It’s not often that the support threatens to blow the headliners off stage, but even the Young Knives had to admit that Ungdomskulen, an extraordinary prog-trash trio from Norway, were a tough act to follow. (“You pick the support act, and they turn out to be the best band in the world.”) Their lengthy, complex, unpredictable numbers were dominated by a truly phenomenal drummer, whose flashy yet intensely rhythmic playing was a wonder to behold.
Neatly turned out in sober suits and comfortable shoes, The Young Knives looked more like mild-mannered moonlighting accountants than aspirant rock stars. With no new album to promote, they bravely (and almost apologetically) focused on unreleased material, none of which marked a radical departure from the Mercury nominated Voices of Animals and Men. Although politely received, this lack of familiarity meant that the crowd were slow to warm up, the turning point coming with reliable old favourite The Decision.
Of the new songs, the insistently catchy Turn Tail had “hit” written all over it – much more so than the dangerously derivative future single Up All Night, which took its title from Razorlight, its chorus from Rocket From The Crypt, and its “woh-oh-oh” chanting from The Futureheads.
Originally published in Stylus magazine.
For anyone who has become immunized to the false dawns of that most debased of critical terms, the “stunning return to form,” it is only right and proper to approach the comeback album from Kevin Ayers with a certain wary skepticism. After all, it has been over thirty years since the run of inventive, idiosyncratic albums which won him his reputation—a run which was brought to an end partly by botched attempts to turn the deeply reluctant Ayers into a mainstream star, and partly by his own loss of confidence following the critical backlash which ensued. (The paradigm shift of punk which followed close on its heels didn’t help much either.)
Routinely described, even during his heyday, as “self-effacing,” Ayers responded by exiling himself to Spain and releasing a series of patchy albums during the 1980s, which gave the impression of a somewhat lost and defeated figure. Although 1992’s creditable Still Life with Guitar showed signs of getting back in the game, the subsequent tragic death of guitarist Ollie Halsall, Ayers’ closest musical associate for nearly twenty years, sent him scuttling back into semi-obscurity, leaving his remaining supporters with little hope that he would ever record again.
For these long-suffering fans in particular, The Unfairground comes pre-loaded with perilously high expectations, as well as some clear warning signs. After fifteen years of studio silence, a playing time of 34 minutes sounds distinctly miserly, and the reworking of two songs from that troubled 1980s period (the opening “Only Heaven Knows” and the closing “Take It Easy,” now re-titled “Run Run Run”) suggests that the well of inspiration might be close to drying up. Such understandable misgivings only serve to make The Unfairground’s triumph all the more remarkable.
The album’s three years of gestation have yielded a warm, luxuriant richness of sound, balanced by a tightly crafted compression of ideas; consequently, not one second of those 34 minutes feels wasted. As with the best of Ayers’ 1970s work, there is a sense that the listener is entering a self-contained musical universe, which defines itself on its own terms. It is a world of brightness and color, as reflected in the cover art (a mildly surreal depiction of Coney Island), but the gaiety is tempered by a certain sense of the solitary and forlorn (the “unfairground” is a deserted one).
Although Ayers’ talent for penning crisp, wry, tuneful songs had never altogether deserted him, this is his first album in three decades that gives his songs the musical context which they properly deserve. In this respect, the difference between the bloated “Take It Easy” of the 1980s and the nimble “Run Run Run” of the 2000s is quite remarkable; the bare words and melody may be the same, but in all other respects, we are looking at two utterly different works. Perhaps the crucial difference is this: for once, Ayers is not prepared to let the hired hands walk all over him. Instead, he has surrounded himself with a set of collaborators who sound in tune with his ethos, and both willing and able to do these songs full justice. With Ayers firmly back in the driving seat, directing every last note, this sense of engaged, enthusiastic collaboration permeates the whole album.
Perhaps trickiest of all, a bridge has been formed between the old and the new—between the 63-year old founding father of British psychedelia, and younger admirers such as Ladybug Transistor and Architecture In Helsinki, members of whom accompany him throughout. Rather than strive for the self-consciously contemporary, the arrangements bring a fresh feel to a broadly classic template, as well as making subtle references to Ayers’ musical heritage. There’s a slight whiff of Pepper-era Beatles lurking within the Tuscon Philharmonia’s string accompaniments, and a brief but unmistakable nod towards “I Am the Walrus” at the start of “Friends and Strangers.” The tumbling guitar figure which runs through the brooding, ominous “Brainstorm” evokes memories of “Irreversible Neural Damage,” Ayers’ 1974 duet with Nico, and there’s even a heart-warming reunion with former singing partner Bridget St. John on the standout cut “Baby Come Home.”
Other old friends include Hugh Hopper (Soft Machine) on bass, Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music) making some fine guest contributions on guitar, and a sampled Robert Wyatt adding wordless vocals to the suitably plaintive “Cold Shoulder,” by means of a mysterious piece of software known as “The Wyattron.”
