The Wedding Present / The Catenary Wires / Miles Salisbury – The Continental, Preston

Continental Flair: David Gedge gets stuck in, Preston (Photo: Richard Houghton)

When Un-Peeled promoter Tuff Life Boogie broke the news that The Wedding Present were coming to my favourite Lancashire riverside locale in early March, there was much excitement from the North West indie fraternity, with one date soon not enough. And four and a half months on, I was lucky enough to catch the resultant two-night stand, a pair of memorable performances – both sell-outs yet still somewhat intimate – in the company of these John Peel favourites, three decades into their sparkling career.

It was main-man David Gedge’s first live Preston visit since a 53 Degrees show in late 2010 (a Bizarro 21st anniversary performance, one snowy night), his band having first played the Twang Club in January ‘86, then returning as conquering heroes in 1990 in Preston Poly days. And between those second and third visits ‘the semi-legendary Wedding Present’ (as Gedge put it this week) amassed 18 top-40 singles and seven top-40 LPs, with a few of those songs aired here in their first shows since a major Australasian tour.

I made it 36 songs over the two nights, seven of which were played both times – six from most recent masterpiece Going Going … and ’87 classic My Favourite Dress. And speaking of the latter, over two nights we got every track from much-feted debut LP George Best as well as many more favourites from down the years, not least storming finales Brassneck (night one) and Kennedy (night two) from 1989’s Bizarro. Incidentally, the second night was my better half’s first TWP date since a Manchester Hop and Grape appearance in October ’96, and she reckons they finished with Kennedy that night too, something that’s become more of a rare occurrence in recent years.

And the other tracks? Well, early singles Go Out and Get ‘Em Boy and You Should Always Keep in Touch With Your Friends were both surely aired at my first TWP gig at Reading Majestic in February ’87, and there was further Bizarro favourite What Have I Said Now? and 1990’s Crawl, Seamonsters‘ wondrous Dalliance and Dare (back-to-back, night one), 1992 hits Come Play with Me, Love Slave and Flying Saucer (always such a thrill), Mini‘s Drive and Watusi‘s Click Click (with Gedge and bass player Danielle Wadey’s harmonies at the core of another second night highlight).

Of the more recent material (all from the 21st century, so that counts, right?) there was Take Fountain‘s Interstate 5 and Valentina‘s Deer Caught in the Headlights and End Credits, the latter another night two revelation. Newer still, not only Going Going … choices Kill Devil Hills, Lead, the ultra-quirky Secretary, Fordland, Emporia and Ten Sleep (few of which were obvious choices, but all winning me over come Thursday night), but also the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience cover, Mothers.

That just leaves England from the Home Internationals EP, opening Thursday’s set, its combination of poet Simon Armitage’s reading and an introductory, laidback groove leading seamlessly into the heart-skipping Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft. Or at least it should have. Unfortunately, Danielle was struggling with her mic. stand after xylophonic interaction from her left, the smooth transition going to pot. But do you know what? Happenings like that make it for me. As tight as an outfit they are, I’d hate it too slick. Instead, they showed their usual good grace and humour, laughed and just got on with it.

Plenty more moments fitted that description, not least when Danielle, drummer Charlie Layton and guitarist Marcus Kain were struggling to hold it together mid-song, catching each other’s eyes. I put it down to a wild reverberation from the stage monitors part-way through What Have I Said Now? but my other half reckons she soon spotted guitar tech/ band photographer Jessica McMillan collecting a spider in a glass, Gedge unaware of what was going on behind him.

It comes as no surprise to seasoned followers that there was plenty of evidence over both nights that this will never be a band going through the motions, the impassioned Gedge surely kept young by the company he keeps. And while the first half of the opening set was a little patchy, sound-wise, the following evening proved to be another religious experience for this punter, and no doubt many more.

Countless personnel changes have followed since that Twang Club local debut, yet thy remain a proper band, the latest personnel buying into that whole-heartedly. They’re so tight as a unit, with Charlie so expressive and rather manic throughout, Aussie import Marcus’ six-string prowess equalling his bandleader’s, and Danielle now at home on bass as well as those sublime backing vocals (she was more a shy fifth member adding keyboards when I caught them in Hebden Bridge in 2014). What’s more, she delivers the ice-breaking Fact of the Day feature these days (on this occasion, Gedge inviting us to give ourselves a round of applause over two of this particular city’s national claims to fame).

Support on opening night was from amiable, behatted, acoustic guitar-toting Miles Salisbury, once of Preston College-formed Blank Students, who recorded a BBC Radio 1 session for Peel in 1981. I only caught half of his set, but he seemed to be having the time of his life. It might just have been nervous banter, but it worked. A fine falsetto too.

New Horizons: The Going Going … cover shot (Photo: Jessica McMillan)

The same has to be said of Thursday’s guests, splendid Kent-based duo The Catenary Wires, featuring ex-Talulah Gosh pair Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey, also Peel session veterans. Ron sat down and played guitar, Amelia sang and added apologetic ukelele, and they sang about their love, Margate Pier and much more. There was a brief mention of past times and My Favourite Dress too, although Amelia was just remarking on what she was wearing. But there is another link, their old band not only supporting the Weddoes in ‘87 – I recall seeing them at the University of London in May on that tour – but Amelia supplying vocals on several tracks in ’87 and ’88, including four on George Best.

As with his support acts, Gedge chatted away between songs, at one point inviting us all to his At the Edge of the Sea festival in Brighton, telling us we were all on the guest-list … as long as we showed up together by charabanc.

Granted, there were plenty of opportunities for nostalgia, but this wasn’t just an exercise in celebrating indie heritage, several of the selections from the past five years further indicating Gedge’s continued grasp on it all.

Huts’ Entertainment: The Wedding Present, 2017. From the left – Marcus Kain, Danielle Wadey, David Gedge, Charlie Layton

For the writewyattuk verdict on The Wedding Present at the Boileroom, Guildford, in February, check out this review, while my verdict on Going Going … is here

You can also find a past band appreciation on this site (wrapped around a review of 2012’s Valentinahere, and a link to Thirty Years in the Business, an interview with David Gedge at Hebden Bridge’s Trades Club from the summer of 2014, here

To find out more about soon-to-be-published official band publication The Wedding Present: Sometimes These Words Just Don’t Have To Be Said and how to pre-order at a specially-reduced price, head here.   

Finally, for full details of forthcoming TWP dates, including the At the Edge of the Sea festival, check out the official Scopitones website and keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

  • With thanks (as ever) to Rico La Rocca and Rob Talbot at The Continental, for their drive, helping bring so many fine acts to their neighbourhood.
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Sunshine, moonlight, good times, boogie – the Tito Jackson interview

Tito Time: The third Jackson sibling, having the time of his life (Photo copyright: Taj Jackson/Kamelian, LLC)

It’s not even 9am in California, but it’s already Tito Time, with the third eldest Jackson sibling more than happy to share a few stories from his impressive career.

Guitarist and vocalist Tito – real name Toriano Adaryll Jackson – was a founder member of both The Jackson 5 and their successors The Jacksons, having been on board right from the start, originally performing with eldest brother Jackie and next-in-line Jermaine as the Jackson Brothers. It’s been something of a rollercoaster ever since, with many highs and a few lows, not least the death of third youngest sibling Michael in 2009. And after all those years with the family firm, the 63-year-old has released his first solo LP, while continuing to tour alongside his brothers on their 50th anniversary tour.

The Jacksons have performed as a four-piece since a 2012 reunion, with Tito, Jackie (aged 66) and Jermaine (62) joined by fellow Jackson 5 survivor Marlon (60), who first came to the party with Michael in 1964. And what a band, that combination of musical talent and choreography earning them pop royalty status, having sold more than 100 million records since their splendid Steeltown Records debut Big Boy in 1968, notching up 25 UK top-40 hits along the way – 12 of those making the top-10. What’s more, their breakthrough Motown successes I Want You Back and ABC, which first charted this side of the Atlantic in early 1970, remain as fresh as ever today.

Michael was soon at the forefront, barely 12 by the time the band became the first act to score US Billboard No.1s with their first four singles. And while he embarked on a solo career from 1971, he remained on board with the family band for 20 years. In fact, it was Jermaine who was first to leave, sticking with Motown as a solo artist while his brothers switched to Epic, youngest bro Randy joining for a re-brand, as per the 1976 LP The Jacksons.

Early Days: The Jackson 5 give it everything on The Ed Sullivan Show in the late ’60s.

They quickly re-established themselves, not least thanks to their sole UK No.1, the Gamble and Huff-penned Show You the Way to Go, from that eponymous LP, and 1978’s Destiny‘s first singles, Blame it on the Boogie (written – confusingly – by England’s own Mick Jackson, who had an earlier, arguably more Stevie Wonder-like hit with it) and the Michael and Randy co-write Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground).

In time Jermaine returned, the 1983 Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever live TV special followed by 1984’s Victory album (the only LP featuring all six brothers), but Michael then jumped ship – properly on his way to a glittering career in his own right – and Marlon soon after. I should also point out – in this somewhat confusing family history – that throughout that period there was contrasting solo success for the Jackson sisters too, eldest sibling Rebbie and middle sis La Toya’s careers outshone by that of youngest sibling Janet from the mid-‘80s onwards.

Meanwhile, Tito and co. carried on until 1989, a reunion of all six brothers following 12 years later, two shows at Madison Square Garden, New York City, marking Michael’s 30th solo career anniversary. There were talks and moves towards another reunion too, but then came 2009’s devastating turn of events. Yet the remaining Jackson 4 got back together five years ago for the Unity tour, gigging on and off ever since. In fact, this ‘boy band’ with a difference – 251 years old between them – are set to return to these shores for the opening night of Blackpool’s Livewire Festival on Friday, August 25th, and the following day’s CarFest South, near Overton in Hampshire. And if the brothers get anywhere near their recent form in a 19-song set at Glastonbury Festival, those Tower Headlands Arena and Laverstoke Park Farm audiences are in for a treat. So did Tito enjoy his visit to Worthy Farm with his brothers?

“Oh that was fun, that whole Glastonbury situation! All the people really enjoyed the show, and that was one of the band’s dreams – to do Glastonbury.”

There’s a special atmosphere there, isn’t there.

“There is, and we get it on the telly here as well, and of course every band in the world would love to be a part of that. Not only was it a good feeling but it was also a great accomplishment for the band.”

It also gave Tito the chance to share a couple of songs from his solo LP with the wider world, giving me the opening for that big question – why go it alone only now, after all these years?

“I can answer that quite easily. When Michael was putting out Got to Be There (1972) and when Jackie was putting out Jackie Jackson (1973), then Marlon was putting out his records and Jermaine was putting out his records as solo artists, Tito was busy holding bottles for the babies! I said to myself, ‘How can I be a solo artist when I’ve got these young children? How am I going to find the time to spend time with these kids, who are only kids one time in their life? I can always do the music thing later in life’.

“Later, my boys came to the Los Angeles Forum and watched the brothers perform, then came home and started mimicking the brothers. I told them, ‘If you really want to be like the uncles you’ll have to learn your instruments and learn to do this for real’. I opened up the studio and gave them my experience, and they seemed very interested. So I kept working with them on that instead of doing the solo career, letting the boys be who they were.

