When Jools Holland’s not suppressing rebellions in Kent, he’s listing the service stations he’s visited or playing boogie-woogie. Whatever happened to rock’n’roll? asks Nigel Farndale
Like a water spider skitting across the surface of conversation, that’s Jools Holland. It’s to do with his wandering focus: he nods and smiles constantly, but rarely concentrates on what you are saying, still less on what he is saying. It’s also to do with his relentless flippancy and jocularity.
When, for example, the talk turns to his move from a town house in Blackheath, south-east London, to Cooling Castle, near Rochester in Kent, he gives a cheery nod and a smile. ‘Wherever I lay my flat cap is my home,’ he says, pleased with his joke, and with himself. He also seems pleased with his new role as lord of the manor: when he got married last year, after a 16-year courtship, he gave a slice of wedding cake to all of the villagers.
His wife, Christabel, is a member of a landed Scottish family and was formerly married to the Earl of Durham. Among the 800 wedding guests were the couple’s 16-year-old daughter, Mabel, Ringo Starr, Stephen Fry and the McCartneys, who flew in by helicopter for the reception. The Prince of Wales couldn’t make it, though he did invite Holland to his wedding, earlier that year. Connected, in a word. A pillar of the establishment, even. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that this former punk rocker has just been appointed deputy lieutenant for Kent.
Does he, I ask, wear a flat cap in his official capacity? ‘Not when I’m being DL, no. I wear one when I am going dog-racing. Hardly any dog tracks left. All gone now. Catford. Wembley. Mad. Great sadness.’ This is how he talks, by the way. In rapid, clipped, one-word sentences delivered in a reedy, back-of-the-throat, south-London voice.
I ask if the DL of K gets to pin medals on people, on behalf of the Sovereign. ‘I haven’t yet but I would be very happy to deliver a telegram from the Queen to someone who is 100. I think it is my duty to promote Kent and to suppress any rebellions. Every five minutes there is an uprising of some sort. Peasants revolt – that started in Kent. And when Mary I was marrying Philip of Spain it was the people of Kent who came and rebelled. But I would like to reassure all your readers that they can sleep soundly in their beds now that I have control of Kent. I also keep an eye on our coastal borders, in case there is an invasion. There was a report recently that the Germans were planning to include Kent as part of France in a new map of Europe, and that is exactly the sort of thing I like to keep my eye on.’
As we are in Kensington today, at the HQ of his record label, Holland is not wearing a Kentish flat cap. He has gone, instead, for a more spivvy, London look: black suit with velvet piping, Chelsea boots, clunky diamond cufflinks and a Rolex watch. His fingernails are dirty and there is writing on the back of his hand. ‘It’s only within the past five years that I have found the right thing to wear,’ he says. ‘When Squeeze started touring America in the summer of 1978 – one of the hottest summers America had known – I turned up with a fur coat and snow boots. I had had no idea what to expect and I had to carry them around America for two months.’
He was only 20 then, a tender age to experience rock stardom. Squeeze had two big hits under their belts that summer: Up the Junction and Cool for Cats, both of which sold more than half a million copies. They weren’t really a punk band – their tunes were too catchy and cheerful, their lyrics too clever – but they got lumped in with the punk movement, like the Police, with whom they shared a manager. Did they also share groupies? ‘That is one of the benefits of being young and handsome and playing music. I still play music.
‘Also, if the other members of the band were off their faces that meant you could move in on the lady folk. I look back with fondness on all that, but it is like looking back on another life. We would check into hotels that were more comfortable than my flat. Now my house is more comfortable than most hotels.’
Ah yes, the hotels. Holland keeps a diary in which he records such minutiae as the size of hotel room he is staying in, as well as the merits of service stations he has frequented. It suggests he is in touch with his inner anorak. Still to be obsessed with boogie-woogie after all these years also, perhaps, shows a want of imagination. He has, after all, been playing it since he was eight.
He had been taught to play St Louis Blues on the piano by his Uncle David and could soon play fluently by ear. ‘I was lucky,’ he tells me rather touchingly, ‘because when I heard my uncle play boogie-woogie on the piano for the first time, the cosmology of the room came into focus. I was mesmerised by the way the left hand could play a constant riff while the right hand rolled off on its own. And I’m still mesmerised.’
Holland left Squeeze at the height of the band’s success, because ‘I like to be in charge. I like a benign dictatorship. In Squeeze I wasn’t the dictator.’ He formed his own band, which soon fizzled out. The chance then arose to host a documentary about the Police recording a new album at George Martin’s studio in Montserrat. Holland proved a natural in front of the camera: confident, irreverent, witty.
At one point, Stewart Copeland, the Police drummer, was demonstrating different styles of guitar-playing and Holland silenced his exhibitionism with an abrupt, dismissive: ‘That’s enough of all that.’ The documentary led to him being asked to co-host The Tube, with Paula Yates, live from Newcastle every Friday night. ‘When we did the audition we thought: We don’t want to do this. Imagine coming up here every week. So we were off-hand and rude and badly behaved, which it turned out was just what the producers were looking for.’