Lyrically speaking, the songs deal with lost or long-distance love, and with Ayers’ mixed emotions as he contemplates the passing of the years and the approach of old age. As ever, the language is simple and the sentiments deceptively oblique, with the occasional cynical aside. (“Some people really need attention, see just what they want to see; never more than their reflection in someone else’s fantasy.”) The sheer catchiness of the songwriting lends the material a straightforward initial appeal, which peels away over time to reveal something altogether more subtle and elusive at its core.
If The Unfairground doesn’t quite qualify as a “stunning” return to form—“stunning” never really being Ayers’ stock in trade—it certainly represents the delightful and unexpected renaissance of a perennially undervalued artist, whose quiet but significant influence is long overdue for re-assessment.
Boosted by the recent Mercury Prize nomination for his debut album The End Of History, Irish singer-songwriter Fionn Regan faced a curious and respectful capacity crowd, at the start of his UK tour.
Aided by a four-piece band, the fifty-minute show kicked off in surprisingly muscular fashion, before quietening for an extended run of sparse, intense, folk-meets-alt-country numbers whose poetic, deeply personal lyrics defied instant analysis. From then on, the band had little to do other than add the subtlest of backings to Regan’s reflective, accusing, somewhat embittered balladry.
Stylistically and lyrically, the songs leant towards America, bearing distinct vocal similarities to Ryan Adams’ early solo work. Perhaps the best received song was the excellent Put The Penny In The Slot, which namechecked the authors Paul Auster and Saul Bellow.
Saving the single Be Good Or Be Gone until last, Regan unplugged his guitar and delivered the song without amplification. It was a brave conclusion to a highly promising set.
Since the recent release of The Unfairground, the first new album from British singer-songwriter Kevin Ayers in fifteen years, there has been an increasing and long overdue acknowledgement of his position as one of the founding fathers of British psychedelic rock. Along with Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge and Daevid Allen, Ayers was a member of the original line-up of the Soft Machine. Following a grueling tour of the US in 1968, supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Ayers left the band and embarked upon a remarkably varied and consistently engaging solo career, releasing a series of critically acclaimed (if commercially under-performing) albums during the 1970s, before slowly sliding off the radars of all but the committed few during the 1980s.
For his latest album, which marks something of a return to the freshness, eclecticism, and clarity of vision that characterized the best of his 1970s work, Ayers has enlisted the services of a wide array of younger collaborators. These include members of Ladybug Transistor, Architecture In Helsinki, Noonday Underground, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Teenage Fanclub, as well as Euros Childs (the former leader of Gorkys Zygotic Mynci, and a long-time champion of Ayers’ work), and the rising pop-soul singer Candie Payne.
Ayers is widely regarded as an awkward and reluctant interviewee, whose distaste for self-promotion could be attributed partly to unreconstructed hippy anti-commercialism, and partly to classic upper middle-class English reserve (he is, after all, the son of a diplomat). Speaking to Stylus from his home in Southern France, where he leads a simple and mostly reclusive existence, he willingly submitted himself to a guided stroll through his solo career to date. Choosing his words slowly and carefully, with frequent pauses, Ayers’ natural wariness was tempered by a wry humor and a gentle, understated charm.
To anyone who knew your work with the Soft Machine, your debut solo album Joy of a Toy  would have been viewed as a radical change of direction: from free-form experimental jamming into a kind of classic songwriting approach. Had you been storing up songs for future use over a long period, or was it a sudden decision, that you were going to switch direction and try your hand at songwriting?
The latter. Basically, I’m a songwriter. I’m not a virtuoso musician, or anything like that. It was great to do the so-called “free-form” stuff – but after a while, you get the T-shirt, you know? I think that songs are more enduring, and more fun to do. A lot of free-form stuff is very self-indulgent. That’s why I left, because Soft Machine was heading more into fifteen minute solos – and frankly, it wasn’t just Soft Machine. There was a whole era, wasn’t there? Endless guitar solos, and people just banging around. Which is great fun for a while, but then you just want to move on.
You got out ahead of the curve, I suppose. But then with Shooting at the Moon , you threw another curveball. You’re back with a band [the Whole World] – indeed, it’s your only album which is credited to you and a band – and there’s actually quite a lot of free-form stuff on there, where you’ve abandoned traditional rhythmic and harmonic structures. It’s not quite heading back in the same direction, but it’s certainly a surprise.
Well, I was surrounded by some incredibly talented musicians, and it’s a side that’s just… there. I still have it, to a certain extent.
Was that album more of a band effort, or was it more your vision as interpreted by others?
So were you the benevolent dictator figure directing everything?
In a way. I always consider myself as a sort of catalyst, for these very talented people. I provided a sort of framework, and allowed them an incredible leeway. Letting them have their heads, basically.
And I suppose you were also mentoring a young Mike Oldfield at that stage?
In a way. He was quite a lost soul at the time. I think it provided some kind of stability for him.
Onto Whatevershebringswesing . There’s a lot of eclecticism at work: you’ve got symphonic rock, vaudeville, avant-garde, and almost MOR balladry on there. This genre-hopping is a key part of your appeal, I think. What was the motivation? Was it experimentalism; was it showing off; was it restlessness?
