Christopher Bryant and Bryon Fear interview Nik Kershaw as he is about to release his new album, EI8HT, to talk about politics, pop lyrics and how 1980s pop stars thought they were saving the world.
I saw Nik Kershaw live in concert in May 1985 at the Palais Theatre next to Luna Park in Melbourne. I had just turned fourteen. My parents let my little brother and I go to the concert by ourselves. In the 1980s, when a pop star travelled all the way to Australia, it was a major news story. There was a certain hysteria too… or at least that was the case in the North Melbourne school I went to.
Nik Kershaw was one of the first pop stars that I connected with, both musically and lyrically. His ideas and his politics leaned toward the dissident, and for a teenager starting to feel that need to rebel he was a beacon. Before the interview started I had to tell him about the influence he’d had on me, and about the 1985 concert. “I remember that tour,” Nik responds, smiling. Then he raises his eyebrows, shrugs, and adds, “I got snogged by Meat Loaf in a hotel lobby.” That was unexpected.
This month Nik releases his eighth studio album, EI8HT. It follows the release of a re-mastered edition of his first album, Human Racing (1984), which includes a bonus CD of B-sides and 12” mixes. And he is about to embark on a tour in which he’ll play Human Racing in its entirety as well as tracks from the new record.
On the train journey from Liverpool Street to Great Dunmow, Bryon and I talked about the influence that Kershaw’s lyrics had on us in our early teens. In the life of the teenager, pop music is the nerve centre of your identity. Battle lines are drawn in the sand as you discover that identity, and the music you listen to instructs your friends as to who you are. In the mid 1980s, with Margaret Thatcher as the Prime Minister in Britain and Ronald Reagan as President in the US, there was a dissidence in pop that stood against the new reactionary conservatism. Social responsibility was the tune pop sung as Thatcher and Reagan inaugurated the era of materialism and social irresponsibility that paved the way for the current global financial crisis. “Cos you never win in human races,” Nik Kershaw sang, “So who’s the loser now?”. It was exactly what we needed to hear.
That questioning, and that idealism, no longer seems to be part of mainstream pop. “It’s out there,” Nik acknowledges. “It’s just not mainstream.” And how does that influence what he writes about now? “I’ve changed.” He pauses to laugh. “Obviously I’m a lot older! One of the reasons I wrote like that back in the day, rather than writing about me being me, was because I was petrified I was going to be found out, to be discovered as a fraud. I hated writing about myself, talking about myself, so I used to write about something I’d read in the newspaper, or world events. In some ways it was a bit of a cop out. I didn’t write about personal experience.”
That is all right with us, of course, and Bryon remarks that the songs were refreshingly intelligent. Nik’s response is thoroughly down-to-earth. “It was a surprise to me that it got noticed. A lot of my audience wouldn’t have noticed it, put it that way!” There was a loud, knowing laugh from all three of us at that. “I did it for myself. It was of interest to me. I didn’t imagine that my personal thoughts about things were of interest to anyone.”
Nik Kershaw is clearly a man who is on to himself. He relaxes back into his chair, and adds, “back in the day a lot of us took ourselves way too seriously. But we were encouraged to. We were saving the planet with Live Aid, weren’t we? We had this ridiculous sense of self-importance, and it was difficult not to take yourself seriously.” He rolls his eyes and laughs. His manner is refreshingly tongue-in-cheek.
And so how has it been returning to the early days, with the Human Racing re-issue, and the upcoming tour? “It was an interesting process choosing the 12” mixes. But not that interesting musically. 12” mixes at the time were a pain in the ass. ‘Do we really have to?’ You write a 4-minute song and then get told you need a 7-minute version. It’s not supposed to be 7 minutes. It is what it is. So you end up sticking bits of tape together. There never was to me any finesse or art to it. But it was fun listening to them again. I remember where I was, and being in the studio doing crazy overdubs on late nights.”
Was the re-master his idea? “MCA Records was bought by Universal. As was the case then, the artist pays for the making of the record. The record company fronts it, but the artist pays for it and the company owns it. That’s always been a bugbear for artists. I don’t own the record. Universal own it. They contacted me and said they were going to reissue it and asked if I wanted to be involved. I said I would rather be involved than not, to oversee the quality control. I cared about it. I was talking to a corporation and I don’t know how much they care.”
