Shakin’ Stevens: ‘I was over the moon playing Elvis. The first time I got a regular wage’ | Music
Something momentous happened in January 1980, something that profoundly affected the British charts for the most of the following decade: Shakin’ Stevens appeared on kids’ TV as a solo artist for the first time – on BBC1’s after-school show Cheggers Plays Pop – performing his third single for Epic Records, Hot Dog. By that point, Stevens had been a professional singer for 11 years, with barely a sniff of recording success.
Epic had signed him not because it had been tracking his career through the UK’s rock’n’roll underground – he and his band the Sunsets had been playing 50s music for years; John Peel had tried to make a record with them on his Dandelion label; they’d opened for the Rolling Stones in London in 1969. It signed him because because from November 1977 to April 1979, he had been one of the stars of the jukebox musical Elvis, in the West End of London. He was already a family entertainer, and you could sell family entertainment.
Revisiting rock’n’roll was already a big business. Showaddywaddy were still a big singles group when Stevens was signed. Darts and Matchbox were having hits. But almost all the other groups carried with them the whiff of the gig circuit they had shared with the Sunsets: sideburns and wrinkles, smoky clubs and Bedford vans. (“When we used to travel around in the van and couldn’t afford hotels or anything like that, we used to do the gig and then grab some chips and sleep in the back of the van. When you wake up in the morning, it’s not a pretty sight.”) But Shakin’ Stevens was different: although already past 30 when Hot Dog became a hit, he was good-looking, had a voice that really didn’t sound a million miles from Elvis, and didn’t have the air of someone who was longing for a punch-up after closing time.
Britain, in large part thanks to kids’ TV, seized him to its collective heart. If there was a TV show, Stevens would be on it: in 1980 alone he appeared on Oh Boy! (revived by Jack Good, the impresario behind the Elvis musical), Top of the Pops, The Russell Harty Show, The Entertainers, Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, Calendar Goes Pop (on which he attacked the young host, Richard Madeley), The Basil Brush Show, and more. The following year he added Jim’ll Fix It, The Little and Large Show, Rolf’s Here! OK?, Razzmatazz, Seaside Special plus scores of repeat visits to TOTP, Cheggers and Swap Shop. Later on there was The Visit, where he visited a young fan in hospital, in an effort to help her from her coma.
“You used to have those Saturday morning television shows. You had to do your bit. You had to go on and promote your new release. I quite enjoyed it, actually,” Stevens, now 72, says. “You had the parents watching them, and they must have liked what they were seeing, so they’d encourage their kids. And then they’d end up bringing them to the shows. Those kids have grown up with me.”
Those kids also made Stevens the biggest singles artist in the UK in the 1980s: 31 hits, which spent a total of 254 weeks on the charts (for comparison, Madonna managed 252 weeks on the chart, and Michael Jackson a mere 238). But even hidden within that run were oddities. Take Marie, Marie, his first top 20 single, which was a cover of a song by the Blasters, the LA underground band who brought rock’n’roll to the city’s punk scene, and whose album had been pressed in tiny numbers. “I was away in America doing some promotion and there was a break,” he says. “The guy said to me, ‘Rather than hang around here, do you want to hear some records?’ Well, yeah, I’m always ready to listen to music. And one of the albums he put on had Marie Marie. I said, ‘Ooh, I like that. Can you put it on a cassette?’ I brought it back, and I couldn’t wait to record it. That was the turning point for me. Hot Dog had been my first hit in the UK, but it was Marie Marie that really changed things. It went into the German charts and it stayed there for nine months. That really opened it up for me, and then This Ole House opened it further.”
But the oddness had always been there. If you find a copy, it’s worth reading the biography published in 1983, co-written by his former manager, Paul Barrett (a card-carrying communist who had Stevens and the Sunsets playing benefits for the party: “We were naive. We thought we were just doing a gig. Each to his own, but it wasn’t for me”). It presents the 1970s Stevens as a performer around whom Iggy Pop might be cautious: playing a company party, and furious at the tepid response, Stevens reputedly climbed on to one of the dining tables, feet in food, and bellowed: “Scream, damn you! You would scream for Tom Jones, so you can scream for me!”
Stevens doesn’t really dwell on the wildness these days. And when I ask if it is true that the novelist Edna O’Brien once seduced him at Kenneth Tynan’s daughter’s birthday party, he avoids the question. “I’ll tell you what I remember of that. It was a big party gig. The person that caught my attention was Max Wall. My mother loved Max Wall. His humour, you either like it or you don’t. And we did the gig. And I had the pleasure of sitting down with Max Wall. I couldn’t believe it. I had to squeeze my hands. Here I am, opposite Max Wall, having breakfast. It was a great, great thrill for me.”
Yes, but Edna O’Brien? Did she or didn’t she try it on with your wriggling hips?
“Well, everyone was a bit tipsy. Getting down and whatever. Whatever getting down means. After the gig we did go back to someone’s flat, but I can’t remember anything else.”
Stevens was born in 1948, the last of 13 children, of whom two died. He was so much younger than all bar one of his siblings that you could trace the development of music through how they listened to it. “We had a wind-up gramophone long before I came along, and it moved on to a Dansette record player. That’s how I heard the records as I grew up.”
He was playing clubs in his teens, then what should have been the break came when the newly professional Sunsets were invited to open for the Rolling Stones in London, a week or so after Altamont. “Our manager put an ad in the Melody Maker. John Lennon had done a rock’n’roll concert in Toronto and he had a white suit, just like Chuck Berry wore. And the manager got a message to him, saying, ‘Listen, if you can wear the suit that you wore in Canada, why don’t you come and join us at a gig?’ The Stones got to hear about it and they sent somebody down to a gig we were doing at the university in Cardiff. They watched the gig, they loved it, and the next thing we knew they gave us a gig in London.”
The Sunsets made repeated trips to the studio, and played live across Europe, but their toil was largely unrewarded, and it took the death of Elvis – and Good’s decision to capitalise on that with a stage show – to give Stevens a career. “It completely transformed my career, without a doubt. I went for the audition and sang a couple of songs at the piano. And before I went out, Jack and Ray Cooney came in and listened and said, ‘You’ve got the part.’ I was over the moon. And that was the first time I got a regular wage. I think I missed two shows. The theatre was packed every night: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, two shows Friday, two shows Saturday, Sunday off. You’d have David Bowie coming to the show, you’d have Carl Perkins. Loads and loads of actors and actresses. It was the place to go, and I loved every minute of it.”
He still plays the old songs, though he changes them around in concert these days (since the 70s he has been unchanging in his insistence that rock’n’roll is all music, not just the sound of 1955). But one thing will never change. He’ll never be Michael Barratt to the public. “Call me Shaky, not Michael. I’ve been Shaky for so long it would be like calling Muddy Waters McKinley, wouldn’t it?”