The Face Interview
Mike Ward had a dream. In his dream he and his band Floy Joy are holed up in a beautiful downtown Detroit sound suite with Aretha Franklin, Martha Reeves, Levi Stubbs and a heavenly choir of the Motor City’s finest. Together they are cutting an Election Day testimonial to one Major Young- ‘the power, the leader’ except the Floys, their halo’s slipping are sniggering in the back row singing ‘bleeder for leader’ and worse, though this being heaven, no one minds. At this point Ward wakes up and guess what? He isn’t dreaming.
Fact Floy Joy did not vote in the Detroit primaries. Not even the secondries. In fact the nearest these three wayward sons of Sheffield get to soul food is MRS Wards Yorkshire puddings and yet the 1984 release of their stunning debut LP ‘ Into the Hot’ made the soul buffs rave and in 1986 they issued a song called ‘Too Drunk to Funk’ and did not get laughed off the planet.
Fact: Smokey Robinson, defining what it was that made people make a pilgrimage to Detroit , said it wasn’t the audible sound but the spiritual sound, and that comes from the people who make it happen.
One such person is producer Don Was ( of Was Not Was) sometimes dubbed the steely Dan of the eighties, and the man who dared unite on one disc Mel Torme and Ozzie Osbourne .And in Don they trust, implicitly. He and his regular Detroit sidekicks, all of who appeared on the first Floy Joy LP and now the second, diminutive Luis Resto and his dog barking, opera singing, Emulators: engineer Steve ‘Doc Ching’ King: silken voiced Sweet Pea Atkinson: and above all , swivel eyed, Belushi- bellied Harry Bowens, vocal arranger for the O Jays, Floy Joy and the voice on the original ‘Out Come The Freaks’ Harry can fix you with a supersonic stare and readjust your star sign. Naturally Floy Joy took him to New York this September to remix their new album ‘Weak in The Presence of Beauty’ a wicked conglomeration of funky, monkey, sweet ‘ n sour, Queen and what-have-you. Ward’s subversive mini soundtracks flirt with a thousand different clichés then turn unexpected alleys and deposit themselves on your front door step pretending never to have been away. They are the marketing man’s nightmare: electic.
Though Ward and co do not drag out the prayer matt every morning and face Motown, it’s a fair indication of where they’re coming from. As to where they’re going , look no further than the two liner quotes ‘Extraordinary, however potent cheap music is comes from Noel Coward and Sweet Pea,’the monkey dead’
Nobody knows what that means…
Floy Joy didn’t have to go to bleak depressing Detroit to record ‘Weak in The Presence’ they could have got all the bleak they wanted at home for free, saving both themselves and Virgin- on whose ‘Fawlty Airlines’ they flew over- a lot of money. But Ward can be an exacting bugger and he knew what he wanted.
Just like when, in November’83, he dissolved his savings, signed a publishing deal against advice, and with his bassist brother Shaun crossed the ocean, despite squalls of protest from Virgin who’d already fixed up a double date with Caoti Mundi. With nothing but lunatic conviction and ‘Into The Hot’ demos, the Ward brothers turned up in Detroit seeking the exclusive Don Was who, when they finally caught up with him in New York, was totally flipped out’.
I mean , here were these guy’s coming completely out of left field and sounding like a better version of Was Not Was recalls the mutant Mixmaster sitting 23 flights New York’s downtown gar-ment district in Calliope Studios.
I heard immediately what they were trying to do, like Mike had distilled the same influences as me- Zappa, rock, jazz, prefunk R’n B’ Motown: George Clinton- in exactly the same ratios Was still cant get over it, nor the fact that the high profile work that resulted-with Boy George, Helen Terry and others- has furnished a move out of Detroit into a swank Manhattan address. Not bad for a boy who left school unqualified ‘except for being an acidhead’.
Floy Joy may not know it he say’s but they radically altered my life.
QUITE A LOT HAS CHANGED for Floy Joy too, though not perhaps as much as they’d like. True Shaun, by al accounts an antagonistic personality responsible for darker songs like ‘Mission’ has left to start his own Sheffield band allowing Rob Clarke from pre Eden ABC to return to the fold. More obviously Carrol Thompson, the lyrical Lovers Rock singer much beloved by the critics but not Floy Joy, has gone. She’s now pursuing a solo Virgin career, replaced by 23 year old Desi Campbell who joined in spring ’85 and has been promoted from back up and bongos.
All the band still exist on a modest weekly wage, living with parents or friends in depressing Sheffield largely because, despite critical predictions and declarations of love, the superb ,’Into The Hot’ sold nowhere near the amount it warranted. Say 10,000 copies against a cost of £100,000.
Mere mention of the number –one –that-got-away, the sublimely beautiful single ‘Until You Come Back to me’ (still ripe to be covered if you’re reading this Whitney Houston), reduces strong persons to tears. When Floy Joy performed it at a Chilean benefit, in Christmas of ’84 the head of Virgin press was practically weeping, ditto your reporter, ditto the girl next to me who couldn’t find a record store that stocked it, ditto the guy at the bar. He’d been waiting all night to be served but the barmaid use to be his girlfriend and she wasn’t having any. The song exactly.
But most of all Floy Joy where weeping. They wanted a hit, they needed a hit. They deserved a hit.
Ward though isn’t sweating. He knows there’s plenty more where that came from. such is the ease with which he could reel off instant ready-to-wear classics if he wanted. But being perverse, he doesn’t. In fact, the inspired ‘Weak in The Presence’ catch phrase came he says as a joke.
This girl was saying that she didn’t trust me and I said, just off the cuff, what can I do, I’m weak in the presence of beauty. I still don’t know where it came from.
