Music chat! Groovin’ Down Memory Lane with James Taylor of The Prisoners

I’m taking a groovy trip through musical history with James Taylor from The James Taylor Quartet, as they dive into the revival of his legendary Brit band, The Prisoners. With a reunion gig set to shake The London Roundhouse in Camden on 24 May 2024, it’s time to prepare for a blast from the past. And none other than former label boss Steve Lamacq is on DJ and hosting duty.

The Prisoners

Known for their garage rock vibes, The Prisoners bring that raw energy and DIY ethos straight from the Medway Towns in Kent. Their sound is a cool mix of 60s garage bands like The Sonics and The Seeds, spiced up with mod revival, psychedelic rock, and a dash of rhythm and blues. It’s a unique blend that’s guaranteed to get you moving.

Back in ’82, they dropped their debut LP ‘A Taste of Pink’ on their own label, Own Up, before catching the attention of Ace Records’ ‘Big Beat’ subsidiary. Hits like ‘Hurricane’ from ‘The Wisermiserdemelza’ EP and ‘Melanie’ from ‘Electric Fit’ had fans hooked, and appearances on Channel 4’s ‘The Tube’ sealed their status as garage rock royalty.

But the story doesn’t end there. Albums like ‘The Last Fourfathers’ and ‘In From The Cold’ kept the hits coming, including the timeless ‘Whenever I’m Gone’. Even after bidding adieu in ’86, The Prisoners rose from the ashes a decade later for epic live shows, catching the eye of Steve Lamacq’s Deceptive record label.

Their influence lives on, with bands like The Charlatans and the Inspiral Carpets openly tipping their hats to The Prisoners as true trailblazers of the scene. So get ready to groove, because The Prisoners are back to rock your socks off once again!

The Prisoners

Monica: 2024 is going to be a very exciting year full of gigs with the Prisoners for you, James.

James Taylor: It’s wonderful, and in a way, it’s the culmination of a life’s work. You build things up. In 2023, we managed to sell out at Cadogan Hall, so that’s why we stepped up a bit.

 

Monica: Tell me about The Prisoners. I’m a bit of a fan. There was so much great music during the ‘80s that maybe you were a little bit overshadowed by other bands.

James Taylor: We kept making music the way we wanted it rather than signing record contracts that would help us. But we felt that would compromise our position. I personally didn’t mind that, but some of the guys were really kind of uncompromising. And so that’s how it worked out. It was good fun. It was a really good apprenticeship, you know. Learning how to perform and all the rest of it.

 

Monica: Could you provide some insights into the early days of The Prisoners and how the band came together in the Medway towns in Kent?

James Taylor : Sure, we all attended the same school from the age of 11. We were friends during our school years, and eventually, we began playing music individually. Eventually, we decided to form a band together. Initially, we performed at local venues such as sixth form parties and nearby pubs. After about a year, we managed to secure some gigs in London, starting at the Hope and Anchor on Upper Street around 1982. Initially, our audiences in London were quite small, around 15 people per show. However, we took initiative by putting up posters and producing our own record, “A Taste of Pink.” We financed these efforts ourselves. Our dads used to drive us to gigs in those early days. It was a journey of kids making music, gradually building our audience from 15 to 100, then 200, and eventually up to 500 tickets a night by the time we split up. It was quite an evolution, and we had some fantastic experiences along the way.

 

Monica: It seems that your music has retained its freshness over the years because of its uncompromising nature. To many of us who followed your music back then, it still sounds refreshing and pure. How do you maintain that purity while navigating the realities of the music industry and working with record companies? Artists often face the dilemma of protecting their art versus sharing it with a wider audience. How do you strike that balance?

James Taylor: It’s indeed a challenging balance to strike. As artists, our responsibility is to share our work and connect with our audience. Sometimes, we find ourselves making calculations and compromises to reach a broader audience. It’s about finding the right balance between preserving the integrity of our art and reaching out to more people. The mechanics of the music business often come into play, and it’s a dilemma many artists grapple with. Ultimately, it’s essential to recognise that everyone involved has something valuable to contribute, and it’s about finding common ground amidst differing perspectives. It’s all part of the journey.

 

Monica: David Bowie was always pure and uncompromising, much like yourself. But perhaps he was a bit fortunate; he found the right people.

