Skip to content

Paul Haig \ Biography

Together with Orange Juice, Aztec Camera and The Go-Betweens, Josef K were one of the Postcard label's million dollar quartets, recording five smart singles and an album, The Only Fun In Town. Touring the album during July and August of 1981, however, the band split after a final show in Glasgow. The exact reasons behind the split - principally the decision of frontman Paul Haig - remain obscure, although it would seem that a combination of too-great expectations, too-small financial returns, Haig's dislike of touring, and unspecified disagreements over future direction were to blame. Fancifully, Postcard boss Alan Horne pointed the finger of blame at the NME... Whatever the truth, one of the Great White Hopes of the post-punk had self-destructed after just one long player, thus fulfilling their own brash prophecy.

Interviewed by Johnny Waller in Sounds the following year, Paul Haig confessed: "I was pretty depressed for a week because it was the end of an era, but after that I was really happy that we'd split, because I could get on with everything I wanted to do. I don't listen to any of those records now. It's all gone. Nothing from that period interests me, except maybe Sorry For Laughing. We didn't really get on all that well towards the end, so there were no jokes, no happy feeling. It was just down to doing a job. Josef K weren't that famous anyway. We've split up, so what? Everybody changes."

Tellingly, the singer who had named his band in homage to the existential anti-hero of Franz Kafka's The Trial also revealed that he had "lost a lot of the ideals I had in Josef K. About not wanting to be commercially successful, suffering for your art and all that. Not that I wasn't sincere about it at the time... But I got sick of it. I want to be signed to a major and make a great record that will get radio airplay and be a big hit, then make my own money from that. I don't mind being manipulated to a certain extent in order to get what I want, but in time I want to control everything."

It's a lofty ideal from which Haig, sometimes to his detriment, has never strayed. With Postcard disintegrating in the wake of the Jokay split, Haig opted to team up with stylish Belgian indie Les Disques du Crépuscule for mainstream solo releases, and also adopted the moniker Rhythm of Life for a variety of side-projects. These included two low-key 7" singles on tiny Rational Records (run by manager Allan Campbell), Soon being a collaboration with fellow Edinburgh musician Steven Harrison, while Uncle Sam was essentially a vanity record by Sebastian Horsley, infamous artist and bon viveur. Also via Rational, Haig released a cassette of bizarre home-recorded electronica titled Drama, featuring Kafka texts set to music, as well as an odd deconstruction of Josef K's Forever Drone. With just 700 copies manufactured collectors will be hard pressed to track down a copy today, though this minor DIY curiosity hardly counts as a debut album.

Haig made his solo live debut in Edinburgh and London in January 1982, once again as Rhythm of Life. At this stage his new material was not so very different from late period Josef K classics such as Heaven Sent, Adoration and Heart of Song, albeit with a greater emphasis on stripped-down funk rhythms. According to NME's Dave Hill, during a show at The Venue: "Rhythm of Life remained a mystery. Initially they seem like an artful re-arrangement of the Iggy-Oakey ice-box delivery, and the Bogart mailorder catalogue, into a perfect cliche of the same. But how straight are their faces? I don't know, but Haig projects with the efficiency of a sly android, blonde, doleful and besuited, spooning each painstaking tune with an immaculate croon. All is calm and self-contained... Since Josef K split Haig has pursued several lines, yet the cool execution of this show is undeniable, elegant and curvaceous.

The following month Rhythm of Life took part in Crépuscule's first trans-European package tour, titled Dialogue North-South, also featuring Durutti Column, The Names, Marine, Richard Jobson, Antena and Tuxedomoon. Eschewing a live drummer in favour of a rhythm box, RoL earned plaudits for their snappy brand of fluid funk minimalism, and five excerpts from these shows would later make it onto a souvenir compilation album (TWI 082)."I was originally going to do it with Sebastian Horsley," recalls Haig, "but then decided it would be better with a proper band, so we put together Rhythm of Life. It was an open project. The main thing was that I didn't want to be at the centre of it all. The initial idea really was just to keep working with different people under the name Rhythm of Life."

