Friends reunited: Stephen Duffy speaks to SDE about his new reissue
Photo by Andrew Cotterill
Stephen Duffy thought he’d cracked it in the mid-90s with his Duffy album. Jangly guitar-pop was ‘in’, the stars had seemingly aligned and surely this time his efforts would be rewarded with some ‘hits’ and commercial success. Heck, even Lloyd Cole had a single played regularly on radio in Britain in 1995, and breached the top 30. Sadly, it was not to be and when Stephen’s next solo album, 1998’s I Love My Friends, endured an even worse fate – with even the record label questioning its worth – it was, in Stephen’s words, “a real blow.”
But with that album now revived and rebooted via Pete Paphides’ Needle Mythology label, Stephen Duffy has taken time out to talk to SDE about the record and some of the highs and lows of his long career in pop, touching on Duran Duran, ‘Kiss Me’ and Robbie Williams. “I’m really my biggest fan. You have to really love it to want to continue” he tells Paul Sinclair…
SuperDeluxeEdition: The reissue of I Love My Friends was an initiative of Pete Paphides. Your relationship with Pete obviously goes back a bit…
Stephen Duffy: Yes, he had a fanzine called ‘Perturbed’. All of the Lilac Time post [from fans] – because, you know, back in the day, in the early 90s, people did still write letters – used to go to my mother’s house and she opened it and she said that this guy, Peter, wanted to do an interview… then a couple of weeks later he left the four middle pages of his fanzine blank, so he kind of blackmailed me into doing… no he didn’t! So I spoke to him and obviously, you know, he came from Birmingham, and it would have been something I’d have done anyway, so… I don’t know how old he was then.
SDE: So what year was this, then?
Stephen Duffy: I would imagine this must be about 1990. Or ’91 maybe. Because I think we were on Creation [Records], and we talked about R.E.M. And then when he moved to London, and he was working for Time Out, and he’d written some nice things, so I said let’s meet up and have a drink, and we’ve been friends ever since.
SDE: With regards to the album I Love My Friends, tell us a little bit about your mind-set at that point because, to me anyway, it came at the end of quite a kind of strong period for you in terms of the solo material with Music in Colours and the Duffy album.
Stephen Duffy: I was about 31 or something when Music in Colours came out, and I’d already released eight other records, I mean I did manage to make eight records which hardly sold anything, and then when I was 31 I thought, now I’m really getting the hang of this. So, you know, I was really proud of Music in Colours, and the Duffy album was the one I really thought chimed with the times, even though it was completely recorded in America – and mixed and produced by Americans – it fitted in with the beat boom because it was a very simple, you know.But when that failed to sell, I don’t know, it probably sold about 15,000 or something, then I could feel that, the rug was being pulled from beneath us…
SDE: But what happened? When you look back on it now, can you understand why that record failed commercially, because, like you say, it had the right sound and it seemed to be kind of perfect for that era, and you weren’t an unknown quantity. There was so much music on TV in the ’90s. Was it ineptitude from the record label?
Stephen Duffy: People who’d been in the business obviously thought, well, here he is again… and people who booked TV shows, you know, they’re not the same as people who wrote for newspapers. None of the singles got onto any lists at radio, and we weren’t invited onto any television programmes. I remember, before… maybe it was around the time of Music in Colours, this one radio producer saying to my manager, “well, we really like Stephen, but, you know, it’s not enough.” So like it sort of it didn’t really matter what I did… I could have done anything really. And Music in Colours was such an astonishing record. After Nirvana, I thought, well, anybody can do anything now, I didn’t realise that everybody had to do grunge. So I kind of just went off and made like a prog album, really, with Nigel [Kennedy]. And, of course, that was just at the point where Nigel became from being everybody’s favourite classical violinist to somebody that they wanted to sort of give a good kicking to.
SDE: You look back and think how was ‘Natalie’ not a hit single, you know? It astounds me, really, when you think about it…
Stephen Duffy: It was a hit in Mexico. And it was also a hit somewhere in Greece. Because when I went to Mexico with Rob [Robbie Williams], I was in the car with the EMI people, and they said, why didn’t you ever come over in ’91? You had a massive hit with ‘Natalie’. And I didn’t even know.
