They may be the biggest band to emerge from this part of the country in years, but Castle Donington’s Late Of The Pier are in no hurry to play a major home-coming gig just yet. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Instead, the band’s next Nottingham gig, which takes place on Sunday, will be in a tiny venue called the Chameleon Arts Café, above Clinton Cards on Angel Row. And since the venue only holds around a hundred, tickets inevitably sold out within a few hours.
The night in question, which rejoices in the name of Sausage Party, is the joint brainchild of the band and promoter Ricky Haley, best known locally for his wildly successful Liars Clubnights.
Mike Atkinson caught up with Ricky this week, to find out more…
How did the idea for Sausage Party came about?
As you have probably noticed, Late Of The Pier are doing alright for themselves of late. I’ve been running Liars Club since March 2003, and the boys from the band used to meet up there, with the aim of one day being the house band!
Well, they’ve probably shot a bit too high, and are too big to play every week. So we thought: let’s do it anyway, but give it a name that plays down the hype and squeeze it into an even tinier venue.
Sausage Party was just a fun name that I had. When I worked on the door of The Social, you would get groups of lads pushing their faces against the window, and then wheeling away saying “Come on, let’s go somewhere else, it’s a bleedin’ sausage party in there.” In other words, there were no girls!
The whole idea, what with myself being a full time tour manager and the band being on tour all the time, is that we are finding out about new music from constant touring, and then bringing this weird bunch of ideas back and feeding it to the Nottingham party monsters. You never know quite what you’ll get in a sausage!
Are the band going to have a continuing involvement in future Sausage Party nights? And will there still be future Liars Club nights elsewhere?
Liars Club is myself in the third person, really. I run it all myself, unlike a lot of club nights, and it gets a bit much. This is why I occasionally do co-promotions with other like-minded promoters, such as Damn You, Exalt Exalt, Mantile, INVSBL FKRS etc.
I decided to stop my weekly Saturday at Stealth in May, and took a four month break which coincided with the Dot To Dot festival happening. I really needed a break to keep myself excited in running events. So Liars Club happens on an impromptu basis these days.
Late Of The Pier may not always play live at Sausage Party. But they will curate, promote and DJ at the nights, which will be reliant on having myself and the band, plus a line-up of other acts, in the same place at the same time. It will take some doing, but when it happens, BE THERE!
What led to you choosing the Chameleon Arts Café as a venue?
We decided it was a perfect setting, as the guy that runs it is a real crazy character and the venue itself is like someone’s living room. It has real character and anything goes. It’s secreted enough to keep the riff raff out, and makes it seem like a house party amongst friends
This all sounds, dare I say it, a bit elitist. Then again, there’s something to be said for tight-knit, closed communities, as a lot of creativity can come from them. What’s your take on that?
Liars Club always used to be called elitist, but to be honest I tried doing loads of free entry nights, and they just filled with people who weren’t really interested. They just ended up intimidating the crowd who were there for the music, and who wanted to escape that kind of thing.
Late Of The Pier specifically wanted to do a small intimate venue, and it’s not elitist to want to do a show for the people who have supported the band since Day One. Without this show, there wouldn’t have been another one until 2009 – but that one will hopefully be bigger and better than anything before.
What’s the best advice for people wanting to come along to future events?
If people want to keep informed, they can search out the Sausage Party Facebook group, and we’ll have a website and a MySpace page, but we don’t really intend on handing out flyers or posters at this stage.
I also gather that you’ll be giving away CDs at the door on Sunday night. What can we expect on those?
Oh yes. I’m due to meet the band this week, as we both have a few days off. We will be sitting in our living room, and running a little conveyor belt of CD burning and labelling as a thank you to everyone who is coming to the night. Expect new unreleased music, and plenty of gems that we have dug up from here, there and everywhere. I don’t want to see them on eBay after Christmas, either!
Having plied his trade on the arena circuit for the past few years, Will Young has returned to theatres and concert halls for his current tour. For his fans, it’s a chance to see him in a relatively more intimate setting. For Will, it’s an opportunity to showcase his skills as a singer, rather than coast on his status as a pop star.
If last night’s show was any fair measure, then there’s still some work to be done. An unsympathetic sound mix tended to bury his voice in the arrangements on the more uptempo numbers, most of which were stacked up in the first half of the show. This did his delicate, reedy voice no favours, leaving him sounding somewhat lacking in presence and authority.
The breakthrough came with the ballad You Don’t Know, performed to the accompaniment of a single guitar. At this point, Will seemed to find his focus, giving a sincere performance which carried emotional depth and weight. This stripped down mood was carried through to Let It Go: the title track from Will’s fourth album, and one of the strongest songs on there. Following the poor chart performance of current single Grace, it has the potential to restore his hit-making status.