The following month Haig elected to relocate to Brussels, there embarking on an intensive recording schedule at Little Big One studio, where The Only Fun In Town had been speedily recorded just a year earlier. These sessions yielded two self-produced singles, Running Away and Justice, although after just four months Haig grew tired of continental living and returned home to Edinburgh. A charming electropop cover of the Sly Stone classic, with backing vocals by labelmates Antena, Running Away (TWI 089) appeared in May and topped the UK indie chart, its success unhampered by the simultaneous release of a rival version by The Raincoats.

"When I first moved over to Brussels Michel Duval played me a tape of Running Away, which I'd forgotten about. But I'd always liked it. It's a really nice, catchy tune. He jokingly said, why don't you do a cover version of it? Isabelle and Pascale were enthusiastic about doing the backing vocals. And quite drunk!"

During his extended sojourn in the Belgian capitol Haig also recorded Swing In '82. Originally intended for release as a 10" EP, Swing... saw Haig tackle six big band numbers in the style of vintage crooners such as Frank Sinatra. "After listening to lots of Sinatra records I became aware of these fantastic old songs," Haig explained to Masterbag magazine. "I think the music and the lyrics are absolutely incredible - especially the lyrics. The 'swing' side starts with The Song Is You, then All of You and Let's Face the Music and Dance. The 'dream' side is Love Me Tender, The Way You Look Tonight and Send in the Clowns. I think the first side is around 1938, with songs by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, people like that. The second side is slightly more modern."

"The basic instrumentation on side one is just drums, double bass and piano, with the addition of string synthesiser on side two. We had to try about three sets of musicians before we found these old session musicians that had been playing jazz all their lives. The plano player must have been 70 years old! The drummer was quite young, in his mid twenties, so it was quite a challenge for him to keep pace with these brilliant jazz musicians, as it was for me too. I'm sure they thought it was a joke. I remember I turned up at the studio the morning they arrived. They said, 'Are you the singer? The producer?' They looked at each other in disbelief."

While fans of Vic Godard and Weekend no doubt found much to admire, others were perplexed. "It could either be slammed or it could be looked upon as something brilliant," Haig predicted. "I tend to think that in England it's going to be laughed at, but I don't think that's justified because the musicianship is really, really good on it. If anyone slags it off then it must be for some other reason, but they can't fault the playing."

As it turned out, both Swing In '82 (TWI 094) and Justice (TWI 100) would be shelved after Crépuscule signed a licensing deal with Island, the boutique major label founded by Chris Blackwell. Nevertheless a handful of 7" test pressings of Justice survive, as does a limited 12" release on Crépuscule sub-label Interference featuring two dance mixes of Blue For You, although this was intended more as a DJ platter. Swing... belatedly emerged in 1985, with the original six tracks whittled down to five.

In July, with just one solo single to his name, Haig found himself labelled "the face and sound of 1982" by writer Paul Morley in a lead feature for NME. According to Morley, Haig was the "enigmatic fourth man" in a quartet completed by Billy Mackenzie, Jim Kerr and Martin Fry - all New Pop saviours in a singular parallel universe where Dollar stood out as "the most avant-garde group in the world." Even by Morley's standards the statement was ludicrous, although at ZTT two years later he would partiually validate it by nudging Propaganda to cover Sorry For Laughing on their debut album A Secret Wish.

The media hype around Haig paved the way for a comprehensive licensing deal with Island, together with a substantial injection of cash. This arrangement saw Haig record his own first album Rhythm of Life in New York at the close of 1982, with the late Alex Sadkin in the producer's chair. The Big Apple sessions featured a host of crack sessioneers including Bernie Worrell (Parliament/Funkadelic), Anton Fier (Feelies/Golden Palaminos) and Jack Waldman (Robert Palmer), although this new direction - a brand of highly polished club pop - was a million miles removed from the Sound of Young Scotland and Josef K. Fine though songs such as Justice, Adoration and Heaven Sent undoubtedly were, Rhythm of Life presented very much as a producer's record, and in surrendering a measure of artistic control Haig sounded at times like a guest on his own record. It hardly helped that Alex Sadkin was then heavily involved with the insipid Thompson Twins, whose Tom Bailey also guested in the studio.

