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Into the light

The Wild Swans are back, live in Liverpool for the first time in 27 years. It's a happening. 'Invisible man' Paul Simpson tells all. Words: Angie Sammons Pix: Stephanie De Leng

Written by . Published on July 3rd 2009.

Into the light

FOR a man who keeps his friends close, Paul Simpson keeps his demons even closer.

And they go way back.

All the way back to a time when covens and satanic worship were the “rage”, in Liverpool.

All the way back to Devonshire Road and to a mansion previously occupied by black magicians (no really). To 1981, "the coldest winter in 100 years".

It's unfinished business. I have been
miserable for 20-odd years because I never completed what I set out to do

His psychic mother's son – and given easily to spooks – Simpson was a tall and wiry Bowie-worshipper from Maghull.

He had escaped the north end to the more understanding side of the city, only to find himself, night after night, dreaming lucidly and fitfully on a floor mattress with all the lights left on; a terror heightened by the unholy mental trinity of watching The Exorcist way under age, the spectre of those Satan-loving ex-tenants, and a head fogged by plumes of paranoia-inducing marijuana from a bong.

Talk about vacant possession.

If this all smelled like teen spirit, you won't be surprised that Courtney Love was in residence too, along with the ultimately tragic Echo and the Bunnymen drummer, Pete de Freitas, who inhabited one corner of the third floor sprawl; his motorbike, which he bumped down the flights of stairs every day, propped in another. In between, cushions and band paraphernalia lay scattered amid vinyl towers and quid deals in this ramshackle culture bunker.

Cue for a song? Why not? Simpson was, after all, a founder of the Teardrop Explodes. He exited early to form the highly-lauded Wild Swans, the band he is now putting back together for two Liverpool shows this month, their first live performance anywhere in 23 years, and 27 since they've played the hometown.

“It seems like the most natural thing to do,” he says, brightly. “People tell me I've had a lot of bad ideas down the years, but this isn't one of them.”

Simpson seems satisfied with this, for the moment, but it is short lived. “It's unfinished business,” he says. “I have been miserable for 20 years because I never completed what I set out to do.”

But no more. July might be the month of the musical comeback in the city - more of that later - yet this event is eliciting special interest. Simpson remains a significant piece in a small but “Crucial jigsaw”, if you like, made up of people who gave rise to the Liverpool music scene post punk, arguably its most creative period ever.

You won't find the hit discography that appends itself to the Teardrops, the Bunnymen, Wah!, OMD and the rest, nor mention in most of the accepted set texts on the city, but there is widespread, tacit acknowledgement of Simpson's role.

2709Sim2lgThe original Swans,
pictured by Gary Lornie
The Wild Swans had what many regard as the greatest indie non-hit wonder of the early 1980s, The Revolutionary Spirit, and while Simpson says he is still frustrated to be “the invisible man of the scene” his influence was everywhere. Even if he does say so himself.

For example: “It was me!” Simpson laughs. “I came up with the Teardrops name,” somewhat flying in the face of popular lore by relating how his chum to this day, then his L8 subletting-lord, Julian Cope, thought it was “the best thing ever” after Simpson apparently trotted out the phrase from a Marvel comic he had to hand.

He also recollects, not for the first time, how his own head-turning look, all scrim scarves, flying jackets and Kitchener, was “adapted”, or adopted, depending on your point of view, by the mob from Zoo Records as they screeched around the derelict Albert Dock in an armoured vehicle, to be seen on tellies across the land in that same bleak midwinter of 1981. The Reward video.

And more mischief: How JC, teen idol, now 21st century archdruid, would inexplicably turn up at his flat on nights before Top Of The Pops. It later turned out, according to Simpson , that he was on a recce, seeking sartorial cues from Simpson's latest wardrobe to take to London the next day. Bless those cotton socks.

You hear this kind of thing a lot during a conversation with Simpson. He been copied a lot, he says, ironically doing a mean take-off of several people he mentions. Yet you start to feel that if imitation really was the sincerest form of flattery then by now he would be preening. He isn't. While many of the tales he relates are with animated, entertaining self-deprecation, other things - the off-the-record stuff which he's kept for the book (Simpson is a fine writer) – are accompanied, at best, by a wry smile.

But what of the now? And how confident really is he of pulling off this return to the stage? It's been a while.

“I'm not terrified, and for me that's a big thing,” he says. "In the old days I was dying all the time of mortification at doing anything.

“My problem was that when things weren't perfect in the past I stopped and started again. Gave it a new name, when really I should have just kept going.

“But right now, I'm still waking up at 3am, having the dark nights and thinking 'Oh God, can I get away with this?' But, no, it's going to be great, I know it is. It's inside me, I'm full of it.”

We have already been back to Devonshire Road to take pictures. Now we are in Delifonseca, the posh equivalent of the Armadillo Tea Rooms where Simpson used to work. The chef, Martin Cooper, is the only common denominator, the bridge across the two eras, and he's already been over to register his interest.

