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While not considered a prog band, Charlie is a band that prog fans I think would enjoy. For starters there's no questioning the high level of musicianship nor the thoughfulness of the lyrics. That said Charlie's roots go back to the mid-seventies and having recently released a new CD, Kitchens of Distinction, I thought it was time to find out what they'd been up to...

Terry Thomas
Julian Colbeck

Jerry Lucky: I was managing a radio station back in the late seventies and early eighties and we played a lot of Charlie on the air – and not just the singles. In your opinion, did the band achieve the kind of success you were hoping for?

 

Terry Thomas: We did get a lot of play and when we first toured the U.S. the crowds sang along with “Johnny Hold Back” and a few more. We had a lovely label called Janus but unfortunately, being an independent, their distribution wasn't great. This is something we recognized later, not being business savvy at the time -- nor apparently was our management. So we were playing different cities and towns. Our songs were on the radio but the albums weren't in the shops -- doh! Also, we never really had that one song that takes you over the edge like “More than a Feeling,” or “Roxanne.” We should have definitely sold more albums.

 

Julian Colbeck: We enjoyed an amazing amount of radio play back in those days – thanks! But for some reason that never pushed us over the edge in terms of an amazing amount of record sales, fame, or fortune. It would have been nice if our “radio success” had been mirrored elsewhere. But that was just not to be. No one wants to reach #23 as opposed #1 -- but the vast majority of bands don’t reach #223, so I’m really not complaining. 

 

JL: The band interestingly became known for the LP covers and the use of models. Was that something that came about spontaneously from the outset?

 

Terry: The girl cover thing was an accident. When we recorded “No Second Chance,” our UK record company, Polydor, demanded they design the cover.  (We had used our own people for “Fantasy Girls.”) The cover came back to us as a tasteless painting of a naked girl with butterfly wings trapped in a spider’s web. We objected, and Polydor said that a new cover would delay the album for six months -- so we had to go with it. Janus hated the cover and designed its own and it became a poster that was very popular with radio stations. So, this laid the template for future albums “Lines” and “Fight Dirty.”

 

Julian: Terry does have an absolute obsession with gorgeous women, yes, J but actually the record company started all that. For “Fight Dirty,” the record company organized a nationwide radio station contest to find the “next” Charlie girl. We got to select the winner from a dozen finalists but only from a single photograph. When we got to meet her several months later at a dinner in London, this girl walked in with our manager and all of us assumed this young lady was either his daughter or secretary. We were all looking behind them to see our new “Charlie Girl.” Turned out she was our winner. Let’s say she looked absolutely nothing like the photograph but all of us were simply too shocked to ever find out what happened. Was the picture taken when she was 15? Was that her sister, or a friend, or just a complete substitution by the record company? And we never ever found out. But she made it to the cover of “Fight Dirty.” Although various covers subsequently have featured girls – several of them quite appalling and nothing whatsoever to do with the band, I think we learned our lesson and wised up to our sexist 70s ways after that.

 

JL: You had a pretty good run up to about 1978 and then for many people the band fell out of the spotlight. What was happening internally at that point?

 

Terry: In early 1978 we toured the US for the best part of five months and then went back to London to write and record “Fight Dirty.” There were rumours that Janus was on the brink of bankruptcy, but we completed the album. Janus refused to let us leave the label -- we had interest from major U.S. labels. In fact, Julian and I flew to L.A. and met with Atlantic, Chrysalis and RSO (which was very big at the time) – they all wanted to sign us. But again, Janus refused any deal and eventually went under. We became part of the assets and could do nothing about it. We had to wait around for five more months or so before Arista bought the repertoire. Arista told us they weren't really interested in us. They would put the album out but would not support any touring -- this was August-September of 1979. But then they sent the track “Killer Cut” to radio stations and it was a big success. They then backtracked and wanted us to tour, so we did six weeks with Foreigner and then Arista pulled the plug. We went back to the UK, recorded  “Here Comes Trouble,” which Clive Davis refused to release and our ever-caringUK management basically kicked us out. Eugene and Julian decide to try their luck in the U.S. and that version of the band -- the “definitive” Charlie -- ended.

 

Julian: After 1978? Well, Charlie was a band frequently dogged by dubious management practices and record company behavior. In hindsight, that was completely down to us for letting sundry scummy characters dictate our careers. But, hey, we were eager, young, and just wanted to play and record, like 1001 other bands that don’t “take care of business.” Although the band had internal conflicts and diversities of opinion we never really had any classic falling outs or fights. Even when Eugene and I left for America in 1981, there was no real animosity. Both Terry and John came to my wedding when I returned to the UK in 1984. Even today, most of us are still in touch. Terry will probably take issue with the band falling completely out of the spotlight. But the band never toured after 1979, that’s true.

 

JL: Julian, you came into the band in around 1977. How did that come about?

 

Julian: I was working with possibly the un-hippest band you can possibly imagine at the time. I’ll let your readers research that if they like, but let’s say This Band and Prog Rock have about as much in common as UFC and flower arranging.  But This Band’s lighting director was Charlie’s personal manager and when Charlie was looking for a session keyboardist for “No Second Chance,” he recommended me. We all got on really well and after two or three tracks, they asked me to join. I seem to remember my former band not being too happy about Richard’s recommendation, but that’s how it happened.

 

JL: Terry, you were back on the scene in 1986 with “In Pursuit of Romance.” Rather than doing a solo record, you revived the “Charlie” name. Why was that?

 

Terry: “In Pursuit of Romance” was a contractual album. We had done a two-album deal with Mirage/Atlantic. The first album, “Charlie” had a monster radio song, “It's Inevitable.” It was Number One in all formats but the album never sold. There was no money, even though there had been a $125,000 advance. So I had to make the second album very cheaply and without a band to fulfill the contract. The album was made for about $20,000, put me in hospital -- and the day it was released, Mirage went under!

