Interview: Henry Priestman on Yachts
Following our recent review of the excellent Yachts box set that was released last month by Cherry Red records, Henry Priestman kindly agreed to answer a few questions on the how the box came to be and his former band’s history.
Henry, congratulations for the release of the Yachts box set. Could you tell us a bit about how the idea came to be and it’s gestation (and your involvement in it) ?
For years, Andrew Lauder (the man who signed Yachts, and The Stranglers and Buzzcocks) and I have talked of trying to get some Yachts stuff released on CD (much of it for the first time), or at least maybe putting out a Yachts “Best of”, but Warners, who own the catalogue, were never interested.
Then I got a call out of the blue in September from Mark Brennan (who’d recently compiled a boxset for Yachts’ label mates The Inmates), saying he was trying to get Cherry Red Records interested in doing a Yachts boxset. Initially we spoke excitedly about perhaps including John Peel sessions, unreleased rarities etc (even some of the final demos I have), but apparently these days there’s much ‘jumping through hoops’ to be done with the record companies (trying to get permission for use of unreleased recordings), so, to start off with, we thought let’s just get everything that was actually released back out there. Who knows, if it goes well, then there might be more interest in the Yachts “lost third album” plus Peel sessions.
I happened to mention to Mark that I was a hoarder, and I thought that there might be quite a bit of Yachts stuff in a trunk up in my loft (lain undisturbed since I moved into our house in 1987!); I couldn’t believe it when I opened up the trunk, and there was a stash of original lyrics, set-lists, T shirts, posters, photos, stage passes, laminates, even my tour diary for 1978…and much of this “tat” (as my long-suffering wife calls it!) has ended up featured the boxset booklet…so much so that the initial 20 page booklet was increased to 24 pages.
I recommended that my guitarist Les Glover (the biggest Yachts fan I know, and a good writer) should do the proper ‘History of Yachts’ for the booklet (as it’s unlikely there’ll ever be a book about the band!). I also added that Mark Kermode (yes him, that film buff off the telly and BBC Radio 5Live) is a huge Yachts fan and occasionally mentions us on the weekly Simon Mayo/Kermode film show. Having never met Mr K before, I tried messaging him via Twitter to see if he’d be up for contributing to the sleeve notes. Amazingly he got back to me, and has done a wonderfully poignant and amusing piece for the booklet entitled “Proud to be a Yachting type”.
The manifesto for Yachts seemed to have been writing catchy tunes with lyrics that strayed off the beaten path. What were the band’s influences when you started and did they have an impact on that approach ?
“Manifesto”, I like that…but yes, I suppose there was deliberate stance taken, mainly of not trying to follow the crowd. In ’77 everyone was forming a punk band, but we were more influenced by 60’s US garage/punk, as collected together on the fabulous Nuggets double album.
Yachts grew out of a typical sprawling 7-piece Art College band “Albert Dock” (who even supported Sex Pistols in ’76). We slimmed down to a 5-piece (later a 4-piece), and started writing our own songs. The idea was be different, be it the way we dressed, especially initially (as the boxset booklet says “all Ben Sherman shirts and white slacks”), or the way we sounded (the US garage-band influence – and we had a 60’s Farfisa organ – but with a modern edge), and especially the lyrics, playing with words, and slightly wry subject matter and phrases (eg “Tantamount to Bribery” & “she ran away with a yachting type”!!).
Even the fact that we were “Yachts”, and not “The Yachts” was trying to make us not sound like another punk/new wave band.
Could you recount the recording sessions for both the bands LPs, and what were the main differences between them ?
The first album “Yachts” (or “SOS” in the US, with a slightly different track listing), was to be recorded in the studio above the famous Radio City Music Hall, with Blondie’s producer Richard Gottehrer. We couldn’t believe it, all of us first time in the States, collected by a limo and taken to a hotel just off Times Square: this is stuff dreams are made of!
I’m sure some of the atmosphere of New York rubbed off on us in the making of that 1st album; I listened to it recently and couldn’t believe the energy and speed of some of the songs. It’s interesting listening to the album versions of “Yachting Type” and comparing it to the sound UK producer Clive Langer got on the original single version (entitled “Yachting Types”)…I do wonder what might have happened if we’d stuck with Clive as our producer (maybe we’d have actually had a hit, as Clive would go on to have plenty of them with Madness, Dexys etc). That said, the sound of the album was definitely right for the American market, and on its release the critics lapped it up, and we had a fabulous time in’79/80 doing a 40 date tour of US, and even a stadium tour of Europe, supporting The Who.
