Yes, ’tis true. Today I bring you a Q&A with a bona fide pop star. Not just any old pop star either. Through a chance meeting, I linked up with Geraint Hughes, one half of Typically Tropical, and thus writer of the pop classic Barbados, which takes me right back to the hot summer of ’75 every time I hear it.
Like all great summer hits the song works because of a catchy chorus and lyrics and a lilt that remind folk of their summer hols. We only ever got as far as Dorset (though felt none the worse for it). But working class folk were starting to travel further afield and Una Paloma Blanca and Sylvia’s magnificent Y Viva Espana tapped into these memories of their escape from the factory and office on continental Europe with guaranteed sunshine.
The Caribbean, however, was still just a dream for most. Exotic sun-kissed islands of coconut palms, pineapples, steel drums and reggae. Places where only pop stars, Noel Coward and Princess Margaret went for their hols. However, ’75 was such a hot summer that I don’t think the location mattered. Like the big 1970 hit, Mungo Jerry’s In the Summertime, or Spiller’s Groovejet 30 years later, hits that truly define the joys of summer are universal, but rare. Barbados is one of the few.
Although, Typically Tropical never had another hit, Geraint and his partner Jeff Calvert wrote I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper, which was a Top 10 hit for Sarah Brightman in 1978. Having read about TT here, I tried to pitch my questions so as to keep duplication to a minimum. Let us begin:
Do you want to tell us anything about Quasar? i.e. What type of material you played? Covers band/originals?
Quasar was my first serious band, formed in 1972 I think, I was inspired by Curved Air at the time, I liked the sound of a strong rock beat with smooth female vocals over it. Most of the material was mine, but we also had a covers set which we would perform if we felt it more appropriate to the gig. We did a series of successful gigs, eventually it disintegrated.
Where do you & Jeff hail from? Is that where TT were based?
Jeff lived in Willesden, North London, I lived in Ealing in West London, in 1969 and 1970, I used to rehearse with some school friends who lived in Willesden, Jeff lived across the road from where we rehearsed and used to drop in every so often, his father, Leon Calvert, was one of the four directors of the famous Morgan Studios on Willesden High Road. We started writing songs together, and would sneak in to Morgan after midnight and recorded these songs with whatever instruments were lying around.
Are you from a musical family?
No, my father was Law professor, my mother an actress and my stepfather a writer.
What made you chose Max West as your r’n’r name?
West is my stepfather’s name, I had always been annoyed that no one could ever pronounce my first name correctly, so I came up with Max, as the simplest monosyllabic name that no one could mispronounce. Also the idea was to use Max West for pop stuff, and Geraint Hughes for more “serious” music. In retrospect it was a silly idea and caused more confusion about who the two names were.
It appears that you & Jeff had set your hearts on breaking into the music biz. Can you recall when this idea formulated?
Pretty much as soon as we started writing and recording together, once I’d had my first few sessions in a 16 track professional studio, I had no doubt that I wanted to work in that environment. Those seeds were also sown early on in my life, in the early 1960’s my mother would take me along to Broadcasting House when she was recording radio plays for the then named BBC Third Programme, if I was very good I would be allowed in the control room and watch the white coated engineers operate huge faders and dials and push buttons. To me it seemed to be like being in a space ship, I knew I wanted more of that. For Jeff, in a sense he was already in the music biz, Morgan had four fully functioning studios and he was already engineering sessions there. The artistes that recorded there in those days (early seventies) were all pretty big time, Rod Stewart, Yes, The Kinks, Suzi Quatro, Cat Stevens, lots of well known reggea stars too, Trojan Records was just down the road in Harlesden and they used to send their acts to Morgan. Jeff used to engineer a lot of these sessions, and I became involved too when I joined Morgan as a tape operator in 1974. I think it was these sessions that led to creating Barbados.
Who are your musical heroes?
Time to be pretentious! Brian Eno, Jeff Lynne, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Olivier Messiaen, Beethoven, Phil Spector (for his production!), David Bowie, early Roxy Music.
