Big mouth strikes again

There's no stopping Pete Wylie, frontman of Wah!. He's broken his back, been dumped by his record company and done 150 hours of community service. But, he tells Steve Jelbert, he still has faith in rock'n'roll
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Pete Wylie, one-time voice of those anthemic Eighties rockers Wah!, has invented a word. Only last week he was discussing it with Jonathan Green, lexicographer and compiler of the Cassell Dictionary of Slang, after they met on a radio show. "Optimisery", he says, "is the feeling of wanting to fall in love, but knowing the heartbreak that comes with it. It's the condition of anyone who supports a team other than Manchester United at the moment, or someone on E as they peak, already knowing they'll need another one."

Wylie should know. The last decade was hard on the man nicknamed "the Liverpool Lip". In 1991 he broke his back when a fence he was leaning on gave way and he fell 20 feet. The fire brigade had to retrieve him. "I was in intensive care and I didn't realise. My broken chestbone missed my heart by a quarter of an inch, which would literally have burst it," he recalls. Physical recovery was the least of his problems. Afterwards came bouts of depression, therapy, Prozac, the difficulty of trying to get and keep a band together (an on-going problem: already this year he has split from his backing band).

"In the Nineties I hadn't existed as far as the world was concerned. In the Eighties I'd had that up-and-down adventure. It's not a career. I wouldn't dare use that word." Wylie silenced? Hardly. The great rent-a-quote of his time has never hesitated to talk on records like the classic "Story of the Blues", when mere music was not enough.

Well, Wylie's back with a new record to promote, and that's another story in itself. Signed to Columbia after getting together with ex-Smiths drummer Mike Joyce, now departed - "We played the unsigned band competition at In the City in Dublin. People were coming to see the sad decline, but we were fuckin' fantastic" - Wylie found himself unceremoniously dumped after running up a recording bill approaching £1m. Wylie seriously considered retirement, but Songs of Strength and Heartbreak is finally released next week, two years late. It's an excellent, ludicrous record, a superior Be Here Now, huge in heart, with some great songs, such as the raucous "Never Loved as a Child", the soul-tinged "Sing All the Saddest Songs" and the unashamedly emotional "Heart as Big as Liverpool", already a fixture at Anfield and a local hit. "This is definitely the album I wanted to make," he explains. "The sleeve and the artwork are pretty much the same, though the 'thank yous' have changed."

Then there was the "stalking" incident, which couldn't have helped his standing with a multinational record company. Found guilty of making threatening phone calls to an ex-girlfriend and her partner ("I shouldn't have done it. I'm not proud of it"), it's just about the only thing he won't talk about, for legal reasons. Though perhaps the new album offers some clues to his state of mind at the time. "I am the Nostradamus of rock. I predicted my own downfall," he declares.

There were compensations, though. "I did 150 hours' community service. I had to get up at eight in the morning. I realised that if I had to I could do a normal job. I'm an educated man - university, A-levels, all the stuff - and I'm funny as fuck, so I knew I had options," he states, worryingly.

But enough of such serious talk. An afternoon with Wylie is a roller-coaster to match his career. Whether enthusing about the good looks of Ian Brown, or taking a phone call about an appearance on the Jo Whiley Show ("nice woman, but she spells her name wrong") or inexplicably comparing early-Nineties Scouse beat combo the Real People to the Ground Force team (something to do with their creating "the seedbed for Oasis"), he is endlessly entertaining, alternately serious and maudlin. This is a man who wept at the recent Elvis 2000 show, watching the King's original backing band play along with videos of the man himself.

"I went with Roy Boulter [ex-Farm member, now a Brookside writer] and he's a hard man - well, he's not a soppy git like me - and I was saying, 'I know I'm going to cry,' and he and his wife were laughing. I predicted 'If I Can Dream' and 'Always On My Mind' would get me," he says. "In fact it was 'American Trilogy'. Mind you, people were videoing it." He's shocked. "Why don't they just get the original film, put Subbuteo men in front of the telly, film that and then say 'We were there'? It was a masterpiece of conmanship."

He bought a "Taking Care of Business" lightning-flash medallion as worn by the Memphis mafia, Elvis's companions. It goes well with his Che Guevara ring. "I live in a house called Disgraceland, sadly," he admits.

Then there's Wylie's theory about cool and non-cool: "I have this game. The most performed pop song ever? 'Yesterday'. The most revered pop artist? John Lennon. So I did a version of 'Yesterday' in the style of 'Instant Karma', for a demo. And it's angry. 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'? Paul Simon, Jewish guy, New York 1966. Then there's Lou Reed - Jewish guy, New York 1966. 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' in the style of 'Heroin'." Incredibly, he starts singing. It's probably better than the new Lou record.

It's no wonder, then, that Wylie, or "Peteloaf", as he introduces himself on stage, admits that "it's become a joke that we do a 40-minute set that lasts two hours. Someone commented, 'There's as much comedy as there is music.' " He can't help himself. "It's the same talking to you. I've tried in the past and failed to be the moody rock star." The last decade has left him feeling distinctly mortal: "Before the accident I was confident that I could jump off the conveyor belt and still come back. But it's different now. I want me place in history. I'm fed up of being a PS in the Julian Cope story - well, he's a PS now, so that makes me a PPS."

Ah, yes. Julian Cope, Ian McCulloch, Pete Wylie - the Crucial Three. The Liverpool band that never really was, yet they all went on to huge individual success. Though McCulloch and Wylie are still friends, Wylie's relations with Cope are more problematic, especially since Cope's autobiography referred to Wylie's glib, inoffensive remark about the Crucial Three's unplanned reunion at the funeral of the Bunnymen drummer Pete De Freitas, who was killed in a motorcycle accident. (Wylie's partner had to identify the body.) "Cope and me are so far apart in things that have happened in our lives. I believe that if he walked in now, we'd hug, but I know there's always going to be a payback," he muses. "It's like he's invented the wheel then he's moaning, 'Me mate's only invented the axe.' "

Perhaps it's just that they are both still romantics, though Wylie's fantasy is all-inclusive. "My trust in rock'n'roll says that if something good happens, then people will still have it," he maintains. "There are loads of us out there who develop an instinct for it, and I think those people are undervalued at the moment."

He's off again. "Paul Weller won't do his old songs, but they have a life of their own beyond Paul Weller," he muses, "He's a good, hard worker, he's senior management, and if he wants me to support at any of his gigs..." He says he's delighted that his 10-year-old daughter met Michael Caine and discovered that the actor knows who her daddy is. "It's fantastic - but true," he exclaims in wonderment, as though reality has for once matched his dreams.

'Songs of Strength and Heartbreak' is released on Monday by When!