Fingers Crossed for top night with Mott legend – the Ian Hunter interview

Hunter Gatherer: Ian Hunter, with trademark shades (Photo: Ross Halfin)

Ian Hunter was at home in Connecticut when I called, having a few days to himself before returning to the UK with The Rant Band for the latest run of shows to promote last year’s acclaimed Fingers Crossed album.

He’s around an hour and a half north of New York, having moved to that part of the US around 20 years ago following a spell in NYC. And although I wasn’t brave enough to ask so early in the conversation, I kind of assumed he was wearing his trademark shades.

As frontman of ‘70’s legends Mott The Hoople and a hugely influential solo artist, Ian’s rightly revered as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most compelling performers, and for 1973’s Mott and 1974’s The Hoople alone deserves major plaudits as a songwriter too. But while this Shropshire lad remains as busy now as when he started out in music in the 1950s, it seems that at the age of 78 he’s happy to be back in the sticks between engagements.

“I grew up in the country, and cities are annoying these days – too much traffic and you can’t breathe. And I don’t really have to be in town.”

Has he still got family and friends around Shropshire?

“Yeah, my oldest son lives there, and I have three grandkids there, plus my daughter’s in London.”

He was certainly looking forward to catching up with the Hunter clan and many more of us, a 14-date live run continuing at The Waterfront in Norwich on Friday, June 16th, and ending at The Playhouse, Whitley Bay, on Monday, July 3rd. Then, after three Californian dates in September, there’s a further run of seven shows in Germany, others in Switzerland and Italy, and three in Spain in October.

“I was over last year when the record came out. That went down great and we felt we wanted to come back, do some more, tied in with Europe. I love travelling round England, and on the coast. I was only ever popular straight down the middle first time. Now we’re trying to branch out sideways!”

With that in mind, I put it to him that there can’t be too many rock stars who moved to Northampton to try and reach the big time. And he laughed at that, perhaps recalling his formative days with The Apex Group and parallel outfit Hurricane Henry and The Shriekers.

“Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve never checked. I’ll have to Google that one up.”

If you don’t know that part of the story, I should point out that the future Mott the Hoople frontman’s entry into the business came after a chance encounter with two Colins – York and Broom – at a Butlin’s holiday camp, the trio winning a talent contest performing Blue Moon on acoustic guitars.  The others were part of Northampton-based The Apex Group, fronted by bass player Frank Short, Ian soon leaving home in Shrewsbury to join them on rhythm guitar, transferring apprenticeship from Sentinel/Rolls Royce to British Timken, Northampton.

Thankfully, that didn’t turn out to be the apex of his music career, although it took a while to hit the big time, and gets slightly confusing in the re-telling. In a nutshell (almost), that dual-spell with The Shriekers, formed by Ian in 1963, led to a further apprenticeship – a rock’n’roll one this time – in Hamburg, Beatles-style, then further twists and turns, moving to London in 1966 and joining a band called The Scenery, getting to know Mick Ronson on the Flamingo Club scene around then. What’s more, he played with various other artists, including The Young Idea, Billy Fury and David McWilliams, and in 1968 was hired by Mickie Most to play in The New Yardbirds, not to be confused with the band that became Led Zeppelin.

To make up his wages, he also worked as a journalist and staff songwriter for the firm Francis, Day & Hunter, was a road-digger for a local council, and a newspaper reporter. Then in 1969 things took a fateful turn for this 30-year-old father-of-two, answering an ad (‘singer wanted, must be image-minded and hungry’) and auditioning successfully for a band put together by Guy Stevens, featuring guitarist Mick Ralphs, organist Verden Allen, vocalist Stan Tippins (who became the road manager), bassist Overend Watts and drummer Dale Griffin. Initially known as Silence, they were renamed after a 1966 Willard Manus novel, with their self-titled debut LP recorded in a week and proving a cult success. You probably know the rest.

Actually, a later check by yours truly revealed that Des O’Connor, born in the East End and seven years Ian’s senior, also had a spell in Northampton on his way to success, after being evacuated there in the Second World War, even having a spell as a professional footballer with Northampton Town (‘Cobblers’, I hear you say). That town’s also associated with electronica pioneer Delia Derbyshire, but few others of musical note, so to speak, until Bauhaus, The Communards’ Richard Coles and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke came along. Now what a super-group that would make, eh.

So does Ian make the most these days of all those dead hours between gigs, getting to properly see the places he visits rather than just travel, set up, play and move on?

“I have to soundcheck, one thing I never stop doing, but the band get there around two in the afternoon and I won’t usually get there until five, so I miss all the grind.”

I hesitate there for a moment, struggling to shake the enduring image of Ian as a glam-rock grandad, then tell him how much I love Dandy, his tribute to David Bowie, the lead single on 2016’s Fingers Crossed. It’s a slice of instant nostalgia and a fitting way to remember the iconic, influential star who gave Mott the Hoople their proper first hit, donating All the Young Dudes to them 45 years ago next month, just when they were on the verge of parting company after three years, four albums, and precious little commercial success, scoring the first of five top-20 singles.

In answer to my enquiry, Ian tells me he didn’t stay in touch with Bowie in recent years, but together we work out the last time they met was for the Wembley Stadium tribute to Freddie Mercury, also involving Mick Ronson and Queen, 25 years ago.

“Of course, he got down on his knees and did the Lord’s Prayer on that occasion. That was fun. Queen wanted to do Dudes last, of three songs, and there was quite a tense confrontation between David and Roger Taylor. I just said, ‘Look. It doesn’t matter’ – there’s this couple of multi-millionaires looking at each other rather sharply! But David already had it in mind what he was going to do.”

What about Ghosts, the second single from Fingers Crossed, all the way from Memphis in a sense, albeit via a New Jersey recording session, inspired by the band’s visit to Sam Phillips’ legendary Sun Studio in Tennessee.

“I’d been there once before, and we met the son of one of the original Jordanaires, who asked if we wanted to go around again. It’s kind of like that Disney ballroom scene where you see ghostly holograms dancing. That’s what it feels like in there. My band all picked up instruments and started playing, and I could see it was getting them like it was me. And they’re a lot younger. There was definitely something about that room.”

Ian mentioned on BBC 4’s cracking 2013 documentary, The Ballad of Mott the Hoople, the pull of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, but I’m guessing Elvis Presley – who the afore-mentioned Jordanaires backed for 16 years from 1956 – was a major influence too.

“Actually it was Little Richard, Jerry Lee, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, The Platters, another great vocal band. Elvis was a bit too poppy. We were a bunch of Teds, and liked the hard stuff, y’know.”

I was thinking more of the earlier Elvis, when he was backed by Scotty Moore and Bill Black.

“Well yeah, and Jerry Lee’s piano is still there, as are the cigar stubs where they told them to stop smoking in the studio. Johnny Cash was there too, and The Prisonaires, coming off the chain gang for a day to record. Those early days were really something. There was a nice documentary about it all on the Country Music Channel recently.”

There’s rightly been plenty of praise for Fingers Crossed. Are these still Ian’s golden years, creatively, as Classic Rock suggested in their review?

“It’s quality control really. You hang about until you have the feel acceptable to yourself. I’ve had this band a long time now, they know my modus operandi. I know what will work with a band, and try and keep it as simple as possible. And either you get it or you don’t.”

This tour with The Rant Band will involve a mix of Mott and solo work, centred around Fingers Crossed. Will Ian have his famous Maltese Cross guitar with him?

“No, I sold that to a guy in Folkestone. He took the pickguard off and there was $5 in there and the address of the bloke that made it! When I turned 70, (Def Leppard frontman) Joe Elliott had two made, replicas but with an amazing sound. I used those when Mott got back together. An amazing sound, better than the Les Paul Juniors. The only problem I have with this band is that I have two guitar players already, so it gets complicated. So I use an acoustic.”

Remind me where that original Maltese Cross guitar came from. Was that one of your US purchases?

“Yeah, I was with Mick Ralphs in San Francisco. He saw it hanging on the wall, and the bloke wouldn’t take it down. He thought we were a pair of ne’er-do-wells. We told him we wanted a look and he said if I take it down you have to buy it. It was around $100. I said we’d buy it if we liked it. I don’t think there was even a truss rod. It was pretty crappy, but it looked good, which was most important! I got it for $75 and sold it for £160.”

As he was on the verge of his 78th birthday when we spoke, I asked if Ian planned to record and tour forever, health willing. He’s clearly still on top of his game.

“I’m not really good at hanging about. I love it for a while but get the urge to make a move again. That’s what I do. It’s not just as a means to make money … as long as someone turns up!”

You’ve had a few run-ins with ill health and disillusionment with the business and success you’ve had over the years. Does that get easier to cope with?

“Well yeah, and what we try to do is hover on the periphery. I hate the business. I don’t like anything to do with it. But somehow we’ve found ourselves a little niche on the side, and it works financially.”

Maltese Cross: Ian Hunter with a rather distinctive ‘six-string razor’ (Photo: Ross Halfin)

I tell him I’ve been reading a great book about The Clash, Pat Gilbert’s 2004 epic Passion is a Fashion, where he relates in detail the importance of Mott the Hoople on a certain Mick Jones, not least the ethos of not having that distance from the fans who pay to see you. They weren’t untouchables, I put to him, like some of the big bands of the time.

“Yeah, well (Tony) DeFries managed us and David Bowie and wanted us to be like them – like we were from another planet, very distant, not speaking between songs. That’s what he wanted but that’s not what he got! We didn’t feel any different from the people watching us. And if someone was a bit short of money we got them in the back door.

“That’s what happened with Joe Elliott, and Mick Jones, and a few people like that. They had no money and would maybe jump off a train before it came into a station. The least you could do was let them in.”

I ask him next who was the last band he saw who genuinely excited him in a similar way that Mott fans reckoned his band did … and a long silence follows.

“I don’t know. I really don’t get involved anymore. Not for some considerable time. I just do what I do. If someone bowled me over at a gig it was The Who at The Roundhouse, London, with Elton John opening. Normally you’ll have a discussion after a gig about what you thought, but nobody spoke after that.

“Halfway through, Pete Townshend turned around to Keith Moon and said, ‘Is it full?’ And Moony said, ‘Yeah, it’s jam-packed’, to which Pete said, ‘Is he reliable on the door?’ It took him back to the church halls! They weren’t on all the time, but when you saw them on one of those nights they were scary.”

After all the big names he’s played with over the years, is there anyone missing from that list who Ian would still like to record with?

“There’s a few. I’d have loved to have worked with Leon Russell, and nearly did at one point. Unfortunately it didn’t happen. Also, I’ve never worked with Bob Dylan, although I’ve met him a few times. That’s something I would like to do if I ever get the opportunity.”

Well, we heard it here first.

