Friday 7 November 2014

Pick up thy Telecaster and walk… an interview with Wilko Johnson

Wilko photograph courtesy of Daily Mirror

Biblical jokes aside, it really is a miracle, for if truth bears out, the second coming of Wilko Johnson will match, in modern terms, anything you might find in the good book.

18 months ago he sold out multiple nights at London’s Koko and other places, not only on the strength of his popularity and immense talent, but because also – and the man himself stated as much – it was going to be his last tour. And that he would die from pancreatic cancer by Christmas. ‘Great,’ quipped Wilko. ‘I fucking hate Christmas.’

Bravado aside, and of course a sense of humour comes in handy in such grim circumstances, it seems the doctors may have got it wrong. This is of little comfort to cancer sufferers who have been accurately diagnosed, or the misdiagnosed for whom the kind of column inches that attract the attention of one of the country’s most eminent surgeons are a distinct impossibility.

Wilko went under the knife at Addenbrookes hospital in Cambridge in April 2014 and has since announced he is ‘cancer free’. Fans rejoiced in the news that he may live to strum another day, and much of this may be down to his positive attitude towards his cancer, and life in general.

I visited Wilko in April of 2013, shortly after news of his impending death hit ‘BBC Breakfast’ and other media platforms. And as I left his house, we were fully expecting not to see each other again.

This is what Wilko said:

“We had a great time in Japan in January. We did these gigs and raised a lot of money for the disaster fund. I got a letter from the president of the Japanese Red Cross. We’ve got a lot of good friends out there. This lady I know – she’s such a beautiful spirit - was having dinner with us in Kyoto, it was about midnight, and suddenly she had to leave. She works at the 7-11. The next morning about five we got a cab to Osaka to catch our plane home. We were at the airport and just about to go through into the, er, what do you call it… the forbidden zone? And she was standing there at the barrier. She must have come straight from working all night and made it from Kyoto to Osaka. She’s got leukaemia. She said, ‘Come back to Japan in the cherry blossom time.’ I told her, ‘If I’m still standing, I’ll come back to Japan.’ I couldn’t get back for cherry blossom time, all the hotels were full, but I am going in about a week’s time.

I’ve been living my life ever since January trying to do this and that and wondering if I’ll be alright. We did Japan, France, and while I was in Japan all this global interest started to pick up. I’d had the diagnosis and planned to do a farewell gig on Canvey Island. The specialist said I could expect to feel fit for six months maybe. So we thought right, let’s do a tour. When we embarked on it I just didn’t know if this was gonna hit me, but fortunately I got through it. We played two gigs in Guernsey, and I was getting this flu. Just before that I did the thing with Madness outside BBC Television Centre. It was so cold on that stage with all the horrible icy snow coming in. I stayed inside until it was time to do my bit, but those Madness guys were out there for an hour, freezing.

Then it starts sinking in that there won’t be any more tours. We’ve done some recording. We’ve got a few tracks down. Maybe I’ve got enough for a double album…

I’ve had so many communications… it was a surprise to me. All this interest broke while I was in Japan. My manager put a piece in the local paper apologising because we missed the Canvey Island show, saying I’d been hospitalised. Then they reported that I’d got cancer. Somehow or other the nationals picked it up. I don’t know why. My brother thinks it was because I’d got cancer and was refusing treatment.”

[At this point I ‘apologise’ to Wilko for confessing that I had Tweeted the local paper news the day it was published, which was 24 hours before it appeared online and hit the national press. I gained about 50 Twitter followers immediately, and had at least one national newspaper contact me to see if I knew any more (which I didn’t). ‘So it was your fault,’ said Wilko, I think good-naturedly.]

“When I got back from Japan it was all happening. Every day there are people coming around from the papers and whatnot. I think it’s been because of my attitude to it. But my attitude isn’t something that I thought out, or planned, it was just the way I felt, this elation I felt after I got the diagnosis. It was a fantastic feeling. I was really high. Everybody asks themselves what they would do if told they had only a few months to live. ‘How would I feel?’ But for me it was nothing like you imagine. It was a fantastic feeling.

