Mal Pope: Jack of all trades

Tuesday 1st December 1998

He's done everything from feature in his own TV series, to playing on worship albums, to touring with Art Garfunkel. Now the national newspapers have picked up on the veteran singer/songwriter called MAL POPE. Mike Rimmer reports.

Mal Pope
Mal Pope

Although many people may be unfamiliar with the music of Maldwyn Pope, the 38 year old Welshman has actually been on the scene for donkeys' years playing with his band The Jacks or doing sessions for a myriad of British recordings. Pope's latest recording 'Reunion Of The Heart' is destined to ensure that a great many more people discover his song writing and performing talents but more than that, his personal history is coloured with the kind of twists and turns that make entertaining and surprising reading!

Let me explain. As a schoolboy Mai would perform his songs to an appreciative youth group he was too young to join! It was the youth group leader who suggested Mai sends his songs to Radio 1's John Peel who had a reputation for championing new artists. In those days Peel's show would start at 10pm and since it was after Mal's bedtime, he wasn't familiar with the DJ's programme. However he was still invited to record a session for the programme. Peel's enthusiasm was contagious and soon the boy Pope was very quickly signing a record deal with Elton John's newly formed Rocket Record Company. (He turned down an offer from another brand new label, Virgin!!) Mai explains, "The reason my parents said yes to Rocket was down to the fact that the managing director, Steve Brown, had been brought up in the Salvation Army and that was good enough for them."

Over a period of six years Mal recorded for Rocket with a variety of producers including Gus Dudgeon and Elton John himself. Recording at weekends or during his school holidays, he has many memories of those' extraordinary times! He recalls, "I went training with Watford FC, beat Elton at Subbuteo football, went to parties were I met Ringo Starr and Bryan Ferry. It was strange because all that would happen and next minute I would be home in Swansea and back at school. Everyone including Elton was aware of my age and couldn't have been more responsible or kind to me. I remember going on a mystery trip one day to see Elton recording "Pinball Wizzard". Peter Townsend, Keith Moon and Ken Russell were all there."

At the time, chart success eluded Mal and he's philosophical about it now. "It wasn't to be. But I could never escape the fact that this was so incredible there had to be a reason for all of these experiences. I'm not sure if I've entirely worked that out yet...but I'm still alive and making music." Thinking about those days, it's hard to get away from a vision of Mal sitting in a studio in his school uniform making records! Comments Mal, "You're not far wrong. Either one of my brothers or dad would accompany me. It was more Sunday best that school uniform. Gus Dudgeon was working with Elton at the time he was producing me. I remember falling asleep in the studio as he mixed the live tracks of Elton and John Lennon live from Madison Square Garden. He also mixed quite a lot of the 'Captain Fantastic' album in the same sessions. When Elton produced me he recorded a charity single in the afternoon which featured him and Eric Morecombe."

Reflecting now, it seems such an extraordinary thing! I wonder whether he could see the hand of God during that period? "He kept me safe and relatively unscathed." Mal continues, "I have an amazing treasure trove of stories and experience and I know so many people. I don't know what affect I've had on other people's lives but all you can do is be as honest as possible. If you are salt then people can taste it without you telling them all the time." After his time with Rocket came to an end Pope continued to make music, initially working with singer Andy Piercy in the early days when After The Fire broke up, but that partnership ended when the album they were recording was dropped by the record label. Pope worked in radio and television, released new material whilst also balancing a variety of music projects including recording the title songs to "Fireman Sam" and "Super Ted". He produced Aled Jones, toured with a variety of Christian artists and for a while had his own late night TV show on HTV. He also helped to set up a studio, The Kings Palace in South Wales and released albums on his own record label.

Mal has managed to pursue a successful career in his native Wales. He was even politically active at the end of 1997 when Wales was debating where to site their new parliament. Mal explains his contribution to the debate, "Cardiff City Hall was too expensive and Ron Davies, the Secretary of State, said it was up for grabs. I love my hometown of Swansea and also I felt very strongly that Cardiff was benefiting at the detriment to the rest of Wales with regards to State funding. The council asked me to make a record and I took the national anthem, spiced it up a bit, and included Dylan Thomas rapping a poem, The Morriston Orpheus Male Voice Choir and the crowd from the National Stadium. It ended up on Radio 4 and Newsnight and outsold the Spice Girls in the Swansea area! Because I am fairly well known in the area I became something of a media spokesman, debating the whys and wherefores on national telly. We lost!...But I believe we have shifted the argument to look into the capital versus the rest of Wales argument."

All of this activity hasn't harmed his profile! "Because I do a lot of radio and TV here in Wales I've become quite well known." He jokes, "I'm world famous in Swansea! But I didn't really have a home music base so together with the band we decided to play at every venue in Wales. Now you have to entertain and can't afford to do all of the songs you might want to do and so over the past two years we have built up a two and a half hour show of epic rock proportions. We call it Stadium Cabaret! We don't just go through the motions, we give blood every night and people seem to appreciate the hard work. In an industry where often a solo artist turns up with a mini disc, when five grown men throw themselves about for two hours playing the best tunes from the last three decades I think it must be quite a change!"

Clearly all of those performances in venues the length and breadth of Wales have contributed to the latest chapter in Mal's extraordinary story. Twenty-five years after Mal got his first record deal; in the autumn of 1998 history is in the process of repeating itself! In a blaze of publicity that many PR gurus would happily drown their grandmothers to achieve, Mal Pope recently found himself in the centre of a surprising media frenzy that began with him providing the musical entertainment at Radio 1 DJ Simon Mayo's 40th birthday bash.