The Tube, which ran for five years between 1981 and 1986, was chaotic, ground-breaking and compelling. It featured unsigned bands alongside rising and established figures, but the undoubted stars were the hosts: Holland’s nonchalance and cynicism was the perfect complement to Yates’s flirtatiousness and anarchism. ‘I feel I ought to apologise to the people of Britain for my interviewing style on The Tube,’ Holland says. ‘I think I ushered in a more ill-mannered and disrespectful form of television. All I can say in my defence is that there was a certain earnestness and humourlessness about television interviewing at that time and we wanted to subvert it a bit.’
Later With Jools Holland has re-awakened the innovative spirit of The Tube, and is now in its 26th series. Among the new talents it has introduced over the years are Catatonia, Travis, Macy Gray, Gomez, Stereophonics and The Fugees. The highlight of each show is the moment when all Holland’s guests play together. That the show has been running for so long – 14 years – makes you appreciate Holland’s own longevity. He is 48 but seems older. Not in terms of looks but… When he was a young man hosting The Tube, he seemed oddly old and world-weary, using old-fashioned, not very rock’n’roll expressions, such as ‘splendid’ and ‘ladies and gentlemen’.
‘I know exactly what you mean,’ he says, helping me out. ‘Funnily enough, a friend of mine had a load of videos of The Tube and is just putting them on to DVD for me because I wanted to show them to my daughter who is friends with Pixie, Paula’s daughter. [Holland has three children: two from an earlier relationship.] And I watched a bit of one yesterday and it was odd to see what an overly confident, cocky person I appeared to be – because I hadn’t done that much television at the time. But I was clearly a big “reckon-I-am” person and, for some reason, that seemed to work. At the time, market research suggested that people saw me as an older brother figure, even though I was only 23.’
He must miss Paula Yates. ‘Well, it was sad what happened to her. She was so funny and sharp. The friend who is transferring The Tube onto DVD came across this moment where she calls me a stupid c— just off the microphone. He isolated the sound and said: “Listen to this. Probably the first time that word had been used on television and no one noticed it.” Well done Paula. You couldn’t be pretentious with her. She would catch people off balance. The moment she made me howl with laughter was when she introduced “Fred Mercury”. Freddie was so not a Fred…’ Holland has been commissioned to write his memoirs.
‘I’ve got up to 1994 so – when did Paula die? – I don’t think I’ve quite got up to where she drops dead yet.’ He is referring to Yates’s death from a heroin overdose in 2000. ‘But you have to have the high and lows,’ he continues in an inappropriately jokey voice, ‘the tears and the laughter!’ Did he have no intimation of Yates’s impending meltdown? ‘I didn’t sense the seeds of that at all, no. There was no sign at all that she was anything other than a teetotal, devoted mother who was very quick and amusing. There was no portent of things to come.’
How has he managed to survive so long himself in the rock world, without sliding into drug dependency, I mean? ‘It’s funny, I dreamed last night that Rod Stewart was trying to give me loads of cocaine. That was a strange dream to have.’ Especially given Rod’s legendary stinginess. ‘Exactly… But it was just a dream.’
What about when Holland is awake? I imagine he is no stranger to cocaine. Long pause. Much nodding. A smile, slightly cautious this time, the smile of the DL of K. ‘Inevitably around music there is drugs.’ Inevitably. ‘But you can’t generalise because one person can have a puff of marijuana and it will send them off their rocker. And cocaine can make people go mad, too.’
‘People’ as in Jools Holland? Pause. ‘I think I went mad on cocaine for a while, yes.’
And then? ‘And then, after a while, it made me nauseous, so I was lucky. What I did notice before I stopped was that three days later it would make me very short-tempered. It crept up on me and was changing my personality, making me twitchy and unpleasant. Also, I would spend hours talking to people I wouldn’t normally talk to. Also, it doesn’t make music sound any better.
‘People taking coke grind their teeth and imagine they want more and more sex. A jazz cigarette, on the other hand, can sometimes open the door to helping you understand a piece of music better. It’s like alcohol. Some people can’t drink. Paula Yates couldn’t. After one drink she would go mad. No tolerance. Personally, I do like a nice pint of bitter.’
Born in Deptford in 1958, Julian Holland had a happy if impoverished and peripatetic childhood. He is vague about what his father, Derek, did for a living, partly because he never stayed in one job for long. They once went without electricity for a year, and he recalls his father hiding from the rent-collector – but there were also short periods when there was money for cigars and vintage claret.
Did it bother him that there was no money around? ‘Actually, once I was aged 14 there was quite a bit of money. My father had various successes. My parents were very young. Still alive. My father had lots of books. Always read to me. Greek myths. Firing my imagination. And once I started to play piano he would bring home abstract jazz records for me to listen to.’
Did he want his father’s approval? ‘Every child who plays an instrument wants his parents to look at him. You want to show off your talent. And the desire and ability to show off is essential to success as a performer. I would drive everyone mad playing the piano. I would do it all day, relentlessly. In a confined space. You need to be obsessive about it.’
