It’s 11.30am or thereabouts on Monday, so it’s time for Nik Kershaw to get out the wine. “We were drinking this,” the musician is saying, hefting into laptop-screen view a bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin.
It just so happens that the 1980s pop star, responsible for retro-radio staples Wouldn’t It Be Good, I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me and The Riddle, has to hand a bottle of the same red wine he enjoyed one fateful Sunday at Elton John’s Windsor estate. (Probably not the same pricey vintage, he points out, but you get the picture.)
In late 1984, the year of his chart breakthrough, Kershaw – now a well-preserved 62 years old, with a grey buzzcut and a larky sense of humour – had been friends with John for a short but intense-sounding time. The latter had championed the young, Bristol-born, Suffolk-raised synth-pop singer after a joint Radio 1 gig at Wembley. Later, he invited Kershaw to a gig in Paris, “and we got chatting, and started hanging out a bit. Then he invites me to Sunday lunch.
“We went for a walk in the woods at the back of his property, and when we came back, he told me put my shoes by the door. Then when I went to leave, the shoes had been cleaned by some minion. My shoes have never been as clean, before or since. A different f---ing planet… And that was the world I lived in, back in 1984!” Kershaw says with a laugh and a shrug.
Over a lunch of roast beef and Gevrey-Chambertin (“his favourite”), John told Kershaw that he had “just got a bunch of lyrics over from Bernie Taupin, and he’d spent two weeks making demos. We finished lunch and I asked if he could play them to me. Brilliant! Demos for an Elton John album? Of course I want to hear them!
“So he played me about eight of them, then looked at me and said: ‘So which ones do you want to play on?’ Really? So I picked three, and Nikita was one of them. We ended up at Jimmy Page’s studio at the time, The Mill, and spent a day putting down the rhythm tracks.”
That, he adds, “was a blast”, and how, aged 26, he came to play guitar on Nikita, a UK number 3, US number 7 and a global 1985 smash for John (with a video directed by Ken Russell).
Thirty-five years on, Kershaw is talking to me from his Essex basement studio bunker (“there is a window, about two feet by nine inches. I can see daylight”). We’re ostensibly here to discuss his new album, Oxymoron, partly recorded at Abbey Road and a collection of pop songs that are tuneful, chipper and Radio 2-friendly – almost in spite of their creator’s best intentions.
“It was just meant to be a completely self-indulgent exercise, really,” he admits. “I didn’t have any market in mind. So it was quite pleasing to get a positive response.”
These songs “are probably all about me”, he adds, a new thing for him “because I wasn’t interesting enough” to write about in the 1980s. Which begs the question: the lead single, From Cloudy Bay to Malibu, features a lovelorn sadsack who drinks his way from “Cloudy Bay to Malibu”, Long Island to Manhattan, then to “Moscow on a mule”. It’s quite the alcoholiday. Is it one that Kershaw himself has taken?
“Ah, well, that one completely blows that [autobiographical] theory out of the water! I might have done that over the years, but never in one session,” Kershaw gamely clarifies. “It’s just a story – but it’s not necessarily my story.” (He has three children from his first marriage and a 10-year-old from his second.)
As for his freedom to embark on completely self-indulgent album-making exercises – this is his first album in eight years – Kershaw admits it’s a bonus of his financial cushion.
“It’s kind of a hobby now. I don’t have to make it pay its way, because those old songs have been very good to me, and continue to be so. So I have the luxury of being able to do what I want, and I really wasn’t worried out any kind of commercial success.”
He noticed his back-catalogue starting to pay dividends two decades ago. “It has been more fruitful since the start of the 2000s, after a downward slope after the 1980s. They’ve slowly gone up and up. To be honest, it baffles me where the money comes from,” he smiles. “But it’s a gift horse, so I’m not particularly looking it in the mouth.”
Still, Spotify’s “tiny payments of 0.0004p mean you can’t really evaluate where it’s coming from”. The 1980s revival boom of the last decade or so, notably at the (normally) annual summer festivals, must help. He’s guessing at the source of his core income, but he suggests that “the bulk of it is still coming from radio and airplay around the world”.
For Kershaw, that radio play began quickly, in early 1984, with the release of Wouldn’t It Be Good, his second single. Prior to that, he says, he wasn’t a singer, only “a guitar player in a band”, namely an Ipswich jazz-fusion combo called, ah, Fusion.
So, having signed a solo record deal in 1983, “I was discovering my voice. And to me now, it all sounds a bit affected, like I’m trying a bit hard.
“I don’t know who I was trying to sound like. It was just producer Peter Collins and me, singing them over and over again, trying to work out what sounded good. I didn’t have a style or a singing personality to bring to the part, really, it was all formed there.
“There’s a 1980s earnestness about a lot of the music back then,” he observes, accurately, “and I probably had that. But apart from that, I was pretty clueless, to be honest.”
