David Baddiel – My Family: Not the Sitcom, Lancaster Grand (Nights at the Theatre, pt.1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A class act – the Tom Williams interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Power to the M People – the Heather Small interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You were based around Standish, weren’t you?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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On Tour: Not the bike race – the David Baddiel interview

Family Man: David Baddiel, out on tour across the nation, right through to early July

After a sold-out run at the Menier Chocolate Factory and in London’s West End, comedian, novelist and TV presenter David Baddiel is taking his Olivier-nominated one-man show to theatres nationwide, with four dates already in the bag when we caught up.

My Family: Not the Sitcom is the follow up to 2013’s Fame: Not the Musical, David’s return to stand-up after several years. And as much as he enjoyed the previous tour, the new show is taking him into new areas, and he’s loving the reaction.

As his press release put it, ‘It’s a show about memory, ageing, infidelity, dysfunctional relatives, moral policing on social media, golf, and gay cats.’ Not your average stand-up show then. It’s also, ‘A massively disrespectful celebration of the lives of David Baddiel’s late sex-mad mother, Sarah, and dementia-ridden father, Colin,’ so we need to, ‘Come and be offended on David’s behalf.’

The 53-year-old Londoner is perhaps still best known for early ‘90s radio and TV comedy, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, alongside Rob Newman, Hugh Dennis and Steve Punt, and fellow BBC hit Fantasy Football League in the mid-’90s, with Frank Skinner. These days though, the father-of-two, married to fellow comedian Morwenna Banks, has seen his writing take precedence, both his adult and children’s novels. But right now, it’s his take on his parents grabbing the attention, following on from an autobiographical peek into his family through last year’s powerful Channel 4 documentary The Trouble With Dad, a very personal insight into dealing with a loved one’s dementia.

But don’t expect him to portray his folks – his mother died in 2014 – as saints. As he explains, “When family members die, or are lost to dementia, all we tend to say about them is that they were wonderful. But if that’s all you can say about them, you may as well say nothing. To truly remember our loved ones, you have to call up their weirdnesses, their madnesses, their flaws. Because the dead, despite what we may think, are not angels.”

The critical reaction to his latest show has been quite something, not least the reviews in the Evening Standard, The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Times. Then there’s all that social media praise, from the likes of JK Rowling, Russell Brand, Ricky Gervais, Hugh Laurie, Lily Allen, Graham Norton, Rob Brydon, Jack Dee, Sue Perkins, David Mitchell, David Walliams, Matt Lucas, Ross Noble, Katherine Ryan, Bill Bailey, George Ezra, David Morrissey, Chris Evans, Alan Carr … What’s more, as I suggest to him, it doesn’t seem like the average rent-a-quote West End back-patting.

“Well, that’s nice for you to say. It’s been really great, the reaction. I think because the show is very personal, and authentic, people respond to that. And every word is true. Despite being very personal to me, it also seems to speak to people about their own family experience. I think that’s what happens.”

His next date is on Friday, February 23rd, a sell-out at Chester’s Storyhouse, followed by a visit to Birmingham Alexandra on Wednesday, February 28th, then – my excuse for talking to David – a two-night run at Lancaster Grand on Thursday, March 1st and Friday, March 2nd. And when we spoke he was extremely pleased with the response to the first regional shows.

“Yes, I’ve done four already – Aberdeen, Bath, Truro and Cheltenham – and they’ve all gone really well, as is often the case. While I had a lovely time in the West End, out of London it’s really brilliant. There’s a real sense of joy at these gigs.”

It’s a truly personal show, as you say, and a different form of stand-up to that which perhaps we might have expected from you back in the ’90s. Is it good to be back out there playing live again? Because, let’s face it, you’re not exactly a regular gigging comedian these days.

“Well, I did a show in 2013, Fame: Not the Musical, the first time I came back to stand up after having not done it for a while, with a new type of stand-up, much more storytelling, including a screen, using clips, and very autobiographical. So it was a different type of stand-up, although not a million miles from what I did. It felt a bit more mature, for want of a better word.

“I hadn’t done it for a bit, but partly because I was having children and all sorts of things. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to perform. But I performed so much in the ‘90s, touring and doing all this for such a long time. It’s very all-consuming, stand-up comedy, so I think I needed time away from it. I wasn’t sure how it would feel to come back to it. But it felt really great.

“This show particularly has touched a chord with people, and that’s different to how it was. I used to enjoy getting laughs but didn’t get the sense I get with this – that people think it’s spoken to them and they want to tell me about their family and all that. It’s really lovely.”

Stand-up comedy can be a lonely profession, not least as you’re out there on your own most nights, even away from mates doing the same job in other towns.

“Well, you do bump into people quite a lot, and one of the things about having done this for a long time is that you do feel part of a little community. It’s a funny old thing, that.

“Actually, to say something rather bleak, when Sean Hughes died, I went to his funeral and part of going was seeing like 40 comedians from my generation, all feeling sad but also part of a real community. We were mourning one of our own, who came up in the same generation, and there’s something really nice about that. It’s not very competitive or anything. It’s very comradely.

“Funnily enough, Rob Newman is playing Salford Lowry the same night as me. And without going on about it, he’s in the smaller room! So it’s the first time Newman and Baddiel will be performing in the same theatre on the same night in … ”

Well at the end of this year it will be 25 years since those huge Wembley gigs you did together, won’t it?

“Yeah, and actually they offered us a gig … but it’s not going to be happening. Wembley did offer a big 25th anniversary gig. I was sort of interested. I think Rob wasn’t. I wasn’t sure either, because I didn’t quite know what we were going to do. But we wouldn’t have to dress up as History Today people, because we already look like them.”

Baddiel Sprit: David Baddiel and his Dad, Colin, putting the world to rights.

At the same time, is this you trying to redress the balance. I mean, was there a danger of you just becoming known as that bloke married to Mummy Pig and Dr Hamster from Peppa Pig.

“Well, that’s alright. I don’t mind that. I can only be proud. Actually, of that younger generation, a lot are now into the kids’ books. The other day I was in a shop and this woman told me her daughter was a massive fan. She was around 10. Then she said, ‘Can I have your autograph, because I used to come and see you.’ So that’s nice.

At this point, David seems to have a go at me for suggesting – and I wasn’t, by the way – that his beloved Morwenna might just be the mother of his teenage children plus TV favourites Peppa and George, letting me know about her recent writing with Jo Brand for Channel 4 sitcom, Damned, set in the children’s services department office of a local council, starring its writers plus former writewyattuk interviewee Alan Davies, Kevin Eldon, Himesh Patel, Isy Suttie, Georgie Glen, and Aisling Bea. If you’ve not caught up on last autumn’s first series, you best hurry as they’re now running the second one, which began last week.

Anyway, I soon re-dress the balance, talking about Morwenna’s West Country roots and our mutual love of Cornwall.

“We’ve just come back from there, because my second or third night of the tour was in Truro. We decided after that gig to spend some time doing a whistle-stop tour of her family, who are mainly still there. We normally go there two or three times a year, and one thing I’ve noticed about Cornish people is that wherever they are, they have a yearning to return, in a way that I don’t have a particular yearning to return to Cricklewood. We spend a lot of time there. And it’s especially nice now, opposed to in the summer when it’s mental. Now there’s hardly anyone there, so it’s really nice.”

