Behind the persona of BELOUIS SOME was Londoner Neville Keighley who released his debut album ‘Some People’ in 1985.
Best known for the classic single ‘Imagination’, the accompanying boundary breaking (for the time) promotional video included full frontal nudity.
Over his three albums, Keighley worked with a stellar roll call of musicians including Bowie guitarists Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick, Guy Fletcher of DIRE STRAITS and CHIC’s Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson.
After a break of 25 years, BELOUIS SOME has recently returned to the live arena and Neville Keighley kindly spoke to The Electricity Club about his career, the challenges of getting signed, working with the late iconic PINK FLOYD artist Storm Thorgerson, plus his early links with DURAN DURAN and a fledgling TEARS FOR FEARS.
Who were your initial musical influences?
In the 70s, like everyone I guess, I was obsessed by music, the stuff older kids were listening to like JETHRO TULL, early GENESIS, LED ZEPPELIN etc. But then at age of 12-13, it was ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and I was off!
What was the early link between you and TEARS FOR FEARS?
My friend had an uncle who signed them to a publishing deal as the band GRADUATE, so I knew them and when I did some demos at a studio in Bath with Manny Elias on drums, they joined in with backing vocals.
What made you choose an alter-ego rather than releasing songs under your real name?
I was a solo artist and it was impossible to get a record deal as one; also no-one took new solo artists seriously… eg singer / songwriter stuff. Also I was always playing live so wanted a name that was ambiguous, plus my real name is a real mouthful. I had very few knock backs after I changed my name, put a band together and started playing live, but that was 5 years in!
What was the pathway that eventually got you signed to a major label and how were DURAN DURAN involved?
DURAN DURAN’s managers, the Berrow brothers, signed me to their publishing label and although I signed to EMI via Parlophone, they weren’t the only label involved by that stage. They were a great label to be with.
How did you manage to hook up in the States with guys of the calibre of Carlos Alomar, Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson?
I had been recording my first album in London for a while and I wasn’t happy with it, it sounded too ordinary!
Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero had just remixed TALK TALK’s ‘It’s My Life’ and the record company suggested they remix one of my tracks.
I went to New York, it was obvious I wasn’t happy with my album so we agreed that if they could put together an amazing band, I could persuade Parlophone to let me re-record a track with them producing. Eventually we did 6 or 7 songs…
Was it nerve-wracking being in a studio environment with musicians that had played with Bowie and CHIC?
No, I was so relieved and grateful to be re-recording the songs, I didn’t have time to be nervous. Parlophone weren’t going to let me carry on forever. By this time, I knew what I wanted and the musicians were amazing people as well as players. I still remember the look on the record company’s face when I walked in and played ‘Imagination’!
This was a time when some bands went fully electronic, what made you stick primarily with more of a band aesthetic?
I’m still called ‘electro pop’ etc and never understood why, because I’ve always been band focused…
You are best known for the song ‘Imagination’, do you think the extended 7 minute “saucy” promo helped or hindered the success of it?
I didn’t care. I knew EMI would go berserk and they did when they saw it! Luckily as soon as they sent it out to the clubs, the reaction was amazing. British TV didn’t like it, but European TV did!
The director Storm Thorgerson was best known for his legendary album cover designs for artists such PINK FLOYD, but also worked on several promos for artists such as Nik Kershaw and Paul Young. How was the experience of working with him?
I wanted to do something special and Storm Thorgerson was an amazing man, he’d just started making videos. He was very creative and a bit difficult, but I loved working with him. We had to keep it all secret because of the storyline.
The video for ‘Some People’ that was shot in Clacton and Alburgh is more obviously ‘Thorgerson’ than ‘Imagination’ with that PINK FLOYD-ish surrealist edge to it. Do you have any specific memories of making it?
We took over the whole place over for a few days, the video was a Swatch Watch TV commercial for the USA as well. The ‘Some People’ video confused a lot of people! Not what they were expecting and it did much better in the USA than ‘Imagination’.
Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson from THROBBING GRISTLE shot the video, were you aware of his alter-ego at the time?
No, but he was a very charming man.
How was the experience of supporting Nik Kershaw?
This was my first time out in theatres in 1984, it was a great experience!
You toured the US in 1985 supporting FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD, The Electricity Club can only imagine it wasn’t a sedate affair? What are your memories of those dates?
My band held their own!
In 1986, you played in front of your biggest crowd yet at Knebworth opening for QUEEN, a trouser soiling prospect if ever there was one? But the crowd were quite hostile to you weren’t they?
It’s funny how people ask this, I’d played constantly for 3-4 years and in some really grisly venues, the 120,000 Knebworth audience were great.
There were some people in the audience who caused a bit of trouble but they can’t have been QUEEN fans. I had a great time.
You gamely performed ‘Target Practice’ as the missiles were flying, was it as dangerous as it appeared on the big screens at Knebworth?
The first time I sang ‘Target Practice’ was at Glasgow Apollo on a Saturday night, I realised then what was going to happen… audience participation!
Having read some of your earlier interviews at the time of ‘Imagination’, you come across as pretty ‘rock n roll’! What are your opinions of today’s music artists and the way they portray themselves in the media?
I think social media means everyone has to be a bit careful and behave themselves.
We didn’t have this problem in the 80s!
Looking back, what is the standout experience of your music career?
Meeting and working with so many great people, also performing your own songs to any audience is such a privilege.
You disappeared off of the musical radar for a while, what were you doing at the time?
It was pretty obvious in the 90s that what I did wasn’t getting a fair chance so I buggered off.
You returned to paying live recently, how does the experience of this differ with your earlier live experiences?
I went on stage this summer with the ‘Let’s Rock 80s’ summer festivals, my first time in over 25 years.
Is there any chance of any new BELOUIS SOME material on the horizon?
I hope so!
The Electricity Club gives its grateful thanks to BELOUIS SOME
From Livingston in West Lothian to the concert arenas of the world, the rise of David John Cicero into the pop charts was swift.
A fan of synthpop and dance music, Cicero began writing songs and making music in his bedroom, aided by advancements in technology such as affordable samplers and sequencing software.
Following a PET SHOP BOYS concert in 1989, he managed to get a demo tape to the duo.
Before two could be divided by zero, Cicero was offered a record deal with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s new record label Spaghetti Records imprint which was being set up via Polydor Records.
Although the excellent debut single for both Cicero and Spaghetti Records ‘Heaven Must Have Sent You Back To Me’ failed to chart, it brought the young photogenic Scot to the attention of radio programmers and press. So when his PET SHOP BOYS produced second single ‘Love Is Everywhere’ was released in late 1991, it eventually reached No19 in the UK charts.
The album ‘Future Boy’ and ‘Live For Today’, a wonderfully cinematic contribution to the Oscar nominated film ‘The Crying Game’ followed, but then record company politics intervened and contributed to a stall in momentum.
Although later, there was a UK tour supporting TAKE THAT plus the independently issued singles ‘Summertime’ and a cover of SOFT CELL’s ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’, as the new millennium loomed, Cicero opted to disappear from public view.
But now in 2019, as his former mentor Neil Tennant used to say when he was Assistant Editor of Smash Hits, Cicero is “Back-back-BACK!”.
With the release of his appropriately titled new single ‘Turned Around’, Cicero kindly spoke to The Electricity Club about his album ‘Future Boy’, working with PET SHOP BOYS, briefly being a pop pin-up and his return to music…
At a time when affordable electronic music technology was making acid house and techno a cultural reality, you opted to do pop songs, so who were your main influences in that respect?
I was going to clubs in my late teens and listening to house music like ‘Jack Your Body’ and ‘House Nation’ the early stuff and thinking “wow I want to do that”.
When moving to Livingston when I was 17, the Scottish radio was full of RUNRIG, HIPSWAY, DEACON BLUE etc, mostly rock pop stuff. Nobody really from Scotland at that time was playing electronic music, in the mainstream anyway.
The club I went to called ‘Melvilles’ at the time (now a church lol) was playing all types of music including HI-NRG like “I was a male stripper in a go go bar” (not me, that was the name of the song ?) and tracks like “Boom Boom, let’s go back to my room” and I loved them. It was the energy they gave off on the dancefloor, just like house music which was uplifting, almost trance like. They also played a lot of electronic bands like OMD, PSB and VISAGE.
Can you remember your first synth or keyboard? What was it like to use?
The first keyboard was a small Casio which had built-in speakers and drums etc, not that great at sounds but you could play about with them to make better ones. It did not have any phono outputs, so I had to tape a microphone to its speaker when doing my early gigs.
What was your set-up when you were producing the demos that would eventually become ‘Future Boy’?
By the time I was working on ‘Future Boy’, I had my Korg T3 and an Akai sequencer, an Akai sampler and a rack mount synth which was by Roland.
It was a long process when writing tunes as you could not copy and paste stuff, it was all step-sequenced so you had to build the tracks part by part which was pain staking at the time. I also had an old Atari monitor when moving on to Cubase later which was so much better.
How did you come to the attention of PET SHOP BOYS?
They were playing at the SECC in Glasgow, I remember playing ‘Please’ constantly and loved every song. I carried my demo tape with me everywhere I went. We were listening in the car going to the gig and whilst waiting in the venue, my friend Ali bumped into Pete who was their PA at the time (later to be my manager) and said “you’ve got to listen to this, it’s similar to the PET SHOP BOYS!”.
At the time, I had only written ‘Love Is Everywhere’, ‘Heaven’ and ‘Cloud 9’. We were invited to meet them after the show and it was awesome. A month later Pete called me and said “you better start working on an album, the boys want you down in London”, the rest is history.
‘Heaven Must Have Sent You Back To Me’ was a fine debut single in anyone’s books, exactly what one would imagine Spaghetti Records to be about?
Yes Neil and Chris loved ‘Heaven’ and wanted it out first. Spaghetti Records was something they both created at the time to go with the Italian connection surname that I had. They later added more artists to the label.
You’re best known for your hit ‘Love Is Everywhere’ which looking back now, is quite a bizarre song sounding like THE PROCLAIMERS meeting PET SHOP BOYS and OMD with bagpipes and The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo thrown in for good measure… how did this come together in your head and then in the studio?
Haha, yes there is quite a mixture of styles in that tune. I always wanted it to be a Scottish anthem sounding tune and had a crap bagpipe sample playing the main part, but it all just worked.
When doing my early gigs, it was the song that got everyone pumped and went down rather well. When in the studio with the boys, they wanted real bagpipes so we got some guys in to play it, but the bagpipes needed tuning to the correct key to fit the track. Neil also decided to add his backing vocals to it which lifted the chorus to another level. Thinking back, it was all experiments which the boys had fun being involved in.
Had it been the intention for PET SHOP BOYS to be involved in the production of ‘Love Is Everywhere’?
Yes from the get go, it was probably one of the first we started working on in the studio when putting together ‘Future Boy’.
With it, you became a pop pin-up with a ‘Smash Hits’ front cover, how did you find the adulation and also being on TV?
I loved every minute of it; I remember rushing to the newsagents to buy a copy when I was told I was in a magazine. You have to love it, it’s all about you and if you don’t like it, why are you doing it? Being on TV was amazing too and at the time I always wanted to be on ‘Top Of The Pops’, I was on it but only a few seconds of the video to ‘Love is Everywhere’ as it was the highest climber that week. I was told I was going on the show the following week, but later that week we were told that Michael Jackson was releasing a bloody 10 minute video which they decided to premiere on the show instead!
‘That Loving Feeling’ was also produced by PET SHOP BOYS, what was it like working with them? Are there any funny stories you can recall?
Yes let me get it straight, these boys are so talented, the ideas at the time were flowing and me, being young and naïve, did not respect that as much as I do now. They were the biggest names in the pop industry and they were producing some of my songs! Don’t get me wrong, I was loving every moment of it and thought it was amazing and looking back now it all seems like a dream.
Chris was the joker, he would just come out with some random stuff which would get us all laughing; Neil too, I loved it when he would go off on one about some of the artists at the time in the charts who he thought were not deserving (I will not mention any names).
It was a shame ‘That Loving Feeling’ didn’t hit the same heights as ‘Love Is Everywhere’, why do you think that might have been?
It was all down to distribution at the time, you’ve got to remember we did not have social media to help push sales. Even though Spaghetti was my label, Polydor were the main backing / distributors and were not getting the records out to all the shops in time. This was really out of Chris and Neil’s control and should have been handled better by Polydor.
My bother and others that were contacting me were saying the stores were not stocking it or were waiting on stock coming in. At the time, you needed to sell a lot of records to even get into the Top 100 and I just missed the Top 40 which was a bummer but it never stopped me carrying on.
‘My Middle Class Life’ had an air of VISAGE about it?
Did it? *laughs*
I do like VISAGE. That was written when I was a waiter back in the days of getting sh*t from customers. I would go into my staff room and write it out on a napkin. A few songs were written there.
There is some great brassy freeform synth playing on the rugged album closer ‘Future Generations’, an art which sort of disappeared during those dance years?
That was a track written when I was coming down to London and seeing all the homeless / red light areas which I never experienced back home. We wanted the album to have an emotional ending to it, inspired by ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ by PINK FLOYD, the female vocals are stunning… I wanted that similar vocal effect at the end of my tune.
The excellent electro instrumental ‘Sonic Malfunction’ was a last minute addition to ‘Future Boy’, why had it felt necessary to add further tracks?
I did a lot of instrumental tracks too back in the day, it was one of those songs that Neil and Chris liked and wanted to add it to the album. (Check out my YouTube page for the new mix I did). They wanted to also show I suppose, the other side of Cicero which is not always pop. We did not want to overdo the album with instrumentals… we were keeping them for the B sides ?
On B-sides like ‘Mind The Gap’, ‘Splatt’ and ‘Jungilism’, you were able to let your more clubby instincts run wild?
Yep, again it was all about showing another part of Cicero and it was great having full control to experiment with songs like that.
We had a great laugh making them and loved playing with new technology in the studio.
How do you look back on the ‘Future Boy’ album? Which were your own favourite tracks?
I still think its timeless, I think it’s one of those albums that still sounds like some of the songs that are out there today, hell I may have even influenced them in some way ?
I don’t have any faves, I like them all but ‘Then’ was the one that I loved to listen to on repeat. Yes I sometimes still listen to it for inspiration. Is it bad to be a fan of your own music? If you’re not a fan of your own music why the hell are you doing it then!
One of my rare videos taken from the award winning "The Crying Game" movie and soundtrack called "Live for today"
‘Live For Today’, your contribution to the PET SHOP BOYS produced soundtrack to ‘The Crying Game’ is considered to be your best song; with that soulful counterpoint from Sylvia Mason-James, was this indicative of the direction you would have gone in for the second album?
Yes probably, we were going in a more orchestrated feel at the time but I was under no impression to change my music drastically compared to ‘Future Boy’
Some perceived you as a PET SHOP BOYS side-project… in hindsight, do you think the association helped or hindered you? Is there anything you’d have done differently?
Hey, I was their prodigy, they found me and I found them, it’s all about fate. I may have made it without the lads, but having them help me and to be part of it was something I would never change.
You also supported TAKE THAT on tour. Looking back, was it the right fit as it didn’t appear to revive your fortunes? How was the experience overall for you?
I loved being on tour with the boys, we were good friends and thought it would be a good surprise having me part of the show, we talked about it way back before they became famous. It was never a plan to revive my career but the response I got was overwhelming from the fans.
