were incredibly lucky to have Terri knocking about.”

A non-conformist in the widest sense, really.

“Yeah, and like Tony, nobody had a record contract and it was all chaotic. Terri could have had a pension plan, and he doesn’t. He doesn’t own anything of that.”

The way he let The Undertones sign to Sire with no personal gain seems to illustrate that. Meanwhile, another key player from that Protestant community who gets a fair share of space is Van Morrison, another who seemed to quickly understand that bigger picture.

“Yeah, he was out touring German military bases when he was 16 or 17. He viewed himself as a child of the western popular world really, and moved to America very intentionally. But there’s a part of him that’s very East Belfast. There’s a gruffness and a belligerence that’s part of the character and what he’s about. But to the same extent, when he puts out a song like St Dominic’s Preview he’s kind of thinking about what’s going on at home. There’s a compassion there, and empathy as well.

“He went transatlantic for a while, the accent changed, and everything else, but then the salmon returned to the spawning ground and he returned. And I think even the return of Van to become a resident of Belfast in the ’90s was also part of that process, the fact that he’s singing in front of Bill Clinton at the City Hall and loaning out his lyrics to the Northern Ireland office. I think that was quite a cool way of putting his mind to it.”

Was Van a hero to you growing up, or did you only truly understand his vision a little later?

“No, I was a punk – you weren’t allowed to like Van Morrison! He was a hippy, he had flares and sideburns and he was considered part of the enemy. Also, the ‘60s generation that used to hang around were a bit bedraggled and their hearts were broken, having lived through very exciting times only to see it dashed. Anytime you met them they were just middle-aged men smoking joints, telling us the ‘60s were great. You kind of grew to resent that, almost. You can’t really tell me the good times have gone definitively.

“When punk arrived, you went, ‘There you go, buddy. We’ve got our own fun to manufacture here’. But then there’s a moment in the early ‘80s where you’d start to hear Van Morrison and think, ‘Bloody hell, this is brilliant!’ And you give yourself permission and then you go, ‘Wow!’”

That was a bit of a leading question, as I knew Stuart named Van’s homecoming show on Cyprus Avenue in 2015 among his most treasured live moments (Rudi at the Harp Bar is also up there), with 1968’s phenomenal Astral Weeks his favourite-ever album. But you have to ask these questions. So, how old was he when he first saw The Clash?

“Well, I was born in ’61 and I missed that first gig. If you could go back in the time machine … But I saw them at the Ulster Hall in ‘78. just before Give ‘Em Enough Rope. I took the day off school and spent all night with them, and all the rest of it.”

So you missed that first gig being cancelled and the subsequent Bedford Street punk riot?

“Yes, although I remember one or two people at school were there. In my defence, it wasn’t part of your social life. You didn’t go to gigs. It was a scary time. It was a scary place and your parents were terrified.

“But I saw Dr Feelgood in May to June ’77 – my first proper gig, again at the Ulster Hall – and in January ‘78 I saw Rudi. That was me kind of full on then, thinking I have to get as much of this as I can.”

Maverick Inspiration: Stuart Bailie’s good friend, Terri Hooley

In lesser hands, the book’s contentious subject matter might have led to something of a backfire. Yet Stuart – who’s previously written an authorised biography of Thin Lizzy, The Ballad of the Thin Man, TV and radio documentaries about U2, Elvis Costello and Glen Campbell, and helped set up the Oh Yeah Music Centre in his home city, which continues to thrive to this day, acting as its CEO from 2008/16 – cleverly negotiates his way through, Trouble Songs following So Hard to Beat, his BBC TV documentary on Northern Ireland’s music, and a long-running radio series on a similar subject for BBC Radio Ulster that preceded it. So which project did he envisage first?

So Hard to Beat was 2007, and just before that, starting in around 2005, I did this thing on Radio Ulster, choosing a record a week for 30 or 40 weeks, telling the story of Northern Ireland music week by week. That was the bare bones of the TV documentary. Every week was a story about a song. When it was finished there were no thoughts as to doing anything beyond that.

“I was then working on the Oh Yeah Music Centre, and that was me completely for 10 years, it was like being hit by a truck, trying to renovate a huge whiskey warehouse amid overwhelming pressure, with 10 years away from writing TV and anything else really.

“But I become an admin. person, not writing or thinking creatively. I decided to leave there, and asked myself, ‘What do you want to do, before you get knocked over by a bus? What do you want to have on your obit?’ And I decided, ‘He went down deep and wrote this story about how music related to 30 years of madness’. Like a lot of creative ideas, you run away from it for a while, avoid it or make excuses why you can’t do it. Then you just go, ‘Right, here we go’, and disappear into the bunker.”

You wrote a bit of it away on the Donegal coast, I gather.

“Yes, every now and then I felt I had to get a bit of space on this and would rent out a cottage or someone would let me use a space where I could be far enough away from it to really focus my mind. Especially at the start, working out how I was going to do it and what the shape was going to be. I find that very therapeutic and very helpful, with few distractions.”

Sounds a nice part of the world.

“Ah, it’s incredible. Every day I check out cheap cottages to see if I could buy one!”

Derry Perspective: The Undertones had a mighty impact on both sides of the Irish Sea

Derry Perspective: The Undertones made a mighty impression

Talking of old press cuttings hanging around WriteWyattUK HQ, there’s another illuminating piece Andrew Tyler wrote for the NME, where he takes a trip to Derry with The Undertones’ John O’Neill as his guide. At one stage John mentions ‘struggling to express hard ideas through some new songs’ with a couple of ‘unknown friends’ he was set to move to London with. With those clues I’d say we’re talking 1984 (I foolishly cut off the dates at the top of the page), and I was lucky enough to witness first-hand That Petrol Emotion’s earliest shows on this side of the Irish Sea that following summer. And that would fit in with the time Stuart first came to London, wouldn’t it?

“Yeah, I think the ’80s generally were a time of mass exodus. There was a bubble of people who moved over, mostly economic stuff but also an idea that the conflict was never going to end. You just think, I’ve got a life to live here. What can I do? At that point I was a failed, poor punk musician and I felt there was this whole media and journalism thing kind of interested me.”

