Music: Tony Christie interview
He knows the way to Amarillo, now Tony Christie is going back to his Sheffield roots and monkeying about with Alex Turner, he tells Aidan Smith
TONY Christie, the old-style crooner, is talking about his night out with Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys and, bless him, he makes a gaffe which illustrates exactly how long he's been in showbiz, and the kind of acts he had to battle to gain the respect of the most demanding audiences of all.
"So there we were at the Q Awards, Alex and me, and he goes up to collect his prize for his other band, the Last Glove Puppets, and… "
It's the Last Shadow Puppets, Tony.
"So it is. That's what you get for coming up against as many glove puppet guys as I did. Them and plate-spinners and strippers and mind-readers and tightrope-walkers and Hunchbacks of Notre Dame."
The working men's clubs of south Yorkshire in the early Sixties were full of these variety-theatre refugees and every weekend the miners and steelworkers who had grafted hard for their nights out insisted on being well entertained.
"The model for the clubs was the Coliseum," Christie continues, illustrating his point with a feed-him-to-the-lions thumbs-down. "One time, a comedian who'd gone down badly broke a tiny dressing-room window to get away rather than walk through the audience. But the worst thing that could happen was the concert secretary calling time on you by marching across the stage and paying you off in front of them – absolutely humiliating."
I'm in a London hotel with Christie, now 65 but looking sharp in a blazer and jeans combo – "Drainpipes," he confirms, "like I wore back then." His quiff hasn't changed in that time, though if you suggest it's a bit thinner, he'll quip: "Who wants fat hair?" Forgotten through most of the Eighties and Nineties, his career was revived by the comic chronicler of Northern clubland, Peter Kay, who turned Christie's 'Is This The Way To Amarillo' into a charity anthem. Now he's going after something he's never enjoyed before – artistic credibility – and that's where Alex Turner comes in.
The Arctic Monkeys' 'The Only Ones Who Know' kicks off Christie's new album, a collection of songs by acts from his home city, Jarvis Cocker and the Human League included, which have been stripped down and retooled by the old trouper – and it's a record which uses that city's guarantee of world-class workmanship as its title and wears the badge of quality well: Made In Sheffield.
"We're a proud city," he says, "but we're not very good at promoting ourselves. Sheffield has always been a vibrant place for music but we don't shout about it. Liverpool does, Manchester does, but I'd say the music that's come out of Sheffield has been more innovative."
Wikipedia lists 47 different Sheffield acts – shamefully Tony Christie is not among them – so there's plenty of scope for a follow-up from the songs of Joe Cocker (who Christie remembers packing out Sheffield pubs as Vance Arnold), ABC and Ace, though maybe not Cabaret Voltaire. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. After so long in the wilderness, Christie is just happy to have made this record.
He's got another local boy to thank for it and the trick pulled off by Richard Hawley as producer is one borrowed from Rick Rubin, rehabilitator of tired and weary voices such as Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond. The album's highlight is 'Coles Corner', a song Hawley penned for Christie but which got lost amid the madness of 'Amarillo'.
"He sent me a tape of it three years ago but I never got around to playing it," admits Christie. "At that point I was getting 10 songs a day – all of them rubbish. Because I once had a hit with a number called 'I Did What I Did For Maria', they all had 'Maria' in the title and castanets rattling at the end of every second line. But a while later I heard Richard doing his own version of 'Coles Corner' on the car radio and said to my son Sean (his manager]: 'That's the kind of production I need.' Richard and I met and hit it off right away. We both hate hip-hop and stuff created on computers and prefer music that's real."
So is Christie – by his own admission, born 20 years too late as a crooner – a fan of the Arctic Monkeys? "When I first heard their version of 'The Only Ones Who Know' I thought it was a right old racket, but Alex is a top lyricist. He's a nice lad and he told me the other night that he loves my version. It's the way they would have done it, but they ran out of studio time."
The Jarvis Cocker song, 'Born To Cry', was commissioned for Notting Hill but delivered too late to make the soundtrack. "It's six minutes long," says Christie. "Can you imagine me getting away with that at the Ivanhoe?" (This was the working men's club in Conisbrough, where he was born). But he really rates Cocker, adding: "I think he should be the Poet Laureate."
The most radical reworking is his version of 'Louise', unrecognisable from the Human League original. Christie doesn't know Phil Oakey because the League's Eighties pomp coincided with his exile in Spain, where he convinced himself he'd never get another chance, but he hopes they can meet soon.
He's still buzzing from that awards bash where, as well as hanging out with Alex Turner, he was paid a handsome compliment by Tom Jones – "He told me my recording of 'So Deep Is The Night' was the greatest ever." Christie would love to have partied through the night but feared being unable to keep up with Jones. "I'm off the booze again," he reveals. "I've drunk enough in my career for the pair of us."
The son of a National Coal Board accountant, Christie felt obliged to follow his father into book-balancing but was soon earning 4 a night at the Ivanhoe warming up for Norman Collier. For such a small, wiry man, he's always had a huge voice, attributing this to having to shout to hear himself against a barrage of just-arrived electric guitars. Trying to model himself on Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Vic Damone, it took him 10 years to have his handful of hits, including 'Avenues And Alleyways', the theme to TV's The Protectors. After they dried up, he thought he'd survive on the chicken-in-a-basket circuit, only for the cabaret venues to be hit by the loss of their gaming licences, so Christie and his wife Sue – "a Sheffield lass, I spotted her in the front row at Greasebrough Social Club 40 years ago and was smitten" – fled the emerging punk rock for the continent.
He loved the sunshine and the golf in Andalucia but missed Britain and hated his regular gig in Germany – shows in the "schlager" style with sickly-sweet songs set to a polka beat. Instead of Norman Collier, the bill-topper there was David Hasselhoff, and a 1999 hit as the voice of All Seeing I with a Jarvis song didn't lead to the British comeback he craved. "I shouldn't knock Germany because it earned me a living for 20 years, but I felt like I was prostituting myself. I should have been singing better stuff but no one was interested."
Maybe Christie's lowest ebb came on a trip back to the old country to see the grandchildren – he has five – when he heard a Manchester radio presenter declare him dead. "When you come up through the ranks of the clubs of south Yorkshire you know you've no divine right to any longevity, but that was hard to take."
Even Peter Kay's championing of Christie, which started on his TV comedy Phoenix Nights, can seem like a back-handed compliment. "He told me that when he was a baby 'Amarillo' was the song his mum sang to send him to sleep," Christie laughs. "I'll always be grateful to Peter – it's thanks to him I've finally made it back here – but anyone could have had a hit with 'Amarillo'. I don't want my new album to bury that daft song but I would like people to say, 'He can sing, he can carry a tune.'"
Tony Christie may not know his shadow puppets from his glove puppets but he saw all of them off at a time when showbiz seemed as tough as rolling out steel or digging for coal.
Made In Sheffield (Decca/Autonomy) is released November 10 www.tonychristie.com
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