After talking to the The Hawks’ Dave Twist, Stephen Duffy called to add his take to the tale...The last time we spoke with Duffy was in October 2019. It was after the show at the Glee Club in Birmingham, where he’d met with Twist and the late Dave Kusworth and agreed to work on putting The Hawks’ album together from their unreleased archives.
Throughout the numerous lockdowns that followed, Duffy has been busy, not just with assembling The Hawks album, but also with the (imminent) releases from his band The Lilac Time. However, I wanted to start by revisiting his last show in Birmingham.
OUTSIDELEFT: Can we just go back to October 2019, when you played live at the Glee Club. You met up with Dave Kusworth and Dave Twist after the show and Kusworth asked you, apparently for the umpteenth time, to “Release the Hawks.” After so many years of declining to do so, why did you finally say yes?
STEPHEN DUFFY: It’s that it was the enormity of it. It was 40 years since we'd gotten together. And now (in late 2021), we must be coming up to the anniversary of our last gig at the Fighting Cocks in Moseley.
I hadn't listened to The Hawks for quite some time, so I just thought ‘well, let's have a listen!’ I went through all of the cassettes and there were lots of duplicates, I transferred them all to Pro Tools and then tried to find the best version of each of the songs.
I started to think, 'well that's not so bad' and over time you can separate yourself from going 'Oh God, the singing is terrible,' or whatever. And I thought let's pick the best ten performances, the best songs, and don't worry if I'm occasionally singing out of tune...
OL: Dave Twist was talking to me about the sleeve, about the striking image of you on the front. What’s your recollection of that?
SD: One of the reasons I went back to The Hawks was that those pictures that Brendan Jackson took were so excellent! (Note – Dave Twist is putting together an NME size magazine of these photographs).
In Brendan's pictures, we're at Digbeth Coach Station, we're all smoking, there's a pile of sugar on the table, we're all drinking tea out of polystyrene cups. Those guys, with the name Obviously 5 Believers… They should have been signed before anyone had even listened to them!
One of the earlier songs on the album is 'Big Store’. A number that Duffy wrote whilst in Duran Duran and that Kusworth would later cover with his band The Jacobites. Duffy would also record a version with Nick Rhodes for The Devil’s album ‘Dark Circles’...
OL: Pete Paphides in his brilliant memoir ‘Broken Greek’, mentions that the song ‘Big Store’ is about Rackhams on Corporation Street. Is it?
SD: Yes, we used to go into the cafe when we should have been at art college! The title though comes from an old Marx Brothers’ film.
It’s noted that the only other band to release records named after Marx Brothers’ films is Queen (A Day at the Races and A Night at the Opera) – this is the only time you will find a link between Duffy and the other band!
OL: Do you think that, by putting together The Hawks album, you were tying up some loose ends?
SD: I was thinking that, even if I did put it together, nobody would really know about it!
A few of Dave Kusworth’s fans would be pleased but I thought it would be completely ignored. And if it wasn't ignored, it would be disparaged in a tiny review somewhere.
But then it just took off! Gideon Coe played ‘Bullfighter’ on 6 Music, it got reviewed everywhere and got some 10 out of 10 reviews.
OL: Is there a reason why it's not available on streaming platforms? Is that because you want to keep that 1981 feel?
SD: That was the original idea, but I just thought that with the effort that people had put into making the record, all the people at 'Seventeen', they need the record to be sold. They're not going to make their money back from streaming. They need to sell vinyl and they need to sell CDs.
I also feel the same way about my stuff as well. I own the copyright on everything from when we got back together in 1999. The reason why The Lilac Time’s music is so patchy on streaming services, is that what is up there, shouldn't be.
OL: (In our perplexed voice…) I’m intrigued by the poetry/ sleeve notes on the back of ‘Obviously 5 Believers’: (“These are live takes, these are field recordings, live takes of an idea we had for a life. Not yet a lifestyle, a life making records playing enough to call it a tour...”) Could you explain this a bit more please? Particularly the bit about lifestyles…
SD: We didn't really think about making it. It wasn't like we were thinking of getting in the charts and making enough money to buy houses! We were just living and enjoying the way we were living.
We had very limited ambitions and we, I think, we thought that we would achieve them because we were aiming so low. We just thought ‘well this’ll happen’. All we really wanted to do was put out an indie record and do a tour. We looked at Echo and the Bunnymen and I don’t even think that we even wanted to be that organised.
OL: There’s a video for ‘Bullfighter’ – how did that come about?
