Family Entertainment – celebrating The Undertones, part two – back in touch with Damian O’Neill

With the 40th anniversary of the self-named LP by The Undertones just a few days away, here’s part two of a special WriteWyattUK feature celebrating a momentous 1979 album, this time tackling guitarist Damian O’Neill about that fantastic debut, amid a clutch of UK dates for Derry’s finest.

Damian O’Neill was barely 15 when he replaced older brother Vincent – who quit to concentrate on his exams – in The Undertones, and still only 17 when the band recorded their brother John’s ‘Teenage Kicks’, the track that arguably defines them to this day.

We probably all know that part of the story, legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel’s love of that single and the five working-class lads behind it leading to so much more, the band signing to Sire Records on October 2nd, ’78 on a five-year deal, recording their first Peel Session a fortnight later, and on October 26th performing their re-released debut 45 on Top of the Pops, the song peaking at No. 31 on the UK singles chart that November.

That month – until December 16th – they were out on their first UK tour, supporting The Rezillos and John Otway as well as headlining three concerts in Belfast and Derry. And then came second single ‘Get Over You’, recorded that December, their first for Roger Bechirian at Eden Studios, West London.

And recently I got to reminisce with Dee – who also plays guitar for That Petrol Emotion offshoot The Everlasting Yeah and last year released the wondrous Refit Revise Reprise album as Damian O’Neill and the Monotones – about those recordings, recalling a few treasured photographs from the first two LP sessions at those studios, one taken on his 19th birthday (while the band were completing second album, Hypnotised).

“We liked the studio and Roger, booking to do the first album in January ’79. And (the following year) Roger’s mother made a guitar-shaped cake, and (Stiff Records co-founder) Jake Riviera was there. He was managing Elvis Costello, who Roger also worked with. I remember champagne … and wearing a Clash t-shirt.”

Still got that Take the Fifth t-shirt?

“I don’t! God … if only!” All those great t-shirts I was wearing back in those days … I don’t have any of them.”

Tier Proof: The cake Roger Bechirian’s Mum made for Dee’s birthday, sweet-toothed Mickey Bradley first in line for a slice (Photo from Roger Bechirian’s collection via Pete Weiss for https://tapeop.com)

That’s a shame. I expected the cake to have gone, but …

“Ha! The cake was devoured there and then!”

While the ‘Teenage Kicks’ EP was recorded at Wizard Studios in what’s now known as Belfast’s Cathedral district, ‘bang-slap in the centre of town’ according to Dee, London soon beckoned, their first Top of the Pops appearance proving key to the tale.

By the time that was transmitted, the band were already back home, playing a hometown gig in Derry at The Rocking Chair. But the previous day they’d taken advice from fellow punk and new wave stars.

As I understand it, Elvis Costello and the Attractions recorded both This Year’s Model and Armed Forces at Eden.

“That’s right, and both classics!”

Then there was Nick Lowe’s The Jesus of Cool before that …

“Yeah, we never met Nick, although Roger knew him really well, having worked with him and Dave Edmunds at Eden. But in the foyer and sitting room, where you’d sit, relax and watch TV, it had all the albums they made on the walls. I’ve got pictures of us messing about there, and you can see them in the background. There was also Joe Jackson …”

Stiff Competition: Rare pic of Jake Riviera visiting to wish Damian a happy birthday at Eden Studios in early 1980 (Photo from Roger Bechirian’s collection via Pete Weiss for the https://tapeop.com website)

Look Sharp. I was going to mention that, and the fact that Graham Parker also recorded there.

“Yeah, and Lene Lovich. ‘Lucky Number’ and all that … plus Rockpile.”

Later that same year there was also Buzzcocks’ A Different Kind of Tension, their first recordings outside Manchester. And there was some link with Madness’ One Step Beyond, if only for a couple of tracks, while Joy Division also briefly recorded there, as did Squeeze, who made East Side Story there with Roger and Elvis in 1981.

“Great studios. Just a shame that’s gone. Mickey Bradley (bass) would probably tell you exactly what it looked like. He’s got a great memory, outside and inside (the studio, not Mickey’s memory, I’m guessing). But yeah, it was on a residential street, possibly converted. I know Roger helped build it, the console and all that.

“I’m still in touch, although I haven’t seen him for a couple of years. We went for a meal a few years ago – me, John (O’Neill), Roger and our wives. It was really good to see him again.”

Did Dee – these days around a dozen miles from Eden Studios, not so far from Trotter family base Nelson Mandela House in South East London – and the band know Roger before they went in to record ‘Get Over You’?

“No, he was recommended. When we did Top of the Pops the first time, Elvis Costello and the Attractions were on as well, doing ‘Radio Radio’. We were chatting – we were big fans – and their drummer, Pete Thomas, mentioned Roger, saying, ‘He engineered our album, but is actually a great producer.’ So it was down to his recommendation that we sought him out.

“Funny thing was that we did ‘Get Over You’ with him first, probably one of our best songs, but were never really happy with it. We were desperate to get a hit, because ‘Teenage Kicks’ wasn’t really a hit. Roger always thought he kind of ruined it.

Roger That: Undertones producer Roger Bechirian at the controls at Eden Studios, West London (Photo from Roger Bechirian’s collection via Pete Weiss for the https://tapeop.com website)

“He over-‘popified’ it. It’s too smooth. And those backing vocals … we wanted to sound like the New York Dolls, and didn’t. So it’s kind of funny that after that experience we went back to him for the first album. But that turned out OK!”

Another touch of O’Neill understatement there, as I got with older brother John in yesterday’s part one feature. It is of course one of the finest albums ever made.  No arguments required. I probably mentioned that to Damian too, but he most likely shrugged it off.

“As you know, we got Kevin Shields (of My Bloody Valentine fame) to remix it a few years ago, and it’s the exact same performance, but he gave it a rougher mix … and it’s much better – the way it should have been, y’know.”

You stuck with Roger to deliver the second album, but this time starting in Holland, at Wisseloord Studios, Hilversum, a place we perhaps only previously knew from the station display on the old radio sets (in fact, they returned there in January and February 1981 to record Positive Touch).

“Yeah, and he did some great stuff on those songs. He really brought them out.”

So what was Roger like to work with?

“He was very amenable. He wasn’t a taskmaster at all. He’d suddenly suggest things, and he got good takes out of you, which is very important, made me feel more comfortable. Actually, I think me and John were at the controls a lot more than the others. We’d always hang back, try and be there for the mixing, whereas Billy (Doherty, drums) would always go home the moment he’d recorded his parts. Mickey was there sometimes, and Feargal (Sharkey, vocals), but me and John were the main ones around the studio.”

Perhaps you were both destined for all that, as subsequent years proved.

“Yeah, I think so. I think you’re right.”

Seafood Diet: Mickey Bradley and Billy Doherty tuck in for the second Undertones album cover, the photo snapped by Damian in downtown Manhattan

And who was the sequencing of the albums down to?

“That was all of us. We always made sure it was a democratic decision, over whose songs came first. And we got the sequencing right most of the time.”

Definitely, and was there a particular thrill at kicking off that debut album with a song of yours, ‘Family Entertainment’?

“For me, personally, that was wonderful. It’s a great opener. ‘Casbah Rock’ at the end was my idea as well, using the tape of that. I don’t think Roger was so keen on that at the time, being such a hissy demo tape. But it worked perfectly, fading out after 30 seconds or whatever.”

Was that the part of the album credited as recorded in ‘Mrs Simms’ Shed, Derry’?

“Yeah. Also, Roger got Lene Lovich to do the talking bit at the beginning of ‘The Way Girls Talk’. No, hang on … we had so many titles with girls in them! Erm … ‘Girls Don’t Like It’! The ‘Hey, wasn’t Eddie driving that car?’ bit. That’s Lene and an American friend.”

Wow. I never knew that. Funnily enough, I was going to ask who that was.

“Yeah, I wasn’t there for that recording. I think Roger did it when he was doing some work with her. We’d asked him, saying it would be really nice to get an American voice on there. I had her album too, so got Roger to sign it … I’ve still got that. Typical me – two birds with one stone!”

How about the cover photography – was ‘Laurence O. Doherty’ a friend of the band?

“Laurie was a very well-known Derry photographer, normally taking pictures of rioters or buildings or local singing competitions and showbands. The session was done by Bull Park, famous in Undertones folklore, near our headquarters – O’Neill’s, Beechwood Avenue – and where we always played football.

“We did a few corny showband poses, deliberately, and he wanted us to go a bit further, put our hands out. John especially wasn’t having that! But we picked what we liked, and I really like that cover. I especially like the front cover, it shows us as we were. There’s no thrills. We were a pretty ugly-looking band! And it’s very punk. No pretence.”

Well, let’s for a moment consider Mickey on the back cover, with that toothy grin. What the hell?

“I know! Ha! He could have objected, but he didn’t. Mickey didn’t care. It’s very punk rock.”

Third Offering: Positive Touch was the last Undertones LP Roger Bechirian produced, from 1981

You at least had a semblance of cool about you.

“Yeah. It had to be black and white too, like the Ramones (first LP cover). We just wanted a picture like the Ramones.”

On the inside cover, there’s a photo of a cinema billboard, showing The Swarm … and The Undertones.

“That was a Rialto cinema that became a venue as well. We played there a few times. It’s now Primark … unfortunately.

“And on the other side (of the inner sleeve), I typed out the stupid nonsense about stealing cans of Mr Sheen and guitar strings and stuff. We’d done that tour with The Rezillos, and there was some reference to that as well.”

There was the later (October) sleeve with different photos, this time shot in colour, also including ‘Teenage Kicks’ and ‘Get Over You’, with that cover shot by Jill Furmanovsky.

“That was taken at Top of the Pops, at the BBC Studios upstairs. The bar opened out and you got this sort of garden area. That’s a good picture as well. I really like that.”

True. It’s a good ‘un. But the first one was the iconic photograph.

“Yeah, the first was the best. The dodgy thing about when that album with the new cover was that there was a new catalogue number too, so although we nearly sold 100,000 albums for the black and white cover, that was deleted and there was a new one … so we never reached that mark, never got a disc.”

Outrageous. I might write to my MP or Damian’s MP, or perhaps Derry’s MLA about that. Anyway, you were initially at Eden Studios for the ‘Get over You’ session, then returned for the first LP for around four weeks of recording?

“Yeah, I’d say about four weeks.”

Park Life: The Undertones line up for the first album sessions. From left – John O’Neill, Damian O’Neill, Feargal Sharkey, Billy Doherty, Mickey Bradley.

And the wondrous ‘You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It!)’ was next.

“Yeah, that came after. We’d exhausted all our songs and needed to come up with some new ones. And when John came up with that, it was like, ‘Yes! We’re going to be fine!’”

Fantastic, and maybe still my favourite of all your singles.

“Yeah, it’s Mickey’s favourite, and I do love it. Good memories too. Recording that was great. Things were on the up for us.”

And what a year that was. That summer, 40 years ago, I gather that you and Mickey also wrote ‘My Perfect Cousin’.

“Yes, it would have been, because we recorded it in January 1980. Yeah, late summer maybe.”

So the bulk of the Hypnotised album would have been written that year, with a few more added around Christmas.

“Yeah, we went to Holland, recorded around seven or eight songs, then kind of ran out, and were under pressure to come up with five or six songs. Luckily, we just about did it, even though we used ‘Under the Boardwalk’, which was never supposed to be on the album.”

I see that as more of a B-side, but these were the days when I loved B-sides too. As for the later tracks, this was hardly writing to order, lacking as a result – songs like ‘Wednesday Week’ and ‘Tearproof’ showed real maturity, even a jump within that year.

“Absolutely. I still love ‘Tearproof’. That’s John, and I think Mickey did a little. And ‘Wednesday Week’ was just another level altogether, wasn’t it? We were listening to different influences, and I guess for that it was more The Beatles or The Velvet Underground.”

I’d agree. Maybe Rubber Soul era.

“Yeah, that’s a good example. Even the cover – the kind of psychedelic mid-’60s kind of cover.”

And you kicked off with your own self-pastiche of sorts, ‘More Songs About Chocolate and Girls’. I love it, but that also suggests someone putting the squeeze on you, asking for more songs.

“Yeah, it was kind of tongue-in-cheek. The lyrics aren’t great, but …. funnily enough, I’d opened up the album with one of my songs again. Surprising, maybe, but it seemed to work.”

It certainly did. And what was it like to be at Wisseloord that time? Was that a completely different set-up, or more like a Dutch Chiswick, not least with Roger back at the controls.

“Yeah, a bigger studio, more expensive, a beautiful set-up actually, with an incredible control room. Roger really liked it, that’s why he went over. And we loved it. It was January 1980, pretty cold, about 30 miles from Amsterdam, the middle of nowhere really. So you just got on with it. The accommodation was next door, with beautiful little rooms, and everything was just warm, with amazing breakfasts, fresh orange juice and the most amazing breaded rolls we’d ever seen. It was luxury compared to where we lived! And just being warm in winter for a few weeks was … ha!”

I gather that shot of your bandmates with lobster bibs that graced the cover of Hypnotised was – according to Mickey’s autobiography – taken at a seafood restaurant in The Bowery, Manhattan, NYC.

“(Sire Records MD) Seymour Stein took us out for a meal. I just thought it was funny, Mickey and Billy wearing bibs, so took this stupid photo. When it came to doing the cover, we had this fella, Bush Hollywood, involved, doing our singles as well, and I think Mickey and I met him in Newcastle, gave him this Polaroid, and said, ‘Here’s the cover.’ He said, ‘Very funny, now what’s your idea?’ And we said, ‘That is the idea!’ He was aghast but had to do what we told him. We had complete artistic licence. They didn’t dictate to us.”

Going back to the first album again, am I right in thinking that for the most part you’d honed the songs live, not least at Derry venue The Casbah?

“Oh yeah – we did the bulk of those songs there, so knew them inside out. That’s why it was such a breeze to record those songs at Eden in January ’79.”

Are you marking the 40TH anniversary of the debut LP this year with a special event, or are you just celebrating via this tour? And will that fella currently helping clean up our rivers be joining you somewhere to help mark the occasion?

“I would be very surprised! We lost touch many years ago. But his rivers work is admirable. I’m very much into the environment myself, so that’s great – good on him.”

Derry’s Finest: The Undertones soundcheck at Manchester Academy on a past tour (Photo copyright: Kate Greaves)

And you have the Neville Staple Band as support, something Neville was very much looking forward to when we talked recently. In a sense, you’ve a shared history, not least him in his Specials days having also supported The Clash back in the day, with your respective, rightly-acclaimed eponymous debut albums both out in 1979.

“Yeah, and they came to see us when we played Coventry or Birmingham, I seem to recall. I remember three or four coming to talk to us. They mentioned they were in a band. I can’t recall if they gave us a name.”

Interesting. I wonder if they were The Specials or The Coventry Automatics then.

“Maybe. I remember they struck us as being really nice. We must have found out who they were pretty soon. That was on the first album tour, around April ’79.”

And I see you met up with your old That Petrol Emotion pals recently.

“Yes, Steve Mack happened to be over from America, and our John was over that weekend to see his kids with his wife, so everyone was just there. That’s why I brought my camera. Just a couple of hours in a pub. Who knows if this will ever happen again. Purely a social thing.

“Steve’s still involved with Stag (back in Seattle), and we’re playing America in May and June, so he’s coming over to Vegas to see us, and was thinking of bringing the rest of the band, hoping to support us.”