“It was more feasible for me to help them out, and I’m glad I did it that way. I now look at my sons as nice young men – they’re brilliant and they’re not disobedient in any fashion. And I contribute that to the time I spent with them when they were younger kids.”

It’s also given you a self-made vocal trio to contribute to your album.

“Exactly! There’s a saying that it’s never too late to follow your dreams, and I’m one of the people trying to prove that to the world you can still have that success and it’s not over until the fat lady sings! And I’m enjoying this as much as when I Want You Back came out or ABC, enjoying my solo career at this age.”

There are some big names helping you out too, such as Big Daddy Kane, Betty Wright, Jocelyn Brown …

“Yeah, and 3T!”

Of course, and to put a fresh spin on a sentiment from the mighty Sam Cooke, it’s been a long time coming, but finally it’s Tito Time, yeah?

“It’s Tito Time, yeah! Not only that, but I’m not the only one who’s recognising that. My brothers are as well, supporting me wholeheartedly when I’m doing my music on stage. They’re right there with me, singing with me. And we’ve always been a family where if one brother does well, It shines with our whole family. So that’s where we are with that.”

Tito was looking forward to his UK return when we spoke, enjoying a little ‘off-time’ at home in Calabasas on the outskirts of Los Angeles. California’s been his home since 1968 – when he was 15, Michael was 10 and youngest sister Janet was barely two – and these days he divides his time between there and Las Vegas, Nevada, as do several of the brothers and his parents. So when was the last time he got back to Gary, Indiana, where the Jackson story started?

“A little less than a year ago. My Mum has an annual tribute show there in honour of my brother Michael.”

Good memories of your days there?

“Oh man! When I go back there, I can look at some of the things I did when I was a kid, some of my landmarks, such as the time I took a hammer to the wall in the bedroom. I still see the patchwork!”

Was that a release of teen angst?

“I don’t know what I was doing! I was probably trying to hang up a picture of something! There’s all kinds of memories in the home at 2300 Jackson Street and when we go there we can reminisce and still feel the vibe.”

As the band are currently part-way through a 50th anniversary tour, I asked Tito which of those early shows he remembers best? Was it, for example, their first appearance at the Apollo Theater, Harlem, New York, victors on an amateur night there in February, 1968, or their return to support Etta James at the same iconic venue three months later?

“Oh yeah, that was definitely one of the bigger moments for us. Also, the audition for Motown and The Ed Sullivan Show (both 1969). You can never forget those type of situations. They were ground-breaking moves for the young band, The Jackson 5, that stick with us. Also, being invested in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (1997) and the Victory tour (1984), further good memories for the band. Yeah, it’s been great.”

I hope this doesn’t make you feel old, but that first Apollo performance was barely three months after I was born.

“Well, that’s quite okay. No big deal. It’s funny how people often say how it’s been 50 years. It doesn’t seem that way to me or the brothers, it’s seems like half that time. We enjoy what we do, and when you enjoy what you do, time is not a factor. We just want to get up and have a good time and continue to do what you do. And that’s what we do.

“One thing I like about the situation with the brothers is that we’ve preserved our bodies and our health. We were a family act and our father made sure we got our rest and didn’t go out and party and do all those crazy things that a lot of other entertainers do. We’ve always had that guidance from our father and mother, who always looked over us and kept us as a family.”

Apollo Return: Word of that 1968 ‘Jive Five’ show supporting Etta James at the Apollo Theater, as detailed on the informative J5 Collector blog pages at http://j5collector.blogspot.co.uk

There have been upheavals though, including a few false dawns as well as landmark moments like the 1978 self-produced Destiny album. Was that the band finally stepping out of the shadows? For one thing, I understand you were finally free to play guitar on your own records for the first time.

“Yep, I got to play the guitar on my records, and a lot of the songs we did on the Destiny album I had started writing, like the song Destiny, which originated in my cabin in Big Bear. I called my cabin Destiny because it was a place away from home where I could get away and not be found. And that was a good time, our first time doing solo writing and producing, and a breaking time in our career where we had to step it up.”

Now, all those years on, you seem to still like each other judging by all those reunion tours. Do you see a lot of each other when you’re not working?

“Oh yeah. We have special days – holidays or birthdays for cousins and their kids and all participate in those events. We see each other all the time. As long as there’s a way whenever we’re in town. Absolutely!”

And what do those six grandchildren of yours make of Grandad Tito going still being out there, on the road?

“Well, as long as I bring them some t-shirts and candy and a couple of souvenirs, they deal with it … yeah!”

Time flies, and it’s hard to believe it’s been eight years now since we lost Michael. What do you think of first when you remember him?

“The first thing I think of is of him being my brother and the love we had for each other as brothers. That’s what I miss more than anything. Then I think of how brilliant he was as an entertainer, one of the greatest entertainers that ever held a microphone and hit a stage. I can’t deny him of that just because he was my brother. I have to recognise that he was a great. I tell people Michael would have been a leader in anybody’s band, even if he was in The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. He will definitely be missed. He was magical and different and very brilliant, he was a genius and I miss him tremendously. And the whole world misses Michael Jackson.”

When you’re not out there performing or writing songs, what do you like to listen to? I gather you’re a big fan of the blues.

“I love the blues, and I love listening to top-40 radio, and I put on my favourite radio stations and work on my cars. That’s what I do in my off-time.”

I get the impression from all that’s been written about the family over the years that we have you down as the Jackson brother with the inner calm. That’s how they like to portray you anyway – the quiet one, but he knows where he’s coming from and where he’s going. Is that about right?

“Yeah, well, when I speak, everybody listens! I don’t say too much but when I have something to say they’ll listen. I’m not saying that they take my advice though!”

I know you have a strong faith, but do you believe in fate? I’m thinking in particular of when you were 10 years old and caught playing your Dad’s guitar. Was that the spark that started this whole journey for you and your brothers?

“A lot of people say that, but I don’t know. There was so much happening around that time, and Jermaine, Jackie and I were singing harmonies behind my mother – country and western songs. With the guitar thing, my father played and didn’t want us to mess with it, but my mother let me play it, and I broke a string and didn’t know how to fix it, and he found out.

“He spoke to me for it, and then put it in my lap and told me to show him what I knew. And when I started playing, his mouth flew open! He gave me the guitar and told me to learn every song I heard on the radio. So I started learning The Temptations and all that, playing songs like My Girl, with Jackie, Jermaine and myself singing, starting to work out parts for these songs. It just grew into a group … and the rest is history!”

Jackson Four: From the left, Tito, Jackie, Marlon and Jermaine, still shaking it down to the ground

While we’re talking ‘boy bands’ with added class and plenty of soul, I can also point you towards past writewyattuk interviews with Duke Fakir of The Four Tops and Otis Williams of The Temptations. 

The Jacksons, supported by The Christians and Mica Paris, play Blackpool’s Tower Headlands Arena on Friday, August 25th for the Livewire Festival, with recent writewyattuk interviewee Pete Waterman introducing the Hit Factory Live on Saturday (Jason Donovan, Pepsi & Shirlie, Go West, Sinitta, Sam Fox, Brother Beyond, Undercover), and Will Smith & DJ Jazzy Jeff plus Fatman Scoops, Phats & Small and Tiger-S rounding things off on Sunday. For ticket details and more information call the box office on 0871 220 0260, visit the official website or go to seetickets.com.

Tito, Jackie, Jermaine and Marlon then head for CarFest South, for a BBC Children in Need fundraiser at Laverstoke Park Farm, near Overton in Hampshire, on Saturday, August 27th, the bill also including Cast, KT Tunstall, Mel C, Seasick Steve and Sophie Ellis-Bextor. For further details go to the official website or the event’s Facebook page. 

You can also check out all the latest from The Jacksons via their own Facebook page, and head to Tito’s Facebook page here

 

 

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Public Service Broadcasting – Every Valley

I’ve mentioned on these pages before a love of archive documentary films, the British Film Institute restoring, reissuing and reminding us of so many inspirational cinematic moments in recent years, not least treasures from the pioneering GPO Film Unit and its successor, the Crown Film Unit.

That era included Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s Night Mail and further masterpieces from the likes of Alberto Cavalcanti and Humphrey Jennings, giving rise to another success story, British Transport Films following in their wake in 1949, the subject matter ranging from industry to travelogue, and often both.

In recent years I splashed out on the BFI’s GPO Film Unit, British Documentary Movement (1930-50) and British Transport Films DVD collections, reliving key moments in my youth watching black and white ‘shorts’ – cuppa in one hand, biscuits ready to dunk. And it’s not just about nostalgia. This was film-making as art.

One such film that resonated was Tony Thompson’s A Letter for Wales (1960), scripted by Brigit Barry and Norman Prouting and narrated by Welsh actor Donald Houston, reminiscing one night at Paddington as he posts home via the night mail train, remembering days of steam, bridges, boats, first love and more. And that came within three years of another Prouting and Houston link-up, Every Valley, Michael Clarke’s study of a day in the industrial valleys of South Wales, the locally-born screen star’s lyrical approach perfectly linking a soundtrack of arias, choruses and orchestral interludes from Handel’s Messiah.

Sixty years on, that film is the foundation for an album of the same name by a band that regularly raid the BFI vaults, going back to 2012’s The War Room, including their take on Night Mail a year later. And for their third album they’ve fallen from the heavens above (The Race for Space, 2015) to the coalfields of South Wales, previously believed to hold enough fossil fuels to last us another 400 years of work.

It’s a brave project, yet as with PSB’s previous concept album they mine the seam so effectively. It’s timely too. History teaches us so much, and in this chaotic, austerity and Brexit-obsessed era we’re struggling through, there’s plenty to dwell on. And if there’s one message to be taken from Every Valley, perhaps it’s the need for communities to come together and demand a better future.

While band leader J. Willgoose, Esq. admitted concerns about the idea of a group led by a ‘middle-class South Londoner’ (his description) turning up in Ebbw Vale to tell the locals’ tale, he also reported a positive response. And that won’t just be down to a part of the profits being donated to the South Wales Area Miners’ Benevolent Fund. Perhaps the main reason for the resultant ‘encouragement and acceptance’ was the fact that PSB avoid using their own words for the most part, instead telling the story ‘through the voices of the time or those who lived through it and who subsequently reflected on what it meant to them’.

While the hand of Willgoose looms large – producing and mixing as well as supplying guitar, synth and occasional percussive touches – it’s a team effort, the brass and strings arranged by bass player J.F. Abrahams, Wrigglesworth (again) a hewing colossus behind his drum-kit, and engineer James Campbell also digging deep.

And the result – like those archive documentaries – Is a lovingly-assembled, beautifully-honed work of art, in the style of The Magnetic North’s similarly-evocative Orkney: Symphony (2012) and Prospect of Skelmersdale (2016). It’s also arguably PSB’s most important work to date.

Subtly-picked acoustic guitar and strings introduce the title track, the scene set by the lilting voice of Donald Houston and a riff (carrying traces of The Blue Aeroplanes) that leads to fellow Welsh actor Richard Burton (you may recall them together in The Longest Day) in a clip from The Dick Cavett Show in 1980, his rich tones recalling a South Wales childhood aspiring to be one of the ‘Kings of the Underworld’.

