Marti Pellow has had an eventful career, to say the least. After leading Wet Wet Wet to a plethora of multi-platinum singles and albums, peaking with Love Is All Around’s seemingly eternal stint at the top of the charts in 1993, he’s gone on to a successful solo career as well as treading the boards as Billy Flynn in the hit musical Chicago.
And sandwiched in there somewhere is a high-profile battle against addiction to drugs and booze…
With a new album, Between The Covers, to promote, and Broadway beckoning, the man who is now dry dry dry was more than happy to spend some time chatting to musicOMH.
Home House is one of the swankiest hotels in London, an oasis of cool with a modern, members-only bar that Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and Chris Eubank frequent daily, trapped inside a beautiful 18th Century building designed by Robert Adam.
It’s in the bar that I meet Marti Pellow. He offers me a drink and just as I’m about to ask for a beer I catch sight of his soft drink and think it may not be the most sensitive thing in the world to go for the alcohol. So I ask for some Coke. And I don’t mean the white stuff…
These days Marti Pellow is a decidedly relaxed chap. Dressed in jeans and a jumper, face adorned with heavy, though immaculately maintained, designer stubble, he reminds me a tad of George Michael in days gone by. Although he could probably still make an army of house-wives swoon with just one look in their eyes, the lines on his face reveal that this is one 37-yeard old bloke who’s really lived.
The guy is a real professional too. Every question is met with a long, but not rambling, answer, a sign of someone who’s been doing interviews for years and understands the need to supply the questioner with plenty of material to make good copy. It’s a good job he did because his Glaswegian accent has not thinned out in the 17 years since Wet Wet Wet first broke big, making the transcribing of this interview something of an interesting process…
“At the age of 21 we went to Memphis, Tennessee to play with… Al Green. You don’t get to break bread with those types of people if you can’t cut the mustard.”
– Marti Pellow on why Wet Wet Wet had longevity.
Readers who were accustomed to Wet Wet Wet’s soul-influenced pop sound may be surprised to learn that the band started out as Vertex Motion, playing, wait for it, The Clash covers. How did they end up going from punk ‘n’ roll to pop ‘n’ soul?
“That’s the music we listened to when we were growing up. That’s what was relevant at the time: The Slits, The Fall, Magazine, The Clash and Joy Division. That was what we all went to see and that was the music we also listened to. But even through all that there was a big connection with R ‘n’ B music – Otis Redding, Al Green and Carla Thomas – mainly through brothers and sisters who were a wee bit older than us who turned us onto that music.”
“As time went on we got better at crafting songs. That’s not to belittle The Clash s**t because it’s f***ing fantastic but my voice leans more towards that genre of music (soul). I sat happier in that and developed a love and passion for it.”
So does he think that one of the reasons Wet Wet Wet managed to comfortably outstay pop contemporaries like Johnny Hates Jazz and Hue And Cry was because they had a genuine soul edge?
“I just think it’s because to play that music we had to learn our instruments. We were interested in the craft of songwriting… I’m a wee bit of an anorak about music but where I choose to be is in the pop business. I had a face for everybody. If you thought I was a guy in a pop band who smiled a lot, got on your tits and your missus fancied then yeah, that was the nature of it at the time, but we were always into our music. That was always a given.”
“At the age of 21 we went to Memphis, Tennessee to play with Carla Thomas, Ann Peebles and Al Green and you don’t get to break bread with those types of people if you can’t cut the mustard. When you get asked to go up and sing, you better have your s**t together or else you’ll die on stage, and I mean really die… We were like 21 years of age and people were saying, ‘You’re from Scotland, how come you know this record I made in 1957?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t know but I know I love it and it inspired me.’ They gave me the keys to the city, which I wish I hadn’t lost! That in itself is no mean feat.”
He’s not wrong. He sits alongside the likes of BB King and Nelson Mandela in being given the Freedom of Memphis in 2001. Even more amazingly, every May 9 is now officially Marti Pellow day in Tennessee! Given achievements like this I wonder what in his career has chuffed him most.
“Getting off the heroin and the drink.”
– Marti Pellow’s proudest achievement is quite a humbling one.
“Getting off the heroin and the drink.”
He laughs, slightly awkwardly. That’s pretty humble coming from someone who himself confesses to having had “a wee bit of arrogance” in the Wet Wet Wet days. What about musically though?
“Musically, having success as a solo artist but most importantly having that first hit record (1986’s Popped In, Souled Out).”
He’s on a roll and his eyes light up as happy memories flash through his mind.
“Playing Hollywood Bowl. Playing Madison Square Garden. Live at the Budokan. Whatever. To have that vehicle through the gift of music, to make that happen, to travel the world. To travel the world on a song – there ain’t no better thing. It’s a great ticket!”
These days Monsieur Pellow is just as likely to be found singing on a theatrical stage as he is at a gig. He explains that treading the boards was one of the easier decisions he’s had to make.
“I was doing a gig at the Royal Albert Hall with Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey… There were a couple of cats in the audience from Chicago. They said, ‘Marti, would you be interested in doing this?’ And I said, ‘All right, I’ll go and have a look, but it’s not my bag.’ And I went and I loved it. Did I really want to be on stage surrounded by scantily clad women? I had to soldier on!”
It’s clearly a challenge that he relishes. However, his army of admirers can rest easy – he won’t be giving up his day job just yet.
“This is a new thing for me, musical theatre… I worked hard at it. It didnae come easy. And I’ve done a few shows and I really enjoy it… That to me is a challenge at the moment and I enjoy it but I’m a singer / songwriter. I don’t think you can go, ‘Great I’ll go over here, see ya.’ Songwriting’s one of my strengths and a lot of people like me as a singer and a songwriter.”
“Did I really want to be on stage surrounded by scantily clad women?”
– Marti Pellow on his “difficult” decision to do Chicago.
Given his passion for writing songs, it may seem a little surprising that he’s chosen to release an album of cover versions rather than original material. He explains why.
“You know what, I recorded that album because I couldnae be arsed to record my own songs. I was probably getting a wee bit too involved in arrangements, so I was like, ‘Let’s play somebody else’s songs and dream along with them and record them.’ So we recorded other people’s songs in downtime, just having a laugh, and when I looked back I thought there were seven or eight songs and I kind of liked the shape of it… So we put another couple of songs on it and there’s a stocking filler. There’s such a diverse range: it’s got Neil Young to Leonard Cohen to Joni Mitchell to Paul Weller. They’re all great songwriters in my estimation stuff so you tip your hat to it.”
Of course, Wet Wet Wet were no strangers to cover versions. After all, two of their three UK Number One singles were covers (With A Little Help From My Friends and Love Is All Around). Not that this bothers Marti:
“I’m a singer of songs – I don’t give a s**t who wrote them. If I like a song I’ll sing it. That’s the way it goes. That’s the kind of artist I am. If I’d have had more Number Ones with other people’s songs then so be it – I had Number Ones! The secret is can you make it something for yourself? Just because this is one version of it, if it’s good pop music, and it’s a good pop song then you can interpret it in many different ways and turn people on. Look at R.E.M.‘s version of Love Is All Around compared to my version of it. They’re two different worlds but we still embrace because we love the song.”
A few minutes later and we’re done. As I pack up to leave he tells me to look after myself, saying that I look tired and overworked. Just for that my mum would love him. I’m sure she’s not the only one…