I have an older friend of the time, Steve Day of Springfield, to thank for opening my ears to the song we are about to discuss. He probably doesn’t remember that back in 1983 I was avidly lapping up some of the stranger sounds the senior boy would occasionally allow out of his stereo speakers.
‘The Story Of The Blues’? It’s a song as big as Liverpool itself, or even China sans crisis, from whatever Pete Wylie was calling himself that week. Because not only was his first hit a birrova classic but the Wylie one was fantastically conceptually pretentious for a Scouser, and got a kick out of expanding and contracting his trading name at the drop of a leccy bill.
Ultimately, though, in maverick, dandyish essence Wylie is Wah! and Wah! is always the mighty Wylie. And he wasn’t finished with the pretentiousness because ‘The Story Of The Blues’ is technically titled The Story Of The Blues Part One, with the 12” A-side running both that and the speaky Part Two together as one never ending story (ho ho).
Turn around. As we’re back in the early ’80s, it’s immaterial (more ho ho) whether or not the lush strings that provide this pocket symphony’s prologue are real like ABC‘s, or cooked up by microprocessors. The majesty of the ascending violins, further warmed through soulful backing vocals (some of which aren’t the hands-on Wylie, because they belong to Sylvia & The Sapphires) and an incredibly polite funk guitar riff give way to wall-of-sound excess that must have provided veteran producer Mike Hedges (Associates, Banshees, Cure) with a good day at the office. These deft layers feel like literal extensions of the song’s soul. The creator describes it as a labour of love, recorded over months, learning the tech as he and Hedges went along.
There’s a grandly operatic quality to Wylie’s voice that suits the ambition of this gin-soaked, us-and-them anthem, which sneaked into the British charts on Christmas Day 1982, putting Wah! on Top Of The Pops as a new broom for the new year. On Tuesday 18 January, the single summited at number 3, lodged behind the less good Phil Collins and Men At Work.
In the video, he’s all eyeliner, silk scarf, red kerchief and a jiggling energy that suggests either a rubbing of the gums or pentup pride. Probably both, because Wylie aimed to make something that would last forever.
This is a song about standing up and fighting off depression and keeping going.
The Story of the Wylie
Neil Tennant, Smash Hits, 20 January 1983
THE WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON run-through for Top Of The Pops is a chaotic affair. In front of one of the three stages in the studio, a dozen leotard-and-legwarmer clad dancers are larking about, laughing and jumping smartly out of the way to avoid being whacked in the back by huge mobile camera units.
The dancers play little practical jokes on each other, like touching each other on the back. When a camera is approaching from behind a technician taps you on the back so you know to move out of the way. So when the dancers tap each other on the back, they at first think there’s a camera approaching and leap out of the way when there’s no need. Once that’s happened a few times you don’t bother to move away when someone touches your back. Then you get nearly mown down by a camera. Really amusing, eh?
As Wah! Start the first of four run-throughs of ‘The Story Of The Blues’, one of the dancers asks: ‘Is this Wham!?’ These exclaimed names are so confusing. By the fourth run-through they’re indulging in a spot of jolly clapping-along, the kind of thing which really gives atmosphere to Top Of The Pops. Surveying this motley crew from the stage Pete Wylie is a man who does not look chuffed.
“I hate doing the sound check or whatever you call it,” he grimaces afterwards. “All those clowns, those trendy wackos telling jokes while we were singing, especially when we were singing a song I hope means something. I was getting a bit mad. I didn’t know whether to just laugh at them, because that would have looked as though I was just laughing at the song, or just to sneer. I don’t know how these things appear on TV. Suddenly I have to start thinking about things in a completely different way.”
This is his first appearance on Top Of The Pops and it’s not an easy experience.
“All those people. I just don’t feel right in front of them. They must think we’re real scruff-bags, real tramps, and so they’re not going to take much notice anyway. Then again, once you’re actually on the screen, it’s different. I get really self-conscious about the cameras and everything, you know, because I’m sure they going to pick out every spot.”
He peers into one of the many mirrors in the dressing room where we’re talking over a cup of tea. I wonder whether to eat his chocolate biscuit (he doesn’t want it because he’s dieting).
Wylie is an extravagantly talkative Liverpudlian and, with bass-player Washington, the constant factor in Wah! He started the group after participating in a quick succession of groups in the late ’70s, including The Crucial Three, whose other two thirds were Julian Cope and Ian McCulloch, The Mystery Girls, The Nova Mob, The Opium Eaters and Crash Course. Wah! Itself has had several manifestations.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCL6eBUBN1o
Number one: Wah! Heat! “That was just my songs, basically, with some of Rob Jones’ lyrics and Pete Fulwell (now Wah!’s manager) pressuring us to do something positive. In Liverpool you can get away with doing nothing and still be a big public figure, like everybody knows you, and so I was happy just working in record shops and hanging round in Eric’s (a Liverpool club) and being a bit of a face.”
