(This interview was originally published September 8, 2012 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)
When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.
This time that awesomeness is Paul Fishman. He is a founding member of the British band Re-Flex which had their biggest hit in 1983 with “The Politics of Dancing“. I personally consider this song a true gem and one of the most iconic of the early-80s. Fishman wrote or at least co-wrote all of the band’s songs along with playing keyboards and supplying backing vocals. John Baxter provided his distinctive lead vocals as well as lead guitar. The band often featured sequenced rhythms and pulsing drum beats and its most recognized line-up also included Roland Kerridge on drums and Nigel Ross-Scott on bass. Find out a little more about Paul, Re-Flex and their biggest hit as we get on to some selections from my interview with Paul Fishman…
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a professional musician? When and how did you get your own start in the music industry? Please tell us a little about what you did prior to Re-Flex.
Paul: About the age of 16, I was starting to have some ideas that this could be my direction. I was intending after finishing studying politics, sociology and art to go to art school but got into a music college in London and then after that went onto the Guildhall to study composition.
My start, well that is complicated. My father, Jack, was also a songwriter/lyricist and wrote many songs and had quite a few hits during the '50s and '60s (e.g. Tom Jones “Help Yourself”, Amen Corner “(If Paradise is) Half as Nice”, etc). During the early '70s, apart from studying the flute and composition at my first music college, I began to get involved in electronics. This lead to working with other composers and particularly for musician and film composer Roy Budd (Get Carter, The Stone Killer, Fear is the Key, etc). But also through my work in electronics, I had become involved with the Cockpit Theatre in performing some fairly heavy duty works by composers such as Stockhausen, Cage and minimalist works by Reich and Riley.
At some point, I was approached to provide some ideas for a book-related record about the works of Erich von Daniken called In Search of Ancient Gods. Before I knew it I was in charge of producing the entire project and this, much to my amazement, was presented to Derek Taylor, then MD of Warner Bros in the UK, and he signed it and they released it. But also around this time I managed to build a reputation as a session musician and played on loads of other people’s records. I then started to produce some of my own and they were released under different titles.
Q: Please discuss any of your personal musical influences and who molded and inspired the artist you were back in the '80s and have since become.
Paul: Influences, well I am bit of a sponge and have absorbed a lot of music. My earliest influences came from the music I heard my father play (Ray Charles, Ella) but the radio and particularly Radio Luxembourg became pretty essential listening as it was to so many young kids and potential musicians during this time. I suppose one of the first things to rock my world was when I heard The Beatles’ early releases. I remember going to a fair and hearing “From Me to You” and “Please Please Me” loud and being totally impressed with how good it sounded. It is significant that the first records I ever bought was “From Me to You” and also “Just One Look” by the Hollies.
Thankfully I have since been exposed to an enormous amount of different types of music. Apart from electronic, I like lots of other stuff. Possibly the most influential classical composer was Debussy. The only things I don’t get on well with are opera and serial composition. Apart from much of the '60s Brit pop thing, I could give you a huge list of rock, pop and other music that molded my life and would include groups like Gentle Giant, Zappa, Walter Carlos, Weather Report, Led Zeppelin, Jo Meek, Eno, Hendrix, XTC, etc. etc.
Q: Please tell us a little about how Re-Flex came to be. What was the meaning of and who came up with the band name?
Paul: The short version is…. I was producing some records for MCA and they introduced me to Robin Scott (from M and “Pop Muzik”). They were interested in us collaborating and consequently I was introduced to some of the musicians who Robin was working with and that included John Baxter. This was also how I got to meet friend and early producer of the band Nik Launay.
Re-Flex came from Re-Fuse. The band’s name was inspired by a graffiti artist in London who tagged his work with “RE-FUSE”.
Q: Was Mark King the original drummer for Re-Flex? When and how did he leave Re-Flex for Level 42? Was he ever considered to play bass for Re-Flex? What were your feelings about him leaving back then and what do you think of what he went on to do with Level 42?
Paul: Actually Roly [Roland Vaughn Kerridge] was the original drummer but it wasn’t right. Then we worked with Phil Gould and he was best mates with Mark. Phil was having difficulty making our regular rehearsals as he was living on the Isle of Wight, so suggested his best mate Mark. Mark then officially became Re-Flex’s drummer and we worked together for about two years before things took off with “the Levels”. Phil had got him involved as the bass player as Phil was the drummer. Phil had two brothers that were also involved, Boon (guitarist) and another who worked for MCA and they ended up getting a release for possibly “Love Games” or whatever was their first record through Polydor. This was happening while we were still working with Mark. We never considered Mark as the bass player because he wasn’t really a bass player. We were originally working with a guy called Francois Craig and he was very good and original. Mark was a seriously good drummer. I say Mark still is a better drummer than bass player.