Listening back this last few weeks to solo work like his 1975 hit Once Bitten Twice Shy, I suggest there’s no great leap from that to some of the punk and new wave bands I loved a couple of years later. He was a trail-blazer in that respect.

“Well, we were partly glam – we were, but we weren’t! – so when the punk thing came in, the press turned on us, but then the punks started saying, ‘No, no, no – they’re alright!’ They had to do a U-turn. They thought they were being cool, but they weren’t! I remember going to the Roxy in London with Mick, and he got chased out of there. But I was alright. They accepted me, but not poor Mick!”

I’m not sure if he meant Ralphs or Ronson there, but I’m guessing it wasn’t Jones. Taking his point on though, I suggest maybe part of that was that he didn’t lose sight of the importance of the three and four-minute single. He didn’t go down the ‘prog rock’ road. He stuck to his guns.

“Well, I just came up with original rock’n’roll – fast, medium and slow songs. Soul was about, but I wasn’t very good at that and it didn’t turn me on like Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. It all got fragmented, but I just stuck with the original idea from the ‘30s, the’40s and the ’50s.”

It’s more than 50 years now since he first met Mick Ronson. I’m intrigued by that Flamingo scene in London, and all the great acts there. Was London truly swinging for this Shropshire lad?

“Err … I tried a few times, like everybody else. I was always dead jealous of London chaps. They were born there, while we had to get there … and it was a fucking long way, y’know!

“I remember going to the 2i’s Coffee Bar on Old Compton Street. I saw a guy called Lance Fortune, with Brian Bennett on drums and (Brian) ‘Licorice’ Locking on bass.  They both wound up with Cliff Richard in The Shadows. I saw those guys playing and went straight back to Northampton. They were so much better than we were. I thought we didn’t stand a chance. But you go down a couple of times and eventually wind up sticking down there.”

Did your time in Hamburg help you move up a few notches?

“It taught you how to play. You’re out seven hours a night and as much as 12 or 13 at the weekend. That was fantastic.”

I get the feeling that even if that advertisement to join Mott the Hoople hadn’t gone Ian’s way he might still have made the big time. He seemed to have the inner belief that it was going to happen, determined to make it one way or another.

“Yeah, I guess so. There wasn’t any desperation. I was bright enough to know there were only two ways for someone like me – it was football or music. Premium bonds were not going to happen. I put five bob in the Post Office and got that and just thought there’s got to be a better life than this.

“I’d been in factories around eight or nine years, and it didn’t appeal. But because of that I had lyrics. A lot of kids left school and joined bands, so didn’t have those lyrics. You just kept going and kept going, like a writer with a book or anything creative. You get rejected, but it only takes a phone call.”

For all his success with Mott, it was only a five-year ride initially. Since then, his solo career’s lasted 40 years, Ian having released a 30-CD box set last year alongside Fingers Crossed. That’s something to be proud of, isn’t it?

“Erm … yeah? I don’t know. I don’t look at it like that. It’s just what I love doing, y’know.”

Rock & Rant: Ian Hunter, heading to a town near you, with The Rant Band (Photo: Ross Halfin)

Ian Hunter and The Rant Band’s latest UK tour includes a visit to Preston’s Charter Theatre on Monday, June 26th, with tickets available via 01772 80 44 44 or this link. For more information and tour details check out Ian’s website here. You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

To the power of 3WW – back in touch with Alt-J’s Gus Unger-Hamilton

Orange Crush: Alt-J (namely from the left - Gus Unger-Hamilton, Thom Green, Joe Newman) are taking Relaxer out on the road

Orange Deadcrush: Alt-J (from the left – Gus Unger-Hamilton, Thom Green, Joe Newman) are taking new LP Relaxer out on the road and to a town, city or festival near you this summer and autumn

This week saw the release of the brand new Alt-J LP, Relaxer, coming on the tail of this inventive trio’s Mercury Prize and Ivor Novello Award-winning 2012 debut An Awesome Wave and 2014’s No.1, Grammy and Brit Award-nominated This Is All Yours.

Those factors alone suggest the pressure should have been mounting for an unassuming group of friends who first met and played together while at Leeds University, Joe Newman (guitar, lead vocals), Thom Green (drums) and Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards, backing vocals) having already sold in excess of two million records, with their songs streamed more than one billion times apparently, while headlining festivals across the globe.

They also sold out London’s O2 Arena and New York’s Madison Square Garden on their last tour, and next Friday, June 16th, are set to return to the former as part of the venue’s 10th birthday celebrations. But any resultant weight of expectation seems not to have affected Gus, who remains as likeable now as he was when we last caught up three summers ago. And I started our conversation this time around by mentioning that interview in August 2014 (see link below), conducted at a time when Gus was busy explaining to the world about a line-up change following Gwil Sainsbury’s departure.

“Yes, I remember that … that and questions about Miley Cyrus – two big ones I was fielding a lot!”

I stumble a little at that response, briefly wondering if Gus was having a (rather unlikely) Benny Hill moment. He doesn’t seem the sort. But then I recalled that the US pop icon mentioned – back in the news since our chat after her starring role in Ariana Grande’s Old Trafford fund-raising tribute concert following the Manchester Arena tragedy – is a big Alt-J fan. In fact, not only is she sampled on 2014’s Hunger of the Pines, but she also shot her own video accompaniment to stunning early hit Fitzpleasure.

I didn’t press him on Miley’s love for the band though. He’s been asked that far too much. Instead, we got on to this Cambridgeshire lad’s adopted home city, seeing as he was striding through Hackney towards his flat after a day of rehearsals with his band. So, I put it to him, it seems that Relaxer is very much a London-made album.

“Exactly. And we haven’t changed our approach at all since album one. We enjoy hanging out together, doing the writing then going to Charlie’s place in Brixton or sometimes in this case to Shoreditch and getting the recording done.”

There’s obviously a good rapport with your producer, Charlie Andrew being at the helm for a third successive time.

“Yeah, all we can say is that it comes down to, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t try and fix it’. We’ve never really recorded with anyone else and we’re probably 10% superstitious, worried if we record with someone else it might not work. Fundamentally we like him, we get on well and we’ve always done well when we’ve worked with him.”

Fair enough, and how many interviews have we read where artistes tell us they’ve gone down a slightly different route this time, getting back to their beginnings after departing from the formula that led to their breakthrough? It seems in this case that Alt-J are cutting out the middle man though … or middle album, maybe.

“Yep! We’ve come back without going there!”

The first single from the new LP, 3WW, was the first sign that we had a very special album coming our way, something that wouldn’t be out of place on a film soundtrack, I suggested, coming to that conclusion before seeing its accompanying promo video, ‘a story of love and loss in Mexico’, as they put it, directed by Los Angeles-based Young Replicant, who also worked with Lorde. And what made the band turn to Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell as guest vocalist?

“We got to know Ellie through her band supporting us in the past. We thought that would work well with a female role, if you think of the song as a kind of script. We discussed who we knew, and Ellie was someone of whom we immediately thought, ‘That could work’. Wolf Alice were in a studio in Shoreditch working on their second album, we sent her a text, and she came around that afternoon.”

It’s a wonderful introduction, and one the band reckoned at the time of its release ‘could be the best thing we’ve done to date’. I won’t argue with that, the use of the three very distinctive voices – Gus first, then Joe, then Ellie – perfectly setting the tone for Relaxer as a whole. As for that line, ‘I just want to love you in my own language’, perhaps we have the philosophical platform for the LP right there.

Like much of their work, there’a modern-day folk feel there too, as accentuated by Gus with his vocal part, along with an out west, sleeping beneath the stars vibe, and a laid-back tender feel that brings to mind Blur (and it was only after a few plays that I could see traces of that outfit’s Tender). Imagine Can jamming in your house, playing low so they don’t wake up the sleeping child in the next room.

As for the song’s theme, I was geographically wrong about the location, the band revealing it ‘traces the adventures of a wayward lad on England’s North-East coast’, involving a declaration of those ‘three worn words’ capitalised in the title – as in ‘I love you’. And we need those words more than ever right now, don’t we, Gus?

“Yeah, exactly … although we were not unaware of the appearance of the notion of World War Three in there too, leaving that open, and a little ambiguous.”

Moving on to the second single from the new LP, and track two, In Cold Blood, a promo video had just been released when we spoke, shot in a forest near Copenhagen by Danish film-maker and photographer Casper Balslev, featuring the legendary Iggy Pop as narrator, depicting how ‘a day in the life of a wood mouse can be unexpectedly dangerous’, as the band put it. Think of The Gruffalo, Scandi-noir style. So what was the reaction from Gus and his bandmates on first seeing Casper’s treatment of that track?

“I think it was one thing just to see the mouse doing the trick! We were promised they could teach that mouse to do anything, and we were like, ‘Really? I want to see this!’ Sometimes when you read a video treatment you just have this desire, wondering what that would look like. And we’re always interested in having videos which are not too literal an interpretation of the song’s lyric.

“In this case, while there is blood in the video, beyond that it’s very much its own thing. And this idea sounded cool! We’re all fans of the Coen brothers and that sort of thing – violent, but almost comically violent, with all these different things going on.”

Strange as the concept might seem, it certainly fits well with your music too.

“I think so. I think the songs are kind of dream-like and very much down to the imagination, so when the videos are larger than life and lurid it works well.”

It must be rather satisfying seeing what others come up with to go with your songs. What was the spec you gave Casper?

“It was more about finding cool directors who were up for pitching and seeing what they thought. We didn’t give them any kind of brief. It was purely up to them.”

Whose idea was it to get Iggy Pop involved?

“I think it was Casper’s. We were in the middle of a promo tour in America, getting odd emails in the middle of the night, waking up the next morning to find they could get Iggy. Next thing we knew, there was the video with him on it!”

And there’s so much living in that rich and resonant voice, isn’t there.

“There really is, and I’m a big fan of his BBC Radio 6 Music show. I love that. It’s amazing.”

As for the song itself, its title half-inched from the Truman Capote novel – its mighty injection of brass brings the album fully to life, while the keyboard touches by Gus – put together on a Casiotone model that cost £1.05 on eBay, apparently – add a retro feel not dissimilar to the more dancefloor-friendly material of The Feeling, of all bands. More to the point, and as we’ve perhaps come to expect from Alt-J, those first two singles are very different from each other. Are they indicative of Relaxer as a whole (I asked, before having heard the rest of the album)?

“I think so. They almost span the breadth of the album, where there’s a good balance of up-tempo and more kind of thoughtful. I do think that for this more than any of our previous albums, and all of them were very different from each other of course. And that makes it all the more exciting for us.”

And would Gus say there’s a defined thread running through Relaxer?

“I don’t think so, other than they fit and we were enjoying being together after a break, hanging out and playing our instruments together – the thing we love doing the most.”