Valley High: Wrigglesworth, Willgoose and Abraham give writewyattuk’s verdict on Every Valley some thought

Meanwhile, percussion and building brass characterise the sound of heavy industry in pursuit of a precious commodity, The Pit taking us deeper still into that magical, hellish subterranean world where we toiled, bass trombone and bass clarinet conveying us, the fall of coal on a working morning neatly personified by the drums.

You also get a sense of claustrophobia among the foul air, a sense of danger never far away, as we reach the heart of the matter on People Will Always Need Coal, the recruitment drive assurances of secure futures jarring in hindsight. As the voice tells us, ‘There’s more to mining than dust and dirt’, something that became apparent in the years of conflict to come, promises that ‘The South Wales Coalfield will be turning out best Welsh for a few hundred years yet’ later broken by the Government of the day. And throughout there’s that stirring staccato, Latin-like riff pushing us on.

Lead single Progress gave us a first glimpse into Every Valley, the mighty Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell adding a sweet vocal on a respectful nod to pioneers Kraftwerk and all things electronica, accentuating the tide of mechanisation that promised so much. Similarly, Go to the Road is also synth-driven yet a sense of a gathering storm is underpinned by Wrigglesworth’ powerhouse drumming and Abraham’s driving bass as we reach ‘the end of the road’ and that first mention of closures, a workforce caught in the political crossfire soon to be ‘chucked on the scrapheap’.

Anger surfaces as we kick off side two on All Out, grinding guitar bringing to mind The Wedding Present and local lads The Manic Street Preachers, PSB’s earlier Signal 30 relocated from race-track to the frontline. ‘We’re not going to take anymore. Enough is enough’ comes the battle cry. But this is about ‘the right to go out of the house in the morning and go to work’, not some vainglorious struggle, breakdown in respect for the old order inevitable – you can only take so many broken promises.

Turn No More reflects on what followed, and who better to convey visionary poet Idris Davies’ message (adapted from Gwalia Deserta, which also brought us Bells of Rhymney) than the Manics’ James Dean Bradfield. ‘In the places of my boyhood the pit-wheels turn no more’ and ‘In derelict valleys the hope of youth is slain’ he wrote just before the Second World War, changes already afoot. Yet even here are glimpses of optimism, not least in the lines, ‘Though blighted be the valleys, where man meets man with pain, the things my boyhood cherished stand firm and shall remain’.

Calls for a brighter future rise on They Gave Me a Lamp – with vocals, accordion and percussion from Haiku Salut – and take us by the hand into that uncertainty with renewed optimism, a sense of community ever stronger, and enveloping female empowerment. And that’s taken on through this album’s biggest revelation, 9Bach’s Lisa Jen Brown duetting with Willgoose – the unlikely vocalist, hence my surprise – on You + Me, an ‘intensely personal’ yet simple love song sung in Welsh and English, ‘a story of strength and togetherness in the face of apparently overwhelming odds’. Again the brass and strings stir us, bringing the point home. ‘If you take my hand and if we stand as one, we’ll have something they’ll never break. I have you and you have me’.

Mother of the Village adds further reflective light on an end of an era where ‘it was never going to be normal’ after the loss of the pit – the mother in the title – and the need to start afresh amid the harsh realities of what was lost or broken. And that sense of inherent resilience ultimately suggests we have the power to overcome, as embodied next in the album’s finale.

As the Houston-voiced Prouting commentary put it, as ‘The sun set in the west over South Wales, and mine and steelworks and factory spilled out their people to the evening and leisure as the people of the valleys – colliers and choristers, lovers and lonely alike – sang out aloud with life’. And that perfectly sets up Rod Edwards and Roger Hand’s Take Me Home, emotively voiced by the Beaufort Male Choir, not least as they sing of those fathers of the valleys, ‘He’d laugh and he’d say that’s one more day, and it’s good to feel the sun shine’.

For this is not about the political leaders who hogged the news all those years ago. There’s no mention of the opposing leaders, McGregor and Scargill, nor the real architects behind this whole sorry episode – Thatcher and co. Instead, PSB focus on those who rallied around in spite of it all. From days of prosperity through to the anger and conflict of the 1980s and ‘sad acceptance’ beyond, and a realisation that ’what was once the lifeblood of the valleys is no longer there, replaced by something far more intangible’, Every Valley offers valuable reflective insight into a story that could teach us so much. Perhaps we just need to listen.

Valley Visitors: Public Service Broadcasting, including engineering accomplice James Campbell, left, on location in South Wales (Photo: Dan Kendall)

Valley Visitors: Public Service Broadcasting, including James Campbell, on location (Photo: Dan Kendall)

For our most recent interview with J.Willgoose, Esq. – in April 2017 – and links to past Public Service Broadcasting features and reviews on this site, head here. And to get hold of Every Valley, available in a variety of formats, and the band’s forthcoming dates, try the band’s official website. You can also keep in touch via Facebook  and  Twitter

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Calling Captain Summertime – the Nick Heyward interview

Woodland Wonder: Nick Heyward takes it easy, and waits for the plaudits (Photo: nickheyward.com)

While Woodland Echoes is Nick Heyward’s seventh solo album, it’s his 10th in total, going right back to 1981’s Haircut 100 debut Pelican West. And this highly personable Beckenham-born singer/songwriter, guitarist and pianist is rightly proud of his latest offering, telling us, ‘I’m glad I’m alive, I’m glad I’m writing and putting records out’.

Even that quote takes me back to the first long player, Nick having ‘borrowed’ a little of the Lizette Reese-penned hymn Glad That I Live Am I for the last verse of Milk Film, as this ex-choirboy knew full well but was unlikely to let on to his mates.

If Nick was guilty of anything in those days – and for much of his career – it was for his relentlessly cheerful lyrics and tunes, as the early Haircuts hits underline. Fantastic Day speaks for itself, and who can forget Favourite Shirts‘ ‘Your favourite shirt is on the bed, do a somersault on your head.’ Not great advice for us with back and neck problems. In fact, his sole concern back then seemed to be a phobia of lakes, if Love Plus One‘s anything to go by. Yet Nick’s enthusiasm and optimism was contagious, and Pelican West still gets regular plays on my in-car system, not least when the sun’s out. What’s more, within a year he delivered another classic, a grown-up one by comparison.

But more of that later. Instead let’s focus on Woodland Echoes, his ‘first pop record in 18 years’ (since 1998 Creation rebirth of sorts, The Apple Bed), and an ‘accidentally-autobiographical reflection’ of the course Nick’s life has taken, its songs ‘influenced by love, nature, togetherness, ‘70s’ pop, America, open spaces and afternoon tea’. As the blurb has it, ‘This is the sound of a confident man in his mid-50s making music for nobody but himself’, Nick insisting it was only when he started compiling and sequencing the LP that he realised he had something different’.

As he puts it, “It came together like a storybook, a love story. I realised the songs were chapters. It starts with time passing; you find love and get a significant connection with your other half, in the forest of love. I’d never really had that connection. I didn’t know why I could always split up with people – it was either them or me.

“The passage of time is reflected on the album – it begins with a cuckoo clock ticking; as you age you become more selective about who you spend time with; no longer the hasty friendships of youth. Who is about the question of who do you keep and who you let go. When you stop looking for what you want, it is often there in front of your nose.”

Three listens in, I was impressed. There’s something of Skylarking-era XTC in places, such as opening track, Love is the Key by the Sea. While that’s quintessentially English, we cross the Atlantic for something of a Great Outdoors hoedown (complete with Jew’s harp) on Mountaintop before The Stars gives us old school Heyward quirkiness, as suggested by the line, ‘I’m a garden wall, you’re a spinning parasol’. A reflective, part-trippy Beautiful Morning carries traces of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, while Who is more Django Reinhardt goes camping, kind of Huck Finn’s Hot Club de France years. And Forest of Love would sit nicely on master songwriter Boo Hewerdine’s most recent offering, Swimming in Mercury.

He’s on top form for the guitar-driven Baby Blue Sky, inviting us on a coastal ride in a convertible on another perfect summer’s day. I’m channeling Paul McCartney (with George Harrison guitar touches) on radio-friendly love song, I Can See Her, while we’re catching Californian rays and filmic imagery on the evocative, somewhat epic Perfect Sunday Sun. Colourful, duelling acoustic guitars, glockenspiel and Fleet Foxes-style harmonies provide a semi-instrumental bridge – more Drake than Heyward – on New Beginning as we near journey’s end, Nick then back in classic pop territory on I Got a Lot  – think Tom Petty guesting with the Lightning Seeds – and then talking to the trees again on For Always, at one with nature on a closing track somewhat reminiscent of Dodgy, another outfit in their element staying out for the summer.

Recorded on a houseboat in Key West, Florida, and back in his native UK at Zak Starkey’s Salo Sound studio, there’s definitely an unhurried feel as well as a holiday vibe from an artist in somewhat transitory mode at present, between short-term accommodation. And in Baby Blue Sky, the flip of his double-A-side lead single, it certainly seems that Nick’s coined the sound of summer … again. In fact, I suggest to him on the phone, there’s almost a Teenage Fanclub vibe there, something not so many would associate with this ‘80s pop icon.

“A lot of people … many millions, in fact … don’t know I was on Creation Records, and I toured with Teenage Fanclub in America. I’m a big fan.”

Meanwhile, Mountaintop – the other side of that first single – is totally different again, more country-tinged.

“That was recorded near the Everglades, using a local band. It’s all blues there, but there was definitely a country influence. We were driving through Nashville and doing stuff over there. That’s nothing like the rest of the album either. But they all have this connection, a celebration of nature. There’s a track called Who and it’s gypsy jazz, and an out-and-out rock number like early AC/DC, I couldn’t put on the album though – people would think I was all over the shop, like a fox running all over the garden, into every bit of foliage you could find.”

Maybe we have the blueprint there for an extended album – Wild Woodland Echoes maybe?

“Well yeah. I’m Springwatch, through and through!”

Do you spend a lot of time in the States?

“It seems to have been that way. It wasn’t planned though. Maybe that’s down to Ian Shaw, who I worked with in the ’90s, who worked with Julian Cope and Alan McGee’s assistant Edward Ball. I played bass on his records and Alan would come down a lot, and really liked my song Kite, and said I should come to Creation Records. Anyway, Ian later moved to Key West to be near his Dad, ending up building a houseboat, including studio equipment. My girlfriend – now my fiancée – is from way up North in Minnesota, and while visiting her parents in Florida I went to see Ian.”

The LP’s certainly a mixed bag, style-wise.

“Yeah, I think that’s because it was recorded over a long period. It was either I save up for a property or invest in me and make an album. The more I was making it the more I really wanted it to sound like a proper vinyl record, and it’s mixed by Chris Sheldon, so all that took more investment and more time.”

Having Fun: Nick Heyward, not at all fazed by writewyattuk’s questions (Photo: nickheyward.com)

Nick’s son Oliver, 29, was also involved in the recording process, as a studio engineer.

“Yes, he’s doing brilliantly with sound engineering, and just the other day he was working with Chris Thomas and Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook. He never wanted to play, but always looked at the equipment I had around and seemed to know how to work it. He does all the summer festivals, like Let’s Rock and Rewind shows I’m involved with.”

Nick also has a daughter, Katie, 26, who he says ‘writes lyrics effortlessly, but chooses at present not to get involved with music’. He hasn’t put her off, has he?

“I might have done! Ha!”

