Pete Wylie: Part-Time Rock Star Full-Time Legend

No stranger to gossip columns himself Here's the lowdown on the Scouse Music legend now being wrongly mooted as the super injunction whistle blower.
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No stranger to gossip columns himself Here's the lowdown on the Scouse Music legend now being wrongly mooted as the super injunction whistle blower.

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Wiley Wylie.

No stranger to gossip columns himself Here's the lowdown on the Scouse Music legend now being wrongly mooted as the super injunction whistle blower.

In the mid-90s James brown wrote the definitive piece on Pete Wylie for the Guardian. Now he's back with a new anthem called 'The Day That Margaret Thatcher Dies'and a Twitter controversy regarding the Super Injunctions.

The telephone rings and the answerphone kicks into action. "Listen, it's Wylie, I'm going to fax you some more notes... you should call Keith Mullen about my guitar playing. He says it's vertical rather than linear... is there any chance you can get your mate to get me on the list for Phoenix... I was thinking about people criticising me for being a party animal... whose rules says you shouldn't go out and enjoy yourself? That's the whole reason I started a band, so I don't have to obey any rules... Anyway, I need to make a living. I don't want to starve, I want my place in history, I don't want to be just the Party Man, I want to be remembered as The Man Who Wrote Powerful Songs. Like Bob Dylan, in fact, one of his heroes."

After 30 seconds of message time is over, I pick up the phone, and without pausing the Scouse voice ploughs through another anecdote, and another defence of his life, and another reference to Jack Kerouac, all in one long unstoppable, vital, sentence. And all the man is saying is, "I'm alive, listen to me. " Before there's time to take on board a tenth of what he has just said, the fax splutters into life and drools 13 pages of A4 scribble into a pile on the floor. When you've been as close to death as the lead singer of the pop group Wah!, and you were an egomaniac motormouth in the first place, life's like this.

SOMETIME after midnight on November 9, 1991, the rock singer and socialite Pete Wylie was walking back from Liverpool city centre to his drummers Joe McKechnie's Toxteth flat. As they reached Upper Parliament Street, where McKechnie lived, Wylie's enthusiasm reached a peak. Things were looking up. The two had spent the night discussing with a local nightclub promoter who had offered to lend them the amplification equipment that would allow Wah! to go out and tour again. Wylie had recently been released from a record contract, and with it the huge debt of unreturned recording advance had been wiped out. Add to that a similar sum cleared when Wylie had been released by his previous company, and the man was, in his own words, "a minus-millionaire".

As they chatted outside the house where McKechnie had a two-room flat, Wylie leant back against the railings running between the pavement and the cellar and felt them give way and swing back behind him. Tumbling quickly, he was half way down the 15-foot drop when he hit a drain and flipped forward, face-first, towards the floor, smashing six vertebrae in the process and losing consciousness. As his chest bone snapped in half, the fractured edges just missed his heart.

The fire brigades had been called because there were no steps down to the basement and Wylie came to with a fireman standing over him asking him whether he knew his own name. Wylie with typical bravado: "Never mind whether I know who I am, do you know who I am? " The fireman didn't, but he might have done. Lying crumpled at his feet was a singer who had the potential to become as famous and successful as Bruce Springsteen. There aren't many like him, who've been so talented and thrown it all away so spectacularly. He was, in more ways than one, a fallen star.

Tony James, the man behind the music of Billy Idol and Sigue Sigue Sputnik, claimed Pete Wylie had what it takes to become the British Bruce Springsteen.

Pete Frame, the rock historian whose handwritten family trees have distinctively catalogued most of contemporary music's extended families and have recently been turned into a BBC series, described the Liverpool scene of the late Seventies as the most complicated history he's ever had to chronicle. His 1980 Family Tree featured more than 40 different group line-ups alone. In fact, the period between 1975 and 1978 vastly overshadows the Merseybeat Era for long-term creativity. Members of the scene still re-appear nearly 20 years on with new chart-topping acts... Dead Or Alive, the Teardrop Explodes, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Echo & the Bunnymen, Wah! Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, the Banshees (Budgie the drummer), the Mission, the Christians, the Lightning Seeds, KLF.