So you bought a typewriter and made your move, yeah?

“I did. It was as simple as that. It was very thrilling. Where I was around Wood Green and Finsbury Park there was a whole colony of Belfast people, and likewise in Reading, in West London, and the Petrols and people in South London. It was almost the norm. A lot of people moved out and did their thing. Certainly for me, I always felt I was fairly civilised and into hip-hop and a kind of cosmopolitan kind of guy, but then you arrive ion London and they call you ‘Paddy’! It’s a bit of a leveller, but then you realise you’re Celtic anyway, regardless of all the other bits in your character. So there’s a wee bit of self-knowledge that comes out of moving away too.”

For all the buzz of moving here, there must have been a realisation that you had to move away from your beloved homeland to ‘find yourself’ in the decade you stayed. But as it turns out, it set you up nicely.

“Well, it gives you a bit of energy and offers a wee chance to work out what you can be, and for me going to the Bull and Gate and the Sir George Robey and hanging out in Camden, at a time when Alan McGee was getting off the ground with The Jesus and the Mary Chain and Creation Records. It was a very, very exciting time. At that time there was the NME, Melody Maker, Sounds, Record Mirror, The Hit, Smash Hits … and this enormous market for writers.”

As it was, Stuart went on to write for not just the NME , where he was on the staff for eight years, but also Uncut, Q, Vox, The Times, The Irish Times, Hot Press, and the afore-mentioned Classic Rock and Mojo. But his way in was via Record Mirror.

“Yeah, the NME knocked me back a few times. That broke my heart. But then I went to Record Mirror and was their review editor, and briefly worked at Warner Brothers and at WEA in the press office. And then the NME asked if I wanted to write for them, and it was like, ‘Yeah!’ That was ’88, along with James Brown, Swells, Andrew Collins, Stuart Maconie, Danny Kelly, Barbara Ellen, Mary Anne Hobbs … It was amazing.

“It’s difficult to explain. I tend not to be confident, because there’s so many bright people around you, and over a period of time it ups your game. I’ve never been so challenged and stimulated in my life. It was such a brilliant place, and the social life was amazing. And as a journalist you were given access to bands you would never get today. You were really indulged.”

Boxing Clever: Stuart Bailie was held responsible by Noel Gallagher for the BritPop phenomenon.

Boxing Clever: Stuart Bailie was held responsible by Noel Gallagher for the NME-led BritPop phenomenon.

What’s this about Noel Gallagher holding you responsible for the term ‘BritPop’? Was that phrase’s adoption (in August 1995) down to you?

“Err … yes and no. I’d been on a train journey to the Midlands with a load of people from Creation Records to see one of their signings, Heavy Stereo. At Creation Records, even people who weren’t taking drugs talked like they were taking drugs! It was two weeks before the clash of ‘Roll With It’ by Oasis and Country House’ by Blur. There was lots of screaming and yelling about, ‘We’re going to do this and we’re going to do this’, and on the way back it was, ‘We’re going to have ‘em, we’re going to take ‘em!’ I’m sitting in this train carriage with all these people, thinking, ‘This is a hell of a story’. I went to a meeting the next Tuesday and told them, ‘This is kicking off, this is incredible!’ And there was Steve Lamacq and a few other people, going, ‘Yep, yep, absolutely’. NME meetings were very exciting things. We’d just spark off each other.

“By the end of that meeting, it was, ‘OK, we’re going to do this and flag it up. We’re going to make it’. The art designer, Marc Pechart, put this boxing poster together for that next week. Within 24 hours of that there were five TV crews in the office and it ended up on the national news. It was definitely the NME that manufactured that, a few of us put it into the public space as a story, and everyone else ran with it, which was great.  But I think Noel Gallagher holds me responsible!”

And how’s your relationship with U2 frontman Bono, who apparently once called you a ‘tough nordy ****’ but obviously gets on with you, seeing as he answered your queries for what turned out to be a rather illuminating Q&A in Trouble Songs.

“Well, I wasn’t part of their court, but around the time of Achtung Baby and Zoo TV, I was the NME person who got a wee bit of access and chat, was on the planes, and all that malarkey. It was very exciting, at a time when they were very creative. I’ve also worked with them on various documentaries and radio talks, and had a fairly civil relationship.”

Actually, Bono has my sympathy a bit. It seems too easy to pick on him with his outsider views on Northern Ireland and various other world struggles over the years. He’s an easy target, but I’m thinking he must fundamentally be a good bloke beneath it all.

“Well, he would at some point hold himself up as some sort of philanthropist and libertarian, and then some people would point at his tax affairs and suggest a potential contradiction there. I haven’t written about them (U2) at any great length since a lot of that came out, but when I did this book I put in a request and I think originally he was going to speak to me on the phone. But then he was at the Grammys and then went off on a family holiday, so he asked if he could write the answers to my questions. But it was interesting a lot of the stuff he came out with, and it was the first time he’d really put in an apology about the Miami Showband massacre. When the Bataclan incident kicked off he said that was the first time that had happened, and the band were on social media saying, ‘Hello, Bono, do you remember 1975?’ So he kind of used my book to apologise for that.”

And I gather that although Terri Hooley and you like a good argument – he recently suggested to Jenny Lee of The Irish Times they were ‘the George and Mildred of the Belfast music scene’ – you’re top mates these days. Even if he didn’t sign your band, Acme, back at the turn of the ’80s (Stuart plays bass, but sold his Fender to buy that typewriter).

“Yeah, we have a mutual friend getting married today and we’re doing their wedding reception.”

Ah, DJ-ing, like you did at Voodoo back in the day?

“We play tunes … ‘DJ’ is a bit too professional a word for it! But he’s 70 this year and he’s still very contrary and totally anti-materialist. He scrapes by on pennies, he’s very funny, and he’s kind of oddly charismatic, and there’s going to be this Good Vibrations musical in the summer, so I think we’re all gonna be holding our breath. But it was great that he got a victory lap with the film, because he had been sort of ignored for a few years.

“And almost parallel to my book, people are revising the history angle and saying that music actually was one of the things that brought us towards a better place.”

