Understanding Vinny Peculiar – in conversation with Alan Wilkes

Fork’s Sake: Alan Wilkes, the sky-gazing singer-songwriter behind Vinny Peculiar, striking a pose, rural al fresco style.

It would be all too easy to point out that Alan Wilkes, the inspiration behind Vinny Peculiar, has flirted with indie stardom but never quite attained that elusive crossover fame.

But don’t think for one moment this Worcestershire-born and bred singer-songwriter, now back to his roots after several years in the North West, is in any way bitter about that. In fact, I think he rather revels in his outsider status.

Alan already had a successful career in nursing before taking a chance on a full-time music calling, signing to Manchester cult label Ugly Man Records, whose acts included a certain Elbow. But don’t expect him to moan about his lot and cite missed opportunities while Guy Garvey’s star soared. I reckon he’s quite happy where he is, at the moment somewhat self-consciously plugging his latest quality long player, While You Still Can, his 13th instalment of literate autobiographical pop over an impressive if relatively low-key, two-decade knock.

This eclectic performer tours regularly in band, solo and duo format, Uncut describing him as ‘an under-sung national treasure’, while Q has him down for a ‘warm-hearted Morrissey’, and The Irish Times as ‘the missing link between Jarvis Cocker and Roger McGough’. And none of those descriptions are wrong.

He’s worked in the past with KLF mastermind Bill Drummond, Luke Haines and Jah Wobble from John Lydon’s PIL, while his bands have included members of The Smiths, Oasis, Aztec Camera and The Fall. Alan’s also written and recorded under the Parlour Flames name, formed in 2013 with former Oasis rhythm guitarist Paul Arthurs, aka Bonehead, currently with Liam Gallagher’s band.

What’s more, he’s opened for the likes of Duke Special, Wreckless Eric and The Wedding Present, and it was with the latter that I saw him in late July, typically engaging at Blackpool’s Waterloo Bar. That pairing has won him lots of new fans too, performing at David Gedge’s annual At the Edge of the Sea festival in Brighton among other dates.

“It has. They’ve been great. There’s a really nice Wedding Present community on social media and elsewhere. I knew the main albums before, but hearing them live I really got into them. They’re an interesting band, not a cliché, their own thing going on, very nice people. There was this holy trinity, wasn’t there – The Smiths, The Fall, The Wedding Present – that (John) Peel helped massively.”

Vinny’s spent a fair bit of his time in the North West in recent years, and while he’s now back to his Midlands roots, he stressed to me, ‘I’ve still got a Northern band.’ Is that the core of his Parlour Flames set-up?

“Yeah … minus Bonehead. He was going to do this, then got the Liam gig, which is bizarre really. He texts and I’m playing at a pub down the road while he’s off to play the Hollywood Bowl with Liam. He says, ‘Have a good gig’, and I say, ‘Yeah, you too!’ That’s the last time I spoke to him.”

There’s no malice in that, just a little friendly bewilderment, perhaps. And it turns out that the pair’s union followed another project with former members of The Smiths.

“I made a record with Mike Joyce and Craig Gannon in 2006, and Bone loved it. He’d been playing with Mike, then managed Vinny Peculiar for a year or so. When Karen Leatham, our bass player, who was in The Fall, couldn’t come to Europe with us, Bone said he’d play. He stayed until around 2009, when I went back to my own albums. But we always said we should do something together again, and both had a window, recording the Parlour Flames album in Bonehead’s basement studio.”

Where was that?

“In Hale. I reckon everyone who lives there suffers from Paradise Syndrome – they can’t believe how lucky they are. A packet of Walker’s crisps and bag of sandwiches was about £7, and that was in 2013!

“But that was a good experience, and it’s not a bad album. We possibly ended up overcooking it a bit, but that’s just my view – it’s probably a bit over-thought and over-produced, but …”

Don’t believe a word. It’s a corker, and if you haven’t caught up with it yet, you’re only six years behind. Find yourself a copy. Highly recommended. I am 6ft 4 after all.

Lounging Around: Vinny Peculiar’s Alan Wilkes, suited up, low lights, shades indoors, with songs to sing and play.

I say that as if I’ve been a fan of his work a long time, but I’m still catching up with his back-catalogue. What’s more, there will be plenty more of us in that boat, largely unaware of his past work with bigger or at least better-known names in the industry.

“A lot of people are. The hardest job in music isn’t making it, it’s promoting it. And you’re either a born Tweeter or you’re not. I engage with all that, but don’t thrash the hell out of it, and unfortunately you kind of need to, or need someone to.”

That whole layer of record company staff seems to have gone these past couple of decades, along with promotions money.

“Every musician now has to be their own A&R, their own publicist, their own promoter, their own PR, their own blagger … There are so many roles being eroded away. What’s that great quote about how in the ‘70s a hundred albums were released and all sold a million, now there’s a million albums selling a hundred? There’s so much music out there, and I struggle as a punter to find it. Instead, I’ll listen to Jethro Tull again, like when I was 15.”

A friend with an impressive record collection accrued over the years told me a few years ago he couldn’t be bothered acquiring more new LPs from artists he doesn’t already know as he doesn’t even have time to listen again to everything he’s already got. Sad but true.

“It’s weird, you’ll go into a record shop now, and … 25 years ago you had a rough idea before they sectionalised it all, but now it’s just overwhelming.”

Never one to sit back though, several releases as Vinny Peculiar have surfaced since that afore-mentioned Parlour Flames offering, his latest LP a further example of splendid recorded output in recent years.

There’s plenty to savour, not least glam-rock influences on the marvellous ‘Man out of Time’, the songcraft always shining through, with echoes of Steve Harley there for these ears.

“There’s all sorts you can cross-reference. It’s great how different people hear different influences. A friend of mine says he’s still waiting for my big Wishbone Ash rip-off. That’s who we loved at school, and it’s got to be in there somewhere. And I still listen to Argus.

“That said, I supported them once (in Liverpool) and it was terrible! I went on and did a load of poetry to all these frizzy-haired guys in denim shirts just glaring at me. I was probably wrong for the bill, but said to Alan at The Cavern, ‘I’ve got to do it! I loved that band as a kid. It was a terrible mistake. It was the wrong audience.”

At this point, we discuss how early influences often show, for example Mick Jones’ love of Mott the Hoople on The Clash’s London Calling. And Alan’s soon off again, ‘wittering’ as he put it, telling me Mott’s version of ‘All the Young Dudes’ is in his all-time top-10 singles.

He never got to see Mott back in the day, but got his fair fix of glam, sheepishly telling me his first gig was Gary Glitter at Birmingham Town Hall, an uneasy laugh following, adding, ‘My Dad dropped me off, picking me up later with my mates’. But creepy frontman aside, we decided we could at least talk in reverential tones about The Glitter Band.

Moving on, the new Vinny Peculiar LP is described as a ‘noisy hard-rock affair with big drums, wild guitar solos and trippy Floyd-like excursions,’ and ‘an intense unsentimental record by VP standards’. Would he say that’s a bit of a departure from what’s come before?

“A little, yeah, less of a singer-songwriter album, more band-centric. There’s more guitars – louder guitars – although a couple of tracks are more jangly, which seems to be one of my defaults, maybe from living in Manchester so long … a few Johnny Marr-isms.”

And the subject matter? ‘Political vanity, news black-outs, cultural betrayals and a song about class A drugs as a form of political oppression’. Is this his most political album?

“Probably, although I don’t see it as overtly political so much as a response to the political confusion everyone’s going through, regardless of which side of the Brexit divide they sit on. For me, one of the issues is the vanity of politics now, which is quite extreme. You want them to focus less on their profile and followers and more on the issues, getting things done in a less show-off way.

But even opening song ‘Vote For Me’, despite the fact that the character in the promo video wears a blond, Boris Johnson-type wig, could be read in more ways than one. You could see it cynically or take it as sincere.

“Yeah, it’s a funny one. I said to Andy Squiff, the director, ‘Don’t make it too cynical,’ but in the end we went with that, him convincing me it would get more viewers. But it could just be a serious, sad love song. You often get that in songs – it’s not always as obvious as you think. Messages can be a little more fractured. The best music is less slogans, more reactions.

“And a song like ‘Man Out of Time’ is almost a throwback to another world really – which seems to be more my default! We all have a defining cultural moment, and mine was probably glam in the early ‘70s, when I was 13 or 14.”

Despite that glam feel, the slide guitar might even suggest Gerry Rafferty’s Stealers Wheel, although Alan suggested Medicine Head was more likely.

Was there a band you saw or listened to in the early days and instantly felt this was what you had to do for a living?

“I always considered myself Bromsgrove’s answer to David Bowie. At least that’s what someone told me once. I saw Bromsgrove as the new Bromley. … if only because it sounded a bit similar. We’d bullshit people about that, but it didn’t quite happen .. then I had kids, got a real job, and all that.”

I hear Bowie coming through in your songs sometimes, not least on this album.

“Well, you’re bigging me up now, comparing me to the master!”

‘Pop Music For Ugly People’ has hints of ‘Scary Monsters’ coupled with Magazine’s ‘Sweetheart Contract’.

“Wow – Magazine, yeah! And there is a bit of ‘Scary Monsters’, which has a real density of guitar noise.”

I also hear a little Wire.

“I like Wire. I saw them at Barbarella’s in Birmingham in about ’78, and bands like XTC in clubs, and Elvis Costello I think at the Barrel Organ or some small Brum venue where I almost suffocated. They didn’t seem to care how many people they let in back in those days. I also saw lots of mid-70s hard rock bands like Man, and Be Bop Deluxe were one of my favourite bands. I got to see Eddie and the Hot Rods …”

We’re interrupted at that point, my landline ringing, me telling Alan – who named his label Shadrack & Duxbury Records in tribute to Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 novel turned 1963 movie, Billy Liar, the eponymous protagonist an undertakers’ clerk there – I could pretend I was in a busy office but really it was just my front room.

“Well, we’re all in that world. My studio is in my attic!”

Anyway, back to Bowie as a defining influence.

“Yeah, the whole Bowie thing of the 70s, I don’t think anyone will ever do what he did. The Beatles changed with every album, but Bowie did it for longer at a time when the microscope was heavier, and did it so amazingly. Switching genres and bands, creating the whole avant-garde alternative in such a great way. I was a big fan from The Man who Sold the World to Scary Monsters.”

Alan’s Manchester move came in the late ‘80s after a previous spell in Liverpool, working in mental health services in both cities. But he left the NHS around eight years ago, ‘beginning my descent into poverty’, working part-time for the previous 15 years.

“I’d put out a lot of records and had to make this decision as to whether this was what I wanted to do or whether I wanted a more standard career.”

Manchester comes through in his work, not just on the Parlour Flames LP, which opens with ‘Manchester Rain’, an inspired answer to The Mamas and Papas’ classic ‘California Dreaming’.

There’s a ‘Madchester’ feel to ‘Scarecrows’ on the new record. Maybe he should invite Happy Mondays to cover that for their next record.

Parlour Pals: Paul Arthurs, also known as Bonehead, and Alan Wilkes in technicolour action as Parlour Flames.

“Well, the drummer (Che Beresford) is in Black Grape, as well as Badly Drawn Boy, Parlour Flames, and about six wedding bands.”

A few extra royalties wouldn’t do any harm, would they?

“No. I’ll see if I can have a word with Shaun (Ryder), although I’m not sure how that will go. Ha!”

There’s definitely a ‘baggy’ thing going on.

“You’re right, although I was thinking Bowie meets Talking Heads type funk.”

While I’m at it, ‘Culture Vulture’ has a Blur-like feel. I’d expect to find it on a Graham Coxon album.

“Yeah, it’s got a kind of energy about it. For me there’s a slight Led Zeppelin feel to the riff. But I’d much prefer a Blur or Coxon record!”

And the closing track, ‘Let Them Take Drugs’ is The Pet Shop Boys with added bollocks for me.

“Yeah, more slide guitars as well! That was my Dave Gilmour impression.”

Note that for every indie, punk or at least more contemporary influence I mention, he often counters with some ’70s guitar colossus or other. I don’t see him as some sort of rock dinosaur though.

“I’m not really. I’m adapting. You have to keep doing that, reinventing versions of yourself in relation to different times. A lot of this album is more than just about musicality. It’s about the lyricism too.”

This is your state of the nation address, in a sense.

“In some ways, I guess. Ha! Yeah, I’ll take that, although I find it amusing that the nation would be even remotely interested in my statements!

“It’s also about the twisted nature of the news. A lot of the ideas came quickly for this album, probably from watching too many episodes of Newsnight. I’ll get up the next morning, watch it, get angry, then get in the studio!”

Don’t be too quick to label him in a certain genre though. He’s just re-pressed a Vinny Peculiar album called Silver Meadows (Fables From the Institution) and is set to play a small set at an annual psychiatry conference in Leeds later this month, that LP’s subject matter stemming from his days as a nurse in the 1980s. And the same day he’s a special guest of Duke Special, joining him on stage at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music.

Away from music, his children are now 33 and 26, and he has two grandchildren. What do the young ‘uns make of Grandad Peculiar?

“Ha! They appeared on my last album, Return of the Native, doing some chanting on ‘The Grove and the Ditch’, a song about gang wars between Bromsgrove and Redditch. They enjoyed that, but I’m sure when they get older they’ll be totally embarrassed by the whole thing. They come over once a week after school, there’s a drum-kit here and I allow them a limited amount of time to annoy everyone!”

Home Again: Alan Wilkes, most likely coming to a town near you fairly soon, with his Vinny Peculiar bandmates

Alan is also returning to his old Manchester haunts for a Vinny Peculiar show at the Castle Hotel on Tuesday, November 26th, in full band mode alongside Rob Steadman (synths, who also appears with Alan in two-piece format), the afore-mentioned Che Beresford (drums) and Ollie Collins (bass, ex-Cherry Ghost and Badly Drawn Boy).

“It’s a full band, and it’ll be noisy in there, as it’s only small.”

