On the forthcoming tour, you’ll be playing your 1979 Replicas album in its entirety. What was the inspiration for this?
This year is the thirtieth anniversary of my first single coming out, and so it’s my thirtieth anniversary of being professional. I’m also fifty years old in March, so I’ve got two fairly major anniversaries. I wanted to do something special, rather than just letting it slide by and being scared of getting old.
There’s a reason that I’ve been here for thirty years. I don’t want it to sound corny, so I apologise upfront for this, but it is the fans who have given me the life that I’ve had, and I am genuinely grateful. I wanted to celebrate that with the people that have given me these thirty years.
Replicas was my second album, and it’s the one that Are ‘Friends’ Electric came from and went to Number One. So it’s the album that effectively gave me the career. It’s also one of only two albums that I’ve never toured, so there are songs on there that I’ve never played live.
As a rule, I’m hostile towards nostalgia. I don’t like bands that live on past glories. But for this particular year, for this particular tour, I’m going to swallow humble pie a little bit, because it does seem to be the right thing to do.
I’m doing another tour later in the year, which will be more conventional, with new stuff and so on. But for this one, I just wanted to say thank you to everybody, and that I’m glad I’m still here.
There’s an artistic integrity there as well, I think. If you take on a whole album, then it will inspire people to re-familiarise themselves with it before the show. So there will be more concentration in the room. People will be paying more attention, because they know what to expect.
There’s a difficult balance to be drawn, when you do these old songs live. You can do them the way people remember, or you can add some kind of extra shine, which will bring them forward slightly and make them work that much better in a live situation. But if you go too far down that route, you stop the songs from being what people have come to listen to. That’s what I’m working on at the moment, at the pre-rehearsal stage.
When I wrote these songs, it was in a little 16-track studio. We only had two synthesisers in the room, and it was all done pretty much on a shoestring. So it will be nice to try to make something more of them, without changing their nature.
So you’re fleshing things out, but without returning to that more synth-based sound, as you’ve brought in stronger rock-based elements over the years.
Interestingly enough, there are a number of songs on Replicas which are just guitar, bass and drums. It’s not quite as electronic as history talks about. Are ‘Friends’ Electric has got guitars all over it.
When I first discovered synthesisers, I didn’t want to replace guitar, bass and drums. All I wanted to do was add another layer of sound. People that were getting into electronic music then – the Kraftwerk type people – threw themselves into it absolutely. It seemed to become a point of honour.
It was really anti-guitar for a while, wasn’t it?
It suddenly went anti-everything that was there before. It had to be electronic, or else it wasn’t pure. I didn’t give a shit about that. I’ve never been an electronic purist.
It sometimes feels weird that I have that reputation, with people talking about me robot dancing. I’ve never fucking robot danced in my life! I couldn’t do it if I tried! An awful lot of things get thrown back at me, as though I started this and I started that, and I really didn’t.
A lot of Replicas deals with alienation in an increasingly mechanised, authoritarian world, and so there’s something prophetic about it. People thought we were heading towards some kind of technological Utopia, but you were pointing a finger at all that, and suggesting that it may not be quite so Utopian. Do the themes still feel relevant today?
They do, actually. Things have evolved differently to what was suggested, but the underlying fears are still quite relevant to the way we see technology now. There is this feeling that we are becoming increasingly separated, with more and more automation.
A silly example is a car. When you turn it on, you’re not directly connected to it. You press a button, you ask it things, and it won’t let you go above a certain speed, no matter what you’re doing. And with aeroplanes, there’s this fly-by-wire business: you’re not flying an aeroplane directly, but you’re asking the computer to do something for you. So now there is a thinking electronic brain between a human and the machine itself. It’s all a bit weird.
Sat nav, cruise control, hands-free mobile, all of that…?
But it’s when it gets slightly beyond that: when it’s not you that decides to put the cruise on, but it’s the computer in your BMW 70 series or whatever, that says: “No, that’s fast enough. And it’s raining, so I’m going to slow you down.”
You know: bollocks! Don’t start driving the car for me! It’s that kind of separation of interaction which is a worry, and I think it’s that sort of thing that – in a very naïve and childish way – Replicas was looking at, but turned into a sci-fi story.
Do you still identify with the state of mind that produced those songs, or does it all feel a little bit juvenile?
It was written when I was nineteen going on twenty, so I had all that “no-one understands me” teenage angst, and all of that self-pity that teenagers seem to be so full of at times, sometimes justifiably. I think that side of me has long gone. But apart from that, my fear of crowded places, and of interacting with people, and all of those insecurities and worries, are still with me. They’ve been with me my whole life, and much of that is in Replicas.
It was written when I had travelled far less, and when I knew less about the world. So I think there is a more childish element to it. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was childish, but obviously a much younger man wrote it.
Replicas catapulted you very suddenly to huge success. While you were recording it, did you have any inkling that it could go on to be that successful?
No, none at all. My ambition at the time was simply to be able to headline The Marquee club in London. I thought that would have been a big step forward.
The first single was Down In The Park, which is now considered one of my best songs, but at the time, it did absolutely nothing. Are ‘Friends’ Electric was five and a quarter minutes long, you couldn’t dance to it, it had no discernible sing-along chorus, and it had none of the classic trademarks of a hit single whatsoever. And it was being released on a tiny independent label that had no money. So there was no reason to expect it to do anything other than knock me up a few levels in the small clubs that I was already playing.
How did you deal with that sudden success? Was it enjoyable, traumatic, or a mixture of both?
I would say 70% traumatic, 30% enjoyable. There were fantastic moments, but the pressure and the hostility that came with them was completely unexpected, and I would have to admit that I took it very badly.