Personally I was really happy for him and Phil as they had been struggling to survive as professional musicians, but Mark’s departure meant we could start to explore other things and directions as well as musicians.
Q: Please tell us a little about John Baxter as an artist and band member. What did he bring to Re-Flex. His vocals definitely were distinctive.
Paul: Bax was a real find. I love singers with distinctive voices and we worked together developing his and the blend we made together as we have very different voices. We had another guitarist but he left while we were working with Mark and so Bax took on more of that role and I think it pushed him to become a much better musician (though he was already pretty good). Bax and I have spent a lot of time and made a lot of good music together. We still like each other and so I would say that’s a pretty successful relationship.
Q: Please take us back to when your biggest hit “The Politics of Dancing” was written and recorded. What is the back story about how that particular song was conceived and written? What inspired it?
Paul: Ok, I write a lot of things when I am walking about or travelling and use to carry a little tape recorder in my bag everywhere I went, just in case. I then took the ideas and sequenced them when I got home to my flat in Hampstead as I had recently acquired an Oberheim DSX sequencer and later went on to assist in its design as well as the design of other music equipment around this time.
What inspired it? Probably a train or something that I read. I probably took a fairly worked out demo with an almost final set of lyrics before I presented it. I used to present three or four tracks in one go and then we would work on them in rehearsals. This was during the period after Roly [Roland Kerridge] finally joined and Francois had just left. The three of us would jam a lot and explore arrangement ideas. We were starting to audition other bass players. Re-Flex like any other group was the sum of its parts. Soon after, we met [producer] John Punter and he really liked “The Politics of Dancing” and so it got put on the list. We then demoed it with him at EMI, then later in the year following signing to EMI, we started recording what would be The Politics of Dancing album.
“The Politics of Dancing” was written by Fishman, recorded by Re-Flex in September of 1982 and released as a single in late 1983. It only reached #24 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and #8 on the dance chart), but I considered it one of the iconic and representative great songs of the early decade. It achieved worldwide success also becoming a major hit in the UK and at least ten other countries. With this single, Re-Flex became one of the first UK bands to be regularly featured on MTV. Here is the video for “The Politics of Dancing” by Re-Flex…
Q: It is such a fun song, but it also has very interesting lyrics. Can you share with us your intended meaning behind the lyrics? What message were you trying to convey? Do you think most people understood that message or just found it to be a great song to dance to?
Paul: Well it works on lots of levels but I tend to encrypt my lyrics with references to loads of other things. The sentiment of the song is really about the power of when people come together and express themselves through dancing and letting go. During the '80s, it was in its very early days but in the latter part of the decade the rave scene was pretty much the message in a nut shell. No, I don’t think people generally understand messages but some get it so that’s alright.
As I said, I have always enjoyed this song musically, but Fishman’s lyrics are quite evocative and topical as well. I think they are worth sharing:
We got the message I heard it on the airwaves The politicians Are now DJ’s The broadcast was spreading Station to station Like an infection Across the nation Though you know you can’t stop it When they start to play You’re gonna get out the way
The politics of dancing The politics of ooh feeling good The politics of moving, aha If this message’s understood
We’re under pressure Yes we’re counting on you Like what you say Is what you do It’s in the papers It’s on your TV news Oh, the application Is just a point of view Well you know you can’t stop it When they start to play You’re gonna get out the way
The politics of dancing The politics of ooh feeling good The politics of moving, aha If this message’s understood
Q: Did you have any feeling that the single was going to be something special or get the attention it eventually did? How did you feel the first time you heard it on the radio? Were you surprised that it seemed to take off in the U.S. first?
Paul: We thought all of the tracks were special and that the Politics album was filled with lots of potential singles and a surprising amount were actually released as singles (or b sides) in different territories.
I think the first time I heard it on the radio was while I was driving and I remember shortly after tuning to another station (so probably then from Radio 1 to Capital) and hearing it on that and thinking that was rather good. But before that, I remember hearing “Hit Line” which was our first EMI release on a radio while I was standing in a bed manufacturers shop and thinking how good it sounded and, to quote Punter, “just like the real thing”. Prior to this we had done a radio session for Capital so maybe that was the first time.
Surprised? We were stunned. We were at Redan, our rehearsal studio, and Jeremy our then manager phoned to tell us the record had just gone into the U.S. national charts and this was soon after it had been released. We knew what we were doing was working globally and more people were getting it which of course was great and a relief.
Q: What changed for you personally and for the band after this single’s success?
