Taking in lost rockabilly classics, misunderstood songwriters and the power of blues music, Sheffield's greatest troubadour takes Rhys Buchanan on a brilliant tour through nine of his favourite songs.
“It’s a good job there’s no beer involved, otherwise we’d be here for a week.”
From memories of record shopping in Sheffield with his Dad, through to cramming vinyl into flight cases on tour in America with Pulp, Richard Hawley makes a point of hunting down and remembering the music he loves.
He talks with a wisdom that’s both immersive and compelling about the selection of songs he’s put together, which feel like a much-needed history lesson, weaving from blues legends through to heartbroken rockers. But before we start discussing the songs, Hawley makes it clear that they weren’t easy to pick, and on another day they could have been completely different.
“It changes daily with everybody; it revolves around what you’re listening to at the moment or things that are semi-permanent in your mind”, he neatly sums up, “I certainly don’t have cast iron favourite pieces of music.”
We caught Hawley during a rare bit of down time as he gears up for the release of his eighth solo record Further and he tells me “It’s really nice to be back home in Sheffield briefly. I’ve just been sat on the bed reading with the dogs.” He continues in his distinguished Sheffield brogue, “I’ve started re-reading Patrick O'Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin stories. There’s twenty books and every ten years I go back to them. It’s great if you’re on tour or travelling a lot, because there’s so many of them that you really get into it. I always hate it when you find a really amazing book and then it finishes and you’re fishing around for something that’s as good for a while.”
Without straying onto a tangent about literature for too long, we swerve the conversation back to the matter at hand and talk through a collection of songs that have signposted Hawley's life-long love of music.
“Loy Clingman was from Phoenix, Arizona and a friend of Lee Hazlewood and Duane Eddy. Lee used to talk about Loy a lot and that was how I got into Loy Clingman and his music. He never travelled very far outside of Phoenix in terms of his success, but I think his impact on Lee and Duane was quite big.
“In the lyrics to this song he says “My daughter is a stranger to me”, it’s definitely a father’s song and it breaks me up every time I hear it. I think at some point in their lives, most parents will get things wrong, it’s an extremely poignant song.
“The song really moves me. I’ve got to be really careful when it comes on because I can end up in bits, so I don’t play it that often. I admire a song that can push buttons like that, because you’ll be feeling completely okay and then a song will come on and it just moves you to tears. I think that’s what a great song is, it should elicit a response. It’s not just fucking wallpaper; music is massively important.
“I’ve written about these things myself. There’s a song on my last album Hollow Meadows called “What Love Means”, which is about the day my daughter moved out of home. The only way I could make sense of it was to write a song to process it in my head. But the other aspect about “A Stranger To Me” is in the last verse, where he talks about his daughter becoming a parent and it’s this sense of continuum. I just think it’s a really beautiful song and it’s got a great guitar riff as well.”
“Obviously Gloria Jones did the original version and Soft Cell covered it, but I chose this one because I’m a big rockabilly fan. This is a kind of early 80s’ British rockabilly on a Dutch label called Rockhouse Records and it’s just the best version of this song by a mile. I always play it whenever I DJ, and without fail every night that I play this record at least ten people come up and say “What the fuck was that?”
“It elicits such a great response and it’s a fantastic version of this song. I’m a great admirer of Dave Phillips and he’s still around. I remember it like yesterday when I first discovered it; I found it in Kenny’s Records on The Wicker in Sheffield. Kenny was a friend of my Dad’s, but he used to run this record shop that just sold country, rock and roll, early fifties R&B, blues and bluegrass, you’d always find some amazing shit in there.
“I discovered so much stuff in there. One day he just played this record and I just said ‘Sold’ straight after the first verse. I’ve still got the same copy and it’s still in good nick too. The album’s great as well, it’s called Wild Youth. They call it neo-rockabilly or proto-rockabilly, whatever, it’s just fucking great music, the end.”
“The MC5 covered Beauregard and The Tuffs version of this. The original version was recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis, then there was this soul singer called Ted Taylor who did it. The version I like the best though is Beauregard and The Tuffs. It’s something you’d maybe find on a Pebbles or a Nuggets compilation, but I’ve never seen it on any of those. It’s quite obscure. I bought that 45” in America on tour actually. I bought so many records on my last tour that I had to have a flight case made to ship them home.
“You can still find these little stalls that are selling amazing stuff for like 99 cents. I remember when I was touring with Pulp, me, Jarvis and Steve bought that much vinyl, we’d be slotting albums into flight cases and guitar cases just to get them home. I think we got fined because the weight of the records pushed up the overall weight by quite a lot, it was quite funny.
