Suffolk: The Look hopes for another hit, three decades after top-10 glory
- Credit: Andy Abbott
Three decades after a top 10 hit and appearances on shows like Twiswas, The Look have a second (or third, or fourth) wind. STEVEN RUSSELL meets frontman Jonny Whetstone and hears about a new album, his love of Suffolk and the uncomfortable aspects of showbiz
“IT sounds a bit Spinal Tap, but this really did happen to us,” insists Jonny Whetstone, whose band hit the giddy heights for a short but glorious period 30-odd years ago. (Spinal Tap, by the way, is a parody heavy-metal combo that satirises the music industry.)
“We were doing a programme in Germany – I think it was Musikladen – and they picked us up in the old Mercedes or what have you. Off we went to the hotel, which was like The White House in America: massive grounds.
“We got out and 15 or 16 girls came running towards us and started screaming. I said ‘Christ, lads; I didn’t realise we were as big out here as this! Can’t believe it… we’ve only just had the record out...’
“And the girls went straight past me. Sting had drawn up…”
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Sting – Gordon Sumner – was of course the frontman of new global superstars The Police.
If Jonny and his pals in The Look were at risk of getting carried away with their success, lessons like this would keep their feet on the ground.
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Actually, they were pretty good at keeping things in perspective during their moment in the sun, which included top-six chart hit I Am The Beat in 1981 and appearances on a string of TV shows such as Top of the Pops – the holy grail for wannabe stars – Crackerjack, Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and Tiswas.
Unfortunately, says Jonny, the band failed to capitalise. It toured extensively but, for one reason or another, lost momentum. There were distractions – a legal case to fight and changes on the management side – and it all went a bit quiet for almost two decades. But bandmates and childhood friends Jonny and Mick Bass kept the flame alive, bringing out The Look’s second album in 2004: Pop Yowlin’.
And now, after lots of beavering in the background, the reshaped band has a new lease of life. It’s got a management deal with Julian White at Urban Influence UK, which has led to a publishing agreement with Demon Music Group. Universal is distributing the new album, which is under the Beat Town Records label. There’s also a live pre-Easter date at King’s Cross.
“You do get a buzz out of performing,” says Jonny. “That’s the exciting bit… and wondering if they’re going to like it or not!
“I can remember listening to The Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand and hearing the chord changes. It was brilliant. I had to go and buy the song. If I liked something, I had to play it 50 times non-stop – which used to drive the kids at home mad!”
THE roots of The Look trace back to the Cambridgeshire cathedral city of Ely. Jonny and Mick went to different schools but met at the age of about 14. They played in different bands before teaming up and forming The Kreed at 16. “We played heavy rock – like Deep Purple,” says Jonny, “and used to drive around in an old-type ambulance.
“I was at Bury Crypt the other week, and I remembered playing there. It was a lot different then. We had a strobe light. We shouldn’t have had it on for as long as we did, and the electric cut out!”
With bassist Gus Goad on board, and drummer Trevor Walter, the band morphed into The Look – a name suggested by a friend of the band and a reference to model Jean Shrimpton, an emblem of Swinging London.
In the late 1970s the band left for London, getting jobs as night porters in a hotel near Moorfields Eye Hospital “so we had somewhere to live straight away and then hawk the tapes around in the daytime. A hotel at night was a bit scary, but we had a lot of laughs.”
Jonny recalls numerous other jobs, including a spell at a ball-bearing factory and in the stores at Pickwick Records, a company known for budget-priced albums.
When they weren’t working, the band played lots of gigs. It was a halcyon age for good-quality live music.
“In those days, say, Elvis Costello and The Jam would be down the Nashville Rooms” – in W14 – “or the Holborn Anchor. You could go and see really good bands. We played with The Police at the Rock Garden (Covent Garden) one night and I think there were about 30 people. Within about six months they were in the charts.”
Getting signed by a record company in such a competitive market was a bit of a struggle.
