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Nigel Planer… from hippy kid to Neil and beyond

An excerpt from JEFF PENCZAK’s interview with NIGEL PLANER appeared in Shindig #113. We thought you’d enjoy reading the entire conversation

Shindig!: Your musical career seems to have begun in 1980 with the Pam & The Paper Clips one-off ‘Typing Pool’ single with your brother Roger and an uncredited Pamela Stephenson from Not The Nine O’Clock News. Did you release anything before this?

Nigel Planer: It’s not Pamela Stevenson in Pam & The Paper Clips. It was the girlfriend of actor Anthony Head, an old friend of mine, who happened to be called Pam. Anthony and I had a harmony band we used to gig around with a bit, and we sung back up on one of his brother Murray’s albums. I can’t remember the surname of our Pam. There is a Pamela Stevenson connection though – Pamela Stevenson opened the first night of the Comic Strip comedy club with us. After Not The Nine O’Clock News she briefly set herself out as a standup comedian.

The Paperclips was myself, brother Roger and Julian Marshall of The Marshall Hain band who had just had a hit with ‘Dancing In The City’. Julian had played the music in the original show by myself, Peter Richardson and Pete Richens. That show was called RANK, and it went on at the Roundhouse Downstairs. It’s the show Neil comes from, among other characters.

I can’t remember one 100%, but I think on that record we had Gary Twigg on bass and Richard Marchangelo on drums, who had both also been in RANK, either on the later tour or in the original Roundhouse show. The B-side of ‘Typing Pool’ is quite interesting I think, lovely melody by my brother Roger. It’s called  ‘Dear Katie’ and it’s about a girl writing to an agony aunt.

SD!: How did the Paper Clips project  come about?

NP: I can’t remember exactly, but I think my brother Roger had a friend who was an engineer at Abbey Road, and he was able to give us “dead time” in the studio. That is, last minute hours that haven’t been booked by anybody. So you might get a call late one night and be able to use a couple of hours for free at three a.m. I don’t know if his bosses knew. To get the deal with EMI, hmm, hard to remember, but I was probably blabbing my mouth off somewhere along the line.

SD!: You won a BRIT award for your Young Ones doppelganger Neil Pye’s unforgettable rendition of Traffic’s ‘Hole In My Shoe’. You subsequently recorded the Heavy Concept Album with an incredible lineup of Canterbury Scene musicians, including Pip Pyle, Jimmy Hastings, and (the other) Dave Stewart! How did you manage to convince them to contribute to your album?

NP: Well, it was Dave who had the big Canterbury connection, The Heavy Concept album also had contributions from Simon Brint and Rowland Rivron who were Raw Sex (the band in The French & Saunders show), and guitar from Guitar Master Jakko Jakzyk, who is currently in King Crimson, and has just brought out a stunning solo album, which includes a track called ‘The Rotter’s Club Is Closing Down’ about the death of Pip Pyle, who played drums on the Heavy Concept Album. But we had another drummer on the song ‘Lentil Nightmare’ – he was heavy as hell: Bryson Graham, who also died early, aged 41 in 1993. He was drummer in Spooky Tooth.

The idea to do ‘Hole in My Shoe’ came from Allan MacGowan, friend, promoter and Brighton comedy impresario. Originally, we went to Marillion with the idea of doing the single ‘Hole in My Shoe’ – I did a couple of support gigs with them and got to know Fish a bit. But I think the idea started to flounder when the managements got involved. Not sure. But for whatever reason, I went to see Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin at their flat in Chiswick – and it was quickly obvious that his ideas and skills were really going to work with me/Neil.

I listened recently to Dave’s version of Donovan’s ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ on the Heavy Concept Album, and I was surprised at how fucking good it is. Dave has done this gut-wrenchingly beautiful spacey instrumental [‘Floating’] which gradually morphs and changes and twists until you find you are in a tune you vaguely recognize, then just at that moment, Neil’s voice – quite sweet and high now – comes in; “Thrown like a star in my high sleep, I opened my eyes to take a peep…”. It’s actually a really nice version of the song. We tried to make a balance between the comedy and the music so that they didn’t cancel each other out as often happens and I think we mostly achieved that. Some of Dave’s arrangements are truly classic. I was very happy when the album was re-released on Esoteric Records in 2014 and got a whole new load of listeners.

SD!: The album features an amazing collection of irreverent cover versions, from Donovan and Incredible String Band to Sex Pistols, Tomorrow, and Pink Floyd. Did you select the songs to interpret or were they a group decision?

