Kick it like Dick, Kerr’s – the story behind No Man’s Land

History Makers: The Dick, Kerr's Ladies in 1921

History Makers: The Dick, Kerr’s Ladies in 1921

In a year of widespread First World War centenary commemorations, a Lancashire theatre company is focusing on another aspect of that defining era – the rise of women’s football.

And Northern Irish actor/playwright Stephanie McKervill is just the latest to tackle the Dick, Kerr Ladies FC story in her new production, No Man’s Land.

Preston, Lancashire, played a major role in the development of professional football, as anyone who knows the timeline of the Beautiful Game will tell you.

What’s more, the history of the women’s game also had key links with this North-West heartland.

Dick, Kerr’s Ladies FC was one of the earliest women’s football teams, founded in 1917 and soon attracting huge crowds in their home town.

This isn’t the place to read that story in detail, but thankfully there are plenty of publications and online spaces dedicated to this remarkable tale.

For now I’ll just add something of a potted history, revealing that within three years, what started as a works team ended up representing England in the first of four internationals on home soil against a French side, played in front of 25,000 people at Preston North End’s Deepdale home.

A French tour followed, but despite widespread fame and popularity, the Football Association banned the club from using its pitches in 1921, in what turned out to be a 50-year ruling.

411C7FWWSGL._SY300_However, the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies’ continued, with Canadian and US visits following. And their legacy lives on, not least thanks to writers like Gail Newsham and Barbara Jacobs, a number of theatrical productions, and a BBC documentary.

It was the latter that first turned Clitheroe-based Steph on to the story. So what was it about the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies story that appealed to her?

“I first heard the story on a TV programme in 2011, and it was something that just stuck with me. As a writer I’m very interested in true stories.

“It’s those interesting snippets of information about people you can really draw on, trying to find out what those characters were like and what their individual stories might be.

“With this team of women at that time, I just thought ‘my goodness, what kind of lives did they lead, and how does nobody seem to know about this?’”

The initial Dick, Kerr’s team comprised of female workers at the Preston loco and tram manufacturer in 1914, taking time out from producing munitions for the war effort.

It was felt that such organised sporting activity would be good for morale and ultimately aid production.

And what started as informal matches during breaks led to much more thanks to Dick, Kerr’s office worker Alfred Frankland, who organised public matches.

That venture soon proved a major success, and one early clash on Christmas Day in 1917 pulled in 10,000 spectators to Deepdale.

Three Christmases later, a Boxing Day clash with a French tourist side drew 53,000 spectators to Everton’s Goodison Park.

Furthermore, regular Pathe News footage shown at UK cinemas ensured drafted-in talents like Lily Parr and Alice Woods – both originally from St Helens – became big names.

Those two leading lights are at the heart of Stephanie’s play, but No Man’s Land doesn’t just try to interpret their roles in the Dick, Kerr’s success story.

41IaIMU0RtL._SL500_SY300_“It’s a mixture of truth and fiction. There were three books I read, but the main one for me was Gail Newsham’s A League of their Own.

“There are characters I know lots about thanks to research from people like Gail, such as Lily and Alice.

“Their stories were really interesting to read about, as it was to hear about the other characters. But there’s still not that much available about some of the others.

“I’ve used real names in there, and all the surnames who played are there, but for a lot the only thing we know is that they were in the starting team.

“That allowed me to use a little artistic licence, putting them in situations I believed they would have been in at that time.”

An FA ban at the end of 1921 largely curtailed the team’s success, the game’s authorities feeling – at least privately – that the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies’ popularity threatened the men’s game.

That too was something that made an impression on Stephanie.

“I personally connected with this as I once played cricket for Ulster. So while I wasn’t a footballer, I had a hard time at school training with the boys, getting bullied a little.

“As it turned out I gave that up, because I had more love for theatre than sport.

“But hearing this story and learning that women had gone through all this 100 years before, I wondered why we were still going through it all. That resonated with me.

Football Legacy: Stephanie  McKervill

Football Legacy: Stephanie McKervill

No Man’s Land is about the journey of the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies from creation until the FA banned women’s teams from playing in their stadia.

“It’s a journey over four years, from the mid-point of the war to when the men returned home, looking at how life changed and how the team grew and became more and more popular.

“In effect they became the England national team, and we follow the story until the time when the FA turned around and told them they didn’t want them anymore.

“These women were playing at an important time, around a year before women got the vote, so it’s all hand-in-hand with the suffrage movement.”

It seems somewhat ironic that in a period which opened up the world to women, and at least led to them gaining the vote, the FA seemed to be swimming against the tide.

“Very much so. I think at first it was felt we needed the entertainment, the chance to have something light-hearted and sporting going on while the men were away.

“But later they wanted women back to where they were. One other problem was that the women’s league was set up for charitable causes and was raising money for hospitals and returning soldiers. The FA wasn’t making money in the way they were with the men’s game.”

The poster publicising No Man’s Land depicts two actors recreating an evocative 1920 photograph of opposing international captains shaking hands and kissing before a match at Preston, one that might suggest a gay sub-plot.

“Well … society now looks at that and might think it suggests a lesbian story, and there is a hint of that within the play, which includes a lesbian character.”

In fact, I could add at this point that Lily Parr, who settled in Goosnargh and nursed at Whittingham Hospital after the FA ban, was openly lesbian.

“It was an iconic photo from that period, and again maybe shows a difference between then and now.

“There’s something very different from today’s men’s game – not least the relationship between the teams and camaraderie of the game.”

1781260_581295465294196_2039720015_o (1)For her part, Steph’s early interest in drama led to stage management roles with the National Youth Theatre in London as a teenager.

After studying a BA in acting in Carmarthen, a six-month exchange at California State University and work all over, including a year in Germany, she re-settled in the North-West.

So how did this Ballymena girl become a creative director with the rural Lancashire-based Ribcaged Productions theatre company?

“Ribcaged was started by Owen Phillips in Ribchester in 2005, and I became involved in 2010, having met Owen at the National Youth Theatre.”

Company Founder: Ribcaged Productions' artistic director Owen Phillips

Company Founder: Ribcaged Productions’ artistic director Owen Phillips

Steph ended up getting called up to Edinburgh to help Owen with a few shows, and after that moved to Manchester, then to Clitheroe.

“The company’s really pushing forward now, and we’re becoming quite successful, which is fantastic. It’s been a real adventure.”

Ribcaged has so far been commissioned for six performances of No Man’s Land, starting at the Cloudspotting Festival in Gisburn Forest on August 2.

That’s followed by further Lancashire shows at Lowther Pavilion, Lytham on August 14, at Blackburn Empire on September 25, 26 and 27, then The Grand at Clitheroe on November 11.

“There’s a cast of 13, and it’s very much an ensemble show. There are leading characters, but hopefully when people come and watch it they’ll see every person has a deep and interesting story.

“The reason I fell in love with this story and doing this as a play was related to my own story as a struggling actress, trying to find work and interesting roles.

“There wasn’t really anything for women, so I wanted to write something that was meaty and had something interesting for women to get their teeth into.

“We have 11 women in this show, and they’re all really excited about performing, which is fantastic.

“We start with Cloudspotting in Stephen Park, Slaidburn, where the organisers are really keen to get theatre involved as well as music.”

Fellow Creative: Ribcaged creative director Richard Hoyle is one of just two ,ales in the 13-strong cast

Fellow Creative: Ribcaged creative director Richard Hoyle is one of just two ,ales in the 13-strong cast

You held auditions in Clitheroe at the end of May – did many locals come forward to try out for roles?

“We had a really good response, and the majority of the actors are local, which is fantastic, because everyone in acting thinks that if they’re going to be taken seriously they need to head down to London.

“We’ve got actors from Blackpool and Manchester as well. Above all, they’re all from Lancashire!”

“It’s really nice to be able to help create jobs and have locally-based actors ready to work.”

Through her involvement with Ribcaged, Stephanie has clearly clicked with her new surroundings.

“I stayed in Manchester a few years, but never ended up getting a lot of acting work there – it was always down in London or elsewhere.

“When a full-time opportunity arose to push Ribcaged further, that brought me here. I’m from a town where the theatre scene isn’t great, and I’m very interested in rural touring.

“It’s about trying to engage with people who wouldn’t normally come to the theatre – trying to reach out to those people.

“This is a historical play, with a sporting theme, so hopefully will engage more people than a Shakespeare play might. It’s just something a bit different to come and see.”

Ballymena Girl: Steph McKervill

Ballymena Belle: Steph McKervill

For performance details of No Man’s Land and Ribcaged Productions, head to the company’s Facebook page here.

This is a revised version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature first published in the Lancashire Evening Post on July 24, 2014. For the original online version, head here.

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A truly independent spirit – the Badly Drawn Boy interview

Ahead of appearances at the Beat-Herder Festival in Lancashire’s Ribble Valley and Portmeirion’s Festival No.6 in North Wales, writewyattuk tackled Damon Gough – aka Badly Drawn Boy – on everything from Beck to Boney M and Bruce Springsteen. 

badly drawn boy

Pensive Mode: Damon Gough, aka Badly Drawn Boy

Before I get going, I need to make a confession. This interview almost never happened, and it was all down to sheer incompetence on this blogger’s part.

I’d clearly got quite complacent with my digital voice recorder in recent times, but a couple of weeks back I somehow got two input jacks mixed up and produced a perfect half-hour tape of me asking questions and no responses from my interviewee.

What’s more, that Friday afternoon piece was my last that week, determined to enjoy a couple of World Cup matches and a little family time and get back to it all the following Monday.

On finishing my call with Damon Gough, better known as Badly Drawn Boy, I told my better half what a lovely bloke he was, coming over as friendly, open, pensive and candid. It was bound to make a great feature.

The following Monday morning I had a great phone interview with Mick Stokes, lead singer of Lancashire bouzouki-wielding folk-rockers Deadwood Dog, and then uploaded both … only to find acres of empty audio in response to my questions. Cue panic.

Thankfully, Mick was cool about it and we reconvened a couple of hours later, but for the next week and a half or so I was sweating on trying to get hold of Damon again.

I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d told me to ‘do one’, but with a bit of hard work from Emma at his PR company, we finally got there 12 days later, and thankfully Damon was again in (forgiving) fine form.

With all that in mind, I had a different opening question second time around for a 44-year-old, who has carved something of a reputation over the years as one of the UK’s finest independent singer-songwriters.

Have you ever recorded something you considered truly fantastic only to find it’s not been there when you’ve listened back?

“I’m sure it must have happened … in the studio, all the time. The worst thing is thinking you’ll remember a song in your head if you go out to the shops and don’t have the time to jot it down or put it on a dictaphone, then suddenly it’s lost.

“Duke Ellington famously said if an idea’s good you’ll always remember it, but I’m not sure he was right.

“You hear about people having a notebook by the bed, but I don’t bother. I often dream songs, waking up with an idea in the head.”

Do you tend to take something around with you these days, with that in mind?

“Not as much as I should. I have something close by in the house, but not so much when I’m out and about. I should do though. I’m kind of lazy.”

Damon was born in Bedfordshire but moved to Bolton at an early age, and retains a love for his adopted Lancashire.

And this Chorlton-based Manchester City fan will be close to his old home territory this weekend, when he heads for the Ribble Valley for the Beat-herder Festival.

