Blancmange / Alice Hubble – Lancaster, Kanteena

Admittedly, I should have got this review together a while back … but sometimes life gets in the way. Instead, consider this as much a heads-up to two of my long-playing highlights of 2022, each deserving proper recognition. Besides, with just two Blancmange dates remaining on the tour, surely I can’t be accused of plot-spoiling at this late stage. It’s not as if we’re talking a production of The Mousetrap.

Lancaster’s Kanteena was a new venue for me, and a cracking one at that, its quirky sense of character in keeping with the spirit of the acts passing through on this occasion.

There was a laidback feel on arrival, so much so that there was no one on the door at that point (we did have tickets, honest), reminding me of one of the few previous occasions that happened to me – for Emmylou Harris’ Red Dirt Girl tour visit to Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, late 2003. As if the fact we’d shown up was enough to suggest I had legitimate attendance.

Also, for a second live show running I was too busy talking (to the merch team this time) to realise the support set was underway. And that’s embarrassing for someone for whom people chatting during a live set really gets his goat. As it was, there would be a fair bit of that on the night, Blancmange’s main man Neil Arthur somewhat pissed off about it. But it didn’t detract too much for those of us in the thick of it out front. What it must be like though to have that much ready cash that you can afford to go to a gig then babble away to your mates mid-performance. Worse still, in this case, proclaim, ‘Play one we know’ while the headliners weave their way through a winning set. Ignorance.

While the dancefloor before them seemed largely empty for much of their tenure, Alice Hubble and fellow London-based live show co-pilot, Tom Hilverkus (previously half of Lower Saxony’s The Happy Couple), soon somewhat nonchalantly seized our attention.

Alice, real name Alice Hubley, was previously half of Arthur and Martha, described by her London-based Happy Robots label as ‘cutie krautrock or tweetronica, using toy/playground electronic gizmos, battered old Casios and Korgs and cheapo drum machines to create gentle, tinny yet poignant pulsebeats that move their achingly pretty, minor-chord melodies along.’ And it’s clear those qualities carry through to this project, much of her impressive set drawn from second LP, Hexentanzplatz, its title continuing that Saxon link (and I’m not talking Biff Byford’s metal outfit), its singles ‘Power Play’ and ‘My Dear Friend’ – among tonight’s highlights – having received BBC 6 Music airplay of late. The same goes for earlier 45, ‘Goddess’, somewhere between The Cure’s ‘In Between Days and New Order’s ‘Temptation’ for these ears, Alice’s sweet vocal setting it apart.

My eldest daughter, joining me on the night, reckoned she was getting a druid vibe, and I kind of got that. If druid electronica is not already a genre, maybe now is the time. As a first-time live attendee without access to a setlist, I can’t be sure of the specific numbers, but I’ve had chances to wallow in the latest LP since, a trans-Pennine road trip proving perfect for a cinematic outfit capable of evocative soundtracks, a journey from Tebay to Scotch Corner neatly framed by Hexentanzplatz and its bonus tracks, not least the sweeping, majestic title track and its ‘Oh, what a beautiful mountain’ line.

At times, I got Debbie Harry reborn in an early ‘80s New Romantic band, while on ‘Numb’ there’s something of the other-worldliness of Tubeway Army, a gateway for many of us into that world. As for the gloriously climactic ‘Gleichfalls’, that’s part New Order, part Public Service Broadcasting, a great way to end the LP in question, even if three extra numbers add something else again, not least the disco stomp of ‘Lux’, the sweet hippiedom of ‘White Horses’ and ‘Willow’s Song’ fusing with a Bronski Beat backing, and trance-like trip-hop finale ‘Midnight in Paso Robles’, with its rather lovely false ending.

As for the headliners, their latest LP, Private View, also formed part of that later personal road trip, and again fitted the bill perfectly here, album opener ‘What’s Your Name’ also the starting point on this occasion, followed by two eminently danceable numbers written four decades apart, the 2022 composition up first, ‘Reduced Voltage’ a contender for single of the year, its ‘Boy, am I tired’ line all too resonant lately, its vibe somewhere between Bowie, John Foxx, Grace Jones, and … Blancmange.

For while Neil Arthur has always ploughed forward, there’s always a healthy regard for Blancmange’s past, and 40 years after its arrival, Happy Families still gets the exposure it deserves, evergreen floor-filler ‘Feel Me’ never disappointing, leading to the more dreamy ‘I’ve Seen the Word’, 2020 LP title track ‘Mindset’ then reminding us of more recent accomplished output, but again with a resonance to where it all began, Commuter 23’s ‘Last Night (I Dreamt I Had a Job)’ and Wanderlust’s ‘Not a Priority’ also hitting that high benchmark.

In fact, there was plenty of evidence here for those only now getting up to speed with Blancmange’s reformation works of just how good a compilation we could get from later years alone. What say, London Records, now you’ve got them back on board?

Joining Neil this time were Chris Pemberton (keyboards/‘crazy synths’) and Liam Hutton (electronic drums), both on the money from the off with old and new material alike. Speaking of which, ‘Waves’ will always be in my all-time top-20 (there are probably 40-plus songs in there any given week, but that’s not the point), while Unfurnished Rooms’ ‘What’s the Time?’ would be among my first choices for that ‘somehow not hits’ compilation. Deep (well, who’s ‘the most invisible’ person you’ve ever known?), pensive (‘list all the things you’ve never said’), yet capable of bringing smiles to faces and a swivel of hips on the floor.

The somewhat pensive title track of the new record was next, a brief diversion back to Memory Lane allowed for ‘That’s Love That it Is’ before we headed to a trading estate in Altrincham for 2017’s ‘We Are the Chemicals’ – another filmic number dripping in imagery, always good to hear – then made for an equally atmospheric ‘Take Me’ (and I don’t just use that description because I’m reminded of Joy Division classic ‘Atmosphere’), the new record’s rather splendid finale.

Further Mange Tout cut ‘Game Above My Head’ provided another rummage into the back-catalogue, ‘Blind Vision’ not far behind, the oh so poignant, of the moment ‘Some Times These’ between them, a ‘Heroes’-like number (and let’s face it, Bowie is never far off Blancmange’s creative process) serving as yet another reminder that this is no ‘80s tribute act, the quality still very much intact since Stephen Luscombe stepped back.

As for the final two choices … no surprises there, ‘Living on the Ceiling’ having the place properly pulsing before they returned for ‘Don’t Tell Me’ following Neil’s genuine address to the assembled, sharing the love with some well-chosen words before that mighty last number, enough to make me think it was as much a subtle reference to Stephen as it was to everyone who’s stayed close to the band all these years.

Blancmange’s Private View tour ends this coming weekend with dates at The Venue in Worthing (Friday, December 9th) and Islington’s Assembly Hall (Saturday, December 10th), with Sheffield’s Stephen Mallinder (of Cabaret Voltaire fame, his other projects including Wrangler, alongside Neil Arthur’s co-conspirator Benge) on fine form in the support role at present. For more details, check out the band website and follow Blancmange via  Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

For the latest from Alice Hubble, head to her website, and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Soundcloud.

And for this website’s most recent feature/interview with Neil Arthur, and links to our previous feature/interviews and Blancmange live reviews, head here.

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Still walking in the sunshine – celebrating five decades of Bad Manners with Buster Bloodvessel

Ska legends Bad Manners are out and about again this month, veteran vocalist Buster Bloodvessel and his band bringing their stage prowess and hits catalogue to 27 UK venues, allowing himself just five nights off before New Year’s Day’s Glasgow finale. 

Forming the band that became Bad Manners with friends from Woodberry Down Comprehensive School, Finsbury Park, North London, in the mid-1970s, they became live favourites on their patch before taking that next step, true entertainers of the ska scene, Buster known for his energetic live antics. Rising to prominence during the late-‘70s ska revival, they gained wider exposure with help from 2-Tone Records package tours and their appearance on live documentary Dance Craze.

Born Douglas Woods to a single mum in Stoke Newington in 1958 (his surname changed to Trendle after adoption by a great-aunt of that name), Buster took his stage name from Ivor Cutler’s bus conductor character in The Beatles’ 1967 Magical Mystery Tour film.

Bad Manners signed to Magnet Records in 1980, scraping into the UK top 30 straight away with debut single ‘Ne-Ne Na-Na Na-Na Nu-Nu’, a cover of a Dickie Doo and the Dont’s rock’n’roll song released the year Buster was born, follow-up ‘Lip Up Fatty’ making it to No.15 before ‘Special Brew’ reached No.3, a highly successful first year finishing with ’Lorraine’ reaching No.21, with both debut LP Ska ‘n’ B and rapid follow-up Loonee Tunes each going top-40.

Their 10 UK top-40 singles also included 1981 top-40 showings with ‘Just a Feeling’, ‘Can Can’, ‘Walking in the Sunshine’, ‘Buona Sera’, alongside third LP, Gosh, it’s … Bad Manners, while their cover of Millie’s ‘My Girl Lollipop’ reached No.9 in the summer of 1982, the band spending more than 100 weeks in the singles charts in those first three years.

And 40 years later, they’re still going strong. At least, Buster and his current Bad Manners line-up are, now deep into their fifth decade, with no sign of stopping, having relentlessly toured the UK and mainland Europe, America, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. And as I put it to the main man when we spoke, he hardly seems to have been off the road down the years.

“We have done more than most, I must admit! But during the Covid period – which killed every band that was – I’ve never been so lazy in my life.”

Did that enforced break not suit you, give you a chance to take stock?

“No! I couldn’t stand it. I grew a beard and long hair, and I just wasn’t me. When people saw me, they said, ‘Why are you like this?’ I said, ‘Really, I’m on strike. Until I can do another gig, I’m not going to shave my head.”

Did the confidence come back straightaway afterwards?

“Yeah, once you’ve got the touch … I’ve been doing it that long.”

True enough, but even the most prolific of acts started over-thinking it all, worrying that they might not be capable of performing again.

“Well, that crosses your mind. But once you’re actually in front of an audience, that’s your job, that’s what you do, and you fall back into it.”

You certainly bring the party, wherever you play. And I don’t think anyone could accuse you of giving less than 100%. I guess you still get your kicks from live music.

“Oh, absolutely, and not just my own music. Seeing bands live still does do it for me. And I love performing. It’s in my blood.”

So where’s home these days? North London? Hertfordshire?

“I’m actually in Bulgaria.”

Blimey, is this going to cost me? Is that where I’m calling you?

“No, you’re calling me in West London. I’ve got a houseboat, but I live in Bulgaria.”

Why Bulgaria? How did that come about?

“It’s cheap, there are nice people there, lots of sunshine. It’s such a great place, and the pound goes a long way there.”

Clearly still walking in the sunshine then. Is Sofia home, or are you closer to the sea?

“Veliko Tarnovo.”

Ah, wrong on both counts (that’s around three and a half hours west by car from the capital, my online map meister tells me).

“It’s in the centre, and it was their second capital. It’s surrounded by castles, and it’s just a wonderful place.”

So you’re not a regular down at Hartsdown Park these days, watching The Gate (Buster was the main sponsor of Margate FC in the 1990s and once owned a hotel in the Kent resort called Fatty Towers, specifically catering for larger customers, its features including extra-large beds and baths, closing in 1998 when he moved back to London)?

“Not anymore. Unfortunately, not. I used to enjoy them times.”

Are you watching football out in Bulgaria instead?

“Erm, at this moment, I’m watching Mexico versus Poland (in the World Cup). But I don’t go to any football games in Bulgaria. I follow my Arsenal.”

So to speak.

“Well, we’ve had a good season this year, so far.”

It certainly seems that way. And what became of your old houseboat in Hackney (Buster licensed the Blue Beat Records name and logo in 1988, running the label from there for a couple of years)?

“Oh, that was a long time ago. It got put back onto the river. It was in my back garden for a long time, then got put back onto the river after a couple of years, I wasn’t on it often, and it sprang a leak and sank, so they had to come along, take it out the water, the cost of that enough to have it cut up. Not a very good ending, unfortunately.”

That’s sad. I bet that had character.

“It did, and we ran all the various labels and bits and pieces from it.”

You were a bit of an entrepreneur in those days.

“I was. I enjoyed mucking about with records.”

When you mentioned the houseboat springing a leak, I had The Clash in my head, Joe Strummer having no fear, ‘London is drowning, and I live by the river’.

“Yeah!”

Do you wince a little at the novelty favourites label your publicists tend to use, or is that part of what you’ve always been about? There’s never been any pretence, it seems.

“No, not really. I think it’s extremely hard to be able to be put in that bracket and survive for a long period, because it’s almost the kiss of death when you get that tag around your neck. But I don’t mind. If people want to think of us as a novelty band, so be it.

“We are a hard band to beat live. I don’t know many bands who can compete with us live. And we’ve played with them all. Some of these great bands you see, we slaughter them on stage.”

Before calling you, I glanced back at a 2004 festive edition of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, the contestants – including Noddy Holder and Phill Jupitus – having to guess your Christmas covers from the intros. I was howling at that, but at the same time admiring the power of your brass section. There’s comedy value, but you’re clearly a tight, hard-working band.

“Well, I suppose the only other band we’ve sort of aimed at that is similar to us would be somebody like the Bonzos, even though we carry more an element of pop. It was more about albums with them.”

As I’m writing a version of this feature-interview primarily for a North West newspaper, are there past performances around Lancashire, Manchester or Liverpool that spring to mind when venues are confirmed on your tours?

“It’s always good for us because of the scooterist connection up in that part of the world. They stick together, and they’ve stuck with us for many years, so I really like playing that area. Manchester, I’ve always had great times going out to dirty old pubs in Salford. It’s a shame they’re almost turning trendy … but not the ones I go to!”

You broke through with the ska revival, but it wasn’t a bandwagon jumping exercise. That love of Blue Beat, ska and reggae was always important to you.

“Very much so. From a very early age, and when we started it was definitely ska and rhythm ‘n’ blues. That’s what we based our style of music on.”

Who turned you on to that? Or was that what you were hearing around your manor?

“It was the area I came from. I come from a Black area, so listening to ska and reggae was easy for me. Then there was the R’n’B connection, which was more listened to by white kids. I enjoyed both, so I wanted to play both. I still liked all the commercial things like Slade though, so always had an ear for that too.”

You tend to prove that with the way you crossed over, not least those early ‘80s hits.

“Yeah, quite a lot of them.”

When you left school in the mid-’70s, was it always going to be a career in music and performance for you? Were there ever any real-world day jobs?

“There were. My first job was as a photographer, and for my second I was relaying tracks on the railway, quite a strenuous job. But at school I got my friends together and said, ‘We’re going to have a band.’ People went off to learn their instrument, then we’d get together and play. We rehearsed first at school. It was in 1975 when we actually got our band together, even though ‘76 is when it officially said we were Bad Manners.

“There was a year before that where we were dreadful, but we were learning, and we enjoyed it. And my great idea at the time was that we would be the best of friends in school, then we could go out, play music in pubs, get paid, meet girls, eat food, drink beer …”

What’s not to love there? And was there a belief that you’d make it big?

“No, never. Not when we started. Definitely not. When we actually started to hit the charts, we couldn’t believe it. It was unbelievable that they would take us seriously, that they’d allow things like ‘Ne-Ne Na-Na Na-Na Nu-Nu’ into the charts … It then became the longest-lasting single that year, to come in and out of the charts. I was so knocked out.”

Was it a bit of a blur, particularly those big chart years from 1980-83, or did you have time to savour some of those mad times?

“Erm, not really a blur, I enjoyed everything that went on and still have good memories of everything that went on. And the band. And one day, when I go to prison, I will actually write a book. But until I go to prison, I won’t.”

Let’s hope you don’t then. There was a lot of touring from the start. Did you hone that stage show as you went along, or were you pretty much a fully-formed act from the start?

“I always believed that I just had to come crazy on stage and outdo everyone I’d seen, vocally. Singers I saw just standing there, I thought, ‘How crap is that?’ I just had to move, and being such a large person, it wasn’t the easiest, but it’s something I thought I’ve got to take to my advantage.”

The first version of the band came to an end around 1987 (after a less commercially successful second period, this time with Portrait Records, ended), but you were soon back in the saddle.

“We never actually ended. It’s just that people left. We reformed straight away. First, I stole members from another band I had – Buster’s Allstars. I then swapped Buster’s Allstars for Bad Manners. I almost trained them up, so when people did finally leave, in ‘87, I thought it’s not such a bad thing, because I’ve got all these young lads who want to play.”

There was also a brief acting career around then too, including roles in 1987 films Out of Order and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and a part in TV drama Boon in 1990. Did you enjoy those days?

“Erm, you know, my whole existence was to be an actor, I felt. And stage was a very important part of it. I never got any acting parts on stage, but I got a lot of film parts. I don’t think I portrayed anything I wanted to in characters, so I’m very disappointed with my acting career. But never say die, because you never know. I might have to change career at some point, and acting I could do. I still think I’ve not achieved my acting ability.”

Do you remain in touch with the band from those early days?

“Occasionally we meet people, although it seems to be getting less and less as years go on. But no hard feelings with anybody – people just move on. I’ve always respected that, and I encourage my musicians to go off and do whatever they want with whoever they want. To me, it’s like trapping a bird. You can’t do it. I find it’s very important that musicians do what they want to do. I certainly get to be doing what I want to do.”

In fact, just before I went to press, I read the sad news that that original Bad Manners harmonica player Winston Bazoomies, aka Alan Sayag, passed away this week, Buster paying tribute to a ‘complete one-off and unmistakable sound.’

Who’s in the band on this tour? And have they been on board for quite a while?

“Most people have been in the band quite a while. I mean, it’s a long list – you really want me to go through them? There’s an A-team, a B-team, and a C-team.”

How many players are we talking?

“I would say 30 players. Maybe more, maybe 35. And I would say most have been about Bad Manners at some point in some position in the last 10 to 15 years. And that doesn’t include abroad. There’s a Japanese Bad Manners, an Australian Bad Manners, an American Bad Manners, a South American Bad Manners … there’s a lot of Bad Manners – ha ha!”

I’m guessing they’re not all standing by the phone waiting for your call.

“They are! They drop everything when I want them to. Because they know it’s such a great gig for them. They have fun, and never is there an argument or quarrel in Bad Manners. Because I’m the money and I look after them all, I don’t allow that to happen. If I see any signs of it, I’m on it. I’ll encourage them to go out and fight each other if they have to. We don’t want bad feeling in the band.”

Do close friends and family still know you as Doug or Douglas, or is that only when you’ve been naughty?

“No, no, no … well, I’m always naughty. But most people still call me Doug … and many people call me Buster – that’s all I’ll ever be known as in the public eye.”

Is there a difference between Buster and Doug? Is it a persona?

“Absolutely. Once he’s on stage, he’s a completely different character.”

Before I let you go, none of us can take anything for granted, not least after these last few years of the pandemic, but you’re not so far off 50 years in music now. Is that a goal to reach? You’ve had a few run-ins with your health (Buster has struggled with morbid obesity and underwent laparoscopic gastric bypass surgery in 2004, his weight dropping from 31 to 13 stone, and in early 2001 fell seriously ill during a concert in Perugia, Italy. What’s more, a recent date in Dublin was cancelled – now rescheduled for late January – late on, Buster having to go into hospital with issues relating to his heart, kept in overnight). Is there a finish line as far as you’re concerned, or will you carry on, instinctively knowing when it’s time to stop?

“There’s definitely not a finish line, but 50 years has been a goal for quite a few years. Passing the 30-year mark, I thought, ‘How long is this going to carry on? And are people still gonna want this?’ But they do, and new markets are still opening for us.

“And I can’t wait for next year, because I believe there are more new markets opening …”

Bad Manners’ December 2022 UK tour dates: Thursday 1 – Komedia, Bath; Friday 2 – Engine Rooms, Southampton; Saturday 3 – Brudenell Social Club, Leeds (sold out); Friday 9 – Academy 2, Manchester; Thursday 15 – Chinnerys, Southend (sold out); Saturday 17 – Electric, Brixton; Wednesday 21 – Arts Club, Liverpool; Thursday 22 – Rock City, Nottingham. Tickets on sale here.

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First-class return to Holly Head, and beyond – the Kate Rusby interview

After a successful 2022 on the back of her most recent LP, 30: Happy Returns, Kate Rusby is rounding off the year with her latest festive tour, hailed as the start of Christmas for many.

The ‘Barnsley Nightingale’ will be entertaining audiences across the land with her adaptations of carols traditionally sung in the pubs of South Yorkshire at this time of year, her band including husband, Damien O’Kane and the Brass Boys quintet.

And this Mercury Prize nominee and four-time BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards winner clearly knows where she’s at, having sat in the corner of those crowded public houses as a child, feeling the songs she brings to these shows are ‘in her bones’.

For more than 200 years, from late-November to New Year’s Day, North Derbyshire and South Yorkshire communities would congregate on Sunday lunchtimes to belt out their takes on familiar carols, some frowned upon by the church in Victorian times as ‘too happy’.