SDE: No one had told you.
Stephen Duffy: Because EMI saw South America as being this sort of lawless place where they didn’t necessarily get paid the royalties, so they obviously decided not to inform me of my superstardom in Mexico, which would have been … I mean I would have loved to have gone out. I would have gone and lived there, probably, I was a bit of a roaming soul at the time. It would have been fantastic, ‘big in Mexico’. Lovely little apartment in Mexico City, it would have been fantastic. But there you go, no point having regrets.
SDE: So that relationship with EMI obviously kind of came to an end.
Stephen Duffy: Yes, that was like a one album. I think that they were not going to let Nigel make a record for anybody but EMI. So [after the Duffy album] there was Me Me Me you see, which was sort of at the real fag end of Britpop, but that got to number 19, so I kind of thought, well, here we go, maybe there is a chance. It meant that the next album was greenlighted and I’d work with Stephen Street on the Me Me Me stuff, and he was still producing Blur, obviously, at that point. So we decided to go in and make an album, like a proper, old fashioned album, six weeks or something, and go in, bash it out. We made a record before in 1985, my second solo album, and, in fact, I think that ‘Icing On The Cake’ for my first album was first single produced by Stephen Street that charted.
SDE: Okay, so you had a good relationship with Stephen?
Stephen Duffy: Well, strangely, that album, we went to the fallout shelter underneath Island Records and made that, and we finished and it was all cross-faded, and I’ve got a copy of it here, a safety copy, and then, of course, the record company started saying, oh, you know… as they do. So that record [Because We Love You] that was sort of chewed up and other things put on it. So that ended badly with Stephen. And the same thing happened with I Love My Friends; we went in, made the record, and we thought it was all finished, and then they all started going, well, I don’t know, it’s a shame it’s not more trip-hoppy…
SDE: So this was Indolent?
Stephen Duffy: Indolent were very happy with it, it was just like the rest of RCA. By that point it was 97, with the Spice Girls, you know, so pure pop was back, Pro Tools HD was just happening. You could actually make records on Pro Tools. And I think that basically the big labels couldn’t wait to get rid of the old, guitary geezers. So I was first in line because being the oldest guitary geezer, apart from Weller, you know, so I was … they couldn’t wait to get rid of me no matter what I did.
SDE: Which is weird because you think, if you’ve got Stephen Duffy, you want a Stephen Duffy record, you don’t want a record to sound like something else.
Stephen Duffy: It didn’t really matter to the accountants and the marketing team people, they just wanted something they could market and they didn’t feel that it was old guitar chaps.
SDE: And you had to – well, you didn’t have to – but what happened with Andy Partridge? Did someone suggest that you needed to go away and write some more catchy songs?
Stephen Duffy: I think that was basically the inference. And I’d worked with Andy on & Love for All, the third Lilac Time album. At the time he saw his job to make The Lilac Time into a more roadworthy sort of, you know, toughen it up and make it sellable. So I kind of thought, well, maybe that’s what’s needed now, you know. So I went back to him. And also I mean he’s got, obviously, a fantastic ear for melody. So I went and saw him and we did those two tracks [‘You Are‘ and ‘What If I Fall In Love With You’]. But even those two tracks didn’t satisfy them.
SDE: So the two new songs went on the record and the two that are now reinstated (‘In the Evening of Her Day’ and ‘Mao Badge’) got taken off it. Did you pick those tracks to remove, or was that someone at the label. Can you remember?
Stephen Duffy: I’ve no idea. I’m really brilliant at not knowing which songs to leave off. I mean I left ‘In the Evening of a Her Day’ off. I think I just didn’t feel as if I’d got it right… but I obviously had. And, I don’t know about ‘Mao Badge’…You get to a point where it’s like just let’s just get on to the next one [album] – this is already a bit of a [drag]. You’ve gone in, you’ve written and you’ve done it, and you just think can we just get it out, so you can get on and do something else. But that was the way I always felt. I was always too busy thinking of the future.
