Devo, White Town, Babybird: what happens when your cult pop band gets huge?

Whether it brings uncomfortable Top of the Pops appearances, unwanted tabloid attention or a desperate need for a hot bath, having a surprise hit can change your life – and not always for the better

Gerald Casale, Devo: ‘Suddenly we were fending off screaming girls’

Before the hit:
Devo were witchy exponents of anti-corporate sci-fi nerdcore, toiling away in Ohio basements.

The hit: A cover of the Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction chimed with the tense times in the UK (No 41, 1977), while Whip It became their Stateside calling card (No 14, 1980).

After the hits: The band split in 1990, leaving joint-frontman Mark Mothersbaugh to write music for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Rugrats and Casale to do everything from video directing (Rush, Foo Fighters) to wine tasting.

(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction by Devo.

“We had two hits, really. One in Britain, the other in the States. We’d been making music for years, in obscurity in Akron, by the time Satisfaction was a hit in the UK. After it, we were embraced by England’s punk culture, a while before America woke up to us. Actually, the punk bands decided we weren’t punks. They weren’t about anarchy, they were conformist and anti-intellectual and angry in a nasty way. So they’d come and see us and laugh and spit at us, the pale, punk scientists from America. But we didn’t care. One writer from Melody Maker really went after us. He insinuated his way on to our tour bus, then wrote down everything we said and did but in as snarky a way as possible, like, “Jerry turned his head like a squirrel” or “he tittered like a piglet”. Our British success made Americans prick up their ears but they didn’t really take us seriously until Whip It became a hit. That had an immediate effect. Having screaming girls was great. Suddenly we were fending them off. We didn’t have to demand better seats in restaurants – we just got ’em! We were in the middle of a small club tour – maximum 900 seats – and within two weeks we had to rebook everything for 3,000-5000-seat places because Whip It became so big, so fast.

“We never had a problem being a cult band, but we actually believed we could be as popular as Kiss. Though some of our hardcore fans were disappointed at us for having a hit. It never bothered us, because we were artists who were evolving. Devo was an art band, as much visual as musical artists. So we decided we’d expand into film. William Friedkin, who directed The Exorcist, contacted us. He invited us to his house, to watch cut scenes from his movie Cruising, including hardcore fisting in gay clubs in San Francisco. Even though we thought we were pretty artsy dudes, we were still middle-class Ohio types.

“Eventually, the subtleties of our message, the satirical elements, were lost on our audience. It got trivialised, reduced and it became harder and harder to get taken seriously. Trouble is, we never really learned to play ball. The record company wanted another Whip It and that’s not what it was about. We wouldn’t keep painting the same painting over and over. It wasn’t in our nature.”

David Cunningham, the Flying Lizards: ‘We were almost invisible’

Before the hit:
Art-school conceptualists effecting a series of subversive deconstructions of famous songs.

The hit: A poker-faced cover, featuring Deborah Evans-Stickland’s plummy tones, of Barrett Strong’s early Motown classic, Money, which functioned as prescient critique of Thatcherite greed (UK No 4, US No 45, 1979).

After the hit: “A continuing series of installation works based on real-time exploration of acoustics.”

Money by the Flying Lizards.

“I spent three years studying sound and messing about with tape recorders in the fine art department of Maidstone College of Art, making tape loops. By night, I’d indulge in pop music experiments, and a cover of Summertime Blues – with Deborah Evans-Stickland, also at the college, on vocals – was the result of one of those.