Talking Troubles: Stuart Bailie, the author of the mighty Trouble Songs.

Trouble Songs: Music and Conflict in Northern Ireland by Stuart Bailie is out now, priced £14.99 and available via Troublesongs.com


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The Vapors – Manchester, The Ruby Lounge

Summer Nights: The Vapors in live action (Photo: Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

This was my first rail outing to Manchester since Public Service Broadcasting at the Ritz three years ago ended with the dreaded Bus Replacement Service return-trip, and came 18 months after my last Ruby Lounge visit, for The Blue Aeroplanes. And again I was rewarded with a memorable set.

This time there was barely chance to catch more than a song and a half of the support, Rothman Jack. To be honest, I’d forgotten who was joining them, but the moment I looked up from the bar – after a schoolboy error, asking for ‘bitter’ and being handed a can of John Smith’s, when I thought the days of the floating widget were way behind us – I remembered it was none other than Vapors stand-in guitarist Dan Fenton, son of David, leading a rather dynamic three-piece.

On this occasion they were bringing down the curtain on their time together, to appreciative support from a clued-up and warm (in more ways than one) gathering. Have I mentioned the temperature yet? Dan certainly looked like he’d been through the wringer on this hot, late June night by the time we’d headed out into the throng, giving his all, but his band were soon taking a collective bow and heading off, big smiles all round.

That left me briefly contemplating father-and-son combos, seeing as David and Dan have already put in several shifts together, covering for first-choice wing-man Ed Bazalgette. I thought first of Neil and Liam Finn, then Lloyd and Will Cole, plus Johnny and Nile Marr, later adding Bob and Ziggy Marley, Bob and Jakob Dylan, Ron and Jesse Wood, John and Jason Bonham, Tim and Jeff Buckley, and even John and Julian Lennon to that list, though wondering if many of those had even shared a stage. I’ve probably missed a few key examples. No matter.

Son Shines: Dan Fenton, out front with Rothman Jack on the night

Conversation back out by the bar was soon put on hold, heading back into the main room (to be fair, there was only a black curtain separating the two) as tonight’s star guests took to the stage. Now, I went through the significance of the re-emergence of this wondrous outfit last time I had the pleasure of catching them, at Liverpool’s Arts Club in November 2016, so I’ll spare you a bit of that, but again emotions were never far away for this fellow Guildford old boy. An introductory backing track more associated with Frankie Goes to Hollywood in some circles was in keeping with the band’s turn of the ‘80s New Clear Days theme, dynamic sticks-man Michael Bowes, with lurid green bandana in place, soon leading from the rear in what proved to be another startling shift on drums. By God, he can play, and however restricted your view when you catch this outfit live, ensure you’re well placed to see this drumming colossus putting the thrust back into power pop.

To be fair, that ‘power pop’ label is something heard more from transatlantic fans looking to categorise the post-punk and new wave scene, but was one used by my fellow commuter on this occasion to describe a band he knew little of before other than links to key tracks I suggested online. But it seemed fairly apt all the same. Incidentally, I could say we’d travelled from Deepest Surrey and Edinburgh respectively to get there on the night, but to be honest it had barely been a 20-mile ride across Lancashire.

Michael not only hits those drums hard but also seems to inspire all before him, never short of a cheeky grin or beaming smile to light up the stage. I’ll forever associate his role with his predecessor, Howard Smith, but Michael has quickly made this his lookout, adding plenty of verve and no lack of panache. What I like is the air of mischief between him and bass player Steve Smith, another not bothering to hold back the smiles. They’re clearly having fun, playing for all the right reasons and loving what they’re doing. With that shaggy mane and his Trojan Records t-shirt, Steve’s the epitome of cool, having not long stepped back off a plane from the Algarve, interrupting his summer engagement with his other band The Shakespearos, seemingly unfettered by the experience. Laid-back and  on the money all night. My only gripe here was the sound in the Ruby Lounge, not allowing us the best chance to wallow in those glorious Rickenbacker basslines, lost somewhere in the mix at times.

I could say the same about Ed and David and their guitar and vocals. It was all a little ‘soupy’ to fully immerse yourself in the first third, the between-song banter also lost. At first, the venue’s imposing pillars ensured Ed was just out of my eyeline apart from occasional cross-stage jaunts, but we moved ever closer as the night wore on, the sound far better from around the time the ‘Daylight Titans’ surrounded on song seven.

Half a dozen new tracks were premiered, and from opener ‘Secret Noise’ onward the signs are good for that long-awaited third album. The band seamlessly fitted those among the more established, and third number ‘King L’ certainly impressed, as did ‘One of My Dreams’ and later number ‘Letter to Hiro (No.11)’, giving rise to its earlier first LP cousin, ‘Letter From Hiro’, Dave handing over vocal duties to the assembled, who didn’t let him down. And while I couldn’t fully appreciate amid that earlier sound the wondrous ‘Trains’ and ‘Live at the Marquee’, by the time of ‘Cold War’ ( my travelling mate wondered if it was ‘Cod War’, referencing past trade friction with Iceland, giving an entirely different steer on the lyrics) and ‘Somehow’, they were on top form.

Now Wilko Johnson’s pudding bowl years are long behind him and Ed’s joined him on the shaved head front (I know, his was always a far more stylish cut), it’s easier to see common ground in stage presence and guitaronics. And beyond the moody posturing there’s a nice interaction between him and an adoring crowd, those occasional darts across stage to seek out Steve for vocal duets a delight. Ed also mentioned how past Manchester visits seemed to coincide with momentous happenings for The Vapors, not least news of their initial deal and ‘Turning Japanese’ chart success. And while Dave comes over more reserved, he’s equally cherished and fully engaged, the nervous energy working well, keeping him and us on our toes, yet he also seems to be in control.

On a hot, sultry Friday night in the metropolis, I can think of few more fitting songs than ‘Waiting for the Weekend’, and while ‘Spring Collection’ for me seemed out of place deeper into the set, it’s more than welcome wherever. As for ‘Jimmie Jones’, it was perhaps my least favourite Vapors single, yet I’ve grown to fully appreciate it, and it sounded fabulous on this occasion. It was only a matter of time before we reached ‘Turning Japanese’, and I’m pleased the most recognisable song still has a feelgood factor for the diehards. This is no pop novelty, it sounded just as fresh tonight, and credit for that to the band themselves for still being able to so convincingly knock it out, so to speak.

