Still winning Hearts and Minds – in conversation with Carl Hunter

Merseyside musings: Director Carl Hunter, centre, in conversation with Bill Nighy, right, in Sometimes Always Never.

Carl Hunter was stir crazy at the airport when I tracked him down, delayed an hour and condemned to sit around talking to me while drinking Yorkshire tea, his days of rock’n’roll excess with The Farm possibly behind him.

He was en route to Toronto for a two-day dash built around a screening at Oakville Film Festival, where he would join forces with Tim McInnerny, best known for memorable roles in Blackadder and one of the stars of Carl’s first feature film as a director, Sometimes Always Never. How does he think that job description sounds?

“Sounds pretty good, although I’ve made a number of things in the past as a director, about 30 documentaries for television, and a feature film before with Frank.”

That’s past WriteWyattUK interviewee Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the esteemed screenwriter and children’s author, who adapted their latest film from his short story, Triple Word Score, the pair previously linking up for 2007’s Grow Your Own, starring Eddie Marsan. Omid Djalili and Olivia Colman, a film that surely deserved more accolades.

“The weird thing is that it’s more topical now than when we made it. If anything, I think the BBC should show it, bearing in mind what’s going on politically. Given the current move towards the right wing – which is frightening and also incredibly wrong – it might help raise awareness, and that would be so topical.”

It’s been a while since I last saw that. I loved it, and must dig it out again (so to speak). It was very much about community and different cultures coming together, wasn’t it?

“Yeah, it was, and about understanding people really. How it doesn’t matter where you’re from in the world, there’s a lot of commonality we all share. Poor people are poor people, whether you live in Liverpool or anywhere else in the world. Pain is pain. I also worked on a Channel 4 documentary series about refugees, victims of war and torture, women broken by a brutal regime who came to Liverpool to find a better life, and safety.”

I get the impression that Liverpool has a proud history of accepting foreigners, for want of a better descriptive term.

Producer's Role: Carl and Frank also worked together on Grow Your Own

Producer’s Role: Carl and Frank also worked together on Grow Your Own

“Yeah, as a port, so many people have come and gone from Liverpool, so it’s a city used to immigration. Some stayed, some wandered on. And through dealing with immigrants, that leads to a better and more interesting understanding of cultural issues.”

Incidentally, there was also a refugee theme threaded through the pair’s work on Frank’s 2011 children’s book, The Unforgotten Coat, involving two Mongolian brothers who end up in Merseyside. But more of that later, for my excuse to speak to Carl was his latest project with Frank, Sometimes Always Never, featuring Bill Nighy as retired Merseyside tailor Alan Mellor, a Scrabble enthusiast searching for his estranged son, with Sam Riley, Jenny Agutter, Alice Lowe and Alexei Sayle also cast.

The film had been out barely a week when we spoke, early screenings at Fact in Liverpool and Carl and Frank’s local picture house, Crosby’s Plaza Cinema proving a hit. In fact, Carl, originally from Bootle, let on that he lives less than three miles from where his life journey began, joking, “I didn’t move that far – I’m incredibly lazy!”

He came from an art school background, the 54-year-old not only playing bass guitar with The Farm but also designing the Merseyside outfit’s record sleeves down the years. And I mentioned early in our conversation how he has The Undertones’ ‘My Perfect Cousin’ record sleeve artwork on his Facebook profile page, something telling me instinctively that I liked the fella.

“Ha! You can tell a lot about people from when they post a picture of a record sleeve. Straight away!”

Indeed, and further to that I see you have ‘The Cost of Living’ EP sleeve art as your profile pic on your Twitter page.

“That’s right. I’m a huge fan of music. I have been since I was very young. And I’m a huge fan of record design. I did a BA and MA in graphic design at the Liverpool Art School – Liverpool Poly as it was then – and later did a five-part documentary on the history of record sleeve design for Granada (in 2000), concentrating on the North West and the impact it had on the packaging of music. I interviewed all the key people – (members of) 10cc, The Smiths, Peter Saville, Malcolm Garrett, right through to dance music, Badly Drawn Boy, and that era. That was an absolute joy to make.”

Interestingly, after our conversation I thumbed through a few old interviews with The Farm, coming across one in Vox in early 1991 where Carl told Martin Townsend, on the subject of Malcolm Garrett’s Buzzcocks sleeves, ‘When their next record was out it became like, ‘What’s on the sleeve?’ You were as excited about the sleeve as you were about the record. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do what he did, but the point is it’s not just about the music you make, it’s about the attitude’.

Carl made an impact through his sleeves too, the likes of Sex Pistols sleeve designer Jamie Reid singing his praises. the most memorable including the ‘Stepping Stone’ single with its (following the fashion crowd) sheep cover and the Spartacus album’s parody of a Radion detergent design, their response to ‘anti-working class’ digs from the press, suggesting they carried an anonymous, ordinary image.

And while The Farm called it a day in 1996, they were back within a decade, Carl still enjoying occasional live outings alongside his work in the film industry, while he also puts out records via The Label Recordings, running out of Edge Hill University in Ormskirk, where he’s also a senior lecturer in media, film and television, assisted in both respects by Clare Heney, calling that enterprise ‘incredibly successful’.

Band Substance: The Farm today. From the left – Carl Hunter, Keith Mullin, Peter Hooton, Roy Boulter, Steve Grimes.

“Finding the right music is what makes it work. Radio has always been a great support, and we’ve managed to attract regional, national and international press for bands, and bands have gone on to sign management deals, such as Hooton Tennis Club, who put out a single with us, then signed to Heavenly Records.”

Just hearing him speak, you know he’s still very much enthused by music, all those years after breaking through with The Farm.

“Well, we formed in 1983, and we’re still going now. When I joined, the band hadn’t been going that long. And we’re soon starting a massive run of festivals.”

Did you ever see The Excitements, the band from which The Farm sprang?

“No, but I’m a huge fan. Steve (Grimes, guitar) has kept songs from those days, and found a box of photographs of them, which I’d never seen. They’re brilliant, and so are the songs. If I was Steve I’d get in the studio, record and release them. They were more punk/new wave, more like Buzzcocks. They were great.”

Next year marks the 30th anniversary of your breakthrough singles, later recaptured on the 1991 hit album, Spartacus. Does that seem possible?

“I’m always shocked when I hear that mentioned, but maybe because we remained close friends, and as a band we’ve gone on a similar journey. For instance, with Sometimes Always Never, Roy (Boulter) – our drummer – his production company (Hurricane Films) produced the film and also did the last three Terence Davies films, back to back. They have a massive international reputation. Also, Peter (Hooton, vocals) is in it, with a cameo as a grumpy ice cream man.”

I seem to recall you have a thing about ice cream vans, as regular readers of your tweets will know.

“Yeah, I’m fascinated by them, in the same way as we have phone and letter boxes … although I don’t even like ice cream! I don’t ever buy one, but I’m interested in them as kind of statements, really. There’s a documentary I want to make and I’m getting closer to doing about ice cream vans, but more of an international story.”

Another Place: Bill Nighy as retired tailor Alan Mellor, on the atmospheric Crosby set of Sometimes Always Never.

At this point I interject, mentioning my home village of Shalford, Surrey, and its link with The Stranglers, who played their first shows in nearby Guildford, recalling how drummer and band creator Jet Black once sent his fellow bandmates out on the streets to sell ice cream to earn their keep between gigs.

“Wow. I never knew that. Jet Black was an ice cream man! That could be a lyric from a Fall song!”

You’re right there. And I see recent WriteWyattUK interviewee Alan McGee remains a keen Farm fan, placing their 2014 acoustic appearance at his former Baptist church venue The Tabernacle in Talgarth, Wales, in his top-10 all-time gigs.

“Yeah, and I’m a big fan of his. He’s a huge music fan to this day, always helpful and supportive. In recent times, through The Tabernacle, he’s booked us a few times, and it was wild! And he’s got a great ear for a band.”

Remind me what happened in 1996. That seemed to mark the end of the first part of the band story, but by then it looked like you’d already set out on a path towards being a celebrated film-maker.

“Yeah, I think by ’95 the world had changed. There was this desire for bands like us, but then Nirvana came along and it all changed. And by the way, that’s how it should be. Then Brit Pop moved in, which we never part of. We were finished by then. But I think in any pop culture, I don’t see anything wrong in that. It’s unfortunate when you’re a victim – one minute you’ve got a pop career, the next you’ve not – but you have to accept you can’t keep doing the same thing. I come from an art background, and you need movements in the arts, otherwise nothing ever changes.”

I’m guessing you split on good terms then.

“Oh yeah, and in a way it’s quite a blessing. We went into hibernation – we never split up – because it wasn’t working anymore. But I was getting into filmmaking, working on documentaries, while Roy became a screenwriter, writing at least 500 episodes of soaps (Brookside, Hollyoaks, EastEnders, his credits also including The Bill and The Street), and then became a film producer, working on big movies, while Steve went on to write music for films and documentaries.

Iconic Sleeve: The Farm's 1991 hit album, with design by Carl Hunter

Iconic Sleeve: The Farm’s 1991 breakthrough hit album, Spartacus, was designed by bass player Carl Hunter

“Meanwhile, Ben (Leach), our keyboard player, just disappeared and ended up on tour with George Michael, Take That, Duran Duran, and … you name any band that could fill an arena! And Keith became a lecturer at LIPA, Paul McCartney’s school. So when we went into hibernation, we all pursued other things, Peter becoming a cultural spokesman and a writer, publishing books and God knows how many thousands of articles for newspapers and magazines. We all wandered into the world of media, and did so successfully for years. Then one day, Happy Mondays phoned us and said, “You don’t fancy doing a gig with us, do ya?’ We thought, ‘Oh God, we haven’t played for years! But we’ve been playing ever since. And we remain big friends of the Mondays – us of them, and them of us.”

That first gig was at Brixton Academy in 2004, and 15 years on they’re still out there, this summer’s dates including a hometown headline show at Bootle Music Festival this Sunday, July 7th  (with details here or here).

At this stage, we spoke a little about the Mondays, and I mentioned an interview I had lined up with Bez, mentioning to Carl about his part in Joe Strummer’s wilderness years, prompting him to get back to Sometimes Always Never and a link to the latter.

“Bill Nighy plays a tailor by the name of Alan Mellor, with his shop called Mellor’s, the reason being Joe (real name John Mellor), in a deliberate nod to The Clash.”

I shouldn’t be surprised. Carl told Martin Townsend in ’91 that his hero was fellow bass player Paul Simonon, of whom he said he ‘just played the right notes at the right time’. And Mike Pattenden wrote in an August 1994 feature for Vox that Carl and Steve Grimes would often do a Clash number at soundchecks, becoming known as the ’77 Twins’.

Another diversion followed as we got on to our mutual love of the Undertones, a band with their own link to Frank Cottrell-Boyce via his part in Derry’s 2013 City of Culture celebrations. You also worked together on 2016 short film, A Winter’s Tale: Shakespeare Lives. How did you get to know him?

“Frank lives in Crosby and was involved with a community cinema there (The Plaza), where a friend of mine, John, volunteers – he’s the arthouse film programmer. He said we should meet, as we had very similar interests. And he was right. We got on like a house on fire. From that day to this we spend a lot of time in each other’s company and we’re working on a new film together now. It’s kind of a four-page outline at the moment … it’s very good though … and funny!”

Refugee Tale: Carl Hunter provided photographs for Frank Cottrell-Boyce's 2011 children's book.

Refugee Tale: Carl Hunter and Clare Heney provided photographs for Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s 2011 children’s book.

You also worked together on The Unforgotten Coat, with Clare Heney again.

“Yeah, that was an interesting project, shooting Polaroids to try and make Bootle look like Mongolia! It’s kind of about seeing the world differently, but also in a way you want other people to see it, and it’s a wonderful story.”

There’s been a great response to Sometimes Always Never. Was it a something of a dream realised to get the likes of Bill Nighy, Alexei Sayle and Jenny Agutter involved?

“Oh, completely. In fact, when I was asked on a wish-list who I’d want to play Alan, I said Bill Nighy. He said yeah, and was wonderful to all the cast, very talented and great to work with. When you’ve got a cast as strong as that… it’s so good. And the way they can turn a line around, the depth of what they can do is breathtaking.”

There must be moments when you’re brimming with pride, having big names speak your lines and act your scenes.

“Sometimes you can kind of forget what you’re doing, and when you’re making a film it’s very intense, working on it every day for 10 months or so. It’s a marathon. And because you’re doing it all the time it becomes your life really. So I can be a little blasé about it. But not because I don’t care or I’m rude or arrogant.

“I remember a mate asking what I was up to one week, and I said, ‘I’m going up to Scotland to spend a few days with Edwyn Collins to work on the soundtrack of the film. And he went, ‘Fuck off! You’re not! Orange Juice Edwyn Collins? You’re gonna work with him?’

I was unaware of that myself until I watched the trailer and recognised his voice.

“I was asked about a composer for the film, but I never wanted a composer. I wanted a songwriter, and that was partly because I’d seen Submarine, where Alex Turner did the music. I liked that, and I’d always had this idea of working with Edwyn. I asked if he’d be interested, he said yeah, then recruited Sean Read, of The Thunderbirds, and Chay Heney, who was in a band called Sugarmen (and Station Agent). The three of them moved into Edwyn’s studio in Scotland in the depths of winter, and were properly snowed in. Yet these three musical alchemists turned out this amazing soundtrack, with two classic Edwyn songs out as a 7” double A-side single, then a 12” vinyl album following.”

Film Role: Edwyn Collins is following recent LP Badbea with work on the Sometimes Always Never soundtrack

I’m guessing Edwyn had seen the script.

“He had, he loved it, had ideas, and when the three of them got together in the studio it became like a supergroup. Edwyn collects vintage guitars and recording equipment, and it’s an Aladdin’s cave of vintage instruments and electronics. He gets very excited by music, and also playing. There’ll be some instrument we’ve never heard of, and we’ll follow him to his shed and he’ll get something from 1945 or 1950, some bizarre item of equipment, and say, ‘Let’s plug it in!’ It was great fun, the soundtrack’s fantastic, and it’s watching three people enjoying themselves.”

And did Kentish lad Bill Nighy easily adapt to a Merseyside accent?

“Oh yeah! He said, ‘I’m going to learn five Liverpool accents and I’ll test them on you. You tell me which is the most appropriate. I spent an afternoon with him while he tried out these five accents, and for one I just said, ‘That’s it! That’s the one to go for.’”

I love Bill’s line where Alan says, ‘I always say the only good thing about jazz is that it scores very highly in Scrabble.’ Was that one of yours?

“Actually, our guitarist said that one night, when we were gigging somewhere. A saxophonist was playing something and Steve said, ‘The only good thing about jazz is that you get 26 for it in Scrabble.’ I remember telling Frank that, and he said that’d be a brilliant line in the film, changing it slightly.”

And this project started with a short story by Frank?

“Yeah, he’d written this brilliant short story, Triple Word Score, which I read and loved. I said, ‘I wonder if it’d make a film’, and he went, ‘I’d love to make it as a film. Do you fancy having a go at it? That’s where the journey started, around nine years ago, us coming back to it now and again. There were times when it was about to be made then fell at the last hurdle, like most things. But then it happened, and now it’s on at cinemas in Australia, New Zealand, Britain …”

Scene Set: Carl Hunter, second left, and Bill Nighy, second right, on the last day filming Sometimes Always Never.

With thanks to Aneet Nijjar and Jon Rushton for the use of stills from Sometimes Always Never, which is on at The Dukes, Moor Lane, Lancaster, on Friday, July 5th, Saturday, July 6th (two screenings), Wednesday, July 10th, and Thursday, July 11. To book tickets, call 01524 598500 or head here. There are also screenings this weekend at the Picture House at Fact in Liverpool, Hebden Bridge Picture House, and Ilkley Cinema. Check out each venue for details. 

 

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Sex Pistols / The Clash, The Black Swan, Sheffield, July 4th, 1976 – an extract from This Day in Music’s Guide to The Clash

‘Things went wrong during the evening, and Mick had to come over and tune my guitar, but it didn’t bother me. I just wanted to jump around, but Mick wanted it to be in tune.’ (Paul Simonon, The Clash: Strummer, Jones, Simonon, Headon, 2008)

If it seems odd that two rival bands, not least with the perceived needle between Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and Clash manager Bernie Rhodes, should set out on a 300-plus mile round-trip to South Yorkshire for a one-off concert, it’s worth noting the feeling within the UK punk rock scene and the idea of creating a revolutionary force within the industry that couldn’t be denied. As Strummer put it in Westway to the World, ‘You had to be in league with each other. There were so many enemies.’ This was about camaraderie, despite the obvious competition simmering beneath the surface.