As it says on his website, ‘While the battle for the music industry was playing out as the ‘00s became the ‘10s, Nick stood aside from all this, released two albums under the radar, and got on with the business of life; seeing his children grow up, and finding love’.

It’s certainly been a full career so far, from major label, big money backing at Arista, Warner and Sony to more cult indie support with Creation, and now fully embracing the crowd-funding era. And that independent direct-to-audience concept seems to make sense for him, not least being so social media friendly. Yet while he has his own label these days, Glenhawk, he’s not averse to PR help, via his Pledge Music album initiative.

“That way I can carry on and do another album. That’s why touring is so important to me – from the summer gigs I can then invest back into making more music. And I’ve chosen that rather than owning a house, living in short-term rents.“

Until September that’s in Henley-on-Thames, near Oliver and much of his work. But now his daughter’s Sheffield-bound, he’s contemplating upping sticks again, possibly to there, or nearer Manchester or Liverpool. Speaking of the latter, he played The Cavern last November and previously featured at a show marking the end of the About the Young Idea exhibition at the Echo Arena, celebrating The Jam.

“Yeah, brilliant, and I’ve played with Russell Hastings and Bruce Foxton’s band (From The Jam) again recently, jumping on with them at Let’s Rock, doing Modern World.”

All Set: Nick Heyward awaits the next tricky question (Photo: nickheyward.com)

That’s a quality I like about this Kentish entertainer – it’s not about obvious covers. There’s also footage of him from 1994 playing The Jam’s Sounds from the Street for a TV show.

“Well, Fantastic Day was written when I was pogoing to The Jam! I’d go home inspired by them and others around that time, ending up buying a practice amp and guitar. I locked myself in my bedroom and kept playing D major, C major and G. I had to sing something over those chords, which just happened to be, ‘It’s a fantastic day’. I then thought, ‘Actually, that sounds like a song. I should write one of those other things you have in songs – a verse’. But I didn’t know any other chords, so just played C and G. Later, I learned another chord – F, so put that in just before the chorus.

“I then had this song I played in various bands, although it didn’t pop out until it was suggested in a rehearsal to play to a record company. So we did, and they decided to sign us.”

The rest was history, Nick having left school in 1977, aged 16, working as a commercial artist but soon realising his pop dream. And as the bit about Haircut 100 on his website says, ‘They played the pop game perfectly, tucking their Arran jumpers into their trousers, riding the post-new romantic funk wave, marrying Chic with the Monkees and opening their shows with a blistering cover of Low Rider by War.’

That all sounds pretty cool, but I still feel like I’m at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting when I stand up and admit to Nick that Pelican West and North of a Miracle were two of my favourite LPs of the 1980s.

“Wow! Really!”

My tastes were more punk and new wave then, but I’d still regularly listen to both albums, and still do to this day. So why should I have felt a need to keep that to myself and feel reluctant to publicly appreciate his early work? Was it because of all the Smash Hits and fashion and pop teen mag coverage?

“It’s interesting. I don’t know why that was the case for us and not Edwyn Collins and Roddy Frame, who had similar kind of acts. It might have something to do with the fact we played with the pin-up thing. I don’t think Edwyn and Roddy did. Now we’ve got stats suggesting it’s 90% male fans buying records. Maybe that smaller percentage of women made it … off-putting.”

It was a golden era for white pop-funk and dance, from more mainstream ABC, Duran Duran, Haircut 100 and Spandau Ballet to indie-crossover outfits like A Certain Ratio, The Associates, Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, and The Higsons. I loved the latter’s East Anglian neighbours The Farmer’s Boys too, a band that seemed to be like a tipsy version of the Haircuts to me. All those bands still sound fresh for these ears, and that can’t just be nostalgia on my part, can it? But – as I suggested to Nick – perhaps for me it was more about the songs than what his band were wearing on Top of the Pops.

“Yeah, I think that first album was closer to Steely Dan than anything. It was more complicated, but I got tarred with the icon thing, probably in the same way David Essex was. But musically that’s never affected me, and I’m still doing what I do. Maybe it’s just down to people not being able to openly admit that.

“I also put music first and was playing Dreamin’ by Cliff Richard last night. I don’t give a f*** that it was Cliff. It was written by Alan Tarney (and Leo Sayer), one of this country’s great producers, songwriters and bass players. The way he crafted pop records … I listen to great pop music regardless of who it’s by, but I suppose if I was doing an interview for the New Musical Express I probably wouldn’t say I was listening to Cliff Richard.”

It struck me in later years that Nick was barely 22 when he made North of a Miracle. Yet it’s such a mature album, the artist co-producing with Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick and involving quality session players. As Uncut later put it, ‘If Elvis Costello had released this album, it might just feature in the lower reaches of those lists of all-time greats’. And for a record of that era it’s remarkably unfettered by the synth touches that quickly aged so many LPs around then.

“Well, hopefully I’m going to be doing that album somewhere soon, and get Geoff along to do a talk. To me he’s not only the guy who made Sgt. Pepper but also Imperial Bedroom and so much amazing music. He was the guy who put the microphone six inches closer to the bass and made the guitar on Paperback Writer sound more rocky. For me, he was there at the birth of rock music!”

Is it true that XTC were in line to record that album as well as Geoff? I’d have loved to heard their spin on the album.

“Yeah, and I’d still like to work with Andy Partridge. I speak to Thomas Walsh, of Pugwash fame, a lot. He has me in fits of laughter – he’s the most eloquent, hilarious man – and knows Andy really well. So you never know!

“Back then, we were sat in a coffee bar around the corner from Air Studios and Andy said, ‘Maybe we could be your band’. I was such a fan and was just stunned. I was thinking, ‘He doesn’t really mean that’. But that was a younger, startled, gob-smacked me. Now I’d say, ‘Oh yeah! What time? Nine o’clock? I’ll be there!’”

The following period wasn’t Nick’s best, and while I bought the more club-friendly single Warning Sign, his final top-40 hit in late ‘84, and Postcards From Home in 1986, the latter was soon in the bargain bins. There are some fine songs on Nick’s second solo LP, but production-wise he lost me. Perhaps I felt he was more interested in winning over the audience that saw him support Wham! at their Wembley farewell shows.

“Yeah, I’d lost that … it’s weird. I got to work at Air Studios and with Geoff Emerick and have great musicians, but then didn’t have that power, so the studios weren’t so good and my manager wasn’t really a manager. As a songwriter you’re as good as who you work with. In hindsight I see quite clearly things weren’t sounding so good. Howard Jones and Nik Kershaw were doing well at the time so I was put with Pete Collins and the results sounded good, but I must say my songwriting wasn’t as good around that period.”

I’d moved on by the time of his Warner Bros. Records move and 1988’s third album I Love You Avenue, the single You’re My World just another that failed to chart. And however good the records that followed, it’s a fickle market, Nick struggling to pull back that wider fanbase. By the time of 1993’s From Monday to Sunday he was revitalised though, touring regularly, particularly in the US, alongside the likes of Belly, The Lemonheads, Mazzy Star and Therapy? I think I only picked up on that later though, missing Tangled too, the 1995 album that pushed him further on again. However, I fully appreciated both later, and thankfully he was on Creation’s radar by then, acclaimed 1998 album The Apple Bed seeing Nick finally publicly acknowledged as having returned to form, even if he didn’t seem to sit comfortably with the new breed when that resurgence in interest came around the time of the BritPop phenomenon.

“Yeah, that all followed me getting to work with Ian Shaw, doing demos. That’s where Kite came about, the single Alan (McGee) first liked, a demo all the way through really, because it just worked with acoustic guitar, a drum, cello, trumpet and bassoon sound. That was it, and it was just one of those magical recordings.

“Ian just gave me a beat to play along to, I then took it home, felt I really liked it, opened a little book – and I don’t usually write that way – and tried some lyrics. I went back the next day to see if it worked, and sang it in literally one take. It wasn’t going on the album, but was the song Rob Stringer at Sony heard and thought was great.

“That proved to be the turning point. Maybe I was trying too hard before. Up until then I’d been giving people what I thought they wanted, and it was working. But then there was pressure after North of a Miracle. I was trying to write a hit, and nothing happened. But then I started being creative again in the studio, all this new material starting to pop out.”

Plenty of songs from that era have stood the test of time, such as 1993’s January Man, which for me was kind of On a Sunday part two (although that accolade arguably falls more directly to the rather splendid Perfect Sunday Sun on the new LP). He was properly back with us.

“That was it. It was like a blip before then, despite little glimpses like Traffic in Fleet Street (from I Love You Avenue). But then it was back again.”

On Spec: Nick going for the studious look with his fellow Haircuts, back in the day

Time flies, and it’s now 40 years since Nick and schoolmates Graham Jones and Les Nemes initially started a band. When was your first gig?

“The first as the band? That’s an interesting question. I’ll have to find that out.”

There were plenty of names, including Rugby, Boat Party, Captain Pennyworth and Moving England, before they settled on Haircut 100.

“We changed names so quickly! But the first would have been the four-piece with Pat (Hunt) on drums, probably the Ski Club of Great Britain, in the bar, inviting our friends. I don’t think (music writer) Adrian Thrills came to that, but it was either there or another around the corner in Kensington at the university supporting a band called The Tropicanos. Herschell Holder was in the brass section, and we went on to work with him on the album.”

Incidentally, Herschell had already played with Graham Parker, Eddy Grant and Black Slate by that stage. But as Nick’s website biography concedes, ‘Haircut 100 burnt briefly and brightly – the ultimate group of pals who, within a year, had hit the big time. It finished as quickly as it began’. So while the rest of the band carried on and made a second album, 1984’s Paint and Paint – Marc Fox taking over lead vocal duties – Nick had already released his debut solo LP. Does he keep in touch with his former bandmates?

“Well, Blair (Cunningham, drums) plays on two tracks on my album, and we played together last summer, along with Echo and the Bunnymen, one in a girls’ school playground turned out to be the best gig of the summer! Last summer I had tea in Marc’s garden, him and his lovely lady, and before then I went to Graham Jones’ wedding. I never miss a Haircut wedding, and I’ve been to every one of Blair’s!”

Inevitably there was talk of animosity at first, but Nick was clearly destined to be out on his own.

“Well, it’s just a long boring story about a band without a manager – like a football team without a manager would be a rudderless ship, probably not even getting outside the harbour. It could be the best ship in the world and the greatest crew, but if you haven’t got direction and a leader … But I’m always open to the idea of the six of us playing together again.”

So that might happen again?

“It’s up to us – it takes six people collectively to do that. The last time was when VH1 got us together for a TV show. That was really enjoyable. In the meantime though, I’m not twiddling my thumbs!”

Guitar Man: Nick Heyward knows a few more chords these days (Photo: nickheyward.com)

True enough, not just with the new album but a series of dates too, this week’s headline show at 229, Great Portland Street, Marylebone, seeing Nick – as with his Cotton Clouds festival appearance in the North West (Sunday, August 12th) – backed by his own five-piece band. There are also appearances on the Rewind circuit at Scone Palace, Perth (Sunday, July 23rd) at Capesthorne Hall, Macclesfield (Sunday, August 6th) and in his current backyard at Temple Island Meadows, Henley-on-Thames (Sunday, August 19th), while Nick is set to see out the gigging year for Let’s Rock Christmas at Wembley Arena (Thursday, December 14th).

