In the 80s John gigged with his band The Popticians, and still infrequently does. This interview is from issue 8 of No Class ‘zine, 1983.
Anyone who reads the London listings magazines must have noticed in the last couple of years the appearance of the Cabaret section, to accompany the cinema, theatre and music guides. The cabaret list regularly includes such acts as The Wild Girls, Dancing with the Dog, The Barnies, Left Wing Teds and The Joeys, and this is where you can find the Popticians too.
As part of the campaign to prevent the GLC being done away with, the CAST/ New Variety tour was sponsored by the threatened Council and as such brought these acts to many of London’s underused Town Hall stages. This tour doubtlessly gave many people their first taste of so-called ’Alternative’ Cabaret, myself included, and one of the acts I witnessed was the Popticians.
The Duran Duran of the cabaret world, only they’re not Tory’ is what City Limits said of them. They comprise Russ (previously part of The Chefs, as interviewed in No Class 2), Keith and Sue, as well as John Hegley, their leader, who also acts as compere at some of the cabarets they do. Together with their name and humorous songs these four individuals have done as much for myopia as Elvis Costello. As well as relentlessly performing the cabaret circuit, the group have released their first record, Mobile Home / Spare Pear, via their own label, Off The Kerb Records. Both songs were originally recorded on their session for John Peel’s radio programme:
John Peel came to a club we were playing at last year (1983) and quite liked what we did. Then we got a phone call from John Walters, asking us if we wanted to do a session.’
NC: What instruments did you use for the session?
’We used an old acoustic guitar, Russ used his whole drum kit: he only uses the snare when we play live. Keith played clarinet: he now plays trumpet as well, and Sue used alto and baritone sax. She uses the alto mainly when the band play live.’
NC: What is Off The Kerb?
’The Off The Kerb Roadshow is a package of four performers: Roy Hutchins, who does noisy, energetic mime; John Hegley: poet; Podomofski, who is a Lithuanian comic, and the Popticians, with occasional appearances of their roadie, Eric. The Roadshow performs in colleges, art centres and cabarets all over the country.
’The single is taken off the John Peel session. To do this we had to become a record company to make it legal. Addison, who organises the Off The Kerb Roadshow, turned himself into a record company. The offers we had were terrible, that’s why we brought the single out on our own.’
NC: Do you prefer package type tours to ordinary gigs?
’It is much better to work in a package like the Off The Kerb Roadshow. We had all known each other from the cabaret / busking circuit, and liked each other’s work, and knew we could work well together. We’re now working on a much more integrated show. Hopefully it’ll be together for next year. We still do the ordinary gigs. We’ve got our own favourites like the Crown and Castle on Saturday nights in Dalston Junction, there’s always a good atmosphere.’
NC: When I saw the Popticians on the GLC tour they were desperately trying to get the audience to join in with the songs.
’Audience participation is a really important part in our show. Sometimes it takes a lot of hard work to get the audience loud enough, but it’s great when everyone gets into the swing of it. We also have a lot of hecklers at our shows, which keeps us on our toes.’
With humorous words to your songs, is the music secondary?
’We try to keep our music simple, without being boring. The lyrics are important, so when one person is singing the music quietens down so there is no battle with one voice and the horns. This started when we busked when you had to hear the vocals clearly with no amplification. Some of the cabarets we do are acoustic so we do have to be careful that the lyrics can be heard.’
NC: Have you ever been on TV?
’We’ve been on a programme about street entertainers called Street Entertainers Festival, Pyjamarama and Jasper Carrott Show. We entered the 1983 street entertainers competition organised by Time Out. The whole competition was filmed and some of it shown on TV at Christmas.
’The producer from Pyjamarama saw us performing as part of the South Bank Splash that the National Theatre organise each year. He thought we were OK and asked us to be on the programme.
’The Jasper Carrott producers saw us performing at a cabaret called Bush Fires which happens every Friday in the pub next door to the BBC Theatre in Shepherds Bush, where they filmed Jasper Carrott.’
The Popticians’ John Peel Sessions