Back with a Special Beat Service – the Dave Wakeling interview

Bathroom Idol: The Beat’s Mirror Man, Dave Wakeling, reflects on his past and looks to the future

It gets a tad confusing with a few of the bands doing the rounds again all these years on, not least when original members have gone their separate ways, starting their own versions of the same group.

Take The Beat, for example, their co-front-men leading their own bands under the old banner. What’s more, there’s further confusion as they were always known as The English Beat elsewhere, to avoid legal issues across the Atlantic. But according to Dave Wakeling, there’s certainly no animosity with his old pal Ranking Roger.

“We seem really good friends. I went to his house, we had a pot of tea together and a lovely talk, and there’s some chance we may work together next year with the 2 Tone 40th anniversary.

“Music’s a bit like farts. You like the smell of your own, and we both like our own Beat a bit better than the other one’s!”

Too much information maybe, but it’s a fair point. And I guess that was always the case. As with fellow Beat bandmates David Steele and Andy Cox, who went off to form Fine Young Cannibals when they formed General Public. In retrospect, they were all pulling in different directions, a split almost inevitable.

“I think so. The wonderful thing is that we ended up making songs people can still be bothered about today. That’s tremendous. You don’t really know that at the time you’d have songs that people would cover. You go into a bar and a band will be doing your song. That really knocks you sideways.

“First, you get a couple of songs in the charts and you don’t have to get another job, so that’s good, then you get wealthy and get all the fame and the cars and all that. But to have one of your songs still mean something after nearly 40 years … you can’t pay for that really. It’s the most wonderful gift a troubadour can ever have.”

There was a spell away from music at one point for this California-based singer-songwriter, although between spells with General Public he was still working on music-related projects for Greenpeace and film director John Hughes. But then Dave was coaxed back into performing by Elvis Costello, and since then there have been two combos – The Beat featuring Ranking Roger, and The English Beat starring Dave Wakeling, the latter of whom have played an estimated 1,000 shows, mostly in North America.

One thing led to another, Dave adding new songs to his live set, fans then asking for those on the merch stand, the idea of a new LP beginning to come together.

“That started the ball rolling. I wouldn’t have wanted to have done a vanity record – I would’ve been just as happy to keep the songs in my head rather than go to the bother of making a record if no-one was interesting.”

And the success of a subsequent Pledge Music album campaign suggested those fans at the live shows weren’t the only ones ready for another Beat album.

“Yes. People started asking, ‘Can I get a copy of the CD with that new one on?’ So we felt we better make one. The pledge thing took a while to start up, raising a little money before starting to record, but it’s worked out incredibly well and just went over 200% of its target.”

You may recall lead single How Can You Stand There? being aired on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny as part of the BBC’s New Year celebrations. And it’s been around a while, as I was reminded, seeing Dave play that on a filmed radio show in St Louis in 2014.

“That would have been exactly the same time I first contacted the Pledge people, so it didn’t really start until the middle of 2015, recording towards the end of that year.”

I think first and foremost of all the bands The Beat came on the scene with and their primary ska and reggae credentials, but – reappraising them – there’s an early rock’n’roll, Buddy Holly feel to that new single in its bare form. I guess those influences were always there. Maybe I chose not to hear them.

“I think so. I liked an equal balance of on-beats and off-beats – so it’s either Buddy Holly or Bo Diddley. And on the other side you’d have a Toots and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker and Bob Marley sort of feel. And for most of my songs, you can play them as pop songs or reggae. They transpose pretty easy.”

Similarly, I get a Who vibe when I revisit a performance of Save it for Later for American radio in 2011, not least that guitar sound, again putting him in a different light. Or was that just because I know Pete Townshend (as well as Pearl Jam) had covered it?

“Yeah. Mind you, when I see a video of him playing that song – he can really play guitar! I’ve been practising that one for nearly 40 years, but boy … he can stretch his fingers to 11 frets, I reckon. It’s stunning, and I’d love – if I could ever get the chance – to sing the song with him and Eddie Vedder. That would be lovely. They both covered it a few times, and I’ve enjoyed their music a lot.

“Pete Townshend was one of the reasons I wanted to be in a group in the first place and I was lucky enough to meet Eddie Vedder early on in his career, when he was feeling the strain of being a social spokesperson band, with the weight of Paul Weller – a spokesperson for a generation. But we had some good chats back in the day, and I’ve been very pleased with the way he’s used his fame for lots of really great causes, brought to people’s attention. And I’d love for the three of us to play Save it For Later on three acoustic guitars.”

Well, you heard it here first … possibly. In the meantime though, we have the new album, Here We Go Love, out on May 11th, with Dave backed by his regular seven-piece band on the first Beat studio album since 1982’s Special Beat Service. And as his record company put it, it’s ‘a brand-new collection of 13 vital songs that have their feet in the here and now, but lose none of the fire and frenzy of those timeless immediate classics that made the band’s name.’

What’s more, Dave remains as engaged and switched on as ever judging by our conversation and what I’ve heard of the LP so far, its lyrics typically drawn from observing life and tumultuous recent events, as you’d expect from the man who co-wrote timeless hits Hands Off She’s Mine, Mirror in the Bathroom, Best Friend/Stand Down Margaret, Too Nice To Talk To and the afore-mentioned Save it for Later, while helping put a winning spin on old classics Tears of a Clown and Can’t Get Used to Losing You.

There were those three previous great albums too, not least my personal favourite, their stunning May 1980 debut, I Just Can’t Stop It, which along with follow-up Wha’ppen reached No. 3 in the UK album charts, before Special Beat Service proved to be the last for the original line-up.

The new LP was largely crafted over two years in breaks from touring, Dave still creating quality pop hooks with an occasional political edge, plenty of wit and wisdom, and lots of ska, punk, soul, reggae and pop moments.

When the Birmingham sextet first hit the charts in 1979, Ranking Roger was just 16, while legendary saxophonist Saxa, who previously played with the likes of Desmond Dekker and Prince Buster, was pushing 50, and along with The Specials’ trombonist Rico Rodriguez was already a ska icon.

“The shocking thing is that when Saxa died (May 2017) we realised some of us were the same age now as when we’d first met him … when he was the old legend. Whenever we went out with him, he’d call us, ‘You young boys.’”

Dave missed Saxa’s funeral, struggling after hernia surgery, adding, “The combination of travelling 6,000 miles and then crying your bum off when you get there would sting a bit!

“But I found out what pub they were using straight after and arranged to put £500 behind the bar. Whenever you asked Saxa if he wanted a drink, he’d say, ‘Yes, get me two beers,’ so when the funeral crowd came into the bar I had someone shout out, ‘Get me two beers!’”

And the man himself was involved with the album, despite a tendon injury.

“That was lovely. I played some of the songs to him as they were developing, and he had a bad finger so couldn’t play the flat notes on his saxophone anymore, but was still in great form, and hummed some melodies for me and I put what I remembered of them on there.

“And it sounds just like him. He gave me some starters for melodies, and they were that good that they were easy to remember. Our sax player learned that and it sounds just like Saxa. It’s just a pity he’s not here to hear it.”

He’s not the only … erm, Special guest, so to speak. There’s also recent writewyattuk interviewee Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers, these days fronting The Skabilly Rebels.

“Yeah, I love Roddy, and he plays on If Killing Works. And there’s a cartoon drawing of him on the record sleeve – he’s the tiny guitarist who looks like a Teddy Boy!”

Roddy came from a band that fused punk and ska together, so how about Dave’s own entry system to the music business – did he grow up listening to all that music later reflected in his work?

“We were very lucky in that Birmingham and Coventry were very industrial cities which had seen a huge influx of all sorts of different people and all sorts of different music. You’d hear ska, bluebeat and rocksteady coming out of houses and at your fingertips, and also played at football grounds because of all the skinheads – to keep them quiet at half time!

”I didn’t realise until I came to live in America what a jewel Radio One had been for us – music was quite separated over here into black and white music, whereas we only had Top of the Pops, Radio 1 and Radio Luxembourg. So you had the best of The Rolling Stones, Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Kinks, The Four Tops, and we were lucky to grow up in that late ‘60s and early 70s period where we didn’t realise there was anything special about that. We were so lucky to get that musical education.”

Also featured on the album is Train guitarist Luis Maldonado, and backing vocalists Durga McBroom, Kevin Williams and Jelani Jones. And didn’t I spot former Specials singer Rhoda Dakar and former Belle stars vocalist Jennie Matthias with his band on Jools Holland’s show?

“Yes, and they’ve always been really lovely. And there was something really nice about 2 Tone – there wasn’t the same kind of competitive drive you’d see in other music scenes, and so many of us were from a bit of a backwater of the Midlands, and there was a lot of camaraderie that stuck us together.”

As it happens, Dave returns to his old Midlands stomping ground when his band play Birmingham Academy on June 2nd, one of 17 UK and Irish dates lined up, right through to Brighton’s Concorde 2 on June 17th, the tour starting at Manchester’s Club Academy on Friday, May 25th.

“Yeah, and the day after we’re up to Scotland (Scone Palace, Perth) for the BBC’s Biggest Weekend, so the Manchester show, really, is going to be our warm-up for that.”

That promises to be a relatively-intimate affair, as opposed to a few of the bigger Academy-type venues.

“Yeah, they can be a bit cavernous, but that one’s quite good. We were there last September and it went very nicely, so I’m looking forward to returning. We’ve only got a half-hour set in Scotland so I’m wondering about putting that set in the same order at Manchester, giving it a dress rehearsal … we might even tell the crowd!”

Did Dave spot a recent Facebook post featuring The Beat playing Stand Down Margaret on ITV’s Tiswas spin-off OTT back in the spring of 1982?

“I shared it on my own page, and remember that show very well. It was a good accident, I suppose – it was filmed in Birmingham and happening the same time as us. We’d done Tiswas quite a lot, so it was a natural extension.

“And I suppose I can tell you now – it’s been long enough – we were the band who played Mole in a Hole for Lenny Henry. We were his backing band for that single. In fact, that was probably one of the finest versions of Mole in a Hole that’s ever been recorded!”

The band’s OTT appearance came two years after Stand Down Margaret’s initial release, and it seemed that the message was starting to get through, even though we had another eight and a half years of Thatcher’s premiership to endure. I asked Dave how much of an influence that rather direct political approach might have had on The Specials recording Free Nelson Mandela in 1984.

“Well, you’ve got to be sensitive, because your shoes don’t fit everybody, so there’s no reason why your views should. But I liked that we went down as making the politest protest song ever. I think it says ‘please’ over 30 times. That was very English of us.

“What else is interesting – and also I suppose a bit sad – is that a lot of those issues being dealt with in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s seem to have come back, whether it’s the spectre of nuclear war, fear of immigrants, or of people struggling to make ends meet. We’ve got some striking similarities.”

Speaking of which, the day I spoke to Dave marked the 50th anniversary of West Midlands-based politician Enoch Powell’s infamous, highly-inflammatory ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.

“Ooh … at the Midland Hotel in Birmingham. You know how everyone’s got very keen on these ancestry websites and the need to meet relatives? Well, one of mine sent a scrap of a newspaper for Smethwick, Enoch Powell’s constituency, mentioning how a by-election was being called, the candidates not in place yet. They were working on the Conservative candidate, and the party organiser for that area was Mr F.D. Wakeling. We don’t know if that was my Dad or my Grandad, but one of those bastards got Enoch Powell in! I think it must have been a DNA crime.”

Ah, the perils of digging too deep into your family history. Although – on a less contentious note – Dave told me how one of his 18th century relatives, James Wakeling, possibly the first to move to Birmingham, was a mechanical beer-pump maker, and how, ‘Dad joked that we’ve had the suds in our blood ever since.’

Despite that earlier possible link to Enoch Powell, I pointed out to Dave that he should be proud he was part of a band that played a role – along with the likes of fellow Midlands outfits The Specials, The Selecter, and UB40 – in promoting a far more positive view of race integration and inclusion. As he put it himself in an earlier interview, The Beat were ‘an incongruous set of people from all different cultures and upbringings.’ They certainly proved a great example of the more positive aspects of a multicultural Britain.

“I think so, and I still see elements of that, although it is a shame the money wasn’t put into helping develop that side of our society, while money could be found for other things, like blowing people up.

“Take the example of Canada, where people who came to live there were given all sorts of opportunities and even a radio station in their language, and a lot of different things to help them integrate and feel they were part of that country. I don’t think that happened so much in the UK. People were brought over for cheap labour and kind of ridiculed, and separate societies developed in some ways. And we haven’t entirely overcome that.

“But when I go home I’m proud in many ways to see that people – whatever colour, whatever religion they are – the thing they are most proud of is that they’re Brummies. That’s a nice feeling. So you can see that the race is on. There is a chance that everybody could get on and give their kids a bit more luck than what they had. Or we could just tear each other to bits with the same energy. And this record is the soundtrack to that race.”

Absolutely, and you’re probably still asking ‘please’.

“A little bit, although I have become the old bloke in the corner saying what he bloody likes because it doesn’t matter what people think!”

Speaking of which, on the new LP, The One and Only tackles Trump’s America. Is that his Stand Down Donald anthem?

Wakeling Up: The Beat, starring Dave Wakeling, are heading your way.

“That song’s really about the Trump in all of us. It’s a bit easy to point fingers but a lot of people voted for Trump out of fear in the same way I would think people voted for Brexit out of fear. It’s hard to take ownership of those sort of decisions afterwards, and it’s hard to make things work sometimes.

“We’ve got to get past the blame game, even though you can see some people who deserve a bucketful of it. Despite all that, we’ve got to try and find a way we can all get along, or we’re all going to sink or swim. It’s as clear as day really. Children of Men was a good film, but I think it’s best left as a film.”

In a similar vein, The Selecter’s Daylight album last year suggested Pauline Black had retained the fire of those earlier records, but – like Dave – was insistent on remaining relevant and tackling real issues.

“Well, we’re very lucky we were popular in the past. But you can’t get stuck there. If you sit on your laurels for too long they get squashed. And like The Selecter and The Specials and Roger’s version of The Beat, it’s striking that some of the things we’re singing about are things that are becoming – more and more – issues to people again.

“It’s like the end of a conversation that started a while ago. And I don’t think that conversation can be put off for much longer. It has to be sorted one way or another. We can aspire to our better angels or be the mammals we are and just bite each other’s throats. We’re capable of both. My biggest fear is what would happen if my record went to No.1 and then it was the end of the world and I never get paid!”

The new LP was recorded at NRG, Los Angeles, with mixing veteran Jay Baumgardner and producer Kyle Hoffmann, Dave building a vocal booth in his home rather than travelling into the city, recording vocals as the mood took him, a swim or a spot of gardening occasionally reinvigorating him.

He’s spent ‘just over half my life’ in America now. Is he still based in San Fernando?

“Yeah, I’m still in the Valley, although it’s getting too hot. I may head back to Redondo, where I was living before, a bit closer to the ocean, with a bit more of a breeze.”

What does he miss most about England and Birmingham?

“Sarcasm. As with Manchester, Liverpool, and any other English city everyone’s been packed together there for so long, so you have to watch your manners, but because of that word play is important, and I like the way that in Birmingham someone can say something and because of the way they’ve pulled their face everyone knows they mean the exact opposite.

“We don’t have as much of that here. It’s available on the East coast and in New England, but it’s a bit more literal in the rest of the States. I do miss a good dose of sardonic wit and sarcasm with a grudge!”

After The Beat split, Dave and Roger’s next project General Public, initially featuring The Clash’s Mick Jones, The Specials’ Horace Panter, and Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Micky Billingham and Andy ‘Stoker’ Growcott, saw success with their 1984 debut LP, All The Rage, in America, particularly with the single, Tenderness.

A decade later, in their second spell, they had their biggest US hit covering The Staple Singers’ l’ll Take You There, used by both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in successful presidential campaigns. Has Dave got good memories of his General Public days?

“It was a very big deal over here. In some ways – and it was the same with Fine Young Cannibals – we carried on from The Beat and it got bigger and bigger in the States, with stadium shows and all that. It was lovely having the chance to play with people from The Specials and Dexy’s and write some hits with a whole new line-up. And I always dreamt that one day it would be fun to have a Beat, General Public and Fine Young Cannibals tour.”

That sounds great … and could still happen, yeah?

“We’ll see, y’know, it would be like pulling teeth, but …”

Do you Keep in touch with Mick Jones?

“I haven’t, but I’d like to. I was looking at old photographs from then on Facebook recently. I liked him very much. He had a lovely quiet way about him … until he got on the guitar – then he was a monster!”

