TIME FOR ACTION!
1979 and SECRET AFFAIR
Leading up to 1979, how had 1976 to 1978 treated you and your band?
“The years leading up to 1979 were a time of mixed blessings, really. The band that preceded Secret Affair was called New Hearts; formed during the first onset of punk’s first wave of ’76 bands, such as The Clash, The Damned, The Sex Pistols and so on.
Up until this time, music was dominated by hugely successful rock supergroups who played some great music but who, for many teenagers like me, seemed distant and remote. Both the pop chart scene and the black dance scene were dominated by some very cheesy music… The Stylistics, Barry White, The Bee Gees, The Carpenters and so on, with only artists like David Bowie or Roxy Music still striving to break new ground.
“Punk, and the more interesting term ‘new wave’, represented an opportunity to overturn much that was rather staid, shallow, complacent or, in the case of the rock supergroups of the time, self-indulgent, with its 20 minute drum solos and pseudo-mystical lyrics that didn’t always connect with working class teens like me. Punk’s assault on the musical and fashion status quo was, in retrospect, both rapid and astonishing in its impact. The important thing, more important than the music itself, was that it overturned the music industry, leaving in its wake a raft of gibbering record company executives, who literally didn’t know where to turn, who to sign or what to do. At first they had tried to resist it, along with their partners in crime in radio, TV and the print media. But importantly, the UK music press quickly embraced the new wave revolution, gave it the oxygen of publicity and suddenly all the staff of the NME, Melody Maker, Sounds and Record Mirror were clad in obligatory black leather biker jacket and skinny jeans (though not quite having had the courage to get their hair cut!).
“In the face of establishment resistance, the new wave/punk movement steamrollered on, forming its own independent record labels, such as Miles Copeland’s Step Forward, or the excellent Stiff Records formed by Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera, and creating its own fanzines such as the iconic Sniffing Glue, and its own venues like London’s The Roxy, or Monday nights at the Vortex, which was for the rest of the week a disco venue called Crackers. Punk was now a movement, a culture, a way of life for some.
“New Hearts, with me its 16 year old singer (eldest band member 18), stepped into this maelstrom of change determined to embrace our opportunity. For us, as musicians from the edge of London, without ‘contacts’ in the business or being part of any established scene or fashionable clique, saw that the systematic destruction of the music industry more, and meant we had as much opportunity and right to be a part of this new generation of music as anyone else. Or so we thought.
“The major record labels from 1977 onwards, still reeling from their dizzy fit, soon embarked on a campaign of signing as many of the new generation of bands as they possibly could, achieving a few coups along the way with CBS Records signing The Clash and United Artists signing The Stranglers. What major labels like CBS never really got though was the innate suspicion and irreverent disregard this new generation felt for them, whether they signed with them or not. Everyone knew that the rich cigar-wielding chief execs of the majors, with their teams of out of touch A&R men still wearing their permed footballer hairstyles and brightly coloured silk tour jackets, neither knew nor cared about this new revolution or, for that matter, about music itself. Many, I believe, thought they could just swallow it up and make it fade away so that they could return to the old days of formulaic pop and lofty supergroups.
“So New Hearts were quickly signed to CBS Records, and I think for a number of reasons. First, our age meant that, in theory, we were of the current generation. Second, that while we embraced one of the key tenets of punk rock performance; energy, passion, commitment, we rejected the often stated notion that ‘anyone can play punk rock, you don’t even have to know how to play the guitar or how to sing’. Instead, we were a tight, melodic, punchy unit with a big collection of well arranged songs, energised by intense guitar sounds that drew from that great power playing of guitar greats like Pete Townshend. And it had been proved to us that in both a punk, and new wave context, that approach was acceptable because successful bands like The Jam had proved it. Hard and fast, in time, in tune, with bags of passion and commitment, they did very well, while anyone with any sense could see this wasn’t a punk rock band. Their clothes, their look and their sound came straight out of the ’60s, which they had made contemporary and adapted to sit very comfortably in the new order of the second half of the ’70s.
“But for us as New Hearts, a few things meant that we were fated to unravel. One of the biggest factors was the issue of credibility. The whole new wave era was bedevilled by an obsession with credibility. Who was real and who wasn’t, who was ‘jumping a bandwagon’ who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. The prime drivers in the who was and wasn’t credible campaign were the UK music press. With ephemeral judgements worthy of The Crucible’s Abigail and Tituba, the music press started to decide who was cool and who was not, who was in and who was out, and the power of their witchcraft extended until, in the face of an ever-diversifying music market and dwindling circulations, there came the fall of the false kingmakers of sounds, Melody Maker, Record Mirror and the dramatic re-invention of the only survivor of those days – the much improved NME.
