In a memoir of his teenage years during the late seventies/early eighties, Tony Fletcher tells the story of his Jamming fanzine and how he secures interviews with the likes of Paul Weller, Pete Townshend, The Damned and Adam Ant while he’s still at school.
Boy About Town is like two books: there’s the music story and the Tony story. For for the latter Fletcher doesn’t try to hide details that most now-forty-odd folk would prefer to forget: selling porn mags, speeding on blue pills, masturbating, getting punched squarely on the nose in the street, having his bedroom curtains set on fire by bullies and indirectly declaring himself a mummy’s boy.
As the Jamming fanzine takes off, the Boy About Town narrative picks up pace like a brand new twelve-speed Raleigh Racer and we see the lad with the cobbled-together-school-photocopied-effort turn it into a successful fanzine, selling 30,000 copies at its peak: with high profile interviews, colour pictures and new band exclusives. These coos him to pay off printing debts, buy a few fags and move up the style ranks with a new Sgt Pepper jacket.
We see the clear influence of Paul Weller - the very first interview for the fanzine after which fourteen year old ‘Tony’ is put on the guest list for Jam gigs, fed at the recording studio [‘fried egg sandwich, lots of ketchup’] and given an exclusive listen to All Mod Cons.
This honest, pre-pubescent tale of Fletcher’s formative years is frank, candid and, at times, more brutally gory and sexually explicit than a ‘This is England’ sequel. But as his innocent, bullied, under-developed, paternally undernourished, maternally pampered, determined, stubborn squeaky voiced, rubbish-at-sex music-obsessed skinny body is laid out in a top fifty countdown for all to poke at… he suddenly matures, and emerges as a keen, spirited, clever and resourceful fifth year ready to start a record label. He just has to lose his virginity first.
Boy About Town: A Memoir is published in mass-market paperback by Windmill Books on Thursday August 14.
© All content is copyright Julie Hamill 2014. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without consent from Julie Hamill is strictly prohibited.
Morrissey has a fine collection of timeless ballads, all of them beautiful, with unique and intricate workings, like a shop of vintage Rolex. In 2006, the watch that didn’t work was put together by Mikey Farrell, entitled ‘Sweetie-Pie’. Try as he might, he couldn’t fix it. Many others tried a mix, but it at the end of a long day at the recording sessions in Rome for ‘Ringleader of The Tormentors’ the band just couldn’t get the song to work, and thus, a distorted and haunted version was placed the b-side of ‘I just want to see the boy happy’, and later, on ‘Swords’. Mikey Farrell says this mix was the right thing to do at the time: ‘When Morrissey feels that something is not working he goes leftfield and changes it radically. That was what he recommended, and I think it was correct at the time because it wasn’t working. I think that’s how we ended up with the more radical mix’.
Some years later Farrell revisited ‘Sweetie-Pie’ and tried a new mix. This alternate version transforms the song from the ghost of ‘Swords’ into a classic ballad in full Morrissey bloom. The fragility remains but the quite pronounced single notes of the piano and sorrowful strings really bring up the tears.
‘Have you sent it to Morrissey?’ I ask, hopefully.
‘I don’t know’, he replies, ‘I don’t think so’.
We meet in the Savoy Hotel in London while he’s touring Europe with Richie Sambora. Over a pot of (exceptionally tasty) peppermint tea we chat about his four years as Morrissey’s keyboardist. Mikey has an air of fresh positivity when he talks about Morrissey, and it’s uplifting. He sits with a very straight back and listens to questions intently, without distraction. It might be the American accent, athletic frame or the warm smile on a square jaw, but I can’t help liken Mikey Farrell to Buzz Lightyear. Both are traditional, charming, witty, well mannered, talented and resourceful… but they also share that same good guy integrity, and I imagine that if a friend came calling, Farrell wouldn’t hesitate to fly off the couch to infinity and beyond to help them out.
Unsurprisingly, he and Morrissey are still good friends, and he was recently invited back to play piano on the spoken word video for ‘The Bullfighter Dies’ (with Philip Dizack on trumpet).
While on tour and in the studio with Morrissey, he enjoyed the freedom to experiment and add different types of instruments into concerts and recordings, including the trumpet, the bongos and the accordian. The fuller sound of ‘Ringleader of The Tormentors’ is often attributed to his skills as a multi talented and versatile musician. He advocates that Morrissey is one of a kind: ‘He is his own; the way that he is, what he has been through, what he appreciates… all that comes through in his music in a totally unique way’.
These days, the keyboardist is currently on tour with Richie Sambora and appears as a regular on ‘American Idol’. He likes sour cream and onion ‘chips’, chocolate chip ‘cookies’ and he drinks anything alcoholic. Kevin is his middle name.
‘Morrissey said ‘What does the V stand for?’ and I said ‘Kevin’. He kind of raised one eyebrow and that was the end of the conversation’.
J: Please say your full name.
M: My full name is Michael Kevin Farrell. My grandfather was Michael Kevin Farrell the first; he was born in County Roscommon, Ireland. When he was fourteen his parents died in the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1916, and because of that he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, which is where my father was born. It’s one of the things that Morrissey and I have in common, that we both come from Irish immigrants with catholic backgrounds.
J: Who does the best Irish accent, you or Morrissey?
M: Morrissey does. I can imitate my grandfather but he’s not really Irish, he’s more Irish/American. We grew up in Ohio and I came from a very large family so I knew all my aunts, uncles and cousins. We did Gaelic football and my sisters did Irish dancing, there was a lot of focus on maintaining our family culture.
J: What are you doing in London Mikey?
M: I am on tour with Richie Sambora, formerly of Bon Jovi, doing some festivals and headline dates. We’re going to be in Europe for almost a month.
J: And you toured with him before, didn’t you?
M: Yes, I’ve done some American dates with him at the end of last year and we did an Australian tour in February.
J: Please describe yourself in a sentence.
M: No..? Um, okay. I would say I’m a father and husband, first of all, and after that I love sound and music. I love sport and I love people that make personal statements, make expressions of themselves.
J: Whom do you admire that does that?
M: Lots of musicians. Most musicians think this is funny but my first influence was Bruce Springsteen, which is a bit unusual.
J: Why is that funny? He’s the boss!
M: He’s the boss! I guess they’re all too cool for that or something. His lyrics are so touching and honest. Maybe as a rock and roll figure he has become a cliché but I still think he writes incredibly well, and all through his career there are examples of that with albums like ‘Born To Run’ and ‘Nebraska’. Then after 9/11 he released ‘The Rising’ and it’s so touching. Morrissey falls into that category for sure. There’s no one in the world that could write a song like him. He is his own; the way that he is, what he has been through, what he appreciates, all that comes through in his music in a totally unique way.
J: You’re Michael Kevin Farrell, and yet you’re credited on ‘You Are The Quarry’ (Deluxe Edition) as ‘Mikey V Farrell’. Please explain the ‘V’?
M: Ha ha! Yes. Well, I mentioned my grandfather, Michael Kevin Farrell the first. It is a name in our family. I have cousins named Michael; various other people in my life are named Michael. So I am Michael Kevin and my cousin is Michael Sean, so I’m Mike Kev. So if you put that in an email I’m ‘Mikev’. So Morrissey, having seen my email, started calling me Mikey ‘V’ Farrell, because he was reading MikeV Farrell. A year later he said ‘What does the V stand for?’ and I said ‘Kevin’. He kind of raised one eyebrow and that was the end of the conversation. All the people in the Morrissey camp call me Mikey. My wife calls me Michael. When people say ‘hi Mikey’ I know that they’re Morrissey people.
J: How did you end up in LA, Mikey?
M: After school I moved there to pursue music. I was twenty-four.
J: Why LA and not New York? NY is closer to Cleveland.
M: That’s a good question. I think it was the kind of music I was into, my tastes were more being recorded in Los Angeles. New York is more jazz, musical theatre. I thought about New York. I think it’s harder to struggle in New York than it is to struggle in Los Angeles. It’s more expensive and the weather is hard. With me being a keyboard player I have giant instruments and I just couldn’t figure out how to do that in New York. If I live in a walk up in the village how do I get my Hammond Organ up the stairs? LA was my initial choice. I also have a continuing interest in film and TV and LA is the place for that.
J: What’s the significance of ‘catminority’, your website and Twitter name?
M: I wish there was a really cool answer to that. It was the name of my band in high school. It was two words that my friend and I picked just because we thought they’d be cool together. We thought people would say wow! What does Cat Minority mean?
J: Do you like cats?
M: I don’t own cats. I think it’s kind of when I was in high school my friend and I were into alternative music and college music. We didn’t like the modern course of popular music so we searched out The Clash, New Order, The Smiths and original alternative music, the college music scene of the eighties. That’s how I became exposed to Morrissey for the first time. I remember very clearly my friend made me a mix tape and put ‘How Soon Is Now’ on it. I recall being a little bit dismayed. It was so interesting and challenging, like nothing I’d ever heard. Even his vocal delivery is so unique. When you hear Morrissey you know it’s him. Upon a few listening’s I really became a fan.
J: Which of The Smiths albums were you really into?
M: I knew about How Soon Is Now, Still Ill, Hand In Glove, but the first album I heard when I really bought into the whole thing was ‘The Queen Is Dead’. I remember buying it on vinyl, which I still have in my mother’s basement. The whole album raised my eyebrows. Morrissey is a force in his own right but Johnny Marr, and even Andy Rourke, I think his playing is really underrated and a really important part of the sound.
J: How incredible for you to be a fan of The Smiths and then get to play with Morrissey. Tell me about the time you got that call.
M: Well Roger Manning worked on ‘You Are The Quarry’ and he is just amazing, one of my influences. For some reason or other he was not available to do the Quarry tour so Dean Butterworth, who is a friend of mine, suggested me. It was very exciting. I went and met Morrissey at the studios and sat down and had an interview with him, talked a while.
J: Were you nervous having been a fan?
M: I wasn’t star struck; he wasn’t on my wall, he was just an artist that I knew about and who influenced me, very strongly. I was certainly a Smiths fan though.
J: Was it important for Morrissey that you knew about his body of work already?
M: I don’t believe so, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt. I was aware of who he was. It’s funny, usually when I talk to the public I tell them what I have done. If you mention Morrissey maybe three out of four people go ‘oh’. Then the fourth person embraces you. There is a segment of the population of which he is extremely important; to a lot of the masses he is kind of a hero.
J: How did you get into playing the keyboard? You play a lot of instruments, don’t you?
M: Yes. Piano was first. My mother was a piano teacher and so I studied with her from the age of six, I aggravated her because I never practiced! When I turned ten or eleven we had reached the point where I had stopped. She said ‘you don’t have to continue if you don’t want to’, but that was the point where I started to get into the radio and particularly with ‘Born To Run’ I heard that album and there was a piano player on it named Roy Bittan and he played in a classical style with technique and creativity and that really made me sit up I had learned how to play by reading. The other way is by ear, which is where you listen to something and play it. There’s incredible piano playing on that album and I began to learn all that, and that opened up a new avenue for me because I didn’t have to play Bach, which could be really challenging. I could also play the piano with more freedom, that that’s when I really took off. To compliment that I began taking classical lessons again until I was eighteen.
J: What does your mum think about what you do now?
M: She’s very proud. She’s always proud. The funny thing is that she continues to mangle the names of the people that I work with. It took her a long time to get Morrissey’s name right!
J: Does she look for you on the television when you’re on American Idol?
M: Yes. The camera goes past me very quickly in a blur. ‘I saw his salt and pepper hair! There he is! Rewind it!’
J: Do your wife and children go to the shows with you?
M: No they’re not interested. My wife and I made a conscious choice not to make a big deal out of what I do. They’ll make their own way. Both of my boys are piano players, already taking lessons, can already play by ear. I don’t want to influence them greatly one way or the other. I don’t want them to feel forced into it just because I do it.
J: Do you believe in the talent shows that you work on? Do you support searching for American’s next idol or do you find it manufactured?
M: That’s a creation of the television. The thing that I embrace is that these kids in the contest are working twenty-four hours a day to do what I do. So I support them one hundred percent, I try to give them what they need and help them to do well in the show. Unfortunately there’s a whole lot to show business that’s not just learning to sing or play the piano and they’re learning about that, one way or another.
J: I guess it makes them re-evaluate whether they really want it or not.
M: Yes it does. From a personal point of view those shows are a good job. It happens every year, it’s reliable. Artistically it doesn’t jazz me that much but if you concentrate on the kids and give them what they need it becomes very fruitful.
J: Shall we talk about one of the most beautiful songs written by you ‘Sweetie-Pie’.
M: Ah, very nice of you to say that.
J: I’m sure you’ve been told that the alternate version gives people the proper goose bumps!
M: I haven’t!
J: It’s a very emotional listening experience. Very rousing. Did recording take place during the sessions in Italy for ‘Ringleader of The Tormentors’?
M: Yes. What happened in Italy was, for a variety of reasons, we just couldn’t get that album going. The studio wasn’t ready, there were all these kinds of hurdles to us getting the record together. About three weeks into the trip we finally got everything going and we started charging through the songs. Morrissey was singing, we were all playing live. At the end of a very long day, Sweetie-Pie happened to occur.
J: Were you experimenting at the piano?
M: Well, the writing process with Morrissey is very interesting, as the music person you completely deliver a track. You record a track, create it, and send it to him. If he likes it, he writes words over it. That’s the extent of the collaboration. Occasionally he will come back to you and say can we change the key or move this bit or whatever but usually he’s happy with what you give him and he just writes on top of it.
J: Did he call you up and say ‘I love this!’?
M: When he’s working on an album he just puts the word out. All the people in the band write stuff and submit it and he keeps it to himself what he has picked and what he hasn’t. About a month before we went to Italy a packet arrived in the mail and there’s all these lyrics to these songs and we quickly flick through and are like: Oh! He picked that one! So this time he picked ‘Sweetie-Pie’ and ‘At Last I am Born’ of mine, and he picked four or five of Jesse’s and four or five of Alain’s and a couple of Boz’s. So it’s not very collaborative. Anyway, Sweetie-Pie ended up at the end of a very long day. It’s kind of got a weird metre, a weird timing to it, it’s not as simple, and it requires a little more thought and care. We played it and it didn’t really happen. I feel like because it happened at the end of the day it just didn’t rise to the top. We continued to keep working on it and it just didn’t happen. Boz tried a mix. It just was a song I was never quite happy with how it developed.
J: When you wrote it at that time did you write the music that is now the ‘alternate’ version or did you write that quite haunted mix that appears on ‘Swords’?
M: No, the version that I created is much closer to the alternate version. When Morrissey feels that something is not working he goes leftfield and changes radically. That was what he recommended, and I think it was correct at that time because it wasn’t working. I think that’s how we ended up with the more radical mix.
J: So your alternate mix happened later?
M: Later, much later, years later.
J: Did you send it back to Morrissey?
M: I don’t know. I don’t think so. He has the right to put out what he wants.
J: I know he does, of course he does, I’m speaking from personal preference. I would love for Morrissey to hear your intended ‘Sweetie-Pie’, because it is stunning.
M: The version that I did was much closer to the demo and much closer to what I thought it should sound like. It’s also what I feel like, if we can call this Morrissey’s later career, suits him. He’s such a profoundly interesting lyricist, and he has such a unique angle.
J: Were you pleased when you saw the ‘Sweetie-Pie’ lyrics for the first time?
M: Oh God yeah. I mean there’s never a time where I read a Morrissey lyric and I’m not just enchanted with it. It’s so out of the box and well thought out.
J: I love the more delicate, fuller ballads like ‘Camden’, ‘Sweetie-Pie’, ‘Lost’, ‘It’s not your birthday anymore’, ‘Jesus’, ‘Istanbul’. I love it when he slows it down.
M: Beautiful songs. More reflective. These songs allow all of the colours of his lyrics and voice to emerge.
J: You also composed the thunderous ‘At Last I am Born’. Quite the opposite of ‘Sweetie-Pie’ and a great finish to ‘Ringleader’.
M: I was very happy with how that turned out! Morrissey had mentioned to me that he wanted something more orchestral. It was fun to create that. It has a little bit of a Spanish flair, a matador thing.
J: Yes it’s very dramatic.
M: I was so tickled when I saw the lyrics. It’s probably the first time someone has ever said the words ‘At Last I am Born’.
J: You and Morrissey get along well, don’t you?
M: Yes we do, and I’m still in touch with him. I just did a spoken word video for him on ‘The Bullfighter Dies’. He called me to come over to Capitol Records and we did a stripped down version of that where I kind of noodle on the piano and he speaks the lyrics. It was really cool. Their promotion campaign was to focus on the lyrics so he did that series of spoken word videos. I’m blurry in the back again, like on Idol!
J: Have you heard the new album, ‘World Peace Is None Of Your Business’?
M: I have only heard The Bullfighter Dies. The video director played it once for me off her laptop so Philip Dizack and I could get the vibe for the spoken word video. I’ve worked with Joe Chiccarelli before though and he is a fantastic producer. I’d be surprised if it’s not very well done.
J: Have you read ‘Autobiography’?
M: No I have not!
J: It’s so good, just like he’s talking. It contains a few paragraphs about you. I have taken the liberty of bookmarking the pages for you to read. (p. 422-423).
M: I have heard a thing or two about it.
[Mikey reads the pages about him, giggling, ‘I’ve seen excerpts of this, people have sent to me on email. It’s so funny because his tone is so personal and unmistakable. It’s so well written. ‘A poor man’s Roger Manning’, ha ha, he liked that. Mid western hardiness! Ha ha ha! He’s poking me. He’s right, I don’t have piano fingers. See that? I have stubby fingers. My sons have stubby fingers too. Oh yeah, The Queen Is Dead! He remembered! That’s nice].
J: Tell me about your time on tour with Morrissey.
M: Being in a band is like being married, you travel with them, you go to breakfast with them, you go to work with them then after work you go out to drinks. It’s very intense. If you spend several years with people you get tired.
Photo credit: Jed Weitzman
J: I saw Morrissey times on the Ringleader tour. For one of the dates I went up to Glasgow to the Academy. The Scottish audience was amazingly responsive on that tour. Do you agree?
M: I have always felt this about Scotland. Having played with a number of different acts, it really is amazing, generally, how the Morrissey audience responds. It’s something very special.
J: The emotion is out there at the Scottish gigs.
M: Maybe it’s the same as Morrissey’s Mexican following. There’s an open-ness to both. An open heart.
J: What are your stand out memories from being on the road?
M: A lot of things come to mind. One thing that a lot of people don’t realise about Morrissey is how funny he is. That would often come out at various places after the show when we’d be having drinks. Those kind of things are moments I treasure.
J: What typically happened after a show?
M: He’d usually go off stage first and we continue to play. After we come off stage, he goes to his dressing room and we go to ours. After about five or ten minutes he might cool off, take a shower and re-hash it a little bit, then he’ll come in and say hey we’re going to meet up at the hotel bar or some place.
J: What about on-stage memories?
M: When we played the Reading/Leeds festival at Reading we started playing ‘How Soon Is Now’. When we opened with that in Reading and Jesse started the guitar riff it was the strangest reaction from a crowd I’ve ever heard. People didn’t cheer, they gasped, they shrieked! I’m getting goose bumps just talking about it, it was very powerful. Playing with Morrissey at Radio City Music Hall, Hollywood Bowl… there’s so many gigs that we did that are unique, we did five nights at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and I hadn’t done that before. That was very special. The birthday gig in Manchester was amazing. I remember the second song was ‘First of the Gang to Die’ and the whole audience just seemed like it was heaving. It was levitating. It was crazy. There are lots like that. We played the Ryman in Nashville, the former home of the Grand Ole Opry, a historic American place. Lots of neat places. We played Mexico city too, that was amazing.
J: Is ‘First of The Gang’ one of your favourites to play live?
M: Yes, First of the gang, There is a light. I like Pigsty too. Every night was fun. He has such a library of songs.
J: Have you ever seen Morrissey get visibly excited about a performance?
M: There was a time when we started playing ‘Life Is A Pigsty’ and it evolves into a huge storm then it settles down and at the very end of it everyone fades out, leaving me to play real softly alone on stage. I think it was the first time I did this, but some how I segued into ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and played it softly before going off stage. As soon as I was off stage Morrissey got right into my face and said ‘that was really good!’ He was so excited about it, right up close. I’ve never seen him more moved. When something musical happens that he was really jazzed by - whether it be playing a record or something that happens on stage - he enjoys it.
J: Many people attribute the fuller sound of Ringleader to you playing so many different instruments.
M: I got the job to play keyboards, but I could play other stuff. It was a chance for me to play percussion, bongos, trumpet. And Morrissey loved that, he was very cool with it. He encouraged me to do what I wanted musically, with any instrument.
J: So creatively you were just able to pick up the flute or the trumpet and say ‘I think we should have a little section here…’
M: Yep, like on ‘Please Please Please’ there’s a little section at the end on mandolin. I started doing that on the trumpet and he loved that, he thought it was really cool.
J: If Morrissey was to walk in here right now and say ‘alright Mikey’ what would you say?
M: What do you mean ‘all right Mikey’
J: I mean like, hi Mikey.
M: Well I would say ‘alright?!’ [laughs] I saw him when they played at the Staples Centre. It was right before the Hollywood High School concert. I thought the band sounded great, he sounded great, the set list was good.
J: Did you go back stage?
M: I did! I walked up to him and he said: ‘You’re looking skinny!’ He gave me a hug, he was very jovial.
J: Did Morrissey ever come to your house?
M: No he never came to my house. He likes to be in his own comfortable environment.
J: If Morrissey was coming to your house, what snacks would you put out for him?
M: He likes crisps, right?
J: What flavour?
M: I don’t know, just regular crisps. On the road we all ate vegetarian.
J: Are you a vegetarian?
M: I was when I was with him! [laughs] No comment. I’d love to be vegetarian. I feel like lots of people who are vegetarian are not particularly healthy. I feel like I need protein every now and then.
J: What about drinks?
M: He likes beer and wine.
J: Is that what you would have when you came off stage? A nice cold beer or wine?
M: Mostly a beer, sometimes it would be wine.
J: Was it civilized or were there any crazy nights?
M: There were plenty of crazy nights.
J: Come on. Let’s hear one.
M: People would be maligned. I don’t think I can!
J: Really? Come on! There wasn’t a night when you threw a TV out of a window?
M: There was one night in a Brighton hotel, it might have been an off night. We were all together and drinking and I saw there was a piano. So I started playing and everyone was drinking, laughing and singing, having a great time. It was Christmas time and there was a Christmas tree by the piano and everyone was laughing. One of the members of the party, I won’t say who, started taking the ornaments off the Christmas tree and smashing them on the piano one by one: smash, smash, smash. Everybody disappeared. It was not something we should be doing. Pretty soon it was just me playing the piano and this person smashing the ornaments and everyone had scurried! Pretty soon security were called. We got a lecture but we didn’t have to pay.
J: Pretty crazy, but more funny than crazy.
M: Absolutely. These are the things that bind you together as people.
J: Who were your pals in the band?
M: I got along with everybody but I most hung out with Jesse, Dean and Matt and Sol. It’s strange to say but I do think that the Brits stick together and the Americans stick together. We all like each other, but it’s just who you’re around with more and who you have more shared history with. Jesse and I used to be very good friends but we don’t spend much time together anymore.
J: Can I ask you a few of your favourite things?
J: What is your favourite crisp flavour?
M: That’s potato chip right? Sour Cream and Onion. Crisps make me fat. I try not to eat crisps but they’re really good. There’s a small regional version of crisps in Ohio - Dan Dee Potato Chips - crinkle cut. Do you know what crinkle is? Little ridges?
J: I do! Do you like those Dill pickle ones?
M: I don’t know those!
J: They’re so good. In New York they have Jalapeno deli chips. They’re delicious.
M: You sound like you’re a crisp connoisseur!
J: What about biscuits? Do you eat biscuits?
J: Ha ha!
M: We were laughing about this the other day, whether Google translate should have British to American! For cookies: chocolate chip. Home made chocolate chip.
J: What’s your favourite pizza topping?
M: Mushroom. But it’s really sausage and mushroom. You can put mushroom.
J: What’s your favourite Morrissey song?
M: My favourite Morrissey song is ‘Now My Heart Is Full’ and that would be up there for favourite song of all time.
J: What’s your favourite Smiths song?
M: Probably ‘There Is A Light that never goes out’.
J: When you’re warming up, what do you play?
M: I like to improvise, make something up.
J: What about your favourite pianist?
M: Roy Bittan or Stevie Wonder. Those two guys are my influences.
J: A book that you like to read?
M: ‘Blood Meridian’ by Cormac McCarthy. There’s another one that I just finished that’s very good called ‘You are not a gadget’ by Jaron Lanier. Blood Meridian is fiction, blood soaked western from the 1800s. You are not a gadget is more modern, technology, more about how computers are affecting our lives.
J: Favourite drink?
M: Alcoholic? Anything?
J: Is that your answer?
M: [laughs] yes! Put ‘anything alcoholic’.
J: You’re fairly quiet on Twitter @catminority.
M: Yes, I don’t put very much on there.
J: You should! Would you like to host our Twitter @Mozarmyquiz one week?
M: Of course! What do I have to do?
J: Make up some questions about your time with Morrissey.
M: People might not be able to answer it!
J: Oh I guarantee they will… Could you please write a note to my mum?
M: Your mum? Of course.
J: Her name is Pat.
J: Can I take some photographs of you?
M: This is me in my posh hotel! Shall we do a selfie?
Follow Mr Farrell on Twitter @catminority. Expect nothing catty.
Like the radio? The alternate version of ‘Sweetie-Pie’ is played regularly by @josemaldonado on ‘Breakfast With The Smiths’ on Indie 1031.
© All content is copyright Julie Hamill 2014. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without consent from Julie Hamill is strictly prohibited.
At the Corinthia hotel in London the high lamps of the lobby bar shine down on Julie Hes’ blonde crop and girlish frame, placing her in the spot light as she swings her DMs to and fro in a big posh armchair. She orders drinks and insists to me that she’s paying for them whilst she simultaneously chit chats with the waiter: ‘Don’t take it yet, there’s two quid fifty worth of wine left in that glass’.
She is a gloriously gifted, award-winning British actress with a vibrant presence, and in person I doubt very much if she’s changed since she was fourteen. She’s 100% herself, a chat-fueled Lancashire lass brimming with mirth and warmth and her batteries never run dry. She nods toward the one green olive in the bowl. ‘I’ve left you that’ she points ‘and you’re lucky to get it.’
Julie has spent the last fifteen years playing Hayley, one half of Coronation Street’s inseparable salt-and-pepper-pot-set Roy and Hayley Cropper. In soap’s first ever transgender role, Hayley was portrayed as a fun loving, Lady-Di shy more-mumsy-than-most character, who fell charmingly and awkwardly in love with Roy, an intensely routined, Dickensian and manner-of-fact traditionalist. Against all odds of prejudice, bullying, lies and complexities, the odd couple conquered all and blossomed, to go down in soap history as the exemplary pairing that showed the rest of us how it’s done.
Having recently left the soap (after dramatic and emotional suicide end scenes) Julie has hung up the wig, red anorak and put down the éclairs in Roy’s Rolls to explore her love of theatre, only pausing to collect a National Television Award along the way. Julie’s first post-Corrie role has seen her master something very dark and different, playing a mother of a troubled teen in the Simon Stephens play ‘Blindsided’. Her intense acting amongst an incredible cast triumphed with a deserved sell out run at Manchester’s Royal Exchange.
As a life long fan of the Smiths, Julie was delighted to film dance scenes in the Salford Lads Club for Coronation Street and her picture hangs in the Smiths room. She met Morrissey on an escalator Kendal’s one lunchtime, and lost composure after seeing her idol by dropping to her knees and shouting: ‘ALL ME LIFE!’ loudly in his direction. ‘You have never seen a more uncool performance in your life.’
She has her big brother to thank for her excellent taste in music, but part of her is still unable to resist a bit cheese in the form of S Club 7’s ‘Reach’. Her favourite drink is tea and she once won ‘Mr and Mrs.’ with her husband – writer Ian Kershaw - who clinched it with a ‘There is a light’ answer.
She says of Hayley: ‘She’s a lot better a person than I am’. I agree. Hayley would have left me loads more olives.
JHam: Please say your full name.
JHes: My full name is Julie Hesmondhalgh. My middle name is Claire, with an ‘I’. I was named after my paternal grandmother and my brother is named after my dad’s dad, who died when he was a teenager. There’s a nice symmetry to it. But, my mum wouldn’t call me Claire, because she thought everybody would call me ‘Clere’. Instead everyone calls me ‘Joolah!’ Hesmondhalgh is an old Lancashire name. I always hoped it might be Scandinavian or German but no, it’s one of those old English names. There’s loads of them in the phone book in Lancashire!
JHam: Did you move to London for a while?
JHes: I went to drama school in London in ’88, to LAMDA. I set up a theatre company with a bunch of friends and worked there for years. I didn’t really officially move back up north until I met my husband. We bought our house on the Derbyshire border, just outside of Manchester, near Glossop, in the countryside and I sold my London flat in 2005. I have no regrets because we have a nice little house up there. Also I hadn’t had my formative years in Manchester so I didn’t do the Hacienda or anything like that. I went to London when I was eighteen, so I missed it all, really. Now I really feel like it’s a fantastic city. It’s very accessible. I feel like I know everybody there and where I’m going and what I’m doing. London still excites me too.
JHam: Can you describe yourself in a sentence?
JHam: Any way you want to.
JHes: Christ this is harder than I thought… em… okay. I would say, em, let me let that fester in my mind. Okay I’ve got it: desperately needs to be liked but hates that in herself. Pretty much can fit into any social situation and can stand astride low brow and high brow with great aplomb. (I pride myself on that). Wants to be cooler than I am. More than one sentence for you there.
JHam: Did you enjoy the experience of drama school?
JHes: I loved it. It was absolutely fantastic. Total culture shock. My brother is a professor of cultural studies at Leeds University and his specialist subject is music. He’s just written a book called ‘Why Music Matters’. It’s very accessible and about why every culture connects with music. He was a big influence on me growing up, big into punk, and on the night before I went to LAMDA I was conflicted about going into acting because it’s very frivolous and I wondered if I’d be better doing a job like a social worker or something. He said to me ‘I know you’ve got a real sense of yourself as a woman and a feminist, but have you got any sense of yourself in terms of class?’ and I was really naïve about that. He said ‘you won’t know where you’re from as soon as you’re in that environment. If anyone mocks your accent spit in their face!’ which I didn’t! I had children of extremely famous actors in my year from Eton and Sandhurst. It shook my world up.
JHam: How did you get your audition for Coronation Street?
JHes: I started a theatre company after drama school with a teacher from LAMDA called Brian Astbury. He had set up first multi racial theatre company in 1970s apartheid South Africa. He had a very non British can-do attitude and persuaded a group of us to write to every famous person we could think of, asking for help, and with the money we raised we built a theatre under a block of flats in Paddington, which we ran together and put on plays while we were signing on. It was an amazing time, a real apprenticeship. I left there in my mid-twenties and went on to do tiny bits of telly and other bits and bobs. Then I got a job in Manchester at the Royal Exchange doing ‘Much Ado About Nothing’.
JHam: Is that where the Corrie producers noticed you?
JHes: Yeah. I was doing comedy male and female. So the must have thought ‘oh she can do both’.
JHam: How did you feel about playing a transgender?
JHes: I knew Hayley was transgender from the get go. The casting people were nervous about how I would feel about that but I was thrilled to be dealing with an issue that people knew so little about. I went straight to Frontline Books in Manc, a radical bookshop, and learned a lot but not really how to play this very particular shy and ordinary woman, and I couldn’t talk to anyone in the early days because it was all top secret. I went back and met the producer the week after, read a bit, made it clear I was serious about playing her properly and they rang while I was on the train back to London to tell me I’d got the part! It was amazing. I found out subsequently that Hayley was meant to be the first in a series of disastrous dates for Roy, and it was a bit of a joke, but it was never a joke for me. Years before I’d done a sort of exercise about future dreams and mine had been to play a character with an “issue” in a soap.
JHam: You have played the character brilliantly. Do you remember how Hayley was initially received?
JHes: There was an inevitable backlash from the trans community when I got the part. They quite rightly felt a trans-actress should have been cast and were concerned that the story would be a joke at their expense. I would never be cast now. But I do feel that back then in the 90s it would’ve have been too much pressure on a trans actress in that role, too much intolerable press intrusion. And the various groups eventually realised that I was serious about it and embraced Hayley as a good role model.
JHam: Could you feel that people were sitting up in their chairs a little as they watched you on telly?
JHes: Luckily I didn’t feel that the eyes were on me, I didn’t take it on at all, I just played the character. I just played what I feel like it would have felt like to be in love with somebody and have to tell them this secret about myself. That was always at the heart of it. From day one there was such chemistry between David, who plays Roy, and myself. And that’s something that you just can’t account for. We had a very similar way of looking at the part. And because of the part he was playing, he was subject to mockery as well. He never saw that as a joke. We are both very protective of Roy and Hayley and their love story. What I saw in the few months that followed was absolutely extraordinary. People started watching it as a love story.
JHam: Hayley is one of the most loved characters ever created. How does that make you feel?
JHes: Well, thank you. I think she is. I get the impression from the feedback I get because she’s such a lovely person; and more than that because of the characters, because of who they are; the writers and the producers never really messed with us. They couldn’t really give us the usual soap stories of affairs and all that.
JHam: Why did you feel that Hayley had to die when you left?
JHes: Well, when I decided to leave I knew that Hayley would have to die. I know that has been a disappointment for a lot of people but it would be much more of a betrayal of what we’ve done. That has been the perfect end for me. This has been a love story with a sensational beginning, a lovely middle, and a tragic end. To start with this issue and really make a difference to what people think about transgender people, has been amazing. People used to come up to me in the street in the early days of Roy and Hayley and say: ‘when are you getting married?’ and I’d say well, they’re not allowed to because of the law’ and they’d be like ‘Oh forget that!’ That’s how you change the world. Letting someone in and then they’re rooting for the character, even though there was an uncomfortable issue about them that was difficult to swallow for some people.
JHam: You have also petitioned for signatures to get more pancreatic cancer funds.
JHes: Yes! To end on this double whammy issue of a pancreatic storyline has been really interesting to me because I didn’t know anything about it. I had lost somebody that I knew to pancreatic cancer, but I didn’t know that it had this terrible low survival rate that hasn’t improved for forty years. Then I got involved with this e-petition and got thousands of signatures on that.
JHam: I think it was beautifully and truthfully written, encompassing all the new medical terms that a person has to learn when faced with a terminal illness.
JHes: I think it’s the feelings too. Feeling really strong sometimes and then at other times feeling desperate.
JHam: The arguments that Hayley and Roy have been terrific and accurate.
JHes: The most moving thing, for me, has been hearing from people who have lost people or who are dealing with cancer right now. I would have thought that people would have just turned off and that was my big fear. From the messages I’m getting people have seen their experiences mirrored, and that’s down to the writing, which has been spaced out brilliantly because the schedule at Corrie is so manic, like you’re just in it all the time. There’s a lovely bit over Christmas where they do have a happy Christmas and afterwards she gets told that it’s spread – and that, for me, is a real key moment because she loses it. She absolutely loses it because she has been so strong, then she completely goes a bit bonkers and she trashes the Christmas tree and stuff. It’s a big moment for her and she’s embarrassed about it but she’s glad she’s done it. I’m proud of it. The right to die stuff is another topic where real debate can be had.
JHam: You are very warm, friendly and open, Julie. Do you think you share qualities with Hayley?
JHes: She’s a good influence on me!
JHam: How much of you is in her, and how much of her is in you?
JHes: We have melted into each other over the years. She’s a lot better a person than I am, she makes me want to be a better person and I see her as someone totally separate from me. When I did Paul O’Grady he asked me what it was like to hang up the anorak and leave the wig behind. I said, it must be the same as you leaving Lily Savage behind, a similar thing. I find bits of her around the house and I think: where is she now? What keeps happening is people are sending me pictures of Hayley, like, someone at a petrol station in a red coat with dark hair, or on a train… it’s so amazing. It’s like she lives on. I love that. Her dying is a terrible thing for her but a great thing for me. I’m so sorry Hayley that I’ve done this to you!
JHam: When you get he tough scripts how do you prepare for the acting?
JHes: It has been difficult lately. I go through my lines with my husband and he loses it when we’re just running lines. It’s so beautifully written. She might say something like ‘I don’t want to die, I’m not ready’ and he just loses it. Then the dying scenes, I can’t even… it was like an out of body experience, so horrendous, and yet beautiful.
JHam: How did you know it was time to leave the Street?
JHes: It was a process. I did this play in Manchester last year that was about Sophie Lancaster, the young woman who was murdered in a park because she was dressed in a goth-like way. I would never have taken time out of Corrie to do any other piece but this was so close to my heart. It was a really big success, it won awards and sold out. It was an absolutely heartbreaking story. It made me realise that there were other stories I wanted to tell. But I didn’t make any snap decisions. I knew how seductive theatre could be, I thought long and hard about it, talked to my husband and friends about it, some of whom are struggling as actors, and they were like, you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to leave. I thought if I don’t do it now I’ll never do it. Then I had this incredible week… I told Corrie just before Christmas on the day that they changed over producers then I got a message from the press office saying that they were going to release it today, and could I write a statement, and my dad was in a care home at the time. It went bonkers. Facebook and Twitter went mad, and that was the Friday afternoon. On Monday morning I got a phone call saying my dad had been taken into hospital, and he died on the Wednesday. So everything about leaving just got shunted to one side, last January 2013.
JHam: I’m so sorry for your loss. What did your mum and dad think about your role and you leaving Coronation Street?
JHes: It was funny because all any northern actor ever gets asked is ‘when am I going to see you on Corrie?’ It was a relief to be able to finally say: ‘Next week!’ My dad was dead proud. He was like - oh my god - but he loved it. My mum is worried about me leaving, she loves me being in it. She doesn’t want me to do Simon Stephens plays with all that effin and jeffin! I really could have dribbled on forever as Hayley, until I got too old to do it. It was the biggest shock to everybody when I said I was going.