Paul: People stopped telling us to go away! We were permanently busy touring or recording or promoting but it was not the most creative period and was certainly physically and emotionally draining. We also got to meet some wonderful people and they too joined us on the journey. But I suppose the biggest thing is that the success does give you some respect and helps to make sense of your obsession to yourself and those around you who have had to live with it. Re-Flex required enormous dedication.
Q: What are your feelings regarding “The Politics of Dancing” today almost 30 years later?
Paul: Sounds pretty good, so I don’t have to hide my head in shame or apologize to my kids or their friends. I didn’t listen to any of our stuff for a long time and as a result of mastering all the recordings really got back into it and think many of the songs still stand up.
Q: What do you remember about filming the video for “The Politics of Dancing”? It opened with a screen reading, “Meanwhile… The airwaves are humming with the sound of Re-Flex Radio who are transmitting from a secret hideout in the heart of metropolis. From far and wide the forces of evil are gathering. Their mission to seek out and destroy. The story continues…” What story were you telling with your video? Was it a fun experience making the video?
Paul: Oh God, making the video was horrible, particularly the first one. We made an earlier version when we signed to EMI and thankfully MTV asked if we could make another. The first was directed by somebody who frankly wasn’t very good and the second came about because I decided to take the matter into our own hands and not just leave EMI to waste our money again. Weirdly enough, this has something to do with Mariella Frostrup as she introduced me to Chips Chipperfield and we ended up making the video together that most people know. Chips was looking after a young director called Vaughn Arnell and we sort of hit it off and I think he directed two or three of our videos.
Well, all that stuff in the video was a bit silly and on reflection Bax will never forgive Vaughn for making him wear the moustache. A lot of the video is about my interest in Pirate radio and the idea of the existence of an underground culture somewhere outside of the control of the authorities. A few years ago, I edited a version of the video together which incorporates both videos (and loses the moustache) and can be found on the Re-Flex web site or possibly on Youtube.
Q: Videos became so important to a song’s success right around that same time. What are your thoughts on the impact that MTV had on music in the '80s, especially in America?
Paul: Short answer… HUGE impact for loads of musicians. Longer answer… Image became the only goal for record companies because this is what they believed sells. Sexy, young, virile are considered to be good brands, with musical talent being optional. MTV quickly became a success and a vital tool for the American music industry. The power of television cannot be denied and the impact MTV had upon music in America and later around the rest of the world was immense. You could tour and tour and tour but more people would get to see you with one play of your video which was very apparent when we arrived for our first tour in America. The arrival of MTV opened the doors for many UK bands who, after a noticeable absence during the '70s, started to make an impact on the American music charts again in the 80s.
Q: I read a great quote from you, “Although there has been much said about the association of music and drugs, little reference is made to the vast quantity of tea that is consumed… particularly common among English musicians.” That made me chuckle, but it is surely quite true. Any further comment on that?
Paul: Well, although joking, I did mean it. Loads of musicians are out the closet tea drinkers and would recommend it as a good alternative to smack or alcohol, particularly if they are keen on survival.
Q: How was it being part of the second British invasion as it were and the huge popularity that British bands were having in America during the early '80s?
Paul: It was great but I am not a fan of being told that I’m so cute just because I have an English accent. There were a lot of good things happening in the UK and we were starting to produce bands that had some fire and cheek and were writing well-crafted songs. They were not wannabe U.S. bands as they had a distinct UK identity and regarded this to be very important. America never got punk and what happened was that within the UK during the early '80s it evolved into something else that was far more U.S.-friendly and potent, combined with MTV this made it all come together.
Q: Re-Flex toured America opening up for The Police on their last tour together. How did you guys get chosen for that fine opportunity? What can you tell us about that experience of playing in front of sold out arenas and stadiums? What can you tell us about The Police and your experience touring the country with them?
Paul: Simple, Miles Copeland [brother of Stewart Copeland] was one of our managers and worked with Jeremy Pearce. But “The Politics of Dancing” had already entered the U.S. charts way before we did the tour. I had already briefly met Sting before at a studio in London as I turned up as a session musician for a record he produced. I met him later when we got to New York and was amazed that he remembered me. We got on and hung out a bit because after the tour he started to get his demos together for his first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles.
Well, touring with The Police was certainly novel and an eye opener. We had a lot of respect for the guys as musicians and towards their attitude but, although it was in many ways at their peak of their success, it wasn’t a great time between them.
As for the shock of playing in front of so many people, well that was not too easy to deal with initially, particularly as we kicked off at the Syracuse Carrier Dome which I think was then the largest indoor venue on the planet.