There was certainly hostility from the press, who never even gave you a honeymoon period. Have you any perspective on why you didn’t find favour with the self-appointed taste-makers of the day?
I was probably the first big pop star of the post-punk period, so politically I was persona non grata. Even though punk created huge amounts of stars and heroes, its ethos was anti-star, anti-celebrity, anti-establishment. It was completely hypocritical, but that was the vibe.
I think I got a huge backlash, because I said: “This is fantastic! I’ve always wanted this!” I had an unfortunate way of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong people, and I had nobody to blame but myself. I was insensitive to the feelings of the time. But even if I had the sensitivity, I’m not sure that I would have done things differently, because I’ve never really been that bothered about telling lies.
From very early on, you attracted an exceptionally loyal bunch of supporters. Sometimes it felt as if there was a line to be crossed. Either people ignored you, or else they were fiercely loyal. It placed you on your own, as opposed to being part of a scene. Why do you think that happened?
When there is a huge amount of press hostility, it hardens what loyalty there is, and roots it into the ground. The more hostile the press became, the more loyal those fans that stayed with me became.
With a lot of artists, the majority of people don’t care one way or the other. Some people love them, some people don’t, but most don’t really care. I didn’t seem to have that. Most people had a bloody opinion, one way or another!
Now that’s a good thing, in many respects. If you want to be famous, and you want to be create a stir – which I did, as a young man – that is what you need. But it was a lot more difficult to live with than I expected.
In the past few years, you have enjoyed a considerable rehabilitation, particularly amongst a younger generation. A number of hit singles have sampled you – Armand Van Helden, The Sugababes, Basement Jaxx – and your influence is now acknowledged. There must be a great satisfaction in that.
It’s still going on now. Groove Armada have just done Are ‘Friends’ Electric, so there’s no signs of it letting up yet. It really is incredibly flattering.
I’ve had Number One singles and Number One albums, and I am hugely proud of that. But if I’m really honest, I would have to say that having people that I admire covering my songs has probably given me more satisfaction than anything else.
Becoming Number One is really difficult to do, and I don’t take anything way from that at all, but there is undoubtedly an element of luck attached. But other people covering your songs is a totally artistic decision, based on the quality of that song. So from a song-writing point of view, that’s just phenomenal.
Thanks to a staggered timetable and some canny cross-promotion via Facebook, dedicated followers of US alt-rock were given the opportunity to see two critically acclaimed bands in two different venues, all in the space of a couple of hours.
Over at the Rescue Rooms, the larger venue drew the smaller crowd. Menonema, a three-piece act from Portland Oregon, took an intriguingly experimental approach, with band members swapping instruments and alternating on vocals. Judicious use of foot pedals and a laptop fleshed out the surprisingly widescreen sound, and an amiably loose-limbed, musicianly vibe predominated. Although far from immediate in terms of melody and rhythm, the songs maintained a textural interest throughout, with all manner of pleasing twists and turns along the way.
Up at the Bodega, the smaller venue was packed to capacity, possibly due to MGMT’s recent appearance on BBC2’s Later. The Brooklyn five-piece adopted a tougher, more visceral style, whose relatively timid conservatism came as a disappointment after the Rescue Rooms show. Around the venue, concentration lapsed and conversations broke out. Yes, they might be the band of the moment – but one has to wonder how long that moment will last.
As trance/techno audiences go, System 7’s are one of the least typical. For every fresh-faced, lithe-limbed club kid, you could count at least two or three more seasoned souls in their late forties (and all points upwards), doubtless partly drawn by Steve Hillage’s 1970s prog-rock pedigree.
Accompanied by long term partner and fellow Gong survivor Miquette Giraudy on keyboards and associated knob-twiddling, Hillage added that rarest of ingredients to a dance event: live electric guitar. A thousand miles away from the florid, noodly flailings of his prog days, his playing is more ambient and textural these days: another ingredient in the mix, rather than the over-arching dominant sound.
There’s not much to look at during a System 7 gig. Both performers remained fairly static throughout, bearing benign half-smiles of concentration that sometimes lapsed into scrunched-up expressions of outright bliss. The music ranged from the chilled to the pounding, with the accent on the latter, but the rich, intricate over-layering of the melodies prevented the underlying rhythms from ever becoming oppressive.
Selections from the recently released Phoenix album were blended into the mix throughout, with Hinotori, Space Bird and particularly the Gong-sampling Strange Beings galvanising this uniquely diverse crowd.
Her manner might be gentle and bookish, her songwriting might be quiet and introspective, but Laura Veirs knows a good ferris wheel when she sees one. “We went round the Nottingham Eye five times!”, she exclaimed. “That’s five quid per time! I thought it would only be once; that would be more American.”
Although technical problems forced her to abandon the live looping equipment halfway through the second number, Laura retained a relaxed, conversational demeanour throughout her solo acoustic set. Rather than plugging her latest release Saltbreakers, she drew on material from five of her six albums (“but not the first one; that was dumb”), offering to mail us her sold out CDs personally after the tour finishes.
Laura’s compositions tend towards the contemplative and abstract, with echoes of Kristin Hersh’s 1990s work. Drawing on images from mythology and the natural world – dragons and mermaids, nightingales and butterflies – her enigmatic lyrics require close concentration. In this respect, The Maze proved an ideal venue. Although packed to capacity, the silence was unbroken throughout, save for a “free improv” massed whistling session halfway through.
An excellent version of Wrecking closed the set, to sustained and deserved applause.
For Lorna Luft, a show business veteran of over thirty-five years’ standing, Songs My Mother Taught Me – a two hour tribute to her mother Judy Garland – represents both a reconciliation and a celebration. Having spent years trying to outrun the shadow cast by Garland’s legendary status, Luft has reached a point in her life where she can publicly express her gratitude, and salute her late mother’s remarkable genius.
