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Friars Interviews

JO CALLIS
The Human League  The Rezillos
friars appearances 30/12/77 (rezillos)  08/12/81 (Human League)

Jo Callis has been in the music business seemingly forever. Widely thought to have released Scotland's first punk single, he went on to form The Rezillos, one of the first successful new wave bands from Scotland who played Friars with The Ramones and were the first UK artists to sign to Sire. After that, Jo went on to join The Human League as they were preparing for what eventually became one of the biggest and most influential pop albums of all time, Dare.

Jo co-wrote Don't You Want Me which got to number one the day The Human League played Friars, the only band to ever play Friars whilst at the top spot in the singles charts.

We caught up with Jo for a chat in February 2013.

Hello Jo, thanks very much for talking to the Friars Aylesbury website, as we'll see there's a few firsts and facts on the way!

You played Friars twice.......

The first time was when I was in The Rezillos when we supported The Ramones wasn't it? Friars Aylesbury and Glasgow Apollo too were legendary venues.

It was.......actually as I mentioned there are various facts and figures attributed to you and am I right in saying you released Scotland's first punk/new wave single?

I'm not sure! There were a few knocking around releasing indie singles back then. One of those was Simple Minds in their Johnny and the Self Abusers days. They had stuff out round the same time.

But you certainly predated The Skids who were the on the next wave out of Scotland......

Definitely. Actually The Skids came to some of our early gigs and we got to know them and they said they'd just started a band....

How did The Rezillos come together in Scotland?

Pretty much through friends at art college. We used to play in bands, there were a few bands at college. Then we formed a band called The Knutsford Dominators as a bit of a break doing mostly 50s and 60s cover versions and stuff like that. We'd quite enjoyed doing that and that gave the idea of starting The Rezillos. We'd been playing in 'serious' bands, but we really enjoyed playing in The Rezillos and winding the audiences up as much as anything else!

The Rezillos of course developed - your original repertoire included some of the 50s and 60s cover versions didn't it?

Yes, the first few gigs were all cover versions. It was all quite light hearted really, just a bit of fun and we had no expectations. It's almost without realising it that you are doing it for the right and reasons and I think that came across. After the first gig when we got an encore, we decided to invest more time (in our act) and there was no turning back.


Back to firsts. The Rezillos were the first UK band to be signed to Sire Records.

Yes, that's right.

Presumably the Sire connection led to you supporting The Ramones on their 1977 December tour where you played Friars?

Very much so with the support slot and this also led to us recording the first Rezillos album at The Power Station in New York.

From my research of Friars history, we very nearly had you back in 1978 headlining but it didn't work out for some reason.

We were firmly in the process of splitting up at that time! We did about four or five dates of the tour and it started falling apart.

The Ramones tour undoubtedly gave you a leg up playing some decent venues, and just a few months later was the wonderful irony of seeing you on Top of the Pops performing...er....Top of the Pops. The song was basically satire wasn't it?

I suppose it was - I was quite proud of that. You think you are making a statement at the time, looking back I am still proud of it but it was a little naive really but it did the trick.


After the split of the Rezillos, you went one way, some of the band went another, but it was the calling of Bob Last which led to you joining The Human League?

I'm never quite sure about that actually. Bob was manager of The Rezillos and through that met The Human League. There was a band called 2.3 (who featured music journalist Paul Bower) who became a support band to us in Doncaster. Bob had just started up an independent record label, Fast Product and signed up 2.3 (as well as The Mekons who were the first signing). Paul Bower was forever plugging The Human League to Bob and eventually got them to send a two-track of Being Boiled and a couple of other songs and consequently Bob signed The Human League to Fast. He then ended up managing them, The first time I'd met them was when they opened for us at the Music Machine (Camden Palace) in London. I got on really well with Adrian Wright and hung out with him whenever they played Glasgow or Sheffield.

So you'd already made the connection with The Human League.....

