Best known as a member of GARY NUMAN’s band between 1979-89 and for co-writing VISAGE’s ‘Fade To Grey’, Cornishman CHRIS PAYNE was also DEAD OR ALIVE’s musical director when the band were touring their ‘Youthquake’ album.
A graduate of Medieval nusic, he even mastered a reed instrument called a Cornamuse.
Now domiciled in Normandy, he happily chatted to The Electricity Club about his period with GARY NUMAN, the genesis of ‘Fade To Grey’ during soundchecks on ‘The Touring Principle’ in 1979, his post-Numan band DRAMATIS and his recent contribution to the TENEK song ‘What Do You Want?’
Can you remember much about your audition for Mr Numan?
Oh yeah. I remember as if it was yesterday. I had finished Music College and was taking some time out working for our local council taking down trees. I turned up in my ‘chain saw’ gear ie workman’s jacket, large boots and sporting a very bad moustache with hair like King Charles II. All that was missing was the chain saw!
Is it true you hadn’t ever played a synthesizer before that?
I had never played a synth before. Bluffed my way through the audition pushing every note under the sun and making it look as if I had a clue. The real bonus for me was playing the viola and Gary, being a big fan of stringed instruments, loved the sound.
After the audition I remember events moving very swiftly, and before I knew it we were in Shepperton rehearsing for the ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’, a live BBC TV music show that used to broadcast every Tuesday night.
Later that evening, we were told that a spot had come up for us on ‘Top Of The Pops’, which at the time was the ‘God’ show for music as MTV etc didn’t exist. Four weeks later ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ was at No1. Was it hard work? No, not at all. I loved every minute of it.
From September 1979 we were just continually touring and recording, were all young at the time, and had plenty of energy and enthusiasm. I won’t mention names but I remember hearing on Radio 1, a well known band being asked about life on tour and they complained about how tough it was, and how people didn’t realise what they had to go through. I just thought… OK!!!!
You don’t realise how lucky you are to be in your position, after all what’s better, a world tour when you’re 23 years old or working in a factory making car batteries (a job I did as a student)?
It was a frantic few days and as it was happening, I think we all sensed that something was about to happen. Not only did it happen but at such a pace! I didn’t realise at the time but Numan’s label Beggars Banquet were on the brink of bankruptcy and Gary’s success not only made his own career take off but also saved the label. Imagine if Beggars had gone under. They’ve a lot to thank him for.
You appeared on a number of GARY NUMAN albums including ‘The Pleasure Principle’ and ‘Telekon’, usually playing viola, but would be called on to play keyboards occasionally. What would you normally be asked to do as it would appear Gary handled many of the synth parts himself in the studio?
Actually Gary was extremely generous letting me play a lot of parts on ‘The Pleasure Principle’. We shared the workload, although he had created all of the parts. It was interesting as the main synths were a Minimoog and Polymoog.
No guitars, just drums, bass, synths and viola of course! My only issue was trying to stay awake, as these were all night recording sessions after the pubs had shut. You’re correct, by the time ‘Telekon’ came along Gary played most of the keyboard parts.
What are your overriding memories of the first two GARY NUMAN tours?
Well they were both phenomenal, and bear in mind nothing had ever been seen like it before with these great futuristic sets and lighting effects etc. Far too many great memories of these days, you’ll have to come and see me and I’ll spend a few hours chatting about it… we did two world tours with both of these sets and my regret is we didn’t tour abroad with ‘Warriors’, which also looked amazing.
Which GARY NUMAN songs were your favourites, either because of your contributions or from playing them live?
It’s no secret that my favourite track was ‘Down In The Park’. It was truly spine tingling to play with its anthemic power, and I loved playing the piano intro to it before launching into the thunderous Polymoog chords.
With VISAGE’s hit single ‘Fade To Grey’, what inspired you and Billy Currie to recording togther?
It just sort of happened and became our soundcheck song during the first tour back in 1979, with Ced Sharpley adding some drums. That’s basically how it developed.
As Billy was intending to leave and rejoin ULTRAVOX after the tour, he wanted to record it as a kind of souvenir of the time spent with GARY NUMAN and myself as the other keyboard player.
He organised the recording at the late Martin Rushent’s studio, and we (Billy, Ced and myself) went in and recorded it the day after the tour finished. By the way, the entire song except vocals was recorded in a day…those were the days! And the rest is history…
This became such a signature track. What do you think was the key to its huge success?
The key to its success… A Minor!!! Ha ha!
But seriously! It was part of a movement which, image wise, was very strong. This will always help the promotion of a song. Technically it was very simple, relying on a cyclic movement from A minor to D minor and using the A minor as a pivot chord to re-introduce the verse. Plus it had a very strong but simple chorus… “Ohh-OOH we fade to grey”! It also had a certain atmosphere, which was relevant to the times.
How important were synthesizers in the shaping of music post-punk and why was there such a huge success rate during this period?
It was important and it enabled non-trained musicians to be able to express themselves. The beauty of a synth is that you can use your imagination to create all manner of soundscapes, atmospheres – call it whatever, without the need to be a great player.
Some people remarked on how soul-less the synths were compared to real instruments. If you ever heard Billy Currie playing his solo ARP Odyssey, you’ll realise how wrong that is. He was a phenomenally expressive player who could make the instrument scream and growl, and also sound very emotive.
I’ve since spoken to many players of early synths and it’s interesting that we each in turn have a different favourite. Mine was the Minimoog. A classic little demonic monosynth that could play the most intrinsically beautiful sounds, and also shake a building down to its foundations that you were playing in.
Is there an artist from that era whom you felt was particularly innovative in embracing the synthesizer technology?