They still weren’t quite done, one eye on the time as the band slipped into debut single, ‘Prisoners’, showcasing the band’s early new wave promise, then the mighty ‘News at Ten’, up there with The Undertones’ debut 45 among the most perfect expressions of teenage angst.

The band returned of course, penultimate number ‘America’ signposting their next big adventure, October’s three-night NYC return, before trademark finale ‘Here Comes the Judge’, the minute-hand against us now, the last train beckoning and us reluctantly inching towards the exit amid this expansive live masterpiece, dashing up the steps as the final chord rang out, into a still humid night, yomping back to Piccadilly and platform 14, determined not to let the trains get me, another great night in The Vapors’ company already etched into the memory.

I’m loving this revival, not least having missed out first time round. I see no reason why there won’t be many more great nights to come either. What’s more, we should have another album to savour soon, 37 years to the month after Magnets, and on this evidence we’re in for a treat. And in the meantime I’ve always got those first LPs to see me through.

Lounge Lizards: The Vapors at The Ruby Lounge, Manchester (Photo: Shaun Modern)

The Vapors are back in action at the Actress and Bishop in Birmingham on July 28th and the Junction 2 in Cambridge on September 8th, before a three-night sell-out at New York City’s Mercury Lounge in October then a return to Portmeirion’s Hercules Hall on November 10th, followed by dates at Olby’s Music Room, Margate (December 7th); Lewes’ Constitutional Hall (December 8th); The 1865, Southampton (December 9th); and Nell’s Jazz and Blues, London (December 15th). For more details, head here.

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One Man’s Madness (I call it gladness) – the Lee Thompson interview

Lee Thompson was at home when I called, ‘sort of just inside 12 o’clock on the M25,’ where he’s been based around 30 years now. Born in St Pancras, NW1 in 1957, this esteemed saxophonist/songwriter’s postcode is EN5 rather than that of Madness’ 2008 single ‘NW5’, the man nicknamed ‘Kix’ explaining, “I was originally Kentish Town, moved to Islington for a while, then High Barnet when the kids were born, somewhere a bit greener.”

My excuse for calling was new feature-length ‘rocku-docu-mockumentary’, One Man’s Madness. And the early sales figures suggest there’s still a mighty appetite for the story of the Nutty Boys.

“Looks like it, yeah. When Jeff (Baynes, director/producer) came to me with the idea, I thought, ‘Ooh … quirky … different. I was more concerned about who it would appeal to. I mean, obviously the Madness camp, but … why me? Why not pick on one of the other band members? But judging by past interviews and stories and what people have told him, Jeff thought I might have a bit more of an interesting story to tell. He came up with the idea and I said, ‘Yeah’, once he explained it. I thought, ‘Let’s have a go, it’s not going to be too time-consuming.’”

Now out on DVD, it’s already seen screenings at numerous UK cinemas, and is also available as a double-CD soundtrack, including 27 Madness hits and others from the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra, his past outfit Crunch, and even Ian Dury.

In One Man’s Madness, Lee tells his story with the help of fellow bandmates (Barso, Bedders, Chas, Chrissy Boy, Suggs and Woody all make appearances, in some guise or other), family, friends, fellow performers, management, and even a musicologist and psychologist, those portrayed along the way including Norman Cook, Clive Langer, Lynval Golding and Neville Staple, in most cases with Kix dressed up as a version of them, including rather-fetching portrayals of his wife Debbie, his sister Tracy, opera-singing alter-ego ‘Thommosina Leigh’, parents of bandmates, and Stiff label boss Dave Robinson.

In other hands this could have become a sociologist’s dream project, examining a ‘rake’s progress’ in a portrayal of a lad from very ‘umble beginnings whose Dad was in and out of the nick. By most accounts, Lee was deemed to have ‘looked a bit dodgy’ by other kids’ parents (according to Suggs, most who became close to him ended up ‘being chased by the Old Bill’ at some stage). But with Jeff Baynes at the helm, it’s anything but. As the press release has it, ‘One Man’s Madness takes its cue from the classic Ealing comedies of the ’40s and ’50s, music hall and famous BBC arts documentaries, with a nod to those great British comics down the years such as Max Wall, Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson, Dick Emery, Morecambe and Wise, and Spike Milligan.’ And I love the quirky approach, I tell Lee.

“Yeah, very quirky. I mouth these people’s words, I dress up as how I see them, (sometimes) a bit Carmen Miranda, an odd-looking thing with a mono-eyebrow (that’ll be ‘Thommosina’ replicating Fiona Jessica Wilson’s fine voice), and there’s my lawyer, who I take on as some sort of drunk ‘beak’. It took up a flow, particularly when I did my wife and my sister – they looked like the men out of the Flash advert. I had those ‘bugger-grips’ at the time, those Edwardian moustaches that go ’round your face. They haven’t seen it yet … I’m trying to keep it away from them as long as possible.

“Dave Robinson, I did as a mad, bully-ish Irish navvy type. He wasn’t keen on how I perceived him. But he watched it a few times then calmed down. Once he got into it, I thought, ‘This has got legs. If he likes it, anyone will.’ He’s very hard to please.”

Shut Up: Suggs takes issue with Lee’s assertion that the idea of One Man’s Madness came long before his My Life Story project with Julien Temple

It’s certainly an off-the-wall approach to documentary-making, but somehow really works. And you need to watch it at least a few times to see what the incorrigible Kix is up to in the background. So what came first, this film project or Mr McPherson’s fellow 2018 film with Julien Temple, My Life Story?

“Mine, easily! We started ours nearly three and a half years ago. But it keeps getting put back. I don’t know why. Jeff and myself are in control. He pointed the camera, I put the costume on. The difficult part was the tongue-twisting mouthings. Some of them were really easy, in particular those with Neil Brand, the musicologist, as was the woman who talks about split-personality (billed as Dr Noyes Maybe). That was quite enjoyable to do. But there was only us two to answer to. If something went wrong, it was down to us, and nothing went wrong at all other than putting dates off because of other duties with the Ska Orchestra and Madness.”