"It was always the intention to use a producer on the first album," reasons Haig today. "I really liked what Trevor Horn was doing then. We also thought about Rhett Davies [Roxy Music] and Daniel Miller. I wanted to make polished disco music with something else thrown in - although maybe there was a certain coldness to the first album that became apparent later. In New York I started to feel that the album was slipping out of my control a bit, so I insisted on being more involved in Heaven Sent and getting a co-production credit. It's a bit weirder than some of the other tracks, with some backwards percussion and other dark stuff. Lead single from the album, but not a hit."

Despite Island's best marketing efforts Heaven Sent stalled at 74 and failed to provide Haig with the hit so many had confidently predicted. Rhythm Of Life appeared in October 1983 and was accompanied by a short UK tour comprising seven select dates. Haig's touring group notably included Josef K cohort Malcolm Ross on guitar, together with bassist David McClymont (like Ross fresh from Orange Juice), drummer James Locke and former Associate Alan Rankine. While the album sold respectably, however, Haig found himself caught between two commercial stools. In embracing the mainstream Haig had perhaps moved too far too fast, with big dance beats alienating many Josef K fans not yet ready to trade their raincoats for a sharp Italian two-piece and a place in line outside Studio 54.

Moreover by the the time the album came out New Order's landmark single Blue Monday had largely redefined the entire European electro-dance genre. Reviewing Rhythm Of Life in NME, Chris Bohn lamented the fate of an artist "dropped somewhere mid-Atlantic and left to drown in liquid demi-disco. Though four percussionists are credited the record has no forward momentum. It sort of slithers across the dancefloor. More than a name producer and an NY studio he needs sympathetic musicians to bring out the character of his songs."

Never Give Up and a re-tooled Justice followed as singles, but neither provided solid hits which might have allowed Haig to cross over to a new, wider audience. Inexplicably Island failed even to release the album (or the singles) in the US - the very market for which they had been tailored. Although a more adventurous New York Remix mini-album was belatedly issued in America in 1984, it provided a textbook example of too little too late. "It all went a bit funny when I signed to Island," laments Haig. "They wanted a pop image to sell... and they didn't get one."

True, Melody Maker awarded Haig the dubious accolade of 'Rock Haircut of the Year', but relations with Island were becoming strained. Incoming MD Dave Robinson showed little enthusiasm for Haig's music, while an overly candid interview in Sounds and an abortive appearance on a kids' television show (Hold Tight) soured relations further still. Meanwhile Haig began working in the studio with Alan Rankine, who as one half of The Assciates had enjoyed hits with Party Fears Two and Club Country."I think the first record I made with Alan was Big Blue World. I knew Alan and Billy from when they first began playing around Edinburgh as The Associates. Then Alan played keyboards and guitar on the Rhythm of Life tour in 1983, and we began to collaborate in the studio."

Haig recorded Big Blue World as a possible single in December, and over the following months would also collaborate with a clutch of compatible post-punk peers, recording electro track The Only Truth in Manchester with Bernard Sumner and Donald Johnson (of New Order and A Certain Ratio respectively), and taping The Executioner with Cabaret Voltaire at Western Works in Sheffield. "It was Duval's idea to record with Bernard Sumner and Donald Johnson, and probably his idea to have a Peter Saville sleeve too. At the time some people said that Bernard made it sound like New Order, but the original eight-track demo was pretty much the same as the finished record. Donald added some slap bass and extra percussion. Bernard seemed to spend hours testing a sequencer for onstage reliability."

Work continued on the second solo album throughout 1984. "It was meant to be more eclectic than the first," explains Haig, "although it didn't necessarily turn out that way. Someone at Island thought that New Order were producing the whole album and kept pouring money in. In fact most of it was recorded by me and Alan Rankine in London at the Roundhouse and also the Fallout Shelter [aka Basing Street], where we spent ages trying to get good sounds because the available technology wasn't that great. The Only Truth was plugged as a single in June, but then Dave Robinson refused to put out Big Blue World, claiming that it wasn't a hit. We rushed it out on Crépuscule anyway and got single of the week in Smash Hits or Record Mirror, but because Big Blue World was an import on a small label the airplay just wasn't there."

