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Unlucky Starrs: What might have been for a band called Interview

Updated: May 5, 2020

Chris Hewett

There cannot be a music lover anywhere in the world who does not have direct personal knowledge of a band who might have made it – could have made it, should have made it, almost made it, had every damned right to make it – yet for some unfathomable reason failed to record so much as a single note for public consumption.

Allow me to introduce Exhibit A: my own school-age band from the mid-1970s, tentatively named Roland Butter And The Continental Breakfasts (geddit?). We were armed to the eyeballs with a keyboard player who believed, wrongly as it turned out, that he was a better pianist than Liszt; a bassist who dreamed of plucking Jaco Pastorius into a cocked hat, but whose fingers seemed to sweat superglue; and a lead guitarist who, according to members of his immediate family if no one else, made Jimmy Page sound like George Formby. Yet it would be wrong to describe these random foursomes and fivesomes as ‘lost bands’. To be lost, you need to have been discovered in the first place. Discovered, then mislaid.

This being established, we must consider the sad and sorry case of Interview, easily the best act to emerge from the West Country in the dying days of James Callaghan’s Labour government (which, if truth be told, had never been truly alive). Formed in Bath in 1977, they were gone for good by the end of 1981. In that time, they knocked spots off everyone in musical watering holes from Bristol to Palookaville, grabbed the attention of some chancer by the name of Peter Gabriel, landed themselves a tour’s worth of supporting gigs with The Pretenders, signed a multi-record deal with Virgin and released two albums that are at least a dozen times better than much of the more celebrated guitar-based stuff released before, during and after their time together.

So how come you’ve never heard of them? The short answer: because you never had a chance.

Most people with knowledge of the affair tend to blame Virgin, whose initial enthusiasm for their new project did not stretch to a proper marketing budget or any other of the mod cons necessary for success in an industry that considers patience to be the eighth deadly sin.

It is also reasonable to point the finger at Elvis Costello and Graham Parker, if only because their voices were not entirely dissimilar to that of Jeff Starrs, who formed Interview with guitarists Pete Allerhand and Alan Brain. This unfortunate coincidence made him sound, to the massed ranks of the uninitiated, like a cheap mimic. But here’s the thing. When Starrs was first pricking up the ears of his public house audiences with a delivery of remarkable richness and control – it is no easy task to sing with such spikey, sharp-edged commitment and always be on point – Parker was some way short of being a household name, even in his own house, while Costello had barely troubled the airwaves. In other words, he was in the driving seat, not on the bandwagon.

The same went for Allerhand. Everyone around the scene in Bath and Bristol knew Pete could play: some of his lovingly constructed solos would have given Steely Dan’s army of fancy dan session axemen a run for their money. But his real value was in dramatising Starrs’ ambitious lyrics with an apparently limitless range of under-the-radar licks. In this regard, he was doing something as fresh as mountain air.

Looking back on it from a distance of decades, everything about Interview was fresh. Starrs’ lyrics could be intriguing, to say the least: Hart Crane In Mexico and Academies To Anger, two songs from the debut album Big Oceans, had precious little in common with regular rock ‘n’ roll subject matter. Then there were the wicked hooks in Here Come The Cavalry, Blow Wind From Alesund and the anthemic Shipyards. (Talking Heads might have been proud of these ‘please God, don’t let it end’ moments, as might Arcade Fire). And if you want a sneak preview of REM before REM existed, listen to Crossing Borders from the sophomore record Snakes And Lovers. Listen, then weep for the fact that the final border had been crossed.

There are people online who venerate Snakes And Lovers as one of the great albums of the early 1980s and will die in a ditch to defend their opinion. Sadly, there weren’t enough of them to make a difference when it counted. Of the two records, this was the one with the big production. It even had Pete Wingfield on keyboards. That would be the Pete Wingfield who played with Van Morrison and the Everly Brothers. But Big Oceans, so thinly produced that the guitars sound as though they were being played in small tin cans, tells you most of what you need to know about the band.

At one end of the scale, there is a catchy three-minute pop song in You Didn’t Have To Lie To Me. At the other, there is Shipyards. Was it a good idea to cover the waterfront at the expense of coherence? Probably not. Starrs admitted as much when, in the late 1990s, some intrepid sole tracked him down to his home in southern France and talked him into giving – you guessed it – an interview.

My choice as a sampler is St Jean Wires: hardly representative of the group’s recorded output, being a slow-burn ballad, but a perfect showcase for Starrs’ exquisitely musical rasp. Set somewhere in the Pyrenees – you can barely move for St Jean-somethings down there, so the precise location is a mystery – the number begins with a run of languidly seductive Santana-ish flourishes from Allerhand, eased out above a bass drum-driven groove that should sound too heavy, being so far forward in the mix, but happens to fit like a glove. From there on, it is all about Starrs…

Well it’s the first degree this time

And the St Jean wires are down again

And that makes it hard for mass communication

Oh but it was so much lighter there

And down below we’re paying dear

For the way we think about our elevation

What’s he on about? Heaven knows. All we understand for sure is that when, in the final 90 seconds, he falls into a Van-like meditative workout – ‘Following down quiet through the white rock gullies/ Down to the church, down to the vine, down to St Chinian where the red soil’s shining’ – he’s singing his guts out. Whatever this is, it’s personal.

When the band split, all too soon, the drummer Manny Elias hooked up with Tears For Fears, while the bassist Alfie Agius, who had already been on a tour of duty with Teardrop Explodes and played on their hit single Passionate Friend, headed off for a recording gig with The Fixx. And the founding members? Brain, a beating heart in the way so many rhythm guitarists have been down the years, moved to Vancouver and released the reflective One Way Ticket To Happytown.

The most recent sightings of Allerhand place him among the Three Caballeros – a guitar/violin/ukelele combo who may not occupy the same lonely heights as Interview but probably have more fun. As Starrs was quoted as saying during that conversation in ’97: ‘I was so cut up by the business wrangles being more important than creating music that I decided to up and out. There was no more fun in what we were doing and… another band bit the dust. I was disgusted with playing music for many years.’

Happily, he rediscovered the joy of it in the fullness of time. Meanwhile, some of us continue to pray for the release of Big Oceans and Snakes And Lovers on CD, ideally in remastered form. The ice caps will disappear before it happens, but I’m willing to wait.


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