Known locally as the Mucky Duck, later becoming The Boardwalk (gone by 2010), The Black Swan, Snig Hill, Sheffield, was a regular stop-off point for London pub-rockers like Brinsley Schwarz, Ducks Deluxe and Dr Feelgood – before punk took off, and played host to a Sex Pistols/Clash show during the long, hot summer of ’76, in the process Mick Jones beating fellow ex-London SS bandmate Brian James to the stage with The Damned by two days, supporting the same headliners at the 100 Club. The Clash’s live debut – the first of an estimated 600 or so gigs – was to be their only appearance that month, Rhodes’ idea by all accounts. There were probably only a handful of people present, although eye-witnesses reported a sizeable crowd amid that summer’s sweltering drought conditions. On the same day that America celebrated the bicentennial of its revolution against the British, tensions were already building in both band camps, and that night a disaffected Keith Levene reckons he approached the singer known as Johnny Rotten with a view to joining forces if the Pistols broke up, something they would do within a couple of years when Lydon launched Public Image Ltd.

Jones told John Robb’s Louder Than War website, ‘We went in the back of a removal truck, with the gear piled next to us. We all sat in the back. It had a gate on the back, open like an old army truck. It was quite hairy! The gig was in the back room of a pub. There were 50 people there. A couple of punks. It was interesting. Wherever you went, you could see a couple of them in the early times, then you’d see more all the time. They would tell their friends. It was a big thing. Very often people got it completely wrong, but in a way, you couldn’t get it wrong. It wasn’t formed. We were just starting to find out what it could be. When you’re young and you think about it after in the post-match analysis. By the time everyone has sussed it, it was already over.

‘We were dressed in black and white. A couple of us had ties on. Black and white shirts with suity bits. It was punky style. Not good suits. A bit ripped, tight, slightly different. We would dress fairly straight and well behaved in a way. Maybe a little rip here, splash of colour here, a couple of pin-type things. Not safety pins. The look was still formulating. There was a bit of paint dribbled here and there. It had come off when we had to paint the rehearsal room. We got the paint from the car-spray place just over the road. Bernie was involved in garages. He used to go down there and get spray. We started spray-painting all the amps pink, and as we were painting everything we were getting covered in paint.

‘I guess that was our first look. Also, Glen (Matlock) has a claim to do this as well, because he had a pair of trousers that were paint-splattered, a la Pollock. So, he should take a bit of credit for it. The style thing came naturally through Paul. We were all into the style, especially Paul and I. Joe not so much, but we would always encourage each other.’

Paul Simonon, in The Clash: Strummer, Jones, Simonon, Headon, said, ‘It was the first time I ever played on stage. The night before it felt frightening but once we were on the way I began larking about. I tied one of Keith’s shoes to a piece of string and hung it out of the back of the van. The door had to be open anyway so we could breathe. There we were, sitting with all the amps and luggage, with a plimsoll bouncing around behind us, all the cars behind us slowing down to avoid it. But the moment we walked out on stage it was like I was in my own living room. I felt really comfortable.”

On Westway to the World, the band mention Simonon messing up the intro of instrumental, ‘Listen’, due to nerves, leading to an on-stage crack-up, his bandmates unsure where to come in. And Strummer, using the microphone he’d made that death-defying climb to liberate from the English National Opera House two years earlier, gave an account to Jon Savage for England’s Dreaming, saying, ‘It was a Sunday, but 200 people turned up. They were very receptive.’

Keith Levene added, ‘I remember John (Lydon) sitting miles away from the rest of the band members, looking miserable. And there’s me sitting in another corner away from all my band members, looking miserable. I walk over to Lydon and talk to him. We knew each other, but don’t know each other because we’re the rival bands. We’re both in the same scene but knew we were the best bands on the scene at the time. I said, ‘I’m out of here after this gig’. Turns out I was a few gigs later, after The Roundhouse show. ‘Do you want to get a band together if the Pistols ever end? Though it doesn’t look like it at the moment. It looks like you could be the next Beatles. But if it ever changes. And there’s no way I’m going to be in a band with Steve Jones’.’

They played around a dozen songs, including the 101’ers ‘Rabies (From the Dogs of Love)’ and Mick Jones’ ‘Ooh, Baby, Ooh (It’s Not Over)’, neither featuring again. A fortnight later, a review followed in the NME, a letter from Reg Cliff – speculation suggesting it was written by someone in the band’s immediate circle to drum up publicity – saying, ‘I went to see the Sex Pistols and Clash (formerly 101’ers) for the first time. I was very, very disappointed. Both bands were crap. It’s enough to turn you on to Demis Roussos. Clash were just a cacophonous brigade of noise. The bass guitarist had no idea how to play the instrument and even had to get another member of the band to tune it for him. They tried to play early ‘60s r’n’b and failed dismally. Dr Feelgood are not one of my favourite bands but I know they could have wiped the floor with Clash.’ Yet he added, ‘The Sex Pistols were even worse.’

Lydon had his own take on the gig in 1993’s Rotten: The Autobiography, saying, ‘Strummer and the rest of them had a horrible attitude at that gig. Keith Levene was in the band and was the only one who could actually hold a decent conversation with us. Malcolm and Bernie were competing, so Bernie was revving this band to take a very anti-Pistols stance – as if they were the real kings of punk. I’ve never liked The Clash. They weren’t good songwriters. They’d run out of steam halfway through their gigs, because they would go so mad at the beginning. The Sex Pistols learned dynamics on stage. I credit Paul for that. He could break the tempo down. Strummer would start everything off and from there on in it was just full-on speed. That’s not good enough, because you’re not saying anything just by being fast. You can’t dance to it, and you can hardly listen to it. It’s unpleasant after half an hour.

‘To me The Clash looked and sounded like they were yelling at themselves about nothing in particular – a few trendy slogans stolen here and there from Karl Marx. The Clash introduced the competitive element that dragged everything down a little. It was never about that for us. We never saw ourselves as being in a punk movement. We saw ourselves as just the Pistols. What the rest of them were up to was neither here nor there. Quite frankly, they weren’t there in the beginning. They laid none of the groundwork. They just came in and sat on our coat-tails.’

While mellowing in certain respects, Lydon still had little praise for The Clash speaking to Barry Cain in 2007, for Sulphate 77, saying, ‘I always thought The Clash were a rip-off of Bernie Rhodes vs Malcolm McLaren and nothing to do with the bands. I loved The Clash as people, and always will. Just wonderful people. But it didn’t mean I had to like their music. It was political sloganeering. I thought it was wrong for them. Mick Jones was someone I knew anyway from The Roundhouse. He was one of the kids who used to bunk in. Mick was Jimmy Page. He actually tried out to be the Sex Pistols’ guitarist. Mick Jones was always around. I remember turning up at The Roundhouse when Osibisa were playing and Mick Jones got in because he was part of the Osibisa crowd. I thought, how the hell did he do that?’

He added, ‘Joe had this ridiculous Cockney accent that wasn’t quite right. He used to really drive me crazy. What the hell are you talking about, Joe? This is where Joe Strummer ended up in a house in the country as a lord. He did everything wrong. Joe became the landed gentry, and that was irrefutably wrong. It’s nice to earn it, but it’s not nice to buy it. Beyond that little world or schism, it was really ridiculous. There’d be Joe Strummer running around with all the posh towels, the steel towel-rail people. It was awful trying to get past their middle-class sensibilities, we’d still be banned in clubs where the likes of Joe was accepted because he had, what, ambassador credentials?’

Mucky Duck: The Black Swan in Sheffield, four decades after The Clash made their live debut there, supporting the Sex Pistols (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

This is an extract from This Day in Music’s Guide to The Clash, published by This Day in Music Books in late 2018. For more details, head to this feature here. There are still copies of This Day in Music’s Guide to The Clash out there, and if you’d like to buy a personalised and signed edition at £12 plus p&p, just send me a note via this WriteWyattUK page link on Facebook or through a private message on this website. You can also buy direct via Amazon.

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Our first year with Tom – part one of the handsome dog’s tale

Our Tom: As captured so wonderfully for the Wolfwood charity, near Lancaster (Photo: Sue Milligan Photography)

I find it hard to believe it’s a year since we first met Tom. It’s difficult to remember a time when he wasn’t such a key part of our family life.

Sunday, June 17th, 2018 was the day, barely 20 hours after we first saw a photograph of him, our Lottie having been a major contributing factor, her near-constant, brow-beating questioning increasing by the week. “Can we have a dog? Why can’t we have a dog?”

We argued at first that we couldn’t commit. I really didn’t know where work would take me, and where would we find the time and money to ensure a new arrival was properly looked after? But as the months went on, we became all the more assured that it might work.

Besides, I’d been self-employed for around eight years, much of that time working from home. The old excuse of having no one to look after a dog during the day had fallen by the wayside. Time was of the essence though, our eldest, Molly off to university soon. We didn’t want her to think she was being replaced, cute as any new arrival would indubitably be.

So with GCSEs and A-levels done and dusted, it had to be now, even if that meant extra headaches when it came to our summer holiday. That would at least give Molly chance to properly bond before heading across the Pennines to Sheffield in September. Both girls had a busy few weeks ahead, dates in the diary piling up, but soon, head started to be won over by heart, and we started looking, several dogging sites added to internet favourites on phones, laptops and hard drive. Erm, sorry, that should read dog-related sites.

Not as if we fully agreed on what we were looking for. Sentiment for me suggested a Labrador or retriever, an Irish setter like our cousins had in Cornwall in the ‘70s, a springer spaniel, or Jayne’s first choice, a Collie. I’d be happy with any of those. Molly wasn’t so keen on the idea of a big dog, preferring the notion of a spaniel perhaps. Something fluffy and cute, but nothing pedigree. As for Lottie, she was soon falling in love with any mutt she found on the internet, wanting to take them all in. And I think we all knew that if we went to a rescue centre, we’d choose the dog everyone else was likely to walk straight past.

We did sort of agree on a girl (I tried the word bitch there, but it looked wrong), half-expecting a male addition to the family to be so pleased to see everyone he came into contact with that he’d be forever humping legs. Us lads can be like that sometimes. And while we liked the idea of a rescue dog – rather that than supporting an industry built around fashionable pedigree breeding – in a bid to give a home to a pooch with an unfortunate start in life, we could well be dealing with a few issues. What might we be committing ourselves to, not knowing a full history? It was a dilemma.

With those admittedly wide parameters set, we got to it. I initially contacted a rehoming centre not far off my patch (no names, no breed here), but felt like an animal abuser by the time I got off the phone. I understand there are vetting processes, so to speak, but was made to feel rather uncomfortable at being a first-timer. I never did get a call back after my initial ‘interview’. Soon enough though, we were looking online each day, and every hour at times. And despite our earlier concerns, we were soon concentrating on rescue websites, local RSPCA sites in particular getting a hammering. I even reckon Lottie’s geography was improving. ‘Erm, you do realise – gorgeous as she is – Stafford’s 80-plus miles away, right?’

Lead On: Tom all ready for his next walk at Wolfwood, a year ago (Photo: Sue Milligan Photography)

Soon, we fell in love – as we kind of expected – with Skye, a beautiful old black and tan  scruffy terrier that no one seemed able to commit to. We spoke to the centre looking after her and our next dilemma followed. Apparently, an arthritic condition meant she didn’t have the stamina for more than short walks. It broke our hearts to make the decision, but surely there was someone out there who wasn’t seeking long walks, just wanting a little gentle company, whereas part of our motivation was to get fit and enjoy plenty of fresh air and exercise. Of course, once the hard decision was taken, we continued to sneak looks to see if Skye had been rehomed, while putting out the word ourselves.

Then came news of a wonderful Collie, who looked right up our street. Her name was Nell, and that seemed apt. As a keen family historian, I was aware of twins up my tree (so to speak) known as Nell and Tot, the latter really a Lottie, like my youngest. Frightening as it seemed, this was the moment, right?

We dithered, we talked it over, we weighed up pros and cons, we talked it over some more, then finally decided to get down to Merseyside that weekend and check her out. But someone got there first, her photo profile quickly updated to ‘now on a home visit’, leaving us genuinely upset that we’d missed out. But if that disappointment taught us anything, it was to act faster next time. And it also confirmed that we really did want a dog. There were no doubts now.

Then came a distinct possibility via another website we previously ruled out on account of the fact that the centre name, Wolfwood, suggested something more Canis lupus than we were looking for. It wasn’t far off, just south of Lancaster, but did we really want to rehome a wild dog? But it turned out that Wolfwood was all about rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing injured and displaced wildlife from local vets, RSPCA officers and the public. More to the point, in our case it was about rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming unwanted and stray dogs and finding appropriate new owners, even working with a dog behaviourist to help resolve any issues.

There was something else about this latest option that seemed to fly in the face of our earlier tick-list. He was a handsome fella, but … ah, there you have it – ‘he’. This here Tom was absolutely gorgeous, but … definitely a boy. Was our interest just some kind of on-the-rebound, kneejerk reaction? Maybe, but after Nell we knew there could be no stalling.

Lottie was in town that Saturday, but we sent her a message and she made the appropriate ‘noises’ in response, involving lots of heart emojis and exclamation marks. Consequently, my better half made the call around two that afternoon, with Molly and I listening in. We tried to convince ourselves it was just so we could find out a little more, then discount it as an option. We’d just say, ‘Ah, he’s lovely, but really we’re after a girl. If anything comes up that fits our (admittedly vague) description, could you let us know?’ Yeah, right.

The words on the site simply read, ‘Collie cross Tom is about eight years old. He is a lovely lad to be around and has been brilliant since he arrived’. But it was the pictures that really enticed us. Local photographer Sue Milligan took lots of lovely shots for Wolfwood, and the ones of Tom did him great credit, works of art in their own right. He looked so handsome. Could it just be trick photography? We really were being cautious, cushioning ourselves against what would seem to be the inevitable crushing disappointment.

So there we were, Stephen from Wolfwood telling us down the telephone line, ‘Ah, he’s a lovely lad. Unfortunately, he’s driven by his testicles at the moment.’ We looked at each other. Did he really just say that? Yes, but he added, ‘That’ll change in a couple of days though. He’s booked in to be done,’ Yikes. Poor lad. He then talked some more about that procedure and we learned a little about Tom’s history, at least as much as they knew, Lancaster City Council’s dog wardens having apparently found him roaming the streets. Not sure when, where or for how long, but no one had come forward and now he was up for rehoming. Bless.

Cross purposes: Tom, the Collie cross, awaits his next adventure, Summer 2018 (Photo: Sue Milligan Photography)

Who could do that? But all those (still unanswered) questions and possible theories would have to wait. Before we knew it, we’d agreed to pop up the following day and meet Tom, see how the Wolfwood operation worked. And there was certainly no sales patter in that phone call or any subsequent face-to-face meeting – just easy going, honest advice and shared experience, with no obligation on our part. Meanwhile, Lottie was on her way home and we shared further frantic WhatsApp messages, mulling over where we were at, excited at the prospect of the next day’s trip north.

While we had no real idea how old he really was, his handlers and the vet reckoned eight, judging by his teeth, which weren’t great. But his coat suggested he had been looked after, as did his demeanour. Perhaps an elderly owner could no longer cope, or a decision was taken from them, that owner’s family with too much on their own plate to properly care for him. Or maybe it was a homeless person whose situation had changed and for some reason or other could no longer properly look after their soul mate. All mere speculation, but that was all we had.

We must have gone through every possible scenario over the next few weeks as to how Tom ended up being looked after by the team at Wolfwood. But we’d soon come to the conclusion that he’d been loved and looked after before circumstances had somehow changed. Occasionally, in the months to come, albeit extremely rarely, we saw glimpses of reactions that suggested he wasn’t always surrounded by those who looked after him. Just a feeling. But he was definitely well mannered, friendly, inquisitive, occasionally playfully boisterous – certainly when he wanted a walk and we were taking too long – and very quickly melted our hearts.