Kate has long since appealed to fans beyond the folk scene and her Yorkshire roots, headlining in the UK and internationally, performing with major music stars across various genres, with a number of TV, radio and film credits to her name, plus her own label, Pure Records, and festival, Underneath the Stars. 

Born into a family of musicians in 1973 in Penistone, in Yorkshire’s West Riding, learning to sing, play guitar, fiddle and piano from a young age, Kate was already playing local folk festivals before a spell as lead vocalist of all-female Celtic folk band The Poozies.

Then, 1995 saw the release of her breakthrough co-release, Kate Rusby & Kathryn Roberts, with a close friend and fellow Barnsley folk singer. And two years later, Kate released her first solo album, Hourglass, going on to acclaim at home and overseas, her family continuing to guide her professional career behind the scenes.

She also joined folk group The Equation with Kathryn, invited by Devonian brothers Sean, Sam and Seth Lakeman, a major deal with WEA following before she went her own way, Cara Dillon taking over.

By late 2004, Kate’s ‘Wandering Soul’ had featured on the soundtrack of BBC television series Billy Connolly’s World Tour of New Zealand, while in a busy 2006 she scored a first mainstream hit, her duet with Ronan Keating on ‘All Over Again’ reaching No.6 on the UK singles chart, contributed to Idlewild lead vocalist Roddy Woomble’s debut solo LP, and saw her cover of The Kinks’ ‘Village Green Preservation Society’ become the theme tune to BBC sitcom Jam & Jerusalem.

It was in 2008 that she released her first album of reinterpreted traditional Christmas songs, with Sweet Bells followed by four more, the most recent, 2019’s Holly Head, only now receiving a vinyl release.

And then I’ll fast forward to 2020, the release of Hand Me Down coinciding with the pandemic lockdown, Kate reinterpreting a number of popular songs, including Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’, Coldplay’s ‘Everglow’ and The Cure’s ‘Friday I’m In Love’, reaching No.12 in the mainstream UK album chart.

As for this year, May saw the release of 30: Happy Returns, Kate celebrating three successful decades as a professional musician, re-recording self-penned favourites from across her career, her guests on the record including Richard Hawley, KT Tunstall, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

That said, perhaps it wasn’t my best opening gambit, letting slip while asking how she was doing that I was calling from Lancashire.

“Lovely. Absolutely brilliant … apart from you said the word Lancashire. Apart from that, it was a good call.”

Is it better or worse to admit I’m originally from Surrey?

“Do you know what? That’s loads better. We’ll go with that!”

Excellent, and if December is around the corner, there must be another Kate Rusby tour coming up.

“Absolutely, and it’s been the start of getting all the Christmas songs out in our house. So yes, even my girls are playing Christmas music constantly. We feel like we’re already in December.”

I have an issue with any publicity about Christmas before my late October birthday, but beyond that I guess I can handle it.

“Well, we like to get Hallowe’en out of the way, then Bonfire Night, but if it’s a year that we’re making a Christmas album, I’ll be doing Christmas music the whole year. I’ll be writing and researching, then recording it in the height of summer. You just have to get on with it.”

There’s something in that. I mean, Slade recorded ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ in searing late summer heat in New York in 1973, part-way through a US east coast tour.

“Yeah, because to have them ready for that end of the year, you’ve got to record them out of season. It takes a long time to get over that thing of everybody saying, ‘No, it’s bad luck if you play Christmas music at this time of year.’ But in our studio, we have this tiny Christmas tree that whenever we’re making a Christmas album, we put in the middle of the floor and we all have to sit round it, get in the Christmas spirit.”

Tickets are going well for this tour, not least selling out the Union Chapel in North London, among the dates rolled over from last year when Damien and another bandmate followed Kate’s lead and caught Covid, both having avoided the dreaded virus until then. But this time, ‘hopefully, fingers crossed, touching word,’ she’s hoping all will go to plan.

“We did a big tour in the spring, through April and May, and then the festival season felt quite lovely and normal, so hopefully … we can’t wait to get back out on the Christmas tour.”

We like to think we know what we get from you these days, not least at this time of year, an intimate show guaranteed, with brass in tow. In fact, when chatting to Katy J. Pearson in late summer about her LP, Sound of the Morning, and a song on there, ‘Storm to Pass’, with added brass, I suggested to her it was ‘Rusby-esque’. As far as I’m concerned that’s an official description now.

“Yes! I will own this – I will own that lovely little brass band thing!”

It’s a great song too, from one of my albums of the year. Maybe you could perform it together at some point. I’d recommend a listen.

“Ah, I will do. I’ll write that down.”

And while I’m talking of LPs by solo female artists, you have my sympathy over the timing of Adele half-inching your album title a few months before you could release your own 30.

“She bloomin’ did! I think she was taping us, or something? Yes, I was absolutely raging. Actually though, we already had a subtitle to ours – Happy Returns.

“The 30 album is in the same ilk as the 10 and 20 albums – a reflective look back – so it was a happy return to songs and it was so lovely to take them all to pieces, do brand new versions of them. But also, it was happy return to touring. So it all just kind of fitted, and hopefully nobody got muddled up and listened to me instead of Adele!”

Well, she could do with the added publicity, a slice of your superior record-buying traffic. And there were a few of your inspirations on that album that you got to record with, not least local-ish, lad, Richard Hawley. Is that someone you’ve kept an eye on, career-wise, for some time?

“Yes, we have mutual friends in and around Sheffield, and he’s asked me to do a thing he does at Christmas in Sheffield every year, featuring three or four bands. But every December we’re always so full on that we’ve not made it, because of our Christmas tour. We had those links already though, and I just love his voice – the most deepest, mellowest, loveliest voice. I was looking for somebody to sing the male part of that song, and it was, ‘Oh, I know the perfect man!’

“I was thinking there’s no way he’s gonna do this, but he said yeah, and he was free, so he came along to the studio. I think he’d been there five minutes when there was this power cut, so we all sat around in the studio, around a candle, singing through the song, him learning it, getting used to it, then the lights came on and he was like, ‘Right, come on, let’s go and do this.’

“He started singing, and we were just in bits – he just hit the nail on the head. Asking me about it, we had this lovely chat, him saying, ‘When I sing somebody else’s song, I like to get right inside somebody’s head, and it’s like going through the front door and having a walk around the house.’ What a lovely day we had. It was brilliant.”

Like yourself, Richard oftens turn up on the soundtrack of a documentary or drama, it seems, offering poignant moments here and there.

“Oh, it’s always lovely when somebody uses your music for something, and quite often you don’t even know it’s happening – it’s only after the fact that you find out. And to have that emotion seen in a different way, how it fits into whatever show they’re using it for …”

I must admit I was relatively late to the party, regarding your back catalogue, working backwards after hearing you duet with Paul Weller on ‘The Sun Grazers’.

“Oh, wow. Yeah, that’s 10 years old now, being on my 20 album. And again, it’s so lovely when you’ve been touring for 30 years, you meet so many other musicians and singers, whether at festivals, or do’s, or award ceremonies or things like that, and mostly you get on great with people. Then, rarely, you leave each other going, ‘Oh, we need to stay friends and record something one day.’ And Paul was like that.

“He came to a folk club gig I did, years ago, and I remember there was a raffle. He even bought raffle tickets. I don’t know what the prize was … it was probably a meat raffle! But he stayed in touch, in and out of what we were doing, and all that. And again, when we got in touch to say, ‘Do you fancy doing it? I know, you’re busy …’ It’s kind of such a small thing, compared to his world, but he accepted and just did it, and it was so lovely, it really worked.”

You suggest a fellowship of friendship between musicians, and that’s something I put recently to Dave Pegg, of Fairport Convention fame, someone who’s worked with many friends and on ex-bandmates’ solo records and so on, playing or producing. And that’s not just a folk music kinship.

“Yeah, I think musicians and singers are fans of other people’s music. If you love music, you mostly love all music … mostly! When you come across somebody else’s music that you really like, it’s natural that you kind of gel in a different way with people. It’s the music that talks then, and it’s a lovely thing to be able to work with other people.”

I like the idea of your 2020 LP, Hand Me Down, reinterpreting in your own style well-known songs – what traditional folk music was about – but in this case what you could argue are the folk songs of today, from Prince to Ray Davies numbers, Taylor Swift to Cyndi Lauper, Robert Smith to Bob Marley.

“Yeah, as I said on the sleeve notes for that album, what we do as folk musicians is take existing songs and reinvent them each time. That’s why there are so many different versions of lots of old folk songs – people have made them their own, changed bits, passed them on, they’ve been all around the world and back again, and that’s something we do day in, day out.

“I had a list of 200 songs in the first instance, possibilities, but wanted to make sure we had ideas for the songs we ultimately chose, to make them a little, make them our own, but hopefully not upset the people who wrote or performed them, or the people that love listening to the original versions. Thankfully, hopefully, we didn’t upset too many people. And on some our girls were with us as well, singing in the studio.”

Will they be part of this tour, outside school commitments?

“There are quite a lot of weekends, so they might come to some of those. Mostly this summer, when we’ve had festivals, they came with us, got up and sung with us, like on ‘Three Little Birds’. So they’ve been earning pocket money. They take after my dad, who managed me for years before he retired from our record company. When we’re in the studio, and also when I’ve asked them to sing at gigs, first thing they say is, ‘Alright, mum, how much?’ And I’m like, ‘Ooh, you’re just like your Grandpa!”

How should we address fan letters these days? To the Barnsley Nightingale, the UK’s First Lady of Folk, or something else? What do your posties know you as?

“Ha! I’ve been called all sorts. I get letters every now and again that just say ‘Kate Rusby, Barnsley’, and they actually find their way, which is lovely!”

While born in Craigavon, Northern Ireland, fellow Mercury Prize nominee – and fellow past WriteWyattUK interviewee – Hannah Peel was brought up in Barnsley. Perhaps there’s something in the water around there.

“Oh right! Do you know what, I know so many musicians from around here, and when we were kids there was a session scene around here, people getting together and playing tunes, and the folk clubs around here, and also those South Yorkshire carols being sung in pubs. There’s so much music, and especially that South Yorkshire carol thing is just going so strong. You can’t get in many of the pubs now unless you queue. It’s so lovely that they’re still going strong.”

And you’re bringing that vibe to the nation now, good news for those of us who can’t get into those pubs.

“Yeah, I grew up going to those carol singing sessions, because my parents took us as kids, and we’d be just sat with the other kids, colouring, eating crisps, drinking pop, you know, in the tap room while all the adults were crammed in, singing away. From a really young age we were hearing the songs, learning them without even realising we were. It was only in the first 10 years of touring, talking to people as we toured around Christmas time, saying, ‘Do you know this version of ‘While My Shepherds Watched’?’ and them going, ‘There’s more than one version?’

“It was that that really set the Christmas thing off. ‘Crikey, people really don’t know these songs!’ And it’s in my blood really – part of our family Christmas in the Rusby household, down the years. It was so fabulous to get some of them songs, make them our own, Rusby-fy them, and now we have the brass quintet with us as well. It’s a full band.”

Rusby-fy? I’m claiming Rusby-esque, but you can have Rusby-fy. That’s great.

“Thank you very much! Also, we’ve been doing that tour for, I don’t know, 17/18 years, something like that, and we’ve done five Christmas albums to date, but there are still so many songs to go over. And it’s so lovely when we go back to theatres now, even really far down south, and they’re singing choruses back at us from these South Yorkshire carols. That makes me very happy!”

You’re clearly making an impact. Do you see your true arrival as the day debut album Hourglass was released in 1997, when you reached the UK top 40 for the first time with Awkward Annie a decade later, got even higher with 20 in 2012, or before all that? Was there a moment you thought, ‘I can do this!’ or ‘We’re doing this!’?

“It was really organic. When I look back, I really believe music chose me. I grew up in a musical household, my parents both sing and play, there were always instruments, they were teaching us songs when we were young, and me, my older sister and younger brother all started the fiddle when we were six or seven. But the stories in the songs are the thing that intrigued me. I always found them like mini-films, and we had them for bedtime stories.

“When I was growing up, I remember GCSE and A-level time, everybody seeming to know what they were going to do. I was kind of just drifting about, thinking, ‘How do you know though? Does it come to you in the night?’ But I went to performing arts college in Barnsley, did a BTech in performing arts, majored in drama. I did a bit of music, some dancing, and technical – my dad was a sound engineer – so thought, ‘I’ll have a go at that.’ I wasn’t very good at all, but loved my time there, and it really gave me a confidence to stand on a stage and play and sing.

“It was while I was there that a friend running Holmfirth Folk Festival called at my folks’ house, and I was sat in the garage at this piano. I’d begged mum and dad for a piano, and dad bought it from this pub – it absolutely stank of cigarettes and booze, mum like, ‘No, that has to stay in the garage,’ but I loved it in there, because the reverb was brilliant.

“Anyway, she came around to visit, stuck her head in the garage and said, ‘Ooh, you’re getting quite good at that.’ I used to make up chords to songs I made. She said, ‘Do you fancy playing at the festival? Bring your piano, your keyboard and guitar, come and do us a spot.’ I kind of nodded, and soon as she left the garage was going, ‘What on earth am I doing?’

“But I went along and did it, played for about half an hour, was nearly sick with fear, came off and went, ‘I’m never doing this again.’ Half an hour later, somebody from another festival came up and said, ‘Do you fancy playing our festival in a month’s time?’ And again, I said, ‘Oh, yeah, alright,’ then told myself, ‘Shurrup, stop saying yes!’ And it just went like that – every gig I was doing, somebody else would say, ’Do you fancy doing a slot at our folk club?’ It just grew and grew, really steady.

“Then we made our first album, me and Kathryn Roberts, the first on our record label. At the time, my dad was looking for something new to do. He was lecturing at Leeds College of Music, and the politics of it had all kind of gone a bit downhill for him.

“A good friend from Barnsley, Dave Burland, a folk singer – Uncle Dave, we called him – was saying, ‘Just be careful, if you’re going to make an album, don’t be signing anything,’ and ‘They’re going to rob them girls.’ So we decided to set up our own label, and never looked back. With each gig, we would go back to the same town, and it grew and grew, really steadily, really gently. Then we moved on, me and Kathryn. She carried on with The Equation, I left and went solo. I’m like the least ambitious person in the world. My dad always said, ‘Can you not just be a bit more ambitious?’

“But at every stage, we’ve felt so lucky, and kept it in the family. My mum did the accounts for the record company for years, my sister now runs the record company and has worked for us 20-odd years, and my younger brother Joe did sound for me until recently. So really, it’s our little family thing, and 30 years later, we’re like, ‘Oh, crikey, this is so lovely that we can still be doing it.”

I chatted this time last year to fellow Mercury Prize nominee and BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards winner Seth Lakeman, and wondered if you felt those days were as much an apprenticeship for you as him? Were you taking it all in back then?

“He’s a bit younger, and I’d already been doing some solo stuff, then ended up getting together with Kathryn, doing duo gigs. There were the three boys, and I think quite a lot of gigs and venues said to them, ‘We don’t want to book you, because you don’t have a singer.’ Back then, Seth wasn’t singing, he was just playing.

“They rang, asking if I fancied joining the band. I said, ‘Possibly, but I’ve just started this duo with Kathryn, and I’m really into it, really loving it. I don’t really want to split that up … but we could both possibly come up – have two singers, see how it goes.’ They said, ‘Absolutely, that would be amazing.’ So we joined up with them, but then it went down a different route for me. I wasn’t enjoying the music at the time, nor some of the company.

“A five-album deal is like so many years, and they were laying all that stuff on thick that I’ve never believed, being brought up in Barnsley. You know, ‘You can have Bjork’s photographer and these people …’ I’m just sat there, going, ‘This is not for me, and I don’t believe you!’ I chose the folk side for me, and I’m so pleased.

“Kathryn decided to continue, and she’s had such a lovely time, she married Sean, and they’ve got two girls. I still see her every now and again, bumping into her at a festival up in the lakes recently, had a right good chinwag, catching up. It was lovely to see her. It’s funny how things go in different directions.”

Speaking of past working relationships, is Ronan Keating still in touch? Might we see you co-present The One Show when Alex Jones is off?

“Ha! I don’t think so. Do you know what, Ronan is somebody I haven’t really kept in touch with over the years. I’ve still got numbers for him and his manager, but … It was such a privilege to have a peer into that kind of world though. You know, that pop music world was amazing. I really enjoyed it.”

And when this tour’s done and dusted following your December 21st finale in Nottingham, where will you spend Christmas? I’m guessing home is still near Barnsley.

“Absolutely. We live in a village where Rusbys have dwelt for generations and generations, and there’s still lots of my family in that village. Christmas Eve is mum and dad’s wedding anniversary, so we always get together then, and because we’re all in the same village, we start at one person’s house, then everybody goes to the pub, we have dinner at somebody else’s, then back to the pub, then call in at somebody else’s if we haven’t all fallen asleep.

“There’s not one household that has to host the whole thing. It’s great. We sing all day, including those South Yorkshire carols, and I just love Christmas. Also, it’s my birthday in December. It’s my favourite time of year.”

How long are you off this year? Is it straight back to work afterwards?

“I think this time around, when the girls go back to school in January, we’ll carry on with the new Christmas album we’re working on. So we’re gonna be doing Christmas until June! Ha!”

I was going to ask if there’s a possibility of you being Christmas’d out, but I’m guessing not.

“It’s never gonna happen! I absolutely love it.”

As for the rest of 2023, maybe you could rush out your 40 LP nine years early, get your own back on Adele, get in there first while she’s swanning around in Las Vegas.

“Ha! That’s exactly what I should do. That is a good idea. And I’ll patent the name!”

Get it done.

“We’re gonna start the Christmas album, and there are a couple of festivals in January, like Celtic Connections in Glasgow. I’ve played that for years and really love going back, and we’re doing an ‘and friends’ gig at the end of this 30 celebration, so there will be lots of people playing with us, including Jason Manford. We’ve known Jason a few years, I was on a track of his on his album, and he was at our festival this year. He’s absolutely brilliant, what an amazing voice. Jason’s doing it, and Eddi Reader, and Beth Nielsen Chapman. There’s also Trad Fest in Dublin in January. Then we’re back in the studio, and we’re touring all the way through April and May, then there are the festivals … and before you know it, it’s time to be rehearsing for Christmas again!”

Probably recording your next but one Christmas album by then.

“Absolutely, and on it goes! All the happiness. And if we’re lucky enough to keep going, that will do me fine.”

Kate Rusby’s December 2022 dates: 9th – Bath, Forum; 10th – Birmingham, Town Hall (matinee and evening shows); 11th – Liverpool, Philharmonic; 12th – London, Islington, Union Chapel; 14th – Bradford, St George’s Hall; 15th – Gateshead, Sage; 17th – Cambridge, Corn Exchange; 18th – York, Barbican; 20th – London, Croydon, Fairfield Halls; 21st – Nottingham, Royal Concert Hall. For ticket details and all the latest from Kate, visit her websitewww.katerusby.com. You can also follow her via Facebook at officialkaterusby, Twitter at @katerusby, and Instagram at @katerusby, with examples of her work via YouTube at katerusbyofficial.

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Moving Inside Out with The Mighty Lemon Drops – the David Newton interview

A look at my (mostly trusty) list of live shows attended reminds me it was 37 years ago this week (November 17th, 1985) that I first chanced upon The Mighty Lemon Drops, supporting That Petrol Emotion at The Agincourt in Camberley, Surrey.

The very first Buzz Club show (before Jo Bartlett’s club night moved to Aldershot’s West End Centre, where I became a regular), I was there for the headliners, having seen them several times that summer and autumn around the capital. But I was impressed enough to keep tabs on their Black Country openers and caught them again in the same support role with the Petrols at the Klubfoot, Hammersmith Clarendon on Valentine’s night in ’86, a cracking bill also including The Wolfhounds.

It’s tricky to come up with specifics all these years on, but what you got was more or less always the same with that no-nonsense four-piece, namely Paul Marsh (vocals), David Newton (guitars), Tony Linehan (bass), and Keith Rowley (drums). There was clearly an Echo & the Bunnymen meets The Teardrop Explodes vibe atop a Velvet Underground backdrop, and they seemed effortlessly cool, the short-cropped hair and all-black, ‘60s biker leather chic as dependable as the guitars, bass and drums were powerful.

By the end of that breakthrough year their star had definitely ascended, my next Droppies sighting involving them topping the bill at the Astoria in central London, 36 years ago next week, every line and riff from their Happy Head debut LP – released that September – already firmly etched upon me.

I next caught them with the wondrous Stars of Heaven closer to my patch at the University of Surrey in Guildford in May ’87, by which time they’d got closer than ever to a mainstream hit – ‘Out of Hand’ stalling at No.66 on the UK chart – and saw them again the following February at the same venue, as at The Astoria with The Wild Swans, this time for the release of second LP, World Without End.

