Posted on 17 August, 2017
The story of Sade Adu’s first steps into the pop world are told by her friend Paul Simper in his new book Pop Stars in My Pantry, which draws on many unpublished celebrity interviews.
This exclusive extract finds Sade, long before fame, invited to Sunday lunch to meet Mother, Mrs Simper, which could sometimes prove testing for Paul’s friends. By 1982 Sade’s new band Pride decided to fly the flag with a visit to New York where three years later she was to return to headline at Radio City Music Hall. Simper was part of the scouting party. . .
MOTHER’S PRIDE by PAUL SIMPER
EXTRACTED FROM PSIMP
◼ BANANARAMA WEREN’T THE FIRST 80S POP FOLK to venture down to my Mum and Dad’s in Wiltshire. Two years previous, a former St Martin’s fashion student now giving it a go as a singer in a seven-piece north-London funk band, had driven down in her dilapidated old Wolsey after a hard night’s Soho clubbing. With her style commentator boyfriend crashed out on the back seat and me riding shotgun as she nursed, cajoled and threatened her trusty chariot down the M4, we’d arrived just in time to catch a startled Mrs S, still in her nightie and slippers, bringing in the milk from the back porch.
Save for a holiday to Durban in the early 70s, I don’t think Mrs Simper had ever come face to face with anyone as exotic as Nigerian-born, Clacton-on-Sea and West-Bergholt-raised, Helen Folasade Adu. Not that Mother rolled out the red carpet for her. Sade was still a long way off being rubber-stamped with her first Top of the Pops appearance. Mrs S had no inkling that one of the most iconic stars of the decade was kipping in her spare room and smoking a fag or three out back with my dad. She was just a girl in a band (called Pride) that nobody had heard of.
When we were invited up the road by Mum and Dad’s farming pals for Sunday lunch drinks, people took a polite interest in “this music thing” that myself and Bob Elms her journalist boyfriend (Sade wasn’t one for blowing her own trumpet) were talking up. But their looks suggested this was all a bit pie-in-the-sky and the chances that they’d be hearing any more about it seemed unlikely.
If afternoon tea with the comedy tea pot was the potential flashpoint for Bananarama’s visit, it was Sunday lunch that proved to be high noon where Bob, Sade and Mrs Simper were concerned. Card-carrying Labour Party member that he was, Bob did not see eye to eye with true blue, Maggie and Enoch supporter Mrs S on pretty much anything.
Whether it’s quite the “done thing” to engage in a forthright exchange of political views with your hostess whilst tucking into her Sunday roast is debatable, but Mrs S’s dogmatic views on the unions (“Lock ’em up!”) and Britain’s 3 million unemployed (“On their bikes!”) would in fairness have tested the patience of a saint. Considerate lass that she is, Sade did her best to prevent World War III breaking out before the summer pudding arrived.
Still, it can’t have been too terrible a weekend. The last time I saw Sade, the first thing she asked was how my Mum was. Much the same, was the answer.
I owed her and Bob Elms plenty. When I first moved to London I couldn’t have been more grateful for the existence of their north London home tucked away in multi-cultural Wood Green on the Noel Park Estate. Their old sofa didn’t exclusively have my name on it – fresh-down-from-Hull saxophonist Stuart Matthewman was pretty much clothed, housed and fed by them over the same period – but on the occasions I was invited back, I took some shifting. Sade reckoned that a pair of my old socks stuck around even longer than me until she ceremonially buried them, like high-grade plutonium, in the back garden.
I was never so bold as to turn up unannounced, but if Bob suggested a home viewing of an under-the-counter video of Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes that he’d got his mitts on in Soho (I’d discovered in my early days in London there was a black market for everything), then I was more than up for it.
My telly viewing habits were not of primary importance to the residents at No 64 Hewitt Avenue by the spring of 1982, though, when Bob and Lee Barrett started talking up this new band called Pride that “Shard” was in. Stuart Matthewman was also involved, as were fellow Hull lads, drummer Paul Cooke and bass player Paul Denman.
Back in Hull, Stuart had been in The Odds, a pop/mod band similar to The Piranhas that had started out doing speeded-up punk versions of 60s hits like The Dave Clark Five’s Glad All Over. He then played sax in a ten-piece Elvis impersonator show called Ravin’ Rupert, which covered the whole spectrum of The King’s career from rockabilly to Vegas delivered by a front man sporting a quiff and wearing Rupert-the-Bear checked trousers. A tad cooler was Paul Cooke and Paul Denman’s prog-rock band, The Posers, which Stuart credits as being the only band in Hull trying to do something new.
