Wilko Johnson / Glenn Tilbrook – Warrington Parr Hall

Three’s Company: The Wilko Johnson Band, still keen to Blow Your Mind all these years on.

Some 15 months after my last visit to the Parr Hall, and 25 years after a brief stint working in this North West town, I was back in Warrington for a night of quality musicianship and maximum R&B.

Last time around, for The Undertones (with my review here), the floor was jumping, so it was a little odd to find the seats out and our tickets reading ‘stalls’. But as it turned out there was a solution at hand.

I felt uneasy at first, having arrived later than I hoped, struggling to find a parking space on a busy Friday night after battling down the M6 and A49. And when you need to find a designated seat in the middle of a darkened hall and the support’s already playing, it takes all your concentration skills to keep your head down (not least when you’re 6ft 4ins) and your Guinness off neighbouring punters.

And you can add to that the awkward complication that the fella with the acoustic guitar on stage is one of your songwriting heroes, recent WriteWyattUK interviewee Glenn Tilbrook, who first appeared on a bill with Wilko when Squeeze supported Dr Feelgood in 1975 and who has since supplied a fair bit of the soundtrack of my life.

I was unsure how far into his set he was, but as we found row H and sat down he treated us to the sublime ‘Up the Junction’, taking one round of applause for his efforts then asking for another for absent co-writer Chris Difford.

This was no karaoke show or Squeeze on 45 set though, but a swift journey down the years of great songs expertly played, Glenn treating us to Sandie Shaw’s ‘(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me’ before another of his hits of yore, ‘Is That Love? And few opening lines can compete with ‘You’ve left my ring by the soap, now is that love?’

Second-guessing Glenn would be some task, and he soon swapped acoustic for electric for a little Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac on end-of-the ‘60s blues classic, ‘Oh Well’. And where from there? Well, 1987’s ‘Hourglass’ actually, a song that made me realise I never stood a chance of lead vocal duties, tripping up over that rapid chorus time and again while trading lines amid giggles.

‘I Hear You Knocking’ was next, a little turn-of-the ‘70s rock’n’roll from Dave Edmunds delivered so well, followed by another glorious segue into Difford & Tilbrook songbook territory for melancholic masterpiece ‘Letting Go’, three weeks after I told the artiste how much I love 1991’s Play.

Solo Stint: Glenn Tilbrook, still out on the road, and playing a blinder as support to Wilko Johnson.

I got the feeling Glenn went out of his way to reach the blues in his set, but he didn’t have to dig too deep. It’s just below the surface, this consummate performer steeped in all he’s infused and taken on board, so technically accomplished it’s intuitive.

A confessional followed, Wilko’s special guest coughing up to past misdemeanours with ‘0-60 in 3 Seconds’. I’d rather let him tell you the story behind that, and you can find it on a new EP, proceeds going to the Trussell Trust, the charity both headliner and support are backing on this tour.

Time was always going to be against him, and while I dearly hoped there might be a later cameo with the main act, it seems Glenn’s emperor-sized campervan had left long before I reached the exit.

But playing to the crowd amid vociferous requests for ‘Voodoo Chile’, the wondrous ‘Tempted’ and ‘Black Coffee in Bed’ were followed by snatches of Hendrix at the start and end of further early ‘80s hit ‘Labelled with Love’ to finish. What a repertoire, what a performer.

Talking of guitar legends, two more followed shortly, R&B survivors (in more ways than one) past WriteWyattUK interviewees Wilko Johnson and Norman Watt-Roy joined by the son of another, Yes’ Steve Howe’s Dylan on drums, another who saw service with Ian Dury and the Blockheads.

I still found the sit-down setting a little constricting, and there’s nothing like a couple of old souls (Wilko and Norm aged 71 and 68 respectively) to make you realise youth is wasted on the young and middle-aged, their youthful energy intoxicating and contagious.

Wilko prowled from the start, those eyes seeking us out and that flex on his distinctive black and red Telecaster given plenty of stretch, while Norman’s strolling digits hardly let up all night, his facial expressions a picture.

From opener ‘I Love the Way You Do’ onwards, one of many fine Blow Your Mind cuts, we were in awe, and if that was the LP of new material Wilko never dreamed of being well enough to record, it was a similar story with its predecessor, where he got to share billing with Roger Daltrey on Going Back Home, its title track – written with Mick Green and originally recorded with Dr Feelgood in ‘75 –truly getting the blood pumping.

Tunnel Vision: Norman, Wilko and Dylan, going underground (Photo copyright: Leif Laaksonen)

For those who know Wilko’s story, the sheer emotions in seeing him still up there are pretty overwhelming, but you get the feeling it’s mutual, this trio all about playing with passion, celebrating life itself. Never have blues been so joyful.

And these R&B forces of nature – Wilko’s distinctive six-string chop approach given body by Norm and Dylan’s bass and drum engine room stoking – never take a foot off the oil refinery pump, 1978 Solid Senders favourite ‘Dr Dupree’ keeping the pressure up and 2018 single ‘Marijuana’ proving he can still write a corking song four decades later.

At that point it was a great show but missing a little something, but that changed at the eight-song mark, the band slipping into further Feelgood masterpiece, ‘Roxette’, 44 years after Old Grey Whistle Test viewers were first moved to the edge of their armchairs at the sight of Lee Brilleaux and co.

A few punters took that as a cue to make their way down the front, a show of solidarity with those that had already taken to the wings. And I loved the fact they were a right mixed bag, rhythm and blues respecting no age bar or dress code. The older guy in high street raincoat with attached hood seemed to personify that, heads down no nonsense mindless boogie (as my recent interviewee CP Lee once put it) overcoming all.

This isn’t just about out and out R&B standards – old and new – and ‘The Beautiful Madrileña’ showed glorious strength in depth before the band kicked up a gear again for another track first committed to tape in the studio in 2003, ‘Keep On Loving You’, and a nice reminder of the 2014 version with Roger Daltrey, who just happened to have turned 75 that day.

Another track from the good Doctor was next, ‘When I’m Gone’ inspiring a similar effect, the Thames Delta transported to the banks of the Mersey, as if we were seven miles from Canvey rather than Spike Island, the reverberating spirit of John Lee Hooker boom-booming away.

And if ‘Letting the Night Go By’ suggested we were nearly done, ‘Everybody’s Carrying a Gun’ led to more impassioned solos – the switch up to 12 by now – and they weren’t going anywhere until they’d headed ‘Back in the Night’ and treated us to ‘She Does it Right’, the briefest break following before they saw us to the line with a mighty ‘Bye Bye Johnny’, as much Wilko’s as Chuck Berry’s standard now.

Long may you rock, Wilko, and the same goes for Norman, Dylan and Glenn. We’re not worthy, maybe, but we’ll be here all the same.

Live Wires: Dylan, Wilko and Norman giving it their all, as ever (Photo copyright: Leif Laaksonen)

Wilko Johnson and Glenn Tilbrook are next in action together at: Cliffs Pavilion, Southend – March 8; Engine Rooms, Southampton – March 9;  Alban Arena, St Albans – March 10; The Robin, Wolverhampton – March 13; Picturedrome, Holmfirth – March 14; Opera House, Newcastle –  March 15; Yarm Princess Alexandra Auditorium – April 11; Stockton Queen’s Hall – April 12; Edinburgh Fibbers, York – April 13; Junction, Cambridge – April 25; Tramshed, Cardiff – April 26; Town Hall, Cheltenham – April 27. 

Meanwhile, Glenn’s solo tour calls at: The Grand, Clitheroe – March 16; St Mary Magdalene Church, Cobham – March 21; Revelation, Ashford – March 22; The Pavilion, Hailsham – March 23; Komedia, Bath – March 28; Acapela, Cardiff – March 29; St Mary’s Parish Church, Kingskerswell – March 31; The Wharf, Tavistock – April 2; Lighthouse, Poole – April 3; St John The Evangelist Church, Oxford – April 5.

For more about Wilko’s wanderings in 2019, head here or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter. For more information on Glenn Tilbrook, head to his website or keep in touch via FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

Food donated at venues during all Glenn’s dates this year (including the Wilko Johnson dates) will be collected and distributed to the nearest Trussell Trust foodbank, offering nutritionally-balanced, non-perishable tinned and dried foods. Items in a typical food parcel are cereal, soup, pasta, rice, tinned tomatoes/pasta sauce, lentils, beans and pulses, tinned meat, tinned vegetables, tea/coffee, tinned fruit, biscuits, UHT milk and fruit juice. If possible, check with local foodbanks to see what supplies are currently needed.

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Renewed belief in Mother Earth – the Steve Harley interview


Live Presence: Steve Harley, still living the best years of his life, four and half decades after his career change

Talking to a celebrated musical artist of whom the Wikipedia entry alone runs to more than 4,000 words, when he has a busy day of interviews for radio and press ahead of him, it’s advisable to get straight in there and pique the interest.

Accordingly, I sought out a little common ground, tackling Steve Harley on his formative days in journalism, the career he jettisoned to throw himself into the dubious world of rock’n’roll … to great effect.

And 45 years after his first album with Cockney Rebel, The Human Menagerie, he’s still touring frequently, fronting his own acoustic trio, accompanied by long-standing bandmates Barry Wickens (violin, guitar, part of the set-up since 1984) and James Lascelles (piano, percussion, recording with Steve since 2003), the set built around his 13 original albums, bigger hits blending in with tracks from more recent critically-acclaimed LPs like 2005’s The Quality Of Mercy and 2010’s Stranger Comes To Town.

Steve, born in 1951 in South East London – the second of five children to a milkman and a semi-professional jazz singer – started out in newspapers in 1968 at the age of 17, a trainee accountant with the Daily Express, going on to be a reporter, training with Essex County Newspapers and working for the Essex County Standard, Braintree and Witham Times, Maldon and Burnham Standard, and Colchester Evening Gazette before a stint at the East London Advertiser. Apparently, the snapping point came when his editor insisted he write about a shoplifter who stole a tin of soup and a tin of baked beans. Does he ever wonder what might have happened if he’d just kept his head down and carried on?

“I’ve got no regrets. At the age of 21 when I walked away, I’d done my three-year indentures, had 120 words-per-minute Pitman’s shorthand and had covered some really good stories, particularly in my last year at the East London Advertiser.

“We were in Kray land, opposite The Blind Beggar, covering some big news. It wasn’t provincial anymore, and in those days local papers were always run by juniors – around two seniors and five juniors. Every Wednesday night we put the paper to bed in Dagenham, and the next morning we’d find our stuff all over Fleet Street, because it was all good national news.

“I enjoyed it. I liked the life, until I grew tired of it – having spent a lot of time in Bow Magistrates’ Court, wearing the seat of my trousers out, covering stupid shop-lifting stories. But I was writing songs and playing in folk clubs at that time.

“The only downside of it all and the only point I regret was that leaving all that really distressed my parents. My Dad was pretty heartbroken. I hadn’t got anywhere to go. In those days you could leave a job and get another. But I was on the dole for around 10 months, busking, writing songs and forming Cockney Rebel. But I’ve had a great life – 45 years of this and I’ve still got an audience.”

Were those busking days really so good at the time, or just in romantic retrospect? I’m guessing they were hungry days.

“Oh, they were hungry years, but good days. What can you do? I was 21 and could rule the world. Or you think you can. I lived on the dole and was in bedsits with truly interesting people who went on to have good careers in the art world and in journalism, surrounded by interesting and bright young people and great company.

“Paul Henderson, who I trained with, went on to the Daily Mail, and is now editor of the Daily and Sunday Mirror and still my mate. John Blake is in publishing. He was on the Hackney Gazette. We sat together in magistrates’ courts and are still very close friends. Pauline McLeod went on to be successful as well. There were loads of us.”

Apparently, TV presenter, columnist and novelist Richard Madeley was another, taking over Steve’s desk at the ELA in 1972. Yet this action-packed career might never have got off the ground, Steve having during the summer of 1953 contracted polio, leading to long periods in hospital as a youth, undergoing major surgery in 1963 and 1966.

But while recovering from the first operation at the age of 12, he was introduced to the poetry of T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence, the prose of Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Virginia Woolf, and the music of Bob Dylan, and was duly inspired to carve out his own creative career.

It’s interesting how many talented people in various artistic walks of life suffered serious illness and bouts of confinement as children, I suggested – from comedy scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (tubercolosis) to leading lights in the punk world like Ian Dury (polio) and John Lydon (meningitis). Did his own recuperation help him focus and take something from all that reading?

“Yeah, I think when you’re bed-ridden, like I was … and you could also bring into this equation Joni Mitchell and Neil Young with polio too … I spent nearly four years in hospital, on and off from the age of three and a half through to 16, including two one-year stretches. In each ward there were a dozen or so under-16s at our children’s hospital in Surrey, so you had your pals so didn’t feel the pain – you get through it at that age. But it made me quite solitary.

“My bedside cabinet – this brown wooden thing with the grapes and the Lucozade on top – if you opened that you’d have found notebooks, pens and literature. I read a lot, way off the scale. I was 15, doing my O-levels from a hospital bed, ahead of the curriculum. The school would send everything down to the hospital every week, 12 miles away, and the hospital teacher and I completed it all – nine subjects. We had nothing else to do, whereas my schoolmates were in class, having lunch breaks, playing rugby. I was ahead of them.

“By the time I’d finished it all my English master – to his day one of my best friends, Anthony Harding, who taught me how to write and how to be myself – would say, ‘You’ve read Henry V and Othello, and written your essay, would you like to read some John Donne metaphysical poetry? My own hero?’

“He then sent me Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and that changed everything. I didn’t think you could write without using what he called the $10 words. He didn’t need them. I’d read DH Lawrence and needed a thesaurus by the bed with such a rich vocabulary. Then you read Hemingway and it’s like a man talking to you in everyday language.”

I told Steve at this point how my mid-’90s journalism course leader at Preston’s University of Central Lancashire, Vince Kelly, read a few chapters from an early draft of a novel of mine, subtly suggesting I read The Old Man and the Sea, impressing upon me the importance of writing about what I knew – a valuable lesson.

“Well, someone said to me recently they’d read my online diaries and said it was like I was talking to them.”

At this point, Steve talks about another friend from his journalism past, author Brian Southall, who was with Music Business Weekly, Melody Maker and Disc before joining A&M then EMI, his music books including Beatles and Hollies biographies, including last year’s The White Album: The Album, the Beatles and the World in 1968.

“He also trained with me. He was in Chelmsford and I was in Colchester when we were juniors, and we’ve been mates ever since.”

It transpires that he recently contributed to Brian’s latest work, in which musicians talk about their most influential Beatles album, Steve writing about Rubber Soul, and chuffed at the author telling him there was no reason to change a word of his submission.

Did Steve’s parents get to witness his success in music, realising he’d made the right career choice after all?

“Oh yeah, my Dad is now 92. My Mum died 10 years ago, and once they’d seen me on Top of the Pops, it was brag, brag, brag, brag, brag! They forgot the upset.”

Ever get back to your old roots in Deptford?

“I don’t go down there very often. I raised my kids among the cornfields of Suffolk. That’s where we are. We get to London a lot, and just yesterday I was on air with (BBC Radio London’s) Robert Elms, and I’m there for meetings and the theatre a lot. But I don’t need the city anymore. I see enough cities. I travel around a lot.”

At this point, I mentioned how late Status Quo great Rick Parfitt liked to return to hometown Woking (where my Dad and Grandad were brought up), sitting outside his old house in his car, remembering his formative years. And that sparks something with Steve.

“This is very odd. I know those two guys (referring to Rick and fellow Quo frontman Francis Rossi) very well and told Francis this years ago – I’ve met him loads of times since – how when we walked from my Mum’s flat in New Cross Gate in the borough of Deptford up to my school at Haberdashers’ Aske’s (Hatcham Boys’) Grammar School, every day we’d walk past – on a steep hill – a Rossi’s ice cream van, and that was Francis’ family.”

I could have mentioned so many great tracks associated with Steve and Cockney Rebel over the years, songs such as ‘Mr Raffles (Man, It Was Mean)’ taking me right back to a certain time and place. What’s more, he even managed to get away with covering The Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun’ in 1976, somehow making it his own. Is that the key to it – giving a classic song a different spin?

“Malcolm, I’ve heard maybe 30 of 130 covers of ‘Make Me Smile’, some of which are quite interesting, but most – however – are really just replicas of the original, and I think, ‘Why did you bother?’ But Rod Stewart on his last album, Another Country, covered my song ‘A Friend For Life’ (from The Quality of Mercy), and it breaks your heart. It’s his voice singing my words. It’s wonderful, and he makes it his own. What’s the point of a replica?”

Incidentally, Rod Stewart has described Steve as ‘One of the finest lyricists Britain has ever produced’. Can’t say fairer than that. Anyway, carry on …

“I didn’t get to meet George (Harrison), but I would have told him how I saw that song as (marking) an apocalypse …”

At this point, Steve – sat in a radio studio – had to break off, having a live on-air interview to go to. We should have been done by then, but I like to think he was enjoying himself, arranging for me to call him back half an hour or so later to finish up. But when I got through again, I got the feeling his enjoyment factor had slipped, my next question touching a nerve, after I asked if – while there was clearly lots of hard work involved – there was an element of luck too, not least in coming to the attention of producer Mickie Most.

