One of pop's pretty faces forsakes teen screams in search of artistic credibility - but has he got what he came for? Tim Goodyer finds out about computer love, classical arrangements and self-production.
His face has disappeared from the teeny-bop posters, and now Nik Kershaw would rather be known as a musician's musician than a pop idol. Has he proved his point with his latest album?
THE SCHOOL PLAYGROUND - birthplace of a thousand ambitious schemes designed to bring fame and fortune to their inventors. Some involve sport. Others involve acting, scientific discovery, spacewalking, round-the-world travelling and, occasionally, pop superstardom. Of course, many of these schemes are shelved or abandoned in favour of a newer passion. Most of them simply wilt before they have had a chance to blossom. But occasionally one may succeed, though not necessarily in its original form.
"I left school in the middle of my 'A'-levels, thought I'd get some gear and go off and rule the world", recalls one such playground dreamer. "But it didn't quite work out like that. I ended up working in the dole office." Well, at least that is a growth industry.
But luckily for this dreamer, whose name happens to be Nik Kershaw, things soon changed for the better and the dream got closer - though not without the occasional false start. He was invited to sing in a local Ipswich band when he was 16. Learning guitar followed and resulted in endless covers of Black Sabbath, David Bowie and T Rex numbers performed in a short series of gigs. Then the band split, and the bubble burst.
"Fortunately, someone then invited me to join a professional band called Fusion. It was great experience even though I hated it at the time. We did dance music to make money then, for fun, we did loads of pub gigs playing 'fusion' music.
"I did that for about three years, then I started writing seriously. I did some auditions in London, because I thought London was the place it was happening, and came away totally disillusioned. So I thought: 'If I can't find a band I want to be in, I'll try something else'. I borrowed a friend's Portastudio and went round the record companies and got the usual response - I've still got the letters at home. My break finally came when I got some management. I just advertised because I couldn't think what else to do."
The rest, as they say, is history. After a shaky start with the first release of 'I Won't Let the Sun Go Down' late in 1983, Kershaw notched up six consecutive Top 20 hits in under a year. Two albums, Human Racing and The Riddle, accompanied them and established Kershaw as pop idol (first) and musician (second); dreamed about by teenage girls, yet still respected by the less image-obsessed elements of the music press.
But at the height of his popularity, Kershaw's name disappeared from the pop charts. His frustratingly well-proportioned visage has left the front pages of 'Smash Hits' and 'No.1', and hasn't been seen there since.
He has made a new record, though. It's called Radio Musicola, and though its distinct lack of commercial impact is in stark contrast to the runaway success of The Riddle, it really is a good album.
"The mistake we made was releasing two albums in nine months", Kershaw now admits retrospectively. "So we had two albums to promote all over the world. In the best of all possible worlds, I would have sat down before Christmas last year and written the third album in four weeks, like I did for The Riddle. But it didn't happen quite like that. I wrote a load of stuff just before Christmas, had a listen to it and decided there was nothing I thought very special there.
"I haven't really got any control over what I write - I'm totally at the mercy of what comes into my head, so I threw away about three-quarters of it and started recording what I had left. From about January to September last year I was going into the studio recording, re-writing a bit, recording it..."
The results follow the path mapped out by Kershaw's earlier recorded works. The cheerful pop of 'Radio Musicola' (the single) is counterpointed by the carefully controlled power and emotion of 'Violet to Blue'. Throughout, compulsive rhythms are overlaid with infectious melodies, but with curiously little to bridge the gap between the two. It's a formula that has become one of Kershaw's trademarks.
"It's weird talking about it because it's not something I think about, it's just the way I happen to write. I think it's because I'm not a keyboard player, but I write on keyboards quite a lot.
"I do things very fragmentedly - I like to suggest things not with one instrument playing a chord, but with a bass guitar playing one note, and a guitar or keyboard playing a couple more to make up what I want. Steely Dan used to do that a hell of a lot. When I was in a band a long time ago we used to do a lot of Steely Dan stuff. You'd sit down and work a part out and it just wouldn't make sense on its own. Then you'd all get together and play and it'd sound alright again. I suppose it's a bit like an orchestral arrangement."
Projecting the idea one logical step further brings up the subject of hip-hop, where the music consists of little more than a drum track, a vocal and some clever abuse of technology. Yet surprisingly Kershaw has little enthusiasm for a music that, in part, shares his approach.
"A lot of hip-hop is crap, absolutely terrible. The first people that were doing it were great, they really had that groove together. Now it's about recreating that groove and people just aren't making it sometimes. There's one good thing though: as a movement it will certainly influence popular music to become simpler - and I'm as guilty as anyone of over-complicating things."
But Kershaw's idea of over-complication should not be confused with the more common failing of an overcrowded arrangement. Because if anything, he's in danger of providing too little information. "I just try to do enough to make things make sense to me, although sometimes I think I am a bit too vague. I can hear the song in my head and I can hear what's coming back off tape and I think: 'Are people getting the right idea?' That's the difficult part, trying to figure out if people are hearing the things I'm trying to present. I may think something works, but it's hard for me to tell because I know how it's supposed to be."
