A long time ago (1st February 1995, to be precise, a date now laden with other connotations), R*E*P*E*A*T went to our first ever 'proper' interview. This was with 'the next big thing', a young Brit Poping, Manics quoting, tune toting, twin fronted eyelinered band called The Flamingoes. Their début album 'Plastic Jewels' was the first record we were ever sent to review, and has been a fixture on the R*E*P*E*A*T turntable ever since. True Memory Songs.
Fast forward a quarter of a century, and both twins, James and Jude Cook, have written books as memorable, entertaining and enduring as that album. Jude's debut novel, a sprawling introspective comic train track into the loves and losses of a fin de siècle struggling artist, Byon Easy is reviewed here. And now, not far behind, James has published Memory Songs, an equally incredible, gripping and thought provoking read. The book somehow manages to combine original, insightful analysis of a raft of popular guitar based music (Led Zeppelin and The Beatles' Revolver, John Lennon and Kurt Cobain, John Barry and Bryan Ferry, Britpop and Suede and The Manics) with touching, funny and evocative autobiography. It's the sort of book that challenges the way you think about particular bands and about the role of music in our lives, as well as about the travails of aspiring musicians. It's the sort of book that reminds you that music, and words, can change lives.
Given all this, we thought it was high time to catch up with James to let our memories sing...
As I think The Flamingoes were our first ever interview, and this was probably our first ever question, let me ask it again (suitably updated): Memory Songs : Who, What and Why?
Memory Songs is a memoir of the 80s and 90s told through favourite or significant records. I originally just wanted to write a collection of essays about the records, but it was pointed out that this had very little chance of ever being published . . . So I started thinking about my own story, and that it might be possible to combine a first-hand account of being a songwriter during an unrepeatable cultural moment, the Britpop period, with meditations on my favourite pieces of music from the time. So the book is a hybrid of two genres, really.
I love the way each chapter starts with some musical history and then hones in on a personal experience of your life; at the time of living it, how aware were you of the soundtrack of your life?
Thank you. I was extremely aware of the soundtrack it sustained
me through some difficult years. What I didnt know was that some
of the music would still be listened to, and revered, thirty years later.
At the time, bands were putting out masterpieces on an almost monthly
basis, but we just thought: oh, thats a cool record. This Is the
Sea thats a good one! We were spoilt, essentially.
The book tells with great vivacity and some humour the perils, and pitfalls and of being in a band. What advice would you give to young bands?
The music industry has changed so much since I was involved in it that its hard to give any useful advice. In some ways it was easier to get a deal back then, as there were only three music papers and one national radio station. Now, with the diversity of the Internet, theres no single focus anymore, and its harder to make an impact. But some things still apply. What I would say is learn your craft, learn from the great songwriters, and play as many gigs as you can before you expose yourself to the industry. You only get one chance. And make sure your trousers are great.
I guess when in a band you have long periods of inactivity (writing,
recording, planning etc) followed by periods of great public recognition
at gigs. How does this compare with being a writer?
How important is it for bands to be aware of their own memory songs so that they're not thrown into the next passing scene?
Very important. Suede are a good example. While honing their sound they stayed true to their own memory songs tunes by the Smiths and David Bowie. Its easy to forget that Suede, initially, were extremely unfashionable (in the era of grunge, Carter, the Wonderstuff, etc). It was quite brave in a way, what they did, and a massive gamble, really. Much easier to copy whats big at the time. And by being true to themselves they inadvertently created a scene, Britpop . . . Bands hate being linked to scenes anyway, because its their sell-by-date. Therell be a new scene along soon, and they will be yesterdays news.
I wish there were more stories, the few that I have are all in the book. We shared a press company (Hall or Nothing) with the Manics. It was lovely to hear through them that Richey was a Flamingoes fan. He came to see one of our gigs in Cardiff in July 94. After the show we sat around a table backstage, the bands and crew, and Richey, smoking and drinking. Richey had the aura of a rock star, but was also a quiet, courteous, unassuming young man; and when he spoke it wasnt to the group in general but a long involved conversation with just one person. I noticed that he listened a lot, and seemed very relaxed. Everyone was aware hed been having problems, and everyone was the only way I can think of putting it on their best behaviour. There was a great feeling of respect for Richey in the room that night. I think I probably describe the encounter better in the book.