You’ve made many great records and it’s a full-time passion these days, but have you given up on dreams of top-level fame?

“I haven’t given up, I’m just more realistic nowadays…and take pleasure in smaller victories. I’m trying to just create some kind of positive live experience for smaller groups, telling stories about where my song ideas came from. It’s not teenage music. Lennon famously said he was going to retire at 30, but everyone comes back … and why not!”

Do you feel you missed out while old label-mates Elbow enjoyed comparatively stratospheric success?

“I’m past all that. The only moments I have like that are realisation moments.”

He’s sure to have such moments during acoustic sets with Andy Rourke at Salford Lads’ Club, seeing the adulation afforded the former-Smiths bass player. But he wouldn’t be drawn on that.

I reckon he’s got it right too. And anyone catching Vinny Peculiar live will testify not only to the quality of the songs but the humour too, his autobiographical accounts between numbers inspiring you to take a shine to this seasoned, prolific performer and all-round good bloke.

Two’s Company: Vinny Peculiar in duo mode, with Alan Wilkes on guitar backed up by Rob Steadman on keyboards

For details of Vinny Peculiar live dates, new LP While You Still Can and past releases, head to www.vinnypeculiar.com or visit his Facebook page. 

 

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Stone Foundation – Manchester Gorilla

Red Up: Neil Jones, right, into the swing while the SF brass boys kick in at Gorilla, Manchester (Photo: Paul W Dixon)

The idea was to take the soul train to Manchester on Friday night, but Northern Rail shenanigans put paid to that, the state of the nation’s railways more ‘What’s Going On?’ than ‘People Get Ready’ right now, discussions over whether to renationalise or bring in The O’Jays ongoing.

As a result, faced with hanging around another 90 minutes before leaving for Oxford Road and missing the bulk of the set, I decided to drive, my eldest daughter having already set off from Sheffield to join me. But it worked out fine, even if the venue’s early curfew ahead of a club night meant we didn’t get to see fellow Paul Weller associate Steve Pilgrim’s support slot. Hopefully next time.

In fact, we barely got to the bar before the headliners stepped up, this soulful eight-piece (and that number is commendable in this day and age of musicians struggling to make ends meet – no half-baked brass loops on synths here) getting into their stride on new song ‘Freedom Starts’, ‘Open Your Heart to the World’ – Rob Newton’s percussive touches driving them – and ‘Next Time Around’. They know their onions, green and otherwise.

Think of the vibe of the Paul Weller Movement set-up with plenty of Curtis Mayfield fire, and you’re not far off. Stone Foundation are awash with deep soul influences, added professionalism keeping them some distance from any sound-alike Mod tribute brigade.

No special guests tonight, so no Hamish Stuart on ‘Only You Can’ – my personal highlight on Everybody, Anyone – even if the Average White Band’s ‘Pick Up the Pieces’ was played in the bar after. But lead vocalist/guitarist Neil Jones was more than up for it, his enthusiasm – he sings, dances, plays, and inspires all around him – catching, a funky riff built on co-founder Neil Sheasby’s bass and long-time cohort Phil Ford’s drumming proving a perfect … erm, foundation.

Hat’s Entertainment: Neil Sheasby lays down another groove with Stone Foundation at Gorilla (Photo: Paul W Dixon)

Next new song, ‘Changes’ was followed by Street Rituals’ ‘Season of Change. Yes, it’d be nice to see Bettye LaVette out with them, but balance sheets need to be taken into consideration. Besides, the band were firing on all cylinders now, Ian Arnold’s tinklings and Jonesy’s guitar building on Brother Sheas’ bass throb.

My evening highlight followed. No Weller of course, but ‘The Limit of a Man’ sounds great in studio form and even better live in a song recapturing The Style Council at their strongest. You might even say that as daylight turns to moonlight, they’re at their best.

In fact, that’s my general take. There’s a spark here that’s not always been as apparent on the recordings for these ears. Buy the records, learn the songs, wallow in them, but I reckon you get more of a feeling of this together outfit on stage, and their front-man really gets caught up in it.

They only started this UK run the night before in Edinburgh (selling out the Voodoo Rooms), and while nothing less than a class act, I got the feeling the brass trio – Anthony Gaylard (sax), Steve Trigg and Dave Boraston (trumpets) were perhaps nervy at first at their stage-front position in such an intimate setting. But they were note-perfect and soon flying.

Similarly, Sheasby was having technical issues, even if most of us were oblivious. But by the midway point they all seemed to be having a ball, feeding off a positive energy coming from throughout this compact venue. And it was a great size hall for them – far better than some enormo-dome, I imagine.

Brass  Tax: From left – Anthony Gaylard, Steve Trigg, Dave Boraston and Rob Newton inspire (Photo: Paul W Dixon)

We had another quality Weller co-write with ‘Your Balloon is Rising’, the brass boys switching to flute and flugelhorns while Arnold moved seamlessly from Hammond to keyboard piano. And ‘Back in the Game’ saw our assured guests plough on in style, Impressions influences to the fore.

A set-closing take on ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ rightly went down a storm. Yes, the purists will always point to Ann Peebles’ 1973 single, and I love Graham Parker’s 1977 re-read (GP also featuring on the SF single version), but they kind of make it theirs.

And back they came, trying to squeeze in as much as they could before the power was cut, ‘Sweet Forgiveness’ followed by A Life Unlimited opener ‘Beverley’ before a final flourish with closing cover ‘Going Back to My Roots’, Lamont Dozier’s evergreen given the Odyssey party vibe as much as the Richie Havens’ version they were building on.

More to the point, every interpretation – covers and originals alike – works well, this consummate Midlands combo clearly having fun and tight enough as a unit to pull it all off. Cracking night, fellas.

Green Light: Stone Foundation at full throttle, Phil Ford driving from the rear between the Neils (Photo: Paul W Dixon)

For this website’s most recent interview with Stone Foundation’s Neil Sheasby, a link to our previous interview, and details of how to snap up his Boys Dreaming Soul memoir, head hereAnd for information regarding the remaining dates on Stone Foundation’s latest UK tour, resuming this Thursday, November 7th at the Rescue Rooms in Nottingham, threading right through to Saturday, November 23rd at Thekla, Bristol, details are here

With thanks to Paul W Dixon Photography for use of the images. To find out more about Paul and his work, head here or follow him via Instagram

 

 

 

 

 

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Still on The Vapors’ trail – back in touch with Dave Fenton

Family Way: Father and son Dave and Dan Fenton – the latter deputising for Ed Bazalgette – in live action with The Vapors at Cardiff University’s Students’ Union Great Hall. Photo: Warren Meadows.

This time 40 years ago, The Vapors were about to set out on tour with The Jam on their biggest adventure to date, invited along for the ride on the latter’s Setting Sons tour by their co-managers, Jam bass player Bruce Foxton and the headliners’ manager John Weller, father of front-man Paul.

You may have caught that tour somewhere, perhaps at Manchester’s Apollo Theatre, Lancaster University, London’s Rainbow Theatre … who knows. But if you didn’t, fear not. They’re back again, supporting Bruce Foxton’s more recent venture, From the Jam, a band that originally included Jam drummer Rick Buckler, Bruce leading the charge with long-time songwriting and performing partner Russell Hastings. They’re a class act, and the same goes for the support band.

Three of the classic four-piece Vapors remain on board, but while just two feature on this tour – Dave and bass player Steve Smith – missing guitarist Ed Bazalgette (the celebrated television director currently busy with filming commitments) has quality cover between appearances from protégé Dan Fenton, who just so happens to be one of Dave’s three children.

Dave, a music lawyer before taking early retirement from a role with the Musicians’ Union, reconvened his old band in 2016. He’s based in Worthing on the South Coast these days, moving after his children left school from Hertfordshire to Sussex, handy for rehearsals with Brighton-based Steve and Crawley-based drummer Michael Bowes, the latter a tutor by day at Brighton’s British and Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM), taking over from Howard Smith – busy with a young family, gig promotions and his role as Guildford’s prospective parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party – when they finally got back together after 35 years.

As Dave put it when we spoke earlier this week, “There was nothing keeping us in Harpenden. It made sense to move closer to them. I didn’t need to get into London on the train anymore. I’ve retired now. This is my retirement, see!”

Yes, four decades after writing ‘Trains’, for me up there with The Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and The Jam’s ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’ and ‘Smithers-Jones’ as a classic tale of life as a London commuter, we can confirm that Dave Fenton successfully took on the trains … and they didn’t get him.

It’s also fair to say Dave’s loving it, not only out there playing live, but also recording new songs, a third Vapors album recorded and set to land fairly soon, 38 years after the previous one. And all in all, a band best known for UK top-three hit ‘Turning Japanese’ (also a No.1 in Australia) are relishing their second coming.

Double Act: Michael Bowes, left, gets the joke as Steve Smith, centre, and Dave Fenton get down to it at Cardiff University Students’ Union Great Hall, as The Vapors support From The Jam (Photo: Warren Meadows)

So, three dates into this tour, has Dave had opportunities to reminisce with the band’s former manager, Mr Foxton?

“A bit, yeah. Not a lot. We sort of pass each other in soundchecks mostly, as we’re playing at different times. But yeah, we all get on fine.”

He was gearing up for Leeds Stylus (Thursday 24th), Middlesbrough Empire (Friday 25th) and Hull City Hall (Saturday 26th) when I called, coming closest to my adopted patch at Blackburn’s King George’s Hall (Friday, November 15th), another venue visited in 1979, although missing From the Jam’s Manchester Ritz return (Saturday, November 23rd) due to a prior London booking at Nell’s in West Kensington.

“We’ve only done three dates so far, but it’s going well, with a great crowd.”

This tour ends at London’s Indigo at the O2 on Saturday, November 30th, but they’re back out again in January and then in March and April, another busy year expected in Dave’s hectic retirement, anxiously awaiting the release of that new LP.

“We’ve recorded it and it’s all ready to go, and we’ve done test pressings. But I don’t think it’ll be ready until later in the year. We’re in negotiations with a distributor. I’ve never put a record out myself – everything’s changed, we’re on a learning curve, needing all the help we can get.”

That sounds a little frustrating.

“It is a bit. It’s going to be a year old by the time it comes out. On the other hand, I’ve never put a record out myself and everything’s changed since my day, so we’re on a learning curve and need all the help we can get. But so far, so good.”

Steely Dan: Dave Fenton’s son Dan on lead guitar in Ed Bazalgette’s absence at Cardiff University Students’ Union Great Hall, as The Vapors support From The Jam (Photo: Warren Meadows)

For those catching up, possibly thinking it might just be about one big hit and a couple of minor ones, the band made two great LPs in 1980 and 1981, with debut album New Clear Days among my favourite ever long players and follow-up Magnets, though so different, gradually growing on this scribe and one I love too now.

The early shows such as those in late 2016 were all about celebrating those records and the accompanying singles and B-sides. But last summer when I saw them again at Manchester’s Ruby Lounge there were a few new songs in the set too – and going down well – giving us hope that something was afoot.

“Well, some of the new tracks haven’t actually made the album. We had around 20 songs to choose from, and only chose 12.”

The band also head to North Wales on the first weekend of November for a sell-out two-day Vapors convention at Sir Clough Williams-Ellis’ celebrated Italianate-style village in Portmeirion, Gwynedd, the location for cult ‘60s series The Prisoner, in what’s become something of a regular date in the band’s diary.

“We pretty much get it to ourselves, with only a 100-something capacity for the main hall, so it’s just us and our fans spending the weekend together, which is great.”

And all following an invite from Vapors fan, Meurig Jones, a major player in the running of the celebrated No. 6 Festival, who happens to be an official guide in ‘The Village’.

“That’s how it all started really, him asking if we’d like to play there, being the place where The Prisoner was shot, and our first single being ‘Prisoners’.”

And four decades after that debut Vapors 45, how would you say this next LP will compare to the first two? Is this perhaps the longest trilogy in music history?

“Ha! It could be! There are references to people and things mentioned on the first album, for example ‘Letter to Hiro (No.11)’ – which when you write it down is ‘no one won’ – the other side of that first album’s ‘Letter From Hiro’, if you like. And I think Johnny crops up in one or two places.”

Headline Act: Russell Hastings, left, and Bruce Foxton, out on the road with The Vapors with From The Jam, rocking Cardiff University Students’ Union Great Hall (Photo: Warren Meadows)

Ah, yes, a character that features large on the second record, 1981’s Magnets. And there’s another nice reference to the first album… but they’re keeping that under wraps for now.

A lot’s happened since out last chat four years ago, Dave …

“Yeah, we were about to do our first four gigs in 35 years! And there was a really nice response.”

I was lucky enough to be at Liverpool Arts Club for one of those, a day I thought I’d never get to see, having been just 13 when the band first parted ways.

“Nice one. We get a lot of that, especially, ‘First time around I was too young to come’.”

Including The Vapors’ stand-in guitarist, your lad Dan.

“Yeah, he wasn’t even a twinkle in anyone’s eye!”

He’s going down well with the fans, with a fair few stage hours with the band under his belt now in Ed’s absence.

“Yeah. He’s a good guitarist, and he’s enthusiastic.”

Hallmark One: The Vapors Mk I outside Shalford Village Hall after recording their first demo in 1978. From left – Mike Hedges, Rob Kemp, Dave Fenton, Mike Jordan. Photo by early roadie Colin Crew, courtesy of David Shephard/Soundscene Does Facebook!

I think people can see he’s there on merit, and not just because of any family link.

“Yes. It’s a shame Ed couldn’t do more stuff, but he’s been really busy filming this year. He’s in London editing at the moment and has been away in Turkey, I think, filming. I’ve hardly seen him.”

You’ve travelled a fair bit yourself with the band during this latest spell in the band’s history. It’s been an amazing journey since you and Ed got up on stage with Steve’s band, The Shakespearos at London’s Half Moon, Putney in late April 2016, just playing ‘Turning Japanese’ on that occasion.

“I had no idea! And that’s before we did the initial four gigs.”