When they told me – the doctor was pretty good about it – he said, ‘You’ve got this lump.’ I knew, I could feel it, and he told me it was my pancreas. He said, ‘Unfortunately we can’t operate on this.’ That was the first little inkling I got. ‘You’ve got cancer.’ I just nodded. I though OK. It was as if he was telling me a fact I’d known all my life. It didn’t freak me, or anything. Walking out of the hospital, I felt like ‘Wow!’ It don’t half make you feel alive. I was feeling absolutely fine in myself. That’s the mad thing. Yet knowing that you’re dying. I’m not looking forward to the process.

This was all just before Christmas [2012]. Then in January I went in to see the specialist and she told me that… well, I’ve got less than a year. I could maybe expect to feel fit for another six months. She told me they can’t operate on it. It’s inoperable. I’d already decided I didn’t want chemotherapy. What is the point? I’ve got a little bit more time feeling well, what’s the point in deliberately making myself ill? Leaving it to its own devices, I’ve got maybe nine or ten months. With chemotherapy I could have maybe a year! Feeling like shit [laughs]. There is no question of curing it, all it would do is slow it down for a short while. So there’s really nothing that can be done. I’ve had to accept that.

They say you go through all these stages… disbelief, anger… I haven’t had any of that. When they told me, I believed them.  What’s to get angry about? Am I going to write a letter to the council or something? I realise my life has come to its close, and there’s something positive in that, in a way. I walk in the street and see all these people, living like we all live, under the shadow of mortality. They’re all going to die one day. But for me, the issue is decided. It’s not this spectre that we put off into the indefinite future.

I think I’m feeling more and more isolated actually. I absolutely accept it, and I just want to make the most of the time I’ve got. Hence the trips to Japan.”

Do you think the elation you’ve felt is a reflection of your general state of mind throughout your life?

“Well, I’ve always been a miserable so and so, and my normal default position is to be miserable [laughs] and so when I felt this high, I thought I was going to come crashing down from it, it’s just a reaction, but I didn’t come crashing down from it.”

Why are you so miserable, is it depression?

“I wish I knew. I was talking to my brother about it last week. He was telling me I’d always been like this, ever when I was a teenager, which my brother can’t understand. Since the diagnosis… upstairs in my room it’s really groovy. I’ve got all my things in there, my big TV, it’s really cosy, and I sit there surrounded by my stuff. One night I was thinking how great it is sitting in there, just digging being in there. Whereas before, I just thought it was nice, but I was really pissed off! Suddenly that was lifted away. All the things you might be brooding about, they don’t matter. Things that have happened in the past, there’s no helping them now, and there’s no point worrying about the future because there is no future.

All you’ve got is the minute you’re in. It’s great existing at this minute. There’s no point in wishing for more. More, I’m not gonna get.”

18 months later…

Interview transcript to be continued…

Friday 24 October 2014

Alvin Stardust remembered

There was once a local rumour that his mum ran the newsstand on Wickford Station (eastbound side), but that may have been someone’s ‘Jealous Mind’ when the mighty Alvin Stardust dominated the UK hit parade, circa 1973.

Despite his ludicrous leather cat-suit and platforms higher than, well, the platform at Wickford Station, I had a sneaking admiration for the man I recognised as the late ‘Shane Fenton’ (born Bernard Jewry), who led The Fentones (drummer Bobby Elliott, later of the Hollies, check out ‘The Mexican’) and enjoyed semi hits such as ‘I’m A Moody Guy’ (1961), and ‘Cindy’s Birthday’ (1962), blonde locks and all.