Still, after Wouldn’t It Be Good’s release in January 1984, things moved “ridiculously quickly – it was about a four-week period from release to getting to number four. I’d be sitting in a taxi and hearing it on Radio 1 – quite often – and think: ‘Wow, this is actually happening.’
“My first inkling that something bizarre and huge was happening to my life was when, early on, for some reason, I got asked to accept Duran Duran’s award at the Daily Mirror Awards. I still, to this day, have no idea who asked me, and why. But that was the first time that I a) got into the back of a limo, and then b) had screaming fans jump over the car outside the venue. Very exciting and utterly terrifying.”
Did they perhaps mistake him for Duran’s John Taylor? After all, through darkened limo glass, one mulletted pretty-boy mid-1980s pop star looks much like another. “No, they definitely knew who I was! But I had no clue why that might be. I just knew obviously something must be working. Extraordinary.”
Kershaw’s first Top of the Pops was equally bewildering. He was living not far from where he is now, on the Essex/Suffolk border, and as he didn’t have a car, his record company hired him “a little red Fiesta. And in my panic to get to the BBC studios, I jumped a red light in Walthamstow in east London. I was pulled over by the police and had that classic conversation: ‘Where are you going, sonny?’ ‘Top of the Pops, officer!’ Of course, they didn’t believe me.”
As the hits kept coming – he released five singles in 1984 alone, with his second album following only nine months after his first – TOTP became his regular home-from-home.
“They were great days. Every time you did it, it was a whole day of hanging out with cool people. I remember standing there with Kool and the Gang, a band I’d listened to throughout the 1970s, thinking how surreal it was.
“That was just before Band Aid, and Bob Geldof had turned up to the studio and asked all the acts to wear the Feed The World t-shirt. All the Brits went: ‘Yeah, alright, great.’ But Kool and the Gang were like: ‘Does this go with our blue pants? Do we wear this with the sleeves rolled up?’ Kool and the Gang weren’t cool enough in the Feed the World t-shirt, obviously…”
The sense that that the show was a playground-cum-drop-in centre for the pop stars of the day is reinforced by Kershaw’s description of the backstage area. “There was a little café in the middle of the studios that everyone congregated in between rehearsals. And there was a red telephone box in the middle of it – and I remember standing outside it while Nick Heyward from Haircut 100 was inside, talking to his dog on the phone. Which is very Nick, actually.
“I also remember chasing Morrissey around with a pair of secateurs, trying to get rid of the gladioli in his back pocket.”
Wait – Kershaw actually did that?
“No… that never actually happened,” he replies with a grin. “It’s just something I really wish had. There were three or four occasions when I did Top of the Pops at the same time as The Smiths. They obviously never wanted anything to do with me, because I was very uncool – I was Smash Hits and they were NME. So there was this big stare-off going on a lot of the time.”
He says he has no big friends from those days (“there was never time, because we were always disappearing to different countries”), which is why “all these retrospective festivals over the last 15 years have been great – I’ve got to know a lot of my peers a lot better”.
Equally, though, he insists there was no rivalry or animosity among him and his peers. Not even when he and fellow debutant synth-pop solo warrior Howard Jones released similarly titled albums – Human Racing and Human’s Lib, respectively – only a week apart?
“I imagine there must have been consternation in the record-company boardrooms, because one of us must have been first. And it was completely coincidental. Actually I think his was before mine,” he remembers, wrongly as it happens, “but we’d already committed to the artwork and all the marketing so it was, like, ‘oh well, f--- it!’ But it didn’t seem to do any of us any harm.”
By the following summer, Kershaw was still running round the world, trying to keep up with the international successes of two back-to-back albums. Then, in July 1985, came Live Aid, with Kershaw performing “mercifully quite early, about 2.30pm, so I could then relax,” sandwiched between Sade and Elvis Costello.
Was it terrifying? “It was beyond terrifying,” he shoots back with a wince. “You just didn’t know what it would be like. And the terror had built up from that January, which is when I was asked to do it, at Heathrow Airport, where Bob Geldof was lurking. A bunch of us were going off to some big pop extravaganza in West Germany, and Bob was there in the terminal for no apparent reason.”
He told the milling pop stars that they’d done the Band Aid single, now it was time to do a gig.
“And everybody was thinking it was going to be the Hammersmith Odeon, and that would be it. So of course you said yes, not least because it’s Bob Geldof and you don’t say no to Bob – he terrified me, still does – and it slowly got bigger and bigger over the following months. It goes to Wembley Arena, then Wembley Stadium, to Philadelphia, an audience of billions, the global jukebox…
“And on the day, everybody was acutely aware of that. Plus, I got really nervous before gigs back then anyway. Then there was the hanging out with Princess Diana and Charles, and all that rigmarole beforehand. I just wanted to go and pace up and down my dressing room.
“So walking onto that stage was like walking off a cliff. You didn’t know whether any of your gear was on-stage, because you hadn’t seen your crew all day, or how much of it was going to be working.”
