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"Sounds" interview, 1980
The Distractions tell Betty Page: "It’s tough at the side!”
So there I was, sitting as comfortably as the bass drum beneath me would allow, my delicate pink stilettos vying for space with be-gaffa’d mike stands and towels in the back of an airless Transit van with a pop group. The things I could tell you about being on the road! Well, for ten minutes, anyway, sharing this most salubrious mode of transport with The Distractions, currently touring-to-promote-the-album and on their way to checking in at a local mid-priced guest house to match their current mid-successful status.
Mike Finney, lead crooner, variously described as bank clerk / accountant / friendly uncle, and Steve Perrin-Brown, half of guitar duo and often dubbed boy-next-doorish, bemoan the general lack of ackers. “I bet Grace Jones (Island label-matess) doesn’t have to travel in the back of a van. Perhaps she’s a highly-skilled welder, though. I’d look after her leopards if she’d mend my car!"
Reality dispels dreams of Amazons with the thought of Terry’s Guest House’s scrambled eggs (apparently resembling grey armadillos) and the next gig, at the Fulham Greyhound, local London pub testing ground.
The Distractions aren’t often stuck in a fantasy. Despite the constant championing by the press with the accompany shower of superlatives, they realise they have a long way to go yet. Deemed by many to be akin to a slowly maturing wine, the time for uncorking the bottle has yet to come. Back in ’78 our own Mick Middles described their snail paced crawl to success" as essential, and that a hit single then would’ve done some harm. Two years hence, the situation seems to have reversed. Do these particular molluscs have their target in sight?
Mike: “At the time it was true, but I agree, the situation has reversed and we would like a hit single. We’re the only pop group that doesn’t sell records.”
Steve: “It’s art – it must be if we’re working, not having any commercial success but getting critical acclaim. We’ve still got a lot more snail pacing to go; it’s a very ill snail and it can be a lethargic snail too.”
Has the media overkill done any damage?
Steve: “I don’t think it’s harmful. They’re not treating us like The Police. To be honest it’s the only thing that got us out of Manchester – it’s done us nothing but good.”
I mentioned the danger of media darlings being doomed to cult status, but Steve was convinced this was no bad thing: he’d prefer true appreciation rather than vague interest. But from hit records comes forth manna, something you don’t get too much of being a bunch of cults.
In various attempts to pin tags on this band, descriptions have ranged from “poppy soul band” to “soulful pop band”. Which is it to be?
Steve: “I can quite honestly say neither. This thing about us being a soul band is really strange. What’s meant, I think, is feeling rather than soul. But people might come and expect the Q-Tips. And we’re better at playing country and western than we are soul. We’ve never done it straight but we’re all getting Dobros and Framus Nashville guitars and I’m changing my name to Chet Perrin!”
Alec (Sidebottom, drummer/kebab expert): “Seriously, we always try to put feeling into what we do, put a little depth in there.”
Steve: “It's more important than technical perfection. Touring can push you the other way and make you keep a constant standard, like a machine does. It can be like watching a lathe when you see bands that've been on the road for years: the must-go-to-soundcheck syndrome."
How do they propose to maintain the hand-on-heart, frog-in-mouth emotion?
Mike explains: We think about dying dogs. I think about my rabbit that died. Called Skippy, it was. I was six. They sent me to Blackpool while they buried it!"
Steve: “It's a difficult question; sometimes we don’t keep it up. When you get a critical audience it keeps you on your toes, but an easy audience is easy money. Nobody’s perfect...”
A careful observer of Distractions music may notice a discreet early Searchers influence tucked away somewhere. The ever ebullient Steve wasn’t convinced:
“We don’t really have conscious influences. At least we don’t sound like Talking heads or Joy Division like every other band nowadays. It’s like a bloody ghetto – I hate bands like that. Most recent success stories have been due as much to inability as ability; having to choose certain styles to fit into. We don’t and can't do this.
Mike: “I can see the Searchers resemblance – The Searchers at their peak, mind you!"
Steve: “We’re not a sixties band, though – that’s crap. I was ten when the sixties finished.”
The Distractions view themselves as a non-rock band with no tangible image and so damned Joe Bloggs normal that they often wonder what a real group should look like. Average Steve says:
“We all look totally different. I can’t think of another band that looks less like a rock band than we do. I’ve been refused entry to loads of our gigs. People don’t believe I’m in a group. Up at Manchester Poly I stood playing guitar chords in the air just so they’d let me in. We’ve tried to do things together but it’s no good, after ten minutes we’re driving each other up the wall.”
Adrian (absent half of guitar duo/plastic trousers and pose) is the only one “getting into it”. He and Steve had decided recently that the former would join Thin Lizzy, the latter PIL and the rest would become bank clerks and carpet fitters.
Lack of popstar charisma is compensated for by warmth of character – image shmimage. The Undertones made it on anti-image, proving you don’t need white suits and smiles to be a success. Steve: “But they made a point out of not having an image. I refuse to make a point out of not having an image.”
Point taken. Consensus was finally reached; if The Distractions must be filed under “group identity”, this is what it’s to be: “Honesty and feeling with smelly feet.”
The debut elpee “Nobody’s Perfect” treads a fine line between pure pop with character and pap, as in disposable. Steve recognised the danger of crossing that line: “When the pressure’s on to do a second album, meet deadlines, then you start writing second rate stuff, drivel. It’s very frustrating as I see my main job as writing new songs. They just get stockpiled and I go stale.
“Everything in rock ‘n’ roll happens six months later, which is a stupid system if you’re supposed to be halfway creative. I don’t reckon anyone can last longer than three albums unless they’re exceptionally talented.”
The release of the latest single, Eden Kane’s “Boys Cry” was by no means a calculated move, it transpires.
S: “I didn’t want it out – Pip and I were dead set against it. I saw it as grovelling to Radio One. We can’t do Eden Kane songs forever more.”
Mike: “It was done as a joke at first, in one day, for a B-Side.”
Alec: “It turned into a monster, kept growing and just took over, but it’ll be the last cover version we do.”
Band/label democracy ruled, despite Steve’s feelings that it was a duff song with embarrassingly cloying lyrics.
Apart from such minor disagreements, The Distractions are at peace with Island and most of The World. Happy with the album too – and please note producers Phil Chapman and Jon Astley did not produce The Sweet (tsk, tsk, DMcC). Mr Chapman is, however, Manchester’s equivalent of Phil Spector, I’m told.
The next single must be a new song, not another from the album like “Stuckina Fantasy” which Pip (lady bassist) says Island decided was an instant song after they'd had the album for three months.
When I ask if anything else should be set straight, Pip gets her oar in: “Yes, I’m not gay. Everyone keeps saying I’m gay.” This remark stuns the rest into silence until Mike pipes up: “I’d better go break the news to Joanna.”
Seems a good place to end... except for one thought. Ponder the image problems they’ll have it they carry out their threat and produce a scratch ‘n’ sniff kebab concept album...