Holland’s relationship with Christabel was threatened in its early days by a potentially disastrous episode. Christabel asked Holland to put £35,000 worth of jewellery in a bank before going on tour to America. Instead, he left it in a briefcase at his studio and it was stolen – by his own father. Jools had to sit in court and see Derek Holland admit to having sold the hoard to finance a trip around the world. Holland Snr was jailed for 15 months. Holland Jnr described the case as embarrassing but said that both he and Christabel had decided to help his father seek psychiatric treatment.
I wonder if he sees some of his father in his own behaviour. ‘What do you mean?’ I mean his impulsiveness, a certain self-destructiveness. ‘Such as?’ Well not only did he leave Squeeze when the band was on a roll, but also, in a way, The Tube. He was suspended from it for declaring on a live trailer for the programme: ‘If you’re a groovy f—–, you’ll watch The Tube.’ He must have known that would get him sacked. ‘That was an inadvertent slip of the tongue. I wasn’t concentrating.’
Freud would argue that slips of the tongue are a way for the unconscious mind to reveal true feelings and motives. ‘You mean I might have unconsciously been trying to get out of the show? Well, possibly. I think by then I was getting tired of The Tube. It was convenient to be out of it.’
Also, he was expelled from school for wrecking a teacher’s Triumph Herald – he let the handbrake off and it rolled down a hill. ‘Expulsion is a strong word. It wasn’t as if I was an awful trouble-maker. Just one or two misunderstandings. I don’t think it was deliberate, letting the handbrake off. At the time, in my shallow mind, I found humour in the situation. Not really caring about school. I felt I already knew what I wanted to do, which was play the piano and show off.’
He wanted to be famous? ‘In a babyish way, yes. I fantasised about it. I wanted to be like The Beatles. I would listen to Motown and country and think: I could do that.’
Looking back at his life as he writes his memoirs, has he learned anything about himself? ‘Yes, I look at that fellow on The Tube and the fellow in the Squeeze video and I see a different person. I think I’m a slightly improved person now. Or, at least, more aware that there is scope for improvement.’ Less arrogant then, but is he more introspective? ‘Not particularly, no. More tolerant of my own mistakes and, therefore, other people’s perhaps.’
He seems a cheerful person. Is he always like this or are there ever long nights of the soul? ‘The short answer is no, I don’t. I have a lot to be positive about.’ What I’m getting at, I think, is that actually, it might just be that he is rather shallow. Is he? ‘Um. No, I think… Um. I think there is great joy in making music. It is the main focus for my life. Wherever I go, as long as there is a piano in the room, I am happy.
‘As you get older, you realise what your true needs are. Although I have more stuff, I have come to realise that my requirements in life are quite basic. I do get a certain cheerfulness and positive-thinking from my mum. She was once knocked off a motorbike and, as she was up in the air, she was thinking: this is good. I might get a day off tomorrow.’
Part of the positivism is a tendency to talk himself up. ‘I have made and sold more records in the past seven years than I have at any other time in my career, ‘ he says. ‘More than with Squeeze. It’s amazing at my age to be doing that. It feels like I’m doing my career in reverse.’
Soon after Squeeze ended he formed The Jools Holland Big Band, which consisted of him and a drummer. This gradually metamorphosed into the current 18-piece Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. They are touring until Christmas, including dates at the Royal Albert Hall. They also have a new album out, ‘Moving to the Country’, featuring Bob Geldof, Dr John and Mark Knopfler, among other guests.
It is essentially a country album, hence the title. A departure for him. Who is his market going to be? Is his intention to lure people in who don’t normally try country? ‘Lure is a good word. I like the word lure. Yes, because it is playing country songs, but not in the country style. Brian Eno is one of the guests and he sounds like Brian Eno. I hope people won’t be frightened off by the word “country”.’
His band is certainly successful: his last album, in 2004, went straight into the charts at number five. Still, Squeeze could have been… well, maybe as big as U2, with whom they used to tour. Does he have no regrets about giving that up? ‘Squeeze did play huge stadiums in America. Places such as Madison Square Garden… I remember playing the Hope and Anchor with U2 and there were two men and a dog in the audience then the dog left. So we were each other’s audience. You want success for your friends so I look at Bono with pleasure rather than jealousy.’
So Gore Vidal’s aphorism – ‘When a friend succeeds a little part of me dies’ – does not apply? ‘There is an element of that. If you want to see jealousy look at artists. People who own vast amount of land are very jealous, too, I’ve noticed, of people who own slightly more vast areas of land. But, no. Not really. With U2, I don’t think it matters the size of the venue as long as that love of the music is there. I know that sounds…’ Cheesy? ‘Cheesy. But it’s true.’
Key interests ‘Wherever I go, as long as there is a piano in the room, I’m happy,’ says Jools Holland In reflective mood ‘I look at that fellow on The Tube and the fellow in the Squeeze video and I see a different person’