As I have no hot-shot lawyer on my side and I’d like to keep a roof over my family’s head, I’ll not go into his full response, filling me in on past litigation procedures involving a deal from the early years of his career. Maybe one day it’ll come out in an autobiography. I will print this much though.

“I played five shows at The Speakeasy (Club) with the original Cockney Rebel and then Dave Most came in, who ran RAK Publishing and was a plugger at the Beeb, played my demos to his brother, and he changed my life. It was because what we did on stage was unique and someone – Mickie Most – saw a future. I didn’t get lucky.”

Having cleared that up, I mentioned how I’d reminded myself of a few classic tracks that morning, and ‘Cavaliers’ from 1974’s The Psychomodo came up, something I suggested reminded me of that era, with a hint of a Mott the Hoople … but was perhaps more of a nod to David Bowie. And again it seems like I’d rattled his cage.

Quality Artiste: Steve Harley, back on the road again on his never-ending tour (Photo: Mike Callow)

“Well, I wouldn’t credit either of them. You’ll hear what you want, that’s fine by me, and I’m listening. But I played that back with an orchestra and choir for some big concerts, with Steve Norman from Spandau Ballet playing saxophone and percussion, and we ripped the place up.

“On that album you’ve got ‘Ritz’, ‘Tumbling Down’, ‘Cavaliers’, and I’d like to go to my grave believing no one in the world could have written those songs but me. No bragging there. I hear them, and think, ‘Ah, that’s me’. I never listened to Mott the Hoople. I only heard the singles.”

We were interrupted again soon after, and while Steve said he’d call back when he’d dealt with his other interviews, I wasn’t convinced. But just when I was starting to doubt if he’d have time, he returned. And this time he seemed to be in a happier frame of mind.

Putting him on the spot, I asked who he felt were the ‘70s artists he respected who also proved to have that longevity.

“There’s a whole bunch. You know, Roxy Music was always Bryan Ferry’s band, like Cockney Rebel was always my band, Bowie always had his own band, Ian Hunter still plays and plays and plays, acoustic and with other players and rock bands, Sparks still play a lot of concerts when they want to. The point is that to have longevity you have to want to play live and have it in your heart and soul that you were going to be a rock musician for life, not just to dress up and get on Top of the Pops and be famous in Sainsbury’s.

“The list could go on, and so many from that period are true survivors. Brian May and Roger Taylor can’t stop going out there, pretending to be Queen. They’ve both got more money than Croesus, but they can’t stop. It’s in the heart and soul. Roger is desperate to be a rock star. Bless him, he’s the nicest guy. They ask me, ‘Could I stop?’ and I just can’t not do it. Once you get on a bus with the guys, you know what you’re going to be doing, and everyone feels an uplift. If you’ve survived to a certain age, you’re really good at what you do.”

Well, Steve’s acoustic trio set-up certainly seems to work well for him. As he put it, “Playing the songs in an acoustic format gives me time and space to enjoy every second. And we improvise, exciting for any musician. We can loosen off arrangements and really explore.And this tour’s bandmates have been at his side for some time now.

“Ooh, donkeys’ years. Barry’s played for me for thousands of shows. More than anybody else. James has played with me for 15 years. And they can go anywhere they like.”

Do you tend to chop and change set-wise a fair bit? I can’t imagine you sticking to a formula and going through the motions on that.

“I couldn’t. That’s not the deal. We’ll go on the road next week with 40 titles listed, and each night we’ll play 25, so on the bus I’ll decide what to knock out, what to put in. They love it, and it keeps everyone on their toes. And it keeps the buzz going. ‘What key’s that in?’ ‘Don’t panic! Put your headphones on, listen to it once. You played it five years ago!’ These guys don’t forget. It’s absolutely lovely.”

Some saw the ‘80s as your wilderness years, but I’m guessing it was important that happened in retrospect, not least having the chance to concentrate on your family and the things that really mattered, perhaps giving you the hunger to carry on later.

“Yeah, I had a really hedonistic ‘70s, I was tired, I met Dorothy (Steve’s wife of 38 years), fell madly in love, and we had two children. And the world was changing. Punk had come and gone, there was … what d’you call it? The new romantic thing with the silly haircuts and synthesisers, and it didn’t suit me at all.

“Then Phantom of the Opera came along and, well, I had nothing else to do, although I knew I would not be singing it live. But at the end of the ’80s, someone came and said to me the Germans want you on tour. I said I didn’t know if I could still do it anymore, having lost all my confidence. But they said give it a go, I was pushed out there, and I’ve been on what Dylan would call that never-ending tour ever since.”

Along the way, there’s been so much great music. Is there a certain track or album you feel should have received far more kudos, that would have been a surefire hit in a different era?

“It would be the new ones, that are privately released and don’t get big coverage. We do half of the songs on stage and people love them, and those CDs sell on the road. The Quality of Mercy, two records ago, is the best album I made in my career, after The Psychomodo. But the great public doesn’t know it. And that’s ok too. I bump into people in the most obscure of places, they mention a song from that album, and I say, ‘You know that album? That’s my favourite album ever!’ It’s a great feeling.”

Given a bit longer I’d have asked more about his biggest hit too, the sublime ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)’, a UK No.1 that’s sold more than a million and a half copies and according to the Performing Rights Society is one of the most played records in British broadcasting, yet somehow retains its initial impact 40-plus years on. But the story was told so well by Steve and producer Alan Parsons (interviewed by Dave Simpson) in an article two years ago in The Guardian.

Soon he was away again though, this time for a live interview on BBC Radio Nottingham. I had no compaints though, coming off the phone with Steve having made me smile again after a genuine, kindly reminder to come up and see him at the Morecambe Platform or Lytham’s Lowther Pavilion on this tour. And I look forward to that.

Three’s Company: Steve and his acoustic trio bandmates James Lascelles, left, and Barry Wickens, right

Steve Harley’s acoustic trio tour includes dates at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre (Saturday, March 2), Salford’s Lowry Theatre & Gallery (Sunday, March 3), Morecambe Platform (Saturday, March 30, 0871 220 0260) and Lytham’s Lowther Pavilion (Thursday, April 4). For the full itinerary and all the latest from Steve, head to http://www.steveharley.com/ or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter. 


Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Live and Direct in Guildford – back in my hometown revisiting The Star, the Boileroom and the Holroyd

Acoustic Stranglers: Baz Warne and Jean-Jacques Burnel perform at the Star Inn, Guildford, January 31st, 2019 (Photograph by Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

It’s been a long month, and with Spring arriving deceptively early in late February (if only on a fact-finding mission), that last day of January when The Stranglers turned up at one of my old haunts seems an age ago.

Founder members Jet Black (and it’s good to see him relatively fit and well), Jean-Jacques Burnel and ’75 arrival Dave Greenfield (replacing Swedish original Hans Axel Wärmling) brought long-time frontman Baz Warne along to the venue where it supposedly started for them, The Star in Guildford, unveiling a new PRS plaque marking the location of what’s believed to have been their first proper show 45 years ago.

While I heard the blast from Guildford’s pub bombings in 1974 from my village (two miles down the A281), I wasn’t even seven, so I can hardly vouch for the noise a band then known as The Guildford Stranglers were making that same year on nearby Quarry Street.

I said supposedly before as JJ Burnel can’t seem to recall any details, and no date seems to be recorded, for all the mentions here and there on the internet. But as a 14-year-old I was at the Civic Hall across town for their La Folie tour, and recall Hugh Cornwell asking a packed house – ‘Golden Brown’ topping the UK charts at the time – how many of us were at The Star in ‘74. Inevitably, around a thousand reckoned they were, something I find hard to fathom seeing as in April 1988 the band I mismanaged, His Wooden Fish, sold out a charity night there and were only allowed to accommodate a 99-strong audience.

In fact, that particular swivel-rock trio (don’t ask) played there twice, while the band that eventually followed them, True Deceivers, followed their lead, playing on a bill with fellow reformed locals (so to speak) Sammy Rat’s Big Big Blues Band, of whom frontman and local author/journalist David Rose wrote a great piece about the venue’s sketchy history as a music venue in this Guildford Dragon feature. What’s more, in my fanzine days The Star was an unofficial HQ for a while, even interviewing bands in there.

If you haven’t heard yet, the reason this is all semi-relevant is that there’s a campaign endorsed by The Stranglers to ‘Save Our Star’, with this prime town centre venue under threat from a noise abatement order, despite a long history of live music happenings and as a platform for so many emerging musicians over the decades.

It’s still a thriving music, comedy and theatre performance venue, but the borough council allowed a property developer to build flats in a neighbouring ex-office block, and that’s where the trouble started, not least after he complained to the council about noise from the back room venue last May. The Star were given eight weeks to comply with a noise abatement notice, one they felt would force them into stopping host live acts completely from December. But in October, the pub confirmed it intended to challenge the notice, after legal counsel confirmed there were sufficient grounds to launch an appeal.

Star Inn manager Georgina Baker said: “When the planning application went in five years ago we pointed out it was ludicrous to put flats next to a live music venue overlooking a pub courtyard, but they wouldn’t listen. Now, sure enough, the developer has complained and the council has finally realised it might be a bit noisy in the flats.

“Small live music venues are the lifeblood of the music industry as well as an invaluable cultural and social asset, they can’t just be swept aside for luxury apartments. We’re part of the historic fabric of Guildford, but if the council issues a Noise Abatement Notice, that’ll put us out of business.”

Georgina has called on all music lovers to sign a petition in a bid to persuade the council, and you can get involved via this link. If like me you’re 240 or so miles away, you might feel it’s got nothing to do with you, but this seems to be the tip of the iceberg, with so many venues up and down the country and across Britain in similar jeopardy right now. A report by ITV News arts editor Nina Nannar about the campaign estimated a third of Britain’s small music venues had already been lost. So think of my hometown as Anytown UK. The time seems ripe to have a say and get involved.

I missed out on The Stranglers’ Star return, where a short set included an acoustic stroll through ‘Strange Little Girl’, a 1982 UK top-10 hit but in the set right back in ’74, a band co-write in which the afore-mentioned Wärmling gets a credit (he died in 1995 in a boating accident). But I was back on my old patch a fortnight later, sampling two more happening pub venues, the Boileroom (The Elm Tree in my day, part of a town crawl from my mate Al’s nearby flat) and Suburbs at the Holroyd (the plain, poky Holroyd Arms when I was working in town, an occasional lunchtime watering hole now knocked through and also creating a great live room).

That Friday night – the first of two nights back in Al’s company – provided a good example of just what’s on offer on the scene in this day and age, as it involved Bristol-based Clash tribute act, London Calling. You’ll know from these pages I tend to avoid such shows – there’s so much original talent out there, why not support bands doing their own songs instead? But I’ve been known to show up at such events, even recalling a night in Blackburn’s King George’s Hall watching entertaining Australian faux-Swedes Bjorn Again as early as 1998.

Look down the list of acts appearing at most venues these days and there’s often little on offer but derivations on the tribute theme. But with my Clash book not long out I eyed a chance to savour a band afforded great reviews and currently playing the London Calling double album from start to finish, four decades after its release year. And I knew it would be a neat place to catch them, having seen The Wedding Present in this intimate setting two years ago.

I could have done without the eyebrow-raising bar prices (£10 for two pints? You’re having a giraffe!), but fair play to any venue still operating in these testing times. Besides, I was intrigued by London Calling, and sure enough it made for a top night out, their 19-track wander through a classic record followed by an encore of ‘I Fought the Law’, ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’, ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ and ‘White Riot’, enthusiastically received by a young-ish crowd … or at least mostly too young to catch The Clash first time around. I’d get far more excited seeing Jones, Simonon and Headon back out there, but that ain’t gonna happen, and this outfit are impressive – a class act as much as a Clash act.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, and the track-by-track album concept meant they started with ‘London Calling’ itself, not the easiest song to cover convincingly. But from ’Brand New Cadillac’ onwards – that rockabilly rumble suits them – they had me on their side, unable to resist. I could have done without ‘Koka Kola’ and wouldn’t have been upset if a couple more were missed, but my only real quibble was the lead singer’s need to introduce his guitar sidekick as ‘Mr Mick Jones’ a few times. Why do that? It’s plainly not. He’s a great player in his own right – celebrate that (for the record, credit should go to Reg Shaw as Joe, David Devonald as Mick, Zep Guatieri as Paul, and Shane Tremlin as Topper).

Any name-check for my favourite songs on the night would just echo my favourite tracks on the album, but I also particularly enjoyed their runs through ‘The Right Profile’, ‘Clampdown’ and ‘Guns of Brixton’.

Faraway Town: London Calling put Guildford’s Boileroom audience through their paces (Photo copied from the band’s Facebook page)

Actually, they do look the part as well as sound the part, but not in a lookalike way thankfully. That would be pointless. ‘Joe’, ‘Mick’ And ‘Paul’ had all the affectations and facial expressions that suggest they’ve done their homework and come at this from a place of love, carving a pure connection with the originals and a respect for their craft. And ‘Topper’ got it just right, putting his energy into just sounding the part, what it should be about.

Incidentally, one of my highlights involved their reaction to an awkward stage invasion on ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’, an amused Reg suggesting the enthusiastic audience member jumping up and joining ‘Mick’ on his mic. might not have supplied the greatest harmony, quipping, ‘There are only five (or so) words in that chorus, and she didn’t seem to know any of them.’

By all accounts they were a hit on the Give ‘Em Enough Rope tour too. Wish I’d seen that. Not sure how they’ll tackle a Sandinista tour, but I recommend they don’t attempt a full-blown 36-track affair. As for a Cut the Crap tour … let’s hope for the lead guitarist and drummer’s sakes they’ve been sacked by then.

In short, I’ll revise my advice and suggest there are some very good covers bands out there, London Calling offering a great service and reminding us – if we need it – how good those songs are, 37 years after the last great Clash record.

And then came Saturday night on the edge of my hometown, the Suburbs at the Holroyd venue having put on several fine nights in recent times, not least hosting Guildford legends The Vapors and fellow Surrey stars The Members (with Eddie and the Hot Rods). And it was nice to see Members’ guitarist/songwriter JC Carroll there, not least as the pub rebrand carries its own respectful nod to his biggest hit – hence me wearing a coveted Members t-shirt.

This was definitely a proper Mod crowd, far better turned out than the previous night, in several cases oozing ‘60s style. After a busy day – also involving a home game at Woking FC – my last-minute arrival meant I barely had time to shake Sha La La’s drummer John Piccirillo’s hand before he worked his way through a packed-in crowd and clambered up to join his bandmates. But while I was stuck near the bar at the back, the atmosphere came over loud and clear.

It’s always great to see John and frontman Darron Robinson (and you’ll find plenty about his band on these pages, starting with this May 2018 feature), and all these years on – several personnel changes down the road – it seems they have things just as they want them. Back in the ‘late ‘80s and early ‘90s (as A Month of Sundays, then Sweet Life and Fools Like Us), there was often underlying tension and a feeling it might just kick off, a relentless push for success – and they deserved it – driving them on. Now they seem to be totally enjoying themselves, adding to the excitement factor from a band where the musicianship was never in question.

Their Jam meets Redskins fire always worked well, distancing them from being Style Council copyists and drifting towards a pop soul market. And in more recent years they’ve added more Dr Feelgood, Otis Redding and Small Faces-like R&B and ’60s spirit to the mix, Darron’s voice and the band’s sound all the more honed. That’s something you earn and need to properly build towards. And they do just that, more recent additions Vere Osborne (bass) and John Lee (keyboards) a perfect fit.

Inspirational Souls: Darron and Vere lead the line for The Sha La La’s (Photograph courtesy of Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

They started as they meant to go on with new single ‘You Got Me (Wantin’)’, never looking back, building on a friendly audience vibe in an 11-song set in which they never slipped from that early benchmark, my highlights including earlier 45s ‘Before I Let You Down Again’ and ‘Soul of the Nation’, plus supreme B-side ‘Hold On’, then finishing in style with a 100mph crowd-pleasing take on Temptations classic ‘Get Ready’, perfectly setting us up for the headline act, Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band.

Yep, ever-sprightly Geno (interviewed on these pages in July 2016, linked here) is now 75 years young but shows little sign of flagging, and despite only really having one hit single to his name in his adopted country, this Indiana-born natural entertainer – a regular on the UK circuit since his days as a USAF serviceman in the early –‘60s – has enough about him to work any audience. When he started out he faced stiff competition, but as the decades have passed his contemporaries have dropped by the wayside while he’s still going strong, a Duracell bunny with soulful attitude.