NP: Well, it was the record company who insisted we make ‘My White Bicycle’ a second single, and put it on the album. But on the whole I had pretty much all my own choices – even to the slightly weird extent of doing ‘The Amoeba Song’from Incredible String Band – one of my favorites when younger, which seemed so perfect for Neil. Another of my favorites happened to be Caravan, so doing ‘Golf Girl’ from their In The Land Of Grey And Pink was a no-brainer with Dave involved. There were a few people who just wanted us to do a string of pop hit covers, which might well have sold more for all I know, but luckily with Dave I had the opportunity to make something a bit more original, and a bit more ambitious musically.

SD!: You’ve released material in several different genres, from comedy to theatre, heavy metal to psychedelia, jazz and folk. Are you comfortable with all types of music or do you have a particular favourite that you’d like to explore further?

NP: Not really. My personal listening tastes are usually minimalist, but my abilities are much less than my imagination. But I’m pretty happy listening to any style or genre of music. I particularly like songs which have standout lyrics – I always listen to the lyrics; ‘What Makes A Man’ by Charles Aznavour, ‘Class’ by Kander and Ebb (from the musical Chicago), ‘Time After Time’ by Rob Hyman and Cyndi Lauper, ‘Frank Mills’, by Ragni, Rado, MacDermot (from the musical Hair). I currently write lyrics for a few different artists (Matts Lindblom, Phil Proetti, and Neil Avery of Commit No Nuisance – [see below]) as well as occasionally composing melody, too.  (‘City In The Summer’ on Bandcamp and Don’s Tunes, Relaxing Jazz Lounge Playlist)

 SD!: What type of music did you enjoy when you were younger and have those influences carried over into the music you perform?

NP: I remember listening to each new [Captain] Beefheart album when it came out. And knowing Soft Machine’s Third so well I could hum my way through all four sides of it in my head. Dr. John’s Gris Gris was a big deal too, as were Country Joe & The Fish. Jazz-rock-wise there was Nucleus (Ian Carr) and Coliseum, folk-wise Incredible String Band, Tir Na Nog, The Strawbs, Nick Drake obviously. Also, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Joe Jackson.

SD!: You co-wrote and performed the theme from your King And Castle show with Hugh Cornwell in 1986. Were you a huge Stranglers fan? How did Hugh get involved?

NP: I met Hugh when we were both appearing on something like The Tube in the ’80s. We got on well and became friends. So when the idea of doing King And Castle theme tune came up, I rang him and he quickly came back with the song ‘Rough With The Smooth’, which was just right. I didn’t have a hand in writing it. When I listened to it again recently it was obvious that I’m doing an impersonation of Hugh singing. I did really like The Stranglers and the bold lyrics they came up with. And the time signature change in ’Golden Brown’ is very memorable – check out the Dave Brubeck spoof video on YouTube – playing ‘Golden Brown’ in 5/8. Really good.

SD!: Was this the first appearance of Nicholas Craig?

NP: Nicholas Craig was a project I developed with Christopher Douglas (Ed Reardon from the comedy radio series Ed Reardon’s Week). It started with the book ‘I An Actor’ (now in its zillionth edition) and went on to all sorts of incarnations, appearances, radio and TV series. The B-side of the single with Hugh (‘Nicholas Craig And Max’) would have been one of the earliest outings for the character. The last time I appeared as Nicholas, as far as I can remember was in Stewart Lee’s At Last The 1981 Show at the Festival Hall in 2011.

SD!: Nineteen-Eighty-Six also saw you conquer the charts with Cliff Richard when The Young Ones collaborated on his popular ‘Living Doll’ remake for the Comic Relief Charity. Cliff seemed a good sport about everything and I’m sure another #1 in his bonnet was welcome. Although the “book, LP, and Chocolates” didn’t appear, was this also a proud moment for you… to be able to put your character to good use to help the children in Sudan and Ethiopia?

NP: As far as I know the single was the first thing Comic Relief ever did. Two years earlier Bob Geldof invited me to take part in the ‘Feed The World’ record. I turned up at the studio in full Neil gear, but it didn’t feel right being a comedy character while singing about feeding the world –  like it might be inappropriate to make light of the suffering or be condescending – so I didn’t join the big choir line up, but I did hang about making funny videos, mostly, as I remember with Status Quo, mucking about backstage.

SD!: Your Bad News project actually pre-dated Spinal Tap, which essentially mined the same territory to a much wider audience. Were you ever able to watch the Spinal Tap film or listen to the records or was it too frustrating seeing them capitalize on what you started?