I enjoyed that album too, and dutifully bought third LP, Laughter. But I’d already moved on, and it never quite craved the same intimate attention from me … as was the case nationally, more’s the pity. I soon lost touch, but I’m listening again now via a quality new five-CD Cherry Red Records anthology out next week, a great excuse to track down and talk old times and new via Zoom with California-based David Newton, who co-wrote the songs on the first two records with Tony Linehan, stepping up some more from there.

David’s been in America since 1995 – ‘28 years in January’ – but is back at least once a year, give or take the odd global pandemic, and plans on returning next month, ‘fingers crossed.’ What does he miss most about his English and Black Country roots?

“Oh, man, lots of things. I lived in Wolverhampton until 1990, got married in ‘89 and we later moved to London. I was in South-West London until I moved here. When I go back now, I still have a lot of friends in the Midlands, but my social life became a bit – I hate to use the word – London-centric. A lot of people I knew ended up moving there. I still have friends and family in Wolverhampton though, so even on a shorter trip we’ll put in a daytrip to Birmingham.”

The new Inside Out boxset anthology celebrates their 1985/1990 output, featuring 97 tracks in all, including Happy Head, World Without End and Laughter, plus non-album singles, B-sides, bonus tracks, US radio mixes, previously-unreleased demos and rare session recordings, this guitar-driven band, somewhere between post-punk and neo-psychedelic, having appeared on the NME’s hugely influential C-86 compilation before signing with Geoff Travis’ new Chrysalis subsidiary Blue Guitar.

Happy Head, ‘a collection of uncluttered songs with a chiming Rickenbacker sound’, was described by Sounds as one of the 50 best albums of 1986. I had it far higher. Then came the more mature World Without End, which peaked at No. 33 in the UK and reached No. 1 on the US college chart, preceded by further near-hit ‘Inside Out’. As for Laughter, that was described as ‘by far the band’s best’, their sound continuing to evolve, the well-crafted vocal arrangements and sophisticated musicianship duly noted, as well as plenty more memorable melodies.

The latest anthology includes extensive sleeve notes compiled with assistance from David, who also recently contributed to Whatever Happened to the C86 Kids? by Nige Tassell, something else bound to generate renewed interest. In those sleevenotes, David also mentions JBs in Dudley, and I get the impression he was visiting Birmingham for his music fix from a young age.

“Yeah, I first went to JBs when I was 15. I was still in secondary school and started a fanzine with a mate of mine. I really liked the Mo-dettes, they were playing there, and I was like, ‘I wonder if I can find a way to interview the Mo-dettes for my fanzine?’ and somehow be able to get into JBs, under-age. I somehow had the nerve to write to the Mo-dettes manager, and they put me on the guestlist. That made me doubly nervous – not only interviewing these pop stars, also getting into an 18-and-over club. But I managed to pull both off, and from then on it was rare on a weekend not to visit JBs. I got to see so many live bands.”

That was certainly a venue that always seemed to be in the NME gig guide, so important to us in those pre-worldwide web days.

“I know! It’s amazing how we functioned without the internet! I think about that quite often.”

We talked some more about David’s days around his adopted Roehampton patch, me mentioning my own visits to nearby Putney’s Half Moon, seeing the likes of Geno Washington, fond memories stoked of trips up the A3 from Guildford.

“We were looking around Putney, but it was a bit out of our price range. We had friends that lived around Mortlake and Barnes, but Roehampton was an interesting place, a small village, with one of the first big project council estates, in a beautiful area, walking distance to Richmond. We were able to find this gorgeous 1800s property converted into flats. And that was where we stayed.

“The band was still in existence until the end of ‘92 / beginning of ’93, with Marcus {Williams, the bass player who took over from Tony Linehan and featured on the third LP} also ending up in Roehampton, with the others in the Midlands.”

I recall Marcus in Julian Cope’s band at one stage and have it in mind he had a spell in The Blue Aeroplanes, another band I loved.

“We both were! The Lemon Drops were still going but we had the same management. I liked the band anyway and we knew them, and in early 1992 there was a bit of a falling out and half of the band kind of went away but had scheduled gigs lined up, so they scrambled together, put together this emergency line-up, myself and Marcus in there.

“Another band with the same management company was The Katydids, fronted by Susie Hug, and she also featured, so you had this bunch of friends who all knew each other. It was a great time, even though there was work to be done.”

I saw The Katydids twice, first supporting Jim Jiminee at The Marquee in May 1989, then two years later – July 11th, 1991 – at Camden Underworld … supporting The Blue Aeroplanes, that very same line-up David mentioned. But I only checked that out later. The ‘Planes were a visual delight too, I suggested.

“Ha! There was this one concert we did, at the Town and Country Club {later The Forum}, which was filmed at the time and on TV. I didn’t even know. I was looking at the internet one day, saw it came out on DVD a couple of years ago. It’s got me, Marcus and Susie on.”

The sets always seemed to end with a gloriously chaotic version of Tom Verlaine’s ‘Breaking in my Heart’, I recall.

“That’s it, and Pat Fish, who sadly passed away quite recently, features on that too. And Adam {Seymour} from The Katydids, who ended up in The Pretenders.”

The second time I saw the Droppies live, in February ’86, was the last That Petrol Emotion show before heading to Rockfield Studios, South Wales to record Manic Pop Thrill. I’m guessing you weren’t far behind with your debut LP (also recorded at that famed Monmouth studio).

“We’d not got a record deal at that point. But Dan Treacy had put out our Like an Angel EP on his label, Dreamworld.”

That was December ’85, shortly after I first saw them in Camberley. And funnily enough, it was at one of Dan’s promotions upstairs at the Enterprise in Chalk Farm, one of his regular Room at the Top gigs, that I saw my second ever Petrols show that previous July, before I’d even heard of your band.

“That’s how we met. And we owe a lot to Dan. When the band first started in Wolverhampton, we had nothing. We were rank outsiders. We had no management, no record label, nobody looking over us. It was just me and Tony, Paul and Keith. I just sent some tapes out – one to Dan, when it {Dreamworld} was still Whaam! Records; one to Alan McGee at Creation; and one to Martin Whitehead at Subway. Creation as good as passed. Martin Whitehead said, ‘I really like it. I haven’t really got a label at the moment but let me think.’ And Dan got back and said, ‘Yeah, I really like it!’

“He didn’t offer us a deal at that point, but said, ‘I run a club in London, do you want to come down and play?’ We stayed at Dan and his girlfriend Emily’s flat in Clapham, had two gigs. We supported the TVPs on the Friday {at Deptford Crypt}, then Saturday night at Room at the Top, supporting The Membranes.”

Ah, the one where the floor collapsed!

“Yeah! Haha! And that got written about in the NME by The Legend – Everett True. Completely out of the blue. We played this gig, packed up our gear, drove back to Wolverhampton, and two weeks later, still living at home with my Mum at the time, 20 years old, the phone rang, and it was Dan, saying, ‘You’re not gonna believe this, but there’s a review in the NME of your gig!’ The Legend with this amazing review.

“And that was the start of it. The phone started ringing, all these record companies ringing up, us thinking, ‘You’ve not even heard us!’ We weren’t arrogant, but we were level-headed really. We just thought, ‘No, they can come and see us live.’

“That gig was also the day of Live Aid. Tony had a Volkswagen caravanette camper van, and Dan let us park outside his flat, so we slept in the van. I remember in the morning Dan woke us up, he’d made us all a tea, and said, ‘Do you want to come in? Live Aid’s on. Adam Ant’s on. So we went into Dan and Emily’s flat and watched Live Aid before the gig that night.”

Apparently, Dan changed the label name from Whaam! Records to Dreamworld after a request from a ‘similarly monikered chart-topping duo.’ And while I’m adding a little trivia, Dan’s girlfriend Emily Brown was later with indie band The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughters. As for The Mighty Lemon Drops, it’s fair to say they hadn’t been together too long by then.

“Only March, really.”

Schoolmates David and Paul had met Tony and Keith at JBs, the latter pair already playing together in The Pow, a ‘raucous post-punk power trio’. Meanwhile, David was in high school punk bands The Lowest Class and Gang Warfare. From there, Paul, David, Tony and drummer Andy Barker formed Active Restraint, their sole single released on Wolverhampton’s The Sticky Label, garnering airplay from John Peel and Kid Jensen on BBC Radio 1, David also moonlighting with labelmates The Wild Flowers, making two singles and an album before regrouping with Paul and Tony in early ’85, becoming the Sherbet Monsters with the addition of drummer Martin Gilks, who was replaced by Keith that August, but ultimately saw success with The Wonder Stuff.

While only embarking on their first UK tour (supporting March Violets) in March ’86, they had their first NME cover by the end of May (Adrian Thrills calling them ‘probably the hottest unsigned band in Britain … practically every leading label in the country falling over its chequebook in a bid to sign them’), and the following month made their Glastonbury debut on The Other Stage, played the NME’s Rock Week at the ICA, and recorded BBC Radio 1 sessions for John Peel and Richard Skinner.

The industry exec race was on by then, leading to those twin Blue Guitar and Sire deals in July, the subsequent recording of the debut LP, then the release and tie-in tour, the UK stint culminating in that November headline show I witnessed at the Astoria, followed by European dates, an amazing year rounded off by a festive homecoming at The Powerhouse, Birmingham, with fellow locals Pop Will Eat Itself and Balaam and the Angel. But David played all that down.

“Well, we were a little careful. It seems a short space of time now, but when you’re younger, it seems like a long spell. We didn’t jump into it. We had a harder time finding management, because we had all these record companies circling around us. We had one person who didn’t work out, then had all these managers and people circling, and felt, ‘Enough already!’

“Eventually, two friends of ours putting on gigs at Bay 63, who put us on a few times and we got on really well with – same age as us, they were music fans – one day came up to us when we were playing a gig, and said, ‘We’ve never actually managed a band before, but …’ One was working at Rough Trade, helping Geoff Travis out, and we actually liked these guys.

“We had this thing about whether we could sit in a van, drive from London to Glasgow with this or that guy. But these, we could tolerate them. Eventually, our record label sorted it out, around June/ July, a collaboration between Rough Trade and Chrysalis, with a different American deal signed with Sire Records.

“Geoff Travis was at our early gigs, and just the nicest guy, and it didn’t feel like he was a record company type. That was what was great. There wasn’t any bullshit or lingo. It was lovely having him as our go-between, someone we could talk to. We could tell him what we would feel, and he would translate it for the record company. It was perfect. And it was great in America, with a lot of the people at Sire Records. I’m still friends with a lot, either college or alternative radio types. They weren’t record company bigwigs. We had the best of both worlds really. Chrysalis Records were good but more corporate, more business-like. I can’t even remember the names of people there. But Geoff was our person to deal with all that.”

I was only at Bay 63 a fortnight before that first Buzz Club date, seeing That Petrol Emotion … although it was far later that I realised it was the same Acklam Hall location – later renamed Subterrania, where I saw both The Wedding Present and That Petrol Emotion (February and March 1990, respectively), and then Neighbourhood – where The Clash played two shows at Christmas 1979.

“Well, being an old punk, I knew!”

And it was the venue where Crisis, from my hometown, played a rather infamous Rock Against Racism show exactly six months prior to The Clash’s visits, a riot following – some dodgy Nazi skinhead types trying to gain admittance, wanting to confront the politically outspoken headliners.

“Ah, I still have a few Crisis records, ‘No Town Hall’ and ‘Holocaust’, and a mini-LP.”

While I was born in ’67, too young to catch all that, I was fairly well placed to catch the C-86 indie movement, including yourselves. And while I didn’t follow your later days so closely, I was pleased to see your continued success, not least Stateside. I get the impression John Peel felt you were too big for him by then though.

“I think so … I mean, that’s kind of a normal thing … like a fanzine thing.”

They build you up then knock you down?

“That is true. We did a Peel session {August ‘86}, but were a little bit known by that time. The first BBC sessions we did was for Andy Kershaw {Manchester, November ’85, around the time I first saw them}, and Janice Long {Golders Green, London, January ’86, with another in April ‘87} …”

There were also sessions for Richard Skinner, Simon Mayo and Nicky Campbell. But how did that Peel date come around …

“We went to a Mary Chain gig at Hammersmith Palais, Peel was there, and I think we just went up to him and asked. I think he liked that {approach}.”

As for Happy Head, produced by Stephen Street, that was in my top dozen or so LPs of all time back then.

“Oh wow!”

I felt it was a great document of where you were at and of what I saw in you at the time. Instant nostalgia, in a sense.

“That’s good to hear. We weren’t sure at the time. Looking back now, I can see Stephen Street did a really good job. We’d done our first record, the Like an Angel EP, in a matter of hours, so were a bit worried when we did the record with Stephen. His job was to capture the energy but also make it palatable for … well, I don’t really want to go there. At the time, we were like, ‘He’s toned us down, took the edges off. But looking back, it’s a good balance.”

Definitely. And ‘Like an Angel’ … what a debut single. No.34 in John Peel’s Festive Fifty that next year, it certainly stands the test of time, and it’s also among the tracks featured on another great new Cherry Red compilation, C85, celebrating the best of the burgeoning indie scene from 1985, that particular 45 recorded for £96 at Electro Rhythm in Hornsey, North London, using vintage equipment, a crack in Keith’s snare drum helping create its big sound (apparently).  

And because you mentioned Janice Long, I still love your cover on that first session for her of The Teardrop Explodes’ ‘When I Dream’. Is that on this compilation too?

“All the Dreamworld stuff is on there, and even earlier stuff, including the first recordings we ever did, with original drummer Martin Gilks, who went on to The Wonder Stuff. Keith, the Mighty Lemon Drops drummer, and Tony were in a band before the Lemon Drops, with Keith our first choice of drummer, but he had a job at the time, and had a lot of other things going on. Martin was recommended by a friend and together we recorded five songs in one studio and a couple of others in another, so put together a mini-cassette album … all we could afford.

“Then when we started doing alright, Keith was kind of wishing he’d been in the band. We got word of that and actually got him in the band. Thankfully it didn’t take Martin long to find The Wonder Stuff, so everything came off for everyone.”

‘When I Dream’ is not on the compilation actually. Perhaps it’s a licensing issue. Ah well, you’ll find it online. And if 1986 was an eye-opener, the following year saw the momentum continue, starting with a 27-date North American jaunt with The Chameleons and that fresh crack at the charts with ‘Out of Hand’, its promo video directed by Derek Jarman. The second Janice Long session followed, then that Spring tour and Glastonbury Pyramid stage debut, before they returned to Rockfield, this time working with Tim Palmer on that second LP.

The Droppies opened 1988 with a Simon Mayo session at London’s Maida Vale, before ‘Inside Out’ was released, as seen on BBC TV’s Saturday morning show, Going Live, another major tour ensuing, another ending with prestigious Astoria and Powerhouse bows as World Without End grazed the top 40, doing even better stateside, the year’s other highlights including dates in Brazil and high-profile arena shows supporting The Mission.

As 1989 dawned, they were back at work with Tim Palmer again, Tony soon moving on and David stepping up to primary songwriter, Marcus on board by the time they regrouped at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, Laughter not far off, the LP and accompanying singles promoted by more live dates, culminating this time in two sell-outs at London’s Dominion Theatre, a few days before that Nicky Campbell session, the ‘80s almost done.

While Laughter failed to chart in the UK, again they scored a US college radio chart-topper, also entering the Billboard 200 in March 1990, a four-month 100-plus Laughtour following. But on our side of the Atlantic the water turned cold, the Chrysalis/Blue Guitar deal done, two further LPs released by Sire largely ignored here, the band calling it a day after a late ‘92 US farewell tour. And while a December 2000 one-off reunion back in Wolverhampton, with Tony back in the fold, followed, there was nothing more forthcoming … until now, I guess.

So what about the rest of the band, David? Are you all still in touch?’

“Yeah, mainly I see Tony, who lives in London, and Keith, who lives in Birmingham. I haven’t seen Paul in person for a while. The last gig we’d played {pre-2000} was in ’92, and that seemed a long time … but now it’s been another 22 years!”

So this anthology marks 30 years since you originally called it a day.

“Erm … wow, yeah … it is …”

Will there be another reunion gig? Are you saying ‘never say never’ in a Noddy Holder style?

“It is ‘never say never’, you don’t know, but I don’t think at the moment … just because of the logistics. But we get offered things all the time, festivals like Shiine On, and something last year with Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. They were playing the Civic Hall and were asking if we’d like to do a kind of co-headline thing.”

I never really thought of you and The Wonder Stuff and Ned’s being part of the same set, until you reminded me about that link with Martin Gilks.

“And the Poppies.”

Yes, Pop Will East Itself too, of course.

“Again, there was that JBs, Dudley connection. They were regulars at the same time.”

I saw the Poppies at Glastonbury in ’87. But I missed you.

“We did it twice – in ’86 on the second stage … I think the Petrols were on around the same time.  The thing I remember about that time was a game of football – a Go! Discs team, with Billy Bragg and Andy Kershaw, versus The Mighty Lemon Drops and Friends. They were really good. Then we did it again in ’87 on the big stage. That was crazy, but a tough one – we went on before Husker Du. Can you imagine that? I think we went on after World Party, and New Order headlined that same stage.”

That reminds me why I missed you. A smashed windscreen in nearby Castle Cary on Friday evening meant we turned up too late to see anyone but New Order that evening.

“I do remember that New Order flew in by helicopter. Fucking hell – punk rock!”

That weekend marked the first time I saw both The Blue Aeroplanes and future Blue Aeroplanes bandmate Rodney Allen, who opened the Pyramid stage set on Saturday, a truly memorable moment, just this young lad with a guitar, playing to thousands upon thousands.

Anyway, going back to the beginning, you and Paul were at school together, yeah?

“Yes, Parkfield Secondary. I got to know him when I was about 12. He was a year above. We all got to know each other, these punks, really. We weren’t hardcore, but living in the USA since ’95 it’s hard to kind of explain how it was then, with bands like Buzzcocks in the charts, on Top of the Pops and all that. In secondary school there were kids into punk and kids into Rush and AC/DC, and older kids still into Northern Soul.

“One of the great things about growing up in the UK at that time, another thing you can’t convey here, is that you were into everything. I used to buy Northern Soul records and the first records I bought were by Slade, Sweet and Mud. And soul was big, and reggae too. It was great, this mixture of all these kinds of things. The other thing in the States is that radio’s kind of formatted here. You get a rock station, a soul station, a pop/top-40 station … With the BBC, you got a real cross-section.”

Were you a Wolves fan amid all that?

“Absolutely! They’re not doing too good this season though. It’s great that they’re doing better now than when I first moved here though, when they were in the second division. People would hear my accent and say, ‘Hey buddy, who’s your team?’ I’d say Wolves, and it was, ‘Say that again?’ I’d say it again, and they’d be like, ‘Manchester United?’ But finally, I can now say it, and they’ll know.”

We’ll talk more on this at some point, but I guess Slade were important to you growing up, flying the flag for your hometown.

“Well yeah, and growing up in Wolverhampton, you always knew somebody that knew someone connected with Slade. It was great that they were kind of like our band and one of the biggest bands in the country at that time … And when I was a little older, in the early ‘80s, there was this great pub by us called The Trumpet, in Bilston. It was actually The Royal Exchange but had that nickname because there was a lot of live jazz in there – quartets would play there. And Noddy was a regular. You’d go in on a Tuesday night, and he’d be having a pint. You’d never see him sitting down, he was always just leaned up against the bar, and you’d just be on nodding terms. That was up until he moved to Manchester. When they got big again in ‘82 or ‘83, you’d still see Noddy in there.”

Were you playing guitar at school? Or did you pick that up later?

“I was given one of my uncle’s old guitars when I was a kid. Two strings on it! Me and my neighbour across the street had a pretend band in the early ‘70s, and I used to make pretend records out of bits of cardboard. We were originally called Pop Slop!

“By the time I’d progressed to having actually put six strings on it, I know it sounds like a cliche, but I saw The Adverts on Top of the Pops doing ‘Gary Gilmore’s Eyes’ and realised I could actually play that! So me and some mates at school formed a punk band, The Lowest Class. Then we changed our name to Urban Kids after the song by Chelsea, and played a gig at our secondary school. That was like 1978, my first proper gig, and it was packed – 150/200 kids. We did all our own songs and covered a Skids song, ‘TV Stars’.”

They still do that to this day.

“Ah, but we changed the words in the verses to all of our teachers!”

What you said about The Adverts – that’s what it was all about, surely. Punk took away the pretentiousness – you felt you could play those songs, which wouldn’t have necessarily been the case if you were copying Steve Howe from Yes or Steve Hackett from Genesis. You’d see bands like The Clash and think, ‘I reckon I could play that!’