That was all in the future though. For on that scorching Sunday morning, after a 25 mile drive up the M6, Jayne and I were trying to act dispassionately, weighing up more cautious outcomes. To add to that, when we parked up within Wolfwood’s gates, we were met with a barrage of seemingly relentless noise, from high-pitched yaps to fully resonant deep and loud barking. We walked towards the office, as if shell-shocked, trying to smile, expectation almost finishing us.

A young couple were just ahead, deep in conversation and paperwork about two young bull mastiffs tethered on leads at their side, barking at anything they could. It turned out that the couple were off on holiday, leaving the little fellas for a week or so in the kennels, a big adventure awaiting the dogs and their owners. And the look of relief on the fella’s face as they passed us to leave spoke volumes. What the hell were we letting ourselves in for? It was sheer mayhem, it seemed. We must both looked a little stunned. Trawling the websites, we saw so many dogs needing homes, and these two had clearly found a forever home. But their saviours needed a little rest and recuperation right now.

It was soon our turn to introduce ourselves, a message following via walkie-talkie, one of the handlers, Dianne, despatched to fetch Tom with us. And that’s something I haven’t mentioned yet. Tom was the name Wolfwood gave him, and Thomas was my Mum’s maiden name (don’t try and crack my online security questions, you’ve missed the boat by several years), having passed away after a long dementia battle a couple of months before. And her first name? Diana, close enough for me to give that serious reflective thought. Perhaps some things are just meant to be.

We soon headed off together to the kennels, Dianne and the girls in front, me holding back, waiting on the pathway, the cacophony continuing all around. Jayne later told me she was desperately trying not to make eye contact with all the other deserving four-legged pooches dreaming of a forever home, worried she’d end up offering to take them all in.  That’s probably why I held back. Furthermore, Lottie told me that amid all the mayhem on either side of him, this gorgeous snooter suddenly appeared through the bars of the pen, and there was Tom, sniffing them out, his eyes seeming to tell them, ‘It’s bloody loud in here, can we go for a walk?’

Actually, fairly soon we decided he was a little hard of hearing, or at least hard of listening … unless meals or walks were involved. But the first I knew of all this was when Tom padded nonchalantly out, Dianne with the lead and the girls just behind, all smiles, hearts duly melted. It wasn’t about eye contact yet, with no obvious sign of him clocking me, but perhaps that was an in-built defence, not getting too attached at such an early stage, a few trust issues yet to be bridged. All Tom seemed to care about was that it was a lovely day and he had his lead on, so hopefully it was time for his next walk.

So it turns out that Sue’s photographs weren’t studio wizardry after all. That was the real Tom she’d captured there. And he was extremely handsome. We stroked him and said hello, the girls already in love. Me too. And that wagging tale suggested it was mutual.

Handsome Boy: Tom posing for the camera, hoping to find a forever home. (Photo: Sue Milligan Photography)

With thanks to Sue Milligan Photography for the use of the photographs, and to all at Wolfwood in Lancaster. Part two to follow soon.

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Just past the crossroads – back in touch with Mark Radcliffe

Une Memento: Mark Radcliffe with his collaborator in electronic duo Une, Paul Langley, all set to play three happening North West music festivals this summer. As they say, ‘If the cap fits …’

When much-loved BBC radio and TV broadcaster, musician and writer Mark Radcliffe announced on air he was receiving treatment for cancer, I think we all feared the worst.

Boltonian Mark, this weekend co-presenting TV coverage of the 2019 Glastonbury Festival, made his big announcement on The Folk Show on Radio 2 in early October, delivering the news in trademark matter of fact way, telling listeners, ‘Now, here’s a thing. I’m sad to say unfortunately I’ve got cancerous skin and lymph node issues, and so as I’m sure you’ll understand I’m going to be disappearing for a while to get all that sorted out.’

But there was an air of positivity in his message, Mark stressing, ‘I will be back. You can depend on that.’ And less than nine months later he is back, and seemingly busy as ever, his treatment successfully behind him.

As well as a return to The Folk Show and his BBC 6 Music show with Stuart Maconie – now switched to weekday mornings – there’s a new book landing in September, incorporating the story of his cancer battle. And he’s also set to play a number of festivals with electronic collaborator Paul Langley, the pair going under the name Une.

Mark was diagnosed last September, surgeons removing a ‘walnut-sized thing from deep down on the back of my tongue’, then from his neck, ‘something the size of an apple,’ his wife Bella apparently declaring, ‘An apple and a walnut? That’s practically a Waldorf salad’.

He was holidaying in North Cornwall last July when he found a lump, not so long after his 60th birthday, telling The Mirror, ‘I’d had a beard for a while and thought, ‘Oh it’s too hipster, everyone has a beard now. I’ll go clean shaven’, and as I took it off, I noticed something on my neck.’

He put it down to a swollen lymph gland but on his return went to his GP, who sent him for an ultrasound, Mark soon seeing a specialist at Macclesfield for a biopsy and receiving his diagnosis. A full body MRI followed at Manchester’s Christie Hospital, his surgeon later telling him he was lucky he saw a doctor so promptly. Despite little discomfort, he had a large tumour hidden at the back of his tongue.

Following surgery, there was an intensive six-week course of radiotherapy and two rounds of chemotherapy, his treatment ending in mid-December, leaving him feeling ‘emotionally unstable’, January proving tough for the Knutsford-based broadcaster, feeling flat after all his day-to-day care. But he found his solution in a return to the airwaves, soon recording his Radio 2 show again, then joining Stuart live on BBC 6 Music from mid-February.

Cancer Awareness: Mark Radcliffe doing his bit for the North West Cancer Research #SpeakOut awareness campaign

By mid-March, he was in remission, Mark now down to six-month check-ups, but also taking time out to help publicise North West Cancer Research’s head and neck cancer #SpeakOut campaign, raising awareness among men, found to be three times more likely to be diagnosed with the cancer yet often ignoring early signs.

And from the moment he picked up the phone, he sounded just like the old Mark to me, albeit perhaps with a different take on life. Although I’d seen him doing a live show in late April, 2017 in Preston Guild Hall’s bar, last time we spoke, I reminded him, was for an interview in December 2015, just before his band Galleon Blast sailed up the River Ribble and dropped anchor for a show at The Continental.

“Oh right. I remember that. It was badly flooded at the time, wasn’t it. The river was raging torrents.”

Luckily, as a band you knew your way around such choppy waters though.

“Yeah, we were alright. We’re used to rough seas.”

My excuse for speaking to Mark this time around is his latest music venture, Une, which despite its name involves a pairing between Mark and fellow hot-blooded male Paul Langley, set to play the Cotton Clouds, Bluedot and Kendal Calling festivals this summer.

Of Cotton Clouds, at Saddleworth Cricket Club, Oldham, where fellow acts include The Wailers, Peter Hook and the Light, and Ash, he told me, “It looks good. I don’t know much about it, even though it’s not far from me. We’ve been asked to play through Tim Burgess (The Charlatans, also appearing), so I don’t think we’re on the main stage – we’re probably in a little shed somewhere … which is fine. But we’re looking forward to it.

“It’s a bit of a departure for me, really. I’ve always loved electronic music, I’m a big Kraftwerk fan, and we just started writing these songs. We didn’t know where it would go. We didn’t know if it would work. We didn’t know if we’d enjoy it. We didn’t really have any plan for it. We worked separately on it, really. I’d get the ideas and write the words, then I’d give them to Paul, ask him to have a look. He’d then do the music and we’d get together, edit and fine-tune it. And it’s turned out really good, I think.”

The snippets I’ve heard so far sound good. ‘Cerebral disco rave’, I believe. Is that right?

“Is that a quote from me? It sounds like the sort of thing I’d say. Yeah, it is songs, and it’s sort of pop music, but interesting sonically. I’m really enjoying it. We’ve only played twice live at the moment. But I’m just enjoying doing something different.”

Kind of neo-Neu?

“Well, that was one of the starting points. And I liked the name Une, which is an anagram of Neu, so … even though it’s wrong really, ‘une’ in French being feminine.”

Well, we’re all in touch with our feminine side here, aren’t we?

“Yeah … I’m not sure Paul is, but yeah, we’re really looking forward to getting it out there.”

And who’s better with a screwdriver on stage when it all goes wrong?

“Paul. I leave all the technical stuff to him, really. I like to think of myself as the romantic poet of the organisation. He’s operating all the stuff.”

Has that always been the case? There’s a nice clip of you and engineer Mike Robinson behind the controls at the BBC in Maida Vale, when legendary broadcaster John Peel made a rare visit to sit in on a Tools You Can Trust  recording session for his show in late 1984, for a feature on the Whistle Test show.

“Well, even then … I’m not very good with technology. I’m no good with gadgets. I’m a drummer – I hit things. I can manage a guitar, although I tend to hit that more than in a dexterous approach.

“I’m lucky I’ve got three daughters, so if there are any technical problems I’ll put one of my children on it, while they look at me with a look of disdain. In our house with things like Netflix and different accounts, there’s only Rose, who’s 17, who really knows how to work the telly. I’ve got a little telly in my room with Freeview on it. I can work that. Anything else is beyond me really.

“In Une, Paul’s very much the technological maestro, while I do singing and guitar. But I listen well. Sometimes I’ll say to him, ‘That’s not right. We need to do this’. I’m good at mixing things. I can hear the whole thing in my head and get a good picture of it. I’ve always had that, which is what a producer needs.”

On that Whistle Test clip, you pipe up to tell the Manchester band in session that ‘it’s a bit ragged’ at one point.

“I know. I don’t really like that clip of me. I feel a bit embarrassed now. I’ve got some sort of mullet and a yellow jumper on. And I now realise it wasn’t for me to tell Tools You Can Trust it sounded a bit ragged. It was for them to tell me this is how we sound, and this is what John Peel does. What you say doesn’t really matter. I sort of learned that over a period of time. I became a better producer by doing less. Leaving them to it, making sure they had a cup of tea. I think that was the most useful thing I did by the end.”

Who was your very first Peel session with?

“Wow. I’ve a feeling my first might have been the Tom Robinson Band. But I think I might have been shadowing someone. My first sessions would have started in mid-1983, although I can’t really remember who the first ones were.”

Incidentally, I’m not sure about that. I’ve since looked back, and while Tom did record sessions for Peel with TRB and as a solo artist, I can’t find mention of that one. Perhaps it was for Peel’s ‘rhythm pal’ David ‘Kid’ Jensen. Someone out there will know.

Back to Une, with Mark telling me that while the first album, Lost, is already recorded, it’s not out until September.

“We were fine tuning the artwork today, and it’s all done – it’s mixed and mastered. We’re ready to roll with it, and due to do more gigs later in the year. We’ve been spending a bit of time editing visuals, with good footage. We like to have a screen. For the first gig we had random, abstract images, but now we’ve edited images together for each song. We’re working on it all the time, and it’s getting better.

“We played in Northwich at a little festival (the DDGW festival in early May) and it went great. People loved it, and that really enthused me that we might not be so daft to put our heads above the parapet with it after all.”

Is that right that legendary punk performance poet John Cooper Clarke also features on the new album?

“He’s recorded some stuff that’ll be on the second album. We wrote a song to play live. Some of the album’s very quiet and reflective, so when we started to play live we wrote a couple of new tracks just to make it work. Our first gig was at a festival in Scotland – in Ullapool, called Lupalu – and we were up there with John. So while we were there, we recorded in the hotel vocals for this track.”

Not just because you mentioned Tim Burgess, but do you feel like, erm, charlatans for the sheer fact that you’ll be up there playing on the same stage as the legendary Kraftwerk (Blue Dot Festival, Macclesfield, July 20th) and the like this year?

“Ha! I don’t think anybody would see us in direct competition. We don’t really over-think it. We wrote these songs, We produced them electronically, but there’s a live element to it, with live guitar, drum pads, sampling, and vocals. But electronic music for me is different for me after years of being in bands, either playing drums or guitar. There’s a lot that’s pre-prepared. That’s the nature of electronic music. But I think we’ve a long way to go before Kraftwerk need to look over their shoulders!”

In the meantime, how about your fellow swarthy seadogs, Galleon Blast? Are they busy without you?

Rum Bunch: Mark Radcliffe and his Galleon Blast shipmates.

“That’s sort of on hiatus really (the band have dates of their own this summer, as you’ll find out here, but not with Mark). Having cancer last year in my throat and mouth, that left me unable to sing. I’ve got my voice back, as you can probably tell, and I do sing. I did a folk festival yesterday in Shropshire with Chris Lee from Galleon Blast on mandolin and our mate Dave Russell on bass – a little acoustic trio. At the moment I’ve no plans to do a big band, because playing drums, singing and talking places quite a strain on my voice, and I get tired. I’m not doing that at the moment … but never say never.”

That phrase ‘never say never’ makes me think of Mark’s good friend, Noddy Holder’s oft-repeated words, never truly ruling out another Slade engagement, unlikely as that might be. And there’s a bloke who’s surely learned a great deal about the perils of not looking after your larynx after all this time. How’s he doing?

“Yeah, Noddy’s alright. I had lunch with him and Roy Wood at a pub near Leek. They both had chilli.”

Nice touch of extra detail there, Mark. Saves me asking. And I see Nod’s got a new haircut.

“Yeah, he’s got like a Mod haircut. It looks really great.”

Agreed. It suits him, and takes me back to the Play It Loud days of Slade, around the turn of the ‘70s.

“Absolutely. He looks like he’s back in Ambrose Slade. He looks great, and Roy … looks like Roy. He’s not had a haircut. He’s still got his black and purple long ponytail. And I love having those two as friends. They’re so sweet, so lovely, both of them. I sometimes have to remind myself that they’re legends.”

They certainly are. You’ve also helped out with publicity for various cancer services and campaigns since your treatment, including for North West Cancer Research, alongside the likes of comic Dave Spikey, and also the Teenage Cancer Trust. Is this you spreading the word about great facilities and NHS staff who helped pull you through, while encouraging us to flag up problems as soon as we can?

Leg Ends: Noddy Holder and Mark Radcliffe, with Roy Wood missing on this occasion.

“Yeah, anything you can do to tell people to get checked. I was lucky really, my cancer was visible – it was a lump in my neck. They got to it quite quickly. But they call it a silent killer as you’ve no idea of knowing what’s going on there. With any sign, you need encouraging to get it checked out.

“I think blokes tend to think, ‘Oh, it’ll be nothing’. Not necessarily just blokes. Some women are like that. It’s a very simple message – just get it checked. It’s amazing, if you catch something early – things that would have killed you 10 or 20 years ago – they can get you back from that point now. They said with mine it would have killed me in months, not years. So I’m lucky to be here and I’m enjoying life – loving every day.”

This time last year you were set to celebrate a 60th birthday, and it all seemed to happen so fast.

“It did happen fast. Thank goodness, because once they found it, they got me straight in there. From finding it in August, soon I was in Wythenshawe, having the operation in early October, and finished all the treatment by Christmas. I now have regular scans, and that’s fine.”

I saw you via social media tolling a bell at the centre where you were treated, as has become the tradition.

“I did, that’s when you’ve completed your treatment. It doesn’t mean you’ve got the all-clear. That wasn’t until March. That was an amazing day. It felt like I could stand up straight for the first time in six months.”

Stupid question, I know, but has this whole episode changed your outlook on life? Do you do anything differently now? Was it a wake-up call?

“Well, it’s the usual clichés really. It puts everything in perspective. Things that used to get you down just really don’t. Y’know, it’s been raining for three weeks. Well, who cares! I might never have seen the rain again, the way things could have gone. It does make you appreciate what’s important in life.

“And yes, grab every day. You never know what’s around the corner in life. Live a bit, enjoy the now. Nothing profound that hasn’t been felt by everyone else, but nevertheless, it’s a life-changing thing.”

Glasto Stalwarts: Mark Radcliffe with Jo Whiley and Lauren Laverne during the BBC’s past Glastonbury Festival coverage (Photo: BBC)

And talking of grabbing every day, I see you’re presenting from Glastonbury Festival again.

“Yeah, I’m going down on Thursday, and the weather was looking very menacing but seems to have turned round completely. It looks beautiful, bright and sunny, not too hot. It looks perfect at the moment, on my app. But it’s a BBC app, and you should never trust the BBC, should you!”

As I’m putting finishing touches to this interview, it’s Saturday afternoon and it’s sweltering, ‘hot enough to boil a monkey’s bum’, as the fellas from the University of Woolloomooloo would say. So maybe those forecasts weren’t quite right. But there you go. At least he’s not likely to get stuck in the mud.

