Return of The It Girl: talking Sleeper & more with Louise Wener – yesterday, today and This Time Tomorrow

It seems rather apt that a future Britpop star was born on the day of England’s sole World Cup Final triumph in the Summer of ’66. And yet, it’s fair to say Louise Wener was always about far more than just 15 minutes of fame, keen to reach further milestones long after that particular scene was behind her.

A published author as well as a songwriter, singer and guitarist for Sleeper, Louise has gone on to write four novels and an autobiography, as well as co-writing BBC Radio 4 series, Queens of Noise, with Roy Boulter of The Farm, run as part of Woman’s Hour’s drama slot, focusing on the rise of a fictional indie band, a subject both had plenty of insider knowledge on.

Those who properly knew Louise, brought up 20 miles east of the Twin Towers of Wembley in Gants Hill, Ilford, always realised she was far more than the pretty face fronting Sleeper, one of Britpop’s biggest female stars, high in Melody Maker and NME ‘Sexiest Woman’ polls two years running, a regular music press cover star, a Top of the Pops guest presenter, and TFI  Friday regular, whose bandmates played up to the tongue-in-cheek status of ‘Sleeperblokes’, knowing full well media attention would rarely affect them.

And again, few would be too surprised by her career path after the band initially split, Louise often using significant media interest wisely, speaking out on female sexuality, censorship, and other issues from the start. But I had a confession for her regarding 2010’s Different for Girls: My True-life Adventures in Pop. It sat on my shelf for more than a decade before I finally picked it up in advance of this audience with its author, albeit soon absorbed within its pages.

More of that shortly, Louise’s focus right now on the band she co-founded in 1992, having met future bandmate Jon Stewart at Manchester University in 1987, a few forks in the road taken before a Melody Maker advert led to the arrival of bass player Diid Osman and drummer Andy Maclure, the latter – three decades after joining the fold – these days happily based in Brighton with the lead singer and their two teenage children.  

The current focus – the band having reformed in 2017 – is on a pandemic-delayed 25th anniversary tour of Sleeper’s best-selling second album, The It Girl, produced by Stephen Street, the first of three he worked on with the band, released in May 1996, reaching No.5 in the UK – as did debut LP, Smart – and including top-20 singles, ‘What Do I Do Now?’, ‘Sale of The Century’, ‘Nice Guy Eddie’, and ‘Statuesque’.

That long player was their biggest seller, the band now set to perform the album in full. And as Louise put it, “We have such great memories of touring this album in the ‘90s. These songs took us all over the world, soundtracking an incredible period in our lives. It’s an album full of energy and optimism, and we plan on making these gigs something special.”

Time for a potted history to fill in some gaps. Sleeper, initially known as Surrender Dorothy before swapping a line from The Wizard of Oz for a Woody Allen film title, amassed eight UK top-40 hit singles and three UK top-10 albums in their comparatively short-lived but successful first coming, Louise and Jon having met in a political philosophy class, becoming an item and going on to play together in a number of bands as students in Manchester, including jazz outfit the Lime Street Blues Band.

After graduating in 1988, they moved to London, at the time Louise saying they ‘sounded not unlike The Sundays’, but ‘increasingly influenced by US bands such as Hole, Nirvana, and, most especially, the Pixies’. In fact, the music press ad that led to Diid and Andy’s recruitment read, ‘Bass player and drummer wanted. Influences The Pixies and The Partridge Family’, their profile soon raised by a fake Louise Weiner review of their talents in the NME.

Signing to Indolent Records, a subsidiary of RCA, in 1993, they released three EPs and singles before properly breaking through on the back of the wondrous ‘Inbetweener’, previously opening for Blur on their Parklife tour (and Louise’s rather frank observations on that particular outfit made me wince in Different for Girls), their spot on the Britpop bandwagon as good as sealed.

They also recorded three sessions for John Peel, the first two in 1994, when they also made his Festive Fifty with ‘Delicious’ (No.28) and ‘Swallow’ (No.48). While their debut LP was certified gold, selling more than 100,000 copies, its follow-up was certified platinum (more than 300,000 copies), their profile raised higher by the inclusion of their cover of Blondie’s ‘Atomic’ for the film Trainspotting.

But as her autobiography reveals in brutally honest fashion, Sleeper’s moment in the sun wasn’t about to last much longer, October 1997’s rather-rushed third long-playing offering, Pleased to Meet You, also making the UK top 10 and certified silver, but with sales falling, the band splitting in March 1998 after a tour in which shows were either cancelled or downsized due to lower-than-expected ticket sales.

From there, Louise and Andy worked on a new, more mainstream project, which included a guest appearance by George Michael. But that was never completed, Louise instead going on to that writing career.

Meanwhile, Jon – the couple’s relationship issues part of the timeline of the band – had by then moved to Los Angeles, his future credits including session guitar work for k.d. lang and Mel C, before returning, going on to become course leader of a degree course in music business and a lecturer in popular culture and music history at the British and Irish Modern Music (BIMM) Institute in Brighton, where bandmate Andy also lectures.

These days, alongside Sleeper duties, Jon also features with The Wedding Present (having joined in 2019). As for Diid, he was a session player with Dubstar before becoming an artist manager, his role in the band now filled by Kieron Pepper, part of the set-up since that 2017 reunion.

And when I spoke to Louise, she was looking forward to returning to the road, after a series of covid-related postponements and rearrangements. But first, I mentioned her and Jon’s contributions to one of the internet highlights of this very odd last couple of years, The Wedding Present’s August 2020’s ‘Locked Down and Stripped Back’ sessions, my favourite moments including a fresh take on ‘Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm’, with original backing vocalist Amelia Fletcher (Talulah Gosh, Heavenly, The Catenary Wires, Swansea Sound) and co-founding lead guitarist Peter Solowka (long since with The Ukrainians) back in tow, and a cover of Sleeper’s ‘We Should Be Together’, this year out there as part of David Gedge’s outfit’s 24 Songs project. Was that good fun to make?

“Yeah, but strange as well, because we had that song for 20 years! So to see it suddenly out there in two different places, it’s sort of amazing, having life breathed into it after so long. But it’s a lovely thing.”

‘Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm’ was more of a reimagining. Was that the case with your track too?

“Not really, it was very much how it was. Jon’s been playing with The Wedding Present and was playing that song, and doing different versions of it.”

(I should add that their own version of that track has made it out there as a single since. And that’s another winner.)

My personal highlight of that lockdown video version is where David Gedge sings, ‘Casually she walks away …’, and it cuts to you, sat on your rug back at yours, unable to suppress a smile after the first verse and chorus, as if sharing a private joke with Jon, his wry grin suggesting he’s thinking, ‘Where did it all go wrong, Louise?’. I’m guessing it was all edited together later, but it seems as if you remain somewhat mentally in tune all these years down the line.

“It was nice, and yet we all recorded in different places, so no one knew what anyone else’s video was like. Interesting, isn’t it.”

Well, it looks rather seamless, a moment of synchronicity that somehow really works.

“I love it when these things happen.”

And at your side is Jean Shrimpton as Astronaut (Richard Avedon’s classic shot for Harper’s Bazaar, a bit of a nod to the debut Sleeper LP cover, maybe).

“Yeah, absolutely! My lucky astronaut!”

Has it seen you through thick and thin, zero gravity and beyond?

“Definitely … or it’s trying to!”

I’m guessing that apart from sharing Jon as a guitarist, you and David Gedge have Brighton in common.

“Yeah. I’ve been in Brighton 14 years now. A long time! I really love it.”

Was that initially because of Andy’s day-job as a college music lecturer? Or was it a place you were gravitating towards anyway?

“We just couldn’t stay in London anymore. I was pregnant with our second child, we needed more space, and it was like, ‘Bring up our kids by the seaside, that’d be a really cool thing to do’. And Brighton’s a great city … well, it’s a little town really! It’s quite compact, easy, and very relaxed.”

I think a lot of us out-of-towners crave city living at key times in our lives, but not others. When I go back to London for gigs these days, for example, it seems to take even longer to get across town. And I guess you were ready for that move.

“Yeah, it took me a while to settle into it, I suppose. I’d say, ‘’Oh my God, I miss London!’. Now, when I go there to work, I guess I relax when I get on the train going back. I just want to get back. The air’s different, and I think I just love living by the sea.”

Well, we all need a bit of sea air from time to time. As for your Sleeper side-career, my pal Richard Bowes interviewed you a year ago and on the subject of Britpop (saving me from asking some of those questions!) and hinted at – as he put it – a ‘whiff of cash’ about reunions of certain bands from that era. However, he was keen to stress he didn’t see Sleeper among those playing that game. And I too get the impression you’re doing it for the love of it. For one thing, you’ve got your family and your writing, sirely you don’t really need the added aggro.

“Very much! We can’t really tour enough for it to be a big thing. I literally swore that we would never play live again. It was not something that was in our future at all. Six months before we reformed, I said, ‘Andy, you’ve got to sell your drum kit. We need a sofa! Sell your drum kit. You’re never gonna use it. What’s the point? It’s taking up space in the attic. Sell it!’.

“But then, my sister died in 2017, and I just had this mad impulse to do something massively out of my comfort zone. And everyone was really shocked, like, ‘Really?’. They’d occasionally say, ‘Shall we do a gig?’, and I’d say, ‘No, I’m never doing that’.

Incidentally, Louise’s sister was writer Sue Margolis, while brother Geoff Wener managed Sleeper back in the day and was integral to their story. As for that eventual reunion, Louise and Andy had formed a band, Huge Advance, playing around their old Crouch End neighbourhood. And that seemed to be the extent of their need for fulfilment on that front. But then came four shows in Summer 2017 as part of the Star Shaped Festival, the three remaining originals joined by Kieron, an 11-date UK headline tour following in Spring 2018, then a new album, The Modern Age, with Stephen Street again on production duties, released in early 2019, a tie-in tour following. But back to Louise …

“You’re right about it just being about the joy of it. With both me and Andrew in the band, when we do it, childcare’s a nightmare. Making all that stuff work is really hard, so we can’t do a huge amount of it. What we do are these little pop-up gigs when we can. And it has to be for the fun of it, otherwise it doesn’t make any sense.”

That more or less echoes what I was talking to Mickey Bradley from The Undertones about recently. He refuses to use the word gig or tour. He tells us they’re off on ‘jaunts’, and for them it’s mostly long weekends these days, as they all have other commitments and jobs. And it seems that’s how it is with you on this tour – weekend dates.

“Absolutely, and these are our little jaunts! It feels like we step out of our regular lives to do these gigs, because it’s something big, and I think that mirrors what’s happening for people in the audience, and that’s why it works. They’re after escapism, looking for a moment, so you don’t have to think about all the shit that’s going on around us at the moment. And because that’s the same for us, I think that’s why there’s this kind of pretty joyful experience that happens when we do gigs now.”

Well, all power to your elbow on that front. Incidentally, I was speaking recently to Clare Grogan

“Ohhh!”

… and while she’s got a few years on us …

“But not many!”

… well, exactly, because she was so young when Altered Images broke through. But in her case, the spark was the lockdown and nearing 60, having that impulse to get back out there again, performing and recording. In fact, it was conversations with her daughter, talking about things she did when she was her age. And I think we’ve all evaluated and revalued what’s important and what we want to achieve as a consequence of the pandemic.

“Yeah, very much. I think there’s a real sense of trying to grab things, enjoy them, and not overthink it. That’s really important. That’s what’s so different from the ‘90s. There was lots of worrying and analysing, thinking about who else is doing what, trying to be cool, all that stuff. The fact you don’t waste any energy on that anymore is really important.”

Louise and Andy’s children are now 16 and 14. Do they casually throw in a few rock’n’roll anecdotes at the dinner table?

“Yeah, I mean, it’s really interesting to see them, because they’re pretty mortified by what we do! But part of them thinks it’s sort of cool, so when it comes to some of the big gigs … they’re particularly impressed by festivals, and if they get to come to those and bring their mates and suddenly they’re backstage … When they go to festivals on their own as they get older, I think they’re going to be really miffed if they don’t get backstage! ‘Well, when we’re with Mum and Dad …’!”

Not as if Louise and Andy didn’t keep themselves busy during the early lockdown, going on to compile unreleased material from previous recording sessions, including ‘We Are Cinderella’, with those afore mentioned backing vocals from George Michael, with new material as the basis for a new Sleeper album, This Time Tomorrow, which was released in December 2020. Thinking of opening track, ‘Tell Me Where You’re Going’, is that another indication of how you’re enjoying this second crack at it?

“Yeah, although again it’s a very old song. But it’s sort of reinvigorated and reimagined for now, so it’s really interesting to see what meaning they have now. It takes on a whole new meaning from that huge interval between when they were imagined and when they got recorded and played properly.”

That must be odd, rediscovering in a sense how you were thinking back then.

“Yeah, it’s lovely though. Andy would get out the tapes, we’d listen and go, ‘Oh my God, this is such a great song. We should do something with this one day’. Then of course, in lockdown we had that time.”

That sounds like me with writing projects … but then I have to hit the next deadline, and they go back on the shelf a while longer.

“Haha! Totally!”

Meanwhile, I can only apologise it’s taken me so long, but I’m finally reading It’s Different for Girls. And I’m loving it.

“Ah, thank you!”

Incidentally, I finished it a few days later, and it’s recommended for those yet to seek it out. Not just as a memoir of her time in the band – and it’s a somewhat authoritative insight into that whole ‘90s scene, told from the inside – but also growing up with that passion for pop in an era I definitely identify with, the Two Tribes chapter just one fine example, Louise painting a vivid picture of how life was for her on leaving school, clearly ready to move on and make her own way.

There’s a mention early on – seeing as I mentioned him before – of Mickey Bradley’s co-write with Damian O’Neill, ‘My Perfect Cousin’, in the days you were home-taping hits from the radio. In fact, there are lots of parallels for me, and I recall where I was when I first heard or saw many of those cultural highlights and lowlights mentioned. And it’s well written.

I was born just under 15 months after Louise, although we’d have been two school years apart. Also, as the youngest of five, 11 and half years younger than my big sister, I got to appreciate so many variations of musical tastes in my formative years, from rock’n’roll revivalists to The Beatles and the Stones, David Essex, glam, pop, rock and prog, then disco, soul, punk, new wave, post-punk, and onwards, filling in gaps in my knowledge ever since. That made me the music fan I am now. And I guess that’s how it was with you, influenced by older siblings.

“Yeah, very much. My sister was 12 years older, my brother’s almost eight years older. And my parents, when they had me, were quite old. My dad was into all sorts of jazz stuff. He was in his late 40s, a different generation, in the Second World War.”

I recall embarrassment at my parents, both born in 1933, thinking them so old, at least older than those of most classmates. And it sounds like yours had a few years on them.

“Yeah, 1926, I think. Ridiculous, right!”

However, that’s probably the case for the gap to your children (although I’m sure Louise was a far cooler Mum).

“Yeah, definitely. It’s funny though, because you still consider yourself modern. But in the context of what they’re doing, life has moved on. It’s so different, isn’t it.”

And here’s another confession. I kind of regret this now, and already did then, but taking redundancy in 2010 before going back to uni to do a master’s, with a mortgage to find and children growing up, I ended up selling various books and records. And as a late convert to CDs, there were plenty of vinyl LPs from the mid-‘90s that left the house, including (yikes) copies of Smart and The It Girl.

“Haha!”

They were works of art for the covers alone, and in near mint condition. And yet I just looked back and saw I got £4.99 plus postage for each in Autumn 2011.

“Ohhh!”

I really shouldn’t have let them go, but needs must sometimes, like you saying about Andy and his kit.

“Yeah, there are times where you just have to let go of things. You think, my God, why have I let go of that? That really meant something to me. It happens all the time, especially as you get older. And not to get hooked on nostalgia, because that’s also really unhealthy, but it’s important to celebrate things you love.”

As it was, part one of the Sleeper story was done and dusted by the time 1998 was out. But how about (bear in mind, this was before I got to that bit in Different for Girls) those initial half-dozen years between meeting Jon at Manchester Uni in 1987 and the deal with Indolent in 1993 – were you competent songwriters and musicians from the start?

“No, really, really not! I was absolutely learning. Ha! I’d never picked up a guitar until quite late on. I went to university, joined a band, and it was like, ‘If none of you can write songs, I’m gonna learn how to do this. I can do this!’. But I’ve always had that attitude a bit. When I was younger, I felt, ‘I can do that. I’m sure I can do it’. You have that self-confidence at that age.

“Not that I was hugely confident growing up. I wasn’t! But I was like, ‘I’m gonna have a shot,’ y’know? I was, umm … yeah, ambitious, and didn’t worry too much. I wasn’t self-conscious about it at that age. I think that happens as you get older, when you suddenly want to get in the spotlight, a little bit of that actually becomes harder.”

And that’s reminded me of something else from Different for Girls I identified with. Having older siblings,I was mature in my taste, into The Clash, The Jam, Buzzcocks, The Undertones, and so on. But looking back at family photos, this geeky tall lad with glasses, it doesn’t fit in with how I felt I looked, my inner punk rocker and new wave cool kid hidden from view.

“No, I was such a nerd. But that’s fine! I just wish I could have known you could evolve, right?”

Sleeper dates, Spring 2022 (with support from The Lottery Winners, who were among the supports on their initial reunion tour, and with whom Louise has recorded in more recent times): Friday 22nd April – Leeds, O2 Academy; Saturday 23rd April – Glasgow, SWG3; Thursday 28th April – Bristol, O2 Academy; Friday 29th April – Coventry, HMV Empire; Saturday 30th April – Manchester, Albert Hall; Sunday 1st May – Newcastle, Boiler Shop; Friday 6th May – London, Roundhouse; Saturday 7th May – Cambridge, Junction. Tickets available here. And for more on Sleeper, head here and keep in touch via Facebook.

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The Woodentops /Uhr/ The Amber List – Preston, The Ferret

I can’t quite believe this was my first Woodentops sighting in 35 years. Last time was at 1987’s Glastonbury Festival, me a mere 19-year-old (still am in some respects, I know).

Truth be told, I’d seen far too many bands that weekend for these complex Rough Trade favourites to make the impression on me they might have. But I soon followed up my purchase of cracking debut, Giant, with Live Hynobeat Live, and that’s been on the turntable and in the CD drive so many times down the years. A truly colossal record, up there with … let’s see … Ramones’ It’s Alive, The Rezillos’ Mission Accomplished (But the Beat Goes On), and That Petrol Emotion’s Final Flame on the live LP front.

