Tony Reed talks to Somerville and Coles, the Morecambe and Wise of agit-Pop
Jimmy Somerville, a very small man with a grand voice, has turned his back on Bronski Beat's blip-blop agit-Pop and teamed up with Richard Coles, a very tall man with a grand piano. Now the Little & Large of the Left aim to storm the barricades of Pop.
Scurrying office workers don't pay a second glance to the young man sitting on a park bench in the center of this pleasant London square. Why should they? The fifties overcoat. The flat-top. You could see a thousand like them every Sunday down Camden Lock market. Even the battered instrument case beside the lanky, bespectacled figure fits the cliche like a glove. City Limits-anonymous. In five minutes. I'm going to talk to him. A month from now, over 20,000 people, including you, will read the outcome of that conversation.
It's a situation that Richard Coles, classically-trained multi-instrumentalist, gay socialist, and putative pop-star, appreciates. As 50 percent of Jimmy Somerville's Post-Bronski band, The Communards, with a classy chart single and rave live reviews behind him, and an eagerly-awaited album in the offing, this man could walk into the Virgin Megastore on a Saturday afternoon, and be mobbed by indifference.
"...Whereas Jimmy'd be recognised if he walked into Wolverhampton Boots on a rainy Tuesday afternoon!" He laughs.
"I've never wanted 'fame' as such. I like walking down the road without being recognised, shouted at..."
Or beaten up. Jimmy was recently forced to quit the Camberwell council flat he was sharing with his lover following a vicious dawn raid by a gang of 'queerbashers'. The price of fame...
Anonymity presents problems of its own, however. Media interest in The Communards has been directed almost solely at Jimmy, with Richard viewed as little more than a glorified accompanist: "I remember just recently, after a show we had done in Paris — the dressing room filled up with record company people, with bouquets of flowers, booze, all trying to get to Jimmy, and seeing me as some kind of impediment. There he was, surrounded, and I was left trying to put the Portastudio away... It'd be easy for me to say 'fucking Prima Donna', especially when I'm up till four in the morning writing string parts, and he's down some club... Not the most reliable person either. I turned up to a gig once expecting him to have arranged for a CP80 and a DX7, and there was nothing! His mum warned me: 'Och! James has got the brain of a hen!' But he is a great, intuitive musician. At one gig recently, he had a cold, and 10 Pils inside him. He could hardly stand up. But when he opened his mouth, it was fantastic. I could get jealous..."
Despite commercial and personal pressures, both Jimmy and Richard are committed to the absolute equality of their relationship, on every level: "When I first met Jimmy's accountant he was saying to him: '50-50! You don't have to do that. You could have an 80-20 split.' But Jimmy insisted on 50-50; and frankly, I wouldn't have been prepared to work without that. Obviously, on some songs, I'll write more than him, or vice-versa, but it's not something you can quantify in that way. It's the equality of the relationship, the give and take, that counts."
An absence of give and take, amongst other things, finally brought Bronski Beat down: "I think that everybody guarded their own function. Jimmy never got a chance to explore some of the things he's very good at — I leave all the Linn programming to him, because he's much better at it than me." (As the loose, human feel of the drums on You Are My World attests.)
"Jimmy's also beginning to play keyboards a bit, and although his dexterity is obviously limited at the moment, he's very good at finding and using sounds... Obviously, some of the commercial pressures will be the same — having to be in six places at once, miming in front of six hundred Spanish schoolkids with peashooters — they do that you know, give 'em peashooters to attack the guests with...
But it's not the first time round for him anymore, at least he won't have to face the culture shock of moving from a squat to a five-star hotel. We've both talked about this: we know that if we don't put all our energy into promotion, we might drop two places in the Finnish chart or something, but you've got to take the long view. If you don't, when the time comes to record new material, there'll be nothing left but a heap of crap.
The only way to avoid all that is to stop being a singles band — and the record company understand — we're going to do just that. An album and a tour a year'll be just fine."
That's the future. What about the past? Even the record company's habitually effusive press release seems vague on this point. Who is Richard Coles?
His first high-profile involvement with Jimmy came during the last, rocky months of the original Bronski Beat, guesting on sax at a few gigs. But his acquaintanceship with the boy goes back a long way...
"Classical training is geared totally towards interpretation, not creation"
"In fact, I was the first musician ever to play with Jimmy," he grins.
"I was living in Kings Cross at the time, and he was living in a squat opposite the British Museum. Both of us used to spend a lot of time in Russell Square, where we eventually got into the habit of chatting and going to Gay's The Word bookshop for coffee.
"Through going there, we became involved in the Framed Youth video project, for which Jimmy wrote Screaming. A version of it eventually turned up on Age of Consent, but the original was incredibly basic, written around a really cheap rhythm box pattern, with me on sax, and done in a toilet, coz we didn't have any reverb!"
Back then, though, the pair's paths parted; Jimmy of course, to Bronski Beat, and Richard to a variety of projects, including work for recent chart ingenues Two People, and for Pauline Black, late of The Selecter; work cut short subsequently by her other commitments.
At the same time, Richard was putting the classical training garnered from his years at the Royal College of Church Music to remunerative, if not inspiring, use: "Hackwork. Accompanying 60-year old singers at auditions for The Sound Of Music. They'd give me their music in E flat, and say they wanted in B. So I'd play it in E flat anyway, and they'd never even notice!"
Involvement with the theatre dates back to the teenage Richard's decision to forgo a classical music career, following a spectacularly awful moment of truth.
