House music: Which MPs are rock 'n' roll?

Written by Anoosh Chakelian on 5 March 2014 in Interview
Middle-aged men in suits may not seem like the most obvious rock gods, but there are more musical members of parliament than you might think, as Anoosh Chakelian discovers

Westminster Hall. The oldest of parliament’s buildings. Tranquil. Ghostly. Oak and stone. But for one day only, its mighty hammer-beam roof – left for 900 years to peer disdainfully down at Westminster’s ephemeral inhabitants – is shaking. Dust is spilling in clouds from the beams and lurid shafts of flashing light illuminate its 11th-century walls. No, it’s not a bomb. It’s a rock band. The only rock band ever to play in Westminster Hall.

Safe to say, English Heritage appears to have ensured it hasn’t happened since.

David Morris, lead guitarist and Conservative MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, who was playing with parliamentary band MP4, describes this seminal gig:

“We were the only rock band ever to play Westminster Hall. Ever. And believe me, that was a buzz. I’ve played in the Hammersmith Odeon, I’ve done all of that, but Westminster Hall, you can’t beat that. I’m telling you, that is the biggest of rush of them all, it really is.

“And it’s probably never going to happen again either, because it shook so much stuff off the roof that I think the Heritage people got upset. There was a Spinal Tap moment – I was doing my usual pose from the 1980s, and I thought ‘what the hell is that?’ It was something that fell from the rafters. And I thought ‘Christ, I’ve killed a bird!’ I really thought that, because it looked like a bird falling. It turned out to be a shuttlecock from Henry VIII’s day. The Heritage people had to come in and clear it out quick. I found that out later.”

So don’t let the Palace of Westminster fool you with its worn leather benches, statues of men and women long dead, and paintings of yesteryear. It’s not just a fusty institution where daring mice are its most active residents. No. It’s also home to a handful of former, aspiring, failed, amateur and, occasionally, genuine, rock stars. There’s also jazz musicians, guitarists – even a DJ and a soul singer. I would call it the Ministry of Sound, but that name’s already taken. Nevertheless, let’s meet some of this ministry’s most prominent officials…

Morris is well-known in parliament for having played in Rick “Never Gonna Give You Up” Astley’s band, particularly his mimed take on the keyboards on an episode of Top of the Pops in September 1988. The video is a piece of history. Pale bars of neon lights flick on and off while the skittish bassline introduces a groomed Astley in blazer and tie clenching his fist and singing soulfully into the camera. The shot then sweeps momentarily further to his left, where we see our MP-to-be, hair gloriously coiffed, jangling out some chords on a two-tier keyboard.

What is it like, being a Tory backbencher, looking back at the days when he performed on Top of the Pops?

“I was on keyboard – I didn’t play keyboards, I might add, I’m a guitar player. But it’s like everything else; they just wanted bodies jumping around at the back for a pre-recording. It was alright. It was just a television studio. It’s no more sexy than doing an interview now for Newsnight,” he reflects. “It’s the idea, isn’t it? Don’t forget – when you’re the artist, you’re looking at the camera, and the camera’s looking at you. But yeah, it was good. I really enjoyed my time doing it [being in the band], I can’t say I didn’t.”

But this wasn’t the only flash of Morris’s rock ‘n’ roll past. He almost became a member of a few big names, including hairprayed new wavers Duran Duran. Morris still has the promo photos taken when he was about to join, but sadly he lost out last minute on the position.

“When I was in my teens… I was auditioning for rock bands and sending off demo tapes. And some of the bands that I was invited to audition with and help out became big bands in themselves.

“My main claim to fame was when I was 18 or thereabouts and I was shortlisted for Whitesnake – Bernie Marsden, who is still a good mate of mine to this day, left Whitesnake; he wrote all the hits – and they were waiting for someone to replace him. They couldn’t really do anything with me because they were on about breaking America at the time, which they did do, but they couldn’t take me on tour because I was too young – you had to be 21 to play in the States…

“I ended up doing session work and then I got shortlisted for Duran Duran – in 1986, when Andy Taylor left. There was a lot of politics going on. In the end, they ended up working with this American session musician, which upset me. I’d had the photographs done for the back of the record and all the rest of it! I’ve still got them, after all that.”