From this point onwards, Will was on safe ground. Bounding around the stage in a loose, scooped neck T-shirt and a pair of impossibly tight trousers that looked more like leggings, he looked dressed for a dance class rather than a concert performance – but this casual attire suited his relaxed, informal manner. The banter flowed, as cheeky calls from the audience were answered with witty ripostes and off-the-cuff anecdotes. This wasn’t an evening for considered artistry and solemn song craft, but a light-hearted coming together of a much-loved personality and his adoring fanbase.
The evening’s most bizarre moment came with the encore, which saw Will in fluorescent gloves, making “jazz hands” and throwing all manner of unlikely shapes, for a tango-flavoured Grace Jones cover (I’ve Seen That Face Before). Sanity was restored for the inevitable closer Leave Right Now: the only one of his four chart-topping singles to be performed (All Time Love being the other major omission), and still his most enduring classic.
Along with fellow Sheffield acts ABC and Heaven 17, you’ll be participating in the forthcoming Steel City Tour. How did the idea for the tour come about?
It might have been my idea, but people have thought that I’ve claimed ideas which weren’t mine before! I just remarked at a meeting with our manager that one day we would have to do a tour with all the Sheffield people. He seemed to go off with that and get it somewhere, which seemed like a nice idea.
Did anyone need much persuading to join the line-up?
I think people always need loads of persuading. There’s all sorts of different things going on. Everyone wants to be on a stage, and then everyone’s thinking: ooh, can we afford it, or can we afford not to do it, and will it put our status up or down, and all of that. So I should think there’s been loads and loads of behind the scenes stuff.
We [the Human League] are more resigned to working live. We’ve done it for years and years and years now. At the end of the year, we’re going to go out and do a live tour, because after thirty years, we’ve realised that it’s our job.
The Human League Christmas tour has become an annual tradition, hasn’t it?
Well, we’ve been doing it for a really long time; I think it must be ten years or so. And it’s always great to have a little wrinkle. The worst ones to do are the ones where it’s just us on our own – because when we have to do an hour and a half, we just run out of hits. We have to have one or two songs where we’re begging the indulgence. But luckily on this one, our set will be a little bit shorter and we can have a bit of a storm through the hits.
The most immediately startling thing about this line-up is that you’re touring with Heaven 17, as two of them [Ian Marsh and Martyn Ware] were founder members of the Human League. Is this the first time that you’ve appeared at the same event?
It isn’t. We have done various little things. We all went through a period of doing PA appearances in the early 2000s, and a thing called Here And Now that we did with Tony Denton, and we got together on a couple of those.
Really, the Human League is Martyn Ware and Ian Marsh’s. I came along and joined, then they branched off and I continued it on. But I actually like the lads very much. At the time when I joined, I think they would have had Glenn [Gregory, Heaven 17’s vocalist] as the singer, but he happened to be working in London at the time. But then he was massively hospitable to us. When we toured in those days, we had no money at all, so if we were anywhere near Glenn, he’d say: come and stay at our flat, I’ll feed you up and make sure you’re all right.
You split from Martyn and Ian at the end of 1980. It must have seemed like there were huge musical differences between you then, but perhaps those differences dissolve away over the years?
I don’t even know if it was musical differences. I was more inclined towards commerciality, maybe because I was brought up with three older brothers, and I’d grown up with pop music, and I loved pop music. The Heaven 17 guys were maybe a little bit deeper and more philosophical than me. I’ve always said that my favourite band is probably Slade. I really wanted to be in a pop band with our photos on the front cover, and maybe they had a more long term artistic sort of thing.
During the late Seventies and early Eighties, all three of the bands on this tour were associated with an emerging Sheffield music scene, which was mostly centred on electronic music. Did it feel like a proper scene at the time?
It really was a scene. I didn’t know the people until after I joined the band, and then I found that all these things were going on all over the place. Ian Burden, who eventually joined us, was in a band called Graph, and I became a very big Cabaret Voltaire fan. For a couple of years, I didn’t miss a show that they did.
So there were rivalries, but then again there was really good stuff going on. I would have loved Richard Kirk to bring Cabaret Voltaire on this tour. I don’t know whether anyone sussed that out, but I’m still a big fan and I see Richard around in Sheffield.
We all knew Martin [Fry, of ABC], because he was running a fanzine at the time. We knew Martin before he was in ABC, when we played shows with [his previous band] Vice Versa.
Do you have any theories as to why that scene, which consisted of people working in broadly similar areas of music, suddenly sprung up at that time?
I’ve often wondered about it myself. Sheffield was a very European kind of city, strangely. We had two art colleges, and we had a council that really tried to pour money into supporting the arts. All the guys in the Human League apart from me were in a theatre group called Meat Whistle, which was council funded. That was where they got their ideas together, and maybe that was why they thought it should be a little bit more theatrical, electronic, and maybe a bit more cabaret, than just going and doing the rock band thing. Which Def Leppard were doing down the road anyway, with massive success.
That’s interesting. So there was council money, and there were links to the arts. In Nottingham, we have slightly more inhabitants than Sheffield, but we have a dramatically less prominent music scene.
