For a lucky coincidence, in a period of Summer 2000 in which some of us of the Italian Alan Parsons Fan Club met, in a near place happened a concert of The Flying Pickets. As soon as we knew it, we found two reasons more than valuable for being there: to attend a concert of the number one in Europe a cappella vocal group, and to interview Gary Howard, which, in addition to being the currently most "old and wise" Pickets member, collaborated with Alan Parsons in various occasions that range from the album Freudiana to the live activity.
On Freudiana, in fact, Gary Howard sang both with the Flying Pickets (in Funny You Should Say That and Far Away From Home) and as soloist (in No One Can Love You Better Than Me, as the"universal father"). Live, he collaborated again with Alan both as Pickets member - in the very first AP shows at the Night Of The Proms '90 in Antwerp in Belgium - and as soloist, in the first AP tour, the european one of 1994, from which has been taken the CD (The Very Best Of) Live. Gary is then in the position of having done collaborations with Alan in different phases, including that of the Project's breaking up.
The Pickets' concert that we attended has been extraordinary: exceptional the vocal virtuosity of the five members, very high the standard of the arrangements, incredible the audience's involvement, and remarkable the repertoire choice, that, together with original excerpts, featured very good remakes of immortal pop songs (see the reportage published further).
But let's come to the interview. Gary has been very kind, social and sincere. At our request to sign Funny You Should Say That and Far Away From Home, he has began to think saying "The father... where is that of the father?", with obvious reference to No One Can Love You Better Than Me. Equally kind with us has been the English manager of the Pickets when we requested the interview: as soon as we pronounced the name "Alan Parsons" he lit up. Not as the italian crew, that obviously never heard Alan's name, but lit up as soon as they saw how much beautiful picture has our subscription card.
Gary Howard signs the Freudiana vinyl for Giorgio Rizzarelli (interview's author)
PIPELINE: First of all, much compliments for your wonderful show. You know very well how to involve the audience.
GARY HOWARD: Yeah, it's what we like to do.
P: You, The Flying Pickets, have been the first group of your kind in Europe, and inspired dozens, if not hundreds, of similar groups. At your beginnings, was it difficult to gain success as an a cappella group?
GH: I think it's as you said, because it's quite a small area, and there's hundreds of rock groups, you know, hundreds of boy bands and girls bands. But I think if you do a good job in a cappella you gain success. It was interesting that we chose to deal with a cappella in a more contemporary way, rather than joining in an old fashion genre like barbershop, doo-wop or jazz. In all we did, something sounds different.
P: Yes, in fact I see you choose songs much different one respect to each other. How do you choose the songs to include in the shows?
GH: Oh, with great difficulty. When we were choosing, we were also actually writing new material, and that was particularly exciting. I think you have more commitment when you write.
P: When you are doing a cover, how do you choose how much to be faithful to the original and how much to introduce new elements?
GH: That really depends on how it sounds like, because you can potentially make an a cappella song from anything. But I think with us there has to be a strong melody to begin with, a song that is very singable. With a lot of commercial, contemporary music, each element doesn't have to be fantastic in the way you put all together, and the singing doesn't have to be great. With us it helps to start with something singable and good communication.
P: Who does the arrangements?
GH: For instance the arrangement in which I did the jazzman, that we perform toward the end of the show, I did that, and it was quite an experience. Also Chris Brooker, our musical director, does the arrangements.
P: Do you put the arrangements together also live, also for fun? Or do you write them on the paper?
GH: No, we don't write on paper: with five people you have to just do the preparation. For instance, Chris and I do a few workshops with a cappella, so we use to just make up the material on the spot, 'cause you have to sort of do it, you know, you have to improvise, you have to sort of direct it.
During the interview.
P: OK, let's pass to a great director of music: Alan Parsons. First, you have done a tour with the Alan Parsons band. Which was the song that you liked more to sing?
GH: Well, I like the Colin Blunstone ones.
GH: Old And Wise...
P: Eh, it's beautiful Old And Wise! Would you like to sing for the Italian Fan Club of Alan Parsons a little piece of Old And Wise?
GH: Oh I can't (touching his throat) absolutely I can't (laughing) no, I'm afraid... unfortunately... (editors: it should be noted that, after a vocal concert, a professional must relax the voice).
P: Because it's a difficult song?
GH: Yeah, it's a really sensitive song. I've been singing for two hours tonight, and my voice is a little bit... (does a pair of comic choked sounds) (laughing)
P: I understand, it's a very high song. Were there other songs particularly difficult to sing?
GH: It was only difficult because I was doing all the Pickets work at the time and didn't get the full rehearsal time. And so of course I worked with tapes, and did a lot of work on them, but I was still a little bit nervous about getting it right.
P: But you did a good job, it was very faithful.
GH: Well, yeah. We did great concerts. Did you see our shows in Germany?
P: We have seen one in video.
Gary in the 1994 tour with Alan Parsons Band.
P: You have been featured as vocalist on Funny You Should Say That. Since it's a very funny, strange song, do you have any amusing story about that?