I’d started in therapy a couple of years after my father died in the early 90s, and by 1997 I was still in therapy, and so when all of this happened I was in the right place, you know, in that I was seeing somebody. So I went from kind of talking about grief to railing against the record industry. And this is exactly the kind of person I hate, I felt entitled to have a record deal in all of this. So it was kind of embarrassing to be sitting there spouting all of this nonsense, and so I restarted The Lilac Time, and kind of got on with it.
But it came at a very strange time, because I really did think this is the best record, it was my tenth album, and I thought have I actually really cracked it with this. So to go through all of these shenanigans and it to be not appreciated, and then to have it shuffle out on Cooking Vinyl a couple of years later, it was a real blow. And the strange thing is I never approached a major label again.
After [2007’s] Runout Groove came out, that was our worst selling record, it sold something like 500 copies. And we played three concerts, which was sort of like a major tour for us. I just thought we’re going to have to be a tiny cottage industry not even a big cottage. And I kind of gave up. But I thought that I’d better keep my hand in and play gigs occasionally. So we played the Port Eliot Festival. The second time we played it a senior scout from BMG Rights Management was there, and said you ought to play something to BMG. So I did and I got signed. So I got scouted when I was like 58 or something, it was absolutely absurd and the last thing I thought was going to happen. So the next Lilac Time album is coming out on BMG.
SDE: On the sleeve notes for the reissue of I Love My Friends you talk about trying to write more confessional songs, songs that are true, from the heart… about what’s going on in your life. Presumably you were you were always writing like that, just a bit more obliquely before?
Stephen Duffy: Well, I wasn’t clever enough to be writing about anything else, but I was writing in such a way that it was … you couldn’t really [tell]. When my therapist heard it she thought I was talking in some sort of strange, romantic code. She really thought that it was absurd. Because obviously she heard ‘Sugar High’, I mean a song about pop music being like eating a donut or whatever, so obviously she wasn’t, you know, an 80-year-old Hungarian was not really going to be that tuned into the teenage news, or whatever I say in that song. So yes, I suppose to be incredibly plain about it, like on ‘Twenty Three’, I sort of wrote poetry upon a hill and, you know, I moved to town at twenty three, launched myself in society from a squat in Archway N19… it was very much more understandable.
SDE: Was that hard for you to do, to kind of open up in a very transparent manner?
Stephen Duffy: No, it was like a great joy to realise that I didn’t need to dress things up and pretend to be poetic, I could actually do it, I could write about what I was doing and that was fine, you know, that was better than what I’d been doing before.
SDE: How much satisfaction could you get from the creative success of your albums, all three of them, including this one, in the 1990s? Even if commercially, things weren’t working out, could you just think, ‘well, sod them, I know it’s a good record’ and just compartmentalise it and sort of move on?
Stephen Duffy: Well, writing and the recording was so joyful, and, you know, I’m really my biggest fan, you know, I stand there in the studio and play things really loud and I think, this is fantastic, which, obviously, you need to do that to kind of battle on against the tide, as I’ve done, you know, for so long, you have to really love it to want to continue. I remember doing a tour from & Love for All and we were kind of playing to, you know, 15 people. And then I think we actually played a gig in Newcastle, on the Music in Colours tour, and there was like five people there and they were all related to the string players or something, you know, it’s like, oh, God… this is really not selling!.
But now, when we played the Port Eliot, the church was full and there’s queues and it’s kind of like…I didn’t realise I was doing it but by not doing anything, it has kind of worked.
SDE: But also, the industry is so different now and with social media and all the rest of it, if you’re starting out, you know, you can create your own momentum, can’t you, and do things in a way that you never could back in the 80s and the 90s.
Stephen Duffy: The amazing thing about this is that I didn’t even create this momentum, the momentum came from elsewhere, you know, people just turning up and I don’t know why.
SDE: I noticed that, in addition to the two Andy Partridge-produced songs, ‘Something Good’ is no longer on the album. What was the thinking behind that?
