As Candy Opera release their debut album after 35 years in the wilderness, Neil Cooper talks about life in the 1980s with Liverpool’s great lost band
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Candy Opera was the first band I ever met. For a young shaver attempting to make his way in Liverpool during the early 1980s, this probably sounds a bit weird. Maybe not as weird as hearing them again for the first time in more than 30 years, but still. That strange sensation comes courtesy of 45 Revolutions Per Minute, a collection of never-released demos recorded between 1983 and 1993 by several incarnations of a band who should have caught fire alongside contemporaries such as The Pale Fountains, Prefab Sprout and Friends Again. Fates decreed, alas, that Candy Opera’s elegant brand of what some are now calling sophisti-pop somehow fell off the radar, only to be discovered online by Uwe Weigmann, co-owner of the Berlin-based Firestation label, ace purveyors of indie obscurities par excellence.
What those coming with fresh ears to the album when it is released this weekend on limited edition CD and vinyl is anybody’s guess. For me, even though the bulk of the album was recorded long after I was around, it’s a step back into another age.
Liverpool was in the throes of its second late twentieth century musical renaissance when Candy Opera and I first collided. While many of the original 1960s Merseybeat groups were by now plodding their way around the nostalgia circuit, a new wave of bands had grown up in the splurge of post-punk energy that sprawled out towards the housing estates beyond the hip end of town.
It was August 1982, and I was in Mr Pickwick’s, a fading cabaret dive, which, with its semi-circular dance-floor and regular floor-shows from would-be Tony Christies, once had aspirations of inner-city glamour. It was the sort of place I imagined Petula Clark was singing about in Downtown, that brassy, bossy hymn to sophisticated after-hours entertainment penned by Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent, the Bacharach and David of the chicken-in-a-basket set. Like its regular clientele, alas, Mr Pickwick’s hadn’t aged well. Renowned for what had rather cruelly become known as grab-a-granny nights, the club had acquired the nickname, Pick-a-Dicks.
For the last eighteen months, however, Mr Pickwick’s had played host to a series of irregular Wednesday night happenings presented under the magnificently precocious name of Plato’s Ballroom. The idea, according to Nathan McGough, of the ‘Situationalist (sic) Youth Collective’ who ran the nights, was two-fold. Firstly, to take art out of the galleries and into less rarefied social spaces. Secondly, to make gigs more interesting than playing second-hand rock licks in the back rooms of spit and sawdust pubs.
So, alongside the likes of New Order, A Certain Ratio and most other auteurs from the Factory Records camp who headlined, other elements were introduced. Performance artists burst out of boxes and dunked their heads in buckets of gunk. Bands played to backdrops of films by Luis Bunuel and Kenneth Anger. Poets pontificated. There was a wild west show one night, a jazz dance display on another. Gloopy light shows cast shadows across the screens, while Grandmaster Flash’s Adventures on the Wheels of Steel, The Pop Group’s She is Beyond Good and Evil and Faith by Manicured Noise were played at the DJ booth. Strangely-named support acts experimented with electronic drones and spoken word.
Plato’s Ballroom only happened about eight times, but it was an eye-opener which has defined my attitude to art, performance and events ever since. I still don’t understand why most bands can’t be bothered to make an effort.
By summer ’81, the Liverpool 8 riots had just happened, everyone was on the dole and Margaret Thatcher was attempting to suck the life out of the city in what was later exposed as ‘managed decline’. When Orange Juice came to play Plato’s with what sounded like two rather fey combos called The Wild Swans and The Pale Fountains, in contrast to all the long-coated allusions to existentialism and austerity chic, it was a breath of fresh air. For me at least, it changed everything.
All three bands seemed to be tapping into a sense of yearning for something other, an idyll beyond the sense of street corner machismo which prevailed in Liverpool, Glasgow and other now post-industrial cities. Orange Juice, The Wild Swans and The Pale Fountains were worlds apart from all that, and, in my mind, at least, were the real new romantics, though I dubbed it naïve pop instead. It was a genre that never caught on, largely, I suspect, because I never told anyone about it.
