Rock’n’roll royalty – In conversation with The Subways’ Billy Lunn

Underground Overground: The Subways. From the left: Billy Lunn, Charlotte Cooper, Josh Morgan

Underground Overground: The Subways. From the left: Billy Lunn, Charlotte Cooper, Josh Morgan

The words exciting, explosive and thrilling get used a lot when The Subways are brought up in conversation.

A lot of exclamation marks are used too, especially when you’re in conference with the band’s front-man Billy Lunn via an email Q&A.

I’d have much preferred a face-to-face one-to-one or even a phone call, but he’s been a busy lad and our schedules didn’t match. And while I might have sneaked a few more questions in here and there, Billy came up trumps all the same.

Space ruled out using all his added punctuation, but hopefully you get the gist all the same. Sometimes the words tell their own story.

And anyone who’s witnessed the band live, enjoyed their first three albums and hits like Rock’n’Roll Queen and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, will know exactly what they’re all about.

You can even tell that energy from the song names, including 2011’s life-affirming It’s a Party! and We Don’t Need Money To Have A Good Time or most recent single My Heart Is Pumping to a Brand New Beat.

And right now the Welwyn Garden City trio are testing their fan-base’s adulation with a fresh approach for their new album launch.

With the old days of big-money record company advances long gone, the band are running a pre-order campaign for their upcoming release.

On the back of the success of Young for Eternity, All or Nothing and Money and Celebrity, the new album – simply The Subways - is out in two segments, albeit as a less-than imaginatively-titled Part 1 and Part 2.

artworks-000080636682-l38hv7-t500x500And in what they believe to be a first, if you pre-order in any format via PledgeMusic or iTunes, you receive six-track Part 1 as a download straight away.

They have also commissioned comic-style artwork, although details of Part 2 remain a secret until closer to February’s official release.

But those heading to see them on their latest UK tour will get to hear a few of those new tracks, prompting me to put to guitarist/lead singer Billy that these remain exciting times for his band.

“Very! This album has been in the pipeline for a while now, and we’re all just excited to get out there and play these songs for everybody.”

The first fruits of the new material were unearthed with My Heart Is Pumping … What’s the fans’ reaction been like?

“As always, the reaction has been amazing. Our fans are the best. We just can’t wait for them to hear the whole album now.”

Anyone who knows this tight-knit band recognises Billy as the frantic one out front, with similarly-infectious input from bass player and co-vocalist Charlotte Cooper and drummer Josh Morgan.

So how do they best sum up the new album? Is it frenetic in places? Or is there a new maturity to the band?

“I’ve been reading the canon of English and foreign literature, so you may notice there are some references secretly peppered in places. But mostly it’s us rocking out, having fun and spreading the love!”

It’s been a typically-busy summer for The Subways, with trips to the Czech Republic and Germany following appearances at Glastonbury, Frequency, Hurricane and Southside to name but four festivals. All that, plus new recordings too.

476716804_640“I think you may have nearly covered it all there, but we have had a really great time at all the festivals so far.

“The album was recorded in a studio near to where I live. I engineered, produced and mixed the album, so it’s 100% our record this time!”

When I saw The Subways at the Ritz in Manchester in May 2012 – in the company of old workmate Bryan Walker, who’d been raving about them for some time – I found them pretty intoxicating to say the least. Does Billy remain as excitable as ever up on stage?

“I just feel so lucky to be doing what I do every single day. It’s hard not to wake up and get excited at what the day holds – life is amazing!”

While no less ‘on a high’ on stage, The Subways’ front-man quit the booze a while back, something he reckons gave him a new outlook on life.

“I haven’t touched a drop before going onstage for a good few years now, but I’m fully teetotal when off tour too.

“I find that the high comes from the audience, and from the joy of getting to play music with my two best friends onstage.”

41MTGKQ8VZLAlmost unbelievably, next July will mark a decade since the band’s explosive debut LP, Young for Eternity. Have you been proved wrong yet? Any sign of grey hairs yet?

“More than I’m willing to count!”

This time it’s a self-produced album. What made the band want to go down that road?

“We’ve learned a lot, having worked on the last three albums with three world-class producers, so it was hard not to become interested in the process and want to eventually give it a go ourselves.

“I’ve also personally recorded and mixed all our demos before each album, and on our latest set of demos, Stephen Street was quite impressed. I decided that, yeah, I’d like to give it a go from now on.”

The Subways have certainly had some high-profile help so far, from Lightning Seeds supremo Ian Broudie to Garbage drummer and Nirvana-producer Butch Vig and the afore-mentioned ex-Blur and The Smiths producer Stephen Street.

Did they take something different from the individual experiences of working with each of those producers?

“Definitely. A lot of what I learned in the live room was from Ian, a lot of what goes on in the control room was from Butch, and how I dealt with the structure of the songs and the album itself comes from Stephen.

“I’m very lucky to have had these incredibly talented guys to learn from.”

The band are currently part-way through a month of dates up to November 1’s visit to Norwich, their first full tour in a couple of years. Did the size of the schedule fill them with dread, or at least make them feel a little nervous?

“We recently looked over the schedule and all of us nearly peed with excitement! We always find it strange that some bands don’t like going on tour. It’s the best thing in the world.”

the-subways-all-or-nothingThere are still just the three of them, but like a few notable trios over the decades – I’d mention The Jam, and no doubt they would include Green Day – they seem to have all the power (and more) they could possibly need.

“Thank you! We find that with only three of us, each part is essential. That always keeps us thinking, always keeps things exciting, and is way more punk that way too. Minimal and powerful is our philosophy.”

It’s an interesting set-up within the band, with Billy and Josh being brothers – yeah, I know, despite the names – and Billy and Charlotte … erm, ‘no longer in a relationship’, as the Facebook generation might put it.

I’m guessing they still get on well though, despite a fair amount of living in each other’s pockets this past decade. Do the sibling and ex-partner links help or hinder?

“If anything, after all that we’ve been through together, the fights and the tears and the arguing, we love and respect each other so much more. We feel lucky that we are so close.”

Do they still have recordings from their teen days, playing Green Day and Nirvana covers as Mustardseed back in 2002? And how do they sound to less green ears now?

“I haven’t listened to our really old stuff recently. Maybe I had a few sessions a while ago of going back and reminiscing and reworking old ideas, but maybe I should give them a new go. It’ll be funny … and embarrassing!”

Is Hertfordshire still home to the band?

“I still live in the town next to where I went to school, close to all my friends and family. Josh and Charlotte have sold out and moved far away though! Ha ha!”

1315845918_the_subways_-_money_and_celebrity__2011_The band’s big break followed Michael Eavis’s support after they sent the veteran Glastonbury promoter a demo.  How crucial was that initial 2004 booking in helping build a following?

“It was huge for us. Without that Glastonbury competition, we wouldn’t have been able to book our first UK tour later that year or sign with Warner on the last date of that tour. I can’t stress how amazing that gig was for us!”

The late Radio 1 legend John Peel – sadly lost a full decade ago now – gave the band their first national radio airing. Is there anyone out there offering similar service to up and coming bands today?

“Zane Lowe does a really good job on Radio 1, but I think XFM is where it’s at for the new alternative bands. Those guys are always shaking up their playlist, and giving bands a shot when they really need it!”

What can we expect on this tour? Will it mostly be the new album being aired, with a few old favourites thrown in?

“It’ll be a big mix – there will be probably half of the new album, plus lots of old favourites! Maybe we’ll even take requests. Ha ha!”

Finally, I’m still getting palpitations thinking about Billy jumping off a high balcony with his guitar at The Ritz last time I saw them live. Does he still enjoy a little crowd-surfing at gigs?

“My mum always tells me off still, but if I look around and spot a good place to jump from, I still get that urge to satisfy my thrill-seeking quality. I just can’t help it!”

Skies Above: The Subways (Photo: Steve Gullick)

Skies Above: The Subways (Photo: Steve Gullick)

For the writewyattuk verdict on The Subways at The Ritz in Manchester in May, 2012, head here.

The Subways are at Aberdeen Tunnels on Friday, October 24, Preston’s 53 Degrees on Saturday, October 25, and Derby Venue on Monday, October 27.

They then head to Peterborough Met Lounge (October 28), Cambridge The Portland Arms (October 29), Oxford 02 Academy (October 31) and Norwich Owl Sanctuary (November 1).

Grandmunster Slam follows in Germany on December 13, with more dates in mainland Europe in February and March before a return to the UK and further dates.

For full tour details and how to go about pre-ordering the new album, head to the band’s website here.

This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, published on October 23rd, 2014. For the original online version, try here

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Really Glad You Came – a re-appraisal of the Ian Dury record collection

IanDury_Vinyl_2DI finally got around to seeing 2010 Ian Dury bio-pic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll a couple of weeks ago.

I’d resisted before, having read Richard Balls’ 2000 excellent Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll: The Life of Ian Dury biography of the man himself, and not being too keen on revisiting some of the more sordid ins-and-outs.

Needless to say, it was a great film though, Paul Viragh’s script and intricate touches like the graphics by Ian’s esteemed art tutor Peter Blake ensuring a creative take on a tale I knew pretty well.

Andy Serkis was a natural in the lead role, and the same went for many of those around him, not least Bill Milner as Ian’s son Baxter Dury, Tom Hughes as Chaz Jankel, Olivia Williams as Ian’s first wife Betty, and Naomie Harris as his girlfriend Denise Roudette.

I took a similar stance when it came to reviewing Ian’s back catalogue, feeling the same reluctance about rediscovering those eight LPs or the Kilburn and the High Roads records that preceded them.

Besides, surely the 2005 double-CD Reasons to be Cheerful compilation told the story just as well

I loved Ian’s 1977 debut LP, New Boots and Panties, and a few tracks here and there from those that followed, and held 1997’s Mr Love Pants in high esteem, the latter showing Ian in the best possible light after a number of near-misses and not-so-special moments.

I hadn’t properly listened to any of those recordings for a while, and took Edsel Records’ Ian Dury: The Vinyl Collection, featuring all eight studio LPs on 180g vinyl (with an added bonus disc in the CD version, Ian Dury: The Studio Collection) with a degree of scepticism.

But I was wrong, and in the same way that this legendary Harrow-born artist once revealed he was Really Glad You Came, I’m pleased I went back and properly listened again, from start to finish.

Ian Dury.03As the sleeve-notes remind us, Ian was ‘a rock’n’roll vagabond with the wit and intelligence of Noël Coward and Oscar Wilde’. And there’s no denying that.

Furthermore, it points to his ‘verbal dexterity as an entertainer and a lyric writer’ and talks about a ‘true Renaissance man – a talented painter, musician and actor who left behind a body of work that continues to amuse, impress and delight to this day’. Right again.

I felt you could surmise that much from the singles alone, though. And only a few of those actually ended up on the albums.

But as it turns out, the long players perhaps give us more clues as to the full story of this enigmatic and often-troubled entertainer.

I was lucky enough to see him live a couple of times, at a benefit for cancer victim Charley Charles in September ’90 – barely three weeks after the drummer’s death – at Kentish Town’s Town and Country Club, and later supporting Madness at nearby Finsbury Park in August ’92.

I’ve since seen The Blockheads live too, with Ian’s former helper Derek the Draw up front these days, a fair proportion of that talented band that helped ensure his success enjoying a fresh lease of life, and as shit-hot today as all those years ago.