GH: The funniest thing for me was Alex Lewis: (sings) "Well it's funny you should say that, it's the most peculiar thing, yes it's funny you should say that" (laughing) I mean he's usually an incredibly eccentric guy. He's not in the group anymore. He has worked with Guy Chambers, an Award winning musical director. But just thinking about Alex just makes me laugh. Because he had the ability to confuse the most intelligent and coherent person, he had the ability to confuse people beyond belief. He can turn a normal situation into completely confusion in about a minute, because he always gets the wrong impression. And we were just watching.
P: And you, which part did you do in Funny You Should Say That?
GH: (sings) "Well it's funny you should that, I was looking for a man, yes it's funny you should say that". I can remember the actual part because the musical was in preparation, so we just went in the studio with Alan and he said, you know, (laughs) "Do a funny character!". Very funny. It was very odd to do characters, and as you see on stage we don't do characters. I mean, it's lucky that all of us had experience acting, so for we it wasn't a hard thing to do.
P: So you were comfortable in doing it?
GH: Absolutely, it was fun, it was a piece of fun, really.
P: And who directed the recording, Alan or Eric?
GH: They were working together, really. And I think probably was more Alan directing, I think, Eric is, you know, he's more... sort of... more difficult, you know, sometimes difficult to communicate with...
P: Yes, I understand, he's a bit on his own...
GH: ... whereas Alan is a very sort of easy going guy.
P: Also if he is a perfectionist?
GH: Oh, absolutely he is, but, you know, you don't get pressure from him. Yeah, as you say he's very affable. We always regarded him as a certain character of a TV series... There's a TV comedy series in England called Dad's Army, in which there was a guy called "John Le Measurer". He played the sergeant to a captain in the homeguard (editors: the captain was severe and ordered the sergeant to send the soldiers ahead, whereas the sergeant was a much moral guy so he din't forward the order willingly) and the sergeant used to say to the soldiers: "Would you mind, awfully, sort of, falling in?". And that's how we always saw Alan, 'cause Alan's like that 'cause Alan speaks very well. He's sort of a very gentle: "Would you mind, awfully, would you like that..." (laughing). He was never saying: "Get the f**k over there, do that!". He used to say: "Would you mind just awfully...".
P: Yes, he's a gentleman.
P: How much time did you get to record Funny You Should Say That?
GH: I think we just did that within two days.
P: OK. Now there is a hot question.
GH: Hot question!
P: Yes, you know that the splitting of The Alan Parsons Project, that is between Eric Woolfson and Alan Parsons, happened with Freudiana.
GH: Yes, I know that they have split apart.
P: Did you notice anything strange between Eric and Alan while working on Freudiana?
GH: I believe we were working with Eric and Alan maybe still, and we did the Proms in Antwerp with Alan, and Alan had his band there (editors: The Night Of The Proms 1990, three nights in Antwerp, Belgium, the first ever concerts of the band. Although Eric didn't perform, it was the only time they performed live with the name "The Alan Parsons Project"). I never worked there before, but the Pickets were there, and we just did singing with them. You know, he's got together for fun. And Eric was there but...
P: Eric was there?!?
He was there! But I mean, in some kind of backstage area. And
he was just looking very tense, you know. I remember saying him:
"Cheer up!"... 'cause I didn't really... you know,
I didn't really... it's not my businness anyway but...
During the interview.
P: But why didn't he sing at the Proms?
GH: Oh, there were some great singers there. There was Gary Brooker! He was fantastic
P: Why didn't Eric play, so? He's a great piano performer. And he's the writer of the songs
GH: I think sometimes with a lot of musicians who are used to be upfront, you know, in the show...
P: Is he a bit shy?
GH: I think he is a little bit shy. And if there's lot of standard performers and vocals, I don't know, maybe one thinks: "I will make a fool of myself". You know, professionals like me and Gary Brooker don't care, it's what we do: if someone gets wrong, OK, whilst...
P: But... did you see any strange atmosphere between Eric and Alan?
GH: No. I mean obviously when you're working together on tracks, you know, there's sometimes a disagreement over a point, and maybe Alan would say "oh, we should do this" and Eric would say "I think we should do that". I think when we were doing No one can love you better than me there was something... to me that just seemed like a normal thing in the studio. You know, it's not all wine and roses. Sometimes it's just poorly disagreements, so maybe one partie would say, you know, "I really don't want it there". And you just have to fight your corner, just like in any other business negotiation: you want something and you try to get it. But, you know, in music it can end up in many different ways, and sometimes you do something and you don't like it in the first place, you're gonna like it in the end. So for instance one of them would say "I really want a harmony or a lead vocal there"... it's just the way of recording.
P: OK, the most amusing thing about Alan?
(Gary begins to think)
P: We know that he drinks a lot of beer...
GH: This really impressed me! When we first started working on these tracks, at the end of every day we were going to have an absolute slap-up dinner, and drinked lots of beer and more (laughing) and, you know, for a musician this is... this is heaven, really!
