As 80s chart-toppers T’Pau return to the North West, Carol Decker tells MALCOLM WYATT ‘we weren’t cool, but we sold a shedload of records’
In the late ‘80s, T’Pau were big news, breakthrough 1987 hit Heart and Soul leading to a monster follow-up and a debut album that went quadruple-platinum.
In fact, second single China in your Hand topped the charts for five weeks and the Bridge of Spies LP sold 1.2 million, a stadium tour with Canadian rocker Bryan Adams helping spread the word.
But lead singer Carol Decker reckons the music press didn’t take well to her band, despite the fact that they’d laboured away on the spit and sawdust circuit beforehand.
“The music media were not fond of T’Pau. They saw us as a cheesy, mainstream band, and took every opportunity to have a go.
“We were sort of tabloid favourites, really, and sold a shedload of records, but weren’t cool or mean enough.”
You may have spotted Carol on the run-up to Christmas, winning the Pointless trophy on the hit BBC quiz show alongside fellow ‘80s star Paul Young.
When I caught up with her, she’d got in late the night before from a gig at Scone Palace, a fair trip from her home in Henley-on-Thames, where the Lancashire-born chanteuse and husband Richard Coates previously ran a gastro pub.
“We had the pub eight years, but let it go two years ago. I didn’t have a lot to do with it, apart from propping up the bar.
“My husband was the chef and owner, and it was such hard work. We never saw him! It was only up the road, but he was knackered all the time.
“Richard is a fantastic chef, but could never take a day off. People said they could always tell when he wasn’t in the kitchen.
“Reputation is everything to him. It was all just too much. He’s a gun for hire now, a consultant executive chef, sorts other people out, and likes the freedom of that.”
So how did Carol, originally from Huyton before a family move to Shropshire, where her band formed, end up – via North London - in Oxfordshire?
“We moved here in 2005. It’s very pretty, and we moved here for all the right reasons, like schools and that.
“Kentish Town was great if single or part of a couple, but a little edgy when the kids came along. We thought it was time to get the hell out of Dodge!”
Carol and Richard have two children, with Scarlett aged 16 and Dylan 12. So what do they make of Mum hitting the road with her music?
“Well, Scarlett loves Muse, and only ever listens to one band at a time. When she was younger it was Gorillaz, and now it’s just Muse.
“But Dylan loves any kind of music and is always singing. I had two shows at the weekend, and he came to both.
“Unfortunately I sprained my ankle, and said when I did China in Your Hand he could come on stage and help me back off.
“He loved that, and was waving to the crowd – about 20,000 people. He got a round of applause and loved the attention. He’s very much a chip off the old block.”
A few months on, T’Pau are set to return with their brand new album and UK tour. Carol and ex-partner Ronnie Rogers are teaming up for the first time in nearly 25 years to re-ignite the spark that brought us all those old hits.
The resultant songs provide a rock‘n’roll tale drenched in Pleasure and Pain, as the new album title suggests.
Bridge of Spies started a journey that initially spawned two more top-10 albums and several hit singles.
But that all ended abruptly after four years amid ill health, bitterness and marriage disintegration. Carol and Ron remained friends, but their personal relationship had run its course.
In 1997, Carol built a new T’Pau around her and released LP Red, but it wasn’t until the 25th anniversary in 2013 that co-writer Ron re-joined for a celebratory tour.
The pair then got to work on songs started a quarter of a century earlier, but during the final recording stages, Carol’s mum was taken ill and passed away.
Not before Carol was able to play her one of the tracks though, Demolition Man getting a maternal thumbs-up – a further example of that pain mixed with pleasure principle.
The new album, recorded up at Ronnie’s studio in Wales, is initially available to the band’s loyal fanbase exclusively, before a wider release.
And the tour will feature all the big hits and several old album tracks, as well as a selection of fresh material, with Carol ‘immensely proud’ of it all.
The Pleasure & Pain tour comes on the back of a busy 2014 on the revival circuit. Does she feel a little constrained by those shorter greatest hit sets?
“There are all these ‘80s festivals now. They’ve sprung up everywhere. But it’s just about making hay while the sun shines.
“I have mixed feelings about it all. Sometimes I think, ‘What a laugh!’ I’m getting paid for singing four songs for 20 minutes in places like Scone Palace, or in the grounds of some other fantastic stately home, with the whole thing just such an enjoyable, no-pressure experience.
“But it’s all about the old hits. Creatively, it’s not fulfilling. We’ve some great new songs, and I’m really excited about the album.
“The target audience that want to come and see us do other stuff are excited too, so it would be nice for the audience and us to have some new things to do.”
T’Pau were down to play Preston’s 53 Degrees late last year, but when the tour was postponed, that show went.
The revised 20-date tour runs from January 22 to March 14, including Sale’s Waterside Arts Centre on February 5 and Liverpool’s 02 Academy on February 28.
And there are some relatively small venues, something Carol’s looking forward to.