Not long a songwriter; say about five years, Ward is the other side of 29, his chin deliberately stubbled to scare off ‘hunkiness-somebody told me I looked like ‘Mickey Rourke’ the other day! ( Did he say that? the vain bastard,’says long suffering Pat Bellis, shaking her head’) ‘Until You Came Back To Me’ written for a young singer called Gloria who Ward was planning on turning into his own personal Ronnie Spector, was the first tune he ever wrote. It took five minutes and with some other songs he’d demoed above his parents newsagents, secured him an 8 LP deal with Virgin.
A quick worker Ward wrote the bulk of ‘Weak In The Presence Of Beauty’ in a two month period last April holed up in Sheffield with pneumonia, which may account for the LP’s more psychedelic moments.’ Walking In The Night’ an irrepressibly bright Drifters groove which follows on from underworld minimovie Crackdown’ (featuring Was’s seven year old monster Anthony who ran riot in the studio) is actually about tripping. And the LP’s highlight, the deliriously slinky ‘Chinese a Go Go ‘ – a luxury glide through a haunted tunnel of doo wop-is really about some stunning oriental girl with the brain of a two year old tomato whom Ward met in his cabaret days. Even now the thought of Sweet Pea and Harry doing the hokey ‘chicken in basket love’ refrain imperfect harmony totally unaware of the wonderful world of Bailey’s, cracks mike up.
HE IS THE INVINVIBLE self contentment of someone who is doing exactly what they wish to be doing, which would be faintly galling if he weren’t so damn attractive. Ward is actually living out a fantasy concocted when, aged 12 and soul mad, he’d hang out at Northern Soul clubs like The Ark and Highway 61, There songs like ‘Take me in your arms and Love Me’ were more than songs. ‘They where a code of life and having sax was a passport to respect a secret life.
Joining up with an all black 7 piece called- what-else? Harlem Express, Ward did what musos generally do, hone his horn, wear bebop suits, listen to Billy Stuart , Coltrane , The Ohio Players, while the rest of the world boogied with Bolan. An impossibly early marriage , long dissolved, found Ward doing the graveyard shift in a strictly super club outfit called Street wave ( with Pete Cox of Go West as vocalist)which on very good days saw Ward shell-shocked, fresh out of black clothes but also liberated by their adhoc working methods.
Three months later he had an idea for a band. They would be named after a post Ross Supremes tune, more evocative than provocative. All he needed was a voice. Five singers later, he found it.
IT BELONGS TO FORMER MODEL (Midlands though certainly Goude enough) DESI CAMPBELL and its exceptionally sweet, muscular tenor which at times sounds exactly like his hero The Four Tops revered Levi Stubbs- a fact appreciated by Was who persuaded the somewhat reluctant Floy’s to the cover the Top’s 1967 hit ‘Just Ask The Lonely’ At the same time Ward was helping punters make it through the night, Campbell was up in his Nottingham attic singing to a painted audience with his younger siblings. ‘We where Chick Murphy and The Murphy’s. Then chick went to school and forgot about singing. If Desi sings Friday Night the new LP’s other twin peak, with startling conviction(also check Wards sinuous cross-town bumper-to bumper-horn solo)it’s because he lived it, quitting Nottingham three years ago in a fit of pique and taking the next bus to Sheffield where he knew know one. Mike however penned it.(Desi actually an accomplished songwriter having produced over 50 songs after having a brief liaison with Respond, contributes only one to ‘Weak In The Presence Of Beauty’ the acapella ‘This Is My Time’)
When Desi eventually turned up in Wards parlor, Ward found himself writing more and more for the boy who neither had Carrol Thompson’s polish or technique but, more importantly had sensitivity and the right attitude.
Desi knew instinctively what I wanted where Carrol …well I thought from the start that she was too soft and I knew we’d made a mistake when she went on TV saying how mutually acceptable we where, like she was buying a washing machine.
Such is the degree of sympathy between these two, trading Sweet Pea impressions like Siamese twins still joined at the brain, one suspects that Ward may have found his Ronnie Spector after all.
Desi himself reckons he didn’t find his voice until a few months ago, when Mike came round threatening to cut off me ponytail if I didn’t put more into it. No need. Campbell parted company with the little cluster of braids that use to hang from his elegantly sculpted head, by his own hand.
Not long after he met this girl.
‘You don’t see too many really cool looking black guys around Sheffield she said and you’re almost as cool as that guy.
Desi has what you would call maximum visual impact and what hotshot video editor Mick Heggarty who flew over to direct the Floy’s £325,000 head over heels promo, calls ‘that Sam Cooke look in his eyes and a fine set of teeth, though he will frown..
In fact they all do .Ward, Rob- the likeable ex fitter who takes a back seat in all but Floy Joy’s musical affairs- and Desi who may well be new improved Fly Joy’s big selling point in a market where excellent, grown up music is never enough.
Unlike Carrol, Desi has no solo career to distract him. He burns for Floy Joy with an intensity that’s almost frightening which at first registers as surliness but is in fact, prickly Northern diffidence.
The boy is chronically shy. While the rest of them flaked out in front of the New York TV like couch spuds, Desi could be seen through a crack in the door, hunched over the cassette desk intently reviewing the day’s state of play. Precisely this attention to detail will make him the fine singer he’s starting to be, though he seems to have the floor show licked.
After knowing Desi a week, h allows a smile. Five seconds in front of the camera and the scowl evaporates.
And when DESI SMILES, HE’S POSSIBLY THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BOY IN THE WORLD. Perhaps he can smell a hit!