“We walked miles and miles with that song. We got so many rejections. Then I think it was a lad in the office at MCA – a teaboy, sort of thing. Little Roy, they called him. They said ‘What do you think of this?’ If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think we would have got signed.”
I Am The Beat was recorded at the legendary Abbey Road Studios in St John’s Wood, during “dead time” between Pink Floyd sessions. “I think it cost something like £1,500.”
The single was issued in the autumn of 1980 and was given some unorthodox oomph by Radio 1’s Simon Bates. “I remember coming home to Ely and we heard it. He said, live on the radio, something like ‘Roy Featherstone’ – who was the head of MCA – ‘sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got. You really ought to get behind this song.’ It was a bit embarrassing, really; he almost had to.”
Jonny says that initially there wasn’t the sales impetus to get the record into the shops, including the big one at the time: Woolworth’s. (How times change.) The breakthrough appearance on Top of the Pops came in January, 1981. “You’d look at the charts and there were people like Abba and Rod Stewart. We were outselling them, sometimes 17,000 a day, and you’d think it was crazy.”
It was no easy ride, either. John Lennon had been killed the month before, so the charts were packed with his songs. January saw four at the top end – Woman, (Just Like) Starting Over, Happy Christmas (War Is Over) and Imagine. The latter held top spot for four weeks.
“We would have been number three if it wasn’t for those,” says Jonny. I Am The Beat shifted 200,000 copies in the UK in three months, with more sold around the world.
So what was it like being told the Beeb wanted you on Top of the Pops?
“I kept running around the room! I was a bit mad in those days. It was a major programme. Everyone would sit down and watch it, like The X Factor, though it was bigger than that, actually.” The show was recorded on Tuesdays and transmitted on Thursdays. In a YouTube clip, introduced by Peter Powell, Jonny looks pretty assured. “You couldn’t believe you were standing there. I thought ‘I can’t blow this.’
“I remember in the afternoon they were doing photo shots and I looked up at this screen and thought ‘Look at that bloke. He’s got a really big nose…’ and it was me! I’d never seen it before like that. I looked like a crow!
“I do remember my mouth completely dried up when I was about to sing. You mimed it in those days. I had a bit of chewing gum, took it out and struck it on my guitar, and had it on there for years. I never took it off.
“It was strange, because you’d be playing away and the sound system was only what you’d have at home – not even as good as that, probably. They used to put these wooden things on the drums (to muffle the sound).”
The blue touchpaper had been lit; why didn’t they soar? Well, Jonny says there were distractions. One: a legal claim to deal with. He says the band had done the song as a demo for a publishing company, which paid for the studio time but did nothing further with it. The group offered to buy it off the company. “I back the horses and had had a little win. This was in the June or July.” Then, when I Am The Beat became a hit a few months later, he says the company sought to cash in. The band won in court.
There were changes in The Look’s management company, too, and the upshot was that the band didn’t do any fresh recording for about a year.
In 1981 and ’82 there was a lot of touring. “We went to Germany… Holland. Really, we should have got down, got sorted and got another record. We didn’t really know what was going on, when you look back at it now.”
Three Steps Away didn’t trouble the scorers and then Feeding Time, out later in 1981, got to number 50 in the charts. What the band had really needed was a quick cracker on the coat-tails of I Am The Beat.
“We were always thereabouts, but…”
Jonny does remember them as good times, though. Always one to enjoy the absurdities of life, he remembers how it would take ages to do anything on a show like Crackerjack, where manning agreements in those days meant the BBC had to get about four blokes to move something simple.
Then there was Spit the Dog, comedian Bob Carolgees’ puppet on Tiswas, the anarchic ITV show for children on Saturday mornings.
“They wouldn’t let me on Tiswas to be interviewed.” Why?