You mentioned Rob Newman before, and I see that next year marks the 30th anniversary of the radio pilot of The Mary Whitehouse Experience.

“Really? I saw Rob’s show recently, the stand-up show he’s doing now, and we had a long chat after, and we get on really well now, me and him. Frank (Skinner) and me are mates and he lives in my road, and while I don’t see him every day I see him a lot and we’re still very close. Me and Rob aren’t, but we’ve become more friendly in the last year or so.

“He came to see my show in the West End. He tweeted, asking for tickets, not realising that was a public message! It was all very nice though. There’s no animosity anymore, which is nice, but I doubt we’re going to work together any more. What Rob does and what I do now don’t really link together in the same way.”

Sleeping Partners: The Mary Whitehouse's (from the left) Steve Punt, Rob Newman, David Baddiel and Hugh Dennis get to grips with their inspiration. (Photo copyright: BBC)

Sleeping Partners: The Mary Whitehouse’s (from the left) Steve Punt, Rob Newman, David Baddiel and Hugh Dennis get to grips with their inspiration. (Photo copyright: BBC)

I see at one point The Mary Whitehouse Experience might have been named The William Rees-Mogg Experience. Might we see a new spin on that now, as The Jacob Rees-Mogg Experience perhaps?

‘I’m very happy for someone else to do The Jacob Rees-Mogg Experience. And he could do it himself, because he is basically a comedy character. We have this situation now where politicians are like comedy characters – Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg … You can imagine them being played by Harry Enfield.

“It’s almost as if a politician can’t get noticed anymore unless he or she has big, stupid, grotesque characters. I don’t know why. But I suppose John Major managed to be Prime Minister for eight years and no one even noticed him.”

While we’re on politics, talking to Mark Steel recently about Trump’s America and Brexit Britain, he was of the opinion that – as per his latest live show – ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Alright’ and the tide is turning. Do you share that optimism?

“I don’t really know. I’d like to think so. Things are getting more extreme, and I think that’s driven mainly by technology. We have technology that allows very quick mass communication, all the time, and It suggests in theory there’s going to be this lovely communication between all people at all times.

“But what’s really happening is that those who shout loudest are the ones most heard. So you end up essentially with an internet troll being President of the United States. That has happened very quickly. I don’t think anyone could have imagined Donald Trump or someone like him being President 10 years ago. And that’s not for any other reason than because of the internet.

“That’s a man who built his image and brand on Twitter, and as we know you can build your image and brand there by just saying very brash, loud, mad things. That is a worry, but I don’t think it necessarily means everything will be terrible, because things go in cycles, and maybe there will be a calming down.”

You’re wrapped up with your tour at the moment, I’m sure, but are there any more novels on their way?

“Not adult books, but the children’s novels have done so well that I’ve become someone who thinks I should keep writing these, and they’re a joy to write and it’s a joy the way kids interact with them. I have another of those coming in October, which is going well, and I’m also written a film of the first one, The Parent’s Agency, which Is currently being thrashed out by the studio. We’re looking for a director at the moment. Then there’s AniMalcolm, my fourth children’s book, which is being made into a theatre show by Story Pocket Theatre, a puppet theatre company, and that will be touring in your area too.”

A year ago, David returned to our screens, with his brother Ivor in a moving documentary about their father, Colin Baddiel, filmed over the course of a year, charting their attempts to care for the 82-year-old, living with a form of frontotemporal dementia, known as Pick’s disease, that has affected the part of his brain that controls personality and behaviour.

You clearly got a good reaction to Channel 4’s The Trouble With Dad, which I’m guessing was the route for this show, in a sense.

“I was already doing this. In fact, it’s got footage in it of me doing this in the Menier Chocolate Factory when I started. The show’s changed quite a lot but it’s the same basic show. Then, because I was doing the show, the company who made that documentary got in touch, wondering if there was more to be said specifically about my Dad and this type of dementia.

“I wasn’t sure at first, but in the end they gave me and my brother a lot of control over it, and I felt very happy with that. And it seemed to touch a lot of people, that documentary. I was very glad to do it.”

You made a nice point recently about a perceived betrayal, letting on to others that a loved one has dementia when you haven’t had permission from them to say so. I’m sure a lot of us have encountered similar feelings of guilt.

“At the end of the day, I’d say that when one’s parents, either through death or dementia, aren’t able to tell their own stories, you have to accept that their children are the ones going to tell the story. You have a choice of going to silence or a very bland memory of them being a lovely person, or the true story, which will be more complicated. I consider it to be a bigger act of love to tell the true story. That’s the choice you have, and you’ll always be slightly conflicted about that. But I think the conflict is all part of it.”

You mentioned Frank Skinner before. Will you be off to Russia for the World Cup with him this June?

“We’re not planning anything. I’m still on tour for the first part. I’ve tried to carve out the England games, although for the big one against Belgium I think I’m in Stoke, so I’ve asked for it to be put back.

“The trouble with doing stuff around the World Cup is that you’re always dependent on what England do, and you don’t want to put too much store on that and build a whole show around England getting to the World Cup Final and winning it. I think that would be a mistake.”

Sofa so Good: Baddiel and Skinner catch up on the telly for Fantasy Football League. (Photo copyright: BBC)

When I spoke to Frank four years ago (with a link here), just before the World Cup in Brazil, he was of the opinion that he’d probably be happier watching it all at home rather than heading out there.

“Well, we’ve gone to quite a few, going to Germany in 2006 and South Africa in 2010, and had a brilliant time. Those podcasts were really fun. But it’s also nice to watch it at home, so I agree with him.”

You previously shared something of your family history on Who Do You Think You Are? In 2004, not least your Jewish heritage and details of the Government’s internment policy for refugees from Nazi Germany during the Second World War. That also proved to be powerful viewing.

“Well, I wrote a book about that, a novel called The Secret Purposes, based very loosely on my Grandfather’s experiences on the Isle of Man. I felt it wasn’t very well known, like a secret part of British history. And for me it remains so. I think most people still don’t know that refugees were interned on the Isle of Man, in the case of my Grandfather for around two years. But it’s good if it’s opened up something.”

Finally, it’s too late for our own parents, but dementia is a ticking timebomb for our futures. What, in your view, needs to be done? Is it about throwing money at scientific research, care improvements, or both?

“I don’t know. Sorry! All the things it involves with me talking about dementia in my show, people tend to come to me for answers. A woman wrote to me saying her Dad had got the same type of frontal lobe dementia that my Dad had and was getting no help from her local NHS authority, and did I have any advice. And I don’t.

“All I am is a comedian and a storyteller. I can only tell my own story. I can’t fix stuff like that. I wished her all the best, but I’m afraid I don’t know what should be done.”

Well, I’m sure just by talking about it so openly, you’re making a big difference, helping open up the debate.

“Well, I hope so. Thank you.”

Talking Family: David Baddiel, coming to a theatre near you at some stage over the next four months.

David Baddiel’s My Family: Not the Sitcom is out and about around the UK between now and July 2nd’s finale at Bristol Hippodrome. For a full list of dates and ticket information, head to his website.  

