Prepare for Fireworks as Ian Prowse revives Pele’s classic album at The Wedgewood Rooms

Ian Prowse, clutching a copy of his old band Peles debut album, Fireworks. Picture by John Johnson
Ian Prowse, clutching a copy of his old band Peles debut album, Fireworks. Picture by John Johnson
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Even the erstwhile frontman of cult indie band Pele was taken aback when he was told that their debut album, Fireworks, was approaching its 25th birthday.

Ian Prowse, who has also fronted Amsterdam and latterly performs as a solo act, says: ‘I just hadn’t realised, so I went back and listened to it again. I’m very familiar with playing the four singles off of the album, but I listened to it in one go – it’s 38 minutes long – and I went: “Oh god, that’s really, really, good!”

‘My most well-known songs these days aren’t even Pele songs - they’re things like (Amsterdam single and John Peel favourite) Does This Train Stop on Merseyside – so I looked back at it and thought that would be immense fun to play again.

‘I thought it would be a good way to connect all of my fans up – I had people who were fans of Pele but didn’t follow me to Amsterdam, I had people who discovered me with Amsterdam who didn’t know anything about Pele. I thought let’s do a first set of Fireworks, and a second set of everything else.’

And even though Ian hails from the north west, our own Wedgewood Rooms loom large in his personal history.

‘It was like we were born together – we played at The Wedgewood Rooms at the very start of the venue 25 years ago. When it was born and we were just coming out, the people of Portsmouth really took to the album. It was always a massive singalong when we played there, it would always be frenetic.

We stuck out like a sore thumb. We had a real Hammond organ, we had a great fiddle player, we were like a rock’n’roll band but infused from top to bottom with Celtic soul, and this is in the middle of grunge and baggie

Ian Prowse

‘Portsmouth became like a second home to us because, I know it’s been said a million times before, but Portsmouth is like a northern town down south, so we had a real affinity. So when we both came along in 1992, we both went on the journey together.’

‘I thought if we’re going to do this tour, the one place I’ve got to do it is the Wedgewood Rooms, it means that much to us.’

When Pele first appeared they were out of step with prevailing music trends.

‘We stuck out like a sore thumb,’ Ian chuckles. ‘We had a real Hammond organ, we had a great fiddle player, we were like a rock’n’roll band but infused from top to bottom with Celtic soul, and this is in the middle of grunge and baggie. We came along with the name Pele and people thought we were going to be another baggie sort of thing, but as soon as people heard us they realised we were completely different.

‘It was difficult for us – the NME and the Melody Maker didn’t know what to do with us.

‘We didn’t fit in with any scene, which is good because scenes end. We were put in the world where it’s all about the songs, which has afforded me the ability to carry on writing and developing as a songwriter.

‘We were a five-piece, a proper band that came together and got really well known in Liverpool. We did the classic journey of builkding a big live following in Liverpool before getting signed, and these are the things you can’t fake.

‘Your first few gigs you get your family and your mates to come along and cheer, but sooner or later it’s got to catch fire organically. We were soon playing to packed rooms, so we knew we were on to something then because you can’t fool people with that, it was because we had the songs and we played like our lives depended on it, and gave 100 per cent.

‘And that’s what I’ve always done, I’ve never done anything other than stood on a stage and wanted to change the world with a guitar – that’s the whole feeling I get when I still do it. My educators were Joe Strummer, Paul Weller, Elvis Costello, Jean-Jacques Burnel – these are the people, I didn’t know any people who played music – there’s no musicians in my family, or in my town, I felt like I was out on a limb. It’s the classic Springsteen thing, you learned more from a three minute record than you did in school – that was me!

‘I can go back and not be remotely embarrassed by any of those songs, or have to do it ironically, like, “This is what I did when I was little.”

‘I still mean a song like Raid The Palace, possibly more with the state of the world.

‘There’s an anti-fascist song on there called Searchlight, it’s the biggest cliché a songwriter can come out with, but that’s as pertinent as when I wrote it.

‘I thought there’s got to be something on there I don’t like, but when I wrote those songs, they all came out with such passion. I was inspired by The Clash and The Jam, which was music written out of conviction, to me they stand up now the same. They didn’t use any sound or production that’s dated.

‘It was tough at the time, but it turned out to be the right decision.’

However, things never took off for Pele after record label politics scuppered the band.

‘We had the classic scenario – we had down the second album, we were demoing the third, and the guy who signed us left, so the new A&R guy wanted to sign his acts – we were caught in limbo, they’d already signed us up to do a third album, but we hadn’t broke through as big as they would like and this new guy was trying to push us in this direction or getting me to go solo.

‘It was two years or so where we couldn’t get out of the mire, the only way out was for the band to break up to sort out the debts and all of that.’
Was there a sense of unfinished business for Pele, then?

‘Absolutely. The worst thing was that the record company threw a spanner in the works. The new guy, who I’ve never stopped loathing, was from a dance music background so he just didn’t care what we were doing. It was when he was saying you should do this, you should do that, rather than letting us record, that Britpop broke. Every band who’d supported Pele - Pulp. The Bluetones, Cast, Sleeper, they all broke and we were just stood there in litigation. It was distressing to say the least. You watch the boat sail away and there’s nothing you can do. it’s like a big game of snakes and ladders, and I had to go right back to the beginning and start again with Amsterdam. Places we’d sold out before, I was now playing to 20 people.

‘I just had to tell myself, it will get better, and it has – but it takes an almost demented amount of self belief.’

It’s only Ian of the original line-up in his current band, which he describes as making ‘a glorious sound.

‘On this tour, we’ve got a six-piece band who are absolute mustard, and they play these songs with such verve.’

But as he says of his old bandmates: ‘None of them carried on playing music really, whereas I carried on and I’m match fit, they’re not.

‘I’m so demented and obsessed with it all. I never stopped.’

While he resisted for a long time, Ian eventually went solo, releasing his debut Who Loves Ya Baby in 2014.

‘You go through different phases – you grow up, back then I just wanted to be in a band. I do a lot of solo stuff, and there are different way to do things, but there’s still nothing I love more than leading a band into battle.’

There is a new album in the works as well.

‘I’ve written a whole bunch of new tunes – I had that nervous moment where I sent my producer the demos, and I’ve worked with him for 20 years, so he’d be the first person to tell me to go back to the drawing board, they’re not good enough. That three or four days while I’m waiting for feedback, and he called me up and said this is the best bunch of songs you’ve ever sent me, and it was such relief.

‘So that will either come out at the end of this year, or early next year. No rest for the wicked!’

The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea

Saturday, May 13

wedgewood-rooms.co.uk