Fast forward a year, and I’m riding round town on an old bone-shaker of a bike I bought for a tenner at Belmont Road car boot sale, and which I spray painted black so it looked like something out of the Hovis advert. Like everyone who wanted to be anyone in Liverpool at that time, I’m wearing various shades of Army and Navy Stores oversize surplus. Checked shirts are tucked into turned-up jeans, with cheap closed-toe sandals bought in shoe shop bargain buckets beneath. A green Harris Tweed jacket bought for a quid at the same car boot sale sets it off nicely. As does the grey beret, which I’d like to think was set at a jaunty angle, though in truth I could never get it to sit quite how I wanted.
I didn’t care. I’d just turned 18 four days before, and this was how I arrived at Mr Pickwick’s / Plato’s for the headline show by The Pale Fountains. As I chained my bike to the railings close to the car park outside the club, with my dad’s old paint-stained khaki work-bag slung over my shoulder, I was packing a whole stack of poetry I was about to share with the world.
In truth, the four-poem performance I’d somehow had the balls to blag my way onto the stage to read in front of several hundred people was probably less than spectacular. It was the Paleys’ first headline show since releasing their debut single, Just A Girl / Something on My Mind a month before on the deliciously stylish Operation Twilight label. When I dropped my papers mid-way through my last poem, any pretence at cool was gone. Afterwards, however, the adrenalin rush was overwhelming.
It felt like I’d broken through something, and had undergone some kind of metamorphosis somehow, though how I stopped myself from hyper-ventilating or collapsing into a giddy heap I’ll never know.
Standing in the corner towards the back of the room on my own, one or two people came up to me. One was one of The Pale Fountains’ endless stream of Everyman Youth Theatre percussionists, who’d who’d let me go on. Another was Eddie Maelov of the support act, nouveau cabaret duo, Sunshine and Eddie. A female stage manager from the Everyman, came up to me as well. Her actor boyfriend was from a Liverpool acting dynasty who would go on to play iconic roles on film and TV at least twice. The chattiest chatter was a young bloke around my own age, slightly cocky, but with a big daft toothy grin on his face like he’d never harm a fly.
This turned out to be a guy named Ian Haskell, who said he was the drummer in a band called Candy Opera. Wow. As far as my naïve pop revolution went, the name was perfect. Numbers were exchanged like we were in a movie. I had clearly arrived.
The original plan as I remember it was that I play bongos and other percussion for the band, like the Everyman Youth Theatre kids did with the Paleys, including a cool kid called Ian Davies. We very quickly realised, alas, that I had no discernible sense of rhythm, so that idea was quietly jettisoned to spare my blushes lest Candy Opera end up sounding like some freeform art rock outfit. As for the Paleys, Ian Davies stuck to acting, and, as Ian Hart, became a big name playing John Lennon in Backbeat en route to global big-screen stardom in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and a million other things besides.
Somehow my de-bongofication was worked out the first time I went to a Candy Opera rehearsal one Friday night in the old Bridewell, a former prison close to what is now Liverpool’s business quarter. As with most of the city’s best bits at the time, the Bridewell was cold, damp and falling apart. With the cells used as practice rooms, where assorted punky rackets bled through the walls, it was also cheap.
Candy Opera seemed out of place at the Bridewell, where a parade of peroxided scruffs did their best to ape Johnny Thunders or the Clash. Ian, Mike, Mal and Ken, the fab four who made up Candy Opera were too normal, somehow. Too clean. There were no off-licence carry-outs to help them along; no cigarettes or other stimulants to tap into their artistic unconscious, alter states or make them look cool. They weren’t straight-edge, exactly, but they were hardly rock and roll. In time, a preference for a cup of tea and a glass of fresh orange and lemonade became a statement in itself. There was no need for excess, it seemed, in Candy Opera’s contrary world. Like the Four Musketeers as scripted by Enid Blyton, they did things on their own terms.
