On Monday 12th May 2014, Liverpool lost one of its most inspirational champions. ALAN WILLS, the enthralling impresario behind Deltasonic Records, a man who reinvigorated the city’s music scene, helped to re-establish its trademark self-confident swagger and took a crop of young bands on the most cosmic of adventures, tragically passed away following a cycling accident. Bido Lito! founder Craig G Pennington recounts his first experience of Alan, and shares the memories of two of Alan’s oldest and closest friends.
Little did I know it at the time but Alan Wills, through Deltasonic, had a huge impact on me many years before I sat down to interview him for the first edition of Bido Lito! in April 2010. My first involvement with the music industry was working as a University Campus Promo Rep for Sony – around 2003-2004 – and within that promoting the new records and live shows by Deltasonic groups The Coral, The Zutons, The Dead 60s, Candie Payne, The Longcut et al as they came through the University towns of West Yorkshire.
I adored Deltasonic, the music it championed, its whole aesthetic. I loved its true sense of independence – despite operating within a major label structure – its unique sonic quip and A&R direction. You could tell it was fashioned by an individual’s taste. But mostly, as a young Scouser in exile, it made me fiercely proud of my city. I loved those few short years working as a kind of self-proclaimed, satellite champion for Deltasonic.
When I returned to Liverpool back in early 2010 and started working on what would become the first edition of Bido Lito!, Alan was the first person I sought out to interview. Despite the fact that we had not as yet published a magazine and he didn’t know me from Adam, Alan happily spent two hours on a Tuesday afternoon imparting his wisdom upon me. His enthusiasm was palpable and infectious, his opinions forthright and honest. At the end of our interview, Alan took me for a drive in his car, playing me the as-yet-unreleased Butterfly House LP by The Coral on the stereo, drumming along on the steering wheel, enthusing that this was the moment The Coral had become a “truly great band”.
He encouraged me to get on with the magazine, that Liverpool needed it, and to be wary of the “retro bullshit”. He dropped me back off at Mossley Hill station and I left enormously inspired. I genuinely believe the interview took Bido Lito! from a set of scribbled interviews in a notebook to a living reality. He also didn’t need to be told where the magazine’s name came from. Most people do.
Bido Lito!: So what is Deltasonic’s role in the whole [music industry] process now and where do you see Deltasonic in the future?
Alan Wills: We’re in the business of finding new artists and developing those artists and we’re quite hardcore with it. It’s like if you’re playing football, you’ve got to be George Best; if you want to be an average player you won’t go down in history. If you’re not aiming at making a truly great record, what’s the fucking point?
BL!: The Coral have recently re-joined the label. How do you see their career developing from here?
AW: I remain a huge Coral fan, but I just don’t think they’ve made an album which is as good as they are.
BL!: Even the first one?
AW: Even the first two. People who saw the band live at that time will know that the records, though amazing in parts, aren’t as good as they were. Don’t get me wrong, The Coral’s debut is a classic first album, but it’s not quite as good as The Stone Roses first album, yet the band were every bit as good as The Stone Roses live at the time.
The difference between a really good, amazing band and a truly great, classic band, is delivering that album. Forever Changes, What’s Going On, Pet Sounds, Sergeant Peppers, y’ know, the album for all time. This new record by The Coral, Butterfly House, is the moment where they’ll become a truly great band, as opposed to a really, really good band. The Coral are the best band in the country yet to release their great work.
BL!: Would you say that Deltasonic is a label for Liverpool? Could it be from anywhere else?
AW: It’s fundamentally an opinion on music but, the reality is it’s from Liverpool and based on the early work with The Coral and what we built on that – even though we’re more inspired by Factory Records than anything else. There’s a lot of boring, retro nonsense in Liverpool. Everyone goes on about how amazing The Beatles were, but they were focused on the future, they weren’t sat around making Revolver going ‘we want to sound like Buddy Holly’. Listen to Tomorrow Never Knows: they were constantly moving forwards; people need to focus on that part of The Beatles’ career and stop regurgitating this retro nonsense, because it’s bollocks.
BL!: What is it you love then about Factory?
AW: Firstly, Joy Division. Secondly, the artwork. Thirdly, it was the fact that Tony Wilson could take a band like The Happy Mondays and get across to people that it was art and wax lyrical about why Shaun Ryder was a poet. It was the fact that Tony Wilson loved Manchester and everything he did had a root in the area he was from. I love that Tony Wilson didn’t have contracts with his bands; even though it lost him £40 million, I completely admire him. If he didn’t do it, I’d have been stupid enough to do it. He was a visionary. Tony Wilson and Factory will be around for a long, long time in popular culture.
BL!: So you share a northern affinity with Factory?
AW: It’s why I like northern bands, it’s my culture and I understand it more. I guarantee you one thing, if Nirvana were from England they’d be living somewhere north of Birmingham; that is a fact of life. The Velvet Underground would have been from the north of England. You know for a fact that The Smashing Pumpkins would be from London. You can go around the world: Can or Kraftwerk would definitely have been from Manchester, Liverpool or Glasgow; [they] certainly wouldn’t have come from Swindon. It’s a northern mindset that translates to the rest of the world.