A few weeks on, having played the album back-to-back a few times now and loving every moment, I concur with that. And here’s as good a place as anywhere to put in print my verdict, track by track, continuing with song three, the band’s innovative re-imagining of House of the Rising Sun. It’s so much more than a cover too, and has little in common with The Animals version, Alt-J instead taking this standard back to its folk roots – yes, once you can spot the folk influences, there’s no getting away from them on this album –  and coming up with something more in tune with a Noah and the Whale release – more Charlie Fink than Eric Burdon – floating on a sea of glorious classical guitar.

In contrast we see the band at their seedy best on Hit Me Like That Snare, an ‘atypically filthy psychedelic grind’ telling the X-rated story of a visit to a ‘sex hotel’, this number unlikely to get too much BBC Radio 2 airplay, I’d venture.  On first listening I felt elements of a Japanese tribute band to the Pixies, while the song goes all a bit Radiohead at times, as you might expect from big fans of Thom Yorke and co.

Talking of Pixies, Deadcrush brings to mind Monkey Gone to Heaven for me, with shades of The White Stripes peeping through and even a little Macy Gray soulfulness in places via Joe’s distinctive falsetto style. Word has it that the song started life as a jam, and tackles the band’s in-house professing of love for long-lost, less obvious sex symbols, in this case centred on Joe’s obsession for New York model turned war correspondent and photographer Lee Miller and Gus having the hots for Anne Boleyn. Naturally.

There’s another album highlight in Adeline, an alternative tale of unrequited love that I’ll return to the term ‘filmic’ for, a slow-building masterpiece, its ‘I wish you well’ line bringing to mind Dolly Parton’s superior version of I Will Always Love You. And its theme? Well, it’s the tale of a Tasmanian devil who falls in love with a woman as he watches her swim, our bathing beauty Adeline singing The Auld Triangle as she moves through the water. And when you think about it, that’s not so far removed from the more traditional folk tale of the mermaid and the lover she lures into the deep.

The penultimate song sees the band turn the screw again, this time for an emotional yet subtle hymn to suicidal tendencies, somewhat reminiscent of old school Jesus and Mary Chain, with Joe in his lower register as he talks us through his character’s Last Year, before the talented Marika Hackman pays her tribute in song at his funeral, adding something of the quality of Laura Marling to the proceedings, the latter’s Semper Femina an album Gus professes his love for, and one that should be vying for top spot with Relaxer at the end of year album award ceremonies.

And then we peak on Pleader, partly recorded at Ely Cathedral, where Gus was a chorister, and inspired by Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Is My Valley, an orchestrated, stirring song of brooding beauty that heads towards a mighty choral climax. The Welsh mining theme of the original inspiration brings Public Service Broadcasting’s soon-to-be-revealed Every Valley to mind, while the big sound concept has me harking back to further favourites The Magnetic North. And on its own strengths I can say for sure we have another contender for best ever Alt-J moment here, from what amounts to their most inspired album so far, despite that stiff back-catalogue competition, this trio carrying on where they left off in the studio in 2014.

So, Gus, that line about you being one of the most successful British bands of this millennium, with more than two million sales so far – does that add expectation? Or do you just – as I suspect – thrive on that anyway?

“I think it does add expectation, once you’ve got to that level. You become nervous about maintaining it. Ultimately though, we’ve cultivated a large fan-base of people who enjoy our expertise and eclecticness … and they get it. And that in itself gives us a freedom to do whatever we want and feel free to experiment.”

The statistics suggest the songs have had more than one billion streams. It must be difficult to get your head around something of that magnitude.

“I think it’s best not to dwell on that. It’s such a huge number, you can’t even look at it directly. You have to step back and shield your eyes! We just get on with the job in hand.”

A busy summer awaits Alt-J, on the back of their recent appearance at BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Hull, which Gus was very much looking forward to when we spoke. A timely visit to the current UK City of Culture, I suggested.

“Indeed! My girlfriend Franny is from Hull, and we only played there once before, years ago, before we were signed.”

Next up are shows in Rouen, France (Saturday, June 10th), Kortrijk, Belgium (Sunday, June 11th), Tilburg, Netherlands (Monday, June 12th) and a sell-out in Berlin, Germany (Tuesday, June 13th), followed by that latest headline show at Greenwich’s O2 Arena, then several festival dates and the first of two North American jaunts.

With those dates in mind, has Gus been back through the catalogue to familiarise himself with the songs so far in a bid to re-learn them?

“Yes, I’ve just come from a rehearsal today, and we’ve set ourselves the homework of watching the live DVD we made on the last tour. It’s amazing how much you forget.”

Is that a bit of an exercise in ‘what went well’ in a bid to carry on the good work?

“It’s more a case of remembering who plays what where! It’s all muscle memory. Trying to consciously remember it is quite difficult. It’s not often I listen to the old albums, but when I do I really enjoy them. The other night I was cooking and put on the first album, not having heard it for a long time … and I really enjoyed it.”

Any advance on yourself, Joe and Thom for the live dates?

“No … just the three of us. We might have strings and brass for some shows, but as regards the core people on stage, it’s just us three, stripping it back to the band, seeing how that goes. And I love festival season, and it’s going to be such a fun way to start this album tour. Those summer shows are going to be sweet.”

Those appearances include a Glastonbury Festival return (Saturday, June 24th), a show in Dublin’s Trinity College Park (Tuesday, July 11th), and headline slots at the Blue Dot (Jodrell Bank, Cheshire, Sunday, July 9th) and Boardmasters (Newquay, Cornwall, Sunday, August 13th) festivals.

The band’s European commitments include further visits to Croatia, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Luxembourg, Romania, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Austria and France, then the first 12 US dates and that Newquay visit. And then there are trips to Hungary, Norway, Poland, the Netherlands, Russia and Sweden.

Which all goes to show that Gus, Joe and Thom are living the high life. But there’s a slightly less rock’n’roll big moment for Gus to live on in the memory banks too, having played a key role for the University of Leeds in a celebrity series of University Challenge aired at the tail end of 2016, reaching the final.

“Ah, that was great fun!”

3WW’s Company: Alt-J have just released their third long-playing masterpiece in five years.

His fellow alumni on those occasions were novelist Louise Doughty, BBC economics editor Kamal Ahmed, and political cartoonist Steve Bell. So what’s been the most nerve-racking experience then – that or playing live with Alt-J?

“Erm … going down the lift from the green room for University Challenge! I was extremely nervous. You’ve no idea how you’re going to perform under the pressure of the cameras and the lights … and (Jeremy) Paxman’s steely gaze! But it was a dream come true. I grew up watching that show with my Dad, and for some reason was never given the opportunity to apply when I was at university. I must have missed the poster on the Students’ Union notice board. So finally, getting asked to do that it was like, ‘F*ck, yeah!’”

And you got a chance to confer with the likes of Steve Bell.

“Oh God, yeah! What a hero. A really amazing guy. So cool to meet him.”

Was there even more pressure when the music round came along and everyone looked to you?

“Yeah, somewhat! We were all fairly artsy, but I definitely had to prop up the team on that one. And I did okay until the final. What a great experience!”

Since our interview, Alt-J have added more dates – their five-date UK seaside tour visiting Brighton Centre (Monday, September 4th), Margate Dreamland (Tuesday, September 5th), Bournemouth Academy (Wednesday, September 6th), Weston-Super Mare Grand Pier (Friday, September 8th), and Blackpool Empress Ballroom (Saturday, September 9th), before a show at The Hippodrome, Kingston-upon-Thames (Monday, September 11th).

Those engagements are then followed by 18 more US dates, seven in Canada and another in Mexico City in the autumn, before the year is wrapped up with four appearances in Australia and two in New Zealand in December.

Innovative Offerings: Thom, Joe and Gus ponder the writewyattuk verdict on the mighty new Alt-J LP, Relaxer.

For full details of all the band’s forthcoming shows and all the latest from Alt-J, including more live details and how to get hold of the new album, head to And for a look back at the last writewyattuk feature/interview with Gus Unger-Hamilton, from August 2014, head here


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

Still acting nonchalant with The Searchers – the John McNally interview

Stepping Up: The Searchers, 2017 style, with co-founder John McNally middle right; Spencer James, middle left; Frank Allen, front; and Scott Ottaway, rear.

John McNally was back home in Crosby when I called this week, barely five miles from his Kirkdale roots. It seems like he’s rarely there though, thanks to a punishing tour schedule for his band, The Searchers, one of the leading lights of the 1960s’ Merseybeat scene and still busy all these years on. But for all his world travels, John’s remained loyal to his beloved Liverpool.

“As a kid I came down here on my bike, play in the sandhills, later playing gigs at venues in Crosby like those at St Luke’s and the Comrades Club, and Waterloo.”

Was moving that way later a sign of having made it?

“Sort of. A lot of the lads moved to London, and I did for a while, sharing an apartment belonging to Bill Kenwright, but I missed the five-a-side with the lads and decided to go home.”

Yes, he may have reached the grand age of 75, but apparently John’s still playing football when he can, and right now he’s also three-quarters of the way through a major UK tour that started in mid-March at Redditch Palace and resumes at Basildon’s Towngate venue this Saturday, June 3rd.

John and fellow Searchers survivor Frank Allen (bass, on board since 1964), plus Spencer James (vocals, guitar, since 1986) and Scott Ottaway (drums, since 2010) reach my patch for a show at Preston’s Charter Theatre (01772 80 44 44) on General Election day next Thursday, June 8, the tour ending at Bishops Cleeve’s  Tithe Barn on Sunday, June 25th, but with plenty more summer dates already in the diary. And there’s rarely been a year to take stock since the band first burst on to the national scene in the summer of ’63 with debut hit Sweets for My Sweet.

We started by talking about John’s late-1950s skiffle roots and an early-’60s stint at the Star-Club, Hamburg, an apprenticeship familiar to those who know the story of a certain Fab Four from the same home city.

There’s a nice piece about the band in Paul Du Noyer’s excellent Liverpool: Wondrous Place. As the author puts it, ‘The Searchers are in many ways the connoisseur’s Merseyside band, and in their prime made music that sparkles like champagne’. But John’s wary of such praise for an outfit best known for saccharine early hits like Sugar and Spice and Sweets for my Sweet as well as far more influential songs like Needles and Pins and the wonderful When You Walk in the Room.

Discussing his roots in a 2008 Daily Telegraph interview with travel writer Christopher Somerville, John suggested, Liverpool music is ‘raw music, seamen’s music — I think that’s the special ingredient’. Can he enlarge on that?

“Yeah, the influx of all those American records was great for us and The Beatles. We had a great catalogue to nick from.”

John grew up near the docks, his older brother Frank, a seaman, bringing back records from US trips.

“First of all he’d bring country stuff like Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams, the next minute it was Johnny Cash, then Gene Vincent, Elvis, and Eddie Cochran … bloody hell – superb!”

It seems like you were in the right place at the right time.