Ian may have been every inch the cheeky chappie, who couldn’t sit at his drum-kit without bashing a cymbal or doing drum rolls that drove everyone demented as they tried to write songs, but he was also the organiser, the practical one and the driver. The hustler.
Mike Wiggins was the bass player, and, as is the wont of bass players, he was a mix of quiet intensity, serious listening and forthright opinion when necessary. Forensic, gimlet-eyed and phlegmatic, Mike had no problem with the idea of pop stardom. He recognised the genius of George Michael and Wham! long before it was cool to listen without prejudice. The rest of us might have turned our skinny indie-kid noses up at Wham!’s seemingly frothy world-view, but as we now know, Mike was ahead of the game, and would eventually be proved right.
It wasn’t just that Wham! would later play benefit gigs for striking miners, who would take on the Thatcher government. This formed part of an English civil war that Liverpool City Council’s left wing administration would also became embroiled. Songs like Club Tropicana and Freedom were deceptively political pop constructions that just happened to sound fantastic in the mainstream. Mike bought himself an acoustic bass, which he played onstage with unsmiling concentration, but offstage his face would light up, and he could be hilarious.
Then there was Mal, the singer, whose actual name was Paul Malone, but whose second name had been co-opted as a snappier nick-name, the same as it had for Stephen Mallinder from Cabaret Voltaire. Not that Mal was interested in any of that sort of racket. He’d grown up in Norris Green with a club singer dad from whom he inherited a pop sensibility that absorbed ideas, words and phrases like a sponge.
Many a night, just me and Mal would walk home from Candy Opera’s post Bridewell rehearsal room above a pub in Kensington. The latter was an arrangement sorted between Ian and the pub manager, and which was christened the Opera House. On those walks, Mal and I would put the world – or the low-level Liverpool music scene part of it, anyway – to rights.
Instead of going to a pub like any normal young pups, we’d stand on the corner of West Derby Road and Sheil Road. Before I went off to my mum’s high-rise and Mal walked to Norris Green, I’d listen as Mal free-formed his assorted visions, his mouth at times unable to keep up with his mind. But what a mind.
At the next rehearsal, Mal would come in with a new idea for a song that would be barely a sketch or a riff, but when he started singing in that voice that was part club-land croon, part white-boy soul, all that stuff he’d been jabbering the night before would tumble out. It may have only been a line, a snatch of pop culture absorbed from the telly and trickled down through Mal’s unconscious, but it was pure genius. Mal was the ultimate auto-didact in that way. It reminds me of what Tony Wilson said about Shaun Ryder’s lyrics for Happy Mondays, who would go on to be managed by Nathan McGough, who’d also managed The Paleys. Wilson said Shaun’s words were poetry on a par with Yeats, and I don’t think he meant the wine lodge. Mal was better.
And then there was Ken. Ken Moss. Quiet Ken. Everybody loved Ken. We were all in awe of him. This was partly because he’d been lead guitarist in the original line-up of The Pale Fountains when they’d supported Orange Juice at Plato’s. For me, at least, this alone gave Ken god-like status, and I listened in wonder to his yarns about his brief time in the band. I was chuffed when he lent me a cassette of a demo he’d done with the Paleys when they were still called The Love Fountains. He also lent me a cassette recording of the Plato’s show he’d played. As if that wasn’t enough, his guitar playing was jaw-dropping. His finger-picking technique was fast enough and classy enough to be able to apply intricate little melodies to make anything Mal, Mike and Ian threw at him soar to another realm.
Ken’s guitar style wasn’t in any way showy. He would add sophistication and class to the band, but onstage would keep his head down, both actually and metaphorically, lest he draw any attention to himself. In this way, he was easily as good as Roddy Frame from Aztec Camera, but was possessed with the same modesty and quiet flair as Malcolm Ross, the unsung guitar hero of Josef K, Orange Juice and Aztec Camera. Who Ken’s guitar heroes were, however, was anybody’s guess, though the fact he could play the sublime but notoriously intricate opening refrain of Love’s Alone Again Or, from the Forever Changes album that had turned on Liverpool’s music heads to its lushly arranged West Coast idylls, was a bit of a give-away.