In 1996 you released a cover of SOFT CELL’s ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’? What is it about that song for you personally which you loved?
It was one of those songs when I first listened to it that made me relate to it a bit, but I always thought it would be a good dance tune.
Publically, it looked like you’d gone under the radar after that, what happened then?
I was and still am making music, I just wanted a break from it all. I went through quite a low time which I will not get into after my pop career. Later my lovely daughter was born who was 11 weeks premature. This was worrying times as she was in the hospital for a long time when she was first born so I stopped doing music until she was older.
I started doing music with a DJ friend of mine Paul Mendez, writing trance tunes under the name JACOB & MENDEZ. I also have a few albums out under the name THE EVENT which tracks have appeared on some independent films. I was always writing, always going on and never giving up.
You’re now back with a new single ‘Turned Around’ and it’s like you’ve never been away. What made you feel this was the right time to make a return to music?
I had released a couple of songs prior to this called ‘Face This World Alone’ and ‘Wish’, but was getting a lot of people asking when I was going to sing again. I wanted to put a song together that meant something to me and what a lot of others could relate to. I just wanted everyone to know I was back, but not really been away.
Is the current environment where an artist has more control over their music with regards self-releasing more suited to your ethos?
It’s a great time for independent artist who can now more easily set up their own label. I love having full control now, most artists if you ask them would love that, you can express your true music that way, it’s not controlled and it’s not all about making money like most big named record companies are only after these days. Just listen to the amount of sh*t that is out there.
How do you feel about the music industry today compared with back then?
Don’t get me started, it sucks, we are controlled into having to listen to what they decide is good. Everyone is expected to follow like sheep and listen to the same type of music as everyone else. Back in the 90s, music was so uplifting, nowadays it’s all so depressing. It’s like they want us all to be depressed. They control the big radio stations now and any small independent band does not have a chance… unless you get signed to them.
Photo by Neil McDade
You recently gave your first live performance for many years in aid of MacMillan. How does it feel to be playing live again?
It was one of the best nights of my life. It was something I planned a few years ago after doing a remake of ‘Cloud 9’. All of my original material was done on floppy drives, so I had to reprogramme everything from scratch for the live show. The response and feedback has been amazing. It’s given me the buzz again and you never know, I may just have to do another.
So what’s next for you then, your hopes or fears?
I may do some more live gigs. I am now working on an album, it’s not ‘Future Boy 2’ but it’s still going to have that Cicero feel to it with a more up to date cutting edge sound. Back in the 90s, we were limited to technology but we made it sound the best we could back then. The new album may not be out until later next year ‘cause I want to take my time to make sure I am happy with it first and hopefully you are too.
The Electricity Cub gives its sincerest thanks to David Cicero
ROB DEAN is best known as a member of the classic quintet line-up of JAPAN with David Sylvian, Mick Karn, Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri which acted as the blueprint for DURAN DURAN.
Hackney-born Dean had been recruited by the four Catford boys via an advert in Melody Maker.
Although he had already left the band by the time of their wider breakthrough in Autumn 1981, his six-string made a prominent contribution to some of the band’s best known singles like ‘Life In Tokyo’, ‘Quiet Life’ and ‘I Second That Emotion’.
Dean was one of the first exponents of the EBow, a battery-powered hand-held monophonic electronic device which produced a powerful infinite sustain that was rich in harmonics. It therefore allowed for a variety of sounds on a guitar not playable using traditional strumming or picking techniques; other users of the EBow included Bill Nelson, The Edge, Stuart Adamson, Paul Reynolds and Wayne Hussey.
Featuring on four of JAPAN’s five studio albums, Dean had found himself marginalised by David Sylvian’s artistic pursuit of a more minimalist keyboard based sound during the recording sessions for his final record with them, ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’, resulting in him appearing on just four tracks.
After JAPAN, Dean worked with GARY NUMAN, SINÉAD O’CONNOR and ABC while he was also formed the Australian connected bands ILLUSTRATED MAN and THE SLOW CLUB.
Now resident in Costa Rica, the guitarist kindly chatted to The Electricity Club about his time in JAPAN and his return to music with a brand new project LIGHT OF DAY…
Much had been made of your resemblance to Sylvain Sylvain, had you actually been a NEW YORK DOLLS fan?
The simple answer is no. I remember seeing them on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ and thinking how they were fun to watch and decidedly trashy, but it didn’t make me want to rush out and buy their album or go and see them live.
The truth is my hair (in those days at least!) was naturally very curly and so when I grew it long, which was ultimately a pre-requisite for being part of JAPAN really, obviously it had a Bolan / Sylvain look. The make-up obviously helped promote this further.
As time went on, I appreciated them a bit more. I remember I was once at Max’s Kansas City in NYC chatting with the club’s co-owner and the subject of Sylvain came up. She said he was usually around somewhere. I thought no more about it and as I was outside the club about to leave, she emerged dragging a very drunk individual by his jacket sleeve. It was Sylvain Sylvain – she wanted so desperately for him to meet me. I’m guessing he didn’t remember our encounter!
How comfortable were you with the early look of JAPAN and being in the public eye with it?
I was fine with it. JAPAN were my first band really and therefore it was easy to get caught up in the whole image thing (we had a record deal! we played gigs!). Where I was least happy was traveling on a bus or the tube to a rehearsal or business meeting where I became (understandably) self-conscious about it. It was ok for the others, they all lived close to each other and travelled together all the time, usually in Rich’s small car, but I lived on the other side of London and so it was a bit more awkward.
When JAPAN scored their initial success in Japan with the ‘Adolescent Sex’ album and went from playing pubs in Britain to the Budokan in Tokyo, how did you find having to deal with screaming girls at your shows?
You can’t really explain the buzz of that initial reception getting off that plane in Tokyo for the first time and being greeted by a mob of screaming fans. Leaving the hotel discreetly by back exits, bodyguards accompanying you everywhere on shopping excursions…
It was nuts really, decidedly unreal. The first night we were invited by our promoter Mr Udo to see Linda Ronstadt at the Budokan. No sooner had we entered the vast auditorium, Ms Ronstadt and band already in full swing, than by our presence alone we unwittingly had caused a mini-riot and were forced to leave in order for the concert to continue.
As far as our own shows went, although somewhat otherworldly to be exchanging a couple of hundred people at the Marquee club for two 10,000 seat sold out shows at the Budokan, it never really felt that it was anything but deserved. By the end of the first tour we had become quite blasé about the whole experience. It was a huge confidence builder though.
Is it true that wrestler Kendo Nagasaki was involved in some rather bizarre UK promotion of that album?
Yes, he was hired to promote the first album, delivering it by hand to all the disc jockeys and record promoters in his full wrestler’s regalia. All that sort of guff was entirely out of our hands as was the poster campaign and the promotional phallic cardboard sword with a huge erect penis on the reverse!
What were the pros and cons of having someone like Simon Napier-Bell as a manager?
The pros? I’m not sure in hindsight. He was clearly an old school manager with all the baggage that that comes with. Initially I think we felt that having a manager with such a reputation could only be a good thing and we were so green then that we just rode along with it all and trusted that he had our own interests at heart.
The blatant Far Eastern connotations, all of that was out of our control really. We trusted that it was what needed to be done to get us noticed and recognised. Which we certainly were but perhaps initially not in the way we had hoped.
All of the press hated any act being thrust down their throats and so having our painted faces and lewd posters plastered all over London unquestionably did more harm than good, particularly in the punk era! I don’t think for one moment we were embarrassed by it however, not then anyway. The T-shirts with the band name spelled out with people and animals f***ing did take it a bit too far though…
The other thing that has lingered with me and possibly now I feel more regrettable than the rest was the blatant lies, the fabrications about the band that placed us in a position that was virtually impossible to get out of.
The ‘Most Beautiful Man in the World’ tag on David Sylvian which had no founding in reality and was created purely to put us on the pages of The Sun newspaper for example; something to be proud of? No, I don’t think so. For a few years that promotion machine was in fabrication overdrive and ultimately it comes down to one person, Simon Napier-Bell…
Photo by Watal Asanuma
JAPAN’s first major tour was opening for BLUE OYSTER CULT at the height of their fame in 1978, do you have any amusing memories of it, as the audiences were said to be quite hostile?
We had supported on a smaller yet no less incongruous Uni tour before that with Jim Capaldi’s band which included Alan Spenner and Neil Hubbard whose work as sidemen we would come to admire later on, not to mention the Kokomo singers, who appear on the recorded version of ‘European Son’.
As to BOC, it was our first time playing on the larger theatrical stages and our largest audiences so far, so we certainly looked forward to that.
Although we weren’t playing to anything close to our own audiences, the only time they got really hostile and vocal was when we played the song ‘Suburban Berlin’. As the tour continued, David encouraged us to lengthen the instrumental section and bring it down almost to a whisper, (which was the crowd’s opportunity to loudly voice their displeasure with us, the longer the better, which they indeed did do), before the song exploded into a huge round of final refrains.
On the last night of the tour, the road crew used that hushed silence and the explosive end to unleash all of the pyrotechnics and fireworks that they had remaining from the tour. All at once! Consequently we were all completely covered in ash, not to mention virtually deaf from the explosives. The other thing I remember was getting in the hotel lift with Buck Dharma for the first time and realizing that the lead guitarist of BOC was essentially a midget. Fond memories…
‘The Tenant’ instrumental that closed the ‘Obscure Alternatives’ album was a pivotal point in JAPAN changing their sound and saw you using an EBow for possibly the first time?
No it wasn’t an EBow; I don’t think they were actually available or that I was even aware of their existence at that point. But I did want a very Fripp-like thick sustained sound. We had been listening particularly to the ‘Heroes’ album then and so he was a strong and obvious influence on my playing moving forward.
What was it like to record ‘Life In Tokyo’ with Giorgio Moroder in Los Angeles as it was a radical new direction for JAPAN at the time?
We were all fans of the ‘Midnight Express’ film and soundtrack, which had just won Giorgio Moroder an Oscar, so the notion of flying to LA to record with him was an exciting one. I personally also really liked the work he had been doing with Donna Summer too. Combined with the heavy presence of KRAFTWERK and YMO in our album collections, it felt like the next logical step and we were banking on it causing us to break through in the pop market, which if we were to stay with our current record company, Hansa we would need to do.
So we flew over for about 5 days staying at the Beverly Hilton, no less. The song started life as an idea on a cassette that Giorgio had thought of using for the Jodie Foster movie ‘Foxes’, which David had fashioned quickly into a song.
In the studio, Giorgio had a drumkit set-up with ‘his’ sound and in fact it was a very controlled recording environment, leaving little to error.
For his trademark sequencer sound he brought in Harold Faltermeyer who at the time was his keyboard programmer. Harold laid down the part by playing it manually with a slap delay of equal volume which I think surprised us all, as we presumed it would be an actual sequencer but that human element was actually at the core of Giorgio’s sound. He also had his trio of backing singers who had appeared on all the Donna Summer hits, amongst others.
The sessions went so quickly that all, or at least most of the instrumental parts were finished in a single day. The next day was left for final vocal and mixing. It was enjoyable, but there was no mistaking who was in control and the efficiency on display made it feel more like a demo session really.
Had the single been a hit then I suppose it could have been possible that Giorgio would have been asked to produce the album. Had that been the case, ‘Quiet Life’ would have been a very different beast.
‘Quiet Life’ saw you moving from a recognisable lead to something more textural, had there been any particular guitarists who influenced you?
Although there had been plenty of solos in my work in the past, I always felt that my playing was at its best when it was servicing the song rather than sticking out, in a similar way to that of most of George Harrison’s work in THE BEATLES. At that time due to his remarkably distinctive work with DAVID BOWIE, PETER GABRIEL, DARYL HALL and BLONDIE amongst others, Fripp was my biggest influence and possibly remains so even now. I was also influenced by Phil Manzanera, Carlos Alomar, Earl Slick, Ricky Gardiner and John McGeoch during that album.
Despite the fraught tensions during the ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ album sessions, ‘Swing’ and ‘Methods Of Dance’ were exemplary examples of JAPAN firing on all cylinders, can you remember much about recording those two tracks?
Both of those tracks were pretty much finalised in rehearsals leading up to the album sessions at The Townhouse and AIR. So my contributions to both tracks in the studio were executed quite swiftly and efficiently with little fuss or struggle. The most effective songs in JAPAN’s repertoire were generally executed this way. There was one song, ’Angel In Furs’ which we had rehearsed to a similarly honed degree but which when we entered the studio suddenly seemed too obvious and simplistic when compared to the rest, and so it fell by the wayside very early on.
‘Some Kind Of Fool’ is the great lost JAPAN track and was replaced on the ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ album with ‘Burning Bridges’. What were your memories about the song and its non-appearance on the album?
Unquestionably, it is a beautiful song. I struggled to find parts for it that didn’t intrude on its simple flow but eventually found parts that I was happy with.
After that, Ann O’Dell’s strings were added and it was at that point that David decided not to pursue recording it further, the main reason being I believe, that with the strings, it began to resemble ‘The Other Side Of Life’ too closely arrangement-wise which actually I can see was a very valid point.
I think in David’s head he was very conscious of the possibility of ‘Polaroids’ becoming ‘Quiet Life Part II’ which none of us wanted, although recording the majority of it at AIR and having the familiar figure of John Punter in the producer’s chair didn’t help.
In some ways, we wanted that easy relaxed camaraderie but that time had passed. Ironically the JAPAN version with a couple of embellishments and a re-recorded vocal eventually found its way onto the Sylvian compilation ‘Everything & Nothing’ but under his name alone, rather unfairly. Surprisingly, the guitar parts which I struggled over remain intact too. Anyone listening to this is essentially listening to an updated version of the original JAPAN band version.
You wrote the JAPAN B-side ‘The Width Of A Room’ but perhaps surprisingly, it was recorded using keyboards rather than guitar, was this more filmic direction something you would have liked to take further had there been an opportunity?
I was always the film buff in the band. Days off would invariably find me in one art house cinema in London or another. On our first Japan trip myself and Pip, the lighting director sneaked off for a screening of ‘Raging Bull’ which was not due to be released in the UK for several months.
Photo by Nicola Tyson
During the recording of ‘Polaroids’, I would slip away for a couple of hours to catch a new film on many occasions. For the release of the two-pack single of ‘Polaroids’, it was suggested that we all come up with a suitable instrumental track as a B-side. I wrote ‘The Width Of A Room’ on an acoustic guitar in an open tuning. When it came to the recorded version however I was the one who was most adamant that it be exclusively a keyboard piece, even though I was encouraged to add some guitar.
I think I wanted it to fit in, rather than someone to say, “Oh that must be the guitarist’s track”. Later when I lived in LA, I did work on a film score with a friend. The movie was some dreadful Charlie Sheen B-movie whose name I have conveniently forgotten and I learned quite quickly that writing music to express emotions that I wasn’t feeling was not something I could really enjoy doing.
It’s pretty well documented that you left JAPAN due to the feeling that your guitar work was being sidelined, do you feel some kind of kinship with Andy Taylor from DURAN DURAN in this respect in terms of a band evolving and not quite fitting in?
As time went on, I was finding it harder and harder to come up with guitar parts that I could be satisfied with on the new material.