Going back to those initial days for The Beat, Dave recently proclaimed, “When we started, everything we did by accident just went right. Even when it seemed like a tragedy, it worked out great.” He illustrates that point by referring to a show at which they opened for legendary broadcaster John Peel at Aston University. After playing their set, Peelie described them as ‘the best band in the world apart from The Undertones,’ the band inviting their new friend out for a curry to thank him for his support.

“We were sitting there with John, just so full of ourselves, and a car came around the corner and smashed into our blue van. That put a dampener on things, but he said, ‘I’d better give you a Peel Session to pay for that.’”

Lighting Up: Mr Wakeling cadges a light from a fellow David

That recording, in turn, was passed on to Simon Potts, who signed them to Arista Records. I love that story, I tell Dave, not least as a huge fan of the Undertones.

“Well, I was a big Undertones fan too, and for me The Undertones and the Buzzcocks were a sign that you didn’t have to have a lot of equipment – you just needed a good idea and a couple of guitars and you could do it. You didn’t have to have a huge producer in line, or a record company or a video.

“The Buzzcocks and The Undertones, for me, spelled that out most clearly, and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in a group like them, with three-minute songs that everyone wanted to keep singing after they faded out.”

Was there ever a day-job outside music?

“I was a fireman at one point, but my lungs would be in dreadful state if I’d carried that on, so I’m glad I missed that one.”

He’s 62 now, and in certain jobs would have been pensioned off by now. It doesn’t work like that with music though. But he seems to still have the hunger for it all.

“Yeah, and it keeps me young. I feel younger and fresher when I’m on tour than if I’m loafing about. It’s a good aerobic workout and it does you no harm at all to travel around and for people telling you you’re great. That cheers you up and you get paid for it. I enjoy all that.”

Finally, if he could pick a couple of key moments with The Beat that really made him feel proud, what would they be?

“I think it would be being everybody’s favourite support band., Everybody wanted us to be the opening band, because we created a party for them to swim in to. And the list of bands, which I never guessed when I was fan at the Virgin Records shop – The Pretenders, Talking Heads, The Police, The Clash, David Bowie … they all said we were the best opening band they ever had at the time.

“The second one would be meeting people after shows, when they shake your hand, sometimes even calling you Mr Wakeling, which was a bit worrying, because you think it’s your Dad. You have to look over your shoulder! That would be weird, because he’s been gone for ages.

“But they just want to say, ‘Thank you for everything you’ve given me’. And these are the people who’ve paid for everything you’ve eaten in the last 40 years … and your kids and grandkids even. They get to meet you outside a show, with what hair they’ve got left stuck to their head, just wanting to thank you.”

Maybe it was because you said ‘please’ in the first place.

“That’s right. Be nice and be good-mannered, because you never know how far it might take you!”

For details of The Beat’s pledge music campaign for Here We Go Love, head here. And to keep up to date with Dave Wakeling and the band, you can follow this Facebook page and check out the official website.  

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Return to Deeply Vale – in conversation with festival pioneer Chris Hewitt

Crowd Control: Into the throng at Deeply Vale Festival, 1978

Forty years ago, an estimated 20,000 punters congregated in the North West of England for the third of the legendary if somewhat quirky Deeply Vale free festivals, just two years after 300 attended the first.

Those looking on and duly inspired included future TV/radio presenter Andy Kershaw and musicians Ian Brown (The Stone Roses), Andy Rourke (The Smiths), David Gedge (The Wedding Present), Boff Whalley (Chumbawamba), and Jimi Goodwin (Doves).  Furthermore, legendary radio and Old Grey Whistle Test presenter Bob Harris is quoted as saying, “Deeply Vale has a place in rock history … the best loved and silliest rock festivals of all time.”

Headlining in 1978 was Canterbury-based Steve Hillage, best known for involvement with prog-rockers Gong, at an event that inspired many more bands to form, not least The Fall and The Ruts, who also played that year, the bill further including Hawkwind’s Nik Turner and Gong spin-off Here and Now, with Tony Wilson as a compere.

In fact, Deeply Vale was credited as the first free-fest to include punk bands – following the inclusion of The Drones and Physical Wrecks in ’77 – for an event initially taking place, according to co-organiser and this week’s interviewee Chris Hewitt, ‘kind of near Bury, kind of near Rochdale’, although two further – and more lower-key – events were switched closer to further Lancashire mill town Darwen in the early ‘80s.

These days Chris – recently described by BBC 6 Music as a ‘musical archaeologist’ – runs CH Vintage Audio, hiring out ‘60s/‘70s sound equipment, having amassed an impressive collection over the last few years, his recent clients including the crews for Morrissey – for the film, England is Mine – and Freddie Mercury film projects, supplying equipment. And  last September his team rebuilt 10cc’s Strawberry Studios for two weekends in its original building in Stockport, recreating its control room as it was.

Chris is a fascinating bloke, and I barely scraped the surface of his story when we talked earlier this week. There’s a fair bit more on a documentary interview, When Analogue Ruled Rock, linked here, not least a flavour of his dealings with Ian Dury and more recently working alongside recent writewyattuk interviewee Peter Hook. But for all his dabblings, last October he found time to produce a lovingly-designed triple-DVD/ hardback book combo marking Deeply Vale’s 40th anniversary reunion, including around 12 hours’ footage from a weekend show at Heywood Civic Hall (around a mile and a half from the original site) featuring many of the artists involved in the early festivals, plus interviews with performers and his fellow organisers, that venture following on from a 2015 six-LP/book boxset on the same subject.

The original catalyst for Deeply Vale Festival was Rochdale hippy David Smith, based in a commune on Oldham Road at the time, his interest in free festivals elsewhere leading him to Chris’ nearby music/PA hire shop.

Chris, whose CV included sound duties for Ian Dury’s early band, Kilburn and the High Roads, was also a past associate of DJ John Peel – whose first job was at a Rochdale cotton mill – the pair both fans of cult band, Tractor.

Festival Appearance: Chris Hewitt on stage at Deeply Vale in 1978 (Photo: Chris Hewitt)

Taking on board David’s premise of bringing more free festivals to the North, Chris was hired (for £60 apparently) to provide equipment and use his contacts to book some bands, having previously worked with Jeremy Beadle on Bickershaw Festival, near Wigan (having also produced a book and boxset on that event), and more recently inspired by a Rivington Pike event, also during that long hot summer of ’76.

All these years on, Chris remains amazed by interest in Deeply Vale Festival, telling me he’s still selling merchandise ‘all the time, all over the world – badges, t-shirts, LPs …’ and having staged successful reunions in 2015 and 2016, the likes of Steve Hillage and Nik Turner coming back to play. With those reunions under his belt, might there be another, at least as something of a convention for Gong fans, in honour of Steve Hillage’s initial involvement and recent return?

“I was trying to convince Steve to do a Gong jam with Steffe Sharpstrings (Stephan Lewry) and Mike Howlett, who also both played the reunion, and asked what chance there was of another. Unfortunately, the last event happened just after Daevid Allen’s death. Both reunions took place around the time Daevid (March 2015) and Gilli Smyth (August 2016) from the band died.”

Chris was only 22 in 1976, but was booking bands as social secretary at Rochdale College six years earlier, around the time Tractor were signed to John Peel’s Dandelion label for their second album.

“They played the college, we hooked up, and I became their road manager. I was very much into hippy and leftfield promotions and community music. We had bands like the Pink Fairies and Skin Alley, also running a coach trip to Hawkwind’s Space Ritual show at Blackburn (King George’s Hall, late 1972), and putting Quintessence on.”

I was intrigued about your link with John Peel back in those days.

“Well, the thing a lot of people don’t realise is that John actually worked at Townhead Mill in Rochdale, as his father was a cotton broker and got him the job. In fact, we did a Tractor album called The Road from Townhead Mill in recent years. And the other interesting link is that next to where that mill was, Andy Kershaw later went to a nursery, about 300 yards away.”

Of course, at the turn of the ’70s, Peelie was still close to Marc Bolan, which takes me on to Tyrannosaurus Rex appearing at Glastonbury in the iconic festival’s early days. Did Chris ever get down there in that era?

“I didn’t, but one of the things that egged me on was buying the Revelations triple-LP, with tracks by Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Pete Townshend, and The Grateful Dead, with art by Barney Bubbles. And working at Bickershaw, seeing the fence come down, and being part of that wider Pink Fairies and Hawkwind community, I felt that was the direction festivals should go in.”

Now Then: Chris Hewitt, here and now, so to speak (Photo: Chris Hewitt)

Did Chris ever play in a band?

“I bought a guitar, fitted a pickup, but started experimenting with amps, messing with equipment. Then, when Tractor’s guitarist got married and had a baby, he decided to jack it in, so I went off to London to work for Kilburn and the High Roads and Carol Grimes. At that time, Carol was with Neil Hubbard from Kokomo, and along with Henry McCulloch from The Grease Band they slept on the floor above a fruit shop in Ladbroke Grove, while I was living with my parents nearby, having moved from Rochdale to Surrey. I was driving all over London, working for a PA firm in Willesden.”

So who was Deeply Vale’s prize booking as far as you’re concerned?

“I think the Steve Hillage booking was a real coup at the time, when Gong were playing the Apollos and paid summer festivals. We got him straight from Finland’s Festival of the Midnight Sun.”

Chris also managed Nik Turner for a while (’which was no mean feat’). Is that right he turned up at Deeply Vale with his own mini-pyramid stage-set attached to a van, with about 25 passengers?

“That’s right, and he had an Alsatian dog called, Tree, who only ate brown rice – a vegan dog!”

Did the reunion gigs take some organising, getting so many of the original artists back on board?

“We did a mock run in 2015, for one night, with about 12 bands, Steve Hillage headlining. That went well so we decided to do another, which took around a year to plan.”

Looking back on those ealry shows, Steve Hillage said, ‘Deeply Vale was slightly ahead of the Southern festivals, as it introduced the fusion between the classic psychedelic festival movement and the new New Wave music.’ It’s a fair point. And it was a rather ground-breaking move, inviting punk bands to join the fray.

“Yeah, The Ruts were formed there, The Fall met Here and Now and Grant Showbiz there. The Fall played three years of the festival and went on anarchic hippy tours with Here and Now and Graham Massey’s (later of 808 State) Danny and The Dressmakers. That brought that sort of punk/hippy crossover on the free festival and free gig circuit. Here and Now would hire halls and tell people to put what they wanted on a bucket.”

Of course, the public perception is that those genres didn’t mix, but I seem to recall influential early punks like Mick Jones of The Clash were into the Pink Fairies back in the day, in his impressionable Roundhouse dancing days.

“I think that was much more a London thing, perhaps more around the King’s Road with Malcolm McLaren. But the likes of John Lydon were into King Crimson and all that.”

Fall Guys: Tony Wilson compering The Fall for Chris Hewitt in 1978, with Marc Riley and Una baines also in the line-up (Photo: Chris Hewitt)

Chris got to know Mark E. Smith – ‘Manchester’s answer to Captain Beefheart’, as he described him – well, and was hired in recent years ‘to make sure he arrived on stage on time and played a full set’. And as The Fall’s recently-departed front-man put it, ‘Deeply Vale was great to play, It was just up the road for us. I don’t like festivals but I loved Deeply Vale.’

Meanwhile, Graham Massey said, “I’m always sort of harking back to Deeply Vale as the blueprint for a festival. For me it just had that sort of made-up-for-the-people vibe. The thing about Deeply Vale is that it felt like local action.”

So will there ever be another Deeply Vale Festival, Chris?

“We had this discussion the other day. I was talking to Glenn Povey, who wrote the guide book for the Pink Floyd V&A exhibition, and who put Canterbury Festival on for a couple of years, taking over from members of Caravan. We were discussing the nightmares of putting festivals on … indoor and out. For one thing, there are too many now, and secondly, I think the legislation has killed it.”

Free festival or not back then, here’s the million-dollar question – was any money made or lost back in those days?

“Erm … we always ended up with bills afterwards for stuff that got lost or damaged.”

But it was all worth it really, yeah?

”Oh yeah, I think so. At that point in time I think I was living in a rented cottage costing me £3 a week. Later, you get into the several hundred pounds a month mortgage situation, where the chance of going out and working six days for free or for expenses are gone. I’m still at that stage now. I’m dealing with heritage events and museums, and it’s always, ‘We’d love you to do it, but there’s no budget.’”

Vale Royalty: Mark E. Smith, with Rochdale’s Dave Hopwood at Deeply Vale’s 2015 reunion (Photo: Chris Hewitt)

One of the original performers who returned for the reunion, local Baptist minister, the Reverend Mike Huck – of whom it was said, he ‘preached his best sermon ever the Sunday evening after performing at Deeply Vale Festival in the afternoon, having apparently innocently eaten some interesting cake after his set with Movement Banned’ – said those early shows were reminiscent of Woodstock. Is that about right?

“It was. That was the vibe! In a further example I went to see Pink Floyd at Knebworth in the 70s and then went there again with my sons to see Oasis and the move from sitting there peacefully in a big space with a beer tent half a mile away which nobody could be bothered to go to, to it now being right by the stage and people constantly off to get pints – beer drinking had become a huge part of the financing and the whole event.

“Even at Brit Floyd at the Bridgewater Hall recently, people are getting up all the time to take selfies, talk, go to the bar, getting the whole row up in the number of a really good number … it’s just not the same vibe.”

You mention your lads – have they caught the festival bug from you? Would they do something along the same lines – as mad as Deeply Vale?

“Probably not. People don’t have the drive. And I don’t like festivals with more than one stage … although Nik Turner had his own late at night when the others ended! But we just had one, where everyone played, rather than smaller bands playing a little tent somewhere at the back, 59 bands down the bill.

“And how it was done without mobile phones or the internet, people still turning up, is unbelievable really.”

A triple-DVD boxset encased in a 24-page hardback colour book, including 12 hours’ footage from the Deeply Vale Festival 40th anniversary weekend show at Heywood Civic Hall, featuring several artists involved in the early festivals – including Steve Hillage, Miquette Giraudy, System 7, Segs (The Ruts), Graham Massey (808 State), Nik Turner, The Drones, George Borowski, Mike Howlett, Graham Clark (Magick Brothers) and many more – is available via Action Records in Preston, Lancashire, and other good record shops. You can also order it direct by mail or telephone, priced £29, plus £3.50 UK P&P. Any profits will help fund a future Deeply Vale event. To order call 01565 734066, 07970 219701, email or send to Recordrange, PO Box 116, Northwich, Cheshire, CW9 5UG.

Into the Vale: Looking out on the assembled at Deeply Vale (Photo: Chris Hewitt)

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Refit, Revise, Reprise by Damian O’Neill and the Monotones – a writewyattuk appreciation

Revise Guy: Damian O’Neill at the Dirty Water Club (Photo: Kate Greaves)

The term ‘reluctant frontman’ seems to neatly describe unassuming Undertones guitar hero and songwriter Damian O’Neill.

Whatever bands he’s featured with over the years – not least fellow notables That Petrol Emotion and The Everlasting Yeah – he’s always been more than happy to let someone else take centre-stage, while he just gets on with doing his thing, be that with guitar, bass or keyboards.

Of course, he’s not alone in that reluctance to step forward. It seems to run in the family, judging by older brother John, also seemingly content just to write great songs then get someone else to belt them out (in his case including The Undertones’ entire late-’70s single output and seven of the first eight TPE singles before he left). And those are just the O’Neill brothers who went public (one of the other two, Vinny, was an Undertone before Damian, but opted to knuckle down to O-levels while his bandmates marvelled at wonderkid bro Dee – then 15 – actually owning an electric guitar, albeit a £14 Woolworth’s one, inviting him to join).

Between them they’ve come up with so many great songs, Damian’s best-known ditties not only including those memorable openers on the first two albums, Family Entertainment and More Songs About Chocolate and Girls, but also three singles co-written with Mickey Bradley – the band’s biggest hit, My Perfect Cousin, then It’s Gonna Happen and The Love Parade. And I’ll get back to the latter two shortly.

Busy as he’s been with The Undertones and The Everlasting Yeah this last decade, it seems we’ve not seen many of Damian’s songs aired, other than 2013 Record Store Day single, Much Too Late, for the former act, and the following year’s splendid solo 45, Trapped in a Cage/Love Makes the World Go Around (it wasn’t a AA-side, but both tracks deserve mentions). But a few months without shows of late have at last allowed Dee the chance to … erm, ‘Sit down, relax, and cancel all other engagements,’ putting heart and soul into a solo album … of sorts.

