PARLEZ-ING ABOUT ‘NO PARLEZ’
A CONVERSATION ABOUT PAUL YOUNG’S BRILLIANT CAREER
For music fans in the early 1980s, Paul Young was just about everywhere. He was topping music charts, headlining concert tours, and he was all over the radio. He participated in the 1984 Band Aid single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (that’s his velvety voice singing the opening lines), and he played a set at the Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium in 1985. Though he had his greatest success in the ’80s, his story does not end there. Paul Young has had a remarkable career, and he continues to record and give concerts, whether as a solo act, or with his Tex-Mex band, Los Pacaminos.
After experiencing fleeting success in the groups Streetband, and Q-Tips, Young decided to become a solo act, and released his debut album, No Parlez in 1983. That album spent an astounding five weeks atop the UK album charts, and has achieved five-times platinum status worldwide. In celebration of that album, Young is about to start the second leg of his “35 Years of No Parlez” tour, which hits the UK and select European dates this spring.
For Paul Young, No Parlez was the album that started it all. “I guess the most basic proviso of the album is that, I’d been in a soul band, and though we got plays on the radio, it didn’t really translate to sales. I knew that something had to change, but I was happy with my vocal style. It felt comfortable and it felt like it was me. I didn’t want to change that, so basically I just thought I’d change all the music around me, using the instruments that were available at the time, which was a lot of synth stuff, and drum machines. That’s it, in its most basic form.”
While No Parlez is replete with the synthesizers and processed drum sounds that typified popular music in the 1980s, Young is unapologetic about those production choices, when presenting his music to a modern audience. “I would not change it. I mean some of the arrangements are very wacky. Sometimes I wonder what in the world I was thinking when we were doing them. But we have to pull them apart and re-examine them. Back then, you made the record first, then you worried about how you were going to reconstruct that live. We’ve got a bit more at our disposal these days. We can make it sound a bit closer to the record, but it was thirty-five years ago. I don’t think like that now. My phrasing has changed, and things like that. It is quite interesting to go back and listen to it and think, ‘Oh, yeah. I think I can feel that R&B influence from the Q-Tips in a lot of phrasing on this album’.”
“On ‘Come Back And Stay’, I’ve actually taken a lot of the synth sounds out of it. We play it more like a straight-ahead rock track, these days. We still get people who come along and go, ‘Well, it doesn’t sound like the record.’ Well… thirty-five years have crossed, so, thirty-five years of playing ‘Come Back And Stay’ – it’s gonna change! Also, the ones that we’ve never played live – they have to sound more authentic. We’ve had to de-construct them for the first time in thirty-five years. Songs like ‘Tender Trap’ and ‘Iron Out The Rough Spots’ we’ve only done a few times since 1982.”
The songs on No Parlez represent tunes from a variety of sources and styles, and Young had quite a bit of input with song selection. “I went into the studio armed with a few ideas. ‘Iron Out The Rough Spots’ I found, ‘Come Back And Stay’, because my keyboard player played on all of (songwriter) Jack Lee’s demos, and ‘Love Of The Common People’ – I heard that on the radio. I’d been going around publishing houses, saying, ‘Have you got any interesting songs? And they’d play me rock with terrible changes. And then I heard the reggae version of ‘Love Of The Common People’ and I thought, ‘That’s a good song! Why doesn’t somebody send me a song like that?’ So I set about de-constructing that, then re-constructing it, to take it away from being reggae, really. We started on those ones first and foremost. I’ve got a couple of songs with my keyboard player Ian Kewley, that were on the album. It was Laurie (Latham), our producer who said, ‘Well, you’ve done some old R&B and put it in a more modern format. Now, we need to find something that’s more contemporary, and make it your style’. It was his idea to do ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’.”
