Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Former Q-Tip Lays His Hat At #1

During the early to mid 80s, several of the solo male vocal acts to strike it big on the charts had already done the hard yards fronting well known bands. Feargal Sharkey had surfaced from the Undertones, Pete Shelley had made a buzz fronting Buzzcocks, both Rick Springfield and Darryl Cotton had belted out a rockified ‘Eleanor Rigby’ with Zoot, Jona Lewie emerged from the stone age Terry Dactyl and the Dinosaurs, Lionel Richie found he was truly better off sans Commodores, Adrian Gurvitz had his first shot to prominence with The Gun, Ray Parker Jr. had tuned into hitsville via Raydio, Billy Idol emerged with lip curled from Generation X, John Foxx continued an exploration of cutting edge electronica that had begun with Ultravox, the Genesis of Peter Gabriel evolved into fully fledged solo superstardom, and a singer by the name of Paul Young struck a formula for commercial success that had largely eluded him during his tenure with the eight piece soul band Q-Tips.

By way of clarification - the Paul Young who is the focus of this post is not the late vocalist Paul Young of Sad CafĂ© and Mike & the Mechanics (his career will be looked at a little more closely in a future post, via a career retrospective of fellow ‘Mechanic’ Paul Carrack). A very young Paul Young was born in the township of Luton, in Bedfordshire, England, in early 1956. By age 14, he had taken up the piano, but soon began learning the bass. His father had worked in the local Vauxhall automotive factory, and at age sixteen Paul Young followed suit. But music ran thicker than motor oil in his veins, and in his free time Young began playing with local bands, the first of which was an outfit called Kat Kool & The Kool Kats. By 1978 he’d joined an outfit called Streetband, whose line-up also featured guitarist John Gifford, drummer Vince Chaulk, guitarist Roger Kelly, and bassist Mick Pearl. Streetband were apparently an eclectic hybrid of heavy metal and R&B/soul, and aside from vocals, Young’s duties within the band covered bass, keyboards, and occasional harmonica playing (perhaps contributing to his unofficial moniker of ‘Mighty Paul’). Streetband were signed to the small time label Logo Records, and recorded the single ‘Hold On’ - or at least that was the intended A-side. Radio DJs had other ideas though, and quickly became enamoured with the single’s B-side, the ‘throwaway’ novelty track ‘Toast’. The single was flipped to buttered toast side up, and soon Streetband had a UK#18 hit in late ‘78. The runaway success of their novelty B-side proved more of a hindrance to the band’s career, because essentially Streetband had aspirations to be a serious music band, and had been lumped with the novelty act tag. A handful of singles followed over the ensuing year, including ‘Love Sign’ and ‘One More Step’, but neither singles, nor the accompanying ‘Dilemma’ or ‘London’ albums (which featured contributions from Chas Jankel and Jools Holland), provided the same commercial appeal as the band’s original slice of ‘Toast’.

By December ‘79, Streetband had disbanded, with Chaulk and Kelly departing the scene. The trio of Paul Young, Mick Pearl, and John Gifford, decided to kick start a new band, with a seriously expanded line-up. Named Q-Tips, in deference to the popular brand of cotton swab, the band’s line-up was augmented by guitarist Dave Lathwell, drummer Baz Watts, organist Ian Kewley, and a four piece brass section of Steve Farr, Richard Blanchard, Stuart Van Blandamer, and Tony Hughes. The band’s express musical manifesto - to play soul music that they loved - could have been a template for ‘The Commitments’. Initially a ten piece, Q-Tips began gigging late in ‘79 at local pubs and clubs (several of which had been regular haunts for the Streetband), briefly under the moniker of The Harrow Horns, and soon built up a fanatical following with their surging renditions of soul classics (the Motown catalogue was frequently raided). Within a few months, Q-Tips released their debut single, ‘S.Y.S.L.J.F.M.’, a cover of a Joe Tex track, more popularly referred to as ‘The Letter Song’, but the single only generated minor interest.

