Q Magazine

Pete Wylie on His New Compilation, 'Teach Yself Wah!,' His Early Days in Liverpool With Ian McCulloch and Julian Cope, and So Much More

'I'm writing better than I used to... My voice is fantastic... And my guitar playing is stupendous.... So I'm tellin' ya, this is an exclusive: I'm great!'

wills q template
Source: Paul Ripley

Pete Wylie, still belting them out, arguably better than ever.

Link to FacebookShare to XShare to Email

Pete Wylie is a Liverpool legend, an artist who at this point must surely have recorded in more musical incarnations than most people have fingers and toes.

He is also a man who, when it comes to interviews, is the living embodiment of the wind-up toy model of conversation, except that instead of having to wind him up and let him go, he's already wound up before you hop on the interview with him.

As it is, this isn't by any stretch our full chat, but I managed to reach a point where, in addition to talking up his new compilation, Teach Yself Wah! - A Best Of, we'd also managed to come full circle and talk about the same song twice. As such, it just felt like the perfect way to bring it in for a landing. That's not to say that there won't be more stories yet to come from this chat, but it holds together quite well as it is, so it seemed best to let it go forth as-is.

Lastly, as we begin, it's worth mentioning that Wylie's excitement for the return of Q may well rival some of us here on staff. In fact, his remarks on the matter were so interesting that it seemed like a perfect way to kick off the official conversation, even if I hadn't actually asked a question yet...

Article continues below advertisement
wills q template
Source: Steve Rapport

Pete Wylie, back in his proper pop star days.

Pete Wylie: One of the things that's happened here with the loss of the weekly press, that continuum of music knowledge and history, its disappearance has had a profound effect. I think we're missing a lot of that. And one of the reasons I did the compilation was... [Long pause.] There are people who don't know who I am. I know that's hard to believe! But we grew up in that time where... Well, like, when I heard about David Bowie, I wanted to find out then about Lou Reed, and then about Iggy Pop, and then I went back and found out about the MC5. And the music press would write about people who used to be doing something good, whereas now...it's gone! So this LP, it's an excuse to tell people who I am, whether they want to know or not.

There's a Superman story by Alan Moore... You know, the great comic book wizard, Alan Moore, who wrote Watchmen and stuff. He wrote a Superman story called "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" Well, I put in the biography that we'll answer that question. Because I feel sometimes like I was the Man of Tomorrow. People would always say what I was going to achieve and where I could go and who I could be....It didn't always fit in with my plans or abilities. But I thought, "Well, this is the time. I'm gonna use this juncture to remind people about the music and the range of the music.

Because, y'know, it's quite difficult when you make a record like "The Story of the Blues," certainly in this country, because people want more of "The Story of the Blues." But if you made more of "The Story of the Blues," they wouldn't want it, because they'd say, "It's just like 'The Story of the Blues'!" [Laughs.] But it's such a powerful piece of music that people still write about it now, and radio stations here still play it...and not just oldies stations. Radio 2 plays it, but Radio 6 do as well. And they play "Sinful" and "Come Back," even. I want to be able to tell people that I've been around, but I've also got things to offer now. I want to use this so that I don't have to do this again in ten years' time.

Until I die, I want to keep playing and recording and writing. I'm writing all the time. I'm writing better than I used to. I'm not just saying this. My voice is fantastic, and everyone's saying it's better than it ever was. And it is! And my guitar playing is stupendous. And I'm saying it with all that modesty, 'cause no one else has said it. So I'm tellin' ya! This is an exclusive: I'm great!

Article continues below advertisement

Having mentioned "The Story of the Blues," it's a perfect excuse for me to relate an anecdote that one of our editors wanted me to share with you...

“So for a few years in the early ‘90s I was on the dole, and as such I had to present myself every two weeks at the Job Centre, where after convincing the busybodies there that I had been actively looking for work, I'd be presented with my giro cheque for £72 unemployment benefit to live on for the next two weeks. The Job Centre is, as you might expect, a soulless, depressing place filled with depressed people, and having to queue up and basically beg for a pittance every two weeks was a pretty humiliating experience. In a pitiful attempt to make it less soul-destroying, they often had cheery music playing...and on one occasion I was queuing up to get my giro when what should come on but ‘The Story of the Blues’! I mean, of all the songs to play in that situation... I started laughing, so did the guy queuing in front, and the guy behind, and then one of them started singing, and by the chorus four or five of us were belting out: 'FIRST THEY TAKE YOUR PRIDE / TURN IT ALL INSIDE / AND THEN YOU REALISE / YOU'VE GOT NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE...' I mean, perfect. Needless to say, the officials there were not impressed..."