It was unusual choice for Young to record a (more produced and polished) version of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ on his debut album. Joy Division was a much-revered band in Britain, and had become even more so, following the death of singer Ian Curtis. Was there backlash from Joy Division fans at this song’s inclusion on No Parlez? “Yeah, massive amounts. It’s like doing a song like ‘Over the Rainbow’. You can’t touch it. I think it softened after a while. Pete Hook (of Joy Division) put in a good word for me, as did a very influential DJ called John Peel, who championed punk music and stuff like that. So, I think people’s idea about it softened. Anyways, if you had written the song, you’d be quite pleased to hear someone do a version of it, to see what they would do with it. And that could be the doorway (for fans) to get into more Joy Division.”
No Parlez marked the first time that many North American listeners heard the work of the Welsh musician, Pino Palladino on fretless bass. His playing on No Parlez truly helped to define Paul Young’s sound. Young notes that Palladino “was fairly well-known at that point. He was playing in a couple of bands. He played with Gary Numan, and he played with Jools Holland. Aside from that, he was still quite a new entity, probably, when we did No Parlez. We had done some songs like ‘Iron Out The Rough Spots’ and ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, but they were already complete, and they didn’t need his style. Then we got him in to do ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat’, and it was like a light bulb when he started playing. We actually re-constructed the song around his part. I think we’d got kind of a half-tempo drum pan, and when he started playing over that in quite a languid style, he said, ‘I don’t know if that fits what you’ve got’. I said, ‘I’d rather change what we’ve got to fit him.’ We made it more of a sixteens high-hat pattern. So we really utilized what he could do. And then we started to (think that) this is really going to work great on ‘Come Back and Stay’, as well. He very quickly became a part of it.”
“First and foremost, actually, I’d got the two girls who sang on ‘Love Of The Common People’, and ‘Iron Out The Rough Spots’. Pino’s girlfriend was one of the singers. She had taken it home, and she said, ‘I played these for Pino, and he loves it. He’d love to be involved.’ I thought, ‘Really? That’d be great!’ and it all came from there.”
While No Parlez set Paul Young on a successful path, he acknowledges that this period was not without its down side. “There are always pitfalls, but I’d been working with the same manager and keyboard player for three or four years previous. I’d had a lot of experience on the road, so I thought that I was kind of ready for it. Although No Parlez was incredibly successful from Britain right across to Europe, and it seemed to have done so well, there was still that slight frustration that I couldn’t get that first album away in America, and in Japan as well. So there were always things to be improved upon. Also, we took it with a sense of humour. We didn’t take it too seriously.”
Not taking things too seriously has served Paul Young well, thirty-five years on. As he prepares for a lengthy spring tour, Young reflects on how touring, and his audience, have changed. “We’re in this period of austerity, as they say. Back then, it was a bit more glamorous, the hotels were better, you could afford business class for long journeys. Nowadays, everything has to be pared down in the budget, to an absolute minimum, to be able to make any kind of money.” As for his audience, he relates that “There are fans who I almost know by first name. They come to quite a few shows, and they also come to the shows that I do with my other band, my Tex-Mex band. I really know them well. Sometimes they say to me, ‘We’ve met so many great friends, coming to your concerts.’ You forget about other little sideline of things that go on, alongside your career, that people would have friends up and down the country, or across the continent. We get younger fans as well, probably because their parents played it. There’s also that strange generation thing where young people grow up in this modern period, but they’re inexplicably drawn to Elvis Presley, or whatever. A lot of children just like mainstream music, but other children are drawn to something else, for whatever reasons. So, we get some younger people who come as well, which is nice.”
Paul Young last appeared in Canada as part of a shared bill, on tour with Midge Ure in 2018. On the possibility of bringing the “35 Years of No Parlez” tour across the Atlantic, Young is optimistic. “I did mention that to our manager, and I thought we should maybe have a look and see if it’s worth doing. I don’t know how big the first album was there. It meant less to the Americans, certainly, but we’d just have to come over and do a Canadian tour. It is a lovely show, and I’d love to stretch it out to other countries.”
