Monday, 5 March 2012

Limahl interview - No Regrets…

Life, love, music, money, the 80s revival, the poetry of John Betjeman and growing up gay in Wigan. 

I first interviewed Limahl in 1983, the year in which, with the band, Kajagoogoo, he had a Number One hit with ‘Too Shy’, and Limahl himself quickly became one of the top teen magazine pinups.

Almost thirty years have passed since then and, during that time, many 80s stars have vanished without a trace. But not Limahl. A few weeks ago, he released a rather good single called ‘1983’ (available for Amazon UK and Amazon US), that celebrates that year in music. Later this month (March 18th) he’ll be performing in a star-studded charity concert in London’s Criterion Theatre.

I began by asking Limahl if had never felt the need to take a break from the music business. “Oh yes,” he said – and he told me about the day he decided he was going to quit – for good…
"I’d just done a solo album with Giorgio Moroder called ‘Colour All My Days’ and I felt that EMI had pissed all over it. My A&R guy left the record company and the new guy didn’t really care about me; and then I fell out with my manager and everything went tits up. So I went to America and got a record deal – and then Arista Records dropped me! I’d been working with a Clive Davis, the industry mogul - the guy who signed Whitney Houston. I recorded a song with the Dutch producers who’d worked with Mai Tai. But Clive Davis didn’t like the production. I was absolutely gutted. One day, at the studio, I heard him moaning about me on the phone. I should have just ignored it. But foolishly I didn’t – I went in and had a big confrontation."
“Maybe you are just difficult to work with?” I delicately suggest. Limahl laughs…
No, not at all. No, I’m very easy going. I think I’ve mastered the art of compromise. You have to. But the time came when I just needed a break.  I’d made enough money to chill out so I tottered around the world for a bit (as you do). I went to Vegas and Atlantic City. There was one night when I won and lost $25,000. I started with about $1,000 and I was sat at the high-rolling blackjack table. I was on a streak and I kept winning (see my last interview with Limahl for more on this expensive episode). But the casino won it all back in the end. 
In fact, Limahl spent four years “tottering around” the globe, spending his money in far-flung places ranging from Sydney and Hawaii to Los Angeles and New York. And then one day he bumped into some people who were starting a small record label. Limahl joined the team, intending to work mainly on the production side rather than as a performer.
I thought that’s cool, I don’t have to be in front of the camera all the time. I was really happy about that. But it never took off. I did it for about six or seven years. Then out of the blue I got a call for an agent offering me a gig in about 1997 and that’s when all the interest in the 80s started again – and I’ve never stopped working ever since.
Ah yes, the 80s. It’s a decade to which many of us have a strong attachment. In 1983, Limahl, with his boyish good looks and two-tone hair-do seemed to spring fully formed into the pop music scene. But the reality was rather different, he says.
I was working in music for five years before that all happened. The early 80s were special for me and I love the fact that so many people still remember the period and the music with so much affection. There’s something magical about looking back to an unobtainable time. And it’s not just nostalgia. There are also people who are discovering 80s music for the first time. It’s sometimes surreal for me to meet young guys who tell me about how much ‘Too Shy’ means to them. 
But it wasn’t just the music, was it? There was something about the early 80s that was just so much fun. The club scene, the dressing up…
Absolutely. I was totally into that. I remember walking past a gig at Hammersmith Odeon and there were all these weird looking people outside. They were all going into a Japan gig so immediately I became interested in Japan. I think I wanted to be trendy. Because I had never been popular at school. 
If I had false teeth, I’d have swallowed them when Limahl said that. Not popular? This was a guy who was one of the top pinups, a chap who was young, good-looking, charismatic, talented… and he wasn’t popular at school? Why the heck not?
Well, I was a little bit different, I suppose. I was probably a little bit camp. I was always the last guy who’d get picked for the football team. I was a bit of a loner. And when I discovered I was gay that made me feel even more isolated. 