While Ian and Charley are no longer with us, and Wilko Johnson’s a star in his own right, you still get to see Chas Jankel, Norman Watt-Roy, Johnny Turnbull, Mickey Gallagher and Davey Payne – to name but five Blockhead legends – on the same stage, still at the top of their game.

So what of the albums themselves? Well, I thought it was time to pin back the Britneys and try and listen afresh. And while there were a fair few lows en route, there are some proper corkers too, and maybe no true fan can rightly be without this collection.

My task of re-evaluating Ian’s 1977-98 track record was never going to be easy, and turned out to be a mightier project than I might even have envisaged.

As a disclaimer, I might add that other reviews are available. I’m bound to miss out some key facts or get history slightly upside down at times, but I’ve given it a good go, and hope I’ve done Ian and his band-mates over the years some credit.

In short, I’m really glad I came back to this back-catalogue, appreciating the good, the bad and the downright groovy recorded moments of a lost genius.

95ad52e2cdc61f06f3021cb1677a4f11New Boots and Panties!! (1977)

From that memorable Chaz Jankel piano intro and unmistakable Norman Watt-Roy bass line to that naughty Dury vocal, Wake Up And Make Love With Me is the perfect opener to ID canon.

I had the Live Stiffs version on cassette once, and that had a similar effect. Back then – and I was too young to discover it first time around, I might add – New Boots was an album to play when the folks were out. But times change – and now it’s one to play when my own children are out.

Next is the glorious Sweet Gene Vincent, in turns poignant and celebratory, a fitting tribute to a rock’n’roll legend by one who soon became one himself, Ian’s quick-fire but measured word rap never sounding tired.

His wordsmithery was there from day one, that highly-effective London lyrical lingo ensuring we’d always be Partial To Your Abracadabra, and like the album’s opener he lands just on the right side of obscene in a song with a true ’70s feel.

My Old Man is something of a hymn or elegy to working class roots, yet reveals something of a complicated character behind the more obvious caricature. And that in turn explains some of Ian’s own verve.

Died before we’d done too much talking’ is a line that always gets me, yet it’s never over-sentimental and is all the stronger for that. And all the time he’s backed up by that glorious life-affirming sax and hypnotically-off-centre bass.

From the famous spoken opening, Billericay Dickie is a fantastic introduction to Ian’s special world of well-drawn misfit characters, those charming rhyming couplets leading a modern take on a music hall meets dirty postcard world view.

Chaz’s glorious swirling keyboard and that chop guitar is a backdrop to Ian’s uncomplicated yet sublime monotone performance poetry on Clevor Trever. He’d have been a star just with a mic in his hand, but it turned out that he had those wonderful musicians behind him. And, ‘Also, it takes much longer to get up north … the slow way.”

On the face of it If I Was With A Woman is Wake Up part two, something of an alternative disco anthem of its age. Yet it also points to the more unseemly side of a complex character. Supposedly written on the rebound from a relationship, it’s pretty unpalatable and perhaps the only filler on an amazing debut LP.

Sitting DownWe’re back on track with pub rock’n’roll anthem Blockheads though, shouty and gloriously shambolic. And what appears to be out-and-out shaming of the misfit and mob mentality, turns out to be a celebration of an under-class – observational, not judgemental.

Then again, ‘Imagine finding one in your laundry basket’.

Plaistow Patricia was never one for the faint-hearted, and I wonder how many of us fell foul of playing this on the family stereo. Reckon you can get the intro as a ringtone? But while this ‘lawless brat from a council flat’ was a great reason for keeping well away from the Mile End Road, Ian paints her in a more positive light by the end.

The album’s darker side climaxes with the punk noise of Blackmail Man. Yet for all its anger and railing against the nasties, it carries another fine display of Cockney slang, Ian getting a load off his bird’s nest. Maybe that sums him up – even when he was on great form, you wanted to look away sometimes.

I’d have gladly had Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll on here instead of a couple of tracks.

But Ian wasn’t one for including singles. That said, at least seven tracks on this often-raucous debut stand the test of time and this remained one of his finest creations, a portfolio he’d been working towards since those formative High Roads days.

And there aren’t that many artists from that era – despite all the dewy-eyed nostalgia – that managed such a strong first album.

ian-dury-yourself-73Do It Yourself (1979)

It’s what’s missing from this album that’s striking, not least the defining 1978 singles that ensured Ian’s fame – the wondrous What a Waste and Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick – and masterful b-side There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards.

But The Blockheads had well and truly arrived. While Chaz Jankel, Norman Watt-Roy, Charley Charles and Davey Payne were there before, this time the band’s new name appeared on the cover.

Inbetweenies was a promising start for an album on which Ian and Chaz were again the chief architects, the latter steering his paymaster towards a laid-back part-jazzy part-Steely Dan feel, aided by new Blockheads John Turnbull (guitar) and Mickey Gallagher (keyboards).

There are shortcomings, and at first you might think we’re working with New Boots and Panties leftovers. By all accounts Ian was proving hard work in the studio, to the point where it was suggested he just came in to do his vocals. Band dynamics would remain troublesome, with sax player Davey a further loose canon. But that tension sometimes added to the mix.

Despite the disquiet, the album sold 200,000 copies and was only kept off the top of the charts by Abba’s Voulez Vous, and Quiet and Don’t Ask Me suggest a great band with a distinctive feel behind an often inventive and witty lyric.

Sink My Boats has a very ‘70s sound, but it was ambitious, and Ian was at his more melodic, while The Blockheads proved inventive enough. They were more radio-friendly too, although perhaps not as explosive.

Waiting For Your Taxi is more of a b-side but allows the band to flex their musical muscles, with Davey on fine form, while This Is What We Find showcases Ian’s word-heavy poetic side, not least in the verse about DIY advocate Harold Hill of Harold Hill.

The argumentative Uneasy Sunny Day Hotsy Totsy and Mischief suggest a genealogical link with Stiff stable-mates Madness, and although Ian seems low in the mix on the latter, it works.

The band are back in off-centre dancefloor mode for Dance For The Screamers, maybe a pre-cursor of Spasticus, although I think you can tell there are two elements at play – Ian doing his thing and The Blockheads their own.

But Lullaby for Francies shows Ian and his band at their best, and is a song The Blockheads play to this day. I also recall them signing off with this back in 1990, with a big photo of the sadly-departed Charley as the stage backdrop.

Think Ian tackling the pensive part of Sweet Gene Vincent to a Trojan Records era Ken Boothe or John Holt feel. Dreamy, and quite perfect.

As great a closer as that was though, the best was yet to be recorded, Reasons to be Cheerful Pt. 3 following behind, the band’s place in the history of pop assured.

They were at the top of their game in many respects, with high hopes of that continuing when April 1980 saw Ian and Mickey’s statement of intent I Wanna Be Straight released.

With former Dr Feelgood inspiration Wilko Johnson now on board, the future looked bright, in spite of Chaz’s departure. But it turned out that good times weren’t necessarily around the corner.

Ian-Dury-Laughter-445497Laughter (1980)

It’s fair to say there’s no obvious sign of the hits or much in the way of the funny stuff alluded to in the title here.

Ian and Wilko’s string-backed Sueperman’s Big Sister – a rare example of an ID single on an album – is an oddity. That’s not to say it doesn’t work, just that so much better had come before. It did have a delightful b-side though, You’ll See Glimpses giving us a peak into a better world drawn by one of life’s fringe characters.

Maybe it’s because Chaz’s touch was missing, with Pardon and Delusions Of Grandeur good examples, shadows of songs they’d done better before, despite some trademark Wilko chop guitar on the latter.

Yes & No (Paula) is more inventive, Ian’s poetic delivery working in parts and the band firing on all jazz dance cylinders, with a little help from Don Cherry’s trumpet.

Dance Of The Crackpots is largely just a mess for these ears, but it at least sounds like the band are having a good time.

There’s something of an express train version of You’ll See Glimpses on the lyrically-lovely Over the Points, Ian’s fresh perspective on trainspotting and the good old iron horse.

You’d like to think there’s a little humour at play on (Take Your Elbow Out Of The Soup You’re Sitting On The Chicken) too, although it’s largely forgettable.

Ian and Charley’s Uncoolohol is better, bolstered by Wilko’s bluesy guitar, while the uncomfortable Hey, Hey, Take Me Away is more introspective but neither one thing nor another.

Ian denied there was much in the way of autobiographical content, but there are plenty of signs of a performer on something of a downer, and not necessarily just on Manic Depression (Jimi).

The stories were still all there from this gifted writer, but maybe just harder to get at, and Oh Mr Peanut shows a songwriter seemingly running low on inspiration.

But if the first part of the band story was soon to be over, closing track Fucking Ada suggested they were looking to go out on an uncompromising high.

There was more than an element of Ian seeing just how far he could push the envelope, but the result – despite the gloomy lyric – has a glorious Scott Walker feel amid a mutant celebration with Andy Mackay-style sax.

Perhaps it reflected all that had quirkily come before with this outfit. It didn’t get much radio airplay though, he adds, unnecessarily.

Either way, it proved to be Ian’s farewell for Stiff Records, where favoured nephews Madness were the big stars now, the reaction to Laughter understandably lukewarm.

But in August ’81 came a new single that ensured Ian stayed under the spotlight, an angry spin on a believed hypocrisy in The Year of the Disabled leading to Spasticus Autisticus, which would also appear on the first post-Blockheads album three months later.

salvocd056-500x500Lord Upminster (1981)

Ian’s first album for Polydor offered something of a commercial dub reggae feel on various tracks, very much of its time, Sly and Robbie’s playing and production often to the fore, not least on openers Funky Disco Pops and Red Letter.

And while the climax was the controversial Spasticus, on the surface it’s a far more relaxed Dury, the change of gear suggesting a re-invention, although he was on safe ground in that all bar one of the songs were written with the returning Chaz.

Girls Watching keeps up that theme, a nice light toasting from Ian, who certainly sounds like he might be having fun in that studio. His vocal on the laid-back Wait For Me brings to mind John Sullivan on the Only Fools and Horses theme tune though.

There’s a little Booker T type organ on The Body Song, which is at least a little more recognisable as a Dury song, and perhaps the strongest track so far.

Lonely Town is also far more promising, perhaps borne out of a low ebb, but all the stronger for it. Meanwhile, Trust Is A Must could be UB40’s Red Red Wine toaster Astro gruffly delivering This is Radio Clash.

But while Ian and his band were no doubt having fun with a new experimental direction, there’s no real big statement until we finally get to the finale.

If Spasticus Autisticus was somehow lost among the gnashing of teeth and tut-tutting as Ian took his own stance on disabled rights, in retrospect you can appreciate its power.

And beneath Ian’s rigid digit approach, this call to arms is a great song, although perhaps one that might have sounded even better with The Blockheads in tow.

102-07564,000 Weeks Holiday (1984)

It was another three years before Ian’s next recorded output for Polydor, and this time it was with The Music Students in tow, the 40-year-old turning down a chance to get back with his old muckers, instead teaming up with Michael McEvoy and a younger band.

The first sign of the new material was November 1983’s slap-bass-happy single Really Glad You Came, a curious Nile Rodgers soul production proving a good indication of what was to come, and also serving as the album’s closer.

In places, if you take Ian’s vocal away, it could almost be Simply Red backing him, and opening track (You’re My) Inspiration follows that theme. There are elements of smoochy George Benson-like silky soul, the brass and general groove a departure from all that came before.

