Music Features

Wild Swans - Interview with Paul Simpson

I wasn't there, you know. When the Wild Swans played their first gig in Liverpool, I didn't even exist. Yet I've heard of them, a name mentioned in articles about other people. Searches in record stores would prove futile, until recently when Incandescent was released on the Renascent label. Finally a chance to see what all the fuss was about.

"It's very strange seeing The Wild Swans sections in the record shops again after so long," muses Paul Simpson. "Apart from Incandescent and Japanese import copies of the second Wild Swans album Space Flower all my back catalogue is now deleted. I am like a ghost whistling through the CD racks."

Simpson himself is a name known to anyone familiar with the Liverpool scene of the late 70's/early 80's. Founding member of the Teardrop Explodes with Julian Cope, he left after a handful of gigs and the recording of the Sleeping Gas single as "We wanted to sound like a car smash of Captain Beefheart, Pere Ubu, Television, Suicide and The Fall but with each rehearsal we became a little more mainstream so I left after the first single to start my own band."

While they - Cope in particular - would go on to brief teen idol status before it inevitably collapsed in drugs and debt (see the Head On book by Cope for details), Simpson followed his own musical path ("Screaming gulls falling from the sky with their wings on fire" in his own words) by forming the Wild Swans alongside keyboard player Gerald Quinn (who had also very briefly been in the Teardrop Explodes) and guitarist Jeremy Kelly. Simpson, organist in all previous musical endeavours, took centre stage as singer. Possibly surprising to some, but not the man himself.

"When I was at school I used to plan my albums in the back of my exercise books. Title, track listing, cover and line up. I was always the singer on these non-existent records." He recalls. "The trouble was in the real world I was shy and only ended up playing organ in The Teardrop Explodes because no one knew I could sing." Which must have made for a lot of surprised faces when he did. His essentially English singing style helped to define the band, though his own much-copied image could just as easily have done that. Refuting claims that Manchester Factory-funksters were first with the Brideshead Revisited look (shaved back/heavy fringe haircut), Simpson scoffs that "They were 'It Ain't Half Hot, Mum', we were 'Love On The Dole'".

The trio, who would go through numerous bassist/drummers, managed to avoid any serious record company interest throughout the first phase of their existence and managed even to cause Zoo records Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe to wonder if putting the Wild Swans in the studio was really a good idea. However, like all the best stories, help came from other quarters, namely Bunnymen drummer Pete de Freitas who (with an early royalty cheque) stumped up the cash to fund recording a single as well as providing drums and chemical assistance.

The Revolutionary Spirit, described by Drummond as "the best single we put out on Zoo", would tragically be the only release the band would make in this initial phase. Indeed the "Glorious racket" that they were seeking, driven by some pretty intense drumming and guitar soundscapes similar to those being perfected by the also often criminally neglected Chameleons. Lyrically, Simpson avoided the typical themes of so many songs, see also the b-side God Forbid. As he says, "I may have had my hand up a few skirts at the time but my eyes were on the afterlife."

It's from the 1981-82 period that the bulk of material on Incandescent is taken. As with many bands of that era, we can thank the BBC for giving the Wild Swan's an opportunity to record their songs. Sessions for Kid Jensen and John Peel validate any rumour you might have heard about this band. The Iron Bed is an anthem of bedsit land, trying to romanticise watching the frost on the inside of your window, yet the chorus line "Another wonderful moment..." is sung in such a way that we know he's struggling to believe his own words. No Bleeding, with it's opening lyrics of "Black clouds approaching, once my mettle held fast/now my courage is melting, with the ice in my glass", is described by Simpson in the impressive sleeve notes as the Wild Swans finest moment. He's right.

For reasons no one quite seems to know, they split. Guitarist Jeremy Kelly would enjoy the greatest initial success, forming the Lotus Eaters whose The First Picture Of You was a top 10 hit, while Simpson formed Care with Ian Broudie (then perhaps best known for production work with the Bunnymen). Several Care singles, including the superb Flaming Sword, were released before that project to fell through. Broudie, of course, would go on to become the Lightning Seeds, Simpson co-writing God Help Them on 1989's Cloudcukooland. Can we expect any retrospectives of his time in Care?

"'My time in Care' - sounds like padded rooms and sedatives which is about right. I'd love to see a Care retrospective as I have tons of fabulous unreleased Care tapes at home but Ian Broudie and I fell out 15 years ago so don't hold your breath."

Luckily, after Care and the Lotus Eaters had split and with interest revived after a release of the Peel Sessions in 1985, the Wild Swans reformed and recorded a few songs for the Janice Long show. Showing a new cleaned up sound/lyrical slant, both Northern England and Now and Forever chronicled a Liverpool fucked over by the decade as well as allowing Kelly to show off his guitar chops. Signing to Sire soon after, things went wrong when they should have gone right. Ged Quinn departed, and major label life wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

"Everything changed after we signed the deal with Sire," explains Simpson. "Overnight we completely lost touch with reality. We should have recorded our debut album cheaply in Liverpool with a good engineer instead of in an expensive toilet in London with a name producer at the controls." Such experiences are no doubt common amongst many bands whose priorities lie outside Platinum sales discs. "Major label thinking is like a virus, you forget why you started the band and fall into the 'hit' record mind-set." Simpson's final words on the matter should probably be the first line in any guide to being in a band: "Major labels suck the poetry from your bones and fill the gaps with a cement made from cocaine and crushed teenagers."

Despite recording two albums and some small successes ("We did well in America on college radio and even had a hit single in Germany") the band drifted apart once again. A roundup of their actual album material recorded on Sire has been proposed but "it's company policy not to licence their back catalogue material which is very frustrating for us". Whilst Quinn is now a successful artist and Kelly is back with the Lotus Eaters, Simpson spent the 90s recording under the Skyray banner before beginning work on his own literary take on the Liverpool scene of 25 years ago. "It's the memoir of a self-destructive musician who took the scenic route. The scenic route that lead to a bog - a septic bog on the edge of a dead marsh on a crumbling cliff top." He tells, and from reading an extract on the website, looks like it would make for interesting reading (curious readers may also want to check out the Sinking Ships song in the downloads section).

The Incandescent project has been "A difficult time for me... all that dredging the past stirred up a lot of long buried sediment", but the ends justify the means. "Not only is it beautifully packaged but it just glows from the speakers". It's said with a fully justified deal of pride yet Paul Simpson has not said or sung everything just yet.

"I've been demo-ing a Paul Simpson solo album called The Wickedest Man In The World. It chronicles the deep psychic hole I fell into a few years ago and from which I'm only just crawling out. Ex-Wild Swan Ged Quinn is playing on it so it's 2/3rds of The Wild Swans and more commercial than Skyray in that I'm actually singing again.

"I've been mute for ten years so it's going to be like a dam burst. An electric dam burst with poltergeists and naked Valkyries."