It’s just the way I am – it’s as simple as that – and it’s to my disadvantage, I think. If you think about most best-selling albums, they’re all basically one tone, one direction, repeating the same thing over and over again. I just wasn’t able to do that. But there certainly wasn’t any showing off in it at all, I can assure you. That’s just how my mind works.
It seems to me that you were constantly picking a new genre and seeing what could be done with it. And then trying another, and then trying another…
Yes. And also, a lot of stuff is kind of arbitrary. It happens in the studio. Choices are made, simply because some machine sounds better than another, or someone suggests another bass line, and you say: yeah, that’s a good idea too. So it’s kind of random.
Thinking about the eclecticism: as someone who has always admired your music, I have always found it difficult to recommend a definitive Kevin Ayers album, or even a definitive Kevin Ayers track, as somewhere for people to get started. But I think that Bananamour  is as close as we get. It’s a more unified album than before.
I’m glad that you said that, because that’s one of my favourites.
You must get asked the same question, and I wondered whether you’d give the same reply?
Pretty much. I think it sort of covers the ground.
The reason I originally bought it was because of an interview you gave while supposedly promoting The Confessions of Dr. Dream . During the interview, you said that you were disappointed with Dr. Dream, and that Bananamour was the superior album. I thought that was such an extraordinary thing for an artist to be saying, especially as you had just moved to a different label. So I went out and bought Bananamour and left Dr. Dream for a couple of years, because you told me it wasn’t very good!
[softly] Oh, shit… [laughter]
Were you just winding up the interviewer, or did you have reservations about that album after it came out?
[ruefully] I don’t know; I’m always saying things like that, and putting my foot in my mouth… and always getting told off for it too. Managers tearing their hair out, you know… [laughs]
Round about the same time, you collaborated on Lady June’s Linguistic Leprosy . Lady June was your landlady, wasn’t she?
[fondly] Yes, she was. And a great friend… poor old soul. It was actually quite a fun collaboration.
It conjures up images of arts labs, and happenings, and spontaneous poetry readings, and Bohemian life in general.
Yeah, spot on.
It’s an image of a free and easy time. Was it as free, and was it as easy, as I imagine it to be?
In terms of things being open? Yes, that’s how it was. And it’s not like that now. At all.
The live album June 1st 1974 [recorded with John Cale, Brian Eno and Nico] sounds like one of the first Big Pushes, if you like. There was an attempt being made to turn you into a rock star, and it sounds like a pre-conceived showcase. You’ve said that you weren’t always too comfortable with that.
No, I wasn’t. It was too stagey, and you’re absolutely right – it was Island’s attempt to make me into a kind of pop star, with high heeled shoes and all that kind of stuff. It just wasn’t me; I didn’t fit the picture.
And in any case, you were promoting the Dr. Dream album, which is quite “out there”. It’s not something that you would expect to be pushing to a mass market.
Not at all. Especially the second side, which is basically one track, all interlinked. It’s sort of the remnants of my Soft Machine days.
And there’s an old Soft Machine song, “Why Are We Sleeping”, on the first side as well.
[gently bristling] That’s not Soft Machine, that’s my song.
I do beg your pardon! [nervous laughter]
It was round about this time that Ollie Halsall came onto the scene. He then stayed with you, as your closest musical associate, for the next eighteen years. At a time when an awful lot of collaborators were constantly coming and going, what was it about Ollie that led to the two of you sticking together for so long?
[long pause] Gosh, that’s a really hard one. I think it was just instant empathy. I met him while I was in the studio doing Dr. Dream; I think he was working with members of Colosseum at the time. I needed a guitar solo for “Didn’t Feel Lonely Till I Thought Of You”. I opened the door, and there was this guy walking along with a white Gibson. I said, “Do you fancy doing a guitar solo?” Sure, he said… and then came in and did this stunning solo, after listening to it just once. That was it. That was love, you know?
Ollie worked with you closely on the next album, Sweet Deceiver . This is a problematic one. I listened to it again this week and absolutely loved it – I had forgotten what a good album it was – and I really do think that it’s one of your most underrated albums.
Well, thank you for saying that. [emphatically] Thank you very much for saying that.
It just annoys me, because up until that point, you’d been the golden boy of the music press. You’d always had good reviews. And then all of a sudden, they turned against you with this one.
They did, yeah.
I suppose it was because you were saying goodbye to the avant-garde, and they didn’t like the idea of you going in a more conventional soft-rock direction. I think you were nobbled by the cool police, actually.
Absolutely right. It was probably Nick Kent, or someone like that. It was panned. I think something about the title pissed them off.
And the cover art maybe, because there’s this rather of-its-time line drawing of you. But these are very superficial reasons for dismissing an album.
Well absolutely, but it’s so damaging to the artist. People don’t realise that. They sit there, sniffing their lines of coke, writing you off, sniping away [laughs] …and you get slammed. At that time, the musical press was very powerful. Today it’s zero, compared to what it used to be. If you had a good review in Melody Maker or NME, you sold records. Now, no-one really gives a shit. [laughs] But thank you for saying that it’s an underrated album; I totally agree with you.
And then came Yes, We Have No Mananas , which makes me think of sunshine, beaches, palm trees…
Falling in love does that for you. [laughs]
That was the emotional context, was it?