And you still seem to spend a lot of time playing with both of those bands.

“Well, we’ve sort of backed off with the Ska Orchestra, because our drummer (Mez Clough) left us for Van Morrison. The rent doesn’t pay itself, and it was like one gig a month with us. Although they were really enjoyable, Van offered him several months’ work on really good wages, so I said, ‘Go and do it. We’ll find a drummer.’ But I haven’t found anyone as good as Mez, and really I’m quite proud he’s been nicked off me by Van Morrison. And funnily enough he stands in on percussion and backing vocals for Madness, so it’s double-bloody-bubble!”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Jeff Baynes looked to Lee for this project. His subject has always been rather an unlikely character, for want of a better expression. Poor early career choices led to him spending 14 months in borstal, but thankfully he’d already met Mike Barson and ‘Chrissy Boy’ Foreman by then, who shared his interests of graffiti, train-hopping and music, ultimately helping ensure the salvation of a lad Dave Robinson describes in the documentary as having a ‘very, very low attention span’, and of whom Norman Cook says, ‘He’s always felt more comfortable in mid-air than on the ground’.

From entertaining tales of meeting his bandmates to becoming part of a truly iconic, highly successful undeniably English group, we follow Lee’s adventures through his lyrics and songs, a mighty back-catalogue including (either as sole or co-writer) ‘The Prince’, ‘Embarrassment’, ‘House of Fun’, ‘Lovestruck’ and ‘NW5’. And there’s plenty of humour en route from the man himself, someone chiefly recalled by the wider public for his flying exploits during Madness’ memorable promo videos, from ‘Baggy Trousers’ right through to his taking to the air while playing a red, white and blue sax during the closing ceremony of 2012’s London Olympics, and the band’s … erm, crowning moment on the roof of Buckingham Palace as part of the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations.

And as he puts it, “The whole experience of making this has been a sheer joy. Miming along to the characters was slightly tongue-twisting, but with the director’s patience and perseverance we got there eventually. Jeff makes a fantastic Cappuccino and his wife was most patient with my array of props, wigs and slap.”

Going back to those musical roots, what came first for Kix – learning the sax, the flute, the trumpet, fluegelhorn?

Early Days: Mike Barson, John Jones & Lee Thompson in 1973

“I started originally on the clarinet.”

I guess there wasn’t too much call for a rock’n’roll clarinetist.

“Not really. I played along with ‘Stranger on the Shore’, but there’s only so many times you can play that without getting bored shitless. I used the schools’ music section of different instruments. There was flugelhorns, trumpets and trombones, but no saxophone, and the clarinet was much more difficult, fingering-wise. So I stopped that and went on to oboe, but I didn’t last long on that. It was literally months. The embouchure around the lips, the muscles around there, was like I was being given a dead leg. So I landed up swapping that at Dingwall’s for an old clapped-out thing, but one that got past the first audition with Mike (Barson) and Chris (Foreman). And not long after taking up saxophone some friends heard I was starting this little group, around 1976, and approached me with a very hot Selmer Mk.6, fresh out of the shop window.”

Is this the one you’re still struggling to find the receipt for?

“That is the one … with the scratched number, yeah! They tried to scratch it off, but they didn’t know it was embossed into the metal. You can’t melt the thing down.”

And if you could, it wouldn’t bode so well for the sound.

“It might get a better sound out of it than I would these days, with my teeth! But these days I keep that under lock and key. You know ‘karma’? What goes around, comes around? I done The X-Factor a while ago with a saxophone Mike Barson bought on my behalf in Holland because my credit card wouldn’t take it. Obviously, I paid him back … I think … yeah, I paid him back. But that was taken somehow. All the security at The X-Factor – it took half an hour to get in there, it was like Fort Knox – yet our saxophone went missing. So I keep my baby – my very first love – under lock and key.”

But how did this London white boy end up getting into Prince Buster? Did you take the skinhead route?

“Well, yeah, I’d always been into all that, since Desmond Dekker and The Upsetters. I had a paper round in around 1967/68, and Tony Blackburn had just come on the radio. He really liked a lot of Motown and Soul, which took my attention, although I was only 11 or 12. I never had a record player. We never even had a radio at home. I don’t know why. The only TV music you’d get would be Top of the Pops. I think Ready Steady Go had finished. But I got into that, and when ‘Israelites’, ‘Return of Django’ and ‘Love of the Common People’ and all that started coming through the airwaves, I was really drawn to it.

“I’d never really heard of Prince Buster until about ’71, so he’d been going long before that. You’d have to travel to get your reggae records – from Kentish Town you’d have to travel several miles to Brixton or Willesden. They never had it in the shops. It was that early. But once Desmond Dekker and the like started charting, they held up their arms to it to various distributors. But I found an Aladdin’s Cave of singles, a treasure trove down in Upper Street, when it was a proper old pre-gentrified area, finding a load of records on Firefly, Punch, Fab, Blue Beat, Blue Ska, Melodisc.

“I picked a bunch up, and what stuck out that I noticed was this comical fella that sang comical lyrics to a ska beat, like ‘Ten Commandments of Man’, and of course ‘Madness’. I was very much drawn to him, along with ‘50s inspired stuff that was all the go in the mid-‘70s, like American Graffiti, The Lords of Flatbush, and there was a real resurgence of doo-wop like The Coasters. So there was all that and of course the pub-rock scene – Dr Feelgood and Kilburn & the High Roads.”

Banned Mates: Lee gets right behind Suggs

Were you seeing those bands live at the time?

“Absolutely, at the Hope and Anchor and so on. We were so lucky where we were. We were at the epicentre of it all – Dingwalls, the Tally Ho, the (Lord) Nelson. It was a stroll away to your nearest live venue, a couple of bus stops away. It was all around us. There weren’t many soul or blues or reggae artists. I never got to see Bob Marley live in the early ‘70s. I was more attracted to pub rock. I remember bunking in to see Bowie at Earl’s Court when he was doing Aladdin Sane, Roxy Music at the Rainbow …”

I’m guessing Roxy Music sax player Andy Mackay was a big inspiration.