JHam: Who are your Corrie mates? Alison King? [Carla]
JHes: Apart from David Neilson, Ali is probably my best mate at Corrie. The Hayley/Carla love story has been the greatest love story never told. When we did the siege scenes we fell in love with each other because we didn’t have much to do with each other before. The writers just got it and ran with it.
JHam: What’s your next project after ‘Blindsided’?
JHes: ‘Black Roses’ follows right after that. We’re bringing that to the Southbank too.
JHam: I will come to see you.
JHes: You’d better!
JHam: What posters were on your wall as a teen and how did you get into the Smiths?
JHes: My brother was a massive influence on me. If you think that in 1980 he was seventeen and I was ten, I’ve always have a varied taste in music, so the first two albums I bought were The Smiths first album and Wham. My husband says this sums me up.
JHam: You should describe yourself as somewhere between the Smiths and Wham.
JHes: Exactly. Did you see us on Mr and Mrs? We went on and won; the winning question was Julie’s favourite group is The Smiths, what is her favourite Smiths song? Another question was, if Julie learned the ukulele for a while which song would she serenade you with? The choices were Teenage Kicks, which was our wedding march; the Corrie theme tune, or ‘Reach’ by S Club 7. It was of course, ‘Reach’, and he got it right. ‘Reach’ is the song that I have to dance to. You could be telling me about the most tragic events in your life and if ‘Reach’ comes on I’ll be like, ‘I’m sorry, excuse me.’ I have a terrible naff streak. My brother despairs. On my tenth birthday he bought me three singles: Oliver’s Army, Life On Mars and Heart of Glass.
JHam: What a totally cool brother! What was the favourite Smiths song answer?
JHes: ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’. Oh My God I nearly forgot to tell you this! Mike Joyce was on our train home! He had been to a City match. We had only met him once, but we were like: ‘Mike! Mike!’ and he was like: ‘Hiya! Have you been to the match?’ and we were like: ‘oh no!’ We held up our trophy and said: ‘this is where we’ve been! And we won it with a Smiths question!’ He said ‘what question?’ and we were like ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’. I know it’s a bit of an obvious choice, but not for me! I saw Chris Packham picked ‘Reel Around The Fountain’ which was a great choice. It’s the one that I sing more than any other Smiths song. ‘Pin and mount me like a butterfly…’ Oh!
JHam: Did you see The Smiths live?
JHes: I’ve seen Morrissey but I’ve not seen The Smiths.
JHam: Have you ever met Morrissey?
JHes: Yes I have! I was in Kendal’s in Manchester and I was on the escalator going up one lunchtime. I glanced down and he was behind me! You have never seen a more uncool performance in your life. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it was him. It was when he was living in LA so I had to really think, it’s him, it’s definitely him! So I arrived at the top and he passed me and he went up the next escalator.
JHam: Did you follow him?
JHes: Well I was frozen. I stood at the bottom. It had been wedged in my brain to shake his hand and say something like ‘thank you for all the pleasure you have given me.’ As he went on the escalator he could see that I was there, and I knew he was a Corrie fan, because he tried to be a scriptwriter for a while and he went out with Sally one night wandering around town trying to find other Corrie actors. I just thought, there’s no way I can say this to him without sounding really pathetic. So he was nearly at the top of the escalator and I was at the bottom and all that came out of my mouth was:
He turned around and said ‘I think you’ve got me confused with somebody else.’ I lost all sense of irony and just went: ‘oh no! It’s you!’ Again I thought, he’s getting away, he’s at the top I’m at the bottom. He turned around and gave me a lovely smile and I just went:
‘ALL ME LIFE!’
And that was it! It was all I could manage! I went back to work in a stupor. I was star struck. I was shaking, saying: ‘I just met Morrissey in Kendal’s!’ and somebody said ‘Neil Morrissey?’ and I said ‘f*** off!’ No disrespect to Neil but I wouldn’t be shaking with excitement over meeting him.
A lad called Lee who works in wardrobe – I told him – and he said I’ve met him twice, the first time I was in my school uniform in the post office and he was ahead of me in the queue and I was so overwhelmed I burst into tears. Morrissey put down his parcel and hugged me, and said it’s okay. Years later Lee is working in HMV and Morrissey comes to the counter with, brilliantly, a Siouxsie Sioux album. Lee says to him, ‘I have actually met you before in the post office and Morrissey said ‘I remember. You cried.’ I was in floods of tears again! He was so lovely to me. He could have turned his head away and acted really cool but he didn’t.
JHam: Can we recreate the moment that you shouted ‘ALL ME LIFE!’ in a picture?
JHes: He didn’t have to be nice to me. I think he’s really nice when he meets his genuine fans and he can see they must be overwhelmed. I love the line in All the lazy dykes: ‘when you look at me you actually see me’. This must hardly ever happen to him. It must all be hero worship. He’s one of the only real stars left, like Madonna.
JHam: If Morrissey walked in here right now and said ‘alright Julie’ what would you say?
JHes: I’d be like Oh my God Morrissey, serious to God, Julie is doing a book about you, and we’re doing an interview about you, what are the f***in chances of that happening? Then I would also ask him if he remembers meeting me on the escalator in Kendal’s.
JHam: You could have said ‘I’m Hayley off Corrie’.
JHes: That would have been a mistake. It was all going through my mind to do that but I didn’t, I couldn’t.
JHam: What if he came to your house? What snacks would you put out for him?
JHes: Oh God, I’d make him my roast veg. Aubergines, courgettes and all that. I’d be like ‘just give me a minute!’ Then I’d hide any fish fingers in the freezer.
JHam: What’s your favourite Morrissey song?
JHes: I love ‘You know I couldn’t last’ it’s so personal and honest. ‘In the end the royalties buy you luxuries’ It gets to me… but I love ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’. I love the build up, the chorus, I have a connection with that song. I love ‘Camden’ as well. I love the key change. I love ‘where taxi drivers never stop talking’. It’s epic. I love ‘The world is full of crashing bores’. I love the expression of it, I’m more interesting than you, I wouldn’t ever want to be you. He’s a proper poet.
JHam: Favourite drink?
JHes: Tea. If I had to give up wine or tea, I’d give up wine. I take my tea strong and milky. No sugar.
JHam: Favourite book?
JHes: ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. I’ve got into graphic novels. I love them. I went to a graphic novel shop today on Berwick Street.
JHes: I’m not a crisp fan, and the thing is that I am a savoury girl, not a sweet one.
JHam: So what would you eat then? Savoury snack of choice?
JHes: Cheese, cheese and cheese. I’m a bad cheese girl. You know when they bring a big wheel of stilton? I could just eat the lot of that with a spoon. There’s no bottom to my cheese pit.
JHam: Who’s your favourite actor?
JHes: I’m saying David Neilson, he is amazing. What you don’t realise is that when you’re watching something like Corrie there’s no help – no lighting or music or angles or anything like that, what you are seeing is absolutely raw. If you do see something that is a little bit sublime then it probably was sublime. I’ve seen that right through the years from the Sheila and Billy years in Brookside to the Bianca and Ricky years in Eastenders. When I’m acting with Ali King [Carla], I have no idea what she’s going to do. She does stuff like, that scene when she’s drunk bride and me and Chris take her into the bedroom – it was really late one night and me and Chris were so tired and we were like ‘just do what it says in the script!’ She’s picking up empty champagne glasses and drinking out of them and falling around and she’s amazing! She made a great pissed bride, the best. Jennie McAlpine who plays Fizz, I just have to look at her face, if I have a scene where I have to get upset I have no worries at all. I just look at that little face and she’s so beautiful such a beautiful amazing person. She runs a mental health charity with her dad. She is more illuminating in real life than she is on telly. I love Maxine Peake, Kate Kelly, I’d love to mirror their careers.
JHam: Favourite past or present Corrie character?
JHes: Well with Karen MacDonald I had moments with her where I just thought, what you’re doing is incredible. I loved Becky. Becky is as maligned as Hayley is. She made that character human. She never beautified her, changed her in any way, I love her for that. I’m going for Becky.
JHam: Do you have a soap scene that stays with you?
JHes: In the 1980s me and my dad were mad about Brookside. I’ve said this to John McArdle and Sue Johnston. There was a new year’s eve episode where they kissed for the first time and it did something; something that they did together I could have watched a million times. It made me want to be in a soap. It has been a privilege to work with Sue, she is a lovely person. Then in the 1990s it was Eastenders. The Bianca love triangle was a great storyline.
JHam: What’s your favourite pizza topping?
JHes: I like Fiorentina with the egg in the middle and the spinach.
JHam: Favourite biscuit?
JHes: I’m not a bit biscuit eater, despite the amount of tea I drink.
JHam: What about the biscuits in the factory?
JHes: I can eat as much as I like when I’ve got my wig on. Character calories don’t count, that’s the rule. I like the cheap biscuits. Custard Creams.
JHam: What was Hayley’s preferred cake?
JHes: An éclair. And I did used to eat them as well. I’d be in there, I got to the point in Roy’s Rolls where I just thought right I need to eat the cake now, rather than torture myself with doing the whole scene. I’d shove it in my gob, done, dusted.
JHam: Favourite film?
JHes: That’s hard, but, I will give you ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’. Although recently ‘Blue Valentine’ has been wonderful, I love that film so much. The deleted scenes in that film are like mini masterpieces.
JHam: Childhood toy?
JHes: My favourite toy was Mandy, my Tiny Tears. I played with her far too late into my life. I knew that I was reaching puberty and I didn’t want to do it so I clung to this doll. There are all these pictures of me as a twelve year old walking down Blackpool prom with a pram with Mandy in it. My grandma made her all these outfits including Russian type hats and double-breasted coats. I’ve still got Mandy with her full wardrobe.
Julie and Mandy. Photo: Julie Hesmondhalgh
JHam: Please could you write a note to my mum?
JHes: Yes I will!
Follow Julie Hesmondhalgh on Twitter @juliehes. She is a light.
‘This one’s good. It looks like I’m visiting you in a care home.’
Special thanks to Kevin Cummins, @KCManc.
© All content is copyright Julie Hamill 2014. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without consent from Julie Hamill is strictly prohibited.
The late afternoon sun streams into Vini Reilly’s living room creating a warm and mellow low light just before it gets dark. I take a seat on the couch and imagine him here playing the guitar, creating gentle sounds that float into the air like little clouds. He is a spectacularly good guitarist (although he will deny this fervently) and has created much beautiful music with The Durutti Column as well as contributed his own brand of guitar poetry on the incomparable ‘Viva Hate’ with Morrissey.
It seems heart-rending and cruel then, that three strokes have caused some paralysis to his hands, rendering him unable to tie a shoelace: ‘My guitar… I sound like a nine year-old boy in his first guitar lesson’, he says, despondently.
The Durutti Column was the first signing to Factory records in 1978 and released no less than thirty-seven albums, becoming known for a precise, gentle and melancholic guitar sound. This sound came to the attention of Stephen Street who, in 1988, enlisted Reilly to play on Morrissey’s debut solo album. Vini recalls this time with great fondness; and cites Morrissey and Andrew Paresi as dear friends. He regrets his inaccurate and untrue comments he made towards Stephen Street, and is keen to set the record straight that comments he made were due to ill health: ‘I was suffering from displaced anger. This is where you’re very angry with yourself and you don’t understand, you just shout at people you really care about’.
What is surprising and slightly shocking is the violent teenage struggle he endured, a dangerous life that included guns, intense outbursts of anger and multiple attempts at suicide. It is difficult to comprehend this past life as he is now a very gentle and giving person, with great respect for humanity and an unselfish philosophy: ‘We need good things and love. It’s like an energy, it stays around. Try using pure good, pure love’.
Despite his extensive battle with depression, displaced anger and recurring illness it is abundantly clear that Vini has retained his sense of humour, strong opinions and musical integrity. As he talks candidly about his contribution to ‘Viva Hate’, I feel privileged to share his gracious company this little while. ‘There are so many tracks on there, classic tracks to me - very different to The Smiths - not a copy or an imitation. Nobody could copy Johnny’s style, and I don’t think Morrissey or Stephen wanted Johnny’s style. It wasn’t The Smiths, it was Morrissey’.
J: Please say your full name.
V: I was named after my uncle Vin, one of my mother’s brothers, and he was called Vincent. He was awarded the Victoria Cross. He died three years ago; we were very close; he was my favourite uncle. But my full name is Vincent Gerrard Reilly. Peter is my confirmation name; I was born and raised a catholic. I like the idea of Catholicism, of faith, but I’m not a practicing catholic. Although what the hell the pope or the Vatican has done for anybody at any time is a total mystery.
J: Could you describe yourself in a sentence?
V: I’m not a virtuoso.
J: Many would disagree with that.
V: But even when I was at my peak I wasn’t the best. Anyone who says I was well that was just total nonsense, written by journalists with their own agenda who knew nothing about music. I could find you two thousand players in Cordoba in Spain in bars who have never made a record who would make me look stupid. I’m not a guitar player at all now, not after three strokes.
J: How have the strokes affected you?
V: I’ve had three strokes. The third one is the one that did the damage. I can’t even tie shoelaces now. My guitar… I sound like a nine year-old boy in his first guitar lesson.
J: I’m sure you don’t.
V: I’m sure I do. It’s a joke man. I can play in places… but then I fall off…
J: You have made some very beautiful, delicate music.
V: I don’t know. The thing is that I just don’t know if it’s good or bad or different; and I just don’t care.
J: Well, your fans love it. ‘Otis’ is a wonderful track.
V: I nearly binned that! It was Bruce that said don’t bin it! It was an experiment. I wanted to have the same base note – b flat - the whole way through a tune. If the bass note stays the same you can do all kinds of things with harmonic progression. By shouting out in the dark; by default it will be original. I heard it in my head first of all and thought that’s mad! It had to be Otis Redding’s voice, I don’t know why, it just did. It wasn’t meant to be released.
No kidding anybody, if I’d had the ability, I could have been better. For a long time I didn’t’ care about myself, whether I lived or died, or what happened. I was taught martial arts by three friends from the Israeli special forces. They taught me stuff that’s only used in the army. I had a weapon. I was dangerous.
J: Do you still have your weapon?
J: Was it a gun?
V: Yes. A small gun. An 8 mm. Big enough to kill someone. I didn’t care. I got held at gunpoint once and I just said to the guy: ‘Do it man. Do me a favour.’
J: When was this?
V: Long before I worked with Morrissey.
J: Aside from your guitar playing, how would you describe yourself as a person?
V: Very, very hung up. Not hung up now, but I’ve lead a very troubled life. I have suffered from depression since I was fifteen. I’ve had three attempts at suicide. My friends got weapons for me. I wanted it to end. Another friend saved me because his girlfriend had leukemia. He asked me if I could write something for her, a tune to cheer her up. So I did two tracks, and that became my first album.
J: What are you most proud of with The Durutti Column?
V: The drummer. It was important to me that I had the correct drummer for The Durutti Column. I discovered Bruce Mitchell. If I play just me on a guitar it’s just very flat. My music in my head has certain elements to it that just arrive. It’s got to be right. I asked Bruce and he agreed. Our rehearsal was great and within ten seconds I was playing along. For every twist and turn I made he was already there. He had the right tones and gave it momentum. I have become part of Bruce’s family. His wife Jackie is a wonderful cook and I go there for lunch every Sunday. His daughter, Zinni wants me to be there. She’s a ray of sunshine. If I did nothing else in life I’m proud of her. The music chose me, I didn’t choose the music, but Bruce and Jackie told me I was off the rails. Bruce said ‘okay you’re such a hard man, look after Zinni’. This adorable little two year-old child. Sometimes we’d sit on the floor with crossed legs and talk; we never sat on chairs. She used to sit with us. She’s a flower. We babysat her for hours and hours and hours when we were writing and she used to tag along.
It was fantastic and demanding and exhausting. I can understand that a mother’s love for a child is the purest most beautiful love in the whole world. The entire experience validated my life a little bit. She’s now thirty-four with two adorable sons and a fantastic husband, a very fine man, a very dear friend of mine, Jamie. They saved my life.
J: Your guitar playing is beautiful on ‘Viva Hate’.
V: I want to talk about Stephen Street about whom I’ve said wrong things in the past; this is not an excuse, this is fact, I have suffered from what they call ‘displaced anger’ and this is where you’re very angry with yourself and you don’t understand, you just shout at people you really care about. Stephen Street, I’ve got to tell you, you will never find a nicer man. He is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life. Endless patience, his skills are astonishing, his ability to hear… all those skills, a fabulous result. I loved the guy.
J: Did you have a good time recording that album?
V: Yes! They used to play great jokes on me. Morrissey had a special chef. He brought in this lady who cooked wonderful creative food. The food was to die for. I couldn’t eat very much because I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder because of all the violence I couldn’t escape from in my past. I could never finish a meal, no way. As soon as my back was turned Morrissey and Stephen would scrape their plate leftovers onto my plate. This poor lady used to come in just as I realised what they had done and we’d fall about giggling and laughing. Andrew would laugh; his laugh is such a delightful thing. That whole time was magical for me. Stephen is the best producer I’ve ever worked with. I always wanted to work with Morrissey anyway. I didn’t want to step on Johnny’s [Marr] toes, cos Johnny was such a nice guy. He’s another brilliant bloke, great guitarist.
J: Were you a fan of The Smiths?
V: I was! I was a huge fan. It would have been world domination if they had continued. It was pure magical.
J: Did you feel the pressure being the first guitarist after The Smiths broke up?
V: I did feel the pressure. I was astonished when Stephen suggested that the guitarist should be me for Morrissey’s first album. Stephen gave him a solid foundation to write songs from, his demos. He asked me to come down and meet Morrissey. Stuart James told me - the soundman - that I didn’t need to worry. I was a bit worried about whether I was going to like Morrissey. I thought, what if I don’t like him? I didn’t know him! He didn’t know me. We had the Irish connection, I just liked him. I thought; this is a good team, a fantastic project to be involved in. I was thrilled to bits. The whole thing was beautiful.
J: Did this continue in the recording studio?
V: It did. No compromises on either side. It was fantastic. Stephen Street produced it how he wanted to produce it. He had written it down, how he knew it should be, what he wanted it to sound like. He is very exact; we’d work until he got the performance he wanted. Same with Morrissey, if he didn’t like it he’d re-sing it. He wanted it done right. I see now that he was chasing for what he was looking for and he got it. The sound was good, the words were fantastic and the production was second to none.
J: Do you remember the first track you worked on?
V: I don’t remember. I know I was into a heavy track, I was right into it. It was pure fun.
J: What was it like when you first heard the completed ‘Suedehead’?
V: It was a thrill! It was Stephen’s style of guitar and I just tried to copy it as best I could. Hopefully it is what he heard, he seemed pleased with it. It was a bit of a buzz. Everyday is like Sunday was such a simple chord sequence but so perfect; just right for Morrissey to sing to, just right for me to play guitar to, and Andrew Paresi was a fabulous drummer. Incredible! Talk about Phil Collins standard? Andrew was good, I’d say he was better than Phil Collins at his peak in terms of technique and feel. He’s a fantastic musician. And the nicest man.
J: What were you doing when you heard the album went to number one?
V: I don’t listen to the radio. It didn’t surprise me in the least that it went to number one. There are so many tracks on there; classic tracks to me - very different to The Smiths - not a copy or an imitation. Nobody could copy Johnny’s style, and I don’t think Morrissey wanted Johnny’s style. It wasn’t The Smiths, it was Morrissey.
J: Do you have any favourite songs off the album?
V: ‘Late Night, Maudlin Street’. I used to play it late at night. I still do. The way it all hangs together, it’s beautiful. I have been in that kind of environment and Morrissey has too and we did it at nighttime. It had a resonance, very moving. It was a drum machine and we tried to recreate that poor unstable situation. He wrote the perfect lyrics for the music in that song.
J: I have read that you and Morrissey were great friends during that time.
V: Yeah. We used to hang out together. There was a little team of us, Pat Nevin the Glaswegian footballer. He was a centre forward for Scotland from the Gorbals. I’ve got a number seven shirt of his upstairs. We used to play kick about, me and him and Morrissey, then hang out and chill together. Morrissey is of astonishing intellect and Pat Nevin is very clever and then there was me. It was a nice little trio. Pat Nevin has a lovely wife Annabel. He played small, fast and tough, so skillful, the Scottish George Best, without a doubt.
J: Do you keep in touch with Morrissey?
V: I don’t know where Morrissey is now. He’s always changing his location and I’ve never got his number. I don’t keep it in my phone anyway just in case anyone goes through it.
J: What would you say if he knocked on the door now and said ‘Alright Vini?’
V: We’d give each other a big hug and there would be a lot of good Irish jokes going around! He used to take great delight in laughing at me. He has a sharp sense of humour. Stephen used to set it up for Morrissey to knock me down. We had a book where we’d leave comments about each other! Jokey stuff, you know.
J: Can you tell me about the day you did ‘I know very well how I got my note wrong’ with Morrissey?
V: It was eventually released with the first thousand copies of the Vini Reilly album. I just wanted people to know that Morrissey is human and not a premadonna. We were playing along and all of a sudden I go and hit a wrong note. Morrissey’s take was just to laugh his head off. The whole session was like that – fits of giggling.
J: Can I ask you a few of your favourite things?
J: What’s your favourite book?
V: My favourite book is by Graham Green called ‘The Quiet American’. Wherever I go in the world that’s the book I’m taking with me. I also love an audio book – ‘Just William’. It makes me so happy the beauty and the innocence. It is special to me. They are so cleverly put together. Genuine subversive literature.
J: What’s your favourite crisp flavour?
V: It’s a shame but I can’t eat things like crisps since the last stroke.
J: Who should play you in a movie of your life?
V: Someone who is not very nice, really, at all. My life story has been violent and I have hurt people physically. It should be someone who is angered. Someone who has been destroyed by physical abuse then goes on to wreak havoc with other gangsters because that’s the only place fit for him until he gets saved by very special people who keep him on the straight and narrow.
J: Are you in a relationship?
V: I don’t have any girlfriend. I have nothing, at all, to offer any woman. There’s no woman would want me. I’m not good enough for any woman now. It has been five years and I haven’t bothered.
J: What’s your favourite song?
V: It has got to be ‘All You Need Is Love’. They should rip down all those places of worship. They’re evil and they cause trouble. Its just love that we need. We need good things and love. It’s like an energy, it stays around. Try using pure good, pure love.
J: Favourite Smiths song?
V: It has got to be ‘How Soon Is Now’. That’s the one when I first heard it I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Johnny’s style and Morrissey’s voice and how they interwove. It was so perfect.
J: Favourite Morrissey song?
V: Well there’s so many! Not necessarily one that I’ve played on. He’s done songs since that have been quite extraordinary. He has become more confident through the years. I listen to all of his albums. I listen to rap too. It has the same poetry. I don’t like gangster rap. I like Labyrinth.
J: I saw you in a café earlier. Do you like to go out to eat, if you can?
V: Yes, but I’ve had a lot of trouble eating since I had the first stroke. It damaged my body and I’m only just starting to eat a tiny bit now. Physically it has taken so much from me.
J: What’s your favourite childhood toy?
V: A football. I played football all the time. My team is Man Utd. I love Fergie. Moyes is going to settle in. Fergie’s not daft. Moyes is doing the right thing, taking chances.
J: Recently fans of The Durutti Column came to your rescue, didn’t they?
V: They did, via my nephew, unbeknownst to me. I don’t have the Internet. He put something on Twitter? He told them that it was eighteen months since I was declared officially disabled and it took eighteen months for the benefits that I’m entitled to be recognised and they sent money. It was very beautiful and incredibly generous. Bruce Mitchell also helps me out but he knows he’ll get every penny back.
J: And you have royalties?
V: No, I haven’t sold something for four years or more.
J: Who looks after you now Vini?
V: Bruce. Bruce Mitchell always has. Wonderful man. Tony Wilson looked after me when I was at Factory. I used to shout at Tony and tell him I was a hard case and he told me to shut up. He used to shout back ‘if you have learned to fight then the first thing you do is you don’t tell people about it!’
J: Please could you write a note to my mum?
V: Yes, of course I will. How is your mum?
J: She’s fine, thank you. She keeps all her notes in a folder.
V: Tell your mother I’m wearing my mother’s watch, given to her by my dad during the Second World War. It doesn’t have the original strap on it. At the time it was given it was very valuable.
J: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
V: I want my ashes scattered in the Isle of Skye. I love it there. I watched otters play and birds fly in the sky. My feet were cold in the autumn. It’s ever so beautiful.
Guitar poet Vini Reilly isn’t on Twitter, but you can get messages to him via his nephews @DuruttiColumn.
Note from Vini:
Since this interview was conducted Stephen Street has had the good grace to contact me. After twenty-three years we have begun to try to find our way back to being good friends, thanks to Stephen’s big heart. Vini.
Special thanks to Dave Haslam.
Dave Haslam has all the patter. After meeting me off the London train at Manchester Piccadilly, we find that the ticket machines don’t work for the tram to Didsbury, so he eggs me on to jump inside and bunk the fair. Excitedly I oblige, with one giddy eye out for the inspector. He keeps a straight face as he calls out to the packed train the wrong stops then laughs when they shout back. As soon as the tram stops, his long legs yomp off - Bolt pace - to get to the café where we’re doing the interview. ‘I worry about your little legs’ he grins, looking down at me as I trot along behind him. So do I.
When get to ‘The Art of Tea’ Haslam orders scrambled eggs on a bagel. By question two I notice how his thirty years experience of these types of question/answer sessions have become second nature to him, as he is completely relaxed, quick witted and happy in himself. He talks in a deep, dry drawl about experiences and interviews of the past, giving me a passenger seat account of his fond meetings with Morrissey [From Melody Maker 1985: DH: ‘This is going to be very pretentious”/M: “You always are, Dave”].
Looking back to a time before he was a superstar DJ, Hacienda legend, established journalist, author of several books and on-stage interviewer of the highly successful ‘Close Up’ series, Dave Haslam began his career in 1983 as creator/editor of a fanzine: ‘Debris’. Fresh out of Uni, he interviewed a twenty-four year old Morrissey from The Smiths, and titled the piece: ‘Up The Garden Path with Morrissey’. The story of what happened during that interview and how it came about is very entertaining. Yes, Dave Haslam did cook cauliflower cheese for Morrissey, and he didn’t eat it.
The Moz meet was secured by Haslam in his own casual way: by knocking Joe Moss’ door at ‘Crazy Face’ and asking Liz Taylor (the office manager) if he could interview Morrissey. A simple and straightforward arrangement was made for Morrissey to go to Haslam’s flat. They had a bit of a laugh then went to the pub. Having established a fond respect and banterous exchange, Morrissey then sent him a postcard from New York that refers to his fall off the stage at the Danceteria on New Year’s Eve. Haslam/Morrissey continued to meet for the next few years to do interviews for various music press… until the ‘fanzine panel’ interview for Melody Maker… where Dave left in protest over a suggested photograph.
Dave Haslam’s favourite drink is a Kir Royale, the pizza has to be margherita with mushroom (occasionally) and on TV he only watches the news. As a DJ he reserves the right to play an eclectic mix of whatever he likes, and as a journalist… he once asked Morrissey his favourite colour, to which Morrissey replied:
‘I think “What’s your favourite colour?” is a great question’.
J: Please say your full name.
D: I’m Dave Haslam. And we’re in Manchester.
J: Any middle names?
D: John. I’m D-J Haslam. There we go, destiny calling!
J: Does everybody know that then? I didn’t know that ‘initial’ link.
D: It’s an exclusive.
J: Do you prefer to be known as ‘DJ’ or ‘Disc Jockey’?
D: Well, since Jimmy Saville, who was usually described as a “disc jockey”, I think I’d rather be known as a ‘DJ’. Fifteen years ago when that whole superstar DJ thing happened it was embarrassing and a bit over the top but back then everyone wanted to be a DJ. Nobody wants to be a DJ now. I like being writer/DJ.
J: Where does the ‘John’ come from?
D: My dad! It just slipped right in before I knew what was happening. Never saw that coming.
J: Can you describe yourself in a sentence?
D: The cat that walked by himself.
J: What do you mean by that?
D: I mean, I’m quite aloof and antisocial.
J: You’re married and have a family.
D: Yes and they know this about me.
J: Do they put you out at night?
D: Ha! They don’t mind that I’m kind of antisocial, it’s just accepted. J D Salinger – he never went out the house, did he?
J: You mentioned the superstar DJ period when DJs were elevated to celebrity status. How did this happen for you?
D: I was at the Hacienda from 1986 and then I left in October 1990. In the summer of 1990 I did a Hacienda DJ tour of America with me, Mike Pickering, Paul Oakenfold and Graeme Park. In a way that was one of the first turning points. I went to Detroit and Chicago. The idea of an English DJ going to America, to Detroit, one of the great music capitals of the world was kind of quite presumptuous then. It was about 1992/1993 it all really took off, by which time I was DJing two nights a week at a club called the Boardwalk. I was never a superstar DJ but I had a good thing going. I was always going for that ‘I don’t want to get involved’ showbiz thing. I just wanted to play music and believe in what I was playing. My philosophy has always been to take my hundred favourite pieces of music out in a box for that week and play them. If you are looking to make a fortune out of DJing there’s a whole load of stuff you have to take into account: what the audience expect, what you the DJ represent as a brand, and I opted out of all that. I like the idea if you come to hear me DJ you don’t necessarily know what you’re going to hear. I reserve the right every six months to play a totally different selection.
J: Is that what differentiates you – that you’re unpredictable and eclectic with song choice?
D: I start from a perspective of ‘What do I not like?’, and there’s lots of stuff I don’t like, so I won’t play it. The only challenge is to keep the audience with me. I aim to refresh the audience and I have been lucky in that respect. I DJ’d the other month at a club called Gorilla, it was the club’s first birthday and the average age was twenty. I’m sure they were looking up at me going ‘Who is this old man and what does he know?’ and I actually really like that challenge. I want it to be me and my records, and how do I make this room magical.
J: How does it feel when you’re up in the DJ box looking down at the crowd?
D: It’s nice to get the validation for what you’re doing. I don’t find that I have to hold it together; I always think of the TS Eliot line: ‘At the still point of the turning world.’ Sometimes people have noticed I stay quite still and composed. I expect chaos. There’s always stuff happening, you have to just stay completely in your own world, even though you’re reaching out to another world. Although you’re in your own world you can’t look like you are. For me there’s very rarely a moment that I’m freewheeling. I’ll be thinking, madly, at two hundred miles an hour about what I should play. If I see someone in the room that’s not engaged, I’ll think, what can I play that will make them dance?
J: What is your absolute banker record that gets everyone up?
D: It changes.
J: ‘Blue Monday’?
D: I have a weird mix of ‘Blue Monday’ that not many people have. It has a twist! After ten or fifteen minutes on the decks I’m thinking ahead. It’s like crossing a stormy river and the records are the stepping-stones.
J: I’m assuming that you play the New York Remix of ‘This Charming Man’ by François Kevorkian?
D: I do yes and funnily enough I was reading an interview that I did in 1983 with Morrissey quite recently where he really doesn’t like that François Kevorkian mix! It was the first time that I had heard him say that in public.
J: How did your music tastes evolve?
D: I grew up in Birmingham. When I was really little I loved Top of The Pops. I used to dance a lot, which for boys, well, a lot of boys don’t really. I can remember being aged around eleven or twelve, going to school discos and dancing. I got a nickname ‘disco zombie’. I guess I had some kind of mechanical/robotic dance style. I kind of had that disco thing, I remember going to see Generation X play when I was sixteen. I didn’t really like Generation X, even though I probably should have, so I wandered off into the disco room and the DJ put on ‘Can You Feel The Force’ by The Real Thing. It felt like an enlightening moment.
That was the moment I realised I didn’t have to choose between an NME audience’s music and just jumping around on the dance floor. Generally I was an NME reader and used to go to gigs. I saw Blondie when I was sixteen. I saw Magazine, Buzzcocks, bands like that. I don’t know whether it’s embarrassing or not but I used to hang around bands intrigued and fascinated. I loved a band called Fashion; I remember just being intrigued by them. The Au Pairs were the first band I used to sneak into see at the sound check. I went to London to see the Au Pairs. I was passionate about music. Then I moved to Manchester. When it came to choosing a university I just wanted to go somewhere with a great music scene.
J: What was the first record that you bought?
D: T-Rex ‘Telegram Sam’ from the newsagent that had a rack of singles with all the holes cut out. A lot of my first records were bought from there. I remember being interested by David Bowie but just being slightly too young to get into his music.
J: What’s your Bowie song of choice to play?
D: ‘Rebel Rebel’ but I also like ‘Golden Years’. If I was DJing in front of an ideal audience it would be ‘Golden Years’.
J: You have written several books. How did you get started in writing?
D: I had my own fanzine. Do your readers need me to explain what a fanzine is?
J: No, we know what a fanzine is.
D: Mine was called ‘Debris’. It was 1983 and after I graduated from University I went on the dole and the fanzine idea came about. The first issue of my fanzine was a collection of stuff that I liked: music, books, politics and arty films. It built up a good reputation because it was unlike any other fanzine. Everything But the Girl was in the first issue, and then the second issue was the Morrissey interview.
J: Tell me how this interview happened.
D: I kind of didn’t have any qualms about knocking on doors. Somehow I just knocked on them. I’ve always thought, you can just walk away. ‘Hand In Glove’ came out and after the fanzine started I kind of began to know people that knew The Smiths. I decided in my wisdom that I wanted to interview Morrissey in November 1983. The band weren’t that big. I found out that the building where they practiced was at Crazy Face, the clothing label run by Joe Moss. I knocked on the door and asked if I could interview Morrissey – a bit like you would do, Julie. I went in and was greeted by Liz Taylor who ran the office and I said ‘I’d like to interview Morrissey’ and she said ‘Yeah okay, Joe’s on the phone, I’ll ask him. Leave a copy of your fanzine.’ So I scrawled a note. I went back two days later. Liz gave me a t-shirt and Joe said ‘Yeah Morrissey will do it, where do you want to do the interview?’
J: What t-shirt did she give you?
D: A huge t-shirt with a red daffodil.
J: So where did you do the interview?
D: I kind of panicked really, because I didn’t know where to go and I didn’t know anything about him and there was no Internet. I knew he was a vegetarian, I knew he was celibate and I knew that he lived in Manchester but that’s all I knew. In my head I thought, well we need to go somewhere quiet. I thought I don’t really go to the pub that much, I knew the pub wouldn’t be good, that was out of whack for him and me. So I said: ‘Would Morrissey mind coming round to my flat?’ and Joe said ‘Yeah that will be fine’ and Liz said ‘I’ll pick him up in the car’ and come over.’ I said to Liz, would Morrissey like me to cook for him?’ and she said ‘Yeah I think he’d like that’. So I made a massive bowl of cauliflower cheese, the only thing in my vegetarian repertoire at that time. Anyway, he arrived, and turned out that his mum had already cooked him something, so he wasn’t hungry. But he encouraged me to eat, so Liz and me had a bowl. It turned out that Morrissey knew the boy that lived in the flat below me.
J: It looks like you and Morrissey got along well during that interview.
D: It was really funny. Morrissey and I really did get on. I’d never met anyone like him before. He’d say something and we’d both laugh. All I can remember is that the evening was very funny. I called the interview ‘Up The Garden Path with Morrissey’. I realised that Morrissey was already Morrissey. Even though it was relatively early on, he was fully formed, ready. I knew I was talking to Morrissey, not Steven, and he was ready and fully formed as a rock star, that he’d practiced singing into the mirror, performing and thought about it a lot. He gave me a great interview.
J: How old were you?
D: I was about twenty-one and Morrissey was twenty-four. We finished the interview and I said ‘Shall we go to the pub?’ and he said ‘Yeah, lets!’ So contrary to my preconception he was up for it. So we went to a pub quite near where I live called The Grants. We ordered two pints of lager and sat there both cringing at whatever people put on the jukebox.
J: What happened after that?
D: He disappeared out of my life for a bit and the fanzine came out in the January. It was New Years Eve 1983 they played the Danceteria in New York and Morrissey sent me a postcard. Then they went on tour Feb/March 1984 and I just started going to their gigs.
Shortly after this I got to know the little crew at the Hacienda. Since then I’ve had a few little meet ups with Morrissey. I interviewed Johnny for the NME too and our paths crossed a few times. I interviewed Morrissey again in 1985 with others. He asked for a fanzine panel of his favourite fanzine writers to pose the questions.
I asked him a really good question that he was impressed by. It was basically drawing a link in Meat Is Murder between the cruelty of school and the cruelty of the meat industry. He said something like: ‘You would ask me that, Dave.’ Anyway we fell out over a daft disagreement.
J: What happened?
D: Well, we haven’t talked since but only because he moved to London and I haven’t got his email. I think we would have probably made up by now had we bumped into each other. Anyway, so at the end of the Melody Maker interview they wanted to do a photo of the fanzine writers at Morrissey’s feet holding up microphones to him as he sat on a throne. I said well, ‘That’s not really how I want to be represented, so I’m just going to leave’ and Morrissey said ‘Come on Dave, don’t be like that, you should be in the photo’ and I said something like: ‘It doesn’t feel natural to me’ and I left. I think he wanted me to stay, but I was concerned about how I was being represented in the media and this lead me to flounce out of the moment, which is actually is what Morrissey would have done! Am I not right?
J: These days that’s actually referred to as ‘doing a Preston’.
D: Doing a Preston? Ha! I met Preston; he’s a lovely guy.
J: I agree, Preston is a gent.
J: Do you regret that Melody Maker incident?
D: I do cringe. There’s a lot of stuff I cringe at from the eighties. But I do look back and think that the weird thing around that period of 1985/86, it was a fantastic time. The Smiths had invented an alternative. The lines of demarcation had changed, that endless s**t office party atmosphere and Top of The Pops and mainstream politics of Miner’s strike, Thatcher… then there was Rough Trade… another way of thinking, an alternative movement, and I really valued that. I felt that it was important and a new thing that was available to people.
From 1978 right through to 1985-86, those were my formative years, for which I am forever grateful to people like Joe Moss and places like the Hacienda.
J: You knocked on Joe Moss’s door, which opened a lot of other doors for you.
J: If Morrissey walked in here now and said ‘Alright Dave’ what would you say?
D: These are the kind of questions you ask?
D: I’d say, ‘Morrissey, meet Julie’.