Backed by a ten piece orchestra, with British husband Colin Freeman directing the music, Lorna took us on a journey of fond remembrance. The show started with Garland serenading her young daughter on the screen, before a beaming, effusive Luft took to the stage in a sparkling silver gown.
In less capable hands, performing a live duet with one’s dead mother could have could have been a recipe for toe-curling tastelessness. Thanks to Luft’s experience and judgement, the risk paid off, the two voices harmonising deftly and tenderly.
The show’s accent remained firmly on the positive, as Lorna regaled us with comic anecdotes that revealed Judy as quite the outrageous prankster, rather than the tragic figure of popular imagining (a misconception which apparently drove both mother and daughter “nuts” with exasperation). Tribute was also paid to the “Rat Pack” – a title which Garland bestowed upon them in jest – and in particular to Luft’s godfather Frank Sinatra and surrogate uncle Sammy Davis Junior.
The highlight of the second half was a marathon medley which traced Garland’s journey from inauspicious beginnings (Born In A Trunk) to her 1961 triumph at Carnegie Hall. Finally, and in preference to appropriating Judy’s signature tune Over The Rainbow for herself, Lorna opted to intertwine the archive recording with her own Shining Star, to richly moving effect. It was a fitting climax to a bravura display of classic show business values, lovingly staged and beautifully sung.
“You came here tonight not knowing what to expect, and that’s what you’re going to get”, announced Boy George at the start of his show, midway through his first UK tour in a decade. “It’s an intimate show; it’s not X Factor. Do you like the hat?”
Perhaps in order to encourage that feeling of “intimacy”, the stage was stripped bare of all props, with no backdrops and no special lighting. George’s four piece band played a sparsely arranged, mostly acoustic-driven set, aided by two backing singers who occasionally provided lead vocals. A special mention was given to the drummer, who was playing his first night with the band after just a day’s rehearsal. Given George’s well-documented turbulent relationships with former drummers, one couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to the old one.
George has stated that the purpose of the tour is to “re-establish myself as an artist”, and to “re-establish my reputation as a human being, which I think has been pretty torn apart over the last few years.” Despite various recent run-ins with the law, and long periods away from the public spotlight, he still retains a special place in our affections, attracting a broad cross-section of ages and backgrounds in his audience. The goodwill was still there. All had to do now was deliver.
And here, unfortunately, is where the problem lay. Perhaps because of those long absences from stage performing, the O’Dowd pipes are not altogether what they used to be. Gone was the honeyed sweetness of his 1980s recordings, replaced by a gravely rasp which, although still not without soulful expressiveness, lacked both range and finesse. Far too many of his best known numbers were sung without reference to their original melodies, as George improvised awkwardly phrased harmony parts that, in terms of pitch, kept him safely within his comfort zone. (During Do You Really Want To Hurt Me and Karma Chameleon, the melodies were so comprehensively abandoned that the crowd struggled to sing along.) More annoyingly, he displayed an over-fondness for interrupting himself with a series of repetitively high pitched whoops, which added nothing to the interpretations.
This could simply have been down to lack of practice, but George betrayed more nervousness than his articulate, waspish public persona would have you believe. Perhaps he was simply scared of pushing for those higher and lower notes, having convinced himself that his voice was no longer up to the job? On the strength of last night’s show, the problems that we witnessed were nothing that a skilled vocal coach couldn’t help put right – provided that George is genuinely prepared to re-dedicate himself to his craft, and to put long, hard hours of work in.
That said, there were still flashes of the old brilliance, particularly towards the end of the set (two hours, with a badly timed interval after the first 35 minutes). A beautiful duet with Lizzy Dean on the old Culture Club ballad That’s The Way, backed by a solo piano, played to all his strengths, as did the gospel-flavoured rendition of the old civil rights anthem This Little Light Of Mine which followed.
Best of all, an unscripted final encore of Generations Of Love, as requested from the audience, was little short of dazzling. Fully warmed up by now, and singing on “extra time” purely for the love of it, George gave one of his finest compositions the performance it deserved, stepping to the front of the stage and singing out to the whole hall, instead of relying on the usual foot-shuffling and general diddling around.
All he needs to do now is build on those still remarkable strengths, and find the confidence to overcome his self-imposed weaknesses.
Considering her mother is Judy Garland and her half-sister is Liza Minnelli, I could be forgiven for expecting gushing over-exuberance and plenty of “fabulous, darling!” – but no. Instead, Lorna Luft turned out to be sensible, grounded, business-like, with no illusions – and equally, with no bitterness at being somewhat eclipsed by the showbiz legends within her family. Now read on…
Tell us about your current tour, Songs My Mother Taught Me. I gather that this tells the story of your mother Judy Garland’s life in words and music?
Yes, it’s a two hour show of me telling you about my legacy. It uses screens; it has multimedia; there are stories; it’s how I grew up. It’s honest, which is why I think the audiences have been spectacular. They’ve laughed, they’ve cried; I wish I had the Kleenex concession! At Chichester, there were three standing ovations. I’m incredibly grateful. Someone said to me that “we were taken over the emotional runway of your life”.
Does the show deal with your own relationship with your mother?
Of course; that’s what it is. There’s a long medley at the end, which talks about how she grew up. But this is mainly about how I grew up.
Do we see and hear your mother on the screen? Are there duets?
Yes, there are. So it’s very personal, very funny… and I have a fantastic 11-piece orchestra.
Are all of the songs taken from your mother’s repertoire?
Yes, these are all her songs. It took me a very long time to do this – but then I don’t believe that you really get to know your mother or father until you’re in your forties. I don’t think you know them in your twenties or your thirties. In your forties, you’ve probably had children, and you’re at an age where you can look into your heritage, and really find out more and understand more about yourself. I’m 55 now, so it took me a long time.