“Also, I had come to realise that there was something rotten at the heart of punk. That this heart didn’t really speak for ordinary working class kids like me, but whose trail led to origins in the King’s Road, Chelsea, whose proponents talked about ‘street’ culture but didn’t walk the streets, who professed to despise ‘the establishment’ but was in fact an in crowd establishment of its own. And we were outsiders.
“New Hearts’ record company understood none of this existential predicament, to our cost. The one thing they did understand was a strong melodic ‘pop’ element in our high energy new wave sound and they seized on this because to their addled and outdated minds, a good pop record would make the charts and bring success – job done. Against our will they put us in the recording studio with ex-Tommy & The Shondells keyboard player and now producer Kenny Laguna, who had a great track record in bubblegum pop but no knowledge at all of punk or new wave at the time. The result was a disaster and our first single was neither good pop, nor credible new wave and we were further pushed to the edge of the trust of the movers, shapers and kingmakers that were mysteriously empowered to raise or lower the Emperor of Credibility’s thumb.
Further pressurised to pursue the ‘pop’ route by manager and record company alike, we realised too late that frankly our careers were being steered by village idiots. The record company wound up their deal not long after the failure of the second single.
However, some very good things happened over this time. The first is that CBS retained myself and partner Dave Cairns as a proposed performer/songwriter duo. One executive laughably proposed that we think about making ourselves the next Smokie!
“The second is that they were very generous with demo time in their state of the art recording studio in central London. Due to this generosity (if generosity it was), I worked hard to learn about recording, what people did to make good records and how things worked technically. The house engineers at those studios patiently answered every trivial and irritating question I had. One in particular, Simon Humphrey, went on to be Secret Affair’s studio engineer.
“The third is that we made absolutely no attempt to go on and be the next Smokie, but worked and wrote and worked to create a new band, a new sound and a fierce determination never to let anyone treat us the way we had been treated again.”
How did the political climate in 1979 affect the band and the songs you were writing?
“Well it only affected me in as much as it affected a great many others. The death of consensus politics in ’79 with the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party gave rise to an intensifying of all that could be divisive between those who leaned to the left and those that leaned to the right, transforming normal political differences of opinion into issues of outright mistrust and mutual dislike. Margaret Thatcher was unquestionably a divisive leader, and her handling of the Trade Unions showed her to be both a cynical and ruthless leader. In my opinion, many people’s agreement that many of Britain’s woes at the time were caused by Trade Union militancy overlook the cause of that militancy, which was inflation massively reducing people’s pay. Also, when inflation did start to come down the major strikes that followed were not about pay, but about jobs. I think Margaret Thatcher knew full well that every redundancy of a union member effectively weakened that union.
“But it was in this climate, that some bright spark from a now defunct music paper decided to call me a Conservative which, in the bizarre credibility obsessed music business, amounted to a damning indictment. It was based on a quote of mine when I was asked what my politics were. I had replied that I didn’t have much time for either major political party… but if I were able to vote for them I would probably choose the US Democratic party. Also some people had deliberately misconstrued some remarks I had made about why there had been a revival of interest in Mod culture. I had said that the movement was fundamentally working class, and the desire of the young to wear a suit, look sharp and hold their head up high was aspirational – a statement that said that beyond class, status and wealth, they could, symbolically look anyone in the eye and say ‘I am your equal’. The idea for a while was nicknamed ‘suited subversives’ (by me I think) And I still like the idea. But anyone who thinks that is a right wing ideology has the politics of a 12 year old.
“In terms of songwriting, I am not a believer in promoting party politics through my lyrics. I don’t think ‘celebrities’ should use the power of their ‘voice’ to tell people how to vote. Musicians and songwriters who use their music to promote and address what could be called world or global issues, say human rights and social justice, is fine by me. Sting lamenting mourning Chilean women dancing the Cueca alone with photographs of their disappeared loved ones in their hands in the song ‘They Dance Alone’ seems to me a beautiful and moving way to make me think about what was the political issue of Pinochet’s reigime… but I don’t recall him ever telling me how to vote.”
What are your memories of appearing on Top of the Pops?