NP: It’s weird that the two projects must have been in pre-production about the same time. It is a bit of a shame that we are not internationally as well known as Spinal Tap, but Spinal Tap is so brilliant, there’s no point in going all negative and heavy is there? Adrian Edmondson and I went to a comedy festival in Bristol a couple of years ago, (Slapstick festival) and they played the Bad News films in front of a full live audience. It was so brilliant to hear people laughing so much together – of course when it’s on telly you don’t get to hear that.  I think the films stand the test of time really well. [Several films are currently streaming on YouTube.]

SD!: At least you got to record with Brian May?

NP: Yes we were in the studio Sarm West for six weeks with Brian, and he left the mics on and we stayed in character. That’s how we got the second Bad News album, just edited versions of us nattering on at each other in improvisations.

SD!: Was it surreal to be involved in the We Will Rock You play later on? Was your earlier work with Brian influential in getting the part, or was it more down to having worked with Ben previously

 NP: Well I think it was Brian and Ben both.  But it’s musical theatre so I had to go and audition, just like anyone else. That’s the way it goes in ‘Thu Theaaatre’.  So I sang an old Robert Palmer number ‘Man Smart, Women Smarter’.

SD!: Did Brian ever get in touch with his reaction to the project and/or your work on it (as the original “Pop”)?

NP: Brian’s very hands on, he didn’t need to get in touch, he was there every day of rehearsals and came around backstage at least once a week once the show opened. Occasionally he’d make announcements over the Tannoy system, like; “You. Guys. ROCK!”  which did the trick in getting everyone excited and feeling like rock stars.

SD!: The Comedy Store and Comic Strip projects led to some fun musical projects, particularly The Outer Limits with Peter Richardson. Was ‘Page 3 Girls’ the only thing formally recorded and released or are there other tracks buried in a landfill somewhere?

NP: There’s a beautiful song with lyrics by Pete Richens, the other Pete on the Comic Strip writing team; ‘If the Martians Land, Wake me up, coz it’s me they wanna see’. It was for my character Paul the mandrax freak, who appears in Fistful Of Travellers’ Cheques. It never got used nor recorded. Pete died year before last, and we had a thing at a pub in North London. I found I remembered the whole song and the chords and everything, and sang it at that memorial. There’s one line that brought a lump to the throat; “pinning my hopes/ on reincarnation/ one of the back seat/ boys of creation”.

There’s also the Bad News song I wrote, that never made it onto the album. Perhaps because it was too damn difficult for us to play;  ‘Axogram, axogram, half bike, half axe, half man’.

SD!: I like you channeling your inner Hall & Oates on the Roll Over Beethoven TV series soundtrack (1985). ‘Don’t Turn Your Back On The One You Love’ is a departure from your usual performances. Would you catalogue that in the “frustrating” or “fun to do” file of your overall discography?

NP: Some regretful memories over Roll Over Beethoven, because I really liked the people and the character and getting to sing etc, but it came out around the time The Young Ones was really taking off, and so I had to drop out of it, which pissed off the writers, and producers, who’d put so much into getting it off the ground. It was strange being in a very anarchic show at the same time as being in a very not-anarchic, mainstream show.  Gave a bit of stress.

SD!: Cabaret with Toyah Willcox (1997) How did that come about? Were you familiar with Toyah’s work or she with yours?

NP: Got on well with Toyah at that session. Of course, I knew her work. I remember her starting out in those films by Derek Jarman, before she was a pop star, Jubilee and The Tempest.  She was originally an archetypal punk.

SD!: I surmised (in my review of the Five Songs Left EP) that you might have been a fan of her husband’s first project, Giles, Giles & Fripp. ‘Realise’ seems to have that easy-going vibe of their Cheerful Insanity…?

NP: I was never aware of Giles and Fripp. Later made up for that by being very aware of the famous gaping mouth King Crimson album, which was a favorite and had many alternative uses as a gatefold  album. “Said the straight man/ to the late man/ where have you been? I’ve been here and/ I’ve been there and/ I’ve been in between…” Lyrics by Pete Sinfield the great.

SD!: Nearly 20 years later, you and Toyah would both contribute to several of Chris Wade’s Dodson And Fogg projects. Was there time to reminisce or were your contributions submitted over the ‘net digitally?

NP: Almost all my work with Chris Wade has been online. We made the EP together this year sending WAVs back and forth to each other.  Luckily, because the songs were written in 1971, recording on my iPhone – with a guitar that is so old and broken I have to hold it together with my elbow to play it – created a creaky authentic sound for the project which seems totally appropriate.