FOR NIK KERSHAW, pursuing the progress of a song from conception into the studio involves extensive, not to mention unorthodox, use of sequencer technology.
"Once I get a tune or a rhythmic idea in my head I've usually got the basis of the arrangement along with it. The difficult transition point is getting it from there to a demo. I normally do my demos in sections on a QX1 so that I can fit them together as songs later.
"Using the QX1, I can get most of my ideas pretty well finished before I even bung them on to tape. The QX is a bit slow, and there are one or two things that I find annoying about it, but it'll do almost everything I want it to.
"I don't know if this is cheating or not, but another way I write sometimes is to plug a keyboard into the QX1, bung it into Record and throw things at the keyboard or get people in off the street who can't play and let them loose on it, anything unorthodox. You just run the QX like that for five minutes, then you play it back and try to find something valid in it. The only skill involved then is spotting what you like. It's like a jigsaw puzzle but sometimes it works quite well. The QX disk then becomes the starting point for the rest of the writing.
"When I get into the studio I usually start with an RX11 to provide a basic rhythm. On a couple of the tracks, I even ended up keeping the RX bass drum and hi-hat this time, but I usually replace it all. The bass drum's fine but the hi-hat doesn't sound anything like a hi-hat. That didn't really matter because I wanted something that just kept on going through the track.
"I always try to get decent sounds down for the drums early on. Some of the sounds that aren't off kit come from sample tapes that we've prepared pre-production in various different situations. So the drums tend to end up as a hybrid of drum machine and assorted live drums.
"A couple of times we've had drummers in and ended up triggering sounds with their recorded drums. On other occasions I've decided to change a pattern and triggered their sounds in odd bars so it all sounds like the same drummer. You might find the whole thing's great except for one section, so you sample the kit from elsewhere and retrigger the sounds in a new pattern. It's terrible really - you get all these top drummers in and they end up thinking: 'I never played that!' But it's got their name on the sleeve.
"Once I've got the drums sounding OK, I start bunging down the sequences I've got from the QX1."
But it's computers, not drums, that are Kershaw's current passion.
"I love computers. I even tried to review the CX5 for a computer magazine but I didn't get on particularly well with it. I like the Fairlight though, that's a great machine. As a matter of fact there's one on this album, but I feel even that's a bit restricting."
Alongside the QX1 and Fairlight, the list of hi-tech gear involved in the construction of Radio Musicola is uncommonly healthy for a guitarist.
"I use whatever's handy", says Kershaw. "The Fairlight, Emulators, a JX10, old Oberheims, PPG Waves, my TX rack... I find DX sounds get lost so easily in a mix, but the TX helps push them back up."
...As anyone familiar with recording FM sounds will confirm. But in the eyes of this guitarist, it's not all roses for new technology.
"I think the main problem with all technology is that it dates so fast. The first thing to go is usually the drum sound, but you can listen to records and say: 'that's an OBXa, it must have been recorded around 1972', or whatever.
"Compare a piece written for a symphony orchestra with a piece written for a band, and you have to sort out how much of each is music, how much is technique and how much is technology."
"I know it's a terrible thing to say, but I find it really difficult to listen to a song that sounds dated and actually hear the music. For about a month after I'd finished the album I couldn't listen to anything at all, because all I heard was the sounds and not the music.
"If I listen to a Beatles record I can only listen to it superficially because it sounds so bad. I hear all the flaws in it instead of the tune. It seems to be a barrier to me that I can't overcome."
From a musician who depends so heavily on technology to make his music, this comes as a surprising admission. But Kershaw believes he has an answer.
"Before I drop dead I'd like to write for a symphony orchestra", he reveals. "You see, you have to write music for those instruments, you can't get away with making silly noises. Giving yourself the restrictions of 'conventional' instruments is one thing I like. If you've got a violin, you're working within the limits of that instrument. You've got to write something that stimulates you musically, you haven't got any choice."
And the man has a point. Listen to the Beatles' 'Yesterday' and it still sounds remarkably current, 20 years after it was recorded. Why? Because it has a string arrangement, that's why. It's retained its dignity while so many of yesteryear's state-of-the-art rock dissertations have lost theirs.
The flute has been a constant member of the symphony orchestra, essentially unchanged in 250 years. So you can write music for it in the knowledge that there'll be people around to play it long after you're dead.
The same can hardly be said for the Polymoog, which few musicians can play properly now, just 15 years after its introduction.
Kershaw, of course, isn't the first to realise the value of these points. And he's the first to admit that, too.
"There were people doing experimental stuff in California in the early seventies using classical instruments and 'modern' instruments together. Now all it sounds like to me is a duff old Hammond and an orchestra - that's technology, for you.
"If you compare a piece written for a symphony orchestra with a piece written for a band, you have to sort out how much of each is music, how much is playing technique and how much is technology. With the orchestra it's all music. With a band you don't know most of the time. You can drone away in E for ages and make it sound interesting with arpeggiators or whatever - you can't get away with that with the orchestra.