I think there comes a time, especially if there was a difficult relationship, when you can see your parents through an adult’s eyes, and you’re prepared to give them a break. You stop being angry, and blaming them for things which you thought they hadn’t done right. You can see where the weaknesses may have come from.
I think you have more of an understanding, and I think in your forties you learn the most important lesson, and that is to forgive. You don’t need to forget; but you learn to forgive.
It’s one of the most empowering things you can do, as well. It sets you free.
What personal qualities do you think you have inherited from your mother?
I know I’ve inherited her sense of humour. I’ve also inherited her work ethic. I show up on time; I hit the marks; I do the show at 110%. And that’s what she did. When she was on a stage, when she was on a movie set, when she was working: you saw 110%. And that’s something that’s lacking in today’s young artists. They have the opportunity sometimes to lip-synch, and a lot of artists today have the opportunity to get away with a lot of stuff that I find to be pretty shocking. I wouldn’t dare – dare! – subject an audience to it.
I’ve noticed that with some of the arena shows that I’ve seen. It can be surprising how many corners people will cut, and how much time they will spend off-stage.
Well, I was so pleased, because I just met this lovely, lovely girl, Melanie C. She invited me to the last Spice Girls concert at the O2. So I went, and I met all of the girls, and all of their families, and all of their kids – it was really lovely backstage. And I have to say that they gave 110%, and they were singing live, and it was so wonderful. It was absolutely great.
So there was a real warmth between them as individuals?
Yeah, and they did a whole tribute to their mothers. Melanie C even wrote me an e-mail the next day, saying “I thought you might like the show!” (Laughs)
That’s cool. So in what ways would you say you were most different from your mother?
I have a very good sense of reality. I really don’t like sycophants around me.
Was that a problem for her, do you think?
Oh yes. And I don’t like the people who come into my dressing room and start with all of the over-the-top praise. I shy away from that.
Maybe they think you have a more fragile ego than you actually do? They may think it’s required, in order to put you in a good place.
When my husband – who is also my musical director – comes in, he gives me notes. I appreciate that, because it means that I can improve. I don’t respect somebody who comes in and says that it was “the amazing thing I’ve ever seen”. That’s what’s different: I have a reality check. My manager was here earlier, and we had to go over some things. He knows: just cut to the chase. Just give me the bottom line of what’s going on, reality-wise. Then I can handle it. I’m not saying you have to be brutal or mean, but if you start to sugar-coat something then I’m going to see right through it.
I would imagine that the question that you’ve been asked most often in interviews over the years is whether you feel in the shadow of your mother. It must get tedious sometimes – but by doing this particular show, are you perhaps coming to terms with your position, as it relates to her legacy?
I would say that I was coming to terms with my legacy and celebrating it. It took me a long time to embrace it, to be grateful, and to say thank you, because I ran away from it for so long.
Until this morning, I had no idea that you went off and sang with Blondie…
Yeah! I died my hair purple, and sang rock and roll, and did all sorts of stuff. I sang on Dreaming, and I did a bunch of stuff on Eat to the Beat.
Dreaming is my favourite single of all time. In some ways, it captures everything about what it is to be a teenager.
She’s a lovely girl, Debbie Harry. She’s just a really really lovely, talented girl.
So you went kind of rock and roll for a while there?
Oh, I did everything. Everything that I could do to find my footing. The shadow was always there, and I kept trying to outrun it. But you’re not going to outrun your shadow. You’ve got to sit yourself down and say: I have to deal with this.
There has also been a renewed interest in your mother’s work, thanks to Rufus Wainwright’s exact re-creation of her 1961 Carnegie Hall show. Towards the end of his show, you guested on a couple of songs. Did you appear on every show of the tour?
We did New York, London, Paris, and L.A. together. Rufus is a very talented artist, and a very nice man. He and I talked at length, when he first wanted to do this, about what this all meant to him. He told me that it came from his heart, because of the despair and the depths of devastation that he felt after 9/11. He felt that he had really seen the horrors of what people could do to one another – and he put my mom’s Carnegie Hall album on, and it gave him hope.
I think it’s more the feeling of the show. Vocally he’s not as strong, because he has his own vocal style and he’s not used to singing this kind of material. But the heart behind it is what stands out.
It’s also that he’s taking my mother’s name into pop culture. I think it’s really important that it goes on. The week after he did the Carnegie Hall show, my mother’s Carnegie Hall album spiked through the roof. There’s a whole new generation that maybe only knew her as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and didn’t know the performer – so they’ve now gone out and learned to appreciate the incredible live performer that she was.
What’s coming up for you after this tour finishes? What other projects have you got on the horizon?
I might go back to Los Angeles in mid-February. Around the 18th, I’m doing a concert with my friend Michael Feinstein in Palm Springs. After the concert, I’ll drive back to Los Angeles and get on a plane to Sydney. I’m going to Australia for about two weeks, on a promotional tour for the CD of Songs My Mother Taught Me. Then I come back, take a couple of weeks off, and then go back to Australia for two months, on tour.
Just missing their summer, unfortunately…
Listen: there’s a writers’ strike in Los Angeles, and there are so many people who are out of work. I am so grateful to be working. The other night, somebody looked at me and said “Ma’am, thank God you can sing!” (Laughs)
That’s really starting to bite now, is it? People are having difficulty getting the work?
What people don’t understand is that L.A. is a one-industry town. My friend Carol Thatcher took me to tea with her mom the other day, and Mrs. Thatcher and I were talking about the strike. I said that there was a trickle-down effect. When the writers walked out, the BBC and Sky news would say that “the writers are on strike”, but nobody ever understood that this has now cost L.A. over 300 million dollars. The make-up artists, the wardrobe people, and every single person that works on a television show now don’t have jobs.
