The Chesterf!elds reveal the fine art of New Modern Homes – back in touch with Simon Barber

I do love a catchy indie pop song, and The Chesterfields have come up with the goods again on that front, ‘Our Songbird Has Gone’ released last weekend by Hamburg-based label Mr Mellow’s Music.

It’s a fine tribute to the band’s much-missed co-frontman, Davey Goldsworthy, who lost his life following a hit and run accident in Oxford in 2003. More than that though – because everything the band do these days is essentially in Davey’s memory – it’s also a tribute to that rush of ‘80s indie bands that shaped the band’s world … and mine, I guess.

First time I got to the two-minute mark of the new 45, it caught me out somewhat, bass player and co-founder Simon Barber joined by guitarists Andy Strickland and Helen Stickland (yes, different spellings, not a typo) in a singalong creatively namechecking in song a whole host of happening bands from yesteryear.

What’s more, the West Country four-piece, completed by drummer Rob Parry, are set to release a fourth studio LP, 35 years after cherished debut, Kettle and 28 years after what seemed to be their last hurrah, 1994’s Flood, with the latest addition to the catalogue, New Modern Homes, due in September.

Available worldwide on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Deezer and Tidal, and with a limited-edition 7-inch vinyl version available from selected record shops while stocks last (as the pitch goes), the new single’s accompanying video from James Harvey was filmed at Black Shed, Sherborne, Dorset, and is guaranteed to bring smile to the faces of lovers of that particular genre. It did me, anyway.

And it seems that Simon, the band’s only ever-present, is chuffed with how things are going, currently making the most of the interest coming their way, alongside his day-job running West Country arts magazine Evolver.

“It’s brilliant. It feels like a major label, and Helmut really knows what he’s doing.”

So how did he get caught up with the delightfully-named Mr Mellow’s Music?

“It’s run by Helmut Heuer, who I first came across when he was still in his teens. He organised a tour for Basinger {formed by Simon after The Chesterfields initially folded} around Europe, we turned up, and it was just this kid! And he came with us. When Basinger came to an end, I stopped doing things and didn’t hear anything more of him for years. Meanwhile, he got involved in the music industry in Germany, ending up at BMG, working on Madonna’s account, things like that.

“He wanted his own label and now runs Légere Recordings, geared to jazz, MOR, smooth … But he did a show as Mr Mellow for London’s Soho Radio for two years before the lockdown, and one of his favourite LPs as a teenager was Kettle. So that’s what it took, and now he’s set up his own pop label, with us providing the first couple of releases.

Last time we traded messages, Simon was mulling over release options, the other of note being with Lee Grimshaw’s Spinout Nuggets label.

“That would also have been a brilliant option, and Lee’s set to release our second single, a double-A-side 7-inch in August, when the album comes out or just after. And that should be a nice fit too. Lee’s good at getting things about …”

I do wonder how he fits everything in, not least as he seems to spend a lot of time between his adopted base in Cornwall, his Kentish roots, and various music events.

“I know! He came around to my flat from Cornwall, but he’s often heading towards the Medway or London. I don’t quite know how The Chesterfields fit in, but Palooka 5 are on his label, again a little outside what he’d normally do, because it’s very much a Medway garage and Mod sort of thing. And when you meet him you realise he is that man. I really like him, and the energy is incredible.

“Tim from Palooka 5 knew he was at Shiine On last year and said, ‘Go and have a look at The Chesterfields’, and he saw the last half of the set and loved it, getting in touch immediately. That was based purely on seeing us live. Then he met me here, I played him the album, and he loved it.

“Knowing what was happening with the German label, he asked if he could put out something, just wanting to be sort of involved. And I think that involvement might continue, because it seems a nice fit. It’s great being on Helmut’s label and having someone here too – both those energies are good.”

As you mentioned Helmut’s love of the debut LP, I see it’s now 35 years since that key release that rather confirmed your indie pop credentials.

“Yes, 8 June 1987.”

I hadn’t realised – or had at least forgotten – that the time I saw you at the Coal Hole in Covent Garden, London, was so close to that date (Saturday, 6 June).

“It was! And we’d sort of half-collapsed then, because Brendan [Holden, guitar} had left. So Andy Strickland came in, and Rodney Allen played with us for some gigs. When Brendan left, he felt – and he was totally wrong – ‘Simon just wants to get his brother in the band.’ That wasn’t what we were thinking, but we used Andy and Rodney for a few gigs … then Mark did join the band!

“But it was lovely that Andy did join then, because it makes this line-up – and Andy did Glastonbury Festival with us that month – authentic for me and others. And I needed that, because without Davey …”

I guess it would be ‘Simon Barber, ex-Chesterfields and band’ otherwise.

“Exactly, and the fact I’d sung ‘Ask Johnny Dee’ really helped as well.”

Simon’s younger brother, Mark, incidentally, joined the band that year and left in 1989, re-joining from 1993-94. Furthermore, Andy confirmed after this interview that he didn’t play that Coal Hole date. However, he certainly made an impact a fortnight later at Glastonbury Festival, when I somehow missed The Chesterfields – featuring Simon, Davey, Andy and drummer Dominic Manns that day – despite planning to catch them there.

“Yes, although we weren’t on the flyer that goes around, as that was one of the early ones. It doesn’t have The Soup Dragons on there either, and quite a few other bands that got booked. That second stage had twice as many as were listed, including Automatic Diamini, John Parish’s band. Such a shame … but there’s a later flyer, and we were in the programme. There’s a lovely write-up.”

Fellow Somerset outfit Automatic Diamini also included Rob Ellis, who along with John also briefly featured with The Chesterfields. Meanwhile, Polly Harvey soon joined that outfit, both John and Rob later proving instrumental in the PJ Harvey years that followed.

That was The Chesterfields’ first Glastonbury, although Simon ‘had been there the two previous years as a punter, discovering The Go-Betweens there in ‘86 – the only time I ever saw them.’ More on that influential Brisbane outfit soon, but first …

“Andy’s favourite story from then is that he didn’t have a long enough guitar lead, so couldn’t get up to the microphone to join in on something. It was too short. But these two lads came on and moved his whole crate with his amp on much further forwards. A funny moment.”

With a nod to Kettle, there’s a track on the new LP called, ‘Mr Wilson Goes to Norway’, updating that debut LP’s ‘Oh Mr Wilson’. When did that song come into your mind?

“I’ve always really loved the fact that Buddy Holly wrote a song called ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’, and just felt we needed to find out what Mr Wilson had been up to. It’s got that Housemartins/ Chesterfields type beat, and we needed something on the album like that. And that’s the one Lee {from Spinout Nuggets} picked up on, wanting to be a single, with one of Helen’s songs, ‘Year on the Turn’ on the other side, which is fantastic. And our artist friend Debbie Lee has done an amazing animation for it.”

The promo video for ‘Our Songbird Has Gone’ was filmed in and around Helen’s flower farm in Sherborne, and I’m guessing you’re walking around that Dorset town in the ‘Mr Wilson Goes to Norway’ promo video I had a sneak preview of … rather than Telemark, where I’m guessing you didn’t quite get to.

“Ah, but James (Harvey, video director) did, a month after we filmed that! We weren’t going to film the walking around bit, but had a bit of time, we’d done a photo session, made the ‘Songbird’ video, then I asked, ‘Could we shoot a few little bits?’ I knew he was going to Norway a few weeks later and asked, ‘Maybe you could film us, then use some of your footage from Norway too?’ And it works so well.

“We’d already filmed on the flower farm, and he said, ‘Is there anyone else we can go?’ I said, ‘Why don’t we just walk down the town?’ There weren’t loads of people, it was a Sunday, but it was good fun!”

As for the first single, I didn’t know what to expect on my first listen, and I have to say it brought a tear to the eye. Not just because of the Davey link, but also that rollcall of indie influences, also acknowledged on the sleeve. It’s a lovely touch.

“Oh good. A lot of people are saying that, it’s brought tears to a few people’s eyes. A friend of mine, Wayne, who played in a band with Davey after The Chesterfields, saw us play it last year. I introduced it by saying, ‘This is a song about me and Dave,’ because it’s all about the excitement of getting a band together and things we were all into. And all those bands mentioned are ones Davey and I either came into contact with or loved, so it’s such a personal song for me and for people to pick up on.

“And {BBC 6 Music’s} Gideon Coe apparently loves it, and John Kennedy at XFM said it was brilliant and ‘The Chesterfields are back with a vengeance.’ And we’ve started getting played on radio stations all around the world now. Yeah, it feels good!

“There’s also a punky song Andy and I see as a classic 7-inch punk single with pink and yellow sleeve, called ‘My Bed is an Island’. He plays a solo that starts off like Captain Sensible but ends up like John McGeoch. Andy brought three songs to the album, and they’re all great. So yeah, we got lucky!”

The Go-Betweens get more than one mention on the first 45, but I was also impressed you managed to get a plug for your old label-mates The Beat Hotel too.

“Yes! And some of the bands are starting to get in touch, like The Darling Buds started following us on Instagram, while Phil Wilson (from The June Brides) got in touch, and Tim from The Razorcuts (the first band mentioned) messaged us on Facebook, saying it was really lovely.”

Since our chat, I’ve also seen a lovely message from Go-Betweens drumming legend Lindy Morrison, no doubt enough to make Simon melt in the following heatwave. Meanwhile, Simon reckons they’ve all properly memorised the words now, after a few teething problems getting to grips with it all.

“We can do it without thinking about it now, but you sort of think, ‘How did bands like REM do those list songs?’ I never would have attempted that … but actually, perhaps I needed to.”

Back on the subject of The Go-Betweens, what do you reckon you saw in them when you caught them at Glastonbury in 1986 that really appealed?

“At that time, because we started out as The Chesterfields around ’84 and ’85, we were one of those bands looking for, you know, purity in pop music again, against all the big drum sounds and all that sort of thing. We knew about Orange Juice, but … The Go-Betweens were sort of a bit awkward, but those songs you went away with in your head, which I really need.

“You see a band and think, ‘That’s great’ but if you’re not coming away with something in your head, that hasn’t done it for me. And they definitely did. It was early enough that they were playing things like ‘Lee Remick’. And once heard, never forgotten.”

The LP title, New Modern Homes, is a line from ‘Our Songbird is Gone’. Is there a theme across the record?

“Sort of. When you see the sleeve …”

I’ve seen a still of it at the end of the video.

“Well, I commissioned a friend of mine, Paul Blow, an illustrator for The Observer among other magazines, he heard the whole album and picked up on a few things. So the cover features a new modern home in Norwegian scenery, with the big man from Andy’s song, a songbird on his shoulder. And it works really beautifully.

How about that line, ‘And your little black book has arrived with the postman’ on ‘Our Songbird Has Gone’ – is there truth in that?

“I’m looking across at it now. When Davey died, his ex-girlfriend, Catherine said, ‘I think you should have this.’ I hadn’t seen it before. It’s a little black book, A6, he’s written on the side of the pages, ‘The Slits’, and what really touched me was that it has all the words from the Kettle period to all our songs – he’d written all my lyrics in there as well.

“I was always in awe of him and his words, and I think I became a better wordsmith as a result of being in the band with him. So to see that was quite a thing really.

“I wrote that song on my birthday, in lockdown, May 2020, the first time I’d walked out to meet my daughter, who lives eight miles away. We both walked four miles, she brought the kids, we had a picnic, it was a gorgeous day, and on the way out, that rhythm got into my head and the words started landing. I’d been thinking about Davey, and sang it into my phone a few times.

“When I got there my granddaughter, Lexi, nine at the time, pulled a ukulele out of her bag, and she’d been learning ‘You Are My Sunshine’, so they all sang that to me before the picnic. So if I hadn’t sung the song into my phone I think I might have lost it … with another tune in my head. And pretty much, a couple of days later, it was done.”

Was that the track everything else was built around?

“I don’t know, I felt it had something that people would pick up on, and that’s what people were telling me, but you never really know. But when John Parish heard all the demos – as I thought they were – he said, like others I played them to, ‘These aren’t demos, why don’t you just finish what you’ve got to do, I’ll come down to the studio, then come to mine and we’ll mix it.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”

Next year it will be 20 years since we lost Davey. Do you recall where you were when you heard?

“I’d had a phone conversation with him out of the blue a couple of weeks before. We’d just had a catch-up. I hadn’t seen him for several months, so when I found out … My friend Head, who does our sound and PJ Harvey’s – he had a recording studio in Yeovil back in the day – phoned me, asked if I’d heard, then people started contacting me.

“Everyone thought I was the person to contact. Which was weird, because I hadn’t really been in his life for a few years, but it was me they were expecting to tell others, and get the word out.

“I had a conversation with his mother, and she asked me to help her sort out a bench in Yeovil, on a hill where his ashes are. So there was this expectation I was going to do that too, and I was totally happy to be doing all that, and then organise a gig for all his family and friends to say goodbye to him.  

“Grief can do that – you just want to be getting on with things. Davey’s mum also asked me to choose the music for his funeral, and I chose an instrumental of ours, ‘The Berlin Walk’. That was the committal music, and people did appreciate it.

“And they had walked in to ‘Pop Anarchy’, which is pure Davey, yet I thought, ‘Is this going to be right? Is it going to work?’ And then we chose ‘The Berlin Walk’ for my mother’s committal as well, because it was ‘her boys’ – my brother was mostly responsible for it – and now everyone knows I want it for mine!”

And yet, for all that, this new LP is still something of a celebration album really, isn’t it?

“Sort of, but it wouldn’t have happened without Covid. My magazine is all about things people can go to, so suddenly I had no magazine. A lot of goodwill, luckily, meant people still paid for adverts in an edition that had just come out, but I was basically just sat here reading or playing my bass guitar, and songs soon started landing. So yeah, basically Rishi Sunak paid me to write this album!”

Oh, the irony.

“But I’m so glad I had the push that got me and Davey out of Yeovil. And my brother, Mark was one of those I played this album to – the same day as John Parish – and he’s totally supportive, and on the Bristol gig on the last day of the last tour he got up and sang ‘Sweet Revenge’ with us.”

When we spoke, there were plans afoot for the Orchard Popfest in Crewkerne, Somerset, hosted by North Down Orchard and the Electric Broom Cupboard, its impressive line-up including The Chesterfields, The Monochrome Set, The June Brides, Palooka 5, Helen McCookerybook, and The Rhynes. Unfortunately, that was pulled fairly late on though, that in the wake of the band having to pull out of the Isle of Wight Festival after Covid ruled them out.

“Ah! I was more gutted for Andy then, as he lives on the island. And he was going to be DJ-ing in that tent that Saturday night. We were going down on Wednesday, rehearsing on Thursday, then heading to the site on Friday, the best day, weather-wise. So that was disappointing, but pretty soon they told us we’d be pencilled in for next year, which did soften the blow.”

Things are definitely looking up now though, with the single out, another lined up, and the new LP on its way. And the band are set to announce live dates for around the time of the LP release, starting with record shop dates in Dorchester on Friday, 23 September, and Yeovil the following day, with an evening show that same day – Saturday, 24 September – in Bridport.

There’s also a Venue 229 date in London, supported by The Leaking Machine, on Friday, 7 October, followed by shows at The Tree House, Frome on Friday, 14 October, and The Railway Inn, Winchester on Saturday, 15 October, with others yet to be confirmed, Simon adding, ‘I’m hoping we might be announcing some more for next year.’

There’s also the chance of a date next May in Hamburg through their label, another positive in what’s shaping up to be another vintage spell for The Chesterfields … definitely back with a vengeance.

For details of how to track down ‘Our Songbird Has Gone’, head here, and to keep in the touch with The Chesterfields, you can follow their Facebook and Instagram pages.

For this website’s February 2017 feature/interview with Simon Barber, 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.

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Awakened by the Sound of the Morning – the Katy J Pearson interview

Katy J Pearson is powering her way through what’s shaping up to be a huge summer for her, promoting new album Sound of the Morning, out now via Heavenly Recordings.

Having already delivered a string of well received record shop live dates, prestigious support slots and festival appearances – including her latest Glastonbury performances – this talented Gloucestershire singer-songwriter also has headline tours lined up in the UK and mainland Europe.

You may have seen her perform the cracking ‘Talk Over Town’ and rousing ‘Float’ on BBC 2’s Later…with Jools Holland in mid-June, and since then caught the promo video for ‘Alligator’, the latest single from a winning second LP released last Friday, including cameos from Paul McGann, reprising a somewhat familiar character from Withnail & I, and Tom Gould, of the band Pottery.

There was Sea Change in Totnes, Wide Awake in London, France’s Art Rock in St Brieuc, and Kite in Oxford on the lead-up to Glastonbury, and then a night guesting with First Aid Kit at the Lloyd’s Amphitheatre in her adopted home city, Bristol.

Written and recorded in late 2021 and available now in download, CD, regular and limited purple and clear vinyl LP formats, the new album was co-produced by Ali Chant (Yard Act), who was also at the helm for her debut, Return, and Speedy Wunderground’s Dan Carey (Fontaines DC).

Her previous album, released in November 2020, garnered plenty of critical acclaim too, Katy selling out shows up and down the UK and praised for ‘the arresting quality of [her] Kate Bush-meets-Dolly Parton vocal delivery’ by The Times, the single ‘Take Back the Radio’ described as ‘a whoop of pure joy’ amidst the bleak toll of lockdown in The Guardian.

Something certainly resonated, and Katy has already proved she can dip her toes into a multitude of genres, not least through guest slots on Orlando Weeks’ Hop Up LP and collaborations with Yard Act and trad-folk collective Broadside Hacks.

As for the follow-up, as her label put it, ‘It’s still Katy J Pearson (read: effortlessly charming, full of heart and helmed by that inimitable vocal), but it’s Katy J Pearson pushing herself musically and lyrically into new waters.’ 

On the new record she’s increasingly ploughing darker furrows, albeit with plenty of light within, Katy ‘taking the listener’s hand and guiding them through the good and the bad, like the musical equivalent of an arm around the shoulder.’ And as she added, ‘I want people to feel things with my music, but I don’t want to cause my listener too much trauma. Counselling is expensive, so you’ve got to pick your battles.’

She’d already put in a solo in-store lunchtime slot at London’s Third Man Records and appeared on James Endeacott’s Morning Glory for Soho Radio on the day we spoke, and was getting set for a full band show that night at the Fighting Cocks in Kingston. And the pace of that full-on itinerary continues for the rest of the year, it seems, her in-store agenda continuing from there with a mix of lunchtime and evening visits to Rough Trade, Bristol; Pie & Vinyl, Southsea; Resident, Brighton; Rough Trade, Nottingham; Jumbo, Leeds; Rough Trade East, London; and Friendly Records back in Bristol, the size of her band seemingly alternating throughout, presumably dependent on floor space.

“I feel like now’s when everything kind of starts kicking off. But it’s kind of nice, because last time {for the first LP} it was just me in my room doing all my promo through Zoom, then celebrating the record coming out with a Zoom party!”

How was your 2022 Glastonbury Festival experience (three years after her last appearance)?

“That was amazing. We did the Park Stage on Saturday, the Croissant Neuf stage, the Greenpeace stage … I also sang with Orlando Weeks, so did four gigs there then we drove back to Bristol on Sunday and supported First Aid Kit. Then I came back on Monday and went to Gatwick to go on holiday to Greece, getting back from Crete last night, straight into London.”

And beyond September’s UK tour, you’re off to mainland Europe.

“Exactly. I think I have a week or so off at the end of October, then I’m doing a European headline tour, with Pavement dates around it. I’m really excited though. It’s gonna be a big old hustle.”

My youngest daughter is certainly looking forward to seeing you at the Cornish Bank in Falmouth.

“Ah, I’m really excited about that show. A lot of my friends have played there and said such good things. It looks beautiful, it’s by the sea, and should still be quite warm when we play there, so I might have a little dip.”

It has to be done. And you’re a bit of a swimmer, aren’t you?

“I love it, yeah. I’m a seasoned swimmer!”

And when you’re not up and down the country and overseas, Bristol’s your home from home these days?