Stephen Duffy: Well, I wanted to put three tracks back on, ‘Holding Hands with Grace’, ‘Mao Badge’, and ‘In the Evening of Her Day’. Before I came up with that ‘Tune In’ bit at the beginning, I thought the album should start with ‘Holding Hands With Grace’. And when I was putting the album back together I did actually find ‘Tune In’ going into ‘The Deal’, so that was obviously an idea I had at the time. But ‘Something Good’ was the end one but it sounded dated like lyrically, and I just wanted to cut it [the vinyl] loud so I didn’t want to put too many tracks on it, so listening back to it that one just… it just dragged to me. And it mentions Camden, and I can do without that.
SDE: How important was it for you to get ‘I Love My Friends’ out on vinyl.
Stephen Duffy: Yes, originally it [the reissue] was only going to come out on vinyl. The CD was an afterthought. With the last Lilac Time album [No Sad Songs] we sold a lot of vinyl and I just thought, well, this is the way. Because vinyl… I mean vinyl should cost about £50 a copy, if it was in line with inflation, it’s just so extraordinary that records have got cheaper and music has got cheap … well, cheap, free!
SDE: The single that never really came out, ’17’, where there was going to be three CDs and there was all these extra tracks.They ended up on the previous reissue of this album, didn’t they?
Stephen Duffy: Yes they did.
SDE: They’re not part of the two CD set that’s coming out now, although obviously you have got all the unheard demos. Did you not think that maybe you should incorporate those extra tracks as well, as part of this?
Stephen Duffy: Well, I feel that there’s just so much stuff out there. I own the copyright to everything from I Love My Friends, Looking for a Day in the Night, Lilac 6, The Devils, Keep Going, No Sad Songs, and Runout Groove… so I own the copyright to all of those, which is why none of them are on Spotify or Apple Music. Mainly because there’s a lot of paperwork, that put me off. After I’d done the Rob [Robbie Williams] tour, I came back to London and I went out to lunch with Nick Rhodes, and I said, ‘well, what’s happening?’ because, you know, streaming had happened, everything was… And he said, “Stephen, things will get better, but not in our lifetime,” which wasn’t the most reassuring comment.
SDE: Well, it’s interesting because I have noticed, with Duran Duran, they do come out with a new album every four or five years, but in the main they’re out there just gigging, you know.
Stephen Duffy: And it’s surprising, actually, people who I know hated touring – because we really thought it was the worst thing in the world – and are now touring merrily because obviously they stopped earning money. Nowadays, they’re going off doing corporate gigs whenever they get offered.
SDE: Yes, exactly. But tell us about the second CD, then, because obviously there’s a two CD set…
Stephen Duffy: [the label] Needle Mythology were saying, well, let’s do a CD, we’ve got all of these extra tracks that you put out before, let’s get gather everything together from that period and put them on a CD. And that’s when I said, there’s so much rubbish out there and none of this has been on Apple or Spotify, so I want it to be neat, I want people to be able to say this is the I Love My Friends album, without there being another hour of bollocks, you know… I want them to be able to concentrate on, you know, on what we’ve been talking about. Because suddenly you fall asleep and you wake up and you’re listening to somebody’s instrumental B-side recorded on a Portastudio in 1984, and you just think, well, what is this? There’s no focus, there’s no sort of appreciation of the form, you know the classic form of the vinyl album. So I said, no, I’m not having any of that bollocks.
SDE: Does that mean that what you’ve done with the demos on the second disc, is that you’ve picked out things and tried to create almost like another album that flows in a certain way?
Stephen Duffy: Yes. I wanted to make an album of the things that I was kind of astonished that I never put out. A couple of them came out as extra tracks but these are the original demos. When I moved to Cornwall I kind of, suddenly, for the first time in my life, everything turned up out of storage and I had it all here, and I was forced to think, well, I can either kick these boxes to the side or I can go through them all and kind of organise things. I’ve been transferring everything from DAT and cassette to Pro Tools because, well, nobody else is going to do it, and it would be nice to get rid of all these cassettes and DATs, if only to a storage space somewhere. And the thing about this [bonus] album is it’s not going to be on Spotify or Apple Music, it’s not going to be streamed.