The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, the groovy late 1960s comic film starring Peter Cook as a slick ad man who networks his way to become Prime Minister, had recently been on late night TV. The following week, Ken played the twangy guitar-led theme tune note-perfect.
A lot of the time Candy Opera songs grew from a riff Ken might bring in, and the band tended to rely on his musical nous to come up with ideas, perhaps a bit too much. Ken had joined Candy Opera after answering a record shop ad, and didn’t have the same shared history of the others, which was based around five-a-side football and proto-punk bands like Invisible Heroes, and it was probably inevitable he would eventually leave.
Ken was a lab technician, a real live scientist. He played guitar like that as well. He could experiment with the best of them, but he understood the principles of cause and effect. Out of that came something fragile, precise and – usually – very very beautiful. Rumour had it that, unlike the rest of us, Ken might even have had a girlfriend, but no-one really talked about that sort of thing, either in the rehearsal room or out.
The first Candy Opera gig was in November 1982. It was around the same time as Channel 4 first went on air, which for some reason seemed relevant to me at the time, and Ian or somebody had booked the band to play a Friday night at the Left Bank Bistro. This was a basement bar halfway along a still ungentrified Mathew Street, where the original Cavern club had been filled in to build a car park, and where Eric’s spawned a million punk legends before being forced to close following a police raid in 1980.
On Wednesday nights, the Left Bank hosted nights of what were called ‘alternative entertainment’. These were run by a guy called Neil Tilley, who ran Breakout fanzine from Garston, and who charged 30p entry on the door. For that you got a mix of music, performance poets and other chancers. Phil Battle and the Sensible Shoes were regulars, as was a young teenage poet called Craig Charles, who did something he called the Blue Revue. Then there was Dave Ward, a poet who ran Windows magazine, and read streetwise poems with a hippy twist. The Project was Mike Keane, who’d played at Plato’s, and was part of The Royal Family and the Poor, who’d put out a record on Factory called Art on 45. There was also a lad billed as the world’s worst impressionist called Michael Tait, and a DJ who knew I liked the Passage, and would play their piece of electro-pop subversion, XOYO.
I’d already started going down to the Left Bank, where I did my performance poetry thing on a semi-regular basis. I’d also started writing bits and bobs for Breakout. Friday nights were proper band nights, again put on by Breakout. The Pale Fountains themselves turned up one Wednesday night, and did an impromptu four-song set that finished with a cover of Can’t Help Falling in Love. They didn’t play it slow like the Elvis version, but with a gallop that drew from how Andy Williams recorded it.
The room in the Left Bank was long and narrow, and it wasn’t hard to make it look busy, but on that night, it was packed. I did my performance poetry thing, and that was okay, and then Candy Opera played, and they were amazing. They were now officially my band, and tapped into all that Orange Juice / Aztec Camera / Pale Fountains / Famous Five type image. Despite obvious similarities, Candy Opera did it differently somehow, though I couldn’t say how. The whole night felt like a mini Plato’s Ballroom, except with all mine and everybody else’s mates in on the act.
Although Candy Opera were disciplined enough to practise twice a week come what may, gigs were infrequent. This was partly because, like a ton of other bands, they didn’t feel part of the so-called scene which from the outside – rightly or wrongly – looked like a clique. It was also because, somehow, they’d taken the Plato’s Ballroom philosophy of events to heart, and had no desire to flog their wares three times a week in pub venues.
Within a few years the scene, if that’s what it was, would morph into something else, and bands on the same page as Candy Opera, but different, would veer into view. There was South Parade, and Hello Sunset, led by Tommy Scott, whose skewed world-view would go on to crash the charts with his next band, Space. There was Perfect Day as well, who would eventually change their name to Perfect, but more of them anon.
