Stephen Duffy and David Twist on The Hawks: ‘We weren’t after world domination’

The Hawks are a band that occupy an unusual place in the canon of singer-songwriter Stephen Duffy.

The Hawks. Picture: Brendan Jackson

Formed after his departure from Duran Duran, in their brief lifetime the five-piece only released one single before breaking up at Christmas 1981 – three and half years before Duffy became a pop star with Kiss Me, a song first recorded by The Hawks.

Notably more influenced by the Beatles, Stones and Dylan than either his previous or subsequent incarnations as a solo artist or with the band The Lilac Time, The Hawks, Duffy once said, “proved that it was impossible and implausible to be a rock ’n’ roll band in the 80s”.

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Shortly before the death of guitarist and co-songwriter David Kusworth, Duffy was finally persuaded to release an album of Hawks songs compiled from 40-year-old cassette tapes. Next month it finally arrives on specialist indie label Seventeen Records.

The Hawks. Picture: Brendan Jackson

Speaking via Zoom from his home in Cornwall, Duffy, now 61, recalls being “heckled” by his former bandmate during a speaking event at the Glee Club in Birmingham in 2019. “As he’s done quite a few times, he said you really must do release The Hawks, seeing as I was the only one with any cassettes, and so between David Twist, the drummer, and I we started to listen and to see what there was around.”

Duffy thought it was important to get hold of the one television performance the band – who also comprised Simon Colley on bass and Paul Adams on guitar – made “so that there would be some sort of visual”. “It’s crazy that even in the late 70s and early 80s that there can be so little audio-visual stuff knocking about, but there really is nothing,” he says. “Nowadays you start a band and it’s all on YouTube from your phone footage within seconds, everything is always out there, so I thought that it would be good to have something to put on YouTube to kind of say it’s here.”

He says he and Twist “now regret” the decision they made take their time and present the album to Kusworth “as a fait accompli” because “in that time Covid came along and he disappeared”. However Kusworth’s death, in September 2020, gave them “added impetus to do it as a memorial, as a way of sending good wishes to him wherever he is”, he says.

Meanwhile, in a phone call, Twist sounds delighted that The Hawks’ material is finally seeing the light of day. “I guess it’s always troubled me that there was no real, tangible evidence of us out there,” he says. “I don’t think any of us thought with hindsight that the one single we did put out was remotely our best material.

Cover of Obviously 5 Believers by The Hawks, which has been released 40 years after the band split up.

“You overthink things as a later teenager. With hindsight now you think ‘We should have done this...’, so it’s nice that there’s going to be a better representation of us out there than had been the case before.”

He feels it’s a shame, though, that Kusworth never got to hear the finished album. “We all stayed friends anyway,” he says. “I’ve always been in contact with Stephen down the years but Dave was the guy I was I suppose closest to over the years geographically and in rock ’n’ roll sensibility terms, probably.

“Dave would have wanted it to be a five-CD box set, he would’ve wanted it to be all out there; Stephen very much wanted to focus in on the more solid stuff. Some of it stands up better in hindsight than other bits. I’m very happy with what’s coming out. Dave would eventually have been very happy with what’s coming out, but I know there would have been a tussle. Dave did not like to leave anything off, it would always be ‘let’s have a bonus disc’.”

Twist, Kusworth and Adams had previously been members of the Birmingham garage punk and, TV Eye. He recalls that there was a house in Cheapside where TV Eye, Duran Duran and later The Hawks would rehearse. “It was in an industrial part of the city where you could make a racket and nobody minded,” he remembers. “At the same time I was still friends with John Taylor of Duran Duran, and we had had a band together (that was first called Shock Treatment, then Dada). Dada was kind of a post-punk thing before punk had even finished.”

He first encountered Duffy, though, on a foundation course at Birmingham Polytechnic art college. “Duran Duran did their very first gig there, but Stephen at the time was, I guess, more into organic classic folk, he was a big Bob Dylan fan and I think he was drawn to Dave (Kusworth)’s classic Rolling Stones kind of vibe and away from what the Durans were doing.”