So where does Astley come into it?

“I’d more or less given up on music, then out of the blue, my good old mate Rick Astley, who was in a band, hit the big time as a singer… he was a drummer [before] then. We used to practise in his dad’s garden centre. Rick did it. I then started writing songs for him.”

Morris went on to write songs for pop production mogul Pete Waterman’s company, and although he is discreet about which artists he wrote for, he does emphasise that, “I wrote some mega, mega, mega number ones. But I can’t say, because I got paid for it handsomely and now they’re all suing each other, I just wouldn’t want to go there. I had a big string of hits for about six months and then burned out, which is what you do in that game.”

He wrote for “all types”, including “some stuff I did for Kylie Minogue” that was never recorded. Intriguing. He’s also played guitar on famous records.

Even now, decades on, from the precincts of his parliamentary office or on the radio in his car, he says he can smell what sells. “There’s one thing I can honestly say,” he begins. “And I’ve never got it wrong. If I listen to a song on the radio, I know whether it’s going to be number one or not. I’ve got that ability.” Commercial music’s answer to being pitch-perfect: pop-perfect.

Morris is not singing a lonely ballad in his rock star status. There are plenty of other politician-musicians. Alan Johnson MP, giant of the New Labour years – former home secretary, among many other cabinet positions – made his first career move playing in rock bands at an age “too young to drink in the pubs we were playing in, that’s for sure.”

He describes his first steps into gigging: “First of all with The Area, which is a band I formed with a couple of mates – we advertised in Melody Maker for the bass guitarist and other guitarist that we needed. We did alright. We enjoyed ourselves, shared some rehearsal space with The Small Faces, which is about as close as we got to stardom…”

But Johnson, like Morris, suffered some disappointments as a fledgling musician.

“Their manager was interested in us, but then we had all our gear nicked, except I’d taken my guitar home that night. My guitar was a lovely Hofner, very thin, circa 1962,” he adds, dreamily. “This was in ’66, ’67, something like that. So I’d lost the amplifier that I was paying on higher purchase for two years; it wasn’t insured, so I had to keep paying for that.”

It didn’t take him long to find another band: “The In-Betweens came along, who were an interesting band, semi-professional with a manager, and had all their gear, so I just plugged my guitar into their system. They were multiracial, which was really unusual for 1966/67. The lead singer was a fabulous woman called Carmen who was half-Indian, half-German. The drummer was Indian, bass guitarist was a West Indian – he was actually a postman. He’s the guy who convinced me to join the Post Office.

“We were doing really well and played lots of places around London and in the suburbs. There was real interest from a record company and they were even going to make a film about us. But then, we had our gear nicked again. A crimewave followed me around. And that was my guitar nicked now, and that was it. I couldn’t afford to start again.”

The victim of repeat thefts, perhaps it’s no surprise that Johnson would want to get tough on crime and its causes later in his career?

“I think there’s still time for me,” he laughs. Can he reconcile his rock credentials with being a high-profile establishment figure? “Well, I don’t think rock ‘n’ rollers as they grew older could be expected not to be thought of establishment. Most of them went and bought their stately homes and were part of a new kind of establishment…

“You can’t judge a person’s musical tastes by what they do, which you did roughly used to be able to do… where they were in life, how prosperous they were would determine what their music tastes were almost. Well that’s all gone now. So it’s not very hard to be a member of parliament and a minister and be fanatical about music.”

And has his musical past influenced the way he does politics? “I think the thing is showing off,” he replies bluntly. “There’s an amazing buzz from being on the stage and being centre of attention. Now, in a way, this is a thin line to draw, but when I became a union representative, you’d go on a rostrum and you were speaking to 2000 delegates with a spotlight on you – in a way that’s a kind of performance – and then into politics at the despatch box and all of that. So that element of it – there’s a bit of showbiz to being in politics and that feeds people’s egos.” Wryly, he adds: “MPs, this may be a surprise to you, are not without ego.”

While Morris is using his popstar past to inform his work in parliament – befriending Queen’s Brian May and helping him with his badgering about badgers, working with Tory MP Mike Weatherly on music industry-related changes to legislation, intellectual property and artists’ rights, how the internet can be better policed, and constantly meeting famous artists (David Hasselhof was a favourite) – other parliamentarians also find parallels between performing music and life as an MP.