A great singles band too, ‘Move Me’ and ‘It Will Come’ still capable of jumping right off the deck and transporting me to the dancefloor at a moment’s notice. As for ‘Travelling Man’, that track regularly ended up on my compilation tapes. Honestly though, I still have the cassette of Wooden Foot Cops on the Highway, but after those souped-up numbers on the live platter, I wanted more of the same, and it took time to grab me. In retrospect, there’s some great songs there. More to the point, three and a half decades on, founder members Rolo McGinty, Simon Mawby and Frank de Freitas, plus more recent arrivals Wayne Urquhart and Vesa Haapanen still cut it in a live setting … big time. And their 2022 treatment of those second LP numbers made me see it in a new light.

But let’s start at the beginning of this stunning Sunday night three-hander in Preston, Lancashire, with openers and WriteWyattUK favourites The Amber List (our most recent feature/interview linked here) already into first number ‘Red Lines & Promises’ as I walked into this troubled Preston venue.

Ah, did I not mention that? There’s a question mark over the future of this treasured local, a ‘for sale’ sign having appeared, those involved behind the scenes working on solutions to save The Ferret, with help from the Music Venue Trust and a few city councillors. There’s also a move to put together an application to register the pub as an ‘asset of community value’, something hoped ‘might buy us some time’, those running the joint keen to remain positive, stressing there’s a couple of years left on the lease, while doing what they can to ensure it’s around far longer. For more detail, and to help support the cause, follow the link at the end of this review.

I’ve mentioned before The Ache of Being, the debut Amber List LP, and played live its songs bear up to closer inspection, this seasoned four-piece (with various past credits to their names) very much a unit, frontman Mick Shepherd swapping bass, vocals and guitar duties with bandmate Tim Kelly, each giving great accounts of themselves, while Tony Cornwell coaxes sublime sounds from his guitar, and drummer Simon Dewhurst holds the shape with aplomb.

Six of their seven song set came from that album, ‘Home’ and ‘Back to the Start’ showing them at the top of their game before they went out all guns blazing on ‘A New Day Calling’. Sadly, I learned later that was it for Tim, (amicably) stepping away to concentrate on his Longhatpins recordings. But I’ve no doubt both parties will continue to impress, The Amber List set to reconvene as a three-piece. Cheers for the ride so far, lads. It’s been a blast.

Next up, Uhr, who only made their debut last summer across town at The Continental. I missed that, but I’d heard a couple on tracks online, instinctively knowing I was in for a treat. And what a performance, with nods to early Buzzcocks and Magazine and sonic hints of a post-punk industrial landscape previously scaled by the likes of The Fall and Gang of Four.

My last visit to The Ferret was for Girls in Synthesis in late 2018, that emerging London three-piece putting in an intense, memorable shift, one that night’s support, Erskine Brown, clearly took note of. I also enjoyed the latter’s set (with my review here). It gave hope for their future, and now two-thirds of that combo, dad and lad (not always in that order) John and Jack Harkins are back, this time bolstered by former Cornershop, Common Cold and Formula One driving drummer David Chambers.

Unsurprisingly, bass player/lead vocalist Jack’s admiration for The Stranglers’ J-J Burnel figures in his in-built musical DNA, while the spirit of Wire is definitely … erm, wired within (totally wired). But while Jack, John (lead guitar/effects) and David wear their influences on their colour-coded polo tops (something that in other hands could turn a bit Chigley or The Wiggles, but somehow suggesting a post-industrial vibe here), they’re very much their own beast, with art-rock sensibilities too. As for the sound, never mind the bandwidth, get a feel of that Stihl pulse, kids.

Highlights? Fellow attendee Ann Nazario recorded and uploaded two Uhr songs I’d have chosen (follow the links to ‘Written Reply’ and ‘Butterfly House’ below), the latter certainly still etched on my memory. In fact, during the headliners’ set, I closed my eyes – lost in music – and reckon I could still see John ‘shorting’ at the climax, his bandmates long since departed.

As for the five ‘Tops, any lingering concern this wouldn’t be all I’d hoped were soon jettisoned, the band straight out of the traps with frenetic WFCOTH opener ‘Maybe It Won’t Last’. They were on their way now, that LP given extra balls, the surging rockabilly rhythm more out-front than it was with those original ‘80s keyboard flourishes.

There was little chance to catch a breath as ‘They Can Say What They Want’ kept the groove going, before ‘You Make Me Feel’ took us elsewhere, a Rolo love song (and I reckon most of us present would have been reticent to give anyone their last Rolo on this showing) acting as a curveball. When someone suggested to me this was his Paul Simon moment, I found it hard to get that vision out of my head, but I was thinking more Mark Knopfler. And think what you will but those three disparate acts all know how to write great songs.

‘Wheels Turning’ was stronger than the recorded version, Frank’s ‘Fashion’-esque resonant bass smouldering, playing Tina Weymouth to Rolo’s David Byrne. As for most recent recruit Vesa, he was tapped into a Prince and the Revolution-like groove, Rolo and Frank’s fellow founder Simon then taking to a little slide-action on another mighty UK almost-hit, ‘Stop That Car’.

While Simon, erm, initially fretted over the sound, he soon got stuck in, carrying the air of a modern-day Django Reinhardt – wispy ‘tache possibly leading me to that conclusion, his playing confirming it. Meanwhile, Frank (late Bunnymen legend Pete’s younger brother) and Vesa were locked in from the start, Rolo – as is his wont – gyrated quirkily and initiated each number, and Wayne, convincing with cello and keyboards alike, picked up the vibe and ran with it, albeit from his side-stage perch.

One of the moments to gather breath came with a more pared-back ‘Heaven’, but with no less given to the cause throughout, the lack of numbers present (it was after all Sunday night in the Republic of Prestonia) certainly not leading to anything less than a 100% approach to performing from all three bands. And fair play to them for that.

Even tracks I previously felt lukewarm towards, like ‘What You Give Out’, worked here, Rolo’s all-in delivery proving somewhat infectious, the positive vibes difficult to dismiss. And while the pace slowed some more for the rather lilting ‘Tuesday Wednesday’ (Knopfler and Simon back in my head), the venue somewhat bending under the groove on a song arguably more Waterboys than Woodentops in original form, ‘In a Dream’ notched things back up in a fitting finale to the featured LP section, the original more Big Audio Dynamite meets ‘Homosapien’ era Pete Shelley feel (nowt wrong with that either, but it was very much of its time) replaced by a far more dynamic take, the band firing on all cylinders. An unexpected highlight.

I couldn’t tell you a right lot about the ’Tops story from there. My own global travels ensured I missed the band’s next more dance-oriented Balaeric beat phase and ‘Tainted World’ era, and I’d lost touch by the time of ’92’s downing of tools. As with many more acts I loved, life moved on and I drifted away. But on the strength of this performance, I’d missed a few more treats since the Granular Tales reboot, that LP represented here by ‘Stay Out of the Light’. We even got a bonus Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry-inspired dub number, memories of the accidental Roundhouse studio meeting that inspired the second LP’s title re-stoked.

I wish I’d got along to the Giant revisited tour, but Sunday night kind of made up for that, and I’ll be keen to catch Rolo and co. next time they’re out and about, to get back on board that Love Train. You can probably tell I wasn’t taking notes and never saw a setlist. Accordingly, I may have misremembered some of the part two songs, but ‘Well Well Well’ and ‘Why’ impressed. I think they played debut 45 ‘Plenty’ too, and should have known if they did ‘Love Affair for Everyday Living’ or ‘Move Me’. Problem was that I played all three later that night and couldn’t be sure by the time I scribbled my notes a few days later. Answers on a postcard, please.

As for that other lost hit that somehow wasn’t, ‘Good Thing’, the opening phase gave the impression we’d caught the band in post-split laidback Caribbean castaway lounge band residency status, but slowly but surely the song joyously came to life. And my other highlights included that stonking run through ‘Love Train’ and the gorgeous ‘Everything Breaks’, which was stuck in my head as I headed home beneath a full moon, temporarily back into my mid-‘80s world, resonating as much now as then, that line, ‘See the stars shine so brightly for me tonight’ still with me.

After such a full-on set, it seemed rather churlish to expect them to return from the upstairs dressing room to give us any ‘more’. Thinking of Vesa’s contribution alone made me ache. Besides, this was three great bands for the price of one, another fine example of how this venue pulls in impressive names and should-be-names. And there are (ahem) plenty more of those lined up.

If you want to see bands at a proper intimate venue that aren’t just about covers of ‘Wonderwall’ and the like, The Ferret and not so far off Continental are the place to be. There will be more of the same in your happening town too, no doubt. Use those venues, support them wisely, and drink in the atmosphere … while you still can.

For the latest regarding community efforts to save The Ferret in Preston, head here. Six songs from the night were captured by Ann Nazario for her splendid YouTube channel, linked here. Meanwhile, for all the latest from The Woodentops, head here. The same goes for Uhr and The Amber List.

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Killing Joke: Beyond the Chaos – the Jaz Coleman interview

Uncompromising post-punk legends Killing Joke are on the cusp of releasing their first new material in seven years and embarking on a series of Spring tour dates, their first UK run in more than three years.

The ‘Lord of Chaos’ EP, with a link to the title track here, features two new recordings plus re-workings of two songs from their most recent studio album, 2015’s Pylon, suggesting now provides the optimum time – with ‘the Doomsday Clock hitting 100 seconds to midnight’- to re-emerge.

As frontman Jaz Coleman (vocals, keyboards) put it, “I’ve never known anything like the time we’re living in now; not since the Cuban Missile crisis. But now in comparison we have multiple flashpoints, and ‘Lord of Chaos’ is about complex systems failure, when technology overloads and A.I. misreads the enemy’s intentions.” 

And this confrontational combo – having reverted to their original line-up in 2008 – display no signs of mellowing, as those who turn out for the tie-in 11-date tour – starting with an intimate warm-up at the Frog & Fiddle in Jaz’s hometown of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, on Sunday, March 27th, and concluding in a filmed appearance near the band’s West London roots at Hammersmith Apollo on Saturday, April 9th – will surely witness, the band promising ‘music as ritual – raw, uncompromising and precisely-targeted’. 

Joined on stage and on record by fellow ‘founding fathers of the group’ and ‘ongoing influences on both alternative music and (counter) culture in general’, guitarist Geordie (aka Kevin Walker), bass player/legendary record producer Youth (Martin Glover), and drummer Big Paul (Ferguson), they promise ‘collective nostrils flared and righteous anger carried torch-high’, this combative quartet determined to ‘take their music of resistance to fresh levels’.

But you can only surmise so much from press releases, hence me taking the opportunity to quiz Jaz on the lead-up to those live shows. At first, that interview was set up for when he arrived in Prague from his base in New Zealand, but between lost mobile phones and manifold other reasons which make him hard to nail down, our pencilled-in appointments were arranged and rearranged several times before the following conversation came to pass, Jaz tracked down to a pub on the Portobello Road in Notting Hill, where Killing Joke’s journey truly started in 1979.

And that was just a case of me trying to pin down one-quarter of this notoriously transient outfit. Think of that 27km ring of super-conducting magnets in the Large Hadron Collider doing its thing on the particle acceleration front in Switzerland, and maybe you’re not far off understanding how this band operate. Accordingly, when I finally tracked Jaz down, I asked first if it was something of a logistical nightmare in the space-time continuum getting the band together.

“Well, Killing Joke was working right up, pretty much, until Covid kicked in, we were on tour right up until that happened. And we knew something big was going to happen because we’d looked at the astrology, knowing something massive was about to happen. So, of course, we lost about two years, and in those two years, places and people have changed massively.

“We all live in different countries, and I never stay in one place. I can’t. I’m a nomad. I’ve tried staying in one place, but I just can’t, you know, I just can’t keep still. And no one place has everything for me.”

But the magic still happens when you, Geordie, Big Paul and Youth finally get together.

“Ah, it’s an amazing chemistry. Sure, it does. Can you imagine, between us all we’ve got 250 years of experience. Ha ha!”

Yep, there’s that trademark rasping laugh, and not for the last time during our conversation, I might add.

I was lucky enough, I mentioned, to edit Chris Bryans’ excellent Killing Joke band biography and fan’s history, A Prophecy Fulfilled, which landed mid-pandemic (This Day in Music Books, 2020). And within he calls his band ‘a dysfunctional family’, going on to describe a cartoon drawn by Youth, in which a despairing mixing engineer has his head in his hands while Jaz and Youth argue as to whether the faders should go up or down. Another day at the office, KJ style?

“Ha! Yeah, it’s like that. I mean, it’s one almighty clash of wills and personalities. But when it locks in, it’s monstrous! Everybody, I can guarantee everyone … probably except Youth … is going through massive stress at the moment. Because it is stressful before we all get together, every time. I don’t know why, but it just is for everybody. But one thing you can be certain of is that however bad you feel, it’s worse for the other person. Haha!”

And yet, as you put it, you regard touring as a complete celebration, and when you’ve put together those live performances and come back off stage, you feel spiritually cleansed.

“Oh, I do – it’s the best thing in the world.”

Is that something you’ve missed in the last couple of years?

“Oh, sure. Touring with Killing Joke is like … we go into this with loads of gatherers, wherever we are, whatever continent we’re on. It’s amazing. And you’re with your own people, you’re with your own tribe, and these are the people I’ve given my life to. And these people have put food in my stomach. This is the counterculture that I believe in, and these are the people I believe in. And that’s it. You see, it’s also much more than just music. It’s a life. It’s a way of life.”

On the other hand, again in your own words, you’re ‘the only fucker who’s been fired from Killing Joke’.

“Well, yes, it’s true. There you are, I’ve been fired, and all sorts of things have happened to me in my long, long career with the band that I started. Ha! But you know, you go through these phases, and it tells you all about human nature. I mean, for sure, I never used to believe that man needs tweaking, but I do now. The question is, who will make up the philosophical elect? Who is morally responsible enough to make up a philosophical elect that can, for example, regulate artificial intelligence, and our participation in that? These are the huge questions that lie ahead for humanity.”

And are we any closer to an understanding to find those answers, do you think, or does everything throw up more questions?

“Well, we do have the framework on the planet to make this happen. What we don’t have is the moral compass. There’s not a single politician I like. Show me one leader who’s prepared to live in a small room and eat a frugal diet. Mankind is in essence greedy. I’m a collectivist. I like living with people, in groups of people, and I’ve always lived in squats, wherever possible, and I believe in Earth communities. And that’s what I’ve tried to develop in different parts of the world, secretly, over the last 40 years or so.”

I get the impression you’ve at least found a bit of that inner peace during your time living in New Zealand.

“Well, absolutely, because you see in the end, I think we waste so much energy on fear, and I have myself – I’m as guilty as anyone else of missing out on life. Haha! And this is something Killing Joke can help with. When you’re at our concerts, we can channel that fear away and get on with our lives. I mean, to be honest I use Killing Joke as a means to not think about apocalypses and negative images these dreadful religions have created and put in people’s minds – these death cults, as I call them. Because, if you think about what the physicists say, which is to say we’re all participants in creating our reality, if we visualise apocalypse all the time, that in essence is what we’re going to create.

“So I always use Killing Joke as a social function, a means to get the shit out and use art as a means to channel the fear. So we can all experience getting rid of this fear together … collectively. And that of course is the essence of a Killing Joke concert.”

You put your own epiphany towards this path you set out on in music and beyond initially down to discovering Can and weed. Does that still help you focus?

“Well … I don’t … when I’m working I can’t take anything, to be honest. But when I’m not working … I’ll eat a space cookie. I’m not a big smoker anymore, because I have to sing. I like being high, but I’ve not had a drink for 17 years. And the rest of the time I get high on physical fitness, to be honest. Keeping fit.”

Stepping on to a stage to perform must provide a major high too.

“Ah! When you’re living, you’re alive. I don’t differentiate between fear and excitement. I don’t know which is which, y’know. I love it. What you call stepping out on stage for me is going into my front room, where all my friends are.”

That’s a neat way of putting it. And what was the first song you put down as a band that made you think you really had something going on? Or was there always that self-belief beneath the outward, confrontational stance created by the band’s music and stage presence?

“Oh, it was evident from the first jam, when it locked in. I remember the moment … I came from Cheltenham this morning, and of course, we’re playing in Cheltenham (on this tour) – for the first time in my hometown, which is pretty amazing. And I’m going to try and get the guys in the band to come to my family house to see Mum. They haven’t been there for 43 years, altogether in the house, since we were there when we started the band.”

Yes, the tour starts with an intimate warm-up show at the Frog & Fiddle in his hometown on the last Sunday of the month. I bet the thought of Sunday night in Cheltenham will conjure up a few memories too, reminding you of your past frustrations and so on, those initial feelings you had when putting a band together.

“Ah yeah, Sunday night in Cheltenham … that’s right. Well, y’know, I’ve got such a dodgy past in Cheltenham. I had four criminal offences before I was 16. When people start whining about their children, I go, ‘Really? Let me tell you about me, right, and what my parents had to go through with me. It’s nothing!’”

And what do you think Cheltenham makes of Dr. Jaz Coleman today? Not least being confronted by a giant end-of-terrace mural of him?

“I don’t know what people think. But actually, people are very kind when I walk through Cheltenham. What can I say? You know, it’s a big passage of time. I mean, what I’ve seen in my lifetime … when I was born, it took so many thousands and thousands of years to reach like three billion people. Then in my lifetime, it’s gone to about eight billion people.

“I remember being on steam trains and stuff as a kid, and seeing that technological transformation of the planet in a lifetime … well, I’ve been in the same band since I was a teenager, and I’ve had the privilege to be able to capture these huge moments in history, and living with the stresses and the fears of a nuclear age. We are a kind of Doomsday cult, in a way. Because we’ve learned to live with the fear of extinction and all-out thermonuclear war. We’ve lived with it. I’ve lived with it all my life.

“My father used to see me stressed out about it and he’d tell me what it was like in those days when the Nazis were coming, when they were coming to take over the UK. He used to remind me what the fear was like then, and that in the end we only have each other.

“And that brings me to Killing Joke, and all the divisions we always have in Killing Joke. I see it that we have to overcome our differences in our band. If we don’t, it’s a microcosm of a wider world and it means there is no hope for man. It is so important for me to listen to everybody and for us to come together, to draw together … as I expect all gatherers to do to help each other – love, care, protect and share, I always say, and I believe in this fervently.”

Only a week or so ago, you were in Prague. You’ve also got links going back to time in East Germany and even Minsk. You clearly see yourself as a world citizen, and it must make – knowing so many people across Eastern Europe – this current grim conflict in Ukraine all the more real. What’s more, it’s one unfolding right in front of our eyes on the TV.