The album was unsurprisingly passed over on the whole, not least by Dury himself, and by way of example, Friends is lame in places, of its time with regard to the soon-dated synth. But its saving grace is that trombone from Special AKA collaborator Rico, adding soul and depth where the production largely failed Ian.

You could say the same about Tell Your Daddy, a Madness b-side at best, but there’s a step-up in a tribute to Ian’s old tutor Mr Blake, Peter the Painter another track that you can only wonder how good it might have sounded with the old band.

The same goes for Ban The Bomb, a subtly-powerful lyric and general feel enough to form the basis of a Blockheads winner. The bass and guitar work this time, but it’s still tricky to zone out that tinny synthetic sound.

The jam continues with Percy the Poet, which could be Reasons to be Cheerful Pt 4 in places, while Ian’s Lee Marvin-like vocal on Very Personal shepherds in some trademark aural love-making, bringing to mind the inflammatory line from Noel Clarke’s Desmond on the film, comparing Ian to Barry White.

Take Me To The Cleaners suggests nothing more than a filler, one in which you can clearly see the cracks, but The Man with no Face is far more inventive, a drug story that reminds me of an Essex variation on those splendid Sir John Betjeman recordings with Jim Parker.

That sets us up nicely for Really Glad You Came, our companion piece to (You’re My) Inspiration. But we could only hope that better was to come.

1989 Ian Dury -Apples-Apples (1989)

It was five years before we had Ian’s next solo effort, and it was far more promising, the WEA soundtrack to his short-lived stage-play Apples – featuring 12 of its 20 songs – showing the main man on the way back to his best lyrical form.

Still, the production’s a bit too clean, and slightly dated now, but we were definitely getting there.

Title track and opener Apples suggests a pastiche of all those cockney rhyming games Ian so enjoyed. ‘It looks like a good ‘un, it’ll do for my pudding’ is my favourite, and there are signs of lyrical sharpness throughout.

Love Is All, the first duet with Frances Rufelle, sees the pair vocally duel in a song that must have had the West End luvvie set running. Elaine off the Page, I’d say.

Byline Browne is a fine little damning of the gutter press spoiled by Mickey’s weedy keyboards, undoing all the good work of Davey’s sax.

It’s a similar tale for the sartorially-elegant Bit Of Kit, another poetic delight, this time with Davey’s blowing and Ian’s words just about winning out.

Frances and Ian gel on Game On in a lovely display of phrasing and word battles, one which almost makes you forget that tinny synth.

Think Lloyd-Webber with attitude as Frances sails alone on Looking For Harry, while England’s Glory – which first surfaced back in 1977 – is sort of Reasons to be Clever Bastards, although arguably without the class of either original.

Bus Drivers’ Prayer is nothing short of a masterpiece, but could do with better company than the accompanying PC Honey, which is hardly Ian’s old Stuff label-mate Wreckless Eric’s finest moment.

That game show synth is back on companion piece The Right People, making me wonder if I’ve chanced upon an off-cut from a Minder soundtrack. It’s chirpy enough, but it’s difficult to see beyond the butt-end of the ’80s production.

All Those Who Say Okay is far more like it, its lop-sided spoken word philosophy including lovely one-liners like ‘I see you’re reading a book, are you on page one yet? ‘Can you spell your name forwards?’ ‘Can you tell me the way straight on, please?’ and ‘I resemble that remark’.

But if you didn’t know where it fitted into the catalogue, I’d suggest the flipside of I Wanna be Straight. And soon we’re away on show-stopper Riding The Outskirts Of Fantasy, with the curtain not opening again for another three years.

MI0002468219The Bus Driver’s Prayer & Other Stories (1992) 

That’s Enough Of That gets us off to a promising start on Ian’s penultimate album, his second for Demon after the Warts’n’Audience live LP, the sax vying with the front-man in a frankly cool little number.

This time, The Blockheads – bar Norman – are back at one stage or another, with Mickey and Merlin Rhys-Jones, on his third straight album with Ian, out front.

It’s difficult to put a name on it all though, with little in common between many of the songs here. It’s a collection in a loose sense.

Bill Haley’s Last Words is a not-quite-right rocking oddity, Ian’s American phrasing in the sung bits not a patch on his Sweet Gene Vincent vocal.

The word oddity also springs to mind for Poor Joey, part-music hall/part lover’s rock reggae for a budgie, while Quick Quick Slow has a pleasant-enough almost French or Spanish dusky afternoon feel, and Fly In The Ointment offers more than a dash of wah wah pedal whimsy.

But I like Ian’s tack on O’ Donegal, a veritable love letter to Ireland, and there’s a spirit of trademark Dury lyrical wonder on good old Joanna-based Poo-Poo In The Prawn.

London Talking is a glorious companion for the album’s title track, a funny little number in the best sense – carrying more than a hint of over the garden wall humour, the master of geezer rhymery back at his best.

There’s an early-hours feel to the wistful Have A Word, another song suggesting a more mellow side to an artist seemingly now more in tune with his inner self.

D’Orine The Cow has us back at odds though, and again I don’t think we know what to think. But this might well have made an alternative kids’ poem.

Your Horoscope carries elements of You’ll See Glimpses, and that can only be a good thing, while No Such Thing As Love offers a nicely-reasoned pensive take on life, Dury style.

By that stage, I think there’s enough here to suggest Ian was moving closer to his best, and Two Old Dogs Without A Name sets us up nicely for the title track itself, The Bus Driver’s Prayer another simply-conceived masterpiece taking us to the LP’s Crouch End.

mu3zeqdn.zyb_Mr Love Pants (1997) 

Then, five years later, we reached the high point, with Ian’s best all-round album since his debut released on his own label, and proving to be a fitting memorial to his talent.

There was a full Blockheads turnout this time, and we were off with a winner on the wondrous Jack Shit George, a modern twist on Clevor Trever and worthy of the comparison.

Norman’s bass comes in at around the minute mark on The Passing Show, a celebration in music and lyrics of how far this band had come and just what they’d gone through en route.

You’re My Baby is more reflective, with the feel of an Anglicised version of a cut from Lou Reed’s New York. It was written about Ian’s youngest son but – like My Old Man all those years before – it never over-does the sentiment.

Despite that, there’s an emotional feel right across the tracks, and not just because we now know what happened next. Honeysuckle Highway is a great example, a song that might have been written any time during that century.

A mention of Havana has me thinking about another lost great, and Mr Love Pants has much in common with Kirsty MacColl’s Tropical Brainstorm. In the same way Kirsty left us with a sparkling finale, Ian did the same.

IanDury_Vinyl_3D-ExplodedThe fantastic Itinerant Child has that extra-special vibe, a proper road song with a gripping tale behind it, The Blockheads on top form and even carrying a touch of the name-checked Steely Dan en route.

Geraldine is a delight, full of double-entendre, sharp wit and warmth. And who could resist Ian’s saucy, ‘When she’s buttering my baguette, my blood runs hot and cold’?

Cacka Boom is a further example of where The Blockheads were maybe heading all those years ago. It took a long time to get there, but we made it in the end.

Again, there’s a little comforting home-baked philosophy, Ian showing further signs of finally being at ease with himself and now happy to share his alternative, refreshing spin on the meaning of life.

That reflective approach is also taken on Bed O’ Roses No. 9. Here’s Ian as chief muse and home-spun philosopher, and it suits him. A lot had happened in his life, not least since his previous album’s release. And it showed.

There’s further self-analysis with Heavy Living above the guitar and brass, and unlike past fruitless efforts to rock out and recreate Sweet Gene Vincent, this time he was firing on all cylinders.

Then we have the final offering, and again there’s a sense of celebration among the retrospective sense of poignancy. Like the character in Mash It Up Harry, on the surface you get warts’n’all with Ian, sometimes making for uncomfortable truths. But – again like Ian – we warm to Harry and end up singing along on a delightful Madness-like jaunt.

Besides, sometimes we all need a bit of Wembley up our Ponders End.

As it turns out, our alternative national anthem is over too soon, but wasn’t that the case with Ian’s story too? Just when he was finally warming to his task again.

Band Substance: Ian Dury and The Blockheads in 1981, Brighton (Photo copyright: David Corio)

Band Substance: Ian Dury and The Blockheads in 1981, Brighton (Photo copyright: David Corio)

Bonus Disc (CD box set only)

There’s more on the CD collection, and we get to find those tracks Ian left off the albums, with some corkers too of course.

We have defining moment Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, a song I first got to appreciate on my Live Stiffs cassette, accompanied by a full starring entourage of label-mates.

Next is Ian’s Romford shop-lifting tale Razzle In My Pocket, as featured on my first ID greatest hits collection. But although the sublime Sweet Gene Vincent follows, Ian then swaps rock’n’roll for risqué reggae on an unpalatable You’re More Than Fair.

The next five selections are pure nostalgia central for me, What A Waste, Wake Up And Make Love To Me, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, Clever Bastards and Reasons To Be Cheerful Pt. 3 unsullied by age or life experience.

Common As Muck was another great example of a classy b-side, while I Want To Be Straight is arguably the last great single before the plot was lost for a while, and carries that most memorable of intros.

Anything is likely to be a filler from there, with Straight b-side That’s Not All fitting those criteria.

And while 1980 single Sueperman’s Big Sister – for all its promiseproved a false dawn in certain respects, we finish on that poignant note with its emotional b-side You’ll See Glimpses.

It’s a track that never fails to bring a lump to the throat, Ian introducing to us another great misfit character, his band’s contributory soundtrack proving just perfect.

Ian Dury.02There are a few cuts missing, but maybe we can live without High Roads survivors like Billy Bentley or Adrian Mole TV theme Profoundly in Love with Pandora.

I could mention the collaborative pieces elsewhere, not least Ian’s contributions to Carter USM’s Sky West and Crooked and Madness’ Drip Fed Fred. But this is not the place.

And while there’s a case for including 1999 single Dance Little Rude Boy, it sits better on the posthumous Ten More Turnips from the Tip, waiting – like much of Ian’s back-catalogue – to be rediscovered.

We miss you, Ian, but thankfully your music and lyrical genius lives on. You were a complicated character, but gave us some mighty fine moments over the years.

Thanks for looking in on us. We’re really glad you came. For Iver and Iver, Crouch End.

IanDury_Vinyl_3D* Ian Dury – The Vinyl Collection (LP box set) will be available from December 8th, while Ian Dury – The Studio Albums Collection (CD box set) will be available from November 3rd on Edsel Records, with pre-orders already being taken via (fan bundle vinyl offer)Amazon (CD) or Amazon (vinyl).

* For more details about Ian Dury and his work, head here. And for all the latest from The Blockheads try here.

* To see a writewyattuk review of The Blockheads at Preston’s 53 Degrees in March, 2013, head here.

* With thanks to Dave Clarke of Planet Earth Publicity.

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

Open season for the trunk of funk – the Craig Charles interview


Six Sensi: Craig Charles manning the decks

According to your spheres of interest, you may know him best as Coronation Street’s Lloyd Mullaney or Red Dwarf’s Dave Lister, or just as that cheeky Scouse lad off Robot Wars or Takeshi’s Castle.

But many more of us know him as the performance poet who went on to carve out his own niche behind the turntables, on radio and in clubland.

I’m talking about actor, DJ and presenter Craig Charles, who appears to have the erm … sole power to offer us a little spinage a trois and talcum time while unleashing that trunk of funk every weekend.

