Eighties icon Paul Young on being back in the limelight
He was the soul singer who was plucked from the factory floor of the Vauxhall car plant to become an Eighties icon, but fame has had its dark side, as Paul Young tells Edwin Gilson.
Back in his Eighties heyday, ‘blue-eyed soul’ boy Paul Young often came into contact with megastars like Iggy Pop and David Bowie. While any musician would surely have jumped at the chance to converse with these icons, though, Young always maintained a certain distance. It’s not that he didn’t want to chat; more that he felt a crippling sense of inferiority when around them.
"I ran into those guys backstage a lot, but I didn't actually 'hang' with them," says the singer today, down the line from his family home in North London. "I was very shy about it, and I always felt that they were bigger than me. I didn't feel like I could just pick up the phone and call them up."
This admission speaks volumes about Young's humble and, particularly in his youth, reserved nature.
As a cherubic pop singer who became an Eighties household name with his debut album No Parlez, a record that spawned such chart-smashing singles like Come Back and Stay, Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home) and Love of The Common People, Young was suddenly catapulted into the public eye.
He was mobbed by adoring fans (usually female) whenever he ventured out, and his stock rose to such a level that he was asked to sing the first line of the original Band Aid single, Feed The World, by Bob Geldof, a good friend of his.
Young has fond memories of seeing Geldof's Boomtown Rats and U2 for the first time in Northern Ireland, despite feeling "uneasy" about having an English number plate on his car at the height of the Troubles. He returns to these shores on August 3, one half of a nostalgia bill at the Feile in Belfast alongside Soul II Soul.
Young, now 58 and working on a ninth solo album, remembers being so timid as a teenager that he had second thoughts about taking up vocal duties in early bands – despite knowing he had a brilliant voice: "Again, I was so shy, so I really didn't want to be up at the front of the stage, being the lead."
This quiet soul from Luton had been raised believing that "being born in Luton, growing up in Luton and getting a job in Luton" was the natural order of life.
After taking up a position at the local plant of Vauxhall Motors, however, Young quickly realised his "mind wasn't completely there". It was music all the way for him.
He formed the soul band Q-Tips, who would go on to support the likes of Bob Marley and The Who and become "one of the busiest touring bands ever", according to Young.
While the singer claims his time with the Q-Tips was all "quite glamorous", he couldn't have been prepared for what would come next.
After the dissolution of the group, giant label CBS Records came in for Young.
The deal would provide Young with a huge financial boost, but there was one big downside; the label wanted a degree of control over his output. Friction swiftly became evident between company and client.
"I thought we were on the same page, but once we got started I realised this wasn't the case," sighs Young.
"They would only let me record two or three songs at a time, songs which they had to agree to. When I took a song out and put another one in, they would call me up and tell me to stop. They wanted me to make an album like the Q-Tips, a soul album, but I'd done that for three years and it hadn't been successful! I thought: 'Ok, I've got a bit of a fight on my hands here'."
Thus Young, when he could, began to craft a "pop sound that had depth and quality to it".
The resultant album, No Parlez, released in 1983, reached number one in the UK pop charts on five non-consecutive weeks. Then the madness began.
The striking element of Young's description of fame is that it is almost entirely negative. Despite working hard to "keep my profile up" in the modern age, back then Young quickly grew weary of the trappings of his success.
"Nobody prepared me for the fame at all," he says, "not the label, not myself. I guess I thought, 'What is there left to learn for me in music?' Of course, there was plenty to learn, when it all hit. The worldwide degree of success induces its own hysteria. Then you start to feel like you're out of control. You get so famous that you are protected and advised at all times; if you want to go out, it has to be arranged by somebody first.
"I did venture out a few times on my own, but it got so manic that I had to retreat back to my hotel. Then you get told to just stay in your room, which is when the claustrophobia sets in. Hotel rooms feel incredibly small. It got incredibly boring. It was just work, work, work and no pleasure. You just get in a plane, and then get in a car, and you don't see anything of the world."
At the end of the 1980s, after almost a decade of that way of life, Young took a few years out in Los Angeles. In 1987 he married former model Stacey Smith, who he'd met during the filming of the Come Back And Stay video four years earlier. During their relationship, Smith twice left Young for other men, with one of the relationships producing a love child who, to his enormous credit, Young has now accepted into his own family.
He and Smith are back together, but Young's voice drops to a distant murmur when quizzed on his marriage, and how he reunited with his wife. "It just ... felt like the right thing to do. It's ... good. To have a chance to go back and put it all right is a good thing. I don't want to go into it any more than that."
Young is much more open on the topic of his children, and you don't doubt his assertion that he "loves family".
He's happy to be able to spend more time around his daughters Levi (27) and Layla (19) and son Grady Cole (18) now that the touring schedule isn't quite so hectic.
"I won't get to see them for much longer, as they'll all be flying the nest soon!" he laughs.
There is a special area that Young and his family enjoy spending time in, a region of escape that the singer relished when his fame was getting on top of him back in the day.
"The deserted plains of Arizona are so liberating," gushes Young. "Man, it feels good! I fell in love with the place once, and now my family go there. We ride horses in a canyon, visit lakes and teach the kids how to lasso. Great times. If money was no object I'd buy a house in Santa Fe now."
At this, Young is reminded of the theme of one his bestselling hits: "We're back to that same topic: 'Wherever I Lay My Hat, That's My Home!' Travel, I love it."
The open spaces of Arizona are a perfect antidote to Young's old hotel room blues, and he seems to have been energised by his gradual move away from the public eye. Does this mean he is less shy now than his tentative teenage self forced under the spotlight years ago?
"I don't think I'm shy anymore, no," he asserts. "I think you lose that as you get older. Maybe I would give Iggy Pop and David Bowie a call now!"
- Paul Young plays Feile an Phobail, Belfast, on August 3. For details, visit www.feilebelfast.com
Everything must change ... his new gigs
Reality TV star – Young admits to having had reservations before appearing on diving programme Splash recently, but says he enjoyed the experience. Panellist on Splash, Leon Taylor, accused Young's dives of being too 'basic' as he went out of the competition
Cookery – Young has also appeared on cooking shows such as Celebrity Masterchef and Hell's Kitchen, the latter under the tutelage of chef Marco Pierre White. The singer jokes that White is "much calmer" than fellow celebrity cook Gordon Ramsay. Young worked for his wife's restaurant for a spell too, after the pair had split up in 2006
Los Pacaminos – the singer formed 'Tex-Mex cowboy' band Los Pacaminos in 1995. The group, who are influenced by the music of Ry Cooder, have released one studio album and have just finished a new record