Obviously KRAFTWERK plus the other German bands mentioned before, JEAN MICHEL JARRE and YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA. As mentioned, Mr Currie, and let’s not forget GARY NUMAN who had probably the most influence on the commercialisation of synths.
You toured the skies but it all suddenly ended with GARY NUMAN’s three farewell shows at Wembley Arena in April 1981. What were your own emotions and thoughts during those gigs?
Because of the immense scale of that production with the three back-to-back concerts and sell out crowds, half of me thought that this was crazy stopping at that moment with such huge interest and the fact that nothing had been seen like this before and if it could grow bigger. Who knows what would have happened? It was also sad and a bit disconcerting as I had been in regular employment for the last three years. On the other hand, Gary had made this decision and it was a case of moving forward with DRAMATIS and looking forward to a new adventure.
You formed DRAMATIS with RRussell Bell, Ced Sharpley and Denis Haines from the GARY NUMAN band and released the album ‘For Future Reference’ on ELTON JOHN’s Rocket Records in late 1981. Simon Heyworth who worked on Tubular Bells was the co-producer. How do you look back on the recording of that?
Oh God, it was a mess! I never understood why we spent ages recording it in one of the best studios in England at the time, a studio called Ridge Farm, only to remix it in London, which was bloody awful.
All this messing around when we had perfectly good mixes drove me to despair. It took forever, cost a fortune, we had to re-do the cover of the album and when it was finally released, Denis left the band! Having said that, the time spent at Ridge Farm was brilliant. It was a really inspirational environment and had a great pub in the village just up the road. Needless to say where we were most evenings.
RRussell and Denis were the main vocalists for DRAMATIS. But GARY NUMAN sang on the terrific ‘Love Needs No Disguise’ and you even did a lead vocal on ‘Turn’. Was there initially a reluctance for someone to take up the mantle of fronting DRAMATIS, especially as you were all more used to the role of being seasoned multi-instrumentalists?
That’s an interesting point. In retrospect, RRussell should have been the only vocalist (apart from Gary’s contribution) as this would have set a certain continuity. I don’t know why it ended up with Denis and myself singing. Turn was my composition, which explains why I sang it, but I really have a shocking voice, my wife Dominique will verify that! I remember that it took about two to three days to get it. No ‘auto tune’ to save the day in those days…
Interestingly, I remember that ADAM ANT’s ex-wife Eve, who I was sharing a flat with at the time, suggested we tried out a hairdresser friend of hers who was looking to sing in a band. His name: BOY GEORGE! Imagine if he had joined DRAMATIS?
In hindsight, why do you think GARY NUMAN’s fanbase didn’t take to DRAMATIS in large numbers?
I don’t know. Perhaps we didn’t have a strong enough identity? The music was too removed from the Numan style? Badly promoted? It could be a combination of all of these or other factors. It might even have been my dodgy haircut!
After ‘For Future Reference’, DRAMATIS did some cracking singles like ‘Face On The Wall’ and ‘The Shame’. ‘I Can See Her Now’ even got into the lower reaches of the chart and you toured in your own right. Was a second album ever close to completion?
We were working on quite a few songs for a second album. But I think we just lost our way and enthusiasm for the project with all the problems that beset us. Maybe we’ll release them someday?
You rejoined GARY NUMAN’s band for 1983’s Warriors tour and remained until 1988. But in between, you also did a stint touring with DEAD OR ALIVE after they secured a No1 with’ You Spin Me Round’. Do you have any amusing recollections of that DEAD OR ALIVE tour? What was it like working with Pete Burns?
I actually stayed officially until 1990. As for DEAD OR ALIVE, that was a fun tour. Three weeks or so and I wish it could have gone on. It was a summer tour as well, which made it feel even more like a holiday. As for anecdotes, there are loads too many to mention here. You’ll have to buy a copy of my eBook ‘My Numan Years’ due for release soon.
Pete was great, and actually very shy. He kept a low profile and after the shows went back to his room with his wife Lynn. The drummer Steve Coy was also really nice and a serious nutcase. Tim Lever (keyboards) and Mike Percy (Bass) were also great. In spite of the image, I found them to be just a typical down-to-earth bunch of scousers!
You returned to play viola with GARY NUMAN on Complex at a few of ‘The Pleasure Principle’ 30th Anniversary shows in 2009 to a rapturous reception. What was it like to be back on stage with him?
It was fantastic. The only downside was that I’d loved to have done the tour. I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed live work. I’ll have to get DRAMATIS back together!
I met them at the aftershow party at the O2. Pete contacted me somehow and it went from there. I didn’t know anything about them but they are very impressive and seem to be building up quite a following, which doesn’t surprise me as they’re excellent.
Rusty Egan recently invited you to write a song?
Rusty tracked me down on Facebook. At first I thought it was a joke and that some one was scamming me for a laugh. But after some careful further investigation, I knew it was for real. The latest I heard was that two of my contributions including a co-written track with producer Nigel Bates were shortlisted along with contributions from Midge Ure, Youth etc. But you just never know if they’ll eventually make the final cut.
DRAMATIS’ first single ‘Ex Luna Scientia’ celebrated the spirit of NASA. How do you see the future of space travel now that the Space Shuttle has flown its last mission?
Sad in a way. We have moved on in science so radically in the last few decades but we still know so little (apart from how to destroy ourselves). We still can’t account for 94% of the mass of the Universe, which is really quite worrying.
Perhaps the missing parts are this great energy force which the Chinese called Qi (or Chi). I have recently completed studies in Chinese medicine and I’m actually a practitioner over here in France. My aim will be to discover the mysterious Qi and who knows after that… maybe DRAMATIS will make a comeback? “May the Force be with You”
The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to CHRIS PAYNE
Special thanks to Pete Steer
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
25th October 2011, updated 24th February 2018