It’s February 1984, and in England, there are several emerging artists making names for themselves.
Despite being banned by the BBC, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s controversial “Relax” is atop the Record Retailer/Music Week chart. Paul Weller’s post-Jam project, The Style Council, is going through “My Ever Changing Moods,” Howard Jones wants to know “What Is Love” and Sade declares “Your Love Is King.”
Then there’s Nik Kershaw and “Wouldn’t It Be Good.”
It was the first in a string of Top 10 hits over the next year and a half for the British pop singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist. “I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me,” “The Riddle,” “Wide Boy” and “Don Quixote” followed, making him a hot commodity for MCA.
His debut album, “Human Racing,” sold so well and charted so long – more than a year in the United Kingdom and Europe – the label pushed him back into the studio and had him quickly write and record a follow-up, “The Riddle.”
“Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, but two albums in nine months is crazy,” Kershaw said recently. “It’s ridiculous. I can’t imagine the feeling behind that. It was basically, ‘While this is hot, let’s keep going.’ I don’t understand how I did it. The second album was recorded in about 10 weeks, which is really quick for me, but the songs were written in about three weeks. It takes me three weeks to write one song now. I don’t know how I did it. It was madness, and there was no reason for it. We could’ve hung on for just six months or whatever and spread it out a bit more.”
Instead, Kershaw wore out his welcome. Two more albums in the late ’80s, “Radio Musicola” and “The Works,” were commercial failures – enough to convince him to get out of the spotlight and retire from performing and recording.
“I was fed up with being at the front of things, I guess,” he said, “and wanted to take a back seat and write and produce other people. Which is kind of interesting because it wasn’t what I expected it to be; in fact, I spent the first couple of years relearning how to write songs, because it’s a completely different craft.”
He wrote songs for Elton John, Boyzone and Chesney Hawkes, who had an international hit with “The One and Only.” There were some songs Kershaw had written, though, he couldn’t imagine anyone else doing but himself, so he played around with them at his Shorthouse Studios in Essex, England.
“There was kind of a frustrating time when I was getting ideas that were basically uncoverable,” Kershaw said. “They weren’t things other people could do. The lyrics were too personal. That’s when I started recording, basically just to get them out of my system.
“It was almost like therapy, getting this stuff out of the way so I could get on with life and work with other people again. It wasn’t until maybe two years ago when I finished writing the songs that I even entertained the thought of playing it to anybody.”
Pyramid Records president Allen Jacobi was handed a demo of “15 Minutes,” Kershaw’s first album in more than 10 years, and signed him solely on the strength of the songs, not because Kershaw would fit in with any new ’80s wave. The album, released stateside April 6, contains a bonus acoustic version of “Wouldn’t It Be Good.”
“We started performing last June at some festivals in Europe,” Kershaw said, “and I had to get a band together for that. It was really, really scary. I hadn’t played in front of anyone, and I mean that literally, for 10 years. I haven’t even sung in front of an engineer. The songs on my album were recorded on my own in the studio with me as the engineer, so that was quite a wall to climb.
“Making the album was really a great experience. It was really luxurious, because I didn’t have the music business to worry about. It was done pretty much in a vacuum, and whatever came out I expressed. There were no rules, no kind of deadline, no concept. The only thing the songs have in common is that they came out of me.”
The best track is the first single, “Somebody Loves You,” easily Kershaw’s most accessible since “Wouldn’t It Be Good.” Coincidentally, the song examines the empty feeling of stardom, an emotion Kershaw felt the first time around.
“I use my celebrity or my stage persona as a kind of crutch, and I don’t think I was a fully formed individual to start from,” Kershaw said. “All of a sudden I got handed this personality. You walk into a room and you’re Nik Kershaw and everybody knows who you are and everyone comes up and talks to you. You don’t have to try too hard. Onstage, you feel all this energy, it feels like love, from the audience, but it’s really projection of what people think you are. They have their own opinion of who you are. So all this is coming flying at you and it’s really difficult to figure who you are within all that.
“I used to wake up in the morning and think, ‘What am I doing today? I’m going shopping for groceries, but who am I? I’m Nik Kershaw, pop star.’ I used to dress up as Nik Kershaw to go shopping. It was crazy. I had to be this person everyone expected me to be. It wasn’t until it all kind of fell to pieces at the end of the ’80s, and actually well into the ’90s, I slowly, slowly figured out it was all right to be me, Nik Kershaw the bloke from Essex. And that was fine, that was acceptable.”
Even though “Wouldn’t It Be Good” only reached No. 46 on Billboard’s pop chart, Kershaw had a sizable but manageable U.S. following. That suited him fine.
“(America) was the only country where I could go wild,” he said. “Everywhere else, I had to be in disguise and have a bodyguard.”
All in all, Kershaw has no regrets over his fleeting ’80s fame, but it did take some time to regain his self-confidence.
“For a lot of the time in the ’80s, I didn’t dare say no to anything,” he said, “because you’re surrounded by people who basically are afraid of losing it. I never got to the position where I thought, ‘Right, I’ve made it, I can slow down. I can stop and take it easy.’ I expected some kind of tangible feeling that you have success when you get there, but there isn’t one. You don’t feel anything apart from being more confused. Success doesn’t teach you anything; it takes a bit of few knocks and a bit of failure and a bit of life going on to teach you anything.
“Coming back this time, the only point in me doing it is if it’s my thing, that I’ve got sole control over it. I don’t need the money, I don’t need to do this. I’m doing it because I want to do it. If it becomes a chore, if I start doing things for other people, if I start doing things for their reasons, then it’s time to stop.”
For now, it’s all a big adventure, even the low-key U.S. tour he’s planning this spring.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Kershaw said. “I’m really proud of the album, and I’m looking forward to the hard work, talking to people and playing in front of people. As far as I’m concerned, every record I sell is going to be a bonus.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: ” ‘Get It On’ by T. Rex. It was also the first stereo record I had ever heard, because I had just bought a cheap stereo and I couldn’t get over the fact that a guitar was coming out of one side and a guitar coming out the other. I thought it was fantastic. I was a mad T. Rex fan, anyway; I wanted to be Marc Bolan.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “I used to live in a place called Ipswich, and we had a theater that was an old cinema and quite a few acts used to come there. I believe the first one for me was Rory Gallagher. I went there with my mates from school, and it was a bit of a treat to be without your parents. I guess I was 13 or 14. Just seeing guys onstage and all that gear, the general ‘them up there, me down here,’ I wanted to be up there.”
More updates: Joe Henry, Marcus King, Lily Kershaw, Poliça, Sarah Brightman, Jerry Leger, Simple Minds, Grateful Dead, etc