Mal Pope
Mal Pope

Pope explains, "Martyn Joseph got me the gig. He knows Simon pretty well and knew Simon was concerned about getting the right sort of band for his 40th birthday. It was going to be a mixed crowd with Radio 1, Hatrick Productions, family, Greenbelt friends etc. Martyn had seen our rock'n'roll set when we closed the European Summit in Cardiff Bay and he suggested us. We played a couple of tunes and then Martyn and Tom Robinson joined us for The Kinks song 'You Really Got Me' and the Monkees 'I'm A Believer'. At half time Simon said how much people were enjoying us and when he re-introduced us he was more than generous. Paul Gambaccini was there too. He had been a big supporter back in the early 70s and Simon told a couple of stories about that and some of the older Radio 1 staff were there during my John Peel days. At the end of the night Simon said how could people book us. I assumed he meant those at the party. I said use my home number. The next week he started giving out my number on air saying we were the band of the century and then the telephones went berserk."

So what was Mal's response? "I was filming for the arts programme I do for HTV in North Wales. My wife rang me on the mobile to say there were a lot of people ringing from all over the country. I assumed it was radio stations getting back about the single we had released so I said get their numbers and I'll ring them back tomorrow. Then she rang again and said put Radio 1 on. I did and within 10 minutes I heard Simon giving out my home telephone number. And he kept on doing it every 20 minutes or so. He tried to ring me at home but the answer phone was on by then. I managed to call him on the mobile and he asked did I mind?" He laughs, '"Did I mind?' Carry on my boy; you're doing a great job!"

But the Radio 1 coverage was just the beginning of the excitement! Mal explains, "The Daily Star picked up on the story. On the first day they ran a page three story, 'DJ worships the Pope' said the headline. Then next they ran a hotline for readers to judge whether we were the band of the century. That went very well and included calls from a couple of record companies. So I've been having a number of interesting meetings over the past week or so."

The consequence has been the release of a promotional single just for radio stations in order to promote the album. But with all the attention, why not go for a general single release? Mal responds, "The single was going to happen anyway. With Kingsway releasing the album I thought there would be mileage in a single which, although Christian, was not too overt to put some people off. The last single I had released was play listed on Radio 2 so I took the responsibility on myself on my own label. I thought to use it as a promotional tool for the album because I assumed I was only going to interest an album buying public. It was an awareness thing more than anything else."
At the time of writing, a number of independent stations across the country have begun playing it. Mal also comments, "I have just taken on a heavyweight London Plugger for Radios 1 and 2. We were asked to remix the single. Basically I had made a Radio 2 type record not expecting any interest from Radio 1. My guitarist Tim Hamill has been working with George Michael lately and had always been on about being a little more radical. I said now's your chance, so we've done a limited edition remix and original single and we're promoting that at the moment. We have distribution sorted so depending on what happens over the next week or so we might go for a full single release too."

The "Reunion Of The Heart" album was recorded in relaxed circumstances. Mal remembers, "It was a really fun time. I decided not to play the piano but leave that to my keyboard player Nigel. I wanted to get back to just playing guitar and not getting too technical with everything. There's no click or computer and if we started getting a little too techno we stopped and changed songs. The mixing was difficult because it was at the same time as the World Cup so we basically mixed one, watched a game, mixed another etc. The album is a really played affair and I like it for that looseness."

The title track is probably the most famous song he's written and it's been covered by artists as wide as Cliff Richard, Phil And John and The Hollies. Even Mal has recorded it on a previous album so why record it again this time round? "Because I felt I'd never done it properly before," he states simply. "We had performed it on BBC TV's First Light and it felt finished for the first time."

Fellow Welshman Martyn Joseph duets on a cover version of a Malcolm And Alwyn classic as Mal explains, "We've been doing lots of stuff - recording and gigs - with Martyn lately. When his new album came out earlier in the year he came on my TV show and we sang a duet. While we were preparing he started playing 'Fool's Wisdom'. We said we ought to do it some day and a couple of weeks later we did! We just threw up a couple of mikes in the room and had a couple of goes at it. No overdubs, no nothing, just two Welsh boys and their guitars!"

Mal runs through some of the other songs on the album that are significant for him, "I'd describe "For Me" as basically a statement of faith. I don't want to pretend to be anything I'm not and that's maybe the reason for not recording a gospel album before but this says what I believe and puts the picture in people's minds to make their own decision."

He continues talking about new songs, "Sometimes we glibly use phrases without contemplating their real meanings. I wrote "God Is Love" for a summer TV show for BBC 1. I had just interviewed a guy on my radio programme who had everything. He was a helicopter pilot who had rescued Richard Branson, fit, healthy and full of life. He broke his back in a skiing accident and this incident led him to a faith. I thought the statement can seem so glib at times but here was a man who believed it, as did the father of Mary Wilson killed at Enniskillen. At the end the statement becomes a question. God is Love? Ask the man with a broken back would he choose to be as he is..." I finish by asking Mal whether it isn't deeply ironic that at a time when he chooses to record a seriously overt Christian album on a Christian label, that's when all of this breaks out! Does he have any thoughts on what God is doing here? He shares, "There's a song on the album 'Jonah'. Now, there's a guy who didn't go straight to the right place. Ironically he spent some time in Whales too! Probably singing - well, everyone sings in Wales you know. I really felt the time was right to do this record and had a plan about building things up from here. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this happening. Having said that the world still turns and we still have to move one step at a time but I'm smiling a lot."

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.

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