Nik Kershaw joined us for a chat about the new Human Racing reissue, life as an ’80s pop star and vents about X-Factor…
Super Deluxe Edition: How important it was for you to get the Human Racing album back into print after all these years?
Nik Kershaw: It wasn’t my idea really. Universal Music bought all the MCA catalogue back in the ‘90s and they approached me and said they were going do this and did I want to be involved? Obviously I wanted it to be as good as it could be.
SDE: It was in print digitally though wasn’t it?
NK: Not everywhere it wasn’t, but Human Racing was pretty much available. The thing is when it was mastered originally on CD, it was from the vinyl master. It’s what happened in those days, since CDs were in their infancy and no one realised how big they were going to get. So this is the first time you can actually hear it in all its glory. As remastered from the original mix tapes, as they came out of the studio.
SDE: The mix tapes were still in good condition?
NK: Good enough, they had to actually ‘bake’ them to keep the oxide on, but they are there. It’s amazing really.
SDE: What was it like listening back to it and how do you look back on the album nearly 30 years on?
NK: It changed my life, that album, totally. I’m still very proud of it, proud of the songs on it. Obviously it’s of an era, it dates it to an extent, the production dates it. But I’m still very proud of it.
SDE: When you went into the studio did you have a clear idea of how you wanted the album to sound?
NK: What we really did was just re-record the demos I’d made the previous year on a Portastudio, in my front room. All the parts were there, we just improved the quality and changed a few sounds around. We stuck quite faithfully to the original arrangements.
SDE: So you weren’t tempted to put the demos out as well and make it a 3-disc set?
NK: (Laughs) I haven’t got copies of them – what a good idea. I don’t know where they are. I expect someone has got them somewhere.
SDE: Human Racing is quite a ‘tight’ 10-track album with no real filler – was part of your approach that every song had to stand up on its own and could potentially be a single? Shame On You and Gone To Pieces could easily have been singles, for example.
NK: I guess so. A lot of those songs were written because I was looking to get a deal, so I was writing songs that I wanted to get people’s attention with. So that was one reason for it, but really, we just had a collection of songs that we recorded with no conscious decision to make album tracks or single tracks – we just did it.
SDE: Had you stockpiled a large number of songs? There is that theory, isn’t there, that you can never really beat the quality of a debut album because you have your entire history of songs to pick from?
NK: (Laughs) I know, but it wasn’t a long history really, because I only started writing in about 1982 when the band I was in split up, so there weren’t that many – I guess there were 14 or 15 songs that were ‘possibles’. In fact, I think we recorded most of them and the rest ended up as b-sides.
SDE: What about Wide Boy – I noticed the name of that track scribbled on the mix tape cover – was that recorded at that time?
NK: Yes it was, or a version of it was. We re-recorded bits and pieces, when we came to do the second album.
SDE: Why was it not on Human Racing?
NK: I honestly can’t remember! I was surprised as you to see it actually, when I saw the mix tapes. It was an old song, probably four or five years old. In fact I should check that out and listen to that version and see what it actually is.
SDE: You can save it for the Deluxe Edition of The Riddle?
NK: (Laughs) Yeah, if that happens.
SDE: You’ve got all these great extended remixes on the second CD of the new Human Racing – I spoke to Paul Young a few years ago and he was almost embarrassed at his very ‘eighties’ extended remixes, but it is interesting that there are so many tracks from Human Racing as extended remixes, with 8 out of 10 of them there in some form or another.
NK: I was surprised as well when they first asked about it and I told them to send me the spreadsheet for the library to see what we’ve actually got, and I was surprised to see those remixes, and a couple of them were remixes where I was obviously there, such as Drum Talk…
SDE: You seemed to have a lot of fun during the Dancing Girls remix, in particular…
NK: Yes, (laughing) I don’t know what particular drug I was on during that one! But they were always two o’clock in the morning jobs – rather last minute. I have in the past had a problem with the remixes – originally they were just a marketing tool. Very much to do with the record company squeezing money out of fans, and I think I resented them a little bit when I was making them, because you write a song which is three and a half, four minutes long and then somebody tells you ‘we want a seven minute version’ and you think well lets splice a few things together… and they were done with that attitude I have to admit. A couple of them were like ‘do we have to?’ although listening back to them, some of them are actually worthwhile things on their own.
