The New Cue #238 November 21: World Cup Special! Alex James on Fat Les and Vindaloo
21 November, 2022
Na na naaaa!
Welcome to your free Monday edition of The New Cue. Today we’ve got a World Cup special, a Start The Week/Story Behind The Song mash-up as Alex James tells us all about the creation of Fat Les’s 1998 footy smash Vindaloo. It contains quite the cast of characters and the revelation that, no, his bandmates in Blur weren’t into it.
Perhaps you’re more of a listener than a reader and you want to listen to Niall and Alex chat instead of reading? That’s fine, here you go, there’s even some bonus content for you as Alex shows what a pro he is by dodging a question about the Blur reunion and Niall shows what a pro he is by calling Fat Les Fat Liz. Oops!:
Enjoy the edition, we’ll see you on Wednesday.
Ted, Niall and Chris
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Start The Week With… Alex James
Alex James has done a few interviews over the past week about the small matter of Blur returning next summer to play two giant shows at Wembley Stadium. But that’s not what he’s talking about with your old maverick buddies at The New Cue, no, because instead of trying to get him to waffle on about a gig that’s not going to happen for another eight months, we’re going deep into the past, all the way back to 1998. Just as Blur were hunkering down into their post-Britpop, ‘we’re a proper band actually’ phase, Alex James went off and made one of the silliest, best and most enduring England football songs with Keith Allen and Guy Pratt and whatever other mates he could get involved. They called themselves Fat Les and the song Vindaloo. Before England play their first game later this afternoon, enjoy the tale of how it came together, told over the phone to Niall a few days ago. And happy birthday Alex!
Hello Alex. Thanks very much for doing this.
I’m absolutely delighted to be asked, thank you very much. Brightened up my day, a wet and windy Tuesday in November.
It’s not World Cup weather, is it?
It’s exactly World Cup weather! Well, it’s football weather. I mean, why are we doing it in a desert? Ridiculous FIFA ratbags.
I know. It’s what freelancing was made for, though, a winter World Cup with four games on a day.
The first England game is on my birthday so I’ll be piling down to the Legion and we’ll all be singing Vindaloo. It’s quite exciting!
I spoke to Ian Broudie last month and I asked him the same question about Three Lions: how do you feel when there’s a tournament on the horizon and you know that your song is going to be unavoidable for the next few weeks?
I know how Noddy Holder feels at Christmas. It’s half as good as a Christmas record a football record, I’ve come to realise, because it’s every two years that there’s a major tournament and Christmas is still yearly. But it’s really amazing. There was a new version of Vindaloo that I didn’t have anything to do with with Keith Lemon and a bunch of people for the last Euros. England had a good win and I looked at my phone, I was looking at iTunes, and I was like ‘wow, it’s number three’, and it went up to number two whilst I was looking! Then one of my kids sent me a screenshot of iTunes and it was number one and it was number nine as well, both versions.
Have you been astounded by its longevity?
Absolutely. It’s testament to the just keep turning up ethos of work, isn’t it? It’s one of those things that, looking back, it’s a miracle that it happened. Having said that, the first time Keith Allen came on my radar was the New Order song World In Emotion because New Order were my favourite band and I thought, ‘who’s that baldy man jumping around in the video?’. I got to know Keith, and had a few nights with him and then realised, ‘oh, that was him in that video!’.
Where did Fat Les start? Did the song come first or the idea of doing Fat Les?
Keith and I were good friends, and Damien [Hirst]. There was always a lot of boozy singing late at night, all back to mine and break out the 1001 greatest hits for buskers. There’s nothing more wonderful than singing when you’re drunk, is there? It’s better than headlining Glastonbury, a bunch of mates all singing together. Keith is a big Fulham fan and it was his birthday and I remember he got a kind of hen party stretch limo and we went down to Craven Cottage to cheer Fulham on. He liked wearing women’s underwear and standing on the terraces singing, taking cross-dressing to the masses. Ahead of his time really, quite provocative. So, me and him and Damien dressed up in some nice lingerie and piled down to Craven Cottage. I think it was April or May.
When you go to a football match and there’s lots of people all singing together, in the 21st century that’s a unique thing. When do you get groups of people singing together unaccompanied other than at football matches, mass singing like that? There’s so many great chants, the Chicory Tip Teddy Sheringham one and the Oops Upside Your Head Cantona one - fuck TikTok, these were 20 second memes that didn’t need digital technology to go viral! If you say to anyone in the UK, “ooh ahh Cantona!”, it’s absolutely locked in there in the conscience collective, it’s absolutely a real part of grassroots English culture.
So we’re all absolutely bladdered wearing women’s underwear, freezing in the cold and there was a drummer just doing that beat that really invites chanting over it. The verse stuff that was the sort of thing you might start singing along to if you’re on the terrace, “Where on earth are you from?!”, a question and answer thing. Keith was like, ‘let’s do a football record!’. I didn’t have a studio at the time so we went around to Guy Pratt’s house. He had a little studio in his cellar. Guy Pratt was the bass player in every band you’ve heard of, he was the bass player in Pink Floyd when Roger Waters left, but he also played the bass in The Smiths and in New Order, he was great. He was Trevor Horn’s session bass player. Do you know who he is?