Do the writers have a just cause?
Yeah! It’s all about downloading. You can download these television shows, and the writers aren’t getting paid! We knew that this strike was going to happen; we knew that the writers were not fooling around. They have said, over and over: we’re prepared to walk out for a year.
There has to come a point where someone’s got to start negotiating…
That’s what Mrs. Thatcher said! I said, Mrs Thatcher, nobody’s even talking to one another, and she said, oh, they can’t act like children!
But she was known as one of the toughest negotiators of all. It’s interesting that she was saying that’s what had to happen.
That’s what she said. And I said: you’re absolutely right. Carol Thatcher came to my show in Chichester. She’s a very smart, very bright, very well-read woman. And she said: well, this is just ridiculous.
You know, the trickle-down effect has even gotten to my daughter. My daughter, who’s seventeen, called me up before Christmas and said: Mom, I got a job in this big florists’ shop in Los Angeles, and I’m gonna make money for Christmas. She called me up two weeks later and said: Mom, I don’t have a job. I said: what happened? She said: all the Christmas parties were cancelled because of the strike.
Really? Wow, I hadn’t realised…
Think about it! All of the caterers, all of the limo drivers, and all of them – they don’t have jobs!
And is this damaging the cause for the writers? Are people beginning to turn against them, as their livelihoods are threatened?
I don’t know, but basically the producers have got to sit down with the writers. George Clooney said on television that they should lock them in a room, and not let them out until they come to an agreement. I’m with George Clooney! Lock ‘em in a room! Twelve Angry Men, I don’t care! Lock ‘em in a room!
System 7’s latest album Phoenix, which was released at the beginning of last week, sounds like something of a concept album. Can you explain something about the concept?
It’s a special project for us. A few years ago, we met the daughter of one of the founding fathers of Japanese manga, which is a style of cartoon drawing that is related to the Japanese style of animated films. This gentleman who’s now deceased, was called Tezuka Osamu. He wrote many popular mangas, which have been very big hits in Japan and elsewhere. He also wrote some quite serious stuff, including a whole series of books called Phoenix, which is basically about the myth of the phoenix, but done in a sort of Asiatic way.
Rumiko Tezuka, his daughter, is a fan of System 7. She came to see us, and said that she thought our music was perfect to go with these phoenix stories. So we were interested in checking them out. She lent us some translations, and we were just blown away by these stories, and the designs, and the pictures, and all the various concepts involved. So we decided we’d like to base a whole System 7 album around it.
Does that mean that there’s quite a lot of vocal work on the album? I think of you more as an instrumental act.
There are a few little snatches of vocals, but it’s mostly instrumental. The CD comes with a 12-page booklet, which gives a lot of background information on how the music fits with the visuals.
Looking at your list of collaborators, there are some familiar names. There’s Jam El Mar from Jam & Spoon…
Yeah, Jam’s become a really good friend of ours. We’re doing more things with him.
I linked him to a much more commercial version of techno and trance than the stuff that you do, but maybe that’s going back a few years. I remember Jam & Spoon having some quite Euro-y hits.
No, Jam & Spoon are above all that. They were like founding fathers. They were doing trance before the term was even coined. They’ve done some absolute classic records that everybody loves, including one particular track called Stella. We actually did a kind of chilled out, flamenco-influenced cover of it on our Mirror System album, a few years ago. Jam really liked what we did on that, and said that he wanted to work with us.
We’ve had a big coming together with Daevid recently, particularly because we did a whole three-day Gong event in November 2006 in Amsterdam. We played various different sets together, including some of the older stuff, and we also played some System 7. We had one track that we were playing around with for the Phoenix album, which had a vocal line from an old Gong track, and we asked Daevid what he thought about it. He thought it was great, so he came down and added extra bits. He did some wild guitar, added extra vocals, and it was great.
What was the specific Gong track?
It’s a riff called “I am, you are, we are CRAZY…”
Oh, from Flying Teapot, yes. Wonderful!
We’ve basically done a techno version of that.
I have to hear this.
It’s great! Daevid came down the studio, and sang it again, and then he played his special glissando guitar. We’re big mates with Daevid at the moment, and there’ll be more things.
That’s good to hear. I’ve been going through a kind of Gong revival phase. I bought You on CD a couple of months ago, and I’ve been playing it a lot. There are tracks like A Sprinkling of Clouds, which does seem to hint at things to come, and the work that you’re doing now; it’s quite an electronic, trancey track.
Absolutely. For us, it’s all been one big progression, you know?
Well, some people might find it strange that you’ve journeyed from progressive rock to ambient techno, but it seems to me that there are a lot of common elements.
I sometimes question the use of the word “progressive”. (Laughs)
For me, “progressive”, if it means anything at all, it means the inclination to innovate and experiment. But for many people, it’s a very conservative concept. It means a specific style of music that happened at a specific time in the 1970s, and they’ve become very conservative. So I question the use of the word “progressive” in that sense.
I suppose that it all began to sour when people started codifying it, and saying: this is progressive, this is not. It got kind of fossilised.
Absolutely. I mean, we never considered what we were doing as “progressive rock”. We didn’t mind the use of the term “psychedelic”. That’s OK, and that applies to a lot of dance music as well.
Was there a moment of epiphany, where you suddenly got the point of dance music from the starting point of not getting it at all?
No, we were involved with dance music in the Seventies. We watched the whole thing grow. It grew up around us, and there was a point where the urge to actually make a dance-based project was irresistible. But this was in 1989, so it was quite a long while ago.