Wow, what a bill that would be. And maybe you’ll stay and do a residency there for a few years, Elvis Presley style. I can see it now … The Undertones – the Vegas years.

“Ha. The Lost Vegas years! Yeah.”

Chips Again: The Undertones’ second coming. From the left – John O’Neill, Paul McLoone, Damian O’Neill, Billy Doherty, Mickey Bradley

Will you be playing anywhere over there that you played with The Clash in late ’79?

“Well, we’re playing New York … not the Palladium though! We’re doing two shows there, and Boston, then (Las) Vegas and California (San Diego, Santa Ana and Los Angeles) … where we never made it with The Clash of course … much to my chagrin. We had frickin’ girlfriends! But I can’t complain, can I.”

Clearly that still rankles a little with Damian. Ah well.

“We’re also doing a few sporadic shows, including a few festivals, but then it’s kind of winding down again. Billy’s not been in great health recently, having had heart problems over the last year, so it’s been decided not to do as many as in the past. But we should be playing with Madness at their House of Fun Weekender at Butlin’s in Minehead.”

That event runs from November 29th to December 2nd, with details here, while those other appearances include festivals in Stanhope, County Durham (June 29th), Liverpool (July 6th), Perth (July 20th), Macclesfield, Cheshire (August 3rd), Cork (August 4th), and Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire (August 17th).

Finally, while The Undertones remain a band on the up all these years on, revitalised since 1999 when hometown lad Paul McLoone joined as frontman, there are new kids on the block too, winning the plaudits. Has Dee been enjoying the second series of Lisa McGee’s acclaimed sitcom Derry Girls?

“It’s very good. It’s gone down a treat as well. It’s put Derry on the map, which is brilliant. I was thinking, ‘Fuck, they’ve usurped The Undertones! Derry is now synonymous with Derry Girls, and not The Undertones.”

Male Models: The Undertones, still causing audience excitement 40 years after releasing their debut album

The Undertones and the Neville Staple Band tour continues this week (all shows doors 7pm,with tickets £25 advance) at: Thursday 9 May – Newcastle Boiler Shop; Friday 10  May – Leeds O2 Academy (0113 389 1555); Saturday 11 May – Manchester O2 Ritz (0161 714 4140); Thursday 16 May – Norwich Open (01603 763111); Friday 17  May – Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion (01424 229111); Saturday 18 May – Southampton Engine Rooms (0800 688 9311 ).

For an April 2018 feature/interview with Damian O’Neill, head here, and for a Mickey Bradley feature/interview from November 2017, including links to past Undertones-related interviews on this site, head hereMeanwhile, for more details of The Undertones’ 2019 schedule, including US tour, UK and Irish festival appearances, head here, try their website and keep in touch via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Three of the photographs used in this feature were sourced from a special feature/interview on Roger Bechirian by Pete Weiss for the TapeOp website, with a link to his informative piece here.

 

 

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Family Entertainment, part one – celebrating 40 years of The Undertones’ debut LP with John O’Neill

Family Entertainers: The Undertones, 21st Century style . From the left – Paul McLoone, Damian O’Neill, Billy Doherty, Mickey Bradley, John O’Neill, heading around the UK as we speak (sort of), evoking the Spirit of ”79

May 13th marks the 40th anniversary of the self-named debut LP by The Undertones, as good a reason as any to track down two of my guitar heroes, brothers Damian and John O’Neill.

I don’t tend to do double interviews, least not when my subjects are based some 500 miles and around 11 hours apart by road, rail and Irish Sea these days. But I’m always happy to make an exception when Derry’s finest are in mind, especially when I get a chance to talk about one of my favourite albums of all time.

Besides, this weekend sees the return of The Undertones to my adopted neck of the woods, and it’s now more than 30 years since I was first granted an interview with older O’Neill brother John, that interview for my Captains Log fanzine conducted in his last few days with the band he co-formed after the original Undertones split, That Petrol Emotion.

So with that in mind, here’s part one of a WriteWyattUK special, and I reminded John straight away about that previous interview in late October 1988, the title of the resultant feature – ‘More Songs About Factories and Girls’ – bringing it all back for him.

“I remember that! Yeah, I think I might have a copy.”

Gold dust, John. Look after it. The location for that chat was backstage at my hometown venue, Guildford Civic Hall, where the Petrols also played three years earlier as a support act to The Long Ryders. And I seem to recall it was one of your last shows before heading home.

“Really? Ah right! Didn’t we end up with a cover version of ‘Mother Sky?’”

You certainly did, joined on stage for a take on that Can classic by your own support, Hugo Largo. A great memory, among the very finest of my time seeing the Petrols over the years.

“Yeah, I remember that. A long time ago.”

It was clearly a key time for the band, TPE’s third album, End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues, struggling to make the impact I felt it deserved, and John rocking his bandmates by – at least privately – announcing he was going home to Derry after around four years in London, family commitments taking precedence, a new start awaiting him.

At that point, fellow Petrols guitarist Raymond Gorman had problems of his own, missing that night and a few more, the partying and temptations taking their toll, John Marchini joining the live band earlier than planned while Damian O’Neill switched from bass to join his brother on guitar. But as it turned out, John’s departure was perhaps the spark the regalvanised band needed, all taking a step up, new heights soon scaled. And while the commercial success they deserved never quite came about, two acclaimed if somewhat ignored albums followed before they felt it was time to call it a day.

Anyway, I’m guessing that John, now 61 (not as if you’d think any of The Undertones are beyond their 30s when you see them live), has been home in Derry for 30 years now.

“Well yeah. My wife was pregnant with our second child. That was what made my decision. I had to move back.”

As it turned out, I think you stepping away – in the long term – proved to be the shot in the arm your bandmates needed, to stand on their own feet.

“I think so too. I think the first Petrols LP is great, but Chemicrazy is amazing.”

True. Manic Pop Thrill remains my favourite though.

“Damian always says that, funnily enough. It is great, and still holds up better than Babble or End of the Millennium …, but Chemicrazy and Catch A Fire (that’ll be Fireproof) are phenomenal too.”

In my case perhaps it’s coloured by nostalgia and great memories of your early London dates, from the Pindar of Wakefield and Chalk Farm Enterprise to Bay 63, Kennington Cricketers, and so on. A sense of ownership, maybe. You were our band, you could say.

“Yeah, I have fantastic memories from around then. Loved it. I look back on all those days with fond memories.”

I also totally understood your decision to give the band up. I’ve been there since with family of my own, recognising those over-riding emotions. Looking back to our interview, it makes even more sense to me. But do you miss anything about London today?

“The ironic thing is that our two kids now both live in London, living and working there, and we love going over. Obviously, it’s changed a lot, but it’s got better and better. I love London now, and every time me and my wife are over there … it just shows you what comes around!”

Have either of your children followed your path into music?

“Not really. My son would put me on to new things and I’d put him on to old things. We have similar tastes. We went to see the Oh Sees a few months ago and more recently Yo La Tengo (no relation to Hugo Largo, pop kids) in London. That was a phenomenal concert.”

I saw via social media recently that there was a rare alignment of the stars and the old That Petrol Emotion reformed … at least for one night only.

“Oh right, that was just a big coincidence, with Steve Mack in town. We all met up and that was great, catching up with everyone, and Raymond was on great form.”

I have to ask, were there secret talks about an imminent Petrols reunion?

“That was just pure coincidence. There‘s the odd rumour that they’re going to get back together again, but I don’t know.”

I think the clue there was in the ‘they’re’. If there is any reunion, perhaps John wouldn’t be a central figure. Ah well.

Six Appeal: That Petrol Emotion reconvene, at least for one night only, over a drink in London back in February

“But I know Damian, Ciaran, Raymond and Brendan were rehearsing the next day as The Everlasting Yeah, and the Petrols did reform anyway. I wasn’t involved then, but … I don’t mind anyway. I loved seeing them reform. I’m quite happy to be in the audience, y’know.”

Besides, John remains busy with his own project, a long-term musical partnership back in Derry with Locky Morris for the band Rare, whose sole LP, 1998’s PeopleFreak, appeared a decade after his return to Northern Ireland.

“We just performed last week, and it’s gonna be an ongoing thing now, playing and getting some music out there as well.”

Great news. Might you cross the water and play over here too?

“Funnily enough, Locky is good friends with John Hyatt, who used to be in the Three Johns. He’s an artist in his own right, and there’s something in Liverpool in September, possibly. Locky’s also got his exhibition there, so hopefully we can play over there.”

Ah, The Three Johns – there’s a name that takes me back to John Peel’s show in the ‘80s.

“The Three Johns were brilliant. Back in the Petrols days we played with them a few times, and the records still sound fantastic.”

It’s funny, this sounds like two old nostalgics talking, but while people have this set idea of what ‘80s music was, my own definition is far removed from that, and I suppose in that decade my record buying was at an all-time high.

“I always thought that. When we moved to London, The Jesus and Mary Chain had just taken off and there were all these great bands, like The Three Johns, The June Brides, The Loft, The Weather Prophets, and they all made these great records. It was almost like a mini-punk thing, ‘84/’85/’86 time. And then it all went downhill again!”

Rare Groove: The ’98 Rare line-up – Mary Gallagher, Locky Morris, John O’Neill and David Whiteside

It seems to me that it was the next wave of indie bands that came through were the ones who found success, like Blur, the Stone Roses, and so on. I’m not slagging them off, but a few were surely inspired by that whole scene yet did so much better, commercially, with That Petrol Emotion among those that missed out on the big time. And suddenly there was a name for it all too, BritPop. Not as if you’d expect the Petrols to have gone anywhere near that monicker, of course.

“Well, a lot of that glossed over me. By that stage I was more into Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky. That’s what got me then, getting into sequencers and all that sort of stuff.”

And you never really looked back.

“Well, no, that’s the way I write songs now. And that’s what me and Locky are doing again as well.”

Moving on, when was the last time you wrote a song and thought, ‘That’s one for The Undertones’?

“Ah, well there’s a few songs probably that Locky and I are doing that probably The Undertones could do as well. I have a great working relationship with him and he gets the way to phrase with the singing that I’ve always struggled with, either with Feargal, Steve or even Paul McLoone.

“There are some things you instinctively have or you don’t, and I’ve discovered that working with Locky. He will spend literally hours and hours getting the timing of things right. It’s fine the way others have done it, but in retrospect I’ve gone back to original demos and gone, ‘He doesn’t sing it right’ or ‘It doesn’t sound as good’.

I get the impression you could have put a lot more great songs out there. Have you got vault-loads of material waiting for the right day?

“Well, I’ve loads of songs that are half-completed. But again, I don’t know if they’re that good, y’know.”

My proper excuse for talking to you is the 40th anniversary of The Undertones, that amazing first album and the UK (then US) tour celebrating it. There was a lot of fuss made – rightly so – about the debut single last year, and now we have this milestone. And 1979 was such a great year for you as a band – the year everything seemed to come together for these five lads from Derry. From ‘Get Over You’ and the first LP to ‘You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It!)’ and the songs you wrote that year for the second album, a few of which really showed a huge leap in maturity, songwriting-wise.

“Yeah, it’s funny. It was just … the main thing was that we were always huge fans of music, and were soaking everything in – a wide variety of music. That was the core for me, Damian, Mickey and Billy anyway.  We’d just play records. Our entire life revolved around listening to music, trying to find out new sounds. It was like osmosis almost. It came on to us, and once we’d got signed and knew this was our job – at least for the next few years – we wanted to make the most of it and try and write as many songs as we could.

“It wasn’t always easy. I remember the sessions for Hypnotised, when Mickey’s father died halfway through, so we cut the recording off. And we realised before that we hadn’t enough songs written to finish the record. So we went back and wrote two or three other songs, between those recording sessions. I’m sure every musician would say the same though – if you’ve got a deadline and the pressure’s on, that focuses you.”

Interestingly, John pronounces that second album ‘Hype-notised’, which takes me back to the ‘It’s Gonna Happen’ B-side, ‘Fairly in the Money Now’, the story of fictional ‘top showband’ Tommy Tate and the Torpedoes, something I’d never really considered before as autobiographical. Anyway, John’s clearly underplaying the significance of the new songs he wrote late in ’79, those ‘two or three other songs’ including arguably the cream of the crop at that stage – ‘Wednesday Week’ and ‘Tearproof’. A real step-up.

“Again, I suppose, yeah. Funnily enough, when we played with the Buzzcocks last year, we got to talk to Pete Shelley after. I was talking about all the great records he wrote, and he said, ‘That’s when it was easy. It’s not like that anymore!’ I told him I feel exactly the same way. It’s very rarely that I’ll write a whole song over the space of five, 10 or 15 minutes. But in those days I could almost do it once every couple of months. And ‘Tearproof’ or ‘Wednesday Week’, they just wrote themselves, y’know.”

That seemed to be a golden era for great punk and new wave crossover pop. I’m thinking of tracks like ‘That’s Entertainment’ by The Jam, a few Elvis Costello songs from that era …

“Oh, brilliant records, yeah.”

But you made that important point about a sort of osmosis. You are always going to be the product of your own influences, and this was also the year that London Calling came out, another great example, but where I hear a bit of Mott the Hoople in Mick Jones’ work here and there.

Post Sharkey: The Undertones line-up, all set to head your way, then swan off to America, four decades after following The Clash out there.

“Definitely. I’ve always believed that. I don’t like slagging off bands, but with Stiff Little Fingers – off the top of my head – you can tell they came from a rock background, and their later records just sounded like rock records. You just knew that was where their original influences were. It always comes out.”

Well, If I think back to the early Petrols, you turned me on to so many different influences, from the Velvet Underground through to Captain Beefheart, Pete Ubu, Can, and so on.

“Well, I missed out on that myself. It wasn’t until The Undertones broke up that I met Raymond and he was playing me Pere Ubu.”

So many name bands from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s are still out there today, even if it’s just two-thirds of a classic line-up, doing reunion gigs and so on. And some are very good. But I can’t see The Undertones ticking off each album with an anniversary tour each year. It works for some – From the Jam being a prime example – but I can’t see you subscribing to that concept, for example in two years’ time doing a Positive Touch Revisited tour.

“Well, there’s a few dodgy songs on that record anyway. We’ve played all of the first LP, because other than the dodgy version of ‘True Confessions’ that record’s pretty good. But even Hypnotised, there’s a couple of dodgy songs on that. I’d never do that. The first LP’s the only one I’d feel comfortable with doing. And let’s face it, our set these days really consists of the first LP with a few extra songs.”

I take that point, but there aren’t so many poor tracks on Hypnotised for these ears. Even ‘Under the Boardwalk’ would have made a good B-side.

“I don’t even know why we did that. It’s a great song, but it was pretty famous. We were trying to be the New York Dolls, the way they did those R&B cover versions on their records. But they picked obscure records, which is what we should have done.”

Well, you got it spot on with Chocolate Watch Band cover, ‘Let’s Talk About Girls’, on your third single.

“Again, we were just trying to be like the New York Dolls. That was the thing. But I always think Damian’s guitar solo on that song was brilliant. It was worth it for that alone.”

I’m hardly the one to criticise anyway. I still have a lot of affection for The Sin of Pride album, although no one in the band really wants to talk to me about that.

“Well, I can’t remember the last time I played that.”