You’ve even inspired a book, dedicated Vapors fan Mike Philpott’s Time’s Gonna Make Me A Man Someday (on sale throughout this tour at the merch desk or via Amazon through this link), its title taken from the band’s third single, ‘News at Ten’.

“Yeah, that was strange! There are all these people that we’re finding out how much The Vapors meant to them.  And we didn’t know then. There was no internet. It was completely different.”

I’m guessing you were never stand-offish to the fans. You seem to have always been fairly open to approaches from them. I wonder how much of that was down to being associated with The Jam, a band who always looked after their supporters, however young.

“We learned that from the Jam really. They’d always go to the merch desk after a gig, sign things, shake hands, and have photos taken.

Morris Movers: The Vapors Mk II, outside Roundhouse Studios during the recording of ‘Turning Japanese’, early 1980. Clockwise from top – Ed Bazalgette, Howard Smith, Dave Fenton, Steve Smith. Picture courtesy of Alan ‘Fred’ Pipes

“This time last year we did three gigs at the Mercury Lounge in New York City, which all went down well, and we sold out. A great weekend for everyone, and quite a few fans came out from the UK. We’ve got quite a good following there and got invited back for the lost ‘80s tour this summer, doing around 22 dates over 30 days across America.

“It was weird playing there. Indoors it was freezing cold because the air conditioning was on, but when you went outside it was 100 degrees. And then we came home, and it was the complete opposite of that.”

I don’t wish to be disparaging, but it was a case of short, sharp greatest hit sets, sometimes barely a few aired. Does that get frustrating, just being asked to play the better-known songs?

“It was a bit. But there were so many bands on the roster that we were lucky that we got to play three or four songs each night. Some were just doing their one hit. I didn’t mind that, but it would have been nice to vary the set a bit. But the audience wanted to hear what they were getting.”

And hopefully they returned home to play the other records, get them on order, or save up to see you again somewhere soon.

“Well, exactly. If they liked us live maybe they’d look online and see what else we’ve got. And I’d never stop going back there. It was great.”

While The Vapors never properly toured Europe (Dave just recalls one TV show in Germany), with the thought of his past work with the Musicians’ Union, I put it to him that US tours involve a lot of painstaking paperwork, and we currently have a dark horizon looming with Brexit, making it increasingly difficult for bands planning future European travels.

“Well, yeah, it’s going to restrict musicians touring abroad, having to go through visa applications for each territory – and there’s 27 of them, rather than just through one passport. It’s going to be a nightmare.”

Lining Up: Michael Bowes leads from the rear as The Vapors’ front-line, on this occasion – from left – Steve Smith, Dave and Dan Fenton, kick in. Photo: Si Root.

I went more into the early history of the band with you in our feature/interview in September 2016 (with a link here), carrying on that conversation since with Ed and Steve in further features, and also Howard Smith. But something I only learned more recently involved the band before they all joined.

I’ve always dined out on the fact that The Stranglers practised at the end of the road I was brought up on, at Shalford Scout Hut, just outside Guildford. What I hadn’t realised was that an early incarnation of The Vapors also practised nearby, at Shalford Village Hall, a venue I knew better from Christmas fairs and older siblings going to dances and a social club there. Small world, eh?

“Yeah, that was a very early formation of The Vapors – Mark I, as we called it, with Rob Kemp, Mike Hedges and Mike Jordan on drums.”

So I gather, with the latter known as Joe, for fairly obvious reasons to football fans of that era. I hear Rob’s no longer with us though.

“Unfortunately not. He moved to America, and died about three years ago.”

Were you in touch?

“I’m in touch with his sister, and we did get in touch after all that time, when he sent me some photos and demos we’d done. It was very much a shock when he died. He was a lot younger than me.

“I’ve been in touch with Mike Hedges since, but Mike Jordan seemed to fall off the face of the earth when he left the band. The two Mikes were at school together, and it was because Mike Hedges went off to do his degree at Southampton that Mike Jordan left the band at the same time. Ed was already in the band by that point, and we’d done a gig with him, I think.

Younger Days: Dave Fenton in live action at Scratchers (Three Lions), Farncombe, Surrey, on January 14th, 1979. Picture courtesy of Alan ‘Fred’ Pipes

“Then they left and we ended up looking for a bassist and drummer. Howard was previously with Ed, while Steve was in a number of bands around Guildford, playing various instruments, including drums!”

Is that right that the original ‘Turning Japanese’ demo was recorded at Shalford Village Hall?

“It could well have been. I don’t have a copy, but we did a version at Chestnut Studios, somewhere in Surrey. I’m pretty sure we did borrow a tape recorder to make some recordings at the hall, but I haven’t got the tapes. I’m not sure if anyone else has.

“Things keep cropping up. ‘Caroline’ cropped up on the internet recently, but I think that was recorded from The Rainbow along with the B-side from ‘Turning Japanese’, ‘Here Comes the Judge’. I think someone lifted ‘Caroline’ from the same tape.”

Dave, who moved to Guildford from the east of Surrey to study at the College of Law, was working at a grocer’s shop in Market Street in the town, and his past keeps catching up with him.

“I keep bumping into someone I worked with, coming to gigs. And he was at Cardiff at the weekend.”

And who had that lovely old Morris in the early publicity shots for The Vapors, Mk. II?

“I really couldn’t tell you. I think that might have been one of our roadies. It’s not still with us, I’m afraid!”

According to a Facebook page run by Surrey music scene aficionado David Shephard, I learned after that the Morris 1000 belonged to a fella called Steve Gunner. So now you know.

There were earlier names. Were you still the Big Box Band or BBC3 when practising at my village hall?

“No, I think by the time we had Rob in the band we were The Vapors.”

With or without the ‘u’ in the name?

“Ah, I’m not sure if we’d made that decision by that point. But fairly soon after we decided the name was too long, and if the Americans didn’t need it, neither did we.”

Returning Heroes: Back in 2016. From the left – Michael Bowes, David Fenton, Ed Bazalgette, Steve Smith (Photo: The Vapors).

Well, that’s a bone of contention. It has to be the exception that proves the rule for this pedant – I always go with anglicised versions, unless I’m writing about your band.

“Sorry!”

There’s also a little confusion about when Bruce Foxton saw you first at Scratchers in Godalming. Were Ed, Steve and Howard in the band by then?

“I think just Ed … but I really don’t remember. Actually, it was Steve that Bruce mostly spoke to at the pub, so he must have been playing. But it was 40 years ago – my memory’s not as good as it was! I know things happened in a certain order, but sometimes the details …I don’t remember at all.

“It’s like that with Mike (Philpott), who’s written this book. There’s stuff in there I’ve no recollection of at all! Steve also said he read it with trepidation. Mike talks about queuing up at The Marquee hoping he’d remembered to put him on the guest list, with Steve worried whether he had or not!”

Before I let Dave go – on a rare day off between shows – I thanked him for getting The Vapors back together after all these years. I never thought it would happen, so it’s all a bonus for this ‘too young’ fan. And his response?

“No problem … it’s the day-job now!”

Supporting Role: Dave Fenton, live at Cardiff University Students’ Union Great Hall, with The Vapors joining headliners From The Jam (Photo: Warren Meadows)

The Vapors are currently supporting From The Jam at venues across the UK, celebrating the 40th anniversary of Setting Sons, with full details of dates – including a few pre-arranged shows outside the tour – and how to get tickets via this link

With thanks to Shaun Modern, plus former Barbed Wire fanzine head honcho Alan ‘Fred’ Pipes, freelance photographer Warren Meadows and Si Root for the use of their photographs, and David Shephard for his splendid Soundscene Does Facebook! archive.

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Sleevenotes by David Gedge (Pomona, 2019) – a review

This is the first example I’ve seen of Pomona’s Sleevenotes series – where musicians choose favourite tracks from their back-catalogue and provide insight into their creation, meaning and mood – and on this evidence it’s a simple concept that works well.

David Gedge is a fine choice for the fourth book in the series, the founder and sole, erm … ever-Present of his band having enjoyed a 35-years-and-counting recording career, neatly bridging that gap between cult indie status and mainstream crossover success (18 UK top-40 singles count for something), John Peel’s championing of an outfit the author has been known to introduce live as ‘semi-legendary’ in more recent times leading to so many of us getting on board early on.

I wasn’t convinced this would work. Friend of this website Richard Houghton’s splendid This Day in Music Books 2017 Gedge co-write, Sometimes These Words Don’t Have To Be Said, finished a job started in 1990 by Pomona main-man Mark Hodkinson in Thank Yer Very Glad. Furthermore, with talk of a one-volume version of David’s long-running comic-book alternative life story to come and a ‘songography’ project involving the author for the https://gedgesongs.wordpress.com already out there, there’s reason to think that’s all in the past (there, I’ve said it now at last).

Besides, I got the impression that the words of the opening line of ‘My Favourite Dress’ used in the official biography’s title summed up the author’s thinking regarding any such history project. I also feared that the artist Peelie lovingly referred to as ‘the Boy Gedge’ might over-explain the songs we love given the chance (less is more, and all that). But it works, not least because it’s short, sharp and succinct, an A5 format running to just over 100 pages preventing any over-writing.

So although I thought I knew all I needed to, he fills in a few gaps and inspires the reader to return to the songs themselves, hearing them again with new-found insight. And while concentrating on just 15 tracks – I’ll not dwell on the specifics, but we start with thrilling 1985 debut 7”, ‘Go Out and Get ‘Em, Boy!’ and thread on through to the sublime indie pop of 2016’s ‘Rachel’ – a full timeline is established, including the seven-year gap in which offshoot project Cinerama took centre-stage.

If you’re a fan, you’ll fly through the pages at speed, as if you’ve been invited up on stage to join the band’s heady six-string assault, the tales told around each choice giving a one-take outline of this mighty sonic journey we’ve been on since the band set out from Leeds in the mid-‘80s. Yes, the afore-mentioned Houghton/Gedge title offered a tidy production and works perfectly, but this complements it nicely. Think of it as a Steve Albini-engineered alternative, raw and urgent.

Along the way we see glimpses of the obsession of TWP’s driven sole survivor down the years. And I was inspired to not only go back to the songs chosen, but to check out more mentioned in despatches. There’s enough trainspotter-level info to appeal to the more obsessive, not least a few recording secrets and explanations as to how they got that guitar sound on ‘’What is it Now, Missus?’ (not actually a Wedding Present title, but you had to think about it, right?), but there’s plenty for the rest of us to enjoy too.

Gedge also talks about his move towards more conversational styles of songwriting and various experimentations (‘A lot of my early writing was of the ‘Send me a flower, I’m going to die’ school of lyricism’, he admits), and analyses those leaps between small to large record labels and then self-releases over the years. There’s talk of the thrill of getting that first Peel play and how that led to so many bookings, and lovely little tales like how David once unwittingly offered an off-the-wagon George Best a drink at the debut LP publicity shoot, and how time and again he appears not to fully get what makes a hit (thankfully he always has a band to steer him in the right direction).

What else? There’s more about 1992’s successful 12-single Hit Parade campaign – Keith Gregory’s idea initially, just before his departure – and David’s thoughts on the differing approaches of the many producers employed over the years, plus talk of a bizarre London rooftop experience with The Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie between recording sessions, and a splendid yarn about the day David asked Steve Albini if he could possibly use his Chicago studio’s Mellotron during the recording of El Rey.

And did you realise that Take Fountain started life as a fourth Cinerama album? In fact, Cinerama – which the author now as good as admits was a solo career in all but name – features a fair bit across these pages, Gedge suggesting promoters were far happier when TWP returned, feeling they’d do better when it came to shifting tickets. But that side-project has survived, not least through guest slots for the annual At the Edge of the Sea festival in David’s adopted home city, Brighton.

I mentioned staff turnover within his bands, and Gedge says, ‘Some people stay for 12 years and some people stay for 12 months. I think people possibly suppress their personality a bit in order to fit in with the band at first, but then, over time, it will start to niggle them’. Yet it appears that there are still plenty of takers out there to fill those gaps, among them Labour Party luminary, Mayor of Greater Manchester and TWP obsessive Andy Burnham.

Also, the author stresses how the Weddoes are more of a proper band than they’re given credit for. Despite so many musicians passing through over the years fuelling notions that David may be an ogre to work with, you get the impression his scariest quality is an over-reaching passion for his projects.

Tellingly, he adds, ‘I encourage people in the band to put forward ideas and songs, because even if I don’t think it works, others might. Also, of course, there’s always the chance that I will grow to like it eventually. I’ll go away, sleep on it, and then possibly change my mind. Things like that can move the group forwards so I’m always open for band members to stamp their identity on our sound. That’s why The Wedding Present have made this series of records that each have their own personality; it’s because there have usually been different people playing on each one. I generally feel like I’ve been in about half a dozen bands. I have always said that the sound of The Wedding Present is the combined sound of the four people who are in the group at any given time’.

Content-wise, we’re taken up to his most recent winning LP, Going, Going … and the accompanying shows which led to a memorable 2017 Cadogan Hall live show, Cinerama supporting and the headliners complemented by flute, brass, strings, a 20-piece choir, and David’s partner Jessica’s films projected onto a huge screen. And where do we go from there? We’re yet to find out two years on, but judging by my most recent TWP date at Blackpool’s Waterloo Bar in July (reviewed here), the band remain as fresh and relevant today as ever.

In short, I’m thinking that no discerning Wedding Present fan would be without Gedge’s Sleevenotes, although – knowing the author as we do – there will probably be an extended, repackaged 30-song version in time for the band’s 40th anniversary. And we’d be up for that too, of course, even if the purists will come back to this slim volume and argue the case for its superiority.

