A 30-year layoff hasn’t dimmed the Mancunian post-punkers’ enthusiasm or talent.
BY DAVE STEINFELD
This past summer, while thumbing through an issue of Uncut one night, I noticed a very short piece about a band called The Distractions. I had to read it twice to make sure it was the same band I was thinking of and that I wasn’t imagining things. Blessed with an excruciatingly limited discography and no members who went on to big things, The Distractions were obscure even in their native England. But to a small but rabid group of fans, this Manchester quintet was considered one of the great lost bands of the New Wave era. As recently as last year, I looked for news about them online and found very little, which led me to wonder whatever happened to the band members.
What a difference a year makes. This item in Uncut said that a new album by The Distractions was imminent — more than three decades after the last one! I was stunned.
For the uninitiated… The Distractions were part of the late ’70s post-punk scene in Northern England. After a few singles and the wonderfully titled EP You’re Not Going Out Dressed Like That, the band released their one proper album, Nobody’s Perfect, in 1980. The disc featured 14 songs and covered a broad musical spectrum. “Waiting for Lorraine,” the opener, was an angry song about unrequited love in the form of an unreturned phone call, a theme revisited later on the album, literally, in the track “Still it Doesn’t Ring.” Other highlights include “Looking for a Ghost,” which UK journalist David Quantick once aptly described as “the greatest sleepwalking nightmare ballad ever,” and a rocking anthem of independence titled “Untitled.” Most of the tunes on Nobody’s Perfect were written by guitarist Steve Perrin, some in collaboration with singer Mike Finney. But a couple were penned by second guitarist Adrian Wright. The Distractions were rounded out by a rhythm section that may have had the best names in all of rock history: bassist Pip Nicholls and drummer Alec Sidebottom.
Nobody’s Perfect was loved by almost everyone who heard it — but unfortunately, few people did! There are various theories as to why The Distractions never made it, ranging from the fact that a little band called U2 was signed by the same label (Island Records) around the same time; to, as another UK journalist, Ian Cranna once wrote, “bands fronted by overweight and bespectacled singers were not the stuff of which legends were made.” Whatever the case, The Distractions weren’t long for this world and Nobody’s Perfect remains one of the ultimate “cult” albums of the post-punk period. Ironically, the band’s best known song didn’t even appear on the album. The wonderful single “Time Goes By So Slow,” released in late 1979 by the tastemakers at Factory Records and a popular track on college radio here in the states, was their (relative) moment in the sun, an incredibly sad lyric married to an infectious melody.
Unlike some stories in rock and roll (say, that of The Tourists, an English band who came up around the same time as The Distractions and had very marginal success but whose singer was one Annie Lennox), this tale doesn’t have a happy ending — at least in the sense that the band members did not go on to achieve greater success after their breakup. None of the Distractions ever became a household name and most of them currently have day jobs. In this case, the happy ending is simply that three decades and change after Nobody’s Perfect, they’re still alive and well, and indeed they finally released their sophomore set, The End of the Pier, in late August.
The band’s current lineup finds Finney and Perrin joined by Nick Halliwell, Granite Shore guitarist, owner of Occultation Recordings and catalyst for the reunion; bassist Arash Torabi of The June Brides; and drummer Mike Kellie, whose extensive resume includes stints with both The Only Ones and Spooky Tooth.
In contrast to Nobody’s Perfect, The End of the Pier, while still a Distractions record, is a more concise, unified album. There are only 10 songs this time around. Also unlike Nobody’s Perfect, the subject matter of these songs isn’t quite as varied. Throughout End of the Pier, there’s a sense that time is short; indeed, the first line on the album is “We’re running out of time.” (Incidentally, Finney sings the hell out of that song, “I Don’t Have Time,” in a voice that recalls World Party leader Karl Wallinger.) This theme is echoed in tracks like “Too Late to Change” and “The Last Song” which, appropriately, closes the disc. Even the title of the album can be taken as a reference to time running out. These days, it seems, time doesn’t go by so slow.
The Distractions celebrated the release of The End of the Pier with exactly two live dates, in the Manchester borough of Salford. This may seem strange but the fact is, it’s miraculous that these dates happened at all. The band members no longer live in Manchester these days; rather, they’re spread throughout England, and Perrin is based in Australia. So it was no small feat for them to come together for these gigs. This writer lives in America and wasn’t lucky enough to attend either of the Salford dates — but I was lucky enough to be the one to write about them on these shores, a result of seeing that short piece in Uncut and then tracking the unassuming Mike Finney down online. For this piece, I spoke with Finney, Perrin and Halliwell, all of whom were great interviews. [Pictured in the photo at top, L-R: Perrin, Finney and Halliwell.]