Yes I think they both can, on a personal level, and maybe on a wider level by opening someones eyes to a certain writer or artist. I touch on this in Memory Songs the portal artists, especially the Manics. Songs and stories are important, and are under threat at the moment from a government intent on closing libraries and venues, stripping schools and universities of arts funding. Science keeps us alive but the arts stories, especially are where we live. Music, books, box sets, TV, films, all contain stories, and this is what we come home to at night and what is important.
I am currently trying the review the new book on Richey, try to balance being honest in my opinions but also aware of the upset it seems to be causing amongst some fans. Your book is about real people who are mostly still alive is there any self censorship?
There is. I changed quite a few of the names and some identifying characteristics as I was aware that most of the people were still alive. And I kept some information back. You have to respect that, not invade peoples privacy. Words are deeds.
Through no real fault of your own, Flamingoes never quite hit the big time. How much does it grate having 'nearly made it' while others you worked with and crossed swords with on the way were very successful?
Well, I could do with the money! Its all so long ago it doesnt really grate now. A few things were exasperating at the time. After the first album we got a lot of college radio play in the States and it looked as if we might move out there at one point (I remember seeing one chart and the top five were all Smashing Pumpkins songs, and one by us). And then hearing that Seymour Stein wanted to sign us, etc. We got so much positive press it really felt like it should have happened . . . But if it had I wouldnt have had the subject matter for Memory Songs. As Philip Roth said, there are no bad experiences for a writer.
Keyboard and typing all the way now. Although, the latter is possibly more exciting. When I was a teenager, I remember the thrill of waiting for a band to appear onstage, the dry ice, the lights on the amps, and then later, being onstage myself, the adrenalin rush of playing songs to a receptive audience. That happened with Flamingoes, the celebratory gigs in the UK and Europe . . . writing offers quieter pleasures and rewards.
The only villains were the record label, and I kind of wish Id been a bit easier on them in hindsight. No one forced us to sign to them. In fact, they werent really villains at all, just slightly clueless, and maybe ambushed by the fact that guitar bands were suddenly big, and not having much of an idea of how to market them. The real hero of the book is Hall or Nothings Caffy St Luce. Recently, Ive been posting our old press on the Flamingoes twitter page, and all of it is down to her.
What was your take on S*M*A*S*H and These Animal Men recombining for the Flawed is Beautiful DVD?
I do remember at the Cambridge Flamingoes gig that there were only about 10 people there; what in your creative life has 'Disappointed' you and what are you most proud of?
Very little has disappointed me. We did some amazing gigs, and even
a show with ten people has its merits. Im proud of having affected
peoples lives, even if only in a tiny way. I remember at the Cardiff
gig that Richey came to, a sweet couple approached me afterwards and
asked me to sign their copy of Teenage Emergency. They praised
the songs and were eager to tell me how much the record meant to them.
Do you think that Dad Rock has killed off guitar bands?
Im not hugely on top of whats going on at the moment, Im afraid I am the man who is not with it. But Caffy assures there are exciting new bands and scenesters still out there. Back in the 90s, I do remember feeling disappointed that interesting, slightly un-categorizable bands like SMASH and These Animal Men were being marginalized by Oasis and blokes in Ben Sherman shirts.
Has it been such a thrill?
Thanks, Im glad to hear that. I am still proud of the album, I think it stands up, which didnt have to be the case. Im happy that it doesnt embarrass me now. In fact, Plastic Jewels is having a bit of a renaissance at the moment on twitter. Its gratifying when people like @Britpopmemories, @britpoprevival and @MildManneredMax call it a great lost album. Writing the book did allow me to gain some perspective on it, how serious we were (and how funny some of that was, although it didnt seem like it at the time), how high the stakes were, chucking our education away and moving to London. Jude and I set out to make a record, and we did, so mission accomplished.
What's next for James Cook?
A second book is on the way, a memoir examining the relationship between autism and music (my daughter is autistic). Its published next year: April 2020, by Blink.
And one we forgot to ask in 1995 but have asked everyone since, what's best, chips or cream buns?
Thanks to James for his time and for 25 years of
inspiration (with a 20 year gap in the middle). If you've not read 'Memory
Songs', you really should; it's a remarkable book which I've bought
for several music / Manics obsessed fans and would buy for you all,
if only I could. You can get a discount on your own copy here