When Kevin Rowland sang about him in ’79, he was talking about a live inspiration who had perhaps lost his mojo, but four decades later I see no sign of that. If anything, he’s as good today as when I first caught him live in South London in late ’87. And there’s good reason for that, because while there’s no doubting his continued stagecraft, workmanship and star presence, it’s the Ram Jam Band that give him the platform and ensure he’s still a force to be reckoned with.

How many members of that band there have been over the years is anyone’s guess, but the current line-up has got it all going on and could lay claim to being the finest soul band still treading the boards. Think the Cutting Crew, the MG’s and the Famous Flames, and you’re on the right track. At the heart of it all, there’s Steve Bingham (bass), six years Geno’s junior, a rich past including spells with The Foundations and Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance, with whom he’s still involved. Add to that the supreme guitar of Greg Lester, the twin tenor sax assault of Nick Blake and Alan Whetton, and drumming colossus Geoff Hemsley, and you get the picture. For on that soulful foundation Geno is truly at home, his repartee and charm hard to resist. He’s funny, he’s a flirt, he’s a blast, and that voice still grabs you.

You don’t have to be a 60s aficionado to know most of the set, and while all bar one song belonged to others, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting this is also a tribute band …and  yet I guess they are – a tribute to that Philly sound, Stax, Tamla, and so much more. Steeped in proper soul.

From the band’s ‘Philly Dog’ instrumental opener to Geno’s showtime arrival onwards, they barely drew breath, charging through (among others) ‘Ride Your Pony’, Everything’s Alright (Uptight)’, ‘Roadrunner’, ‘Hold On I’m Coming’, ‘I Can’t Turn You Loose’, ‘Land of 1,000 Dances’, their own ‘Michael the Lover’, ‘Midnight Hour’, ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’, ‘I Feel Good’, ‘Sweet Soul Music’, ‘Knock on Wood’, ‘Everybody Needs Somebody’, ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ … Did I miss some out? Indubitably. That’s not important.

I can’t pretend I was back in ’68 in a sweaty club’, but this did very nicely, with Geno still capable of being our bombers, our dexys, our high, and the Ram Jam Band still offering a mighty lesson in performance to any band cutting their teeth on the live circuit. And long may that live circuit continue to exist and those venues remain. Rant over.

Soul Power: Geno Washington, 75 years young, in typical live action (Photograph by Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

For more about Clash tribute act London Calling, including the remaining dates of their extensive tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of the album of the same name, head to their Facebook page here. For all the latest from The Sha La La’s, including details of new single ‘You Got Me (Wantin’)’, head to this Facebook page, and for more about the wanderings of Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band, try here. There’s also a Save Our Star page on Facebook, linked here, and you can find details of The Stranglers’ Back on the Tracks Spring 2019 UK tour right here

With thanks to esteemed photographer Derek D’Souza for several of the photographs featured. For more examples of his work, head to www.blinkandyoumissit.com.

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Freedom I’ve Been Gifted – Glenn Tilbrook makes it to the phone again

Solo Stint: Glenn Tilbrook, still out on the road, more than 45 years after answering that sweet shop ad in Blackheath.

Squeeze frontman and co-founder Glenn Tilbrook will be keeping himself busy these next couple of months, not only supporting Wilko Johnson’s band on the UK leg of their tour, but also filling a few gaps with his own solo dates.

And on both sets of shows the esteemed South East London-based singer-songwriter will be promoting awareness of and inviting donations to The Trussell Trust, supporting a network of foodbanks around the UK.

At most venues there will be drop points and collection boxes, Glenn also donating profits from his merchandise – including an exclusive four-track EP – to the charity.

As he put it, “It is shameful that in the 21st century there are people that can’t afford to put food on the table. Anyone, from any walk of life, can fall upon dire times, and I hope that by doing this tour it will remind people that there is a very real need. Most of us can do something to help – be it giving some food or a little money – and I hope people coming to the shows are inspired to donate.”

There’s been a long link between Glenn and the headliners, his band Squeeze having opened for Dr Feelgood – the legendary Canvey Island outfit where Wilko made his name – as far back as September 3rd, 1975 at St Albans Civic Hall.

“They were the only band I’d ever seen besides us who were doing short concise songs and hitting you between the eyes. They blew my mind. I’m so happy to be doing this tour with Wilko and his extremely talented band, and I’m pleased he has accommodated support for The Trussell Trust on this tour.”

This isn’t just some loaded musician digging deep for the poor, out for shameless photo opportunities while propping up the Establishment, complicit in silently backing a draconian Government more intent on passing off poverty as a concern for charity rather than the state.

Glenn’s about far more than that, and not one to shy away from political confrontation, as proved three years ago when he made headlines for switching the words to the title track of 2015 Squeeze album Cradle to the Grave while playing live with the band on BBC One  current affairs show The Andrew Marr Show, then-Prime Minister David Cameron squirming on the sofa.

There was a sense of pride that Sunday morning for this lad from a council house background who acknowledges his life would have been be so different without a free NHS, social housing, and all that, as Glenn sang:

“I grew up in council housing, part of what made Britain great;

There are some here who are hellbent on the destruction of the Welfare State.”

And he certainly has no regrets.

“In a nutshell, my belief – and it’s almost an old-fashioned belief now – is that the role of taxation and Government is to provide these things for people, so this sort of situation doesn’t happen. As a society we’re slipping backwards to an older time where there were poorer people who were despised, thought of as lesser people, and rich people who may or may not deign us with their magnificence.”

I see Glenn and Chris Difford as great examples of successful products of the post-war (I know, they’re not quite that old, but …) Welfare State, I tell him.

“Very much so. And if I look back on my life now … growing up as I did and as Chris did in council housing where we had space to play and they were well maintained … that was the ’60s, and in many ways that was the golden age of the Welfare State.

“I don’t look back on things and get nostalgic very often, but about that I do. There was still Cathy Come Home, there was still private landlords milking poor people and being heartless, just as there are today, but the problem is that all that stuff is growing now.”

We saw a bit of that nostalgic look back on the past on the afore-mentioned 2015 Squeeze LP, songs from which also featured on the soundtrack of Danny Baker-penned ITV drama Cradle to Grave. Friend of the band Danny’s writing seemed to transport them back to their own experiences during that era.

“Yeah, it was interesting. I read Danny’s book and thought it would be great for us to get involved. And around the same time I read Alan Johnson’s autobiography, This Boy, and thought that was really great – him recalling the poverty he grew up in. There was no self-pity. The descriptions of what he and his sister went through themselves are enough.

“Danny’s book was almost the polar opposite of that. He views everything through an extremely cheerful … I’m not saying it’s rose-coloured, it’s just the way he is. I think our album at the time sort of reflected that. By the time we got around to (follow-up LP) The Knowledge, that was slightly more gritty. And I’m really proud of both records.”

Quite right too, and that brings me on to the subject of the three early-‘90s Squeeze albums – Play, Some Fantastic Place and Ridiculous – that made me realise all the more what a great band they were, not just a singles or live band, but an albums band too, capable of true depth as songwriters.

And while I loved everything that led up to it, the darker Play truly resonated. To this day, if I hear it I’m transported back to a winter’s afternoon spent with my better half at Greenwich Market, probably in early ’92 (a few months after it was released), the songs in my head that day due to the geographical link to that area, dropping the needle on side one, track one, ‘Satisfied’, on my return back down the A3, back in my bedroom.

I know the album came out in summertime, but I get the feeling those songs were borne out of winter. Do you recall the kind of mindset you were in at the time?

“Yeah, it was written over a period of time. It was also the last album I wrote at home before going into the studio. It was winter, and I wrote some of it on a ski-ing holiday with my then-wife and lots of other people. I didn’t ski – I stayed in and wrote during the day. I also remember writing ‘There is a Voice’ … yeah, it was quite a dark record,”

It was, but there were those chinks of light, as there always are with Squeeze. I won’t go too deep into that record here, but advise you to read the book Glenn and Chris wrote with Jim Drury, 2004’s Squeeze Song by Song. That tells you all you need to know about where each was at back then. And thankfully they both made it through, in tact.

Bringing us right back up to date, Glenn’s first engagement of the year is his support slot with Wilko Johnson’s band at Buxton Opera House on Thursday, February 28th, followed by a date a little closer to my patch at Warrington Parr Hall on Friday, March 1st, before heading to the South Coast to play Bexhill-on-Sea’s De La Warr Pavilion that Saturday, March 2nd.

Those will be his first public shows since one at the Union Chapel in Islington, North London, back on December 1st. Has he been travelling overseas during that period?

“No, I’ve just had a bit of time to contemplate, think about writing, and get ready for this year really. My father’s nearly 90 and not been that well, so I’ve been spending some time with him as well.”

We were talking about your London roots before. Are you still hands on with your 45 RPM studio in Charlton?

“Oh, very much so. In fact, I’ve just had another political battle there. I own my studio and the land it’s on, but it’s in an industrial estate, the rest of which has been bought by developers who want to build these terrible flats and deny my proper entrance (I have my bus and stuff). A long battle followed, ending up going to City Hall, with us making our case in front of (Mayor of London) Sadiq Khan, who actually denied the builder the right to build this monstrosity.

“That was a real inside lesson on how democracy can work, when I was thinking it wouldn’t. But I set this studio up as I wanted this to be the last place I would work before I stop, and it’s everything I wanted it to be. I’m so happy there.”

And you even let mates like Nine Below Zero in there now and again.

“Ah, come on, they’re local! And they make great records.”

Absolutely. I’m waiting for the next album, having loved 2016’s 13 Shades of Blue.

“Yeah, and I think they’re going to do one.”

Great news. And are you busy in there in the meantime?

“I’m in and out of there, yeah.”

It’s five years coming up since your most recent solo album, Happy Ending. When we last spoke in late 2016 you said your energies were channelled on Squeeze. Is that still the case?

“Yeah, but actually last year I did an EP, which I’m going to be selling on this tour, for the Trussell Trust. It has four tracks on it and everything from that will go to them. My focus has been on Squeeze, completely, but for this tour I’ve found that it’s really important to step out of all that, and solo stuff for me really informs what I bring back to the table with Squeeze.”

I bet, and I’m sure it’s the same with Chris and his work outside Squeeze, not least his dates with Boo Hewerdine.

“Yeah, exactly.”

Then in mid-October, 45 years after you first answered Chris’ advert in a sweet shop, it’s back to Squeeze duties, and The Difford and Tilbrook Songbook 2019 tour. It’s a fairly extensive one too. Since we last spoke, Yolanda Charles (who previously played with the likes of Paul Weller, Dave Stewart, Robbie Williams and Mick Jagger, replacing Lucy Shaw on bass) and Steve Smith (percussion, ex-frontman of Dirty Vegas)  have come on board. Is it good to keep things fresh like that?

At Odds: Glenn Tilbrook gets right behind songwriting partner Chris Difford during Squeeze’s big day out at Tenterden on the Kent and East Sussex Railway back in 2015 (Photo: Rob O’Connor/www.stylorouge.co.uk).

“Do you know, the change in the band has been pretty constant, but the one thing I think we’ve done – and this has been since we got back together after five years as ‘the best Squeeze tribute band’ and then started writing – and I was really clear on this, is that I didn’t want our albums to be after-thoughts. If we were going to make records we were going to make proper records, amongst the best we’ve ever done.

“I think we have done that, and the band line-up has been consistently strong. We’ve had some changes – some of which have been forced on us and others which we chose – but having Steve Smith and Yolanda Charles in the band now has propelled us onwards and upwards.”

So is there a 16th album on the go, after The Knowledge?

“No, at the moment I think we’re all thinking about what making a record means, and having the studio I think we’re more inclined to just now see what it’s like to release individual songs at different times, then maybe collate those for an album at the end of it. That seems to be more of a way to reach people, but as an album it takes so much effort and to be honest the time when those things are important for any other reason than artistic ones have gone. So we’re struggling to make the best of it commercially whilst realising that records for us are probably a loss-leader. But they’re also a thing that keeps us together and vibrant.”

Well. I’m all for that. And how far does Chris have to walk now to post his lyrics under your front door?

“Ha! You’d have to ask him that question, but it’s a fair old drive, I think. But he does it. Bless him.”

Glenn is a special guest support with Wilko Johnson’s band at: Opera House, Buxton – February 28; Parr Hall, Warrington – March 1; De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, March 2; Cliffs Pavilion, Southend – March 8; Engine Rooms, Southampton – March 9;  Alban Arena, St Albans – March 10; The Robin, Wolverhampton – March 13; Picturedrome, Holmfirth – March 14; Opera House, Newcastle –  March 15; Yarm Princess Alexandra Auditorium – April 11; Stockton Queen’s Hall – April 12; Edinburgh Fibbers, York – April 13; Junction, Cambridge – April 25; Tramshed, Cardiff – April 26; Town Hall, Cheltenham – April 27. 

Meanwhile, Glenn’s solo tour calls at: The Grand, Clitheroe – March 16; St Mary Magdalene Church, Cobham – March 21; Revelation, Ashford – March 22; The Pavilion, Hailsham – March 23; Komedia, Bath – March 28; Acapela, Cardiff – March 29; St Mary’s Parish Church, Kingskerswell – March 31; The Wharf, Tavistock – April 2; Lighthouse, Poole – April 3; St John The Evangelist Church, Oxford – April 5.

Six Pack: The current Squeeze line-up, set to return to live action later this year. From the left – Stephen Large, Yolanda Charles, Steve Smith, Glenn Tilbrook, Chris Difford, Simon Hanson.

Glenn Tilbrook last starred on these pages in a November 2016 feature/ interview, linked here, and prior to that in December 2013, linked here, while Chris Difford was featured in August 2015 (link here). Alternatively, type in ‘Squeeze’ in the search column (towards the top right of this page) and feast your eyes on a few other options, including an appreciation of the band from October 2012, linked here.  

For more information on Glenn Tilbrook, head to his website. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And for Squeeze, try their official website, follow them via Facebook and Twitter, or follow Facebook’s packetofthree page.

Food donated at venues during all Glenn’s dates this year will be collected and distributed to the nearest Trussell Trust foodbank, offering nutritionally-balanced, non-perishable tinned and dried foods. Items in a typical food parcel are cereal, soup, pasta, rice, tinned tomatoes/pasta sauce, lentils, beans and pulses, tinned meat, tinned vegetables, tea/coffee, tinned fruit, biscuits, UHT milk and fruit juice. If possible, check with local foodbanks to see what supplies are currently needed.


Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

From Bombay to Sala Apolo, o’er the hills and far away – the Norman Watt-Roy interview

Watch Out!: The Wilko Johnson band in action, coming to a venue near you  (Photo: Leif Laaksonen)

I should warn you before you get any further that there’s an underlying current of adulation in this here feature/interview. Another day and another musical hero brought to book (or the WonderWeb in this case), as I spend an all-too-quick half-hour in the telephonic company of bass guitar marvel Norman Watt-Roy.

But if you’re okay with that, come with me on this latest internet journey from Bombay to Sala Apolo, Barcelona, o’er the hills and far away … on to Cheltenham Town Hall by April 27th, the last date I see in Norm’s diary for now with guitar legend Wilko Johnson’s band.

Rock’n’roll and rhythm & blues are certainly here to stay, judging by the outcome of recent health trials and tribulations for both Wilko and Norman. Chances are that you’ll know the story of Wilko’s miraculous return from near-death after a mighty battle with a cancerous tumour. Julien Temple directed a fantastic documentary about it, and the tale was retold on these pages in August 2016 (linked here). I was then back in touch with the artist formerly known as John Wilkinson in May 2018 (linked here), celebrating the release of his first LP of new material in three decades, Blow Your Mind.

But what about bandmate Norman’s own health battle? Well, we’ll get to that in good time, this Anglo-Indian master of the bass guitar fretboard having shed light on many career highlights with me ahead of the band’s latest UK tour, their trio completed by Dylan Howe (son of Yes guitar legend Steve Howe), shows at Teatro Barcelo, Madrid; Sala Apolo, Barcelona; Centro Cultural de Belem, Lisbon; and Casa de Musica, Oporto, followed by the first UK dates at Buxton Opera House (February 28), Warrington Parr Hall (Friday, March 1st) and Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion (Saturday, March 2nd), splendid settings all.

Following Wilko’s miraculous recovery, the original Dr Feelgood guitarist has enjoyed a rousing return to the live arena, including a UK No.1 album with Who legend Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home, a sold-out show at the Royal Albert Hall to mark his 70th birthday in July 2017, then that acclaimed LP of his own.

See Wilko live and you can’t help but marvel at his frenetic stage wanders and finger-style, chop-chord strum (the ‘stab’, as he describes it), a distinctive mix of simultaneous chords and lead picking. But you’d be equally impressed by Dylan’s rearguard action and Norm’s wondrous bass ambles, the former session man a true artisan of the four-string kind.

The pair first joined forces when Wilko had a short spell with Ian Dury’s band – Norman having been on board as a Blockhead from near enough the beginning, and right beyond Ian’s sad death in 2000. Wilko went on to form his own trio, Norman soon a key ingredient there too.