Production issues aside, I still hear the soul in some of those songs and love it accordingly. Again, that was a gateway album for me, making me listen to the early Isley Brothers, the Miracles, even better appreciating the likes of ABC, the Tom Tom Club, and so on.

“Most of us have bad memories of it, y’know. It wasn’t a good time. We stayed in London during the recording, in Camden, my wife was with me the whole time, and we had a ball, y’know. I have great memories outside of making the record, but (producer) Mike Hedges and me never really hit it off.”

A nice excuse for me to ask about your previous producer then, bearing in mind the 40th anniversary of your first trips to Eden Studios to record the second and third singles and that debut album. What are your memories of Eden? It obviously suited you as a band.

“Well, Roger (Bechirian) picked it. He did those Elvis Costello records there. he knew the studio and knew the people who ran it. It was out first proper recording studio, and it definitely had a lovely homely feel about it. I could see why he liked it. We did as well.”

I was taking a wander down there only yesterday, courtesy of Google Maps, seeing the new-build there where I’m guessing the studio was, nestling among terraces on both sides.

“What was the actual address?”

Beaumont Road, I understand, kind of midway between Acton and Chiswick.

“Beaumont Road! That’s it! I must go there again, next time I’m over in London … for old time’s sake.”

I believe it closed as a recording studio in 2007 and was knocked down for housing, more’s the pity. You obviously had a good working relationship with Roger though, as proved by the fact that you recorded two more albums with him after that debut album (the second and third largely recorded in the Netherlands).

“We did, although after Positive Touch we felt we needed someone else. When we recorded the single version of ‘Julie Ocean’ we worked with the guy who did the first Petrols LP, Hugh Jones, and I wanted him to do The Sin of Pride … but Feargal (Sharkey) didn’t. He didn’t get on with him. That’s where we were at.

“So Mike Hedges became an afterthought really. I thought that was a mistake, but at the time he was working with Wah! and The Creatures, which were good records, so at the time we thought it was good.”

Going back to Hypnotised, how was that experience of recording at Wisseloord, Hilversum, with Roger?

“It was great! Again, I have good memories. My wife came over and stayed with us, and we had this beautiful hotel, about five miles away in gorgeous countryside. Yeah, great memories of recording there too.”

I got the impression from Damian that you two showed more interest in the recording process than the rest of the band.

“Well, again, we’d always try and get that guitar turned up, as we did with Kevin Shields’ remix of ‘Get Over You’. That’s the way it should have sounded. And that’s the way the whole first LP should have been.

“We were getting a lot more confident by the time of the second record, asking him to turn the drums down a little bit and the guitars up, y’know! And I think the guitars sound better on Hypnotised.”

And Roger was a good listener?

“He was a lovely guy. We met him last year when we visited London and that was great.”

At the time of our last interview in late ‘88, you were about to head home to Derry. How much had your home city changed in the five or so years you’d been away?

“Well, obviously the Good Friday Agreement – nearly 20 years now – that was a pivotal time, y’know. There were a lot of dark years before that. Horrible times, y’know. But with this whole Brexit fiasco people are scared that’s going to change. The DUP never wanted the Good Friday Agreement, so we’re terrified that at some point … that’s the only cloud hanging over all this.”

You’d obviously seen something positive by the late ’80s though, to want to go back home when you did (bear in mind that this interview was carried out before the shocking murder of Lyra McKee).

“Well, with Sinn Fein getting into power, to know it wasn’t just the IRA and violence against violence … there was an alternative to that. That was positive in its own way. And obviously that’s what came to fruition.”

Fast forward to the end of the next decade, and The Undertones were back, this time with fellow Derry lad Paul McLoone taking over on vocals, Feargal deciding against getting involved. And it’s been a mighty ride since 1999 or thereabouts. In fact, every time I catch you live, it seems that you’re having so much fun as a band.

“And we’re definitely getting better! I don’t know how or why, but it just seems that we’re sounding better and we’ve got enough integrity to know that if it’s not right we’ll not do it, y’know. Everybody loves it and enjoys doing it, and I never thought in a million years I would still be doing this. I thought maybe a year or two, then I’ll get bored, but it just seems to get going, and with the way it works, we’ve had a long break now over Christmas, and I dread the fact that we’re about to start playing again, but you forget that it’s a good laugh. It’s fun, and it’s become a good craic. The other thing is the age groups in the audience – there’s a lot of young kids. It’s not just old people like us, y’know!”

And you can find that out for yourself by getting along to at least one of the remaining dates on this tour, The Undertones supported by the Neville Staple Band, with tickets for all shows (doors 7pm)s £25 advance, taking in: Thursday 9 May – Newcastle Boiler Shop; Friday 10  May – Leeds O2 Academy (0113 389 1555); Saturday 11 May – Manchester O2 Ritz (0161 714 4140); Thursday 16 May – Norwich Open (01603 763111); Friday 17  May – Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion (01424 229111); Saturday 18 May – Southampton Engine Rooms (0800 688 9311 ).

Derry Roots: The Undertones, back in the day. From the left – John O’Neill, Feargal Sharkey, Billy Doherty, Mickey Bradley, Damian O’Neill (Photo: Paddy Simms, or perhaps Laurence O’Doherty)

For more details of The Undertones’ 2019 schedule, including their US tour, UK and Irish festival appearances, head here, try the band’s official website and keep in touch via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

And for part two of this special feature, this time starring John’s younger brother Damian O’Neill, head back to this site tomorrow.

 

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Nouvelle Vague – Manchester Gorilla

Party On: Nouvelle Vague’s Olivier Libaux, Mélanie Pain, Marc Collin and Phoebe Killdeer.

I’ve witnessed some effective starts to live shows lately, with the arrival of Mélanie Pain and Phoebe Killdeer to the stage at The Gorilla particularly jaw-dropping.

The price of the drinks already had me a little dazed, but this was a far more inspiring moment, Nouvelle Vague’s vocalists descending the stairs from above the bar during a haunting introductory interpretation of Visage’s ‘Fade to Grey’, Olivier Libaux’s sparse picked guitar and keyboard accompaniment from co-founder Marc Collin and the night’s other Vaguette, Mathieu Coupat, providing atmospheric backing.

It set the tone for a night which further confirmed this is no mere cover band with exotic gimmicks, the girls carefully threading through a packed dancefloor, Billy Currie, Chris Payne and Midge Ure’s New Romantic trail-blazer afforded fresh head-turning qualities, the five-piece all in place for the last verse and mournful playout.

This was as much a celebration of the music of Manchester as a 15th birthday party for our visitors, their wondrous mix of punk, new wave and synthpop compelling throughout, the vocals blending achingly on New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’, the beauty of the original all the more apparent.

The harmonies impressed all night, while their theatrics also played a part, not least Phoebe’s hammy drug-addled moves on the Ramones’ ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’, bringing plenty of smiles, a whole new side to a great track revealed.

This year I’ve already experienced fine tributes to Pete Shelley from Penetration and the Skids, and here was another inventive take, ‘Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t‘ve)’ delivered in bossa nova sing-song style by these Gallic upstarts, yet every bit as respectful.

Lest we should worry that those selections were relatively mainstream, they dug deeper for Richard Hell & the Voidoids‘ ‘Blank Generation’, and – talking of less-reputable old school punk – the girls were tantalising on a measured yet outwardly-shambolic ‘Too Drunk to Fuck’, Jello Biafra’s sentiments reassigned. And for further illustration, Mélanie and Phoebe told us about a wild night in Newcastle just gone, letting us in on the secret that, ‘We’re not really too drunk’. Cue audience swoons.

There was even a little Doors-like keyboard from Mathieu to finish that number before a further slice of reinterpreted Mancunian musical heritage, Mélanie’s breathy ‘Sweet and Tender Hooligan’ translating Morrissey’s miserable touch via her subtle delivery, helping us see it all from a different angle (et cetera).

Alternatively, The Cramps’ ‘Human Fly’ saw Phoebe vamp things up again, owning the stage as she buzzed and careered, preened and ultimately triumphed. But it wasn’t all plain sailing, technical shenanigans necessitating set rethinks, Mathieu switching to melodica for Lords of the New Church’s ‘Dance with Me’, something I’d written off as too goth-like now truly appreciated.

Olivier and the girls provided further raw material as we happily sang along to The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’. Such a sublime number should arguably be out of bounds, yet they get away with it, radical in their own way, showcasing the deeper quality of John O’Neill’s songwriting.

Eventually, a bit of turning it off and turning it back on again seemed to do the trick, all well again in time for the Violent Femmes’ ‘Blister in the Sun’, another glorious post-punk anthem celebrated in alternative fashion, and duly appreciated, the audience again joining in on backing vocals.

We returned to pioneering electronica for a heartfelt ‘Enola Gay’, one of three selections from the band’s new collection, Rarities, OMD also getting a respectful Nouvelle Vague reshaping, a whole new spin put on an evocative track. And in a year when The Clash’s London Calling turns 40, the NV version of Paul Simonon’s ‘Guns of Brixton’ magnified the pull of the original.

By way of comparison, ‘Road to Nowhere’ was almost mainstream, but let’s not forget the Talking Heads’ arty roots, something deceptively simple really fairly complex beneath, another great choice. That said, Phoebe called a halt to the proceedings part-way in after a lyrical mix-up, the whole thing restarted when it didn’t really matter.

The inspired choices kept coming, first album closer ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’ bringing out the true ambience and nuances of The Specials’ original, another four decade-old classic given new drunken life, head-spinning nights of youth painfully recalled.

Our French visitors rightly attract plenty of adoration, an especially-vociferous Dane out front sharing his love for the girls before Phoebe again sizzled with a sultry take on Bauhaus’ ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’.

And lest we’d forgotten where we were, they finished – lap of honour-like – with a rousing rendition of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, Ian Curtis’ pained lyric given a further compelling twist, this alternative regional anthem ringing out long after Mélanie and Phoebe’s stage exit.

They were easily persuaded to return, a reflective crafting of Echo & the Bunnymen’s The Killing Moon’ – Liverpool’s mighty contribution to the ‘70s and ‘80s UK songbook again not forgotten – underlining that this is a project that could only have been successfully driven by true fans of great music.

And because this was chiefly about celebration, the band’s 2004 visit of Depeche Mode’s best commercial moment, ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’, seemed perfect, Vince Clarke’s pop craft shining through. The band appeared conflicted as to whether to return once more, a three-piece finish following (Phoebe and Marc staying backstage), Mélanie seeing us home with a gorgeous rendition of Tuxedomoon’s ‘In A Manner of Speaking’, the last of seven first LP selections on a night to remember, Parisian style.

Nouvelle Chanteuses: Phoebe Killdeer and Mélanie Pain were out front at the Gorilla in Manchester

For this website’s recent interview with Mélanie Pain, head here. For details of further Nouvelle Vague 2019 dates, head to their website and follow them via Facebook and Instagram. And for more about Mélanie, follow her via FacebookInstagramTwitter, and check out her website.

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Mott the Hoople ’74 – Manchester Academy

Up Front: Ariel Bender, Ian Hunter and Morgan Fisher’s Academy bow (Photo: Mott the Hoople Facebook page)

Five decades after his initial Mott the Hoople recordings, it’s fair to say Ian Hunter knows a fair bit about live presence and was certainly on sparkling form in Manchester for this Class of ‘74 reunion.

What’s more, fellow survivors Morgan Fisher and Luther ‘Ariel Bender’ Grosvenor belied their own grand ages, this three-pronged attack steeped in glam legend fronting Ian’s Rant Band with a combined age of 220.

From the moment they stepped out to Gustav Holst’s ‘Jupiter’ from the Planets suite, this was showbusiness done proper, an accompanying snippet over the PA of Mott being introduced by David Bowie back in the day having the hairs up on the back of the neck.

And where to start but the man behind the shades’ spin on ‘American Pie’ seguing into majestic The Hoople opener ‘The Golden Age of Rock’n’Roll’, the huge electronic ‘M’ as a backdrop and – I don’t often say this – the lightshow perfect, the first snatches of James Mastro’s sax an emotional trigger.

If anything, Ian’s own voice got better as the set blossomed, the 79-year-old on his pegs all night, fellow attendee Jim pronouncing him more switched on than for his previous Rant Band visit, and this from someone who first witnessed Mott supported by Queen in Blackburn 45 years ago.

Certainly, credit’s due for Ian’s band, James Mastro also contributing guitar and mandolin, with powerhouse drumming from Steve Holley and assured turns from Mark Bosch (guitar), Paul Page (bass) and Dennis Dibrizzi (keyboards), the latter and Steve also providing backing vocals.

‘Lounge Lizard’ offered a slow-burn Stones-like blues vibe, this aborted late B-side just one fine example of the songwriting strength in depth of early ‘70s Mott, following number ‘Alice’ from The Hoople also impressing.

Arms Aloft: The Mott faithful greet their heroes from the Class of ’74 (Photo: Mott the Hoople’s Facebook page)

We were never far from the next hit, ‘Honaloochie Boogie fitting the bill perfectly before a lovely theatrical touch, Morgan being poured a glass of bubbly from an ice bucket by a roadie, his reward for a piano intro signalling a move on to ‘Rest In Peace’, further proof that this band – like several others from that golden era – weren’t averse to putting quality songs on the flipside of their 45s, the song itself all the more touching following departures in recent years for Pete Watts, Dale Griffin and latecomer Mick Ronson.

James switched to mandolin for ‘I Wish I Was Your Mother’, the closer of ‘73’s rightly-lauded Mott, before another cut from The Hoople, ‘Pearl’n’Roy (England)’, the years then peeled back further for ‘Sucker’ from ’72.

From that same breakthrough LP, All the Young Dudes, there was a lovely take on Lou Reed’s wondrous ‘Sweet Jane’, Morgan belying his mature years with a cross-stage dash to goad the gloriously-camp, beret-wearing Bender on the other side, the latter revelling in renewed limelight, the ongoing guitar technical glitches no match for his on-stage flamboyancy.

Talking of quality B-sides, ‘Rose’ saw Ian in reflective mode, memories rekindled for fans and stage personnel alike, while we went further back again for ‘Walkin’ With a Mountain’, Ariel with a metal guitar intro and our esteemed frontman donning his latest Maltese Cross six-string for a song first aired long before his buddy’s arrival.

Then came another major highlight, the mighty ‘Roll Away the Stone’ followed by fellow The Hoople winner ‘Marionette’, Ariel right at home with the maniacal laughter.

With such a rich catalogue there were always going to be songs missed out, but while I’d have loved to have heard ‘Hymn for the Dudes’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’, I’ve no complaints, Ian fitting into his time-honoured medley snatches of ‘Rock and Roll Queen’, ‘Crash Street Kids’ and ‘Violence’ amid classic covers ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’, ‘Mean Woman Blues’, ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and ‘You Really Got Me’.

After a brief breather they were back, leaving me wondering how many other bands could supply such a wondrous three-song encore of their own compositions. Morgan was first to return, his ‘Name that tune in one’ single piano note call to arms leading to his bandmates reappearing, kicking into one of 1973’s and in fact any other year’s finest singles, ‘All the Way From Memphis’. And that in turn led to a euphoric ‘Saturday Gigs’ and inevitable Bowie-penned finale, ‘All the Young Dudes’, as fresh as ever, the smiles on faces all around saying it all, returning home on collective highs.