“It’s been on the cards for the last 10 years. I visit Russia with music, as I do all continents. And I’ve noticed everything deteriorating in terms of Western/Russian relations, which I’ve seen consciously dismantled over that period. And the bottom line is this, right – if Tibet had oil, we’d give a fuck about Tibet! Ha! Russia is the largest landmass in the world, it stretches right the way to the Arctic, and there’s resources there, and we’re in the middle of a potential resource world war, and everybody’s out for themselves. But hopefully … well … diplomacy or extinction?”

I recall while travelling the world in 1991, the harrowing, car-crash spectacle of seeing the Gulf War unfold in front of us on all-night TV news channels. That was scary enough, but this time we’re not just seeing fighter planes, tanks and weaponry, but also refugees fleeing, and it makes it all the more relatable, because – surprise, surprise – they’re just like us. It could be us, despite all those right-wing rags and news networks stoking the fire, talking about invasions of migrants and so on. And, arguably, those are the kinds of horrors that until now we haven’t been able to see in past conflicts.

“No, but one way or another, nothing’s surprising. But look, let me tell you something – there’s something called the pendulum theory, which means to say that everything at the moment is swinging towards an extremely virulent form of fascism, which is ultimately ruled by corporations. But wait a minute, when the pendulum swings that far that way, where the fuck is it gonna go next? It’s gonna go the other way. And there you go, the 0.1% should be very, very scared. Because in the end, people are gonna wake up to this crap and … God knows what’s gonna happen. I don’t really know.”

Maybe that’s a more positive way to think of it, in the long run. There’s clearly darkness ahead, but hopefully some light as well.

“We are the torchbearers!”

And seeing as I mentioned that mural in Cheltenham, there’s very few of you from the music world with such an accolade in this country. Ringo Starr just this week and also John Lennon in Liverpool, David Bowie, Joe Strummer and Amy Winehouse in recent years in London, but not many others spring to mind. Does that make you feel proud?

“Not really, I don’t really give a fuck about things that stroke the ego, I don’t really know much about them. What I’m consumed with is having the opportunity to go back to my country and start a massive reforestation programme. That’s the kind of thing that would lift people’s spirits, when they see mass reforestation happening. This is the kind of message we need to put out in the world.

“I moved to New Zealand because I was inspired by the Rt. Hon. David Lange, who made New Zealand a nuclear-free zone. God rest his soul. In that tradition, long may New Zealand stay this way. And it may lead the world – and I believe it will – one day into a better way of living.”

With you a part of that?

“Yes, absolutely. I sign up to this, I believe in the restoration of the biosphere. I believe in the resurrection of nature and the planets and the goodness in mankind. I believe in this.”

A lovely point to finish on. Thanks for your time.

“A real pleasure, thanks Malcolm.”

And pretty soon you can get back on that tour bus for Honour the Fire, your first UK run of shows in more than three years.

“I’m looking forward to that. It’ll be real fun to see everybody after we’ve been gnashing our teeth and hating the thought of seeing each other. When you’re actually faced with everybody, it’s pretty wonderful, because there’s not many people that are witnesses to the all-incredible experiences of everything from the King’s Chamber {Killing Joke putting down vocal tracks inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt} and of time standing still and of the most extraordinary experiences. I happen to be in a band that have witnessed those experiences with me, and we’re still kicking arse … brutally kicking arse!

“So yeah, life’s good, come on, we must all march on! There’s a future ahead there. There’s no future in nuclear war.”

For a link to this website’s feature in February 2021 with Peter Hook about his K÷ side-project with Jaz Coleman and Geordie Walker, head here. And for this site’s feature/interview with Brix Smith, a special guest on the London date of the forthcoming Killing Joke tour, and her work with Youth, from the previous month, head here.

The ‘Lord of Chaos’ EP is available on CD, digital and three vinyl formats from March 25, its first two tracks – the title track and ‘Total’, both produced by Killing Joke and mixed by Tom Dalgety – setting the tone for the band’s next studio album, which is being worked on in Prague. Tracks three and four give a fresh spin to tracks from the Pylon album, with ‘Big Buzz (Motorcade Mix)’ remixed by Tom Dalgety and Nick Evans, and ‘Delete’ given full Dub treatment courtesy of Youth and named ‘Delete In Dub (Youth’s Disco 45 Dystopian Dub)’. To purchase or stream the EP, head here. And for the title track’s video, head here.

The Honour the Fire UK tour, with The Imbeciles supporting on all dates except Cheltenham, and Brix Smith a special guest in London: March: Sunday 27th – Cheltenham Frog & Fiddle; Monday 28th – Cardiff Tramshed; Tuesday 29th – Nottingham Rock City; Thursday 31st – Bristol O2 Academy. April: Friday 1st – Liverpool O2 Academy; Saturday 2nd – Birmingham O2 Institute; Monday 4th – Manchester Albert Hall; Tuesday 5th – Newcastle Boiler Shop; Wednesday 6th – Glasgow Barrowland; Friday 8th – Leeds O2 Academy; Saturday 9th –Hammersmith  Eventim Apollo. Tickets are available via www.myticket.co.uk. For more on Killing Joke, check out their official website and Facebook page.

With thanks to Carla Potter (CPM), Rob Kerford (Sonic PR), and photographer and Killing Joke fan, Gary M. Hough, whose www.shotfrombothsides.co.uk website is well worth checking out.

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Taking more Hits to the Head with Franz Ferdinand – the Bob Hardy interview

With more than 10 million albums sold, 1.2 billion streams, 14 platinum albums, Brit, Ivor Novello and Mercury Prize award wins, Grammy nominations and six million tickets sold for live shows worldwide, it’s fair to say it’s been a busy two decades for Glasgow indie favourites Franz Ferdinand.

However, as becomes very clear from chatting with co-founding bass player Bob Hardy, it seems there was never some kind of arrogant self-belief that it might all lead to such fame, back in the day.

Having signed to Domino in May 2003, releasing debut single, ‘Darts of Pleasure’ shortly after, it was second single, ‘Take Me Out’ that truly launched them, their eponymous 2004 debut album going on to sell nearly four million copies worldwide.

Artistically always forging forward, following albums You Could Have It So Much Better (2005), Tonight: Franz Ferdinand (2009), Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action (2013) and Always Ascending (2018) offered new takes on the template, working with pioneering producers such as Dan Carey, Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip, Todd Terje, and Philippe Zdar. 

And now there’s Hits to the Head, a 20-track greatest hits collection, released today (Friday, March 11th) on that same label they signed up to 19 years ago. But first off – remind us, Bob – what initially drove this lad from Bradford, West Yorkshire, to Glasgow?

“A couple of things really. I moved here ostensibly to study at the art school, because the painting department was really good, and I wanted to paint. I was either going to London or Glasgow, I guess, but I didn’t really fancy London. Glasgow was more appealing to me. We always came to Scotland on holiday when I was a kid.

“And the music scene was a big draw as well. When I was a teenager in Bradford, I was an obsessive music fan and as a huge fan of Glasgow bands like Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai, Arab Strap, The Delgados … that whole Chemikal Underground scene. So it was a bit of both really.

“And it seemed very manageable, because of the size of the city. I had friends that came to Glasgow the year before, I came to visit them, the energy was great and you just felt … you’d see people from bands that I’d been a fan of since I was 15 in the pub! I felt, ‘This is amazing!’.

Is that right that your first bass guitar came from Belle & Sebastian?

“Yeah, that’s right. Mick (Cooke), who played trumpet in the Belles was in a band with Alex (Kapranos). He had a bass lying around the house that he was getting rid of, and Alex said, ‘I’ll take it off your hands’. Mick said, ‘Okay, make sure it’s for someone useful with it. So yeah, that was kind of the beginning of my bass playing career.”

I tend to think of someone like Jim Lea, obviously an artisan at what he did and a brilliant musician, but someone who chose bass because he wasn’t so bothered about being the guy out front. And I guess in Slade it was easy to hide behind Noddy Holder and Dave Hill if need be.

“Yeah … and I’ve never had the ambition to be a singer!”

Alex said recently, ‘It was just me and Bob in the kitchen, where I was a chef and he was a dishwasher, talking about what we’d do if we had a band. Having a laugh. Playing each other music we loved’. That’s something so many bands have in common. Do you think of those times as the best of all? Because, let’s face it, you won’t be short of highlights down the years.

“That was a fun time, but when we first started chatting about music when we were working together in the kitchen, there wasn’t a band. It was the very beginning. It was me and Alex talking. It was fun. But we’ve never really stopped talking about music. So yeah, that’s just something we do. And the whole band. Our conversation is just talking about music. But it was a fun place to work, Alex and I together in the kitchen.”

Where was that kitchen?

“It was in Glasgow, a restaurant called Groucho Saint Judes. It was brilliant. We had this head chef, Martin Teplitzsky, this Australian, he was pretty rock’n’roll. He would blast AC/DC and Motorhead full volume during service. It was really great, really fun, similar to being in a band, there was a lot of prep, and then a very intense period of service. So it’s similar to like, you know, rehearsals, and then the intensity of playing a show.

Talking to Glasgow’s own Clare Grogan recently, she said she’d come to the conclusion –considering Altered Images’ short spell in the limelight – that most bands last between four to seven years, even the successful ones. But it’s been 20 years for Franz Ferdinand. Explain yourself.

“Yeah, I think bands being around so long is unusual nowadays.”

You’re clearly bucking the trend. Even The Beatles probably lasted around a decade, less so as a studio outfit. There will always be those who prove that wrong, like the Rolling Stones for a start. But 20 years is a hell of a landmark for a band still making interesting and rather dynamic music all these years on. So what’s the secret? A little luck at key stages, the ability and craft to move on and move forward? I mean, one thing that jumps out at me is the fact that you’ve always had the same label – Domino. That’s a rarity in itself, surely.

“Yeah, we chose Domino back in 2003, and we’ve always been happy with that. I can’t really imagine us going anywhere else. We have such a great relationship with them, and Laurence Bell, who runs Domino, is such a great person for us, and he’s just part of Franz Ferdinand.

“I don’t think we’d ever planned … if you told us, you know, 20 years ago, we’d be doing this 20 years later, a greatest hits album, I don’t think we’d have believed you. It’s just something we take as it comes, like, we make a record, we tour it. We never make plans to meet to say, ‘Yeah, let’s start working next month on the next record. It’s never like that. Alex will send along at some point demos of the songs and there’ll be something in there that catches my excitement and I want to be a part of … and we go again.”

That shows, just listening to your product down the years. Having said that, reading about the band, you get the impression you shifted from post-punk to dance down the years. But surely those elements were already there. You’ve not strayed far from the path. And you’re always unmistakably Franz Ferdinand.

“Yeah, we were always setting out to be a band that played these guitars, you know, real instruments, from the rock’n’roll world, but using the dynamics of dance music. So yeah, I think we’ve always had a foot in both worlds really.”

By the time of 2017’s ‘Always Ascending’, the lead single from that following year’s LP of the same name, it’s almost Talking Heads meets Blancmange and Giorgio Moroder. So I guess that also documents that shift. Incidentally, did you ever complete your art college studies?

“I did, yeah, I graduated in June 2003, and we signed our contract the same month, I think.”

Is that something you still dabble in?

“I’m literally sitting here in my painting clothes!”

That’s something so many were switched back on to during the lockdowns and so on, not least with encouragement from the likes of Grayson Perry and his Channel 4 show, Grayson’s Art Club.

“Yeah, and I think it’s good for your mental health to have creative outlets. Definitely. Especially in these weird times. And one of the great things about the age we live in as well is social media, so I follow a lot of people online, such as painters. Not necessarily professional, but you know, there’s some really great stuff. And it’s so available – the same as music really. Everything’s kind of at your fingertips nowadays, so I like to keep abreast of what’s going on.”

I went back to the debut LP today, and it still carries that power it initially had, 18 years on.

“Oh, good.”

I know that was an era for front-loaded records aimed at those with short attention spans, but the blistering early pace and strength of tracks like ‘Jacqueline’, ‘Take Me Out’ and ‘Dark of the Matinee’ continues right through.

“Ah, totally. When we made the first record, we did treat it like a singles collection. We do that with all our records though. We have quite a high bar for what we record and release. There’s lots that falls away. We generally treat each album as if every song has equal importance.”

There’s so much scope within, from the classic disco feel of ‘Auf Achse’ to a Can meets Dr Feelgood and Wire motorik vibe for ‘Cheating On You’. In fact, there’s hardly a moment to take stock throughout. What’s more, this was clearly a band having fun. At the same time, a track like ‘Tell Her Tonight’ suggests to me – and it might just be in retrospect, knowing what happened later – here’s a band that would work well with Sparks. You were always wearing influences on sleeves, I guess.

“Yeah. You know, we were fans of Sparks back in the day. Absolutely.”

And hearing again the splendid debut single, ‘Darts for Pleasure’, it’s good to have that – much as it works so well with ‘Jacqueline’ at the top of the first LP – coming right at the outset of this compilation. And there’s a nice linear quality as well in that you end with ‘Billy Goodbye’, more of a glam-rock stamper meets dance epic.

“Yeah. It has swagger, doesn’t it! It was a fun song to record. We’ve played it live a couple of times now. Because of Covid and what-not, we haven’t done a lot of live gigs recently, but when we have done, it’s been a real joy to play.”

I suppose in a way, Alex becomes Bryan Ferry with early Roxy Music on that. But maybe he’s backed by Slade, seeing as I mentioned them before. In short, it’s a classic single in an era when we don’t really have so many of those.

“Yeah, we’re big Roxy fans as well as various other stuff. And Bryan Ferry’s solo stuff.”

Incidentally, should we read anything into Nick McCarthy pulling away in 2016 then Paul Thomson following last year? More to the point, I guess, I should ask what drives you and Alex to carry on making new music.

“Well, there are other people in the band, you know. Dino and Julian have been with us since 2016, six years now, so there is continuity through the career.”

That’s rhythm guitarist Dino Bardot and keyboard player/guitarist Julian Corrie, by the way. And most recently drummer Audrey Tait has made an impact too.

“Yeah, and to answer your question, I think it’s always the music that pulls me back in, really. Like I said before, we never made plans that the band would go on this long. It’s always that we take each album and each tour as it comes. If there’s still music, if we’ve got songs being written that I’m passionate about and want to play on, want to perform live and record, that’s the most fun thing in the world. It’s always led by the music.”

Even as much fun as those dance moves in the video for ‘Curious’, right?

“Ha! That was incredible! That was probably the most fun I’ve ever had at a video shoot.”

‘Curious’ is the other new recording featured – joining ‘Billy Goodbye’ – on Hits to the Head. Of the video (linked here), Alex said, ‘We’ve always said we play dance music, so why don’t we dance in the video? So we gave Andy Knowles, our old pal who was in Bob’s class at art school and played with us in 2005/6, a shout and he was up for it. You can spot his cameo and, yes, that is us actually dancing’.

And is ‘Billy Goodbye’ your tribute to those you’ve lost along the way?

“Well, that was written before Paul left. And Nick’s been gone quite a while now. Alex wrote the lyrics and was intending to write a song which celebrated the end of platonic relationships. I mean, there’s so many songs about the end of love affairs, but so few about the end of the platonic friendship. So he was kind of leaning for that.”

Regarding the sentiment behind the greatest hits compilation, Alex recently said, “I’ve always wanted to make a ‘best of’. They were such a big part of my life growing up. My parents didn’t have a huge record collection. They didn’t have every Bowie LP, they had Changes. The red and blue Beatles (1962-1966 and 1967-1970). Rolled Gold. For them, it was what they wanted to listen to. The best bits. The hits. That’s the point of this record: the hits to the head, hits to the heart, hits to the feet as they hit the dancefloor.

“For me those records were an introduction, a doorway into the artist’s world. It was more, though. For the artists, it was a retrospective. A way to understand the progression of ideas with the perspective of the long term. An indication of where the future may be taking them. Like going to see a retrospective in the Tate, you could see the curve of development without the distraction of every detail. It was a bit of a curve for us too.”

Talking of art, I get the impression that the band’s Glasgow roots save you from that notion of coming over ‘way too art school’, coming from a city where getting too ‘up yourself’, so to speak, would be frowned upon.

“Yeah, Glasgow’s a very normal city. It doesn’t have the extremities of wealth of places like London, so you keep your feet on the ground. But it also has really vibrant music and art scenes. It punches well above its weight, population size, you know, in what it produces and the quality. Music and art … and comedy, it’s kind of through the roof.”

I mentioned Sparks. That must have been a dream come true, the FFS project. You’ve also worked with Jane Birkin, Daft Punk, Debbie Harry, and Edwyn Collins, among others. Have you a long list of dream collaborators you’re gradually ticking off?

“Ha! Well, as these things come up, you know, we’ll say, ‘Oh, we’ll definitely do that!’. And if you’d listed these names 20 years ago, that you’d go on to work with these people at some point,we’d have (a) thought you were joking, and (b) ripped your arm off!”

And what happens next? Is there another direction coming our way to catch us out? Or do you not know yourself?

“Well, the next thing is touring. We’ve got a European tour. We had to postpone the first half, with Covid things getting in the way. But we start in mid-April, and we’re playing some UK shows and we’re finishing in October or November now. So yeah, there’s that – playing live again for the first time in three years, a huge thing that we’re looking forward to. And simultaneously, since May last year we’ve been getting together in the studio and writing for another record.”

Will that LP come our way soon?

“Nothing’s confirmed. We haven’t finished writing or recording. But yeah, it’s in the works.”

Were there tracks on this new compilation you listened to with fresh ears? For one thing, you couldn’t fit them all on.

“Yeah, there are limitations on how much we could put on with a vinyl release, you know, one of the reasons we decided we were releasing it at this point – before there were even more we’d have to leave off. But I’m so familiar with the songs because we play them all live. Through the pandemic, we did a few listening parties with fans online, so I’ve gone back and listened to records for a first time in a while and enjoyed it. There was stuff on there I’d forgotten about and things in songs that don’t necessarily appear in our live arrangements.”

Meanwhile, of all the awards and nominations along the way, which mean the most to you?

“Erm … I’m not sure. The MTV award involved a very nice statue. I’m looking at that right now. So I’ll say that one!”

And what do you reckon is the most fun you’ve had in the band these past two decades?

“Erm … too many to list really, you know, we’ve been touring the world for 20 years. More highlights than I can think of, really.”

I was thinking of something random that puts a smile on your face, making you think, ‘Bloody hell, what a life!’.

“Yeah, I mean, the first time we played in Glasgow after the record came out, our very first album. That was pretty special. We played the QMU in Glasgow. It was wild, and we weren’t expecting the kind of reaction we got.”

Well, hopefully, we’ll have more of that on this tour.

“I hope so, yeah. Fingers crossed.”

