with Phil Pickett for "Strange Days" in Japan
interview with Phil Pickett was made in January 2001 by the
Japanese music magazine "Strange Days". Phil was asked
to answer some questions about the SAILOR history for the CD
re-releases of the two SAILOR albums "Hideaway" and
"Trouble" in February / March 2001 in Japan.
Interview by courtesy of Phil Pickett!!
Question: We'd like to start with pre-SAILOR, but what activities were you involved in before the album under the name KAJANUS/PICKETT with Georg Kajanus (by the way, could you please tell us the exact pronunciation for his last name as well)?
How did you meet Georg in the first place and how did the two of you begin to play music together? Did the two of you receive musical training or education?
I first met Georg when working for music publisher Edwin H. Morris, an old Hollywood family company whose songs included "White Christmas", "Crying In The Chappel" and an early version of the "Grease" Musical. I had recently moved down to London from Birmingham - a great industrial city of the Midlands of England, where I had been working in the bakery profession and had also formed my first group - an R&B outfit called "The Blues Unit" after leaving college.
From the first moment of hearing Georg's demo tape (my job was to go through the hundreds of tapes sent in by aspiring writers and artists) I simply loved the sound of his music (& still have the demo of "Say Hello"). Also I had an overwhelming intuition that I would be the ideal musician to complement his distinctive sound. Before we had actually met I persuaded the publishers that Georg was a writer they should sign.
Later on, sometime after his first single release, I heard the record on the Tony Blackburn show on Radio 1 and plucked up enough courage to call Georg at home asking if we could meet. Georg (whose surname is pronounced "Ky-ar-nus") graciously allowed me to take the liberty to invite myself to dinner that evening at his home. In a very charming fashion he also took my enthusiasm at face value by agreeing to entertain a complete stranger at his dinner table, furthermore a stranger who insisted they should make music together!
It is true to say I had never met anyone like Georg before and was immediately impressed by his captivating presence and exotic background, also the fact that he was Norwegian with Russian family connections. I was a simple "Brummie" lad, (i.e. native of Birmingham) and found it all very strange and exciting, but firmly believed things could happen between us that would be very successful.
We got on extremely well and he went along with my suggestion by agreeing to try something out. This led to writing and working sessions that have never surpassed in musical invention and also the pure exhilarating joy of joint creativity, at least as far as I was concerned. We took some of the tapes to Don Powel Hunter, an American working at GTO in London (who also managed David Bowie and Mott The Hoople) who immediately delivered a recording contract with "Signpost" - Arty Mogul's label with Atlantic Records in America.
I'll never forget (neither I feel, will Georg) my turning up at a restaurant where he worked washing dishes. Waving a large cheque in front of him, he simply gave a huge grin, put down the washing-up brush and calmly walked out of the restaurant - never to return!
We recorded the Kajanus-Pickett album in over three months at London's Morgan Studios (now Zomba) and got great reviews. However it turned out that although we played all the instruments ourselves and were very proud of our creation, it became clear early on that we would always need a band to promote our album successfully.
Georg's great grandfather was the famous composer Robert Kajanus, who was an associate of Sibelius. As already mentioned, Georg from Norway but spent many years growing up in Paris, and then later in Toronto where he went to College. I do not believe he had any formal music training, and sad to say, neither did I. He helped form Eclection (so named apparently by Joni Mitchell) a folky-rock band featuring G's 12-string guitar in England, and previously whilst in Canada had played in folk and skiffle groups.
My father was an RAF pilot who was also a highly accomplished jazz pianist. George Shearing was a friend of his and christened him Phil "Body and Soul" Pickett on account of his styling the well-known 1940s jazz standard. He was tragically killed in a flying accident in Bulawayo in Africa when I was 3, and my mother and I returned to England. I was always passionately interested in music, but never enough to wallow through the tortuous methods of pianoforte teaching prevalent in 50's and 60's, so taught myself by playing songs by ear at the piano.
Question: In 1974 upon SAILOR's debut, you had incorporated exotic taste and went for the big harmonies. Was this musical direction discussed and determined with all members? Was this kind of music heretic (or in other words, strange...) in the English music scene in those days?