“You took the words out of my mouth. Yeah, and punk really made sense, you know. The first band I was really into that got me into punk was early Eddie and the Hot Rods. It was like a sped-up Dr Feelgood. I bought the Hot Rods’ Live at the Marquee EP with my pocket money, summer of ’76, and used to buy records from the out-of-chart box in Woolworth’s, Bilston. I think I got 50p a week pocket money, and 7-inches were 25p, leaving 25p. I bought ‘Anarchy in the UK’ from the ex-chart box for 25p, and was really disappointed because it wasn’t as fast as Eddie and the Hot Rods! But that was my introduction to what became punk.”

Did you know the basic chords, and just tried to play along?

“Yeah, when you’re younger, you’re hearing the entire thing but unable to differentiate between the instruments that are making that noise. But punk clearly made me realise, ‘That’s the guitar … that’s the bass ….’ It kind of broke it all down. It was great. Now you hear about all these bands that met at these music colleges.”

It’s a different world, of set lessons and YouTube tutorials and stuff like that.

“Yeah … the idea of being taught that at school. But I wouldn’t change a thing. I think it was healthier then. That’s why you get all these generic indie bands now, that all sound the same – they probably all went to the same music school with the same teacher that taught them the same bloody generic indie rubbish!

“My one attempt at keeping up with what’s going on in modern music – my wife works in the music industry for a TV network – is going to South by Southwest {SXSW} in Austin, Texas, each year. It’s great for me – I see like a year’s worth of 30/40 different bands and artists in five days, although the last couple of years have been harder because of the pandemic.”

Home for David and wife Bekki is Burbank, a suburb of Los Angeles, ‘a 10-to-15 minute drive from Hollywood.’

“It’s great, just out of town. It doesn’t feel that much different to living in the UK, being a suburban street. There’s a film and TV and music industry around here, but it’s far enough away that it’s not like living in Hollywood or downtown Los Angeles, although things have changed in the 27 years I’ve been here. Burbank is its own little city, with its own shops and local pub.”

As we’re talking, I spot a framed photo of Blur on his wall.

“You know the reason I’ve got that? It’s actually taken at a cafe in Wolverhampton. My wife saw it, and funnily enough one of their first gigs outside London was at JBs, Dudley, before ‘She’s So High’. Now and again, you’d walk into JBs to see a relatively unknown or heard band, and it was one of those gigs where you thought, ‘Wow, they’re really good!’ I had no idea they’d become as big as they did though.

“I don’t see as many bands now as I used to, but I saw a lot of bands and they had everything. They had the songs, they sounded good, and they were good looking lads and could fucking play. They had energy, Damon Albarn climbing up the PA. And he was still playing that Farfisa organ. They reminded me of … I don’t know, Radio Stars, the way Andy Ellison used to play, and they had the energy of a punk band. My missus was with me at the time, and we both thought, ‘Fucking hell, that was great!”

How did you and Bekki meet?

“At a Primal Scream gig at ULU in 1987. Bekki was 18. I was 22. She was going to school in London. She’d just moved there, she’d only been there about six months. We played gigs with the Primals, and I was living in Wolverhampton at the time. It was a Friday night. The Lemon Drops had a couple of days off, so me, Keith, the drummer, and a couple of our mates decided to go down to London, went to see Primal Scream, and I just bumped into Bekki. I had no idea she was American – originally from Los Angeles – and it turned out she knew somebody I knew. That’s now 35 years ago. She actually moved up to Wolverhampton for a while.”

As you do. It wasn’t like Brix moving in with Mark E. Smith, then? That major culture shock of an LA lass experiencing Prestwich, Greater Manchester?

“Ha! It wasn’t quite that … and I didn’t quite have Mark E. Smith’s lifestyle!”

I’m reminded of Brix’s tale, enquiring on her arrival where the milk was for a cuppa, Mark telling her it was kept outside on the window ledge.

“Well, we didn’t have a fridge until the mid-‘70s. I think the neighbours came round and had a look!”

These days there’s Dave Newton and the Mighty Angels. Is that you keeping your hand in, gig-wise?

“I haven’t done any gigs for a little bit, but because of my day job really. When we moved here, we got this house, and there’s a two-car garage out back. I didn’t have a job, but was always into the recording side, watching what the producers of the Lemon Drops were working with. I used to do my own demos at home, had a little 4-track. I was always intrigued by that and turned our garage into a recording studio, recording my mate’s band around 1997. That turned out all right, they released it, then told somebody else, and before I knew it, I ended up producing bands.

“That was 25 years ago, I was scraping a living doing that, and I’ve got to work with a few bands, mostly Los Angeles based, a couple of them picked up. Heavenly Recording picked up The Little Ones, and they did quite well in the UK, and also The Soft Pack. We both knew Jeff {Barrett} from the label when he was putting gigs on around ‘86.”

I loved Happy Head, liked the follow-up and its singles, but for whatever reason lost touch with the band from there. So I’ll be interested to go back to Laughter now, see what I make of it. It does seem clear though that you became bigger in America than in the UK. As if they ‘got you’ more.

“I think so. And by the time Laughter came out, the climate had changed so much – the dance culture element really kind of merged with the guitar and pop thing. It’s funny really – The Stone Roses would come to our gigs. I remember them being on the guestlist when we played the International in Manchester. There was an element of what they were doing that wasn’t really that different from what we were doing. But we never really embraced the dance culture element the way a lot of those bands did. And even C86 bands like The Soup Dragons did.”

A fair point. In fact, listening back to Happy Head before finishing this feature, I hear the influence they may have had on Inspiral Carpets. And like many bands of their era, they missed out on the adulation that would surely have been afforded them if they were around slightly later and seen as part of the Brit Pop phenomenon.

“You don’t know, that’s the way it is, but yeah, quite possibly. But I can’t complain. And in the US, we weren’t really linked in any particular scene but were kind of alongside – and Sire Records had bands like the Bunnymen, Depeche Mode, The Smiths over here – bands we weren’t aligned with in the UK. We toured with Love and Rockets, who didn’t sound anything like us, and even Gene Loves Jezebel and Flesh for Lulu, all bands more popular in the States than in the UK.”

All in all, it was one hell of a ride, and something you can feel immensely proud of … and there are a lot more recordings we haven’t really talked about here.

“Yeah, we did an album called Sound, then did one more called Ricochet in the States, when we were given free rein to do what we wanted. I think that kind of stands up. I can listen to that. I can’t listen to Sound, to be honest. Laughter is a good album though. There’s some good stuff on there.”

The Mighty Lemon Drops: Inside Out – 1985-1990 is priced £27.99 and out on November 25th, with more details here.

The band also feature on the same label’s C85 triple-CD clamshell boxset, celebrating the burgeoning indie scene from 1985, also including tracks from The Jesus And Mary Chain, The Stone Roses, That Petrol Emotion, The Woodentops, James, Del Amitri, and The Housemartins, with details of that 72-track collection here.

With extra thanks to Matt Ingham at Cherry Red Records.

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What we still do on our holidays – talking Fairport Convention, Cropredy, and much more with Dave Pegg

Legendary bass player Dave Pegg marked his latest big birthday in style recently, turning 75 with lots of good friends at Dudley Town Hall, a date that also marked 53 years’ involvement with British folk-rock legends Fairport Convention.

“It was fabulous. We had a great time, lots of my mates turning up. Ralph McTell came and sang, Anna Ryder … a fantastic night.”

Also marking the occasion for the Birmingham-born multi-instrumentalist and producer was his ex-Fairport Convention rhythm buddy, drummer Dave Mattacks, over from America especially, and also lined up for the band’s next winter tour in February 2023.

Founded in 1967, two years before ‘Peggy’ joined, Fairport Convention are clearly not ready to retire, these folk-rock pioneers going strong 55 years on, after 29 albums and thousands of gigs, alongside many solo and collaborative projects by current and former members, with the annual Fairport’s Cropredy Convention attracting 20,000 people to ‘Britain’s friendliest festival’.

The affection and regard in which they are held is highlighted in new authorised book Gonna See All My Friends – A People’s History of Fairport Convention, which features memories from more than 250 fans, friends and collaborators, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and Doane Perry, Ralph McTell, producer Joe Boyd, BBC broadcaster Michael Billington, and many folk luminaries among them.

Taking its title from a line in Richard Thompson’s Fairport anthem to enduring friendship, ‘Meet on the Ledge’, this 384-page publication – including full colour photos and memorabilia – was compiled by Manchester-based music writer Richard Houghton, his past works including those on the Rolling Stones, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and Jethro Tull.

And as well as Peggy’s own words, contributors also include surviving founder member Simon Nicol (guitar/vocals, 44 years’ service), the line-up these days completed by Ric Sanders (fiddle, keyboards, ukulele, since 1985) and Chris Leslie (mandolin, bouzouki, flute, since 1996).

As for Peggy, who has put in 47 years’ service with Fairport Convention since 1969, I soon mentioned how if he’d only popped up among the playing personnel on 1970 LP, Bryter Layter, I’d be in awe, let alone everything else he’s played on down the years, that session with Nick Drake around the same time he recorded Full House, his first Fairport Convention LP.

“That was a fantastic period for music for people of my age. I joined Fairport Convention that year and got to play with lots of other people coming up, people like Nick. And that’s one of my favourite albums, Bryter Layter.

Quite right too.

“And I got to play on Solid Air, the John Martin album, as well.”

That 1973 LP was another I was going to mention, and I get the impression it’s fundamentally about a fellowship of friends with Dave, working with those artists, in and out of their bands, including projects with ex-bandmates Richard Thompson and the late Sandy Denny and Dave Swarbrick.

“Exactly. I’ve played in Richard’s band, and with Ralph McTell, producing his album, Slide Away the Screen. There were times when there was an awful lot going on, all the ‘folkies’, if you like, big buddies – playing on each other’s albums. It was one big band, and some people wrote their own material – like Sandy, Nick, John … – and those of us that managed to survive are still great mates.”

Your online profile has you down as multi-instrumentalist, bass player, producer … what do you see yourself as, first and foremost?

“Well, I’m a bass player. Bass guitar is my instrument. I play the guitar and the mandolin, and I started learning the cello a couple of years ago, during the lockdown. I’m pretty crap at the cello, but I love playing it!”

While missing out on three seminal Fairport LPs featuring Sandy Denny, Peggy worked with the revered singer-songwriter as a solo artist and when she returned for 1975’s Rising for the Moon. And it’s striking to me all these years on that Sandy was the same age as you, yet she’s been gone 44 years now.

“It is bizarre, but she’s always kind of represented with Fairport when we do gigs. We could never replace Sandy Denny, that’s why we never got a girl singer again. Like you could never replace Richard Thompson, which is why we never got another guitar player. But Sandy’s still there, because we play some of her wonderful songs, like ‘Fotheringay’, and of course, ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’”

The latter is among my all-time favourites.  

“Well, it’s a song that everybody knows, and quite rightly so. I think it was voted the best folk song ever written, and we have a nice arrangement of it. We don’t do it every night, but (we have while) we’ve been out in October doing some little gigs up in Scotland and down in Cornwall, which we’ve enjoyed a lot.”

Funny you should mention Cornwall. I’m just back from a few days in Perranporth and read in my advance copy of Richard Houghton’s Gonna See All My Friends the story of how you ended up playing the Memorial Hall there in late 2019. You’ve clearly brought so many memorable nights to unexpected, often remote venues down the years.

“Yeah, well, the band’s been going since ’67, so we’ve kind of covered … I mean, we still do a lot of gigs, but because we’re getting on, we try and put all our work into concise periods. So everybody gets some time off. We’re not doing a spring tour next year, but we’re doing about 25 gigs in October. And we’re doing a winter tour which starts on February 1st in Tewkesbury, and we’re probably doing 25 or 30 gigs. We have Mondays off. Ha!

“We try and cover the whole country as much as we can. Then of course, on August 10th, 11th and 12th we’ve got Cropredy, which is something we started quite a while back.”

That’ll be more than 40 years in itself.

“That’s the highlight of our year. We had a fantastic one this summer, apart from the heat, which is the first time we’ve ever complained about having constant sunshine for three days at Cropredy!”

Yes, this isn’t Mustique during a hyper-successful band’s tax year out. We’re talking North Oxfordshire, amid increasing global warming.

“Yeah, absolutely.”

There’s been many a big name involved at Cropredy down the years, not least your old pal, Robert Plant.

“He’s played Cropredy a few times. He was up in Scotland last night. Our mate, Tristan Bryant, our agent and tour manager, went up to see him because he sometimes works with Saving Grace. And they’re a great band. Robert really enjoys doing that, and I hope he’ll keep it going.”

You only have to hear his output in the last decade or so to know he’s still got that love and the music comes first.

“Yeah, and I think that goes for most musicians of our age. When we started, it was for the love of it, all our roots the same – first The Shadows, then the blues and American R&B … And while you’re physically able, you can’t just stop. It doesn’t matter how successful you become. You still want to be out there playing.

“That works for everybody. People like Macca, and a classic example is Bob Dylan. I saw him last week and it was one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen.”

Heady praise from the fella behind his own Dylan Project a couple of decades ago, and clearly with a long affinity to His Bobness (and of course, Fairport Convention ‘and Friends’ released their A Tree With Roots covers LP in 2018).

“Yeah, we were all Dylan fans. But the worst concert I’ve ever seen was Bob Dylan in Birmingham a few years ago – the last time I saw Bob before last week. It was just horrendous, but Rough and Rowdy Ways (his 2020 LP) is just such a fantastic piece of work, and it was just a brilliant gig. He sang like an angel, the sound was incredible … and I was right at the back of the arena. The band were fantastic, and your man … an hour and three-quarters of just joyous music. It was fantastic. If you’ve got the chance, get a ticket. Don’t miss it!”

Talking of musical heroes and inspirations, you mentioned in your afterword in the book how you were inspired by The Shadows, particularly Hank Marvin’s playing, and The Beatles … but also Joe Brown.

“Yeah, and Joe lives in Cropredy now, and sometimes in America. We see him quite often, and I saw him at our festival last year. And he was such an influence on people. I mean, he was the first English rock star, if you like. He played in Eddie Cochran’s band when he came over, which is amazing. He’s an incredible guy.”

Dave served his own musical ‘apprenticeship’ in Birmingham with The Crawdaddys, Roy Everett’s Blueshounds, and the Ian Campbell Folk Group, led by UB40 stars Ali, Duncan and Robin Campbell’s father.

I’m guessing in your formative playing days, everything was a learning experience, on stage but also making notes on the many bands passing through Birmingham at the time.

“Oh, absolutely. When I started, I used to play lead guitar. So I played in blues bands. Crawdaddys was a great little band and Roy Everett’s Blueshounds, which had a fantastic saxophonist, Mike Burney, who went on to play with Roy Wood’s Wizzard.

“You just pick up influences, and Birmingham had such a great scene. We had the Spencer Davis Group, with Steve Winwood just a genius when he was like 16 or 17, doing gigs. An amazing performer. We used to play at the town hall. We did an all-nighter one year, our band, The Crawdaddys, on first at 7.30 and finishing at 7.30 the next morning. We did the first and the last spot! And in between there was the Spencer Davis Group, John Mayall with Eric Clapton, Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds, with Albert Lee. All these great guitar players.”

If you weren’t learning from that lot, there was little hope for you.

“Yeah, and I saw Cream seven times in and around Birmingham. And that was a fantastic experience. There’s a book about Cream that Richard Houghton put out. That’s how I got to know about Richard. He sent me the Cream book, which I really enjoyed, and I wanted to be in that book if I’d known that was coming out. Having seen them so many times, I had some good stories about seeing Cream.”

Then there was time with the afore-mentioned Robert Plant and his former bandmate, John Bonham. With another twist of fate, could Peggy have featured in Led Zeppelin?

“Knowing Bonzo, I’m sure I’d have got a mention. Actually, their manager, Peter Grant phoned me one day to see if I’d join Bad Company. Which I didn’t because I was already in Fairport. But I’d be no match for John Paul Jones. Without him, I mean … He wasn’t just a bass player. He was such a phenomenal musician … still is. His keyboard work and his arranging … it’s a different league to me!”

You’re being very modest, but I know what you mean.

“He’s also a monster mandolinist. I think he took up mandolin after seeing Fairport at the Albert Hall, when we did Full House. We’d do a mandolin duet on ‘Flatback Caper’, myself and Swarbrick, and John was in the audience.

“I may have that wrong, and of course, the mandolin on ‘The Battle of Evermore’ … well, when John Paul Jones was at Cropredy, playing with Seasick Steve, I said, ‘John, I loved the mandolin on ‘The Battle of Evermore’, and he said, ‘it wasn’t me, Peggy, it was Jimmy (Page)!’

Your early days with the Ian Campbell Folk Group saw you closely aligned with the folk scene, but you were clearly a rock fan alongside that. And seeing as there’s a mention from Christine {Dave’s ex-wife) in the book about a heated debate around the time you first saw Fairport Convention in Birmingham in ’69 as to whether it was right to mix folk and rock – four years after Dylan’s ‘Judas’ moment at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall – I get the feeling that didn’t bother you.

“Not at all. When I joined the Ian Campbell Folk Group, I played electric bass on one of their albums, The Circle Game, and they invited me to join the band, but I had to take up the acoustic bass, like double bass. And that was when I took up the mandolin as well. I was with them for about a year and was never a great double bass player, but I really loved the music they did. It was very Scottish influenced, obviously, because the family were from Aberdeen.

“But I learned an awful lot about traditional music there, and also an appreciation for Dave Swarbrick, who’d left the band when I joined, but I used to go and see him with Martin Carthy, who was and still is a formidable singer. He’s just the best, a great guitar player, Martin. I saw them about seven times as well.

“And after I went to Mothers that night, I couldn’t believe it when Dave Swarbrick phoned up and said, ‘Ashley Hutchings has left, will you come for an audition?’ And it was exactly what I wanted to do at the time.”

It seems that Dave already had an advance copy of Liege & Lief when he caught Fairport Convention that previous night in Birmingham on his 22nd birthday in 1969.

“I don’t know where I got the copy from. I wouldn’t have bought it from a record shop. I know that much. I don’t know how I was able to learn the tunes, but I know I’d listened to ‘Matty Groves’. I don’t know whether Swarbrick gave me a copy.”

You clearly gelled with the rest of the band, early doors. How important was it for you all to move into that pub in Little Hadham, Hertfordshire, in your case moving down from Birmingham?

“It was the way of the band ostensibly being all together, ‘getting it together in the country,’ which is what people like Traffic were doing at the time. But The Angel, I described it one night on stage as a hovel, and Simon (Nicol) said, ‘It wasn’t that good!’ There was literally one toilet, with a little cistern to get hot water. You could get a bath from it once every five hours. And there were about 12 of us living there! In my family, we had our daughter, Steph, and my wife Chris, at the time. Swarbrick had a wife and a child, and there were a couple of so-called roadies. It was like a hippie invasion of Little Hadham.

“We weren’t really hippies, but to the neighbours – and there were seven millionaires living there – we were looked down upon for a long time. It took us a while to establish ourselves. But eventually they got to know us and got to like us. We had a lorry crash through the house one day. The driver was killed. It crashed into the bedroom downstairs where Dave Swarbrick was. He was very lucky not to be killed. But the neighbours all mucked in and really helped us out. And they still have a little festival in the next village, at the Nag’s Head pub in Much Hadham.  We played there at a concert to raise money for the Policemen’s Benevolent Fund.”

Was that an attempt to ingratiate yourself with the local bizzies so you could have pub lock-ins after hours?

“It was so we didn’t get tickets on our van when we parked in Bishops Stortford! They gave us a washing machine for doing the gig … which just shows you what they must have thought of us. Ha!”

That initial chance to audition with Fairport Convention must have been a bit of a mingle-mangle moment. And there have been a few such fateful twists, it seems. Yet it was clearly meant to be.

“Yeah, it’s like when I joined Jethro Tull. That came at a time when Fairport had literally split up, Swarbrick had got hearing problems … he never seemed to have them when it was somebody else’s round at the bar though! But he was suffering a bit and we were paid not to make any more albums for Vertigo, a record label that was part of the Phonogram group. Because they couldn’t sell our albums.

“They said, ‘We don’t want anymore,’ and we said, ‘But we’ve signed a four-album deal. We want paying for the next two.’ And they went, ‘Okay, we’d rather give you money not to make music than have you give us your albums.’ That’s when you know how successful you are, Malc!’

Is that how your Woodworm Records label came about?

“It was indeed. We got £7,000 each, which paid for the cottage I bought, moving to Cropredy. And because I was unemployed, I thought I’m gonna set up a little studio. We had a little studio in the back garden shed. Then we decided that if nobody wanted to put our albums out, we’d have to do it ourselves. So we set up Woodworm, and that was the reason that the longevity of Fairport is still there. We were one of the first cottage industries, and from that came the festival as well. We started to promote Cropredy, which at first was just a get-together, like a reunion gig for ex-members who just wanted to get up and play for a bit of fun.  But it’s turned into such a great event.”

