It's tough to know where to begin when talking about my old Headlights bandmate, Steve Connelly. Over the years, his influence on me has been quite immense.
In the summer of '82, I left the UK armed with a couple of guitars, an armful of XTC, Jam, and Echo & The Bunnymen records, a clean change of underwear, and the vague notion of finding a band who might be in search of a foreign singer with no concrete plans, limited funds and no work permit. Looking back, it was all a bit ridiculous; a venture doomed to failure that would see me scurrying sheepishly back home when the money ran out. But, when you arrive in a strange land and you're in your early twenties, you pay no mind to such trivialities and get straight to the job at hand: you go to the pub.
In this case, it was Clancy's, a local Irish-themed hangout that somehow managed to avoid selling draught Guinness anywhere on their premises, but did serve up live music 6 nights a week. Someone had suggested going there to see a band called The Headlights; one of the area's best they'd told me. So, I went along to have a look. Truth be told, they reeled me in rather quickly.
They were a tight and polished band, to be sure, with a big-voiced female singer fronting the band, a swaggering bassist with quite the gift of on-stage gab, an overly talented singing drummer, and a skinny Les Paul-clad lad who played guitar like he couldn't put a foot wrong if he tried.
During one of their breaks, I approached said guitar player, introduced myself and casually asked if I could give him my number in case he heard of anyone who might be in need of a singer. As it turned out, it was a bit of a life-changing moment, because he chuckled at my suggestion, told me that their singer would soon be leaving the band, and that he'd call me to set up an audition.
I don't remember too much about the audition really, but it must have gone well, because I was playing shows with The Headlights within a few weeks, and would continue to do so for the next dozen or so years. As twee and trite as it may sound, the fact is that over time, the Headlights just became my family. Over the years, we'd come to see each other through assorted bereavements, marriages, divorces, births and even an ill-advised attempt to cover Prince's Purple Rain (don't ask).
Now, it's quite obvious to anyone who has watched Steve Connelly play, that they're watching a special talent. Calling him a great guitar player is akin to saying that Dylan has a way with words, or that Paul McCartney can carry a tune, and quite honestly, no matter how many years pass, listening to him can often be an eyebrow-raising experience for me. There have been so many times, both on stage and in the studio, where I've even found myself on the verge of laughter at the sheer impudence of some of his musical forays. If the mood struck him, he might lurch from an Albert Lee-like countryish chicken-pickin' solo, into a few windmilled Townshendian power chords before shifting into some sort of Richard Thompson-like workout with scales that sounded like they were coming from Istanbul rather than Nashville. He would pull this sort of stunt off almost nightly, and he made it look effortless.
So, here we are, closing in on 40 years later, and while people still love to see Steve Connelly's on-stage guitar heroics, in my view, Steve has become a more subdued and thoughtful kind of guitar player. Oh, he's still capable of dropping jaws and melting faces and all that, but these days, he seems to have more of an interest in getting to the heart of the musical matter at hand. To my ears, his parts seem more measured and emotionally direct. It's just another layer of the man's talent coming to the fore, I suppose, and it's a beautiful thing to behold.
During the tracking for Swallowing The Sun, my friend and producer, Ed Woltil, had been quite encouraging about the song, Skinful, after I'd expressed doubts about it. It was a bit of a weird one for me, and I wasn't sure about it, but as Ed began to add a few of his own sonic touches, it started sounding pretty good, and I began to feel like it might be a worthwhile addition to the record. I did feel, though, that it was missing a lead instrument of some sort, and so we decided to ask Steve if he might care to add some pedal or lap steel to it.
Steve ended up sending a couple of beautifully restrained, emotive takes for us to listen to, and Ed took both of them, crafting a mix that when I first heard it, gave me a real lump in the old throat. Skinful went from a hesitant contender to my favourite track on the album. Whether the song is really good, poor or somewhere in between, I don't really know. What I do know, is how it makes me feel when I hear it, and I'm just dead chuffed that for some four minutes and thirty-four seconds, I feel in sync once again with a beloved family member.
How's that for twee and trite?
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