The use of big harmonies in the context of the very simple but strong and atmospheric sounds that we were using was a definite move to try to be different, but also incorporated some of our favourite music at that time. "Surf's Up" by the Beach Boys was a highly influential album to us, but we also liked the Jaques Brel and Kurt Weil direction of the more European "cabaret" tradition.
It is fair to say that Grant, our drummer, first latched on to the originality of a concept Georg was preparing about in the dark and furtive nights of debauchery during shore-leave of a bunch of spunky and wild SAILORs - quite opposite musically in fact to what we were doing at the time to get a record deal. Originally the music we were working on was much more mid-Atlantic harmony rock a la Doobie Brothers / Hall and Oates direction. Henry, another friend of mine also became involved with us around this time along with Grant, and the decision was consciously by all taken by all of us, spurred on by Grant's enthusiasm to try to do something really quite unique instead and as was the case, quite controversial.
Actually, we got the deal with CBS on the strength of songs like "Traffic Jam" (which was a more "Kajanus/Pickett"-style song) and consequently CBS were a little confused, though positive about this sudden dramatic direction change, especially when they saw us playing at a small theatre in Wood Green, North London.
Nobody else had the balls or the idea to have (a) short hair - very novel at the time - and (b) the sheer audacity to wear white sailor-boy outfits. This was considered to be extremely camp, but in conjunction with the other aspects of a highly theatrical approach - the non-use of electric guitars (a first!), the non-use of base guitars (another 1st - the only artists to use a keyboard synth bass at that time was Stevie Wonder) a giant keyboard whirling-dervish of sound and lights (with 2 operatives Henry and myself) called the "Nickelodeon" (*definitely a first!)... all added up to a very unique experience for us and the audience. We were strange but people loved us.
Question: Who's idea was it to come up with a fake biography? Making this biography should have been fun to do...
Dennis Boyles, originally a friend of Georg's came up with the idea of a fantastic story to go along with the unique fantasy we were trying to create. He has now become a highly respected writer for all sorts of influential / intellectual publications in the USA (he also later came up with the title and concept for the cover of "Dressed For Drowning") and is still a great friend. On one level - i.e. in the fantasy world of the harbour-town ambience, one could readily believe the tale of "Le Matelot" and "Le Pomme Flasque".
As with young people, ambitious and starting out, we failed to realise how special our real life stories were, and were probably also self-conscious of not having achieved that much at the time. It was far easier for Georg to accept and even I suspect, sometimes even believe this story to be true!
Writing these songs immersed him more than the rest of us in a world of pimps, prostitutes and matelots - and he was far happier for inspiration's sake to remain in it. Although it seems very funny now to recall, the rest of us were quite uncomfortable at the time with the fiction, probably because, unlike Georg we all had families, friends and known histories in England.
As Georg has often enigmatically said in subsequent interviews on the subject however, - "It all can be considered true on a certain level" - so who are we to argue?
Question: The Nickelodeon, which was invented(?) by Georg and worked as an impressive feature of SAILOR's live shows, has been said that it was an instrument that "can produce the piano sound and the glockenspiel sound at the same time", but what kind of instrument was it actually? We would imagine it to be very hard to bring such an intricate instrument on the road...
The Nickelodeon was completely unique and at the time, revolutionary. All the things musicians can easily now do with MIDI were put together in a mechanical fashion with breathtaking vision and precision by Georg. Of course we all helped him build the thing - but very much in the manner of the cartoon mice in Disney's "Cinderella".
Consisting of two upright Kemble pianos back-to-back and raised up on a box, holes had been drilled beneath the keys, and rubberised sticks pressed down by the piano notes played prototype versions of the early ARP synthesisers on exactly the same key beneath, emitting a note the same (hopefully!) as the piano above. Meanwhile, above the piano keyboard there was a truly ghastly but effective contraption called a "piano-mate", sounding what could only optimistically be described as a street-organ, activated by a piston apparatus when the piano keys were pressed down.
Then to crown it all, Georg had devised a glockenspiel on top of the whole affair activated by no less than 24 electric door-bell mechanism, playing a note when the corresponding piano key was hit.