SDE: It’s labelled ‘volume 1’, so does that mean that we can look forward to other volumes?
Stephen Duffy: Well, you know, it’s not something I’m rushing into but I have found I have got so much stuff. I’ve got at least two albums of the ‘silly voice’ electronic period [Stephen means the ‘tin-tin’ period in the mid-1980s], which I find very difficult to listen to, but I mean [it’s good] for the fans of the silly voice and the Roland SH101 and all of that. I could have been Green [Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside] if I’d have double-tracked it. I wonder if Green thinks, ‘I really wish I hadn’t sung in that Mickey Mouse voice’ because it’s an extraordinary thing to have done. I was trying it, too. I mean I’d listen to it and think this is absurd, hours and hours of this squeaky voice and plinking and plonking. And it was only when I started The Lilac Time, and I think I was singing a Stevie Nicks song, something off a Fleetwood Mac album, and it was like, ah, I can’t sing like Stevie Nicks but this must be what I sound like!
SDE: Well, I saw a quote somewhere where you said you didn’t think you made a decent record until the ’90s. Is that something you meant and do you still believe that?
Stephen Duffy: Oh, yes. I really, really despise… there’s some of the stuff I did with Stephen Street on Because We Love You is okay – ‘Sunday Supplement’, ‘Julie Christie’ – there were some nice songs there and then, the first Lilac Time album is kind of okay, but then Paradise Circus… I gave up smoking or something and my voice just fell apart, it was like… it took me a year to kind of get my voice back together… so that sounds really weird to me. Yes, I think I didn’t really get it together until I was in my early 30s.
SDE: Of course, the song that you’re best known for is ‘Kiss Me’.
Stephen Duffy: I wrote that in 1979.
SDE: Do you look at that track as an albatross, or as a gift? What is your relationship with it?
Stephen Duffy: Well, recently, Juliette Lewis’s brother’s putting together some … a film of video stuff that he did in the 80s, and she put up a clip on her Instagram, and it’s her, as a 15 year old, dancing, and they put ‘Kiss Me’ as the music underneath it. And for the first time ever, well for years and year, I thought I get it, I understand this, this sounds really poppy, this sounds okay. But what is strange about that ‘Kiss Me’ is that the first version that we recorded at Bob Lamb’s on a 16 track one-inch [tape], it’s darker and more sort of … more compelling and electronic. And the hit version that was produced by the Art of Noise is kind of incredibly camp and jolly, because you really think that it should be, I don’t know…but their reputation was of the mechanic, you know, this incredible electronic panzer division…but it’s the campest record of all time.
SDE: On ‘Eucharist’ on the album, you namecheck ‘Kiss Me’ and say it was pay day when it was a hit. Give me a flavour of how that changed your life and what freedoms it gave you. Having one big, hit single…does it really give you actual money in the bank?
Stephen Duffy: It did because back in the day… I mean I thought I was never going to have to work again… because I was absolutely clueless about money. And when I got my first record deal with WEA, which was like £3000, it was the most money I’d ever had in my life. I had no idea, you know, I didn’t know … can you live on £3000 for a year? I had no idea. I’d been getting £13.50 a week on Social Security, you know. So I was very clueless. But it did earn quite a lot, for a very long time.
SDE: But you read things where people say ‘I didn’t see any royalties from that record for five years’, due to the machinations of the record industry. You think, it could have been easy for you not to see any cash.
Stephen Duffy: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a penny from the actual record, it’s just the publishing. I mean after a couple of months I got a PRS cheque and I’d been used to getting £150, and it was £15,000 or something and I was like, “oh, my God, look at the riches!” Mind you, back then, a provincial doctor was probably only earning £18,000 a year so it was quite a considerable amount of money … [even] in those olden times.
SDE: And, of course, the other thing that was happening was, you know, your old band, Duran Duran, were having great success. Tell me what your feeling was when they kind of took over the world and were massive? I mean were you happy for them, were you envious that you weren’t part of it?