SD: It’s the only film of The Hawks that exists! It was from a programme called ‘Look Hear’, a local pop culture magazine show. If you could even imagine that such a thing exists, because it's so unlikely now! It must have been dead cheap to make because I don’t think the bands got paid. But somebody at Pebble Mill (former BBC Studio in Birmingham), had it within their remit to say, “I'm going to get local bands to play”. We were all on it: The Beat, the Durans…I wouldn't be surprised to find that every local act made their debut on that show.
When we found that clip I thought ‘this is it’ we’ve got something that we can have on YouTube. And we decided not to tell Dave Kusworth until it was done, when we’d put something together that sounded good because Twist said ‘he will want to release everything…’ There won’t be any editing, he’ll just want to release the whole lot!
OL: And it works so well as a single album…
SD: Yes, I thought let's apply the logic and experience and make something that people can listen to, as an album, as they would have done back in the day! The album doesn’t need to include the other version of ‘Bullfighter’ where it goes out of time, you know!
And it's kind of obvious to me and it didn’t include the song we brilliantly called ‘Pharaohs on the Nile’, because that one did go on too long, even when I tried to edit it down. I wanted to keep it but…what the hell were we thinking? It was a kind of TV Eye like song that I wrote some preposterous words to… But we also had ‘Aztec Moon’, so, for five boys from Birmingham we were definitely getting around.
OL: I read one interview where you sounded as if you were a bit downhearted when Rough Trade didn’t sign you. Did that rejection make you think that maybe you should consider a solo career?
SD: We were pretty sure that we were good! But it was after ‘Bullfighter’, that end period (pauses…), we could have been on Postcard, we could have been on Zoo, we could have been on any of those little labels but nobody was interested at all!
So, at that point I had two ideas … I was either going to be Stephen Hero, who was going to be a folk singer with an acoustic guitar, or I was going to be Tin Tin, because I’d had ‘Kiss Me since 1979, and that was going to electronic and dancey!
One day I was walking to ‘Rockers’ in Hurst Street in Birmingham and bumped into Mulligan from Fashion (Duffy’s last gig with Duran Duran was supporting Fashion at Barbarella’s). We went for a drink, I told him of those two ideas, I sang him ‘Kiss Me’ and that was it! We made the record in early 82 and I got a deal in about six weeks. And the record came out in September!
OL: It’s amazing that after all that time, Tin Tin got signed overnight…
SD: …and on the strength of just one song. It wasn’t even an album! ‘Kiss Me’ took off and was a dance hit in America. And of course, I was completely unsuited to all that! But if I’d have gone down the Stephen Hero route, that would have led quite nicely to The Lilac Time and I wouldn't have confused everybody with that uncomfortable electronic phase.
OL: One thing about releasing The Hawks is that we get to hear the first ever recordings of your singing.
SD: I think that, on some of The Hawks recordings, I'm actually singing better than I did for the rest of the 80s! I was more relaxed, less trying, less desperate. It’s what I meant earlier about that we weren’t trying. It was more natural.
OL: And you didn’t have anyone pressuring you.
SD: …And, unfortunately, we needed somebody. We hardly played any gigs, we didn’t make any records and when we did, we forgot to get it mastered properly! And then we didn't bother to promote it.
As a final note on The Hawks, we return to the scene of one of their last gigs, which was in support of The Nightingales. After reflecting on the current resurgence of popularity of The Nightingales, Duffy has one enduring memory of that time…
SD: Robert Lloyd (of The Nightingales) was the first person to ever throw up on me!
SD: Yeah, Robert Lloyd was the first person to ever throw up on me! We’d been drinking rum, and we’d had a little bit too much! The second person was Alex James (Blur).
OL: That was a long time between people throwing up on you…
SD: And, thankfully, that was the last time too!
OL: Let’s look forward to 2022, we’re expecting new music from (note - the working title is always the number of the album – this will be Lilac 11), when is that due?
SD: It should be finished by the end of January, but we don’t know how long it’s going to take to get a spot in the pressing plant! There are long queues and… Who really wants a copy of ‘Now That's What I call Christmas’ on white vinyl?
(Duffy jokes about a possible title for the next Lilac Time album. All I’ll say at this stage is if he does choose it, it’ll join their album ‘Paradise Circus’ in having a title that only fans in Birmingham will fully understand)
OL: You're also about to release an expanded edition of 'Astronauts' (the final album by first incarnation of The Lilac Time) on Needle Mythology, what can we expect to hear?
SD: I've finished putting the record together! In addition to the original album, there's an album of demos, of me writing the songs and singing them into a Walkman, so you hear the sounds of Malvern (where The Lilac Time used to live and record). That’s good. And then there's a live album mostly recorded during the tour in 1991.
And with the news of Lilac Time past and future, it's time for us to call time on our conversation. We look forward to hearing much more from Stephen Duffy in 2022.