When the whole device worked (not all of the time it must be said) - it was completely unbelievable - A real powerhouse of musical madness. Added to the foghorn bass synth (played by myself) and 4-part elaborate vocal harmonies plus Georg's electric 12-string guitar - it was all quite impressive. However very temperamental. On a bad day, or with unsympathetic handling it sounded like a bagpipe full of weasels being attacked by an angry dog!
It became of course, the scourge of all road-crews. They hated everything about it, as people hate everything they don't really understand. After one of our last major European tour in the 1970's the glock mechanism was ceremoniously thrown off the roof of a hotel in Vienna in true Keith Moon style by our frustrated road crew.
Question: The second album, "TROUBLE", had produced two top 10 hits, "Glass of Champagne" and "Girls Girls Girls", but what kind of fan base were you supported by during this period? Did you already boast a high popularity from this time in Europe, such as Germany and Holland?
We had a large fan base at this time because we never stopped working. Suddenly we were attracting younger pop fans also as we were never off the TV, doing shows like "Top Of The Pops" and "Supersonic" and similar shows in Holland, Germany and elsewhere.
It was a little confusing for the fans - especially some of the older ones who had been used to seeing us doing our rather "Dark" theatre-cabaret with "Threepenny Opera" inspired musicality, suddenly to see all the dancing girls and glitter. We realised it was a train we were going to have to stay on - there was no turning back, but really enjoyable just the same.
Question: A few years since the debut, you were clad in sailor suits and pirate costumes, and even took on make-up. Such as the participation in a few glam rock compilations, was SAILOR considered to be a glam rock band in certain areas?
Definitely. We never considered that we were a "Glam-Rock" band, but inevitably the press tended to put everyone in boxes. I guess that was the start of the very strict "Typecasting" of music and artists that prevails today. What I am proud of is that we never thought of ourselves as tied to any particular genre and tried to be original - not always the most successful route to ending up owning lots of Mercedes and attending Polo matches with Mike Rutherford!
Question: The third album, "THIRD STEP" was certainly an epic album covering all your musical concepts of your early years. Then on the next album, "CHECKPOINT", you team with producer Bruce Johnston, but was the reason for this teaming to aim a stab at the American market? Who's idea was it to team up with Bruce Johnston?
I can't remember whose idea it was to choose Bruce. We had made two albums with Lesser and Holmes, "Trouble" our biggest ever album, and later "The Third Step". Someone in A&R at CBS probably thought it would be a good idea to get someone new in.
Oh, I remember - it was the beginning of the US Disco sound and Curt Becher - Bruce's partner now sadly deceased, was considered to be the high-priest of the dance floor sound. So yes - I think it was probably a belated stab at the US market.
(I was not involved with the "Checkpoint" album with Bruce and Curt however, as had fallen out with Georg over his continued insistence to write all the material. Henry and Grant had always accepted this, but I also had ambitions to be a successful writer and felt at the time we needed to cast the net wider to get better songs - so left the band at that time.)
Question: The album, "HIDEAWAY", which is now being re-released in CD format for the first time in Japan, was initially a Europe release only, thus "HIDEAWAY" was long unknown to the Japanese SAILOR fans and was a very hard-to-find item. This album also marks your departure from Epic Records. Was there a certain reason for the cancellation of the release in England?
We got back together to record the "Hideaway" album against a backdrop of failing out with our management and also a nervous lack of confidence from our record label. To add to our woes it was now the late 70's and the Sex Pistols had arrived to the scene!
Suddenly, unless we pierced our nipples and spiked-up our hair, we felt our support at Epic would vanish overnight.
We were correct in this assumption. Times had changed and we were not the first or the last band to experience the fickle hand of the record industry.
We were very proud of "Hideaway" however and enjoyed making the record at Whitfield St. Georg, I suppose understandably, was privately a bit angry that his power had been usurped, but was generous when working on other band members' songs. He wrote "Give Me Shakespeare" - which we still play in our show today - a real classic in my opinion on which you can hear the influence of an attempt to embrace aspects of a "punk"-inspired vocal delivery. We couldn't believe it when Epic decided not to release the record in the UK, but then shortly afterwards we were dropped by the label. This was a huge setback.