Were there any changes made in the re-mastering process? “There’s nothing new, it was about finding what was there. It was never an option to go back to the multi-tracks and take it to pieces and start again. It was literally a re-mastered version. It made quite a difference because in those days we mastered for vinyl, which is a completely different process. It’s as good as it ever sounded.” Re-mastering is an art, and the CD of Human Racing is an excellent example of that. The previous CD release of the original master sounds flat in comparison.
In the sleeve notes Nik writes, characteristically, “I wasn’t present during the making of all the extended remixes featured here. This was because I was too busy pouting, getting screamed at, wearing appalling shirts, maintaining a gravity defying mullet, and answering mind numbingly inept questions from people calling themselves journalists”. I had a Nik Kershaw haircut, in fact, and I decided to tell him this, forgetting that we weren’t just hanging out, and this was an interview. He nods and says, laconically, “I’d have paid money to see that”.
The new album, EI8HT, is clearly a Nik Kershaw album, at least lyrically, I say, in an attempt to recover the thread. He tilts his head. “Is it?” I think so. “Okay,” he responds, clearly thinking the opposite. “It’s difficult to know what it is you do that makes it sound like you. There’s no escaping the fact that it’s your voice. You become aware of things you do because people talk about it. The trouble of being aware of it you start doing things to impress people, to be a smart ass. I was guilty of that in the later albums in the ’80s.” Immediately I think of ‘James Cagney’ on Radio Musicola (1986), which reworks the ideas on Human Racing’s ‘Bogart’. “Hopefully I’ve got out that. Lyrically I think it’s changed a lot. From 1998 onwards, when I started to make records again, they’ve been a lot more personal. It’s easier to write a personal song.”
Perhaps it’s the perspective, I respond. “I like to think there’s a sense of humour running through it, which may not have been as evident in the ‘80s, because we took ourselves too seriously. But it was still there..”
Rather than continue with that line of questioning, I decide to return to the idea of the record company, and, as Bryon points out, how mainstream pop music has become the thing he sang about on the title track of the third album, Radio Musicola (1986): “It emanates from little boxes on the wall and it will soon be coming in disposal tin cans.”
“People now think music is something that just comes out of boxes. Which is why they don’t think twice about not paying for it. But it was more about the corporate nature of music back then. And it was getting worse and worse. In some ways it’s got better because there are alternatives. There really are only two corporations now: Sony and Universal. But they still pull the strings. They have the most resources, the greatest influence.”
Has that affected the way he writes now? “I don’t really feel part of the music business anymore. I always was an outsider. I don’t think that’s any different. Although we’re making an effort to let people know the album is out, which we didn’t do with the previous albums, it was never a consideration when writing the tracks. I’ve got to have something for radio. At the end of the process, yeah, but writing the songs it’s the same old process.”
What is different? “I’m in a really privileged situation of having a back catalogue, and I own the copyright to my own songs. I don’t have to have a massive worldwide hit. I wouldn’t want that again. I’m not prepared to pay the price. You’re life isn’t your own. Back then it was 24 hour promo, 7 days a week for 2 years, and I was supposed to be making new music at the same time. I didn’t like being public property and I wasn’t very good at it. It’s a talent on its own being a celebrity. I never had it. I couldn’t even get out of a limo properly. I couldn’t smile when I was supposed to. I was a PR person’s nightmare.”
Is he any better at it now? He shakes his head. “I’ve made my first video since 2001. I said to the director, ‘Here’s the song. I don’t want to be in it’. But I got dragged in.” And so how has it been promoting the new single? “It’s been weird. The last two albums we just let … escape. It’s different when you get radio pluggers in, they’re looking to see if it can be played on Radio 2. There’s a remix, too, that’s different from the album version. It’s shorter for a start! ‘Four and a half minutes, I don’t think so!’.”
The single, ‘The Sky’s The Limit’, is a great first single, and as uplifting as its title suggests. “I’m banking on an airline using it for a worldwide campaign,” Nik laughs. “You just don’t know. People use ‘The One and Only’ all the time.” And so what are the plans for the future? “Probably not another single from this album, but who knows? I’ll keep plugging away. I’ll do the odd ‘80s revival gig because that’s fun. I’ll always write.”
As the three of us huddle together for a photograph, it strikes me how relaxed and how genuine Nik Kershaw is. Here is a man making music the way he wants to make it. His commitment is to the art of it, and not the trappings of fame. This is the man we listened to when we were teenagers. There was, in the end, no smoke and mirrors.
EI8HT is out today and available from Nik’s website and all good record stores.