Nik Kershaw was everywhere in the 1980s. During that decade he amassed eight hit singles, two bestselling albums and had his own set in the Wembley afternoon sunshine at Live Aid.
Despite his success, Kershaw never felt comfortable in the pop star spotlight, even describing himself as being “rubbish” at it. “It’s true,” Kershaw laughs. “My apprenticeship was as a jobbing guitar player in a band. Then I started writing songs and just sort of fell into everything else.
“There was no master plan. I got a deal, made the first record then, all of a sudden, found myself in front of cameras having to go through the process of trying to be a pop star. I never got the hang of doing all the things pop stars are supposed to do. I just found it unnerving having that amount of attention lavished upon me because I wasn’t used to it. Some people thrive in the spotlight, but I was a deer in the headlights. I was uncomfortable being public property and trying to get out of a limo without feeling like a dick.”
In the excess of the 80s, it wasn’t uncommon for pop stars to whizz around in private helicopters, rent an island for the weekend or have Princess Diana on speed dial. So, what was Kershaw’s most ostentatious pop star moment?
“There wasn’t anything particularly OTT but there were times when I acted like a bit of a diva. All of a sudden, you’re surrounded by people whose living depends on you. People are doing pretty much everything but wiping your bum for you. You can get kind of spoiled and there were a few times I threw my toys out of the pram. I’m not proud of it but if you’re treated like a child it’s pretty hard not to act like one sometimes. When you’re having that much attention thrust upon you it’s very difficult not to feel a bit special, but I was really lucky that most of the people around me were pretty grounded. I was advised quite well most of the way through my career which stopped me going completely off the tracks.”
At the end of the 80s, Kershaw stepped away from the spotlight to concentrate on writing. Artists who recorded his songs include Cliff Richard, Bonnie Tyler, Gary Barlow, Ronan Keating and Lulu. Despite what his website says, he never wrote for Archbishop Desmond Tutu (this ruins my From Lulu to Tutu headline). “I think you should still run with it,” laughs Kershaw. “That was a joke for the site. I really should take it down.”
Meanwhile, the use of technology in music has greatly advanced over the years. But surely a good song remains the key factor and no amount of electronic gadgetry can disguise a poor tune?
“Absolutely,” Kershaw agrees. “They’re still working on a computer to write songs but I’m not aware of it being successful yet, so I’ve still got a job. I stopped writing for other artists and started making my own music again because the whole process was getting frustrating. But at the time people wanted to record stuff I’d written which was handy. The One & Only was just something I had on the shelf.”
One of Kershaw’s biggest songs, The One & Only was recorded by early 90s teen idol, Chesney Hawkes and spent five weeks at number one in 1991. Does Kershaw wish he’d kept the hit for himself? “Not at all because I’d made the decision by then to keep my head down for a bit. I just sat back in my armchair drinking Merlot while Chesney did all the work.”
Another of Kershaw’s biggest songs has lyrics that have confused and bewildered many over the years: ‘Near a tree by a river there’s a hole in the ground. Where an old man of Arran goes around and around.’ Back in the day, my friends and I choreographed a dance routine to the chorus (don’t judge us, we lived in a small town and didn’t get out much). So, after 35 years, I can finally ask Kershaw the burning question, what the hell was The Riddle all about?
“I had just two weeks to write the second album while still promoting the first one. As a consequence, quite a few tracks on album two didn’t have proper lyrics at the time of recording. The last song I wrote was The Riddle. The tune was done in 10 minutes and I just put this bunch of words together that rhymed and sounded OK before we started recording.
“I tried to rewrite the lyrics but eventually got so used to the sounds of the words that I kept them. Some bright spark decided to call it The Riddle so people would think it was about something. It was never meant to be deceitful, but it got out of hand when the record company put a competition together in conjunction with BBC Radio 1 to guess what the answer to The Riddle was. There were prizes being given out dependent on there being an actual answer and there wasn’t one. It got to the stage where I couldn’t fess up because people went to so much trouble and were sending manuscripts where they’d gone into great detail about who the old man of Arran was. I was vaguely embarrassed because it was only a pop song for god’s sake.”