I say ‘of sorts’ because the sleeve title on this Dimple Discs wonder reads, ‘Damian O’Neill and the Monotones’ – something of a nod to Dee’s past live shows with brother John and Paul McLoone as The Semitones, apparently – and there’s a real band feel here. The multi-talented Sean O’Hagan (piano, backing vocals), Kev Hopper (electric saw),  Brendan Kelly (Dee’s That Petrol Emotion and Everlasting Yeah bandmate, on additional bass) and Dave Hattee (drums, percussion, piano), are among those also featured, but it’s your main-man supplying all the guitar parts and doing the singing, while adding bass, organ, vibraphone, percussion, bells, toy glockenspiel and even Stylophone – all to great effect, on an album he co-produces with Stereolab’s Andy Ramsay (with extra mixing by Paul Tipler and mastering by Noel Summerville).

He’s not the only family member involved either, his daughter Rosa providing backing vocals as well as sleeve photography. And what a great LP cover it is, although Damian did come clean in a quality ‘retrosonic podcast’ with Steve Worrall at RetroMan Blog and reveal the design – put together by Bruce and Mary Brown at Arthole – was based on a 1967 easy-listening bestseller, channeling the spirit of a certain Waterford crooner on the wonderfully-titled Val Doonican Rocks, But Gently.

In some cases, it was a case of Damian cleaning up old demos at home in his loft in Peckham, South-East London, with the help of his GarageBand Apple Mac program on his laptop, at others cycling over to his co-producer’s Press Play studio in nearby Bermondsey.

The songs themselves are the accumulation of a few years’ work between other projects – spanning all his main groups in recent years, hence the Refit, Revise, Reprise title – and include reworked versions of five songs originally aired with The Undertones and That Petrol Emotion. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty more great Dee O’Neill songs still waiting to see the light of day, but these will do more than nicely for starters.

Master Class: Damian mastering the LP in Peckham with, from left, Noel Summerville, Paul Tipler and Andy Ramsay

As the blurb on his Pledge Music page has it – with a nod to Slade, I like to think – ‘There’s some old, new, borrowed and blue on this record. You’ll hear new songs and instrumental tracks guaranteed to thrill and melt your heart, plus Damian’s delved into his musical past and revamped selected self-penned Undertones/That Petrol Emotion songs too. It’s glam/stomp/dreamy pop, with a cascade of guitars, vibes, organ, bells and whistles.’

When I spoke to Damian, the album was about to be shipped out to the first ‘pledgers’, myself included …. not as if I hadn’t had a sneaky listen to the downloads first. And I was already loving it. Had that been the over-riding reaction?

“Yeah, most people who’ve heard it … although not many have so far. It’s early days. This week is pivotal. Most pledgers will be getting it, and then … fingers crossed. Let’s hope I’ll be getting positive reactions.”

A typical response, out of step with the hyperbole afforded by those of us who got in there quick. But I let that go. It seems, i suggest, that a lot of musicians are still trying to get their heads around the idea of Pledge Music and other crowd-funding platforms.

“Well, yeah, but as the Everlasting Yeah we did it to good effect. Raymond Gorman dealt with all that, and we raised £12,000, a little over our target figure. That was amazing. My thing’s not about targets though. It’s more about pre-sales. That’s why I’m not offering guitar lessons and all that.”

You’ve probably still got a few pledges to meet from last time, I suppose.

“Well, three years later, we still need to take people out for a curry. Isn’t that mad?”

We soon got on to another crowd-funded project I recently shelled out on, Pete Wylie’s impressive, superbly-named LP, Pete Sounds. Watch this space for something on that. In the meantime, though, talking of the seminal 1966 LP that inspired that title, there’s more than a hint of Dee’s appreciation of Brian Wilson on his own release.

“I guess you’re right, especially Angels in Tyrconnell Street and Everlasting Breath, both of which date from the ’90s.”

We’ll come to those fine numbers and the other 10 that grace Refit Revise Reprise right now, in a track by track appreciation of the album, running alongside Dee’s thoughts and explanations for tackling those compositions, starting with a re-imagining of the lead single from the Sharkey-era Undertones’ The Sin of Pride, an album which still divides fans 35 years after its release.

There’s no dipping your toes in when it comes to this LP, old Undertones fans like me plunged in head first with Damian’s fresh take on The Love Parade as the opener, sounding more like an outtake from Lenny Kaye’s feted Nuggets compilation of the first wave of US garage and psychedelica, from its Who-like guitar intro right through, including plenty of super-charged organ, Dee’s breath-of-fresh-air lead and backing vocals, and buzzing bass touches. Is this how you originally envisaged the song when you first shared it with the band in the early ‘80s?

“That track was written before The Undertones did it, written for The Wesleys, which was me, Mickey Bradley and Ciaran McLaughlin in this short-lived, ‘60s spoof band in 1982, when we weren’t doing much. We only played three or four shows. I was playing organ and we had these great names. I was Leslie Wesley, Ciaran was Elvis Wesley, and Mickey was Wesley Hunter. I recorded our shows on a crappy recorder. We played this pub in Derry twice, then the Orchard art gallery. I always loved that version – it’s faster, more snappy than The Undertones’ version, which I felt took away from the tune. I decluttered it, sped it up, and it’s more or less like The Wesleys’ version.”

It works really well. And much as I love 1983’s The Sin of Pride – an important stepping stone for me in musical terms, turning me on to so much more, not least The Isley Brothers and The Miracles from your choice of covers – I think the time’s come for you to go back and re-record the whole thing. Take out the ‘kitchen sink’ production, as you’ve described it, and try once more with songs like cast-aside bonus track Bittersweet.

“Well, remix it, yeah, get rid of all the … You’re right, strip it down … we could do, as well. If we really had that attention, a bit of money maybe to go into the studio, do it really quickly, spend maybe a week on it …”

Now there’s food for thought. And there’s not a duff track on that LP for my liking, including your songs. You just need to somehow bring the soul out a little more – forget the Celtic Soul Brothers, concentrate on the Derry City Soul Brothers. But I digress. I love the tremolo guitar touches on this version.

“Ah, that’s new, and it really works, as it does on Sweet ’n’ Sour. I always loved tremolo guitar. It’s there on Angels in Tyrconnell Street too. You can’t beat it.”

There are certainly some nice electric guitar flourishes on the mid-tempo, stomping  Sweet ’n’ Sour, which I really love, with some glorious late-Petrols-like six-string moments in the closing stages.

“Yeah, some nice little guitar hooks, and that was all done up here in the loft, on my GarageBand program on my laptop, with cheap mic’s. When we got to the studio we made it a little better, but a lot of the album was done on the laptop. Instead of re-recording everything I wanted to keep as much of the originals as I could.”

So how close is Andy Ramsey’s studio to you?

“Ah, really close. He’s in South Bermondsey and I’m in Peckham. I’d cycle in every day. It only takes 20 minutes to get there.”

Damian first met Andy when he released his Trapped in a Cage single in 2013, The Everlasting Yeah doing their Anima Rising album in the same studio.

“It’s taken me two years really to put this all together, and it was very piecemeal. I’d be in for a few days then there’d be a few month’s gap, and so on. It’s very frustrating that it’s taken me so long.”

There’s also a delightful psychedelic middle-eight on Sweet ‘n’ Sour, further reminding me of this album’s Nuggets-like feel in places.

“Definitely, yeah. It’s got this sort of stompy thing going on.”

And you were a big glam-rock fan, weren’t you?

“Of course! All The Undertones were. Looking back at old interviews, we were always talking about T-Rex and Sweet and stuff in our formative years, listening to all those great singles.”

You’re in good company too. Listening to Bedazzler, the first single by Stag, Steve Mack’s band out in Seattle, I get the impression it’s time for a glam revival.

“Do you know, I didn’t even know about that until I made the video of the single and put it up on YouTube. Someone said, ‘It’s just like that Stag song. I thought, ‘What?’ I looked it up, and they were right – it’s really glam as well.”

Well, I suppose it makes sense. For one thing, you’re blokes of a certain age. Face facts.

“Yeah, I guess!”

There’s a nice video too, shot in a tunnel between Hastings and St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex. If you haven’t seen that, try this link.

The first of the former That Petrol Emotion songs reimagined here is Gnaw Mark, which seems less frenetic, more brooding, and definitely shorter than the 1990 version.

“Yeah, it was my song, and again I went back to the source and listened to the original four-track version of me doing that. It’s much slower and more like The Jesus and Mary Chain, with the tune kind of nicked from Sidewalking. But it’s much more sinister, my four-track version. When I listen to the Chemicrazy version I find it far too fast, and the key’s brought up for Steve’s voice. But what dates it most is the talking sample that goes on through it. It’s kind of like a Big Audio Dynamite, late-‘80s, early-‘90s thing.”

I have to say, I’m a fan of that version too. Perhaps I’m just a little time-dated. But your stripped-down version, including atmospheric one-note piano touches, is closer to 1986 TPE track, Mine, your somewhat quirky co-write with Steve Mack, tucked away on the It’s a Good Thing 12″. Did you write those tracks around the same time?

Gnaw Mark was written in 1989, but Mine is a great track. I always loved that. There’s another thing – funny you should mention that – I’ve got the original four-track demo of that, and might do something with that as well.”

Well, you can’t beat a nice bit of wonky guitar and keyboard.

“Yeah! Raymond plays guitar on Mine, but it was my part. On the original there’s a lovely feel. The Petrols’ version is great though – I don’t think you could better it. It was an instrumental first, then Steve added the words, hence the co-credit.”

On my first listen to Someone Like YouI wrote on my notepad, ‘Understated rock’n’roll rumble,’ and when I tell Damian this, he laughs. I also mention that, despite the added vibes, bells and TPE menace, there’s a rather retro Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent or Johnny Kidd feel to the song.

“Yeah, it’s got that kind of lovely slap-bang guitar and rockabilly sound.”

And there are some neat, trademark Sympathy for the Devil-like ‘woo-woos’ late on, which I think you’ll find you’re legally obliged to provide now and again. We’ve written them into your rock’n’roll contract.

“Yeah, it’s very Petrols-y at the end, isn’t it.”

Maybe he should recruit Undertones fan Richard Hawley (who guested with the band on a couple of tracks in Sheffield last year) for his live band, I suggest. It would be right up his street. And when I suggest this, he tells me he should get a copy of the album to him via their mutual friend, fellow Belfast-born Candida Doyle, of Pulp fame.

So what about that further ‘Beach Boys at their most inventive’ number I mentioned earlier? The first thing I wrote down after hearing the delightful Everlasting Breath – other than a note about Stump star Kev Hopper’s impressive contribution on the saw – was ‘Brian Wilson’. But at the same time I can hear something of Ciaran McLaughlin’s equally-gorgeous Everything’s Beautiful from Anima Rising. I’m surprised in retrospect, I add, that he didn’t do the song with The Everlasting Yeah.

“I didn’t really even think about that. Perhaps there were just too many ‘everlastings’! But it was actually a demo from the Petrols days, and came out when Fireproof got re-released, as an extra bonus track, but just a demo.”

That was for the 2000 reissue of the band’s 1993 final LP, incidentally.

“We did record it for Fireproof, having various attempts, with Steve Mack singing, but it never really came out well, and it was always in the back of my mind to go back to it. I always knew it was one of my best songs. I had to do it again, and this time with just me singing.”

It’s interesting you say that. I really like your voice on this album, and particuarly on this track, but there are three or four songs where I can almost hear Steve singing and three or four others where I could potentially hear a female vocal. I get the idea you remain a reluctant frontman.

“Oh, definitely! Everyone’s been asking me about playing the album live, and I keep hesitating!”

Well, I think you should.

“I know, everyone’s saying that.”

At least get a band together to try and hide behind.

“Well, that’s what I’m going to try – get a band together, do rehearsals, at least attempt it. But it takes a lot of balls … even singing in the studio! This album, and singing in the studio, has made me realise just how difficult it is to be a singer and pull that off to make it good.”

Getting back to the song in question, I could also see Mickey Dolenz covering this on a follow-up to The Monkees’ lovely 2016 comeback LP, Good Times! And Sean O’Hagan’s atmospheric piano brings to mind Mickey Gallagher’s dreamy tinklings on Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ You’ll See Glimpses.

Talking of dreamy, we have a further ’60s-like instrumental delight next in Mundanian Dream before the needle reaches the middle and we’re turning over for part two. Softly lilting throughout, yet chock-full of emotion and reflection. Time flies, and it’s somehow been 17 years since Damian’s A Quiet Revolution LP for Alan McGee’s Poptones label, a fascinating collection of sample-led tracks, very filmic. There was also his No Flies on Frank EP three years earlier, with the track Moon Tide being picked up for 2000’s film adaptation of Hamlet, with a stellar cast led by Ethan Hawke in the title role, Damian rubbing shoulders on the soundtrack with The Birthday Party, Bob Dylan, Morcheeba, Primal Scream, Brahms, Liszt, Mahler and Tchaikovsky.

Which is all a very long way around of me saying that side one closer Mundanian Dream would sit very nicely on a film soundtrack.

“Well, it would be great for someone to pick up on one of the instrumentals, for instance.”

Who knows, maybe recognition could follow for a new genre, Film Noirs. And I’m guessing that’s Dee’s toy glockenspiel on there again.

“It is indeed, and that’s personally my favourite track on the record.”

Again, there’s that kind of Brian Wilson feel.

“There is, and I never get bored with that one. I love it. Again, that’s mainly all from the GarageBand program, but enhanced with the toy glock and that. It was always going to be an instrumental. And the actual guitar riff – I remember coming up with it, then thinking, ‘This must be me copying something or plagiarising somebody’. But for the life of me, to this day, I can’t place it.”

Answers on a postcard, pop kids. Meanwhile, there are some distinctive touches on this track and Everlasting Breath from guest artist Sean O’Hagan. I seem to recall seeing his breakthrough act, Microdisney – and what a band they were – supporting That Petrol Emotion at some stage in the late ’80s. Did you get to know him well then?

“I didn’t really know Sean too well, other than to say hello. It wasn’t really until I moved to the East Dulwich and Peckham area that we got to know each other better.”

For no apparent reason, it’s taken me a while to properly catch up with his next band, The High Llamas, but – albeit a little late – I’m loving their material. And I shouldn’t be surprised, judging by my appreciation of all those glorious Microdisney tunes and hooks.

“The High Llamas were really under-rated, and Sean’s a musician’s musician. He’s so good, great for harmonies and arrangements, and great to have around in the studio to help out. He puts me to shame with chords and musical knowledge.”

Dee’s Inspiration: Gently did it for Val Doonican

Starting side two in style we have Just Wanna Be With You, which to me is nothing short of glorious, and relatively-simple, three-minute pop, with searing guitars, gorgeous harmonies and a melody to marvel at.

“Yeah, and that’s the most Undertones-like song, I guess.”

I hadn’t really thought about that, but yes. And your voice works really well on there.

“That’s good! I agonised for months and months over that and kept changing the tune to the verse. The chorus is great and really uplifting, but the words were really trite and I kept changing them, and was never happy until finally I had a deadline and had to do it. I still think it could have been better, but …”

Funny you should say that. I think Damian O’Neill of say 20 or 30 years ago may have worked a bit too hard there, ensuring there was deeper political meaning behind the track.


But the best songs are sometimes just the less cluttered ones.

“Well, exactly. With this one I knew it was a good tune for a long time, but … I nearly brought it in for The Undertones to do, actually, for a new Record Store Day song, then decided to keep it for myself.”

There’s no reason why it couldn’t be slotted into the band’s set. In fact, that’s the case for a couple of these songs, not least your version of The Love Parade.

“We actually do a mean version of The Love Parade now, compared to what it was.”

I agree, but it would be nice to give Paul a rest, let him shake a tambourine while you sing it. And while the glock and vibes suggest more poppy ’60s moments from The Velvet Underground (Lou Reed would have made a good fist of this too, I reckon),  it’s also  something I heard from mid- to late-’80s indie-pop bands like The Primitives. Actually, it brings to mind one of my favourite tracks by them, 1988’s Carry Me Home, sung by their guitarist, PJ Court. But back to Damian, and if you’re looking for a second single for the album, I’m recommending this (to paraphrase that Michael Bradley fella).

Seeing as he mentioned The Undertones there, Much Too Late is a song I’ve heard live from them a few times, and was released to mark Record Store Day in 2014. But once again, his version here suggests a little more of that garage/underground ‘60s psychedelic feel.

“Again, it was a case of going back to the original demo, slightly slower with a more shuffly, rockabilly feel about it. I was listening to a lot of Holly Golightly ‘90s material, and wanted a song like that. And I really like the words.”

And who could resist those bells? Lovely. But hang on – two minutes and it’s all over, short and succinct. I’m all for that, yet felt it was a false ending and was just waiting for him to come back … if only for another couple of bars.

“Do you know what – that’s funny, I should have! I regret it now.”

Dee Notes: Damian O Neill, for whom there’s no time like the Noir time (Photo: Rosa O’Neill)

I’m guessing No Time like the Noir Time was borne out of your time with the rock’n’roll band you were planning to play shows with when we spoke back in November 2014 (with a link to that feature here).