I caught him at home in Fulham, South West London, the day before he jetted off to Spain and Portugal with the band, warm-ups for a busy 2019 schedule with Wilko back home.  And I pointed out early on how the first couple of times I saw him live was with Wilko rather than The Blockheads, not far from his manor, at the Kennington Cricketers in January ’86.

“Oh, the Oval Cricketers, brilliant gig! We used to do that once a month, regular, that and the Half Moon, Putney and the Powerhaus …”

The Half Moon was the other one I was going to mention, in late December ’87, another special night, with Salvatore Ramundo on drums in those days.

“I live just around the corner from there. I got to know Wilko when he joined the Blockheads in ’79, and we went all over the world. And while he was with us, he’d go out on the road with his Solid Senders. He never stopped working.

“Then around ’84 or ’85 his bass player left him, and I wasn’t here, but he asked my missus if I’d be up for four or five gigs he had left, and she said, ‘I’m sure he’ll do it.’

“Actually, I was in Germany with The Clash at that point, with Joe Strummer, doing their last album, Cut the Crap.”

Ah, the album most Clash fans wish had never happened.

“Well, it wasn’t really The Clash – it was Joe on his own with a load of other players really. But that’s when I started with Wilko. It started with those gigs and then they just kept coming in, so we kept doing them.”

I recall such a buzz at those shows I mentioned, everyone so excited to see Wilko do his stuff on a stage, not least his moves. And there was a live album I bought, Watch Out!

“Yes, I think some of that was recorded at the Half Moon or The Cricketers. So you go back a bit.”

Well, sort of, but I was only born in 1967, at which stage I gather you were with a band called Living Daylights.

“Yeah, I was about 16 at the time. I started playing at school with my brother. We had a band and I was playing rhythm guitar, with (brother) Garth playing lead. Bass players were quite hard to find, but when I was around 14, I started teaching a friend of my brother’s who bought the bass and the amp the shop had.

“We said, ‘Look, if you buy that, you can join our band’. We forgot to ask him if he could play though. But I’d started showing him what to do, and after about a week he had big blisters on his fingers and said, ‘You can keep the bass. I don’t wanna be in the band anymore!’ My brother then said, ‘Norm, you’ll have to play bass,’ and that’s when I started out and fell in love with it.”

What was it about the bass that you loved? And did you have bass heroes then?

“Well, we also had this soul band, and learning all those lines I didn’t know who was playing – it would have been James Jamerson and Carol Kaye – but I loved those lines, they were just so melodic and counter-melodies to the songs. I just loved it. It was something I could get my teeth into. Even people like Paul McCartney – what a melodious bass player!”

Was that with The Greatest Show on Earth?

“No, first was the Guyatones, then the Living Daylights, then we had The Sonny Burke Outfit (backing a US artist whose CV included soundtrack co-writes with Peggy Lee on animated Disney classic, Lady and the Tramp), this little soul band where we’d back all these so-called American singers. My brother got in touch with an agency, and they were supposed to be from America, but some were from Brixton or Stoke Newington, putting on American accents! But they did all the Tamla and Stax stuff and that was a great schooling. We toured all over Europe. We’d do American GI bases around Germany. We spent months out there.”

In fact, Living Daylights had a single on the Phillips label in early ’67, ‘Let’s Live for Today’, while two years later The Greatest Show on Earth were with Harvest, the single ‘Real Cool World’ released in February 1970, a hit in Europe and a No.1 in Switzerland. Two TGSOE albums followed that year, Horizons followed by The Going’s Easy. But there were complications before all that for young Norman.

“Oh yeah, the thing was that when I first went to Germany with my brother, on my first passport – I’ve still got it, actually – I had to have a special licence from the Home Office, because I was only 14 or 15 but playing in these clubs  I shouldn’t really have been in. But it was allowed as I had someone older in the band kind of looking after me.”

A bit like George Harrison’s situation when he first played in Germany?

“Yeah, I can relate to George! It was a nine-piece soul band and a fantastic schooling, working like that and playing all that kind of material – great stuff to learn and play.”

Have you got kids of your own these days, Norman?

“No, but my brothers and sisters have, and I’ve got around five bass players in the family, all very good, and my sister’s son is 21 and really good now – he’s learned all my stuff! And my cousin plays, and his children, he’s done some really good stuff.”

And I’m guessing you wouldn’t still be out there if you weren’t still enjoying it 50 or so years down the road.

“No, I love, I love it! It’s fantastic, and funnily enough it’s got easier. I think when you’re young you just expend all this energy, but when you get older you learn how to pace yourself. And being on the road is great fun.”

You’ve lost some great mates over the years though.

“Oh yeah, like Charley …”

That’s who I was set to mention first. My first Ian Dury and the Blockheads gig was one of two benefit shows for Guyana-born drummer Charlie Charles’ family after his death from cancer, held at Kentish Town’s Town & Country Club (The Forum these days) in September 1990.

“Yeah, that was with The Blockheads and Wilko’s band.”

Then my next was in August ‘92 when you were supporting Madness, the night they reckoned the crowd reaction to ‘One Step Beyond’ triggered an earthquake, that first Madstock event in Finsbury Park, North London.

“That’s right, and I toured with Madness as well after that. Bedders (Madness bass player Mark Bedford) kind of quit for a while and they asked me to go on the road with them. I did a couple of tours and did three or four Madstock shows with them after that first one.”

And last time I saw you was in March 2013 at Preston’s 53 Degrees with a post-Dury Blockheads line-up led by Derek ‘The Draw’ Hussey, when I recall a lot of talk mid-show about Wilko’s on-going battle with what was believed to be terminal cancer.

“Yeah, and I love the Blockheads as well. It’ll be 19 years this March since Ian died. We felt we couldn’t really replace him as such, he was such a one-off. So we didn’t really do anything for about a year, but we had so many hits on our website and that saying, ‘Please do some gigs – we’ll come!’ and while there seemed to be a lot of tribute bands around, there wasn’t anyone doing a tribute to Ian, so we thought, ‘Let’s go out there and try and keep the music alive’.

“And as one of Ian’s best friends, Derek just slotted into it. He was a poet as well, and they wrote together, and for nearly 20 years he’d come on the road and look after Ian, bringing him on and off stage, and many times Ian made him sing three or four songs at the end with him. So he knew several of the songs and we said you’ve got to come with us. The first gig was at Dingwall’s, with loads of support, like Phill Jupitus. It was a case of remembering all the lyrics, so we had Derek, Phill, Mark Lamarr, Keith Allen, all getting up. We did a few gigs like that, and it gave us such a buzz that we decided to keep going with Derek.”

It struck me then just what a tight band you were, but that’s not so surprising considering your collective history, not least with you, Mickey Gallagher (keyboards) and fellow Geordie John Turnbull (guitar) going right back (initially with Charlie).

“Well, we did the Loving Awareness project with Ronan O’Rahilly, and me and Charley were doing a lot of sessions for songwriters and stuff, and it was us who met Ian and Chaz (Jankel) and basically we demoed and made New Boots and Panties in a couple of weeks.”

I should fill in a few gaps there and mention that between The Greatest Show on Earth and Loving Awareness there was Glencoe, Norman joining them in 1972, his bandmates including guitarist John Turnbull. They released two albums, Glencoe, and The Spirit of Glencoe, plus three singles, and recorded four BBC Radio 1 sessions for John Peel. Then, in 1974, Glencoe joined forces with Mickey Gallagher, forming the nucleus of the band – with the addition of Charlie Charles – that became Loving Awareness, managed by Radio Caroline’s Ronan O’Rahilly.

So tell me more about that session with Charlie that led to an introduction to Ian and writing partner/guitarist Chaz. I’m guessing you were aware of Ian through his work with Kilburn and the High Roads.

“Oh yeah. I was doing a session with Charlie, some songwriter wanted us to put bass and drums on his song, and we were re in this little studio in Wimbledon called Alvic, run by two engineers, including Vic Sweeney, the drummer in the Alan Bown Set, and he really dug Charlie’s drumming and saw us as a great rhythm section. He knew Ian and Chaz and knew they were looking for a rhythm section and felt we’d fit the bill, asking if we’d like to come down that Monday and meet them. We’d heard of Ian from Kilburn and the High Roads and I’d seen them at the Tally Ho! and really liked them. I thought they were so different, like nothing I’d ever seen before. So I said we’d love to, and that’s when the four of us met and made that album.

“But when Stiff decided to release it (in 1977) we had to put a band together, so Ian and Chaz knew Davey (Payne) from Kilburn and the High Roads, and got him in, while we mentioned how Mickey and Johnny had been playing with us for the last three years in Loving Awareness, and doing various projects, so basically that was the beginning of The Blockheads.”

Of course, Ian wasn’t the easiest of characters to get on with though.

“Yeah, he could be difficult at times, but … I don’t know … we were like brothers. We spent so long on the road. We’d argue and things, but I loved him to bits. It was his words. He was such a master with lyrics. One of the first I saw when I first met him that time at Alvic, he had this big sheet of paper with all his lyrics, I picked up one, and it was ‘Billericay Dickie’.  I started reading it and thought it was amazing. ‘Clever Trever’ was another. I just fell in love with his words. Unbelievable! I’d never heard anything like it.”

Let’s go back even further, and touch on your own roots, in post-independence India. I realise you left when you were very young, but do you remember anything from those early days in Bombay?

“Well no, but I have pictures of India, and remember standing on a veranda, waving to my brother and sister as they were going off to school. But I left India when I was three years and nine months. We came to Southampton, then drove up to Highbury. We had a flat there, where I started my schooling at St Joan of Arc, off Blackstock Road.”

I recall a similar story from Spike Milligan, talking about leaving India and ending up in Catford, South-East London, albeit at the age of 12 in 1931. It must have been a mighty shock for your family.

“Oh yeah. We arrived in November 1954. Me and my brother had never seen snow, and the place was covered in it. ‘Wow, this is cold and white!’ So strange after Bombay. We’re what you call Anglo-Indian, and both Mum and Dad were in the Royal Air Force in India. That’s how they met. They were both born in Calcutta, as it was known then.”

Ever been back?

“I never have, although my cousins have. We’ve no family there now. We all came over. Funnily enough, my brother’s son went for his honeymoon two years ago, and went to look where we lived and actually found the flat. The woman who lived there invited him in and they sat and had a cup of tea and took loads of pictures. Unbelievable – the veranda was still there and everything, all these years later.”

Is your brother Garth still playing guitar?

”Unfortunately, health stopped him playing, but he played with all these 60s bands and did a lot of tours with the Solid 60s shows, long tours playing Australia, Indonesia, Japan, all over. One of the last was a three-month tour, but he was having problems with degenerative discs in his back. He’s 71 now. But if it wasn’t for that, he’d still be playing. He still happily plays at home though.”

Yet you’re still going strong, and I’m guessing this tour is still about the Blow Your Mind album. Is there another in the offing?

“That’s all down to Wilko. I’m amazed he came out with so many good songs. After all these years he can still write a great song.”

I guess you were on the circuit with Dr Feelgood back in the day.

“Oh yeah, when I was with Glencoe. I remember seeing them many years ago at The Kensington, but one I really remember was Wilko with the Solid Senders after he’d left the Feelgoods, down at Dingwall’s. I’d go down and watch him. Lew Lewis was in the band then. Fantastic.

“Funnily enough, I’d go down there with Kosmo Vinyl. The two of us really dug Wilko, and there was a period after Chaz had gone off to do his own thing with A&M, when we needed someone else to come into the band, and Kosmo suggested Wilko.

“Hugh Cornwell was in prison at the time, having been busted, and there was a benefit show to raise money for bail. Ian was involved, and when he was down there he saw Wilko in the corner, looking quite down. He said, ‘What’s up, Wilks?’ and he said, ‘My band’s broken up and I’m thinking of giving it all up.’ So Ian invited him down to the studio we were in, in Fulham. Wilko said yeah and ended up staying for a couple of years.”

Are you still in regular touch with Mickey Gallagher?

“Oh yeah, we’ve just finished a load of gigs and have loads more coming up this year. There’s four of us originals – Mickey, Chaz, Johnny and myself – and we’ve got Derek, John Roberts on drums and Gilad (Atzmon) on sax. We’re doing lots of festivals too.”

Main Man: Wilko Johnson, Norman Watt-Roy’s collaborator of many moons (Photo: Laurence Harvey)

Between Wilko’s commitments and those with The Blockheads, you’re not going to be at home much this year.

“No, but I love it that way. When my wife died 10 years ago, I said to Wilko, ‘Keep me busy!’ And the Blockheads do too. And I love it on the road. If I had a gig every night I’d be the happiest guy in the world! I sit at home and play all day, even when I’m not working. I just love it so much.”

Might you be following up 2013’s Faith & Grace album (featuring Norman’s own band) at some point?

“Yeah, that really came about because of Wilko’s illness, and after the operation when he had a year off to recuperate. I had a couple of instrumental ideas I wanted to record, and Gilad is a brilliant producer as well. So we went to a studio at his house and he loved it so much he suggested we did some more. I felt I didn’t have enough material, but he suggested playing a few of Ian and Wilko’s covers as well. So I did ‘Roxette’, ‘Billericay Dickie’, and so on. It kind of got shelved when my wife died. She’d encouraged me to do it, but later Gilad pushed me into finishing it and when Wilko was recuperating it seemed the right time. So I put a band together with Gilad and Asaf (Sirkis) on drums and Frank (Harrison) on keyboards.”

I was reminding myself this morning of the promo video you did, shot live at the Half Moon in Putney.

“That’s right, and I took the band on the road, here and in Europe, then Japan, where me and Wilko have played so many times. They love him out there, and we’ve done 38 or so tours there. So we did the Fuji Rock Festival and some in Tokyo and Kyoto, and really enjoyed all that.

“As for doing any more … I just don’t really have the time. It’s the same with my band. They’re all constantly working and they’re fantastic players, doing jazz gigs and all sorts. To get them to commit to me for a month, and for me to pay them … I was very lucky that I got them to do all that. And it kept me busy too.”

Besides, Wilko’s still keeping you busy all these years on. And yet I think we all feared the worse when he got ill.

“Well yeah. Unbelievable, the whole thing. He was basically given six to eight months to live, and he accepted that. The growth he had started out the size of a fist, and it grew and grew, to the size of a football. But it didn’t hurt at all, and he was still doing gigs 15 months after his diagnosis. That was when Charlie Chan, this cancer surgeon, saw him and said, ‘Something’s not right. You should have been dead six months ago, but you’re still doing gigs!’ He wanted him to see this specialist friend of his, Emmanuel Huget, at Addenbrooke’s (Cambridge), the one who did the operation and saved Wilko’s life after this 12-hour op.

“I remember them saying, ‘We’ve done all these operations very successfully individually, but never on one person at once, but we think you can handle it.’ And they got it all … this seven-and-a-half pound growth … and he’s been cancer-free since. I think he likes life even more now. And being on the road is an absolute joy.”

We can see that from your demeanour on stage.

“Well, funnily enough I had a heart attack, while playing with Wilko at Hampton Court (Lido) in 2017. I wasn’t in any pain. We were coming up to the end of the set and I just felt really weak. I told Wilko, ‘I can’t play’. I took my bass off and Wilko looked round and said to Dylan, ‘Do a drum solo!’ I came off and they called an ambulance and I got rushed to hospital. The guy in the ambulance was looking at his machine, saying, ‘You’re actually having a heart attack now, Norman. I said, ‘Am I? I’m not in any pain’. But within three hours they’d operated and put this stent into my arteries and I was fine. I took a month off then we went to Japan and started another tour!

“They took me to St George’s at Tooting, because they knew I lived in Fulham, and that’s one of the best for heart care. I later got to know my surgeon, Zoe, very well, and she told me it was a minor heart attack, but I was very lucky to be surrounded by people and for the paramedics to be there, being an open-air festival. She said there are people who have felt a little funny, gone to bed and died in their sleep, so I was very lucky.

“Since then, people have said how the Grim Reaper’s tried to get both me and Wilko, and failed! I think it was Charles Shaar Murray who wrote, ‘Wilko stared Death in the face and saw Death back down’! I thought that was brilliant!”

Well, between yourself and Wilko’s recent experiences, there’s a mighty advert for the enduring importance of ongoing free NHS care for us all, surely.

“Oh, fantastic! It’s something we should definitely never lose and something that we’ll always support. And we do charity gigs for Addenbrooke’s and all sorts of things, and donate stuff – me and Wilko.”

I could have happily carried on talking to Norman for another half-hour, going deeper into his days with Glencoe and the early-‘70s Peel sessions, and discovered more about his session work – not least memories of work with Mickey Gallagher on the Sandinista! sessions at Electric Lady, New York City, and later Clash works.

Similarly, I’d have asked about the part he played, in more ways than one, in making Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ the mega-hit it became, and work over the years with the likes of Nick Lowe, Rachel Sweet, Jona Lewie, The Selecter, Wreckless Eric, Nick Cave, Viv Albertine … the list goes on.