With a relentless touring schedule, splinters began appearing in the band’s ranks, and both Lathwell and Blanchard departed, reducing Q-Tips to an eight piece. John Gifford was also replaced by Garth Watt-Roy, but the changes did nothing to hinder the band’s phenomenal momentum as a live act. Word of mouth is inevitable when playing before packed houses night after night (sometimes twice a night), and Q-Tips were being mentioned in the same breath as Dexys Midnight Runners, as one of the hardest working bands on the scene. Q-Tips’ boisterous brand of soul, and their celebratory approach to their craft, set them firmly apart from that other band of ‘young soul rebels’. It was inevitable that Q-Tips would attract the attention of a record label, or several, and Chrysalis signed the band during 1980. Produced by Bob Sargeant, the band’s eponymous debut album was released to much accompanying buzz, but its appearance on the charts was ephemeral at best, one week at #50. The album contained a mix of soul/Motown covers and original material. The single, a cover of the Miracles’ ‘Tracks Of My Tears’, though a huge hit with live audiences, missed the mark on the charts.

Q-Tips continued to traverse the U.K. and Paul Young continued to develop as a vocalist, and as he later revealed to Billboard Magazine, it was during this period that he “found” his voice. But whilst Young had found his voice, and gained a reputation as one of Britain’s leading exponents of ‘blue eyed soul’, commercial appeal as a recording act remained elusive for Q-Tips. Following the poor reception for their debut set, Chrysalis dumped the band soon after. The smaller Rewind label jumped at the chance to sign one of Britain’s most popular live acts, and released their cover of Nazareth’s ‘Love Hurts’, which again sank without a trace - the same fate late befell the classy single ‘Stay The Way You Are’. During 1981, Q-Tips remained as popular as ever with the punters, but continued a tumultuous love/hate affair with the media. In part the media flack targeted the band for being merely a covers band, but those in the know knew better, as Q-Tips also played a good slab of their own material (penned mostly by Young and organist Ian Kewley), in combination with infusing a selection of American soul classics with their own unique flare and vibrant energy.

But sell out venues aside, the members of Q-Tips no doubt would have felt frustrated at the apparent gulf between their self proclaimed status as ‘the best live band in the world’, and the dearth of interest in their records (Q-Tips performed over 700 shows in less than three years). Support slots for the likes of The Who, Thin Lizzy, Bob Marley, and Average White Band, were eminently well deserved, and even the likes of Steve Winwood, and his brother Muff, rated the band highly. Winwood, of the Muff variety, was head of A&R for CBS Records in Britain, and though a fan of Q-Tips, judged their commercial potential, as a recording act, to be limited. However, Paul Young the solo vocalist was an entirely more lucrative prospect. Winwood signed Young to a solo recording deal late in ‘81, and in early ‘82 Young announced his intent to pursue a career sans Q-Tips. Given the elusive record sales, it was undoubtedly a wise move, though fans of Q-Tips as a live act, doubtless would have seen it otherwise. By way of tying up some loose contractual ends, Paul Young embarked on the ‘Last Chance To See The Best Live Band In The World Tour’ throughout March and April of ‘82. Though initially billed as Q-Tips, only keyboardist Ian Kewley accompanied Young, and without the surging brass section of Q-Tips, the band had an entirely different dynamic. The Rewind label issued a live set of Q-Tips during this period, ‘Live At Last’, and a decade later the band’s much vaunted BBC sessions were officially released. The famed Q-Tips brass section toured with Adam Ant during his ‘Friend Or Foe’ tour, but aside from a brief 1993 reunion with Paul Young, the Q-Tips brand (of the band variety) came to an end.

As Young continued on the ‘Q-Tips’ farewell jaunt, it became increasingly evident that he needed to reposition himself as the focal point. The shows were soon billed under the banner of ‘Paul Young and The Family’, which soon evolved into ‘Paul Young and The Royal Family’ (by appointment). Paul Young’s rather regal backing band included keyboardist Kewley, fretless bass player extraordinaire Pino Palladino, guitarist Steve Bolton, drummer Mike Pinder, and backing singers Maz Roberts and Kim Leslie AKA the Fabulous Wealthy Tarts. Young was also backed in studio by that line-up, but his debut solo single, a cover of Booker T’s ‘Iron Out The Rough Spots’, released in November 1982, met with the same fate as had his work with Q-Tips. But we’ll call that first solo shot an anomaly - if the first anything can be referred to as such. Young then set to work with producer Laurie Latham (Squeeze, Echo & The Bunnymen, Slapp Happy) to meticulously craft a debut album, befitting his vocal talents.