“Really, it was just a lot of noise. This was before punk, although it wasn’t released until 1978. I loved krautrock; I was listening to Kraftwerk and Neu!, anything manic and relentless. I had curated a week of sonic events in a gallery, and was beginning to make a reputation as a record producer. Earlier in 1979, I’d produced the first album by This Heat. The Pop Group were big fans of This Heat so they asked me to work on demo tapes, and their manager Dick O’Dell shared an office with Bob Black. Bob heard what was going on and asked me to produce Wayne County’s last album before he became Jayne. I’d also, among other part-time jobs, been making sausages. Getting to No 4 with Money meant that I didn’t have to make sausages any more. The Flying Lizards never really existed. I saw it as a late version of the Ronettes: a semi-manufactured band. It was me and the singer, plus whoever we dragged in. We never played live; the idea of touring was horrific. We only existed in the studio. And the three people involved in the single – Julian Marshall, Deborah and me – were never in the same room together. As far as I’m aware, no photograph exists of the three of us. We were almost invisible.

“I remember being on Top of the Pops with Captain Beaky; I hated that. There’s novelty records and there’s novelty records. The day after one of our appearances I got recognised by a class of schoolkids in a tube station. They all made me sign their exercise books. Afterwards, I was thinking: ‘This is going to look really dodgy …’

“There was a terrible row over money. Royalties were around £100,000 for the three of us. Julian and I had agreed on a three-way split but the singer asked for 50% of everything. There’s a godawful interview in Australia where we’re not talking to each other. They ask me something and I go: ‘Perhaps Deborah should answer that.’ Then she gives me such a dirty look …

“I turned down a lot of offers, mainly through a lack of confidence. For instance, I got asked to produce Iggy Pop, though I did produce Johnny Thunders. The song made me a much more successful leftfield producer. I produced all the Michael Nyman albums from the one before The Draughtsman’s Contract in 1982, up to 1991. Money has featured in The Wedding Singer, Charlie’s Angels, Ashes to Ashes … Some of the royalty cheques have been quite welcome. I also wanted to produce something very mainstream to see what might happen but EMI said the idea of me producing the Nolans was too much of a liability.”

Bob Grover, the Piranhas: ‘It put us on actual wages for a year’

Before the hit:
It was all Peel sessions and 50-quid gigs for these punk-ska Brightonians.

The hit: A rendition of South African penny whistler Jack Lerole’s kwela standby Tom Hark (UK No 6, 1980).

After the hit: Guitarist Johnny Helmer wrote lyrics for Marillion; Grover still lives in Brighton and tours with a version of the band.

Tom Hark by the Piranhas.

“We’d built up a good following from our first gig on jubilee day in 1977. I’m pretty sure we were the first punk band with ska-influenced songs, before 2 Tone; I remember Suggs coming to see us at the Hope & Anchor in London, telling us he was going to form a band called Madness. We also played kwela, which was fun because it has interweaving melodies you don’t get with ska or punk.

“Our first three singles were in 1978: Tension, Virginity and I Don’t Want My Body. A lot of our songs were poking fun at the “sock down the spandex” brigade. I Don’t Want My Body was exploding the myth that people in bands are somehow sexier than everyone else, although, of course, we are. Record companies thought we were a bloody nuisance, and totally unsellable. When word got round that we were thinking about splitting up, Pete Waterman – then an A&R man – said he could get us a hit single if we did Tom Hark. Our sax player, Zoot Alors, found a 1950s EP with it on in his parents’ collection, and thought it would make a great encore number. So we put it in the set. The original was instrumental but it occurred to me, lying in the back of a Ford Escort van on the way to recording it, that we might get away with putting lyrics to it. So I wrote them on the drive to the studio.

“I couldn’t believe we got on Top of the Pops. We borrowed a 10in portable telly to watch ourselves on it while waiting to start a gig. Elton John was the guest compere. He was really friendly. Bryan Ferry was on – I chatted with him in makeup – and so was Cliff Richard. He didn’t rub shoulders. It was more like he descended onto the stage when it was his turn, like an angel coming down from heaven.

“We had a nice following beforehand, but we were still starving to death. The single put us on actual wages for a year or more, so we had the luxury of buying clothes in shops, rather than at jumble sales. I don’t regret the hit at all. You don’t need a calculator to work out it would take many lifetimes to reach 15 million people in a rusty Transit. Top of the Pops did it in one day. I still find it easy to get gigs now, with the fourth incarnation of the Piranhas, because of that single. It was peculiar having 12-year-old girls stopping me on the street for autographs, especially when I was still wearing tattered and torn jumble sale clothes. In reaction to people around me treating me a bit differently, I did, to my shame, experiment with fairly harmless bursts of ego-silliness.

