James Fearnley may not have been in The Clash, but he's had the unique opportunity to play in a band with Joe Strummer. As the accordionist for The Pogues, Fearnley and co. toured with Strummer in the 80s as a part of their group. KEXP caught up with Fearnley to discuss this time in his life, the impact of The Clash, and the uniqueness of Manchester in honor of International Clash Day.
INTERVIEW BY OWEN MURPHY
TRANSCRIPTION BY MATT SCHMIDT
KEXP: OK so let's start here. Where were you born?
James Fearnley: I was born in Worsley, Manchester, England, which is in the suburbs of Manchester maybe about 20 minutes outside the center of town. It's actually the terminus of the Bridgwater canal, which was the first purpose-built canal to be dug from the coal fields, I think the Duke of Edgerton's coal fields, into Manchester and it sort of helped kick off the industrial revolution so I was born within a quarter mile of the terminus of the canal.
Right, you know I didn't expect this to go this direction but you grew up in an interesting place that seems to have spurred an unbelievably fantastic amount of great music. I'm curious,you mentioned the word industrial, what was it about Manchester and that general area that you think maybe fueled artistic energy?
I think probably, well with it being one of the senses of the industrial revolution, I know that the kick off was actually in Shropshire like Ironbridge and places like that but then when the cotton mills and the canals and the Manchester ship canal which links Liverpool to Manchester, and Liverpool is another city of course which has a rich musical tradition, I think you know the general grit and working class aspects of Manchester would help fuel that sort of musical and creative life if you know what I mean, like from the cotton mills and also to come to the Pogues with me being the accordion player for the Pogues that Ewan MacColl wrote 'Dirty Old Town' about Salford, Manchester which I find really interesting.
Why do you find interesting about it?
Well just that a song about a part of the world that I came from should be the first single that The Pogues have recorded and released.
No, not the first. No, I wasn't the first I think it was the second or maybe third.
And it's the serendipity or the irony of that, I suppose.
Yeah, so it is, yeah absolutely yeah.
What was the UK like politically, socially, racially, in the mid-70s that influenced you, the Clash, and punk music in general?
Well, I don't know because I was a bit of a hippie back then and it wasn't until groups like The Pistols and The Clash and when I first joined a group called The Nipple Erectors, which was Shane McGowan's sort of punky RnB group. So I joined them as late as 1980 I think it was but the climate, for me, after graduating from college and not really wanting to get into a career that was based on the the degree that I got - I had a job with the London Chamber of Commerce for about two months and I couldn't stand it. So when I left the country, I went to Berlin for three months and it was there that I met a guy who said - I was playing guitar with him, he was an African guy who was like a solo performer but I would accompany him on guitar - and he said, "This isn't good enough for you. You need to go back to England where it's all happening and get yourself into a band." [laughs] So, actually, England wasn't the impetus for me so much because I wanted to get out but it was an African guy who said 'go back to England and go and be a musician.
What did the status quo think of the younger generation punk kids in the mid-70s?
I think my parents were horrified by it and also I was living with some Scottish guys in a squat in Ealing and they couldn't tell the difference between them, The Sex Pistols and heavy metal and I suppose, in a sense, sonically there's not a lot much different on some level. But then it was The Clash really that got me going. The Pistols were our alright for me but it was The Clash, I liked their whole orientation. I remember, actually when I was working on a building site in Manchester earning the money to buy an electric guitar after I'd been to Berlin, that me and my brother used to listen to the first Clash record as loud as we possibly could in the house before we went out to the pub on a Friday night. So it was good music for getting yourself going.
What resonates with you when you think back to that album in that period? You know, musically, what songs still stand out? Are there things about that record that you still marvel at?
Well 'White Riot' was on that record I believe, wasn't it? Yeah.
And 'Janie Jones,' those sort of songs. I found it's just the energy of them and it was a kind of agreeably proletariat energy. Even though I never considered myself part of the proletariat so much because I come from a middle class family, my dad was a managing director of a building company in Salford. I remember going to a Clash gig, I don't know what year this would have been maybe '78 or something, at The Music Machine in Camden and the energy from that helped propel me from you know just- well I don't know, I think it informed a lot of my own sort of performance as well and when the Pogues got going, particularly, and I love the way that the gigs that I did with the Pogues had a sort of palpable energy which I remember so well from that Clash gig at The Music Machine, it must have been '78 I think.
