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Line-up includes: Oysterband, Kate Rusby, Martyn Joseph, Skerryvore, Daphne’s Flight, Gary Stewart’s Graceland, Phil Beer Band, Steve Knightley (solo), Merry Hell, Edgelarks, Grace Petrie, While Matthews & While, Mankala, Track Dogs, Urban Folk Quartet, Granny’s Attic, Paul Downes, Reg Meuross, Winter Wilson, Rapsquillion, Here at the Fair (folk opera by Mick Ryan), Geoff Lakeman, Chris Elliott & Caitlin Jones.
It’s Derby Day and, as Steve Harley is preparing to go on stage at the Acoustic Festival of Britain, our conversation is punctuated by racing commentaries from Doncaster and Epsom.
“I’ve had one of my biggest bets for five years,” says the 67-year-old. “It’s a horse that my friends own and they swear it’s gonna win. The horse is called Austrian School.”
Apart from forming Cockney Rebel in 1972 and releasing one of the most famous singles of all time, Harley is a passionate racing fan who once co-owned a horse with Mel Smith, so it’s fitting that our interview is taking place at Uttoxeter Racecourse.
Cockney Rebel first entered the UK charts in 1974 with the singles Judy Teen and Mr Soft, although the band’s debut 45, Sebastian, had already been a hit on the continent. However, it was Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) that sealed their place in the annals of rock music, a tune with lyrics that were inspired by unrest amongst Harley’s band members.
“It came out of adversity. We’d had Judy Teen, Sebastian was massive all over Europe, Mr Soft had just been a hit; we were on a roll. Then three members of the band came to me with all these ultimatums, and I said, ‘I can’t do this. It’s my band, I formed the band, you knew I was going to write three albums, a trilogy, and I’m halfway through writing the third album’. And I wrote Make Me Smile about it.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. By the middle of February 1975, Make Me Smile by the renamed Steve Harley And Cockney Rebel was top of the pops, the first of five chart entries that the single would make during the next 40 years.
To Harley’s knowledge, the song has been covered at least 130 times, with notable recordings by Duran Duran and Erasure. However, it was a version by British indie band The Wedding Present that hit the mark with Harley.
“I think it’s very much the best ever. I saw it on Top Of The Pops and I just went, ‘Brilliant! They’re the first ones to get it, they’ve read it right’. They kicked it, they really went for it, angry and finger-poking. I kind of like that.”
Harley describes Make Me Smile as “my pension; I wish I had five or six of them”, but his thirst for songwriting remains undiminished.
“I’ve got a grand piano in the living room, a Roland (keyboard) set up in my study, I’ve got guitars in three rooms, permanently set up on stands, so I play all the time. A couple of hours every day, mostly in the evenings, with a glass of something. So I record all the time.”
An indentured newspaper reporter, Harley has always seen himself as an outsider in terms of his career in music.
“I’ve never felt part of the music industry, I’ve never felt a bonding with them, ’cause deep down I’m an ex-journalist who got lucky with songwriting, but I’m quite good at what I do.
“I really, really feel like it’s my life now, that I belong, that I’ve paid my dues and earned my place, and these kind people (at the Acoustic Festival) are giving me a lifetime achievement award today. I’ve seen the list of previous recipients, and I belong there.”
As a child, Harley suffered from polio. It was during his recuperation that he developed an enduring love for literature, with Ernest Hemingway a particular passion.
“I’ve got a first edition of Hemingway’s To Have And Have Not. I haven’t read any Hemingway for 20 years. He was a massive influence on me. He taught me not to waste words and, here I am, rereading To Have And Have Not, and I’m a chapter in and just going, ‘How did anyone get that good?’
Harley’s love for literature has been reflected in his lyrics. Tumbling Down, the third single off 1974 album The Psychomodo, features the line ‘The Hemingway staccato, the tragic bravado,’ while solo album Poetic Justice’s closing track, Riding The Waves, cites another major influence - Virginia Woolf.
“Woolf was from a special, different place. I can’t have a word against Virginia. You just have to read To The Lighthouse - it’s poetry - and then you’ve got The Waves, in a world of its own. In Riding The Waves, I borrowed from it quite heavily.”
With our interview almost at an end, Harley politely asked if he could watch the Derby, having seen his earlier tip fail to make it into the frame at Doncaster.
“I’m sorry, it’s the Derby, and I might just get my losses back.”
As we watched the horses approach the last half mile, the live stream of the race froze, resulting in a volley of expletives from Harley.
Later, he announced during a very impressive set, albeit one dogged by technical problems, that he’d backed the winner as well as the second-placed horse in the Derby. So all in all it was a good day at the races for the legendary Cockney Rebel, both on the turf at Epsom and on stage at Uttoxeter.
Steve Harley plays Leamington Assembly Rooms, Friday 3 August; Shrewsbury Folk Festival, Friday 24 August and Moseley Folk Festival, Sunday 2 September.