Hits to the Head is available as a CD, deluxe CD, double-gatefold double-LP, limited-edition indies-only gatefold red double-LP, limited-edition D2C exclusive gatefold gold double-LP vinyl, and a cassette. And the CDs and LPs feature extensive liner notes from former Les Inrockuptibles editor JD Beauvallet, and exclusive, unseen photographs. The album is also available digitally, and can be pre-ordered here.

Meanwhile, for ticket details ahead of the Hits to the Head tour, head to the band’s official website here. You can also keep in touch with the band via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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Dig your way back out with The Undertones – in conversation with Mickey Bradley

As The Undertones gear up for a run of rescheduled UK live dates this month and next, 46 years after their first shows and 22 years after reconvening with a new singer, I felt it was high time I had words with these legendary Northern Irish punk rockers again.

But first a little history for the uninitiated (difficult as it to imagine that any discerning folk might not yet know about the group’s antics down the years), or at least a chance to fill in a few gaps for those who haven’t been paying full attention to the story in recent years.

This five-piece from Derry settled on their initial classic line-up of John and younger brother Damian O’Neill (guitars), Feargal Sharkey (vocals), Billy Doherty (drums), and Mickey Bradley (bass) way back in 1976, learning how to play basic rock’n’roll and soon captivated by the thrill of the punk scene.

With no bands worth catching nearby, the emphasis on learning their craft was on distance learning, listening to records bought via mail order, reading the few copies of the NME that made it to their locality, and listening to John Peel’s highly-influential night-time BBC Radio One show. And after recording John O’Neill’s ‘Teenage Kicks’ for Terri Hooley’s Good Vibrations label in Belfast, it turned out that Peel was equally enamoured, in fact so impressed that one night in September ’78 he famously played that classic debut single (initially released in paper wrap-around EP format) twice in a row.

Soon enough, The Undertones signed with Sire Records – already home to Ramones, Talking Heads and The Rezillos – and that seminal debut was re-released, leading to the band’s first appearance on Top of the Pops, reaching No.34 in the UK. By the time 1979 was out, they’d had three more top-40 hits with fellow JJ O’Neill gems ‘Jimmy Jimmy`, ‘Here Comes the Summer`, and ‘You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It)’.

The following year, Damian and Michael’s ‘My Perfect Cousin’ made the top 10, their biggest hit, while John’s ‘Wednesday Week’ reached No.11. But just one more UK top-40 single followed, Damian and Michael’s ‘It’s Going to Happen’ (18) in 1981 added to three top-20 LPs, the highest-placed 1980’s Hypnotised (No.6). And shortly after March ‘83’s The Sin of Pride was toured and stalled just outside the top 40, Feargal announced he was leaving to embark upon a solo career, the band deciding to call it a day, the O’Neills in time featuring with influential indie outfit That Petrol Emotion, Billy and Michael by then back home, The Undertones remaining dormant for 16 years.

Then, in 1999, hometown lad Paul McLoone took on Feargal’s role as they reconvened, the new singer’s vocal prowess and on-stage presence soon convincing the doubters. And after much consideration and several live shows, they released new LP, Get What You Need, to critical acclaim from the likes of Q, Uncut, Rolling Stone, Hot Press in 2003, John’s glorious ‘Thrill Me’, the new line-up’s first single, among the tracks proving the art of writing short, sharp songs had not been lost, that limited edition 7” vinyl 45 leading to a certain John Peel liking it so much he played it twice in succession, as he had ‘Teenage Kicks’ a quarter of a century earlier.

A second LP, Dig Yourself Deep, in 2007 also impressed, but since then it’s mostly been about live shows, although the band marked Record Store Day in 2013 with a 7” vinyl only release, ‘Much Too Late’ selling out all 1,000 copies that day, then, in 2016, came vinyl remasters of the first two LPs, The Undertones and Hypnotised, and a 7” vinyl remix of 1979 single ‘Get Over You’, remixed by Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine/Primal Scream). Also that year, Mickey published his splendid memoir, Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone, while 2018 – 40 years on from the debut EP – the next Record Store Day saw the band release a vinyl singles box-set containing all 13 original 45s from ‘78-’83.

Fast forward to 2020, the band set to tour the UK, the US and Europe when the coronavirus pandemic stopped the world in its tracks, The Undertones hunkering down, fans having to make do instead with a vinyl double-LP compilation of the first coming, West Bank Songs

But now they’re properly back, their rescheduled dates – with shows across the UK, Germany and Scandinavia between now and May – promoting the release of Dig What You Need on South London-based indie label, Dimple Discs, comprising selected tracks from the post-reformation LPs on vinyl for the first time (as well as on CD and download), digitally remastered and remixed by producer Paul Tipler (Stereolab, Elastica, Idlewild, Placebo, Julian Cope, The House of Love), its packaging and sleeve design by Arthole, for what Damian calls ‘a sonically cohesive bunch of nuggets waiting to be rediscovered all over again’. Quite right too.

Since reforming, The Undertones have toured several times across the UK, Ireland and the rest of Europe, Japan, Turkey and North America, the band still much loved not just for fans but also in various quarters of the British and Irish music media, their self-titled debut album making Q magazine’s top 100 albums of all time.

So that’s us up to date, to the point where bass player and backing vocalist turned radio producer and presenter Michael picked up the phone, and I asked just how he felt it was going right now, with spring on its way and the hope of those live shows at last (I should point out that we spoke before the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine started to unfold).

“It’s going great. I’m sitting here, looking out of the window, and the sun is shining. I cannot wait for warmer weather though.”

Definitely, although I have to say my diary’s ended up a right mess with all the scribblings out again of live shows – some postponed, others newly confirmed – to a point where I’m not totally sure which is which yet. I’m not blaming you, mind.

“Oh, I can’t work out if these are the ones which we were supposed to do two years ago, or 18 months ago. Because we were doing patches in the spring of 2020 and then the autumn of 2020, and they were soon leapfrogging each other.”

I think you’re right, and now I seem to have you playing Manchester Academy and Liverpool Academy two weeks in a row. And that can’t be right.

“I have a diary here, and I’ve actually taken the liberty of writing things down … and Manchester and Liverpool are now the first the second of April.”

Ah, that’s good. I think it was a week earlier before that.

“Back in the olden days.”

Exactly. And now we’ve sorted that out, let’s go back a wee bit. Have you kept yourself busy? Product-wise, there was the previous recorded compilation, the West Bank Songs double LP on vinyl.

“Yeah, that was around the start of all this, operating parallel with the live stuff. Did we keep ourselves busy? I didn’t. Well, some of us had day jobs. I had a day job which continued right through to 2020, then I gave that up. We didn’t do anything in 2020. We didn’t play anywhere, we didn’t rehearse … for obvious reasons. Then we were all due to start again in 2021, and that didn’t happen until the summer.

“We did a couple of festivals in England, which were great, a couple of Scottish shows, a German show, a Belfast show. So this will be the first burst of activity. But it’s never that long. It’s only three days in a row, then three days off, another three days …”

You’ve done it that way for a while now. I guess it works best that way.

“Oh, aye, you go away for the weekend, basically, and play in the band.”

I get the impression from previous conversations with yourself plus John and Damian that – and John, especially, said this – this is the most enjoyable time you’ve had playing in the band (not including the pandemic, of course).

“Well, yeah, because it’s not full time. If we were 20 years old, then we would be doing things very differently. It’s funny, I look back at lists of dates we did in 1979/80, and we’d do six or seven shows on the trot, then a day off, then another week, then a day off, and then another week, you know.”

I guess those were your Hamburg years.

“Well, I’d say the Hamburg years were at The Casbah, hanging around there. But I wouldn’t want that now. I couldn’t do that. And I don’t think bands of our vintage do that anymore. The long tours are for the 20-year-olds, and teenagers, which is great, but it wouldn’t suit us now. Maybe that’s why John thinks that. I think he’s right too.

“And we don’t have band meetings anymore. If there’s any information – and I’m over-analysing this – if there’s anything you need to know, it’s done by email, or WhatsApp, which means you have time to consider it and consider your answer. You’re not going to say the first thing that comes into your mind or try and make a joke. It’s a slower pace and there’s nothing riding on it. It’s not like we’re kind of going, ‘We really have to make our mark here’.”

I get the impression with so many bands of your vintage, although there are still bills to pay, it’s not about the money (money, money). You seem to be doing it for all the right reasons. And I think that shows.

“Yeah. And we do get paid! It goes and pays for things, y’know, giving ourselves a wee bit of money. But it’s not what we’re depending on to put food on the table. So there’s that pressure off. And we’re not looking for a hit, y’know … although we are bringing out another LP, a compilation …”

Yes, Dig What You Need, with a free glass of Peckham spring water included with every copy, right?

“I think that may have been a lie … or a joke. Only Fools and Horses?”

Well spotted. In tribute to Dimple Discs’ geographical roots.

“Those two records have been out many, many years. It was just a matter of fitting them together, doing something different with it. Another part of the back catalogue.”

It makes me laugh on social media when there are those inevitable spirited conversations /arguments about what’s been left off this compilation. How could you possibly leave out such and such a track? That sort of thing. But both LPs are still available, far as I know, albeit not in this remixed format or on vinyl.

“Ha!”

It seems to be a continuation of discussions regarding past albums, such as, ‘Why wasn’t ‘Bittersweet’ on The Sin of Pride?’. There’s always something for us to fall out about.

“Yeah, and there’s always something worth talking about. It was Damian that helped put that compilation together. I said to him, ‘Are you not putting any of your own songs on?’. And he said, ‘I didn’t have any songs on those LPs’. ‘Oh!’. There were a couple of co-writes, but he could be the honest broker. And when I listened back, you can be critical, but kind of go, ‘That’s actually not bad’.”

Heady praise indeed. And it’s not just because I’m talking to Mickey, but songs like ‘Oh Please’, ‘Joyland’ and glam-stomp classic ‘I’m Recommending Me’ are among the many greats on here or any other LP. Then there’s John’s ‘Here Comes the Rain’ and … well, I could go on, but won’t. So many crackers. It’s clearly not just some contractual obligation.

“Ha! That was Monty Python, wasn’t it?”

True. Meanwhile, I’m guessing from what you said that you’ve now stepped back from the production side of your work in radio, to concentrate on the Mickey Bradley Record Show on BBC Radio Ulster (every Friday night).

“Yeah, that’s it. On a very practical level, they were offering redundancies – BBC cutbacks and all that – and with the way work was going, some days I was the only one in the office for hours. A lot of people were working from home. So I missed all that. And you just come to a time when … the email came around, I thought, ‘I could go for that’. And it was the best thing I ever did. You still do a lot of stuff, but it’s a different thing, and there’s more time for walks with Elaine. Things like that.”

That’s Mickey’s wife, by the way. Of course, The Undertones remain synonymous with John Peel, but when it came to getting into radio yourself, were there others who inspired you to try your luck?

“It was an accidental thing. My brother reviewed songs on a local radio station, BBC Radio Foyle, so he always had connections there, and they’re always looking for people to try out different things. So I went up, was waiting to meet one of the producers and the boss of the station, he used to teach me. I think he just took a flyer, like a step into the unknown. They offered me half an hour a week doing a radio programme about local music. And you couldn’t just sit and play five or six records, so you’d go out, do a couple of interviews and so on. You were right into that, and I found that I had a liking and a bit of a talent for it as well. It was a great job, working with great people – very funny, interesting, smart people.”

And this was BBC Radio Foyle in Derry?

“Yeah. It’s still going, of course, still wins awards, but this was the ‘80s and ‘90s, different sort of world, and y’know, I’m not the right age for it anymore. But it was great, really great, it gave me a great life and a great education.”

Just what you needed after the initial band years?

“Oh yeah. Security. An actual job. And jobs are great!”

Before that you were whizzing around London on your bike as a courier, yeah?

“I have to say, that was great too. There was no money in it, and obviously that was only going to be short term, so I’ve been very lucky – I kind of fell into things. And still am falling into things!”

And on this tour, you’re supported by one of the icons of punk, former Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell. And that after support from former Specials legend Neville Staple and his band.

“Yeah, Neville’s doing one of these shows, in Sheffield, but then it’s Hugh Cornwell Electric. And … ha … I’m a bit nervous, because I think he’s gonna be brilliant.”

His three-piece band? I’ve seen them a couple of times, and they’re great.

“I know, so we need to up our game … or else maybe … nobble him. De-tune his guitar, nip all his strings! No, he’ll be brilliant.”

Discussion followed about my Guildford roots and its Stranglers links, suggesting Mickey throw into the backstage banter a couple of questions about his days driving Jet Black’s ice cream vans around my old manor.

“That’s great. And I’m still playing The Stranglers regularly on the show. In fact, my daughter went to see their last show in London a few days ago.”

I’ll tell you this. Now and again, lyrics pop into my head and I’ll often have no idea what it is or why at first. And a couple of days ago it was the line, ‘The worst crime that I ever did was play some rock’n’roll’. I was stumped at first, wondering if perhaps it was the Stones or Bowie. Then it came to me, the wondrous ‘(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)’. And what a great song.

“I know, and funnily enough I played it on the radio a couple of weeks ago, as it was the anniversary – 45 years on 20th January ‘77. And it sounded very different from everything else that was happening at the time. Although they had a few years’ expertise more than the others.

“They were great. We supported them in 1978 in Ireland, before ‘Teenage Kicks’ came out. And they were very considerate, made sure we got a soundcheck and all that, made sure the doors were kept closed until we had our soundcheck. They were really encouraging and they had a bona fide Jean-Jacques (Burnel) jumping into the crowd to beat up somebody who was spitting all night! I still remember seeing that. He just jumped off and ‘boom!’, then jumped back up on stage and just carried on.”

Let’s face it, few would have crossed him.

“No, absolutely not!”

I have a confession about the Mickey Bradley Record Show. I really have no great excuse apart from a lack of hours in the day, but while I love it when I do tune in, I don’t listen as much as I should, at least not for a few days. But even if I don’t catch a show, I’ll always follow your Twitter commentary, which is a joy in itself. I liken it to the days where I’d go into a record shop on lunch breaks and read the sleeves of Half Man Half Biscuit LPs, standing there nodding in agreement or grinning ear to ear. Sometimes it’s the next best thing.

“Ah, very good. Thank you! No, the reason I do it (writing on Twitter) is because it’s the only kind of contact you get during the show. Basically, it’s me sending out things and not that many people retweeting or answering. But there’s no phonelines. And it’s not a big audience at all, y’know, so you have to have something to give you some kind of feedback.

“Also, Twitter’s great because if you think of something half amusing, you think you’re great. Nobody cares, but …”

Ah, I’m not having that. At the risk of sounding like one of those sycophants writing to Steve Wright and starting with ‘Great show, Steve …’, it is a great show, his Twitter commentary just part of that. Besides, there’s many of us out in radio land and social media land appreciative of Mickey’s ongoing presence on the airwaves.

As for that Sharkey fella who used to do the singing, he’s not turned out so bad. There he is, championing the cause of the environment, our rivers, and so on, speaking with such passion, clarity, and knowledge of it all. Fair play to him.

“Yeah, an eco-warrior! In fact, I was interviewed on Radio Four about it. He was an angler as a teenager. Billy was the same. He knows what it’s about, y’know, and he’s returned it in later years. Also, all those years of working in committees and hanging around with politicians, it’s all paying off. It means he knows how to get things done. He may be, to some, fighting a losing battle, but at least he’s making a noise about it.”

Meanwhile, it’s now way more than 20 years since your own reformation. I was watching footage recently from the Mean Fiddler show in Summer 2000, the first on this side of the Irish Sea, and still perhaps my favourite ever Undertones show. Any show for that matter. That and the following day’s Fleadh appearance came 17 years after those London swansongs at the Lyceum and Selhurst Park, and were days I felt might never happen, playing earlier material I thought I’d missed out on altogether, and in the case of the Harlesden show at such a small venue. And here we are now, the next shows finally coming.

“You know, it’s been 23 years … certainly 22 years. But time slows down, or something’s happened in the last 20 years. Back in the days, whenever, one year was a long time in music. A decade’s not even a long time in music these days. Certainly not for people of my generation. Everything slows down … which is great, ha!”

Your latest press release mentions Glastonbury Festival in 2005 and a pre-game performance at Celtic Park, Glasgow before Celtic vs Arsenal in 2009. Does anything jump out for you from that second coming, as it were? Or are they all highlights, in a sense?

“Erm … the highlight was when we did the first show in Derry, came offstage, and I asked … I think it was Vinny Cunningham, a fan who made films, ‘Is it alright?’. And he said, ‘It’s alright’. Y’know, it was just that affirmation that this is good.”

And he would have told you, do you think?

“He would have told us … ‘Let’s not talk about this again’. And you know from people saying it, and you get feedback from people and kind of realise, ‘Oh, this is good. This is making people happy’. And making people happy is a good thing. Don’t knock it, and don’t look down on it. Y’know, don’t despise it, appreciate what you have. That kind of thing. We appreciate it, and you hear it, and we hear it as we go. It’s not … we’re not embarrassing.”

Last time I wrote about the band, I was lucky enough to ask John and Damian about the first two records, four decades on. Because of the last two years, we’ve missed a few key anniversaries, including a chance to ask anyone from the band about Positive Touch’s 40th anniversary. But I’m only a year late, so in general terms – knowing full well it’s neatly retold in your book anyway – I shall ask a bit more about your Wisseloord recording sessions in the Netherlands, for part of the second as well as the third LP, thinking back on the time you spent there.

“Well, making the records was great. The first time we went there was whenever we were getting ready to make Hypnotised, so we’re talking 1979. And in Holland, where people were on bicycles, and that was not a way that we knew about. I remember taking a photograph of traffic lights out in the country – traffic lights for bicycles, that kind of thing. We were in a great country hotel in the middle of nowhere, and it was complete culture shock, in a brilliant way. I remember after we finished, Damian and I went on to Amsterdam, got the train in the afternoon, walking around there for the first time, seeing people wearing almost … it seemed like clothes from the future. That kind of well-off European fashion. It might just have been C&A or whatever, but people dressed differently. People looked prosperous, they were taller, they were healthy … compared to us Derry wans, y’know. That’s the thing that springs to mind with me. In those days, people didn’t go to Holland or Amsterdam.”

And being such a student of radio, the fact that you were recording and staying in Hilversum must have made an impression, that famous name on the top of the old sets.

“Absolutely. One of the names on the dial. The studios were fantastic as well. And we were well fed, which is always important when you’re that age. Indonesian takeaway food! I still marvel at it.”

Clearly you got on well with Roger Bechirian, first at Eden Studios in London and then in Holland, ending up working on three records together. And of course he’d already worked with Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Squeeze’s East Side Story, and so on.