"But someone's got to start writing music for all this technology. We've got past the stage of technology enabling people that can't play to make music now. That was great because those people have got something to say too, but now the people that can play have got to start using it.
"The problem is that technology stifles technique to some extent and, if we're not careful, we're going to reach a stage where there's a gap of five years where nobody's been learning anything because they've been playing computer games on musical instruments. It's happened to me - I'd love to be able to play the piano and, if there was no other way, I'd sit down and learn it. But I can express myself with other keyboards so I haven't bothered."
RESPECTED AS A guitarist but a self-confessed dabbler on keyboards, Kershaw has an objective view on the merits of playing skills, too.
"I don't think it's something that should be shown off for its own sake. It's got to be associated with something musical, otherwise it's a waste of time. Obviously some sort of technical know - how with your instrument gives you an advantage over other players. Nowadays I can play keyboards but I can't play a piano, so technique isn't an absolute necessity, but I do have a lot of admiration for people that master their instrument and use it musically. Allan Holdsworth is a good example - he's one of my idols and its done him no good at all commercially. But then I don't suppose he ever expected it to.
"The advantage of having very little technical know-how is that it makes you more resourceful. You end up doing things that aren't right. People tell you that you can't do something and you say: Yeah, but it sounds good, dunnit?' And that's neat. There are certain things that people don't do just because they're not considered the 'right' thing to do - it certainly happens in the States - but that's a ridiculous attitude to adopt. You could say Mozart did it all years ago, but you might just as well give up altogether.
As long as you've got enough ability to get what's in your head heard, it's enough. If you've got more technique than you've got ideas, it's as bad as having no technique at all."
As well as showcasing the distinctive singing and writing styles that make his pop songs so easily identifiable, Radio Musicola also represents Nik Kershaw's debut as a record producer. It was an opportunity to get behind the faders that Kershaw attributes to his earlier success.
"It depends on what your circumstances are, but I had the opportunity to do what I wanted with this album because of the commercial success I had with the previous two. I can't think of any other reason for wanting commercial success, frankly. But your circumstances change as you go on, so next time I probably won't be in such a strong bargaining position. I think the production itself has done me a lot of good within the business though, so l might end up producing other people as a result."
Which leads us on to the subject of commerciality in general. With a reputation built initially on record sales rather than musical innovation, it would be easy to imagine Kershaw defending the record companies' stranglehold on music in the name of commerciality. But this pop idol isn't about to start blindly defending the system that brought him his fame and his fortune, in the same way that he isn't going to start repeating the formulae that touched the hearts of millions...
"I don't see the point of doing things you've done before except, obviously, for commercial success and I don't think that does anyone any good. I can understand the pressures people find themselves under to do that, and I can understand them succumbing to it, but I couldn't live with that. There's no guarantee that it's going to be successful again anyway. Of all the things I've been accused of in the past, I don't want to be thought of as boring. But as a result, I don't suppose this album will do as well as the last two - it's not an immediately commercial album at all.
"I couldn't have told you when I was recording my first album what my third would be like, and I've no idea how the fourth one will sound now - hopefully better than the third.
"...As a musician, I like getting music from my head onto a piece of tape and getting it right. As a producer, if I can't play a part then I get somebody else to do it.
"The nice thing about being your own producer is that it's you making the decision to bring in a session player, so there's no ego problem. On the previous two albums I was slaving over the bass guitar, dropping in bar by bar, cheating like mad just to prove to the producer that I could do it - blisters, the lot. But now if there's something somebody else can do better than me, I'll get them in."
First in line for session duties nowadays are the members of Kershaw's touring band - the same one that had everyone talking the morning after their recent Tube appearance. Keyboard player Tim Moore lends a hand with the synth duties, as do one or two other guest players. The biggest personnel differences between the recorded and live performances are those associated with the drums and percussion, for while the record is graced with celebrities like Simon Phillips and Mark Brzezicki, one of the highlights of the live show is the combined talent of drummer Mark Price and percussionist Gary Wallis.
"Yeah, it looks great on stage", grins Kershaw. "Gary's a great bonus to have around visually, as well as for bolstering up the sound of the rhythm tracks. Using him was almost a whim. On the first tour we just had a four-piece band, and when we came to the second tour my manager asked me if I fancied using a percussionist. I always had, so I got him in.
"To start with there were some tracks where he was sitting around doing nothing, but then the relationship with Mark started to grow. I suppose I should use him even more really - I don't know what we'd do without him now. There are so few modern percussionists around at the moment, it's really refreshing to find someone that's as good as him who's into technology. He uses an enormous electronic setup, triggering all sorts of things.
"I think the reason it works with us is that Mark is such a solid drummer, he roots everything to the ground, then Gary puts the flash bits over the top."
With a national tour already underway as this piece is written, Nik Kershaw could be set to re-establish his position as a pop performer. But without great hopes for the commercial success of Radio Musicola and little faith' in hip-hop, what does he believe 1987 will bring us?
"I can't see what's going to be the new wave of the eighties. I only hope someone out there is going to do something exciting."
Funny. I think a lot of us have the same hope. Let's hope the dream comes true.
Interview by Tim Goodyer
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!