In the past, Limahl has been rather reticent about discussing his private life. I wondered what had made him become more open in talking about his sexuality.
I was always out to my family and friends. But when Kajagoogoo hit the big time that wasn’t my agenda. I didn’t go into music to change the world’s attitude to gays. Jimmy Somerville wrote about it beautifully and eloquently in his song ‘Smalltown Boy’ which became a focal point for the gay community. I had nothing but respect for him. But I wasn’t politically minded. I just wanted to be a pop star and have some fun. Also, I think I’d also had it drummed into me that you hide it. Even Ian McKellan didn’t come out until he was 48. 
There’s definitely been a big change in public attitude since the 80s, hasn’t there. Has that made a difference too?
Oh, the climate has definitely improved. We now have gay politicians, we have gay characters in every soap. We still get stereotyped sometimes, but thankfully most people now realise that gay people are just normal. Not all gay people are screaming and mincing characters. But even so, there are battles ahead. If Christian fundamentalism was a problem years ago, now there’s the rise of Islam and their attitudes towards gays – it’s a different fight. If anything, it’s intensified. 
But getting back to what Limahl had said about his school days (you can read what he told me about his childhood in the Northern town of Wigan when we spoke back in the early 80s). I still couldn’t get a real grasp on why he was so unpopular.
Let me give you an example. I was expelled from one school, as I was a bit naughty – causing disruption in class. I was about 13 or 14 at the time. When I arrived at the new school, I remember some of the kids coming up to me and saying, “Oh, my god! You talk like such-and-such-a-body!” – and when I finally met this such-and-such-a-body, I was horrified. He was a gay guy who had quite a feminine mannerism and voice - and I realised that was how they saw me. That really knocked my confidence. It was horrible. And that’s when I became a bit of a loner, I escaped in my music. Kids are cruel. Or rather, I should say that they are honest – they say what they feel. And it hurts. When you go to a new school, it’s terrifying anyway. You just want to blend in and be accepted. I was very unhappy at school.
Limahl and Kajagoogoo parted ways quite early on. Then they recently you got back together again. But now it seems Limahl is working as a solo artist. So is that the end of his involvement with Kajagoogoo or are there plans to do more performances?
That’s all down to Nick (Nick Beggs – who took over as lead singer after the departure of Limahl). He’s gone off touring, performing with all kinds of people. And the rest of the guys don’t want to work without Nick, which is understandable. The door’s not closed but there are no plans to do anything at the moment. It’s gone very quiet after the reunion. I was disappointed but you have to accept it. Nick has bills to pay, just as we all have. And I can completely understand that. All I can say is,  I’m very proud of what we’ve done together.
Tell me about the charity gig you’re doing. What exactly will you be singing?
About four years ago, Mike Read the DJ, put an album together, using the poems of John Betjeman. Unfortunately I wasn’t involved in that album. I really didn’t know too much about John Betjeman. But I’ve become a fan and I’m grateful to Mike Read for that. The song I’m doing was recorded by Marc Almond on the album. It’s called ‘Narcissus’. 
You're a very different singer from Marc Almond, so presumably your version will sound quite different.
I’m comfortable in Marc’s vocal range. We are, of course, quite different performers. But then again, in some ways, we are quite similar. We are both from the 80s, we are both a bit flamboyant, we both wore a bit of lippy and mascara. What’s interesting is that my partner of eighteen years, Steve, is a big Marc Almond fan, and even he had never heard the song. It’s a real hidden gem. John Betjeman’s words are really quite eloquent. And he talks about being gay in the poem. The whole thing is fascinating and I’m thrilled to be doing it. 
The Stars Sing Betjeman is a one-off event at the Criterion Theatre, London, on March 18th, 2010. Information from the theatre here: http://www.criterion-theatre.co.uk/TheStarsSingBetjeman. All profits will go to the Diana Award. More information here: http://diana-award.org.uk/news-events/fantastic-entertainment-the-stars-sing-betjeman

And finally, for all the latest info on Limahl, be sure to visit his web site here: http://www.limahl.com/

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