For those shows he’ll be working with house bands he’s got to know well, including his own players in the Let’s Rock band and a Rewind band drawn ‘mostly from ABC and again great guys’. And when we spoke, he was looking forward to Let’s Rock in Southampton with The Human League, Belinda Carlisle, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Tony Hadley and recent writewyattuk interviewees Howard Jones and Katrina Leskanich. I’m guessing he’s having a ball. Is there good camaraderie between the acts?

“There really is, and it’s getting nicer, meeting up every summer and playing with them. We really put the effort in to make the day work too. It’s not so much the bands as the audiences that lift the day, and when the weather’s good, it really works.”

Then again, I bet it’s equally memorable when it’s chucking it down during Fantastic Day.

“I’ve played that song in all weathers! I remember one at Alnwick Castle where it was literally hailstones, wind, and icicles, with everyone still out there, singing along. How hardy are they!”

Scooting Off: Nick Heyward heads off, another interview complete (Photo: nickheyward.com)

Nick Heyward appears at the Cotton Clouds Festival on Saturday, August 12th, on a bill also featuring The Coral, The Sugarhill Gang, the Everly Pregnant Brothers, and a DJ set from Inspiral Carpets’ Clint Boon, with tickets £39 plus booking from the festival website. There are also official Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. 

And for all the latest from Nick Heyward and more detail about Woodland Echoes and where to order the LP, head here.

 

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Never Gonna Say Goodbye – the Pete Waterman interview

SAW Thing: Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman, weighed down with awards, back in the day (Photo: http://pwl-empire.com)

Perhaps you know him best these days for the countless TV appearances as presenter, judge or pundit, from his shows on regional radio in the Midlands, or – going back a bit further – as a club DJ.

Alternatively, you maybe more aware of his hands-on involvement with Britain’s rail industry, building from scratch successful train businesses, creating hundreds of jobs, salvaging and preserving steam locomotives and championing model railways en route.

But Pete Waterman’s place in the history of popular cultural was cemented in the mid to late ‘80s and early ‘90s as the catalyst of a music production and songwriting partnership that scored more than 100 UK top-40 hits.

Stock Aitken Waterman sold a staggering 40 million records and earned an estimated £60 million, working with a who’s who of pop over that period, from Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue to Donna Summer and Steps. And at the heart of the trio’s PWL label, Pete was clearly the prime mover, his many accolades along the way including 13 Ivor Novellos, despite having left school unable to read or write.

What’s more, Pete remains as passionate about music today as he was working as a DJ for the Mecca organisation in his youth. So whatever you do, don’t mention retirement to this 70-year-old pop impresario, as I did early on when I tracked him down to his London office. In fact, I started by mentioning another septuagenarian I’d just spoken to for these pages, legendary Mott the Hoople front-man Ian Hunter, 78 years young and still touring and writing acclaimed material.

“Oh, and I remember seeing his band when I was a young lad!”

So now Pete’s hit 70, has he any ambition to retire?

“Not at all! Then again, I don’t perform like Ian does. If he’s still out there playing, that’s fantastic! Those guys were brilliant, coming in that post-Beatles pre-Bowie era, lucky to catch that brief time period, I guess.

“I loved Bowie. I was a soul boy, particularly Northern Soul and Motown, but working for Mecca I had to play stuff I wouldn’t have gone out and purchased … even Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep! And just after that period we’re talking about, seeing Bowie break through, the rock scene improved dramatically, through Mott the Hoople and bands like that. A really interesting time.”

So when was the last time Pete DJ’d?

“I still work for BBC Radio Coventry and Warwickshire (and WM), every Saturday. And the great thing is that it’s about music rather than entertaining people dancing. The last time I DJ’d to people to dance to has to be 25 years ago … maybe for the last edition of The Hit Man and Her. And that’s gone on to be legendary really.”

TV Times: Michaela Strachan and Pete Waterman on the set of The Hit Man and Her (Photo: Granada TV/http://www.itv.com)

Us of a certain age remember that well, late night TV after a night out, if you weren’t out clubbing yourself, with Pete joined by Michaela Strachan in a Granada show that ran from September 1988 to December 1992. And in the region I later settled, it seemed that a fair few people knew some of the more prominent dancers that popped up on screen most weekends. Take That’s Jason Orange was one, as were a couple of members of 911.

While he was talking to me from the heart of the capital, Pete remains part-based in the North West, not far from Mr Smith’s, the club from which his hit show was first broadcast.

“I tend to live in Warrington from Friday to Sunday and here Monday to Thursday. And I love that … well, I love the train journey, don’t I!”

The capital’s received a few hard knocks of late, not least from the Westminster and London Bridge terrorist attacks. But it seems that Pete’s not ready to move out yet.

“We have an advantage in our old age sometimes, having been born at a time when people were dropping bombs on us every night out of the sky. Then I grew up in a period as a DJ when we were constantly clearing clubs and ballrooms because of IRA violence. Throughout my career, I took the security aspect as absolutely essential, as I had to. We were trained to do that at Mecca, working in public places, so to me there’s always been a real threat. It’s something I’ve had to live with, and you have to get on with life.”

Pete’s heading back to the North West for the Hit Factory Live Show on Saturday, August 26th though, part of the Livewire Festival at Blackpool’s Headland Arena over the August bank holiday. He’ll be appearing alongside and introducing several ‘80s and ‘90s superstars from his stable, not least Jason Donovan, Pepsi and Shirlie, Go West, Samantha Fox and Sinitta, plus Nathan Moore (Brother Beyond) and Undercover. Is there still strong competition among his acts?

“There was never competition for us. We didn’t allow that. You were there to enjoy yourself. If there was, you were in the wrong business. If you’re not enjoying it, don’t do it. We always said it could last five minutes, five weeks, or five years, so enjoy every moment. If you don’t, you’ll regret it.

“The great thing is we look back over 30 years or so and we’re still all friends. I went to a friend’s funeral yesterday, and you go back and think, ‘We’ve had a charmed life, we did what we wanted to do and have such fantastic memories’.

“We were in Blackpool regularly, including with The Hit Man and Her every six weeks or so. You look back and it’s magical. I’m very privileged to have been able to look back at so many great events. It was amazing, I got paid for it … and I kept my clothes on!”

There’s clearly a strong 80s’ retro market out there too, with Bananarama the latest PWL-associated act reforming.

“It’s incredible. I remember when journalists told me it wouldn’t happen, and I always said, ‘You’re wrong’. You can’t sell a million records in a couple of weeks if people ain’t keen on your record. You might sell 20,000 or 30,000, but not millions. And that’s what was happening.”

Pete left school at 15 in 1962 to work for British Railways, becoming a steam locomotive fireman based in Wolverhampton until his Stafford Road depot closed in 1963, choosing music instead, inspired by The Beatles.

That gives me the excuse to talk trains, telling Pete my Dad was a steam loco fireman from 1953 to 1961.

“Wow! Amazing. What a great career that was.”

I add that he reluctantly left British Railways to become a postman, hoping to support his growing family better.

“Yeah, probably better paid.”

Hit Factor: Pete Waterman shows us around the PWL empire. (Photo: http://pwl-empire.com)

So how about Pete – would he have changed his own career path, given the chance, and carried on where he started?

“No. I started on the railway at Wolverhampton, but I have to say I wouldn’t have done all I’ve done if I still worked for BR. I might have had a great time and enjoyed it, but … I love my railways and I’ve been able to buy trains to play with, but music pays the bills and trains are for enjoying myself.”

It was the same with my Dad. Getting out of that industry when he did, he at least retained his love of railways, never losing that passion. And that’s clearly the case for Pete too.

“Yeah, people tend to forget how dirty and how hard it was, and what unsocial hours and poor pay it offered. I remind people when they talk about taking the railway back that I worked on it and we were there. Drivers now get £60 or £70,00 a year. We don’t want to go back to where they were on £20 a week, working at four in the morning for four nights or four days sometimes, for less than £20. We don’t want to go backwards.”

He’s said to be worth around £30 million these days, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, and has been involved in several railway ventures. For instance, in 1988 he revived the name of the London and North Western Railway (LNWR), involving a rail vehicle maintenance business based at Crewe, with depots across the country, by the time of its sale the largest privately owned rail maintenance business in the country.

That was sold in 2008 to Arriva UK Trains, but there’s also the Waterman Railway Heritage Trust, which owns several steam and diesel locomotives. and then there’s his interest in model railways, his Just Like the Real Thing initiative specialising in O-gauge kits, having spoken about how his ability to become absorbed in making models helped him cope with the death of his eldest son. And as an avid collector his frustration at a lack of high-quality model railway kits on the market saw establish his own company, now widely regarded as a world leader and creating and sustaining jobs at the factory where the kits are made in Scotland.

Furthermore, in 2007 he became involved in a co-operative UK rail industry bid to create a national railway training scheme under the Labour government, halted in 2009. So, while I’ve got him on the subject, I ask – as a leading employer and innovator in the rail industry – what he makes of plans for a return to nationalisation of the railways. Something needs to be done, doesn’t it?

“Yeah, but once we renationalise the industry it becomes fat, lazy, and we go backwards. We need to rebalance, but you have to understand that every Government since 1948 except the last Tory one, under Patrick McLoughlin, has failed to put the money in. And five years of that has not made up for 55 years of under-investment. Yes, we’ve spent billions, but we needed to spend trillions, because our railway system is so far behind.

“If we spent £20 billion a year for 50 years that would only get us to where European railways are today. And we haven’t the money to do that. In a Utopian world, we’d like to have a state railway, but there’s no money to invest, because you have to have money from outside. It’s the only way. No party will do that over the NHS. If you have to argue railways versus health service, you lose every single time … and so you should.”

Having left the locomotive cab in the early ’60s, he started to build an impressive record collection, not least through acquiring rare US imports, his subsequent DJ-ing taking him across the UK, entertaining bigger crowds with a blend of classic R’n’B and soul. At one point, he was supplementing his income by work as a gravedigger then as a General Electric Company apprentice, becoming a trade union official.

Ska Boom: Fellow Coventry success story The Specials, back in the day

Gaining a residency with Mecca, initiatives such as matinee discos for under-18s in Coventry gave him valuable insight into what music interested young audiences. And it was at Coventry Locarno that he met long-time friend Neville Staple, later co-vocalist for The Specials, a band he went on to briefly manage, even going on to write the foreword to Staple’s biography, Original Rude Boy, in 2009. Did Pete recognise the themes of urban decay, unemployment and violence in the inner cities The Specials sang about in their evocative 1981 No.1 hit, Ghost Town?

“Oh, there’s no question. Absolutely perfect. Jerry (Dammers) for me was the best songwriter in that period and for all the youngsters who want to know what the ’70s were really like, go and listen to Jerry’s records. He summed that period up perfectly.”

In an early A&R role for the Philadelphia scene, Pete introduced the Three Degrees to the UK, a later move to Jamaica then seeing him work with Peter Tosh and Lee Perry, and produce Susan Cadogan crossover hit Hurts So Good. By 1979, he’d set up Loose Ends with Peter Collins, hits with artists like Musical Youth and Nick Kershaw following, setting up the PWL (Pete Waterman Limited) label in 1984.