The commercial failure of The Only Truth as a single led to Island severing the Crépuscule connection, and as a result that Haig's untitled sophomore album was shelved. Rather than release this set on Crépuscule it was decided to combine half the album with several new (and stronger) songs. Haig launched his fightback in September 1985 with a powerful single, Heaven Help You Now (TWI 624), followed in November by an excellent second album, The Warp Of Pure Fun. Co-produced with Alan Rankine, Warp (TWI 669) was a far more involving collection than its predecessor, offering warmer songs and arrangements, and live drums in place of robotic rhythm tracks. Indeed second single Love Eternal (TWI 660) stands as one of Haig's very best songs. "I wrote that coming home from a holiday on the Isle of Mull, and couldn't speak to my girlfriend for the entire journey because I was desperately trying to remember the words and music. No handy dictaphone."

Most of the new recordings had been made at Palladium in Edinburgh. "Heaven Help You Now had already been worked out in demo form but got built up in the studio. They had a brand new Kurzweil K250 sampling keyboard, which was a kind of Holy Grail at the time. It cost around £12,000. Jon Turner, who owned Palladium, had played with Demis Roussos, and did a lot of stuff for 4AD."

In the UK Warp appeared on a short-lived Crépuscule offshoot, Operation Afterglow, but while the album performed well as an independent release, Afterglow and indie distributor Pinnacle could not elevate it into the national chart. It is interesting to ponder how different things might have been had the album appeared on the Paul Morley-steered ZTT. But then ZTT was owned by Island...

Unhappy with limited sales, Haig departed Crépuscule in search of another major label deal. After demos recorded for EMI came to nothing, Haig spent much of 1986 writing more new songs, as well as embarking on a fruitful partnership with another former Associate: Billy Mackenzie. The result was a brace of low key dates in Glasgow and Edinburgh, mixing their own greatest hits with covers including Running Away and Yoko Ono's Walking On Thin Ice. The pair also performed Amazing Grace on a Scots Hogmanay television programme, and later each would donate a song to the other's next studio album. Much warm light on the pair's firm friendship is cast by Tom Doyle's admirable Mackenzie biography, Glamour Chase, published by Bloomsbury in 1998.

Haig briefly returned to Brussels and Crépuscule in September 1987 to tape a clutch of new tracks, although the only new record to emerge was Torchomatic (TWI 832), replete with spy theme and a home-recorded instrumental cycle on the 12" flipside. A compilation album titled European Sun (TWI 829) followed, including several tracks from the shelved Island album not included on Warp, as well as rare b-sides and The Executioner, his collaboration with Cabaret Voltaire.

"I went over to record a couple of new songs," recalls Haig. "Reach the Top and Swinging for You. Studio Katy was quite famous at the time, Marvin Gaye had recorded there, but the in-house accommodation was pretty basic and I had this horrible attack of sleep paralysis, which freaked me out and cast a shadow over the whole session. Torchomatic was done almost as an afterthought at the end of the session, but I think it was the best track of the three. Probably due to the sleep paralysis. At the time a lot of people thought Reach the Top had the makings of a big hit, including ZTT, and Billy Mackenzie recorded it as a comeback single. Then Warners had Billy release a cover version instead, Heart of Glass, and my version of Reach the Top didn't come out either. It's a funny old business."

At the beginning of 1988 Haig took a bold decision to finance the recording of his next album himself, once again co-producing with Alan Rankine. Virgin offshoot Circa purchased the tapes in August but chose not to release album until May of the following year. Neither Chain nor the brilliant lead single, Something Good, broke commercially, and to some came as a slight disapppontment, with strong material undermined in places by weaker arrangements. Haig did however gird himself for a nine-date UK tour, and a showcase at the ICA in London on May 18th saw the man and his band in fine form. A club single credited to Dub Organiser also slipped out, recorded in collaboration with former manager Allan Campbell and issued on Manchester indie label Play Hard.