“Yeah, I moved there five years ago, and I’m going back tomorrow for the night then back on tour for the in-store dates. It’s a wonderful city to live in. I’m from about 45 minutes from there, but my parents are moving to Devon, so I’ll be able to jump on a train to Totnes and see them down there.”

The new LP’s getting better and better with every listen, and one of your many strengths for me is how you seem to confound expectations of what you might be about. You’re not so easy to categorise and put a label on.

“Ah, thank you. That is definitely the aim!”

Take for example the all-encompassing new day hug of opening track – and title track – ‘Sound of the Morning’, where I’m transported back – it’s probably Molly Shields’ flute that does it – to Nick Drake.

“Ah, the pastoral vibe, yeah. Haha!”

And who’s that with you, vocally, on ‘Sound of the Morning’?

“That’s Samantha Crain … who I love.”

There’s a bit of a Sandy Denny or even Merry Clayton thing going on there. Gorgeous, and your voices blend so well.

“Yes, she’s got a wild vibrato! It’s like, ‘whoah!’ I reached out to her and she happily obliged. She’s amazing, and her new record is really good.”

Recommendation lodged. And you go that way with soothing mid-point number, ‘The Hour’ too. Is that folk roots feel within you? Is that where you started out before heading for a full band sound?

“It’s interesting you say that because for ages I was kind of jumping around about what I would define my genre as. But if I really think about what I was listening to as I was growing up, it was very folk-orientated. And I kind of forget to kind of mention that and every time I see the word folk. I get a bit annoyed, thinking of Three Daft Monkeys playing at Wychwood Folk Festival, kind of gypsy folk and party folk. When, actually, folk is such a broad term that I can accept I’m in that realm.

“When I was growing up, I was into a lot of James Taylor and a lot of that Crosby, Stills and Nash era Americana folk-rock. And recently, I’ve listened to a lot of Vashti Bunyan. I’ve just read her memoir, and she says she doesn’t like to be referred to as folk … but there is a side of her that is. So in that kind of realm, I’m happy to be defined as that.”

You must also get plenty of Stevie Nicks comparisons, on account of that gorgeous voice. But there’s far more to you than that.

“Oh, all the time! Which I’m so flattered by, but I feel hopefully over time I can carve away from that comparison. Because she’s so great in her own right and I don’t want to feel like a reincarnation of her. I’m me!”

Someone else that springs to mind for me is Maria McKee, albeit more in Lone Justice days or on her first solo record. And as the writer of Feargal Sharkey’s big hit, ‘A Good Heart’, she clearly has pop pedigree, something else you share.

“I do feel it’s such a mixture of things. I can slide into the folk element and also really enjoy writing pop songs. And that’s where, when I first started taking it seriously with my old band, my label at the time wanted me to go and I kind of went with. Then I realised the real fine pop wasn’t for me, but I think I managed to find a happy medium between it all.”

While she says ‘band’, Katy started out alongside twin brother Rob – who remains integral to her current set-up – in ‘melancholic pop duo’ Ardyn, starting out as Kitten and Bear, this coming-of-age outfit’s first EP landing in 2015 via London indie label National Anthem.

And if you were in any doubt as to her crossover pedigree, look no further that ‘Talk Over Town’ – described as a track that attempts to make sense of her recent experiences, of ‘being Katy from Gloucester, but then being Katy J Pearson who’s this buzzy new artist’, and a contender for single of the year for this scribe.

“Ah, thank you! I like that song a lot. Although with that, I can’t remember even when that was conceived. I know I wrote it last year sometime, but …”

Towards the end, and this didn’t really come over when I saw you on Later … with Jools, when the backing vocals come in there’s almost a Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood vibe, deep in the mix. Maybe that’s a future direction for you.

“Ha! I wouldn’t have a problem with going in that direction. I wouldn’t mind writing something like ‘Summer Wine’. Such a banger!”

You’re on a cool label too, Heavenly Recordings, alongside the likes of Amsterdam’s Pip Blom. In fact, I hear a few similarities in delivery on a couple of the new songs.

“Yeah, she’s fantastic. She writes some really good kind of like grunge-rock pop songs.”

Then there’s Cardiff’s Cornish and Welsh speaking inspiration, Gwenno, on the label too.

“Ah, I love Gwenno’s new record – it’s amazing. I’ve been listening to it loads this past week. I’ve really warmed to it and I think it’s a really nice mixture of songs, with the production so tasteful.”

Talking of influential female acts, not least following her recent resurgence with the use of ‘Running Up That Hill’ on Stranger Things, I certainly hear Kate Bush in your work too.

“Oh, I remember hearing Kate Bush for the first time, my Dad showing me her when I was 14 or 15. I’d just come out of my pop vibes, having listened to a lot of Taylor Swift, a lot of Stacie Orrico, trying to work out who I was. I’d listen to her constantly on the CD player in my room. Then my Dad kind of realised I was growing up a bit and my tastes were broadening. I remember discovering Bombay Bicycle Club, The Maccabees, then finding Kate Bush, being like, ‘Oh my God, that’s what I want to be like!’”

I suppose in a way that takes me back to the Stevie Nicks comparisons, because I was surprised when I heard first you had Stroud, Gloucestershire links. I felt you had more of a US Eastern Seaboard sound.

“Yeah, a bit of a twang lingering! I remember when I was 15 or 16, being obsessed with Joanna Newsom, and kind of replicating her voice. And it kind of ended up where my parents were like, ‘You’re sounding a bit too … I think you should tone it down a bit. And I was like, fair enough.”

Who suggested you got Paul McGann involved for the ’Alligator’ video?

“That was my suggestion. Dad brought me and my brothers up on a lot of Mike Leigh films and the like, and in that similar kind of humour zone we’d watch Withnail and I almost religiously, my brother obsessed with it too. And when I played a show in Bristol for the War Child charity, Paul McGann was compering, and I freaked out, being such a fan girl!

“Then I met him just before going on stage, and after the show we had a little chat. I’d just read he lives in Bristol, and – now with his email address and number – thought I’d see if he wants to be in a video. He got back straight away, said yeah, came down, and was such a legend.

“We asked him to reprise his Withnail character, got him the jacket and glasses. Seeing him put on the glasses, look in the mirror, he was like, ‘I’m freaked out’. I was too! It was Withnail! And my brother snuck on the set and was following him around like a dutiful Labrador. But I was so shocked by that, the fact that I can watch the video and I’m like, ‘It’s Paul McGann!’.”

Regarding the song itself (another which I reckon gets better with every listen), written with Dan Carey at his studio in Streatham, South West London, Katy said it was inspired by her ‘worst morning ever’, Katy stressed after a £500 electric bill landed, in tears at the studio, the song soon surfacing, ‘born from the idea of dissociation when experiencing anxiety’ but wrapped up in a euphoric chorus, video director Edie Lawrence working on its themes of paranoia, anxiety and intrusive thoughts.

Mind you, as I put it to her, for me it’s somewhere between The Ting Tings and Sheryl Crow.

“Ha! I like that comparison! That’s a good one.”

The new album is teeming with quality, from the more reflective ‘The Riverbed’ (whisper it, there’s a Fleetwood Mac quality there too) to the ‘Wow’ factor, Kate Bush style, of the intricate, ‘80s synth-underpinned (with some glorious brass seeping through, but never over-played) ‘Howl’, Orlando Weeks repaying the favour of her contribution to his record with a vocal guest spot.

And I get the impression these songs are very personal to you, not least on ‘Confession’, where it seems Kim Wilde and Lene Lovich have sneaked into the studio to complement your Bush craft this time.

“I really felt that just the process of doing this, doing music and releasing the first record, gave me the self-confidence to be more outspoken. When you’re starting out, you kind of make sure you don’t speak out about things because you’re feeling it’s early days, but I think now I’m cementing myself more, I feel l have more of a platform, it feels right to be more open about my experiences in music as a woman and represent experiences for many women.

“When I wrote, ‘It was a very long time ago …’ the lyric represented for me when people are drunk at a party or confiding in someone, telling you something really traumatic but downplaying it, saying, ‘Oh, it was ages ago, it’s old news.’

“I think that’s such a representative thing of how the #MeToo thing spread across the film industry … but completely blindsided the music industry. There’s this weird kind of boundary in place, and I still don’t feel fully comfortable to rap out anyone. It’s not something I feel comfortable doing, but that song is a start in my way of trying to connect with other women who have similar experiences.”

Then there’s the afore-mentioned, multi-layered, bob-to-the-top ‘Float’, penned with long-time pal Oliver Wilde of Pet Shimmers. On my first listen, playing it quite loud, I told Katy that when that spoken voice came in towards the end, that discombobulated ‘float’ …

“That’s me! I was singing into this microphone that made it sound like it was on the radio, it was kind of like a megaphone that mimics a radio …”

… Well, I was getting immersed, and when I heard that I thought for a moment someone had walked into my house and was talking to me. You made me jump.

“Ha!”

As we head towards the finish line, the more straight-forward pop hook of ‘Game of Cards’, an earlier single, is followed by the glorious slow-build of ‘Storm to Pass’, which I feel carries an Emmylou Harris with Daniel Lanois vibe, the late roll-out of the brass taking it further into bright new morning territory, kind of where we started on track one. In fact, I could almost hear Kate Rusby (another Kate … they’re everywhere) or The Unthanks reinterpreting that. Maybe it’s the horns.

“Ah, I love The Unthanks! I think it felt like it needed to go somewhere ethereal. It kind of reminds me of a mournful Salvation Army band.”

I could certainly hear it tackled at a Christmas concert by one or other of those artists. As for the final track, that driving, motoric drum intro gives rise to a sumptuous, never too brash cover of ‘Willow’s Song’, which totally caught me out first time … in a good way. Is that a song you’ve known a long time?

“Not particularly. It’s a song I discovered about two years ago through Dad. Then I watched The Wicker Man when I had Covid, and loved it, and all the songs are amazing.”

It made me go back and read up again on that soundtrack, reminding myself about the band Magnet, and composer Paul Giovanni.

“It’s extraordinary, isn’t it. And I would love … one of my ideas is to kind of rework The Wicker Man soundtrack in a more contemporary way, maybe do one of those albums where contemporary artists cover each song. And I love that song.”

The original is sensuous and out there, of course (be still my beating heart), but you’ve made it yours, in a sense, quite an achievement in itself.

“I think I wanted to do that, and I remember when we finished tracking it, I was like, ‘Oh God, I hope there’s not a similar kraut-rock punk version! And luckily, I listened back and so many people have covered it, but not like that!”

I hadn’t realised until today how many cover versions there were … but yours is rather different.

“Yes, so I’m relieved that I didn’t cover it in such a kind of a cautious manner, I guess. And no offence to anyone else, but I’ve put some new clothes on it!”

You certainly have. Some might say that’s not Britt-ish, or what Ekland expects. As for your live set-up, what can we expect, line-up wise, on this tour?

“The main line-up is drums, bass, keys, lead guitar, three vocals, then we have trumpet. And for some shows we also have saxophone and flute, and another extra female vocal. So sometimes there’s eight of us, sometimes there’s five, sometimes six …”

Meanwhile, my mention of her Cornish Bank date led her to tell me she contemplated studying in Falmouth after art college on her old patch in Stroud … but then her music career took over.

“It was either go to university to do art … or take this record deal with a major label.”

Fate, I guess. And I think you’ve got the best of those two appealing worlds now, your artistic flair truly explored, coming out in your music.

“Yeah, exactly. And I’m very heavily involved with that, so I feel I’ve got a nice balance.”

Katy is next set to appear at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank, near Macclesfield (July 22nd), Latitude, Southwold (July 23rd) and Deer Shed, Thirsk (July 29th); Winterthurer Musilfestwochen, Switzerland (August 10th), Green Man, Crickhowell (August 19th), and Beautiful Days, Ottery St Mary, Devon (August 21st).

Then come her September tour dates at Trinity, Bristol (8th); Cornish Bank, Falmouth (9th); Cavern, Exeter (10th); Joiners, Southampton (11th); Chalk, Brighton (13th); Olby’s, Margate (14th); Electric Ballroom, Camden, London (15th); Brudenell Social Club, Leeds (17th); The Cluny, Newcastle (18th); Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh (20th); Mono, Glasgow (21st); Gorilla, Manchester (22nd); Float Along, Sheffield (24th); Rescue Rooms, Nottingham (25th); Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff (27th); Hare & Hounds, Birmingham (28th), and The Bullingdon, Oxford (30th).

For tickets head to www.seetickets.com, for details on the LP, check out Katy’s Bandcamp page here, and for more about Katy, you can head to her Heavenly Recordings page. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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Remembering the Bickershaw Festival, 50 years on – back in conversation with Chris Hewitt

With Glastonbury behind us for another year, give or take BBC iPlayer highlights, there’s still plenty to savour on the festival calendar, but in this feature I’ll head far further north and back 50 years, to one of the most influential outdoor music weekenders, when a host of happening acts descended upon a Lancashire mining village in 1972.

It was an event where 19-year-old John Mellor – soon restyled Woody, and later Joe Strummer – saw Captain Beefheart’s Saturday night headline slot as a lifelong inspiration, and where 17-year-old Declan MacManus – in time becoming Elvis Costello – felt The Grateful Dead’s Sunday night headlining set made him want to form a band. And it ultimately inspired Chris Hewitt to create the first of his legendary Deeply Vale Festivals in 1976.

Deeply Vale was memorably cited by veteran DJ/presenter Bob Harris as deserving its ‘place in rock history … the best loved and silliest rock festivals of all time.’ But proud as he is of that, Chris acknowledges he truly cut his teeth on the circuit volunteering for Bickershaw Festival, on a muddy site not far from Wigan.

And to mark that event’s golden anniversary, Chris has updated an expanded 2012 publication celebrating that May 5th/7th event, writing, compiling and honing an impressive A4-size paperback featuring lots of colourful detail, memories of the festival conveyed in words, rare photos, and ephemera.

When I spoke to Northwich, Cheshire-based Chris back in 2018 (with a link to that interview here), we focused on his triple-DVD/ hardback book combo put together to mark Deeply Vale’s 40th anniversary reunion, and his links with legendary broadcaster John Peel. And I mentioned to him first off this time that I saw this latest publication is ‘A Dandelion Records Book’, commemorating the label they were both involved with.

“Yeah, I managed the band Tractor around the same time I got involved with Bickershaw Festival, so also got to know (labelmates) Stackwaddy, Medicine Head, Bridget St John, and so on. And (more recently) I thought, nobody’s using the Dandelion Records name, so got permission from Peel to relaunch that label to issue new Stackwaddy and Kevin Coyne releases, and the Tractor archive.”

Among the book’s testimonials is one from the late Jeremy Beadle, who told Chris, ‘You have succeeded brilliantly. Like most people I’d forgotten just how awful and just how fantastic Bickershaw was.’

It was Jeremy Beadle who persuaded The Grateful Dead and a host of other West Coast US musicians plus some of the top UK rock acts to come to the unlikely setting of Naylor’s Farm, Bickershaw, in what provided Chris’ first hands-on involvement in outdoor music festival promotions – mostly selling tickets, handing out flyers, and putting up posters.

He was promoting music events at Rochdale College when a panicking Jeremy Beadle contacted him three weeks before the event, Chris one of several student union events officers around Manchester called upon to help, his experiences at Bickershaw seemingly inspiring him in a similar way to how 1969’s Bath Festival of Blues lit the touchpaper for Michael Eavis, sowing the seed for Glastonbury Festival.

Later generations recall Jeremy Beadle as a familiar face on UK television in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and it turns out that Chris got to know the London-based TV and radio presenter, writer and producer better in later days.

“The first thing I did (for this project) was a Bickershaw DVD, and I was trying to get in touch before I released that. I didn’t manage that, but after its release I got a phone call one Sunday afternoon saying, ‘Can I order a copy?’ I asked for a name, and the caller replied, ‘Jeremy Beadle.’

“I’d actually left him a note at a theatre he was appearing at in Northwich, asking if he could contact me, but it never got to him. I did get to meet him while he was working as a compere at Ken Dodd’s testimonial at the Liverpool Empire though.  

“He said, ‘Let’s meet up in March next year, come down to my house and I’ll do my first film interview about Bickershaw since the festival.’ Sadly, he died that January (2008), four years before I finished the book. But I got quite a bit of info off him about the contract and the concessions, and he put me in touch with a guy who did all the artwork for the posters, Trevor Hatchett.”

The Bickershaw Festival Company was originally set up in an antiques warehouse in Salford by Peter J. Harris and Harry Cohen, aka Bilkus (or The Count, on account of his customary top hat and Dracula cloak get-up), a Wigan market trader – originally from London – who also had a pub in the village.

The pair were soon joined by Jeremy, who had headed north to edit Richard Branson’s Time Out North West, a regional spin-off of the renowned what’s on listings magazine, until a lack of advertising revenue saw it fold after six issues.

And despite initial suspicions about Peter Harris, he felt the concept had potential, and following assurance from the co-creator that most of the finance was in place, he took over planning the festival’s music and artistic side, bringing in the afore-mentioned Trevor Hatchett, a designer, for the artwork, and architect Ian McCittrick to design an ambitious stage structure.

However, three weeks before the event, Peter Harris was arrested for previous business dealings, and later imprisoned, Jeremy having by then booked an impressive array of acts only to discover there was no money to pay them.

The festival HQ soon shifted to nearby former pub, the Forresters Arms, which backed on to the site, and it was around then that Chris came on board.

“Jeremy was targeting all the colleges and universities for people to go to the festival, contacting social secretaries, saying you can have free admission if you help work on it, entice students at your college to come. That was when I got the phone call at the SU office at Rochdale College from Jeremy, asking if I could come and work on tickets and flyering, and I travelled down to Bickershaw to meet up with him.

“Discussing the finances of the festival with Jeremy in late 2007 he told me he had wanted to create what he envisaged as an English Woodstock, and although he was managing to achieve many of his objectives towards it, he was forever chasing Peter Harris for cheques for everything, including his own wages.

“To think Jeremy had a gargantuan commitment to pay artists and site contractors and was faced with his main financier/businessman going to jail with three weeks to go, it is testimony to Jeremy’s amazing ability and self-belief that the event was such an artistic success, given the weather and underlying financial problems.

“He later told me he had always, because of his fight to overcome his disability earlier in life and go into showbusiness, had a firm belief in backing the maverick outsiders of life, supporting crazy ideas. It was this self-belief – that he could create recreate Woodstock with West Coast American bands in a field halfway between Manchester and Liverpool – that saw the festival succeed artistically.

“And even though the Bickershaw stage – one of the largest seen in the UK in the early ‘70s – was eventually scaled down from Jeremy’s original idea, it did come into use at later large outdoor concerts.”

Chris goes into detail on the stage setup and how some of those plans were common practice by the time of Live Aid and other huge events more than a dozen years later, albeit with set designer having learned some of the lessons regarding wheeled platforms negotiating heavy mud, and about certain ‘open to the elements’ concerns.

“The roof was left virtually completely open to the elements – a lot of equipment used by The Grateful Dead and American bands was stepped down from 240 to 110 volts, so there was less risk of fatal electrocution in the rain, but there was still 240-volt equipment in use some of the time.”

Chris was six years Jeremy’s junior, ‘only 13 when the first buds of flower power started to grow in the UK.’ But this Oldham grammar school lad soon developed an interest in that scene, and by the dawn of the 1970s was reading the music press and a regular gig and folk club attendee, intrigued on seeing Woodstock: The Movie at the flicks in 1970, on the back of the previous year’s Monterey Pop film.

“West Coast rock fanatics who lived in the UK were itching to get a taste of US style rock festivals, sleeping under the stars and watching outdoors some of those great bands from across the Atlantic. Jeremy Beadle told me in 1972, a few weeks before Bickershaw, he had no experience in staging a rock festival and had never really attended one, but he found the maverick-like challenge of taking on all the responsibility too exciting a challenge to resist.

“I may have felt slightly similar organising Deeply Vale Festival for the first time in 1976, but by then had helped out with Bickershaw, a couple of festivals for Rochdale Council, and hundreds of indoor concerts.”