Liverpool Sound City’s DAVE PICHILINGI is one of Alan’s oldest friends, and has a lot of fond memories of their converging career paths. Here he recalls some of those enduring thoughts of his mate Willsy: “We were both signed at the same time, him with Top and me with 35 Summers. At the time, all the great independent labels got all the great bands at the other end of the M62: The Stone Roses, The Inspiral Carpets, Happy Mondays and so on, and Al always used to joke that we were just a bunch of shit bands who got signed because the majors panicked about what was going on at the other end of the M62!
“Alan touched everyone. He had so much time for everyone and was a better man than all of us in that sense. His skills of inspiring self-belief in people were absolutely phenomenal, as was his own self-belief. He had this childlike but absolutely determined and dogmatic vision. His dedication to his artists knew no bounds. He would invest everything into them, shaping and nurturing them from rough diamonds into something that shone. He had a simple but hugely effective seven-point plan that would begin with how tidy a band’s rehearsal room was. He considered this key as it was their place of work and believed a band could be measured about how serious they were by how clean and tidy their place of work was. He was the last of what might be considered great A&R men.
“More than anything I considered Alan my friend. Like all great friends we didn’t always agree on everything. He was very clear in his views and would try to make you see things his way. I remember being with him in New York one time not long after 9/11 and he got into a discussion at Ground Zero with some, shall we say, patriotic Americans. He was trying hard to make them see an alternative viewpoint to the one we had been fed through the mass media. Suffice to say it did not go down too well and I had to drag him away quickly. When we discussed it later he could not understand why they could not see his point of view. But there was never any malicious intent. There was just this thirst for knowledge and looking at life in a more obtuse way. He had this amazing sense of seeing things in a completely different way to others. Many people have talked about him as being a mentor. I think that’s a great way of describing him. He always had time to talk to anyone. He would want to understand everything from global macroeconomics to how a pair of Japanese jeans were cut and stitched together. As a consequence of this amazing gift it made him late for absolutely everything! It is reassuring to see these traits beginning to shine through in his youngest child, Sonny. Through the guidance of his mum, Ann and long-term comrade Joe, I am sure he will pick up the mantle in the next few years.
“On a personal level his uncompromising advice on love, life and art have helped me and been a source of inspiration at many milestones of my life. Like many others, I will miss him so much.”
After successfully developing Twisted Nerve Records in Manchester, SIMON DUFFY of Tri-Tone helped Alan with Deltasonic and signed The Coral for publishing. He remembers their first encounter vividly: “The first time I met Alan was when he was the drummer in Top. I was working as a producer at Amazon Studios and he came storming into the studio – this bundle of energy. We recorded three demos and within a month they’d done a massive deal.
“Alan managed to combine this huge sense of power and urgency with a sense of control. I think it was to do with him being a drummer, because he managed his artists like that also, with so much power and energy.
“I think of it like Alan was always good at combination locks, about picking out the right line-up of numbers to unlock the treasure. It was because he was a musician and he understood how bands worked. He was always coming out with football analogies, building ultimate teams and thinking up his all-time dream band line-ups from Liverpool musicians. He had a great sense of the collective power of things and introduced people, brought them together. Our birthdays were a week apart and I definitely think there was a Gemini thing going on, with him being able to act as a cheerleader from the front but also help organically bring people together in the background.
“It was never in a calculated, Machiavellian way at all. He did it with The Zutons so successfully. He worked so hard with that band: they gigged every day for a year and nobody was interested in them, but he believed so strongly in them. I remember him telling me they needed a girl playing saxophone in the band, kind of in the art school, Deaf School kind of world we were from, and next thing there she is!
“I remember the phone call when he called me about The Coral. I was living in Manchester at the time and he rang saying I had to come and see this amazing new band. It was at midday on a Saturday afternoon matinée at The Cavern, because all the band were underage. I was like ‘do I really want to go over to a Cavern matinée?!’ But there was this thing with Alan: he always had a great ear. One out of five bands he suggested always went on to be great, which is a brilliant hit rate. You’re lucky if you get close to one in ten! We signed them to Deltasonic and we went on to do the deal with Sony. The rest is history, I suppose.
“One thing many people don’t know is that Alan refused to take the Deltasonic offices to London when we did the deal. He fought to keep the label in Liverpool and did so successfully, with the office on Rose Lane. Majors are like any big corporation, they want to have you in their buildings, but he saw how important it was to keep your independence. He kept the controlling stake in the company, the creative control and kept true to Liverpool. In the past Liverpool had a bad reputation for people leaving as soon as they signed a deal, heading straight down to London. He wanted Liverpool to have its own Factory Records and, you know what, in a very different way he did it.”
Alan Wills passed away on 12th May 2014. He was 52 years old.