Things seem to go in waves, though. The odd thing is that music often does really well when people haven’t got any money. You’ve got nothing to lose. I think if someone had given me a good job somewhere, and a company car and all that, I wouldn’t have been out until two or three o’clock in the morning fighting with my friends to try and get one tune and not another tune, and scraping by, and living in vans and so on. Sometimes it’s bad for people when they’re doing really well.
That tradition of electronic music from Sheffield has continued over the past thirty years: from Warp Records through to acts like Moloko, and then with the whole Gatecrasher era. Do you feel in any sense like one of the founding fathers of that tradition, and are you acknowledged as such?
I tend to think of myself more as an observer. I always seem to join in on someone else’s thing, which has been very interesting. I ought to write a book about it one day: the way that I’ve often been standing at the back of the room, while someone important is doing something good. I think the League is more or less in that tradition.
The Gatecrasher era gave us the chance to say that something good was established with electronics: something that was an alternative to rock. I loved Gatecrasher, actually.
I wish I’d been. I never got the chance. We’ve got a Gatecrasher in Nottingham now, but it’s obviously not the same thing.
That scene got so big that it couldn’t continue, could it? But Gatecrasher is certainly the best nightclub I’ve ever been to. It was incredible.
Some remixes of The Things That Dreams Are Made Of came out at the start of the year, which did quite well in the clubs. Did you have any involvement in that?
Only in that we said yes. I really enjoy all that stuff. I’m feeling slightly miffed at the moment that people tend to ask me to be the voice on something, or the front of something, as I’m killing myself trying to write some new stuff at the moment. But I do really like to hear the remixes going on, and getting some new ideas going.
So people ask you to be featured vocalist on their tracks, like you did with The All Seeing I? [Phil supplied guest vocals on their 1999 hit, 1st Man In Space.]
It was better with The All Seeing I, because I knew the lads anyway and so that made a bit of sense. Quite a few people ask me, and it seems that what they really want me to do for some reason is to be in the video – which is odd, because I don’t look particularly good or anything. But they think that maybe that would get it in the paper, or something!
So I’m fighting shy of that at the moment, and trying to do a new electro-glam-disco album. We’ve got a load of new material. We’ve gone in quite an interesting direction, and we’re just trying to wonder how to put it out. The business not being what it is at the moment, we might end up putting it out ourselves.
I was wondering about that. I believe you’re currently unsigned, but maybe in this day and age it doesn’t matter, because you can bung it out yourselves.
It’s a real big help if you are signed. I know that’s the model that has died now, but I’ll tell you, it’s absolutely brilliant to walk into a room, and have someone say: what would you like? And you say: oh, can we have £200,000 and then we’ll start making an album? And by the way, we need £200,000 to live on while we’re making it. And the guy says yes. That is a really good feeling, and I miss it! (Laughs)
If you were to distribute your own music, you’d need your own official website. You must be one of very few bands left that don’t have an official site, and I don’t quite get why not.
It’s because I never wanted to be the guy that drove the Rolls Royce into the swimming pool after Keith Moon. If I could have done it first, I would love to have done it. But we’ve always tried to go down a different stream to everyone else. And I think, in a way, we didn’t make the most fuss of that in the papers. Because if everyone’s doing rock, we’re going to do electronics, or if everyone’s off doing white soul, we go over to Minneapolis and do Prince-y sounding stuff, and then people are surprised.
I just didn’t want to do [a website], because 10,000 other bands do it. So there’s got to be some other way. Right now, if I had a million in the bank, I would say: I’ll do it on 12-inch vinyl. My friend Dean who was in The All Seeing I had a couple of record labels where he put everything out on 7-inch vinyl. And it was really lovely, and it was dead arty, even if it didn’t get to quite as many people.
Vinyl is the format that refuses to die. They’ve even re-introduced it into some American supermarkets, which you wouldn’t have expected.
I love it, but maybe not for the sound. I love it because it’s physical. I think we miss the fact that you used to have to make that decision. You’d play one side of an LP, and then you had to get up out of your chair, go over, take the arm off, turn it over and say: I want to listen to the second side.
Absolutely – you’re committing to the act of listening, rather than randomly flicking shuffle on your iTunes. When you started up, and especially when you first started having hits, you and a lot of your contemporaries would talk about “subverting” pop, or of taking control of pop and redefining it. How much of that was just talking it up? Did you just want to be pop stars anyway?
It’s really hard to tell, because you change. As soon as you have a few hits, you immediately become a very different person – and to be straight, we always had a plan to have hits. When Martyn Ware asked me to join the band, he brought round a copy of I Feel Love by Donna Summer. It wasn’t that we wanted to be obscure European musique concrète people. We really loved pop music, and we wanted to be a bit like KC and the Sunshine Band as well.
I got that right from the start. The first thing I ever heard was an early cover of You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ on a Peel session. That was a completely radical idea at the time, because “electronic music” meant alienated urban robots or whatever. So perhaps you were the original New Romantics?
