Mike Jones - Radio Africa Interview
In a key song on Latin Quarter's third album "Swimming Against The Stream", Mike Jones commented, "The chosen course was writing anthems for the people. But no-one whistled, no-one noticed, no-one asked!" The lyric, from "It Makes My Heart Stop Speaking", expresses his frustration at the lack of impact Latin Quarter's music had made. But rather than dwelling on his understandable frustration he instead puts it into context, "And set against the scale, the sentiments are feeble. You cannot wear melodies, you cannot eat metaphors." Little wonder then that Steve Skaith should mention this song as an example of Mike Jones's songwriting gift.
It's four years since the last Latin Quarter studio album, "Bringing Rosa Home", was released. Despite the album receiving much critical acclaim in Europe, their record company failed to live up to the promises they had made and the band's three remaining members Steve Skaith, Richard Wright and Mike Jones decided to call it a day.
Mike Jones has gone from teaching song-writing in local colleges to running a course on the music industry at the famous Institute of Popular Music at Liverpool University. When asked about his role he jokingly replies '"Me, I'm a walking encyclopaedia!". Pick up any Latin Quarter album and you realise there is an element of truth in this, although no encyclopaedia was ever able to capture the human element of events quite like Mike Jones and Steve Skaith have repeatedly done.
Steve Skaith has relocated to Mexico City and is well on the way to finishing his first solo album. The album features four new songs with lyrics by Mike Jones, so we caught up with Mike Jones to discuss his songwriting and his Latin Quarter experiences.
What does your role at the Institute of Popular Music involve?
I'm Course Director for the MBA in Music Industries. MBA stands for 'Master in Business Administration' and MBA degrees are, essentially, an Eighties phenomenon (despite having roots that stretch back over 70 years). It is a massive irony that I should be organising a degree with its roots in the Thatcher/Reagan 80's. This was the era when Conservatives fought for 'a managers right to manage' - very much a reaction against Trade Unionism (not that the US had much!). I certainly don't feel that I've 'changed sides' rather my aim is to 'empower' people who want music industry careers (so they don't get messed around) in the hope that, in turn, they treat pop acts with as much consideration as possible. My Ph.D. thesis was my attempt to make sense of what had happened to Latin Quarter. I really do feel it was the case that A&R departments liked us and Marketing Departments simply couldn't understand us - I think the SPV experience is exactly that. No real thought on how to promote or market the album. My teaching draws from this perspective. Sometimes it can be a drag, I feel that I'm still having to live in the world of making records that don't sell! But it's a good job and is, predominantly, a positive experience.
In your interview with Consumable you weren't too positive about Latin Quarter achievements, has John Davis's comments made you more aware the effect Latin Quarter's music has had on people?
I was very, very depressed at the time of that interview. And, yes, coming across people who appreciate what we did is very encouraging. Sometimes I've found the Latin Quarter experience almost like a nightmare - shouting, screaming even and not being heard. There are the most bizarre examples of Latin Quarter being written out of history - not wilfully or deliberately but somehow we simply get overlooked. An incredible example was a book on the history of the Glastonbury festival. In the running order for the 1986 main stage John Martyn is there (who went on before us) then whoever was on after is mentioned - yet no Latin Quarter, but there are pictures of us on stage with no captions! The recent Mandela concert at Trafalgar Square was remarkable. What other British act released three anti-apartheid singles, but, again, no mention! Instead people like Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics who did nothing at all (at least that I can recollect) get to headline with R.E.M. I know this sounds very negative and I hate to sound this way but I still find the whole neglect of Latin Quarter completely baffling - seven albums released and one hit single! Again, though, it has been a real lift to discover that some people heard, enjoyed and 'got' what we were doing.
When you starting writing lyrics did you ever consider writing for a music publisher in order to get your lyrics recorded?
While I was still at school I played in two folk acts - played percussion instruments and sang on choruses (!) - it's where I began to write songs. And they were songs even then; I'd sing the melody lines to myself and structure the lyric around the melody. Because I simply kept time (and played no instrument) I suppose my songs tended to stay on one note (which limited their musicality!). On leaving school I wanted to be a songwriter. I knew I could write but I knew also that I was no singer and would never be a guitarist - I seem simply unable to cope with mechanical tasks of any kind, all my skill is in my head! Once I'd left school I realised just how impossible it was going to be to convince a publisher that I would make a good collaborator for a composer - Bernie Taupin made it as a lyricist, but who else in the Rock era? And what would I have been expected to write? That Steve and I should have got together when we did was a complete fluke.
It is surprising that in the years before the formation of Latin Quarter that you never learnt to play any instrument, was this because writing lyrics was taking up all your time?