“We all were, us post-wear babies! All doing our own thing, playing skiffle in the area, but unknown to us on the northside of Liverpool, bands like The Beatles were doing it in the south end. We didn’t really know that was going on until we came on the Star-Club scene. The Beatles made such a good impression there that the bosses came to Liverpool and went round the clubs. There was Derry and the Seniors, Howard Casey, The Beatles, then us, The Undertakers, Gerry and the Pacemakers … and we all had a good time!”

Talking of Derry Wilkie, there’s a rumour mentioned by Paul Du Noyer that the Iron Door Club in Temple Street, where the band frequented, got its name after the previous wooden door was ‘smashed in by axe-wielders’ chasing him one night.

“Probably! Les Attley owned the Iron Door and was our manager, so all that was going on. But we didn’t really take that much notice of Les, other than one good thing he did for us, when Brian Epstein was signing up bands and we missed out. Brian later called us the ‘band that got away’. When he came to see us we were all ‘pizzicatoed’, having been in The Grapes all night when he came to see us at The Cavern. We were on last and weren’t very good, acting the goat with a few drinks down us. We didn’t make the impression he wanted, so he passed on us.

“It was Les who pointed out that everyone was being signed up and we didn’t want to miss the boat. He asked if we wanted to make a demo at the Iron Door, organising a company to nip in with all the gear. So we did 11 tracks and he sent them all around the companies, and luckily Tony Hatch at Pye Records picked up on it. We were on our way back to the Star-Club to do another stint when he asked us to come and record Sweets for my Sweet, which we did ahead of the ferry!”

It was a fortuitous move, that June ’63 single the first of The Searchers’ three UK No.1s – along with Needles and Pins and Don’t Throw You Love Away – and 10 top-20 singles between then and the autumn of 1966.

Going further back again, who taught John his first chords on the guitar?

“That was Georgie McGee, a mate of my brother, who played the Glendower pub, where I lived on St John’s Road, our Frank having brought over a few guitars from Japan. They were rubbish, really, but Georgie showed me some chords and I got the Bert Weedon play-in-a-day book. George is gone now, but his daughter came to say hello to us in New Zealand, not long back, which was nice.”

Meanwhile, John tells me his brother Frank, now in his late 70s, is still working as a rigger. They clearly breed them robust in that family.

John had a few jobs before turning pro, working for the Blue Funnel line at the India Buildings, before ‘sea school’ in Aberdovey and Birkenhead, trips to Glasgow, London, and other ports following.

“I was working for the same company as my brother, Alfred Holt’s Blue Funnel line, at the Gladstone dock, doing office work and going around the ships delivering mail. Then they sent me to Aberdovey, an outward-bound school, and the Odyssey Buildings, Birkenhead, to learn about seamanship, with my first ‘coastal’ trips before going ‘deep sea’. But before going ‘deep sea’ you took another medical, and fortunately – as it turned out – I had a lazy eye, so was ruled out. And a bit like Ringo (Starr) I also had TB and was off for another six months.

“I got a job in Bootle, but wasn’t there long because of the Star-Club, and in that time had learned guitar and improved. A lot of my friends played guitar and were far superior. I started as part of a nucleus of lads playing on a corner, but was the only one serious about starting a band, along with a fella called Tony West, who had a skiffle group in the Army, and went on to play bass with us. He was also in the motor trade so drove us all around to gigs.”

It seemed like it was all meant to happen.

“Yeah. That said, there are certain things you regret, and when we made it, all the lads changed, if you know what I mean – the normal thing with bands. Egos appear, mates become nasty and demanding, and you don’t notice until it’s too late.”

Accordingly, that initial late-’50s five-piece also involving Tony West made way for a 1960 line-up featuring McNally (rhythm guitar, vocals), Johnny Sandon (lead vocals), Mike Pender (lead guitar, vocals), Tony Jackson (bass, vocals) and Chris Curtis (drums, vocals), Sandon leaving in early ’62 and the band becoming a four-piece.

Guitar Men : The Searchers give us that trademark jangle.

On the sleevenotes of the first LP, Meet the Searchers, I put it to John, he mentions a dislike of ‘conceited people’. It seems like the cracks were already appearing.

“I think so. When we first picked songs for albums it was a combined effort, but when the powers that be – the likes of Tony Hatch and Tito Burns, our manager at that time – started telling us who was most important, you’re not a band anymore.”

Does he regret not getting to sit down with Chris – like Lennon and McCartney – and writing their own songs? The Beatles moved away from covers fairly early, while The Searchers’ major hits were all penned by others.

“Totally! There are lots of regrets. Also, our management sold us to Tito Burns for God knows how much. All the management cared about was earning money, putting us on the road, with a certain amount of hours to record singles in between. We were soon exhausted. That’s when I decided I was going home. It was ridiculous.

“We didn’t have the time to put our own stuff down apart from the odd b-side, barely spending an hour on that. The Beatles might spend weeks on one song, giving them the chance to move on. Frustration kicks in and poor old Chris was very frustrated and left, going off to Wales in the end. The pressure was unbelievable.”

Chris Curtis was a key part of the band’s live act early on, not least with his stand-up drumming style.

“He was a great showman, absolutely superb, and I hate it when people come along who I know were influenced by him in those days. I’m tempted to have a go … but it’s all in the past now.”

If there was anything positive to come out of all that, it was the work ethic that never seems to have left the band.

“Most of the other ‘60s bands are quite jealous of the work we have now. It’s easy enough to play, but it’s the driving that’s the pain. But around 15 years ago we saw the club circuit dying, all those chicken-in-a-basket venues we hated, places liked Batley Varieties, and wondered about going into civic theatres.

“We had so much catalogue material, from the albums, so took a chance to book a few shows. For the first five or six we were about £10,000 down, but then did Bedford and somewhere else and it was fantastic. Now we always do a spring tour, and it does very well.”

For me, born in ’67, it was probably the Ramones covering Needles and Pins that made me look at The Searchers again. Then I got into The Byrds and realised over time how they were also influenced by this Liverpool outfit. I can also hear their sound in everyone from Tom Petty through to later Merseyside bands like The La’s then Cast, The Coral, and The Zutons.

“Yeah, but again I ignore all those compliments. We know what the Ramones said, and The Byrds, Marshall Crenshaw, even Bruce Springsteen, who invited me to his gig at Old Trafford a couple of years ago. We were a bit embarrassed really, being asked how we made Needles and Pins and got that sound on When You Walk in the Room, by people like Steven van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, in awe!”

I think that’s part of why we like John. He doesn’t appear to have been spoiled by fame and hasn’t forgotten his working-class roots. He’s still the lad next door.

“Well, I don’t like all that sort of pontification, and also find it embarrassing when you get lots of tribute bands who actually think they’re a band these days. That’s stupid. Okay, we were basically a tribute band in the early days, but did those songs in a different way, rather than copying them.”

Going back to that very first album there’s an early example of that, The Everly Brothers’ Since you Broke my Heart, a song I feel they made their own, and my favourite track on there.

“Well, we loved the Everlys then and worked with Don and Phil quite a lot. Luckily we’ve played with most of the acts we loved, other than Buddy Holly, who I never got to see. He was at the Philharmonic on the 29th of March, 1958, a Thursday night, but I was working until seven. Mike (Pender) went, but couldn’t remember much about it.”

Talking of iconic Liverpool venues, last week I saw From The Jam at the rebuilt Cavern Club, and can vouch for the fact that there’s still a special vibe about that place. Yet while The Searchers played there too, it seems that their own live HQ of sorts was the Iron Door.

“Well, that was all built up by Merseybeat magazine as a competition between the Iron Door and the Cavern. But we played there as much as the Iron Door and all the other venues. On an all-night session, we’d pass The Beatles up and down the stairs at venues, each carrying our gear.”

Did you stay in touch?

“Not really. Last time I saw Paul (McCartney) was when the Sgt. Pepper album was given the digital treatment. He invited the lads down to Abbey Road, and we had a chat. Linda was there as well.”

You mentioned early country influences, but I understand seeing Fats Domino at the Star-Club helped change the band’s direction. Were you on the same bill?

“Yeah, Fats Domino, and also Gene Vincent, Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers, Joey Dee and the Starlighters …“

Was that the moment you decided on a more r’n’b approach?

“Yeah, but that’s what I meant about a combined effort. Tony Jackson loved John Lennon and wanted to do all the stuff he did, and sounded like Lonnie Donegan as well, while Chris was into more melodic stuff like Ruby and the Romantics, The Coasters and Dionne Warwick. Then Mike was into Buddy Holly, and then there was me and country and western. You know those Beatles sessions where Paul’s showing George what to play? There was none of that. You played what you felt. And it worked.”

We talked about that early camaraderie, but there were later splits in the ranks, most notably a rift with Mike Pender that led to mid-‘80s litigation, the band splitting into two factions playing the same songs.

“Well, that was sad. I don’t think too much about it now, but the way he went about it was very odd. If he wanted to go solo, by all means, we’d have wished him well.”

Have you spoken since?

“No, last time was at Chris’ funeral. He came over but I felt it was wrong to shake hands. What he did wasn’t nice. He still goes on about it now. I just feel, ‘Forget it! It was your decision!’ He wanted to leave, but wanted to take the name with him. I started the band, I owned the name.”

One change in personnel that went down far better with John came in the summer of 1964, London-based Frank Allen joining from Cliff Bennett and The Rebel Rousers, replacing Tony Jackson, the two now in tow in the Searchers for 53 years.

“We’d known Frank for years, and Cliff appeared in our history quite a lot. We were sat watching them one night and one of the songs was Needles and Pins. We thought, ‘That’s unusual’. We didn’t like the arrangement, because they had a brass section, but they did that and There She Goes, again with a good sound. Cliff told us later that night Needles was a Jackie DeShannon song. We got home, got the record, then did our version.”

And I’d say that was the band’s first great single.

“Oh yeah! But the fight we had with the record company over that release was unbelievable. They didn’t see it at all. They wanted us to follow Sweets with another Drifters song. We said no and told them Needles was a great song. And then Jackie wrote When You Walk in the Room for us … which was like ‘bang!’

Ah, now you’re talking. All these years on, I still adore that single – just another love song maybe, yet one that encapsulates that thrill of getting to know that special someone. It doesn’t outstay its welcome either – we’re talking 139 seconds of uncomplicated pop perfection, complete with those trademark chiming, jangling guitars and rich harmonies. Besides, any song which uses the line, ‘Meanwhile I try to act so nonchalant’, is alright by me.

And talking of those guitars, did John feel his playing had improved by then?

“I think so. I was mostly playing rhythm, but occasionally live I’d play lead. But when Mike wasn’t interested I’d end up playing everything – the rhythm and the riffs.”

There have been so many highlights over the last five and a half decades. Any particular performances stand out?

