Mike Rimmer goes to Leicester to witness the brief but welcome return of FAT AND FRANTIC
When Fat And Frantic burst onto the scene in 1987 with their anarchic, part pop, part skiffle, part acappella sound they attracted immediate attention. The Edinburgh Festival Times summed up their surreal allure as "the Housemartins on speed." Their achievements included selling out London's Town & Country Club (2000 punters) as well as playing over 300 venues. They appeared on Radio One's Roadshow, BBC TV's Going Live!, ITV's The Hit Man And Her and even had a small but perfectly formed hit single with the immortal "Last Night My Wife Hoovered My Head". In 1994 they called it a day with an acappella spirituals album through Kingsway. But then to everyone's amazement the group - Craig McLeish (bass, vocals), Simon Saunder (drums, vocals), Jim Harris (trumpet, vocals), Simon "Fat Jon" Soper (guitar, vocals), Silas Crawley (washboard, vocals) and Nigel Hemming (keyboards, vocals) - a couple of months back they stepped out of retirement, at least for a short four gig tour and an EP release.
I have to admit that I greeted the news of these zany iconoclasts moving, however fleetingly, back into the spotlight with a certain trepidation. How would these masters of youthful japes perform now they were heading for middle age? I shouldn't have worried! I arrive as the band and crew are setting up the stage for the first gig of a very short comeback tour. FAF have chosen the Y in Leicester for this historic moment. As I watch, Jim Harris is testing out whether he can climb from stage up to the balcony. He can. Later he will deliver the opening to "The Dirtville Werewolf" from up there.
While things are being set up for the sound check, Silas Crawley and Fat Jon sit with me in the venue's café to talk about the reunion. Silas comments, "It's really lovely. But it wasn't expected at all. It came out of the blue." Fat Jon elaborates, "It was probably Silas's daughter who was responsible because she turned 18, and she requested, quite forcefully I think, that FAF play a few songs at her 18th birthday party. So we did get back together again, and we rehearsed five songs I think, and we were surprised that they sounded as good as they did. In fact we were quite amazed I think probably." Silas interrupts, "I don't think we remembered the words, because I got the words wrong to Brian, and that's quite an achievement!"
From that one gig there was renewed interest in the band but individual schedules were going to make a reformation difficult, very difficult indeed. Silas explains, "We actually had a weekend where all the guys came down to my home in Bristol, and we hung out together and spent a day basically going through a set list of ones we'd probably like to play IF we decided to play. So it was kind of like, that weekend was testing it out, do we want to do this? We had a lot of fun and said let's do it." He laughs, "Then we got our diaries out and managed to find four days and a little bit of rehearsal time, and that's why we're here."
Since their formation in the 1987 there are plenty of people who became fans of the band and will be miffed as they read this to discover the band reformed and flash, they're gone again. For newcomers, I invited the pair to talk me through a bit of FAF history. Fat Jon explains, "Way back in 1985 Silas and I were a little duo, which was kind of half comedy, half an attempt at music. Then we got together with Jim and another bloke called John who was the bass player at the time, and we started playing a few gigs - I think our first gig was probably Greenbelt fringe, and we rented a crowd and brought them along and created a bit of momentum. Then Craig took over from John as the bass player and sometime later Nige and Simon came along as well. So we ended up being a six piece in our last year, I guess, and that was a really good sound, before we finished in 1992. But right back at the beginning I guess, it was a four piece in particular. Their first release when they were a duo was 'Big Hats And Small Heads' before they made a name for themselves as a band with head spinning albums like 'Waxing A Hottie' and 'Aggressive Sunbathing'.
The crowd at the Y begin to fill up the small venue and after The Austin Francis Connection play their support slot, FAF hit the stage to an enthusiastic reception and a video introduction from none other than Milton Jones who is an old friend of the band. The live set draws on material from across all of their albums including a fair bit of early stuff. The crowd are a good mix of ages from fans in their 40s all the way down to their young children. At one point during a song Silas performs a complicated mime to explain why he's not leaping about!
One thing that strikes me as FAF strut their stuff is the way in which the band always balance different elements. They have serious straight songs and crazy manic songs and seem to be able to flip between the two without too many problems and the fans seem to be able to go there with them as well. Does it just come out of the band's personality? Silas responds, "I think it does because predominately there were four of us that wrote the songs, and we all have different styles. So some of them reflect a bit of social comment and then there are songs that reflect our Christian faith, and then there are some that reflect slightly unusual reflections on things in society."
Fat Jon says, "There is a sense of, in a gig, sometimes there's a lurch when you go from a song like 'Trainspotters' into 'Africa' but for some strange reason it seems to work, and maybe it's because it just all comes from us. It's all stuff that we've written - it comes out of our personalities and what's important to us. So there'll be stuff about faith, there'll be stuff about justice, there'll be stuff about phone-boxes and there'll be things which don't make a lot of sense at all."
There was a moment in time where it looked like FAF might become pop stars with "Last Night My Wife Hoovered My Head"! "Yes, that was a possibility," agrees Fat Jon. "I think it was Radio One's Record Of The Week, that sort of thing, and lots of people were singing it. It got into the indie charts, probably, but didn't break into the Top 40, so pop stardom eluded us at that moment. Actually though there were quite a lot of appearances on telly, I seem to remember."
They were popular on Children's TV. Silas remembers, "In 1990 we did Going Live with Phillip Schofield and Sarah Green, and Trevor And Simon were the comedians. That was brilliant fun and then we went on tour with Trevor And Simon later that summer. So there was a time when people were talking about us, but it never converted into a record deal. We sat down once or twice with people from record companies but they wanted to have a sound, and we had too many sounds or a style, and they wanted to have one lead singer, and for us it was all about different ones of us doing stuff, and we didn't really want to compromise."
Fat Jon theorises, "Well, we really enjoyed what we were doing and I think if we tried something more commercial, we wouldn't have been who we were. So we sacrificed the millions in order to be ourselves." Or maybe Silas is closer to the truth when he interjects, "The other way of looking at it, Mike, is that maybe we weren't just good enough, I mean you could have put it like that."
"Last Night My Wife Hoovered My Head" was certainly close to becoming a novelty hit. Silas agrees, "Yeah, and I think that was one of the problems. You see, that put us straight away in the novelty bracket. I remember there were some guys around at the time who put out a song that was something to do with 'John Ketley is the Weatherman', but it immediately puts you into a certain bracket, because our next single we released was basically a pop song, it was a love song, "I Don't Want To Say Goodbye", so people were going - "well hang-on, who are you?' And then we released 'Brian', which was probably even more confusing."
"Brian" is a raucous FAF classic and later they will close their set to it with the show culminating with the crowd shouting out "We want big fat Brian." This might seem unlikely to you if you've never heard FAF's music but I'm not making this stuff up. Back in the day, "Brian" became a song for Brian Clough! It came to prominence in the 1991 FA Cup final when Nottingham Forest lost. A Forest win might have changed everything for the band. "So there was a lot of bad luck along the way," laughs Silas.
Fat reflects, "I think Silas is right in that we had an eclectic sort of range of songs, which were confusing for people, when people first listened to us, but at the same time, if they liked one, then they might come and see us. And then, we were in the end also a better live act than we were a recording act, and so we just did a lot of gigs and a lot of people saw us, and that was the way to build up a fan-base back then. It was pre-internet and all that kind of thing."
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