Your other main area of musical activity has been with Rachid Taha. I saw you perform with him in Leicester, three years ago, on the African Soul Rebels tour; Tinariwen and Daara J were on the same bill. Is that an ongoing partnership at the moment?
Yeah, I first worked with Rachid in 1983, and I’ve done nine albums with him. I’m not doing much with him at the moment, but I’m sure there’ll be more things to come in the future.
Does that involve adopting a very different approach to when you’re working on System 7 material? Do you have to change into a different headspace?
Not really. I mean, Rachid’s quite into System 7, you know? He’s been down to quite a lot of System 7 gigs over the years. I think that Rachid and I get on well because we’re very cross-genre sort of people. We like all different types of music.
The last few years have been amazing for African music, and for Northern and Western African music in particular. But I think that some Western audiences get a bit hung up on purity, whereas there should be a lot of scope for European and American acts to collaborate with African acts, or to learn from them. Would you agree?
(Laughs) It’s another variety of this musical conservatism which I mentioned in connection with progressive rock. Another variety of this conservatism inhabits the world of so-called “world music”. But Rachid hates the term “world music”.
Well, it was invented as a marketing term: as somewhere to put the stuff in record shops.
There’s a purpose to it in that sense, but it’s also a bit like a kind of ghetto, you know?
People can apply the wrong criteria, because they have this idealised version of, I dunno, “tribal” music, done in a very “authentic” way. But I think the reality is more complicated than that.
The thing is, people in all parts of the world have got the Internet; they listen to CDs; they go to discotheques. If we’re talking “world music”, that’s what world music is. Rap music and dance music are all over the world, and it’s what people growing up in Africa and Asia and South America listen to. Then they want to do stuff with those beats. But they also come from a certain culture, so they want to blend it with their own traditional things as well. It’s happening all over the world. It’s the way it is; it’s the 21st century thing. So for Westerners to make some kind of stipulation that so-called “pure” world music has to be acoustic and tribal and not using any kind of programming or anything, it’s a bit like colonialism, you know? Like apartheid: we can have all the technology in our society, but they’re not allowed to have it.
That’s right, it’s kind of patronising. Put on your robes, and sit outside your tent with your kora!
They might end up as rich as us, and we can’t have that, can we? It’s like bloody colonialism! Like the colonial wars we have, and our colonial invasion of Iraq. But it’s straight out of the 19th century. And that Tony Blair, he’ll walk around with a pith helmet with fins on it, and a big moustache, like Lord fucking Kitchener – beg your pardon, not for the radio…
(Laughs) It’s alright, it’s for the newspaper, you can swear as much as you like.
Well, I hope you understand my point.
I do take your point; I quite agree, actually.
But I do like really rootsy traditional stuff as well, and so does Rachid. We’ve got very wide taste.
Do you get similar notions of purism in the world of techno and dance music? Do you have to stand your ground against techno purists?
Yup! Less so these days. Just in the last couple of weeks, we’ve made a bit of a breakthrough, particularly in the download area. There’s a specialist dance music download site called Beatportthat dominates the scene, a bit like how iTunes dominates the mainstream scene, and we’ve had a lot of action there with our new tracks. We’re Number One in their main chart, with the Dubfire mix of our single Space Bird. And our album tracks are in the various genre charts, which is great, because we’ve got stuff in all different genres. We’ve got stuff in the techno chart, the progressive house chart, the psy-trance chart, the chillout chart – and that’s really System 7, you know? That’s where we always say we are in the dance music world. As we say on our Myspace page, our style hovers between techno, progressive house and psy-trance.
Did you say a Dubfire remix? Is that the guy from Deep Dish?
Yes. Oh, we love him. He told us that he’s been wanting to do a System 7 mix for a long time. We sent him this track, and he loved it.
Turning to the forthcoming tour, what sort of line-up will be appearing on stage?
Well, it’s basically me and Miquette, and on the gigs where Eat Static are there, they might join in for the track that we did with them on our album, which is called Wolf-Head. And also Slackbaba, another gentleman who’s on some of the gigs, might be collaborating on our set. It’s all fundamentally Miquette and myself, and a bunch of technology, and my guitar. But we’re using some new equipment on this tour; it’s going to be a bit different from our previous gigs. We’ve been trying it out, and it’s better.
What’s the balance between pre-recorded and live?
Well, obviously some stuff is pre-programmed. It has to be, because we’re not people with twenty arms. But I think that System 7 are about as live as it gets with techno music. A lot of what you hear is actually being played by us, with our fingers, on instruments. That’s one of the things that makes our live show quite special. We’ve been working on ways to fit electric guitar with techno music for getting on for twenty years now, and we’ve got pretty good at it.
I would imagine you get a very diverse audience at your gigs: everyone from young clubbers to old proggers. Do they find a common cause?
Yeah, if they like System 7, that’s their common cause! Jolly good, you know?
It seems to me that you’ve always been motivated by a certain strain of idealism, and it sounds like it hasn’t dimmed or altered much over the years. Do you still abide by the same sort of ideals and values that were motivating you thirty years ago?
Pretty much. I mean, I wouldn’t like to think I was fossilised; I like to keep an open mind. But my overall view of the world hasn’t shifted massively. The main thing is that our music has evolved. We don’t sing; we don’t do lyrics any more; we try and put it in the sound, and the music, and the beats. We still seek to elevate people. That’s what I think is one of the main functions of music, and we take that function on whole-heartedly. We enjoy it, and we think that if we’re enjoying it then everybody else will. If we get elevated by it, everyone else will.
Well, I’m gutted that I can’t come and see you on the 15th.
I’m out of town. I’ve got to visit my aunty! It’s really bad timing.
Well, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do!