I thought we were the first people who were called the New Romantics. I thought Rick Sky [tabloid showbiz journalist] said it in an interview with The Star about us, but now some other people are claiming it. Spandau Ballet’s manager is claiming it now, isn’t he?
There’s also a lyric in an early Duran song. [“Like some new romantic looking for the TV sound”, from Planet Earth.]
God, I didn’t know that. Duran were always a little bit rocky for me. I was really into Japan and John Foxx, but as soon as they put guitars on it, then I’m only a punter because I don’t understand it. They’re twanging these things and these notes are coming out – but I can’t see on a screen what they are, so I get confused.
I shared your sense of purism when Duran came along. I’d already heard it from Japan, basically. But I always sensed with the Human League that there was some kind of grand plan behind the scenes: right down to the design of the record sleeves, and the period when you colour coded your singles, Was there a grand plan, or was it all smoke and mirrors and you were just winging it as you went along?
There was a grand plan, and most of it just didn’t work. Every time you thought you were going to have a huge record, no one bought it. And every time you slipped one out quietly, thinking: oh my God, why are we putting this out, we had the big hit.
We were nicking ideas left right and centre from people, all over the place. A lot of our plan was basically George Clinton. The colour coding was referring to George Clinton: we’ll have a Parliament, and a Funkadelic, and a Brides of Funkenstein. It will all be different things, and we’ll roll it all together, and maybe at some stage all the people who like all the different things will buy all of them.
I’ve got one more question. With you and Heaven 17 on the same tour, has the door been left open for an onstage reunion? Maybe a jam on Empire State Human, or something like that?
I would be really surprised if that happened. For a start, I think the question is: who’s going to be doing Being Boiled? I would be surprised, because we’ve all got pretty solid stage set-ups that we would be terrified to deviate from. I guess it would be more likely that we get together in the studio at some stage.
And if you did that on stage, you’d have Martin Fry standing in the wings, thinking: well that’s all very well, but where does this leave me?
Yeah, and he’s probably the best singer who’s going to be there.
He played Nottingham on the Here and Now tour, earlier in the year. Of the seven acts on the package, ABC were unquestionably the best act of the night.
Well, he is such a good singer. He was fantastic on the records, and he’s much better live. It’s frightening.
So the futurists of old have become kind of the nostalgia acts of today – but it seems to me that you’re all very reconciled, and very happy with that aspect of your work.
I guess so. I mean, we’re all approaching retirement; we haven’t got any fight left. I’ve just gone out and got a new dog, so I’m worn out from trying to walk him!
Veterans of the sit-down folk club circuit they may be, but last night’s mesmerising show at the Rescue Rooms demonstrated that Show Of Hands’ current “Standing Room Only” tour was a gamble that has paid off. As vocalist Steve Knightley remarked, stand-up venues give the crowd a chance to bellow along to their hearts’ content, without risking the glares of their neighbours.
For a band that remains firmly off the radar of anyone unfamiliar with the English folk scene – despite a seventeen year career and three sold-out appearances at the Royal Albert Hall – it was remarkable to observe the fierce loyalty of their audience, who greeted many songs like old friends. The night’s biggest crowd pleaser was Cousin Jack, a stirring tale of migrant mine workers, while the trenchant Country Life (“The red brick cottage where I was born is the empty shell of a holiday home”) proved that the tradition of the protest song has not yet been extinguished.
As the set progressed, the music took a darker, more brooding turn, Knightley and his partner Phil Beer switching to fiddles for a stunning version of Innocents’ Song. The set closed with the anthemic Roots, whose outspoken polemic roused the crowd into one final massed bellow.
I’ve noticed that the gaps between each of your albums have been getting steadily longer. Why has there been such a long gap this time? I can’t believe you’ve been slacking off…
It has been three years since the last one was released, and about two years since I finished work on it. Then I did a play in Manchester, which took up about four months. I also did a gorilla programme for the BBC [Saving Planet Earth], in Gabon and the Cameroon. Then I had a bit of a break, and then I started the album. So, yeah – the gaps have been getting bigger, but maybe I’m just working out how long I can get away with it, before I have to do another one! (Laughs)
How would you characterise the material on the new album, Let It Go?
I find it really hard to characterise my stuff. I normally end up nicking journalists’ reviews and quotes, and saying: “Oh, I think it’s like this…!”
So I’m not really sure how to answer that, but I definitely set about writing very simple, more lyric-led pop songs. Rather than write to tracks, I tended to write to just a guitar or a piano, before adding in rhythms and things like that. And I think that’s made a difference.
So there’s a song called I Won’t Give Up, which started very simply with a guitar – but then we went to [dance production team] The Freemasons for the rhythm, and then we went to a Nashville quartet for the strings. It’s quite a piecemeal approach to writing pop songs, but it means that you can, at each stage, choose the best people that are right for that job.
You’ve also got more songwriting credits on this album than ever before.
Yeah, I have – which is great. I love singing other people’s songs, but I’ve definitely got better as a songwriter. That comes with experience, and also learning from people that I’ve been writing with, who are at the top of their game. That’s made a big difference.