Badly+Drawn+Boy+-+EP1+-+7-+RECORD-332788He started recording in 1997, with the self-released EP1, the first of five such extended plays, his reputation steadily growing, his big break coming three years later with the release of The Hour of Bewilderbeast.

A £20,000 Mercury Prize win and mainstream success followed, that album going on to sell 300,000 copies.

The multi-instrumentalist has released seven albums since, including the soundtracks for Paul and Chris Weitz films About A Boy (2002) and Being Flynn (2012).

While Damon may not be gathering quite so many column inches these days, you get the feeling he will again soon, the critical acclaim remaining for this trail-blazing indie artist.

Oh yeah, and he’s penned some bloody good songs along the way as well, as no doubt those who see him at the Beat-Herder (incidentally, a sell-out) this weekend will witness.

So what kind of set can we expect from him?

BeatHerder_Festival-1-200-200-100-crop“As it’s just one of a few gigs I’m doing this year and because I’ve never played Beat-Herder before, it’s probably going to be more a broad selection across the albums.

“Stuff people know, together with a couple of new songs and a couple of covers. Mainly hits, I suppose.”

Damon is also set to appear at Festival No. 6 in early September, a three-dayer in the surrounds of William Clough-Ellis’ stunning Portmeirion neo-Italianate village in North Wales, perhaps best known as the home of cult ’60s TV series The Prisoner.

On that occasion, the bill is topped by The Pet Shop Boys and Beck, and also includes The Undertones, Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, Peter Hook and The Light, London Grammar, Martha and the Vandellas and Neneh Cherry. And that’s just the music.

 

Damon featured on last year’s No.6 bill too, so I’m guessing he enjoys the woodland vibe.

Woodland Vibe: Badly Drawn Boy at Festival No.6 last summer

Woodland Vibe: Badly Drawn Boy at Festival No.6 last summer

“Yeah. And I think doing a solo set gives me a freedom to play songs in any order I feel like. If I’m with a band I sometimes have to play a song or set a certain way, but playing on my own I can vary that, pulling something off the cuff or merging songs together – playing the way I feel really.”

You’ve had a fair few band-mates down the years, but you’ve not been particularly allied to any in recent times.

“People just come and go and in your life. People move on. I’ve still got friends that played with me around the time I was touring the first album. They’ve gone on to do other things, but sometimes come back into the frame.

“I recently bumped into friends that played on my first album and could feasibly do things with them. There are several people who live around the corner who I play with on a regular basis at local gigs. But I haven’t got a fixed band as such.

“I only really come to that if I’m doing a lengthy tour. A while ago I did a tour with a drummer, bass player and two backing singers, but just for a handful of gigs. Sometimes I feel it just works for those gigs, then you want to try something different.”

One of the artists you’re looking forward to catching at Portmeirion is Beck, on the Saturday night. What is it that resonates with him?

An Inspiration: Beck

An Inspiration: Beck

“Beck for me is one of the most influential artists of our generation. In 1994, when he emerged, he had all those different albums on different small labels, which had never been done before. He set a new benchmark there.

“I was in my early 20s then, working on a four-track recorder in my bedroom and feeling like there was no possibility of having a record deal. I didn’t even try, but someone like Beck made me feel it was possible.

“When I first got chance to meet him, out in Australia, I thanked him for his inspiration and he was very flattered, surprisingly saying not many people say such nice things to him.

“We’ve seen each other a few times since, and this could be a good chance to meet again, at least to shake his hand and see how he’s getting on.”

Any chance of the two of you joining forces at No.6?

“I’m not sure if he’s around on Friday, when I’m on, but I’ll be around the next day to see him and would love to introduce him, perhaps – give him a ‘big up’ in front of the crowd. I’d like to just say hello anyway. He’s a good bloke.”

I was going to ask who you’d like to play live with or collaborate in the studio with, and I’m guessing Beck’s pretty high on that list.

“He’s definitely one, although I do find it hard to answer that question. There are a few artists out there. I always though I could write as good song for Bruce Springsteen – not that he struggles himself, but …”

Your appreciation of Springsteen is mentioned by another fan, Nick Hornby, in his 31 Songs. Were you aware of Bruce’s music pretty early on?

born2run“Yeah, although it’s always a weird one because people don’t always understand Bruce. I was 14 in the mid-80s when I caught Thunder Road, the first of his songs I heard.

“Similarly I’d heard of Bob Dylan but didn’t really know who he was or what he represented.

Thunder Road was my in-road to Bruce’s world, but unfortunately around that time all most of my mates saw or heard was Born in the USA, and that put most people off.

“It alienated a hell of a lot of people – quite ironic in that it also made him a global star. But throughout my teenage years I stuck with Springsteen.

“It’s fascinating really – there’s a only a period of about six years between this guy on stage looking more like Roy Orbison with a suit jacket on, before The River, and this muscle-bound Born in the USA guy.

“If you think of that in terms of a career, mine’s already spanned 15 years – when you’re 12 or 13, that’s half of your life.

“But Bruce was massively important to me, and when I first met Nick Hornby that was one of our main talking points.”

download (4)In 31 Songs, Hornby draws on his love of A Minor Incident, from the About a Boy soundtrack, and relates how the author related it to his own son’s autism and its effect.

He also describes Damon as ‘un-English’ in his music, in that he wouldn’t appeal ‘to Ibizan clubbers or boozed-up football hooligans’.

“Well … when I first read his essay on A Minor Incident, it really moved me because of the angle he takes on it.

“I knew he liked the song, but didn’t know the detail about his own home life and how he applied that song to how his son is. It takes someone like Nick to explain that.

“When I met him he was in awe of the ability to write the three-minute song and felt inferior that he had to write things in long form, in the form of a novel.

“He’s such a fan of songs. I told him I didn’t think I could write a novel, which sounds like hard work to me, but can write a three-minute song. So we both decided to stick to what we can do!

“Nick made the lyric feel even more poignant than I’d intended it by applying some of the lines to something real.

“A lot of people have come to up to me and said something similar about those lines – they had children, and felt the same.

“When you write songs like that on one level and then when it’s out there it becomes something completely different, that’s where the magic begins.

“And music’s worth nothing unless somebody is listening to it.”

Caught Live: Badly Drawn Boy on stage in Cardiff

Caught Live: Badly Drawn Boy on stage in Cardiff

You were a Dad yourself by the time you wrote that soundtrack. Did having children make you re-evaluate?

“Definitely. You think differently. I should get back to thinking more like that. Actually, it’s quite therapeutic this chat, in a way, to talk about such things.”

Damon’s children are now approaching 14 and 12, and while I can’t imagine him without his feet on the ground, it must help.

“Yeah. I can still trail-blaze my way through a few bars on a Friday night, but I’ve become a bit more sensible as I’ve got older. And I do look after them.”

BadlyoneisoneboydrawnDamon’s homesickness during a long US spell in 2003 led to him recording fourth LP One Plus One is One closer to home, in Stockport. Does that remain an issue?

“It’s very much part of who you are. I’ve always been very attached to my home roots, and I’m not the greatest traveller.

“I would love to see more of the world though, including these past few weeks watching the World Cup – seeing how beautiful and fascinating Brazil looks, despite all its problems.

“I am quite rooted, although I’m very lucky to have travelled because of all this. It’s been forced on me though, otherwise I’d just be sat lazily in my own back garden.

“The job’s taken me all over the place, so while it’s sometimes tough it’s given me a good view of the world, as a bonus.”

You were born in Dunstable, but soon moved to the North-West. Where is home for you these days?

“Chorlton, just three miles from Manchester’s town centre. I’ve been here since the mid-’90s in various houses.

“I grew up in Bolton with my mum and dad, a brother and two sisters, but every Sunday we’d come across to this part of Manchester, where my grandmother lived and made the best Sunday roast.

“We lived in Breightmet first off, but my mum and dad wanted us to move to a nicer part of town, even though we had good times there, growing up on a housing estate.

“We had lots of mates, and although it was rough and ready it was brilliant. I didn’t want to leave. But we moved to Belmont when I was 13 and I left in my mid-20s, having been to Leeds’ College of Music in between and had a few jobs.”

bdbDid those years inform where you started out with your music? And do you feel there’s a sense of that Lancashire setting in the early EPs and the first album?

“In some ways the isolation of living in a village made me veer towards being a solo artist, in a strange way, because I was used to being on my own.

“I was in a couple of bands, but always had the mentality of being a solo artist, perhaps because of that village isolation.

“That definitely had some influence on the route I took, and my mum and dad being self-employed – running their own small business – probably gave me that attitude of doing it for myself, starting my own record label.

“When I moved to Chorlton I met Andy Votel and we started Twisted Nerve, because I didn’t really expect to get a record deal any other way.

“The combination of those few things made me become this Badly Drawn Boy. I wanted to make a record and Andy wanted to start a label.”

From the start Damon seemed to tackle the artistic marketing side of the business well.

His was a truly independent spirit, no doubt something that helps him out in the current market, with the record industry so different now to how it was when he started out.

“Yes. I think everybody’s been forced to have a certain attitude to getting music out, and it can only be good that people have to think outside the box and not worry about other people liking them or not.

badly_drawn_boy“You’ve got to believe in yourself in any kind of creative world, and not be reliant on people like Simon Cowell to tell you that you’re good, which is what I always hate about things like The X-Factor.

“It is what it is and will never go away, but I think people should have belief in themselves and do things for themselves, like I did. People are forced to do that these days.

“God knows what the state of the record companies is at the moment though. I’ve not actually dealt with anyone in those circles these last few years.”

Similarly, if Damon hadn’t got that Mercury Prize award in 2000 I don’t think it would have made that much of a difference to his approach. Perhaps it just gave him a financial breathing space.

“Possibly, yeah. It was very exciting and I will always be grateful for it starting my career. People talk about it being an Achilles heel or an albatross, but I think it’s just a coincidence that the acts that receive it are not the kind of artists who tend to stay in the charts. They make records in their own time and space.

“I’ve not been in the charts for years, but I still make records and music. I’ve had a couple of years off and I really need to get back to it now.

“People keep asking what I’m doing, so I better get cracking!”

I’m guessing you’ve been working on a lot of new songs.

“Slowly, but surely, with lots of ideas cooking.”

When will that next album be out there?

“Last year I was saying this year, and this year I’m saying next year. But this time I’ve got to stick to that.

C_71_article_1416694_image_list_image_list_item_0_image“It’s the 15th anniversary of the first album next year, so it’ll be nice to release something new as well as perhaps remind people of that.

“Maybe we can re-release it as a new package. There would be some good stuff to include, such as extra tracks and other takes.”

A deluxe edition?

“Yeah. It would make a really good package. That alongside a new record.”

And live dates too?

“It would be great to do a proper UK tour again, like theatre dates, especially for a new album and re-release of old stuff.

“That would make for a nice all-round year. That’s something to aim for. That’s a loose plan!”

51lTEc-6kpLThe About A Boy soundtrack work seemed to push you in a new direction, and there was Being Flynn more recently. Are the film soundtrack offers still coming in?

“Not since Being Flynn, which criminally didn’t seem to get a proper release. I’m not sure if they mis-marketed it or aimed it too high.

“It should have been for smaller theatres, with the type of film it was. Far be it for me to criticise, but that’s how I saw it. Perhaps because they spent so much money on it that they needed to claw it back.