NAAAHHH!! I can't drive, can't swim, can barely change a plug, have had some dreadful home decoration and do-it-yourself disasters and for God's sake don't let me near self-assembly furniture! In the past twenty years I've written two Ph.D. theses and 250 songs. I can sit in front of a blank sheet of paper and begin to unravel complex arguments ('Let's start taking these arguments apart….') but musical instruments, forget it!
When you and Steve Skaith started writing was there any temptation to just write about local political and social issues rather than global issues?
It would take too long to try to explain the kind of politics we had back then, especially all the intricacies of British Marxism. I suppose an easy response is to say that our politics was all about finding the general in the particular, which is exactly what good song-lyric writing is about. Take "Levi Stubbs Tears" by Billy Bragg or "Waterloo Sunset" by the Kinks - one is about domestic violence and the other about loneliness and alienation. In the hands of most leftwing/socially-inclined writers the songs would be dreadful, but both Bragg and Ray Davies draw our attention to a particular experience of what are very general social phenomena. By empathising with a particular individual we empathise with a condition. In our particular Marxist group, our politics centred around the recognition that capitalism's social, economic and ideological control of society is made up of as many particular experiences of oppression as there are people oppressed. We always sought to generalise specific struggles. Steve and I simply carried this perspective and practice over into our songwriting; it was second nature to us.
Although your lyrics have received praise from music critics, would it be true to say no one appreciates your lyrics more than Steve Skaith?
Steve and I shared a particular perspective that made songwriting quite effortless for most of the time. I've collaborated with one or two other people, but mostly other songwriters simply don't understand my method. Just recently I've begun to doubt myself as a songwriter. Ultimately I think I put Steve under impossible pressure. I was listening to a Latin Quarter live tape recently. Mostly our concerts were great, but they were always tense affairs. Partly because Steve is not a natural performer, he's not a 'show-off' and I think he suffers from stage fright as well. Even so, he did a great job BUT, listening to the tape, I could hear how, on song after song, there seemed to be a lack of 'flow' and much of that is attributable to the lyrics (or at least as much to the lyrics as to the arrangement).
Because, ultimately, I write to a beat my lyrics are metrically precise. If there are sixteen syllables in line three of verse one there will be sixteen syllables in line three of verse four - and all the stresses will fall in exactly the same places, each corresponding line scans identically. Further, each word is 'valuable'; each one contributes to the overall narrative. Looked at in this way, my lyrics might be 'rich' but I don't think they made it easy for Steve to sing or to perform. On the live tape I was struck by how, for example, "The Big Pool" just seemed to fail to uncoil itself. Today there are lots of (mainly) US bands in a kind of soft rock mode - Hootie and the Blowfish and those kind of bands. In a sense that's our genre too, but we never wrote those big, wide-open songs - and I think that's mainly down to me and my writing style.
Where Steve as a lyricist is concerned he's exceptionally good in his own right - but he was never prolific and he could be very uneven - fantastic songs like "No Rope As Long As Time" set alongside either sloganeering songs or weaker material. At his best he's one of the best there is, "Branded", for example, is a great song. I'm sure he appreciated me but I bet he felt shackled a lot of the time!
Which would you say are the best Latin Quarter songs you have had a part in writing?
Tough, very tough. It's easier to look at it chronologically. There are some terrific songs on "Modern Times". "Mick and Caroline" was a downer of an experience. No-one liked or wanted that album (despite containing a track as good as "Negotiating With A Loaded Gun" and a song as strong as "The Men Below"). Signing for RCA seemed like a really lucky break and I'm proud of all of the songs on "Swimming Against The Stream" - and yet that deal went to hell. We got really hassled by German RCA when we signed to them, hence the (weak) compromise of "Nothing Like Velvet" (nice to have it though!) But "Long Pig" - I wouldn't change a word of that album. I think those lyrics are my best ever. And when that went to shit, well, I've never recovered. I picked myself up twice - once for "Swimming Against The Stream" and once for "Long Pig" but I couldn't and can't do it again. Most of the lyrics on "Bringing Rosa Home" are old ones. Of the new ones we certainly had better than "Help Is On Its Way". My comments on the 'demos' section of the Radio Africa site stand pretty well for what's good in the material that was demoed but never recorded. Then there are a few more lyrics that I particularly like but Steve couldn't compose around. There are also a few songs that I've done with other people that were good. But, my 'desert island' set of lyrics would definitely be "Long Pig". It's a great shame that we had to compromise so much financially on that album because it would have sounded fantastic with a real rhythm section. As it was Steve and Richard did a great job under the circumstances, but the drum machine keeps things too rigid, impersonal and ultimately 'small' when the songs are huge.