For this website’s recent interview with Ian Hunter, head here

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A walk on la Rive Gauche – talking Nouvelle Vague with Mélanie Pain

 

Stage Presence: Nouvelle Vague, 2019 style. From left: Olivier Libaux, Elodie Frégé, Mélanie Pain, Marc Collin.

Mélanie Pain was working for a Paris design agency when the stars realigned and she ended up swapping careers in 2004, a favour for a friend happening to alert producer Marc Collin. And you could say the rest is histoire.

Originally from Aix-en-Provence, a political sciences student before moving to the French capital, Mélanie soon quit her job at a design agency following growing involvement with Marc’s fledgling Nouvelle Vague project alongside Olivier Libaux, an eponymous album that year proving to just be the start.

On that first LP, Mélanie and seven other female singers – the most famous already-signed Camille Dalmais (best known just by her first name) – reinterpreted 13  punk/new wave classics and rarities in a dreamy 1950s’ and 1960s‘ bossa nova style, entrancing vocals complemented by lush arrangements and plenty of ambient touches.

Ultimately, the underground success of that record led to many more, including three solo outings for Mélanie, 2009’s My Name followed by 2012’s Bye Bye Manchester, and 2016’s Parachute. But it was always more au revoir than bye bye, and she’s back in Manchester this weekend, celebrating that first Nouvelle Vague album’s 15th anniversary.

That band name works on so many levels. Transliterate, I think the term is, something of a nod to the French new wave cinema movement of the ‘60s, the new wave music movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s (providing many of the songs covered), and bossa nova itself – Portuguese for new wave (a musical style frequently used in the arrangements).

What’s more, Nouvelle Vague have arguably deconstructed the notion of cover bands, Marc and Olivier soon touring with Mélanie and Camille, creating a live blueprint, the girls accompanied by acoustic guitar, keyboards, a little electronica and atmospheric moments, a triumphant world tour following.

Now, with five studio albums and extensive global tours under the belt, they’re enjoying a celebratory international unplugged tour, in keeping with the 2004 incarnation, Mélanie this time joined out front by Elodie Frégé and Phoebe Killdeer.

Furthermore, 2019 also sees the release of a Nouvelle Vague By Nouvelle Vague documentary, recounting the story so far, directed by Marc Collin, retracing the project from its genesis to the production of each album, meetings with the main singers, and the multiple tours, featuring archived concerts, TV shows, personal photos and interviews.

There are also two new albums, the first, the February-released Rarities a 24-track digital-only collection of bonus tracks and B-sides previously just on special editions, compilations, 45s and other physical media over the course of the band’s 15 years, long out of print. And then there’s the 12-track, limited 12”, Curiosities – out this week – including various re-recorded songs from the catalogue, all previously-unreleased.

When I called Mélanie, the world’s media was camped not far from her doorstep, after the devastating Cathédrale Notre-Dame fire.

“Everybody’s really heartbroken. It’s sad, something very unusual, with everyone a bit depressed about it. Lots of people said they could see a lot of smoke from where they live. An extreme event.”

But she was all set to head off, her children – aged nine and three – staying at home with their father, a fellow musician, while Nouvelle Vague return to the road.

“We just did the final rehearsal yesterday, and we start on Friday at Printemps de Bourges, a big festival in France, then go to the UK for 10 days … which is cool.”

With the UK leg starting in Dreamland, I see.

“Yeah, we’re very excited about that.”

That was the Dreamland park in Margate, Kent, I should add, whereas the Manchester finale, my excuse for calling, is at the Gorilla. Will that be her first return since working there on her second solo album?

“No, I’ve been back working with (Mancunian psychedelic pop outfit) the Whyte Horses a few times, doing gigs and record with them. I don’t know the Gorilla, but people tell me it’s great. Manchester is always changing, with new bars, new venues …”

Going back to the start of the Nouvelle Vague journey, remind us how you got to know Marc and Olivier.

“It all really happened as a little accident. I was dating a musician who was looking for a singer for his project. He asked me to record a demo. I wasn’t singing at all at that time. I was maybe 20. He said, ‘Could you sing it, so I have something to send to singers?’ I recorded that and he sent it to producers and people he knew, among them Marc Collin, who said, ‘I like the voice of this girl singing. Can you give me a phone number?’

“He called me and I said, ‘I am not a singer’, he said, ‘Perfect!’ and it all happened super-quick after that. I went to his studio, we did two tracks, first take – the two songs I did for Nouvelle Vague, ‘This is Not a Love Song’ and ‘Teenage Kicks’.”

I was revisiting that very album on my holiday last week, and it certainly stands the test of time.

“Ah good. There’s something really magical about that first album. He did that with me and all the other singers. It was very spontaneous, and you can hear that. It’s very fresh. I’m enjoying listening to the first album again. It makes me happy.”

It was a springboard for you all really, not least Camille, who has enjoyed the largest outside success.

“Yes, but she was already signed with a big label before. She already had a solo album, while everyone else was a Marc Collin finding. During that period she was on tour with us while working on her solo album that really exploded her. And she’s amazing.”

Are you in touch with many of those who passed through the band since that debut album?

“Yeah, we all follow each other, meeting here and there in Paris for our own solo stuff or gatherings – singers’ reunions!’

Did you suggest the Public Image Ltd. and Undertones covers on that first album?

“It was the other way around. Marc and Olivier were big fans of new wave, gathering a list of favourite songs.”

Like a menu?

“Exactly. I came to the studio and they said, ‘We’d like you to sing these tracks … I’d never heard them before. After the first recording, I was like, ‘Shit, I should listen now’. With my generation, I was more into Sonic Youth and Nirvana … more ‘90s.”

Incidentally, Olivier Libaux takes that story back further, explaining, “Marc Collin and I were both musicians and producers in the French music industry when, in 2002, he called me with this very strange idea of covering ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ in a bossa nova version. I thought this idea was absolutely crazy but very exciting. We decided to get into the studio and try it out as soon as possible.”

While Mélanie sang on two songs, Camille performed four on that debut, the LP proving something of a slow-burning commercial success, spending 39 weeks in the French top-200, within two years having sold more than 200,000 copies worldwide.

The second LP, 2006’s Bande A Part, charted in several European countries, Mélanie  providing lead vocals on five songs, including Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ and – following co-singer Eloisia’s first album take on Joy Division’s ‘Love will Tear Us Apart’ – New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’, Buzzcocks’ ‘Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)’, and Echo & The Bunnymen’s ‘The Killing Moon’.

After the unanticipated worldwide success of the eponymous debut, concerts in 20-plus countries and so on, the band toyed a little with the concept, the initial focus on setting songs in the Caribbean between the ’40s and ’70s, explaining, “Just as on the first album I’d imagined a young Brazilian girl singing ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ on a Rio beach in the ‘60s, this time I envisaged a young Jamaican with his acoustic guitar singing (Blondie’s) ‘Heart Of Glass’ in his Kingston township suburb. I also had another particular scene in my mind: a young blind girl singing (Visage’s) ‘Fade To Grey’ in the corridors of the Parisian Metro, alone with her accordion, ignored by everyone.

“Those ideas were the genesis for an LP moving between Jamaica, the cradle of mento music (which became ska/rocksteady then reggae), to the calypso isle of Trinidad via Cuban salsa, Haitian voodoo, and eventually back to the Brazilian coast, its arrangements and orchestrations colourful – with percussion and acoustic guitar topped off with sensual voices, accordions, steel drums and more.”

That evolving journey continued, and in 2009 Mélanie duetted with Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore on ‘Master and Servant’, and Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch on ‘All My Colours’, while Marina Celeste performed ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ with Fun Boy 3 and Specials singer Terry Hall, and Nadeah Miranda joined Magazine’s Barry Adamson on ‘Parade’.

The next year there was a 15-track Best of and also Couleurs sur Paris, an album of French-language remakes, Mélanie with a splendid take on Marie France’s late-’70s homegrown punk single Déréglée, that album also including contributions from the likes of singer/actress Vanessa Paradis and a return for Camille.

Hiatus followed, Collin explaining, “I was bored of myself doing covers. With the first and second albums, all the media said, ‘This is a great idea, a great rendition’ – and after the third album it was suddenly, ‘OK, it’s always the same thing, the same concept, we don’t want to talk about it.”

But in 2016 there was the I Could Be Happy album, its title track a cover of Altered Images’ 1981 hit, Mélanie with a cover of The Cure’s ‘All Cats Are Grey’ (from Faith, also  1981), and singing Olivier’s ‘Maladroit’ and Liset Alea’s ‘Loneliness’.

And now here we are in 2019, the Rarities album’s many highlights including Mélanie’s spins on New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ (a duet with Elodie) and ‘Confusion’, plus OMD’s ‘Enola Gay’. Ever contemplated how this Aix-en-Provence girl who didn’t set out to be a singer ended up co-fronting a happening group from Paris, singing so many great songs associated with Liverpool and Manchester, the latter a city she’d end up spending plenty of time in?

Well Red: Mélanie Pain, back on the road with Nouvelle Vague this month (Photo: Marc Thirouin)

“Yeah! I got from my sister a love of The Smiths and was such a big fan of Morrissey. So my connection really started when I was 12 or 13. Always in my band every cool band was from Manchester! Ha! Then I got all the confirmation later from Nouvelle Vague!

“First time we played there with the band was 2005, I reckon, and we went to all the places where The Smiths’ covers were shot, That was pretty cool, and I think Marc and Olivier have something special as well with other UK bands from the ’80s.”

Incidentally, Rarities also includes Mélanie’s live cover of The Smiths’ ‘Sweet and Tender Hooligan’. But how did Marc and Olivier first explain the idea of Nouvelle Vague? It’s a simple yet effective concept, working so well. I’m trying to think if anyone had come up with a comparable idea before.

“Well, the difference with Nouvelle Vague is that they really focus on new wave, this big homage, this crazy idea, with Marc like, ‘What if all these tracks were bossa nova standards covered by English bands?’ He had this kind of crazy twist.

“He felt, ‘Maybe we should try and make people believe that in fact they were from Brazil and done in that bossa nova style, a girl singing with a guitar. Because those songs are so strong, the words are great, and sometimes the melodies and beauty of the songs were kind of hidden.”

That’s true, one prime example Camille’s first album take on XTC’s ‘Making Plans for Nigel’, the first Nouvelle Vague track I heard, putting a whole different complexion on what was already a great song. And that’s the case with so many more of their covers.

“Well, I hope so. We met a few times with Winston Tong of Tuxedomoon (regarding Camille’s cover of ‘In a Manner of Speaking’ and he loved our version. He said, ‘You’ve given new life to my song!’ I guess some of the original composers or bands didn’t like our versions, but … y’know …”

Ever hear back from John Lydon about your take on PiL’s ‘This is Not a Love Song’?

“You’ll have to ask Marc. At the beginning they had lots of feedback. But I sang with Martin Gore (duetting on Depeche Mode’s ‘Master and Servant’ for 2009’s 3), so know he liked our version (of first album Depeche Mode cover ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’), and Ian McCulloch (duetting on All My Colours’ for 3, following her second album cover of ‘The Killing Moon’). He came to sing with us in Paris.”

Fast forward 15 years, with five studio albums and several world tours behind them, and now this international unplugged tour, back to their roots really.

“Yeah, exactly. It’s strange, because everyone is asking, ‘You’re singing the same songs after 15 years, touring with them, are you bored?’ But I’m never bored. I’m amazed.

“I finished rehearsing last night, and we were like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s so good. We went through all these different live shows, with bigger production, drums and percussion, lots of rocky stuff, but now we’re back to a candle on stage, just a guitar and two voices.

Pain Barrier: Mélanie Pain is still loving life with Nouvelle Vague (Photo: Kata Szaraz)

“Marc is doing a lot of work on all the ambient sounds and textures, the really interesting thing in the production of the albums. We’ll see how it goes, but I’m quite confident people will like to go back to the first songs.”

And as well as two new Nouvelle Vague albums, there’s a documentary. Have you seen the final cut yet?

“Yeah. It’s really funny. I’ve lived through it all for 15 years but it’s so funny to see it all as a story, with the evolution. we’ve been through a lot. It’s very interesting. I’m very proud and overwhelmed by this 15-year thing.”

So what started on a bit of a whim became so much more. Is that right you worked for web and design agencies before all this?

“Yeah, it all fell on me at some point and there were so many gigs with Nouvelle Vague that I decided to quit my job and just go with the music. Then people sent me some beautiful songs for a solo project, then I started writing, and now I’m composing for films. So it all started with an accident, and my life completely changed.”

Band A Party: 2019’s lineup includes (from left) Olivier Libaux, Mélanie Pain, Marc Collin and Phoebe Killdeer.

Nouvelle Vague’s 2019 UK tour, after opening dates at Margate Dreamland, Cambridge Junction, two nights at Islington Assembly Hall and one at Glasgow St. Luke’s, this weekend it’s Edinburgh Liquid Rooms (Friday, April 26th), Gateshead Sage 2 (Saturday, April 27th), and Manchester Gorilla (Sunday, April 28th). For ticket details, more about the band and the latest releases, head to their website and follow them via Facebook and Instagram. And for more about Mélanie, you can follow her via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and her own website.

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Fontaines D.C. – Blitz, Preston

Blitz Kids: Fontaines D.C., fresh from a one-night stand in Preston, and they’re gonna be big (Photo: Daniel Topete)

‘My childhood was small, but I’m gonna be big.’

Those great ‘I was there’ moments in music history don’t come along often, and admittedly I’ve occasionally been proved wrong in the past when calling them. But this was one such slice of on-the-spot gratification, a band pervading rock’n’roll star quality just a few feet ahead of us.

They came, they thrilled, they signed merchandise (seemingly a little shell-shocked in that awkward moment), and moved on, these much-touted products of ‘a pregnant city with a Catholic mind’ soon headed for Nottingham, London, Brighton, Diksmuide, Rotterdam, Paris, and quite possibly indie world domination.

As I write this I hear that the debut album, Dogrel, released three days earlier on Partisan Records – recorded with Dan Carey in Streatham, South London – nestles among the UK top-five, above the likes of fellow high-fliers Emma Bunton, Tom Walker, George Ezra, and the Bohemian Rhapsody and The Greatest Showman soundtrack albums. And I’ll raise a glass to that.

Building on a string of inspirational, critically-acclaimed singles, the first long player  captures their very essence in a mighty 11-song opus that ‘taps into the social and mental consciousness of Dublin City’ (Peter McGoran, Hot Press), proving art and lit remain prime Irish exports, 105 years beyond James Joyce’s Dubliners.

We only got a half-hour set on this occasion, but by God it was impassioned, five 20-somethings from Ireland’s own D.C. (and in this case I don’t mean Derry, fellow Undertones fans) taking on the Brits and leaving indelible marks on hearts and minds here, there and everywhere.

This was something of a coup too, treasured Lancashire independent centre of gravity Action Records somehow borrowing its guests from under the noses of bigger sold-out UK venues. Initially booked as an in-store promotion, it wasn’t long before Action kingpin and 2018 WriteWyattUK interviewee Gordon Gibson switched them to a nearby nightspot in the shadow of Preston’s renowned Brutalist bus station.

Gordon, on hand at the venue, seemed pleasantly surprised at the value for money received, and from the moment this all the rage quintet strolled on stage to The Pogues’ ‘Boys From the County Hell’, we were indebted to them and would have gladly lent them £10 so they could buy us a drink.