“It’s a shame because it was really decent. I spent some time on it, but just feel sorry for Chris Weitz in that it didn’t come to much.

“Other than that … there’s a Zach Braff film just coming out, Wish I Was Here, which has used one of my songs on the soundtrack (The Shining).”

So what are you most looking forward to at the Beat-herder other than your own Saturday afternoon set?

“I’d like to see James Lavelle, who I’ve worked with before, and I think we’re all intrigued by Boney M, aren’t we?

Guest spot: Boney M, with Damon just out of shot

Guest spot: Boney M back in the day, with Damon just out of shot

“I remember a statistic, for 1978 I think, how they still hold the record for the number of singles sold in the UK in one calendar year, including the Christmas No.1, Mary’s Boy Child.

“This is the thing about nostalgia. Everyone will love singing along to Brown Girl in the Ring. I’m not sure if it’ll be a full band though.”

You could always join them and offer instrumental help. I can just see you in the trademark woolly hat getting down to Daddy Cool, Rasputin and Rivers of Babylon.

“I’d love to get on stage and have a little dance with them, if possible. I’d love to get to see them!”

With thanks to Damon and also to Emma Bosworth at Carousel PR for ensuring I got a second go at this interview.

For all the latest from Badly Drawn Boy, head to his official facebook page here.

This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, published on July 17, 2014. For the original online version, head here.

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Highways, Islands and Magic Moments – the Jo Bartlett interview

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Acoustic Power: Jo Bartlett on stage at the Union Chapel in 2010 (Photo: Justin Thomas)

Now and again a song tugs the heart-strings, and for me it’s more likely to be because of an under-stated beauty rather than a claw-hammer approach.

A case in point is Highway Found, the title track of Jo Bartlett’s latest EP. And it’s not the first time this Sandhurst-based songstress has managed that.

Take for instance her most successful studio project down the years, It’s Jo and Danny, the critically-acclaimed pairing with hubby Danny Hagan.

At this point I’ll mention that it was – frighteningly – nearly 30 years ago that I first became aware of Jo as an artist.

By the time we properly met she’d moved on from indie outfit Go! Service – recently featured on the remastered, expanded C86 collection – to Bluetrain, with both acts recording for TV Personalities main-man Dan Treacy’s Dreamworld Records.

Even then she had a side-line, organising regular Buzz Club gigs and happenings at Aldershot’s West End Centre.

that-petrolAs it turns out, I was at the very first Buzz Club, at Camberley’s Agincourt pub in November 1985, catching That Petrol Emotion – and support The Mighty Lemon Drops – outside London for the first time.

The Buzz Club story is something I’ll tackle in its own right soon, but at this point I was pretty much unaware of her presence.

Incidentally, I only recently realised Go! Service were at an earlier TPE gig I saw a few months earlier, at the Enterprise in Chalk Farm.

We were no doubt supping at the bar during their set, though (and this blog will carry a special feature on That Petrol Emotion very soon, he adds tantalisingly).

tumblr_m60s4uaiao1rpvebro1_500Over the next eight years, the Buzz Club’s guests included a who’s who of happening artists of that era, including Blur, Bradford, The Charlatans, Cornershop, Dodgy, Elastica, Flowered Up, Happy Mondays, Manic Street Preachers, McCarthy, Mega City Four, The Milltown Brothers, The Pale Fountains, Primal Scream, Shed 7, Spiritualised, The Stone Roses, Suede, Sultans of Ping, and The Verve.

And in the next few years, as head honcho of Captains Log fanzine, our paths regularly crossed, through Jo’s club and my appreciation of Bluetrain.

Not much of the latter’s promise was caught on vinyl, although I loved Parade, boasting plenty of jangly guitar and augmented by June Brides trumpet talent Jon Hunter (someone else with a Petrols link).

I still proudly covert my four-track Land of Gold 12” from 1987 though, and later interviewed the band at Jo’s parents’ home.

On Location: "It all used to be docks round here" - Bluetrain between takes in London for the Land of Gold video (Photo: Jo Bartlett)

On Location: “It all used to be docks round here” – Bluetrain between takes in London for the Land of Gold video (Photo: Jo Bartlett)

Actually, I only learned during this interview that there was a posthumous 12-track Bluetrain best of CD, released on a Peruvian indie label.

Peru? Yes, forget Big in Japan – South America’s where it’s at, apparently (although Jo did point out that there was a Bluetrain tribute act doing the rounds in Japan – while denying my suggestion that they were called Bullet Train, I might add).

Jo and Danny also penned an article for my fanzine during their first US travels, set for the legendary fourth issue in the Captains Log trilogy – the one that never saw publication.

Time moved on, and as the sassy blonde and her affable bass-playing beau moved uptown and I moved upcountry, we lost touch for a while.

The following years passed in a blur of family-building, careers and much more for both of us. And by the time I caught up again, I‘d missed big chunks.

So while I was around at the start of Here Comes Jordan – their next incarnation, one that largely failed to take root, other than a few live gigs in Singapore – I was playing catch-up a few years later.

Consequently, I had to shell out in retrospect for the four It’s Jo and Danny CD releases, starting with the self-released end of millennium Lank Haired Girl to Bearded Boy.

MI0002482381At that point, they’d both given up their London jobs to go about another crack at the big time, and with a fair bit of success this time.

“Jo Whiley played some tracks on her Radio 1 lunchtime show, and we got amazing reviews everywhere. We got signed by RCA at that point.”

While that first album retains pride of place in Jo’s affection, for me it’s the second that really resonated, 2001’s Thug’s Lounge.

“Really? That’s the one that got us dropped! It never got properly released after they decided that, so they did it all a bit half-hearted – not doing it justice.

“That was despite some nice reviews in The Times, and Radio 1 playing Driven Away, the single.

“It got deleted the same week it was released, but I always thought there were a couple of songs on there that got criminally over-looked.”

I agree. In fact, of all It’s Jo and Danny’s produce, I felt there were far more ‘stop in your tracks’ moments on that album.

download (2)While parts of those 1999–2005 albums were a little experimental, there were plenty of sparkling indie-pop-folk moments too.

For me, Driven Away, Dying Kiss, Real Thing and In the Here and Now were perhaps their finest moments.

And while Jo might not necessarily agree, she did re-record two of those tracks for 2005’s The Quickening in a bid to get them properly heard.

After It’s Jo and Danny, the pair formed the more psychedelic, instrumental Yellow Moon Band, releasing a couple of singles and the album Travels Into Several Remote Nations Of The World.

Further critical acclaim followed, but with little commercial success. Then again, I’m not totally sure Jo would be comfortable being a big success if stardom finally came knocking anyway. She certainly has the talent though.

51sXoEQpZeL._SL500_AA280_There’s plenty of evidence of that on 2010’s nine-track solo album Upheaval, even if Jo plays that down as ‘just me and an acoustic guitar, recorded in an afternoon’.

I’d say it was a return to form, but I’m not sure she ever slipped below the bar. It’s just that it’s recorded in its simplest form, and refreshingly honest and all the more emotive for it.

In short, it includes several sweet songs laid bare, perfect examples of what Jo can pull out of the bag. And some of those songs have been getting an airing lately, given the band treatment while helping launch her latest EP.

So, back to that most-recent four-track release, and for me, title track Highway Found falls neatly into that earlier category of ‘hit in the making’.

It’s gorgeously but lightly layered, the subtle strings giving a wistful feel that brings to mind Catch by The Cure.

The original video footage used, shot around her beloved Outer Hebridean holiday island of Barra, seemed particularly apt.

And Jason Glenister’s subsequent video plays nicely on the song’s sense of nostalgia, following a little girl as she plays by the mudflats and estuary at Hollow Shore, Kent.

10389510_288456904665619_1798062989572763383_nThe other three tracks add to that, and again I’m mindful of The Cure on second track, Measure of the Storm, unable to place the riff until Caterpillar sprang to mind

I put this to Jo, who said: “No one in my long, illustrious career has ever compared me with Robert Smith of The Cure, but I’m delighted to have opened a new page.”

There’s a Go Betweens album track guitar feel there too – like a Robert Forster song sung by Grant McLennan.

Meanwhile, the harmonies – Jo backed by Jo – suggest another of my favourite bands, fellow South-East outfit The Sundays.

Rising to the Bait offers another reference point, one I know was special to Jo when I first interviewed her – its guitar suggesting Lloyd Cole’s Are you Ready to be Heartbroken?

While flattered by that, Jo was quick to pass that off as being down to a bizarre method of guitar tuning. I won’t go into the details. She lost me, to be honest.

And then there’s Suitable Drama, with a pensive ‘castaway on a remote island’ touch back to the fore again.

The instrumental break and strings suggest Nick Drake or Mike Scott and The Waterboys, influences probably always there just below the surface in recent years.

Incidentally, she put part of that down to tuning the guitars the classic folk way, citing Martin Carthy’s part in that.

Again, she went into more detail, telling me how many guitars she has around the house tuned different ways, and how it depends on her mood as to which she chooses.

But this isn’t Classic Guitar Bloggers’ Monthly, so I’ll leave it there if that’s okay.

None of the last three tracks grabbed me at first, but slowly got under the skin, the latter probably closer to It’s Jo and Danny as it gathers space.

Yet even that EP now seems to be back-catalogue, Jo having moved on to her new band, with a current bout of recording and mixing leading towards an October release.

Kodiak Island: Jo's latest band performing at the Cellar Bar in Bracknell (Photo: Jo Bartlett)

Kodiak Island: Jo’s latest band performing at the Cellar Bar in Bracknell (Photo: Jo Bartlett)

There’s a fine online example of that new ‘guitars, bass and cajon’ sound in video footage of Upheaval’s finale Take Me To Water, shot at a bar in Bracknell recently.

On top of all that, Jo’s recorded a few inspired covers, most notably a heart-felt version of the TV Personalities’ fantastic If I Could Write Poetry, and alternative renditions of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights and The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

But she has more than enough of her own material to lay down too, something she was quick to enthuse about when we caught up.

So Jo – and because of the 200-plus miles between us, we were on the phone this time – what’s the reaction to Highway Found been like?

“Really good, thanks. Lots of nice comments via email and at gigs.

“All the tracks from the EP were written after we stopped doing the Green Man Festival, in the lull between then and now.”

new-green-man1Hang on. Did I forget to mention the Green Man Festival? Well, Jo’s Buzz Club experience and past role at Covent Garden’s Rock Garden in time led to her and Danny helping set up an annual event in South Wales.

At that point they’d left London for Brecon, founding what was soon regarded as one of the highlights of the UK’s festival calendar.

The first, in 2003, attracted around 350 people, with the organisers £9.10 down but the reviews favourable. And in time a number of big-name acts featured, from Bon Iver, Donovan, The Flaming lips, Gruff Rhys, John Grant and Laura Marling to Martha Wainwright, Mumford & Sons, The National and Robert Plant.

Jo and Danny’s last Green Man Festival, in 2011, attracted a 15,000 crowd and Fleet Foxes headlined. But that’s all by the by, so let’s get back to the new EP …

“That whole session took ages to complete. Danny wrote the lyrics, and I’d go into the studio every now and again, but there was a lot of organisation involved.

“You’ll hear a string quartet on there, so I was taking the recordings to a certain level, living with them for a while, then thinking it needed other musicians on there.