You've written the lyrics to some 250 songs, many of which we've still to hear, of the unreleased lyrics are there any that you would have liked to have had recorded just to get your view point across on a particular issue?
There are definitely lyrics I feel needed to have songs made of them and songs that needed to have had records made of them. Our best strategy would have been to release a series of EPs. I made this point in two interviews that were never used - The Hit, a short lived music magazine and The Guardian (British daily). For example, we could have released a 'Central America' EP around the time of the Sandinista elections, we had several songs that fitted the bill. We were locked into the conventional 'write, record, promote, tour' cycle - only without the success that might have given us more power and flexibility (but only 'might have' - look at George Michael).
We could never be the 'troubadour' that Billy Bragg was, or enjoy the back royalties and catalogue sales that keep Elvis Costello afloat and able to experiment. Also, Steve and I are two separate people. We've both been really frustrated with each other at different points and two people can never respond as quickly to events as one person can. Ultimately, though, I think I spent a disproportionate amount of my time writing about 'issues'. The point I make in the Consumable interview still stands - I began to feel like an 'ambulance chaser'. Also, I remember someone complaining to me after a gig in Germany that I'd written nothing about Palestine. I can remember thinking 'yes, that's true, I wonder why I haven't?' and then thinking 'Who the hell am I to be making all these pop songs up about serious and complex issues?'!!
Is there any particular lyric that you regret writing?
The classic is "Model Son". I had a pretty poor relationship with my father but he was proud of and excited by Latin Quarter. For him to hear that must have been pretty devastating - but it's such a brilliant song we couldn't leave it off the album. The song I'm most pissed off about is "One Fell Swoop" which should really have been on "Mick and Caroline". The background is far too complex to go into but, as a football fan who lived in Liverpool at the time and who watched Liverpool regularly (even though I support Spurs) I was disgusted (and remain disgusted) by the viciousness of Liverpool fans at that game. Yet in the lyric I end up making Liverpool people the victims!! It was political and personal cowardice and I still feel ashamed of it.
Commenting on "Mick and Caroline", one critic claimed your lyrics hadn't developed from "Modern Times", was this a fair comment?
Give me his address!! It's bullshit. What does it mean!! Why should they have developed? What's interesting, though, is how I was never likely to have developed. In a way, Rock lyric writing is a genre. Genres don't spring into existence fully-formed. Rock writing developed, predominantly, through Bob Dylan's desire to be The Beatles and The Beatles' desire to be Bob Dylan. Dylan's lyrical style doesn't change much after 1968 (after John Wesley Harding) his vocal style changes, as does his ideology (Born Again Christian for two albums, for example). Once (mainly but not solely) Dylan and The Beatles had created and consolidated new forms of expression a new kind of lyrical sensibility had been created. Different individuals tended to find new voices rather than go on evolving once the Rock approach had settled down. So, for example, we have Morrisey's fantastic 'poetic provincialism' - until he sailed a little too close to the nationalism embedded in small town perspectives. Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones Boho stuff (kind of Beat Generation stylings), Michael Stipe's allusiveness. I'm beginning to come round to Bono (can't stand Sting). Joni Mitchell was a genius but eventually ran out of expressive ideas. Randy Newman, brilliant but far from prolific. Hip-hop, pretty damn remarkable, and almost all rhyming couplets (so not necessarily an evolution). So who does 'evolve' lyrically? Tim Buckley was about the most startling writer in his willingness to take musical and lyrical risks. There are probably other people who will jump right out at me later - Bjork for example.
"Dominion" was written specifically for a TV series on animal traffic, did you enjoy that challenge?
Yes, very much so, because it was a challenge. The images (especially in the first programme) were so chilling and so cruel that they were a stark example of what power ('dominion' if you like) is all about - the desire and ability to satisfy any lust at all at the expense of another living creature. There is a sense in which the use of the categories - 'raptor', 'simian' kind of restores dignity to the oppressed and murdered creatures - but of course those are human terms of classification.
"Wounded in Action" is unusual in the fact that you wrote the music to it, how did that come about?
As I mentioned earlier, everything I wrote, I wrote to a melody. Sometimes I would decide that my melody was so strong that it should not be changed. "Cora" and "Eddie" were also substantially my melodies. Almost invariably Steve would write a far, far better melody line than my original - "America for Beginners" is the absolute stand out example, but there were plenty of other examples of his version being far more effective than mine.
In your interview with Consumable you expressed frustration at having to pass every thing through Steve Skaith and Richard Wright. Was this because good lyrics didn't get used because their style didn't fit into the context of the album they were working on at the time?