Unperturbed by Chain's modest commercial showing Circa financed the recording of a brand new album, produced in New York and Chicago by dance gurus Curtis Mantronik and Lil' Louis, along with contributions from The Chimes, whose drummer James Locke had been a periodic Haig collaborator since 1981. This expansive, state-of-the-art album marked a timely return to the overt dance orientation of Rhythm of Life five years earlier, a move semaphored by its working title, Right On Line. As Haig explained to Melody Maker: "This is essentially a dance album, but it has a lot of different elements in there that you don't normally hear on dance albums. There's a lot of hooks and pop influences, but no rock influences - thank God! The whole idea was to work with different producers and let them get on with it, which was a departure since I'd produced myself for so long."

"We recorded the stuff with Mantronik at his Sound Factory studio. He works very quickly, rattling stuff off in a couple of hours. He replaced all my beats with a combination of programming and breakbeats, mostly '70s funk stuff. Louis took a completely different approach. He replaced the rhythm tracks on two of the songs and one we left as was. He works with much more basic equipment - he's not as computerised as Mantronik. There was absolutely no sampling with Louis, he's much more into the 'real musician' school of thinking."

Produced by The Chimes, I Believe In You was a fine single which found a measure of club success and excellent press. Nevertheless Circa delayed releasing the parent album until a reboot Flight X (featuring rapper The Voice Of Reason) broke. When two versions of this track stalled early in 1991 the album was shelved. Unlike the loss of the second Island album this was a nothing short of a disaster, since Right On Line for the most part consisted of pin-sharp original material, and ranks beside Warp as Haig's best and most coherant solo work.

With the album in limbo, Haig released an instrumental set of imaginary film themes through LTM, who had previously issued the Josef K back catalogue on CD. Cinematique appeared in September 1991 to glowing reviews, and comprised three distinct suites: City of Fun (accomplished noir jazz), Lagondola (new age, almost) and Flashback (electronica). In 1993 the lost album finally emerged as Coincidence Vs Fate on the ever-accommodating Crépuscule label (TWI 962), with two newer tracks added. Despite warm reviews. however, neither release sold in large numbers, due in part to Haig's innate reluctance to undertake orthodox (self) promotion.

"I just don't like playing live much," he candidly admits. "Maybe once every two years. Up on stage it's very strange. It just seems an awkward situation to be in. You're on stage and there's all these people looking up at you. I can't help laughing at the thought of it. I just want to do it as little as possible. Other people love it. It only depends on what kind of person you are, if your ego can cope with it. Weird, eh?"

"With me it's quite simple. I just do my own thing and don't compromise for anybody. If you can do this and still succeed, that's perfect. It's just music and records. I find the rest of it completely alien and uncomfortable."

Since 1993 Haig has released two further volumes of Cinematique through his own RoL imprint, as well as several archive releases by the late, much lamented Billy Mackenzie. Memory Palace (1999) compiled a number of tracks recorded as joint demos by the pair, as well as touching tribute single Listen To Me. RoL has also issued albums by Skyline and Subterraneans, while Haig has collaborated on projects by Fini Tribe (Sleazy Listening), Justin Robertson (Revtone) and La Roux (Sidetracked). In 2004 Glasgow group Franz Ferdinand stormed the charts with a close approximation of the Josef K sound and image, a debt repaid by label Domino with a smart compilation titled Entomology. Despite lacking the larger recording budgets available during his Eighties heyday, a steady stream of self-produced solo albums by Haig are all well worth seeking out: Electronik Audience (2007), Go Out Tonight (2008), Relive (2009) and Kube (2013).

2014 brought After Twilight, a career-spanning best of collection on the revived Crépuscule imprint (TWI 1154), as well as definitive remasters of The Only Fun In Town on CD and vinyl. His songs might never have crossed into the mainstream, but by any measure Paul Haig was a serious New Pop contender, and should have equalled the success of peers such as Matt Johnson or David Sylvian. His avowed desire for complete control in the hard-knock world of major labels and name producers might have been an impossible dream, but his cult status as an outsider pop icon is surely now assured.

James Nice
May 2014

Official Paul Haig website www.paulhaig.com.

Paul Haig