Officially, the second advance single was ‘Love Of The Common People’, released in February 1983. It had originally been recorded by the Four Preps, then was a reggae-styled #9 hit for Nicky Thomas in 1970, but for the time being Paul Young’s rendition remained unremarkable. As is the case with many talented artists, Young needed that one big breakthrough to make people sit up and take notice. He later revealed in an interview with Music Connection, that one of the factors behind him choosing to record so many covers was his desire to search out and find great songs. With his next single, Paul Young uncovered an obscure gem of a song to cover. In 1963, Marvin Gaye had recorded a track titled ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)’, but the song didn’t surface until 1969, and then only as the B-side to Gaye’s single ‘Too Busy Thinking About My Baby’ (US#4). Actually, it’s not uncommon for an artist to re-record a former B-side and score a hit with it, but in ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)’, Paul Young was about to score the hit that would finally gain him some well overdue, and richly deserved commercial returns. The song debuted on the British charts during June of ‘83, and by July had laid its hat firmly at #1, where it found a home for three weeks. Young’s heartfelt rendition owed something to the brilliant fretless bass work of Pino Palladino, but there was no denying Paul Young’s impassioned vocal style left more than a few people wondering why he hadn’t hit pay dirt previously. ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)’ also introduced Australia to the talents of Paul Young (#9), though the U.S. (#70) would remain aloof for a little longer.

As ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)’ sat atop the British charts, CBS released Paul Young’s debut solo set, ‘No Parlez’. The album boasted a strong, adventurous, though arguably eclectic, selection of pop-soul covers, with two original Kewley/Young compositions included in the mix. The title track borrowed heavily from art rock minimalist Anthony Moore’s ‘Industrial Dreams’, whilst former Slapp Happy bandmate Dagmar Krause contributed vocal overlays to a cover of Joy Division’s iconic ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ - of course the Slapp Happy connection is logical given producer Laurie Latham’s involvement, but it showed that Paul Young was willing to push the envelope. The production was sufficiently lush to absorb you, but allowed room to breath and engage with each track as an individual entity. The follow up single to Young’s break through #1, was the haunting ‘Come Back And Stay’, which not only saw Paul Young come back to the British charts, but stay at #4 during October of ‘83 (OZ#18). Originally recorded by Jack Lee, ‘Come Back And Stay’ also became Young’s first single to breach the U.S. top 40 (#22), early in ‘84 (around the same time Young received the Brit Award for ‘Best New Artist’). Both singles pushed sales of the ‘No Parlez’ album into the pop stratosphere, aided in no small part by sell out U.K. and European concert tours. As ‘No Parlez’ jostled for top spot on the British charts late in ‘83 (with UB40’s ‘Labour Of Love’ and Culture Club’s ‘Colour By Numbers’), ‘Love Of The Common People’ was (predictably) re-released, and second time around received the recognition it deserved. ‘Love Of The Common People’ peaked at #2 on the British charts (held off top spot by the Flying Pickett’s ‘Only You’), #8 in Australia, #1 in both the Netherlands and Ireland, and #45 Stateside.

Following the conclusion of his U.K./European tour duties, Paul Young set his sights on cracking the U.S. market, and arrived Stateside for a live/promotional tour during the first part of ‘84. Though ‘No Parlez’ had reached #1 in Britain, #12 in Australia, and racked up platinum sales across the world, sales in the U.S. were relatively moderate (#79). At the time, Young expressed to Rolling Stone Magazine his disappointment over the poor reception offered by the States to his British #1 album. There proved a downside to Young’s exhaustive efforts to tour and promote his album. He experienced severe vocal strain, and at one point lost the top six notes in his range. The ailment enforced a prolonged break on Young’s career, as he allowed time for his vocal cords to heal. A scheduled Wembley concert with Elton John had to be cancelled, and a planned follow up tour to the U.S. was deferred. But though his primary means of livelihood was temporarily ‘out of order’, Paul Young wasn’t used to sitting idly, and continued to pen new material with song writing partner Ian Kewley, which would go a long way toward comprising his sophomore solo album.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog you got here. I'd like to read something more concerning that topic. Thank you for sharing this data.
Joan Stepsen
Escorts Cyprus