My youngest daughter joked that she didn’t want to be judged, having lead singer Grian Chatten and compatriots Carlos O’Connell and Conor Curley (guitars), Connor Deegan (bass) and Tom Coll (drums) staring at a rapturous audience as if asking us all out for a fight, setting up what would prove a memorable, explosive set. But while there were elements of Stone Roses and Oasis-like bluster and Grian has the frenetic mark of Ian Curtis at times, these are no copyists, their innate sense of post-punk presence and fervour all pervading.

What’s more, it proved a perfect venue, Grian checking out the workmanship on the low ceiling in front of his head when he briefly settled from his relentless stage wanderings, shaking his arms out and thriving on that nervous energy, the assembled – all in after pre-ordering the album from Action – appreciative throughout but leaving it late to become a pogoing mess, the last couple of songs really having the place moving.

I won’t dress this tucked-away venue as something it isn’t, but I saw it as the kind of sticky-floored, dingy, superficially-grubby cavern where art dreams are hewn if the guests are up to the challenge. And these lads have said qualities in abundance. ‘Is it too real for ya?’ Not a bit.

Inevitably, there were great songs from the LP we didn’t get to hear on the night, notably wondrous 2017 debut single ‘Liberty Belle’ and ‘Television Screens’ and the more radio-friendly ‘Roy’s Tune’ and their Poguesque tribute to home, ‘Dublin City Sky’. But they certainly filled their 30 minutes or so wisely.

We were pulled in from the moment they launched into the punky rock’n’roll meets The Fall charge of ‘Chequeless Reckless’, their acerbic manifesto of sorts overcoming the early technical gremlins, the club PA struggling to cope, the backing harmonies initally lost in a soup of noise terrorism. But by the time the opener was pared down to Tom’s percussion and Grian’s searching ‘What’s really going on?’ we were caught in the spotlights.

‘Hurricane Laughter’ took that on, ‘tearing down the plaster’ (thankfully not around that afore-mentioned low ceiling). And yes, there was certainly a connection available tonight.

‘The Lotts’ is more about melancholic evocation, Connor D’s bass, Tom’s stick-work and the guitar licks suggesting hints of The Cure. And from there on in it was no-holds barred Fontaines D.C. alternative hits, the Noughties’ indie pop of ‘Sha Sha Sha’ getting the fingers poking, before almost-anthemic new single ‘Boys in the Better Land’ revved us up again, recently described by Grian as ‘a celebration of independent thought’. I’m all for that, and was taken back to the live fire of the early Mighty Lemon Drops.

Then came the mighty ‘Too Real’, its introductory alarm call – in the tradition of the wondrous call to arms of The Mekons’ ‘Where Were You?’ – keeping us on that high plane, the Wolfhounds-like guitar thrash that followed having the joint jumping, before the inevitable Strokes-esque show-stopper, ‘Big’, another impassioned band statement of intent that left you reeling, its six-string clang during the chorus carrying traces of Anglo-Irish old favourites Stump for me.

These boys, barely three years after getting something together at music college in Dublin – ‘from the ruins of early nowhere bands’, buoyed by ‘a shared love of poetry and common zeal for authentic self-expression’ – are going places, and we were proud to just be passengers on a brief part of that journey.

They’ve a hard slog ahead if they’re to carry on unaffected by all the hype, but they’re up to that judging by the recorded product and relentless itinerary so far – after a debut headline sell-out UK tour comes further sell-out US dates supporting Idles (after first-time sell-outs of their own in NYC and nine attention-grabbing SXSW showcases in Houston) and across Europe, with more festivals and big UK shows planned this year. And whether this is the start of something ‘Big’ or just a brief aligning of the stars is irrelevant. It’s something to savour for sure. Now, let me get back to that album again.

Liberty Belters: Fontaines D.C. have plenty more dates ahead in 2019 (Photo: Molly Keane)

For a podcast featuring an on-air early April 2019 interview with Fontaines D.C. in the company of long-time band supporter and friend of this website Paul McLoone for his weekday evening show on Today FM in Dublin, head here.

Fontaines D.C.’s first UK headline tour continues this week (after those Preston and Nottingham visits) with sell-outs at London The Garage (April 17) and Brighton The Haunt (April 18), followed by Belgian, Dutch and French dates at Diksmuide 4AD (April 19), Rotterdam Motel Mozaique Festival (April 20), and Paris Le Point Ephemere (April 22), then a long trek to Mexico City’s Bajo Circuito (April 29) before sell-out North American dates supporting Idles in May, that month ending with Germany’s Neustrelitz Immergut Festival.

In June there are three French festival dates and others in Greece, the Netherlands and Croatia, while in July more European outdoor dates lead to further UK engagements at Glasgow’s TRNSMT Festival (July 13), London Citadel Festival (July 14), Oxford Truck Festival (July 26), Rainton Deer Shed Festival (July 27) and Pikehall Y Not Festival (July 28).

And after more festivals in Ireland, Canada, Norway, Germany, Italy and France in August, there’s the End of The Road Festival in Wiltshire (August 29/September 1), 14 more US dates in September (headlining, with Pottery supporting), four more European festivals in early November, then their next UK dates at Manchester 02 Ritz (November 19), Liverpool O2 Academy (November 20), Glasgow SWG 3 (November 21), Leeds Stylus (November 22), Sheffield Leadmill (November 23), Birmingham O2 Institute (November 25), Oxford O2 Academy (November 26), London O2 Forum (November 27), Brighton Concorde 2 (November 28), Bristol SWX (November 30), Southampton The 1865 (December 1), and two dates at Dublin Vicar Street (December 7/8, the first already sold out).

For more on Fontaines D.C., follow them via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and their website.

Better Band: Ireland’s Fontaines D.C., going places in 2019, and way beyond (Photo: Daniel Topete)

Meanwhile, Action Records team up with neighbour Blitz Preston again this weekend, Fat White Family promoting new album Serfs Up at the same venue,  playing a special 7pm show on Saturday, April 20th (5, Church Row, Preston). To gain admission, pre-order the album from Action Records (46, Church Street, Preston), collecting your purchase and ticket anytime the previous day. For more information, head to Action Records’s Facebook page.

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Mott’s Class of ’74 revisited – back in touch with Ian Hunter

I only turned seven in the month Mott the Hoople released their final single with Ian Hunter, and it was another dozen years or so before I became aware of ‘Saturday Gigs’.

Sure, I knew the David Bowie-penned ‘All the Young Dudes’ and a few other hits that got aired on daytime and early evening radio, maybe even seeing a couple of Top of the Pops appearances. But it was only in the second half of the ’80s that I got to grips with that tremendous back-catalogue, starting to understand what had turned on bands from Slade forwards to those amazing performances and recordings.

My gateway was via the 1976 Greatest Hits compilation, bought on vinyl (most likely a 1981 UK pressing), and the track that made me sit up and take notice – not least wondering how it had passed me by before – was the final song, its lead guitar part played by Mick Ronson rather than recently-departed Luther ‘Ariel Bender’ Grosvenor, who featured on its demo version.

What was it about that song that stirred me? I’m not sure if I’m any wiser 30 years after first hearing it. It’s certainly epic though, like so many Mott numbers, and left me aching for something, having missed out on all that inspired the lyric. That’s the power of good music. I understand the Germans have a word, as they often do, for such emotions – sehnsucht, in its most literal meaning a longing and nostalgia for a far-off home one has never visited. I guess that’s how ‘Saturday Gigs’ makes me feel.

It seems odd now that Ian Hunter didn’t know this was his Mott swansong when he wrote it. That’s neatly explained though on the www.hunter-mott.com website, its author explaining, ‘In the years since, many retrospectives (including some LP sleeve notes) have commented that during the recording of ‘Saturday Gigs’ the band sat in the studio control room wondering why Ian was singing ‘Goodbye’ at the end. No mystery … the plan always was to put the band ‘on hold’ for a while. Hunter was going to do a solo album, (Morgan) Fisher was going to do session work, (Pete Overend) Watts and Buffin (Dale Griffin) were going into production. The single was meant as a letter to fans saying, ‘Goodbye, for a while, but we’ll be back’.’ Well, I guess they eventually returned.

It’s a kind of joyful obituary to the band. And what an obit. I wasn’t at the Roundhouse in those formative days, I didn’t meet any Chelsea girls down the King’s Road at the turn of the ’70s, I wasn’t in the crowd for Top of the Pops, and I wasn’t there at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon (even if it was just 25 miles from home), never mind on Broadway, where Mott became the first rock group to sell out a week of concerts in New York’s theatreland. But Ian was certainly there, and perfectly conveyed it all in his lyrics. And speaking recently, he reckons he understands what I’m saying about my ‘sehnsucht’ feeling too.

“Yeah, I get it. Ironically enough, ‘Saturday Gigs’ was the end. A good song, but never quite made it. And in my mind, I was, ‘Well, if that doesn’t happen, forget it.’ Stan Tippins, our manager all the way through and the singer before me, they sent him over to try to get me to stay in the band. But that morning when he left Heathrow, he found we were stuck at No.33 with ‘Saturday Gigs’. So by the time he got to New York he was like, ‘I think you’re right.’

“The feeling with that particular track at that time was that it was too like ‘All the Young Dudes’. Which I didn’t think it was. A lot of people like the song now, but it was irritating to me because I knew it was good, but they weren’t getting it. Sometimes that can happen.”

Actually, it was previous single ‘Foxy Foxy’ that made it to No.33 in the charts at home, with ‘Saturday Gigs’ stalling at 41. But the same logic stands. It deserved much more.

It had been a long road for the band, with so many amazing memories tied in. Between 1969 and 1973, they split main songwriting duties between Ian and lead guitarist Mick Ralphs. By 1974 though, Mick (forming Bad Company) and organist Verden Allen had left, leaving Ian as principal songwriter, that free rein clearly suiting him, the following year’s The Hoople LP charting on both sides of the Atlantic and exploring ideas and concepts now widely credited as having influenced everyone from the punk movement to Queen.

This was arguably Mott’s most intensely creative period, not just with that album, but also a string of fine singles, with ‘Roll Away The Stone’ and ‘The Golden Age Of Rock ’n’ Roll’ from that March’s LP followed by ‘Foxy Foxy’ that summer then ‘Saturday Gigs’ in October, their legacy already long since assured. What’s more, there was a live album, half of it recorded during that week-long stint at the Uris Theater on Broadway, NYC.

The live LP certainly highlighted the talents of Mick and Verden’s replacements, Ariel Bender and Morgan Fisher, the new pair breathing fresh life into Mott classics and crowd favourites like ‘All The Young Dudes’, ‘All The Way From Memphis’ and ‘Honaloochie Boogie’. And while the game was soon up, in 2009 and 2013 the band’s 1969/73 line-up completed two highly-successful reunion tours, with talk naturally leading to a ‘Class Of ’74’ reunion too.

Sadly, the rhythm section of Pete (bass) and Buffin (drums) have since passed away, while Mick’s health rules him out. But Ian is back with long-term backing group the Rant Band around the UK this month, this time with fellow Hoople legends Ariel and Morgan along for the ride, following three successful festival appearances with the same line-up last year.

With a set based around the 1974 The Hoople and Live LPs plus the non-album greatest hits, they’re back for ‘seven shows, one more time’, across the nation, my excuse for tracking down Ian to his Connecticut home a month ahead of his UK run, rehearsals all set to start the day after. Was he raring to go?

“Yeah, yeah. I’m up for it. Y’know, you have to rev your voice up a little bit. You can’t just sort of walk in.”

Seven shows, one more time, yeah?

“Well, we’re doing another eight here before we come there.”

The pre-publicity suggests this is a bit of a one-off set-up.

“Yeah, yeah, it’s not an eternal thing, but it’s important that we give Luther (Grosvenor, aka Ariel Bender) and Morgan (Fisher) a good shot.”

His latest itinerary started in Milwaukee on April 1st, and he’ll be halfway through before reaching the UK opener at Leamington Assembly this Wednesday (April 17), coming closest to my patch on Friday 19th, playing Manchester Academy (7.30pm, tickets £45 plus booking, 0161 832 1111).

“I like being on the road. I could do without the busy-ness of the airports, timing your runs according to rush hours to get to the airport, but what are you going to do? When I’m on tour I kind of want to be home, and when I’m at home I want to be on the road!”

As this tour is all about the spirit of ’74, a huge year for you, it’s worth mentioning this was also the year his acclaimed Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star was first published (in May), documenting the band’s late-1972 All the Young Dudes Stateside tour. And a new Omnibus Press edition includes a foreword from Johnny Depp and an eight-day diary from Ian – originally published in Mojo magazine – of his 2015 Japanese tour.

It clearly remains something of a cult classic, influencing so many musicians over the years, including The Clash’s Mick Jones, Duran Duran’s John Taylor, and The Cult’s Billy Duffy. And if there’s a secret to its enduring appeal, maybe it’s because it’s about a band doing all these amazing things, but written with such a down-to-earth approach, somehow normalising the rock’n’roll excess of that era. What does Ian think it was that resonated?

“Well, we’re halfway or somewhere. You’re either top of the bill or you’re opening for someone else, and sometimes you’re in the middle, but that’s more interesting than if you’re big or if you’re small. Plus, the bit at the end with Elvis. Normally, you just finish then go home, but I got lucky with that. A nice little ending.”

Indeed it was, Ian in a drunken attempt to get into Graceland by sneaking through the back door, but coming up against the King of Rock’n’Roll’s housekeeper. And I guess one of the things that set this Shropshire lad and his Herefordshire-reared band apart from a lot of contemporary acts was the fact they were so approachable as a band, and fans of music first and foremost, never losing sight of that.

“I don’t know if it was that or that I didn’t know what I was for. I heard Jerry Lee Lewis do ‘A Whole Lotta Shaking’ when I was 15 or 16 and thought, ‘Oh, thank God! I’m here for something’. There was nothing before that. I didn’t understand why I was here. A lot of people don’t know what they’re doing, then they hear something or see something and know what they’re supposed to do.”

What also strikes me is the grounded qualities of the set-up, as illustrated by Stan Tippins’ moods being dictated by results for his beloved Hereford United FC. As Johnny Depp put it in the foreword to the book’s new edition, Ian was a ‘reluctant rock’n’roll legend’. And the way he let young kids like Mick Jones in the back door at gigs was something both The Clash and contemporaries The Jam would be famed for in later years.

“There’s two ways of looking at it. Some people like their stars to be stars, like the way David (Bowie) did it. That different planet aspect. I couldn’t be bothered with all that stuff. (Tony) Defries (who managed both acts at one stage) used to get very upset. That was his modus operandi – you don’t do all this, you don’t talk on stage. But we couldn’t help it, we were just happy to be there. You either get lucky or you don’t. If you’ve got a gene that helps you do something, you’ve got to consider yourself lucky … not superior.”

That tour diary, a bestseller for two years initially, was written in late ’72. Was it easier to put it out when you did? You didn’t pull your punches, writing so honestly about your bandmates and so on.

“No, but it’s a bit softer now than it was then! It was more like Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in them days. You could say what was on your mind without social media.

“I don’t know. It was lucky. I came back off the tour and I’d written this diary. I’d just got married, so I wasn’t hanging out with the ladies and all the rest of it. And I met Charlie Gillett, who was way behind on a contract for Panther – two books behind – and they were hassling him. I said, ‘Have a look at this. Maybe this will help you.’“

The fact that Ian remains married to second wife – and manager – Trudi 48 years after they tied the knot and 45 years after she was immortalised in a song on The Hoople tells you something about him, while his late ’72 diary offers a fascinating account of his atttude to his ‘on the road’ existence. Originally published as a 50p paperback, it was reissued in the UK in 1976, republished in America the same year with a new title and cover, and published in French as recently as 2013. Did Charlie Gillett (the writer and radio producer also working with Ian Dury, Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, among others) make more money from the book than Ian?

“I’ve no idea. He said he edited it, but I don’t remember it being edited.”

I understand there’s an authorised biography on its way, Rock’n’Roll Sweepstakes (Ian’s original title for his diary), from Campbell Devine, who writes an introductory chapter in this new edition of a book he describes as ‘the ultimate rock’n’roll travel brochure’, one which remains ‘insightful and a compulsive read’.

“Yeah, Campbell’s got a deal with Omnibus … volume one, apparently! Ha ha!”

Oh wow.

“I don’t know if anybody’s going to read it, but …”

Oh, I’m sure many of us will. And Campbell gets it spot on in his introduction of this latest edition of Ian’s diary, writing how, ‘Thankfully sex and drugs took a back seat while music, people, insights and humour thrived, Hunter penning perhaps the definitive account of the seventies rock lifestyle, whilst deftly demystifying the business in the process’.

As Campbell also put it, ‘It was Ian’s eye for the mundane that made his book slightly Spinal Tap, fretting about his weight, grumbling about the price of drinks or lambasting a bossy, belligerent air hostess.’ There are also his own takes on recording processes, the US cities he visited and his impressions of the stars he met, as well as those frank assessments of his bandmates. But as Ian put it, ‘It was never meant to be a work of literarary merit, rather an open revelation of the rock business from the inside,’

Last time I spoke to Ian, in June 2017 (with a link to that feature/interview here) we concentrated on his Fingers Crossed album and the Rant Band, while this time he has that set-up on tour, plus two extra distinguished guests. After success with the reunion gigs featuring the 1969/73 line-up, it made sense to get the ‘Class Of ’74’ back together this time, not least having lost two key members of the earlier band, and with Mick Ralphs not in the best health. In short, he was forced towards this new line-up, but it made sense.

“All I thought was that in 2009 and 2012 Luther and Morgan didn’t get to play, so I thought we owed them. They turned up at both gigs and were great – good sports about it. I just thought if I could find a window … I didn’t expect to be doing American dates with them though. We did those festival dates last year and everybody got on really well. But at festivals no one’s particularly there to see you. There’s a load of bands on. I just wanted to play for our lot, y’know. Ha!”

Thinking back to ’74, you were certainly on a creative high, with no need for David Bowie or anyone else to come up with the goods on your behalf.

“Well, David said that himself. He gave us ‘Dudes’, which was amazing, but after that, he came down when we were rehearsing on the King’s Road somewhere, with more material for us, but was the first one to say – when we played him the songs which would eventually appear on the Dudes album – ‘This is fine. You don’t need anything else.’ He wanted us to do ‘Sweet Jane’, because he was hot with Lou (Reed) at the time, so that was fair enough. It was a good song.”

Have you got good memories of your week’s residency on Broadway in 1974?

“Oh, I just remember the white limos with the Union Jacks and the music blaring as we came up from the Gramercy (Park) area, up to the Uris, and every night more and more people would be outside, when they heard the music. It was a great week. It was good fun.

“That was down to a New York promoter, and we’re doing a gig now for him there. He said, ‘Come and have a look at this theatre’, and it was just like Fairfield Halls in Croydon, which we’d done a couple of times, so we thought, ‘Yeah, we can do this!’

“We didn’t realise it was the first and only time a rock band would ever do Broadway. But we realised the first day, when NBC and ABC and so on turned up! That freaked us out a bit.”

How about the rest of the Rant Band – are they on cloud nine at the thought of this new tour, working with such rock’n’roll legends?

“That was the only thing I was worried about last year – would they get on? But they get on great. They talk to each other more than they talk to me, y’know! There’s eight people on stage, so you have to be a little unselfish. You have to be careful what you’re doing.”

Do you think you’re better at doing that now than you would have 45 years ago?

“Oh, most definitely. Everyone’s been through that and come out the other side, generally in their late 40s or early 50s, where all the ego’s gone. And the Rant Band is typical of a band that does less to get more.”

And what happens after this tour? Are you working on another album with the Rant Band?

“Yeah, it’s nearly done. We’ll go in this summer, then out in the Fall with the Rant Band. And I’ll be at the winery for my birthday.”

How do you mean?

“Well, I’ll be 80 in June, so I’ll be doing four nights at the City Winery in New York. We play there quite regularly.”

That doesn’t seem right, you approaching 80. Does it scare you, that age?

“No, actually. It’s been coming so long, I’m quite looking forward to it. It sounds good to me. It sounds better than 70 – that sounds like nowhere! This sounds quite positive to me, y’know.”

Three’s Company: Morgan Fisher (left), Ian Hunter (centre), and Ariel Bender (right), Mott the Hoople’s Class of ’74, reunited in the UK this month, playing with Ian’s Rant Band

Mott the Hoople ’74 play seven dates in the UK this month, calling at Leamington Assembly (April 17th), Manchester Academy (April 19th), Glasgow Barrowland Ballroom (April 20th), Birmingham Town & Symphony Hall (April 21st), Gateshead Sage (April 23rd) and Shepherd’s Bush Empire (April 26th/27th), with ticket details here. You can also keep in touch with the band via this Facebook link.

 

 

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Steve Harley Acoustic Trio – The Platform, Morecambe

Three’s Company: Steve and acoustic bandmates James Lascelles and Barry Wickens came a calling

You can get complacent when a venue announces ‘doors 7.30pm’, not least when your designated driver has to beat Saturday night football traffic before we can get anywhere near.

We were locked in by circumstances to a just before eight arrival, but my fellow traveller, City fan Richard, had a slow pass around Old Trafford on his way over as United fans streamed out and returned to the Home Counties. But we weren’t too stressed. Surely we’d only miss a song or so from a local support.

Oh dear. Schoolgirl error. As we arrived at The Platform, 70 miles North-West of mine, Steve Harley and long-time bandmates James Lascelles and Barry Wickens were already underway, the main man talking to the audience as we were ushered quietly in to find a couple of the last seats as he launched into 1976’s reflective ‘(Love) Compared With You’.

We were among royalty, and I don’t just mean because pianist/keyboard/melodica king James is a distant cousin of Her Maj. While Richard’s way ahead of me on the Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel gig count, this was my debut, all those years after ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)’ and ‘Mr Raffles (Man, It Was Mean)’ first struck a chord with your seven-year-old scribe watching Top of the Pops.

As it was, Steve hardly spoke between songs from our late entrance until a break, but the songs did the talking as he went into ‘That’s My Life in Your Hands’, one of at least three choices from mid-‘90s album Poetic Justice, then ‘Red Is a Mean, Mean Colour’, the masterful lead track from 1976’s Timeless Flight, and ’Judy Teen’, 45 years to the month after it hit the UK top-five.

From there we got the measure of Steve’s bandmates with a little noodling piano and violin on The Psychomodo’s rousing ‘Sling It!’, a track that surely set The Waterboys on their way, while 1996’s ‘Loveless’ also impressed (I’d love to have heard Ian Dury and the Blockheads tackle that), and the atmospheric ‘The Lighthouse’ took us to another level, Steve impassioned on acoustic guitar, accompanied by melodica and violin. I was lost for a while in the detail until a discussion between two blokes in front as to what their foursome wanted from the bar had me chunnering, the moment gone. For future reference, please just shut the fuck up.

There was no doubting the talent of all three musicians, but that would be meaningless without a fine song beneath it, and here was proof that Steve’s crafted many a fine song since his chart heyday. Yet nostalgia was important here too, and I was transported back to mid-‘70s hot summers with the afore-mentioned ‘Mr Raffles (Man, It Was Mean)’, the band inspired, the song supreme.

What we missed earlier I can’t say for sure, but there was mention of a Bob Dylan cover, so I’m guessing that was 1996’s ‘Love Means Zero – No Limit’. Don’t quote me on that though.

Having given up in the queue for a half-time beverage on my previous Platform visit, this time I was determined to stick it out, a Blonde Witch helping quench the thirst for the second half. And it appeared that Steve’s palate was refreshed too, increasingly chatty for part two of the proceedings.

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

He started with a tribute to Scott Walker, a brief mention of how his last hit with the Walker Brothers involved just him … well, him and a few sessions players name-dropping Steve also worked with down the years. But it wasn’t ‘No Regrets’ aired, but a respectful run through ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’, the wall of sound absent but our visitor doing Scott justice all the same.

An evocative ‘Stranger Comes To Town’ was next, then 1996’s ‘Strange Communications’, prompting a tongue-in cheek reminder that his composing didn’t actually end in 1975. There followed a mention of the cover shot on 2010’s Stranger Comes to Town album, Steve taking his place alongside Anthony Gormley’s Another Place installations at down-the-coast Crosby, telling us his unaware photographer that day had yet to come forward and request a royalty.

Once he got going, there was no stopping him. As he put it, ‘After 40 years I want to share this shit with you’, talking at length about the many covers of his biggest hit – 130-odd apparently – and name-checking The Wedding Present’s ‘finger-poking punk version’ and Duran Duran’s spin on the theme among his favourites. Meanwhile, James patiently awaited his cue, his intro continuing for an eternity, Steve telling us his keyboard player runs on Duracells.

Erasure’s electro-pop version also got a thumbs-up, with talk of Steve cornering fellow shy lad and kindred spirit Vince Clarke at an awards ceremony, the pair’s hugs more important to Steve than any inane celeb banter. And when he did get going, it turned out the reason for all that about covers was due to old friend Rod Stewart’s take on The Quality of Mercy’s ‘A Friend For Life’, mischievously referencing the ‘ker-ching’ of Rod’s LP shifting three million copies.

We got a glimpse of Steve’s home life with 2005’s ’Journey’s End (A Father’s Promise)’, talking about that difficult day his lad went off to uni, and it was already clear by then that he wouldn’t still be in the live game if it was just about straight renditions of his songs, Barry and James’ artistry leading to fresh, revisions, Steve admitting, ‘We never know where that’s going’.

Next was ‘Sebastian’, recorded in 1973 but already long since honed on the busking circuit by then. It’s a song I always equate with T-Rex’s ‘Cosmic Dancer’ two years earlier, its other-worldliness apparent. On this occasion, James’ keys gave it a Doors feel, delivering Ray Manzarek style. And that suited the song nicely.

At times you had to remind yourself there were just three of them on stage, ‘The Coast of Amalfi’, another 2005 selection, also painting a vivid picture. And while – confession time – I never truly warmed to ‘Mr Soft’, it worked on the night, Barry’s gypsy fiddling putting me in mind of Slade B-side treasure ‘Kill ’Em At The Hot Club tonight’, the spirit of Grappelli and Reinhardt in the room. And Steve followed that with a tale about a drugs company offering a huge deal for his best-known song to promote Viagra, wondering why they hadn’t instead opted for ‘Mr Soft’.

Then came my personal highlight, this ‘70s kid lost in time and space as Steve embarked upon ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’, the second of three selections from the 1975 long player of the same name, complete with heart-searing violin. Richard felt there was too much noodling, and had a point, suggesting we’d have then had time for missing numbers like ‘Tumbling Down’. But I felt it worked, sold on the vibe, Steve reminiscing about the good old days, falling off stage at the Liverpool Empire.

And where from there? Well, I mentioned The Wedding Present, one of the few bands who refuse the tired concept of the encore. And in this case, Steve, his stick supporting him and clearly ready to flop, patiently took the applause with his bandmates long enough to know the crowd wanted more, sticking around to deliver ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)’, the caustic bite of the original lyric long since lost but the magic remaining. And that’s something you can level at Steve too, celebrating a rich song catalogue with true creativity and passion all these years on.

Cockney Rebels: James Lascelles, Steve Harley and Barry Wickens, big on the Lancashire coast and all around.

For this website’s recent feature/interview with Steve Harley, head here. Meanwhile, Steve Harley’s acoustic trio tour continues. For the full itinerary and all the latest from Steve, head to http://www.steveharley.com/ or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter. 

 

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Tales from the Rocking Chair songsmith – in conversation with Dean Friedman

The Dean: US singer/songwriter Dean Friedman, gearing up for his SongFest

The Dean: US singer/songwriter Dean Friedman, gearing up for his tour and next SongFest engagements

While four decades have passed since Dean Friedman’s biggest UK hits, admittance of a liking for him in trendy circles often remains reserved to cautious whispers here and there.

But Dean’s hip stock rose with the inclusion in 1987 of a certain song on Half Man Half Biscuit’s second album, Back Again in the DHSS, this master singer-songwriter yet self-confessed guilty pleasure becoming something of a cult hero.

And the 63-year-old who brought us ‘Lucky Stars’ and ‘Lydia’ in 1978 and his big US hit, ‘Ariel’ the year before, was again seen in a different light after respectful nods from luminaries such as Ben Folds and The Barenaked Ladies. That said, as Half Man Half Biscuit’s Nigel Blackwell warned, ‘The light at the end of the tunnel is the light of an oncoming train.’

He clearly moves in influential circles to this day, Dean’s latest tour including his second UK SongFest, two songwriting masterclasses involving, among others, Squeeze lyricist and past WriteWyattUK interviewee Chris Difford, former Bible frontman Boo Hewerdine, and folk singer/comic Richard Digance.

As he put it, “A good song is like a combination time machine and transporter device; with nothing but a handful of words and melody, it creates an instant universe capable of transporting the listener into another dimension, immersing them in a vivid, virtual world, filled with humour, beauty, pathos and joy. And every one of the incredible songwriters performing at SongFest does just that, in their own unique and wonderful way.”

Dean was over last year too, celebrating 40 years in the business with a sold-out tour and digitally-remastered re-release of 1978 LP, ‘Well, Well,’ said the Rocking Chair. And now he’s back, performing solo – on guitar and keyboards – and featuring songs from throughout his recording career, up to most recent fan-funded studio album, 12 Songs. And this year also marks his 16th appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

In addition to his familiar radio hits, album releases and regular concert runs, he’s written and produced several children’s musicals, composed TV and film soundtracks – including jingles and the music to ITV drama Boon (1987/95) – and wrote The Songwriter’s Handbook, based on his on on the secret workshops and masterclasses around the world.

I found him at home in upstate New York, ‘about an hour north of Manhattan’, his between-tour base for the past 30-plus years, and started out by suggesting his major schedule will see him away a long time in 2019.

“It’s funny. I do a little gigging in the United States, but for whatever reason the bulk of my touring circuit is in the UK and Ireland. It’s a little bit of a schlepp, but the audience make it worthwhile.”

UK Breakthrough: 1978's 'Well, well,' said the Rocking Chair.

UK Breakthrough: 1978’s ‘Well, well,’ said the Rocking Chair album opened the door for Dean Friedman

Your last visit was something of a triumph, numbers-wise.

“Yeah, most of the dates were sold out. It went really well. It was nice to reconnect with that (Rocking Chair) album and those songs, and folks turned out.”

That must be a comfort, all these years on.

“I appreciate that. The travelling can be a little tedious but it’s worth it to be able to share my songs with what’s always an enthusiastic audience.”

Your itinerary includes regular gigs and festival dates, including another Edinburgh Fringe appearance.