[fondly] Of course. It always is. Either falling in love or out of love; those are the only two things that motivate anybody.
Well, my favourite song on there is “Yes I Do”, which is kind of pining for love; it’s unrequited love.
Oh my God. I squirm when I hear that…
Do you? That song summed it all up for me at that stage. But we won’t go into that.
You had John Reid, of all people, managing you at the time – and I think this was another Big Push. He also had Elton John and Queen on his books, didn’t he?
No, but the problem was that it wasn’t a Big Push. I was like a token; a golden boy; another charm on his bracelet.
Was he trying to talk you up, into the idea of becoming this silver-heeled pop star?
Not at all, no. He just totally abandoned me.
Did he sell you a dream and then walk off?
He didn’t even sell me a dream. He just bought me somehow, I don’t know how, and then proceeded to totally ignore me, in terms of any positive, constructive plan of what to do.
Was there, at any time, any part of you that wanted that kind of mainstream rock star status, or was it always anathema?
[long pause] I think probably when I very first started, with the Wilde Flowers or something way back then. It was part of the dream, yeah. But after that, not at all.
By the time that Rainbow Takeaway  came out, the ground had clearly been pulled from under your feet, in several ways. The album had no promotion at all, and punk rock had come along. All of a sudden, people didn’t want to hear about sunshine and palm trees; they wanted to hear about high-rises and dole queues. [laughter] Rainbow Takeaway isn’t even a rock and roll album, really. It starts with flutes, and vibes, and one of your most easy listening numbers, “Blaming It All On Love”. Then the very first line on the album is “I guess I’m feeling old today”. How did you feel about that kind of paradigm shift? Did it touch your world? Did it make you feel like a man out of time?
I kind of numbed out on that. I kept working, but obviously it wasn’t working. What I was doing was out of context, as you rightly pointed out. Because punk came in, and all this kind of mad… I mean, another generation had just clocked in, you know?
It was another explosion of creativity, but in a very different direction.
Yes, and the best of punk rock is great. I was just rather out of context.
With That’s What You Get Babe , there was more promotion once again. You had a nice sleeve, you were getting daytime radio play for “Money Money Money”, and so on. But once again, the NME absolutely savaged you, with the reviewer [Ian Penman] launching into a tirade against the whole concept of the Cult Figure, and holding you up as an example. And in some ways, you are the living archetype of the Cult Figure – at least in terms of someone who’s actually living, of course. Is it a description with which you feel comfortable? Are there pros and cons, or is it a completely meaningless classification?
[mildly baffled] Having never been in any kind of cult, I don’t really know what that means.
I think it means that there’s a small number of people who really get what you’re doing, as opposed to having a larger number of people who might only have been half listening.
[sternly] Cult is the wrong word, then. It’s a selective audience. [laughter]
You then left your major label, moved to Spain, and Diamond Jack & the Queen of Pain  came along. In many ways, this is your strangest album. It’s the only time where it sounds as if you’re trying to follow fashion. There are typically Eighties-sounding synths on there, and so on.
That’s because it was commissioned. Someone offered to pay for it, but on condition that I agreed to his producer, and his musicians, and his ideas as to how things should be. I was very poor at the time, so I had to do it. And that’s really all there is to it.
Listening to it, I almost sensed an invisible stick, just off-camera, forcing you to sing in a way that’s not your normal singing style.
Yeah, you’ve got it. Absolutely right.
Various albums then emerged during the Eighties, which are less well-known: Deia Vu , As Close As You Think  – which no-one seems to have heard, as it isn’t available on CD – and Falling Up , which sounds you’re just having fun. One of the Amazon reviews says it’s as if you’ve “just drifted up from the beach bar to the studio with old friends”. Was music perhaps less of a priority during this period?
[pause] Der der der… I think Falling Up was a good record, though. [another pause] I mean, hopefully what you said was right. It was coming up from the beach and having fun with friends? Well, that’s good then. Leave it there.
But there’s a track on there called “Am I Really Marcel”, in which you hold your hands up and talk about being lazy, and about how you lack any ambition – and you talk about it in a way that suggests that you’re very comfortable with that. Should we take that at face value?
Well, obviously I’m not that lazy, or else I wouldn’t have had a whole career in the business. But you have to be clear in terms of what “lazy” means. It just means that you don’t need to be involved in the day-to-day hustle, or hassle, of city life. You can actually exist as a person on your own, without all the trappings. “Lazy” means that you don’t necessarily have to keep making an effort to make yourself… liked. [pause] Jesus, I got that out! [relieved chuckle]
That’s a good answer.
Still Life With Guitar came out in 1992. Shortly after its release, Ollie Halsall tragically died – and then you didn’t release another album of original new material for fifteen years. It’s very tempting to draw certain conclusions from that.
Well, you’ve got it, yeah.
Right… [mutual pause; nervous laughter from both sides]
I mean, you’ve answered… it’s a rhetorical question.
OK. Well, I could delve further, but I kind of don’t want to.
[evenly] No, I don’t think you should.
That’s fair enough.
[quietly] Thank you.
