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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Steve Perrin Interview Part 1

To complement the original 2007 Q&A done with Steve Perrin at the Mod Pop Punk Archives, Steve has kindly answered some more probing questions:

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It’s well documented that you met Mike at college, Pip (Nicholls) joined after missing out with the Buzzcocks and Adrian (Wright) and Alex (Sidebottom) joined via an NME advert. When and why did Lawrence (Tickle) and Tony (Trappe) leave in the early days?

SP: Lawrence was there in the very early days before we ever played a gig. He was a really good guitarist but was obsessed with the Rolling Stones so probably left because we didn’t sound like the Rolling Stones. Tony played the first few gigs with us, including one supporting Buzzcocks at Rafters where he turned up wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt. At the time I saw this as the last straw. Now I think it was a move of pure genius.

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How did you tend to work on songs? Were they presented to the group fully-formed or did they tend to evolve from words with chords into something more complete? Also, did you generally start with a tune and then write lyrics to it, begin with the words and then set them to music, or did the two generally evolve together?

SP: Song writing tended to be individual but song choice and arrangements were pretty democratic. The writers would circulate tapes of themselves bashing something out on an acoustic guitar and if everybody liked something it would get done, if somebody disliked something it wouldn’t. From that point on we’d work stuff up and any ideas were welcome. The distinctive drum pattern on “Fantasy”, for example, was something that Alex came up with.

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One thing I find interesting is that, although songs are credited to various different band members, there’s very definitely a "Distractions aesthetic” which runs through pretty much all of them, particularly a certain lyrical approach, a down-to-earth approach to songwriting of a kind later developed by certain other Mancunians, with wit and pathos. At least three of you must’ve contributed lyrics, so how do you explain this wonderful consistency? Was it conscious to any degree? A happy accident? Or perhaps shared experience?

SP: My guess would be shared experience. The lyricists were all working class males of a certain age from the North West of England who had had little socio-geographical movement so we had rather a lot in common. It is vital, however, to consider Mike’s role in this. As the singer he had to be comfortable with what he was singing so, occasionally, Adrian or myself would come up with a lyric which didn’t fit and the song would not get done. I mean, I love that Antony and the Johnsons song “I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy” but I doubt that I would have been able to get Mike to sing that.

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Similarly, was there any conscious decision to write love songs that had a little grit in their oysters?

SP: I think that was conscious, yes, but probably also due to our shared vision of life at the time.

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What was the Manchester scene like in the late '70s, early '80s? Any memories of the pubs, clubs and venues around the town before in the years before The Smiths and “Madchester” arrived?

SP: It was a really vibrant live scene. Most people will probably disagree with me but I think most of the bands were better live than on record. My favourite place was The Ranch on Dale Street which was an offshoot of Foo Foo’s Palace, owned by Frank “Foo Foo” Lamar, Manchester’s answer to Danny La Rue. It was amazing. No stage, no PA system and no door policy so you could get in dressed in whatever took your fancy. Kevin Cummins’ photos from the Ranch really capture that period and would be worth a book on their own.


The Ranch, Dale Street, 1976. (c) Manchester District Music Archive..


Did you ever see yourselves as punks? The thing that first grabbed my attention when I heard the TJM EP was that it was the first new record I’d heard that didn’t have that wall of distorted guitars from the Ramones’ first LP, via the Pistols, Clash, Buzzcocks, etc. It made it sound pretty radical to my youthful ears. Everything else coming out around that time (and for a while afterwards) was either the kind of stuff that was later dubbed "post-punk" or else rama-lama cartoon punk thrash. Go on, tell me it was a sheer accident, one day the batteries in your distortion pedal ran out mid-song and you thought “that’s it! That’s the sound!”

SP: Well, before punk got codified it was a fairly open concept. The initial New York bands were all quite different and that was initially the case in Manchester too. In terms of the look, people were mostly wearing stuff they found in secondhand shops or made themselves. As for the guitar sound, that was deliberate. I wanted to sound like a cross between Hank Marvin and Steve Cropper. Big “rock” sounds have never interested me. I don’t have a big “rock” personality.

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Similarly, what you were doing at the time, referencing all the drama of sixties pop, was pretty radical at the time, it was supposed to be "Year Zero”, we weren’t supposed to admit that we even liked any records made before late 1976 (with a few exceptions such as The Stooges, Velvets, etc.) The Distractions always sounded thrillingly modern to my ears, but punk audiences could be very intolerant of anything that wasn't Sham 69 - did you ever encounter any hostility?

SP: Again, in the early days people were pretty open minded so a show with us, Joy Division, the Fall, Exodus (a reggae band) and John Cooper Clarke seemed to make sense. That mostly stayed the case in places like Manchester, Liverpool and London but, elsewhere, “punk” got codified pretty quickly and, yes, we did encounter some hostility. I seem to remember some pretty hairy gigs in remote parts of Scotland.

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