Do you think that the numerous line-up changes contributed to the band’s demise or was it just the case of too much touring and stagnating record sales ?
On the contrary, I think each new line-up brought freshness to the approach. If I’m honest, and I hold up my hands here, perhaps we lost our way a bit with the second album. There was a charm and naivety to the writing on the first album; perhaps it all got a bit complicated and overblown on “Yachts Without Radar”, and sonically it’s not as good as it perhaps could have been (maybe I should ask to remix it!). Someone recently called it our “prog album”, ha!
But despite my qualms, there are still some great tracks on it (that became live favourites), and I’ve really enjoyed hearing it again recently for the first time in years. With the reviews and sales for the second album not being so good (after the first album had promised so much, especially in the US), the record company got cold feet: they pulled the money for much of a proposed big US 1980 tour, and we suddenly found ourselves without a deal.
Andrew Lauder, who’d originally signed us to Radar, came to our rescue and released a final single on his new Demon label (“A Fool Like You”), but I think it just felt like we’d had our best shot. Added to this was a court case hanging over us, re the aforementioned cancelled US tour, which we ended up losing. Heads were down. Meantime I’d already started working with It’s Immaterial (re-joining singer JJ Campbell from the original 5-piece Yachts) as a bit of fun between band commitments, but suddenly that “bit of fun” seemed to be the way forward for me.
As Mark Kermode puts it succinctly in his liner notes: “I remember seeing the band at one of their final gigs, just after “A Fool Like You” had been released on Demon Records in 1981, and having the sense that something wonderful was coming to an end.”
On the 25th of March you played at gig in Liverpool to celebrate the release of the box where several Yachts members joined you, Les Glover and other musicians to play selected Yachts songs. Do you think there would be any plan do to a one off reunion show (maybe in the way Boo Hewerdine did with The Bible in London recently) ?
Yes, the Liverpool March 25th Yachts Boxset Launch Celebration gig (to give it it’s full title!) was an amazing occasion. Three days on (as I type this), and I’ve still got a huge smile on my face.
Les Glover and I had decided we’d try and learn 5 or 6 Yachts songs especially for the concert, with the idea being it was a celebration of the band, and a chance to play some of the old songs again, but in the more acoustic style I currently favour in my solo concerts.
We put a band together for the occasion (deliberately eschewing any Farfisa Organ, electric guitar, drums etc, in order to avoid Yachts comparisons) of Sarah Wright (vocals, percussion), Dr Nick (fiddle), Jo Bushell (bass) and my brother Will on cajon.
I had wanted to invite Liverpool-based original Yachts members John J Campbell (original singer) and Martin Dempsey (bass) to the gig, and was made up when they both agreed to join us for a final song rendition of Suffice to Say – the song that John and I wrote together, that started the ball rolling in 1977. You could say it was a bit of an emotional occasion as Yachts reformed for all of 3 minutes and 50 seconds! Absolutely no plans for a reunion show.
Sadly drummer Bob Bellis died in 2015, and we’ve lost touch with Martin Watson (guitarist/vocals), so from my point of view, without those two, I think a reunion is a non-starter (and tell me, when has a reformed band ever been as good as the original?).
That said, I am trying to plan my own London gig for the autumn (the Green Note, Nov 8th is tentative date), a special one where we’ll play half a dozen of the old Yachts songs…Mark Kermode has agreed to play bass, if we can fit in with his busy schedule…so it’s NOT a Yachts gig, but it will be a celebration of all things ‘Yachts’.
You were in several bands after Yachts went their separate ways. What do you retain from this first experience as a professional musician ?
What I retain the most is the idea that making music should be FUN and enjoyable, not a struggle, & leave the egos at home…we were very lucky with Yachts in that we were a gang of mates from the Art College even before we picked up any instruments. We then decided to try and form a band. It was 1976/77, punk was just starting, and you didn’t NEED to be that proficient a player: as my song ‘Did I Fight in the Punk Wars for This?’ goes: “I learned some bad rhyme and a chord or three”.
So, at my grand old age, it’s a case of, keep it simple/keep it fun…I’m lucky that now, in my solo work, I only surround myself with people I love, good people, and it doesn’t even matter if they only know 3 or 4 chords…“4 Chords and the Truth”, as the Country music people say!
Signed copies (by Henry) of the Yachts boxset, and his solo albums, can be bought from his official website: www.henrypriestman.