It seems Jeremy had not been paid since late January 1972, living off petty cash and the £125 he’d received in wages since December. And later there would be financial implications regarding all those who jumped or ripped down fences to gain entry to the festival, or were let in free or unofficially by corrupt security men, the event’s financiers never likely to get their investments back. However, Chris was truly inspired by Jeremy’s positive approach under pressure, and what he saw unfold on stage.

“My experiences helping him at Bickershaw in the run-up to the festival and spending three days taking in all the bands in damp muddy conditions was a great grounding for putting Deeply Vale together from its start in September 1976. I also spent August 1976 at Rivington Pike Free Festival, and that beautiful West Coast hippie vibe permeated that site for the two festivals there in 1976 and 1977.”

Peter Trollope, a Liverpool Echo junior reporter who attended, wrote straight after the event, ‘After three days of muddy glory, Bickershaw (population 1,200) near Wigan, today slipped back quietly to obscurity while organisers of the festival met to consider whether to hold another one.”

It was expected to take at least five weeks to dismantle the fences, stage and site, and clear the 150-acre site, a reported £40,000 loss and the suitability of the site for such a happening clearly issues in the post-event discussions taking place as – according to the Echo report – ‘thousands of fans started a mass exodus from the site … after the last group finished playing … the roads to and from the tiny village … packed with fans walking home.’

That reporter went on to television, Chris saying he ‘ended up quite high in the BBC and ITV.’

“Peter did current affairs investigation programmes. He was also very friendly with Philip Norman, both coming from Liverpool. I think he went from the Echo to Granada, then the BBC.”

In his report, we learn that Jeremy Beadle blamed ticket touts for the festival’s ‘financial failure’, estimating ’about 50,000 paying fans had been joined during the three-day festival by at least 20,000 fans who had got in for free.’

One attendee quoted in the book pointed out that if they took around £60,000 in gate receipts and tickets were £2.25 each, ‘even allowing for the traditional attendance exaggeration, it’s clear a lot of people didn’t pay their way in’ That commentator added, ‘People were coming in, getting a pass out, then flogging their ticket back to someone else for a knock-down price. Worse still, the event cost £120,000 to put on. They should have paid more attention in maths class. The blokes doing the gate were the usual ‘wolf in charge of the sheep pen’ chancers, reselling tickets back to people, trousering takings – and all done with not so much a smile, more the threat of a busted head.’

However, Peter Trollope reported that the villagers were happy enough, many having ‘made considerable profits by selling drinks and food to the fans,’ adding that ‘one shop owner said, ’I’d certainly welcome them back next time. They were well behaved kids, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.’

That was backed up by local police praise for fans’ behaviour, reporting ‘about 32’ drug charge arrests, although another publication intriguingly added that police ‘could not confirm the story that, during Saturday night, a farmer with a field near to the festival site had all his cows milked. ‘But,’ said a spokesman, ‘We wouldn’t be surprised.’

Several newspaper reports are included in Chris’ book, for a festival where as well as Friday night headliners Dr John and the afore-mentioned Captain Beefheart and The Grateful Dead, an impressive lineup also included The Kinks (one punter recalled they threw a piano off stage and were ‘a little bit stinky and a very bit pissed’), Donovan, Wishbone Ash, Linda Lewis, Hawkwind, Brinsley Schwarz, The Flamin’ Groovies, The Incredible String Band, Cheech and Chong, America, and Al Stewart.

Meanwhile, Kinks drummer Mick Avory’s recollections included those of a shared caravan with Swedish actress Britt Ekland, in that period between memorable roles in Get Carter! and The Wicker Man.

And as one contributor concluded, ‘There were just 32 drugs arrests, a few drunk and disorderlies, and 18 Hell’s Angels nicked for breach of the peace outside. The weather was disgusting and the site in all honesty was simply unsuitable. Nonetheless, Bickershaw was great for the region and begat the well-loved Deeply Vale festivals later in the decade. Best of all though were the two belting performances from the Cap’n and the Dead – inspirations that day to Elvis Costello and Joe Strummer, and millions before and since, and still.’

Some of the quotes within are attributed anonymously, often as ‘other people’s thoughts’. What was your source there, Chris?

“There was a guy called Paul Rowley who worked for BBC Radio, a Wigan Athletic reporter, later a reporter for the House of Commons and on the Levison inquiry. He was at the festival as a youngster, and on the 40th anniversary did a one-hour radio show, later updated for the 50th anniversary.”

You can find that interview via Northwich-based CH Vintage Audio’s website, www.chvintageaudio.uk, where Chris, described by BBC 6 Music as a ‘musical archaeologist’, also details his company’s sound system recreations for various film and television projects, and equipment supply, hiring out ‘60s and ‘70s sound equipment, having amassed an impressive collection down the years.

Recently involved in recreating authentic sets for Danny Boyle’s TV miniseries Pistol, based on Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones’ memoir, his CV also includes work on 2019’s Elton John biopic, Rocketman, 2018’s Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, 2017 Morrissey drama England is Mine, and – coming next – Steve Coogan-fronted Jimmy Savile drama, The Reckoning, and action movie Fast & Furious 10, past projects also having included a rebuild of 10cc’s original Strawberry Studios in Stockport.

“For the Pistols thing, I had to go to Hammersmith Odeon, because the opening of the film shows Steve Jones breaking in at the end of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour, stealing their gear, cutting between original footage and my recreation of the stage set, with all the correct equipment.”

It’s been a busy career, Chris only 22 when he put on the first Deeply Vale festival, meaning he was barely 16 when he first booked bands at Rochdale College, and 18 when he got that call from Jeremy Beadle to help out at Bickershaw. And, now in in his late 60s, he’s clearly not slowing down.

“No, I’m speeding up!”

Incidentally, Chris has also published two volumes of his impressive The Development of Large Rock Sound Systems, another passion project.

“One covers the Isle of Wight and early Pink Floyd, and the next goes into the fact that last year we recreated the whole of the Pompeii PA here.”

That involved Floyd’s October ’71 Italian amphitheatre concert, filmed for a documentary film and released 11 months later, another 50th anniversary project.

“We should have gone out to Pompeii with the Australian Pink Floyd to do it, but because of Covid, it got scuppered, so we wanted to do something on the anniversary. I had all these pictures, and I’d just got Led Zeppelin’s old PA as well, so needed to do volume two. And I’m just starting on volume three now!”

Have you returned to Bickershaw in recent times?

“I’ve been back a few times. We were there a lot in 2012, and I’ve a friend in Leigh. It’s one of those where – because it was cold and damp that weekend – while all the sandwich companies on the site were making no money, the guy who owned the fish and chip shop stayed open and was able to buy himself a bungalow!”

I was wondering how recognisable the village would be today, with new housing developments and so on across the former coal belt area.

“That’s right, and seven years after Bickershaw, I did Leigh Festival, which featured Joy Division, The Teardrop Explodes, and everybody at Plank Lane. There was hardly anyone there, but it did become legendary.

“I did the stage, and was only a couple of miles over the soggy fields, full of subsidence and water. And they didn’t fence off any of the drainage ditches. There was that classic sign that said, ‘Danger – Crap in Water’, and people wanted to know if that was an instruction or a warning!”

For more details about Chris Hewitt’s Bickershaw Festival book’s 50th anniversary edition, and the two volumes of The Development of Large Rock Sound Systems, visit www.deeplyvale.com, heading to the music industry books section. Alternatively, call Chris on 07970 219701 or email hawkethos@gmail.com. You can also head to www.chvintageaudio.uk.

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Blessed is the Greek – the Tony Michaelides interview

It was barely 7am in Florida when I caught up with broadcaster and former music industry promotions high-flier Tony Michaelides. But he’d already walked his dog, still seemingly functioning on Manchester time, 18 years after leaving the North West for a new life, stateside.

It would take more than five hours to get to Key Largo from his adopted St Pete Beach base, but when he talks about soaring, clammy heat I’m transported to the Florida Keys with Bogart and Bacall in 1948, fighting the mobsters. Perhaps as far as you can get from Gatley, where young Tony kicked a football with his mates in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, dreaming of running out at Old Trafford.

Humidity aside, all that talk of storms – ‘it’s the lightning capital of the world,’ he tells me – suggests he’s at least taken a little of that Mancunian rain across the Atlantic. And while home is now a Sunshine State resort just west of St Petersburg, it was the UK that shaped him, his loyalties remaining divided.

“With climate change and all that, summer started in May this year, when the family were here, and it was gruelling. I can’t complain. I used to come here with the kids, when I bought a place for vacations. I kind of knew what the weather was like, but I’ll never get used to the humidity. It’s just not normal. Then again, winters are beautiful, and when everybody else is freezing their ass off, we can sit outside a bar or restaurant. It is what it is.”

We soon get on to America today, with its sorry catalogue of mass shootings, the aftermath of Trump supporters’ post-election failed insurrection, and the recent overturn of the abortion laws. But while we’re on the same page there, I didn’t call Tony to get into all that. I was out to discuss Moments That Rock.

From the moment Tony first heard and was promptly seduced by Roger McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker guitar sound on The Byrds’ cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, the writing was on the wall for this lad from South Manchester to embark on his own rock’n’roll fantasy.

Hopes of making it for Man United were soon replaced, his newly published memoir revealing how a love of Bowie, Cream, Dylan, Hendrix, Neil Young, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin ultimately led to a job opportunity not to be missed, one that effectively shaped his career path.

An interview with Transatlantic Records’ Ray Cooper in rainy Manchester city centre in August ’74 led to his first role in the music business, moving on from that Northern sales rep role to Anchor Records and in time Island Records, including a parallel career as a record plugger and DJ, Piccadilly Radio’s ‘Tony the Greek’, his most memorable interviewees on The Last Record Programme, the weekly show he presented after close pal and former lodger Mark Radcliffe (who wrote the foreword to Moments That Rock) left for BBC Radio 1, including those with REM, Leonard Cohen and an early line-up of The Stone Roses.

Going on to run a successful promotions and PR company, he’s barely drawn breath since, getting to know and help spread the word about some of the biggest names in the industry down the years, from Bob Marley, Peter Gabriel, The Police and Genesis to New Order and U2, his initial role criss-crossing the UK in a van selling LPs to record stores leading down the years to personal audiences with many of his heroes, including Steve Winwood. And then there was his dream role as David Bowie’s late-‘90s publicist.

Experiencing and overseeing key decades of change in the industry while amassing a wealth of great stories during that long career, he later started out again in the US, but shows no signs of losing his enthusiasm and hunger for new music, new experiences and new ideas, as au fait with the world of radio podcasts as the pirate stations of his youth, remaining a fan first and foremost all these years on, with plenty still to give and share.

And it’s a life he tells us, ‘I never could have planned, and neither would I have wanted to, but it was an incredible journey and a golden path to a life I deeply loved.’

However, while there’s plenty of opportunities for impressive name-dropping, that’s not his remit. Nor is his newly arrived memoir a warts’n’all autobiography of rock’n’roll excess. As he put it, ‘I wanted it to have purpose and be of value. I wanted it to resonate. It’s about what I learned in life and what 30 years in the music industry taught me. I saw the mistakes these people made, how they learned from them, how others failed.’

Moments That Rock is as much a ‘how to succeed’ manual as an engaging memoir, with dashes of down-to-earth humour, wisdom and homespun philosophy as he reveals his ‘lessons learned in rock’n’roll’. And it’s going down well, judging by the early feedback. What’s more, the experience of writing it all down and reliving key moments has proved good for his soul, post-pandemic lockdowns and a recent medical procedure that briefly saw him housebound again.

“It really helped, physically after my operation, and also inspiring me to get creative. And I enjoy writing.”

This being Tony, whose impressive CV – with further stop-offs at Circa, Arista, BMG, and Magic Leap – also includes past work with Whitney Houston, NSYNC, and Depeche Mode, we’re soon off-topic again. And believe me, this fella can talk. In fact, Mark Radcliffe reckons, ‘He talks more than just about anyone else I know.’

When he mentioned a friend who was Jimmy Page’s roadie, I asked whether he caught any Glastonbury Festival coverage, telling him about a winning set by one of his formative heroes, Robert Plant, with Alison Krauss, seeing as there’s a lovely tale in the book of Tony as a schoolboy getting backstage in June ’69 after Led Zep rocked Manchester’s Free Trade Hall.

Then we talked about Inhaler, the Irish outfit fronted by Bono’s son, guitarist/ vocalist Elijah Hewson, an act that for many rekindle memories of early U2, who Tony helped launch when they first crossed the water and got to know so well … in fact, as homesick young Dubliners they were regular guests at early-‘80s family barbecues at his Cheadle Hulme base (soon renamed The Edge), their manager, Paul McGuinness remarking on the back of Moments That Rock how Tony was ‘one of the UK’s foremost record promoters and undoubtedly one of the best that U2 have had the pleasure of working with.’

But soon we’re back on to the book itself, one I had the pleasure of helping edit, and the reaction so far.

“I absolutely love it, and think everything about it works perfectly. I did a post on LinkedIn, that’s had 5,000 views, and got more than 100 comments. That coupled with various shares … it’s really encouraging, because it’s genuine feedback. Some of these people I don’t even know that well. Even when I pick it up and feel and touch the book, it feels a bit precious to me. And once people get a copy, hopefully, they’ll make comments. Some have already sent me photographs of the book in their hands.”

That’s despite it not being readily available in the US yet, where it’s expected to get even more traction, Tony going on to mention future plans for an audio version, ‘especially here because people love the English accent.’

Then there are the podcasts he records and shares these days, and the two internet radio stations he helps out. Yes, he’s as busy as ever, it seems, despite this dad-of-two and grandfather-of-three being just one year off (whisper it) his 70th birthday. And apparently, he doesn’t even record his podcasts on C60 or C90 cassettes, confirming to me he’s ‘got all the right equipment and that.’

While he planned to have the book out last Christmas, he reckons the delay worked out for the best, coming out in the year which marked the 50th anniversary of Bowie’s ‘Starman’ and Ziggy Stardust, key recordings celebrated in the book by a fella who had his first indirect connection with Brixton-born David Robert Jones in 1969, first caught him live at the Hard Rock in Manchester in September ’72, and went on to look after the iconic performer’s press and publicity from 1997’s Earthling tour.

These days, Tony is happily settled with his partner Mary, originally from New York City (‘my Queen of Queens from Queens’, as he put it in the book’s dedication), the pair marrying on the beach to a handful of people (others watching around the world via the wonders of Zoom) two years ago, to the strains of Britney Spears’ ‘Oops! … I Did It Again’ (it was his third marriage, and Mary’s fourth, he told me). What does he miss most about England?

“I keep having these conversations with people. The thing is, America’s not the place I came to, now, with everything going on. We have conversations like, ‘Should we move to another part of America?’ but it might just be conversations. The other thing is people that helped build this city can’t afford to live here, with this mass influx from New York and so on.

“At the same time, I don’t think England is the country I left. The world has changed. And I came from a different era. I learned my communication skills on the school playground, and when I was a teenager discovering girls that I had to stand in front of them to ask out, fearing rejection, and those are the things that shape you – it’s got nothing to do with the music business.

“Theoretically, when I moved into sales in ‘74 with Transatlantic, I’d kind of been groomed – I was used to meeting people, I went to a lot of gigs as a kid, and had friends that shared similar tastes in music. And I don’t know whether that happens now. Music brings people together, but there’s a different type of person out there … I don’t want to sound like this boring old fart though. I’ve got to be careful when I’m doing interviews that I’m not talking about coming from a better time … although I did! Haha!”

That said, while it’s a very different music business now, the building blocks he used to make his way remain relevant, not least that enthusiasm he has, and ability to network with the right people and use his knowledge of the field.

“Well, with this book I’ve found myself picking it up, flicking through, reading certain things, finding myself subconsciously smiling. It’s not an egotistical thing where you smile at your own words, but if that can make you laugh, it makes me think maybe there’s people out there who will too.

“And while I’ve been historically shit at social media, already I’m a lot better, because I have a purpose now! I know a lot of people, so if I wasn’t telling them the book was out, they’d probably be pissed off with me. I’m not telling them to buy it. I’m just telling them it’s out.”

It’s been a full-on career. Is he slowing down now? Or is he still the eager bloke he must have been 40-plus years ago?

“I’m probably worse in as much as I don’t shut the fuck up or anything! And I don’t want to lose the excitable kid in me, because it got me through life and through the reality of working in a pretty cut-throat industry full of a lot of fucking horrible people … but with a lot of amazing people too.

“And I had the ability to pick out the great people that are part of my life still. I mean, Bowie, for example, will always be relevant. And even just to pick up the phone and interview (Mark) Radcliffe three times for my podcast, we’re reconnected. And when I see him (in the book) in a photo holding my daughter – he was there when she was born – it becomes very personal.

“But there’s that fine line with ‘sad bastard’, and I never want to be this bloke they bring out of the closet to talk about when the music industry was great.”

He’s soon on to another of his heroes, Neil Young, and how he remains relevant and above the constraints of the music industry, and from there we get on to another who falls into that category, Bruce Springsteen, as opposed to the rebirth of the (Dixie) Chicks and how he felt the industry conspired to try and end their career because of their political stand, the music business becoming all the more corporate and more answerable to shareholders, so few high-profile music artists speaking out, at least in America.

“I feel that now I’m learning a lot more than I ever did. Although subconsciously I was learning every day in my career, with the type of people I gravitate towards. And when I write about someone like Bowie I write about my own experiences. There are shit-loads of books about him, but to make it about those moments that involved you – like when we sat down and discussed promotion – makes it very personal and relative to what I’m writing about.

“I’ve said this before, but there really was a star man, he did come and meet me, and he did blow my mind. And that sends shivers down my spine – his words, but my life!

“On my podcast, Ian McNabb was talking about Will Sergeant’s Bunnymen memoir, and how – asked if he had any regrets – Will said he just wished he’d given himself more time to enjoy it. That really hit home with me, and my time to enjoy it is through indulgence in my book. And I’m enjoying the moment. When I was writing about being that 15-year-old meeting Led Zeppelin backstage, at that time in my life when all my friends at school had gone to the same gig and seen the same band but didn’t get backstage like we did, I was back there in that moment!

“And the good thing (about Moments That Rock) is that I’m not sat in every photograph with every person I worked with. But right behind me in the room where I’m speaking to you is what I call the bullshit wall, a load of gold, platinum and silver discs. Over the years I’ve given a lot away to charities for auctions and stuff, but these ones didn’t fit in the cupboard, so I stuck them on the wall, and they work as a great backdrop when you’re talking to certain people – it’s kind of an endorsement. I’m also looking at a Wonderland poster of David Bowie for the Earthling tour, ‘To Tony, Best Wishes, Bowie ‘97’, and David was leaning over me when he signed that – that’s so personal.

“And I have original artwork of Joni Mitchell, the (Steve) Winwood covers, and Peter Gabriel III … those are things that are personal to me because they’re works of art … and I’ve this amazing anvil for ‘Blue Monday’ – there’s only like seven of those in the world. Hooky sold his at an auction for eighteen grand.”

The anvil, incidentally, was commissioned by Factory Records, assigned catalogue number FAC 73, to mark half a million sales for that iconic single, my interviewee’s personalised edition inscribed ‘TONY FAC 73 500 000’. As for hooky, that’s New Order bass legend Peter Hook, of course, who Tony briefly managed around the time of his Revenge project. Anyway, he’s still talking, and I couldn’t have got a word in if I’d tried, but soon enough we’re back on track …

“I don’t live in the past, but I appreciate the time I was given, and there’s lots of things in the book that are inspiring. And when you think of all those friends that went to the same gigs and bought the same records, all had access to the Manchester Evening News, so any one of them could have applied for that job I did. But they didn’t, although there’s a certain part of it that means anything’s possible. And that’s a lesson learned from rock’n’roll!”

It’s now 48 years since that job interview set him on his way, a further segue following about his old friend – his Transatlantic Records interviewer that day in ’74 – Ray Cooper, the Virgin Records US president who also worked with Tony at Island Records, Anchor Records, and Magic Leap, and how when he passed away four years ago, many big names paid tribute in person or on video links at his Los Angeles memorial service – from Lenny Kravitz, Janet Jackson and Peter Gabriel to Victoria Beckham and Simon Fuller.

