Ex-Fairground Attraction star Mark Nevin talks Bowie, band break-ups and cults

Mark Nevin. Picture: Merk Arrigo

Mark Nevin. Picture: Merk Arrigo - Credit: Archant

The Highgate singer, who has written songs for Morrissey is launching his new album, prompted by the death of his idol, at St Pancras Church

It was sitting feet away from David Bowie on his Ziggy Stardust tour that made Mark Nevin want to be a popstar.

Four decades – and a successful music career later – the death of his idol has prompted his latest album.

For the Highgate songwriter, who founded 80’s band Fairground Attraction and has written for Morrissey and Kirsty MacColl, Bowie’s death last year was a carpe diem moment: “My wife and I were sobbing, the news was so distressing. I was shaken but also blown away by the dignity and creativity of the way he died.

“I was a massive fan. I saw him at Bristol’s Colston Hall. I bought the cheapest seats which were on the stage. Being six feet away from the strobes and dry ice of Ziggy Stardust blew my 13-year-old mind.”

Before Bowie’s death, the writer of No 1 hit Perfect was “feeling sorry for myself and wondering have I run out of songs?”

The answer was a resounding no as My Unfashionable Opinion emerged in a rush of creativity.

Most Read

“This is the quickest album I have ever done. I realised there is a bottomless well of ideas, it’s time that’s limited. I was energised and the songs just kept coming.

“Like Stephen King, I don’t see The Muse as ‘a chick’ but a grumpy old guy who will not go out of his way to help you but if you keep phoning him he has to help you.”

Shot through with themes of faith and doubt, tracks such as Curly Wurly Boy reference the career advice as he left school to work at the local chocolate factory. Punching Above My Weight echoes the little kid “at the back of the rugby scrum” vying for space as the sixth of eight children. And the title track comes from a moment at a dinner party when he realised he didn’t agree with a word being said but knew speaking out would ruin the evening.

Knowing his future didn’t lie in a factory, Nevin credits the twin siblings born 15 months after him, with his urge to grab some attention.

“When I watched (music programme) Lift Off something clicked, I got a guitar and discovered my own way of writing songs I thought ‘this is my thing.”

Later, when his band imploded after just three years, it was partly over sharing the limelight with lead singer Eddi Reader.

“I was writing the songs and Eddi got all the attention. I remember after the Brit awards we went to the Grosvenor House Hotel. There were walls of flashbulbs going off, they put mics in front of her and I was pushed out. I went to the bar holding my award and couldn’t get served. I thought ‘this is what it was like growing up’.”

After leaving home Nevin moved to Kilburn and joined the Moonies.

“I was naïve, alone, and felt completely weird. They called themselves the family and filled the vacuum left by mine. When I realised it was a con after a few months they didn’t let me go easily, they chased me down the street!”

With hindsight he hoped being in a band would also be like a family.

“I based my idea on The Beatles and the Monkees as opposed to hating each other’s guts which is what most bands are like.”

Assembling the band in true adhoc style, he auditioned Reader in the back of a van after teaching her some songs, and thought she was “amazing”.

“I was the engine who brought all these elements together to play the songs the way I wanted them, jazz musicians with folk instruments playing pop songs.”

But tensions emerged with Reader wanting to go solo.

“In a band no-one is happy all the time. All the outside world see is the singer. She became ‘it’s me they want’ but I was giving her my songs and getting the royalty cheques. It was a bad combination.”

On the “contentious issue” of royalties that has led to many a court case, Nevin understably feels strongly: “You don’t whistle a singer, ultimately people buy the song, that’s what lasts when everyone else is dead. But celebrity culture puts the focus on the messenger.”

The split left Nevin bereft: “I loved the band so much but there was no way it could continue. It was over but I didn’t know what to do.”

The answer was writing for other artists like Morrissey, an oddly remote process that involved posting tapes to Manchester under the pseudonym Burt Reynolds.

“I wrote a track. Sent it to him and next day got a one word postcard in big Morrissey scrawl saying Perfect. It went on like that, sending tapes and getting these funny letters.”

Then as he posted the final tape from his local Chalk Farm postbox, who should walk by but the ex Smiths frontman.

“I introduced myself and he went bright red and said ‘thank you, see you in the studio in two weeks’. It was weird writing songs by post before I had even met him but it worked in a weird way. When we started recording (1991’s Kill Uncle album) I didn’t even know what the songs were. Then he starts singing ‘I’m going to be sick over your frankly vulgar red pullover’ and we (the band) were laughing so much there were tears running down our faces.”

While it was “a great privilege” to collaborate on Kirsty MacColl’s Titanic Days album and co-write with Carole King, he often felt used.

“Like a marriage you have to find someone you respect but often singers don’t have a clue how to write a song, they just sit there while you do and get their name on it.”

He was happy though to write an extra verse of I’m Yours when Ringo Starr wanted to record it and even happier to see it recorded at Hampstead’s Air Studios with Beatles producer George Martin “sitting there conducting the orchestra”.

Even better was when Bowie himself asked to cover the Morrissey/Nevin track I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday.

“I was with Kirsty MacColl in L.A on the roof of the Mondrian hotel by a pool and hearing Bowie was going to do my song, well I felt I’d touched hem of his greatness.”

But he adds: “I never really liked co-writing because it wasn’t my baby. I wanted to do something that was mine.” That’s why when he started to “get back to doing my own thing” he decided to sing the songs himself. Even though going from packed out audiences to playing empty pubs again was “really hard” it’s clearly been more satisfying.

“It’s taken me five albums to think ‘I do this now.’”

My Unfashionable Opinion launches March 20 at St Pancras Old Church. Info at marknevin.com