The track ‘European Son’ for instance, never featured a guitar part because I was never satisfied with anything I tried, although ironically just before my tenure with the band expired, I found a live option I was content with!
But it wasn’t only my own dissatisfaction. By the time of ‘Polaroids’, I felt that myself and David just weren’t on the same wavelength. Not sure we ever were to be honest, but it was more exposed by then.
Then there was talk of the band moving to Japan to live for a spell which I was not excited about. The rest of them had each other and very few others could penetrate this circle.
I on the other hand had the group of friends who I grew up with and still enjoyed seeing when I could. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to live in such close proximity with these four other people at the exclusion of everyone else either. So the split was on the cards and inevitable.
Having left JAPAN in 1981 was it still difficult to still be playing on ‘The Art Of Parties’ Spring tour which saw the band make the breakthrough into theatres?
Not at all. I enjoyed playing the songs as much as I ever had, and my relationship with Mick, Rich and Steve was as good as ever, in fact in some ways it might have felt even more relaxed because there was less pressure on me. The only thing I wasn’t happy with was the way David suddenly treated me like a side man. But that was David for you, if you weren’t of any use to him any more then you basically didn’t exist. I don’t doubt there have been plenty with a similar experience over the years.
Around this period, you contributed EBowed guitar to the Numan track ‘Boys Like Me’ from ‘Dance’ which also featured Mick Karn, was that an improvised jam on your part?
Yes, I was invited to the studio on the same day Mick was laying down some bass parts. The track was pulled up, I plugged in and started playing around with an EBow part. Ready to do a proper pass, I found out that Gary was happy with what I had already done! For my own satisfaction I would have preferred recording a couple more takes that Gary could choose from but he felt it wasn’t necessary. We hung around the studio for the rest of the day and I also contributed whoops and hand claps on a B-side which was basically a fretless bass improvisation.
The song ‘Quiet Life’ is probably the best known JAPAN track you played on, so what did you think when it became a Top 20 hit in September 1981 belatedly some 18 months after it first featured on the parent album?
I was living in LA at that time and was barely aware of what was being released posthumously from the Hansa catalogue. I wasn’t really conscious of the re-release or success of any of those tracks. I remember a friend of mine from Epic Records handing me the disc ‘Japan’ which was an amalgam of tracks from ‘Polaroids’ and ‘Tin Drum’ with the most god awful photo of David looking like a secretary or something on the cover. It not surprisingly failed to set the US charts alight. I was busy concentrating on attempting to create a new life for myself on a different continent. Later Mick came out for a holiday. It was nice to hang out and lark about away from the rigidness of the band. We had a blast.
You were part of Numan’s live band during his 1982 comeback tour of clubs in America, reports indicate it wasn’t a happy one, what was your take on it?
It had its ups and downs, certainly. Generally as a band we enjoyed ourselves. Playing with the likes of Pino Palladino and Roger Mason was a great experience and I think we rehearsed solidly for six weeks before the first gig at Perkin’s Palace, a theatre known for rock shows in Pasadena. ‘The Tube’ were in evidence to record Gary’s ‘comeback’ for posterity and in doing so, their crew really messed up the power in the hall and the show was a disaster, despite our last rehearsals being in that very venue! We then had a tour bus setting on fire shortly after and had to wait it out while another was delivered.
Any funny stories you can tell?
I remember playing Boston where we played a large club with a low stage. From the floor there were so many hung lights on the stage that they obscured Pino’s head completely – we had a headless bass player!
In New Orleans we played on a riverboat which went up and down the Mississippi while we played. Unfortunately Gary’s Mum who was the wardrobe mistress had left Gary’s trademark fedora in the hotel room which was of course then unreachable and so an announcement went out over the tannoy system to see if any of the audience had one Gary could use. When one failed to surface he opted for the boat captain’s hat instead.
We were a tight, funky band and I would say that in general, we enjoyed each other’s company on the road a lot. WALL OF VOODOO, our support act on the tour were good friends of mine from LA and so a good time was had by all really. The negative aspects really stem from it not being a success financially, not from the players failing to get on or any inherent friction.
You continued working with Australian keyboardist Roger Mason from that Numan tour afterwards in ILLUSTRATED MAN?
Yes, we became firm friends on the tour, similar music tastes being the connection. After the Numan tour, Roger returned to the UK where he was living at the time and I followed soon after, the plan being to create our own music project. We shared a flat in Ealing Common where we would stay up all night recording on a Fostex 4-track.
In those days, we barely saw daylight. We were quite productive but ultimately nothing came of the tapes because we were sidetracked by another Aussie import, Philip Foxman who had recently secured a development deal with EMI.
Soon we became a band. I brought drummer Hugo Burnham into the fold, who I’d met in LA firstly when a band I worked with, VIVABEAT, supported THE GANG OF FOUR at the Palladium and later when he drummed for ABC on a promo US tour for ‘Beauty Stab’. We started demoing songs and got a deal with EMI / Parlophone.
We recorded an album with my good friend John Punter producing, but the project was doomed to failure as neither myself, Roger nor Hugo had much confidence in Philip as our frontman.
Nonetheless, we toured the UK as support to Nik Kershaw and with Cyndi Lauper and also did our own tour in the US, promoting a 12” EP of some of the album songs, but at the end of the tour Roger and I split and Hugo did the same soon after. The album as a result was never released.
What did you do after ILLUSTRATED MAN?
Later I would relocate to Australia and form my own band, THE SLOW CLUB. We signed to Virgin and released an album on which Roger’s keyboard expertise featured quite heavily and we had a minor hit over there. I still rate him as the best all-round keyboard player I have ever worked with and we are still good friends today.
You mention ABC, there is a deeper link with them isn’t there?
Yes, I first met those charming chaps in LA when they were touring ‘The Lexicon Of Love’, of which I was and still am a huge fan. I particularly hit it off with Martin, Mark and Stephen.
We met again when they were promoting ‘Beauty Stab’ in LA a year later. I even accompanied them on their taping for American Bandstand. Later when I moved back to the UK we often saw each other socially. Martin and I went to PRINCE’s ‘Lovesexy’ tour at Wembley together and also Bowie’s ‘Glass Spider’ show amongst others.
So it was somewhat inevitable that I would end up on an ABC recording somewhere down the line! When that time came, I played on two songs which at that point were demos I believe. They were ‘The Night You Murdered Love’ and ‘Paper Thin’. Although I didn’t play on the album recording, my parts were still used on the ‘Alphabet City’ version of the former and sometime later ‘Paper Thin’ surfaced with all my contributions on the ‘Up’ album. Obviously I haven’t seen any of the ABC boys in many years, although in the mid-2000s Martin and his family visited me here at home for a few days which was lovely.
Can you talk about the Bamboo fanzine and how this helped facilitate SINÉAD O’CONNOR’s debut UK live performance?
The Bamboo fanzine, essentially created for JAPAN’s fanbase, was run by Debi Zornes and Howard Sawyer, both at the time staunch fans of the band. After I had left the band and returned to the UK, we became close and spent a fair bit of time in each other’s company.
When I began working with Sinéad, it seemed logical that I would suggest we play a few songs together at one of the annual fanzine get-togethers at the 100 Club in Oxford Street. Thankfully Sinéad was into the idea although I’m not sure her manager at the time, Fiachra Trench was quite as positive!
At that point she had not debuted in public at all, so for our relatively modest little gathering, it was actually quite a coup. We played three songs with myself accompanying Sinéad on electric guitar – ‘Jackie’ (from the forthcoming debut album), ‘I Fall To Pieces’ (a Patsy Cline cover) and ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND song and the only song with a strong link to JAPAN. Not surprisingly, she was well received.
Can you tell us about O’Connor’s debut album and the two different versions which were recorded?
I was working in the West Country with a band called CRAZY HOUSE who were signed to Chrysalis. For the most part, I was miserable living in Trowbridge (a dead end town if ever I saw one!) and I soon discovered that this particular band dynamic was very oppressive.
By chance I bumped into Tim Butler from THE PSYCHEDELIC FURS who invited me to his wedding nearby. There I was invited to tour with The Furs, which I declined as I still felt a commitment to CRAZY HOUSE.
Soon after however I heard a demo of Sinéad and expressed interest in working with her, although at that point she had a guitarist on board. Except I soon learned that he had been offered and had accepted the touring gig with The Furs that I had turned down, so the gig with Sinéad was mine and I hotfooted it out of Trowbridge – commitment be damned!
For the next year together with the rest of her band, we honed the material that would comprise her first album. We had a rehearsal space at Nomis studios booked solidly for months at a time.
When time came to record the album, Mick Glossop was chosen as producer. He had a strong connection to her record label, Ensign through his work with THE WATERBOYS and seemed like a logical choice.
So the sessions began in Townhouse studios. For the most part, Glossop had the entire band record live in the studio which was far from ideal, somewhat chaotic and in many ways counter-productive.
At that point the songs were quite electric / folk in feel. We finished the album, which Ensign then sent out to several producers to remix.
But due to the organic way it had been recorded and with the lack of any time codes or click tracks, it was unanimously deemed impossible to remix. So there needed to be a massive rethink. It was decided to re-record the tracks with Kevin Moloney producing in a much more pared down fashion.
The only part of the original sessions that survived were the orchestral tracks which were integral to the epic song ‘Troy’. The second incarnation was very different to the first, with Sinéad’s fiery vocals much more to the fore and a lot of the instrumental embellishments absent. There are certainly tracks from the original sessions that I wish could be heard and maybe one day they will. There’s a wonderfully unique take on THE DOORS song ‘The Crystal Ship’, for instance.
After the recording of the second album, Sinéad found herself pregnant and the album release was put back until she gave birth. In the meantime, I took a gig in Australia which led me on that different path, and so my time with her came to an end. Marco Pirroni added some guitar to two tracks closer to the release date and after I had left for Australia. Throughout it all, working closely with her during that time had been a joy. She was sweet, warm, considerate and a pleasure to be around not to mention an undeniable force of nature.
You reconnected with Jansen, Barbieri and Karn in 1993 on the ‘Beginning to Melt’ album on the ‘Ego Dance’ track, what are your recollections of this?
At the time, I had been living in a small cabin in the woods close to a beach in Costa Rica with an outside toilet and no electricity, surrounded by all manner of wildlife (yep, I loved every minute of it!). So when I returned for a visit to the UK and was invited to record on a track with my ex-band mates, I was far from prepared.
I had barely touched an electric guitar in two years. I knew that I could do a lot better. So basically I did not feel comfortable even though I had the support of old friends and bandmates, whom it was hugely enjoyable hanging out with again after so long. The session was recorded at Steve’s flat at the time in Notting Hill. What I remember most was relaxing and laughing a lot. Steven Wilson and Theo Travis were there too, I think.
In 2016, you shared a really touching post about the late Mick Karn, what was it like with working and spending time with him in the band?
Mick was always from the day we met, a creative force. He was funny and very likeable. He was the personality in the band, the one that most people were drawn towards because he was the most approachable and I believe most enigmatic. Working with him was always inspiring as a musician and I feel grateful to have known him in that capacity. Like everyone, it wasn’t all highs – he had his down times too.
I think my favorite moments came after the band though, out of David’s controlling shadow, just hanging out as friends. I wish I had been around to spend time with him in the later years of his life, but I rarely ventured back to the UK or Europe. I often wonder if ‘missing’ someone is the appropriate term when you haven’t seen each other for decades, but I guess it’s just the reality that if you wanted to, he wouldn’t be there to hang out with anymore.
You dropped out of the industry to become a professional ornithologist and artist, but are on the verge of releasing some new material, what made you want to get back into making more high profile music?
When I decided to move to Costa Rica, I had no plan and no idea what path I wished to take. I only knew that I needed a change.
It certainly wasn’t on the cards that I would become so enraptured with birds that I would become some sort of authority on them and subsequently illustrate field guides for a living. So music in the last almost 30 years had, by design taken a back seat and up until recently, I had absolutely no desire to rekindle the flame of musical creativity. I think it really boils down to meeting someone who was completely open to my ideas and realizing that recording new music could still be enjoyable, refreshing and inspiring after years and years of disconnect.
The Electricity Club have had a sneak preview of the new album and there is quite a diverse range of influences in it, both electronic and rock, what is the line-up and your role(s) within it?
Our project LIGHT OF DAY is essentially my collaborator Isaac Moraga and myself. We co-wrote, arranged and produced all of the material, bar one cover. Isaac sings and plays guitars, I play guitars, EBow and loops as well as backing vocals. The rest are top rate Costa Rican musicians playing keyboards, bass, percussion and drums.
Certainly the influences are diverse and to a large extent, I would say the album ‘Dimensions’ is a result of all those years not being musically creative, as if after being bottled up inside, it all flooded out through the pieces that Isaac and I have created.
It’s quite a big sound which feels to me like a celebration – positive, propulsive, energetic and atmospheric. There are some epic soundscapes there with echoes of ’80’s style electronica, ambient,’70’s prog rock and more contemporary elements too. At the moment we are fine tuning with a few remixes and Ed Buller is helping out in this department.
Generally I am very happy with this album. Someone said that they thought it was my best work and I think they might be right. In any case I really hope it finds an audience. The plan is to release it on CD, vinyl and digitally some time soon. If anyone is interested they can check out some previews on the LIGHT OF DAY Facebook page. Recently I also released a digital EP with Martin Birke from GENRE PEAK of ambient-style pieces called ‘Triptych’, which we plan to release on CD with extra content at some point, and I hope to record an album of ambient soundscapes some time in the near future too.
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to ROB DEAN
While ABC continues today as a live entity under the captaincy of Martin Fry, that longevity might not have been possible without the band’s co-founders Mark White and Stephen Singleton.
White and Singleton had been members of the Sheffield experimental electronic act VICE VERSA who Fry joined after interviewing them for his fanzine ‘Modern Drugs’. As they absorbed wider influences, especially ones centred around the dancefloor, they morphed into ABC, eventually releasing ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ in Summer 1982 to great critical acclaim and commercial success.
The Electricity Club were extremely thrilled when Mark White and Stephen Singleton agreed to chat about their ABC days to give another perspective to the story…
VICE VERSA were a very manifesto driven band, were ABC the same?
Mark: It wasn’t manifesto-ish, but we did have a kind of plot. We wanted to have a really strong central character who was just ‘Mr. Heartache’ so that was the kind of plot.
So was that why Martin was on the sleeves and artwork, just him in a David Sylvian in JAPAN type of way?
Stephen: We felt it was really important to have a focal point like the way that Bryan Ferry was the focal point of ROXY MUSIC. That’s the way we went with the sleeves of ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ and ‘Poison Arrow’. In the same way that on ‘The Lexicon Of Love’, there’s Martin, the girl and the gun on the stage and then the reverse of that is the engine room of that with Mark with the flowers, with me sat there like the director and David Palmer like a caretaker.
Mark: We always had a strong sense of wanting it be filmic and even with the music, we just loved John Barry’s scores for Bond and we wanted the album to have that kind of scale.
Can you tell us about the role of Anne Dudley on ‘The Lexicon of Love’?
Mark: Anne was brought in as a session keyboard player, I think she did all of Trevor’s work with THE BUGGLES.