“Well, playing with the likes of the Everlys, having studied them and grown up with their records, listening to Radio Luxembourg and so on. Gene Vincent was great, but a bit of an odd person, Fats Domino was great, Ray Charles was superb, and we were rehearsing once at the Star-Club and in walks Jerry Lee Lewis, who got on the piano and played with us. Great! Those things are more important to me. You get great nights and don’t really get duff nights. That’s very rare.”

John won’t need reminding, but he’s hit the grand age of 75 now. Yet he’s still on the road, and this tour seems particularly exhausting. Has the routine had to change in recent years?

“Frank and I discussed this over the last couple of days and when we got back from Australia. We were annoyed with the promoter there as we normally go for six weeks and do 26 shows, with two days off for travelling, But when we got over there, we had 31 shows, which was ridiculous. That schedule was madness. We were absolutely shattered when we got back, so Frank and I sat down and had a chat and agreed we should maybe pick and choose better, and not take our eyes off the ball.

“When we’ve finished this tour we’ll maybe slow down a bit. The market’s there, but you can overdo it, overcook the whole thing. But we’ve just had Scotland, which was superb, as was New Brighton the other day, playing to 700 people.”

Stage Presence: The Searchers, back on the road, and coming to a town near you.

And this is your 60th year making your way as a musician?

“Yeah, and Frank and I employ six lads now, and have had our soundman Phil for 30 years and young John – actually, he’s 40-odd now – as our backline lad for 25 years.”

Clearly you and Frank get on well. Do you finish each other’s sentences now?

“Yeah, we do that on stage! The good thing is I’m up north and he’s down South between times. I like playing five-a-side and he likes the shows and the theatre – that’s his bag, that and mixing with Pete Townshend and Bruce Welch. He likes all that, while I enjoy playing football.”

So you’re still playing after all these years?

“Yeah, although I haven’t played since getting back from Australia with pneumonia. I’m just getting over that. But hopefully I’ll be playing again within 10 days or so.”

Well, there you go – John McNally, an example to us all.

Tour Masters: The Searchers, part-way through their latest major UK tour. From left – John McNally, Scott Ottaway, Frank Allen, Spencer James.

For full tour details head to The Searchers’ website via this link.


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

Ron Sexsmith / Lori Cullen – Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester

Six nights after a horrified world faced the aftermath of the Manchester Arena bombing, there was proof of live music’s healing power when Ron Sexsmith and Lori Cullen visited nearby Oxford Road.

Barely a mile and a half from the sight of that tragedy, and close enough for a pilgrimage to St Ann’s Square to pay our respects, my youngest daughter – on the eve of her 15th birthday – and I were truly entertained by an impressive all-Canadian bill.

While getting her first live taste of a singer-songwriter Dad’s played round the house and in the car longer than she’s been around, it was his second viewing, and far removed from the first at a jam-packed Adelphi pub in Preston 18 years earlier.

But as crisp and modern a venue as the RNCM is, those performances had a lot in common. However large the auditorium, it seems Ron can personalise the experience, giving it an intimate feel.

Three's Company: Lori's latest LP, with songs by Ron Sexsmith and Kurt Swinghammer

Three’s Company: Lori’s latest LP, with songs by Ron Sexsmith and Kurt Swinghammer

First time around, the wider world was only just waking up to this cherubic, shy guy from St Catharines, Ontario, with a little help from his famous fan, Elvis Costello. Much water’s passed down Twelve Mile Creek and the River Irwell since, yet Ronald Eldon Sexsmith still has that special air about him, coming over every bit the polite guest, so chuffed that we’ve come to see him.

That was particularly the case in the light of Monday’s grim happenings, although Ron conceded, ‘I guess that’s what we do – we have to get on with it’.

There was certainly a two-way outpouring of love between audience and performers off Oxford Road on Sunday, in a week when we needed just that, Lori respectfully talking of her own uptown visit to see the floral tributes.

She was half-way through a short set when we arrived, having stuck around the square until the church bells rang at 7pm. It didn’t help that we burst into the wrong recital room first, the pianist below us a little shocked at our presence. But we still had time to hear enough from Lori to suggest another Ontarian gem on the way to wider acclaim.

There’s due reverence for performers from the RNCM staff, and we casually waited until she’d finished a song before being escorted in the dark to our seats, Lori some distance away but introducing herself all the same with a breezy, ‘Hi I’m Support Band!’

Like Ron, she seemed nervous, but relaid a tale of having walked into another room within the RNCM and seeing a virtuoso pianist in action, making her realise the pressure was all on him, not her. She was ‘just a folk singer’, and no one was going to grade her that night. I wonder if it was the same fella we snooked in on.

Anyway, three songs later – with fitting accompaniment from Ron’s band – she was gone too soon, but we heard enough to invest in her seventh LP, 2016’s Sexsmith Swinghammer Songs, a set of fine tunes co-written by Our Ron and fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Kurt Swinghammer.

After two coffees and two Nutella muffins – yep, this was a rather sophisticated affair – we were back in our seats for the main-man, who launched straight into new LP The Last Rider’s opener, It Won’t Last For Long then the title track of his best-selling album to date, 2011’s Long Player Late Bloomer. And as I’d hoped, the songs from the latter sounded far less polished live, while the songs from the new one carried a little more meat, Ron’s complementary four-piece (and probably complimentary – they are friendly Canadians after all) band working well with him, the arrangements kept fresh throughout.

Other Songs: Ron Sexsmith's second major label album is 20 years old, but as fresh as ever.

Other Songs: Ron Sexsmith’s second major label album is 20 years old, but as fresh as ever.

A quirky yet majestic Breakfast Ethereal saw them truly warmed up before a contemplative but rootsy choice from Other Songs, Thinking Out Loud, now 20 years old, Ron his typical laidback but soulful self.

The Idiot Boy from 1999’s Whereabouts brought to mind a certain incompetent presidential kid in a candy store across his home border, and then came the first single from the new record, Ron proudly telling us Evergreen reached No.2 in the Irish charts.

Secret Heart was as chillingly good as I’d hoped, the first hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment, followed by a gorgeously-evocative If Only Avenue from the criminally under-sold Forever Endeavour. And from the same LP, our man’s best friend, St Bernard, told of an imaginary mate who also passes for his ‘spirit animal’. And I should point out at that stage that my daughter – unaware of that song’s sentiment – told me on the way home Ron reminded her of a dog, so willing was he to please an audience continually shouting requests, as if encouraging him to do tricks. We’d love a dog in our house, but if Ron reckons he wouldn’t have the space and time to keep a St Bernard, I’m not sure we could afford to keep him either.

We got a further flavour of his more excitable nature when he turned round before the next song and caught the slideshow, telling us, ‘I drew that!’ Then we were back to The Last Rider, reminiscing about the golden age ‘when the whole world was my Radio.’

At that point, Don Kerr (drums), Jason Mercer (bass), Dave Matheson (keyboards) and Kevin Lacroix (guitar) headed off, Ron joking that the next couple of songs were ‘too complex for them’, before playing a poignant Strawberry Blonde from ’97 and the equally thought-provoking new song Man at the Gate (1913).

Lori Cullen returned, Ron raising his game vocally to match her on Autumn Light, then staying at the piano for Tomorrow in Her Eyes, his heartfelt love song to wife Colleen. At one point he lost his way and got a little stressed out, but I’m sure we love him all the more for those moments. Besides, note-perfect is over-rated.

Last Rider: Ron and band backstage at the RNCM, Manchester. Surprisingly lush, eh.

Last Rider: Ron and band backstage at the RNCM, Manchester. Surprisingly lush, eh.

He was still apologising for ‘messing up’ while introducing a timely Worried Song from his latest LP, and part-way through that the band returned and we got my all-time Sexsmith fave, Lebanon, Tennessee, two decades old now but no less fresh and stirring.

There’s Gold in Them Hills answered another request, while between Late Bloomer’s Whatever It Takes and Get In Line there was pride as Ron told us his daughter loved new track Who We Are Right Now. He also told us he’d offered it to One Direction. I prefer Ron Direction personally, but think Rumer would do that justice. Maybe his people should meet her people.

Not About To Lose from 2004’s Retriever (yep, another dog-related opus) again showed Ron at his melodic best, the main set then ending with a wonderfully-nostalgic Deepens With Time from Forever Endeavour.

He returned though, starting his Feist co-write Brandy Alexander on his own, his band then reappearing for a Hall and Oates style handclap and backing vocal session before a philosophically-upbeat Dreams are Bigger (the yang to his Worried Song’s yin?) and 2001’s delightfully-wistful Tell Me Again saw the night complete.

Our special guests took a collective bow then headed off then, Terry the Mod no doubt having already faced the bus towards the North-East. But when Ron told us he’d see us soon I like to think The Next Rider tour’s not so far off after all. And I’m already looking forward to that.

Dream Rider: Ron Sexsmith, hopefully back to these shores with his band again sometime soon

Dream Rider: Ron Sexsmith, hopefully back to these shores with his band again sometime soon

For this website’s recent feature/interview with Ron Sexsmith, head here.

Posted in Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From The Jam – The Cavern Club Live Lounge, Liverpool

The hottest night of the year so far, and I was Going Underground. Not as a safe haven from the Sounds From the Street, but to hunker down and resolutely celebrate cultural values increasingly under attack.

This was the first of two gigs I had in the week following Ariana Grande’s ill-fated North-West visit, each re-instilling hope for the future through the power of live music, the first at a club synonymous with pop’s sparkling past.

And while Paul Weller was talking about London when he wrote, ‘My heart’s in the city, where it belongs’ four decades ago, it could easily stand for Liverpool or Manchester on this day, which just so happened to mark his 59th birthday.

This first date was at a sweaty club below the streets of Liverpool rather than some corporate enormo-dome, but was every bit as much about commemorating the May 22nd, 2017 tragedy, giving a middle finger to the small-minded bigots who prey on the troubled and misguided in a bid to turn us back to the Dark Ages.

From The Jam’s acoustic show isn’t a million miles from the live wonder of their full electric show, the main difference the lack of a drummer and the fact that Russell Hastings and Bruce Foxton are perched on stools throughout.

While the original Cavern closed in early 1973 and was filled in during construction work on Merseyrail’s underground rail loop, on the evidence I saw and felt on Thursday, fair play to all those involved in this nearby rebuild, the spirit of that famous venue intact, a sense of history retained. And the artwork around us inspired me to promise a return when it isn’t quite so packed, this time with a proper camera.

Lennon Legacy: The Cavern’s support act framed on the Live Lounge big screen (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

In the aftermath of a difficult week, there were always going to be shadows, but there was a grim determination to get on with it, and it’s difficult to think of more compelling performances delivered from a seated position.

It was standing room only beyond the Live Lounge stage, with a battle to get an unencumbered view, my mate Jim feeling he was transported back to some dodgy nightspot in Blackburn in the late ‘70s, caught between a couple of canoodling couples as he was. At 6ft 4ins I can block out most distractions, but the pillar to my left meant I had to crane my neck to see what Hammond organ supremo Andy Fairclough was up to.