Are the lyrics pretty much down to you?
Yeah, they are. I normally have to co-write because I’m not very good on instruments, but I definitely think that my lyric writing has improved. That’s something that I’ve learnt from Eg White [writer of Leave Right Now, who also co-wrote Will’s Who Am I and Changes, Adele’sChasing Pavements and Duffy’s Warwick Avenue]. He has a real honesty in his lyrics, and I think people can relate to them because they are more conversational.
I sense that lyrically, the new songs are quite personal. Some of them feel moody, introspective, and quite troubled at times – as if you’re trying to work things out. Have I read them right?
Definitely. You can’t help your songs being personal to you, and sometimes I suppose they do help you work things out. I’ve definitely been doing that in the last two years: working out what life’s about. They call it “Venus Returns” or something like that. It’s a time when you’re approaching thirty, and you do think about life, and I think there a reflection of that.
Are there any musical surprises lurking on there?
I think there are some curveballs. As I was saying earlier, I think getting people like The Freemasons to do the rhythm is interesting. People wouldn’t expect it, but I think that’s what pop should be all about. And I think that the music is the best that I’ve done – but maybe people always say that on new work, that’s fresh in their minds.
I did a couple of songs with a guy called Mike Spencer, which were done live in the studio. I hadn’t done a whole song live before, and that was a great experience. He’s worked with Jamiroquai and Kylie and Alphabeat, and it was great to go to a new producer and forge a new relationship with him.
Filming the Changes video sounded like a hairy experience. Had the director got some sort of vendetta against you?
Yeah, I know – why can’t I always go for simple videos? It was quite hard work, but I think that it needed to be, to reflect the struggle in the song. Martin De Thurah is a fantastic director. I loved his Kanye West video [for Flashing Lights] and I just thought: yeah, we’re going to work really well together. So I get struck by lightning, burnt, half drowned, pushed over, I burn my possessions in a ten-foot bonfire, I run down country lanes… it was nice to do something so physical and challenging. I like to be challenged in everything that I do, and videos are definitely a big part of that.
You played Glastonbury for the first time this year. Was this a long held ambition?
Yes, I’ve always been a big fan. I’ve gone for the last seven to nine years, and it was great to finally perform there. The crowd were fantastic, and the feedback was: yeah, come back next year and maybe even play a bigger stage.
I’m really enjoying the festivals, and I’m really pleased that I’ve come from Pop Idol to singing at these kinds of events. It’s a different crowd, as they are there to see a wide variety of different music. They don’t have to stay, they can always leave – and I think that’s the scary thing about festivals. It would be awful if you started playing to a full house and then suddenly they’d leave!
Who did you see at Glastonbury that rocked it?
I thought that the Kings Of Leon were great, and the Raconteurs were amazing.
I gather that you’ve only recently started getting back into music as a listener, as your initial success destroyed the mystique. Was entering the music business a disillusioning experience?
It can become a bit disenchanting – as with any job, when you start to learn the ins and outs of a profession. But I’ve started to really enjoy music again, and I think that’s tied in well with the stuff I’m doing now. It’s made my writing better, and I go to more gigs than I’ve ever gone to before.
Things changed so much for me, and so quickly, that there were only so many new things that I could take on. Now I’m a bit more accustomed to it, and more relaxed about the whole thing, I can get back to enjoying music – which is why I started singing in the first place.
When you were going through the Pop Idol process, did you have a “Plan B” in mind?
I would have gone back to drama school, to finish my course. I always said that I’d try until I was thirty to be a singer. I did want to act as well, but the singing was the priority, so I think I would have kept on going. I also worked at a record company before drama school, so maybe I would have tried to get back to that.
Your screen performance in Mrs Henderson Presents was over three years ago. I know you’ve done a stage play since, but are we ever going to see you in the movies again?
With the two jobs that I’ve done, I was very fortunate to work with fantastic people that I could learn from. I took a lot from it. It’s a really tough thing to get into theatre, and the reviews for the play were honest, but they were encouraging. That gave me so much confidence in my acting.
It’s the same as with the music: you have to earn respect. You can’t just demand to get auditions. But the more auditions I get, the more experience I get.
So although the music is key at the moment, I’m really looking forward to doing some more acting. I strongly feel that it’s something that I can do more of in the future.
Has your experience on stage informed you as a musical performer?
I think with the acting, the relationship with the audience is very different, and I don’t know if you can really equate the two. But nothing is mutually exclusive in performance. They do all feed into each other.
I found that every night was a different show, and sometimes I’d see something different in the play. There’s so much text to learn and delve into, so the way you feel about the play at the end of the run can be completely different to the way you felt at the beginning.
So it takes on its own life, and I think songs can do the same thing, but in a very technical way. You can make split-second decisions live, and that’s a different type of excitement.
