Express & Star

Marti Pellow: ‘Those songs were our passport to the world’

It was audacious and sophisticated; soulful and lush. Popped In Souled Out was a record for the ages; an iconic pop record that sounds as fresh as a daisy more than 35 years on from its release.

Marti Pellow

Iconic and era-defining, distinctive and ambitious, the melodic, blue-eyed soul opus earned the debutants five platinum discs, enduring appeal and a number-one hit record. It remains a phenomena, an achievement unsurpassed, a song collection that continues to provide meaning, warmth and joy to those whose lives it soundtracked.

Ah yes: joy. It’s impossible to listen to Popped In Souled Out without experiencing the sense of delight that infused the record’s makers. Ebuillent, exuberant, and exultant; Marti Pellow, Graeme Clark, Tommy Cunningham, and Neil Mitchell had spent a lifetime working for their shot at the big time. And when the moment came, they seized the moment.

“We were aiming way above our skillset,” says Marti. “Our imaginations were writing songs that our skills couldn’t match. I listen to it now and hear a record filled with aspirations. We were reaching for the stars.”

And the remarkable thing is, they reached them.

The story didn’t start in 1987, however. It began some years before, when the quartet met at Clydebank High School. Pellow saw one of his band mates holding a polythene bag filled with records on the school playground. He wandered over: ‘What’s in the bag?’ And so began a sequence of events that led to the life-changing release of Popped In Souled Out.

Pellow, Clark, Mitchell, and Cunningham formed a band. They practised in Graeme’s mum’s kitchen. They recorded in Glasgow studios, sleeping on the floor in between takes. They hustled to earn money for recording fees: peeling prawns at the local Chinese, or painting and decorating for whatever they could earn.

Slowly, the buzz grew. First, Glasgow took the band to its heart. And then word spread, as all sections of the press latched onto Scotland’s latest sensation. PolyGram A&R boss Dave Bates won the race to sign them and in an instance life changed.

Marti remembers: “When I look now, Popped In Souled Out was extraordinary. It was the catalyst to take us around the world and explore all the dreams we’d had as children. It was our first bite of what we’d been wishing for. Those songs were our passport to the world.”

They travelled far on that passport – though, first, they had to make the record. They met their first manager, Elliott Davis, and the American great, Willie Mitchell, who became a lifelong friend of Pellow and gave his band wings to fly.

“When we were ready to record the record, there was all this talk of who should produce us,” says Pellow. “The record company suggested Stock, Aitken, and Waterman, who were massive at the time. But that wasn’t us. It worked for Rick, Jason, and Kylie – but we were four guys with our own imaginations.”

And so Pellow and Clark flew to Memphis to meet Willie ‘Pop’ Mitchell. Pellow and Pop hit it off. They’d drink whisky late into the night, eat ribs at the same restaurant that Elvis had eaten at, and discuss their great love of music. Pop encouraged them to dream harder, think bigger, and aim higher.

“The vast majority of those songs from Popped In, Souled Out were written when we were 16, 17. At the time, I didn’t know whether they were any good because I had nothing else to go by.”

Let’s just pause and reflect on that, for a moment. Sixteen and seventeen. That’s how old Pellow was when he wrote Popped In Souled Out with his band mates. Songs that have endured for more than twice that many years were written when the band were just kids. And yet the references couldn’t be more knowing and mature. There were references to the black British poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, and to the controversial ‘sus laws’; there were reflections on the mass unemployment that ripped the heart out of working-class communities throughout the UK, as well as musings on the ins-and-outs of love and heartache. The emotional heft is relevant and timely now as when Popped In Souled Out was first written.

“We were aiming for something with gravitas,” says Marti. “People think Angel Eyes (Home and Away) is just a love song – but that was inspired by Martin Luther King. That’s a chapter of my life that I’m incredibly proud of. I was growing up. I was writing about my world view. I was writing about my first interpretation of love – or, at least, what I thought it was. The Moment You Left Me, you know, that’s about a grown woman who was threatening to chase a boy. There’s all sorts of things going on in that record.”

And perhaps that’s why it cut through. Listeners in bedrooms up and down the country, and across into Europe, tuned into the emotions that Pellow articulated. It helped, of course, that he sang with the voice of an angel – or, rather, the panache of Sinatra, and the soulfulness of Lionel Richie, as he reached the heights of excellence. Following the advice of his mentor, Willie ‘Pop’ Mitchell, he eschewed vocal gymnastics as he let his heart lead.

“I wrote that record in my bedroom. My mam would be shouting at me to come and get my supper and I’d be shouting back: ‘Hold on, I haven’t finished the first verse, yet’. I listen now and it reminds me of what was going on in my life back then – I guess it’s the same for all of us. That record takes us back to a time and a place that we remember fondly.”