“I was approaching them, then getting them on there. The whole process up to the mixing took about two years. I turned into Fleetwood Mac!”

I’d heard rumours.

So, has the release of the EP been well-timed? Only you seem to have a lot going on.

“Well, the emotions I was caught up in for those songs aren’t quite where I’m at now, but that’s how it often is.

“Richard Handyside, who plays electric guitar with my band now, played on those tracks, but not the others in the band. So I want to get recording with them now.”

 

Studio Fix: Richard Handyside at work during a recent recording session (Photo: Jo Bartlett)

Studio Fix: Richard Handyside at work during a recent recording session with Jo (Photo: Jo Bartlett)

In fact, Richard was also with Bluetrain in their latter days, and was present when I interviewed them back in the early ‘90s.

The band also includes bassist Mike Muggeridge and cajon player Gareth Palmer, with Danny out of the picture for now, having started a new lecturing role in music at a London university.

Not as if he can escape the band though, as they practise in his front room (although Jo stressed that he draws the line at offers to accompany them up to gigs in the van).

It’s fair to say Jo’s fairly buzzing about the new band though, and looking forward to a ‘new phase of songwriting’ with Richard.

“I’ve got a new batch of songs I can’t do justice to, so the two of us are going to get together. Again, that will be in the vibe of this new band.

“The best thing about this band is that they can just come and rehearse at my house, just like in the old days with Bluetrain.

“There’s no drum kit, as we have the cajon, so that helps. I have a little vocal PA, we’ve all got little amps, and it makes it all potently do-able!

“As you get older in life and keep doing the things in life you want to keep doing, they have to be do-able! Otherwise other things take priority.

“We’ve only been together since February this year, when Gareth joined, but it’s all coming on nicely.”

Multi Tasking: Jo lets loose at the keyboard, live (Photo: Jo Bartlett)

Multi Tasking: Jo lets loose at the keyboard, live (Photo: Jo Bartlett)

Despite the recent acoustic album and small-scale live set-up, Jo is still prone to flirt outrageously with electronica, so I can’t believe she won’t with this new project too.

“Actually, I was trying to get some synthesiser in there as well. But I don’t really have enough hands to pull that off live.”

Jo reckoned she already had an album’s worth of material before she started on the new songs, contemplating bringing that out under her name before switching tack.

“I feel a bit guilty about calling this new thing ‘Jo Bartlett’, so I think there will be a band name for the songs written with Richard.”

As it turns out, within a minute or so, Jo seems to have decided on a name, choosing Kodiak Island, ‘which we’ve been flirting with for a while’.

The name was inspired by Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, with its Richard Thompson soundtrack.

“The soundtrack was fantastic, and I found the whole thing so inspiring.”

So what’s likely to be released first?

“I don’t know, because we’ve also got an unreleased psychedelic album, with lots of lovely old ’70s synthesisers. You can imagine – I had a field day there!”

At that point, we got on to the Third Rail Festival, organised by Jo and Danny and set to happen on July 5 along the banks of the Thames, close to the Reading Festival site.

trf_flyer_2It was all supposedly on track (sorry) at that stage, but this ambitious one-dayer fell through ‘late doors’.

The festival was set to include several up and coming bands over two stages – showcasing everything from electronica and experimental jazz to guitar pop.

The idea was to create something combining ‘the variety of a festival, with the intimacy of a gig’, and included a cinema tent and talk events among other attractions.

There was even a discussion featuring indie cult Johnny Dee, NME C86 compiler Neil Taylor, Orange Juice legend Edwyn Collins and Weather Prophets/Loft frontman Pete Astor.

But it clearly wasn’t meant to be this time, although the idea may resurface next year.

In an explanatory note on her website, she added: “We had tried something different, it was just harder than we imagined it would be to get that idea across.”

Meanwhile, Jo and Danny keep themselves busy with their Third Rail music management enterprise, helping out behind the scenes with various acts.

Wonderful Copenhagen: Pinkunoizu

Wonderful Copenhagen: Pinkunoizu

Clients include Danish psychedelic four-piece Pinkunoizu, Bristol alternative jazz combo The Lund Quartet, and 18-year-old rising talent The Cartoonist – aka James Munro.

Not as if it’s easy to lump those last three together, but that wide church seems to characterise just what Jo’s musical philosophy is all about.

“It’s just for the love of it all really, helping out others through our experience – giving a helping hand to those trying to do something original musically.”

But while that work goes on behind the scenes, Jo’s focus has now returned to her own recordings. And the signs are extremely promising.

As she puts it: “They’re just great songs, played really well, and we’re all really enjoying what we’re doing.

“The magic is there. And if you’ve got that magic … yeah!”

Fringe Note: As our conversation was a few weeks ago, I caught up with Jo again on the day of publication to check on a couple of queries, and it appears that things really have moved on.

She added: “I’m actually putting the finishing touches – and we’re about 99% done -to the next Jo Bartlett album.

“It will contain the four EP tracks plus five other songs. This is actually the album I’m now intending to release in October, on the Strikeback label.

“It’s getting finished at Bark Studio in East London, where I’ve recorded most of my recordings from the It’s Jo and Danny days through to my solo stuff.

“We’ve also started recording the first Kodiak Island songs too, but those might not materialise until 2015!”

10489649_307904726054170_5059103859298010393_nNot only that, but Jo also has her debut radio show, called Fringe on Top (the same as her blog, the title inspired by Edwyn Collins, Roger McGuinn, and all that), broadcast on US station ChestnutRadio.com every Tuesday at 11am in New York and 5pm in the UK, starting on Tuesday, July 15.

Jo added: “The opportunity came about as the guy who runs this station in New Jersey is a fan of my music and is doing an hour and a half special on me – from Go! Service right up to the new solo recordings.

“We did an interview on the phone and I said I’d love to present my own show – so I’m delighted to say that will now be happening.

“Doing a radio show is perfect for me right now. I can record it at home and send it over to Chestnut.”

I best stop there, before Jo passes on details of her next venture. But to keep up to date with her musical projects and follow links to downloads and all that, check out her Fringe on Top website.

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Timperley Sunsets and New York Mornings – In Conversation with Jon Ronson

Frank Trio: From the left, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson on the set of 2014's Frank

Frank Trio: From the left, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson on the set of 2014′s Frank

Jon Ronson is a busy man, this Cardiff-born, New York-based writer, film-maker and broadcaster clearly juggling lots of big deadlines.

But he was nothing less than charming and entertaining when we caught up via a web link from NYC this week, telling me about his seven-date A Frank Talk tour, his surreal brush with pop fame, and much more.

“I’m at the very late stages of the next book, so after about three years I’ve got about a week left. But I can stop for a while.”

The 47-year-old is perhaps best known for writing 2004’s The Men Who Stare At Goats, later a film starring George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor and Kevin Spacey.

He made his name with his newspaper, magazine and investigative film-making work, leading to Channel 4 and BBC Radio 4 series, tackling a wealth of complicated issues, from conspiracy theories to debunking.

I neglected to ask which book he was currently finishing, but it could be the one he was rumoured to be writing on public shaming.

psychopath-test-fc-LST0850481It’s his seventh, the most recent including The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, and Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries.

With that in mind, it’s fair to say Jon must have some interesting conversations with his publishers when telling them about new projects.

And one he must have struggled to explain was the screenplay of Frank, the comedy-drama that went on to feature Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Michael Fassbender, loosely based on the story of late, great Mancunian papiere-mache-headed cult indie legend Frank Sidebottom.

If you’re not familiar with Timperley’s finest, I’m not sure I can explain this showbusiness leg-end any better than that. I’m not about to try either. Besides, it’s hardly a bio-pic.

Frank premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in Utah, with the filming experience just the latest mad twist in the life of Ronson.

That whole experience is the subject of Jon’s A Frank Talk, about to do the rounds in the UK, including an event at The Dukes Theatre in Lancaster – my excuse for speaking to him via the wonders of Skype.

And all because Jon, while working as an ents officer at Central London Poly in the late ‘80s, picked up the phone and admitted he could play keyboard one day.

I think I’ve already intimated it’s a long story, and I haven’t the space, but it’s nicely told on his blog, with a link here.

Long Gone: The Cricketers, Kennington, unfortunately no longer with us (Photo: Stephen Harris/http://www.closedpubs.co.uk/)

Long Gone: The Cricketers, Kennington, unfortunately no longer with us (Photo: Stephen Harris/http://www.closedpubs.co.uk/)

As it turned out, that one-night-stand at the Kennington Cricketers led to a three-year stint on the road with Frank’s Oh Blimey Big Band, and subsequently a major writing project.

I put it to Jon that had it not been for radio and TV presenter and fellow author Mark Radcliffe’s busy life, he might not have got his first-hand taste of the music business.

“True. It was Mark being absent that got me the job. One day he became very abruptly unavailable – I don’t know why – so Frank’s manager Mike Doherty called me in a flap.

“I didn’t know Mike, I didn’t know Mark, and didn’t know any of the band, but Mike said if they didn’t find a keyboard player that night, they were going to have to cancel.”

Jon wasn’t confident it was the job for him, but once it was confirmed he knew the C, F and G chords on keyboard he was in, albeit hiding behind a stack of speakers while playing that first night.

Key Opening: Mark Radcliffe's absence that led to Jon Ronson's big break (Photo: Simon & Schuster)

Key Opening: Mark Radcliffe’s absence that led to Jon Ronson’s big break (Photo: Simon & Schuster)

Has he brought it up with Mark Radcliffe since?

“No, I’ve bumped into him once or twice and he’s been perfectly affable, but I wouldn’t call us firm friends … I think it’s because I’m a Southerner!

“He was much closer to Chris Sievey (Frank’s alter ego) than I ever was, and that was at the back of my mind throughout this whole process with the movie and everything.

“I didn’t want to annoy Mark, and to feel like he would disapprove. I really admire him, but I’m slightly frightened of him. He’s like the spiritual heart of Frank Sidebottom.

“But I read something the other day by Mick Middles in which Mark said something relatively positive about me. That made me quite relieved.”

I’m guessing the Sievey family were always on board with the film project.

“We were talking to the family throughout, so knew how they were feeling. The film was shown to them the day after it debuted at Sundance. They were very happy.

“They understood right from the beginning it wasn’t a straight bio-pic but much more experimental than that.

“Also, the family came to my last show at the Dancehouse in Manchester a couple of months ago, and loved it.

Three Chords: Jon Ronson 's mastery of the keyboard led to a glimpse into the star-studded world of showbusiness (Photo: https://www.kickstarter.com)

Three Chords: Jon Ronson ‘s mastery of the keyboard led to a glimpse into the star-studded world of showbusiness (Photo: https://www.kickstarter.com)

“We reformed the Oh Blimey Big Band, with Chris’ son Harry on vocals, which was brilliant and extremely moving.

“The movie and the true story are both honestly labelled, with the movie a complete fiction inspired by Frank. It wouldn’t exist without Frank, but isn’t at all about Frank. Both the story and the speaking tour are by no means definitive biographical accounts.

“It’s much more a personal story about my relatively brief time with the band. Neither pretend to be something they’re not.

“Both have real integrity but don’t claim to be something they’re not, even though I feel they’re both really good.”