He also happens to be the fella with perhaps the longest Wikipedia entry I’ve chanced upon. So how do we address the man himself?

“I don’t know really. I’m just very lucky I get to be able to do all of it really, and on a regular basis.

“I really like acting, so Coronation Street is great for me as I get to act on a daily basis. That keeps your hand in and makes you a better actor … I hope so, anyway!

“Plus – every weekend, on Friday, Saturday and sometimes Sunday nights, we get to go and DJ – all over the world!

“We’ve played Australia, Ibiza, Corfu, Croatia, and all over Britain, from the tip of the east coast to the tip of the west, north and south coast, and everywhere between.

craigcharles“And it’s getting to a stage now where we’re selling out everywhere we go. People are having a fantastic time, and it’s good time music, y’know!

“It’s party music that appeals to all ages and everyone. We do this thing, The Secret Soul Boy, and I reckon everyone in the world has a favourite soul record.

“It’s just one of those genres that appeals to all age groups. You get a great cross-mix of society at the gigs, and it’s just a pleasure to bring that music alive.

“A lot of the music I play is from the golden era of American music, but it’s played and recorded by bands now. It’s not just a history lesson.

“And it’s a vibe that’s really started to grow, thanks to people like Amy Winehouse, Adele, Duffy and Mark Ronson.”

That seems to be the case with Northern Soul too, another of Craig’s loves, re-kindled interest via artists like Duffy and John Newman more recently followed by positive publicity for the new film borrowing that name.

“Definitely. It’s not a dead genre, it’s growing, and being listened to by young people. And you’ll be surprised how young some of the crowd are at my gigs.”

10404367_10152281782821249_9113737293754646905_nMy excuse for catching up was the Craig Charles Funk and Soul Club’s return to Preston on Saturday (October 18), for what could be the DJ’s final gig at the doomed 53 Degrees venue.

“We did it a few months ago, now we’re about to do it again. It’s always a wicked gig. Honestly, it’s all good!”

He’s then set to return to my patch on Saturday, December 13, manning the decks for ‘Britain’s biggest, funkiest Christmas Party’, a Band on the Wall fund-raiser at Blackpool’s Empress Ballroom, also featuring Soul II Soul.

“We did the Winter Gardens as well last year with The Brand New Heavies, and this year it’s Soul II Soul, flying Caron Wheeler in from America, with Jazzie B too.

“It’s going to be absolutely stonking. I’m really excited about it already. And what a building!”

When he’s not on the road or on TV, Craig’s on the airwaves, having been at 6 Music since the digital radio station’s 2002 opening, give or take a little time off for bad behaviour in 2006.

“I’m the longest-serving DJ there. I was there on the first Friday night, and have been doing it ever since. And it’s grown and grown.

“But back in the day, when we started, I would have had a bigger audience listening to my music if I’d just put the cassette in the car and drove around London with the window down.”

His 6 Music show has also proved a great soundtrack to Saturday night cooking shifts, in my case while my girls are in the back room watching Strictly Come Dancing.

“It’s our Saturday night kitchen disco. We’re the great alternative to the X Factor, y’know! If you want to hear the real thing, just go in the kitchen and turn the radio on.

“We get a lot of texts and emails from people saying, ‘The wife’s watching The X-Factor in the other room and I’m dancing in the kitchen like a drunken uncle!’”

Besides his 6 Music shows, those for older sister station Radio 2, plus club and festival appearances, there’s a new CD compilation coming out too.

fsrcd107And Craig Charles Funk & Soul Club Volume 3 is apparently just part of his ongoing mission to spread the sound of good grooves right around the world.

“Yeah! And Volume 2 was No.1 in the r’n’b and hip-hop charts and Juno Download charts and No.8 overall in the Amazon download charts. It did really well.

“When you think of it … when the BBC first came to me they asked what I wanted to do, and they wanted me to do an archive show. I said I wanted to do a funk and soul show, and they looked at me a bit weird.

“But what we thought was going to be this little niche kind of show has grown to have the biggest audience share on the network.”

He wasn’t new to it all back then, having started out with Kiss FM in its pirate station days, and – when they got their licence – did the breakfast show for a couple of years back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

“I was always running the DJ-ing alongside Red Dwarf and Robot Wars, sort of undercover. I’m not one for the big celebrity DJ thing.

“Because you’re on the telly doesn’t mean you know how to play music. I never really promoted it that well, but that worked well for me.

“People have actually found me rather than me forcing myself down their throats.

“A good testament, one that makes me kind of proud, is that all the top DJs don’t see me as an interloper. I’m good friends with DJs like The Reflex, and I’m seen as one of them.”

Dwarf Days: Craig with fellow Red Dwarf cast members (Photo: BBC)

Dwarf Days: Craig with fellow Red Dwarf cast members (Photo: BBC)

It was a very different DJ who gave Craig a big break in the early 1980s, Radio 1 legend John Peel giving him two sessions in his performance poetry days.

It’s 10 years since we lost John Peel this month. Was he an important influence on you?

“He was. You could listen to his show and there would be about four or five records you just had to go out and buy.

“You had to listen to a lot of punk and stuff I found inaccessible, but every now and again there were a few gems and I thought, ‘that’s where my pocket money’s going!’”

Craig, now aged 50, has many musical heroes, but likes to mix everything up and offer an alternative slant.

There’s certainly a broad church within his radio shows, from Northern Soul to funk and so on.

James Brown often gets a good airing, but can he name his favourite artists or top five grooves at any point in time?

“It depends what day it is! I mentioned The Reflex, who gets hold of original stems of recordings from the studio and remixes them for the modern dance floor, such as his version of The Jackson 5’s ABC.

“You’ve got Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and although a lot of that is just too slow or too retro for a modern dancefloor, what I like to do is get it remixed.”

Sound Wave: Craig gets to meet his public

Sound Wave: Craig gets to meet his public

That’s certainly apparent in some of the live clips I’ve seen, including one in which he fuses Tom Jones’ take on Venus, Jimi Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic and Sylvester’s (You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real. And that takes some thought.

“That’s it – it’s all about mixing it all up! I like to play music people think they know and deliver it to them in a way they’ve never heard before. And that inspires people.”

What was the first band or song this Liverpool-born son of a Guyanan dad and Irish mum heard and fell in love with?

“My earliest memories of are of my mum and dad dancing around the kitchen to Ray Charles’ I Got a Woman. By the time that song finished I was in love with soul!

“Dad came to England in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s with a pocketful of change and a bag of records.

“When the rest of Liverpool was listening to The Beatles we were listening to Harry Belafonte, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, that kind of stuff.Funkadelic-Maggot-Br

“I grew up listening to this golden era of Black American music, then later – when punk was kicking off – I was into P-Funk, Parliament, Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain – that album was the most psychedelic, and more hardcore than punk!”

Could he ever have imagined while growing up that he might one day be making programmes for Radio 2?

“No. I never thought I’d ever be doing Radio 2! Now I do six ’til nine on 6 Music then channel-hop on to Radio 2 and do until 10. That’s my Saturday nights sorted. Then we go off and do a gig!”

For the past decade – again with a brief break while facing drug allegations and charges in 2006 – Craig has become a well-known figure on Coronation Street.

And he’s become established enough to help mould his character, philandering taxicab driver Lloyd Mullaney, who also happens to be a funk and soul fan and DJ.

“It’s great to be able to work all that stuff in, with Lloyd playing a bit of Northern Soul and collecting records!

“And every now and again they allow me to choose some records in the background, and Twitter goes crazy, saying, ‘Craig’s playing Dobie Gray in the background!’”

How does his live show differ from the radio version? Is there a fair bit of interaction?

“Yeah. I get on the mic a bit, but it’s more dance-oriented. We do drop the beat down and all that, but while you can get away with playing slower tunes and chuggers on the radio, on a live show it’s about trying to keep the floor full.

“It’s about showing off too. We get a lot of people really into their dance and they get up the front and work on all their spins and that. It’s a great feeling!”

Swift One: Craig Charles aka Lloyd Mullaney on the Corrie set (Photo: ITV)

Swift One: Craig Charles aka Lloyd Mullaney on the Corrie set (Photo: ITV)

Craig has written an autobiographical work, but it certainly sounds as if it won’t be ready for the Christmas market this year.

“I can’t bring that out for a while yet, especially when things are going so well. There’s too many bodies in it!”

His performance poetry came first, and having recently met Benjamin Zephaniah in Preston for the launch of Black History Month, it occurred to me how their paths seemed to cross a little in the early ‘80s, not least with both appearing on Channel 4’s Black on Black and the BBC’s Pebble Mill at One.

“Me and Benjamin are friends, and started out doing poetry tours and lots of stuff together. He kept with the poetry while I took my foot off that.

“But I’ve just written a series of books, Scary Fairy and the Tales of the Dark Woods, nursery rhymes with all the blood and gore put back in! So I’m hoping that will get published next year.

“I’d love to do an album of it too, a bit like Peter and the Wolf, with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra – me reciting, and each character with their own theme tune.”

Are you not tempted to have some Funkadelic in the background then?


Vinyl Inspiration: Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf

“D’you know what? One of the characters is going to have a really funky, hip groove going on, but I remember Peter and the Wolf when I was a kid, so it would be nice to have a bit of Prokofiev or something in a modern setting.

“The music will be a bit more hip and trendy, but it would be lovely if we could get the BBC Phil involved. And things are looking positive on that front.”

Do you still get asked about your Red Dwarf character, Dave Lister, in public?

“I don’t think Lister will ever die. He’s something of an anti-hero, and it’s such a pleasure to play him. In fact, a lot of the time I wish I was him!

“I get a lot of talk about Robot Wars too, because those viewers are at university now. And I get a lot of mentions of Takeshi’s Castle.”

That’s understandable. There seemed to be a time when you couldn’t go a day or so without hearing his voice on radio or TV.

“Well, it’s been a crazy ride, and I’m just trying to hang on. And it’s just getting better, because Corrie’s going well, the radio’s going well, the DJing’s going well …”

Is there a worry that you might get written out of Coronation Street some day soon?

“Well, it’s not Game of Thrones. I’d hate to be involved in that! If you read a script you’d wonder if you’re going to be alive by the end of an episode.”

“Lloyd’s in this new relationship with Andrea now and that storyline’s just reached its peak, so it’s quiet for Lloyd at the moment, having had six months non-stop on that.

“We’re on the back-burner right now. It’s a bit feast or famine on Coronation Street.”

Talking of back-burners, is that where Dave Lister is too while you’re on Corrie?

Space Traveller: Craig Charles as Dave Lister in Red Dwarf (Photo: BBC)

Space Traveller: Craig Charles as Dave Lister in Red Dwarf (Photo: BBC)

“Well, we did Red Dwarf 10 a couple of years ago, and that was absolutely massive. It smashed all sorts of records, not just here but worldwide.

“And I know the lads are keen on doing more, so watch this space!”

How about your stand-up show? Any of that coming our way?

“Oh, I don’t know. I find DJ-ing so much easier than stand-up, which was such a nerve-racking thing. That said, I got out of it just at the wrong time.

“Now you can do a tour and you’re a multi-millionaire. So I might go back to it just for the money!”

You shone from an early age, academically and artistically. You seemed to be driven. Was that largely down to your upbringing?

“Yeah. I grew up on a housing estate called Cantril Farm where there were like 1,000 white families and our family. And Liverpool in the mid and late ‘60s was quite a racist place to be.