“Well our first appearance on Top of the Pops was the most memorable. It involved me and the bass player being half way up a motorway on the way to a show when we suddenly got a call that we had been invited to play TOTP that day. In the days before mobile phones the only way the rest of the band managed to contact me was by persuading Radio 1’s Newsbeat programme to broadcast a message at the end of their news bulletin which, by good fortune, we happened to be tuned into (I usually listen to Radio 4).
“In the end they had laid on a helicopter that flew back to London to make the recording of the show on time. I remember having to have to make a long, unheeded complaint to our record company’s promotions people who had arranged for a photographer to greet us at Battersea heliport. The ensuing pictures of me dashing from the helicopter, suitbag over my shoulder, were exactly the kind of non-credible exposure I was still trying to explain to record company executives that we didn’t need! They never got it.”
How important was the music press or to get played on John Peel’s radio show at the time?
“Well I think I may have spoken enough about the music press already perhaps? The John Peel exposure was, for me. In 1979 radio exposure was the most important way to break a band. John Peel at the time was Radio 1’s king of credible, and many of his shows consisted of a lot of dark, heavy punk full of out-of-tune guitars and bad singing of offensive lyrics. But many people missed the point about John. His mission wasn’t to promote punk music, per se. He felt it was his role to promote new talent. When I eventually got to ask him why he had played songs when it was so different from everything else he played he simply said, ‘because I liked it. And you needed a break.’ My promotions lady and I took him for a night out later and got him fabulously drunk. For weeks after he kept calling asking when we could do it again. He was a lovely man.”
Why do you think 1979 was such a fantastic year for alternative music?
“I think the proponents of the credibility gap issue were starting to lose their grip. Critics remained obsessed with it for years to come, but many artists were able to achieve mainstream success with their reputations intact because the music buying public were becoming less and less interested in such things. Among the top twenty records of 1979 were songs by Generation X, Elvis Costello, Lene Lovich’s fantastic Lucky Number, Ian Dury, Doctor Feelgood, were standing tall alongside the likes of Abba, Supertramp and Queen. The more embracing new wave revolution had achieved a really important landmark in popular music history; the broadening and diversifying of musical taste and style and the notion of, in a way, music for everybody. I think this process continued long into the next decade in a positive way, until the onset of the internet, which got everybody confused, and they still are. But that’s probably a topic for another day.”
Was there a feeling that a new breed/style of music was taking over?
“No, I wouldn’t say ‘taking over’. But certainly that popular music was becoming a broader church and that even established bands had to push on, develop and evolve – and that a disregard for new talent, new ideas and ways of doing things could be fatal.”
Which other band that was breaking that year made you sit up and think, ‘We’ve got a bit of competition here’?
“I’ve never thought of making and playing or appreciating music as a competition. The Premier League is a competition and the team with the most points at the end wins it. I’ve always hated TV programmes like the Top 20 Films of this or… The Top 100 Dance Tunes of that – they’re entirely arbitrary. Of course you can use record sales as a measure but then, in 1981, Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ spent four consecutive weeks at #2 in the UK singles chart without ever getting to #1. Joe Dolce’s novelty song ‘Shaddapya Face’ kept it off the top slot for three weeks – but who made the better record?”
How important do you think fashion was to youth culture in 1979?
“Fashion has always been important to youth culture, but I am aware of the speed and diversity with which from ’76 through to the early ’80s fashion styles came about. Punks, Teddy Boy, Skinhead, Casual/Soul Boy, Mod, Two-Tone… and don’t forget, by the end of 1979 someone somewhere must have already been dreaming up New Romantics!”
What song really broke you big in 1979?
“Although it’s never been my favourite of our songs, we owed our initial success to ‘Time For Action’. At that time, singles’ airplay and chart success were absolutely fundamental for breaking a new band – absolutely paramount. ‘Time For Action’ was the right song at the right time. And even today, when we play it people still go crazy. It sold over 200,000 copies at the time, and if it had done those kind of numbers today it would be number one for three months.”
If you could do one thing over again that you did that year, what would it be?
“Oh, that’s an easy one! I’d like to remix our first album, ‘Glory Boys’ – if I’d known then what I know now I could have made it even better!”
"Time For Action" – 1979 – Number 13
"Let Your Heart Dance" – 1979 – Number 32
"My World" – 1980 – Number 16
"Sound Of Confusion" – 1980 – Number 45
"Do You Know" – 1981 – Number 57
"Glory Boys" – 1979 – Number 41
"Behind Closed Doors" – 1980 – Number 48
"Business As Usual" – 1982 – Number 84
"Soho Dreams" – 2012