Did you think during that three-year spell with Frank you’d be writing about it all one day, and that might lead to a film?

“During that period of my life I was squatting in Islington, along with a psychotic man called Shep, who smashed all the plates every time Arsenal lost.

“As he hurled plates across the kitchen, I remember thinking I might do something with this one day … but not necessarily the Frank story! That was much later.

“Frank got back in touch 15 or so years later, and asked if I could write something for The Guardian to help with his comeback.

“That started me thinking. My pieces take forever to write, but my little 2,000 word story about Frank came out in three days.

“It had a sweet, fairytale quality to it. That took me by surprise. I think it was that Alice in Wonderland feel that made me think there was something there.

“Peter Straughan, who wrote The Men Who Stare at Goats and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy scripts, read The Guardian piece and said he’d always wanted to write a fictional music bio-pic.

“He told me he’d always wanted to write the story of what would happen if Captain Beefheart had been around in the 1940s or 1950s, and how society would have dealt with him.

“Then he said, ‘but your idea is better’, which I thought was kind of odd, because I didn’t actually have an idea!”

This seems to be a theme. I was reading about you getting your first TV series, BBC 2’s The Ronson Mission, commissioned by Janet Street-Porter in similar circumstances, saying you had a wonderful idea, one you denied knowing at the time.

“Exactly!”

So is this the story of your life – you’ve got a great idea, but you’re not quite sure what it is? (Just a thought, but maybe there’s a ‘Ron Johnson’ out there pitching all these brilliant ideas, but getting over-looked every time).

“It’s more like I have no ideas, but then someone tells me it’s a good idea. In fact, it’s happened again now with Peter, telling me another of my stories was a great idea, saying ‘that’s a movie!’

The Cast: The Frank personnel give us a wave (Photo: Element Pictures/Runaway Fridge Films/Jonathan Hession)

The Cast: The Frank personnel give us a wave (Photo: Element Pictures/Runaway Fridge Films/Jonathan Hession)

“Anyway, straight away I said to Chris Sievey about Peter, and explained that he was so in demand that if he wants to do something, it’s really stupid not to do it.

“I said we’d be idiots to say no, and Chris said he’d love to do it. But I explained how Peter, Film Four and all those people like those fairytale moments – like me jumping up on a stage.

“I told him it was never likely to be a bio-pic as much as a story about someone like me and someone like him, and the relationship between us.

“He was totally fine about that, and didn’t really want there to be a Chris Sievey in the film anyway.”

So where did you learn the three chords that got you that first gig at the Kennington Cricketers?

“Busking at Cardiff High School. Me, Dick Jones and Bethan Morgan would go off to Barry Island.

“And when my brother went to Guildford to the University of Surrey, when he was 18 and I was 16, I’d busk on the high street there.”

I explained at that point how I spent my Saturdays in an office at Boots the Chemist in Guildford in my student days, listening to buskers outside, wishing I was there instead. But that’s a whole different story.

56869525Jon’s musical link didn’t stop there. In fact, he also managed mid-‘80s Manchester indie outfit The Man from Delmonte.

“That was around the same time. I totally fell in love with them and thought they were the future. And there was a time when they might have been the future.

“I just feel our timing was unlucky. They were very much in the same world as The Smiths and James, and C86 bands like Tallulah Gosh and The Monochrome Set.

“There was a moment when we were one of the biggest bands in Manchester, around 1988, just before The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays made it.

“We weren’t in that world. It was just bad timing. If the whole thing happened two years earlier, I’ve no doubt The Man From Delmonte would have become at least as big as James.

“But it was kind of a class thing. Rightly or wrongly, people saw bands like us and James as middle class, as opposed to the Roses and the Mondays.

“One set just fell out of favour. We had gigs when we were supported by 808 State and Inspiral Carpets, then months later those bands were headlining.”

Jon was studying journalism back then, but gladly gave it all up for life on the road.

“I don’t think I would ever have finished those studies. It was all very theoretical, and at the age of 18 I wanted to be doing stuff, rather than sat in a classroom learning it.”

Frank (1)If you’d have carried on, there have might have been no Oh Blimey Big Band role, no  Frank, no run-ins with Gary Glitter on the road (also detailed on Jon’s blog), and all that.

“Absolutely. There was no comparison. I didn’t have to think about it more than a second.

“Man from Delmonte were offering me a chance to be their manager and Frank was offering me a chance to be his keyboard player. I didn’t hesitate.”

Having interviewed Frank Sidebottom once, speaking in character to me over the phone during my time at the Chorley and Leyland Guardian, I can only begin to imagine what a bizarre time that must have been for Jon.

“I wonder if he just put the nose peg on for his phone interviews… or the whole head.”

I don’t want to think about it being anything less than the whole papier-mache head, so quickly batted away that suggestion, then moved on.

You’ve come up against some very difficult characters over the years through your investigative work and writing. Who was the most difficult?

“Mmm … there are different sorts of difficult. There’s hostile, but that makes for a good interview. And if things are often unpleasant at the time, the writing’s better.

“Alternatively, I remember interviewing someone really successful and famous, maybe a politician or business leader.

“I can’t recall exactly who, but he was talking and talking, and I thought ‘Great! This is gold dust!’

“But then I came away and listened to it and it was nothing but bland, banal platitudes. He’d rather brilliantly given absolutely nothing away, despite all that talk.”

Ideas Man: Jon Ronson

Ideas Man: Jon Ronson

Does the thought of performing a one-man show make you nervous?

“No, I really enjoy it. I spend so much time on my own, writing. Frequently I’ll spend an entire day where all I’ve done other than going to the gym is write and rewrite again and again one sentence.

“Alone in my room for about 10 hours, trying to get that one sentence right! That’s basically my life!

“So when I go out and do a one-man show, have an adventure and interview someone or get the source material to make the writing work, that always feels like a real treat.

“The one-man show is never as hard as that walk into my office in the morning. That for me is the far greater horror.

“At the same time, I must say I really enjoy the writing when it’s done. But it’s very daunting.

“Also, I know people enjoy coming to my talks. I’m better at it than a lot of authors – more entertaining. It’s almost like stand-up.

“I have this feeling of confidence that people won’t leave disappointed. That leaves me less nervous about it.”

What do you see yourself as first these days – journalist, film-maker, screenwriter, radio presenter or author?

“Always an author. The other stuff is great and I really enjoy it, but books are definitely what I care most about, or feel are the most stable part of my life.”

Jon has been based in New York for two years now, with his wife Elaine and son Joel, who is about to turn 16.

tumblr_inline_n5xjkmrNnP1rg79srSo is the Big Apple properly ‘home’? Jon’s response was a long sigh, followed by a fair bit of hesitation.

“Erm … I don’t know. My wife and son love it, so definitely it feels like home for them. I definitely have some good days too.

“I love the fact that it’s 80 degrees today and I don’t even feel the need to rush outside because I know it’s going to be 80 degrees every day up to October.

“We’re in the Upper West Side, but all of New York is pretty small, and there’s a lot about it I do love.”

Does Joel ever head back over to London with Jon to watch the writer’s beloved Arsenal FC?

“No, but we watched the FA Cup Final together at this really nice club in New York, The Blind Pig, which shows all the games. I do miss going to The Emirates though.”

Is New York proving to be a positive creative base for you?

“Well, this new book is working, and I don’t think I could have written it if I wasn’t based in New York.

“People are very ‘can do’ here. If I say I want to do a monthly show where I talk about how my immigration’s going, we just do it.

“There’s nobody there to tell you that you can’t. I love Britain’s sense of negativity, but it’s quite nice to be in a culture which is the opposite of that.

“You lose some of the funny cynicism, but you gain stuff as well.”

Do you keep in touch with your Cardiff roots?

“I keep in touch with my parents, and I’m going back next week on this tour, but I’m more in touch with my London and Manchester roots.”

Premiere Pairing:  Ewan McGregor and George Clooney at a Canadian press conference for The Men Who Stare At Goats

Premiere Pairing: Ewan McGregor and George Clooney at a Canadian press conference for The Men Who Stare At Goats

What was it like to have people like Ewan McGregor play your character on the big screen in The Men Who Stare At Goats?

“Well, imagine being 15 and knowing one day that’s going to happen – the feeling of joy when you’re sat in a room in Cardiff. It would be the greatest day in your life, wouldn’t it!

“But when it actually happens, it’s just work. I wish I could be more Wizard of Oz, a bit more Dorothy about it.

“It’s all about contracts, if a film may or may not happen, problems with scripts, whether you’ll be invited on the set. And when you are it can all be a bit boring.

“Then, when the premiere happens, you’re on the red carpet, but nobody really wants you there. They want to see George Clooney.”

How about the books then? It’s 20 years since your first, the Clubbed Class travelogue, was published. Was that a big moment?

“Actually, that was a bit of a let-down too! I never really liked Clubbed Class. What wasn’t a let-down though was Them, which I think of as my first proper book.”

1363961075Them: Adventures with Extremists, published in 2001, follows Jon’s experiences with various figures labelled as extremists in some sense, from David Icke to Ian Paisley.

“The first time I saw that on the shelf at Waterstones was incredible, and the fact I got to be about No.5 in the bestsellers’ list.

“It was a similar feeling when I gave a talk at Borders in Oxford Street when it came out, and around 300 to 400 people turned out.”

It appears that the rights to Them were bought by Universal Pictures too, and ear-marked for a Mike White screenplay and co-production, with comedian and actor Jack Black involved.

But Jon’s clearly not too starry-eyed about the film industry experience anymore.

“I’m not saying the movies are a let-down, but there’s never a magical moment, and the film industry experience is all very stressful.

“There’s lots of pushing and shoving and people vying for the glory at the expense of others.

“Saying that, I visited the set of Judd Apatow’s latest film last week, and everyone was laughing and happy.

“Things were fine on the Frank set too. I loved the experience of writing it. It’s just that I wasn’t really involved on the Goats set. And it’s still work.”

Jon’s seven-date A Frank Talk UK tour starts at London’s Wilton’s Music Hall this Thursday, July 17, followed by visits to the Latitude Festival (Friday, July 18), Cardiff Chapter Arts Centre (Saturday, July 19), Llangollen Fringe Festival (Sunday, July 20) and Lancaster The Dukes Theatre (Monday, July 21).

He’s also set to give A Psychopath Talk at Hebden Bridge Trades Club (Tuesday, July 22), before ending at Manchester Dancehouse (Wednesday, July 23), complete with a full Frank Sidebottom Oh Blimey Big Band in the final A Frank Talk event.

Then it’s back to the US and ‘on the first Tuesday of every month until one of us gets deported’, he’s putting on his I’m New Here – Can You Show Me Around? immigration talk with comedian Maeve Higgins at Union Hall, Brooklyn, NYC. 

* With thanks to Louise Bryning at the Dukes Theatre in Lancaster and Mike McCarthy at Lakin McCarthy for helping arrange this interview.

* This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature published in the Lancashire Evening Post on July 11, 2014. 

 

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Deadwood Dog determined to party on the Preston front

Bouzouki Drive: Preston's Deadwood Dog

Bouzouki Drive: Deadwood Dog, adding a little sunshine to your day (Photo: Deadwood Dog)

Nine months after launching their debut album, United Colours of Bigotry, Deadwood Dog are on something of a high.