“Oh yeah, absolutely. I was always attracted to that instrument. You go running down the front into the line of fire, as I called it, the Bermuda Triangle – a very tame, glitter-sprinkled Bermuda Triangle – and I’d always land up in front of the sax players like Andy Mackay, and of course Davey Payne, and Damian Hand, who plays with James Hunter. He’s just gone back over to America. When there was a lull in Madness, after the split in ’86, I landed up becoming his roadie. The Madness had died a death and Chris and myself were about to start up Crunch / The Nutty Boys. But between, having time off, I kept my diet of music live by roadie-ing for Howlin’ Wilf and the Veejays, driving him around, because he never had a licence. And his sax player, Damian, I’ve got to try and contact him – I want to record with him at some point. He’s a phenomenal player.”

And did George Melly ever catch you, Barso and your other mate (the pair famously sprayed their nicknames on the jazz and blues legend’s garage door, prompting him to write in a newspaper piece, ‘If I ever catch that Mr B, Kix and Columbo, I’m going to kick their arses’)?

“Ha ha! Have you ever read that book?”

That will be Roger Perry’s The Writing on the Wall (reissued in 2015 as a Plain Crisp Books paperback).

“I mentioned it on a radio show with Liz Kershaw, in a pre-recorded interview with her after our Robert Elms fiasco. I did that show live, and … fucking hell! In 40 years of working with Madness we never did interviews or promotions at weekends unless it was a live gig, because I tend to let my hair down on a Friday night. I let a few words slip which I shouldn’t have with Robert, so that was cut short. I think he’ll have us back though. He knows it was an accident.”

This seems to be the case with Lee. There we were, talking about George Melly and graffiti, and before I knew it we’ve segued on to Robert Elms and swearing live on BBC Radio London. But we’re soon back on track. I mentioned Kix’s grounding in soul, reggae and ska, plus pub rock and rock’n’roll, but how about punk? Was he inspired by the whole DIY aspect of that movement?

“Oh absolutely. If it weren’t for pub rock and certainly punk rock … that opened doors endlessly for us. You never had a chance before that. I think it was Dave Robinson and his partner (I’m guessing he means Jake Riviera) who started down that road. One of the first gigs I saw was Kilburn and the High Roads, playing that music hall sounding stuff, prior to The Blockheads. That attracted me. I would never have dreamed I could go and get a saxophone and play in a pop-rock band. It was a combination of Chris, Mike and myself having the same interest in many things – fashion, music, jumping freight trains, doing graffiti. Fucking hell, unfortunately I’ve just heard about those three kids.”

He’s referring there to the deaths of graffiti artists Alberto Carrasco, 19, Jack Gilbert and Harrison Scott-Hood, both 23, fatally struck by a train at Loughborough Junction in South London in the early hours of June 18th.

On Board: Lee Thompson still has an eye for fashion

“We sort of started that, certainly in North London. There was more political graffiti going on, on the tube trains. You’ve gotta see this book, The Writing on the Wall, it’s fantastic. We sort of got the inspiration from a magazine from The Sunday Times on New York art and graffiti. It was easy to get cans out of Woolworth’s then – silver and black. I know we pissed off a lot of council boroughs … certainly Camden. My son’s taken up the mantle now. He does quite a lot of graffiti work, and knew one of those kids, from Muswell Hill.”

But it proved to be music that really made Lee’s name in the end, thanks to the determined efforts of Mike Barson.

“We had those same interests, and Mike was saying, ‘Look, if Ian Dury can do it …’ He was really into Elvis Costello, the Kilburns, Alex Harvey … and with Chris and I we all seemed to be on the same page with everything, so that helped.”

At that point I mentioned fellow London performers and writers Ian Dury and Ray Davies and the influence of music hall, bringing in my recent conversation with Dave Peacock of Chas ‘n’ Dave fame (with a link here), when Lee interrupted …

“Bloody hell – I was on the phone to him yesterday! I had a French bulldog, Farty Marty, he really did stink and they’re so hard to train. I was going to give him to someone, and Dave heard and said, ‘I’ll have him!’ He’s been with him about a year, but then phoned and said, ‘Lee, me dog’s gone missing! What do I do? ‘ So I said, ‘Well, he’s chipped and neutered.’ But a couple of days later, or even the same day, they said, ‘We’ve got your dog’. He was 20 miles away in Welwyn Garden City. He’d ran off, 20 miles up the road! Dave was saying, ‘At my age, I don’t need this!’ He’s a lovely fella is Dave. He’s old school. Very old school.”

At this point we got on to mid-’80s Madness, having seen the band perform ‘Uncle Sam’ on a Top of the Pops re-run that week. I told him how much I love that Keep Moving (1984) and Mad Not Mad (1985) era, and the Wonderful album that heralded their proper return in 1999. That said, I’m also with Lee when I’ve heard him talk about how proud he was of what he sees as the band’s masterpiece, 2009’s The Liberty of Norton Folgate.

“Oh yeah, that really moved the goalposts. I thought, ‘I can retire now’. I’ve done the Queen’s roof. I’ve done the Olympics, done the No.1 spot, now we can retire … but the public won’t let us!

“I said to Robert Elms the other day, ‘I heard you got a phone call saying, ‘When you’re 60, are you thinking of retiring?’ But he says as long as people want to hear us, we’ll carry on, way past Tony Blackburn. I’m the same – until me teeth drop out and me lungs pack up, it’s very medicinal, therapeutic …”

Thompson Two: Father Lee passes on sage advice to his son

Dave Peacock offers a good example of that tenacity and determination to keep performing and stay young.

“Yes. And it does keep you going. He retired after his wife passed on, of course. He was absolutely distraught, as you would be. But life goes on and he’s back in the running. I’ve seen him on Jools’ Holland’s show the other day and I’m waving at the telly … as if he can see me! I’m glad that I know him.”

Seeing as I mentioned Top of the Pops before, can you clear something up for me? It’s this story about Madness’ spoof drugs raid on The Clash while they were recording around the corner from you. It was the occasion where you were sporting police uniform …

“Oh, yeah, that was for ‘Shut Up!'”