It’s a very different music industry now, but what advice would you give people coming into the business today?

“It sounds rather cynical, but I recall some speaker saying if you have talent, you’ll make it. I so disagree with that – it’s not enough now to be a great singer or guitarist. My answer would have been totally different 30 or so years ago, but so much that a record company did then doesn’t exist now. And maybe U2 in their current form wouldn’t be where they are without that support.

“There’s so much an artist has to do now that was taken care of, like artist development, which began at the label then overlapped with people like me. We’d plan campaigns with new artists, arranging interviews around various records, from regional TV to press and radio. And you had specialist radio shows – I did one myself – that were instrumental in artist development for those not getting daytime airplay.

“Take as an example when me and Mark Radcliffe went to see U2 on 31st May 1980 – and I’ll never forget the day – they weren’t that good. They were third on the bill to Wah! Heat and Pink Military at Manchester Polytechnic, so we’re not talking about playing to 40,000 people. Most people were talking at the bar. You probably had about 20 people watching them.

“But you were gonna know what that band was called and remember that singer, and you were going to be reminded of it over and over again. Because when U2 played in front of a small crowd, they played to them like it was a stadium. And when they play to a stadium now, they remember what it’s like to play to a small crowd. You bring those people in, so there’s a connection. And great frontmen grab your attention. You have to pay attention.

“I remember Dave Grohl saying that when Nirvana got together in the garage, they were so bad … but they too were so determined to be so good. And if you look at bands that have left a legacy – and I go back to people like Bowie and Zeppelin – people are sometimes now discovering those records in their grandparents’ collection.

“U2 came out after that gig at the Polytechnic to meet every single person. We’re only talking a few people, but me and Radcliffe were so impressed. I brought the local radio DJ, who was playing their type of music on his show, and they were starstruck. But can you imagine now Bono getting into that Transit van, driving four hours in pouring rain then getting on social media, connecting with 10 girls in Japan, going to bed, then waking up and all of a sudden there’s 100 fans, because those girls sent a message saying they’d met this amazing guy from Ireland, then they’d go check him out, and it becomes viral? He would be brilliant at that!

“So much of arts development is down to the artist now. You have to build that up yourself. I firmly believe a record company will not sign someone unless they have to. It’s not about likes, it’s about interaction, and engagement, and that’s the way it works with everything. I apply that to myself, on a much smaller level – my book doesn’t exist unless I turn up on social media and tell people I’ve written a book.

“Working with U2 in that infancy period, when ‘11 O’Clock Tick Tock’ came out (May 1980), Bono wanted to meet everybody. And Michael Lippman, who managed Matchbox 20 and was in his 60s when I met him, wanted to learn from everybody, know every part of the process. He came from working in variety in the ‘50s.

“And when I interviewed (Stiff Records co-founder) Dave Robinson, he said, ‘I learned from people like you, Tony.’ I said, ‘Jeez? You were managing director of Island Records and you learned from a plugger?’ But he said, ‘You taught me a lot about promotion.’ So there’s a guy in a much higher position, but honest enough to admit he still listens to people.

“Those things are still firmly in my mind and mean more to me now because of the current climate, where today record companies have to have a piece of everything – part of the publishing, the merchandising … because they don’t make money off the records.

“So yeah, there’s a certain ‘who you know’ in anything, but someone said recently it’s not just who you know – it’s just as important what you know about who you know! I love that, and it’s so true!”

For more details about Tony Michaelides’ Moments That Rock, head here. And for Tony’s website, head here.

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Examining the Pleasure principle – the enduring appeal of Girls at our Best!

‘We’re not looking forward and we are not looking back
We’ve lost the warranty, we’ll never get our money back
My baby’s buying me another life, getting nowhere fast.’

One of the most influential bands to emerge in the early 1980s, Girls at our Best! were part of that era’s fresh new wave of independent acts, and one championed by legendary BBC DJ John Peel … with good reason.

Yet this Leeds outfit very nearly parted company before even putting a record out, having felt over the course of their first year together they had come to a natural end. But then, self-styled James Alan – real name Jeremy ‘Jez’ Pritchatt – and Judy Evans – real name Jo Gaffney – decided to take advantage of a local recording studio’s cut-price session offer and leave some sort of legacy.

And what a legacy, the result a classic self-financed debut single, ‘Getting Nowhere Fast’, released on their own Record Records label, an indie chart hit covered by The Wedding Present seven years later, backed with ‘Warm Girls’, the Banshees-like B-side which gave them their name (originally the title of a number by pre-GAOB! outfit, The Butterflies).

In a 2013 interview with The Mouth Magazine, Jez said, ‘We knew it was a good song – and that ‘Warm Girls’ was as well. I think our expectations were just to get it out on a single and maybe sell a few copies. I don’t think we’d thought ahead much further than that. Our band had split up, so it was just Judy and I. We thought it’d be a waste not to leave behind some sort of legacy’.

‘Getting Nowhere Fast’ for me is a record that never seems to age. Those two killer layers of scratchy guitar, then that resonant, simple bassline and subtle but insistent, building tattoo-like drum pattern, before Judy’s rattled vocal arrives, characterised by her uncompromising hard northern ‘a’s. Coming in at less than two quality minutes, never showy, forthright post-punk angst, possessing a similar energy to that of Leeds neighbours and friends The Mekons’ ‘Where Were You?’, another song destined to drag you from the bar with every play. And from a West Yorkshire town that also gave us The Gang of Four, it’s no wonder The Wedding Present had the ground zero foundation needed when it came to their turn to shine a few years on.

As for the debut 45’s abrupt ending, Jez added, ‘It was a deliberate attempt to sound dramatic – like the end of ‘1977’ by The Clash – but more extreme! The sound engineer wanted to leave some room reverb after the cut-off – but we preferred it sounding like the tape ran out’.

It certainly worked, and they went on to make four great singles and one amazing LP, a Strange Fruit Peel Sessions 12-inch following in ’87, Peelie having played them many times down the years, their sole session for his show – like the one they did for fellow BBC night-time radio presenter Richard Skinner – first broadcast in February 1981.

I can’t say I recall those sessions first time around – I was 13, after all – but GAOB! came into my life not long after, this punter drawn in after a close friend (a big influence on my music taste down the years) taped the LP for my brother.

Seeing as it was all over by early ’82, barely two years after their first recordings, I never got to catch them live, but Pleasure soon had regular outings at mine, and by the time The Wedding Present recorded their version of ‘Getting Nowhere Fast’, I could nod knowingly at a fellow Leeds outfit’s inspired choice of cover. I guess I was puzzled in places by an LP that seemed to have no obvious signposts to influences for me back then, and Judy’s unique delivery – almost operatic at times – was enough to confuse me further. But perhaps it does you good to not quite place the lineage sometimes, instead going by your instincts, the LP’s opening number and title track ‘Pleasure’ another that never fails to grab and inspire.

‘This is heaven. We are good as gold,
We won’t grow old when we’re told.’

What the hell was in there across those 11 tracks and earlier singles? The Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Shangri-Las meets the Buzzcocks, The Clash, The Undertones, Wilko Johnson, and … whoa, hang on, Hugo Montenegro? But above all else, this was Girls at our Best! They had political bite and nous, plenty of style, a pop sensibility and – I totally see it now – humour. I was hooked.

Their lone LP has hardly been short of reissues these past four decades, with my first CD version a 17-track Vinyl Japan pressing from 1994, while Cherry Red’s first CD reissue arrived in 2009, followed by Preston indie label Optic Nerve Recordings’ vinyl versions in 2014 and again in 2021 (the latter selling out in a matter of days, but with another pressing expected soon). What’s more, Optic Nerve also released their debut 45 last year as part of its Optic Sevens 3.0 series.

And now comes Cherry Red’s impressive triple-CD deluxe edition of Pleasure, the original album – which reached No.2 in the indie chart – joined by the singles (A and B-sides), those influential BBC radio sessions, a couple of demos (including a previously-unavailable Butterflies track), and Edinburgh and New York City live recordings from November ’81, the latter Peppermint Lounge bootleg from the ill-fated US tour that led to the band splitting. There’s also an NYC radio interview from between their Queens College and Peppermint Lounge dates, the presenter unwrapping his copy of the LP on air.

Jez was fully involved in the latest reissue project, stalwart fan Steve Flanagan – who calls him ‘one of the nicest and funniest blokes you could wish to meet’ – writing the sleeve-notes for a comprehensive booklet also including copies of the single sleeves, photographs and memorabilia.

Jez’s own story in music going back to 1977 and Leeds punk band, SOS! Yes, he clearly loved those exclamation marks. Yet with the proto-indie band they formed next they were keen to move away from traditional three-chord punk progressions, adding a little pop sweetness and much more. And what did Jez tell us about the origins of this three-quarters male outfit for whom ‘the exclamation mark was as integral as the origin of the name was puzzling’? ‘Bands like Gang of Four influenced us … to go in the opposite direction.’

He explained more to David Eastaugh in February 2019’s online interview for The C86 Show, telling the presenter, ‘I really liked punk, but what I liked about the Pistols, the Ramones and that was the humour in it, and the fun. That was one of the not so good thinks about the post-punk scene – the fun really went out of it. It was very serious. It was musically interesting, lots of good stuff happening, but it was a bit po-faced and miserable’.

They certainly seemed to swim against a darker tide favoured by some of the more prominent post-punk bands of the time. As for that first band, SOS!, Steve Flanaghan nostalgically recalls they were, ‘all scuffed DM AirWairs, torn jeans, garden shears DIY haircuts and slogan lyrics, but impossibly exciting to those of us in their growing fan club … affordable firepower, playing local venues for a next-to-nothing entrance fee, which was a good job because even in those 20p-a-pint days next-to-nothing was about all we had’.

He reckons they got better with every gig, but ‘one day while we weren’t looking, they were gone’, Jez disillusioned with the scene and calling a halt, telling the New Pose fanzine, ‘Johnny Rotten said he wanted 300 bands all going in different directions, but now there’s 300 all the same – it’s shit’.

Jez took his artistic frustrations to art college in Leeds (now restyled Leeds Arts University, past alumni also including Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, and Frankie Vaughan), where he met Jo on the same one-year foundation course, this ‘pre-Raphaelite artist’s muse level beauty with a cigarette dangling from her Baby Pink lipstick’ soon joining his latest band. He retrospectively told the Leeds Arts University alumni magazine, ‘I was a punk, and she didn’t really seem bothered about music … but she was really interesting, and she had attitude’. Meanwhile, Jo remembered Jez as ‘looking like an orphan’, this ‘convent schoolgirl from posh Wetherby’ also having told Smash Hits’ Mick Stand in October ’81, ‘I went to college to work hard and become a serious artist – until I met this punk rocker with a nervous rash’.

The streets are very bright
And it’s such a pretty sight.
I would love to live here all the time
The place where day is always night
.’

With the old group disbanded, they recruited non-playing fellow student Patrick Ford on bass guitar, and persuaded SOS! drummer Chris Oldroyd to join, The Butterflies out ‘to make some atonal noise in the name of art’, Jez hoping ‘such a soppy name’ would fly in the face of previous punk aggression. They went on to support, among others, John Foxx, Ludus, and afore-mentioned fellow townsfolk The Gang of Four.

Less than polished in the early days, Jez and Jo got the impression their gigs (mostly local, but also including Eric’s in Liverpool and London’s Nashville Rooms) attracted some people ‘just because they wanted to see if the band were as bad as they had been told’. In time, they became more cohesive though, especially when another SOS! old boy, Gerard Swift – or Terry Lean as he was in his punk days – took over on bass.

Then came that threatened finish, around a year in, before they decided to record that debut single on a whim and a shoestring, Jez and Jo consequently heading south for a day-trip with the finished product, taking a tape round various labels in London – Beggars Banquet among them – and refusing to leave it, feeling ‘if somebody had no time to listen in their presence, they had no time for that label’. As Jez told The Mouth Magazine 33 years later, ‘The arrogance of youth!’. Thankfully, Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis liked what he heard and offered a vinyl pressing service and distribution deal, the pair choosing the name Record Records for their label, a nod to The Clash’s Rehearsal Rehearsals’ practise space.

As it was, early supporter Adrian Thrills made ‘Getting Nowhere Fast’ the NME’ssingle of the week, going on to write a feature on them that October in which he reckoned their ‘tremendous range’ stretched ‘from the bubblegum swing of The Undertones to the structure of Magazine, taking in the raunch of the Au Pairs and the quirkiness of XTC’, while also citing Jez’s love of Sparks. As for John Peel, he told listeners, ‘I’m wildly enthusiastic for that … I know I don’t sound it, but I am’, a No.9 indie hit following in April 1980.

Chris having already departed, a certain Paul Simon joined on drums after a recommendation from Glen Matlock, Jez bumping into the ex-Sex Pistol at a Generation X gig in a Leeds pub. The similarly wonderful ‘Politics!’ single, backed with ‘It’s Fashion’, followed, recorded at Cargo Studios, Rochdale and released that November, reaching No.12 in the indie charts. Paul then made way for Carl ‘Titch’ Harper, the band by then practising on non-club nights at Leeds disco/gig venue The Warehouse, where Jo and Jez worked, ‘Politics!’ – inspired by the Reagan vs Carter US presidential election – getting regular spins on weekly Digital Disco electronic music nights, instigated by Marc Almond.

Those Peel and Skinner sessions followed, including (in the former case) an inspired cover of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s gospel standard, ‘This Train’, one they made their own, and the ‘Getting Beautiful Warm Gold Fast From Nowhere’ medley in that Stars on 45 era.

At that point they hadn’t even played live as Girls at our Best!, but their debut followed in York, the four-piece decked out in ‘a sort of Clash in the Orient stencil-fest’ uniform, leaving a big impression on those who were there for that and every subsequent outing this side of the Atlantic.

A deal followed via Happy Birthday Records, the proposed album set to be the label’s long-play debut, third single ‘Go for Gold’, backed with ‘I’m Beautiful Now’, released that May, helped along by further Peel praise, albeit more for the flipside, telling listeners, ‘I feel that’s destined to become one of my life’s favourites’.

This time they reached No.4 in the indie chart, the LP reaching No.2 on release in November, even gate-crashing the top 60 national chart, mostly recorded with drummer Rod Johnson as Titch’s arm had ‘either come off second-best in a confrontation with a plate-glass window, or been broken in a drunken fall from a water tower, depending on whose memory of the time is to be trusted’.

‘We don’t ever look the same,
Gotta keep up playing games,
It’s the only way we’re gonna make our names.’

Personnel along the way also included Alan Wakeman on clarinet, cousin of Yes legend Rick Wakeman, and Thomas Dolby on synthesisers, Jez and Jo going on to feature on his The Golden Age of Wireless LP after the band split.

A fourth single followed, ‘Fast Boyfriends’ coupled with a studio version of ‘This Train’, the non-album collectability of the latter helping it into the indie top-20 (respectable given that the A-side was on the LP), while the live dates continued, across the UK and Amsterdam too.

But it all fell apart on a winter 1981 US East Coast mini-tour of ‘sparsely attended but largely well-received’ gigs and ‘even more dishearteningly quiet record store appearances, where the sound of any tumbleweeds drifting by outside would have drowned out the clamour inside’.

Jez told The Mouth Magazine, ‘There was an in-store record signing session like the one in Spinal Tap. No-one knew or cared who we were. We didn’t get on with each other very well, it was a bit tense. I think we just needed a break from it. I think I became a bit of a tosser. Some people probably think I still am’.

Those divisions within – with Jez and Jo ‘an item’ at the time – didn’t help, what started as the band poking fun at music press obsession with Judy becoming ‘reasons to question how and why they found themselves not having much fun, thousands of miles from home’. It was hardly encouraged by the band – who refused to use images of themselves on the records – but somewhat inevitably, a music press keen to find another Debbie Harry or fellow contemporary Clare Grogan looked to Judy. However, Jez played that and (conversely) any pro-feminist agenda (despite the lyrical content of tracks like ‘Warm Girls’) down.

Talking about a perceived right-on nature of GAOB! and any pretensions regarding intelligence of so many bands on that scene to David Eastaugh for The C86 Show, he added, ‘We didn’t want to make a point out of the fact that we had a girl singer. That makes the statement itself. And we weren’t at all reading Nietzsche, or any of those things’.

Furthermore, he felt the main problem within the unit was merely that they were ‘not remotely ready’ for this part of their big adventure, telling The Mouth Magazine it was ‘too much, too soon’ and there was ‘confusion over what we were doing and why we were doing it’. So, instead of a ‘recoverable stumble while trying to run before they could walk, it signalled the start of a terminal fall’.

Accordingly, after barely eight months as a live concern – from the University of York’s Vanbrugh College in mid-May ’81 to The Mudd Club in Lower Manhattan, NYC, that mid-November – it was all over. Jez reflected on all that in his David Eastaugh interview, playing down the drama, feeling the band somewhat ‘fizzled out’ in the end, adding, ‘it ended with a whimper rather than a bang. There was no big row or argument or anything. Either Titch or Terry said, ‘I think I’ve had enough now’, the other one agreed, and we were like, ‘Yeah, okay then’. It was like pulling in different directions’.

‘We will all applaud when the final curtain falls,
Wave our little flags.
Standing up to pray to the soup of the day,
I say goodbye to that jazz.’

Post-GAOB!, Jez moved to London and was briefly in Bat Cave goth group Sexbeat, then ’60s garage rock/punk/rock’n’roll’ outfit The Tall Boys (including two members of The Meteors), while serving as booking manager at legendary Soho club, The Marquee. Later came SaDoDAda! (yep, another exclamation mark), a ‘techno-punk-glam-experience, complete with transvestite backing singers and a real Dalek’, Jez told The Mouth Magazine, ‘Boy George was a fan, which was cool’. Beyond that, The Tall Boys reconvened, returning to the European circuit. There was also talk of a solo LP, working title Grievous Bodily Charm, described to The Mouth Magazine as ‘classic glam-punk-rock’n’roll’.

He’s long since been back in Yorkshire, going back to college and working in a bar part-time to make ends meet around the time he heard The Wedding Present’s ‘Getting Nowhere Fast’ cover, chuffed but soon chasing his publishers for royalties, as he told David Eastaugh. And these days, Jez is on the staff at Leeds Conservatoire, running foundation degree courses of his own, in music production.

As for Jo, she left the music business in 1982 to work for a Leeds advertising agency, going on to be an ICA exhibitions administrator. The trail is a little unclear from there, and it seems she’s kept her distance from involvement with any of the reissues, adding a little mystery to the whole story. That’s rather refreshing in these days of instant click-of-a-mouse updates, more akin to the days when esteemed music journalists like the late Fred Dellar were tasked with digging around for ‘where are they now?’ features. I could have tried harder to find out more, but a mix-up in us getting in touch ruled out any input from the man himself this time, and I decided there was enough out there to tell the story alongside my appreciation of the band’s music, which is really where I’m coming from on all this.

And while their reign was short, they certainly left a big impression. As Steve Flanagan put it, ‘Beneath the icing sugar coating of their music there was a dark intelligence layered with a skewed view and modus operandi, but not in a studied way. There is little worse in pop or rock than bands who set out to be quirky … Girls at our Best! didn’t, they were just genuinely a bit odd, really’.

Jez told Smash Hits when Pleasure came out that the band had created a ‘collection of greatest hits which aren’t greatest hits yet’. I can’t disagree with that, and Happy Birthday Records were of the opinion they’d signed a potential chart outfit, although GAOB! were always going to be a spanner in the works on that front. Jez reflected to The Mouth Magazine, ‘we were very pleased with the amount of success we did have’, but also wondered if they might have been better served regarding their own ambitions if they’d stayed with Rough Trade.

The splendid fan-site dedicated to the band (linked below) called them ‘possibly the finest early ‘80s band never to have a chart single’ and felt their LP ‘was an album so different from the rest of the post-punk indie pack that you can still play it now and completely baffle new listeners’. Again, there’s something in that. And Pleasure is all ours.