The Preston seven-piece visit 53 Degrees this Saturday, July 12, returning to a treasured University of Central Lancashire venue facing closure at the end of the year.

And they’re determined to make the most of their latest ‘second home’ while they can, stressing that it’s not all doom and gloom for Lancashire’s newest city.

Deadwood Dog are gearing up for a celebratory event, showcasing the best of a home-spun music scene, with support from fellow Preston acts Matt Gallagher and David Shurr.

Lead singer Mick Stokes said: “We were hoping England might be in the World Cup Final. It was going to be a ‘feelgood’ weekend …

“Now we’re just going to have to double up and do everything! The team are back home, of course. I doubt if they’ll be at our gig, but …”

Well, you never know.

There was a prestigious support for Mick’s band at the same venue with From the Jam last summer, and they held their album launch there in October.

I put it to 49-year-old Mick (vocals, lyrics and electric guitar) that 53 Degrees had become something of a local for them in recent times.

“It has, but not for long, because they’re demolishing it. They’re knocking down this town, bit by bit.

“While 53 Degrees isn’t even an old bit, we seem to want to destroy anything that resembles Preston’s history – from the Bus Station to The Warehouse.

“But you have to draw the line somewhere, and a place like The Warehouse has too much history. They’ll regret it.

“Joy Division played there, and so much happened there – so many great gigs. Southern Dealt Cult played there, as well as at the Preston Poly.

“I was only about 12 when Siouxsie and the Banshees played the Poly, and The Cure played there too. Looking back, what a great time that was for Preston.”

The Warehouse, I should explain to out-of-towners, has been putting on alternative music nights in Preston since the early ’70s.

PrestonIt was seen as a focal point of the North West’s late ’70s punk scene, and Joy Division recorded 1980 live album Preston Warehouse there just a year before Ian Curtis’ death.

It also played host to The Stone Roses in 1986, while China Crisis were previous regulars, and Black Flag’s Henry Rollins recounts a tale of being beaten up in the mosh pit there.

Furthermore, Deadwood Dog have their own The Men They Couldn’t Hang style anthem about one infamous night in the venue’s history, Warehouse Riot.

All very Wild North West.

Yet while we’ll mourn The Warehouse and 53 Degrees if they go, there are alternatives which might do well in their absence.

“Exactly. Blitz for one might benefit. It’s all set up there, with an in-house PA, and it’s not being used enough. The Continental’s doing well too.

“It’s just the size of the venue that’s the issue. I don’t know anywhere that would fill in for the big room at 53 Degrees.”

Getting back to the band themselves, Deadwood Dog’s official biog talks of a band whose ‘foot-stomping music tells stories of real-life, marrying up-tempo barnstormers, bittersweet ballads, and the odd well-chosen cover’.

a1573715746_10We’re also asked to ‘imagine a supergroup made up of the Levellers, IRS-years REM and the ghost of Joe Strummer, all jamming in a Baltic bar’.

The fact that Mick’s part-Polish co-writer Daevid Goral Barker plays Greek bouzouki, and Sarah Pickin adds violin, contributes to that general picture.

There’s plenty of evidence of all that on United Colours of Bigotry, from the super-catchy stand-out single Out in the Rain - with its East European feel – onwards.

And while that initial talk of the weather seems to suit the band’s background, Daev’s bouzouki transports you way down south for a little welcome sunshine.

Despite Mick’s deep Lancashire tones, there’s more than a hint of his US heroes Steve Earle and early REM on the album too.

And those transatlantic touches bring to mind bands that followed in REM’s wake like Hootie & the Blowfish, and perhaps Canada’s Crash Test Dummies too.

The band’s breezy feelgood factor is definitely there on tracks like This World and You Brighten Up My Day, more songs of high summer.

They even tackle Kraftwerk’s The Model, and while nostalgia dictates I still prefer The Members’ glorious dub version, it’s a worthy cover that can’t fail to bring a smile to the face.

All in all, it’s a promising debut, and seems to have had a positive response. So how is life with ‘Preston’s original bouzouki-wielding folk-rockers’ right now?

“Things are definitely on the up. We headlined Bearded Theory’s Woodland Stage on midnight on the Saturday.

“We were on after The Stranglers, but they were on the main stage, so we had to nip off and sound-check and set up after a while.

Supporting Role: The Wonder Stuff's Dan Donnelly

Supporting Role: The Wonder Stuff’s Dan Donnelly

“It was all very good. The Wonder Stuff’s guitarist Dan Donnelly was down the front cheering us on, while harassing the sound-man about the lack of fiddle in the mix.”

Dan and Deadwood Dog go back a while, the acclaimed Belfast singer-songwriter their support when they officially launched their album, only recently joining the latest incarnation of Miles Hunt’s former chart-toppers.

And this time I gather the Derbyshire festival’s organisers came to Mick’s band rather than the other way around.

“We’ve approached a few in the past, and last year got nothing back, but this year had this and Spannerfest at Burscough come back to us.

“It’s just another sign that we’re starting to establish ourselves, albeit as a minor player at this point.”

Livewood Dog: The band in action recently (Photo: Hughie Roberts/ Deadwood Dog)

Livewood Dog: The band in action recently (Photo: Hughie Roberts/ Deadwood Dog)

The fact that they have their first CD out might help too.

“Yes, but that’s not why we did it. I just want people to listen to that. It’s no massive concern where it leads to. It’s just part of the cycle of being in a band.

“You write songs, you work them doing gigs, and you go and record them. Hopefully people will then like it. But if they don’t … tough.

“We’re not beholding to anyone, or any record company, saying ‘this is how it’s going to be, and how it’s going to sound. “

And there’s been a good reaction to United Colours of Bigotry?

“Generally, yeah. Not enough people have heard it, that’s the only thing. We’re not getting radio airplay.

a3107744454_2“We sent it to the BBC, but they’re obviously not interested at Radio Lancashire, which begs the question ‘what are they listening to?’ We’re a local band doing well.

“But I guess these aren’t the people I want to be judged by, if they’d rather play One Direction and chart music. It’s the same dross as on Rock FM. “

The fact that Deadwood Dog called their album United Colours of Bigotry tells us a lot about their stance and attitude to modern life.

That’s covered well on Little Town of Bigotry, tackling the ignorance of the area’s generational hand-me-down religious and racial divisions.

“It’s a play on the United Colours of Benetton advertising campaign too. I’m surrounded by bigotry, and seem to have been all my life around Lancashire.

“It’s frightening in this day of information technology that people are so ignorant really, just taking headlines for granted and not looking deeper into things.

“Look at Facebook, for instance. So many things land on your page and you wonder how they get there, like all those ’English’ things.

“I’m proud enough to be English, but I’m an Englishman into integration and diversity.

“I’m disheartened about the performances of our national football team like everybody else, but I’m no bigot.

“You only have to see the diversity within our cricket and football teams to see what being English really means today.”

I put it to Mick that Lancashire today – despite a few idiots – is a positive melting pot of cultures, and his band’s music helps lead the way, displaying many world influences.

“Our music’s from everywhere. Even the reggae thing. How many white bands have taken on reggae, from 10cc and The Police onwards?

“Any good music, any good beats … we’ll try anything, to be honest, and it’s all based around a folk-rock set-up.”

Melting Pot: From th eleft, Daevid, Mick and Robin in live action at Penwortham (Photo: John Mick Mather/Deadwood Dog)

Melting Pot: From the left, Daevid, Mick and Robin in live action at Penwortham Gala (Photo: John Mick Mather/Deadwood Dog)

The album took some time to get together, but the band were more than happy with the result.

“We recorded the whole album with a mobile studio set-up, but weren’t satisfied with the result, and felt we had to start again.

“I suggested we went to John Kettle, of The Tansads fame, at Jaraf House, Wigan.

“John knows the scene and knows what we were looking for, rather than those who use a specific format for everyone they record.

“When I spoke to him, his enthusiasm for it sold it to me straight away. We were so pleased with the result, and it’s the best thing we’ve ever done.

“Until the next one … which is going to be even better. We’ve a four-track EP coming out, including Divided Kingdom, another song about Preston.”

Divided Kingdom is Mick’s story of a Saturday morning in his hometown where he came upon an English Defence League demo, with plenty of opposition there too.

“I couldn’t tell which were which. Two extremes, both minorities. Yet most people just don’t have that hatred.  But if you shout loud, you get heard.”

With Preston a relatively small city, there are plenty of crossovers with its bands, and Mick mentions links with a couple of recent writewyattuk interviewees Evil Blizzard’s personnel, and his own past in the bands Dreamland and Pike.

Think Pink: Evil Blizzard play it loud (Photo: Richard Nixon)

Think Pink: Evil Blizzard play it loud (Photo: Richard Nixon)

The Evil Blizzard link came to the fore last year, when that band and Deadwood Dog held their respective album launches across the road from each other at 53 Degrees and The Ferret.

“It were mad! There were around 300 people at 53 Degrees, and over the road it was packed out.

“But as far as Preston is concerned, the fact that all those people were in that little area is pretty cool really.”

When I spoke to Mick last October, he told me Deadwood Dog, formed in 2010, were a ‘five-piece soon to be a six-piece’.

Nine months on it appears that they’ve given birth to another band member. And are they all from Preston?

“Sarah, our violinist, is from Derby but lives here now, while our guitarist and banjo player, John, is from Blackburn way.

“But myself, Jez the bass player, Daev the bazouki player, Andy the drummer and Robin, acoustic guitar, are all from Preston.”

And is there room on stage for all seven of your at some of these venues?

“Absolutely … if we breathe in!”

They have two big dates next month, on August 9 for the Plough at Oswaldtwistle’s three-day Acoustic Weekender, then the following day at Spannerfest in Burscough.

10384214_789873607711908_7844256109169485994_nBut first, what can we expect at 53 Degrees this weekend?

“A great night of music, with original tunes by great Preston musicians. What more could you want for a fiver?”

As there’s a World Cup link, will there be a South American flavour from a band with such cross-cultural influences?

“Well, perhaps I’ll wear my Brazilian speedos. That’ll bring people in.”

This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, published on Thursday, July 10, with the online version here.

For ticket details for the 53 Degrees show, head here, and for all the latest from Deadwood Dog, try their Facebook page here

 

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The Stranglers – Preston 53 Degrees

Stage Presence: The Stranglers in live action earlier this year (Photo copyright: Warren Meadows)

Stage Presence: The Stranglers in live action earlier this year (Photo copyright: Warren Meadows)

In the same way that the best football teams are built around a spine of experienced players, The Stranglers have never lost sight of their creative strengths.

Clearly, they had to adapt big time to Hugh Cornwell’s departure in 1990, yet Jet Black, Jean-Jacques Burnel and Dave Greenfield kept that team spirit intact.

And 40 years down the line – with Jet currently consigned to the bench amid health concerns – the latter two are definitely still on their game.

Take their last album, 2012′s Giants, as an example. Barely 40 seconds in, you’re aware of JJ’s growling bass guitar presence, and within a minute Dave adds his distinctive keyboard touch.

That midfield dynamism keeps The Stranglers firing, and it’s a similar story live, judging by this latest add-on to last year’s successful Ruby anniversary tour.

JJ and Dave have competent team-mates in Baz Warne, long-since proven up front, while Jim McAuley, promoted from within, puts in commanding shifts between the sticks.