Fan Death are Dandi and Marta, an electro-disco synth-pop duo from Canada. They’re tiny and giggly and eager, full of fresh-faced fun, a bit arty, and quite brilliant. If there’s any justice in the world, you’ll be hearing a lot of them in 2009.
Late Of The Pier are the biggest and best act to appear from this part of the world in living memory. Last night saw them return to Nottingham for a barely advertised show in a tiny café above a card shop on Angel Row. It was the launch night for Sausage Party, a new venture from the Liars Club crew. Half the crowd seemed to know the band personally, making for an uncommonly friendly vibe that felt more like a private party than a standard rock gig.
With no raised stage area, visibility was tight. The front rows were asked to sit on the floor – which they did, for all of five minutes. As the spiky, punchy set progressed, a kind of collective frenzy engulfed the room. The singer surfed the crowd, before scaling a wobbly speaker stack. The moshers shook the floor so hard that fears were raised for the ceiling below. “Please don’t dance”, the singer pleaded. “Or else YOU’LL DIE.” The sense of danger merely heightened the mood.
An unforgettable night, from one of the most exciting young bands in the country. We should be proud.
Evidently, Martha Reeves is a morning person. Speaking to me from her home in Detroit, the 67-year-old Motown legend was already on her fourth interview of the day – and it was still only 8.45 in the morning.
As an elected, full-time city councillor – a position she has held for the past three years – Martha had to be at work in 45 minutes’ time. In the meantime, she was more than happy to talk about her five decades in the music business, and about next year’s “Once In A Lifetime – Motown Legends Live” package tour.
Martha’s introduction to Motown’s “hit factory” was unorthodox, to say the least. One fateful Sunday evening in the early 60s, the aspiring singer was handed a card by the label’s A&R man, William “Mickey” Stevenson, and invited for an audition. Somewhat recklessly, she quit her dry-cleaning job the following morning, and showed up at the front door of “Hitsville USA”.
As it turned out, the legendary building was little more than a regular house on a regular street.
“When I saw the front door with a hand-painted sign saying “Hitsville”, I started to turn around, and I said: oh my God, what have I done!”
Matters went from bad to worse when Martha discovered that no auditions were being held that day. Instead, a busy Stevenson asked her to field an incoming phone call.
“I answered the phone – “Martha Reeves, A&R secretary” – and I sort of spoke my way into the position. He was gone mostly all of the day, preparing a session for this drummer named Marvin Gaye. When he got back, I had practically taken over. I was issuing cheques and assigning the piano, as there were 17 writers in that office. It was just a little cubbyhole of a place.”
Although hired as a secretary rather than as a singer, it didn’t take long for Martha’s musical talent to be recognised.
“I left the job to three girls from secretarial college, and boarded my first Motown revue. All of us got on the bus, with our shoeboxes full of home-made pound cake and fried chicken, tied with a string. We rode for 94 one-nighters, until we arrived at Hitsville again with hit records. Everyone’s records charted after that tour.”
Recognition in the UK was quick to follow.
“Luckily, Dusty Springfield had a BBC special that she did every week, and she and [her manager] Vicki Wickham invited the Motown revue to England. I think the Temptations came over for the first time, and the Miracles. Heatwave was our record at the time, but I think the Supremes had no hits in the UK. However, they were discovered and we were all embraced.”
As an early champion of the Motown sound, Dusty Springfield often included Martha and the Vandellas’ signature hit Dancing In The Street in her live set. On her BBC show, the two acts collaborated on a version of Wishing And Hoping. However, when it came to exposure on the live stage, the Vandellas already had a head start on their label mates.
“We had already performed prior to that with Georgie Fame, when Yeh Yeh was a big hit. He let us do 40 one-nighters with him, and so we were already familiar with England. When we came over with the Motown revue, it was just a welcoming home by the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society!”
As for my rash suggestion that Martha left the label in the early 70s, it was swiftly and crisply corrected.
“Wait a minute: Motown left me. I stayed in Detroit, and they moved to California. There’s a difference!” (Laughter)
“I had a young baby, and I wasn’t able to travel. And I didn’t know that they were moving, actually. I was not informed. There was no baby planned in the contract, and I was away recuperating. In that short distance of time, they made plans to move. The only thing left of the company, when I went to report for my next assignment, were a few computers that were being put on a truck to leave the city.”
Needless to say, the move to Los Angeles fundamentally changed the character of the label.
“It ended the Motown saga. There were no real successes, other than maybe a discovery of disco with the likes of Rick James and Teena Marie – but the Motown sound stopped at that point.”
The label’s trademark sound may have come to an end more than 35 years ago, but the unique Motown “family spirit” endures to this day – as evidenced by the gathering of the clans which occurred at last month’s funeral for Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops. Martha spoke at the service, describing Stubbs as “my Pavarotti”.
“It was a very difficult time to say goodbye to Levi. He had been ill for seven years. We all hoped that he would recover and sing to us again. However, it never happened. On his 60th birthday, they had a celebration. Aretha Franklin joined the Tops and the Tempts at a concert, where he did sing a little bit – and then that was the last time that his voice was heard.”