A time and a place are evoked, yes, but the reimagination of Popped In Souled Out, complete with an orchestra, brings the music avowedly into the present. Concerts that sold out in an instant, in London and Glasgow, will give fans the opportunity to walk in the shoes they wore as kids, but the work Pellow has done with his musical director, Grant Mitchell, changes the game. The concerts about to unfold are polished and wordly-wise, cosmopolitan and trailblazing. Overwhelming demand has led to a further, arena tour, in Spring 2024, which includes a date in Birmingham, a place that’s close to his heart.

“It’s not about nostalgia. It’s about looking back into the past, but then finding how we relate to the songs today. Sweet Little Mystery has stayed with me through each decade – as it has for my fans. They’ve played these songs to their kids and now the circle has grown. There are 80-year-olds and eight-year-olds. Popped In Souled Out is a record that has a different meaning to people of all ages and from all works of life.

“Let me put it like this: If Popped In Souled Out was a book, then I’ve found another chapter. It’s something that I’ve read and worn for the last 40 years, but in re-imagining the record with an orchestra, then it’s turned another page for me. The whole process has been, how should I put it: Oh Wow. The record today is doing different things for me now than it did when we recorded it. It’s revealing itself in different ways. I’m seeing things in it that I was too young to see then. I’m really vibing off this music and I just hope that the fans will be transported. I’m planning evenings filled with wonderful melodies and wonderful songs.”

Many of the songs on Popped In Souled Out have been constant companions of Pellow – and his fans – across four decades. Wishing I Was Lucky, East Of The River, Angel Eyes (Home And Away), Sweet Little Mystery, Temptation, and more… they’ve been constant companions during a remarkable career that’s encompassed arenas, the West End, Broadway, theatre and more.

“There are other songs though, and I’d not sung those in 40 years. And as I rehearsed them, I had to wonder why that was because I really enjoyed singing them. You know, this is the deal: As one album unfolds, another is being made. So the songs that you don’t play at the time fall away. It’s great to reintroduce myself to them. And I love the concept of playing the record through chronologically. I’ve never sung a record from end-to-end in my life, and it’s something I love. I get to experience where my imagination was and why we made the decisions we made. It’s a Wet Wet Wet album and something that I’m very proud of. It’s a big part of my history. That was the starting block for where I am today.”

When Pellow put the tickets on sale for his shows in London and Glasgow, he had no idea what to expect. Though encouraged by managers, agents and promoters, it was his neck on the block – his potential embarrassment if the shows failed to sell. He needn’t have worried. The fans who supported him as an aspiring artist bought in droves.

“Thousands couldn’t get tickets. We couldn’t get the London Palladium for a second or third night – there wasn’t room. And Scotland… well, Scotland just waved back to me and the tickets sold in half an hour. I couldn’t be more humbled by the response.

“It’s going to be awesome. it’ll be poignant. I’m getting to be in one of the best churches in the world – the London Palladium – with this album. And then I’ll be back in my home town, Glasgow. Who could ask for more. I’ll be tripping on the energy of the fans because it’s about us, not me. It’s about me and the fans, all of us, listening to Popped In Souled Out and the songs that I sang.

“It will hold something special, not just for me as an artist, but for the people who bought it and love it. It’s wow, wow, wow.”

We live in an age of endless choice. Streaming services provide literally millions and millions of songs as listeners browse and click, rejecting music that doesn’t make an instant connection. Against that backdrop, Popped In Souled Out stands out. A bona fide classic, it rises above the fray. It’s a fact that Pellow acknowledges with good grace – and something he has never taken for granted. “The fact that my fans brought into my music and still wear it, after all these years, is remarkable. They’re coming out on a Spring night in 2023 and they’ll remember where they were when they first heard these songs. They’ll know if they were on holiday or in a relationship, they’ll remember playing these songs when they were going through a divorce or experiencing a birth. They’ll remember my music at key moments in their life and that’s the greatest gift I could ever hope for as a songwriter. People have invested their time in my music; I’ve given them the chance to connect, to escape or to reach out. I can only say thank you for that. I didn’t imagine the life Popped In Souled Out would enjoy when I wrote it. I’m excited about tonight and excited about tomorrow – these songs have a special meaning to so many people, so who knows what the future holds.

“I look back now and people thought I was a pretty boy. That’s what they gravitated to. But the record still stands up – and that’s what’s helped me to keep going. The record is a classic pop album. It’s something I’m hugely proud of. I was pouring every fibre of my being into it. It was like dream-fulfilment, or wish-fulfilment, whichever it is. I was living on a giro but dreaming about tomorrow.”

And, on Popped In Souled Out, all of those dreams came true.

Marti Pellow will headline Birmingham Resorts World Arena on March 31, 2024.

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