“In those days,” Simpson goes on, “I wouldn't have rehearsed gigs, I wouldn't have put any effort into it. But already I'm singing my head off around the house and the car and listening to all the old stuff and sifting the wheat from the chaff.”

“I mean I'm not going to do jazz hands...but I'm going to give it," he says.

“The people are coming and paying their 15 quid or whatever, they are coming from America. There's a girl who's coming from there who has never flown on a plane. She's not even that old, but she has found something in the music that she responds to. There are people who are coming from Germany. People who have been writing to me since 1981.

“Why? Because it's important to them."

A 10in vinyl single out recently, might be why. English Electric Lightning has set the voltage crackling again, with musicians of note seemingly queuing up to be part of Simpson's exorcism.

The appropriately-named Static Gallery will host a Wild Swans super- line-up that includes Ricky Maymi, guitarist in The Brian Jonestown Massacre who wanted to be in (it's a long story); Simpson's old schooldays mucker Les Pattinson, from the Bunnymen, Henry Priestman of The Yachts and The Christians fame, and original keyboardster Ged Quinn who now enjoys a successful art career.

Seemingly in for the long haul, Quinn also provided artwork for the new single. Will Sergeant, these days a Jake Thackery aficionado, will be DJ-ing. There are only 200 tickets for each night, and there are elaborate plans that will make it a far from run-of -mill occasion.

Swans 2009 does not include co-founder Jerry “Jem” Kelly who left to form The Lotus Eaters. Coincidentally, that band is engaged in another '82 comeback, the very next night at the Phil, as part of the Summer Pops. The night after, Ian Broudie's Lightning Seeds are coming home.

It might be a nostalgia lover's jackpot but, nevertheless, fans and well known faces from all over the place cleared the whole weekend on their calendars months ago.

“It's kind of squaring the circle,” Simpson observes of his own renewed, musical friendships which also include Mike Mooney on guitar, a chap who, as the talented teenage neighbour across the road in Sunnyside, once sat at The Wild Swans' feet.

“It all makes sense. It all fits together. When you are 17 you are doing it because you have to. When you are older, people have got families and it's lovely working with people you know and trust.”

Simpson himself is no stranger to the school run, the full-time dad. He is married, somewhat fortuitously, given his love of costume, to TV wardrobe mistress Jan and they have a son of 10.

Down the years he has never had to resort to joining the ranks of the 9-5 suited and booted. Following the Swans' demise there was the much-lauded collaboration with Ian Broudie in Care and the overlooked Skyray, with its dreamy instrumentals that are well worth looking up around the net.

“I wrote children's fiction for a while. A book about lucid dreams...I did this, that. But I couldn't settle into anything. Not while I had The Wild Swans always at the back of my mind and music at the forefront of everything."

2306Sim1Outside Devonshire RoadThe family live in a flat, in Grassendale, where one assumes there is no room for weed-filled bongs or the dark arts and all is light and bright.

But will this reincarnation be enough to shake Simpson's remaining devils for good?

“Well, Bill Drummond came around for breakfast a couple of weeks ago, and he said this fantastic thing: He said what are you going to do when the album's out and you've laid all your ghosts to rest, and everyone says that's fantastic and you've done it all. What are you going to do?”


“I couldn't answer him.....it never occurred to me that that day would come."


Follow Angie Sammons @twangeee on twitter

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13 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousJuly 2nd 2009.

I went to the Wild Swans gig tonight! Well batted people!

Younger-than-twiggy-anywayJuly 2nd 2009.

Love this interview. Top class writing with many layers.

Alex PlodeJuly 2nd 2009.

Great interview. Paul Simpson is a genius. Miss these gigs at your peril. I've been waiting to see The Wild Swans again since 1981

Fed up and put uponJuly 2nd 2009.


Celebrity squaresJuly 2nd 2009.

Excellent! Thank you for alerting me to this concert.

Mollie SugdenJuly 2nd 2009.

Great writing Angie. Great writing by Paul Simpson too. Can't wait for he book

DigJuly 2nd 2009.

I'd never heard of The Wild Swans before this article. I've been listening to them on We7 and I'm very impressed. I would liken them to a Northern Suede or Scouse Morrisey. Thanks to Planet Confidential for We7 and The Wild swans!

Ikea KitchenerJuly 2nd 2009.

Agree. Simpson is an unsung treasure and I would not miss the Static gig for the world! Terrific writing, by the way

The Publisher, Mark GarnerJuly 2nd 2009.

Yer publisher is proud of you. He has finally sobered up an' all.

Julian OrchardJuly 2nd 2009.

Great pics too, by the way! Nice job Stephanie and LivConf!

Austin ChampJuly 2nd 2009.

"Armoured vehicle"! It was an Austin Champ which, despite its Rolls Royce engine, was the runner-up when the Army decided to buy the Land Rover instead.

AnonymousNovember 21st 2011.

Liking this interview a lot, however Paul Simpson's Skyray output was mature and grand in between the Wild Swans incarnations. Would be bad for that to be forgotten or underrated by him

AnonymousMarch 4th 2013.

Just been listening and loving Skyray as a result of this. Why not more, Paul?

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