 

JL: Terry, please bring us up to date on the new Charlie. Many years have passed. What made you feel inclined to revive the “brand?”

 

Terry: The new album, “Kitchens of Distinction,” was originally not going to be a ”Charlie” album. But as there was still some interest in the name, I got Julian and Martin Smith, an original member, to contribute and called it “Charlie.” I always write a lot of songs and just felt the need to get them out and our label, “Voiceprint Records,” has done a great job in getting it out there.

JL: Musically the new CD has a very modern feel, more aggressive than the band’s earlier work. Is that fair to say?

 

Julian: This question is really for Terry, who’s very “current” in his thinking and fairly aggressive, especially after a pint or two of Vodka.J

 

Terry: We always wanted to be a bit more aggressive than we turned out. We had two guitarists, but could never get the sounds we really wanted and with the complex vocal arrangements and lyrics that had to be understood, the guitars went back in the mix. With much more experience in the production field now, I can get those sounds and also get the drums to hit harder. As a producer, I’ve always kept up with what's current in Rock Music. But the basic values of a song haven't changed. You just dress it up differently.

 

JL: Julian, you got involved with ABWH. I was watching the DVD the other day and actually saw that tour live in Vancouver BC. How did that all come about?

 

Julian: I’d actually been out of the touring scene for a while. I’d just done a live TV show with Steve Hackett but there were no gigs coming up so I was mainly writing. ABWH had just lost their keyboard player, Matt Clifford, to the Stones, for their Steel Wheels tour, and I was friends with tour manager Pete Smith, who recommended me to Jon Anderson. I sent him some recordings and I went up to meet Jon and play for him at his flat off Kings Road. We talked, played a bit, and that was that. Next stop, negotiating with Brian Lane. What joy!

 

JL: Tell me about your time with Steve Hackett?

 

Julian: I think I’ve played on ten Steve Hackett CDs. And we’ve done at least half a dozen tours. I really enjoyed working with Steve. We did some band albums and tours, and a couple of projects where it was just the two of us. Steve’s very focused. He doesn’t tend to waste time eatin’ drinkin’ smokin’ or doing anything other than music. Even on tour he’d always be on his game; very professional. I think the only time I ever saw Steve out of it was in Brazil. Our drummer, Hugo Degenhardt, had dislocated his shoulder body surfing on Ipenema Beach the day we arrived, which obviously threw the tour into complete chaos. Steve’s then wife, Kim, was Brazilian so he had friends in town. One of them came up with someone who could sit in. At the end of this very stressful day we had to go a very formal dinner with Kim’s parents and other Rio dignitaries, and Steve’s friend had, well, let’s say supplied us with some extremely potent ‘relaxing materials’ to sooth our jangled nerves. At this dinner the whole band, including Steve, much to his wife’s chagrin, developed an uncontrollable fit of the giggles. It was brilliant. The more irate and disdainful the wife and dignitaries became, the more we lost it. I have this vision of Steve, on his knees, under the table at this point, tears streaming down his face, hitting himself on the head with one of Kim’s shoes. Kinda makes everything worthwhile, these moments.

 

JL: Terry, the lyrics on the new CD tend to be quite charged. You take on some social issues that I sense you feel quite passionate about, like the media, celebrity culture. Can you explain?

 

Terry:Well, where do you start? I always wrote songs about things as I saw them. I just got more focused as I got older. For example, the basis of the song  “Kitchens of Distinction,” is about putting yourself into debt to achieve the desirable lifestyle you're sold but can't afford. And then the credit crunch happened. I got a lot of things off my chest. The celebrity culture in the UK is so out of control that a lot of kids think that being a celebrity is a career option. Politics has been dumbed down and has become a personality competition -- blah blah blah! The Media - hypocrisy unbounded. But at least we don't have Glenn Beck! Doing this album also meant that I didn't have to worry about A&R men telling me it wouldn't fit the radio demographic. I could write just what I wanted.

 

JL: There are a couple tracks that I don't think will be heard much on mass-market radio due to the use of some, shall we say, "colorful metaphors." I'm guessing that's not much of an issue?

 

Terry: I was not anticipating major play on Top 40 stations – but some strategically placed bleeps could always be added later to conceal the offending expletives. As if that ever solved anything.

 

JL: I found myself nodding in agreement to many of your observations but I'm wondering how you respond to people who might label you as too cynical?

 

Terry: I'm not being cynical, which can be kind of easy. I would say I'm more skeptical and am passing on my observations on the modern world we live in, and asking: “Where can we take this to?”

 

JL: What's been the response to the CD?

 

Terry: The reviews have been excellent. But it has to be a long-term project and we’re just trying to let people know it's out there.

 

Julian: Well, I love it. My 17-year-old drummer son Cameron says ‘Alcohol’ is simply the greatest song ever written. And the reviews have been amazing.

 

JL: What's next on the radar? Another Charlie disc?

 

Julian: I’m just finishing up work as the producer of Alan Parsons’ Art & Science Of Sound Recording DVD (www.artandscienceofsound.com), for which I also wrote a lot of the incidental music, which was fun. A solo album, “Back To Bach,” which I made in 1992, has just been released, also on Voiceprint, and I’d love to work with Terry on some new material. I still own the piano on which I’ve written almost everything I’ve ever composed with “Charlie,” including “LA Dreamer,” “Watching TV” and so on. It still comes up with new stuff every time I sit down at it. It’s a Broadwood upright and it turns 100 in 2010, so that could be a good sign.

 

Terry: Nothing is in the planning stage, but I still love writing and recording, so I could put another collection together. Let's just see where this one goes.