It’s probably fair to say that no one has been more surprised by his late flowering solo, singer-songwriter career than Henry Priestman himself. After all he gave up the singing back in 1981 when Yachts, for whom Henry was principal songwriter, keyboard player and occasional lead vocalist called it quits. Fondly remembered by too few and not celebrated by nearly enough back in the day, Yachts had a quirky new wave pop charm, with swirls of cheesy Farfisa, which added a certain paisley-patterned-garage-psyche-slant to a crop of witty, tuneful, energetic songs, that guarantee a knowing minority still regard them as ‘a band that got away.’ Just try Suffice To Say for starters, but regrettably, suffice to say they didn’t register sufficiently in the sales ledger to make it last. Individually, however, the band members prospered in the fallout, but in wildly different ways. Therein lies the rub.
Henry is just simply very talented and as a founder member of It’s Immaterial and The Christians showed he had what it takes to hit commercial success too. All of the songs on the first two, breakthrough Christian’s albums are Henry Priestman compositions and he continued as their principal songwriter into the mid 90s and beyond. It was perhaps a neat coincidence that he shared a name with the three brothers Christian, Garry, Roger, Russell, because to give him his full name he is actually Henry Christian Priestman.
To try and round up his entire biography is some work and even while still part of the Christian fellowship, he had several side projects on the go. There is a significant list of others that he’s written with. Henry co-wrote much of Sarah Cracknell’s debut solo album during a little downtime for St. Etienne but can also claim to have worked with Lamont Dozier (of the legendary Holland-Dozier-Holland partnership), Cathy Dennis, Suggs, Kirsty MacColl, Graham Gouldman (10cc, but so much more) and Eleanor McEvoy, to name but a few and believe me, the list goes on.
If this isn’t enough he’s also composed for TV programmes, seemingly specialising in wildlife documentaries and also set up his own production company to write music for ads and even computer games. Then there’s the session playing, touring, production, songwriting workshops, he also continued to play with the Christians. Despite the premature death of the older sibling Roger, the band are still going strong, although Henry’s involvement with their live act came to an end in 2006. Like I say, it’s a lot to try and take in and even the biography on his website is broken into sections, in order to fit a quick-fire summary of all of this and more into manageable chunks.
It’s said that, “What goes around comes around.” It’s certainly true for Henry. In the post Christians lull (if you can call it that!?!), a trip to America and a near fatal incident involving a log cabin fire served to, erm, fire up Henry. On his return to the UK he teamed up with fellow songsmith Tom Gilbert and with a newly imported, Nashville work ethic, which stipulated three hours per song maximum, the pair got busy. Pleased with the results and goaded into singing, their efforts were recorded in true 77 style, with more thought for feel than musical accuracy, in Henry’s home studio with the help of a few pals.
Picking up an invitation from Graham Gouldman to support 10cc, the new songs found their way to the ears of the heads of the recently reincarnated Stiff label and a little over thirty years since that Yachts’ debut Henry Priestman was once again signed to the famous imprint. But when Johnnie Walker played Grey’s The New Blond on three consecutive days, while standing in for Terry Wogan on the breakfast slot, with Terry then picking it up and praising it on air on his return, the game moved up a notch. Island Records stepped in and picked up the album entitled Chronicles Of Modern Life.
That was 2009 and put’s Henry in his mid 50s. He delights in apparently being the oldest person to have his debut solo album released on a major. Of course that ignores all that has gone before. Since then, Henry has also kept up a busy output of co-writes session work and more, but has finally found the time to finish the follow up, The Last Mad Surge Of Youth.
Perhaps the gap between records explains another change in label, but however it’s worked out this is very enjoyable and likeable record. There’s some excellent playing and fine arrangements, like the brass band valediction on the opener At The End Of The Day. Johnnie Walker famously described the predecessor as, “ Muic for grumpy old men.” But while there are lashings of lugubrious laughs to be had and the sense that Henry isn’t even taking himself too seriously with song titles like A Pint Of Bitter And Twisted, Please, there is more substance to this than simple grumpiness.
Sure I can see the comedic value in the catchy sound-bite sized sobriquet for the musings of the older statesman. Perhaps it’s just that I’m one myself, but I’d rather think of this as the wisdom that the perspective of age can bring and besides, I can see some genuine anger in this, albeit perhaps tempered by the rueful acceptance that pointing out iniquities, hypocrisies and more straightforward lies isn’t going to change much. But you know what? The more people say some of this stuff the better. Besides the songs here have that honesty of age, which is a lot more becoming than the perennial prancing of some of the stars of yesteryear who are Henry’s age and older still, whatever their relative musical legacy.
Henry acknowledges that the game isn’t entirely up in Rant And Rave as he suggests, “We’ve got to rant and rave now before we get too old c’mon rant and rave now and maybe we can save the world.” He goes further in exhorting, “Hey apathetic citizens grab your coat, get up off your arse and vote.” There is similar anger and a degree of fight to be found in Goodbye Common Sense as Henry sings, “Farewell equality and sharing the common good, send your scant regards, to the unwashed and misunderstood, hello you power-hungry men of eminence, goodbye common sense.”
He kicks out at his targets with other songs like Huntin’ And Gatherin’ Aint What It Used To Be and Same Circus Different Clowns. But there are other concerns too such as family and the brood flying the nest in the touching We Used To Be You, enduring love in Valentine and the whole business of getting older in the title track. He even has a little dig at himself with In My Head, a song which I’m sure all can relate to. But Henry handles it all with a disarming honesty and wit, so even if he is having a bit of a moan, there’s a sly smile and a fond glance that make the whole thing rather heart warming rather than a labour.
There’s an honesty in the slightly world-weary vocal styling too, but it’s also very well put together. Henry makes the most of his multi instrumental skills on keyboards, guitars, banjo and even drums and there are strings and the afore mentioned brass in the mix too, with other little highlights like whistle and glockenspiel.
The sleeve note of the CD inform us, “Special mention for Mark Hodkinson for kindly allowing me to use The Last Mad Surge of Youth as a title: it comes from his excellent book of the same name (apparently via a 1946 Peter Lawford film quote, sampled by Mark Burgess’ Chameleons…mind you, all of us seemingly “borrowed” it off Sophocles, so credit where it’s due)”. Credit indeed Henry for sparking a little righteous indignation, but also a chuckle and a wistful moment of taking stock. Perhaps what goes around really does come around and justice will be served in the end. Meanwhile I’ll join you in a pint!
Review by: Simon Holland
Just in time for Valentines Day Henry has also release a video for ‘Valentine Song’ which you can watch below:
The Last Surge of Youth is released on February 17, 2014 via Proper Records. Order a Ltd Autographed Edition here.