Did you approach any labels other than Gull?
Yes, but only Trojan, who wanted to release it surprisingly, but they wanted to release the demo and not pay for a re-record, we went with Gull because they gave us enough money to put strings and marimbas on it, in fact while we’re at it, here’s the session player list, which is list of famous names: Chris Spedding on guitar, Vic Flick (honest) on rhythm guitar (famous for the twangy Bond theme), Frank Ricotti on percussion including marimba, Clem Cattini on drums (of Tornadoes fame), Roger Coulam on keyboards (Blue Mink), Herbie Flowers on bass (Blue Mink, writer of Grandad).
How old were you and Jeff when Barbados hit?
I was born in 1953, I think Jeff in 1955, so I guess I was 22 and Jeff 20, if I’ve worked that out right.
Did you know you’d struck gold when you recorded the song, bearing in mind it was your first single?
I don’t think so, we knew we had made a good pop record, we started to get an inkling that it might be big when Emperor Rosko started to play it regularly. We never thought it would make number one as it was one of the most agonising climbs up the charts, it went something like this I think, 41, 33, 25, 19, 12, 8,5, 2, 2, and by the skin of our teeth 1. We thought we’d blown it when it stayed at 2 for two weeks.
Were the ‘woah’s’ in there from the outset – or did they get added as you worked on the song?
I’m pretty certain that they were on the demo, we certainly made more of them on the main recording. Incidentally they are the very same WOAHS on the Venga Boys “Goin to Ibiza”, the managed to extract them from the original record.
Despite the lull between the recording (in November) and May release of Barbados it seems to have been as near as you can get to an overnight success – Can you recall what your feelings were during that 6 month period, itching to unleash your first disc?
One of anticipation, we knew we had a good shot at having a hit, and therefore a career as songwriters and producers. There was impatience, but looking back at it all, Gull did the right thing to hold of the release till May. The timing was perfect to arrive at No 1 on the 5th of July in one of the hottest summers for years.
Gull seems to have been a very small outfit – did you have people plugging the song or did it just take off of its own accord?
Yes they were small, some of their other acts were Judas Priest in their very early days, we went on to produce “Sad Wings of destiny” with them, I also remember they had Arthur Brown signed as well, can’t remember who else. Effectively they were an Indy label I guess.
I do remember that they used a plugger called Clive Crawley on Barbados though.
Was there anyone in particular who loved the song at Radio 1 – who really gave it a big push?
Well, as I said, Emperor Rosko, but I think his show was only each Saturday, I can’t think of anybody who really got behind it. I remember that Tommy Vance gave us our first ever interview on the Capital Radio bus at the Notting Hill carnival.
Was it intimidating being complete unknowns and asking the likes of Spedding to play on your record?
Well Jeff did the fixing, and he had worked a lot with Spedding, what was a bit intimidating was issuing instructions to this elite bunch of session musicians, I remembering asking Spedding to do something specific on his guitar part, and I remember him rolling his eyes, after that I left him alone, and he just did a perfect part that sat beautifully in the track. The most helpful and nicest guy there was the fabulous percussionist Frank Ricotti, he did the whole marimba part on the fly just from the chord chart.
Can you recall who else was hired to play on it?
I’ve listed them above, but I must mention the 8 violin and 2 cello string section, it was my first proper string arrangement, and I was quite nervous, these guys were all tuning up and discussing last nights Haydn performance, I was almost embarrassed about the part they were about to play, but the leader, a lovely guy called Jack Rosstein, put me at ease and suggested some changes to the bowing, he organised the other players, and they did a lovely spikey performance.
Do you think it would have been as big if it had been a wet summer? (I remember it was the hottest for years, but no-one recalls that because 76 was even hotter)
It’s hard to say, maybe if it had been a wet one, it may have sold more, making people think about lovely distant hot weather…who knows.
Was it a worldwide hit – or just in the UK?
It was a top 10 in quite a few European countries, we did TV shows in Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and Italy, it was No 1 in South Africa, and a medium hit in Australia, in the US it got as high as 124 in Billboard I believe.