When it came to August 4th, 1979, playing Cropredy, was there a proper feel of finality about that show? Or was there always that feeling that you might one day be back?

“No, there was a feeling of finality. We didn’t have any real plans to do anything else. We played with Led Zeppelin in the morning at Knebworth. They invited us to be the first act, which was quite scary – 100,000 fans of Led Zeppelin, and us guys playing jigs and reels and slow ballads! But we went down very well. And it was just the fact that we were all still mates.

“And we’d started this little label and we were building up a mailing list with people – obviously before the mobile phone and faxes and everything like that.”

It’s difficult to think how it used to work then, thinking back, in these days before the internet, social media, and so on.  

“Everything was done from the post office in Cropredy – all the letters and invitations. And we thought while we were doing this, we could have a get-together. We knew the farmer, having used his land for our farewell gig. So we thought, ‘Yeah, we can do this.’ That’s how it all started, and now it’s a great event. We’ve had some fantastic bands playing at Cropredy. We’ve had Alice Cooper, we’ve had Brian Wilson, Status Quo, who I loved, Little Feat … we’ve had some great bands and, of course, all the Fairport folks and Richard Thompson, Robert’s been a few times, Steve Winwood …”

There’s a nice story in the new book about a fan who came up to you and Robert Plant at Cropredy, asking for a photo … then requesting that Robert take it of you and the fan. I liked that.

“That was a classic moment. You just you had to be there!”

I loved Ralph McTell’s story about his double-five finish in an impromptu darts contest in your crowded cottage (you’ll have to buy the book for that one).

“That’s true. I’ve read the book, it’s really good, and all credit to Richard … and Ian Burgess who got all the photographs and got it together. There are some very funny stories and some very sad ones as well.”

There are certainly a few gruesome moments in there too … quite a few of them involving the excesses of alcohol. But the socialising has always been up there with the music.

“Yeah, well, there’s the Krumlin festival story (Barkisland, near Halifax, for the Yorkshire Folk, blues and Jazz Festival, August 1970), with Elton John there, before he was very well known. I mentioned this the other night to one of my mates. We were talking about Elton John, and I mentioned how I went to see him with Ian Sutherland, of the Sutherland Brothers (in later years). Dave Mattacks and myself were playing on one of his albums, and he’s a big mate of Reg (Dwight, aka Elton John).

“He said, ‘Peggy, he’s at Birmingham NEC … or whatever … come along.’ So we went along, the first act finished, and just before the interval, Ian said, ‘Come backstage, say hello to Reg.’ I went, ‘Oh, I can’t, I’m too embarrassed.’ So he went back, then came back and said, ‘Elton says hello. He said he remembers you well from Krumlin. You taught him how to drink.’ That’s my claim to fame, Malcolm!”

One of many, surely. One story in the book in particular made me wince though, one about what you thought was a tick in your leg you wanted removing at Cropredy … but turned out to be a varicose vein.

“Oh, yeah, Well, I missed 10cc. I was in the ambulance. They started ‘I’m Not in Love’ as the ambulance pulled out of the field.”

So I gather … off to Banbury, where doctors struggled to stem the bleeding for two hours.

Meanwhile, you say in the afterword how you told yourself if you ever made it in this business, you’d always be ‘as nice to fans as they were to me’. There are lots of examples within suggesting that’s the case. And that sums up the band ethos really, doesn’t it?

“Well, yeah. I mean, without the fans … we’re all fans, I’m a fan myself. Not necessarily a Fairport fan, but of other bands. And I’ve met some fantastic people who I worship, like McCartney – a classic example to everybody about how nice you can be … even when you’re Paul McCartney. He’s just lovely.

“I’ve only met one person – and I’m not mentioning who, but he’s a bass player, he’s American, a very highly respected jazz bass player, who my son worshipped as well. I wanted to get his autograph for my son. I bumped into him in a hotel somewhere in America – he was staying in the same hotel – and I said, ‘Oh, I’m a big fan of yours, any chance of getting an autograph for my son? He’s a bass player too.’ And he was very short with me. He said, ‘Just ask reception to put a note in my pigeonhole, by the key, and I’ll do it.’ And nothing, he never did it. But that’s the only time I’ve been blanked.”

There are many legendary tales of bands who go that little bit further for fans, all good examples of people treating fans right. And you’re part of that.

“Well yeah, times have changed, obviously, and there are health and safety and security issues, insurance, you know, it’s a different time to be out there playing music and you have to be more careful nowadays. But we go out, my partner, Ellen, and myself, we try and sell merch when we’ve got something new to sell, and I love meeting people, because you get really good feedback about what they think of the show and what they’d like to hear. And it’s beneficial to the band, and I’m sure that helps.”

It must keep you on level ground as well. Although I get the impression you’ve never been one to get above your station.

“Well, I’m still waiting to get there, Malcolm!”

A major rant followed about Brexit Britain, Dave headed for Brittany when the book lands, complaining, ‘You can’t post books to Brittany, because apart from the cost of the postage, thanks to Brexit and all those tossers that voted for Brexit … somebody bought a book from Oxfam for me, it was 50p, it cost them £4.50 to send it to Brittany, then I had to pay nine Euros duty on it.”

Then there are all the bands who can’t afford to play mainland Europe right now, what with added red tape, hoops to jump through, and so on, a potentially lucrative market for musicians ruled out.

“Well, yeah, because of paperwork costs, and so on. Hopefully that’ll all change, but it’s really messed up. You know, there’s just no point trying to go to Europe to do any gigs. We’ve stopped going to Europe.”

Which is sad in itself. You’ve clearly got a good fan base there.

“It’s a shame. But we say, ‘Okay, come to Cropredy.”

They know how to find you … as long as they keep their heads down, in case Ralph McTell is playing darts at the time.”

“Ha! Indeed … and he’s so proud of that.”

Well, it’s been lovely to talk to you, and I was gonna say ‘keep rocking’, but maybe that sounds a bit too Slade-like.

“No, that’s alright for me. I’m of an age!”

Gonna See All My Friends – A People’s History of Fairport Convention, priced £19.99, is available via this Spenwood Books link, and https://www.fairportconvention.com/, where you can also find future dates and news of the band and Cropredy Festival.

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Running around my soul – talking Working Men’s Club with Syd Minsky-Sargeant

Three months after its initial release, Working Men’s Club’s cutting-edge second album, Fear Fear, returns in a deluxe edition next Friday (October 28th), this fast-rising Heavenly Recordings act having reached No.11 in the UK LP chart on its release, amid glowing reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. 

And having sold out both Manchester Ritz and Brixton Electric last year, the band are stepping up again, all set for their biggest UK and Irish tour to date, those shows on the back of triumphant appearances at this year’s Great Escape, Tramlines, Bluedot and Primavera festivals, intimate performances at key UK independent record stores during release week, and last weekend’s successes at further festivals in Leeds and Sheffield.

The new Fear Fear package includes the five-track Steel City EP, featuring various remixes of its tracks from South Yorkshire-based producers Toddla T, Charla Green, Diessa, Warp originals, Forgemasters, and Ross Orton – who recorded, produced and mixed the latest LP – the EP previously only available on CD for those who bought the album via Bear Tree record shop in Sheffield.

Talking about the LP and how they’ve moved on from their self-titled debut album, released after a four-month pandemic-related delay in October 2020 and itself reaching the UK top-30 LP chart, the band’s ever-present singer/songwriter Syd Minsky-Sargeant explained, ‘The first album was mostly personal lyrically. This is a blur between personal and a third-person perspective of what was going on. I like the contrast of it being happy, uplifting music and really dark lyrics. It’s not a minimal record, certainly compared to the first one. That’s because there’s been a lot more going on that needed to be said.”

It’s certainly been a busy couple of years for the band, named after the wood-panelled, community-run venues an under-age Syd sneaked into in his hometown of Todmorden, West Yorkshire, those formative years providing much of the subject matter for the first record. As he put it at the time, then just 18, “There’s not much going on, not much stuff to do as a teenager. It’s quite isolated. And it can get quite depressing being in a town where in the winter it gets light at nine in the morning and dark at four.”

That initial eponymous collection of songs was seen as ‘equal parts Calder Valley restlessness and raw Sheffield steel,’ as it was across the Pennines that Working Men’s Club’s hard-edged electronic sound was forged under the watchful ear of the afore-mentioned Ross Orton (The Fall, M.I.A., Arctic Monkeys) – ‘guitars locking horns with floor-filling beats, synths masquerading as drums and Minsky-Sargeant’s scratchy, electrifying bedroom demos brought to their full potential by Orton’s blade-sharp yet sensitive production.’

In the space of a year, their label reckons they went through more than most bands do in a lifetime. Two original members lighter and three new ones the richer, Fat White Family took them under their wing, two singles receiving love from the likes of BBC 6 Music, the NME, The Guardian, and Q, while tours with Fat White Family, Mac De Marco, Bodega, and a sold-out headline tour culminated in a 600-capacity rave-up in Manchester.

And while lockdown curtailed plans, the band made the most of the situation, streaming a 21-minute ‘Megamix’ of album tracks which they subsequently performed live, including one at YES in Manchester, becoming one of the first acts to play a full-band virtual show in those testing times. 

The band was formed in mid-2018 by Syd (vocals/guitar), Giulia Bonometti (guitar) and Jake Bogacki (drums). But after the release of debut single ‘Bad Blood’, they evolved somewhat towards a more electronic sound, with Bonometti and Bogacki leaving, replaced by Liam Ogburn (bass) and multi-instrumentalists Mairead O’Connor and Rob Graham, the latter leaving prior to the release of the second album, his replacement, multi-instrumentalist Hannah Cobb, also playing in Preston-founded, Manchester outfit Dream English Kid with Liam,

Considering the story so far, you’d be forgiven for thinking Syd might have now left his hometown for that there London, or perhaps Manchester or Sheffield. But he told me he’s still based on the West Yorkshire side of the Pennines, sticking with his Todmorden roots.

It’s been an amazing couple of years for the band, post pandemic lockdowns, hasn’t it, Syd?

“Yeah, it’s been interesting.”

Just seeing the places you’ve played – with festival and regular gigs all over the UK, mainland Europe and America – would suggest you’re having the time of your life.

“It’s been wicked, and I’m very grateful.”

Ahead of this interview, I returned to Robin Turner’s …Believe in Music, 2020’s 30-year celebration in print of the Heavenly Recordings label, launched around the same time as the first Working Men’s Club LP, wherein both the author and label founder Jeff Barrett – who also introduced the band to Ross Orton – rave about Syd and the band.

Robin writes, ‘Working Men’s Club are a group who fuse the energy of the dancefloor to the ecstasy of a rock‘n’roll gig, and they do it very, very well … they are a lifeline thrown from the north of England just when it needs one.

‘At a point where music appears to have fractured and rearranged into algorithmic playlists, where no one knows anything but pretends they know every damn thing, and nostalgia remains the strongest currency, along comes a group to make you dance, sing … anything. A group to fall for, to follow, to believe in.’

As for Jeff, he adds, ‘Working Men’s Club are without doubt one of the most exciting groups that have ever landed in my life. And that precedes Heavenly. They’re one of the most exciting groups I’ve ever worked with, I’ve ever liked, I’ve ever seen. Syd is one of the most talented kids I know. He’s got a strong work ethic, a vision and a total belief. He’s so beyond his years.

‘That first time I watched Syd perform, I could tell that he had it. He looked great, like a young Tim Burgess or a young Billy Mackenzie. A pin-up pop kid. They hadn’t been going very long – a matter of months. They obviously weren’t anywhere near fully formed, and I didn’t realise just how un-fully formed they were. There was something special there though. I left that show with a lot of people saying, ‘Bloody hell, that was a bit good, wasn’t it?’ But that wasn’t what I got. There was something I couldn’t put my finger on, but my instincts told me there’s something not just really good in there, there’s something potentially really amazing.

‘I came home and I slept and they were on my mind. I woke up, they were still on my mind … I said, ‘I think I’m going to work with them.’ I just had a feeling, and you don’t get that many like that.

‘The thrill of working with Syd and with his band is extra special for me because 30-plus years on from getting the buzz I got when I started out, seeing the Mary Chain and Primal Scream in the mid-’80s, then East Village and then Flowered Up at the start of this journey – the same buzz I got hearing Andrew {Weatherall) DJ – I’m having it again. And you know what? After all this time, how good is that? I’m still believing!’

Jeff Barrett certainly gives the impression that you were always driven, having that work ethic from day one. Arguably, lots of us have that push and belief. But to actually do something with that and fulfil those dreams, that’s perhaps something else.

“I guess so. It’s a combination of a few things, really. A lot of people work very hard and do a lot of really good things. Whether they get heard or seen is another matter.”

Did you have a clear vision of what you wanted to do from the early days? Only it sounds like it was something that evolved as time went on.

“Yeah, I still don’t have a clear vision … I think. The thing that excites me the most is what hasn’t happened yet … if that makes sense. Music that hasn’t been made, or records that aren’t finished yet. And I was trying to stay in that mindset.”

Is that sometimes about listening back to the first rough recordings of new songs or something that comes into your head? Is it coming off the stage and seeing the elation from bandmates and your audience? Or is it a mix of all that?

“I guess it’s more about creating something that’s not finished, thinking, ‘I’ll go and finish it properly.’ Sometimes, not even that – not even having anything a template, going into the studio, working on something … it really depends. That’s definitely what excites me the most though, creating the tunes. Playing them always tends to be a completely different thing.”

You’ve explained that this album, in comparison to the debut LP, carries more of a blur between the personal and the third person perspective. You clearly felt you had a lot to say, coming out of that first stage of the pandemic.

“Yeah, there was a lot going through my mind. I just didn’t feel like I fully said what I wanted to say on the first record and wanted to follow it up fairly quickly.”

And is that still the case? I’m not putting the pressure on you, but, well … how about what Billy Bragg would call that ‘difficult third album’?

“Yeah, again, I think it’ll just be different technical stuff. I think enough was said on that second album, to be honest.”

I wonder if there’s a part of the first LP telling the story of this lad growing too big for Todmorden and the second one about this lad breaking into the bigger world. And that’s not meant to sound patronising, but all those influences are out there. For example, you’ve mentioned working with Ross Orton, and now we have the Steel City EP included with the deluxe edition of Fear Fear, something else signposting how Sheffield remains influential for you.

“I guess so, to a point, but it still felt like I hadn’t really seen much of the world. So it’s, I guess, an insight from growing up through technology, a big part of it for me. And one of the talking points within the tunes is the shift in the way that society had to operate, being a young person within that. I think that was quite a big topic within the record, but it was tied up within an emotive side of that as well. So yeah, I was just trying to make it slightly conceptual, in a way, but also try and keep it personal in another sense.”

I’m not sure if this has ever been put to you, but maybe due to the geographical aspect, I see something of Neil Arthur’s on-going work with Blancmange in you with Working Men’s Club, albeit with him 40 years ahead (and still making great music, I might add) and with his formative years being on the Lancashire side of the border. Could you see yourself going down that road he has in four decades?

“Yeah, I’d like to. That’s the dream. We’ll see.”

On this second album, from the moment we head into opening track, ‘19’, I get the impression we’re getting a call to arms, your intentions all there, setting the premise for what unfolds. And there are elements on this record of lots of ‘80s and ‘90s outfits I appreciate, from A Certain Ratio and Depeche Mode to Gary Numan, New Order, even the Pet Shop Boys, and yet you straddle between genres to the point where maybe you’ve created your own (read their Discogs bio and .

“Yeah, I guess so. I think going forward, even more so. And without sounding arrogant, I just try and stay in my own lane. That’s why I like working with producers without necessarily immersing myself with other artists too much. That’s nothing against people, it’s just kind of trying to stay on my own track.”

Were you listening to a lot of ‘80s and ‘90s electronica, growing up? I know you’re younger than that, but …

“Not really, I mean, it was kind of just listening to what most of us were – pop music and my parents’ records – lots of Bowie, Pixies and I guess a lot of guitar bands as well.”

Was that where your parents were coming from?

“Yeah, but loads of stuff, including jazz … quite an eclectic taste, but mixed in with what kids listen to at school.”

Were you picking up instruments at school? Or did that come later?

“I’ve played guitar all my life, and kind of faffed around on piano … which seemed to sound a lot more cohesive when I got hold of synthesisers.”

You’ve just had those Leeds and Sheffield shows, the tour following next month, including Manchester Academy, whereas last time it was the Ritz, and in the capital there’s The Forum in Kentish Town, whereas last time it was Brixton Electric. These are significant steps up. And while we’re on that, what was the first venue you played in Manchester?

“Err … Night People. A sick gig.”

Those are the kind of nights that makes you, aren’t they.

“Yeah, definitely.”

I’m guessing that while you’re keeping that upward momentum, you still strive to retain that feeling of intimacy with an audience. I don’t see you as a stadium outfit.

“Ha! Yeah. I know what you mean.”

If you had to pick one amazing post-pandemic moment when you realised this was definitely going where you hoped it was going, is there anything that jumps out, be it in America, mainland Europe or wherever?

“I think going back to France, playing there, is always really nice for us, because people seem to really get it over there, playing in Paris and doing French festivals, stuff like that. It’s great. And we had a really good show in New York. Moments like that are really nice when it resonates with people that are far enough away from where we’re from.”

For me, ‘Widow’ and ‘Cut’ are the tracks that really jump out at me from this album. In fact, I see ‘Widow’ as Gary Numan at his more recent best, and that comes through on ‘Circumference’ as well. But ‘Cut’ is a really good example, I think, of where you seem to be at, at least in my head. It starts as kind of early OMD, then the guitars come in and it’s more resonant of New Order, then you’ve got that A Certain Ratio feel. At the same time though, it’s distinctively Working Men’s Club. And I’m guessing that’s where it needs to be.

“Yeah, I guess so, but I think that’s the last time we’ll do a song title like that. But it was a nice place to leave it. It’s an extension, just showing the mixture of stuff we can do on that second record. For the third, we’ll have a bit more creative freedom for a more experimental side of it.”

I guess that thinking shows on numbers like the title track, a brave song to put out front, really.

“Mmm, yeah.”

Heavenly Recordings have something of a reputation for taking leftfield suggestions and moves on board. I’m not so sure bigger labels would for a band at your stage of the game. With that in mind, have you still got that close working relationship with Jeff Barrett? Do you talk to him quite a bit … or do you just deliver the songs?

“Err … I just deliver records. Yeah.”

Because I mentioned your Todmorden roots, I get the impression that – as with your music – you straddle those county lines, and that helps define you – you’re not Manchester, you’re not Sheffield, you’re on the outside of both scenes, with your own identity. Was that how it was for you growing up too? Were you part of a gang or were you your own man?

“Mm … yeah, I guess so. I mean, I’ve always written my own tunes and I’ve found going from place to place is a lot more exciting than staying in one spot. The reason I like Todmorden is because you can get to a lot of places, but it’s also a very nice place to stay when you’re really tired out!”

And, with no pressure from me, when do you think that next album will land then?

“I’ll have an album out next year … but whether it will be Working Men’s Club will be another thing.”

Working Men’s Club UK and Irish tour dates: November – QMU, Glasgow ** (18); Boilershop, Newcastle ** (19); The Mill, Birmingham * (20); Chalk, Brighton *** (22); SWX, Bristol* (23); Academy, Dublin * (25); Academy, Manchester * (26); Junction, Cambridge * (27). December – The Forum, Kentish Town, London (25). * with Scalping ** with W.H. Lung *** Stephen Mallinder DJ set. For tickets, head to www.workingmensclub.net.

For more about the band, you can check out their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram links. And to pre-save the deluxe edition of Fear Fear, head here.

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Tally Ho to your New Modern Homes – The Chesterfields / The Amber List: The Talleyrand, Manchester

A new venue for me, and a cracking one at that. Initially set up as a bar with in-house art gallery and performance space, The Talleyrand – around four years on as a venue, give or take the odd break for pandemics – certainly proved far more appealing than the journey there on a foul autumn night, Lord SatNav sending me a long way round the M60, coming in via Stockport East, my eldest daughter arriving in the opposite direction via a city centre train to Buxton.

In case you’re wondering (and even if you weren’t), it’s named in honour of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord (I guess they couldn’t fit all that on the sign outside), who in the early 1790s headed for Levenshulme to escape Madame la Guillotine, sticking around a couple of years before heading back to become Napoleon’s crafty chief diplomat, Monsieur Bonaparte later elegantly dubbing him ‘shit in a silk stocking’. Or was that a demand?

And while there’s probably a neat line I could work in there to seamlessly bring me to the history of The Chesterfields, I’ll just have to admit I’ve missed a trick and make do with the fact that they decided not to play ‘Storm Nelson’ on the night (from the LP, Bouilloire).

My second live show in five days, and a perfect follow-up to The Undertones with Hugh Cornwell in Lytham, both The Chesterfields and The Amber List (new rule: all support bands should include a Cornwell) gave committed performances suggesting they’ve come a long way recently. And I don’t just mean the Isle of Wight, Dorset and Somerset in the case of the headliners.