“My mum always said, ‘Craig, if you go for a job and you’ve got exactly the same qualifications as the white guy next to you, he’s going to get the job’.

“So it kind of instilled in me this need to attain and achieve. I never really lost that.”

There’s a contentious council move in Liverpool at the moment to close 11 public libraries, inspiring lots of public support for keeping them open. Were you a library regular and avid reader growing up?

“Completely! Even now I’m never without my Kindle. I love books too, and have a library, but with this little tiny gadget I’ve got around 10,000 books on it.

“I take that everywhere I go and that’s where all my down-time goes. Plus it’s a great way of not getting hassle when you’re sat in the corner of a pub reading.

“It stops a flood of people asking, ‘Can I have a picture?’

Metal Mates: Craig on the set of Robot Wars (Photo:  BBC)

Metal Mates: Craig on the set of Robot Wars (Photo: BBC)

“We were always members of the library, although it’s a measure of my irredeemable soul that I was looking through my library the other day that I found some books that I had not returned when I was around 12 or 13.”

I believe you’re a fair keyboard player too.

“Yeah, and a mean piano player! I played keyboards in a lot of bands when I was growing up.”

It was during a 1981 gig by fellow Liverpudlian band The Teardrop Explodes, that Craig climbed on stage and recited a rather risqué poem about the singer, Julian Cope.

Does he remember the poem? The answer’s yes, and not only does he remember it, but he recites it to me on the spot.

Not as if I can repeat it all here, I’m afraid, good as it is.

As it was, The Teardrop Explodes liked it, and invited him to be their support act, with performances at the Larks in the Park festival at Sefton Park and the Everyman Theatre following, alongside the likes of Roger McGough and Adrian Henri.

The rest was history, but he’d always had a talent for writing, and at the age of 12 won The Guardian Poetry Prize, his runner-up 20 years older.

And now he has family of his own with his second wife, Jackie, his youngest daughter 11 and his eldest 17, the latter having recently passed her GCSE results, amassing seven As and two Bs according to her proud dad.

“They talk about dumbing down in education, but they’re not at all. I couldn’t even look at her homework. I don’t know what it’s about, to be honest.”

15274_1_review-craig-charles-xmas-funk-and-soul-show-53-degrees-preston_banSo are your daughters likely to follow in your footsteps?

“Well, Anna-Jo goes to Manchester High School for Girls, a very academic school, yet she wants to be an actress. What can I say? Know what I mean? If I say anything, all I get is ‘It works for you, Dad’.”

Maybe they can learn from your mistakes, at least.

“I hope so! And you can’t get away from my mistakes now. All you’ve got to do is go on the internet!”

Talking of which, that’s a mighty long wiki entry he’s got there, so to speak. Craig’s TV credits fill several pages on their own. So what’s the worst show he’s ever done?

“Oh, there’s been lots! Fortunately, people only seem to remember the hits though.

“I did a show, Cyberzone, which would have been really good if the technology was up to it.

“It was a virtual reality game show where you walked on a treadmill and the character on the screen walked with you, having to go through all these rooms and so forth.”

It sounds like it would probably work now.

“It would look like a proper hi-tech video game now! I’m always being asked if we’re going to bring back Robot Wars or do more Takeshi’s Castle, but maybe we should do more Cyberzone instead, and this time do it properly!”

craig-charles-funk-and-soul-blackpool-christmas-ballFor details of how to get hold of Craig Charles Funk & Soul Club Volume 3 – ‘19 personally selected, party-starting slices of full fat’ – try this Freestyle Records link here.

To find out more and snap up tickets for Craig’s final Preston 53 Degrees try here and for more about the Blackpool Christmas Ball with Soul II Soul try this Band on the Wall link.

This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, first published on October 16, 2014.


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Guitar-wielding visiting author proves a hit – the John Dougherty interview

dougherty, john

Visiting Author: John Dougherty, no doubt pondering on the badness of badgers

Children’s author, poet and songwriter John Dougherty is a regular on the school visit circuit, and was in Lancashire recently, helping promote the Fantastic Book Awards.

You might have spotted a few of his books, like Zeus on the Loose, Zeus to the Rescue, Zeus Sorts It Out, Niteracy Hour, Jack Slater Monster Investigator, Jack Slater and the Whisper of Doom, Bansi O’Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy, Bansi O’Hara and the Edges of Hallowe’en, and Finn MacCool and the Giant’s Causeway.

Then there’s his latest Oxford University Press series, set on the little island of Great Kerfuffle and illustrated by Mr Gum‘s David Tazzyman.

It’s fair to say that Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face and the Badness of Badgers and its recent follow-up Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face and the Quest for the Magic Porcupine are proving a hit.

Despite all that, John’s only been writing full-time this past decade, but meeting him in person and seeing him win over a school hall-full of year sevens, you can see why he’s a rising star.

He also has a neat line in colourful shirts. But that’s probably another story.

Within half an hour of his talk at Balshaw’s High School in Leyland, he’d made a lot of new fans and signed several copies of his latest comic adventure, one of those precious children’s books that should appeal to all ages.

He’d even led the school’s newest intake in a sing-along about his book characters, and finished with another about clock-watching during lessons – something I’m sure we’ve all related to at some point in our lives.

At least I’ll say it was about clock-watching, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise for others who might get to meet John in the near future.

Let’s just say what started out akin to a Tracy Chapman ballad became something else, leading to sniggers from not only the pupils but the staff too.

But as a former teacher himself, John has learned a fair bit about engaging kids of all ages. And for him the guitar is a necessary prop.

Strings Attached: John Dougherty wins over his young audience at Balshaw's High School (Photo: Catherine Sinclair)

Strings Attached: John Dougherty wins over his young audience at Balshaw’s High School (Photo: Catherine Sinclair)

He’s originally from Larne, but now settled in Gloucestershire with his wife and two children, aged 14 and 12, already proving perfect sounding-boards for his work.

John left Northern Ireland after his psychology studies at Queen’s University, Belfast, but it was a long time before he turned his hand to full-time writing.

There was a spell volunteering for Barnardo’s, and even time in a band, as I learned in our post-event conversation.

“When I was a kid I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, and that was the case even when I did grow up.

“As a young adult I wouldn’t really have dreamed I could make my living as a writer. I didn’t really have the confidence to think that could happen with someone like me.

“Then I got to a point where I was writing songs and thought they were pretty good, and it would be great to have a crack at that.

“I was in a band for about a decade, performing my songs, always getting to a certain level then something stopping us, never getting those breaks.

“And while in the band I trained as a teacher, in those days training courses still considering children’s literature an important part of primary education.

“I rediscovered children’s books and my love of them, and wondered if I could do this.”

His band started off as The Whole World, later becoming Calvin. John also proudly mentions jamming sessions with ex-Fairground Attraction singer-songwriter Eddi Reader. So was he mixing with a few people who went on to bigger things?

Dougherty“We were the level below all that, doing The Mean Fiddler, The Marquee, all those venues. But we did support The Four of Us once, where the second band was Cast.

“We supported one or two name artists, including Bad Manners. That was really interesting – their audience weren’t our audience. But I think we did pretty well.

“I don’t know how much we got them on our side, but at least they didn’t bottle us off!”

John’s also released an album under his own name, Songs from the Water’s Edge Part One. He does however add on his website, ‘I never made part two. Maybe one day’.

He did his teacher-training at Roehampton, going on to teach in Tooting before supply teaching around South-West London.

Schools clearly remain important to him, long after his career switch. It was a brave move too, not least with writing hardly the well-paid occupation most would think.

“I’m only just at the point – 10 years in – of honestly being able to say I’m making enough of a living to support myself.

“Between the writing and the school visits I bring in enough of an income now, but it’s still on that edge.

“With a bit of good fortune I’d be earning quite nicely, but with a bit of bad fortune I could be ‘on the breadline’.”

John mentioned Dr Who writer Stephen Moffatt in his talk, saying how the best TV writers make great stories out of the seemingly-mundane, such as statues coming alive, or cracks in the walls.

Is that something he’d like to try out, writing for the small and big screen?

“That would be great. I’d love to expand my writing. Every writer has strengths and weaknesses, but I think dialogue is one of my strengths. TV and radio is something I could have fun with.”


Required Reading: John Dougherty gives the Balshaw’s year sevens a flavour of Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face

John seemed slightly nervous ahead of his talk. But he worked his audience well.

“Having been a teacher helps enormously. And being a supply teacher helped enormously.

“Having had three classes of my own, then going into a situation where every day I could be meeting a new bunch of kids, I had to build a relationship with them very quickly to be able to get any work done. Most days I did that and did it well.

“There’s always the odd time when you meet a class completely resistant to somebody new or something you do gets you off on the wrong foot.

“But the vast majority of days I think the kids had a good time while I was in the classroom…and learned something.”

Did he ever take in his guitar?

“I always took the guitar! I made a point of doing some singing with them.”

On his website, he mentions how one of the first – and best – pieces of advice he received during training was from a deputy head in Tooting, Mr Millington, who said: ‘If you’re going to teach children, you need to read children’s books.’

John certainly did that, and even before he was published he was giving talks as an author at schools, after a mutual friend inviting him in for World Book Day.

“I was timetabled for around 20 minutes for each class. I was thinking I had no idea what I was going to do, so decided to take the guitar.

“I linked the fact that I’ve written a book with the fact I wrote songs, and how there are different ways of telling stories.

“I read a bit of my book, and asked if they had any questions. I was amazed straight away when all these hands went up.

“They had questions in every class, and questions I could answer. I built up from that until I was telling them what I could do, suggesting an hour with one group, 40 minutes with another, most of it structured around a Q&A.”

w535188 (1)Time didn’t allow a Q&A during his Balshaw’s session, but John still proved a big hit, even though he feels it’s extremely difficult to win over year sevens.

”They’re already getting into a different way of being, so some of the things that work with primary school just don’t work.

“It’s a case of waiting for others to react first, seeing what the appropriate response is, which you don’t get in primaries.”

I’ve seen that myself from work in junior schools. They come up with great questions.

“Some really interesting ones. In a school in Birmingham last year a kid asked how being a writer had affected my personal life. From a 10-year-old that was amazing!

“Whereas in a secondary school they’re more likely to ask something a bit more normal or not ask anything at all. They’re far more self-conscious by that stage.”

John suggests on his website his own school days weren’t the best. Did he have inspirational teachers?

“I had some perfectly nice teachers, but the only really inspirational one was Ian Maxwell, who took me for maths in the first couple of years of secondary school.

“He was one of these charismatic guys with a great sense of humour who hardly ever had to get cross. Everybody liked him. He was very fair and very funny.

“His lessons were engaging, and he made you think about stuff. So he didn’t last very long under our headteacher before deciding to move!”

Zeus on the Loose proved to be John’s breakthrough, and was shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award in 2004.

But it wasn’t the first publication for an author who started out as a songwriter and poet and only occasionally wrote stories initially.

“The first time I decided to write a story and finish it, see if I could write something publishable, it was a very bleak story.

stinkbomb-and-ketchupface“They say everyone’s got a story inside them, and I think sometimes you’ve a book inside that you have to get out before you can do anything else. This was mine.

“In terms of structure and so on it wasn’t terrific, but it was something I needed to express, and really just start creating.

“Most of my stuff is on computer, but I’m not even sure if I have a copy. I probably have a printed one in a box in the deep recess of the attic.

“I’d certainly like to read it again and remind myself. Also around that time or maybe earlier I wrote a couple of graphic novel scripts I’d like to go back to.