Little wonder, then, that Kershaw experienced an onstage brain-freeze. “Yeah, I did forget the words to Wouldn’t It Be Good,” he says of one of the day’s infamous cock-ups.
“And the terrifying thing was, there were about 30 seconds where I knew I’d forgotten the words. And there was this little voice in my head: ‘You don’t know the end of this verse, do you?’ I was thinking: ‘It’s gonna come to me, it’s gonna come to me… no, it’s not.’ So I had to improvise something else.
“And I never had the guts to watch that, till some anniversary DVD came out. I steeled myself to watch it, waiting for the fear in my eyes – and it wasn’t there. I’d spent all these years assuming the whole world had seen my pain and laughed at my humiliation. But it wasn’t a real thing, unless you knew every single word to my song. I’d been waking up in a cold sweat at 2am for years for nothing,” he says self-mockingly.
Thereafter, for Kershaw the hits under his own name dried up. But he was completely fine with that. He wrote with and for multiple other artists, including a re-team with Elton John on the latter’s 1993 album, Duets. There was even a creative interlude with an unknown Australian singer called Sia, on a song called I Don’t Want To Play.
“I did, yeah, but I don’t know how anybody knows about,” he marvels when I bring it up. “That was mid-1990s, when she had her first bit of success. She came over to the house, we wrote the song, I thought it was great, then nothing happened to it and I forgot about it.
“Then years later this girl called Sia keeps having hits, and I recognised the voice but not the name – I wrote with a lot of people back then. Then Titanium comes out,” he says of the singer’s monster 2011 hit with David Guetta, “and I’m thinking: ‘Why is that voice so familiar?’
“And obviously nobody got to see what she looked like,” Kershaw notes of a star who wears a wig over her face, “so I didn’t recognise her from that. Then I was wading through a load of old demos, and there she was: Sia.
It was very different with The One and Only, a number one smash in 1991 which made a star of the unknown Chesney Hawkes.
“The song wasn’t written for him,” Kershaw says. “I wrote it when I decided I wasn’t going to make records any more, at the end of 1989, and that was the pretty much the first one that came out. I wrote it, stuck it on a shelf and didn’t think much more about it.”
Then, signing a new publishing deal with Warner Chappell Music, he gave his new team a demo tape containing the song. “I got a call literally the next day from a guy in the office who said Chesney’s dad had walked in and could they have that song? So I met Ches, got on with him really well, we recorded it, and a year later, I’m sitting in my armchair drinking red wine – Merlot, not Gevrey-Chambertin – watching it fly up the charts, thinking: ‘This is brilliant! He’s doing all the work!’”
It was, too, self-validation. “Maybe that first flush of success wasn’t just down to luck. Now I’m getting a second bite at it, there must be some merit to what I’m doing. So it was very satisfying.
“People always ask me if I regret not recording it and giving it to Ches? Absolutely not. Had I released it, there wouldn’t have been an audience for it. It was the perfect vehicle for Ches, whereas for me it would have been… well, whatever the opposite of that is.”
Our time is almost up (that bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin won’t drink itself). Before he goes, though, we have to address the elephant in the 1980s room. Kershaw, game as ever, knows what’s coming.
“I’m not shifting blame,” he begins – but, yes, “I did have a stylist. I came from a world of musos, and the only time I dressed up was when I played in a function band. We wore purple velvet suits with green satin shirts that had butterfly collars. It was wonderful.
“Don’t try and find photographs – I don’t think they exist,” he adds, hopefully. “Other than that, I just played gigs, and stood at the back in t-shirt and jeans. [Dressing up] just wasn’t important to me.”
But that young East Anglian jazz-fusion guitarist became an unexpected pop superstar in early 1984, and “if I wasn’t going to think about clothes, somebody else had to. So I went through a period of about six months where a stylist walked up, said, ‘put this on’, I went ‘alright’, and walked out in front of millions of people on Top of the People without actually looking in the mirror first.”
And that is how Nik Kershaw became the world’s first – only? – champion of the snood. For a while he was embarrassed by the ubiquity of the snuggly wrinkle of cloth, but he has long made peace with it. And how many other artists can lay claim to single-handedly popularising an item of clothing? Madonna and the lacey fingerless glove? Tommy Cooper and the fez?
“Yeah, but I can’t claim any credit!” he laughs. “The first six weeks were photo-session after photo-session after photo-session, and the stylist had a thing about snoods. She just stuck them over my neck and that was it.
“I do actually still own one,” he adds, “although not one of the old ones. I recently started skiing and one of the requisite pieces of apparel for skiing is a snood. It’s the only excuse for wearing high-waisted trousers, braces and a snood.”
Or when you make the video for the next single from Oxymoron?
“Yeah,” nods Kershaw faux-gravely. “No, that’s not gonna happen. But if I did, I’d have to have a wig to go with it, wouldn’t I?”
Oxymoron (Audio Network) is released on Friday