“Roger was great. Actually, before Positive Touch we had a big discussion about whether we should with Roger again, and maybe it was just me not wanting to take a risk, but I said, ‘Let’s go with Roger,’ and I don’t think we would have got anything different from another producer. We did work with other producers after, but they weren’t as enjoyable.”

Well, time’s against me for now, so I won’t go into the Mike Hedges thing.

“Ah, please don’t! Ha!”

I still love The Sin of Pride, of course …

“Ah, I know!”

… but haven’t got the emotional baggage that went with it that the rest of you have.

“Yeah, it’s a long story, Malcolm, a story for another day.”

Instead, I’ll ask, are you a hoarder? I mean, have you got everything you ever recorded? Do you open cupboards at home and a couple of lobsters fall out? Or other bits and bobs from record company days?

“Not really. There are some things about though. I have – and I found it just last year – a yellow sheet of paper, handwritten as it was then but photocopied, a running order for Top of the Pops from 1979. Obviously, we were on it, and I think the reason I kept it was because … you know the band M, as in ‘Pop Music’? I got their autographs. And the only one I remember was Robin Scott, but they signed the back of it for me. Nowadays you’re so used to seeing … well, first of all, I’m sure any running order for a TV programme will be on a computer … but it wasn’t even typed out.

“But no, I have some things, but not enough things. Damian was a good hoarder.”

Indeed. He’s mentioned his scrapbook before now. I’d love to see that one day. But I reckon he keeps it close to him at all times.

“Oh, I know. He thinks there’s money in it. God love him. He’s deluded. Ha!”

Well, it was great to catch up and I’m looking forward to seeing the band again, be that in Liverpool, Manchester, or wherever. Besides, it’ll be almost three years since my most recent (with a review here).

“Oh well, just give us a shout … you’ve got my number, why don’t you use it? Blah blah blah.”

The Undertones’ Spring 2022 dates (with Hugh Cornwell Electric special guests for all UK shows except the opener): March – Sheffield Leadmill (10th, with special guests the Neville Staple Band); Northampton Roadmender (11th), Camden Electric Ballroom (12th); Brighton Chalk (17th); Frome Cheese & Grain (18th); Cardiff SU Great Hall (19th); Newcastle Boiler Shop (31st). April – Manchester Academy (1st); Liverpool Academy (2nd); Munich Feierwerk (9th); Weinheim Cafe Central (10th); Dublin Academy (22nd). May – Bremen Kulturzentrum Lagerhaus (13th); Düsseldorf Zakk 15 (14th); Hamburg Markethalle (15th); Malmo Plan B (17th); Oslo Vulkan Arena (18th); Göteborg Pustervik (20), Stockholm Slaktkykan (21st); Copenhagen Pumpenhuset (22nd). For tickets, head here.  

To pre-order Dig What You Need via Bandcamp, head here, or for digital downloads, try this link. You can also keep in touch with the band via FacebookTwitterInstagram and Spotify.

For a November 2017 feature/interview with Mickey Bradley, head here, and for more on The Undertones – from past reviews and appreciations to further feature/interviews with Mickey, Damian and John O’Neill, Billy Doherty, and Paul McLoone – just type in the band and those names in the search box.

Postscript: In light of this interview, I was directed back to the excellent Fanning Sessions website last week and a piece on Mickey’s BBC Radio Foyle shows in the latter half of 1986. It was around then that I initially conversed with Mickey for my Wubble Yoo fanzine (a mere 19-year-old then), leading to a piece tagged on to the end of my first That Petrol Emotion feature in print, listing his favourite records at that point (and I’m sure many of those choices remain so today).

Check out the Stuart Adamson audio interview, marking their show at Derry’s Templemore Sports Complex, with talk of Leonard Cohen and much more. Stuart is so graceful in his responses, while Mickey is occasionally brutal in his questioning. His biggest gripes are Big Country’s live covers of ‘Tracks of My Tears’ and ‘Honky Tonk Women’ at the time. He was probably spot on, but I wouldn’t have told Stuart to his face, and if I was Stu I might have bitten in response. I should add that Mickey did add that Stuart came across as a ‘genuine wonderful human being’.

My favourite section is Mickey’s review of that sports hall show, suggesting, ‘It’s a truly wonderful venue for 5-a-side football but the idea of putting 5,000 watts-worth of Big Country into the middle of its four concrete walls, well, it was a big mistake. The echo was so bad that the band would be starting one song while the remains of the previous tune were still bouncing around the four walls. The whole effect was akin to an angry Scotsman banging a corn flakes packet in an effort to scare away a swarm of giant bees. But I shouldn’t complain. Because I didn’t have to pay the £8 admission. And the people that did? Well, they thought it was well worth it.”

Anyway, this was an important opening chapter – his first interview was with the afore-mentioned That Petrol Emotion, also lurking on the same website – for someone still entertaining audiences 35-plus years on, on stage with The Undertones and these days with the splendid Mickey Bradley Record Show. Carry on, Mickey, and RIP Stuart.

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Altered Images / Scarlet – Manchester Academy 3

Four decades after Clare Grogan first came into my life, marking my 14th birthday with a personal greeting from north of the border (that week the first of the four their biggest hit spent in the UK top 10, with the next three at No.2), she’s back with a new band, interspersing Altered Images’ golden hits with their post-punk roots and a few new songs that bode well for a forthcoming fourth LP, 39 years beyond the gorgeous Bite.

Not as if ‘Happy Birthday’ is the song I think of first, at least not if I can help it. Yes, I cranked it up on the stereo to mark my daughters’ annual celebrations during their formative years, so may well be guilty of instilling in them the same mixed feelings about that biggie. But it had to be done, right?  

The band on this occasion was not the one that joined her in the studio for the soon-to-be-released Mascara Streakz, which also involves Clare’s other half Stephen Lironi, long-time pal Robert ‘Bobby Bluebell’ Hodgens, and neighbour Bernard Butler. But that was no huge surprise, and I was certainly impressed with the five-piece that showed up at the university union on Oxford Road, Manchester.

After a full-on, committed performance from highly-likeable four-piece, female-fronted grunge/pop alt-rock openers Scarlet – who were on top form by the time we waltzed in, bringing plenty of power and glamour alike to metal credentials – I was a little concerned as the main act got going. They went straight into the amazing ‘I Could Be Happy’, but sounded way too quiet, as if the levels were there for one of those racetrack ‘80s nostalgia dates, so they didn’t spoil the on-going conversation around the grandstand. However, the quality of the song itself soon shone through, and I’m pleased to say that by the time we got on to the equally awesome ’See Those Eyes’ – Clare seemingly still hiding behind her sunglasses, rather ironically – the mixing desk bods had sorted the issue and we were properly away.

A fine band they were too, and I’ll start (rather aptly) at the back with guitarist Alan Longdon, who definitely looked the part. While the beard put me more in mind of Frank Lampard Sr. around the time Clare was breaking through (still pulling up trees on a weekly basis in defence for West Ham then, and simply known as Frank Lampard), there was enough of a Shoestring thing going on with his skinny tie over white shirt, and his cardie wouldn’t have looked out of place on an Orange Juice promo shoot.

Alongside Alan, drummer Martin Johnston – surely the youngest of the five – hadn’t bothered with that early ‘80s look (although my travelling mate reckoned he looked more like he was in The Frank & Walters at the end of that decade, no bad thing at all), there was no doubting his prowess on the kit, driving the pace all night with bass player Rosie McClune, who was also on great form in a band where the low-end parts always counted.

And while I initially feared that co-vocalist Stefanie Black might be there chiefly to bolster things up, those concerns were soon allayed, her professional delivery not only helping Clare out of her shell, but the two of them spurring each other on all night.  

As for Clare … ah, Clare. She was struggling a bit – she said so herself – confidence-wise at first, but it was soon apparent that she still has that star quality, with her voice definitely up to the task. What’s more, that winning smile is still capable of swimming a mile down the Nile. After she mentioned it recently (with an interview link to our conversation here), I could tell she was watching us as intently as we were her, revelling in the fact that so many of us were on a trip back to more carefree days. And that was certainly true, forgetting for at least a couple of hours the tragedies unfolding in Ukraine, the sadness of these last two pandemic-fuelled years, and the mess we’re in courtesy of Brexit and all that has been allowed to follow.

Yet here we got to lose ourselves in the Banshees-influenced ‘Insects’ and ‘Dead Pop Stars’, and a few encouraging selections from the new record, not least the title track. For me, on this showing, I’m thinking it could well carry on where the wonderful Bite left off. As for that Bernard Butler co-write, it could almost have been a lost track from his long-playing collaboration with David McAlmont.

Sound-wise, there was a little backing tape action going on, in lieu of keyboards (how I’d have loved to see Clare prancing off to give us those occasional one-note flourishes here and there, like in the olden days), but it worked well. There was also one cover thrown in, and while technical gremlins kicked in on The Ting Tings’ wondrous ‘That’s Not My Name’ (dedicated to all those who have misspelled Clare’s name with an ‘i’ down the years, something this writer can sympathise with), this quintet rode the storm perfectly, and it just added to my love for that song and the band themselves.

Then, from their ‘83 swansong we got the more polished but no less alluring, sensual pop masterpieces, ‘Bring Me Closer’, ‘Love to Stay’, and ‘I can’t believe it wasn’t a bigger hit’ 45, ‘Change of Heart’, which had already slipped out of the lower reaches of the top 100 by the time I’d hit 16, the story seemingly, prematurely, over.

And Clare’s shades were off by the time she got to the evergreen classic that is ‘Don’t Talk to Me About Love’, her first co-write with the hubby, she told us. Then they were gone. Surely not, we joked, I think they may have missed out at least one hit. And with that, back they came, ‘Happy Birthday’ having not sounded quite so fresh to these ears for many moons. They did it proud, Clare’s band did her proud, and Clare did us proud.

Of course, ideally, they could have come back for at least three more Pinky Blue classics to complete the circle – the title track, ‘Song Sung Blue’ and ’Goodnight and I Wish’. But no complaints from me. Maybe next time, eh, Clare?

You can pre-order new Altered Images album, Mascara Streakz, via this link. Meanwhile, Altered Images’ 2022 dates continues this weekend in Stockton-on-Tees and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, with full tour details hereYou can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

For more about Scarlet, follow this Facebook link and their own website, catching for starters their NHS-dedicated lockdown video for ‘Friends’, including a cameo from WriteWyattUK interviewee Carol Decker, of T’Pau fame. You can also catch them live, supporting Greywind, at the Star and Garter in Manchester on Wednesday, April 6th, with a ticket link here.

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Altered Images: songs sung blue, pink and with added Mascara Streakz – the Clare Grogan feature/interview

Early ‘80s new wave pioneers Altered Images are back, a number of headline shows about to commence, with a new album, Mascara Streakz, landing this summer.

Formed in 1979 as teenagers inspired by the punk scene, this Glaswegian outfit – fronted by Clare Grogan – swiftly reached the big time, selling millions of records, topping charts in several countries, recording three top-10 albums and securing six UK top-40 hits.

In 1981 they were voted the NME’s Best New Group and Smash Hits’ Most Promising New Act and invited to play a Royal Command Performance. Meanwhile, Clare’s parallel career took off after starring in Bill Forsyth’s rightly-revered coming-of-age romantic comedy, Gregory’s Girl with John Gordon Sinclair and Dee Hepburn that same year.

More recently a published children’s author too, Scottish Music Awards’ special recognition award-winner Clare’s love for music clearly continues, singing live again under the band’s name since 2002, even fronting an all-female version at Blackpool’s Rebellion Festival. There was also a BBC Scotland Quay Sessions show in late 2019, while last year a reformed line-up supported The Human League on their Dare 40th anniversary UK tour.

And now a fresh Altered Images line-up are taking to the stage again with a string of headline dates, their set including material from the new album, one my interviewee is extremely proud of. But first, I asked just where she was, that slight delay on the telephone line last Friday afternoon suggesting it wasn’t her adopted North London home base.

“I’m actually in Barbados. I’m so sorry! I’m sorry!”

I’m guessing Storm Dudley and Storm Eunice haven’t quite made it there yet.

“No, we’re basking in beautiful sunshine. I won’t go on though, or you’ll just fall out with me. What’s it like there?”

Well, I just went to retrieve my recycling box, to bring you down to earth a little. And I’m guessing you’re not watching the Winter Olympics’ men’s curling final in Beijing by the poolside right now.

“Yeah, I have to say I feel very, very lucky if life at the moment. I’m here with my husband, our daughter and our friends.”

Clare’s husband is Altered Images bandmate Stephen Lironi, who joined in 1983, the pair going on to form the short-lived Universal Love School. And now they’re at the heart of this new Altered Images LP, due out in August on Cooking Vinyl Records, also involving Robert Hodgens – aka Bobby Bluebell – and Bernard Butler, of Suede and McAlmont & Butler fame. And as I pointed out, we’ve only had to wait 39 years for this new record to be delivered.

“Ha! Yes, slightly rushing the whole thing!”

I was lucky enough to see Robert when The Bluebells – Clare having appeared in a video for their No.1 hit, ‘Young at Heart’, way back – came to headline the final night of the three-day Preston Pop Fest last August. They put on a storming set, so knowing he’s involved with this record and the tie-in tour bodes well.

“Yeah, Robert and I are really old friends, so it was great to actually finally get to work with him. It really was, and the whole thing just kind of came together in a very sort of casual, organic way. It just built and built and built. It started as a tiny wee speck, then I just kept going, ‘Let’s do another song … let’s do another song!’.

“And I’ve been saying to everybody that if it hadn’t been for that second lockdown, I’m not even sure if this album would have been written. In a really weird way, I just found the space in my head to do it, at such a weird time for people. It really was.”

I gather Altered Images’ co-founding guitarist Johnny McElhone (later of Hipway, before huge success with Sharleen Spiteri in Texas, Clare having not so long ago featured with them live at the Royal Albert Hall and also appearing on May 2021’s LP, Hi!, the band’s 10th studio album) was also involved on the songwriting front.

“Actually, we decided to put a sort of hold on them. We were finding it really difficult to be in the same spot at the same time with all his Texas commitments, but we’re definitely planning on doing it, because I’ve got a two-album deal with Cooking Vinyl, so you never know what will happen next. But it’s a shame we just couldn’t quite get the timings right.”

How did the link with Bernard Butler come about? Was he someone you knew quite well?

“Bernard’s my neighbour. Ha! He lives just around the corner from me, and I’ve always been a big fan of what he does. I just asked him one day if we should try to write something together. We did, and have co-written two really lovely songs. And I’m really excited about people hearing it.”

Me too. And in the meantime, you’ve inspired me to go back through the back-catalogue – although I never really need an excuse, to be honest – with Pinky Blue – its lurid cover one of many for the band by late Glaswegian artist David Band, whose CV also included key Aztec Camera and Spandau Ballet covers – and Bite still having that power to transport me back to my teenage years. 

I didn’t get to experience the first two 45s, ‘Dead Pop Stars’ and ‘A Day’s Wait’, or debut LP, Happy Birthday, on release, although I knew well enough the title track that first cracked the UK top 10 the week I turned 14 in late October ’81 (that hit single going on to spend three weeks at No.2). But I reminded myself of that album the morning I called Clare, remarking on its classic post-punk vibe, hardly surprising considering the Siouxsie and the Banshees link (Altered Images toured with Siouxsie and co., having sent a demo tape to the official fan club asking if they could, landing a slot on 1980’s Kaleidoscope UK tour, guitarist Steve Severin going on to largely produce that late ’81 album).

What’s more, there’s a Buzzcocks feel with the guitars (not least on ‘Legionaire’, again perhaps not such a surprise seeing as their band name referred to a sleeve design on Buzzcocks hit ‘Promises’, inspired by Pete Shelley’s constant interfering with sleeve designs, apparently).

“Yeah, definitely!”

And songs like ‘Idols’ and ‘Leave Me Alone’ sound so powerful to this day. There’s also a touch of The Cure for me, another band in the Banshees’ orbit, of course. And l hear how later bands like Catatonia perhaps carried on where you left off.

“I think a lot of bands are influenced by the same musicians, so we all kind of merged together to a certain extent, just because they’re the influences you have. I loved the Buzzcocks and the Banshees, and when we started our band, the boys literally picked up their instruments for the first time, you know, so it was amazing that we very quickly progressed to the level we did.

“I’ll never quite understand it, but I don’t over-analyse it. I just think there’s no point. It happened, and it was great!”

Well, if you’ve got something special, you don’t want to look too deeply. Also, I know your bandmates were very much influenced by the Sex Pistols and The Clash. Did you also get to see all those classic bands when they came to Glasgow?

“Yeah, there really was a kind of group of what I describe as baby punks, and we all gravitated towards each other. Although none of us were at the same school, we became a little tribe of people that went to see all those acts, which we loved.

“Originally, when we heard Siouxsie and the Banshees were doing a Scottish tour, we got in touch with the fan club and asked if we could open for Siouxsie, support her on tour, and they said yes! And I’ll never quite understand why … but they did!”

Was your seminal date at Tiffany’s in Glasgow with them an audition of sorts? Or had they already signed you up for the full tour?

“I’m not sure … I think we’d already signed up. And yeah, it was magical. It really was, and they were really helpful towards us when we first started out and, although they seemed quite terrifying, they were really, really amazingly supportive to us.

“They also got us on the bill at Futurama, which was where of course John Peel saw us, so we got to do a John Peel session, and yeah, it was really quite incredible.”

Ah, Peelie, the band’s high-profile champion, the interest garnered by his initial BBC Radio 1 session with the band in October 1980 leading to a recording contract with Epic Records. That show she mentions was as part of the Futurama 2 festival in Leeds in September 1980, Peel impressed enough to invite the outfit to record a session for his programme, an offer taken up the following month. They went on to record two more for the show, in March and September 1981. What’s more, Peel and Pinky Blue’s producer Martin Rushent – more of whom shortly – contributed backing vocals and whistling to the group’s cover of Neil Diamond’s ‘Song Sung Blue’ for that second LP.

And rather perceptively, that iconic broadcaster said of the band in June 1996 during a BFBS broadcast (as recorded on this rather splendid webpage), “Hard to imagine a band less fashionable than Altered Images. When they first appeared, people said, ‘It’s like a Scottish Siouxsie & The Banshees’, except they were light where the Banshees were dark, really, and got lighter and eventually got darker… people did like ’em when they first came along, had a couple of hit records, and suddenly everybody turned on them, as they do, in a strange way. I’ll never understand how this process works, but it does go on all the time. They started to dislike them for the very things which they’d previously liked them for, like the fact that they were bright and a bit daft and colourful and leapt about and stuff, and suddenly these things became terribly uncool, whereas a week or so beforehand they’d been cool.”