SD!: You also appear with Celia Humphris (from Trees) on Chris’s Roaming album (2016), singing backing vocals on the lovely acoustic ‘For A While’. It was very sad to hear of her passing. Did you know or have any contact with Celia during the project? Or was it again (as with Toyah) a digital exchange?

NP: Toyah was in person in a studio for a day. I never met Celia.

SD!: You released a single in 2015 (‘Mean Meanwhile’) with Chris and your brother Roger under the name Rainsmoke. Was that just a lark and a one-off or will you return to that project in the future?

NP: We created the idea of Rainsmoke to try and record versions of the songs that we wrote in the early ’70s. Most of which have ended up in the Five Songs Left EP on Bandcamp. The ‘Mean Meanwhile’ song was written by all three of us, and is a little bit more ambitious, with my brother Rog who now has all these production skills, simulating LSD guitar playing and drums which appear to be stuck in an alternative time reality. Would love to get back to this project, but it’s slow when three people live in different places and other things intervene.

SD!: How did your working relationship with Chris begin and does he send you material to perform (narrations and such, e.g., Raymond’s Room) or do you have an open invitation to help out whenever he has a project that fits into your busy schedule?

NP: In the first place Chris got in touch to get me to do narrations on a Dodson And Fogg album. We recorded it in a little studio in Shepherd’s Bush and then he went back to Leeds. Since then we stayed in touch and gradually built up this ongoing thing.  I’ve done some more narrations, we’ve done Rainsmoke, I’ve sung some harmonies on one of his albums, and we wrote a song together about a Stalker which is really creepy.

SD!: You’ve had the opportunity to work with several renowned musicians and producers: Dave Stewart, Brian May, Hugh Cornwell. Was there any bit of advice that you received from any of them when you first started recording that stuck with you and you latch onto whenever you prepare for a recording session? Perhaps something to help you relax behind the mic, yet still remain confident that you’re ready to go once that Recording light goes on?

NP: Because I’ve worked in theatre a fair bit, I’m always being told to tone it down, although I don’t have a very loud voice. There’s one guy who gave me good singing advice – Gareth Valentine – who was the maestro on the jazz musical Chicago.  We were in the studio and the Americans were giving me all these technical notes which were making me freeze up.  Gareth knew me as a character actor, and knew I was happiest feeling “in character”.  He took over the booth and gave me some notes about what the character might be feeling, and what the joke of the song might be, and then the singing came out fine.

SD!: You released a digital track (‘City In The Summer’) last year which you recorded with Andrew Holdsworth and Tom Walsh during lockdown. There’s a lovely laidback jazzy vibe to the song which evokes summer heat, yet cool jazz! Do you think you might expand this “teaser” into something larger, perhaps an EP or album?

NP: I’d like to do that. I’ve written a follow up song, but it’s less jazzy, so we’re just thinking what to do at the moment.

SD!: Is that ‘Love Strikes’?

NP: Yes. ‘Love Strikes’ is now out on Bandcamp and I’m working on a couple more songs like that in the same smooth jazz style. I finally bought a new guitar – after 40 years! – and it’s inspiring lots of new kinds of things. But I can’t bring myself to actually throw away the old one now, even though it has a split right through the middle. I’m attached to it, now that it finally recorded the ‘Five Songs Left’ and ‘Four Songs More’ EPs.

SD!: Tell us about the Five Songs Left EP. Obviously influenced by Nick Drake. Were you a fan of his back then? Or were the songs already written (about 50 years ago) and did you subsequently come to know Nick’s work and parodied the title (Five Leaves Left) as a tribute to his seminal work?

NP: The first Nick Drake album (Five Leaves Left) came out in 1969.  I bought it that week, it seemed to be talking directly to me. The songs on my “Five Songs Left“ were written from about ’70 to ’73.

SD!: What made you decide the time was right to get around to recording the songs at this time. Did the lockdown give you the opportunity to visit your back catalogue, as it were?

NP: Yeah, that’s about right.  But we had been working on it with the Rainsmoke project, as I say. I think the lockdown just made it essential to simplify and get the recordings down to the essentials.

SD!: And was Chris the only one you had in mind to bring the songs alive?

NP: Well, I’d had earlier attempts which didn’t pull together for various reasons. Rainsmoke, as I said, and once with the late Simon Brint – the guy from Raw Sex. But this time it was basically Chris’s enthusiasm and encouragement that made it happen. And his playing and singing of course which are just right. There’s a recent version of the song ‘Back of The Q’, produced by my brother Rog, which sounds amazing, like some Latin American movie score. Perhaps we should release that sometime.