Even better! Even better! [Cackles.] I mean, that could be the official video! It's almost like The Full Monty. I love it. Especially annoying the officials! Even better! The number of people who've written about the positive effect it had in tough times in their life... It's humbling. It absolutely is. And I relate, because I've had tough times. I've had 'Talkin' Blues (The Story of the Blues Part Two)' printed on my door just to remind me that a) I wrote that, and b) it matters. Because I try to write from a true, authentic point of view, y'know? I don't live in some fantasy world. I write about the things I see around me.

In fact, I've started shaping up the next record. I've been writing for ages, and what brings it all together. I was laughing with Lynne Burns, Pete Burns' ex, a couple of weeks ago, and I said, "Y'know, everything is wrong. Everything you look at is f---ing wrong." And out of the laughter came... I'm gonna call the LP, at the moment, Everything Is Wrong. And everything I want to write about, whether it's US politics, our politics, the climate, the world we live in, the change in attitude, the knock-on effect of all those negatives on people's everyday lives... I hope it isn't just a misery memoir!

Article continues below advertisement

How did you find your way into music in the first place?

Oh, even as a kid, music was my saviour. Music saved my life when I was a kid. I started listening to music from "Telstar," by the Tornados, which... [Hesitates.] Wasn't it the first British record to be No. 1 in America?

I believe it was, yeah.

Yeah! And I love it to this day! And my family played the Beatles, so I was around music. But then by about 1966 or '67, I started knowing from Motown to the psychedelia that was going on and...I got it. I just clicked with it. And something happened. That's when Wylie-world began. I was no longer in this dysfunctional home, and... Well, I still had to work around that. That was a story. Even though I must say that I genuinely feel I can prove that I'm Elvis's son. I've written a whole thing for me book, the forward, about me being Elvis's son and tracing dates and everything. And I think there's a really good chance of it being true. But...I'm the only one who thinks that. [Laughs.] I don't want the money! I went to Graceland on the 20th anniversary of his death, and - astonishingly - it wasn't as funny as I thought it'd be. No, it was kind of profound. I thought that the fans would be a bit odd, but it was quite an experience. My love for him goes on...and not just because he's me dad!

Well, as long as you've brought up your introduction to music, I'm very curious about an aspect of your early career. Ever since I first read about the Crucial Three, I've been fascinated by the fact that you, Ian McCulloch, and Julian Cope had a band together - however briefly - before going your separate ways and following your own distinct musical paths.

You know, over the years, a couple of those folks have denied it, said it didn't exist. I don't know why. I don't know what agenda that suits, really, to say that. I could do an EP of the songs, like "I'm Bloody Sure You're on Dope" and "Salomine Shuffle." I've even done bits of them live just while telling people stories, and I'll throw bits in. And I never got why they would deny it. But it didn't suit their mysterious...whatever it was they were doing. I was never very good at that mysterious stuff. Although I found out later that people find it much more mysterious when you're not mysterious. When it's not a schtick, I mean. When it's not an act. The fact that I am what I am, I'm authentic, I don't change my behavior because I'm in a bar or because I'm in a chip shop or talkin' to the great Will Harris in Virginia... [Laughs.] This is just what I am.

Article continues below advertisement

Anyway, I loved music, so I played guitar, and I got to know McCulloch when he was about 11, I was about 12, and we were both David Bowie fans. His sister said, "My brother likes David Bowie, too," and we bonded over Bowie. So we started going to concerts in town, at a place called Liverpool Stadium. It's an old boxing stadium. Run down, it was, but the atmosphere, bands loved it. But it was still watching bands at a distance. And then we were in town going to record shops, and we got told about this club that was opening called Eric's. Which, again, is such a nondescript name, so there's no clue. And we walked in the first night, and the Stranglers were playing, and it was 60 pence, which is next to nothing. And we read the NME voraciously, we read every word that came from it, and...I didn't agree with it all, but I still took it all in, so I knew the Stranglers. And we'd never seen a band like that. Especially not that up-close.