Live Presents: David Gedge. left, leading from the front with The Wedding Present, with Charles Layton on drums, at Blackpool’s Waterloo Bar in late July, 2019 (Photo copyright: Richard Houghton)

David Gedge’s Sleevenotes, following those from Bob Stanley of St Etienne, Mark Lanegan (ex-Screaming Trees) and Joe Thompson (DIY behemoths, Hey Colossus), is available for £8 (plus p&p) from Pomona via this link

And for an interview with David Gedge for this website from September 2014, head here

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From The In Crowd and onwards – talking Boys Dreaming Soul and Stone Foundation with Neil Sheasby

Stoned Love: Stone Foundation are back out on the road later this month in support of the Everybody, Anyone LP. Pictured, from the left – Rob Newton, Phil Ford, Ian Arnold, Neil Sheasby, Neil Jones (Photo: Jordan Curtis Hughes)

After successive UK top-30 albums, it’s fair to say Midlands soul collective Stone Foundation are on a high, the success of 2017’s Street Rituals followed by last year’s Everybody, Anyone, another long player recorded at Paul Weller’s Black Barn Studios in Ripley, Surrey.

Look at the latest album credits and you’ll find mention of contributions from not only Weller but also The Average White Band’s Hamish Stuart, The Blow Monkeys’ Dr Robert, and The Style Council’s Mick Talbot and Steve White. And since then, they’ve enticed Graham Parker back into the studio.

But while recent Stone Foundation highlights include supports with their esteemed studio host, various headline shows at prestigious venues and storming sets at renowned festivals, I wouldn’t advise you suggest to co-founding bass player Neil Sheasby that he might be enjoying success for the first time.

Neil’s receiving plenty of rightful acclaim at present for his first published music memoir, Boys Dreaming Soul, and within its pages you get many evocative descriptions detailing past associations with revered acts. But it’s not so much name-dropping as subtle tips of one of his many stylish titfers towards a career that’s seen him living a life he always dreamed of.

Sheas, as he’s known to many (apparently Weller calls him ‘Brother Sheas), turned 52 this week, and was set to return to band rehearsals when I called him at home in Atherstone, Warwickshire. The Everybody, Anyone UK tour starts at the end of this month, and he’s raring to go.

“Even though it was only the summer when we were busy, it feels like forever, so it’ll be nice to get back into that, man.”

We’ll get on to that later, but first I’ll talk some more about his book, the story of his life in music, part one, and a personal affair at that.

I intended to just start reading it, then arrange an interview, but once I’d got going I powered on through before tackling its author. For one thing I wanted to know as much as I could about some of the key characters involved before asking more, not least the late Paul Hanlon, aka Hammy, his musical sidekick for so long.

Sheas’ Sidekick: Paul Hanlon, aka Hammy, outside Tiffany’s in Coventry in 1980, aged 13 (Photo: Tony Tye)

As he puts it in the book, ‘He was the archetypal Boy About Town, the local Face. Even at a tender age, he had swagger and confidence, but never arrogance. He was burning with character, and people loved him.’ He seemed a real character, I suggested. And I guess it’s not a plot-spoiler to talk about him in the past tense.

“It’s funny, because most people buying it locally already know that part, and know Hammy’s gone. But I had to think in a context where the majority of people aren’t going to know our relationship, so I didn’t want to give it away. And that was a delicate balance when I was thinking of doing it.

“I didn’t even know I wanted to put that all in there really. It was because of his kids. They were around nine and 11 when he died, I was a godfather to the pair of them, and see them quite a bit. They’re adults now and started asking me lots of questions about their Dad, so I thought, y’know, I probably need to put this out there. I didn’t care if it sold five copies or 500, I wanted to do it for them.

“And it turned into something else. a love letter to my fans, my family, where I grew up, Mum and Dad, the relationship with Hammy, and more than anything my relationship with music probably. That’s what comes over.”

I agree, and in that situation some would be tempted to turn such a key figure who’s no longer with us into something of a saint. But you’re very honest and open, not trying to sugar-coat your close relationship with Hammy.

“I hope not. It was done over a good period of years. I started probably about six years ago, left it, and didn’t really know whether I was writing a book or not. I was just writing, but then we started making Street Rituals a few years later and when I’m writing tunes, I’m concentrating on that – I can’t do two things at once. But then I found six or seven chapters on the computer, thinking, ‘Fucking hell, I should pick this up again, this is pretty good!’ I’d not read it for a few years. So I picked the thread up again and started to see I might have a book there, but didn’t want it to be an indulgence. I could tell story after story after story, but what really is a story and what’s an indulgence is what people can relate to and connect to. That’s a fine line to get right. And it seems to have gone down well.”

It certainly has. Did you already know the publisher, Days Like Tomorrow Books’ Tony Beesley?

“Kind of. He asked me to write for his Mojo Talking book, and I kind of enjoy all that.”

It’s apparent to me that you’re a proper writer. Lots of people writing similar books haven’t got that skill. They’ll write with passion and the odd sharp turn of phrase, and I’m all for that, but there’s more here. I see that in your social media posts too.

“Well … thank you. I don’t really think about it. I just write rubbish and people seem to like it! It started with social media, reconnecting with old mates, sharing indulgences about what I’d found in the loft or wherever, noticing people would start to engage with it, even if it’s just talking about albums I think are shit!

“I like it when you’re having a conversation from which you can learn something. Most people I’m interested in will probably turn me on to something – a book, a film, a new record. That’s the positivity of it all really.”

Last time I talked to Neil was in April 2017, with Stone Foundation’s Street Rituals not long out. It was around then that I became aware of his social media presence, realising he’s just 11 days older than me, an added bonus for me with Boys Dreaming Soul – knowing exactly where I was in my life at key points in his tale, comparing respective life experiences.

One such moment that made an impression was realising how young he was when he lost his father, making me realise what a bonus it was to have my own Dad around until I was 45. I suspect I may well have gone off the rails if I’d lost my father at 21, like him. I briefly mention this, but he swiftly steers me towards a more positive aspect, the fact that we grew up at such an exciting time.

“You could also argue that kids who grew up with Brit Pop had a similar experience, but it was just so exciting to be our age and be impressionable going into your teenage years, surrounded by this melting pot of youth culture – whether you were a punk, skinhead, mod, rocker, whatever. It’s almost like if you weren’t into something you were a kind of outcast. It was all encompassing.”

For Neil that tribalism became more defined on hearing The Jam’s third LP. As he puts it in the book, ‘In the City I loved, but All Mod Cons upped the stakes. It changed everything. I spent the next couple of months reading, researching, devouring, investigating and immersing myself in all things mod … punk had burnt out, a whole new movement was about to explode, and The Jam were lighting the fuse.’

And through that came a knock-on interest in ska, Tamla Motown, Eddie Floyd, Mose Allison, The Creation, the 100 Club, Richard Barnes’ Mods book (‘becoming my bible’), and more. He writes, ’By the time I was 14 I’d read Robert Tressell, Colin MacInnes and George Orwell. I’d seen Curtis Mayfield and Georgie Fame. Paul Weller and Richard Barnes probably showed me more than most of my secondary school teachers could ever dream of.’

At this point we mentioned our parallel childhoods, me in Surrey and Neil in Warwickshire. And while key influences like The Jam, The Stranglers, The Vapors, The Members and Graham Parker were not far off my doorstep, Neil had his own major influences near his neck of the woods.

“Absolutely, going the other way to Coventry, that’s where 2 Tone unfolded, and was the nearest city to us. And in Birmingham – the other way – we had Dexy’s Midnight Runners, The Beat, UB40 … We were surrounded by it. At that age, around 12 or 13, I was going to matinee gigs, but then Dexy’s just seemed different. It seemed to stand out. When I first heard Searching for the Young Soul Rebels I felt, ‘This isn’t what the other stuff is, this is something else’. I was being informed, and you dig deeper into the lyrics and stuff, realising he’s talking about Irish poets, some sense of national pride, all that.”

Incidentally, Neil’s first show was a matinee gig, and what a gig, Madness at Leicester’s De Montford Hall, with admission £1, Sheas up on the balcony taking it all in. He writes, ‘Even though it was billed as an under-16s matinee, it was still mayhem, with lads throwing themselves off the balcony and being caught by the throng below, a hall full of skins, rude boys and mods all united by the music, which in itself was just exhilarating. It was like Cup Final day, but better, a real event. I was left in no doubt. This was the life for me. I was hooked.’

And as it was with me, people like Kevin Rowland, Joe Strummer and Paul Weller inspired you to read around your subject, discovering all the music, books and films they mentioned in interviews.

“Yeah, Kevin Rowland didn’t really do many interviews, because he had that great idea of just doing essays in the music press – and all that attracted me as well – but when Paul did an interview he was informative and he’d talk about whatever he was reading or listening to, like Curtis Mayfield, and namechecking the Five Stairsteps or something, so I’d be checking all that out. We didn’t have the internet, so you had to go and find the records, which was hard to do, but again all that was really exciting and I felt that was a real rite of passage.”

Dance Stance: Sheas, right, with the Dexy’s-inspired band he formed with Hammy, centre, on the Battlefield Line at Shackerstone, Leicestershire. Phil Ford is next to his bass-playing Stone Foundation comrade (Photo: Neil Sheasby)

There’s another Dexy’s link, as you might expect from a lad who spent much of his formative years sipping tea as one of ‘The Teams That Meet in Caffs’, when baritone sax player Paul Speare, who played on Too Rye Ay, moved to a village three miles from Sheas and Hammy, who by then had renamed their band Dance Stance in honour of Rowland’s influential outfit. They tracked him down too, persuading him to produce their debut single. And all these years on ‘Snaker’ occasionally plays with Stone Foundation, also writing the foreword for Boys Dreaming Soul.

Where you find a love of Dexy’s and The Jam you’re also likely to link in the Northern Soul revival scene, and Sheas and Hammy were part of that ‘third wave’ at a young age, visiting nearby Hinckley, Leicestershire, for the first of many visits to events there, initially lured in by news that Curtis Mayfield was appearing.

As he puts it in the book, ‘We’re buzzing! This is the real deal. A Northern Soul all-nighter and on our doorstep! Then reality hits. This is 1982, Hammy’s barely 15, I’m 14, we’re still at school, and we’re planning on fucking off to Hinckley with grown blokes we only loosely knew, to a dance that doesn’t begin until midnight and doesn’t finish until 8am on Sunday. This is going to take some planning.’

They succeeded though, with many more trips following, seeing the likes of guest acts Major Lance, Martha Reeves, Edwin Starr, and Eddie Holman.

As I told him, I didn’t find myself at an all-nighter – at the 100 Club in Oxford Street – until I was 19, an interest in Northern Soul somewhat inevitable in light of my love of Motown and Stax. But even then I only appreciated what I experienced in retrospect, finding that whole scene too cliquey.

“Yeah, it was like people-watching in a way, at first, thinking, ‘Christ! What is this!’ It was this whole new underground kingdom where people are just dancing and no alcohol. You didn’t realise these people were speeding their tits off or whatever when you’re 13! But I got into these places and can’t believe nobody stopped us and said, ‘Sorry lads, you’re too young’.  We got in all sorts of places, another benefit of growing up when we did.”

There’s a nice description of the time his band was playing a local bar and the afore-mentioned Edwin Starr joined them on stage, to their amazement, for a medley of ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ segued with ‘Respect’.

“There are all these bizarre things that the book’s littered with and the fact that me and Hammy never seemed to go out and just have a normal night. Something would always happen. We’d done some charity gig in a wine bar, a low-key affair, and they were going to present a cheque as we’d raised a certain amount, so we turned up to do an hour’s set, and Edwin was there to present the cheque to the nurses it was raised for. And that night he looked at us, thought, ‘Crikey, this is some band’, and on the spur of the moment asked, ‘Would you know anything I know?’ then got up and sang with us.”

Festival Fare: Best buddies Hammy and Sheas take it easy in Tamworth, back in the day (Photo: Neil Sheasby)

When Neil describes the moment where Edwin comes in with his first line, you’re with him in that bar, sharing a moment of elation and jubilation at being in this everyday establishment with a bona fide soul legend.

“Yeah! The walls were shuddering. It was amazing!”

I’d forgotten until I looked back at our last interview how we mentioned Graham Parker last time. But since then he’s been back in Paul’s studio with you, guesting on your cover of ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ (best known for Ann Peebles’ fantastic version and Paul Young’s later hit but commendably covered by GP himself in 1978).

“Graham emailed me yesterday, funnily enough.”

I had a mate who always raved about GP, and over time he made an impression on me too, getting to see him for the first time on the Mona Lisa’s Sister tour in Kentish Town in late ‘88. He crossed several genres, seen as a new wave artist at first, alongside Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, but the soul was always there, not far below the surface.

“Definitely. He had the Dylan thing, he had the soul thing going on, coming from loads of good angles. At the end of the day it’s just good songs really. People are very quick to bag artists, but really it’s about good songs and good delivery with people like Graham Parker and Joe Jackson.”

Conversely, reading the NME as a teenager they told me how good LPs like Astral Weeks were, but I didn’t get it straight away – not comprehending that Van Morrison was a soul singer. It took me a while to hear more, go back and truly get him.

“Well, I did, because my first entrance to Van was the It’s Too Late to Stop Now live album (1974), so I had to go back to Astral Weeks and think, ’Ah, ok, that’s what he was before’. That was a real Eureka moment, and down to the guy who worked in the record shop with me. He said, ‘You like soul, do you like this sort of soul?’ He gave me this tape, just a typed-out cassette, telling me, ‘Take that home with you’. He gave me that and Heat Treatment by Graham Parker, and a Little Feat record, and with the Van thing I got it straight away. It was soul but coming from a different place, and connected to the Dexy’s thing.”

Keep It: Dexy's first LP provided a major turning point for Neil Sheasby

Keep It: Dexy’s debut LP, Sheas’ turning point

I should mention there that after a brief spell on a BTEC diploma in business studies, Neil started working full time in a record shop, initially on the YTS at £25 a week. And it was the perfect job for a fella who’s always had his ears open to great music.

