Pete Wylie: 'It was the Bowie thing of having all these different masks and disguises'

Seated in a box room at his home in Liverpool, Pete Wylie is almost engulfed by piles of paraphernalia including books, board games and even a brightly attired Barbie doll.
Pete Wylie. Picture: Paul RipleyPete Wylie. Picture: Paul Ripley
Pete Wylie. Picture: Paul Ripley

“That is a tiny fraction,” the 65-year-old singer-songwriter says cheerfully, casting an eye over his treasure trove.

“The house is called Disgraceland and it’s a repository of modern pop culture. Musical instruments, Elvis, anything odd and sci-fi, and also random. It’s an art statement. Without sounding totally pretentious, I think of it as art...and it’s also why I’m single; people can’t cope with it, (but) some people love it. I’ve got a lot of Pop Art stuff like Andy Warhol posters or Keith Haring chairs. (I) just (have) a magpie mentality and I love living here.”

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Next week sees the unveiling of a Wylie collection of a different kind – a double album ‘best of’ commemorating 45 years of music-making, much of it recorded under variations on his Wah! moniker. Continuing the Pop Art theme, the cover portrait of the singer was painted by one of Wylie’s heroes, Pete Townshend of The Who.

That much of this music has been out of circulation for a long time is down to the fact that Wylie got “very disillusioned” with the business after the collapse of Castle Music, who released his only previous compilation, The Handy Wah! Whole, in 2000, he explains.

“I went more or less 15 years without releasing records and it was only when I got married to Kate that she bullied me – for want of a better word – into making a record via Pledge; that was Pete Sounds,” he says. When that album came out in December 2017, a couple of friends suggested he revive his back catalogue himself. “I knew exactly what they were saying, I could see it all in front of me, however during lockdown I was diagnosed with ADHD,” he says. “They call it the ‘ADHD iceberg’ – on the top there’s hey, hey! and woah! and underneath there’s complications, confusion and money issues, so that’s one of the reasons why (I’ve had a low profile for years).”

The diagnosis is something he has been working through with support from the Liverpool-based ADHD Foundation – “They’ve been brilliant, offering me solutions,” he says – but Wylie has also had to overcome his inherent suspicion of the music business.

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“I just got out of the game because I didn’t like it a lot of the time and I didn’t feel like I had to because to me it’s the music that matters. So in the last 10 years I’ve signed on if I needed to, and what I did between 2000 and when I made Pete Sounds I just wanted to do things for good causes that I believed in like the Hillsborough Justice Campaign and the Miscarriages of Justice organisation which was (set up by) Gerry Conlon and Paddy Hill (of the Birmingham Six), I sang with the Choir With No Name, and I was happy doing stuff like that because I don’t get paid so I don’t have to worry about am I being conned or am I conning somebody else.”

Pete Wylie of Wah! Heat in 1982. Picture: Steve RapportPete Wylie of Wah! Heat in 1982. Picture: Steve Rapport
Pete Wylie of Wah! Heat in 1982. Picture: Steve Rapport

He recalls the Liverpool DJ Billy Butler once saying to him “I know why you don’t do shows as much as you could – it’s because you don’t know what you’re worth”; the issue, he says, was compounded by that fact that he “didn’t have people to consult with”.

The “stepping stone” to recovery was the realisation that he should be releasing more music and touring. With the help of Chrysalis Records, he has finally returned to the fray. “I’ve loved doing the LP,” he says. “Arguing over which song here and there.” Two “big things” for him personally are the inclusion of the single Imperfect List, which he made with close friend and sometime Wah! member Josie Jones under the alias Big Hard Excellent Fish – “I love that track and I’m really proud of it, and I love the late, great Josie Jones to this day,” he says – and also hearing “the stages of what I’d done” over the course of 45 years.

Wah!, he says, “was never a group after Carl Washington left” in 1984. Even The Story of the Blues, Wah!’s top three hit in 1982, was “more or less” a solo effort. “It was the Bowie thing of having all these different masks and disguises,” he says. “I changed the name a lot because I didn’t like when Syd Barrett left Pink Floyd and they still called themselves Pink Floyd (even though) he was the defining member. I didn’t like Fleetwood Mac carrying on without Peter Green and still being Fleetwood Mac. It was just a way of being honest to me, it was a principle thing. Principles have played a big part – also ADHD. So I’ve never made as many records as people thought I should, I’ve never achieved some of the heights that people thought I should, I stopped even thinking about those things, which I think is quite healthy.

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“The record company, however, wanted to re-release the LPs chronologically. I said we’ve got to start with a compilation because people don’t know (about Wah!), and there’s no media about like there was (in the 80s). I remember groups I was reading about from 10 years before like The Clash, I was learning all the time from the music press but there’s no music press in weekly terms now, so you do become forgotten to some extent, especially because I wasn’t as active as some of my contemporaries. Also I became disillusioned in the 2000s.

“Now I saw this as an opportunity to get all of that behind me, to put a line in the sand, so whatever happens for the rest of my life, this is almost like the starting point, and I love it, I’m really proud of it.”

The big 80s hits – The Story of the Blues, Sinful and Come Back – remain radio staples and have helped to ensure Wylie’s music has never totally disappeared. “Different people know Sinful because it was a dance hit as well,” he notes. “The Northern Ireland DJ David Holmes played it a few weeks ago at his club in Belfast and I get a great response off people. Some people say it’s the best record of the 80s, others say ‘it’s not as good as...’” The anthem Heart As Big As Liverpool was also adopted by Liverpool supporters to honour the victims of the Hillsborough disaster.

Getting to know Pete Townshend, one of his “all-time ultimate heroes”, who painted the cover portrait for the new compilation, has been especially gratifying for Wylie. “He mentions me in his book (Who I Am) and a mate was working with him. (To cut) a long story short, I got introduced to him. He’d wanted to meet me two other times and it never happened – he’d asked, which always overwhelmed me, my guitar playing is 99 per cent him, and my attitude as well, trying to write songs that mean something.

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“And I’d heard that he did paintings of me in the 80s. I was with him when he did Quadrophenia the musical onstage, I was there for a week hanging out, and he came in and he gave me one of the pictures. It was felt pen, clearly me and it was called Wah! 83. He went, ‘I did another one, a proper painting of you but I gave it to charity’. Then about two years ago he said, ‘I’ve found a file of it, but I don’t know who won the charity (auction)’. He sent me it and that’s the cover of my LP...He’s been great, one of my heroes, absolutely.

“I have to also mention Paul Kossoff from Free as another one of my heroes, making one note work a thousand, and Mick Ronson, the Bowie connection. Every time I play in Hull I pay tribute to him and I’ve got to know his sister, Maggie, who’s fantastic. Those things matter to me, paying respect. I might have been a punk but I always understood the importance of where we came from, the history.”

Teach Yself Wah! by Pete Wylie and The Mighty Wah! is out on March 1. Pete Wylie plays at the Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on March 9.

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