James Taylor: He once mentioned that in the 80s, he started commanding a million pounds per show. He remarked that it stifled his creativity. He literally felt like he had sold his soul, and I think this is a danger that can occur. For the majority of his career, especially when he was prolific in producing music, he remained incredibly uncompromising. He would often reflect that he remained a relatively small-scale artist until the 80s, when he suddenly became one of the biggest artists around. However, with the enormous financial rewards, it became so much about the money that it seemed to diminish something else within him. Do you see what I mean?

The early Bowie era was exceptional. I particularly admire the Ziggy Stardust era. It embodied the essence of rock and roll. Then it transitioned into pop, but it retained its purity and originality. However, when financial pressures mount, it’s challenging to resist the allure of money. How can one turn down such wealth? Perhaps there’s also an element of excitement as you expand your reach and realize, “Wow, this is really working now, it’s really, really good.” Yes, you’re absolutely right. It’s a tough dilemma. Moreover, some individuals are naturally more creative in their youth, while others flourish creatively as they age. People experience different phases in their lives.

 

Monica: How do you perceive yourself? Are you more mature now or back then?

James Taylor: Nowadays, I’m involved in producing a lot of music. During my time with The Prisoners, I hardly contributed to music production. These days, I’m engaged in musical production every day. You find your path. I’m the sole member of The Prisoners who pursued music as a career. The others pursued careers as firefighters, engineers, and the like. I’ve dedicated my life to making music. Over time, I’ve invested considerable effort in understanding my own creative processes and what works best for me. As I grow older, my passion for music only deepens.

 

Monica: How do you reflect on The Prisoners’ contribution to the music landscape during that specific era?

James Taylor: Well, we were largely unknown, but we managed to secure a support spot with the Ramones, which allowed us to go on tour, so that was really nice. However, the musical landscape at the time was dominated by heavily produced music, such as the Duran Duran type, which was quite distant from our style. So, in a way, it wasn’t our time, if I can put it like that. Nonetheless, on a smaller scale, people liked our music. We had bands that listened to us and were inspired by us, like The Charlatans and the Manchester scene, including The Stone Roses and Blur.

They interviewed us. They came down to Bedway—Damon, Rahal, Worm, and the others. They had a fan-zine, a magazine, and they interviewed us before they became successful. So, we did have an influence on people. In The Prisoners, there is still a very strong desire to not compromise in a kind of puritanical way. However, I’m the least like that in the band. I’m the person who wants to open the music out to more people, to share it.

 

Monica: The Charlatans were heavily influenced by your music, but personally, I prefer The Prisoners. I can feel your distinct tunes in their music, but I prefer The Prisoners.

James Taylor: They were friends of ours. We would be on tour, they would be the support band, and they looked up to us. They wanted to sound like us, and they did—they sounded exactly like us. But they cleverly found a way to sell it to the public. However, that’s not always for the best, to put it that way.

Monica: “Hurricane” is one of the songs I really love. What was the inspiration behind that particular track and its significance within The Prisoners’ discography?

James Taylor: “Hurricane” is about broken relationships, isn’t it? It’s about when you’re young, you fall in love, and then it all goes horribly wrong—the brokenness and the impossible feelings that come with that. I think The Prisoners were quite into all of that kind of pain, a teenage angst.

Monica: Your music arrived perhaps a tad late, don’t you think? If you had come a few years earlier…

James Taylor: Before or after, it wouldn’t have mattered. Had it been earlier, it might have worked. If later, it could’ve been fine too. But in 1983, no chance. Back then, it was all about Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran. We were the only ones doing what we did. No one else at all at that time.

Monica: Indeed, it’s regrettable. But now, you’re resurrecting it. And I believe the timing is spot on. Those who were into that music then are now nostalgic for it. It’s the perfect moment to reintroduce it.

James Taylor: We just sold 2,000 tickets for the Roundhouse. So you might be onto something.

Monica: Count me in.

James Taylor: People do seem eager to hear The Prisoners again. Perhaps this is our moment.

Monica: You once appeared on Channel 4’s The Tube alongside other big bands. What memories do you cherish from that experience? How did it shape your path?

James Taylor: We had our girlfriends make us those Star Trek clothes. Then we went on TV, and it was thrilling. Everything we did in The Prisoners was fun. We had our own humour, a language of our own, like the four of us were one. We laughed through it all, even when things went south on tour in Europe – van breakdowns, gigs canceled, money lost. We always found joy in the madness. It was a golden time.