I’d struggle to find links between West Country indie darlings The Chesterfields and their Lancashire-based support too. In fact, despite visiting my better half in Lancashire since 1989, the year in which Amber List frontman Mick Shepherd’s band, Big Red Bus released their self-named debut LP on cult Preston label/shop Action Records, I wasn’t aware of them until this century. I did however catch the original Chesterfields live for a second time that year, Davey Goldsworthy having left at that point, sole ever-present Simon Barber sharing vocal duties with brother Mark that time at the University of Surrey.

But The Amber List certainly impressed on my second sighting of their honed down three-piece, perhaps the right size of combo for such a narrow stage, just enough room for Tony Cornwell’s lead guitar amblings and Mick’s DMs, which drew the eye at times. There were just three of us in the room when they opened with ‘Red Lines and Promises’, that Jo Cox-inspired number seemingly ever more relevant with this shit-show of UK politics we have right now. But quite rightly the room soon filled up, that one of just four songs featured from splendid 2021 debut LP, The Ache of Being, indicating how fast they’ve evolved, having the confidence to do that.

Those songs were accompanied by two numbers from a pre-pandemic debut EP, and several new ones helping highlight their formation switch. The original four-piece line-up worked well, but this combination – completed by drummer Simon Dewhurst – works even better, appearing to offer more freedom to experiment and, erm, rock out.

While they finished with ‘New Day Calling’ and the mighty ‘Home’, new tracks such as ‘Did It Really Happen?’, ‘Slowburn’, ‘First Steps’, ‘Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’, ‘White Lies’, and ‘Half a Life’ also impressed. And although I’ve cited the like of Gene and The La’s before now as possible influences, I was also getting heavier references now, including mid-term That Petrol Emotion.

I’m pleased to say the harmonies remain sublime as well, all three pitching in, and while Tony denies knowledge of any Neil Young & Crazy Horse-type guitar fixation, I could see them pull off a winning take on ‘Cinnamon Girl’ at the Amber List office Christmas party. Time will tell.

On to the headliners, and the first of four confessions. ‘Shame About the Rain’ was always perhaps my favourite Chesterfields song. It appeared on more of my compilation tapes than any others. But today’s take leaves me wanting it sped up, and it doesn’t help when they start the set with it. Maybe build up to that, then ramp it up a bit. And now I’ve got that out of the way, here comes the praise … and plenty of it.

From the moment they hit new LP opener, ‘Bitesize’, they were on great form, any nerves seemingly dispelled. And as with the support, the word confidence is important here, as is the case – ditto The Amber List – with the harmonies, Simon and ‘out front’ bandmates Helen Stickland and Andy Strickland (I get bored of mentioning this, but yes, different surnames, nearly but not quite the same) on form throughout.

My second confession? First time I saw this version of The Chesterfields, perhaps nostalgia saw me through. Privately, I felt they were trying just that little too hard, as if subconsciously apologetic for considering resuming without Davey, killed in a hit and run accident in 2003. But they stepped it up between Preston’s The Continental in February 2017 and Manchester’s Night & Day in September 2019. And three years on, it’s even better.

That sense of guilt I felt was under-scoring it has long since gone, any mentions of the former lead singer (Simon also sang lots of songs, but I don’t think he’d take issue with that description) mere celebrations, recalling halcyon days and a true force of nature.

The fact that Andy featured with the band briefly in ’87 helps with regard to keeping the right to the name, but that’s immaterial anyway. They’re their own being now – if the various permutations of Simon and Davey-led outfits were The Chesterfields, Mk. I, and the Simon and Mark-led line-up was the Mk.II take on the band, this Mk.III collective – completed by dependable drummer Rob Parry – has now truly earned its place in that story, the strength of the newly-released New Modern Homes LP all the proof needed, and these live performances a bonus.

Andy’s past in The Loft and The Caretaker Race speaks for itself, Rob’s steady input from the back seals his rightful place, and Helen’s certainly come into her own, as I guess the band always hoped would be the case, her vocals, harmonies and songwriting proven in the studio and live arena (even if the word arena is not the one that springs to mind considering the last two Manchester appearances).

Andy’s skills with a pen as well as a guitar are further enhanced on the LP and his live delivery, his first offering on this occasion, ‘You’re Ace from Space’, somewhere between the Velvets, The Go-Betweens, and The Loft. I’m sorry now that I missed out on The Caretaker Race first time around, if the quality of songwriting here is anything to go by. And that contrast with his voice – as was so important with past line-ups – complements his winning way with hooks and licks, so to speak. In fact, the last line on that song brings to mind All Things Must Pass-era George Harrison. Praise indeed.

Confession three. I wasn’t initially convinced about ‘Mr Wilson Goes to Norway’, despite loving the idea of a song from the wondrous Kettle being afforded the ‘where are they now?’ treatment. But having seen them play it live, and now catching it in the context of the LP, I see how good it is.

They delved further back then, with first flexi-single ‘Girl on a Boat’, then gave us ‘89’s pre-break-up single, ‘Fool is a Man’, Simon tempting fate by letting on how he’d got the first line wrong singing it in front of his brother – the song’s author – on the previous date in Bristol. He was word perfect this time though, and it’s a number that’s stood the test of time.

Then came what’s become something of a Chesterfields standard of late, Andy’s sublime Caretaker Race hit that got away, ‘Anywhere but Home’, as good as ever on this evidence. Meanwhile, band and audience alike supplied pretend brass in lieu of a horn section on the mighty ‘Goodbye Goodbye’, which I always imagined – and don’t disappoint me, Simon – was a tribute to Karen Carpenter (‘She said goodbye to love, but she didn’t want to go’), while Helen’s ‘Year on the Turn’ was operfectly delivered. And am I the only one that sees it as this LP’s answer song – from a female perspective – to Davey’s ‘Besotted’ on second album, Crocodile Tears?

Four further cuts from the new LP followed, starting with Simon’s quirky ‘Oh My Ampersand!’ and perhaps my evening highlight, Andy’s ‘Postpone the Revolution’ a late addition, dedicated to his niece on the merch desk. That was followed by a rather raw ‘My Bed is an Island’ before an emotional take on the lead single (the reason for that New Modern Homes title, and among my top-three singles this year), ‘Our Songbird Has Gone’ introduced by a choked Simon in tribute to his former co-frontman, and went down a storm.

There was still time for two crowd-pleasing late ’80s indie golden oldies, the Kettle back on, ‘Simon’s ‘Ask Johnny Dee’ followed by a celebratory, heartfelt and well executed ‘Completely & Utterly’. Or should that be electrocuted, bearing in mind those electric guitars in their hearts? Either way, the crowd called for more, but time was against them, and I reckon they’d scaled the heights already. A triumphant return to Manchester before taking that ‘Last Train to Yeovil’ in preparation for their seven-date autumn jaunt finales in Frome and Winchester.

And confession number four? I feared the overall quality of this LP before it landed. I wondered if ‘Our Songbird’ had set unrealistic expectations. But the follow-up 45s also impressed, then – in the week of this appearance – I got to realise the quality runs through the 12 tracks of New Modern Homes. They came up with the goods, song-wise, made a cracking job of putting them down in the studio, then headed out on the road to deliver them live, in style. Can’t say fairer than that.

I won’t go into details on the other tracks missed off the setlist. Find out for yourself. But I look forward to more of the same from here on in. No pressure, mind.

To keep in the touch with The Chesterfields, and see about ordering New Modern Homes, you can follow their Facebook and Instagram pages.

For this website’s July 2022 feature/interview with Simon Barber, head here. For a February 2017 feature/interview with Simon, head here. And for the follow-up from September 2019, head here. Meanwhile, from May 2021, Andy Strickland talks The Loft, The Caretaker Race, The Chesterfields, and much more here.

For July 2021’s feature/interview with The Amber List, when they were still a four-piece, head here. And for more details about the band, their physical and digital releases, and other live shows, head here and check out the band’s BandcampFacebook, Instagram and Twitter pages.

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Dig Yourself that Lytham rhythm – The Undertones / Hugh Cornwell: Lytham, Lowther Pavilion Theatre

Two Undertones / Hugh Cornwell nights out in six months? In a year in which I’ve caught just nine live shows? Monsieur, with zis you are really spoiling us.  

Actually, with Derry’s finest it’s more Mars confectionery than that nonsense Ferrero Rocher serve up at ambassadorial parties, the real deal allowing my inner male model a chance to say, ‘I’ll take those.’

And that’s a rather long-winded way of saying a great night was had by all last weekend on the Fylde coast, the headliners and their special guests on fine form at the Lowther Pavilion Theatre, putting the rhythm back into Lytham, as latter-day chief Undertones warbler Paul McLoone put it.

The knock-on effect of a bypass crash as we skirted around the west of Preston meant we missed the first couple of songs, but there was plenty to savour from Hugh, joined again by the very talented Pat Hughes (bass) and Windsor McGilvray (drums), hairs up on the back of this scribe’s neck for ‘Always the Sun’ on a night of Stranglers nostalgia punctuated by solo years’ moments. Post-Stranglers highlights included two tracks from the splendid Totem and Taboo, somehow now a decade old, with ‘Stuck in Daily Mail Land’ and ‘Bad Vibrations’ especially resonant after another week of Tory freefall; while 2018 LP title track ‘Monster’ and latest single, the ‘Wild Thing’ like, rather raw post-lockdown Bowie knife cut, ‘Coming out of the Wilderness’, from the forthcoming Moments of Madness also impressed.

Going further back, ‘Strange Little Girl’ appeared on the setlist in ’74 (though it was another eight years before it became a single), while Rattus Norvegicus’ ‘London Lady’ was an unexpected joy, staged as it were one estuary higher than the Mersey tunnel. And although the subject matter of ‘Five Minutes’ seems too graphic for nostalgia, that also provided a blast from the past. As for ‘Skin Deep’, that provided another big sing-along-a-strangler moment, and ‘Walk on By’ gave us a thrilling showstopper. Yes, Burnel and Greenfield’s artistry made it a perfect cover, but this trio are also capable of a leftfield twist on quality Bacharach & David fare.

Since my last Lowther Pavilion visit, a statue’s turned up outside the venue, commemorating local light Bobby Ball, leading to the afore-mentioned McLoone’s mention of memories of catching Adam Ant on LWT’s Cannon and Ball Show back in the day. I looked it up, and that was 40 years ago, performing ‘Goody Two Shoes’, just a few months before The Undertones’ ‘The Love Parade’ became the fourth of their last six singles to miss out on the UK top-40, the writing already on the wall.

But if there was already disquiet in the camp in mid-’82, The Undertones Mk. II have had no such issues, the Bradley/Doherty/McLoone/O’Neill/O’Neill lineup now 23 years to the good and on typical belting form here (as Bobby may have conceded), in what turned out yet another night of end-to-end classic songs. There were, as ever, too many to mention by name,  but – without thinking too hard about the setlist – ‘Hypnotised’, ‘True Confessions’, ‘Tearproof’, ‘ Top Twenty’, ‘Wednesday Week’, ‘Billy’s Third’, ‘Oh Please’, ‘Here Comes the Rain’ on the back of ‘Here Comes the Summer’ (rather ironic on the first day that week I’d not got drenched at least once from dog-walking or nursery runs), and ‘Mars Bars’ on the back of ‘More Songs About Chocolate and Girls’ did the trick.

And yes, punk pop kids, the chocolate’s only there to keep the set the right length. That said, a wee bit of extra time at the close led to our visitors sticking around for one more song, giving us that evening’s second rendition of their classic Peel-loved debut 45. I’d have preferred a lesser-known classic, and they missed a trick seeing as this show landed so close to the 50th anniversary of the release of Nuggets in not throwing something in from that highly influential 1972 Lenny Kaye compilation. Not necessarily from the Chocolate Watch Band either. I’m not complaining though. I do love ‘Teenage Kicks’. Just maybe once a night will do though … unless it’s preceded by an audio recording of Peelie telling us he’s about to play it again, as heard at The Forum, Kentish Town in 2016.

Besides, a Lytham sing-along-an-undertones bash at ‘My Perfect Cousin’ had already done the trick, that self-same golden oldie aired again six nights later on our telly screens, the boy Sharkey (Feargal, rather than recent ‘Tones drumming stand-in, smart boy Kevin) leading a cross-pub rendition in Clonbur, County Galway on Mortimer and Whitehouse; Gone Fishing, a celebratory series finale for a BBC TV joy of joys. Slàinte, indeed, even if you’d have to walk a fair way out across the beach before you even reached the sea, heading due west for Ireland from this venue.  

As for my eldest daughter – subjected to so much Undertones music since her arrival in early 2000, the year the new line-up played their first shows this side of the Irish Sea – she declared her thankfully not much too late ‘Tones debut a winner as we headed back, a newly purchased advance copy of Damian O’Neill’s latest solo LP, an crann, making for good company on the way.

For this website’s recent interview with Paul McLoone, head here, where you’ll find links to plenty more Undertones-related features, interviews and reviews.

The Undertones’ Autumn 2022 dates conclude this coming weekend at the Waterfront, Norwich (October 20th); the Apex, Bury St Edmunds (October 21st); and the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill (October 22nd), that final date also including special guest Hugh Cornwell’s trio. For tickets, try here, and for more information check out The Undertones’ website and keep in touch on social media via FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Look out for more on Damian O’Neill’s latest solo record, an crann, out on November 25th but also available while stocks last on tour, on this website soon. And for more about that release, head to http://damianoneill.bandcamp.com or http://ffm.to/damianoneill.

Meanwhile, for details of the new Hugh Cornwell LP, Moments of Madness, head to his website or follow this link. And if you follow this link, you’ll find the most recent WriteWyattUK feature/interview with the man himself.

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Star treatment – back in touch with Ian Broudie, talking Lightning Seeds

It seems a negative way to start this feature, but other than reaching No.1 in the UK singles chart three times with David Baddiel and Frank Skinner with ‘Three Lions’ (in 1996, 1998, and 2018, for a song seemingly everywhere during this summer’s Women’s Euros, as the Lionesses memorably brought football home), you have to go back to the last century for the last time Lightning Seeds made the UK top-40.

A minor hit in 1999 with ‘Life’s Too Short’ followed 11 other singles chart successes over that previous decade, and despite platinum and gold certification respectively for 1994’s Jollification – eventually celebrated with a sold-out post-pandemic 25th anniversary tour last autumn – and 1996’s Dizzy Heights, rather surprisingly there were no UK top-10 albums either.

But one thing’s for sure, Lightning Seeds’ chief sound architect, Ian Broudie, never lost his ability to craft classic pop, as is apparent from the three singles so far released from new LP, See You in the Stars, out this weekend, his first for BMG. What’s more, there’s at least one more sure-fire hit tucked within those vinyl grooves. We’ll get on to that later though.

After radio-friendly lead single ‘Sunshine’ and worthy follow-up ‘Walk Another Mile’, came the, erm, marvellous ‘Emily Smiles’, co-written – as was 1994 hit ‘Lucky You’ – with Specials/Fun Boy Three/Colour Field legend Terry Hall, described as a ‘a big, infectious tune with a tight focus: human connectivity,’ Ian adding, “Emily Smiles is about miscommunication and lives being changed by small moments and random events. It’s about desperation and the distances between us being unlocked with the magic inside a smile.”

And overall it’s fair to say that See You in the Stars – completed at Ian’s West London home studio earlier this year – is nothing if not tunefully and emotionally uplifting, its 10 songs written and recorded in short bursts over the last three years, the first of those tracks recorded – ‘Great to be Alive’ and ‘Live to Love You’ – co-written with The Coral’s James Skelly a year apart back in Liverpool.

I’ve had a few listens this week, opening track ‘Losing You’ a great way in, straddling Tales Told-era Broudie and the grand ol’ Lightning Seeds. There are more polished songs on the LP, as Ian puts it, but perhaps that’s why it stands out for me. A late addition, more erm, pure and simple. 

Polished does work when it’s as good a song as ‘Emily Smiles’ though. Infectious, and I could so hear Terry Hall’s own take. Not sure I’d allow many modern pop starlets near it, mind, even if that would inevitably lead to wheelbarrow-loads of added royalties for its authors. It’s certainly on the right side of pop fare, Mr Broudie telling us this is him, ‘trying to get out of that cloud and be me again.’

Talking of commercial, ‘Green Eyes’ provides a sonic link to the early days, Ian remarking, ‘I felt like it was a postscript to ‘Pure’ – so I thought I’d shadow it with that little melodic line. Because, in a way, it’s about the other end of that relationship.’ And it’s not just his own past conjured up. I could hear this on a late ‘80s or early ‘90s Pet Shop Boys album. Not sure which, but one I probably bought dirt cheap from some market stall in Thailand or Turkey.

Then comes the delightful, ever so catchy ‘Great to be Alive’, one for full cast and city centre flash mob treatment in Lightning Seeds – The Musical perhaps, James Skelly’s input keeping it the right side of acceptability, street cred-wise.

I wasn’t sure about ‘Sunshine’ at first. There are hints of vocoder pop and catchy Clean Bandit-isms. It screams, ’We need a hit!’ But somehow Ian gets away with it, and I couldn’t possibly begrudge him that hit. And if it also suggests an ‘80s feel, why not? He was there in the thick of it first time around, after all. In his own explanation, he adds, ‘ultimately it’s about retaining your sanity. It’s a worried but hopeful song. It also reminded me of my first band, Care, and the Bunnymen, and producing The Pale Fountains. I thought I want to write like it was me, then.”

‘Fit for Purpose’, with added strings, is another that could play its part in a tie-in musical (want me to help script that, Ian?), and perhaps because I mentioned Pet Shop Boys, I’m contemplating their partnership with Dusty Springfield, concluding it’s a shame Cilla Black’s not around anymore to guest on this. I could so hear her duetting with her fellow Liverpudlian. Maybe it’s that ‘anyone with half a heart, anyone who has a heart …’ line putting that in my head.

Lyrically, it’s another deeply personal number, from a writer with an older brother who took his own life after battling depression, and a mum who had to live with polio. But again – in the words of John O’Neill, it takes the positive touch, his mum’s words of advice and comfort taken on board on ‘blue days’, the dreamer of the family living up to her ‘you can be anything you want’ philosophy, determined not to ‘let that darkness take over’.

As for ‘Live to Love You’, written a year after ’Great to be Alive’, that gorgeous guitar and the sheer class within lets me know this is another Broudie/Skelly number, while ‘Permanent Danger’ carries a darker air, and I love it all the more for that. Apparently, the last song written, that backs up my instinctive feelings about the LP’s opening number – don’t over-think these things, Ian, sometimes you just need to deliver in more raw form. There’s a big sound incorporated, and the usual sense of songcraft, but I get the feeling this is Broudie exposed, down to bare bones.  

He’s back in outwardly jollified mode again with second single, ‘Walk Another Mile’, and it seems like this was sprung from Ian’s ’90s vault, but it’s stood the test of time and is as soulful as it is fresh and catchy. In fact, it was borne out of a love of Northern Soul and an appreciation of songwriters who write proper stories within songs – its author suggesting Squeeze, The Kinks, and Eminem. And his take on that is a tale of ‘two imaginary people arguing about the end of a relationship and blaming each other’.

Then we’re away on perhaps the most poignant number, neatly fitting our collective pensive, post-pandemic narrative, but never over-egged. Reflective but subtle, a ‘see you later’ to a close friend who died, Ian paying tribute to someone who lifted his spirits when he faced his own dark days, saying, ‘He’d make me go out and play shows. He helped me back into the world …’ adding, ‘The idea of seeing you in the stars is not mordant – it’s hopeful. It’s saying: nothing ends. It’ll carry on. Keep on, stay strong.’

In effect, this is his seventh Lightning Seeds LP, 13 years after the last, but even that is debated, Ian seeing 1999’s Tilt as its true predecessor, despite having followed up 2004’s splendid Tales Told solo long player during  a period of much personal anguish with Four Winds for Universal in 2009, something he saw as closer to another solo offering. He bowed to record company pressure at the time, but on his own terms, refusing to promote it live, feeling it didn’t have that necessary band feel, not least that positive message he strives for.

He certainly has this time though, the finished product very much a feelgood statement in places, sometimes in spite of everything. And maybe that’s what we need in these dark times, I suggested.

“I think one of the reasons I haven’t done anything for so long is that I felt emotionally I wasn’t able to write a Lightning Seeds tune. The last album I did, I felt wasn’t that, so I sort of disowned it. And I think what Lightning Seeds tunes are … they have this innate positivity. I hope this {album} really has that. It’s hard to write positively without writing quite vacuously, somehow the Lightning Seeds lies amid all that, and I wanted it to be a positive album. But I know what you mean about ’in these times’ – these times are so strange. Not just the pandemic, y’know … the world … the country, really.”