I think that remark was partly a product of the time. I really couldn't come to terms with the failure of "Long Pig" and my personal life was in real upheaval. I'd started living on my own so that meant a new mortgage so that meant finding work and the work I started to do I found completely demoralising. I was writing the Ph.D. and that kind of work can be really stressful and also it occupied me out of work time (which was slaughtering me anyway). Basically I had little time or energy to write lyrics. Meanwhile for Steve and Richard it was 'business as usual', find a deal, make an album - except that my conveyor belt had been switched off (I've written nothing new for 6 years, I really don't think I can write anymore, I can't remember how it was to be that person). Despite this there were plenty of lyrics around but I don't think Steve was as inspired as he'd been. We had disputes about several songs - especially one called "Little Buddy" which was my comment on the killing of Jamie Bulger. I really hated his treatment (partly worked up with the 'rootsier' version of Latin Quarter then extant) and far preferred my version. Our circumstances could not have been more different at that point. He could still enjoy playing with some great players. I was isolated.
But worse than this, there was a syndrome that hit several times around 1995/6. Occasionally Steve would get part of a lyric and want me to complete it. But while I was struggling to find the time to write he'd be tinkering with the arrangement or the melody of the original track. Because I write so precisely, my new lyric wouldn't scan onto his new version (I'd be working to a tape of the previous version). So I'd get pissed off, he'd get frustrated and the song would go to hell. We hit a patch of that and I ended up either doing unsatisfactory re-write after re-write or, worse still, there'd be songs that were a patchwork of his and my lyrics. I feel that lyrics should unfold and develop so that the emotional power of the initial observation develops to some kind of climax. I loathed these patchwork lyrics more than anything. Maybe this didn't happen that often (it had already happened with "Burn Again" on "Mick and Caroline" which I always hated) but, given my precarious emotional state, it seemed to happen far more times than I could bear. I think also that all the Latin Quarter albums were compromises, they have to be, but I was sick of comprising. Just once I wanted to hear what twelve of my songs would sound like, as my songs, played the way I could hear them in my head, sequenced in the order I wanted and promoted with the spirit I intended them to be promoted. It's not such an unreasonable desire if you think of it. Steve and Richard never did me any harm, far from it, but, musically, I was a blind man and they were my eyes. I just wanted to know what it would be like to see for myself for once.
Have you written lyrics for anyone other than Latin Quarter?
This is such a vexed issue. I suppose what I never appreciated about Latin Quarter was how special it was for me. In a sense I was in a really privileged position (despite my frustrations). Essentially all these people (band, managers, record company) were inspired by the songs Steve and I wrote, and he was inspired by what I'd send him. So I was at the beginning of a chain. But with anyone else I became simply a prospective link in their chain - and don't forget we were completely obscure despite the success of Radio Africa - there wasn't and isn't a songwriter in Britain who rates me or even knows of me. Certainly none that ever wanted to collaborate. Consequently, other co-writing opportunities were few and far between and when they happened I simply made no headway, people just didn't get it. At one point I wrote several songs with Greg and Yona but, despite some real quality, that didn't come to anything. Beyond that most experiments faltered either because most writers work within the confines of genres, or, simply because the lyric is the least of their concerns.
Again, I think, now, that I wasn't really that good a songwriter (which isn't to deny I could write good lines and conjure strong images). I don't want to put people down who like what I've written because that would be disrespectful but I feel now that my writing is either too elaborate or else it allows too little light in, musically, or for the musician. Dylan at his most elaborate (say on "Bringing it all Back Home", "Highway 61", "Blonde on Blonde") certainly used far more elaborate and obscure language - but the cumulative power of his best songs came from the chorus lines not through connecting the verses and bridges in the way that I wrote - listen to "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands", its emotional power (delivered in part through the vocal, obviously) drives on through the return to the chorus. Each verse is a series of impressions. Consequently he can go on re-interpreting his songs. All my lyrics (or virtually all my lyrics) are little linear narrative films. On this basis, once composed and arranged Latin Quarter songs tended to be inflexible and that's the problem.
Despite the critical acclaim "Bringing Rosa Home" received you gave up writing lyrics because you didn't think Latin Quarter would ever achieve the commercial success you wanted. Is commercial success the correct criteria to say whether music has value? Because if so, doesn't it mean 'Top of the Pops' or silence?