In the meantime, there was a local band triple bill at the Warehouse, a double header with an old school punk band at the Lincoln’s Inn, and a show at the Hofnbrauhaus Bier Keller, which I missed because I was away. Someone taped the show, and for a while I played it non-stop. There were other places, pubs like the Bow and Arrow, and a club on Concert Street, then light years away from the night-time club-land Mecca it would become. Places, in other words, that I would normally never go near, nor indeed be let in without a tie, but this was Candy Opera, so it was all okay.
Out of town gigs included a show in a youth club in Darwen, and a night in Blackburn run by a guy who did a fanzine called All That Thinks and Moves. I did the performance poetry thing with them a few more times. One time, Ken even accompanied me at the Left Bank, where I tried out some quasi performance art that didn’t quite work.
Eventually, all that fell by the wayside, which was fine, and I became, well, I don’t know what I became, but I was still there, and Candy Opera still mattered. I wasn’t in any way their manager, because I couldn’t manage my way out of a paper bag, and Ian did all that stuff anyway. Ian could talk to anyone. It was like when we went to see Strawberry Switchblade at a club called The Venue, and Ian somehow blagged us back-stage, and showered the female Scottish duo with badges and cassettes with the zeal of a used car dealer. Strawberry Switchblade responded with bemused and indulgent good grace. Me, I was just around, I guess, and soon I wasn’t the only one.
Somewhere along the way, Candy Opera built up something resembling an entourage, who would turn up to the gigs and get to know all the songs. Much of this was down to Mike’s brother Dave. Dave Wiggins was a deadpan absurdist with a penchant for Jackie magazine and Stiff Little Fingers. He brought his mate from work, also called Dave, who seemed like a restless free-spirit, and moved either to or from Manchester. Dave’s mate Dave brought his mate Jo, or Joanna, who also became a Candy Opera regular. Jo worked in the Bluecoat Chambers cafe, and was proper cool. I adored her, but she was an older woman of twenty-one, and beyond some goo-goo eyed notion of what constituted romance, I was too young, stupid and socially inept to have a clue how these things worked.
The Bluecoat is an ornate Georgian building off Church Street that is the oldest surviving building in Liverpool city centre. It was originally a school and is now an arts centre. In the seventies, Captain Beefheart had an exhibition of his paintings there. Yoko Ono had done stuff in the Bluecoat as well, before she met John Lennon. In the eighties, Michael Clark performed his Fall-inspired ballet, New Puritan, there, and a few years later, Shack, who formed out of the ashes of the Pale Fountains, would play in the main hall. The Bluecoat was a glimpse into another world. Jo was part of that world. The rest of us had potential.
Then there was Neil Mather, who booked the bands at Liverpool Uni, and Sean and Hugo, who were also at the Uni, and ran the Hothouse Disco nights. They helped shift gear like proper roadies, and were a great double act. I remember sitting baffled with Sean and Hugo as they told me something about how they were putting on a party in a warehouse. This was something I couldn’t get my head round, failing to spot what I now see was my first steer to what would go on to become a bona fide youth culture explosion.
A design student made up some hoodies with the word ‘VIVA’ on the back. The band adopted them as their new uniform, and wore them with tracky bottoms. Such an ensemble might not have been Katherine Hammett, Frankie Says or Joe Bloggs, but this too was a sign of things loosening up somehow, becoming less uptight.
At that time, everyone around town was bringing in flute players, trumpeters and string sections, just like the Paleys had, so anyone who’d played in their school band was suddenly getting calls. I brought in my mate Bryan Evans, who played clarinet and saxophone at Anfield Comprehensive, and knew about jazz. He played a few gigs with the band, and his clarinet became a key part of songs like The Weekend Starts Here. He played on the recorded version of With Yesterday in All the Right Places, but left shortly afterwards to do his A Levels.
