Northern Icons#2: Martin Stephenson “song Of The Soul”

Northern Icons (#2) Martin Stephenson

If you recall, our first Northern Icon was Ian Curtis and it was to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his untimely death. So why is our second acclaimed icon Martin Stephenson? He’s not dead, he’s not been in the public eye for a while, and he was never even that famous?? Well you don’t have to have mainstream appeal to be an Icon. And he should be far more famous than he is. But the main reason is a recent biography written by Richard Cundill and Mark Bradley. The book is called “The Song of the Soul: The Authorised biography of Martin Stephenson” published by Ardra Press in 2009.  And you probably missed it. Which is a great shame as it is a detailed account of one of the finest song writers of his generation. Never feted as much as Paddy Mcaloon, Roddy Frame or Paul Heaton but he has songs to equal any of those mentioned. Anyone who was around in 1986 and was not listening to Wham was probably interested in Boat to Bolivia. With his beloved Daintees he delivered a debut up there with Swoon and High Land, Hard Rain. So why has he fallen off everyone’s radar so completely? No big hits, poor career choices, drink, a reluctance to play the game. All of these play some part in the story of Martin Stephenson.

I was a big fan at the time. Living in the North-East and being a lover of everything indie I was almost obliged to love everything on the Kitchenware label. The label that brought us Hurrah, Prefab Sprout, The Kane Gang as well as The Daintees. I remember the lad who worked behind the counter at HMV used to supply me with promo posters and encouraged my love of this great label. First time I saw any of them play was Prefab Sprout at The Mayfair (with Hurrah in support) in 1984. It was a full year before I got to see The Daintees who had by then become Martin Stephenson and The Daintees. I had bought all the records but was not much taken with them until I saw them live. A student Christmas party at Newcastle University in 1985 changed all of that. Second on the bill to The Men They couldn’t Hang with the Blubberry Hell Bellies and The Housemartins below them, made for an exciting night. Their light weight, almost twee, early singles had been replaced by some absolute classics. The majority of which would make up the following years Boat to Bolivia LP. I must have seen them more than ten times in the following few years. Every time they were superb. Martin is the perfect showman. Warm and endearing he would play the songs so that everyone thought they were just for them. His in between song banter was legendary. I remember one particular gig at what was the old Polytechnic (with the Three Johns) in the car park that was an absolute belter. Another at the Church on the round-a-bout near the Haymarket bus station, where he performed solo, (St Thomas’ I have been reliably informed.) Around Newcastle they were massive. Everyone expected them to go onto greater things. The music press never really seemed to get them. When their second album came out; Gladsome, Humour and Blue, we thought that even the music press was going to have to wake up to them. A fabulous album full of great songs…………….. but it just didn’t happen.



I don’t think I even bought their third; Salutation Road. They just seemed to disappear from view. What happened? Well, buy the book, read it and discover. Martin has still been making great music, living in Scotland, playing where and when he likes, releasing over a dozen albums in the intervening years. I re-discovered him a few years ago at the Evolution Festival on the Quayside in Newcastle. He was obviously older and wiser but the voice, the charm and the showmanship was still there. The boy from HMV was there as well but I don’t think he remembered me. I went out and tried to fill in the gaps in my collection but it wasn’t until the book came out that I fully discovered what he had been up to. So, if you remember him from the 80s or just want a good read then get a copy of “The Song of the Soul” and rediscover a “lost” talent. Dig out your old vinyl copy of Boat to Bolivia and give it a spin. If you don’t own it go and find it.

Martin is still making music and playing live at various places around the North. Here at The Northern Line we are hoping to catch one of his Christmas gigs at the Cluny in Newcastle. You could do worse than try to join us there.

A big thanks to Ronan Fitzsimons from Ardra press for his generosity and patience. If you have any ideas for who should be next in line for Northern Icons then get in touch. Or better still do your own feature. We are always looking for new writers to help us here at The Northern Line.







By peter on September 10, 2010

Check out all the pics

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