“But the first I sent to a publisher was a series of slightly surreal stories, including one about a boy whose brain was too big to fit into his head and a girl with a pig stuck up her nose!

“I sent them off and got lots of rejections but got one email back from Sue Cook, an editor at Random House, who said I can’t publish these but like the way you write and would like to see anything else you write.

“Everything else I wrote I sent to her, and she took the time to guide me and give me advice until I got to the point where I was writing something she wanted to publish.

“And of those first four stories, this year I had a contract for one – 18 years on – the one about the girl with the pig stuck up her nose, to be published by Egmont in 2016.”

Can John describe the big moment when he was finally published?

“I always imagined it would be one big ‘wahoo!’ moment, but it actually wasn’t. It was a series of small happy moments.

“First you get this indication that they like this story and they’re going to look at it again, then you get the indication they’d like to talk to you about it and wondered if you could change it a bit.

Signing On: John Dougherty  dedicates a book to a new fan (Photo: Catherine Sinclair)

Signing On: John Dougherty dedicates a book to a new fan (Photo: Catherine Sinclair)

“Every time it’s encouraging but you don’t want to get too excited. It might all come to nothing.

“By the time it finally does get to being offered a deal you’ve a lot of that excitement and it’s great, but it’s not like you imagined.

“Then you get the signing of the contract, then all the editing, and finally the book comes out. They all feel great, but none are ‘dancing on the tables’ moments.”

Just before his closing song that morning, John made a point to his young audience that there’s no wrong age for reading a book – stressing that you’re never too old or too young, and not to let anyone tell you otherwise.

So does he have a reader in mind when he’s writing? Is it John Dougherty the 12 or 13-year-old, perhaps?

“It could well be me – now! I really don’t know. I don’t think I have anyone particular in mind. I’m thinking about the story rather than the person who’s going to read it.

“At school we’re often taught to think about an audience, but I don’t think I really do.”

That said, he does admit to trying chapters out on his children.

“I do these days, although they were a bit too young when I started. With Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face I write one, then take it in and read it to them.

“They’re very encouraging, When I wrote the first, their reaction was what made me think I had something that would really work.

“There have been times when they’ve said ‘this is the bit I like best’, or ‘that wasn’t so funny’. That’s helped me focus and sharpen up a bit.”

John’s past publications include a retelling of the Irish legend, Finn McCool. Was that folklore important to him growing up?

“It wasn’t really. In Northern Ireland, sadly, to become immersed in Irish culture was to make a political statement, or it certainly was when I was growing up.

“It still is in a lot of places. I went to a state school rather than a church school, and didn’t really get that much of a grounding in all that.

“I do remember being told the story of Finn McCool, but it was kind of unusual for us to get any kind of Irish culture.

“And it was only really when I was at university that I started listening to Irish folk music. Until then I hadn’t really been exposed to it.”

John is also a keen contributor to the An Awfully Big Blog Adventure website, and has also proved fairly outspoken on a number of hot issues.

That has included fighting NHS cuts and threatened hospital closures, and coming out against budgetary constraints that have seen libraries axed.

With the latter in mind – knowing he’d always been an avid reader – I asked if he was a regular book buyer or library user as a child.

“My parents weren’t the sort who would buy a treat every time you went out, but one thing I could be fairly sure of was if we went into a bookshop I’d be bought a book.

“I’ve quite a clear memory of being age seven and getting a Famous Five book, going home and holding it, being so eager to read it.

Library Love: John Dougherty adds his voice to the 'save the libraries' campaign

Library Love: John Dougherty adds his voice to the ‘save the libraries’ campaign

“But I used the library all the time. Most Saturday afternoons I’d be down there, borrowing a book, or browsing the shelves as a teenager. I still love libraries, and think they are incredibly important.

“In the second Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face book I make a point of referring to the library as the most important building in Great Kerfuffle.

“Libraries are hugely important and it’s very sad we seem to have a lot of people in education or in power who don’t seem to understand that.

“If you’re rich enough to be able to afford your own library at home, you don’t necessarily see a free public library being of any use.

“I also think a lot of people in positions of authority really are philistines. Was it a Mayor of Doncaster a few years back quoted as saying ‘why do we need libraries when people can buy books at Tesco?’

To which I can only reply ‘why do we need idiots in local government when we’ve got enough in Westminster!”

Back on the subject of Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face, it appears that John has an almost-unhealthy dislike for badgers. Is it really a good time to be saying this, amid the current cull?

“I’m absolutely opposed to the cull. Culling badgers is a very bad idea. They actually need putting in prison. That’s what I think – they should be taught to mend their ways instead!

“I do think badgers are amazing animals, but find it funny that they’re characterised the way they are in fiction. Maybe it’s down to Wind in the Willows. A lot of people think that’s what they should be like in children’s books as a result.

“The first time I met a badger who wasn’t like that was in Watership Down, one of my favourite books. That badger is kind of a threat and there’s something brutal about it.

Defining Moment: Watership Down, by Richard Adams - the 1978 edition this blogger owns

Defining Moment: Watership Down, by Richard Adams – the 1978 edition this blogger owns

“Actually, for The Guardian I recently did a top-10 badgers piece, and both the Wind in the Willows and Watership Down badgers are in there.”

There’s a real skill to writing children’s books with great animal characters. Yet one of my favourite authors, AA Milne, was criticised by some (heathens!) for jokes above the child’s head.

“With Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner there’s a lot of stuff that can be appreciated on different levels. And I appreciate pieces now that I wouldn’t have thought about as a child.

“I don’t think that’s talking above children’s heads though. It’s simply about writing something good and something of value that can be appreciated by people of all ages.

“That’s what I like to think I do, and I’ve certainly had a lot of good feedback from adult readers.

“Some of my favourite reviews are ones saying they read my books to their kids and laughed as much as they did. That’s what I’m aiming for.

“Books are very much pigeon-holed into children’s or adults’ books, whereas at the same time we have family films, pitched at all of us.

“There are books the whole family can enjoy, so why restrict them to one age?”

Feline Groovy: The questionably-named Malcolm the Cat joins John's heroes

Feline Groovy: The questionably-named Malcolm the Cat joins John’s heroes

There is something else I feel I should broach with John, and that’s him calling one of his characters Malcolm? What kind of name is that for a cat?

“He was actually named after a cat called Malcolm. I just thought that was such a terrific name for a cat. It’s the same with my badgers really.”

OK, I concede that, not least as it reminds me of once over-hearing someone in a pub garden addressing their dog as John, oddly enough.

I share this information, and John is at once inspired to share another family story.

“My wife was planning on bee-keeping at one stage, and one morning at breakfast one of the kids said, ‘If we do get bees, I want to call one of them Stuart’.

I thought that was fantastic – Stuart the Bee! So when I came to naming my badgers I knew one of them had to be Stuart the Badger.”

So are there any current authors he would hold up as an example to us all?

tumblr_inline_mqtpdhUpBw1qz4rgp“Loads! In some ways it’s a little unfair to pick out a few, but someone whose work I consistently enjoy is Philip Reeve. I think he’s brilliant and has a great imagination.

“Then I’d say Jonathan Stroud. I’m looking forward to Lockwood & Co, and like the Bartimaeus trilogy.

“There’s Frances Hardinge. I’ve only read A Face Like Glass, but all her other books are on my to-read list. A marvellous book, the best I read last year. I could go on!”

But time is against us, with John expected at another high school up the road, Brownedge St Mary’s in Bamber Bridge.

I ended by complimenting him on his closing song to the Balshaw’s year sevens, not least it’s mid-song change of direction.

“Well, thank you! One of the thing I love doing with writing is playing with people’s expectations.

“I love those moments where they think you’re leading them down one road, but then you take a turn off somewhere else!”

And now – a Fantastic Footnote …

Fantastic Day: Emma Barnes and John Dougherty at the Fantastic Book Awards launch

Fantastic Day: Emma Barnes and John Dougherty at the Lancashire FBA launch

John Dougherty took time out while visiting Lancashire to help launch of the latest Fantastic Book Awards, part of the scheme’s 10th anniversary celebrations.

He joined fellow children’s author – and 2014 FBA winner – Emma Barnes and teachers from 120 primary schools across the county at a conference to launch the awards, run by Lancashire County Council’s School Library Service.

The awards were established in 2005 following the success of the Lancashire Book of the Year award for secondary age students.

The idea is to encourage reading for pleasure and enjoyment for nine to 11-year-olds, introducing them to newly-published fiction titles.

A selection of six books, from a list of 30, goes to participating schools at the start of the autumn term, together with an introductory pack and promotional materials.

thumbnailThe books are usually read in the form of a book club, with titles discussed and opinions shared, fostering enthusiasm for reading as a social activity.

Pupils in school years five and six from all over Lancashire read and discuss the titles throughout the autumn and spring terms.

Voting takes place at the end of the spring term and then schools await the results and the announcement of the eventual winners.

OMB Wolfie coverThe winning authors receive high-quality fountain pens as prizes, and each school and all participating pupils receive certificates celebrating their achievements.

Books are divided into five groups of six titles, with each school receiving two copies of the titles on the shortlist, with all the titles first published in the UK between April 1st and March 31st in the previous 12 months.

Emma Barnes’ Wolfie was among five winners for 2014, with Adam Perrott’s The Odds, Sally Gardner’s Operation Bunny, Eleanor Hawken’s Sammy Feral’s Diaries of Weird, and Jennifer Gray’s Atticus Claw Breaks the Law.

To find out more about John Dougherty, his books and school visit programme, head to his website here

 * With thanks to independent children’s books promoter Jake Hope and Balshaw’s High School learning resources co-ordinator Catherine Sinclair 

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From The Jam / Deadwood Dog – Preston 53 Degrees

Friday's Boys: Russ and Bruce in action at 53 Degrees (Photo: Warren Meadows)

Friday’s Boys: Russ and Bruce in action at 53 Degrees (Photo: Warren Meadows)

After a winning set by locals Deadwood Dog and a stirring late ‘70s/early ’80s soundtrack between, there was more than a frisson of excitement around 53 Degrees as The Gift’s upbeat instrumental Circus signalled the arrival of the main act.

Bass hero Bruce Foxton, guitarist/lead vocalist Russell Hastings and drummer Steve Barnard soon took to the stage, and above a background ring-tone, Russ asked, ‘Shall we answer that phone?’

We were off, with Setting Sons side one, track one, Girl on the Phone, 35 years on, and it was pretty much non-stop from there, transported back in time to a revered Jam LP.

The band were soon augmented by Monroze’s Tom Heel on keyboards, a regular Paul Weller associate, and never gave less than the proverbial 100 per cent all night, despite battling bugs and a nightmare journey north.

Up-Front_The-Jam_Setting-SoWeller’s often-sublime lyrics are perhaps all the better appreciated all these years on, the band giving the songs the respect they deserved.

Bruce had said he was slightly worried about a click-track on Wasteland – a rare bit of live FTJ technology – but Tom was in charge and the song was seamless.

That track was just one that proved as special as I’d hoped, while Thick as Thieves, Private Hell, Little Boy Soldiers and Burning Sky were delivered with the right mix of angst and colour.

Bruce positively shone on Smithers-Jones, a live staple for so long, while Russ – still under the weather – pleaded for help on the evocative Saturday’s Kids and got it in spades from an audience where a fair proportion were surely too young to appreciate it all first time.