“When I do the big ‘80s shows I’m on a big multi-bill, so collectively we pull in 20,000 people. Which is great, especially at events like Rewind.
“I did another on Saturday night to 5,000 people too, with Rick Astley and Bananarama.
“But individually we’re in different places now. On the last tour I did we sold out Milton Keynes Stable, so we’re looking at 400 or so people. That’s where I am now.
“I do like the shock and awe of a big gig, and it’s quite nice to say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve sold this many tickets!’
“When we used to sell out arenas, my ego would definitely like that. But I’m enjoying concerts of all different sizes.
“I also do different set-ups like semi-acoustic shows where I take four musicians with me, with a cajon and close harmonies, or I’ll turn up at Rewind and have a fantastic house band that they provide, complete with a sax player for China in Your Hand.
“It’s very interesting like that. I’ve learned to roll with the punches. You have to.”
Has Carol always looked after that big voice of hers?
“Absolutely, and thank the Lord, I can still sing. Your voice ages, like the rest of you. I can be incredibly badly behaved at times, yet I’ll feel it in my voice if I’ve been up drinking.
“Last night I’d got in from Scotland, and my friend Jenny was in from LA, and we just sank a few bottles of wine on the patio, and I’m croaky today.
“If I had some work on, I wouldn’t do that. And when I don’t have a sprained ankle, I do work out. It’s a physical job, and you’ve got to be fit.”
Carol came into all this a little late, aged 22 and at art school. Had she not considered this career path before?
“I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I flunked my A-levels and went and au paired for my uncle, who lived in Eindhoven, to get away.
“All my friends had gone to uni or college, and my parents moved to Warwickshire. I didn’t know anybody, so just started bumming around, going from job to job.
“One of the jobs I got was working on the art team at Ironbridge Gorge Museum, when I came back to the UK, and I just thought, ‘I’ll go to art school’.
“Another friend was going, so I just sort of cobbled together a very bad portfolio and bluffed my way in, and in that environment I met a different kind of person.
“I’d been to a very strait-laced girls grammar school, but in art school I met a whole different type of person, and met musicians from going to parties.
“I always knew I could sing, so I just gave it a shot.”
Carol first met Ronnie when she was in her first band in Shrewsbury, The Lazers.
“The guy who formed The Lazers was more into ska meets Wilko Johnson. I kind of fell into that, because this was my first band, but it wasn’t really the style of music I wanted to do.
“Ron was more of a melodic writer, and we just sort of drifted into a different style of music.”
It was around six years or so before they got a deal though.
“We got turned down all the time, but finally got some management, who got us a showcase with Siren, who were a Virgin company.
“It looked like it was an overnight thing, because we took off like a rocket, but it was a very hard slog.”
Does she keep in touch with people she met on the circuit back then?
“No, in fact I’ve made more friends in the last decade since I’ve started doing all the ‘80s shows. Back then it was more competitive.
“Nowadays, I’ll go backstage at an ‘80s concert and we’re all in our late 40s or in our 50s, all got kids, and sit around having a glass of wine. It’s a great camaraderie.
“We’re all very supportive. But when we were all young, we were all viciously competitive and wanted to fire up the charts.”
These days, original members Carol and Ronnie are joined by guitarist James Ashby, Norwegian keyboard player Carsten Moss, bass player Kez Gunes and drummer Dave Hattee, with Odette Adams adding backing vocals.
Was it odd getting back with Ronnie after sharing so much over the years?
“It was for the first couple of gigs, because we hadn’t gigged together for 15 years, but we quickly fell back into stride, and it’s all good.”
It was a Pepe jeans advert that helped break the band initially.
“You need your lucky break. Even if you’re talented! And the jeans commercial was incredibly helpful. Everyone thought, ‘That’s such a cool song’, then the Americans loved it.”
I believe China in Your Hand is on more than 150 compilation albums. Ever get fed up playing it?
“Sometimes I’m just not in the mood to sing a big old ballad all the time. But you mustn’t grumble! That just sounds so bratty.
“At least my music still gets played and I’m remembered for something. And I’m still in gainful employment as a result of it.
“But yeah, sometimes you just think, ‘I don’t want to sing this one’.”
Do Carol’s experiences before making it big help her taking on the modern pared-down music industry?
“Absolutely. But I’m not in the industry with a capital I anymore.
“We’re in our own little bubble now.
“I’ve come to be proud of myself, and do shows like Rewind with people like Tony Hadley and other pals like Martin Fry and Kim Wilde.
“We were the big-hitters of our day, and we’re still going strong. And I’m proud of that.
“You get people who’ll knock it and say ‘give it up’, but I’ll just shrug it off.
“That’s the downside of social media – everybody is a keyboard warrior and you just get some nasty people who live to troll.
“But I’m proud of myself and my friends as well, and I’ve been a professional singer for 27 years, earned a good living, and I provide for my family.
“The phone’s still ringing, and the bookings are still coming in, so I must have got something right!”
For details of T’Pau’s forthcoming tour and new album, head to their website at www.tpau.co.uk.