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Getting by in time – back in touch with Rick Buckler

Stage Presence: The Jam back in the early days (Photo: The Jam/Rick Buckler)

To misquote A Town Called Malice, I’ll start by apologising for the things I’ve never done. On a family taxi duty the Sunday before last, I cut my eldest daughter short as she told me what she’d been up to that afternoon, so I could hear the radio. Then, 10 minutes later, my better half’s mum got similar short shrift on the next shuttle service, all social enquiries met with monosyllabic responses. But it’s Rick Buckler’s fault. Honest.

Rick was on BBC Radio 2, chatting to Johnnie Walker on Sounds of the 70s about his new book and halcyon days with The Jam, between some cracking selections from such a rich era for music. It was on the iPlayer later (still is, if you’re quick enough, via this BBC link), so I couldn’t really moan, but I just wanted to listen in live, hear one of my musical heroes.

The Jam were a big influence on me in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and remain so 35 years after front-man Paul pulled the plug. I’m not alone in that thinking. So many of us grew up with the band and other great acts from those punk, new wave and post-punk years, including Rick’s co-writer and previous writewyattuk interviewee Ian Snowball, who previously helped the legendary drummer with 2015’s That’s Entertainment: My Life in The Jam. There was crowd-funded 2017 illustrated novel, The Jam: The Start to ’77 too, and now a further great read, The Dead Straight Guide to The Jam. And Rick’s rightly proud of it.

The morning after his radio appearance, I told Rick (who previously featured on these pages in April 2015, with a link here) I enjoyed his radio guest slot, and it was nice to hear a presenter play less obvious choices, like 1977’s Batman Theme and Non-Stop Dancing and 1979’s The Butterfly Collector.

“I’m of the same mind. I very much like A Town Called Malice and all those tracks, but it’s great to hear others like Liza Radley, Ghosts, The Butterfly Collector … still fabulous. Of course, I would say that though, wouldn’t I!”

They’re just so evocative of that whole era.

“Yeah, to me they’re almost like old friends. You think, ‘Crikey, I haven’t heard this in such a long time!’ Like the Batman Theme.

It was nice to hear your own choices too – Ian Dury, T-Rex, and XTC, who I’ve recently started listening to again, both them and psychedelic offshoot, The Dukes of Stratosphear. I always got the feeling that, as with bands like Wire, they were seen as too clever for that initial punk scene.

Seventies Icons: Johnnie Walker receives a visit from Rick Buckler, February 2018 (Photo: BBC)

“I was in a van one say and on the radio they were asking, ‘Do you know who this band is, and I’m going, ‘I know! I know!’ It was The Dukes of Stratophear. But it was one of those phone-in competitions, and by the time I’d had chance to phone it was too late. But that was a very strange offshoot for them.

“But yeah, I always felt an affinity with XTC. They weren’t really punk but were a great talent and some of the things they did were very innovative, very creative. They wrote for themselves.  I thought that was a fabulous stance, especially where record companies were pushing everybody towards chart music, where the money is. I got on with them really well. They were from Swindon, and I’ve got family from there. My wife’s sister lives down there. I got into them with Drums and Wires, their third album, and met them on a couple of occasions, at Townhouse Studios.”

Of course, where The Jam recorded Setting Sons (1979) and Sound Affects (1980), just two of their four consecutive top-10 LPs, th last one, The Gift, a UK No.1. Then there were the 18 straight top-40 singles, including four No.1s, and so much more. And that’s just part of the story told by Rick and ‘Snowy’ in the new book – from the band’s Woking roots right through, including an 80-plus page ‘Jamology’.

But hang on. Another Jam book? Even before Paolo Hewitt’s A Beat Concerto in 1983, there was a lot written about The Jam. Is this Rick’s chance to set the record straight on a few of those, from someone who was actually there? Don’t get me wroing, it’s certainly a worthy accompaniment to Rick’s 2015 memoir, That’s Entertainment – My Life in The Jam.

“I know from experience there are some bad books about The Jam, written by people just doing it so they can make a fast buck, and it comes across like that when you read some of them. I know one guy who wrote one who never went to a Jam show yet writes about us as if he was there. It’s infuriating, because if people don’t know these things then pick up the book they think some of it’s true. I suppose I shouldn’t get annoyed, but I do, and I’m sure it annoys a lot of other people when things are said and written about that get proliferated, like Chinese whispers.

“One of the reasons I thought this would be nice to do was because the autobiography was about my story from the inside, so I didn’t get into facts and figures, why things were recorded, dates, tours, and all that. It was really more of a personal experience, an inside story of The Jam. So to be given the chance to put some of the stuff right from some of the other books that have come out … We did have some information put forward to include, lifted from Wikipedia, and we were like, ‘hang on, are you really suggesting that?”

There’s also an element of mythology about The Jam and other key bands from that era, which seems to have become accepted over the years as truth.

“There are a couple of dangers I come across, and one is people rewriting history to suit their situation now rather than talking about what was actually happening at the time. One thing that people who would like to read about this would like to see is stuff they feel is correct and not too much of an opinion, but not so wide of the mark.”

Was it a relief to get your version out and set the record straight on a fair bit?

“Well, yeah. That wasn’t the main reason, but it’s in the back of your mind when you’ve heard a story over and over again. Even the silly one about why The Jam got their name, this silly story about it coming from a pot of jam one morning, which is ridiculously wrong but often bandied about.

“We’ve tried very hard to get things factually right as much as we possibly can, even though it’s all a long time ago. I also don’t think it’s a good idea to put a political or personal agenda for the righting of any wrongs. It’s just a matter of trying to get it right. That was the main agenda, and Snowy was great in checking a lot of the facts.”

I have to give you full credit for, in That’s Entertainment (which I hadn’t had a chance to read before my last feature/interview with Rick), trying to avoid anything too detrimental about your relationship with (fellow ex-bandmates) Paul (Weller) and Bruce (Foxton). It’s as if the music press is out to goad the three of you sometimes, feeding an appetite for a perceived, public war of words.

“Well, you could rub your hands together, think, ‘Now’s me chance!’ But I have to tap myself on the shoulder, have a word with myself, say, ‘Come on!’ The relationship might not be really close with Paul and might not be really close with Bruce, but back in the day it was very close, and I think the fans like to hear it without any encumbrances, shall we say.

“I look back with very fond memories, how we managed to do really good things, achieve a great deal. All the bickering and court cases, that sort of stuff happened after. It was a real shame it did, but it had nothing to do with what people actually remember about The Jam or what actually put us on the road to where we are. So I try and stay away from all that.”

You see it a lot with successful bands, with people cut out from someone’s past, and it often takes a long time for old wounds to heal. You seem to have remained fairly grounded though. On the kiss-and-make-up front, we haven’t quite got there with The Jam, but maybe Paul’s never been the sort to publicly acknowledge all aspects of his past. He’s always appears to be more about looking forward, not dwelling on what’s gone.

“Well, that’s always been his attitude, and it’s a real shame, talking to the fans. I think a lot of them don’t like the idea that he was in denial about The Jam for a long time, and when he was with The Style Council he wouldn’t play the songs, he wouldn’t talk about it. It was almost as if it didn’t exist and it wasn’t the reason why he was where he was. A lot of Jam fans don’t like that attitude.