Of their his early days trying to form bands with Twist and Taylor, Duffy quips that “theatre designs and fashion’s loss was New Romanticism’s gain”. However he believes that Kusworth was the “true” New Romantic figure, “even though alcoholism isn’t at all romantic”. “He did have a swashbuckling romantic belief and he lived it till he died,” he says.

The band’s original name, Obviously 5 Believers, derived from Duffy’s fascination with Dylan. “I still think, actually, that if we’d remained Obviously 5 Believers with those astonishing pictures with those jawlines and hair we should have got signed regardless of what we sounded like,” Duffy says. “There’s such power in that, and I really did think it was just going to happen, but our idea of what was going to happen was incredibly small. We had no great ambition, we didn’t even think about getting in the charts, if we could have been on Rough Trade and played a few gigs, that was it.

“Obviously nobody said lifestyle then, but that was a lifestyle we wanted: we wanted to make a few records for an independent record label and to play gigs whenever we wanted. I suppose we probably wanted to not be on social security, but we weren’t after world domination. We were kind of like slackers before slackers happened. We were quite happy with our arrangements, as squalid as they were.

“It wasn’t as if we wanted to stay at Claridges and have a private plane, in fact when we played at The Hare and Hounds in Birmingham I took my amp on the bus – and it was a Fender Twin, so it was pretty heavy. After the gig the buses had stopped but luckily there was a girl there whose father was going to pick her up so we put it in the boot of her car – so thank you for that, Amanda, otherwise I’d be rolling down the hill still on my Fender Twin. Luckily it was on wheels.”

In the post-punk period, before “the absolute domination of the Human League”, such dreams did not seem unrealistic, he believes. “You had no idea how glossy the 80s were going to be for some people,” he says. “Apart from the fact that I don’t feel we were a good band, if there had been somebody around with any sense they would have said, ‘No, you’ve really made a big mistake here, Stephen, you should go back to Duran Duran. Andy Wickett, you’re hopeless with them, you should go back’, but there wasn’t a grown-up around (to say) ‘I’m sure you could sort out your differences with John Taylor, if you just talk to him I’m sure he wouldn’t want to sound like Japan that slavishly, he will allow you some sort of interpretive dancing to drum machines and poetry’, but when you’re 17, 18 it’s very cut and dried.

“But in many ways, my mistake wasn’t leaving Duran Duran,” he continues. “It was then going back to make Kiss Me and electronic music, because after the initial success of the first Kiss Me, which I did with (John) Mulligan and Dik (Davis) from Fashion, I felt very unsuited to the milieu and I was very uncomfortable.

“That’s the thing about electronic music – it’s interesting in sort of a nerdy way, it’s like playing a computer game but it’s not real, you are fabricating music. If I hadn’t have done that and I’d have gone straight on to The Lilac Time, I could be Nick Cave now. If I’d have gone from The Hawks to The Lilac Time without that huge success there would have been a direction of travel artistically that wouldn’t have surprised people as much.

“(In 2019) we put out a record called Return To Us and I was lucky enough to be invited onto local radio stations and I was signing records in local shops and playing at Bristol and Nottingham Trade Rough, which is a very good way of playing gigs and selling records. It’s probably the best Lilac Time album we’ve done but it’s very folk-country. I’d be going (on the radio) to say ‘Come along to hear our folky country record’ and they’d play Kiss Me, so people are going to hear that and they’re not going to go. My mistake was actually making those records, but they sold millions so you can’t really complain too much.”

Kiss Me was the first song he wrote after leaving Duran Duran. “I wrote it at Christmas 1979,” Duffy remembers. “I’d got given The Portable Dorothy Parker and I was at my girlfriend’s house at the time up in Manchester. They didn’t have many books but they had a Bible and I was flicking through it and fond The Songs of Solomon, ‘Kiss me with kisses of his mouth, his love is better than wine’ so I put that together with ‘Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye’, which is (from) Dorothy Parker, so it was a real work of artistic genius that sprung out of my loins and my very being. I just stitched two good lines together, and put it to the disco beat later on and it was the kids loved it, handbags were danced around for years.”