Did you retain that friendship with John through the years?

“Well, you know, I didn’t see an awful lot of him, but when I did, I really relished it. And I was just so fond of him and liked being around him. That’s the only way I can describe it. He was just a really nice person to be around.”

You seem to have been blessed by knowing a few people like that. I recently caught footage of you being interviewed on camera with Martin Rushent (who first worked with them on breakthrough hit, ‘Happy Birthday’), and you clearly had a kinship there as well.

“Yeah, I really did. I’ve come to the conclusion over many, many years, that people liked being around us as much as we loved being around them. Maybe that’s all it was. I think when you’re young, you don’t really notice that stuff so much, you know. I think we just desperately wanted to fit in, in a world that was incredible. And the best way to do it really was just by being ourselves. And I’m so glad that we were.”

You were clearly infectious in that respect (in a positive way … and that’s pre-covid terminology). And as you mentioned being so young, the youngest of my three older sisters is barely a few weeks younger, which reminds me there’s a landmark coming your way soon, your – dare I say it – 60th birthday. Do you think that was part of your inspiration for doing this LP now? Thinking, ‘If not now, when’?

“Yeah, I think during that second lockdown, we got to be together as a family quite a lot more than normal, like all families, and I was with my teenage daughter a lot and it really just got me thinking about the fact that at her age I was already in the band and travelling and doing all this stuff.

“Actually, the thing that’s really inspired me the most is looking back at being 16 or 17 and the music that inspired me then. I re-listened to all those records I loved back then, you know, The Human League, Simple Minds, Kraftwerk, Grace Jones, the Tom Tom Club. I just started listening to all of that again, and that’s when … I just felt absolutely compelled to do it!

“I read recently that Robert Smith of The Cure said he suddenly felt overwhelmed by the need to create new music and I totally related to that. I’ve talked about it over the years and written with other people and have casually dipped in and out. But suddenly I really wanted to put something really, really personal out. And make it work, you know.”

Pinky Blue was an LP – in my case a cassette at first – I lived and breathed for some time, arriving at just the right time for me. And don’t take this the wrong way, but many a time you’d tell me ‘Good Night and I Wish’, last thing of an evening.

“Ha ha!”

That second LP was released in May 1982, reaching the UK top 20 and providing three more top-40 hit singles – ‘I Could Be Happy’, ‘See Those Eyes’ and the title track. Yet it was largely perceived as a disappointment in UK music press circles, if not for 14-year-old me, and ‘I Could Be Happy’ (which reached No.7 on this side of the Atlantic, four places higher than follow-up, ‘See Those Eyes’) proved to be the group’s sole US chart success, peaking at No.45 on Billboard’s Dance chart.

Personnel changes followed, not for the first time. In fact, this was a band never afraid to mix things up. That rehearsal room door must have slammed a few times with the line-up changes en route. I guess it wasn’t always a happy ship. Do you get on well these days?

“Well, the only one I’m … well, obviously, I married Stephen. Ha! But sometimes we got on and sometimes not so much. Obviously, I see Johnny and hang out with him, but the others I really don’t see. I mean, I know it sounds a bit weird, but it was almost like people you went to school with, and I know we had those shared experiences together, but people do fall by the wayside. They just do.

“I don’t really keep in touch with them. I did a Tim’s {Twitter} Listening Party with Johnny, Stephen, and Tony {McDaid}, and that was really lovely. But a lot of the original members I literally haven’t seen since they were in the band, so it’s a weird one.”

When you put it like that, that makes sense. I guess some of us are guilty of remaining in a kind of early ‘80s bubble when it comes to thinking of you and the band. We’ve stopped the clock, while moving on in our own lives.

As it was, 1983’s follow-up long player, Bite was the more sophisticated album of the three – as suggested by Clare’s Holly Golightly-esque restyling on the cover – and for these ears, in retrospect, veered between dance pop (disco, I guess) and everything from Blondie (maybe that’s why Mike Chapman – who shared production duties with Tony Visconti – was called in) to New Order (‘Another Lost Look’) and The Temptations (‘Thinking About You’). Then again, the drums on ‘Now That You’re Here’ are pure ’Moving Away from the Pulsebeat’-era Buzzcocks.

I reckon it’s as cool today as first time I heard it too. It also provided a blueprint for pop-funksters I went on to admire like Shoot! Dispute (the Visconti-produced second single and LP opener ‘Bring Me Closer’ and ‘Stand so Quiet’ spring to mind), as did Peel, and the whole album drips with the vibe of so much from that era, not least ABC and Orange Juice. As for the Chapman-produced flavoured 45s, ‘Don’t Talk to Me About Love’, their third and final top-10 hit in spring 1983, and ‘Change of Heart’, which somehow only reached No.83, they remain as fresh today as then. However, while the LP, released that June, was their second to reach the UK top 20, it sold less than the previous pair, both awarded silver discs. No accounting for public taste, I guess.

Did you see that third LP as your last crack at the big time for the band? I mean, your star had already ascended as an actor by then. Did you just think, ‘Right, one more go at this’?

“Do you know, it really wasn’t. I often say to people now that at the time when I walked away from the band, I probably just needed a really long holiday. But you know, when you’re young, it’s kind of a bit all or nothing. I just thought I can’t. I’d been on the move for five years, literally, just non-stop, getting on planes … and, you know, I always say to people, it was great fun until it wasn’t.

“I just suddenly thought, ‘I can’t live my life like this. I have no control over it’. And having a say in what I did and where I was and who I was with suddenly became very important to me. You know, I think I’ve worked out that most bands last between four to seven years, even the successful ones.

“I just kind of think we had our moment, it was fantastic, and I get to more than relive that moment. I think I’ve created something quite different. And not really intentionally, just almost by accident. And I’m not just saying that.”

You probably answered my next question there, but I’ll crack on anyway. I was going to ask how you felt when you saw Johnny taking off, success-wise, with Sharleen and Texas. I know you’re close now, having appeared with them live and on record, but at the time did you secretly think, ‘That could have been us’. Or had you truly moved on by that point?

“I had completely moved on. My life was very different. And I never ever thought that at all. I mean, it’s been an absolute joy to get to go on stage with them and be on their album and stuff. That’s been an absolute joy. But he’s got his thing and I’ve got mine, and we just have a mutual respect for each other after all these years, which is really lovely.”

After the break-up, Clare went solo, signing to London Records in 1987, releasing a single, ‘Love Bomb’. Not the greatest, in retrospect. And when that failed to chart, follow-up single ‘Strawberry’ and an LP, Trash Mad, were shelved by the label. There was always the acting though. Which brings me on to her parallel career, that starring role in 1981’s Gregory’s Girl her big break, credits down the years going on to include roles as the original Kristine Kochanski in Red Dwarf, and those in East Enders, Father Ted and Skins.

In fact, she was only 17 when she first met Bill Forsyth, this Scottish Youth Theatre hopeful waitressing in Glasgow at the time. Has she been in touch with Bill lately, and is there still a kinship between her co-stars from that wondrous film?

“We’ve had a couple of really special anniversary screening moments over the years, which has been great. And Gordon’s married to one of my best friends, which is really lovely, Shauna McKeon. But I haven’t seen Bill in years. Our paths just haven’t crossed. I met him at the Baftas a few years ago though, and it’s always nice to say hello.”

Gregory’s Girl has certainly stood the test of time. When was the last time you watched it all the way through?

“Well, I saw it for the first and last time about five years ago, screening at the BFI, which was a really lovely moment. They were doing a special screening and I thought this could be my last chance to see it on a big screen with a big audience.”

Had you avoided the premieres at the time then?

“No, I went to all of them, but you watch the first five minutes and then you leave. You don’t want to criticise yourself! Because all you can ever see are your mistakes.”

Well, we didn’t. And of all your acting roles for film, TV, theatre and elsewhere, is there one you feel didn’t get the positive attention it deserved, or went under the radar?

“I think maybe Comfort and Joy, I was terrified of seeing as well. I remember having conversations with Bill Paterson and Alex Norton, who I see from time to time, and we really felt like we almost ruined Bill’s career! {Bill Forsyth, who was directing} But we got invited to a screening of it at a film festival, and afterwards the three of us were saying, ‘It’s really rather good!’.

“It came out just after Local Hero {Mark Knopfler provided the score for both}, and I think people were expecting a different kind of film. So maybe that would be the one, but honestly, I’m not just saying this, most of the things I’ve done had genuinely positive acting. And I feel so lucky and fortunate that things like Red Dwarf and Skins and all this stuff, people love.”

And you’re a published author these days. Will there be an autobiography at some stage soon?

“Erm … no, definitely not. I mean, I consider this album to be the story of my life a wee bit, through songs. That’s what I’ve done, and it’s quite revealing.”

So is this holiday your break before getting back to rehearsals for the LP launch and live shows?

“Yeah, my year’s going to be really busy, so I just thought, ‘while I can’, during this half term, come away with my husband and my daughter, and chill out a bit.”

Have you put your daughter off a career on the stage?

“No, she loves hanging out at shows and she quite often helps at the merch stall. She’s part of the family business. She used to love coming on stage with me, but she’s at that stage now where she’d rather die than do that!”

Incidentally, I’ve never asked my girls – now 22 and 19 and at uni – if they were scarred from me playing a certain Altered Images song to them up the stairs for every birthday throughout their formative years.

“Ah! I love that!”

It had to be done. And I’m looking forward to the album and these live dates. I’m guessing it’ll be a set from across the three original LPs and the new one, yeah?

“Absolutely, and it’s gonna be really good fun. My shows are always great fun. They really are.  And I just love looking at the audience, as I can see the songs taking them somewhere. It’s a bit like you were saying at the start of the conversation – I love seeing people going, ‘Oh, my God, I remember this! I remember where I was, I remember what I was doing!’ I just love that. It’s a really, really great moment to witness.

“And honestly, I say this on stage every time, but if somebody told me 40 years on that I’d still be doing this, I’d have thought, ‘That is just wrong!’”

Well, we’re glad you are. And it’s been lovely to catch up, but you best apply some more lotion now, or turn over or something. Don’t worry about me, I’ll go and get my wheelie bin back.

“Ha! I’m thinking of you all! Thank you so much. ‘Bye now!”

You can pre-order new Altered Images album, Mascara Streakz, via this link. Meanwhile, Altered Images’ 2022 dates commence at Manchester Academy 3 on Wednesday, March 2nd, with special guests Scarlet (tickets here), and include a Friday, March 18th show at 229, Great Portland Street, London, where the band will be joined by former WriteWyattUK interviewee Gary Crowley (with tickets here). For full tour details head here. You can also keep in touch with the band via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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All hail the Lakeland echo sounders – talking Sea Power with Noble

I often wonder when talking to musicians deemed to have ‘made it’ how much of a part fate played in their success. There’s more often than not plenty of toil and heartache en route before that perceived rise to a higher level, but still there are key moments in the band biog suggesting it could have gone another way entirely.

Take for example Martin Noble, or in the parlance of his bandmates in Sea Power – the band formerly known as British Sea Power – simply Noble. What were the chances of this Lancastrian guitarist heading 200 miles south to take up his university place in Reading, then getting to know a Lakeland lad by the name of Scott Wilkinson, aka Yan (vocals/guitar), his brother Neil Hamilton Wilkinson, aka Hamilton (bass/vocals, guitar), and their schoolmate Matthew Wood, aka Wood (drums)?

Noble was at home in Brighton when I called, the band’s base since 2000 after formative days in Berkshire. Is he a believer in fate? I mean, if he hadn’t chosen that uni course, perhaps he would never have met this trio from 70 miles up the road from him in Natland, Kendal.

“It’s one of those funny things. I think even before we got to university, me and Yan were probably thinking that we were going to go and join a band. But we didn’t know who or what.”

Did you take your guitar down to Reading?

“Yeah, I played keyboards in a school band. then I’d just started playing guitar. I had a couple of guitars at uni, thinking, ‘I’m moving away from keyboards now, I’m going to be a guitar man!’”

Were you fairly studious, or did the music quickly take over?

“The music took over too much, straight away! I failed the first year of exams. I was studying zoology and psychology. But I got stuck back into it, because I didn’t want to waste that. I finished my degree while Yan dropped out halfway through. He was doing typography and art.”

Ah well. It was meant to be.

“Yeah.”

Did the fact that you had that Northern identity give you something else in common at the beginning?

“I used to go out with friends to the Lakes. That was my kind of thing. And when we first played together, I spent a summer over there in Kendal. Yeah. And that kind of cemented the whole thing.”

I guess those big landscapes up there go with the kind of epic feel of the music you make together.

“Yeah, it’s weird how that’s sort of happened. It must be something to do with that.”

And was that move from Berkshire to the south coast a fairly natural progression? My mum’s side of the family hailed from Reading, so I have an emotional attachment, but I could imagine that Brighton would have seemed a far more happening place at the time.

“At the time in Reading, loads of venues were closing. There was barely anywhere to play. And Yan and Hamilton’s older brother, Roy, who went on to manage us for a couple of years, lived in Lewes, just outside Brighton, and was like, ‘Some of you can stay with me’. And Woody’s older brother lived in Brighton, so me and Woody went to stay with him, kind of on a whim. It was pretty crackers relocating like that.”

It’s been quite ride so far, the band Mercury-nominated (for 2008’s Do You Like Rock Music?), BAFTA-winning (for the 2019 soundtrack to million-selling, multi-award-winning computer game Disco Elysium, two tracks from which turn up in a new format on the new record), and having composed music for Football’s UEFA Champions League. And those singing their praises down the years have included late greats David Bowie and Lou Reed.

What’s more, their lyrics became part of a permanent installation at London’s National Maritime Museum, alongside Shakespeare and Coleridge, and when the band hosted their inaugural Krankenhaus festival in 2019, in a 12th-century castle in their native Lake District, they managed to attract a diverse bill that included poet laureate Simon Armitage, fellow Mercury nominee Hannah Peel, the upcoming Squid, Scafell Pike, Snapped Ankles, eagle owls, Bo Ningen, and Rozi Plain, snooker legend and prog rock lover Steve Davis, and New Order’s Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert.

Then, last August, the band announced – to much media debate and rather predictable furore in certain flag-hugging corners – they would henceforth be known as Sea Power rather than British Sea Power, due to ‘a rise in a certain kind of nationalism in this world – an isolationist, antagonistic nationalism that we don’t want to run any risk of being confused with’.

However, what was somewhat lost in the glorifying headlines that followed was the band also making clear their deep love the British Isles and pride and thankfulness at having been born and raised across these lands – in Cumbria, Yorkshire, London and Shropshire (the band members now living in Sussex, Cumbria and the Inner Hebrides).

All the same, I suggested to Noble, you might have saved yourself a bit of later soul searching, by going with either Club Sea Power, like your early club nights in Reading, or just Sea Power as a name back at the start.

“Yeah, but I’m glad we did it {now}. It’s something we’ve been thinking about for 10 years or so, and I think with things that have happened in the world, that sort of gave us that extra nudge. We always got to another album going, ‘Are we gonna change our name?’ but bottled it a couple of times.”

Incidentally, do you reckon I should catalogue all your LPs and CDs under S, or keep the earlier ones under B?

“Ha! We don’t look back at the name on all our albums and think it’s bad. It’s kind of part of our history. And especially the first record, that was the band name and the album, all part of one artistic vision. Then it was like, ‘It’d be good to just change our name with every album’, in a way.”

Four of you were there from the start in 2000, then came Phil Sumner (cornet, keyboards, since 2006) and Abi Fry (viola, since 2008, also known for her work with Bat for Lashes). How much do you think your remit’s changed over the years? Was there a clear vision or band manifesto of what you wanted in the first place?

“It wasn’t written down, but when we were doing our club nights, it kind of grew. We knew things that worked together. A song would come up and that would feed into it. It was like a machine that we weren’t fully in control of! We were wide-eyed and wanting to make some sort of impact.”

Well, you certainly have. I was listening back to first LP, The Decline of British Sea Power, this morning (having only heard four tracks off of the new LP when I got the chance to speak to Noble), and just concentrating on the opening songs, you could never be criticised for being one-trick ponies, wherever it was that kind of Weezer-like first single, ‘Fear of Drowning’, the other-worldly choral opening, the Pixies-like ‘Apologies to Insect Life’, the more Captain Beefheart-esque ‘Beetroot Fields’ … Need I go on? It’s all in there. But maybe the more mystic ‘Something Wicked’ was more a sign of where you were heading.

“Yeah.”

And the awesome, guitar-driven ‘Remember Me’ is the one that’s had the most listens by far online, it seems, and for me that’s something else again, like Bruce Springsteen fronting Dinosaur Jr. In short, you were pretty mixed up from the start.

“We had lots of things pulling us in different directions, that sort of post-punk thing. But we were big fans of certain atmospheric things like the basics of Galaxie 500, Twin Peaks, and I love the shoegaze stuff, so it was always going to be a mix of that. And Hamilton’s got quite an ethereal voice which kind of lends itself to that pastoral side.”

It was 2005’s Open Season where I properly came in. At least that was the first of your records I shelled out on, hence its chart success, of course …

“Yeah, thank you for that!”

No worries. And I can’t recall if it was hearing that LP’s opener and fellow UK top-20 single ‘It Ended on an Oily Stage’ or just the fact that a mate had been banging on about you in feverish whispers for a while already. But if there was a clincher that you were my kind of people, it would have been seeing your appearance on 2006’s Betjeman and Me documentary with Griff Rhys Jones.

“Ah, that was a good period, the John Betjeman centenary stuff. It took us a few places. We went to Cornwall and did an event there. We were off our heads a bit and made this giant human fruit machine where your arm was in Bacofoil and you had to pull that. Three of us were in the machine and we had loads of bananas and apples and stuff that we just put up randomly. Martin Clunes was walking through the car park, and we were like, ‘Martin! Come and have a go!’. It was 1p a go and he gave us a pound. He tried to get away after three goes, but we were like, ‘You’ve got another 97 goes!’ Oh, the horror on his face, my God!”

As the years advanced, my appreciation for Betjeman’s poetry and love of architecture (as well as the railways and his Cornish haunts, which were always a draw) increased. I could never admit loving the LPs he made with Jim Parker while growing up, my Dad playing them so much when I was younger. But now I do, and I think hearing you cover ‘The Licorice Fields at Pontefract’ was a defining moment in that respect, a track I always secretly loved, not least the electric guitar on there.

“Jim Parker’s music for that’s incredible. I was like, ‘This is like The Velvet Underground with a bit of brass on!’”