I say about an acoustic but electric performance, and part of that was down to a large section of the audience knowing every word. In the unlikely event that Russell might freeze and forgot his lines, his understudies were on hand.

There’s always something magical about this part of Liverpool for a music fan, and even our short walk from the car involved a few landmarks, including the Cunard Building which last summer hosted the marvellous About the Young Idea exhibition, the Eleanor Rigby sculpture, then on Mathew Street itself a chance to pose with bronze depictions of John Lennon and recent arrival Cilla Black.

As Russell put it, this was the band’s ‘second hometown’, and after descending the steps to the venue, you can’t help but be impressed by those Mount Rushmore-like Fab Four carvings.

Elsewhere, The Rolling Stones look on in an illustration in the far bar, while on stage the in-house support was more than a run-of-the-mill Lennon lookalike, adding character to his chosen covers, from The Word through to Stand By Me and all points between.

Liverpool Tourists: The blogger and his compadre outside the Cavern Club, Mathew Street

Soon, the PA blared out Circus and our special guests arrived. And while this was no sonic triumph – the sound weaving in and out and only really resonating for the last few songs – the technical team did their best, the quality of the songs and our trio’s delivery seeing us through.

The Jam spirit was there from the off, as if spurred on by an electric charge trapped within these famous walls, tonight’s in-crowd playing their part from the opening chop-chords of Saturday’s Kids and bass throb intro of When You’re Young right through.

There was certainly joy in the songcraft and the performance of Foxton, Hastings and Fairclough, and while slightly obscured I could see a look of animation every time I caught sight of the latter, facial expressions adding to that sense of urgency.

David Watts seemed apt in the surroundings, Ray Davies’ 60s vibe nailed by Bruce and his cohorts, while the poignant Liza Radley and Butterfly Collector were a real bonus, showing the strength in depth of Weller’s songwriting.

Between those b-sides, Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’s introductory Underground rumble initially made hearts flutter after Monday. But here was a powerful story touching on the evils of extremism and ignorance, its message truly resonating.

There was Bruce’s signature tune Smithers-Jones of course, while if one song underlined a sense of history it was Larry Williams’ Slow Down, afforded an early-rock-n’roll feel in this setting, road-tested at The Cavern by The Beatles 15 years before Woking’s finest took it to a new audience.

Step Inside: Cilla Black, a study in bronze, outside the original Cavern Club (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Russell asked we join the band in a minute’s silence to the victims of the Manchester Arena atrocities, suggesting 60 seconds of hush then a resounding ‘fuck off’ to its perpetrators’ philosophy. We were up for that, but talking at the bar – having not heard the message rather than being ignorant, I’d like to think – continued for most of it. Yet while it didn’t go quite to script, the point was made.

When they resumed, Strange Town seemed a perfect barn-storming choice, while English Rose neatly encapsulated fundamental values that bring us together, irrespective of creed, colour or nationality. ‘Choose love’, as Manchester poet Tony Walsh put it so evocatively the day before.

A horticultural theme continued with the poignant Carnation, another welcome surprise from a catalogue of delights following in Life From a Window before Foxton and Hastings’ Now the Time Has Come from Smash the Clock, now a year old, solid proof that this is so much more than a heritage band.

But there was always a karaoke feel, and so the massed voices accompanied on That’s Entertainment and Start, before Thick as Thieves and In the Crowd reminded us this was no obvious hits package.

And what else but Going Underground to finish, not just for our subterranean location but also an in-built reminder to make use of a forthcoming snap election, hopefully to change things for the better.

They returned for three more songs, In The City – 40 years after its incendiary release – followed by further hymn to class struggle The Eton Rifles and the ever-evocative A Town Called Malice, Weller’s early-80s vision of Anytown or Anycity UK every bit as relevant 35 years on.

And as Weller put it, and Hastings delivered on the night’s finale, ‘Time is short and life is cruel, but it’s up to us to change this town called malice’.

Heads Up: The Fab Four look on at the new Cavern Club on Mathew Street (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

For a link to this site’s most recent interview with Russell – Spirit of ’77 – All Around the World with Russell Hastings and From The Jam – and links to many more Jam-related features and reviews, head here.

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

Kingdom come, beyond Del Amitri – the Justin Currie interview

Justin Time: Del Amitri frontman Justin Currie is back on the road, this time with his band The Pallbearers.

Chances are that you probably still know Justin Currie best for Del Amitri, the Scottish alternative/crossover outfit who enjoyed a dozen top-40 hits over a decade in the wake of 1990’s classic breakthrough single, Nothing Ever Happens.

But this Glaswegian singer-songwriter went it alone in 2003, by his own admission spending the next four years ‘fannying about writing, drinking and doing any weird non-rock gig’ he was invited along to before releasing his first ‘masterpiece of maudlin’, What Is Love For.

Now, a few years on, he’s promoting his fourth LP, This Is My Kingdom Now, released on his own Endless Shipwreck Records, following 2010’s The Great War and 2013’s Lower Reaches, the songs of old replaced by a tone he describes as ‘suicide in a saucy shirt’, his output rightly continuing to strike a chord, the 52-year-old about to step out for a headline tour with his backing band, The Pallbearers to promote the new record. And from the tracks I’ve heard so far, it’s another winner.

So, I ask him down the line, was recording his latest record an enjoyable experience?

“More enjoyable than the last one, which was quite tough. I started recording at home the year before last, and my idea was to do it all myself, sat at a piano. But a couple of weeks in, the offices outside decided to renovate the building, so for six months I had to down tools because of the racket.”

A tad too much percussion, eh?


The new LP’s a self-release. Does that create more work, or is it worth that for creative control alone?

“Erm … this is my fourth solo record and I don’t ever recall feeling not having creative control. It’s more work to the extent that I’m now the marketing manager though. As well as making it, I’m selling it … and I’m a terrible salesman!”

You seem quite proficient with social media though, from what I’ve seen.

”Everybody’s supposed to be, but it’s something I’d rather not do. I find the whole thing deeply vulgar! The problem with ‘direct to the audience’ internet selling is that the artistes who end up the most successful are those who are best at selling themselves, not necessarily those who make the best music.

“When I was 15, me and my band were quite good at making little leaflets and posters, pasting them up on lampposts. But at 52 I find all that incredibly dull.”

While receiving plenty of praise for his last long player, 2013’s Lower Reaches, recorded in Austen, Texas, with Mike McCarthy, this one appears to be more of a homegrown entity.

“That was the only one where we hired a producer, with me handing all the songs to Mike and letting him choose the songs and arrange them as he saw fit. This album is more back to what I did on the first and second albums, playing a lot of the instruments myself and picking and choosing them myself. I feel more in touch with this and that it’s more my record than the last one.”

The first thing we heard from the new record was the delightful Failing to See, which I tell him serves as a fine advertisement for what he might have in store for us, and should by rights be all over the radio airwaves.

“Well, for that to happen you’d have to hire someone to take your records to those stations, which I can’t afford to do anymore.”

Spaced Out: Justin Currie's new LP, This is My Kingdom Now

Spaced Out: Justin Currie’s new LP, This is My Kingdom Now, has gravitational pulling power.

Is that track pretty much indicative of what we have coming our way?

“No, but I don’t think I could choose one song that would be indicative of the rest. I don’t think one song is like the next.”

Tell me about Sydney Harbour Bridge, for example.

“Erm … it’s a bridge that goes over Sydney Harbour.”

I asked for that, didn’t I. ‘Thanks,’ I respond, deadpan, and he laughs, I like to think guiltily. I try another way. It seems from the track-listing that there are quite a few songs about travel on this album.

“Yes, a lot mention or use the sea as a metaphor. That came about after I was offered a gig at the Scottish Maritime Museum in Irvine, coming up with a few songs that mentioned the sea or some maritime theme, a couple especially for that gig, realising I could have a thematic link. A couple didn’t quite make it, but there’s a vague theme echoing in the background.”

Incidentally, at time of going to press I’ve given Sydney Harbour Bridge a few spins, and like the new album’s title track it’s something of a brooding masterpiece. I can report good things about Crybabies and Hey Polly too, with Justin’s rich tones and inventive hooks all over this record from what I’ve heard so far. Again, as you might expect from this talented songsmith.

Anyway, on with the interview, and talking of travelling, when he’s on the road with The Pallbearers these days, does he properly take in his surroundings, rather than just turn up, set up, play, move on?

“I still really love touring, and part of the joy is it’s endlessly stimulating, looking out of a van or hotel room window on a completely different environment every day. I always assumed when we did a lot of touring in the ‘90s that it must have some kind of impact on what you wrote and how you wrote, but I don’t really do enough of that to be able to claim an impact. Nearly everything I write is written in Glasgow, where it’s the same view every day!”

Talk of his home city – according to his own press, ‘Currie lives and breathes in Glasgow, collects beer mats and makes his own cushions’ – leads to a discussion about other bands from the area, coming on to the subject of the early ‘80s Postcard Records scene, and one mutual influence in particular.

“I don’t think I would have formed a band without Orange Juice happening in Glasgow. That changed everything, and almost overnight Glasgow went from being this pub-rock backwater that no one in the music press or the record industry had any interest in, to being this place that was perceived as being incredibly cool. That was really just down to the four people in Orange Juice and Alan Horne of Postcard Records.”

And have you had a chance to get to know Edwyn Collins over the years?

“No. He quite rightly despised every other band in Glasgow, unless he took a particular shine to them, and I’m quite happy to know Del Amitri were despised by Edwyn! But I regard him as a great genius, and one of the greatest poets Scotland ever produced.”

How about the wondrous Teenage Fanclub? Ever on your radar?

“I adore them and buy all their records. They were more out of Belshill and its own special scene, which started a bit later than the postcard bands. Of course, Norman (Blake) was with a few other groups and conceptual projects before he put Teenage Fanclub together. I always thought he was a genius and was really pleased when he got together with Raymond and started making records with them. I was always worried he might just slip between the tracks.”

And what’s on Justin Currie’s turntable right now? What are you enjoying listening to?

“I’m a big fan of Sun Kil Moon, wading my way through his latest opus, which is pretty fascinating. I’m also wading my way through Kendrick Lamar’s latest records.”

Ever get fed up playing those old Del Amitri songs that part of the audience no doubt insist on hearing above all else? I mean, I love Nothing Ever Happens, but it’s a song I first heard in the depths of winter and I tend to equate that with short nights and commuter gloom. For that reason alone, I’m not sure I’d want to play it every night.

“That’s a fair question, but no, partly because there are enough of them that I can pick and choose. I don’t have to play particular songs every night. And there are songs I’ve played every night as a solo artist and with Del Amitri too. It doesn’t particularly bother me. I don’t have a massive problem with that. Maybe that’s sheer vanity.”