Late in our conversation, Paul Young touched on a few other highlights of his career, and reflects on his past with more than a little humour. When considering the around-the-clock recording session for “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, Young remarks, “There was a lot of waiting around, so really… It’s hard to know if it’s a memorable moment ’cause I keep seeing it on TV… I think the most memorable moment was working on that part, ‘It’s Christmastime, There’s no need to be afraid…’ Just going through it, thinking, ‘How can I sing this?’ The temptation with the first two lines is to go speeding in, but that’s not what it needs. And I know that they tried a few other people, as well. But I guess they must have preferred mine.” The long-held notion that Young’s vocal part was originally intended for David Bowie, is apparently true, according to the artist: “Yeah, I think he was supposed to be there, if he could, but he was on the other side of the world. So they just thought, ‘Who can we use to make this record?’”
The success of the Band Aid single led to the Live Aid famine relief concert in July of 1985 – an event which included Young and his band. Of the more memorable moments of that day, Young says, “Being interviewed by Cindy Crawford – that was pretty memorable! The other thing I remember that was dreadful, was that U2’s drum roadie was testing the kit through the monitors. Unfortunately, it was coming to ours as well, while we were playing live. It was a nightmare!”
Digging further back, before his success with the No Parlez album, Young reminisces about his early act, Streetband, and their unexpected hit, “Toast”. “It was never meant to be a song. The guitar player broke a string, and the roadie didn’t know how to change a string quickly, so the guitar player went off to do it himself. The other guitar player, and the bass, and drummer just played a little rhythm, and I was talking over top of it. There was a producer that had come to see us, who was the guy behind the live Ian Dury album. It really appealed to him that I was just talking over rhythm. He said that he wanted to put it on the B-side of our first single, but this famous DJ here called Kenny Everett played it over and over again, until the record company flipped it.”
“It was a Sunday, so I was just talking to the audience, going, “’Oh, well…’. While we were waiting, I wondered what everybody had for breakfast, and then I started telling them what I had done. As I was talking, I just started to pick up on the rhythm. I got to the end of the chord sequence, I could sense it was coming to an end. It just worked out perfectly, I went, ‘Oh I went in, I couldn’t find anything to eat. I looked in the bread bin and I saw bread and I thought, Oh, yeah, I’ll have toast.’ And, that word came at exactly the right spot. So, I said it again, and then I kept on talking, and I thought, ‘Oh, that makes a cute chorus.’ Then, the minute the guitarist walked back on, we all just stopped playing, basically like, ‘Okay – one, two, three…’, and went into the next tune. We had to basically re-construct it in the studio, and think about what I might have said. It’s a young man’s game. I don’t think I could sing that quickly now!”
Fast-forward to today, and Paul Young is still making plans and making music. When questioned about what his dream project would be, at this point in his career, Young replies, “Well, I’m on it now, really – I’m trying to get an album done, but I had pneumonia over the Christmas period, which has slowed me down. I’ve got an album of material, but I’m just working on one track at the moment, where I’ve decided to take it to a composer/arranger who works a lot in film. I really like what he does. I thought, ‘I’m going to leap into the unknown here.’ I contacted him, and said, ‘I’ve got this song I’d like to do.’ His name is Mario Grigorov, and he worked on the incidental music for the Nicole Kidman movie called The Paperboy. I think fortune was smiling on me, ’cause I thought that he lived out in America, but it turns out he’s in London. I met him last week, and he said he’s going to work on an arrangement for it, once he’s done his movie score. I’m really quite excited about that. It’s a risk. It’s something I’ve not done before. It’s an expensive risk, but I’ve just got a feeling that it’s going to work. I hope I’m right! (laughs)”.
Whether celebrating his past success with No Parlez, or working on new music with a film composer, Paul Young remains an artist with a reputation for creating great work, a passion for performing, and the energy to make it happen. Canadian fans may have to wait a while before seeing Young perform on these shores, he will surely be back sooner than later.