SDE: Were you worried when I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me wasn’t a hit the first time around?
NK: No, nobody was. I think it was a different era. Nowadays people would be panicking I think, because you only get one shot. But no, it was all part of the plan – the first one was more to get your name around and on the back of it I did a tour of all the dealerships around the country and radio stations got to know me. It was a minor radio hit and I think it got to number 47. Everybody considered that to be a good start.
SDE: One minute you’re a musician and a songwriter recording your first album and a year later you’re a teen idol with Top Of The Pops and Smash Hits and everything that goes with it. Did you see that coming and what impact did it have on your career?
NK: I didn’t see it coming – I was a bit of an idiot not to see it coming, but I didn’t because I’d had the previous 4 or 5 years playing in a band to people my age in pubs and clubs, and that was considered to be the audience – it really wasn’t until I stood on stage in the Westcliffe Pavilion in Southend on the first night of the tour that I found out who was buying my records (laughs). It was a hell of a shock, it really was. I wasn’t prepared for that. How did it affect my career? It’s a difficult one because you could say it wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for that, but it did frustrate me, I must admit, for quite a time that people weren’t getting it, as you were standing on stage playing a nice guitar solo and nobody heard a note because they were screaming all the way through it. So that was kind of frustrating, and I fought against it, which was probably the wrong thing to do and I protested a little bit too much, whereas a lot of people just went with it and the fans grew up with them – that was probably the sensible thing to do.
SDE: On your first appearance on Top Of The Pops doing Wouldn’t It Be Good you were on your own, not even holding a guitar, wearing a white outfit and a yellow scarf and I think there is a keyboard at your side – that must have been a bit weird, having been used to being in a band – just standing there on your own.
NK: It was totally weird. You go to school to find out how to do these things nowadays – I knew how to play the guitar, write a song and do my thing in the studio – that was my comfort zone, but then all of a sudden someone sticks a television camera in your face and puts you in a completely alien environment and says ‘Go!’ and your thinking ‘Go – what? What am I supposed to do?’ So you mime badly with the song… I think people thought it would have looked odder if I was standing on my own with a guitar rather than standing on my own with a keyboard, since keyboards were de rigueur at that time, so I tinkled away on it occasionally but it looked particularly naff.
SDE: But that must have been a big moment though – Top Of The Pops – you’ve made it if you’ve been on Top Of The Pops…
NK: It was, yeah. I grew up with Bowie and Marc Bolan and those guys and I used to watch them on Top Of The Pops so it was a case of, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants here.
SDE: 1984 was THE year when it came to pop music in the 80s. Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Wham! etc. What was it like to be a part of that whirlwind?
NK: Do you know what, I didn’t really feel part of anything and I always felt like a bit of an outsider because I wasn’t part of any movement, as such, and I’d come from the sticks – my background was playing in a fusion band – I wasn’t part of the ‘New Romantics’ or anything like that. And also when it happens, you are in your own little bubble – you’re surrounded by your people. And you do bump in to everybody, obviously, when you’re doing your promotion but I didn’t really feel part of the movement as such.
SDE: So you didn’t look at the charts and think I’m in competition with this person or that band?
NK: Well I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t, especially during Christmas 1984 where I was no.3 with The Riddle and then Frankie with The Power of Love and then of course Band Aid was top. You did take notice of how everybody else was doing.
SDE: You know that you had the most weeks on the chart as a solo artist in that year?
NK: Well that was cheating because I released two albums! – That was an insane thing to do. But it is one of those statistics I can wheel out!
SDE: You performed Wouldn’t It Be Good and a few tracks from The Riddle at Live Aid only two years after having recorded Human Racing. Wembley Stadium… that must have been a bit surreal. What was that experience like?
NK: It was bonkers. Not the stadium so much, I’d played there the year before with Elton John – but it was being part of something so absolutely massive and been surrounded by your peers, people who you’d admired and respected and the ten billion people watching on the television. You were always aware how big it was, so I wasn’t the only one who was absolutely terrified.
SDE: I watched it the other day and you did look a little bit stressed…
NK: (laughs) Yes, that was my normal look circa 1984/1985! – A permanent look of general bemusement. But it was very, very scary.
SDE: How do you feel about the death of the single, and the changes in the music industry in general over the last decade?