In addition, a generation of producers emerged: people such as Bill Drummond, Clive Langer and Ian Broudie, who between them would produce and mix music for artists as diverse as Madness, Tammy Wynette, the Pet Shop Boys and the Fall.

Just as London's punks had the 100 club, and Manchester's the Electric Circus, the hangout and home for this group of incestuous scene of cross-dressers, shop lifters, punks and art students was a small basement club in Mathew Street called Eric's - opposite the site of the original Cavern Club. Any band worth its speed in Britain in 1977 played Eric's when it visited Liverpool. As Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds, whose music regularly graces Match of The Day highlights remembers: "I don't know why but in Eric's everybody used to hang around the toilets, and you could always hear this voice hammering louder than anyone else in the club. You could always hear the voice above the music, no matter where you were in the club."

The voice belonged to Peter James Wylie, 18, the be-quiffed resident wit of Walton, where he lived in his parents' semi, and who boasted his regular non-attendance of his university French course with a home-made badge that read Rebel Without A Degree. In the heady excitement of the day, Wylie and his pals would form bands quicker than most people form impressions, disbanding them soon after the line-up and name had been agreed upon.

If there was some doubt as to whether Wylie could concentrate on one band long enough to go anywhere with it, there was no doubting his ability to talk and entertain. In his book on the period, Head On, Julian Cope notes: "This one guy... was going crazy on his own... his face was so animated... everything about him was so boyish. He was the most enthusiastic person I had ever seen... His name was Pete Wylie. And he talked and he talked and he talked. Energy surged out of him. It was the first time I'd ever met someone and known immediately that they were fated to get somewhere."

It was with Cope, then a student at nearby Prescot College, and the young, bespectacled Ian McCulloch that Wylie formed the Crucial Three, the most fabled Scouse pop group since the Quarrymen. All three were destined for Top 40 success, Wylie with Wah!, Cope with the Teardrop Explodes and McCulloch with Echo & the Bunnymen. But the Crucial Three lasted just one practice session in Mrs Wylie's living room.

"I remember Julian's dreadful lyrics something about 'apathy spreading across the land', and his punk name, Ju Venile," rants Wylie. This brief rehearsal, however, formed the basis of a rivalry that would fuel all three careers.

In the summer of 1978, Mick Jones of the Clash encouraged Wylie and friend Paul Rutherford to form a band, and to help them on their way he gave Wylie a Les Paul guitar that belonged to the Sex Pistols. "He told us we were the brightest of all the kids that followed them around, " remembers Wylie fondly, "and that we should pay him back when we were famous." Four years later, Wylie and Rutherford appeared on the same Top of The Pops show - Rutherford with Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Wylie singing his first major hit, Story Of The Blues. "I've still not paid Mick for the guitar," says Wylie.

"I want to be remembered as The Man Who Wrote Powerful Songs. Like Bob Dylan, in fact, one of his heroes."

In the intervening years, Pete Wylie had made a name for himself as an audacious talent, sometimes compared to Paul Weller and to Elvis Costello. His second single, Seven Minutes to Midnight, crystallised his priorities in stating that if there were only seven minutes left to live, you should spend three of them recording a song. Citing Bob Dylan, the Clash, Lindsay Anderson, Marlon Brando, Robert de Niro, Jack Kerouac, and contemporaries Dexy's Midnight Runners as his influences, Wylie became the hipster's hipster - and at the same time, a huge enthusiast and unashamed adoring fan. Radio 1 DJ John Peel renamed him The Mighty Wah! NME's hottest pen at the time, X Moore gave him the title The Poet Ruffian, and - ego in full flight- Wylie began referring to himself as The Last Maverick. His songs were immediate, anthemic, highly charged and passionate.