Stephen: Yes, she came in to do some keyboards on ‘Poison Arrow’ which was the first thing that we recorded with Trevor Horn. The next one we started to record was ‘The Look of Love’ and we liked that John Barry sound and the kind of pizzicato strings on Adam Faith. We wanted to use real strings but at first, Trevor was like “oh no, string players are a nightmare” and “I don’t want to do that, we can use a string machine”. So I took down an Adam Faith album and I said it’s never going to sound like this. So he said “ok, we’ll do it” and fortunately ‘Poison Arrow’ was a big hit, so the record company said “OK, you can do strings on ‘The Look of Love’.”
Mark: That’s a fantastic experience just being in the room when an orchestra is playing your song, it’s really moving, I genuinely felt moved to tears. It was “oh my God!”
Stephen: Anne did the string arrangements for that and we were totally blown away by it. Then it was “can we put strings on this one? Can we put strings on that one?”
Mark: Well to my shame, when we’d recorded ‘All of My Heart’ and it had all been done, I was like “yeah, that sounds great!”. But Trevor said “no, Mark, strings, strings on that one”. He literally said “it’ll be a Top 10”. I was dubious and wanted it in writing so I said “OK Trevor will you sign this then?” and he said “absolutely!” and he was right!
Going from ‘Poison Arrow’ to ‘The Look of Love’, there was definitely a move towards classic pop. Of course when you started ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ probably got lumped in with that New Funk thing that was going on. There was SPANDAU BALLET with ‘Chant No.1’, HAIRCUT 100 to a lesser extent with ‘Favourite Shirts’ and the more art funk stuff like 23 SKIDOO, A CERTAIN RATIO, that kind of thing.
Mark: I call it White Scratch Funk.
However with yourselves, SPANDAU BALLET and HAIRCUT 100, it was only one-off singles. It was a sound you didn’t really touch again?
Mark: You’re right, we didn’t take that any further. We wanted to be a lot more epic and on a much greater scale, you know this filmic idea.
I mean Trevor couldn’t understand why we’d approached him at all. He was like “but you’ve got this white funk record already in the charts, what am I going to do?”; so we played him a few things and he was like “oh, I can do that”.
Stephen: We’d got into this idea that we wanted to do this kind of James Brown thing and took the inspiration from that and that was the kind of first incarnation of ABC. It was that scratchy guitar and the brass and everything and we were playing gigs round London doing that style. And then people like HAIRCUT 100 came down to see us play our early gigs and then ran away and did the same thing!
It became a bit of movement and Spandau wanted to go in that direction as well. The first Spandau thing was more synth based with Gary Kemp on synth. I think everybody then was like “oh my God, we need to get on this particular sound”. We then wanted to move away from that… we met Trevor and he was like “why do you need me to produce you?”. We said that we wanted it to sound slick, we wanted it to sound amazing. We’d moved away from that funky, simple style…
Mark: We thought we sounded like CHIC and we so didn’t!
That comes later in 1987 doesn’t it when you work with Bernard Edwards on ‘The Night You Murdered Love’? ?
Stephen: CHIC were a big influence, me and Mark went to see CHIC play at the Sheffield City Hall and at the time were doing VICE VERSA. We saw them and it was like “oh my God, that is so amazing!” We went to the gig and everybody is sat down watching. Me and Mark had bought these tickets which were at the edge of the stage but restricted view, cheapy things and we were there and we’d watched about two or three songs and we were like “oh f*** this, we’ve got to f***ing dance! We can’t sit down!” And so we got up and we were like at the front of the City Hall and people were like “Sit down! Sit down!”.
Nile Rogers came to the edge of the stage and shook our hands and said “these guys know what CHIC is all about” and let everybody get up and dance. We were there and it was like (*int Northern accent*) “Move out of way! We’re trying to watch band!”
Mark: The concert was so good, they did two shows that evening….
Stephen: We went back to see the second show as well.
Mark: We came out of it, bought a ticket at the box office and watched it all again, it was that good!
Stephen: There was another thing, there was an ULTRAVOX gig like that in Sheffield, it was on the 21st of September 1978.
Mark: At The Limit….
Stephen: I know that because there’s this guy who is an ULTRAVOX completist and he wanted to know if they had played in Sheffield, so I was thinking “yes they did, they played at The Limit”. So I consulted my diary from 1978…
Mark: That black book, it’s incredible…
Stephen: The entry said “ULTRAVOX, Limit, very good! I may now go to Manchester to see them play”. Looking back on that period, the day before, THE STRANGLERS had played at the Top Rank and THE SKIDS were going to support, but THE SKIDS got on ‘Top of the Pops’ so THE HUMAN LEAGUE stepped up and did that gig. So one night I was seeing THE STRANGLERS and THE HUMAN LEAGUE, you would have been there as well am sure. ULTRAVOX did the two gigs at The Limit because so many people wanted to see them, they were just becoming more noticed…
Stephen: Yeah. So they were scheduled to do one show, there were so many people outside that club that they filled the club, did the show and then said to everybody “you’ve got to go home to let in the second lot of people”.
I hid in the toilet so I that didn’t get thrown out! It was like (*knock, knock*) “Is there anybody in there?” and I’ve got my feet up… I’ve got a mine of information with the diaries of who we went to see. CHIC were a big influence, they said they saw ROXY MUSIC and wanted to be the black ROXY MUSIC and we saw them and wanted to be the white CHIC didn’t we?
Where do you stand on the two different versions of ‘Tears Are Not Enough”? The Electricity Club still favours the Steve Brown single version over the album version…..
Mark: I will be honest, I skip that track. It was really hard to make it fit on the album…
Stephen: We were trying to make it fit in on the album. Trevor didn’t want to re-record it, he thought that wasn’t the right thing to do. The best version of it that we did was a version that we re-recorded for ‘Swap Shop’. The weird thing was when we recorded ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ with Steve Brown, it took f***ing ages to do, we’d not been in a big studio before and we wanted it to sound perfect of course. We were in there and we didn’t have the ability to make it really sound like how we wanted it to sound.
Mark: We just wished we’d known about the Linn Drum…..
Stephen: We’d spent so long trying to record it, it took us ages and ages to get all the parts down…
Mark: It was nervous breakdown time wasn’t it?
Stephen: It wasn’t at all enjoyable. Then we got offered the chance to go on ‘Swap Shop’, re-recorded it and it took about half an hour to do and it sounded better than the 7” single version because by that time, we’d got David Palmer in on drums which made a huge difference.
We’d learned more, we’d gone through that process, that baptism of fire of being in a great big recording studio with the microscope over you and we went to RAK Studios and did it in pretty much in one take. And then had the brass players come down and do their bits. It was all done really, really quickly.
But, originally recording ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ was not a lot of fun really for all of us. Apart from Mark, he was like “I’ll do my guitar now… chhk, chhk, chhk”, one take “I’ve finished!” It was a difficult, a learning curve for us. Steve Brown wasn’t really the best producer for us.
Mark: Up to this day, I don’t why we ended up with him. Do you?
Stephen: No, I think it was a recommendation from the record company.
He was known for some of the funk pop stuff, because he ended up doing WHAM!
Stephen: He did WHAM! Because George Michael was a massive ABC fan and wanted to sound like ABC, so then he went with Steve Brown.
Mark: We get a namecheck on a George Michael album don’t we? He was talking about London in that period and he namechecks ABC and maybe THE STYLE COUNCIL or something?
Stephen: THE JAM and that kind of thing… we had a friend called Mark Dean who had actually worked with WHAM! and we were down at Mark Dean’s house in Bushey and we met WHAM! who went to London clubs and they’d seen ABC and they wanted to meet up with us.
Mark Dean said “oh, my mates are going to come over and meet you”. So me and Martin met George and Andrew at Mark Dean’s house where we’d gone down to stay the night. Andrew said “George, play them that song we’ve been working on” and there’s a piano in Mark Dean’s house and George played ‘Careless Whisper’. And I was like “have you written that?” and he said “yeah, yeah” and I was like “are you sure?”*laughs*
I was thinking it was like a COMMODORES track that I’d not heard and he was going “no, no, I’ve written it!” and I was like “is that like one of the best songs I’ve heard or absolutely sh*te?!” I couldn’t really work it out, is he a genius or am I totally wrong on this?
Mark: He was famous for working really quickly though George, I worked with a keyboard player that he used, and George would say “just leave me alone, give me an hour” and he would come back and there’s practically a finished hit record there, a phenomenal speed of working…
What about the ABC songwriting process, was there a set method?
Mark: Jamming! Because it was band based then really….
Stephen: We were doing a VICE VERSA tour in Holland as our mate Mike Pickering had moved over to Holland. We stayed at Mike’s house and we met these guys who had a record shop and studio in Rotterdam and they were like “come with us to our studio…”
Mark: This was a key moment, because we’d got some unrecorded VICE VERSA songs that we’d been playing live… it came out as a single on Backstreet with ‘Stilyagi’ backed with ‘Eyes of Christ’.
Stephen: When we first went to the studio they were going “record something!” and we were like, “erm, well we use synthesizers and we can’t really do that”. But Martin was like “oh no, come on let’s make some music”, so I’d picked up a bass guitar and there was a little drum machine there. Mark picked up the guitar and we just started jamming round….
Mark: I remember we’d heard that Bowie had done some of the ‘Lodger’ album by just suggesting that everybody swapped their instruments and we thought ok we’ll do that. So it was like, Martin, why don’t you sing? We hadn’t heard him sing before and I don’t think he even knew he could and we just went “what the hell was that?!”
Stephen: He was just ad libbing things, vocal ideas, we were like, this is fantastic! And that was the kind of inspiration for Mark to step down from doing vocals.
Mark: This has never happened in pop I resigned as the lead singer! I’m still waiting for my OBE, it’s not forthcoming. As far as I know, it’s never happened before in history! *laughs*
Ah, Vince Clarke stepped down as vocalist for Dave Gahan in what became DEPECHE MODE…
Stephen: We’d met Martin who’d come to interview us and we kind of dragged him into being in the band. It was like “don’t worry about anything Martin, you stand at the side, you don’t have to do much. Just hit the keyboard, it’s a synthesizer, we’ll set it to white noise, and you go ‘Tish! Tish!’”.
Mark: He came to interview us for his fanzine ‘Modern Drugs’ but we both just looked at each other and said “we’re doing a gig in Middleborough in ten days time Martin, would you fancy just being in the band?” To which his reply was “but I don’t play an instrument!”*laughs*
Stephen: It doesn’t matter does it?
Mark: Literally, it was the punk age and it didn’t matter. Ok, look we’ve got a little oscillator, we’ll hook it up to a WEM Copicat and just make funny noises and it’ll be great! Am so glad we did that…
Stephen: So we did this tape in Holland and then thought this is really good and interesting, let’s work along that line and we looked for a drummer and bass player. Because we thought that Martin’s voice wouldn’t really suit the synthesized sound, we wanted that more organic sound and there was a house in Sheffield that Martin lived in with a guy called Disco John who was a DJ. The house was practically derelict…
Mark: …it was like a Coronation Street row of terraces…
Stephen: …which were due to be knocked down…
Mark: …in post-Industrial Sheffield, just all falling apart and there were just loads of places to rehearse and I’m sure that’s why so much came out of Sheffield in that period. You could get the most incredible rehearsal room for nothing!
Stephen: Martin lived there with John and in the dining room, there was his sound system and decks and we’d go into the other little room. And the way we started was just by going in there every day and just jamming around on ideas and learning to play whilst John would be practicing his DJ stuff.
Mark: The neighbours must have hated us! And then we’d go and watch THE HUMAN LEAGUE on ‘Top Of The Pops’ doing ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’… and we were like “Ooh! They’ve done alright haven’t they actually…..”
Stephen: That’s how it was. It was that kind of learning curve of playing around with ideas and thinking “this is quite a good idea, this could be a chorus” and then we’d write something else. It was like “hang on, the chorus of this song, this could be a verse” and we’d be like chopping and changing and fusing them together. We’d write lots of different things and go through this process of elimination; it was a learning process…
Mark: Teaching ourselves how to do it….
Stephen: We listened to a lot of Motown, the way they would put things together and Martin was a big fan of Smokey Robinson.
Mark: Around that time, we must have been crazy, we thought we’d be able to do both concepts at the same time; like continue VICE VERSA and the other side project that we’d already started calling ABC.
Stephen: We had different names, the first was RADICAL DANCE FACTION and there actually is a band called that now. I think it’s possible they stole that! Then Martin had this idea of music being a drug: “don’t take drugs, listen to music, don’t drink, don’t smoke, music should be the drug, music is a vitamin”, then we were thinking VITAMIN Z but there’s also a band that came out called VITAMIN Z.
Funnily enough, the singer of VITAMIN Z is now the manager of ARCTIC MONKEYS!
Stephen: We were kind of like selling off these names to different bands so it was “let’s call it VITAMIN ABC”. And I was thinking, “it’s ok but why don’t we just call it ABC?”, then we’re not saying we’re a dance faction or whatever. We’re saying it’s just a name that would fit everything. Then we added the three stars to it, so it’s ABC, it’s got a logo, there’s three little stars, that’s the bands’ name and then it could be all encompassing, that’s how we did it.
The first gig we did was at Psalter Lane Art College, our friends came to see us and we’d been rehearsing the new band so we didn’t know what people would think.
But we knew when we did that first gig that it must be good, because our friends who before when we were VICE VERSA had being going “oh yeah, I like what you do”, were going “f*** me, this is f***ing amazing! It’s f***ing brilliant!”.
There were people screaming at the first gig. People were talking, “oh my God, they’re doing something different now and they’re playing guitars and it’s funky…”
Mark: Then all the record companies were chasing us, which is just the best situation you can have. You get the ridiculous situation of a massive black limo turning up, and it was the boss of CBS and Muff Winwood was there as well…
Stephen: …Dave Betteridge and Muff Winwood…
Mark: …outside this tiny little Coronation Street tumbling down house and this limo strolls up!
Stephen: At that point we’d got absolutely nothing, we were on the dole, no money whatsoever.
Mark: We would pay ourselves in cash, remember those old little brown envelopes? Where you got your wages. What were we on? £35 a week?
Stephen: When we signed the deal, we were like “we’ve got to make the money last…”
Mark: When we were on ‘Top Of The Pops’, we were getting £35 per week. Even when we went on tour after a couple of hits, we couldn’t afford the room service! *laughs*
Stephen: Yeah, we were on £50 a week then…
Mark: We gave ourselves a pay rise up to £50!
Stephen: When Muff Winwood came up to Sheffield and we played him ‘Poison Arrow’, he was saying “that’s a hit, that is, amazing!”, that’s we thought we’re really onto something.
Ok, so you’ve got your songs written for ‘The Lexicon of Love’ and you’re working with Trevor Horn. It was a happier time than working with Steve Brown?
Mark: Oh, absolutely fantastic… well I think Trevor would be the first to say that he needs songs to work with and I think that’s why he took the project on. He could hear things we couldn’t hear. But at that point, he’d not got into the habit of recording the whole thing and scrapping it and starting again. It wasn’t like that was it?
There’s a video of THE BUGGLES performing ‘Lenny’ with ABC as the backing band, how did that come about?
Mark: ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ had already been a hit and we were recording ‘Poison Arrow’ at that time. Trevor said “I’ve got a single out in Holland and they’ve asked me to appear, would you like to be a Buggle for a day?” and we were just up for a laugh. Stephen was doing a brilliant Mick Karn on that, check that out, the Mick Karn moves are all there! *laughs*
Mick Karn was your boy crush wasn’t he Stephen?