Somebody had "pressed the button" upstairs and that was it. Record companies can be very short-sighted at times, and in my opinion should stick to their artists when the going occasionally gets tough. But "c'est la vie" - that's life.
Back to the present however and listening to the record now, it still sounds great - fresh, full of energy and really good ideas.
Question: After Georg and Grant had left the band, you went on to sign with Caribou and moved base to America, then made the album "DRESSED FOR DROWNING" with Gavin & Virginia David, but how was recording in America? How did Gavin & Virginia become members? Are they a married couple?
It seems you had also recorded another album, "TV LAND" with the same line up, but what kind of album was this?
After SAILOR split up, I started writing some new songs and what I felt was going to be a brand-new project with Henry. We'd had some tough, but very funny and unforgettable times together in the interim period - but that's another story.
James William Guercio, the legendary US producer and manager of "Chicago" and "Blood Sweat and Tears" fame, heard the tape and got on a plane to the UK, turned up at my house in a limo a mile long wearing a huge cowboy hat, fur coat and boots with real spurs! He also fortunately had a large chequebook and wanted us to come out immediately to his famous recording studio, "Caribou" in Colorado USA. There we recorded the "Dressed For Drowning" album, and it was only after the record was complete that Dick Asher - the head of CBS (owner of Caribou Records) and a huge SAILOR fan insisted the band to be called SAILOR, as in his words: - "Goddam' it - Phil and Henry are in the band so it's gotta' be SAILOR!"
Ginny and Gavin are brother and sister, and joined the line-up to make the record, and as things turned out - also joined the new "SAILOR". I originally met them singing in a folk club in Cornwall where I used to live, and loved the sound of Ginny's voice (still do!)
We then recorded a follow-up album "TV Land" which was never released. This was because all the CBS staff in the USA that had supported us had been sacked in the now legendary "Night of the Long Knives" where record companies were decimated in a financial downturn.
"TV Land" is very much in the spirit of "Dressed For Drowning" and has some inspiring tracks. We were now used to the idea of going under the SAILOR name however, and consequently our earlier influences were perhaps more in evidence on this record.
Question: After SAILOR had become temporarily defunct, you had joined CULTURE CLUB, but since when had you known them? Was your role in CULTURE CLUB somewhat of a musical director?
On returning from the USA after the above episode, I started to do a lot of session work, some of it with younger punk-influenced bands. One of them the "Sex Gang Children" with a highly flamboyant & youthful Boy George, eventually became "Culture Club". George had been a huge fan of the Glam-Rock era and had seen SAILOR regularly on TV. The band seemed to have a lot of respect that I had been in a hit band (well before they had "made it") and started to ask me to play on everything and also sing and arrange harmonies. Before long I was suggesting ideas all over the place - very much like my role in SAILOR - having them accepted and culminating my writing of "Karma Chameleon" and other songs.
As time went on I was treated more and more like a musical director I suppose, especially during the making of "From Luxury To Heartache" album with Arif Mardin in Switzerland, when individual members were hardly ever present - and never at the same time! Good times and a few hits!
My greatest honour was receiving two Ivor Novello Awards for my work with Culture Club. Also it gave me the opportunity to visit Japan three times with the band - also a great honour and pleasure.
Question: Was there a special event or reason that led to the reunion of SAILOR in 1991? It seems that the members other than Georg who was then in DATA were working on TV soundtracks, but were your relationships continuing through this kind of work? Also, we hear that Grant had been working as a science teacher at a high school?
Upon the reunion, were you already active throughout Europe? You had made a new model of the Nickelodeon which also appears on your album jacket, but can we think of this new-Nickelodeon to be some sort of keyboard type machine(?) which comes equipped with effects such as lights and a smoke machine?
Henry had worked with Georg helping him to take "DATA" on the road, as well as composing a lot of material for advertising and TV theme work. Grant had gone back to the teaching profession he left when SAILOR started. We had all kept in touch with each other in varying degrees. My publisher who had connections with BMG in Germany had suggested there might be a lot of interest there for a new SAILOR album, and after we had all agreed it would be a good idea, "SAILOR" and "Streetlamp" were the results. It was really great to find the "SAILOR Sound" and chemistry was still very much intact after over 10 years apart, and this was quickly celebrated with two hit singles - "The Secretary" and "La Cumbia".