It was Tony James, the man behind the music of Billy Idol and Sigue Sigue Sputnik, who first claimed Pete Wylie had what it takes to become the British Bruce Springsteen. His partner of the day, Janet Street-Porter, wanted him to present her Network Seven television series. Like everything that anyone has ever said about him, Wylie remembers these details clearly today, and recounts them with a sort of boastful pride and gushing energy.

At the time, he was the man everyone wanted to meet. U2's Bono invited him on stage during their show at the London Lyceum, suggesting they form a creative alliance called the New Breed! Wylie came out with all guns firing. As in the Eric's days of one rehearsal, one line-up bands, he was overpoweringly loud. Paul Du Noyer, who went on to edit Q and Mojo magazines, remembers "his strongest characteristic was his urge to communicate; he came bursting on to the scene, announced himself and then seemed stuck for something to say".

Still, charisma and songwriting skills won him a recording contract from Warner's. He had been taken under the managerial wing of Pete Fulwell, co-owner of Eric's. His original Crucial Three partners, however, were being pushed by Bill Drummond, a highly ambitious man who had himself been a member of a seminal Liverpool group, Big In Japan. While Fulwell, and Wah!, allowed Wylie the freedom to do pretty much what he liked, Drummond planned the rise of his protégés like a battle campaign. Always ready to tackle the international record companies, Drummond threw in situationist pranks to liven up old-fashioned touring. So, while Wylie built up an entertaining repertoire of cross-cultural references, the Bunnymen and Teardrops were selling out concerts, creating demand for records and employing PRs to market them.

By the mid-Eighties, Wylie's reputation as a social entertainer, his between-song banter, and his non-stop verbal energy were becoming as renowned as his song writing skills. He never established a permanent band- Wah! Was Wylie, along with a constantly changing line-up of back-up musicians. He was making other kinds of contacts. Ever the fan, he thought nothing of approaching those he respected. At the Wag Club, in London's Wardour Street, he poked Mick Jagger in the stomach. In a New York nightclub, a drunken Wylie was drawn to a horseshoe of men in tuxedos to discover Mike Tyson at the centre. Wylie boldly walked past the world heavyweight champion's minders and cheekily suggested they set up a Liverpool versus New York bout there and then.

Drummond says of Wylie: "He was a tremendous raconteur, he had the capacity to be huge, he had tremendous soul and talent. When he's in full flow, there's something genuinely fantastic about him. He's very funny and this has almost been a hindrance to him because the same insecurities that have driven some people to success appear to have pushed Pete to retreat behind his sense of humour."

Or as Mick Houghton, the man responsible for promoting the Teardrop Explodes and Echo & the Bunnymen, observes "He started to become Jimmy Tarbuck when he should have become Bruce Springsteen."

As Wylie spent more time in London - and less time in the charts than as expected- the relationship with Warner's came to an end. In Liverpool, a new scene was developing, and as manager Pete Fulwell, having remained loyal for nearly seven years, became preoccupied with his recent discovery, the Christians. Wylie was left to the lions.

He never established a permanent band- Wah! Was Wylie, along with a constantly changing line-up of back-up musicians.

IT'S THE day before this year's Grand National and Pete Wylie is power-guiding me through his personal collection of rock memorabilia. "And this is Keith Richards' fag packet, and this is Shaun Ryder's freebasing foil from the last Happy Mondays gig. I nicked these Rollos from the Cabin in Coronation Street..." His Charles Rennie Macintosh fireplace is literally covered in the stuff, from a dynamite alarm clock that once belonged to Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott to tiny John Lennon badges covered in dust. Intentionally or not, the effect created reminds you strongly of that picture on the emblematic cover of the Bob Dylan album, Bringing It All Back Home.