For more details about the latest Cherry Red triple-CD package, head here. For the Optic Nerve Recordings website, head here. For the fan-site dedicated to the band, its comprehensive content including music press from the day, a full discography and gigography, and a GAOB! family tree, try here. As for The Mouth Magazine’s online content, try here, and for David Eastaugh’s C86 Show website and its vast archive of past interviews, including the one with Jez, try here.

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Raising the roof for refugees – with The Amber List, Red Moon Joe, West on Colfax … plus Jah Wobble and The Ukrainians

Three Lancashire bands offering their own individual twists on Americana are uniting for Ukrainian relief efforts two weekends from now, hosting a charity fundraiser at a Preston riverside music venue.

Meanwhile, across the Pennines, a stalwart Leeds post-punk outfit putting their own particular spin on Ukrainian folk for 30-plus years continue to pitch in with their own fundraising efforts.

The Preston event is the brainchild of newly-recalibrated indie trio The Amber List, taking place at The Continental’s Boatyard venue, frontman Mick Shepherd – once of Action Records’ late-‘80s/early ‘90s cult favourites Big Red Bus, and a regular on the solo singer-songwriter circuit – feeling it was time to do something positive in light of ongoing grim news from afar.

“Seeing all the suffering and pain this invasion is causing prompted us to act. We can barely imagine what the Ukrainian people are going through, and putting on this benefit not only shows our solidarity and support, but hopefully will raise money to help those most in need of assistance.”

Having set a date of Saturday, July 2nd, Mick and bandmates Tony Cornwell and Simon Dewhurst – who in four-piece days released debut LP, The Ache of Being to much acclaim last year; its launch party also held at the Conti – asked fellow Lancastrian outfits Red Moon Joe and West on Colfax to join them.

For the latter, bass player Scott Carey, formerly of Madchester indie favourites Paris Angels, said they were only too pleased to get involved.

“We’ve played with The Amber List and Red Moon Joe, featuring both groups on our Americana night at The Continental, so we were happy to help. Anything we can do to help raise funds and unite against this awful war of aggression, will make it feel like we’re trying to do something.”

The Amber list and West on Colfax last shared a bill on South Meadow Lane, Preston, on Leap Day 2020, barely a fortnight before the first coronavirus lockdown. As for their extra guests this time, frontman Mark Wilkinson and his Red Moon Joe bandmates are looking forward to doing their bit.

“We’re delighted to be asked to support such a great cause. It should be a superb night, with three excellent bands, at a fantastic venue.”

The Amber List came to prominence with 2019 debut EP, ‘The Ever Present Elephant’, and were last spotted by this fan across Preston at The Ferret, supporting ‘80s indie heroes The Woodentops, that show their last before Tim Kelly left to concentrate on solo project, Longhatpins.

And this weekend the trio reveal the first fruits of their new, leaner line-up, releasing new three-track digital-only EP, ‘Brick Walls and Hidden Beauty’, tomorrow (Friday, June 17th) via various streaming platforms.

Red Moon Joe, described by Americana UK as ‘up-to-date, relevant, British, Liverpool-produced Americana at its best’, first emerged in 1985, founder member Mark (vocals, electric and acoustic guitar, production) these days joined by Steve Conway (pedal steel, dobro, acoustic guitar), David A. Smith (bass), Dave Fitzpatrick (harmonica, banjo), and Paul Casey (drums).

West on Colfax, meanwhile, have bulked up, numbers-wise, since delivering debut LP Barfly Flew By in 2020 on their Greenhorse Records label, their most recent release, February’s ‘Arc Light’ EP, seeing Scott and fellow co-founders Alan Hay (lead vocals/rhythm guitar) and Pete Barnes (lead guitar) now joined by multi-instrumentalist Ian Aylward-Barton (who joined midway through the first LP sessions), Andy Walmsley (guitar/backing vocals, whose Preston design firm studio is where the band often write and rehearse), and most recent arrival Mark Beynon (drums), who according to Scott is ’adding new flavours to our writing, like calypso and mariachi vibes’. What’s more, they’re currently working on a second LP, hopefully arriving before the year is out.

Moving on from there … across the Pennines, and closer to home in another sense, The Ukrainians have been campaigning and raising funds through their own shows in support of displaced refugees in that war-torn country.

Co-formed by The Wedding Present guitarist Peter Solowka in 1991 and seen as the first prominent band to fuse Western rock with Ukrainian folk and roots music, The Ukrainians last year celebrated 30 years touring internationally. They were borne out of what was envisaged as a one-off project, The Wedding Present adding Len Liggins to their ranks – ‘because he sang, played a scratchy, authentic village-sounding violin and was a student of Slavonic languages’ – to record a session for legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel.

And The Ukrainians have certainly been busy this year, performing benefits to support refugees of the war in Ukraine, as Peter explained on a tie-in charity page.

“We know that many people want to support this cause but cannot attend the gigs, so we’ve set up this site for donations. We’ll add the money we get from the gigs to reach our total. Like many people born in the UK of Ukrainian decent, my parents were refugees from the Second World War. We know what pain this causes. These funds will go towards a suitable charity that will help refugees.”

The band’s first Peel session led to more, Ukrainian mandolinist Roman Remeynes recruited to play and sing occasional vocals. The first two sessions were then subsequently released by RCA as 10-inch vinyl LP Ukrainski Vistupi V Johna Peela, The Wedding Present then joined by Len and Roman for a UK tour promoting the LP.

That record went on to sell sold almost 70,000 copies worldwide and remains the only Ukrainian language LP to feature in the UK album charts, reaching No.22. And by 1991 the band proper had formed, releasing their self-titled debut LP.

The rest is history, and continues to unfold, a string of live shows in the last few months raising money and awareness – from dates in their beloved Yorkshire at Hebden Bridge Trades Club, Leeds’ Brudenell Social Club, Halifax’s Victoria Theatre and York’s The Crescent to benefits further afield at Birmingham’s Hare & Hounds, Cambridge Junction, and Salisbury Arts Centre. And then there’s the recent collaboration with original Public Image Limited (PiL) bass player Jah Wobble for their joint ‘Ukrainian National Anthem in Dub’ single, produced, arranged and mixed with former Siouxsie and The Banshees guitarist Jon Klein.

Born John Wardle in Stepney in London’s East End in 1958, Jah is seen as one of Britain’s most influential and distinct bass players, apparently given his nickname by Sid Vicious one drunken night; the late Pistol also gifting him his first bass guitar, over time building a reputation for trademark hypnotic, low-end bass riffs, combining world music, reggae, fusion and punk touches.

To this day, he remains as defiant as he is innovative, cutting his teeth during the early years of John Lydon’s post-Pistols legendary outfit, proving integral to the band’s first two LPs, Public Image: First Issue and Metal Box, going on to see his own band, the Invaders of the Heart, nominated for a Mercury Music Prize for debut LP, Rising Above Bedlam in the early ‘90s. He’s also created his own independent label, 30 Hertz Records, and worked with the likes of Primal Scream, Dolores O’Riordan, Sinead O’Connor, Chaka Demus & Pliers, Bill Laswell, and Holger Czukay.

Released through London-based record label Dimple Discs, co-run by Undertones guitarist Damian O’Neill, his collaboration with The Ukrainians continues to sell well, helping raise further funds, support and awareness for refugees fleeing the conflict.

A stirring, inspired version of the besieged country’s national anthem, all sales go towards funding the two main charities helping out millions of refugees forced to flee their homes – the DEC (Disasters Emergency Committee) Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal, and AUGB (Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain) Help Ukraine Emergency Appeal.  

The idea and collaboration for the track with The Ukrainians – in which Peter (acoustic guitar/backing vocals), is joined by the afore-mentioned Len Liggins (lead vocal/violin), Paul Weatherhead (backing vocals/mandolin) and Stephen Tymruk (accordion) – came about by pure chance, according to Jah.

“I was introduced to Len from The Ukrainians by Mark, my bass tech. I was very keen to help in any way I could. So I enlisted the help of Jon Klein and Anthony Hopkins, who I run ‘Tuned in’ with, a community music project based in the London Borough of Merton. We have built a recording studio there. Indeed, at the moment, Anthony is involved in the process of the settlement of Ukrainian refugees coming into the borough.

“It was a lot of fun putting the track together. And well done to Len and the rest of the band for initiating this.” 

And Jah’s sentiments were echoed by Len.

“We’d like to say a big thank you to Jah Wobble and Jon Klein for creating this fabulous track with us in order to raise much needed funds for Ukrainian refugees. Monies collected will buy provisions, medical aid and clothing for traumatised individuals and families whose situation is desperate beyond our understanding here in western Europe.

“It’s important for us all to keep in mind, too, that as reports of the invasion’s progress slip down the priority list on the national news, a great deal of support will still be needed by these refugees on an on-going basis. Please don’t forget them just because you see less of them on your screens. Please continue to support them. The mass murders, cruel rapes and wanton destruction of Ukraine will continue while the TV cameras are pointing somewhere else.”

Tickets for The Amber List, West on Colfax and Red Man Joe’s Ukraine charity event on Saturday, July 2nd (8pm) are £5 via the venue website, on the door, or via WeGotTickets.

You can listen to/buy Jah Wobble and The Ukrainians’ charity single via various digital platforms or via this Bandcamp link.

For more about The Ukrainians, head here, and to find Peter Solowka’s Ukrainian refugee fund, try this JustGiving link. You can also head direct to the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal, and the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain (AUGB) Help Ukraine Emergency Appeal.

Meanwhile, Jah Wobble and the Invaders of the Heart are on tour from August, with details via his website here.

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Learning new things with the passing of time – revisiting Never Loved Elvis and The Wonder Stuff with Miles Hunt

You can’t measure a band’s success on chart positions alone, but three decades ago The Wonder Stuff were still on the crest of a mighty wave that had been building since the release of their 1988 debut LP, The Eight-Legged Groove Machine.

Four more top-20 albums followed before they called it a day in 1994 – 1989’s Hup (No.5) followed by their biggest, 1991’s Never Loved Elvis (No.3), with 1993’s Construction for the Modern Idiot (No.4) and footnote compilation If The Beatles Had Read Hunter…The Singles (No.8)also making the top 10.

As for those singles, Never Loved Elvis’ lead 45, ‘The Size of a Cow’ reached No.5 after five earlier top-40s, and six months later the band reached the chart summit in the company of comedian Vic Reeves, covering Tommy Roe’s late ‘60s hit ‘Dizzy’, at a time when it seemed neither Vic and sidekick Bob Mortimer nor the Stuffies could do any wrong, in arguably the last great wave of crossover homegrown indie rock before the world went Brit Pop.

It was 30 years ago, give or take a few months, that the ‘Welcome to the Cheap Seats’ EP also cracked the UK top-10, something the ‘On the Ropes’ EP the following autumn similarly achieved. For a while, this Midlands outfit took on the hit singles’ spirit of local-ish lads Slade for a while, not least at their commercial peak in ‘91 with Never Loved Elvis, recentlyreleased in multiple formats, this million-plus seller newly re-issued on vinyl by Universal Music as part of HMV’s centenary celebrations.

Due to the pandemic, The Wonder Stuff, formed in 1986 and going on to sell millions of albums worldwide before their initial break-up eight years later, then reconvening in 2000, have been unable to tour since a sell-out 2019 outing for the Better Being Lucky LP. 

However, this month, their current 12-legged groove machine is out on the road again, performing Never Loved Elvis in its entirety before a second set of other hits, classics, and rarities from an extensive 36-year catalogue.

Alongside frontman Miles Hunt on guitar and vocals these days is the only other original member on board, guitarist Malcolm Treece, plus long-standing fiddle player Erica Nockalls, fellow guitarist Mark Gemini-Thwaite (The Mission, Tricky, Theatre of Hate), Tim Sewell on bass (Eat), and Pete Howard on drums (The Clash).  

Miles was staying over at a friend’s house when I called. He’s based in Shropshire but was on the border with the Black Country when we spoke, his band rehearsing in Stourbridge, the town where The Wonder Stuff’s story came together. Does he get nostalgic, back on old ground?

“Not at all. I pull up at the studio and go into a windowless room for about 10 hours, then I get back in my van, and I don’t see it at all.”

Speaking to the likes of Slade drumming legend Don Powell, we’ll mention places like Bilston, and he’ll get a little dewy-eyed. But he does live in Denmark, so there’s a bit of distance there, in time and location.

“Yeah, I did live in London for about 17 years, but always stayed in contact with my friends from back home. I’ve never really lived far away for any significant amount of time, and I’m not from Stourbridge. I think there was one or two members that were from there. I’ve no real attachments to the place.”

Last time we spoke, six years ago (with a link to that feature/interview here), you had a different line-up, with Dan Donnelly, Mike McCarthy and Tony Arthy involved. What changed to entice Malc Treese’s return?

“Ah, let me think … much as I liked Dan, Mike and Tony, musically they weren’t really up to the job. I was asking a little too much of them, to be honest. That came to a head, I needed to move forward, needed a guitarist, and Malc and I hadn’t seen each other seven or eight years at that point, so I put in a call. I’d already asked Pete Howard to come and play drums. I’ve known Pete for years.”

From your post-Wonder Stuff days in Vent 414 in the mid- to late-90s?

“Even before that. He was in a band called Eat, that I really loved. And Malc had been playing in in a new line-up of Eat. I asked Pete if he wanted to play the drums in The Wonder Stuff, and he said a lovely thing. He was very good friends with Martin Gilks, and said, ‘It’d be an honour to play Martin’s beats,’ which I thought was a very sweet thing to say.”

I’ll throw in a little background there. Martin died aged 41 in 2006 after a motorbike accident in London, having been part of the original line-up alongside Miles, Malc, and Rob ‘The Bass Thing’ Jones, the latter having left after the Hup LP in late ’89. Rob, aka Bob, died in 1993, aged just 29. But I’ll let Miles carry on now.

“Then I said, ‘You see way more of Malc than I do. Fancy asking if he wants to talk to me?’. Haha! And he just looked at me and said, ‘I don’t have to ask that. Malc loves you, just give him a ring. So I did, and he was happy to hear from me, said it’d be lovely to see you, we were asking about each other’s families and all that, then I said, ‘Would you be interested in taking up your rightful position as Wonder Stuff lead guitarist again?’.

“He was a bit surprised at that, and said, ‘That, I’d have to think about,’ so he didn’t jump straight back in. But within a couple of months he said, ‘Let’s get together, have a chat’.

“Then we needed a new bass player, so why not ask Tim? Him and Pete have been playing together since they were in their teens. And it all came together really well, then of course, I’d written a bunch of songs with Mark Gemini-Thwaite, remotely. He was in California, this is all pre-pandemic. I was in Shropshire and we were just writing together for no particular purpose, then I felt these songs would really shape up nice to be a new Wonder Stuff album, of which I’d written a handful of songs for already.

“So I said, ‘Do you mind? Would you like to record these and stick them on a Wonder Stuff album?’, and he said, ‘I’d love that’. So we did the Better Being Lucky album, then it just seemed to fit in that Mark should play on these tracks in the live arena, so that’s how we’ve ended up being a six-piece.”

Mark’s got a fair pedigree as well. In fact, you’ve all been around the boards a bit, haven’t you?

“Haha! Yep, and it’s great in rehearsals now – everyone’s so great with their chosen instrument, and if anyone’s throwing ideas around in the room … We’ve been rehearsing Never Loved Elvis songs that I haven’t looked at – the original recordings – in years, and I’m spotting these like little string arrangements at the end. Like on ‘Welcome to the Cheap Seats’, an extra melody at the very end of the song. So I’m like, ‘Mark, could you play that?’. And he just went with it, and that’s never been in the song as a live arrangement – only on the record.

“So it’s really great, and those guys all ask each other things like, ‘Could you do this?’, and, ‘I spotted this on the record and …’. God, we’ve always been sort of cheating our way through the live versions, so it’s nice to have all these extra things going in.”

It was only when I was looking back at the Never Loved Elvis sleeve notes that I was reminded that not only did Kirsty MacColl contribute, but also James Taylor, of James Taylor Quartet and The Prisoners fame.

“Yeah, James had come in on Hup, actually. He plays on ‘Don’t Let Me Down Gently’ – and it’s quite a prominent part, the organ part.”

When was the last time you sat down and listened all the way through Never Loved Elvis?

“Last week! Just because of rehearsals. I was getting asked questions in emails by various members, like, ‘Do you want me to look at this bit?’ or ‘What are we going to do here?’. So I thought I better have a listen!”

Well, it’s a pretty good album, too. Definitely worth a listen.

“Ha! I don’t really know it that well … I know how to play every song, but can’t remember every little bit of recorded trickery and parts and arrangements, y’know. So yeah, I listened last week, quite loud, with a bottle of wine and my headphones on, and really enjoyed it.

“A lot of the songs, like ‘Caught in My Shadow’, ‘The Size of a Cow’ and ‘Mission Drive’ will be in the set quite regularly. But I haven’t played songs like ’38 Line Poem’, ‘Inertia’ and ‘Grotesque’ for exactly 10 years, when we did the 20th anniversary shows.”

I recall you headlining Cities in the Park, the Summer ’91 Martin Hannett tribute in Heaton Park, Manchester, and you were really firing, on a peak as a band. Any particular memories of that?

“I’ve a very specific memory of that gig. I was probably firing because I had to see the Rock Doc that morning. We’d been gigging in the States, and I’d spent my last night – two nights before Cities in the Park – on a friend’s balcony in Hollywood, California. I’d been sitting out there in shorts ‘til quite late at night, and didn’t realise I was getting bitten by loads of bugs.

“When I got up at six o’clock the next morning to get on the plane, I’d got all these bites all over my legs. When I got on the plane, my legs really swelled up, and by the time I got to Manchester, the night before the show, I could barely walk and was feeling quite feverish. So they got the Rock Doc to me, and he gave me all manner of jabs in my backside, so I was basically speeding my head off through whatever he’d given me.

“So I’m sat with all this cream on my leg in my hotel room in Manchester on the afternoon, with loads of interviews to do. Most were on the hotel phone, but one was face to face with Mark Radcliffe, the first time that we met. And every time I’ve seen Mark since, he always brings it up, saying, ‘The first time we met, you were sitting on your bed in your underpants’!”

It was a major bill, the likes of The Fall, Buzzcocks, and many more on before you. But it sounds like you might not recall much of that.

“No, I’ve a memory of John Cooper Clarke being backstage. I also think Nico was with him. And I remember the Buzzcocks being around, but because I wasn’t feeling well, I spent as much time as I could in the hotel. Somebody came and got me, shoved me on stage, and soon as I came offstage, I was taken back to the hotel. But that was the first time I saw Cooper Clarke in the flesh, as it were, although I’d seen him plenty of times on stage. I was like, wow, that guy’s fucking famous in my book!”

Indeed, and there you were with lots of iconic Manchester bands, yet still headlined. You’ve got to have plenty of belief to get out there in those circumstances.

“Ah, we had plenty of self-confidence back then. It’s all gone now! I used it all up in my younger days!”

The next time I saw you was at Preston Guild Hall on the Idiot Manoeuvres tour, and I suppose by then it was towards the end of that amazing run, late March ‘94.

“OK, I guess that was the Construction days.”

Yes, touring that album. You were still firing, but maybe behind the scenes, it wasn’t so great.

“Yeah, about halfway through the tour … Gloucester Guiildhall, I think … I had a conversation. I knew I’d had enough. I knew I didn’t want to do anything after that tour. So I called a little band meeting on the afternoon in Gloucester, and the mood in the band had been horrible all the way through that tour to that point. And I just said, ‘Look, this just doesn’t work anymore. I think when this tour is finished, I’m going to knock it on the head’.

“And everyone was like, ‘That sounds about right’. So we did the rest of the tour, all of us knowing that was it and we were going to keep that to ourselves. And actually, we really enjoyed the rest of the tour, because the pressure was off. It was really nice.

“Looking back on it now, it may have been an error. I think a year away from each other would have been a better idea.”

Actually, that Preston show was five days later (the Gloucester show actually at the Leisure Centre), which might explain how I felt it was business as usual regarding positive live presence.