“I’d been out one night when we had the hit. I was rung up at about half-past seven (am) to go down to Newsbeat (the Radio 1 news show). The chap interviewed me and I must have made Keith Richards sound very…” Lucid? “Yeah. ‘Thanks, Jonny…’
“Later, Mick said ‘I’ve got to go down the BBC to do an interview.’ ‘What for?’ ‘The one you didn’t! They can’t work out what you’re saying!’ So I think the management were a bit worried about putting me on Tiswas, which was two days away or something. So I sat with Spit the Dog!” There was also a parting of the ways with MCA. “They’d had enough of us and we’d had enough of them.” It didn’t help that electro-pop was on the rise, “so people were saying ‘You should be doing this’; which was alien to us. Like Ray Davies and Blur, ours are very English songs. That’s what we write. We still had an old Hammond organ!” The Look signed with Towerbell Records and Drumming Up Love came out in the autumn of 1983, but other than that it was quietish. Before they knew it, the record label had shut down and the band went into limbo. Jonny wouldn’t say that it died, though.
“I never really saw it like that; we sort of kept going. We still kept writing. I’ve still got songs in the cupboard!”
He and Mick still collaborated. One of the fruits of their labours was that second album for The Look in the mid-2000s: Pop Yowlin’.
But exactly what shape did Jonny’s life take in the 20-year gap? “I don’t really know myself! We did some atmospheric stuff” – instrumental albums – “which was a bit of a hoot, under different names. Different things, really. A punt on the old horses; things like that.” Was he a professional gambler? “Well, I used to get along like that, really.” Anything else? “I don’t know… when the kids are growing up, it sort of disappears, doesn’t it?”
Mick toured Europe with the Anne Clarke Band and then began doing session work with the BBC. He taught songwriting classes, too, and started an audio visual company. The keyboardist also moved to France, near Cahors, north of Toulouse. He has a recording studio and Jonny regularly visits to write songs.
For four or five years they’ve been working on a musical about Walter Tull, an orphan who grew up to play football for Tottenham Hotspur. He was the first Afro-Caribbean/mixed heritage outfield player in the top division of English soccer and the first mixed race man to be commissioned as an infantry officer in the Army, during the First World War.
Jonny’s hopeful Just a Man will see the light of day this year or next. “It’s an amazing story.” And, perhaps three years ago, the pals decided they’d have a shot at another album.
Jonny says he and his writing partner are chalk and cheese, “a most unlikely pairing, really”, but that’s probably why it works. Mick’s up with gadgetry while Jonny’s a confessed technophobe. “He’s very organised and I’m not,” admits the lead vocalist – who, as a Tottenham football fan and a horse-racing enthusiast, is a sports nut. Mick isn’t. “We sort of strum away and say ‘Don’t like that… what about this?’ You can sit there for ages and then get something. Quite weird. If it moves us, we’ll do it. But if it doesn’t mean anything, or we don’t like it, we’ll scrap it. Most of the time we agree on what we like.”
These days The Look (2013 vintage) is bolstered by backing singers Amelia Whetstone and Rachel Kate Bryceland – Jonny’s grown-up daughters, who live in Suffolk. Alex Baird plays drums on the new album. Then there’s Jake.
Teenager Jake Jacob is from Jonny’s village of Woolpit. Actually, he lived a stone’s throw away. Jonny knows Jakes’s uncle, listened to a tape of the young musician, “and he was a really talented guitarist. I couldn’t believe how much he knew.” Last year, Jake was invited to join as lead guitarist.
“There’s no age difference when you’re playing. It’s just when you look in the mirror… you feel about 20 and get a shock!”
Despite his tender years, Jake had appeared with many bands. However, band work didn’t provide a living as a musician, so Jake became a guitar teacher and session player. And then The Look called.
What does Jonny think about the music scene today? “There are some really talented people about – young people. Rap isn’t up my street, though; if it hasn’t got a tune or descending chords… But a good song will last forever.” Dare I mention The X Factor? “This is what I don’t like – from the writing point of view. I like people who do their own songs. Admittedly, there are some marvellous singers – there’s no doubt about that – I just think it’s so staged, and it’s narrow, in a way.
“It’s the same old format, isn’t it? It gets terribly boring. I just don’t think it’s very creative. You’ve heard a lot of the songs before; they’re not fresh. People writing, I’m all for that – whether I like them or not.”