We were aware of Dave’s mighty organ before he even reached the 53 Degrees stage, so to speak, Team Stranglers coming on to Waltzinblack, back from its loan spell with the late Keith Floyd.

Getting back to that engine room stoking, Baz was off and running to 1978’s Toiler on the Sea, before heading back a further year for landmark (Get A) Grip (On Yourself).

We were reminded of the band’s pop craft on 1984 hit Skin Deep, then got a taste of Giants as JJ offered a pensive Time Was Once On My Side.

484530_4793755247990_1444108485_nThe less ‘PC’ Stranglers got a look in on early headline-makers Nice’n’Sleazy and Peaches, and while the strippers – unlike the Rodneys of yore – are no longer queuing up, JJ was at least thrown a pair of briefs (although Baz complained that the price tag was still on).

The band’s more recent output was again showcased by 2006’s reflective Relentless, before a further trip down memory lane with my personal highlight, Duchess, then that album’s evocative title track, The Raven, with JJ taking over.

There were plenty of smiles from Dave along the way, happy behind his towering bank of synths, contributing vocal harmonies and expertly multi-tasking, not least supping his ale mid-song.

Golden Brown got the warm reception you’d expect, but the choruses were louder on 1986’s poignant Always the Sun, perhaps the closest to an anthem the band offer.

There’s no polishing the rough edges, and Death and Night and Blood - another cut from 1978’s Black and White, kept us on our toes and the ageing punks happy.

Nuclear Device had a similar effect, and then came the band’s majestic cover of Walk on By, that patented Stranglers sound beautifully complementing a Bacharach and David classic.

The supreme Hanging Around and Curfew kept the stage divers and old faithful down the front happy, with appreciation too for Norfolk Coast, taken from Baz’s debut Stranglers LP (itself a decade old now).

The set reached its climax with three other early favourites – 5 Minutes, Something Better Change and Tank, the fifth of the night from Black and White, aptly heralding an explosive finish.

Between songs, Baz does much of the talking, but he’s more than a mouthpiece, adding a personable North-East twist to a few crowd-pleasers and some nice guitar touches too.

Similarly, Jim plays his part too, adding the mettle to ensure that spine remains in shape – flying straight with perfection, you could say.

Staying Power: From the left - JJ, Jim, Dave and Baz (Photo copyright: Warren Meadows)

Staying Power: From the left – JJ, Jim, Dave and Baz (Photo copyright: Warren Meadows)

There was plenty of chanting for Jet before the encore, Baz in turn reporting that the 76-year-old was on the mend and determined to rejoin the squad soon – his Makem impression of the man himself worthy of the resultant big cheer in itself.

And with that, JJ teased us with a bit of bass-kidology, hammering on his trusty four-string, setting the venue throbbing – before that magical intro riff led us into No More Heroes, still as potent 37 years down the line.

Pretty soon, we were inching towards the exits as Meninblack issued from the PA, following a big night of nostalgia but much more from Team Stranglers, 2014 style.

* With thanks to Warren Meadows for the use of the photos, and subtly pointing out that I’d forgotten The Raven in my set-list. Schoolboy error.

* For the recent writewyattuk interview/feature with JJ Burnel, head here (with links within to 2013′s Hugh Cornwell interview on these pages).

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Ruby celebrations showcase Stranglers’ survival instincts – the Jean-Jacques Burnel interview

Ruby Quartet: From the left, Dave Greenfield, Jet Black, Baz Warne, JJ Burnel (Photo: The Stranglers)

Ruby Quartet: From the left, Dave Greenfield, Jet Black, Baz Warne, JJ Burnel (Photo: The Stranglers)

Warning: this interview includes JJ Burnel’s own brand of industrial language in places, possibly explaining the derivation of the phrase, ‘excuse my French’.

A note on The Stranglers’ website from Jean-Jacques Burnel reads: “On this, the occasion of our Ruby anniversary, I would like to take this opportunity to stick my fingers up to everyone who wrote us off, who dismissed us, who slagged us off or who just didn’t like us. I would also like to thank those who saw beyond the mealy-mouthed words of the critics, who drew their own conclusions and cast aside the prejudices of others. He who laughs last laughs longest and loudest. Next year we will make a lot of noise with our friends.”

Ruby anniversary? Yes, The Stranglers formed in 1974, 40 years ago, and are still going strong, even if original front-man Hugh Cornwell moved on in 1990.

However, mellowed is not a term I’d use talking about the band all these years on.

As JJ – one of the greatest bass players in this blogger’s mind, and certain one of the most distinctive – put it when we caught up on the phone: “Well, when we started out, we certainly didn’t think we’d last 40 years, and what with all the ups and downs we’ve been involved with …

“But we’re still doing it, and we’re actually doing the best business that we’ve ever done. We’re not churning out top-10 hits, but that doesn’t really mean anything these days.

“We’re still going strong, we’re still writing about the world, and it obviously resonates with some people, worldwide.

“I’m sure we’re way past our sell-by date, but people have grown older with us and now there’s a whole new generation of kids who think we’re as cool as fuck!

“I don’t know why, but probably it’s because these days everyone’s a bit squeaky clean and sterile.

“It’s the X-Factor generation and everyone seems to want to be able to do well by their career.

“We’ve done everything the wrong way, including fucking off the BBC for years with Rock Goes to College. That was at Guildford of course …”

Bass Legend: JJ Burnel (Photo: The Stranglers)

Bass Legend: JJ Burnel (Photo: The Stranglers)

I should point out at this stage that we’d started off talking about my Surrey hometown, one with huge significance for JJ.

You probably already knew his band were previously known as The Guildford Stranglers, and while born in Notting Hill in 1952, JJ’s formative years were spent in Godalming, barely three miles from my own manor.

His parents ran a French restaurant there, and we both went to school in Guildford, albeit 15 years apart and with him at the Royal Grammar School while I was at Guildford County School.

In fact, I had to explain it was actually a mixed school by that stage – Jean-Jacques having got to know a few pupils in its ‘all-girls’ day, not least one pupil who became the subject of early track Choosey Susie, I believe.

Anyway, I mentioned my link to the area, and childhood in Shalford, where The Stranglers practised in the village scout hut at the bottom of my road.

“I know Shalford!”

Remember those Scout Hut days?

“Absolutely, they should be putting a blue plaque on there. Well … how nice to speak to you!

Scouting Talent: The legendary hut that played host to The Stranglers (Photo copyright: writewyattuk)

Scouting Talent: The legendary hut that played host to The Stranglers (Photo copyright: writewyattuk)

“I went to the RGS when it was still a direct grant grammar school. It had pretensions of being posh but wasn’t an expensive school as it is now.

“I have been invited back. Quite ironically, because I was kicked out after one year in the Sixth Form, so had to take my A-levels at Guildford Tech.

“Years later I was invited back to an old boys’ evening, because they wanted some money off me – to contribute to bursaries.

“I didn’t have a problem with that, but did think it cheeky that the old head who threw me out in the first place was still there, soliciting me for contributions.”

The RGS has quite a glittering list of alumni, and diverse too – from JJ to Monty Python’s Terry Jones, football commentator Martin Tyler, England cricketer Bob Willis …

“I remember Bob. He was better at football than cricket at the time – playing football with a tennis ball in the playground.”

Ah yes. Bob Willis was perhaps my favourite cricketer – not just because of his Guildford link and skill with the ball, but because he made for a fine – if not gangly – tail-ender, in my memory helping out England a few times when we were staring defeat down the barrel.

“He was great. I always looked up to him. He was a couple of years older, and in the same year as one of the blokes who bullied me so badly.”

I can feel an anecdote coming, and JJ duly obliges.

“One day this guy, why I was queuing up with the rest of my year, just laid into me. I lost it completely, and the teacher in charge, the rugby teacher, said ‘Right, you two – in the school gym, four o’clock.’

“We were given boxing gloves … and I beat the crap out of him. After that, my school days were in clover really.”

Did your love of martial arts come along later?

“Oh yes, but by then I already had a taste for violence. Only to save my arse, though! It was a bit of trend then, with the Bruce Lee films and that.

“When I went up to university, I got involved with martial arts. And I’ve never really given up really.”

Centre Stage: The band in live action (Photo: The Stranglers)

Centre Stage: The band in live action (Photo: The Stranglers)

And this coming from someone who also flirted with a spell in a local Hell’s Angels chapter, I believe. Does he ever hold reunions with some of those fellas?

“No, I keep well out of that! I still ride motorcycles every day though.”

Anyway, back to the interview, with JJ mentioning Rock Goes to College – the band’s infamous televised University of Surrey appearance in October 1978.

The gig was aborted when The Stranglers walked off just five songs in, refusing to play to elitist audiences, after a dispute over an agreement to make tickets available outside of the college was not honoured.

There is internet footage out there of opening song Ugly, with JJ at the forefront, but no one has yet unearthed the rest.

“That’s right. I heard it said we’d committed commercial suicide again. But I think we pissed off so many journalist of our generation that now it’s seen by the youngsters of today as a badge of honour.”

Despite his gruff battle cry on that website 40th anniversary announcement, I put it to JJ that the band are all pussycats these days. A dangerous thing to say to this martial arts expert and supposed firebrand, maybe, but the tongue was firmly in the cheek.

“I suppose we sort of are. There are different ways of doing things these days, and also I have responsibilities now. I can’t go around doing what I used to do.

“I’m in charge of a karate school, having got my sixth Dan in Japan five or six years back. And I’ve changed as a person.

“Look at me sideways, and I’ll smile. If you did that a few years ago I’d be asking ‘who are you looking at, John? Who are you screwing?’”

Lining Up: Baz, Jet, JJ and Dave ask you outside, 2014 style (Photo: The Stranglers)

Lining Up: Baz, Jet, JJ and Dave ask you outside, 2014 style (Photo: The Stranglers)

The Stranglers’ ruby celebrations have continued in earnest this year, with the band doing the rounds in mainland Europe.

Judging by the reaction they’ve had on this elongated tour, it’s fair to say Britain, Europe and the rest of the world is still feeling the love for The Stranglers.

So what’s the general reaction been like across Europe and in your earlier UK shows?

“We’ll, no one’s as loud as the British audience, no one’s as pissed as a British audience, and no one dances with as much abandon as a British audience.

“But the Europeans are waking up to it, and we did really well out there, and are going back again soon.

“We were in Holland in front of 15,000 people at the weekend, and we’re about to play with Blondie at a festival, having done a tour with them last year in Australia.”

Ah, Blondie, fresh from Glastonbury 2014, and fellow survivors from that golden era. Remind me, do you go way back?

“Well, we never knew them that well, but bumped into each other now and again. Clem (Burke, Blondie’s drummer) was always trying to avoid me as he knew I was going to ‘bitch-slap’ him. He knew what I thought of him.

“In fact, Debbie actually said to Baz (Warne, The Stranglers vocalist) in the bar at our hotel, “I think JJ’s having a go at my drummer!”

How does Debbie come over these days?

“Ah, she’s as cool as fuck. She’s just cool and sassy.”

JJ did offer further insight as to what he thought of Clem and guitarist Chris Stein, but I’ll leave that out.

“When we come on stage, we always play a trick on people, and we came on in drag in Brisbane in the middle of one of their songs.