"It was an Easter service, with the local mayor and all these civic dignitaries. I was singing an aria, and had a high F, that had to be held for about a week. That's when my voice broke... Collapsed, really."
Fortunately by this time, his skill and interest in piano had outstripped both singing and early success on the violin. His moment of glory as a chorister over, Richard took that interest with him to drama school, leading eventually to the writing of music for a number of fringe theatre shows both here and in Holland: "Usually just for voices, or a small band... it's something I still enjoy, but don't get much time for... though Jimmy and I do have plans for something, one day — something operatic, maybe Brechtian..."
Classical training has been both a help and a hinderance: "Obviously, for session work, having a good technique and being able to sight-read are essential. I'd also learnt more general things, like how to arrange, how to write string parts — something I'm doing now for our live act, though for the single the record company didn't trust me enough, and got a really good American arranger, Jimmy Biondolillo, in instead — but of course, classical training is geared totally towards interpretation, not creation; at first, when someone took the dots away, I was completely stumped.
"Through my session and theatre work, though, I gradually got into Jazz — singers would always want to do a Bessie Smith number — and once that began, I deliberately didn't look at any classical music for about two years. I find now that it's great to have both. I'm free to improvise with Jimmy, and to know what would be a good related harmony, or how to take a short-cut between keys."
Richard's self-directed delvings into Jazz-piano revealed three great heroes: "Fats Waller, for starting it all off. Art Tatum, for taking Jazz beyond stride piano, and being very creative with harmonies and colour; and Count Basie — the coolest piano-player. I saw him on TV in a head-to-head with Oscar Peterson, playing some old Blues thing. Peterson was being typically virtuosic — massive left-hand strides, clever right-hand stuff... Basie was just — tinkering. And he really showed Peterson up."
"We know that if we don't put all our energy into promotion we might drop two places in the Finnish chart or something"
Present-day players find favour too: "A few years ago, piano-playing wasn't very exciting. But now, I suppose due in part to the so-called 'Jazz revival' — which only means it's being more widely-heard than usual — there are some really good Pop-Rock players about — Jerry Dammers, Jools Holland, Mick Talbot."
His classical background is not to be denied though. A special place is set aside for the player Richard admires most: "Er... are you sure that this is alright for International Musician? I don't want to sound pretentious or anything... My ultimate hero is the classical Italian pianist, Michaelangeli. He's probably best known for his Ravel's G Minor Piano Concerto... a complete nutcase. He only does about three concerts a year, and then doesn't turn up on the night. But... he can make a piano sound like an orchestra..."
Something of the classical purist can also be seen in Richard's insistence on an acoustic piano wherever possible: "Steinways are fine for classical work, but they've got a really heavy action, which is tiring after a while. Bosendorfers are overrated, I think, because they're the most expensive: a vile tone, and the action is fast and uneven — alright for fancy stuff, but I don't enjoy playing them. Give me a Yamaha Grand anytime. All of the studios have got them now. They're good, and you don't have to sell your grandmother to get one — a cousin, maybe, but not your Grandmother..."
For recording, 3 Neumanns are used; for live work, a C-ducer. "Underneath on the right-hand side, I think. At least that's where the wire comes out! A bit plinky-plink, but better than an electric — even if it is a Yamaha!"
The single was recorded in New York. Why was that?
"Two reasons — We wanted to work with Mike Thorne (who also produced The Age of Consent). Secondly — and I know it's the hip thing to say, but it's true — American studios are so much better. Not technically — although almost every studio in New York is SSL, total recall, blah blah, we in fact did a lot of our recording in a really basic studio in Brooklyn that's usually used for Calypso. No, it's attitude — especially amongst session players. ("Including, on backing vocals, BJ Melon whose voice has graced the work of Scritti Politti and Duran Duran, amongst others.)
"...In Britain, you get half an orchestra on their day off, doing it to pay for their holiday. In America, enthusiastic, brilliant players — and Pop is their life. They don't sneer at it. Just look at the band Sting put together..."
Much of The Communards recording is done direct onto Mike Thorne's Synclavier:
"He's just had some new thing stuck on it that costs $100,000. I don't know what it is. Mike did show me the basics — like how to turn the disk-drive on! And I enjoyed playing its weighted keyboard. It's my favourite kind of technology — the kind that doesn't sound like technology. It did all the brass on Why... I'd love one, but we need a few hits first."
The Synclavier will no doubt feature on the projected album, to be recorded over Christmas, and nearing completion as you read this. Meanwhile Richard is looking forward to some more live work. The promotional tour for the album (projected release date: March) will feature a full live band of eight or nine musicians (Quite possibly including Marc Almonds' string section, the Venomettes, with whom The Communards have already worked) and support in the form of a torch-song singing, six-foot four drag queen from Surinam called Richenel, a friend of Richard's from his time in Holland.
More imminently on the agenda, and an issue dear to both Communards, is the Red Wedge Tour, a left-wing Supergroup consisting of themselves, The Style Council, Billy Bragg, Junior, and sundry as yet un-named 'guest-stars' performing in various line-ups: a recent try out at the CND rally in London had all the aforementioned giving Move On Up a pasting.
The Communards are a rare thing; a band taking chances in cautious times, both politically ('Not a good marketing move'), and, as Jimmy's voice is ever more exposed by the laser-beam simplicity of Richard's playing, musically too. In every sense they are a more mature unit than Bronski Beateverwere. This is only the thin end of the Wedge...