Stephen: Yeah, yeah, definitely, one of them! The song was called ‘Lenny’, the reason why it was a hit is because there’s a DJ in Holland called Lenny who made it his theme tune. I think we all wore sunglasses or something; that was a lot of fun. I don’t think the bass was plugged in though and what I was doing would bear any relation to the song! *laughs*
Mark: A short while ago by pure chance I met a girl singer, she said “Mark, we’ve got a connection! I sang on ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’”; I said are you the “woah, woah, woah” girl? She said “no, the other bit” when it all breaks down and she sings “…star, a radio star…”, so we were all sat on a sofa three ex-BUGGLES all in the room at the same time, it’s one for the books!
Trevor Horn is notorious, so how much does it become his album and how much control did you guys have?
Stephen: We’d got a lot of songs which we thought were going to make up the album and Trevor refused to work on them. There were a lot of songs that we’d been playing live and he was like “You know what? This just isn’t good enough”. We were going like “F*** you! What do you mean it’s not good enough?”.
But it inspired us and I remember him saying “You know what you need on this album, you need a ballad”. And we were going “A ballad? What do you think we are? We’re not going to do a ballad”. But we were inspired to go back… we were back in Sheffield for the weekend. We went down to our rehearsal room, then Mark came into the rehearsal room saying “You know he was going on about like he wants to write a ballad for us, well I’ve got this idea…”
Mark: ‘All of My Heart’…
Stephen: It was just the first little bit of ‘All of My Heart’, so we wrote it and went back to Sarm East and said “right, you wanted a ballad, we’ve written one”. There were a lot of things in the studio that were written and created in the studio.
‘Valentine’s Day’ was an entirely different song, it was called ‘Surrender’ and that went through a major overhaul. It was written in the studio and Martin heard the different direction of the way the music was going and wrote a totally different set of lyrics.
So it was very fresh and Trevor’s thing was the quality control on the songs. He pushed us up that notch, but things weren’t done over months, it was quick. Things changed for Trevor later on when he started spending a lot more time doing things.
With us, it was like “we’re going to put the piano on it, it’s done. We’re going to put some percussion on it, it’s done. We’ll do the vocals, they’re done”. It wasn’t a massively laborious process. It couldn’t, be there wasn’t much of a budget and time to do it.
The gestation time for all of this, from ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ to ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ coming out, it’s only about four months, something like that? That’s nothing today!
Stephen: The album was recorded over a period of about three months…
Mark: Mostly at Sarm East……
Stephen: And at that time when we were recording it, we were also promoting ‘Tears Are Not Enough’.
Mark: Everybody we were working with then was on top of their game, the studio team became THE ART OF NOISE; Trevor, Anne, Gary Langan and JJ Jeczalik the Fairlight programmer.
Stephen: The thing that Trevor could do… we’d say to him “we want to sound like something you’d hear in the American charts, like a DARYL HALL & JOHN OATES. We want it to sound incredible, we don’t want it to sound like some indie funk band, we want to take it further”.
Trevor as a producer knew these people who he could draft in. We didn’t know anybody did we? We didn’t know who the best person to play keyboards on it…
Mark: He knew really top quality musicians, he’d go “you want congas? Oh yeah, I know a guy!”
Stephen: In a way. it was a first for all of us because it was the first album apart from ‘Adventures in Modern Recording’ which was his own, he produced that album, that’s where he said how he learned his craft. It was a kind of a Trevor solo album in a way.
Mark: Before us, all he’d done was THE BUGGLES and DOLLAR…..
Stephen: …and he’d done THE JAGS…. ‘Back of My Hand’ was another one that he’d worked on, that he was very proud of. So it was a first for a lot of people and everybody was excited. These things happen where everybody is in the right place at the right time… boom!
Mark: We’d also had a really good A&R man, Chris Briggs, he just got it….
Stephen: Another important person at time was Jill Sinclair, who was Trevor’s wife. She would go in to Phonogram and say “look, you’ve got to do a video for this, this is going to be huge”.
Mark: She could kick butt…
Stephen: She kicked ass on behalf of us and on behalf of Trevor of course. I’d be going in there asking “can we have some badges made?” and they’d be saying “Hmmm, I don’t know, I don’t know if there’s a budget for that…” The problem was we were trying to manage ourselves at that time and we were going into Phonogram, seeing if we could get a budget to get a nice photographer or do a promo tour or whatever. So that was extremely useful.
The band very much embraced the video promo era, for ‘All of My Heart’, the director was more well known for his photography wasn’t he?
Mark: It was a guy called Brian Duffy who took the picture for Bowie’s ‘Aladdin Sane’ cover….
What are your memories of that video, Centre Point is in it a one point?
Mark: That’s the star of the show really! *laughs*
Stephen: I think that video was pants, crap! *laughs*
The idea that we had was that we would perform the song on a revolving stage and that would be it. Duffy wanted to use it as a showreel for getting into commercials, so there’s a plug being pulled out of the wall and blood coming down and a rose…
Mark: The trouble is, it’s so bloody expensive to make film and we never had the budgets really.
Stephen: Duffy was a great person, a great personality, really interesting but I just thought it wasn’t very good…
Mark: The difference between video and film is with video, when you record it, if you don’t like it, you go “oh, wrong idea, let’s try again”. With film, you’re committed to it and often they’re coming up with these incredible treatments and oh boy, can they sell them! They make it sound like it’s going to be ‘Gone With The Wind’ and it never is! *laughs*
‘The Look of Love’ video is awful! What are your thoughts on that?
Mark: I think that caused Trevor to nearly have a nervous breakdown. In fact he’s on record as saying “oh, f***ing hell, I’m going to have to start my own record company!”.
Stephen: I thought ‘Poison Arrow’ was great…
Mark: Julian Temple did that one…
Stephen: That fitted in with the whole concept of the band, had a story to it and was executed correctly, the kind of Technicolor aspect to it, the whole style. It had some humour in it. With ‘The Look of Love’ it was like everybody was taking us really seriously, let’s do something that’s a bit fun and it turned out like an outtake from a Benny Hill show, and as Mark said, you’re committed, you do this stuff and then you see it and you think… oh, ok!
Mark: The way the treatment was presented to us, it made it sound like it was going to be like ‘An American In Paris’, that’s how it was sold to us.
Stephen: Martin loved ‘An American In Paris’ and he was going, “that will be great!” and it ended up being a joke…
Mark: It’s deeply upsetting and you can’t do anything about it, because it’s done and already cost you a fortune.
Stephen: The Brian Duffy one ‘All of my Heart’, I thought was going to be a little bit like THE POLICE one where they had all the candles and everything…
‘Wrapped Around Your Finger’?
Stephen: Yeah, the revolving dias, with us there, Mark playing piano and I think I was going to be playing tubular bells. That’s in there for like a millisecond and then it’s back to Martin walking under the bridge, and then some girl there holding a box of chocolates. It’s like “What the f***! What the f*** is this?”*laughs*
But that’s what happened. I think that what we did when we appeared on television programs for ‘The Look of Love’, we did the dance routine, we said “let’s do this, let’s give it THE FOUR TOPS treatment”, we loved all that stuff. That was more in keeping with what we were about and it probably worked better as a video. At the time, the costs of those videos, was like “I can buy a semi-detached house for that”.
OK, let’s talk about ‘Mantrap’? We’ll get our coats? *laughs*
Mark: Ok, turn the tape off! Can you shut them up? *laughs*
Was the link into ‘Mantrap’ as a result of Julien Temple working on ‘Poison Arrow’?
Mark: ‘Mantrap’ should have been left as a live video, simple, just film the concert… no, everybody’s got these, want to be a movie director ambitions. It’s my personal project, I’m trying to buy up all the copies!
Unfortunately it’s on YouTube in six parts…
Mark: The acting in that is so wooden, it should have a fire warning on it! It’s terrible! *laughs*
Stephen: We got a budget to film a concert at Hammersmith Odeon and then somebody had this idea, “I know let’s do a little story to go with it…”
Mark: You guys like Bond, let’s come up with some sort of absurd spy theme… it looks like I spend the entire concert tuning my guitar. It was an oscilloscope back in the day, that’s what they looked like.
Stephen: I don’t know how long it takes to write a film script normally, but the script for ‘Mantrap’ was written after a concert we did in Oxford, in a pub in half an hour. “We’ve cracked it now, I’ll get somebody to work out all the dialogue”. I still get people coming up to me and reciting my lines from the film, they come up and go “Oh Stephen, why don’t we try those string players? Oh yes, I’m sorry about that Tony, come on, get on the stage! Martin, it’s the first song, ‘Show Me’”. *laughs*
Mark: Oh dear, some things can’t be undone… sadly!
Stephen: Mark doesn’t like it, I like it…
Mark: You don’t!
Stephen: I like sh*t like that I really do. I watch Talking Pictures Television and there are loads and loads of films that are like that! *laughs*
Mark: It’s YouTube! I don’t get that…
Stephen: You’re going to have to complain and get it taken down Mark…
What do you think the enduring appeal of ‘The Lexicon of Love’ is after 37 odd years?
Mark: Well, all the songs are quality and it was groundbreaking production at the time. And there’s just something about that era, it struck a chord. That whole period now is a golden one isn’t it? It seems bizarre, it seemed to capture a spirit at that time, I think that’s why. We weren’t they only ones, a lot of other people did it.
Better than ‘Dare? ?
Phil Oakey thinks ‘Dare’ is the best album of the 80s, he’s so wrong! Jonathan Ross puts him straight on that when he was on his show, did you see that? Phil says “well, we did make the best album of the 80s” and Ross says “not even Phil, you know it was ‘The Lexicon of Love’”. That must have stung! *laughs*
John Taylor of DURAN DURAN was absolutely petrified of ABC and thinking “what are they going to come up with next?” There was this story about him buying ‘The Lexicon of Love’, taking it home…..
Mark: Doing voodoo on it! *laughs*
He literally saw you as a bigger threat than SPANDAU BALLET…
Stephen: I think that at the time, we were ambitious and there was a lot of competition out there and the idea was that we wanted to be the best, that was it. We wanted to make the best album, we wanted to be the best band, we wanted to write the best songs. We knew people, we knew SPANDAU BALLET, because there was that whole scene going on…
In Sheffield there were clubs. In London there was the club scene, we’d met up with Spandau and Steve Dagger. We’d been to play the Rum Runner, we’d met DURAN DURAN. We were all around the same age and influenced by the same people, you know Bowie, Bolan, Roxy. We were the next generation, we were inspired to form bands and it was very competitive…
Mark: Have you heard the Bowie and ABC story? Ok, well, we were recording ‘The Look of Love’ in Tony Visconti’s Good Earth studio. We were down in the basement recording and the phone rings “oh, hello, would you mind if David sits in on the session?” And we were like, “David who?” And it was Bowie! *laughs*
Stephen: He kind of blessed the whole thing…
Mark: He made a suggestion for the middle of the record, because at that point, there was just a big hole, nothing going on and he said “oh, how about having someone dialling an answerphone, you could have that in the middle”. But we couldn’t really tell him that we’d already done something very similar in the middle of ‘Poison Arrow’…
Stephen: We don’t like your idea! *laughs*
Mark: This is how utterly stoked I was. We bumped into him again coming in and out of the studio and apparently I had a very erudite conversation with Bowie about Bertolt Brecht.
He’d just put out the ‘Baal’ EP and I said, “oh, I studied Bertolt Brecht for A-Level German” and we apparently had this amazing conversation, but the trouble is I can’t remember anything about it! I was so nervous and I still don’t know whether Steve’s made the whole thing up!
Stephen: I was sat there nodding my head and thinking “what are you talking about? Bertolt who?”; Bowie was going “…that was his first play” and Mark was like “ha, ha, ha, yes, you can tell, ha, ha, ha!” and they were having these in-jokes about Brecht and Weill…
Mark: I probably did say that, but I have absolutely no memory of it! He was there at the door, I was talking to him, but I blanked out for like half an hour… no memory at all, tragic, that’s fandom! *laughs*
Stephen: Another funny thing about meeting David Bowie was that he did a great Sheffield accent. I remember him hearing me speak in my Sheffield accent and he said “Ohhh or, reight thas from Sheffield are tha?”
Mark: Didn’t Bowie reply “Me fatha wo from Donneh?”
Stephen: Yes ! Hahaha…
Mark: To translate. that means “my father was from Doncaster!” …anyway, he then came to see us at Hammersmith Odeon, thank God the roadies didn’t tell us until after. Bowie came and asked to sit with the sound engineer, imagine? I would have wet myself!
Stephen: My brother and sister had to the Hammersmith Odeon show and I’d arranged to get them tickets. We were just about to go on the stage and somebody came backstage and said “somebody claiming to be your brother has been trying to get into the venue and he’s not got a ticket”. And I was like, “was he with a little girl?” thinking “f***, that’s my brother and sister, they should have had tickets” and he said “they’re outside”.
So five minutes before I’m meant to go onstage, I’m running round the streets of Hammersmith in a glittery suit looking for my brother and sister! Then I find them and I’m like “where are the tickets?” and they go “we never got given them”, so I got them in and they stood at the side of the stage. I remember playing and then looking across and Bowie was watching the gig with my brother and sister. I was still so p***ed off that my brother and sister didn’t get their tickets for the concert.
Years later my brother was up in Sheffield and we were talking about ticket scalpers and he said “yeah, I remember when you played Hammersmith Odeon and you got us tickets and I sold them for so much money”. And I was like “What? You sold the tickets? Where’s the f***ing money then!”. So he’d sold the tickets and then tried to blag his way into the concert! *laughs*
Mark: Brothers eh? F*** ‘em! You know who else was at that gig? Debbie Harry! And she came to the afterparty. My brother was trying to chat up Debbie Harry, I was very proud of him! *laughs*
Moving onto the follow-up album ‘Beauty Stab’, it’s now rather unfortunately put into the category of career suicide and self-sabotage along with works such as FLEETWOOD MAC’s ‘Tusk’, OMD’s ‘Dazzle Ships’ and THE CLASH’s ‘Sandinista’….
Mark: Rock ‘n’ roll suicide…
If you could turn back the clock, and make a different follow-up, would you? You turned into SAXON didn’t you? *laughs*
Mark: I can’t remember why, but it just seemed the most natural thing on earth at the time. Trevor was down to produce it, but had already started work with YES and then moved onto working with FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD. He had already started and scrapped about four different versions of ‘Relax’ and after about a year, we just went “look, we can’t wait”.
Gary Langan produced it, so it was still in the family?
Mark: I know, but Trevor is a different kettle of fish. Gary was a brilliant sound engineer and mix engineer.
But I honestly don’t know the answer to that, I don’t think we had a choice, that’s how it turned out.
I mean, you’re a guitarist, it’s quite natural for you. But for a saxophonist going rock is not so easy?
Mark: Well, ROXY MUSIC had a sax…..
Bowie too… I think of that as a kind of ‘art’ thing… you had the ROXY MUSIC rhythm section of Alan Spenner and Andy Newmark involved on ‘Beauty Stab’, but it didn’t quite have that kind of sound…
Mark: I’ve never been good at formulas, I can’t do them. God knows why, it might have been the influence of being on tour and playing live, possibly….
Did Martin want to rock out?