“I don’t think you ever quite go back to normal. Since the hit I have gone from being a star to being a despised one-hit wonder, to now being frequently described as a legend. Or at least, as a local leg end.”

Stephen Jones, Babybird: ‘I was a bit of an arsehole’

Before the hit:
Life on the dole in Sheffield (and everywhere else from Nottingham to New Zealand).

The hit: The bittersweet (but mostly bitter) You’re Gorgeous (No 3, 1996).

After the hit: The theme tune for Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word; a series of pseudonymous releases as Black Reindeer, Deluder, Arthritis Kid, The Great Sadness and Trucker.

You’re Gorgeous by Babybird.

“I began writing songs in 1985 but didn’t start recording as Babybird until 1995. I released five limited-edition vinyl and CD albums. I got so many good reviews I put out a paperback book of them all! Then suddenly You’re Gorgeous got to No 3. I hadn’t planned it; it was a demo that didn’t even get on to my five albums of lo-fi music! I thought it was a shitty song but the record company told me to rerecord it, so I did. But it’s not a pop song, it’s quite nasty; if someone was to sing it to you, you wouldn’t take it as a compliment, even though people play it at weddings. It’s sarcastic: most of the stuff I do is quite subversive. It spent 16 weeks in the charts and sold just under half a million. I went on Top of the Pops three times. I had to be careful where I went. I moved to Manchester, but there were so many people shouting “You’re gorgeous!” at me at 3am in garages, I had to move to London. As an underground artist, something like that tars you for ever.

“I bought an old gold Mercedes, like the one in Hart To Hart. I remember pulling Neil Hannon’s trousers down in drunken escapades and meeting Paul Weller and Madonna. I had a fun evening down the pub with Kate Moss and Super Furry Animals. I was probably a bit of an arsehole on occasions.

“Later, I met Johnny Depp; he’s a fan. He played on two Babybird albums and directed a million-dollar video for us. I was like: ‘Thank God, people can ask me about something else!’ But You’re Gorgeous is still the thing people talk about. I’ve no idea how much money I made from it, but I do know I got 7.5% of the total, plus the publishing and performance royalties. I couldn’t live off it. Luckily, I did the music for The F Word and that lasted for several years.

“I live in a village in Cheshire and haven’t been recognised for ages. This woman in the bakery did ask me to sign the paper bag her sausage roll was in. I have no idea how she recognised me, as I look nothing like I used to. I’ve released 17 albums in the last three years, a lot on Bandcamp. Some of it is quite orchestral and instrumental; other stuff uses loops and samples. It’s just pocket money, really. I’ve written a couple of novels and a short story. Everything I do is hugely influenced by David Lynch. It’s dark, but there’s humour in there, too. ”

James Johnstone, Pigbag: ‘It was worth it, just to piss off Jimmy Savile’

Before the hit:
The alto saxophonist and guitarist worked in a record shop.

The hit: Exuberant blast of sax-mad punk-funk, Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag (No 3, 1982).

After the hit: Johnstone is a graphic designer curates the Pigbag catalogue.

Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag by Pigbag.

“I’d been in a post-punk band in Cheltenham called Hardware, into Pere Ubu and the Velvet Underground. Pigbag had totally different influences: free jazz, Afrobeat and James Brown. We formed in 1980-81 as a loose collective and it developed into a band after we recruited Simon Underwood, who had been playing bass in the Pop Group. Their manager liked our song Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag and got us in the studio to record it. We literally hadn’t done anything up to that point; when we supported the Slits, Papa went on for 20 minutes. When Dick said we should do it as a single - for his label, Y Records, through Rough Trade - we were like: “How are we going to get it down to three minutes?” We had to have a stopwatch when we recorded it, to try and keep each section down to a minimum.

