THE BLOW MONKEYS – a Biography (Released 2011 - Written by PHILL SAVIDGE)
The Blow Monkeys formed in 1981, releasing a single Live Today, Love Tomorrow on the tiny Parasol label the following year and signing to RCA and releasing a debut album Limping For A Generation (produced by Jam/Style Council knob-twiddler Pete Wilson) the year after that. It wasn’t until 1986, however, that the band achieved the commercial success that matched their nascent critical acclaim, the song Digging Your Scene (off the band’s second album, Animal Magic) becoming a massive worldwide hit. A year later the band released It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way which hit the No. 5 slot in the UK before the follow up album She Was Only A Grocer’s Daughter (produced by Michael Baker) left controversy in its wake: if some remained unaware that erstwhile UK PM Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a grocer then the subsequent duet with Chicago soul/funk legend Curtis Mayfield Celebrate (The Day After You) left no doubt where the Blow Monkeys stood on the subject. Naturally, the BBC banned the single and the band then nailed their colours to the mast by joining the Red Wedge tour.
Interestingly, the Blow Monkeys took a Thatcher aphorism – namely, “there’s no such thing as society” - as a starting point for their next album, Whoops! There Goes The Neighbourhood a politically-motivated record (“This record is NOT for sale in South Africa!”) that featured Wait, a collaboration with soul diva Kym Mazelle and an experimental dance/pop bias that reached fruition on the band’s final album Springtime. The latter proved an epiphany of sorts (although RCA released a greatest hits compilation, Choices, that immediately achieved gold status in1989) and featured the Balearic classic La Passionara and Be Not Afraid, a duet with the original and legendary Algerian Rai rebel Cheb Khaled. A year later the Blow Monkeys were no more.
Fast forward twenty years and the Blow Monkeys are back together and remain Robert Howard (vocals, guitar), Neville Henry (saxophone), Mick Anker (bass) and Tony Kiley (drums). Back in 1990, the (amicable) split had enabled main-man Dr Robert to desert the capital for a remote cottage in Oxfordshire before embarking upon a solo career that’s produced several solo albums including Realms Of Gold (which spawned a songwriting partnership with Paul Weller on Wildwood and Stanley Road - both of which Robert contributed vocals and guitars to, the partnership extending to Robert playing bass on Changing Man and Weller reciprocating on Realms Of Gold)) and Flatlands (based upon Robert’s childhood memories of the vast expanses of East Anglia reclaimed from the sea and marshes) as well as spells producing Beth Orton and Terry Callier and writing soundtracks to two UK documentary series Dave’s World and Gangsters. In 2002, he also relocated his family to Sierra Nevada, Andalusia which enabled a more reflective take on life as well as a different way of making music. It was here in the mountains that he bumped into PP Arnold, sang some Hendrix and soul (“and The First Cut Is The Deepest!”) before recording an album entitled Five In The Afternoon that was inspired as much by the poet Frederico Garcia Lorca as it was by the hour that Spain kick starts its day. The collaboration, however, catapulted Robert into another headspace he hadn’t quite envisaged or, as he recalls: "I fancied being in a band again. I got in touch with the other guys and we talked about getting back together, then went away and wrote the songs quickly with the band in mind. The main thing was to do something new. I didn't want to get back together and just play all the old songs." Naturally, he’s talking about The Return Of The Blow Monkeys and an album - Devil’s Tavern, recorded in Motril, southern Spain and released in 2008 - that prompted much of the music press to herald the band once again as the real deal. Indeed, the album’s magnificently glowing choruses, West Coast dreaminess and soaring melodies caused Mojo to suggest there were “flashes of brilliance” whilst Word thought it “vintage Blow: breezy soul-pop, proper tunes and Dr Robert’s nonchalant croon intact”. Elsewhere Q maintained that “Robert continues to sound like he dresses only in velvet and smokes cigarillos” whilst Record Collector posited that “if Devil’s Tavern had a lock in, you’d stumble out at dawn, blinking, your head heavy but your heart won forever.” It was as though they’d never been away.