Also on the recorded version of With Yesterday in All the Right Places was Steph Lea, a friend of Ian’s from his youth club. Like Bryan, Steph was still at school, but she played violin, and was smarter and funnier than any of us. Possibly more musical too. Her and two school-mates got through to the final six of a BBC competition for young people to write a new Christmas carol. The competition was judged by Kiki Dee, Peter Skellern and Rod Argent from the Zombies, and Steph and her mates were filmed performing it on breakfast TV. It was Steph as well who came up with the piano line that she played on With Yesterday in All the Right Places.
One Sunday around that time, Ian, Steph and I went cycling, with me somehow rattling along on my spray-painted bone-shaker, before going back to Steph’s mum and dad’s. It was dark when Ian and I left, and there was no way I was cycling home. My bike had no lights or brakes, so I gratefully left it propped up in Steph’s garage. It may be rusting away there still.
There were other players and voices who came and went after Ken left. Carl Hodgson, or Eddie as he was known, was a fantastic guitarist, who knew the core of Candy Opera anyway. He would go on to join Perfect, who became rivals of sorts. Me and their manager didn’t get on at all. I used to wind him up something chronic, and was lucky to survive some nights without getting a smack off him. Mal didn’t help. Sometimes the nervous energy that drove him acted without filter. It was like when he first met John Smith, the singer and driving force with Perfect. John had a girlfriend called Jeanette, but when Mal was introduced, he heard it as Janet and John. “I’ve read all your books,” he blurted out.
Colette Foy sang with the band for a bit, and Sian Phillips, the sister of Dom Phillips, who I’d hooked up with to do a short-lived (my fault) fanzine called The Subterranean, and who went on to become editor of Mixmag, played flute. Sian played with the band when they did a daytime TV show on Granada called Exchange Flags. They performed The Weekend Starts Here, with Sian doing Bryan’s clarinet part on the flute, and the camera spent most of the time focused on her.
No matter. This was the period when Mal took sole charge of the song-writing, on melodies as well as words. He started playing guitar, honing his craft with a drive and a fervour which, onstage, saw him come alive. Through this, the band as a whole grew as a unit rather than being so musically dependent on Ken. Even so, when Ken rejoined, everyone was elated. Like before, the flourishes he brought to Mal’s new material took things up a level. It was as if Bryan MacLean had rejoined Love, except now everyone was on an equal footing.
A key to how Mal’s instinctive genius worked came from what happened with the whole thing around Honeysuckle Rose, which became the title of Candy Opera’s first two-track demo cassette. In my mind, the cover of the cassette is the defining image of the band’s first incarnation. Through a mixture of circumstance and opportunity, for a short time I had access to a print room full of fancy paper, and had been granted free rein on a cabinet load of Letraset to go with it. I took a shine to a heavy-set paper coloured a kind of yellowy browny biscuity shade, and which, in paper manufacturing colour chart parlance, was called Honeysuckle.
With absorbed images of Peter Saville’s classicist designs for Factory in mind, I took samizdat possession of a ream of Honeysuckle paper and a few sheets of Times New Roman Letraset. Alongside a stack of line drawings photo-copied from a copyright-free book of archive art, this became the basis for a series of posters and tickets as well as the cassette cover and the all-important badge. I christened my amateur design operation Loggione Grafica. I’d picked up on the word ‘Loggione’ in a copy of James Joyce’s book, Giacomo Joyce, which I’d bought at WH Smith’s, wanting to get into Joyce but not knowing where to start. Loggione was the upper-most part of an opera house, or the gods.
It all seemed to fit, even if my enthusiasm for Letraset got the better of my spelling skills, and I got both Carl and Colette’s second names wrong on the cassette cover. Carl’s wasn’t too bad, just a stray ‘e’ in the middle of ‘Hodgson’. Poor Colette, though, ended up being called Colette Roy rather than Foy. I’ve no idea why it was never corrected, probably because I’d run out of ‘f’s on the Letraset and it was all knock off stuff anyway, but after all this time it’s a relief to set the record straight at last.