“The whole attitude was fiercely independent. In fact, we started breaking up right from the recording of Papa. When it ended up being a hit it was completely weird. [Trombonist] Roger Freeman left on the day we were due to do Top of the Pops; some say it was because he wasn’t allowed to wear his donkey jacket. It might be true. We did two Top of the Pops: one when the single was charting, and one at the end of the year, which went out live. We were the last band on and all got pretty hammered and gave up miming and started jumping around. Afterwards, the producer started shouting: ‘You idiots, you ruined the show!’ So I yelled back: ‘Top of the Pops wanker!’ Then [clarinettist] Chris Hamlin turned on Jimmy Savile: ‘And you’re a fucking wanker!’ They called security and we got escorted from the studios. It was worth it, just to piss off Savile.

“The hit spoiled everything. We didn’t make much money. It was split seven ways, for a start. There was a version by Paul Oakenfold that was a hit in 1995, and people have sampled it. It’s the theme tune for Queens Park Ranger fottball club, it’s been used in adverts and The History Boys film; that’s been quite good income. We made more money from it after the band finished.

“Afterwards, Simon and I formed Instinct, and we spent months recording an album with Trevor Horn for ZTT, a glossy dance-pop record like ABC meets Chic, although it never actually came out. I’ve done production and written jingles but I never went back to being in a signed band. A couple of years ago, we thought of doing some gigs and went into rehearsal but it wasn’t really happening. Chris Lee, the trumpeter, decided to do it on his own. We’ve had a few arguments about that, but everyone else I’m still mates with. And yes, Roger’s still wearing the donkey jacket.”

Jyoti Mishra, White Town: ‘I’m still recovering from the craziness’

Before the hit:
Radical Marxist Mishra was living in Derby, working for Militant and in a failing indie band.

The hit: Your Woman (UK No 1, US No 23, 1997).

After the hit: Still lives in Derby, still operates as White Town, still a Marxist.

Your Woman by White Town.

“I always wanted to reach as many people as possible, because if you’re a crazy Marxist type, as I am, you want to change the world. I was in Militant from the age of 16 to 20. I sold papers and gave lectures on Lenin or Trotsky; I just wanted to throw bricks at coppers.

“White Town started off as a guitar band, influenced by the Wedding Present, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr and Pixies. I formed the band after seeing the Pixies in late 1988, at Rock City in Nottingham, which was life-changing. The first White Town gig was in 1989. By the third gig we were supporting Primal Scream, which was amazing. We sent some stuff off to labels but none of them liked what we were doing, so I became a lo-fi solo artist. I’d been reading radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin and cultural theory stuff like Julia Kristeva and Foucault and was trying to bring some of that into a pop song. Your Woman sold about 500-600 copies as part of an EP in July 1996. By January 1997 it was given a separate release when I signed to EMI. One day, by sheer fluke, Chris Evans was away, Mark Radcliffe covered for him, and played it on Radio 1. Then it went mental. It went straight in at No 1.

“My life changed in every way; I think I’m still recovering from the craziness. The tabloids sent reporters to the pubs in Derby, which didn’t really work because I’ve been straight-edge since I was 16. I had money for the first time, which was nice. I could probably have been a millionaire but I sabotaged it by leaving EMI. I remember coming back from London, getting in the bath and wanting to cry. Major labels can play terrible mind games and you start to question your own judgment.

“I never got disowned by the underground because I was never hip or credible in the first place. I still release records. Wiley did a version of Your Woman with Emeli Sandé on, and that gave me a chunk of money. And it appeared in a rom-com with Michelle Pfeiffer called I Could Never Be Your Woman. I write for Sound On Sound magazine too, tech stuff, and I’ve done paid photography. I still do gigs as White Town. I do lots of different things. I’m freelance so you have to work all the time. It’s like being a hamster on a wheel.”


Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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