The Blow Monkeys spent 2009 touring Devil’s Tavern, recording a live album at the 100 Club (Travelin’ Souls – Live At the 100 Club) before signing to FOD Records and settling down to write the follow-up. The resultant record deal has spawned Staring At The Sea, an album that has turned out to contain the best collection of songs the band have ever recorded. Produced by the legendary Bob Rose, Staring At The Sea is variously charming and alarming in equal measure and one of the most reflective and self-effacing records you will hear this or any other year. Album opener Steppin’ Down is a case in point: the song is about letting go of the vision you had of yourself when you were younger (“He got himself a bird’s eye view of everything/ A panoramic scene, from way on high”), of realizing that that vision was flawed and yes it’s every bit to do with what it was like to be 24 years old and the singer in a hugely successful rock ‘n’ roll band. For his part, Robert maintains he had his feet on the ground but he “had his moments” and I think we can guess what those moments were.
Staring At The Sea continues with Hanging On To The Hurt, another song about letting go (of anger) and is possibly the album’s finest moment: Robert has never sounded better, his voice at times as gentle as it is menacing and the song has a brutal reality to it that’s reminiscent of Oasis in their prime. Next up, The Killing Breeze is nothing like this but just as brutal: the song manages to be both quiet and epic at the same time and touches on the negativity engendered by the white noise of media, something that Robert managed to escape from when he found himself in rural Spain with no TV, radio, internet or electricity access for more than four years (“The killing breeze is killing me”). Incidentally, he still has no fridge (just bags of ice) but if you can imagine Dr Robert listening to farmers talking about olives and not imagine a paradox then you are no doubt aware that he has been in a relationship with his wife, Michele, for twenty five years and that the stunningly funked-up Seventh Day (which follows) is about making the right decision (on the seventh day “I remember it was in the month of May”) to commit to that relationship.
Robert’s father died when he was sixteen and the album’s heartbreaking title track ruminates on Sundays spent driving to a rain-swept seaside where the pair would spend hours looking at the sea (and the windscreen wipers) and not saying anything. As he points out, the relationship we have with the sea in England has an almost unique, melancholic air, something he touches on in the lines “It’s as far as you can see/Three miles to the horizon/Feels just like eternity/Staring at the sea.” Another song entitled What It Takes is similarly haunted: Robert’s mother in law, the noted sculptor Zelda Nolte, was something of a mentor to Robert - turning him on to books and art - and every evening she would say “we need a bit of what it takes.” Of course, this is not a million miles away from “whatever gets you through the night” but the way Robert intones “So I’ll drink to you my friend/ For our friendship never ends/ And again we’ll celebrate with/ What it takes/ What it takes” is truly heart-rending.
Tellingly, much of Staring At The Sea is hugely personal: Prayin’ For Rain is about wishing for a change in your circumstances - as Robert points out, rain is a special commodity in Spain; One Of Us Is Lying is a tragicomic take on the melodrama of relationships; Face In The Rock concerns, ahem, a face in the rock that Robert’s children claimed to see every morning he drove them down to the coast; All Blown Down which started off initially as a song about the impending Spanish credit crisis actually proved to be about something else entirely – the fact that we are just the smallest specks in the ocean; best of all, though, is the album’s closer, A Lasting Joy. The title is taken from CS Lewis and is an elegy from Robert to his wife – “You showed me love in the darkness/ Like a guiding light/ Just leading me on/ With a smile a mile wide/ Just leading me on/ Just leading me on”.
In many ways Staring At The Sea is a surprising record, surprising, that is, because it is so relevant and yet has been made by a band who hit the heights more than twenty years ago. The signs, however, were always there: Robert was one of the first musicians to pioneer and utilize house music as well one of the very first pop stars to criticize Thatcher and to also embrace the music of heroes from a bygone era (Curtis Mayfield and Kym Mazelle). And perhaps, the final (hidden) track on Staring At the Sea should have offered us a clue: When We Fall Out of Love is about those horrible arguments when you realize you are just repeating the patterns of your parents and you instantly regret it. Indeed the lines “In no time at all/ Our love will fall/Just like morning dew/ Drowning all our good intentions and there aint nothing we can do/ When we fall out of love” have a certain poignancy because no matter what we do we ain’t gonna fall out of love with the Blow Monkeys.