Interview / Dr. Robert / The Blow Monkeys

You could argue a case for the Blow Monkeys being one of the UK`s most clued-up 80s Pop bands. Right from their T-Rex-y, Bolan beginnings, of Wildflower and Limping For A Generation, they`ve always been left-leaning and politically outspoken. Lyrically articulate. Somewhere between contemporaries ABC and The Smiths. They were tight with Paul Weller. As he kicked out The Jam and took up The Style, and assumed the moniker of Cappuccino Kid. Consequently, with Weller, forming an integral part of Red Wedge. The musical movement that sought to rally a young vote against Margret Thatcher’s Conservative grip. Atomic Lullaby addressed Thatcher, Reagan and Andropov`s Cold War. She Was Only A Grocer`s Daughter voiced the band’s disgust with the “Iron Lady” and the Britain she was fashioning. 

But it wasn’t just the politics that made the Blow Monkeys “radicals” amongst their fellow Smash Hits pin-ups. They were also one of the first Pop bands to keep up with and successfully incorporate emerging dance-floor vogues. Digging Your Scene might be a kissing cousin of Everything But The Girl`s bed-sit Jazz, but it rides Run DMC`s 808. It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way does the EU Freeze to Troublefunk`s Go-Go rattle. The band collaborated with Rai superstar, Cheb Khaled, Dancehall legend, Eek A Mouse, and the sorely missed Curtis Mayfield. They were one of the first mainstream acts to embrace House. Recording with Chicago diva, Kym Mazelle, and Ten City. Commissioning remixes from two of Detroit`s Bellville Three (Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson), and New York`s Musto & Bones. 

Whether by design or otherwise the Blow Monkeys were definitely Balearic. Atomic Lullaby, Digging Your Scene, and It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way, all made the Amnesia play-lists of DJs Alfredo Fiorito and Leo Mas. When the chaps in the Boys Own office mocked up a “Balearic Beats Volume 2” – a proposed follow-up to Paul Oakenfold`s genre-defining compilation – Digging Your Scene was on it. It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way was the thought that ran through the heads of countless “dead end” kids. Abandoned by the powers that be, and awakened by Ecstasy group therapy. Wait was high on hope. 

“I could be the change that you’re looking for baby.”

When the drug was telling us all that love is the answer. 

1988`s The Love Of Which I Dare Not Speak pre-dated Primal Scream`s Loaded, with its mix of Muscle Shoals Gospel and baggy beat (like the Happy Mondays, once Oakenfold had cleaned them up). And then there was La Passionara. Flamenco set to the Apache break. By the time they hit the 90s, the Blow Monkeys had morphed into a “Garage” band. Recognizing House simply as a step in the evolution of Soul.

While the Blow Monkeys were quiet between 1990`s Springtime For The World and 2008`s Devils Tavern, front man, Robert Howard, or Dr. Robert, continued to record. Falling in with Heavenly Records, and starting his own imprints Artbus and Fen Cat. This year has seen Robert hook up with Miles Copeland`s Wonderfulsound. Releasing a set of Casiotone compositions, titled Cosmic Mayhem. Constituting a cornerstone of The Monks Road Social project. With the advent of these new records, plus the Blow Monkeys constant touring, it seemed a prime time to have a bit of a dig around Dr. Robert`s scene.

Where are you from?

Born In Haddington, Scotland but left very young. I spent my early teenage years in Kings Lynn before moving to Sydney aged sixteen, where I stayed for five years before coming back to London. My father was a Londoner and my Mother was from Edinburgh.

Where are you based?

In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada..deepest Andalusia.

Who or what inspired you to learn an instrument and start making music?

An early hero was Marc Bolan and his strange otherworldly Tyrannosaurus Rex songs. My sister was learning to play guitar and left it lying around with a copy of “Eagles Made Easy” By the end of the day I had Take It Easy down plus a version of Debora. I never looked back!

I get asked this all the time, are you really a doctor, if so, what of?

No. And I’m not really a monkey either.

Were you in any bands before the Blow Monkeys?

I started off busking around Sydney..outside the Opera House and on Circular Quay. Then I briefly joined a band in Darwin up in the Northern Territory. They called themselves Exhibit A. I recorded an album with them but have never heard it. The drummer went back to Adelaide to join The Church. The band not the institution.

How did the Blow Monkeys meet?

I answered an ad in the back of Melody Maker..they were looking for an “angular” guitarist. I thought it might be something to do with fishing. I met Neville and the rest is Mick`s Story.

What is a Blow Monkey?

Fuck Knows.

Can you tell me more about Red Wedge? Who started it? What did it set out to achieve, did it succeed? Did it tie into the Wilhem Reich quote you once used? 

It was an attempt to engage young people in politics..in particular the Labour Party in the midst of Thatcherism. It was an easy target but I think it might have been more influential than it was given credit for. There were some great nights of music..it was the first time we`d been part of something bigger than our own small world…I made lifelong friends. Wilhem Reich? Its a good quote, but I’m not sure about his “Orgone Box” thing though.

If the psychic energies of the average mass of people watching a Football game or a musical comedy could be diverted into the Rational channels of a Freedom Movement, They would be invincible.”

True words. I get where he’s coming from here but I’m not sure he understands what being at a football match can mean..A reductionist view of politics that misses out on our need for “collective joy” is missing out a fundamental need in human nature.

Do you still hold strong political beliefs? Living on the outside, in Japan, the UK now politically just looks a total mess. I don’t know who I`d vote for, only who I wouldn’t.