Was America a factor, because Billy Idol had become popular. That was always Rusty Egan’s excuse as to why VISAGE went rock as they were listening to too much Billy Idol!
Mark: I mean, Rusty Egan has done a lot of rock, hasn’t he? He was in the flippin’ SKIDS… yeah, it’s a strange period…
Were there other distractions?
Money or drugs or things like that?
Mark: No, never… we were all really clean living boys…
Despite all this, ‘S.O.S.’ is an absolutely sensational song. Can you remember the genesis of that because it does stand out like a sore thumb on the album?
Mark: Well I think the roots of that are very much in ‘Sexual Healing’. I mean it’s got an 808 drum machine pattern all through it and I just came up with some chords and it came out.
Stephen: The thing was, when we first started out as VICE VERSA, we were an electronic band. We then mutated into ABC.
Mark: Out and out pop…
Stephen: Yeah, before that there was the scratchy funky ABC. Then there was the sophisticated polished pop of ‘The Lexicon of Love’ and being kind of followers of the David Bowie school of philosophy which would go from one thing to another. We’d toured the world playing the tracks from ‘The Lexicon of Love’ over and over again and we reconvened to start on new songs and I think that we were then caught up in the music industry.
The first set of songs you write in your own little space, there’s no pressure. You do that, you get better at writing songs, so ‘The Lexicon of Love’ is distilled from lots of different songs and then you’re in a situation where you’ve had a No1 album, you’ve been on the tour, the record company are saying “we need the new album”.
Mark: It’s kind of second album syndrome, you put twenty four years into your first album and then you have six months to write the next one.
It’s a huge amount of pressure….
Stephen: Probably even less than six months… it was the next set of songs which were written. We weren’t David Bowie, people expected more of the same, but different… that’s what we did, we went in, we did those songs. We were in there with a brilliant engineer, we weren’t in there with a producer who would say “hey, let’s put the reins on this, let’s rein it back into some other place”. But I think when we were doing it, we believed in it.
Stephen: We did it and we liked those songs and that’s what we were feeling like what we wanted to do at that time…
Mark: I do sometimes think about the multiverse thing, somewhere out there, there was a version of ABC that did a ‘The Lexicon of Love’ follow-up….
Stephen: Called ‘More Of The Same’…
Mark: …and we ended up being like DURAN DURAN and playing stadiums *laughs*
There’s often the question of how band dynamics get altered if just one person leaves. So did David Palmer leaving affect things?
Mark: Absolutely. He was a songwriter as well and always really into the next big thing and embracing technology as well.
Stephen: David is an incredible musician, that’s what he’s interested in, he’s interested in playing the drums. That was him and yeah, the dynamic does change if there’s four people, it’s different to there being three people.
Were you over-compensating in terms of you’re missing someone so much, you’re pushing boundaries, because you feel, “oh right, we almost need to prove ourselves more”?.
Stephen: When we were writing those songs and demoing them in Sheffield, David played on the demos and nobody was saying “oh, I don’t like what we’re doing now”. We wrote lots of different songs, we wrote songs in a country and western style, you know, songs which were more extreme pop songs…
Mark: When that album came out, we got a letter from Bono, a personal handwritten one and the gist of it was “you’re going to get ripped to shreds, but I think it’s really good and a really brave move”, which I thought was really nice at the time…..
When ‘That Was Then This is Now’ came out, there was a more expensive 12” single with a sticker which said “This record is exactly the same as the 7”. The choice is yours.” Who’s idea was that?
Mark: I think that would be our idea….
Stephen: The song didn’t really lend itself to be extended, it was as it was, that was the thing. It was like “buy whichever one you wanted”. We liked to play around with things like that, we were artists, a lot of what we did was artistic and the idea was “change is stability, change is strength, try different things”. That’s what we were about.
Mark: It doesn’t necessarily do your bank account any favours though! But I comfort myself with the multiverse idea, that in some other universe there’s an ABC that went on… *laughs*
Like a really good ‘Black Mirror’ episode where you have different pathways….
Stephen: Yeah, I’d be living in John Taylor’s house in Malibu or in Wiltshire, he’s got a very nice house I’m rather jealous of! *laughs*
Mark: What were you saying about Roger Taylor earlier?
Stephen: QUEEN’s Roger Taylor listened to THE HUMAN LEAGUE album and then wrote ‘Radio GaGa’….
Mark: How do you know this?
Stephen: Somebody told me! But I can’t really name names, it’s not fair on that person. It was a personal friend of Roger Taylor, but that’s what happened! *laughs*
Mark: I can see the connection…
Stephen: I thought Martyn Ware would know that? I thought everybody knew it, but obviously they didn’t!
Mark: I nearly dropped me phone when I heard about that…
Stephen: I left the band after ‘Beauty Stab’ and then Mark and Martin went off in a different direction with ‘Zillionaire’. In fact they didn’t go “hey, you know ‘Beauty Stab’ hasn’t really sold as many as the first album, let’s go back and do ‘Lexicon of Love Part Two’. Let’s do something different”.
Mark: You have to do something that means something to you as an artist…
Stephen: That’s how we were as people….
Mark: You may as well be working in a fish finger factory…..
So Stephen what were you reasons for leaving?
Stephen: I preferred the other universe… slightly. I went off and lived in that and the fell back to it a few years later, there’s lots of reasons… *laughs*
And Mark, how did you feel about it when he went?
Mark: It was a very stressful time. I really blame the tour, because I think we all individually went mad in our own ways. It’s what a friend of mine refers to as ‘altitude sickness’, you think you really want to be there, but when you are, it’s a different matter to deal with it. It’s tough!
Stephen: Why I left is, it wasn’t as much fun anymore. David Palmer had gone and to me it didn’t really feel like a band anymore, it felt like three individuals that through no fault of anybody’s, we’d been through so much.
You know, one minute we were rehearsing in a little room in Sheffield, working in one particular way and then we’d become famous and then we started earning some money. It changes things, fame changes people, money changes people, it can’t be helped. David had gone, the dynamic of the whole thing had changed…
Mark: In retrospect, I wished we’d all taken a year off, because we were f***ing knackered primarily and just to recharge, think about getting excited about influences and music again.
But then you got into doing ‘How To Be A Zillionaire’ quite quickly, comparatively after ‘Beauty Stab’?
Mark: I don’t know, chronology is all very blurred in my mind… I did take a bit of time off and I was going to America on holiday. I was very influenced by what I was hearing on the radio then and that’s how it percolated through. I remember hearing ‘Blue Monday’ and it was life-changing to me, I was in Austin Texas, I can remember it clearly…
You got immersed into your Arthur Baker and Shannon which comes out in ‘How To Be A Millionaire’…
Mark: Absolutely, the beginnings of freestyle…
How did you first come across that style of music then?
Mark: Because we’d always, all separately been interested in dance music from Motown through to CHIC, it just evolved into that. I remember when we played New York, putting the radio on WBLS, a really crucial dance music station back then. They were playing ‘Planet Rock’ by AFRIKA BAMBAATAA and ‘Scorpio’ by GRANDMASTER FLASH and then they played ‘The Look of Love’ remix, and I was like “oh my God, they’re actually playing it!”. I didn’t think that would really happen. Out of all that music, ‘Planet Rock’ was just so good.
Stephen: ‘Planet Rock’ was out when we were touring ‘The Lexicon of Love’, after gigs we would go to clubs in different places and that track was just starting to happen and it was so f***ing good, then GRANDMASTER FLASH with ‘The Message’ and ‘White Lines’ came out. I think we’d been in America promoting ‘Beauty Stab’, we were in New York watching the kids breakdancing on the streets and thinking this was so happening;
Mark: We saw it happening in Times Square, there were B-Boys doing that whole thing to KRAFTWERK which was just amazing.
Stephen: We went to The Paradise Garage with AFRIKA BAMBAATAA DJing and all those other heavyweight characters. That’s why I think ABC (although I wasn’t in it anymore) moved on and went in that direction; get the drum machines out, get the synthesizers out and get the samplers going.
Mark: Also, we’d worked with the Fairlight on the first album and it was obviously the future. Mind you, the minute the Emulator II came out, we bought one. No need to pay a Fairlight programmer £750 a day!
Stephen: We had the Emulator on tour along with its own roadie to repair it at every gig *laughs*
Mark: Five inch floppy disks…
Stephen: There was a lot of Emulator on the demos for ‘Beauty Stab’, Mark had played the guitar and putting it through the sampler, making the sounds up. It was primitive… did we have a Linndrum?
Mark: No. We had an 808, we also had the 303s. We bought three 303s…
Did they all get nicked? *laughs*
Mark: I repatriated them, I sold one to a German teenager for £500 or something, which looking back now is insane…
You mention NEW ORDER, there is a connection between you both. The opening track on ‘Zillionaire’ is ‘Fear of the World’, how did you do the rhythmical passage on it?
Mark: That was Fairlight…
Did you know ELECTRONIC sampled that for a B-side called ‘Lean To The Inside’?
Mark: No! David Palmer was in ELECTRONIC…
‘Get The Message’ sounds very much like ‘All Of My Heart’ if you compare the two verse parts…
Mark: I’ve heard through our Manchester connections but we’ve not been told directly that Gillian from NEW ORDER was a bit of an ABC fan.
Stephen: We were all roughly around the same age and had the same influences and stuff…
Mark: Stephen, you used to go over to Manchester a lot….
Stephen: I used to go to the original Factory club in Hulme. One night I was out in Sheffield and there used to be a band called MANICURED NOISE. I’d been to see them play in Manchester and then I was on this street in Sheffield, there was these lads there and then this girl from MANICURED NOISE and I was like “oh hang on, I saw you play in Manchester, last week, you’re in that band MANICURED NOISE!” And the other lads were laughing going “ooh, she’s got recognised but we’ve not!”.
And I went, “well, who are you?” and they were like “we’re in a band, we’re playing Sheffield tonight, we’re called JOY DIVISION, we’re playing at The Limit Club…” , so I went down to see JOY DIVISION play there with about twelve other people, although since there’s been about twelve thousand that said they were there!
Mark: Like the infamous SEX PISTOLS at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Everybody was at that…
Stephen: Martin Fry was at that and Mike Pickering. There was people in that era, all going to the same kind of clubs. I used to go across to Manchester to Pips and The Ranch. There was a great scene in Sheffield and this was like when I originally met up with Mark, we used to go to a club called The Crazy Daisy and The Top Rank Suite. It would be us, THE HUMAN LEAGUE and HEAVEN 17, a very small number of people… all the people that then formed bands. The same thing happened in Manchester with JOY DIVISION, THE SMITHS, MAGAZINE and BUZZCOCKS.
Mark: I was too young to be going over to Manchester then, he’s a bit older than me!
Stephen: I’m slightly older than Mark and I was a completely bad influence on him when we actually met. I steered him down another path of life really….
Mark: When you’re that age, just a few years can seem an immense difference…
Stephen: THE HUMAN LEAGUE were older than us and I remember when we first met them, Phil Oakey was married and I was a f***ing virgin! It was like totally different…Martyn Ware had a beard! *laughs*
Mark: More importantly, they had jobs, could afford to buy very expensive Roland synths…
Stephen: We had Korg MS20, a Micropreset and a Minipops drum machine and we were influenced by the same things. But we were younger and poorer and they had jobs and wives and girlfriends and things! *laughs*
Mark: I was still school!
Stephen: He was still at school with his copy of ‘Warm Leatherette’ and Thomas Leer’s ‘Private Plane’…
Mark: There was a book that came out ‘Beats Working For a Living’ by Martin Lilleker and he interviews Jarvis Cocker in it, well he went to the same school as me.
There’s a bit where Jarvis says:“I remember going past the sixth form block and the strangest electronic noises coming out, I later discovered it was Mark White playing ‘United’ by THROBBING GRISTLE”*laughs*
Stephen: Jarvis was from the next generation and a little bit younger than us.
Mark: PULP were playing gigs when VICE VERSA were playing gigs….
Stephen: They started when they were really young!
Are we on ‘Alphabet City’ now? At this point there seems to be a conscious decision to do an ABC pop album again…how calculated was it?
Mark: The lead song on it was ‘When Smokey Sings’, we enjoyed writing that and even just from the demos people were going “that is a hit”, so we did more like that….
So Stephen, were you missing it when the guys started having hits again? Did you ever feel like “I wish I was part of this again”? What was your feeling?
Stephen: What kind of happens is you leave a band, but you’re not going to NOT listen to what they’re doing, you can’t avoid that. I thought ‘When Smokey Sings’ was great, I really liked the ‘Zillionaire’ album as well. I’m a music fan, I am not going to go “Oh, I don’t like that” because I was once in it and now I’m not. I didn’t think “Oh my God, I want to rejoin ABC!” or whatever because I was just doing my stuff at that time.
I didn’t really think about it that much. I was happy to be working in studios and doing things, productions, writing and stuff. Doing my thing as it were.
Mark: Mr Singleton, I wish to inform you that your interview to work in the diplomatic service has been successful! *laughs*
Stephen: Put it this way, I don’t think Mark and Martin would have been going “Oh my God, what’s Stephen up to?”.
Mark: I mean you wouldn’t if had been like all Top 10 records all the way, I’m sure I’d have a thing to say about it as well!
Stephen:“Oh hi Mark, how you doing? I’ve just done a song for MADONNA”. That’s the way it was, I was doing a different job, you know, you change your job or whatever, your vocation.
You don’t then go “I wish I was I back at this place doing that job”, you’re in a new job, you’re living in that particular moment.
Mark: But, factually with ‘How To Be A Zillionaire’, it totally bombed in England, but was quite successful in America. ‘How To Be a Millionaire’ was a Top 40 hit, ‘Be Near Me’ is still the biggest ABC hit in America we ever had. So that took away the pain of that a little bit, I couldn’t believe it.
You know this thing that people say “Ooh, you’ve got to slog around America playing live”, you don’t! We just got a phone call, “guys you’ve got to come to L.A. They’re playing your record on the radio, it’s a top 10 radio hit”. I had no idea and that was good. There was a bit more continuity to it for me, it was really nice that the Americans liked ‘When Smokey Sings’ as well.
So you’re high on all of this and of course there’s a game changer in the world, which is House Music and effectively you dump your guitar for this new form….
Mark: I loved all the really seminal early stuff, it was so minimal…
What were your views on things like Acid House?
Mark: It was just Year Dot, it was Year Zero and it came along. The North was playing this stuff a lot before the South and there were great clubs in Nottingham, The Haçienda in Manchester and Jive Turkey in Sheffield. They were playing all this stuff in ‘85/’86 and it was quietly bubbling away.
It was actually David Palmer who said there’s this great club called ‘Shoom’, “You’ve got to go! It’s in a fitness centre in Southwark”. So I was into that in the beginning, it was incredible scene, the energy in it was fantastic. It changed everything for me and it’s really when I stopped listening to pop music completely.
But the 90s rather passed me by, I call it my musical coma period. I didn’t get Britpop at all, was never into any of it and the Indie sort of stuff.
Did you like the House thing Stephen?
Stephen: I’m into dance, going out dancing and clubbing. I think that scene though is like you had to be there, that’s what it was about. I think if you were listening to it on the radio, it doesn’t quite work quite the same. You had to be in those clubs and taking those drugs, whatever, to appreciate it and feel it. It was a movement…
Mark: I think it was the last movement really. We’ve gone into complete stasis and stagnation, I don’t really understand…
What is your opinion on the music industry now, positive and negative?