Pop goes opera
This summer, Kershaw, Jimmy Somerville, Howard Jones, Johnny Hates Jazz and Carol Decker will perform reworked orchestral versions of their hits with Opera North. Nostalgia sells and 80s Rewind tours featuring a cluster of acts on the same bill are massively popular. Fans may imagine that the hit-makers are old mates, and that Kershaw arm-wrestled Nick Heyward backstage at Top Of The Pops and shared a pasty with Bucks Fizz in the BBC canteen. But was it really all matey camaraderie or merely the coincidence of being contemporaries?
“Definitely the latter,” Kershaw says. “I’ve made a lot more friends in the last 10 years doing these revival festivals. There were a lot of people I never met at the time, and others I’d vaguely bump into, but then they’d be off to Canada and I’d be off to Japan and we wouldn’t meet again for another couple of years, so it was difficult to strike up many close friendships at the time. Since then, we’ve all up there then had a kicking on the way down and when you get us all together in a field somewhere, we’re in the same boat sharing the same experiences. It’s great fun.”
Critics say that playing the hits can detract from more recent material. Are the big songs a millstone on the audience’s ability to embrace new work? “It depends on what kind of gig it is. If I’m doing a Rewind festival, I know why I’m there, what I’m being employed to do and what the crowd have bought tickets to hear. I respect that the hits became part of people’s lives and I don’t have a problem playing all the old songs because they’re something we all have in common.
“I’m sharing that with the audience and it’s a lovely feeling when you’re performing a song and people are singing it back to you. When I’m doing my own gigs and people are coming expressly to see me, most of them are aware of what I’ve been doing since the 80s and are happy to listen to a few of the newer songs. If a song resonates, it resonates.”
Kershaw is back writing and recording a new album and is clearly enjoying the freedom to produce whatever he wants without the constraints of record company pressure. I wonder, does he keep an ear open to the commercial side of things when writing?
“I try hard not to care about that. Writing this album comes with a huge freedom not to have to worry about trying to get it played on Radio 2 or wherever. It opens up more possibilities and I’m lucky to be in that position.”
He adds: “My success in the past means I can afford to indulge myself which is what we’re supposed to do as artists. We shouldn’t write songs to order but to please ourselves. If it also pleases other people, that’s a bonus. When you cut that cord, it frees you up to do anything you want. I don’t really hanker for the days of being chased round the Arndale Centre by Norwegian schoolgirls anymore. That actually happened and they were intimidating, let me tell you. It was terrifying. I sought refuge in Carphone Warehouse.”
“It’s much easier to make music and get it out there because of technology. You don’t need a major record deal which has to be a good thing. I like a good tune and there are plenty of them still about, but you have to trawl the internet to find stuff that’s more interesting musically. Music has become devalued because we don’t pay for it any more. People invest less of themselves in music because it’s so accessible people just take it for granted.”
One of the biggest events in the 1980s music calendar was the Live Aid concert in July 1985. Playing a set in the middle of the afternoon must surely have been one of those ‘wow’ moments? “God yes. I don’t know how good my memory is, and whether I’ve embellished the truth over the years, but it was an amazing day. What brought it all back recently was the Bohemian Rhapsody movie. I’m sitting in the cinema, and they’re recreating walking out on the stage at Wembley Stadium, and they did it really well and I started getting goose bumps again. I was literally transported back to 1985. It was stunning.”
Coming back to the present, are there any current writers whose work Kershaw admires? “All the George Ezra stuff gets played to death but they’re good tunes. Like many, I’m also a big Ed Sheeran fan and I think he’s a very clever geezer though, again, the music is a little bit over exposed.”
So, when Sheeran writes a song as good as The Riddle, he’s made it? Kershaw laughs. “If you say so.”
Main image: Nik Kershaw. Credit Kai R Joachim.
80s Classical with the Orchestra of Opera North takes place at Millennium Square in Leeds on July 26, 2019. For more details, or to book tickets, click here.