Then again, you’d had a great run, albeit rather intense at times.

 “Well, eight years really, being in each other’s pockets. And I don’t care what walk of life you’re in – whether it’s friends you went to university with or you got your first job with, friends you first signed on the dole with, whatever … Almost every day for eight years, and we were a strange bunch to be thrown together.

“Malc and I would have been always good mates. But Bob Jones and I didn’t really gel. I loved him, I thought he was great, but I wasn’t his kind of person. I was a bit uptight. Well, I was very uptight! He just liked a good laugh and a beer, whereas I over-thought everything. There was kind of two camps really – him and Martin (Gilks) really got on well, and me and Malc got on well. But by the time we’re at’ 94, I’m not really getting on with anyone, Bob had gone, a bass player had come in with zero personality, a multi-instrumentalist fiddle player who wasn’t really from our world. That didn’t help either, although his musicianship was second to none.”

Miles wasn’t the first pop star in the family. His dad’s brother, Bill Hunt, featured on the first  Electric Light Orchestra and as a keyboard and French horn player was integral to Roy Wood’s post-Move and ELO outfit Wizzard. How’s Uncle Bill? I see he recently turned 75.

“Did he? Haha!?”

I believe so.

“Okay, well, I have seen him recently. He’s great. I can’t remember why we all got together, but I think Mum and Dad thought it was time we started seeing people, after the pandemic.”

That was certainly a period that made you re-think and revalue your friendships, inspiring us all to make the most of those links.

“Yeah, exactly, and he’s always got some little musical thing going on. He’s brilliant, Bill. A great musician as well.”

An inspiration in your formative days, no doubt. Someone who properly made it from your patch.

“That’s it, y’know. When we were little kids, like most little kids in the early ‘70s watching Top of the Pops, our uncle was on it quite regularly. And that just felt completely normal to me and my brother, having never known our uncle not to be on there … not as if I thought about it until years later, but yeah, of course, that would have had an effect.

“Although my goal was never to be on Top of the Pops. My goal was to be in a band and earn a living at music, just like my uncle had.

You mentioned your parents. Your dad was a union man. Was that key in your approach to your more outspoken side? I don’t know why I’m being careful with my words, mind, you did after all put in an advert in a bid to form your first band where you called yourself a ‘big-mouth drummer’.

“Haha! Yeah, he was a trades unionist … and before that, he was a drummer. His politics definitely had an effect on me. I think of myself as a socialist, and songs like ‘Give Give Give Me More More More’ and ‘It’s Yer Money I’m After, Baby’ were all tongue-in-cheek digs at the type of people obsessed with wealth. And the fact that he was a musician. When I was a very young teenager, he was teaching me how to play the drums.

“It was funny when I asked Malc Treese if I could have a bash at singing in his new band. My only worry was, ‘What if I don’t like the drummer? I wasn’t a particularly good drummer, but drums is where my ears go to. But then I got to hear Martin Gilks for the first time and thought, ‘Well, there’s no fucking problem here!’. That guy was amazing!”

After mega-success with The Wonder Stuff, first time round, there was the afore-mentioned Vent 414. In retrospect, were you (ahem) caught in your own shadow there? Was it all too soon, or was that just a welcome release from all that preceded it, something fresh to move on to?

“Yeah, it was so much looser than The Wonder Stuff. On that last tour as a six-piece, there was a keyboard player as well, and some songs we were playing with computers as backing tracks. It was just such a production, and playing those big venues like the G-Mex, we’d be having production meetings about stage sets and lighting effects, to which, really, I couldn’t have given a flying fuck about!

“It’s funny, me and my friend were flicking through the Jubilee thing and he’s saying, ‘the lighting is amazing’, as that’s an area of work he’s in, and, ‘those drones are impressive’. I’m like, ‘You know what, I don’t even notice them’. I’ve never been to a gig and gone, ‘Wow, the lights are good!’. I don’t notice them. I’m usually just listening to the drummer, y’know.”

And with you, it seems the song is king.

“Yeah, the song, and the musicianship. There’s kind of a golden rule that you don’t use yellow lights, because it just looks like you’re covered in piss, and you don’t use green lights, because it just makes you look like a baddie from a pantomime. But we were at an Iggy Pop gig and my mate said he was using a yellow light. And I said, ‘How have you even noticed? I’m looking at Iggy Pop!’”

Back on Vent 414, we mentioned Pete Howard earlier. Did he ever talk about days with The Clash back then?

“No, quite the opposite. Only in recent years is he more agreeable to talk about it. He didn’t like it when we went out to tour Germany, Holland, and Belgium. He’d recoil if we turned up at gigs and they would talk about ‘Ex-Wonder Stuff singer, MTV presenter, ex-Senseless Things, and ex-Clash. He’d be like, ‘I don’t want to talk about that’. And his reasoning was quite sound, like, ‘Look, I was in the worst version of The Clash’. That was the way he looked at it at the time. ‘I was in the version of The Clash where Joe Strummer sacked Mick Jones’.”

True enough. I seem to recall his first gig was Mick’s last, the Us Festival in California.

“Yeah, but he looks back at it more fondly now. And on that Joe Strummer 001 compilation, there was some … y’see, Pete didn’t play on Cut the Crap. He played some of those songs live, but that’s just programming on the record.”

Indeed, and the original demos sound a step up for sure.

“It’s really good to hear, isn’t it. So he’s allowed to have a bit of pride about it now. It might just be that he’s more relaxed about it.

“And to get rid of all that, to bring it back down to just three people with instruments and very loose arrangements (in Vent 414) … we certainly weren’t stuck to computer backing tracks. That was a great freedom, and then just to put it in 300-capacity clubs rather than 8,000-capacity rooms was really refreshing for me. I loved it. And it was only that Morgan got itchy feet, wanting to go and do something else, that it didn’t last as long as I would have liked it to.”

And because you mentioned Morgan Nicholls, who broke through with Senseless Things and later got to play for Muse, Gorillaz, Lily Allen, and The Streets, going back one step again, there seemed to be quite a kinship between The Wonder Stuff and the other bands you toured with and partied with, not least Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Senseless Things, and Mega City 4. Not as if you weren’t competitive, of course.

“Yeah, I think we all helped each other out. There were bands around the year before – and no disrespect to these bands – like Then Jericho, very much influenced by the early ‘80s, with synthesisers, obviously heading towards stadiums, y’know – that’s what they wanted to do. Then we came in and everything seemed to change. Certainly, looking at the three music papers at the time, that those bands sort of got pushed aside and the focus came on these scruffy oiks you just mentioned, and we certainly didn’t look like we had our eye on the big prize and seemed to be quite happy just making a row in The Marquee.

“So things did change drastically. I guess those bands were always there, but it was once we were all given a bit of attention, then we were all on the same gigging circuit. The Poppies (Pop Will East Itself) were ahead of us, and basically said, ‘Do you want some support gigs?’. Then we were ahead of the Neds, commercially, and we could offer something to them. And that’s nice to hear you mention Mega City 4, us doing gigs with them and Senseless Things. I think we drove each other, because we’d be cynically watching each other all the time, even if they had a better t-shirt printing company, so, ‘Their t-shirts are better than ours, we better step up to their level!’.

“And with our generation of bands, once we were at Astoria level, our record company would have probably thought we should have sold our support slots, which was very much the way things worked for you. They were called buy-on tours. For someone like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin to get on a 30-day tour with a band like us, that would have cost their record label like fifty grand, if you were dealing with the old bunch of bands – Then Jericho, Diesel Park West, those kinds of band. But we thought that was fucking outrageous, principally because Big Country had given us our first tour for free. Then I think three months after that, we got a Zodiac Mindwarp tour for free as well. In our mind, it was like, ‘You can’t charge support bands to get on!’. In the early ‘80s that’s how it worked, but we threw that rule book away because it just didn’t seem fair.”

I suppose in a sense you were also brought up on stories of Mott the Hoople, Slade, and later The Clash, The Jam, and so on. Huge bands, but they never saw themselves above their fans. They had the grandeur, but they weren’t up themselves. There was very little conceit.

“That’s right, yeah.”

And as I mentioned Slade, there was real pride in them coming from not far off your patch, wasn’t there?

“Yeah, exactly. I was too young really, so don’t remember ever talking to Uncle Bill about him knowing Slade or anything, but it was pretty obvious to us that they did. And because we lived in an area of Birmingham, just south of the Black Country when we were growing up, we knew Slade just lived up the road. That was really exciting. And they were omnipresent back then, weren’t they? They were on the radio and on Top of the Pops all the time.

“So yeah, there was a bit of pride in that and like you just said, they weren’t up themselves. So I suppose the path was being laid for me. They were normal guys. Okay, there’s obviously something wrong with Dave Hill in the clothes he wears, ha! But they seemed like normal guys, we’d all seen the movie, Flame, and they could all act but came across so naturally, and it was like, well, they’ve done it, and there doesn’t seem to be anything in our way, does there …”

And you’ve done a fair few covers in the past drawing on those geographical roots, from The Move’s ‘Blackberry Way’ and Slade’s ‘Coz I Luv You’ to Dexy’s ‘There There, My Dear’ and The Beat’s ‘Save it for Later’. Even Duran Duran’s ‘Planet Earth’.

“Yeah, that was a conversation that me and Fuzz were having in the pub, y’know.”

That’s Fuzz Townshend, The Wonder Stuff’s drummer from 2010 to 2014, who also featured for Ranking Roger’s General Public, Pop Will Eat Itself, and Bentley Rhythm Ace, and these days with The Beat.

“There was a practical reason behind doing that. I’d started writing songs for Oh No It’s … The Wonder Stuff (2012), and because we’re constantly looking at trying to keep a tight budget when we make records, and Fuzz ended up living really near where I live, out in the sticks, he said, ‘Between the two of us we can record this album ourselves, we can produce it. I know how to mic. a drum kit up, I’ve various amounts of digital equipment, and you’ve got blah, blah, blah … why don’t we do it ourselves?’.

“Then it was like, ‘Okay, this looks like it’s do-able’, the conversation quickly moving on – just a pub conversation – to what were the best songs to come out of the Midlands. I think I went right in there with ‘Blackberry Way’, a list getting written down on a napkin or something, and I said, ‘You know what, why don’t we try and record a version of ‘Blackberry Way’ and use that as a test to see if we can make a record with the equipment we’ve got, without bringing in producers or going into actual studios?’.

“We were really pleased with that, then it was like, ‘Well, why don’t we record all those songs on that list?’. So that was really good fun, but really just a practice run for recording the Oh No album.”

And you’ve remained prolific down the years, from band to solo albums and collaborations with bandmate Erica, who’s also clearly integral to the more recent incarnations of The Wonder Stuff. Do you remain pretty much driven, with plenty of reasons to get out of bed most mornings?

“Yeah, I just finished a solo album that’s gonna come out sometime late in the summer, did some writing with MGT (Mark Gemini-Thwaite) and with Luke Johnson, the son of my first manager, Les. I’ve got Billy Duffy playing on it, Laura Kidd, Morgan (Nicholls). There’s a very Vent 414 sounding track on there that me, Morgan and Pete do together. So that’s out later in the year, called Things Can Change.

“And yeah, Erica joined in … what, 2005 … so she’s been in the band 17 years, which is a lot longer than the original. Ha!”

Yes, more than twice as long!

“It is! And we couldn’t do what we do without Erica. She’s absolutely part of it.”

Well, I hope to get along to one of these forthcoming shows. As I understand it, you’ll be doing Never Loved Elvis in its entirety, then another set which is a bit of a mix down the years, yeah?

“Yes, we’ll do Never Loved Elvis, take a 20-minute break, then come back to do another hour 15 … yeah!”

The Wonder Stuff’s June tour, which started with visits to Cardiff’s Tramshed, Leeds’ O2 Academy, and Bristol’s O2 Academy, continues tonight at Nottingham’s Rock City (11th), before calling at   Manchester’s O2 Ritz (15th), Liverpool’s O2 Academy (16th), Holmfirth’s Picturedrome (17th), Glasgow O2 Academy (18th), London, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire (23rd), and Birmingham O2 Academy (24th).  For more details, check out: Never Loved Elvis on Spotify, The Wonder Stuff Official Site, The Wonder Stuff Facebook, and The Wonder Stuff Instagram.

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Discovering Tresor – the Gwenno feature/interview

It was on the last day of February that I first caught the quirky promo video of ‘An Stevel Nowydh’, the lead single from Tresor, the third full-length solo LP by Cardiff-based Gwenno Saunders, an album finally set to reach the shops on Friday, July 1st.

Here at last was a welcome early sign of the Spring to follow, the sight of this acclaimed electronica artist, producer and chanteuse in boilersuit and druid’s garb high-kicking her way around the back streets of Downalong St Ives, West Cornwall – breaking down those metaphorical barriers and doors, letting the light in, after a restorative tea party with a difference in a neolithic cave – certainly one to quicken my step.

Then, 10 weeks later, with Summer ever closer, came a promo video for ‘Tresor’, online a few hours before our long-planned conversation, the new single and title track of an album like 2018’s Le Kov recorded mainly in Cornish, as opposed to her 2015 Welsh language debut for Heavenly Recordings, Y Dydd Olaf.

Described as a ‘scrapbook of sorts’, the latest promo was collected from a week recording in St Ives in early 2020 and subsequent lockdown days back in Cardiff, including Super8 clips from Gwenno’s Tresor film, shot by Clare Marie Bailey, starring her friends Edward Rowe (Bait, The Witcher) and Pinar Ögün (Keeping Faith, Fflam) as Anima and Animus, taking a similar collage approach to that she uses writing with co-producer, musical collaborator and partner, Rhys Edwards.

“We record everything at home, without the time restrictions of studios and session musicians. It’s a very DIY approach and I think this video reflects that honestly.”

That promo also reflects her growing interest in film and ‘the intersection of music with visual components, evoking a dreamworld from another time, surreal and sensual, saturated with light and colour’.

There’s also a short film for instrumental ‘Men an Toll’, this time involving lots of Bronze Age stone hugging from Gwenno, giving me the impression I might be in for the sort of interview I enjoyed with Julian Cope in 2015, full of reference to fogous, ley lines and standing stones.

Besides, maybe it was the surrounding ancient scenery causing us reception issues as we abandoned a Skype call and hopped over to WhatsApp. Was she back in the Far West of England per chance?

“Ah, no, I wish, I’m in Cardiff at the moment – nowhere as mystical as that, unfortunately!”

While Y Dydd Olaf (The Final Day) tackled technological alienation, Le Kov (The Place of Memory) took on the idea of homeland and proved more international in outlook, presenting the Cornish language to the world and giving it an unprecedented platform as she toured Europe and Australia in her own right and as a support to Suede and Manic Street Preachers.

A performance of ‘Tir ha Mor’ on Later with Jools Holland helped spread the word, TV debates on the subject following with the likes of Michael Portillo, Jon Snow, and Nina Nannar, interest in learning Cornish (Kernewek) reportedly soon hitting an all-time high.

Gwenno, recently turned 41, was a solo artist singing in Cornish and Welsh long before her winning spell with The Pipettes, the indie-pop outfit best known for 2006 hits ‘Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me’ and ‘Pull Shapes’, and that year’s We Are The Pipettes LP.

Her formative years were spent as an Irish dancer, leading to tours with Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance and Feet of Flames productions, Gwenno later acting in Welsh language soap opera Pobol y Cwm, and even hosting her own S4C programme. She also toured as a synth player with Elton John in 2012.

But she was always keen on promoting the protection of minority languages, drawing on her upbringing as the daughter of Welsh and Cornish language activists. And while her first solo LP won the 2015 Welsh Music Prize and also the Best Welsh Album at Wales’s National Eisteddfod, it’s worth noting that the last of its 10 songs, ‘Amser’ (Time), was in Cornish.

In fact, Cardiff-born Gwenno – who also co-hosts and co-produces a radio show in her home city – grew up thinking Cornish was every bit as much a living language as Welsh. That wasn’t the case, but in time there would soon be a revival, and she saw it as important as a fluent speaker to help celebrate the survival of Britain’s lesser-known language in that divisive age of Brexit, keen to speak out on the importance of respecting and forging links with other cultures, no matter how small. 

In 2018 the Cornish Language Board claimed Le Kov contributed to a 15% increase in the number of people taking Cornish language exams that year, with Gwenno becoming a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedh the following year for ‘services to the Cornish language through music and the media’.

Now, with Tresor (Treasure), she’s shifted the focus on to her journey of rediscovery after becoming a mum, this time exploring domesticity and desire, reclaiming the body, working out how to exist as herself as well as care first and foremost for someone else … in her case a son, now six.

Musically, the influences on the new record span from Ryuichi Sakamoto to Eden Ahbez and William Basinski, on an LP as psychedelically tinged as her previous work, yet this time targetingthe unconsciouswhile exploring the power of the feminine voice, inspired by the Cornish landscape and how it asserts itself in ‘presenting a richly melodic counterpoint to a place and people known for rugged survival and jagged edges’.  

As for the title song, Gwenno sees the dreamy ‘Tresor’ as questioning what makes us human and our conscious choice to either have a positive or negative impact on our environment and everything around us.

“We live in a chaotic world and what impacts on our ability to make positive decisions is largely circumstantial. The song is about trying to connect with our ability to do the right thing at a point where everything is in flux, in crisis, and the foundation of our society is changing.

“How do we connect with our responsibilities and instinct to commit to the collective in a largely individualistic society? ‘Tresor’ is an homage to an older, analog world, the soundtracks to European cinema, and a final fair farewell to the 20th Century.”

While I was in Lancashire and Gwenno was in Glamorgan, we started our conversation in Cornwall, where the writing process for the new LP got underway, pre-lockdown.

“It was really strange, I’d gone down to St Ives in January 2020, and I’d been doing a lot of touring, a lot of collaborating, I’d just done a live score of Mark Jenkin’s Bait film, and I’d done a theatre production, so I really wanted to take stock, just go back into the unconscious a little.

“The last record I wrote, Le Kov, was entirely in Cornish, but based on a distant place, really, somewhere I learned about from my Dad. I’d grown up speaking the language, and it was my take on that experience. But when I went down to St Ives, over that period making that record, it introduced me to a lot of artists in Cornwall, and I got to know people much better.

“That was part of the reason I made it – I really wanted to make that connection, wanting to work out what that was. That opened up a whole new world, a community of artists, so I felt confident enough to maybe go to Cornwall itself, whereas Le Kov was written in Cardiff.

“I was like, ‘How would I feel if I went to Cornwall and wrote the record there?’. I thought I was going down for a week and wouldn’t see a soul – this was January, pre-pandemic. But when I got off the train, I bumped into a friend straightaway, ending up having this really warm and welcoming week, seeing quite a lot of people. That was really reassuring and fed into the record.

“It was about how that would make me feel, writing, and wasn’t the isolating experience I thought, because I’d got to know quite a few artists and people since writing Le Kov. And not wanting to repeat myself, I just wanted to be driven more by the unconscious, desires and frustrations rather than be too somatic with my songwriting, just letting the music lead the way.

“That was a big part of it, and I explored a lot of universal themes through the language, because I was interested in the emotion of first-hand experience of feeling something in Cornish, rather than writing a record about the language that was sort of pseudo-academic – less of an essay or presentation, more, ‘This is how it feels when it’s alive’.

“So there’s the frustrations and there’s the joy, and all those things, and it’s more of a day-to-day intimate album.”

You clearly had ideas beforehand, but I wondered if the melodies predated the words, or the other way round. Because you clearly have to explore different rhythms, writing in another language.

“Yeah, when you write, you’re working at it, then moments of inspiration come to you. And I was very conscious of … for example, I stayed in an artist’s studio in St Ives, in the last area of Cornwall where there were fluent Cornish speakers, and I’ve always felt quite connected to the place anyway. And because it was January 2020 and the dire situation with regards to (ermpty) second homes, I felt there were quite a lot of spirits involved in the process.