That would make it Autumn 1981. But I’ve also heard it was your Stiff label-mates, The Blockheads. They had the same gear on (from the same theatrical costumier in Camden, I’m guessing) when performing on that show a year earlier, with the hit single ‘I Wanna Be Straight’ in late August 1980. But you’re saying you definitely carried out your own raid?

“That’s right … but maybe The Blockheads done it as well. I remember I had these big shoes on. It was right around the corner from Westside (Wessex, I’m guessing) Studios, where Clive (Langer) and Alan (Winstanley) had a studio. Stiff picked that location for us to run about. It was half-derelict. They definitely weren’t on the ground floor, because I had these big clown shoes on that wouldn’t allow me to go up these steps. But we were all in these police uniforms and I particularly remember Cathal (Smyth aka Chas Smash) bursting the door open. I was behind him, but can’t remember who else was there. I think Topper fell from his drum kit, and went straight into the toilet. You could hear the toilet flushing … for whatever reason. Ha ha!”

And according to Suggs in his autobiography, That Close, The Clash didn’t speak to them for another five years after that.

As for Lee, all these years on, he still seems to have the drive to get up on stage regularly, be it with the Ska Orchestra, Madness, or whoever else.

“Yeah, my last gig was on Saturday, with a band called The Silencerz who started about two years ago, doing a thing to give a bit back to local charities – a hospice and Marie Clare and the NSPCC. It was the same line-up as with the Ska Orchestra, but with my son (Daley Thompson – yes, not the decathlete gold medallist) on lead vocals, who is phenomenal, and Nick Godwin, who writes the tunes, a real doffing of the cap to the Madness sound, and he’s got those quirky lyrics. And there’s an album that’s just been released, called Better Days. Me and my son feature on that too. It’s right underground at the moment, but I thought I’d let you in on it!”

Very good of him too, judging by my first listens of a band with something of the spirit of a Next Generation Madness, their official album launch having happened at the Bull Theatre in Barnet, with the band’s Facebook page linked here and a chance to buy the album here.

Meanwhile, Lee’s still talking …

“And I won’t retire. I’m enjoying it so much with Madness. It’s all red-carpet treatment and we’ve even got carers on board now, to give us our medication when we need it! We’re wearing neck braces and leg braces, but while the other 22 and a half hours is a fucking pain, for that one and a half hours it’s sheer joy. I’m seriously enjoying it more now than ever before.”

Perhaps you just know how best to put up with each other these days. You’re no longer living in each other’s pockets.

“No. we know how to take the piss out of each other, sit back and then laugh it off.”

Finally, if a stranger came round to your house and you felt you had to explain what you’ve been doing all these years in music, of all the tracks you’ve written or co-written, which would you be most likely to proudly play for them?

“Mmmm … it would have to be ‘(The Liberty of) Norton Folgate’. The title track is just phenomenal, and it was a real enjoyable experience. It’s something I wished I’d done years ago. It’s that sort of Pink Floyd-y thing – you sit back, light up a jazz woodbine, have a glass of wine, listen to that and it just takes you into different dimensions. More of that, I think … but I don’t know, sometimes you can’t repeat history.”

For a WriteWyattUK review of Suggs’ What a King Cnut show from March 2018, head here. There’s also a Madness appreciation on these pages from January 2013, found via this link, and another on Ian Dury (and The Blockheads) from October 2014 linked here.

Further details of screenings of One Man’s Madness can be found via an official Facebook page. You can also visit Lee’s Pledge Music page. To keep up to date with the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra, you can head to their website. And for all the latest from Madness, including this summer’s dates, try here

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Where the Solid Gold Easy Action is – in conversation with Gordon Gibson

Vinyl Reckoning: Owner of Action Records, Gordon Gibson. (Photo: Neil Cross / Lancashire Post)

Getting on for four decades after he sold his first vinyl, I’m pleased to say that Gordon Gibson shows no sign of wanting to step away from Action Records in Preston.

The much-revered Gordon, originally from Stranraer, has been in charge of the celebrated Lancashire store since first picking up the keys in the early ‘80s, having got his grounding working market stalls in not so far off Blackpool. And this year’s itinerary alone proves Action Records remains at the cultural heart of his adopted city, with a number of impressive promotions lined up.

Coming soon, there’s an in-store signing of a new album by The Alarm involving front-man Mike Peters (July 5th), while punk legends The Damned put in an appearance in April, as did the up’n’coming Cabbage in March and The Wombats in February, while Gordon co-arranged a successful event at the nearby Blitz nightspot in May, co-arranged with Blitz’s Peter Alexander, featuring happening outfit Blossoms.

He also gave me brief details of two more events in the pipeline, the first with up-and-coming group The Blinders (date not yet revealed), while another was being finalised with Lancaster band Massive Wagons (August 16th), again at Blitz. And in the past, there have been promotions involving the likes of Bastille, Dirty Pretty Things, The Magic Numbers, Muse, Reverend & The Makers, The Rifles, Starsailor’s James Walsh, We Are Scientists, Willy Mason, and many more.

While Gordon’s in his mid-60s now, he’s clearly still got the hunger, his shop even the subject of a revealing short documentary back in 2015, ‘Chased by Nuns’ (with a YouTube trailer link here).

“Oh yeah. I tell you, if you didn’t have some sort of passion, you wouldn’t do it. You really have to be into it. There’s that many ups and downs, but you just put up with all that. And these gigs and in-store things are just great.”

I always get the feeling that the wider media are only really interested when it comes to Record Store Day. Then they all disappear for a while.

“You’ve just got to accept that, but we’re always working on something, and nowadays you obviously needed this social media thing. The bottom line is that you’ve always got to have something to say. If you just sit around and don’t do anything, you won’t have anything to say. Plus, you might just have some nice new releases coming in, especially now with the vinyl again. It’s encouraging the record companies to at least stay with the physical, as opposed to that download-only way of working, which happens a lot with new singles. Of course, these days when we’re told there’s a new single out, chances are that it won’t be what we see as a new single. It’s more likely a download picked up off an album. But they’ll call it a single, which is rather annoying.”