"It's a shrine to all the things I like- Captain Scarlett, Bill Shankly, The Beatles, Elvis. I had to collect all this stuff because it's the only way I could remember a lot of what I've done. I went to so many parties in the years before the accident...." He pauses, as he has a habit of doing before he switches subjects. "And then the accident has shifted years and events around in my memory." His psychiatrist has told him his impulse control is very weak Pete Wylie can't sit still. He paces the room., ignores the answer machine going off, decides to pick the phone up, has a one minute conversation, puts it down and starts off again.

WE'RE in Disgraceland, Wylie's home, a weathered mansion in Liverpool's pseudo-bohemian Lark Lane district. Typically, Wylie bought the house in the late Eighties and then almost immediately found himself ensconced in London for eighteen months. Crossing the threshold is like walking into the man's mind. In the cellar a band rehearses, in one living room there's a pool table, a bike and a rack of Marvel comics, and in the other paces Wylie, 95 per cent recovered from his accident, chattering nervously. Wah! Now T-shirt tucked into his black jeans, slightly plump around the middle, short hair- the quiff's long gone, but the fan's enthusiasm is still there.

Ironically, the last significant song Wylie released, six months before his accident, had a chorus that went, "Don't you ever lose your dreams/ No matter how far you may tumble/ When people criticise your schemes, your wild extremes/ Don't you ever lose your dreams." It's clear that Wylie, now aged 37, hasn't lost his dreams, nor his manic self-belief. As Julian Cope pointed out nearly 20 years ago, he talks his mind surfing from one train of thought to the next, throwing up a constant stream of grandiose self-comparisons and amusing anecdotes.

"I got the fag packet Keith Richards in New York. An engineer I was working with was doubling up with Keith and I was invited along to stand at the back of the studio. Richards saw me loitering there and called me in. I couldn't believe it, pretty soon he was telling me how my accent reminded him of his days with Lennon when they were trying to out-do each other with drugs. John Lennon puking all over Keith's carpet and Yoko constantly going 'Solly Keith, so solly'. "

His overwhelming, uninterrupted spiel makes it difficult to recognise much tragedy in the situation, yet there is. When news of the accident seeped out to the party set, few took the news seriously. Another Wylie story. In fact, it was an appaling injury. He was in hospital for months and when he was allowed home he had to wear a full upper torso plastercast, like body armour, for another six months or so. He immediately graffitied himself with an aerosol can and tried to carry on as if nothing had happened. Later, he grasped with shock, how serious the accident had been, how close he'd come to dying, and got help. It is only in the last year that he has really recovered.

Now he sits surrounded by his Badger Piccolo practice amp and effects pedals, and pictures of his daughter Mersey, picking his way through his recording career and how it was overtaken by his social life and how he can get it all back together again.

Two weeks before, Wylie had played his first London concert for years: an opening set for old friends the Go-Go's, and whose audience was made up of thirty-something couples and young men infatuated with the singer Belinda Carlisle. Hardly an appreciative audience, but Wylie, bitter about being bottom of the billing won them over with a startling performance of guts and cheek.

"I feel a bit like Liverpool Football Club", he surmises, without a flicker of embarrassment. "In the Eighties we were both doing well, then my accident was the Souness period, and now I'm back on the right track again."

The room is full of evidence that suggests clinical obsession. On the picture rail are up to 30 pairs of women's stilletoes- "the Imelda Marcos of rock" Mick Jones calls him- interrupted only by a pair of childhood platforms and his plastercast. The man took to the late Eighties party scene with the same voracity as he has his weird shoe fetish. The Christmas cover of Melody Maker in 1986 featured Wylie, sitting next to Mick Jones, clutching a drink and named Ligger Of The Year. Inside, there's a spread of photos of him at a variety of showbiz events, hanging out with an assortment of groupies, musicians, media figures and superstars such as Mick Hucknall. If Pete Wylie wasn't at your party at the time there was something wrong. When asked what he wanted on his grave he replied: "Pete Wylie plus one"- the words that appeared on a thousand guest lists.