By Stephen Taylor
You’re performing on the final day of Shrewsbury Folk Festival later this month. What can your audience expect from your performance?
Well, it’ll be a collection of stories and songs from the back catalogue of Squeeze, sung by myself, as well as some new songs from my solo record. It’s a general sweep across the Difford board.
You’ll be sharing the stage with the likes of Andy Fairweather Low And The Low Riders, The Wilsons and Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys. Who are you most looking forward to seeing?
Andy I know very well. I love hearing him talk on stage and I love hearing him play, so I’ll definitely be hanging around for Andy. And just whatever else is around - I'm a big fan of the festival and I’m really looking forward to it.
Squeeze are kicking off their Join The Dots UK tour at Symphony Hall on 6 October. Tell us a bit about that…
Well, Squeeze have just recorded their 14th album, The Knowledge, and we’ll be performing probably all of the album on tour because it sounds so good. We’ve got a new bass player called Yolanda Charles, and Steve Smith is joining us on percussion and extra guitar, so it’s a slightly different line-up for Squeeze. As usual we’ll have a full production. Beyond that, I'm not sure how it’s going to be - we haven’t got into rehearsals yet - but we’ll definitely be playing the new album.
Glenn Tilbrook and yourself began your songwriting partnership in 1973. How did that come about?
I put an ad in a sweet-shop window for a guitarist to join a band and he was the only one to answer! For better or for worse we’ve been together for 44 years, which is quite incredible.
And how did you meet the rest of the band?
Glenn was a friend of Jools Holland from school, and the other members of the band just came from auditions or knowing each other.
If you could go back in time to Squeeze’s inception, is there anything you’d do differently?
I don’t think I'd do anything particularly different. Maybe I'd smile a little more.
You’ve curated multiple Songs In The Key Of London events, which have seen the likes of UB40, The Strypes and Sophie Ellis-Bextor perform. Can you tell us anything about the 2018 edition?
We’re looking at dates at the moment. It’s something I've done three times - at Greenwich Park, Regents Park and The Barbican. We’re looking forward to doing it next year and taking it to Australia too. What happens is, as soon as we’ve got a date in place, I pick up the phone and whoever is available at that point joins us on stage.
You’ve hosted songwriter workshops for over 25 years. For any budding songwriters out there, what’s the most important piece of professional advice you could give them?
Be open-minded to change and have realistic boundaries around the songs that you write and the people who you work with. It’s really important to know what you feel about what you do, and to make sure that you reach your goals with that in mind.
What’s your first musical memory?
The first time I really bolted on to any music was when I was having my tonsils out and my older brother bought me a single called Martian Hop by a band called The Ran-Dells. When I listened to it, I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is mad, what sort of band is this? I want to be in a band’.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen happen in the music industry over the years?
Without a doubt, when the internet came along and took over. With Spotify and Apple and Tidal and Amazon and possibly Netflix too, people don’t access music in the way that they used to. It used to be a passion to queue up outside a record shop for a new record - but now, with a click of a button, I can have any music I want from around the world, instantly. There’s no build up - there’s no foreplay, if you like - it’s an instant gratification. I think that’s a little bit sad, but I come from a different generation from the people who like to listen to Ed Sheeran on Spotify.
What’s the most memorable performance of your career?
Squeeze played at the Albert Hall a couple of years ago for the last album, Cradle To The Grave, and that was a really amazing experience. We’d played there before, but we’d just had a new batch of songs and it sounded great. It felt great and everybody was on fire. Apart from that, these days I get a really big thrill from doing my solo shows. I did one in Portsmouth just recently and I think it was one of the best nights I've had as a solo artist.
And what are you most proud of?
There are a lot of things. I think I'm proud of our very first EP, which was called Packet Of Three, because it opened so many doors for us. It was wild to record, it was lots of fun - we were all jumping about on stage in those days. You can’t ever have that energy back because with age it just doesn’t happen. Packet Of Three for me would be the biggest turning point.
What does the future hold for Chris Difford?
We have the Squeeze album out, hopefully in October alongside the tour. We go to America with Squeeze and then, after that, it’s an open book. I like having very far-off horizons to aim for.
Chris Difford will be performing at Shrewsbury Folk Festival on Monday 28 August and Squeeze will be playing Symphony Hall on 6-7 October
Interview by Lauren Foster
Tom Robinson reunites with former bandmates at Shrewsbury Folk Festival
It’s been 40 years since Tom Robinson shot to chart success with his first single, 2-4-6-8 Motorway, an anniversary he’s set to celebrate with a new tour in October.
Since 1977, the singer, songwriter and bassist has gone on to enjoy a varied and prolific career working on both sides of the music industry. Now a familiar voice on BBC Radio 6 as well as the founder of the pioneering Fresh On The Net blog, he’s spent the last few years cultivating a reputation for championing new music, though in 2015 he surprised fans by releasing his first studio album in nearly 20 years.