“That’s exactly it. You got it in a nutshell – you know more about it than me! I had that as an instrumental when I tried to get The Noirs together, which didn’t actually happen. But I still felt that was a great name for a band, so used it as a title instead. And there’s a song on the Nuggets compilation called No Time Like the Right Time (by The Blues Project).”

There’s a nice Stranglers-like feel too (and not just because of Dee’s approximation of Dave Greenfield on stylophone, but also his Hugh Cornwell-like low vocal hum), maybe again borne out of that appreciation of a Joe Meek kind of sound. And for me, there’s also an element of ‘show opener’ about the track. It’s as if the band are announcing their arrival and waiting for the lead singer to step out on stage, only realising a couple of minutes in that he’s already there, and just happens to be hiding behind his guitar.

”Do you know, I even thought about putting that up as the first track on the record. I was so close to doing that, But Brendan persuaded me to do The Love Parade instead.”

I can see that both ways, but still ssee this as the song that would draw people away from the bar and get them down the front.

“Well, if I do get this band together and play it live, I’ll definitely do that first. It would make sense to get the sound right, give the sound-man time to adjust volumes. I think that’s a great idea.”

So how about Angels in Tyrconnell Street, a thing of great beauty and another highlight for me on this impressive album. And it’s really evocative of …. well, something. Tell us more, Damian.   

“I did an instrumental demo of that track in the mid-‘90s, giving it to Raymond (Gorman) during his Wavewalkers era. He added a melody and we called it Higher Grace. We demo’d it but never put it out, so it kind of languished for a bit.

“Then I re-did it for another project I was involved with, X.Valdez, a short-lived project with an English girl singer. We went to Paris with this French producer and did that and Everlasting Breath. It did actually get a release on a small label, but not many people know about it.

“About a year ago, when I was recording the new songs and some old stuff, I thought I’d listen back and felt if I enhanced it and took away the added melody completely … I always loved the harmonies and the feel of it, so we copied it over from the original, and it was all there, basically. All I added was a wee bit of guitar, while some friends who happened to be there in the studio did a bit of piano and I added toy glockenspiel. That seemed to give it a new lease of life.”

And the title? The song suggests some form of spiritual awakening, but it also seems rather geographically-specific. I did a little research and see that address is part-way between your old family home and Undertones base and Derry City FC’s Brandywell home.

“Basically, it’s the street where I grew up, before we moved to Beechwood Avenue. I was born in Belfast but we moved back to Derry in around 1966 and lived in Tyrconnell street until 1970. I just loved the name. Tyrconnell was an Irish kingdom, and I wanted something Irish in the record, and there’s that ethereal feel of the angels … It’s about going back to your childhood.”

High Octane: That Petrol Emotion Mk.I, from the left, Ciaran, John, Steve, Damian, Raymond

Then we have one more contrast with penultimate track, Don’t Let Me Down, a far more frantic yet slow-building, broody number, as close as we get to krautrock here, I guess, and yet also including some lovely harmonies, so perhaps more Sparks-like – and it seems to be you harmonising with yourself.

“It is. And yes, that song’s different from anything else on the record.”

I wasn’t sure where you were going with it at first, but that kind of adds to the sense of anticipation, the song borne out of that deceivingly-monotonous beginning section, darkness seemingly leading to light and ultimate inspiration, with more than a few swirling moments of electronica en route.

“That’s true. And I think you can definitely hear Wire in the middle section … and a bit of Buzzcocks, with the bass.”

Yep. I hadn’t thought of that, but spot-on. And what’s not to love there? Furthermore, that’s clearly Damian on bass. Having seen him live many times in the early days of That Petrol Emotion, it seems to be a distinctive style. Brendan Kelly was involved on two tracks here, but that’s clearly Dee. And it would make for a perfect last song once he gets this band together as a live act.

Finally, Compulsion is another reimagining of a song previously tackled by That Petrol Emotion in 1990, and a fitting, rather reflective way to end the album.

“Yes. Compulsion on Chemicrazy is really, really good, but I borrowed John’s old four-track and was playing some old cassettes when that original demo came on, and felt, ‘Wow!’

This one seems to be more pared-down than the recorded version, but I kind of like that whole raw quality, Damian’s arguably-stretched, top-of-range vocal really working.

“It was, and it was just before we went to the masters stage and I felt I wanted to put this on. It was a bit hissy, but we cleaned it up a little, keeping the original guitar and vocals, which are a wee bit out of tune, but it doesn’t matter – if I redid the vocals it would have ruined it. So we kept it as it was, and there’s a lovely innocence and charm …”

But that’s not quite everything. There’s an added extra on the vinyl version’s play-out that Undertones fans will love – a snippet of Damian introducing  It’s Gonna Happen to his bandmates for the first time.

“Yes, and get this, that was 1980 or 1981. It was supposed to be on the LP and CD, but didn’t end up on the CD, as our mastering engineer thought I didn’t want it on there. So I’m afraid you have to buy the vinyl!”

Oddly enough, hearing that took me back to my own garage band days. In my case, we never actually left the garage, but made a couple of rough demos, and listening to that I get the impression we weren’t so far off. No offence, but it’s pretty rudimentary. And I almost sense your embarrassment at introducing the song for the first time to your bandmates.

“And that’s what it was like back then. For me it was always a case of, ‘Will they like this?’  But it’s a lovely little thing for Undertones fans.”

Band Substance: The Undertones – Billy Doherty, Paul McLoone, John O’Neill, Damian O’Neill, Mickey Bradley.

So there you go, and will Damian be playing live with The Undertones again soon?

“We’re having a bit of a sabbatical. Billy (Doherty, drums) wasn’t well over Christmas, and is still recovering now. We were due to do some European shows in May but have rescheduled them for autumn. We were also set to do a UK tour at that stage, but that’s been postponed to the following year. We’re at the mercy of Billy really.

“But that at least gives me the chance to completely concentrate on this … so I’ve no excuse not to do it live!”

Meanwhile, while you’ve taken a break from touring, love for The Undertones remains strong, and BBC Four marked the St Patrick’s Day weekend by re-screening the wonderful 2012 Chris Wilson/BBC Northern Ireland documentary on the band (if you’re quick enough and in the right area you should still find it on the BBC iPlayer).

“Yeah, that was great. I hadn’t seen that since we made it. I watched it with my family, and I’d forgotten how good it was.”

Well, there aren’t so many bands from that late -’70s era who can boast two great documentary films about them, bringing into consideration Vinny Cunningham’s equally-exquisite Teenage Kicks – The Story of The Undertones documentary film from 2001.

“Exactly – two great films!”

You mentioned Billy Doherty (get well soon, Billy), while Paul McLoone and Michael Bradley remain busy with radio commitments between live engagements. But what about brother John? What’s he up to right now?

“John’s actually working on another project at home in Derry … well, it’s been on-going for some years now. He’s back with Locky Morris, as with Rare.”

Ah, now we must be due a new album there. The only one I’ve got is 1998’s peoplefreak (including guitar from Damian on one track).

“It’s similar, but this time Locky’s mostly singing, and they’re set to play live in Derry … and that’s a big deal. They haven’t played live in … But they still haven’t come up with a decent name. They need a good project band name!”

Again, I add, answers on a postcard please.

Reprise Asset: Damian O’Neill, on the record with The Monotones (Photo: Rosa O’Neill)

To find out more about Damian O’Neill and the Monotones’ Refit, Revise, Reprise, and how to order a copy, follow this link. Furthermore, Damian has now secured a distribution deal with independent label Shellshock to give the album a later, wider release, making it available in certain record shops.

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Studying the big Interrobang‽ theory – in conversation with Dunstan Bruce

Bang On: Griff, Dunstan and Harry, collectively known as Interrobang‽

By the time I picked up the phone to reach Dunstan Bruce, I’d given the eponymous LP by his new band Interrobang‽ nigh on three listens, and was loving it. In the words of the mighty Stump – somewhat channeling dolphins in late-80s cult indie hit, Buffalo – ‘Exclamation mark, click-click-click …’

I say nearly three listens because our agreed time-slot crept up on me like mid-life itself (tick-tock, tick-tock) before I could get to the album’s climax, hitting pause and dialling his number after blasting out track 12 of 14, Billingham, a love letter of sorts to his County Durham hometown. It’s not obviously a love letter. The chorus makes that plain. As he puts it on the record, ‘We’ll never see eye to eye, oh Billingham,’ adding, ‘You don’t even know where you are!’

It’s been a while since my last visit to that part of Teesside, getting on for 15 years, taking me back to my newspaper days, reporting on an FA Cup preliminary-round tie between Billingham Synthonia and Chorley in August 2003. To paraphrase yer man, ‘I’ve never seen ICI’ since, but liked the Synners’ Central Avenue base well enough, and folk were definitely friendly. I guess it’s different if it’s the place you spent difficult formative years though. Maybe it’s just kind of complicated.

“It is, yeah. Well, you know what it’s like, the place you’re from … how that relationship is.”

I won’t say much more, hoping you find out for yourselves, but Billingham is one of many highlights on a blisteringly-delivered debut LP, with vocalist Dunstan, drummer Harry ‘Daz’ Hamer (who served alongside ‘Dunst’ in Chumbawamba throughout the band’s 1982-2004 period) and guitarist Stephen ‘Griff’ Griffin (ex-Regular Fries) on top form. Does Brighton-based Dunstan still regularly revisit his North-East roots?

“I do. My Mum and sister live there. I pop up and see them every now and again.”

When I called he was at home on the South coast, ‘folding lyric booklets for the tour’. And I mentioned how he came up in my recent interview with fellow Brighton-based frontman Mark Chadwick, of The Levellers, for whom he made 2012 documentary film A Curious Life.

“Chumbawamba played with The Levellers back in the ‘90s, so I knew them from way back. We had a lot in common, both with something to say in our music and vilified by the music press for one reason or another. We were fighting in the same corner, I suppose. I later had the opportunity to do some work with them, turning that into a documentary.”

How did he get involved in films?

“My partner, Daisy Asquith, is a filmmaker, and we set up a production company about 10 years ago. I started helping her produce films, then got an opportunity to go to China with Sham 69, the first thing I directed.”

Ah, I was intrigued by that project, This Band Is So Gorgeous, following the group as they became ‘the first British punk band to tour China’.

“That you cannot see! There are now two Sham 69s, one of whom owns the music and the other of whom don’t. I was stopped from releasing the film because Jimmy Pursey didn’t want it to come out, as it wasn’t about his Sham 69. There’s now an official and original Sham 69, and I got caught in the middle … through no fault of my own.”

It all gets a bit messy with these outfits sometimes, and doesn’t always end with big hugs all around, seemingly getting messier on the scale from The Beat through to UB40 …

“Yeah … and Buck’s Fizz.”

Well, they were always going to be next on my list, I suggested. Getting back on subject though, there’s a feature-length history of Chumbawamba out there too, the splendidly-titled, Well Done, Now Sod Off, having gone down well at Leeds’ International Film Festival in 2000, winning an audience prize. And true to the band’s ethos, it was self-released and sold via their own website, the group opting for DVD-R rather than a silver, factory-pressed DVD. But I’m trying to avoid mentioning Chumbawamba too early in the conversation.

Am I right in thinking Dunst was also involved with Sound It Out, the acclaimed 2011 documentary about the ‘last surviving vinyl record store in his native Teesside’?

“I had a very small involvement, but Jeanie Finlay, who made it, very kindly gave me an executive producer credit.”

His film-making empire is no longer based at The Levellers’ Metway HQ in Brighton, but he’s still nearby, although there’s a link more in line with Chumbawamba’s Yorkshire roots with his new band.

“I’m in Brighton while Griff and Harry are in Leeds, and I used to live there, so I’ve got good reason to go back.”

Do they tend to send music files to each other via the internet then?

“That’s how we started. Griff was sending musical ideas and I was putting vocals over the top, cut it up then send it back, then he’d re-record and so on. Then we got into a room and developed it from there.”

Dunstan, Griff and Harry describe themselves as ‘hard-faced macho dandies shouting about the intellectual’s mid-life crisis, irrelevance with relevance, and that relentless dream of revolution!’ In so doing, ‘Dunstan’s laid-bare confessional of sorts is perfectly accompanied by Griff’s sharp-staccato guitar loops and Harry’s tight as a squirrel’s ass drums.’ And altogether it’s deemed, ‘Perfect stuff for any self-respecting chin-stoking-pogo-er with a relentless tendency for reflection and revolution’.

The frontman himself adds, “We came together as Interrobang‽ with a clear vision to create something that is current and relevant; something that speaks to our generation who grew up in the shadow of punk, with hopes and dreams, full of rebellion. What happened to that spark? How do we express our anger now? How relevant are we? How do we make ourselves heard and where do we fit in now? This isn’t comfortable or retro; we reject wholeheartedly the idea of nostalgia, we refuse to live in the past, there’s no misty-eyed looking back; this is all forward, forward motion.”

That certainly comes across on their explosive first album, which grips you from the moment they launch into the introductory Here Now – with Dunstan’s spoken-word delivery as sharp as his suits throughout – and The Inclement Weather, his body clock frantically ticking away on this life journey. This is poetry as a life-force, the sound of the words and his enunciation perfectly complemented by Griff and Harry’s backing vox and instrumentation, each integral to a fulsome sonic experience.

On Asking for a Friend our frontman sounds like Salford poet Mike Garry fronting The Blue Aeroplanes, getting with the programme as he asks, ‘I haven’t actually checked, but is this trending yet?‘ Then, for Are You Ready, People? we change direction around the minute-mark, the call-and-response shouty vocals keeping the energy levels topped up.

Another gear is found on Mad as Hell, our man venting his spleen dramatically, forcefully proclaiming, ‘I’m sick to death of being asked to keep calm,’ over Diggle and Shelley-like guitar. But if that’s about Dunst being ‘angry, still angry’, there’s a surprising calmness to Curmudgeon, for all its underlying tension. It’s more reflective than you’d expect, but all the more powerful for it, our host exuding understanding as he paints a picture of, ‘A grumpy curmudgeon in a state of high dudgeon.’

For Music of the Gross, Griff is back to the fore with a wondrous six-string assault on the senses, on the album’s most Fall-like song. And by the time I reach Taciturn I realise they never overstay their welcome, another track done and dusted before three minutes are up. Then, on Do You Remember? Dunstan takes us all back again, this time borrowing from The Mekons’ mighty ’78 moment, Where Were You?

For Love It All, we get more Cooper Clarkesque one-liners, DB telling us, ‘I’ve got to tell you at this point, I never craved to be an astronaut. I was always too down to earth (for what it’s worth).’ And while we’re talking word mastery, Harry’s insistent beat sets up an echo of the Buzzcocks’ Everybody’s Happy Nowadays on Based on a True Story, Dunst confiding, ‘I’m not too scared to admit I think about my own obituary. I contemplate its contents consistently, it comes with the territory. There’s a playlist written in my head, says all there is to be said about me. Poignant, pithy, full of prose, that will bring this life to a close, precisely.‘ Genius.

It’s at that point that we head off to Billingham, the cry going out, ‘Man overboard, abandon hope!‘ And then we’re away on two more high-points, the spirit of the concept at this album’s heart there on Breathe, Dunstan soul-searching, asking, ‘If it’s a question of curiosity, what’s gonna happen when I hit 60? Will I still be hungry? Will I still be angry? And will I still have the energy?‘ Then, Griff and Harry are tight as hell as we depart in style in punk rock riff regality on Am I Invisible Yet? But before he becomes a memory, our man poignantly points out, ‘This is someone who was someone once‘.

On their website, the band mention a ‘mood-board’ of influences. and I tell my interviewee I’m not surprised to find Wire, Dr Feelgood and The Fall hanging there. What’s more, I tell him I hear late ‘70s Pete Shelley on something like Mad as Hell, and the afore-mentioned John Cooper Clarke there and thereabouts.

“Oh wow, well, that’s what I grew up with.”

He adds to that initial list names like Gang of Four, Grinderman, Sonic Youth, Art Brut, MC5, Fugazi, and ‘that sort of thing’. Meanwhile, I mention those Mekons signposts on Do You Remember? and ask how aware he was of chenneling that band – another with Leeds roots. His response? “Oh, of course. I rip that line off! I make no denial of that. We have Mekons connections, and Interrobang‽ played Mekonville, while Jon Langford’s a fan of what we’re doing.”

Getting back to those band descriptions, they also call themselves an ‘angry motorik loop-driven post-punk rock three-piece,’ creating their ‘very own agit-punk-funkstorm,’ citing an ‘angular, taut, urgent, pulsating and intense’ vibe, ‘tight, terse and to the point’. I should try adding my own description, but they put it so well.

