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Bill Sharpe - Famous People Live

Although I wasn't credited, I wrote the liner notes and also conducted the interview with Shakatak's Bill Sharpe that accompany this live recording of his 1985 solo album Famous People, featuring an all-star cast of UK session musicians.

EXTRACT Every album has a story and the one behind Bill Sharpe’s Famous People Live is a bit different from most. It’s the result of what Bob Dylan would call “a simple twist of fate” after the record company declined to license the original album for reissue, and the idea of rerecording it live came to mind.

Famous People was Bill’s first solo album, released in 1985 but recorded the previous summer after Polydor sensed that he had more to give apart from writing and performing hits with Shakatak. The latter were among a wave of British jazz funk bands - Level 42, Hi-Tension, Light Of The World and Loose Ends included - making records that were stylish, accessible and soulful, as well as dance-floor friendly. Shakatak were then at the height of their popularity. Down On The Street was about to become their fifth UK Top 20 hit inside two years and they’d recently recorded live albums in London and Japan, where they’d become a major draw. Bill would continue with the band as before but had welcomed the opportunity to stretch out a little after Polydor made their offer.

Recreating the original album wouldn’t be easy although Bill was quickly encouraged by the response he got after contacting some of the people who’d played or sang on it, like Tessa Niles and guitarist Mitch Dalton. One of the key names missing was that of sound engineer Nick Smith, who recorded the initial sessions at Rock City studios in Shepperton, Surrey, just a few miles from Heathrow airport. Famous People Live is dedicated to his memory, since Nick is sadly no longer with us. He’d engineered Shakatak’s Out Of This World and Down On The Street albums, and he and Bill had become great friends even before starting work on Famous People. Sax player Dick Morrissey had also passed on since the original sessions. Derek Nash, who plays with Jools Holland, replaced him whilst two in-demand session players took over the rhythm section.

“Nick Cohen the bass player has worked with so many great artists, including newer bands like Rudimental and Clean Bandit,” says Bill. “Andy Gangadeen, he’s played with so many great people as well. He’s played with Incognito, Jeff Beck and Massive Attack... He’s like two drummers in one. He’s a force and when you’ve got someone like that behind you, it’s so exciting! He absolutely nailed it that night but everyone put so much time and effort into the project. I was so delighted that everyone took it so seriously, and made it so special because of the effort they put into it.”

They recorded the live album at the Pizza Express Jazz Room in Soho, after just one rehearsal at a studio in Camden. There were a lot of Shakatak fans in the audience that night. It’s therefore unsurprising that Bill included some of their best-known hits in a set that’s otherwise comprised entirely of tracks from Famous People - songs that he hadn’t just revisited, but remodelled and even re-imagined in some cases like Change Your Mind, featuring Gary Numan. Bill had assumed it would be impossible to do the song live as he’d used a lot of sequencers and other electronics on the original. It wasn’t until two of the singers involved with the new project - Jill Saward and Gina Foster - encouraged him to try a different approach.

“The girls came up with the idea of doing it more like a jazz track, with a laidback feel to it and I’m so glad they talked me into it, because it turned out so well,” he says. “Gina sings it really nicely, and it gave everyone in the middle section the opportunity to just to blow along to this simple kind of groove.”

Change Your Mind started swinging to a different beat, and with female voices replacing Numan’s own. The latter now lives in Los Angeles and so couldn’t attend the show but sent a video that he’d made especially for the occasion, introducing Change Your Mind and paying tribute to Nick Smith’s involvement with the original recording, which was the lead single from Famous People and had received a lot of airplay during its race into the UK Top 20 during spring 1985. It was an era dominated by synthesisers and drum machines. Technology was driving popular music like never before and for musicians with a taste for adventure like Bill and Gary the opportunities must have seemed endless.

“Those tracks were different from Shakatak because my musical tastes are pretty broad really,” says Bill, who’s from Bishop Stortford, and had trained as a classical pianist. “I grew up listening to rock groups like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, and I’ve always liked prog-rock so it was nice to delve into that with help from all the technology that was around at that time, because you had this amazing breakthrough happening with sequencers, drum machines and all that. I had fun messing around with it really. I was in a phase of writing songs on a synthesiser and my demos from that period would all have that sound, what people used to call ‘the Kraftwerk style.’

“I was really pleased with the original production of Change Your Mind, because it was so off-the-wall really. We finished the track and then I attempted to sing it. It was my album after all and I had a go at it but then Nick’s voice came over the headphones and he said, ‘no. I don’t think so.’ He’d been working with Gary and suggested that we send the track to him and ask him to sing it. Gary agreed, he came in to sing it and I was amazed! We sent it to Polydor and they went ballistic but it’s funny because we started off with one idea, and then it went off in a completely different direction. That’s the joy of creativity I guess.”

In an interview from 1988, Numan, whose early hits included Cars and Are My Friends Electric, referred to he and Bill as “the odd couple.” Twenty years later and Chi Ming Lai, writing for ElectricityClub.com, described them as “the ultimate clash of images; the curly haired jazz funk aficionado with The Iceman.” The pair went on to record an album together as Sharpe & Numan previewed by two further hits, New Thing From London Town and club favourite No More Lies. Automatic finally arrived in 1989, nearly five years after they’d first collaborated on Change Your Mind...


John Masouri

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