Meanwhile, The Folk Show continues in midweek on BBC Radio 2, and Mark’s BBC 6 Music show with Stuart Maconie has shifted to weekends this year. How’s that going?

“We’re fine. We sat down when the afternoon show ended, wondering, ‘Should we go our separate ways now?’ But we both decided we wanted to carry on working together, because we liked it and thought it worked. I think we were disappointed and surprised they moved us, but also philosophical. We know nothing lasts forever and we’ve had a good innings.

“Stuart’s busy with lots of writing projects and stuff like that, and I’ve been ill so three hours a day, five days a week might have been quite a tough ask for me. So even though I don’t like getting up early in the morning on Saturday and Sunday, I only really work regularly on those days and on Wednesday night for The Folk Show. I quite like the life now. It seems to fit. I’m still really rebuilding my strength, and I’ve been doing some writing myself.”

Ah, nice one. Can you tell us more about that?

“Yeah, it’s called Crossroads, and it’s about amazing moments in music where things changed forever. It was inspired by going to America, being at the crossroads in Mississippi where Robert Johnson met the Devil. But also with the cancer, my Dad dying and my dog dying last year, and turning 60, there were crossroads for me. It was that concept that sucked me in. That’s where it started.

“That’s due to land in the first week of September. And yeah, I’m getting back out there, taking baby steps. I’m doing the Une thing and enjoying that, and it doesn’t require me to sing and shout a lot. That seems to be a good, sensible way of progressing, y’know.”

To find out more about symptoms of head and neck cancer, and North West Cancer Research’s #SpeakOut campaign, visit nwcr.org.

Back Again: Mark Radcliffe has returned to broadcasting and the live circuit, following his cancer battle (Photo: Paul Langley)

Meanwhile, Une play the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Macclesfield, on Friday, July 19th; Kendal Calling at Lowther Deer Park in the Lake District on Saturday, July 27th; and the Cotton Clouds Festival at Saddleworth Cricket Club, near Oldham, on Saturday, August 17. 

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Charmed to meet ya – in conversation with Paul Hanley

Some books come your way with elaborate press releases. Others arrive on your desk in a more convoluted fashion. And the latter was certainly the case with Paul Hanley’s Leave the Capital.

It was broadcaster Pete Mitchell who lent me his copy when I visited his Cheshire HQ in late January to contribute to a Virgin Radio Revolutions in Music documentary celebrating The Clash (linked here). Paul’s impressive ‘history of Manchester music in 13 recordings’ had escaped my notice until that point. Needless to say, it proved a cracking read.

Within, the former Fall drummer tells the story of two renowned recording studios on his patch, Pluto and Strawberry. And his love and affinity of the music he writes about, the recording process, and an innate understanding of his subject matter come over loud and clear in an affectionately-honed tome written with a real sense of voice and carrying a far from showy, conversational style, the book as entertaining as a half-hour conversation with the man himself.

I roughly knew the story, but hadn’t given it too much thought that the major artistes from the North West of England who made the big time in the ’60s all recorded elsewhere, until Keith Hopwood and Derek Leckenby of Herman’s Hermits (Pluto) plus Eric Stewart of The Mindbenders and former WriteWyattUK interviewee and all-round songwriting genius Graham Gouldman (Strawberry) set up studios on their own patch, getting out of London.

As Paul puts it, ‘Against the prevailing wisdom, they opted to plough their hard-earned cash back into the city they loved in the form of proper recording facilities. Between them they gave Manchester a voice, and facilitated a musical revolution that would be defined by its rejection of the capital’.

Thus, we get a meticulously-researched tale of Manchester music through the prism of those two studios, inevitably incorporating portraits of 10cc, Buzzcocks, Joy Division, The Smiths and The Stone Roses en route, but also The Clash, who came to Pluto to record ‘Bankrobber’ in 1980. Oh yeah, plus The Manchester Children’s Choir, who sort of set the ball rolling in 1929 at the Free Trade Hall, and Lowry-loving, unlikely hit-makers Brian and Michael. Rightly so, there’s a chapter on John Peel favourites The Fall too, the cult band with whom Paul memorably served in the first half of the ’80s.

So what of the author himself? Well, he never turned away from music, his most recent stints behind a drumkit being with latest Fall offshoot, much-touted Brix & the Extricated, where bandmates include his older brother, bass player Steve Hanley, who served even longer with Mark E. Smith’s cult favourites.

As it turns out, rock’n’roll has been a part-time passion for Paul these past three decades, the father-of-three working in IT for a living. Yet a new potential career has now surfaced, an Open University degree in English leading to this first publication as an author.

Drum Major: Paul Hanley, still giving it some stick, some three and a bit decades after leaving The Fall

If anything, I put it to him, his book seems more a word of mouth success, not least as it’s come from a smaller publisher.

“I suppose so. It’s not like it’s difficult to find, but you’re right. It’s kind of snuck out in a way. Which is okay. I wouldn’t have expected anything else. I was just delighted somebody wanted to publish it.”

Did you go with Pontefract-based publisher Route chiefly because they put out the book your brother Steve and Olivia Piekarski wrote, 2016’s The Big Midweek – Life Inside The Fall?

“Sort of, although they approached me. I was doing a degree in English and wrote an article about The Who in Detroit, where I occasionally go with work. I wanted to do more than a review, making comparisons between Manchester and Detroit. That makes it sound very grand, but It was about me, basically. I got a fairly decent mark, then approached John Robb with a view to him publishing it on his Louder than War website. And when he did, Ian from Route approached, asking if I’d considered writing anything else. And, ‘Funny you should mention that …’

“I’d wanted to write a book about Manchester studios, and not just the two in the book. There’s a few, like the one where Buzzcocks recorded their first record (Indigo Sound Studios, I’m guessing, where the ‘Spiral Scratch’ EP was recorded), then Elbow’s studio (Blueprint Studios, Salford), and Cargo in Rochdale.

“But when I got into it, researching, it seemed like too much of a tale to miss – I wanted to expand on the story of Strawberry and Pluto. That looked a perfect tale with a beginning, middle and end, and a journey. So Cargo fell by the wayside, because it didn’t fit the narrative.”

Although Cargo was where The Fall recorded early on.

“The second album (Dragnet, 1979) was recorded there … and the third, Grotesque (1980), the first I was on. It’s an interesting tale though, and I definitely think there’s a book in it, one I’d be interested to read … if not write!”

Grotesque Album: The Fall’s third studio album, and the first featuring Paul Hanley on drums

Are you working on a follow-up publication now?

“I am, but I’m not at liberty to say yet! I’m fairly near to a point where I can give it to the publisher though, see what they think of it.”

You’ve clearly known the inside of a studio, from the BBC at Maida Vale for those much-loved John Peel sessions (The Fall recorded a staggering 24 sessions for Peelie between 1978 and 2004, Paul featuring on five of them, from 1980 to 1983) to another in Reykjavik and a converted cinema in Hitchin, Herts (collectively for 1982’s Hex Enduction Hour, and onwards. Were you aware of the history of those iconic Manchester locations back in the day though?

“I wasn’t actually, and unfortunately I never got to record in Strawberry. I’d have loved to. The Fall did after my time. But we recorded Perverted By Language at Pluto. I’d be lying if I said I was aware of the history of the place though. In Steve’s book, he mentions it being owned by a couple of members of Herman’s Hermits, but I’m not so sure he knew it at the time. I don’t want to accuse him of rewriting history, but … he was rewriting history. Ha!”

You mention in the book that your stint there was just a couple of years after The Clash recorded ‘Bankrobber’ there though.

“I was aware of that, as a Clash fan, and if you look at the video, it was filmed in that studio. And it hadn’t changed much by the time we recorded there. But as a 55-year-old I’m much more impressed with Keith Hopwood’s past now than the fact The Clash recorded there, even though I wasn’t at the time. It sounds a cliché, but the story of Manchester musicians giving something back to Manchester is a massive thing for me. That’s really what the book’s about.”

It never really struck me until reading your book that The Beatles never recorded north of Watford Gap.

“That’s right. They did a bit of recording in Hamburg, but it was mainly Abbey Road, with a bit in Olympic in Barnes, and at Apple. That’s pretty much it. They talked about going to America to record, but … There was nowhere else for them to go. Even ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ was recorded in London.”

And despite the pioneering work at the Manchester studios mentioned, that was still the case in the ‘80s in some respects, wasn’t it? Despite recording their first album here, The Smiths moved on, for example.

“Yes. The same goes for the second Joy Division album. It wasn’t always a conscious decision for Manchester bands to decide to record in Manchester, but the fact remains that if it wasn’t for these people, we couldn’t have done it. And even if the people who did that didn’t realise they were doing it, I think it still made a difference.”

As far as I’m concerned, there was another key moment in the development of music in Manchester through Buzzcocks recording that debut ’Spiral Scratch’ EP in their home city and then making the covers there too. A proper punk DIY approach, inspiring Belfast’s Good Vibrations and many other indie labels to follow that business model.

Inspirational Fare: The debut EP from Buzzcocks, truly independent, made in Manchester

“I think so. Look at the Sex Pistols and look at The Clash – they were on EMI, CBS … And while Buzzcocks later signed to a major label, that thing with the debut EP – even if it wasn’t necessarily a selfless thing they were doing – was enormous. They made it possible for others to follow in their footsteps, in the same way that they brought the Pistols up to Manchester. They didn’t get £200 and spend it on train fares to see them in London. They decided to bring them up here.”

So what happened to Paul after he left The Fall in 1985? Was that when you moved into working with computers?

“That was a couple of years after. I was in a band who did absolutely nothing, with a couple of others from Marc Riley and the Creepers. Don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them?”

Of course. I reckon he asked that with a smile on his face.

“We all decided to do it ourselves and be massive pop stars … which kind of explains while I’ve been in IT for the last 30 years!

“But I always hated that kind of ‘Smithers Jones’ thing, and 53 songs by Steve Diggle kind of sneering at people working for a living.”

Well, I’ll let Steve Diggle stand up for himself, but I know Bruce Foxton wrote ‘Smithers Jones’ about his Dad. I don’t reckon he was sneering. I think it was done from a place of love.

“Okay. I’ll take that back then. But there is a history of that, from ‘Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James’ (Manfred Mann, 1966) onwards.”

It’s interesting that Paul starts the book talking about the Manchester Children’s Choir and the success of ‘the UK’s first significant recording outside of London’, not least as 90 years on Manchester-based John Robb post-punk outfit The Membranes feature a Manchester-based choir (from the British and Irish Modern Music Institute) to great effect on their mighty new opus, What Nature Gives … Nature Takes Away.

Strawberry Studios: Paul Hanley outside the iconic Stockport location made famous by 10cc.

And that 1929 recording was recorded at the Free Trade Hall, as opposed to the Lesser Free Trade Hall where the Sex Pistols, invited up to Manchester by Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley, famously played and changed lives overnight in 1976. I imagine Mark E. Smith would have played down that show’s overall importance though, I suggested.

“I’m not so sure. It definitely changed something in the air. Mark, Una (Baines), Martin (Bramah) and Tony Friel sat round doing poetry and swapping instruments before, but when they went to that gig, they felt, ‘We can do this, we can actually be a band’. The same with Pete Hook and Barney (Sumner). The leap from wanting to be a musician and being one was smaller then than it ever was before or ever after. There was just something about that moment, the demarcation less than ever between those going to see a band and those who were in the band. And that wasn’t just in Manchester. The same happened elsewhere with Siouxsie Sioux, Billy Idol, and so on, when they saw the Pistols.”

A discussion followed about pub rock before we got back on track, me bringing up the subject of Manchester’s Electric Circus gigs, initially when the Pistols played there on their ‘Anarchy in the UK’ tour, inspiring the afore-mentioned Peter Hook and many more. But Paul was still a schoolboy at that stage.

“The Electric Circus was slightly before my time. From what I can gather it wasn’t the nicest place. It was a rough area around there. But if you think about the gigs that were on there, including The Clash on the ‘White Riot’ tour. And I remember a Virgin 10” vinyl live album  (Short Circuit – Live at the Electric Circus, 1978, also featuring Buzzcocks, John Cooper Clarke, The Drones, and Steel Pulse), and it was on that I first heard The Fall and Joy Division.”

You wrote a ’40 years on’ review recently, again for Louder Than War, about a Bowdon Vale Club gig in Cheshire in March 1979, with Staff 9 – your future bandmates – supporting Joy Division. Was that one of your first gigs?

“I hadn’t been to that many, but the first was Darts at the Free Trade Hall. A kind of doo wop band. Don’t know if you remember them.”

How could I forget them.

“I don’t know why I latched on to them, but I quite liked them, although I ditched them fairly quickly once I got into my brother’s music. The second gig I saw was Blondie at the Free Trade Hall, which was brilliant. By then the line between people I knew and bands was gone, because Marc Riley was in The Fall, and Steve was too fairly rapidly after that, and they were kind of mixing with Joy Division and Buzzcocks, who rehearsed at the same place. So to a callow youth, these people who I thought were absolutely amazing were within reach, if you like.”

Perverted Record: The Fall’s sixth studio album, recorded at Pluto in Manchester

I suppose when it came to its music scene, Manchester was in that sense a small town.

“It was! There was a real sense of a scene. Even people like Mark E. Smith, who defined themselves by not being part of that scene, could only do that because the scene was there in the first place.”

The fact that Manchester also had its co-operative music collective helping put gigs on helped too.

“It did. They put a lot of gigs on. Some of it was terrible though. There was a lot of that folks banging radiators stuff, and putting typewriters through an echo machine!”

Music doesn’t always conform to geographical limits though. A lot of the bands from my South-East roots gravitated towards London, and that was surely the case with your patch, to an extent.

“Erm, I’m not sure really. Possibly. A lot of Manchester bands don’t particularly sound Mancunian, but I think there is an atmosphere, and that whole Tony Wilson thing about Manchester. I don’t think it restricted anybody in terms of what they sounded like, but there was a definite movement from around 1978 onwards. And one of the main points of my book is that there’s a line from there right back to the ‘60s. I don’t think that gets written about enough.”

On to chapter 11, the one where you write about The Fall, centred around the Perverted By Language album. I get the feeling you were reluctant to include that, even though surely you realised it would have to be part of the story.

“Sort of. I didn’t want to write it. It was the last chapter to be written. I’ve described it as being like a Fall-shaped hole in the book. I’d written about Buzzcocks and Joy Division, The Smiths, The Stone Roses … It was Ian from Route who said I really needed something in there about The Fall. I could have been really perverse and written about the album they did at Strawberry after I left, but that seemed ridiculous, so I bit the bullet and wrote that chapter. But it was difficult after writing so much about, ‘Aren’t these people great!’ To switch it to, ‘Aren’t we great!’ didn’t seem right. But I didn’t want to say, ‘Aren’t we crap!’ either, because The Fall were an amazing band.”

You describe how, by the time of Grotesque, Mark E. Smith had been joined by ‘three schoolfriends and a younger brother’, the latter yourself.

“That’s right, and I certainly was a little brother as well.”

There’s five years between Paul and big brother Steve Hanley. Was Steve close at school with Marc Riley and Craig Scanlon?

Part Two: Confusingly the first Brix & the Extricated LP

“Marc and Steve have been mates pretty much all their lives, and I’ve known Marc as long as I’ve known Steve, really. Marc’s parents are my godparents. We kind of grew up together. Craig was in the same school year as Marc, getting to know Steve through him.”

Their original band – before Paul joined – were originally known as The Sirens, becoming Staff 9 before Marc left to join The Fall, the other two soon following, Paul joining later. Was he hearing them banging and crashing from the start?

“Definitely, and it was more luck than good fortune that I ended up playing the one instrument that none of them played.”

Did you play drums at school?

“No, I had no musical training whatsoever. I was going to learn guitar at school, but my Dad wouldn’t stump up for a guitar case. He said we’ve still got the box it came in, so he put two strings on the cardboard box. And there was no way I was carrying that to school, so I never pursued it.”

Whereas Steve was born in Dublin, Paul was born in Manchester, or to be precise, “St Mary’s, the Manchester equivalent of Londoners being born within the sound of Bow Bells. You can’t get more Manc than St Mary’s. it was just outside the city centre then, and is more or less in the city centre now.”

Were there musicians in the Hanley family before you two?