But it’s as part of a much more short-lived trio that he’s appearing at Shrewsbury Folk Festival this summer - a surprise rekindling of the Faith, Folk And Anarchy project that saw him collaborate with Martyn Joseph and Show Of Hands’ Steve Knightley in the early noughties. Initially unsure about a reunion, the group were eventually won over to the idea by the organisers’ enthusiasm.
“It was Shrewsbury’s idea,” says Robinson. “There was somebody in the management of the festival who thought, ‘I remember that - it was great!’”
Faith, Folk And Anarchy was the title given to the only album the trio ever recorded, in 2001. The accompanying 2002 tour was then followed by a brief reunion two years later.
“It was a very special project because it was three lead singers, and I hadn’t really been in that kind of situation since the early ’70s. Steve and Martyn are also both fantastic songwriters, and so we had the output of three songwriters’ brains instead of just one. There’s a big difference between that and singing backing vocals or playing bass on someone else’s songs. But almost immediately after that first tour, I got the job at 6 Music. Steve and Martyn both had busy schedules too, so it was hard to find time to put together any more dates. This is just a one-off, but in a way I think that’s quite nice because it makes it all the more special.”
Thirteen years after the band’s last outing, Robinson is looking forward not only to working with his former bandmates again, but also to enjoying a good catch-up.
“I’ve never been as relaxed and at home on stage as I was on that first tour with Faith, Folk And Anarchy because the whole thing was founded on our friendship. When you’re just on stage with your mates, none of you is trying to prove anything.
“Steve and I do bump into each other at folk events and occasionally get up and sing together, but I haven’t seen as much of Martyn because he works across the Atlantic so much. He’s gigging almost non-stop, except when he’s rescuing children in remote parts of the world. He’s an amazing man, Martyn - the activism and the charity work he does just puts the rest of us to shame.”
As a keen folk fan himself, Tom’s also hoping to check out some of the other acts appearing at Shrewsbury this year, though he confesses he hasn’t yet had time to properly investigate the line-up.
“Musically, most of the really interesting stuff I hear coming through at 6 Music is roots and acoustic. There’s a whole generation of folk artists in their 20s and 30s who are really innovating in terms of the noise they’re making - people like Sam Lee or Eliza Carthy. Even an apparently traditional duo like Will Pound and Eddy Jay - they play harmonica and accordion, and you think, what could be more of a finger-in-the-ear, folky cliché than that? But technically and stylistically, they’re really pushing the boundaries of those instruments, and it’s absolutely breathtaking.
“I think there’s a misperception and a great ignorance out in the wider world about what folk is and what it can be, partly because the BBC doesn’t cover it enough. It only gives us one hour a week of folk music on Radio Two, which is nothing when you consider that there are more folk festivals in this country than any other kind of music festival. I think there are just under 400 every year in England alone, and then another hundred or so in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, so there’s a phenomenal demand and appetite for this music out there, which the BBC should be paying more attention to.”
Fortunately, as a BBC Radio DJ himself, Robinson has gone some way towards plugging this gap on his own show, although with around 200 tracks a week to listen to from across all different genres, folk can only account for a fraction of the music that he plays.
“I feel a bit like a poacher turned gamekeeper, having spent a good 30 years on the outside, knocking on doors and trying to get my own music onto Radio One. But to now be on the other side and to be the person making the calls about what gets included and what doesn’t, I’ve learned so much about the mechanics of it, what’s needed and why some things work or don’t.”
Anyone can submit a track to Robinson for consideration both on his show and on the independent Fresh On The Net blog he runs with a growing team of enthusiastic contributors.
“It’s really nice having a separate outlet where we can get behind stuff that the BBC wouldn’t necessarily play. We have 20 moderators, and about a dozen active in any given week, so anyone who sends us a track between Monday and Thursday will be listened to by those 12. I don’t think there’s anywhere else on the web that guarantees submissions will be heard by that many people of all different tastes. It provides a safety net, so there’s little chance of anything getting missed in the deluge, and even if I don’t like something, someone else might go completely crazy for it.”
Not content with only operating a groundbreaking music blog, Robinson has fully embraced online media and its many tools, crowdfunding his last album, Only The Now, via PledgeMusic, as well as finding its graphic designer by networking on social media.
“It’s the future for all of us now - I don’t think music is different from anything else. We all have to find our way in a world where it’s getting harder and harder to get paid for your work, but at the same time, your potential for finding a worldwide audience is expanding exponentially.”
Promoting other people’s work might take up most of his time these days, but as his family has grown up and moved out, he’s found himself with more time to pursue new endeavours, leading to the release of his 2015 album. For now, however, he’s focusing on a completely different project.