“I guess that’s the thing about collecting records - there’s so many that are near mythic status. It’s so easy to do things now, with the press of a button you can hear anything, but I quite like the mystery of things though. There’s not many left in the world now, but I love the mystery of hunting stuff down. I’ve got a lot of records that aren’t on YouTube and they’re certainly not on Spotify.
“I haven’t been back to America for a long time, but I do look forward to going to the record shops, I like going to record shops, full stop. I found this one in a little tiny stall just outside of Boston and I remember getting really excited. It’s a mega version of it. “Love is like a ramblin’ rose, the more you water it the more it grows,” but it’s said in such an aggressive manner it’s almost like an oxymoron. It’s almost the antithesis of what the lyrics are saying. I think it’s quite joyful as well, and again it’s got a fucking huge guitar riff that’s really primal.”
“I’ve been listening to The Wolf all my life. My Dad actually played with him and worked with him and Hubert Sumlin when they toured in the early 60s’. I was raised on his music, whether it be the Rockin’ Chair album or the Moanin’ in the Moonlight album that he did on Chess Records.
“There’s something about the groove on this track. If it doesn’t make you move, then you’re literally fucking brain dead. Hubert Sumlin’s guitar playing and Wolf’s voice, it just sends shivers everywhere. I think he was one of the most incredible performers and musicians of all time.
“I wish everybody could listen to this record. You put it on and it’s quite surreal, because Wolf used to write some really strange lyrics sometimes, like “My mind is rambling.’” The protagonist in this song is trying to fix a car but his mind is ramblin’ and he can’t quite get it together, but the groove of it is amazing.
“I’ve been listening to him for all of my life and his spirit is completely embedded in me. The fact that my father worked with him is really important to me. It’s definitely music of life, it’s vital to existence to me, almost as much as oxygen or water. Music is so undervalued these days which is a shame. I don’t mean in terms of being a rock star or the music industry is shrinking, I mean in terms of nourishment for the soul. This is one of the best pieces of music I’ve ever heard and again when I DJ, I play this track and people always ask me what it is.”
“I hunted for this track for ages. I’d heard it on a CD and I’d done some research, so I knew that it was on a 7” single, but it took me about five years to track down a copy of it. I found it when I was on tour, in a shop in York or something like that.
“In the old days I’d be off my fucking head all day, but these days, to keep myself out of trouble I’ll always research where a record store is. I’d seen a copy of it on the internet for stupid money but I think I bought this for a fiver or something. It’s on ABC Paramount Records and the label is multi-coloured, almost like a children’s writing, it’s fantastic.
“BB King, again, sadly now gone, is an amazing blues player. The guitar solo is like listening to a nine-foot wasp trying to sting you. It’s beautiful and it’s the joyfulness of this track that I really like. His partner, who he hasn’t seen for a while, is coming home.
“The blues are songs of life; there’s no bullshit about it and it’s not like somebody’s trying to sell you something that you don’t need. It’s essential for life to me, the stuff I’ve heard has accompanied me for my whole life and I’m 52 years old now, still listening to this stuff.
“I don’t know how much longer I’ve got, but I hope that I stay alive purely to be able to listen to this music, because it gives me such pleasure.”
“Walter was a virtuoso harmonica player and he was the first guy to amplify a harmonica. My uncle Frank played with Walter on his tour in 1963, Walter had quite a reputation for being a bad boy, but he was nothing short of a gentleman according to Frank, apparently he was a really sweet guy.
“He had a really heavy, distorted tone on a lot of the tracks and a lot of harmonica players do a lot of research into how he got his sound and tone. Frank told me an amazing story about this concert that he played with him. My uncle had borrowed loads of different microphones and amplifiers off of friends to try and please Walter, in case he needed a specific thing. So he said, “What kind of mic or amp do you want?” and Walter said “It doesn’t matter”, he was blown away by that. Walter went up to the microphone and tested it out and it was just him. He was the one that got the tone. It was a life changing event for my uncle to play with Little Walter.
“Walter was quite a tragic figure, he died in a knife fight after shooting dice in an alley somewhere. He was like the Charlie Parker of blues, he was a complete game-changer when he started releasing records, nobody sounds like him; he was a complete one off. Loads of musicians have tried to imitate him, but they’re not getting close, he was a genius, an absolute stone-cold, godlike genius. He didn’t live very long and died in 1969. He had a lot of trouble with alcohol, but his music was phenomenal.
“I still enjoy listening to Walter’s music and I will until the day I die. I found that album in Sheffield actually. There was a record shop called Bradley’s Records on a street called Chapel Walk, I think it was largely a chain that was only in the north of England. It was a really hot summer, back in 1977 and I remember going to the closing down sale.
"It was one of the few times I got to go with my Dad on our own, because he used to work six days a week, fourteen hours a day. I got very little time with him when I was a kid, it was a rare time that we were both together and I remember really enjoying it by looking through records.
“I chose the Little Walter, The Chess Blues Masters Series double album. I think it cost about fifty pence or something like that, I got that and a Gene Vincent record. Dad bought a shitload of stuff and the stuff he’d bought that day went straight in my head; Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, The Del-Vikings, Chuck Berry. All that stuff he bought that day was so massive, I just absorbed that music, it was like food you know?
"I was learning to play the guitar at the time and I’m just glad it was that music and not something else. It could have been something really bad, but it was good music. I’ve still got a carrier bag from that shop from when I used to go there with my Dad.”
“I’m massively into bands like The Seeds, The Electric Prunes and a lot of the garage psych stuff. It’s so easy to get the reissue of this record now, but I first heard about The Elevators through Will Sergeant from Echo & the Bunnymen, who was talking about them in an interview.
“Rob, the drummer from my first band, had an elder brother David who lived in London. Rob asked him about this band and his brother went to this shop in London and bought a copy of The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators. The album was quite difficult to get hold of and we were all really excited. David did a cassette of the album for us and posted it up. Eventually, over many years, I managed to get their next few albums, but it took a long time to get copies of them.
“I loved the lyrics in ‘Dust’, “Dust from your skin must trust, when it scatters only love matters, it’s been overjoyed.” It’s a very deep love song, I don’t want to cheapen it by calling it a love song, but it is. It’s like a real worshipping of the concept of love and the lyrics are beautiful.
“In a way it goes against what the Elevators were about because they were basically a hard-rocking psychedelic band with Roky Erickson’s wonderful primal howl. Musically, this goes against where they were at. It’s a real surprise track, I’ve played it many times for my wife. It’s a great track.”
“This is one of those many, many blues tracks that really leap out. I’m actually trying to get hold of this on a seven-inch single, because I don’t have it and I know it was released at one point.
“Again, Elmore James was somebody that I discovered on that day at Bradley’s Records with Dad and it’s just stayed with me my whole life. Forgive me if I’m repeating myself, but if my head is like a temple then these records are the pillars of it. Everybody was into music in my family, everyone. They were steel workers, nurses, my uncle Gordon was a bus driver, but everybody sang and everybody played.
“I thought that was normal until you go to your friends’ house and they won’t even have the fucking radio on. I suddenly realised we were a bit odd. It was on all the time music, it’s funny, because as I get older I crave peace and quiet and I like silence a lot. I guess that’s because I write though.
“Elmore James, they call him ‘The King of the Slide Guitar’, it’s another great dancer this song. I’ve got the track on an album, but I don’t have it on single, so if anybody has got one out there then we can negotiate!”
“I got into Sanford Clark when I was a kid. I discovered him by listening to Duane Eddy and it’s that Phoenix, Arizona sort of sound that Lee Hazlewood produced. I found all this shit out later, I didn’t know it at the time. I had a 78” of Sanford Clark’s, ‘The Fool’, which was his big hit, he didn’t really have any other hits after that really.
“’It’s Nothing To Me’ was written by Leon Payne, who was one of the great American songwriters. Leon was what they call agoraphobic, so he wouldn’t go outside, and he was also blind. He used to post his songs under the door to the publisher and the publisher would basically put a cheque under the door and even bring him groceries and stuff.
"He was a master songwriter and this song is completely devoid of any sentiment whatsoever - it’s brutal. It’s about some guy who sits next to the wrong girl in a bar and this man at the bar is warning him, saying “This isn’t the best idea you’ve ever had mate.” There’s a line in it that says, “I would rather have a hot seat in Sing Sing Prison than to sit down by her on that stool.”
“It’s a really heavy and quite a nasty song in a lot of ways. In the end this guy gets shot and the boyfriend of this woman gets dragged off to jail. The guy is still sat there at the end of the bar saying, “Well, it’s nothing to me.” It’s really dark and I love it, it’s one of my favourite songs because it’s devoid of sentiment. Al Casey played the guitar on it and it’s wonderful playing.
“Like I said, Leon Payne was one of the great American songwriters. He wrote so many killer tunes. It’s not music, it’s oxygen. Sanford’s voice is great as well, he’s influenced me hugely and I owe him a big debt in terms of the way I style my singing. People say I’m like Roy Orbison or Johnny Cash; I’m not, it’s Sanford Clark who I was influenced by massively. It’s hard to quantify exactly how much someone influences you and to what degree, but these are like satellites in my life and there’s a lot more. I haven’t even mentioned any female artists who’ve influenced me like Big Mama Thornton and Mahalia Jackson. It’s a very blokey list I guess, but you can only pick so many.”