“That’s correct. I’d heard about it for many years, then I finally did it around 2001, and keep coming back.”

You’re also hosting, performing and producing those two SongFest micro-music festivals.

“That’s something I’m especially excited about. I love doing my gigs, but last year for the first time I tried something new, to share my audience with a couple of songwriters I consider really excellent. The first SongFest was last July, with myself and Boothby Graffoe, a brilliant comedian, singer-songwriter and performer, and then there was Tracey Curtis, from Wales, who used to be in a punk band, Shelley’s Children.”

You have some impressive names involved, including two of my favourite songwriters, Chris Difford and Boo Hewerdine.

“Exactly. It went so well last year that I was determined to do it again and to do one north and one south event. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that Chris Difford agreed to do it, plus Boo and Richard Digance, and all those involved.

“My criteria was that I didn’t want to focus necessarily on bands or rock or dance, although I love all those difference influences. As a song guy I really wanted to focus on people who write great songs, and someone like Chris Difford or Richard Digance for me personify a master songsmith.”

Not many people would put you in the same category as Chris’ Squeeze, yet you’ve been on the scene around the same amount of time, and I’m guessing they’ve always been on your radar.

First Time: Dean Friedman's self-titled debut album, from 1977

First Time: Dean Friedman’s self-titled ’77 debut LP

“Absolutely, and here’s the thing, I grew up listening to all kinds of music but always had a special affinity for folk singers like Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and Bernie Taupin, storytellers who painted pictures in their songs.

“There was a narrative where you could really envisage what was going on, almost a cinematic quality. That was something I aspired to do, starting out and to this day, and someone like Chris Difford … I know Squeeze are acknowledged as a legendary band, but I think they’re even better than they’re given credit for. Someone like Chris, I don’t think he has any peers as a lyricist.”

I like the tale that Chris delivered his lyrics under co-writer Glenn Tilbrook’s door rather than face him about them.

“Well, whatever that quality is that allows him to do that, there’s a sort of casual, descriptive real world sort of concrete quality to his lyrics, yet they are sheer poetry at the same time.”

There’s a similar quality in Dean’s brand of story songs, something first heard by many of us in the UK on ‘Well, Well,’ said the Rocking Chair, via that album’s No.3 UK hit, ‘Lucky Stars’. I was only 11 then, but an older sister had it on cassette, and like so much defining music from that era it stayed with me. What’s more, a couple of recent spins suggest it stands the test of time.

He wasn’t the first songwriter to impress from New Jersey (Paramus in his case), the afore-mentioned Paul Simon and also Bruce Springsteen springing to mind, although the latter seemed to be way off his territory, style-wise, I suggested.

“Well, I admire the writing, and there’s another example with Springsteen. He uses language to depict a scene, a character, and the way he tells a story. It’s the language of the street, but it is so beautifully crafted, And the poetry just comes through. There’s a quote attributed to Springsteen when he was writing ‘Born to Run’, where he said his rhyming dictionary was on fire. And I get that!”

Sometimes I wonder if Dean was too clever a musician and lyricist for his own good, at least perception-wise. In a sense, I saw him as a man out of time, equating him with our own Gilbert O’Sullivan, although a few years later to the party. He was going against the grain really, I put it to him, breaking through at a time when he was surrounded by punk and new wave bands. And people do like to categorise.

“I understand that, and I do myself. Listen, I’m pleased to be spoken of in that company, and Gilbert O’Sullivan is another great songwriter – smart, giving heartfelt and sophisticated lyrics to equally sophisticated and beautiful melodies and hooks.

“And you’re right. I did Top of the Pops with The Boomtown Rats and Buzzcocks. D’you know what? (Boomtown Rats keyboard player) Johnnie Fingers came over, saying his little sister demanded he got my autograph. I said, ‘I’ll give you mine for her if you give me yours’. So I have Johnnie’s autograph.”

On a related subject, I recently listened back to some early Boomtown Rats, and there’s definitely a big Springsteen influence.

Hit Duet: Dean Friedman and Denise Marsa combined to great effect in '78

Hit Duet: Dean Friedman and Denise Marsa combined to great effect in ’78, and Top of the Pops followed

“No question about it, in terms of the instrumentation, not least the sax. It’s funny, you talk about that punk era and I don’t know if you’re familiar with the song, but I was stunned when friends from the UK first told me about a song by Half Man Half Biscuit …”

Ah, I was about to mention the Four Lads Who Shook the Wirral’s sublime ‘The Bastard Son of Dean Friedman’. Carry on, Dean.

“First I was kind of shocked. You know, ‘What is this about?’ But I did the figures in my head, realised that in order for it to be true I’d have had to father him at seven years old. And I listened to the track and it was great. I was cracking up. I’ve since met them, and was determined to get my revenge, which I did. I don’t know if you ever heard my song, ‘A Baker’s Tale’?”

Indeed, and I was listening again just that morning. And on a HMHB internet message board thread I saw that someone wrote, ‘He gets it’. That’s acceptance, I reckon.

“Well, they’ve genuinely embraced me, and show up at my gigs now. I did a concert six or seven years ago at the Robin in Wolverhampton (Bilston), and sang that song. And by the second chorus the whole audience were singing along.

“I first met Nigel and the boys at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We chatted a little, and I was a little shy, and he said he had the (Rocking Chair) album. People will still describe being a Dean Friedman fan as being a guilty pleasure, but it occurred to me that the whole premise of Nigel’s song was that he was being teased about that.

“To my mind, Nigel Blackwell is the most literal lyricist in the whole punk idiom, the most literate and cleverest lyricist – I don’t think there’s another punk band that comes close to his writing and mastery of the craft and use of words.

“Maybe I’m over-thinking this, but in that regard – and it’s not for me to say – it wouldn’t surprise me if on some level in a songwriting sense he is my bastard son! If he grew up listening to my albums, and I might be flattering myself too much, I like to imagine he might be my literary bastard son.”

While ‘Lucky Stars’ and other fine songs from that album take me back to a place and time, it was a while before I heard my personal favourite of his, ‘Ariel’. So I was a little surprised to learn that was his big hit in America.

“Well, it was the first single off my first album. It really kicked off my career in the States. It was more of a turntable hit, but I attribute that more to politics and my record label at the time. And when I perform it on tour in the UK the audience considers it one of my hits, along with ‘Lucky Stars’, which I usually end shows with.”

I have to ask, whose fault was it that his ‘Lucky Stars’ co-singer – possibly Lisa’s nemesis – Denise Marsa (who Dean’s been reunited with and played live with in recent years) didn’t get a proper namecheck on that single? She was a big part of the appeal of that track (and in 2003 Dean said, ‘That guy Nigel was hip to the fact Lisa and I didn’t just do lunch’).

Trail Blazer: 2001’s The Treehouse Journals was one of the first crowd-funded albums

“That was down to my idiot label, the same label that took ‘Jewish girl’ out of the edited version of ‘Ariel’. But don’t get me started! It made no sense. She’s credited on the album, but … they were just idiots, that’s all I can say.”

Going right back, were you from a musical family? What inspired you to first pick up a guitar?

“My Mum was a professional singer and actress, so there was always some Broadway show tune on the piano. I grew up in a house full of music, so it was inevitable it was going to be part of my life. And when I started getting $15 for a coffee house gig at the university I thought, ‘This is not bad. I get to play what I want, have fun and people will pay me for it. That’s what started things off.”

Later, I see you were on the wedding and bar mitzvah circuit with Marsha and the Self-Portraits. Had you been honing your own songs from an early age?

“I got my first guitar when I was nine. I learned four chords and started singing Beatles and Monkees songs … and it’s sad that Peter Tork has just passed away.”

Absolutely. This big Monkees fan concurs with that sentiment. Did you ever get to meet Peter?

“I did. We did a gig together. I opened for him at a gig in New Jersey, six or seven years ago. He was playing with his (Shoe Suede Blues) quartet. A very genuine guy.”

We mentioned Half Man Half Biscuit, and you’ve got a fair bit of kudos from artists citing you as an influence, like North Carolina’s Ben Folds – whose 1997 Ben Fold Five single ‘Kate’ was in homage to ‘Ariel’ – or covering your songs, like Ontario’s Barenaked Ladies and Minnesota’s The Blenders tackling ‘(I Am in Love with the) McDonald’s Girl’.

“Well, ‘McDonald’s Girl’ was banned by the BBC and that pretty much derailed my career – that’s how I got kicked off my label. But a year or so later, I heard The Barenaked Ladies’ cover, their first hit in Canada, even though they never put it on one of their major studio albums. That led to more exposure, then a band called The Blenders on Universal Records had a No.1 with it in Norway.

“Then when the internet came along, the song went viral, a capella groups at colleges, universities and then high schools all over the United States then all around the world doing their own versions. And then, 30 years later, I finally got a call from McDonald’s, asking if they could license it for a national TV and radio campaign. I said, ‘Yeah, that’s great, but what took you so fucking long?’”

Masterclass Act: Dean Friedman, ready for this year’s SongFest intake in Crewe and Wareham, and not just being nice

Fair question. Between adverts and soundtrack work, kids’ musicals and video games, I see a jobbing musician getting by. Has the industry treated you well over the years, not least in the last 20 or so years when things have changed immeasurably.

“That’s an understatement! Yes, I’ve always considered myself a multi-media artists and producer, although there’s usually a strong musical component to whatever I do. Even when I was doing virtual reality video games for Nickelodeon Television and Fuji TV, I still had a great time doing the music for those games. It’s the same with the interactive children’s museum exhibits, for museums around the world.

“To me, it all shares a similar process, like getting a new instrument, like a computer synthesiser. It’s a new toy to play with and experiment and explore with different sounds or colours – it’s just another palette to create something with, whether it’s sound or colour. They’re very much related.”

You were one of the first to go down the direct to fans’ online pledge line, loyal supporters probably helping you through on a few occasions.

“I couldn’t pursue my music, touring or recording without it. As far as I’m aware, Marillion was the first band to announce such a project. But as far as I know I was the second, and probably the first solo artist.

“That was when I did The Treehouse Journals (2001) – a good six years before Kickstarter and Indiegogo launched. I was an early adopter of the internet and it was by virtue of being able to reconnect gradually over the years with my audience that I’m able to do what I do.”

For those who lost touch beyond the second album, would you advise they start with 1981’s Rumpled Romeo and work forward through the catalogue, or head to 12 Songs and work backwards?

Half Measures: Dean Friedman, looking for his Wirral-based bastard son, Nigel Blackwell

“Ah … well, gee, that’s a very good question. D’you know what – ha! – it depends whether they want to start with their own adolescence and gradually approach their mature self, or whether they want to start from where they are and gradually get back to where they were.”

Have your children followed you into music, or have you put them off?

“They’re both really talented musicians and writers as well. They both work in the entertainment field in TV and film, writing for cartoons and what-not. Again, there’s always a musical component to what they do. Growing up with a Dad in the business I think they benefitted to a degree from having no illusions about the industry.

“They knew it was a hard job but if they were committed to their art they could get satisfaction out of it and hopefully make a living at the same time.”

Is that the advice you give anybody else about this industry?

“Yeah, don’t have any illusions. If you’re just doing it to get rich and famous, there are probably other ways to do that! But if you’re doing it because you love doing it, your chances of winding up satisfied with what you do and how you spend your life are going to be increased and enhanced.

“The other thing I would say is to operate on a parallel path. Prize your art and craft, hone it, prove yourself, try and be as good as you can be but on a parallel path do whatever you need to do to keep the electricity turned on. If and when you get an opportunity to exploit it commercially, you’ll be ready for that opportunity. If you just wait for it, it’s not going to happen.”

And what are the chances of you sharing a stage with local-ish lad Nigel Blackwell at the Epstein Theatre in Liverpool or the Old Courts in Wigan on this tour?

“Well, I know he has trouble crossing the Mersey, so it depends what time it’s on. But you never know.”

Guitar Man: Dean Friedman, heading for a venue near you in 2019, four decades into his recording career

Dean Friedman’s 2019 UK tour takes in visits to Belfast, Crescent Arts Centre (April 19), Dublin, Arthur’s Pub (April 20/21, the latter at 4pm), Conwy, Theatr Colwyn (April 25), Bury, The Met (April 26), Birmingham, Pizza Express Live (April 27), Liverpool, Epstein Theatre (April 28), Wigan, The Old Courts (May 1), Doncaster, Doncaster Little Theatre (May 2), Stockton-on-Tees, Princess Alexandra Auditorium (May 3), Nottingham, Poppy & Pint (May 4), Grimsby, Central Hall (May 5), Norwich, The Garage (May 8), London, Bloomsbury Theatre (May 11), Henley-on-Thames, The Crooked Billet (May 13/14), Swansea, The Hyst (May 16), Pentrych, Acapela Studios (May 17), Leek, Leek Arts Festival /Foxlowe Arts Centre (May 19), SongFest, Springfield Country Hotel, Wareham (July 20/21), East Hagbourne, Fleur de Lys (July 24), Abergavenny, The Priory (July 25), Henley-in-Arden, Henley Guild Hall (July 26), SongFest, Wychwood Park Hotel, Crewe (July 27/28), Otley, The Courthouse (July 31), Dumfries, Theatre Royal (August 1), Livingston, Howden Park Centre (August 2), Glasgow, Oran Mor (August 3), Edinburgh Fringe Festival – St Andrew’s & St George’s West (venue #111, (August 14/15/16). Tickets are available from www.deanfriedman.com or the venues, prices from £24 to £55.

For SongFest details and to register for Dean’s songwriting masterclasses, try www.SongFest.live. Ticket prices are £48 (Saturday or Sunday) to £68 (weekend), with registration £195 for two, 90-minute sessions, each prior to a performance (4pm to 11pm Saturday and 3pm to 10pm Sunday).

And for all the latest from Dean, head to www.deanfriedman.com

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A Message from our Rude Boy – the Neville Staple interview

Point Made: Neville Staple, out and about with his band as special guests of The Undertones in May 2019.

It will be 40 years in May since debut Special AKA single ‘Gangsters’ thrilled a nation, the first single on 2 Tone Records a fine example of all that followed from that ground-breaking independent label.

Before 1979 was out, a band originally known as The Coventry Automatics had settled on The Specials, their impressive self-titled first album – produced with Elvis Costello – rightfully making a huge impact, nationally and internationally.

It wasn’t just that they wrote great songs – their first seven singles were top-10 hits, including No.1s ‘Too Much Too Young’ and ‘Ghost Town’ – but all they stood for, not least a message of racial integration during a period when right-wing political extremists were on the rise. And for that reason alone, they remain as relevant today as ever before.

All these years on, Specials co-frontman Neville Staple, who later featured with fellow ex-bandmates Lynval Golding and Terry Hall in The Fun Boy Three and then in the Special Beat alongside close friend ‘Ranking’ Roger Charlery, continues to spread his message.

These days, ‘The Original Rude Boy’, 64 next month, fronts the Neville Staple Band, while Lynval and Terry are back in tow with Horace Panter in the latest version of The Specials, currently celebrating the band’s first No.1 album, Encore. Clearly, the world still loves that heady mix of late-‘70s ska revival, kind of bluebeat mixed with dashes of punk and new wave. And that reaction’s something Neville’s witnessed first-hand in recent years too.