Mark: It’s over, the big mistake is very little new talent is getting signed and developed.
Worse than that, it’s actually now messages from accountants and focus groups in the head offices of wherever to the A&R department saying “create that for us, we want something that sounds a bit like Taylor Swift or whatever, who’s this age and is going to appeal to that”. It’s literally the accountants have taken over.
Pop music by algorithm or design committee…
Mark: It is, when we were signed it was because somebody got to hear about you. “There was a hot new band in Manchester, there’s a lot happening in Sheffield at the moment” and the word would get out and it was real and people found out about it. I don’t think that’s happening…..
Stephen: Well the world’s changed beyond recognition….
Mark: It’s the internet isn’t it?
Stephen: When we were making music, we did that because there was nothing else to do. There was like three television channels, television would go off air, like goodnight, here’s the national anthem. On Sunday, shops in the cities were closed. It was a totally different thing, and that’s what we did, we created our own world and that world was between us.
We were like a little gang and other people in bands were like that too. ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN, ASSOCIATES, all little gangs making their own peculiar version of what they saw as being pop music, the image… we were the people that came up with the ideas, it wasn’t the record company saying “hey now guys I think you should etc…”
When we first were doing ABC, we were into cycling gear and sportswear. PET SHOP BOYS came to see us at The Embassy, their idea was to wear cycling gear and they came to see us and then just went “we’ll have to forget that idea!”*laughs*
We then dropped the cycling gear and went for the showbiz look with the gold lame suits and all that, these were ideas that didn’t come from the stylist or the record company. When Martin first had the gold lame suit made by Colin Wild just off Carnaby Street, the record company Phonogram were kind of like horrified… “you’re not going to wear that on Top of the Pops! What the f***?!”
They didn’t understand it, but they did understand it the next day when everybody was phoning up to do an interview with the guy who wore the gold lame suit. We were the people that came up with those ideas and concepts and sleeve designs.
Mark: I don’t think that’s happening now.
Stephen: We don’t know do we?
The creativity is spread thin, you made music to be your escape to create. The idea of creation for kids now is for them to have an Instagram account and do selfies…
Stephen: I also think in a record company nowadays that if they’ve got an act and they delivered a big hit album, they’re not going to let that act then go off in a completely different direction and say “we’ve done this now and the sleeve is going to look like that”. They wouldn’t allow it! It would be like, “no you’re not, you’re going to work with these people”.
When record companies were making enough money through the new acts that would emerge, they’d go “hey, you know what? Let them do what they want, they’re the artists”. And sometimes those off the wall projects would hit big. The world just isn’t like that anymore.
Mark: Also, the money’s gone out of it. Because everybody thought, “oh right, it’s all going to be about streaming”. Now, the amount of money I see from streaming… a friend of ours told me that ‘The Look of Love’ got five million plays one year on Spotify. So I got in touch with the accountant and said “what are the Spotify royalties?” and he said “Mark, we’ll look into it for you but it won’t be as much as we’d have to charge you for investigating it”.
In other words, Taylor Swift put it perfectly when she said that her Spotify royalties wouldn’t pay for a Sushi dinner once a month and she’s one of the most played artists out there. So, it’s not sustainable that, is it? We’re being ripped off!
Kids these days are expecting music for free and that’s quite sad….
Mark: My nephew who likes music, I was shocked to find that he’s never bought a record in his life. I said “what do you do then?” and he said “oh, I just make a YouTube playlist and stream it”.
Stephen: It’s the same with my boy, he doesn’t buy records, some of his friends do.
They’re buying vinyl like kids would build a kind of train set or whatever. It’s like a little hobby, it’s not the way when people do it and interact with music and artists anymore. It’s changed beyond all recognition.
Mark: It really has, I’m really worried about it. It’s not sustainable anymore as a career, so people will not be going into it, they’ll be choosing something else. You know, we were at least getting regular money weren’t we? It was a job…
Stephen: Yeah, that’s the way it worked and now it’s a different thing. Now a record company isn’t going to take a chance on a new act, they’re going to say “let’s do a fortieth anniversary edition of this and we’ll plonk it out on blue vinyl and we know how many fans this band has got. So we will press up a thousand and we know we’ll sell that, that’s it”. It’s nothing, it becomes something totally different to what it was. We’re dinosaurs, it’s sad to say…
On a more cheerful note, are you two into creating any music now that you’re sort of back in each other’s life again.
Mark: Absolutely! We’ve re-booted VICE VERSA and we’ve been writing. We do it because we love it.
What ultimately would you like to do with it to get it out to the public?
Mark: That is the problem, I don’t even know what constitutes a hit record these days? What do you look at? Which is the chart? It’s not clear anymore….
So you’re recording stuff and it may see the light of day at some point?
Stephen: We work just like we worked when we first met and we’re excited about making music. We’re the same people aren’t we?
Mark: The same funny old buggers as we were! I met Steve when I was sixteen, it’s incredible! *laughs*
The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to Mark White and Stephen Singleton
HARD CORPS were like a piece of a jigsaw that didn’t quite fit.
Utilising aesthetically entrancing KRAFTWERK-like electronic minimalism, produced by the legendary Martin Rushent and Daniel Miller, but restrained by a major label record contract that meant that they never fulfilled their true potential and only belatedly released one full length album ‘Metal & Flesh’ in 1990. Clive Pierce, Hugh Ashton, Rob Doran and Regine Fetet were a candle that burned exceedingly brightly, but still left a small but none the less important legacy of synthetic music which could give their German counterparts a run for their money.
Tracks such as ‘Je Suis Passée’, ‘Dirty’ and ‘Porter Bonheur’ still remain classics of their genre with the band supporting DEPECHE MODE and THE CURE before dissolving a few years after their conception.
HARD CORPS vocalist Regine Fetet cut an enigmatic, but controversial figure by infamously disrobing during their DEPECHE MODE support slots; but tragically passed away in 2003.
Clive Pierce kindly spoke to The Electricity Club about his tenure in HARD CORPS with additional contributions from band members Hugh Ashton and Rob Doran.
What were your individual musical influences?
Hugh: The first records I recall being bought on my behalf were Neil Sedaka’s ‘Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen’ and ‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon. This latter track featured the sound of a Musitron, an early electronic keyboard with a powerful ‘unworldly’ sound jumping out of the recording which made me aware of the emotional power of ‘sound’. Other examples of this would be ‘62’s Joe Meek produced ‘Telstar’ by THE TORNADOS which was a bit ‘cheesy’ but listen to that Clavioline, another great pre-synthesizer electronic keyboard and DELIA DERBYSHIRE and the BBC RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP’s ‘Dr Who Theme’.
Rob: Probably my first subconscious feeling that music was powerful, was in secondary school when a cool American kid with hair down to his arse joined. He introduced me to THE DOORS and I especially loved the track ‘Unknown Soldier’ which I played over and over again. I loved its political message and even then, the blending of found sources within music which I have been a fan of ever since.
Clive: After a long time coming, when it was hand-me-down time, I found myself the proud owner of a box of 45s and an old Volmar valve record player that my brother used to own. I think I was more captivated by the machinery than by the music itself at the time, but still within that box of 45s I would as a young child be spinning tracks like ‘You Really Got Me’ by THE KINKS and ‘Telstar’ by THE TORNADOS.
Prior to the eventual meeting with Regine, how did the band members come together and what were their individual backgrounds?
Rob: I met Hugh in the 1970s in Brixton and lived in the same large Victorian house. Eventually I ran the recording studio (which we called Mekon) which was built in the basement of the house and became a sound engineer / designer with the punk group Hugh Ashton had formed called THE SKUNKS.
Clive: One day I answered an advertisement from a band based in Brixton, South London called THE SKUNKS. They described themselves as a sort of punk group, not exactly what I envisaged myself getting involved with, but I decided to give it a go because again they mentioned that they had a record deal and a connection with Pete Townsend of THE WHO. Within minutes of starting my audition, I could visualise myself quite happily being involved with them fully.
Only just recently I became aware that they chose me because of two main reasons, all of which centred around a Roland CR78 drum machine. The first was I didn’t object or feel intimidated by the use of one. A lot of drummers saw these machines as a threat to their livelihoods and considered them as just a poor imitation. Secondly, I was actually able to keep very good time alongside one.
Hugh: Having replaced our old-style rock drummer with the metronomic Clive Pierce, we changed our name to CRAZE and started incorporating a new hybrid sound. This led to a record deal with EMI and in ’79, we released the single ‘Motions’ with an instrumental B-side ‘Spartans’ which started getting played at Steve Strange and Rusty Egan’s freshly opened New Romantic hangout at The Blitz in London’s Covent Garden.
Once you had formed as an act, what did you hope to achieve together?
Clive: Speaking personally, it was a break from all that had been before. For a start, it marked the end of looking at myself as just being a drummer within a traditional group structure and the hierarchy that came with that.
Rob: We found the machines enabled us to break out of our previous musical roles. Being only a machine-based band initially narrowed our options musically, but at the same time as we developed into electronic musicians, widened our musical palette. Perhaps we were KRAFTWERK’s rough and noisy neighbours!
Hugh: So with Rob and Clive equally happy to join in this marriage with these powerful new toys, we started to evolve the working methods that would sustain us over the coming few years. It was now ‘81 and apart from seeing KRAFTWERK (whose new masterpiece ‘Computer World’ album showed they were still leading from the front) on their long awaited tour, it did not really matter what other musicians were up to. We were quite happily lost in our own bubble.
How did you go about integrating vocals into the band?
Hugh: A guy called David Porter came in to do vocals and managed to get us a support slot to play at the Marquee Club in Soho. In preparation, he brought us copies of some of the latest gay disco tracks (Patrick Cowley, Bobby O etc) which we copied and changed a bit and then he wrote new ‘songs’ on top and we were ready!
Except how could we recreate it live? This was to become a perennial challenge in the following years and not just for us but for many early 80s electronic acts.
David had hurriedly plucked the name HARD CORPS (which was a sort of opposite of SOFT CELL who had recently gone to No1 with ‘Tainted Love’) from a shortlist of possible names I had in my notebook. Thus under the gaze of a few disgruntled and confused rock fans being subjected to a weird reimagining of gay disco… HARD CORPS was born!
At the Marquee Club, David even had an open mic ‘dispute’ on stage with the giant rocker Fish from MARILLION which we by then we were able to enjoy from the audience. Although I don’t think David ever went back on to a stage again and we were more than happy to disappear from the opprobrium and back to the womb of our studio not to re-emerge without a more compelling reason to surface again. So what next?
So what did happen next??
Hugh: The answer was to arrive at a party we were giving at our HQ. Someone I did not know well came up to me and basically said “there is this girl here who you really should meet, she is looking for people to work with because she wants to sing and she is … different and I think she might suit your music!” So off he goes and back he comes with Regine. Well she was just 29 but she looked pretty fine… a gaunt figure with a fine-featured almost medieval visage below a fiery red mane of hair shaved away at the sides and a dead fox (or was it a ferret) draped across her shoulders. She spoke, suggesting she would like to revisit with a cassette of her ‘work’, with a mysterious clipped French accent with almost Germanic overtones (Une Vosgienne!).
She felt hard to refuse and so without much to lose, it was agreed she would return. So she came back to the studio and we found that a song she had already written about a lovelorn petrol-station attendant worked well with a backing track we had recently recorded and ‘Dirty’ was born. Intrigued by the way it all seemed to combine, we found we could create several more tracks that combined tracks we had already prepared with lyrics Regine had already written. So with this ‘flesh’ now added to the bones, the monster HARD CORPS was now truly born.
With Regine now on board, what made you decide to go for a completely electronic aesthetic?
Rob: It was different, a challenge, new, revolutionary, the future, a break from the pompous masturbation of endless dull guitarists and hypocritical rock music. It was two fingers to bland corporate American music. It had a vitality not seen since punk, it was European and it was pioneered by the excellence of KRAFTWERK.
Hugh: So basically we had virtually no outside influences on the music we were making at that time other than late 70s GIORGIO MORODER and KRAFTWERK. Regine was also not really influenced by other writers or singers. She was just very keen to express herself creatively to balance her life…
How did the demos you were creating around this time metamorphose into actual singles?
Hugh: So around 1983, Steve McGowan offered to take our recordings around some record companies. Having got some positive feedback, he effectively became our manager and developed the strategy that led to ‘Dirty’ being pressed as a white label and then being picked up by Survival. We then got an offer to debut at a party in June ‘84, organised by Steve Strange and Rusty Egan who still had a strong presence in London’s clubland.
Steve then secured Polydor’s interest and squeezed a complicated ‘album’ deal out of them that was supposed to give us creative control over all aspects including music production, press, artwork etc which we signed hoping we would keep some control whilst accessing the resources of a ‘major’ record company… a decision we would sooner than expected come to regret.
Whilst Polydor seemed agreeable to us self-producing ‘album’ tracks, they predictably wanted to gain exposure with a single release and wanted to find a producer who could add cache and supervise recording in a ‘proper’ studio rather than our admittedly ‘semi-pro’ basement in Brixton. We were suspicious, but when they offered up Martin Rushent, we were tempted into agreeing given his achievement producing ‘Dare’ for THE HUMAN LEAGUE a few years before. So we recorded ‘Je Suis Passée’ at his Genetic Studios in Reading, Berkshire.
How was the experience of working with Rushent?
Clive: Firstly it was a “pinch yourself” moment for me. I remember quite vividly on the final mix of ‘Je Suis Passée’ sitting alongside Martin at the mixing desk with him riding the 16th delays on a fader on the eight to the bar bass sequence part and me also riding a fader on 16th delays on my middle range sequence part and just bouncing and grooving off each other as the track exited what we affectionately called the ‘crunchy middle break bit’ and thinking to myself “what the f*** is occurring here?” There I was, Little Clive From The Block playing what was effectively duelling banjos with the oddball genius bearded bloke; the one that looked totally out of place in the pictures on the back cover of one of my favourite albums of all time ‘Love and Dancing’. Nuts. Completely nuts!
Martin also monitored extremely loud recording as well as mixing. I was used to working in our Brixton studio on a couple of Auratone speakers, only switching to Tannoys in short bursts to test out the energy of a track for fear of upsetting the very nice lady who lived next door. Martin would have me pinned against the back wall from the blast from the speakers with every bass drum beat hitting me square on in the solar plexus.
Over the space of a few days, it wore me completely down to the point of suffering what I can only describe as mild shellshock. I spent an afternoon in the group restroom on the sofa staring into space and physically shaking much to the amusement of Hugh and Rob, but I felt totally f**ked. I progressively got better but had to request a lower level of playback and take regular breaks from the audio barrage from then onwards. Strange really as I had previously played the drums in various groups with stage monitors pumping sound straight at me, but this was quite different and incessant. I still wince at loud music all these years on… very weird!
Rushent’s huge impact on the production of the songs of THE HUMAN LEAGUE is well documented, what do you feel he brought to the sound of HARD CORPS?
Clive: What we hoped Martin would be able do was to refine and flesh out our sound beyond the point we were physically able to manage ourselves down in our resident basement studio in Brixton and that he did. To also help coax and winkle out the best from Regine who although one of a kind, was never a vocalist in the traditional sense of the word.