I mentioned earlier I was talking to a fellow named Lindsay Hutton who has had a fanzine for a number of years. I think it was the first punk fanzine in the world actually maybe that's wrong but at least in London or in the UK called, The Next Big Thing and he described a Ramones gig and I think he's talking about the first one as being nearly religious. Have you ever had that type of feeling maybe at a Clash show or Pogues show or both?
A Pogues show for certain because you know being onstage with guys that you've had all sorts of love and hate for over a long period of time and disappointments and celebration and everything like that. Yes, sure every dumb gig that I did with The Pogues was-- I would say was a religious experience. As for The Clash, it was just the music machine, it was just the total sorts of commitments and the abandonment, which is another thing that I think The Pogues brought music as well. I wouldn't say that it was directly from The Clash. I think there was an abandonment inherent in the music that we played. In any case, you know I think you could trace that sort of abandonment back to that early days of punk and that's what The Pogues were trying to do is as well but with different fabric if you know what I mean.
So what does that mean? I think I have a general sense of what abandonment means. I'm going to guess it means kind of losing yourself within the music and within the moment but from your perspective what does that mean?
It means – yeah basically being totally committed to what you're up to. I mean there's a lot of things that get in the way or threaten to get in the way but it's the kind of the way that you transcend those obstacles like if Shane forgot which verse he's in. Or if a mistake got made or if a bottle came flying your direction-- although that was rare. There was once when I remember doing an open air festival --years ago when I spotted this thing sort of revolving in the air like a black speck and it was getting closer and closer and closer and closer. Then all of a sudden there was a great bang and this full count of Guinness sort of bashed against the front of my accordion and then went fizzing around in a circle on the stage so I was close to being wiped out with a full count of Guinness.
It's extraordinary what people will throw at a show. I've been a road manager for a punk band in the past and they're a fairly large band. We literally created a rule where you couldn't have bottles or cans in the venue out there to pour everything out because you know times got somewhat violent.
Somebody told me about a gig that they went to the Grateful Dead playing at some stadium somewhere and they-- on the west coast. Somebody started throwing tortillas, [laughs] and so my friends said when you look down, because he was up in the stands or something and if you looked down, he said there was like a stratum of heads and then maybe a foot or a few or a couple of feet above those heads-- there was another stratum of tortillas just being thrown across the stadium. [laughs] So I wouldn't have minded if somebody threw a tortilla at me but a full can of Guinness I could do without.
Well, delicious for one thing. Fair enough. So clearly, you knew Joe Strummer as a person. We have a public persona. I mean I've talked to a number of people who knew him as a private individual. From your perspective what was he like as a person?
One thing – 'cause I was thinking about this after you got in touch with me about doing an interview about you know Clash Day or International Clash Day. I remember getting in a taxi with him from – oh I forget where we were, somewhere in the states and the taxi off to – I think to a train station. I think we were continuing on the tour by train. And as soon as he got into the cab- well it wasn't a cab, it was like a towncar or something. He started talking to the guy about where are you from, what you do. What's it like being-- you know, doing your job? Where do you live? He wants you to know about about everybody. I was so struck by that. After gigs on the road with him that he would--it's not I want to say hold court, but he would invite people into--as if he was in a tent of some kind. And he would just talk to people and ask them about their lives and and give out about stuff. I think he was probably known for that. But I really, really liked the idea. I really liked that he was interested in everybody and wanted to know what their stories were.
There was also another thing that I was thinking about as well. We were doing a gig once with him when suddenly, he took his guitar off and handed it to one of the techs then got off the stage and into the audience and we just sort of we just stood there and looked to at him--say what you doing? He was gesticulating at us from down in the crowd and then we just carried on playing the song waiting for him to come back. Then afterwards, he said to us, "Hey man when one of us gets off the stage to go to sort something out. We've all got to get off the stage to sort something out." I haven't seen anything in the crowd. But there was some sort of aggro going on in there and he was in there to stop it happening. We were just like gormless twits just pedaling through the same chord that he left on and waited for him [laughs] to come back. I thought, yeah, he was so brilliant like that. Lastly, he was a great person to perform with. Every now and then, you'd go into an instrumental passage and he'd be stopping at his guitar and I'd have my head down playing the accordion and there's Darryl, the bass player over the far side and Jen and then Joe – would sort of look up across and then give you a wink, as if to say this is what we're meant to be doing. It was – that was so rewarding.