As for Sade, her singing career had begun only a few months previous when she sang onstage for the first time as part of another London band, Ariva. Considering Ariva were viewed as a bit of a Blue Rondo rip-off, ironically it was on the way to a Rondo gig on Barry Island that Lee first clocked Sade singing along to the radio and asked her if she could sing. She thought she probably could so said Yes.
That wasn’t quite the done deal. Some of the more sceptical members of Ariva needed two auditions before they were convinced, whilst Sade herself was contemplating other career options (since leaving St Martin’s School of Art she’d already designed menswear for Axiom and modelled – “The worst job known to man”). She was thinking of giving Fear of Flying’s Erica Jong a run for her money in the racy novel stakes.
“I’d just bought a couple of her books and I thought I could do it,” she said pragmatically.
Erotic fiction’s loss was music’s gain as she settled in next to Ariva’s two other singers, Barbara Robinson and Nick Moxsom, who, like Lee, hailed from Barnet in north London. Barbara’s vocals were more Streisand smooth than Sade’s smokey soul husk, while Nick’s rough-and-ready rasp leaned towards the more strident end of funk. But it didn’t take any of them long to realise that it was time for a change.
1981’s crazed summer of zooted-up Latin sounds had been replaced by harder street funk and rap like The Valentine Brothers’ Money’s Too Tight to Mention and Grandmaster Flash’s The Message. So Ariva became Pride with new songs like Manhandled and Ecstasy written with the one other key player to jump ship from Ariva, their principal songwriter and guitarist, Mile End boy Ray St John.
But following the well-trodden path of Spandau Ballet, Visage, Blue Rondo, Haysi Fantayzee, Animal Nightlife and Culture Club as the next London clubland band wasn’t looking like quite the walk in the park it had been. Neither Blue Rondo nor Animal Nightlife had set the charts alight, Haysi’s follow-up to John Wayne Is Big Leggy – Holy Joe – had flopped, Visage’s follow-up to their debut album had underperformed, Spandau themselves were pinning their future on a Trevor Horn remix, and Culture Club had reached 114 and 100 respectively in the UK with their first two singles White Boy and I’m Afraid of Me, with Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? still six months away.
Would the record companies go for another trendy London band? In fact, would London itself go for another trendy London band?
“There’s definitely room for our group,” said Sade in one of our first taped interviews from that time. “I don’t think there’s an awful lot of, er, exciting happenings coming from British bands. The most interesting thing, considering the way the charts have been going, is Dexys returning [their second album Too-Rye-Ay was out] and Grandmaster Flash with that single. But London audiences don’t like to be told what to like.”
The decision was made to keep things under the radar with low-key gigs in St Albans, West Hampstead, Windsor, Southall and Barnet. But Lee, like Spandau Ballet’s manager Steve Dagger, loved the challenge of coming at things differently. If Spandau had played on battleships and in botanical gardens and Blue Rondo Latin American festivals and bank holiday weekends in Bournemouth, Pride would perversely take things to the other end of the spectrum with the most unsexy West End venue imaginable. Lee booked them into the Marquee.
“Playing the Marquee was a statement that we could play anywhere,” said Lee in the same interview. “We were being accused left, right and centre of being another group with this master plan to play select venues, only allowing your friends to come along and becoming extremely overhyped.”
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And so, London’s latest hip and happening thing followed in the unlikely footsteps of UK Subs, Hanoi Rocks, Marillion, Spider and The Truth, and did the Marquee. There were some hilariously grumpy club folk chuntering away about the pissy beer served in plastic cups in a venue few had visited (unless they’d been to see The Polecats) since punk days. Still, it got people talking. As did the night Pride rolled up outside Le Beat Route on the back of a lorry at two in the morning playing a couple of numbers and holding up the traffic as people hurried up onto the street to see what all the fuss was about.
My favourite Lee-style thinking outside the box was when Pride played London’s premier jazz venue Ronnie Scott’s. He judiciously scattered likely looking paper wraps all round Camden Palace nightclub. Anyone picking one up might have been disappointed by the lack of powders inside but it got their attention.