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of The Decline of British Sea Power. And later that year it will be a decade since From the Sea to the Land Beyond, another defining moment. That got its BBC Four premiere in late 2012, a few months after I first heard Public Service Broadcasting’s ‘The War Room’ EP, in time belatedly getting into King Creosote too, on hearing From Scotland with Love’s soundtrack. And there are three great examples of the creative marriage of quality archive footage with wondrous scores. Was that From the Sea to the Land Beyond soundtrack something you saw the vision of before writing the music?

“I think it started with us doing the soundtrack to Man of Aran. The Edinburgh Film Festival got in touch with us as they’d heard ‘The Great Skua’ {2008} and felt we could do a soundtrack to a film for the festival. So we went around the houses and landed on Man of Aran. Even after that, we didn’t consider recording it. We just thought it was a one-off. But fans were saying, ‘Oh, you’ve got to record that’. We were just oblivious to the fact.

“Once we’d done that, we got a taste for it. And From the Sea to the Land Beyond was a commission from the Arts Council {England}. They got {director} Penny Woolcock to go through BFI footage and she picked some brilliant stuff. In other hands it could have been a completely different story. She got some wonderful stuff in.”

That certainly piqued my interest, and soon I was checking out – good timing again – Erland Cooper’s work with Simon Tong and Hannah Peel for The Magnetic North, something else that truly inspired. And while the initial project there concerned Erland’s Orkney roots, I suppose again we’re talking big landscapes and themes that maybe crop up in your work too.

“Definitely. And I think now Hamilton and Abi are up on the Isle of Skye, the pace of his songs has … it’s sort of got more expansive and weird. They get a lot of wind and rain up there. and it’s definitely got that in there!”

The way you say that, I get the feeling you’re maybe reeling him back in now and again.

“Yeah!”

‘Two Fingers’ was the first single to be aired from the new LP, a ‘potential anthem for these troubled times’, the words taking in ‘mortality, defiance, HP Lovecraft and V-signs’, its chorus centred on the gesticulation that can signal both contempt and resolution (V for victory), a ‘rock song that seems to send a righteous FU to sundry self-serving figureheads of this era – but which also rides forth with hope and oppositional vigour’.

Yan explained at the time, “The song is part inspired by our late dad. He was always giving a two-fingered salute to people on the telly – a kind of old-fashioned drinking term, toasting people or events: ‘I’ll drink two fingers to that’, to some news item or to memories of a childhood friend. In the song it’s a toast to everyone, remembering those in our lives and those sadly no longer here and to making the world a better place. The song is ‘Fuck me, fuck you, fuck everything.’ But it’s also ‘Love me, love you, love everything’ – exultation in the darkness. If you say ‘fuck you’ in the right way, it really can be cathartic, a new start.”

It was also the band’s first under their shortened name and hinted at the strength of their first new music in five years. And the first songs I heard from Everything Was Forever suggested a broad church, as ever, but I could also hear why, for example, ‘Green Goddess followed second single ‘Folly’ (tackling ‘a sleepwalking world of procrastinators with our eyes on the short-term’) on the LP’s running order. In a sense it turns it into a seven-and-a-half-minute epic, putting those tracks together. What’s more, after our chat I got to hear the majestic way the Revolver-era Beatles meets Can surge of the trememendous ‘Transmitter’ surges straight into ‘Two Fingers’.  Is that the way the LP came together? Could it only have been sequenced the way you’ve done it, in your head?

“We tried a lot. It’s getting the balance right between Hamilton’s real slow-burners and … There are two duets on that I’m really pleased about. One called ‘Doppelgänger’ that the brothers both sing on, then my favourite, ‘We Only Want to Make You Happy’.”

That’s the last track. As for ‘Folly’, the Pet Shop Boys would kill for that, surely. Not as if they’re known for their murderous antics.

“Ha! That’s hilarious. Even my Dad said, first thing, ‘Oh, it sounds like the Pet Shop Boys’. I said, ‘Oh, that’s just my Dad being daft, with his old references!’. Then I heard it on 6 Music and was like, ‘He’s right! It really does.”

Meanwhile, ‘Lakeland Echo’, built upon a sea of 10cc’s ‘I’m Not in Love’-like atmospherics, is more pensive, deeper, dreamy.

“Yeah. I think ‘Fear Eats the Soul’ is another in that mould. Sort of claustrophobic but kind of epic. Like a softer ‘Cleaning out the Rooms’.

It’s also a track that grows on you with every play, and feeds neatly into the finale, ‘We Only Want to Make You Happy’, which even carries traces of Sigur Rós for these ears. Dare I use the word majestic again? In fact, Sea Power seem to be mining similar territory to the longer in the tooth James these days, each new album proving a revelation.

As I say, since our interview, I’ve had the chance to hear the LP right through, and I concur regarding Noble’s other observations too. There’s a subtle mix of those different styles, Yan in latter-day Neil Finn-like ethereal mode on a scene-setting ‘Scaring at the Sky’ and then ‘Fire Escape in the Sea’, as well as the afore-mentioned ‘Fear Eats the Soul’.

On the accompanying press release, Noble suggested: “’Folly’ is in the tradition of singalong Sea Power apocalyptic anthems – everyone ambling down the road to a multitude of catastrophes. Party on! You might find yourself standing up on the South Downs, up on the fells or the dales, looking down at the world, a world where we seem to avoid the decisions and changes to stop the rot. It’s all folly, but in this case set to some pretty life-affirming music – good stuff underpinning the donut vibes and maybe making you think it’s not all over, not quite, not yet.”

Over the years we’ve got to know that big sound and those sweeping, anthemic, often bass-driven epics. Was that what you were out to do from the start, or has your remit changed down the years?

“Erm … I don’t think so.”

It just naturally fell into place, perhaps.

“Yeah, we were in a good position where everyone is when they start off in a band, and every time a song comes around, it gets your full attention. There are no other distractions, and it’s one song at a time. They have a lot of time to sort of grow as well. So yeah … and we were younger and angrier.”

Well, we’ve all got plenty to be angry about at present, certainly politically.

“Yeah, and I would say there’s a lot of that in this new album, but we never like to make the music feel depressing as well. You don’t want to be dragged into that position.”

Has that been the story of the last couple of years for you? That frustration? Or did it work quite well, helping you regroup and have a clearer head regarding where you were headed next?

“Definitely. And we got Graham Sutton involved to produce. He did some tracks on Open Season, then he did Do You Like Rock Music?, Man of Aran, and Valhalla Dancehall. We sort of skipped him for a couple of albums, then found out he’d moved to the South East coast, set up a little mixing studio. And after the Tim’s Twitter listening parties we did, we got in touch. We gave him all the tracks we had, and he kind of had the final decision on what songs were going to be on and what he thought went together. We trusted him, and it’s good because it’s hard now. You can imagine, if Hamilton’s kind of slower paced, he’d want that kind of album, it’s really hard to find a balance.”

Now you finally have that chance to get back out on the road. And you always prided yourself on live performance. I see you start on the south coast and end up back in Manchester at the Albert Hall. Is that as good as a hometown gig for you?

“Yeah, I think the likes of Manchester and Leeds. I’ve spent a lot of time in Leeds, and Lancashire. It feels really good up there. You know, we’re northern lads!”

It must give you a thrill, being such a lover and student of great music, to play venues dripping in history, like The Roundhouse in London too.

“Yeah, we’ve done a lot of shows where we’ve done smaller clubs, like on the October tours. That was supposed to be about trying out new songs, and was supposed to be two years ago but got postponed. So it feels really good to get back to bigger venues too.

“And we’ve been putting our festival, Krankenhaus, together today. It’s going to be August bank holiday weekend this year, with tickets on sale from last month, us getting the line-up together now.”

I best hold back on some of that, until confirmation arrives, but it’s bound to be another cracking line-up, not least one involving a few re-bookings. And of course, I conclude, all this keeps you on your toes.

“Yeah, it keeps it all exciting.”

Everything Was Forever is out today, February 18th, with details here, Sea Power having also announced a run of headline UK tour dates in April (with ticket details here), calling at: Tuesday 12 – 1865, Southampton; Wednesday 13 – O2 Institute 2, Birmingham; Thursday 14 – Roundhouse, London; Tuesday 19 – O2 Academy, Bristol; Thursday 21 – Leadmill, Sheffield; Friday 22 – St Lukes, Glasgow; Saturday 23 – Albert Hall, Manchester. For all the latest from the band, including details of 2022’s Krankenhaus Festival when they land, you can also follow them via their website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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Up on the roof – scaling the heights with Brick Briscoe and the Skinny

When US singer-songwriter, filmmaker, TV and radio producer Brick Briscoe played a rooftop launch show for his latest LP in Indiana with his band last autumn, surely no one could have expected such a dramatic finale.

His shows tend to end on a high, but this – on September 11th of all dates – led to a major fall. Not from the roof, but on to his guitar. Thankfully however, bandmates Allen Clark III (drums) and Cory Folz (bass) were quickly to his aid, along with two medics in the audience. And he’s here to tell the tale.

First though, a bit of back-story and how, while appreciating the acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean for his most recent LPs, 2020’s My Favorite Los Angeles Restaurant, and 2019’s Lucky Point to Pere Lachaise, Brick had decided that 2021 was a good time to mess things up and step outside his comfort zone. And his new record, credited to Brick Briscoe and the Skinny and titled (Iloveyousomuch) certainly did that, its live vibe aided by his rhythm section’s input on a winning collection of raw, emotional, full-on rock numbers.

Planting themselves in Brick’s co-producer Brett Mulzer’s studio, they looked to create an intense, direct, hook-laden record that reflected their live shows. And it certainly did. But by Brick’s own admission, the recording almost drove him crazy, a fella more used to running to his basement in Petersburg, Indiana, to work on ideas at 3am finding counting on the meticulous Mulzer to interpret his whims maddening, as he explained pre-launch.

“Brett and I are so similar, but different ends of the spectrum.  He’s a freak about sonics, as I am about artistic and emotional intent. We were a perfect match. I can’t imagine not working like this from here on in.

“It was high time to get back in the studio with other musicians. I had a totally different LP written and was preparing to record it the way I’d done the last two … alone in my studio with a stiff drink and tears no one else sees. 

“But we’ve been isolated from each other so long, I knew I had to do something where I was with people. We’ve all been lonely. I know I had been.

“With The Skinny, I knew I could take some rock-based songs I had in my case and work them out in ways I never would have conceived without them. The dynamic we have is so important to me, so why not get in a room and bash it out … then go to the best studio we can find and bash it out again. That’s what we did. 

“Cory and Allen both take note of what I’m writing about and find ways to enhance those narratives. And dammit! We rock together, plain and simple. We’ve thrown out expectations and in turn made something accessible without trying to do so. I can’t tell you how excited I am for people to hear these songs or see us play it live. It will be either freaking amazing or a glorious mess.

“Basically, I’m asking you to give us 28 minutes, or about the time it takes to drive to work. We don’t fuck around and drag things on, we get to it, both musically and emotionally.  We can make you happy and discombobulate you in the same half hour, That’s what I look for in records, and that was the goal here.”

This is a performer, 61 last month, who also finds time to produce and host US public radio’s The Song Show (‘broadcasting to the Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky tri-state area’, it says here), where he shows his passion for music and mines the deep history of song, relating common themes across genres and time periods in each episode, his guests the musicians and songwriters he comes across through playing or picks up the phone to call. He also hosts Any Road with Brick Briscoe for PBS, linked here, and produces TV and other audio-visual based projects from his Petersburg, Indiana, studio base, aka La Cueva de la Araña. But none of that, nor his recent health battles, stop him writing, recording and performing his own material.

I aimed to subtly inch towards his memorable LP launch show when I called, but he got straight to the subject in response to my initial enquiry, knowing this cancer survivor was just getting over positive Covid-19 status. Where was he up to in the health journey at present?

“Well, I would say I’m in the last moments of Covid. It was actually pretty easy. I was really sluggish for several days, I had one day of feeling really bad, but it wasn’t anything horrible. As you were calling, I was just finishing taking my medicines from my event that happened on 9/11, when we were doing our {album} release show.”

We really should get straight into that. You best talk me through what went on that fateful night. It’s difficult to piece together from social media, but clearly lots of people were worried about you.

“Yeah, including myself! We were playing our release show on a rooftop – a Beatles thing – in Evansville, Indiana. A city of 140,000 people probably. We were surrounded by these amazing big buildings, playing with 100 or so of our local followers. We were playing the last song. I remember looking up thinking, ‘Gosh, what a great night! This is just the best. We’re having so much fun’.

“Next thing I know, I hear a clang and I’d fallen face-first on my guitar. Next thing I know people are trying to revive me. Luckily, two EMTs (emergency medical technicians) happened to be in the audience and they tried to get me to settle down. Very soon I was in an ambulance. I had a 230 beats-per-minute heart-rate.”

Were you fully aware of this drama unfolding on the rooftop of the Arts Council of Southwestern Indiana?

“Yeah, I was in distress, but I got it. I knew what was happening. You think you’re having a heart attack or something. That wasn’t the case, but they stopped and started my heart, got it to go back into a rhythm. Next thing I know, I’m in hospital for six or seven days, and don’t make it back home for 11 days, because I’m in a safe house near the hospital for a short period of time.

“And now they’ve figured out what was wrong with me. It took quite a while. And it’s nothing terribly dangerous, it’s just when it happens that it is. Now … it’s under control. What happened to me is called vasovagal syncope. There’s a nerve near your chest and when it gets triggered, your blood pressure drops, and your heart feels like it’s got to catch up and make up for it.

“It got in a loop and couldn’t get out of there. It had happened to me a few times during the cancer, and it’s always nerve-racking, but it’s never been where I’ve passed out like that … particularly in front of 100 or so of my favourite people … and on the last song!

“We filmed that concert, but I refuse to look at that. I’m so lucky that … people were just awesome and didn’t post anything … because you know how it is at any concert – it could be the worst band in the world and somebody would be filming it.

“We had a great show except for that last … y’know, the last 16 bars I didn’t get through.”

Was it a certain chord responsible for this, do you think?

“Ha! I don’t know! But my band refuses to play that song now. I wanted to run through it the other day for a warm-up, like, ‘We’ve got to get this off my back!’. It’s called ‘Heading to Kanorado’, and normally it’s our encore. It’s an old song of mine and it’s a lot of fun.”

And it’s a pretty full-on song.

“Yeah, it is, and we finish our show like it’s a big wave, so the last few songs are pretty full on.”

I can’t help but think of the late great comedian, Tommy Cooper’s final show, part of the audience – in the theatre and watching on TV – assuming his heart attack was just part of the act. Was there a sense of that from those you’ve spoken to since?

“There were a couple of people who thought it might have been part of the show. But then they knew it wasn’t. I wouldn’t ever pull that on purpose. We’re not quite that theatrical!”

Not that desperate to get your social media hits up, then.

“That’s right! If I was down with the kids, I’d definitely pull that!”

Was that launch set to be the first of a few live shows?

“Oh, yeah, we were gonna go to New York to places we like to play and find some we don’t know. Do a little tour, call it ‘The Hard Way’, play in front of people that didn’t know who we were as well.”

Are those shows on hold now? Or have you rescheduled them?

“We’ve cancelled everything, basically, until I come to Europe. But I think you’ll see us play Chicago before I go. We have a nice following there, and it’s only six hours away. We had to cancel shows there.”

Your medical experts haven’t suggested you never ever play live again?

“I think after they treated me for cancer, you know … I think it’s just about control. And the situation that happened at that show … I mean, as long as I’m on these medicines – and they’re very low maintenance medicines – I’m not worried about it. Most importantly, neither are they … and neither is my wife.”

Were any of your family at that launch?

“Well, my music family was there. My wife wasn’t, but my producer and the band and my closest buddies were there.”

Who made that difficult call to your better half after your collapse?

“I think it was my drummer, Allen Clark III, the youngest guy. He figured he could take it! An incredible kid … and he’d just had a baby.”

And all on September 11th, eh?

“Yeah, 9/11. A rather inauspicious date in the United States. But that didn’t play into it, it just happened to be when we could do it. In a lot of ways, we feel like it hasn’t even really been released yet, simply because we weren’t able to get out there.”

I suppose that’s no different to how it’s been for lots of bands these last two difficult years, bringing out new product amid the pandemic.

“Yeah, we were thinking when we were going to hit the road what songs we were gonna play, and I realised that from My Favorite LA Restaurant through to this we haven’t played any songs in front of people.”

However, this album sounds like a live album.

“Yeah, it really felt like it, and we made it that way. Apart from a few guitars and my vocals, the rhythm section and basic rhythm guitar parts were all done in the studio live, this incredible studio, by Brett Molzer. I used one of Pete Townshend’s actual amps, and we had one of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s in the studio. And one of the guitars belonged to Dweezil Zappa.

“The guy who owns the studio is a collector. And the Townshend amp made all the sense in the world! It was a lot of fun to have access to all those, one of those fancy consoles, and all the neat stuff you always want to work on that indie artists like myself seldom can afford.”

The new LP opens in no-nonsense style with two rockers, starting with the splendid ‘Dress Up’, suggesting an Iggy Pop vibe for me.

“Yeah, maybe!”

In fact, I can hear a bit of Iggy across this album.

“Oh, that’s a nice thing to hear. I love Iggy.”

And I get the feeling that in video’s golden era of ‘80s MTV and all that, you could have had a big production with this one, involving lots of big hair, wind machines, stadium rock settings, ZZ Top style gasoline station scenes …

“Ha! Okay, I’m gonna make a mental note, and maybe we’ll pull that off here!”

Then there’s ‘More Songs About Guns and Ammo’. It’s hardly The Undertones’ ‘More Songs About Chocolate and Girls’. Is this you reflecting on the gun culture that seems endemic in your home country?

“Oh yeah, I admit I own guns, but I inherited them. I’ve never taken them out. They’re antique. But I’m not shocked to see a gun. When I was living in New York, if I saw a gun, I was a little freaked out. Guns are a major part of people’s identity. I hate to say it, but it really is, you know, ‘Gosh, dang it, I got guns’, and I’m really not threatened to see somebody with a gun. But it’s more about that identity, you know, ‘I’m gonna have my gun, no matter what you say. I don’t care about your rights. I’m more worried about my rights’.

Worryingly true. And where does that leave your right to live? Or in your case, maybe your right to at least make it to the last song of a show, and perhaps even a second encore.

“Yeah! Next time, man, we’re gonna get there, I promise!”

Another of my favourites follows, ‘Up Yours, Up There’. There’s a Psychedelic Furs feel for me. Then again, they were heavily influenced by David Bowie.

“Well, we all were. And aren’t we all still doing that?”