Again you always expect to hear The Eton Rifles from this much-loved collective, but they exceeded expectations on an extended mix.

Finally, Heatwave was just amazing, Martha Reeves’ classic floor-filler delivered at pace with the extra fire the original band intended.

Flying Again: From the Jam at 53 Degrees.  From left - Russell, Smiley and Bruce (Photo: Warren Meadows)

Flying Again: From the Jam at 53 Degrees. From left – Russell, Smiley and Bruce (Photo: Warren Meadows)

You can see why Steve has that Smiley nickname, the latest percussionist’s facial expressions nigh on infectious as he led the band from the rear.

So where to go from that high point? Well, you’re never more than a couple of minutes from the next hit, and Going Underground, When You’re Young and Strange Town had this punter in raptures.

It didn’t stop there, a version of Larry William’s Slow Down, first borrowed for In the City, proving a real barn-stormer.

Russ mentioned that song’s rebirth in Liverpool from a certain four-piece while discussing the recent evocative Cilla Black TV bio-pic.

And talking of great ’60s bands, Bruce was soon leading us into The Kinks’ David Watts, at least a couple of generations of Mods clearly impressed.

The mood changed for the poignant Butterfly Collector, before the set’s thrilling climax with Start and a thrilling run through That’s Entertainment.

The love between this band and the fans is something special, and Bruce voiced appreciation for the threatened venue itself, while Russ told us how their reception had more than made up for his nine-hour trip from the South Coast.

A couple of minutes later, the band saw us off with the first of three more high points, All Mod ConsTo Be Someone and Down in the Tube Station at Midnight followed by A Town Called Malice, every word seemingly echoing around the room as well as down the tracks.

It wouldn’t be enough to just offer nostalgia. It has to be fresh too, and on that count From the Jam have got it nailed on. Long may they shine.

* For a recent Bruce Foxton interview based around the 35th anniversary of Setting Sons, head here.

Think Pink: Deadwood Dog vie for space at 53 Degrees on Friday (Photo: Deadwood Dog)

Think Pink: Deadwood Dog vie for space at 53 Degrees on Friday (Photo: Deadwood Dog)

It can’t be easy playing second-fiddle to any band, and local boys Deadwood Dog had their work cut out earlier, winning over a big crowd at this Setting Sons anniversary show.

Yet this assured six-piece did commendably, despite having less space on stage than ever before. It’s a good job they can’t dance as well as they play.

Kraftwerk cover The Model always goes down well, and you can see why this treasured combo – their Eastern European influences worn on their sleeves – are becoming established on the festival circuit.

Many of the songs from debut CD United Colours of Bigotry were well received, not least the more commercial Out in the Rain and You Brighten Up My Day.

This also turned out to be a launch party for new single Divided Kingdom, and front-man Mick’s between-song banter, Daeve’s bouzouki fretwork and the band’s overall pride at being involved showed.

10610489_847198265312775_6766747187939789599_nHaving supported From the Jam at the same venue last year, Deadwood Dog again won some new friends and indicated just why they’ve become such an integral part of Lancashire’s live scene.

To get hold of the Divided Kingdom three-track CD single – also featuring The Beast of Bamber Bridge and Uglyhead – plus Deadwood Dog’s debut CD, and find out where to catch the band live, head to their Facebook page here or try via Dumbdown Records hereAlternatively, you can download the new EP via Bandcamp here. 

And for a writewyattuk feature on Deadwood Dog from July, 2014, head here.

* With thanks to Mark Charlesworth at 53 Degrees and esteemed photographer Warren Meadows. 

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Big Country show their Steeltown mettle – the Bruce Watson interview

10009315_714201701961679_1233763750436338762_nBe honest. What do you think of if someone mentions Big Country?

The band that is, not the 1958 Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons film success based on Donald Hamilton’s novel, with that fantastically-evocative and stirring musical score.

Do you think 1980s’ stadium rock, gingham shirts and a strong Scottish identity?

Well, surviving member Bruce Watson can put us right on a bit of that, and it’s worth noting that while they made four albums in the ’80s, they made another four in the decade that followed.

What’s more, since the tragic passing of original front-man and former Skids guitarist Stuart Adamson in late 2001, they’ve been playing regularly these last four years and released a ninth studio album.

Perhaps most startlingly, it’s the Scottish identity bit that Bruce takes me to task on, albeit in a friendly manner.

You see, Bruce – while he had moved to Fife by his third birthday – was born in Ontario, Canada.

Furthermore, of the original quartet, drummer and fellow stalwart Mark Brzezicki was born in Berkshire, Stuart was from Manchester, and bassist Tony Butler from London.

So if nothing else, I might have provided you with some good ammunition for a future pub quiz there.

As Bruce puts it, “We didn’t just see ourselves as a Scottish band, and none of us were born there anyway. We were just a band.

“It was more a press angle. You wouldn’t say Mott the Hoople or Def Leppard were English bands. We’re just a rock band.”

10406458_661158467266003_3005931025864662636_nBruce moved to Dunfermline in 1963, leaving on the Queen Mary the same day John F. Kennedy was shot.

Seeing as his band had a reputation for evoking the spirit of bagpipes, fiddles and other traditional Caledonian instruments though, I asked if he grew up with Scottish folk music.

“Not really, more rock music, mostly The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.”

As it turns out, Bruce only started playing guitar when he was around 14, and it took a while to come together.

“I wanted to be a football player, but when I discovered I was no good I wanted to learn guitar after seeing films like Tommy, Stardust and all that.

“That’s what made me want to do it, seeing David Essex eyeing up that red guitar in the window. It was like, ’I want that!’

That was the iconic scene that bridged the gap between 1973’s That’ll Be the Day and 1974’s Stardust, but did the reality turn out more like the more gritty 1975 Slade film Flame?

“Well, that was a good movie as well, and I thought Don Powell was excellent in that.”

Was it always inevitable from there that playing guitar would lead to something?

“It was just something I wanted to do so badly.”

Dunfermline Days: The Skids, with Stuart Adamson second from the right

Dunfermline Days: Skids, with Stuart Adamson second from the right

Stuart Adamson was three years older than Bruce, and saw success first with Richard Jobson in new wave outfit Skids, another Dunfermline-based band.

“I met Stuart in around 1977 when I started putting my band together. My best friend, Raymond, who I’d known since primary school, had an older sister who was going out with Stuart at the time, and they later married.”

Was there a healthy scene in Dunfermline back then?

“Dunfermline was a hot bed for music! In the street I lived, next door was Manny Charlton from Nazareth, and next street down was Skids drummer Mike Baillie.

“You had two options for work. You worked down the pit or down the dockyard. I worked in the dockyard and there must have been 10 bands that came out of there.

“I was there about three and a half years, working on submarines, before I went full-time with the band.”

Did that job sharpen your resolve to get away?

“Not really. It was just part of your upbringing. My father worked in the pit, and they had so many accidents down there, he said, ‘You don’t want to go there’. The docks were a better option.”

Thankfully, Bruce soon carved out his own career, and fast forward to 2014, Big Country are back, touring with their latest line-up, celebrating the 30th anniversary of their second album, Steeltown, playing it in its entirety each night.

Big_Country_-_SteeltownDoes it seem like it’s been 30 years since Steeltown?

“No, it doesn’t. Funnily enough, we did a gig last night, playing Steeltown for the first time since, a free warm-up show at Keystreet, Clitheroe, a music bar where we’d rehearsed the past couple of days.

“We invited fans along, playing as Men of Steel, and around 200 people turned up!”

Hang on, did he say Clitheroe? Yes, the band may be forever identified with Scotland the Brave, but their current base is in Lancashire.

So, just a few weeks after the ‘no’ vote tipped the Scottish referendum, Big Country are based in an area which remains at the geographical heart of the United Kingdom.

“We don’t live in Clitheroe, but we’re here most of the time working, the most central point in the UK. Get a map of Britain and you’ll see for yourself!”

Of course, it helps that the band’s manager, Pete Barton, lives in the town, and with band members in London and north of the border, it’s proved a perfect base.

Steeltown marked a happy time for the band, coming after the success of debut album The Crossing and their third top-10 hit, Wonderland.

The title track was written about Corby, the Northamptonshire town which attracted a significant influx of Scottish workers when its steelworks opened in the mid-1930s, but was facing major unemployment issues by the early ‘80s.

Steeltown proved to be Big Country’s sole No.1, and spawned three more top-30 singles, and was – like their debut LP – produced by Steve Lillywhite.

“It was very strange, because Steve was working with so many bands at the time, and took a year out for tax purposes. So we went to Stockholm to record at Abba’s Polar Studios.

“That was absolutely amazing, and we got to see Benny and Bjorn, who were there planning their musical, Chess.

Apart from alphabetically, I don’t suppose too many people would have put Abba and Big Country too close to each other.

“Not really, but it was an interesting time, albeit in an expensive city. You wouldn’t want to go there for a party, that’s for sure.”

Wonder Days: The original line-up, from  left - Tony Butler, Bruce Watson, Mark Brzezicki and Stuart Adamson

Wonder Days: The original line-up, from left – Tony Butler, Bruce Watson, Mark Brzezicki and Stuart Adamson

The album went straight to the top of the charts, and it seemed like Big Country were at the top of their game.

“True. And you don’t expect things like that. But when it happens it is quite nice, and it’s life-changing.”

They even played a part in the original Band Aid project, soon after the album came out, although a busy European touring schedule limited them to recording a message for the b-side.

Has Bruce a favourite Big Country recording after all these years?

“I’m still drawn towards the Wonderland 12”, which came after The Crossing and before Steeltown. That kind of worked.

“We had to go away to tour America after recording the song, and Steve Lillywhite mixed it without the band being present.”

You’ve quite a long tour up to Christmas. I’m guessing you still get a buzz out of playing live.

“Definitely. This is our second lease of life. We didn’t do it for a lot of years. After Stuart passed away, nothing happened. Now, we’re out there doing it, and it’s good.”

By the late ‘90s, the album sales were suffering and Stuart was suffering with alcoholism and depression.

The band had a Final Fling farewell tour in 2000, but remained adamant they would return.

1972304_625680920813758_1070099452_nAs it turned out, they played later that year in Kuala Lumpur, but Stuart’s problems continued and in December 2001 he was found dead in a hotel room in Hawaii.

Was there ever a sense of foreboding about what was to happen?

“Not really. The band used to break up every year or so. Like any band, where you’ve had enough and just want to take a break from it.

“We broke up at that stage, but as it turned out we got back together about a month later to do some gigs in Malaysia. And we were intending to carry on.”

Were you still in touch with Stuart at the end?

“Oh yeah. He was out in Nashville, but we’d phone each other and talk a lot.”

I guess that devastating loss must have made you re-evaluate just what was important.

“Kind of. You just don’t know what’s around the corner, and make every day count.”

The current Big Country line-up consists of Bruce (guitar/vocals) and his 25-year-old son Jamie Watson (guitar), founder member Mark Brzezicki on drums, former Simple Minds and Propaganda bass player Derek Forbes, and vocalist Simon Hough.

Is it nice to be playing with your lad?

“It’s great, and Jimmy’s been in the band since we started back up in 2007, initially when I got a call from Richard Jobson putting the Skids back together.

“U2 and Green Day got to together to record The Saints Are Coming. I think that was the catalyst for Richard to call me.

“Jamie was involved as well, and we felt if we could get the Skids back together we could do the same with Big Country.”

Did Jamie grow up hearing a lot of his dad’s band?