She was by nature very hit or miss at the best of times but as much as this could on the one hand be intensely frustrating for us, on the other it could incredibly rewarding when a line or word would emanate from her that was not in any textbook but just sounded right within the context of the music. It was spotting them that was the skill. Martin having worked with the technical brilliance of Shirley Bassey and at the other end of the spectrum Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley and their “Working as a waitress in a cocktail bar” performance, I would say was a perfect choice for us.
As you started to record and produce songs for HARD CORPS, how did your relationship with Polydor develop?
Hugh: A profound problem for us was that we had signed thinking we would self–produce an album in our own studio and now we were being cajoled by Polydor into a scenario involving ‘expensive’ names to produce our music and promos. This made the whole project subject to the typical major record company ploy of promoting a single (or two if you’re lucky!) and delaying an album until you have a ‘hit’ and then making the album or otherwise if not, they just drop you.
Given how much they had just spent on one song (combined with the advance we now owed more than £100,000), their position was understandable, but we had spent some years recording enough tracks for an album which they had heard and had originally approved.
As Martin Rushent was now in the throes of a divorce, our A&R man Malcolm Dunbar scouted around for another ‘name’ and to his credit, gained Daniel Miller’s interest. This was quite something since at that time Daniel was steering DEPECHE MODE to international status and was not in the habit of working with people outside of his Mute stable of artists.
So in short, it was an offer we could not refuse and ‘Respirer’ duly ended up being completed with Daniel producing. So now we had two of the best ‘electronic’ music producers in the UK both helping on our track, not to mention Daniel was using Flood as his engineer. A stellar cast and indeed a great honour for us… the only trouble being ‘Respirer’, whilst being a ‘strong’ track was not really, in common with most of our tracks, obvious ‘hit’ single material.
It’s hard not to compare HARD CORPS with PROPAGANDA, especially with tracks like ‘Respirer (To Breathe)’, was there any kind of rivalry or kinship?
Clive: Absolutely none whatsoever in either rivalry or kinship. I only became aware of them initially when I visited a friend of mine who was an eclectic buyer of slightly alternative music, CABARET VOLTAIRE, PSYCHEDELIC FURS, NEW ORDER, FLOCK OF SEAGULLS etc. He played ‘Dr Mabuse’ to me and I immediately thought FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD and I was right.
Now who doesn’t like FGTH in small doses, but the formulaic sound of the ZTT production machine just becomes really tiring after a very short space of time to my ears. Not enough rough edges for my taste and far too manipulated to feel any affinity towards. I can see the comparison you make with ‘To Breathe’ though.
The band did a session for John Peel in 1984, how was that experience when at the time the BBC engineers there were more used to dealing with Indie-style guitar acts?
Clive: Yes, it was a very sterile experience for both parties. The chaps at the BBC by nature were very institutionalised and it was record it and ship it out, and we felt the same. Naively, I personally thought John Peel would be popping his head in and out the studio during the recording but he didn’t. A time constraint dictated that we have some of the instrumentation pre-recorded at our Brixton studio and we would only play certain key components live on the sessions.
There was a rather funny moment when the BBC engineer, I think it was Mike Robinson said he had heard some nasty distortion on our track ‘Dirty’. We hadn’t spotted it and so he rewound the tape and ran it past us again. “There!” he gestured pointing at the monitors. Again none of us reacted as we hadn’t heard anything untoward and looked at each other quizzically.
“One more time please Mike” we asked starting to feel a bit amateurish at not having his depth of perception in the distortion spotting department. “There, there” he said again now standing up out of his chair in order to point closer to the speaker in a bid to home in more precisely to identify it for us. Again we couldn’t react to him until it then dawned on us simultaneously that the distortion he was trying to alert us to, was in fact a sound we had generated in our studio by feeding a delay back into itself and allowing it to get to the point that it started to break up.
We had lovingly crafted the distortion he was trying to point out to us as a defect. I don’t think we had the heart to tell him he hadn’t grasped the concept of the track and why should he but on a trip to the free vend coffee machine, the three of us had a good old giggle about it!
With much of Regine’s lyrics being in French, did you come under a lot of pressure to record totally in English?
Clive: For sure, albeit after we had signed with Polydor. Regine however was no Vanessa Paradis. If you put on the Bardot and sing all cutey, then you can get away with quite a lot as you pander to the stereotypical image most ignorant Brits have of the French, but Regine did not fit that model in the slightest. Her vocals and lyrics came from the scars of her life. They could not be delivered in a contrived way. What came out was what you had to work with and unfortunately working her art in the UK was always going to be an uphill struggle whilst singing in her native language.
Prior to Polydor and the “assault” on the charts, she could have sung in Martian as far as we were concerned. The language was not important to us. It was her personality, her realism and her honesty that mattered. She was flawed but in an intoxicating way to our ears to others this was not always appreciated as much.
What was the reaction when ‘Dirty’ was released as a single in 1984?
Rob: Extraordinary! We thought we were far to leftfield for that kind of interest and were totally unprepared for that amazing response.
Clive: It was very favourable, we attained record of the week in the NME and things snowballed from then onwards.
What kind of image did the band try to cultivate?
Rob: We tried to create a hard machine world with the macho men lined up along the back of the stage and the gentle flower symbolised by Regine pushing through the metaphorical concrete. As usual it became quite controversial!
Clive: The image I reflected on stage was purely a theatrical statement based on how I felt in regards my relationship to the music. I saw the musical phrases I played as having gender. Some male, others female. It felt honest and right to have both those represented in the way, I portrayed myself, a hard edge and a sensitive edge, both of which I possessed. I also think there was a degree of wanting to escape the everyday me who in reality was a rather average guy.
Hugh: I remember I had to deal with a panic at Polydor which involved being hauled in front of John Preston, the new CEO. We had performed at Islington Town Hall in London and we backline boys had decided to wear some 1950s surplus store ex-police motorcyclist’s jodhpurs as a uniform to emphasise our differences to normal casual rock band attire. They were reminiscent of those worn in Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ and seemed to us to capture in an amusing way (to us anyway), the sort of ‘retro-futurist’ vibe.
However we had not anticipated members of NITZER EBB being at the front of the audience dressed in long leather SS type overcoats. It led to a review in the music press where the reviewer was concerned that she had stumbled on some sort of ‘neo-fascist’ gathering. Preston wanted reassurance that his company had not signed something politically malodorous. I had to reassure him this was not the case and in fact the gig had been organised by Rock Against Racism which might have explained the reviewer’s sensitivity!
The band’s performance of ‘Je Suis Passée’ on ‘The Tube’ is still transfixing, can you tell The Electricity Club about the lead up to this appearance and why Regine looks so stressed and distant?
Clive: Well, we missed our flight from Heathrow to Newcastle. I can’t recall exactly why, but whatever the reason, it was quite inexcusable. TV appearances when you are in your infancy as a group do not throw themselves at your feet very often. We managed to get a later flight from Heathrow to Teeside Airport a good thirty odd miles from the TV studio so had to jump into a cab and tell the driver to put his foot down to get us there. Fortunately our gear had gone up the day before and was already partly set up when we arrived to sound check.
After the sound check I (as I usually did) drifted off to have a look around ‘The Tube’ set and take as much as I could in before the show started. I really had no idea that during this time Regine had had an argument with our manager. I never knew until a long time after the show that this is why her performance looked so stressed. She was actually brooding live on TV. I just thought she was just being her normal self and took no notice of it!
For The Electricity Club, the bit where Rob and yourself turn their backs on the audience, tweak the Rolands and glance at each other is probably one of the coolest things in a live electronic music performance, was that pre-rehearsed?
Clive: Yes is the simplest answer to that! It was the routine that was required to carry out that part of the track. The turning of our backs to the audience was not intended as snub to them at all. The System 100M by nature is rather plain looking viewed from behind so we opted to have the modules with their flashing LED’s facing out towards the audience for the drama. Consequently when we had to change any settings, it meant having to turn our backs to the audience.
DEPECHE MODE’s Black Swarm Devotee fanbase was notoriously antagonistic towards support bands, were you aware of this prior to playing with them?
Clive: No we weren’t aware of them at all. Even if we were, it wouldn’t have bothered us in the slightest. We actually would have revelled in a bit of antagonism, but I can’t say that on the ‘Music For The Masses’ tour, we noticed any animosity from the devotee DM fans.
The worst it ever got for me on the DM tour was actually backstage at the NEC in Birmingham.
There are long periods of spare time on tour pre-concert and the chance to have a bit of a kick around with a football was a good way to while a bit of time away and stretch those legs from the tour van. Rob and I were just passing the ball around when a couple DM roadies walked by. “Wanna game lads, HARD CORPS v DM?” and I said, “Yeah alright”. So down with the jumpers for goalposts and off we went. Within a short while (which normally always happens) a few others joined in on each side including Martin Gore and we had a five a side match on our hands.
Now it was all good natured and sporting, that is until one of the DM roadies took it upon himself to tackle me so ridiculously hard that he almost broke my leg in the process. I wasn’t prepared for that level of aggression from him in what was essentially just a friendly kick around and certainly not two hours before I was due to go on stage. I thought “you complete f**king tw*t!” That tackle could have spelled out the end of my DM tour.
When he next got the ball, I made it my mission to dish out a bit of retribution and hit him twice as hard as he had hit me. He went down but immediately got up and before we knew it we had squared up to each other snarling and swearing with fists about to fly. That was until Martin Gore stepped in between us before things got completely out of hand and managed to calm it down a bit!
What was your opinion about Regine’s dress sense on the DM support tour, do you feel that there was something wilfully self-destructive about it or was it a natural kind of ‘punk’ aesthetic for her?
Clive: Regine was a law unto herself. If she wanted to do something, she would do it regardless of what anyone said or recommended to her. That was her strength as well as her weakness.
The DM tour came at a time where we were as a unit struggling to keep the momentum going and sort of had a fatalistic attitude going into it. Perhaps a few years prior to the DM tour, I might have questioned the sanity of how far she was taking it but on this tour, I thought if we go down we may as well go down in flames…. which is what happened in the end! Retrospectively looking back on it, I can fully understand how her antics rendered us a liability to both DM and their promoters.
I for one, even though I am far from being a prude would have been seriously pissed off if I had gone to a DM concert with my young son or daughter and saw the support group’s front woman with her private parts out parading around on stage. There are lines you do not cross and even though I ashamedly had no regard for that line back then, I regret having been party to Regine being allowed to cross it. It cost us the European leg of the tour and perhaps the American leg and signalled the end for us.
Hugh: The first concert was in Newport in Wales and the concert promoters were furious because parents, who had accompanied their young teenage children, were suddenly confronted with a French Stripper! We had recruited a private detective friend to manage us for the tour and he had to deal with the fall out. So Regine had to sign a letter for the tour promoters, promising specifically not to expose her nipples again. So she did the rest of the tour with a rubber band across her breasts inscribed with the word “censored”.
Did you ever at any point say to her, “look let’s tone things down a bit”?
Clive: Yes! When you have 15 minutes or so before going on stage and the promoter won’t allow you to go on unless Regine signed a disclaimer stating that she would not disrobe on stage. Regine refused to sign the disclaimer but eventually after us pleading to her, signs it with a scrawl and then goes on stage and disrobes anyway!
Hugh: We were not offered the European leg of the tour despite Martin Gore’s stage attire being remarkably similar to that which Regine revealed when she removed her orange raincoat!
You also supported THE CURE, do you have any memories of this experience?
Clive: We were very fortunate to be published by the same company as THE CURE were and as a result were offered the slot on ‘The Head On The Door’ tour. The chance to tap in to THE CURE’s following was not to be sniffed at and all of us having a healthy respect for them and their music was an amazing opportunity.
Little ole hard CORPS on the same bill as THE CURE… wow the thought blew me personally away. A lot of my mates were ardent CURE fans and I just couldn’t wait to tell them the news. It was all very exciting!
In Torino, Italy we played our set to half a crowd as most of them were still in the bar areas. I don’t remember which track we were performing but we probably weren’t being very well received by the crowd as all manner of objects were being hurled at us. I got hit on the head with a couple of coins and a boiled sweet which fortuitously bounced down on to my keyboard.
Being a boiled sweet fan (who isn’t?) I unwrapped it and popped it in my mouth and gave a thumbs up in the general direction the gift horse had originated from. Hugh was less fortunate. This whole carrier bag of something was lobbed at him. What a shot. The handle managed to impale itself on one of his drumsticks stopping him in full flow. We lost a bar or so of beats as he untangled himself from his plastic nightmare and we finished the rest of our set dodging used Tampax etc!
As I left the stage, I grabbed the bag as I was curious to see what was in it. It was a whole packed lunch. Sandwiches, a packet of crisps and an apple. So if the person who threw it at Hugh ever reads this, I hope you went home hungry that night you bastard!
The band eventually split, was there a particular straw that broke the camel’s back or a series of contributory factors to this?
Clive: We fizzled out rather than split. As touched on previously, the death warrant had been signed when we became too difficult to handle anymore after the DEPECHE MODE tour. We had effectively painted ourselves into a very bleak corner. I think any comradery we had forged since the time Regine joined forces with us had evaporated and we met less and less to work on material, eventually just naturally drifting off our separate ways.
After all of the various recording sessions and singles, the album for Polydor never saw the light of day, why was that?
Rob: If we had released an album on Polydor, they would have been obliged to enter the next year of the contract so it became economically political. In other words, it would have cost them more investment than their accountants were prepared to budget for.
With your electronic aesthetic, you seemed on paper to be an ideal Mute Records band especially with the Daniel Miller link, do you think things could have turned out differently if HARD CORPS had been on a more sympathetic label?
Clive: I really believe we should have adopted the album band model and not been so wooed by the lure of a major label. We could never have been a commodity that would have sat comfortably on ‘Top Of The Pops’ churning out catchy tunes. Polydor were throwing serious money at us and had every right to demand chart contending ditties, but we just didn’t have them in us nor the personality to carry that pop star act off.
When HARD CORPS dissolved, what kind of career did you pursue afterwards?
Clive: My father was a self-employed builder among other things and I had worked alongside him off and on ever since leaving school to help pay my way. When we split, it was really game over for me. So much time was put into the project that I was left well behind my friends’ career wise. They had become civil servants, accountants, estate agents, policemen and were already well into paying mortgages off. I had virtually nothing in comparison to them.
So I just completely turned my back on music and knuckled down working with my father. We made a very good team with me supplying the strength and he the experience. I loved every moment with him. It was around this time that I became a father myself and my focus from then onwards was to provide security for my daughter.
Rob: I wrote and produced music and sound design for Film, TV and radio commercials.
Hugh: In ’92, I joined THE SUN KINGS and using the same equipment as HARD CORPS, we had an enjoyable time through the rest of the 90s doing our take on sort of ambient-techno incorporating our love of 60s psychedelia and 70s ‘German’. We released three albums ‘Hall of Heads’ on G.P.R in 1994, ‘Soul Sleeping’ on Blue Room in 1997 and ‘Before We Die’ released on Chill Out sometime after we stopped in ‘99.
Although HARD CORPS’ body of work is pretty small in comparison with many of their contemporaries, why do you think there is an enduring interest in the band’s work?
Clive: I think we were a truffle in a forest of chanterelles. Not to everyone’s taste but never the less rare and pungent in an appealing way to those who like their musical bouquet a little different.
Dedicated to the memory of Regine Fetet
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to HARD CORPS