Let’s fast-forward to The Unfairground – which, I have to say, has caused delight and celebration across the land. I certainly think that it’s your best album in over thirty years. Why now? What gave you the impetus to return to recording, after so long?
That’s a really tough one to answer; I’ve been asked that already. A: I need to earn a living. B: I need some kind of intellectual satisfaction, and life. I need to feel that I’ve been vaguely useful on the planet. B… um, B, C, D, where are we?… [laughter]
So there was a sense that you had something more to say, and something more to offer. But there must have been a change in your general mindset… in your confidence, maybe, I don’t know…
Well, I think it’s probably been made more from a lack of confidence. I need to re-affirm that I still exist, you know? It’s my job; it’s what I do; it’s been my whole life. I kind of have to do it – otherwise I’m dead. Dead to myself. [pause] Was that a good answer?
With some of the 1980s albums, it didn’t feel as if you were so firmly in the driving seat – but with this album, it comes across that you very much are. I gather that you personally directed every note on the album. Was this a happy experience? Was it a long hard slog, or was it a joyous explosion of energy?
A long hard slog. It always is! There’s no such thing as a joyous explosion in recording studios…
I’m outside of it; I can romanticise these things. [laughter]
You might have it for a while. You might have a few moments of it, but then you find it sounds like crap on tape – and then it’s the long hard slog. It’s work; it’s like anything else.
Tim [Shepard], your manager, helped bring in a range of younger collaborators.
He did. In fact, he arranged most of those people.
Has it led you to a curiosity in their work?
Sort of, but I don’t really listen to pop music these days. I listen to jazz – the old jazz – and classical music. I’m not trying to be snobby about it; there’s just so much crap around. I turn the radio on, and listen, and I just have to turn it off again. I’ll listen to world music, but mainstream pop, or whatever, I just find to be totally uninteresting.
And how many more ways are there of expressing the same emotions, over and over again? I have one specific question about the album. Robert Wyatt features, and yet he doesn’t. Instead, there’s a credit to something called a Wyattron. What the blazes is a Wyattron?
It’s a synthesiser, with his voice recorded on it. So you can play the piano, but instead of a piano or organ note, you get his voice.
Did he record a part for that particular song, and then have it shipped in?
No, no. It’s a program on a computer, which I can use.
There has been a sustained period of publicity involved with this album, and I know it’s not your favourite activity in the world. Are you longing for the buzz to die down, so you can go back to your quiet, bucolic, rustic life – or does this mark the beginning of a new period of activity?
It’s like a punishment tour for me. [laughter] No, you have to support what you do. You don’t necessarily have to enjoy it. But I do enjoy talking to people, sometimes. And other times, it’s not enjoyable at all.
I would imagine particularly when they’re asking you questions which they could have found out for themselves, without too much effort.
Well, particularly when they know the answers already.
And they’re just trying to get you to parrot them back? Fair enough. Well, that’s just about covered everything. Thanks for talking to me. It’s the first time that I’ve ever interviewed someone as a fan – and I am a lifelong fan of your work. It’s brought me a lot of pleasure over the years, so I just wanted to say thank you – and I just hope that you can find it in yourself to do some live dates in this country, at some stage. Please.
I’d like to thank you for intelligent questions.
I did my best.
You certainly did.
Thank you. All the best, Kevin.
There comes a point in every teen idol’s career where the hits dry up and the fans drift away, leaving the former idol with some tough choices. It’s a testing time, and many – if not most – never quite recover. Donny Osmond, on the other hand, is one of the great survivors. As last night’s show demonstrated, he has evolved into a seasoned, natural performer who strikes just the right balance between unashamed nostalgia and age-appropriate maturity.
Anyone expecting a syrupy schlock-fest was in for a surprise, as Donny based much of the two-hour set around his most recent album, an intelligently selected array of classic 1970s covers. Highlights included the funky opener Will It Go Round In Circles, a polished How Long, and the astonishing show-stopper Sometimes When We Touch, whose impassioned sincerity held the audience spellbound.
But of course, with most of the overwhelmingly female audience eager to roll back the years, those old teenybop hits had to be aired. Puppy Love was played for laughs (“just because we’re… pushing fifty!”), One Bad Apple was preceded by a wicked Michael Jackson impersonation, and The Twelfth Of Never was seemingly selected from an onstage iPod.
The hysteria peaked when Donny left the stage, strode right through the stalls by perching on seat backs, and then emerged at the front of both upper tiers, singing all the while. Thirty-five years ago, he would have been torn to pieces. Judging by his relaxed smile, he no longer misses those days at all.
Already the darlings of the London fashionista set – a dubious honour if ever there was one –Palladium don’t yet mean much outside the capital, as last night’s sparse turnout demonstrated. On the strength of their short but superb set, that looks set to change very soon.
Drawing influences from late 1970s and early 1980s soft-rock and power-pop, the band could easily have fallen through the trap-door marked “ironic”. Thankfully, what could have come across as fey, arch and mannered was beefed up by startlingly fine musicianship, a strong sense of almost stadium-rock dynamics, and an irrepressibly joyful energy and attack.