Yes, Brexit Britain, where Joe Public’s misguided dream of UK independence from Europe led all too easily to economic freefall, an increasingly fragile NHS, Government support for draconian measures and public service cuts, less protection for our rights, our waters, our wages, our wildlife … all going hand in hand with bonuses and tax loops for the rich. Not as if I ranted much of that with my interviewee. Just a few key words. But he gets it.

“And no one will admit it. Without taking a side, it’s the lack of the value of truth at the moment. It’s an unsettling time for everyone, because there is no truth. It’s like if you say something enough, it’s a bit true. So I think it is kind of a good time to maybe just … I don’t know, I feel like it’s an open album, you might say. I’ve tried to be quite direct. Sometimes I get a bit shy and cover up things. I’ve tried not to do that. I hope it gives you that feeling.”

It does that. And certain songs, for instance the title track, are deeply personal, it seems. But you still offer that positive take on difficult situations. You don’t seem to dwell on negatives … at least not on record.

“I don’t know, I’m kind of a blue person, I suppose. But I do try and see the beauty in things, if I can …  sounds a bit wet, that, but I think when you’re bombarded with negativity … you have to kind of try and find the way to do that.”

One of the artists you’ve co-written with on this record, Terry Hall, was arguably seen as the rather glum, miserable face of 2 Tone, yet here the two of you come up with the highly infectious ‘Emily Smiles’, in a similar way to delivering ‘Lucky You’ back in the day.

“Yes, although lyrically, ‘Lucky You’ is a bit darker. But I think Terry’s just one of the greatest talents I’ve had the pleasure of working with. We started working together when I produced a couple of things for him …

Was that initially with The Colour Field?

“I think so. I’d met him before, but I think the first thing we worked on was The Colour Field, and we struck up a friendship, really … I’d say a bond. And it’s been lovely seeing his career re-blossom with The Specials. Then there was The Fun Boy Three, and … he’s done so many things that have been great. I think he’s brilliant.”

Mind you, as a Manchester United fan, that seems to go against this notion of you working with so much Liverpudlian talent down the years. 

“That’s his main fault!”

I must also mention James Skelly from The Coral, also integral to this record, co-writing two songs. That’s someone else you go way back with, in that case producing his band’s early albums.

“I started working with James when they were an unsigned band, and we stayed working together from then, developing them into … well, I did the first three albums. And again, I tend to work these days with people I know I have some sort of affinity to. And with James, it’s kind of shocking to think we started working together 20 years ago.”

Indeed, their self-titled debut album released in 2002.

“Yeah, so probably a bit longer, and again, we’ve always remained friends, really in touch friends – The Coral and I, the Bunnymen and I, Terry … certain headlines in your life go beyond a sort of resume.”

Last time we spoke was in Summer 2018, and so much has happened since. Back then, we got on to the subject – and it’s something you’ve alluded to again – of the Lightning Seeds LP you didn’t really get behind. So I wonder how you felt this time. Did you know instinctively these were Lightning Seeds songs, rather than Ian Broudie songs?

“Well, once bitten, twice shy, really. And the reason I didn’t do one {a Lightning Seeds album} for so long was because I felt the songs I was writing didn’t fit the bill. But I feel these do fit the bill. I’m very proud of this. It’s kind of funny, they could be Ian Broudie songs, but they’re Lightning Seeds songs. It’s almost like the two things have almost become the same thing. Does that make any sense?”

It does indeed. And with regard to you sat there with Terry Hall and also James Skelly, for example, does that come easier to you now, 30-plus years down the line? Have you always been keen on collaboration? That mighty production CV of yours suggests you work well in the studio with others.

“I don’t say this with ego, but I never wanted to be a producer. I’ve always ended up convinced to produce things. And usually people I’ve worked with before are keen to work with me again, so that must mean something, in a way – it must mean I’m okay at collaborating.

“I think one of the things that’s always annoyed me about producing is the fact that it’s called producing. If someone said to me, ‘Will you collaborate on a tune?’ ‘Anytime!’ Know what I mean? But being a producer, it’s like, I don’t know. it’s just soulless.”

It kind of suggests you’re making a product … which doesn’t strike me as what you aspire to do.

“Yeah, and it’s excluding you from a certain part of the process which you might be good at.”

For whatever reason, Steve Albini prefers the term engineer.

“Yeah, and it’s not an inclusive term. It’s an exclusive term, so that’s why I don’t want to do it.”

I wasn’t exaggerating when I mentioned a mighty production CV, Ian’s credits ranging from Echo & the Bunnymen (Crocodiles, 1980, then Porcupine, 1983) through to Miles Kane (Don’t Forget Who You Are, 2013), the latest in a long line of Merseyside musicians benefitting from the Broudie Touch in the studio, also including The Pale Fountains and their successors, Shack, plus The Icicle Works, The Coral, and The Zutons.

And there are several other personal favourite LPs with his name on, including works by The Bodines, The Fall, Dodgy, Sleeper, and I Am Kloot. But let’s get back on track. There are a few nods to Ian’s past on this LP, one jumping out straight off being ‘Green Eyes’, with its nod to ‘Pure’ in the brass synth effect.

“Definitely, and it was obviously intentional, yeah.”

You add in the notes it’s perhaps a continuation, a part two.

“Yeah, it might not be a part two. I think I did say that, but … It just reminded me of that tune and the way words were sort of gushing out – it just felt related to that. It’s definitely connected.”

You seem to have lost nothing of your pop craft, ‘Sunshine’ a prime example of radio-friendly fare here. Two decades after your last chart appearance other than for regular ‘Three Lions’ re-presses, do you think you needed those years in between to get back there again, writing commercial pop?

“It seems I have needed that, in my mind. I think a lot of it was reluctance. And I am in two minds doing this. I don’t mean this interview, I don’t mean it as specifically as that, but you’re sort of opening this door – and it sounds dead spoiled when you say it – you’re not sure you want to open again. There’s loads of stuff beyond that door that is great, but it also requires something you’ve got to be willing to give, really. Y’know, I can’t be less vague than that – it is a vague feeling!”

Last time we spoke, I suggested perhaps originally you were happier in the shadows, hence going with that Lightning Seeds name for what was ostensibly just you. You said you always wanted to be part of a band. How about the 2022 version, including your Riley? How much of a collaboration is it these days?

“I think it’s still mostly me on my own creative process, but it feels like I’m buoyed massively by Riley’s enthusiasm and talents, and also the rest of the band, who I’m very fond of and feel very much a part of.

“When you’re not a band, and it’s a person – which is kind of me – you have good and bad bands, and if you lose focus you can become not so great live, quite easily. I described it as going to the bottom of the Championship then fighting back up to the Premier League. I think live we’re really good now … possibly better than we’ve ever been. And I think that inspired me in some ways – thinking it would be a shame not to make a record. We’re in such a good moment, live, y’know.”

I told Ian I took that on board, but that analogy needed work for a Woking fan, my club three rungs down from the Championship, yet loving it there. Grass-root approaches can work too. Accordingly, a discussion followed about Disney Plus documentary, Welcome to Wrexham, following Hollywood stars Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds’ takeover of National League side Wrexham. And from there we briefly got on to Marine AFC, the subject of 2001 Granada TV documentary, Marine Lives, both myself and Ian – with his brother – having visited Rossett Park, Crosby, in the past. Furthermore, Ian spoke with warmth about occasional visits to Luton Town with his pal, Rob, talking about, ‘a different kind of … almost obstinacy, really. It’s very English, isn’t it?’

As well as Riley Broudie (namechecked in 1992 hit, ‘The Life of Riley’, now 31, playing guitar and Dad’s manager), Ian’s joined by Martyn Campbell (bass, backing vocals), Jim Sharrock (drums) and Adele Emmas (keyboards, backing vocals) these days, his band rehearsing this week for in-store and radio appearances ahead of tour rehearsals for the real deal. At the grand age of 64, can he ever see himself not involved in all this?

“I think I’ll always be … I mean, I’m not going to retire or something.”

I wouldn’t have used that word.

“I think for me, and with the generation I’ve come from, certain people in my generation and the generation before felt they’d be in a band, then at 26 they wouldn’t be in a band and wouldn’t be doing music. And in some ways that’s pretty cool – burn brightly, and move on. Then there’s others who think this is a vocation, and I’d say I’m one of those. I think music’s not really a job, and I can’t imagine myself not doing it really. Even when I’m not making albums, I’m doing it all the time – playing gigs, writing, maybe a bit of production.

“I did think about not doing it anymore at a certain point when there were a lot of things going on in my life that were negative, and I felt, ‘Should I be sitting in a dark room worrying about drums?’ That’s not the best way to spend your life. But in the end, I felt this probably is what I enjoy doing.”

Last time we spoke, I mentioned seeing you at Lancaster Library, yourself and Starsailor’s James Walsh doing solo sets. Going back to that footballing grass-roots analogy, maybe you needed those low-key live shows to remember what you’re in this for.

“Yeah … I don’t know, maybe I’d rather be someone who was exploring the Amazon or sailing on big boats. But I’m not really, I’m a bloke who likes making music.”

Arguably, as a creative you can explore all that via your music career anyway, hopefully. At least in your imagination.

“Yeah, although I don’t think it’s the same as going. But y’know, everyone has their lives to lead. I think everything’s {about} balance. And balance is tricky.”

Maybe like Serena Williams, it’s not about retirement so much as evolution.

“I think so. I think everything changes around you, and you probably change. It’s different as a sports player – they either win or lose. Whereas with the arts, it’s more vague, subjective. But like I said, everything changes around you, and you change. And sometimes you’re in sync, and sometimes you’re not. You just can’t worry about that after a certain point. You have to worry about that when you’re 18. I’m not sure you do at this point, although it’s lovely when it clicks a bit.

“I mean, this has been interesting, having been away for so long and not making a record. In the past that would have been an advantage, but it’s a real disadvantage, completely, because everything’s now an algorithm, there’s no previous algorithm, and all these things work on continuity in product, continuous product.

“It’s a real different world, and one that benefits the career rather than the vocation. Now, I think it’s easy to manufacture careers and celebrity. I’m not saying, ‘it was better in my day,’ it’s just different, and throws up amazing things. I think music’s probably never been as good and creative. People seem so talented and so able to focus, almost like they’ve been taught how to focus.”

There’s probably a YouTube tutorial for that.

“Yeah, I’m just saying it’s different. And I think you function better as someone armed with knowledge and a career as a kind of hazy, vocational Nick Drake type.”

Getting back to this record, ‘Great to be Alive’ impressed straight away. Is that a track you’re holding back on for a pre-Christmas hit?

“Looking at what record companies tend to do now, and again, it’s different for me – It’s a different world and might not suit me, to be honest – it seems that when the album’s out, that’s the end of job. It seems to be all about a chart position on week one for the album … which I find mystifying.

“I never looked at a chart, I had no idea who’s in the chart. The only people who know who’s in the top-10 seem to be the record companies. The focus has shifted away from selling albums to kind of a trophy position, which seems mad. The industry seems very focused on that kind of thing. Whereas you and I … I feel like ‘Great to be Alive’ would be a great single to bring out next. No one’s said they won’t, but I just wonder if that’s in their system.”

Well, hopefully people will read this and know they need to hear the album. And seeing as we mentioned chart positions, it was only when I was putting questions together that I reminded myself that afore-mentioned breakthrough single, ‘Pure’ was out the summer I met my better half … and now we’ve been together 33 and a third years. Maybe there’s something in that.

“Well, congratulations. That’s great. And it’s funny that even in those days, chart positions … with ‘Pure’, we only had a few pressed up, so it could never chart {at first}. Even in the end when I did Top of the Pops, they ran out of records. It could never go past No. 16.”

Wasn’t it initially a 500 run?

“I think it was 200, actually.”

Have you still got a copy?

“I’ve got one somewhere. I think I’ve got a cassingle!”

That initial deal was with Rough Trade, Ian’s first single eventually requiring re-press after re-press. After many months and lots of graft, their modest grassroots campaign took off, that eventual top-20 slot here (and in the US) leading to a higher profile for debut LP, Cloudcuckooland, a major deal and second album, Sense (1992) following, including ‘The Life of Riley’. They were on their way.

“It is quite funny, y’know. ‘Pure’ was a song where the chart position doesn’t reflect what it was, really. And I think Jollification, our biggest selling album, sold a million or something in the UK … although it never got into the top 10. And yet, everything is kind of facts and figures.”

For this website’s Summer 2018 interview with Ian Broudie, head here.

Lightning Seeds are set to embark on a 14-date UK tour, with ticket details here, calling at Cambridge, Junction (Thursday, October 27th); Oxford, O2 Academy (Friday, October 28th); Frome, Cheese & Grain (Saturday, October 29th); Southampton, The 1865 (Thursday, November 3rd); London, O2 Shepherds Bush Empire; Leeds, Stylus (Saturday, November 5th); Glasgow, Old Fruitmarket (Sunday, November 6th); Birmingham, Town Hall (Thursday, November 10th); Newcastle, Boiler Shop (Friday, November 11th); Liverpool, Olympia (Saturday, November 12th); Brighton, Chalk (Thursday, November 17th); Cardiff, Tramshed (Friday, November 18th); Manchester Albert Hall (Saturday, November 19th); Sheffield, Leadmill (Saturday, November 26th).

See You in the Stars is available on CD and standard Forest Green vinyl. For details of that and a limited-edition transparent midnight blue vinyl LP available from the official artist store, HMV and independent retail, head here. And for the latest from Ian Broudie and Lightning Seeds, head to his website |and check out his Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages.

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Stay to the End – from Senseless Things to Loup GarouX via Gorillaz, Delakota and Deadcuts, with Cass Browne

Considered Senseless Things’ classic album, The First of Too Many has received the triple CD and double 12-inch coloured vinyl LP expansion and revision treatment, three decades after its initial release. And it serves as a fitting tribute to lead vocalist/songwriter, Mark Keds, who died in early 2021.

This delayed 30th anniversary edition of a second album hailed by AllMusic for its blend of ‘bubblegum pop’ and ‘gob-stopping hard rock’ – likening the band’s sound to The Who, Buzzcocks, and The Replacements – has been a work in progress for some time now, drummer Cass Browne and bassist Morgan Nicholls proud of the finished product.

Remembered for their intense and passionate approach to touring, this South-West London four-piece – with Mark, Cass and Morgan joined by Ben Harding on guitar and vocals – played relentlessly across the UK, mainland Europe, and beyond. At the time of the release of this, their second of four albums, they were supporting Blur in the States and visiting Japan for the first time, the latter trip including an appearance on talent show Ika-Ten.

Forming in 1986 and calling it a day in 1995 (albeit briefly returning in 2017 for reunion shows), the cover art for the band’s first two albums and single releases around that period was provided by comic artist Jamie Hewlett, creator of Tank Girl, the cult comic strip later adapted for an American movie in 1995, and co-founder of Gorillaz with Blur frontman Damon Albarn, with both Cass and Morgan  going on to play substantial roles in that major multimedia success.

And it was Cass and Morgan who returned to the original master tapes of The First of Too Many for this project, the resultant Cherry Red Records package including not only the revised LP but also the original 1991 mix and a never-before released blistering June ’91 live show from the tie-in tour at the Camden Palace, recorded on a 24-track mobile recording unit, the tapes rescued, restored and given a full new mix again by Morgan.

I was lucky enough to catch Senseless Things three times in 1989, each time supporting close friends and North Hampshire favourites Mega City Four. In fact, it’s difficult for me to separate those bands, not least with both releasing cracking debut LPs in 1989, the year Mega City Four frontman, Wiz did a piece for the third edition of my London and South-East based fanzine, Captains Log.

Around the time he died, I dug out correspondence from Mark, hand-written in his particular scrawl, complete with full address – his flat in Twickenham – and phone number, while requesting a copy of my fanzine and asking if I’d be interested in a feature. He added a tape of Senseless Things’ explosive current double-A-side single ‘Girlfriend’/’Standing in the Rain’ and a demo recorded at the same time. I’m hoping that cassette’s still around. He added, ‘By the way, are there any venues anywhere near you?’

I’d seen them already by then, twice within a week in early January ’89 at Brixton’s Canterbury Arms and Fulham’s Greyhound. They were young and raw, punky, infectious, and refreshingly explosive live, your scribe at the time only half-joking that they might be the Buzzcocks’ kid brothers.

I also recall a chat at the bar with them the next time I saw them, closer to my patch at the University of Surrey in Guildford in early December that year, by which time they were already on their way. But above all else – and the first two LPs got lots of spins from me – I loved the singles they did for Way Cool Records that year, the afore-mentioned ‘Girlfriend’ and ‘Too Much Kissing’, the latter also closing quickfire classic debut album Postcard CV, on that same indie label, another long player that received the revision treatment through Cherry Red, in that case in 2010.

They were definitely in the frame for the ill-fated Captains Log IV. A few interviews were done (including The Beautiful South, BOB, The Chesterfields), but events overtook, and I was soon planning long weekends away and world travels instead. Around then, Mega City Four also started a fairly meteoric rise, Senseless Things thriving in their slipstream, arguably surpassing their success in the long run.

And hearing Mega City Four’s ‘Miles Apart’ and ‘Clear Blue Sky’ from ’88, Senseless Things’ 7″s from ’89, and each outfit’s debut albums takes me right back to two bands full of energy and promise, properly going places.

As it turned out, Senseless Things recorded the first of two sessions for John Peel in late February 1990, and by 1991 were with Epic Records. The following year they scored two UK top-20 hit singles, with ‘Easy to Smile’ and ‘Hold It Down’, the latter Morgan Nicholls song appearing on third LP, Empire of the Senseless the following year, their sole UK top-40 album. Like Mega City Four (two top-40 hits) they deserved more, but what they achieved at such a young age, and the adulation with which fans held them tells its own story.

As it turned out, we lost Wiz from Mega City Four far too young, aged just 44 in 2006, and then came Mark’s departure, 15 years later, at just 50.

I’d just had my first listens back to The First of Too Many for quite some time in the days before my interview with Cass. At that point, I hadn’t gone back to the original LP to play ‘spot the difference’, but the revised edition certainly sounded fresh. How did Cass the difference between the record then and now – the recalibrated version – with regard to sound and feel?

“With the original, I think all the performances are really good, with the kind of energy we wanted to catch. But – and we always felt that, it wasn’t a kind of slow revelation, we knew at the time – It seemed thinner when it was mixed and mastered. In our memory and as a live band in terms of the records we made before and after, the whole weight of it seemed to be kind of missing. So it was always in the back of our minds to revisit it, and the process.

“It was something we’d been thinking about for quite a while, even before the {2017} reunion show. The process of these things, of revisiting and finding the original tapes, getting everything digitised in order to look at a mix, let alone sourcing them, making sure that was a faithful thing … it was a long process, but within that process we found varying takes we didn’t know were on there, a lot of us talking between, and found so much colour and light in there, so much humour.

“The tapes were digitised then sent over to Morgan, and he’s a great mixer – myself and him have another band, Circle 60, a very psychedelic, Dukes of Stratosphear type band, and he mixed all that. Nothing was replayed and nothing else was touched, it was literally about making the whole thing more faithful to the vision we had when we first made it. And I’m really pleased with the energy, everything’s still there but it sounds wider and huger.

“{for example} we found a lot of conflicting frequencies, like with the acoustic guitar. We were still really young and didn’t really know everything. We were still finding our feet. A lot of the frequencies for Mark’s original chord guitar was really piercing, and drenched everything, and we’ve spent a lot more time with this version of the record than we did originally.”

I get all that, but I’m also a fan of debut LP, Postcard CV, although perhaps that’s as a bit of a romantic looking back on how I remember you back in the late ‘80s, this energetic live band I first saw around that time. And as it was very much a live recording in comparison, it seems. I wonder if perhaps this second LP was more of a debut album in a proper studio environment.

“Err, well … Postcard CV was done at a studio, in Southern Studios {London N22}, but …”

I get that, but it definitely had a proper live energy to it.

“Well, it had to be. We recorded that in one day, all 10 songs … unbelievably fast! And I have to add that we haven’t just digitalised The First of Too Many {this time}, we found a lot of things we recorded, one of which is coming out with this release, a live show from that tour, which I’d forgotten about. We spoke to Harvey {Birrell}, our studio engineer and live sound guy, who recorded Postcard CV, and he remembered having recorded it with a mobile recording unit. He said we played great on the whole tour, but for some reason we came off the stage that night and Mark said, ‘Lose that – bin it!’ But the difference between a good and bad concert back then would have been very much how we were feeling about it on the night. And there was probably quite a small difference between those performances. Looking back, it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as we remembered.”

Thankfully, Harvey had the presence of mind to actually put it aside for later, despite that request.

“Yeah, and when we spoke to Sony {the owner of Epic Records} and they gave us access to their archives, that includes recordings from when we first went into a proper studio, because we used to go to a lot of demo places – I mean, we did some recording when we were about 15. We tried to record five songs and the engineer said there’s only room for four. Apparently, you can hear us going into a corner and talking, coming back and going, ‘We’ll do five – we’ll do the last one much faster!