“I think fame has its pressures though, which sometimes people don’t realise unless you’re in that situation. It’s easy to isolate yourself from the world – that’s the easy way out. This may sound a bit crazy, but from a very early age I never liked pop stars, and I mean that in the most derogatory term! People who might think, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ It turns me off completely.”

Perhaps that’s why the initial punk scene appealed to you, Paul and Bruce – that whole ‘year zero’ mentality, starting on an equal plane.

“Yeah, it was something that brought everything together – that attitude of not needing big record companies and this mega-arena rock attitude. That was very strong. People starting fanzines, saying they could do all this themselves – create our own audiences, make our own magazines. There was that ethos, which was fabulous.”

At that point, we went off-subject, reminiscing about our mutual Surrey history, not least respective links to Woking, our fathers and their days as postmen and working on the railway before that, plus links to the town’s James Walker factory, where both my Grandad Wyatt and Paul’s dad John Weller (who managed The Jam) worked. Rick lives on the outskirts of his hometown these days. Does he ever wander around town? His namesake, Status Quo guitar legend Rick Parfitt, let on that he’d often sit in a car outside key locations around Woking and reminisce about his youth. How about this Rick?

“I do go into Woking. There isn’t very much of it left though! Even as we speak, they’ve knocked down another part, putting something else up. Some of the bits I remember as a child are simply not there anymore. The place is a different town altogether.”

As I’m transcribing all this, Weller’s lines, ‘The Place I Love is a million miles away’ and ‘Found myself in a Strange Town’ spring to mind. Then again, I’ve plenty of great Jam quotes floating around my head most days.

“It is a shame. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of housing, and Church Street (where his first family home was) was a very long road. I don’t know how the Germans managed to miss it! It should have been demolished a long time ago. When we were living there, they were absolutely dreadful, those houses. So I don’t really hanker after those days in that respect.

“My Mum’s still alive. She’s 97 and doesn’t talk much about the war, but it became such a big part of everybody’s lives, with no say-so in it. A real life-changer for everybody. Of course, that James  Walker factory’s all gone now.”

At this point, Rick recounts a story told in That’s Entertainment about the day John Weller, in his Teddy Boy days, ran out of Brylcreem so applied butter to his DA quiff with his comb to keep it in place, then fell asleep on the factory roof one sunny day after working on some repairs, waking up to the smell of burning popcorn in his hair.

We soon get on to the subject of great bands from that era doing the rounds again, not least friends of The Jam like The Vapors (with interviews with Dave Fenton and Ed Bazalgette elsewhere on this site, plus a late 2016 review from Liverpool Arts Club). Then of course, there’s From the Jam, Rick having left after four years in 2009, but with founder members Bruce Foxton and Russell Hastings still out there, and recording too. Those two bands, and fellow Surrey lads The Stranglers have proved it doesn’t just have to be a heritage nostalgia thing.

“I think so. I’m in two minds about some bands getting back together. I did it because I wanted to revisit the songs. Which we did, and I thought that was absolutely fabulous.”

And you didn’t really get that chance before, with the band splitting when they did in late ’82. I get the feeling Bruce has really enjoyed revisiting all those songs live. As you did … to to an extent.

“Yeah. In the same way, a lot of the Modern World songs got passed over, for all sorts of reasons. But after a while it is very disheartening to just keep playing the same old stuff. A band mustn’t become boring. Once you get into that state of doing it over and over again … It’s nice to do it for the fans, but it can be soul-destroying.”

I did get that vibe from your That’s Entertainment book, but that’s something Bruce and Russell seem to have moved on from. Which is a kind of a shame from your point of view, because I know you wanted to go down that road – writing songs again, something they’ve done since. Very good ones too.

“Yeah, it’s a shame Bruce didn’t pick up on that at the time, because … It was a dilemma, because people came to see us to hear Jam songs, and Dave Moore (with From The Jam at the beginning, but leaving in the same year as Rick) had written songs. Bruce wasn’t a prolific writer. That’s not really his thing, so we had some new material, but it just wasn’t going to be entertained.

“It was a bit of a choice – do we bite the hand that feeds us by not playing so much Jam stuff and trying to move on? Bruce wasn’t really into that, at all. But he must have come around to it since.”

Away from the writing, and with your band days seemingly behind you, are you still involved with band management and consultancy?

“I’m not doing anything with anyone at the moment. The last thing I did was with a young band. Most of the time I got involved because I’ve liked what I’ve seen in them and I’ve thought I could help, getting them shows. But it’s very frustrating that you can’t approach record companies, because they’re simply not interested these days. It’s all so media-driven. It’s not quite the same, but from a ground level it’s nice to give a band a hand.

“The Brompton Mix were the band I last had something to do with. They found it very difficult to get gigs outside Woking, and were running out of places to play in that area. I at least got them supports with The UK Subs and The Blockheads and Stiff Little Fingers, and as far afield as Southampton and going up North. That was good, but it was the usual problems with bands – keeping it all together with girlfriends, jobs, peer pressure … Unfortunately, they fell apart at the seams eventually – an old story as far as bands are concerned.”

Thinking back to your own formative days with The Jam, did Chris Parry (who signed them to Polydor) look after the three of you?

“He did, yeah. He was a good man to have on your side. He was obviously a conduit to the record company, but was a drummer himself, a New Zealander who’d come over to make his way in the world, in the industry. He had a lot of empathy with what we were doing and I think he was genuinely excited about the band and what was happening in London.

“At that time, I remember mostly that we’d like seeing him because he’d take us out to spend record company money on a free lunch! You were expected to work all day and most of the night in a recording studio, so to have somebody there who could take you out and know where some of these restaurants and burger bars were … well, it made us feel that there was somebody on our side.”

Have your children followed you into the music industry?

“Not at all. They’re doing okay though. My son works in online credit card security, and is good with computers. He’s doing well for himself, while my daughter’s in events management. She worked at the Ritz until recently and now works for another London company. Well, I keep calling them children, but my son’s 32 and my daughter’s 25!”

Time flies. And am I right in saying it’s 40 years with your better half, Lesley, this year? That’s a long stretch, something to be proud of.

“Yes! We were living together a long time before we married. You get less for murder. Ha! No, I shouldn’t say things like that. It’s amazing and I suppose in this day and age that (amount of time) seems unusual.”

Getting back to the book, it includes a ‘top 50’ of Jam tracks compiled by you and Snowy, with in-depth detail. That’s no easy task, surely – trying to choose which to include.

“It wasn’t really. We had to go for more obvious choices, then look at other singles, key album tracks, then found we had a few left and could think about songs I felt were under-heard, take that route.

“I enjoyed going through the process of why songs were recorded, how they came about. There’s this school of thought that Paul wrote everything. I’m not taking anything away from Paul. He did write a lot of lyrics and come in with a lot of ideas, but so did we.

Start, for instance, was from a bassline that Bruce was playing around with, so you could argue that he wrote that and Paul added lyrics. But that’s not the way it’s credited, and there’s a lot of that.”

