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Favourite Haircuts? The time Neil Tennant interviewed Nick Heyward in Smash Hits

“I was working on the album sleeve and I had it as West Pelican for ages. A guy in the office took one look at it and said ‘I prefer it the other way round’. I thought why the hell didn’t I see that? I had always thought of it as West Pelican because it was West Pelican Wharf in Wapping. So it’s little adjustments such as that which happened along the way. That was such a lovely thing that when I get around to writing a book, it’s almost like crediting everyone for everything. It’s all of those bits that go together to make up the story. If you look at the Pet Shop Boys I am sure that Neil Tennant didn’t do everything, but he had the idea and he had the concept. I’m sure that he would sit and write the lyrics and do stuff but it’s all about everything; it’s about the guy who said ‘I think that your next single should be West End Girls’. This is the stuff for in depth proper stories and I don’t think that has ever been done with Haircut One Hundred.” — Nick Heyward, 2016

A pop band at the moment is about really small things, like socks and vests and nice hair and the way the singer’s eyebrows are shaped,” Nick Heyward once offered, back in the good-old-bad-old-Eighties. 

Hailing from the same Beckenham town that put David Bowie on the musical map, Haircut One Hundred certainly nailed that aspect of pop stardom—toothy oh-so English lads barely out of their teens, kitted out wholesomely with their Arran sweaters, knickerbockers and fresh-faced grins.

They also had one of history’s most brilliantly baffling band names. But thanks to Heyward, they had the most surefire gimmick of all: catchy songs with occasionally nonsensical lyrics. Their debut album, 1982’s Pelican West was paraphrased from Pelican Wharf, a London riverside development where my aunt later lived and ”near to the Prospect of Whitby pub where Nick used to watch Jazz with his dad.“ It was a platinum-selling smash that spawned three evergreen Top Ten singles: the boyish bangers that are Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl), Love Plus One and Fantastic Day—all preppie tied adolescent yearning over the splashiest of bongos, marimbas, jazz horns and cha-cha guitar. In other words, Wham! with more than one person who could play an instrument. 

After a further 45 with the Beatles-esque Nobody’s Fool, the band’s teenybopper success proved to be their downfall. Faced with the pressure of writing a sophomore set amid reports of a nervous breakdown, an irreparable schism between Nick and his cheery chums had surfaced.

“They ganged up and I felt like I lost my best mates. I left for my health, for peace of mind,” Heyward told Classic Pop in 2017.  After a spell in hospital, the frontman felt compelled to quit in the midst of recording sessions while the others soldiered on for a further album that hardly anyone remembers, though bassist Les ‘nutty’ Nemes once told me he prefers it to Pelican West and loathes Fantastic Day like no one on earth. He was last seen parading his pert bottom on an episode of Absolutely Fabulous, but then he’s never been shy about coming forward. 

Alas, the mystical rejuvenating powers of sunny, suburban funk-pop should not be underestimated. Because despite the ambivalence of thirsty Les, the Haircuts have inexplicably reconvened to promote a new deluxe box set, and even dashed off a couple of rare reunion shows as a testing of the waters for a full-blown tour. Yikes, beware, it‘s the Phil and Holly act.

The mind boggles at the hideously ravaged self-portrait the ever handsome Hayward must have concealed in his attic: the Dorian Gray of early 1980s Britpop seems to have barely aged a day since his toothy grinned prime four decades ago. Viewing a couple of clips on YouTube, it appears the still boyish 62 year-old could have passed for a man half his age. Slightly conflicted, I gave up my tickets for the Shepherd’s Bush gig because I couldn’t really justify flying to the UK for a group whose work I’d never actually owned.

Howevah, I did once find myself having Nick Heyward’s extended twelve-inch in my hands. It would have been in the early summer of ’83, when the slightly Jam-like Take That Situation became his second solo single, and the second 12” remix I ever owned. The so-called Rhythm Mix runs for under four minutes and isn’t actually that much longer from the single version, which also sports that strange vocal inflection (“the trouble is with your old friends”) that was probably aping some ska act but ends up sounding like Jim Davidson doing his tried and tiresome Chalky routine.

At the time, the singer was hastily pursuing his solo career, with October’s lushly-produced North Of A Miracle LP containing a few of the songs Haircut 100 had been working on prior to his departure. It’s that slightly murky exit that is the focus of Heyward’s interview in the 31 March 1983 issue of Smash Hits magazine. He’s talking to the new kid on the block, Neil Tennant. I wonder what happened to him.

Ay ay ay ay ay ah. Ay ay ay ay ay ah…

Back To Square One: Nick Heyward

Neil Tennant

“IS IT REALLY worth talking about?” Ask Nick Heyward what he’s been up to in the six months since the release of ‘Nobody’s Fool’, the last Haircut One Hundred single, and that’s the response you get. Officially, you see, he’s supposed to be looking forward to a bright future as a solo artist and forgetting about the past.

“It’s great. I feel like I haven’t been in the music business before,” he claims. But scratch the surface and you’ll find a brooding, hurt, maturing young man, still smarting from his split with Haircut One Hundred.

Let’s turn back to the origins of that group to find out what went wrong.

“It was me, Les and Graham at first. It seemed like the perfect situation. Then suddenly the session players joined and it all got disjoined.”