His skinny frame squeezed into skin-tight silver drainpipes, vocalist Peter Pepper radiated an androgynous, other-wordly glamour that marked him out as a pop star in waiting. Meanwhile, curly-haired “axe hero” wannabe Rostas Fez all but stole the show with his flashy, fluid solos.
They’ll be back, and they’ll be big.
I watched the extraordinarily revealing BBC1 interview that you recently did with Piers Morgan [You Can’t Fire Me, I’m Famous]. Towards the end of the programme, you broke down in tears. We weren’t expecting that to happen.
Neither was I! [Laughter]
How do you feel about that, in retrospect?
Well, I didn’t actually see the interview, so I don’t really know how they edited it.
They kind of showed everything… [Nervous laughter]
Yeah, we did like a two or three hour interview, so I’m not sure exactly what was aired.
The key question was Piers asking whether you would have swapped the life that you’ve had as a successful singer with a more normal life. You said that you’d have chosen the more normal life.
I remember that moment. The way he asked it, and the situation, kinda caught me by surprise. But it’s a difficult life, being in show business, particularly if you want to be in it a long time. You’ve got to pay a high price to stay in it, let alone get in it. It’s very exciting, but let’s be honest with ourselves, it’s a life of extremes. The highs are really, really high – and the lows just don’t feel very good. Weighing all that stuff out, it would have been nice to have a normal life.
I guess you’ve had so many extreme experiences, but the one that you’ve haven’t had is the “normality”.
Well, that’s why, in a way, I live vicariously through my kids. They have such a normal life, and so it’s a nice balance when I can come home and just play the role of dad.
You were talking about the time where your period of initial success came to an end; it became difficult to get work, there was a flop show on Broadway, and so on. Then it occurred to me that you and your family have always appealed to all age groups – except one, and maybe this was the problem. It’s that 18 to 23 year old age group, who like something that’s a bit more edgy, rebellious, provocative. So when your teenage fans reached that age, it’s like they had to go through a stage of rejecting you – and then they could return to you in later life. I wondered, when that was happening to you in the early 1980s, were you aware of that cycle? Did you realise that your fans would eventually come back?
No I didn’t, Mike. [Sighs] There was a time where I thought: is it ever really going to come back? I think at the back of my mind, I realised, you know, somebody out there kinda likes me [laughs], because there were too many people that knew of me; all I had to do was give them an excuse to like me. To re-invent myself, to coin a phrase, not to use too many clichés here – but yeah, re-invent myself, give them an excuse to say, you know, it was OK to like Donny Osmond.
It’s just a natural phenomenon, that takes place with everybody. It took place with me too: in my later teens and early twenties, I went through a period where I absolutely hated “Puppy Love”. Anything that I liked as a young little teenager, I thought: it’s just not cool.
That’s it! It’s the age where “cool” suddenly becomes important, and actually, cool’s not a very important value in life at all.
You’re trying to find an identity, so you’re trying to be cool.
You grow up, and you realise that it’s OK to embrace everything in every stage of your life.
You also talked about losing your fortune – it was badly handled, people were embezzling, and so on – and that must have been humiliating. Can you imagine the sort of life and career that you would have had if you had held on to your fortune, and remained a wealthy man? And would it have been better?
Well, [laughs] that’s a very interesting question, Mike – because I’ve thought about that many, many times over the years, and I don’t know that I would have had the motivation to re-invent myself. I would have been too comfortable.
It really is a mind game; you don’t really know what life would have been like, because you’ve never really lived it. My assumption is that I probably wouldn’t have worked as hard as I have done, in order to remain in the business for 45 years. I would have just rested upon my laurels.
So maybe, after all that extraordinary success, you needed to have that kind of humbling experience, for a while… to experience rejection.
Maybe! [Hearty laughter] Yes, maybe.
I want to ask you about the teen idol days. I’m personally interested, because as a boy myself, I kind of grew up in an Osmonds world, if you like. My sister was in your fan club for three years running, and she still has the certificates to prove it.
Oh, that’s funny…
She says Hi. I was told to say that.
[Slightly awkward lack of response, as Donny presumably waits for me to Get On With The Question Already. Ah well, I did my best.]
Um, so… for hundreds of thousands of girls, who may not even have started to date at that stage, you were in a way their first boyfriend – even if it was just a fantasy boyfriend. Were you aware of that responsibility, and how did you deal with it?
It’s hard to go back and remember exactly what I was going through, because it has been so many years. I do remember the awesome responsibility placed upon my shoulders. I wore two different hats, Mike: one was for when I was in show business, and one for when I went home and played with my electronics, and whatever. When I was out there, I had to be very careful as to what I said and did, because everything ended up in print – and I think that was the pressure that finally got to me.
But, yeah, I recognised the responsibility. When I stepped on stage, with the amount of screaming which took place, it was fun on one side of the coin – but on the other, a huge responsibility.
There was all that adulation in the room – but I guess that there was also a lot of pain in the room. There were all these girls getting so close and yet still so far, and getting really upset about that.
Pain on whose side – theirs or mine?
Pain on their side, I think.