Action Records has served as an influential label in its time too, revered in indie circles over the years via releases from the likes of The Boo Radleys, Fi-Lo Radio, Preston’s own  Big Red Bus and Dandelion Adventure, plus the late Mark E. Smith and his legendary band The Fall. And most recently there was The Common Cold, featuring Dandelion Adventure’s Marcus Parnell and Ajay Saggar plus former Cornershop drummer Dave Chambers, a past Action Records employee, putting out their album, Shut Up! Yo Liberals!

“Well yeah. The lads were just going to do it themselves, but they just needed that bit of help with the distribution and all that. So I kind of jumped on board with that. And that turned out really well for them.”

And there’s been that real shift in recent years, not just with the re-emergence of vinyl sales and interest, but also with the merchandise stand at live gigs becoming more and more important to bands trying to make a living from their craft.

“Oh yeah. You really have to think about that. If you have a band, I always tell everybody – even if it’s just a young artist playing a social acoustic gig – it’s better if he’s got even a little CD there. That’s the time when you’re going to get people willing to pick something up. Then it’s in the memory. If you’re doing gigs, you should try and have something you can sell. And if you’re more established, you need to be doing all the merch – t-shirts and all sorts, as we’ve done in the past with bands like The Fall.”

How long was Action Records a market stall before Gordon – whose past staff have also included Nick Brown of The Membranes and Kentish Town’s Intoxica Records fame –  moved to Preston?

“I think it was a couple of years. Maybe two to three years in Blackpool. I did have another little shop in the middle of Blackpool for a bit. My brother ran it for us a little while, near where the bus station used to be.”

That’s Andy Gibson, who also featured with post-punk outfit The Genocides, whose raw debut single ‘Is That Alright?’ was the first released on Gordon’s label, their two-track slice of vinyl including a run through The Heartbreakers’ ‘Born to Lose’. Anything become of them from there?

“Well, at the time, it was that style of music between punk and moving away towards hardcore punk, but they were more like Johnny Thunders.”

As shown by that cover version. It sounds great too. You captured a real energy on that recording.

“Oh yeah. They did another 7”, but then it kind of petered out. And Andy was working for me anyway.”

Anyway, sorry Gordon. Where were we?

“Back in Blackpool, there was a market on Bond Street, called Charisma. An Indian guy had this small indoor market, around six to eight stalls. We were right at the front, then did another one. The first year we were just coming off South Shore Pier. Then we moved down Bond Street, where we were open all year, not just for the summer.”

It was in 1981 that Gordon moved his business to its current Church Street base, to a shop the city’s older generation may recall was once home to Preston North End and Scotland right-back Willie Cunningham’s sports shop. And over time, Action Records expanded and took over more space. But how did he get involved in the music industry in the first place?

“I kept getting made redundant! I’d done an awful lot of jobs. I worked in Preston docks when it was still a dock. My yard was where it’s now McDonald’s, with containers coming in for wagons. I was in the Merchant Navy when I was 16.”

His link with Preston came after hitching a lift in 1971 with Lancashire couple Alan and Sheila Cookson to the Lincoln Folk Festival, with James Taylor, The Byrds, Buffy St Marie, Sandy Denny and Tim Hardin among the headliners that year.

“I always think there are some things in life where just one decision can straight away change your whole life. I suppose after being made redundant all those times, you decide, ‘You know what? I’m going to try and see if I can set something up with records’.

“I had a big record collection and started buying as well as selling. And when I got that lift to Lincoln, that couple, Alan and Sheila, they picked me up and … I mean, you can’t realise how your whole life from that point changes. It’s amazing. With that lift, I was totally away on a different angle.”

And all because of a personal message received live on air via legendary DJ Whispering Bob Harris, I understand.

“Yes, I went back to Stranraer after the festival. Do you know, I think I might even have been 19 or 20 actually, because I was still living up there. Alan and Sheila dropped me off at Preston and I hitched back. Then, a few days later, Bob Harris read out that they were trying to contact me, even giving out a phone number. I don’t think they would do that today!”

These days, Gordon’s a father of three, ‘not as if they’re as mad into music as me, I’m afraid. It’s kind of different with people today.’ That said, he tells me one of his sons helps with Action Records’ website.

“But I work a ridiculous amount of hours. Maybe it’s best to get a normal job where you get holidays and everything like that.”

You’re also one of the few people who properly got to know the late Mark E. Smith of The Fall, getting beyond the public persona maybe.

“Well, we worked together for about 15 years. There is that public persona, although he probably was like that most of the time. But we dealt with that, kept it as easy business, and we got on fine. I always think, don’t try and get too close to people. That’s where you go wrong. Talk when you need to talk, ask what you need to do, discuss things. If we don’t agree on something, well. There were plenty of disagreements over the years, but in the end things always worked out.”

So what was the first record you bought?

“The Beatles’ ‘Twist and Shout’ EP. I’ve still got a copy, stuck on a shelf somewhere.”

Asked about his most influential early gigs, Gordon recalled a T. Rex show, ‘the first time they went electric’, at Green’s Playhouse, Glasgow, in October 1971, incidentally on the same tour that last week’s writewyattuk interviewee JC Carroll mentioned.

“That was a big memory for me. And Bob Harris actually DJ’d on that tour. In them days, bands would take DJs out, playing records between sets. They were stars too.”

Any plans to retire from the day-job sometime soon?

“What would I do? People say that, but I’m so busy doing things.”

I’m guessing you’ll say you haven’t got time to retire.

“I haven’t, literally. Sometimes it’s not so good, but bloody hell, it’s not boring!”

And does heading to the office involve a longer commute these days?

“No, I live in Bamber Bridge. Even when working in Blackpool I had to travel from Preston every day.”

So it made perfect sense to find a shop here.

“Oh yeah, especially when you didn’t take enough to pay the bus fare some days!”

Action Stations: Gordon Gibson checks his rising stock at his Church Street HQ (Photo: Neil Cross / Lancashire Post)

For all the latest from Action Records, including in-store and gig promotions, head to their website. You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.   

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