Well, I think of Funeral Pyre, which seemed to be was built around your drumming.

“Well, yeah, and I think by that time someone had to have a word. By that time it was blatantly unfair. But the point I’m making is … we worked together, put songs together, rehearsed together. How we were going to play and present and how they were written was very much a band process.”

Talking of which, and you touched on this with Johnnie Walker, it was such an impressive noise you made, despite only being a three-piece. I get the impression there’s nowhere to hide as a trio.

“There is no place to hide, and we learned that quite early on. I think we were struggling to be a four-piece, so really felt we had to work hard, and that alone justified what the band were about. I think that’s why we were so powerful on stage – the fact that everybody’s pulling their weight and filling all those gaps with interesting things. We were big fans of cutting out the rubbish. If we thought it was getting boring or irrelevant, we’d drop it straight away – cut straight to the chase.”

The Dead Straight Guide to The Jam by Rick Buckler & Ian Snowball is available now, priced £14.99, in store at HMV, or online via Amazon and through this Red Planet link

Furthermore, my conversation with Rick included his recollections and thoughts on The Jam’s relationship with late ’70s / early ’80s rivals, The Clash. But you’ll have to wait for that, for when The Dead Straight Guide to The Clash is published this Spring. Keep checking back for details. 

Meanwhile, Ian Snowball has just completed The Last Black Angel (New Haven Publishing) with co-writer Pete McKenna, set around the New York punk scene. For more details check out Snowy’s Facebook writer’s page.

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Don’t worry ’bout a thing – back in conversation with Mark Steel

Bench Mark: Comedian, broadcaster and writer Mark Steel is heading for your town, again (Photo: Idil Sukan)

Have a chat with stand-up comic Mark Steel and it won’t be long before cricket, football or politics come up in conversation. And in my case all three, with geography and history thrown in.

The 57-year-old Kentish comedian, broadcaster, writer and political activist was at home in South London when I called, or ‘Crystal Palace, as ever’, as he put it. But he’s back on tour now. Does he, like Brighton fan Attila the Stockbroker, try to fit gigs around fixtures for his beloved football team?

“Well, every now and again one pops up on a midweek night in the Premier League, shifted for Phantasmagoric Tuesday, or something.”

We’re quickly off on a tangent, on to the subject of my own team, Woking, Mark becoming the interviewer, asking where we are in the league and all manner of questions, not least how tough it is at present for those teams without the ready finance to compete against so many ex-Football League sides trying to get back there. Yet, I tell him, I’d prefer that than having to deal with the prospect of some fly-by-night financial backer coming in, bankrupting the club then buggering off, potentially losing a club’s community-like vibe.

He understands that logic and starts talking about the up-and-down fortunes in recent seasons of everyone from Truro City to Wigan Athletic, and we eventually get back to our main subject, not least talk of how his BBC Radio 4 show, Mark Steel’s in Town – eight series into a run that started in 2009 – gives him an insight into pride of place issues.

“Doing my In Town series, I very much get a sense of that faux-nostalgic belief that community is something we had in the ‘60s and has now gone. But that over-plays what it was like then, and under-plays what it’s like now. I don’t think that series would work if there wasn’t a strong sense of community in all these towns … whatever that means.

“I suppose it’s about whether people in a town can all identify with the same thing and feel a sense of belonging to their one place, if I was to be like some twaddly academic about it.  But some nights I can say something about a place, and everyone will tell you they know that person, that place, that accent, that something.”

Before we spoke, I revisited that hit series’ spin-off book, and the opening chapter about his 2010 visit to Penzance, Cornwall, reminding him how a woman in the audience had an interesting definition of the word ‘posh’, telling him of nearby resort St Ives, where, ‘It’s posh alright, they’ve got a dentist!’

“Oh God, yeah. That was brilliant. I remember that very well.”

Wigan Peer: Mark Steel, in his Palace scarf naturally, takes in the Northern air on a visit to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal during a previous visit to Wigan.

I’m guessing moments like that must make live gigs unpredictable and fun to do, making up for the longer journeys.

“Well, Carl (Cooper), my producer, is really enthusiastic, and we’ll fetch up at a place and excitedly wonder what’s going to happen. It’s like a little adventure every time. We’ve already worked out six places for the next series. And at some point I’ll get round to writing it – God knows when!”

Anywhere in the North West on that list?

“Erm … well, I’ve already done Wigan, Birkenhead, Stockport, Wilmslow … oh, and Fleetwood.”

Ah, the ancestral home of the throat lozenge.

“Yeah, brilliant. We actually had a tour of the Fisherman’s Friend factory.”

Excellent. I can see you in your white coat and hygienic hairnet now.

“Yeah, I was in the white coat when we got shown around. Of course, the perfect joke was that the woman who was supposed to be showing us round hadn’t come in because she had a cold.”

Splendid. On your Twitter profile page, there’s a picture of you at The Garlic Farm. That’s on the Isle of Wight, isn’t it?

“Yeah, we were playing Ventnor that day, just after Edinburgh.”

You’re clearly still putting in the miles, and on this tour started (last weekend) in land-locked Loughborough, Leicestershire, before a trek to the South coast the following night to play Poole, Dorset.

“God knows where we’re going. To be honest with you, I don’t look until three days before. Otherwise you’d just go mad. When I was doing a live version for the In Town series, I had to pay more attention, because I was doing loads of stuff about each town, having to look about three weeks in advance, get a book off the internet about each place.”

Mileage Man: If it Thursday, it must be Barnard Castle (Photo: BBC / Mark Steel’s in Town)

Seeing as you return to Chorley Little Theatre next month (Wednesday, March 21st, 01257 264362), last time we spoke, four years ago, you said  you must be the only outsider who’s read Jim Heyes’ A History of Chorley twice.

“Yeah, I must be … I can’t remember any of it, though.”

So might he have to read it a third time, I asked him. He wasn’t to be drawn on that though.

“Mmm … it’s lovely though, isn’t it, the Little Theatre.”

It is indeed, and then in mid-May, you’re in East Lancashire, at Darwen’s Library Theatre, which I’m led to believe is already sold out.

“Oh right, is it? Great!”

And there’s another visit to my patch two days later, to the Lancaster Grand Theatre (Thursday, May 17th, 01524 64695).

“Yeah, that’s great, that theatre. In fact, there are two lovely theatres in Lancaster, with the Dukes as well. And I’ve a lovely little story about that for the show.”

Sounds intriguing. Now I’m not expecting a succinct answer here, but – stirring the hornet’s nest – I ask Mark how the hell we ended up with Donald Trump winning the US election and what’s going on with all this Brexit nonsense. Every day seems to bring another political embarrassment.

“Well, I just think they’re all so funny, these people at the moment, the way things are at the moment. Every week they seem to oblige by doing something. Like that Presidents’ Club thing, where they all start saying how appalling it was, and how they had no idea. At the same time they’re saying that, they suggest the women going along would surely know what was going on there.

“So, the women who’d never been before must have known what to expect, but the blokes who were there couldn’t possibly have known what was going on, even though it was them doing it? You’re supposed to be appalled by these things, but I find it all quite funny, really.”