Three’s Company: Chris Difford, Boo Hewerdine and Justin Currie form the BBC’s Songwriters’ Circle (Photo: BBC)

I particularly enjoyed your BBC Songwriters Circle appearance in 2010. Have you worked with and kept in touch with your fellow artistes that night, Chris Difford and Boo Hewerdine?

“Yeah, kind of vaguely. We send each other acerbic texts and emails every now and then – old bald men complaining about the state of the climate!”

What comes first writing songs these days – strumming your guitar or tinkling away at the piano?

“I’d say 75 per cent are worked out at the piano, although I try and discipline myself to writing more on guitar. But with the piano it’s a lot more productive, largely because a lot more of the notes are laid out in front of you. It feels like the world’s your oyster.

“I have to add though, I cannot play either! That’s kind of an advantage as you don’t know what you’re doing. But if you hear something in your head it’s quite hard to achieve it.

“Because I was a punk most of the music I was listening to was achievable on a four-string bass, the first thing I started playing. With punk rock you never felt the need to study. Just learning those songs, playing them with one finger on one string, was enough to get you to the point where you could form a band and play gigs.”

There were four top-10 albums with Iain Harvie and co. in Del Amitri, 1989’s Waking Hours alone selling more than a million UK copies. Does that all seem a lifetime away now?

“It should be. It’s that deep philosophical question – ‘at the age of 52 are you the same person you were when you were 22?’ And you obviously aren’t. I recognise that person and identify with them really strongly, so it feels like I’m on some kind of continuum … but I’m probably not.”

You insist you’re still a member of Del Amitri, but you’ve been a solo artist for a long time now. Any regrets about going it alone?

“Loads. I never wanted Del Amitri to stop, but it became fairly obvious we’d be on a rapid downhill spiral in terms of amount of people we’d play to, so we took a break. I was writing fairly frequently, and needed an outlet for those songs. Writing and not releasing songs is pretty painful, so it became pretty obvious that was the only way to go if I was writing songs and Del Amitri weren’t active.”

How about the prospect of a Waking Hours 30th anniversary tour in 2018 then?

“I’m sure we’ll do more gigs some stage in the future. Not this year, but maybe next year or the year after. We’d like to do more. It just depends on whether the gigs themselves are worth doing.”

Live Wire: Justin Currie, out on the road with The Pallbearers right now, and again in the autumn

Justin Currie’s tour with The Pallbearers – after an opening night at Perth’s Concert Hall on Friday, May 26th – continues at Holmfirth Picturedrome (Sunday, May 28th), Pocklington Arts Centre (Monday, May 29th), Wolverhampton’s Slade Rooms (Tuesday, May 30th), Liverpool’s Hangar 34 (Wednesday, May 31st, 0844 8000 410 or via this link), Cambridge Junction (Wednesday, May 31st), Islington Assembly Hall (Saturday, June 3rd) and then back north of the border at the Northern Roots Festival, Bogbain Farm, Inverness (Saturday, June 24th). 

There are also a dozen live dates this autumn, running from Friday, October 13th at Manchester Academy 3 through to Tuesday, October 31st at Colchester Arts Centre, including one on my patch at Preston Guild Hall’s Live venue on Friday, October 27th (see link). For further information, including full tour details, head to his website. You can also follow Justin via Facebook and Twitter.

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

Absolute game on – reconvening the Skids: the Richard Jobson interview

Anniversary Dates: The Skids, 2017. From left – Mike Baillie, Bill Simpson, Richard Jobson, Jamie & Bruce Watson (Photo: Stephen Gunn Photography)

While there’s inevitably a sombre undertone bearing in mind guitarist Stuart Adamson’s sad passing 15 years ago, it’s fair to say Richard Jobson is relishing the chance to relive his youth while charting new territory with a reborn Skids outfit.

Some 40 years after this influential Scottish punk and new wave combo formed in their hometown of Dunfermline, Jobson and fellow survivor Bill Simpson (bass) are back in tow in a five-piece version of the band, joined by drummer Mike Baillie, who joined in 1980, and father and son guitar duo Bruce and Jamie Watson, on loan from Big Country.

And not only are they hitting the road for a UK tour, but they’re also working on a brand new album, Burning Cities, their first since 1981, the lead singer determined the outfit should not be seen as just another ‘heritage band’.

But first, let’s go back a bit, success coming fairly fast for the original line-up, interest from legendary DJ John Peel leading to prestigious early support slots with The Clash and Buzzcocks, the band going on to sign to Virgin Records in 1978. While late ’78 singles Sweet Surburbia and The Saints are Coming helped them carve their niche, their first proper hit was Into the Valley, the second 45 from debut LP Scared to Dance and the first I heard. I still can’t resist its wonderful intro, that single followed into the top-40 by Masquerade, Charade and Working for the Yankee Dollar before 1979 was out.

While first time around I never owned a Skids record, I recall the excitement of borrowing the cassette version of the Bill Nelson-produced, Rockfield Studios-recorded second LP, Days in Europa (in its memorable first edition cover format, an Aryan-type image bringing to mind the 1936 Olympics, complete with Gothic-style, Germanic lettering) from a Surrey County Council travelling library van parked at the end of my road in Shalford, barely a three-minute walk from the scout hut previously used as a practise venue by The Stranglers, for whom the Skids opened on an  autumn ’78 tour, Bill Simpson even suggesting JJ Burnel wanted to produce their first album. Anyway, I digress. I was barely 12 at the time, but remember getting that in the tape deck back home, opening track Animation transporting me back to that moment.

In time it all came to an end, third album The Absolute Game in 1980 the last with Stuart Adamson, who went on to worldwide success with Big Country while Richard Jobson and a new-look band made one more, late 1981’s Joy, before he embarked on his next project, The Armoury Show. But the Skids have occasionally got back together since Adamson’s death in late 2001, most notably in 2007 to celebrate the band’s 30th anniversary at Strathallan’s T in the Park and for two nights at the Glen Pavilion in Dunfermline (where they return in late June), leading – via 2009 and 2010 shows – to this current 40th anniversary tour, their biggest collection of dates since reforming.

Post-split, father-of-two Jobson made his name in other areas, ultimately as a film-maker but also as a poet, TV presenter and even a model. But he was back in Dunfermline when we spoke, rehearsing in the town where the story began. So is it good to be getting back out there?

“Yeah, first of all we were going to do a few gigs to mark this anniversary, but got offered an awful lot more, which slightly concerned me – I didn’t want to be like all those other old bands doing nostalgia trips and heritage trails.

“We started recording new material, with Youth, who’s worked with Pink Floyd, The Verve, the Jesus and Mary Chain and many more. He was a bit of a fan and had written some songs in our style. So we started writing together, making it all a bit more authentic.”

While some of the band remain in Fife, Richard lives in Bedfordshire these days, having been born in Kirkcaldy, grown up in Ballingry, Fife, this son of a miner and docker at Rosyth also spending time in Berlin.

Soon we were talking about his hometown football team, the Pars, and past visits to East End Park, my interviewee telling me how he’d gravitated towards German second division outfit St Pauli these days.

“It’s more for the atmosphere, but I approve of the social work they do in the community. Football here’s been separated from what it was borne out of and for. The way the English Premier League has gone, for example, is pretty disgraceful. And while St Pauli are actually trying to hang on in their division at the moment, they still get a full house, because it represents something.”

Will there be a pilgrimage to the Bellville Hotel in Pilmuir Street this August to mark 40 years since the Skids’ very first gig?

“I think so. We’ve be doing that every day as we’re rehearsing just around the corner. It’s a nightclub called Johnson’s now, known locally as Jiggy’s.”

Is there a blue plaque outside?

“No, there should be though! It’s an amazing venue.”

We talk briefly about other Dunfermline acts too. Wasn’t The Rezillos’ Fay Fife a local lass?

“She was. They were a great, fun pop band, more of a cartoon thing than us, but we came from the same area. It’s a bit more rural here, with a different mentality and attitude, not normally the sort of place bands would spring out of. But quite a few have, including Fay, us, Nazareth, Barbara Dickson …”

The Rezillos sprang from Edinburgh’s art scene. Were you also expected to cross the Forth Road Bridge to make your name?

“I think it was deemed surprising we came from here rather than an art-school background. We didn’t have that urban sound. Our influences were pretty different from a lot of other bands springing up. There was a pretty healthy folk scene and a bit of that’s in the blood, something heard in Stuart Adamson’s guitar sound.”

Now you mention it, we saw that particularly in his later days with Big Country, but I guess it was always there.

“I think so. It was a bit tougher with us, becoming a bit softer, more melodic later.”

Within a few months of forming, John Peel’s patronage led to the Skids scoring a prestigious support with The Clash in Dunfermline in late October ’77 at the Kinema Ballroom, the bill also including Richard Hell and the Voidoids and The Lou’s.

“An amazing night!”

Have you clear memories of that evening?

“Oh yeah! The Clash in Dunfermline? Come on!”

Living the dream, I guess. Their first landmark album had been out a few months by then.

“It was, yeah. I think The Clash were one of the few bands that came from the London scene that actually stood by some of the principles of punk and played places like Dunfermline. Others were a bit more aloof. I think we established a scene here, playing here a few times, with a cult following. All of those things together made it a viable place to come and play, and that was one of the great nights.”

I always got the impression Joe Strummer was good at talking to people, with no stand-offish nature.

“He was a good guy, and never changed. I saw him not long before he died, had a coffee. He was always very generous with his time, and always very supportive of what I was trying to do. He was a hero!”

“Yes, that was an amazing evening. And the idea that we managed to convince The Clash to come to Dunfermline, and we were their opening act … although we were on stage before the doors opened!”

Then that next month you supported the Buzzcocks in Edinburgh.

“Yes, that was in Cloud’s, with a band called The Dickies.”

And when did you last listen to the independent EP, Charles, that initially brought you to John Peel’s attention and ultimately led to that wider appeal?

“I haven’t since we made it. It’s the same with all the books and films I’ve made. I’ve never seen 16 Years of Alcohol since the premiere. People say very nice things but I’m not interested in watching it again. I just move on.

“But while this project is revisiting the songs, in a funny kind of way they’re sounding like they were supposed to in the beginning. In many ways what was lacking was that Stuart played rhythm and lead guitar on the recordings.

“Towards the end I was playing more guitar, which I didn’t really like doing. I felt quite restricted by it but had to fill the sound out a bit. I think if we’d got a second guitar in he probably would have been happier and The Skids might have existed to this day. Well, we do exist to this day, of course, but …”

In a sense you had to wait for Bruce Watson – the Skids fan who wen ton to play alongside Adamson in Big Country – to have a child before you could reconvene though.

“That’s it, you’re right! I hadn’t thought about it that way, but yeah! And he’s great to work with. Such a great guy and incredibly generous, his son too. Bruce is the musical leader of the band, without doubt, and creates a dynamic quality to the music that should have been there before. We were always a very good live band, but I think we’re surpassing that now.”

