Signs of material success are not hard to spot in the modern pop star. Tattoos, extreme drug usage, high levels of paranoia, feeble albums–we’ve seen it all a thousand times. Neither mountains of cash nor the adulation of millions can make them happy–which is curiously satisfying, if you’re a complete bastard like me. Poor little Robbie Williams sits alone in his vast Hollywood ‘home’, wondering why he has no friends. He has given his all to his career, and his all turns out not to have been that much. Meanwhile, thousands of would-be Rabbles are out there recording their songs and playing live to tiny audiences, hoping that one day his problems will also be theirs. They are probably better off where they are.
Stephen Duffy, leader and possibly now sole member of one of my favourite groups, the Lilac Time, is a case in point. For years Duffy has been releasing albums to no public response whatsoever. Nearly 20 years ago he was briefly a member of Duran Duran. Though he never recorded with them, he is still more famous for this than for anything else. He had a solo hit in the mid-1980s with ‘Kiss Me’, which you’ll have hated at the time and which has not yet improved with age. In the late 1980s he formed the Lilac Time to play a sort of acoustic indie folk-rock, years before such stuff became remotely fashionable.
I have written here before of the group’s second album, Paradise Circus, which I think is one of the great lost classics of British pop. Occasionally I meet someone who has snaffled it up in a secondhand record shop and their eyes glitter with the zeal of the converted. The Lilac Time recorded four albums between 1988 and 1992; none of them sold at all. Duffy reverted to a solo career, recorded a crazed prog-rock album with Nigel Kennedy, tried lumpen indie rock, co-wrote some material for Canadian wags the Barenaked Ladies (who, needless to say, are neither barenaked nor ladies), made a couple more Lilac Time albums and even worked with Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes (the one who used to wear the make-up) on an electropop album under the name The Devils. None of this had the slightest impact.
I have to admit, I was beginning to worry for the man. The last Lilac Time album, lilac6, was very thin, and The Devils didn’t amount to much. How long could he keep going? Duffy has a dedicated if tiny fan-base, and did make some cash from the Barenaked Ladies collaborations, but he is more likely to be struck by lightning than hear one of his songs played on Radio One. Or Radio Two for that matter, which is an especial shame, as they would sound very much at home there now.
The new album, though, is wonderful. Keep Going (Folk Modern) is credited to ‘Stephen Duffy & The Lilac Time’, which at least means it will be put under D and L in the few record shops that will deign to stock it. God knows what else Duffy can do, for this is one of his strongest sets yet. As well as memorable tunes and the usual biting lyrics, these mainly acoustic songs also benefit from lashings of pedal and lap steel guitar (by Melvin Duffy, no relation) and gloopy vocal harmonies that make you feel glad to be alive. Of acoustically inclined singer-songwriters there is no current shortage, but none of the Tom McRaes or Ed Harcourts can hold a candle, even a very small one, to Duffy. He is a genuine talent who over the years has produced a considerable body of work.
Would this be the case if, by some miraculous public whim, he had been successful? The Lilac Time was formed in the first place to cock a snook at the record industry, which Duffy felt had ill-served him. It’s the music he wanted to make, and whether people liked it was almost immaterial. (Almost, but not quite.) I can’t help feeling that, if one or other of his albums had sold five million copies, he wouldn’t still be making music as fresh and simple and glorious as Keep Going. After all, not many other people are. (The other Lilac Time album worth having and still available is Looking For A Day In The Night [Cooking Vinyl, 1999]. According to Duffy’s website, Paradise Circus may be rereleased on CD sometime soon. I hope so. My copy is almost worn out.)