Soon, he signed producers Matt Aitken and Mike Stock, Hazell Dean’s Whatever I Do the first of many successes, with 22 UK No.1s following, including those with Dead or Alive, Kylie Minogue, Bananarama, Steps, Mel and Kim, Donna Summer, Sinitta, Cliff Richard and Jason Donovan. But throughout his varied career, it seems Pete’s never sought to rely on one project. Is that a secret of his success?

“I just love working. If you sit and wait for it to come to you, it’ll never happen.”

Even as an enterprising young boy, he cycled between churches earning a few shillings singing in their choirs. Was his sense of business acumen better than his voice?

“Without question! And my enthusiasm outstripped both.”

Pop Impresario: Pete Waterman today, with retirement not on the cards (Photo: Sarah Lee)

His success in the music industry was recognised through honorary doctorates from Coventry University (2001) and the University of Liverpool (2004), and an OBE in the 2005 New Year’s Honours List. What’s more, he remains on board with local enterprise and training initiatives as well as his rail ventures, this thrice-married father-of-four also having seen four books published, including I Wish I Was Me: The Autobiography. And all that despite dealing with dyslexia, the music industry’s ‘Man of the Year’ in 1990 not learning to read and write until in his 40s. Did his dyslexia help fire him up in a bid to succeed? Or did it put barriers in his way from day one?

“It helped. I didn’t know what failure was. When you can’t read, how bad’s a review? You just got on with it. I never lied to anyone though. I would tell people I couldn’t read or write.”

Do you think things are easier for today’s generation in a similar position, now it’s better recognised?

“I think it’s impossible for today’s generation. I learned to spell through the internet, and wouldn’t recommend any kid to go to school and not learn to read and write. Quite the opposite – try twice as hard!”

It would be easy for this punk and new wave fan to write a former Pop Idol judge off as just another symbol of the established music industry, the ‘hit factory’ Pete created arguably a key influence on the current dearth of TV music talent shows. For that alone some of us may feel we should disown his pop legacy. But that’s not fair, is it?

“No, we set up to be independent. The Specials went their own way and I went mine. I had a mortgage I had to pay, salaries to find, so chose a way I could remain independent. And we were never, ever part of the music industry in that respect.”

He wasn’t really given kudos for that spirit though, despite PWL propping up that indie charts for many years.

“No, but look at the events of the General Election. Five months before everyone said Jeremy Corbyn was a waste of time. Similarly, everyone said of Stock Aitken and Waterman, ‘Forget it’, yet we went on to dominate the world! The public make up their own mind.”

When did he last speak to Mike Stock and Matt Aitken?

“Erm … last year.”

And how’s the relationship between you these days?

“We’re fine. I guess when you work that intensely for a while it comes to a positive end. I think it does.”

Was there a specific moment in your life when you saw a performer and knew what you wanted to do next?

“Yeah, with David Bowie, when I went to see the Serious Moonlight tour. I’d had hits before but that made me realise I knew what I wanted, and no compromise – if I fail, I fail, but this is what I want to do.”

He retains a love of pop all these years on. What was the last great acts he saw who he felt were on their way to deserved success?

“Over the last six months there have been some really good acts, like Clean Bandit, 21 Pilots – I love Stressed Out – and Bastille. Coldplay at the moment are on fire! They’re amazing.”

Anyone you’d still love to work with, who somehow slipped the net?

“There are a couple of young kids I’d love to meet. Jonas Blue is very talented. Dua Lipa too. I love her. That’s my sort of stuff. I guess I see what I did and what they’re doing 20 or 30 years on and see all the traits and excitement, and that’s fantastic.”

What would your advice be to the next generation of emerging artists?

“Stick to what you do. Don’t get carried away. Coldplay are a great example. They pop up all over but never let the quality drop. Chris Martin is exceptionally talented, putting himself with all sorts of people from different situations but still coming out a winner. That’s talent.”

And of what song attributable to yourself are you most proud?

“Oh, it’s Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up. It’s over something like 100 million hits on YouTube … or billions … God knows what it is these days! But it’s about so much more. The point is, that was a moment in time.”

Yep. I’ve since gone back and checked, and it’s 332 million internet hits now for that particular track … and counting. There’s no arguing with that. Respect due.

Hits Radio: Pete Waterman at the controls at BBC Coventry & Warwickshire (Photo: BBC)

For the full line-up, tickets and more information about the Livewire Festival this August bank holiday at Blackpool’s Headland Arena, call the box office on 0871 220 0260, visit the official website or go to http://www.seetickets.com.

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Remembering Rick and Status Quo – the John Coghlan interview

Classic Revival: JCQ, coming to a town near you. From left – Rick Abbs, Rick Chase, John Coghlan, Mick Hughes.

In the BBC documentary Hello Quo, there’s revealing footage of a jam session at Shepperton Studios featuring the original members of Status Quo, for the first time since drummer John Coghlan left 31 years earlier.

That 2012 meeting led to two reunion tours for Coghlan, old pal Alan Lancaster (bass) and Quo ever-presents Rick Parfitt (rhythm guitar/vocals) and Francis Rossi (lead guitar/vocals). And recriminations and tensions surrounding Coghlan’s initial departure were finally put aside for what proved to be one last hurrah of the ‘classic’ line-up, deemed all the more important bearing in mind Parfitt’s death last Christmas.

And while Rossi remains busy on the international circuit under the old Status Quo banner – alongside long-time associates Andy Bown (keyboards), John ‘Rhino’ Edwards (bass) and Leon Cave (drums) plus Rick’s recent replacement Richie Malone (guitar) – the original drummer is also still out there, leading John Coghlan’s Quo from the rear.

Coghlan first worked with Rossi and Lancaster in The Spectres in 1963, that band becoming Traffic Jam then Status Quo in 1967, by which time Parfitt was also on board, a five-piece honed down to the ’Frantic Four’ in 1970 and lasting until the drummer’s 1981 departure. But after a year kicking his heels he was back behind a kit, and 35 years later the gigs continue for this amiable 70-year-old, who brings his band to The Continental in Preston, Lancashire. on Saturday, August 12th.

That’s not the next show though, and I asked my interviewee about the Party in the Park in Woking, Surrey, on Saturday, July 8th, dedicated to Parfitt, who grew up within walking distance of that open-air location. What’s more, we talked about an impromptu tribute in South-West London at what turned out be an emotional end of year JCQ show at the Half Moon in Putney, following Parfitt’s death in Marbella on Christmas Eve, 2016.

“It was, and I also had an email on my phone from a friend in Holland who wrote a poem about Rick. I read that out and it was very moving. We miss Rick. He was a great guitarist, great singer, great guy, and just a really lovely bloke.”

Coghlan’s doesn’t come over as a big talker, at least not on the phone. Just humble, I guess. There’s nothing showy about him. My interview with the more in-your-face Francis Rossi – and I mean that in a good way – a couple of years ago was very different. But I told the original Quo sticksman I’d just watched that Shepperton Studios footage from 2012 again, and felt Alan G. Parker’s film perfectly captured the sense of awkwardness as the ‘Frantic Four’ resumed for the first time since 1981.

There are several versions of the story behind Coghlan leaving, the most dramatic involving him sat down to do a session take, tapping around then getting up, kicking the whole kit apart and storming out. He denies that in the Hello Quo documentary, suggesting – a little tongue-in-cheek, perhaps – he loves his kit too much to damage it. But the drink and the drugs were clearly taking their toll on the dynamics and there were obvious in-band tensions. It seems he didn’t feel part of the inner circle, Rossi tuning his drums before he came in to that particular session supposedly proving the last straw.

A decision was made – to Lancaster’s surprise, the original bassist the next to move on four years later – to let Coghlan go, Pete Kircher replacing him. Coghlan recalls tour manager Ian Jones telling him the day after the kit incident that the band were thinking of replacing him with a drum machine. His response, he recalled in 2012, was, ‘Bollocks. I’ll get on the plane.’

Frantic Revival: John Coghlan at the rear, with Rick Parfitt, left, and Francis Rossi, live in Stuttgart in 2014

We don’t go into all that though. Instead, I asked if it was a relief, particularly in light of Parfitt’s passing, to finally get back together after all those years.

“Well yeah. We all did it for the fans. That’s the way I look at it. Because there’s nothing better than the Status Quo fan. They look after our band really well and follow us everywhere. It’s really appreciated. And if it wasn’t for those fans none of would still be doing these gigs.”

And as a result, the classic four-piece ended up playing two reunion tours together.

“Yeah, we did a UK tour in 2013 and then the following year started in Berlin and did dates in Germany, Belgium and Holland, then back to England, finishing in Dublin.”

Was that a bit of ‘closure’ for you and the band? And was it nice to be back with the old crew, rather than dwelling on all the problems and arguments that ultimately pulled you apart?

“Yeah. It was good fun, but Francis didn’t want to do a third tour. I think Rick, me and Alan would have done another, planning to get together with someone else for a PLC (Parfitt/Lancaster/Coghlan) line-up. That never came to light of course, but there was talk about it, and I think it probably would have happened.”

Looking back on that 1981 departure – irrespective of the decision and the aftermath – I suggest to my interviewee that he got out at the right time, even though he probably didn’t feel that way at the time.

“Yes.”

Let’s face it – the years that followed weren’t the band’s best, creatively. And to be part of the band for so long was something to be proud of. He was on board for 20 years and 14 albums, after all.

“I think I was.”

It was rarely the same again from 1981 until more recent returns to form, at least not in the studio.

“No.”

I tried my best there, but he wasn’t for enlarging on all that, opening old wounds. You can’t  blame him either, and I’m sure Parfitt’s passing help put all those old tensions in perspective. Instead, I moved on, right up to date, asking about the fact that he’s still out there playing and to shed light on JCQ and JCB (the John Coghlan Band).

“JCB doesn’t exist anymore, but JCQ is basically me playing with my band – Rick Abbs (guitar/vocals), Mick Hughes (guitar, previously with Predatür) and Rick Chase (bass/vocals). We play all ‘70s stuff, including songs from the early Quo albums that we never really played on stage. We have a great following, and we’re looking forward to playing in Preston and elsewhere.”

The prime aim – according to JCQ’s press release – is ‘to recreate an authentic ‘70s Quo sound’, in keeping with John’s time with the band. And the diary remains pretty full.

“Yes, most weekends we’re away, and we did two gigs in Belgium and two in Holland, then others at The Northcourt, Abingdon, and The Brook, Southampton, then Queen’s Hall in Nuneaton, and we’re looking forward to the Party in the Park, Woking, and beyond.”

Did you always enjoy the travelling, including all that down-time?

“It’s a part of your life when you’re playing in a band. You have to accept you do a lot of travelling. We try and do it as comfortably as we can, and if we’re playing in Europe we fly out the night or day before. Days of getting up early in the morning, catching a flight don’t exist anymore for us. If they want us out there, they fly us out the day before. We’re not teenagers anymore!”

Seeing as he mentioned age, I asked if it’s harder to get up on stage these days, or does his rock’n’roll vocation keep him young?

“Well yeah. It doesn’t make any difference really. It’s still the same. We’re all quite fit and look after ourselves, and I’ve learned to relax while I’m playing to save energy. It works, and it’s great.”

Originally from South London, he’s been based in Oxfordshire for more than 30 years, on the edge of the Cotswolds, having spent around a decade on the Isle of Man before that. Is there enough room on the drive for his collection of vintage military vehicles?

“Well, I used to be a collector. I’ve only got one now, and that’s somewhere else. Yeah … it’s a hobby, I suppose.”

