He’d shake Gorbachev’s hand — but not Bono’s
Barry Egan can never forget an afternoon with Marti Pellow — and his band Wet Wet Wet — driving around Dublin in 1988 in a limo
EVERYBODY’S youth is a dream, said F Scott Fitzgerald. And he was right. This memory from my youth is like a dream. Thirty years ago, a limo drove through Killiney to Bray, stopping at the odd pub en route. It was a beautiful sunny summer evening and four warmhearted, fresh-faced young men with permanent smiles in the back of the long, black chauffeur-driven car with tinted windows are more than enjoying their day in the sunshine, their moment in the limelight, as they were entitled to, with me from Irish teen pop magazine Fresh along for the ride.
They were full of beer and full of unprintable jokes. They were full of fun and stories, recounting how they had all met at Clydebank High School in Glasgow, their love of Van Morrison, American soul, the importance of their working-class roots, not least when one of them, Marti Pellow, laughed at how his father, upon being told a few years previously that he had joined a band and was going to sing for a career, had replied: “Are you on drugs? I’m a builder, your grandfather was a builder, your great-grandfather was a shipbuilder. What do you want to be a musician for?”
The importance of their working-class roots was further evidenced by their refusal the month before in Amsterdam to go along with a television producer’s suggestion: at the end of their set a hundred teenage girl rush the stage brandishing autograph books for the young pop idols to sign. The producer finally lost his temper and shouted at a perplexed front man, Mr Pellow: “You can shake the hand of Gorbachev but you cannot shake the hand of Bono!” Marti, I seem to recall through the mists of time, doing an impression in a bar in Bray in 1988 of the aforesaid Dutch TV producer invoking the last leader of the Soviet Union and the lead singer of U2 respectively.
Wet Wet Wet went on to become a hugely successful blue-eyed Caledonian soul combo with 26 hits across the world — like Wishing I Was Lucky (their debut in the charts in April, 1987), Sweet Little Mystery (July, 1987), and a song The Guardian called “sickeningly sincere”, All Around (May 1994).
The most fresh-faced of the lot of them perhaps went on to have a successful solo career, along with a dark relationship with heroin that he mercifully managed to end (Marti is clean since July 1999). His problems with the drug came to the public’s attention in February 1999, when he collapsed at the Conrad Hotel in Chelsea from a drugs binge. “I was weaning myself off smack with methadone and Librium, yet I was still self-destructive, so I thought, ‘Have a drink!’ I drank copious amounts of vodka and Strega for two or three hours, and collapsed,” he remembered to The Guardian’s Caroline Sullivan in 2000.
There was also, he recalled, an unhappy Yuletide in a Florida cottage where he spent Christmas 1998 alone. “I was depressed every day. There was a tremendous amount of isolation. Just leave me alone with my drug of choice. I didn’t want to be with anyone I knew, so I stayed alone in a cabin.
“I’d get occasional little moments of clarity and see pain on the faces of my family.”
It is a testament to Marti’s pure will and strength of character that he has been sober for over 20 years now; further testament to that will, and his diversity, is that in those years he has sung with the re-formed Wet Wet Wet, as well as solo performances, to say nothing of appearing as Che Guevara in Evita, the narrator in Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers and Billy Flynn, in the Broadway production of Chicago.
For me, Marti’s best performance was the one he gave of Mikhail Gorbachev and Bono that evening in Bray in 1988.
‘Your grandad was a shipbuilder. You want to be a singer?’
Marti Pellow plays The Bord Gais Energy Theatre on October 13.
Marti Pellow today