Then he rose as the mighty Alvin, with monstrous sideburns and a jewel encrusted leather glove, sinister in the extreme. Amazingly, his teenage audience was not scared, or deterred from buying his 45s by the ton. Then, for the third phase of his recording career, still hanging onto to his ‘Alvin Stardust’ persona, he rather surprisingly turned up on Stiff Records with a great version of fifties rocker Carl Mann’s ‘Pretend’ (you’re happy when you’re blue). It was Stiff’s Dave Robinson who saw the potential for a re-sprinkling of Stardust, and staged his rebirth.

Around 1983, I found myself in the studio with Alvin, courtesy of Stiff, when he recorded a cover version of ‘Laughter Turns To Tears’, a song I’d co-written with ex-Rockpile guitarist, Billy Bremner. extract here, play clip

I remember Alvin turning up at Nick Lowe’s tiny AmPro studio in Shepherd’s Bush. It was a good job he wasn’t wearing the giant shoulder pads. We later transferred to Eden Studios in Chiswick, and I recall that when we retired for a break at a nearby pub, the polite and mild-mannered Alvin determinedly sat with his back to the busy room to avoid attention, such was the scale of his celebrity, even at that late stage.

He was once famously married to actress Lisa Goddard, and was, I believe, a Master of Wine, not that he would ever dream of mentioning the fact. As a journeyman pop singer he was not averse to entrusting his light but expressive vocal skills to hit producers such as Mike Batt, who wrote and produced the 1983 hit ‘I Feel Like Buddy Holly’, or Jonathan King, who produced Alvin’s creditable cover of Springsteen’s ‘Growin' Up’. view on Youtube

Then the bastard cancer got him – prostate - that most insidious variety that lurks in the back passage of many a groovy old boy. It’s said that more men die with it, than from it, which is of dubious comfort. A PSA test, free on the NHS to over 65s, is available:  

Alternatively, a regular physical check up is recommended, even of it means a doctor’s finger up the jacksie for five eye-watering seconds. If in doubt, get checked out:  

Meanwhile, Alvin, have ‘A Wonderful Time Up There’. I really loved your ‘Coo Ca Choo’.

Friday 19 September 2014

Pure, undiluted Squeeze

The imminence of the Glenn Tilbrook / Chris Difford tour as ‘The At Odds Couple’ in the autumn of 2014, and reports of Danny Baker's upcoming TV series Cradle To Grave featuring new Squeeze songs, have reminded me to revisit a piece I wrote for Mojo back in 1996. It is reprinted below.

In reviewing the original text, which was simply a list of my favourite Squeeze songs, I see that I omitted ‘Some Fantastic Place’, a song that today I would immediately insert in a collection of 12. In fairness to my oversight, ‘Some Fantastic Place’ was a relatively new song at the time of writing the piece and had not fully sunk in, but today I hear it as one of their best. Here is the original piece:

"The Indians send signals from the rocks above the pass / The cowboys take position in the bushes and the grass…”
In the beginning the signals that Squeeze sent out were of the mixed variety. Saucy song titles; a vague punk veneer; an EP produced by John Cale; management by Miles Copeland (a former Wishbone Ash man).  Not surprisingly, many were disinclined to investigate their early Cheap Trick-ish power pop and general toilet talk, but with the release of Cool For Cats a distinct musical direction started to emerge in songs like ‘Revue’ and ‘Goodbye Girl’. By the time of Argybargy, most of the flab had been cut away to reveal a pop group of the highest calibre. And it was always the combination of Chris Difford’s words and Glenn Tilbrook’s urgent melodies and McCartneyesque vocal that distinguished the group’s greatest songs. These are they:
‘Up The Junction’
From Cool For Cats (A&M) 1979
“She said she’d seen a doctor and nothing now could stop her…”
Several early Squeeze songs took their titles from British films of the 1960s and early TV pop shows, providing an irresistible point of reference for the slightly older listener. ‘Up the Junction’ is a skillful story full of deliberate nearly rhymes – happen / Clapham, common / forgotten, assumption / junction, etc, welded to an unforgettable melody. Possibly their most dearly-loved song.
‘Goodbye Girl’ 
From Cool For Cats (A&M) 1979
“The sunlight on the lino…”
I once heard that Dave Edmunds was asked to consider recording this song, but he left his copy of the record on the parcel shelf of his Jag and it ended up flowerpot-shaped.