"I'd go anywhere free," he admits. "Usually I was on my way somewhere else, a record company party in the early evening getting as tanked up as possible was cheaper than hanging around in some expensive bar, I remember trying to bankrupt Warner's at a Prince Party by drinking so much vodka. Then I'd go to a gig, check out the band at their after-show party and on to somewhere afterwards like the Wag or the Limelight VIP Room- which was full of women, free drink and free drugs. Most nights were like that. There was me, Mal, Howudd, Robin, Josie..." At the centre of a social scene of TV presenters, pop stars, managers, film-makers, video directors, journalists and dealers, Wylie and his gang worked their way through a year's worth of glossy-card invites and cheap white wine in plastic cups. Creatively, Wylie was as promising and inconsistent as ever, but somewhere along the line he'd started to believe the bullshit that's a staple of a record company- artist relationship.

In June 1984, he had spent three months in the charts with Come Back. Ironically, the song which preceded his move to London was about celebrities deserting Merseyside. In May 1986, he matched this with Sinful, another Top 20 hit that spent a quarter of the year in the charts. At the start of the decade he'd been writing songs that inspired people to chuck in mundane jobs and seek out a better alternative. A soldier recently claimed his battalion had sung Story Of The Blues as they sailed into battle during the Falklands conflict. By the end of the Eighties, Wylie was in danger of parodying himself to death.

"You might say it was a tragic period," he says in another of his subject-hopping monologues, "but you have to believe me, they were marvellous times. I was having the time of my life, just doing the same as I always had. One night I was teasing Prefab Sprout at a party, and the next thing I was rolling around on the floor fighting with someone and then a mate came up and asked me what I'd thought of Clapton jamming with Prince. I was so out of it that I'd missed this superstar jam on the other side of the room... At the same time, people say I'm lazy, but I only consider myself to be lazy like Le Tissier is... Lindsay Anderson made six films in 30 years... I was still writing and recording during this time, there was just more opportunity to go out... There was all this record company schmoozing, being taken to the best restaurants, given drugs and women, making videos. And then my love life was revolving around London. "

Critic Paul Du Noyer doesn't feel the period was necessarily a good time for Wah! Musically. "In Liverpool, there's a climate, people who'll slap you down, and that was probably good for Wylie, but in London no one could give as good as they got. You couldn't get a further extreme from Liverpool than the VIP Room at the Limelight and that's where I tend to think of him." If the nights were thrilling, the copious amounts of alcohol were doing more long-term damage. Slowly, Wylie's credibility and creativity slipped.

“And this is Keith Richards’ fag packet, and this is Shaun Ryder’s freebasing foil from the last Happy Mondays gig. I nicked these Rollos from the Cabin in Coronation Street…”

Alan McGee, president of Creation Records, home of Oasis and Primal Scream, remembers how other people's perception of him changed. "He wrote five classic singles - Seven Minutes to Midnight, Story Of The Blues, Come Back, Sinful and Diamond Girl, and most bands never really write one classic song. He was a brilliant pop writer and a total character. You'd always meet him going in or coming out of a club in Oxford Street with the Happy Mondays or someone, but after a while he did so much of that the press started to regard him as some sort of joke. In the last five years, he seems scared to make a record, but he does have the talent."

The recent Live Aid anniversary highlighted what Wylie might have achieved. He matched for passion the ridiculously attired U2, and had far more chutzpah than those like Howard Jones and Big Country who dropped away. Yet, across the board, Wylie's generation of musicians failed to maintain the career longevity of the pre-punk era. Those he grew up with at least fulfiled their potential.

"After the accident I went through a major change, " he asserts. Perhaps it's too late. What we have here, charging around his Liverpool house, turning every Pete Wylie moment, conversation or observation into a happening, is displaced talent. Musical history occasionally throws up such characters. Keith Richards's American buddy Gram Parsons springs to mind, Bill Drummond suggests Mink Deville, PJ Proby had it snatched away from him- but Britain's paucity of capable contemporary songwriters makes Wylie's falling short more glaring.