While we were born the same month, were both brought up in solid working-class environments – Neil’s Dad, who later managed his early bands, was in quarrying while his Mum made tights and stockings –  and loved our football (in his case a passion for Leeds United and non-league outfit Atherstone Town, as well as regular trips as a kid with his Dad to see Coventry City), where we differed was perhaps how we were introduced to music. It was through being the youngest of five children (the oldest with 11 years on me) that I was subjected to everything from rock’n’roll and The Beatles to glam and pop, whereas Sheas was an only child …

“Yeah, me and my imagination, and me and Elvis films! I had an imaginary friend called Simon, yeah! I think I found it all out for myself.”

But that led to him spending time socialising with his parents while they were unwinding at weekends at child-friendly working men’s and social club, experiencing a world of live bands and mirrored disco balls, an early opportunity for his love of people-watching, ‘seeing how they dressed and danced and smoked’.

“It was the fascination that when the working week was done, they’d want to go out to the local working men’s clubs. It was as much about that as The Jam and Dexy’s. Way before, it was local bands at the working men’s clubs, playing the hits of the day, whether it be Edison Lighthouse, The Kinks, whatever.

“Funnily enough, I was in town the other day and someone shouted me in one of the cafes. They had a band called The Adders, named after the football team across the way (Neil’s beloved Atherstone Town). They had this residency there every week and at The Angel, and we were reminiscing about that. I said, ‘D’you know what, lads, you were one of my key first influences’. That made me think, ‘That’s what I want to do! I wanna play in a band!’

“We’d ride our bikes around town on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, hear bands rehearsing, just like in ‘That’s Entertainment’ (‘An amateur band rehearsing in a nearby yard’). There were loads of punk bands, there was Spirit of Water, a hippie band using the arts centre, and we’d be outside, eavesdropping, thinking, ‘This is great!’ That fascinated us.”

There’s another difference between us maybe. I still have my left-handed bass guitar, but never got much further than playing in my mate’s garage. I never had the confidence to get out and perform live. I know now I should have, but get the impression that thriving scene inspired Neil to try his luck.

“I’m not sure I did, but I had people around me who said, ‘Come on, what’s the worst that can happen?’ People like Hammy, who was fearless, although he ended up just singing. But what you say about brothers and sisters playing their music, I was really lucky to be surrounded by older kids and kids my own age into music and would inspire you locally, like the guy I bought my initial records off.

“I also had older cousins, but it was like the Northern Soul thing – that came about because me and Hammy were having cups of tea in a local café at the swimming baths, with two lads working there who were into all that. Then with The Jam there was an older kid who’d drive and they took me under their wing because they knew I was into the mod thing – ‘Tell his Mum and Dad he’ll be alright with us’. I was really lucky in that respect, these pockets of people really encouraging us.

Start Point: The Jam's Sound Affects, a major inlfuence on Neil Sheasby

Start Point: The Jam’s Sound Affects, a huge influence

“And nobody laughed when we started at the youth clubs and could barely play – I’ve found VHS footage which I must get transferred and get online, and it’s amazing. We were 14 and 15, with loads of girls and lads from school coming to watch us, and you can see there’s something there. It’s really exciting to look back. That’s all you need. We had one review in a local paper, and it said we were great, so it was like, ‘Fucking hell! We’ll carry on then!’

“You get those stepping stones, all the way through. I’ve just found out some diaries and I’m looking through the early Stone Foundation thing where I’m thinking, ‘What the fuck am I still doing this for?’ Really despondent, really down, but then something happened, some little spark …”

There’s clearly a part two coming of these memoirs.

“There will be, yeah. Initially, I thought I was going to tell the Stone Foundation story, but now I’m looking at it thinking that’s still ongoing, although there will be a part of that in the next book, the time where we were really struggling and didn’t really know where we were going.”

There’s more to the story of course, but I won’t go any further here other than mentioning how that love of The Jam led to a love of The Style Council, and the band continued to regenerate. In his Dance Stance days there were overseas shows and even appearances on the god-awful Bob Monkhouse-fronted Op Knocks. And there’s the sex and drugs experimentation as well as the rock’n’roll, of course. Let’s just say his Kid Creole story and later episode involving playing air congas to Youssou N’Dour will stay with you a long time.

But I’ll break off there and move on to current Stone Foundation developments, asking a fella who reckons that 40 years ago he was regularly in ’Weller World’ as a kid at school, daydreaming in class, when he last got down to Paul’s studio.

“We’ve done the bulk of the album actually, and I’m back next week, then we have a week in December when we should finish it and get on to mixing. I think the album’s going to be out around April or May next year.”

Is Paul involved again?

“He’s on a couple of things. He features on one track and plays on a few, just bits and bob – guitar, piano … yeah, he can never help himself! He always pops his head in and ends up involved. It’s a nice relationship.”

Foundation Inspiration: Paul Weller has Stone Foundation back in his studio, recording their new LP

It remains something of a dream for Neil, getting to work alongside his childhood inspiration. In our last interview, he told me how nervous they were first working with Paul, but revealed how he quickly put them at ease, making them all a cuppa. That’s not the Weller I’d have expected from his press a couple of decades ago.

“I don’t think it’s the Paul Weller that Paul Weller would have expected 20 years ago either! I think we met him at the right time. A lot of it is to do with his sobriety now, and he seems to be in a much, much better place than he was. We have a nice relationship, we keep in touch, and we’re privileged that he seems interested in what we’re up to all the time.”

Well, let’s face it. If he didn’t want you in there, he wouldn’t re-book you.

“No, we’d be long gone! I don’t know, it just seems to work. He’s just a music fan, like us, and seems to like us.”

I’m guessing the ‘Playhouse’ single was something of a stop-gap between the last LP and the next.

“It was. We were touring and thought we could put something out to coincide with that.”

It’s great, and I love the accompanying promo video when Neil Jones and Graham Parker exchange high fives towards the end of the take.

And there is another link with the stories recounted in Boys Dreaming Soul linking your early bands with the current set-up, through your ‘brother in rhythm’, long-serving drummer, Phil Ford. He’s been around a long time, hasn’t he?

“He’s like shit on my shoes! For about 40 years. We were in middle school together. I’ve known him since he was about five or six, and at 12 he started drumming.”

Introducing Phil in the book, Neil writes, ‘Thirteen years old, he could barely see over the top of the kit, but when he played, it was just magical.’ And there’s a nice story about how he joined, which I won’t go into, following a rehearsal at Phil’s house, The In Crowd’s first gig soon arranged at a school in Coventry guitarist Nick Thomas attended. And all these years on, it’s fairly obvious that Sheas and Phil work well together.

Looking Up: Stone Foundation, all set to head on tour again in November. From left – Neil Sheasby, Anthony Gaylard, Dave Boraston, Ian Arnold, Steve Trigg, Rob Newton, Neil Jones, Phil Ford (Photo: John Coles Photography)

“Yeah, he’s been in every band we’ve been through – The In Crowd, Dance Stance, Rare Future, Mandrake Root. When I finished, he stopped drumming, then I started a new band, wanting it to be completely new, and by then he’d packed it in. We had maybe three or four years as Stone Foundation trying to find our feet, using different drummers. But he came to see us play one of the last nights at Ronnie Scott’s, Birmingham and came up after and said, ‘Fucking hell, Sheas, that was incredible. I’ve got to play again – I’ve got to get my kit out!’

“I said, ‘Mate, if you get that kit out, I tell you now, I’ll sack the drummer tonight!’ Not the nicest thing to do, but I loved Phil and we had that relationship – personal and musical – for decades. So he came back and that was it, he’s been drumming for Stone Foundation ever since.”

Finally, I get the impression that this book and the planned follow-up is a celebration of every band you were in that didn’t quite make the big time.

“Ha! It could be seen that way, yeah.”

Of course, the reader knows success did follow, but …

“Well, I don’t know … we got asked a question really early doors, on one of the first breaks we had with Stone Foundation – going on the Janice Long (radio) show, doing a session one night, and she asked, ‘Everything seems to be going really well, why do you think success has always eluded you?’ I had to think about that, and said, ‘Well, whose yardstick are we measuring success on?’ Because I always felt I had been successful.’

“I mean, touring with Gil Scott Heron and Roy Ayers – I never thought I’d see a day when that would happen. If it all stopped then, I’d have thought, ‘This is fucking great!’ So for me I always thought it was a success. It’s just that it wasn’t in the glare of the public eye.”

Fair point. I’ll take that back and try it another way. This whole story is more about inspiration and living that life you always wanted to and were always switched on to achieving. I guess I’m really talking about what is perceived as commercial success … although even that can be disputed. I guess you still have to work your arses off to make ends meet.

Bass Instinct: Neil Sheasby in contemplative mode, live with Stone Foundation (Photo: Ashley Greb Photography)

“Yeah, it’s a real struggle, definitely, a real balancing act. But our story is more, I think, about … even with Paul getting involved and John Bradbury taking us on tour with The Specials when he did … we weren’t hip, we weren’t young, we weren’t trendy or whatever, something they could easily have attached their credibility to. They took a punt on us because they liked the music, liked the band and what we were all about. That’s really the story, I think. And people look at us and think, ‘Fucking fair play to them!’

And long may it continue.

“Hope so, yeah!”

Maybe the difference now is that if someone asked what you did for a living, you could hand over the vinyl or CD/DVD packages for the last two LPs and say, ‘There you go, look at those – read the credits’.

“Well, yeah. But I always look to the next thing, thinking, ‘I could have done that better’. You still think, ‘Well, I’ve not written the one yet’. You keep chasing your tail with that. But I think that’s what keeps driving you forward really, mate. And I just enjoy it. I enjoy creating, I really do.”

For this website’s April 2017 interview with Neil Sheasby, head here.

Early Days: The In Crowd, Atherstone Town FC, 1983. From left – Neil Sheasby, Phil Ford, Paul ‘Hammy’ Hanlon.

Stone Foundation’s Everybody, Anyone UK tour starts on November 1st at Gorilla, Manchester, then the following night at Liverpool Arts Club, with the full dates here. And to order Neil Sheasby’s Boys Dreaming Soul, (Days Like Tomorrow Books, £12.99) try here

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Four decades of Daylight with The Selecter – back in touch with Pauline Black

Frontline Warrior: Pauline Black, out there again with the band with whom she made her name (Photo: Dean Chalkley)

Celebrated 2 Tone legends The Selecter, up there at the forefront of the late ‘70s UK ska revival, are going down a storm in Europe right now, their 40th anniversary tour drawing closer to home.

Led by Pauline Black and fellow co-founder Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson, the entourage this time includes another 2 Tone leading light, Rhoda Dakar, of The Bodysnatchers and The Special AKA fame, their tour covering seven countries before 20 UK and Irish dates. And Pauline, in Vienna when I called, is loving it.

“It’s been great. We’ve been to Mexico and America, and we’re in Europe at the moment, and can’t wait to get back to the UK. We’ve honed the set really well and it’s just going to be amazing – 40 years is a long time, but it still feels really fresh.”

Always a crucial figure in that late-’70s movement, Pauline is also a respected style icon, broadcaster, writer, anti-racism and anti-sexism campaigner, and actress. But right now her focus is all about the band with whom she made her name.

Witness The Selecter live and you’ll see that the passion that fuelled their shows during the original 2 Tone era remains. What’s more, they’re writing some of their best songs, long after breakthrough hits ‘Three Minute Hero’, ‘Too Much Pressure’ and ‘On My Radio’.

Their 2017 LP, Daylight, proved that, a state-of-the-nation address covering themes Pauline has witnessed first-hand and mulled over during her more recent travels, the band having lost none of their original edge and adamant that a multi-racial, multi-cultural scene started in Coventry by Specials founder Jerry Dammers is as relevant today as it was in 1979.

It’s been two years since our last interview, when Daylight had just come out. And it remains oh so topical. I loved it then and listening again the morning we spoke, I found it just as fresh and arguably even more relevant with the way politics has gone since.

“Absolutely, and sometimes all the things being said on it were not necessarily being said at the time, but you could see it was all coming, like the homelessness. It kind of missed its slot. It would have been better coming out two years later.”

There’s a good example in the track, ‘Taking Back Control’, perhaps even more pertinent now so much of what Brexit was really about is more out in the open. But despite the song’s ‘make a false promise and then you run away’ line, it seems that those they were putting the spotlight then – not least the man who would become PM – slid right back in again.

“Exactly, yeah.”

And yet despite the issues raised, these are songs of empowerment, as was often the case with The Selecter. Amid all the doom and gloom, there’s always a positive message.

“I suppose so. Despondency and doom and gloom at what’s going on isn’t the thing. And I’m certainly not despondent or gloomy about it. I think there are plenty of people organising something completely different – they don’t want their NHS sold off, for example. There are all kinds of things we are going to not benefit from, and a lot of people are waking up to that now. And that was the whole point of Daylight, to shine some daylight on all this, looking at all that in its entirety.”

I get that, but don’t always share that optimism. I’m surrounded on social media by lots of people thinking similarly to me, so I’m in a bubble of my own making at times. And there are others in another bubble, thinking all this – not least Brexit – might somehow be a good idea, however extreme the consequences. And that’s frightening.

“This is it. That’s what social media does. It re-enforces your own bubble, whatever bubble you’re living in, and you don’t always see the thorny problem outside that. But that’s the good thing about The Selecter – it tours internationally, it goes everywhere and going to America and getting the perspective now, having seen the rise of Mr Trump, now seeing what it’s like under his presidency, following that and seeing how Britain is following suit, which is quite scary. But then you come to Europe, and we did a show the other day in Milan, where everybody was on message, seeing what you’re saying and what you’re doing.”

Proud Past: Pauline Black with Coventry’s The Selecter, back in the day, On My Radio and into our collective hearts.

Another line that jumped out at me from that LP the morning I called was that challenge to ‘Make sure you use your voice’.

“Yes, and I do think that’s beginning to filter through from what I can see. It’s always good to come to another country and see through their eyes and from their perspective and what they can see.  What gets reported at home isn’t necessarily what’s reported elsewhere. But it’s amazing in America how many people know about Brexit – the B-word has travelled!”