NK: The thing that I’m concerned about is the death of the album, especially in the digital domain – people just cherry picking stuff from what’s available. I’ll go on iTunes and I’ll download an album because that’s what I do, I like to listen to a body of work, but people listen to music differently nowadays, they consume it in a completely different way.
SDE: Do you not buy physical product anymore? Do you just download?
NK: I rarely do, to be honest. It does happen sometimes, I’ll find myself in HMV or wherever, but there are not that many places you can do it apart from Tescos and that sort of thing.
SDE: And HMV seem more concerned with selling games and DVDs than actual music…
NK: And they lost a huge amount of money last year – there might not be CDs available in the high street in the next few years.
SDE: Any ‘Nik Kershaws’ out there today with 14 songs on their hard disk looking to break through – is it harder or easier for them, do you think?
NK: It was bloody easy for me in the end, when it happened. It was like clockwork. It wasn’t until you look back that you realise there were so many people in my position where it didn’t happen. It’s easier to get noticed to an extent because of the internet – everybody’s got access to Youtube and that kind of thing – it’s much easier to do your own thing without a major corporation getting involved, and that’s a good thing. But on the other hand the mass media seems to be monopolised by even fewer people, which is a real shame, especially when it’s an X-Factor artist because they seem to completely monopolise the papers, the radio and the TV. It’s almost like there is no room left for anyone else, and that’s a real shame. You don’t seem to get the variety of acts that you used to get in the eighties.
SDE: What do you think of the X-Factor?
NK: (Laughs) I was interviewed by Dermot O’Leary yesterday, and I was dreading him asking me that question. I’m not a fan at all – there are loads of things I hate about it. Fair enough, there have been occasional acts that have come out of it and had longevity and proved to be the real thing, and that’s great, but it’s not the acts I’ve got a problem with, they’re just trying to do what I wanted to do – trying to live the dream. It’s just the whole production – judges screaming complete inanities over people shouting in the background. Nobody can say anything constructive, and it’s turned Gary Barlow into Louis Walsh. They are all saying the same stuff week after week. It’s a complete waste of time. It’s gladiatorial, the whole thing, and I don’t see what it’s got to do with music. I’ve got a real bugbear about live musicians and the fact they don’t use live musicians. The tour they did this year, they were singing to backing tracks. I mean come on – your not generating enough income from this to pay a few musicians? This is ridiculous.
SDE: So if they asked you on to mentor someone or have a ‘Nik Kershaw night’, you’d say no?
NK: (Laughs) I can safely say ‘no’ because I know that’s not going to happen!
SDE: You followed up Human Racing with The Riddle, which was equally successful – in fact you had 3 top ten singles from that album – but when it came to the third album – Radio Musicola – it didn’t do so well commercially. A similar trend came be spotted with artists such as Paul Young and Howard Jones. Why do you think this was? Was it to do with the fleeting nature of some of your ‘teeny bopper’ fans?
NK: To an extent it was, yes. Also, I didn’t keep their attention – two albums in nine months was a stupid idea because the next one took two and a half years and a lot of people lost interest and went elsewhere, which is fair enough. And the music changed a little bit as well and I produced it myself so that might have been a reason (laughs). There are loads of factors but you can’t go back questioning it because then you start thinking about doing stuff to please people.
SDE: You were suddenly no longer flavour of the month – that must have been a difficult time?
NK: It wasn’t sudden really, it happened quite naturally. In some ways it was quite a relief being able to walk down the street without getting jumped on or go out without bodyguards or a disguise (laughs). It all calmed down a bit and I was glad, but I didn’t equate that with selling less records, which was what happened. But it was okay – it wasn’t a problem. You do have to start rediscovering yourself because it’s very different dealing with people and talking to people when you’ve got the fame and celebrity, and then when you haven’t you’ve got to be someone else. It’s quite a strange thing. I went through a period of rediscovery.
SDE: What are you up to at the moment? Are you working on new material, out on tour?
NK: I’m at the finishing stages of an album at the moment, which should be coming out in the summer. It will be released through the website but we’re going to go to radio with it and try and get a bit of attention to it, which we hadn’t done for the past couple of albums. I play gigs, festivals and will hopefully be putting a tour together at the end of the year. So keeping busy.
Nik Kershaw was interviewed by Paul Sinclair for superdeluxeedition.com.
The Human Racing 2CD reissue is out now.