“Actually, Clem was ok about it, I think, but Stein just gave looks that would kill, and Debbie just forgot her lines. She said, ‘I love those guys!’”

dr_feelgood_-_1975_-_down_by_the_jettyGoing back to those early days, Dr Feelgood were a huge influence on you, and you got to know Wilko Johnson well over the years. It’s good to see him defying his illness and out on the road again, isn’t it?

“Yeah, it’s fantastic to see. I have such wonderful memories of him, and we lived together in 1977, until this rotten thing happened, when three of us were sharing a flat and the girl in the flat with us got raped while Wilko and I were away.

“Then we left the flat. It was tainted. As it was, Lemmy and Motorhead took it over.”

It’s a sad story, and pretty well known. It’s also the subject of The Stranglers’ Five Minutes, written by JJ about those West Hampstead days.

Incidentally, there’s a cracking interview of JJ and Wilko on the Stranglers’ official site, with a little insight of other characters on the scene at the time, not least Billy Idol, with a link here.

Of course, good r’n’b has never gone away, and continues to inspire. Just ask Irish teenagers The Strypes.

“Yes, and that’s great. It’s nothing new, but it’s new to a lot of people. It’s like every generation thinks it’s invented sex. Hang on though, that’s funny … how come we’re here then? But I think it’s great that someone takes on the flame.”

Was the first time you saw the Feelgoods in Guildford?

“It was. Hugh and I went to see them at the new Gin Mill Club, which started originally in Godalming. ‘Hairy’ Pete Newberry, the guy responsible for it, moved it to an ex-cinema, and that’s where we saw them.”

Actually, the story of the Gin Mill Club is told here, but let’s get back to Dr Feelgood’s appearance there.

“We just couldn’t believe it. Our jaws dropped! It was such a return to basics. Everyone was disappearing up their own arses around then. But this was in your face!

“It had attitude, it had credibility. I didn’t know people took speed, but I thought ‘Wilko’s definitely on something!’ It was great, and as tight as hell.

“Suddenly, I remembered what rock’n’roll should be about.”

My excuse for speaking to JJ was a show at 53 Degrees in Preston on Sunday, July 6, part of a continuation of the original Ruby tour (ticket details here).

“We’re doing festivals either side of the Preston show – at Whitehaven then T in the Park, the big Scottish one.

“We had some offers earlier this year and thought, ‘why don’t we just play some clubs in between?’

the-stranglers-apolloSo what can we expect from The Stranglers – 2014 style, at least on this part of the tour?

“We discussed it the other day and the consensus is probably not to play as long a set as we did during the proper tour in the bigger halls.

“That was nearly two hours long and the longest set we’ve ever played. Also, we had a production with it, with big screens and stuff.

“We can’t bring that to 96 Degrees, but it’ll be a lot of the stuff we did earlier this year.”

I like that – the bassist from the band that once covered 96 Tears clearly plans to turn up the heat at 53 Degrees. Actually, perhaps it’s an idea for a re-brand that could see the Fylde Road venue survive its supposed December 31 closure.

“Oh dear. Freudian slip there.”

Note that I haven’t really bothered to go into the full story of the band here. Besides, there’s plenty of that on my previous appreciation – while interviewing Hugh Cornwell last year.

But, 23 UK top 40 singles and 17 UK top 40 albums tells its own story, and there’s lots to be proud of there for JJ and fellow surviving members Dave Greenfield and Jet Black.

Does that still make you sit up and wonder at times? And is it a wonder you’ve made it this far, what with all the years of partying, excess, and so on?

“Of course. When we set out on this thing, we thought we’d have a bit of fun for a couple of years, yet 40 years later we’re still having fun from it.

“It was never a career path. That wasn’t written on the tin. It didn’t say bands could last that long.”

By May, the band had already clocked up nearly 40 gigs this year. Does it get any easier after all these years? It must get monotonous, all that travel between gigs, setting up, and so on.

“I hate the travelling, and I hate flying now. It’s not glamorous anymore. You have to take your belt off, your DMs off, and all sorts. That aspect’s not so much fun.

“But if we haven’t played for a couple of months, we get stir crazy. We just enjoy each other’s company, and we get on 98 per cent of the time.”

You pre-empted my next question there. Is it easier to get on with each other than it was way back? Are you all easier to get on with?

Other Worldly: Dave Greenfield in action (Photo: BBC)

Other Worldly: Dave Greenfield in action (Photo: BBC)

“Well, I am! I don’t think Dave is. He’s just this weird, strange person who beams down and is not of this world!

“He’s other worldly, but that’s him, and he’s part of the package. And we get on famously.”

How easy is it to agree on a set-list these days? Is the band like a committee, or is it a case of ‘he who shouts loudest’?

“Well, if you put ‘Stranglers Ruby Tour part two’ into YouTube, you’ll know how easy it is. ‘I do the fucking set-lists!’”

Yes. I didn’t know this when I asked that question, but someone has created a wonderful parody of JJ choosing the band’s set-list.

If anyone’s familiar with the previous parodies of the film Downfall, they’ll guess how it works. And JJ appears to appreciate it, despite it not painting him in the best possible light.

Are there any of the old hits you just can’t bear to play?

220px-Peaches_stranglers“Yeah. We stopped playing Peaches for about 12 years. I just couldn’t stand it. We left out Something Better Change for about 10 years, and Golden Brown for a couple of years.

“There’s no point a band like The Stranglers becoming a cabaret band and just going through the motions. People will sense it, and we will look bored shitless.

“You’ve got to maintain some level of enthusiasm. And well, we’ve got enough material to do that.”

This took me on to the same anecdote I put to Hugh Cornwell last year, about my first-ever Stranglers gig in early 1982 – at Guildford Civic Hall on the La Folie tour, with Golden Brown riding high in the charts.

I recall Hugh asking ‘Anyone here who came and saw us at The Star?’ and around 1,000 fans cheered and shouted ‘yes!’.

And yet a band I once managed played this relatively-small local in the late ‘80s to a 100 sell-out. I put this to JJ.

“I think we had about 20 people … and they were all friends. Similarly, I always think it’s funny that all of a sudden French people say ‘Yeah, I was in the Resistance.”

Health Concerns: Jet Black (Photo: http://www.strangled.co.uk/)

Health Concerns: Jet Black (Photo: http://www.strangled.co.uk/)

How’s Jet doing at the moment? He’s missed a few dates so far on this tour (and is pictured on the latest group pic wearing a rather alarming oxygen mask).

“He’s missed loads of dates, and has done for the last 40 years really. His health has never been great. We’ve had seven, maybe eight drummers over the years. He plays when he can, but he’s 76 now.”

Yet the band clearly have good cover in the wings, particularly with Jim Macauley playing drums a lot recently – sometimes sharing duties with Jet during gigs.

From what I can suss, if Jet ever does bow out, that’ll mark the end of the band. Is that right?

“That’s how I feel about things. Jet was very resolute earlier this year when he said ‘Jim has my full backing’ and that his dream would be for us to carry on without him, with his blessing.

“But listen, we’ll come to that. If there’s a point I have to make a decision, I will. But I really don’t know.”

New Blood: Baz Warne (Photo: http://the-blacklog.blogspot.co.uk/)

New Blood: Baz Warne (Photo: http://the-blacklog.blogspot.co.uk/)

Your ‘new boy’, Baz Warne, has been with the band more than a decade now, quite something in itself really. He’s clearly been accepted by the fans too.

“It’s been 14 years now. And at the end of next year he’ll have been in the band the same amount of time as Hugh was.

Do you ever hear from the band’s current longest-serving vocalist, Paul Roberts?

“Well, he was 16 years as well. But he doesn’t want anything to do with us, so we have to respect his wishes.”

Premier Pedigree: Hugh Cornwell in live action

Premier Pedigree: Hugh Cornwell in live action

That surprised me. That question was just my subtle way of getting on to the big Cornwell question. So, any word from Hugh in recent times?

“No. Only … erm … no … erm, he’s not a happy bunny.”

I mentioned that I saw him playing live last year, and he put on a brilliant set – half solo material from the excellent Totem and Taboo, half Stranglers hits.

“Yeah. I respect him for his music, and just think he’s between a rock and a hard place.

“He didn’t want to be in the Stranglers anymore but has to play a lot of Stranglers material now.

“I think he’s seen the success we have compared to him, and that must piss him off something rotten.”

Moving on, how important is it that you’re still writing songs, rather than just being some kind of Karaoke Stranglers?

“Well, our last album was our best received for some time. I’ve still got things to say. I’m not living in a bubble. I still have an opinion like anyone else.

“I still want to write music and play, and hopefully that resonates with other people. That’s what I do.”

Triumphant Ride: JJ Burnel rides out

Triumphant Ride: JJ Burnel rides out

I have a shed-load more questions, but know JJ’s pretty busy, so try and decide on which to end with.

“Actually, I’ve got to collect my motorcycle from its MOT.”

So while we touched briefly on the three Triumphs he rides these days, I didn’t get chance to ask what became of Jet Black’s former fleet of ice cream vans.

A shame really, because I have this notion that between gigs, Jet – probably from a hospital bed somewhere – still sends the rest of the band out selling 99s and Strawberry Mivvis to earn their keep between tours.

Giants is the band’s 17th studio album, and from the moment JJ’s bass comes in – then Dave G’s keyboards – we know it’s The Stranglers on fine form.

downloadSo, here’s the big question – will there be an 18th album, particularly after the positive response to Giants?

“Well, it took a few years to get that ready. There’s no rush. I think there will be though. Yeah.”

Are there any particular Stranglers tracks or albums you’re most proud of?

“There are a few that mean more to me than the others, including The Raven and The Meninblack, which I think was a masterpiece, but no one else did.

Giants I think is really commendable too. Yes, there’s a few.”

You studied history up in West Yorkshire, didn’t you?

“Yeah, Bradford and Huddersfield.

What might have happened, do you think, if you’d ended up being a history lecturer.  You would have had your feet up by now.

“I wouldn’t have minded that. But I’d have been shagging all the girls and been thrown out of the university.”

OK. We’d better draw the line at that.

“Yes, that’s another discussion, really. Actually, I had a great education, going from Guildford up to Yorkshire, and thoroughly enjoyed my time there.

“And it put me on to a few things that maybe I wouldn’t have done otherwise – like the karate.”

Bass Instinct: JJ Burnel, way back then

Bass Instinct: JJ Burnel, way back then

So what’s the JJ Burnel recipe for relaxation from The Stranglers? Out on the motorbike? Practising karate?

“Yeah, all that … and cooking.”

Did you inherit your parents’ love of fine cuisine?

“Yes. Dad was a chef, and mum was front of house at La Chaumiere back in Godalming.”

I find it hard to believe Go Buddy Go is 50 years old, let alone that JJ’s 62 and The Stranglers have been with us four decades. The Beatles barely managed a decade.

When I was a newspaper reporter I’d interview golden wedding celebrants and ask them their secret of success. So what’s JJ’s secret for surviving a rocky 40-year marriage?

“The secret is to do everything that’s not expected of you. Do everything wrong. And also – never brush your teeth when you’re wearing black jeans.”

For the writewyattuk interview with Hugh Cornwell, published exactly one year before in early July, 2013, head here.

For all the latest from The Stranglers camp, including forthcoming live dates, head here.

This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature published in the Lancashire Evening Post on July 3, 2014. For the original, head here.

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