Paul Young: Wherever he lays his hat

Paul Young is playing a gig in Ireland next week. The 1980s hit machine tells Ed Power how he always had mixed feelings about his fame.

Stardom was not something Paul Young chased and he was knocked sideways by it.

“I thought I had my head screwed on,” the 1980s heartthrob says, his once tall-hair now turned salt and pepper (he turned 62 in January). 

“I’d been in bands, had toured a lot. I was prepared for that. The adulation — that wasn’t something I was prepared for.”

Being a chart-topper in the early 1980s was a big deal. Young had vaulted to number one with reworked versions of ‘Love of the Common People’ and ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat’, sang on Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know Its Christmas?’ and appeared at Live Aid in Wembley, going on between Bryan Ferry and U2. He was everywhere.

“I look back with fondness at that stuff,” he says. “It’s so different from what I’m doing now. Some of the stuff I check on YouTube. Live Aid — it was all up in the air as it was happening.”

Young had never wanted to be famous. He’d been chugging along happily with his band, The Q-Tips. They had a decent fanbase and were busy on the road. 

But they couldn’t get a record deal. Instead, Columbia Records offered to sign him as a solo artist. He didn’t exactly bite their hands off.

“I had always been happy in bands,” he says. “I took a solo contract, because I couldn’t get a band contract. And there were a few songs I’d written that some of the Q-Tips weren’t into. 

"We’d kind of reached a stalemate. When the solo gig came up, I thought I would take a chance.”

‘Wherever I Lay My Hat’ had been a smash in 1962 for Marvin Gaye (credited as co-writer with Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield). Young gave it a blue-eyed soul makeover and promptly vaulted to number one. 

He repeated the feat with ‘Love of the Common People’, originally penned in the 1960s by Nashville hitmakers, John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins (they were also responsible for Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son of A Preacher Man’).

This was all happening at the high-point of the New Romantic scene. In an era dominated by Adam Ant and Duran Duran, a softly-spoken soul singer was the last thing anyone saw coming.

Young was certainly caught unawares by what followed.

“I had been happy with what I was doing,” he says. “But you never know how it’s going to go — that’s beyond your control, really. 

"It was a bigger surprise to the record company. As soon as I had the first hit, they said, ‘right let’s go and finish the album…with a bit of luck it might go silver.’ That was as high as their expectations were.”

Young was born in Luton in 1956 (“the year of the birth of rock ’n’ roll”). 

His father worked at the local Vauxhall car factory; his mum was a housewife. He spent his teenage years playing football and passing in and out of bands. 

He wasn’t a natural showman, yet had an understated charisma and a soulful voice that left an impression, even when playing rowdy pubs and clubs around Bedfordshire.

Pic: Keystone/Getty Images

He was young and somewhat naive. Still, he wasn’t the sort to be pushed around and, from the outset, his relationship with his record label was one of mutual understanding. 

It helped that he was flogging records by the bin-load. Their attitude was to let him do what he wanted.

“Because the first album [1983’s No Parlez] was so successful, they stopped telling me what to do. I pretty much had free rein.”

The hits kept coming, initially at least. His biggest was a 1984 cover of Hall and Oates’s ‘Every Time You Go Away’. 

But trends changed and, in 1993, he was dropped by his record label. In the years since, Young has divided his time between solo records (including a 2016 hook-up with disco producer, Arthur Baker) and his London Tex-Mex ensemble, Los Pacaminos. 

He’s also built a media career, popping up on ITV’s Hell’s Kitchen and the BBC’s Celebrity Masterchef, where he reached the semi-finals.

It was while making the video for ‘Come Back And Stay’ that Young met his wife, Stacey Smith, in 1983. The couple had three children, and, after a few years apart, reconciled in 2009. 

Tragically, Smith died last year from brain cancer at the age of 52.

Young has quite unfairly come to be regarded as Smash Hits fodder. In truth, he was more than merely filler for early Now That’s What I Call Music! compilations. He was prepared to take risks, too.

One of the eye-openers on No Parlez was a cover of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, by Joy Division. Young broke the song down and built it up again. 

Fans of Joy Division were incensed, but it nonetheless helped introduce a huge audience to the band.

“I was always looking for material,” he says. “I was doing these rare soul things. 

"One day, I said to the producer, ‘Let’s turn it on its head — instead of taking an old soul song and giving it a modern treatment, let’s take a contemporary song and put it into an r’n’ b frame.’

“To do that, a song has to have a really good melody and really good lyrics.

“That song — lyrically, it’s really good. I stole the rhythm from ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’, by the Four Tops and put it underneath. 

"That’s how I got my version of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’.”

Paul Young plays at Live at Leopardstown, Thursday, July 19

Leopardstown highlights

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‘Living Next Door To Alice’ has been a staple of pub singalongs in Ireland for decades.

The Waterboys, August 16

One of the great Celtic-rock groups, with Mike Scott at the helm, The Waterboys have explored everything from big-screen anthems to soulful roots music via loud and angry guitar pop.

Their latest LP, Out Of All This Blue, incorporated disco and hip hop, among other influences.

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