When I was growing up, Roger Eagle, who ran Eric’s, he knew he had a readymade scene, and he encouraged that scene, so the music he was playing was great. But when walked in that very first night, we had no idea what was going to happen. There were 60 or 70 people. Three weeks later, the Sex Pistols played. To be honest, they weren't very good...and I've talked about it with them. [Laughs.] They weren't! It was a pissy Thursday night, and they couldn't really be bothered. And about 80 of us came, and I had my mum's little Instamatic camera, because I knew it was a big deal. And I'd just started university, so I was wearing a big old overcoat, which became part of the Liverpool uniform. Once it did, I burned it and went straight to me biker jackets. But as I was taking pictures, this 6' guy with a black plastic quiff of hair walks in...and it was Pete Burns! It was the first time I'd ever seen not only Pete Burns but anyone like that. I told more pictures of him and Lynn, who was also glamorous and scary. I'd never knew people like that existed except what you'd read about in London. But in Liverpool?! My God. And within a month, I was in a band with him!

Which is another one of those things that I've always found amazing.

Yeah, things happened quickly then! [Laughs.] Punk rock's message was "get a band, form a band," so we all started playing. And some bands lasted one afternoon, others lasted longer but nothing else came of them. One band we formed, Nova Mob, was just to have a petition to get Big in Japan to split up. Do you know who Big in Japan was? Bill Drummond, Holly Johnson, Budgie...

And Ian Broudie, right?

Yeah, he was the guitarist! And I still talk to him. I work with Bill Drummond a couple of times a year. But at the time, it seemed like a great thing to do: "Let's get them to split up!" So you could have ideas as mad as that, and you could make them happen. There were people around who could make these things happen. So everyone could be in a band with anyone. I was a pretty good guitarist. Julian said I was the best guitarist in Liverpool. Ian Broudie could technically do things that I couldn't do, but I played a certain way with a certain edge. But we all thought... [Starts to chuckle.] It's a bit Warholian, but we thought we were going to be famous superstars just by being famous superstars. Even then, when we had no money and there was nobody asking us anyway. We forgot that Andy Warhol had the Factory and the news media in all the time and his work to attract people in. We just existed, therefore demanded fame.

Article continues below advertisement

But the story of the Crucial Three specifically... The band I'd waited more to see than any was the Clash. I'd seen a photo of the Clash on Roger Eagle's office wall - Joe had, like, blond hair - and I'd never seen a photo like it, 'cause it looked like a giant spider exploded. [Laughs.] It wasn't like the other rock photos of the time. So the Clash thrilled me. And they played on the 5th of May, 1977, so I wanted to get right to the front. So I did. And my legs were breaking because of the crowd, but I wasn't moving. And then this guy was dancing in front of me, and he was just taking up too much space, and I didn't know him. And I said, "Hey, mate, if you keep dancing like that, I'm gonna f---king knock you out," or something like that. And he said, "Well, why don't we form a band instead?" So after the show, we went and met at the arches of the club that you go through...and that was Julian Cope. First time I'd met him. And that week was Ian McCulloch's 18th birthday. So I introduced them, and we formed the Crucial Three.

And we rehearsed mainly in me mum's house. The drummer, Spanner, Steve Spence, who was me best mate in school, the only black guy in our school as well, so he knew about being an underdog. He became a very successful advertising guy and an artist, and we still meet up. He played on a straight-back chair with a leather seat, like your grandma would have, with knitting needles. And he had, like, four songs. Mac wouldn't really sing, though. He was ultra into himself. So I was playing guitar, and Julian was playing bass. But we had songs. And once you start, that's a thrilling thing, 'cause not only is your fantasy becoming real, but it sounds pretty good!

But Julian... He wasn't like us. We were working class, blue collar. Julian was better-off. He wasn't from England. He was born in Wales, and then he lived in the Midlands. He had a middle-class, kind of successful family. Spoke very nicely, had very good manners. So we became a band, but it didn't last long because of that clash, even though it could've been interesting. But it wasn't, like, "Oh, my God, the band's dead!" It was, "We'll get another band. We'll form another band and do something else!"

