Musical Youth were the British pop phenomenon of 1982: a group of five brummie lads inspired by New Edition and The Jackson 5 who were aged between 11 and 15 when ‘Pass The Dutchie’ — an adaption of Jamaican trio the Mighty Diamonds’ toketastic ‘Pass The Kouchie’ (Kouchie is a pipe for smoking weed, Dutchie a Jamaican cooking pot, arf arf) — barrelled its way to No. 1 on 28 September that year, selling over 100,000 copies in one day. Happily, it knocked Survivor’s ubiquitous The Eye Of The Tiger off the top spot after what seemed an eternity, and became the fastest-selling British single of the year.
Famous for fifteen months tops, in that time Musical Youth sold millions of records, were regulars on Razzmatazz, recorded with Donna Summer, and became the first black group to appear on MTV, beating Michael Jackson by several months. Throw in a commentary by Stuart Maconie and some footage of people wearing deeley boppers and you’ve got yourself a BBC2 nostalgia show.
Until then, sit back and chill out to future Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant interviewing the quintet for Smash Hits magazine, as published in their issue dated 3 March 1983. I bet he drinks Carling Black Label.
No different from the Musical Youth of the day before. Neil Tennant meets five young professionals taking worldwide success in their stride.
THE INTERVIEWER at one of New York’s top news-and-current-affairs radio stations is feeling very nervous. Sure, the show’s going out live, but then it always does. What’s practically making him tremble is the little black boy sitting in front of him patiently waiting for the commercials to finish so he can tell the people of New York who he is and why they should care. The kid is radiating such a sense of cool that he — the interviewer! — is scared in case he asks him any stupid questions.
The commercials finish and he starts to ask Michael of Musical Youth a few questions about the group’s songs.
“There’s a track on your album called ‘Blind Boy’. That’s about someone you know who’s blind, is it?”
“No,” answers Michael, “it’s not. It’s about a friend of ours that is always getting into trouble and he won’t listen to his parents. He’s not blind in his eyes, he’s blind in his mind.”
As Michael is leaving the studio after the show, the interviewer pulls aside the chap from MCA Records assigned to look after Musical Youth.
“That boy,” he hisses, nodding in Michael’s direction, “is very bright.”
MUSICAL YOUTH are late. Peter Collins, their producer, distinctly told them that they had to be at the studio by ten o’clock this morning. It’s well after eleven and there’s still no sign of them. An engineer busies himself programming a Linn drum machine while, across a couch in the studio control room, lounges your Smash Hits reporter, feeling, if the truth were known, a little fragile. As far as he’s concerned, this is the morning after the night before.
About half past eleven, five sheepish faces peer round the door. An “and-what-time-do-you-call-this?” conversation ensues, after which Michael leads me off for the interview. It’s my turn to face the 13-year-old cool and confidence.
Normally, when you speak to a member of a very famous and successful pop group, he’ll have lots of stories to tell you about exotic lands he’s visited, really weird thoughts he’s been having, how he’s planning a few solo projects and what his forthcoming video album will be like. Not so with Michael. He’s too young to pretend. When you ask him a question, he may well answer with a simple “yes” or “no”, if that’s all he feels the question is worth. And not because he’s nasty — he’s actually quite charming and a little shy — just because he’s honest. You start to worry in case you ask him any stupid questions.
We talk about the group’s recent and first-ever visit to Jamaica. A workmanlike attitude is evident.
“We went there to make two videos,” says Michael. “One for ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ and one for ‘Heartbreaker’ and it all went down well. The first two days we spent all day on the beach and after that we just made the videos and then back on the beach and then off to New York.
“We saw the back part of Jamaica where all the poor people live and we saw over in Kingston where all the rich people live, you know, the President and all that. And we saw a lot of famous artists like Gregory Isaacs, Big Youth, Sugar Minott, Sly and Robbie.”
The latter pair are the near-legendary rhythm section who’ve played on dozens of albums by artists like Grace Jones, Tom Tom Club and Ian Dury.
“We’d always wanted to meet them, so it was very exciting really,” singer Dennis tells me later. One of Michael’s dub heroes, Scientist, re-mixed the Youth Of Today LP for re-release in a dub version and they even got to play football with some of Bob Marley‘s children.
Michael and brother Kelvin met a bunch of relatives they’d never seen before, including a long-lost brother, and Junior and Patrick met a pair of grandparents for the first time. Their father, Freddie Waite, accompanied them, to be greeted by his mother saying: “Where’ve you been for the last 25 years?” Watching were a large crowd of neighbours, police and a BBC Camera Crew in the process of making a documentary about the group. A concert they gave at a school was also filmed, both for the BBC and the ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ video.
The next stop was New York where ‘Pass The Dutchie’ is in the top ten. Musical Youth appeared on Good Morning America, the national breakfast TV show, and did numerous interviews. Everyone they came into contact with was surprised at their professionalism.
“We had these children that came to interview us,” says Dennis, “and I don’t think they really knew that we played our instruments. They was asking us why we became singers and we started telling them all the time that we played the instruments too.”
There tended to be an assumption in America that the boys just fronted a team of session musicians which, of course, is not the case. A couple of months back, a well-known musician and writer phoned up MCA Records to try and arrange for Junior to come and play drums on a track he was about to record.
The group see themselves as serious musicians not as pop stars. Even little Kelvin says gruffly: “I don’t take it as fun, I take it serious.” And Dennis remarks about the group’s incredible success: “If you work hard, you get results. We worked hard on our album.”
They handle their fame with caution and level heads.
Kelvin: “Once I wanted something, now I’m in Musical Youth I don’t want it again. I wanted an Atari and I got me Atari now.”
When Michael’s not being a member of Musical Youth, he likes playing cricket, doing his schoolwork and riding his bike.
“It’s just the life of being famous, that’s all, that’s how I see it,” he says. “It’s just different, that’s all, not more exciting. Because when I used to ride my bicycle, when I used to skid and fall off my bike and I hurt myself, I wouldn’t be scared of breaking an arm. But now if I’m skidding and I fall off my bike I’m always worried if I break my arm I won’t be able to play. This life’s all right because you do go on aeroplanes and things like that, but it stops you doing what you used to do.”
He’s managed to keep his old friends, regardless of his fame. “They just take it normally, as I expected them to take it. Some of them are jealous and some of them aren’t. It’s just the odd few.”
Dennis doesn’t think that their friends realise how well known the group are. “I don’t tell them that we’re world-famous, I just tell them that we’re number one somewhere.”
THE NUMBER ones, incidentally, have so far been scored in Australia, New Zealand, Holland, Israel, Belgium, Spain and France, and ‘Pass The Dutchie’ has also made the top ten in Germany, France and South Africa.
In April they’ll go back to America to appear on the important Saturday Night Live TV show and to play a couple of concerts at the Ritz club there. Before that, they’ll have completed a new single and in the autumn will record a new LP.
SQUIRMING ON a chair beside me is Kelvin, itching to get back to a video of Flash Gordon. He’s not a bit bothered by the busy life he leads these days, only by the boring journalist asking him stupid questions.
“We just have to take things cool,” he mutters and disappears.
There’s no need to worry too much about these boys.
Edited by Steve Pafford
© Neil Tennant, 1983