Stephen Duffy: Well, I always knew that it wouldn’t have happened like that [with me in the band] because I wasn’t Simon. If I’d have stayed we’d have been supporting Echo and the Bunnymen, you know, it would have ruined their lives. And then when I toured with Rob and saw that stadium existence… it just wasn’t for me, even that, you know, the supporting role, let alone being the geezer having to run around.
One other thing about Duran is, I denied that I was ever in them, so I think there was something kind of wrong with me, you know what I mean? I think, now, you can’t stop me talking about them, I’ll rattle on about them at the drop of a hat, but I think there was a time, especially when The Lilac Time started, that I would actually deny that I’d even been in the band. Because when I put out the The Devil’s record, somebody who used to work for my management during The Lilac Time, phoned me up and said, you told me that you had nothing to do with them, but what’s all of this? It must have had some sort of mental effect, I don’t know. I suppose having people say you’re Pete Best, is bound to have a kind of negative effect on you, eventually.
The funny thing about working with Rob was [although] I worked with him for three years or something, when I stopped working with him I went straight back to being ‘Tin Tin’ who left Duran Duran. Because you only get one chance at first impressions, as people say, and people, you know, that is what people know me for. So you said, you know, you said curse, but, no, it’s brilliant, I mean people these days, aren’t really going to get the chance to have a song like ‘Kiss Me’, are they, because people don’t, you know, it was on Top of the Pops, for a month, it was in clubs, you know, it was on the radio; it was massive, you know.
SDE: You mentioned Robbie Williams. Obviously that must have brought you a fair amount of financial security…
Stephen Duffy: Yes.
SDE: How did that change you?
Stephen Duffy: It’s always nice not to [have to] worry about money, isn’t it? And anybody who says the opposite is nuts. Having been very poor… I had a birthday once when I was a kid, I got a pencil sharpener, you know, so it’s kind of nice to be able to afford something more than a pencil sharpener. Obviously I’ve bought myself better pencil sharpeners since then…. Since working with Rob, I’ve got pencil sharpeners of course in every room!
It wasn’t like that at all, what I was thinking was… I came out of that record with Rob and that tour, and I made Runout Groove, and because I’d been living in Beverley Hills, for God’s sake, I had no idea. And then I’d been on this big tour when there’s loads of people and we sold a million records in a day and so I had no idea that that was only him and Michael Buble [that could do that]… you know, Runout Groove sold 500 copies – I couldn’t believe it.
Because we always relied on selling 5000 in the first month or something, so you’ve got, you know, you knew the money was coming in so you could do some adverts and do some gigs, and then you’d hopefully get up to 15,000, and it would breakeven and blah de blah. But to only sell 500, I just thought, well, this is … we’re dead. So that’s why we didn’t do anything for seven years or something, until I realised that if I didn’t, I was never going to do anything. I never stopped writing. I was recording as well so I was still doing all of that but nobody was hearing it. But I just realised that if I didn’t play in front of people that I might lose my nerve and never do it again.
SDE: So what you’re saying is, in a way it’s that it’s sort of semi-irrelevant because it doesn’t matter how much money you have or haven’t got, if you want to release an album you still have to have an audience that connects with it, and goes out and buys it.
Stephen Duffy: Yes, so that’s, you know, when we did No Sad Songs, I kind of felt, oh, yes, there is an audience here but they want to buy vinyl. Then I made [the next Lilac Time album] Return to Us, but thought, well, I don’t feel like supporting somebody else’s business model necessarily, you know, and then this BMG thing came along [the album’s coming out via BMG]. But that’s how I thought of it… my main thing was, so fuck the business, you know, I think we better sue them, the geezers who gave away our rights to Spotify and Apple Music for nothing, rewrote the contract. I mean this is negligence on a major artistic scale, isn’t it, you know? They destroyed a business, they destroyed our business and they did it by giving away something they didn’t really own, our music. But now, of course, we do have a business model that we can get behind and it’s called trying to sell a couple of thousand of vinyl records.
Thanks to Stephen Duffy, who was talking to Paul Sinclair for SDE.
I Love My Friends reissue is out now. There is now more signed CDs and vinyl available exclusively via the SDE shop (these will ship in a couple of weeks).