Article continues below advertisement

The thing is, though, none of us were who we became. We were all still looking at who we were gonna be. I changed quite a lot during those years. I left university early to go on tour with the Clash, so that was growing up quick, and I was learning different ways to think. But we were offering other ways to think to our friends as well. We were all this big, mad thing. And it was kind of competitive, but also mutual encouragement. The rivalry got a bit weird because a certain kind of the music press, it suits them for us to be enemies. Not just rivals. And also, being from Liverpool, we all had a great sarcastic comment...and I just could not stop! And I'd say things that became a headline. But then your mate who you said it about, when you see 'em away from that, he goes, "What the f--- did you say about me?" And I go, "I was only joking!" It wasn't that we wanted to be bigger or different to anyone else in our gang. We just got caught out a bit by not being media-savvy.

It all started falling apart a bit when... Well, when it became what people did for a living, I suppose! But my thing was, it wasn't a career. I felt insulted when people referred to it as a career, because all I wanted to do was live in that world that I'd read about, where Lou Reed goes and hangs out with Bowie, and Iggy Pop turns up and drops his trousers. I wanted to live in that world, and I did. And I still do, even though it's less populated than it was. But that's the world I wanted. I wanted to be a rock star...in inverted commas. [Laughs.] And I probably could've been a parody of a rock star at times. But that's all I wanted: to hang out and be mates. And I always say that I was very lucky and unlucky to be around Eric's. I would never have gotten a band the way that people did before that, with all the auditioning and sh-t like that. I couldn't have done that. So if it hadn't been for punk rock and that particular group of people, the misfits... I think everyone was ADHD, now that I think about it. Eric's was ADHD in living color! But it was exciting. And it was also a laugh. None of us were pompous about it. No one was pious about it. There was a sense of having not just a laugh but a good time. It wasn't very druggy. I mean, I didn't take any type of drugs 'til after I was a pop star...or, rather, a rock star.

Article continues below advertisement

Just to jump back for a moment, you referred to yourself as a pop star, and then you corrected yourself and said "rock star." But come on: we both know you were on the cover of Smash Hits.

[At this moment, Q produces a copy of the cover in question, and it's worth a mention that the journalist who interviewed Wylie for that cover was a fresh-faced young journalist by the name of Neil Tennant.]

Yeah! You know what? The whole story of that... I tried to get them to pull those photos, and in the end they ended up doing more for my career than a lot of things. Gerard Mankiewicz did them, and he'd done the Stones in the '60s, he'd done Hendrix... He was amazing, and he was lovely. But we wanted them to be moody portraits. We were watching things like Guys and Dolls and The Godfather, gangster things, and we wanted them to be mean and moody. And I ended up lookin' like a Bollywood dance boy, they put so much makeup on. And when those guys did photographs, they'd know how to grade them and to treat them and all that, but whoever took the photo, the record company said, "Oh, we'll deal with all that," and they didn't know those Gerard Mankiewicz tricks, so I ended up looking all meaningful. But I also became My Guy magazine's "Hunk of the Month." [Laughs.] And it was so different to the world that we'd come from, that Eric's world with all those amazing people. But I met loads of other good people and had a laugh with 'em.

I used to talk to Joe Strummer about it, because the Clash refused to do Top of the Pops because it was lightweight, throwaway. And my thing was, if you've got a message to get across, you can't just preach to the converted. I actually realize now that that is one way of doing it, by building up the resistance through that. But my way of doing it... There was a TV series called Boys from the Blackstuff by a Liverpool writer called Alan Bleasdale, and it was about unemployment in Liverpool. But instead of it being a polemic, it told six interlinked stories about the human effect of poverty and signing on the dole and stuff. And that's directly where "The Story of the Blues" came out of. I basically wanted to do Boys from the Blackstuff: The Musical, to get to people who wouldn't normally listen to me shouting. Because people turn away, y'know? I also wanted to write songs that gave people support, to remind them that they're not alone. And it worked. It succeeded. And it wasn't just successful: I still get messages from people about the power that “The Story of The Blues" had on them when they were having a hard time. It's really gratifying and humbling.


Subscribe to our newsletter

your info will be used in accordance with our privacy policy

Read More