Herbie Armstrong - Interview
published: 15 / 1 / 2012
Herbie Armstrong is the former guitarist for Van Morrison, and was in the 70's bands Fox and Yellow Dog. He speaks to John Clarkson about his comeback on 'Britain's Got Talent', and 'Real, Real Gone', a new compilation of his solo recordings
“Yesterday I was in IKEA with my wife, and we were at the check-out and the girl there said to me, ‘You were in here last week, weren’t you?’ and I said, ‘No, I wasn’t. I haven’t been here for a few years.’ She said, ‘No, you were definitely here last week or maybe a week or two before,’ and I said, ‘No I wasn’t,’ and she said,‘You were definitely here because I recognise you.’ And then my wife whispered to her, ‘’Britain’s Got Talent’,’ and the check-out girl let out this loud ’Oh, yes,’ and made me go bright red because she started telling all the other tellers in IKEA and all the queues of other people. She was going, ‘It is him. Look! Look!’” Herbie Armstrong is a fabulous raconteur. “You have got to forgive me,” he tells Pennyblackmusic early on in an interview with us. “I am a typical Irishman. I get on a subject and I just mothball.” He is talking to us about ‘Real, Real Gone’, a new compilation of his solo recordings that expands back over thirty years, and the appearance he made on the Simon Cowell-produced prime time television talent show, ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, which sparked it. When Armstrong went on the fifth annual series of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ in April of last year, he stuck out from the motley assortment of other singers, child performers, animal acts, dance troupes and acrobats that constitute it. At 66, the Belfast-born Armstrong was first of all considerably older than most of the other acts. He had also already had a long musical career that expanded back to the sixties. The young Herbie Armstrong spent his teens and early twenties touring Ireland and the North of England with Irish show bands, and also worked for six months in late 1967 as the lead guitarist in Screaming Lord Sutch’s backing band. In the early 1970s, after a period living abroad in Portugal in which he ran a riding school, Armstrong founded in London the pop band Fox, with the American songwriter and musician Kenny Young (who had written the 1964 hit, ‘Under the Boardwalk’, for the Drifters) and Australian singer Noosha Fox. Fox had two major chart hits, 1974’s ‘Only You Can’ and 1976’s ‘S-S-S Single Bed’, both of which sold over 200,000 copies. While ‘Only You Can’ reached number three in the UK charts, ‘S-S-S Single Bed’ stalled at number four, but was also a number one hit in Australia. There were also three Fox albums, ‘Fox’ (1975), ‘Tails of Illusion’ (1975) and ‘Blue Hotel’ (1977). When Noosha left Fox after ‘Blue Hotel’, Armstrong and Young maintained their song writing partnership and formed new wave act Yellow Dog. Yellow Dog released three albums, ‘Yellow Dog’(1977), ‘Beware of the Dog’(1978) and ‘Strangers in Paradise’(1981), and in 1978 had two chart singles, ‘Just One More Night’ and ‘Wait Until Midnight’ (the latter of which was the first single that this writer bought as a twelve year old). Herbie Armstrong spent the late 1970s and early 1980s touring the world with his childhood friend Van Morrison, and played lead guitar on four of his albums, ‘Wavelength’(1978), ‘Into the Music’(1979), ‘Common One’(1980) and ‘Beautiful Vision’(1982). He then embarked on a solo career, which saw him release one album, ‘Back Against the Wall’, in 1983 on the short-lived Making Waves label, before he moved on from music to take up a career in management in the licensed trades. He ran in London for a while Armstrong’s, a restaurant, whose regular customers included Yellow Dog’s old label boss Richard Branson at Virgin Records and the comedian Kenny Everett, for whom Fox had written his TV theme tune. Armstrong then went on to open two live venues in Sheffield including the renowned Boardwalk, and now runs The Fountain, an inn, live venue and restaurant in the village of Rowland’s Castle near Portsmouth. “What happened was that a friend of mine heard ‘Back Against the Wall’ about a year ago,” Armstrong says, explaining what prompted him to audition for ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. “He didn’t know that it existed and I played it to him as he loves his music, and he said, ‘My God! That sounds amazing. You ought to re-release this stuff you know.’” “One thing led to another, and I had written this new song, ‘Still in My Heart’, which when I played it in my pub a lot of people liked it. I would have all these big blokes with tattoos coming up to me and saying, ‘You just made me cry, mate. That reminded me of my mother who died and also my grandmother.’ It is not about that. It is a love song, but it moved people and my friend kept saying to me, ‘Listen, you ought to do ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. You should do it with that song,’ and I kept saying, ‘No way. Not in a million years.’ He went on and on and said, ‘If you want that song to be heard, that is the only way that you will do it. You might just get on, and Simon Cowell or Louis Walsh might hear it and they might just pick up on it for one of their acts.’ It was never going to be me that was going to release the tune, and so I thought about it and in the end I went and queued up for five hours last January in the snow outside the O2 in London where the auditions were taking place.” After getting through the audition at the 02, Armstrong was invited back to perform in one of its filmed heats, this time at the London Hammersmith Apollo in front of a large audience and regular ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ judges, actress Amanda Holden and comedian Michael McIntyre, and guest judge and ‘X-Factor’ personality Louis Walsh. The TV footage of the heat shows Armstrong, accompanying himself on electric acoustic guitar, launching into ‘Still in My Heart’, but being waved down by a face-pulling Holden, who after boos from the audience and complaints from the other judges, asks if he might have a second song that they are more familiar with. “And then Amanda stopped me,” laughs Armstrong. “It was my big chance-and the only reason why I went on to do that song-and she stopped me. People ask me if it was set up and it wasn’t set up at all. You can see the surprise in my face. I thought, ‘What do I do now? Do I walk off?’ I was about to unplug and walk off, but then I heard Michael McIntyre say, ‘I like that song,’ and Louis Walsh looked at her and the crowd started to boo.” Armstrong, after only the barest of pauses, began to play Van Morrison’s ‘Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?’ It was a strong enough performance to win the approval of all three judges, and to secure him a place in the next round and semi-final. In the semi-final Armstrong played the Barry Manilow song. ‘Mandy’, which was penned by Armstrong’s friend Scott English, once again in front of Amanda Holden and Michael McIntyre, and also Louis Walsh’s replacements Simon Cowell and ‘Baywatch’ actor David Hasselhoff. He won praise from all four judges, although Cowell thought he had picked the wrong tune, but lost out in a public vote to be put through to the final to an organist and a boy band. “It is manipulated. There is no doubt about that. It is staged for certain people to go through because it makes entertainment,” says Armstrong, whose backing tapes for ‘Mandy’ were changed, then back again, then changed again at the last minute by the programme. At the same he is fast to defend the series. “I am not saying that though in a bad way,” he adds, having turned down £5,000 to publish a kiss and tell story about it in a national newspaper. “I would say to anyone with a bit of talent to go for it. It is a chance that you might never otherwise get in your life. You might not get there. You might not win it, but it is the only way these days you will get acknowledged as an artist.” “A lot of people really slag Simon Cowell off for what he is doing for the music industry, but there is no music industry anymore for people like me. There is some sort of music industry there, but how you get through it is beyond me? I know young guys from my bar who are unbelievable singers, musicians and writers, and they don’t have deals either. A lot of labels have gone bust, but even those that are left are playing safe and not signing very much.” “I recorded a few tracks after ‘Back Against the Wall’ which Rod Argent from the Zombies produced and played keyboards on,“ he recounts. “This was in late 1980s, and I did a showcase for all these major record labels, Sony and Virgin and all the biggies. I had this great band, which included Nick Beggs from Kajagoogoo, who is an amazing bass player, and Peter Van Hooke, who is a fantastic drummer, and we did this showcase which all the A & R men from the record companies put up the money for. They hadn’t met me, but they had heard the demos and none of them were interested because as they told my manager at the time they thought that I was too old. I think that it was Phonogram that said, ‘If he had been nineteen or twenty instead of in his forties, we would have given him £250,000 to do an album’, and my manager said, ‘If he was that age, he wouldn’t be writing songs like that.’“ “Do you think that I would have ever, ever had an album out at 66 if it hadn’t been for ‘Britain’s Got Talent’? I would never have got through a record company’s door if it hadn’t been for it, whether it is an independent label like I am on now or any other label.” “I think that programmes like ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ give people like Susan Boyle a chance” he finishes, reflecting on the dowdy middle-aged West Lothian spinster, who came second in the first series of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ in 2007 and has become one of the record industry’s most successful acts. “Who would have ever opened the door of a record company to Susan Boyle? Whether you like it or not, and whether it is manipulated and whether Simon Cowell makes trillions out of it, it has given me a fun year.“ The ‘Real, Real Gone’ compilation, which has been released on Floating World Records, extends over sixteen tracks, and is an album of two separate halves. The first half features some of the main highlights of Herbie Armstrong’s career. There are all three songs from ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ – ‘Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?’, ‘Mandy’ and the ill-fated ‘Still in My Heart’. Other tracks in the first half include ‘His Love’, a song from the Rod Argent –produced sessions, and the title track which, another Van Morrison cover and Armstrong’s 1981 first single on his own, was the song that launched his solo career. “What happened is that we were in the South of France and we were recording ‘Common One’,” he reminisces. “And Van had written ‘Real Real Gone’ and he came to me and he said, ‘I have written a song and here’s the chorus,’ and he started playing it to me really, really slow like a Sam Cooke number. I said to him, ‘Why don’t you bring it up a tempo?’ So I started singing and brought it up a tempo, and he looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you sing it? You should sing it’ because he knew that I used to do some of the singing in Yellow Dog, and I went, ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ and poo-pooed the idea. And we continued doing the album, and at the very end we put the track down and he said, ‘Look you can have the track. Why don’t you sing it?’ He gave me a little bit of paper with the lyrics scribbled on it, and he said, ‘Here you go’. and I recorded it and Van produced it. He didn’t do his own version until nearly ten years later and the ‘Enlightenment’ album.” As good as the first half of the album is, consisting of soulful singer-songwriter material, the second half, which comprises of all of the 1983 ‘Back Against the Wall’ album, is if anything even better. Reminiscent in mood of classic Frank Sinatra albums such as ‘In the Wee Small Hours’, this is brooding late night material embedded on tracks such as ‘Losing You’ ‘Heaven Only Knows’, ‘Save the Last Dance’ and ‘Coming In From the Rain’ with a deep sense of loss and pain. Several of Van Morrison‘s band of the time-keyboardist and trumpeter Mark Isham who has since gone on to his own success as a film composer; drummer Peter Van Hooke; saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and guitarist Phil Palmer –and also former Frank Zappa sideman and guitarist Patrick O’ Hearn give it much of its scorched, melancholic appeal. Armstrong meanwhile with his velvety vocals conveys both unfulfilled, smouldering longing and heart-heavy hurt. “It is a very tortured record,” admits Armstrong. “I was going through a divorce at the time. Mark Isham was going through a divorce. Pee Wee Ellis was. There were three of us going through a divorce and then in complete contrast one of us - believe it or not –was getting married. It was a very emotional record.” “We begged, borrowed and stole studio time to make it for absolutely nothing. At one point Van wanted to come in and put the money up and finish the album off, but we really wanted to do our own thing. I love Van, but if Van had been involved it would have become a Van thing. It would have taken our identity away. I am glad that we didn’t.” ‘Back Against the Wall’, despite winning respectful early reviews and interest, however, was barely heard. “What happened with that album was that it was done by a company called Making Waves, who had Elvis Costello on them at the time,“ says Armstrong. “Making Waves pressed up at the time seven thousand albums. CDs had just come out. They pressed up a thousand CDs. They sold out of all of those, and what happened was that the same week they went out of stock Making Waves went bankrupt, and ‘Back Against the Wall’ was lost.” “The album was stuck in liquidation for four years and EMI finally came out of the woodwork and bought the album out, but they weren’t able to do anything with it. They brought it out, but by then it was too late. It was four years down the line. “ “It was a real pity,” he concludes about this great lost album. “Everybody involved had faith in it, really good faith in that record.” Herbie Armstrong recently played his first gig in London in fifteen years at the Upstairs Garage, which sold out and attracted an audience of about three hundred into the tiny venue. In between running his pub, he has played other shows too at various venues across the country, and also attracted two unlikely allies in Princess Diana’s former lover James Hewitt and celebrity PR Max Clifford. “I did a place called The Polo Club in Marbella which belongs to James Hewitt,” he says, finishing the interview with one final anecdote. “He has opened this club there, and they saw me on TV and invited me to do two nights there, and so I went over, just me playing on my own with an acoustic guitar, and it was really good.” “My wife got this newsletter from them afterwards, and the cover showed James Hewitt and I together, and right next to it there was a write up from Max Clifford which said, ‘I love The Polo Club. It is one of my favourite restaurants.’” So my wife decided to get touch with Max Clifford to see if he could help me, and she emailed him with the clip from ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ and the photograph of me and James Hewitt together, and within half an hour his secretary had got back to her and said, ‘We watched the clip. We are very interested in handling your husband, but we only do three months at a time, and it is £15,000 a month, so that will be £45,000.’” "We don’t have that kind of money and my wife emailed her back and said ‘We’ll keep it in mind,’” he laughs. “And then they got back to her again, and said, ‘Well, please do keep it in mind. Max has watched it again. He is very keen.’ This lady has got back to us three times now. When I used to phone around the record companies in the ‘80s, they would never get back to me. They would totally ignore me. Now there is one of the biggest PR guys in the world, and they have got back to us three times.” For now Armstrong believes, however, that his immediate future lies with television. When he speaks to Pennyblackmusic, he is thinking about applying to do another TV talent show. Where he goes from here remains then entirely to be seen. Herbie Armstrong has though had the most remarkable and unusual of comebacks.
|720 Posted By: Q Russell, Spain on 21 Sep 2014|
Sept 21st 2014
Just met the man and his fabulous wife ! The article is fascinating and should be given huge coverage. Not often one is, by chance, given an opportunity to be in social intercourse with such overlooked talent. Charming, amusing and thoroughly self effacing and such good company - as a pair !
So pleased to have made contact - Huesta pronto !
Quentin & Caroline
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