“It’s unreal. You don’t think they’re gone. You say, how can they take Levi? And the realisation is that we’re all going, eventually. I just have his music now, to remember him by. Just Ask The Lonely still tugs at my heart. That was one of my favourite songs that he sang, and he will always be my Pavarotti.”
Perhaps it’s at sad occasions like these that the old family spirit feels at its strongest.
“We never stopped being family, no matter what. We don’t work together as often as we would like, because we have our own music and do our own shows.”
For next year’s Once In A Lifetime tour, Martha and the Vandellas will be sharing the bill with The Miracles, The Commodores, Mary Wilson of The Supremes, and the late Junior Walker’s All-Stars: a line-up which evokes memories of those old Motown revues.
“This reunion is a very well-thought-out tour, and one that I’m anticipating, because there’s a strong, good feeling when everybody performs. The competition starts then.”
These days, the Vandellas are strictly a family affair. Martha’s sister Lois (“my longest standing Vandella”) started with the group in 1968, and her other sister Delphine started in 1980. (“That makes her a senior citizen too”, she laughs.) Back in the 60s, their chief rivals in the girl group stakes were The Supremes, but Martha is quite clear on the difference between the two acts. “You can classify our music as soul, and you can classify theirs as pop”, she states.
As for her biggest hit of all, Dancing In The Street, much has been made of its adoption as an anthem for the civil rights movement during the troubled years of the mid-to-late 1960s. However, the song started its life quite differently.
“I’d heard Marvin Gaye sing it, and it was a love song to a girl. He sort of crooned it, and then he said: man, give this to Martha, let her try it. So when I tried it, I called to mind New Orleans, and Rio De Janeiro where I had been at carnival time. Actually, I had seen people get in the street and dance.”
“This song was used to quench a lot of the evil feelings that were out in the streets, because of the riots that happened in every major city. And the words were simple: ‘Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat’. Not the hate that everybody was feeling, but the happiness that it brings.”
“And we’ve changed a lot of ordinances with our song. Now, some cities allow you to block off the street and actually have dance parties.”
“So it didn’t start a riot; it quenched one.”
Pop music is a fickle business. Musical styles come in and out of fashion, but classic Motown music has never gone through a period of sounding dated. Why do you think that is?
I feel the same way. It’s because we had classic musicians. Jazz guys; they called them “cats”. The Funk Brothers [backing band on most of the earlier Motown hits] made music that was classic. We had our first recordings with the upright bass, which is not fashionable now. You’ll hear an upright bass in symphonic music, and maybe some jazz musicians will play the upright and soothe your soul, but we had classic musicians. And the Funk Brothers will always be accredited with 50% of the success of Motown.
And most of the acts are still touring. They’re still out there, still working. I saw the Temptations in this city just two nights ago.
They had a big band, didn’t they?
They did. They had a nine piece horn section and a four piece band. There were nineteen people on stage; it was a real production.
Yes, a joyful ear candy! (Laughs) I can guarantee you: any time that you see a Motown act, they’re gonna have horns, they’re gonna have live instrumentation. Very seldom do we work with tracks. The only time we do is when it’s inconvenient for the band. Our aim is to work with live musicians, and to keep live music as happy and current as we can be.
I’m glad you said that. Diana Ross came here last year, and she didn’t have a brass section on stage with her. So it was very strange when she sang Where Did Our Love Go, and you got the sax break on tape…
Ooh, I’d hate to hear that.
You’ve stayed fiercely loyal to Detroit, and you’re now involved in city politics. When did that start?
Three years ago. I was elected to Detroit city council – a lot of people refer to it as “common council” – and I have to be at work in about half an hour! (Laughs)
So you’re sitting on committees?
Making decisions, and helping a lot of people in the city, because a lot of our citizens believe that their voice isn’t heard. We’ve had quite a bit of news lately, and it hasn’t been all good. However, we’re working it out. We’ll always have problems to work our way through. We’ve made the headlines with our mayor, who is now incarcerated. We have an interim mayor, who is doing a very good job of holding the banner until we have a special election. But the city council is standing strong, and we’re continuing.
We’re improving and enlarging our main arena, where we hope to hold our auto show, which is reputed as being the largest in the USA. Detroit is still known for its good music, and we’re working right now on an album produced with the Motown sound, with live musicians who remember how the Motown sound was developed.
How is downtown Detroit? I visited for a couple of days in the early Nineties, and the downtown area seemed so strange to me. There were buildings, but there were so few people.
You should come again, because we have new buildings erected. We’ve got a place called Campus Martius; in the summer we have live performances, and in the winter it’s a skating rink. We have a river walk, and we have a casino, right in the heart of downtown. There’s three casinos altogether. They’ve lit up the city, so we’ve got three major hotels that coincide with the casinos. And we’ve got the Renaissance Centre, which is run by the car manufacturer GM now. So Detroit’s on the move. It’s beautiful, and I’m very proud to be here, and proud to be on the Detroit city council.