Did you send that first single (on the No Bad label created by Dunfermline music shop owner turned manager Sandy Muir) to John Peel?

“I can’t actually remember who sent it. It might have been us. Of course, people were doing that every day, but it was an amazing thing. John Peel was our connection to what was going on in the rest of the country, introducing us to new music and wonderful things we might not have heard. To hear Television and the Banshees, then hear Charles played was extraordinary.

“We were very proud. I guess our generation didn’t measure success by finance but by getting to make things. That seems to have changed now. The creative process seems less important.

“Also, we were a genuine working class band from the mining villages of Fife and most bands coming through today seem to be from fairly privileged, exclusive backgrounds. The only way you can be in a band now is if it’s a hobby rather than something you truly love.”

I totted up five BBC Radio 1 sessions for John Peel (May and August ‘78, February and May ’79, and September ‘80). And listening back, tracks like ‘79’s Walk on the Wild Side remain so fresh 38 years later.

“We’d use those Peel sessions as an opportunity to be free, in a way. We’d never go in to play potential songs for albums, but be creative and experimental. I always loved that freedom. When we had a proper record company and Virgin were involved, they hated us being that way. They wanted us to be much more on the money. A lot we would write on the day at the Maida Vale studios, which was great fun.”

Will you play your cult Coronation Street tribute TV Stars while on Weatherfield’s doorstep at the 02 Ritz in Whitworth Street, Manchester (Friday, June 2nd, £22.50 advance, 0161 236 4355 or via here)?

“I think somehow we’ll get to that at some point in the evening! It was a kind of joke at the time, having a laugh in rehearsals. TV in that era was something that was watched by so many people, and we all grew up with Coronation Street.

“What’s more, we went to Manchester as The Skids when we were kids, before we went to London actually, not long after we formed, playing in a club called The Ranch, just off Piccadilly. It didn’t open until after midnight and we supported a Manchester punk band called Slaughter and the Dogs. A really strange place, a cult place, and earlier that day we played on the roof of the Virgin store.

“We came down because we loved the Buzzcocks and saw them with Howard Devoto as the singer at the Electric Circus, so were pretty tuned into the Manchester scene and remained so. It was always pretty vibrant … and still is.”

I’m a bit confused there. Richard suggested that date was in early ’77, but that would even pre-date the Pilmuir Street debut. In fact, on the band’s website their first technician, Clive Ford, seems to tell a different version, suggesting a plan to ambush a Rezillos gig in Rafters in Manchester, the band’s low billing meaning they played ‘to about eight people’. He adds, ‘The following day we tried to play a gig at the Virgin store, it nearly happened but the manager chickened out’, their entourage ending up ‘in a club getting drunk with one Rossi from Slaughter & the Dogs’.

It’s understandable if the memories are slightly mixed up. For one thing, Richard was barely 16 when he joined the band. And he’s been far from idle in the time since the Skids called it a day. In fact, he has two grown-up children, his son fresh from doing his masters at university, studying cyber-terrorism, while his daughter, just turned 24, went down the art school route, ‘doing a more creative thing’.

Stupid question, I know, but could he ever have imagined back in ’77 that the Skids would go on to have a 40th anniversary tour? I mean, rock’n’roll itself was barely in its 20s at that point.

“No. Obviously I gave it up quite early, despite a brief dalliance with The Armoury Show with John McGeoch and John Doyle from Magazine, and loved the album we made together. “I couldn’t be arsed with it anymore and went on to do other things, but occasionally would dip my toe into the water with The Skids, and when Stuart died we did a concert in his honour and for every anniversary did one gig from there. This too was only supposed to be a couple of gigs, having not toured for 35 years, but then word got out and people wanted us to come to other cities, so we’ll see what happens. It’s been amazing so far.”

Is everything else on hold for now then?

“It is. I’m coming to Manchester next year though, to make a film in late Spring, called Saddleworth, set in Gorton, so I’ll be based in Manchester for much of 2018, and really love the city.”

Thinking of this line-up with you on this tour, Bill Simpson was there from the start with Stuart, the pair having met in high school in Cowdenbeath. Did you hit it off with the two of them straightaway?

“Not really, I think it was just that they were looking for a front-man and I had all the accoutrements – the attitude and the hair! When I did the audition they had some guys who came along who were all a bit Bryan Ferry-esque, and then I came along and sang Raw Power by Iggy Pop, which seemed to do the trick. We became very close, but I didn’t know them at all at first.”

In fact, Bill said in an interview sourced on the Skids’ website, “Richard was somebody from Dunfermline who we saw walking around and thought, ‘Who the hell is that?’ He was a tall, imposing looking character in a big, long, black trench-coat, with black and white hair. He just had a look and a presence about him. I never spoke to him but what happened next was we were talking about putting a band together and thought we’d audition for a singer. Stuart must’ve bumped into Richard somewhere and invited him along to audition with some other singers, and that was that. As soon as we heard he could carry a tune, the confidence and presence he had, the overall look and the fact he was of the same mindset, that was it, we had found our singer.”

Did Richard stay in touch with Bill over the years?

“Not really. He wandered off, he’d had enough of it, but Stuart and I continued. I was always a bit of an itinerant while Stuart was a bit of a home-boy, loved coming back to his home in Scotland.”

And Mike Baillie came in for The Absolute Game, didn’t he?

“He did, and was a friend of ours anyway, a fan of the band, hanging around with us as a kid, and we kept in touch. It was a close-knit community and we kind of grew up together through music, which pulled us all together. Before punk happened there wasn’t a unifying sound.

Early Days: The Skids, way back. From left – Bill Simpson, Richard Jobson, Stuart Adamson, Thomas Kellichan.

“We knew what we didn’t like but didn’t quite know what we did like. There was nothing really for us. David Bowie and Lou Reed were always there, but there was nothing new and young of our own generation.”

When I interviewed Bruce Watson three years ago for this website (with a link here) he suggested the catalyst for the reunion was U2 and Green Day tackling The Saints Are Coming for a charity single in 2006 (to help tackle the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina). Could that rebirth have happened even five years earlier?

“Well, with Bruce it made sense, a musical person I would get on with who could really deliver the goods, with no secondary issues. And it was mainly one-offs so wasn’t financially driven. We didn’t make any money. We did it for the sheer love if it.

“But we’ve taken all this very seriously and have rehearsed since January this time, we’re recording now, and we’re in good shape.”

You’ve always had that work ethic.What did your folks make of your move into the music business in the first place?

“I think they were quite shocked, coming from a pretty old-fashioned working-class family, with five boys. But my eldest brother was a unique guy. That helped. They tried to control him and it hadn’t worked. He became a bit of a rebel. Unfortunately he’s dead now, but was a big influence on me and was listening to music that he fed into my life, like MC5 and Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls and crazy stuff like Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa – music others weren’t listening to.

“He was also a bit of an artist and introduced me to great comic books. So when punk rock came along it made sense. But the only band in Scotland I paid any attention to was Alex Harvey. I didn’t really love the music that much, but loved Alex himself – an amazing front-man.”

Are you a prolific songwriter?

“I’d not written a song for 25 or 30 years, so it’s not been hard – there’s so much to write about.”

Charades Anyone? OK, maybe not. The Skids go for the moody look.

You kept your hand in with your poetry though, didn’t you?

“Yeah, I’ve been reflecting on what’s been going on around me, in a way, but these songs gave me an opportunity to do that with a bite.”

Back in the early days was it like a Difford and Tilbrook thing, with you handing over scribbled notes and Stuart adding the chords?

“I think that’s right. Originally, he wrote the words but then I had a go. I got into that whole William Burroughs and David Bowie ‘cut-ups’ thing, and he was quite generous about that. I wasn’t technically a musician, while he was a high-quality musician, but went with my fairly abstract stylised way of working and was very supportive.”

Was there animosity when Stuart went off and did his own thing?

“Not at all, and my ex-wife (journalist and fellow TV presenter Mariella Frostrup) was his press officer. There was no animosity. It was just a bit sad really. We went off and did our own thing. I wouldn’t have wanted to be in Big Country and he wouldn’t have wanted to be in The Armoury Show.”

Did you get back in touch in later years?

“Yeah, when I came back I would drop in, kept in touch and would say hello to his kids. I didn’t really see him towards the end, and didn’t really know about all his problems. It was a bit of a shock to me. I didn’t know he was in such a bad place. It was a shock to everybody.”

Finally, I ask, which Skids album, track or single is Richard most proud of?

“I’ve a deep affection for Days in Europa. It was so ambitious. We tried to redesign our own wheel, if you know what I mean, going from being an interesting rock’n’roll band to something that had more of a nuance and a more subtle approach to songwriting. And from that album I still love Animation quite a lot. I love that album and love the sleeve as well.”

And that brings us full circle, this scribe telling his interviewee his own memories of the day he returned from the library with a copy of that very album. Sigh.

Street Party: The Skids in 2017: Bruce, Mike, Richard, Bill, Jamie Heading your way. (Photo: Gordon Smith)

The Skids’ 40th anniversary tour continues with dates at The Academy, Dublin (Friday, May 26th) and The Limelight, Belfast (Saturday, May 27th), then continues in June at: 

Thursday 1st – The Picturedrome, Holmfirth
Friday 2nd – The Ritz, Manchester
Saturday 3rd – O2 Academy, Leeds
Sunday 4th – Roadmenders, Northampton
Thursday 8th – The Bierkeller, Bristol
Friday 9th – The Academy, Oxford
Saturday 10th – The Academy, Sheffield
Thursday 15th – The Junction, Cambridge
Friday 16th – The Roundhouse, London
Saturday 17th – Concorde 2, Brighton
Wednesday 21st – 1865, Southampton
Thursday 22nd – The Robin 2, Bilston
Friday 23rd – The Academy, Newcastle
Saturday 24th – Stone Valley Festival, Stanhope County Durham
Thursday 29th – The Town Hall, Montrose
Friday 30th – Glen Pavilion, Dunfermline

There are also dates in August (Saturday 5th – Lagoon Arena, Charity Event, Paisley, Sunday 6th – The Rebellion Festival, Blackpool), September (Friday 1st – Rock City, Nottingham, Saturday 2nd – Midfest, Dalkeith), and October (Wednesday 4th – The Ironworks, Inverness, Thursday 5th – Beat Generator, Dundee, Friday 6th – Warehouse 23, Wakefield, Saturday 7th – The Great British Alternative Festival, Skegness).

For full details and all the latest from the band, head to their official website hereAnd to find out about the band’s Burning Cities album project via Pledge Music, how to pre-order a copy, and other exclusive Skids offers, try here

You can also follow this link to an appreciation of the band from Michael Martin for the rather splendid Toppermost music fans’ website. 

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments