The Liverpool band the Wild Swans have recently announced their return in a third incarnation with their first single and release in twenty years, ‘English Electric Lightning/The Coldest Winter for a Hundred Years’.
One of the great British legendary lost bands, the Wild Swans, which consisted in its first line-up of vocalist Paul Simpson, keyboardist Ged Quinn and guitarist Jeremy (Jem) Kelly, seemed destined for major success when they released their debut single, ‘The Revolutionary Spirit/God Forbid’, in 1982.
It was funded and produced by Simpson’s flatmate and Echo and the Bunnymen drummer, the late Pete De Freitas, who also played on it when the Wild Swans’ original drummer, Justin Staveley, failed to make the recording session.
The only 12” and the last release of the cult Liverpudlian label Zoo Records, its owner, Bill Drummond, has subsequently described it as being “by far the best single we put out”, and Simpson’s lushly echoing vocals ; Quinn’s huge, towering keyboards, and Kelly’s chiming guitar work on it won the band instant acclaim and several Singles of the Week in the national music press.
Two BBC radio sessions, one for David ‘Kid’ Jensen and one for John Peel, and a British tour in support of Echo and the Bunnymen followed. Internal tensions within the band, a lack of manager and the folding of Zoo Records each, however, had their toll, and by the end of the year the Wild Swans had gone, disintegrating in sudden acrimony.
Simpson, Quinn and Kelly would all have chart success over the next three years, Quinn and Kelly with the Lotus Eaters and ‘The Last Picture of You’ and Simpson with Care, the band he subsequently formed with Ian Broudie, and ‘Flaming Sword’.
In 1985 they, however, decided to put their differences behind them and reform the Wild Swans in a new line-up with Alan Wills on drums and Joseph Fearon taking over the until then rotating roll of bassist.
Their debut album, ‘Bringing Home the Ashes’, a record which Paul Simpson told Pennyblackmusic in his first interview with us in 2003 that he “can’t abide”, finally came out on Sire in 1988. A second album, ‘Space Flower’, which, with all the other members having left Simpson described “as more of a solo album featuring a load of mates”, followed again on Sire in 1990. Despite featuring Ian Broudie, who was starting to gain acclaim in the Lightning Seeds, and the Icicle Works’ Ian McNabb, it was only, however, released in the States and did not receive a British release until 2007. Wounded and disillusioned, Simpson abandoned the Wild Swans to focus his energies instead on his largely instrumental ambient solo project, Skyray.
Interest in the Wild Swans has, however, never waned, and there have been in recent years two double retrospective CDs. ‘Incandescent’ (Renascent, 2004) brought together the Zoo recording, the band’s early demos, BBC sessions and some live material from 1981, while ‘Magnitude’(Korova, 2007) featured everything they had recorded in their second incarnation.
The third line-up of the group finds Simpson and Quinn back on board, and also features Ricky Rene Maymi (Brian Jonestown Massacre) on guitar, Mike Mooney (Spiritualized, Lupine Howl, Applecraft) on bass and Steve Beswick (drums).
On his MySpace site and in the press release for ‘English Electric Lightning’, Simpson has explained about this new incarnation of the Wild Swans that “this unhappy business has been unfinished business for over twenty years…In returning from the ambient wilderness I am not trying to recreate the unique sound of the former members…It is the original spirit of the group I am after… different but the same.”
The new single is exactly that. ‘English Electric Lightning’ has much in common with the Wild Swans of ‘Revolutionary Spirit’, and, with its honeyed, rippling guitars and Quinn’s soaring, majestic keyboards, a similar sense of super melodiousness and timelessness. Simpson’s half jaded, half nostalgic lyrics, an evocation of his 60s/70s childhood and a six minute summary of British social history since the Second World War , however, are a lot less abstract than much of what he has written before, and this and an increased use of backing harmonies take the Wild Swans in a new direction.
The B side, ‘The Coldest Winter for a Hundred Years’, which is set against a similarly lush backdrop of reverberating guitars and tingling keyboards , is a spoken word extract from Simpson’s forthcoming memoirs, telling of the early days of the Wild Swans and his experiences flat sharing with De Freitas at 20 Devonshire Road in rundown Liverpool 8.
About an album entitled ‘The Coldest Winter in a Hundred Years’ which will follow hopefully later in 2009, Simpson has said in the same press release, “My mission is to record the album I first heard in my head so many years ago and which has this far eluded me. I am determined never again to release a compromised work that I am not proud of.”
In his second interview with Pennyblackmusic, and his first with the Wild Swans as an active band since the 1980s, Paul Simpson spoke to us about the group’s turbulent past and his hopes for its future.
As this article went to press, I received an e-mail from Mitch Poole, the Wild Swans’ helpful PR, explaining that the band’s label Occultation’s website had just gone live and that they were overwhelmed by the response for pre-orders of ‘English Electric Lightning’ which had come in from all over the world. An impressive achievement considering the launch had taken place without any fanfare and it is a release that is only coming only on 10”(with a free download). The rehabilitation and resurgence of the Wild Swans has begun.
PB : You have said that you are no longer prepared to make music that has been "compromised" and that you are not "proud of". When Pennyblackmusic last spoke to you, you said you couldn't "abide" 'Bringing Home the Ashes’. Is that what you mean by work that is compromised and which you are not proud of ? Does that also apply to other aspects of the Wild Swans and your other musical careers ?
PS : I don’t want to offend anyone out there for whom ‘Bringing Home the Ashes’ is a favourite record but for me music is all about authenticity, and ‘Bringing Home the Ashes’ is about as authentic as Queen Elizabeth attempting cockney rhyming slang. We took eyes off the ball, had too much time, too big a budget and an engineer-producer who didn’t know what authenticity was. At the end of the day the Wild Swans was my vision and as the ship’s captain I should have stood steadfast. I had very much left the bridge and the crew were confused. A ship with several captains is going to run aground.
Saying that, apparently Tom Verlaine never liked the production on Television’s ‘Marquee Moon’ album, and for me, that record is flawless so maybe I’m being a bit hard on ‘Bringing Home the Ashes’. No, on reflection ‘Bringing Home the Ashes’ is rubbish.
PB : Pennyblackmusic spoke to you just before the 'Incandescent' CD was released. In the time since then the 'Magnitude' CD has also come out. Have you been surprised at the good reviews and the dramatically increased interest in the Wild Swans that came with those? Is it that has inspired you to have another crack at the Wild Swans?
PS : I’d already taken the decision to make a new Wild Swans’ album a month before I got a phone call to tell me about Korova Records’ plans to release ‘Magnitude’. It was just pure serendipity and confirmation for me that the time was right to do this. To put this in context you have to understand that I’ve never made a penny from the Wild Swans so it certainly wasn’t a business decision on my part to make another album, but rather an ‘unfinished business’ decision. The Wild Swans failure to realize its potential the first time around has obsessed me for over 20 years. This time I’m going to see it through to the bitter end. I cannot rest or be happy until I’ve made the albums, done the tours, documented the trip and finished what I started.
PB : You have said that by reforming the Wild Swans you're not trying "to recreate the unique sound of the former group", but its "original spirit". What do you mean by its "original spirit ?" Is it that potential for greatness which was promised with 'The Revolutionary Spirit' and 'God Forbid', and which as yet you see as having not been completely fulfilled ?
PS : I mean trapping in (virtual) amber - that purity, potency and ambition-beyond-ability thing we once had and miraculously now have again. Music and lyric in perfect accord. I want to make records that have a value that far exceed their purchase price. The aural equivalent of a Saville Row tailored suit; neither fashionable, nor unfashionable but timeless, custom-made and built to last a lifetime.
PB : Both you and Ged Quinn from the first two line-ups are on board. Ged Quinn is a very successful painter these days. How easy is it going to be for him to merge his commitments for the band with those of his painting career ? How will you work around that ? Jeremy Kelly, the other member of the first two line-ups, is conspicuous by his absence, but why is he absent ?
PS : Despite his recent successes as a fine artist, the Wild Swans has also been unfinished business for Ged. He has a similar swan-shaped hole in his heart that he wants to fill before we both die. Ged will do what he can, when he can, but first and foremost he’s a painter and that was always the way. Knowing him he’ll do the big gigs with the nice hotels and avoid the seedy dives and the Transit van home.
Original guitarist Jeremy lost faith in us and when times got tough he enrolled in teaching training and since then music has taken a back seat in his life. I think of him as a serial cheating girlfriend. I still love him to bits but I’d never take him back.
PB : The Wild Swans Mark III has new members. The young Mike Mooney was your neighbour when you flat shared in Devonshire Road with Pete De Freitas, and was part of the Liverpool music scene of the time. You have obviously known him a long time. Who are the other two new members, Ricky Rene Maymi and Steve Beswick?
PS : I first met Mike Mooney the night of the infamous Toxteth riots, when the streets of Liverpool 8 were ablaze and flying half-bricks filled the air. Mike lived on the far side of the police lines and simply couldn’t get home. Being a gentleman, I invited Mike into the relative safety of my first floor flat for a cup of tea. We sat staring out of the window all night watching nurses running below carrying bandages and bags of plasma. It was both exciting and scary as we stood with flames reflected in our eyes wondering if the rioters would come any further into the town centre.
Ricky Maymi is lightning in a bottle. He adores the Wild Swans and completely understands the Swans ethos and the importance of not straying too far from the original blueprint. Hailing from San Francisco Ricky’s psychedelic leanings shouldn’t work in the - oh so British context of the Wild Swans but they do. He concentrates so hard in the studio that he completely drains himself and every five hours he has to power nap to recuperate. Ricky was co-founder of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and still plays with them for a third of the year. Newest recruit to the band is the drummer
Steve Beswick was coincidentally was drummer in The Heartthrobs with Pete DeFrietas’ sister Rose. Steve is a beautiful person, 100% committed and funny as hell. He drove for threeand a half hours just to meet me in a recording studio in Wales when Ricky and I we were demo-ing tracks last year. As he was listening to what we’d sketched out, Steve picked up a tiny egg-shaped shaker that was lying around, and for five minutes played along perfectly in time and introducing all kinds of intricate rhythmic subtleties and I thought, he’s the boy of us.