But I had an appointment straight after to speak to Glenn Tilbrook, lined up as support in a solo capacity for this Wilko Johnson tour. Accordingly, I ended by wondering if there was anything in particular I should ask Glenn.

“Well, just tell him to keep writing really. He’s such a great songwriter.”

So is there anything he should know about sharing dressing rooms with you, Wilko and Dylan, seeing as he’ll be out there with you for several dates?

“Where? Is he? Oh brilliant! D’you know, I didn’t even know that! Oh, fantastic! We’ve met Glenn during past events for the Teenage Cancer Trust, which Roger Daltrey started. We’ve met there a few times. Oh well, that’s all good then.”

Three’s Company: Norman, Wilko and Dylan, still eager to Blow Your Mind, all these years on.

The Wilko Johnson band play Warrington Parr Hall (01925 442345) on Friday, March 1st, with special guest Glenn Tilbrook, 45 years after he first linked up with Chris Difford to form the much-loved Squeeze. For more about Wilko’s wanderings in 2019, head to http://wilkojohnson.com/ or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter

For a 2014 reappraisal of Ian Dury & The Blockheads’ back-catalogue, head here. You can also try Richard Balls’ excellent Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll – The Story of Ian Dury. (Omnibus 2000), its author (interviewed here in 2014) also responsible for Be Stiff – The Stiff Records Story (Soundcheck, 2014). You can also track down a copy of Looking Back At Me (Cadiz, 2012), the autobiography of Wilko Johnson, written with acclaimed rock writer (and drummer Dylan Howe’s other half) Zoë Howe, learning more about her books here

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Finding Gold in a Brass Age – the David Gray interview


Gold Record: David Gray is back, and in style, with Gold in a Brass Age (Photo: Derrick Santini)

David Gray is no stranger to success, but sometimes it’s been a waiting game for the 50-year-old Sale-born singer-songwriter.

He’s topped the UK album charts three times during a recording career of more than 25 years, first in the summer of 2000 with White Ladder, the single ‘Babylon’ the first of his nine top-40 hits, several Brit and Grammy nominations following that multi-platinum LP, along with plenty of commercial and critical acclaim, reaching No.1 again with follow-up A New Day at Midnight in 2002 then Life in Slow Motion in 2005.

But while he received plenty of ground support from day one, it’s worth remembering that White Ladder was his fourth album and, self-released on IHT Records in late 1998, it failed to cross over for 18 months, Dave Matthews’ ATO Records’ re-release finally doing the trick. So you’ll understand why he’s showing plenty of patience awaiting the release of his 11th LP in 26 years, Gold In A Brass Age, his first of new material in four years.

The producer this time was Ben de Vries, a nice twist seeing as David worked with his father, fellow producer and soundtrack composer Marius de Vries, 14 years earlier on double-platinum Life in Slow Motion. And despite the pair not having met before, the seeds of the album’s sound were sewn early on in David’s home studio in London.

“We were talking about production ideas and artists we were currently listening to when Ben played the track ‘Sixes And Nines’ by Birkwin Jersey. With this electro-acoustic sound and very chopped-up aesthetic, it was a great reference point, precisely the sort of thing I was looking for.”

Of course, using electronics is nothing new for David – they were all over era-defining, 10-times platinum White Ladder in the late ‘90s and have featured on each album since. But it was working with Lamb’s Andy Barlow on 2014’s acclaimed Mutineers that opened his eyes to how they could transform his songwriting, not just his sound.

Mutineers played a key role in opening up a world of new sonic possibilities and in granting me the sense of creative freedom that I have now. Andy was very good at encouraging me to come at ideas from different angles and introduced a new, more open way of thinking that I was eager to explore more on this record. It’s easy to fall in to a rut and get encumbered by certain ways of working. Andy helped remind me that nothing is set in stone. I’ve never felt as undaunted by the creative process as I do now, knowing that a song can start anywhere, go anywhere.”

The LP is out on March 8th, followed by a 17-date UK and Irish tour ending with two nights in Dublin, in a country where he’s had seven top-10 albums, just across the water from his old family base in idyllic Solva, Pembrokeshire.

New LP: Gold in a Brass Age

New LP: David Gray’s Gold in a Brass Age is here

Raised in Altrincham before a family move to mid-Wales, he went to art college in Carmarthenshire then Liverpool before settling in London more than half a life ago. But don’t think for one moment he’s all about the past, his challenge here to retain the same excitement for music while pushing himself into unfamiliar terrain. And David was keen for all those interviewing him this week to properly listen to his latest long player first.

Hardly an onerous task, mind. Three listens in, I was already impressed. We’ll have to wait another few weeks before it’s unleashed on the world, but it must be good to be able to finally talk about it, right?

“Oh, absolutely. It’s been finished a long time, but it takes a while to set these things up and put them out properly. I needed to make a few arrangements – new record deal, new this, new that. I was hoping it’d be out last year but here we are. So it’ll be March 2019 and we’re about to tour it, and it’s going to be great.”

In fact, work on the album began in 2016 and was written and recorded in several month-long spells between tours to promote that year’s Best Of, including 50 US dates and a co-headline tour with Alison Krauss. Has he rehearsed with a band ahead of those dates?

“The rehearsals haven’t started in terms of a full band – that starts next week. But I’ve already rehearsed enough to do it. We did it at a stripped-down showcase level. That was really great, giving me a sense of what it would be like. We’ve done a certain amount of the donkey-work. It’s quite technical this time, because there’s no way you can get around the electronic aspect of the record. And it’s been a long time since I played lived live with a computer on stage.

“That has to be a part of it – live sampling, triggering electronic things and looping. I’ve got three looper pedals, they all need to sync to something, so they’ve all got to be played through a computer.”

And on tracks like ‘A Tight Ship’ and ‘Watching the Waves’ you’re duetting and harmonising with yourself (as is the case later with the similarly-splendid ‘Hall of Mirrors’, where the main guitar riff reminds me of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ and perhaps the stand-out track for me).

“Yeah, that’s something I’ve done a lot these last few years. I enjoy it and I’m free and available and like looking for harmonies. It’s one of the most exciting parts of the whole process – starting to look at sections of the songs seeing what’s possible. It’s very instinctive. I don’t think, ‘I’ll do a fourth, a fifth, whatever’. Wherever I feel against the music I should move. It’s a very personal thing.

“So yeah, the vocals are always a massive part from my point of view, and you really widen the song with that effect of a lot of voices. It’s a big production technique which I used on the last record a lot and I’ve used it again here, perhaps with a slightly different vibe to it this time.”

First Footing: The first David Gray long player, back in 1993

First Footing: The first David Gray LP, back in 1993

Well, we probably associate your voice with a certain gravelly, rich rasp of a vocal, yet there are occasional falsetto outings here too, and you seem comfortable wherever you are on the scale, the singing often softer, sweeter, more intimate.

“Yeah, the voice is the hardest thing to get around when you’re trying to make things sound different. I’ve definitely been delivering the lyrics softer most of the time, not all the time – sometimes you’ve got to drive it through.

“I mean, my voice is really loud when I sing out, so I’ve been constrained by trying to create this sense of intimacy on a lot of the songs, letting the vocals bloom on the mic., taking the velocity of everything you’re doing down as far as you can until you can still phrase, hit the note and control – just about – and that creates a different quality. And then you’ve got the vocals on top, with quite a few octaves involved.”

That inventive approach in using your voice reminds me of Crowded House frontman Neil Finn’s similar path in recent times – moving into areas where perhaps he wasn’t so comfortable initially. Is he on your radar?

“Well, obviously he’s great, but not somebody I’ve listened to avidly, although I know the more obvious things. He’s got such a great ear though, that guy, a great sense of melody and an effortless style.”

It’s more about his more recent work and the creative direction taken, like you successfully experimenting with a wider vocal range.

“I’ll check that out. Most days I can do them, but If I’ve had a big night out it might be a struggle!”

David’s lyrics have been transformed too, declamatory tales of love and loss replaced by couplets closer to poetry. And while his guitar and piano playing remain, ushering in of electronica and exploring of new textures and sound palettes alongside new production techniques has turned his approach to songwriting on its head.

Explaining his new approach, David said, “With this album, my default position was to try and approach everything differently. I didn’t begin by thinking ‘this could be a good hook’ or ‘these lyrics might work for a chorus’, and I was keen to get away from a traditional storytelling style.

“Instead of fitting words to melodies, I looked for snippets and phrases with a natural cadence, and let the rhythm and melody stem from there. It was a case of reimagining where a song might spring from and what form it might take.”

Breakthrough LP: It was 1998's White Ladder that helped David Gray's star rise

Breakthrough LP: It was 1998’s White Ladder that helped David Gray’s star rise to the top

There’s certainly a soulful feel up front on this record, although – I suggest to David – I’m not sure if there’s an attempt to put more commercially-accessible material there, a hangover from the early days of CDs and notions that ‘youth’ don’t have the staying power to properly listen all the way through. That aside, I say, there are elements for me of Stevie Wonder on the chorus of opening track (and lead single) ‘The Sapling’.

“Yeah, I feel there’s a real soulful vibe and swing, and that whole feel is closer to Prince than it is Van Morrison at times. That’s just the way it went. It wasn’t constructed with that view.

“We only constructed the record in a way that felt natural and you had to start with ‘The Sapling’, and it was then felt we should put ‘Gold in a Brass Age’ after it. Beyond that, one of the challenges was putting ’Furthering’ somewhere, because that song starts so slowly – it’s almost like in quarter-time, but it gets there in the end.

“The running order dictated itself, but there was definitely a different feel, and that was partly down to me and partly down to the producer and my drummer. A lot of rhythm gave birth to a lot of things on this record, with very rhythmical beginnings to quite a few songs.”

I mentioned Stevie Wonder there, and there are shades of Marvin Gaye on certain numbers, not least song two, the title track.

“Who doesn’t love those two? I mean Marvin … we’d all be thanking him forever for What’s Going On? if that was the only thing he’d ever done. It’s just knockout.

“To get some of that feel … and I’ve got that soul in the way I perform. That’s my thing. I’m a British soul singer in a way. That’s where my voice goes. It’s got a natural bluesiness. To dig into that and that kind of feel and sense of scatting off the rhythm, and being playful within the frame, those things get me high and so excited, working off the beat that way.”

Incidentally, where was that sapling you’re writing about?

“Well, there’s more of them coming. There’s a production line, isn’t there. One acorn sprouts up and another …”

Gray Day: David Gray is back with his 11th album in 26 years, after a five-year gap

I mean, did you have a particular location in mind when you wrote those lyrics?

“Well, I’ve seen my kids growing up and I’ve seen a lot of people come and go now, and there’s this cyclical nature of things. I watched a raindrop fall in a puddle, saw these concentric circles emanate out from that.

“I was in a park and they’d cut down a tree, I was looking at the rings and suddenly an acorn fell on the ground next to me and I thought, ‘God, it’s the same thing – the acorn creates the ring, just like ripples in a puddle, but over 150/200 years rather than a couple of seconds.

“But that’s still a blink of an eye in terms of the measurement we now have for the universe. That was the beginnings of the song, tying those two ideas together then bringing that human element into the middle of it. Non sequiturs – I’m very keen on things that have no relationship whatsoever to the verse. And there’s an example in ‘The Sapling’. ‘I kept it bottled up too long’. It’s nothing to do with what it says. It’s just a human cry in the middle of this thing. Later, it’s the same with ’Watching the Waves’, ‘Everything you are, I long to be.’ It doesn’t really tie to the verse or try to make sense. It’s just a step into something that feels right to me. I like the fact I don’t quite understand why.”

David said he didn’t realise there was an over-riding concept to this record, until it was done and he realised ‘time ticking by’ was a a recurring theme, ‘fragility, renewal, a changing of perspective’.

As he put it, “I’ve been through a phenomenal amount of emotional upheaval in recent years. You can only process so much; you just have to push most of it away. In the heat of the creative moment the weight of buried feeling becomes bound to the spark of a new idea and is magically transformed and given form. This album’s style isn’t autobiographical, I’ve markedly avoided that path, yet when I pull back from the record – it’s a pure document of my life at this time.”

I told him I was more or less the same age, just turned 50 – we’d have been in the same school year – and it’s inevitable at our time of life that we’re losing people dear to us and seeing our children finding their own path.

“Yeah, and no one tells you children are so annoying!”

For the record, he does love his own, of course.

“Well yeah, they’re gorgeous and all that, they’re vivacious beings, it’s impossible to resist their energy and charm. But they really get in your face when they get past a certain age!”

Following Up: 2002's album was David Gray's second UK chart-topper

Following Up: 2002’s album was David Gray’s second UK chart-topper

Explain in a nutshell the central concept of Gold in a Brass Age, a line I gather comes from a Kafka-esque Raymond Carver short story, Blackbird Pie. Are you a big reader?

“Yeah, I do read a lot. I read more than I listen to music these days. Carrying on from what I was saying about something just feeling right, we were working on a completely different song and I was doing these little loops of guitar, then had to step away to take a phone call and answer the door or whatever I was doing, and when I came back Ben had sort of looped these bits of guitar together and created this weird sort of groove, which is what you hear at the beginning of ‘Gold in a Brass Age’.

“I said, ‘That’s great, forget the song, let’s deal with this. So we started working into it and the song was born there and then. I had hairs standing up on the back of my neck. The whole thing just suddenly happened. When we’d finished after about five hours – just getting the basic thing down, vocals, guitars and bits and pieces – he asked, ‘What should I call it?’ And I just said ‘Gold in a Brass Age’. I’d been re-reading the Raymond Carver book which it came from, although I didn’t really know where it came from. I just had it sort of logged and said that.

“That felt like the right title for the album. You can interpret it very obviously as something special that rings true in a world of noise and meaninglessness. But the way he puts it in the story is more humorous. It’s something of infinite value almost, in a world of utter absurdity, his life taking an absurd twist. Something happens and he says, ’That’s gold in a brass age’. So that’s where it came from, and it’s got an uplifting quality. And this is certainly a brass age – let’s make no mistake.”

Actually, the piped instrumentation on the title track takes me back to Vangelis’ gorgeous 1992 soundtrack to 1492 – Conquest of Paradise, an old favourite on the car stereo, and its final track ‘Pinta, Nina, Santa Maria’. Meanwhile, something like ‘Furthering’ takes me back to The Blue Nile’s Hats, maybe even Neil Finn again – perhaps in ALT with Liam O’Manlai and Andy White this time – but with an underpinning of Prince on ‘Sometimes it Snows in April’ perhaps.

“I think all these influences are just in there, be it Talking Heads, Talk Talk, Prince, Marvin Gaye, Van Morrison, whatever. I’m steeped in all that. I’ve given my heart and soul listening to those records, so when things come out you find yourself reacting and influences come to the fore sometimes. At the end of that track, where the vocoders and the autotune kicks in, it’s obviously completely false, and for somebody who’s supposed to be a genuine, sensitive singer-songwriter, it’s a bit of a stretch for people’s heads, but it sounds so playful and so correct. We had a whale of a time doing that. That’s one of my favourite bits – myself and the producer. It just suddenly sprang up, and off we went.”

I get the feeling you could have rewritten White Ladder many more times over your career, but I don’t think that’s you. You’re more about keeping things fresh for yourself and everyone else.

“Yeah, it’s about trying to find something true to say in a way you haven’t said it before. Doing the same thing again until you’re so good at it you can do it with your eyes closed, I think I’ve defaulted to a position of taking creative risks or stepping into the unknown, and if I don’t feel a sense of that, I feel I’m not making the right move. I want to challenge what it is I’m doing in the hope of catching myself off-guard and revealing myself, through my heart, in a way that’s fresh and new but says something truthful … whatever that means, and I don’t think here’s any possibility of that happening if it’s just rehashing things and staying where you are.

“I’m always restless to move on. Sometimes I’m restless to peel away the layers and start again, sometimes I want to add more, like on Life in Slow Motion. But essentially the process doesn’t just stop. Each record will continue to be a different thing. I feel like I’m living in a world of possibilities, with ideas springing up left, right and centre. There’s almost not enough time in the day. That’s how I feel about the creative process. It feels so fertile – that world of sound and the approach I’ve been taking – to shake up the way I work. And I’ve grown to really love that sense of not quite knowing what I’m doing – I now see that as a very positive thing.”

Marius' Moment: In 2005, David Gray was working with Marius de Vries, and now he's working with his son, Ben.

Marius’ Moment: In 2005, David Gray worked  with Marius de Vries, and now he’s worked with his son, Ben.

David reckons, ‘This feels like a London record, more than any I’ve made since White Ladder. The city has a staggering capacity to tear itself apart and rebuild at a rate that’s almost too much to take in. In its own small way this album is both a part of, and a tribute to, that relentless energy’. So how long has he been based in the capital now?

“Staggeringly, more than half my life. I came here in April 1992, after art school in Liverpool. I had a band there and stayed around doing some demos, then came down to London, just in time for the election, when John Major won and Neil Kinnock fucked it up! I call it the death of the British imagination.”