Afraid so. Just one final question: like every hack in a hurry, I went to your Wikipedia page. I wasn’t sure whether it was someone on Wikipedia having a laugh, but did you really compose the theme tune to Channel 4’s Friday Night Project?
Channel 4’s Friday Night Project have used a fragment of one of our tracks. They’ve licensed it, and we’ve earned a considerable amount of money. So long may they continue to use it, because they keep paying!
Is the world ready for yet another “new Amy Winehouse”? In these current Adele/Duffy dominated times, perhaps not quite yet – but it’s hardly Gabreilla Cilmi’s fault that vocally, she happens to be a dead ringer for everyone’s favourite “troubled” diva.
Displaying an astonishing maturity for her sixteen years, this Australian singer-songwriter turned in a polished, practised set, mixing original compositions such as forthcoming single Sweet About Me with a sprightly, soulful cover of Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head. Although currently best known for her version of Echo Beach, as featured on the ITV drama series of the same name, there are already clear signs of a major marketing push, which may well establish her before the year is through.
There’s a certain Smug Middle Class Dinner Party element to some of Nouvelle Vague’s bossa nova reworkings of post-punk classics, which can frankly be a bit off-putting. Towards the start of their set, this element was very much at the forefront, leaving one wondering how soon the joke was going to wear thin.
Thankfully, as lightweight crowd pleasers such as Ever Fallen In Love and Blue Monday gave way to lesser known material, and as the band switched from pure bossa nova to a more rock based approach, the inherent darkness of the material came more to the forefront, and an altogether more satisfying experience began to emerge. Tackling One Hundred Years – possibly the bleakest song that The Cure have ever recorded (“It doesn’t matter if we all die”) – was a bold move, and a risk which paid off artistically, even if it failed to quell the increasingly irritating chatter from the dinner party brigade towards the back of the venue.
The four piece band was fronted by two new singers, Nadeah and Marianne, each radiating a strangely off-kilter kind of glamour: arch, arresting, and über-cool. In the middle of the Dead Kennedys’ Too Drunk To Fuck, Nadeah jumped off the stage, tore through the crowd and sprang onto the bar, where she strutted precariously in a parody of wasted inebriation. Having secured a full pint of lager from the bar staff, she was back on stage in seconds, with barely a drop spilt. You simply had to admire the woman’s style.
While as yet unreleased covers of Devo’s Girl You Want and Richard Hell’s Blank Generation (done as a jazzy strut, with liberal lashings of ennui) drew favourable receptions, the biggest cheers of the night went to The Clash’s Guns Of Brixton and Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart, the latter showing clear signs of turning into a Nottingham anthem by proxy. (Well, we’ve all seen Control, haven’t we?) Its reception – and the massed singalong, which continued even after the band left the stage – seemed to take the band by surprise, but they capitalised on the moment magnificently, returning after only a couple of minutes, and picking up the song where they left off. Never was an “encore” more deserving of its name.
Your forthcoming UK tour is the first in a very long while, isn’t it?
Yes, the Culture Club reunion tour [in 1998] was the last time. I’ve done shows here and there, but things really started again last year, with a few London shows. They were really just to get the feeling again, as I feel this is a good time to go out and play.
Is the show mostly going to be old material, or will it be a mixture of old and new?
It’s not a nostalgia show. It’s not like the Here and Now tour: it’s more like there and now. (Laughs) But I always include my hits in my shows – always. I’ve never, ever toured without doing at least some of those songs, because they’re important. When I go and see someone like David Bowie, I always want to hear things I know. I know what it’s like to be in the audience. So it’s not going to be a self-indulgent, tortuous show. It’s going to be a good show.
Are you going to be faithful to the originals, or do you like mucking around with them?
We’re doing a slightly different version of Church of the Poison Mind, which is a bit more heavy metal. It’s not that different to the original; the bass is just a bit more rattly. We do play around with some of the songs, but we always stick to the melody. It won’t be that weird!
I like the title of the tour: Songs That Make You Dance And Cry. A lot of my favourite music makes me dance and cry – hopefully at the same time.
I just think that I work in those two fields. Either I’m being quite melancholy, with things like Generations of Love, or quite joyous, with things like Bow Down Mister.
Going back to the Culture Club days: a lot of the lyrics from that period dealt with your relationship with Jon Moss, but how aware was Jon at the time that the songs were about him? Karma Chameleon is quite a bitchy song, for instance.
Oh, he knew! (Laughs) I used to talk to him about it all the time. He was very aware. Some of those songs were also quite avant-garde and ambiguous, although they got more direct later on. A lot of people have asked me “What’s a karma chameleon?”, but obviously I’ve explained it over the years, so people know more about it now. But there were lots of songs that were very loving as well!
Well, I didn’t get the significance of “you come and go” for about fifteen years; we can be a bit slow. (Laughter) So how did you feel when Culture Club attempted to plan a second reunion tour with a different singer?
I was kind of annoyed, actually. I thought it was really cheeky. If I’d have done the same thing, they’d have sued me. It just proved to me once again that my motivation was entirely different to theirs. Because my thing is not about career; it’s about creating things that I care about.
At the moment, we seem to be stuck in the middle of an Eighties revival that won’t go away, and Eighties music has influenced an awful lot of 21st century pop.
One of the interesting things about the Eighties is that at the time, no one liked it. Everyone hated the Eighties! We were universally slagged, in every way. We were just vacuous people with big hairdos, destroying the ozone layer. There was nothing worthwhile about any of us: we were called Thatcher’s children. Whereas in actual fact, Culture Club were really a follow-on from punk. I’d been an original punk; that’s where I came from. So it’s interesting that now, people are dealing with this kind of pop revisionism, and saying: oh yeah, it wasn’t so bad. Because things are so formulaic now. A lot of the TV talent shows, that have now saturated the pop scene, used to be seen more as Saturday night “variety” shows.