True, and arguably Bowie was something of a magpie himself. And that song title suggests that this is your note to whoever’s upstairs that you’re here to stay, after all these health battles in recent years. It could be your ‘Where Are We Now?’ moment. In fact, it even carries ‘Space Oddity’-like harmonics.

“It does, doesn’t it. I didn’t even think of that. I wrote that as an anti-love song, more or less, appropriate probably to the labels and the industry … and my God, we’re in such disarray right now. It’s so depressing, I made a whole fucking movie about it!

“What I really liked about that song though was that I wanted to have that hook in there but at the same time I wanted it to be anti-rock. Allen has a wonderful jazz lick going on and the bassline Cory came up with is such a neat melodic thing. It’s so much fun live, and really shocks an audience used to seeing us do a certain type of thing.”

It’s maybe as reflective as this record gets, closer to where you were with the last couple of albums.

“I think so, although ‘Capitol Hill’ is pretty reflective. And ‘Gold Medal Uphill’, I wrote about my dad’s passing last year. But there’s no wrong answers, Malcolm!”

Well, let’s get on to brooding, Television-esque slow-burner ‘Capitol Hill’ then. It’s more than a year since those sickening happenings in Washington DC from Trump’s mob. Was this your reflection on all that?

“Erm, no, that song was written a long time ago. It’s about Capitol Hill in Seattle, a neighbourhood I know. We were thinking about that a little bit, but, you know … we hope we’re on the right side of history here. As for what happened in Washington, I wish I was that prescient to do that.”

I was about to ask where you reckon we’re at now. What worries me – from a distance – is that Trump and his ilk found a big rock to crawl or sliver back under, the legal proceedings about those events coming to little, it seems.

“There’s a lot to be concerned about.”

I get the feeling they might be bigger and uglier than ever next time if people don’t stay on their guard and get out and vote next time.

“Yeah, and it’s so easy to not take it seriously. It’s so ridiculous. And I’m sure you guys are dealing with some of the same thing over there.”

True, the furthest right-wing Government we’ve encountered, and another leader somehow getting away with it as some just see him as a character.

“Well, that’s what we had. Our guy was the same, right? Basically cut from the same cloth. I would say your guy has a little more subtlety to him … but not a lot.”

Yes, London fell for it first, but then moved on. And now it’s the rest of the country. When you see Boris Johnson back in the day on comedy shows, he’d come over as a clown … some seeing him as a loveable clown. Entertaining, maybe, but hardly leader material.

“Yeah, we thought that about the former guy here. Who would ever have thought that somebody would think he could run the country? Obviously he was just spouting ‘BS’, but there are so many disenfranchised people. They just found someone they felt they could grab on to.”

Strange times, and it does polarise people, as you see in your backyard. People you felt you got on with that you possibly don’t feel you can now.

“Well, almost, but here’s the thing – I live in the reddest of states, but to be honest, you meet people in public and nobody ever talks about it. You can go out, talk to those people, and it never comes up. I know where I stand. I know where they stand. It’s still pretty civil publicly. The thing I’m most worried about in this country is with the voting laws, the way they’re trying to disenfranchise a whole group of people throughout the country.”

That also sounds very familiar. But we’ll come off all that, shall we?

“Please! There is some politics on the record, but you know, you can read between the lines, about gun control and things like that.”

Seeing as he mentioned closing number, ‘Gold Medal Uphill’, it’s only since he mentioned about that being inspired by his Dad’s passing that I saw it in another light. It seems to be a song about coming to terms with all that. Not an easy song to get to grips with. But first I felt there was a Stan Ridgway/Wall of Voodoo feel there. Maybe he just wears his influences on his sleeve.

“Well, I’ve heard that, and think about that sometimes, but it’s always after I’m done. I guess everybody does. I listen to so much music, because I do a radio show and produce a TV show about music. I like to think I’ve stepped out of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s but guess that’s where I cut my teeth and learned how to write and play. I’m not just a revivalist. I totally get that’s not an insult though.”

I tend to think of someone like Mick Jones, who lived and breathed Mott the Hoople in his formative years, so when he was writing his own stuff in later years, I often hear Ian Hunter qualities, not least on parts of London Calling, although I imagine he didn’t consciously bring that to the party.

“Absolutely. And boy, I’m a Mott the Hoople fan, so I’m glad I know that about him.”

That got us on to Mick Jones following Mott from town to town, and how bands like The Clash and The Jam would carry on that rock’n’roll tradition of sneaking young fans into shows or soundchecks.

“Sure, and on this side of the pond, REM was kind of like that. And I bet I’ve seen REM 30 times.”

From quite early?

“I first saw them when I was in college. They played the small cafeteria in the student centre. I had no idea who they were, then suddenly they started coming back there. All the way to the stadiums … and I saw them at Madison Square Garden. I never saw them without Bill on drums though. Not that I wouldn’t, just that I never did.”

That got me on to catching them on BBC’s revamped Whistle Test, coinciding with their Reckoning LP tour, early December ’84, playing ‘Pretty Persuasion’ and Michael Stipe’s haunting, a capella take on ‘Moon River’, the night before I saw him do that at The Lyceum in London.

“I saw him do ‘Moon River’. That was incredible! They were amazing live, and so good.”

Anyway, tell me about your own band, The Skinny. They’ve been with you for some time, yeah? And they’re clearly a big part of this LP.

“Yeah, we’ve been through thick and thin, and they’ve saved my life when I’ve had one of these attacks before, after walking on stage, took care of me.”

How far back was that?

“That would have been one of the last shows we played before Covid, around January 2020 in Chicago. They got me to a hotel. Anyway, I had all these songs, half-old half-new, and knew this was going to be a rock’n’roll record, not as esoteric as some of my other stuff. I felt the best thing to do was to get these guys in a room at Brett’s studio, and just bash this stuff out. Let them make the parts their own. Here’s the demo, here’s the little drum-beats I came up with, here’s the basslines I came up with, let’s just break these down and play ‘em until they’re just right – the way I imagined all my favourite records being made.

“We had that luxury because the producer totally believed in it. We got in that room and Cory, he’s played with some really high-level blues artists. Bottom line, he’s professional and an incredible bass player. He took control of his part, he delivered, and Allen Clark III, the drummer, his dad was on my first record in 1979!”

Allen Clark II, per chance?

“Ha! I guess it would be, but I only knew him as Allen Clark. I was in a music store, a guitar shop in Evansville, Indiana, and this kid came up – he was working there – and said, ‘You’re Brick Briscoe!’. I said yeah, and he said, ‘Well, I’m Allen Clark’. I looked at him, said, ‘You’re not Allen Clark!’ then it dawned on me that was his son, who I hadn’t seen since I was living in Los Angeles. He moved out there around the time I had, to start another band. I went out there for the movies.

“I don’t know how many years, 30 years maybe, and here comes his son. I just knew right then, ‘You need to be in my band’. I didn’t even need to see him play. I knew he was going to be great. And he was, and he is, an extraordinary drummer. He can do anything.

“His Dad drummed for a band called The Lazy Cowgirls, who had quite a career here. And I don’t care whatever happens, Allen’s always gonna be in my life. He’s like my nephew, but at the same time we’re peers. He’s part of the family.”

Back to the new record, and the title track, albeit without brackets this time, ‘Iloveyousomuch’, although I get the feeling it is in brackets in the song – it’s almost apologetic, your delivery slightly embarrassed until towards the end, where you’re more vocal. Am I reading too much into that?

“No, I think you nailed it. My wife and I had just tripped to Los Angeles and were just loving it – ‘Oh my gosh, we got this great patio, and there’s a palm tree out our window, this is really cool’. We’re fixing dinner on a grill, cooking out on this patio, when a couple of guys run up in this little car and they jump out and beat the shit out of a Volkswagen with a baseball bat. And it’s, ‘Okay, this is the reality of living in the city’.

“As much as it looks great, Los Angeles, there’s always danger underneath, but you just keep telling yourself that you just love it, love it, love it. And this is no disparaging remark about LA, because it’s an amazing city. It’s a fabulous place, but at the same time it’s definitely a seat-of-your-pants sort of place.”

I get the feeling that song, another slow-burner with Television-like qualities for me (and I only heard Brick’s lyrical reference to Richard Hell a few listens in), like a lot of these songs started with a groove and a proper band rather than being knocked out on a pianola in the front room.

“I normally start writing everything on a bass, but you’re probably right on this record. That made it really easy to hand over to this great rhythm section, allowing me to just layer my stuff on top of that. But I think you’re dead on.”

The studio was in Brick’s co-producer Brett Molzer’s house in Evansville, about 45 minutes from his place. Was Brett there more in an engineering capacity, Steve Albini style, capturing that live feel?

“He was more of an engineer the first day, but once we got everything set up in there, it was our studio until we were done. He pushed me and the guys, particularly Allen, really made sure we were in that pocket. Not for the sake of losing spontaneity. We like it a little messy, but at the same time he was really a good taskmaster. We did several takes of some of these songs. When you listen to playback, it’s, ‘Yeah, that’s the one!’. There was minimal editing, and normally because of some noise we couldn’t control or something.”

And that leads me to my favourite on here, ‘Spoils, Sport Boy’. There’s something special, a bit like that Mekons intro on ‘Where Were You?’, a song I guess you must know.

“Of course I do! Oh, that’s so cool to hear. Thank you!”

That gorgeous riff instinctively drags you from the bar and down the front, and it’s a similar vibe here.

“That’s so cool to hear, because I always think that’s gonna be the least favourite people want to hear. Simply because it’s more abrasive, maybe.

“I saw The Mekons at the Whiskey {a Go-Go, LA} and Hugo Burnham {of fellow Leeds post-punk legends Gang of Four} played drums with them. And I didn’t realise until we started playing Chicago that John Langford lived there. I think Sally Timms is there a lot too. I’m a huge Mekons guy. Golly. But yeah, I thought that song was more abrasive!”

It’s great, and it’s not just about one riff either.  

“I’m so glad to hear that. We’ll have to play that every show!”

Also, you’re done after two and a half minutes.

“Well, it was funny because that’s the thing our producer Brett kept saying. ‘Guys, these songs are short’. But you know, he comes from a Southern rock background. He wanted me to do an Allman Brothers thing! We could have done it, but it wouldn’t have been very good. Leave ‘em wanting more, man!”

It’s perfect, and ‘Smile on My Face’ is another highpoint. Another killer riff. And for me, that’s more like Bob Mould and Sugar.

“Cool!”

There are some winning chord structures there. However, this time I felt there was room for at least another half a minute.

“Well, I will admit that we did stretch that one out the other day in rehearsal. That’s the only song when we were about to start playing again I was going to play guitar on, until I’d built up my strength. Because it’s so chime-y and so much fun to play. To me, if I’ve ever written a hit, that’s the single, you know.”

Agreed. Take note, radio stations. So what’s next? Are you working on the next record?

“Oh, yeah, I’ve got about 25 songs written. One of the things, its working title is Opera’s Ready. It’s sort of my 28-minute song. It’s not opera, but it’s my take on a song with a lot of movements called ‘Northern Light’ that expands my feelings about my father and a wonderful night when my wife and I got in the car and started driving north until we could see the Northern Lights, but never got there. And those stories intertwined.

“I don’t know if I’m going to do that as a separate thing, but I’ve got another record written for the band, to get The Skinny to bang out, and then I’ve got another which will be similar in style maybe to Lucky Point to Pere Lachaise or My Favorite LA Restaurant.”

And you hope to cross the pond soon?

“Well, I’m scheduled to fly to Paris on March 30th for season four of my TV show. I’m hoping to come up your way and I’ve got gig opportunities in Belfast and Dublin, solo gigs. I don’t know how it’ll be over there, but I don’t play here where they’re clanking glasses all the time. But I’ll play wherever, you know, in front of people.

“Our goal is to come over there to the UK with the band in the fall. As long as it’s for adults. It’s not like we’re blue, it’s just that I write about certain things. We’re lucky we get to play places where they put you up as part of the deal and feed you. But we’re not locked into any of that. I really want to get the guys in the van and want to go play in Fargo, North Dakota, you know. I want to go places you just don’t expect us, to go out and see if we can communicate with people.

“We’ve all missed so much and haven’t got to do so many things because of all the crap that’s happened in the world. And you start thinking about this when you’re my age. How many more times am I going to be able to do this? I could be Mick Jagger, doing it at his age. I would be by choice, you know, but there’s no guarantees in life.”

Play every gig like you’re gonna cark it on the last song, yeah?

“Well, I will say that’s true about my band. We do that. You’d never know that this wasn’t our last time ever doing it. That’s what I hope we can project on our records, whether they’re rockers or whether they’re ballads. We’d want people to know that there’s something at stake.”

There is a footnote to this interview, something I pondered over with regard to adding, not least making sure he was okay with me doing so. Chasing something up last week following our chat, Brick, in typically understated fashion, told me, “I’ve just discovered I have leukemia. Luckily the doctor says I don’t have to change my plans or life much. But what a drag.”

It was difficult to know how to respond to that, but he quickly added, “The chronic not the acute, thankfully.” It seems that some people just can’t catch a break at times. But after what I hoped were at least a few meaningful words in response, and certainly heartfelt ones, he concluded, “I’m a very fortunate person. This won’t kill me or stop me from playing music or making my TV show.”

And there’s the mark of the fella. Here’s to the next chapter, and more great Brick Briscoe records, broadcasts and conversations with the man himself.  

For last February’s WriteWyattUK feature/interview with Brick Briscoe, head here. Brick Briscoe and the Skinny’s LP, (Iloveyousomuch) is out now. For more about Brick, upcoming dates and how to order the new LP and check out his back catalogue, head to his website or Bandcamp page. 

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The Members / Blow-Up – Preston, The Continental, Friday 4th February 2022

Two nights out in a row? What is this, 2019 or something? Well, daily figures suggest we’re far from over this damned virus, whatever those trying to save their political careers might try to spin. But there are positive signs regarding a return to where we once were, not least regarding live music, venues on my adopted patch such as The Continental and The Ferret in Preston showing the way.

Friday night at The Conti marked one such event. There were more punters for the following night’s Hacienda event with Dave Haslam, but those of us with a passion for late ‘70s/early ‘80s punk and new wave showed up the evening before at the third time of asking for a twice-rearranged date with The Members.

And while I’m still no way near attending the amount of shows I once did, I could hardly let JC, aka Jean-Marie Carroll, and fellow stalwart bandmates Chris Payne and Nick Cash travel all the way up from my old Surrey neck of the woods and not put in an appearance. I’m glad I did too, those attending treated to a healthy dose of punk rock’n’roll entertainment.

As it turned out, support Acme Sewage Co. pulled out, presumably flushed away, but next on the bill Blackpool low-fi punk trio Blow-Up did themselves proud, with plenty of fire, fuzz, Ramones spirit and a few ‘70s glam rhythms thrown in. Natalie’s voice reminded me of Placebo’s Brian Molko until the drumming of hubby Dan (also pitching in with the singing) made me re-think, hearing Quatro-esque qualities, confirmed by her dedicating the last song to Suzi Q. I’d hate to think how raw those vocal cords are the morning after, mind, that full-on rasp surely punishing. But together with lead guitarist Howard, they were the first of the night to prove the power and worth of the humble three-piece line-up.

Favourite moment? Maybe Natalie’s, “Here’s another song … can’t remember the name…” mid-set introduction. Smiles all round. Check out their Bandcamp page for details of a debut LP, not least ‘60s-surf punk-inflected lead song, ‘Bodybag’.   

I’ve written plenty about The Members on these pages, not least the fact that I regret missing out on their first coming, at least live, 1979’s At the Chelsea Nightclub and 1983’s Going West (or Uprhythm, Downbeat, according to 1982’s US pressing) LPs making a big impression on a teenage me. Not being around for the reunion gigs, I missed out on seeing Nicky Tesco out front, but this was the second time I’d caught this stripped-down version – albeit last time out as a four-piece, with the addition of guitarist Calle Englemarc at the Star and Garter, Manchester in late 2018, reviewed here – and was again impressed by their authentic spirit and stamina in the face of on-rushing years.

From debut LP opener ‘Electricity’ and ‘Soho-a-Go-Go’ onwards, they were on fine form, ‘Working Girl’ – their big US and Aussie hit – then taking us from ’79 to ‘81, while ‘Offshore Banking Business’ reminded us how relevant they remain today, and their skanking reggae take on Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’ always impressing. There was even a then and now moment as ‘Bedsitland’, the title track of last year’s LP  currently topping the Heritage Singles Chart (recently with a Surrey 1-2-3 as The Vapors’ ‘One of My Dreams Came True’ and Paul Weller’s orchestrated ‘English Rose’ revisit completed the top spots) giving rise to older sibling, ‘Solitary Confinement’, perhaps still my favourite Members number.

Behind them, a banner proclaimed we were witnessing ‘The Original Sound of the Suburbs’, and while neither Carroll nor Payne featured in the first line-up, full attendance from ’77 to ’83 and ‘07 onwards is not to be sneezed at (particularly now covid masks are starting to come off), while Cash has warmed the drum-stool since 2008 (give or take a three-year gap when The Damned’s Rat Scabies sat in).

Their ability to fuse punk with reggae always appealed and they remain masters of the art, Chris and Nick providing the driving heartbeat, not least on brooding dub number, ‘The Streets of Nairobi’ from the latest LP. And then there’s the mighty ‘New English Blues, Pt.2’ from 2012’s Ingrrland, a rousing modern-day Mott the Hoople-like anthem, JC in Ian Hunter territory for a band that has certainly left its mark down the years, and on Friday’s showing are here to stay.

They don’t take it for granted though, as the on-stage asides suggest, JC now and again – on a brief break from (as his autobiography suggests) Still Annoying the Neighbours – checking in with Chris as to where he feels they should head next, not wanting to finish his band off with too many fast ones, assuming a role of caring younger bro among ageing punk brethren, the baby of the band a mere 66-year-old.

As we all know too well, not everyone’s made it through these tricky last few years, and there was a respectful nod on stage to old friend Larry Wallis (ex-Pink Fairies, early Motorhead), lost aged 70 just before the pandemic truly hit, before the second LP’s cover of ‘Police Car’ (1980: The Choice is Yours also served by ‘Muzak Machine’), the song’s police chase relocated to the M6.

And then of course there was that giveaway guitar intro as ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’ sent us home happy, JC in inspirational mode during another mid-number breakdown, telling us it’s our song not his, a celebration of all those forgotten or non-celebrated towns that made and moulded us. True, that. As fellow old stagers Slade would have put it, ‘Keep on rocking’, fellas. There’s plenty more life in you yet. And this is the sound, after all.

For all the latest from JC and The Members, follow the band via their website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And for more on Blow-Up, head here.

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