And I’m guessing your North West roots are in the mix somewhere too.

“Definitely, yeah. Big time. Take me back to Manchester, stick me in a seat at Old Trafford, I’m just a hooligan. Ha!”

Were you surrounded by music growing up?

“Yeah, my Dad listened to records a lot and my Mum was a good singer. She sang more choral stuff really. She sang in a choir.”

Well, there are a few sampled operatic moments on this album.

“Yeah – that’s not me, that’s someone who knows what they’re doing! But yeah, my Manchester roots are very much a part of me, as is my time in Wales. But I’ve been here a long time now.

“London is a relentless place. It’s straining, it’s stifling, it’s a crush of sound and ideas and faces and people and things, and it’s sort of dehumanising – the scale and non-stop nature of it. Yet if you conserve that energy it can work for you. When you’re here a long time you see it tearing itself down, things you’re attached to – venues, places, pubs closing, the Astoria going, things being torn to the ground. You try and get your head around it and find different ways of dealing with the crush of people and terrifying speed of destruction and rebuilding.

“You get a detached, ironic, humorous thing but also a human, community level to some of the societies, clubs and cliques – the Soho set, the tattoo set, the graffiti people, the artists. There’s a glue and a sense of humour there, and this record feels it’s very much born in this city. My producer lives right in the centre of town, he’s younger and more a part of it. He’s in the soup while I just dip my toes in while he swims around in it. He’s the full crouton. I’m just a dipped celery stick in the soup of the city … sorry, this has all gone a bit Alan Partridge!”

Last Time: 2014's Mutineers saw David Gray, working with Andy Barlow, take a new direction

Last Time: 2014’s Mutineers saw David Gray, working with Andy Barlow, take a new direction

Maybe, but it’s hardly Matt and Luke Goss talk.

“Exactly, yeah.”

Incidentally, seeing as I mentioned the operatic touches, the track in question is ‘Hurricane Season’, which on first listen is the song we’d have mostly likely expected from the David Gray we felt we knew two decades ago. Yet it’s more complex than that, production-wise a rather layered, unexpected departure, with melodicas and soprano sax taking it off into unexpected territory, as if WriteWyattUK favourites The Magnetic North have suddenly turned up in the studio.

All in all, it’s an intimate album and has that feel. Yet he’s still playing some large-ish venues, I point out, and is obviously still comfortable with those kind of surroundings.

“Well, most are quite human-scale, theatres from about 1,000 to 3,000, but it’s the fact that the tickets have gone and the speed they’ve gone that has surprised me – because I don’t take any of this for granted anymore. Every record’s different and I’ve been putting a lot of effort in with the social media thing to connect with people rather than wait for someone to do me a favour, play something on the radio or whatever. And that seems to have worked.

“But the live thing is more like watching the studio on stage. I’ve got the computer, all these different looper pedals on my voice, on my keyboards, on my guitars, basically layering the sound live. It’s a completely different show to anything I’ve done before, and that in itself is really exciting.”

Striding On: Davd Gray, all set for a 17-date UK and Irish tour this Spring (Photo: Derrick Santini)

David Gray’s 11th album, Gold In A Brass Age is out on March 8th on IHT Records / AWAL Recordings, with a 17-date UK and Irish tour starting the following week in South Wales, calling at: Fri, 15 March – Cardiff St David’s Hall; Sat, 16 March – Cambridge Corn Exchange; Sun, 17 March – London Royal Festival Hall; Tue, 19 March – Brighton Dome; Wed, 20 March – Southend Cliffs Pavilion; Fri, 22 March – Manchester Bridgewater Hall; Sat, 23 March – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall; Sun, 24 March – Gateshead Sage; Tues, 26 March – Liverpool Philharmonic Hall; Wed, 27 March – Bournemouth Pavilion Theatre; Fri, 29 March – Birmingham Symphony Hall; Sat, 30 March – York Barbican; Sun, 31 March – Glasgow Royal Concert Hall; Tues, 2 April – Belfast Waterfront; Thur, 4 April – Castlebar Royal Theatre; Fri, 5 and Sat, 6 April – Dublin Bord Gais Theatre. For more details, head here.

For all the latest from David Gray, check out www.davidgray.com. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Penetration / The Mardigras Bombers / Vukovar – Preston, The Continental

Complementary Therapy: Pauline Murray gives it her all with Penetration at  The Conti (Photo: Gary M Hough)

After a slow start to the year, gig-wise, in the space of a fortnight I’ve witnessed two fine acknowledgements to the songwriting of Pete Shelley.

First, a fitting rendition at Preston Guild Hall of the wondrous ‘What Do I Get’ by Dunfermline new wave legends Skids, then across town at The Continental there was Penetration opening with ‘Nostalgia’ and encoring with ‘I Don’t Mind’, a personal highlight on a night of many from these North East punk pioneers.

At one stage it was in doubt they’d even get there, Arctic conditions sweeping across the North Country, the tops between us and Tyneside treacherous. But thankfully there was just a slight delay, two locally-based opening acts holding the fort in their own inimitable styles.

It’s fair to say I’ve never seen the same Vukovar twice, and this is an outfit seemingly in a state of flux right now, between incarnations. Last time I caught them, there was a kind of Doors meets Family Cat and Jesus and Mary Chain vibe, while this time it was harder to get a handle on, bass player Rick joined by female guitar and keyboard players plus crouching, determined poet Simon Morris (Ceramic Hobs, Smell & Quim) reading aloud from his notebook.

But what with thrashing guitars, malfunctioning synths and dramatic stage exits … well, there’s always something to remember with this ensemble, in whatever format. I look forward to the next chapter in their somewhat outlandish art-house journey.

Band Substance: The Mardigras Bombers. L to R – Paddy (drums), Bianca (vocals), Ged (guitar), Damion (vocals), Mark (bass), Tom (keyboards).

I’m not entirely convinced anyone else would consider putting these three bands on in the same room, but They Eat Culture’s Rob Talbot seemed to got it right, and – next up – The Mardigras Bombers were just what was needed to bridge the gap between acts.

They use the term ‘post-punk’ but I don’t see so much of that. I’m not sure how it was when it was just songwriter Damion Gillett up front, before co-vocalist (and WriteWyattUK favourite) Bianca Kinane joined, but to me it’s more an Ike and Tina Turner Revue, the pair trading lines on original songs with passion a-plenty on a set of songs they mischieviously tell us are all about ‘death and sex’.

I hesitate before mentioning Meatloaf, but I guess it’s that duet approach, and this is more like I’d hope he’d be if he was less about theatrics, the Steinman-like stage pomposity reined right in and the rock’n’roll seeping through instead.

Bianca’s clearly holding back, a team player unwilling to hog the limelight, but there’s no doubting that great voice, shining through on every song, this tight sextet a great vehicle for her vocal run-outs, although unable to give it too many moves on a busy stage – lest they knock keyboard wiz Tom Wilson off the edge.

There was just one cover, their twist on outlandish 1975 Tubes prog-rocker ‘White Punks on Dope’ providing a worthy climax, taking me back to being enthralled by that number in late ’77, barely 10 years old, unsure I’d ever heard such majesty on the transistor.

Bass Instinct: Robert Blamire at Preston’s The Continental (Photo: Gary M Hough)

This was hardly Otis Redding’s 1967 love crowd, but there was an air of clear affection for Penetration from the very outset, and as it turned out a truly appreciative audience had good reason to be so enamoured.

The set was built around revered 1978 debut album Moving Targets and its 1979 follow-up, Coming up for Air, all those songs rapturously received. What’s more, the maturity of the 21st century Penetration further enhances the songs, vocalist Pauline Murray and bass player/co-writer/hubby Robert Blamire (towering over the missus – part-Robert Forster, part Keith Richards) at the heart of it all, the pair flanked by no-nonsense guitarists Steve Wallace and Paul Harvey.

Cult 45 ‘Don’t Dictate’ went down a storm, and I swear I could hear accompanying brass on later single ‘Come into the Open’, another track taking me back to my pre-teens, with Pauline perfect, her vocal style truly complementary, interweaving between the grooves with powerful sax-reedy qualities.

Drum Major: Ken Goodinson at Preston’s The Continental (Photo: Gary M Hough)

I’d like to have heard more of the band’s ‘second coming’ material, but this was night one of a series of 11 sporadic dates leading up to and beyond a Buzzcocks/ Skids/ Penetration Shelley tribute show at London’s Royal Albert Hall in May, so the onus was always going to be on recreating and reworking that seminal late-70s songbook.

Besides, I was more than happy with the Resolution tracks aired, the fantastic ‘Beat Goes On’ rightly closing the main set, while – after that awesome rendition of ‘I Don’t Mind’, one that left me feeling highly emotional – final encore ‘Calm Before the Storm’ was spell-binding, David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’ given a County Durham twist in its ‘I don’t want to go out, I don’t want to stay at home’ intro, while the outro saw them away in style, the five-piece heading off one by one.

Pauline – her small talk with the audience all night a joy, and still possessing that uncompromising but sweet personable touch all these years on – was away first, after Andy Pandy-like ‘Good Night’ waves to us all. And her bandmates duly followed, the guitarists next, leaving that underpinning rhythm section, Robert’s chugging bass continuing a little longer before he too took his leave, Ken Goodinson’s John Maher-like hypnotic drumming bringing the set to a fitting conclusion.

Visible Girl: Pauline Murray, from The Continental and onwards in 2019 with Penetration (Photo: Gary M Hough)

You can head to this site’s feature/interview with Pauline Murray from January 2019 via this link, and with Bianca Kinane from December 2018 hereFor details of Penetration’s 2019 dates head to their Facebook page. You can also check out The Mardigras Bombers’ latest moves via this link, and find out more about Vukovar here

With thanks to Gary M Hough, who while only armed with his mobile phone camera on the night still managed to capture some great images. For more of his work head here.


Posted in Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Away from the Odditorium with The Dandy Warhols – the Peter Holmström interview

Odditorium Exports: Portland’s The Dandy Warhols, celebrating 25 happening years in the business

This week marked the return of The Dandy Warhols to British shores, a quarter of a century after singer/guitarist Courtney Taylor-Taylor and guitarist Peter Holmström first joined forces, a couple of friends who decided they ‘needed music to drink to’.

Best known over here for the hit ‘Bohemian Like You’ – which narrowly failed to chart in the UK in 1990 but saw success a year later after featuring in a mobile phone TV advert – the Portland, Oregon outfit took relatively little time to make an impact at home.

But such factors rarely guarantee longevity, Peter instead seeing their ability to survive tied to their work ethic from day one.

He was in cold and frosty Antwerp when I called late last week, ahead of a date in the Belgian city which opened a brief 25th anniversary tour culminating – after further appearances in Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester – at Brixton Academy tonight (Friday, February 1st).

Looking forward to what his bandmate Zia McCabe (keyboards, vocals, who also clambered on board in 1994) called ‘a massive concussion of rock’n’roll a quarter of a century in the making,’ Peter continues to enjoy his travels with The Dandy Warhols.

“These are always the ones I look forward to. They’re way more interesting to me than US tours. Of course, it used to be more exciting before every city was essentially the same – the same chain stores everywhere. But whatever …”

I gather you’re a keen photographer too. Will you be out snapping between shows in the locations you visit?

“That’s faded off a bit, but I’ve always got a bit of a visual artist thing going on. I do take some pictures, but just for memories these days.”

Don’t think for one moment this is all about nostalgia. They’re chiefly looking to spread the word about a new album, Why You So Crazy, out on Dine Alone Records.

You get a flavour of the new material in a single-shot 360° short film featuring Mad Men’s Jessica Paré for the single ‘Be Alright’, all the action taking place within the band’s self-run Portland HQ, The Odditorium.

It all centres around the consumption of a magic wine, their ‘band space’ including a bar owned by front-man Courtney, who directs the film and happens to have a passion for the wine world. and it was written and conceived by Kevin Moyer, an award-winning creative whose past music projects have featured, among others, Elliott Smith, Pearl Jam, and Willie Nelson.

It was back in 2002 that The Dandy Warhols bought a 10,000 sq. ft. building in what was then industrial Northwest Portland, The Odditorium soon becoming not only their band headquarters and including a recording studio, but also a hang-out for friends and fellow artists.

As Kevin Moyer put it, “I’ve been there many times and it is such a cool and ethereal place, full of psychedelia and gothic touches and auras, that it just makes your head spin trying to take all of it in as you walk through the unique rock’n’roll space. So what better way than to use a head-spinning media format to take the viewer on a magical journey through the Dandy Warhols’ own space and sound.”

Courtney added, “We’ve always been driven to create art with emotional clarity. That’s what the world needs more than ever right now. I’ve never felt so strongly that people are losing their minds, and it’s more of them than ever before. Local politics, international politics, news programs, sitcoms, and our president all feel like the heat got turned up.

“It doesn’t feel like a natural progression of insanity, it just happened. Most people are behaving in a manner that can only be described as batshit crazy.”

The video certainly suggests a hive of activity, prompting me to ask Peter if the band’s base is always such a happening place.

“Ha! No, no, no. In the past, more so … but it still kicks off every once in a while.”

Club Class: The Dandy Warhols travel in a bit of luxury when they can

Club Class: The Dandy Warhols travel in a bit of luxury when they can

Have you helped bring a little employment to your home city through your HQ?

“Yeah, some, though probably not as much as we’d like, but we definitely employed a lot of our musician friends when we were building that place.”

Do you tend to hire it out for rehearsals to local musicians?

“Some, but it’s a tricky thing. We need the space a fair amount, so the whole scheduling things always gets in the way. Generally, whoever’s engineering for us can work on projects, and we all have our own projects we’re working on in there as well, and we do rent it out sometimes to touring bands. Morrissey did a whole series of rehearsals there before a tour, then Spoon, Black Rebel (Motorcycle Club), The Strokes … and The Shins rented it out last, I think.”

The latter are also Portland-based, aren’t they?

“Yeah, well, they live here now.”

Lots of great bands started there or gravitated towards the city. Is there a fellowship between musicians associated with Portland?

“Yeah, absolutely.”

Late last year I talked to Colin Meloy from The Decemberists. Is he on your radar, and is it a close enough city to get to know like-minded musicians in town?

“Sure, and my wife is really good friends with Colin’s wife Carson, and I know the band a little. I’ve known John (Moen), the drummer, forever. And Chris Funk is a good acquaintance. We know each other pretty well.

“But a lot of times with bands at the level of The Gossip and ours, we’re not in town very much, and not there at the same time.”

While ‘Be Alright’ showcases the band’s ‘classically off-kilter psych-pop’, there’s also what they call ‘country-fried Americana’ on ‘Motor City Steel’, and ‘gothic piano-propelled rumbas’ on ‘Forever’ on the new record.

In fact, there are references as far flung as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Don MacLean’s Chevy, and the church of Bowie’s ‘Modern Love,’ the 12 songs reflecting ‘surrealist visions of an alternate reality’. Arguably what we all need right now, on both sides of the Atlantic.

I’ve got to talk a bit about the past though, and it’ll be 20 years in 2020 since ‘Bohemian Like You’, the track they’re identified with more than any other over here, was first released. Is that the case in America too?

“Not in the same way…because that Vodafone advert never happened in the United States. It’s definitely one of the more recognised songs, but ‘We Used To Be Friends’ is as big if not bigger, as it was the theme song to Veronica Mars. When that came out, all of a sudden we had this bunch of kids up front, which was pretty cool.”

Despite what many might think over here, you were around for six years before your biggest UK hit. Hence this silver anniversary tour. Time flies.

“It certainly does … and I never quite expected this.”

Some bands, for whatever reason, don’t always get those breaks, and even if they do, a label may soon let them go and they’re done for after the briefest career. How have you kept it going? Luck? Hard work? Or both?

“Yeah … luck only gets you so far. You have to work hard and take advantage of the luck. And we already had a pretty decent work ethic underneath our belts, before the serious luck happened.”

For you, there have always been side-projects, from Pete and the International Airport to Rebel Drones. What percentage of your recent life, do you reckon, involves The Dandy Warhols?

“Oh, easy 50 per cent, for sure.”

Is that a good way of keeping it fresh – a little diversification en route?

”I don’t know what actually keeps it fresh. It just sort of is. We all continually want to be doing something we haven’t done before or something slightly different to the last time. Whatever it is, it’s always this continual urge not to want to do the same thing we just did.

“I find with the side-projects and working with other people, you learn something different and bring that back down, and that’s creative.”

You’re clearly still mates too, or this wouldn’t still be happening a quarter of a century later. But right at the beginning, it was just you and Courtney (Taylor-Taylor).

“Yeah, we were the first to get together.”

This is a band about far more than the more recognised hits mentioned so far, and if for some reason or other you missed out, you could do far worse than start with 1998 anti-drugs anthem ‘Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth’, check out 2000’s Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia album (including the ‘Bohemian Like You’, ‘Get Off’ and ‘Godless’ singles), and watch 2004 documentary film Dig! (also featuring San Francisco’s The Brian Jonestown Massacre), then exploring more in both directions from there.