‘Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)’ 
From Argybargy (A&M) 1980
“Coach drivers stand about, looking at a local map…”
Opening the breakthrough Argybargy, this is a song about holidays, day trips and, I think, sexual activity thereon. Whether it’s a beano to Brighton or a week in Waikiki (where “surfers drop their boards and dry…”), the lyrical detail is dense – “a he-man in a sudden shower shelters from the rain…”, two fat ladies window-shop for “something for the mantelpiece…” A quick glance behind the chalet and the song is complete.
‘Another Nail For My Heart ‘
From Argybargy (A&M) 1980
“She made a call to a sympathetic friend and made arrangements…”
Argybargy track two and the melodies are stacking up faster than 747s over Middlesex. Tilbrook’s hoarse vocal is less choirboy-ish than usual. There’s that little ‘Waterloo Sunset’ lick in the guitar break. I’ve never been able to work out the exact words of the chorus. They sound like “So play the song that makes it so tough…” and “In the bar the piano has found… another nail for my heart.” Answers on a postcard…

‘Woman’s World’ 
From East Side Story (A&M) 1981
“Whistles to the radio now (sic), every hook she catches…”
A majestic guitar intro gives way to a tale of domestic drudgery… “but she likes to wear the crown of the kingdom.” Men may iron or change the bed, but rarely without being asked. Whatever they say about equality, it’s usually the girls who end up doing the shitty jobs. The sheer repetition of household chores is captured perfectly at the end of the song – “press the button on the toaster… tuck the sheets in on the bed… it’s a Woman’s World.” Makes you wanna go down the pub.
‘Is That Love ‘ 
From East Side Story (A&M) 1981
“You’ve left the ring by the soap, now is that love?”
An up-tempo power pop classic, it you’ll excuse the term, and more domestic tension. Is that what produced this amazing run of great songs in 1980?  “Legs up with a book and a drink…”  It beats hanging around in bars. The false ending always catches out half the audience at Squeeze concerts. Are they, God forbid, unfamiliar with ‘Is That Love’ and its host LP?
‘Vanity Fair’ From East Side Story (A&M) 1981
“She poses foot on a chair, coconut shy but vanity fair…”
Glenn with strings, in a moving portrait of every young girl’s growing pains… She “has her eyes on medallion men that get her home on the dot at ten…”  When she “comes home late with another screw loose, she swears to have had just a pineapple juice…” She “might not be all there” but every line, I swear, is a tearjerker.
From East Side Story (A&M) 1981
“I said to my reflection let’s get out of this place…”
“Past the church and the steeple, the laundry on the hill…” The laundry on the hill! This is the absolute pinnacle of Difford and Tilbrook’s genius, with the bonus of Paul Carrack’s vocal, interrupted by Tilbrook’s cameo in the second verse – “I’m at the car park, the airport, the baggage carousel…” Elvis Costello’s falsetto and deep-voiced interjections produce the surprises, while Carrack’s growl at 3.19 is a landmark in his distinguished vocal career.
‘Man For All Seasons’ 
(by Difford and Tilbrook) 
From Difford & Tilbrook (A&M) 1984
A brief and invigorating track from a breakaway ‘project’. After East Side Story, where was there to go?  Funny, this group business. Imagine the Beatles disband after Revolver and John and Paul make Sgt Pepper as a duo. No ‘Within You, Without You’, that’s for sure. From this point on, memorable songs from Squeeze are a little thinner on the ground. In fact, we have to leap forward five years to locate their next stroke of pop greatness…