Yeah, he does the Rockonteurs podcast with Gary Kemp, doesn’t he?
Exactly that. Guy was another roustabout person in our circle and he had a studio. So we had a drumbeat and two bass players in the band and a lunatic. Keith was just really determined so I was like, ‘alright, alright, we’ll go round to Guy’s!’. We had a couple of beers and Keith knew he wanted to make it really simple, ‘we’re going to score one more than you!’, that was the idea. It was a bunch of tunes and chants knitted together. Songwriting does tend to be quite spontaneous, it’s really simple.
Did you have any sense that you’d made this modern football song classic?
Well, I played it to my publisher and he said, “You’ll never get that on the radio.”
Yeah, do you know what? I’ve still never heard it on the radio. It’s incredible. I mean, it’s not really suitable for the parlour, is it? You hear Three Lions all the time and that twat [Wembley DJ Tony Parry] who put Sweet Caroline on after England won, which I really object to, great song but what’s it got to fucking do with England and football?! He said he had Vindaloo down to play but he thought, ‘nah’. There’s something about the boisterousness of it, it’s got an edge. I remember going to Top Of The Pops to do Vindaloo and we marched round Albert Square.
I loved that. It’s got to be one of the most chaotically brilliant TOTP performances.
Yes. The official song for that tournament was done by the Spice Girls and loads of other people, it had more songwriters than a Harry Styles single. It’s a really tricky thing to nail and many have tried because if you do get it right and get it in there, it never goes away. But I played it to my publisher who’d said, “No, you’ll never get that on the radio,” then Keith and I played it to Damien and he said, “I love it, why don’t you go to Townhouse Studios and record it and I’ll pay for it.” So Keith and I and Guy were like, ‘oh, blimey.’ Guy got his mate Magnus Fiennes, who ended up being Shakira’s musical director. Rowland Rivron played the snare drum on it, he was another one in the gang, he had this square snare drum that we thought was a good idea. It was one day in Townhouse. Making pop records, the less you can have on them the better and all we had was a drum beat and two bass players! We put the drums and bass down and it sounded absolutely massive. Then it was basically wheeling everybody in. Andy Kane did a lot of the “na na na’s”, he was the guy who basically sang all the boyband records in the 90s, it was all his voice, him doing everything on all the boyband records. That was the rumour about him. He came from a family of opera singers and he was an outcast because he sang shitty pop music.
So all that 90s boyband anguish went into Vindaloo.
Exactly! And then there was Charles Fontaine, who was also in our gang. He was the head chef at Le Caprice and The Ivy, which were the cool restaurants back then. We needed a French voice so he’s the guy saying, “Bonjour, Monsieur”. And we needed some kids voices and Lily, Keith’s daughter, was about 10 back then. She nailed it, first take. She did the answering bit in the early choruses.
And that was Lily Allen’s recording debut.
Yeah. By the time the lead vocal went on and when we worked out that you need to do the last chorus and you’ve got the counter melody going on, I think at that point we thought, ‘this is fucking cooking!’
Where’s the best place you’ve heard it?
It’s great when you’re outside a football match when people are just walking around singing it unaccompanied.
The great thing about having Keith in the band was that he’s a fucking dynamo and so certain of himself that he can just create these whole fucking realities for himself. At the time, he was married to Nira Park, who’s probably Britain’s most successful film producer now. She actually produced the Blur Country House video that Damien directed, so when it came to making the video Keith was like, “get me 100 Max Walls, get me three enormous fat men, get me David Walliams and Matt Lucas, get me Eddie Tudor-Pole.” I’d been knocking about with Paul Kaye, I love Paul Kaye, so we all piled down to Hoxton.
What do you remember about making the video?
It was just a really good day. It was an extended group of friends that got bigger and bigger and bigger. It was ridiculously simple, music at its best. There’s not even any harmony in the music, the harmony is all in the singing, I think that’s what makes music powerful, voices in harmony.
What did the rest of Blur think of it?
Oh, they hated it. I was told by management to disassociate myself from it. Sometimes, it out-earns the entire Blur catalogue. The fact that it’s just one country, it’s not even Britain, it’s England. I can’t imagine there’s many people in Scotland or Wales singing it. Apparently, they do sing it in Germany.
Was there a specific point where you realised it was catching on?
Yeah, we made the video and the video went straight to number one at The Box, which was another pre-social media, old fashioned MTV-type thing. It didn’t work on radio but that video really made it work on telly because it was funny and light-hearted. I remember somebody called me said, “Woolworths have just ordered a quarter of a million copies.”
It was absolutely insane. I’ve since heard that the two biggest weeks for single releases in the 90s were Blur and Oasis and that week, Three Lions and Vindaloo. It was a real rush to get it turned around in time for the for the World Cup. I was basically following the advice given by Bill Drummond in The Manual: How To Have A Number One The Easy Way, because it was our label and it was just me and Keith and Damien and then eventually Joe Strummer got involved as well. It just went absolutely bonkers and it has been ever since. It’s just wonderful.