He still lives there.
“You could write an LP based on the rubbish you hear people talk every night. So I like being in Liverpool.”
“Anyway, Pete said, ‘Why don’t you do a demo of your songs?’ and he was offering to pay so eventually we made the demos.”
There were problems over finding someone to play bass until Washington appeared.
“My mate Tempo played with us but he only knew two notes and kept getting them in the wrong order so we got Pete Younger in. His bass-playing was good but he didn’t look and feel the part so he went and I met Washington. I’d seen him hanging round in the record shop I used to work in and I thought he looked really cool. He came and played with us and he was brilliant.”
The group’s name sprang to Wylie’s lips while he was cycling on a hot day.
“‘I was going to Eric’s on a pushbike in a leather jacket. It was a really hot day and when I got off the bike I said to Rover, Pete Fulwell’s old partner, ‘Wah! Heat!’ and he said, ‘That’ll do”, because we’d been trying to think of a name. Wah! Was just a word we used and as we went on we started philosophising about it, saying it was like a primal scream and a wordless expression of emotion. But it’s just a word as much as anything.”
After two singles, ‘Better Scream’ and ‘Seven Minutes To Midnight’, the Heat was dropped and Wah! Signed to WEA Records, releasing their first LP, Nah-Poo — The Art Of Bluff.
“Wah! Went on until the end of 1981 when I decided it wasn’t going the way I wanted it to go. It was music that I enjoyed but not my favourite music.”
Pete started to work on his own in a studio, with Washington helping him out on bass from time to time. They released a single, ‘Remember’, under the name, Shambeko! Say Wah!
“That name was to mark that it was a different thing from the previous Wah! But a lot of people couldn’t even say it, so we got back to calling it Wah! Again and I’m not sure we’ll ever change it again . . . unless we make it Pete Wylie And Wah!”
Last summer Pete and Washington recorded ‘The Story Of The Blues’ with some violinists and girl singers and it’s slowly turned out to be their first hit record. It’s a passionate song which expresses Pete’s frustration with the media on two levels: his own frustration at the way WEA wanted to market Wah!; and his frustration at seeing the way people are treated by and react to the media.
“It’s just about people messing you around and trying to take away something you had. It felt at one time like WEA were trying to cut down a lot of the facets of the rough diamond of Wah! Into a sparkling, easily-packaged thing. Some people wrote in reviews that it sounded as though I was feeling sorry for myself but the record’s saying the opposite. The words are so positive, saying that when things are bad, stop and get yourself organised and be strong.”
The second part of the song, on the flip side of the single, ‘Talkin’ Blues’, specifically criticises the media.
“It’s not about me, because we’ve always been treated fairly well. The example I was thinking of was people saying sympathetically about kids on the dole, ‘It’s terrible, all those kids on the scraphead!’ They’re not on the scraphead — just because you haven’t got a job doesn’t make you any less of a valuable person.
“All those people are getting indoctrinated on the news and in the papers and on TV; they’re getting told that they’re on the scraphead and that they’re useless. People read papers and take those things as fact, you know, because someone who’s in a position of power, someone who’s supposed to know, has told them.
“What’s that going to do to the way they think? To their self-respect and their attitude to the future?”
That’s why he gets a little annoyed at people laughing and clapping in front of him while he tries to present the song on Top Of The Pops.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUtv0myJuhM
“It’s a bit weird. We were watching Top Of The Pops last week, me and the girl I’m going with, and she said that all these people with a glad-to-be-alive appearance, they could be singing songs about the bomb dropping and they never stop smiling. It seems a bit weird doing a song like this but people aren’t even listening to what the words are.”
Anyway, it’s time to get made up for the dress rehearsal of the show. Sylvia and Ruby of Sylvia and the Sapphires are appearing with Wah! (they’ve been performing with the group of late) and they want their dressing room back to get changed in. Heads turn as they stroll down to the studio later, coolly glamorous.
In the tea break before the dress rehearsal. Joe Jackson sips a can of Coke, looking almost ecclesiastical in a bright blue suit, Cheryl Baker of Bucks Fizz chats to Sylvia and Ruby at the side of the studio and Tommy Vance checks his script. The studio dancers take up positions, having shed their legwarmers and donned a typical selection of gaucho outfits, post-New-Romantic frills and strategically-placed bits of sacking. Pete Wylie enters, all made-up, hair combed, ready to take his place. Any second thoughts?
“I was quite looking forward to doing it when we first heard about it. I had some questions in the back of my mind — people like The Clash always said they wouldn’t do it — but I just remembered that I loved seeing my favourite groups on it, like I remember seeing Bowie in ’72 doing ‘Starman’. So I think anyone who says they won’t do it on principle is being maybe a bit small-minded because to even be in something as corrupt as the music business is far worse than doing something stupid like Top Of The Pops.”
Edited by Steve Pafford