“I always feel like that, and with ‘Tresor’, the song, you’re very conscious that life and death are the same in terms of when people leave their traces. So many of the souls that are part of every album I make tend to be from other centuries, but I feel they’re completely alive. I was pondering that a lot because, for me, people that like – and it’s probably because they’re not close family to me – I don’t see the death, because they’re still there, and I think that fed into the spirit of the album. So it felt less conscious.”

There’s certainly lots of rich imagery in your videos, like the Celtic crosses and focus on past civilisations in that part of the world. Which brings me to Edward Rowe, the actor best known to some as his comic alter ego, Kernow King, now known too for his role in Bait. Was that the first time you met him?

“Ah, that was amazing, but I knew him before. He’d come to shows and we crossed paths a few times at festivals. It was him and a good friend of mine, Pinar (Ögün), from Turkey, and she’s a really special person. I created this short film, with that imagery part of the film. It was great to be able to be a casting director, and I definitely wanted those two to be together because of what they represent.”

As you put it yourself, you’ve taken that collage-like approach with the video in the same way you do with your music. And there are plenty of sound collages in your work.

“Yeah, that’s how I make records with Rhys (Edwards), and how things come together. Everything’s a scrapbook. It comes from everywhere. We don’t go into studios to record our music, so everything’s collected along the way, like this big bag of sound! It’s about piecing it all together, and I wanted to create a visual interpretation of the same thing, which is exactly how the record’s made.”

You mention a love of European film, and there’s definitely a ‘60s film feel on the title track, reminding me in parts of Jackie Lee’s ‘White Horses’ and John Barry’s Midnight Cowboy title music.

“Yeah, we were listening to a lot of Eden Ahbez. And it was strange that it just came out in the song, which is one of those where you feel it was already written. And it’s probably the most conventional song I’ve written in a really long time.

“We’ve also listened to a huge amount of Ennio Morricone, and with Fellini being part of it, and a lot of European cinema … because we’re really obsessed with Europe, desperate to be part of it still! That feeds into it, and, y’know, we feel European, so there’s piano from Vienna, soundscapes from Venice … We don’t explore our own culture because we want to be insular, we explore it because we want to be part of the world!”

It seems that you’ve always had that internationalist world view. You speak a few languages, not just English, Cornish and Welsh, but Spanish as well, and I understand your Dad speaks Breton too.

“Yeah, it’s always been about as many cultures as … y’know, being very aware of the diversity of culture and how exciting that is. Even within Britain, the amount of different cultures that feed into the experience and how joyful that is, and how brilliantly colourful that makes the world.”

You certainly seem to bring that joyfulness into your songs and accompanying videos, such as when you’re high-kicking your way around St Ives, as if breaking down doors and freeing those spirits. I was also interested by you writing about the Men-an-Tol standing stones, not least having sought those out on a walk before now, and being struck by their serene feel.

“Oh, it’s such a special place, and I was struck by how peaceful it was and a feeling of contemplation. And so much of the record is about where those spiritual foundations crossover into Christianity, and a lot of my film is to do with where that clash happens and them coming from a very similar place. And in Cornwall as well, because the Cornish language revival is a lot to do with Celtic Christianity, whereas there are huge other elements of Cornish culture that are very inspired by paganism and Neolithic elements.

“There’s a lot of different spiritual ideas happening, and I think they’re all part of the same pot – I don’t think it’s ‘either or’. But I find it very interesting that we’re trying to work out what our spirituality is. I think people are drawn to these things more and more. And it’s not just a passing trend, I think it’s because we’re searching for meaning, and we always will. We think we’re a secular society, but I don’t know if not having any spiritual meaning is possible for human beings, because we’ve always searched for it. So I was interested in those themes, how valid those ideas are, and how wonderful they are to give you that inner peace.”

When the world locked down, part-way through making Tresor, you headed back to Cardiff to carry on working, juggling that with family duties.

“Yeah, we were home-schooling and recording, and Rhys was playing drums, bass and guitar. So there were lots of elements. Obviously, everyone had very different lockdowns, so that’s kind of a reflection of it, but the point really is that I’d written this before lockdown, so was kind of anticipating something, a need to stop, a need to reflect … before anything was known about what was going to come next.”

Before I heard anything from this LP, I was surprised to see Gwenno chatting to Michael Portillo for his Coastal Devon and Cornwall walks series on Channel 5, on a windblown headland in Tintagel, talking about her music and the Cornish language, and how elements of her work fit those amazing landscapes. Not as if I’d ever have put money on seeing her have an amiable chinwag with a former Government minister who served under Margaret Thatcher.

“Neither would I! They do tend to be random events that happen, and I’m sort of open to it, because I have these opportunities to have conversations with people that I never thought I’d ever cross paths with!”

A discussion followed about us warming to Michael Portillo in more recent years, wondering if the current Government lurching so far to the right made him seem more centre-ground now … or perhaps he’s just mellowed with age. Gwenno put it down to the idea of people being better at one thing than another, a sign that we ‘don’t have the best society’, which brought us on to the current Government.

“The politicians we have now shouldn’t be in that job. They can’t do that job! Beyond them being hideous, they’re clearly not in the right job. That’s not what they should be doing.”

True. If Boris Johnson was just some dusty old academic, I might see humour in his bumbling rogue and eccentric character demeanor … his grandiose passion coming over …

“Yeah. He needs to be in a job with no authority … but not Prime Minister!”

In Robin Turner’s …Believe in Magic, the story of Heavenly Recordings, the label’s co-founder, Jeff Barrett, who first met Gwenno when she was supporting Gruff Rhys on his American Interior tour, wrote, ‘How many people are lucky enough in life to find themselves working with an artist who, when you say, ‘Have you started thinking about your second record yet?’ replies, ‘Yes, and it’s going to be in Cornish’. I count myself as a lucky bastard to have met Gwenno and to be working with someone who feels that they can work with our label and do that. When she told me she was making the record in Cornish it was a nice moment. My mother was Cornish and I’ve had a strong affinity with the county ever since I first went there.

‘I knew that we had a really good chance with Le Kov because, quality of the music aside, there was a story there. There’s an intelligence, a thought process and there’s a concept. All brought together by a highly articulate artist. Her concept was a unique thing. Nobody else had done it. I’m not saying nobody’s made a record in the Cornish language, but nobody has made a record in the Cornish language after making a record in the Welsh language after having been in an English language pop group.

‘I’ve got nothing but massive respect for Gwenno. She’s not a commercial artist. She’s an artist, and a successful one. She pushes herself and challenges herself every step of the way. She makes art. I’m properly in awe of her.’ Jeff Barrett

There can’t be too many record label bosses who would go with that notion, and see the bigger picture, the true worth of such a venture.

“Oh yeah, and what I’m really interested in with music, because of my background and probably my age as well, our musical experiences that impact us are partly in real life, partly from our community, and partly from records. And for me, music experience hasn’t just been about the records I listened to. It’s about the socialist choir my Mum was in, the hymns people have sung through the centuries that I’ve learned, it’s a live show experience, or it’s a folk song someone’s passing on. I’ve never seen recorded music as being the only musical outlet, but I’m very interested in how all that translates on to records.

“I see records as documentation of a time and place, like documentary making. I see albums as sound documenting. I’m always interested in that, and I think it’s an idea I’m trying to evolve into in terms of what gets drawn into that recorded music. For example, the reason I’m a huge fan of Enya is because she’s translated centuries of history of music into recorded sound. That’s where the progress is, and I find that concept really interesting.

“But it’s not just recording it as you would hear it. So much of music recording is to do with process. We don’t try and capture a recording of something that’s happened in the room – we’re interested in processing that music into something that’s recorded not just ‘as is’.

“Whereas folk music is documented as it’s sung – which is brilliant. I love all that – it’s about the music of a time and a place and how it’s processed into recorded sound, which is different to when you hear a choir singing ‘The Internationale’ on the street. It’s about different musical experiences.”

Was your childhood spent between South Wales and Cornwall?

“We didn’t have much money, growing up, so didn’t really go on holidays. I went to Cornwall a few times, but just to visit my parents’ friends who were Cornish speakers.

“I started Irish dancing when I was five – my Dad speaks Irish as well – and that was my opportunity to travel. I’d travel for competitions, so I’ve always travelled with something I’m doing. And I always quite liked that – you felt less of a tourist because you were going to do something that other people from that place were doing. That’s definitely had an influence on my motivations for travelling, and I feel that’s a driving factor for making music as well.”

On the first record, there was one song in Cornish, and on this one, there’s something of a Welsh call to arms on ‘NYCAW’, short for ‘Nid yw Cymru ar Werth (Wales is Not for Sale). Your Welsh roots are clearly important to you. Is this you and Rhys following Catatonia’s lead nearly a quarter of a century earlier on ‘International Velvet’?

“That was a slogan devised in the 1980s by the Welsh Language Society. There’s a tradition of artists using their slogans, taking another look at it. There was a band called Datblygu (Develop), led by David Edwards, who recently passed away, and they did a song called ‘Dimm Deddf, Dim Eiddo’, which is another slogan (No Act, No Property).

“The reason our song (‘NYCAW’) came together was because of a classic record label conversation. Jeff (Barrett) said to me, ‘I think you need another single’, and Rhys and I were so furious! We were like, ‘Our album is perfect, what are you talking about!’. We were so angry that we wrote and recorded it that weekend as a response, and were like, ‘If you want a single, we’ll give you a single about death to neoliberalism and capitalism, and the fact that if we’re thinking about any future country in the UK, it has to be a socialist one!’.

“So in a way, Jeff really contributed to that. We could have just gone, ‘You know, we’re not doing anymore,’ but we were so furious … The record in general is not a protest, but that’s definitely me getting back on my soapbox! And I can’t help that – that side is in me. I want to make observations, y’know!”

Conversation followed about afore-mentioned iconic Welsh language indie outfit, Datblygu – favourites of legendary DJ John Peel, the first Welsh language band he truly rated – and how I saw their first show outside Wales in 23 years in late 2016, an UnPeeled show at The Continental, Preston. And that led to Gwenno telling me about the April 2015 festival she helped put on in Cardiff, David and partner Patricia Morgan’s first show since 1993, a year ahead of the All Tomorrow Parties festival appearance in Prestatyn, North Wales, that preceded the pair’s Lancashire visit.  

“David thanked us after the gig, because he really enjoyed it. Because we’re artists and performers, we know what you need as an artist when you go and play – you need to have your soundcheck then you need people to leave you alone, stuff like that. You need that time, and it was so lovely to be the promoter and try and make that experience for Pat and David as easy as it possibly could be under the circumstances.

“I think they only played for 25 minutes, but it was brilliant! A band like Datblygu are so important to so many people. When you play shows, there’s an element of chaos, and particularly when they were touring during the ‘80s and ‘90s, their gigs were hard, as they are when you’re any sort of underground DIY artist, and that chaos has such an impact on your mental health and state of mind.

“But there they were on the main stage at the Wales Millennium Centre, where they should be! This was how elevated Datblygu have always been, and that’s where they should always be, in my mind. And the anticipation was incredible, as some people hadn’t seen them for 30 years. It was amazing, with people of all ages and all generations. And I’m just glad they had that run.”

Regarding your own indie-pop past, alongside your sister, Ani, in The Pipettes, you’ve clearly both moved on since, as have the rest of the band, but will there ever be another record or live shows?

“I dunno. Rose is doing stuff with Graham Coxon now, Becki’s a music teacher, in professional music development in Manchester, Bobby’s a writer … Everyone’s doing different things.

“It was such an interesting experience, and gave me a really good grounding in understanding Anglo-American culture, something I hadn’t been raised in. Everyone had such different tastes in the band, seven people where no one agreed on what they liked apart from maybe a good pop song. But it was also a reflection of a time and place, and I can’t imagine how you’d reimagine that for it to be progressive.

“And it’s about progress, isn’t it? You do things because they’re interesting. The Pipettes were interesting to me, and I was very curious about it. I was like, ‘This is fascinating, it’s so bold, so blatant, and I can’t believe the cheek of it!’.

“I’m a massive introvert, so it was like, ‘Oh my God!’. I think that’s why I struggled with it, because I wasn’t a natural entertainer. I always felt I was the miserable one and couldn’t quite be as fun as I should be. I just couldn’t do that.”

It’s interesting how you talk about your brief spell trying to understand Anglo-American culture, as if that’s some crazy sub-genre, minority path, or niche interest.

“Yeah, totally! It was just curiosity! But I learned a lot about bands I didn’t know about, playing catch-up in my early 20s. There are brilliant elements, clearly, musically as well, in terms of that canon. But I think the older I get, I feel my roots become more fully formed.

“I live in Wales, and that’s been home for a long time. My world is very Celtic. It’s that perspective on the world, and the more I dig into it, the more I get out of it, and the more I see the connections, you know, even people like William Morris … it all ties in. I think it’s always been about an alternative to the way this island evolves, and what the soul of it is, and I think we’re all looking for alternatives, because the world’s gone a bit mad.”

True. And if nothing else, Word has it you increased the take-up in Cornish language exams. That’s something to be proud of, surely.

“Well, I always say this, it’s nothing more than the hard work of everyone that’s been teaching Cornish for the past few decades. I only started making these albums because I felt there was somebody there. I was responding to the energy of a community growing, not trying to represent it in any way.

“All of a sudden I could feel and see and hear there were other Cornish speakers around. And everything I do feeds off a community really. Musically and culturally, everything I do is grounded in that.”

Are your parents still doing their thing, creatively?

“Yeah, my Dad never stops. He’s writing poems every day. He’s constantly writing and publishing work. And my Mumn’s still going in the choir …”

Will that be the case with you in a couple of decades?

“Definitely, I think it’s the curiosity and it’s about the journey, following your nose, seeing where that takes you. Having the Cornish language led me to very unexpected places, and that’s exactly where I want to go. And that’s what life’s about – when you’re sat there at the end of it, you kind of want to go, ‘Well, that was fun, and slightly ridiculous!’.”

Having your son most have been another learning curve.

“Well, it’s been a big part of this album, because in our society motherhood is very … the thing that struck me when I became a mum was how unfair society was being run. My inspiration generally comes from my family and my roots and all that early years’ experience. It really does. I draw from it constantly, because I’m interested in how that impacts you as a human being in positive and negative ways, culturally or emotionally. And those first few years are beyond important.

“If that’s not right … it all stems from that. That was always part of my work, and I think Tresor was me trying to get a grip on who I am again, remembering that, because you give yourself up physically as well, for children, happily and wilfully, but coming back to yourself takes a very long time. It certainly did for me. It was so much about that, going, ’Oh, yeah, I remember you!’”

Sorry, I interrupted. You were about to mention your Mum’s path.

“Oh, she’s still singing in the choir, and they’re going over to Catalonia to commemorate the people from Wales that went over to fight in the Spanish Civil War. A few members of the choir and family members were over there, a lot of people from the South Wales valleys going over to fight the fascists.”

It seems rude when this LP’s yet to land, but what about the next one? Perhaps that could take a flavour of the International Brigade struggle, your own Homage to Catalonia, or maybe it could be steeped in Breton history, or signal further returns to the Cornish or Welsh languages?

“I don’t know. My interest is in conveying the spiritual element of the collective unconscious. It’s something I’ve started on, and I think musically I would love to try more. I started it with ‘Men an Toll’, and I’m aspiring to find the spiritual element in music, because I think that’s the part I respond to the most in music myself. But I’m not sure what that is yet.

“It’s a journey, and you follow your nose. I’m maybe just trying to learn new ways of doing things, and I’m always open to try things.”

Following last weekend’s Sea Change Festival appearance in Totnes, Devon, Gwenno is set for further festival sets at Port Talbot’s In It Together tomorrow (Friday, June 3rd), and Kidlington’s Kite Festival (Sunday, June 12th), before July record shop dates to officially launch the new LP at Manchester’s Piccadilly Records (Friday 1st), London’s Rough Trade East (evening, Saturday 2nd), Bristol’s Rough Trade (lunch, Sunday 3rd), and Brighton’s Resident Music (evening, Monday 4th).

Then comes September’s UK headline tour, alongside more festival dates, starting at Manchester’s Psych Festival at The Ritz (Saturday 3rd), then at Hebden Bridge’s Trades Club (Friday 16th), the Wide Eyed Festival at Leicester Academy (Saturday 17th), Brighton’s Komedia (Monday 19th), Shoreditch, London’s Village Underground (Tuesday 20th), Endelienta Stone Barn Arts Centre in St Endellion, Cornwall (Saturday 24th), Liverpool’s District (Wednesday 28th), The Hare & Hounds in Birmingham (Thursday 29th), and Neuadd Ogwen in Bethesda, Gwynedd (Friday 30th).

For all dates and more information, head here. To pre-order Tresor, try here. And for th elastest from Gwenno, visit her Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages.

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Shine on Mellow Moon – the Alfie Templeman interview

It promises to be a memorable summer for rising indie pop star Alfie Templeman, this talented North Bedfordshire teen’s debut LP hitting the shops this weekend, with various in-store and live dates marking the occasion.

The impressive Mellow Moon lands today (Friday, May 27th) via Chess Club Records/AWAL, and after a few listens I reckon there’s enough there to suggest he’s on his way to the big time. But don’t think for one moment this likeable multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter is taking any of this for granted. What’s more, he comes over as nothing but down to earth and humble.

It was only early days listening to the LP when we spoke, but I told him its quirkier moments suggested he’s anything but a passing pop fad, despite a canny knack for writing winning melodies and commercial hooks.

“Ah, cool! Thank you! I appreciate that.”

There are plenty of neat moments en route. Do his songs tend to be fully formed at the construction stage? Or does he noodle away with ideas and see them grow?

“Oh, I’m demoing stuff all the time. That’s my way of writing songs, just putting it together.”

He was demoing songs as early as the age of 13, and this 19-year-old is unlikely to forget his roots. He’s said before that his Carlton, Bedfordshire background has influenced his work. In what way? Is he one for driving around getting ideas for songs, or going for walks, thinking, ‘There’s an idea!’?

“All the time. I go on a lot of walks, take my phone, and if I have any ideas I memo stuff in my head, literally just hum it.”

Many of us would struggle to get down those moments, which often materialise at inopportune moments, such as killer melodies or lyrics, battling to store them internally then get home and work on them. It’s easier these days with phone technology, but it’s no doubt still a perilous situation.

“Oh, of course. That’s so true. You always get little ideas and can’t memo them, frustratingly thinking, ‘That would have been perfect’.”

Well, hopefully, in those situations there’ll at least always be the next ones to come along.

“Yeah, fingers crossed!”

Alfie released his first single and EP in 2018, recording in his bedroom after school back then, leaving a formal education after his GCSEs the following year to pursue a career in music, with two more EPs following that year.

In 2019, he supported Sundara Karma at Brixton Academy, going on to tour with Sports Team the year after, early supporters including influential BBC Radio 1 DJ, Annie Mac, with Alfie soon featuring on the daytime playlists and receiving ‘hottest record’ accolades on that national station, as well as further BBC plays on Radio 2 and 6 Music, plus Radio X, Virgin (where he’s performed in session on Chris Evans’ Breakfast Show), Absolute, and Apple Music 1.

In fact, Alfie’s already clocked up more than 140 million streams worldwide, his stock rising further through supporting Chloe Moriondo in North America. But when he started work on his debut album in early 2020, like so many of us he could never have imagined the turbulent path that lay ahead, for him personally and the rest of the world. However, it seems he’s reached the other side, in style, saying, “It feels like I’m on a different planet. I’ve gone somewhere new and I’m discovering fire for the first time.”

He began the pandemic shielding due to a respiratory issue first identified in childhood. Feeling ‘very low’, he sought help and started taking antidepressants to attempt to deal with anxiety. And while he’d not spoken out about his mental health before, he felt that to ignore such a significant moment in his life, having finally sought help, would be hiding something of himself.

“I think people assume I’m this easy, outgoing person, but there’s actually a lot more layers to me, and this record shows that. Writing songs like ‘Broken’, ‘Take Some Time Away’ and ‘Mellow Moon’ were like therapy.

“It was me asking ‘What’s wrong with me?’ and ‘How am I going to get better?’ and just figuring things out in real time. I had therapy but there were still things unresolved in my mind. So I turned to music for the answers.”