Q: Duran Duran released a single called “The Reflex” right around the same time Re-Flex was hitting it big with “The Politics of Dancing”. I remember being a little confused as a kid. Did you have any issues with Duran Duran using that title for their song? Did people ever think that song was by your band or vice versa?
Paul: Probably caused some confusion. It was, I believe, inspired by us. I think Nick [Rhodes] in Duran had heard of us from Nick Beggs [from Kajagoogoo] and possibly caught us when we played the Venue in London before going to the U.S. But I didn’t really mind. We ended up working with the same A&R man, the very special Dave Ambrose.
Q: Why do you feel Re-Flex wasn’t able to recapture the magic of your first big hit? I don’t think Re-Flex ever officially broke up, but why did Re-Flex stop working together?
Paul: There are loads of reasons and little to do with the music we were making. I consider some of our best material was recorded after. Maybe the politics of dancing (not the song) got in the way. We were considered to be somewhat dangerous compared to most artists and that was not easy for an industry that is based on conformity. I should say by dangerous I mean not necessarily confrontational but more in a questioning way. We also shared different values and interests to most artists and that like with others set us apart.
No, we never broke up – that’s the point, we just stopped working together. Roly and I continued to do things together but we were also still in contact with Bax who by now had moved to Los Angeles.
After the success of their debut album, Re-Flex had recorded Humanication, a follow-up in late 1984 that was to be released in February of 1985. Only one single was released from the album on the topic of environmentalism which even featured Sting on backing vocals. The album was deemed too political by the record company and never officially released. Re-Flex would record two tracks for the 1987 film Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, but would stop actively working together following that. Over 20 years later, in September of 2010, Fishman released a remastered version of The Politics of Dancing and five CDs of other previously unreleased material (including Humanication).
Q: Why did so much of your music from back then not get released until recently in 2010?
Paul: Well, we should have made the unreleased material available at the time but many of the things that make that now possible did not exist and the prime one being the internet. That, by the way, was what Humanication was about. The internet really prompted both Roly and I to do something and respond to people and fans who were still interested.
Q: What do you remember best about the decade of 80s music? What lasting impact do you feel music from the '80s has made?
Paul: The '80s is the decade of convergence, where pop music and rock were influenced by the available technology. This was the decade where the word digital first appeared. It was also where dance music really took off and the underground surfaced. Music as a result became far more international. It also embraced the hypnotic in a way that minimalist composers could have never imagined. It marked the decade of the producer and the evolution of the DJ to star. So I reckon it’s quite important and will, as so many things do, fall into perspective in time.
Q: Please tell us a little about where your career has taken you since the '80s. What are some of your proudest professional accomplishments?
Paul: I do lots of things, produce music for other artists and sometimes get involved with writing and editing books on lots of different subjects. I make things for a living. Some call it art and maybe it is. Best to go to the JHP Productions website www.jhp-productions.com and Resonance Radio www.resonancefm.com to really get a perspective.
Proudest professional moments, other than with Re-Flex, I am also proud of a lot of the other music I have written since, particularly the collaboration with writer, musician and producer De Harris. He used to be in Fashion, another early '80s band, and we started working together towards the end of the last Re-Flex recordings and continued doing for another ten years or so. Among that time I will include remixing Marvin Gaye and The Temptations and then being called by Berry Gordy to thank us for doing such an amazing job. I have been fortunate to meet and work with some very talented musicians and producers and from whom I consider I learned a lot.
Q: Is there new music in the works from Re-Flex?
Paul: Soon after Roly and I agreed to re-master all of the tracks in the archive and start working on the official and epic project that became the Re-Flex website, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He went through three operations and about a year ago when he was starting to recover agreed to make one last track together with myself and Bax. We got together last October to record the song “Vibrate Generate” and intend at some point to release it as a single and within a new compilation of the same name. The track is now completed and we are currently waiting to do one last mix. It is in many ways the ultimate Re-Flex track and probably the best thing we ever recorded. But I will let you and other fans be the judge of that. Roly sadly passed away in February.
Q: Sorry to hear about Roly. Our condolences. What else is Paul Fishman up to nowadays?
Paul: I still like making music and intend to make some more!
I am very pleased that Paul was able to take some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. I highly recommend that you check out the official website www.re-flex.com where you can find out how to purchase their music and find out a lot more about Re-Flex through a cool virtual book called “The Stage of History”. This virtual book includes six chapters detailing the band’s evolution complete with numerous interesting anecdotes. One of my favorite stories explained how their first album was finished and mixed at the historic Air Studios in London. I urge you to check out that story in Chapter 1 of the virtual book and the many others like it. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Paul Fishman for his contributions to '80s pop culture with Re-Flex and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well.