Well, we’ve always had winners of talent shows making the charts…
Yeah, like Opportunity Knocks – but those people weren’t pop stars. Sometimes they were, but there was a separation. But now you’ve got “variety”, and you’ve got Amy Winehouse, and that’s it! That’s the only hope at the moment! (Laughs)
Amy Winehouse is our only hope?
She’s the person who has totally inspired me to get back on the road. When I hear the music, it makes me feel something. It makes me sad; it makes me emotional. A lot of the music that we’ve been hearing in the last few years has been so bitchy – “I’m gonna steal your boyfriend; don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me” – and it’s not personal. It’s clever, it’s witty, it’s designed for radio – but there’s no feeling in it.
It’s not about human relationships as they really are. It’s a commercialised version.
Exactly. And one of the complicated things about Amy is that on the one hand, she’s got all her problems, and people want to condemn her for that, but on the other hand she’s a fucking genius! (Laughs) What can you do? It puts everyone in a really difficult situation. You can’t write her off, because she’s incredible. At the end of the day, she’s expressing what a lot of us can’t express – and that’s the sign of a great singer. If you hear a song on the radio like Love Is A Losing Game or You Know I’m No Good, and it touches your heart, you know that she’s doing something right.
I don’t think of myself as a gay pop star. There are gay pop stars who are totally obsessed with being gay, but I’ve never been one of those. I love straight people; it takes two of them to make one of us! I’ve never had that kind of separatist attitude about “gay” and “straight”. I love being gay and I support gay culture, but I don’t think of myself as being a solely gay artist.
Well, I think some people would have got a message from some of your songs. There was the Jesus Loves You period for instance, with songs like No Clause 28 and Generations Of Love…
Of course there was that sensibility, but I wouldn’t want to just make music that was only targeted towards gay people.
Well, sure. But it’s interesting that the whole phenomenon of the “gay pop star” has more or less disappeared. I suppose we’ve got Jake Shears and Beth Ditto – but we don’t need it any more, do we?
We live in this kind of culture now which pretends to accept everything. So there’s this kind of pseudo-acceptance of everything that’s different. But the reality is: it’s not true.
You think? Actually, that’s quite jaundiced…! (Laughter)
Today’s gay pop stars are out of the closet, but they don’t express anything about their sexuality. They don’t ever use the word “he” in their songs. They think they don’t need to, because they think everybody loves them, and they think they’re all accepted. You see, they’ve been lulled into this false sense of security! (Laughs) When I write a song about a boy, I’m not thinking about the radio or any of that; I’m thinking about what I feel. You’ll see that in my show.
You emerged as a major club DJ in the Nineties, and there’s another generation who might link you with the whole heyday of handbag house, superclubs, fluffy bras and silver trousers.
(Indignantly) I’m not a handbag house DJ; I’m a house DJ. I’m very purist; I like soulful, funky music. I drop classic songs in clubs, and if people fold their arms then I just think they’re losers. Even with dance music, kids don’t seem to have any sense of history. They don’t seem to understand where it all came from.
Yeah, if something is three years old, then it’s a “club classic”.
Or even two weeks old. If I drop something really old, like CeCe Rogers’ Someday, the crowd’s like, what the fuck’ is this? It does happen!
I would imagine you bristle at being lumped in with the genre of “Celebrity DJ”…
I’m not a celebrity; I’m a star. Celebrities are people who turn up at parties with expensive handbags, and they don’t do anything. You’d never catch a celebrity sweeping the streets of New York. You couldn’t call Naomi Campbell a celebrity, could you?
You could call her many things, before you call her a celebrity. (Laughter) As regards your more recent musical career, it can be difficult to follow what you’re up to. You don’t make it easy for us!
Obviously, the hardcore fans know everything that I’m doing – but the general public don’t. That’s why I’m doing this tour. The whole point is to say: this is what I do. I see this as a way of re-establishing myself as an artist, and reminding people that’s what I am. And also re-establishing my reputation as a human being, which I think has been pretty torn apart over the last few years. I’m not a bitch; I’m very romantic! (Laughs)
You have also chosen to opt out of a lot of the music business games. EMI recently announced that they intend to shed up to 2000 of their staff. Is the record business fucked?
Yeah, but it has fucked itself. It hasn’t invested in talent, or in anything that can last. And so, in a way, that’s why it can’t last. You’re constantly hearing that someone is “the new Amy Winehouse” or “the new Joni Mitchell”, and so on. Bollocks to that. Whenever there’s a successful artist, they just try and create twenty more of them. It’s just boring. Why do record companies sign them?
EMI are saying that they now want to use focus groups to decide who to sign next.
Well, you know what? It may sound like a really terrible thing to say, but the audience should never dictate the art form.
Absolutely. They would never have signed The Beatles, for instance…
You’d never have had Ziggy Stardust. You’d never have had anything great. It sounds snobby, but it’s true. The bigger the crowd gets, the more people you have to please. It’s like when you’re DJ-ing a massive gig; there’s no way you can make everyone happy. There’s always going to be someone who doesn’t like what you do. So if you’re going to have focus groups… well, God help us. It’s just so tragic. What we need is some A&R people with some balls, and some record company executives who love music!
It’s the same with radio. I’m sorry to be nostalgic, but if you go back to the Seventies and the Eighties, we had all those characters like Tony Blackburn, who actually were into music. Now you’ve just got all these trendy little gits with good haircuts and Northern accents, who think they’re really cool. And they know nothing! They’re all being fed by the trendy magazines, and it gets on my nerves.
You’re in danger of being asked to go on that show Grumpy Old Men, if there’s much more of this.
Hahahahaha! I’d go on willingly! What’s the fee?!