See-through suits and Marvin Gaye: Leee John talks.
The Imagination front man and 1980's all-round soul funk hero is here to answer our rather silly questions ahead of his performance at Chilfest this summer.
Dust off your lurex jumpsuits, people – it’s Chilfest time again across the border in Tring in July, and performing on the super Saturday is Imagination’s Leee John. Gotta tell you, I had a memorable night as a wide-eyed 14 year old at an Imagination gig in Cardiff back in the 19th century, when I watched open mouthed while Leee did a bit of, you know, ‘Body Talk’ in gold lamé leather trousers. Those were the days. Anyhoo, prior to him dropping his soul-funk fusion come July, we’ve been on the blower to discuss those early ’80’s outfits and serenading Motown legends. Like you do.
Hey Leee, what have you been doing in lockdown? Anything more thrilling than dabbling with some banana bread?
Well, actually, lockdown has been a very creative time for me. I’ve been working for the past decade on a film project called Flashback [out in 2022], about British black music, and we’ve got over 600-700 hours of interviews with artists and producers and so on, so there’s a lot of work to do there. I also produced a smooth jazz album with Bill Sharpe of Shakatak. And then I had a big hit – The Lost Chord – with Gorillaz so last December was incredibly busy filming the video for The Lost Chord and performing three streamed live shows in Europe, America and the Far East. Next year is going to be 40 years of Imagination, so we have a 14-album boxset and a special show to organise. And then, of course, I’m doing Chilfest.
Wow. You’ve been busy.
I thought it was the best thing to do. I didn’t let lockdown get to me. I thought, “OK, let’s readjust.” Sure, there are down days but I’ve been exercising every morning, working every day, finishing at 6pm, having weekends off. I didn’t think of it as holiday time.
How’s it working with Damon Albarn, because he’s a creative soul too, isn’t he?
It’s great! I’m crazy, he’s crazy, all the Gorillaz crew are crazy – but in a creative way. It was good. And very nice to feel appreciated.
Ok, so you’re playing Chilfest. What’s the best thing about festivals? And, er… the worst?
[Laughs] The worst thing about festivals is travelling to them because most of the time they’re behind god’s back, and you don’t know where the hell you are! But, generally, it’s great fun because I get to meet artists that I admire, or who I haven’t seen for a long time, and the audiences are great. They’re really varied and you hear all these little stories like: [puts on East London accent] “I called my little boy Leee because Body Talk was always on when I was growing up.” I’m already getting emails from people who are coming to Chilfest saying, “I’m going to be there, are you going to sing that song?” And I love performing, to get out there and go on stage. It’s already a “What is Leee John going to wear?” kind of situation.
Ah, yes, the outfits… We’ll come to that later. But first, how different is touring now to the heyday of Imagination?
Erm… you get a few more aches and pains. [Guffaws]
Are you rubbing on Deep Heat as you go on stage?
Well, yeah. After I’ve done three spins and put my leg up, you do feel it a bit more. I do a lot of swimming to help. You have to train for it. But because we’re compiling all these tracks for the anniversary next year, I was recently watching myself do an early live show for the first time in years and all I was thinking was: “Wow, you’re so serious. And, my god, what made you wear that outfit?”
Well, let’s discuss that. Just talk me through it… the centurion/slave thing that’s going on.
Oh, yes, the Roman thing. Well, when we first got Top of the Pops – and remember, that was the essential show of the time – my A&R guy Morgan Khan said, “You’re going to have three minutes on Top of the Pops and the next day, I want everyone to be talking about you.” Now, when you went out to clubs in the late 1970s, early 1980s – you [clicks his fingers] dressed. Everybody dressed. Everyone had a look. So we kept it at a theatrical level when we performed, and it became ‘a thing’ for me to have my legs on show and my Roman tunic became a Leee John micro-mini tunic. I never really liked it. I wore it for Top of the Pops and threw it away.
Is your wardrobe packed full of these things upstairs?
Oh my goodness, no! Some of it is in the rock ‘n’ roll museums, I gave a lot of stuff to charity, and I have a few items left, although they’re probably mouldy. But all those outfits are now coming back: my nieces and nephews are all wearing stuff that I wore years ago! But I could never go back and wear what I wore. When you’re younger you have that energy, that vibrance to do it. We had see-through suits made from a fabric called Twinkle, and they were the best as you could literally take them off, crumple them up, throw them in the washing machine and put them back on.
Aren’t these manmade fabrics a bit, you know, sweaty when you’re on stage?
Well, that all depends how long you’ve got them on for.
Talking about being timeless, Burnin’ Up is an absolute belter and Frankie Knuckles talked about it being the forerunner of house music. Did you know at the time that you were making music that was groundbreaking?
With Body Talk, I did. My dream was always to write a classic song. And remember, I’d been on the scene for a while before Imagination breaking through, so I was watching the political aspect, the support for British black music, and it was not like it is today. It was very… they didn’t push you; you got to a certain level and that was it. So you had to be doubly dynamic, doubly different. We knew we had something that was very different as the music still had some class to it and everyone thought we were an American group. We knew it was special.
For retro fans, your video for Just an Illusion is a visual treat. Not many people did videos in those days, did they?
No. We were one of the first bands who were did them. It was even before Thriller.
No way! Was it in a studio or on location? And I always think it must be quite weird lip-synching to a camera.
No, you always lip-sync, they’ve done that since time began. And for Just an Illusion, that house was used for Hammer House of Horror. And god, it was cold. Extremely cold. And you have to reshoot, and reshoot, and reshoot. And we had to wait until night as they wanted to get the fog and mist. But my favourite scene is when I come down the stairs and look at the deer. And my eyes! [Laughs]. When I look at the deer and I’m like, “Is this real, is this not real?”
When you’re playing live and the first chords of say, Just an Illusion sound, do you think: “Oh god, not again…”?
No, not at all! I’m not bored of it. Every audience is different and I try to change it every time I do it. Sometimes I have to listen to it again, to hear how I sounded, my intonations, because a live version will never be exactly the same as how I recorded it. But the audience want to hear all those little ad libs because they’ll be singing along. And I admire other artists so I know exactly how it feels to want to hear songs sung a certain way. And that’s the thing that keeps it real.
So, you know what it feels like to be a fan, essentially.
Yeah, totally. I met Marvin Gaye, for instance.
What the what??? Shut up.
No, really I did. Maybe about three times. But the best experience was in LA, and we were doing [American music TV show] Soul Train, and I went into his dressing room, and I don’t know what possessed me but I asked him: “Why didn’t Motown release Keep a Light in my Window?” And he couldn’t remember what the song was. It was a duet he’d done with Diana Ross, which was not on the duet album they’d done. And it was great. And he asked me to sing it to him. So there I am singing to Marvin Gaye.
That’s sheer madness.
Well, I’ve had many magic moments in my life and now it’s my turn to create magic for other people.
Amen to that. See you at Chilfest.
See you there.
Leee John is playing at Chilfest (Fri 23 and Sat 24 July). Tickets are on sale now.