Lozenge Locale: Mark Steel, a Fisherman’s Friend, apparently (Photo: BBC / Mark Steel’s in Town)

It’s certainly a rich area for comedy, but maybe too rich at times – unbelievable at times.

“On the other hand, think back to a year ago, it’s an extraordinary transformation in British society. I don’t know if it’s a British thing or a human thing, but we almost love being miserable, thinking everything’s shit and that nothing ever changes, when there’s just about been the biggest change in British society since the end of the Second World War this last year.

“Someone for whom it was deemed impossible for him to be even vaguely near elected – because he was scruffy and didn’t sing the national anthem and had links to the IRA and all these things – to have got that close, is absolutely astonishing.

“It reminds me of when I’m down the Palace and Zaha beats four players then doesn’t quite get a cross in, and people come away saying, ‘Ah, he wasn’t that good that day’.  You’ve got to forget that! We’re not meant to have players like that. It’s extraordinary that we’ve got one of the best players in the country, and every week he bamboozles people. You just get used to it.

“It’s a bit like that with the idea that the Tories are bumbling. It’s staggering. They’re completely fucked. I think it’s hilarious, from a pure comedy point of view … never mind the politics.

“Every day, they’re just funny! Just watching them is funny, stumbling about, turning up in Brussels, having brought the wrong papers, or Ian Duncan Smith more or less telling you not to take any notice of their latest report, because they’re always wrong. It’s kind of, ‘Don’t listen to us, we’re idiots’.”

And yet, according to the title of your new show, ‘Every Thing’s Gonna Be Alright.’

“I think so, yeah.”

Golden Delivery: Mark Steel on Andy Murray’s trail in Dunblane (Photo: BBC / Mark Steel’s in Town)

Does this new-found philosophy involve some kind of Bob Marley-esque connection with Jah?

“Yeah, very much a Bob Marley-esque connection with Jah! Actually, I do most of the show in Rastafarian, if people can follow that. I had a Rastafarian character I did, and it went down really well in London and Birmingham, but elsewhere people would look at me, completely bemused.”

At this point we got on to a mutual respect for Lincolnshire-based Brummie performance poet, Benjamin Zephaniah, Mark telling me a funny tale his fellow political activist and author related to him about Communards keyboard player turned celebrity clergyman Richard Coles’ spell with the church in nearby Boston (his first ecclesiastical role was as a curate at St Botolph’s, better known as ‘Boston Stump’). I’ll not repeat it here, but ask him at a show. It’s a winning anecdote.

As well as his radio show, his books (also including Reasons To Be Cheerful and What’s Going On) and his tours, there was the BAFTA-nominated Mark Steel Lectures for BBC2.  He’s also a regular on BBC1’s Have I Got News For You and Radio 4’s Newsquiz, has appeared on BBC2’s QI and Room 101 and writes a weekly column for The Independent, winning Columnist of the Year at 2015’s Press Awards.

His most recent TV appearance saw him through to the final of BBC1’s Pointless quiz, alongside fellow comic Marcus Brigstocke on a celebrity special, just missing out on a jackpot. Keen cricket fan Mark was desperately unlucky with his answers – asked to name three batsmen who had scored more than 5,000 runs for Australia, his choices scoring 1, 1 and 2.

“That’s why it’s such a brilliant game though – it’s not enough to know the answer. You’ve got to get the answer no one else knows! I was thinking, ‘Who’s going to know these?’ I chose Ian Chappell, Mark Taylor and Justin Langer. I even thought Matthew Hayden was too obvious. But Taylor scored two and the others one. There must have been one Australian person on the survey. And if I ever catch the bastard …”

A while back I was talking to fellow recent Pointless winner Robin Ince (alongside TV historian Kate Williams) and another of Mark’s friends from the comedy circuit, Phill Jupitus, both of whom have also put in the comedy circuit miles over the years. Does he get to meet any of his colleagues on the road? I imagine they’re more often than not booked into hotel rooms in different towns.

“That’s one of the reasons I love the Edinburgh Festival – then you get to see other comics, at last. You go months without seeing them. I don’t think I’ve seen Phill since August.”

Finally, it’s been getting on for 36 years since his stand-up debut, and Mark mentions on his website, ‘I’ve spoken at lots of demonstrations and union meetings and protests, and appeared at quite a few benefits, and yet capitalism still seems to rule the world. Maybe I’m a jinx.’ I put this quote to him, and he laughed, then proclaimed, “Yeah … things are funny though, aren’t they.”

Hat’s Entertainment: Mark Steel reckons ‘Everythng’s Gonna Be Alright’.

For the previous Mark Steel feature/interview on these pages, from May 2014, head here.

This interview also included Mark and I talking about his love of The Clash, the inspirational Rock Against Racism movement, and his own story from the night Mick Jones joined Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros in November 2012, in what turned out to be Strummer’s final London gig. But for all that, you’ll have to wait for The Dead Straight Guide to The Clash, due to be published by Red Planet this coming Spring.

In the meantime, Mark Steel’s tour continues this weekend, including February and March dates at: Saturday February 17 – Hertford Theatre (01992 531500), Monday February 19th – Newcastle-under-Lyme New Vic Theatre (01782 717962), Thursday February 22nd – Chesham Elgiva (01494 582900), Friday February 23rd (Newbury Corn Exchange (0845 5218 218), Saturday February 24th – Bangor Pontio (01248 382828), Sunday February 25th – Kettering Lighthouse Theatre (01536 414141), Thursday March 1st – Swindon Wyvern Theatre (01793 524481), Friday March 2nd – Nottingham Playhouse (0115 941 9419), Thursday March 8th – Andover The Lights (01264 368368), Saturday March 10th – Oxford  Playhouse (01865 305305),  Thursday March 15th – Bury St Edmunds The Apex (01284 758000), Friday March 16th – Westcliff-on-Sea Palace Theatre (01702 351135), Sunday March 18th – Southampton NST Campus (023 8067 1771), Wednesday March 21st – Chorley Little Theatre (01257 264362), Thursday March 22nd – Glasgow Citizens Theatre (0141 429 0022), Friday March 23rd – Stockton ARC (01642 525199), Wednesday March 28th – Northampton Royal & Derngate (01604 624811), Thursday March 29th – Dorchester Arts / Corn Exchange (01305 266 926).

The tour continues in April and May, right through to May 25th’s Margate Theatre Royal finale. For all the details and ticket information head to www.offthekerb.co.uk or www.marksteelinfo.co.uk.

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

The Levellers, for folk’s sake – the Mark Chadwick interview

Out There: The Levellers, back on the open road – acoustic style – in February and March (Photo: Steve Gullick)

Three decades ago, a conversation in a pub in a busy South coast resort led to the newly-introduced Mark Chadwick and Jeremy Cunningham discovering they had plenty in common, not least their political world-view and taste in music.

As guitarist and lead vocalist Mark put it, “At that time, in 1988, there wasn’t really a lot of lyrical content in music. Brighton had a thriving music scene, with a few indie bands and rock acts, but it was all leather trousers and big hair. We were both into The Clash, wanting to do something in that vein, where something was actually being said. That was the basic germ of the idea – get together, create music that had lyrical content.”