There were some aspects of the Spandau blueprint, though, that Lee wasn’t about to throw out the window, particularly the opportunity to place Pride in a more international setting. Hence their trip, in September 1982, to New York. Sade, Bob and Lee had all been before. In fact, it was where Bob and Sade had first got together when Spandau’s and London’s scene-making gang of 21 (in age and number) had taken Manhattan the previous year with a gig and fashion show at the Underground club. Sade was designing for Axiom, the fashion collective run by Jon “Mole” Baker – another Blitz Kid making his name.
As usual, Lee had his own slightly perverse spin on it. “We want to have as little association with England as possible,” he said. “I’ve always hated the way that English bands have gone over there with a really big hype and rammed it down New Yorkers’ throats. I’ve always thought New Yorkers have resented this. We want people to just come along, hopefully enjoy it and make up their own minds. I feel that could stand us in good stead and be a good foundation for making friends.”
“Making friends” turned out to be more of a key phrase than I’d imagined. No Simper family member had ever ventured to New York before so my Mum in particular was keen to know where I might be staying in this city that never slept.
Bob had managed to wangle himself, Sade and Beat Route club host Ollie O’Donnell rooms at The Excelsior overlooking Central Park, courtesy of Island Records boss Chris Blackwell. Chris had been an early Spandau convert when he’d showed up by the mixing desk of their first Blitz gig and offered Dagger a deal after only three numbers. Ollie was getting married on 42nd Street to Michelle Young, a gal with a steepling quiff every bit as impressive as his own.
For myself and the rest of the band, the accommodation options were a little more freewheeling. “Meet people,” Lee told us. So we did. A wedding reception at Danceteria proved ideal for getting to know the exceedingly friendly native New Yorkers. Within a matter of hours, they had taken us to their bosom, squirrelling us away like so many acorns across the length and breadth of Manhattan in various states of undress and delight.
I learned a lot that week, much of it unprintable, but as an introduction to what remains for me the most thrilling city on earth, I couldn’t have done better than to have shared it with Lee, Bob, Sade and Pride. Living on 99c slices of pizza and brown-paper-bagged liquor store beer by day, embraced by all manner of attentive folk by night, we covered as much ground as was humanly possible – from the previously noted “delights” of the Anvil and the Hell Fire Club (as mentioned to the Wham! boys) in the Lower West Side’s meatpacking district, through two well-received nights of Pride at Danceteria and Joe Bowie’s Defunkt at the Peppermint Lounge to breakdancing and Double Dutch crews at the Roxy.
Our Hard Times gear with the obligatory leathers, Levi’s and biker boots caused some cultural confusion. Whilst drinking in a bar across from the Roxy, myself and Stuart Matthewman were propositioned by a couple of gargantuan leather-clad bears who towered over us, licking their lips as they enquired, “Wanna go to the Eagle’s Nest?” Who, what or where this eagle was nesting we were too dumbstruck to ask.
After a few early forays, most of Pride had ended up in Mole’s loft down on Pitt Street and Lafayette in Alphabet City. Some precious floor space up on 14th that had been kindly offered to myself, Bob and Barbara by a local photographer, Bob Curithers, hadn’t gone down so well with Babs – when a few residing cockroaches scurried out to greet her there was an ear-splitting shriek and Barnet’s finest was off.
A photo session was arranged out and about around Pitt Street. Surrounded by the rubble of one half-decimated block of tenements, the band posed against a conveniently upended and abandoned Chevy, capturing the Hard Times trend possibly a little too realistically. Every so often some poor soul would emerge from one of the burned-out buildings, traipsing across the bricks and broken bottles looking for sustenance of one kind or another. Standing amongst the debris with a fawn tassel jacket slung over her shoulder, Sade might never have believed that three years from now she’d be returning to this city triumphant with her own sell-out show at Radio City Music Hall.
TAGS – Sade Adu, Pop Stars in My Pantry, PSIMP, Unbound, Paul Simper, Bob Elms, Lee Barrett, Barbara Robinson, Nick Moxsom, Ray St John, Paul Cooke, Paul Denman, Stuart Matthewman, Andrew Hale, Bob Curithers, Ollie O’Donnell, Michelle Young, Jon “Mole” Baker, Jason Pollock, Ariva, Pride, soul music, Swinging 80s, New Romantics, youth culture, fashion, style, nightclubbing, NYNY,