Going back to his roots, his father was from Glasgow and his London-born mother was half-French, on her mother’s side. Were his family always supportive of his music career?

“Oh yeah. They supported me and loved it, although nobody in the family on either side was a musician before,”

You had that early break with The Spectres, getting a call to play Butlin’s in Minehead. Was it then that you had a little extra tuition from Lloyd Ryan (as Phil Collins would later)?

“Yeah, Lloyd was playing in the orchestra in the theatre, We got together and he taught me a few things. That’s where we met Rick Parfitt as well.”

By his own admission, your future bandmate Mr Parfitt was more on the cabaret side of the business at that stage.

“That’s right.”

Coghlan grew up in Dulwich, leaving school at 15 to begin an apprenticeship as a mechanic. Could that ever have worked out, or was the pull of music too strong?

“Yeah, I got a job but hated it. It wasn’t really my scene and I wasn’t happy. But I learned to play drums and realised I could make a living out of it. I’m lucky in the sense that my hobby is also my job and I enjoy doing it. I love walking on stage and playing with the band. And I’m lucky I don’t have to get up at six in the morning to go to work.”

It helps that you’re very good at your job too.

“Well, yeah. I guess I’m lucky that what I do I can do well.”

Was there the belief when you joined The Spectres 54 years ago that you could ever reach the top?

“Not really. I think in those days if you were in a band that was enough – there weren’t that many of us. We loved the excitement of playing to an audience and being able to make everyone happy, playing good music.”

Looking back at all those years, from the holiday camps until you left Quo, could you pick out a few key moments that will always stay with you, confirming this was what you wanted to do in life?

“I suppose those six weeks at Butlin’s were an eye-opener, doing it – in a sense – professionally, getting to play to people and them coming up saying how much they enjoyed it. Then you think back to that stage with Quo in ’68 with our first hit record, Pictures of Matchstick Men, and playing places like the Royal Albert Hall, Glasgow Apollo, doing the live album there (October ’76), Hammersmith Odeon, Manchester Apollo …”

After you left, you had around a year away from it all, but already had side-project Diesel in the background, making your live debut at the Marquee in ’77.

“Yeah, that was just a bit of fun. Jackie Lynton, our singer, thought of the name, with me, Micky Moody, John Gustafson and various others playing with us. It was really good fun. I guess we could have made a career out of it, but we were all in other bands.”

I’m also intrigued by your one-off 1983 project The Rockers, with Roy Wood, Phil Lynott and Chas Hodges.

“Yeah, that was a strange thing!”

That’s some line-up though.

“Yeah, but it was just put together by this character who had this idea. But there was no plan to go on the road with it, which I thought was a shame. That would have been fun.”

Did you keep in touch with your fellow Rockers?

“Not since we did that recording. Our paths haven’t crossed. But it was fun.”

One of those involved with Diesel was Andy Bown, part of the Quo set-up since 73 but not a full-time member until after Coghlan left.

“He played keyboards but wanted to play bass with us, and did … well. I haven’t seen Andy since Rick Parfitt’s funeral.”

Drumming Legend: John Coghlan caught in a classic portrait in 1977 (Photo copyright: Terry O’Neill)

I’m guessing you met a lot of old mates at Woking Crematorium that day, albeit in difficult circumstances.

“That’s right. We went on somewhere after the event and had a chat with Matt Letley, who was also with Quo for a while, and loads of girlfriends of friends too, but it was a sad occasion.”

When you think of Rick now, is there a particular moment that springs to mind, or was it just all those shared memories?

“Well, he was just a lovely guy, one of the best rhythm guitarists in the world, he wrote great songs, sang extremely well, and all the fans loved him.”

I suppose the business gets in the way sometimes and it’s easy to forget the good times and shared memories you had.

“Exactly.”

During those years on the Isle of Man and in Oxfordshire ever since you’ve been with your beloved, Gillie. Does she deserve a medal for sticking by you all those years?

“I think anyone deserves a medal for sticking with me that long!”

He also has a daughter, from his first marriage, based in Hertfordshire, Is he a grandfather these days?

“Yeah, we have a granddaughter. She’s lovely, and doing well at school.”

But Grandad John’s still out on the road. Could he ever have envisaged that scenario all those years ago?

“No!”

You’ve worked with many big names. Anyone in particular still on the list, at least to jam with?

“I don’t know. Maybe Eric Clapton. I like the blues and I think he’d be a great guy to play the blues with.”

You suggested on the Hello Quo documentary that after your success with Pictures of Matchstick Men, you still didn’t know which direction to take until the band heard The Doors’ Roadhouse Blues.

“Yeah, Bob Young suggested we get rid of the pop image for heads-down boogie blues. That’s what we did, and it paid off.”

And of course Young was another Quo contributor who ended up with you in Diesel.

“Yes, he sang and played harmonica for us.”

Finally, of which Quo tracks would you say you’re most proud of all these years on?

“We made so many albums and recorded so many songs I think it’s difficult to pick one out as the best. I always felt if you ask a Status Quo fan they’ll tell you which they think is the best. They take it from a different outlook, not being part of the recording process.”

Okay then, if you put me on the spot, I’d have to say Paper Plane, or maybe Down Down … or Caroline …

“Oh yeah – good stuff!”

Operation JCQ: John Coghlan’s Quo are coming for you this summer, promising heads-down boogie blues

Tickets for John Coghlan’s Quo at The Continental on Saturday, August 12 are £18 in advance from WeGotTickets or in person from The Continental (01772 499 425) and Action Records (01772 884 772).

For details of Woking’s Party in the Park on Saturday, July 8th, try here. The band are set to go on at 5pm, and later the same day play the Rose Theatre in Kingston, stepping on stage at 9.30pm. For more gig news and all the latest from John Coghlan’s Quo, check out the official website. You can also keep in touch with John’s happenings via Facebook and Twitter.

To look back on this site’s interview with Francis Rossi from July 2015, follow this link. And for the writewyattuk verdict on Status Quo live at Hoghton Tower later that month, head here.

 

 

 

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In praise of Paddington’s world – a tribute to Michael Bond

The Beginning: Michael Bond’s first Paddington story books in my ‘Young Puffin’ editions (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

In a short piece penned for children’s author Cathy Cassidy’s Dreamcatcher blog in January to mark Michael Bond’s 91st birthday, I talked about my friend Paddy, who came into my life 40 years ago last Christmas. Something of a consolation prize at the time, he quickly became the bear I treasured most and all these years on he’s still with me, 240 miles north of his Surrey birthplace, having moved to Lancashire in 1994. He’s now largely consigned to a bedroom alcove, but is still very much loved. And a few days ago I raised a glass to his creator, who died after a short illness in his beloved London.

Consolation prize? I should explain. Most summers from around 1973 Mum and Dad took us to St Ives, Cornwall, my special place, where for as long as I recall while holidaying there, a Paddington Bear sat in a shop window on The Terrace, along our walk into town from the railway station, probably one of the endorsed replicas by Gabrielle Designs, a firm run by Jeremy Clarkson’s Mum. Each summer I looked longingly in, but always understood he was out of our price range.

Dad was a postman and Mum did every job under the sun – mostly cleaning – to help pay rent on our council house outside Guildford, so we were just grateful that they somehow managed to put away enough each year to pay for that annual West Country visit. Besides, the price-tag for the bear with the distinctive toggle-loop duffle coat, rubber wellies, felt hat and luggage label seemed to increase each year.

I’m not sure when I first clapped eyes on that official Paddington, but I was familiar with Michael Bond’s stories about this loveable Peruvian stowaway brown bear long before the BBC children’s TV cartoon, The Adventures of Paddington, was first aired in 1975. I didn’t own many books at the time (most were borrowed from the library) but he was up there with A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh for me, and I’d caught up with them all before I turned 10 in late 1977. What’s more, I still have my copies, some more dog-eared than others.

I don’t remember being disappointed that I never got to own a ‘proper’ Paddington. I got the best possible alternative. I’ve no idea how Mum sought out the bear that became known as Paddy, and it’s too late to ask her now, but he arrived on Christmas Day ‘76, sporting hand-made red felt coat with buttons, black felt boots and hat. These days he sports a jumper Mum originally knitted for one of her nine grandchildren, the clothes he arrived in long since gone. After all, he travelled thousands of miles to reach Darkest Surrey. And Paddy turned out to be the perfect Christmas present.

Paddington Paperbacks: The blogger’s Paddington book collection (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

But what of his inspiration? Thomas Michael Bond was born in Newbury, Berkshire, on January 13th, 1926, five days before A.A. Milne’s 44th birthday and nine months before Winnie-the-Pooh first saw the light of day. Michael would go on to sell more than 35 million books around the world in his lifetime, with the Paddington series published in more than 40 languages, this much-loved author becoming a CBE two years ago.

That first book, A Bear Called Paddington, was published in October 1958, with Michael 32 then, his breakthrough coming two and three-quarter years after Pooh’s creator died. And nearly six decades later he remained proud of his creation in a way Alan Milne – who felt his own loveable character overshadowed his other work – never truly was.

Like my Mum, Michael was brought up in Reading, Berkshire, where early visits to the main railway station – where my Grandad Thomas worked in the signals department and Mum was later in the telegraph office – to see the Cornish Riviera Express steam through en route from Paddington to Penzance (and even direct to St Ives) inspired a lifelong love of trains. His family home was on Winser Drive (Windsor Gardens in the books was an amalgam of that address and a later base in Arundel Gardens, W11, not far from the rail terminus he named his bear after), barely a mile from my Mum’s Cranbury Road roots.

While my Mum passed her 11-plus but had a difficult time at Kendrick School, singled out for her working-class roots among more monied pupils, Michael – also from a C of E background, but seven years her senior – had a hard time at the strict, fee-paying Catholic boys’ Presentation College, insisting his mother only chose that school because she liked the purple blazers. It wasn’t a happy time, Michael remembering with disgust the masters who disciplined their young charges with rubber straps, not least one particularly vicious member of staff, and often endured long cycle rides home to avoid the boys from the local state school, lying in wait.

This son of a post office manager subsequently gave up on the education system, starting work at 14, joining a solicitor’s practice as a mail-boy in the early days of the war. He soon switched employers, becoming an engineer’s assistant at the BBC in nearby Caversham, ‘switching the radio transmitters on in the morning and off at night’, as he told the Telegraph’s Anna Tyzack in 2012, an earlier interest in building amplifiers and radio sets helping him get the job.

Bomb Damage: Reading Town Hall Square after the 10 February, 1943 bombing (Photo: Reading Museum/BBC)

Of that period, a harrowing Wednesday afternoon in February 1943 cast a dark shadow, Michael working in an office at the top of a building in central Reading when it collapsed under him after a direct hit from a Dornier 217, during a raid that killed 41 people and injured many more. The bomber was one of two following the GWR line west from London, one wreaking havoc on Newbury and the other dropping four 1,000lb bombs on Reading, many of the victims trapped below Michael’s office. He told BBC Berkshire, “The bombs blew everything away from beneath you. People on the bottom floor in a restaurant just disappeared into the basement.”