Yes and with Bob managing them as well. After the Rezillos ended I wanted to do something different  and got involved with a local band called Boots For Dancing. Adrian wanted to write a couple of songs with me which I did and I ended up going down to Sheffield quite frequently and started writing songs for, although we didn't know it then, the Dare album.

With a retrospective head on, that album is seen as one of THE defining pop albums of the era if not all time. I know you don't see it that way when you are actually making the album........

We were just writing tunes and trying to do something a little different I suppose.....
.

By the time you'd joined the band, I think Sound of The Crowd had been recorded and you were brought into fill it all out

I'd actually been involved since before Sound of The Crowd when they brought out Boys and Girls with just Phil (Oakey) and Adrian Wright involved. After Sound of The crowd, I started to get more involved.

The tracks on Dare are all stand out but you co-wrote some of these including Open Your Heart and Don't You Want Me which is one of those songs we'll hear for the next 50 years!
Martin Rushent - what was he to you, a producer, a visionary....he was bringing in the Linn Drum machine which was radical for the time.

Martin had been working at his studio with Visage and saw this (musically) as the next big step, the next big thing. On the strength of that, he was seen as the ideal choice as producer to tackle Dare. As a result of the (New Romatic) Blitz scene and the resurgence of electronic music, he had all this kit in his studio including the first Linn Drum in the country, also the great big Roland System 700 and that kind of business.

That new equipment had to be tamed as well to get it to do what !

Martin had used some of this stuff before and was using the Roland AC4 programmable sequencers as well. That was quite a new thing. He had obviously done a fair bit of work with them as he had them cracked by the time we started working with him. It was a bit of a learning curve too. It was interesting.

The 1981 Dare tour and another first.....it was the actual day, never repeated in Friars history, when you went to Number One with Don't You Want Me......

I do remember that!.

I was at that gig......and with the Dare album being entrenched in technology, it must have been one almighty challenge to recreate that album live......

Yes, there was no MIDI or stuff then. I've seen The Human League since when they've come up to Scotland and the show is a lot better because the technology is so much better to be able to do it now. You can go on stage with laptops and a few cables and unless there's a power cut you can do it faultlessly. The original Dare tour was hard as a lot of it had to be played live and none of us was really a keyboard player! (laughs)

I remember Phil, the girls, you, Ian Burden and Adrian Wright and didn't you have a seventh member also playing keyboards?

Yes we used a guy called Mike from Liverpool who was an extra hand for the tour. We had to play most of the parts live.

Was it your idea to add Destination Venus to the set on the Dare tour or a band decision out of respect to you?

It was Phil's Idea, he wanted to do a tune from my history, and had always liked Destination Venus. We also did a tune from Ian Burden's former band "Graph" called "You're My Baby". It was a little bit of respect for myself and Ian I guess.

I remember it was a challenge! As you say, doing that now would be simpler and more faithful to the studio takes of the songs.

Now you can sample and program sounds you used on your recordings.....

It's in effect taking your studio out on the road isn't it?

In a way. This was what Kraftwerk used to do with King Klang. The studio was in effect portable so they could pack it up and on tour they effectively had their studio on stage. Nowadays for electronic bands they could be using on stage to play back the same laptops they used making their records in the studio! (laughs) You just hit play!.

After the success of Dare and especially Don't You Want Me which Phil Oakey considered as album filler (!)......

The strange thing was that came together quite gradually. It took quite a while to get a vocal idea for it. We just thought it was another track for the album, almost quite cheesy really. My favourite track on Dare is Seconds. - I like the sound of that one.

After the phenomenal success of Dare, there must have been extraordinary record company pressure on you?

Yes, that's really what led to follow up album Hysteria taking so long to come out.

Was that the reason the Dare remix album Love and Dancing came out? In other words was this a stop gap?

I think that was going to happen anyway. Soft Cell had done something similar around that time releasing a remixed album. Martin Rushent had this concept about remixing, taking a track apart and putting it back together. It was a new idea and concept and it seemed a good idea to everybody to try it out. So the concept of the Love and Dancing would have happened regardless..