I can see all that, I tell him, but will he allow me to let on to the world that this is – for all intents and purposes – a concept album?

“Yes, of course. It is, weirdly, a concept album. You’re totally right – you busted me!”

While the concept in this case is the midlife crisis, it’s a far more pro-active one. Don’t expect Dunstan to go out and get a tattoo, buy a Harley Davidson, or embark on some extra-marital affair. For him, it seems to be more about frustration that – for all those youthful ideals – things haven’t really moved on, politically, with this performer clearly not yet willing to slip into middle-age.

“What happened was that I started writing this around about when I turned 50, thinking about how I fitted into the world, what my role was, and what you could possibly achieve as a 50-something Dad and what you’re doing with your life. Do you still have a voice? And are you relevant? Songs like Am I Invisible Yet? are about trying to deal with becoming less and less relevant as you get older.”

Well, I’ve just hit 50, and I certainly get it. But when he talks about his inner Curmudgeon, ‘not much of a talker,’ is that really him?

“That’s about my Dad, and what I might have inherited from him. I’ve spent a lifetime battling that and now I’ve reached a point where … basically, that song’s about my dad dying and what happened then.

“It was quite a cathartic thing and helped bring a little bit of closure to my relationship with him. He died in the ‘90s, and that made me think about my relationship with him, and how he was from another generation and all he was doing was trying his best. He had a hard childhood and was of an age where Dads were not that pleasant … and he felt incredibly guilty about that.”

Dunstan, whose father was a fireman in Billingham, has teenage children of his own these days, aged 13 and 15, who he reckons are, ‘happy but suitably unimpressed with what I’m doing!’

Well, I reckon they’ll appreciate his worth soon enough, and while I’m at it, there are some neat post-punk style riffs here. How do they write though, so far apart? What comes first?

“I started writing when me and Griff had the idea, him thinking he’d do the music,  providing me with the sounds. I told him what I wanted and he really wanted to engage with it and concentrate on that. We’ve always given each other freedom – he never questions what I write, and I don’t question what he comes up with. We both have a respect for each other’s creativity. The hard bit is getting it all together.”

Cafe Society: Dunstan, Harry and Griff take a break from their labours,

You were working on a spoken-word existential project before, I believe.

“Yeah, I did that because Interrobang‽ couldn’t necessarily play all the time, so I had that outlet, a different way of presenting it – the same sort of thing but done a different way, which I think nowadays you can sort of do. I didn’t feel restricted by the band line-up.”

It certainly works in this form too, and while I’ve already mentioned JCC or fellow Salfordian performance poet Mike Garry guesting with The Blue Aeroplanes, elsewhere it could be Mark E. Smith fronting Dr Feelgood. In short, it’s right up my street. I love the name too, and can’t believe that was still on the shelf, as it were.

“Well, we had to use it with the symbol at the end. We do occasionally get messages for a rap band from Liverpool and possibly another in America, something I hadn’t realised at the time.”

So is it having the interrobang at the end of the interrobang that defines you?

“Yeah! And I love that symbol. It was that, graphically, that attracted me in the first place, the idea of seeing that everywhere. Then, finding the dictionary definition – the combination of the question mark and exclamation mark just seemed perfect for what we were trying to do, being appalled by, and at the same time questioning, the state of the world. It’s the perfect combination and works really well for what we’re doing and what I’m saying.”

That definition, by the way, is of a ‘non-standard punctuation mark used in various written languages and intended to combine the functions of the question mark and exclamation mark (known in printers’ and programmers’ jargon as the ‘bang’). A sentence ending with an interrobang asks a question in an excited manner, expresses excitement or disbelief in the form of a question, or asks a rhetorical question. For example: What‽ What the fuck‽’

While Dunstan has made it clear he’s not one to dwell on the past, almost inevitably I ask about his past in Chumbawamba, a band described in the Interrobang‽ blurb as an ‘anarcho-pop-cabaret troupe’. Besides, it is him sharing vocals on 1997 hit, Tubthumping.

“I totally embrace that, and I’m proud of that. It allowed us to do a lot of things as a band that we’d always dreamed of doing, having that platform, being able to say something in the mainstream media. It was a wonderful opportunity and led on to other things. That was about songs we wrote in our 20s, while we’re trying to talk to this generation, although a lot of those people grew up in the shadow of punk. A lot of our references are from the past, but what we’re saying is contemporary.”

There’s a quote from Interrobang‽ saying, ‘We all know by now that just singing a politically-righteous song isn’t going to change the world. In fact, as some band back in the ’80’s once said, ‘The music is not a threat; action that music inspires can be a threat.’ With that in mind, it seems that this LP is on some levels an extension of Tubthumping. If that was about the resilience of the ordinary man, perhaps this album is about hitting back, not just putting up with constant knocks.

“That’s a good way of looking at it. A nice connection. I like that idea.”

Lining Up: Dunstan, Griff and Harry take their places and move on up

And how does this compare his pre-Chumbawamba existence in Men in a Suitcase?

“Ha! That was just about being inspired by punk and that whole idea that anybody could be in a band, anyone can do it – stop being impressed by musicianship and the fact that there’s a distance between bands and audience, get up there and do it yourself. Men in a Suitcase was really just one of my first fumbling attempts to get up on a stage, that desire to get up there and create something.”

What’s more, how does it work live, if he’s not playing an instrument? There’s no doubting the power of the voices, but most trios of note at least involve guitar, bass and drums.

“Well, the backing vocals are equally important. There’s no bassist – Griff is doing the thing with loops – putting guitars on top of guitars. We did try rehearsing with a bassist a couple of times and it just didn’t work. It wasn’t right. We were so used to not having a bassist that we couldn’t get it to feel comfortable. We knew the sound we wanted, and it would have been pointless to muddy it up with other instruments.”

My main excuse for talking to Dunstan was his band’s show at The Yorkshire House in Parliament Street, Lancaster, on Wednesday, April 4th, profits going to the Imagine Independence mental health charity (for tickets and more details follow this Facebook link). In fact, there’s a charity aspect to all the Spring tour dates, mostly for homeless projects. And as Lancaster show organiser Malika Mezeli put it, mental health issues are ‘often a prerequisite for being homeless.’

So, an obvious question maybe, but why the link to homeless charities?

“I do a lot of stuff down in Brighton, outreach work, out on the streets, especially in cold weather, handing out food and drink to homeless people. I’ve been doing that quite a while, and although it’s great to be in a band, going around playing rock’n’roll, It felt like it could be something more than that.

“Once upon a time I’d be up on a stage in front of thousands, or on television where millions would be watching. Now I could be playing in a pub to 50 people somewhere but it’s just as important to use that opportunity.

“Gigs are a place where people come together and have this feeling of communality, and that can be just as important as actually watching a band, having that experience. So it’s a good opportunity to actually say something that’s a bit more than just playing rock’n’roll.”

Support at Lancaster is from four-piece Year of Birds, featuring Oli Heffernan and Danielle Johnson, both also with Anglo-Dutch outfit King Champion Sounds, a band cherished by this blogger (with a review of their March 2017 show at The Continental in Preston here).

”They’re doing three or four of the Northern gigs. I really wanted to not have gigs that were just men on stage. We wanted women visible. We’re an all-male outfit and I didn’t want every gig to be awash with men. And I think Danielle’s a complete and utter inspiration. I love her attitude towards the industry and what she’s doing. It’s great.”

While Dunstan’s former band met on the West Leeds squatting scene in the early ‘80s, there’s a strong East Lancs link too, founder-members Allan ‘Boff’ Whalley and Nigel Hunter, aka Danbert Nobacon (also remembered for tipping an ice bucket over Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott at the 1998 Brit Awards) coming from Burnley, as was the case with fellow early recruits Lou Watts and Alice Nutter. And that’s kind of relevant seeing as the Interrobang‽ tour opens in nearby Todmorden, supported by Liines, just across the county border.

As it was, Dunstan, Harry, Alice and Danbert left Chumbawamba in 2004, although the outfit continued until 2012, reaching 30 years together. Is Dunstan still in touch with them all?

“Yes, in fact, one of the successes of Chumbawamba is that we’re still really good friends and we all still have projects that maybe overlap, working in the same sort of world.”

And I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised that members of the band ended up deeply ensconced in the arts – as film-makers, in art, acting, playwrights, novels, and so on.

“Exactly that, yeah.”

Last I heard of, Boff (interviewed for these pages back in January 2014, with a link to that feature here) had pulled out – along with Nadine Shah – of an appearance at this summer’s Great Exhibition of the North on Tyneside, being staged with £5m from the Government’s Northern Powerhouse fund, with his Commoners’ Choir, protesting at event sponsorship from BAe Systems, unhappy with the firm’s latest arms deal with Saudi Arabia. It seems that they all still have that same campaigning edge, as I put it to Dunstan.

“Yeah, and Danbert’s over in America, with his own world of politics, activism, music and art. It’s great seeing people fighting their own battles with their own organisations, whatever they’re doing.

“And it’s important to be creative in the midst of all the shit. That’s a really powerful thing.”

Three’s Company: Interrobang‽ could well be coming to a town near you this Spring.

The 14-track self-titled Interrobang‽ debut album is out on March 30 in a trifold digipak CD with eight-page booklet. You can also order a limited-edition deluxe LP with gatefold sleeve and coloured vinyl via independent record stores, with a small amount available on the Spring tour. The LP is also digitally available from regular download and streaming platforms.

Interrobang‽ UK Spring tour dates: Fri March 30 – Todmorden Golden LionSat March 31 – Wellingborough Horseshoe InnSun April 1 – Newport Le PubMon April 2 – Bristol LouisianaTue April 3 – Leeds BrudenellWed April 4 – Lancaster The Yorkshire HouseThu April 5 – Newcastle Cluny 2Fri April 6 – Nottingham MazeSat April 7 – Middlesbrough WestgarthSun April 8 – Birmingham CentralaMon April 9 – Manchester Jimmy’sTue April 10 – Milton Keynes Crauford ArmsWed April 11 – Brighton Prince AlbertThu April 12 – London The IslingtonFri April 13 – Ramsgate Music HallSat April 14 – Scunthorpe Cafe IndependentFor more info head to the official band website and keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.  


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Symptomatic for the People – researching The Common Cold with Ajay Saggar

Cold Remedies: The Common Cold, kraut-rocking up and down your way this May

While his working hours are spent at renowned Amsterdam concert venue The Paradiso, producer, sound engineer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ajay Saggar remains proud of his Lancashire past, 30-plus years after his introduction to the North West indie scene while promoting gigs as a Lancaster University student.

Ajay soon became a key player on the Preston front, proving integral to John Peel favourites Dandelion Adventure, alongside Marcus Parnell, the band’s vocalist known back then as ‘Fat Mark’ (he’s not, by the way).

That spell kick-started a busy alternative career in underground music for Ajay, ultimately taking him to the Netherlands. But he was never above returning to the area where he made his name, and in October 2016 was back on stage with Marcus for the first time in three decades at The Continental in Preston, alongside former Cornershop drummer Dave Chambers, performing as The Common Cold.

They weren’t to be sneezed at that night, putting in a determined, fuelled set in the snug, letting rip on two extended kraut-rock jams as part of Tuff Life Boogie’s John Peel festival tribute, UnPeeled. While I thought at the time that might just have been a brief trip down memory lane, it appears that the project secretly moved forward from there. And now they have an LP coming, released via the esteemed team at Church Street’s legendary Action Records, whose past releases have not only incuded Dandelion Adventure, but also The Boo Radleys, Fi-Lo Radio, The Fall, and even a solo venture featuring the latter’s legendary frontman, Ajay’s recently-departed hero and close friend, Mark E. Smith.

It’s a winner too, with Shut Up! Yo Liberals! out on Friday, May 4th, The Common Cold set to play 10 shows on 10 nights to promote it, the original trio joined by second drummer Scrub (Roland Jones, formerly with Preston’s Big Red Bus) and teenage bass player Jack Harkins (who also features with Ludovico). And it’s fair to say Ajay’s excited about the prospect, as I found out first-hand when I caught him during a brief break from his day-job earlier this week. Any big-name visitors at the Paradiso at present?

“Oh, it’s never ending! We’re celebrating our 50th year as a venue and next week marks the official anniversary, with a whole bunch of stuff lined up, and the roll-call of who’s coming through is amazing – 365 days a year of huge acts, small acts, and everything in between.”

In other words, check the website and find out for yourself. But he still manages the occasional return trip to Preston.

“Last time was recording for The Common Cold, to record Marcus’ vocals at the end of last summer. We did those two shows at the Conti …”

Low-slung Bass: Ajay Saggar wigs out at the Lady Owen Arms with Dandelion Adventure in 1990 (Photo: Greg Neate)

In my review of the first of those, the UnPeeled gig in 2016 (with a link here), I suggested they were ‘deliciously under-rehearsed,’ and noted the look of fear on Ajay’s face when the crowd requested ‘more!’ But as it worked out, that wasn’t to be the end of the story.

“I just felt from there we needed to take it a notch up and do something decent with it. Marcus was super-enthusiastic about it, so I wrote all the music and got the personnel together to play on it. The two-drummer thing was really important, and I’ve always loved that idea of having that powerhouse behind it.

“Scrub was up for it, and I asked Dave Chambers, but he was away the weekend we were recording. I also asked David (Blackwell) from The Lovely Eggs, and he was up for it, but had been ill and then had to start practising for their album sessions, so Daren Garratt (from Birmingham, ex-The Nightingales and The Fall) helped us. I wrote all the bass parts with programmed drums, visited Preston last Spring and we worked our asses off in a rehearsal room.”

They’ll be back in Preston for the last night of the tour, at The Ferret on Fylde Road this time. There’s a Lancaster link too, I see, visiting his old roots there, playing The Yorkshire House.

“Yeah, I felt it was important to do as many Lancashire shows as possible (they also play Darwen and Salford). The whole idea of getting this up and running for me was to play in an all-English band again, based around my musical roots – where I first played in a band and went to see so many other bands.”

You mention recording the bass parts, and I can hear your own identity coming through on tracks like the slow-building Napoleon’s Index Finger on the album – not least with that driving bass guitar.

“That was really important, especially with two drummers. It had to really fucking drive forward! It’s basically a Paul Hanley, Steve Hanley, Karl Burns kind of axis, which was so inspiring with The Fall back in the day. I don’t want to copy or recreate that, I want to do our own thing. But it’s important all the same. It’s the driving force of your life really, constantly discovering new things.

“You can’t get sucked into that morass of constantly putting out the same kind of thing. I can get bored really easily. If I’m not challenging myself and being creative, you get on to that circuit of where it comes too easy and you’re doing it by numbers. I don’t want that. I’ve never wanted that.”

Well, that’s something he can’t be accused of. Take a look, for example, at Ajay’s last three musical projects – The Common Cold, Deutsche Ashram and King Champion Sounds – all suggesting he’s keeping it fresh – with major scope between those projects.

“Well, there is a common thread. You’ll never get away from that, but I like to keep things fresh and that’s always been the case for myself.”

Last time we spoke, 18 months ago (with a link here), he mentioned his friendship with Marcus being borne out of a love of The Membranes. But there was another band they had in common – The Fall. And he became good friends with Mark E. Smith over time.

Hip Priests: Ajay Saggar with Mark E. Smith in 2013

“The Fall were the band that made me listen to music differently and really made me appreciate how the highest art form there was within the whole spectrum of art, and how it appeals to people all over the world in different ways. It ignites you and makes you excited. The Fall took that element of making music to a heightened level, with that combination of Mark’s poetic view of the world around him and his way of expressing that and keeping you on your toes when you listen.

“Then there were the musicians who stood the challenge of presenting Mark with a musical palette that would not only be a perfect foil to his voice and his lyrics but also keep the momentum going for the listener – keeping them challenged in what they were hearing. With that combination, you didn’t know what had hit your ears. This was music from a different planet, so fantastic.

“The thing with listening to Fall records, you think you know an album inside out, but every time I play Hex Enduction Hour or Grotesque, or whatever, from 20 or 30-plus years ago, I still hear new things, which is the greatest compliment you could pay to any band or musician.”

I mention at this point how so many people had different entry points for The Fall, and while, admittedly, I didn’t really get them at first, I went back and properly ‘discovered’ them via the period between The Frenz Experiment and Code: Selfish, despite that period not being seen among their finest moments in some circles.

“Well, that’s fantastic, and a great approach. Mark challenged himself and his group into where they were going with the whole thing. They never became lazy, because he wouldn’t let them. If they did, he’d kick their asses, keeping it fresh for himself and them.”

As he famously said, it could be him and your Granny playing bongos on there, and the group would still be The Fall.