Before all that, the early recordings include elements of ‘shoegazing’ for these ears, not least on early single ‘Ride’, perhaps rather aptly. Personnel-wise, did it take a while for the main elements of the band to slot into place and for them to become a proper unit?

“Not really. It was very quick. We got together and six months later played our first show, six months later we were putting out our demo tape and signed to an indie label. A year later that came out and we were being courted by major labels.

“The year after that we were putting out on a major label. That’s pretty quick. But it all just felt like it was happening at the right time. And it never got too big, too fast.”

Even so, there must have been ‘pinch me’ moments where you wondered how this had all happened.

“Well yeah, pretty much every year there was at least one. It was non-stop.”

When was the last time you felt that was the case?

“Pretty much every time we get on an airplane and go off on tour. There are times that are more exciting, like anytime we go to a place we haven’t been before, like when we went to Hong Kong, not long ago That was pretty cool.”

For the record, the band is completed by Brent DeBoer (drums, vocals), who took over  from initial sticksman Eric Hedford in 1998, so the band you see today have been around for a full two decades now.

Going right back to the beginning though, who was the first to inspire Peter to take up guitar and get up on a stage and do it yourself?

“I think the first guitar player was probably Angus Young. That somehow connected when I was like 12 or something. Maybe even younger. My Dad always played Pink Floyd records, so there’s always been a bit of that. But that was maybe a little more technical than I could do. But AC/DC, well …”

Were many of those influences from this side of the Atlantic?

“Later on, absolutely – like 90 per cent of my favourite guitar players, like Daniel Ash, Robert Smith, Kevin Shields, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page of course, David Gilmour …”

And you had a spell over here in the ‘80s.

“Yes, I lived in Bristol for a few years. My parents both wanted to live overseas, and my Dad had a job with a company that was both US and UK-based. That got us over. It was the late-‘70s/early-‘80s, an interesting time, especially musically, and I’m sure that made an impression.”

Am I right in thinking that the new record is the 10th Dandy Warhols studio album?

“So I’ve been told. Ha! There’s a couple of other records that didn’t really come out, so I don’t know what the count actually is, but everyone keeps saying 10, so we’ll go with that.”

And yet it all still seems fresh for you.

“Oh, absolutely. I’ve pushed myself, and I’ve always got something I’m interested in doing or trying to do, generally failing at that but coming up with something! It’s interesting.”

Incidentally, after their London finale there’s a return home and a North American leg of the tour, taking in Atlanta, Washington, Boston, Brooklyn, Toronto, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, Los Angeles, Santa Ana and San Francisco.

Agreeing on a set at this stage must give you a few headaches as a band, I suggested, trying to work out what to put in and what to leave out after 25 years together.

“Yeah, because there are so many songs we actually want to play. It’s really hard to figure out what we’re not going to play. Because everybody’s got their favourites.”

Do you tend to change things around from city to city?

“We try to. It’s always slightly different, but generally when we start off, it‘s the same, and we play that until we start getting frustrated or bored.”

Besides, as Zia puts it, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out and it will be legendary’. And you can’t say fairer than that.

Inflation Stations: The Dandy Warhols, waiting to take off for their latest European jaunt

The Dandy Warhols’ 25th anniversary tour’s European leg ends at London’s O2 Academy in Brixton tonight (Friday, February 1st). For more details and all the latest from the band, try their official website and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.


Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Manchester love affair on record – the C.P. Lee interview

Uke Lee Device: C.P. Lee, still in love with Manchester all these years on

It wouldn’t be right to call C.P. Lee an unsung hero of the North West music scene. He’s sung a fair bit in his time and those who truly know the Manchester scene know full well who he is.

So I can’t even describe him as the most famous Mancunian you’ve probably never heard of. Instead, I’ll just try and tell you a bit more about him, condensed into as few paragraphs as I can manage.

Writer, broadcaster, lecturer and performer Christopher Paul Lee started out on the regional folk and beat club scene in the ‘60s, going on to co-found Greasy Bear.

As he told me, “I started in 1964 singing in folk clubs, and two years later with friends from school started an electric band, sort of John Mayall and Bob Dylan-y, then with another mate started singing harmony together. From that we just added more people, and suddenly it was Greasy Bear.

“We were into folk and American roots music – not as if it was called that then – like the Carter Family and the kind of thing The Byrds were doing, discovering country roots. If you listen to the Greasy Bear album it’s very much in that four-part harmony American style, with twangy guitars and stuff.”

I will, I tell him. I like the sound of that. Even if I am a few decades late to the party.

“Well, there’s plenty of time.”

Bear Essentials: C.P. Lee, second from right, in his days with Greasy Bear (Photo: Russ Tharlow)

Greasy Bear are one of 45 acts featured – with the track ‘Geordie’, ‘a good example of their four-part harmony’ – on new Ace Records compilation, Manchester – A City United in Music, with C.P. and soul aficionado Ady Croasdell, of Kent Records fame, putting together a mighty two-disc selection spanning 55 years of music.

According to the sleevenotes, ‘Greasy Bear burnt out before they were even lit. Starting out as a duo, C.P. Lee and Ian Wilson initially focused on harmonies and acoustics. The next step was to become a trio by adding seasoned drummer Bruce Mitchell. Soon after came bass player John Gibson and finally Steve Whalley, from a band called the Puritans, added more harmonies and guitar. The Bear was originally managed by Twisted Wheel DJ and promoter Roger Eagle and they developed a distinctive vocal-driven rock sound. In 1970 they recorded an album for Vertigo, produced by Terry Brown, who worked with Dave Swarbrick and Martin Carthy, but it was shelved until eventually being released in 2016.’

Today’s interviewee and Bruce Mitchell went on to co-found Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias, while Ian Wilson formed Sad Café with Toggery Five member Paul Young.

Of his next outfit, the sleevenotes read, ‘The Albertos were a seven-piece set of musicians, united in the mid-’70s by their boredom with the pretensions of the music scene. They started out writing comedy scripts before getting a musical gig together which kick-started a performance career of musical mayhem, described as ‘Dada cabaret’ by Melody Maker in 1975.

Their debut single came out a year earlier on Transatlantic, with subsequent 45s on the Logo subsidiary, while ‘Gobbin’ on Life’, the track included on this collection, produced by Nick Lowe and issued on a Stiff Records EP. was a Sex Pistols parody and a highlight of the ‘Berts’’ 1977 play Snuff Rock, which ran for several months at London’s Royal Court Theatre and the Roundhouse, then at Privates in New York City in 1980, about a rock star persuaded to kill himself on stage.

They even charted with ‘Heads Down, No Nonsense Mindless Boogie’ in 1978. And that’s where I came in. first hearing that single at the age of 10 on Nicky Horne’s Capital Radio show on a transistor radio under my pillow, loving it, seeing them as a bona fide punk band rather than some parody. Listening back, it’s as much Chas & Dave as it is punk, with lashings of Status Quo as well as Dr Feelgood style pub rock. What’s not to love there?

“Yeah, we got away with murder with that. Actually, we did lots of live sessions for Capital, oddly enough, even though people tend to think of it as a record-only station. We did late-night stuff for all sorts of people.”

While John Peel was a huge influence on so many, at that stage – maybe just because he was on slightly earlier – it was Nicky Horne who showed me the way, I told C.P.

“We can still take legal action.”

As it was, the Berts gathered increasing notoriety, by 1981 even with their own nationally-broadcast ITV show, Teach Yourself Gibberish. C.P. told Daniel Dylan Wray in The Quietus in April 2017 (linked here), ‘We were originally asked to do a seven-part comedy series for Saturday night when the pubs had shut, for students. So we said yeah and wrote these scripts and did a pilot before we went to New York in 1979, and then the New York thing died because of John Lennon getting shot, because you can’t open a show about a rock star getting killed on stage.

‘When we came back, Granada Television said for us to do this show. Unbeknown to us, another producer was doing a show with Elton John and Stephen Fry, shot in Didsbury, a precursor to The Young Ones. Rik [Mayall] and the lads were very fond of the Albertos actually, they used to come and see us as they were playing in 20th Century Coyote at Band On The Wall and they supported us. Someone at Granada said we can’t have two late-night shows, so we’re going to cut and edit your show to become a children’s show. Another career bit the dust.’

As it was, the Berts’ adventure was over by 1982, after three albums, after Les Prior – one of the group’s chief purveyors of madness – succumbed to Hodgkin Disease. But they had fans in high places from the start, including legendary broadcaster Anthony H. Wilson, who said of C.P.’s most famous band, “I didn’t go to the Stables Bar (Granada’s main watering hole) and live that strange metropolitan lifestyle that they lived. I wanted to find some way for me to live in the world I wanted to live in, which was the rock’n’roll world. I loved my day-job, being in TV and as a journalist, but I wanted my culture, and I chanced upon a bunch of people who were doing music and drugs, which was a group called the Albertos, and that crowd in Didsbury. Dougie James and Sad Café, those people. So it gets to about 1975 and I’ve got my own little arts programme on Granada, and being inserted as it were, into the south Manchester music scene. I was a third generation hippy, I suppose, but I was attracted to the fact that here was a bit of culture, and I kind of got involved in that on a personal basis, and at the same time I would put bands like the Albertos on television.”

From there, C.P. went on to write and perform a tribute show of routines by Lord Buckley, premiering in Manchester and then Amsterdam, New York and London, among other cities. Also working as a music journalist, in 1979 he then teamed up with John Scott as Gerry & the Holograms, the title track of their self-named album often claimed to have been ripped off by New Order’s mega-hit ‘Blue Monday’. Have a listen, and you’ll hear for yourself.

Come to think of it, that might also be the reason behind ‘Thieves Like Us’ being chosen as New Order’s contribution to the Ace compilation. Was there ever thought of litigation against Bernard, Hooky and co. in view of the similarities?

“Erm… yeah, there was … erm, but in the end I just thought I’m too old for this shit.”

Lawsuits seem to have taken up a lot of New Order’s time in recent years … and that’s just between the band members.

“Yeah, I think it was just coincidence, but it would have been nice to have been acknowledged and get a slice of the pie. But there you go. In another life …”

That contentious self-titled track features on this compilation, the sleevenotes suggesting it was ‘written on a bus’, the idea having ‘emerged from a spare Albertos’ day in Revolution Studios in Cheadle’. Apparently, ‘John Scott had borrowed a Roland synth from Granada TV and with C.P. Lee got down to experimenting. There’s this basic and totally simple riff, the repetition derived from an article that said if you smashed a hologram each fragment would contain the image. Gaining popular radio plays, including on the John Peel Show, it became one of Frank Zappa’s favourite records. Zappa’s claim in an American TV interview that Gerry was a husband and wife team from Sheffield – ‘he sang, she played the keyboards’ – causes much merriment to this day. People can’t help but notice the similarity between ‘Gerry & The Holograms’ and New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ – two tunes sounding exactly the same, even though recorded two years apart, is totally coincidental of course (gritted teeth).’

In 2007, C.P. published his When We Were Thin memoir, its delights including word of how he produced one side of the first Factory Records release, ate muffins with Andy Warhol, and various shenanigans with Stiff Records artists Wreckless Eric and Elvis Costello. And all this from a fella whose claims to fame also involve treasured scenarios with Captain Beefheart and his actor namesake Christopher Lee.

He’s also written about Bob Dylan, Like The Night (Revisited) focusing on the night the US legend caused controversy among folkies after ‘going electric’ at Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966. Meanwhile, Shake, Rattle & Rain was adapted from his PhD thesis on Manchester music-making. All worth seeking out, as incidentally is Leave the Capital, former Fall drummer Paul Hanley’s ‘history of Manchester music in 13 recordings’, something I’m also keen to cover on these pages some time soon.

Having turned 69 last weekend, C.P. – or Chris, to some – is now retired from his roles as course leader in film studies and senior lecturer at the University of Salford. But he still writes, give talks and makes documentaries for BBC radio and TV.

And this week, this co-trustee of the Manchester District Music Archive (a role taken on in 2004) was off to Gullivers in his beloved home city for a launch party of the new Ace compilation, of which Ady Croasdell – also present – said, ‘The idea for this compilation was given to me by record dealer Pete Smith, who like me is primarily involved with soul music as a day job but has had a love of pop music throughout his life’, its track listing having ‘evolved over about five years’.

Their two-disc compilation moves from ‘60s beat revolution, Strawberry Studios’ pop era, northern punk and indie mayhem through to ’90s soul and the ‘Madchester’ years, and from Ewan MacColl through to Oasis, and it’s certainly a celebration of all things Manchester, taking in the likes of C.P.’s early heroes The Hollies and John Mayall, plus Wayne Fontana, Elkie Brooks, Georgie Fame, Herman’s Hermits, 10cc, Buzzcocks, Magazine, The Fall, Joy Division, Simply Red, Lisa Stansfield, M People, The Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets, Happy Mondays, and Johnny Marr.

Of the latter, Ady added, “A handful of preferred tracks weren’t available for licensing, but the only major act missing was the Smiths, and Morrissey’s solo work as a secondary choice. Johnny Marr’s superb ‘New Town Velocity’ goes a long way to filling that omission.”

Legendary producer Martin Hannett’s influence shines through loud and clear on the second disc, and it’s full of local characters, including pre-Frank Sidebottom era Chris Sievey with The Freshies (as featured on the cover), pre-John Shuttleworth era Graham Fellows as Jilted John (along with the Berts helping showcase the ‘famously dry humour of the city’), and treasured performance poet John Cooper Clarke.

An accompanying 44-page booklet helps tell the story of the city’s musical history, written by C.P. with input by Ady and established music writer Jon Savage, including evocative photos by the likes of Kevin Cummins, artwork, and reminiscences from key players.

C.P. was at Manchester’s Piccadilly railway station when I tracked him down on a ‘brass monkeys’ late January afternoon. But don’t have too much sympathy, as soon after the launch party he was packing for a winter break in Thailand, seeing his son get married there. I soon asked him if he felt Manchester gets the respect it deserves in musical terms.

“Ooh … I think if you mention it internationally, people tend to think of MerseyBeat, but that was only a couple of years, and while The Beatles were of course a fantastic influence on music, they left and never went back, whereas, here in Manchester …

“I know Liverpool has had its renaissances since, and some great bands, but it’s more fits and starts on the Mersey, whereas Manchester’s had this consistent trudging towards a musical nirvana. It never went away. We had a quiet bit when the Chief Constable shut the clubs down, but the musicians revolted and founded a cooperative, Music Force, a tremendous thing that kept it spinning.”

That grassroots collective was set up to provide basics like equipment, possible gigs, van hire and poster design for working musicians, with C.P. part of it, describing it as ‘the fightback against the lack of opportunities for professional musicians’.

He added, ‘Part of the problem was – as happened in the 1960s – Manchester had a moralistic police chief who seemed determined to close down a nightclub and concert scene already eviscerated by the redevelopment of the city’s historical club zone as the Arndale Centre and various scares about youth and drugs. When punk arrived, stimulated by the two Lesser Free Trade Hall Sex Pistols gigs in June and July 1976, self-starting was the only possibility – and the possibility was there, thanks to Music Force and Buzzcocks.’

C.P. told me, “When Buzzcocks came along and Pete (Shelley) and Howard (Devoto) went to put on the Sex Pistols in Manchester, that’s who they went to, asking where they could afford to put them on. They gave them advice and hired out a PA as well, I think. That was at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, having had Dylan at the bigger one in ’66. And the list of bands that played there is unbelievable, all the way from Louis Armstrong through to anybody but The Beatles!”

Early Influence: The Hollies made a big impression on C.P. Lee

Were you catching lots of bands in town in your youth, or did you have to travel further afield?

“No, you just stayed in Manchester. Elton John said his favourite club in the world was the Twisted Wheel. The reputation it had for live music was second to none.  And from that you get the birth of Northern Soul. And remember that the house band there in the early ‘60s was John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers.

“People like Rod Stewart, with (Long John Baldry’s) Steampacket – and I think that was Elton John’s connection as well, playing keyboard for them for a while – came and played there, and you had all the great blues and R’n’B men – Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Screaming Jay Hawkins … you just stepped out of your front door really.

“By the time I was 16 I’d seen The Who, The Move, The Action, Ike and Tina Turner, Bob Dylan … it was never-ending. You had these amazing performers coming to Manchester and they gave Mancunian musicians a chance to play, and everything gave rise to everything else.”

While we talk about a Manchester scene, it’s not as clear-cut as music historians might make out, and C.P. writes, ‘Music ‘scenes’ are not specifically geographic. The word relates more to a metaphysical concept that dwells within a psychological realm of meaning pertaining to a coming together of likeminded people with shared interests and practices. Thus, within the Manchester scene there are a myriad scenes that would appear to the outsider to be mutually exclusive. For example, The Fall and M People share a similar geographic position but their music differs widely, while Freddie & the Dreamers and Oasis are both from the Manchester scene but decades apart.”