Across Mellow Moon’s 14 tracks, he aimed to close his eyes and imagine another world, one where he’s more at ease, not distracted by life’s many challenges, embracing honesty and moving past the fear of failure.

“I’m being really open for the first time about where I’m at mentally. Overcoming that felt life changing.”

Along the way he called on regular collaborators Tom McFarland (Jungle), Justin Young (The Vaccines), Will Bloomfield, and Rob Milton, the LP largely inspired by modern influences like Steve Lacy, Khruangbin and Leon Bridges, as well as Alfie’s ‘constant cosmic guide’, Todd Rundgren.

And he sees the finished product, his ‘most complete work to date’, as both ‘an intimate diary entry and a communal call to arms’.

It’s certainly a feelgood LP, full of smile-on-the-face quirks and upbeat hooks, with plenty of twists and turns en route, opening track ‘A Western’ getting us off to a breakbeat-drenched baggy, dream-pop start, at the same time setting the tone for the radio-friendly fare that follows. By contrast, ‘You’re a Liar’ is more bass-heavy and a steady builder, but again it provides a soundtrack for summer, Alfie’s voice sounding soulful.

From there we have the more outright pop-funk of ‘Broken’, while ‘Folding Mountains’ and ‘3D Feelings’ remind us that he loves to noodle away on guitar but is never in your face, the latter number another surefire heatwave hit and catchy as feck, complete with a big anthemic chorus.

‘Candyfloss’ and ‘Best Feeling’ are also insanely singalongable, and we’re still only halfway through, the wondrous single, ‘Colour Me Blue’ picking up where ‘Do It’ kick-started side two, a nailed-on hit, surely.

As for ‘Galaxy’, that’s more Prince-like, the shadows lengthening somewhat, his added Isley Brothers-like guitar again somewhat subtle in the mix. And then comes the sumptuous ‘Living Today’, somewhere between ’70s soul and early ’80s Respond fare.

Meanwhile, ‘Take Some Time Away’ hints at a ’60s film soundtrack and maybe a little Lenny Kravitz at his early career-best. Again, it’s super-soulful, but this time bluesy, and as mellow as the moon in the title track that follows. And what a track that penultimate number is, leading us neatly into a more Pink Floyd-flecked dreamy finale, ‘Just Below the Above’. Splendid work all round. Hats off to Alfie.

With all that in mind, what was the first act he saw live, or the first record he heard that made him think this was what he wanted to do with his life? Only it seems that it all happened at an impressionable age for Alfie.

“The first band I really got into were Rush, when I was a kid. I just really liked that kind of music.”

That’s interesting. It would seem at first that might be several light years from what you’re doing.

“Yeah, definitely.”

Is that still your ‘kick off the shoes and relax’ music, away from the day job?

“I think so. I still listen to that kind of stuff … all the time.”

Was that musical taste down to your Dad’s influence?

“I think the first time I heard Rush was because his friend was playing them. That’s what got me into it.”

Are we talking ‘Spirit of Radio’ time?

Hemispheres, man! That as well though – ‘Spirit of Radio’ is great.”

Are there specific artists you see and hear now and think that’s where you want to go next, providing that inspiration to propel yourself on?

“Yeah, I’ve been doing that with a lot of prog recently. Even Black Midi. I love listening to them. You never know what’s going to come next.”

Again, that doesn’t fit your label’s description of you as an ‘indie r&b’ artist, even though I feel that sums you up quite well. I’m more a ‘60s and ‘70s soul man, but there’s lots in that later field I enjoy, and for me there are winning elements of ‘80s and ‘90s soul meets electronica in your music. For instance, on ‘Leaving Today’, which might well be my favourite track on the album …

“Ah, cool, thank you!”

I get the impression it’s as if you felt, ‘Right, we’ve got the catchy, more radio-friendly singles out of the way, now the real me …’. You seem to stretch out more towards the back end of Mellow Moon. Am I anywhere near the truth?

“Yeah, mate, of course … for sure!”

Have I just blown your cover?

“Ha! There is a lot under the cover! And there are so many different songs – so many flavours going on – on this record, to be fair.”

Agreed, and maybe because of your voice, among the acts that sprang to mind for me were one you may not recall hearing, and clearly not first time around, The Questions, the early ‘80s band that Paul Weller signed for his Respond label in The Style Council days. And come to think of it, maybe you should try covering standout tracks like ‘Belief’ or ‘Tuesday Sunshine’.

“Ah, that’s interesting. I like The Style Council.”

I really like the title track, ‘Mellow Moon’, too.

“Thank you, that’s a highlight for me as well. That and ‘Just Below the Above’, the last song.”

I’m with you on that too. And is that right that you were surrounded by guitars, growing up?

“Yeah, a lot of guitars!”

And you learned to play upside down, as your Dad was a left-hander?

“Yeah. I had to get used to playing the other way around!”

As a leftie myself, I get that. I’m also reminded of past interviewee, guitarist Steve White, of The Bootleg Beatles, who to claim Paul McCartney’s role in that tribute act, dedicated himself to learning left-handed bass in Macca’s honour, but told me he loved to unwind playing right-handed guitar when not on tour. That kind of blew my mind.

“Wow, no way! That’s so interesting. So he actually got into a method of playing it backwards?”

Absolutely. That’s a hell of a discipline, isn’t it?

“Oh yeah!”

Talking of discipline, apparently Alfie can play 11 instruments, at the last count (recently taking up the flute), and contributes heavily with production and co-production duties on Mellow Moon, that full-length release coming after 2021 debut mini-LP Forever Isn’t Long Enough. All that and those boyish good looks too, like a young Neil Morrissey. And self-taught on everything but the drums, I gather. He’s clearly dedicated to the cause.

“Yeah, I mean, I was obsessed growing up with like, Frank Zappa, Todd Rundgren, and stuff. I listened to their guitar playing very closely, learning that way.”

I understand you were recording and demoing as early as 13.

“Yeah … although some of that stuff was pretty bad!”

Have you kept everything?

“I actually have. I’ve tried to, at least. There is a lot of it that I’ve still got.”

That could make for at least a bonus disc on a box-set one day.

“Oh, yeah. One day!”

Did your dad play in public before you?

“No, never! I don’t think he’s ever actually done that.”

Well, he clearly inspired Alfie, who had his own guitar by the time he was eight. His sister is also a talented musician, playing trumpet and piano. I’m guessing he grew up in a house where all that was positively encouraged.

“My Mum played a lot of music in the house, but the main influence really was my Dad for music.”

There have been several recommendations so far from sections of the industry and pop music press. For instance, The Sunday Times’ Culture section calling him, ‘one to watch closely’, and Vogue saying he was ‘a soon to be international rising star’. He was also included on a 2021 BBC Sound Of poll and subsequently the BBC’s Brit List initiative, while making further tip lists with Radio X, Vevo, Amazon, and MTV. But again, he’s taking that with a pinch of salt.

“Yeah, that’s pretty cool … but it’s just someone’s opinion at the end of the day, so it doesn’t really bother me.”

You’re clearly keeping your head on your shoulders.

“Well, it is just someone’s opinion. It’s the same as any review.”

I certainly get the impression you’re in a good place right now. You’ve mentioned personal battles with anxiety and depression before. Is it your music, your family, your friends, or all those things that see you through when the going’s tough?

“Yeah, just all of that. Family, friends, music … and relaxing. Everything like that is very therapeutic.”

It must be a real thrill to have the album on its way. Reaching that next landmark stage must count for something.

“Yeah, it’s a big one. It’s scary, but also really exciting.”

You’ve had some prestigious support slots so far. Has that proved a learning curve, picking up tips from those you’ve played with?

“Oh, definitely, just in pacing yourself on tour and taking care of your mental health, things like that. You learn so much every time you play a gig or go somewhere. There’s always something to take from.”

He’s already completed a UK headline tour, including sell-outs in Manchester, Bristol, Brighton, playing iconic venues like Shepherd’s Bush Empire, West London, along the way. That must have been a thrill as well.

“Oh, it was so surreal doing that. That was the biggest one … ever.”

There have been positive reactions in mainland Europe too, notably France, Germany, Holland, and Belgium. Do you tend to get nervous at times like that? Or does everything kick in after a couple of songs?

“I was pretty nervous! You definitely zone out sometimes though. But I feel every musician gets that.”

I probably shouldn’t say this to you, but I recall a chat with Glenn Tilbrook in 2013 when he was talking about being on stage one night, suddenly distracted, wondering if he’d left the grill on after making cheese on toast before leaving home, losing himself mid-song, during ‘Up the Junction’, of all tracks.

“Ha! Oh, my God, yeah, that is such an on-stage thought! You can’t focus properly, then you forget your lyrics, and … oh!”

You’ve certainly got a busy summer ahead, with in-store shows, festival dates, BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend, and all that. Then there are those seven Australian dates supporting The Wombats (which seems rather apt, at least geographically speaking). A huge arena tour – that’s a big step again.

“Yeah, that’s gonna be … I mean, everything’s kicking off really, isn’t it? Crazy!”

Will that be your first time Down Under?

“The very first time! I’m really excited to go over there, have some fun.”

It seems like you’re building a bit of a reputation there, not least via plenty of airplay on Government-owned national radio station Triple J.

“Yeah. That’s like a dream in itself! I love that.”

And what do we get from you, live? Will you be fronting a full band?

“Yeah, it’s just us having fun on stage, basically. Amazing, just me and my mates.”

Is that the case with the LP? I mean, you seem to be capable of playing more or less everything we hear.

“That’s just me, but when we play live, it’s like, ‘Here you go. Here’s the song, do it however you want to.”

All in all, it’s not a bad life for a young North Beds lad, is it?

“I know, I’m so lucky!”

I think back to careers office visits at school, wondering what I could do, career-wise, perhaps not fully realising I could choose my own creative path at that stage. But you seem to have known where you felt you were headed from a young age. Did you always have that focus?

“It was always there. Then getting signed when I was 15 was like, yep, that’s kind of it, I’m a musician. I never really looked back … and I’m lucky to have that.”

Well, whatever happens next, you’ve made a cracking debut album, and I wish you well from here.”

“I really appreciate that. Thank you.”

But whatever you do, try not to dwell too much on what you may have left under the grill during a performance.

“Ha! I’ll try to avoid it!”

On the back of festival sets earlier this month at Liverpool’s Sound City Festival, Reading’s Are You Listening? and Brighton’s The Great Escape, Alfie Templeman is set for further May dates at: 26th – Banquet Records, London (in-store); 28th – HMV (in-store) and Dot To Dot, Bristol; 29th – Radio 1’s Big Weekend, Coventry, and Dot To Dot, Nottingham; 30th – Phase 1, Liverpool (in-store); and 31st – Crash Records, Leeds (signing only). Then in June he features at: 1st – Rough Trade East, London (instore); 2nd – Pie & Vinyl, Portsmouth (instore), and Vinilo Records, Southampton (instore); and 4th – Live At Leeds In The Park, Leeds. 
 
Dates follow supporting The Wombats in Australia, also in June, at: 9th – AEC Theatre, Adelaide; 10th – John Cain Arena, Melbourne; 11th – Hordern Pavilion, Sydney; 14th – Oxford Art Factory, Sydney; 15th – UC Refectory, Canberra; 16th – Howler, Melbourne; and 17th – Riverstage, Brisbane.
 
In July, Alfie moves on to: 2nd – Barn On The Farm, Gloucester; 6th – Mad Cool Festival, Madrid; 9th – Depot In The Castle Festival, Cardiff; 10th – TRNSMT, Glasgow; 16th – Community Festival, London; 23rd – Tramlines Festival, Sheffield; 24th – Truck Festival, Steventon; 28th – Kendal Calling Festival, Lowther Park, Lake District; 30th – Y Not Festival, Pikehall, Derbyshire. Then in August, Alfie reaches: 6th – Bingley Weekender, Bradford; 12th – Sziget Festival, Budapest; 14th 110 Above Festival, Atherstone; 26th – Big Festival, The Cotswolds; and 28th -Victorious Festival, Southsea.

For more details about those dates and Alfie Templeman’s debut LP, Mellow Moon, out this Friday, May 27th, visit his website. You can also follow him via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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Still Crazy after all these years – on the Long, Long Road with Arthur Brown

“I am the God of Hellfire, and I bring you …”

If ever a first line of a song grabbed your attention, there was one.

Frightening kids since 1968, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown only had that one hit, ‘Fire’, but certainly made an impact, even if they took eight weeks to set the charts alight, in a manner of speaking.

They ultimately reached No.1 in late August ’68, briefly knocking Tommy James and the Shondells’ ‘Mony Mony’ off the summit before the same record returned to the top, ‘Fire’ also reaching No.2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and No.1 in Canada that October, and the top-10 in Austria, France, Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands.

That was it, hit-wise, even if that iconic track from 1968 album ‘The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’ still maintains its mesmerising power with audiences and peers today.

A genuine one-hit wonder, yes, but that self-titled debut LP, produced by Kit Lambert with input from The Who’s Pete Townshend, also reached No.2 in the UK, only kept off the top by Small Faces’ sublime Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake then Simon and Garfunkel’s era-defining Bookends.

Their trademark song was co-written with Vincent Crane, who played Hammond organ in Arthur’s band and later featured with Atomic Rooster, later contributing to Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ 1985 cult LP, Don’t Stand Me Down, dying way too young, aged just 45.

However, half a century and a bit later, shock rock pioneer Arthur is still very much with us, his new album, Long Long Road, out on Friday, June 24, which just happens to mark his 80th birthday.

What’s more, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown are set to promote their unique take on psychedelic blues rock at four special UK shows – including elements of dance, poetry and visuals – to help celebrate that landmark.

It seems like perfect timing, but those shows were rescheduled twice due to the pandemic, the iconic band-leader now eager to get out there, promising a full evening of ‘psychedelic individuality, ingenuity and madness’.

Clearly, he hasn’t changed his ways too dramatically, his new immersive multimedia show, ‘The Human Perspective’, featuring ‘great musicians, stunning visuals, iconic dance and sonic adventure’, this self-proclaimed ‘God of Hellfire’ showing us why he’s recognised as a true innovator of progressive rock and a significant influence on heavy metal.

Musically, his show involves a retrospective of a long, long career, featuring a heady mix of psychedelia, prog, blues and rock. And as he put it, “The Human Perspective concept is the exploration of our inner selves while trying to navigate the external world. The God of Hellfire meets The God of Purefire, if you will”.

As for the concept, it’s something Arthur reckons he’s been incubating for decades.

“This is the live show I always wanted to perform with Kingdom Come back in the 1970s, but the technology at the time meant it wasn’t possible. But now I’m able to fully realise my vision for the show. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.”

The first of those take place next Thursday, May 26 at The Playhouse, Whitley Bay, followed by a visit to Waterside Arts Centre in Sale on Friday, May 27, with two more Saturday shows from there, at Leeds’ City Varieties on June 11, and London’s Bush Hall, Shepherd’s Bush, on June 25.

On the back of his 1968 worldwide million-selling smash hit, Arthur’s shared the bill with the likes of The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, The Doors, the afore-mentioned Small Faces, and Joe Cocker.

And there are elements of both Cocker and Small Faces on the title track of the new record, an epic, poignant ballad that could as easily have come our way in the late ‘60s as now.

The same goes for many more numbers on Long Long Road, to the point where I can picture Keith Emerson attacking keyboards with knives on opening track, ‘Gas Tanks’, a Look at Yourself era Uriah Heep-like romp.

The LP then takes something of a Screaming Jay Hawkins meets Johnny Cash – another artist whose late career saw him afforded fresh critical acclaim – turn with ‘Coffin Confession’, before the organ revs up again and the brass arrives for the swirlingly soulful, late Beatles-esque, heavy metal thunder of ‘Going Down’, sort of namesake James Brown possessed by AB disciple Bruce Dickinson, with no guarantee of sleep ’til … well, Shepherd’s Bush at the very least.

‘Once I Had Illusions’, split into two parts, is more Nick Cave, another track including atmospheric prog keyboard from multi-instrumentalist/long-time collaborator/co-producer/arranger, mixer and engineer Rik Patten, who adds everything bar Arthur’s seasoned vocals, guitar and piano.

‘I Like Games’ has a John Lee Hooker fused with Led Zeppelin stomping dirty blues vibe, while ‘Shining Brightness’ conjures up The Doors and Tom Waits. As for ‘The Blues and Messing Around’, that’s a 12-bar blues number steeped with wild guitar licks, underpinning organ, tinkling piano, and Arthur’s life-well-lived vocals.

Then comes the majestic title song, before we’re away with ‘Once I Had Illusions (Pt.2)’, this time with added Daniel Lanois-ish production qualities, David Gilmour-like six-string dashes, lots of those touches that made Arthur who he is, and echoing plenty of those artists who ploughed on where he left off (I could hear Tom Jones giving that finale a great working-over, for example).

I can’t argue with the official line, this being a ‘wild and vibrant affair, crammed with rich musical textures … quintessentially Arthur Brown’ and an album that can ‘easily be construed as the apex and summary of a fascinating career that has spanned no fewer than seven decades’.
 
As long since became his way, Arthur shifts from prog and soul to blues rock, this veteran performer ‘summoning his full vocal range with a mature mastery that comes only with the experience of a lifetime’.  

Whitby-born Arthur attended grammar school in Leeds before university studies in London and Reading, forming his first band in that Berkshire town and involved with others in the capital before a spell in Paris working on his theatrical skills.

He returned in late 1966, featuring with R&B/soul/ska outfit The Ramong Sound before they became The Foundations, Arthur soon finding his own calling alongside Vincent Crane, Drachen Theaker (drums) and Nick Greenwood (bass).

That Crazy World of Arthur Brown quartet quickly built a reputation for outlandish performances, Arthur’s flaming headgear becoming his signature gimmick, not always health and safety-friendly.

As it turned out, personnel changes followed and only two albums were made, their shelved 1969 follow-up not seeing the light of day until 1988, Arthur going on – after further projects – to form an increasingly ‘out there’ Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come, making three influential LPs, even dabbling in space rock.

But their multimedia approach to performance proved some way ahead of its time and arguably too much for mainstream audiences, several more unlikely projects following.  

There was always that sense of the theatrical with Arthur, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise when Ken Russell cast him in Pete Townshend’s rock opera, Tommy, his dramatic vocals kicking in where Eric Clapton left off in a frankly disturbing miracle-working communion scene.

By the early ‘80s Arthur was based in Austin, Texas, with a master’s degree in counselling, soon adding painting and carpentry to his CV.

Returning to England in 1996, many more meanders, recorded product and performances followed, working with afore-mentioned Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour and former Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson, plus Kula Shaker, Die Krupps, and fellow space rock pioneers Hawkwind en route, to name just a few. 

In later years he’d find himself sampled by The Prodigy and cited as a major influence on artists as diverse as Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Kiss, and George Clinton.

Cooper reckoned, “Without Arthur Brown there would be no Alice Cooper”, while Elton John added, “Now there’s a man who was ahead of his time”, and Bruce Dickinson said, “Arthur Brown was a big influence of mine … Arthur Brown has the voice of death.”

His work was also recognised as recently as 2019’s Prog Awards, Arthur receiving the Visionary Artist Award, other accolades including Classic Rock magazine’s Showman Award, all part of his latter-years renaissance.   

As for his wild stage persona, flamboyant theatrical performances, and charismatic multi-octave voice, he’s long been appreciated far and wide by musicians, writers and fans, far beyond the vast shadow cast by that huge hit.

And on Long Long Road, Arthur proves he remains as authentic, challenging, creative and as compelling as he was at his career’s fiery beginning. What’s more, as the team behind him insist, ‘This record is not a swansong, but the thrilling beginning of the final phase of an utterly singular career’. 

Long Long Road is available as a box set, including 48-page hardcover 2CD artbook, gatefold 180g orange marble vinyl LP, bonus 7″ vinyl single, art prints, and various other signed products. It’s also available on black 180g vinyl LP, transparent red 180g vinyl LP, and as a digipak CD. For more details and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s The Human Perspective 2022 live show tickets, try www.glasswerk.co.uk or www.thegodofhellfire.com.

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