“That’s it. And he’s probably with her right now, playing way up there. And that element of keeping things fresh is something that rubbed off on me. That ethic of keeping yourself challenged and on edge. If you think things are becoming too safe and you may be on to a winning formula, just break away and go in the opposite direction.”

At that point we wander off on to The Clash, and I mention how I could see that same ethos there, with the way they initially looked to a ‘year zero’ approach, however much they loved various past genres.

“Joe Strummer definitely had that going on. Whether it was their roots in West London, vibing off the dub and reggae scene or going to New York and vibing off the hip-hop and critical beats going down there, they had their ears to the ground and knew a good thing when it happened, realising the power of music in its different forms.

Action Painting: Preston’s Mecca for music lovers caught on canvas by Alastair Price

“They brought elements of all that into their own music, but essentially it’s Clash music. You hear it and know it’s The Clash – Strummer’s voice, Jones’ guitar, Simonon’s bass, and Headon’s brilliant drumming. It’s Clash music but with elements of all those things going on around them which they brought in. And as long as you then use that to enhance your own music, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

On to the Action Records link, and Ajay and the Lancashire store’s owner Gordon Gibson go back a long way. He mentions the importance of a Preston vibe with this new venture. Was it key to have Action involved, putting out the record via them?

“Absolutely, and Marcus goes back even longer with Gordon than I do, while Dave Chambers worked in Action. That was important, and I wanted to keep the whole project in Lancashire. It’s a Lancashire band, with Northern roots and with a Northern sound.

“It would have been easy to ask other labels to do it. There were chances of doing that. But I’ve known Gordon for eons and totally trust him, and in this day and age that’s something you need. He’s just somebody I can phone up or drop an email to ask advice on or help.  He’s really honest and he’s really on it, which is why Mark E. Smith liked him too.”

As for the album itself, I was only three listens in at time of going to press, but already loving it, not least early stand-outs like The London Look, Stop the Traffic, and Half-Nelson Headlock, for which you’ll find promo video film links online, the afore-mentioned Napoloeon’s Index Finger, and the LP’s powerful closing statements, Pretty Julie and Body Language, the latter a mighty showcase for Marcus’ evocative poetic imagery. There’s definitely a Fall feel in places, plus all the frenetic energy characterising the early Happy Mondays and more recently Sleaford Mods, and plenty of that great sonic barrage King Champion Sounds provide. But don’t take my word for it. Find out for yourself.

So what’s the overriding message of Shut Up! Yo Liberals! then, Ajay?

“It’s definitely a call to arms, and I think it’s one of the best albums that will come out of the UK this year … and it’s coming out of the North! And the brilliant thing about working with Marcus again is that I think he’s one of the best lyricists in the UK. His knowledge of pop culture as such is enormous. In his viewpoint of a lot of things, he’s a man of the world and understands how things work and the difference between good and bad and right and wrong, and he’s not afraid to state things, with a fantastic poetic way of expressing things.”

But you best be quick, because there are only 300 copies of the vinyl, the first 100 copies including a hand-painted inner sleeve, a free badge, and other goodies via this link.

“Yeah, I said, ‘Look, let’s just make it, get it out, we’ll do a tour, then we’ll follow it up with something else in due course. The ideas are always there. This is our calling card, saying we’re on the map, we’re here, we’ve got something to offer, it’s bloody, bloody good – take it while you’ve got the chance! Then we’ll just move on.

“Art is not something that needs to be held on to for dear life. It’s always in flux. Things move and change. That’s the beauty of it, and we’re just a small element of that changing process. This is our contribution … for now, for this moment, for this instant! We’re saying, ‘Here it is, take it, immerse yourself in it, enjoy it, love it, get energy from it, and then we’ll move on. And that’s how we’re going to do the show. It’s going to be 10 shows in 10 days.”

Young in spirit as he and his band clearly all are – as suggested in that inspirational message – they’re all of a certain age, shall we say … except teenage bass player Jack Harkins, that is.

“Jack is a massive Stranglers fan, and when I heard that, I just said, ‘Just get him, bloody get him!”

Was that the idea of hiring someone who understands former writewyattuk interviewee Jean-Jacques Burnel‘s playing?

“That’s it. The bass sound I’ve always gone for has been Jean-Jacques Burnel crossed with Steve Hanley. The first single I ever bought was No More Heroes, the first album I got was Black and White, and the first band I ever saw was The Stranglers at Bridlington Spa on that tour.

“I started playing bass because of JJ – that gnarly growl I got from him, something Steve Hanley has as well. The only instructions were to learn the bass parts and make sure you get that Jean-Jacques Burnel sound. And Jack gets that. In fact, he still follows the band around the country.”

At this point, I tell Ajay about my own Stranglers link, involving the Scout Hut in my home village in rural Surrey where they practised in the early days. But we won’t go into all that again (try this link from five years ago for size).

It’s been a year since I last saw Ajay live, performing at the Conti in Preston with Amsterdam-based outfit King Champion Sounds, providing a fantastic soundtrack for the Man with a Movie Camera film during an amazing set at the Vernal Equinox festival (with my review here). While this is all going on, are King Champion Sounds on hold?

“No, I’m busting my ass recording a new album, having worked on the bass and drums late last autumn, while Jos (G.W. Sok) recorded his vocals a few weeks ago, I’ve laid down all the guitars and loads of other instruments.”

Walk Away: King Champion Sounds and visions in harmony at the Conti in Preston in March 2017

Working towards an autumn tour perhaps?

“Yeah! I’ve got the horn section coming in a couple of weeks, and the strong section coming in at the end of April. It’s all ticking along.”

How about Deutsche Ashram, your amazing ethereal, dreamy, other-worldly project alongside Dutch vocalist, Merinde Verbeek. What’s she up to right now?

“Erm, she’s downstairs in the coffee shop, working at the moment!”

Ah, great stuff. So will there be a new Deutsche Ashram record soon?

“I don’t know … I’ll have to talk to her about it, see what her vibe is. I have loads of ideas for that as well, but really have to sit down and talk to her about that.”

Sounds like you’ve just got to catch yourself for five minutes. You’ve got so much going on.

“Yeah, but life’s too short to sit around. There’s too much to do!”

Preston’s Finest: The Common Cold, waiting for their tour bus to arrive

The Common Cold UK tour: Thursday, May 10 – Darwen Sunbird Records, Friday, May 11 – Lancaster The Yorkshire House, Saturday, May 12 – Salford The White Hotel, Sunday, May 13 – Newcastle The Cluny 2, Monday, May 14 – Brighton The Hope and Ruin, Tuesday, May 15 – Hastings The Palace, Wednesday, May 16 – London Aces & Eights Saloon Bar, Thursday, May 17 – Leicester The Sound House, Friday, May 18 – Glasgow 02 ABC 2, Saturday, May 19 – Preston The Ferret (tickets are on sale for the latter from Saturday, March 24 via the venue or Action Records, from whom you can also order the album via this link).  


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Continuing Songs of The South – in conversation with Gaz Birtles

Southern Comfort: The 2018 nine-piece line-up of The South

When founder member Dave Hemingway and long-serving keyboard player Damon Butcher called time late last year on live involvement with The South – the band that rose from the ashes of The Beautiful South – discussions followed about what to do next. But it was soon – rather aptly – agreed that the outfit would ‘carry on regardless’.

It’s a contentious issue. Like Trigger’s broom in Only Fools and Horses, when does something that’s more or less had all its parts replaced cease to become what it was initially? Yet Alison Wheeler (as featured on these pages in October 2016, with a link here) has been on board since 2003, and her co-vocalist Gary Birtles – best known as Gaz – started touring with the band in 1989.

When I saw The Beautiful South touring on the back of debut single Song For Whoever at Aldershot Buzz Club in June ‘89 (as recalled in my interview with Dave Hemingway in April 2014, with a link here), they were a five-piece (with not even Briana Corrigan involved, if memory serves me right). By all accounts though, it was the overall reception and sound on that eight-date mini-tour inspired band-leader Paul Heaton to change things around, recruiting five extra members, among them the afore-mentioned Damon and a three-man brass section that included trumpet player Tony Robinson, another co-founder of The South, but also a reecent departure, and sax player Gaz.

“When The Beautiful South started, they had extra brass, keyboards and percussion on the first album but just toured as a six-piece (or a five-piece at first, I reckon). And apparently it went down atrociously. I’ve heard bootlegs, and I’ve heard the band talk about people shouting for Housemartins songs or standing there in silence, out-staring the band, who were getting booed off and were wrecking their gear at the end of the night.”

For me, the gear-trashing did them no favours. The Who had already done that, and The Damned just about got it away with it on The Old Grey Whistle Test. But  … yawn … that time around it just came over as ostentatious.

“Well, talking to the rest of the band, once I’d got to know them better, about that tour, the reason they did that was rebelling against the ‘nice’ indie image of The Housemartins. It was almost trying to do the opposite of what was expected. Right from the beginning, if anyone shouted for a Housemartins song, they’d just down tools and walk off.”

Gaz was back at home in Leicester when I called, after a Sunday show in King’s Lynn, gearing up to play Burnley Mechanics this Saturday (March 17th).

“I’m just glad to be back out there again. And after Burnley it’s three or four shows a weekend. I’d be out every week, given a choice. Sometimes it’s better to give it the full three or four weeks, get into the swing of it. But the reality is that promoters prefer you play weekends, and we’ve all got other things going on.

In Step: Gaz Birtles giving it what for, with former bandmate Tony Robinson to the left (Photo: The South)

“Most of the band are professional musicians – doing lots, from teaching to playing in other bands – but a couple have full-time jobs, having to get holidays booked well in advance.”

One of Gaz’s other roles involves Leicester venue The Donkey, booking bands and taking on sound duties, something he also loves. But he also notes a ‘general lack of enthusiasm for original bands,’ in recent years, adding, ‘It seems to be about tribute and cover bands at most venues’.

Playing devil’s advocate, I ask what right his band – with just two survivors from The Beautiful South – have to be out there playing hits mainly penned by Paul Heaton and David Rotheray.

“There is a genuine feeling that people don’t know what we are. I can understand some opinions that we might be a tribute band. We’re almost a tribute band to ourselves now. What we were to The Beautiful South is always like an off-shoot, not an extension. But mainly it’s about Beautiful South songs.

“I’ve been there since day one, pretty much, and think that lends authenticity. The reality is that people we meet after shows tell us how much they’ve enjoyed it. A lot haven’t seen The South or The Beautiful South before. We provide a night’s entertainment of great songs. And those who saw The Beautiful South come back and still love it.

“The songs are the bottom line, not the personnel. And we stick pretty much to the sound and arrangements The Beautiful South did live.”

The fact that you’re going out as a nine-piece suggests your belief. It can’t just be about making money if you end up having to split it nine times every night.

“Absolutely. If that was the case we could whittle down to a four-piece and add backing tracks, but I don’t think we’ve ever talked about that. There’s no reason to. We’re all in it for the same reason. We’re a band rather than a bunch of session players. We look at ourselves as a proper unit.”

Gaz’s link with The Beautiful South indirectly came through his spell – having been on the dole at that point – guesting as part of a brass section with Leicester band Crazyhead, who he described as ‘a Grebo sort of band’, including a European tour supporting Iggy Pop.

“It was about three weeks later when we got a phone call from The Beautiful South’s manager, saying we’d been recommended as a brass section. We were asked to do a one-off gig in Paris, and that went down well, so we were asked to do a tour. And that was it – we were there from 1989 onwards.”

His involvement in bands goes back to the punk era though.

“That’s how I started really. If it wasn’t for punk rock, I definitely wouldn’t be here. I was working in a warehouse when a couple of mates started a band, asking me to sing, having heard me sing at work. That was Wendy Tunes, one of the first bands of that ilk in Leicester to get signed.

“We started recording an album at The Who’s Ramport Studio, but it never got finished, although we did all the backing tracks. That was short-lived, but I later went on to an electro-pop band and we got signed to Warner Bros.”

That was The Swinging Laurels, who recorded a 1982 BBC Radio 1 session for DJ John Peel and enjoyed some pop-star moments of their own. You can find a few of the recordings they made on Gaz’s Bandcamp page. And how does it stand up now?

“It’s all very ‘80s because of the drum machines and synths, but it’s quite varied … yeah. We carried on for around six years and in that time supported Culture Club in their very early days, doing two tours with them, and on the back of that got to know producer Steve Levine, who produced for us too.”

There was also a link to the Fun Boy Three, formed by ex-Specials trio Terry Hall, Neville Staple and Lynval Golding.

“We had a Tuesday residency in midwinter at the Hope and Anchor, North London, with the NME coming down to the first one and giving us a great review. The venue was getting busier every week. At the last one you couldn’t walk in the place for all the A&R men. We got signed that night to Warner Bros.

“And during that period, the Fun Boy Three’s manager also popped in, looking for a brass section. And as we were flavour of the month, we ended up on The Telephone Always Rings and did Top of the Pops with them. You can see me dancing with a stupid white hat on!”

Swing Commanders: Gaz Birtles with The Swinging Laurels

It turns out though that Gaz – whose two sons have followed him into the music industry, his youngest having recently signed to Island Records with a band called Easy Life – initially got involved in music long before his punk days.

“Me and my best mate worked on the gas board and were both into Roxy Music, and Andy Mackay was a big influence. My mate went out and bought a saxophone for about £20 one day, so I went out a week after and did the same, and we both tried to learn together.”

In recent years Gaz finally had a chance to meet his initial sax inspiration, while guesting for Fun Lovin’ Criminals – having featured on their 2005 album, Livin’ for the City – in Bonn, Germany while they were supporting his old heroes.

“A mate from Leicester was playing drums for them. He was a massive Fun Lovin’ Criminals fan and used to hang around the stage door, ending up joining them and later recommending me.

“Then, a few years later, they went to Bonn to support Roxy Music and my mate invited me over to play sax and get to see them. And at the soundcheck I grabbed Andy and told him what an influence he was on me, getting him to sign my saxophone with a Sharpie.”

Just in case you think Leicester’s all about Kasabian, Engelbert Humperdinck, Family and Showaddywaddy, Gaz told me about the city’s link with Laurel Aitken too, the Jamaican ska pioneer settling there in 1970 with his wife after a spell in London, working as an entertainer in nightclubs and restaurants under his real name, Lorenzo, before a later resurgence on the back of the 2 Tone explosion, including a minor UK hit in 1980 with Rudi Got Married.

Laurel died in his late 70s in 2005, but got to play with several leading lights in the city’s music scene, not least keyboard player Andy Price, Damon Butcher’s replacement in The South, who’s also played alongside blues guitar maestro, Ainsley Lister, Happy Mondays’ Bez, and The Drifters.

And now Gaz has taken on co-vocal duties, sax is being provided by Su Robinson, who previously featured with fellow ska legend Prince Buster, and former Specials bass player Horace Panter’s band the Uptown Ska Collective, while Tony Robinson’s role has been taken on by trumpet player Gareth John, who’s played alongside members of the Happy Mondays, Fun Lovin’ Criminals and The Specials.

Gaz, Alison, and the new trio are augmented on stage by Phil Barton (guitar, and who had a hand in writing seven of the songs on the last LP), Steve Nutter (bass), Dave Anderson (drums), and Karl Brown (percussion). So what, I asked, made Dave Hemingway quit?

“He’d been saying for a couple of years he was physically tired of doing it, and was always a reluctant pop star. He was never at ease, which is stupid really, because he was so brilliant. On a good day he was far better than Paul in lots of respects, very witty on stage, with a voice like an angel, and a lovely bloke, but he was just getting so tired of it.

Vocal Presence: Alison Wheeler, out front with Gaz Birtles in the new line-up of The South (Photo: The South)

“But as people have left the band, I’ve pretty much got replacements in each time – all the A-team players from Leicester, who have played with each other over the years, including the keyboard player who has replaced Damon, who was so crucial to The Beautiful South’s sound. He moved to Dublin at the same time as Dave left, so his replacement, Andy, has a job and a half to do. A bigger job than me really, but he’s doing a great job. So yeah, it’s really like the A-team.”

Which one’s Mr T then?

“Erm … Karl, the percussionist!”

As well as his off-road work at The Donkey, Gaz also helps out at the De Montford Hall and two other Leicester venues, including involvement with the two-day Simon Says music festival. And then there are his other band duties, helping out on the driving front, not least because he classes himself ‘a rubbish passenger,’ co-managing the band, and even designing the last album.

So did he ever sing with the old band?

“Once on stage with The Beautiful South, on my 40th birthday, headlining the Fleadh in Finsbury Park on a song where we needed a third harmony. That was 1995. I’m 62 now, but still feel 40!”

Are you just a touring band now, or is there a new LP to follow 2012’s well-received Sweet Refrains?

