Veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the latest installment of his inquisitive column
It’s the 45th edition of Famous Quotes, a little quiz where the basic question remains: Who said this?
It’s a deep dive into my published and non-published archives, quotes culled from 40+ years of yakking with rock ‘n’ rollers of all stripes – on the phone, in a bar, at a restaurant, backstage, scenarios from the penthouse to the pavement as the old Heaven 17 song has it.
I give you the situation and the quotes; you guess who spoke those words back when.
1. This post-punk English band started off with a snarl. In fact, the closing two tracks of their first album are two of the most cynical, propulsive and anti-romantic songs you could imagine. In a few years, the band’s sound softened – love ballads, edges sanded off. In 1994, I was talking with the band’s (then former) lead singer. His group had been jettisoned up to the mainstream – playing the huge outdoor summer sheds at one point – in part because of the title song they’d contributed to a teen movie.
But they’d remade it, de-fanged it, prettied it up. He said told me: “You know what? I’ve been playing [that song] every tour we’ve done since 1982 and that’s a long time. I don’t know [if it sunk the band] but it wasn’t like we wrote the song for [the director]. But we shouldn’t have revamped it. We should have just left it alone. The film was pretty dreadful, too.”
By that point, he’d left that first band was fronting another. He recalled the (then) final days of that first band, touring behind their fifth album: “We’d been on the road six weeks and I said, ‘God, I hate this tour and I hate this album. When the tour was finished, I was incredibly depressed. It’s also the baggage when you’ve been in a band that long, people say you’ve got to play this whole list of songs and I wanted to get away from that.”
The others convinced him that if they were going to pack it in, they should go out with some rougher songs. They did that, making another album and going on a tour where they didn’t play their big romantic ballad.
So, he had a new band and a new record, eponymous. That group lasted until 1997 and one more album. By 2000, the original band was back together again and they have toured regularly and they’ve got an upcoming co-headline tour from another Brit band from that era.
2. In the ‘90s, he’d been the lead guitarist and musical director for one of the biggest names in rock. After that long ride, he signed on to play guitar on tour with a very well-known English post-punk-cum-goth band on their 2012 tour, mostly European festival dates. After a couple of weeks on the road, he was alone in the front of the tour bus, the band en route to the next gig. One of the guys came up to him and said to come to the rear of the bus as the band’s leader – the singer-guitarist-main songwriter – wanted to speak with him.
He goes back. They’re all sitting in a circle, the band leader blocking the door “in case I was gonna make a run for it while we’re traveling down the highway,” the guitarist says.
Band leader: “Well, it’s been going great, we’re getting along great, the band has possibly the best vibe we’ve ever had.”
The band leader then says “but” and pauses.
“In my mind, when somebody says ‘but’ you’re not going to get to hear what you want to hear,” the guitarist says. “You get to hear what they want to tell you, which is very often not the same thing. And he let it hang, and I’m looking at everybody else and their arms are folded and it’s looking like I ran over their dog or something and, I go ‘But what?’
Bandleader: “But we want to know if you want to join the band.”
Guitarist: “Then they all started laughing. It was a practical joke at my expense. I was in the [band] if I wanted to be. And, of course, I did.”
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3. Their world is one of modest, but lingering, pleasures. Some on the light side, others darker, not unlike one of the band’s primary influences, the Velvet Underground. The like repetition, they like a good drone, they like beauty.
In 1999, his band had achieved what you might call mid-level success in the alt-rock world (a term he hates) and career aspirations. The band’s leader, the singer-guitarist-songwriter, is content. “I suppose I dreamed of being a rock star and being at the top of the charts and fantastically wealthy and all of that, and I guess in some ways it’s a childish fantasy,” he says. “But I have been able to make a living making records for a while. And there are other avenues of picking up a little money, doing stuff for film or TV commercials, which is not my favorite thing to do.”
Their then-current album was another strong effort. It concluded with a cover of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” (no Googling!). It was initially played in concert as a bit of a goof, but rendered on disc without irony or condescension. It is also rendered without an Axl Rose kind of yowl, and sung softly, with feeling.
The first thing was to “slow it down,” he says. (His band had been playing this song before Sheryl Crow covered it for the Big Daddy soundtrack.) “Everyone in Europe thinks this has to be a joke,” he says, adding he simply liked its emotional pull. “If we’d done ‘Welcome to the Jungle,’ that would have been silly.”
4. It’s almost the turn of the century and I’m talking with this guitarist – a co-leader of one of Britain’s first-to-record punk bands – who admits there are advantages and disadvantages to being a middle-aged punk rocker.
Advantages: “You don’t have to grow up, which I quite enjoy. You get a certain amount of freedom. And you can still be an angry middle-aged [agitator], ’cause there’s still the same foul things going on in the world.”
Disadvantages: “Well, you’re open to accusations of being old fuckers and hypocrites . . . but I’m a guitarist. I know me way around the fretboard now, and it’s something that I do. I mean, people don’t tell plumbers to give up at 40 years old. And I absolutely love it; I like the noise we make; I like meeting the people; the travel bit is brilliant.”
He and the lead singer have been part of the band forever – excepting those times when they’ve broken up – and others have come and gone. At this point, he says, “It’s the nicest lineup we’ve ever had. A malevolent air has lifted. [The singer] who can be very cynical, is in the best mood he’s ever been in, and it all comes from an absent member not being here.”
While they began as a punk band, they’ve also become explored goth and psychedelia, but on stage they are most certainly a punk band in spirit, enjoying the idea of a set that is gloriously out of control – or at least fostering the illusion thereof.
“It was last night,” he says. “We’ve ended up cuts and bruises on this tour, stuff like that, so things are going pretty much as usual, which is quite nice.”
The guitarist will still will drop his trousers upon occasion and run about naked as a jaybird. “It has been known to happen,” he says, “but I don’t feel the need to do it all it all time. Unfortunately, it seems to happen when I’ve been at the tequila. Same when I fluff off a few notes – it’s the tequila.”
Answers: 1) Richard Butler, Psychedelic Furs and Love Spit Love, the song “Pretty in Pink,” now on tour with Squeeze; 2) Reeves Gabrels is the guitarist, The Cure is the band and Robert Smith is the band leader. He played with Tin Machine and later with David Bowie, when he resumed his solo career, 3) Dean Wareham from Luna, 4) Captain Sensible from the Damned, the singer is Dave Vanian.
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