“Not really. My parents and uncles attended parties, that Irish thing, but nobody musical at all.”

It only struck me recently that Mark E. Smith was in his own sweet way as much a performance poet as John Cooper Clarke.

“He was in a way, but I don’t think he ever wrote lyrics that stood up on their own. That’s not to denigrate them. There’s a real difference between poetry and lyrics, and he always wrote lyrics. I’m not saying poetry is a higher calling, but they’re not the same thing. He was a consummate lyric writer. He was brilliant. But he wasn’t a poet, wasn’t a novelist. He was what he was. And he took lyrics to a place others hadn’t.”

Big Moment: Seen as Paul Hanley’s proudest achievement with The Fall, album-wise

One thing I read into your book was that for all Mark’s outspokenness and strong will, you were a proper band, all involved, chipping in with song ideas and so on. You really were ‘Die Gruppe’.

“Musically, yeah. He always had that where he was – sometimes to his frustration – surrounded by musicians, despite not particularly holding musicians in high regard. It was a Catch 22 situation – he always had to work with musicians but didn’t particularly think they were the people he wanted to hang around with. Until the last couple of line-ups. The line-up he had for the last 10 years was his perfect band – they loved him, and he loved them. Maybe he mellowed.”

You’d seen a bit of mellowing yourself when Brix joined the band and he fell in love with her, hadn’t you?

“Well, he wasn’t really that bad. He was always alright. He had his moments, had some mad ideas and could be unreasonable, but bands are often unreasonable. I think he got in a very dark place when Steve left, but I couldn’t say the situation was ever that bad when I was in the band.

“My relationship was with Mark was a little different. As I was a little younger, he was always my boss. He was never my friend in that sense, so I had different expectations of the relationship to what the rest had. As with that last band line-up, he told me what to do from the day I joined until the day I left, and I didn’t have a problem with that. It was a different situation from that with Martin Bramah, for instance.”

I do get the impression from what you write that you didn’t really feel you knew him that well at all.

“Yeah, but that’s not to say we weren’t friendly.”

Did you feel threatened when Karl Burns came back on board and you suddenly had this two-drummer formation. Did you think your time in the band was about to end as soon as it had started?

“No. Understandably, he got Karl in for that American tour (Paul was too young to get a working visa), and I was of the opinion that he was one of the best drummers I’d ever seen, so he was massively someone to learn from. But I didn’t have to be in a band with him to learn from him. I learned every time I watched him on stage. He was an absolutely amazing drummer. By the same token, to be given the opportunity to play alongside him was worth any amount of fear. it was an absolute joy to be part of a two-drummer line-up with Karl.”

There aren’t many bands known for that formation.

The Smiths: The eponymous debut LP, made in 1984 at both Pluto and Strawberry Studios

“Adam and the Ants, I suppose. And the Glitter Band, but that was double-tracked. They never really played on Gary Glitter records. I think the Grateful Dead had it for a while, but I certainly wasn’t informed by them. I did quite like Adam and the Ants, although we never really tried to emulate that tribal thing.”

There’s a nice line about Marc Riley’s exit from The Fall, where you mention the wonderfully quirky ’Jumper Clown’, the cracking number he did with The Creepers (also memorably covered by The Wedding Present), and how it made a mockery of the reason Mark gave for booting him out. You write, ‘If proof were ever needed that Mark E. Smith’s frequent assertion that ‘Riley wanted to be in a pop band’ was nonsense, then ‘Jumper Clown’ is it.’

“Yeah, it’s funny, that. Mark kind of rewrote history, and one of his big things when Marc Riley went was saying that he always wanted to play the hits and be more poppy. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. I think there was a clash of personalities and with hindsight it was probably the right time for Marc to go. But that doesn’t make me any more comfortable about the fact that I stood by and let it happen when Marc was sacked. It was a rough time (for Steve) – they’d known each other forever. It did affect the relationship briefly, but we got over it.”

There’s a lovely clip of you and Karl playing live with the band on Channel 4’s The Tube, performing ‘Smile’ and ‘2 x 4’, introduced by special guest John Peel with presenter Jools Holland in 1983. One of many career highlights, I’m guessing.

“It was, and it was an interesting process, something we’d never done before. It was a unique programme in that you got to play live. A bit like Later with Jools now, but slightly less slick. And we got to meet John Peel and Mickey Finn from T-Rex.”

Is there a record from your time with The Fall with which you are most proud?

“I think Hex Enduction Hour, which is cited quite a lot now, and I think that’s quite deserved … which sounds quite ridiculous because I’m on it. As Steve always says, I was making an album with the greatest lyric writer in the world and four of my best mates. And for it to turn out as well as it did …  I’m proud of all the records I was on, except for Room  to Live (1982). I can’t stand that, but that was really coloured by the atmosphere when we made it, which was poisonous. I think there was a deliberate attempt by Mark to undermine where we were, because Hex Enduction Hour had been so feted.”

Bringing the story up to date, had you kept in touch with Brix over the years?

“Not really. It was because of Steve’s book. He did this launch for it and decided we were going to play, and basically invited pretty much everybody he’d been in a band with. Craig (Scanlon) was there, Marcia (Schofield) was there, Simon (Wolstencroft) was there … It was a lovely occasion, and after that Steve and Brix got talking about doing something together. I think originally that was with Simon Rogers, but he was too busy to commit. As with these things, Steve roped me in to play drums … and we’ve been doing it ever since.”

Yep, that’s Brix and the Extricated, currently at work on their third album, with dates set up for later this year. And I make it that Paul and Steve have been in at least five bands together.

Signed Up: The second Brix & the Extricated LP

“Ooh … let’s have a think here! One … two … three … four … yeah, five.”

That’ll be Factory Star, (Tom Hingley and) The Lovers, The Fall, Brix & the Extricated, …

“We were in a band called Ark, but we don’t talk about them!”

Well, I was going to mention Staff 9. Are you going to elaborate on that?

“That was a band started by Steve when him, Karl (Burns) and Tommy (Crooks) left The Fall (together with The Creepers’ Pete Keogh). It was a bit of a disaster really. They lost Karl and Tommy and I ended up playing for them. It was good in a way, kind of cathartic for Steve, as if to say he didn’t need Mark to organise gigs or make a record. But I think it was too soon. He should have taken two years off. But anyway …”

Home for Open University graduate Paul is Timperley, ‘the home of Frank Sidebottom’, as he put it, his children having grown up fast, Paul’s daughter now a teacher and his two lads following her to the University of Sheffield for their own studies. And of his own degree, he added, “It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. A brilliant experience, that whole thing of being made to write about things you would never think to in a million years.”

And that inspired his first publication, in a sense?

“Not in a sense at all – 100 per cent! Absolutely. This made me think I was able to write.”

And there’s proof of that in Leave the Capital, for sure.

Band Substance: Brix & the Extricated, working on a new LP right now, and set to play live later this year.

For more details about Leave the Capital by Paul Hanley (Route Publishing, £9.99) and how to get a copy, try his website or head to the publisher’s site.

Brix and the Extricated, currently working on their third album, are set to play Manchester’s Band on the Wall on November 1st, then The Lexington in Islington, North London, on November 30th. For details head to the band’s Facebook page. 

 

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Always have the bus fare hame – going wisely with Eddi Reader

Reader Friendly: Eddi Reader, celebrating four decades (plus) of performing (Photo: Genevieve Stevenson)

Eddie Reader already had two Brit awards and had topped the singles charts by the end of the 1980s. But if you suspect this story’s merely a retro affair centred on big hit, ‘Perfect’, think again.

The Glasgow-born singer-songwriter has recorded 11 studio albums as a solo artist since coming out of the shadow of one-album wonders Fairground Attraction, with her first, Mirmama, setting the tone in 1992.

Along the way she picked up a third Brit award, was nominated for an Ivor Novello award, received an MBE in recognition of an award-winning 2003 project feting Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, and the following year sang at the opening of the new Scottish Parliament building.

What’s more, she’s now celebrating four decades as a professional performer, moving from busking and folk roots – via UK and US tours with Leeds post-punk band Gang of Four – to session work with several big-name artists before carving out that solo success.

Last September’s Cavalier LP was the latest instalment of a career also including brief forays into acting, TV and radio presenting – including BBC Scotland music programme, No Stilettoes – and writing. And was she pleased with the praise for her latest LP?

“Yeah, although I don’t really pay attention to that stuff. I’m just concerned about making records best as I can, letting them fly out into the world. But certainly I’ve nothing to be ashamed about. I really love it and I’m glad that there’s nice words said. Thanks for letting me know!”

If you’ve missed out on Eddi’s more recent output, you’ll find an assured maturity there that’s been building for some years. And to highlight just one track on Cavalier by way of an example, ‘Go Wisely’ is a thing of beauty, her words to a loved one setting off on life’s journey, built around sage Scots advice, ‘Be good to yourself, go wisely; But always have the bus fare hame.’ Is that an old Reader family saying?

“Well, I’m at a stage where I have adult children and it’s a different world from when I was young, but there’s things that are still quite pertinent. I wanted to say things to my children that my adults told me when I was leaving home.

“This list just came to me in the middle of the night. All these things I remembered, like ‘be good to your health’, and the most pertinent, ‘always make sure you’ve got the bus fare ‘hame’ in your pocket. I just wanted to tell them the door will always be open, that sort of thing.

“The adults I grew up with were from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. There was a lot of Beatles records around, like ‘All My Loving’, and also the Rolling Stones ‘ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ … ‘but you get what you need’. I wanted to get a wee bit of that too, those sounds as my backdrop.

“With ‘be good to your health and be good to yourself’, that was my Granny. My Dad, Grandad and the men in my family would be more concerned about making sure you had the money for the road ‘home’.

“My Mum and all those housewives were more concerned about getting enough food and always having some pal you could rely on. I didn’t manage to get it into the song, but my Dad would always say, ‘If you get lost, just look for the pub, because the pub never changes. There’ll always be a pub on every corner.”

If only that was still the case. We seem to be losing so many, not least music venues.

“Yeah … but you have churches turning into music venues, which is a better thing probably.”

On the back of last year’s Cavalier, There’s a five-song EP, Starlight, out now. And somehow the years have crept up, this being your 40th year as a live performer, I understand.

“It’s actually more, but 40 years ago I sat on the side of a river, while busking every day in the South of France, deciding to come home and do something much more serious with my abilities. I’ve been 30 years as a professional, but more than that as I lived off my busking money before.

“Going back even further, when I was eight I sang in front of the class at school for the first time. A major breakthrough. It’s been a long time manipulating my throat, making sure I get across an idea.”

Eddi began playing guitar at the age of 10, her busking days following some years later, initially in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street. And I put it to her that from Steve Harley to Joe Strummer, many music greats similarly found their way via busking.

“Yeah, there’s a lot you learn. Firstly, about projection – not mumbling, enunciating a little easier. That’s a massive learning curve, doing that without microphones in an open street, and also picking areas of a street where your voice will reverberate.

“You also toughen up the cords, learn stamina and learn what works with passing trade. I was really lucky I had good equipment, but it’s also about the songs you pick. I could tell for example that Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ would make me enough money for my dinner rather than a song about the boyfriend dumping me, y’know – that track I wrote last night that I got from my diary.”

Back in Scotland after her early career took her to France, Eddie was working in a factory in Irvine and part-time in a recording studio in Kilmarnock when she answered a music press advert, consequently heading to London to audition for Gang of Four, who were after a backing singer in time for an appearance on for BBC 2 TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test and a UK tour.

She stayed on with the band for a US tour, then became a session vocalist in London, going from radio ad jingles to work with the likes of Eurythmics, Alison Moyet, Billy MacKenzie, John Foxx, Sting, The Waterboys, and The Clash’s Topper Headon. But she never really lost her initial love of folk. In view of her spell with Gang of Four, was she also into punk?

“Well, I was a child of that era. I was 17/18 in the late ‘70s, so that was all around me. But I was a massive folk music fan, and what I liked about folk was that it was a brilliant alternative to Amanda’s Wet T-shirt Night in the local disco, y’know.

““I wasn’t angry enough to hate it all entirely. In fact, I found a lot of solace in folk music. To go in and hear unaccompanied females singing in a Scottish accent, songs of love, murder, death and life, I kind of felt I didn’t need anything else.

“My family were a bit worried – ‘what’s all this folk music?’ They didn’t really get it. But I was I was going to all the folk festivals in 1979 and 1980, when it was all dying. I was there at the latter half of the pre-folk revival and remember how well attended it was then. The first would be Inverness Folk Festival in April and I was there as a young punter. I’d sneak in the back and you’d get a floor-spot. It was a place where you could perform.

“You couldn’t perform anywhere else, unless you had sound equipment and were in a band. If you were in a folk club you could stand on stage and ask if you could sing or play something and there were a lot of people my age who did the same thing.

“That graduated to busking and singing those songs, like ‘Lord Franklin’ and Blues Run the Game’, learning about the alternative music scene. And the alternative scene for me would have been Gram Parsons, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. All of that had been dying a death during the late ‘70s. But the folkies were all for it.”

Initially raised in a tenement slum, Glasgow-born Eddi is the eldest of seven children, her Dad a welder, reminding me of someone else who started out in that line then progressed through the Scottish folk scene before going his own way.

Actually, before I got in touch, I was racking my brains trying to recall when I’d last seen her talking on television, then remembered it was around New Year for a BBC documentary about Billy Connolly, who Eddi has worked with in on TV soundtracks in recent years.

“We came from the same place. He’s older than me, but I think if I’d been male, I think I’d have had a practically identical experience. But being female, I had a different experience, being a Scot. We didn’t get feminism until the 1990s, I think, up here! I wanted to be like my Dad’s daughter. I wasn’t particularly interested in having 20 wains.

“The other thing with the Gang of Four and all that, I would never restrict myself in terms of genre. I loved jazz music, I loved punk, I loved it all.”

She’s certainly not one to be typecast. From folk roots to pop, Robert Burns, and even 1930s’ fare for a project with Jools Holland.

“Yeah, but that’s only because I knew all those songs. He phoned me, saying, ‘You’re the only person I know who knows all this stuff.”

Talking of those you’ve collaborated with over the years, I’ve heard Boo Hewerdine sing your praises live, suggesting you’ve helped pay his mortgage through covers of his songs, most notably 1994’s ‘Patience of Angels’ (nominated for an Ivor Novello award for best song the following year).

“Ha! Well, that’s good to know.”

Do you still work together?

“Yeah. He comes with me everywhere when I’m playing.”

Including these upcoming dates?

“Yeah, he will be.”

So what’s the set-up for these live shows?

“Well, I like to have players who know how to do the folk thing and I like to have players who know how to do the songwriter thing, and I like players who are really versatile. So I have Boo, Kevin (McGuire, double bass), Alan (Kelly, accordion) from Galway, Steph (Geremia, flute) might come, and I have John.”

That’s guitarist John Douglas, Eddi’s husband, of The Trashcan Sinatras, a rather splendid melodic indie outfit – in the best tradition of Aztec Camera – with their roots in the mid-’80s in Irvine, fronted by her brother Frank (bass, vocals), and also featuring John’s brother Stephen (drums). I remember them well, first single, ‘Obscurity Knocks’, leading me to buy the Go! Discs debut LP Cake, on vinyl back in 1990. In fact, I’m revisiting it as I’m typing, and it sounds just as good nearly three decades on. What’s more, they remain a going concern, still recording and touring, as you can find out here.  Anyway, back to Eddi.

“We got married six years ago, but we’ve known each other all our lives. So it was a musical partnership as well. We always got on as mates, and sort of suddenly, about 2001, realised it was more than that. John had written ‘Wild Mountainside’, which was kind of for me to come home from London. I’d been away 28 years, including time in France and having my kids, and was needing to find a home really.

“Also, a lot of people were leaving, and a few were dying, the older ones. I just felt I was removed from something that was authentically mine, and wanted to get back to that. So John had written this song, (including the line) ‘I’ll carry you if you fall’, and that kind of sparked us off really. I put it on my Robert Burns album as an example of the poetry that’s still alive on the west coast of Scotland.”

While Eddi sees the day she moved back from the South of France as key to her career development, heading home for the next part of her adventure, she was back across the Channel fairly soon, working in Paris as a singer for composer Vladimir Cosma, who wrote the music for the movie, Diva. She’s not so complimentary about him, but I’ll hold back. My legal team have yet to return from their liquid lunch. Let’s just say she’s still waiting on a pay-day.