J: Would you say ‘I’m sorry I stormed off?’
D: Yeah. I’d give him a massive cuddle and say that.
J: You met him in the Hacienda another time, didn’t you?
D: Yeah. I’ve had loads of encounters with him. Morrissey used to occasionally come in to the Hacienda. One of the jobs that I inherited from Andrew Berry was to DJ before the bands came on. The DJ box was high, overlooking the dance floor and it was a fantastic position to see bands. I remember when Soft Cell played Morrissey came in, and up to the DJ box, and we just stood there and watched Soft Cell and clapped at the end of every song. Another time was a normal Saturday night and I was DJing and there was this fantastic electro record by Man Parrish called ‘Hip Hop, Be Bop’ and as it was playing I started haranguing Morrissey about how he should get into stuff like this, telling him how to do his job, basically. ‘Listen to this bit, listen to this next bit’ I kept saying. Of course, it was the total antithesis of what he stood for. He was looking at me, like ‘What are you going on about?’
J: I wonder if it was your haranguing him that got him into Black Box ‘Ride On Time’ a few years later!
D: That was a huge Hacienda record!
J: Can I ask you some of your favourite things?
D: Did Preston answer his favourite things?
J: Yes he did! What’s your favourite drink?
D: Kir Royale.
J: You have quite a posh side, don’t you? Do you like the finer things in life?
D: Yeah. I like prosecco too. There should be a socialist paradise where everyone has prosecco and Kir Royale.
J: Favourite book?
D: Tao Lin ‘Shoplifting From American Apparel’
J: Favourite crisp flavour?
D: I don’t eat anything like that. Occasionally I come back from the club and I’ll have a Doritos sandwich. On white bread. I’ve never bought a packet of crisps in my life.
J: Doritos are crisps.
D: Yeah but I never bought them. The family buys them. Cool Original.
J: Favourite Smiths song?
D: So many. That’s a really bad question to ask people who like The Smiths. There’s a song for every moment.
J: Pick a song for this moment.
D: For this moment? ‘I know it’s over’.
J: Why is that for this moment? Is our interview terminated?
D: [Laughs] ‘I know it’s over’ and ‘Asleep’ are magnificent records. But the longer you live with Smiths records, the more they jostle for position on your list. I love playing ‘How Soon Is Now’ at the right time, in the right club. Or even at the wrong time. I’ve had some brilliant times playing that. I love ‘Hatful of Hollow’ but I’m aware it’s not considered an album. Smiths songs in isolation are mini soundtracks, mini short stories.
J: Yes. Like ‘Panic’. Kind of too good to be on an album, a bomb in itself.
D: I love ‘Pretty Girls Make Graves’ which isn’t one that people talk about. Around the time they played the Hacienda, just after the album, that was the song I was waiting to hear.
J: Favourite Morrissey song?
D: ‘Suedehead’. Funnily enough that song seems older than some Smiths songs.
J: Favourite pizza topping?
D: Anyone who has anything other than margherita with mushrooms or maybe olives, - anyone who goes down a sweet corn route, basically - shouldn’t be allowed near a pizza. It should be thin crust margarita with mushroom, occasionally.
J: Favourite biscuit?
D: No biscuit. I quite like biscuits for cheese, but not biscuit-biscuits. The ones that I get you can have them without cheese and they’re still a treat.
J: Favourite TV programme?
D: If all I had was news, I’d be okay. I watch the news all the time. The only thing I have a TV for is news. I love the news.
J: Favourite place to eat?
D: I quite like The Lime Tree.
J: Favourite childhood toy?
D: All a boy needs is a football.
J: Please would you write a note to my mum?
D: Oh God, yeah!
Follow the great streak of mischief that is Dave Haslam on Twitter @Mr_Dave_Haslam. His exceptional ‘Close Up’ series of on-stage interviews with music icons such as Jarvis Cocker, Nile Rodgers and Black Francis can be found here.
Chris Packham sits beside me with a pot of hot chocolate and three fruity cookies. Fresh and enthused from an interview for the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, he’s looking bold in a robin-red vintage jersey that has vertical go-faster stripes running up and down the chest. He perches excitedly on the edge of the cushion in a neat, upright, fully engaged and friendly fashion, every-ready with confident answers.
A conversation with one of Britain’s most prominent conservationists is a nourishing experience. Mr Packham has a gift; he is able to simplify and explain complex behaviours of almost every tiny creature on earth, and he does so in a way that is genuine and warm, easing in the facts and explanations, making it comprehensible and, above all, making it newly accessible and interesting to those of us that might just have scraped a C in science.
Throughout his life he has been a powerful crusader for animals, campaigning around the world, propelled by his own motivation and a speedy drive to preserve eco-systems. With an insistence akin to Bob Geldof at Live Aid, he fist-bangs (gently) that we are running out of time to protect endangered species, and people need to listen and act. He hasn’t got time to stop for tea, and he won’t do a half-ways ‘good enough’ job. It has to be done right, or forget it.
Since he was a young boy, has foraged around in soil to find beasties that he could take home and examine. His passion and preference for animals (over humans) caught the attention of the local RSPCA, who sought Chris’s house in Southampton as a sanctuary for the wounded, where they’d drop off the needy, and Chris would nurse them back to health. He formed connections with visitors to his garden, and kept many as pets, including the very wildest and most illegal, such as badgers, foxes and a kestrel.
I first discovered Chris Packham in 1987 when I saw him on ‘The Really Wild Show’. It was exciting to watch somebody l on the telly doing a wildlife programme that was cool and edgy for a change. Chris was young, punky, indie, he had spiked hair, wore mad shirts (designed by his sister, Jenny) and, by all accounts, a captivating teacher. Seeing him years later sliding Smiths song titles into BBC’s Springwatch was a terrific delight. His appearance and musical taste had always suggested another arty side to him that, because of his work, remained in the shade of science.
He has great taste in music, The Damned, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Smiths. He was raised with an appreciation for poetry, and he got an A in Art for his paintings. He has two pet miniature poodles and no longer eats bread or tolerates booze in his diet, and crisps have been banished too. He does everything scientifically, properly and completely; whether it’s listening to music or sanding the floors. He’s all or nothing, living by his late mum’s mantra: ‘if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.’
His favourite Smiths song is ‘Reel Around the Fountain’ and he doesn’t eat meat: ‘Well it’s murder, innit…’
J. Please say your full name.
C. I’m Christopher Gary Packham, Fourth of the fifth nineteen sixty-one. I can’t remember my national insurance number but it begins with WC and ends in 22.
J. Are you named after anyone?
C. Not that I know of. I don’t really know that much about that side of my family, really.
J. Were you happy with your names growing up?
C. I never really thought about it growing up. There was always that middle name thing. Everybody laughed at everyone’s middle names growing up so it didn’t really mean much. I remember my sister saying that she didn’t like her name once. She wanted a more pretentious name than Jenny. My family comes from Sussex. My father has recently taken an interest in genealogy and traced us back to the 1600s but to be honest with you I’ve always been a forward looking person. What made me what I am is nothing that happened in the 1600s it’s what happened in 10 Cleveland Road when I was a kid, and that was my mum, my dad and my sister. Outside of that my family doesn’t really exist.
J. Can you describe yourself in a sentence?
C. Um. Yes, okay. I’m determined, comma [laughs] intolerant comma honest comma modest comma…
J. You’ve really thought about this…
C. I’m thinking now. I am. That was in brackets. I’m hard working. If I have any values of my own that I would hold in any regard it would be the fact that I am honest. I tell people what I think. I am ferociously determined. I am the world’s worst loser.
J. Even at Monopoly?
C. I don’t lose at Monopoly. To lose would be too uncomfortable, so it’s best just to win.
J. What’s your strategy? Buy up Park Lane and Mayfair?
C. Anything. Anything. Cheat if I have to. Winning isn’t everything, but it’s the only thing that counts.
J. Did you look at the cards in the envelope at Cluedo?
C. I’d do anything to win. My sister could never figure out why I kept winning the Cluedo because I’d send her out to the kitchen to get a donut or something and she’d come back in and I’d be straight in there - Miss Scarlett with the lead piping. That’s not a euphemism by the way. It just came out that way [laughs].
J. You’ve just come from a Desert Island Discs interview with Radio 2. How was it?
C. I was overwhelmed to be quite honest with you, completely flattered and embarrassed. I can’t imagine why they would want to interview me about the music I listen to. When I think of all the Desert Island Disc episodes that I’ve listened to in my car over the last thirty years, it includes a list of the great the good and the bad, and to be among that list is extraordinary, and I was very flattered.
J. I know that you can’t tell me what you chose, but can you give me a few ‘nearly mades’?
C. Yeah I can tell you the ‘nearly mades’: Destroy Everything you touch by Ladytron I think it’s got the most fabulous opening. It’s a rip-roaring techno start and I like that one. Another contemporary one that I like is Treats, Sleigh Bells. They make a huge amount of noise with a heavy metal guitar but beneath it is a quite poppy lyric and sung by a girl. Acceleration by The Poppy Factory. I went for pop songs, I should say. Another one was The Boys, Brickfield Nights. I didn’t put any Prodigy tracks in but I like them too. I’ve got a list on my phone; it was very hard trying to get it down to eight. I’ve got to tell you – and I hope I won’t be told off for telling you this – but there are no Ramones! How could you leave out the Ramones?
J. I could, quite easily…
C. Oh no I couldn’t!
J. As a teen what posters were on your wall?
C. My first poster was T-Rex – Marc Bolan then Bowie, and then a hiatus until the punk time. Between Bowie and punk rock nothing much happened for me. I couldn’t stand things like ELO. Even today it makes my skin crawl. I watched the glam stuff on Top of the Pops and did like it. I still listen to T-Rex quite a lot. I like Sweet, Ballroom Blitz, that sort of stuff. I think what I liked but perhaps I didn’t realise at the time was the fact that my parents didn’t like the music or the people. I remember an adverse reaction to Bowie doing ‘Starman’ on Top of the Pops. My parents just hated it. My dad hated Marc Bolan because of the glitter [laughs].
J. Did you wear make up?
C. No, I was only ten at the time. Even my sister wasn’t wearing make up then! [Laughs] so there was none to raid!
J. Were you in a band?
C. Yeah. They were called ‘The Titanic Survivors’ [laughs] and formed with my mate at school and his brother and various other people. We played during the punk time.
J. Do you remember any of the songs?
C. I remember them all, because I wrote them all. ‘Only the Good Die Young’, ‘Problem Pages…’
J. ‘Problem Pages’? That sounds good.
C. My sister had a subscription to Jackie magazine and the problem pages were brilliant. Not that we had any sympathy at the time for the people who were writing or if they were genuine letters, although I doubt they were! They provided us with a great source of mirth. I had a great interest in poetry. My mum was keen on poetry and read it to me as a kid. I was keen on the lyric writing but I don’t have any musical aptitude at all. It’s a real shame. I’m very visually orientated. I can remember people’s faces and everything. If I ever see you again, in fifteen years time, I’ll recognise you. But if I hear a tune, it takes a little while to get in. I took the band very seriously. I’m not really interested in doing anything unless you do it properly. The guys in the band just weren’t into it as much as I was. And true to form, it ended very acrimoniously. There’s a book called ‘Kill Your Friends’ and there’s a chapter in it of a rant on why you should never start, or be in, a band. It should be read by every teenager before the make that decision. Just read that chapter first. It has good advice in it.
J. You have a strong artistic side, how did you end up in science?
C. I studied science, but given my time again I might do differently. There’s art and science and that’s the trouble. There was always that conflict for me, I wanted to go art school, and I did O level and A level art. I was always really passionate about art and into it massively. My parents used to take me to galleries. Then all of that of course just got crushed the further I got into the academic world. There was just no time for it. By the time I graduated it had gone and I was desperate to get it back in again. I needed to find something creative, not just understand something but create it too.
J. You plant song titles into your Springwatch and Autumnwatch dialogue. How did that happen?
C. I was having a conversation with a guy years ago, and he said I bet you can’t get such and such a title into this, and I did it, and it was easy. Then when Springwatch came up I thought this would be a good opportunity to broaden the audience a bit. A lot of people watch those sorts of programmes with their family and partner, and they’re not into it, their partner is. So I was thinking if I could talk about football, history, art, music… then that might get the person alongside the viewer to prick up their ears and take note. And it seems to work. The other thing is that to try and concentrate in a conversation for an hour without starting to think about something else is quite hard for me. I often talk about something but think about something completely different. To give myself a target is a good idea. So I’m constantly listening to what my colleagues are saying to see if I can get an opportunity to slip in a song title! Otherwise I’ll be thinking of the sinking of the Bismarck or something [laughs].
J. When you did Bowie Twitter went mental.
C. Bowie was great, some good titles, although I did have a cut off point at 1980, I didn’t do any post-80s Bowie. I think I went up to Station to Station and that was it. After that I gave up on Bowie.
J. Does the Director/Producer know that you’re doing it?
C. They don’t know. If the titles were really clumsy and I really had to orchestrate it then I can hear them all groan in my ear. Most of the time they don’t know. Certainly when I was doing The Mary Chain, The Damned, The Smiths, The Manics, even The Clash the vast majority didn’t know. I also did film titles, cos I got fed up with song titles. That was fun. I did Oscar Winning Films from 1970 onwards and Driving Miss Daisy was a real highlight. I failed with Kramer Vs Kramer! [Laughs]
J. How did you get Driving Miss Daisy in? I’ll have to go look that one up.
C. There was a beaver named Daisy, and the other beavers were driving her into the water, and so I said look, they’re ‘driving miss Daisy’ into the water. No one got it. They just thought I was talking nonsense. At that point I am trying to stifle a laugh… my mum always said you shouldn’t laugh at your own jokes but I’ve never really understood why, cos if they’re funny why not laugh at them? Anyway I was off camera and had to try very hard not to laugh.
J. Does co-host Michaela catch some of the references?
C. She sometimes scowls and says ‘that was really obvious!’ [Laughs].
J. I enjoyed The Smiths titles very much.
C. That was with Kate, yeah.
J. Let’s talk about The Really Wild Show, one of my favourite TV programmes as a child.
‘Ha, they’re smiling and I’m not!’
C. It was a good programme. I’d left university and started taking photos. Sold all my music gear to buy cameras and lenses, and I got a job working as a camera assistant for someone who worked at NHU [Natural History Unit at BBC] so then they told me about The Really Wild Show and I wrote to them and said do you need another presenter and they said no. I wrote again and said I think you do. I was really quite determined to get the job. I needed something to do.
J. How did you know that you’d be okay in front of the camera?
C. I just didn’t care. I had to do something. There was no failure option. I couldn’t be on and off the dole all the time. I was a trained zoologist post punk rocker with no respect for authority whatsoever and I had to do something, I was never going to walk into a job.
J. Did you suffer from nerves or did you get stuck right in?
C. I just got stuck right in. I’ve never been nervous at all, not once in my entire life. There are two reasons for that: Firstly, I don’t care if I make a mistake. It doesn’t matter. Everyone makes mistakes. We do things again for sound, for the camera, for the animal and sometimes for me. I’m not afraid to ask and very frequently say can I do it again - I think I can do it better. When it’s live, it’s like now because we’re having a conversation, which you wouldn’t write down cos it’s boring in a conversational sense it doesn’t really matter how you speak. It doesn’t matter and there’s nothing to be worried about really. In a programme like that it’s scripted but it’s not controlled. They’ve got to go with whatever happens. I would do a live programme of gardening or cookery, because I know nothing about them. But I know enough about my subject to either provide an answer or carry the programme or say ‘I don’t know, but I think…’ Everyone thinks it’s about being an expert but the most important qualification is knowing what you don’t know. I’m very happy with that. The audience is learning with me and they don’t mind if I don’t know something.
J. Who were your heroes – naturalists, conservationists, TV presenters…
C. As a kid, none, I didn’t really watch TV.
J. What did you do?
C. I was out in the woods. I’d go home when it was dark. My mum was lucky.
J. What did your mum do?
C. She was a legal secretary for years and my father was a marine engineer. They encouraged my interest but didn’t originate it. They allowed me to make a great mess of their house with all my pets. I was very lucky.
J. What pets did you have?
C. Huge numbers of animals. Anything! An ant!
J. You’d just bring it in, give it a name…
C. There were no names. I’d put it in a jar, leave it somewhere and it died.
J. Didn’t you have pet badgers at one point?
C. Foxes, badges, buzzards… We had several foxes that lived in the garden.
J. How did you get friendly with the foxes?
C. I liked animals more than people from a very young age. I would look at them and make intense observations. I remember my mum and I were sitting in the garden once, and I put a group of lackey moth caterpillars in a flowerpot. These are processionary animals so they follow one another. When you put them on the top they go round and round. My mother sat watching this. My mother said: ‘All those caterpillars look at them, they’re all exactly the same’ and I said ‘no mum, they’re not the same. They’re all different.’ She said ‘no, no, they’re all identical, just like robots going round in a circle’ and I said ‘no they’re not. I’ll tell you what. I’ll point out a caterpillar and then I’ll turn around and then in a minute’s time I’ll turn back around, look at the caterpillars and tell you which one it is.’ They weren’t all moving the same way. The caterpillar that I noticed was flicking his head up more than the others. When you’re into animals that deeply and looking at that level of behaviour and beyond, then it’s very easy to form a relationship with them. The way I live with my dogs is different to how others live with their dogs. I live with them… not quite as a dog… but I maximise the relationship with them, for their benefit and for mine…
J. Do they have names or is it Dog 1 and Dog 2?
C. They are called ‘Itchy’ and ‘Scratchy’. My stepdaughter named them. I wanted to call them ‘Stay’ and ‘Come here’. With the previous poodle there was a big fight because I wanted to call it ‘Help’ so I’d be shouting ‘Help’ and my fantasy would be that somebody would actually need help and a poodle would turn up! [Laughs]. I was banned; they didn’t want to face the embarrassment of shouting ‘help’ down the park all the time. So we named it ‘Fish’ instead.
J. Would you get another dog?
C. I wouldn’t get another one now, because they are ten and very possessive. We live in a triumvirate, as it were. They wouldn’t accept another.
J. Do you have heroes now?
C. Alan Wicker, Sir David Attenborough. All of the presenters of the Today programme – I hold them in high esteem. Bill Oddie. Jeremy Paxman. I think he’s a great broadcaster. John Humphries, the backbone of the BBC. Clever, manages the humour. Wicker I still think is the greatest broadcaster. He’d be in a millionaire’s villa then in a roadside shack and would instantly be able to ingratiate himself with these people because he wants to know the answer to his questions. Too many people ask questions on television and they don’t even listen to the answers. Too much butting in to make themselves sound clever. That’s rubbish broadcasting, I hate that, it’s rude. How can you be an interviewer if you’re not interested in the answers!
J. Quite! You’ve had a career that has spanned nearly thirty years on television. What has been your greatest highlight, or is it still to come?
C. Well I hope it’s still to come. Not that I haven’t had highlights.
J. How about proud moments then?
C. I don’t have any pride.
J. No pride?
C. No [laughs]. There have been a huge number of amazing things in my life. I grew up in a three up three down in Southampton. Read Ladybird Books and went to a comprehensive school. We used to get second hand National Geographic’s and I couldn’t believe that the pictures were on the same planet I was on. Now I’ve been able to see that world and encounter many of the animals which for me were just black and white photos in an old set of encyclopedias. I’ve had an extraordinarily privileged life. I could have a happy death. I think that the best way to deal with life, and death, is to be able to die at any moment happy. If someone said to me, you’ve got five minutes; I just couldn’t be churlish about it. I’d have to say; there have been so many five minutes in my life that have been awesome. It’s been remarkably rich and even now I have to walk behind the car and pinch myself. Even this year I’ve been doing a series about animal intelligence and I’ve been working with dolphins, elephants and chimpanzees. Not animals that I’ve spent a lot of time working with so this concentrated period has allowed me to have some epiphany moments.
J. Listening to you now, it sounds like animals are your real heroes.
C. Yeah, definitely.
J. You like badgers don’t you?
C. I like badgers but no more that I like other British fauna to be honest with you. I studied badgers for five years. I had a rescued animal not really a pet, the RSPCA used to drop them off at my parents house – badgers, foxes, birds – at that time the RSPCA only did pets but wild animals would still get handed in. At that time the guy from the RSPCA would come round with a box with a kestrel in it with a broken wing. It was good. [Link: Desert Island Discs for kestrel story: J. How did you come to love The Smiths?
C. It was the early eighties and The Smiths and The Mary Chain kind of broke at the same time as the most important bands for me, personally. They’re kind of post punk and I was lucky enough to see great punk bands like The Damned, The Clash and The Pistols.
J. Did you go to a lot of gigs?
C. When I was sixteen I would hitch round or go by train and go to gigs every week. Most bands I saw more than once, there weren’t that many venues or bands so you could go for an evening and see The Damned, The Clash and the Buzzcocks all in one night. As they matured and survived I would continue to go see them. I liked the whole live experience. You feel part of it. At that time feeling part of the punk movement was something that was important to me then, something that I relished.
J. Do you have a favourite gig?
C. The Kitchens of Distinction – they did some great gigs. But my favourite gig would be The Mary Chain playing Poole Arts Centre. On the Darklands Tour. They were out of control. The flooded the entire theatre with smoke. You couldn’t see that far in front of your face. They had all the lights on and it was just pulsing. Then ‘Sidewalking’ came on and it was a complete Mary Chain experience.
A few years ago Jim and Julie Reid wrote to me and sent me some t-shirts and CDs and they’ve continued to write to me. They live down in Dorset; I’ve got their letters pinned on my wall. I can’t believe that they wrote to me. When I got the letter I was so excited, fantastic. It was like a letter from God.
J. You can follow them on Twitter @themarychain.
C. I will check that out. I only follow six people. For the very simple reason that I’d like to spend more time answering people than following people. They do complain ‘how come you don’t follow anyone’ it’s because in the back of a taxi on a journey to somewhere I’d rather be answering ten tweets.
J. What did you most enjoy about The Smiths?
C. Well, when they broke up it was a disaster. I was furious with them because I didn’t think they’d finished what they needed to do. Strangeways had moved on, I thought they were progressing and I wanted more. Morrissey and Marr were a match made in heaven. The originality that both of them brought to the band was just… that’s what made The Smiths. Joyce and Rourke were tight and understood what was going on in the band. The originality of Marr’s guitar and Morrissey’s peculiar northern, maudlin kitchen sink drama with the Shangri-Las and the Ronnettes type thrown in… that was just magic beyond belief. On Dragon’s Den no one would buy into that mixture! [Laughs]
J. What was the first Smiths song you heard?
C. ‘Reel Around The Fountain’. I just remember thinking ‘wow, that’s the best love song since some of the Billy Bragg stuff. It was clever and beautiful, the lyrics and everything about it. When you heard it then it was a game changer, that was the point. The relevance of that music was so pertinent at that dismal time. We were in the middle of Thatcher’s Britain and you had The Mary Chain with that fantastic row then you had The Smiths with controversial, retro, romantic songs at a time that was miserable. Everyone said they were miserable but the Smiths made me laugh out loud! People just heard Morrissey’s voice and read the titles and just thought that was bleak. They had a fantastic sense of humour. I mean, ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ it’s just genius, absolute genius! It’s like one of those jokes where you only hear the start of the joke and don’t hear the punch line. It was weird because I didn’t understand at the time that The Smiths were a classic case of English heroes – and people love to build them up and then smash them down. Doesn’t matter if it’s David Beckham, Paul Gascoigne, the media love to love them and then they love to tear them apart. We don’t like success. When The Smiths became successful and their following was broadening and the chart success was getting okay, that’s it, they turned on them. Who knows what would have happened had they continued.
J. Didn’t you suffer this when you talked about the cost of the giant panda?
C. Well yeah, it’s all the time really. Now it’s badgers. It doesn’t bother me; I don’t care what people think about me. In those instances I have a duty around quality conservation. If you stick your head out, sometimes you get your head cut off, but - as I always say to people – I’m not here to make friends, I want to make a difference.
J. Can you tell me about your tattoos? I know you have them but I can’t see any.
C. I’ve got five or six. They’re all designs.
J. Are they all hidden? Can I see one?
C. You could if you looked. No one has ever seen it.
J. Is it a freckle or something?
C. No, it’s not, it’s cryptic.
J. Will I see it from this angle?
C. You could do.
J. Is it behind your ear?
C. No, t’s not there. I did it to see if anyone would ever notice it. To this date no one has ever noticed it, only people who know what it is.
J. This is unfair! Where do I have to look to see it?
C. [Laughs]. I’m not telling you! It will spoil the game. It’s very subtle. The others are pictorial, they all mean something. I’m not a casual collector of tattoos. It has to mean something.
J. Where are they all?
C. Well the trouble with tattoos is if they are in areas where the sun shines they will fade badly. And I never take my shirt off because there’s nothing to show off beneath it. I have one on my back, one on my shoulder and one on my chest.
J. Does it hurt?
C. No, it sort of tickles. But there are places where it would hurt.
J. If Morrissey was to walk in here right now and say ‘alright Chris?’ what would you say?
C. I’d engage him in conversations about his songs because I’ve read the various explanations of why they were written but that’s never really satisfied me. I want to know what the songs mean to him. We transpose the lyrics to our own meaning, so they all mean slightly different things to all of us. However, this is quite an intensely personal thing so I can imagine that if you were a songwriter, there might be personal reasons why a song was written and you may not want to tell someone. I mean there are certain things I have written that I don’t want to engage in conversation now. I don’t want to talk about it. Make what you like of it but don’t ask me because it’s from the heart. I’ve given enough away just writing it down. So Morrissey may not want to talk about these things, that would be my only concession, to his privacy really, that’s what makes people like that. I don’t believe that you could write those songs without personal cost. And he’s continually probed about it.
J. So would you ask him?
C. I’d like to. It would be an opportunity. I just spoke about something on Desert Island Discs and I was very near to tears, it caused me a lot of pain from many years ago. That was a personal loss. I think that’s what makes those songs successful; someone has given something of themselves, given it away, and that’s hard to do. I can imagine having given it away, and people tearing it to pieces, analysing it, ridiculing it, loved it, hated it, something else, just being badgered about it would probably be a bit hard to swallow, wouldn’t it? So he would probably say, get lost Chris, make of it what you want to. And ultimately, that’s what we’re all going to do anyway. It doesn’t really matter that Morrissey didn’t have a girlfriend who was in a coma, does it? It’s a sentiment that we transpose into our own lives.
J. If Morrissey was coming to your house what snacks would you put out for him?
C. I have very strict ideas about certain things and certain behaviours imposed upon other people. I don’t eat meat but if I go to someone’s house and they cook meat I don’t make a fuss about it, I just eat the vegetables on the side. And I don’t start telling them about why they shouldn’t eat meat either.
J. What are your reasons for not eating meat?
C. Well it’s murder, innit! [Laughs]. As an organism, we eat too much meat. The meat isn’t produced in a way that is conducive to modern standards in terms of animal husbandry. I don’t like the way that the animals are treated at all and I know there is meat that you can source but I don’t have time to shop for that and I never really liked the taste of it anyway, too fatty and I don’t like fat.
J. How old were you when you gave it up?
C. Oh, early twenties. I gave up when I could.
J. Do you have a favourite Smiths song?
C. I do, it’s very difficult… again I had to do Desert Island Discs and it’s very difficult to break it down, and then you think oh no what about that one. I just think the entire catalogue… I can’t think of a Smiths song that I don’t like, I don’t hate any of them. I don’t really like the cover versions. Reel around The Fountain started as my favourite song, and then I remember that Panic was my favourite song, it was very poppy, and Ask as well. Last Night I Dreamt somebody loved me, you can’t argue with that can you? So I suppose over time the two favourites have been Reel and There is a Light. Anyone who writes ‘if a ten ton truck kills the both of us to die by your side well the pleasure the privilege is mine’ is genius. It encapsulates everything that he did, everything down to earth but still retained the poignancy of all the emotional context, so you’ve got romances and people living in council estates and working in supermarkets and they don’t have any less romantic lives than Hollywood A-listers. Where did Morrissey buy his shirts?
C. Evans. The complete antithesis of fashion. National Heath Specs. It was perfect. It proved it all! It was the opposite of everything I hated in music and still hate – overblown pomposity. I don’t like bands that think they’re important and play stadiums.
J. What about Morrissey in his solo career?
C. Everyday is like Sunday is great. The seaside town they forgot to close down. The atomic war. I actually nicked that. I had to do a review of Blackpool once for a TV programme and I stood up and said ‘the only thing it’s fit for is nuclear war’ [laughs] it didn’t go down well. I won’t be going back. I had a horrid time there. But I nicked that from Morrissey. He reminds me of Hemingway and Fitzgerald they way he makes broad observations and can condense it into one line. The seaside town – it’s Hastings, it’s Worthing. Those songs were more Smith-y.
J. Did you ever see them live?
C. Yes, I saw them play twice in Kilburn. My sister had a place in Kilburn at the time. We saw loads of bands there. We could just walk down and see them. And then I saw them at the GLC gig that was a disaster where there was loads of skinheads. But that wasn’t anything to do with The Smiths
J. It would be great if you a late night TV show where you interview your icons about music. Dave Vanian, Jim and William Reid, Johnny Marr… a bit of art to balance up the science…
C. I’d love to do that!
J. You could chat to Captain Sensible one week, Morrissey the next… do you prefer to interview or to be interviewed?
C. I like interviewing because there are lots of questions that I would have to ask. The trouble with the music press is just rumour-mungous. That must be so hard for the bands. I remember all this when the Smiths were splitting up. It must be infuriating for them to read this stuff.
J. I hope they don’t read it. Can I ask you a few favourite things before I let you go?
J. What’s your favourite crisp flavour?
C. I don’t eat crisps. I haven’t eaten crisps for five years. What I mean is, not one. If I say no… I don’t drink tea or coffee. I’ve given it up. I won’t do it.
J. Pizza topping?
C. I don’t eat pizza cos I gave up bread.
J. What do you eat?
C. Fish, rice, pasta. I still eat pasta, maybe nudging giving that up. I gave up bread eighteen months ago. My girlfriend and stepdaughter ridicule me constantly, they hate my food neurosis. It makes life difficult to them. It makes a huge difference. As an experiment, I gave it up then I re-ate it for two weeks. It was horrible. I used to eat seafood pizzas.
J. But you like biscuits I see.
C. I do eat biscuits, but I’ve given up chocolate.
J. I like the way you give things up in a real scientific way.
C. Well with the elimination of the bread I felt better.
J. In what way?
C. I slept better. I felt my stomach to be uncomfortable.
J. Favourite drink?
C. I haven’t drank since January the fourth.
J. For health?
C. I don’t know if any of this is health. I’m not particularly interested in living a long time or anything. It’s more, this year, I would have done six TV series by the end of November. This means I have had very little time off, and I’m away from home. This doesn’t always give me the opportunity to eat properly. I’m fifty-two and I need to get through it on top of my game. If I’m ill no one cares. If someone flies you to the other side of the world and you’ve got two days to film underwater with sharks, if you’ve got something wrong with you, they’re not interested. You’ve got to get under the water and get in there. I can do this; I was never off school as a kid. If one of my legs had been falling off, my dad would have gaffa taped it back on and sent me. Not even written a note for the PE master! I continue to work when I’m ill. It’s never good and you’re not maximising your potential. I want to do all six series as best I can. So I decided to cut out the things that make me feel ill, like bread, and alcohol.
J. You look younger than your fifty-two years. What’s your face cream?
C. [Laughs] I moisturise after shaving. Clinique after-shave balm. I wet shave and I always use that. I haven’t washed my face with soap since I was about fourteen, not once.
J. So you have a dirty face?
C. Well it gets greasy, but I only wash it with water, no soap. And I use sunscreen. But I don’t like putting that on my face because it’s alcohol based. For a favourite drink, well, with alcohol the first glass of wine doesn’t touch the sides. I’m only enjoying the wine at the end of the bottle.
J. What are you like when you’re drunk?
C. Relaxed. I become… easier. My girlfriend moans that I don’t drink because it’s anti-social. She gets annoyed because we don’t stop for tea. I don’t stop for tea, and that’s good cos it gets in the way! Most people would think it was boring. All the people I work with drink. Only on two occasions this year have I struggled and I’ve literally gone out, gone to a bar and they’ve all been drinking and I’ve just sort of thought, no, and gone back to the hotel. I don’t need to be pissed to enjoy myself. On those occasions I felt uncomfortable anyway. The next question is do I ever drink again? People ask me. The answer is I was just going to stop for a few months… [Laughs].
J. What was your drink of choice?
C. White wine.
J. Who cuts your hair?
C. Lisa. It was the same person cutting my hair for years – from about fifteen to about thirty something. She moved. I had to find someone else.
J. Look at this picture.
C. Yeah I bleached it. It had been blonde, then gone back to black. Once I had it like a badger that was brilliant.
‘It’s a passport photo. It’s the only one I’ve got of the badger haircut.’
J. If you don’t wash your face, do you still wash your hair?
C. Yeah, when it needs it. I use Neutrogena the blue one for shampoo, since nineteen eighty something.
J. When you look back at the younger you, do you feel you’ve done him proud?
C. No. That picture was from 1987. Since then the population of rhinos has probably declined by about 85-90%. I could reel off loads of things where I’ve failed.
J. You can’t blame yourself for that.
C. I know but I, and other conservationists have presided over a catastrophic decline of flora and fauna. We stand on the brink of losing the mega fauna: tigers, rhinos, elephants (ish), lion in serious trouble. In my lifetime we could lose all of those as wild animals. Not in captivity but as wild animals. To have been someone who has constantly campaigned to protect them then that has to be a catastrophic failure. We have made positive differences. We could readdress all of these things. We know why rhino are becoming extinct. I know why skylarks and partridges have declined so rapidly. And if I know why, that means I know how to stop it. What my generation have failed to do is convince people to stop it.
J. What would you encourage people reading this interview to do in order to help stop it?
C. Make a difference. Empower yourself to know that you as an individual can make a difference. Campaign for change in conservation. Don’t give money to people who are pursuing false practices and clearly failing.
J. Which organisation should they give money to?
C. A very good question. That would be species specific, or habitat specific, and you’d have to research which charities NGOs or bodies are making a positive effect in the UK. The Butterfly Conservation is a relatively small charity, with about 30,000 members, and they’re brilliant. They organise fantastic surveys. We know where the butterflies are, we know if their population is up or down, we know that on an annual basis. It’s been mapped and published, results are accessible. They run a scheme with Marks and Spencer called the great butterfly count where anyone can join in and more and more people are. Well worth supporting. Overall, it’s not just about saving animals it’s about saving eco-systems and habitats in a grand sense. Across this whole planet there’s a seamless co-existence of life from habitat to habitat that’s all inter-related. I could take you out here and show you a bird that in a few months time will be in South Africa. It’s playing a role in our community here and there. It’s all joined up. At some stage we will have to play God and choose some over others but it’s a very artificial way of pursuing a solution.
J. I read on your website that you can’t pick a favourite bird.
C. It’s a bit like trying to choose your favourite Smiths song except there’s ten thousand birds and it’s slightly more difficult [laughs]. It’s just impossible. But it would be a raptor and my Smiths song would always be a love song.
J. What type of bird do you enjoy seeing in your garden?
C. Sparrow hawks!
J. What’s your favourite childhood toy?
J. What’s the funniest thing your mum says?
C. Oh volumes! She would come out with them all. I do love a mantra [laughs]. She died a couple of years ago, but one of the ones I stick by is, if a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing well. I don’t do anything unless it’s best I possibly can, otherwise I just don’t bother. I’ve just been varnishing the floor at home and I read on the instructions that you’re meant to sand the floor before you put the third coat down. And I looked at the floor, sort of stretching away from me, and I thought… bollocks.I really didn’t want to sand it. I just didn’t feel like it. I did it before I started and I didn’t want to do it again.
J. I bet you did it.
C. Yeah I did it.
J. And does the floor look lovely now?
C. Yeah it does. Well, it’s okay at the minute but by tomorrow afternoon when those poodles have been sliding across it will have been a complete waste of time.
J. Would you write a note to my mum?
C. Of course. That’s nice. My mum used to keep bits and pieces of mine
J. What’s that?
C. It’s a wasp.
J. If you ever fancy wearing a Mozarmy badge on the telly…
C. Okay, I’ll do that. Thanks for the badges!
J. Would you host our Mozarmyquiz one week?
C. Yes I’ll do that!
J. Can I photograph you now?
C. Wait till I’ve finished my biscuit.
J. Okay, I’ll photograph your shoes.
Beetle crushers? No! Brothel Creepers.
J. Thank you, Chris.
C. My pleasure.
Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisgpackham and ask him where his tattoo is. There should be a future knighthood in the bag for his services to science and animals, but as an anti-establishment punk with ink he might turn it down…
© All content is copyright Julie Hamill 2013. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without consent from Julie Hamill is strictly prohibited.
Before I went to see Morrissey 25: Live last Monday I met with James Russell, the film Director, for a brief interview about working with an artist he admires, and his hopes for how the film would be received. Russell was very candid in his answers; this film is Morrissey laid bare, a film for the fans, truthfully reflecting the artist we know and love: it’s not a documentary film, it’s a concert film. As Russell pointed out in a tweet last week, ‘25: Live. Surely the title explains?! LIVE’.
After the interview I watched the film and found it to be a wonderful treat. On the big screen the sound is unbelievable. The band sails through each song beautifully and Morrissey’s voice is more Morrissey-perfect than ever. Yes I am describing it like a gig, I know, but I wanted to be at that gig so badly, and I never make the front row.
Watching the film, I felt like I was right down the front, singing my heart out, straining to reach for his hand, smelling the sweat of the Mozarmy beside me. Russell’s camera angles provided close ups of Moz’s quiff, his face, the shirt buttons, the sound of his little grunts and noises, the band, their faces, instruments… hell, I even got to examine the jeans he was wearing. I enjoyed the perspective and the details: the audience interaction, the size of the crowd, the look of the venue. Like any gig there was runny make-up and flattened hair, stage invasions and funny quips… just about everything was covered.