Riffing on the name of the paper in conversation with Mal and the others, the phrase ‘honeysuckle rose’ came up. We weren’t sure where it came from, but it prompted other clichéd phrases like ‘coming up roses’ and ‘a rose by any other name’. No-one realised the last one came from Shakespeare, but we finished it off by suggesting a rose by any other name would actually be a tulip. This probably missed the point, but still.
A couple of rehearsals later, and the phrase ‘honeysuckle rose’ had crept into one of Mal’s lyrics. After that he wrote an entire song called Coming Up Roses. Someone – Ian or Mal, I can’t remember which – drew a picture of a rose that would end up being the front cover of the cassette. Ian painted the rose onto the wall of the Opera House. It all seemed to fit, even if once the image of the rose was shrunk down small enough to make a badge, someone said it looked like a cauliflower or a cabbage. They might have had a point, but Honeysuckle Cabbage wasn’t really the image we were going for. And again, all this pastoral word-play seemed to be about creating a world beyond Liverpool’s inner-city landscape of breeze-block towers and crumbling terraces.
To help get the word out, I wrote a poetic paean to Candy Opera and the two tracks on the Honeysuckle Rose cassette. The first of these was Whip Crack Away, a fast number, which may have come out of a conversation with Mal about Doris Day. This was just the warm-up to the second track, an epic weepie that Mal called With Yesterday in All the Right Places, which I grandly declared was the saddest song ever written. With my words on one side of A4, and the picture of the rose that might have been a tulip or a cabbage on the other, we printed it up on the honeysuckle paper, and left a stack around all the hip clothes shops and record shops around town.
I remember coming across a pile one Saturday afternoon in a vintage shop, and feeling like Candy Opera were public property at last. We also sent it out with the cassette itself. It was meant to be a press release, but ended up being published in full in a fanzine called Kiss the Carpet. This was my first lesson in how the media works.
I bought a cheap Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli Hot Club of France album on which they did a version of Fats Waller’s song, Honeysuckle Rose, and we played it as Candy Opera’s entrance music at a packed out gig at the Sphinx Bar at Liverpool University, though I don’t think anyone noticed.
Somehow, Candy Opera got themselves booked to play the Rock Garden, the hip Covent Garden club which I’d been to once before to see a singer called Anne Pigalle, who would end up signing to Paul Morley and Trevor Horn’s ZTT Records.
There had been a previous trip to London, which involved a meeting with a booking agency, some fruitless door-stepping of record companies and going to see Friends Again and The Woodentops at the Marquee. There was another night as well watching Sade at Heaven. Somehow, it seemed, all of these felt like kindred spirits, albeit with record company backing and decent sound systems.
That might have been the time too when the van, co-opted from a company called ACE Van Hire, broke down. Every town has an ACE Van Hire, or at least they used to. When telephone directories still mattered, calling yourselves ACE anything guaranteed you top entry in the ‘A’ section. After the van broke down, we were forced to take a train, which also broke down.
The Rock Garden trip was different. In a Magical Mystery Tour type spirit, a coach was hired, which all of Candy Opera’s new pals at Liverpool Uni signed up for. Utilising more illicit print shop time and my still copious amounts of Letraset and copyright-free archive images, under my imaginary Loggione Grafica imprint, I knocked up a series of colour-coded tickets. Using an image that incorporated an ACE Van Hire logo, there were individual tickets for the journey to London, for the trip back, and one for the gig itself. Each of these was numbered with a rubber stamp, and the idea was that someone (me) would hand them out or collect them at the appropriate point in the adventure.
Such attention to detail was an attempt to transform a gig into something special. Again, this was done in the spirit of Plato’s Ballroom, the tickets for which were mini works of art. In one case, it was also possibly illegal. I gave the Candy Opera gig tickets to the girl on the desk at the Rock Garden, but at the end of the night she realised she’d forgotten to hand them out. So much for events, I thought. The gig itself – two sets if I remember rightly – went much better. The Rock Garden, the Sphinx and that first gig at the Left Bank are the ones that left their mark.
