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When chatting with a longstanding fellow writer for her 'A Life in Music' column, in which she talks to a different Pennyblack writer about the impact on music on their lives, Cila Warncke discovers that Denzil Watson doubled as a gigging musician in Sheffield and Lincolnshire.
Denzil Watson has been writing for Pennyblackmusic for twenty years, just one chapter of his life in music. On a wintery afternoon, he settled down in front of the inevitable Zoom camera to talk about his journey from an early-to-bed market town to the ‘epiphany’ of hearing Joy Division and all that followed.
Where do you hale from?
Grantham, Lincolnshire. When I was a kid, it was difficult to see live music. The nearest place to see gigs was Nottingham, and the last train was 10pm so the first proper gig I went to was New Order in Nottingham, when I was about 17.
Buying music was difficult too. All my musical education was from John Peel. We’d watch Top of the Pops, tape the chart show on a Sunday, listen to Peel and tape the show.
What musical culture(s) did you identify with most strongly as a young person?
Punk, really. Stranglers, The Clash, it was exciting, challenging the powers that be. Peel played all that. I got into more indie rock bands, obscurer bands, listening to Peel. When I went to Uni in Sheffield in 1984 there were loads of gigs, loads of venues, local bands like Cabaret Voltaire, who I was really into. I started reviewing shows for the student newspaper, Dart; went to loads of gigs.
How has your relationship with music evolved?
My mum’s always been musical, played piano. My dad would listen to Abba and Elton John on the car stereo. Hearing Joy Division for the first time was an epiphany moment – this is my music, this is what I’ve been wanting to hear. I heard ‘Decades’ on the Festive 50, and was obsessed. My mate heard it too and we were hooked. We formed a Joy Division tribute band, Warsaw Pylon, when I was 16. We started to play around Grantham, then write our own stuff and integrate it. When you’re a teenager, you’re fearless.
Did you continue as a musician?
At university I was busy, seeing a lot of gigs, reviewing, studying, so I didn’t play in bands. But in my post-grad year I formed a band that sounded a bit like Sisters of Mercy. Exciting. We did a few gigs around Sheffield, then got a local record deal and released our debut single. That was the birth of Poisonous Little Creatures, my first proper band.
What are the biggest differences in your musical tastes between ‘then’ and ‘now’?
None. I was joking the other day that I’m seeing more 80s bands now than I did in the 80s. It’s sort of reaffirming that the first bands I liked are still going, or still revered. Kids are really into Joy Division these days. I like more bands, but the ones I latched onto in the 80s, I’m still listening to.
What attracts you to an artist/band?
It’s instantaneous. You hear it and think, that’s for me. It’s melodic – it could be acoustic, it could be hard, but it drags you into their world; a particular sound, a particular image. I remember seeing the Jesus and Mary Chain in 1984. They sounded awful but had a cool image.
I like stuff that’s independent, uncompromising, non-commercial. It’s artists expressing themselves, not faking it. The bands I’ve gotten into recently, like Sleaford Mods, it’s like ‘wow, there’s nothing else like this. It’s funny, clever, a lot of swearing, but clever.’ Fat White Family – they write about stuff other bands don’t write about. Luke Haines, the Auteurs, he does something unique. He’s good at telling stories, he introduces you to characters you didn’t know about. One of my favourite bands at the moment, Dubioza Kolektiv, I saw on a Facebook advert.
What’s a band you used to love that makes you cringe now?
Morrissey. I didn’t like what he stood for when he went solo and became right wing. Any bands I’ve really fallen out of love with? Not really, no. Some bands you get frustrated with because they don’t release new material. The Cure haven’t released an album in 13 years. What’s all that about? You’re a professional musician. You’re supposed to be writing songs.
Who’s an artist you came to late, but now love unreservedly?
Queen, probably. I saw them at Live Aid but when my son was listening to them, I was like ‘this is really good.’ I’m a fan now.
Three gigs that meant something extra-special?
1. New Order at Heaton Park (11 September 2021). That was a big gig after a long hiatus.
2. That Petrol Emotion @ The Town and Country Club, London (3 October 1988). The best live band of the ‘80s and that night the place was packed to the rafters, they were completely in sync with the crowd.
3. Strangelove at The Duchess in Leeds (4 February 1998).
When and how did you get involved with Pennyblackmusic?
In 2001, I sent my band’s CD to Pennyblack and got talking to John. He asked if I’d do some writing, which is how it started. John has been very supportive over the years.
How would you characterise a) the site and b) your contributions?
Pennyblack has enthusiastic writers. Because these writers have the freedom to interview bands they like, you get articles on groups that don’t get covered in the mainstream press. Pennyblack writers’ Albums of the Year are always so diverse. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve never heard of, and some [stuff] in common.
My contribution in absolute terms has been big, because I’ve written for so long. There are a lot of interviews, live reviews. Pennyblack is a diary of my gig history almost. I’ve had the chance to interview my heroes and most of them have been cool. Some were a bit spiky.
Why does music writing matter?
Because you get a chance to ask those questions that, as a fan, you want to ask.
Tell us about a memorable Pennyblack interview?
Luke Haines. I’d done my homework; he knew I got what he was doing. It flowed, there were no awkward silences. I felt like a proper journalist. He can be a grumpy bugger, but that day he was in a good mood, a talkative mood.
What is your vocation outside of music writing?
I teach corporate finance and am a student experience lead at Sheffield Hallam University.
1. The first song you remember? That I’m admitting to? ‘Peaches’ by The Stranglers
2. A wedding song? We had two. One in the church – ‘Perfect Day’ by Lou Reed – and first dance, ‘Baby I Love You’ by The Ramones
3. A funeral song? ‘Decades’ by Joy Division
4. The artist you’d most like to be? Being in The Cramps would have been fun, so I’ll go for Lux Interior.
5. The song you never, never get tired of? ‘Shipbuilding’ by Robert Wyatt.
Denzil 01 – 1989 with Poisonous Little Creatures: picture credit: Duncan Kitchin
Denzil 02 – 2015 with RepoMen: picture credit: Glenn Ashley
Denzil 03 – 2019 with Batman’s Treaty: picture credit: Jason Ruffell
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