On theirs, yes. But human nature is like that. We want what we can’t have. It’s the supply and demand theory, you know? You keep a little bit of a distance, and you want it more.
Speaking as a boy of eleven, twelve years old: boys weren’t really supposed to like the Osmonds. We were supposed to be getting into Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, and we were supposed to sneer. Nevertheless, there was a time in your brothers’ career where you showed signs of becoming something of a credible rock band. I’m thinking of The Plan, which was a kind of “concept album” that some of us boys used to listen to on the quiet, without telling anybody; it was a sort of guilty pleasure. It strikes me that you must have been proud of that album; your brothers still perform large chunks of it on stage.
But then you went from that back into showbiz, with the Love Me For A Reason album. You could have gone into being a more credible rock act at that moment, but you stepped away. Why did you change direction?
I don’t know. It’s a good question. I have no idea, but it’s quite interesting to note that here again, I was playing two sides of the coin: I was a teenybopper artist, and I was part of a rock and roll band. You used the phrase “guilty pleasure”. It’s so true, and over the years, I’ve had a lot of conversations about this – with “Crazy Horses” when that came out, and with “Down By The Lazy River” particularly. Our favourite album is The Plan. It was really a progressive rock and roll album, and that was the direction that we were headed in as a band. But my career kind of superseded everything, you know?
Let’s move forward a bit, to the time of your 1988 comeback single “Soldier Of Love”, which reached Number Two in the States. It was a collaboration with Peter Gabriel, who had been of the cooler figures from that earlier period. How on earth did that come about?
Oh, it was kind of a fluke. We were doing this charity show together in New York, and we met backstage. Being the kind of guy that he is, Peter started enquiring as to what was going on with my career, because he admired the way I sang. I told him of the frustrations and the challenges of the image – that “cool factor” that we were talking about earlier. He said: well, forget about the cool factor, let’s make the music good, and the cool factor takes care of itself. That’s when he invited me to come over to Bath, and to start cutting music.
“Soldier Of Love” was written and produced by a team called Carl Sturken and Evan Rogers in New York, and became a part of that Gabriel album – and that’s what really turned the whole thing round. But it was more of a perception from the public, and even the industry, that Peter was involved in my career that started the impetus to change.
Coming up to the present day, you’ve had a big success this year with your album Love Songs of the 70s. I was streaming it from your website earlier this morning, and I was pleased to find a couple of my favourites in there: Ace’s “How Long”, and a song that was never a hit in this country, “Will It Go Round In Circles” by Billy Preston. I was wondering: if you were to do an album of love songs from the 2000s, what songs might you pick?
Ah. [Pause; laughter] Interesting question! Er… [Pause]
I have a suggestion.
Yes! Give me, please.
Have you heard a song by Will Young called “Leave Right Now”?
I’ve heard of the title, but I’m not that familiar with the song.
I could completely imagine you doing that one – or maybe one of the songs from Take That’s comeback album, that Gary Barlow wrote.
Of course. Well, Gary Barlow’s a good buddy. He’s been involved with several albums of mine.
You must be seen as something of an “elder statesman” figure by now. Do you get asked for advice by younger generations of teen idols – or wannabe teen idols – and if so, what would you say?
I do. What would I say? Be prepared for a rollercoaster ride – because it’s inevitable, no matter who you are, and particularly if you start out on a teen base. Be prepared for rejection, and be prepared for a lot of work to re-invent yourself. Regardless of what kind of career you’ve got, whether it’s a rock based career or a pop based career or an R&B based career – particularly nowadays, and even more so than in the Seventies – you’re going to experience a surge, and you’re going to experience a real fast drop, and you’re going to be confused. “Why do people love me one second and hate me the next?” It’s just the nature of the business.
And it’s speeded up as well, I think.
Of course – because of the amount of media channels and outlets for promotion that we’ve got right now. The record companies, and all kinds of companies, they’ve blitzed the market as fast as possible, to make as much as they possibly can, because they know that the shelf life is very, very short. So when you get right down to it, Mike, I’m in a very, very enviable position, because my brand has already been established. Whether it’s good or bad in people’s minds, it doesn’t really matter, because you can always re-invent it with something else.
That’s interesting. I guess that as someone who has strong moral and ethical principles, you’re actually operating in a pretty dirty, cut-throat industry. Do you have a ruthless side? Do you have to, in order to survive?
A ruthless side? Most definitely. I think the word I’ll probably use is “calloused”. It’s a business – that’s why they call it show business. They put that word in there for a reason. You’ve got to be careful not to let the business callous you. There are sharks out there, and there are some real challenging decisions that you have to make, that could be compromising to your principles. You have to stick to your principles, and you can’t allow people to walk over the top of you.
I guess you have to be aware of potential traps that might be being set for you, as well.
Yeah, and I’m pretty fortunate in having the career that I’ve had, as the liability has turned into an asset over time, to be honest with you. People know my standards. They know what I will and will not do. So it really is an asset to me.
Talking about the forthcoming tour, is it a question of striking a balance between old and new material? Does the past drag you down, with everyone wanting to hear the same old songs over and over again – or is there a kind of pay-off, with the old songs giving you a platform on which to produce new work as well?