Last time The Selecter played Manchester’s Ritz – the nearest date to my North West patch on this tour – was with The Beat. But in March we lost Pauline’s good friend Roger Charlery, better known as Ranking Roger, aged just 56.

“Yes, and if things had gone as planned and tragedy hadn’t intervened, we could have again, celebrating our 40 years of knowing each other and being together, and knowing each other over that period. But we have our own tribute to pay, and we hope the audience sings along with us.

“It just wakes you up to how life is a gift really, it’s given to us and should be respected in that way.”

Pauline and Roger first met back in 1979 on The Specials and 2 Tone founder Jerry Dammers’ doorstep in her home city, Coventry.

“He was just a young boy. I think he was 15, and we were both just standing there, looking at each other, thinking ‘Wow, this is Jerry Dammers’ house!’, completely not knowing what this was going to be the start of. And the first time I saw Roger on the stage … whatever the X-factor was, he had it. He was such a wonderful person to be around and out on the road with and performing with, for sure.”

Roger's Finale: The final Beat album featuring Ranking Roger, from earlier this year

Roger’s Finale: The final Beat LP for Pauline’s good friend Ranking Roger, released earlier this year

I’m guessing you’re at least thankful now for those final opportunities you had to tour together, in America and elsewhere.

“Oh gosh, yeah. That was a big thing. I think what it taught us was that you don’t know what the future holds, so if you are able to be out on the road and in full health to tour on that scale, that’s absolutely great. Enjoy it.”

I saw Neville Staple and his band at the same Manchester venue supporting The Undertones back in May, with both the former Specials star and the headliners celebrating their own 40th anniversaries. There was a great vibe too, and having a legendary punk band on the bill with a legendary 2 Tone performer really seemed to work. But I guess those two worlds always did gel, from Don Letts playing reggae at the Roxy in 1977 through to The Specials supporting The Clash, with The Selecter a key part of that whole movement.

What I didn’t know at the time I interviewed Neville though was that he was visiting Roger daily in hospital at that stage, this scribe largely unaware of his illness and just how close they were. Neville sounded a little downcast early on, although trying to put a brave face on things, but I put that down – understandably – to him grieving for the 21-year-old grandson he lost a few months before.

“I’m not sure that I knew anything about that either.”

Again though, Neville has that positive spirit and philosophy of making the most out of everything. It seems to have been something a few of you who came out of that 2 Tone ska revival movement have in common, and the punk movement that preceded that, inspiring so many of you to get out there for yourselves.

“I think the whole punk ethic was that you could make music. If you know three chords, and can put bass, drums, keyboards and guitar together, you can get out there and do it. I think it was that ‘doing it’ aspect that made it a level playing field for everybody. You could get out there and be taken on your merits … or not. That was always exciting, and I think 2 Tone very much fell into that post-punk thing. It certainly brought in the whole idea of what The Clash were doing, mixing rock and reggae and all those things. We just went back a bit earlier and mixed it up with ska, a much more upbeat music … and much more danceable.”

Remind me where you fitted into all that. Were you travelling down from Coventry to the Roxy and clubs like that in 1977, or were you too young?

“It wasn’t a question of being too young, I had a job – ha! I worked for the NHS. Some of us had to work. None of this hanging around the Roxy! I was into music at that time, but Coventry-centric in that way, although we were aware of all that.”

There was certainly something stirring in the Midlands and thereabouts, and for me – whether it was bands from Birmingham like The Beat, Steel Pulse and UB40, those of you from Coventry, or wherever – it was almost interchangeable among those groups. It was a whole movement.

Looking Up: The Specials’ first LP back cover image by Chalkie Davies, who talks about that classic shot here)

“Erm, I wouldn’t say it was interchangeable, I think all the bands were very well defined in what they were and occupied areas of that spectrum … monochrome, as it were. You’ve got to remember The Selecter had six black members and one white member. That made us very different right from the beginning. The Specials had two black members and five white. That in those days made a huge difference, in how you were perceived and also in what your relationship to the original music was too.”

I touched on this in our last interview, but on that occasion it involved an email Q&A, as you were travelling across America at the time (The Selecter were touring with US punk bands Rancid and The Dropkick Murphys, and were set to return there again in 2018 with Ranking Roger, but illness prevented him from accompanying them, with Rhoda Dakar stepping up instead). So I’ll ask again, did your ever dream in the early days that you’d still be out there all these years on, sharing stages with Gaps?

“I never dreamed. I mean, look what happened to the last guy who had a dream. I never dream. I hope, and hope is good enough and has got us through 40 years. And I hope we see our 50th anniversary. I’m not sure about that, but certainly the next 10 years will be … ha! Gaps is looking at me at the moment, as if to say, ‘Of course we’ll make our 50th’!”

Touching on this version of The Selecter (at one stage fellow co-founder Neol Davies was performing elsewhere with his own version of the band, but they broke up in 2010) I get the impression that your bandmate and Daylight‘s producer Neil Pyzer-Skeete is integral to this line-up.

“Absolutely. As far as I’m concerned the recording Selecter is very much myself, Gaps and Neil, who produces and takes our ideas and fashions them into wonderful pieces of music. And that’s music that hangs together and says something, having a message even after all these years, very much in keeping with 2 Tone.”

I used the word interchangeable, and that wasn’t quite right, but there was clearly a strong camaraderie with other bands over the years from the 2 Tone stable. And this time you have Rhoda Dakar appearing with you, initially with The Bodysnatchers and later The Special AKA.

“Rhoda Dakar is somebody who everybody who was in The Selecter at the beginning had a great deal of respect for, and we had a great deal of respect for The Bodysnatchers. They later became The Belle Stars and we kind of lost track, as it were, but we were there at the early gigs – myself, Jerry Dammers, and Gaps – and it was fairly obvious that Rhoda Dakar was a really great performer, delivering a great message in her songs. And she went on to do great things with The Special AKA as well.

“And in your 40th year, you’ve got to try and celebrate everything. it’s quite male-centric a lot of the time. If you go to a Specials gig it’s very much that the ladies who are there are the girlfriends dragged along so the men can dance along and lose all the money out of their pockets, because their jeans are too tight now. I feel The Selecter audience is a little more select. We still get ladies coming along, but in their own right, because they like the music!

The Bodysnatchers: Rhoda Dakar’s breakthrough band, several of whom went on to form The Belle Stars.

“So it was a natural fit that Rhoda would come along with us, and she’s DJ-ing and comes on and performs with us in our encore. Also, we have a young lady called Emily Capell coming along, supporting us, doing an acoustic set. And the closer we get to London – because that’s where she lives – she’ll be with her band as well. And that just shows, generationally I feel, how it works and is very much in keeping with the feeling of the time – there’s a lot of women around, but not a lot of women on stage, yet the two planks of 2 Tone were always anti-racism and anti-sexist. I see a lot of the anti-racism but I don’t see a lot of anti-sexism, so we’re here for balance!”

I must admit that until recently Emily Capell wasn’t even on my radar.

“Ah, she’s great!”

Yes, and now I see that link back to The Clash and more (she says her influences range from Dolly Parton to The Clash, and has previously supported Rhoda Dakar and former Specials guitarist Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers, with her newly-released debut LP called Combat Frock, with more details here). Bearing in mind what we were saying earlier, perhaps things are coming full circle.

“Yes, absolutely, and I just feel it’s difficult for young women to be heard these days if they’ve got something original to say. It’s difficult for all bands to be heard, but especially for women. You can put yourself all over social media but if you put a record out and don’t have marketing and money behind it, it’s very difficult. So if we can give a platform to a young woman who wants to come and sing with us, then great. And 2 Tone was always anti-racist, anti-sexist.”

I was going to ask you about recent wide-reaching publicity about the #MeToo campaign, but feel I don’t really need to. Everything you’ve ever achieved has been based around crying out against all of that, using those platforms wisely. You’re hardly someone suddenly coming to terms with that. You’ve been socially aware and outspoken on such issues since the start.

“I just feel women should have a stake. It‘s like anything – people have to fight to be heard. It’s never given to you … ever … and women have to fight doubly hard. To my mind, during those 40 years, that was always what 2 Tone stood for. Or certainly that’s what 2 Tone should have stood for, even if certain members of 2 Tone didn’t think like that at the time. But Rhoda and I were here to inform them!”

I best wrap up soon, but not without asking if the Queen of Ska has got a new book on the go?

“Ah, that would be telling, wouldn’t it! There’s always one there.”

It’s finding the gaps in the diary sometimes, I guess. And last time you told me The Selecter was a full-time career as things stood.

“It is, and has been, and I didn’t realise how much of a full-time thing it would become. As you get older, you really don’t know how your health is going to go, so you make shorter-term plans. But now we’re making slightly longer-term plans! We will see. I’m never bored, put it that way!”

Dynamic Duo: The Selecter’s Pauline Black and Gaps Hendrickson, off to a venue near you (Photo: Dean Chalkley)

For this website’s 2017 feature/interview with Pauline Black, head here. You can also catch up via the following links to feature/interviews with The Beat’s Dave Wakeling, from April 2018, and former members of The Specials, Neville Staple, from March 2019, and Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers, from January 2018.

The Selecter 40TH anniversary UK/Irish dates, with DJ and guest appearances from Rhoda Dakar and support from Emily Capell: October 17th – Nottingham Rock City; October 18th – Leeds Stylus; October 19th – Glasgow QMU; October 20th – Newcastle Boiler Shop; October 22nd – Northampton Roadmender; October 23rd – Cardiff Tramshed; October 24th – Bristol Academy; October 25th – Manchester Ritz; October 26th – Birmingham Institute; November 1st –  Belfast The Limelight; November 2nd – Dublin Academy; November 14th – Guildford G Live; November 15th – Bury St Edmunds The Apex; November 16th – Margate Hall by the Sea; November 17th – Lincoln Engine Shed; November 19th – Cheltenham Town Hall; November 20th – Falmouth Princess Pavilion; November 21st – Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion; November 22nd – Bournemouth Academy; November 23rd – London Shepherd’s Bush Empire. For full details head to www.theselecter.net 

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The Icicle Works – Clitheroe, The Grand

Works Outing: Ian McNabb, getting low down and dirty around the UK, including this Clitheroe stop-off

I’ll start with a confession. When Ian McNabb mentioned in our recent interview that those coming along to his forthcoming shows were in for something approaching a three-hour dose of rock’n’roll, I wondered if he might be outstaying their welcome.

I thought I was more about incendiary Jesus and Mary Chain type blink-and-you-miss-it, mesmerise-then-scarper performances, where you have grounds for a refund but still come out on a high, knowing you’ve witnessed something special.

I’ve read plenty about Springsteen gigs that go on for what appear to be days on end, crowds loving it, but that’s not me, right? In the same way I love three-minute pop that doesn’t hang around, I prefer short-sharp live sets leaving us craving more.

But while McNabb’s Icicle Works performances will have you worrying if you’re going to miss that last bus or train home, it’s worth it, believe me. Even if he seldom provides employment for support acts looking to get their faces known.

When it came to The Grand, it would take some organisation to arrange public transport anyway, this punter opting instead for the trusty family Volvo (don’t judge me) for a 40-plus-mile round-trip. And I just about had time to start on my solitary pint before the band clambered on stage at 7.45 for a 90-minute opening set, part one of a spellbinding 22-song salvo spanning 35 years.

That number’s nothing extraordinary on paper, but when you scheme in how much is packed into each number, that often defies nature, not least with three of the band closing in on their 60s.

I loved The Icicle Works, the beauty of ‘Birds Fly (Whisper To a Scream)’, ‘Love Is a Wonderful Colour’ and ‘Hollow Horse’ dragging me in as a teen. I guess there’s nostalgia too, recalling times and places through key tracks. And many more great moments would follow, whatever mode of transport McNabb was driving. Take for example 1990’s ‘Motorcycle Rider’, occasional kick-starts taking us in new directions.

But here’s a second confession. The original production on some of those Works LPs occasionally turned great songs into something a little dated. I could still feel the quality and admire the width, but sometimes those recordings didn’t do them favours.

However, as the years progressed, Ian got over that, in style, a number of solo albums incorporating a far beefier sound that suited him so well, and if you’ve seen them live you’ll know for sure how much of a sonic punch they pack, absolutely owning those songs.

In that same interview, Ian labelled his more recent band project, Cold Shoulder, a rougher version of the Works, but that only told half the story. Fact is that the Works too are a far more rough and ready yet sharper version of the original band. Days alongside leading lights from Crazy Horse and the like have clearly paid off. All these years on, he’s at the top of his game, with his band shit-hot.

That was pretty much apparent from the moment they kicked off with 1985 second LP stormer ‘When It All Comes Down’ (good enough to finish most sets, let alone start one) and followed that with the Cope-esque pop perfection of ‘Evangeline’ from the third long player, the clock yet to strike eight and the place already jumping, with guitars searing and a devoted following singing along.

Their on-stage passion is infectious, Ian funny and charming between songs, the full-grown beard and baker boy cap suggesting to those who haven’t seen him in a while that he’s trying to avoid a local he borrowed money from in 1988.

At Boots’ side we have fellow guitar supremo Chris Kearney, part of the Cold Shoulder set-up, and Roy Corkill on bass, previously involved from 1988/90 and again since the 2006 reformation, as is the case with the unmistakeable Richard Naiff (with whom Ian guested with the latter-day Waterboys), his long hair flying as he bobs up, down and around behind two banks of keyboards as if powered by Lord alone knows what, having the time of his life, the sounds produced sublime at times.

And then there’s Nick Kilroe, owning those drums. I expected the Keith Moon-like splendour of Dodgy’s Mathew Priest, but was mightily impressed by this second Cold Shoulder loanee, who clearly knows his way around a kit, with support on the fringes by Tim Devine, for the most part keeping his head down.

On they cracked, 1985’s ‘Seven Horses’ leading to the reflective ‘Little Girl Lost’ from three years later, Kilroe at its epicentre. And then there was ‘86’s Scott Walker-esque ‘Who Do You Want For Your Love?’, your scribe in no doubt he was in the presence of an artist who still has a great voice 30-plus years down the line. Arguably, it’s even better, plenty of living reflected in that deep timbre.