‘If It’s Love’ 
From Frank (A&M) 1989
“If it’s love, that would really explain it, how I feel like I’m covered in wool…”
The way Tilbrook twists and stretches the melody on the word “love” throughout the song is a source of pure enjoyment. It’s particularly affecting at 0.52 and 2.22.
‘Cupid’s Toy’
  From Play (Reprise) 1991
“This boy doesn’t give love, this boy doesn’t get love…”
String-laden standout from otherwise ambitious LP that evokes memories of listening to Smokey Robinson records in an otherwise charmless disco where an empty-headed Casanova “stalks the club with eagle eyes…” He has “a pea for a brain, a spud for a heart.” Where does all this inspiration come from and where, one might ask, does it go?
‘Electric Trains’
 From Ridiculous (A&M) 1995
“I played a willow cricket bat guitar…”
Light at the end of the tunnel; proof that, although Chris and Glenn may have spent the odd night in the sidings, an express can come along at any moment.
Will Birch ©

First published in Mojo, January 1996

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Wednesday 13 August 2014

Mickey Jupp - boxette

Next month sees the release of Kiss Me Quick Squeeze Me Slow – a collection of recordings by Mickey Jupp, spanning three CDs and one DVD (from Repertoire Records).

If you’re reading this, you probably know all about Mickey, his cracking songs, his fantastic voice, his unmistakeable rock’n’roll-ness, and his somewhat troubled career over four decades and more. If you don’t know about any of it and have accidentally happened on this blog by mis-keying a search for Vicky Jubb (no relation), you may not have come to the wrong place. Here is your chance to acquaint yourself with some great music.

I will not attempt to re-tell the Jupp story here, because it is contained in the liner notes I had the pleasure of contributing for this imminent compendium. Instead, I would simply like to focus on just a few of my favourite Jupp recordings that are contained in the box.  Each of these songs reflects a cornerstone of his enviable talent.

‘Lorraine Part 2’ (from Legend aka ‘The Red Boot Album’, 1971) demonstrates Jupp’s skill in writing what is essentially a plea ballad to a lost love that sneakily twists itself into a rhythm and blues testification worthy of the great Arthur Alexander. Packed with emotion, it showcases a voice that was maturing nicely at age 26, when this recording was made.

‘Brother Doctor, Sister Nurse’ (from Juppanese, 1978) – epitomises Jupp at the piano, totally in command of the groove, and is easily as good as anything that the Rolling Stones wrote and recorded around this time. ‘The pain in my heart is getting worse… I’m in a bad way, will you, see me first?’ Maybe, but the question is, if Mickey gets up off of the operating table, will he be able, to ‘love again’?

‘Make It Fly’ (from Long Distance Romancer, 1979) is an intimate country ballad, rare in the Jupp canon, in which he addresses his departed lover and accepts that she may have found the right guy elsewhere. Of course he’s hoping she’ll think twice. But if that’s what she wants, maybe she can ‘get it off the ground and make it fly’. ‘If he’s alright with you’, he tells her, charitably, ‘he’s alright with me’. Then, with ‘at times like this the words don’t come flowing’ (knowing full well they do), and, with just a hint of Dylan in his voice, ‘it’s hard to say exactly what I mean’ ('yeah, right'), he knows he’s planted the seed of doubt. But in Mickey’s songs, the girls are never going to come back. Because there will always be more songs to write.

‘Standing At The Crossroads Again’ (from As The Yeahs Go By, 1991) – as covered by Dave Edmunds and others, is a Jupp track that swings like no other, and imagines a surreal encounter with two blues greats at that mythical junction where the devil hangs out.  Its chorus: ‘I’m standing at the crossroads again / with an empty heart and a dollar ten; Maybe I’ll bump in to some famous names, Robert Johnson, Elmore James / I’m standing at the crossroads again.’ Amen.

For release date, full track listing, and to order (UK):

A Mickey Jupp Biography by Mike Wade is in the works, for possible publication around 2015.

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