How did he like being in the Pogues?
I think I want to say that being in The Pogues inspired him right. So his first experience with-- playing with us was when Phillip Chevron who died a flat three years ago from throat cancer. Phillip Chevron wasn't very well in 1987. I think he had a stomach ulcer and his doctor recommended that he stayed at home. So we invited Joe to come out on the road with us. We met him in 1986 in the South of Spain to take part in Alex Cox's film, Straight to Hell. So that's how we knew him and Joe happened to be in--no no no no, I can't remember how we asked him. But he said, "Yeah I'll come. I'll come out and play guitar." We would do a couple of Joe's songs but he had--he wrote down all the chords for all the songs on a strip of paper that he could, a strip of cardboard that he taped to the body of his guitar-- the part of the body that flows round the curves of the guitar. So if you look down-- every chord was on there until it would start off with holding his guitar up the neck of it so he could read the first song. Now by the time the gig was finished, the neck was pointed down so that he could see the very bottom of the guitar where the chords for the last songs were. Meticulous in the extreme. Every song was on there.
I would imagine when the Pogues showed up – first, so Joe Strummer mid to late 80s is fairly famous. People may not realize he's in The Pogues. When they looked up, did you see audience react when he was onstage with you?
You know, I think there might have been some idea that Joe was a secret weapon that we're just going to roll out onto the stage with. That's so hard to remember what the audience reaction was. I'm not even sure if we made much of an announcement that Jill was playing the guitar for--
How fucking great is that. That's so great.
[laughs] Yeah, I don't know. He was just there and it was great to play with and he was taking the place of Philly Chevron. He was a deputy guitar player until we had to let Shane go in 1991 and then we asked Joe to come and sing for us. So he was like the front man after that.
So then what was-- I mean there must be some level of difference in the band when Joe joins up after you let Shane go. My question is, what was that?
We got used to--a bit punch drunk I think from Shane's unpredictability for a few years. It was really, really hard-- really hard work and every gig was stressful for a time. Backstage was horrid-- where we try to figure stuff out and we never could figure anything out really. We got through the gigs, you know, managed to barely a lot of that time. But then to have somebody who-- brought a sort of a work ethic which I would never expect Shane to have. I mean Shane's work ethic is a lot different shall we say to Joe's. Joe was on the money pretty much all the time. I shouldn't even qualify that. He was on the money all the time. You know, whipping us up, and as I said, doing the winking thing from time to time, until the end of gigs he started taking his guitar off and then just throwing it up into the air towards the wings in the hope that somebody would catch it. And somebody always did. He never gave them any warning but then, the guitar was flying through the air. Yeah, he was a trustworthy and obviously trusting sort of front guy I suppose. Although a lot of us stepped up to do songs as well, if you know what I mean. Spider would sing a few songs and Phillip and Terry as well.
Which songs of Joe's did you guys play live?
We did...I blanked on this all of a sudden. "I Fought the Law" we would do regularly and "London Calling" as well...and whatever that song is.
Well here, don't worry about it. Let's talk about those for a second. So you're someone who is in one way shape or form written and performed and been infused with music for... well years. So you know music as well as most anyone. What do you think made--I don't even know what I am saying is true, whether you like the songs or not. One's an Eddie Cochran song; one's a Joe Strummer song-- what do you think made them interesting?
[laughs] I hate to say this but there were easy to do. Yeah, because the chords are fairly straightforward and actually the Eddie Cochran one wasn't an Eddie Cochran one. It was...Curtis.
Oh, you're right. Forgive me, yes.
Because Joe would wrap your knuckles about that as well because he-- wasn't Curtis an English guy? I think he was.
KEXP is celebrating International Clash Day all day long, both online and on the air; click here to see more KEXP interviews and articles.
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