On we went with the proggy ‘Rapids’ and slow-building ‘Starry Blue-Eyed Wonder’, the main-man telling us – punters still turning up, clearly not getting the memo – ‘It gets better, la!’ as if we needed convincing. Meanwhile, ‘Up in the North of England’ was as powerful as I hoped, Ian adding ‘Fuck the Tories’ at the end in case we’d missed the underlying theme. Well said.

We went further back for the self-titled debut LP’s ‘A Factory in the Desert’, giving rise to the following year’s Teardrop Explodes-like ‘Out of Season’, then another personal highlight, 1990’s beautiful ‘Melanie Still Hurts’, our guest revealing how he changed the names to protect the once-innocent when writing it, but reckoning he’d met all those girls since. The scamp.

And then came two brooding first album choices to end part one, ‘In the Cauldron of Love’ and ‘Nirvana’, the bandleader almost apologetic in explaining how this ageing collective needed more wees these days. He wasn’t fooling anyone though. They have more dash and bollocks than 90 per cent of today’s feted rock and pop acts.

They soon reassembled, the glorious Rust Never Sleeps-like guitar assault of Permanent Damage’s ‘What She Did to My Mind’ dragging us back from the bar, and ‘85’s similarly-robust ‘Perambulator’ leaving the Grand clientele gasping, the old ‘uns on guitar, bass and keys still going strong, no medical attention required.

It was largely solo year territory from there, Head Like a Rock’s majestic country rock-tinged powerhouse (maybe that should be powerhorse) ‘This Time is Forever’ followed by a mighty left turn, Merseybeast’s glorious ‘You Stone My Soul’ – part-Edwyn Collins, part-Sly Stone – having me daydreaming about the Rev. Al Green joining them up there. As a wise man said, ‘Be careful what you dream of, it may come up and surprise you.’ Well, wouldn’t that be something.

There were concerns about the venue’s curfew, but somehow they still fitted in ‘Clarabella (Come to the Window)’ – think Neil Diamond writing for the Faces – barely two years old but truly at home among these classic songs of yesteryear. And then there was a raucous return to 1994 for the celebratory ‘70s rock of ‘You Must Be Prepared to Dream’, another hour having sped by.

The clock almost run down, out went the 1983 singles. But did we feel cheated? Not a bit. How could we? Instead we got ‘86’s wondrous ‘Understanding Jane’, me realising I hadn’t told my better half I’d even arrived on this dark, wet night in rural Lancashire, potential recriminations on the cards.

A grunge-driven ‘Our Future In Space’, from the latest Cold Shoulder LP, saw the lines between McNabb’s band projects blur and the floor reverberate, an intergalactic juggernaut (more a space station, I guess) of a song followed by the 35-year-old ‘Hollow Horse’, the decades melting away, the audience drained but Ian and co. reliant on wild horses to drag them away … possibly. What a night. Come back soon, fellas.

For this website’s most recent feature/interview with Ian McNabb, including a link back to our October 2015 chat, head here.

Remaining Icicle Works dates: Southampton Engine Rooms (Saturday, October 12th), Cottingham Civic Hall (Friday October 18th), Norwich Arts Centre (Saturday, October 19th), Derby Flowerpot (Friday, October 25th), Douglas (Isle Of Man) Villa Marina (Saturday, October 26th), Bristol Thekla (Friday November 1st), Birmingham O2 Academy 2 (Saturday, November 9th), Leeds Brudenell (Friday, November 15th).

Cold Shoulder date: Liverpool Arts Club (Saturday, December 7th).

Spatial Future: Ian McNabb, still a force to be reckoned with, approaching his fourth decade on the road

For more details and all the latest from Ian McNabb and his side-projects, seek out his Facebook and Twitter pages and visit his website.

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Richard Hawley – Mountford Hall, Liverpool Guild of Students

For five months now, Richard Hawley’s Further has provided a fitting soundtrack to my travels north, south, east and west, the amount of personal playbacks fast approaching those previously afforded the artist’s landmark Coles Corner, Lady’s Bridge and Truelove’s Gutter LPs, getting me from A to B and the sea in style.

That’s included regular trips over t’ tops to his beloved Sheffield, but I’ve found our Richard – now two decades into an amazing solo career – sounds just as good in Cornish, Lancashire and Surrey settings, those beautifully-crafted songs proving universal.

The man himself suggested at Mountford Hall on Tuesday night that he feels he can say more about his true feelings in cities like Liverpool, Manchester and his own South Yorkshire birthplace, that after his withering dismissal of the ‘wrecking ball’ PM in charge of our political destiny right now (quickly changing that description to something more choice and even more apt, clearly warming to his theme).

He’s possibly right about reactions elsewhere, but if you’re reading this, Richard, feel free to say it wherever you go. You’ll be surprised how well that’s received by audiences everywhere.

Dynamic Duo: Unfortunately I didn’t get to Liverpool early enough to catch Southend troubadour Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, here with Richard at Manchester’s Albert Hall, but check him out via http://www.getcapewearcapefly.com/

Don’t get the wrong impression. Down to earth he definitely is, and genuinely affable, yet I get the impression he’d rather let his songs speak for themselves, nervous at asking much more than how we’re doing and if we’re enjoying ourselves at first, the responses to both questions on this occasion 100 per cent positive of course.

I’d like to think most of those who shelled out for tickets already had his eighth long player, and on the night we were treated to 10 of its 11 great tracks, leaving room for just eight oldies, the earliest being the title/lead track of 2005’s Coles Corner, gloriously received and forever timeless.

From the next record we had perhaps my highlight of so many on the night, his hope that ‘Tonight the Streets Are Ours’ might one day become a reality (bearing in mind his earlier political outburst) truly stirring, the sheer optimism of that number seeing tears well up for this audience member.

‘Open Up Your Door’ from 2009 had a similar effect, another classic slice of Hawley given a full band treatment and going down a storm, a feeling of communal love sweeping the floor. They don’t write songs like that anymore, right? Well, actually Richard does.

He started the night as he opens Further, with a tone-setting raucous double, the thunderous ‘Off My Mind’ and rollocking glam stomper ‘Alone’ paving the way for the title track, the inherent harmonies and musicianship apparent from the word go. Meanwhile, next choice ‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge’ was the first to cause the hairs on the back of the neck to stir, the backdrop of Steel City high-rises a telling touch.

On that front, my eldest daughter, studying in Sheffield, has the better of me, having seen the musical which takes its name from that 2012 title track, so I’ll use this space to appeal to its inspiration, writer Chris Bush and his theatrical collaborators to bring that on the road too.

At the mid-point of his 12-date UK tour, this was quality fare in a city which famously appreciates sonic creativity and has a proven track record for warming to artists giving it their all. And as gifted songwriters who truly know their music history, Hawley and his band were a perfect fit.

Later we got two more cuts from Standing at the Sky’s Edge, Shez Sheridan (guitar) and his cohorts getting down and dirty on a mighty wade through old blues to The Stooges and beyond on the epic ‘Down in the Woods’, before the dreamy, slow-building ‘Don’t Stare at the Sun’.

Actually, I’ve … erm, a notion that a future Hawley ‘best of’ might be called Sun, Stars, Oceans and Open Doors. Every great songwriter has themes they return to again and again, and for our Richard those are themes that clearly resonate.

There were technical gremlins as he switched to acoustic guitar early on, deferentially suggesting it wouldn’t really matter if we couldn’t hear his strumming before launching head on into 2007’s high-tempo ‘I’m Looking For Someone to Find Me’, then back to the new LP for a typically evocative modern masterpiece in ‘Emilina Says’.

While so many tracks stand out on Further – and tonight the Smiths-esque ‘Doors’, equally exquisitely-reflective ‘Midnight Train’ plus a laidback rocking ‘Galley Girl’ (a reinvented sea shanty I’d like to hear Fisherman’s Friends tackle) also impressed, with just the deeply-personal ‘My Little Treasures’ omitted – I’ll put my neck on the line and say ‘Time Is’ could be my favourite song of 2019, Clive Mellor playing a blinder on harmonica, not for the first time that evening.

I should mention more about Richard’s bandmates, but what do you want to hear? I could mention that Colin Elliot’s violin bass looked the part in this Merseyside setting for starters. But like Richard himself, his fellow musicians don’t go out of their way to get noticed. They’re just there, dependable, perfect accompaniment for a top-notch singer and talented tunesmith and musician who’s probably still a little embarrassed it’s just his name on the records’ front covers.

I’m pretty sure they were enjoying themselves more and more as the night progressed though, and not just because of their leader’s occasional pronouncements and thumbs-ups to us, his stance, denims and greased-back hair evoking classic rock’n’roll cool.

We were taken to the sun again for rousing showstopper, ‘Is There a Pill’, a veritable mountain of a song that unfortunately arrived three decades too late for the Big O. And on returning there was one more delve into the grooves of Further, the poignant ‘Not Lonely’ pre-empting a gorgeous send-off, familiar tinkling announcing 2010 EP interlude ‘There’s a Storm a Comin’’, with chills throughout and hearts truly tugged, these North Country treasures leaving us on a high.

Looking Further: Richard Hawley, still in his songwriting prime and at a venue near you (Photo: Chris Saunders)

Remaining UK dates, with support from Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly (most are sold out, check for details): Friday, October 11th – Sheffield Octagon; Monday, October 14th – Newcastle Northumbria Institute; Tuesday, October 15th – Glasgow Barrowland; Thursday, October 17th – London Roundhouse; Friday, October 18th – Brighton Dome. Visit Richard Hawley’s official website for more information, and check out his Facebook page 

 

 

 

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Turning up the Voltage – the Jeffrey Lewis interview

Three’s Company: Jeffrey Lewis and the Voltage, namely Brent Cole, left, and Mem Pahl, right (Photo: Nic Chapman)

I’m guessing cult US indie singer-songwriter and comic book artist Jeffrey Lewis is back home in New York right now, after a recent run of UK dates with his band, The Voltage.

And again, he picked up plenty of new friends, having received jaw-dropping praise from major news and music outlets before now, along with awed testimonials from big names on both the underground and overground scenes.

Listen to his new record Bad Wiring in a few weeks and you’ll see why, a 43-year-old now some 18 years into his recording career clearly on a creative high. And while waiting for that November 1st release you can always catch up with his tremendous Modern Lovers-like lead single ‘LPs’ and trawl back through an impressive back-catalogue.

As those who put his records out succinctly put it, ‘In all of indie-rock there is no force like Jeffrey Lewis. Although mostly recognised for his lyrical skills as well as his illustration and comic book skills, the secret weapon in Lewis’s arsenal has been his slow evolution from DIY folkie in the late 90s to barn-burning indie-rock live sensation.’ Is The Voltage frontman guilty as charged on that front?

“Well, it’s certainly true that over the years we kind of went through this evolution of turning into a band from just being kind of me in a bedroom with a tape recorder, with my brother Jack playing bass. It was the two of us for a while, we started making up songs and by 1997, playing little places in New York.

“By around 2002 we started playing with a drummer, starting to go on tour, learning the ins and outs of what it meant to play shows on stage and make recordings. It was a very slow, weird learning process that we sort of accidentally found ourselves engaging in until at this point we were like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re a band, here we are on tour, and we know how to talk to a venue, do a soundcheck and ask for ‘more keyboard in the right stage monitor’ and professional sounding stuff.

“I guess that just slowly happened, but then with all these bands we love, like Yo La Tengo, The Velvet Underground and all that kind of noisy full-on sound like The Fall, and Stereolab … for a long time I felt there was this disconnect between the fact that we’d be getting press that would consider us a solo, acoustic singer-songwriter thing, then we’d show up and play this loud, full-on rock’n’roll stuff with distortion pedals and everything.

“And still to this day I show up at a venue and they’re surprised that the guitars will be going through an amplifier, or that there’s a microphone for the guitar, or we have a DI box, and so on.”

Is that all down to the Lightning in your name (apparently, his parents actually named him Lightning Jeffrey Lewis, on account of adverse weather conditions when he was born, or as he put it, ‘the result of being born on the Lower East Side in the 1970s to hippie parents’)?

“Yes, but we were always a bit noisier than advertised, I guess. The quiet stuff is an important part of what we do also, but that dynamic and ability to just throw in all the things we love into this project has always been part of it.”

He calls The Voltage his new band, but the musicians are the same he had in previous incarnation Los Bolts, namely bassist, Mem Pahl and drummer, Brent Cole (also of the Moldy Peaches), that pair having toured the world with for the past four years.

As for that more recent name change, as he puts it, ‘Everybody knows most good bands have a ‘v’ in their name – the Velvets, Nirvana, Pavement, Vaselines, Violent Femmes, Camper Van Beethoven, Modern Lovers, and so on’.

In fact, before Los Bolts it was The Rain, seemingly also in reference to the Lightning in his name.

Triple Voltage: Jeffrey Lewis and arm-wrestling bandmates Brent Cole and Mem Pahl (Photo: Bristol Mather)

The new LP was recorded and produced in Nashville by Roger Moutenot, also responsible for producing several influential Yo La Tengo albums, and who also worked on Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss and Sleater Kinney’s Hot Rock, more than enough to convince Jeffrey he was the right man to capture these 12 great new songs in the studio.

“As an experience of working with a producer, it was a dream come true. I obviously worship a number of records Roger had produced in the past, so I specifically sought him out. The fact that he’s in Nashville was just accidental. We would have travelled to record with him anywhere. But now when people hear we made our album in Nashville, everybody’s like, oh, I guess this is your country album.”

It’s a great record, I can reveal, with plenty of memorable moments and clever twists and turns, and above all gifted songwriting. As the line from opening track ‘Exactly What Nobody Wanted’ puts it, ‘So awesome, just awesome’.