Eddi returned to the UK again in 1984, through a contact with The Kick Horns brass section in London, signing with EMI, making two singles with disco outfit Outbar Squeek. And how does she sum up that period?

“From 1981 through to 1988, just go to Zomba Records or Arista, find any singles that never did anything! One that comes to mind was with A Bigger Splash, which Sting produced. You’ll find my voice on all those.”

I recall talking to Paul Carrack about his days as a go-to session man, someone else who eventually went his own way. Were you frustrated by that experience or was it more a case of learning your craft before going it alone?

“The busking taught me so much, then the live work taught me more, and I was in all sorts of bands in Scotland before I went to France. But when I was working in the studio in the ’80s, for people like The Gang of Four, The Eurythmics, Alison Moyet, and Sting, there was a hierarchy of BV (backing vocalist) work, and I just loved working.

“I’m a real worker. I love hearing something, getting it spot on, getting a harmony right, and for years and years I was probably a bit anally-retentive about it. But I think people liked me because I was fast and I was cheap! You could carry on doing that and end up doing tours with (Eric) Clapton and the (Rolling) Stones, but attractive as that was, I knew I’d be bored shitless, so I needed work.

Busking Roots: Eddi Reader started out as a busker on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street (Photo: Genevieve Stevenson)

“The work was about falling in love with song, then turning song to other people, so they heard it through you and the way you hear it, something intangible. I could wait at the side of the stage for my moment to come on, sing ‘Ooh ooh, aah aah’, and could do that really fucking brilliantly, but I don’t think it would satisfy me.

“By about 1984/85 I was looking for writers, trying to write myself, and wasn’t very brave about my own writing. I knew I was creative but couldn’t quite rely on that. I made a few demos then found some writers. I was doing work for The Waterboys and met Anthony Thistlethwaite, who (also) played saxophone with The Kick Horns, who (incidentally) now do play with the Stones!

“I was a backroom girl and we’d go out in Anthony’s 2CV, go to gigs. He’d introduce me to anyone who wanted backing singers. One band had a deal with EMI, and another had one with Sony. I signed all those contracts, having about five at one point, all supposedly exclusive!”

Around then she also met Mark E. Nevin, guitarist and songwriter with Jane Aire and the Belvederes, asking him to write for her, the pair subsequently fronting Fairground Attraction (also featuring Simon Edwards and Roy Dodds), signing in 1988 to RCA/BMG. Soon, debut single ‘Perfect’ became a UK No.1, going on to win best single at the 1989 Brit Awards, while debut LP, The First of a Million Kisses, reached No.2 in the charts and won best album at that same awards do.

How did that story end? Well, it seems that during a break – in which Eddi had the first of her two children – there was a fall-out, ultimately leading to a split, just one more LP following, 1990’s Ay Fond Kiss, a collection of B-sides and live tracks. And Eddi still seems somewhat raw about the whole episode.

“There was all sorts of shenanigans going on before Fairground (Attraction). Then I met Mark, my biggest mistake – not that I made many – acquiescing to him to turn it into the name of the band. I just picked a name of one of the songs of his that I liked. But mostly it was my demo money. I paid for it all and was the one who got the interest from the record company. I had all the contacts.”

She added more, but I’ll leave that out. As I’ve explained before, I’m a one-man band and don’t have a team of hot-shot lawyers to go over my interviews. Some of what comes out in conversations inevitably ends up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. I’ll carry on from there though.

“I’ll still stand by it (‘Perfect’), because it was a choice of mine, it was something I loved, and the whole album was something I did with good heart. The reason we didn’t get a second album was greed and someone having a power struggle. We ended up in a place where, ‘You do as I say, or you don’t do anything’. I had to get away from that … run away from that, as fast as possible!”

And Eddi’s advice for the next generation of performers (again, I’ve left out a bit)?

“If you do it with love, you’ll attract enough people and will survive. The Jaguar, the boat in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean is not particularly the best thing to aim for, but you can aim for loving what you do, and if you do love what you do you’ll always survive. Without fail.

“I like to think that maybe in my older age I’ll get to do little workshops and teach that stuff. Because nobody taught me. I had to learn that.”

Take a page out of Boo Hewerdine’s book. He’s involved in songwriting workshops, this summer working alongside Dean Friedman and Chris Difford.

“He’s very good like that and with that. He’s a self-made man, gets himself together, picks up his guitar, gets on the train or drives anywhere to do a gig, wherever he’s asked. He’s vital like that.”

Before embarking on her solo career, Eddi tried her arm at  acting, highlights including her role as singer/accordionist Jolene Jowett in BBC Tv comedy-drama Your Cheatin’ Heart in a career that has also seen this outspoken advocate of Scottish independence working on a book about her great-uncle, Seamus Reader, who headed the Scottish Brigade of the Irish Republican Brotherhood when the Irish War of Independence broke out in 1919, later becoming a founder of the abortive Scottish Republican Army, which attempted to replicate the Irish struggle in Scotland between the wars. But I ran out of time to get on to that.

Getting (tentatively) back to Fairground Attraction, it was inevitable that at some stage I’d get on to that song, and here’s as good a place as anywhere to drop it into conversation, mentioning to Eddi her Gaelic take on ‘Perfect’.

“I did that for the Barnardo’s charity. It’s called Coel, and they get successful musicians in Ireland to do their hits in gaelic, so I donated that. It was great learning it. It’s in Irish Gaelic, not Scottish. I’ve betrayed my Scottish roots! It would be good to try that though. I’d like to find someone who could teach me. Honestly though, it was like ‘listen and copy.”

While that song takes me back to that late ’80s era and mostly good memories, it was somewhat played to death, and still gets lots of local radio spins. Are there nights when Eddi takes a deep breath at the mere thought of having to sing it again? For all the songs she’s recorded, people probably still think first of that 1988 No.1. Does that frustrate her?

“Never. No, if I don’t want to do it, I don’t do it. I’ve never felt beholden to a set. I don’t have sets. I just do whatever I feel like on the night, and every gig is different in that way. On this tour I’ll be wanting to sing some of the new ones, because they need an airing and I want to show people their beauty, but beyond that I’ll do everything and anything that comes to mind.

“But ‘Perfect’ comes out more now than it did. For 10 years I didn’t sing it ever. That was only because I was broken-hearted, giving my whole energy for something that … I kind of ended up feeling abandoned and didn’t want to look at any of those songs. But that was way back in the ‘90s. Since then I’ve been singing it because I love it. I love it the same way as I loved it when I first heard it. I don’t have a problem with it.

“It’s great when you go to places like Prague, Japan, Spain, or America, sing it, and someone says, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that!’ There’s no connection to me and only that. I do two hours of everything else as well.

“And it’s such a ticket for getting in doors, soon as you mention that song. It’s an odd thing to carry about. It’s not like I’ve got it tattooed on my head or anything. But it feels like I’m responsible for it, like a child or a doggy I’m looking after in the park.

“The only time is if people say there was only one hit. But I know there was ‘Find My Love’, ‘Patience of Angels’, ‘A Smile and A Whisper’, ‘Clear’, ‘Town Without Pity’ … I also know Mirmama, my first solo album, won an award in 1996 in America for best alternative independent record.

“Nobody sits in a crowd in front of me when I’m singing who ever pressurises me to do anything other than what I want to do. I find real affinity with people who haven’t seen me before, haven’t seen me for 30 years, or bring their Mum, Dad or Granny and their wains. Lots of people just want the experience of someone singing to them and it being a unique and personable experience. And I enjoy the connectiveness and humanity.”

It’s been 30 years now since that initial Brit award double, Eddi adding another in her own right – best female – in 1995. And where does she keep them?

“My sister’s got one, and the other’s under the kitchen sink. I use it to hammer in nails sometimes. But I need to start looking after it a wee bit.”

She adds at that stage something about her MBE too (the mobile phone reception wasn’t great at that stage), that accolade awarded for ‘outstanding contributions to the arts’ in the New Year’s honours list of 2006, in light of her Robert Burns project. I also mentioned how Eddi has a big birthday coming in late August – her 60th. Any plans?

“I might go down South and see my friend Angus, from Kilbarchan.”

That’ll be Angus Aird, with whom Eddi toured Scotland – along with fellow guitarist Dave Dick – under the name Pigmeat in the early days. In fact, he added guitar on 2014’s Vagabond album.

“I left him in the South of France, at the side of that river 40 years ago when I decided to get up and walk away. He’s still down there, fixing tractors and playing his guitars. So I might get down there and reconnect.”

And of all your recorded work, which album are you most proud of?

Mirmama, my first (solo album), because I had to be very brave. And nobody mentioned it. RCA swallowed it and didn’t promote it, but it was me coming out, and I adored my bravery. And when I listen to that now I think it’s still a completely beautiful album.

“Beyond that, the other ones are great, but there’s something about the first time when you stand up and say, ‘I don’t care what happens – this is me and I’m going to do it!”

Eddi Reader’s five-song EP, Starlight, is available via Reveal Records, featuring three unreleased songs from 2018’s Cavalier sessions, plus double-A single ‘Starlight’ / ‘My Favourite Dress’, released as a limited-edition gatefold CD or digitally via this link.

Touring Schedule: Eddi Reader and her band, coming to a town near you, I reckon (Photo: Genevieve Stevenson)

Meanwhile, Eddi and her band are touring throughout this month, having started out back on May 24th at Kendal’s Brewery Arts Centre and reaching Stamford Arts Centre tonight (June 15th), followed by Taunton Brewhouse Theatre (June 16th), Cardiff Tramshed (June 18th), Manchester Stoller Hall (June 19th), London King’s Place (June 21st), Harpenden Public Halls (June 22nd), Cambridge Junction (June 23rd), Bury St Edmunds Apex (June 25th), Coventry Warwick Arts Centre (June 26th), Pocklington Arts Centre (June 27th), and Durham The Gala (June 28th). For ticket information head here.  

 

 

 

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Fylde under nature – talking The Membranes’ new record and much more with John Robb

Nature Lovers: Peter Byrchmore, Nick Brown, John Robb and Rob Haynes, causing a stir with their new double album

It’s 35 years since music writer, Louder Than War founder and Membranes/Goldblade bass player/vocalist John Robb left the ‘Tatty Seaside Town’ later celebrated on 1988’s Kiss Ass … Godhead! LP. But he clearly still has plenty of time for his old patch.

One of the first songs to be publicly aired from acclaimed new Membranes double LP, What Nature Gives … Nature Takes Away is the evocative ‘A Murmuration of Starlings on Blackpool Pier’. And it just so happens that John is currently working on a new arts project in the resort, helping chronicle the history of the Fylde coast’s musical legacy (with more details about that project here).

What’s more, The Membranes are set to play Blackpool pub venue The Waterloo on July 5th, and return again for the Rebellion Festival at the nearby Winter Gardens in early August.

Born just up the coast in Fleetwood, John grew up in Anchorsholme, barely four miles from Blackpool Tower, the iconic location from the top of which The Membranes launched 2015 LP Dark Matter/Dark Energy (becoming the first band to play there). And he played a key part in the Fylde resort’s more recent story, forming his band in 1977 – aged 16 – while at Blackpool Sixth Form College. But he knows full well the area’s cultural heritage goes way back before punk rock inspired this Tangerines fan to get involved.

“Blackpool’s got a really interesting musical history. People tend to forget what came out of there – like Jethro Tull, (elements of) The Pet Shops Boys, Soft Cell, and a great post-punk scene. We were around then, and Section 25.

“And there are lots of other interesting stories, such as the Jimi Hendrix gig you see clips from, setting fire to his guitar on stage at the Opera House, when he was touring with Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd.”

I understand there was a Gene Vincent link to Blackpool too (the feted rock’n’roller based on the North Shore while appearing there in the mid-‘60s, by all accounts).

“I think he was living there a bit, and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates had a club there. It was a showbiz town then. George Formby was the biggest pop star before rock’n’roll, but chose not to move to London but Blackpool, because that was the epicentre of showbusiness, which you can’t imagine now. What Manchester has now would be the equivalent now.”

Incidentally, North Londoner Johnny Kidd, died aged just 30 in a road accident near Bolton in October 1966. He’d been a regular visitor to Blackpool, including a summer spell with The Pirates in the summer of ’64 at the Rainbow Theatre, on a Larry Parnes bill topped by Joe Brown and his Bruvvers and The Tornados. It was around then that he bought into The Picador club (strip joint, say some) near the railway station. But that’s another story (and brilliantly told on Adie Barrett’s website).

Getting on to Manchester, that’s where John Robb’s at these days, having moved there in 1983. And this Saturday, June 8th, he’s hosting the third annual Membranes and Friends Festival there, a five-hour multi-band event – nap-handed, in fact – also acting as the official launch party for his band’s new record, taking place just across the road from Oxford Road station at the Ritz on Whitworth Street West. But how would John compare his adopted city’s scene in the early ‘80s with how it is now?

“It’s massively different now. There are more venues, with 30 or 40 in the city. It too has become an acknowledged musical epicentre. In the post-punk era it had key game-changing bands, but you have to remember Joy Division weren’t that big.

“Now if there was an Ian Curtis hologram or something, he could play stadiums and be bigger than U2. I’ll go to Russia and every kid there loves Joy Division. But before Ian died, they were playing clubs to 100/200 people a night. It was a brilliant scene, but for not that many people.”

Joy Division famously supported fellow Manchester outfit Buzzcocks on their Autumn ’79 UK tour, and I seem to recall my brother and friends missing them in favour of the usual pre-show pint at the nearby Angel Hotel. That was probably the case for a fair few support bands over the years. Is that why we need to get down by four o’clock for this joint-Membranes and Friends and LP launch event at the Ritz?

“I think so. I know for a lot of tours the support band are by and large just an afterthought, but we don’t even use the term ‘support band’. They’re just bands sharing a space. Every band’s equal. It’s not a case of padding the bill out. There’s a reason why everything is there.

“Each band on that bill is a band I’m really into. I don’t know if that’s a measure of anything, but they’re there because we really like them. We could quite easily flip the bill round the other way. It wouldn’t make any odds to me.”

Of his hand-picked guests, John describes Henge as ‘Hawkwind on acid … more acid, if you can imagine that!’, Queen Zee as ‘pretty amazing, sort of warped sex-punk’, and Glove, who have put out releases on his label, as ‘amazing, sort of Slits crossed with Patti Smith’.

He was also full of praise for late additions Liines, back for a second straight year, late replacements for Lawrence from Felt’s Go-Kart Mozart.

Breaking Through: Liines have come a long way since their last Membranes and Friends show

“Last year, from the first band all the way through people were discovering stuff they’d never heard before, and the big breakthrough was Liines. They were amazing, and (subsequently) a Sleaford Mods tour got them out around the country. It was great to see the rest of the country catch on.”

The same goes for recently-reformed The Pack, the pre-Theatre of Hate and Spear of Destiny punk band of past WriteWyattUK interviewee Kirk Brandon.

“Yeah, great. In a weird way he’s become one of the undiscovered talents. He has a cult following but really should be doing things like Stiff Little Fingers do every year at the Academy.

“He’s one of the greatest singers, he’s operatic, he’s like nothing else. He’s on our new album, and just did that in one take. You hear elements of punk in there, a bit of Johnny Rotten, but Pavarotti at the same time. I don’t think there’s many people in that corner! Ha!”

I enjoy talking to John Robb. his best quotes often followed by a laugh that those who know him well will hear as they read this. A true entertainer.

As well as added strings, the new Membranes LP also features a Manchester-based British and Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM) choir, who are also set to feature this weekend, their latest appearance with the band.

“Because it’s local we can make this one work. It’s a pretty epic set and the Ritz is fantastic for doing this. It perfectly frames what we’re trying to do. It’s my favourite venue in Manchester.”

I agree. It’s fairly big but somehow retains its intimate vibe.

“Yeah, big and intimate at the same time. A contradiction, but right in this case. And in a weird way a lot of rock music suits the old music hall type places.

I recall The Subways’ lead singer, Billy Lunn, jumping off the balcony there for a spot of crowd-surfing. That great leap forward still haunts me. You have to have a lot of faith in your fans to try that.

“Ha ha! It’s amazing how often that doesn’t go wrong!”

Hanging Around: 21st century boys (from left) John Robb, Rob Haynes, Peter Byrchmore, Nick Brown

When I called John, I’d only got as far into the new album as the splendid ‘Strange Perfume’ promo video and a brief taster of the ‘Murmuration of Starlings’ track, so asked him to tell me more about the record.