Is it popular in Barbados?
Well the Barbadian embassy in London were delighted about the publicity it gave the island, they actually gave us a free trip. I remember when we were there we were aware that a lot of the hotel bands used to play it, I don’t really know if it was ever released there, I’d be surprised if it doesn’t appear on the hotel bands playlists these days.
What was the worst aspect, if any, of having a huge hit single?
None at all, with us, we were hardly pop hunks, so we weren’t having to hide in hotels and avoid supermarkets!
And the best?
Knowing that we were launched in the business, and potentially had a successful future ahead of us if we played our cards right. Also knowing that we now had a degree of financial security.
Any juicy tales/anecdotes you want to share (partying with Pan’s People & Suzi Quatro, hanging out with Keith Moon & Marc Bolan??!!)
Sadly no, we never really hung out with famous people. We did of course work with a lot of famous people when we were engineering at Morgan, I used to enjoy working with people like Micky Most, and learning production techniques.
Did you meet anyone famous who was a real let-down in real life?
No, I don’t think so.
Was Top of the Pops great fun or a pain?
Nerve wracking! Quite terrifying. The first time we did it was a last minute affair, TOTP was recorded on the Wednesday, we were sitting at number two in the charts, pissed off that we hadn’t been asked to do a TOTP when we entered the top 10. We got a call on the Tuesday, Brian Hyland had re-released “Sealed with a Kiss”, he had missed his plane from the US, and they had a slot. We weren’t ready, had no backing track prepared, so I had to assemble all the parts for the TOTP orchestra to play it live, Jeff had to sing the vocal live too, we were terrified and it showed, the orchestra took the track at a slightly too fast tempo, so the pr-recorded Tobias Wilcock pilot voice, which was cued in on tape from the control room overlapped into the chorus to fade section. Prior to the take, I remembered showing a bemused organist in the orchestra how to play the synth part on a minimoog, I don’t think he’d ever seen one before. One thing I remember, not sure if it was before or after the recording, I felt a nauseous wave sweep over me, I knew I was going to be sick, I looked around me and all I could see was the ladies loo, two of the TOTP orchestra’s backing singers noticed my plight, they swooped me into the ladies loo and literally held me over the sink and helped me clean up. They were so good natured about it, I was terribly embarrassed.
Who was the hottest Pan’s Person?
For me, Barbara ‘Babs’ Lord.
Were TT covered by the so-called serious music press – or considered more fodder for Jackie & Look-in?
We had our fair share interviews with Jackie and so on, we were on the cover of Record Mirror, not quite Melody Maker I know, I think we had interviews in Sounds. Ray Fox Cumming did an amusing article on us in Record Mirror I seem to remember.
Are you at all bitter about not having follow-up success – or rather proud that you’re in the 0.0001% of the population (I made that figure up) who’ve had a number 1?
No, not at all, definitely disappointed of course, but looking back our timing was bad, we should have been working on a follow up and album to be ready by September, we were well too late to capitalise on the success of Barbados. I was wondering the other day if there are any precedents of a record being No1 twice, with a gap of 24 years, I refer to the Venga Boys cover.
Do you get people shouting ‘woah’ at you in the street or are you able to stroll relatively anonymously?
No, you know that never happened, I do remember being charged by small army of little girls at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport, they were waving photos of us and wanting us to autograph them. That’s the extent of Typically Tropical mania.
How did Sarah Brightman come by Trooper?
Sarah was chosen by the record company, Hansa/Ariola. Jeff and I wrote the song and created a fairly elaborate demo with a session singer, it was almost a master, we must have touted it around 15 to 20 labels, with Hansa being the last on the list. Steve Rowland was then the house producer at Hansa, and really liked the tack. There then followed at least 9 months of creating a new demo, and auditioning scores of singers, including Sam Brown, and Rachel Brennock (Video Killed the Radio Star). We all liked Rachel the best, she had that sassy “Ronnettes” sound. Finally Sarah was auditioned and whilst we all agreed she wasn’t as good sounding as Rachel, Peter Miesel, boss of Hansa decided to go with her as she was enjoying notoriety by dancing with fetishistic dance troupe Hot Gossip on the Kenny Everett show. It was then decided to bring Hot Gossip in on the action because of their fame. So the record came out as Sarah Brightman and Hot Gossip, although Hot Gossip didn’t perform on the track at all, just on the video. All in all sensible commercial decisions.