The fact that a Candy Opera album has appeared thirty-five years after that first gig is a wonder, and the songs on 45 Revolutions Per Minute should be regarded as buried treasure. Unearthed like the holiest of grails, the riches on offer sound like the missing link between the Pale Fountains and Prefab Sprout, by way of Brian Wilson, Karen Carpenter and Wham! Crucially, beyond all those ideas and influences, through Mal, Ken, Mike, Ian and all the others, this record has a personality and a voice that is Candy Opera’s own, in all their bloody-minded glory.
But for every gem revealed, I can’t help but think about the ones that got away. There were a hundred songs, it seems, that were played a couple of times, then dropped before they could be recorded, even in rough form, as cheap laptop technology would allow for today. Racking my brains and sorting through scrappy set lists, I wonder about formative works like Thanks a Million and Club Continental. I think too about Fairweather Friend, Green Book 2 and Funny Peculiar. Then there was Plain Sailing and Because (You Mean the World to Me).
Later, things got more ambitious with The Weekend Starts Here, and later still the band would open their set with a ballad called Temples Are God. Mal confessed to me one day he’d nicked the tune to Temples Are God, which was barely more than a ditty anyway, pretty much wholesale from a Carpenters album track. He played me the original, swearing me to secrecy. Temples Are God would be followed by the Motown bounce of Sold Inside, then, later still, Ken would create an intricate guitar pattern that would leap up, down and roundabout the fretboard to give a song called Feet on the Ground a playful jauntiness that was a delight.
Then there were the cover versions, with a different one being played at every gig. Tapioca Tundra by the Monkees was the first. Cat Stevens’ Matthew and Son was given an urgency by Bryan’s wonky clarinet part. There was Darlin’, by the Beach Boys, while I Am a Rock was the obligatory Simon and Garfunkel number.
Whip Crack Away, With Yesterday in All the Right Places, and the two songs on the second Candy Opera cassette, Serious and Diane, were the only songs recorded properly in my time. For Diane, the band hired a steel drummer to play on it. All four songs are precious evocations of an era long since past, but there are so many others lost in the mists of what now looks like a fertile and productive time.
Looking back, one of the things that stands out is how serious we all took everything. Like everyone in any band ever, especially in Liverpool in the early 1980s, Candy Opera was a matter of life and death. There was a stubborn kind of integrity too about how they operated. When the booking agency arranged a London gig without telling the band until a couple of days before, they flatly refused to go. Everyone except Mal had day jobs, and they had to be up in the morning.
The last time I think I saw Candy Opera was at the Royal Court 10 Bands for 10 Bob show in autumn 1984, was it? The post Pacific Street line-up of The Pale Fountains were headlining, and were a harder, rockier and less fey proposition than the Plato’s gig just two years before. In this respect, for now, at least, Candy Opera were clearly carrying the torch. The only other band I remember playing was Marshmallow Overcoat, the fantastic psychedelic mess formed from the ashes of the Western Diplomats.
Looking now at a flyer from the day, I remember Box of Toys, whose drummer lent Ian a state-of-art drum pedal when his cheap one broke. As a symbol of something or other, it was perfect. Things were changing, and when I watched Candy Opera play that night, in front of a packed crowd of Liverpool scenesters, mates of the band and other hangers-on like me, I somehow knew that was how I wanted to remember them forever.
I left town shortly after. I knew I had things to do, even if I didn’t know what they were yet. As a leaving present, the band gave me a fancy Papermate pen with my name engraved on it. As with many things, it got lost somewhere along the way, but I cherish the gesture still, and hope these words go some way towards saying a proper thank you.
Candy Opera had things to do as well. For the next three decades we all got on with doing what we did. Maybe we should’ve done things differently, and maybe we should’ve done more, but everyone got to where they got to anyway, and now everything’s coming up roses. Again.
Candy Opera was the first band I ever met. 45 Revolutions Per Minute is the record we should’ve had years ago. This is where I came in. Listening to it today feels like coming home.
45 Revolutions Per Minute by Candy Opera is available on CD and vinyl on Firestation Records from February 23rd.