“And with Postcard CV, it was essentially live with no overdubs, but it had to be with songs like ‘Too Much Kissing’.”

A discussion followed – mostly from me, gushing, no doubt – about my love for that song and ‘Girlfriend’ from those days, songs that will always take me right back. In fact, as I put this together, I’ve just had a look back at the 1993 live footage for ‘Too Much Kissing’ at a packed Finsbury Park in North London in 1993 for the XFM concert, and also the rendition for the finale of that highly emotional (and that’s not just in retrospect, contemplating Mark’s passing) Shepherd’s Bush Empire show in West London in March 2017. Not a dry house in the sea, or something like that. Anyway, carry on Cass.

“I think The First of Too Many was the first time we’d gone in with the idea of making an album, so to speak. There’s a lot of fondness for Postcard CV, but I think The First of Too Many was probably us going, ‘This is our first proper album.’”

Thinking about it, that album title was perhaps somewhat confusing for those who didn’t fully know their way around your song catalogue.

“We definitely had a history of screwing the names around! The First of Too Many was originally titled Should Have Signed to Geffen. I think Mark came up with that, but it turned out that Sony really loved the title and said, ‘Yeah, go with that!’ At which point, Mark went off the idea!”

Going back to the very start, am I right in thinking Mark and Morgan went to the same school?

“Me and Mark went to school together, and Morgan we met locally. I met Mark when I was five and he was six. His Mum used to drive me into school. We met Morgan down at the adventure playground when we were 10, I think.”

That was in Twickenham, and from there I told Cass more about my own introduction to the band, and that past correspondence from Mark, a feature with Wiz of Mega City Four proving the catalyst. I also mentioned that line about them being like the Buzzcocks’ kid brothers back then.

“I’ll take that! And we supported the Buzzcocks when they reformed in 1989. We were lucky enough to get that tour, but we’d been together quite a while before. We were playing together in 1985, but I would have been 13 then.”

Funny you should say that. I recall chatting to a couple or maybe three of you at the bar at the University of Surrey in my hometown, Guildford, in late ‘89, and it struck me then that you were only kids. I was only 20 or 21, but you were 17 or 18, which seemed a big difference at that age.

“Well, we never quite got over the fact that Ben, our guitarist, was six years older! But yeah, the Buzzcocks. Our first single’s cover was actually done by Steve Diggle’s brother. Mark and I tracked him down and went to see him. I was only 14, Mark was 15, but we used to play down at the Clarendon in Hammersmith. You started off downstairs, and when you were big enough, you would reach the glorious shrine of the Klubfoot upstairs, where everyone we knew went.

“We played so much there, there are gaps where we didn’t recall if we’d seen a band or supported them, like with Soul Asylum and The Lemonheads. Only later did we find flyers that told us we played. Mainly because it was actually cheaper and better for us – instead of buying tickets to see a band – if we asked to play. That way we could see the band for free. 

“With the Buzzcocks we were playing downstairs at the Clarendon. Steve Diggle had his band, Flag of Convenience, and we booked the venue under our own name then got Steve’s band to headline instead of us so we could support them, and say we’d played with Steve Diggle from the Buzzcocks. We were only about 14 then.

“Mark was so autonomous, so driven, and he would hustle. He’d book all those early gigs himself. And he set up the PO Box and the first self-release we made for this label, Way Cool, but that was because Mark and myself were selling bootleg tapes on Pete’s stall in Camden {the owner of the label}, selling bootlegs of live bands. I think we were 12 then, but Mark got it together for us to go and record and put this record out. He was really industrious with booking all the gigs, making sure we could play up and down the country. He was quite relentless with that.”

Am I right in thinking Mark and Morgan were in earlier version of the band, Wild Division, before you were on board – the in-between band called The Psychotics – though? How come you weren’t involved then?

“Because I didn’t know how to play anything. Mark was my best mate and got himself a guitar, started writing songs. Morgan originally was the drummer of Wild Division, then moved to guitar, and I joined on drums. I only learned drums in order to play with my friends. It was the only vacant opportunity, and I didn’t know how to play guitar or bass. My dad bought me a drum kit from a junk shop up the road. I kind of learned that, then joined their band, Morgan switching to guitar before his dad said he couldn’t be in the band, he had to do his O-levels.

“And when Morgan returned, we already had a guitarist, so Morgan returned on bass, which is why a lot of his bass style is kind of John Entwistle guitar style.”

Ah, that makes sense, thinking about it. And talking of styles, listening back to ‘Everybody’s Gone’, the first single off the second LP, there’s Beatles-style bass on the chorus in particular, as well as that kind of Buzzcocks-like guitar.

And I was taken back to the thrill of those guitars on ‘Best Friend’ and (second single) ‘Got it at the Delmar’ in particular. But there are different elements throughout this album, and ‘Radio Spiteful’ … that’s probably the closest you came to being The Clash, right?

“Well, it’s not! I found a song from very early on called ‘I’m Moving’, which came out on a flexi-disc, I listened to it the other day, and can’t believe no one picked up on the fact that’s just a straight rip of ‘What’s My Name?’!”

“But musically, everything went into it. And Mark loved classic songwriters and was a massive fan of Squeeze, as we all were – the Difford/Tilbrook thing he really loved – and was very focused on lyrics. He didn’t write stuff that was throwaway. But sound-wise, when we were really young it was very kind of The Cure, Magazine, Wire, Buzzcocks. Then gradually a lot of American hardcore stuff – Minor Threat and Dag Nasty, Descendents, The Replacements. Fugazi … I was very into Sonic Youth, and that got thrown in too.

“If you listen to something like ‘Homophobic Arsehole’, I was buying £30 guitars from Record and Tape Exchange, using them to just smash up and make weird noises with, get a 4-track and distort stuff, then sample and put it over it. So the American stuff came in, but again, Mark was still very kind of … he loved Paul Westerberg {ex-Replacements}, and Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum. He still leant towards the ‘singer-songwriter with band’ aesthetic.”

What also strikes me listening back, and maybe I just didn’t think about it so much then, are the harmonies, like on ‘Lip Radio’. Come to think of it, ‘Wrong Number’ is almost more Beach Boys than Ramones.

“Ha! Well, I don’t know, but The Beach Boys were an absolute go-to after gigs in the van. We’ve got endless recordings and video footage of us singing along, picking a different harmony. We’d do all The Beach Boys’ stuff.”

Well, there you go. Maybe it rubbed off in a subliminal sense.

“Ben was very good with his harmonies. I remember Mark and Ben would that work out, and if they struck gold with one harmony, Mark would get really excited. I don’t know about The Beatles, but we were very into The Rutles. Ha!”

Another break-out discussion followed as to our mutual love of The Rutles, and the music of late great, Neil Innes. But moving on …

“With The First of Too Many, we were so young, and it was before that kind of disaffected melancholy came into guitar music. But there was still a lot of that in the stuff we listened to a lot – Yearning and stuff like The Replacements and Husker Du, and of course we toured with the Megas {Mega City Four) a lot. I think Wiz and Mark found a real kinship in the fact that they were they were both singer-songwriters genuinely swerving the more negative aspects of the music industry, just touring and taking stuff straight to bands and fans.

“Which is why Mark was so positive with connecting with people who came. He would listen to tapes, send stuff back out, personally run off tapes for people he’d made connections with and rough demos to people. I still got a lot of messages and emails from people who received these little packages from Mark.”

That’s the mark of the man, I guess. He certainly came over as totally genuine.

“He genuinely was. Coming from the backgrounds myself Mark came from, to have found a kind of really good, personal way out that could own – our band – where we didn’t have to pay lip service to anyone else in order to do what we needed to do, was completely autonomous. And for that being our kind of ticket to other countries and ticket to making records, it was the way we communicated and the way that we played. Also, we were so steeped in it – all we talked about was music, all we watched was music. We absorbed it all and then we had our own thing.

“And Mark really was relentlessly prolific with songs. When I look back at the dates we played, there were so many, but we were writing between them, then recording and rehearsing and whatever else we had to do. One year we had just one day off, and that wasn’t Christmas … which is the kind of regime a little boy band would have.”

Was Mark a galvanising force in making sure that commitment was there, for that out of the way date or whatever? Or was it across the board enthusiasm?

“I know that we never cancelled any gig in all that time apart from one, which was my doing – it was a gig in Inverness in ‘93 or ’94, when I’d bought tickets to see Prince and just went, ‘No, I’m not doing that one.’ That’s one of one and a half thousand shows. We would play if we were ill. Mark was relentless with booking gigs and tours and stuff, but I can’t remember there being any resistance from any of us. I think most of the pushing came between myself and Mark.

“I would oversee a lot the artwork and stuff to do with prints, posters and merchandise, and Mark would be more on the live side. But we were definitely rehearsing if we weren’t playing. And that would be Mark. I’d be like, ‘Why do we need to? We’ve just played this four times over?’

“The other marked difference then was that … nowadays and with every band I’ve been in since, we record an album and make the album how we want it to sound first, then go and play. Whereas with Senseless Things, the cycle was very much write, rehearse, go on tour for a couple of months, then when we know how to play the songs, record. Back then, making the albums seemed like a document of what we had done once we had toured. But playing songs live just changes their nature anyway.”

Seeing as you mentioned overseeing record covers, am I right in thinking Jamie Hewlett used to come and see you?

“Jamie did come to a couple of gigs, but there was a TV show called Transmission, and they showed the ‘Girlfriend’ video. Jamie and Alan Martin used to do Tank Girl in a magazine, Deadline, and at the bottom of each episode, would say they were listening to when they drew it, and one time they said that week’s soundtrack was Senseless Things. I think Mark contacted Jamie and asked if he would do a cover. He ended up letting us use a segment from one of his strips for ‘Too Much Kissing’.

“After that I used to travel down to Worthing where Jamie lived with Glyn Dillon, Alan Martin, Mat Wakeham, Philip Bond … there was this whole kind of little comic industry there. I totally loved all those people, would go down and we’d chat about stuff, Jamie ending up drawing lots and lots of stuff for our covers, up until The Empire of the Senseless. I think by that stage we were … ah, taking ourselves very serious, and thought maybe it was time to move on from the cartoon thing.”

You went on to tour with Blur. Was your route into Gorillaz through that earlier link with Damon Albarn, or through your friendship with Jamie?

“Er … myself and Jamie would phone each other at night, have ridiculously surreal and stupid conversations. But Senseless Things did tour with Blur in 1992. There was the Deadline connection, but both of our bands used to drink in London, usually a place called Syndrome, and we were always running into each other. The route into Gorillaz actually came, I think, when Jamie phoned me, he was working with Mat {Wakeham}, part of the Worthing group, and they were just beginning to do Gorillaz. Jamie asked me to pop into the studio and say hi, I had a look around, and they asked me to do the voice of one of the characters. But the actual call came from Damon when he was putting the live band together. Nothing had been released at that stage, but because Jamie’s and Damian’s studios were in the same block {West London}. I would go and rehearse, then go to Jamie’s.

“Really early on, there was this problem of how these fictitious characters were going to be able to do interviews. It didn’t really work with Jamie when they were trying to pretend to be the characters. So things were conducted by email, but then they didn’t really want to write the thing, so one evening I said, ‘Give them to me, I’ll do them.’ I’d done a million interviews and knew how a fucking obnoxious band would sound!

“That led to myself and Mat doing animation scripts for Gorilla Bites. And then we made a documentary. When Mat left, I took over doing the interviews and radio stuff, and if they were doing any DJing stuff or award ceremonies, I’d write the scripts, then we’d get in voice actors.”

There was more to it than that too, Cass also penning 2006 band autobiography, Rise of the Ogre. Some ride, all in all. And it was clearly meant to be.

“Yeah, it was … until it changed. But there you go.”

Was it rather surreal working with Clash icons, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon at one point?

“Well, I love Paul, and we kind of knew him before Plastic Beach. He came to a couple of Gorillaz shows and we kind of started hanging out really. He’s a really cool guy. Mick, I’d met a couple of times, bumping into him around Portobello Road. I actually played with Paul first, I think in 2006. He asked me to play drums with Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye, who were doing a covers album at the time. It was a track called ‘Satta Massagana’ by The Abyssinians. I worked with Paul then, and that was real fun. As a rhythm section we lock in very easily.

“And when he came to join in the Plastic Beach thing, there was definitely a different kind of … being a huge fan anyway, it went from it being nice playing with Paul, and ‘I fucking love The Clash’ to ‘Oh look, it’s half The Clash!’ There were definitely a couple of bits where I felt, ‘Fucking hell. That’s mysterious!’

“Mick’s a lovely guy too. They both are. And the Plastic Beach tour with Gorillaz was fantastic, because there was Bobby Womack on there, Lou Reed made a couple of appearances, there was the National Orchestra of Syria, Hypnotic Brass {Ensemble}…”

To name but a few. You can add Snoop Dogg, Neneh Cherry, De La Soul, Mark E. Smith, Little Dragon, Shaun Ryder, and Gruff Rhys to that impressive list, the tour opening at Coachella in Palm Springs, California, and also including memorable headlining spots at Glastonbury, Roskilde, and Benicassim.

Outside many landmark moments with Gorillaz and his first band, 51-year-old Merton-born Cass formed new band Delakota when Senseless Things split in 1995, touring with them for a couple of years, also featuring as Damon Albarn’s drummer on 2002’s Mali Music, and briefly for Urge Overkill. He then rejoined Mark Keds in 2016 in East London outfit Deadcuts, and there was the afore-mentioned Circle 60 alongside Morgan Nicholls.

Then in 2019 he co-formed ‘alternative rock supergroup’ Loup GarouX wth Mercury-nominated Ed Harcourt and The Feeling’s Richard Jones, the trio delivering debut LP Strangerlands late last year, Cass clearly remaining on a creative high with that ensemble. In short, it’s been a mighty journey so far. But Senseless Things was his way in, big as Gorillaz were. Is that how he sees it?

“I dunno … it goes in and out. I don’t get stopped very often, but when people do, it’s usually because of Senseless Things. But of course, Gorillaz is something recognisable from the cartoons. You didn’t see the band for a long time. And that was one of the absolute joys in the beginning.

“I did Senseless Things, then my own band, Delakota after that, I don’t know if I was burned out, but the thing is to start and dream up a band, trying to kind of get something together that feels exciting and new. There’s a certain amount of naïve petrol behind it that propels you forward. And then the reality of kind of coming out of the dream state, actually executing some of this is quite draining, and at the end of each cycle you kind of feel a little burnt out.”

Well, you did nine years or so as Senseless Things, which seems to be the maximum for many fine bands.

“Yeah, I mean, I look back on the pivotal span of The Clash, or the pivotal span of the Bunnymen, one of my favourite bands, and with them that killer run from 1980 to 1985. And this was a band that’s apparently lackadaisical. In actual fact, they put out four or five masterpieces.

“And going back to the Buzzcocks, when they reformed it felt like that was an event that would never have happened. They’d been gone so long that it was unthinkable that they would ever reform. In actual fact, between them splitting up and reforming was something like seven or eight years. And for Massive Attack, that’s tuning up a hi-hat!

“When they reformed, age-wise they would have been early 30s, and by our reckoning – being 18 – it was like, ‘Fuck! These guys! They’re back from the dead. What are they doing?’ But now, it’s like, ‘That’s nothing!’ Especially coming from where I am now. But with my current band, Loup GarouX – with Ed Harcourt and Richard Jones – it’s amazing. I wish I’d found them earlier. I’m so pleased and proud of the album we’ve just done, and that’s the most substantial piece of lyric writing and production I’ve done in quite a while.”

Agreed, on the basis of what I’ve heard so far. Admittedly, a catch-up exercise for this scribe, but yes, another special entry on the Cass Browne far-bigger-than-a-postcard CV. Anyway, where were we?

“The thing about Senseless Things … you go through those seismic life-defining changes or events. When we started, we were 10. I joined when I was 12 but Morgan and Mark had played together for two years, which at the time I thought there’s no way I’m ever going to be able to catch up or join this band because they’ve been going for so long, and I’ve only just learned how to play drums!

“But, you know, you go through puberty, you go through your first girlfriends, your first gigs, your first drinks, your first drugs, moving out, and in my case my father passed away … and all these things are so defining and resonant. And that goes for the audience as well, because, you know, it’s not just us going through those things. It’s also that audience’s first gigs, their first girlfriends, their first drinks, their first out of town experiences … and the sound of the records and the look of it – everything gets literally entwined into your synapses. It’s those evocations of early music.

“For me, this is why I still listen to the Buzzcocks, The Who, The Stranglers, because they’re ingrained. And while most of the bands I’ve done since have in some way been bigger, Senseless Things is probably still the most powerful in terms of those early memories.”

There was that four-song return at Islington Academy for Wiz, but then another 10-year gap before the proper return. Was 2007 a bit too early for any reunion?

“Well, the 2007 thing was … I hadn’t seen Mark for a long time. He did duck out, and for a lot of different reasons. So I hadn’t seen him, but he phoned me and said he was doing this thing for Wiz, billed as Mark Keds, although I think the other bands playing were billed as their bands. Mark said, ‘Would you want to do it?’ I said I would, and it would be great to play with him. Then he said, ‘Should we ask Ben?’ I said yeah, but Morgan I think was away in Japan, otherwise he would have done it. But we had one rehearsal and despite the fact that even then it’d been 10 or 12 years, everything was note-perfect. We’d played those songs to death, so we knew them.

“After that, me and Mark talked for a while about not necessarily playing again together but how he had some tracks, and I said, ‘Maybe I can produce them.’ I remember saying, ‘Do you remember Pete Shelley’s Homosapien album?’ It was a lot more like a Luxuria, or Wire when they went a little more digital. I said, ‘Maybe you should do a solo thing, and I should produce it.’ He seemed like he was up for the idea. We made a date to get together, but he never turned up, and I didn’t see him again until …”

The Deadcuts project?

“Well, it was a little before then. We hadn’t spoken for a while, but I saw The Replacements had reformed, and Senseless Things supported them on their last tour in 1991. We played at The Marquee under the name, The Stand-ins, because we weren’t allowed to use our own name. But then they reformed for this tour, and I got Mark a ticket to go and see them at The Roundhouse. That’s when myself and him started talking again. He asked me reasonably quickly to kind of join Deadcuts, and I was like, ‘Mate, we’re just talking again!’

“But the Deadcuts stuff, I also really liked, and it was very different to Senseless Things. Funnily enough, it was a lot more like what me and him were listening to right at the beginning, kind of The Psychedelic Furs and The Only Ones. He asked me to play one gig because their drummer dropped out. Then he said, ‘Can you do this other one?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that, but that’s it.’ Then it was like, ‘Sebadoh are playing, and I really want to do this tour …’ While we were doing that, we started writing in the soundcheck, then suddenly, it’s like, ‘Can you record drums?’ Then, fucking hell, that’s how it happens! You’ve got to be very careful, and alert, unless you end up in another band! Ha!’

I won’t dwell too much on Mark’s passing. You’ve probably been asked a few times. But I’m guessing you were in touch quite late on. When you look back now, I’m guessing you’re proud of everything you achieved with Senseless Things, but at the same time, when you think of Mark, do any particular memories jump out at you, live or in the studio, such as recording this album we’re talking about?

“Erm … I’ve said this somewhere else, but the thing is, the guy I grew up with, and the guy I recorded with and toured with, was different to the guy I ended up playing with in Deadcuts. And there was a lot of difficulty in Deadcuts. There was still a lot of fun, but the thing is, a lot of time had gone past and certain neurological pathways had changed, you know.

“I do like that Deadcuts album we made. It’s good. It’s different. But you can’t listen to more than one side at a time.”

Maybe there are too many memories wrapped up in that for you right now.

“Maybe it’s too soon, yeah. But my thing with the Senseless Things is … it was fucking really good fun. We’ve got films of us touring – Morgan had 30 hours of this footage, cut down to about two hours, and it might come at some point. And the thing is, in every single shot, we’re laughing … or usually smoking. But it was really positive, really furious, really confident, really silly, and just visceral … and the guy I would rather remember is that one.

“He was really sweet and charming, possibly too shy for his own good. And he was the guy I grew up with, and we were friends. He left home at 15 and came to live with me and my dad, but within the same week I left home, so Mark was living with my dad and I was living in a bedsit in Kingston! We were still rehearsing and playing, and we had a lot of kind of entwinements, but overall, the guy I remember and love and think is honoured by this record for his songwriting, his charm, and his ability to encapsulate moods, that’s the guy I want to remember.”

The triple-CD and double 12-inch coloured vinyl LP anniversary edition of Senseless Things’ second album, The First Of Too Many – expanded and revisited – is out on Friday, October 21st, with more details and pre-sale links at https://www.cherryred.co.uk/product/senseless-things-the-first-of-too-many-3cd-expanded-edition/.

And for more on Loup GarouX, head here.

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