And from the cracking punk riff driving ‘Except for the Fact That It Isn’t’ to Jeffrey’s breathless alternative state of the nation address on ‘My Girlfriend Doesn’t Worry’ right through to pensive, poignant closer ‘Not Supposed To Be Wise’, I’m hooked. What’s more, songs like ‘Depression! Despair!’ have Lou Reed writ large on them, echoes of his ‘New York’ album heard on the latter.

I’m only a few listens in, but the fruits of their labours suggest the band and their producer had a winning working relationship.

“Oh yeah, that was fantastic. I would definitely record with Roger Moutenot again. He was such a great person to work with and it really seemed that he got the atmosphere andthat was some of the sound I’ve been going for many years, a sound he cooked up initially in the ’90s with Yo La Tengo. Yeah, it just seemed a natural fit.”

Jeffrey continues to get lots of great press, and is ‘slowly but surely on a trajectory to immortal cult status’ according to Line of Best Fit, ‘dazzling’ according to Mojo, ‘Weird? Very… but also downright inspiring’ in Rolling Stone’s view, and was seen by the NME as ‘The Big Apple’s best-kept secret…. Genius-gone-ignored… mind-blowing.’ What’s more, former Pulp frontman and BBC 6 Music presenter Jarvis Cocker reckons Jeffrey is ‘the best lyricist working in the US today’. High praise indeed.

He recently undertook an 11-day, 11-date UK tour including Oslo in London, two shows in Scotland and a Welsh finale at Cardiff’s Clwb Ifor Bach. When we caught up he was just set to leave Lancashire for the long trek up to Scotland. How was The Ferret in Preston that previous night?

“It was great. And a good crowd. It’s been quite a while since I was there, and not since it was the Mad Ferret, going back – off-hand – to maybe 2011. It’s been a long time.”

So long it’s no longer mad?

“Right. Yes. It’s straightened itself out.”

Lewis Carols: US treasure Jeffrey Lewis supplying a little six-string sonic therapy for us (Kelley Clayton)

There seems to be a lot of love for you on this side of the Atlantic.

“Well, I guess, I mean people are coming to shows, so that’s good.”

The UK became in a sense a second home for you, the first country to put out a CD by you, for instance.

“Yeah, we really got just a fantastic leg-up and head-start over here, first of all with Rough Trade putting out my stuff, even though it was just home-recorded cassettes. It’s amazing that Geoff Travis took a chance on it and put it out, and we were able to do a Peel Session in 2002 – that was also a tremendous big start in England.

“And one of my first gigs in London, a very tiny show in November 2001, Ben Ayres from Cornershop just happened to be in the audience, even though there were only about 30 people in there, and invited me to go on tour in England opening for Cornershop. That was also just tremendous. So within a very short time, just a few months, somehow I just had all this exposure, and was really off and running quite quickly.”

And the UK’s always been in your musical DNA, I’m thinking, with all those cool indie bands and so much more you appreciate coming from this side of the Atlantic.

“Yeah, definitely. I was always a fan of Cornershop, for example, and stuff that Rough Trade had done. “

Jeffrey had a long drive up to Glasgow that day, but I put it to him that he was used to all this by now, surely.

“Yeah, and it’s also such a beautiful drive, the journey up to Scotland.”

Lightning Reactions: Jeffrey Lewis, hoping to see us next summer (Photo: Sonya Kolowrat)

Beyond that he had several more UK dates, then it was on to Italy before returning home. Can he take inspiration on the road while he’s out there, writing songs between shows? Or is that something that happens when he’s home and reflecting on it all?

“There’s usually just too much other stuff to do. Songwriting doesn’t usually happen on tour, and then it’s usually on to organising the next tour. There’s a USA tour in November, so I need to make all the posters and mail all the posters out for that and sort out where we’re staying each night on that tour. And with the new album, Bad Wiring, coming out on November 1st, there’s quite a bit to do with that. It’s sort of juggling three, four or five full-time careers, basically.”

How very indie D-I-Y, and that’s even without mentioning his other career, other than to say that we should also keep an eye out for other interesting Jeffrey Lewis projects, such as his new giant-size comic book issue, Fuff#12, and first book Revelations in the Wink of an Eye: My Insane Musings on Watchmen, from Conspiracies to Stupidities. 

I was only on my first listen of the new LP when I spoke to Jeffrey, but already loving what I was hearing. It’s difficult to keep track with various formats involved, so what number recording would he class this one as?

“Well, I’ve got seven albums on Rough Trade and this will be the first on Moshi Moshi, but I’ve also got a few others, various self-releases, and a couple of projects on Don Giovanni Records, so it sort of depends what counts. I guess I’d say I have seven official albums and this will be number eight.”

With this recent UK visit a pre-release tour, any idea when he might return for those who missed out this time?

“Well, we usually come to England at least once or twice a year, so I’m thinking maybe next summer, depending on whether there’s a festival situation or something. Maybe that could be a good time to come back.”

This tour was with The Voltage, previously knoqwn as Los Bolts – was it just you, Brent and Mem?

“Yeah, although actually at the moment we have my brother Jack, who’s been in my band quite a long time in my early years, and once in a while we get him to join us again. So we’ve got him jumping in as a special guest band member, just for these UK dates. He wasn’t with us in Germany last week. Usually we’re a three-piece, but once in a while Jack joins us.”

Electric Performer: Jeffrey Lewis hanging out, without his Voltage, as heard on Bad Wiring (Photo: Sonya Kolowrat)

On the sublime ‘LPs’ from this new album, you talk about some of your key influences, and you also paid tribute recently to cult lo-fi underground US singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston (who died barely a week earlier), clearly a major inspiration on all you’ve gone on to do.

“Yeah, absolutely, going back to when my brother Jack and I first heard his stuff in 1995, with the album he put out on Atlantic Records. That was my first exposure to him, and we became completely devoted fans. We weren’t really making songs prior to that, and then it just inspired our entire approach and us making recordings in the late ‘90s. Yeah, without Daniel Johnston’s influence and all his cassettes … I think I have pretty much all of them, and  that’s really how I got started.

“I even lived in Austin, Texas briefly, on a sort of Daniel Johnston pilgrimage back in 2000, and while I was there I was able to get my hands on quite a number of his tapes I hadn’t been able to find in New York City prior to that. I also did a number of gigs with him over the years, the first in New York in 1999, and later also in Texas, Manchester and London. He was also such a great guiding light for how strong and true a song was possible to be.”

Was he encouraging of your work too?

“Well, he was quite introverted. It’s not like he would reach out and give encouragement to somebody who just did his thing and was very … he wasn’t a person you could have a normal conversation with. He was very much in his own head, and wouldn’t really engage in that way.”

I mentioned the track ‘LPs’, the first track aired from the new album. Call it an obsession or perhaps even a disease, but so many of us relate to that musical journey you embarked upon, finding our way through the record racks, so to speak. And in your music there’s so much within that we can identify, from Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers (there’s even a subtle nod on ‘LPs’ in the way he phrases ‘Radio in the first line, and the Voltage’s echoed harmonies) back to the Velvet Underground …

“All band names with a V!”

Well, exactly. I love that, and reckon I hear Violent Femmes in your work in places.

“Yeah, Silver Jews, Pavement … I don’t know why these bands have Vs in their name but at a certain point I noticed a proper band seems to need a V.”

Indeed, and Silver Jews are another band receiving plenty of interest of late, with the all too early departure of founder David Berman in August. at the age of 52. I was also going to mention past WriteWyattUK interviewees They Might Be Giants there, not least from their more new wave-like early days, but they don’t quite fit Jeffrey’s flying V remit. But no matter. He’s still got plenty of influences to fire at me …

“Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids … the list goes on and on!”

Crown Joules: Jeffrey Lewis and the Voltage bandmates Brent Cole, left, and Mem Pahl, right (Photo: Nic Chapman)

Jeffrey Lewis’ new LP, Bad Wiring is out via Moshi Moshi on November 1st. For more details and all the latest from Jeffrey, try his Facebook page and website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reverend and the Makers – Action Records, Preston

Queue Action: The congregation, including this reviewer, await the Reverend and a Maker (Photo: Action Records)

Half past six it said on the advert, so there I was – unfashionably early – going twice round the block to find a space, sheepishly passing a long queue outside the shop.

Having checked parking restrictions several times, convinced Preston’s traffic wardens were hovering menacingly nearby, I made my way down Derby Street to join the punters, a few minutes spare.

That next 20 minutes or so seemed to take forever, a nearby bar having hit happily pissed up hour, echoing karaoke seeping into my brain. Or was it in my head? Nobody else seemed to pick up on at least two murders of dreadful Bruce Channel song, ‘Hey Baby’. A favourite at Preston North End, I seem to recall (please tell me it no longer is), the words in the chorus mutated into more or less one slurred word then an ‘oof’ and ‘aah’. Painful.

A week before, Jon McClure told me he hoped to get along early to flick through the racks at this iconic Church Road store, having missed out last time he called. Was he already in there? No, voices carrying from the front end of the queue suggesting excitement or relief, Jon and Makers’ guitarist Ed Cosens soon walking nonchalantly along from the direction of Fishergate, guitar cases in hand, The Reverend’s new moustache leading to collective double-takes. Was that really him? Course it was.

Not long after we were in, this punter taking the left aisle, tempted to leaf through some vinyl. But it seemed rude, Jon and Ed already strumming, even that early jam impressing, the acoustic pair with a couple of runs through ‘Son of a Gun’ by The La’s. I always felt they had good taste.

Action Stations: Ed and Jon from Reverend and the Makers with host, Gordon Gibson (Photo: Action Records)

This was the last of four intimate acoustic record store sessions and the only one outside Yorkshire, the 27-track Best Of album – double-CD or double-LP – launched five days before on their home patch at Bear Tree Records, Sheffield. And this time, a 35-minute set ensued, Jon telling us, “I feel I’m engaged in an exercise to ascertain how many people we can fit into a small record shop.”

Prompted by flattery from a woman close up, Jon introduced his ‘tache, suggesting she liked it far more than his better half, bandmate Laura, who he reckons looked at it with disdain. And having mentioned the record, suggesting it made sense to ‘get y’sen a copy’, we were off.

We helped them get going with a communal singalong on ‘Open Your Window’, one of the tracks that ensured the success and continuing appeal of their 2007 debut LP, The State of Things, our ‘we’ll be together in the Springtime’ hardly the singing ‘like your life depends on it’ he requested, but fairly together in the circumstances.

It was all going well, even if we couldn’t bounce along like a regular Makers gig, ‘in case we knock a Forrest Gump VHS on your head’ or ‘be injured in the critical case of a Fall boxset coming down on us’. Jon liked the imagery of that, suggesting ‘what a way to die’, adding, ‘If that does ‘appen to anyone and you’re killed by a Fall boxset, I’ll ‘appily deliver a glowing eulogy at your funeral’. Touching.

A more mellow ‘No Soap (In a Dirty War) from 2009’s A French Kiss in the Chaos was next, the quality coming through in this near-raw form, the lyrics all the more stark on a number that could only have been penned by a band with genuine, burning frustrations to voice, and achingly personal in this setting, delivered at close quarters in front of less than 100 people.

In fact, Jon told us how now and again he’ll forget a line, admitting feeling a little flustered when he spotted a girl near the back who knew his words better than he did, adding, “I could feel mi’sen about to fuck ‘em up!”

Reading Matter: Ed Cosens and Jon McClure review your reviewer’s Clash biography at Action Records

A gruesome tale followed about an ex-girlfriend and a poo sample before Jon and Ed gave us ‘Sex With the Ex’, so to speak, the show being live-streamed and The Reverend letting on how his Mum, holidaying in Spain, would be watching, uneasy about him telling that previous tale.

A rant about Thom Yorke refusing to play first crossover hit ‘Creep’ live with Radiohead preceded their crack at breakthrough single ‘Heavyweight Champion of the World’, discussion following between Jon and Ed over whether to try another bash at ‘Hidden Persuaders’ from the second LP, the Rev suggesting it was ‘shit‘ in this format last time. Well, it was great on this occasion.

A talkative young lad halfway back was getting restless, Jon mocking a telling off before namechecking him, announcing, ‘When you’re older, you might be able to play as badly as me’. But a poignant solo rendition of ‘Long, Long Time’ proved his stage and songcraft is not in question.

Ed re-joined for a more upbeat ‘Bandits’, the lads back to the first LP, with laughter part-way in when Jon’s right-hand man stepped across to take lead vocals, a shared microphone causing hassle, Jon a fair bit taller and Ed struggling to stretch and hit those notes, doing commendably, his bandmate in hysterics. And where Laura would have chipped in with her lines, Jon covered, telling us mid-song, ‘Obviously, my wife’s not here, so you’re going to have to put up with me doing an impression, in my own inimitable way’.

Then came ‘What Goes Around’ from 2012’s ‘@Reverend_Makers’, the duo’s harmonies impressive in a perfect finale, the next half-hour seeing the pair carry on their community service, signing records and sharing more stories. There’s one I’m tempted to retell, but I best not. Next time you see the Rev though, ask about the couple with the shared Best Of at Chesterfield’s Tallbird session.

And if you haven’t yet, ‘get y’sen a copy’ of The Best of Reverend and the Makers. Highly recommended. I look forward to an Unplugged follow-up.

Happy Shoppers: Jon and Ed of Reverend and the Makers live at Action Records, Preston (Photo: Action Records)

With thanks to Gordon Gibson, Action Records’ next event taking place at the nearby Blitz nightclub with The Sherlocks on Tuesday, October 8th. For more details head to the store’s Facebook page or pop in and splash out on more great music than you planned to.

If you missed this site’s interview with Jon McClure last week, including links to a previous feature/interview and live review, head here. Meanwhile, Reverend and the Makers’ Best Of tour starts on Thursday, October 3rd at Nottingham Rock City. For more details head to their Facebook page or www.reverendmakers.com.

Finally, it is still possible to follow Jon McClure’s example and get your hands on a copy of This Day in Music’s Guide to The Clash by Malcolm Wyatt, with details here.

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