I wasn’t expecting the almost 3-D feeling that the film exudes; that magical atmospheric ‘dust’ that whizzes around Morrissey’s orbit when he’s on stage, the invisible sprinkle of Mozness that can normally only be felt from attending a gig. But I felt it and I inhaled it. In fact, I gobbled it all up like the greedy little Morrissey fanatic that I am. I clapped and cheered and sang along, and like the aftermath of any gig, I was still awake at 3am on the bounce starving for more. Thank you James Russell, your movie dinners are delicious.
Taking the cinema-trip to stratospheric heights was the attendance of Boz Boorer and his wife, Lyn, who sat in the row in front. It was like I was having some kind of out of body experience. The film was showing me a super sized Boz, but Boz was actually there in the cinema with his wife, sitting nearby. I could see other cinema goers trying to comprehend this mind fuddle; every time Boz’s face came on the big screen there were roars of approval and points to where he was sitting, and he’d respond with a laugh, but then we’d all look back at the screen again, occasionally stealing glances to just double check that he was really here.
Highlights were Still Ill, November Spawned A Monster, Meat Is Murder, You’re The One for Me, Fatty, Speedway/Asleep and The Boy With the Thorn In His Side. Other highlights included Morrissey’s ‘yes’s’, ‘the dishes’, Boz’s flute on Paris and that little charmer Devan.
This might be my favourite Morrissey film of all time, and this is why: In life, there’s nothing like the high of a Morrissey show. Nothing. Let’s just say that again. Nothing. But Morrissey 25: Live comes as near as you’ll ever get to the front row. It’s intimate, charming and close up without being invasive and it has that atmosphere. As Russell says: 'it's very stripped down, very beautiful, not a big production. A simple reflection of his performance’.
It’s true. All you need is Moz.
Interview with James Russell
JH: How did you come to work with Morrissey?
JR: I’ve pitched quite a few times in the last few years to work with him. When he played in Rome, at then again when he played the Palladium. We had done a lot of prep, and it seemed it wasn’t going to happen. At the end of last year I thought, I’ll give it one more try for something when he’s in America. Then right before the Staples Center gig we got a call at the last minute on the Monday night and I was on a flight first thing Tuesday morning. We shot it that weekend.
JH: What direction did he give you?
JR: It was all his creative. He knew exactly what he wanted, which was to capture an intimate gig. Everything was decided beforehand. He wanted to shoot at the Staples Center, do some backstage stuff and he gave us loads of access. I see the film as a thank you to his fans. He could have done any big gig anywhere in the world and he chose to do it in Hollywood High School, and it sold out in seconds.
JH: How many cameras did you use?
JR: We used nine film cameras, and we put them in positions where they worked both for the fans but also that they weren’t in Morrissey’s face. The idea was to try to make the viewer feel that they were on stage with him. We were very happy to get that close. I had cameras positioned in different places. The school isn’t like other bigger venues. So I put them in certain places where I wanted them and that’s how we worked. He wanted the fans as close to him as possible. He didn’t want to have a barrier between him and the fans – so there weren’t any big cranes there. The fan interaction was vital.
JH: There’s some Staples Centre footage in there too?
JR: Yes, he wanted to show the atmosphere back stage at the Staples Centre, then make a comparison to the Hollywood High School that is like ten times smaller. It was just a part of the narrative - the juxtaposition between the two. Hollywood High School carries its own glamour, stars like Judy Garland and Mickey Rourke went there, and so it’s the perfect place for Morrissey to be filmed, - a classic setting. People who say there should be archive footage or documentary footage are missing the point. It’s Morrissey, live; and it really is as simple as that.
JH: What do you say to people who are going to see it?
JR: If you’re a Morrissey fan, you’ll probably like it. But if you’re not, you probably won’t! This is a film for the fans. At times when people review it they don’t understand that there’s an idea behind it. This is what I hope Morrissey wanted: very stripped down, very beautiful, not a big production. A simple reflection of his performance.
JH: Who did you enjoy working with on the film crew?
JR: Morrissey’s head of security, Liam is an absolute gentleman. So easy to work with. He was informing us who was about to walk through – there was Heather Graham, Joaquin Phoenix, and he’d give us the signal of where to be at the right time. It’s often you hear that certain artists have a reputation for being difficult but I have always been lucky. This has been one of the most pleasurable and straightforward films I’ve worked on and Morrissey’s crew were amazing.
JH: Was he pleased with the final film?
JR: You’d have to ask him that! It’s all been signed off, so I’m sure if he didn’t like something we’d know about it.
JH: Which part of the film are you most proud of?
JR: I love all of it but I’m most proud of Meat Is Murder. It’s such a powerful song anyway, with the message the visuals, that part of the movie is special, I’m very proud of it. I also think, if you weren’t able to be at the Hollywood High School gig, in some way this gives you additional access.
JH: What was it like for you, meeting Morrissey?
JR: It was backstage at the Staples Center, but I just wanted to let him get on with his own thing. It wasn’t right to intrude. I knew what he needed. I wish I could say that we sat down and had a cup of tea together, but there was just so much to be done. He’s so busy, people meeting him every five minutes, lots of his friends and fans. I kept my respectful distance, He had given us the access and I didn’t want to abuse the privilege. We were behind camera most of the time.And anyway, I can’t compete with Tony Visconti and Patti Smith! [Laughs].
JH: Did you film any audio in the opening footage?
JR: No, it’s captured visually. It’s a nice little opener to the film, I think. It’s really all about the fans, how close they are, famous or not. The fans are so passionate, but they’re not intrusive. And the passion is enduring, he’s been around for years and they’re still fanatical, in the most beautiful way. They’re not going crazy, they’re in awe just from being so close.
JH: I agree. Watching Morrissey you know you’re in the presence of something truly special, and to dive on it or damage it would be wrong. The Beatles/Bieber reaction is not appropriate.
JR: Yes but people still jump on stage and grab him.
JH: Yes but those are cuddles, they’re not tearing his trousers off.
JR: But I’m sure they would do! [Laughs]
JH: I’d see that film!
JR: So would I!
JH: Thank you James. Would you host our Mozarmyquiz one Friday?
JR: Yes, that sounds fun, I’d love to.
Follow James Russell on Twitter @JamesrussellMCD. Morrissey 25:Live is out in cinemas now. The Blu-ray is released on 21 October and is available to pre-order on Amazon here. Extras including the Russell Brand on-stage intro.
Thanks to Rosie, the supervising producer and her husband Andy for coming to the Mozarmy party and sharing their experiences. Thanks also to @restlessmaw, @amylame and the incomparable @mrjohnnyharris.
Tweet me: @juliehamill
© All content is copyright Julie Hamill 2013. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without consent from Julie Hamill is strictly prohibited.
There’s a lot of white in Steve Parish’s office, and it suits him. White couch, white walls, a white set of earphones - one in his right ear while he finishes a call – the white wire running down past a white shirt, connected to a white Blackberry. Offset by a smart navy jacket, his blond locks have been snipped so that the hair flick sits neatly in rows of little waves. He runs his fingers through it as he talks, allowing the waves to rise and fall then relax into that signature little-twist-of-Wham!-style he has kept variations of through the years.
Lightly tanned and relaxed after a holiday in Cannes, Steve’s spirit is both sunny and optimistic as he talks about the months ahead at Selhurst Park. He’s about to give the Premier League ‘a right go’, and it’s exciting, because the Club that he and his partners rescued from administration in 2010 and that he has been a fan of since the age of five is now in a position to improve, with a significant budget of sixty million: ‘You never really ‘own’ a Football Club, you only look after it for a while. I want to improve the ground, bring in exciting players. I want to do something that will hopefully excite the fans.’
It is obvious that Crystal Palace sits right in the bulls eye of his heart, and this is what motivates him to immerse himself in ‘emotional knowledge’: ‘[we’re] all bound by this thing, this love for this entity that represents memories, roots, childhood and so many important things… what I am capable of is caring about something. And when I care about something, and I enjoy it, it becomes so consuming for me, that I defy anybody to be better at it’.
He pulls out stories like they’re Russian Dolls, one inside another-inside another-inside another, and it’s hard not to let time drift away in the loops of his very engaging ‘Listen Joulee: I’ll tell you what it is, right…’ Michael-Caine-jangle. So we try to hone in and spend this interview talking about his passions - the business of football: ‘The most important thing about being a chairman is the ability to say no. I’ve never been frightened to say no to people and I think in football people get killed by an unwillingness to say it’.
On being a Chairman: ‘If you’ve lost a big game on Saturday then you have to talk about refurbing the bogs on Monday it can be hard to get motivated.’
On the music that he loves, including The Smiths: ‘I’d have to go for This Charming man. It’s the greatest guitar opening to any song, ever. It makes you wanna bounce up and jump around.’
His favourite-ever Palace player is Ian Wright and he likes to snack on a lump of cheese: ‘If it’s got cheese on it, I’m normally in.’ His crisp flavour is Thai Chilli and after a couple of beers he likes to sit down on the floor with a few pals, turn on ‘The Queen Is Dead’ and belt out ‘Oh Mother I can feel the soil falling over my ‘ead…’
J: Please say your full name.
S: Stephen Parish.
J: Do you have any middle names?
S: No, and it’s Stephen with a ‘ph.’. I thought Steve McQueen was the coolest bloke in the world. I was always upset with my mum that she named me with a ‘ph.’ cos I wanted to be Steve McQueen and he had a ‘v’. But… I think you can shorten Stephen to Steve even if you’ve got a ‘ph.’ can’t you?
J: We’ll you’ve managed it okay!
S: Exactly! And then when I want to be posh, I go for ‘Stephen’.
J: What about when people are telling you off?
S: There are many, many other words for that. [Laughs]
J: Can you describe yourself in a sentence?
S: Oh come on. I’m useless at things like this. I really am. I can describe myself in about ten million words probably.
J: What would be your favourite word?
S: Is it going to be one of these interviews where it’s like a quiz?
J: No, this is the only abstract question… maybe.
S: I’d like to think I was a bit different. A bit contrarian, bit obtuse maybe.
J: Where were you brought up?
S: I was brought up in Forest Hill, Lewisham, Catford, around that area.
J: How did you get into Crystal Palace?
S: At around four or five years old, I loved football. We used to play out; it was all we had to do, play in the back garden. I was born three doors down from my best mate, then we moved to the same Close after that, and I was with him every day for about fourteen years, playing football. So one day I was sitting on the edge of my bed and my dad came in. I remember it like it was yesterday. I had posters on the wall of different football teams and I said: ‘who do I support, dad?’ and in those days your dad wasn’t going to take you to Manchester, the car would never make it, you wouldn’t be able to get petrol after midnight… so he said: ‘you can support Palace or Millwall’. And I just thought Palace had a better kit.
J: What was the kit?
S: It was a Don Rodgers kit, which is a white kit with claret and blue, because it was an old Villa director that started the club, bit like the kit that we just got promoted in, white claret and blue with two stripes down the front.
I went to my first game against Chelsea. Dad took me, he wasn’t a football fan, his dad was a Millwall fan. I always thought later when I bought the club and he came to Millwall games that sort of deep down he was a bit torn, but he wasn’t that bothered about who I supported.
J: How was the game?
S: I remember it as one of the most terrifying experiences, right in the depths of football violence, before the ecstasy generation and everybody got loved up in the stands. In the seventies it was terrible, and it was Chelsea. They let too many people in, there was no real crowd control, and I was tiny, I thought I was going to get crushed. And the swearing! I had never heard anyone swear before, my dad didn’t swear, and the language was just… incredible.
J: Where did you sit?
S: I sat in what is now the Arthur Wait stand, cos that was where you would go if you weren’t season ticket holders, or you would just stand at the front, but I think we sat. We won. It was Jim Cannon’s debut and he went on to play nearly six hundred games for the Club. We got relegated that year, as we always do. I remember leaving at the end, still thinking I would be getting crushed.
J: That’s an exciting first game. From then on were you hooked?
S: Yes, but I couldn’t go every week. I had periods where I would go a lot, but my dad wasn’t that into it and there was always something else. By the time I was sixteen there were girls and nightclubs…
J: Were you still playing football when you were sixteen?
S: I played every single moment of every day when I was a kid. I was striker, winger. I wasn’t very good. Once it got to organised football, I was very small and skinny and not really strong. I was all right.
J: You were wiry.
S: [Laughs] yeah let’s go with wiry.
J: Any other favourite players growing up?
S: After Don Rodgers, we had a fantastic team in the eighties, Terry Venables was manager. Malcolm Allison had come, changed the colours, changed ‘The Glaziers’ to ‘The Eagles’. Allison made Palace sexy. There was a TV programme; ‘Team of the eighties’ and a player called Vince Hilaire - one of the early black players he was one of my favourites, and he still comes down to the club now, great bloke. Ian Wright is my favourite ever player.
Malcolm Allison did something that most don’t do, he changed the image of the club, he had page three girls, it was all very rock and roll, and that’s been there ever since. I only found out later that the Eagle was meant to represent a phoenix rising from the flames, I just thought that he thought an eagle would be better than a glass house [laughs]. But we’re the Eagles now, and the fans chant the nickname.
J: How would you describe your bond to your team?
S: Football is an incredible bond. People don’t understand it. You don’t understand it yourself. When you fall in love at four years old, before you know about anything, the first thing you fall in love with is a football team, it’s an undying love. It can’t be broken. You can’t change football teams. I don’t know anyone who’s ever done that. When we were kids footballers were Gods, you didn’t have this access to famous people that you do now. You didn’t have this broad range of people famous for being, well, Kim Kardashian or somebody like that. You had to do something. Pop stars were massive too, because they were untouchable and you never met them. Everybody is so accessible now, there’s no real mystery anymore.
J: Would you say that there’s a stronger connection between the Palace fans and the club versus other fans and their clubs?
S: No I don’t think so. Probably one of the things that Palace hasn’t got going for it is that it’s not the name of a town. People have an unbelievable bond to their clubs, especially if it’s the name of a town and every football fan will think that their bond is the strongest. Being a football fan of any club is a relationship that was formed very young.
J: Why did you step forward to buy the club?
S: It was in trouble, you know, it was in administration.
J: Why you though?
S: Because nobody else was going to do it.
J: In the build up were you waiting for someone to step forward or were you always contemplating?
S: I think, I don’t know whether you post-rationalise things. I get a sense now that I knew that one day I would be involved in owning it. I don’t know why. I just always thought it. It wasn’t managed brilliantly over a long period of time. If you’re that interested in something and you’re built like me, you’ll always think: ‘I think I could do that better’. So when it got into trouble, and people approached me, I was worried about it, because I understood exactly what’s involved in it, the financial risks, all that kind of stuff, but I didn’t want to do it on my own. I work quite well in groups of people, you know, it gives you that extra layer, if you’re worried you’ve got that double check… I wanted to try to get some other people involved. If somebody had come along and said ‘I want to buy it and I want to turn it into the biggest club in the world’, I’d have said, ‘yeah, I’ll buy a box, I’ll come along, enjoy the ride’.
J: What did you think that you could do better?
S: I think the ability to say no. I’ve never been frightened to say no to people and I think in football people get killed by an unwillingness to say no. They want to please the manager or the fans, so they do things that aren’t logical, like paying big money for players. There’s another thing: your football club is a reflection of you. I think all football fans feel like that. Especially when you’re young, and things are going well – oh Palace will win! – Then things are going badly… It’s a reflection of you in terms of when you say to people: ‘Palace? Oh really?’ It’s a laughing stock at times, and the ground is run down. You feel like it’s doing you a disservice. We’re better than that. That’s how much it means to most football fans. You cannot separate yourself from it, you can’t disown it. I remember going to watch games in my thirties. I would walk in to Selhurst Park - which is a dump - and my heart would be beating, you know. You’re looking for that result, when you get involved with the game. People like Jim Piddock, Maxi Jazz, Eddie Izzard, Neil Morrissey, Jo Brand… as well as many, many other successful people in different walks of life like my partners, Martin, Stephen and Jeremy, all these people were all born in that area and have all gone to the four winds and they’re all bound by this thing, this love for this entity that represents their memories, roots, childhood and so many important things… when it wins it feels like you’re winning. It’s part of you. I remember somebody saying to me: why do you want to do this? [buy the Club] In the end I think it boils down to life doesn’t mean much, nobody knows what it means, but it certainly doesn’t mean whatever the microcosm of what you’re dealing with at the time means, but it means something to you. It has to mean something to you. If you don’t have anything that you love and care about, what have you got? You love and write about Morrissey and The Smiths.
J: They’re like my football team.
S: It’s not entirely rational, is it?
J: No, not entirely, but that’s where the real love exists. Are you just getting a chance to do what you love, at last?
S: Well, I’m not a spectacularly bright person. I was never going to get a First or be an amazing academic. I’ve met people who are astoundingly bright, but what I am capable of is caring about something. And when I care about something, and I enjoy it, it becomes so consuming for me, that I defy anybody to be better at it. If you care about something, you’ll worry about it. If you worry about it, you’ll want to get to the right answers. And you will. So it’s chicken and egg: to be good at something, I have to find something that I care about. I don’t have a choice of just going ‘oh I’m brilliant, I’ll just do that on half gas.’ Then I develop an emotional knowledge, knowledge that wouldn’t work well on a spreadsheet. I try to get amongst the problems of the Club to understand what everybody needs from it. The Club is a series of deals, whether it’s a deal for a player or paying a builder. Life is a series of deals. I care about it therefore it’s going to be something I’m good at and I will make a difference.
The beautiful thing about football clubs is that you never own one, you just look after it for a while. They are institutions, they will be going for a thousand years, so that’s great because you know that all you’ve really got to do is move it forward and get it somewhere better than where it was.
J: Are there other football chairmen, past and present, you admire?
S: Ron Noades was a controversial figure to some but hugely successful and I think very similar to me in many ways. There was a lot of cash in football at the time. He was fantastically successful with the club. Anybody can go out and spend more money than anyone else, go out and buy things, but look at Huw Jenkins in fourth division with a broken down stadium, he created something great. Make money, don’t spend all your money doing it. You have to go against popular wisdom, against all the agents that are ringing you every day, you’ve got to find your own path, be single minded. There are a few people who have achieved that over the years.
J: Do you like the direct access that the fans have to you via Twitter?
S: We’ve got two really healthy forums – CPFC BBS forums and the Holmesdale of course there’s Twitter and loads of social networks, I think it’s fantastic, yes I do like it, but it’s a double edged sword isn’t it, I suppose I’ve got a tiny idea of what it is to have any kind of public profile, how tough you have to be to expose yourself to those mediums. There’s listening to the fan base and learning what they want and how to improve things, but you’ve still got to filter the abusive side. All those things bring out the best and worst in society. With football, everything is laid bare. Emotions are laid bare. The bloke that said you were the best thing since sliced bread on the Friday then on Sunday morning thinks you’re the worst thing ever. It’s a really strange business because you’re publicly tested every week.
J: Does it get to you, or have you learned to put a barrier up to it?
S: You can’t let that not get to you. The hardest part is, when you’re trying to do so many things to move the club forward, and the thing in the end is all about the winning and losing. If you’ve lost a big game on Saturday then you have to talk about refurbing the bogs on Monday it can be hard to get motivated.
J: When you get down to watching the games, are you watching as a Chairman or as that little boy?
S: It’s a combination. There’s the passion of the fan, but there are differences because I know things. I know some of the secrets of football, which is there are no secrets [laughs]. The psychology of a football team - what the players are thinking - is a lot more important than other things. I’m a realist. I can overcome what I want and believe the evidence with my own eyes. I get quite irritated with fans who don’t see the reality, the ref’s decisions etc. During the game I feel the tension and the excitement gets to me. If it goes wrong, I just think: ‘I’ve got to do something, what am I going to do?’
J: You’re in the public eye, now more than ever. How do you cope with that?
S: Every time you get it wrong, you publicly get it wrong, and people remind you. Imagine you’ve gone to a meeting to pitch a bit of business, lost, gone home and know that you screwed it up. It’s not just you and the three people in the room that know. Everyone on Twitter is telling you you’ve done it wrong, people are ringing you up to tell you you’ve done it wrong… the forums are telling you…
J: Well you’re clearly not doing it wrong because in May you watched the team get promoted. Tell me the story of your experience that night.
S: I was at the game, in the Royal Box. Brilliant. The whole thing. On the back lawn I would relive the great games at Wembley, now, suddenly I’m in it. This kid from South London is taking a team to Wembley! Where shall we go training beforehand, what colour suits should the players wear, chatting to the manager about what we’re gonna do. In whatever way, I’ve contributed to them getting there. All my friends, Mark, Michael, Phil, Richard, my great mates from advertising, my daughter, her boyfriend, Neil Morrissey, Elton John, Eddie Izzard. An incredible day. If you had that dinner party, can you imagine? Throw in the people that have meant the most to you in your life, chuck in a few celebs, that alone would be an amazing day! Now your team is walking out at Wembley in front of 80,000 people. A team that you know – you know those boys, this one on a free transfer, that one from Norway for three hundred grand, you know them, remember the day they signed, you’ve got intimate knowledge of them. The whole day, building up to that tension of the game. We played really well. Jim Piddock at full time was like: ‘how are we not in the Premier League already?’
Then in extra time the penalty goes in, and time stands still. I was watching thirty-five seconds, and it took an hour to get to thirty-six seconds… and I’m thinking things, for the club, what a difference it makes, every minute is a ten million quid minute then one goes off the line and it looks like they’re going to score… and Mark Bright is sitting next to me, a great mate, a hero of mine when he played with Ian Wright for Palace, and he sits next to me every game. I said to him, ‘Brighty, I can’t breathe. I literally cannot breathe.’ And you know that the cameras are on you.
Some days just don’t have a ‘yeah but…’ There was no ‘yeah but’ to that day. It was completely magical, as a football fan the only downside was that I could cry for the Watford fans, even now… I can’t watch that penalty incase he saves it. There’s a bit of me that thinks, it didn’t really happen, he gets really close to the ball… Two lovely clubs. That could have been Palace, and I know it’s crushing. But it’s poignant for me because the Championship is hard. Stephen Browett’s working hard trying making fifteen grand for a beer festival, Kevin Day’s doing a comedy night for the academy, and make some money for Children In Need. It’s those things that are getting you by, existing on that. Suddenly some bloke from the Premier League hands you a bit of paper and says: ‘we’re going to give you x million on this day x million on that day .’
J: How are you going to change the Club?
S: We can change the Club, we can transform the Club. When I took it over, nobody expected anything. I want to improve the ground, bring in exciting players. I want to do something that will hopefully excite the fans. The problem I’ve got now is I’ve watched the Championship for over thirty, forty years. The stage we’re at, I describe as the difficult third album. Most pop stars have got the first album, then enough for a second one…
J: Now you’ve got the deal with EMI…
S: I’ve got to smash it out now. But it took me ten years to write my first two! [Laughs]. I don’t really watch the Premier League; it hasn’t been relevant. By the time you watch all the games then watch league one and league two to see if there’s a decent striker… there’s no time. So we’re in unchartered waters.
J: Will you spend some money on the Palace ground?
S: Absolutely. We have got to redevelop the ground. It’s a legacy for the Club. We need a modern facility. People wont’ accept cold, wet, cheap food. They won’t take it anymore. We’re all spoiled now. There’s so much to do in London. In Bromley and Croydon we’ve got 900,000 people. Putting that into perspective you’ve got somewhere like Middlesbrough with 120,000 people. We’ve got a huge catchment. We need to build a stadium that will keep a lot of them in there, and that will take time, money and effort to make it matter. This is where it gets tougher.
J: I would love to talk more about football. How about a ‘part two’ interview half way through the season to update on your achievements with the Club?
S: I’d like that, yeah let’s do that.
J: Let’s talk about music now. When you were growing up, tell me about the posters on your wall.
S: Elvis was first. All those terrible movies he made, constantly on the telly. This is my first musical memory, GI Blues, army films. He was cool, a beautiful man. After that it was Showaddywaddy. I was just a little bit young for punk, but I remember learning all the words to Boomtown Rats Rat Trap and getting into The Who, then indie music, watching The Tube. Top of The Pops was crap.
J: I bet you watched it though?
S: Watch it? I went to it! [Laughs]. Somewhere there’s a film of me dancing to Fun Boy Three and Bananarama.
The Associates were on, maybe I went to two Top of The Pops. I get into bands late, because if people rave about stuff, it puts me off. The last thing you want to tell me is that a film is really great. Then I’m like, nah. Can’t be bothered with that.
J: What was your first gig?
S: Madness. I’d been to Shalamar and Shakatak when I was thirteen, but the first gig that was music I wanted to go to was Madness.
J: Do you remember the year?
S: I was sixteen, so 1981. The first album. The whole thing. Two Tone suits. Ska. I massively got into that. I liked Bow Wow Wow. I got into the Pistols later, I remember watching that Bill Grundy Show and thinking it was shocking.
J: What was the first record you bought?
S: Elvis. Then another rock n roll band – The Darts – I loved them, Daddy Cool. I used to go down to WHSmiths in Forest Hill and buy the records. I had an eclectic taste. My next musical coming was Dominion Theatre, Tottenham Court Road, The Style Council. The Jam had split up and The Style Council was more me. I never felt like I owned the Jam, I went back and loved them, but I wasn’t there when they first came. I thought the first Style Council Album was brilliant.
The support act for The Style Council was this guy with a guitar called Billy Bragg, just singing and telling jokes. I couldn’t believe the balls he had. Everybody was watching him, and nobody watches support bands. He was singing stuff like: ‘I love you I am the milkman of human kindness I will leave an extra pint.’
I’ve always been more into lyrics. And we were in Thatcher’s Britain so people had stuff to say and I wanted to listen to politicised lyrics. Jobs were hard to come by and he had something to say. He was funny as well. He said ‘Weller has given me a guitar tuner. He’s told me, Billy, you’ve got to tune that guitar son. So I do this every now and then in a gig.’ I bought the album before I went to Tenerife: ‘Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy’ and I didn’t listen to anything else. This love affair with him began and never really went away. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, like The Smiths. I love him singing Smiths songs. That cover of Jeane was one of the first Smiths songs I heard.
Billy Bragg lived his life ten minutes before me. About his third album I had broken up with some girl and he had broken up with a girl before me, wrote a record about it, just in time for me to be breaking up with a girl [laughs].
I saw him recently . I went to get a paper and stood at the traffic lights, no one else around. Standing waiting to cross the road the other way was Billy. Who’d have thought it, this man, he wrote about his dad dying, he’s the soundtrack to my life. I went to Shepherds Bush a couple of years ago and he did the whole album. Those lyrics all mean something to me. Within that was all of those bands, that who eighties era, even if you go to New York there are bars and it’s all they play.
Then there’s Morrissey as well. I went away last week to Cannes and I made a soundtrack, and I put on How Soon Is Now, There Is A Light, I know it’s over. I love that line: ‘Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head.’ Again it’s poetry, Morrissey is like the modern Shakespeare. Being into lyrics, later on I got into rap, I liked Public Enemy and Eminem, all poets really.
Then after him, The Streets, that album, so fantastic, A Grand Don’t come for Free. I loved that album. It has to be listened to from beginning to end. It’s a complete story, isn’t it? Like Smiths albums; they have to be listened to from beginning to end. Artists that can write an album of great songs should be celebrated and admired. I don’t know that anybody really tries anymore, nobody’s buying albums, they’re just getting that track then that track then that track.
J: You were a Smiths fan. Did you go on to become a Morrissey fan?
S: Well for me it was The Smiths. I saw them a few times, one time at the Brixton Academy on The Queen Is Dead tour. I stood on that slopey floor and there was a big punch up in the audience. I was really into The Smiths, I had my phase, but I was never one of the more hardcore fans. I’d hear one track, and that was enough for me to go and buy the album. Buying an album cost money that mattered to you, so whether you liked it or not initially didn’t matter. You played it til you liked it [laughs].
PHOTO: Stephen Wright
J: Which album was your favourite?
S: Well I’d say ‘The Queen Is Dead’ but I love all the albums. I have all of them. And if we sat here and played the albums now, I’d know all the lyrics, because I have consumed them for a three/four month period.
The Johnny Marr element of The Smiths really mattered to me. I liked the Morrissey hits after The Smiths but I really was more of a Smiths fan.
J: We once had a good conversation about cover versions. Do you still enjoy them? I love Billy’s cover of Never Had Noone Ever.
S: Billy does great covers. The Jackson Five ‘I’ll be there’ and Smokey Robinson ‘Tracks of My Tears’. Those two tracks are in the top ten tracks of my life.
He did it live once. You used to be able to get bootlegs but you can’t get them anymore.
J: Do you have a favourite Smiths or Morrissey lyric?
S: Yeah. ‘You go and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own, and you go home and you cry and you want to die.’ I mean it’s the story of every awkward teenager. It’s why have I gone here? Why did I f*****g bother? There must be SOMEBODY here who might like me? No? [bangs table] I have gone here for nothing. NOTHING. I’m leaving on my own, again! [Laughs]
I want to sit and listen to an album now. When you leave I’m going to have a big Smiths binge.
J: That’s a very good lyric choice, and completely identifiable.
S: You just reminded me of Bigmouth Strikes Again. There are so many brilliant choices, The Smiths spoiled us really didn’t they? When we do our part two I’ll have remembered all of the great songs.
J: Do you have any control over the music that gets played at Palace during half time? Do you ever say oh let’s shove in a bit of Smiths or Billy?
S: I don’t really, but I could do. I have to surrender to the fact that we need to cater for the younger market, get the young kids coming back.
J: Is that why you have the Cheerleaders?
S: The Glad All Over that they sing is up to a million hits.
J: Are you bringing the Cheerleaders to the Premier League?
S: I am, but, listen, there’s a fine line between something that’s family and attracts girls to football and something that’s not wholesome. The Cheerleaders are much tamer than your average pop video. In the end, if they are dressed appropriately and fun then it gives entertainment and something for people to look at while they’re waiting.
J: If Morrissey walked in here right now and said: ‘Alright Steve’, what would you say?
S: ‘Wow! What are you doing here?’ [Laughs]. You get much more comfortable meeting people as you get older. One of the nice things that the football affords you is that it’s the great equalizer. I was on a plane to Nice reading an interview with Arsene Wenger. There was a guy behind me talking in French, and I was like, god that sounds like Arsene Wenger. Nah, I’m just reading a story about him, just imagining it. So a bloke handed me a camera and said can you take a picture for me. I looked round and he was with Arsene Wenger. I was just about to turn away and I thought, well I’m in the same business as Arsene now, I’ll have a chat to him because we were after a couple of Arsenal players at the time,. So we had a little chat, and I said ‘I’ve just bought Crystal Palace’ and he said ‘well good luck with that!’
I’m okay with talking to anyone but I’ve never wanted to be someone because I knew someone. No matter how small your achievements are, they don’t have to be public, at least they’re yours and nor someone else’s, I feel sorry for people who are pestered all the time because they have a talent, so I try not to intrude. Instead of that moment where you want to talk to them, and you know they don’t want to talk to you, you’re just another pain in the arse. You might win them over but usually not.
I met Mick Jones who is a QPR fan. I’ve never asked anybody for a picture. But I asked him. I said: ‘Look, Big Audio Dynamite, 1986, Milton Keynes Bowl, England are playing Argentina in the world cup the same night. I still came to your gig then rushed back.’ Then he went: ‘I remember that gig!’ It was nice.
J: Who is the most famous Palace fan?
S: Bill Wyman. He was supposed to come to a game – can you imagine that? [Laughs].
J: If Morrissey came to your house what snacks would you put out for him?
S: [Laughs] I think he eats tofu and all that stuff doesn’t he? I’d probably say well I ain’t got any of that. I’ve got some nuts and Walkers crisps.
J: Peanuts in a glass ashtray?
S: Yeah - or tell you what - I’ll nip to Wholefoods for him. Gimmie a list! [Laughs].
J: What’s your favourite thing to do on a Friday night?
S: Curry and a pint. But I don’t do it anymore cos I’m trying to be healthy. I race cars and I go all round England and what I’ve noticed is that the only decent thing you can get to eat is curry.
J: What’s your favourite drink?
S: Black tea. Black Earl Grey, Lemon. Or Green Tea.
J: No pink Champagne for Steve Parish?
S: I like Champagne! The optimum alcoholic drink would probably lager.
J: Favourite snack?
S: Cheese. If its got cheese on it, I’m normally in. I am prone to just going to the fridge and eating a lump of cheese. I love a packet of crisps.
J: Oh! Well that’s good. Favourite crisp flavour?
S: Salt and vinegar in the old days. Now I like those Thai chilli ones. I’m drawn to those.
J: Pizza topping?
S: I like an American Hot. I like pepperoni and peppers.
J: Favourite Smiths song?
S: I’d have to go for This Charming man. It’s the greatest guitar opening to any song, ever. It makes you wanna bounce up and jump around. That’s the first ever Smiths record that I heard. I remember exactly where I was, in a flat, and somebody put that on, and I thought: ‘what is that? Who is that? That’s fantastic!’ I was eighteen, just leaving school, and it was a really sunny day.
J: What’s your favourite childhood toy?
S: I had the Evil Knievel bike. I remember doing the stunts on loop the loop. Sometimes it made it all the way around but mainly it just fell. I also had Swingball. I spent hours and hours in the garden playing Swingball.
J: Who cuts your hair?
S: It’s a bloody disaster. It happened in France. It was long and I wanted a trim. And I went in there and the woman went and cut it all off. So I came back and I went to Harry, my hairdresser and he fixed it for me, thank God.
J: Would you like to host the Mozarmyquiz one Friday night?
S: Yeah that sounds like fun, I’ll do that.
J: Will you write a note to my mum?
S: Of course. I can’t spell though, and I hardly ever write now.
S: How’s your dad?
J: He’s good. He likes it when he sees you on the telly.
S: ‘I know him’
S: I’ve got writer’s cramp now, Joulee!
You can follow Steve Parish on Twitter @CEO4Tag. I’ll be meeting him again in December for a part two - to find out how he broke into the Premier League (with a sponge and a rusty spanner).
© All content is copyright Julie Hamill 2013. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without consent from Julie Hamill is strictly prohibited.
Sitting chatting with me on a bench in Soho Square, Mark ‘Bedders’ Bedford from Madness comes across as quite a private man. He’s not always keen to be in the spotlight, preferring to stay as grounded in normality as he can; your typical guy in a Fred Perry and desert boots, pally with everybody from the London cabbies to the Queen. He just happens to have hidden depths of musical cleverness in bass playing for Britain’s best-loved band… with a fondness for the odd rapscallion jape. He claims to be the sensible one in Madness, but the sparkle and laughter that livens his eyes suggests otherwise; most especially when he tries to recall who was to blame for ideas like unscrewing an entire hotel with Swiss Army knives and building a giant food mountain from dressing room leftovers.
Like any family, there are times when simply being together in the same room can be a fiery experience. When members of Madness work closely together, their connection can fan a heat so intense it produces some of the most anthemic, catchy and cleverly arranged musical gems in history - like My Girl, Cardiac Arrest Shut Up and Lovestruck. Sparks fly between the band mates and fuel their creativity; ironing out quirks in rehearsal and energising on-stage performances. But there are other times when the intensity is too much, when seven colourful characters spend every waking hour together in the studio-on the road-in hotels-rehearsing-learning-playing, debating-performing-eating-drinking-creating that the heat boils… and the relationships burn.
‘Well, everyone would call us a dysfunctional family. It’s testament that we can still talk to each other now, we’ve had our ups and downs like any family.’
It must be love between the members of this band, as after thirty-five years the significant seven are still together, due to a healthy and respectful attitude towards individuals taking a break when they need one.
Bedders has taken a few breaks, to explore other projects and work on his graphic design business to ‘stop [him] going barmy’. During one of these quieter, less ‘Mad’ periods while the band was on a hiatusin 1991, Clive Langer [Madness producer] invited him at Hook End Manor to make an album with Morrissey. At Langer’s suggestion, Bedders also packed his double bass, before heading off to join Mark Nevin, Andrew Paresi and, of course, Moz: ‘I thought it would be a good challenge. I thought that Mark Nevin’s stuff would be really interesting, a mixture of something a little bit different, a clever collaboration.’
Working with Morrissey was a different experience than he’s used to, and he was impressed by the natural focus of the process: ‘He is a man with a real singular vision. He knows exactly what he wants to do, how he wants to write, and he’s very good at getting that across… he’s a clever, articulate guy… he would more or less sing a complete vocal from start to finish. He was very together, very professional… we did nearly every song like that, in a tightly structured way.’
Bedders hates fairgrounds (won’t go on a rollercoaster, not even for the House of Fun video) but he likes the 2p games in the arcades. His favourite crisps are cheese and onion and drink is a cool vodka and tonic. He thinks that Kill Uncle is under-rated, but he doesn’t have much time for reviews: ‘You can’t let those things influence you… if you think it’s a good record then it is.’
On meeting Morrissey for the first time: ‘He said ‘should I call you Bedders or should I call you Mark?’ and I said: ‘call me whatever you want…’
J: Please say your full name.
M: Mark Bedford
J: No middle names?
M: William, after my granddad.
J: Can you describe yourself in a sentence?
M: [Laughs] I… um… bass player with Madness. Although I’ve a lot of other jobs as well!
J: How did you get your nickname, ‘Bedders’?
M: Chris Foreman, the Madness guitarist started calling me Bedders, from Bedford, back when we started together.
J: You’ve been with Madness since the start. How did you get together?
M: I’ve had a few breaks from the band but since 1978 I’ve been there, off and on. Mike, Chris and Lee started playing in Mike’s bedroom. They all lived around Kentish Town and I went to school on Highgate Road, Woody went to school near Chalk Farm, Suggs went to school in Swiss Cottage so everyone met in that area. Me and Woody are a little bit younger. Those three wanted to form a band and through various friends of different friends that’s how we all got together.
J: How old were you then?
J: Did you have any idea what lay ahead?
M: When we first started to write our own songs I thought, oh, we might be onto something here. They actually sounded quite good and our first few attempts really weren’t that bad. It’s always time and place. We went to see The Specials at the Hope and Anchor, they had come down from Coventry. We said look, we’re playing kind of the same music as you are, reggae, ska, whatever and Jerry Dammers said well we’re trying to get a label together and everything really sprang from there.
J: What was the first Madness song you did that you thought sounded quite good?