Pete Wishart, SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire, played keyboard with Celtic rockers Runrig from 1987-2001. He appeared on Top of the Pops five times, and had a string of top 40 hits. Now, he plays in parliamentary rock band MP4.

He muses: “They’re so different. I always say that I will never, ever get an encore in that place [the Commons]. There’s a lot in common too: it’s about rehearsing, and a performance… the transition was relatively straightforward. I always consider when I’m speaking in the House that it’s a bit like a performance. That’s the ethos you take from music.

“They always say politics is show-business for ugly people, and there’s a lot in that. But you’ll never get quite the applause in politics that you get in the music business…”

Yet Wishart does feel the same buzz he did back in his music days: “When you walk off having done a good speech, it’s like coming off stage after a good gig – there’s that real sense of satisfaction. It’s the feeling that you did something pretty special…

“I’m surprised there aren’t more entertainers, musicians, performers and artists in the House of Commons, because there is quite a transferrable skill there.”

John Hemming, Lib Dem MP for Birmingham, Yardley – a jazz pianist who plays in a group called John Hemming and the Sisters of Jazz as well as being the pianist for the infamous Glee Club at Lib Dem Party Conference (songs include one with the lyrics “Tony Blair can fuck off and die” and a classic anthem about land tax) – tells me he mixes jazz with politics:

“Often I turn up at [political] events and say to people ‘do you want me to play the piano or do a speech?’ and they say ‘play the piano’. I’ve done it at various constituency events: played music rather than anything else. People are happy with that. They get enough speeches. I even sang at one old people’s home.

“I was singing in a bar once, and somebody said, ‘he’s standing like a politician!’ I was standing a bit upright. So perhaps my politics informs my singing.”

Occasionally, when parliament would sit late on Tuesday nights, he would rehearse with Tory MP Jesse Norman and Labour peer Maurice Glasman, with whom he often performs at the annual Macmillan Cancer Support parliamentary variety show. Norman and Lord Glasman play the trumpet. This is what a three-party coalition sounds like. Bluesy.

But some of our rocker representatives are keen to keep their music and political careers separate. Home office minister and lead singer of rock group The Reform Club Norman Baker prefers his worlds not to merge. He released his first album, Always Tomorrow, last year – the single Piccadilly Circus is a strum-along, Kinksy number with a music video predominantly following the minister’s chin around Eros.

“They’re two different bits of my life. Music’s what I do when I switch off politics, I don’t particularly want to do the two things together. I want to keep the two things separate.

“You can be interested in more than one thing, can’t you? Those are two big interests of mine [politics and music]. Music’s very important to me. Music’s more important to me than politics, in some ways,” he reveals.

Baker notes a “certain link” between the two “in a sense that you’ve got to be prepared to stand up and be counted”, but highlights the contrast of performing on stage, and speaking as a politician:

“I think there are some interesting differences. When you’re in politics, a lot of it is sometimes about finding the common position in the middle, smudging things a bit, whereas on stage, you either cut it or you don’t.

“You either go down well or you get booed off stage – and I’ve had both. You get both extremes, whereas politics is much more grey in the middle.”

Parliament even has an MP who was a pirate DJ. Sir Roger Gale, who started out playing pop music on the boat-based station Radio Caroline and later went on to the BBC – first at Radio 1’s Newsbeat, where he chose the music as well as did reporting – reveals how his pop past led to politics. He had to move away from music:

“I went away and became a freelance reporter with Radio London… [But] I boxed myself in and out in one go because in current affairs radio, you can’t be active in politics, can you?” he laughs. “So I was in the right field, but in a job that didn’t allow me to stand to for parliament.”

He made it to the green benches eventually, but is still transported back to his DJ days when he hears songs by Gerry and the Pacemakers, Tina Turner’s music and, peculiarly, Downtown by Petula Clark.

Given this hidden plethora of rock stars, pop fans and songwriters in parliament’s midst, one would assume the House of Commons chamber would be more harmonious. Or melodious, at least. Not at all. David Morris’s last remark before we finish speaking perhaps best sums this up:

“I’m a former rock star, I can be a prima donna can’t I?”

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