On the French show, they talked a lot, in French, while we were itching to play. Our drummer was like, “Let’s get on with it!” There was banter. Johnny, the drummer, was my best mate, so funny and mischievous. There was always something silly happening. We misbehaved on that TV show, and it was worth it. The host scolded us afterward, said we’d never be back.

So, this time around, we’ll be friendlier. We want to make friends. Back then, there were fewer restrictions, more spontaneity. I miss that.

Monica: As an ’80s girl myself, I recall that spontaneity. Watching that clip, I felt that vibe – the banter, the freedom. Today, spontaneity seems undervalued. That’s what we’ve lost. Maybe it’s why The Prisoners are resonating now. They bring back that spirit. Please bring it back, at least the freedom that comes with it. Nowadays, it’s all about careers, money. I’ve interviewed Colin Blunstone of The Zombies many times. He shared how, in the ’60s, they cared only about making great music. The Prisoners are good because they’re uncompromising, rebellious. I love that.

James Taylor: Back then, musicians spoke out against societal wrongs. Now, they’re too content, too happy. They should lead, inspire. Love should be their message. Hate and war dominate now, limiting our freedom and spontaneity. The world is at war, and it’s disheartening. I hope musicians have the courage, like the Sex Pistols did, to challenge society and change the world.

During that era, many musicians found themselves behind bars at some point due to their perceived threat to society. Consider iconic bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and the Sex Pistols – all of whom experienced incarceration in their quest to challenge the status quo and effect change on a global scale.

Monica: The Prisoners didn’t end up behind bars despite the band name – it’s quite an intriguing choice. How did you come up with it?

James Taylor: Well, the lead singer’s father was a prison governor here in Rochester. You see, we have four prisons in this town, and he was the man in charge. But if you ask him, he’d probably deny that’s where the name came from.

Personally, I’m not a fan of incarceration, but this town has a strong military presence. It’s the same place that gave us Charles Dickens, another figure who reshaped society for the better. Despite the challenges, we must envision a better world. By immersing ourselves in imagination, our music can flourish. It’s akin to Beethoven, who, despite living through turmoil, created beautiful music from his visions.

Monica: If we delve into the songs of The Prisoners, particularly “Melanie,” is it about lost love?

James Taylor: Indeed, “Melanie” explores finding solace in someone, only to lose them and grapple with that loss. Falling in love at a young age feels almost like madness – it consumes you entirely. It’s akin to sudden fame, and losing it can shatter you. Both “Hurricane” and “Melanie” capture that aftermath of loss and the struggle to rebuild.

Our dynamic shifted during the reunion in ’97. Unfortunately, I don’t recall much about that period due to my struggle with substance abuse. However, I’ve been clean ever since. The band reformed, and we made recordings, but the drug haze clouds my memory of those songs. It was a rebellious time; everyone around me was the same. The ’90s felt like one big party, but eventually, we had to piece ourselves back together.

Monica: It seemed like drug use was almost a trend at the time. Do you think it influenced creativity?

James Taylor: Indeed, many artists are sensitive and susceptible to addiction. Drugs can offer a different perspective, as David Bowie famously said, but ultimately, it’s about finding balance between the childlike creativity and adult responsibility. When I write music, I tap into that childlike state of playfulness. It’s where the magic happens.

Monica: The Roundhouse gig on 24th May, 2024 – what can fans expect?

James Taylor: Fans can expect The Prisoners at their best. We’ve been playing smaller gigs to prepare, and the band is tight. We chose the Roundhouse for its capacity to accommodate 3000 people; this project is about sharing our music. We want to preserve our integrity while reaching a wider audience.

Monica: Are there any standout moments that epitomise The Prisoners’ rebellious rock ethos?

James Taylor: As teenagers, we reveled in a sense of freedom and expression, unbothered by consequences. The day the band ended was devastating, but rediscovering it now brings pure joy. The explosive gigs, the anarchic energy – those are the anecdotes that define our rebellious spirit. Reconnecting with that feeling, even decades later, is priceless.

Monica: Your insights are truly touching. Music indeed has a responsibility to foster authenticity and unity. It’s been a pleasure hearing your perspective.

James Taylor: Thank you, Monica. You’ve been a fantastic interviewer, allowing me to express myself fully. Music, at its core, is an expression of love, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to share that.

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