M: Erm, like any group we did a lot of covers and learned a lot of old reggae songs. One of the first songs that was written was a song called Mistakes which was the B-side of One Step Beyond and I think we had written My Girl quite early too, and it sounded good. When we started to hear the early songs gel, then others came along, it all felt right.
J: Growing up, did you have posters on your bedroom wall?
M: I had a fantastic Move poster, I remember that. I was only about eleven or twelve when I started buying records. I was given a bit of pocket money and was always interested in music. At around ‘72-74 the kids at school started buying records and I was listening to anything from the charts to a lot of American music, people like Neil Young.
J: When did you first pick up the bass guitar?
M: About the same age, thirteen, just because a couple of mates of mine had guitars that they played at school, and they needed someone to play the bass.
J: Do you remember any of the tracks you tried to learn?
M: Oh, Beatles songs, normally.
J: In the time that you’ve been with Madness, has there been a favourite period for you?
M: There are lots. All with different meanings. Recording and seeing your first record. Physically seeing it, on 2 Tone, was amazing. I was waiting for a van in Archway because we were going off to play a gig somewhere. A friend of ours, John Hasler showed up carrying a box of records. He was a very instrumental figure in Madness because although he didn’t end up in the band, he played and sang at different points, he got the band together, helped organise the band. He was instrumental in kind of keeping the band together.
J: He was your manager, eventually, after drums/singing?
M: Yes he was and he wasn’t. He was a really good friend of ours, really good at getting things together, and in that early period he helped with a lot of things.
J: The band was enormous in the eighties. What was it like to experience it from the inside?
M: It was kind of non-stop work really. When we signed to Stiff and made the One Step Beyond album I figured out that out of two years, I was away solidly for eighteen months of those two years. I wasn’t at home. Just shows you the nature of the amount of work and touring that we were doing, all over the place. It was a very intense period from 1980 to 1986, constantly making records and touring.
J: And going to number one.
M: Yeah! That was really funny. When it finally happened with House of Fun we were in Japan! We laughed about it, it would be ironic that we weren’t there! It was relief though to be at number one at last. I think there are different things along the Madness way that please you more. Creatively, moving forward, like when songs pop out of other songs, that’s kind of more satisfying in some respects.
J: How would you describe your relationship within the band?
M: Well, everyone would call us a dysfunctional family [laughs]. It’s testament that we can still talk to each other now, we’ve had our ups and downs like any family really.
J: You must have had a lot of laughs and Madness capers?
M: We were pretty raucous when we were a bit younger, yeah [laughs].
J: Anything you’d like to share?
M: Well being bored on the road, we got up to all sorts. We dismantled a hotel once, and everything in it. We were playing a gig in Switzerland and the promoter thought it would be a very good idea to give us a gift of a big Swiss Army knife each. So the first thing we did was unscrew everything in the hotel. We swapped all the room numbers, systematically. We unscrewed furniture, chairs, beds, doorframes. Anything we could.
J: [Laughs] Did you leave it sitting together so that if someone sat on it would fall apart?
M: We did. We were very good at it. We changed the room numbers on the different floors, unscrewed things and moved them around a bit.
J: How did you not get caught?
M: We were very quick [laughs]. This is the kind of thing that we used to get up to in the eighties.
J: Madness always looked naughty, like there’s mischief going on, even now.
M: I think it was just being bored a lot of the time. On the road. It drives you to mischief! [Laughs].
J: There are seven of you in the band and your seventh single was The return of the Los Palmos 7 (that you co-wrote). This went to number seven in the charts and stayed there for seven weeks. What is the significance of seven?
M: Some mystic planning..? No it’s just a coincidence. A fluke, really.
J: The Return of the Los Palmos 7 is one of my favourite singles. What are yours?
M: I’ve got a few, for different reasons. When we wrote Grey Day that was something completely different. A really good point along the way. We made a breakthrough there, and it’s a really good sounding record, a little bit different for Madness.
J: It was a darker, sadder record for you, wasn’t it?
M: Yeah. It just had a denser, heavier sound to it, which was really good. Yesterday’s Men was fantastic, even though it’s probably not so well known by people. Our House took a lot of work to get it to where it was, and is probably the most popular Madness song in different countries around the world. It took forever to get it right, and when it did, it really paid off. Some songs are written in ten minutes and it all sounds great, others take treacherous journeys; we could never get the rhythm of Our House right, that was the problem, we were never really satisfied.
Brother’s got a date to keep
M: Well that was at the time when people made videos. We used to do them really cheaply. We used simple tricks with Lee flying around. We didn’t go off to some tropical island somewhere. We did them in the garage or basement of Stiff Records. Most of them were done in Hoxton.
J: How did you come up with the ideas for the videos?
M: We used to sit in a room and have a set plan. We’d meet with the head of Stiff Dave Robinson. Some were completely unworkable [laughs] but then we’d narrow it down to a storyline and try to incorporate some of those ideas. Some were fantastical! We had an idea to build a rubber street that would all move when it was touched. That would have cost an absolute fortune. But we stuck with very simple themes like in It must be love there’s for the line about birds and bees and we dressed Lee up in a bee costume. We’d always get him in a costume. I’ve dressed up in some weird ones – I was a nun, I’ve been a flower – nice easy props to do. Then we’d let the camera roll, mess around, and see what came out.
J: Is there anything that you wouldn’t do?
M: Yes! I refused to go on that bloody rollercoaster in House of Fun. They wanted to do a shot on this really fast rollercoaster and I was like, no, I’m not going on that! There is a shot of a few of the band on it, but not me [laughs].
Mark Bedford is absent today sir.
J: What bass line are you most proud of?
M: Hard question. House of Fun. It’s quite mind bending, the way it keeps circling round and round, but it creates a rhythm. That’s something that me and Mike worked out together. It’s rolling, rolling, rolling all the time. Technically that’s quite mad cos it keeps going and going and going. But some of the simpler ones – like Bed and Breakfast man is a very simple bass line but it’s kind of Motown so it’s quite nice. That’s our influences coming out. Then some of the reggae ones I was quite pleased with.
J: What do you think of when you look back at your younger self in this picture? Have you done young Bedders proud?
M: Ha! It’s a very honest picture – the subject is part happy; part confused. And a reminder of how young we were when we started. Have I done myself proud? I think so. I think I’ve come out the other side a better person and that might be all you can ask? What relates the two questions is that I haven’t lost the curiosity about the world that I had when that picture was taken. I’m quite proud of that too.
J: Can I ask you about playing the roof of Buckingham Palace?
M: It was a really good day, I took my kids. We knew what the band were going to do but weren’t quite sure how it would work. We had been shown the graphics, the thirty-two projectors. We didn’t realise quite how big an event it was going to be. It’s one of the biggest events we’ve ever done.
J: Did you have to go through the Palace to get up the stairs?
M: Yes! It was mad. They had set up a village where all the bands were, dressing rooms etc. We got there early and there was a garden party. They gave everyone a hamper with Waitrose sandwiches and drinks and a rain cape. I met my kids in there. We hung around for a while, enjoying it, and then we climbed up all these stairs, the back stairs, where all the people who work in the Palace live, right at the top. We sat in a very small room for a long time waiting to go out onto the roof. We could hear the other bands and the crowd, but we had to wait. They opened the door and wow what a view, see down into the City and behind you towards the Thames and Battersea. There was a tiny platform just back from the roof’s edge and we were on that. The cameraman was up there. There were snipers up there! All these people started appearing from the roof and looking. There was so much security and so many people hiding.
J: Were you nervous?
M: No. We’ve done it so many times before. We could just about hear the reaction, people singing along to us miming.
J: Did you meet the Queen?
M: There was a reception line after, the Queen shook my hand and said: ‘What a fantastic evening!’
J: 2012 was a big year for Madness with the Olympics too.
M: I knew that we were going to be playing at the Olympics for eighteen months, and I couldn’t tell anyone. I know David Arnold who did all the music for the closing ceremony. He’s a fantastic composer, spent three years of his life getting that together.
J: How did you come to be Morrissey’s bass player on Kill Uncle?
M: It was mainly through Clive [Langer]. He rang me and said that he was doing the next Morrissey album. He said that Mark Nevin would be writing a lot of the music for it. I had met Mark Nevin a couple of times, but had never played with him. I had done some playing with Roy Dodds, the Fairground Attraction drummer and I’d been to see Fairground Attraction a few times, who were really good live actually. I kind of knew them pretty well. London is a very small music village.
J: Had you heard of Morrissey/The Smiths before?
M: Yeah, I liked some of The Smiths singles, and I was obviously conscious of Morrissey all the time.
J: So what did you think when Clive asked you?
M: Well, I thought it would be a good challenge. I thought that Mark Nevin’s stuff would be really interesting, a mixture of something a little bit different. Mark is a very good songwriter, so I thought it would be a clever collaboration. I didn’t know how they were going to work, but they worked completely separately. Some jobs you do and play and you never hear the songs, some you get to listen to demos, and some you rehearse and take part in the process. They had been working on this for a little bit, and the music was written quite quickly. I heard a couple of songs from Mark’s tapes only a very short time before I turned up to Hook End Manor. I had never met Andy Paresi before, and he was great.
J: How did you first meet Morrissey?
M: Well, I met him at Hook End. From memory it was really nice. He said ‘should I call you Bedders or should I call you Mark?’ and I said ‘call me whatever you want!’ I can’t remember what he ended up calling me [laughs].
J: What do you like to be called?
M: I don’t mind.
J: Sometimes nicknames can take over.
M: I always just say ‘Mark’, it’s my name, naturally. But I don’t mind. Some people call me Bedders.
J: What did you and Morrissey chat about?
M: What was really nice about meeting Morrissey is that we talked about different things other than music. This put us at ease, you know. I remember talking to him about film quite a lot, about Alexander Mackendrick, the director of The Man in the white suit and The Sweet Smell of Success. He did a lot of films connected with Ealing. Sometimes it’s nice not to talk about music, makes it a bit more comfortable.
J: What was your daily routine at Hook End?
M: It was a sprawling place, amazing. It was residential so we all had our own rooms. We got up in the morning and had breakfast, like a hotel almost, then had a little stroll around, then did a bit of work then did some playing. Then we’d have a few drinks after and get up and do the same thing again the next day. There were a few TV rooms and we’d have a break in there.
J: There were a lot of Madness visitors, weren’t there?
M: Yeah. Now the funny thing is that I was only there for the first part of the record because we did the drums and bass first. I know Suggs came later on. It was Clive and Alan’s place, very relaxed, like a very lovely second home somewhere.
J: What was the working atmosphere like?
M: It was a very practical working arrangement, very focused. When I did my bits with Andy and Mark we were learning the songs on the spot. We would write out a rough chord chart for everything. Mark had sent Morrissey the tapes of these ideas, and Morrissey wrote the lyrics exactly to what Mark had sent him. Sometimes, when recording you write a bit and think, well I’ll just go blah blah blah here and fill the lyrics in later. Or you might move a bit of chorus or verse here or there. But Morrissey had actually written the song lyrics, and it set the songs for how they were going to be, it was quite worked out. Madness would rehearse a lot before going into the studio, so we would get all our mistakes and everything done, 2-3 weeks beforehand. This was kind of learning the song in the studio, and there wasn’t going to be much changing and movement. Clive moved the odd thing around, but not much at all. It was a totally different way of working for me. It’s a different process because with Madness I’m there at the very beginning of the process. With Mark, he had written detailed arrangements and Morrissey wrote to them very precisely.
J: How did this work in the recording studio?
M: Morrissey had a very clear idea about what he wanted to do. At about eleven o’clock myself, Mark and Andy would get in to the studio and have a chat about a song, try and attempt it. Clive might say can you try this or that until we had the song in a kind of shape that we could physically play from beginning to end. Then Morrissey would come in, and we’d say right we’re ready. He’d have the lyrics, put them down and bang, off we’d go. He’d more or less sing a complete vocal from start to finish. He was very together, very professional, and he always knew what he wanted to do. Most of it was usable. After a couple of runs through we had a very good take with a very good vocal. We did nearly every song like that, in a tightly structured way. Most of the time this is how we would work.
J: What did you do when you finished?
M: At the end we’d all have a listen, say this was good, that was good, repair a little thing here and there, but mainly the songs were in good shape, there wasn’t much we had to do.
J: What surprised or excited you about Kill Uncle?
M: I liked playing the double bass on it. Clive said to bring it and I liked that. There were two or three tracks, with double bass. That was a departure, I wasn’t expecting to play it on a Morrissey record. But he went onto a fifties double bass, more rockabilly stuff after that. Our Frank sounded like a single straight away, when we started playing it. It was up, instant, really good. It was one of the first things we attempted. Sing Your Life was great. It’s such an under rated album actually! I’m biased because I played on it [laughs]. Driving Your Girlfriend Home is a good song as well.
J: It never dates, does it…
M: No, it doesn’t. I had a listen to Kill Uncle for something else, a little while ago, and I was really surprised at how fresh it still sounds. It’s a testament to Mark Nevin’s writing and style.
J: Were you surprised by the reception?
M: I just thought it was a good record and we’d done our best and done really well. The sound was great. But what can you do? There’s nothing you can do about reviews. You can’t let those things influence you really. If you think it’s a good record then it is. You’ve done what you’ve done.
J: That’s a confident statement.
M: I just think in life you have to think that some things you don’t have control over and reviews are one of those. Playing music there are other things that can satisfy you.
J: When you think about Morrissey now, what comes to mind?
M: He’s a man with a real singular vision. He knows exactly what he wants to do, how he wants to write, and he’s very good at getting that across. Some people aren’t good at this, they fumble around but get there in the end. He has a very good idea about where he wants to go, he thinks about it a lot and he’s a very clever, articulate guy.
J: Would you work with him again?
M: Of course. It was a really enjoyable experience and we did some good work.
J: Do you keep in touch with the others? It seems amazing that there were only the four of you in the band and just a few others, very intimate.
M: I have seen Mark Nevin but I haven’t seen Andy Paresi, maybe just once since we did Kill Uncle. You’re right, there were very few people on that album, compared to today’s huge productions.
J: Morrissey went on to support you at the Madness reunion, Madstock in 1992 and had to finish his set early. Did you see much of his set/what happened that day?
M: No I didn’t. And this is not a cop out. I actually got stuck in traffic and got there late. When I did arrive, people were obviously saying that Morrissey had cut his set short. Something was thrown at him? It was quite sad that he didn’t play the second night.
J: If Morrissey was to walk up here now, to this bench and say ‘Alright Bedders Mark…’
M: [laughs] is that what he’d say? ‘Bedders Mark’?
J: Well he was working with two Marks during Kill Uncle time so he might want to distinguish between you… but what would you say to him?
M: Who knows. I haven’t seen him for a very long time.
J: Would you get up, give him a little cuddle?
M: I’m sure I would [laughs].
J: What about if he was coming round to your house. What snacks would you put out for him?
M: Oh God I don’t know! [laughs] This is not something I think about… I’ve never thought of this in my life! I’d be mindful that he was vegetarian.
J: What is your favourite crisp flavour?
M: Cheese and onion I suppose.
J: Favourite pizza topping?
M: Pepperoni. Not exactly original. I think it’s the default position in pizzas. I don’t eat pizzas that much. I do like parma ham though.
J: Smiths single?
J: Morrissey single?
M: I’m going to go for, You’re The One For Me, Fatty. Produced by Mick Ronson – which was nice.
J: Favourite drink?
M: A cool crisp vodka and tonic, if I have to, which I do.
J: Do you drink before you go on stage?
M: Not very much now. Madness have quite a hefty reputation for being able to play heavily under the influence. I don’t think I’m giving too many secrets away! [Laughs]. I did fall over four times on stage, once. I knew then I’d had a bit too much. But I got picked up, and so I just kept going. We’re all pretty good now. I might have a drink after, of course, but not beforehand. You just get too tired and too grumpy with a hangover.
J: Favourite song ever?
M: That’s too hard! I’ve got so many…
J: Favourite nutty boys caper?
M: The unscrewing of a hotel in Switzerland can’t really be topped, but I do remember sticking things to other things… we’re quite creative. We did actually also build one of the biggest food mountains I’ve ever seen, out of leftover food from various dressing rooms. I think it had pizza bases that built up and up and up, then we just started to pile stuff around it, anything food that we could find. We’re good at making stuff. Being stuck in places and a little bit of alcohol does that.
J: Do you still sit about and laugh about these things together?
M: There are a few stories that get rolled out, and Switzerland is one of them. It’s breathtaking that we set about dismantling the place, all working together to get it done.
J: Who starts it? Who’s the most mischievous?
M: Well it’s Lee, but…I did make Lee, once, in recent times… we were playing a gig with Oasis, Lee put on a monobrow, and we made Lee go in their dressing room and talk to them like that, and he followed Liam Gallagher into the toilet like that. Liam was a bit unhinged by it, I think. I said to Lee you’ve got to keep a really straight face when you’re talking to them. Lee is always game for that kind of thing. He is mischievous, you can always get him to do stuff like that.
J: You’re blaming Lee but it sounds like you started it.
M: Well, yeah, I did send him in… but I blame Chris, actually [laughs]. He starts these things off. Chris gets Lee to do things.
J: Favourite restaurant?
M: Mangal near the Rio cinema. I like to go to St John in Spitalfields too.
J: Favourite fairground ride.
J: The Teacups?
M: I hate them all. I really don’t like fairground rides. I do like those cascade things, with the 2p’s. I spend hours doing that, putting the 2p’s in and watching them fall.
J: Childhood toy?
M: A football.
M: Being There, with Peter Sellers.
J: Song to play live?
M: There are so many really. It must be love is always really good, enjoyable to play. Anything that gets a great reaction. We’ve been playing some old reggae tunes on the road, and they’re satisfying in a different way.
J: What’s next for you?
M: I’ve been playing with Lee with his Ska orchestra. It’s a labour of love. I’m doing stuff with my friend Terry Edwards and I’m a graphic designer, which is what I do most of the time, every day. Stops me going barmy!
J: Will you sign my two Kill Uncles?
‘It says best wishes, Bedders. I should have been a doctor.’
J: Would you write a note to my mum?
B: Yes! [Thinks for a bit, chuckles to himself].
With special acknowledgement of thanks to Stevie MacGregor + fridge.
As I approach the front door of the Showbiz house, I notice that it’s decorated in many unusual and pretty doorknobs that have been made from seashells in Bali. After a Japanese song is played in full for the doorbell, the door swings open to reveal a tall, slender, sharp-dressed man. ‘You’re early!’ he exclaims both friendly and brisk, before striding down the hall in such a Dahl-esqe Wonka manner that I half expect his house to be made of chocolate.
Grant Showbiz is one of the very few who, during the short, implosive career of The Smiths, witnessed managers, producers, crew and friends pass by, while he himself managed to sustain his tenure as a sound man that almost completely bookended The Smiths’ fertile five year period (from 5th gig onwards through to production of ‘Rank’). He is such an excitable and luminous person to talk to; the memories fizz out of him like as a freshly capped Coke that somebody shook up before they opened: ‘with The Smiths it was just me making what they did sound great! They didn’t need any musical direction; Joe (Moss) just said to me – ‘make Morrissey’s voice as loud as the rest of the band!’
He very generously shows me around his happy home, which is filled with delicious treats because, luckily for me, all of his personal memorabilia is down from the loft as it undergoes a conversion. There rare t-shirts, posters, singles, sound check tapes, postcards… every door opens to another room of treasure: the studio is piled up with records, what used to be his upstairs bedroom is full of rolled up posters, books, tapes, videos, bags and boxes of pictures… and when he goes looking for one thing he becomes excited to uncover another. Even his bathroom has framed gold discs and Frank Chickens posters. He has kept every jigsaw piece of his musical life for The Smiths, The Fall, Billy Bragg or Frank Chickens, as well as his own band – Moodswings - the five artists in whom he has invested his enduring loyalty. Seeing it all laid out like this (most of it Smiths) is giving me a peculiar floating sensation, because I know I’m seeing something special, precious items that ought to be in the V&A, encased in glass, ready for a future exhibition.
On his style of working: ‘You have to be receptive, dedicated and caring… I don’t know the names of things. I have made a real conscious effort not to try and learn anything technical, like the model numbers of compressors. I am probably unlike most sound engineers because most sound engineers know what they are doing. I just have my ears!’ On the sound of The Smiths: ‘The Smiths were looking for the ‘other’. I believe that they were looking for something that hadn’t been done before, business-wise and everything else’.
His favourite childhood toy is Action Man, he likes cheese n’ onion crisps and for a biscuit he’ll scoff a shortbread. When he’s not touring with Billy Bragg or producing The Fall (or standing on a chair) he gets very busy on his free nights, reading to his little son, Taro.
J: Happy birthday! Please say your full name.
G: Grant Showbiz.
J: Why did you change your surname?
G: I dropped out of Uni in 1976/77 and immediately got involved with the squat scene in London. I was working for a guy called Steve Hillage, a guitarist at Virgin Records. Through him I met a band called ‘Here and Now’, a bunch of real stoner hippies. I was eighteen and I knew nothing but even knowing so little I was still the most together guy out of all of us because I could put the equipment on stage and set it up. That was back in the day when there was a free festival scene in the UK and we’d have three days notice to play, so everyone would wait around for three days, no toilets, shops or places to sit. Eventually we’d play and that would be the event! Gradually we got into the music business and I got us a record deal. I was kind of the manager and the sound man. We did a big free tour of normal venues in 1977 and I had this attaché case on the bus. When the rest of the band saw it they started shouting: ‘You’re just showbiz! You’ve turned into a complete showbiz freak!’ They took the attaché case that had all the money and information about the gigs and threw it out the bus window as we were headed up the motorway and after that no one called me anything else.
J: Do you think that ‘Showbiz’ sums you up?
G: I do, yes. In that kind of way, I just thought, I am showbiz. As a teenager I loved to follow Bowie, Lou Reed, get the autographs, I’d try to get on stage… all of that I loved. Everyone had a punk name in 1977 and that was mine.
J: And with that… could you describe yourself in a sentence?
G: Yes. Loud, talkative, happy and lucky… very lucky to walk into the Smiths.
J: You seem to maintain very long relationships with bands.
G: I’m not a career guy, working with hundreds of bands. You could sum me up as The Smiths, The Fall, Billy Bragg and Frank Chickens, and my own band, The Moodswings. It was really nice to see Mark [E. Smith] yesterday because I’ve known him for thirty-five years. I’ve worked with Billy for nearly thirty years. I’m still friendly with Johnny [Marr] and we exchange emails occasionally. I find people that are talented and I become their friends because I love what they do, and I’m happy to work for them for as long as they like, sometimes for nothing. Billy is probably my closest male friend. We were just in Australia touring together. We played to the biggest audiences we’ve ever had. It was really odd because there are very few other bands or singers from our era who aren’t playing the oldies circuit for 300-400 seat clubs. We were playing to 3000 people on our biggest tour ever! This is weird when you’re in your fifties! [Laughs]
J: What are you doing with The Fall at the moment?
G: I just finished an album. Well, certainly yesterday’s conversation indicated that had happened. But I’ve already finished it three times [laughs]. Making a record with The Fall is unlike making a record with anyone else.
J: If you could work with anyone outside of these four acts, who would it be?
G: I’d like to work with Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst. He’s really brilliant, I think he’s a genius. He started releasing cassettes when he was eleven or twelve. He had a number one in America a few years ago in 2004. He has gone from being quite political to being quite mystical. I just love his lyrics.
J: Would you like to work with Morrissey again?
G: I’d love to work with Morrissey but I don’t think it’s on the cards. You never know. I imagine that one day we’ll get to the ‘Mott The Hoople moment’ when we’re seventy-three and think, actually, I’m not going to be able to do this in a year’s time… so let’s just get together and do The Smiths one last time.
J: Who should be at that reunion?
G: Everybody really, Mike Joyce is the first guy I got to know in the Smiths. I used to sleep on his floor in Manchester. It may have just gone too far now… although who knows… age does funny things to people. I talk to people now that I thought I’d never speak to again.
J: You have an amazing record collection. Do you tend to listen to the same albums all the time?
G: I have about six thousand records. I’m always trying to find new stuff, not the stuff I’ve got. With my son being born I’ve started to realise that I have a lot of favourite records I don’t listen to anymore! So I’m going back to listen to records that I love, ones that I haven’t listened to for fifteen years.
[Grant puts a tape on. Live music of The Smiths plays].
J: Oh my, what tape is this?
G: This is one of The Smiths sound checks. I don’t know which one [Money Changes Everything is playing]. I recorded a backstage video too. I don’t know why it’s called ‘Reel Around The Fountain’, I never called it that. A lot of it was filmed on this:
J: You should make a DVD of ‘Reel Around The Fountain’.
G: The quality isn’t that good.
J: When you listen to these sound checks again, are you listening as a sound man or as one who enjoys music?
G: Both, I think. In the in beauty of things that you do there’s an awful moment when you finish a record or live gig and you can see all the holes and it drives you mad. All you hear is the mistakes and eventually you have to let go. Then five years later on another listen there’s this amazing thing that happens where you’re like ‘there’s something really wrong with this track… what is it?’ You can’t remember that terrible thing that caused you sleepless nights of worry and then you’re like, ‘oh this sounds great! I did a really good job!’ [laughs].
[Frankly Mr Shankly plays]
J: This sounds fantastic, even without Morrissey’s voice.
G: This is when they were learning the tracks, in soundchecks. I wonder what’s on every cassette I have. They’re all years old. There’s something totally different on the other side! When I turned it over and heard this I was like, ‘Grant, what are you like?’ [Laughs].
J: I notice that you have many collectables.
G: Yes! My downfall was the attic because I could just put stuff in there and forget about it. Since the loft conversion I haven’t got the attic space anymore so I’m just digging out and recovering/keeping stuff that’s great. I’ve probably got about fifty Smiths t-shirts, all the originals. I’ve got this Fred Perry style Irish Smiths tour t-shirt which says The Smiths in green with a shamrock. I’ve got about half a dozen of those.
J: How did you begin working with The Smiths?
G: I am blessed! Johnny and Andy were at a Here and Now gig when I was stood up at the mixing desk with my red green and gold cardigan that I used to wear, from M&S or somewhere. I was shouting at the band on stage, trying to organize a very late soundcheck, because that’s what I used to do.
J: What were you shouting? What sorts of things?
G: I would say: ‘That was rubbish! Stop playing’ or ‘Really, you’re supposed to be off now’ or ‘actually you should be starting…why are you still setting up the drum kit’ or the drummer would say: ‘can you put echo on the bass drum’ and I’d be like: ‘do you really mean that?’ You can talk through the monitors on stage from the mixing desk so that they can hear you but I always thought that was boring so I’d put my voice through the PA. I liked standing on a chair. I just wanted to be the lead singer, and I couldn’t sing. Then I wanted to be the lead guitarist but I couldn’t play guitar so I ended up as the roadie, then worked my way up to become the sound guy, and ended up doing a national tour of France with Planet Gong – who were Here and Now plus Daevid Allen - but I knew nothing.
J: You faked it with Here and Now? You must have had some, basic technical knowledge…
G: No. I didn’t have any technical knowledge at all. The first gig I ever did was a free gig in Hyde Park, September 1976, and it was the Steve Hillage band supporting Queen. Fifty thousand people came, or so they say. I was the guitar tech for Steve. I went out front to look at the mixing desk and I had been getting into the different sound of records since I was a preeteen. I knew that some records had more bass, and some other records didn’t have enough bass, and other records where you couldn’t hear the vocals, or some where the vocals were too loud. So I had some vague idea. Later on I’d be sitting around smoking spliffs and talking with my mates about records. Then Steve Hillage took me under his wing and taught me little tiny bits about stereos and soldiering irons and sh*t like that. I don’t know why then I went out and watched the Queen gig from the mixing desk. Their sound engineer was called Patrick Humphries, who, in his day was the go to guy for great sound, he did Pink Floyd and people like that. So he turned up, and there were all these kind of minions and they were saying things like: ‘we’ve got the two stereo compressors in place’. He was obviously a little bit drunk, and he sort of went: ‘I’ve got these [points to ears] it’ll be alright’. I was like [screams] oh God! Eureka! You can be drunk? And all you have to have is a pair of ears? I’VE GOT EARS! And that was it. And Queen sounded astonishing.
J: Is that the most important thing that a sound man can do?
G: I am probably unlike most producers and sound engineers… because most of them know what they are doing [laughs]. I have made a real conscious effort not to try and learn anything. I always wanted it to do with my ears, how it sounded, you know, and I’ve made some brilliant records and I’m a fantastic producer and sound engineer. But I don’t know the names of things or the model numbers!
[William it was really nothing comes on the sound check tape].
J: What has kept you making these brilliant records then?
J: Talent, ears…
G: Mainly luck. You’ve got to be talented and not a twat but luck is needed. This is what I tell the college students that I occasionally lecture. Sometimes you’re in a recording studio, and you just sit back and the genius falls out, but a lot of the time it’s trying to recognise a good sound and get people in the right space to create music. Being aware, accommodating and not missing that special moment. I remember when we [Billy Bragg] were doing ‘Mermaid Avenue’ with Wilco and we missed one take. Jeff Tweedy (from Wilco) was on my arse like a monkey! And he was right. We were still recording on tape in that session and from then on those reel to reels recorded every single thing we played in the studio.
Once I was producing in Iceland with The Fall and there’s a song called Hip Priest which is on ‘Silence of the Lambs’ soundtrack and I had to turn round to the engineer and say: ‘This is a song! This isn’t them tuning up!’ Cos it starts with a lot of fiddling going on. I was like: ‘Start the f**king tape! This is a f**king song you know’ and that was a take and it was a brilliant take, and who’s to say if we hadn’t have got it then, we may never have got it. So it’s being receptive, dedicated, caring. That’s why I can’t work with a lot of people because I have to f**king care. I can’t check in like it’s my job. I never wanted a job. The last straight job I did was a postman between school and Uni. I only did that to get the money to go to Jamaica to find Bob Marley. That didn’t really work out, but I got back alive!
J: So you were doing a Here and Now show, and Johnny and Andy turned up to that. How did you get talking?
G: Manchester was a big area for us. They came to a gig at the Poly, we were a mess, turned up late, did the soundcheck in front of the audience. I think Johnny and Andy appreciated the deviation from the norm and the theatrical aspect of it as much as anything else. Someone doing my job should have been unnoticed and dressed in double denim, instead there’s this strange maniac conducting this mad panto. Often punk bands would support us, it was free to get in, and people smoked dope in the venue.
This was how it worked - we’d phone up a Uni and say: ‘Look, you’ve got to entertain your students. We’ve got a PA and a band. We’ll come and entertain and you don’t have to pay us a penny’ and they were like: ‘yeah, great!’ Then we’d go and do the gig, we were the security, and if we turned up late or if we’d found some magic mushrooms the day before, setting up the PA might take days. Sometimes We’d turn up & the kid who’d booked us hadn’t got the proper permission and they’d say ‘you just can’t play now’ so we would set up outside in the grounds of a college. It was wild & outlawish. There was no one looking after us and we were a f**king mess at times. We didn’t get paid. We’d pass a hat round at the end of the show and go: ‘If you think it’s a good idea that we get to the next gig, give us some money.’ God knows what happened in that gig, but I’m sure they were both there.
J: So you didn’t get talking to Andy and Johnny that night?
G: No. What happened was my name came up at Rough Trade about five years later because through Here and Now I had done the sound for The Fall. More great luck! Mark E Smith said ‘come and produce our second album’. Imagine! It was Mark who dragged me from the squats/free festival scene into the actual music business. So I had a no.1 album in the independent charts in 1979. Obviously Morrissey knew about The Fall, and The Fall were on Rough Trade. Rough Trade said that The Fall can be difficult at times but Grant is organized and can make them sound great, and he’s also on time, and vaguely seems sane. I guess Scott Piering or Geoff Travis said come along and see what you think of this band [The Smiths] and if you want to work with them. Johnny and Andy knew me through Here and Now, so there were three people in the band who knew who I was. I was a little bit of an outsider then, but capable of doing the business.
J: How were you an outsider?
G: I was just odd and weird. Living in squats and buses, outside the law and living on little or no money. The Smiths were looking for the ‘other’. I believe that they were looking for something that hadn’t been done before, business-wise and everything else. The Smiths eventually broke Rough Trade, they made it in a funny sort of way by being bigger than any band on the label… then smashed them up. Rough Trade’s ambitions got so huge on top of a crazy tottering foundation of making it up as they went along, that they crashed and burned at the end of the day.
J: You met The Smiths at ULU?
G: Yeah, it was backstage.
J: How were they? Did you get along?
G: Well yes, they were amazing. They were like The Beatles and The Stones in that they had a complete identity, language, style… they had Andrew Berry’s haircuts who worked out of the Hacienda, very important about the hair. They had their top collars done up, beads, jackets… and they looked unlike anything I had ever seen before. They used words like ‘handsome’ and ‘charming’. Words that I hadn’t heard… sort of Dickensian.
J: How polite and elegant.
G: Yeah! Wonderful, wonderful! You see it in all the great bands, they’re like a gang that has a language that you don’t understand that you just really want to understand cos you’ve never heard it before. They looked great, their lovely manager was there too, Joe Moss, who seemed more like a father or older brother, and I was used to managers being quite sharky… and he was just f**king brilliant! And they really liked me! [laughs]. They were supporting The Sisters of Mercy for f**k sake.
J: I love the Sisters of Mercy.
G: He’s still going isn’t he?
J: Andrew Eldritch? Yes but he has lost his hair now. And hair was so important, with the hat and the dry ice.
G: Ah! The dreaded hair. Such a nightmare when you base your career on hair. I saw Cheap Trick at SXSW in Austin, Texas and back in the day, the singer was a gorgeous androgynous boy in his time with the hair. When I saw him at SXSW he had the hat on, and then three quarters of the way through the set he took the hat off and was like: ‘Yeah! I’ve gone bald! Dig it!’ He didn’t actually say that, he just took the hat off for three songs then put it on again [laughs].
[Vicar in a Tutu plays on the sound check tape]
G: They did a clever thing which is they started off vaguely in the dark margins… there was a New York Dolls thing about them at first… I actually saw the Dolls in 1974. Johnny Thunder was playing his guitar with a rag doll at the Rainbow Rooms in Biba’s - a huge outrageous department store in Kensington, everything was in black and gold, even the baked beans. Someone in drag stood on a table and fired a starting pistol into the air to start the show. Then at the end of the gig I went back to the hotel and hung out with them!
J: [Laughs] How did you do that?
G: I still don’t know! I don’t know to this day! I was with my best mate, we had hooked onto Bowie at his Hunky Dory stage and we couldn’t get close to him, damn we tried… somehow we lucked out with the Dolls.
J: This was just through enthusiasm and fandom?
G: Yeah! Just literally, like ‘hey that’s happening down there, let’s go’. So often we’d sign into school for the afternoon then bunk off down the motorway. I’ve got a phial of glitter that Bowie gave me somewhere. I remember very clearly that Lou Reed came over with a band called ‘The Tots’ and I had the album and I put it through the window and said ‘can I have your autograph?’ and Lou Reed autographed it and gave it back to me. I said ‘can I have The Tots autograph?’ and he said: ‘Yeah, sure’ and he picked it up and wrote: ‘The Tots’ and gave it back to me! [Laughs] One of the great moments of my life!
So anyway, we were young, and I went to a gig where Bowie had a mime teacher. Bowie did mime every night on stage. He had a mime troop and the Rainbow Theatre and we were filmed. I would pay huge amount of money to find that footage. My fifteen year-old self babbling about Bowie. We had older girlfriends who dressed us in drag. We must have looked so gorgeous! [Laughs]. One of the gigs in Aylesbury was filmed for Bowie and ended up on YouTube and the guy I went to the gig with is there holding a poster! And I was stood next to him and I’m not there! Where am I?! I’m like: ‘There’s you! Where’s me?’ And he comes back three or four times! And every time I expect to see myself and I’m never there! [Laughs].
J: When you were working with The Smiths from virtually the beginning to the end, did you see many changes within the band over time?
G: It was so incremental. When you are inside it you don’t notice changes. We didn’t think it was going to end and it all seemed so natural. We were all together in the van all the time, it seemed.
J: Who was in the van?
G: Joe Moss drove the van. Oli, the swiss roadie, me… and the band. That was it. That’s how it began. It was an open van, with mattresses in the back. Morrissey would sit up front most of the time and the rest of us would be in the back of the van rolling up. I noticed that producers were always in the studio, this is why I wanted to be a live soundman as well. The producers would never get to travel to all these countries, see all these amazing gigs, meet all these girls and drink all that wine.
J: What was the banter in the van?
G: Morrissey was very funny. Everyone was very cool.
J: Did people call you Grant or Showbiz?
J: Do people still call you Showbiz now?
G: Yeah! Billy [Bragg] still calls me Showbiz [laughs]. They don’t call me ‘Grant’!
J: Tell me about this picture.
G: That’s me and Billy with Al Green. We went down to Al Green’s church. He had been on a two week fast which seemed to consist of wine and water. He’s the greatest singer in the world. He comes to the UK over every two years and I still see him.
The last time I saw him I went with my friend May, who is a very statuesque blond woman. We sat right at the front of the Hammersmith Odeon. Al Green came over, handed her a rose and said: ‘that’s the sort of woman I like!’ [Laughs].
J: In terms of gigs, what would you say was the Smiths turning point to success?
G: I’d say Norwich was the turning point where the gigs started getting bigger. I was like ‘hang on there’s quite a few people here and they’re all going bonkers and trying to get backstage’. And I had loads of friends! Where did all these friends come from?! Coach loads were coming in with the gladioli t-shirt on and that’s when I knew that the true faith started. We got some bigger gigs and Oli started to get pissed off because he had loads to do – one guy roadieing for loads of people. They were like: ‘Oli where’s this where’s that’ and he was like ‘f**k this I’m going to get stoned’. He drifted away, we got a bigger van with seats in it, we got John Featherstone [lighting engineer] who was very important, he started to make it look really interesting. Johnny got a guitar tech, so gradually everything got bigger. Then we had a PA company, we had Oz McCormick who babysat me. If I know anything technical it comes from Oz. He was the guy that made sure everything was going well when I was going mad standing on the desk having a great time.
J: What’s your favourite gig?