Now that we’re in a download culture, most of your back catalogue is just a click away, so we don’t have to go hunting the racks in the record stores. Since we can easily get hold of some of the lesser known songs in your back catalogue, what would you say is your most underrated record, which you’d like people to hear?
Oh, No One There. The audiences that I have performed for have brought it to my attention. They have shouted it out to me, and I sang it a cappella on a tour with Edwin Starr. On that tour, I was made aware that No One There was a big favourite of a lot of people. It’s a ballad, a moody song, and it’s just good to listen to. Very underrated.
I did come across one song, I Should Be Proud…
It was on a [BBC Radio 4] special: a documentary depicting the Vietnam War. It was played for a while, but the CIA thought it was a little too antagonistic. They thought I was asking for trouble, and they took it off the air.
But it’s a good song about a woman whose husband went to a war, and I’m saying that it’s the evils of society. It’s written by one of your native women, Pam Sawyer, and Marilyn McCloud, who collaborated on a song to be the voice of the women who suffered when their husbands were killed in Vietnam. It was a little deep.
So we did a documentary, and it sort of explained how African Americans were treated in the Vietnam War. This was the first war that was integrated. All the other wars were segregated, but the Vietnam War was the first one where everyone was equal and fought the battle side by side. (Pause) We’re part of history, huh? (Laughs)
Despite all the attention that has come her way this year, Laura Marling remains resolutely unfazed by the trappings of stardom. When shortlisted for the Mercury Prize, she fretted that “winning it would have been disastrous for my career”. She regards the rituals of the encore as phoney and ridiculous, opting instead to add her “encore” to the end of her main set. And it’s only recently that she has even consented to wear make-up on stage.
This unadorned, “what you see is what you get” approach suits Marling’s music well, allowing her elegant, articulate and remarkably mature songcraft to shine through. Last night’s show featured several new compositions, easily the equals of her recorded work, including a Christmas song that avoided using the word as that would be “too corny”.
Marling sang quietly and delicately, with immense concentration and a fixed, faraway, unreadable gaze. Her set alternated between solo acoustic performances and full band arrangements, her backing sympathetically provided by a fine four-piece troupe. Violin and stand-up bass were to the forefront throughout, augmented variously by keyboards, drums, banjo, mandolin, squeeze box and clarinet.
The capacity audience couldn’t have been more attentive and respectful. At the age of eighteen, Laura Marling is exactly where she wants to be.
It takes a special kind of boldness to announce to your audience, after the third number, that you’re not wearing any underwear. Despite wrapping her admission in layers of wry self-deprecation, Martha Wainwright’s words came back to bite her later on, as a boorish heckler sought to labour the point. “I really wish I hadn’t said that”, she sighed.
This kind of reckless candour lies at the heart of much of Martha’s material: confessional, twisted, deeply personal songs that can teeter on the brink of over-sharing. On stage at a draughty, under-populated Rock City, her interpretations deftly straddled two competing standpoints: the accuser (“You cheated me, and I can’t believe it!”) and the victim (“My heart was made for bleeding all over you”).
Such dense lyrical complexity demanded much from us, and those with the greatest familiarity with Wainwright’s work derived the greatest rewards. Happily, most of her audience fell into this category, and an atmosphere of fond concentration prevailed.
Saving her most notorious song for the encore, Martha performed BMFA – written as an angry rant at her father – with an affectionate half-smile that suggested that the hatchet had long since been buried.
“Underwear is available in the foyer”, she quipped, truthfully. On the way out, the crush at the merchandise stall was three-deep.
It’s not often that a band serves as its own support act – so it came as some surprise when the four other members of Fleet Foxes shuffled onto the stage, halfway through drummer J Tillman’s solo set, to provide understated backing for a couple of numbers. Their sheer diffidence left you wondering whether they would have the necessary stage presence to carry their own set.
As it turned out, we had no cause for concern. Nudged along by a precision-targeted marketing campaign and a blitz of positive press notices, the Seattle quintet’s self-titled debut album has been one of this year’s slow-burning successes, drawing a capacity crowd to Trent University. The venue’s reliably superb acoustics suited the music perfectly, enabling the band to deliver an exquisite performance to a spellbound audience.
On record, the lush pastoralism doesn’t always convince, erring at times towards the cloying and the twee. On stage, the same songs gained muscularity, range and depth. For all the soaring melodic sweetness of their four-part choral harmonies, Fleet Foxes demonstrated an unexpected grasp of rock dynamics, underpinning their ever-present Brian Wilson influences with echoes of Neil Young’s windblown ruggedness.
Equally unexpected was the band’s dry, sardonic, and somewhat rambling comic banter – although, as was cheerfully admitted, this could just have been due to some particularly heavy doses of cold medication. How else to explain their eulogies to John “The Mav” McCain?
“We want four more years of the same”, they drawled, to hoots of amused disbelief.
“Hey, if it ain’t broke…!”