P: And he also eats a lot, I suppose...
GH: This is a big man, you know... (laughing). He is 6 feet. And so, when we were in Germany, my girlfriend was there, she's German, and very small, so when you saw them together, you know, her 5'2" against his 6'4"...
P: Yes, we know, to do the autograph it's a tragedy because he's up there.
GH: But this, you know... Alan is such a big man, but is sort of a gentleman, in a very British sense.
P: OK, and about Eric? The most amusing thing?
GH: Another big man! (laughing)
P: Yeah, also he's very tall! OK, OK, the last question. Any future projects to work with Alan Parsons, as you or as member of The Flying Pickets?
GH: There's nothing in the pipeline now, but I plan to contact him to play some things. In fact I've been working with a songwriter called Pete Sinfield (editors: a famous lyricist who has written many lyrics for King Crimson, ELP and Gary Brooker - was also lead vocal on a PFM album), and he has some songs which may be interesting, sort of very much in Alan's mode, and so I plan to contact him to play that music and to see if he likes it.
P: Then, best wishes! And we hope to see you again in Italy!
Yeah, I'll surely come back in Italy! I hope to meet you guys
again at our next italian shows!
THE FLYING PICKETS:
A CAPPELLA VOCAL ROCK CONCERT
Our reportage of the Pergine gig. And the dates of the next italian concerts.
with the collaboration of Lorenzo Zencher and Viviana Modena
Stratospheric, unimaginable, inimitable, an incredible vitality, it was difficult to stay on the chair. On July 24, 2000, at Pergine, in Trentino (Italy), we attended an unforgettable show. On the stage there were five singers, helped only by some little percussion, nevertheless they vibed the air with a real rock sound, full of harmony and rhythm, presenting us with one of the most electrifying concerts which we ever attended.
The Pickets showed a very high professionalism, adding a remarkable audience involvement. There has been a moment in which, in a dozen of seconds, the group has arranged in order that only the audience sang: in those moment the Pickets didn't make absolutely anything, while the audience sang, clapped hands and jumped. Also, between one encore and another, the audience began to sing one of the repertoire's excerpts, and the Pickets came out and continued to sing that excerpt. Things never seen elsewhere. So, much involving. Even for the cold Trentino's audience.
Not a bit of tension, so, and yet a great vocal perfection: not even a single false note, from beginning to end (and it isnt' easy, since they do all with the voices). This at least seemed to us, because one of them, after the concert, told us that a pair of imperfections had happened. A proof of their meticulosity and professionalism.
The band members in this show (they often change line-up) were Gary Howard, Hereward Kaye, Henrik Wager, Paul Kissaun and Chris Brooker. As we said, they accompanied themself with only few percussions: a tambourine, a sort of hi-hats "for hand", a maracas, and some fingersnap. In some excerpts a member performed the vocal drums, while Brooker did almost always the bass part, so the rhythm section was assured. Complex and beautiful vocal arrangements with a perfect synchronicity, and the lead vocal variable in the "Alan Parsons Project's way" due to the kind of song, completed the picture, to give a real rock sound that rightly classifies the Pickets as vocal rock-pop group. But didn't lack moments of soul and jazz. In a song, Gary Howard exhibited himself in improvisations with trumpet: vocal trumpet, naturally, but we can assure, it was indistinguishable from a real trumpet!
Other group's trademark is the very accurate choice of the repertoire, that ranged from original songs to the best of the '70s, '80s and '90s. Among the most known covers, Michael Jackson's Billie Jean, Cindy Lauper's Time After Time, and Bee Gees' Staying Alive, in which Brooker left the role of bass for that of falsetto, and came on stage in John Travolta's fashion, and in fact there have been various moments in which the Pickets have shown their dance talents. Among the uncountable encores, their first single Only You, as well as their famous cover of Sting's Englishman In New York, that the Pickets recently performed in the italian TV.
The Flying Pickets during a recent show (photo taken from the official website)
All from London, the Flying Pickets formed in '82. As first in Europe they imported from USA the tradition of the vocal singing a cappella, i. e. without instruments. In '83 their first single, Only You, took them to the European success. From that moment they never stopped to tour Europe, and dozens of groups took inspiration from their style, of which the Pickets continue to be the unquestionable European masters. They also did various albums, including the recent Vox Pop (1998), published by CNR, while a new studio album will come out in 2001.
The typical Picket is, or has been, involved in some way in a West End musical, and is also a session musician. The Flying Pickets often change their line-up, in fact in the current one there's no founder member. Since the '80s, they evolved from a kind of show with cabaret influences (more suitable for an English language audience) , to a standard of even higher professionality, making use of the experience, but still maintaining the style and sympathy. For their frequent line-up changes, more than a group, the Flying Pickets can be considered as a school. And in fact they are currently offering stages in singing and vocal arrangement for a cappella and pop music.
On this website you find, among other things, detailed information about the scheduled concerts. For further information, feel free to write us.