At that time we had no intention to play live again. However I had met a promoter called Rainer Haas in Germany (whilst managing an artist I had discovered busking in London - "Keziah Jones" who had become very successful throughout Europe - also in Japan as some of you may remember).
He offered us a fantastic opportunity to rebuild the now-defunct Nickelodeon, and if we agreed to put the original 4 members together to play "live" again, would guarantee over 100 concerts in Europe. This chance was too good to miss and we decided to rise the challenge. It was a fantastic success.
Question: The 1992 album, "STREET LAMP" is also impossible to get in Japan, but was this a Germany only release?
Correct, also in Holland I believe.
Question: We heard that in 1991, a person called Bizarro released a bootleg SAILOR album. I (the writer) have a version from the Dutch label, Harmony. This bootleg reflects your high popularity in Europe, but still we think it an unfair event. Have you heard anything about this bootlegger?
Yes and I'd rather not go into it as these people are not worthy of comment.
Question: Has SAILOR been constantly active since the reunion? In 95, Georg had left and in 99, Henry had left the band, but we heard that it was a friendly departure. We are aware that Georg now plays with NOIR, but what is Henry up to these days?
SAILOR now enjoys greater success playing live concerts possibly than ever before. We have built up a completely new following, with our older fans being joined by many new ones who weren't even born when we were having hit records in the 1970's. The stage-show has gone through many changes but still expresses the magical spirit of that very special "SAILOR Sound" that we have always enjoyed. This is the only reason we still do it, after all.
Obviously, we have been obliged to evolve the show somewhat to cater for new and younger crowds, but now play to much bigger audiences than we ever did, and usually always get an extraordinary reception.
Sadly both Georg and most recently Henry decided to leave SAILOR, but at the same time we have been lucky to find exceptionally talented individuals in the shape of Peter Lincoln, our stylish guitar hero and lead vocalist who replaced Georg, and also Anthony England our maestro keyboard prodigy to take Henry's place in the line-up.
We very much respected their reasons for leaving however and they were both friendly departures. Georg dearly wanted to concentrate on his solo and Noir projects, and Henry wanted to devote much more of his time to his prodigious musical theatre output and felt it was time to move on. Although sad there is nevertheless a lot more youthful vigour within the band with Peter and Anthony these days (keeping Grant and I very much on our toes!).
Question: You are also active in the musical world, working on such musicals as "MASK" and "CASPER", but do you think that your experience with SAILOR works as an inspiration in these activities?
As already mentioned above, Henry and I composed the entire score and songs for three musicals during 1998-2000. - "Casper", "The Mask" and "Spider-Man". Although very hard work, I am sure the many years of working together in SAILOR helped the process enormously. Our "Casper" show has a number of songs where you can hear the influences of this tradition according to some, and this was the show that went on to be staged at London's famous Shaftesbury Theatre in the West End, and is also about to be produced in the USA.
Question: In Japan, people and the media sometimes confuse you with the traditional musician, Phil Pickett (who plays with Richard Thompson), but does the same thing happen in England as well? Do you know him personally?
We used to share the same hairdresser (!) and have many mutual friends such as Dave Pegg and Richard Thompson, but have never actually met. Once I returned some royalties - I have to say a very small amount paid in error for a song called "Hopping Down In Kent" that the other "Phil Pickett" had apparently written, but was then very worried he might have received some of my Culture Club royalties! - All very scary but it turned out to be o.k. in the end.
Question: Do you have any plans to tour other than Europe? We are looking forward to see SAILOR's live show here in Japan someday.
Talk to your friends! We would simply love to come if there was a possibility to play. Having visited Japan many times with Culture Club and later Keziah Jones, I love your country, and I know everyone else in the band who have never been would jump at the chance.
I really enjoyed the interview and
say a big "Hi" to our Japanese friends, many many
Very best wishes,