“The last one was fantastic and still stands up. We always play tracks from that, see people mouthing the words, and I’m really pleased and proud of that. But this year is about seeing if people will accept me first, and then we’ll see what we can do next year or later this year. And we’ve got new people in like Andy who write songs. We want to, but at the minute we’re just seeing if people will still book us. And the reactions so far have been fantastic.”

Carry On: The South, with a new line-up for Spring 2018, heading your way.

The South’s Spring UK tour started in Yeovil, Milton Keynes and Kings Lynn, and is now heading towards Burnley Mechanics (Sat, March 17, 01282 664400), Fleet The Harlington (Fri March 23, 01252 811009), Porthcawl Grand Theatre (Sat March 24, 01656 815995), Workington Carnegie Theatre (Thu March 29, 01900 602122), Glasgow 02 ABC 2 (Fri March 30, 0141 332 2232), Inverness Ironworks (Sat March 31, 0871 789 4173), Aberdeen His Majesty’s Theatre (Lemon Tree) (Sun April 1, 01224 641122), Manchester Club Academy (Fri April 6, 0161 832 1111), Wrexham William Aston Hall (Sat April 7, 0844 888 9991), Preston Charter Theatre (Sun April 8, 01772 804444),  Buxton Opera House (Thu April 12, 01298 72190), Pocklington Arts Centre  (Fri April 13, 01759 301547), Norwich Waterfront (Sat April 14, 01603 508050), Wakefield Warehouse 23 (Sun April 15, 01924 200162), Cardiff The Globe (Wed April 18, 0871 220 0260), Barnstaple Queen’s Theatre (Thu April 19, 01271 316063), and Weston-Super-Mare Playhouse (Fri April 20, 01934 645544).  

For more information on The South, head to the band’s official website and keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.     


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Suggs – What a King Cnut, Preston Charter Theatre (Nights at the Theatre, pt.2)

Tidal Flow: Suggs on his throne in his guise as King Cnut at Preston’s Charter Theatre (Photo: Lynda McIntyre)

Fast forward four nights and I’m closer to home at the Charter Theatre (‘We were so close it was scary, we were that close I couldn’t tell you’). Regarding the venue, in this case we’re barely talking a 45-year history, yet while the adjoining Guild Hall is fairly soulless, there’s a nice feel about the Charter, and it seems the whole building – saved from the chop by Simon Rigby – is back on its uppers, as suggested by some of the events I’ve covered on these pages in recent years from those two venues and its LiVe area (I’ll draw a VeiL over that branding).

As for that night’s two-part act, here was someone integral to the soundtrack of my life since the first Madness album, One Step Beyond, hit the racks in late 1979, eight days before my 12th birthday, the members of the band acting like they were probably the same age around then. I guess I matured with them, the Nutty Boys proving to be far more than a great singles band who staged sharp videos by the time they were making albums like Keep Moving and Mad Not Mad. Unfortunately, as the LPs got more serious and more appreciated by the likes of me, the public paid less interest. But while they briefly went away, they returned on the same fine form with the mighty Wonderful and The Liberty of Norton Folgate, and continue to belt out great records to this day, between occasional reunion shows.

Yet while the records suggest maturity, an hour and a half or so in Suggs’ company makes you realise the front-man’s as much a ball of frantic energy now as he was back in the early days – from the moment he’s trying to turn back the tide as his alter-ego King Cnut at the start of this entertaining show. Unfortunately I missed his initial My Life Story shows, but part of that format is here, an autobiographical stroll down the life of Graham McPherson which keeps you engaged from the off. Furthermore, the fantastic Julien Temple has recently made a film of the original show, which I’m very much keen to catch soon.

Ably assisted by his mate Deano on piano and occasional dialogue, there was a feeling that some of this was fairly unrehearsed, but that made it all the more interesting, Suggs sauntering through tales of early petty thievery, unorthodox apprenticeships and how Madness saved his bacon, right through to the 2012 Olympics closing ceremony and the Queen’s diamond jubilee. And en route we got his appreciation of Brian May, awaydays with Chelsea FC (and how he was looking forward to playing his FA Cup final song in Leeds on this tour), his embarrassment (‘A living endorsement’) at a This is Your Life starring role, family secrets, and much more. Meanwhile, the occasional duets with Deano bring to life and set the scene of great songs from the back-catalogue like My Girl, One Better Day, House of Fun, That Close, No More Alcohol, Amy Winehouse tribute Blackbird, and Our House.

How does this differ from his last show? Apparently, ‘if the first show was about how on earth he got there, this is about the surprises that awaited him when he did, for a bloke ‘constantly expecting that inevitable tap on the shoulder to hear ‘what are you doing here, Sunshine?’ How has he managed to get away with it for so long?’ Fame is a tightrope and Suggs has fallen off many times.’

Some Product: I kind of like the fact that Suggs signed my copy of That Close upside down (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

That becomes apparent as Suggs takes you through his past, starting in Glastonbury and ending on the roof of Buckingham Palace, in a show evocative enough to have you think you’re sharing a couple of pints with him or pounding the streets of Camden and Soho, popping in at the Colony Club and sneaking into the Groucho. There’s nothing false about the chumminess either, and he’s big enough to send himself up, riding the punches as characters around him pronounce him ‘a bit of a nob’ or ‘a King Cnut’.

Besides, there’s a warmth here that suggests for his occasional wrong turns in life, here’s a top bloke and a lot sharper and more intelligent than he’d like to admit. But you only have to read his lyrics, wallow in his autobiography, That Close, or its predecessor, Suggs and the City – his love letter to London – to get that. As the performance continues, you get an affinity for the real Suggs and how Madness more or less became his family, a little of the sadness in his life, his deep appreciation of his Mum and enduring love for wife Anne (aka Bette Bright) and his daughters too, all having saved him from the abyss many times these last however-many years.

As it was, my mate Paul, along for the occasion, has more affinity for the post-gig stage-door queuing malarkey than me, so we chatted for a while until most of the hangers-on drifted away. We were pretty sure he wasn’t going to show, but just happened to pass the side-exit as our star attraction made a dash for his transport, a small clique giving chase, us in their wake, getting to a dark, dingy and puddle-strewn car park just in time to have a quick word. ”Where’s next?” I asked awkwardly as a knackered and ready-to-be-gone Suggs signed my copy of That Close. “I haven’t got a fucking clue,” he cheerfully replied.

He stuck around a while though, dutifully smiling for a few selfies before speeding off (to Northampton, it turned out). I came away that night reappraising a bloke I always admired, seeing him in an alternative but similarly-positive light. And as with David Baddiel a few nights before, here’s a fella I felt closer to by the end of the evening. In fact, you could say, ‘We were that close’.

Holding Back: Suggs McPherson exerts his regal power at Preston’s Charter Theatre (Photo: Lynda McIntyre)

For further dates and ticket details for Suggs’ What a King Cnut tour, head here.

To cast your eyes over an appreciation of Madness on this site from five years earlier – in January 2013, just after the release of Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da – head here.

  • With thanks to Lynda McIntyre, No Third Entertainments
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David Baddiel – My Family: Not the Sitcom, Lancaster Grand (Nights at the Theatre, pt.1)

Contemplating chronicling two nights out this past week in one review, I wondered if I was dovetailing for the sake of it. Both involved theatres in Lancashire starring London solo acts, each reflecting on the links between their public and private lives, but with little else in common really. Or perhaps there was.

Grand Setting: Upstairs at the Lancaster Grand (Photo copyright: Ian Grundy, 2014)

I’ll start last Friday night, the first spring dumping of snow seemingly already behind us and a late decision taken by myself and the better half to get up to Lancaster after all. I was keen to see David Baddiel’s show and take in my first Grand visit since a 1997 kids’ show during a work placement at the Garstang Courier weekly newspaper.

Beginning with the venue itself, it’s been a key component of this North Lancs city since 1782 (a mere 208 years before the first TV episode of The Mary Whitehouse Experience). Backing on to Lancaster Music Co-Op, where recent writewyattuk interviewees The Lovely Eggs hang out, the building was remodelled in 1897 by renowned architect Frank Matcham, three years after he got to work on Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom and 13 years before he turned his attention to the London Palladium.

By then, fire had gutted its interior, yet an Edwardian refit proved a winner, the building in that guise for 110 years and counting, with such ornate detail to marvel at, not least where we were in the circle. In fact, it’s in its best nick for some years, thanks to on-going restoration work and a team of dedicated volunteers, the kind of community heroes that ensure so many of these great buildings still host events today.

On to David, and we’d only spoken the previous week (with that interview linked here). I guess I was more of a Fantasy Football League fan than of his previous work, but always liked the fella, and he came over well on the phone. Furthermore, the reviews of his new show were very promising. It was well worth a trip up the M6 on a cold and frosty late winter’s night. This wasn’t someone just out to revitalise his career 25 years after those humungous comedy gigs at Wembley with Rob Newman. There’s often a whiff of payola involved in big names of yore returning to the stage, but he seemed to be doing it for the right reasons.

Actually, David returned to stand-up five years earlier, but this was more akin to the loving son we saw in recent Channel 4 documentary, The Trouble with Dad, tackling his father’s battle with dementia, melding that with a public tribute to his Mum, who passed away in late 2014. And both themes were close to my heart, having experienced my Dad’s demise through dementia (he died in late 2012) and having seen my Mum go down that same road since, now in a care home in Surrey.

With David’s Dad, Colin Baddiel, we’re talking Pick’s disease, or frontotemporal dementia. But before you get the medical dictionary out, I should point out that this was no medical seminar or charity fundraiser. And with tonight’s star act Frank Skinner’s old sidekick, there were plenty of moments where you were likely to wince and question what might be deemed appropriate for comedy treatment.

It’s that old conundrum of whether you should keep family matters private, but it works here, and anecdotal evidence suggests David’s folks would approve too. Furthermore, a fair proportion of us out there identified with his comic recollections of his parents, many moments of which I’d hazard a guess he wouldn’t have been laughing at when they happened, wracked by embarrassment.

This wasn’t throwaway humour either, but more about honouring two special people and their extraordinary lives – David mum Sarah was a refugee from Nazi Germany – in what proved a worthy tribute via warm recollections that proved they were no saints but were certainly good people, for all their foibles. As the man himself told me, “You have a choice of going to silence or a very bland memory of them being a lovely person, or the true story, which will be more complicated. I consider it to be a bigger act of love to tell the true story.”

From everything David tells you about his Mum – who you may recall from past TV appearances with her son – you know she’d have appreciated being the centre of attention for much of the night, even when – or perhaps even particularly – the stories involved such sordid details. I won’t go into all that here – go see the show for yourself – but I certainly heard my old man’s own inappropriate humour in some of the stories about Colin. Couple that with Sarah’s bold as brass view on life and I guess it’s no surprise David ended up in this line of work.

The premise of the show is simple enough – engaging, witty bloke gives multi-media slide presentation, sharing memories of his Mum, Dad, grandparents, wife (comedian Morwenna Banks), children and cats. But there’s much more to it, and certainly a lot of warmth and comic craft. What’s more, we came away feeling a little closer to not only David, but Colin and Sarah Baddiel too, on what – for extra poignancy – would have marked the latter’s birthday.

Family Man: David Baddiel, out on tour through to early July

For further dates and ticket details for David Baddiel’s My Family: Not the Sitcom tour, head here.

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A class act – the Tom Williams interview

Shhh! Listen: Tom Williams is setting out on a mini-tour, including a date at Lancaster Library

Blokes aren‘t supposed to be capable of multi-tasking, but Tom Williams has pulled off something of a highwire balancing act while juggling spectacularly this past couple of years. There are definitely no regrets at turning his back on the music business though. In fact, he’s positively thriving in his new dual-identity.

I best get some of you up to speed first. A few years ago it was Tom Williams and The Boat, a folk-rock outfit signed to Moshi Moshi, beloved of BBC 6 Music, a support act to Adele, and as Tom put it, ‘nearly making it in the business, but not quite’.

A big decision followed, Tom chucking it all in and turning to teaching, with no plans to make any more records. But then, last year, he made the album of his career, All Change, his fifth long player, put together in practice rooms across Kent in breaks from teaching guitar and songwriting to primary and secondary school children, the lyrics coming to him on long daily drives from his home on the South coast, backed by a band of music tech students.

Many plaudits followed, the LP made on a shoestring yet sounding anything but, described as a reflection of his ‘life-long love affair with 1970s American rock, showcasing a new refinement to his songwriting, and a more commercial edge’. Or as the man himself added, it was, ‘A celebration of the big chord-change and the emotional sucker-punch line’.

The previous band was formed with friends from his hometown, Tunbridge Wells, with 2010 debut album Too Slow leading to support from the likes of Lauren Laverne, Steve Lamacq, Cerys Matthews and Huw Stephens. Yet those early gigs were seldom easy – not even for Adele, with whom he shared the stage supporting Late Of The Pier. He said,  “Everyone faced the other way and talked while she sang. It’s brutal when you start. I tell the kids now, don’t let anyone tell you if you’re good you get noticed, because it’s bullshit!”

Contemplating his original change of heart, he gives a matter of fact, “The stars just never aligned for us. I was about to turn 30, I was getting married, and I was teaching and I really love it. I’ve got a mortgage. I’m not that fussed. And I was content.

“I spend most of my time with these kids. I absolutely love teaching seven year-olds their first chords, and helping teenagers get into writing their first songs. Songwriting can make them feel better. It’s like shouting into a balloon.”

What’s more, being forced to bond with his pupils by playing the latest Ed Sheeran or Taylor Swift singles led him to look at songwriting in a new light, his methods becoming quicker and more refined. And with no expectations, no plans and no management looking over his shoulder, he just happened to enter the most creative period of his career.

It was in January 2016 that his new songs came to life during a week-long artist-in-residence role in the music department of Leeds Beckett University, getting involved on the proviso that they provided him with a band, which turned out to be the six 19-year-old music technology students who appeared on the LP.

He added, “They were the best band I’ve ever had. I was there pretending to be a success, and they were there pretending to be a band, and we met in the middle and bluffed each other, and it worked.”

The band recorded two songs a day – 20 takes before lunch and 20 after – and Tom persuaded them to stay on during the Easter holidays for a second three-day session. Every one of the seven tracks they recorded made it on to the album.

And what an album, ‘a feast of rock and folk songs drenched in strings, Hammond organ and rich ‘70s harmonies,’ mixed in June by Ian Grimble (The Fall, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Mumford & Sons), with additional guitar and backing vocals.

Tom reckons, “The whole album has a magical feeling – it feels like I did it in my sleep. After 10 years trying to make records and chase the industry I was happy and wasn’t chasing it – and for some reason I made a record I loved. Because I’m not worried in it, I’m not self-conscious, and I’m not embarrassed.”

It seems that he’s never been one to take the obvious road. A former student of abstract art, as a teenager he ran away from home to avoid a place studying at Oxford’s prestigious Ruskin School, deciding instead to run away and be a musician, inspired after hearing Mumford & Sons, chasing the romantic notion of being ‘in a warehouse with no heating, throwing paint around’. He eventually took up his place though, and retains a love for abstract art, something arguably reflected in his attitude to music and his zig-zagging path to success.

And teaching – in Kent and East Sussex – is now at the heart of what he does. There’s even a song on All Change co-written with a 15-year-old student. Meanwhile, three of the Leeds students on the album still get out there with him when they can, when their mutual timetables allow it, including a string of six low-key shows starting next Thursday (March 15th) in Stroud, Gloucestershire.

Tom was catching up on lessons when I got in touch earlier this week, after a week of snow, “Back in schools and songwriting workshops,” and, “Also in the middle of finishing a new album – it’s all go, go, go!”

I asked him about his dual-identity, suggesting that’s the way forward for many of us these days. The fact that we can do what we really love doing helps, of course.

“Absolutely. I love everything I do. I love teaching and tutoring and also love writing, recording and touring with the band. I count myself very lucky and don’t feel like either takes second-fiddle to the other. They’re all equally important parts of my life for sure.”

Tom and his partner Sarah, an illustrator, live in St Leonards-on-Sea, ‘one mile down the seafront from Hastings’, his base for the last eight years. Is fitting the band around work a difficult task then?

“It’s the way I like it. I like being busy. I have lots of friends in bands who are signed to major labels and I see them come off big tours and just shuffling around at home, bored out of their mind. I couldn’t do that. I like that I tour, record and play but also teach and work. Works for me anyway!”

Are your Leeds student friends in the band for this next handful of dates?

“Yes, the band on the album was big, seven or eight, but I’ve taken the core of that band – bass, drums and keys – out on the road with me for this past year. I also have Anthony Vicary, who was in Tom Williams & The Boat. I’ve played and sung with Ant for about 11 years now, so he’s essential.”

You had a lot of interest in the past from the likes of BBC 6 Music, and that still seems to be the case.