They soon formed the Levellers, Mark and Jeremy (bass) recruiting Charlie Heather (drums), Jon Sevink (fiddle) and Alan Miles (harmonica, guitar, mandolin), with two self-released EPs – Carry Me and Outside/Inside – following the next year.

“We didn’t know what the sound was going to be. That came around accidentally, adding fiddle. That brought a folk element in. It lends itself to that direction but could have been added to anything. That wasn’t always the intention. As long as the songwriting was good, that’s what mattered.”

I seem to be forever talking anniversaries with artists of ‘yore’ these days. And somehow, Mark and Jeremy’s initial meeting in The Eagle appears to have been 30 years ago. Have those years snuck up on Mark?

“Yeah, like a bolt from the blue!”

Mark was at home when I called, handy for the band’s HQ, The Metway, in a resort he knows very well. Are they all from Brighton originally?

“I think we all gravitated towards Brighton, and some of us are from here. My family are.”

Three Decades: The Levellers have been on the go since 1988, so to speak (Photo: Steve gullick)

The Metway was originally a clock manufacturer’s factory, bought by the Levellers in 1994 while derelict and now housing offices, rehearsal areas, a bar, and a recently-refurbished recording studio. It’s an important part of the area’s cultural scene these days, as I put it to Mark.

“It is. A lot of artists have been through and have rented spaces. It’s well used.”

They remain strong supporters of Brighton’s music scene, giving upcoming bands use of the studio and rehearsal facilities, the likes of Orbital, Nick Cave and Electric Soft Parade also having recorded there.

Their new LP, however, We the Collective, due out on March 9th, was recorded straight to tape at London’s famed Abbey Road Studios with legendary producer John Leckie, whose impressive CV includes input on early ’70s George Harrison, John Lennon and Paul McCartney solo albums, through to Magazine and XTC later that decade, then The Stone Roses, Radiohead …

“Everybody! He’s done loads.”

How did they get to know him?

“He’s come to our festival, with his kids, for a number of years. And he was up for it.”

What was the first of his records that made you sit up and take notice?

“Probably those with Radiohead, and The Stone Roses.”

We the Collective involves a reworking of eight of the band’s singles, plus two new tracks,  developing special acoustic arrangements. And the band are returning to the road to promote it with a two-part  acoustic tour, playing those new arrangements with guest musicians, the initial dates including festival appearances at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections and London’s Roundhouse for In The Round. And their shows in Preston, Milton Keynes and Winchester – the latter at the Cathedral, marking the UK leg’s finale – quickly sold out. Have they played the cathedral there before?

“Not Winchester, but we’ve played Exeter, Rochester and Salisbury’s cathedrals, all great to play.”

The acoustics must be something.

“Yeah, and it’s the history of those places. Great.”

As there are ‘strings attached’ to this new album, can we describe it as an orchestral take on your hits?

“It’s not really orchestral, to be honest. It’s much more unusual than that. It’s not like we’ve got a 30-piece orchestra and have given them arrangements, with us banging around on top of it. It’s much more integrated, and totally arranged with the strings. They came up with a lot of arrangements themselves … and with no dots. They just played it as they heard it. It was really good.”

Well, strings have been part of the band’s sound from the start, after all, thanks to Jon’s fiddle.

“Exactly, it’s just augmenting that, really.”

Seeing as I mentioned Preston, I should note that the Levellers’ past Lancashire links include an early ’96 Blackpool Empress Ballroom gig recorded for their first live video and tie-in LP. And they’ve clearly retained a big Red Rose following.

“Without a doubt, in Manchester particularly … Morecambe too.”

Has Mark ever computed how many miles the band might have travelled over 30 years?

“Ha! No – it would be preposterous.”

And have they kept in touch with the ‘happy hitchers’ who followed them from town to town early on?

“They occasionally show up, but don’t travel so far these days. But if we play their hometowns, they might just pop in.”

You’ve been an important part of their lives, and vice versa. You’ve a long, shared history.

“We have a very close relationship with our fanbase, always have, although it changes throughout the years. I’m not sure you can be that obsessive about a band for 30 years. If you do, you’re a bit weird!”

The fact that they sold out those venues so quickly suggests plenty of love still out there though. Is that just nostalgia, or a suggestion that further generations have also discovered the band?

“Definitely, and people get what we’re on about. It’s very much people’s music – not pop, not indie, it speaks a little bit more about people’s lives than most music does.”

Note that he didn’t use the F-word there. For this post-punk lad, folk was perhaps seen as something of a dirty word until the likes of The Pogues, The Men They Couldn’t Hang and Billy Bragg came on the scene. But I see now that it shouldn’t have been. And, let’s face it, it is folk that the Levellers play, in the true sense of the word.

“It is, in the proper sense – telling stories, with a conscience. Information, in a poetic way. And I always listened to folk music, right back, even Led Zeppelin in the ‘70s –Led Zeppelin III put me on to folk, Roy Harper, all that sort of thing.”

Am I right in thinking Harper was also produced by John Leckie?

“He was!”

And going back to the Levellers’ early tracks, songs like Carry Me suggest to me that The Men They Couldn’t Hang were an influence.

“They were actually.”

They were certainly coming from the same place, musically and politically.

“Absolutely. And they’ve just recorded their latest album at our studio, actually.”

I was also going to mention The Waterboys, but I’m not sure they’d crossed over from rock to Mike Scott’s more raggle-taggle direction by then.

“No. they were headed that way, but at the same time as us. When Fisherman’s Blues came out, we were already going.”

On the other hand, I hear Jon’s fiddle sound in more contemporary artists like Seth Lakeman (whose brother Sean has produced two Levellers LPs in recent years), another artist who found inspiration from tellnig stories of the past, and too a less conventional route from folk music.

“Yeah, you wouldn’t really call Seth’s music traditional folk, at all. There’s something edgy about it, something different, which we really like.”

In fact, amid all their accomplishments so far, the band received a ‘Roots Award’ at BBC Radio 2’s Folk Awards in 2011, host Jeremy Vine labelling them a band that ‘stays true to folk and where it came from’. The presenter added, ‘Only the strong survive, and the Levellers have done it by staying true to their roots.’

The band are also set to head to Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands in early June, before more UK dates that month in Margate, Boston and Caerphilly, followed by their self-styled A Beautiful Day Out at Cornwall’s Eden Project (June 23rd) and Manchester’s Castlefield Bowl (July 1st), their Beautiful Days festival at Escot Park, near Ottery St Mary, Devon (August 16th/20th), and August 31st’s appearance at Lindisfarne Festival. And that’s just the next seven months accounted for.

Back to the early days, and the first Levellers album, A Weapon Called the Word, came out on French label MusiDisc in 1990, that debut LP eventually going gold, despite never charting. And while Miles soon quit, Simon Friend joined, that line-up – Mark, Jeremy, Jon, Simon and Charlie – still together today (with Matt Savage added on keyboards in the early 2000’s), the band soon signed to China Records by Derek Green, who was also responsible for snapping up the Sex Pistols. Was there always a belief that Mark and his band would make it big?

“From the outset. We were very serious. We formed quickly, and started playing live really quickly as well, when we had just seven songs. For the first gig we had to play those twice. But it was a really good gig, and people loved it, some following us from that point.”