“The way we brought ska to the mainstream was by mixing Jamaican music with the English style, which at the time was punk.  The movement helped transcend and defuse racial tensions in Thatcher-era Britain. The actual black and white chequered imagery of 2 Tone has become almost as famous as the music itself. I remember the massive reactions to hit songs like ‘Ghost Town’, ‘Too Much Too Young’ and ‘Gangsters’, and fans still write to me about my rugged, energetic and fun stage presence.”

Magnificent Seven: The classic line-up of ska revival legends The Specials, including Neville Staple, third left.

Neville was in a reunion line-up of The Specials from 1993 to 2001, and again from 2009 to 2012, when he left the band due to personal reasons and some health concerns. But he remains a forerunner of the ska revival movement, popular as ever, playing across the world.

His most recent LP – one of many with his own name on the cover – was last year’s Rude Rebels, credited to Neville and Sugary Staple, the latter his wife and manager, aka Christine, its studio guests including former Specials guitarist Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers, recorded in his beloved Coventry, where he returned in 2004 after a spell in California.

As well as their music, Neville and Sugary work with schools, charities, university and youth groups giving talks, music and performance tuition, and helping publicise fund-raising projects. They were also part of a successful campaign to help Coventry gain City of Culture 2021 status, and continue to work with inner-city children on various creative schemes.

But there have been lows too, and since his grandson, 21-year-old Fidel Glasgow, was fatally stabbed in Coventry late last year, Neville’s been talking publicly as and when he can about the horrors of knife crime and knife culture.

What’s more, when we spoke he was between hospital visits to see his old friend Roger, who died this week aged 56, after undergoing surgery for two brain tumours while and treatment for lung cancer.

Of that sad news, Neville would later announce, “So devastated to lose my super friend and Special Beat partner. We’ve been privately at his bedside, with him and his family, every opportunity over the last couple of weeks, willing him the strength to recover again.

“Sadly the fight of the lion’s fire has gone out. Christine, the whole band and I are so saddened. I will miss him so much. Rest up Turbo. One of a kind!”

Close Friends: Neville Staple, right, with Special Beat pal, Ranking Roger

It was in 1990 that Neville joined Roger to form Special Beat, playing hits from both bands in the title in response to an explosion of interest in the US, the so-called third wave of ska. Neville moved to California around then to work with many new ska acts, including No Doubt, Rancid, Unwritten Law, and Canadian outfit The Planet Smashers.

When he returned 15 years ago, he formed the Neville Staple Band, the critically-acclaimed album The Rude Boy Returns involving contributions from Clash guitarist Mick Jones and Damned drummer Rat Scabies. The group also featured ex-members of fellow 2 Tone label originals Bad Manners, a few more personnel changes following before Sugary began performing with the band in 2015.

Along the way, there’s been relentless touring in the UK and Europe, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand, and several successful outings with Pauline Black and Ranking Roger as Legends of Ska and Special Beat.

Looking back a few days after our interview, when news broke of Roger’s death, his old friend’s health battle was clearly on his mind when we spoke, but I found him nothing short of courteous and engaging throughout, and we started out by dwelling on Neville’s 40th anniversary as a recording artist.

“It’s gone quick, hasn’t it. You don’t realise it happens so fast. So much has happened through the 40 years. Even before the Specials reunion I’ve been carrying the flag in America, over here, all over, touring. Then I guess they said, ‘Ah, Neville’s spreading the word’, and they reformed. But 40 years? It just seems like yesterday.”

Soon, he’ll be on the road with his band, as special guests of fabled Northern Irish punk survivors The Undertones. And while on the face of it, that’s perhaps not an obvious blend, the two bands have a lot in common, not least both having put their respective areas on the map and each touring with The Clash.

While The Undertones featured on a US leg of a tour in late ’79 which trailed the classic album, London Calling, The Specials were there with Strummer, Jones, Simonon and Headon the previous year, on the Out on Parole tour.

“Remember, we had the same management as The Clash – Bernie Rhodes – and toured with them amid the whole punk thing … oh God, that was beautiful!”

You say that, but after some of the tales I’ve heard about your cash-strapped days stuck in their Camden HQ, that must leave you in a cold sweat, thinking back.

“Well, no, it was just an experience. It’s all changed now, it’s the Stables Market, But before that … what can I say … it was rough. Rats running around, and we had to sleep on the floor.”

Classic Debut: The self-titled first album from The Specials, released in October 1979.

Character building?

“Oh yes, it was. And then Bernie sent us off to France, saying ‘Here’s the minibus, guys’. That was it.”

Did you keep in touch with him?

“No, we lost touch, but I’d have loved to. I moved to America and was there 10 years, losing touch with a lot of people I used to know.”

In fact, Neville recalled those earlier days in conversation with John Robb for Punk Rock – An Oral History (Ebury Press, 2006), saying, “I was in a youth club doing my DJ stuff, playing reggae at the time, and The Specials used to rehearse in the room next door – Jerry, Horace and Lynval. They asked if I could go out on the road and help them as a roadie. The punk scene hadn’t really started at the time. That was just coming up. We were called The Automatics, playing reggae and ska. I used to see the punk bands when they came through Coventry. We saw The Clash a lot. When The Specials got going we did the Out on Parole tour. That was fucking brilliant.

‘That was the first time I’d seen so many kids jumping and spitting. You should have seen the fucking spitting. It was like fireworks, man. What the fuck is going on here? Punk made us speed our music up. Playing in front of those kids made it more energetic. I used to really like the Buzzcocks. But it was The Clash who we were very close to. They were a great band. The Bernie Rhodes connection came through Jerry Dammers. We were living in Coventry, and Jerry had all the contacts and knew where to go. We used to rehearse at Rehearsal Rehearsals – it was a fucking pit, man! We used to sleep there in sleeping bags, and there were rats all over the place.”

Going back to that Undertones link, as we’re celebrating your 40th anniversary as a recording artist, 1979 was a huge year for both bands, with ‘Gangsters’, The Special AKA debut single out in May, the same month as their self-titled debut, and your own following in October.

“Yeah, I remember all that pretty well, and in them days you got to know all the bands around – The Undertones, The Clash, Sex Pistols, The Damned. We all had something in common.  Nowadays there are bands around and you haven’t got a clue who they are.”

Some of those links ran right through, you going on to work – for example – with Mick Jones and Rat Scabies.

“Yeah, all of them. I still talk to Rat. And all those bands, we got on. It wasn’t about competition. We were all doing what we were doing and gelling together – it wasn’t that band against that band. It was more like a community thing.”

Neville was barely five when he came to the UK from Manchester, Jamaica, his family settling in Rugby. That story is told in detail in his autobiography, The Original Rude Boy (Aurum Press, 2009), but we spoke a little about it.

“I remember where we lived and what it was like. There were no roads. We had to go through the tracks. When we went back there were roads though. The animal rights people aren’t going to like this, but at five we would catapult birds then roast them on the fire. I remember walking to school through the undergrowth, all happy memories.”

I guess your family moved here to find work.

“Oh yeah, but when they sent for us I remember seeing on the doors the ‘No Irish, Blacks or Dogs’ signs. I also remember seeing snow for the first time, putting my hands in it then putting them in front of the fire, getting chilblains.”

Ska Boom: Coventry success story The Specials take it away back in the day

And that was in Rugby, before you moved to Coventry?

“Yeah, I moved here about 19, but used to come over all the time as kids, staying with friends.”

Did you find an active scene there? And how important was the Locarno in Coventry in your sound system days?

“Well, the Locarno was where I met Pete Waterman, but before that I had my own crew. Pete used to get all the old Jamaican and Northern Soul songs, had his little shop above Virgin Records, and was DJ-ing at the Locarno. The girls and the boys had competitions there, and Pete took the winners – me and this girl – down to London. Yeah, Pete and I always got on.”

That was long before the Megastore days, with Pete and a mate running the Soul Hole upstairs from what was then Virgin Records and Tapes in Coventry, apparently ‘spouting enthusiatically and selling rare soul imports’ according to a feature for the Coventry Music Archives blog. In fact, the Locarno’s resident DJ would go on to briefly manage The Specials before truly making his name as part of the Stock Aitken Waterman pop enterprise. And he also happened to write the foreword to Neville’s autobiography.

Neville’s first involvement with The Specials – when still The Coventry Automatics – was prior to Terry Hall and John Bradbury’s arrival. He initially joined as a roadie, but at a gig supporting The Clash, Neville took to the stage, and never looked back. That Bernie Rhodes link followed, Neville later famously toasting ‘Bernie Rhodes knows don’t argue’ at the beginning of debut hit ‘Gangsters’.  However, he’s said before now the lyric actually refers to ‘Bernie Rhodes’ nose’, the size of their manager’s conk of some amusement in Specials circles.

He sang lead vocals on some tracks or additional and backing vocals to Terry Hall’s lead, his early style mostly toasting, having honed his skills with his cousin’s ‘Messenger Sound’ then later his own ‘Jah Baddis’ sound system crew. When he joined the Automatics, the line-up already included Jerry Dammers and Horace Panter, plus John Bradbury’s predecessor Silverton Hutchinson on drums. Then came Terry Hall, replacing Tim Strickland on vocals, and past WriteWyattUK interviewee Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers on lead guitar.

Shared Billing: The debut 2 Tone 7″ single, featuring both The Specials and The Selecter.

I put it to Neville that The Specials were very much a coming together of styles that made something magical, influences like Roddy’s love of punk and his love of Jamaican music somehow fused by Jerry’s overall wizardry. Whatever it was, it worked wonders.

“Yeah, everything just gelled. That’s just how it was. The punk scene was happening at that time, and ska was big anyway for me.”

As it was Terry Hall’s’s 60th birthday when we spoke, I asked if he was still in touch, and got a negative response. It wasn’t so much a blunt no as a pensive, deliberated one. It possibly means the same though. It seems that the former Specials and Fun Boy 3 bandmates aren’t so close nowadays.

I try again, stumbling for words, encouraged by Nev to speak my mind. Whether it’s The Specials, The Jam, UB40, or a few other notables – for instance, those confusing situations with The Beat and The Selecter where at least two bands of each tour different parts of the world – …

“There’s egos floating around, mate.”

Well, that does seem to be the case sometimes. And that’s always a bit sad for us fans.

“Of course it is. With the (Specials) reunion, I’ve always said I’ll go back and do things for the fans, but I don’t think they (the band) want me back. So I just carry on doing what I’m doing. They said the door’s open, but it seems to be closed. I did say I’d go back and do things with them for the fans’ sake for the 40th year. They’ve said ‘Neville didn’t want to come back’, but Sugary, my wife, spoke to the management.”

Accordingly, you get the impression he’ll not easily be tempted back now. Besides, he’s happy with how things are with his own band instead.

“Nah, it’s a lot of egos. My band is a lot better – there’s no egos floating around the band. Everyone’s treated the same. It might be my name, but I don’t use that with them, I don’t think I’m bigger. We’re a family.”

Live Presence: Neville Staple, live at Magma in Rotherham in February 2019 (Photo: Ian Beck)

So now we have the Neville Staple Band, delivering ‘punked-up anthems, dancehall ska and sweet rebel reggae and bluebeat’. That’s some manifesto. I was going to say you’re returning to your roots, but I’m not sure you ever really left those behind.

“We haven’t. And we have Roddy on a few tracks. The whole idea and concept is still taking from all that.”

He also tells me he’s been an item with Sugary for ‘nearly eight years now’.

“She was my pin-up. I saw her and thought, ‘She looks gorgeous … even when I was on stage. You know what I mean? And you can see we’re all having fun on the stage, my wife there next to me. It’s like a family. Everyone gets on and enjoys what we do.

“If you see the show, you see the fun and the elements coming from the band, interacting with the crowd, like they’re on stage with us. We get them participating. If we’re doing a Specials song, rather than three and a half minutes and it’s finished, this band get the fans involved and keep going. It’s fun, it’s party time, and we’re saying something.”

From those halcyon days with The Specials to two more amazing years with the Fun Boy Three, his Special Beat work, and so on through to the Neville Staple Band, he’s certainly made his mark. It’s the same, I suggested to him, for the likes of his old bandmates, plus former WriteWyattUK interviewee Pauline Black with The Selecter, Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling with The Beat, and so on. In a sense, they’ve done far more between them towards breaking down the old black and white barriers and making a mockery of the racists than any politician.

“Yeah, at the time we started there was the National Front and all that. As a black and white band we’d have that element coming to our gigs. But we got through that, and they could see that was what we were about. And some of those would then turn around and got into it. The message was there.”

Much as I love The Specials, some of those songs do carry an element of the underlying feeling of fear and despair in that early ‘80s Thatcher era, not least Roddy’s ‘Concrete Jungle’ and Jerry’s ‘Ghost Town’. They were dark times, and you reflected that perfectly.

Vest Behaviour: Neville Staple live at Glastonbury Festival (Photo: John Middleham)

“Oh yeah. You couldn’t walk out at night … and not just because you were black. That type of stuff. ‘All the clubs are being closed down’, you know?”

It’s something we seem to be heading back to now. It appears that we still need the likes of yourself and Pauline Black to try and get that message across.

“Yeah, we do, and that’s what we’re going to do, and we’re doing a lot on knife crime since my grandson died. We’re putting our bit across, saying what we’re seeing, how that shouldn’t be happening. But then it’s up to the kids. It’s not like we’re preaching.

“We’re just saying there are other ways with your pent-up anger, like we used to do – fighting fist to fist. But then it went to guns, now to knives, and there was a 12-year-old the other day who had a knife in school. This knife culture – what can we do? We can talk about it and hopefully some of what we’re saying gets through. And it will get through to some of them.”

I see you’re going into schools with your message.

“Yes, myself and Sugary, a lot of talking in schools and youth clubs and to young offenders and on the news as well, saying our bit. At the end of the day, some will listen.”

To that end, there’s also a splendid and timely reworking of their 1967 rocksteady cover, ‘A Message To You, Rudy’ from the band out there to buy right now, titled ‘Put Away Your Knives’, recorded with guest vocalist and the song’s originator, Dandy Livingstone, with all the details on Neville’s website, supporting the work of the Victim Support charity.

And amid all that, Coventry clearly still remains … erm, special to Neville, his base again since returning from California, throwing himself into campaigns like those for City of Culture status … although he plays that down.

“My wife’s done a hell of a lot more than me for that, putting in a lot of work. And we’re still here, while in The Specials – one’s in Seattle, one’s in London …

“Roddy’s still here too. I don’t wanna big ourselves up, but we’re here flying the flag for our roots. And not just Coventry – up North, down South … we’re still spreading the word – not preaching, but saying it as it is. And we don’t beat anybody down, we just carry on.”

Staple Singer: Neville Staple, still a ska revival trailblazer, four decades after first hitting the road with The Specials.

The Neville Staple Band are special guests of The Undertones on their 40th anniversary tour this May, with tickets for all shows £25 advance, taking in: Friday 3 May – Coventry Empire  (08444 771000); Saturday 4 May – Bristol SWX (0117 945 0325); Friday 10  May – Leeds O2 Academy (0113 389 1555); Saturday 11 May – Manchester O2 Ritz (0161 714 4140); Thursday 16 May – Norwich Open (01603 763111); Friday 17  May – Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion (01424 229111); Saturday 18 May – Southampton Engine Rooms (0800 688 9311).

For more about the Neville Staple Band – including details of the ‘Put Away Your Knives’ single, supporting the work of the Victim Support charity – head to his website and seek out his Facebook and Twitter pages.

 

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