“It’s a double album about the beauty and violence of nature, and it’s been getting pretty amazing reviews. Every time I look at my emails something else has pinged up.

“You never know when you make a record whether it’s gonna just shoot across everybody’s heads. You just try and make the record you want to make yourself, but this time it’s ‘Oh fucking hell, people actually understand what we’re trying to do here!’ Ha ha!”

And that builds nicely on the positive reception you got for the last record (also released via Cherry Red Records).

“Yeah, and with the nature of The Membranes we always try to move forward. No point in repeating ourselves. This album’s more about the choir and the amazing harmony of the human voice. When you get 20 people sing the part at the same time, it’s a transcendental experience … quite beyond … at the highest level of sound as possible … pure harmony. And in these discordant times we’re living in, pure harmony is an interesting concept.”

When Public Service Broadcasting released their Race for Space album in 2015, I asked J.Willgoose Esq. where they could possibly head next after tackling the moon, stars and planets. As it turned out, they chose deep underground and the Welsh coalfields for 2017’s Every Valley. And you too seem to have come back down to earth this time after exploring the outer universe last time – channelling the world of nature.

“Yeah, we’ve brought it back down to earth, but in a sense it’s just another corner of the universe. We all talk about the universe being somewhere else, but we’re in the universe. The chair you’re sat in now is actually part of the universe.

“It’s the same with nature. You think it’s outside your window, but you are nature. We’re just animals who build caves and wear clothes. We’re not above or below. We’re just part of the whole thing. And it’s quite good to grab yourself back in with that reality.”

Environmental Troublemaker: Chris Packham, an honorary Membrane band member as of 2019 (Photo: BBC)

Quite right too. And while they didn’t manage to get Sir David Attenborough on this record, they did entice self-styled ‘Environmental troublemaker’, BBC nature presenter, music fan and all-round good egg Chris Packham along. The next big thing, yeah?

“In the context of what we’re doing he is the best thing, because Chris is a massive fan of punk and post-punk, and that’s how I met him. I interviewed him about his 10 favourite punk gigs for the website. It worked out we were both born on the same day. We’re also both massively into nature, so you can see there’s an inevitability that this was going to happen at some point.

“He didn’t really want to do it first. He said, ‘I’ll leave making records to the professionals.’ He’s such a worrier, such a perfectionist, but sent me the part, and I said, ‘That’s amazing’. He got the gist of the album in one paragraph. We spliced it into a track, and it sounds ace.”

There’s a great recent video clip of him, introducing his (and my) favourites The Undertones recently at Southampton’s Engine Rooms, while plugging socio-political movement Extinction Rebellion. He seemed fairly nervous in that stage announcement, but I guess it was nervous energy.

“I think for him those punk bands were so iconic in his life that he would be nervous in that situation. I don’t think he would be nervous in any other situation. That thing that affects you when you’re 16 affects you your whole life. It’s such a big deal.”

It’s a double album this time. Had you set out for that to be the case?

“No. but there were just so many songs that actually worked. In an order as well, so we kind of trapped ourselves into it having to be a double album. It would be far easier to make a single album with two instruments, but somehow this set its own course really.”

Does that mean – as a big Clash fan – you’ll be carrying on down the ‘40 years on’ line, moving on from a double album to a triple album, Sandinista! style – next year?

“You can only let the music dictate really. Sandinista! was flawed in parts, but kind of works and has to be what it is, y’know. And the idea of doing a triple album in the middle of punk was great as well. – when there were rules as to what you were allowed to do and not so.”

These days, co-founder John – his distinctive bass a cornerstop driving their distinctive ‘dark matter post-punk’ sound – is joined in The Membranes by long-time bandmate and fellow Blackpool lad Nick Brown (guitar, on board since 1982), plus Peter Byrchmore (guitar) and Rob Haynes (drums, both ex-Goldblade, from Birmingham and Manchester respectively), the latter pair joining in time for a My Bloody Valentine-led 2009 All Tomorrow’s Parties reunion.

We’ll also get the BIMM choir on Saturday, but what about Kirk Brandon – will he be joining them for an on-stage cameo?

“I’m gonna try and talk him into it.”

Last time I bumped into John was after a spectacular Mott the Hoople Class of ‘74 show at Manchester Academy, Ian Hunter’s Rant Band joined by 70-something legends Luther ‘Ariel Bender’ Grosvenor on guitar and Morgan Fisher on keyboards. And it just so happens that Ian turned 80 this week. He’s a lesson to us all about living life to the full as long as you can, right?

“He’s amazing, isn’t he. I interviewed him before that gig, and there’s no sign of slowing down. For many 80-year-olds, just getting out of a chair is difficult. The way he talks too. Some people pause because they lose track, but he’s not like that. It’s like talking it to someone who’s 40.

“He seemed totally on it. And at the gig, he was stood up nearly two hours. It’s quite intense doing a gig, and that’s physically powerful. And that gig was fucking amazing for what it was. I don’t care if he was 80 or 40, that was great! A proper rock’n’roll show with songs he did really passionately.”

Was there an element of you – like many others – reliving your youth in there? I recall you talking about Mott’s influence in our last conversation, not least getting to meet bass guitar hero Pete Overend Watts, who died shortly after, aged 69.

“A little. I was in the moment, and even though they were old songs it didn’t feel like a nostalgia thing. You can see a new band about for three months or you can see an old band playing 50-year-old songs and they’re just gigs. If a band plays in the moment with a passion, that’s what it is. You can’t get around that.”

It’s about doing it for all the right reasons, I guess, like a lot of the early punk and new wave bands still doing the rounds. The Undertones – who in recent years have engaged The Membranes as a support act – are just one great example of that.

“I think that generation of bands finally learned how to deal with their legacy. And ‘Teenage Kicks’ is a great song, so why not play it, y’know? Whereas with what I do, we just play one old song, changing that around. But we’re not lumbered with any hits! We don’t have 10 hits that people want to hear.

Choral Treat: The Membranes with the BIMM choir and BBC 6 Music’s Marc Riley in January 2016 (Photo: BIMM)

“It’s a disadvantage in that it makes life harder, but it’s an advantage because it gives us the freedom to do what we want. For bands like us and our ilk it’s all about the quest to move forward. But I don’t think either has got any moral higher ground. It just depends what works for your band.”

Finally, at a time when regional newspapers and the music press seem to be really struggling, your own Louder than War website and magazine provides a positive indicator that there really could be a future for independent sub-cultural writing after all. As a fellow writer who came from the fanzine world (Rox in his case) originally, I take something from that. It’s far from rosy surviving as a freelance writer, but you seem to do just that, bucking the trend.

“Yeah, but it’s not easy. You don’t make money out of websites. They’re a passion really, like instant fanzines in a sense, with larger, worldwide readership. But that doesn’t mean you can survive off the back of it. The passion is trying to get those ideas out to as many people as possible. We’re living in an odd time where people don’t get paid for working. The fuckers won, didn’t they!”

I’ve seen that in sports journalism too, for writers and photographers. People with good enough cameras and a desire to scribble off match reports are often just happy enough getting a byline on a story or photograph. As a knock-on effect, the chances of getting paid for those services are far slimmer.

“And as with music, once people don’t pay for something, they’re not going to start paying for it afterwards. Sustaining any kind of creativity in the 21st century is difficult. You feel for people who come into all this from less privileged backgrounds. How do they start?”

That seems a dispiriting line to end on, but all the time there are impassioned ‘doers’ on the scene like John – TV and radio’s go-to cultural talking head, author and musician – I reckon we’ll be okay. The DIY punk spirit lives on, against all odds.

Album Launch: The Membranes, on the door at The Ritz this weekend, hoping you’re down early enough

For December 2016’s feature/interview with John Robb on this website, head here. The Membranes, Henge, Queen Zee, Liines, The Pack, and Glove, play The Ritz, Whitworth Street West, Manchester, on Saturday, June 8th (4pm-10pm). For details try The Membranes website or the event’s Facebook page. And for tickets try SeeTickets or Skiddle.  

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Pip Blom / Talk Show / Jacob Slater – Band on the Wall, Manchester

The Venue: The Band on the Wall, Swan Street, in Manchester’s Northern Quarter (Photo: https://bandonthewall.org)

Champions League Final? Well, there was no way that could ever live up to either semi, and perhaps this was my show of support for Ajax, nipping down to Manchester, erm, City to catch another Amsterdam outfit with youth on their side and the promise of great things to come.

In fact, they’re already there on this showing, Pip Blom on stonking form on Saturday night in the intimate setting of the Northern Quarter’s Band on the Wall. What’s more, they mentioned mid-set how they’ve now played Manchester more than Amsterdam and London … the venues getting that little bit bigger each time.

I’m not sure if it was because there was a big match going on in Madrid, those who couldn’t make it there watching it elsewhere, but I somehow reached Swan Street within 45 minutes and was thus early for a gig for the first time in an eternity, with time to spare before the first support. And we youngest daughter and I were truly treated for our loyalty, by all three bands.

First Up: Hertfordshire’s Jacob Slater and his band impressed (Photo: lilylytton_photography)

We hadn’t realised there were two guest acts, but each impressed. There weren’t so many in for Jacob Slater, but the frontman enticed us to move closer, seizing the moment, a mighty seven-song, half-hour salvo showing true range and future promise, with plenty of big, wide soundscapes provided.

The first of three two-guitar acts, Hertfordshire-based Jacob and his band were good ’n’ loud, the throbbing bass and Thom Yorke-like lead vocal leaving a big impression on early song ‘Butterflies’. They carried a passion found in early U2, but with more catchy tunes for these ears, closer to The Stars of Heaven or Grant McLennan, voice-wise, with a few Cure-esque chord progressions thrown in, and real maturity in those melodies. And you couldn’t fault Jacob’s full-on passion throughout.

Not having checked stage times, I assumed the first support were actually the second. But next we got Talk Show, and they too impressed, the floor busier as we were treated to a South-East London outfit offering something different again but no less enthralling, stand-outs like the single ‘Fast and Loud’ carrying early Stranglers menace.

Think Happy Mondays with Flowered Up-like vocals, built on a Stone Roses-like rhythm section with plenty of raucous guitar. Frontman Harrison Swann certainly has stage presence, in our faces from the start, his bleached cropped tresses just visible in the front row as he jumped down with his highly-strapped guitar.

Second Service: Talk Show also went down a storm

His prancing struts with the bass player also entertained, the latter mooching around like Shaggy from Scooby Doo, while the lead guitarist preferred the moody approach and the first of the night’s eye-catching female drummers wore a smile as wide as the stage at times, loving every moment yet as good as collapsing on her kit after their most frenetic number. Another band to watch.

After those dynamic sets, Pip and her band had something to live up to, but did so in style, on a night that underlined that they’re a band on the cusp of big things. When they do hit those heights, we risk it not being half as intimate, but that’s not the point. It’s about the moment, and this show was perfect, not least in its occasional imperfections.

I get the impression Pip’s a reluctant or at least slightly self-conscious frontwoman, even if her band do take her name. And that’s neatly illustrated by her lining up on one flank while her brother, fellow guitarist and backing vocalist Tender, takes a mirror position. Yep, back to those football analogies. These are no wingless wonders.

Meanwhile, in the middle is the beating heart of this band, with Darek Mercks out front – in baseball cap and Beatles t-shirt – and Gini Cameron keeping it all together from the rear, Pip’s bass and drum duo giving the Blom siblings room for those Cruyff turns. And on that foundation comes not just raw guitar to make the heart surge, but also distinctive vocals, the blend of the pair often spot on.

At times they remind me of Blur, at others The Primitives, and occasionally The Breeders, Girls at our Best, The Sugarcubes, or even Elastica or Lush somewhere. But this is no retrogressive outfit. It’s more about an infusion of quality influences given a fresh twist, and thankfully all still rather raw.

Besides, perhaps I only bring to mind such acts because Pip Blom make me feel like I’m in my early 20s again, their music and presence with the power to pull that off. And it’s not just the Dutch roots setting them apart. There’s more to it than that, the love and excitement they inspire out on the floor working both ways, the band raising their game throughout.

They started without drama, just getting down to it, the wire flamingos on each side of the stage lit up in pink as the Wedding Present-like slow-build of Boat’s side two opener ‘Tinfoil’ took hold, pathing the way for one of my early favourites from that long player, ‘Don’t Make It Difficult’, then angular wonder ‘Tired’, with barely a half-beat lapsing before Pip strummed out the intro of lo-fi larrikin ‘School’ and they were off again, Darek’s chugging bass and Gini’s drum patterns laying down the foundation upon which the Bloms could carve out that gloriously scratchy guitar and vocal blend.

Ragged early single ‘Babies Are A Lie’ charmed next, the band fully warmed up, ready to tackle the wondrous ‘Ruby’, which grows on me with every play, bringing to mind early Catatonia or The Sundays.

Live Presence: Tender, Darek, Pip and Gini, proving a big hit on this side of the North Sea (Photo: Phil Smithies)

Harmonies remained a factor, Tender’s lower register perfectly complementing his sister’s lead vocal again on ‘Sorry’ -her personal favourite from Boat right now, she suggested – before familiar off-kilter bendy guitar ushered in playground bruiser ‘Come Home’, the band stoking up for a big finish.

Pip’s beaming smile at the crowd interaction was a joy to see, performance levels still rising, the band nothing short of electric as they tore into ‘I Think I’m In Love’, their first great pop indie pop exclamation mark – playing in my head on the lead-up to the LP’s release – followed by their next, the similarly-mighty ’Daddy Issues’.

For me the highpoint followed, our Dutch masters paring down, just Gini’s percussion and Pip and Tender’s harmonies there at the business end before they all stormed back in for a final no-holds barred chorus. Sublime.

And where from there? I kind of hoped for at least a couple more Boat selections, maybe with the splendid ‘Set of Stairs’ followed by the brooding ‘Aha’. But instead themoggy-licious ‘Pussycat’ served that same ‘big canvas’ purpose, providing a gloriously-grand, rip-roaring finish. All power to their fretboards, and here’s to the next visit, which can’t come soon enough.

Boat People: From the left, Darek Mercks, Pip Blom, Gini Cameron, Tender Blom (Photo: Raymond Van Mill)

To catch up with WriteWyattUK’s recent interview with Pip Blom, head here.  And for more about the band, new album Boat, remaining early summer dates, festival appearances and newly-revealed details of autumn European (and yes, the UK is still part of all that, he adds huffily) and US tours,  try their official website and follow the band via FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.  

You can also check out Jacob Slater via his Facebook and Soundcloud pages and find out more about Talk Show here.

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The Rutles – The Continental, Preston

At the risk of patronising several accomplished acts, there have been some quality Beatles copyists treading the boards or taking to the studio to emulate the Fab Four over the past five decades, and I’ve a lot of respect for many carrying on that missionary work.

From The Byrds and The Monkees to Badfinger and the Electric Light Orchestra, and from Squeeze and XTC to Crowded House then Oasis and Ocean Colour Scene, all added extra colour from the original palette.

We don’t even need to talk tribute acts here, gifted as past WriteWyattUK interviewees The Bootleg Beatles have proved to be. Because for me just one act truly honoured Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr’s creative legacy then took that premise on, even if their co-creator, Neil Innes, suggests the whole concept was merely ‘a good idea at the time’.

If you’ve seen The Rutles live you’ll know they still have that ‘Something’ about them, 44 years after initial small screen retrospective recognition in a Rutland Weekend Television sketch. And while that link goes back to 1975, the band’s history suggests it all really began 60 years ago at 43 Egg Lane, Liverpool, when Ron Nasty and Dirk McQuickly first bumped into each other, Ron inviting Dirk to help him up, the pair soon joined by ‘guitarist of no fixed hairstyle’ Stig O’Hara and drummer Barrington Womble, the others persuading the latter to shorten his name to save time and his haircut to save Brylcreem.

It can get a tad confusing with so many overlapping moments in the timeline, not least as Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band maestro Innes, aka Ron Nasty in this guise, pays tribute to legendary fifth Rutle, George Harrison, during their live show, recalling how the youngest Beatle was so impressed with their work that he formed his own Rutles tribute act, the Traveling Wilburys.