Well, you went from one extreme to another there in the question, because it really has become, here again, an asset. It’s not a liability at all to me any more. It used to be! I didn’t want to do “Puppy Love” in my set. I’d rather have… I don’t know… died rather than do “Puppy Love” again.
I remember a TV show that you were on in the late 1980s, with Jonathan Ross, where he kind of ambushed you. He insisted that you sang “Puppy Love”, and you absolutely, clearly, did not want to. Then he got the whole audience to hold up signs with “Puppy Love” on them, and the band struck up, and you were kind of forced to do it. It was painful to watch, really.
[Solemnly] I remember the show. It was painful to sing! [Laughs] But on this tour, I do several different versions of “Puppy Love”. I even say: hey, I’m pushing fifty, you guys, and I’m still singing “Puppy Love”; what’s wrong with this picture? I say: look, I’ve tried to infuse maturity into it, change it up over the years – and so I do a short little country version of it, a sexy Barry White version of it, a Blackpool-ian lounge lizard version of it – and then I finally say: you know, there’s only one way to sing “Puppy Love”. [Breaks into song] “And they called it…”
[Hold up, Donny Osmond is singing “Puppy Love” to me. I have never had to struggle so hard to maintain professional composure.]
And then we just go right into the real version. It really goes down well…
Fantastic! The concerts that you’re doing now, are they more enjoyable now that the hysteria has died down, and people are actually listening properly?
Yes, it’s fantastic – although a lot of the fans, they love to reminisce, and go back and scream like a thirteen-year old.
I’ve seen your brothers perform a couple of times, and the atmosphere is still quite intense.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how it still happens?
Well, thanks for that, Donny. My final question was going to be: is your favourite colour still purple? But I’ve been to your official website and it’s purple all over…
[Laughter] I don’t wear purple socks any more! Heaven knows why I did that, but hey, it was fun at the time!
Well, I’m looking forward to coming to the show. Your former mentor Andy Williams was on the same stage a couple of months ago, performing his farewell show outside the US. His last show, on his last tour. And my sister will be waiting for you outside the stage door, with her copy of Alone Together, hoping for a signature.
Oh, right. [Hastily closing the conversation] Thanks, Mike.
Having won rave reviews in magazines such as Uncut and Mojo for their understated, literate brand of alternative country, Oregon four-piece Richmond Fontaine have been steadily building a solid following in the UK, buoyed up by frequent visits to these shores. Now augmented by a fifth member, pedal steel guitarist Paul Brainard (who also doubles up on trumpet), the band’s latest tour sees them graduating to slightly larger venues.
Last night at the Rescue Rooms, opinions divided as to whether the intimacy of their previous shows had been diluted – a situation that wasn’t helped by the muddy amplification of affable front man Willy Vlautin’s capable, if undemonstrative, vocals. For a band whose narrative-style lyrics are such a cornerstone of their appeal, this worked significantly against them. That said, older tracks such as Post To Wire and White Line Fever were well received, and an atmosphere of studious geniality mostly prevailed.
If you’re much over the age of 23, then you probably won’t have heard of the Oxford five-piece Foals. However, if you’re still in your teens and musically clued-up – a description which fitted most of last night’s capacity crowd – then you’ll most likely have them earmarked as one of the hottest bands of the moment. With a steady trickle of favourable press, a strong online following (over 21,000 MySpace friends and counting) and a support slot on the forthcoming Bloc Party tour, we could well be looking at 2008’s Next Big Thing, on a par with Enter Shikari and the Klaxons from earlier this year.
That said, there was little in the band’s uncompromising hour long set which looked likely to seduce the delicate sensibilities of next year’s Mercury Prize panellists. Foals’ music is dense, rhythmically complex stuff, based more around grooves than songs, and characterised by the sort of choppy, churning punk-funk influences that first re-emerged with The Rapture around five years ago.
Stray oldsters might have recognised elements of the Gang Of Four’s sound, coupled with the sort of indie rock that John Peel was championing around 20 years ago. But then, last night wasn’t meant for them
Since the break-up of Welsh indie-pop stalwarts Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci in Spring 2006, lead singer Euros Childs has thrown himself into his solo career, with a rare vigour that sits at odds with his laidback, dishevelled anti-image. Remarkably, he has managed to release three albums in the space of just eighteen months, whilst also finding time to contribute to the splendid comeback album by his musical hero Kevin Ayers.
The new material is a natural progression from the richly melodic, gently understated pastoralism that defined the Gorkys sound. Alternately romantic, whimsical and wry, the tight, traditionally constructed songs rarely reach out and grab you. Instead, they creep up from behind, charming you by stealth.
Last night’s set focussed on the most recent album The Miracle Inn, with the rollickingly catchy recent single Horse Riding setting the good-natured mood and the older Dawnsio Dros Y Môr keeping the Welsh contingent smiling. While most songs hovered around the three minute mark, the album’s title track – an ambitious sixteen-minute song cycle, during which we were politely asked not to applaud – inevitably stood out as a highlight, as did a crunching version of The Sweet’s (and Tony Blackburn’s) endearingly ridiculous glam-pop oddity Chop Chop.