“That’s always been vital to us. Even on this last album we were put in 6 Music’s top 10 albums of 2017, which was mind-blowing.”

It was a big decision to make, going into full-time teaching. Was there a catalyst?

“It’s just the way life was going at the time. I really enjoy teaching and like keeping myself busy when I’m not touring or recording. I had no plans to make a new album but then the opportunity to record at Leeds Beckett came about and a new album emerged. A little miracle!”

I get the impression All Change was a ‘no pressure’, ‘doing it for the right reasons’ type project. It certainly comes over that way. Did you find yourself in a creative frame of mind, with that pressure off?

“Absolutely. No label, no management at the time, no band and no songs! Blank canvas, an amazing experience.”

Studio Tan: Tom and his band behind the scenes (Still: Tiny Light Productions)

I was very impressed with the result. Were you pleased with the reception?

“We were all thrilled. The album ended up coming out on Caroline International/ Universal, so to sign a major label deal of sorts in your second decade as a musician is pretty weird. We had no expectations at all. It was all a total thrill and a surprise.”

Has the day-job opened your eyes to refining your ideas of what makes a good tune? Because there are some mighty melodic touches on the last album.

“Absolutely. I think teaching pop music to kids of all ages has really helped open my eyes to different ways of singing and writing. It’s been an education for me, not sure my pupils would say the same – ha! It’s certainly exposed me to music I wouldn’t have listened to otherwise.”

The label ‘folk rock’ was brought up in past descriptions, but All Change goes far beyond that. There are elements of the best of Mumford and Sons, Noah and the Whale, and so on, giving an indication of where this all started, but much more. How would you describe your sound?

“I think it’s sounding quite classic rock at the moment, or dare I say it, dad-rock! It’s difficult to describe your own sound. I may be able to describe what I think I sound like but what actually comes out may be a completely different thing.”

I’ve heard you allude to Bruce Springsteen and mention Tom Petty, Nick Cave, Tom Waits … all suggesting a broad church. Who would you say were your biggest influences over the years?

“Bob Dylan never fails to surprise me and blow the cobwebs off. There are still albums I’ve never heard that are amazing. I got into a big Infidels phase in the last six months. Elliott Smith, Ryan Adams and Nirvana were all massive as a teenager and What’s The Story? (Morning Glory) was my first love as a nine-year-old, bought on cassette from Sainsbury’s. I remember seeing War On Drugs at Concorde 2 on the Slave Ambient tour and their solos were so long people were going into trance-like states, it was like a rave. That was amazing. To see guitar music so classic but so contemporary and energised. It was inspiring to see people doing new things with old tools. Not always chasing the new shiny sound.”

All Change was among the cream of the albums of 2017 for this scribe. The single Get High quite rightly got a lot of airplay, Sometimes would sit well on a Lloyd Cole album, and I felt proud on your behalf hearing the album’s opener, Everyone Needs a Home, used as the play-out music on an episode of Cold Feet last year. You’re in good company there over the years.

“That was certainly surreal to say the least. I’ve never had so many texts!”

There’s just a handful of gigs coming up this time. Is it a case of fitting in shows where and when you can?

“We’re just keeping our eye in with six shows now, festivals through the summer, then hopefully a new album before the end of the year. But who knows, eh. ‘Every day is a winding road,’ as a wise woman once said!”

No need to Crow about it, Tom. Actually, my main excuse for speaking is the Lancaster Library show. Erm … a Sunday matinee performance?

“Yes, that should be interesting, getting the band up and awake so early. Let’s see what happens – ha!”

Let’s hope it’s not a case of Sleep Tight Saturday Night, eh. Actually, at the same venue I’ve seen cracking sets in the past from The Thrills, The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster, then James Walsh and Ian Broudie (in a double-header). And I see you’re also playing Oldham Library. It’s a splendid idea and a great concept. Besides, anything that keeps libraries open in these days of major Government austerity cuts and a lack of cultural funding has got to be a good thing.

“Absolutely, libraries are sacred spaces and I’ve wanted to play these gigs for years. First time though, can’t wait.”

Talking of alternative venues, I enjoyed your set at St Philip’s Church, Salford, for Sounds from the Other City last May (with a review here). Other acts seemed to struggle with their sound, but it sounded pretty good where I was for you.

“That’s good to hear, thank you. We were first on, so got to sort our sound before we went on – always an advantage. Churches are a nightmare sonically. They were obviously built to amplify acoustic music, so when you pump thousands of watts of amplified sound into them it’s fairly cacophonous. Everyone sounds like the Jesus & Mary Chain!”

Finally, no pressure but you best get on with that new album. Is it a case of fitting recording around school holidays?

“It’s all recorded already. It needs mixing and mastering and it’ll be with you soon. Watch this space!”

All Change: Tom Williams will be out and about in 2018 … between teaching commitments

Tom Williams and his band visit Stroud’s Marshall Rooms (Thursday, March 15th), Oldham Library & Lifelong Learning Centre (Friday, March 16th), Sheffield Regather (Saturday, March 17th), Lancaster Library (Sunday, March 18th, 2.30pm), Reading’s South Street Arts Centre (Thursday, March 22nd), and Bexhill’s Albatross Club (Friday, March 23rd, already sold out). For ticket details and all the latest from Tom, head to his official website here. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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Power to the M People – the Heather Small interview

“Stop barking! It’s like, ‘Take notice of me!’ I’ve had to be away from her for the morning. I’ve only had her two years, and I wouldn’t be without her. She’s absolute sunshine.”

That’s Heather Small, talking about her beloved toy poodle, who goes by the name of Nina, after Ms Simone, which gives me my first point of reference, a chance to mention another great vocal talent and interpreter of songs, telling my interviewee I’d only been listening to Nina’s stonking version of Barry and Robin Gibb’s To Love Somebody that morning.

“Ah, she’s a mistress at interpreting other people’s songs, such as her version of Suzanne.”

Indeed, from that same 1969 album, not only tackling the Bee Gees and Leonard Cohen but also Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger numbers. Mind  you, I say, I always get the impression that she wouldn’t play a song live if you expected her to though.

“Yeah – don’t make a request! Ha! ‘I’m not here to please you – I don’t care if you’ve paid!’”

Heather, not so long back from a trip to Barbados and now dealing with snow in London, was in fine voice, as you might expect, the day I called her. And when she’s on a roll, it’s hard to equate her with the younger performer said to be remarkably shy at the start of her career.

Somehow, it’s now 27 years since the first M People album, Northern Soul, let alone her first ballad with fellow Deconstruction dance outfit Hot!House back in early 1987, Don’t Come to Stay.

“I know, and for me it’s the fact that I’ve got an hour and a half of hits these days. That’s amazing, and what’s even more amazing is that people are still willing to come and see me sing those hits.”

Let’s tally up those hits before we go much further. With M People alone we’re talking 20 top-40 hit singles in the 1990s, of which 10 made the top-10. Including How Can I Love You More?, One Night in Heaven, Moving On Up, Renaissance, and Search for the Hero. And there were also four top-five albums, a Mercury Music Prize win for second LP, Elegant Slumming, in ’93, and a Brit award for Best British Dance Act in ’94 and ‘95.

Going right back, with Heather born in late January 1965 and brought up on a West London council estate, I understand religion and faith became an important aspect of her life. Was it through her church links that where she found her voice?

“I never went to a church where I could sing gospel music or anything like that. I never sang in church. I sang from my own endeavours. I didn’t really do anything until I was 18.”

I got the impression you were initially shy, so assumed it was singing that brought you out of yourself.

“No, I never sang anywhere or did any performance. When I started to perform to an audience was when I did The Tube. I was terrified. I didn’t move! I just sang, concentrating on making it through the song.”

That was with Hot!House in early 1987, on the final series of the Jools Holland and Paula Yates-fronted Channel 4 show, and you can find it via Heather’s YouTube link, Heather battling shyness and severe nerves and going on to make two albums – in 1988 and 1990 – with bandmates Mark Pringle and Martin Colyer. But it was with her next Deconstruction outfit that she reached her promised land.

“I joined M People after Hot!House disbanded. They were going in one direction and I wasn’t really interested in that, but the guys in M People had the same management and said to their manager, ‘Let Heather know if she does leave that we have two songs we’ve written especially for her and we’d love for her to record them, see what she thinks.’”

That was in 1990, Manchester-based DJ and musician Mike Pickering and his London bandmate Paul Heard getting in contact (percussion player Shovell also soon in the mix), with those two songs Colour My Life and How Can I Love You More? And word has it that Mike and Paul were looking at just taking on guest vocalists, until they heard Heather.

“They let me do what I wanted to do with the song, and I brought a gospel element to Have Can I Love You More? They went with that and let me do the songs the way I felt them. I hadn’t had formal training and still always go for feel. I can’t read music and can’t play an instrument.”

She laughs at this, hearing herself say that, and I ask where she thinks that mighty soulful voice came from.

“I found out after that there were people in my family who would sing in church, in the Caribbean. They would sing for people – for religious gatherings, funerals, stuff like that.  But my grandfather would never have condoned them singing outside of church. Making pop music wouldn’t have gone down well at all!“

Heather’s parents arrived in the UK from the Caribbean in the ’60s, and while it’s easy to place the soul influences in her voice, it turns out that she was also a fan of 2015 writewyattuk interviewee Elkie Brooks. Which, on closer reflection, also makes sense.

“Yeah, and on the last tour I did Pearl’s a Singer. What a great singer, great interpretation, very soulful, and you know straight away it’s Elkie Brooks when you hear her, at a time when it’s quite difficult to differentiate between singers. And I grew up in a time in the ‘70s when you’d have Bob Marley and ABBA on the same radio station. So for me it was about being on top of your game … whatever your game was.”

Growing up in 70’s Britain and not wanting to be stereotyped or treated differently, Heather knew she wanted to make something of herself. I mention how Martha Reeves told me in a 2015 interview that being one of 11 children led to her making herself heard, helping bring herself out. How about Heather? Was she aware early on that she had this great voice?

“I was very shy, and when it comes to my voice, all I can say is that singing made me feel great. It was more intrinsic to me, in that I didn’t feel right if I didn’t sing. I told myself I had to make it as a singer, because of the joy it gives me. Purposefully, I didn’t learn to type or anything like that, so I didn’t have anything else to fall back on. If you heard a young person saying that now, you’d say, ‘Oh no!’ But I had to make it!

“And it’s so much fun. No two days are the same. It’s still like that for me after being in music for over 25 years. There’s that element of surprise, and right now, I’m writing songs with a young writer/producer, and it’s exciting and still has that power to surprise me.”

In 2008, Heather was back in the public eye as a contestant on BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing, that infectious personality and sense of humour leading to many more TV appearances, including several high-profile chat and quiz shows. But the live work never waned, either as a solo artist – having recorded two albums under her own name – or with M People. And then there was her 2010 tour with 2016 writewyattuk interviewee Lulu and US singer Anastacia on the ’Here Come the Girls’ tour (Heather replacing Chaka Khan from the initial tour). But did she realise there was another link there? For 18 years before Heather recorded her debut LP with Hot!House at Muscle Shoals in Sheffield, Alabama, Lulu recorded in the same legendary studio, for her New Routes album.

“Oh, my God, I didn’t know that! That’s where I did my first recordings. I tell you what, there’s a real aura in that studio. I’d been nowhere before, and here I was, this British girl, in Muscle Shoals, and yet I felt so at home. I started singing with a live band and thought, ‘This is it, this is my life, being in that environment with other musicians, and the way it made me feel. I’d be interpreting something, and they’d do the same. To this day I still get that same joy. And I’ve just realised I closed my eyes while explaining that!”

So many great songs were made there, from The Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar and White Horses to The Staples Singers’ I’ll Take You There and Respect Yourself, via Arthur Conley’s Sweet Soul Music, Wilson Pickett’s Land of a 1,000 Dances and Mustang Sally, Etta James’ I’d Rather Go Blind

“Listen, there’s an aura there. And people say about Aretha Franklin, and how she wasn’t happy there, going through a bad time with her then-husband and then she just let it all out in her vocals. And that’s the thing about experience. You’ve got to be brave enough to let those experiences come through. I think that’s what I’ve learned with live performances.”

Heather’s talking about Aretha’s mighty I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) there, a great story neatly retold on the entertaining and informative Every Record Tells a Story website. And what an advert for Muscle Shoals, recorded in 1967, the year I was born.

But let’s fast forward 22 years, because I’m a little confused over this. Is that right that we heard Heather some time between Hot!House and M People, through a re-recorded vocal take on 1989’s Ride on Time mega-hit for Black Box? I realise it was originally half-inched from Loleatta Holloway, but …

“Do you know, I’ve never confirmed this, with all this folklore around that. Someone recently told me, ‘Well, it’s on Wikipedia!’ Ha ha!”

Well, I’m always very wary about what I repeat from the internet.

“I’ve never ever said that. People just take it for granted. But if you listen … I was a younger woman then, and if you hear the two versions you can hear which is the woman with the real experience and which one is the pretender! If you listen to it, you can tell.”

I try one more time for a definitive answer, but she’s not playing, and just laughs when I say we’ll have to leave that a little ambiguous. So with that we move on to Proud, the title track of her debut solo album in 2000, an inspirational worldwide hit soon heard in so many situations – including the launch of Queen Mary 2 and England’s victory at the Rugby World Cup in 2003, the VE Day 60th anniversary commemorations in Trafalgar Square and the Tsunami Relief Concert in Cardiff in 2005, and the London Olympics’ bid and a ceremony marking the handover from Beijing in 2008. In fact, I put to her, the song (co-written with former Jethro Tull keyboard player Peter-John Vettese) seems to have a life of its own.

“It has, and it’s taken me to so many different places. It’s unbelievable. It’s flown around the world, so people can hear me sing that one song live.”

And when Oprah Winfrey was looking for a song to sum up the work she’d been striving to achieve over a 20-plus year career, she got in touch with Heather, who squeezed in a trip across the Atlantic to perform on the show in the middle of her last M People UK tour in 2005, explaining, ‘If Oprah calls, you go!’

“Which is very flattering. But like I’ve said before, it doesn’t make it any less flattering if it’s somebody who is watching their son or daughter in a school play and they use ‘Proud’.  I attended a school where the pupils were all talking about their experiences and they started singing Proud at the end. I thought, ‘Hold it together, Heather,’ and then this one boy started crying and I was gone! When you experience something like that … it’s been used for school anthems and assemblies. Oh my goodness! Especially going over to Chicago to sing it for Oprah, because it’s about celebrating those small, joyous moments and those private moments.”

That pride theme fits neatly with Heather’s charity work for anti-racist and anti-bullying causes, for a campaigner who is also an ambassador for children’s charity, Barnardo’s. And she comes over very much a spiritual person, I put to her.

“Yes, I go to church and always seek out some kind of spiritual life and connection, and other people. That’s why I like doing what I do for those charities. It keeps me in touch with my own humanity. They’re doing something for me – keeping me in a place where I will always feel sensitive. I don’t deserve any praise for it. I say if you have an abundance of something money or whatever … I can sing, so I go and sing, and there are people who have lots of money so they give lots of money, and there are people who have time and they give all of their time. And no one thing out-trumps the other.”

She laughs at my next question, mainly because I suggest I don’t want to pry into her private life but do so all the same, her shouting, ‘Go ahead! Go ahead!’ in the background. In short, she spent a fair bit of time in the North West of England through her past relationship with Wigan rugby league legend Shaun Edwards. Does she miss this part of the world?

“Well, the North West came to London, so that was alright!”

You were based around Standish, weren’t you?

“They were so lovely to me. My son is still a regular visitor there, because his grandparents are there. So he’s fluent in Wigan-ese!”

Is Heather’s son, now 21, following in Mum or Dad’s footsteps, career-wise?

“He doesn’t sing but he’s at Edinburgh Uni now and he’s a sportsman like his father. He’s in the uni rugby team. But I don’t like to talk about him too much, or I’ll get a little phone call!”

People Person: Heather Small, back out on the road in April and May 2018

Heather Small – The Voice of M People visits 14 UK venues in April and May, opening at Newcastle’s Tyne Theatre (April 13) and calling at Hull University Union (April 14), Wrexham William Aston Hall (April 15), Bristol Marble Factory (April 17), London ULU (April 20), Sheffield Foundry (April 21),       Manchester Academy 2 (April 22), Preston Charter Theatre (April 24),         Salisbury City Hall (April 25), Oxford 02 Academy (April 27), Isle of Man Gaiety Theatre (April 29), Wakefield Warehouse 23 (May 4), Glasgow 02 ABC (May 5), and Norwich Waterfront (May 16). Tickets also available from Ticketweb (0333 321 9990). For more details head to Heather’s website or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter. 


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