Twist suggests that The Hawks’ version sounded like prototype Orange Juice. “I suppose,” Duffy considers, “but David was not suited to the disco vibe – the four-on-the-floor was no friend to him.”

Three of the recordings on The Hawks album were made by Bob Lamb, who would go on to work extensively with UB40. “He was a genius,” Duffy says. “The little four-track mixing thing he had that I think he’d made out of Meccano, it was obviously a kit of some kind with three or four faders on it and a four-track TEAC machine, and I think he only had one reel of tape until UB40 made (Signing Off).

“The first UB40 album is a work of absolute genius considering it was made in his small flat that he put a little drum booth in. So we were lucky to have him, and there was Pete King, Steel Pulse’s manager, so there were a few people.

“Bob was trying to do an album of all of the people he recorded, so there would have been Obviously 5 Believers, the Durans, UBs and loads of others, and if that had happened maybe that would’ve been a point around which somebody would’ve said ‘There’s money to be made here’, but I suppose that’s the thing, we were all slackers, even the older people, and it has to be said that it was the dope, everybody was stoned.”

The Hawks’ lone single, Words of Hope, is now a rarity, fetching around £50 a copy online. Only 1,000 were pressed. Duffy says: “The thing was it wasn’t even a proper record, because it was a tape that was cut onto vinyl. There is a process in between recording a tape and cutting it, it’s called mastering, we missed out the mastering...so we blew that. And then when we released it, we didn’t do anything about it (although) it got played on the radio quite a bit.

“The same with Words of Hope, the same with Obviously 5 Believers. Words of Hope was originally called All The Sad Young Men. Words of Hope by Obviously 5 Believers – that’s a going concern as far I’m concerned. Words of Hope by The Hawks – I’m not going to buy that and I’m in the band.”

Duffy has described the songs on this album was “field recordings”, rather than demos. Tracks were recorded live, with him singing over the top. “It wasn’t as if we were thinking, ‘If we do this then we could make it better’,” he says, “we were just like ‘this is what we’re doing, let’s record it and listen to it’.”

Despite the efforts of fellow musician Nikki Sudden of Swell Maps to convince Rough Trade to sign The Hawks, Duffy remembers them being turned down twice. “I’ve got all the letters from Geoff Travis,” he says. “He was very polite, he said ‘we think you’re a little bit too rock ’n’ roll for our label’.”

Three years later Rough Trade signed The Smiths, who Twist believes they had similarities with. “At the time they couldn’t see it at all,” he says. “We were either five years ahead of our time or five years behind it, but there’s no doubt that we were out of time at that point. If you look at the C86 stuff and the early Primal Scream, people like Bobby Gillespie loved Dave (Kusworth), wee were kind of even visually that band but three years before anyone was going to tolerate you taking the stage with a fringe like that.”

The Hawks might have enhanced their credentials had they toured with Sudden or the Swell Maps, Duffy believes. “We did a few gigs with The Prefects and The Nightingales, but what were we up to?” he ponders.

“Then later on, when I made that record with Dik and Mulligan from Fashion and Stoker (Andy Growcott) from Dexys Midnight Runners, the first Tin Tin record, then Fashion’s lead singer left. We’d got this huge dance hit, not only in clubs in the Midlands but also in LA and in Toronto and New York, why didn’t Fashion say ‘We’ve got this hit, why didn’t I join Fashion?’ How stoned were those kids?”

Gigs outside Birmingham were few and far between. “I think we played in the Black Country once,” Duffy quips, then remembers they played at a club in West Hampstead with The Nightingales. “Nothing much, we didn’t travel, although if I’m carrying my amp on the bus, it kind of restricted things,” he says. “I could’ve put it on the train, but I didn’t think of that. I don’t suppose I had the money to get on the train.”