G: The Salford gig was great. I can’t remember being pissed off with any gig. We gave good gig! Barrowlands was incredible. When the Glaswegian crowd liked you they made the same noise that was made at other gigs when they hated you! Those weird gigs in the Shetland Islands were mad too.
J: At the Barrowlands you were on a coach.
G: Yes, by this time we had a coach. Then there was Andy’s drug problem. In Ireland I started to think; this is a bit odd, why doesn’t somebody do something. Andy isn’t playing the right riffs; oh wait, he’s alright again now. But he’s your mate! What can you do? I just sort of thought it would sort itself out.
As soon as Joe left there was no management. I remember I went to Japan with Kazuko when The Smiths were starting an American tour. I phoned the agency and said ‘how am I going to get from Japan to New York?’ and they said ‘we haven’t got a ticket’ and I was like: this is really weird! So I just phoned up Johnny from Tokyo and told him. Half an hour later Johnny had me a ticket. That’s the sort of thing he had to do. Every moment that the record company tried to say ‘we don’t want Grant involved anymore’, love their little hearts, Johnny and Morrissey stepped in.
J: What did you say to the Smiths when they were on stage? What musical direction did you give them?
G: Well, a singer is never going to be too loud, that’s the first thing. But I don’t like loud volume. Or cymbals. Or treble-y brightness. When operating a PA you’ve got the speakers on either side of the stage and then you’ve got the volume that’s coming off the stage from the guitarist’s amplifiers. I’ve played with guitarists that have been so loud I don’t have them in the PA, which can be difficult because then they can’t be controlled. The guitarist is zooming away and you need to fit everything else around that volume. There was no such problem with Johnny or Andy, it was just me making what they did sound great. They didn’t need any musical direction. Joe [Moss] just said to me ‘make Morrissey’s voice as loud as the rest of the band.’ I still go to so many gigs where you cannot hear the singer. With killer singers and incredible lyrics! Really it’s so easy to make a band sound great… why don’t people do it?
J: When you look back at your younger self, is there anything you would have done differently?
G: No. I think everything worked out in a really nice way.
J: Are you still in touch with Johnny?
G: Yes. Johnny is one of those genuine nice people. I saw him last year at a Stooges gig with Angie and they were holding hands like teenagers in love. A couple of years back we met in LA and he had ‘45RPM” logo from early Tamla Motown single tattooed on his arm and I had been wanting to get a tattoo myself for a long time – I do copy Johnny so much [laughs]. Thirteen is my lucky number, there are thirteen letters in my name and I was born on the thirteenth so I saw Johnny’s tattoo and almost within a day I had gone to the same tattoo parlour, The Shamrock Social Club on Sunset Boulevard, where Johnny has all his tattoos done.
J: Thirteen is quite a superstitious number.
G: Some people get very worried about it. When I went to India they were very concerned about it.
J: Did you bump into Morrissey while you were in Oz with Billy?
G: He was just about to come out. Following us around, funnily enough.
J: When did you last see Morrissey?
G: Probably about eight or nine years ago. He came to a Billy Bragg gig. We had a nice chat. I wish I had more time to stay and talk with him. I miss his viewpoint on the world.
J: What did you do after The Smiths broke up?
G: A lot of people were washed up on the shore by the huge tidal wave of The Smiths. Not because it was a horrible thing, it wasn’t The Stones in 1972, but , The Smiths were so amazing that people didn’t recover from it because they could never achieve anything like it again. Again - I was so lucky - I just carried on. I’d met Billy during The Smiths so I just smoothed straight into producing a gold record with him and started touring, so my life was still exciting.
J: You produced ‘Rank’. Was this a natural evolution of your work at their live gigs?
G: Yes. In a funny way it was a bone that they threw me. I just knew how Rank should sound. I would have loved to make a studio album with The Smiths as well. If you ask me what’s my one regret, that’s it. But I think Rank defines what they sounded like live. I think of it as one of the great live albums with no additional overdubs.
J: Do you consider it your personal career high?
G: ONE OF THEM, The Mermaid Avenue stuff I did was incredible, with Woody Guthrie’s lyrics being given new music by Billy and Wilco. I also loved making ‘Moodfood’ with my own band Moodswings.
We sold half a million records in the US and I was finally on stage. At thirty-five years old to be performing with people like Chrissie Hynde and have a record deal and do videos, I felt so lucky!
The Smiths is one of those great things that I did. My life has been blessed. I have this delightful incredible son, and I never thought I’d have a son, or that he’d be this amazing. I’ve just made an album with The Fall, which is the best album they’ve done in years. Now I’m about to do two months in America with Billy! What’s not to like..?! [Laughs]. Know what I mean?
J: I wish I knew what you mean! Can I ask you just some quick fire questions now?
G: I don’t do quick answers, do I? Let me show you a poster! [runs off]
Tulane University, New Orleans
[I follow Mr Showbiz into what used to be a bedroom but is now covered floor to ceiling in memorabilia from the loft. He shows me a selection of t-shirts, some of them unworn. He searches for a box of diaries, one particular diary that Morrissey gave him…but can’t find it. He finds the Klaus Nomi intro music. He has the cassettes of animal noises for Meat Is Murder. He has the mix tapes that Morrissey made for him to play before the shows. He tells me that during the work for the loft conversion the builders took away two skiploads full of stuff. ‘I am closer to getting organised’ he laughs].
G: Morrissey lovingly gave me an animal liberation type diary. It says ‘to Grant’ and all that sort of stuff on the front. In my way I made lists in it everyday then crossed them out. So I have a diary of things that are crossed out. I have no idea what I did on those days!
J: Did you meet Kazuko when Frank Chickens supported The Smiths?
G: No I had a club called the idiot ballroom and she turned up to do a gig as Frank Chickens and it was love at first sight.
Kazuko and Taro
J: Do you go to Morrissey shows now?
G: I saw him at SXSW and I just thought he was great, absolutely great. ‘Your Arsenal’ for me is the great Morrissey album. I love that.
J: Are you a vegetarian?
G: Yes, but I eat fish. Very early on when Meat Is Murder came out the whole band became vegetarian and the catering became vegetarian but there was secret burger eating going on amongst the crew.
J: What’s your favourite drink?
G: It used to be pernod and lemonade [laughs] but these days it’s a wheat beer. I’m not drinking at the moment though.
J: What is that you’re drinking now?
G: It’s orange and raspberry juice with fizzy water. Would you like some? It looks horrible doesn’t it?
J: I thought it was like a protein shake or something like that.
G: [Adopts deeper ‘manly’ voice] Ah yeah! It’s algae! I don’t eat solid food! [Laughs]
J: What’s your favourite pizza topping?
G: Marinara, with seafood.
J: Crisp flavour?
G: Cheese n’ onion
J: Thing to do on a Friday night?
G: Read to my son before he goes to bed.
J: TV show?
G: Peep Show
J: Smiths song
G: Changes every day… I like A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours.
J: Morrissey song?
G: Can’t think of one at the moment.
G: Don’t usually have breakfast
J: Childhood toy?
G: Action Man
J: If Morrissey walked in here right now and said: ‘Alright Showbiz?’ what would you say?
G: How lovely to see you! How’s life treating you?
J: If Morrissey came to your house, what snacks would you put out for him?
G: Some Inspiral Raw Kale Chips.
J: Are you coming back to Twitter?
G: I may do, yes. My son takes up all of my time at the moment. I’m even considering stopping touring… but we’ll see.
J: Could you write a note to my mum?
G: Yeah! Does everyone write a note to your mum?
J: Can I take a picture of us together?
G: Sure. My head looks bigger than yours. Can you go in front of me a bit?
Follow Grant Showbiz on Twitter @zombat or friend him on Facebook here
I would have loved to spend more time with the effervescent Mr Showbiz, in particular to talk about the ‘Reel’ video he made and his production of those six Smiths b-sides… but I didn’t want to overstay my welcome. After all - it was his birthday - not mine.
Frankie Boyle greets me with a smile and hug in the foyer of One Aldwych hotel. He holds the door open as we enter the lift. When we reach the room for the interview he politely asks me what I’d like to drink, orders coffee with full fat milk - ‘let’s go crazy!’ – then cozies himself in an armchair.
There are no pointy digs or distasteful remarks, it’s just Frankie, speaking politely, plainly, and being very funny - occasionally twisting and tugging at his formidable beard – which now resembles a burning bush. His voice is quiet - just a notch above a whisper, and I’m a little discombobulated by this gentle kindness because the Daily Rags would have me believe he’s some kind of evil word-wizard with a tongue that could slice bacon; but in person he’s really more of a ginger Dumbledore.
On-stage, he’s not for everybody. To watch one of Frankie’s gigs is to see freedom of speech at its most extreme. He rebels against convention and societal ‘rules’ of acceptability. He’s crude, rude, he swears, and he goes to the most forbidden places to find his material. Here is a man that dares to talk about the British ‘untouchables’ in a way that the media, and some of the polarized public believe is in scandalously bad taste. No-one has escaped the wrath of Frankie - politicians, celebrities, sportsmen, pedophiles, the catholic church and Royals in particular - have all fueled his furnace: ‘I’m just trying to be funny!’ he shrugs, laughing like a siren.
But millions of people in the UK who watch the shows of black-hearted Frankie find it to be a hilarious and freeing experience. They love his brutally honest comedy and the damning way in which it’s delivered. They attend his sold out gigs, watch his DVDs and read his bestsellers, welcoming his refreshing stance as one who makes jokes about typically forbidden territory that’s normally only sniggered about in the pub behind a cupped hand.
Frankie will joke about whatever or whomever he likes because he is primarily driven by an advocacy of free speech – that it should be truly free without constraint or judgment and not determined by mainstream media: ‘It can’t just be at nuclear crisis point, or at climatic crisis point where you’re allowed to say anything! People need to throw off the shackles of conformity and what’s acceptable because they are living on a dying rock.’
He explains that a joke is a proposition, a way to provoke thought: ‘If I tell a joke, it’s not my position on something, it’s just a way of discussing serious things, and saying ‘what about this, what about that’ under camouflage.’ In this controversial regard, I can’t help but compare him to Morrissey. Both are language provocateurs that use shock tactics to slam home a point; whether it’s the abuse of animals - or in Frankie’s case - the hypocrisy of the British press.
I met him the day before his last gig ever – a gig for Comic Relief about addiction hosted by Russell Brand - where Frankie’s final five minutes of damnation were due to be delivered: ‘I’m going to implode - really badly.’
We talked about comedy, family, his teenage years, and the bands he was into: ‘I was most into The Smiths at around fifteen, sixteen, especially Hatful of Hollow. They were on an arc ahead of their fans.’
His favourite biscuit is the dainty pink wafer and he plans to spend his retirement ‘fighting off the zombie hoards from the apocalypse in three years time… or possibly this summer if it’s hot enough’.
J: Please say your full name.
F: I’m Frankie Boyle. I’m actually Francis Martin Boyle.
J: Does your mum call you Francis?
F: No, my mum calls me Proinsias. It’s my name in Irish.
J: Oh I’ll have to get the spelling of that.
F: (laughs) Well I had better get it as well.
J: Does she still call you Proinsias? [The Irish form of Francis, originating from St Francis of Assisi. Means “little French man”].
F: No. She calls me Frankie now. Everybody calls me Frankie. My granddad was Frank, so I’m Frankie. My parents are from Donegal. They came over when they were teenagers. It was a migration in those days.
J: Can you describe yourself in a sentence?
F: No. (Laughs) I’m such a complex, many-faceted jewel. Maybe that’s the sentence. I’m an enigma wrapped in a riddle lowered from a window onto a horse, ridden by a child.
J: What brings you to London?
F: I’m doing a gig at Wembley tomorrow for charity, which is about addiction, but it turned out to be also part of Comic Relief. So I am going to implode… really badly.
J: Are you going to slag off Comic Relief?
F: Yeah. That’s the first thing I’m going to do.
J: Did you study to become a teacher.
F: Yeah. I did English at Brighton then I went up to Edinburgh to do teacher training. I was working in mental health. I worked in an asylum for a year and then community care homes with schizophrenics. I wanted to work with people with learning disabilities, but in mental health you can’t be promoted without a mental health nursing qualification before going into social work or teaching. So that was the plan, until I started doing comedy.
J: So if you hadn’t ended up in comedy you could have been in mental health?
F: Something like that. I applied to Learning Disability Associations and also The School for the Blind.
J: Do you look back at that time and pluck material from it?
F: I did a joke on the first DVD. It was pretty funny. But there’s patient confidentiality and privacy around that job.
J: How did you end up in comedy?
F: I started as a schoolboy at sixteen. Doing open spots here and there, like a party piece almost. On average, it went quite well. Then when I was twenty-three and doing my teacher training I started doing stand up and open spots in comedy clubs and I was compering within a couple of months for one of the nights.
J: Do you like being the compere?
F: No, but it’s something you can do to get a lot of stage time. When you’re starting out the average spot might be five minutes but as a compere you can maybe get forty minutes.
J: Are most of your pals comedians? I sometimes see you on Twitter chatting to other Scottish comedians - Limmy, Greg, Kevin…
F: No not really, it’s weird, they are friends but I know them much more on Twitter than I would socially. It’s sort of like that now isn’t it? Life has got a bit like that.
J: When you were growing up, who were the comedians that you enjoyed?
F: Billy Connolly was one. I just got an album again that I love called: ‘Bing Hitler live at the Tron’ by Craig Ferguson. I liked the English 1950s/60s thing too – Round the Horne, The Goon Show, Monty Python, P. G. Wodehouse and Oscar Wilde. That was before I knew of The Smiths at all.
J: My mum and dad used to listen to comedy albums.
F: There were no grooves on those!
J: There’s no other comedian like you – how would you describe your brand of comedy?
F: I hate the word ‘brand’ though. I think it’s a big part of what’s wrong with the world. There are many things I think are wrong with the world [laughs]. Everybody thinks about himself or herself as something to market. Even Stewart Lee saying ‘oh Michael McIntyre is like ‘this’ and John Bishop is like ‘that’, it’s kind of like a weird way of saying ‘they’re not like me’ and trying to market himself. People in their forties are probably the first generation who grew up with an ‘advertised’ life. I remember looking through those little catalogues and obsessing over objects which probably my parents never had. Before I was on Twitter - some young student at a gig said to me: ‘oh you should be on Twitter, it’s a great way to market yourself’. I said to him: ‘what do you do?’ and he said: ‘nothing. I’m a student’. So he’s thinking of himself as an idea. I think that’s dangerous to think as yourself as a brand, what is a brand?
J: In this instance, it’s just a way of distinguishing your comedy from other types of comedy.
F: Sure. I just think it’s a way of selling things without a salesman.
J: On the spectrum of all comedians… you’re, well, you’re way off that spectrum into shocking/what shouldn’t be said territory… aren’t you?
F: Yes but not on a spectrum of people. There are things that people would hear down the pub that wouldn’t shock. What society has said is that there’s a public order of what can be said, and there’s a private order of what can be said. So there’s this idea in Britain that ‘oh you can’t say that!’ You wouldn’t do a joke about a disabled celebrity child in public, right? But the reason that that idea is tolerated is because what can be said in public isn’t controlled by the public. This is what’s allowed: you can write a letter of complaint because of something that has been said, or you can tweet to your two hundred followers or whatever, but ultimately what’s in the public domain is decided by Rupert Murdoch and by people who have a lot of power.
J: Are you trying to represent the private ‘stuff’ that’s not allowed to be said?
F: No, I’m just trying to be funny! [Laughs]. But what I’m also trying to do is say that you’ve got to be allowed to talk about anything, as a culture, intellectually or in any way. It can’t just be at nuclear crisis point, or at climatic crisis point where you’re allowed to say anything! People need to throw off the shackles of conformity and what’s acceptable because they are living on a dying rock. That’s the first place that I come from.
J: A few days ago Morrissey said that the rhino is now more or less extinct because of Beyoncé’s handbags. I think that there’s a similar approach to your comedy, to say something controversial in order to provoke thought. Do you agree?
F: Yes. But do people look for that or do they not? One of the reasons they don’t is to do with class. If I was an Oxbridge comedian from a certain set, people would say ‘oh I can see what he’s doing there’, but I’m not, I’m a Scot, an ‘ethnic’, and you don’t get that, and it’s an advantage not to have it because you can surprise people more. Morrissey is such a great quote machine, and the papers have so much space to fill, people like him are used in that way.
J: Is anyone safe from your stand up routines? Is Morrissey safe?
F: He’s certainly safe from my routines, yeah. I’d pass. I don’t know enough about him now.
J: You’ve got quite a lot in common. You both hate the monarchy, some politicians… you might end up quite good pals.
J: Aside from Morrissey, is there anyone you wouldn’t talk about?
F: Not really. I just want to be honest. I think people fail to understand the idea that jokes are a proposition, they are not a positioning. If I tell a joke, it’s not my position on something, it’s just a way of discussing serious things, and saying ‘what about this, what about that’ under camouflage really. Everything is a proposition, and under that you can talk about anything. There isn’t a line really.
I don’t think you’re ever really funny unless there’s something else in there. I never really find anything funny if it’s just ‘ba-boom’.
J: What does your mum think about your jokes?
F: Almost nothing. Completely disengaged.
J: She never phones you up and says ‘Frankie, you went a bit too far there’?
F: The only time she has ever really talked to me about it was when I was a club comic and Michael Barrymore was on telly with ‘My Kind of People’. She went: ‘Is this kinda…. what you do?’ and I went: ‘Yeah. It’s pretty similar!’
J: Do her friends must come up to her and say things?
F: Yeah. I think that does her head in. But also you must remember I was an alcoholic until I was twenty-six, so this is brilliant for them [laughs]. I’m sure they thought I’d be dead at thirty. Everything is gravy for them now.
J: Well done for not having a drink during all this time.
F: oh… how long is it… since 1999. It’s good.
J: Do you worry about your kids seeing you on TV or picking up one of your books?
F: Not really. They literally couldn’t care less.
J: They don’t know that their daddy is on the telly?
F: They do a wee bit, but they just don’t care. They’re not interested. It’s a different class of life; a middle class life for kids. It’s so stimulated. They go to horse riding, karate, it’s just like, I’m the the guy that takes them places.
J: Do you play tricks on them?
F: No. They’re too delicate. I jumped out at my son the other night in the dark. He started to cry.
J: Do you think that a Scottish accent allows you to get away with more mischief in comedy?
F: No, less. It’s the way Britain works, quite a patrician system. Forexample, a lot of the things that Jimmy Carr says are a lot less acceptable than what I say, with a lot less point behind them, so he gets less flack probably because he’s posh. There’s a whole idea of comedy about the cultural voice and versions of it. Chris Morris says stupid things in the patrician voice, but that’s been about since The Goons. It’s kind of important, accent. You can imagine what the character in the sitcom with my accent is going to be. It’s not going to be the boss.
J: In Tramadol Nights the Scottish children swear in the sketch for ‘The Magic Wee Hing’ do you think if the kids had different accents it might have been different?
F: Well ‘The Magic wee hing’ had a posh accent. I wrote that and did the voice. The puppet terrified my boy. I had showed him a wee bit of the video, the posh voice doing ‘Hello children!’ and he had been down the park and seen it sitting on a tree stump talking. Then he saw it in the house and he was like: ‘get that thing out ma house!’ so I took it down and left it at the bottom of the stairs to put out. It was the first thing he encountered in the morning and he had a fit. So the Magic Wee Hing is in the shed.
J: You were brought up a catholic, do you believe in God?
F: No, not really. Not in the sense that people mean ‘God’. I think that the universe might be conscious; so the closest I’ve ever got to that is in Hinduism, Vedanta. I guess that’s even a scientific point of view [laughs].
J: Do you experience catholic guilt?
J: So do you look back at stuff you’ve done on stage and think ‘I shouldn’t have said that’?
F: No. I’m not guilty about my work, no, not at all. If you’re going to feel guilty about something then don’t say it. I’ve definitely had that in the past, for jokes and thought, oh, that’s not really on, so I’ve not done them. There’s very few I’ve regretted because I think so carefully about everything before I do it.
J: How do you prepare?
F: I write all the time. Then I start to pull it together and do short shows. I start to do open spots, maybe twenty or thirty of those, then I try to do longer spots, like gigs.
J: Is that when you just ‘pop up’ in places?
F: Well I do the Stand but I’ll also do a theatre or a mixed bill when I’m not announced. Or charity gigs. If you’re looking for a tough gig – i.e. does this work outside of the fans or the people that come to see you – the charity gigs are good for that. I’m just really checking if the words work. All in all I may do 100+ gigs before I start doing a tour.
J: Do you have a group of hardcore fans that wait for you at the stage door?
F: They’d have trouble catching me! [Laughs]. Not really. If you advertise yourself you’ll get a bunch of people that are into you. If you’re going to tour it you’re looking for jokes that will work in Hull on a Wednesday night. I don’t really see the faces, I’m in 2000-seaters or something like that.
J: What were you into as a teenager?
F: Joy Division, The Smiths… I was really into Lord Of the Rings. I was quite sort of bookish. Nowadays if you’re into something it brings you together with a lot of people, so you can’t really be something like a Smiths fan anymore, because that hooks you into lots of others. It could even hook you into sex! This big social group! When I was a kid it was quite isolating being a Smiths fan. You were one of four people in the whole school… and then that thing became really important. I was into the Smiths, Talking Heads, The Fall and Joy Division. I was really f*****g depressing! It was also the eighties, and I hated the eighties, despite never knowing anything else. I hated Stock Aitken and Waterman, the whole style of the thing. Everything about it appalled me. I hated The News of The World, Thatcher, everything about the eighties was appalling.
J: What was life like at school?
F: It was pretty non-descript really. I was quite an outsider but I had a really big pal, so I didn’t really get bullied. My buddy was six foot five. I was also quite verbally aggressive, even as a little kid [laughs]. I listen to a lot of comedy and read a lot of funny things, I had a good sense of humour. In our school people were bullied into a nervous breakdown. It was brutal, like a zoo. There were two, maybe three guys that I look back on now and think: ‘they were gay guys’. I think I was in my thirties when I realised that wee guy that everybody picked on and spat on… he was an outsider because he was a non self-confident gay guy, and those guys were absolutely brutalised. People used get covered in spittle in the classes. I got taken off their wall of fame. If you ever want to know if you’ve made it, get taken down off your school’s wall of fame [laughs].
J: So if somebody came up to you in the playground and tried to be your pal, you’d just use a put down to get rid of them?
F: Yeah. It’s more of a protective thing. It’s hard to explain to people now. School isn’t like that now. I was at a school with two thousand kids, some of them educated in an annex. There was a portacabin… a playing field. It was like a prison yard. Some of the bullies like, died, got killed. This wee guy – his dad chopped his head off. I remember his dad, he was a drunk and somebody inked his son’s jumper. He went up to the kid at the train station with his butcher knife and cut this kid’s jumper open. Years later he chopped his kid’s head off.
J: He chopped his own kid’s head off?
F: Aye. Cut the one wee guy’s jumper in two that inked his jumper, then ended up - cut his own kid’s head off.
J: That’s awful.
F: There are loads of people who are dead from that time. Loads more who are dead from heroin addiction, alcoholism. I’m only forty!
J: Why did the school take you off their wall of fame?
F: I did some jokes about one of the teachers in one of my books.
J: Oh… I won’t ask. How did you get into The Smiths?
F: My brother’s pal. I remember him playing it on cassette.
J: Is that your older brother?
F: Yeah. He’s forty-three now. I remember I liked it, but I wouldn’t say that [laughs]. Then I saw Heaven knows I’m miserable now on Top of the Pops and sort of got into it then. I was most into The Smiths at around fifteen, sixteen, especially ‘Hatful of Hollow’. I didn’t get ‘The Smiths’ album until the end, so I had missed out on that, but The Queen Is Dead, Louder Than Bombs – I taped that at the library. I loved them all. The Smiths were on an arc ahead of their fans. I remember listening to The Queen Is Dead at the time, and thinking ‘well that’s not quite what I hoped it would be’ and then I came back to them because they were all a development each time. It’s almost like all art is the wrong way round. People start out doing real crisp things to prove themselves, like the Beatles, in Hamburg and James Joyce’s Dubliners. It’s only towards the end that they start to experiment. We should have a culture that supports that! James Joyce’s first book should have been Finnegan’s Wake! [Laughs]
J: What was it about The Smiths that appealed to you?
F: For me it was a time I was alone in my life, a time of isolation. I just imagined that The Smiths were about this poetry of aloneness… but it’s not at all! I listen to it now and it’s about disappointment and being taken advantage of! It’s very funny. But I translated it into what it meant for my virgin self at that time. It’s isolation when you’re surrounded by people: how alone you could be when in a relationship, how alone you could be in a social situation. I think I also see the beauty of stuff like that. [sings I don’t owe you anything] ‘Drunk on stolen wine…’ that’s a really beautiful song but it’s things he can’t say to that girl or boy, it’s his internal monologue. Maybe he knows that they’re going to go out with someone else [laughs].
J: Did you ever see The Smiths live?
F: No. I don’t like live music. I prefer the records. The things I like best live are the things that sound most like the records. That’s probably no way to appreciate music, but then I’ve not no musical ability. I’m really into rap now. I like word-pictures and how it all works together. A comedian called Phil Kay got me into rap. He’s into improvisation. He’s a genius. Half the time it doesn’t go well because he literally improvises about what’s in the room, every time. He got me thinking of it in terms of how words work together.
J: Have you seen any band live?
F: Yeah, The Fall, they were great. About seven/eight years ago at The Renfrew Ferry. Loads of heckling, people throwing stuff. They just played through it really loudly. At the same time you could see that Mark E Smith was able to keep writing great stuff because of adversity. It’s hard to survive being rich and loved. With Mark E Smith there is this completely unappreciated side that keeps him in that bubble where he can keep writing.
J: He has just finished another album. Supposed to be their best album ever.
F: If you’d said that about any other band I wouldn’t believe you, but the fact that it’s the Fall that might well be true because he’s still ‘out there’. I think you need to be culturally isolated to write well. It comes from the shamanic, on the edge of the village, no place in society.
J: I’m sure I’ve seen a picture of you with quiff. Did you used to try to look like Morrissey?
F: Definitely. That’s what I looked like anyway. I had a load of Smiths t-shirts.
J: Were you more into Morrissey or Johnny?
F: I was into Morrissey. I like words.
J: Was there a Smiths song that you liked in particular?
F: Too many to mention but probably Suffer Little Children was a real… well horrible… but at the same time great piece of art. For some guys in their early twenties to write something like that! Everything off Hatful of Hollow resonates too, particularly How soon is now.
Photograph: Rex Features/SIPA
J: I thought you were going to say Still Ill because of the iron bridge.
F: Ha! I wasn’t even in that ranking at that age. That seemed like an exotic dream me to going under an iron bridge to kiss a girl!
J: When did you meet your first girlfriend?
F: At Uni. I think it was that way at that time in Glasgow. If you wanted to be around girls you had to go to parties and be in the socialization of f*****g morons! You had to expose yourself to risk. I did do that, by getting drunk. You couldn’t really be as drunk at home, but by being away you could solve your social phobias by being three drinks in when you arrive somewhere. Drinking did a lot for me! I could never go to AA but drinking definitely helped for a few years.
J: Do you ever get the urge to drink again?
J: What was your drink of choice?
F: Beer. Just beer. It’s an interesting way to get hooked on alcohol because you can’t really keep going unless you’re going to be thirty stones. Spirits are the big killer. Connoisseur-ship, in general. I lived in a flat with another guy who was a dry alcoholic and he had been into fine wines and whiskies and stuff like that. I just thought, this is never going to last because you’re addicted to luxury chocolates and I’m addicted to… chocolate tools! [laughs]
J: [laughs] Chocolate tools! We used to get them off the van for the dog!
F: For the dog? Ha ha! I love that cheap crappy chocolate!
J: The van was great. The chocolate tools were always in a box at the front.
F: Single fags! Only 10p!
J: Consulate and you won’t get caught!
J: What other bands were you into?
F: I was into Talking Heads too. I think that the fact that things have enough gaps in the meaning for you to make your own meaning appealed to me. ‘Stop Making Sense’ was like a huge thing, because nothing could ever mean to me what they had created. We actually had Talking Heads on in the house all the time.
J: Do you follow Morrissey’s solo work?
F: I followed Viva Hate, Bona Drag and Kill Uncle. I started to check out after that. There’s the odd flourish but I think it’s impossible to do what he did again. There’s that thing in comedy, where people think audiences want Bill Hicks. But they don’t really, they don’t have the capacity to sit and listen to Bill Hicks. You wonder how much it would work now. Not only can anyone else be Bill Hicks but even Bill Hicks can’t be Bill Hicks again. If he was about now, he wouldn’t be doing Bill Hicks, he’d be doing something else, more relevant. Morrissey can’t be eighties Morrissey again.
J: Why not? Because he needs eighties popular culture to rebel against?
F: Well, that’s a point, but I think that belittles what it was. It’s just hard to survive success. It’s all about being in a bubble, not being integrated, being on your own, listening to it on headphones, behind the sofa, in your room on vinyl. It’s not that long ago that people listened to full albums but people don’t do that anymore. We had this on Tramadol Nights, sketches that were such a big fight to get on, like four minutes long. They were like: ‘people don’t watch sketches at four minutes long’ and we were like: ‘they will!’ The sketch that got the most complaints was actually about the length of time. They f*****g hated it. It lasted three minutes fifty. I did an album recently with Glenn Wool. I deliberately didn’t put it on Sound Cloud or even iTunes because I don’t want people to listen to it for three minutes then give up. I want folk to download it then go listen to it on a long car journey or on their earphones, or sit in the bath, where you’ve got them and they can get into it.
J: I downloaded it yesterday and have it saved for a long journey. I did listen to a bit, it sounds like you two had a great laugh making it.
F: We’re not stoned, honest [laughs]. I’d rather five hundred or a thousand people listened to it than it got podcast status. I’m a bit like that with The Smiths as well. You have to take the time to listen to it.
J: Who do you think should play Morrissey in a film of his life?
F: That’s a good question. Michael Fassbender [laughs]. I don’t think you could do a film of his life.
Photograph Gerhard Kassner/Berlinale
J: Really? I think it would be great.
F: A film of his real life would be good. I’m sure that his real life would be interesting! I heard that Morrissey was about at the time of the Moors Murderers and he was scared.
J: He was born in 1959. The kids were only a few years older than him. I would imagine being quite scared too, if I lived there at that time.
F: There’s a good book about it: ‘One of Your own’ [Carol Ann Lee]. It’s like ‘In Cold Blood’. Brilliant. All about their past before they met. And it goes along, and you have a lot of sympathy for Hindley, and then the murders start and you just lose it all, and then see it from both points again. You do a flip a few times in the book. It’s quite an interesting story when you read her book. But it’s sad. Psychopathic. I mean, Ian Brady had a motorbike, and he used to disappear for days at a time, and you think, what the f*** was he doing then? There’s a mad Genesis P-Orridge song about it Ian Brady Very Friendly. Its basically testimony read out in a weird voice over some throbbing guitar. It’s horrible.
J: If Morrissey was to walk in here right now and say ‘alright Frankie?’ what would you say?
F: [Laughs] I’d leave you to him. I can’t imagine he’d be anything other than appalled at me. I can’t imagine we’d have anything in common. I’ve always found it weird that people want to meet that they admire. There’s something a bit Catcher In the Rye about that. I’ve never felt that urge. Someone I really love – Gene Wolfe – an American Tolkien, brilliant, a real genius. Anyway I met someone who said ‘I know Gene Wolfe, come over to Chicago and you can meet him’. I just think, that would be totally intimidating. Their work is what it means to you.
J: So your interpretation of their work might change if you meet them?F: Totally. I know Grant Morrison, best comic book writer ever. I asked him maybe one thing, about his comics, once. That was enough for me [laughs]. Mark Millar said to me: ‘How do you choose comics? Are you going for a new comic?’ and I said: ‘If I know the writer, I’ll buy the comic. If the comic doesn’t have the writer on the front, it must be s*** so I won’t buy it. If they’ve not bothered to credit the writer on the front page, f*** it.’ He said: ‘that’s because most people don’t buy it for the writer, they buy it for the artist!’
J: Have you met Billy Connolly?
F: No, not at all. I’d quite like to meet him. I’d imagine he’d be socially a lot easier than Morrissey!
J: So what would you say to Morrissey if he walked in here now?
F: I’d say ‘would you like a cup of tea?’ and I’d order some tea.
J: What if he was coming to your house. What snacks would you put out?
F: Vegetarian. Maybe some veggie sushi. I went vegetarian for a year, on the back of Morrissey, but I couldn’t handle it. I can’t cook. My mate that I toured with, he just ate egg sandwiches. In our lifestyle you have to live off Service Stations and it’s a nightmare. But even if you’re at home you have to cook, and I can’t.
J: You twist your beard a lot.
F: I want to shave it off at the minute, that’s why. I do that [twist it] when I’m thinking. I don’t read enough, but it means that I think more. There’s a great book by Alan Watts, ‘The Book’. It’s all about how to think about death and life, and he starts off by going: ‘If you want to think about what life is about, it’s not about reading’ [laughs]. It struck me when I read it, I just thought, that’s a great point, there were whole civilisations that existed before reading came along. I’ve found that by concentrating more on thinking as a general concept, the downside is that I arrive at things and then read Nietzsche had thought of something five times better and managed to boil it down to a sentence before me.
J: You’re quite well read and philosophical aren’t you?
F: I think I’m philosophical but I’m not well read.
J: While we’re on Nietzsche, what’s your favourite biscuit?
F: Those pink wafers. My great aunt used to have tins of those and nobody else liked them except me.
J: Did you eat them a wafer layer at a time?
J: As you get older you’re not allowed to eat biscuits that way. Society has determined that an adult with a Jammie Dodger can’t eat the top bit then the jam then the bottom bit, you have to eat it ‘normally’.
F: Depends if anybody’s watching or not. Imagine sitting watching The Wire aged forty eating your biscuits funny [laughs].
J: What’s your favourite album?
F: It’s probably this collection of Bob Dylan’s greatest hits that I have on CD. I thought the CD was great because you had to carry them so you could listen to three in a row on a train. Great if you’re an artist. I’d listen to this Bob Dylan album and it would skip in so many places because I’d had it for so long. One of the places it skipped in was in the middle of the crescendo of Rolling Stone. I’m writing a new book so I might actually put some new theories in about songs l like.
J: Have you had any strongly worded letters: ‘Dear Mr Boyle … I was appalled…’
F: I did a routine about Downs Syndrome that got a lot of flack. The point was that having Downs Syndrome isn’t a big deal, it’s probably worse if you have much older parents, than if you have Downs. In a weird way, it was supposed to be an empowering routine. But this woman at a show got upset about it, partly because she wasn’t listening, she and her husband were checking their phones and I’m like ‘what are you doing?’. I guess they were just not listening. The routine was about older parents buying their Down Syndrome kids out of date presents, and they thought I was saying Down Syndrome kids all have out of date clothes or something. And a whole load other people who didn’t hear that routine have to relate to it by its status: ‘I’ve heard that you said a bad thing’ which is sort of like ‘I’ve heard that this record isn’t that good, but I’ve not listened to it’. That’s how we relate to the world; through a web of status. It’s increasingly ill informed because there’s so much information now and so little time to process it.
J: Do you think that people need to experience something like that in order to make a joke or write about it?
F: Have you heard it? [Downs syndrome joke]
J: I’ve read about it but I haven’t heard it. I am a prime example of what you just said.
F: You’ve read a quote from the blog of a heckler. It’s a joke about having older parents and them being nightmare.
J: So everything that’s written in the papers is wrong?
F: Not just about this [laughs] about much more important stuff than this… weapons of mass destruction…
J: I know, but I think it’s interesting because you’re in the paper a lot for what you say and people speculate…
F: Well… that’s just the starting point. Don’t believe what you read in the papers. Everything is partial.
J: You’re retiring after tomorrow’s gig. How are you planning on spending your days?
F: Fighting off the zombie hoards from the apocalypse in three years time… or possibly this summer if it’s hot enough.
J: What’s your favourite crisp flavour?
F: Cheese and onion probably, but I can’t eat crisps anymore, past that point in age. I’m too old for crisps.
J: Favourite drink?
J: TV programme?
F: I don’t watch TV anymore.
J: Pizza topping?
J: Thing your mum says?
F: I don’t think we can print any of that [laughs].
J: Childhood toy?
F: A bear. He was called ‘wee bear’.
J: Comic book?
F: The Filth by Grant Morrison. I just bought some comics today. I bought Flex Mentallo by Grant Morrison.
J: Smiths song?
F: The whole of Strangeways.
J: Thing to do on a Friday night?
F: Go to bed.
J: Would you host our Mozarmy quiz one week? [@mozarmyquiz]
F: Fine! Yeah. No problem.
J: Could you write a note to my mum?
F: Yes, sure.
J: I’m off to buy your DVD.
F: Oh I wouldn’t do that now [laughs].
Download Frankie’s album with Glenn Wool here. This week Frankie retired from stand up for good, but you can still tweet him @frankieboyle.
Alternatively you can block him. It’s a free country.
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PUBLISHED: March 10, 2013
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Fifteen minutes with Samuel Preston, singer/guitarist/songwriter with The Ordinary Boys and fan of Morrissey
From the day he received Boxers from his brother on his twelfth birthday Sam Preston has never shied away from evangelising that Morrissey has been, and still is, a significant influence on his music career.
His band, ‘The Ordinary Boys’ took their name from the track on ‘Viva Hate’, and it was during their first interview for the NME that Sam began referring to himself as ‘Preston’. He has the signature quiff and glasses; tattoos of lyrics (‘come Armageddon, come’ and ‘sweet and tender’) and he describes Morrissey as his ‘surrogate father figure’.
In a later, extra-ordinary turn, Morrissey became a fan of Sam’s band, choosing one of their songs, Little Bubble to appear on a compilation album he put together for the NME in 2004. In the same year both Morrissey and The Ordinary Boys performed on Jools Holland, and Morrissey asked the Ordinary Boys to appear with him at Meltdown.