SD!: Did you ever record the songs for your own amusement back when they were written? Perhaps an old reel-to-reel or dusty cassette version exists in the vault? If not, did you ever consider throwing something together and shopping it around to record labels back in the early ‘70s?

NP: No, we never did.  But I remember briefly having a manager, Tony, and going round to record company A & R departments, with my brother Rog and actually playing some of the songs live to them, in their offices. Strange how times have changed.

SD!: Any chance there are other tracks in storage that you might dig out and dust off and set to music? We’d love to hear a full album.

NP: Four Songs More is now out on Bandcamp. People seem to like it a lot, especially the more psychedelic ‘Chorus Of Dawn’, with its reference to “Clear Light”. [What was that in 1971? Answers on a postcard.] Here’s a comment on the music from Fairless Masterman [yes, that’s his, real, cool name] “… raw, folky, back-of-a-fag-packet feel really makes them stand out amongst the sea of over-engineered, over-produced stuff – retro on its head – it’s Nigel in 1971 finally hearing his songs come out in 2021 (Fairless Masterman)”.

The Four Songs More cover photo is quite funny. That’s me on a beach in France, around 1972-ish, with Neil-length hair.  And a mystery famous funk guitarist in the background.  Shindig! should issue a prize draw for people who correctly guess his identity.  Clue: he’s too sexy!

SD!: Was Chris along to help on these songs as well?

NP: Yeah, Chris Wade does more than help, he plays on all of them and even sings lead vocal on ‘Winter’.

SD!: Does that complete the collection of your older songs that you’ve revived or are there still “…More Songs” waiting to be arranged and recorded?

NP: Well, I thought it was all of them, but I remembered a couple when I started playing around on my new guitar. Incredible that chords and lyrics can still be hiding in your subconscious after 40 years. But there they were. Like a refreak. Maybe ‘Two Songs Forgotten’ next?

SD!: You’ve also recently released a new album with Neil Avery, Commit No Nuisance to launch the Pink Deer Record label. Is that a homegrown label amongst yourselves or some friends getting together to get the music out to the public?

NP: It’s Neil’s label.  I’ve just been writing lyrics for him for a couple of years now.  It’s a new departure for me, because all the references are different – he’s very ‘80s jangly guitar pop. So it’s been fun. I do some of the backup vocals too.

SD!: How did you and Neil meet and how did the conversation get around to musical possibilities?

NP: We met through a mutual friend. And he was going on about how he wrote songs but was often stuck for words, and I said, “That’s funny, because I’ve got a whole drawer full of lyrics which never found a melody, going back a while.” They’re slightly dark songs – ones that sound quite bouncy and poppy until you maybe hear the hook and it’ll be about a stalker, or a friend who drowned, or other nastiness.

SD!: There are many different participants on this project. Was it recorded before the virus and lockdown? I see you are including ‘Talk It Out’, the free single you contributed for Time To Talk Day (6th February, 2020) right before the virus became front page news.

NP: Yes, they took a year or more to record, and then it took a while to get them mixed, etc.  I’m glad they’re up on Bandcamp now and we can carry on writing the new batch – first lot were called Commit No Nuisance, the new lot are going to be called Happy Little  Zombies!

SD!: Anything else that’s in the hopper would make a great wrap-up if you are working on new projects you would like to promote?

NP: Weirdly, in these days when people say theatre is dead, killed by indifference and COVID, I actually have a play I’ve written going on tour! It’s called All Above Board. It’s a comedy, a farce, for something called the Northern Comedy Theatre. It’s going round theatres in the north [New Brighton, York, Coventry, Gloucester, Stockport, St. Helens] through July, August and September. Plot too complicated to explain here, but basically it’s about a banker who wants to look cool and get an OBE, so he starts a charity and hires a PR agent and things go really badly wrong for him.

I’ve also been working with Matts Lindblom.  He’s a Swedish rocker, an old guy with a gravel voice.  We hit it off, and I’ve been writing lyrics for him for a few months and he’s recorded an album of our songs releasing them one by one on Spotify.

Good stuff because he’s singing his age, and I’m writing mine. We’re a couple of old guys. So lyrics for instance go “All the kids are laughing and dancing, but I don’t know what they’re talking about.  So take me home, I should never have come here, but I just can’t take one more night on my own, and my cowboy boots are not in fashion, and I’m too drunk now, take me home, take me home” [‘Take Me Home’].

There’s one song about phoning his kid in Thailand, called ‘Bad Connection’, and there’s even one called ‘Dad Dancing’ where he goes crazily funky.  It’s been fun working with this guy. I think he might interest Shindiggers.


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