Whose idea was it to refer to that album as being by The League Unlimited Orchestra?

I think that was Phil's, in homage to Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra.

I'd like to ask you about Hysteria, which I think to this day is an underrated album. When I first played that album, it was, on first listen, better than Dare which took a few plays to grow on me.

Really?! I thought it was bit patchy but the good stuff - It worked out well, but I think it's got an unfinished sound to it to me..

Apart from the record company pressure, you also had to deal with the fallout of Martin Rushent upping sticks during the recording of that album?

With hindsight it all seems simple and straightforward but it got to us all in the end. We'd recorded about half an album with Martin. Mirror Man and Fascination had been recorded by that point. That half album got released in the US as a mini-album only available on import here (The Fascination EP). I tried to keep everything together and keep Martin in it and we'd be OK for a few weeks and then there'd be problems again. It may have been conflict between Martin and Phil, I don't know. Martin was a very passionate and was more like a member of the band than a producer. As a producer he was very passionate about what he was doing. He would have the occasional hissy fit and get pissed off about something just as someone in a band will.

Then we ended up going through two or three producers.

You got Chris Thomas in at the end didn't you?

Yes and Hugh Padgham to help finish it off..

This obviously goes some way to explaining the delay between albums

What everyone was trying to do was to do something that was better than Dare, trying to top it and you just can't do that I don't think. After Dare, what we really needed was a another all round good album with hits and then you can take two or three years to top Dare (rather than it being the following album). I think the longer you take making an album the worse it's going to be. You can always see it coming, they think it's going to be a masterpiece and it's not.

Hysteria was the last full album you made with The Human League in terms of playing, but you wrote for them after.

On Hysteria, people were just not making decisions about what was working and not working. Chris Thomas would tear into things as he had a real vision for it as well. People were worrying too much about Dare, so people just weren't grabbing the tracks and getting down what would make them good. A few ideas here and there which would be scrapped and something else tried. Decisions were the real problem.

The album after Hysteria, you had left and Virgin were desperate for the success band to come up trumps again and used Jam and Lewis to make that album - from memory sleeve of Crash pointedly stated that there were no sequencers on the record - do you reckon this was a backlash to the perception of electronic music at the time?

As I was pretty much out of the picture at that point, I don't really know, but I would imagine that with Jam and Lewis being such good musicians that they probably didn't need to use sequencers. Add that to the fact that many people in the US were still a bit suspicious of anything programmed, it was perhaps an addendum to help sales of what was essentially intended to be a mainstream R&B album. But I am speculating. It could possibly have referenced an early League album which I think stated in similar fashion on the sleeve; "No musicians were involved in the making of this record", -or words to that effect. -although I could just be imagining that

How come you wrote for the band still? You wrote the majestic Heart Like A Wheel and Get It Right This Time for the Romantic album and Never Again for the Octopus album.

I had left that option open when I left The League, I probably saw my future more in songwriting at that point, and as I hadn't actually fallen out with any of The League, it would have been churlish to burn bridges and not keep up a connection of some sort. We are still in contact to this day, and we try to catch up when they are in Scotland or I in Sheffield

Bring us up to date with the world of Jo Callis.....

I played in the re-formed "Rezillos" from around 2002 until 2009 after being involved in various writing/production and collaborative  projects, plus a little TV and film music. I have recently been playing locally with former "Scars" front man Robert King in the band "Opium Kitchen", and also working on a couple of projects with Glasgow based  journalist/writer/rock manager Martin Kielty, who I believe you are familiar with from his work on the "Apollo Memories" website. I have been enjoying my first passion, playing guitar quite a bit lately.

Thank you very much Jo and best wishes from all at Friars Aylesbury

This interview and its content are 2013 Mike O'Connor/www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk and may not be used in whole or in part without permission.

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