I’ve always thought of myself as the kind of artist who would never appear on Later With Jools Holland. Over the years I’ve turned this into a great comfort to myself: imagine the stress of it - the compromises, the trying to not look like complete shit, the crash diet because everyone knows that television adds twenty pounds to your weight, the other bands all sniggering at my incompetence and total lack of cool…
As time has slipped by the possibility has become a thing of dread to me. Occasionally some publicist has said it’d be a good idea - there’s some remote possibility… And this has been enough to turn me into jelly - not that I’m scared or anything - I could take those bastards on…except, of course, that they’d win. It would be a battle, and I’d prefer to stay home thank you very much.
The album came out and there was the usual flurry of reviews and mentions And there were interviews - I don’t do many of those, or at least I didn’t. I wasn’t at all used to it. At the end of the first interview I found myself apologising to the interviewer - ‘We’ve been talking for an hour and I haven’t asked anything about you!’ I got more used to it - there’s seemed to be one a day, five days a week for a while. Sean mentioned the possibility of a feature in The Guardian, an interview with Alexis Petrides, and suddenly that was a reality.
And then he started to mention Later With Jools Holland…
That surely wouldn’t happen! It was a possibility, nice to be considered. Let’s move on.
And then it was happening. I was utterly terrified at the prospect. Amy ran into Michael Lindsay Hogg (Ready Steady Go!, Rolling Stones Rock n Roll Circus, Let It Be…) Michael asked after me and Amy told him I was at home suffering the Later terrors. I saw Michael a couple of days after that and he gave me a talking to: ‘I want you to get on a plane to London, I want you to get in there and show them who you are and what you do. And have a great time, enjoy it, you’ll be fine!’ Okay Michael.
It was a project, the stuff of pop stardom. I played in Cambridge, New York, drove home after the show, packed a bag, had a couple of hours sleep and drove to Newark airport. I probably passed Amy on the way as she drove home from the airport after a trip to Nashville, carrying a yet to be diagnosed dose of Covid. It’s fortunate that I left early and missed her. As it was when I came home after the trip I had to hole up in the guest room with the bass amps until she tested negative.
The show was being filmed at the Alexandra Palace Theatre so I booked into a nearby Premier Inn for two nights. No, you don’t get hotels, limo rides, champagne, flowers, and all that - pop stardom is a much harder job than it used to be.
I landed early on Sunday morning and travelled almost the full length of the Piccadilly Line, Heathrow Airport to Arnos Grove - thirty two stops - clutching my guitar and small rolling suitcase. The train filled up with people heading for art galleries, Sunday employment, assignations and visits to far flung aunties. It emptied and filled up and emptied again, Somewhere around about Holborn the Arsenal supporters got on, large men in triple XL football jerseys. Football fandom evidently doesn’t keep you in shape. They were great fun, i enjoyed their banter. There were Arsenal dads with their Arsenal sons, and they all seemed much nicer than Roger Waters. One Arsenal dad was accompanied by a daughter who must have been about ten. She was togged out in full Arsenal strip and looked radiant. I imagine she’ll play for England one day.
I finally reached the hotel. I spent a lot of time sleeping and lying around. My friend Marc Valentine drove down from North Norfolk with my amplifier, spare guitar and sundry bits of equipment. We got him checked in and set out on an expedition across the North Circular to a BP petrol station which hosted a Marks & Spencers, or M&S as I believe they prefer to be known - must make an effort, must keep up…
We retired to our rooms with healthy sustenance from the M&S. More lazing around, more sleep… I was determined to not succumb to jetlag and I think it actually worked. Suddenly it was the morning of the show - the day had finally arrived. Sean met us in reception in time to go and get coffee before we had to report to the place of execution.
I think Sean’s expectation of coffee was more Starbucks oriented than ours. There was no way I was going to Starbucks or Costa on the day I performed on Later. Marc and I are serious caffeine addicts. We’d done some research and decided on a place somewhere between the hotel and the Alexandra Park Theatre where we could get properly caffeined up ready to promote an air of steely calm that would hopefully cover our combined nervousness. We left Marc’s van parked in an Acacia Avenue kind of neighbourhood and followed the aroma of roasting coffee, which actually turned out to be the smell of burning toast.
The coffee was okay and thankfully not over-roasted, and we arrived at the theatre sporting a thin veneer of quiet but slightly jittery confidence.
I’d braced myself for a day of being shouted at, being told what to do, being told off and told that what I wanted to do was not possible. A day of being abused, belittled and cowed at every turn. Bear in mind that I haven’t done any mainstream TV since the seventies.
I was amazed at how kind, how professional, and how downright nice everyone was. They were quiet, calm and very accommodating. We installed ourselves in the allocated dressing room and shut the door. Keep calm, keep quiet, don’t get rattled by anything. Eat, hydrate, breathe… It was really good to have Marc and Sean there.