But he repaid that compliment by covering ‘Handle With Care’, and we later experienced an emotional take on Harrison’s gorgerous ‘All Things Must Pass’, the original band pastiche long since replaced by something far more durable and inspired.

Neil Desperandum: Ron Nasty’s alter-ego, Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah legend and genius songsmith, Neil Innes

Innes’ own Beatles links go back some distance, Paul McCartney producing ‘I’m an Urban Spaceman’ and the Bonzos guesting on Magical Mystery Tour. Meanwhile, newest recruit David Catlin-Birch, once with World Party, was the original Paul in The Bootleg Beatles and also featured with the Bonzos (as well as with WriteWyattUK Slade hero Jim Lea), while John Halsey, aka Barry Wom, has his own impressive history, drumming credits including Lou Reed’s Transformer and past tour credits including those with Joe Cocker (as was the case with Catlin-Birch) and The Scaffold (yep, both with Beatles links).

I won’t go too deep into the back-story, but apparently the first album was made in 20 minutes and the second took even longer. You probably know that already though. And if not, read up or sit back and marvel at 1978’s All You Need is Cash, for whom George was executive producer, wondering why you’ve not seen it before. For me, it leaves This Is Spinal Tap standing there (whoo).

While Monty Python’s Eric Idle, who played Dirk, wasn’t part of the touring band, Innes (vocals, guitar, banjo, ukulele, keyboards) and Halsey (drums, vocals) were from day one, and with Catlin-Birch (bass/vocals), Rutling Ken Thornton (guitar, vocals), and Phil Jackson (keyboards, vocals), there’s amazing musical pedigree here.

This ‘occasional supergroup’ of sorts were certainly on toppermost of the toppermost form for this Get Up and Go Again tour outing, the Prefab Four launching straight into the hits, classic Parlourphone single ’I Must Be in Love’ – the song most of us knew first – just as fresh all those decades on.

‘It’s Looking Good’, memorably part of the Che Stadium set and a cornerstone of the influential Rutle Soul album, and the Twist and Rut EP’s ‘Baby Let Me Be’ saw the band step up a gear, while ‘Major Happy’s Up and Coming Once Upon a Good Time Band’ gave us a first taste of the benchmark Sergeant Rutter’s One and Only Darts Club Band, Bob Dylan having by then introduced them to a substance that would have a huge impact on their work, tea, that track neatly segueing into ‘Rendezvous’, Barry leading from the rear.

‘Questionnaire’ and ‘Piggy in the Middle’ reminded us of the jewels within the major flop that was  Tragical History Tour, the music outshining the critically-slammed concept of four Oxford history professors on a walking tour of English tea shops, while ‘Ouch!’ saw the band revisit happier cinematic times, the follow-up to A Hard Day’s Rut – this time shot in colour – another hit for zany Rutland director Dick Leicestershire.

Wom Direction: John Halsey, aka Barry Wom, the Rutles drumming legend who famously once took to his bed for a year as a tax dodge

Shabby Road’s ‘Eine Kleine Middle Klasse Musik’ saw Catlin-Birch take lead vocals, while ‘Nevertheless’ and ‘Joe Public’ again showed the true depth of this band’s influential Rutolver era, before Meet the Rutles’ ‘Between Us’ took us back to simpler days and ‘Living in Hope’ saw Barry back on lead vocals, that song playing in my head for the next couple of days, searching the house for my dog-eared copy of Rutles for Sale.

After Sergeant Rutter’s evocative ‘The Knicker Elastic King’ we were back to the early days via ‘Number One’ and ‘Hold My Hand’, reminders of a spell when Rutlemania was taking the world by storm. And while ‘Love Life’ perfectly encapsulated the band’s hippie era, ‘Let’s be Natural’ again proved the might of Innes’ songcraft beneath the parody. A classic in his own write, you could say.

After the first of two great sets, it seemed that many of the better-known numbers had already been ticked off. But there were many more highlights to come, the band returning with ‘Doubleback Alley’, ‘Good Times Roll’ and early ballad ‘A Girl Like You’ on the lead-up to Barry’s ‘Easy Listening’ (‘Why don’t we do it in the middle of the road?’), the Conti‘s main room soon awash in a sea of lit-up mobile phones for a modern twist on the anthemic ‘Shangri-La’. Altogether now, ‘Lah-de-doo-dah, lah-de-dah, here we are in Shangri-La’.

Talking of anthemic … do I have to spell it out? Yep, ‘Cheese and Onions’ made me wonder if I’d supped too much tea on the build-up, the iconic Yellow Submarine Sandwich honoured. And they were building momentum again, later Innes masterpiece, ‘Imitation Song’ painting that bigger picture, the main-man admitting pride at his own wordplay with ‘Blue Suede Schubert’, a number I seem to recall they were belting out in those seminal Rat Keller days in Hamburg (when Leppo was still in the band, before Bolton retail chemist Leggy Mountbatten took them on, attracted by the tight trousers).

Next came a timely dedication to newly-homeless Theresa May on ‘Goose-step Mama’, a track first laid down on the Silver Rutles’ demos, and soon the set reached its dramatic finale, Rutles Corps-era rooftop wonder ‘Get up and Go’, melding into Lennon/McCartney masterpiece ‘The End’, Barry once more taking a tour around his kit, while Catlin-Birch, Thornton and Jackson took their own instrumental lap of honour.

And there was none of this shuffling off stage and back on again business. Instead they hung around, Halsey leaning on his stick and heading to the side of the stage to accompany fellow 74-year-old Innes and their bandmates on ‘Back in ’64’, a lower-key, contemplative end to another special night in The Rutles’ company. Pure genius.

With respect to Rob Talbot, for managing to book The Rutles, who next turn up at the Brudenell Club, Leeds (Saturday, June 1st), The Gorilla, Manchester (Sunday, June 2nd), Robin 2 ,Bilston (Tuesday, June 4th), The Lemon Grove, Exeter (Thursday, June 6th), Komedia, Bath (Friday, June 7th), The Assembly, Leamington Spa (Saturday, June 8th), Norwich Arts Centre (Sunday, June 9th), and Colchester Arts Centre (Monday, June 10th). For tickets and details of all those shows and more Rutles happenings, head to their Facebook events page. And for further info about the band, head to this website.

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Whatever floats your Boat – the Pip Blom interview

Band Substance: Pip Blom are heading our way again, this time with their debut album tucked under their arms. From left – Darek Mercks, Pip Blom, Gini Cameron, Tender Blom.  (Photo: Raymond Van Mill)

In a sense, perhaps it was almost inevitable that Pip Blom would follow her parents into the alternative music market.

It’s now three years since this Amsterdam-based singer-songwriter first shared her somewhat raw, lo-fi brand of indie guitar pop with us, the voice and her style leading to arguably lazy comparisons with Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett, as well as established US alt-rock outfit The Breeders, with whom they later toured.

But this is not a band just happy to follow. They’re more about finding their own distinct shipping lane, as Pip and her brother/bandmate Tender’s father, Erwin Blom did with his band, post-punk John Peel favourites Eton Crop, back in the ’80s. And the band that share Pip’s name certainly remain as fresh and exciting now as on day one, judging by my initial listen to debut album Boat, which is out tomorrow (Friday, May 31st).

These days, they’re recognised as being at the forefront of a number of emerging outfits from the Netherlands turning heads on this side of the North Sea, including friends Canshaker Pi and The Homesick. And it just so happens that Pip and Tender’s Dad and Mum – Leonieke Daalder, the ex-Eton Crop sound engineer who set up a successful alternative music blog with Erwin – have in recent years pitched in to help get the band off the ground.

And right now, Pip, fellow guitarist/vocalist Tender and bandmates Gini Cameron (drums) and Darek Mercks (bass) are on this side of the water, part-way through their latest UK tour, your scribe tracking them down in Milton Keynes on Monday – ‘day five’ – after their Sheffield debut the previous evening. So how was The Leadmill?

“It was so much fun. We’d never played in Sheffield before, so weren’t really sure what to expect. But it was very busy and full of enthusiastic people. It was amazing.”

After dates in Milton Keynes then a sell-out at Cambridge, tonight they’re at Reading’s South Street Arts Centre (Thursday, May 30th, also now sold out), with an official album launch date at Rough Trade East in Brick Lane, London E1 (Friday, May 31st) following, before they come closer to my patch the following evening, giving me Champions League final complications as they pitch up at Band on the Wall in Manchester’s Northern Quarter (Saturday, June 1st). Remember that episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? where they try to avoid seeing how the match panned out? That could well be me late on Saturday night.

Anyway, I digress. You’ve played Manchester a few times before, haven’t you?

“Quite a few times. We’ve played The Castle, The Night and Day (Café), and the Soup Kitchen.”

And now we’re awaiting the release of the debut LP, Boat, largely recorded on this side of the water, at Big Jelly Studios, Ramsgate, Kent.

“Yeah, released this Friday! Really exciting!”

Indeed. Tell me why it’s called Boat.

“Now that’s a good question. It hasn’t got anything to do with the songs. I just really like the word. It’s a cool word, it suits us, it’s not too difficult or too fancy. We came up with the name before we made the record. With my boyfriend we always talk about cool names for bands or records, and I loved it as a name. deciding our first record had to be called Boat.”

And hopefully it will turn out to be a ferry good vehicle for you (sorry, I couldn’t resist that).

“Yeah, and we use it quite often when we come over to the UK.”

As well as the album launch at Rough Trade East, could we persuade you to do a northern launch too? Either at Action Records in Preston, who recently successfully hosted Fontaines D.C., or perhaps even Preston Docks would be perfect.

“Well, first we planned to do launch parties on boats, but it was very difficult and very expensive. Maybe when we get a bit bigger. Ha! Then maybe we can afford it.”

Your Manchester show signals a tour mid-point, with great reaction so far on this side of the North Sea, by all accounts … including a few sell-outs.

“Yeah, it’s amazing, and the ones that don’t sell out are also very busy. I think that’s a good sign, isn’t it?”

Park Life: Pip Blom and the band that take her name modle their boating apparel: (Photo: Phil Smithies)

Park Life: Pip Blom and the band that take her name model their boating apparel. From left – Tender Blom, Darek Mercks, Pip Blom, Gini Cameron (Photo: Phil Smithies)

Absolutely, and having seen Robert Forster at the Band on the Wall recently, it should prove a winning venue for pip too, I’d say. Getting back to Boat though, how long would you say this album’s been in the making? It seems that most of the songs are unreleased in any other format.

“We’ve got two singles out – ‘Daddy Issues’ and ‘Ruby’ and finished the album at the end of October. I think I’d been writing for half a year to a year max. We then practised the songs together over a month and recorded it in 16 days.”

I understand you made your first recordings at home.

“Yeah, and I still do that with demos, for example ‘School’ was a home recording. It’s something I really like doing, and we used lots of the tracks I recorded – like guitar or vocal parts – for the album, so it’s a combination of both.”

Her first two bandmates were schoolfriends, adding bass and drums, but they didn’t stick around long, the band evolving into what Pip has now, interest and support from BBC 6 Music helping spread the word. And home is still – between numerous live shows – central Amsterdam?

“It is. We call it Watergraafsmeer, but that’s a difficult name for you guys to pronounce!”

Indeed. You put us to shame when it comes to language. Of course, it’s your name on the records, but clearly there’s a team, band vibe to everything you do.

“Definitely. It’s really nice. We are four people and one is my brother, which is nice. I really like being in a band with him. It’s so much fun. Then we have Gini and Darek, the new bass player, although we did record the album with him so it’s our album – the four of us, and it’s such an amazing asset to the band.”

Out of interest, Pip is 22, with her brother turning 21 two days after the Manchester show. And who would Pip consider major influences on this side of the water?

“I think Micachu and the Shapes are my biggest influence. They’re London-based, I don’t think they exist anymore, but Mica Levi is the brains behind them and makes music for movies. They’re so cool. At the minute I’m also really into Sorry, although I started listening to them after writing the songs on this album. There are so many really cool bands.”

In fact, Sorry were one of the London outfits featuring on a Holly Whitaker-directed video for the band’s ‘Babies Are A Lie’ release, also involving cameos for Shame and past WriteWyattUK interviewees Goat Girl.

And there’s been a strong UK link from the start, the band only having played three shows in the Netherlands before three more over here, publicising an initial Spotify release Pip put together at home, at which point there was no band, initial social media interest stepping things up. Apparently, they toured here seven times in 2017 alone, starting to build a following. I’m guessing it’s now their second home, having spent so long here.

“Yeah, we’re here almost once a month, so you could say that!”

Were you aware of what your Dad was up to with his band when you were growing up, or did Eton Crop’s cult following and support from legendary DJ John Peel only really become apparent later?

“Well, I did know what he did with the band, because he always told stories about that, but it was really nice recently playing with them at the John Peel Centre (for Creative Arts, Stowmarket, Suffolk).

“That was so much fun, our two bands together and lots of people who knew each other. A very special moment. I really like seeing them touring as well, and playing gigs in the UK. He’s showed us lots of videos and pictures, all that kind of stuff. I thought it was so cool.”

That shared bill was organised for 2019’s Independent Venue Week, and came just a few short years after Pip made her own live solo debut supporting … Eton Crop, actually.

The latest appearance was the idea of Peel’s widow and close family friend Sheila Ravenscroft, Eton Crop having recorded five sessions for BBC Radio 1’s John Peel Show from 1985/88, becoming close.

Crop Tops: Eton Crop’s Corne Bros, Erwin Blom and Ingmar van Wijnsberge lead from the front in the snug at the Conti for Un-Peeled 2016 (Photo: Erika Gyökér)

And I was certainly impressed with Eton Crop when they played Tuff Life Boogie’s UnPeeled celebration at the Continental, Preston in late October 2016, I told Pip.

“Ah, that’s cool!”

Your Mum was a big influence on you too, I believe.

“Yes, she was sound engineer for Eton Crop, my Dad’s band, and also started a Dutch music platform with my Dad about alternative music, both Dutch and international, working there for around 15 years. She’s always been very passionate about music.”

There have been notable shared bills along the way, such as you supporting The Breeders.

“Yeah, we did. That was a dream come true. If we’re talking about influences, Kim Deal was definitely one of the coolest people on earth, so to play 14 shows with them, being able to see them play every night, that was really cool.”

Pip’s first live experience came playing her Dad’s three-string guitar in a songwriting competition in Amsterdam. On progressing to the semi-final stage, she realised she had to write more songs to fill a half-hour set, the die cast for a career of her own in music. So did Pip, who has also expressed an appreciation of fellow late ‘80s and ‘90s successes Blur and Pavement, come straight into all this from student days?

“I finished high school, but none of us studied after that … except for Darek, who studied music, so he’s the one who knows what he’s doing – the rest of us are just kind of fiddling around!”

And does this feel like a full-time job yet, or is that pinning too much on it?

“No, it definitely is. We’re not getting paid like it’s a full-time, but we invest our time in it like it is, and that’s all fine because it takes us to places we otherwise would never have seen. I think it’s one of the most fun things to do. It’s really cool.“

After these dates, it’s summer festival season, including the Deer Shed, Leeds and Reading appearances, the latter in particular a big name over the years.

“Yeah, definitely, and also we are set to play Mad Cool in Spain and Nos Alive in Portugal (both early July), travelling all over, not just the UK. All fun, we can hope!”

Are there more UK dates later this year?

“Yeah, with one really big tour planned, to be announced after this tour is done, and quite a few festival dates that haven’t been announced yet.”

She was being a little Secret Squirrel there, I might add, the following day announcing that they were in fact the opening act on the John Peel stage at Glastonbury Festival at the end of June. Very apt considering the band’s and the family’s history.

And while that promises to be another dream come true, I guess there have been venues they’ve already played where it’s suddenly struck Pip and her band that this is what they appear to be doing for a living now.

“Mmm. Well, when we got to support The Breeders we got to play huge venues, and when we played the Roundhouse it was really weird. But it’s not about size of venue. The most important thing is that there are people. You can play a 600-cap. venue, but if there’s no one there …”

I don’t reckon that will be an issue now. This band are clearly on the up. And rightly so.

Frequent Visitors: Pip Blom, back in the UK and bringing their own Boat this time. From left – Pip and Tender Blom, Gini Cameron, Darek Mercks (Photo: Phil Smithies)

Pip Blom’s debut album, Boat, is out this Friday, May 31, with pre-orders available here. For full details of the remaining dates on this tour, festival appearances, and more, try their official website, and follow the band via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  

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