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Music Interview: Stephen Duffy

Music Interview: Stephen Duffy
Image by Brian Robinson

On the afternoon that I phone singer-songwriter Stephen Duffy, at his home in Falmouth, Cornwall, the eyes of the world are on the town and its neighbouring areas.

“It’s full of police because Boris Johnson has just turned up and Biden’s here for the G7 Summit – it’s a stupid place to put it, as there isn’t a motorway here and loads of the roads you can’t get two cars down simultaneously,” he says. “Whovever thought that was a good idea is nuts.”

Unsurprisingly, we’re not here to talk about traffic logistics, or politics – although his last album with his country-folk band The Lilac Time, 2019’s beautiful Return To Us, did tackle Brexit-related themes – or his time as ‘80s pop star Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy; or his stint as a writer for Robbie Williams, or his short-lived Britpop supergroup Me Me Me, with Alex James of Blur and Justin Welch of Elastica.

Instead, we’re delving back into his early days, when he was a 19-year-old art student and struggling post-punk musician in Birmingham, where he was born and grew up.

Duffy, who turned 61 last year, was the original vocalist with Duran Duran – he left before they got famous – and then, in 1979, he went on to form the band Obviously Five Believers, who were also known as The Subterranean Hawks and The Hawks.

The ‘great lost group’ (Duffy – vocals, Dave Kusworth – guitar, Dave Twist – drums and Simon Colley – bass), put out one single, ‘Words of Hope’, which is now highly collectible, but, after failing to get signed by a label, they split up in 1981, after only 18 months, and very quickly Duffy went on to bigger and better things.

Now, more than 40 years later, following Kusworth’s death in September last year, Duffy has unearthed some archive cassette recordings of The Hawks and worked with Grammy-winning audio engineer John Paterno to restore and improve them, and make them available as an album for the first time ever.

This month, the record, which is credited to The Hawks and called Obviously 5 Believers, is released on CD and vinyl.

It’s a fascinating listen – naïve, yet charming, quirky, raw and rough around the edges – ‘60s-inspired post-punk, with plenty of teenage angst and melancholy.

There are moments of brilliance, like the jangly guitar pop of ‘The Bullfighter’; the wailing, Dylanesque harmonica on ‘Something Soon’, Velvet Underground homage ‘A Sense of Ending’, and the ‘50s-rock- ‘n’-roll-meets-garage of ‘What It Is!’

These fledgling, ramshackle songs provide a tantalising glimpse into what could’ve been and pre-date the sound of The Smiths, who they often sound like, by a few years.

SH: How have you been during the COVID crisis? Did The Hawks album project come about because of lockdown?

SD: I was about to start recording a new album, so I was writing that. I hate having records sitting around without being finished – you start to pick at them and second guess them, and start thinking ‘Is it any good?’, or ‘will it go out of date?’

My last record [The Lilac Time’s Return To Us] wasn’t about Brexit, but it was very current politically. I sat on that for two years and thought, ‘oh God – this is going to seem so out of date by the time it comes out’, but now it seems more relevant than it did when it came out because of everything that’s going on.

I like to finish a record and then release it, but I didn’t record the [new] songs – I just carried on writing… and then, unfortunately, that was when David Kusworth died.

The last time I’d seen him was when I played at The Glee Club, in Birmingham [in 2019] and I think the last thing he said to me was ‘Release the Hawks tapes’, which he’d said many times before, but when it’s the last thing that somebody says to you…

Before he died, I had begun to look at the tapes and I’d been talking to David Twist about it. We’d thought we’d do some work on it before showing it to David Kusworth but, unfortunately, he died and we never got a chance to do it, which was a shame.

The cassettes followed me around. I’ve lived all over the world, but every time I left England, I’d put everything in storage and then get it out when I came back.

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Tags: STEPHEN DUFFY

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