"The Pete Wylie Legend", says the Farm's singer Peter Hooton, with whom Wylie appeared on their 1990 Christmas number two, Altogether Now, "would be more favourably looked upon had he died. Every man of genius is helped considerably by premature death." It's a thought that has crossed Wylie's mind.

"When I was going through my Post Dramatic Stress Disorder, I started to think 'If I was any good, if I was a real rock star I'd have died.' Fortunately, I dismissed that as madness. The accident has actually given me time to consider what I do and don't want in my life. When I first came out of hospital, I used to go out with my cast and my stick, to prove the Mighty Wah! Was still there, but it was just ridiculous, I just looked like a freak. I had to stop believing I was some sort of superhero.

"All through the night of the accident I couldn't shut up, trying to hide the pain behind the humour. I was being so sarcastic no one believed I'd been in an accident, they thought I'd been beaten up. You don't want to let people around you know how bad you feel or what a critical state you are in because you don't want to worry them. Then, during my depression, they had me lecturing student nurses on the post-traumatic stress. Even in the paper, I was smiling when they took my picture. I had to learn to be vulnerable."

A month after he came out of hospital, his girlfriend Di left for London, then Australia with their child, Mersey. "I had been horrible to her, part of it was the stress. They don't really get it through to you in hospital what it's going to be like for you and your relations when you come out. Christmas that year was horrible. It was later that I started getting the psychiatrist and the counsellors and the physio. Now that I've had three years of putting things back together and at the past, I realise I've never been good at relationships, so now I don't attempt to have full-time girlfriends.

"When I first came out the psychiatrist told me I'd had my three minutes of fame and that was it, I ought to decide what else I wanted to do. I considered it. I wrote out a list of what I wanted to do. First was be in a band, second was hang around with bands. That's what I'm going to do."

The past five years have found Wylie in a strange array of settings. He appeared at the Liverpool Festival of Comedy as guitarist for Norman Wisdom, a situation he described as "a nightmare" on Channel 4's Obituary Show or "This Is Your Life" for necrophiliacs", as he candidly refers to it. He's written and performed music for two Radio 4 plays, one live from the Edinburgh Festival. He was a witness for Bill Drummond's K Foundation Award for Worst Piece Of Art presented to Rachael Whitehead the night she won the Turner Prize. He began producing bands. And, in a tribute to Jim Morrison, he's exposed himself to 45,000 Portuguese students while appearing at a festival with the Farm.

"It was worth getting it out, just to see the faces on all these Catholic security men, also it's pretty impressive seeing your dick on Wembley stadium-sized diamond vision. Mind you, getting it out's okay, it's putting it away that's the problem." So he hasn't lost his tendency to show off. The accident has restricted his vocal ability, but he continues to seek out gigs. At a small venue off Manchester's Piccadilly Gardens, Wylie performs a set as notable for its mid-song quips as the guitar-driven songs. When one of the hundred-strong audience inaudibly shouts abuse, Wylie asks the soundman, "Brian can you turn the heckler up."

I had travelled to that gig with Mick Jones, the man who gave Wylie the guitar all those years ago. And he remains impressed. "He's still got it," he laughs, as Wylie introduces another song with off-the-cuff sarcasm.

Backstage afterwards, a Granada TV producer, down for old time's sake, enthuses about the show and books Wah! For a new music series called Pennis Pops Out. In London, Madonna's one-time producer, Arthur Baker, has suggested Wylie records a series of Frank Sinatra-style duets with other artists and calls it Pete Wylie Plus One. In the NME gossip column, Wylie's attendance at a younger band's show is once more documented, albeit sarcastically. It's doubtful Pete Wylie will ever reach the heights predicted for him, but during a time when old singers are regularly rehabilitated into society, there may still be a constituency for him. That's if he can keep his ego in check.

Just around midnight the club fills up with ravers and the motormouthed egomaniac disappears among the, heading towards the bar, wrapped in a gold lame curtain and wisecracking as he goes. www.myspace.com/petewyliewww.petewylie.com

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