Just like Lennox Lewis, I didn't see that coming. The answer, God help me, is YES - yes, yes, yes…..I grew up with The Beatles and Bob Dylan and I can't pretend otherwise. In 1966 Dylan was the coolest guy on Earth and The Beatles were the biggest pop act ever. There were enormously important political events around the globe (but then, there always are…) and there were far more worthy role models and people far more deserving of accolades than a snotty (genius) pop star hanging out with the repulsive Andy Warhol coterie (as Dylan was) or the Fab Four. But fuck it, I loved them, I wanted to be like them (or be like what I thought they were like) and, tragically, I still do. (Spoken with no trace of irony and with only a wry smile to cover his shame).
Although you had always written personal related songs, like "Love Has Gone" and "It Makes My Heart Stop Speaking", it wasn't until the release of "Bringing Rosa Home" that music critics acknowledged this aspect of Latin Quarter's music. Why do you think this was?
Well, I don't know who those critics were. How many reviews did we get? I never saw any. Maybe in Germany there was some continuity to our reviewing but in Britain either the press simply failed to review us (like the NME and Melody Maker) or the job was simply passed on to someone who wanted to see their own name in print more than they wanted to appraise our album. (Like in Q for example). I'd like to think that someone reviewed "Bringing Rosa Home" and thought 'hmm… a new departure, I wonder why?' but, even if that happened I doubt that it was representative. The point is, if you know Latin Quarter you know that "Bringing Rosa Home" is a different type of album. It's the best sounding record, there is more of Steve and more of his personal life. A little bit of mine as well. Really that should have been a Steve Skaith album, though I doubt that SPV would have worn that but, so what, what a piece of crap they were.
On "Bringing Rosa Home" you encouraged Steve Skaith to become more accessible to the listener, would you say that he has succeeded in this on his new album?
Kind of. There's no artifice. What Steve has recorded in Mexico is (or it seems to me is) a kind of 'live' album. But this isn't the same as producing an album in the way that he was used to recording demos when he lived in London. I think Steve performs best when he doesn't need to perform - in the isolation of home recording. What he deserves is the chance to make a solo album - produced by Daniel Lanois, he's the only person who will ever capture the Latin Quarter "sound" - which is entirely about Steve - I'd start writing again if he was going to produce. It's impossible for me to 're-hear' much of the material on the Mexican CD - imagine, I first heard demo versions of "Race Me Down" and "Model Son" 13 years ago. I think Steve has overlooked some incredibly good existing songs - especially "Other Mothers", "That's Why I Turned My Badge In", "Gave Somebody A Night", "She's A Rebel". I can understand that he's 'jamming' with new people in a new context, but there are several steps before those new relationships can give birth to an album. I like "Look Away" and "Señorita, No". "Love Didn't Get There First" (NOT "Bobby is Bursting"!!) is not the way I would have preferred it (in my head its a U2 anthem - seriously) but there is something classic about his interpretation of it. He brings out what is sinister in the lyric where I had rage. I'm still not sure that all this adds up to accessibility, though. If you listen to what Daniel Lanois does with Emmylou Harris, he makes her intimate by making her stark, intimate but inaccessible - I think that's what Steve needs.
Given the enduring quality of yours and Steve Skaith songs, it seems strange that you would even doubt your own ability as a songwriter. Aren't you being very unfair on yourself and your songwriting ability?
Ultimately, I've spent a long time trying to figure out why Latin Quarter wasn't the success that everyone who came into contact with it in the earliest months and years were convinced it would be. I wrote my Ph.D. thesis solely to explain Latin Quarter's lack of success to myself and I think I succeeded. I now have a very strong analysis of how dynamic the music industry is as a set of variables that all need to combine to produce pop success - from music and musicians, through managers, record company personnel, and so on. So, whatever the explanation for success or failure it can't be reduced to a single factor - certainly not to 'luck' or 'being in the right place at the right time', and so on. The point is, however, that my explanation kind of exonerates me entirely and that can't be right.
Certainly, I lacked judgement when Latin Quarter began, even before then, when Steve and I began to write together. But 'lack of judgement' may be only part of the explanation. So, now that I've re-listened to a lot of the old material (as part of the process of answering these questions) I've begun to think that maybe, also, the form as well as the content of my lyrics played some part in the restricted impact of Latin Quarter - certainly, I don't recollect meeting many record company employees who were motivated by what we wrote. In turn, insufficient numbers of radio producers, DJs and journalists were left similarly under-whelmed - though, of course, many were enthusiastic.
All-in-all what my comments should demonstrate is how difficult it is to make sense of pop music, or of how some music becomes popular when so much fails to. There are many factors, individuals and organisations, between song-writers and the hearts and minds of listeners. I'm thrilled that there are still people who are enthusiastic about what we wrote and recorded. It's just that I still find it difficult to adjust to no longer being a song-writer, and still can't reconcile myself to my own explanation for why I have a day job!!