PB : You have spent over ten years in the "ambient wilderness" with Skyray. Has it been hard for you writing lyrics again, or is that something you have continued to do although not made public ?
PS : I wrote my web-diaries, six short stories, a sit-com pilot, a horror film script and I tickled my book, but lyrics ? No.
I thought it would be difficult but it has been fairly easy as I’m appalled at the state of the world and I have something to say.
PB : The new single is magical. 'English Electric Lightning' is one of your greatest ever songs. You have admitted that a lot of the lyrics last time around were written in a hallucinatory state either from taking drugs or because you were absolutely starving. Your new lyrics are a lot less abstract. Was that a conscious decision, or do you think that has come inevitably from being older and hopefully in a better state of health?
PS : I got very tired with that late 1980’s fake messiah trip, you know that “I have all the answers but I’m not going to tell you, I’ll allude to them but not reveal a thing.” You know the Bono, Jim Kerr, Ian McCulloch axis of Evil. I fell into that a bit in Mk 2. Mac is a mate and writes beautiful lyrics, but he went through a phase where he thought he was Jesus.
The lyrics now have a far more important role in the new Swans. ‘English Electric Lightning’ is a Trojan horse, a call to arms made palatable by rhythm and melody.
PB : In the chorus of 'English Electric Lightning' you sum up a lot of the best and worst of Britain from the last 40 or 50 years whether it is Johnny Rotten and Geoffrey Chaucer, or Margaret Thatcher, the Toxteth riots and happy slappers. There is a real fear for the future there, but because you have not just focused on the bad does that mean that there is an admittedly jaded optimism too?
PS : I’m long-term optimistic, short-term pessimistic. I believe nothing and question everything I hear on the TV news or read in the newspapers. It’s not the ‘news’ after all, it’s the ‘bad news”; propaganda, pre-filtered of anything remotely life-affirming and to keep us all in a state of fear; a docile, subservient workforce. The ‘on a lighter note’ bit at the end of the TV news, the bit where we see Lorraine Kelly getting knighted or a cute panda cub born in Antwerp Zoo is just tacked on to stop us from killing ourselves. The youth of Great Britain seem hell bent on obliteration. Liverpool town centre at 2 am on a Friday or Saturday night is a Hieronymus Bosch triptych.
PB : ‘The Coldest Winter for a Hundred Years' is a monologue telling of your time at Devonshire Road and flat sharing with Pete De Freitas. A lot of that monologue is really funny, whether describing the annoyance of your neighbours as Pete decided to drive his motorbike down the stairs, or your own bemusement when visited by firemen after the electric blanket on your bed had caught fire having been left on for five days. Were things despite the cold and lack of food always as joyfully chaotic there ? Do you see it as a happy time ?
PS : Terrible, beautiful, bittersweet days. Devonshire Road was one part ‘Withnail and I’, and one part Jagger’ Powys Square flat in ‘Performance’. Blankets nailed to windows to keep out the cold.
Using his first ever royalty cheque from Echo and the Bunnymen, Pete de Frietas produced and paid for us to record ‘The Revolutionary Spirit’ at a time when we couldn’t get arrested.
PB : The monologue is taken from your long promised memoirs. Are those memoirs completed yet and are they liable to be released soon?
PS : It’s taken an age, but I am talking to a couple of publishers right now. If we can all pull our fingers out it could be out by Christmas. But don’t listen to me, I’m self-delusional. I’ve been promising a new Wild Swans album for two years now.
PB : The single is coming out on 10" on a new label Occultation Records. Why 10" ? Who are Occultation Records?
PS : Why a 10 inch ? Well 12-inch singles are just plain boring now, and I loved the idea of coming back after so very long with a vinyl single in a non-standard format. Apart from the increased sound quality (the single is nearly six-minutes long and the B-side longer still) 10-inch singles just look beautiful. Occultation just approached us at the right time and gave us carte-blanche to make a single. So far it’s been fairly painless.
PB : There is another band the Granite Shore releasing another 10" on Occultation at the same time ? Who are they?
A new band from the South-East, Bristol way. I don’t know too much about them but I like their single. Its very different to the Swans record and their reference points are more Dory Previn and Jacques Brel than the usual the Doors and the Velvet Underground.
PB : There will be an album also called 'The Coldest Winter for a Hundred Years' later on in 2009. Is that entirely written yet and how much of it has been recorded ? When is that liable to be released ?
PS : Hey, give me a break will you? At one album every twenty years I’m going as fast as I can.
PB : Thank you.