They called me for a soundcheck, a run through, a rehearsal for the cameras. It was intimidating in that big space, the Alexandra Palace Theatre with all the seats taken out and four sets of band equipment set up facing each other.
I was doing one song on my own in the middle of the floor - Badhat Town from the Leisureland album. The sound was instantly great - no one complained about my amplifier or the crappiness of my acoustic guitar pre-amp. The monitor man actually came and asked me how I was getting my sound - he was really into it. I ran throught the song once and then again, and then we were done.
They explained how it was all going to work and someone took me to meet Jools so we could run through the song we were going to play together. I like Jools - he’s intelligent, warm, maybe a bit shy. He’s very human and he loves music. He made me a cup of tea and we had a chat. Then we got to work on the song.
When I first heard they wanted me to do Whole Wide World I felt a bit crestfallen - other artists get to do two songs off their new album but I’m not good enough to stand on that alone… But that’s how it works - other artists don’t have a hit - if you have a hit you’re going to have to play it, so it’s really a badge of honour. I didn’t want to play it on my own - look at Billy No Mates trotting out his hit - so in the days leading up to the recording I asked if Jools would play it with me.
It was fun. He has an upright piano in his dressing room. We ran through the tune and I asked him if it was okay. He looked surprised and asked if it was okay for me. We made some adjustments, I suggested a more celebratory ending going to a G chord and an A chord before landing on the E. He loved the word celebratory. We talked about Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse, driving through Lincolnshire in the moonlight. I told him how I'll sometimes play a single chord on an electric guitar very loud for minutes at a time, how I can hear so much stuff in it, and I always wonder if other people can. He told me he’ll put his ear to the piano as a chord fades and hear all kinds of things going on.
We ran through the song on set and then there was time for a rest before make-up time. A knock at the dressing room door, a lady came in and asked what I was going to wear. I told her she was looking at it. I’d come dressed for the job. She said that was fine, I looked good. There was ironing, pressing, steaming available should I need it.
Make-up was a laugh - a nice older lady who understood the hazards that age brings with it. In the old days they used to slap stuff on until you looked like someone’s auntie or an exhibit from Madame Tussauds. They’re much more subtle with it now.
You could sense the nervousness. Everybody all together for the first time - The National, Say She She, Jorja Smith, Anthony Szmierek… I found myself standing next to this cool looking older guy - not as old as me, no one’s as old as me, but not a youth - we got talking and he turned out to be Roddy Bogawa, director of the Syd Barrett documentary, Have You Got It Yet?
The show went by in a whirl. I don’t think I felt at all nervous - I’d done all that beforehand, which is, I think, how I deal with it. I had a good chat with Jools - most of it was edited out of course. My favourite bit didn’t make the cut: at the end of the interview he leaned over the piano:
‘That’s okay’ I said, ‘I was miming.’
We played Whole Wide World and I loved seeing the look of joy on his face. I wish they’d put my guitar up in the mix, the same with Badhat Town, my guitar wasn’t loud enough. I sing a lot louder than anyone expects, I can’t help it, I have a loud and powerful voice, I need something to sing against. I also make spaces for the singing in the way I play. I’ve been doing this a long time, I know what I’m doing. Take the guitar away and the voice is out of context. I should have talked to the sound engineer but I didn’t. It sounded great in the theatre when we were doing it but a little lacking in the broadcast.
Afterwards I had a good chat with one of the production people. I said I’d been scared of being bowled out, exposed for the charlatan, the imcompetent, that I am, but I’d begun to realise that everyone feels like that. She told me there wasn’t an artist in the room who didn’t suffer from imposter syndrome - 'if you get to this level in your career without it there’s something wrong' she said. I’ll hold on to that.
Once it was over the other bands were a lot more open, a lot friendlier. Anthony Szmierek came and talked to me - he was such a nice guy, the whole band were. They come from Hyde - us and Harold Shipman… He told me how nervous he’d been, he could barely keep it together. They were set up next to the piano so I was facing him with Jools between us. He said he watched me talking and then playing and it gave him confidence. That was such a nice thing to say. I like them, they’ve only been together for two years. I hope I see them again.
It was a strange anti climax. We packed up, said out goodbyes and stumbled out into the darkness in search of Marc’s van. Marc dropped us at the hotel and set off back to Norfolk with the equipment. Sean and I sat in a daze, basking in that weird WE DID IT afterglow, then he set out for the tube station and I went back to bed. Taxi, flight, drive home, gig at the Avalon in Catskill. Still no jetlag!
What can I say? It was scary as fuck, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. The photographer told me to sit on a flight case and imagine I was waiting for a bus. I'm pretty sure I was the only artist with a senior citizen's bus pass but I didn't say anything. I've been waiting for this bus for a long time.