It could be argued that Sam’s ‘surrogate father figure’ helped him on his way… but the fact is that great writing was always in Sam’s genes. His grandpa is a Professor Emeritus of English at Princeton University and his mother and brother are successful published authors. He has a remarkable family tree, branching back to his great-great-great-great grandfather, The Right Honorable Earl Grey. Sam has chosen to spend his natural, literary inheritance of songwriting on The Ordinary Boys; where his influences of Morrissey, The Specials, The Cure and Madness are all echoed in the cake mix of indie-pop-ska he plays.
On stage he is the irrepressible and resilient Preston, bouncing off his infinite energies to Boys will Be Boys, Talk Talk Talk, Lonely At The Top and Run This Town supported by the loyal fans in The Ordinary Army. Off stage he is a more reserved Sam, who, post gig, prefers to ‘devour a Bolaño’ on the tour bus. It is this warm and bookish, sensitive Sam I meet; his boyish and innocent demeanor only heightened by a très jolie charity shop bought Arran jumper that any mother would love to cuddle.
Sam talks about his desire for fun and spontaneity in his life, and how he is fueled by the nervous energy he has housed inside himself since he was a child: ‘I never really think things through much further than one or two steps… it stops you doing things that would be fun adventures if you think too much’. It is this impulsive energy that has pushed him to lead a life-in-fast-forward, including three successful Ordinary Boys albums, several highly publicised television appearances, a ‘Prestelle’ marriage/divorce and, most importantly, a chance to meet his heroes; one of whom is Terry Hall, who appeared in the video for the Ordinary Boys single, Seaside.
Recently he has been enjoying working steadily as producer and writer for other artists. Unsurprisingly he has the urge to return to the limelight once again, and he relishes the thought that another Ordinary Boys album may be against all odds of public success: ‘That thought excites me more than if everyone was just waiting for it’, he grins.
He prefers popcorn to crisps, bakes homemade bread and loves to ‘pickle’. His favourite Morrissey album is ‘Vauxhall and I’, which he describes as ‘a masterpiece… with a hanging atmosphere.’
J: Please say your full name.
S: Samuel Dylan Murray Preston.
J: Where do the names come from?
S: Samuel is after my grandpa, Samuel Hynes. Dylan is Dylan Thomas - my grandpa is a big fan of his. Murray is a family name. There are a lot of writers in our family - my brother has a new novel out, my grandpa is a writer and Professor Emeritus of English at Princeton University and my mum wrote a book about autism.
J: Really? That’s fantastic.
S: Yeah, she specialises in it.
J: Can you describe yourself in a sentence?
S: [Laughs] The most interesting people can’t!
J: ‘Happy knowing nothing’?
S: The absolute opposite of that. The Ordinary Boys was meant to be a slightly ironic name. We were so young when we started the band. It was the same with me dropping my first name. I just so loved Morrissey I wanted to copy everything he did.
J: Did you consider other Morrissey inspired band names?
S: Well, I managed a band and we were called ‘This Charming Management’. I was in a hardcore band called ‘Viva Hate’. I had a previous band called ‘True to you’. I still feel kind of shameless about how much he influences me. He has always been such a big part of my life and always will.
J: Do you think he knows the extent of his influence?
S: Yes I think he does. He put us on a compilation of bands he was interested in.
J: Little Bubble is a glorious song. Why didn’t you release it as a single?
S: It was a b-side and we weren’t very precious about our early b-sides at all. A lot of them are better that some of our later album tracks. I’m very fond of Little Bubble.
J: How old were you when you got into Morrissey?
S: I got into him at the tender age of twelve when my brother bought me Boxers for my birthday. Alex is a huge Morrissey fan. Then I moved to Philadelphia when I was a teenager and found this whole group of kids who liked hardcore and The Smiths were included in that. I still feel closest to that group of friends even though they’re so far away. It’s always interested me the hardcore music and all those kids seemed to like The Smiths too.
J: I don’t think you’re alone in being a fan that liked to copy Morrissey, the quiff, the outsized blouses…
S: Yes! It’s fine to do it because we’re all doing it [Laughs]. But when you’re in a band you’re expect to have a least some original content.
J: Morrissey has influenced you quite heavily. The name of your band, your surname as first name…
S: That was so flippant! It was our very first NME interview, and I thought, ‘I’m just gonna be ‘Preston’. No one had ever called me that before and it’s what I wanted to be.
J: What do your family call you? Sam?
S: Yeah. No one calls me Preston. It’s such a pretentious nod to Morrissey! The NME put it in the article then it stuck.
J: I’ve even seen a tour picture of you holding a cat…
Photo by Jake Walters
S: The picture of Morrissey with the cat on his head cheers me up whenever I feel down. I have it bookmarked on my phone, so if I’m a little bit blue I’ll look at it. The two main things that cheer me up are: the picture of Morrissey with the cat on his head; and I like to think about the fact that Paul McCartney called his last album ‘Kisses on the Bottom’. That cheers me up! [Laughs].
J: When I listen to the Ordinary Boys I can hear all of your musical influences in your work; Morrissey, The Smiths, The Jam, The Specials, Madness. Your sound is a bit of a cake mix of those influences isn’t it?
S: Yeah. I think that’s true. It’s funny as well because I managed to meet all of my heroes. I got to perform with Terry Hall; I’m almost as big a Terry Hall fan as I am a Morrissey fan.
I think at the time people were grumpy about the fact that we wore our influences so heavily on our sleeves. It was just a product of so much love for that music. I still listen to the same music. I’m planning on doing a new record this year, with the band. I’m not sure on what level yet. Just because I feel like it all went a bit off piste with the third record and I feel like I got a bit too… well… I just tried so desperately hard to make something ‘new’ that I had lost sight of what music I can enjoy playing. This new record will be closer to hardcore stuff, faster, louder.
J: Your voice is quite gentle on Seaside.
S: Yeah well maybe my voice over proper hard core would be quite an interesting contrast. These beautiful… almost quite Bing Crosby-esque melodies with harder rock n roll is something that Morrissey embraced in his later albums. Maybe as we grow old we soften the edges a little bit.
J: When you pick up your guitar, what do you like to play?
S: I love The Stray Cats. I’m best at playing rockabilly guitar.
J: So you must have enjoyed Morrissey’s rockabilly band then.
S: I did, very much, yeah.
J: Tell me about your meeting with Morrissey.
S: I remember the day so clearly, I have no idea how I managed to take it all in my stride. I asked what music he was listening to at the moment, and he said ‘I’ve been listening to a lot of Partridge Family’ [Laughs]. I was just like, that’s why I love you.
J: What excited you the most during that time?
S: I think the very early days; going on Jools Holland and having Junior Murvin to my left, and Morrissey to my right. Knowing I was going on tour with Morrissey the next day was amazing. I got really close with Alain Whyte and ‘You Are The Quarry’ signed by every band mate. I had set out to meet Morrissey, that had happened, and I was left with the feeling: ‘what next?’ But Morrissey was always really nice to me, really sweet.
J: How did it feel to be asked to join him at Meltdown?
S: Meltdown was such an honour. Our drummer at the time got thrown out for trying to hug moz during his set!
J: I read that you went up to him and said ‘Hi I’m Preston’ and he said ‘Yes I know who you are…’
S: Yes! I can’t tell if that was good or bad! [Laughs]. There are photos of us together but I can’t find any. I have been trying to hunt down those photos. One of my good friends is in Doll and The Kicks, so I managed to get out to see them backstage in Ireland, and I saw him again then.
J: Was he pleased to see you?
S: I think so, yes. I like to think so. We had a nod of acknowledgement. It was the same when I saw Nick Cave. I don’t want to be that guy who’s going up to someone and going: ‘Remember me mate?!’ so when I saw Nick on the train, I remembered I had dinner with him and Will Self a few years ago. I just said ‘hi’ and went on my way.
J: Did he recognise you?
S: Nick? He seemed to, yeah. Will Self is a huge Morrissey fan and when I was doing the third Ordinary Boys album, I had drinks at the Groucho with him to discuss lyrics for that album which I think is why they have… a much more… I don’t know… that third album is a kind of a concept album. A weird album.
It’s a bit kind of bloopy and electronic, which is something that I have completely come out the other side of. I got into it five years ago and it was all I listened to. It seemed really progressive and creative because there is no limits to the sound it can make.
J: Where is your musical core? Is it the harder stuff?
S: I’m quite confident that I’m a strong lyricist. I enjoy it. I want to do something really heavy. I still listen to heavy stuff, and I like to go to those shows. It all goes back to the hardcore teens.
J: Is 2006 Sam Preston different to the 2013 version?
S: Yeah, maybe. I just can’t imagine back to then because it’s so different to how I am now, shy and awkward. An example of that was when I saw other bands success as a personal attack on myself. We’re all friends and I’m happy about it now but I remember I took the Kaiser Chiefs along to the record label and was like: ‘You have to sign this band, I really think they’d be great’. Eventually I persuaded my label to sign them and then they sold millions of records and I was like, ‘Oh.’ [Laughs]. But now I’m really proud of them and think it’s fantastic, because they are lovely guys.
J: I remembered The Ordinary Boys exploding onto the scene. You always seemed to be in a rush.
S: Yeah… I think that’s very accurate. It’s true of my life in so many ways that… I think the journey is always so much more exciting. I get bored of it in the end, when I get there. It’s been long enough that if we were to bring the band back on some level then it will probably be even more of a struggle than it was the first time. That’s kind of exciting though, I like that challenge.
J: Whom are you working with now?
S: I’m working in songwriting and producing. I had a big number one with a song I wrote for Olly Murs called Heart Skips a beat and then having had the number one I got bored with it again. It’s a frustrating way to live your life. I appear to crash when I get there. But I do have a sense of urgency. I want to get this Ordinary Boys record done. I’ve written one song! [Laughs]. I have had a bizarre request to sing for an existing band too.
J: You can’t say who?
S: No. It’s a pretty weird one. I’m just excited to get somewhere. And I can never turn down anything that seems like it’s going to be fun.
J: Can we talk about your tattoos? What’s this one behind your ear?
S: This one is a Jean Michelle Basquiat crown.
S: I’ve got Morrissey ones too:
S: I’ve also got ‘sweet and tender’ on my arm. I know hundreds of people with Smiths tattoos. I have a friend who has ‘little charmer’.
J: What’s the significance of the triangle?
S: My friend told me that it was the most intensely painful tattoo she had ever had so I just did it out of curiosity. I’m not really one for worrying too much about the significance of my tattoos. Tattoos are quite silly really.
J: And was it painful?
S: Oh my God it was the absolute worst!
J: You sampled Siouxsie’s Happy House on Dressed to kill. Are you a fan of hers too?
S: Yes! There’s talk of Siouxsie writing with me, which would be… incredible! She did email me to say that she really liked Dressed to Kill.
I’m doing a project at the moment with the artist Dear Prudence where I’m writing and producing with her. She has a song called Coming Apart again and that’s very Siouxsie influenced.
J: Dressed to Kill is quite clubby isn’t it?
S: I was deep into my electronic phase then.
J: Were you producing your own stuff?
S: Yes, with a friend of mine. But I missed the guitars, I don’t want to do any of that anymore. I’m glad that it was a one off.
J: Shall we talk about your TV appearances? Do you want to/not want to?
S: I don’t mind talking about them. That’s fine.
J: To me, you seemed very at home in the Big Brother house.
S: Weirdly, it was one of the happiest times of my life.
J: You looked contented.
S: I can’t think what it is. It was just really weird because lyrically I had always talked trash on that world, and it seemed so ridiculous for me to go in and be in it. But I learned a lot.
J: As a viewer it was great to watch the playful chemistry between you and Chantelle.
S: Yeah, it was fun, but I think the relationship was a product of that situation and it was always doomed to fail. I wish someone had told me: ‘Dude, by the way, think about this for a second’. But again, it’s that urgency that I have, running at a thousand miles an hour.
J: You were put in the spotlight by the media when you left the house. Was it terrifying or did you love it?
S: The thing is… that at that time, what I think is sad is that I feel I neglected the band. I think that’s one of the reasons why two of them don’t even pick up their instruments anymore. Will doesn’t play guitar anymore. I wonder if I had done something differently and taken their musical careers into consideration a bit more what would have happened, rather than getting caught up in the Big Brother press. But then, they both have careers that they love now.
J: What do they do?
S: Will works for the Guardian and James is a sound engineer.
J: Do you still keep in touch with Chantelle?
S: Yeah. We talk on the phone.
J: Was it reparative going back into the house for the second time?
S: Well I just felt that I had done some damage since I left the first time, so I wanted to remind people that I am a nice guy really [Laughs].
J: Would you go back in for a third?
S: It’s a weird thing to imagine now. I couldn’t do it again. I’ve become agoraphobic and misanthropic with age! [Laughs] I never really think things through much further than one or two steps. I think it’s a wise thing to do. It stops you doing things that would be fun adventures if you think too much about it. It’s much better to just go for it: ‘That cake looks going so I’m going to eat it. It doesn’t matter if it makes me fat’. Just do things.
J: I liked it when you walked off Buzzcocks. I thought they pushed too far.
S: I regret doing anything where there’s video evidence of me at my worst. I didn’t handle it too well.
J: Do you have regrets about your TV appearances?
S: I think if there’s anything that plays on my mind that would be near to a regret is that there are Ordinary Boys records that could exist that just don’t because other things distracted me for so long. I’ve had recent conversations with my label that look after me for my songwriting. I’m still making them money but they all say: ‘you’re going to struggle to get a new Ordinary Boys record, it’s going to be hard to get radio plays’. I just think that just excites me more than if everyone was just waiting for it.
J: You’ve got the fan base.
S: That’s true. I did put a little tweet up about it and everyone was really positive.
J: The ‘Ordinary Army’ seem very loyal. Do you shout them out at gigs?
S: Yeah! I know them all! All the real hardcore ones I know well.
J: Do they turn up to gigs looking like you?
S: Yeah! I guess so. Maybe they should skip the middleman and go straight for looking like Morrissey! [Laughs]
J: Have you still got that gold jacket you wore on Buzzcocks?
S: Somewhere, yeah.
J: If you don’t need it anymore…
S: Yeah! You can have it! I should get rid of it! [Laughs]. It was funny that I wore the most absurd thing of my entire life!
J: It reminds me of what Morrissey wore in the Dallas tour. I did wonder if it was a nod to that.
S: Yeah! Not a conscious one…
J: Did you keep in touch with anyone from Morrissey’s band?
S: I kept in touch with Gary Day for a long while. It was always fleeting moments with Morrissey. He’d get whisked up to the stage and whisked back. It was conversations in hallways. Or if I was in the dressing room with the band he’d come in. He never lets people watch him from the side of the stage, and I would get a note from him saying, ‘you can watch from the side of the stage’. I think it’s just an irritating thing when people watch you from the side, for any band. The show that you’re giving isn’t there, it doesn’t project to the side, but if it’s someone you really love you can almost see it through their eyes a little bit, which is really exciting.
J: If Morrissey walked in here right now and see you in your nice jumper and say ‘Alright Preston’ what would you say?
S: Again, it’s that thing when you meet somebody, it’s horrible to be that nagging guy, but I feel that we would have a really long nice conversation. I feel like he did guide me through the early part of my career by talking about us in interviews, taking me on tour. Maybe because I feel through his lyrics he was some kind of surrogate father figure, which is true for a lot of people I think.
J: What’s your favourite Morrissey album?
S: ‘Vauxhall and I’ is his masterpiece. PG Wodehouse’s masterpiece was ‘Right Ho Jeeves’, and ‘Vauxhall and I’ is Morrissey’s. I think that record has such an atmosphere… such a lot of sounds on it, with a hanging atmosphere.
J: If Morrissey came to your house what snacks would you put out for him?
S: I’m actually very much into pickling at the moment. I’m a big pickler. I do nice sweet pickles. You eat them with bread and butter. It’s a really fun thing to do. I’d give him some of my pickles.
J: Do you put a frilly top on the jar?
S: You don’t need a jar for pickles, that’s for jams. You need a seal.
J: Who got you into pickling?
S: My mum does it.
J: Did your mum knit that jumper?
S: No I got this from a charity shop.
J: What is your favourite crisp flavour? Do you like crisps with your pickles?
S: I’m not a huge crisp fan, really. I actually would go for popcorn. The Pret a Manger popcorn is my snack of choice.
J: Would you put popcorn out with pickles then?
S: No, I’d make homemade bread.
J: You bake bread as well!?
S: [Laughs] I love to cook. I do a nice baked eggs with Merguez.
J: You’re not a vegetarian?
J: Do you have a girlfriend at the moment?
S: [stretches arms] I have a line I’m pursuing [Laughs].
J: What’s your favourite Morrissey single?
S: Possibly Boxers because I received it as a gift and was at the age where, once you get a record you just play it and play it and play it. And also I think as a Morrissey song it feels kind of forgotten. It’s a sad lyric. When you’re really young music is much more effective at creating images in your head. I remember hearing Strange Little Girl by the Stranglers and I didn’t know it was about Siouxsie Sioux at the time. I can remember the image I had in my head. I remember the images that the Beatles conjured up. I can think what I imagined when I listened to Boxers. It makes the record richer.
J: What’s your favourite thing that your mum says?
S: Everyone makes fun of my mum because she’s American. If I ever talk about my mum, for some reason my friends will say: ‘Sammy! Your meatballs are ready!’ I guess maybe that, but I don’t know how often she actually says it!
I have a great relationship with my parents. I’m terrible at romance, you see. If I don’t have the right advice I’m just doomed to walk off on my own. So I talk candidly with both of my parents about that. My brother is grown up, married and has kids and here they still have a thirty-one year old son still asking them what to do about girls.
J: Do you want that for yourself? To get married and have kids?
S: I do but I’m terribly picky. I don’t think I ever really was, but because of the whole Chantelle thing, then a long distance relationship after that, it has become really important for me to have complete common interests now… I think maybe because Chantelle and I didn’t. The whole problem with that is that my interests in books, film and music are pretty weird, and I’m very passionate about all of them.
J: Who is your favourite author?
S: I love Bolaño and I devour everything that he’s written. I read a lot. I think Will Self is a great writer as well. My brother has become friends with him. I love all the hipster books.
J: Favourite movie?
S: I really love ‘Badlands’. I love those rich visual movies.
J: Did you get into ‘A Taste Of Honey’ and ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’?
S: I did! It was almost like homework! I love the New York Dolls now too. But there was a time where I didn’t ‘get it’. I wonder if I conditioned myself to love them as part of my homework for Morrissey [Laughs].
J: Have you got a favourite childhood toy?
S: I have a cabbage patch kid, that I still have, completely bald with a plastic head, so I called it Thomas Hard-head [Laughs]. It’s at my mum’s house in France.
J: The video for Lonely at the Top opens with you on a single bed. Did this resemble your teenage bedroom?
S: No. My childhood bedroom was really big, even though our house was small. There weren’t enough bedrooms so I had to be in a kind of conservatory. The rain would come down on the inside. It had a few plants in it.
J: Is this where you started your acting career?
S: I used to love acting when I was younger! I was in a movie ‘Christabel’ with Liz Hurley, and I was in The Muppets and I was in ‘Drowning in the Shallow End’ with Paul McGann so I saved up a little bit of money for a guitar and I bought a record player for fifteen pounds. It was in very early nineties. It was huge, bigger than me, and took up almost all of the space in my room.
J: Were there posters on the walls?
S: When I was really young it was The Pixies and Dinosaur Jnr.
J: Do you have a favourite Ordinary Boys caper?
S: We were terribly boring and sensible as a band. There were many times when I swung from lights and cut my hands and bled. But then we’d reside to the tour bus and read books. We weren’t rock n’ roll, there was no drug taking or anything like that.
J: You were good boys then. Were you a good boy when you were younger?
S: No, absolutely terrible, horrible, brat. It felt like I had Attention Deficit Disorder as well so I was just a handful. I still feel like I run on this nervous energy. People have told it to me enough times and I’ve started to see it. I just sort of run for a little bit, then get exhausted, then start running again.
J: Could you please write a note to my mum?
J: Would you host the Mozarmyquiz on Twitter one week?
S: That sounds like fun! Yes I’d love to.
Who said you should never meet your heroes? Not the ordinary boy.
Follow Sam on Twitter @samuelpreston or find him on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/smlprstn
Photo courtesy of guardian.co.uk
Photo from Spencer’s archive
[Co-writing credits: Wide To Receive, Lost, Now I am a was].
When I contacted Spencer Cobrin for a ‘Fifteen minutes’ I tried to persuade him that it would make for a better interview if we talked in some way, preferably face to face or on the phone, so that I could get to know him a bit better. He very politely turned me down, protesting shyness and luddite tendancies towards Skype and telephones. I explained to him that I really only wanted to ask him his favourite ice-cream flavour, to which he replied:
‘Lobster flavored ice cream, licked, not bitten. LOL. See? This is why I do not give live interviews!’
Although he drummed with Morrissey for most of the nineties, Spencer hasn’t drummed in years, only on an odd session, and has turned his attention to, amongst other things, real estate and signing talent for music licensing company MuseIQ.
When we emailed back and forth (over the course of two months) about his time in Morrissey’s band he confessed to suffering with terrible stage fright before gigs. He revealed details about going back to a fans house and witnessing a fight where Gary Day was thrown in the air; and explained, how one of the most truly beautiful and much loved Morrissey songs came about: Lost.
He classes his drumming style as ‘emotional’ and this also may be true of his time with Morrissey. As he sensitively recalls his memories of drumming with the band his emails become, at times, bittersweet, and his tone casts a small shadow over a what-was-once-special and fond experience, as he writes how he keeps in touch with ‘sadly no-one’ and describes himself as feeling ‘jaded’.
Spencer has closed his drumming chapter in the world of Morrissey, and, after much soul searching, has moved on to a new and different life in music; and a happy home in Brooklyn with his girlfriend and their cat, ‘Lion’. On seeing Morrissey again he says: ‘I’d probably give him a hug’.
J: Please say your full name.
S: Spencer James Cobrin. My name is Anglicized, coming from a Jewish family I was named after my deceased great grand parents Samuel and Jacob. My last name is from a village on the Polish/Ukranian border, Kobrin. If you want to get really fancy pants, Cobrin in Japanese, Ko-Bu-Rin, translates loosely as Ko lonely Bu warrior (in the) Rin forest.
J: Can you describe yourself in a sentence?
S: I’m a tad shy and somewhat self-deprecating.
J: Why did you decide to do this interview on email?
S: I need to mull things over beforehand, I get self-conscious.
J: What are you doing now, and why did you decide to do it?
S: I am involved with a music-licensing agency called MuseIQ, based in Brooklyn, New York where I live. They approached me a few years ago to see if I had any tracks I would want to include in their music production catalogue, I saw that they didn’t have an artist component and they agreed that I would sign talent to the company for licensing purposes so I picked up the A&R sticks. I do some work in real estate, give piano lessons and diligently practice aikido. I was recently sponsored by my dojo, Brooklyn Aikikai, to travel to Athens for a grueling seminar, it felt like a three-month tour packed into three days.
J: How would you describe your style of drumming? Do you still drum these days?
S: My style would be emotional if you can call that a style, it’s not technical, it’s not flashy, it’s simply from the guts. I haven’t drummed in years apart from the odd session or sit in. After I left Morrissey I turned my focus to writing, first for a band, then to film and advertising.
J: What was life like on the road with Morrissey? How did you guys prepare for some of the big venues that you played?
S: Life on the road was so many things; very exciting, totally exhausting, emotionally fraught plus I suffered terribly with stage fright. In regards to preparing I don’t think it was ever a question of the size of venue, rehearsals were about knowing the songs inside out and then giving it all on stage wherever we played.
Morrissey and Spencer shot by Linder Sterling
J: How did you deal with your stage fright? Did you have any methods?
S: There was nothing I could do to combat the stage fright, I just had to suck it up as best as I could. Initially it would occur an hour or two before we went on stage but then it progressed to where I would feel it coming on not long after waking up, so essentially I would suffer from it all day! I’d try to distract myself as best as I could but it was pretty hopeless.
J: Do you have any favourite gigs or tour stories?
S: There was the time after we had played on Johnny Carson show. Gary and Alain were hanging outside the hotel talking to fans, one fan invited us to a house party so about six or seven of us piled into a car, I had no idea where we were heading. We raced down the freeway for about an hour and ended up in a suburban district. There were some knuckleheads in the kitchen and I could see things were getting a bit tense. I went into the living room where everyone was watching our performance on the Johnny Carson show we had taped a few hours earlier. The next thing I remember is looking over to the other side of the room and seeing Gary flying through the air with a pile of guys on top of him, it was a mess. The police showed up and arrested Gary. We bailed him out at 4am then packed as quickly as possible for the airport. This was just the start of the tour!
J: Which tracks did you look forward to performing?
S: On the ‘Kill Uncle’ tour it would be Angel, Suedehead, November, Playboys, Everyday. Later on, Glamourous, Fatty, Disco, Speedway, Shoplifters, Do Your Best.
J: Did you socialise with the rest of the band outside of the studio?
S: Alain, Gary and myself played in various outfits and hung out at places like the Klub Foot, Dingwalls, upstairs at the Electric Ballroom and other North London rockabilly clubs. By the time we finished our first European and American tour with Morrissey I don’t think we could stand to be around each other we had been together so much.
J: Who do you keep in touch with now?
S: Sadly, no one.
J: Your cheeky appearance with a Cornetto in ‘We hate it when our friends become successful’ was very funny. Who’s initial idea was it, and why?
S: Ha, it wasn’t anyone’s idea really, I was just being a ham, I told you I was self-deprecating. It did cause a bit of a fuss between friends, roommates, even my family, I thought it was hysterical, some people take things so seriously, I just shook my head and quietly laughed back at them.
J: Was it your idea to make Morrissey laugh with the close up?
S: I just put it close to his face, I guess he liked it. J
J: Morrissey is quoted as describing your work on Southpaw Grammar as ‘a great personal joy’. How does that make you feel? [Mozipedia by Simon Goddard, p. 76].
S: I never heard that from him, nice to know after all these years though. Maybe he could see how much I had grown under his wing and how much I contributed in spirit to the recordings.
J: Which single that you drum on do you feel most proud of?
S: It would have to be The Operation, I had worked and worked at trying to improve my drumming skills but I just couldn’t make anything stick, I felt at a complete loss, I was also very hard on myself, but coming off the road and going straight into record that album (Southpaw Grammar) something shifted and clicked into gear unexpectedly and I immediately went up a huge notch whereas I had been on a plateau for years.
J: Tell us how the beautiful ‘Lost’ happened. Did you ever try to persuade Morrissey to make it an A-side?
S: By the late nineties I was living in the East Village, New York between tours and I would get up early and sit at the keyboard to write. I wrote and wrote and that was how the demo for ‘Lost’ came to be. Morrissey was going to release it as an A-side but he changed his mind later after I left the band.
J: Did Morrissey ever come to your house? What snacks did you put out for him?
S: He came over to the apartment I was living in in the East Village (NY) and we had pizza.
J: Do you listen to the music that Morrissey makes now?
S: Not really, it doesn’t inspire or fill me with emotion of any kind; as opposed to older material which gets the adrenalin going.
J: How would you feel if a chance encounter happened with Morrissey now? What would you say?
S: I’d probably give him a hug and be happy to see him again after all these years. I don’t harbour any grudges, if you can open your heart you can conquer anything.
J: Have you any plans to join Twitter?
S: No, but you can find me on Facebook:
J: Would you host the Mozarmyquiz on twitter one week? You do it from the comfort of your chair, at home. It’s 4pm NY time every Friday, from the @Mozarmyquiz account.
J: What is your favourite ice cream flavour?
J: Childhood toy?
S: My fathers air rifle.
S: Ludwig Black Beauty snare.
S: Toasted cheese sarnie.
J: Pizza topping?
S: Olives, mushrooms and extra cheese please.
J: City in the world?
S: Undecided, still want to travel to many more.
J: Morrissey track?
S: Lost, ahem.
J: Smiths track?
S: There Is A Light…
J: Drink of choice?
S: Changes, right now it’s Rhone Valley, 100% Syrah, any vineyard from the north or south region, still exploring, amazing stuff, pricey.
S: The Warriors
J: Time of day?
J: Thing about New York?
S: My dojo.
J: Song in all the world?
S: How about, Billy Butler, The Right Track
J: Please could you type a note to my mum?
S: Hi Pat,
Greeting from Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn, New York! It seems that Julie is a tad sad with my answers to some of her interview questions, do you think you could you cheer her up with a cup of tea and a delicious cheese sandwich? :)
Hope you are well and enjoying your Sunday.
J: Thank you Spencer. If you could choose one word to sum up your musical experience, what would it be?
J: Do you think that you will ever return to the UK?
S: Maybe, via Spain! Gracias.
'Spenny Ramone' by Linda Peng
© All content is copyright Julie Hamill 2012. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without consent from Julie Hamill is strictly prohibited.
I don’t like tea. But Stephen Street is standing in the Milocio studios kitchen, squeezing tea bags very tightly against the side of two mugs whilst asking me if I take sugar. ‘No, just a spot of milk please’ I reply, thinking: there’s no way I’m asking for coffee now, that’s Stephen Street’s tea, he’s made it, and I’m going to drink it.
He’s dressed casually and yet impeccably neatly, wearing a grey wooly jumper with a high collar and a striped scarf around his neck that he doesn’t remove. He is most charming in his manner and listening carefully I am able to decipher a very slight rhotacism with the letter ‘r’ in his speech, that, accompanied with a gentle smile, makes me warm to him instantly.
I follow him (with tea) as he walks quickly and purposefully through two huge soundproof doors, into the neat and tidy not-a-button-out-of-place studio he works in producing magical albums.
As he settles in his chair behind the mixing desk he describes how his time with The Smiths and Morrissey changed his life. At twenty-four, Stephen was a comfortable and natural extension of the band, on the same journey at the same age (one year younger than Morrissey) with the same level of experience and same ambitious goal: to make the next Smiths album greater than the last: ‘[The Smiths] is a very powerful album. By the time we got to Meat Is Murder we were using different techniques, sound effects etc so that was a step on. And we stepped on again for The Queen Is Dead, then on again for Strangeways. There’s obviously great tracks from each album that I’m very proud of but overall the improvements are incremental.’
Now, at aged fifty-two, he is still excited about the work he did back then, and is engagingly youthful as he disappears back into the memories: ‘You see this sometimes with bands; for whatever reason all the stars just align and for whatever reason it’s like a juggernaut that can’t be stopped’. Occasionally he looks to the floor to find his answers, particularly when talking about the Smiths split: ‘I can remember Mike [Joyce] sitting there, looking really down, and thinking, I’ll look up in a minute and see Johnny come through the door.’
Since parting company with Morrissey after ‘Viva Hate’, he has gone on to work with many successful bands such as The Cranberries, Blur and The Courteneers. His approach to producing albums is about capturing and delivering the ‘brand’ of the band at that time: ‘When a person releases an album it’s like a fashion house working on their collection for the season, it’s how they feel they want to put themselves over at that point.’
Described by Andy Rourke as ‘very attentive [and loved] by everybody’ and by Johnny Marr as ‘totally partisan’ [A Light That Never Goes Out, Tony Fletcher, p. 466] the appeal of Stephen Street is his inclusive approach: ‘I try and make each member of the band feel important thoughtout certain key processes of the record. Everybody is very, very important, whether it be the drummer, the bass player or whoever.’
His favourite Smiths song is This Charming Man, he’s known to Blur as ‘Streetie’ and he cites the incomparable and epic ‘Strangeways’ as his finest moment.
I give the tea five stars (engineered and produced by Stephen Street).
J: Please say your full name
S: My name is Stephen Brian Street and I’m a record producer.
J: Where does the Brian come from?
S: My dad’s name.
J: You’ve always had the name, ‘Street’?
S: Yes it is my real name. Some people have asked me that before in the past, have I made my name up to be ‘cool’ – but no.
J: Your name is very memorable. Did you find it helped in your career?
S: Not really. When I was at school I was called ‘Street’ or ‘Streetie’ - which what Blur called me later on in life – but no, I’ve never really thought that much about my name.
J: Can you describe yourself in a sentence?
S: Oh God, that would be… er…
J: You can come back to me on that later if you like.
S: Yes, it’s very hard! [Laughs]. I’m not very good with words, you see, Julie, that’s the thing, it doesn’t flow off the top of my head like that and I get… I’m not good at the one-liners!
J: Ah… I’m sure that’s not true! When you were growing up what music were you into?
S: The first time I was really conscious of really becoming interested in music was kind of the end of the 60s and 70s when Marc Bolan came through. My parents didn’t have a record player, but there was a radio, and I remember hearing the Beatles and the Stones. Mum and Dad didn’t get a record player until about 1970, one of those big long bits of radiogram furniture with a radio at one end and a turntable at the other. I think the first record to be bought were those awful Top of the Pops covers records. But I remember I wanted a record player in my room so I got a flip top single BSI player with the speaker at the front. The first records I bought were Electric Warrior by T-Rex and Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars. I had my black case from Woolworths that had my albums in and my smaller black case that had my singles in. They meant the world to me.
J: The cases with the briefcase clip on the front?
S: Yeah! I’ve still got all those singles and some went missing over the years. I’ve still got Ziggy Stardust and the original Electric Warrior album. That means a lot to me. From there, I discovered that only nine months before he had released Hunky Dory, and before that, The Man Who Sold The World and Space Oddity, so I threw myself into that, just loved it, this new guy who had suddenly arrived from the heavens with all this fantastic music. He was a huge inspiration.
J: What’s your favourite Bowie track?
S: Hard to pick one out just like that, but I’m still a huge fan of the Ziggy album, I love Soul Love. It wasn’t a single or anything like that, it’s just so Bowie.
J: I love the intro to Soul Love.
S: Yes! [makes ‘Tss-tss-t” intro]. It’s fantastic. I’m a huge believer that when a person has a good partner such as Johnny and Morrissey and Damon with Graham it’s worth its weight in gold. Mick Ronson was an incredible part of that sound.
J: Did Mick’s work influence you?
S: Yes, definitely. Mick Ronson was a great arranger of Bowie’s ideas. He took them to another level. When I was younger I used to look at album covers and see names like Tony Visconti, I was interested in the idea of finding out what they did. So I suppose even then I was interested in being a record producer. From reading record covers I got a schooling in record producing.
J: What do you think is the most important thing that a record producer can do for an artist?
S: To portray the image that the artist has got at that particular point in their career; that life. To put it over in the best possible way, without tarnishing it. When a person releases an album it’s like a fashion house working on their collection for the season, it’s how they feel they want to put themselves over at that point. ‘These are the songs for 1975 or 2012’. The producer is the person who takes those songs and puts them into a package.
J: So you ‘brand’ the album.
S: Yes, at least as far as taking it to the point of release. Or putting it on the ‘catwalk’ if you like. It’s a bit like being a film director as well. Got a great script, a great bunch of actors, with a good cameraman and sound engineer, just need to make it a good finished product.
J: You started as an assistant at Island. What was that like?
S: It was about ‘82 or ‘83. They were going through a refurbishment of the studio at the time and my first job was varnishing the wood that went up on the walls! It actually felt great because I felt like I was part of the team. I had some experience recording because I had been in a band so I wasn’t totally green to what went on. But I was always watching, asking questions, ‘what does that button do? So I got a good grip and understanding of some technical aspects and also just the etiquette side of things, like how to work without upsetting anyone. Within two years I was at the point I was able to start engineering sessions myself. I was at a really good place. There are places that you can go to where you end up being a tea boy for years. But the engineers there were very good and it was a good learning place.
J: And it was around this time you were introduced to The Smiths during the ‘Heaven Knows’ session?
S: Yes. My studio manager said to me ‘there’s a band coming in at the weekend’. They were beginning to book outside acts into the studio to make it more of a commercial proposition so that’s why we were open that weekend to Rough Trade booking a band in. I said to the studio manager: ‘Who’s the band that’s coming in?’ He said ‘It’s a band called The Smiths’. I was like ‘Wow! Great!’ because I had seen them literally two weeks before doing This Charming Man on Top of the Pops. I think is one of their best ever performances, people still refer to it these days. I was like, ‘yeah I’ll definitely be up for that’. So they came in on the Saturday when I was the in-house engineer. Obviously John Porter was there as he was working with them on that. Girl Afraid was mixed at Island but John took away Heaven Knows to mix elsewhere. I just strove to impress them as much as I could. I think they appreciated the fact that the engineer had turned up to the studio and heard about them, made it quite clear that I dug what they were doing and stuff. So at the end of the session Johnny and Morrissey thanked me and took my name, and indicated that they’d be in touch. So obviously I was over the moon. The next thing they did was William, which was done by John too, elsewhere. I didn’t get involved in that, but I didn’t realise until years later that there is a thank you to me on that sleeve!
I kind of thought that was over and the end of it all, but then, thank God a few months later Geoff Travis phoned me and said the band want to make the next album, producing it themselves, and working with an engineer that they trust. And that was the start of me working with The Smiths on their albums.
J: In Tony Fletcher’s book it is written that in your time with The Smiths you made each individual feel special, that their contribution was incredibly important.
S: I always try to do that, with any band I work with. I don’t always focus just purely on the lead singer or guitarist. I try and make each member of the band feel important throughout certain key processes of the record. Everybody is very, very important, whether it be the drummer, the bass player or whoever.
J: How would you describe your connection with The Smiths?
S: Well it helped that I was just slightly younger than Morrissey, so we were all in the same age bracket. We shared lots of music that we all enjoyed. We just managed to click on a personal level. I was very aware that it was a professional relationship, but it was a good one. Very positive. I just loved working with them, and making ‘Meat Is Murder’ was a huge challenge because I had never worked outside of Island Records before, so to me it was my first job as a kind of freelance engineer working with a band that was much revered and that had so much attention. It was a bit of a steep learning curve.
J: You were all on the rise together.
S: Yes, it was just incredible.
J: Do you have any favourite memories of that time?
S: Travelling in that big white Mercedes! I think it was Dave Harper that was the driver. He drove us around between Manchester and Liverpool. Kirby, in fact, which is where we started the session. Just being in this big white Mercedes was fun.
J: Where did you all sit? Who was up front?
S: If I remember rightly there were two rows of seats facing each other like a cab. So I’d just be in the back with the rest of the band. I remember sitting there once and Morrissey was showing round the artwork for Hatful of Hollow. I was so excited, I was like, even though we’re working on this new album, there’s this compilation coming out which everyone was going nuts about. You see this sometimes with bands; for whatever reason all the stars just align and for whatever reason it’s like a juggernaut that can’t be stopped. It’s exciting when it happens because it doesn’t happen that often.