I asked him a bit more about that.

“I was just talking to (BBC Radio Manchester’s) Mike Sweeney about this, how you could take New Orleans as an example – an identifiable scene where the music can’t come from anything else other than New Orleans, whereas Manchester had this incredible mixture of styles.

“M People and The Fall – how could you be more markedly different? Or Elkie Brooks and Buzzcocks? But that’s part of the magic of Manchester. It absorbs all sorts of influences – you’ve got Irish roots, Italian roots, Afro-Caribbean roots, all sorts of different mixes of people here. And they’re still here, and so we keep still keep making the music.”

There are other schools of thought on all that, and I recall Peter Hook telling me in late 2017 how Tony Wilson felt Manchester stole all the Salford musicians.

“Ha! Or Prestwich! You could break Joy Division into Macclesfield, Salford, and South Manchester, but they all ended up living in Manchester. But the basis for all this is the 10 boroughs of Greater Manchester, so you’ve also got Georgie Fame from Leigh and Wynder K. Frog, who started in Bolton. A lot of people have forgotten about him (Mick Weaver), an amazing session man who lives in LA and plays on lots of albums, a great organist.

“And it’s fascinating that these people had the chance to do it, all because of the change in hire purchase laws. That was what did it! Instruments suddenly became accessible.

“Also in Manchester, there was the influence of popular music in America being dumped on us by Burtonwood airbase (a 15-minute train ride from the city). Every weekend, US troops poured into Manchester and many were playing in groups in the 1950s and 1960s. So we had all these influences happening.”

I guess it was a similar tale as the influence of what became known as Northern Soul.

“Exactly, with (journalist) Dave Godin going to the Twisted Wheel, saying, ‘If this must have a name, let’s call it Northern Soul’. That again fascinates me. Why did young apprentices from Stockport go crazy about urban Black American music?”

And the BBC’s Top of the Pops was recorded nearby for some time, wasn’t it?

“Yes, from the old BBC studios on Dickinson Road. ‘What Manchester does today, London does tomorrow.’”

Were you ever waiting at the stage door to meet the stars there?

“I was. I met Jimi Hendrix there in 1967. I met him a couple of times, but the first time was outside the BBC Studios when he was doing The Simon Dee Show, a hit talk show at the time. You’d get the most amazing people hanging around in the pub there, called The Welcome, known as Stage Two, run by a wrestler.

“There was a great moment when Herman’s Hermits had their first No.1 and were on Top of the Pops and the presenter said, ‘It’s fantastic. They’ve had a No.1, and there’s not one of them over 18’. They all then piled into the pub and the landlord, Roy, a fantastic bloke, said, ‘You’re barred!’ Tom Jones was another, celebrating too enthusiastically.”

And while the infamous Sex Pistols interview that cost him his job was filmed in London, Bill Grundy’s big TV break came at Granada.

“Yes, and the director of that show also directed the Albertos’ TV programme in 1980. There are all these strange little links.”

I’ll put you on the spot and ask for your five most influential Manchester acts or artists.

“Well, I would absolutely say The Hollies, who were remarkable harmonists and songwriters. In the ’60s for me I’d wait for every release with great excitement.

“Then a little later, when I was a performer, I’d then say Buzzcocks, who blasted out of nowhere. I’d been playing about 10 years then, but they really changed things. Richard Boon, their manager, said they felt like newcomers in a village where the locals weren’t very nice to them. But we got on very well and worked with Buzzcocks.

“Moving into the next decade, I loved M People for the sheer sophistication of what they were able to do, getting this American sound. This is something I think that comes from 10cc, who said, ‘You can make a studio another instrument’.

“Also, I was a big mate of Martin Hannett, and close to him for a long time, and you see the big influence he had quite a lot on the second CD, with the amount of things he produced and the ideas he came up with. Quite remarkable.  It was about Rabid Records and Factory Records, New Hormones and all these wonderful labels of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

“Rabid used the same musicians for Jilted John, Ed Banger, and people like that, so it was kind of like the Mancunian equivalent of the LA Wrecking Crew, involving people like John Scott, who I worked with in both The Albertos and Gerry & the Holograms.”

John Scott is a name that pops up a fair few times on the sleeve notes.

“Yeah, we were surprised while we were sequencing it just how much he appears. He was around doing lots and lots of things. So you’ve got all these fascinating people hovering about, multi-instrumentalists par excellence!”

I possibly interrupted his train of thought there, but i think we got to five. I’m counting 10cc, who got part-mentioned, or perhaps John Scott, which fits that concept of the unsung hero.

Getting back to Martin Hannett, I recall John Cooper Clarke saying he preferred unaccompanied poetry, but I love the records he did using Martin’s Invisible Girls as a backing band, and Pauline Murray recently had lots of positives to impart about working with him as part of Penetration and under her own name.

“Yes, he got about a bit, and had a wonderful reputation. But the thing about John Cooper Clarke was that we saw him in the folk clubs in the 1960s, the only places where poets, storytellers and comedians could get up and do it.  Then the same kind of thing happened with punk. The link between folk and punk was fascinating.

“The audiences and the performers were interchangeable, but they welcomed eccentricity. And John was able then to build his career. Also, I think those early Rabids things and the Sleepwalk stuff he did, I think the music really enhances it. And I’m not sure he would have broken through in quite the same way if those early discs hadn’t been made. They were weirdly wonderful.”

For me, part of the appeal of punk was part of its year zero approach, primarily its DIY ethic. As a great example I think of Buzzcocks making their own sleeves for the self-financed ’Spiral Scratch’, as bands like The Undertones did later with Terri Hooley’s Belfast label Good Vibrations. That was what it was really about, not spiky hair, outrage and bondage trousers as the wider media perceived it.

“Well, Jon Savage spotted lots of sartorial differences between London and Manchester in punk, and Pete Shelley said that up north, punk was allowed to develop in much the same way marsupials developed in Australia.  They were cut off from the mainland and went their own way. That’s true. London was much more seditionary and ‘fashionista’, while up here it was more about buying second-hand suits and making them your own, so you got a very distinctive look.”

We mentioned the Pistols and Buzzcocks at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, but what about The Clash joining them on the Anarchy tour at the Electric Circus (as witnessed by the leadin gpersonnel of th eband that became Joy Division, and so many more)?

“Do you know, I’m the only person in Manchester who wasn’t there! Because I was in a gigging band. I was touring. Tony Wilson said, ‘You’ve got to come and see them’, but I never got to see them. But I was on Stiff Records for a while and would go drinking with Elvis Costello and Johnny Rotten at the Marquee.”

There’s a lovely tale about you becoming Elvis Costello at one point, while you were working in the offices above.

“Oh, that was great. Jake Riviera hired me, because we looked a bit alike, to do a sales rep meeting that Elvis didn’t want to go to at Island Records. I went along, duly signed lots of albums, gave them all a good ‘way to go’ speech. It was great … and I was £25 better off!”

Did Elvis ever thank you?

“I believe he did. And I did a recording with Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds (a track called ‘Food’) as The Takeaways, for an album called A Bunch of Stiffs, something else I was invited along to be on. They were great times then … but they’re great times now too – don’t forget the new kids … on the block!”

It seems apt that Buzzcocks lead off disc two of this compilation, with ‘Orgasm Addict’. It was sad to lose Pete Shelley. I’m guessing you got to know him well over the years.

“Yeah, we knew each other very well, and when he came back to Manchester we’d meet up. It was all very sad losing him, as it was that Eric Haydock died recently. I’d hate to think anybody else is going to pass over at some point. But we’re all getting a bit older.”

Eric, who was 75, was the original bass player of The Hollies, and is included on the Ace compilation with his band, Haydock’s Rockhouse, on the 1966 song, ’She Thinks’.

In the sleevenotes, C.P. writes, ‘He grew increasingly dissatisfied with the band’s management, who he felt were ripping them off, and was fired from the group in 1966. Meanwhile, over in Stockport a band called the Soul Executives were plying their trade. They were part of the embryonic mod music sound, using a brass section and organ, and just happened to be looking for a bass player when into their rehearsal room came Eric Haydock. His style of bass, solid and grooving, fitted perfectly with their overall sound, and at the suggestion of the Columbia label, they changed their name to Haydock’s Rockhouse. The label plumped for a version of Sam Cooke’s ‘Cupid’ as the A-side of their first single, a mistake really. Manfred Mann, reviewing it for Melody Maker, said that the Haydock-penned B-side, ‘She Thinks’, was much better. Unable to garner any publicity, the record didn’t chart. Neither did the follow-up, ‘Lovin’ You’, and the band went their separate ways. Eric worked in a music store in Manchester for a number of years. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.’ He was still occasionally playing in recent years.

City Player: Manchester’s Tony Wilson mural, as featured on the rear of the new Ace compilation

Finally, which of all the bands included does C.P. feel despair at the fact they never got to be as big as some of the others who broke through from his home city?

“Well … Alberto Y Los Trios Paranoias!”

Perhaps you could have retired a few years earlier then.

“Yeah, I have a great time, but there are people out there who will say, ‘Alberto who?’”

He told me another great story about The Black Swan in Sheffield, where he played several times and which hosted The Clash’s first gig, supporting the Sex Pistols in July ’76. But I might have to run that past my lawyers first, using it some other time. Besides, far too soon we ran out of time, not getting on to C.P.’s winning anecdotes about Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, and namesake actor Christopher Lee, as I mentioned as we wrapped up our conversation while he waited patiently by platform 13.

“Well, yeah, and the Beefheart anecdote is, well, legendary. That’s by the by, but yeah, call us again sometime!”

To read more about C.P. Lee and his publications, head here. And to learn more about Paul Hanley’s Leave the Capital, try the author’s blog here.

For more about Manchester – A City United in Music, out today (Friday, January 25th), and Ace Records’ impressive back-catalogue, head here. In the meantime, here’s the track listing:

Disc one:

  1. DIRTY OLD TOWN – EWAN MacCOLL featuring PEGGY SEEGER (1983)
  18. I’M A MAN – WYNDER K. FROG (1967)
  20. GEORDIE – GREASY BEAR (2016)
  23. LIFE IS A MINESTRONE – 10CC (1975)

Disc two:

  8. EDWARD FOX – SMACK (1980)
  14. COME TO MY AID – SIMPLY RED (1985)
  17. I WANNA BE ADORED (7-inch version) – THE STONE ROSES (1991)
  18. THIS IS HOW IT FEELS (Radio mix) – INSPIRAL CARPETS (1990)
  19. KINKY AFRO (Mix) – HAPPY MONDAYS (1990)
  20. NEW TOWN VELOCITY (single version) – JOHNNY MARR (2013)
  21. ROCK ’N’ ROLL STAR – OASIS (1994)
Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Comedy & Theatre, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Skids / Big Country – Preston Guild Hall

Green Light: Dunfermline punk legends the Skids, live in Preston (Photo copyright: Michael Porter)

As the years pass, it’s natural to have doubts about what lies ahead. But seeing Richard Jobson and Bruce Watson work a stage, I’d like to think – as a rather prominent rock’n’roller once put it – we’ve all still got a lot o’ living to do.

OK, quoting Elvis may not be the best way to illustrate that, but as any Skids and Big Country gig these days inevitably pays tribute to Stuart Adamson – who outlasted The King by barely a year – you’ll understand if his surviving bandmates are determined to make the most of their days.

‘Jobbo’ himself was quick to acknowledge that sentiment at the Guild Hall, deciding that if he were to go that night, so be it. Or words to that effect. And both the Skids frontman and stalwart guitarist Bruce certainly act like they’re still in the prime of their lives. ‘Choose life, Choose Fife’, you could say.

Bruce was on board with Big Country from the start, giving two decades’ service before they initially called it a day, 18 months before the death of their co-founder.

But when they reconvened in tribute to Stu, he was there, and again five years on for a 25th anniversary tour. And this past decade he’s appeared many more times with a new-look outfit – sort of BC/AD, I guess – now also including his son, fellow guitarist Jamie.

Family Way: Jamie and Bruce Watson lead from the front with Big Country (Photo copyright: Michael Porter)

Yet while father and bairn have put in plenty of shifts for a band that released the first of nine studio albums 36 years ago, they also feature for Stuart’s previous outfit – to a point where young Jamie has been with the Skids longer than Big Country now.

And in Preston, the Watsons put in the hard graft for both, inspiring Jobbo to up the ante when it was his time to join the party.

When I say ‘up the ante’, I doubt he ever put in less than 100 per cent with Dunfermline’s premier punk exponents. And just watching him is enough to bring you out in a sweat.

Time constraints on the night meant this – night one of the Skids’ latest tour – would in essence be more a greatest hits package for each band, but they played to their strengths, even if sound issues meant I failed to get the full force of those Watson guitars in the opening set.

At that stage, there was still plenty of room on the dancefloor, and where those guitars are the key to Big Country – not least on stand-out hits and tonight’s closing songs,‘Fields of Fire’ and ‘In a Big Country’ – at times it was as if it was all coming from just off stage.

Preston Wonderland: Big Country rock the Guild Hall (Photo copyright: Michael Porter)

What’s more, while this is a band who proved time and again in the past they were at ease with stadium rock, I felt you’d get far more from them in a more intimate setting.

That’s not taking anything away from Big Country today, and Bruce’s fellow co-founder Mark Brzezicki was on typically sparkling form, not least on classic album The Crossing’s atmospheric ‘The Storm’, while more recent additions Simon Hough (vocals, acoustic guitar) and Scott Whitley (bass) also impressed.

In fact, all four outfield players seemed to be having the time of their lives, and that proved infectious. From ‘1,000 Stars’, ‘Look Away’, ‘Steeltown’, ‘Lost Patrol’, ‘Harvest Home’, ‘Inwards’, ‘Chance’ and ‘Wonderland’ onwards, all contributions were greatly received, the audience also in fine voice while Hough honoured Stu’s memory with his own respectful interpretations of those numbers.

The floor was far busier by the time the Skids took to the stage, the Watsons and Jobbo joined by much-loved Skids stalwarts Mike Baillie (drums) and Bill Simpson (bass, and like his bandmates endorsing Glasgow’s ant-racist St Pauli supporters’ club initiative) plus recent addition Rory Cowieson (keyboards), all helping take the evening to a new level.

They started with ’Animation’, then quickly hit top gear with the first album’s ‘Of One Skin’, a two-speed wonder sounding every bit as fresh four decades after its inclusion on debut LP, Scared to Dance.

Stage Stars: Bruce Watson, Richard Jobson and their bandmates gave it their all (Photo copyright: Michael Porter)

Jobson, in black Harrington, black t-shirt, black jeans, may have a fuller figure these days, but he’s no slouch, windmilling away and covering plenty of ground with those distinctive mazy dance moves.

‘Kings of the New World Order’ showed us they’re still more than capable of creating fresh statements, the frontman thanking us for coming out rather than sitting in on a winter’s night watching ‘Dancing on fucking ice’.

There was also Jobbo’s nod to the big names that helped keep his and Stu’s ‘The Saints Are Coming’ in the public eye, clearly proud of his work. And rightly so.

He then talked us through an afternoon stroll around Preston, belatedly answering questions posed on the streets, not least one regarding a rumour involving his virginity and a member of Pan’s People.

We got a further nod to the past with the anthemic ‘Working for the Yankee Dollar’ and ‘Hurry On Boys’, while the crowd were again in good voice for ‘A Woman in Winter’.

Skids Row: Bruce Watson, Richard Jobson and Bill Simpson lead the line (Photo copyright: Michael Porter)

Inevitably, we got ‘TV Stars’, with added withering lines about Boris Johnson and Theresa May, that crowd favourite part of a winning medley, followed by a nostalgic run through the Sex Pistols’ ‘Pretty Vacant’ and the Buzzcocks’ ‘What Do I Get’, the latter a fitting tribute to old friend Pete Shelley, extended by an a capella run through ‘Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t‘ve)’.

There was a  jibe about Jimmy Savile, Richard reliving the band’s uncomfortable Top of the Pops debut, while ‘Masquerade’ and ‘Into the Valley’ – my personal highlights – proved every bit as good as I’d hoped.

I’d have loved to hear ’Sweet Suburbia’ for old times’ sake, but The Absolute Game’s ‘Out of Town’ was a further tour de force.

By then, a venue curfew loomed though, with just enough time for Days in Europa’s ‘The Olympian’ and No Bad debut EP lead track ‘Charles’, another worthy tribute to its writer, a punk and new wave icon so integral to both outfits.

For this site’s recent interview with Skids drummer Mike Baillie and full details of the Skids’ 2019 tour, head here. This website also carries interviews with Bruce Watson (October 2014), Mark Brzezicki (September 2016) and Richard Jobson (May 2017).

Back Again: Influential Scots the Skids gave a blistering performance (Photo copyright: Michael Porter)

Thanks to Michael Porter for the use of a few of his great photographs from Preston Guild Hall, with a Facebook link here, adding a respectful nod to Gary M. Hough, also busy with his camera on the night. You can check out his fine work via this link

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment