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Richard Jobson, the frontman with 70's-formed Scottish punk band the Skids, speaks to John Clarkson about their reunion, new acoustic album 'Peaceful Times', and his forthcoming solo tour.
"The last few nights have been a revelation to us," says Richard Jobson. "We took a little bit of time off, and there is a reignited enthusiasm in the Skids. We rehearsed obviously, but it feels very fresh and very tight and the music sounds as relevant as it has ever done. It feels really powerful. I am really enjoying it, and it means a lot."
He is talking to Pennyblackmusic a few days after a show at the Liquid Room in Edinburgh which he described on Twitter as being "maybe the best ever Skids performance," and the week before an equally triumphant gig at the Royal Albert Hall in London on a bill with Penetration and the Buzzcocks.
Of the many reformations by 70's punk bands in recent years, there have been as few as successful or as timely as that of the Skids.
The Skids formed in the working class mining community of Dunfermline in Fife in mid-1977 when front man Jobson was just sixteen. Signed quickly to Virgin in early 1978, their music was anthemic and impassioned, combining soaring, huge guitars with Jobson's politically conscious, powerhouse vocals. The Skids had a fast fire succession of chart hits over the next two years with a string of singles including 'The Saints are Coming'(1978), 'Into the Valley'(1979), 'Masquerade'(1979), 'Charade' (1979), 'Working for the Yankee Dollar'(1979) and 'Circus Games'(1980), and released three classic albums, 'Scared to Dance'(1979), 'Days in Europa'(1979) and 'The Absolute Game'(1980). After troubled guitarist and Jobson's co-songwriter Stuart Adamson left the band in late 1980, they recorded a fourth album 'Joy' in 1981. It, however, lacked the taut energy of its trio of predecessors, and they split the following year.
Richard Jobson formed his next band, art rock project the Armoury Show in 1983, which also had in its line-up another infamously emotionally damaged but highly talented guitarist, the late John McGeoch (Magazine, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Public Image Ltd). The Armoury Show recorded just one album, the much under-rated 'Waiting for the Floods'(1985).
Jobson turned briefly to modelling and television presenting, before developing a twin career as a film director and a writer. He has since directed six independent full-length films, including the highly acclaimed, partially autobiographical ’16 Years of Alcohol’ and Edinburgh-set crime thriller, ‘New Town Killers’. He published three books last year, ‘No Bad Words’, a collection of his lyrics for the Skids; ‘Into the Valley’, a memoir which tells of his often turbulent Fife upbringing and life up to 21 and the Skids’ break-up, and ‘Speed of Life’ his debut novel. ‘Into the Void’, his second novel, was published at the end of June.
Although Stuart Adamson had committed suicide in late 2001, the Skids - in a line-up that consisted of Jobson (vocals), 70’s members Bill Simpson (bass) and Mike Baillie (drums) plus Bruce Watson and Jamie Watson (both guitars) from Adamson’s follow-up band Big Country - began reforming for occasional shows in 2007.
The reunion became more permanent in 2017 when they played a 40th Anniversary tour, which saw them for the first time since the early 1980s play shows outside Scotland and to sell-out audiences across the UK.
Last year they released ‘Burning Cities’, their first album in thirty-seven years, which shot to no. 2 in the independent album charts. A natural successor to their earlier albums, it was produced by Youth (Killing Joke, Paul McCartney, Embrace, The Charlatans), and highlighted their trademark melodic, gigantic-in-sound guitars. Richard Jobson shared co-writing credits on it with the Watsons and Scottish songwriter Martin Metcalfe (Goodbye Mr Mackenzie, the Filthy Tongues). On tracks such as ‘Kings of the New World Order’, about the rise of new Nationalism, and ‘Desert Dust’, which like his best known song ‘Into the Valley’, is about young school leavers being conscripted into the army and sent to fight battles overseas, he revealed that he had lost none of his political concerns.
The Skids have just released a new album, ‘Peaceful Times’, which reworks several of their songs acoustically. In September Jobson will be playing a ten date tour under his own name for what is being billed as an evening of ‘Songs and Stories’, in which he will be telling stories about the Skids, and, joined by special guests Bruce and Jamie Watson, playing songs from ‘Peaceful Times’.
Pennyblackmusic spoke to Richard Jobson about ‘Peaceful Times’, the forthcoming solo tour and the reformation of the Skids.
PB: It seems that no one has been more surprised by the success of your comeback and ‘Burning Cities’ than the Skids themselves. Is that true?
RJ: It is very true (Laughs). Our expectations were pretty low. We just wanted to do something that we were proud of, and that was respectful of our previous work and the legacy that lies there, and not just do something that is painting by numbers.
You don’t stop getting angry just because you are in your 50s, and there is still an edge to what we do and an anger there. It is also an extraordinary time to live in. If you were to ask me when I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen and in the first incarnation of the Skids what would the world would be like, I would have said, “It is going to be a much better place. People my age are going to have a much better life.” Well, it is not true, is it?
PB: You came to ‘Burning Cities’ from an unusual angle because you had not been involved in songwriting for over thirty years. Was it very difficult starting up again?
RJ: It was daunting. The idea was ridiculous in my mind. I am more comfortable now with a pen and a notebook writing because I can do that on my own. You don’t need to collaborate to do that. It was really my relationship with our producer Youth that changed all that. He is very supportive, and he has got an amazing ability to convince you to do something that you feel is ridiculous. He gets you beyond your own defence mechanisms and suddenly – lo and behold – you are doing it.
Oddly as well technology these days suits the way that I like to do things and is so much better than it was in the old days. Things are really quick and fast and mistakes are irrelevant because it all becomes part of the recording, whereas before recording in the analogue way was flat and to try and capture the atmosphere of a band in the studio was so hard. I hated studios back in that period because I never really thought they caught the energy of what the band was about, whereas Youth did.
He realised that I am not a great singer, but was going to perform it. If you hit it running first time or second time, then that is it with me. That is what you are going to get. It is never really going to improve on that (Laughs). He understood if it went on too long I would get bored and it would be a bit flat, so to keep me excited he would say, “That is great. Let’s do something else now.” And the technology is there to do that now. It suited both my ineptitude technically (Laughs) and my attitude to life in because I want to hit things hard and fast.
PB: ‘Burning Cities’ seems like a very natural follow-on from the first three Skids albums.
RJ: I think that is right. ‘Burning Cities’ was a very collaborative record because, as well as working with Youth in a kind of stylised way that was connected to the Skids, I was writing stuff with Bruce Watson and his son Jamie that was again connected to the Skids and the sound of the guitar-playing of Stuart Adamson. I was working too with Martin Metcalfe, who is a friend of mine and a fan of the band. He has a strong understanding of the melodic quality of Stuart’s guitar playing and also the anthemic nature of choruses and the way the verses work. He really understood those things, and he helped tune it into a sound that was very much part of the 21st century.
I think ‘Kings of the New World Order’ is a perfect indication of that because it like a modern day Skids song. You can put that beside ‘Working for the Yankee Dollar’ and ‘The Saints Are Coming’, as we do in the live set, and you don’t blink and think what the hell is that. It doesn’t stand out. I have seen people from our era who have returned after a long absence play their anthemic, well-known songs at gigs and suddenly go into something new and you go, “Oh My God! That sounds terrible. It sounds like a jazz rock song.”
I think the album does work. It has got a nice balance of material, and it has still got an edge in there. My lyrics are slightly less abstract than they used to be, but maybe that has just come with age and maturity. When I wrote ‘Masquerade’, for example, I made references in it to Picasso’s painting, ‘Guernica’. What the hell was I doing? I was seventeen years old. You are not supposed to do that (Laughs), but, of course, the beauty of that period was you could do anything you wanted because you didn’t have the self-awareness you do when you are older. You weren’t thinking, “Oh, wait a minute. I shouldn’t be doing this.” You get to a stage when you get to my age in life in which you think, “Well, wait a minute! What am I actually saying here? Why do I say it in that way?” And there is a different angle on it. Maybe it is just that I am a bit more mature. I am not saying I don’t like the lyrics to ‘Masquerade’. I love those lyrics. The idea that you are seventeen years old and you can get ‘Guernica’ into your song which you are singing on ‘Top of the Pops’ is quite an achievement, I think.
PB: You have always had the habit of ripping up the rule book and you are about to release an acoustic album, ‘Peaceful Times’. Given the state the world is in and the Skids’ political concerns, surely that title is meant ironically?
RJ: It is meant completely ironically (Laughs). It is like peaceful times? What happened to them? Where are they? It is peaceful times with an invisible question mark. It is quite the opposite. The title is taken from the last song on ‘Days in Europa’. I wanted to connect ‘Peaceful Times’ to ‘Days in Europa’, because ‘Days in Europa’ was my own personal homage to being European. People misunderstood that at the time as being some kind of dabbling in right wing ideology. It couldn’t be further from what I was trying to say. I have taken the lyrics from ‘Peaceful Times’ on the ‘Days in Europa’ album, which was basically ‘Animation’, the first track on it, backwards with me reading something on top, and we have inverted it into a new version of ‘Animation’.
We have done something completely different with it as we have done with all the other songs in ‘Peaceful Times’. When you strip things back to just acoustic guitars, the vocals come to the fore. The acoustic album provides the opportunity for the first time ever for the lyrics to be upfront. The words for the very first time ever stand at the front. Rather than those big, beautiful–sounding guitars, my vocals are there at the front.
PB: You published your lyrics collection ‘No Bad Songs’ last year. Do you see doing these acoustic songs as a natural progression of that?
RJ: Yes. After that was published, I talked to Bruce and Martin and some of the people that I worked with, and they said, “I didn’t realise the words were that” or “I didn’t know that song was about that,” and so the idea started to cement itself to think about it in a different way. We thought, “Let’s try it, and if it is completely awful we are under no pressure.” Again that is the joy of modern technology. You can do that without it costing obscene amounts of money, so you know pretty quickly if it is going to work or not and we knew immediately that they were definitely going to work.
They are not just versions of the songs which are already there. They are completely new versions of the songs. ‘Animation’, for example, has got a kind of fingerpicking quality to it, and then then there is a harmonium which also comes in, and then there is the ‘Peaceful Times’ poetry coming at the end. If you think as well, I was writing the lyrics to ‘Days of Europa’ when I was seventeen years old , the words are pretty out there for a kid who was from some kind of rural backwater in central Fife, and who was inspired by the strange movies that I was going to see or the books I was reading. They feel reborn in this new version.
PB: What was your criteria for deciding which songs you were going to put on ‘Peaceful Times’?
RJ: It was only ones which we felt could make the shift from the big guitar to an acoustic sound. They are also songs which have more words attached to them. ‘Animation’ has quite a lot of words as does ‘Into the Valley’, as do the other songs on the album.
There is one brand new song on the album, ‘Kreuzberg ‘79’, which has been lying around for a long time, and I just felt that it was time for it to be heard. It is actually a song for which I wrote the lyrics way back in 1980, but I have fiddled around with them. They are about my experiences when I lived in Berlin in 1979 for about six months and my girlfriend at the time committed suicide. The cathartic nature of being in the Skids and writing the ‘Into the Valley’ book had made it possible for me to re-examine these things. Burying memories, of course, is a powerful way to censor yourself and then unreleasing memory again can be very, very dangerous, but it hasn’t proven to be yet, so i thought, “Why not put that on the album?” It is in a sense the least acoustic song on the album, but I wanted to put it on because I wanted to hint that there are more songs to come. We are planning to do more material.
PB: You have been doing acoustic gigs with Martin Metcalfe during the last year as well in which you have also been playing Skids songs. How much of an influence did that have on this album and the forthcoming tour in September?
RJ: Quite a lot! I did readings from ‘Speed of Light’, my debut novel, at those gigs. It is a story about a couple of aliens who come in search of David Bowie, and the meaning of creativity through the work of David Bowie. Martin would sing as well an array of different Bowie songs each evening, and then we would take a break and come back, and I would tell some quite light, anecdotal stories about the Skids and we would play the Skids songs acoustically, just the two of us. It was really nice. It was really raw, but it had a charm about it that people seemed to like.
People are looking for honesty at the moment, and I was very honest about everything, myself as well and the things that I got wrong as well as right. We were funny as well. We didn’t want to be all miserable. I wanted to give people a sense of this strange journey that I have been on, and what it has been like because it has been a strange journey with as many ups as there have been many downs.
PB: With that in mind how are the shows in September going to work?
RJ: There will be more stories about the adventures that I have had with the Skids. We are going to be playing every song on ‘Peaceful Times’, and talking about where those songs came from. It is going to be stripped back and will feature just three acoustic guitars. We are also wanting to do five cover versions, which are going to be a template for where the Skids went on our journey, and which will include ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and ‘All the Young Dudes’. So, it is going to be a lot of material, the ten songs on the album plus five covers and a lot of conversation in between . Hopefully it will be an entertaining evening for people.
PB: The Skids have shows booked until the middle of next year. What are your plans beyond that and the acoustic dates?
RJ: I am just starting to think about doing another album. My new novel ‘Into the Void’ is coming out at the end of June. Then in October I am going to do five dates as the Armoury Show - hopefully Dunfermline, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Newcastle and Manchester - and I have written a little book about it, ‘Armoury Show’, which is about my experiences with John McGeogh, and about working with a man who I regarded as a guitar genius but at the same time was a man riddled with addiction.
PB: So, is that going to be your second book in your series of memoirs?
RJ: Yes, I am doing it with the Bracket Press who did ‘No Bad Words’. They are doing ‘Into the Void’ too, which is set in Edinburgh. I wrote the story many years ago and then turned it into a movie, ‘New Town Killers’. It was a book before it was a film and the book just disappeared. It has a science fiction aspect to it. This nihilistic man appears in Edinburgh and takes over a hedge fund in a bank. Hr has incredible wealth, but is hell bent on understanding human sensation and through that desire to understand what sensation is destroys everything around him. It is about destruction through pleasure.
PB: You have put your film directing career on hold in recent years. Do you plan to start that up again?
RJ: Hopefully, but it has diversified. There is a film being made about Alan McGee and Creation Records called ‘Creation Stories’, which is written by Irvine Welsh and directed by Nick Moran. I auditioned to play the part of Alan McGee’s father and I got the part, and have just started filming.
PB: You are certainly very busy.
RJ: I feel strong in mind and body. I just feel like going for it. Why not? We were on stage for an hour and a half the other night, and it was a high energy performance. I came off that stage. I had absolutely nothing left, but we are off doing it again this weekend because we love it. When you are getting that amount of pleasure and joy out of it, why not?”
PB: Thank you.