“He knew all that stuff. I’ve two sons, and while my oldest isn’t interested in music, which is great, with Jamie, from the moment he was born he fell in love it all, and it seems he’s always had a guitar around his neck.”

Family Way: Bruce and Jamie in live action with Big Country

Family Way: guitar duo Bruce Watson and his son Jamie Watson in live action with Big Country

Does he play like you?

“He’s totally different from me. He’s more a technical player. Like myself, he was heavily into the Beatles, but also all the contemporary stuff from over the years.”

Can his old man still embarrass him on the road?

“Oh … easily!”

On the band’s last tour, The Alarm’s front-man Mike Peters was the lead singer. Is it a little different with Simon Hough now?

“Simon’s done a lot of session work in the past, with the likes of Denny Laine. When we were working with Mike, we changed the key of the songs to suit his voice.

“He also brought his own thing to the table. With Simon it’s very much doing the songs exactly as they were done back in the day, and how it sounded on the record.

“It’s going to happen in any occupation where you’ve got one guy doing two things. It’s going to come to a head at some point.

“And last year, Mike told us he was going to have to take a year away from Big Country to do his own 30th anniversary albums!

“That was fine, but we couldn’t just sit on our bums for a year, so had to go out and find another vocalist. There’s certainly not been any fall-out though.”

Between commitments, Mark has played drums for Bruce Foxton and From the Jam. But I always got the feeling, despite his full commitment, that Big Country remained his top priority.

In fact, the drumming on Senses of Summer, the last song on Bruce Foxton’s comeback album, Back in the Room, seems to suggest something of an amalgam of Big Country and The Jam.

“Really? I’ll have to have a listen.”


Stepping Up: The new line-up. From the left: Simon Hough, Derek Forbes, Mark Brzezicki, Jamie Watson, Bruce Watson

And then there’s Derek Forbes on bass, replacing founder member Tony Butler.

“Tony retired from music around a year and a half ago, and teaches music in a college in Cornwall …”

I was aware of that, actually, as my Bude-based nephew, Dexter Wyatt, has enjoyed the benefits of Tony’s tutorial experience at Petroc College.

“Ah, brilliant! Well, when Tony left, I’d worked with Derek previously, so he was our first port of call. He was working with his ex-band members from Simple Minds but looking to do something else.

”We’d always kept in touch, so he came on board. So even though Mark and I are original members, we’ve three more guys in the band now, and it’s fresh.”

While the band’s commercial success dwindled throughout the 80s, they retained a loyal fan-base, paving the way for their later reformation.

What can we expect when we come along to The Muni Theatre in Colne (this Friday, October 10) or any of the dates that follow?

“The set will be split into two 45-minute halves, just like a game of football, with the Steeltown album followed by songs from the back-catalogue.

“Back then of course, we were limited to vinyl or cassette formats, and because of that we were limited to around 40 minutes or so.”

Personally, I prefer those days, when you’d have a fifth or sixth track that would sign you off before the second side of the record.

“And then you turn over – exactly! That’s what we did last night. After five songs I said that.

“All you really need is the sound of a needle going on to the vinyl, then you can go on to side two!”

1908072_704943299554186_3988669027947201360_nFor full details of Big Country’s Steeltown 30th anniversary tour, the newly-released deluxe edition of the album, and all the latest from the band, head here.

This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, first published on October 9th, 2014. For the original online version, head here

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Preston’s Got Soul: Judy Street – 53 Degrees

Casino Royalty: Judy Street with Russ Winstanley in Wigan during her UK visit (Photo: Judy Street)

Casino Royalty: Judy Street with Russ Winstanley in Wigan during her UK visit (Photo: Judy Street)

In case you didn’t realise, there’s something of a Northern Soul revival going on at the moment, no doubt stoked by the likes of Duffy and John Newman on the mainstream scene.

And the forthcoming, much-anticipated film that takes this music and dance movement for its title suggests it’s far more than just a fad.

There were enough young faces busting moves at Preston’s 53 Degrees on Friday night to suggest there’s plenty of truth in the old ‘keep the faith’ maxim and underline the notion that classic soul’s here to stay.

Those who first filled the floor to Judy Street’s rediscovered What in the early ’70s have grown a little longer in the tooth since. But that 1967 flip-side has proved to have something of a life of its own.

Judy herself has been astounded by an on-going love for the song and the perennial teen who sang it, and this was part of her way to say thank you for all the support she’s discovered this side of the Atlantic in recent years.

After getting Russ Winstanley’s call to return to the UK – a few months later than originally planned – this Northern Soul icon finally got to experience Preston’s soulful credentials first-hand.

Fresh from a well-received visit to Skegness’s Northern Soul Survivors Weekender, Tennessee-based Judy Street headed for the North-West, and clearly relished her big moment in front of an adoring in-crowd.

If there were nerves ahead of this solo performance, Judy used them to positive effect, an infectious smile suggesting she was having the time of her life out there.

Cult 45: You Turn Me On/What, the original 1968 pressing

Cult 45: You Turn Me On/What, the original 1968 pressing

It’s been a long time coming, with What – later covered by Soft Cell – recorded 46 years ago.

Yet the star attraction of Preston’s Got Soul’s penultimate show at this seemingly-doomed uni venue peeled back the decades and gave it her all.

It was a brave choice of set, with Judy – turned back by customs officials in May, lacking the necessary work permit – airing tracks from her new Cover Girl CD, including a number of revered dancefloor favourites.

I say brave because I’m aware of the past snobbery that seems to have gone hand-in-glove with an otherwise friendly scene. So many belting tunes are off-limits for the aficionados.

Yet Judy has crafted a collection of respectful nods to some of those classics, and to good effect.

I would have much preferred a full band behind her, but she did commendably, with the two scooters on the stage helping set the tone.

Her backing tracks were constructed with great care, and though it wasn’t seamless – and couldn’t be in the circumstances – Judy’s charm and great vocal saw her through.

She was a teenager when she recorded for HB Barnum in LA, and clearly the voice has changed over the years.

But if you can imagine a vocal talent like Cher tackling classic ’60s soul rather than her late ’80s mainstream soft rock, you’ll not be too far off.

There’s a Dusty Springfield feel on some tracks too, and this is clearly a performer with a deep appreciation of a scene she only truly learned about in later years.

From Tainted Love and Hit and Run to Do I Love You (Indeed I Do), Sunny and Wigan’s adopted anthem Long After Tonight Is All Over, she proved her worth.

And among the hip hits and standards there was even a song penned by Judy’s hubby, What Are You Waiting For serving as a fine tribute to that whole scene.

Stage Presence: Judy Street gave it her all at 53 Degrees (Photo: Judy Street)

Stage Presence: Judy Street gave it her all at 53 Degrees (Photo: Judy Street)

Judy was clearly at home with the mic. and talked briefly about her sightseeing trips to Liverpool and Wigan – the latter getting the biggest cheer, I might add.

And while the Casino’s long gone, there was plenty of life and passion in the assembled faithful, also inspired by spot-on contributions on the decks by DJs Dave Evison and Glenn Walker-Foster.

GWF for one bopped and shimmied enthusiastically behind his turntables, and proved to be the perfect MC for Judy, ensuring the floor remained busy before and after her two sets.

And as you might expect, Judy finished both sets with the song that started it all – the much-loved What proving nothing less that a crowd favourite.

I gather more tickets sold in May, and there was plenty of room to manoeuvre out there. PGS’s organisers could certainly do with a few more punters for star guest Eddie Holman at December 5’s 53 Degrees finale.

But those who showed up were rewarded, and Judy – who later signed CDs and merchandise with the great charm you might expect from this positively-personable performer – justifiably returned home on a high.

Judy cover yellow FINAL (1)Judy Street – Cover Girl – a review

Cover Girl is dedicated to ’40 years of Northern Soul’, and certainly provides a worthy tribute to a scene that continues to thrive all these years on.

There’s an element of ‘catch-up’ in parts, and now and again you wonder just what we might have missed out on from this artist during her lost years … or at least the years lost to us.

But I guess that’s part of the magic of Northern Soul. It’s not about success stories as much as great music. And nostalgia plays a big part in all that.

We’ll never get back the teenage girl who delivered What in ’68, but we at least get to hear what a talent she was … and remains.

Produced by Judy’s other half Tom Stewart and engineered by Mike O’Neil, Cover Girl was recorded at Serenity Hill Studios in Nashville, Tennessee, and carries a flavour of all those classic recordings that turned us on to ’60s soul on this side of the pond.

It features a number of standards and carefully-chosen covers, and where else could we start but Ed Cobb’s unmistakable Tainted Love, 50 years on from Gloria Jones’ original.

There’s something of an acknowledgement as well to Marc Almond, whose version with Soft Cell revived the song in the UK in a similar way he later did with What after its earlier Northern Soul revival.

1653834_546586415440701_1297279066_nIt’ll Never Be Over For Me is the song that first brings Cher to mind, and seems just right for Judy, although it will always remain associated with Timi Yuro.

Hit & Run brings a more Motor City feel to the party, Michael Grando’s drums and Tom’s keys providing a good old chugging backdrop for Judy’s mighty vocal, again moving away from but retaining the spirit of Rose Batiste’s favourite.

Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie is more classic Northern territory, and there was a time when Judy might have scored a hit here with this alternative spin on Jay & the Techniques’ floor-filler.

Again, you’re left wondering how this artist missed out on the big time. If her HB Barnum-penned hit had been a hit … well, who knows.

But it’s not about what might have been as What Are You Waiting For, Tom’s own revival song, and something of a tribute to Judy’s cult hit. Lovingly honed in the spirit of the ’60s, and a track you have to check the date on to see if it was really penned five decades ago.

There’s no mistaking the next cut, and for many Frank Wilson’s Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) is a song that sums up all that’s so good about this scene.

Judy’s version is fairly faithful. And while you might think on the surface you can’t go wrong with this classic, I beg to differ. You could quite easily, but she avoids the pitfalls.

Soul Icon: Judy Street

Soul Icon: Judy Street

It’s a personal thing, but for me the mix is a bit too low on Spiral Starecase’s More Today Than Yesterday. I need to hear Judy competing with that brass, and a more live feel. But like the next track, Laura Greene’s Moonlight, Music & You, it’s another great showcase for Judy’s voice, the latter’s violin intro tugging the heart-strings.

Bobby Hebb’s Sunny has been covered many times before, and I’ll always have a soft spot for the original and Georgie Fame’s cover. But again Judy delivers, and this time provides a heartfelt tribute to her days learning at the foot of her father’s piano.

And Jimmy Radcliffe’s Long After Tonight Is All Over offers a grand and rather poignant finale, delivered with the nostalgic feel you might expect from a song that conveys so many emotions for Northern Soul lovers.

It’s unlikely that Cover Girl will be your introduction to all these songs, and it’s not designed to be.

It’s not about replacing the originals, and thankfully they remain with us because of the archiving we now have in place and the efforts of those who kept the faith and ensured this great music would never die.

But what we have here is a sincere, respectful tribute to just a handful of the songs that make this scene work, and a reminder of just what we’ve missed out on from Judy for all these years.

Yet we’ve got her now, and long may she deliver.

Personally-autographed CDs are available from the artist’s website.

Alternatively, copies can be obtained via Preston’s Got Soul’s Andrew Kirkham, who can be contacted on 0788 5077638.

For a link to my original Judy Street feature and interview, from May 2014, head here.

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