Did you have any hand in the recording of it?
We were involved all the time in an advisory capacity, Steve Rowland was the producer and did a wonderful job, he brought in the brilliant Richie Niles to do the arrangement, also a brilliant synthesist Craig Pruess. Some of the session players were Mo Foster on bass, Peter Van Hook on drums (not the New Order guy). Cant’ remember the others. It was recorded at Roundhouse studios in Chalk Farm.
Is there a Calvert-West/TT version of the song?
That would be the aforementioned demo.
Did you like her version?
Sarah’s version? Oh yes, I would have preferred Rachel Brennock to have sung it of course, I think the vocal suited her better, but we were almost guaranteed a hit by using Hot Gossip, so that was the right way to go.
Do you listen to any contemporary music/artists?
Absolutely, some artistes I like are Passion Pit, Empire of the sun, MIA, Prodigy, Lilly Allen, Aphex Twins. Over a longer period, I am a huge fan of Steeley Dan and Kraftwerk.
Are you a big reader? If so, who are your favourite authors & books?
Sadly no, but some books that really like are “the Dao of Physics” by Frijoff Capra, “A View over Atlantis” by John Michell, “Fingerprints of the Gods” by Graham Hancock, “The Demonic Comedy” by Paul William Roberts, “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster……..
I always ask this question – are you an Elvis fan? (yes/no will suffice. If yes – please list your 3 fave tracks)
Yes! Guitar Man, A little less Conversation, Jailhouse Rock
Don’t suppose you ever met Elvis did you?
Fancy telling us your Desert Island Discs?
10. Beethoven’s 6th symphony, the Pastoral, I grew up with it, my mother always had it on.
9. “A rainbow in Curved Air” by Terry Riley. Blew my mind, wonderful electronics.
8. “Ricki Don’t loose that Number’ by Steeley Dan. A magical song.
7. “Strawberry Fields” by The Beatles. I always stop what I’m doing when this comes on.
6. “God Only Knows” by The Beah Boys. Such a perfect song/arrangement/emotion.
5. Intro to Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”. Such perfect atmos, and that riff….
4.”I am the Walrus” by The Beatles. Love this, cellos, electronics, madness…..
3.”California Girls” by The Beach Boys. Amazing intro, the big American Dream……
2. Olivier Messiaen’s “Turangalila Symphony” The scope of it, pure emotion, spiritual..
1. “Come all Ye” by Fairport Convention”. An odd No1, I’ve always loved this. Optimism.
I believe you’re involved in film making now – I’m guessing you enjoy your work?
Yes, I am hardly a professional, but I just love video editing, I almost wish I’d got more into that than music. I’ve done a few professional commissions, the most enjoyable being a private documentary of a trip to Egypt.
Apologies for being coy, but do you need to work? (I, and I imagine the public in general, have no idea of how much money is generated by writing such a big and enduring hit. Could you have lived reasonably comfortably off the fruits of a single record?)
I do need to work, one cannot live of one hit, or even three if we count Trooper and Ibiza, Barbados still generates PRS, but it is dwindling. I do a lot of library production music now to supplement my income, it’s hard, but I am always submitting to different leads that come to me from sites like Broadjam and Sonicbids.
Please tell us whatever you wish about your current work, future plans and any sites that you’d like me to link to.
Apart from the library work, I have carved a small niche in the so called New Age/Ambient market, with 4 CD’s out on the Northstar label.
Some of my recent library work is out on two CD’s with New York’s Kingsize Music.
Here are some links to sites that have examples of my current work:
My main website:
Barbados on German TV
and on Top of the Pops