BLURT: Tell me a little about what each of you was up to during “the 30-year break” — either musically or otherwise.
STEVE PERRIN (SP): It was actually two 15-year breaks as we played together for a while in the mid-1990s. Apart from that, my only involvement in music was briefly working for an independent record label in Italy in the late ’80s. Otherwise, I’ve spent more time writing academic papers and a PhD thesis than I have writing songs. It’s good to be writing songs again.
MIKE FINNEY (MF): I had a band called the Secret Seven straight after The Distractions in 1983, but it was short-lived. [Later that year], I recorded a vocal track for the first Art Of Noise single. It was originally called “Close to The Edge,” but came out as “Close to the Edit.” I’m the Edit!
I was [also] in a band called The First Circle, with Alex [Sidebottom] as drummer and some of Mancunian band Dr Filth. Sort of country-rock, as was the vogue in the mid-‘80s. Then I stopped singing until Steve and I restarted The Distractions in ’95, stopped again and restarted in 2010. In the meantime, I am currently employed as an International Trade consultant for the Croda Chemical Group. A global company but UK headquartered.
Nick, you’re credited with getting The Distractions back together even though you weren’t a member of the original band. Tell me a bit about how that happened — how you got Steve and Mike to agree to another album and perhaps what The Distractions meant to you in the first place.
NICK HALLIWELL (NH): The Distractions have been one of my favourite bands since 1978; beautifully crafted songs and one of the all-time great singers. I wrote something about them on the Granite Shore website, Mike contacted me [and] then put me in touch with Steve. I was bemoaning the fact that one of the finest English singers of our generation had made so few records and Steve said, “You’ve got a label. When it makes you a million, stick him in a studio.” I suggested I could spare a few hundred quid straight away [and] asked him if he’d write a couple of songs. [Steve] conferred with Mike, then got back to me saying, “I’ll be in the UK in June!” So I booked a studio. At some point along the way, the two of them told me it’d be a Distractions record – that had to come from them rather than from me. We recorded the Come Home EP in Liverpool in two days in June 2010, having met for the first time at the studio. Hearing Mike sing the song I’d written for it was a very special moment.
The next logical step was an album. Steve wrote about half of it and sent the demos to me, I chipped in with a song (“Wise”), then [we] came up with a few more between us. It was important to have something cohesive, so Steve and I worked together closely. I tried to pick up on the themes he’d established in his songs.
Tell me how The Distractions first came together and also a bit about what the music scene in Manchester was like during the mid to late ‘70s.
SP: Mike and I met on a college course and he kept singing, so I suggested that we form a band in an attempt to shut him up. That worked — but only briefly. We were messing around for a while but when punk started to happen, it gave us an outlet as a number of small clubs started to put on punk nights.
It was a very small scene in Manchester, though — I would guess no more than 100 people to start with [and] very incestuous. We found a bass player because Pip applied too late for the job with Buzzcocks. So Pete Shelley passed on [his] phone number to us.
MF: Steve and I met at college in 1975 in Stockport. We were on the same course on day release. We used to go to the pub afterwards and I would sing along to the jukebox – Buddy Holly, Roxy Music, Elvis, whatever was playing — and Steve said we should start a band. He says it was just to shut me up but I think it was because he could see the girls in the pub swooning.
Mike, who are some of the vocalists who you count as inspirations or personal favorites?
MF: It’s quite a mix, really. My very early childhood favorites were Elvis, Bing Crosby and Dean Martin, followed by John Lennon (“This Boy” is still a favourite). Then somebody played me Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Aretha, Sam & Dave, Levi Stubbs [and] Sam Cooke and I knew what they meant.
On the new album, The End of the Pier, several of the songs deal with aging, the past and/or a sense of time running out. Coincidence or not?