My Mum often talk about the same raid, and that afternoon went with her step-mum and sister by bus to see Bambi at a cinema on Friar Street, getting as far as nearby St Mary’s Butts before an air raid warning was quickly followed by the attack, the passengers forced to lay where they were, Mum recalling a man holding her glasses in case they smashed. After the blasts and eventual all-clear, badly shaken up, they walked home, to be met at the end of their road by my relieved Grandad, who that evening cycled into town to help the rescue operation.

A short spell in the RAF followed for Michael, acute air sickness leading to a switch to the Army’s Middlesex Regiment, staying on until 1947, the year he sold his first short story while stationed in Cairo. The London Opinion magazine paid seven guineas for that, but he later said he ‘could have papered the walls of our one-room flat near Holland Park with rejection slips’ before his literary breakthrough. On demob, he joined the BBC monitoring service, which translated radio programmes from around the world, switching to the children’s television department in 1956, rising through the ranks to cameraman on the first series of Blue Peter.

Writing for Radio Times in 2014, Michael recalled, “There are some avenues in life that feel as though they are meant, and there are others that are simply a matter of chance. Occasionally, very occasionally, there is a happy combination of the two. For example, although I didn’t realise it at the time, my coming across a small bear when I took shelter in Selfridges’ toy department one snowy Christmas Eve was just such a million-to-one chance. Had there been two bears, I might have given them a passing glance, but I could hardly ignore one bear all by itself, with Christmas coming on. He looked so forlorn that I bought him as a stocking-filler for my wife, and called him Paddington after our nearest railway terminus because it has a masculine ring to it; important but not overbearing, with nice, safe, West Country overtones.”

He continues, “My writing had to be squeezed into days when I was off-duty. One such day found me sitting with a blank sheet of paper in my typewriter and not an idea in my head, only too well aware that the ball was in my court. Nobody else was going to put any words down for me. Glancing round in search of inspiration my gaze came to rest on Paddington, who gave me a hard stare from the mantelpiece, and the muse struck, along with what was destined to become the equivalent of a literary catchphrase. Suppose a real live bear ended up at Paddington station? Where might it have sprung from, and why? If it had any sense it would find a quiet spot near the Lost Property Office and hope for the best.

“I knew exactly how my own parents would react if they saw it, particularly if it had a label round its neck, like a refugee in the last war. There are few things sadder in life than a refugee. My mother wouldn’t have hesitated to give it a home, while my father, who was a civil servant to his fingertips, would have been less enthusiastic in case he was doing something against the law.”

His daughter, Karen Jankel, born the year the first book was published, says that Selfridges visit was on December 24th, 1956, with the writing happening just after Christmas and completed within 10 days. It was never intended as anything other than a writing exercise, but such was his first wife’s enthusiasm for the tale that Michael was inspired to try to get the book published.

Mane Attraction: Parsley the Lion, one of the stars of The Herbs (Photo: BBC/FilmFair)

It seems apt that it’s my sister Jackie’s name in the front of my copy of A Bear Called Paddington, as she was born the same year as Karen – now managing director of Paddington & Company – and the book’s initial publication. My version is a mere seventh ‘young Puffin’ reprint, from 1969, while my copy of 1959 follow-up More About Paddington is from 1967, the year I was born, long after Aunty Lucy’s move to the Home for Retired Bears in Lima.

I also have a 1968 reprint of Paddington at Large, youngest sister Tracy’s name in the front, followed by ‘Class 4, Shalford School’, a full home address and ‘Telephone number is have not got one. Ha ha.’ Comedy ain’t what it used to be. More to the point, on the title page she added, ‘Great book’, further proof that it wasn’t all just about James Bond in our house in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

There’s one more Young Puffin edition in my collection, a 1970 reprint of Paddington at Work. All of those carry drawings by Peggy Fortnum, who remained Michael’s illustrator during the Armada Lions reprint years which make up the bulk of my collection, dating between 1972 and 1978. I bought most with birthday or holiday money, and never truly grew out of the series, my Paddington on Stage ‘plays for children’ 1976 edition used for home productions of the stories (no doubt with Paddy in the lead role), just as it would be around 30 years later by my daughters.

By 1965 Michael had given up the day-job behind the camera to concentrate on full-time writing, and us of a certain age fondly recall TV animation The Herbs, the first FilmFair success he created and wrote, working alongside animator Ivor Wood. Using innovative 3D stop-motion model animation, the first show was transmitted in February 1968 in the BBC’s Watch With Mother slot, its regulars including Parsley the Lion, Dill the Dog, Sage the Owl, Sir Basil, Lady Rosemary, Constable Knapweed and Bayleaf the Gardener soon national treasures. And from 1975 onwards The Adventures of Paddington became an after-school staple for this impressionable lad. In fact, to this day Michael Hordern’s voice and Herbert Chappell’s theme tune conjure up home comforts on cold evenings, watching our black and white set (colour TV in the UK may be celebrating its 50th birthday, but my days in front of the box were strictly monochrome).

Michael adapted 56 stories for that series, again directed by Ivor Wood (also associated with The Magic Roundabout and another of my favourites, The Wombles) for FilmFair, bringing Paddington to an even wider and somewhat younger audience. And this was stop-motion fare of the highest order, its largely black and white 2D backdrops not hampering its appeal. They were ahead of their time, producing quality television in a golden era.

Old Pals: Michael Bond and Paddington Bear at home in Maida Vale in 2012 (Photo copyright: Rebecca Reid / Eyevine, as published in Radio Times)

We all move on, and soon I felt I had little in common with private school boarders Jonathan and Judy Brown. Mine was hardly a 32, Windsor Gardens type middle class upbringing. In that respect, Pooh Bear stayed with me longer, and while Christopher Robin also went off to private school at the end of those stories, it always seemed more about making the most of your youth before grown-up adventures inevitably took over. But although I began to value more the complexities of the relationships, understanding a deeper humour in the Hundred Acre Wood while relating more to the ‘great outdoor’ aspects of Milne’s work, his woodland setting comparable to my own semi-rural existence in the Tillingbourne Valley, that in no way denigrates Michael’s stories and the underlining human values in his books.

For one thing, Mr and Mrs Brown are loosely based on his own parents, and so many friends of Michael mention the author’s own Paddington attributes. Michael told Anna Tyzack about his father, “He was a polite man who always tipped his hat and never wore a bathing costume in the sea; he’d just roll his trousers up. But if he came against something he thought was wrong he did stick his feet in, just like Paddington.” And as Karen Jankel put it, “There was nothing slapstick about Paddington, the books are much subtler than that. Paddington is quite a serious-minded bear but he has an innocence which children share and so they can relate to him.”

While I was getting to be the wrong age to fully appreciate the qualities that first hooked me and could most relate to with Paddington – not least that polite, understated manner and accident-prone nature – I always loved his cosy relationship with Mr Gruber, feeling at home when he was dropping in for elevenses on Portobello Road, talking all manner of subjects with a gentleman who had great stories of his own – in the same way I loved my 1970s’ conversations with my Grandad Wyatt and the old boy next door, Jack Grant.

That relationship between the two immigrants is something that endeared both characters to many of us, and Michael told Anna Tyzack, “I based Mr Gruber on my literary agent, Harvey Unna, who fled Germany before the war. He used to tell me people never recognise themselves in books, and he was right; he never realised he was Mr Gruber.” He also told Michelle Pauli of The Guardian the first Paddington book was partly inspired by memories of the evacuee children he saw pass through Reading station from London, saying, “They all had a label round their neck with their name and address on and a little case or package containing all their treasured possessions. So Paddington, in a sense, was a refugee, and I do think that there’s no sadder sight than refugees.”

With that in mind, I was pleased David Heyman’s Paul King-directed 2014 film version of the stories, Paddington, picked up on that. It makes for great viewing, not just because of the stunning CGI effects (for a start, Paddington himself was somewhat life-like, and gorgeous). It seemed that the film-makers fully respected Michael’s vision, and definitely understanding the importance of the camaraderie between two firm friends. Samuel Gruber is wonderfully played by Jim Broadbent, while the choice of Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins as Henry and Mary Brown was equally inspired, with the children, plus Julie Walters as Mrs Bird and Peter Capaldi as Mr Curry – both just the right (believable) side of batty – also nicely cast.

Movie Star: Paddington in the 2014 David Heyman film adaptation

Maybe we don’t tend to see so many people around London raising a hat or being quite as polite in the modern era, and there are elements of an idealistic Mary Poppins-type London in the film, but perhaps we should revert to the ‘Paddington Way’ of doing things, issuing hard stares to those who go against our far more refined new world order. A marmalade sandwich in a hat could defuse the most difficult of situations. I also love the fact that the film put its star at the heart of a buzzing city with a calypso soundtrack, in tribute to the Windrush generation arriving on Michael’s West London patch from the late ’50s onwards.

Actually, I’m due a visit to the capital, and it’s about time I had a proper look around the principal railway termini. Most of my commuting in the past involved Waterloo and Euston, but I’ve a yearning to finally see the John Betjeman sculpture at St Pancras and a certain bronze sculpture of a bear sat on a suitcase under the clock on platform one at Paddington, where the Brown family first found him with that ’please look after this bear’ label around his neck.

That’s not so far from Michael’s own patch, the author sticking around West London, seeing out his days in Little Venice. He’s also one of three popular subjects picked out in sculptures alongside a new pathway and cycle route between St Mary’s Terrace and Paddington Station, two-dimensional steel artworks depicting famous nurse Mary Seacole, computer pioneer Alan Turing and Michael himself – clutching his famous bear – part of the Portrait Bench series by transport charity Sustrans, the subjects voted for by residents.

When my daughters were a little younger, I not only introduced them to Paddington, but also Michael’s much-loved guinea pig Olga da Polga. Others may recall his adult culinary mysteries based around Monsieur Pamplemousse and faithful bloodhound Pommes Frites. But it will be for that Peruvian stowaway that the alternative Mr Bond will forever be associated, and he continued to write throughout the decades, his last title Paddington’s Finest Hour published as recently as April.

As Karen Jankel put it in The Guardian, “The whole world is lucky to have had him. Paddington is so real to all of us. He’s still a part of our family and we’re very lucky. For me, he was the most wonderful father you can imagine, so our loss is personal. But it’s wonderful that he’s left the legacy of his books and Paddington will live on forever. Because Paddington and his other characters were so real to him, he became alive to everybody else. You can tell just by reading his books what a lovely person he was. I never came across anybody who disliked my father. He was one of those people that people instinctively warmed to and he was as funny as a person and delightful as he was in his writing and as a father.”

Of course, the author made a cameo in the 2014 film, a lovely touch that will ensure this ‘kindly gentleman’ (as he was credited) remains with us in another form. As a result, this fan will always picture him raising a glass to his special creation, welcoming a foreign stranger to the big city. Yes, you’ll be missed, Michael, but thanks for the memories. I not only raise a glass but also a metaphorical hat to you.

Bear Essentials: Paddington and Paddy, Lancashire, July 2017 (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

With thanks to The Guardian, Radio Times and The Telegraph for the quotes from past interviews with Michael Bond and Karen Jankel replicated in this feature.  

Along similar lines, for this website’s interview with award-winning illustrator and author Michael Foreman, from October 2016, head here. For a June 2015 150th anniversary appreciation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books, try this link. From March 2015, there are interviews with leading children’s authors Cathy Cassidy and Frank Cottrell-Boyce, and from March 2014 there’s a personal appreciation of Seven Stories national centre for children’s books in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

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