“Recently I’ve been trying to write a memoir, but I’m not getting very far with it at the moment. I’ve had quite a strange, very blessed life over the years, from my first nervous breakdown at the age of 16 to living in East Germany in my 30s, plus all the bizarre and interesting people I’ve met. So there is a story there that I’d like to get written down before I shuffle off this mortal coil. But it’s hard because as you get into your 60s, it’s a race against declining memory!”
Tom Robinson performs with Faith, Folk & Anarchy at Shrewsbury Folk Festival on Monday 28 August.
For the full festival line-up, visit shrewsburyfolkfestival.co.uk
By Heather Kincaid
So, what was the first song I heard on the first night of Shrewsbury’s Folk Festival this year? A Beatles song. ‘Eight Day A Week”, sung on the What’s On Launchpad Stage by three very talented Shrewsbury girls who call themselves ‘Effervescent’. Their debut single made it to ‘Song of The Month’ on Radio Shropshire and now they’re being given a public stage to show their style. Maybe Beatles songs qualify as ‘folk’ these days.
There was an all-female line up for the first gig in the Pengwern Marquee too. ‘Midnight Skyracer’ are a relatively new five-piece British Bluegrass band – guitar, double bass, fiddle, banjo and mandolin. They finger picked their way through a wide repertoire from the Hill Billy genre, adding bottle neck slide guitar for the happy hop-along ‘Working Girl Blues’. A happy Blues? Whatever next?
The all sang, and their vocals often had a biting edge with a touch of snarl about them; ranging to a plaintiff wail and just a hint of yodel. This outfit is as tight as a pair of pre-shrunk jeans - slick, toe-tapping stuff. It was Tabitha the banjo player’s birthday and the audience obliged with the usual chorus.
The main Bellstone Tent is the size of a football pitch and announced itself with a fabulous act from Dublin and County Clare. It’s one of the joys of the Festival to stumble upon artists you’ve never heard of, and be blown away. The Derry Farrell Trio consists of the flat-capped, ex-electrician Derry himself on bouzouki and vocals, a wonderful Uilleann Pipe player - Blackie O’Connell - with the nimblest fingers you could wish for and the ability to find extra drones at the same time, and Robbie Walsh on the Bodhran ... which is a hand held Irish drum resembling a big tambourine but without the jingles. What he could do with this most simple of instruments defies belief.
With a ‘beater’ in one hand and the other variably caressing the drumskin, he launched into a breath-taking five minute drum solo. It was the folk equivalent of all those 70s Prog-Rock drum solos in which the rest of the band leave the stage to have a cup of tea. He squeezed the most amazing notes and rhythms out of the beast and capped it all off with a perfectly recognisable renditioning of ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’. I’ve never heard an audience sing along to drum solo before. Roll over Ringo!
The other highlight for me was a fine version of an Irish song that translates as ‘The Crying Of Women Amongst The Slaughter’…. a fabulous ballad that stilled the tent.
In the intimate Sabrina marquee, I made my acquaintance with ‘Inlay’ – a four- piece folk band that has emerged from Norwich University. This is more studious music – as precisely arranged as a classic quartet. There was, for example, an unlikely but most successful pairing of the spiritual ‘The Water Is Wide’ and the Gloucester Hornpipe.
Guitarist James Porter has a box of tricks as his feet that allows him to produce deep-throated bass reverb and activate a modern tape loop device to build soundscapes as he goes along; duetting and even playing trios with the tunes he has just recorded. The result is called ‘The Waves Set’ and it is aurally embracing. The band still feels short on identity and they did tend to out-smart the sound engineer from time to time. One to watch.
The main act last night was the seventies superstar Steve Harley with his band Cockney Rebel. It’s great that the Festival is brave enough to break the boundaries…and this was very much a rock pop gig - with a folk fiddle for width. And what did they start with? A Beatles song : a very up-tempo version of ‘Here Comes The Sun’ – before breaking into ‘Judy Teen’ and their regular catalogue.
The tent was bouncing along to a driving set. Steve Harley is a ‘no messing’ artist – ploughing on from song to song with a completely undiminished voice. Though he did do the show sitting on a stool because of his hip … and chatted to the crowd about his grandchildren. It happens to us all.
Still to come are appearances by the folk-rock giants Steeleye Span and Show of Hands. I’ve been told I must not miss Turin Brakes (especially as I have missed them for the past 17 years) and I’m honour-bound to watch my old mate Johnny Coppin who, for old times sake, is teaming up once more with Phil Beer for an hour on Sunday. Johnny will doubtless be including some of his many Shropshire songs in his set…including my all-time favourite ‘On A Hill In Shropshire’ – a poem by Margery Lea he set to music for Radio Shropshire 30 years ago. Both he and his music are still as fresh as a daisy.
Reviewed by Chris Eldon Lee
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