SP: We finished recording Nobody’s Perfect on my 23rd birthday so all the material on there was written between the ages of 20 and 22. When I started writing songs for The End of the Pier, the one thing I knew for sure was that I couldn’t pretend to be 22. Having said that, I wasn’t initially sure what the album was going to be about. Most of the songs came from musical ideas and a couple of them started out with completely different sets of lyrics. Then I had a conversation with Nick about Mike’s voice in which one of us — I can’t remember who — said that if we were going to record him at his best, we had to do it now as the voice changes due to bodily developments. That seemed to spark something off and all this stuff started pouring out.
Also, it was a conscious decision to make an album with a coherent theme as Nobody’s Perfect doesn’t have that; it’s just a collection of songs we had at the time.
MF: We’re older and time is not getting any longer.
How were the recent gigs in Salford?
MF: Fab! Thoroughly enjoyed the gigs. It was great to see so many friends, a lot of whom I hadn’t seen for 30 years [and] also seeing Steve as I only see him once a year. My 10-year-old son was wearing my silver jacket that I hadn’t worn since playing [New York City club] Hurrah! in 1980. He got onstage to prove it! Both my sons got to see me do what I love most and I never thought they would, so [that was] a huge bonus.
Apart from those few ’95 gigs, we hadn’t played since 1980. We did “Time Goes By So Slow,” “Waiting for Lorraine,” “Leave You to Dream,” “It Doesn’t Bother Me” and “Valerie” together for the first time in 32 years. It was a good feeling. Joni Mitchell was half right: Whilst you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, you don’t really know until you have it restored.
NH: Everyone I’ve spoken to has been very complimentary and it feels like an achievement in retrospect. I’ve been mixing the recordings and we’re astonishingly tight considering we only had one short rehearsal the day before. The current line-up has one hell of a rhythm section in Arash Torabi and Mike Kellie, Steve and I have an uncannily shared sense of timing and Mike was on jaw-dropping form.
What are the other three former Distractions (Pip, Alec and Adrian) up to these days? Also, is it true that Adrian was the writer of “Time Goes By So Slow?”
SP: Yes, Adrian wrote “Time Goes By So Slow,” but whoever designed the label [of the single] got the credits the wrong way round and we’ve been trying to sort that out for years. He’s not involved in music anymore.
Pip continues to do solo stuff which can be heard on MySpace. Alec leads the Republic of Swing samba band, which is a serious live proposition.
MF: I haven’t seen Pip for 15 or 16 years but I believe that [he] is living in Warrington (between Manchester and Liverpool). I haven’t seen Ade since way back in the ‘80s, but I spoke to him briefly in ’95 when we had a get-together to record [some songs and do] three or four gigs. Three songs that came out on the Occultation Black Velvet EP were from that time. He was contacted again in 2010. Whilst he still didn’t want to be in the band, he sent copies of some live recordings, which we enjoyed hearing again.
One of my favorites from Nobody’s Perfect is the opening track, “Waiting for Lorraine.” If you would, tell me a bit about the inspiration for that or any memories you associate with it.
SP: In Manchester, the early punk scene was closely tied [in] with the gay scene largely due to the fact that only gay clubs would let in unconventionally dressed individuals. If I remember correctly, I had three consecutive girlfriends who decided after a relatively short time in my company that they preferred women. This left me rather confused but at least I got a song out of it.
Any plans for the immediate future — either as The Distractions or individually?
SP: We’ve tentatively talked about a third — and probably final — album. It has a working title and I think I know what the subject matter is but nothing is actually written yet. I’m guessing that Nick will make a Granite Shore album first on which I’m hoping to do some backing vocals.
MF: No plans individually, but I’ll be happy to do some more with the boys if [they] are available.
Neil Storey, the man behind Hidden Masters, was the press officer at Island Records all those years ago. Me and Steve have known him since 1979 and he’s been a fan and friend for a long time. He plans to release a retrospective of The Distractions next year with all the old records and some unreleased stuff he’s found in the Universal vaults. I can’t wait to hear them!
NH: As far as The Distractions go, it’s up to Steve and Mike though I’d love to do another album. I’m now working on a Granite Shore LP, I’d also like to do some more producing and there’s Occultation Recordings to run. We’re reissuing the Wild Swans album, The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years, next year, with a vinyl version at long last, and there are a few other projects in the pipeline.
What was it like recording and performing together again after more than 30 years?
MF: The recording seemed very natural. After Steve left in 1980, well…it was never really quite right when he wasn’t there, so we just picked up where we left it.
SP: It felt completely normal. It’s the rest of life that feels pretty weird!