J: Did you gravitate towards one person in particular as your ‘pal’?
S: No, they were a gang, It was a working relationship. They were close knit, I was very much a Londoner and they were Mancs. They were friendly towards me but I don’t think I’d ever be one of their best pals. I don’t know if Mancunians are suspicious of cockneys! [Laughs]. We got on great, we were friends and I warmed to all of them.
J: What do you think of when you look back at your younger self in this picture?
Photo taken from ‘A Light That Never Goes Out’ [Tony Fletcher]
S: What was I doing? Sucking my lips in? [Laughs]. I’m just a young man there. I was dreaming of being a musician and a player and it was nice for me to know that I was one stage removed from that. I was helping a great band make records.
J: When you look at that young man and you remember his dreams and aspirations, do you feel you’ve done him proud?
S: Yeah! It’s funny because there I am making records and thinking well I’ve given up on the playing side of things, I’m going to be behind the desk producing. Then two/three years ago I’m on stage with Pete Doherty at Glastonbury playing guitar. If someone said to me you’re going to be on stage at Glastonbury I’d think they were mad. But it’s funny how life turns out.
Photo taken from www.stephenstreet.net
J: You have made many significant contributions to production of Smiths albums, most notably with ‘Strangeways’. Do you consider this to be your finest moment?
S: Yes. For me it’s my finest moment because I was on a learning curve. I had more skills as an engineer and mixer at that stage of their career than obviously two or three years beforehand. I was able to do things sonically that I couldn’t do before.
J: It’s quite a different album, much more polished, elevated, epic.
S: It was a conscious decision to do things a bit differently. We were all keen to do more work in the studio. You can see the graduation happen through the years. Look at ‘Meat Is Murder’ compared to the first album. The first album is a kind of raw encapsulation of what they did live, which is great. It’s a very powerful album. By the time we got to ‘Meat Is Murder’ we were using different techniques, sound effects etc so that was a step on. And we stepped on again for ‘The Queen Is Dead’ then on again for ‘Strangeways’. There are great tracks from each album that I’m very proud of but overall the improvements are incremental.
On the wall of Stephen Street’s studio
J: You were on a learning curve, you had brought the band to the peak of studio work, one album became better than the last, more experience was gained… you end up with this epic finish that heightens every talent in the group… where are The Smiths headed next?
S: Well, I thought at the time they were going onwards and upwards. The next step to becoming a global touring band. It was there for the taking. America was going nuts over them, which I always found surprising because British bands really struggle to break America, and it was interesting, why did The Smiths become so big in America, because they’re not very… American! [Laughs]. At the time they were back to a four-piece again, which was making Johnny focus a bit more on his guitars, pushing himself without Craig. I sort of got the impression that this was it: make an album then go on a good solid eighteen months touring. It was a machine gearing up to do things. There was talk of the EMI deal happening, the next big step, a multinational record deal, as opposed to Rough Trade. I got the impression that there was still an interesting bunch of chapters ahead.
J: So the platform was set for world domination…
S: Yes. That’s why I was so surprised when the split happened because I didn’t see it coming. I could see the pressure that Johnny was under but I didn’t see it coming.I never thought that the band would split up permanently. I thought they’d make the album, take a bit of a breather then get back on the road after the summer and start touring.
J: Did you ever go on any of the tours?
S: No I was never asked. They had a good sound man, Grant [Showbiz] so it wasn’t necessary, really.
J: Did you go to see the band live?
S: Oh yes, I’d go and see them. I saw them play Oxford around the second album. Good show.
J: Morrissey sent you a few letters/postcards. Do you still have them?
S: I do, yes, most of them. I don’t know if I’ve got all of them. There’s one on my website.
J: When the Smiths split up it was a tough time for the fans because there was pressure to choose between Morrissey’s voice and Johnny’s music, to decide who to follow. Was it the same for you?
S: When they split up I just thought well, they’re going to get back together again. So when Geoff Travis phoned me to ask if I wanted to try a session with Ivor Perry [Easterhouse] I said yes. We did that session over a weekend but it was obvious it wasn’t going to work. Wasn’t anyone’s fault, just the chemistry wasn’t right. I can remember Mike [Joyce] sitting there, looking really down, and thinking, I’ll look up in a minute and see Johnny come through the door. I knew there was a desire to try and keep the ball rolling. I wasn’t picking sides. If Johnny had phoned me straight away and said I want you to come an engineer a session I would have done that.
I knew that we finished Strangeways and there was nothing left in the can. I had some ideas from my four-track demo at home. So I thought, you know, there’s no harm in trying. So I wrote a little card: ‘Forgive me for being presumptuous but if there’s any ideas on here that you feel would be useful for recording as b-sides please let me know’.
J: What was on the four-track?
S: I think the original Everyday Is like Sunday is on there. I think Angel might have been on there, and maybe Suedehead. There were a few works in progress.
J: And this was you mucking about on the guitar?
S: Guitar, bass, drum machine. A basic backing-track. I sent them off in August then got married and went off to Paris for five days. When I came back there was a postcard from Morrissey that said ‘I want to make a solo album.’
J: How did that make you feel?
S: Very excited, but at the same time, full of trepidation, because I thought, this is a lot. I’m taking on a lot here. But I thought well, if Morrissey feels that he can do it with me, then that’s a big bonus. I don’t think I ever thought I was going to upset Johnny because I kind of still thought that Johnny and he would get back together. I really thought that’s how it will play out, that Johnny will come back.
J: What did you do next?
S: I dropped everything and worked on that record. I just sat at home, writing and writing and sending cassettes of ideas to Morrissey. He came round one afternoon to the two-bedroom maisonette and sang down some ideas into a microphone. I can’t remember which songs, I think one of them might have been I know very well how I got my name. We then discussed who we were going to use, and he wanted to make a clean break, so I knew Andrew [Paresi] was a good solid drummer and I had worked with Vini Reilly as well. I also knew he came from Manchester so he might click with Morrissey on a home level. His guitar style was also completely different to Johnny’s – kind of ambient – but I though I could tailor it a bit, and it would be interesting to see if it would work. So I called Vini round to the flat, and he met Morrissey there, and it was like, okay well let’s give it a go. So the studio was booked and we went in to do our first session together. Andrew, Vini, Morrissey and myself.
J: Would you say that you went above and beyond the call of duty to make Viva Hate?
S: Absolutely. It was August that we talked about it. By October we had the first session underway, where we recorded Suedehead and I thought, we’ve got something here. I went home and wrote some more songs, out of which came Late Night, Maudlin Street and Break up the family. It was incredibly hard work, right up to the day before Christmas Eve. I made myself ill, I had a stomach ulcer, I couldn’t get out of bed on the last day and I had to get the engineer to record the vocals for Break Up the family and then I comped it later. We drove home the day before Christmas Eve then I didn’t hear from Morrissey for a good couple of months after that.
J: What’s your favourite track on that album?
S: I still love Suedehead. And Break up the family. That was me trying to push it a little bit, make it funky. The percussion loop was influenced by Lionel Ritchie’s All Night Long. [Laughs].
J: I can hear it now!
S: I couldn’t be Johnny Marr. I couldn’t start with guitar lines. I was just trying to do things that were interesting in a production way. Like Alsatian Cousin with its hard and dirty ‘dun-un dun-un dun-un’ at the beginning. I was just thinking, how can I make songs interesting, without having to rely on my guitar playing!
J: Bengali in Platforms has a lovely gentle sound.
S: I love that song. I know it got a lot of stick but I just love the middle eight section on that.
J: It always makes me want to do a little light tap dance.
S: It’s great. Vini’s guitar playing on it is really very nice as well. I remember Morrissey saying to be that he wanted a long, rambling, kind of something that Patti [Smith] would do, something major that was different to anything else. So I was trying to make something interesting on Maudlin Street before even the guitar playing started.
J: I don’t think there’s a bad song on there.
S: I think it’s patchy in places, I don’t mind if you forget me could have gone missing for me. I do love the line ‘rejection is one thing…’ but I’m not proud of what I did as a producer on that track, I think I could have made it better. I listen to that one and I go: ‘Oh! Stephen you could have done better with that…’
J: Really? I love the pace of I don’t mind.
S: I love Ordinary Boys. I don’t know why Morrissey decided to take it off the reissue. It’s great.
J: Going back to Strangeways. ‘Okay Stephen, shall we do that again?’ Why did you keep this on?
S: Because normally when a track finishes you hit the stop before people start talking; but for some reason the tape was still rolling when he said it. I always remember talking to him about some Marc Bolan tracks where you hear Marc talking, and how as a fan, you really kind of like that. So I said to Morrissey: ‘Shall we keep it on there? People hear your singing voice but don’t very often hear you talking.’ It was kind of an in-joke too, because it’s like, me saying it to him too, or him referring to himself in the third person. I know he never called himself Steven, but we all know that’s his first name. It wasn’t an egotistical thing, it was a joke, him talking, who’s he talking to…
J: It was such a treat for the listener.
S: Yes. A treat for the fans [Laughs].
J: Your work has a lot of little jolts and treats in there. Particularly with false fade out on That Joke Isn’t Funny anymore and Some girls are bigger than others.
S: True. That’s something from the producer or engineer’s point of view that’s like a little surprise or jolt. Plus a little bit of Beatles influence. There were always little treats for the ear.
J: Were there ever conversations regarding the Stephen/Steven similarity?
S: We never really referred to it. No-one ever, ever called him Steven. We joked once about how my name is spelt wrong and his name is spelt correctly [Laughs]. I think he said: ‘It’s bad enough being called Steven with a V, let alone a ph’. Something like that.
J: Would you work with Morrissey again? If he knocked on that door and said ‘Alright Stephen’ what would you say?
S: Do you know, it’s funny because about two years ago I was lying in bed thinking it’s a real shame we haven’t been in touch for many years. So I wrote a really friendly letter and gave it to my manager and asked her to get it to Morrissey. We met up for dinner in London and had a really lovely evening. We got on great, exchanged emails and talked about remastering the Viva Hate reissue, which we went on to do.
J: Have you kept in touch with Johnny?
S: I saw him at the remastering of The Smiths stuff. He texted me and I hung out with him for a couple of days doing that. It was really nice.
J: Could there be something there, in the future?
S: I would like to work with Johnny again but I think he has his own path, and his own engineer and studio that he uses. I really like his new single. I have a lot of professional respect for Johnny.
J: Did you follow Morrissey’s career after you stopped working with him?
S: I did. Initially I followed it really closely, then I thought well, I’ve got to move on now really. I tried to stop being so obsessed. I liked Irish Blood, English Heart.
J: You must have been blown away when you found out that he was working with Mick Ronson and Tony Visconti.
S: I was. I love that album ‘Your Arsenal’. I really like that record.
J: If Morrissey came to your house, what snacks would you put out for him?
S: I think it would be a bowl of crisps. When we were making ‘Meat Is Murder’ the band survived on crisps and chocolate bars. It was amazing. And eggs.
J: Apparently he gave up eggs earlier this year.
S: Ah. I was going to go for scrambled eggs on toast [Laughs].
J: What’s your favourite Smiths record?
S: This Charming Man. It’s just so exuberant; the whole thing is bursting with energy. You hear that guitar break and it explodes.
J: What about one that you produced… Last Night, Death of A Disco Dancer…
S: I love those tracks but There is a Light is a track where all the components worked together and made it beautiful.
J: Do you have a favourite Johnny record?
S: I liked what he did with The The. But I thought Get The Message was a great single.
J: What’s your favourite pizza topping?
S: I like fennel and salami. In Pizza Express. Check that one out.
J: Fennel and salami? Meat is not murder, then, for Mr Street?
S: I do eat meat I’m afraid.
J: What’s your favourite restaurant? Is it Pizza Express?
S: [Laughs] I do like it there but there’s a nice Italian in Putney called Entocatoti. It’s got a great wine list. Fantastic.
J: Is wine your drink of choice then?
S: [Laughs] Yes. I guess so.
J: Red or white?
S: Depends on the season [Laughs].
J: What do you like to do on a Friday night?
S: I like to go for a nice meal or a drink at the end of the week.
J: Do you ever stay in on a Friday?
S: I tend to stay in more on Saturday nights than on Fridays…
J: See, thing is, we have a twitter quiz - @mozarmyquiz – that we’d love you to host one week.
S: Oh right! Yes! I can do that for you one week. Lets do it in the New Year.
J: Would you write a note for my mum?
S: Yes I would.
J: Finally, if you could choose one word to sum up your time with The Smiths and Morrissey, what word would you choose?
S: That’s a difficult one. I told you I’m not very good with words… Em… it’s two words: Life Changing
J: That’s a great summation. I think you are good with words.
S: Well, maybe those two.
You can follow Stephen on twitter @streetstephen. He’s currently making a new album with Pete Docherty, working with a band called Summer Camp and a singer called Mimi (based in Germany). He says he’s not good with one-liners for interviews.
Okay Stephen, shall we do that again?
© All content is copyright Julie Hamill 2012. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without consent from Julie Hamill is strictly prohibited.
Fifteen minutes with Tony Fletcher, author of ‘A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of The Smiths’
Tony Fletcher’s latest biography: ‘A Light That Never Goes Out – The Enduring Saga of The Smiths’ looks big, thick and serious when it lands on my door mat. It features four smile-free Smith-faces on a black cover, not looking at each other, suggesting the air of a ‘whodunit’ and a possible role for Regis. As a self-confessed slow reader with a plodding pace, I was worried about getting through it in time for an interview with the author. It took me three weeks and four days to finish, after which I felt nourished, enlightened and excited to meet him.
It’s true that Smiths and Morrissey books are well-trodden paths and that famous knock of Johnny on Morrissey’s door has been thorougly documented, but ‘A Light That Never Goes Out’ is a bit like thinking that all the chocolate in the selection box is finished; then going on to find another untouched, unopened selection box behind the couch. The ‘Mars Bar’ chapter is in the second meeting of The Smiths; when Morrissey knocks on Johnny’s door, climbing up to the attic passing pictures of Coronation St heroes to reach Johnny’s record-shop bedroom. Here the book flips perspective to reflect a new view and is in no small way due to Fletcher’s in-depth interviews with Johnny Marr over the course of two years of extensive research.
Glimpses into young Smiths’ characters are revealed amidst a social and cultural back-drop of the seventies: Johnny and Andy as boys with guitars strumming along to ‘Peace Perfect Peace’ at Sunday mass; Morrissey leaving St Mary’s at lunchtimes to go home to his mum for dinner; and Johnny getting egg’d after being sacked from The Co-Op (then walking home in the snow like a ‘frozen omelette’). It is this narrative of vivid 3D images that make the book cinematic: the build up of the four individual paths coming together to rise and fuse a chemistry of music and poetry that the world had never seen before - then end it all spectacularly - just shy of the release of the final album.
Author Tony Fletcher has secured his own place in Smiths history. His nineteen year old self conducted Morrissey’s first ever TV live interview at the Hacienda in 1984. Technical difficulties aside, he remembers the evening vividly, reflecting on how the four young Smiths were never apart: ‘They were very closely huddled together, like The South Park kids… I remember they would walk around together, cross the room together, go to the stage together…’
Tony’s life long relationship with music and literature began - incredibly - at fourteen – with an interview from Paul Weller for his school fanzine. On meeting Weller: ‘I deliberately didn’t put the school badge on my blazer, so that I could look like a mod’.
[Tony’s band ‘Apocalypse’ went on to be the last ever support group to tour with The Jam].
We managed to cover most aspects of his life – including his other published biographies and his style of writing. We talked about the Hacienda (when he shared a dressing room with Madonna) and of course… his favourite sandwich filling. We even had a brief drift into the existentialist nature of The Smiths… but by this point, my mind had already been exploded, blown up and bombed by the fizz and excitement of Tony’s tales, so we parted, and I floated home in the wrong direction.
J: Please say your full name.
T: Anthony John Fletcher. I don’t know why my parents chose that name, I guess because it was popular at that time.
J: Please describe yourself in a sentence.
J: What line of work were your parents in?
T: My mum was an English teacher and chorister. My dad was a professor of music, musician and author. If you think about it, it makes complete sense that I’m a music author; it was in the genes.
J: They must be very proud.
My mum has a shelf of my books. She even read my X-rated novel: ‘Hedonism’. I sent it to her because I wanted her to have every book of mine. I said to her: ‘just put this one on the shelf, you don’t have to read it’. She got back to me later, saying: ‘Oh it’s great it’s just like Irvine Welsh! Like Trainspotting!’ I was like: ‘Mum! You’ve read Trainspotting?!’
Mrs Fletcher’s book shelf
J: [Laughs] Who shortened your name to ‘Tony’?
T: Paul Weller.
J: What! I wasn’t expecting that answer…
T: I know! When I started Paul Weller took me under his wing, to a large degree, and he always called me ‘Tone’ or ‘Tony’ and it was evident that ‘Anthony’ was just far too middle class. I was fourteen.
J: How did you know Paul Weller at fourteen?
T: I wrote to him after I started my fanzine at school. During the Summer of ’77 there was something going on in music. I was sitting in a maths lesson, reading ‘Sounds’ under my desk and thought that starting a fanzine would be fun. We did four issues that were pretty crap but I really enjoyed doing it. So about a year later I wanted to step it up and wrote to a bunch of people to get interviews. Paul Weller was one of them. He wrote back and said: ‘Yeah come up to the studio we’re making a new album’. It was ‘All Mod Cons’. I wore my new black school blazer as we were moving up from third year to fourth year. I deliberately didn’t put the school badge on, so that I could look like a mod. The first words he said were: ‘Oh alright, have you come straight from school then?’
J: Ah… crushed! He was young himself then too…
T: He was around twenty. There was an interview he gave where he said that he couldn’t write teenage anthems anymore because he was twenty.
J: You’ve had a lot of jobs: the magazine, TV Presenter; DJ, novelist, biographer…
T: I have to say… not one of those is actually a ‘job’. They are all basically to do with avoiding having to do a job [Laughs]. The closest we ever got was at the end of Jamming - now www.ijamming.net - when it had an office, which I enjoyed, but it got too nine to five for me at that point with a PAYE scheme. But other than that, I’ve never had a job.
J: Because you’ve never wanted one?
J: Which one of those areas of ‘socio-cultural experience’ - not job - did you enjoy most?
T: Well there was a danger of me being like a jack-of-all-trades when I was younger. If you start out doing something and it takes off, you need to have incredible presence of mind to resist temptation to do other things. The weird thing is that I started the magazine because I thought it would be fun but the truth is I thought I’d be in a band. We had a band at school.
J: What was the band name?
T: The band was called ‘Apocalypse’. God awful name, but we did release a couple of singles – Paul Weller produced one – we toured with The Jam, we were the last ever support group with The Jam. We did all right.
J: Were you the singer?
T: I was not. I’ve got an awful singing voice. I wrote part of the songs as guitarist, keyboardist, but part of the problem with the group was with two writers and there was competition for songs, as opposed to partnership. I didn’t set out to be a writer until much later in life. I’m really glad I wrote books like the Bunnymen and the REM book and I had a busy career as a freelance journalist. When I moved to New York, I had a room mate who was waiter in the VIP room at the Limelight, so we started an alternative night there, where I was DJ, he was host. I mention that because it was too good to turn down. Eventually when I got married I came back from my honeymoon and packed in the club and decided to focus on my writing. I’m proud of all these things but they are all very connected to music and media. I also worked for ‘Rapido’ for a while, that was fun. In fact it was the most fun job I ever had because I worked remotely, with no boss. The first thing I did for them was with Samantha Fox, and it went from that to Keith Richards and James Brown. I spent a day with James Brown where he called me ‘Mr Fletcher’ because it’s the BBC. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid for it.
J: Where do you live now?
T: The Catskills, NY. I lived in Manhattan first, then Brooklyn, then moved up to the mountains. It’s a natural progression once you have kids. I knew when I got to New York it was where I wanted to be. So after living in Manhattan for a while we moved to Brooklyn. It was quite a run down area at the time, but a very special block in Park Slope.
J: Park Slope is a very upmarket area now, isn’t it?
T: Yes but it wasn’t at the time. There was gunfire at night and cocaine on the corner. Having said that, it was a multi-cultural block with stoops and my older boy got to grow up in a culture where kids play on the street. When we moved we sold it to a banker couple, because that’s what the place had changed into.
J: Why did you move from Brooklyn to the Catskills?
T: I wasn’t moving forward, in my life and my relationship, in Brooklyn, so something needed to happen, and then our second kid came along and that was it. We already had a very small place in the Catskills to go to on the weekends, but we kept finding ourselves in that Sunday evening thing where we’d drive back to the city and were like: why are we doing this? We spoke to a few other couples that had settled up there and they recommended it. There are so many artistic people up there, musical, creative; it’s a wonderful place to live.
J: Let’s talk about that interview at the Hacienda.
T: [Laughs] Okay…
J: When you look back at yourself, what do you think?
T: That is the one piece of my very short-lived on-camera career that I cannot bear to watch. I realise now being older how to handle a situation like that. It was just very tense. It was Morrissey’s first interview. I had interviewed Wham and Elvis Costello live, so I was used to that, but this was the first ever live outside broadcast and it connected back to another live broadcast in Newcastle, so they were running two live shows at once. That might seem easy these days but it was a real big deal then. In the Hacienda they had these ‘Factory All Stars’ on stage and they were really cool members of New Order, A Certain Ratio and Section 25, doing something together to a backing track. The producer said to us: ‘Right you’re up in the balcony; they’re playing down there, when we count you in they’ll kill the sound and you’ll carry on with Morrissey’.
J: … and they didn’t kill the sound…
T: That’s why it’s embarrassing because they counted us in and I went to start talking and it was so noisy! The Hacienda had famously bad acoustics anyway, and Morrissey couldn’t hear me! And I couldn’t hear him. And he’s tall! So I was like shouting up to him but it’s evident that he can’t hear me so I made the mistake of looking to camera like: ‘Are we on?’ The faces of the Director next to the camera just dropped and they sent someone off to the soundboard. What could have been a really sharp two minutes, it was me just shouting at Morrissey and him shouting back at me.
J: [Laughs] It has a beauty all of its own… you’re both young and awkward and it captures early Morrissey. I think it’s lovely to watch how people develop.
T: That’s interesting, from my perspective it was difficult, it was hard. It was great that people watched it because it was his first TV interview.
J: I think you should forgive your nineteen year-old self.
T: I don’t think I can forgive myself for that jacket! [Laughs]. The Michael Jackson jacket! Having said that, it’s a Johnsons jacket so I’m assuming that Johnny Marr would approve.
J: How were all four of the Smiths that night?
T: They were new and they were very eager. I was talking to Johnny about this memory - that they did have that ‘gang’ mentality – despite what we now know about the financial set up. All four of them were very closely huddled together, like the South Park kids. They all came in to give Morrissey their support and I remember they would walk around together, cross the rooms together, go to the stage together…
J: I love that image. The Hacienda was full of young talent that night. Madonna was there too wasn’t she?
T: Yes, Madonna was there, she shared our dressing room, and they gave her a little blind to change behind.
J: Madonna shared your dressing room?
T: I cannot think why, at nineteen, I needed a dressing room, but we needed somewhere to be in between, like a green room, and Jools Holland was in Manchester so he might have needed one.
J: How did you end up presenting The Tube at nineteen?
T: Because of doing the magazine. When The Tube started they did a story on Jamming and put it out half way through the series. Then they invited me up to be on live, which really was amazing. They said they were going to keep in touch, called me in the summer and did some testing.
J: How did you come to write the Echo and The Bunnymen book?
T: When my magazine packed up in 1986 and I was in debt one of my really good friends told me that there were some problems with trying to get a Bunnymen book together. Barely a week passed between Jamming going under and me being in debt to be asked to write this Bunnymen book. It’s never been so easy since because I approached Echo and The Bunnymen and said ‘Are you interested in a book?’ and they said ‘Yeah.’
J: Are you happy with your books?
T: The writing has got better over the years. The R.E.M. first edition just got a final update. I was re-reading it and pretty happy with the writing, and thought it’s okay, it’s good, it’s fine. The novel is great but it was a hard sell. The Clash book doesn’t really count in the sense that it’s not a biography but I really enjoyed doing it, just writing about the music for once. The book on the New York City music scene I’m really proud of.
J: What advice would you give to young writers?
T: Write everyday. If you can’t write everyday then you’re not a writer. That’s how you’ll answer that question, and in a way it will take over. I don’t pick up my guitar everyday, but I do write. If I was meant to be a musician I would be picking up my guitar everyday. You know what you are based on the fact that you can’t live without it. I think writing is really hard as a creative endeavour because it’s so solitary. If you’re in a band you get feedback from other musicians, and even if you’re a solo musician with headphones on the music is feeding back to you, so you can stay up all night working on that. With writing, there’s nobody out there to filter work. I’ve got nobody really that I could give half a book to, nobody I’d trust. If you have a piece of music it’s much easier to get a demo recording. The solitary aspect is a tough endeavour.
J: True, but I think what you said about the musician and the music feeding back to you rings true for writing too. Reading over or enjoying writing about a character and their development can be rewarding and sort of, ‘the petrol’ for the next bit.
T: You’re talking about fiction now?
J: Yes, sorry.
T: I think with non-fiction, you get to the point that there’s so much paperwork, and it’s research all the time. It becomes work. I think it’s harder, certainly for me.
J: And there’s the pressure to be factually accurate all the time.
T: But I think when you’re writing fiction and the characters go off and it’s like you’re watching them running around the room it’s really quite fun.
J: Was there a point in your life where you clicked and thought: ‘That’s it! I’m a writer’?
T: There’s genuinely a part of me that still thinks ‘hopefully one day I’ll be a writer’. I read other peoples books and think they’re better than mine. But I also have people tell me I’m a good writer.
J: I think you have to have those insecurities to spur yourself on.
T: Absolutely. Michael Stipe has insecurities and he’s a genius. The answer would probably be when the Keith Moon book came out. Barely a week goes by where I don’t hear someone say it’s a great music biography and that blows me away. But at the same time, I’m like, well how the hell do I follow that up?
J: You interviewed a lot of people for ‘A Light’, most significantly Johnny Marr.
T: I think Johnny was the most important interviewee for the book. If Johnny hadn’t co-operated it would have been hard. I did ask Morrissey - a few times - but I figured we wouldn’t get him. Johnny holds the key to The Smiths legacy. The number of people I went to talk to who said: ‘Does Johnny know about this?’ and I had to tell them yes; then they were like: ‘Okay well if Johnny’s alright with it then yeah, I’d love to be part of the book’.
J: Did you hear back from Morrissey?
T: His assistant assured me that he had received the letters. It would have been wonderful if he’d decided to write back with why not, but he didn’t and that’s that.
J: Before we get into the book, can we talk about the cover? It looks a bit like a murder mystery… Morrissey is facing away from the other three, it’s set on a black background, nobody is smiling… obviously I know what happens at the end but if I didn’t I’d be expecting maybe a death… or a prison sentence…
T: [Laughs] That’s great if that’s what you thought. A few people have likened it to the cover of ‘With The Beatles’. We wanted something quite classic. The idea was that The Smiths didn’t need an introduction, so we didn’t put anything on the back cover either. It was just like, this is The Smiths, this is the book, these are the people. I hope that worked, I have a nightmare with covers.
J: It does. It has a very authoritative air. Is it an ‘enduring saga’ or a ‘complete history’?
T: When I did the synopsis I just came up with ‘enduring saga’ and it stuck. I sold it as that title. The idea is that The Smiths are an ongoing fascination, and that’s why it’s enduring.
J: Within the introduction you talk about why you wrote it: to set The Smiths in a socio-cultural and political context, with in-depth family background. Why did you approach it this way?
T: It’s a pattern in all my books, it’s massively important to set the cultural scene. My book about the New York City music scene has seventeen different chapters like that, all about the social, economic, immigration context and how that produced disco. I thought it was really important. That first chapter of ‘A Light’ – about Manchester - took me more time to write than any other chapter in the book.
J: Which other Smiths biographers do you admire?
T: Johnny Rogan’s was a really important book when it came out. When he wrote that book people didn’t really know about The Smiths. I think that’s partly why his book was so successful.
J: It had a controversial title too.
T: Oh, yes. It was an important book. I am also very clear in my book for praise of Simon Goddard’s ‘Songs that saved your life’. A great book for the real Smiths fanatics. It’s quite possible you can’t jump into my book unless you’re a real Smiths fanatic too.
J: To me, ‘A Light’ suggests a serious, authoritative and heavy read, but in fact the joy of reading it was in the many colourful demonstrations and glimpses into character.
T: I think details are important. Morrissey drops details into his lyrics for example - a rented room in Whalley Range – it’s all truth that adds colour. My favourite stories in there are the ones that I could identify with. I’m the same school year as Johnny and Andy and I went to a grammar school that became a comprehensive the same year as theirs did so I felt I could identify with a lot of what they went through. Ivor Perry telling me that Morrissey was stopped for his lunch money on Kings Road intrigued me. They wouldn’t beat him up; it was more of a tax really. I was a weaker kid when I was younger and in those days it was accepted. It is what it is: ‘Give us your lunch money, yep, fifty pee, now walk on.’ I don’t take any delight in reporting that but I think a lot of us who grew up in England at that time will identify with this.
J: Please tell me what these symbols are at the start of some of the chapters, and what they signify – the first one is on p. 20.
T: Ah! Well spotted. It’s a spindle, the centre of a record.
J: Ah! Of course it is!
T: Do you want an exclusive?
T: That record, that says ‘A Light that never goes out’ (p. 19). The idea was to have a 7” single. It’s a tribute to what The Smiths always wanted when they started - an indie record with a classic punch out label. It’s there partly to remind you that The Smiths were maybe one of the last great vinyl bands. They made 45s, and that’s what this band is about. We scanned an actual rare Smiths record, that’s the Rough Trade label, and we just put in ‘A Light That Never Goes Out’. It’s important to me that it was a Smiths record. That’s the first time I’ve ever told anybody that.
J: Thank you. Is it your favourite Smiths record?
T: Those change day by day.
J: Every author/biographer/Smiths fan thinks that the story began when Johnny knocked on Morrissey’s door. Do you think that is when the story began? Johnny and Andy were messing about and swapping guitars for years before that happened, developing sounds together.
T: Johnny developed The Smiths riffs after that though. And Morrissey had the poems ready just waiting for someone to come along and accompany them. I think the answer is that it started at that door on Kings Road, when Johnny knocked on the door with Stephen Pomfret. It’s that Patti Smith line - Morrissey looked at Johnny - ‘the boy looked at Johnny’ and said you’re the one I’ve been waiting for.
J: I love that Morrissey was just waiting for something to happen, rather than going out and looking for it, almost as if he just knew there would be a knock on the door.
T: I think that’s a very existential conversation, there’s just no answer to this… Morrissey is sitting indoors, waiting, just waiting… and it happens. And it shouldn’t! Because everything says ‘Morrissey! You’re wasting your life away, running out of opportunities…’
J: He just knows it’s going to happen.
T: There are no explanations for this. What would have happened if Johnny hadn’t knocked on his door? Well that’s hypothetical, and he did, it happened, if you want to get conceptual and spiritual about it you could say that Johnny was always going to knock on his door.
J: One of my favourite chapters in the book is when Morrissey goes round to Johnny’s house for the first time, and again there are connections and commonalities, the landlady with the Corrie pictures…
T: I took the description of the attic room from what Johnny and other people said, because everybody has always talked about when Johnny went to Morrissey’s door, so I thought I’d flip it round. Johnny is four years younger, a real jack the lad, room full of records, I can imagine Morrissey might be intimidated the first time he walks into Johnny’s room.
J: Were there any really challenging areas when you were writing the book, where you just thought, I need to persevere and get through this…
T: I think sometimes… there’s a certain formula you try to avoid when writing about an album. I tried to make sure I wrote about each album in a different way. Trying to find a way to write about an album… do you talk about it song by song, or about the making of the album, or review the finished album as a complete entity? That’s hard for a biographer.
J: Your opinions creep into the book quite a lot, particularly in the Strangeways chapter. I’m not sure you share the opinion with Morrissey and Johnny that it’s their finest album…
T: No I don’t. Do you?
J: I’m all about The Smiths first album. I like the discovery. It’s unpolished, fast, exciting, slightly harsh and wild in parts, gentle in others.
T: Some songs came out better than others… The Hand That Rocks The Cradle is one.
J: So if it’s not Strangeways or The Smiths, what is your favourite Smiths album?
T: I think Meat Is Murder and The Queen Is Dead really stand up as albums, and will continue to do so. The Queen Is Dead is the stronger political statement. It’s classic great lyricism - but it’s not as much Queen Elizabeth as I had thought in 1986 - it could be any queen, including a drag Queen. Meat Is Murder is a great album, and knocked Born In The USA off number one. That was a massive achievement, and it stands up as Northern, indie. The Queen Is Dead is the conventional masterpiece that sounds better on American radio. Strangeways tarnishes the view because you listen to it knowing that the band have broken up. REM were so smart, they knew they were breaking up but the album came out six months before they did, so people were able to form their own opinions. Now the fact is: it’s obvious that’s their last album in retrospect. But people should be allowed to form their own opinion before knowing it’s the last album. From my personal point of view there are great songs, but with the greatest of respect you have to be wary that just because somebody said Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me is the best production that it’s the best song. If you asked somebody out in the street they’d say This Charming Man over Last Night. It also reflects a band that’s very much in the studio. Incredible production but does it have the same impact as This Charming Man or William? I don’t think so. I think it’s a transitional album. I would have loved to know what they would have done next.
J: If they had continued, which direction do you think they would have gone in?
T: Well, again, in a way it’s irrelevant because it’s back to existentialism. Having said that, there are lots of comparisons between The Smiths and R.E.M. The fifth album R.E.M. made was transitional, then they came off the road, and wrote ‘Out Of Time’ (which was phenomenally successful). I think that’s what The Smiths could have done.
J: Do you think that people listen to Strangeways differently, perhaps with a tinge of sadness because they know it’s a break up album, so as they’re listening to it they have already formed their opinion sad, romantic, bittersweet…
T: Yes. It’s very hard to listen to I won’t share you and pretending you didn’t know the band were going to break up. I can’t listen to that song without thinking, surely there’s a message going out there, surely… very hard to listen.
J: I have a question here from @vivahate72. He wants to know if your next book is going to be a Blur book because you reference Blur at the end.
T: No, sorry! [Laughs]. It will be the memoir, ‘Boy About Town’. It’s fifty short stories that really recount being at school in the 1970s, dreaming of being a rock star, wrapped in a complete musical and social history of the era.
J: I can’t wait.
T: It all weaves together even though each story could be read on its own. I’m really excited about it.
J: Before we finish, is there anything else that you wanted to say about your current book that you haven’t said so far?
T: Yes there is. It’s important to note that it’s an international book. In the past biographers have written about The Smiths as the Manchester band, everyone else cut off. The Smiths don’t just belong to Britain. The Smiths were massive in America. It lays out the American story too, the modern rock scene, so the Brits get their chapter a little earlier, then the Americans get their scene too. It’s a big part of the story.
J: I notice that the American edition has a very bright and lively cover too! Is that reflective of the moods of each nation?
T: [Laughs] I don’t know about covers. I do know that my British editor said: ‘I don’t really like that American cover’ and the American editor said: ‘I don’t really like that British cover’. So you draw your own conclusions…
American cover - Dec 4 release
J: If Morrissey was to walk in here right now and say ‘Alright Tony’ what would you say?
T: I’d say ‘Hi Morrissey, how are you?’
J: If he was coming to your house, what snacks would you put out?
T: Oh well, I’m vegan. I’m going to back up. I would say: ‘Hi Morrissey. Sit down’. He looked really good in Albany; he’s lost weight. And the Meat Is Murder video is showing factory farming of hens. I read that he had finally given up eggs. Which is great, but long overdue. So I’d sit him down and replicate all his dairy habits with vegan food, give him vegan cup cakes. So I’d like to talk to him about where his line is on vegetarianism is, and why he’s always been such a strong proponent for vegetarianism, but continued to eat so much dairy and wear animal products. Because it makes sense to go the whole nine yards.
J: When was the last time you last spoke to Morrissey?
T: Back in The Smiths days the last time we spoke.
J: At the Hacienda?
T: [Laughs] we did a phone interview after that but I won’t pretend that I’m his personal friend.
J: What is your favourite record of all time?
T: Ocean Rain is a perfect album. Echo and the Bunnymen.
J: What’s your favourite Johnny record or period since he left The Smiths?
T: The first Electronic record. They really caught that post-Madchester vibe. Johnny’s input is quietly stated but it’s there alright.
J: What’s your favourite drink?
T: I only drink beer and wine these days. It would have to be a good American IPA. I’m a runner. I strongly suspect that runners run so that they can have a pint at the end.
J: What’s your favourite biscuit?
T: I don’t really eat biscuits.
J: What’s your favourite sandwich filling?
T: Peanut butter and banana.
J: Favourite movie?
T: ‘The Kids Are Alright’ – The Who movie from 1979.
J: Favourite actor?
T: Albert Finney in ‘Saturday Night Sunday Morning’ and Phil Daniels in ‘Quadrophenia’.
J: Favourite thing your mum says?
T: ‘It’s your beloved mother…’
J: Favourite Morrissey song.
T: I can’t. There’s not one. Changes all the time.
J: Favourite fruit?
J: Favourite discovery in your book, that you didn’t know.
T: Physical discoveries: the original Rough Trade contract and a number of personal letters from Morrissey to Tony Wilson, which I didn’t reprint in full. Emotional discoveries, I think it was the importance of all four personalities in the Smiths. It wasn’t just Morrissey, it wasn’t just Marr, and it would not have been the same without Andy and Johnny. Especially Andy who I think in many ways was the soul of the band and who’s musical input has been under-rated. Hopefully I got all of that across.
J: Can you write a note for my mum?
T: Yes! Do you have everybody that you interview write a note to your mum?
J: Yes. She loves it. She keeps a folder.
You can follow Tony on twitter @tonyfletcher. His next book ‘Boy About Town’ is out in 2013. (I hope it’s a big fat fatty).
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