Yes of course. I think Corbyn is the first proper socialist leader the labour party have had in my life time and the possibilities are endless…I just wish he’s sort out his Brexit policy and get behind a second referendum fully. These D-Day commemorations remind us why we need to stay together.

What is Digging Your Scene about?

About 3 mins, 40 secs. And misguided AIDS paranoia in the mid 80’s.

The Blow Monkeys were always amongst the first UK “Pop” acts to embrace emerging Dance music culture such as Jamaican Dancehall, Washington Go-Go, Chicago House and Detroit Techno. Were you going out dancing a lot? Where were you going? Because of your connection to Hector Heathcote I’m assuming you were a regular at The Wag? Where else were you going? 

I shared a flat in Brixton above Red Records with Hector and carried his record boxes to various venues like The Wag and the Flim Flam in New Cross.  It was an education and our friendship continues.

Hector appears on the credits for La Passionara. Who’s idea was this record? It`s a “Balearic” classic. Were you are of the “Balearic” scene at the time? Atomic Lullaby, It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way and Digging Your Scene were also “Balearic” hits. Had you been to Ibiza? Had the Blow Monkeys performed out there?

At that point I hadn’t been to Ibiza but the Blow Monkeys had toured in Spain constantly and my wife Michele and I had fallen in love with the culture and way of life there. We made a vow then to move there one day. Michele was also instrumental in opening up my mind to different kinds of music..people like Cheb Khaled.

Can you tell me more about Slam Slam?

Hector and I were asked to produce it and there are some good things on there..Free Your Feelings..Depthcharge..Move..I was known as the “Akai Kid” because at that time I`d immersed myself in the nascent technology..I wanted to learn how it was done and hated losing control of the process..not because I was a control freak but just out of pure frustration that I wasn’t getting the sounds I wanted. So I learned to use the samplers and  sequencers.

Are you still in contact with Hector now?

Absolutely ..He is a lifelong friend and does some fabulous videos for us….as well as providing a constant stream of inspirational music to check out. He’s a legend.

Can you remember the first time you heard a House record? Where you were, what it was, and what impression it made? 

I would have been sometime when I stayed with H in Brixton. He gave me a shopping list to buy some very early House classics in a specific record shop in Chicago when we toured the States in 86’.

The Blow Monkeys worked with a variety of artists from areas outside of “Pop”, Cheb Khaled, Eek A Mouse, Kym Mazelle, Curtis Mayfield, Ten City. What made you reach out to these artists, and can you tell me what it was like working with them? 

I always love a collaboration..there is always so much to learn and share. Khaled is a proper rebel. From where he comes from he stands outside the norm and makes fantastic dangerous music. Mouse is a giant and I just did what he wanted…he liked the title of our song Sweet Murder. Curtis became a real friend and mentor. He showed me how to take what comes with grace and never forget where you come from. Ten City were cool guys…made homegrown sweet soul music.

Did you pick your remixers, people like Kevin Saunderson, Tommy Musto and Frankie Bones?

Yes..with a little help from people like Hector and Korda Marshall…but I was lucky..I was in a position to choose who I wanted to work with.

The Blow Monkeys were singed to RCA throughout the 1980s. What happened in 1990?

We stopped…Ten years of touring and making records under pressure and it was time for a new thing…for all of us.

As a solo artist you seemed to be tight with the Heavenly Records crowd. Working with people like Paul Weller and Beth Orton. How did this association come about? Did you go to the Heavenly Socials? Are you still in contact with Heavenly and the Caught By The River folks? Have you been involved at all in the events to save The Social on Little Portland Street?

Jeff Barrett at Heavenly was a good friend and turned me onto a lot of great music..in particular Fred Neil and the whole Greenwich Village scene…Obviously Dylan leads you there too. I needed to educate myself musically..discover some roots….I knew Paul since the Red Wedge days and happened to live up the road from the Manor where he recorded Wildwood and Stanley Road so I was constantly picking up a bass or a guitar and joining in..he reciprocated on my first solo album Realms Of Gold. Paul taught me a lot about attention to detail and persistence..plus he’s very sharp and funny. I used to love the Heavenly Social gatherings and still follow what Jeff does with his Caught By The River blog. I’d do anything they wanted to help save that place.

Can you tell me more about The Monks Road Social project? Who is involved? How it came about? How long did it take to pull together? How you hooked up with Miles and Wonderfulsound

Richard Clarke started the Monks Road adventure and asked me to help put it together…I knew a lot of the core musicians like Crispin Taylor..Ernie McKone..Mick Talbot..Steve Sydelnyk  and Jacko Peake, and got to know others like Matt Deighton and Angelina as we went along..its an ever evolving adventure and the line up is constantly changing. The new one has Matt`s daughter Romy singing..Shes wonderful..plus people like Kathryn Williams..who I love. And Neil Jones from Stone Foundation doing a solo thing…it could go anywhere and I’m enjoying steering the ship. Richard brought Miles in from Wonderfulsound..who I knew about in from The Superimposers..and he brings his own very idiosyncratic aesthetic to it all…we can go anywhere with it. A pretty unique template. 

You were quick to correct me when I referred to you as an “ex-Blow Monkey”. Are the Blow Monkeys working on new music at the moment? Do you still tour?

We are always touring and making records..Five new albums since we reformed in 2008 and the last one The Wild River did best of all. It’s the mothership for me. I love playing with them more than ever..probably because I’m aware of the finite nature of it all. There’s something about being in a band that I love and we plan to get back in the studio soon to make a new record..We’re not interested in being a nostalgia act. Onwards….

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