Ah, yes, summer 1987. I remember it well. I came across a review of Meet Danny Wilson in Q magazine which drew comparisons between Gary Clark’s voice and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan’s (spot-on). That was enough incentive for a massive Steely fan like me to check it out.
I wasn’t disappointed. Meet Danny is one of the most arresting, original debut albums of the ’80s, and it stands up extremely well today. I would annoy my school friends bigging up the album and trying to get it played during art lessons – to no avail. U2, Simple Minds, The The, Fleetwood Mac and INXS couldn’t be usurped.
But my enthusiasm was slightly justified when the gorgeous ‘Mary’s Prayer’ was finally a big hit at the third attempt (UK number 3, US number 23).
Danny Wilson shared a love of jazz, the Great American Songbook and Steely Dan with contemporaries Hue and Cry, Swing Out Sister, Sade and various other late-’80s acts, but (fortunately?) Meet Danny Wilson doesn’t sound remotely like any of them.
Gary graciously answered my questions in the middle of a very busy period of travelling, writing and recording. We talked about the inspiration behind the timeless ‘Mary’s Prayer’ single, hanging out with Billy Mackenzie, the golden age of Virgin Records and busking on transatlantic flights…
MP: Could you give a quick summary of how you started making music as Danny Wilson with your brother Kit (keyboards) and Ged Grimes (bass)?
GC: Ged was at school with me and clearly one of the most talented kids so we naturally gravitated towards each other and stayed together from the school band stage all the way through to Danny Wilson. Kit is my younger brother. When Ged and I returned from London we wanted to re-think the band and Kit, in our absence, had grown into a formidable musician, writer and singer so he was a natural choice to bring onboard.
What were the musical influences that went into the pot for Meet Danny Wilson? Any contemporary mid-’80s artists?
Well, I really found my voice as a writer when I stopped trying to sound contemporary. Ged and I spent three years in London living in a squat, gigging and trying to get a record deal and it seemed like the labels wanted us to sound like what was already on the radio at that time. If you can remember radio in 1984/85, everything was super- polished, super-quantised and very synthesised. Even guitars all tended to be layered in multi-effects. I very consciously decided to go in the opposite direction and return to my musical roots; all the music I loved was devastatingly unfashionable at the time. Off the top of my head, the main influences for that album were not contemporary at all: Sinatra, Bacharach and David, Jimmy Webb, Becker and Fagen, Tom Waits, a little bit of Hall and Oates, heavy dollops of the Great American Songbook and a ton of soundtrack records.
How did Danny write songs? Were all the tracks co-written or did you provide the blueprints?
I wrote all of the songs on that album and they were all written and mostly demoed prior to recording. The only exception I recall is finishing ‘Five Friendly Aliens’ at the piano in Puk studios after we’d started recording the rest of the album.
How did you come to be signed to Virgin? Were you fans of the label beforehand?
We played a gig in a bar in Edinburgh and a music journalist called Bob Flynn was there. He wrote a review in NME that literally changed our lives. The review was so good and the band were so unknown that the record labels who had systematically rejected us only months before were calling Bob asking how they could get in touch with the band. We had really served our time in the trenches live and in the studio so we were really ready for it when it came. The next gig we did in Edinburgh was packed and half of the audience were A&R and publishers from London. We literally had the choice of every major label and almost signed to Warners. In the end, a mixture of Virgin’s reputation as an artistic label, their sheer passion for the music and their willingness to give us complete artistic control won the day.
Can you remember your inspiration for ‘Mary’s Prayer’ and where you wrote it?
Yes, I wrote it in the squat in London quite a few years before it was released. My friend, the songwriter Ali Thomson, loaned me a Roland Juno 60 synth and I just switched on the first preset and immediately played the verse chords without thinking (they’re all white notes!). The melody and a large chunk of the first verse lyric came to me instantly. I liked it but couldn’t get a chorus that did the verse justice and it took about another year of me coming back to it until I finally hit on the chorus.
How did you come to include Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy on the album? Definitely not an obvious choice of special guests! Weren’t they signed to Virgin at the time?
They were signed to ECM. The Virgin connection came later through us. Howard Gray (later of Apollo 440) was producing the first half of our album at Puk. They had an incredible system in there and we liked to blast records on the big speakers at the start of the day and at the end of the night with some fine Elephant beers for refreshment. Digital was in its infancy and ECM were making some of the first records that could be legally labelled ‘DDD’ which meant ‘recorded, mixed and mastered without leaving the digital domain’. Howard played us Lester’s ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ one of those nights as an example of how great this process could sound and we all fell instantly head over heels in love. By sheer mind-bending coincidence, we saw that Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy were playing Copenhagen when we were still in Denmark. We went to the gig, one of the greatest live shows I have ever seen, and accosted Lester afterwards. It’s a little-known fact that because of budget restrictions, Ged, Kit and I busked our fare on a very early Virgin Atlantic flight to New York so we could be there for the sessions! Pre-9/11, of course… But we actually got free flights for entertaining the passengers in mid-air.
Your amazing vocal on ‘You Remain An Angel’ always reminded me of The Associates’ Billy Mackenzie – were you a fan and did you know him at all?
Well, thank you. I’m a huge fan of Billy’s work but I can honestly say that The Associates were nowhere near my mind when we did that song. There is a B-side called ‘Living To Learn‘ that has a huge Associates influence. Billy and I are from the same home town, Dundee in Scotland, and I got to know him a little. We would all hang out at a place called Fat Sam’s cocktail bar where they played great music and had great live acts passing through. We saw some amazing bands in their infancy back then. Billy was always so wonderful, charming and encouraging to me.
Meet Danny Wilson has a really pleasing mix of acoustic instrumentation and late-’80s technology – was there any pressure to be ‘produced’ and make a very modern-sounding record? I have a B-side version of ‘Aberdeen’ that was subtitled something like ‘The Way It Should Have Been‘…
No. Virgin were great like that. I think they understood that we had just as much chance commercially by being true to ourselves as we would have had conforming to some blueprint of what radio sounds like. I wish that vision was more prevalent in the music business today. I will say that although we used the most up-to-date technology available at the time, we didn’t use it to sound modern but to get what was in our heads onto the recording. On ‘Aberdeen’, for instance, we used a Fairlight to get the trumpet and string sounds but the production is probably more ’60s in tone than ’80s. That B-side was an interesting one; we had made a very early stripped back Portastudio demo of that song before the album and it had a certain beatboxy charm that we all kind of harked back to. The tape was lost so that B-side was our attempt to recreate that vibe. Never a great idea!
How do you feel about Meet Danny Wilson and its place in the 1980s musical landscape now?
I feel pretty much the same as at the time. It’s very me, very honest, very heartfelt and, just like me, doesn’t fit in anywhere. Exactly what we were going for, I suppose.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m always writing and recording with other artists. That’s what I do these days and have a whole heap of stuff in the pipeline but aside from that I’ve just written the music with John Carney (Once, Begin Again) for his next movie (‘Sing Street’) which I’m very, very excited about. As it happens, he got in touch with me because Meet Danny Wilson was a record his brother had turned him onto as a young kid growing up in Dublin in the ’80s. That neatly brings this interview to a lovely, rounded conclusion so I’d better shut up now!
Many thanks for your time, Gary.