For his part, Twist says he was “a ball of self-promoting energy at the time, but I wasn’t firing that in the right directions”. When Duffy compiled a gig history of The Hawks, Twist admits to be slightly shocked to see how few shows they played. “We did The Marquee once with The Steve Gibbons Band, who were also from Birmingham, but it’s not who you should have been playing with, I guess. As much as Steve’s a wonderful and venerated local institution, you weren’t going to be playing to the people who would get a bunch like us.

“We recorded a lot more than we gigged,” he adds. “You know, we were the world’s greatest band – but it was in our heads. It was a wonderful piece of concept art but we didn’t do all we could to actually get it out there.”

Twenty years later Duffy would revisit The Hawks’ songs Big Store and Aztec Moon with Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, in their side project The Devils. It was interesting, he says, “because we did pretend that nothing after Remain in Light by Talking Heads had happened.

“We went into this room at Air Studios, I think it used to be the old boardroom before they realised that nobody needed to have a boardroom in a studio, and we just got all of these old synthesisers and drum machines and just pretended it was 1979, and it was great fun.”

With Duran Duran in “a bit of a lull”, it seemed an opportune moment. “I think John had actually left at that point for a bit,” Duffy says. “I think it was good for Nick’s soul to revisit (the songs) and he hates waste. We had all of those songs knocking about and the couple of things that we wrote were good, but then he had to go back to his day job, and I had to go and write the Robbie Williams album (Intensive Care), so it was a brief thing, but it would’ve been good to have made another one.”

It was Duffy’s idea to get American producer and mixer John Paterno to master Obviously 5 Believers. The pair first worked together on Intensive Care, the album that Duffy co-wrote with Robbie Williams in 2005. “We got through a lot of engineers on that record and Chris Briggs at EMI said John is a safe pair of hands,” he says. “We’ve made the last two (Lilac Time) records together so it was a no-brainer, really, because at least that he’s got incredible ears, I know that he will try and make it (sound) as best as he can, but he said he feared to listen to (The Hawks’ songs) on headphones because the phase might have made him sick, he’s that sensitive, because the cassette phasing would probably be enough to block the Suez Canal.”

Forty years on from The Hawks, Twist is philosophical about the band’s lack of success, appreciating with hindsight that the music press “didn’t want anything with the slightest taint of Chuck Berry about it”. 
“That phrase ‘rockist’ was much in use at the NME and if you probably looked up rockist in the dictionary there would have been a picture of me and Dave Kusworth,” he says.

“At that point in this town with the prevailing media around us, it wasn’t a great time to be a rock ’n’ roll band, I absolutely know what Stephen was saying, but I guess once something is successful like the Durans were then people sweep in looking for something similar to it, with that electronic element to it. It was wrong place, wrong time, for us.”

Although he was “distraught” when The Hawks split – “I genuinely thought it was wonderful and I was incredibly sad that it wasn’t going to continue,” he says – he was never jealous of Duffy’s later career. “I always went on and collected everything that he put out,” he says. “I liked it because I could always see that quality... Songs like Wednesday Jones or Icing on the Cake, they’re just great songs, and we always stayed in touch and I was always very chuffed for him. Equally with the start of The Lilac Time, when he came back to Birmingham to record that. I was hutched up in the corner of the studio doing my best fanboy, really.”

Having gone on to solo success and critical acclaim for The Lilac Time, while his former bandmates Kusworth and Twist found a cult audience with The Jacobites (with Nikki Sudden) and The Bounty Hunters, Duffy is now inclined to look back on The Hawks more favourably.

“I completely discounted it and was sort of embarrassed about it in the sense that it wasn’t successful, because the 80s was all about success, in way it was a go-for-it decade,” he reflects. “But obviously that it was so pure and we were so naive, it’s wonderful to look back on, and it’s great to have had that time.

Bullfighter I thought often about maybe using that on The Lilac Time’s records, it’s on lists...All The Sad Young Men also.

“I’m glad that (The Hawks) happened, but it would’ve been good if there had been somebody to buy us a van. Not that any of us could drive but it would’ve been good to have had a little bit of organisation.”

Obviously 5 Believers is out on Seventeen Records on Friday September 17.