The “session players” were Blair Cunningham, Phil Smith and Mark Fox who joined the group for recording and stayed.

Their first single, ‘Favourite Shirts’, was an immediate hit and pretty quickly the image of Haircut One Hundred as a bunch of clean, silly lads in big pullovers, yellow sou’ westers and trousers tucked into socks with a fetish for tractors and old Monkees’ records was established in the public eye. Nick encouraged this image.

“I sold myself cheap by ignoring the music. When I was going out in public I put on my sou’wester or whatever and the band would say: ‘Oh, that’s what Nick wants the image to be,” And they’d go out and buy six fishing hats and we’d come over as something bordering on pretentious drivel. So the music got ignored. It was our own fault.”

Nick’s twee, more-or-less meaningless lyrics all contributed to the image.

“That was my commercial art background coming out and now that’s gone out of me. Most of them were like advertising slogans. I had trouble remembering them because they were nothing to do with anything.”

So why did you write them?

“I fell into a trap. I didn’t stop to think. In the beginning everything you do is what you want to do but then you get side-tracked.”

There was a lot of excitement and enjoyment as the group notched up another couple of hit singles, a number one LP, Pelican West, and attracted screaming crowds on their tour. Two exhausting trips round America established them there both in the charts and as an energetic live proposition.

“We won them over, although I always felt totally out of place there.”

It was last autumn, when they had to get down to work in the studio and record a second LP, that things began to fall apart. This LP was originally scheduled for release in November, then December and finally in February of this year. It never appeared. Rumours flew round the music business that Nick Heyward was being very difficult. That he wouldn’t record his vocals over the completed backing tracks, for instance.

“That was only for about three days! Let’s get a grip on this I didn’t like the way it was going – it was Pelican West Part Two. Nobody wanted to change.”

By the end of last year there were strong internal divisions within the group.

“I’d only have to have a day off out of the studio and they’d all clump together and say how they hated me writing songs. Obviously, from their attitude now, they didn’t like me being the front man or whatever.”

Were they jealous that you got all the attention?

“No. They were jealous because I could write songs and everything.”

One can’t help feeling that Nick and Mark Fox are the main protagonists in this story. Mark left the group last November by general agreement, but then returned a few weeks later.

“He came back and it was alright for a couple of days and then it was strange.”

During this period Nick was depressed, tired and confused. Suddenly there seemed to be a barrier between Nick and his old chums, Les and Graham. Nothing was fun any more.

“They’re not the friends I thought they were. Once we got to the music business I should have thought, OK, they’re just members of the band now. But I didn’t. I kept on thinking that they were my mates when it’s shown from what they’re doing now that they obviously weren’t friends.”

His family and friends began to worry about him but he was able to learn from his father’s past mistakes.

“He had a big factory and lost it all. He really used to sell himself cheap, play down what he was really good at and try to be reasonable with everyone and let people tread all over him. Suddenly I thought, you’ve learnt by his mistakes before, why not now? And I did.”

By the beginning of this year it was planned for Haircut One Hundred to split up after a final record and a farewell tour. “Ending on a high note,” Nick calls it. But for some reason, the rest of the group decided to announce in January that they’d be continuing without him – Mark Fox taking over as lead singer. There was no final record, no farewell tour. Conflicting statements were issued, writs issued, old friendships wrecked.

“The last month I’ve had to come to terms with that. I’ve tried going round to their houses loads of times and they won’t have it. I don’t know what they’re doing. They can’t be in the studio because they seem to be in the law courts every day. They tried to get my single stopped. They took it to court but realised that they wouldn’t have a chance so they dropped it. They’re not on it, they didn’t write it, so how could they stop it?”

Nick and his manager, David Botterell, have picked up the pieces and started all over again. He’s about to start recording his first solo LP with a wide variety of musicians “so I can get a clump of songs and every one will sound different. I’m able to take risks now.”

‘Whistle Down The Wind’ isn’t exactly an exercise in risk-taking, though, is it?

“It’s a beginning. I had to compromise a little bit because you can’t suddenly go out and completely change. But the next single might be quite a rocky number. It sounds like Gillan!”

One risk he will be taking is going on a short tour with a six-piece soul band, “appearing in certain places and just delivering a six-song powerful set to whoever’s out there.”

And one risk he’s already taken is accepting an invitation to go out for a chat with Paul Weller, who’s always been one of his fiercest critics.

“We got on really well, actually. I had some scrambled eggs and tea and we got talking. He didn’t like my lyrics, really. He said: ‘Where does it go from here/Is it down to the lake I fear. Where’s your head. Nick?’ And I said: ‘Come on, Paul, what do you mean, where’s my head? In the city there’s a thousand things I want to say to you. You know?’

“Then we had a go at each other and realised that there wasn’t anything to have a go at and we stopped all that. Where does it actually get you, shouting?”

He goes on to tell me about his new flat, his girlfriend, his night out drinking with Gary Kemp the other week, his two rabbits (Bigwig and Devon) and the video he’s going to make in America. Life seems very full.

“I’m open to anything now. I am what I was before I came into this business and if people don’t like it, I don’t mind. I was very good at hiding before – I used to hide behind humour. Now if somebody asks me a question, I’ll answer them back.”

That’s the spirit. 

© Neil Tennant, 1983

Edited by Steve Pafford

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