Does he have any ambitions? “I’d like another hit!” There’s no surefire formula, though, is there? “There’s absolutely no way of concocting a hit. Even the weather, and coming out at a certain time of year, can affect a song’s chances. The pace might be right; but make it just a little bit faster and it might not happen.”
Early influences were Deep Purple, Genesis, Focus and Queen; and Jonny loved the energy of Slade. “There’s no pretension about them. They just want to go out there on a Saturday night and rip it up. They’re very funny and very good writers.”
And what of The Look’s salad days, when the world must have seemed at its feet? Was there ever a risk of a taste of fame going to their heads?
“I never felt particularly comfortable with it, in a funny sort of way. The first time I realised was when I went to the local bookies and they all knew what I did, and then they’d all talk about that. I thought ‘I just want to come in and have a bet!’
“I hated when they’d send a limo for us. I don’t know why, but I just don’t feel comfortable with it. To me, a hero would be someone like a brain surgeon. It just doesn’t compare. You’re writing songs… it’s not like saving someone’s life. That’s how you feel a bit embarrassed by it.
“I think that’s a fault of mine, because I should play the game more – which some people do. If someone at the record company said ‘Sorry, we haven’t got this,’ I’d say ‘Oh, that’s all right’; but I’ve seen people go ‘No, I’ve got to have it. Got to have it! Come on!’”
He remembers a singer on Crackerjack making diva-ish demands, “and I couldn’t believe it. I’m not saying that’s wrong, because there are people who want to see ‘a star’, and that’s fair enough. But I don’t personally feel that comfortable with it. I like playing and doing the songs.
“Really, I think that’s probably a weakness: you should play the part a bit more, because that’s the way people get on.”
Really? Can’t see him threatening a tantrum because there isn’t a bowl of red-only Jelly Babies in the dressing room.
He grins. “You have to see the faults in yourself, and laugh at them.”
n New single Made It All is out on April 7 and album Tunes and Stories on April 14. www.thelookmusic.com
Homes and horses
SUFFOLK – and specifically the village of Woolpit, near Stowmarket – has been home to Jonny Whetstone since about 2001. How did he choose the county?
“The two girls were growing up. I’d lived in London quite a while, and I thought it would be nice to get them out of the city.
“My grandfather used to come over to Bury on a Wednesday, with his cattle. He’d rather go to Bury market than Ely. He said he’d get a better deal; they were more genuine. I’d always loved Bury. That’s why we came down, really.”
And then there’s the proximity to Newmarket, “the home of racing”.
Jonny used to be taken to watch horse-racing when he was three. “Then my uncle took me to Newmarket. It was an obsession. I wanted to go into it at one point, but obviously I was too big, and I’d got the music going side by side. I thought ‘I’ll make some money and then buy a racehorse’, which I did; which wasn’t the wisest thing… But I’ve had lots of laughs and there are some great stories, because you meet so many characters. It’s a very big part of my life.”
For a good few years he’d drive jockeys to meetings and did a bit of tipping.
Suffolk’s got another musician who’s passionate about the turf: Cockney Rebel Steve Harley. That they both live in the county is news to Jonny, but he does remember that at one point they both had interests in (different) horses trained by Jeff Pearce at Newmarket.
One of the great experiences is going to the gallops as the horses exercise, he muses. “About six o’clock in the morning, it’s brilliant. You can’t beat it. Have a bit of breakfast afterwards and then you’re away to the races or something.”
1981 and all that
IN the January pop charts, The Look was rubbing shoulders with The Police, Madness, Status Quo, Abba, Neil Diamond, Boomtown Rats, Queen, Adam & The Ants, Phil Collins, Blondie , Ultravox… and St Winifred’s School Choir, with There’s No One Quite Like Grandma.
In the April, Bucks Fizz won the Eurovision Song Contest with Making Your Mind Up and Paul McCartney’s band, Wings, broke up.