It was the band’s second album, 1991’s Levelling the Land, that truly saw them break through, commercially, entering the UK charts at No.14, eventually going platinum. Did that LP’s success and those that followed – some selling even better – surprise Mark? Or was there always an underlying belief in your ability and potential?

“I think we did have that underlying belief, but it was a gradual but steep climb, so we didn’t really notice that until quite a while afterwards.”

I was surprised to be reminded that live favourite One Way – one of the singles reworked on the new album, and the lead track on Levelling the Land – wasn’t one of the hits, failing to make the Top 40. It sounded like it should have been though.

“It really should have, but I think we released it the wrong time. We did re-release it, but not until about 10 years after.”

Listening back, I hear something of the Manchester sound early on – hints of The Stone Roses. Even The Charlatans maybe. So I guess I’m not surprised at their involvement with John Leckie.

Was there an element of learning on the spot in those early days? The musicianship across the band seemed to come together fairly quickly.

“It did, and I think we’re better now than we’ve ever been. Our level of musicianship’s quite good now. We always were a bit raw, but that was really the point. If we were giving the right amount of energy, we were happy.”

Beyond Levelling the Land, there were sell-out tours in ’92 and promotion from their earlier Travellers’ Field slots to Glastonbury Festival’s Pyramid stage by 1994, leading to the event’s biggest ever stage-front crowd at that time. It turns out that the band and their friends had been busy that morning handing out flyers, their finale that night with One Way still seen as a career high-point.

And from gold-selling album Zeitgeist – a UK No.1 in 1995 and one of 10 top-40 LPs – the single Just the One – one of 14 top-40 singles – led to a first Top of The Pops appearance, the tongue-in-cheek drinking anthem played in tuxedos, the song hasving been specially re-recorded with The Clash’s legendary frontman and long-time Levellers hero, Joe Strummer on honky-tonk piano. Was it a real buzz having Joe involved?

“Absolutely. A really nice guy. The Clash were a gregarious bunch, and so was Joe. He was instantly relaxed in our studio, totally cool, did what we wanted, had a laugh, stuck around a few hours, then went, and we saw him around a few festivals from there, saying hello again.”

He was coming out of a rather dark period around then, trying to re-find his way.

“Yeah, he’d been fairly quiet for a while. I think he was quite remorseful about the way The Clash ended.”

The link came via mutual friend, Simon Moran, the concert promoter having also worked with Joe. I get the impression that Strummer wasn’t one to commit if not interested fully. But when he did get involved, he’d throw himself into something whole-heartedly.

“He really did. We got this boogie-woogie piano in, so he could play it, and he had a go!”

He was also inspired by the concept of campfire music gatherings, somewhere you were coming from.

“Exactly – we’d been doing that years!”

The Levellers also featured in 2006’s Glastonbury film, directed by Strummer film biographer, Julien Temple. Are the band still regulars at that festival (he asks, in something of a leading question)?

“No. It’s too much now – it’s not the same festival for me. There’s too much television. I don’t like that. I find that a bit glitzy … it pats itself on the back a bit too much.”

Was that part of the reason you set about creating your own Beautiful Days festival?

“It was, seeing the gradual commercialisation of festivals. There are a few more now that aren’t like that, and that’s a good thing, but back in 2002 there weren’t that many. It was a new way of doing it.”

Yet, there are some big names involved at your festival now.

“Yeah, but not too big. People like it for what it is, not necessarily for the artists playing there.”

Originally called Green Blade Fayre, the event has been based at Escot Park for 15 years, consistently selling out in advance. Featured acts during that time have included the band themselves, plus The Pogues, James, Frank Turner, Seth Lakeman, and Public Image Ltd, with several awards accumulated along the way.

When the Levellers broke through, it was the era of Stonehenge protests and Government conflict with travellers. Was that a lifestyle you identified with and felt you were part of?

“We were, and we’d been living like that for a few years. It was a natural extension, when that happened … I didn’t personally live on the road, but Jeremy did.”

The new LP is for On the Fiddle Recordings, their own label, initially set up in the early ‘90s to distribute limited-edition albums to fan-club members. So they were fairly early, I put it to Mark, moving away from the major label approach, and when free of contractual obligations resurrected the label in 2008.

“By the time 2000 had come along, we were tired of the industry as it was, and you could see the writing on the wall. Our independent record company was bought out by Warner’s, and we hated that – we didn’t like being owned by Bugs Bunny … at all. So we got out.”

Many more acts have followed down that road since.

“I think so – some out of necessity, some out of choice.”

How was it working at Abbey Road with John Leckie? Did you get a bit of a tingle there?

“More than a bit! Amazing. It’s where John did his training and a lot of his recording. When we said we wanted an acoustic record, he said, ‘Why don’t you do it at Abbey Road, Studio Two?’ And we were like, ‘Really?’”

The new songs on We the Collective are The Shame and Drug Bust McGee, the latter of which you can hear on the band’s website. Actually, I wrote ‘Busty McGee’ on my notes, giving a rather different ‘70s Carry On slant. Maybe they could adopt that for a remix, I suggested, to Mark’s amusement. So have those tracks been around a while, waiting for a home, or are they just two of many they’ve written lately?

“We have plenty more – more than enough for a new album. We haven’t recorded it, but we’ve been working on songs for a couple of years, writing together. We’ve had a really busy year, so it’s a case of finding time to sit down and record it.”

Four years ago, the story of the band – concentrating on their first decade together – was told in documentary, ‘A Curious Life’, the film directed by former Chumbawamba frontman Dunstan Bruce, another Metway-based artist. But while that film focused on their most-successful 10 years, it’s clear that they’re still finding plenty to get fired up by and write about.

“Oh yeah! Absolutely, the subjects are still there, probably more so than ever before.”

Well, if you can’t find something to rail against in this political landscape, you might as well chuck it in.

“Exactly!”

And 21 years after What a Beautiful Day was a hit, how many times does Mark reckon he’s witnessed special festival sunsets while playing that particular crowd favourite?

“Ha! Every time we play it, it rains … literally every time!”

Acoustic Tour: There’s a chance to get re-acquainted with the Levellers again in 2018 (Photo: Steve Gullick)

The Levellers’ 2018 acoustic tour dates, with support from Ginger Wildheart on all dates except Glasgow and London: Thu, February 1st – Glasgow Old Fruitmarket (Celtic Connections), Fri, February 2nd – Wrexham William Aston Hall, Sat, February 3rd – Preston Charter Theatre (sold out), Sun, February 4th – London Chalk Farm Roundhouse (In the Round); Tue, March March 13th – Buxton Opera House, Wed March 14th – Cheltenham Town Hall, Thu March 15th – Yeovil Westlands, Fri March 16th – York Barbican, Sat March 17th – Milton Keynes The Stables (sold out), Sun March 18th – Liverpool Philharmonic, Tue March 20th – Basingstoke The Anvil, Wed March 21st – Cambridge Corn Exchange, Thu March 22nd – Leicester De Montfort Hall, Fri March 23rd – Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion, Sat March 24th – Winchester Cathedral (sold out). For more information, contact the venues direct, or go to www.levellers.co.uk and follow the band via Facebook and Twitter

 

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