He’s written top ten hits but fame and fortune escaped him. Lorne Jackson meets Andy Wickett, who left Duran Duran just before they hit the big time.
As Andy Wickett thoughtfully strums his acoustic guitar, there’s a hissing noise, then wispy traces of a gaseous substance snake through the air.
In an alternative universe, the wispy traces would be dry ice, added to Andy’s stage performance by a special effects guru, in order to wrap the singer in mystery and allure.
But this is no alternative universe, and the gaseous substance isn’t dry ice. It’s fly spray.
Squirted by a barman in the small pub where Andy’s rehearsing. And it isn’t adding mystery or allure. Quite the opposite, in fact. The singer politely asks the barman to stop, just for a couple of minutes, so he can get through the rest of his plaintive lyrics.
Everything could have been so different, and probably is, in an alternative universe. In an alternative universe, Andy wouldn’t have left Duran Duran, which he did in the early days, before fame and fortune. In an alternative universe, Andy wouldn’t have cheaply sold the songs he wrote to his former band mates. Songs that became huge hits and pop classics.
But this is no alternative universe. It’s Nicole’s, a tiny pub in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, where Andy regularly performs. In this universe of drudge and disappointment, flash bulbs, fame and filthy lucre don’t exist. Not for Andy.
There’s just the acoustic guitar, the plaintive lyrics, and the fly spray.
Yet miraculously, Andy doesn’t come across as a bitter man. With a certain fondness he recalls the late 70s, when he was a tyro songwriter and performer, waiting for his big break.
“I remember when I came up with Girls On Film,” he tells me. “I was working the night-shift at Cadbury’s factory. I used to write songs when I was on the conveyor belt, watching chocolates go by.
“That’s when I came up with all my ditties and tunes. Then I would go back to the guys, and say, ‘I’ve got this thing we can try.’”
At the time Andy was dipping his nose in his extensive personal library of books, which is where the inspiration for the songs came from.
“I was reading all sorts of stuff,” he says. “One of the books on my list was Sunset Boulevard, which was about the dark side behind the glitz and glamour. That was all in my version of Girls On Film. But in Duran Duran’s version, they changed the words, so that it’s all glitz and glamour.”
Before joining the group, Andy was already a central figure in Birmingham’s vibrant music scene. In fact, original Duran members, John Taylor and Nick Rhodes, met Andy because they adored TV Eye, a previous band he fronted.
“TV Eye started up in ’77, the punk times,” he says. “The original members of Duran Duran were big fans of our band, and Nick Rhodes used to come round and watch us rehearse, and bring his tape recorder. We became friendly at that point. Then I left TV Eye and joined Duran Duran.”
The band worked hard to break into the big time, but there was plenty of partying, too.
“They were crazy times,” says Andy, who is now forty seven. “We lived close to Barbarella’s, the club where everyone hung-out, in Cheapside, Digbeth. We had the only house on the street, so everybody used to come back from the club to ours.
“It was a bit racy. I’d be eating soup, and a couple would come in and start having it away.”
Andy was also involved with several other bands, and eventually drifted free of the Duran Duran orbit, though the group still rehearsed at his digs.
They were now increasingly glamorous in dress and outlook, eventually becoming icons of the youth movement known as the New Romantics. But Andy, who now lives in Handsworth Wood, wasn’t interested.
“When I left the band I became a skinhead, with Doc Martens. They didn’t like that, but I was rebelling against them, because they were more middle class.
“Anyway, we’d done that look already, in TV Eye. Although when we did it, it was darker and more punky.
“Then big hair and big shoulder pads came in with Duran Duran. And the big yachts and big money.
“They looked like adverts. You know, only the crumbliest, flakiest...”
Before going their separate ways, Duran Duran still needed Andy’s help, with performance. Only now he was a teacher, not a troubadour.
“When Simon Le Bon joined the group, their manager used to pay me £10 to give him singing lessons. I’d give him 20 minutes, getting him to sing Girls On Film. He used to try and copy me, because the band liked my style.”
Then, of course, the band wanted the rights to his songs.
“I went up to see them, and they gave me 600 quid, and I took it. They gave me it in £50 notes, and I had never seen £50 notes in my life. I got a keyboard with the cash, because I was into reggae at that time, and doing a lot of dub reggae, electronic stuff.”
Andy now regrets his decision to give away the rights ... and untold riches. “I shouldn’t have done it,” he says. “But my solicitor advised me to do it.
“He said ‘Sign it, so that you’ll have a paper trail, and that means you’ve got an interest in those songs.’ I went back to see him afterwards, and he said, ‘Actually, I don’t think you’ve got much chance of getting anything.’”
Andy continued to play in other bands through the 80s and 90s, but unlike his former band mates, he never chomped a chunk out of the charts.
However, in 1996, Andy managed to meet-up with his old band mates backstage at the NIA, where they were performing. They asked him and his band of the time, World Service, to support their British tour.
However, there was no return to old friendships: “They’d drive into the gigs and then they were off.”
Andy – who plays Nicole’s Bar once again on May 29 – has few regrets. But he’s slightly disappointed after writing more than 200 songs he’s still not a mega-star like his buddies from Digbeth days.
“It is a bit frustrating that I never made it huge,” he shrugs. “I don’t think much of the songs I wrote at the start of my career. I think I write better songs now.”
n For more information about Andy’s gigs and music, check his website: www.andywickett.com